Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Summer Cabbage...Buttered...with Peas & Prosciutto (and a bonus recipe for Cabbage & Kohlrabi Slaw from Ottolenghi)

I used to think of cabbage as a winter food.  It is of course a "storage vegetable" (it keeps well...and for a long period of time).  But my thinking probably had more to do with the fact that I didn't really add cabbage to my diet until I started enjoying Colcannon Potatoes every year for St. Patrick's Day.  It is always abundant in the stores at that time (more for cabbage and corned beef than for Colcannon I suspect...).   And since I am part of a household of just two, there is always a lot of cabbage left from the head I purchase for our Irish feast.  For a couple of weeks after St. Patrick's Day we always enjoy it in various forms—soups, pastas, winter slaws, warm salads and etc.  I'm not sure why I don't purchase it more really is quite versatile. 

As I wrote when I shared her recipe, it didn't dawn on me that summer was the season for cabbage until I ran across Suzanne Goin's Cabbage and Sweet Corn Sauté with Bacon a few years ago (a wonderful recipe...most definitely worth trying if you think you don't like cabbage).  When I first made that recipe, I noticed that a few growers at my old farmers' market had cabbage....but it wasn't particularly abundant.  But at the market I began frequenting last year, many (if not all) of the vendors grow cabbage.  Beautiful Napas, tiny little cone shaped cabbages (perfect for a small household), 

big firm green/white and red well as Savoy. 

This year, I have been trying to change my ways...keeping cabbage on hand right now, while it's fresh locally.  We have been enjoying it in both its raw and cooked form.  Most people are familiar with coleslaw...but that is just the veriest tip of the iceberg when it comes to raw cabbage salads.  Depending on how finely you slice/shred it...and how long you allow it to sit in the dressing prior to can have a prominent or delicate crunch.  Like coleslaw, cabbage can comprise the majority of a salad...or, it can be just one element...adding texture and interest to other ingredients.  It can be the star of the plate in a big, entrée-style (lunch) or side salad.  And it can also take the form of a garnish (finely shredded and tossed with citrus, herbs, onion...maybe a radish or two...and served as an accompaniment for a piece of grilled or sautéed fish...or perhaps a soft taco or tostada...)

This month a cookbook group that I am a part of on Facebook is cooking through recipes from the Ottolenghi cookbooks.  I haven't had much time this month to try new things in the kitchen, but I took the time to try a raw cabbage salad from the book Plenty.  I noticed the salad because it included not only cabbage (which I happened to have), but also all kinds of things that are available at my farmers' market right now (kohlrabi, alfalfa shoots, dill).  It was very good...tangy and refreshing on a hot day.  With the exception of one minor tweak, I made the recipe exactly as written.  Because I didn't really change it, I wasn't going to post it.  But then I considered the fact that it includes kohlrabi...and I changed my mind.  If you have been wondering what to do with that kohlrabi that appeared in your CSA share, you should definitely give this salad a try. 

In its cooked form, cabbage is good in the aforementioned stews and quick sautés.  But I think I like it best lightly cooked in a slight film of buttered, simmering water.  When cooked in this manner it is soft and tender...but not mushy at all.  Furthermore, it cooks quickly so it doesn't take on the strong "cabbage-y" aroma of long boiled cabbage.  It is in fact mild and sweet when treated this way.

Recently I added a few fresh peas to my cabbage as it cooked...along with some prosciutto and fresh herbs.  Cured the form of bacon and air-cured a traditional accompaniment to both cabbage and peas.  Combining them all in the same pan seemed like a no-brainer.  Served with some fresh, wild sock-eye salmon that happens to be in season at the same time as the cabbage and peas, it made a simple, subtle and utterly delicious early summer meal.  Sadly, where I live, peas are going out of season...but hopefully you have been able to freeze a few.  If not, fresh corn, cut from the cob, would make a delicious substitute.  Cabbage is definitely summer food.

Buttered Cabbage with Peas & Prosciutto

250 grams/9 oz. green/white cabbage
2 small spring onions (or scallions), white portions plus some of the green, finely sliced (to make a generous 1/3 cup)
1 1/2 to 2 T. butter, divided
1 T. picked thyme, roughly chopped
1/2 T. chiffonade fresh sage leaves
1 oz. (2 slices) thinly sliced prosciutto, cut cross-wise in 1/4-inch wide ribbons
Zest of 1/2 a small lemon (1 t.)
1/2 c. peas (thawed, if using frozen)

Halve the cabbage through the core.  Cut into manageable wedges (about 1 1/2- to 2-inches wide) to yield the weight that you need.  Return the remainder to the fridge for another use.  Cut the cores out of the wedges.  Slice the wedges cross-wise into 1/4-inch ribbons.  You should have about 200g/7 oz. of sliced cabbage.  Set aside.

Melt a tablespoon of the butter in a medium-sized wide sauté pan (with a lid) set over medium heat.  Add the spring onion along with a pinch of salt and cook 'til tender...about 5 minutes.  Add another 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of butter along with the herbs and a couple tablespoons of water and increase the heat slightly. When the butter is melted and the water is simmering, add the cabbage with a pinch of salt and toss to coat in the butter and onions.  Cover the pan, reduce the heat, and simmer gently until the cabbage is tender but still has texture—maybe 4 or 5 minutes.  Add the peas (if using fresh), prosciutto and zest.  If the pan is dry, add a splash of water.  Cover and continue and simmer until the peas and cabbage are tender (but not mushy)...another 2 to 5 minutes. 

If using frozen peas, wait to add until the cabbage is tender (adding the prosciutto and zest when the cabbage is half cooked). 

Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Serves 2

  • This recipe is easily multiplied; simply increase the size of your sauté pan as necessary so that it will accommodate the cabbage when covered. 
  • This is delicious with pan-seared wild salmon. Heat a sauté pan (large enough to comfortably hold all of the fish) over medium-high heat. While the pan is heating, season the fish on both sides with salt & pepper. Add a thin film of oil to the pan. When the oil is very hot, add the fish, skinned side up ("service side" down). Cook until golden brown and crisp—about 2 to 3 minutes, regulating the heat as necessary to prevent smoking but at the same time, maintaining an active sizzle. Turn and cook the fish (either on the stove or transferring to the oven), until barely opaque in the center—another 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the filets. Give the filets a generous squeeze of lemon juice and serve. 
  • I noticed when I linked to my post of Suzanne Goin's Cabbage with Corn and Bacon recipe that these two recipes are actually quite similar. Clearly I have absorbed her recipe into my cooking psyche! I think of this one as a softer, gentler version....and I love the all green flecked with pink...set off and echoed by the pink salmon. 

Cabbage and Kohlrabi Salad

1 medium kohlrabi (8 to 9 oz.)
1/2 white cabbage (8 to  9 oz.)
1 garlic clove
6 tablespoons lemon juice
6 heaped T. roughly chopped dill
1 cup dried tart cherries (roughly chopped if very large)
grated zest of 1 lemon
1/4 c. olive oil
2 cups alfalfa sprouts
salt and pepper to taste

Peel the kohlrabi and cut into thick matchsticks that are about 1/4 inch wide and 2 inches long. Cut the cabbage into 1/4-inch-thick strips.

Using a microplane zester, grate the garlic clove into the lemon juice and let sit for five minutes or so.

Put the cabbage, kohlrabi and lemon juice with garlic, along with all the remaining ingredients except the alfalfa sprouts, in a large mixing bowl. Using your hands, massage everything together for about a minute so the flavors mix and the lemon can soften the cabbage and cherries. Let the salad sit for about 10 minutes.

Add most of the alfalfa sprouts and mix well again with your hands. Taste and adjust the seasoning; you will need a fair amount of salt to counteract the lemon. (If the salad seems well-seasoned and it is still a bit sharp for you taste, give it a small drizzle of honey and toss again.)

Use your hands again to lift the salad out of the mixing bowl and into a serving bowl, leaving most of the juices behind. Garnish with the remaining sprouts and serve at once.  Serves 4 to 6.

(Recipe from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Salad of Late Spring Vegetables with Mint, Feta & Black Olives ...and a great Basic Vinaigrette

One day last week I joined a friend at a small bar & grill near my home for lunch.  I ordered a Reuben.  I couldn't resist.  And it was delicious.  But as is so often the case, it was very large...too large.  And even though I only ate half of it, it was just too much—so much heavier than the kinds of things I normally eat for lunch.  When the dinner hour rolled around I still wasn't very hungry.  What I really wanted was a plate of raw vegetables.

As I looked through my vegetable drawer, I realized that something fresh, light and raw was definitely within my reach.  The market this time of year is serving up young, crisp root vegetables (radishes, carrots, white top "salad" turnips), crunchy head lettuces (like iceberg and romaine)...and peas of all kinds.  As I looked at all of this bounty I remembered a salad I taught in a recent class.   The salad features shaved radishes and lightly blanched snow peas...but it's mostly an idea for how to combine and enjoy the best vegetables of late spring in their raw and lightly cooked state.  Suddenly the light and fresh meal that I craved was taking shape. 

Two things set this salad apart:  the vinaigrette...and the combination of the olives, feta and mint.  Over the past couple of weeks I have made this salad with lots of different combinations of vegetables, but always the same dressing and garnish.  It has been delicious every time. The vinaigrette is my current "house" vinaigrette.  It is from Monique Jamet Hooker's Cooking with the Seasons and is appropriately dubbed "Basic Vinaigrette."  It is tangy and flavorful, but neutral enough to go with all kinds of different ingredients and styles of salads.  You can even turn it into a creamy vinaigrette by adding some heavy cream (add a tablespoon of cream for every two tablespoons of vinaigrette).  It is a great vinaigrette to keep on hand.  It doesn't separate (the presence of the Dijon...and mixing it in a blender...contribute to a stable emulsion) and it stays liquid in the refrigerator, ready to be used without having to be set out to warm up and become liquid again.

As for the garnish, the salt in the feta and olives does a fantastic job of drawing out the flavors of each vegetable.  This is what the classic pairing of radishes with butter and salt is all about—elevating a simple raw vegetable and allowing it to shine.  Similarly, if you have never enjoyed a carrot, cut into slender sticks and accompanied by a little pile of salt in which to dip them, you should give it a try.

The mint too seems indispensable to me.  It adds the perfect cool and fresh tone to the salad.  I'm pretty sure I would miss it if it weren't there.  It does not seem like a coincidence to me that at the same time the young root vegetables and peas are thriving on the farms in my region that the mint in my garden is at its best—reveling in the cool days of spring.  Mint is a wonderful partner for the vegetables of spring.  If you don't have mint, I'm sure other soft herbs would be good too...flat leaf parsley...perhaps some dill...or basil...  But I don't think any of them would have quite the same effect as the mint.   

The manner of cutting the vegetables is important too.  Everything should be finely/thinly sliced or shaved.  The lettuces, since they are inherently thin, can be cut into a small rough chop, but I think they look pretty when shaved/thinly sliced.  Carrots, radishes, turnips and fennel should all be thinly sliced on a mandolin or the salad becomes an exercise for your jaw more than anything else.  Snap peas and snow peas benefit from a one minute blanch in boiling water.  It sets their bright green color and softens their crunch just a bit.  It would be better to eat them raw than to cook them to mush though....a minute really is sufficient.  And make sure you rinse them under cold running water or drop them in an ice bath to stop the cooking (and then spread them on towels to dry so the water clinging to them won't water down your vinaigrette).  After blanching, the peas can be added to the salad whole...or sliced on the diagonal into two or three pieces.  English peas are also pretty in this salad—tossed in raw or blanched.  I have even added asparagus...thinly sliced on a slight diagonal.  You can blanch it...or not.  Asparagus can also be shaved into long ribbons with a vegetable which case you would add it raw. 

Shredded Iceberg, radishes, sugar snap peas, asparagus, sunflower shoots and mint
I would advise against using too many different kinds of vegetables.  In addition to the lettuce, a medley of four or five (or less) seems like a nice number...each item remains identifiable in the mix.  Too much more than that and the individual interest of each one is lost.  As with the original snow pea and radish salad that inspired mine, you can dispense with the lettuce altogether (if you don't have it...or don't like it), but I find that a little adds fluff and a bit of lighter crunch in the midst of the more serious crunch of the root vegetables.  

Finally, when you are choosing your vegetables consider whether they are hot and pungent...or sweet and mild...and balance them accordingly.  I personally like a salad of at least a third...preferably half...sugar snap or snow peas.  Peas are naturally sweet...and their crunch is delicate.  The salad would seem more like a relish or root vegetable slaw without them.

I don't very often eat such a light meal for dinner, but on the evening in question—served with a bit of nice bread—it was just the thing.  It will probably be the rare occasion when this salad appears on my dinner table as anything but a side (it would be great with grilled burgers...or fish...or chicken...).  But since that first dinner, I have had it for lunch several times.   Each time the composition of vegetables and lettuces has been slightly different.  And each time it has been a delicious little celebration of the light and fresh foods that are filling my farmers' market right now. 

Salad of Late Spring Vegetables with Feta, Olives & Mint

1 lb. (trimmed weight) young spring vegetables—use a mix of three or four of the following:  radishes, carrots, fennel bulb, white top salad turnips, asparagus spears, sugar snap peas, snow peas
6 oz. (more or less) chopped or thinly shaved ice berg lettuce or romaine hearts
Salt & Pepper
1/2 c. mint chiffonade
About a half cup basic vinaigrette, plus more for drizzling
1/2 c. olives, pitted and cut into lengthwise strips
1/2 to 2/3 c. crumbled Feta

Prepare the vegetables:  For sugar snap and snow peas, remove the strings. Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil.  Add the peas and blanch until the water returns to a boil—about a minute.  Transfer the peas to a bowl of ice water.  When cold, lift out and spread on kitchen towels.  Blot dry.  They may be left as they are, but I like to cut them into 1/4-inch strips on the diagonal.

Asparagus may be cut in thin slices on a short diagonal and added raw or blanched (like the peas), or they may be shaved into long strips using a vegetable peeler and added raw.

Fennel and young root vegetables should be trimmed and sliced thinly crosswise (at a slight angle if appropriate) using a mandolin.  Peel the carrots and salad turnips first, if you like.  I would recommend peeling if the skin is especially tough or dirty.

Place the vegetables, lettuce and mint in a large bowl.  Season well with salt & pepper.  Drizzle in about a third cup of the vinaigrette.  Toss until everything is well coated...adding more vinaigrette as necessary.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  You may add the Feta and olives and toss to combine—or plate the salad (on individual plates or in a large serving bowl) by layering handfuls of salad and sprinkling of feta and olives in between the layers, finishing with a final scattering of feta and olives and a drizzle of vinaigrette, if you like.  Serve right away.  If you have not used any lettuce, the salad may be held briefly in the refrigerator before serving.  Serves 4 as a light entrée or lunch...8 as a side salad. 

  • Quantities of vinaigrette, mint, olives and Feta should be to taste.  I have given amounts only as a starting point.  You should alter to suit your preferences and your palate.
  • I think this salad is best when 1/3 to 1/2 of the vegetables are made up of sugar snap or snow peas.  As you consider the vegetables you will add, think about the character of each...whether they are hot and pungent...or sweet and mild...and balance them accordingly to obtain a pleasing whole.
  • The quantities in this recipe are easily divided for an impromptu lunch for one...or multiplied for a large party or buffet platter.  In general, the amounts given are a guideline.   You should use amounts and quantities that suit your appetite and your palate.
  • Sprouts and shoots make a delicious addition to this salad.  More substantial varieties can be tossed in with the lettuce and vegetables...more delicate ones should be scattered over the finished salad.

Basic Vinaigrette:
1 T. finely minced shallot
1 small clove of garlic, minced
1/4 c. red wine vinegar
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 T. Dijon mustard
3/4 c. oil—olive oil, or half olive oil and half vegetable oil
1 T. finely minced parsley

Place the shallot, garlic, vinegar, pepper and a half teaspoon of kosher salt in the cup of an immersion blender...or regular blender.  Let sit for five minutes.  Add the mustard. With the blender running, add the oil in a thin stream to form a thick, emulsified dressing.  Add the parsley and process briefly...or simply stir in.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Makes 1 cup vinaigrette.

The dressing keeps at least two weeks in the refrigerator.  If all olive oil is used, it will solidify under refrigeration and you will need to bring to room temperature before using.  When made with half vegetable oil it will still be pourable when cold.

Note: You may add the parsley with the Dijon...just be aware that your vinaigrette will have a pale green cast to it.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Firm Polenta with a Medley of Spring Vegetables

I love soft polenta.  I make it often during the cooler months.  It is substantial and satisfying.....a perfect accompaniment to stews, braises and hearty vegetable ragouts.  I like firm polenta too (soft polenta that has been allowed to solidify)...but it isn't something I have been in the habit of preparing for my own weeknight table.  Firm polenta requires a bit of advance planning (something I don't do a lot of for weeknight meals).  On the other hand, the fact that firm polenta must be prepared ahead makes it perfect for a formal dinner...or a private event through my chef I make it often for those kinds of occasions.

You can of course make both soft and firm at the same time—saving time and effort by preparing the foundation for a second meal while making the first.  I'm not sure why I haven't been in the habit of doing this since there is absolutely no extra effort involved in making a large batch of polenta as opposed to a small one.  It took having a rather substantial amount of extra polenta (destined to become firm for a formal dinner) to bring this rather obvious idea home to me.  Rather than throw away what wouldn't fit in the pan for my dinner, I scraped the extra into an oiled pie plate, spread it out into a thick disk and set it aside in the fridge.  As it turned out, I had enough firm polenta for two simple meals.  We enjoyed both immensely.

Because of that serendipitous extra, I have now added yet another "blank canvas"-style element (along with pasta, pizza, eggs, grain pilafs, etc.) to my rotation of weeknight meals.  It is equally delicious topped with a simple sauté of vegetables

Baked firm polenta with a sauté of  mushrooms and blanched
 asparagus with pine nuts and goat cheese
or a saucy stew-like preparation.  David Tanis even makes it into an impromptu "pizza" with melted cheese and fried sage.  The only trick is remembering to make extra whenever you make soft polenta.  And if you are person who isn't crazy about leftovers...or eating similar things two nights in a row...the firm is different enough from the soft that it won't feel like leftovers or the same thing.  In fact, you don't even have to eat it right away.  When made with water (instead of stock), firm polenta will easily keep for several days in the fridge.  We enjoyed the firm polenta so much I might even start making it occasionally just to have on hand—ready for a quick and simple meal.   

For each serving of firm polenta (depending on appetites) you will need to prepare 2 to 3 tablespoons of dry polenta—which will cook into portions of firm polenta weighing around 4 to 6 oz.  To make firm polenta, scrape the finished soft polenta into an oiled pan or plate and spread into a 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick round or oval (round if you want wedges of firm polenta...oval if you want random shapes or rectangular slabs). Then chill (cover it with plastic wrap once it's cold) until ready to use.  

To serve, use a sharp knife to cut it into portions and either pan fry it in a little olive oil or butter in a non-stick or cast iron pan...or bake it in an oiled pan (again, I like cast iron) in a hot (425° to 450°) oven.  You can also oil the polenta and grill it...which gives it a particularly nice look.  You can of course make your soft polenta plain, but you can also dress it up with a little cheese and/or some minced fresh herbs, if you like.

I served some of that first windfall of firm polenta with a medley of spring vegetables adapted from a recipe in Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Suppers.  It was so good, I made it again last week so I could share it here.   Madison serves hers on toast instead of polenta...and if you haven't had time to make polenta, I think toast would be wonderful.  I also think this particular medley would be fantastic served with fish.  Madison's medley is made with just spinach and asparagus, but I have added peas.  I love fresh peas....and they are a fantastic addition—adding sweetness and visual interest. 

The medley itself follows the simple formula I described in a post a couple of years ago.  If you like, you can follow the instructions in that post and make this medley by blanching the asparagus and peas ahead.  If you do this, make sure you save some of the blanching liquid to use when you finish the medley.  One of the things I love about this particular recipe is the pale green broth—flavored with nothing but spring onions, green garlic, the vegetables and olive oil....  It is astonishingly flavorful.

The recipe is obviously very flexible.  You can alter the combination of vegetables...and the serving much as you like.  Just adjust the size of your pan accordingly...choosing a pan that will hold all the vegetables—not including the spinach—in a snug single layer.  I have written the recipe with quantities for one (it makes a super nice solo meal).  But if there are more of you, simply multiply the quantities to suit your number...and your appetites.

The firm polenta is terrific with the delicate vegetables of this spring medley.  It absorbs the light broth...and adds substance to an otherwise light dish.  That said, I find that firm polenta is somehow less heavy than its soft counterpart...which makes it much more appealing as the weather warms up. In fact, now that I've been reminded of how good firm polenta can be, I will probably make a point to occasionally make it during the warmer months.  I'm certain it will make a fantastic partner for the vibrant vegetable sautés and sauces of summer.      


Baked Polenta with Ricotta & a Medley of Spring Vegetables

For each person you will need:

1/2 T butter
1 t. olive oil, plus more for drizzling, finishing
1 small spring onion, white portion plus some of the green, trimmed, halved and finely sliced
1 clove (or up to a whole head, if you like) of green garlic, peeled and minced
Salt & pepper
1 4 to 6 oz. wedge/slice of cold polenta (see below)
2 to 2 1/2 oz. (trimmed weight) asparagus (from about 1/4 lb. untrimmed), well rinsed and cut in 2-inch lengths on the diagonal
About 1/2 cup water
1/4 c. shelled peas
a spoonful of whole milk ricotta (about 35 to 40 g.)
10 g. finely grated pecorino (a couple tablespoons)
Pinch of nutmeg
1 1/2 to 2 oz. (two small handfuls) stemmed young spinach (well-rinsed)

Place a cast skillet in a preheated 450° oven.

Melt the butter with the olive oil in a small sauté pan set over moderate heat.  Add the spring onion and garlic, along with a pinch of salt, and gently sweat until the onion has softened (about 5 minutes.)

While the onion cooks, brush the bottom (flat surface) of the polenta with olive oil and add to the hot skillet in the oven.  Brush the top with olive oil.  Place the pan in the oven.

When the onion is soft, add the asparagus and enough water to come about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way up the sides of the asparagus (in my pan, this was about 1/4 c. water).  Season with salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally until the asparagus is about 3/4 cooked, or "tender-crisp" (about 5 minutes).  Add the peas and bring back to a simmer...continuing to cook and adding more water if the water level dips below 1/4 of the way up the sides of the vegetables.  Cook until the asparagus and peas are tender....another 3 minutes after adding the peas.  Taste and correct the seasoning.

While the vegetables simmer, mix the ricotta with the pecorino and season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

When the peas are tender, the polenta should be hot.  Remove the pan from the oven and smear the top of the polenta with the ricotta mixture.  Set aside in a warm place while you finish the vegetables.

Add the spinach to the pan of vegetables a handful at a time, turning to coat in the vegetables and broth as you do.  Cook until the spinach is collapsed (and tender)—adding more water if you would like more vegetable broth.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Stir in a drizzle of olive oil.

Transfer the ricotta-topped polenta to a serving plate and mound the vegetables on over all, allowing some to drape over the sides.  Pour any liquid remaining in the pan over and around. 

(Vegetable Medley adapted from Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison's Kitchen)

Basic Polenta

1 c. Polenta (organic stone-ground, if available)
salt & pepper
3 T. unsalted butter

Bring a large pot of water to a simmer—this water will be used in the polenta and also as a bain-marie (double boiler) over which to cook the polenta. While the water is coming to a boil, place 1 t. salt in a 1 ½-to 2-qt. stainless bowl. When the pot of water comes to a boil, measure 3 cups of the water into the bowl with the salt. Using a whisk, stir the water into a whirlpool as you slowly pour in the polenta. Keep whisking in the same direction until the polenta is completely blended in and there are no lumps. Set the bowl over the simmering pot of water. Continue to whisk every few moments until you can see that the grains of polenta have begun to absorb the water and are suspended in the liquid and no longer settling in a mass at the bottom of the bowl. This should only take a few minutes. Cover the bowl with foil, sealing the edges securely. Cook for 1 ½ hours, keeping the water at a bare simmer. Occasionally uncover and stir the polenta with a rubber spatula—adding more hot water if the polenta becomes too stiff. Reseal the foil after each stirring. When finished, the polenta should be thick, soft & smooth and have no raw taste. It may be used immediately, made into firm polenta (see below) or held for up to 4 hours over steaming water. Add more salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the butter just before serving.

To make Firm polenta, spread the finished (buttered and seasoned) polenta in an oiled dish in a 1/2 to 3/4-inch thick round or oval.  Chill until firm.  Cover with plastic wrap.  Use within a week.  Makes 6 to 8 portions firm polenta.

(Method for Basic Polenta, adapted from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper.)

Printable Recipe 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Making Friends with Angel Food Cake

I have never been much of a fan of angel food cake.  I know this will come as a shock to some...but I have always found it to be a bit too sweet.  This is of course something that can be corrected...with the accompaniment of a simple berry compote...or a tart lemon cream.  What could not—or so I thought—be mended was the rubbery, Nerf ball-like texture.  The cake always struck me as something created by someone on an ultra abstemious, fat-restricted diet—only desirable if you weren't allowed to have anything else to eat for dessert.  But even then, my preference would be for a nice bowl of fresh fruit....

But as with almost every food that I have ever come across that is beloved by many and disliked by me, I discovered that the problem was with the versions that I had tasted...not the actual food itself.  Recently I have found that angel food cake can not only be can be delectable—tender and light... and with a fleeting sweetness that dissolves so quickly in your mouth that you immediately want to take another bite.

Part of the problem with the angel food cakes usually encountered is that almost everyone uses a mix (which are pretty much awful)...or purchases a substandard bakery version (they can always be found in the prepared food sections of the grocery stores in the spring...during the height of strawberry season).  I would guess that scratch versions are rare because most people don't bake enough to have a use for a dozen or more egg yolks (angel food cake uses a lot of whites...and no yolks).  But the larger impediment probably has to do with having to beat egg whites.  Getting them just right can be a bit tricky. 

I made my first angel food cake a few years ago at the request of my mother.  She wanted one for her Mothers' Day dinner dessert.  Remembering the angel cakes of my childhood I wasn't very enthused about it, but it was for Mothers' Day....  I began as I always do by looking up a number of recipes.  Not surprisingly, I found them all to be fairly similar.  Angel food cake follows a pretty standard formula:  The weight of the sugar and whites should be equal.  And whatever the weight of these, the flour should weigh a third of that (so, in my recipe the sugar and whites are 15 oz. each, and the flour weighs 5 oz.).  Most recipes also call for cake flour (which should give a nice light, tender result), salt, cream of tartar and vanilla. 

The mixing method is always some variation of whipping the whites with all (or most) of the sugar and then folding in everything else.  You will find recipes that start with all the sugar in the bowl with the whites (this makes the process quite slow, but it also prevents over beating)...and others that use a more traditional approach of adding the sugar gradually to the whites as they are whipped.  Sometimes some of the sugar is held back and mixed with the flour and folded in at the end.  And, as you can imagine, the method you use is what makes the difference between a light, tender indifferent cake...and an awful cake.

The first few times I made what I felt were fairly indifferent cakes.  Not terrible...but nothing to get excited about either.  Since everyone is used to marginal angel cakes (or so it seems to me...), mine seemed to go over just fine.  But I still wasn't very happy with it and I continued to read up on angel food cake, altering my recipe a little bit each year.  

With strawberry-rhubarb compote

Last year I made one that pleased me very much.  I made careful notes but forgot about it until Mothers' Day rolled around again this year.  When I made it again this year, I was once again super impressed.  I wish I could point to all of the recipes that contributed to my final version...but I can't.  There were just so many, some of which I can't even locate at this point.  I do know that I relied pretty heavily on Joy of Cooking, an article in Fine Cooking by Flo Braker...and Shirley Corrhier's comments on the topic in her book Bakewise

Mostly what I discovered is that the whites need to be beaten less than you think. Most people are probably over beating the whites (I know that I was).  The wording "beat whites until stiff and glossy" (which is what you find in a lot of recipes) is misleading.  When it comes to angel food cake, stiff whites are over beaten whites.  The finished whites will indeed be glossy...and hold their shape—but they should not be so firm that you have to bang the whisk on the edge of the bowl to get it to release the whites.  They should be soft and form what I would call floppy...or droopy...peaks.  

When you lift the whisk out of the bowl, a gentle shake should release the beaten whites so that they flow easily from the whisk into the bowl.  (It is worth noting that while you will be able to turn the bowl of beaten whites upside down without having them slide out of the bowl, by the time you add the remaining ingredients, the batter will be pourable—if you have to scoop to get the final batter out of the bowl and into the pan, the whites were over whipped.)   

Flo Braker, in a very good article in Fine Cooking, makes the observation that the goal is to beat the whites to their optimal capacity...not their maximum capacity (i.e. "stiff").  When you are done whipping the whites they should still have a suppleness and elasticity to them.  If beaten to just this point—and no further—when the cake is placed in the oven and the beaten whites are subjected to heat, the bubbles formed during the whipping process will be able to continue to expand without bursting.... and will reach their maximum capacity in the oven. If they had already reached their maximum capacity while being whipped, they would still expand in the oven, eventually pop and the cake would collapse (sometimes a lot) and probably toughen. 

Much is also often made of the folding in of the dry ingredients.  The reason for this is that improper folding is inefficient and creates more opportunity for crushing the carefully prepared egg foam.  And I agree this is important...but a supple egg foam (see above) is much more forgiving than a firm and stiff egg foam.  As long as you are using a rubber spatula, whisk or mesh angel food cake folder...and are using the proper motion you should be fine. 

An "angel food cake folder"...  I don't know of any other name for this
odd looking implement.  It is probably what my great grandmother
used to make her angel food cakes.

To fold, cut down through the center of the batter with your chosen implement until you touch the bottom of the bowl.  Drag/scrape across the bottom toward yourself and continuing up the side of the bowl.  Turn the batter over on itself (toward the center—you will need to rotate your wrist and forearm to do this) as you bring your folding implement up and out of the batter.  As you are lifting the whites from the bottom and depositing them on the top, turn the bowl a quarter of a turn with the other hand.  Start the motion over again cutting down through the center.  The motion should be continuous and rhythmic....cutting down, scraping up, depositing the batter in the center and turning the bowl...and repeating until the batter is homogenous with no visible streaks of flour. (It is much easier to do than to describe....)

Finally, make sure you use a large, ungreased 10-inch tube pan for this recipe.  My recipe is very large and the cake will come all the way up to the rim of the pan while baking.  

If your pan is smaller, simply make 2/3 to 4/5 of the recipe.  As for the preparation of the is left ungreased so that the baking cake can adhere to the sides and climb to its full height.  Because the pan is ungreased, the golden brown crust will remain in the pan when the cake is tipped out—revealing the beautiful and pristine white crumb of the cake.

I'm glad that I have finally made friends with angel food cake...making them is apparently in my DNA.  I am told that my great grandmother made an angel food cake that was so good she was able to sell them to bring in a little extra money.  The story that has made it to my generation says that she used to sit on the back stairs while she whipped the whites by hand.  Amazing.  I will not be giving up my stand mixer any time soon....but now that I know how good this cake can be, I will continue the family tradition...hopefully making angel food cake more than just once a year.

Angel Food Cake

5 oz. cake flour
5 oz. powdered (also called confectioner's or icing) sugar
3/8 t. salt
15 oz. egg whites
1 3/4 t. cream of tartar
10 oz. granulated sugar
2 t. vanilla

Sift the cake flour, powdered sugar and salt together and set aside.

Place the whites in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Using the whisk attachment, run the mixer on medium low until the whites are frothy.  Add the cream of tartar.  Increase the speed to medium and beat until the bubbles are small and uniform and you can see the trace of the whisk in the egg foam (this will only take a minute or so).  Increase the speed to medium high and gradually add the sugar, beating to soft and floppy peaks (a minute or two).  DO NOT BEAT TO STIFF PEAKS...the egg foam should fall easily from the beater with a little encouragement (you shouldn't need to bang the whisk against the edge of the bowl).  Quickly add the vanilla.

Add the dry mix in three additions, sifting over the meringue and folding in.  

Pour the batter into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan (see note).  Run a palate knife through to get rid of any pockets.  If you dripped batter on the sides, run a rubber spatula around the edge of the pan.

Transfer to a 350° oven and bake until golden, cracked and springy.  A skewer will come out clean and an instant read thermometer will register 206°....about 45 minutes.  Don't start checking until the cake has been in the oven for at least 35 minutes.

Cool upside down (place the cone over a funnel...or wine bottle...or simply upside down on a rack—most pans have three handles/legs around the top edge for just this purpose) for two hours, or until completely cool.  Cooling the cake upside down will keep the egg foam bubbles fully extended as the cake cools—they will tend to want to shrink and collapse from the pull of gravity as they cool when the pan is right side up.

Remove from the pan by tilting the pan and gently rapping the bottom edge of the pan on the counter, rotating the pan as you may need to run a palate knife around the top to release the top edge first.  Release the bottom and inner column in the same way. 

Note:  Shirley Corriher in her book Bakewise suggests rinsing the pan with hot water (just pour it out...don't dry it) right before adding the batter.  She likes the way it warms up the pan...and also that it adds some steam to the baking process.  I have found that when rinsed with hot water the cake comes out of the pan a bit more easily.