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When the cabinet calls

I have a problem, and it’s sitting in my kitchen cabinet. It crouches in the corner like a jack-in-the-box. It’s packed like gunpowder ready to explode. It’s a many-headed monster, cold and heavy, lying in wait. It, dear reader, is eleven jars of jam.

So much sugared, syrupy fruit should have me ecstatic, I know, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a certain amount of excitement each time I open the cabinet door. There they are: nearly a dozen jewel-toned jars, shimmering with promise and ready to spread. I reach for one. I turn it over in my hand, admiring its heft and viscosity. I test the lid, making sure that the seal is secure. And then, with a sigh, I put it back on the shelf. I love jam—the concept of it, the process of making it, the mere fact of its existence, not to mention its flavor—but I never seem to actually eat it. Apparently, I collect it. I guess it’s more my style than stamps, or PEZ dispensers.

But nonetheless, it’s getting obscene, if not a bit ominous. Being the somewhat anti-waste woman that I am, I can’t help but hear a call—or, rather, a roar from the back of the cabinet—to do something with the stuff. To hoard so many calories really can’t be okay, especially when I could eat them instead. Toast would be a good start, but sadly, I prefer a glob of salty butter to any number of jams, jellies, and preserves. PB & J would be fine, too, but I like peanut butter plain much better. I could make a batch of Linzer cookies, I guess, but they say Christmas to me, not late March. And really, when dealing with this quantity of concentrated fruit, I think it best to cut straight to the chase, and just spoon a half-cup or so on top of a cake.

I’ve been a fan of cake-jam pairings for a little while now, since a recipe by Flo Braker taught me that jam belongs not only on bread, but also on a simple, buttery cake. Her method calls for a cake sandwich of sorts, with a slathering of jam in the middle and a doily of powdered sugar on top. It’s hard to argue with near-perfection, but this time, I wanted something even simpler. And turning from the pantry to my pile of cookbooks, I found just the thing: a cornmeal cake, already book-marked and waiting, no doubt, for a warm, jammy sauce and a crooked cap of whipped cream.

I can think of many worse ways to solve a problem than with a plate of this cake: sweet, tender, freckled with nubs of cornmeal and shards of lemon zest, and fitted with a lacy, delicately crunchy collar. When something is this good—really, knee-bucklingly so—any adornment is superfluous, but because I was on a mission, I gilded my lily with a sauce of warm jam, made silky and spoonable on the stovetop, and then I silenced the eleven-headed monster under a few soft peaks of whipped cream.

And before the cabinet calls again, I’m taking the last piece of cake and catching a plane to New York. I’ll be back in ten days—and ready, no doubt, to attend to the ten jars of jam still waiting.

Cornmeal Cake with Warm Apricot Jam and Whipped Cream
Adapted from Fresh from the Farmers’ Market, by Janet Fletcher

I think of this cake as a sort of sexed-up cornbread. Put it this way: it is to cornbread as a silk nightgown is to cotton pajamas. It’s still comfortable in the way that only cornbread can be, but it’s better. To treat it right, be sure to use a good-quality jam. I used a sunny apricot version made by one of my favorite French producers, La Trinquelinette. I imagine that a vibrant strawberry might be nice too—or really, anything with a bright flavor and good balance of sweetness to acidity. If you want to gild the lily even further, you can play at slipping a little liqueur into the whipped cream—maybe 2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon per cup of cream. Bourbon goes especially well with apricot, I’m happy to report.

1 ¼ cups cake flour
6 Tbs fine yellow cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ cup milk, preferably whole
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp grated lemon zest
½ cup good-quality jam, preferably apricot
1 cup heavy cream
1 Tbs powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9” round cake pan with butter or cooking spray, and then dust the pan lightly with flour, shaking out any excess.

In a bowl, whisk together the cake flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a measuring cup, combine the milk and vanilla extract. Set aside.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat the butter until creamy. Add the sugar gradually, scraping down the bowl once or twice, until smooth and fully incorporated. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the lemon zest, and beat to incorporate. Add the flour mixture in three batches, alternating with the milk mixture, beating on low speed until just combined. Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan.

Bake the cake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool for 15-20 minutes in the pan; then invert it onto a plate, and turn it topside up onto a rack. Cool the cake to room temperature.

When you are ready to serve the cake, spoon the jam into a small saucepan, and warm it over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until it loosens to the consistency of a spoonable sauce and bubbles gently around the edges. If your jam was on the thick side to start, or if you would like a truly drizzle-able sauce, you may want to add a bit of water—a couple of teaspoons, maybe, or more—to help it along.

While the jam warms, whip the cream. Pour the cream into a mixing bowl, and beat it on medium speed until it begins to thicken. With the beaters running, slowly sprinkle in the sugar, and continue to beat until the cream holds soft peaks.

To serve, cut the cake into wedges, drizzle a bit of warm jam over the top, and dollop with whipped cream.

Yield: 8 generous servings


A parlor trick, poached

Like any good magician, favorite uncle, or birthday-party clown, every cook has a trademark parlor trick: a sleight-of-hand something, a secret weapon guaranteed to amuse and delight even the most discerning of audiences. Take, for example, my friend Nicho, who slips a glug of Newman’s Own salad dressing into nearly everything vegetal that lands on his stovetop. Each time he sautés or stir-fries, he is met with murmurs of pleasure and full-mouthed praise, while his secret weapon sits in plain sight next to the stove, with no one the wiser. Then there’s Kate, number one spokeswoman for the School of Whipped Cream, able to convince even the most careful of dessert eaters to throw caution to the wind with a single seductive spoonful. And as for me, my parlor trick is a humble one, without celebrities or sex appeal, and conveniently packaged to fit in the palm of my hand. When in doubt, I put an egg on it.

If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes—or computer screen, as it were—of Orangette, chances are, it involves an egg. Within the four walls of my kitchen, I’ve found few things that do not stand to benefit from a broken eggshell or two, or a slow, sweet rivulet of runny yolk. Braised green cabbage is only the beginning. Those leeks going limp in the crisper drawer? I’m liable to slow-cook them with a pinch of sugar and fold them into a frittata. Those French fingerling potatoes, tossed with apple cider vinegar and olive oil? Why, I’ll wash them down with eggs à la française, softly scrambled in a saucepan. Those spears of roasted asparagus in the fridge? I’ll line them up like a raft on the still sea of a ceramic plate, and set a soft-boiled egg afloat on top. And when a loaf of something freshly baked follows me home, I treat it to breakfast, American-style: scrambled eggs, large-curded and lumpy like an old down pillow. My parlor trick is pretty predictable, but when I want to make something disappear, it works like a dream.

As I’ve recently discovered, I’m not the only one adept at this sleight of hand. In fact, it seems that “slip ‘em an egg” is one of the oldest tricks in the book. One recent evening, as I settled under the sheets with a new issue of Gourmet, my eye brushed against a recipe titled “Bouillabaisse of Peas,” a soup of sorts originally printed in 1967 and featuring not the seafood that one might expect, but a poached egg instead, perched atop a bowl of clear broth, potatoes, and peas.

The caption cutely explained that this was “an ancient Provençal way of dressing up little green peas”—or rather, as I read right through it, an ancient Provençal parlor trick. Boil a few herbs in a pot of plain water; add onions, garlic, peas, and potatoes; and sure, you’ve got something edible. But add a slice of oil-crisped toast and a poached egg, and you’ve got something eminently edible: earthy and soothing, a rich yolk running to meet sweet, garlicky broth, inviting slurps, burps, and other lapses in decorum. I’d swallow every trick in the book, if they all tasted like this.

Aromatic Broth with Peas, Potatoes, and a Poached Egg
Adapted from Gourmet, January 2006

This bare-bones beauty is very adaptable. It can easily be doubled to feed six, or, if you’re supping solo, you can make a full batch of broth, but prepare only one egg and one slice of bread. Stash leftover broth in the fridge for future meals, rewarming it gently while you toast a piece of bread and poach your egg.

For bouquet garni:
1 two-inch piece celery
1 small Turkish bay leaf
1 fresh thyme sprig, about 3 inches long
1 fresh Italian parsley sprig, about 3 inches long
4 black peppercorns
1/8 tsp slightly crushed fennel seeds

For broth:
2 cups water
2 Tbs good-quality olive oil
3 slices baguette, preferably day-old, each 1 inch thick
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
½ pound waxy potatoes, such as fingerling, cut into 1/3-inch-thick slices
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
5 ounces frozen peas (not thawed)
¾ tsp salt
A few grinds black pepper
3 large eggs, poached according to the directions here

First, make the bouquet garni. Cut a rectangle of cheesecloth measuring about 8” by 16.” Fold it in half to make a double-thick 8” square. Place the celery, bay leaf, thyme, parsley, peppercorns, and fennel seeds in the center; then gather the cheesecloth around the herbs like a little bag. Tie the mouth of the bag with cotton kitchen string, making sure that it is securely closed.

Place the bouquet garni in a medium saucepan with the water, and bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, heat ½ Tbs oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the baguette slices, and toast, flipping once, until golden, a few minutes. Transfer the bread to a plate or cutting board. Add the remaining 1 ½ Tbs oil to the skillet, along with the onion. Cook the onion over medium heat, stirring regularly, until it softens and begins to look translucent. Add the potatoes, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes.
Add the garlic, peas, salt, pepper, and hot water with bouquet garni. Cover the skillet, and simmer the mixture until the potatoes are tender, about 7-10 minutes. Discard the bouquet garni.

Pour a small ladleful of broth, potatoes, and peas into each of 3 bowls. Place 1 slice of toasted bread atop the broth and vegetables in each bowl, and place 1 egg atop each slice of bread. Divide the rest of the broth and vegetables among the bowls. Serve immediately, with additional salt and pepper for the eggs.

Yield: 3 servings


A four-letter word


There, I said it: four little letters, a word that once furrowed my brow and spelled a long, sharp shiver down my spine. Most kids love to try a new four-letter word, but in this mouth, f-l-a-n was far too foul.

It was, as most important things are, a textural issue. For the better part of my childhood and adolescence, I lived by a simple mandate: nothing that jiggles shall cross the threshold of my jaw. Yogurt would be smooth and well stirred. Aspics, custards, and crèmes brûlée and caramel would be kept well out of sight. Jell-O would forever remain boxed and safe, in a powdery, potential state. There would be no squirting or squelching between the teeth; no skidding, slipping or sliding on the tongue. Such were the rules: hard and fast, and anti-flan.

But sometime around age seventeen, I was tricked, seduced, and brought under the sway of custard’s French cousin, the pot de crème. It hid in broad daylight on a dessert menu, three simple words conjuring up something cold and creamy, maybe—even ice-creamy, I imagined. I was young and pleasantly naïve, and I never saw it coming: this wolf in custard’s clothing, this sweet-faced thing promising a so-called pot of cream. When it arrived, I grimaced at its smooth, taut, shiny surface, but one vanilla bean-flecked bite later, I succumbed, licking the spoon and scraping the ramekin clean. For as hard and fast as I had set the rules, they fell with surprisingly little fanfare. I’d been confusing gelatin with a good, creamy custard—a terrible wrong that I’ve since worked hard to right.

I still like my yogurt stirred to smooth, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let a little jiggle get in the way of dessert—or dinner. Sweet custards and pots of cream are fine, but a recent foray into my collection of recipe clippings yielded something savory instead, and every bit as seductive: an asparagus flan.

Under most circumstances, I am strictly of the belief that fresh, springtime asparagus needs no embellishments—simple roasting is just right—but this case is an exception. Steamed to bright green and puréed to velvet, baked with milk, eggs, and little more, asparagus gets dressed up, but it somehow tastes simple, intense, even more like itself: clean, delicate, and verdant. It melts seamlessly into a light custard, morphing into a smooth, silky thing that slices under the knife like softened butter, all glide and no jiggle.

It goes down easy enough for a sweet shiver and a sigh, easy enough to step up—if only while the season lasts—as my favorite four-letter word.

Asparagus Flan
Inspired by Gourmet, May 2004

According to the original recipe, this Italian-inspired flan is to be served with a rich, creamy Fontina sauce. I found, however, that so much cheese quickly overshadowed the flavor of the asparagus—a near-perfect thing that, quite frankly, shouldn’t be messed with. I prefer this flan sans sauce, served as a light lunch with, say, a pile of roasted fennel and potatoes. If you can find decent Roma tomatoes—in season or not—and slow-roast them, they would also be a perfect, sweet-tart side. This flan would also be an elegant accompaniment to a festive springtime supper of roasted lamb or chicken, or a few slices of grilled flank steak.

2 pounds fresh asparagus
4 large eggs
1 1/3 cups whole milk
2 Tbs freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 ¼ tsp salt
A pinch or two of freshly ground black pepper
A pinch or two of freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and set a rack to the middle position. Butter an 8 x 2 round cake pan, line the bottom of the pan with wax paper, and butter the paper.

Prepare the equipment for the hot water bath. You will need a baking dish large enough to hold the cake pan and deep enough to safely hold at least an inch of water; I used a 10” by 15” Pyrex pan. Place a cooling rack or folded dish towel in the bottom of the baking dish; this will keep the cake pan from touching the hot pan underneath it and further protect the flan from direct heat. Fill a large pot with water, and bring it to a boil: this water will be used in the water bath.

Place a steamer basket in the bottom of a Dutch oven, and fill the pan with water to about ½” deep. Bring the water to a boil while you snap the woody ends from the asparagus and gently rinse the stalks. Place the asparagus in the steamer basket, and steam it, covered, until the stalks are bright green and very tender, about 6-8 minutes. Transfer half of the asparagus to the bowl of a food processor, and process to make a smooth purée. Scrape the purée into a large sieve set over a bowl, and then repeat with the remaining asparagus. Using a rubber spatula, press and stir the purée through the sieve into the bowl. This takes a bit of time, but it is well worth it: when you are finished, you will have a small, thick mass of woody bits and fibrous asparagus skins in the sieve, and about 1 ¾ to 2 cups of very smooth purée in the bowl. Discard the contents of the sieve, and set the purée aside.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs to break them up. Add the milk, cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg, whisking to blend. Add the asparagus purée, and whisk to thoroughly combine.

Pour the asparagus mixture into the prepared cake pan. Place the cake pan on top of the rack or towel in the larger pan. Gently slide the pans into the oven, and, taking care not to splash, pour the boiling water into the larger pan until it comes about halfway up the cake pan. Bake until the flan is set and beginning to pull away from the sides and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 50 minutes to 1 hour. Transfer the cake pan to a rack to cool slightly, about 10-15 minutes.

Run a thin knife around the edge of the flan to loosen it. Invert a serving plate over the pan, and invert the pan onto the plate. Remove the pan, and discard the wax paper. Cut the flan into wedges, and serve.

Yield: 6-8 servings


Best final resting place for a walnut

I am a creature of habit. Each morning finds me hunched over the same homely but delicious breakfast; each noontime finds me eating a variation on the same formulaic lunch; and each evening brings a cold glass of milk, a couple of graham crackers, and at least a few squares of chocolate. These tidy details are already well documented, but there’s one more that’s long past due for its day in the sun. Nearly every Sunday morning, I climb in the car and trek twenty minutes south to Columbia City Bakery, and to the same loaf of bread: walnut levain, a crisp, craggy-crusted thing boasting more than a handful of big, buttery nuts. It’s the sort of thing I could curl up with and nibble at from now until nightfall—if not, frankly, forever. If I were a walnut, I’d give anything—my shell, even myself—to be associated with a thing of such beauty. It is, I dare say, the best final resting place for a walnut.

Thank goodness for the 2006 Independent Food Festival and Awards, because I now have an excuse to tell you about it.

Columbia City Bakery opened its doors only last October, but its bakers were already veterans. Evan Andres and Andrew Meltzer are alumni of Seattle celebrity chef Tom Douglas’s Dahlia Bakery, and I had heard rumors of their prodigious talent for months prior to the opening, when they sold their wares wholesale and at the Columbia City Farmers’ Market. From the moment that I first peered through the big windows of the bright red storefront on Rainier Avenue, I knew that what I’d find inside would be more than ample proof. It doesn’t hurt, certainly, that the workings of the bakery are on full display only feet behind the counter—bakers flouring couches, giant mixers mixing—but the items for sale speak for themselves. There is a certain something that emanates from good bread, something written in flour and scrawled into the slight sheen of a hard, crackly crust. Columbia City Bakery has that something in spades.

Its breads bear thick, crisp crusts—the kind that, when cut, shoot shards and splinters across the counter—with slashes showing a web of skinny, delicate threads, evidence of the gentle stretching of gluten. Inside waits a moist, chewy crumb, full of evenly spaced air holes that shine ever so slightly at their edges. The first to win my devotion was their pain de campagne, my Platonic ideal of bread: now-crunchy, now-chewy, and rustic, with a faint whisper of sweetness. But what makes this place worth a weekly trip is the walnut levain, a sturdy, flour-dusted torpedo that has lodged itself dangerously close to my heart.

I can think of no better foil for the rugged, lightly sour flavor of levain than a smattering of sweet, still-intact walnut halves. With a crumb tinged pale purple and slices each sporting a toasty walnut or two, this stuff has quickly leapt to the top of my list. Nothing is better next to a good blue cheese, under a sliver of cave-aged something, or smeared with butter, sprinkled with salt, and eaten while sitting on the kitchen counter. For a proper feast, I cap a slice or two with a lightly broiled crottin and a drizzle of honey, and serve it alongside a simple green salad. Every walnut should leave the world this way.

[No recipe today: instead, a very good reason to visit Seattle!]

Columbia City Bakery
4865 Rainier Avenue South
Seattle, WA 98118
Wednesday - Saturday: 7 am – 2 pm
Sunday: 8 am – 2 pm


Winter, spring, pie

Early March: it’s an in-between time, not really winter and not quite spring. The leaves are still gone, but the birds are trickling back. Parkas and gloves wend their way into the closet, and out come jackets, sweaters, and soon, short sleeves. Away goes the butternut squash; in come artichokes and asparagus. And I follow a post about Brandon and Indian cookery with one about an ex-boyfriend and Americana. It’s an in-between time, but in the midst of so much juxtaposition, there’s bound to be something interesting.

If there is one thing to know about Nicho, it is this: the man loves a good pie. Weaned on his mother Martha’s lovingly made baked goods—breads and pastries alike—he knows a worthy one when he tastes it. Over the course of our brief courtship and the friendship that has followed, he has sampled many a sweet from my kitchen, but never that most prized of desserts. We have discussed the merits of various fillings, fats, and degrees of flakiness, but in my home, nary a pie has graced his plate. For my birthday last September, he presented me with a pie plate, and an implicit challenge. I did not venture a response for nearly six months—until early last week, when, with still-wet eyes and one hand waving goodbye to Brandon, I got a phone call. Saturday would be, Nicho reminded me, his birthday, and by way of celebration, he planned an early-evening dinner with friends and a few of his trademark treats: sausages, Swiss chard from the family garden, and a few titanic turkey drumsticks. Ever eager for an excuse to open the oven, I offered a homemade birthday cake—and with a subtle nudge, walked right into baking a birthday pie. So I scratched my head, looked to the skies, and by Saturday afternoon, arrived at rhubarb and orange zest.

When in doubt, in between, and in early March, it never hurts to straddle the fence where pie filling is concerned. Apples are last fall’s news; cherries are yet to come; and berries are prohibitively expensive. When we find ourselves somewhere between showers and sunlight, the clouds and the continental plates, the winter and the spring, it’s only fitting to take the two seasons in hand and stir them together between two buttery crusts. Winter’s oranges are on their way out, but in my kitchen, they send up a sweet, spicy welcome to rhubarb, whose sunny, rakish, rosy stalks are just beginning their seasonal revival. I speak for all of us present on Saturday night—including Nicho, who folded his approval into a goodnight hug—when I assure you that in-between is a very good place to find a successful pie filling, if not a season.

Fresh Rhubarb Pie with Orange Zest

Pies are more about assembly than anything. Once you feel comfortable working with pastry dough, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to churn out a very pretty pie. Because this one is, really, all about the rhubarb, be sure to choose good, fresh stalks. They should be crisp and firm—never flaccid—and if possible, choose ones that have a deep, pink-red hue: they will yield a more vibrantly colored filling. To make a relatively easy dessert even easier, let the pâte brisée—French-speak for buttery pastry dough—sit on the counter at room temperature for at least 20 minutes prior to rolling. I find that it is nearly impossible to roll out when still chilled from the refrigerator, so I wait until it feels just thawed enough to yield gently under the rolling pin. Do not, however, allow it to sit until it is fully at room temperature, or you risk having a heavy, not-so-flaky crust.

1 recipe Martha Stewart’s pâte brisée
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
6 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour
A pinch of salt
2 ½ to 3 tsp freshly grated orange zest
1 ½ pounds fresh rhubarb, washed, trimmed, and chopped into ½-inch slices
1 Tbs unsalted butter
Good-quality vanilla ice cream, for serving

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and position a rack in the lower third of the oven.

On a lightly floured surface, roll one disk of pâte brisée into a circle about 12 inches in diameter. Gently fit the round of pastry dough into a 9-inch pie plate, pressing it up smoothly along the sides. Trim away excess pastry from the rim. Slip the pie plate into the refrigerator for a few minutes while you prepare the filling.

In a medium bowl, combine the sugar, flour, salt, and orange zest, whisking to mix completely. Remove the pie plate from the refrigerator, and sprinkle ¼ of the sugar mixture over the pastry in the bottom of the pie plate. Heap the chopped rhubarb on top of the mixture. Distribute the rest of the sugar mixture evenly over the rhubarb; it may seem like a lot, but don’t be tempted to skimp. Cut the butter into a few small pieces, and disperse them over the filling.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the second disk of pastry dough into a circle 11-12 inches in diameter. Gently lay the round of dough atop the prepared pie, trimming away excess and then pinching and crimping along the edges to seal the top and bottom crusts together. With a sharp paring knife, gently cut three or four slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.

Place the pie plate on a baking sheet (for ease of transport), and slide it into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes; then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Continue to bake for another 40 minutes to 55 minutes, until the crust is lightly golden and the filling is bubbling up gently through the slits in the top crust. Allow to rest for at least 30 minutes before serving. Serve warm or cold, with vanilla ice cream.

Yield: 8 generous servings