Hiatus

Friends, this just got real. The semester is now in Week 4 (really? By the end of this week summer will really have been over for a month?!), the temperature is hotter than it was during the legitimate summer, and papers are rolling in. Well, trudging reluctantly, anyway.

The point is, I’m behind. I’ve been cooking, yes – it is one of the things that keeps me balanced and happy when I am busy – but there’s so much more to this game than that. There’s the photo work (I do edit my shots before I post them here, tweaking the lighting a bit and sometimes, I’ll admit, even editing out unexpected-but-suddenly-glaring spots on my counter). There’s the recipe adjusting. There’s the writing – not just flying through a few paragraphs but, as I tell my students, the idea development and the drafting and the considering and the revising and the proofreading. There’s the linking. There’s the tagging. There’s the time. And there’s not enough.

So I’m taking a short hiatus. My hope is that I’ll only be gone for a week, but I don’t feel right making that promise, because I don’t know what this week will bring. Cross your fingers for me, if you feel so inclined, and I hope to be back with you soon.

(Not Damson) Plum Coffeecake

Food Blog September 2014-0531A few weeks ago, my dad sent an email to me, my mom, and his sisters: a reading recommendation replete with a link to a story from All Things Considered. This is, in itself, not unusual. Dad often sends along news items he thinks are important or interesting. What made this one unusual and, frankly, quite special, was that it was about the acute and wonderful memories food makes for us. It was a story about a baker and a request for a very special cake – an old German cake made with damson plums. The request for this cake threw her back years to her childhood and a cake – the same cake – her opera singer mother used to make. As she watches and smells it baking, she feels like her mother Helga is there too, in the oven with that cake, singing through time and death and all those plums, and she cries tears of grief and nostalgia and joy.

Food Blog September 2014-0498Food Blog September 2014-0501Dad sent it because he thought it was a good story, but also because his mother – my Nana – used to make a coffeecake with damson plums, which made this all sound so familiar. He asked if anyone had her sweet dough recipe, and suddenly the emails were flying. He was not the only one who felt the connection here. My aunts were likewise plunged into memories. Though the cake in the NPR story was a shortbread dough topped with plums, Nana’s cake, like the one her mother made before her, used a yeast dough. It was made in a square pan and she always made two at a time so she could share one with Pap, and have one for the three kids. It had to be damson plums or it just wasn’t right. It called back memories of eating, but also of being in the kitchen with their mother. Nana was with them in that cake.

Food Blog September 2014-0492I knew I had to make it. It had called up too many happy memories for my family to remain simple nostalgia. Besides, I have Nana’s sweet dough recipe, and with the details I collected from my aunts’ emails, I felt like I had enough data to piece it together.

Food Blog September 2014-0491But you know me. I fiddle. I adjust and tweak. I ruminate, and things change. So despite my pure intentions, this is not my Nana’s cake. First of all, I couldn’t find damson plums. Even at the stand at my Farmers’ Market that carries at least six different strains of plums and pluots, there was nothing labeled “damson,” and no one knew what I was talking about. A bit of internet research suggested I might try an Italian plum as a close substitute, but without ready access to those either, I settled on a deep, black-purple skinned variety with yellow flesh. The point seemed to be a plum that was not terrifically sweet, since the cake itself is snack or breakfast fare, not a sugared up dessert. From there, with the main ingredient already an adaptation, I felt freer to play a bit as I constructed the recipe.

Food Blog September 2014-0502From Nana’s original dough, I replaced water with milk, exchanged white sugar for brown, and added a healthy dose of cardamom. I suspect Nana never used cardamom in any of her baked goods, and likely never had any in her spice collection, but its pleasant citrusy aroma and warm spicy flavor go so beautifully with plums that I decided it was a necessary update. Since I was already playing quite a bit with what I imagine was Nana’s original procedure, I decided to go whole hog and add a simple streusel to the top just before baking. This was the right thing to do. A little extra spice, a little extra sweetness, turned crumbly in some places and melted into the plums in others, adding caramel loveliness to the whole thing.

Food Blog September 2014-0504Like Nana used to, I made enough dough for two cakes. Obeying the mandates of memory, I did one in a square pan. I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out – just a hunk of dough flopped and poked into a pan – so for the other I tried for a twisted coil, laying the flat snail-shell of dough in a springform pan to rise. Interestingly enough, while adding streusel to the top was a successful adaptation, the pan and shape change was not so ideal. The square shape turned out better because it made for a more even distribution of plums. The coil, while it baked into a beautiful puffy spiral, was smaller to start with, which meant I couldn’t load on as many plum slices. When it expanded, both on the counter and in the oven, the plum distribution ended up a bit sparse (though the outcome was still delicious). The square shaped cake, which had nowhere to expand but straight up, retained its fruit coverage for a final product that can only be termed plummier. That, then, was the one I brought to work with me to share. By the time I left campus in mid-afternoon, only a tiny, plum-less corner remained.

Food Blog September 2014-0503Food Blog September 2014-0506Nana, this is a good cake. I’m glad you made it, and I’m glad it was remembered. I don’t know whether you would have liked my version, and I know you wouldn’t have liked the mess I made in the kitchen while I worked on it. I do think, though, that you’d have liked the fact that I was happy while baking and that I made enough to share. And I think you would have liked that it made us all think about you so fondly. Food Blog September 2014-0534Food Blog September 2014-0533

(Not damson) Plum Coffeecake
Makes two 9-inch cakes – one for you, and one to share
For the dough:
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm milk
½ cup + a pinch of brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 eggs
½ cup unsalted butter, soft but not melted
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
4-5 cups flour
4-5 yellow-fleshed plums, thinly sliced (firm, or even slightly underripe, will be easiest to work with)
For the streusel:
4 tablespoons cold butter
4 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon cardamom or cinnamon
pinch salt

 

  • Add the yeast and a pinch of brown sugar to the lukewarm milk and stir to combine, then set aside for 5-10 minutes for the yeast to burble and get foamy.
  • Meanwhile, combine 3 cups of the flour, the salt and the cardamom in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the yeast mixture, the eggs, and the vanilla and mix on low speed with the paddle attachment to combine.
  • When the eggs are mostly integrated, add the butter and mix on low speed until it is mostly absorbed into what will look like a wet batter. Add an additional 1 cup flour and mix until combined.
  • Switch to the dough hook and knead for 5 minutes until a soft, elastic dough forms. If the dough looks very loose or sticky and is not coming together, add the final cup of flour ¼ cup at a time, kneading well between each addition. You may not need the full 5 cups of flour – mine took a total of 4 ¾ cups.
  • When the dough is soft and stretchy – a bit like an elastic playdough – lightly oil the bowl, roll the dough around in it a bit, and then cover tightly with plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rise for 1 ½ – 2 hours, until doubled.
  • While the dough rises, slice the plums.
  • After the dough has doubled in size, punch it down by gently depressing your fist into the dough to release trapped air, then let it rest for 5 minutes to get its breath back.
  • Divide the dough into two equal hunks, fold, push, or twist into desired shapes, and settle each loaf into one of two greased or buttered 9-inch square or springform pans. Nana did a simple square, but you could also roll the dough out into a long, wormlike log and then twist it like a rope over and over itself, then wind it up in a coil like a flat snail-shell.
  • Top the shaped dough with plums, slightly overlapping the slices to accommodate for the additional rising time. Adding the plums now allows them to macerate a little and release some juice and flavor into the dough.
  • Cover the cakes lightly with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and let them rise again for 30-45 minutes. They will almost double.
  • While the cakes rise again, preheat the oven to 350F and make the streusel.
  • In a small bowl, stir together the flour, brown sugar, cardamom or cinnamon, and pinch of salt for the streusel. Using your fingers, blend in the 4 tablespoons butter until the mixture is reminiscent of damp sand, and little clumps flatten but cling together when you press them between your thumb and forefinger.
  • Just before the cakes are ready to go in the oven, remove the plastic wrap or kitchen towel and sprinkle on the streusel, using half for one cake and half for the other. It should be enough to cover the surface completely, but don’t skimp! Use it all, as the cakes will rise again in the oven and thus the coverage will decrease a bit.
  • Bake 30-35 minutes until the streusel is golden, the tops of the cakes are nicely bronzed, and they are cooked through. Let cool at least 20 minutes before removing from pans or slicing.
  • This bread, despite how rich it is, bakes up quite light and is best the first day. It will keep three or four days in the refrigerator, well-wrapped, but it does get a little dry. Nothing a quick trip in the microwave and maybe a slick of cream cheese can’t fix, though.

Burrata, cress, and balsamic crostini

Food Blog September 2014-0558The first week of school has come and gone and went to bed. That being the case, and with a wonderful friend in town, Friday afternoon happy hour was without question the right thing to do. N. and I frequently enjoy a weekend happy hour of some sort, whether that involves a decadent spread, or just a few nubs of cheese and some almost-not-stale-yet crackers with a handful of dried fruit. Either way, there’s something tasty, something to sip, and a breezy deck to sit on.

Food Blog September 2014-0556This week, though, called for something special. I had an alliterative crostini concoction in mind – a brash combination of burrata cheese, broccoli rabe, and a thick drizzle of balsamic vinegar all smeared atop a perfectly toasted slice of baguette. As these things usually turn out, however, ruled by what was on the shelves in the produce section, I had to make an adjustment or two. But I think what I ended up with was just as good – maybe even better.

Food Blog September 2014-0543Food Blog September 2014-0545Food Blog September 2014-0546Let’s talk ingredients. Have you had burrata cheese? Think fresh mozzarella, but then one-up the creaminess and milkiness and melt-in-your-mouthiness, and you’ve got something like burrata. It’s a globe of fresh mozzarella cheese, filled with a mixture of curds and cream. When you cut into one of these fragile little blobs, what emerges looks something like ricotta in texture, but it’s all mozzarella freshness on the tongue. It’s a very sexy cheese, and a smear (don’t even think in terms of slices) atop some well-oiled, well-toasted bread sounded dreamy. I found some in my Trader Joe’s, but I think most specialty or upscale grocery stores – or maybe even your usual haunt with a well-stocked cheese counter – would have it.

Food Blog September 2014-0563Though I wanted broccoli rabe for its bitterness, I settled instead on some upland cress, which I assumed was another name for watercress. A shamefully lazy internet search (read: Wikipedia) has taught me that though they look similar, upland cress is part of the landcress, rather than the watercress, family. I didn’t know there was such a thing. Regardless, either one has the necessary peppery bite to offset the creamy sweetness of the cheese. In a pinch, I bet arugula would work too.

Food Blog September 2014-0560Food Blog September 2014-0549To put it all together, I decided I wanted a play of temperatures. After a liberal bath of olive oil, I toasted thin slices of bread – mine was in the ciabatta family, with its floury crust and moist, springy interior. A gentle smear of burrata on this warm toast, followed by a few sprigs of cress wilted into a resistless pile, all topped with a definitive drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Done. The cheese melts a bit into the bread; the cress and the balsamic and the residual olive oil flavors melding together create a kind of salad component. They are, I hardly need to say, delicious. I couldn’t stop sampling. It’s not just a nice play of flavors, but a good study in textures. I am criminal at over-toasting my bread, and this batch was just on the edge of being servable. But against the softness of the cheese and the pleasingly stringy feel of the wilted greens, the aggressive crunch of extra toasty toast was right.

Food Blog September 2014-0553I’d recommend a light, crisp wine to pair with this; something sparkling would be extra nice. I’d recommend a sun hat and sandals, if you have the option, and a few friends to laugh with. And I’d recommend making a bit more than you think you want, because you’re going to eat it all.

Food Blog September 2014-0557

Burrata, cress, and balsamic crostini
Ingredient quantities are a bit fast and loose here, because your demands for how much cheese, how many greens, and how liberal a drizzle of balsamic may be different from mine. And depending on how many people are clamoring for a taste and what size loaf you’ve bought, you may need more or less bread than I used. What seems most important is that one bunch of cress was enough to top 8 or so slices of crostini.
8-10 thin slices ciabatta or other fresh, artisanal bread
Olive oil, to drizzle and to cook the greens
1 bunch upland cress or watercress (or, as noted above, arugula)
Salt to taste
8 ounces burrata cheese
* Balsamic vinegar, for drizzling

 

  • Preheat your broiler. While it warms, arrange bread slices on a sheet tray and drizzle with olive oil on both sides. Broil until deeply golden. Depending on your broiler, this could take anywhere from 2-5 minutes. Keep a close eye on it. When it is well bronzed and crisp, remove and set aside.
  • While your bread toasts (if you’re a successful multi-tasker), prepare your greens by slicing off the bottom inch or two of stem (there may be an attached root bundle at the bottom too). Warm a teaspoon or two of olive oil over medium heat in a skillet and add the cress with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often with a wooden spoon or tongs, until the cress has wilted down but is still bright green. It will have lost much of its crunch, but that’s okay. We are looking for tenderness here.
  • Just like that, we’re ready to assemble. For each piece of toast, cut a wedge of burrata and scoop onto the bread. Be sure you get the outside coating of mozzarella and the creamy curds inside. Top the cheese layer with a few sprigs of cress, then drizzle some balsamic vinegar over the whole thing and serve immediately.

* Note: if your balsamic vinegar is thin, or is more tart in flavor than you enjoy, try this – heat about ¼ cup of balsamic with 2 teaspoons brown sugar in a small saucepan until it simmers. Stir to dissolve the sugar, and allow it to reduce almost by half, so you have barely more than 2 tablespoons. This will thicken and sweeten the liquid, making it more of a glaze. It will still be plenty strong, though, so you’ll only need a little bit for each crostini.

Project Sauce: Peppercorn Crusted Pork Tenderloin with Plum Gastrique

Today’s entry rounds out my eighth month of this sauce project. I’ve learned a number of things thus far, but the one that remains the most challenging is this: sauce is a component, not a complete product. That means you must not only execute the sauce itself, but you also have to decide what to drizzle, spoon, scoop, pour, or dab it over!

Food Blog August 2014-0442Sometimes this is quite simple. Hollandaise, for example, is such a classic that eggs benedict spring immediately to mind. A few weeks ago, my meunière sauce had a similar effect, demanding as it does a particular fish to moisten and flavor. And in fact, once I figured out what the next entry in my little project would be, I had no trouble dreaming up how I would serve it. It would be a gastrique – a French sauce that melts sugar and vinegar together into a thick, sweet-sour glaze. Mine, since it’s the height of summer and every week I can’t help but fill a bag with stone fruit at our local Farmers’ Market, would be dressed up a touch with the addition of plums. As soon as I knew this, I knew I wanted to serve it over moist lovely slices of pork tenderloin. Easy. Done.

Food Blog August 2014-0440Except.

Let’s straighten out an unfortunate item of business here, friends. N. doesn’t like pork. Oh he loves bacon. Sausage, especially breakfast sausage, is a treat. He’ll eat various smoked and cured pig-based items: prosciutto and pancetta are consumed with gusto and exotics like guanciale or chorizo are just fine. He’ll even tolerate ham, though it wouldn’t be his first choice. But pork itself, not treated with smoke or salt or brine, elicits a sneer. He would never order pork tenderloin in a restaurant. Ribs are more trouble than they’re worth. Even pulled pork had better be swimming in a pretty flavorful sauce to keep him interested. I have to get my pork chop fix when I visit my parents without him. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s breaded and fried, grilled up, or seared and roasted. He’ll have the chicken, thanks.

Food Blog August 2014-0426This, as you can imagine, was a considerable wrench aimed at my little plan. But the idea of silky, tangy, liquid plum dribbling over a thick slice of tenderloin sounded too good. I decided he would just have to deal. So I rolled the tenderloin in a blend of crushed peppercorns, coarse salt, and thyme leaves. I seared it, I roasted it, I let it rest. I cut it in thick, moist slices and served him a few with a coating of ruby sauce.

Food Blog August 2014-0428He went back for seconds. Later, I caught him in the refrigerator tasting just one more slice. He considered piling the leftovers onto some sourdough for a lunch sandwich the next day. Um, pork.

Food Blog August 2014-0432I can only figure one of two answers here. One, it could be that the heat from the crushed peppercorns was so powerful that it disguised the porcine flavor he’s so tepid about. Two, and this is the option I choose to believe: the pairing was so perfect, and the gastrique so sublimely flavored, that he couldn’t help himself but to fall hard for the combination.

Food Blog August 2014-0434Whichever it was, and however you feel about pork, this sauce is definitely worth trying. No butter this time; this sauce contains no dairy, no eggs, and no flour. It’s completely different from every other sauce I’ve approached thus far, with one exception: it must be simmered to thicken. Here, though, rather than emulsifying butter or letting flour granules soak up liquid or gently cooking egg yolks to coax out their protein strands, we’re contending with melting sugar and evaporating water content. In my version, the sugar and vinegar required to make this a gastrique are joined by gloriously ripe red plums, cooked down into a jammy pulp (helped out with the determined application of a potato masher), strained, and then returned to the pan just to help a few bits of diced raw plum heat through, for some texture. And all of this happens while the pork is cooking, so everything is ready to go at roughly the same time.

Food Blog August 2014-0437Food Blog August 2014-0438If you’re not a pork tenderloin fan, I think this would also work really well with salmon, or with various varieties of poultry. It would also provide the perfect wilt as the dressing in a warm salad of dark leafy greens; I’d opt for spinach. And save the skins and pulp after you’ve strained out the glorious velvet sauce. Warm or cool, perhaps with an additional sprinkle of sugar, they make a fantastic tart spread for toast.

Food Blog August 2014-0441

Peppercorn crusted pork tenderloin with plum gastrique
Gastrique recipe adapted from The Tomato Tart
Serves 4
 
For the pork:
1 lb. boneless pork tenderloin
1-2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns, crushed (we used 2 tablespoons, which was aggressively peppery. If you are concerned about spice, try 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons olive oil, for searing
 
For the gastrique:
4 ripe plums, divided (the riper they are, the faster they will cook down)
½ cup red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. While it warms, combine crushed peppercorns, thyme, and salt on a large plate or a sheet tray, and roll the pork through it, coating it on all sides.
  • Heat the olive oil over medium-high in a large skillet. When it is rippling but not quite smoking, add the pork and sear it until golden-brown on all sides. This should take 2-3 minutes per side. As each side sears, leave it alone. You won’t get a lovely golden crust if you shake the pan and move the pork around too much.
  • When the outside of the pork is a uniform golden-brown (though of course quite raw on the inside still), relocate it to a rack on a roasting pan (I just placed a rack over the sheet tray I’d used earlier) and roast in your 350F oven for 35-45 minutes, or until the interior tests 150F. Then remove it from the oven, wrap tightly with aluminum foil and leave it for 10 minutes. During this time the temperature will rise to 160F, which is perfect.
  • Slice and serve with warm plum gastrique. A few slices, nicely sauced, over a bed of goat cheese polenta is quite nice.

 

  • While the pork is roasting, make the plum gastrique. Pit and quarter three of the plums. Pit the fourth plum, cut it into a small dice, and set aside.
  • Add the three quartered plums, the vinegar, and the sugar to a saucepan and cook over medium heat until simmering.
  • Turn the heat down, maintaining the simmer, and cook for 5 minutes. Then, using a potato masher (or, if they are really ripe, just the back of a spoon), mash up the plums, skins and all, into a pulpy mess.
  • Cook, stirring often, until the mixture gets syrupy – about 15 minutes.
  • Pour and/or smash the mixture through a strainer to separate the pulp and skins. You can do this into a bowl, or right back into the saucepan. Either way, once the mixture is strained, pour the sauce portion back into the pan, add the diced plumps and a pinch of salt, and cook over low heat for 5 minutes just to heat everything through.
  • Serve warm.