Monday, February 25, 2013

Laurie Colwin's Nantucket Cranberry Pie

I've been re-reading Laurie Colwin. The first Colwin I read was Home Cooking. I was newly graduated from college and had moved to California and taken a job helping with the author lecture program at a local bookstore. Along with the event and publicity work, I was assigned several sections in the store to monitor--mystery, fiction and cooking. This involved straightening, checking to make certain books were on the right shelves and the dreaded pulling of returns of stock that did not sell, all the while making certain that my favorites were face out. Sitting on the one shelf of "food writing" in the middle of the many shelves of cookbooks, I found Home Cooking. I took it home, read it that night and the next day ordered her entire backlist. As you can see above, in some cases, I even have two copies in case I loan one out. 
Home Cooking and More Home Cooking are probably her best known books today, although during her lifetime she was known as a novelist and short story writer. Her New York Times obituary descried her as "a novelist and writer of short stories on modern urban romance and life." The books are clever, funny, joyful and full of characters that I am happy to revisit, as though I am checking on on old friends. Many seem to feel that way. When I mentioned Colwin to a friend, he replied that he "fell in love with, and is still in love with Misty Berkowitz," one of the characters in Happy All The Time, which he feels is her comic masterpiece. Writing in Gourmet in 2001, Anna Quindlen explains that "it is difficult to write about Laurie's fiction without preaching either to the converted or to the clueless. Nine people out of ten have never heard of her, or at least read her; the other one becomes ecstatic, even incoherent, at the mention of her name." My favorite, and on each re-reading I seem to change my mind, may very well be Shine On, Bright & Dangerous Object

When I read Colwin's fiction, I cook her recipes. There is a meatloaf, inspired by her Halloween dinner suggestions in More Home Cooking, in my oven as I type. But the recipe I want to highlight today is her Nantucket Cranberry Pie, also from More Home Cooking. It is, in her words, "a cake that takes about four seconds to put together and gives an ambrosial result. Fortunately, such cakes exist and are generally found at someone else's home. You then purloin the recipe (because you have taken care to acquire generous friends) and serve it to other friends who in turn, pass it on to yet others. This is the way in which nations are unified and relationships are made solid.

My candidate for an easy, spectacular dessert is something called Nantucket Cranberry Pie, which is not a pie, but a cake. It was served to me in the country by a friend who lives on a dairy farm; she got the recipe from her mother, who can no longer remember where it originally came from. It is now a staple in their family, and the buck stops there.

In an effort to find the true roots of this cake I looked in The Yankee Cook Book by Imogene Wolcott, a classic tome that contains just about everything anyone needs to know about traditional New England fare. In the index was Cape Cod Cranberry Pie, but it turned out to be a real live pie. Our Nantucket Cranberry Pie is definitely a cake; furthermore, it is a snap to make, and, last but not least, it is delicious. If you wanted to try your hand at lily-gilding, you might put vanilla ice-cream, creme fraiche, or (if you have tons of time) custard on the side, but Ann Gold serves it straight, which is, I agree, the best way."

K wanted fancy, so we flipped the cake.
Nantucket Cranberry Pie
Modified slightly From Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking

2 cups chopped fresh cranberries
1/2 cup chopped almonds (The recipe calls for walnuts, but we had almonds on hand)
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
2 eggs
3/4 cup butter, melted
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon grated nutmeg (Our addition, because it seemed right)

Preheat your oven to 350. 
Spread the cranberries, almonds and 1/2 cup sugar in the bottom of a 9" pie plate or springform pan. Mix the rest of the ingredients in a separate bowl until smooth. Pour this batter over the cranberry mixture and bake for around 40 minutes.  Cool a bit in the pan and if you are feeling fancy, flip. Serve warm or cold, plain or with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Cottage Cheese Waffles for My Valentine

A childhood food, revisited. Growing up, we often ate cottage cheese pancakes, a recipe from a well-worn copy of the Joy of Cooking. (If you don't have a copy, Smitten Kitchen has an adapted version here.) In my memories, they were often made by my father and served as breakfast for dinner. My brother, in that way that childhood memories are often suspect, remembers instead my mother cooking them for breakfast. Either way, they were almost always served with a mixture of maple syrup and butter that was heated in a saucepan until warm. 
K, of course, had no interest at all in trying cottage cheese pancakes. "Why would you put cheese in pancakes?" "I think cottage cheese looks gross." "No. I don't want to try one." So, I bribed her with the promise of homemade lemon curd on top. It would be stretching the truth more than a little bit to say that once K tries things she always likes them, because, really, usually she doesn't. But I can say that when she was making her lunch to take to school the next morning, she asked if she could include a pancake, even without the curd. So, a hit.  
But, I like waffles better than pancakes and decided to experiment and see if that might work. I added almond meal as we had some on-hand from our lime polenta muffins, but feel free to substitute white or wheat flour or even cornmeal instead. K's report: "I like these even better than the pancakes."

Cottage Cheese Waffles:
  • 1 cup flour (We used half white, half whole wheat)
  • 1/3 cup almond meal 
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup cottage cheese
  • 1/2 cup milk 
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla paste (or extract)
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted, plus additional butter if needed to grease your waffle iron 
  • Optional: maple syrup, butter or fruit curd for topping
Pre-heat your waffle iron.
In a large bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, salt and sugar. In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, cottage cheese, milk, vanilla and butter. Add flour mixture to egg mixture and whisk until completely blended.
Pour into your waffle iron (we do butter our iron) and cook until golden. Serve immediately or cool and freeze for homemade "eggos."

For Valentine's Day, top with lemon curd and conversation hearts. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Flourless Chocolate Cake: Idiot or Cloud?

K spent many years disliking chocolate. Ice cream had to be vanilla or fruit flavored and all chocolate Halloween candy ended up in my bag. At some point, and I am guessing that the Blue Bottle Double Chocolate Cookie may have been involved, that changed. Now, she eats her own Halloween Kit Kats and has become a fan of my favorite brownie from Craftsman & Wolves. Note: Marcona almonds and salted caramel do really good things for brownies. Thus, our baking projects now often include chocolate and not just in chip form. Last weekend, an invitation to a potluck gave us an opportunity to do a taste comparison between our two favorite flourless chocolate cakes.  
Cake #1 was our Christmas cake this past December: Richard Sax's Chocolate Cloud Cake, as found on Leite's Culinaria.
Christmas Cloud Cake
Cake #2: David Lebovitz's Idiot Cake, found on his blog and adapted from a cookbook I really enjoy: Ready for Dessert.
The main difference between the two cakes is the treatment of the eggs. The Sax cake calls for separating some of the eggs and whipping the whites, whereas the Lebovitz version simply adds the eggs whole. The Sax cake is taller, with a crumblier look and is meant to be covered with clouds of whipped cream.
Idiot Cake on the left, Cloud Cake on the right

Both cakes in hand, we headed to the party for a tasting. Without hesitation, every child chose the Sax cake as their favorite. When asked why, they all mentioned the whipped cream. In contrast, all of the adults preferred the Lebovitz cake, feeling that it was more "chocolatey and fudgy." Our reaction? Combine the two. So for family in town this week we combined our favorite parts of the two, plus some Valrhona pearls, because a little crunch is generally a good thing, see: Fudgie the Whale.
Baking rules: first read the recipe all the way through. Second: gather your ingredients. In this case we used the semisweet chocolate plus a few Tcho bunnies.
Scattered pearls
The baker
Note: Having made three flourless chocolate cakes in the last week, we are unlikely to make one for Valentine's Day. But, easy to make and chocolate might be a perfect holiday treat for others.
Chocolate Idiot Cake, with Whipped "Clouds"
Adapted only slightly from
One 9-inch cake

10 ounces (290 g) semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
7 ounces (200 g) butter, unsalted, cut into pieces
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup (200 g) sugar
For the clouds:
1/2 pint whipping cream 
1 Tablespoon powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Valrhona pearls, cocoa powder or shaved chocolate (optional garnish) 

Preheat your oven to 350F.
Butter a 9-inch springform pan and place a parchment circle on the bottom. Dust the rest of the pan with cocoa powder. Our springform pan isn’t 100% water-tight, so we did wrap the outside with aluminum foil, all the way up to the outer rim.
Melt the chocolate and butter in a microwave, stirring occasionally, until smooth. In our microwave this took about two minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar. Gradually whisk in the melted chocolate mixture, sitrring until smooth.
Pour the batter into the prepared spring form pan and cover the top of the pan snugly with a sheet of foil. Put the springform pan into a larger baking pan, such as a roasting pan, and add hot water to come about halfway up the outside of the cake pan.
Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes. The cake is done when it feels just set, like quivering chocolate pudding. If you gently touch the center, your finger should come away clean.
Lift the cake pan from the water bath and remove the foil. Let cake cool completely on a cooling rack.
Just before serving, whip your cream, sugar and vanilla, either by hand or with a mixer and mound on top of the cake. If you'd like, garnish with cocoa powder, shaved chocolate or Valrhona pearls.