You should find it dazzlingly obvious by now, if you’ve been visiting here for more than a week, that I am not a Baker. Exactitude is a form of patience that I lack, so much so that following a recipe to the letter—an important characteristic of baking’s central processes, whereby the necessary chemical and physical elements are able to perform their required duties and make the food do the particular tricks it’s supposed to do—is impossible for me, or close enough to it. As a consequence, I have made many, many baked goods that were not entirely, well…good. So many dishes that should have been light and fluffy come out more suited to supporting a truck while a mechanic fiddles about underneath it. What could and should have been moist and dense is instead frequently crumbly and dry and better designed in texture to use as kitty litter than as dessert, despite pleasant enough flavors. [Disclaimer: if you think this is an admission that I have eaten actual kitty litter, you have either greater faith in my scientific daring or even less in my common sense than I deserve.] Disappointing, these results, but enlightening, if I pay enough attention. Sometimes even remediable. There may be hope for me yet.
Maybe that’s why I don’t stop meddling with what should be fairly straightforward recipes. I trust that, at least some of the time, what doesn’t turn out best on first effort might be rescued by a further experiment or two.
This winter I was given a gorgeous, huge, tree-ripened lemon. My friend hand-carried it from her mother’s garden a couple thousand miles from here, and it was so big and juicy and magic-laden and perfect that I wouldn’t dream of letting it go to waste as a mere additional squeeze on dinner’s salad or a piece of fish. I sliced it thinly; not very evenly, because as I have surely mentioned before, my knife skills are less than impressive, but I gave it a go, and I did slice it fairly thinly. Then I layered those slices with cane sugar in a tight-fitting jar and filled all of the remaining space with plain, high-octane white alcohol (vodka, probably) and let it sit for a couple of months, just giving it a shake or tip once in a while to get the sugar to melt in and absorb and the lemon flavor to be intensified. When I opened the jar last week: Elysium! A rush of deeply floral, lightly sweet and highly lemony perfume bursting from the jar with the reassembled fruit in it. A whiff made for fainting over, if one breathed it in long enough. A liqueur not to be spent lightly, either.
I’d had this fancy, for a while, to try my hand at making some sort of citrus-cornmeal torte. I’ve read recipes for various kinds, particularly olive oil enriched ones from Sicily that sounded uniquely tempting, and decided to give my own version a try. Oranges and/or lemons, olive oil, corn meal. Not too sweet, not too bland. Just honest and refreshing. Sigh. None of the recipes I found was precisely what I thought I was salivating for at the moment, though. I still wanted moist and slightly dense texture, almost a steamed pudding character. What to do, what to do…. Of course: experiment, again. Knowing that baking still requires some commitment to precision, I did as I always do and turned to a tried-and-true basic recipe of somewhat similar character and substituted this for that and these for those. What resulted was not precisely what I’d had in mind, but not too shabby, either.
Lemon Cornmeal Torte (Take One)
Preheat oven to 450°F/232°C (or whatever approximates those temps in your oven). Mine, as I’ve mentioned numerous times, is old and unreliable, so I must needs watch it like the vultures watch I-35.
I decided to use my springform pan. I lined it, inside and out, with heavy aluminum foil because, given the experimental nature of all of this, I was a little worried about leaks and other non-ingredient surprises. Not to mention that that uppity oven of mine might explode in a fireball or something. Probably wasn’t necessary, in the event, but still. On with the recipe:
I mixed about 3-4 T melted butter with an equal amount of cane sugar and spread it in the bottom of the pan, and then laid the lemon slices out across that syrup base.
Combine dry ingredients with a fork or whisk: 3 cups cornmeal, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, 1-1/2 tsp salt, 1-2 tsp ground cardamom, 1 T citrus zest. Since I’d macerated the Queen Lemon, her zest wasn’t fit for the task anymore, so I grated the peel from a couple of the clementines I had on hand.
In a separate bowl, beat together the wet ingredients. [These are where I think I would have done well to go a slightly different path.] I combined about 2-3 Tablespoons’-worth of flavorings from the following: liqueur from the preserved lemon, fresh lemon juice, and ginger syrup. I added enough buttermilk to the flavor mix to equal 2 cups total. [In retrospect, I would have bumped the flavorings’ amount to a full half cup and used 1-1/2 cups of the buttermilk.] Whatever the eventual “design” of the recipe, on this occasion I rounded the wet ingredient list with 1 cup orange juice, 2 large eggs, and 2/3 cup fine extra-virgin olive oil. I suspect I could well have added another egg at the time with good success, too, but I didn’t. We shall see!
Combine the wet ingredients with the dry and stir until mixed. Pour the batter in the pan over the lemon slices, set it in the oven, and bake just until set, the center not quite visibly moving anymore when you bump the pan, somewhere around 35-40 minutes.
Served with a very lightly sweetened whipped cream, it was pleasant and tasted of spring. But it wasn’t quite what I was craving, just yet. I wanted brighter, juicier lemon flavor and yes, this torte was still on the fragile, crumbly side. Onward, I say! The next day was good enough for reevaluating and rethinking. And rebuilding. That night we’d had a table-full of guests, but there was also another cake, so both desserts stretched beyond our needs. That left me, on the next day, with half a torte, or more accurately, a big quart bowl brimming with lemon-ish torte remnants. Make a trifle with the remaining whipped cream? Perhaps. But it wouldn’t fulfill my fancy, still, of that zingy, moist dessert I was imagining. Instead, I made:
Steamed Lemon Pudding (My Re-Torte)
I put the torte crumbles, sliced lemon topping and all, into my food processor with not only the almost-equal amount of leftover whipped cream but also a very hefty splash of lemon juice and three large eggs, and blended everything into a new, thicker batter. I poured it into a greased, covered casserole and steamed it until, again, it was just set. [It could easily steam in your oven or pudding steamer in the traditional way, but with my oven being so recalcitrant, I opted to steam it, covered, in the microwave instead.]
When I let it cool to room temperature, that iteration of lemon-cornmeal dessert proved to be more what I’d had in mind all along. It was just about the texture of a good Christmas pudding, but of course more seasonally fit in both color and flavor for what we did when my visiting friends returned for our afternoon coffee: we sat on the patio and spooned it up while sipping, chatting, gazing at the explosion of roses, and enjoying one of the nicest bits of outdoor-friendly weather we ever get in these parts.