Sunday, February 14, 2016

Buttermilk Cake with Ricotta-Marscapone Frosting and Cherries

This cake (staying cool outside on the snowy deck) has tangy vanilla buttermilk cake, creamy-but-not-quite-sweet frosting with ricotta, lemon, honey, marscapone and Greek yogurt, and a crowing pile of juicy red cherries. It's a combination made in heaven.
Historically, I haven't been much of a baker or a dessert enthusiast--I've never had much taste for sweets, and baking requires a far more meticulous eye for directions than my natural cooking disposition allows for. Even when I am baking, I never measure baking power, salt, vanilla, etc. Hence, about half my sweet baking projects turn out horrible, fueling my anti-baking cycle. 
But occasionally--and apparently especially when pregnant--I get the urge to bake. In the last few weekends, I've made a new dessert each Saturday afternoon. One was smittenkitchen's Blood Orange, Almond, and Ricotta Cake, (but I used mixed citrus--grapefruit, lime, and orange). To go with this, I made a barely-sweet marscapone and Greek yogurt "whip cream", which had honey, lemon zest and juice, and vanilla. 

This was for my brother-in-law's engagement party, and the cake both looked pretty and tasted delicious. The tangy cream on the side really sent it over the edge--and ALSO started me on the kick of making creamy marscapone-and-ricotta baked goods, leading eventually to the fabulous buttermilk cherry cake. 
Next I made some homemade cherry Danishes. This also led to the invention of the frozen-dried-jam cherry sauce for the cake. The recipe, which I came across in a New York Times "What to Cook This Week" column, appealed to me because I'd never made Danish before, and because it looked like the sort of engrossing, complicated kitchen project I was in the mood for. Putzing around in the kitchen, completing hours-long cooking projects while listening to music or podcasts--this has been one of my favorite weekend pastimes. And I have a feeling experimental, all-day cooking is going to shortly take a backseat to my new hobby of baby-death prevention. So I have been wanting to enjoy it while I can. 

The Danishes came out really yummy, but honestly weren't worth the work. All the flavor came from the cheese and cherries--the yeast-butter dough, though interesting, wasn't especially fabulous. You could put the cheese-cherry combo on any number of other, far-easier bases. But if you want to try baking your own Danish from scratch, here is the recipe
Anyway--to the cake!
I must say this is up there with the best cakes I've even made. Even better, maybe, than that amazing coconut layer cake I made a couple summers ago. It was so, so, so good.
The buttermilk cake was the perfect base--and the tangy, not-quite-sweet, complex frosting--made with whipped cream, marscapone, ricotta, Greek yogurt, honey, lemon, and vanilla--was the perfect foil for the very sweet, very over-the-top-CHERRY-NESS of the cherry "sauce". This cherry sauce is my own invention and I think it's brilliant--and its formula can be applied to a ton of different fruits. What you do is take a bag of frozen cherries, a bag of dried cherries, a small jar of cherry jam, and an envelope of powdered flavorless gelatin, then boil everything together for a couple of minutes. The liquid from the frozen cherries and melted jam re hydrate the dried cherries, and the gelatin thickens it into the perfect saucy-but-not-runny consistency (the pectin from the jam contributes, too). It would work with apricots, pineapple, blueberries--anything. It makes a sweet, concentrated sauce that screams the flavor of the fruit. ULTIMATE CHERRY GOODNESS. Way, way better than any cherry pie filling I've ever tried. 
So! To the cake! You need 3 separate recipes, which you then assemble into the cake. 

Recipe for the Cake
This will make two 9-inch cake pans. You can make a layer cake, like I did this time, or two single cakes (this might be excellent if you are using fresh fruit in the summertime--two cakes piled with different fresh fruit). 
Note--the original recipe calls for 1 1/3 cup of sugar--I cut this to 3/4 cups (ish--didn't measure) because I wanted a distinct contrast between the less sweet, tangy cake and the sugar-cherry crush of the sauce. 

  • 2  cups cake flour
  •  Vegetable oil for greasing pans
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 6 ounces butter
  • 3/4  cups sugar
  • 1 cup buttermilk

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch cake pans and set aside. Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs and vanilla.
  2. Using a mixer on medium speed, beat the butter until creamy. Over the course of 3 minutes, beat in the sugar. Over 2 minutes, add the egg mixture. Reduce the speed to low and alternate adding the flour and buttermilk in three parts, scraping the bowl.
  3. Divide the batter between the pans and smooth the tops. Bake until light golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes, then unmold onto a rack to cool completely before frosting

Recipe for the Marscapone-Ricotta Frosting 

1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 8 oz container marscapone cheese 
3 / 4 cup Greek yogurt 
3 / 4 cup whole milk ricotta
2 or 3 tablespoons honey 
1 tablespoon vanilla extract 
juice and zest of one lemon

What to do 
Put the cup of whipping cream into the bowl of  a stand mixer (you could also certainly use a hand mixer for this) and, using the whisk attachment, whip the cream into nice, fluffy whipped cream with soft peaks. Add the remaining ingredients and whip together on high speed for a minute or two. Taste for sweetness--remember that you don't want it too sweet. 
Place into the fridge until the cakes and cherries are cooled and ready to assemble. This should be chilled when spreading on. 

Recipe for the Cherry Topping

1 bag frozen cherries
1 bag dried cherries
1 12 oz jar of cherry preserves 
1 envelope unflavored gelatin

What to do
Place the frozen cherries, dried cherries, and cherry jam in a sauce pan and heat over medium until boiling. Make sure to stir regularly. After it boils, turn the heat off and sprinkle the envelope of gelatin over the top, then mix everything together vigorously. Allow to come to room temperature or cooler--don't put cherries onto cake warm, or they'll melt the frosting. 

How to assemble the cake! 

When cake and cherries are completely cooled, you're ready to assemble! You can make two single-layer cakes, or one double-layer. Place one layer on your cake plate. Using your spatula, blob a big pile of frosting onto the middle of the cake, then smooth it across. Take another scoop and smooth it along the sides. Stack the other cake on top and repeat. Use all the frosting! You want it nice and thick, especially on top and in the middle labor.
Once frosted, pile the cherries onto the middle of the top. Don't worry if some juice drips along the sides. 

Cake after being cut to celebrate the Denver Superbowl win. Utterly delicious. 

This cake is utterly, completely delicious. Among the better desserts I've made.  This would make an incredible dessert for a special occasion.
Or--just make it because you feel like it!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

All Day Meat Ragu

Heavenly meat sauce.
Every carnivore ought to have a phenomenally impressive meat sauce at the ready.  This is one of those "recipes" you don't need a recipe for. It's a formula, and can be adjusted several ways--and exact proportions are unimportant. And it is perfect and delicious every single time. You cannot mess this up.
This ragu is a hearty, richly-flavored and intense tomato meat sauce, perfect for the snowy winter weather we're having in Denver now. Incredibly rich, complex and satisfying, it is an impressive and welcoming dish for a dinner party, or you can keep it in the fridge and eat it gradually over the course of a mid-winter week. It reheats excellently and gets better over time.
It is just incredibly delicious. And, though it takes at least several hours to complete, most of that is braising time--it's really an easy recipe.
And this can be varied in a number of ways. I've made it with half of a bone-in leg of lamb, with a skinless pork butt, with short ribs, or with a beef chuck roast (the cheapest way! and always phenomenal tasting). Below is the beef chuck version, which is fabulous--but all of these are excellent. Depends what you have on hand and are in the mood for.
This recipe makes a full pot of sauce in my 6 quart dutch oven--this is enough for more than a dozen hearty eaters.

Ingredients (in order of use) 
1 beef chuck roast (3 ish pounds)
olive oil
6 or so strips of bacon (I like a smokey, thick-cut kind)
3 white onions, diced small
1 bottle of red wine
5 16 oz cans of tomatoes (I usually use 3 cans of crushed and two of diced)
2 or 3 raw beef soup bones OR a raw pork hock (these are usually quite cheaply available in the meat section of any grocery store)
2 heads of garlic, minced
Linguine with beef ragu, topped with herby ricotta. 
I like to start this the day before I want to eat it--but you could also start it in the morning and plan to have it for dinner. The flavor deepens as it sits.
First, take out your large, lidded pot and pour in a few glugs of olive oil. Unwrap your chuck roast and pat dry with paper towels. Generously season the roast with salt and pepper, then dust it with flour (2 or 3 tablespoons should suffice). Turn the heat on under the pot--when the oil shimmers, brown the roast on all sides--a few minutes per side should be fine. Remove the browned roast and place it on a plate.
Dice up your bacon and add it to the pot. Let it cook for a couple of minutes, until a good amount of the fat has rendered but isn't entirely crisp. Then, add the onions. Cook for 10 minutes or so, stirring every so often. These should get translucent and take on a little color, but not caramelize much.
Add the bottle of wine. Dump in the whole thing, unless you happen NOT to be pregnant, in which case you can pour yourself a glass to enjoy while you finish cooking, then dump in the rest of the bottle. In my chunky sober case, the whole bottle went in. Sadness. Only a few more months.
As the wine boils, scrape the bottom of the pot. Allow the wine to boil and reduce for a few minutes. Add your canned tomatoes. Sprinkle a tablespoon or so of sugar on top--this eliminates the tinny metallic taste from the canned tomatoes.Make sure there remains a few inches of space at the top of the pot--you need room for your roast and the soup bones. Mix the tomatoes and wine together and bring to a boil.
Add the beef roast and the soup bones. Submerge them in the sauce. (The bones--or pork hock--add collagen to the sauce as they cook--this results in a silky richness and a depth of flavor the sauce would otherwise lack. If you are using meat that includes bone--shortribs or a leg of lamb--it's not necessary to add bones to the braise).
Turn your oven on to 300 degrees. Cover the pot and place it in the oven. Then, walk away for four hours.
After four hours have elapsed, turn off the heat, and remove the pot and leave it covered. Allow the sauce to cool completely (I just turn the oven off, and leave the sauce pot in there overnight). When the sauce is cool, skim any grease you can off the top and throw is out. Remove the soup bones and toss them (or give them to your dogs). Remove the roast and shred the meat, using forks or your fingers. Add it back to the pot, mix well. Taste for salt--you may want to add a few teaspoons more. Viola! The sauce will be deep red, meaty, and utterly delicious.
Serve over a pasta with some traction--I like rigatoni, or spirals, or linguine.
To make herby ricotta--chop up a bunch of parsley and a bunch of basil--mix with whole milk ricotta. Place a dollop on each plate of pasta and sauce.

I cannot recommend this enough. It's absolutely delicious. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Duck Liver Pate

Summer of 2015 was one for the record books!
This summer, Adam and I spent a few weeks biking through France, reveling in the glory of our double-income, no kids existence. The trip was gorgeous and magical and perfect, and the best thing I ate the whole time was an entirely fabulous, delectable mousse de canard (duck mousse), bought in a small town we were biking through in Champagne, made by a shop / person called Pate Johny. Pate Johny himself was a tall, hairy fat man and his shop was full of terrines, pates, sausages, meat-mousses, rolls of boneless ducks, and marinating chops. We bought a sausage and some duck mousse for lunch. And the mousse was honestly among the very most delicious things I have ever eaten in my life. It was a pink square, sliced out of a ceramic terrine, with a bright yellow layer of schmaltz sealing the top. We stopped to eat this under a tree before biking back to Epernay to drink champagne. It was among the best days of my whole life.
That magical mousse de canard from Pate Johny. The smaltz got a bit melted as it sat in our pannier bags on teh pre-lunch ride. 

Another picnic on the trip, between Champagne and Burgundy. Champagne, bread, organ meats and cheese at the edge of a vineyard. Heaven. 
I ordered mousse de canard half a dozen more times in France, and each time it was just as luscious. But, the only time I saw it sealed with fat was in Champagne--everywhere else, it was sealed with a thin, salty-meaty sheet of dark brown aspic, which tasted as though it'd been made from duck bones. The sealing layer on the mousse serves to prevent the liver from turning an unattractive gray from contact with oxygen.
As soon as I got back to Denver, I became obsessed with the quest to recreate this myself. I learned that the traditional mousses I had in France are emulsified mixtures of duck liver, pork fat, egg yolks, cream, salt and spices, and brandy. Everything is blended or whipped together, then cooked gently in a terrine sitting in a water bath until it sets.
Well, this preparation--gorgeous and traditional as it was, seemed pretty difficult. I decided, instead of duck liver mousse, to make duck liver pate, using Jacque Pepin's simple Chicken Liver Pate recipe as the base. Whereas a mousse is emulsified and cooked, a pate is merely cooked, blended, and chilled--much easier.
Pro tip for Denver people--you can often find duck livers at Oliver's Meat Marker, sold in 1 pound tubs in the frozen section. This is also the best butcher's in town. And, Denver people, do you want to eat duck liver mousse but don't feel like cooking any? There is a fabulous version at Argyll on 17th. Really, really good.
Or you can make it yourself! It's really not a tough project at all.
Because the livers come in 1 pound tubs, I made a recipe using 1 lb of them.
1 pound of duck lives, defrosted, patted dry, with the whitish, cartilege-looking membrane thingys cut off
2 sticks unsalted butter
4 tablespoons duck fat, plus 2 more for the fat seal*
2 egg yolks
1 large or 2 small shallot(s), chopped
4 cloves of garlic (fine to leave these whole)
black pepper
1/2 teaspoon of thyme leaves (dried or fresh is fine)
very scant shake of clove
very scant shake of allspice
2 tablespoons brandy

What To Do
Melt one stick of the butter in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the shallot and garlic and saute for a couple minutes until softened.
Toss the livers into the pan and cook on both sides, but gently. Cook for a minute, then toss, cook for a minute, toss, cook for a minute, toss. Turn off heat and allow the livers to sit in the hot pan for another minute--you want them cooked, but still pink on the inside.
Put the hot livers and everything in the pan (aromatics, butter, everything) into a blender. Add the two egg yolks and begin blending on high. The heat from the livers and butter will gently cook the egg as it blends.
As it blends, add a shake of salt, a shake of black pepper, the thyme leaves, the pinch of clove and allspice, the brandy. It should be blending this whole time. Then, add the remaining butter a tablespoon at a time by dropping it into the top of the blender. Add the 4 tablespoons of duck fat.
Overall, this should be blending for at least five minutes. You want it very very smooth. Blend longer if there are any traces of chunks.
Pour the mixture into ramekins or shallow jars (mine made enough for 2 ramekins, two small jam jars and one medium jam jar).
Then, melt the remaining two tablespoons of duck fat (butter is fine too) in a pan. Very gently and carefully, pour the thinnest possible layer over the top of the pates. Pour gently so it disturbs the tops of the pate as little as possible.
Cover with lids or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours before serving. Serve with toasted bread, and, if you have it, spiced onion jam (will provide recipe for this sometime soon).

Honestly, this was FABULOUS. Several people who had never eaten liver before raved about it. I served some as an appetizer for a dinner party and it was inhaled. This recipe is is infinitely more delicious than the same one made with chicken livers. It's not as bright a pink as the ones I had in France, but the flavor is spot-on. Really, really lovely and delectable. Makes a gorgeous lunch spread on a toasted baguette with a side salad and a glass of white wine. Or a first course for a dinner party (maybe followed by some legs of duck confit and potatoes?) Or snack to have out over cocktails during the holidays. Serve with toasted baguettes, and maybe some small pickles. If you can make some spiced onion jam to go with, do it.

This pate is just really, really killer. And NOBODY makes this sort of thing at home! It's so easy and so delicious--there is no reason not to.



Well, shortly after Adam and I returned from our fabulous double-income no-kids summer of wine and organ meats, we brought this stage of life to an end, for reasons not entirely clear to either of us, still. Why did we decide to have a kid? Were we sick of free time and extra income? Did we begin to hate sipping scotch and reading after work in perfect peace and quiet? Did I think to myself, why have a nice ski season this winter when, instead, I can get massively fat?
No, not exactly. I am trying to remember our reasons. Mostly, I had a feeling I might regret not having had children later, if I didn't do it now--and Adam thinks babies are cute because they have jowls. That was basically the math.
So we kind of shrugged and were like, "okay, let's try." And, aided by the powers of my meaty-titted Catholic bloodline, I was pregnant shortly thereafter. We are expecting a baby boy in May!

And then I could not stand the sight or smell of duck pate. I made about 3 containers from this recipe. Did Adam eat the other ones? Did he toss them when he generously gave the fridge a deep cleaning because I thought it smelled weird? Cannot remember.
Duck pate is not a foodstuff that agrees with the first trimester of pregnancy.

*Don't have duck fat? Two options. Option 1, you can make some. Get yourself down to the Asian supermarket and purchase a few packages of duck legs. These are available inexpensively from Pacific Ocean Market, if you're in Denver. Make a recipe of cheater's duck confit, and enjoy it for a luxurious dinner, while saving the fat for this recipe and general cooking enhancement (cook potatoes in it, yummmm) Option 2: Use more butter instead.