Saturday, March 29, 2008

Little Black Dress of Cakes

Pound Cake by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I'm sure I'm not the first writer to make this baking analogy, but then, I'm probably not the first baker to make this cake. Every cook needs a few great recipes that they can commit to memory and pull out whenever the occasion warrants. A little black dress, one might say, just the right thing for any occasion, casual or dressy, winter, spring, summer or fall. Coco Chanel knew that when she designed the LBD, and good cooks should follow her lead.

Cooking LBD's should most certainly include a roast chicken, a special potato something and a perfect vinaigrette for a simple salad. And for dessert, something picked up from the local patisserie? I think not. Especially since the local patisserie, like the boulangerie, is a chain grocery store with a bakery known for making specialty cakes from mixes. My dessert LBD is pound cake, that church potluck staple, dense and buttery and just crying out for strawberries and real whipped cream.

My first chef, my mom, didn't really like kids hanging out in the kitchen, but she would let me make cakes and pound cakes were one of the first I tried. I have made sour cream pound cakes, which are wonderful, including a chocolate pound cake that is to live for. For a time, I was enamored with a recipe that required separating the eggs, beating the whites and folding them into the butter-rich batter. The texture and flavor were wonderful, but I consider separating eggs as enjoyable as emptying the dishwasher. Time to try more recipes.

In a cake decorating class, I was horrified when I was given a pound cake recipe that included Crisco shortening. Crisco? In a pound cake? That's for biscuits, never pound cake. All butter, and only butter, that's the way to go.

I found the perfect pound cake recipe in a community cookbook on my mom's shelf. It was called "Evelyn's Pound Cake." I call it a cream cheese pound cake. This recipe has been around awhile, and my version is not much different than the original. It is always reliable and will win you friends. Start making this cake regularly, take it to work, share it with your family, give thick slices to neighbors. Bake petite loaves and give them at Christmas with a small jar of homemade lemon curd. And before long, like Coco Chanel, you will soon be known for inimitable style and unparalleled taste.

Cream Cheese Pound Cake
3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, softened
3 cups granulated sugar
6 eggs
1 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese (neufchatel acceptable), room temperature and divided into three equal pieces
pinch salt
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 325. Use baking spray to coat inside of Bundt pan or tube pan or 2 loaf pans.

2. In mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar for several minutes. When fully incorporated and no longer grainy, add eggs and cream cheese alternately. This means two eggs, fully mixed in, piece of cream cheese, fully mixed in, followed by eggs and cream cheese two more times. When batter is creamy and smooth, add, on low speed, flour and pinch salt. Stir in vanilla extract.

3. Pour batter into prepared pans and smooth the top with a spatula. Cake bakes in 325 degree oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. In my kitchen, I bake the cake in a Bundt pan and set the oven at 325 on convection and it takes nearly two hours to bake. The cake is ready when a narrow bamboo skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cake cool on rack for at least an hour before giving in to the luscious vanilla and butter smell and slicing generous portions for your starving family.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Lost and Found in the Freezer

The plastic container tumbled out of its precarious position in the freezer, narrowly missing my bare foot before shattering on the oak floor. Time to clean out the freezer again, a chore that always gets put off until the day I can no longer gently place containers inside and be able to find them when I need them. A stock making binge and an overflow of overripe bananas pushed the freezer's capacity to the limit, so I began purging what I no longer could identify and what I could use today.

I found a frozen chicken carcass and two cups of meat, leftover biscuits and cornbread. All this provided the makings for Chicken and Dressing, a hearty, filling dish for a March night's supper.

First, I made a broth from the carcass. I put it in my favorite stockpot with water to cover with an onion, a carrot and a stalk of celery, all roughly chopped. A bay leaf and just the slightest amount of salt (perhaps a teaspoon) joined in. This came to a steady boil which I reduced to a barely bubbling simmer, skimming away any flotsam that surfaced. While the broth simmered, I tore the biscuits and cornbread (about 5 cups each) into small chunks and placed them in a casserole to dry out.

When the water was sufficiently enriched with chicken essence, I strained it and discarded the solids. The yield was about a quart of broth. In the clean stockpot, I melted 2 tablespoons of butter, and sweated two stalks of celery, chopped, and an onion, also finely chopped. As the vegetables softened, I added the broth, a bit of water (less than half a cup) and whatever appropriate seasonings were found in the spice drawer (poultry seasoning, salt and pepper). At this point, the oven was heated to 350 degrees.

The broth was poured over the chunked breads and the sauteed vegetables, along with three slightly frothed whole eggs stirred in as well. The final addition was the two cups of chopped, cooked chicken. I wrapped the casserole in foil and placed it in a moderate oven (300 to 350) for most of the afternoon. About 15 minutes before mealtime, I removed the foil and allowed the dressing to firm up and brown a bit. I probably overuse the word "yummy," but this was indeed a good, filling meal that pleased all three of my eaters. There were plenty of leftovers as well, which must be eaten tomorrow, because they most certainly will not end up in the freezer again.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

More from the Bedside Table

1. "More Home Cooking" by Laurie Colwin. Featuring essays on duck, making your own yogurt, and at least two recipes using lima beans (so far).

2. Damon Lee Fowler's "New Southern Cooking." I've probably had it for 5 years and I'm just now reading it.

3. Damon Lee Fowler's "New Southern Baking." I needed more guilt, so I bought a second book by an author I know I should be reading.

4. "Around the Southern Table" by Sarah Belk. Very informative and fresh take on Southern standbys.

5. "Debt to Plesaure" by John Lanchester. Very engaging prose. I've had this ARC edition for nearly 10 years - how can I not have picked it up before now? It's so good!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Banana Bread

Banana bread is a humble but reliable creation, and because it uses dead-ripe bananas, it's the frugal baker's best friend. There are hundreds of variations of this basic quick bread, probably the first baking project most young cooks will try at home. I'm not the most accomplished baker, but after 30 years in the kitchen, I still make banana bread. Primarily due to the fact that we always buy bananas at the store, and frequently they get too ripe for our tender palates. I have a drawer in the bottom of my freezer where I stash the overripe fruit. Every now and then, especially when I have buttermilk on hand, I will make this easy banana bread and enjoy it warm from the oven, crumbly and tender, with a cup of tea.

This recipe is from a cookbook from Pleasant Hill, the Shaker community in Kentucky. Appropriately, it's a simple bread, not gussied up with spices or nuts or chocolate, although it could be a blank canvas for experimentation. I usually double it, to use up more bananas and buttermilk. The instruction for adding the leavening is unusual - first add one cup of flour, then stir baking soda and salt into the remaining flour before adding to the batter.

Best Ever Banana Bread
1/2 cup butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 bananas, mashed, to equal 1 cup
2 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda

Cream butter and sugar in bowl with electric mixer. Beat in eggs and bananas. Add one cup of the flour and half of the buttermilk alternately. Add salt and soda to remaining flour. Stir in second flour mixture and end with remaining buttermilk. Turn into well-greased 9 X 5 loaf pan. Bake at 325 for one hour (per cookbook, mine take up to 1 hour and 15 minutes to bake).