Foodie Tuesday: Madame X’s Birthday Cake

Photo: Birthday Cupcakes for Madame XJust a little treat for a friend on the anniversary of her birth. And, since she shares her natal day with my dear brother-in-law, separated at birth by mere decades, I send a virtual cake to him, too, despite the separation of mere thousands of miles. Happy birthday to both!

Malted Buttermilk Cakes with Strawberry-Peach Buttercream
Servings: 24 cupcakes, or [as I made] a dozen + a small sheet cake. Preheat your oven to 350°F/177°C.

The Cakes

Dry goods: Whisk together in a big mixing bowl: 2-3/4 cups all-purpose [optional: GF] flour, 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda, 1-2 teaspoons cardamom, and 2 cups sugar (I used about 1 1/2 cups cane sugar plus 1/2 cup coconut sugar, to deepen the flavor).

Mix 2-3 Tablespoons of malted milk powder into a cup of buttermilk. And if there’s really such a thing as “low fat” buttermilk, please tell me how it can parade around under the first name of Butter. Just get the real deal and cinch up your waistband a little if you have to, okay?

Now, in a fresh mixing bowl or your trusty 1-gallon plastic measuring pitcher, mix the wet ingredients: a good slug of quality vanilla extract, and a splash of butter emulsion if you like, the cup of malted buttermilk you mixed earlier, and four large eggs. When those have been well whisked together, pour them into the dry ingredients, along with 2 sticks (1/2 pound) of your best butter, softened—don’t forget that I’m a believer in well-salted sweets, so I use salted butter (sorry, baking purists. But not really sorry). Whisk just until it’s smooth. This makes a thick batter, but not so thick that it’s the least bit difficult to whisk entirely by hand.

Bake the batter in muffin tins or cake tins that have been well greased (coconut oil is nice) and, if you like a little crunch for added pizzazz, dusted with either almond meal or cornmeal, for about 20-25 minutes. Cool for another 15 minutes or so, gently remove the cakes from their pans (unless, as I am, you’re going to take the cake tin right along to your friend’s house), and let it finish cooling before getting all frosty on ’em.Photo: Tutti-frutti Icing

The Icing on this here Cake:

Pop a batch of freeze-dried peach (about 2 oz) and strawberry slices (about 1 oz), along with a cup or so of granulated or icing sugar, a tiny pinch of salt, and a teaspoon of cardamom into your food processor. If you don’t have such a beast in your kitchen, you can crush these little fruity beauties with a rolling pin or bottle, a full tin of beans, a rock, or your hands, depending on your mood and tool availability, but boy howdy, the processor makes quick and thorough work of it! I don’t recommend inhaling deeply as you open the processor or bag you pulverize this mixture in, or you’ll be sneezing fruit for a week, and that can put a damper on your next brunch with the queen. No, I didn’t realize I could buy freeze-dried fruit already powdered. Once the dust has settled sufficiently, however, home crushed works fine; blend this gloriousness into another half pound of butter, along with about a quarter cup of whole-milk plain yogurt. The ingredients of the frosting are all very much to-taste and adjustable in quantity in order to reach the creamy texture and proportions of deep sweetness and fruitiness you prefer. This is best spread or piped at room temperature or slightly cooled onto equally cool cake surfaces.

Whether you choose to refrigerate and serve the finished cakes cold or serve them at room temperature is up to you. Me, I’ll just see if I can wait long enough for either to happen. I went so far as to snip the corner of the plastic zipper bag I’d put the frosting into, making a wildly erratic star tip, but waiting for or fussing over anything fancier is not my strong suit, as you all know.

Photo: The Rest of the Cake

I sprinkled black sesame seeds on the sheet cake before I remembered I had Dutch chocolate sprinkles for my birthday girl’s cupcakes. If my spouse and I want, we can always add sprinkles on top of the sesame seeds, no? The touch of crunch was what mattered, anyhow.

Foodie Tuesday: Quick Fixes & Peach Treats

I enjoy a good paella, when I can get my hands (and teeth) on it. But it’s not one of those things that in its truer forms can exactly be thrown together in a trice just because I happen to get an urge for it. But, being a fan of fried rice as well, I have been known to think to myself that there might be a hybrid incorporating a bit of both processes that gives me a plate full of paella-like food in a hurry and at least tide me over until the occasion for the real deal arises again. Having so often kept a batch of cooked rice at the ready in our refrigerator, not to mention the gifts of freezer, dried goods and canned foods, I had at least a reasonable chance of putting a faint facsimile of paella on the table at speed.photoPretend Paella

For this highly simplified variant, I made the batch of rice with a blend of broth and dry sherry and a pinch of saffron (should have used a bigger pinch, though). On top of it I put a very simple combination, which while it didn’t replicate paella closely, was reminiscent enough of that grand dish that it served as a reasonable place-holder until I can once more indulge in a beautiful slow-simmered paella. This time, I chose to saute a half cup of diced celeriac (celery root) and a cup of roughly chopped carrots in bacon fat, add a generous cup of sliced chorizo, heat that through, and add about a dozen or more large peeled, cleaned uncooked shrimp, adding water or broth or sherry as needed to keep everything plump and moist while cooking through and caramelizing a little. I didn’t season this further because the bacon fat and well-seasoned chorizo gave everything plenty of flavor. At the last moment, I stirred in a good three cups or so of the cooked rice and a cup of frozen peas, blending it all together just until the peas were heated through. One pot meal, with a touch of nostalgia, and as ever, infinite possible variations depending upon what’s in the kitchen waiting for me.

Having eaten this light and refreshing meal in warm weather, we didn’t need much except some cool drinks (icy water and a bit of cold sangria and chilled Sauvignon Blanc worked well for us three on the particular occasion), but we weren’t so over-filled that we weren’t of a mind to have dessert as well. A one-dish meal, after all, has a reasonable chance of not making diners feel coma-proximal. The afternoon trip to the grocery store, the one wherein I ascertained that there was no giant inspiration that steered me away from my thoughts of insta-paella, did inspire me with the produce section’s wafting scents of fresh fruit, and the image of underripe peaches made me salivate for the late-season ones not yet on hand.digital artworkSo I shamelessly fell back on preserved peaches for dessert shaping. The strawberries in the store had come into seasonal ripeness, but had clearly already been snapped up by earlier shoppers, so although the slightly over-aged ones remaining smelled sweet enough, the flies perched on them were a deterrent as well. Those, then, were substituted for by some freeze-dried strawberries. A ragtag pantry is not a problem in nearly the way that a lack of pantry would be, after all.

Coconut Soft Custard with Peach-Berry Coulis

While we sat eating our Pretend Paella, I had a cup of freeze-dried strawberry slices macerating in the liquid from a pint of canned-in-juice peach slices in the fridge. Also in the refrigerator waiting was a soft custard: one can of coconut milk, three eggs, two teaspoons of vanilla paste, and a half cup each of dark rum and dark maple syrup, and a pinch of salt, then whipped up and heated until slightly thickened, cooling and setting up in the fridge to thicken more fully. After supper, dessert finalizing was simply a matter of pureeing the strawberries in their liquid plus a cup of the peach slices into a smooth coulis, spooning the puree and custard in layers into dessert dishes, and topping them with a sprinkle of toasted sweetened coconut. In theory, this will serve five or six people, but we three are not theoretical exemplars by a long shot, so I’ll just say the dessert was as completely gone after our attacks as the rice dish had been earlier. Proper portions? You be the judge.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Suh-weeeeeet!

I love fat. I love salt. I love food, period. And as you know pretty well by now, I love sweet tidbits and treats. Dessert may as well not be a real word in my universe. Why limit my sweet tooth to being happy only at the end of a meal, I ask you! Yea verily, I might just possibly have confessed to y’all before that I adore sweet + salty foods and, of course, the marvels of the Five Tastes worshiped by so many is hardly foreign to my palate either.

Like all of my foodly affections, however, the one for sweet eats is nearly as changeable as the weather, so it takes lots of different delicacies to satisfy my cravings for sugary goods.

One day, what I have handy drives what I desire to fix: I’m looking at a basket of about a half-dozen mandarin oranges and four mid-sized lemons and thinking thoughts of citrus sweets, so I zest and juice them all together as soon as I’ve washed them. And I’m wafting on a cloud of gorgeous citrus oils and juices and hankering more for juicy joy with every minute. Thinly peeled slices of zest are too fresh and fruity to kill with over-treating. So rather than fuss with the supposed need to do repeated soaking and simmering, I decide to give the already pith-free shavings a lovely swim in the spa of sweetness, about a cup of pure maple syrup plus a hearty splash of brandy, gently bubbling it until the peels become a bit translucent; when they get strained out of the syrup, they take a roll on a sandy beach of cane sugar to keep them from staying too sticky and at the same time, give them a little hint of sparkle. Sweets enough at the end of it, between the fresh candied peels and the preserved citrus-infused maple syrup resulting, to keep the candy-monster at bay. The final bonus was that, though the syrup was pleasant enough to simply drizzle on some plain yogurt, it fed the Monster even better when it cooled completely and turned into citrus-infused pralines. Ooh, yeah.photosSometimes my hunger for sweets drives me to be overzealous in production. Even my crazy lust for candy can’t always keep up with the quantity of Noms I’ve made on many an occasion, and if we’re not having company or visiting someone I think might share my fondness for the treat of the moment, I hate to see it go to waste. So I’ll often find the way to renew the food with a little tweak or ten. For example, since we went out of town shortly after I’d made them, the recently-baked Texican Brownies left a few fellows behind until they were getting a hint too dry to be delicious as-is anymore. Quick-change artist to the rescue! I crumbled up the remaining brownies as finely as I could, softened the remaining strawberry frosting I’d set aside for them, blended the frosting with about a cup of whole milk yogurt (that I hadn’t eaten up with the syrup), added the tangerine and lemon juice I’d squeezed while making candied peel, and mixed all that creamy, thick stuff with the brownie ‘flour’ until it melded into what was a very yummy, thick, spiced, gooey mousse.photoI do realize I can’t eat all of this stuff all of the time, at least not if I have plans to, you know, live very long. But I know from experience that if I don’t please the candy dragon from time to time I get cranky and whiny. Even more than my usual. And I rather enjoy living a really multifaceted life and don’t plan to get all monk-like and deprivation-happy anytime soon either. So it cheers me up a little bit when I see that others take a pretty forgiving attitude toward sugar, salt and fat too. I might croak a leetle bit younger, but if it’s happier too, it’s probably worth it. ‘Course, I’d rather find out that sugar and fat and salt are all extreme health foods after all. I have my preferences.photo

Foodie Tuesday: What’s the Difference between an Old Smoothie and Desiccation?

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What does it matter whether I’m an old smoothie or just desiccated with age?

There’s no time of year that’s wrong for a tasty smoothie. Since these little flavor powerhouses can be packed with vegetables, fruits, dairy or non-dairy liquid goodness, and countless herbs, spices, elixirs and sweeteners of choice, why not occasionally enjoy a few of the day’s nutrients in a deliciously sippable form? And why not, while I’m at it, sometimes enjoy them in an outright ridiculously dessert-sweet version right in the middle of the rest of the meal? Behold the Peach Pie Smoothie. It knows no season, being easy to make with canned peaches–home canned being the loveliest, if one happens to have access to them. Never having embraced the thrills of home canning myself, I’m satisfied with finding ready-made canned fruits that are preserved in fruit juices (their own or mild flavored companion ones) rather than the heavy syrups that merely mask flavor and put the fruits into suspended animation that extends beyond their shelf life.

Peach Pie Smoothie [for one]

1/2 cup canned sliced peaches in fruit juice
1/2-3/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup whole milk yogurt
1 T honey
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp Saigon cinnamon
pinch of salt

Blended together until smooth, this combination becomes a potable pie–and probably every bit as sugar and calorie laden as its forebear, so I’d better not make it a habit–that adds a happy note of variety to the meal of the day, whatever it is. I’d add a dollop of whipped cream to the top, given its rich dessert-like nature, but that would surely spell doom for my chances of minimizing the habit. When I say ‘that’s how I roll’ it begins to have a whole different meaning than I’d hope. Meanwhile, I’m too busy slurping to stop and whip the cream anyhow, luckily for me.

Besides this, there’s the sure knowledge that there are other sweet delights out there waiting for me all the time, and they’re not necessarily terrible for me either. The addition of salt–as you know, one of my favorite things on earth–to this smoothie has a specific purpose and reminds me of another grand feature of food that can be captured with little effort when one’s in the mood. Sweetness through the contrast with other types of flavor: sour, bitter, umami, or in this case salt. The enhancement of sweetness can also be relatively easily achieved by means of concentration.

No, I’m not referring to thinking-makes-it-so, though I have been known once or twice to furrow my brow in deep cogitation over whether I mightn’t be able to find more ways to bring out the sweetness of a dish or ingredient. My furrowed brow, however, hints at the other means to which I’m referring, because let’s face it (no pun intended), as I get older and my youthful juices start to dry up, my face does get more creased and crevassed. And desiccation is precisely what I’m talking about. Concentration sounds much cheerier, perhaps, but the meaning and effect are generally the same: to reduce or remove the liquids rounding out an ingredient or dish in order to enhance the detectable presence of the remaining portions. Salt, as a natural desiccant, can do this by means of leaching out juices as well as by its own salinity contrasting with other kinds of tastes. Evaporation, however, is another option and, though it’s a slower process than adding a bit of salt, depends on the ingredient itself to take the forefront, so to speak.

Let me just say that if anyone should call me a prune I would consider it highly complimentary, a tribute not only to my maturity but an indirect admission that I’m sweeter than most of those undeveloped youngsters out there.

Drying fruits in particular is a great way to pack concentrated, deeply flavorful sweetness into them. It seems only in the fads of recent years have we returned to a fuller appreciation of how marvelous that magic is, as evidenced in the skyrocketing prices and popularity of dried fruits of every sort, not to mention the pastes, candies and preserves we can make of them with little further effort. To wit:

OH, DRY UP!

Apricot, apple
Blueberry, banana
Cranberry, cherry, coffee
Date
Elderberry
Fig
Guava
Honeydew
Illawarra plum
Jackfruit, jujube
Kumquat, kiwi
Loquat, lemon, lime, lychee
Mango, melon, miracle fruit
Nectarine
Olive
Prune (plum), peach, pear, persimmon, pineapple
Quince
Raisin (grape), rambutan, rose hip
Strawberry
Tomato, tamarind
Uvilla, Ugli fruit
Valencia orange, vanilla bean
Watermelon (I’ve only heard of compression with this one, admittedly, not outright drying for concentration)
Xocolatl (okay, cacao is a berry that requires a fair amount of processing, but isn’t it highly worth the effort?!)
Youngberry
Zinfandel grape, zapote

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Peach Pie Smoothie

SPECIAL ELECTION DAY LINK LOVE!

See my youngest sister (and her good friend Rachel Myr) on Norwegian television being interviewed about being American citizen residents in Norway who still care passionately enough about their home country to pay attention to and vote in the elections. [Both the live/filmed interview and the print one are in Norwegian, but they aren’t terribly hard to decipher, really. Plus, you get to see my beautiful sister. Bonus!]

http://www.nrk.no/nyheter/distrikt/sorlandet/1.8381396

Don’t Cry, Honey, the End of One Party is Only the Beginning of the Next

photoWhile I’m on the subject of eating, and when am I not, and delving into the marvelous mysteries of leftovers and rehashed Hash (or, as I often call my versions, casseroles), let us contemplate yet more intimately The Day After. Or, the day after the day after, if you need me to be more precise. For the party two nights ago made happy provision of both work and comestibles to follow.

The broth put on to cook ‘way back when is now strained and the stewing beef I made into pot roast within it put up for later with a soupçon of broth soaking right back into it. The chocolates* I’d set aside to chill while making the tapas for the party are now broken out of the pan into nice variable-sized hunks for dessert treats to come. The cleanup after the party was incredibly simple–a couple of goodly batches of dish-washing, a quick sweep-up and tossing a few tea towels into the wash for today, and snip-snap, that was all it needed. The leftovers of various nosh-ables went into the fridge for later sorting and rearrangement into new meals.

So lunch today capitalized on all of that. Chorizo, Manchego, marinated mushrooms, Papas Bravas; I took the last quarter-cup full each of these various tapas leftover bits and chopped them into a smaller cut, mixing them and tossing them on top of some of my refrigerator stash of cooked broth rice. A sprinkling of smoked paprika, a drizzle each of cream and my freshly brewed beef broth, and into the oven for a thorough heating. Done.

With that, the accompanying salad was made somewhat in the style of Vietnamese (lettuce wrapped) salad rolls, with greenery fresh-plucked from my own garden borders. Next time I make them I’ll eliminate the layer of red cabbage leaves, which despite their glaucous beauty, snappy crunch and fine flavor are just too dense and tough for the otherwise tender rolls, so the rolls had to be sliced up into bites and eaten with a fork rather than the possible eating out-of-hand I could otherwise have managed. So without the cabbage, here’s the rest of the concatenation, and it was a tasty collation at that.photo

Spring Salad Rolls

On a piece of wax paper or parchment, lay out a few whole green leaves in a solid ‘sheet’–a pattern that will allow them to be rolled up as a whole into a green sausage once the other ingredients are layered on top of them–sushi style, if you will. I started with three nice big tender chard (silverbeet) leaves to create an outer layer of roughly 8″x10″. And then I piled on, in fairly even layers one over the other, the remaining greens. I used:

Chard leaves, borage leaves, basil leaves, mint leaves, a little parsley, and tiny baby beet (ordinary red beetroot) greens.

Over the top of this ‘lasagna’ of fresh greens I drizzled a couple of tablespoons full of my lately-signature jam mixture (equal parts strawberry, plum and ginger preserves, to use up the tail-ends of several favorites), warmed to thin it enough for drizzling since the leafy stuff was so loosely stacked. The last layer was a set of red cabbage leaves, which next time I’ll replace with more chard or lettuce substitutes for tenderness, slathered with cream cheese, goat cheese or mascarpone and laid face-down on top of the stack. This ‘glue’ helped hold everything in place as (one could lift an end of the paper underneath if necessary to get started) I rolled the greens up gently into a reasonably tightly packed solid cylinder. Once rolled, it’s best chilled for a bit to help it hold its shape, and can easily be sliced across into a couple of shorter hand rolls or a number of pretty pinwheels. I think this will prove almost infinitely variable with whatever greens I have on hand or am in the mood to include, not to mention any tender and thinly sliced addition that’s neither too brittle nor too juicy to ‘play well’ with the others. Sounds fussy, but it’s really incredibly quick and  simple, and it’s plenty refreshing. To serve it today, I drizzled a tiny bit of crema and honey mixed together on top, but that’s just icing on this particular cake.

With the salad roll and the casserole, nothing else but some of the sherried olives made for the other night’s gathering, and sparkling water. Oh, and some of the chocolate* pieces I’d made back then, too, from nothing more than a mixture of melted Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate, a little melted butter to emulsify, and pure black cherry juice. The finished chilled pieces are solider than fudge but a little softer than the pure chocolate, and also subtly fruity, just a teeny bit mysterious, and pretty swell, as a sweet bite at the end of the meal.photo