Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cornmeal & Almond Pound Cake from Varese (Amor Polenta)

Last night I ended my class on Lasagne Verdi al Forno with a quick demonstration of one of my favorite cakes. If you regularly bake cakes, you will see that this one is so easy to make that it really doesn't need to be "taught" in a class setting. Because it is so simple, I have never included it as part of a class—even though I love it. But its ease of preparation made it a perfect sweet ending to this information-packed class. After two hours of the details of handmade pasta, the steps involved in the preparation of a classic ragù Bolognese and then the building of the lasagne, something simple was in order.

Like the lasagne (a classic dish from Emilia-Romagna), Amor Polenta hails from northern Italy (from Lombardy). The same cornmeal that finds its way into the polenta of northern Italy is the main player in this cake, adding an unusual and delicate crunch. On its home turf, this cake is baked in a special ridged, half-cylindrical pan. Here in the states it is most typically made in a small loaf pan. According to Carol Field the cake is eaten in Italy as a dessert—with cream poured over—but that it is probably more suited to American tastes as an accompaniment to afternoon tea or coffee. That may be, but I thought it was a perfect dessert—with berries and whipped mascarpone—for a class devoted to northern Italian food.

The original recipe for the cake I make is from a Culinary Institute of America cookbook and was given to me several years ago by my friend Molly. At the time, Molly—who is a talented and skilled baker—had been assisting with my classes for some time and had acquired a pretty good idea of the kinds of things that push my culinary buttons. She described the Amor Polenta to me one day while at work, wanting to know if I had ever heard of it. I had not. She emailed me the recipe with a short note that said "Here it is...I think you will really like it." I did. I have been making it ever since.

Over the years I have altered the balance of ingredients slightly (a little more butter...a little less flour) to achieve a cake that I find to be a bit more tender and moist. I have no idea if this takes away from the authenticity of the cake or not, but I feel my alterations are in keeping with the character of this dense and fine-crumbed little cake which is essentially just a cornmeal pound cake. This particular recipe also includes finely ground almonds (or almond flour), but I have seen versions without the almonds. Almond-less versions generally include some Amaretto, Maraschino liqueur or almond extract.

I have also changed the mixing method somewhat. The original version calls for separating eggs and beating egg whites...which forces you to use (and wash) an extra bowl. I mix this cake up using the same method I use for my pistachio cake (beating the nut flour in before the eggs to achieve and maintain maximum aeration). The resulting cake is dense like a pound cake, but because it has so little wheat flour it is very tender...almost crumbly (but not so crumbly that it doesn't slice well).

This cake makes—as Carol Field says—a fine accompaniment to tea or coffee. Whether served with an afternoon coffee break or for dessert, I particularly like to serve this cake with fresh berries. Cornmeal-based cakes and berries seem to have a special affinity for one another. When they are in season, fresh figs are a wonderful accompaniment, too (especially when combined with raspberries). But since in my house all but the sweetest cakes eventually make their way to the breakfast table, recently I have been enjoying Amor Polenta lightly toasted—alongside yogurt and fresh fruit—for breakfast.

Amor Polenta
(Sweet Cornmeal Cake from Varese)

85 g. stone ground cornmeal (2/3 c.)
60 g. cake flour (1/2 c. plus 1 T.)
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking powder
150 g. unsalted butter (2/3 c.)
175 g. granulated sugar (3/4 cup plus 2 T.)
90 g. blanched almonds, lightly toasted and finely ground (3/4 c. slivered almonds)—or use 90 g. lightly toasted almond meal (1 cup less 1 T.)—see note
1 t. vanilla
3 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat the oven to 325°. Butter a 6 cup loaf pan and line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper. Butter the parchment. Dust the pan with cornmeal and set aside.

Combine the cornmeal, cake flour, salt and baking powder in a small bowl and whisk to distribute the salt and baking powder. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar continue to beat until fluffy and white, about 5 minutes on medium-high speed.

Turning the speed down to low, add the vanilla and almonds. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture is again fluffy—another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating again on medium-high speed after each addition until the batter returns to fluffiness and scraping down the sides before each next addition.

Fold in the dry ingredients. Turn into the prepared pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes. The cake is done when it is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool the cake in the pan for 10 minutes. Run a thin spatula around the pan and unmold immediately onto a rack to cool completely. Serve the cake with whipped cream or mascarpone & fresh berries. Serves 6 to 8.

Note: To toast nuts or nut flour, spread in an even layer on a baking sheet and bake in a 350° oven until golden and fragrant—about five minutes. Cool before using. Watch carefully when toasting almond flour—it will darken and burn quickly.

Whipped Mascarpone

1 c. Heavy Cream
4 T. sugar
1 8-oz. container Mascarpone (about 1 cup)
1/4 c. freshly squeezed orange juice
1 t. vanilla

Place all of the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on a low speed until smooth and beginning to thicken. Increase the speed and whip until soft peaks form.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fresh Spinach Pasta

I had to make some fresh pasta last week while I was working on recipes for an upcoming class. It has been a while since I made pasta (there are so many interesting things to cook...) and I had forgotten what a treat good, fresh pasta can be. If you have never made fresh pasta, I encourage you to give it a try. It is surprisingly easy to make.  I have been achieving reliable results for years by using the method described by Lynne Rossetto Kasper in her book The Splendid Table.

If you do not have a copy of this book, I highly recommend getting one. It is a treasure trove of classic northern Italian cooking methods and recipes. After making polenta in a restaurant for years, I came across her very easy method and have never looked back. I had much the same experience with fresh pasta. I never realized until I read her description of the process of making fresh pasta how critical it is to thoroughly knead the dough. Well-kneaded pasta dough is firm and silky and easy to work with. Dough that has been insufficiently kneaded is floppy and soft. After being rolled out, it takes longer to dry before it can be cut, and even then the noodles tend to stick to one another. Poorly kneaded dough produces unremarkable cooked noodles, while well-kneaded dough produces a final product that is firm, yet tender—light, but with substance in the mouth.

Pasta can of course be kneaded by machine—in a stand mixer (like a Kitchen Aid) or in a food processor—with great success. But I would like to convince all of you reading this post to knead the dough by hand the first few times you make it so that you will know how the dough feels as it goes from a shaggy mess,

to a smooth, firm, satiny and elastic ball.

Machines are only helpful if your hands know what the dough should feel like when it is done. Kasper says that the final dough will "feel alive under your hands". Every time I try to shortcut the kneading process in some way, I regret it. It is well worth the extra 5 minutes it takes to achieve a beautiful elastic dough.

The temptation to use a machine to do the kneading is great—the kneading process for pasta dough is not a gentle or delicate operation. For me, it takes the strength of my upper body—rhythmically leaning into the dough as I knead—to muscle the dough into shape. Gentle, forearm-driven kneading doesn't seem to produce the desired results. As you are kneading, you might think that the dough is too dry. But I have found it almost impossible to knead too much flour into the dough. As long as you are ending up with a cohesive ball of dough, you probably don't have too much flour. After resting for 30 minutes, the dough always becomes softer—even slightly sticky.

Amazingly the dough will absorb even more flour during the stretching and thinning process.

Because I am working on a recipe for Lasagne Verdi al Forno—a classic lasagne from Emilia-Romagna that uses spinach pasta—I have been making spinach pasta. But the same method would be used to make plain egg pasta, and I have included a note at the bottom of the pasta recipe describing how to amend the recipe to make plain pasta. But you don't have to make lasagne to enjoy spinach pasta. I cut one of the batches of dough that I made into fettuccine and dressed it in a white wine cream sauce with a few sautéed mushrooms and some julienne strips of prosciutto. There are many interesting ways to dress this pasta as long as you remember to use a light hand with the sauce. Handmade, fresh pasta shouldn't be buried under an overpowering sauce. A simple veil of butter and cheese....or basil pesto (as served at La Merenda in Old Nice)....or even an Al Fredo sauce would all be excellent.

To prepare a cream sauce with mushrooms and prosciutto: Sauté four or five ounces of thinly sliced mushrooms in a tablespoon or so of butter. When the mushrooms are golden and tender, and any liquid they have given off has evaporated, season with salt and pepper and deglaze the pan with 2 or 3 tablespoons of dry white wine. Reduce the wine to a glaze.

Add a half cup of heavy cream, along with 2 or 3 thin slices of prosciutto (1 to 1 1/2 oz.) cut cross-wise into a quarter inch julienne. Bring to a simmer. Taste, correct the seasoning and set aside.

Drop a half pound (just under half of a recipe) of fresh spinach fettuccine or tagliatelle into a large pot of well-salted boiling water. Cook until the pasta is tender, but still has some bite—al dente. Watch the pasta carefully and start tasting after 30 seconds. Drain the pasta, saving some of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the pan of sauce along with a tablespoon of butter, cut into small pieces. Toss until the noodles are well-coated in the sauce. Toss in a handful of finely grated parmesan. Taste and correct the seasoning. If the sauce is too tight, add pasta water until the noodles are coated in a light, fluid sauce. Serve immediately, topped with more freshly grated Parmesan. Serves 2.

Spinach Pasta

10 oz. fresh spinach, stemmed, cooked, squeezed dry and chopped
2 Jumbo eggs, or 2 large eggs plus 1 yolk (130 grams total weight)
3 ½ c. (14 oz.) all-purpose flour

Mound the flour on a counter top and make a well in the center. Place the spinach and the eggs in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process until the spinach is very finely chopped. Transfer the spinach-egg mixture to the well

and gradually begin incorporating flour from the walls of the well into the liquid. When the walls start to collapse, begin using a bench scraper to cut the flour and liquid ingredients together. At first the dough will seem an unmanageable, shaggy mass (see picture above, in text). Begin to work the dough until you have a cohesive mass that you can knead without it sticking to your fingers. This initial formation of the dough will take about three minutes. If at the end of this time there is unincorporated flour remaining, sift it to remove any bits of dough. Set this sifted flour aside to be used for the remainder of the kneading process and wash your hands to remove any caked on bits.

Continue to knead the dough (adding flour if the dough is sticky) for 10 minutes until the dough is satiny, smooth and elastic—with no trace of stickiness. Wrap the dough in plastic and let rest for 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Alternatively, place the eggs, spinach and flour in a mixer fitted with a dough hook. On the lowest speed, combine the liquids and the flour. When the dough begins to come together, increase the speed to medium and knead for 10 minutes.

To roll out the dough using a pasta machine, work with a quarter of the dough at a time. Flatten the dough into a thick disk and flour it lightly.

Starting with the widest setting, pass the dough through the rollers six to eight times, folding it in thirds each time and turning the dough so an open end feeds into the roller.

Continue to lightly flour the dough as you work. Set the rollers at the next, narrower setting and pass the dough through twice, folding in half each time and passing through the rollers folded edge first.

Set the rollers for the next, narrower setting and pass the dough through, but do not fold it. Run the dough through at each successively narrower setting, until the desired thickness is achieved. For lasagne and filled pastas, the sheets of pasta should be sheer enough so that you can see light and shapes through it. Fettuccine and other flat ribbon pastas can be slightly thicker. Cut the finished sheet of dough into 10-inch lengths for flat ribbons and 5-inch lengths for lasagne (giving you roughly 5- by 7-inch sheets of lasagne). Let the lengths of dough dry while you roll out the remaining three pieces of dough—after about 20 minutes, the dough should feel slightly leathery (occasionally turn the dough sheets over to encourage even drying).

If you are making flat ribbon pasta, run all of the lengths of dough through the cutter attachment—or cut by hand. Fettuccine/ tagliatelle should be cut 1/4- to 3/8-inch wide.

Store the pasta spread out on lightly floured baking sheets (covered loosely with a towel if not using within an hour or two). Makes 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds.

Variation: For plain egg pasta, omit the spinach and use 4 jumbo or 5 large eggs. Simply break the eggs into the well of flour and beat with a fork before beginning the mixing process.

(Pasta recipe adapted from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Four Seasons Pasta by Janet Fletcher)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Food for March Madness

To everyone who thinks I'm going to be discussing basketball, I apologize for the misleading title of my post. The entire country may be caught up in college basketball frenzy, but I'm in the midst of an entirely different sort of March Madness. It is the annual race to get my garden in shape for the growing season ahead.

It would be nice if I had a long, cool, moist spring season to work in the garden—to remove winter mulch and leaves, cultivate the soil and lay fresh compost and mulch. But here in Kansas City, we rarely have that luxury. This year is no different.

Here is a picture of my garden eight days ago:

The temperature has been in the upper seventies for the past few days. Yesterday it was over eighty. Here is that same spot in my garden this morning:

These conditions are a bit unusual (even for Kansas City), but they have made it so the garden is screaming for my attention. So for the past few days, I have been spending as much time there as I can spare. Here are the same daffodils, later in the morning, dressed up in their skirt of new mulch:

To be honest, I wish that I could spend more time in my garden right now. Early spring is my favorite time to be in the garden. The newly thawed ground is easy to work. The trials and failures of the previous season pale in my memory as I encounter the fresh growth of the new year. The air of the early spring garden is infused with hope. So, even though I don't suddenly have extra hours in my days to devote to one more activity, I stay as long as I possibly can.

Since I have to make up the lost time somewhere, I tend to spend a lot less time preparing our evening meal (unless I'm testing a recipe). Now is a perfect time to use up a lot of the things that I squirreled away in my freezer last fall.

Tonight I pulled some braised pork and pinto beans—soft taco filling—out of the freezer. I prepared it for a large family gathering back in December and had intended to write a blog post about it at the time, but because I was busy trying to get food on the table for a larger crowd than usual, I only took one picture of the finished dish:

This recipe has been in my possession for probably twenty years and this was the first time I have ever made it. I had always intended to make it—the recipe came from someone I knew to be a very fine cook (my best friend's mother)—but for some reason it had never popped into my mind to make it when I was in a position to make casual food for a crowd. This time I happened across the recipe at just the right time.

I was very pleased with the results and will definitely make it again. It could not possibly have been easier to make. All of the ingredients are simply combined in a heavy pan and then parked in a low oven all day. That's it. It is perfect for a crowd of hungry people. The flavors are familiar and unintimidating and it makes a very large quantity of meat and beans. Even with our crowd of eleven, I sent home large containers with my brothers' families and still had some left for us. It tastes even better the next day and (as I just discovered) freezes beautifully. I should have tried it a long time ago.

Of course you've probably figured out by now that you don't have to have this in the freezer in order to enjoy it on a busy day. This Saturday, you could put it in the oven first thing, spend the entire day working in your garden, and then have it for dinner that evening...or the next. And if your March Madness is of the basketball kind—and you want to spend the weekend watching basketball with your similarly afflicted friends—you could make it to share and not miss a minute of the games.

Lynn's Mexicali Meat

A traditional filling for beef tostadas, enchiladas, burritos and tacos. Tastes even better if made a day ahead. Freezes well.

3 lb. boneless Pork Butt, trimmed of most apparent fat
1 lb. dried pinto beans—do not pre-soak
4 c. water
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1 small white onion (6 oz.), finely diced *
3/4 lb. Poblano Peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded & diced *
2 T. ground cumin *
2 T. chili powder
5 t. dried oregano
1 t. ground coriander
1 t. chipotle chili powder *
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes, with juice—broken up (I used "fire roasted")
4 t. kosher salt (or 1 T. iodized table salt)

Preheat oven to 250°F. Place all of the ingredients in a large Dutch oven (at least 5 1/2 quarts) and stir to mix well.

Cover and bake for 7 to 8 hours or until the meat and beans are tender. After 4 or 5 hours, begin to check occasionally, adding more water if the mixture is dry. When done, shred the meat (this can be done right in the pan with a couple of forks, or you may remove it to a platter to shred it). Stir to combine the shredded meat and beans. The final mixture should be the consistency of chili and beans. Allow to stand a few minutes before serving. Taste and correct the seasoning.

Serve meat with accompaniments and condiments of your choice—warm flour or corn tortillas/taco shells/chips, rice, grated cheese, chopped onions, olives, salsa, sour cream, avocado/guacamole, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, cilantro, etc. Serves a large crowd—15 to 18 or more.

* The original recipe did not include any onion. Instead of fresh poblano peppers, it called for a drained 7 oz. can of diced green chiles. Also, the original recipe used cumin seed instead of ground cumin and 1/2 to 1 t. of cayenne pepper instead of chipotle chili powder.

Printable Version

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Pasta with Sautéed Cauliflower

During the winter months, when I don't have access to my farmers' market, I usually purchase my produce while I am shopping for classes or private dinners/events (through my chef service). As I race through the produce section grabbing things on my list for work, something that looks especially nice will cross my line of vision and I'll think "I want to eat that" and then throw it in my cart. Often I have no idea what I will do with it.  But I actually think this is a good way to shop. It keeps me creative in my personal cooking and it insures that I will be cooking with the best that the commercial market has to offer. It is certainly better than going to the store with your menu planned and discovering that an item you need looks awful (or isn't there at all). 

So it was that I ended up looking at a head of cauliflower when it was time to start dinner the other night. As I considered what to do with it, I decided it would be nice sautéed and tossed with some pasta (imagine that). I had recently taught a class that included sliced and roasted cauliflower drizzled with salsa verde and was thinking that something salsa verde-like would be a great way to bring it all together...but I didn't have any parsley. I then remembered a pasta that features sautéed broccoli and cauliflower in Judy Rogers Zuni Café Cookbook. I knew I had most of the ingredients (by and large pantry staples) on hand and that it would be fine with just cauliflower.

I thought it would be a good recipe to share since making it is a great exercise in a sort of restrained type of sautéing. The cauliflower should be sautéed over a high enough heat that it is actively, but gently (Judy Rogers says "quietly"), sizzling in the oil. The high heat required for sautéing mushrooms, for example, would burn the cauliflower to a crisp before it was cooked through. Furthermore, you must pay attention to what is going on in the pan and wait to toss and stir until you can actually see the cauliflower beginning to brown around the edges...and then not toss and stir too much. Overly zealous tossing and stirring will not allow the cauliflower to'll end up with sort of a chunky, oily, soft, partial purée of cauliflower. Basically you must be engaged with what you are doing—observing and responding as you go.

Her recipe further encourages you to interact with the process of sautéing the cauliflower by adding other ingredients at appropriate intervals to obtain a specific effect. The goal is a mass of cauliflower that includes tender pieces of cauliflower and crisp chewy bits of cauliflower and capers—the whole of which is infused with the salty and aromatic flavors of garlic, fennel spice, red pepper flakes, anchovies, olives and parsley. If the small bits of cauliflower and capers were added at the beginning, they would likely they are added after the initial browning of the larger pieces of cauliflower. Finally, the garlic, spices and anchovies only need a brief cooking in the oil (at a slightly reduced temperature so the garlic won't burn) to infuse the dish with their fragrance, so they are added after the browning is accomplished and the cauliflower is mostly finished cooking. The olives and parsley (which I didn't have) are added during the last minute over the flame, since they don't need any cooking at all.

At the end of the cooking process Rogers encourages you to taste the cauliflower to make sure that all of the ingredients are in balance—that one isn't shouting louder than all of the others. This last time when I tasted the final dish, it seemed that the salty ingredients (capers, anchovies, olives) were screaming for attention. I wanted to bring out a little more sweetness. The original dish gets a bit of sweetness from the fennel spice and the crunchy toasted bread crumb topping. I had already incorporated a few pine nuts (added with the olives) which helped, but still wanted something more. I ended up adding a few dried currants which added sweetness as well as a chewy textural element. I was very pleased with this addition. At other times, you might feel that the dish needs a bit of acidity—a squeeze of lemon might bring it into balance. It may need more anchovy or fennel. The point is to taste...consider...and adjust.

As a final note, Rogers recipe calls for a 12-inch sauté pan.  What you actually need is a sauté pan with a flat cooking surface of at least 12 inches. Such a pan would be sold as a 14-inch pan—or larger—as measured from rim to rim. I used a "12-inch" pan (with a cooking surface of about 8 to 9 inches) for half of the recipe. I didn't know all of these measurement details until I got out a ruler and measured all of my pans and then checked at Chef's Catalog to see how they are labeled and sold. I didn't think about all of this when I was sautéing the cauliflower.  I just pulled out a pan to use that looked like the right size for the amount of cauliflower I was going to be sautéing (which is what you should be doing anyway). I guess I'm sharing all of this because if you went with her suggestion of a "12-inch" pan (as labeled by the manufacturer) you would be cooking in a pan that is too small and you wouldn't get caramelized cauliflower—you would get oily, steamed cauliflower. Also, Rogers suggests a temperature of medium for the sautéing. My stove doesn't have enough power to maintain the active, gentle sizzle called for at that heat...yours might not either. My stove required medium-high heat. You need to get to know your stove. As always, look to the recipe for cues about what should be going on in the pan and adjust the specifics of the recipe to obtain the desired result.

Without the pasta, this sautéed cauliflower would make a fine side dish—with some or all of the added elements. The cauliflower would also be nice dressed with just salsa verde. Either way, it would be particularly good as an accompaniment to fish or seafood. But I enjoy it most on pasta—so much that it is definitely worth going out and purchasing a nice head of cauliflower with the specific purpose in mind of making this for dinner.

Pasta with Spicy Sautéed Cauliflower

1 head of cauliflower (about 1 1/2 to 2 lbs), cored
1/2 to 3/4 c. Olive Oil
heaping T. capers, rinsed, pressed between paper towels to remove excess moisture and coarsely chopped
1 lb. Rigatoni, Penne, Fusilli, Orecchiette or Farfalle
4 to 6 anchovies, chopped
4 medium or 6 small cloves garlic, chopped
heaping ½ t. fennel seed, crushed with a mortar & pestle
1/4 t. red pepper flakes
1/3 c. coarsely chopped black olives
1/4 c. toasted pine nuts
2 T. currants, plumped and drained if very dry
Salt & Pepper, to taste
½ c. toasted breadcrumbs

Halve the cauliflower and lay each half cut side down on the cutting board. Slice each half in 1/8- to scant 1/4-inch thick slices. You will have slices of varying size cross-sections and small bits of floret when you are done.

Warm 3 to 4 T. olive oil in a large sauté pan (the pan should be large enough to hold the cauliflower in a shallow layer—if it is piled to high it will steam rather than sauté) over medium to medium-high heat. Add all the slices of cauliflower to the pan, for the moment leaving the smaller bits behind on the cutting board. The cauliflower should sizzle gently in the pan.

Allow it to cook undisturbed until the edges are beginning to brown—about 3 minutes or so. Add the capers, the remaining bits of cauliflower and a light sprinkle of salt and give the contents of the pan a toss or two (or stir and fold) to redistribute the cauliflower in the pan. If the pan seems dry, drizzle in a bit more oil. Continue to cook, tossing or stirring only as the bits and edges of the cauliflower take on color (the amount of stirring will probably less than you are inclined to do).

Meanwhile, at the point when the capers and bits of cauliflower are added to the pan, drop the pasta into a large pot of rapidly boiling, salted water. Cook until al dente.

When the cauliflower has reduced in volume by about one third, all but the stems of the cauliflower are tender, and the capers and cauliflower crumbs have become golden, chewy bits, reduce the heat and add the anchovies, garlic, fennel and pepper flakes. Toss to distribute. Drizzle in more oil if the pan seems dry. Continue to cook until fragrant (a few more minutes) then toss in the olives, pine nuts and currants. Taste and correct the seasoning—striving to achieve balance. Set aside until the pasta is ready.

When the pasta is al dente, drain, reserving some of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the sautéed cauliflower. Toss to combine, adding some of the pasta water if it seems dry, or a drizzle of oil.

Serve topped with toasted breadcrumbs if you like.   Serves 4 to 6.

Note: The original recipe doesn't include pine nuts or currants. A tablespoon of chopped Italian Flat-leaf parsley is added with the olives. Also, the original recipe uses half broccoli and half cauliflower.

(Recipe adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rogers)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pistachio Cake and an Anniversary

One year ago today I published my first blog post. I didn't know if I would like blogging, so I wasn't too sure that I would keep it going. I have found, somewhat to my surprise, that I enjoy it quite a lot. I have always been a cook who keeps pretty extensive notes of the things that I cook—how it was, how it could be better, what made it work (or not), what I served it with (and to whom) etc. etc. Blogging has given me a place to put at least some of this stuff. It has also provided great support for my classes. Furthermore, it has encouraged me in my pursuit of excellence—to keep working to make something even better when I might have otherwise been tempted to just let it be. But the thing I have loved about it the most is that it motivates me to stay inspired and to keep trying new things.

Today seems like a good time to thank some of the people who have encouraged me over this past year. Thank you Katrina (Baking and Boys) for all of your tips and pointers, for taking the time to answer all of my questions and for telling me that if I started a blog, you would read it. Thanks also to everyone who reads (dear friends as well as new acquaintances and people I have never met), to those who comment and to those who tell me in person that they love my blog. I'm so pleased that people are reading, enjoying, learning and cooking! And thanks to my good friend (he knows who he is) who harassed me until I actually started writing, insisted I start posting pictures and who threatened me with bodily harm when I recently made some noise about the possibility of quitting (blogging has also turned out to be a lot of work...).

To mark the day, I made a cake (no surprise there). Because tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day, it is a green cake. Don't worry, I have not made a cake that is dyed green. It is green because it is loaded with it is a gorgeous, natural green.

One of my all time favorite cakes is the Danish Holiday Almond Cake in Madeleine Kamman's The New Making of a Cook. There are actually many versions of this recipe floating around—I have seen one in Chez Panisse Desserts and another in Star's Desserts—but I think Madeleine's version is the best.

In the sidebar to the recipe, she mentions that there is a pistachio version of this cake in her book Madeleine Kamman's Savoie. I thought I remembered Madeleine saying that that particular book was one of her favorites, so a couple of years ago, I picked up a copy—when a cookbook author tells you which of their books they like the best, you pay attention. But what I really wanted when I bought the book was to taste the pistachio version of the almond cake.

Madeleine uses an unusual mixing method for the pistachio version of the cake that is quite different from the method she uses for the original Danish Holiday Almond cake.  I have used a mixing method for the pistachio version that is closer to what she uses for the original almond cake.

In the almond version of the cake, finely grated almond paste is creamed with the butter and sugar until the whole mixture is very light and fluffy. The pistachio version doesn't use almond paste—it uses half ground almonds and half ground pistachios plus additional sugar to make up for the sugar lost when almond paste is replaced with ground nuts. It made sense to me to cream the nuts into the butter-sugar mixture (as with the almond paste version).  Since nuts don't contain gluten, continued mixing after they have been added won't toughen the cake.  For people who are used to making cakes with ground nuts (or "nut flours") this method will seem a bit strange since nut flours are usually folded in at the end with the regular flour.  Because this early addition of nuts adds bulk to the butter-sugar mixture, I think it helps the eggs emulsify into the creamed butter and sugar mixture more easily (without curdling). This in turn gives the final cake a finer, lighter and more even crumb.

I can't say enough good things about this cake. It is so moist that it is good without any frosting at all. It is also very good when simply garnished with a dollop of whipped cream and some berries. If you love the combination of chocolate and pistachio together (I do), it can be frosted with a dark chocolate ganache.

When I made this cake for my book group a year ago, I served it that way, with a small scoop of honey-orange ice cream alongside. I also think it would be good with a simple vanilla buttercream or some cream cheese frosting.

No matter how you choose to frost or garnish this cake, be warned that it is decadently rich and should be served in small portions. Your guests may look at the tiny sliver that you serve them and wonder what possessed you to give them such a paltry slice. But the smaller slice will encourage them to savor every bite. And when they are finished, they will be well satisfied.

Pistachio Cake

80 g. cake flour
1/8 t. salt
1/2 t. baking powder
180 g. unsalted butter
225 g. granulated sugar
85 g. blanched almonds, lightly toasted and finely ground (see note)
90 g. shelled pistachios, lightly toasted and finely ground (see note)
1 tsp. vanilla
4 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat the oven to 325°. Butter a 9- by 2-inch round cake pan and line with a round of parchment. Butter the parchment. Dust the pan with cake flour and knock out the excess.

Combine the cake flour, salt and baking powder in a small bowl and whisk to distribute the salt and baking powder. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar continue to beat until fluffy and white again, 2 to 3 minutes on medium-high speed.

Turning the speed down to low, add the vanilla and nut flours. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture is again fluffy—another three minutes or so.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating again on medium-high speed after each addition until the batter returns to fluffiness and scraping down the sides before each next addition.

Finally, sift the dry ingredients directly over the batter and fold in. Turn into the prepared pan

and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. The cake is done when it is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Unmold immediately onto a plate (not onto a rack—which will leave a permanent imprint on the top of the cake). Invert onto a rack to let the cake cool right side up. Cool completely.

The cake may be frosted or simply dusted with powdered sugar and served plain, with whipped cream or with berries. Serves 12 to 16.

(Recipe adapted from The New Making of a Cook and Madeleine Kamman's Savoie, both by Madeleine Kamman)

Note: You can of course purchase nut flours instead of whole nuts. Use the same weight as you would use of nuts. Just as with the whole nuts, the nut flour may be spread on a baking sheet and lightly toasted. I grind whole nuts to a flour with a mircroplane rotary grater fitted with the fine drum. This grater is of course wonderful for hard cheeses, but I use mine almost exclusively for nuts.