Monday, January 25, 2010

Martha's Never Coming to Dinner.

January 16th
Some recipes utilize ingredients we are likely to have on-hand and therefore get made regularly. For me this is cornbread, which takes 10 minutes to make and tastes oh-so-good with anything; I say hello to fresh batches of cornbread more often than I say hi to many of my friends (which is regrettable and purely geographic, however. I do love my friends more than cornbread).

Then there are the recipes you've always looked at, salivated over, and imagined making yet never have. These are Occasion Recipes, far too elaborate to be made on just any day and which have only ever seemed appropriate to make if Martha Stewart called to say she was coming to dinner.

For me, one such recipe is found within the pages of the Rebar Cookbook, a fantastic compilation of best-loved dishes from the Rebar restaurant in Victoria, BC. Along with many other great eats, the authors share the secrets to their chocolate cake, an imposing tower of deliciousness cut into large wedges and served up daily. Trust me, as soon as my friend Lindsay and I discovered this, the best chocolate cake we had ever had, a good many of those wedges were sent in our direction during our University of Victoria years.

I have since moved from Victoria and miss the cake sorely (though Lindsay more, of course), yet keep the recipe tucked away with the rest of my Martha's-coming-to-dinner projects. Several days ago I decided, enough. I am tired of waiting for Martha. Truth be told, she may never come. I am going to make an occasion and make this cake, darnit.

The occasion? This Friday. It's January 22nd......the fourth Friday of 2010......and therefore this decade, which is remarkable, really.......not to mention that there has never before been a January 22nd, 2010, nor will there ever be one again. When you think about it, it's a pretty big deal. How will you be celebrating?

January 26th
I wrote that ten days ago. You may wonder, was the National Lindsay Makes a Cake Day a success? It was. It totally, chocolately was.

I invited two friends over for dinner, though that really took a backseat to dessert and involved strategizing over which pre-cake-eating foods would be best. This turned out to be chicken, roasted squash, beet and apple salad, and organic sourdough. Did the trick. But it was about the cake, the cake people, which was dark, rich, smooth, and sat-is-fy-ing.

After several previous layered cake attempts, none of which had turned out like the picture in my mind, I finally had success with the Rebar chocolate cake, and I'll share the reasons for this with the recipe. Come up with your own excuse to make this or any other recipe you've been wanting to try. Life's too short to wait for Martha, plus she probably wouldn't eat much anyway.

How about celebrating the fact that Saturday only comes once every seven days? National Saturday Day deserves a treat, so get on it.

Rebar Chocolate Cake

1 ½ cups light brown sugar
1 ½ cups unbleached flour
½ cup Dutch process cocoa
1 ½ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
¾ cup strong coffee
¾ cup buttermilk
1/3 cup + 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 eggs (1 whole egg + 1 egg yolk)
1 tsp vanilla

Cake Filling
5 oz (150g) milk chocolate (fair trade chocolate, preferably, for a cake with a conscience)
5 oz (150g) dark chocolate
½ lb (225g) unsalted butter, softened
¼ lb (112g) cream cheese, spreadable (about half of a normal sized container of Philly)
1 tsp vanilla

½ cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
5 oz (150g) semi-sweet chocolate

1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degree F. Prepare three 8” cake pans with oiled parchment paper cut to fit the bottom of the pans. Set aside.

2. Combine the sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, soda, and salt in the bowl of a mixer and whisk on low to combine, making sure it's lump free (or just use a whisk). Add the coffee, buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla and mix on medium-low for 2 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides. The batter will be pourable.

3. Divide the batter among the prepared pans and bake for 15 minutes, until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Let the cakes cool completely before removing them from the pans and cool completely on a wire rack. Remove parchment papers before assembling.*

4. Next, prepare the cake filling. Melt the milk and dark chocolates in a double boiler and stir until smooth. Cool 10 minutes. Cream together the butter, cream cheese and vanilla. Mix the cooled chocolate into the creamed mixture. Next, prepare the ganache by heating the cream and butter to just before the scalding point (just below the boiling point). Pour the cream over the chopped chocolate and let rest for 3 minutes, then whisk gently (to avoid incorporating air) until melted and smooth. Cool slightly.

5. To assemble the cake, place one of the cake layers on a cooling rack with a large baking sheet underneath to catch drips. Evenly spread almost half of the filling over the layer, then position a second layer on top. Save a small amount to thinly spread over the top and to fill in the sides to make it smooth.** Position the top cake layer over the filling. Chill 10 minutes. Next, slowly pour the warm ganache over the entire cake while carefully spreading it with a large metal icing spatula to make a smooth surface. Carefully transfer the cake to a plate and into the fridge to set. Bring to room temperature before serving.

*I made the three cakes on Thursday, then the next day made the filling and ganache and assembled it all. The cake was easier to work with cold and, in my opinion, gets more delicious after sitting well wrapped in the fridge for 24 hours.

**Cakes never bake with sides that meet the top at perfect right angles. This means there are always gaps between the layers which have to be filled in, or else the sides of the cake will look rippled. You can horizontally slice the uneven parts off the top, but then you end up losing half the cake. Instead, with the metal spatula I spread a thin layer of filling over the whole thing, then filled a plastic baggie with more filling and snipped off a corner to make an icing bag. I used the tip to completely fill in the gaps, then re-spread the whole thing with the spatula so I had entirely smooth sides before pouring over the ganache.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On Apple Dumplings, Fresh Pasta, and Confidence.

I do not, to my knowledge, have a drop of Italian blood in me. My dark hair and love of Italian food, however, would have you thinking otherwise. While in Tuscany last fall I ate plate after plate of delicious pasta, and even had the chance to assist my friend Michele, a chef, while he taught a small group of Americans how to make pasta fresca. The fresh stuff is good, so very
good, and when I returned to Canada I added MAKE FRESH PASTA to my list of January to-do's. I am a big fan of lists, by the way.

I had everything I needed to get started: a free afternoon, some confidence from my cooking lesson, eggs, flour, semolina, salt, and a second-hand pasta machine gifted to me several years ago by a friend's mom. There was one rather important thing missing, however - the pasta machine's handle, without which it has no purpose.

If you've ever wondered what brings together a daughter who loves cooking and a father who loves power tools, the answer is a crank-less pasta machine. My dad took one look at it and exclaimed “I've got just the thing!” and came back holding his DeWalt XRP 18 volt cordless power-drill. With the drill-bit inserted into the hole and turned on, the pasta rollers sprang to life, not only capable of rolling out sheets of pasta but now with a variety of rolling speeds. What a guy.

I first made a semolina dough, which nearly broke my wrists while kneading; I had added too much flour in this dry climate of northern B.C. and worried it would be too tough to roll out. Confidence dashed and doubt creeping in, I began to recall my numerous culinary adventures which had ended poorly. Take for instance the time I was eight, and after watching The Apple Dumpling Gang attempted to make dumplings. The result was a solid disc of dough, simultaneously tough and gooey. It wasn't inedible, because I stubbornly ate it on the way to dance class so as not to admit total defeat; the point is, though, that such disappointments stay with a person, resurfacing years later when they are getting their butt-kicked by semolina dough and make it hard to stay positive.

I let this first batch rest on the counter and decided to make some backup dough to ease my fears about the first one not working. This time I used a basic egg and flour recipe which proved far friendlier to knead. I set this on the counter next to the mounds of semolina and realized I now had about enough dough to feed ten families. If that's not Italian, then tell me what is.

A half hour later I called in The Dad and The Drill to help me roll; after a few practise runs we perfected our system, and an hour later we had two big cookie sheets full of thin, flour-dusted noodles. In the case of Semolina Dough vs Lindsay, I'm happy to report that I won. It wasn't as easy to work with as the second batch, but it rolled out just fine thanks to the drill.

On the advice of my chef-friend Michele, we let the covered noodles dry out for 24 hours before cooking them up and tossing them with fresh pesto the next evening. My confidence soared when I realized that just as it had been in Italy, this fresh pasta was very very good. The noodles were thinner than store-bought pasta and yet held more bite, each one glowing with olive oil and wrapped up happily in the bed of my spoon.

I have compiled the three main things I learned from this kitchen adventure into – you guessed it – a list!

1. To not let small or monumental failures keep me from cooking (I have many more stories on this topic to share, just ask).

2. That I am continually amazed at how gloriously delicious eggs, flour, and salt can be when mixed up and rolled out. And finally,

3. That power tools do have a place in the kitchen. Get yourself a DeWalt.

Fresh Egg Pasta (from the Williams-Sonoma Pasta book, bowl method)

2 1/2 c. unbleached flour, plus extra for dusting
4 large eggs (preferably free-range)
2 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil

Put 2 cups of the flour into a large bowl and make a well in the center. Crack eggs into a separate container, ensuring no shell fragments fall in. Add the 2 tsp of oil to the eggs, and carefully pour the eggs and oil into the flour well. Working gently with a fork, beat the eggs and olive oil in the well, slowly incorporating the flour a bit at a time into the mix. Continue stirring with the fork, letting the flour be incorporated evenly from all sides, until all the flour has been moistened and you can no longer stir the dough with a fork.

Turn the dough out onto a floured counter surface and use your hands to knead it into a smooth dough. To knead: with the heel of your hand, push the ball of dough away from you. Lift it from the far side with your fingers and fold it back to you. Rotate the dough a quarter turn and repeat. After kneading the dough should be soft, smooth and moist but not sticky; if it is sticky, add remaining flour one tablespoon at a time until no longer sticky. Add as a little extra flour as possible or the dough will become tough. Cover the dough and leave it to rest for 30-45 minutes at room temperature. This allows the gluten in the flour to relax and makes it much easier to roll out.

Roll out as thinly as possible, preferably with a pasta machine, and dusting with flour frequently. Cut the sheets of pasta into noodles with a knife or the pasta machine, and dust lightly with flour before laying out and covering with a tea towel. Let sit covered for 24 hours, preferably, but they can be eaten now also.

To cook, boil a pot of salted water with 1 tablespoon of olive oil added. When boiling, add noodles, stir, and turn down element slightly. Cook only 1-3 minutes; after 1 minute, remove a noodle and test to see if it is done. When al dente, drain and toss immediately with sauce, reserving some of the cooking water to add to the mix if it needs some extra moisture for tossing. Makes about 1 lb of noodles.

Buon Appetito!