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Monday, August 29, 2016

Let them eat cake...whenever!

Cake, cookies, champagne - what else do we need for dinner?
It would be difficult for me to think of a dessert that I like more than cake with frosting. Aside from the fact, that it’s usually eaten at a party in one's honor and it's likely that presents will follow soon after the cake has been cut. There is also the flattering glow of the candles in a dimly lit room. All attention is on you in the moment of pure optimism when the candles await the deep breath which could blow them all out, delivering the hope of a wish to come true.  It is a magical moment; the cake reveal, which comes once a year, hopefully for many years. But, not all cakes are for Birthdays, nor should they be delegated to one day a year. My hope is that after reading this post, you will be motivated to make a cake for a special person for any special occasion; candles are always welcome.

Making a wish!
My Great Grandmother had the baking gene and she was a prolific baker. She would whip up the cake batter and frosting in a flash and gift her neighbors and friends with a sweet birthday treat on their special day. If I happened to be visiting in the summer she would make me the most incredible Barbie Doll Cake. An extravagant little dome cake which formed the pink ball-gown of an actual Barbie Doll (so it was a gift too) which was placed squarely in the center of the cake; then adorned with butter-cream frosting covering her upper body. Yes, she was naked under all the frosting, but Great Grandma was also a seamstress, so a wardrobe of wonderful Barbie clothes was also part of the gift. Back then as long as the frosting was pink, I was happy, but the cake was actually really good.
How I loved my Barbie Dolls!
The years went by and Birthday cakes became items my Mom ordered from the local bakery.  She would let us order any flavor we wanted and I learned to love many different cakes; strawberry, red velvet, chocolate marble, lemon and coconut. But there are two standouts for me. The Princess cake and The Banana Cream cake. The Princess cake, like the Barbie cake, is dome shaped built with delicate layers of white cake, whipped cream, custard and raspberry jam, stacked into a beautiful dome and covered in pastel colored marzipan with a simple rose adorning the top of the dome. It’s wonderful!
The Princess Cake.
As wonderful as The Princess cake is, the Banana Cream cake ranks as my favorite; white cake layered with whipped cream and fresh bananas, creating as many layers as possible until the cake is ready to tip, usually four layers of cake and three layers of bananas and cream, then covered in frosting. It is pure deliciousness. 
My first "made from scratch" Banana Cream cake.
I love to cook, but a baker, I am not. It always seemed too difficult, complicated, messy, time consuming, etc… but there is one factor which can inspire the most ardent non-baker to bake with reckless and messy abandon. That would be L O V E – specifically for a child who really wanted me to bake her a birthday cake, not cupcakes, but an actual layered cake. So one year I went out and spent at least $100;  purchased the Miette cookbook, along with cake gadgets and multiple tools, building my confidence with every dollar spent in specialty equipment and book knowledge. Then I made my first birthday cake from scratch.  It was called a Tomboy cake (pictured on the cover of the Miette cookbook, below). It was beautiful, delicious and my daughter loved it. It broke my cake-baking phobia.
The Perfect Tomboy cake.
My Tomboy cake. Not as pretty, but it was so good.

Fast forward to this Spring. My sweet daughter Violeta is coming home and I want everything to be perfect. All the table décor will be in shades of her favorite colors, lilac and lavender. 
Time and care were spent on the table looking good enough for the cake. We made the coordinating cookies too.

And, there will be cake, even though there is no birthday to celebrate - Just a "happy you are home for a week" Banana Cream cake, decorated with big girly, floppy lilac roses. I made the cake ahead, froze it, then when my daughter was home we decorated it together and set it in an honorary place at the lilac table. For me, it was a symbol of what love can motivate and inspire us to achieve, and, it was the best, most beautiful Banana Cream cake ever! Since then I made another one for a special friend for his graduation. I felt very accomplished. When the weather cools off and I have a little motivation tapping me, maybe I'll tackle that Princess cake, which I understand from watching the BBC "Great British Bake-off" show is quite difficult to make .

Since I am not a baker by nature, I have put my trust in the hands of professionals. Although I did decorate the lilac cake shown in the pictures here, I don't think I could do justice to the process by trying to explain it, which is why I am providing links to recipes and videos created by professionals. I went on Pinterest to get decorating ideas and YouTube also has a lot of how-to videos for cake decorating. My true purpose in writing this post is to get people, like me, who are not confident bakers, to try it. Even less than spectacular results will be appreciated. Follow the links or recipe below, or better yet, try a family recipe of your own.
Cake, cookies, champagne - what else do we need for dinner?

All done with the decorating. Easier than it looks, but have a lot of frosting on hand (double recipe).
That was a great slice of cake!

A Graduation cake for a special person. He requested Banana Cream too.
The very best cake ever is still the Mother's Day cake made by my daughters, from scratch when they were just kids!
Dark Chocolate and Chocolate Ganache. YUMMY!

To get started:
Follow the link for the Barefoot Contessa's Coconut Cake recipe I used (copied below), omitting the coconut for this cake, but very yummy as a coconut cake too. Make frosting using Ina's recipe, or cheat and buy it (but be sure to whip it before using it) then whip some real heavy whipped cream (no cheating here please) and sliced fresh bananas.

Bringing it all together:
Tip: If you have never made a cake before, I recommend reading a few cake recipes from professional bakers. The Miette book gives great lessons on everything in their books. Barefoot Contessa also has several cake recipes in her books. Of course Martha Stewart has books, TV shows and blogs dedicated to excellent baking techniques. Arm yourself with information and the process will be easier.

Ina's Cake recipe:
¾ pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pans
2 cups sugar
5 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1½ teaspoons pure almond extract
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pans
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup milk 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans, then line them parchment paper. Grease them again and dust lightly with flour.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed for 3 to 5 minutes, until light yellow and fluffy. Crack the eggs into a small bowl. With the mixer on medium speed, add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl once during mixing. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and mix well. The mixture might look curdled; don’t be concerned.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the dry ingredients and the milk to the batter in three parts, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Mix until just combined. Fold in the 4 ounces of coconut with a rubber spatula.

Pour the batter evenly into the 2 pans and smooth the top with a knife. Bake in the center of the oven for 45 to 55 minutes, until the tops are browned and a cake tester comes out clean. Cool on a baking rack for 30 minutes, then turn the cakes out onto a baking rack to finish cooling.
Start with 2 prepared 9" round cakes which have been cooled or frozen.
Cut the 2 rounds in half horizontally creating 4 discs:
When ready to assemble, slice the cake into  two horizontal layers/discs. Thin discs will ensure the proper cream/banana/cake ratio. Have the 4 thin discs ready to go, then prepare the cream and bananas. Having a tall cake stand will help with assembly.

Note: if the layers come out crooked or lop-sided, adjust the discs so that when combined they are even. Remember, it won't matter once it's frosted, so don't stress about it.

Not to worry: If you think the cake came out too dry, after slicing the discs, brush each disc with simple syrup or liqueur, like Grand Marnier or Cointreau. This will moisten up the cake.

Prepare the Frosting
Ina's Cream Cheese frosting:
1 pound cream cheese, at room temperature
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon pure almond extract
1 pound confectioners’ sugar, sifted
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and almond extract on low speed. Add the confectioners’ sugar and mix until just smooth (don’t whip!).

Whipping Cream & Bananas:
3 cups heavy whipping cream
2 Tbl. sugar
3-4 bananas, just ripe

Assembly - don't walk away or take a call during this time:
When the discs are cut and ready for assembly, beat the whipping cream and sugar with an electric beater into stiff peaks. Use cold cream and a cold bowl for best results. Don't over-beat or you'll get butter.
Note: If you prepare either the cream or slice the bananas too early, the cream may wilt and the bananas will turn brown. 
Slice 3-4 bananas, one at a time, in half and then lengthwise, Placing the slices on top of the whipped cream, as shown below, then adding more as you build the cake up. You can also cut them into discs.

Building the cake - Almost there.

Fresh bananas, just ripe are best and will last longer.
The final layer of cake before the frosting finish.
Once the layers are built, it's time for the frosting. If you have room in your refrigerator chill the cake while preparing the frosting. It makes frosting easier.

Tip: When frosting, place parchment paper squares on top of the plate where the cake will sit, then put the cake base (cardboard), if you have one, on top of the plate to decorate so that when you are done decorating, you can pull the paper out and your cake plate will be clean.

One last thing. If this all seems to daunting, start with baby steps. You can buy prepared cakes un-frosted, from the bakery at your grocery store. You can also use a box mix. You can buy frosting in the market or at a bake shop which sells fresh butter-cream frosting. Buy the basic white or vanilla and add color or flavor to your liking. Be sure to whip it up before using it.
I guarantee that your loved ones will appreciate the effort even if you take shortcuts. At the end of the day, gathering around the cake is the best moment of all.

The easiest of decorations, the "swirl" will be welcome at any party.

Happy Baking!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

As "American" as Apple Pie...

All American Apple Pie!
Diversity is great for apple pie.

Apples aren't American! Shocking, right? As a country we adopted apples into our culture, our kitchens and our colloquialisms. Think about apple bobbing. What about apple expressions?: the apple of my eye - an apple a day keeps the Doctor away - comparing apples and oranges -  how do like them apples? - and, as American as apple pie. Even though apples aren't American in origin, they have become part of us; like tacos, margaritas, hamburgers, hot dogs and French fries. Partially because they are a great fruit which is easy to grow in many of our northern states and also because they are delicious to eat in so many forms; raw and unpeeled, peeled, baked, pureed, juiced, fortified or sweetened and made into dessert, like Apple Pie!
Apple pie and Champagne-Perfect!

My husband, who is from Asturias in Northern Spain has had an affinity for apples all of his life, harvesting local orchards as a child as soon as the apples were ready. I imagine him up in the apple trees on the side of the road, like the Von Trapp children in the Sound of Music, blissfully picking anyone's apples he could and eating them before getting caught.  So, it was no surprise to me that one of the foods he fell in love with in his earliest years in America, was apple pie. I make it for him as often as I can; for his birthday, for Thanksgiving and just recently for a new special day in his life. On March 11, my husband became an American Citizen. Coincidentally, it happens that March 11 is Johnny Appleseed Day, a true "apple" legend in early American history, who planted thousands of apple seedlings across his vast acreage in many Northeast states. I was so proud of my husband and he was truly moved by the pride he felt receiving the privilege of American Citizenship. He took his oath seriously and after the ceremony was over, he ate a big hamburger with "French" fries, then ate his apple pie mostly by himself - seriously.

The Hamburger before the Pie!

I have included my apple pie filling recipe, after the crust recipe. The crust recipe is for a double crusted, old fashioned American apple pie.

Double Crusted Pie Crust 9" (Pre-heat oven to 350):
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Two sticks chilled, cubed unsalted butter
  • 3 oz. ice water
  • 1 egg and tbl water for the crust
  • Extra sugar to sprinkle on the crust
Add cubed butter to dry ingredients and work into dry ingredients until the mixture resembles small peas and holds together when pressed. Add 3 ounces ice water slowly mixing/incorporating until it forms the dough.  If the dough comes together don't add any more of the water and try not to work the dough too much. Drop it out onto your work surface and form it into a ball, then cut in half. Hint: make one "half" of the disc a little larger so you have extra dough for decorating the top crust  or having a generous edging. Wrap each "half" in plastic and chill for 30 minutes. The cooler the dough is the easier it will be to work with.

Working butter into the dough.
Dough should hold together.
Onto the floured surface.
After dough is chilled, roll out the smaller half using a roller which has been floured on a floured work surface.  Roll until it is the desired size, approximately 10" for a 9" pie dish.  If you are using a dish smaller than 9 ", save the extra dough to decorate the top of the pie. Use the trick shown below to move the dough, rolling it around the pin, then transfer it to the pie dish. If there is a tear, don't worry, just repair it by pressing in a little dough or pinching it together. Nobody will know (or care) it was there after it bakes.

Work dough until you can form a disc.
Form into 2 smaller discs.
Wrap into plastic and refrigerate 30 minutes.

A flour dusting before rolling it out.
French rolling pin makes it easier.

Roll dough onto pin for easy transfer.

Ready for the apples!
Fill the bottom crust with apples and refrigerate until the top crust is ready to be placed over the filling. Repeat the rolling process with the second disc, then place the top crust over the pie dish which has now been filled with the chilled apples. You can get creative with the edges or the top crust design, like lattice, or "shreds" of dough. Give the crust an egg wash and sprinkle with sugar for a beautiful finish. Bake in center of the over for about 35 minutes. You may want to check it halfway through and turn it so it browns evenly. Crust should be very golden. Hint: because the apples are pre-cooked, the pie bakes in half the time of other apple pie recipes and burning the edges of the crust is not an issue.

This is a "Golden Brown" crust.
 Apple Pie Filling Ingredients and Instructions:
  • 8 - 10 apples; a variety for different texture and flavor, like Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Gala
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spices, cinnamon ginger and nutmeg (more if you like it). Pumpkin pie spice works perfect.
  • The zest of half an orange plus the juice of the orange. You may use the zest and juice of a lemon if you prefer.
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • A pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar (this is not a super sweet recipe so you can add more sugar if desired, a caramel sauce or a la mode).
  • Optional, 1 ounce of either orange liqueur or sweet sherry
  • 3 tablespoons Butter 
  • 1 tbl cornstarch or flour 
Preparing the Filling:
Peel apples. Cut into 8ths or 10ths depending on the size of the apple, removing the core and seeds. I use about 8 to 10  medium to large apples. The more apples you have, the higher you can pile the pie, (see the robust apple pie below). Add butter to a hot Dutch oven then add apple mixture and toss to coat. Add the spices, sugar, vanilla, orange zest, juice and liqueur. Cook all together, covered, on medium heat for about 15 - 20 minutes or until apples are al dente; soft but still have a bite and texture. Sprinkle in the cornstarch and toss gently. As the apples cool, the sauce will thicken. If some of the apples get soft it's OK, they'll form part of the sauce Let them cool while you make the crust (recipe above).

Season the apples.
Into the pie crust.

NOTE: If you are a crust person, making a solid top crust gives you the most crust per bite.

Decorate the pie crust however you like. A little ice cream never hurts. 
Simple Crust with vents.

A little creative "free form" top crust achieved by cutting the top crust into strips and laying over the apples.
This idea was born from not having enough dough to roll out the top crust.

Lattice top with cut-out leaf edge.

Use more apples and cut them into quarters to create the robust "bulging" pie.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Rudi's Meat Sauce A.K.A. Bolognese

Meat Sauce, AKA Bolognese
I don't believe I know anyone who doesn't like Pasta Bolognese. Maybe because even a Flexitarian (a vegetarian who cheats - Dad!) can't resist the comfort of this hearty pasta made with, sauteed aromatics, ground meat and tomatoes.  Part of the appeal of this iconic Italian dish from the Bologna region of Italy is that it's simple, honest food.
An  ashtray from Rudi's - It was that kind of place

My love of this particular pasta goes way back to when I was a little girl in the 60's, growing up in Los Angeles. I am not Italian, so Pasta was not part of my family's cooking repertoire. Occasionally our six family members would pile into the big Cadillac (no seat-belts required) and trek across the city, from the Eastside to the Westside, to dine at Rudi's Italian Inn. It was Old School Los Angeles/Italian; dark rooms with no windows, red vinyl booths hugging the walls, Italian "oil" paintings of beautiful Sophia Loren looking women stomping grapes and serving wine, and rattan wrapped Chianti bottles displayed proudly on the booth corners and shelving. Once seated inside with our eyes adjusted to the dim, smoky interior, my parents would order their Martinis and we would immediately get a relish dish with ice cold crudites placed on the perfectly starched white linen tablecloth. Then came the delicious crusty sourdough bread and room temperature butter. No menus were required once seated. My dad and grandfather always got the short ribs. Grandma, the ravioli with meat sauce, which in the 60's was usually only found in Chef Boyardee cans. Mom and my sister and I would get the Spaghetti which was slathered with Rudi's special meat sauce. We loved  the gravy texture and bits of meat. It was rich and delicious, its luscious aroma hitting our senses before the generous plate of spaghetti ever arrived to the table.  I'm sure by today's al dente standards the pasta was probably not the best, but we loved it.

1st location on Western Ave
2nd Location Crenshaw Blvd.

Today, I am familiar with very good Italian cuisine, and I know if I put Rudi's meat sauce, aka, Bolognese, to a side by side test, an expert might deem it inferior to a true Bolognese. But, in those days every other Italian restaurant on the east side of town served really over-cooked, sticky spaghetti with a dark red, thin tomato sauce spooned on top and dry meatballs plopped over the noodles with parmesan cheese shaken out of a can, so Rudi's meat sauce felt really special and unique.  Nowadays Bolognese ranks as my favorite comfort food and one of my favorite meals to make for family and friends. When preparing my Bolognese recipe, I can often recall the exact aroma of Rudi's meat sauce with its sweet, cheesy fragrance and the memory of it congers up childhood family lunches at Rudi's with my sister, parents and grandparents. Although I have tried, I have never been able to imitate Rudi's meat sauce. In my research to find an old recipe from Rudi's I was surprised to learn there are a lot of people like me, who remember the meat sauce as the best they ever had. Some of them even spent time in the kitchen at Rudi's and remember details about making the sauce, which it turns out was time-consuming and very complicated. Perhaps the lack of availability of good Italian ingredients made for some long preparation. Now, when I make Bolognese in my own kitchen I follow a traditional recipe using beef and pork, but sometimes I make a healthier version by using turkey and whole wheat pasta. Traditionally a wide flat egg noodle is used to ensure all the meat sauce has a nice surface to rest on; Tagliatelle, Pappardelle or Fettuccine are perfect. But, there are other ways to enjoy it, like the popular "Spag Bol" (as my Scottish boss calls it - a real thing in the UK) which uses dry durum wheat or semolina pasta.  It's a New World variation, but in my opinion, any pasta with Bolognese sauce has to be great.
"SpagBol" Delicious!

Like Rudi's meat sauce, life for us kids in the 60's seemed simple and sweet, but it was actually complicated. I've learned over the years, that no matter how tricky life gets, cooking and eating together brings me back to the basic comforts of home, family and friendship. Below is my version of a delicious and fairly uncomplicated Bolognese for you to enjoy. Buon Appetito!

  My meat sauce includes items which I always have on hand and I make it all in one pot. This sauce is also the base for a proper Italian Lasagna made with Béchamel. So, make plenty and freeze it.
The Star Ingredients

Ingredients - 6-8 Servings:
3 tbl Olive Oil
1/2 large onion finely minced (Can be grated or processed with carrots, celery and garlic)
1 medium, finely minced carrot
2 stalks finely minced celery
1 clove finely minced garlic
1 28 oz. can of whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1 lb total ground meat (equal parts beef, pork, veal or turkey and chicken)
1/2 Cup Red wine (or white)
1 tbl tomato paste
1/4 cup frozen green peas (optional)
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tbl fresh chopped rosemary (optional)
1/4 cup whipping cream or half and half
1 tbl butter
Salt and pepper

1 lb long, flat pasta, preferably egg (linguine, tagliatelle, pappardelle or fettuccine)

Aromatics get processed or minced by hand.

Cover the bottom of a pot with olive oil. When hot, add onions, carrots, celery, garlic and cook until onions are translucent. Season with a good pinch of salt. To the same pot, add the meat and break apart until crumbled and cooked through, seasoning with salt and pepper.
Add 1/2 cup of red Italian wine or white (if red is not available). Let the wine absorb into the meat base.  Add the tomato paste, working it into the meat. Note: I use the paste in a tube so that I don't waste an entire can for 1 tbl. of tomato paste.
Aromatics and Meat in the Pan

In goes the Wine
Blend/Puree the tomatoes

Blend tomatoes in the can with a hand blender or in a blender, then add all of the tomato puree to the pot. I like the puree to be nice and smooth because the meat gives enough body and texture to the sauce. Save the can because you will need to add a little water to the mixture. Once it has cooked for about 15 minutes and the sauce starts to darken, test for salt and pepper. This is the time to add rosemary, oregano, thyme or red pepper flakes.
Simmering Bliss - 20 to 30 minutes
Let the sauce continue to cook, reducing slightly and adding a little bit of water if needed so that it's not too thick. It should be the consistency of thick gravy. It needs to simmer for an additional 20 - 30 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. Test again for salt.

I like to add frozen green peas. I'm not sure where I saw or tasted this, but I love them even though they are not traditional. If you want them, now is the time to add them and let them heat through.

Incorporate the cream and the butter stirring into the sauce. Heat through then turn off the heat.
Adding the cream gives it the true color of Bolognese Sauce
Egg Pappardelle is a great choice - Al Dente please!

The Pasta:
While the sauce is finishing, bring a large pot of water to a boil; add 2 tsp salt before adding the pasta. Test the pasta 1-2 minutes before the package instructions indicate it should be finished. Note that egg noodles usually cook much more quickly than Durum wheat noodles or Spaghetti. Usually 4 minutes vs. 8 minutes. I drain the pasta, always reserving the starchy pasta water even if I never use it, because you never know if you will need to thin the sauce. Do not rinse it with cold water, you want the starch to stay with the pasta. Once the pasta is cooked and drained, be ready to plate it or it will get sticky.

Plating the Pasta:
Add the drained pasta back into the pasta pot,  then start spooning and gently incorporating the sauce into the noodles. Reserve some sauce to top each plate. Pass the parmesan, please. 

Top with Parmesan - Use the best you can buy
Yes, please!