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Archive for May, 2008

I have five words for you: strawberry white chocolate buttermilk cake.

Is there really anything more to say? Well, maybe two more words: whipped cream.

I was tempted to call this “strawberry shortcake” — it looks like one, right? — but I would be lying. Technically, a shortcake is more like a biscuit or scone, which is made by cutting butter into some dry ingredients and then stirring in a liquid like buttermilk or cream. The resulting shortcake is flaky, buttery and dense.

But this cake is none of those things. It is fluffy and light, redolent of vanilla and cocoa butter. It is, perhaps, the best white cake recipe I’ve found.

As chocolate lovers and baking know-it-alls will be quick to tell you, technically white chocolate isn’t chocolate at all (maybe that’s why I like it so much). White chocolate is basically just cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids, so when melted and added to a cake, the cocoa butter helps to keep the cake tender and only subtly flavors the cake. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you probably wouldn’t be able to detect the white chocolate flavor at all.

So consider this cake the “little black dress” in your baking arsenal. You can dress it up or dress it down; you can dress it any way you want, really. Given that it’s May (almost June — how did that happen?), I think right now it goes perfectly with sweetened whipped cream or creme fraiche and fresh strawberries. But like a classic black dress, it’s a cake that never goes out of style.

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Sunday Night Dinners are big around here. I cook during week, but given that I don’t get home until 7pm or later most nights, any recipe that takes more than an hour to get from the refrigerator to the table is instantly nixed.

But ah, Sundays. On Sundays I can spend a leisurely afternoon in the kitchen, pottering around and trying my hand at a few of the hundreds of recipes I’ve bookmarked. Sunday dinners also provide a nice break from the hassles of the week and the busy socializing of the weekend. I can snuggle up next to my fiance as we share plates, enjoy our apartment and bask in a moment of cozy domesticity.

Sunday Night Dinner doesn’t have to be fancy; in fact, it rarely is. The meals I whip up on Sunday are usually more homey, rustic dishes — like roast chicken (and I have an excellent new roast chicken recipe to share with you soon) or saffron risotto. In fact, on some level it isn’t so much what I cook but rather that can take time to enjoy the process of cooking it. Cooking is always fun, but it’s just more fun on Sundays.

This pork tenderloin and arugula salad is simple, light and delicious and comes together quickly enough that I could probably prepare it on a weeknight. But then I’d rush through it, foregoing the enjoyment I get from smelling the toasted walnuts, deglazing the brown bits from the pan, emulsifying the vinaigrette. On Sunday, I can appreciate all of those steps — and even have dessert in the works at the same time.

Throw in a loaf of crusty bread, some goat cheese and a bottle of red wine, and this salad might have you thinking you’re in France, forgetting that your weekday routine begins again the next day…

Well, maybe doing the dishes will remind you.

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I often think about what it must have been like to grow up in my dad’s house when he was a kid. By all accounts, there were always homemade baked goods on the counter. Always. His grandmother, a Hungarian immigrant and known to everyone as Gram, lived with him growing up and, well, although I know she had a bedroom and frequented other rooms in the house, I think she pretty much spent most of her time in the kitchen, baking and cooking and baking some more

From what I hear, there were cheese pockets and coffeecakes (“Oh, we were never without coffeecake,” my grandmother has told me) and muhn cookies and pies. Seeing as Gram grew up sleeping on a dirt floor in Hungary and made her way here at 13, formal “recipes” weren’t really part of her vocabulary. Over time, she worked out her own recipes, but more than anything she developed a feel for how recipes worked. She could throw together a pie or dessert without really thinking about it.

I recently came across a stack of Gram’s old recipes, written in barely legible chicken scratch, a Yiddish/Hungarian/English hybrid, most of it phonetic. Some day I will make and post those recipes — promise — but I need to work out the ingredients and measurements and, well, I’ve been a little busy. You know, planning a wedding and stuff.

Though my Hungarian great grandmother surely never used rhubarb in her cooking — and I know the words “sponge pudding” never grazed her lips — this rhubarb sponge pudding is the sort of “thrown together” dessert I picture someone like her baking. It’s almost effortless, and you can have it together and in the oven while you make dinner on a lazy Sunday. With recipes like this in my arsenal, I just may have baked goods lining my counter constantly too.

Edited to add: I stand corrected!  My aunt has informed me that Gram did, in fact, cook with rhubarb and made a wonderful strawberry rhubarb pie.  Who knew!

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There’s a living thing growing in my refrigerator…and I’m loving it!

This weekend I tried my hand at cultivating a sourdough starter, the yeasty, bacteria-laden joy of bread bakers around the world. For bread baking enthusiasts, sourdough starter is serious business. Given my newbie status to the Sourdough Club, I decided to wade into the shallow end of the pool rather than dive in head first. I didn’t make bread; I made pancakes. How could I run into trouble with pancakes?

Growing a starter indulges all of my nerdy impulses. In college I majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. (Why didn’t I just tattoo “NERD” on my forehead, right?) I spent hours in the lab, toiling with bacteria and the occasional radioactive isotope. I didn’t mind lab work — in fact, sometimes I found it relaxing — but in the end, lab work wasn’t for me. Too solitary, not my style.

But given my interest in science, the idea of growing a colony of something that I could ultimately eat thrilled me. I already make my own yogurt on a regular basis (a nerdy but hugely satisfying process, and one that I highly recommend), so why not give a sourdough starter a try?

Now, minor disclaimer: I don’t think the starter I created is “authentic” as far as starters go. Traditional sourdough starters are basically just a mixture of flour and water that you let sit for an extended period of time, discarding some of the mixture and feeding the remainder with flour and water. Fresh flour contains yeast and bacteria spores, so as you feed the mixture, the water breaks down the flour’s starch into sugars, the yeast feeds on the sugars, and the bacteria feeds on all the stuff the yeast produces in that process. The cycle goes on and on as long as you keep the mixture alive.

The starter I used combines flour, water and a dash of yeast to get it going. Then you let it sit for 12-24 hours, at which point you use most of it but keep a half cup in the refrigerator for future use. And that’s it. No feeding, no multi-day schedule — and you even cheat by adding a little yeast at the beginning. But the recipe came from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, two people who know their bigas from their poolishes. Surely they wouldn’t lead me astray.

They didn’t. The pancakes — enormous, and easily a half-inch thick — charm the tongue with that characteristic sourdough flavor. As someone who likes her pancakes sweet, I was worried they’d be too puckery, but their yeasty, hearty flavor won me over. They soak up warm maple syrup like sponges, but I also imagine they’d be wonderful slathered with warm jam and whipped cream.

So now the question remains: What do I do with the remaining 1/2 cup starter living in my fridge? I could always make another batch of pancakes, but as resident scientist, I was hoping to experiment…

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