Friday, February 22, 2013

Orange Upside Down Polenta Cake

Our latest installment of Lonesome Whistle Farm polenta inspired me to experiment with this grain in desserts. Searching around, I came across a genre of recipes for Italian polenta cake made with almond meal and often with citrus. The red hues of this colorful corn reminded me of ruby red blood oranges, and its coarse texture seemed at home in a skillet, so I decide to make a rustic upside down cake in my cast iron pan.

I used an amalgam of a polenta cake from Nigella Lawson and an orange caramel layer from Yotam Ottolenghi. I have to admit to being a novice when it comes to caramelizing sugar (I should have watched this first), and tried to take a short cut by melting the sugar in the skillet, but my caramel developed some crystals in the process. Despite this setback, I persevered, because a few sugar crystals didn't seem so bad in the grand scheme of things, and really, who could resist a cake as lovely as this on one side, 

and this on the other. It had a coarse and slightly crumbly texture that suited its skillet inception, but was moist and rich and busting with orange flavor. This cake will definitely become another regular use for our polenta supply.

Orange Upside Down Polenta Cake
adapted from recipes by Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi 

for the caramel orange layer 
1/2 cup superfine granulated sugar
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
2 blood oranges

for the cake
1 3/4 sticks (14 tablespoons) soft unsalted butter
1 cup superfine sugar
2 cups almond meal/flour
3/8 cup coarse polenta
3/8 cup fine cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 eggs
zest from 2 blood oranges

1. Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Wash the oranges and zest them with a microphone grater. Reserve the zest and cut off the peels and pith. Slice them into 5 or 6 slices perpendicular to the axis of the sections and remove any pith in the interior.

2. Make the caramel orange layer. In a small, clean, heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, water and a dribble of juice from slicing the prongs. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved, and then STOP stirring. Wash down any sugar crystals from side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. Boil, without stirring, swirling pan occasionally so caramel colors evenly, until dark amber.

3. Remove from the heat and add butter, swirling pan until incorporated, then carefully but quickly pour caramel into a well-seasoned 10 inch cast iron skillet (if in doubt, oil your skillet a bit). Tilt the skillet to coat evenly and arrange the orange slices in the caramel with the largest slice in the center and other slices surrounding it in a circle.

4. For the cake, beat the butter and sugar till pale and whipped, either by hand in a bowl with a wooden spoon, or using a freestanding mixer or food processor.

5. Mix together the almond meal, polenta and baking powder, and beat some of this into the butter-sugar mixture, followed by 1 egg, then alternate dry ingredients and eggs, beating all the while. Finally, beat in the lemon zest and pour, spoon or scrape the mixture into your caramel and orange lined skillet. 

6. Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes. If the cake is cooked, a cake tester should come out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cook for about five minutes. Place a large plate over the skillet, confidently invert the skillet and allow the cake to slide onto the plate. Allow to cool to room temperature and serve. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Puff Pastry Pesto Hearts

Here's a fun quick treat for your sweetie: puff pastry pesto hearts. We had them for dinner to accompany a favorite family soup, and they were devoured with gusto. Happy Valentine's Day.

Puff Pastry Pesto Hearts
makes about twenty
2 sheets frozen puff pastry
1 cup pesto (such as this recipe from the post below)

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cover two baking sheets with parchment paper. 

2. Partially thaw the pastry (you can do this in a microwave on low power for a minute or two). Spread out a sheet of pastry. Top with 1/2 cup pesto and spread over the surface. Roll from two sides to make a double log. Carefully slice into 3/4 inch wide slices. Repeat with the second sheet of pastry and remaining pesto. 

3. Arrange the pastry slices on the parchment paper cookie sheets. For each slice, pinch the section between the two rolls to form a heart. Bake for approximately 16 minutes, rotating the pans 180 degrees and top to bottom midway through, until the pastries are golden brown.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Yellow Indian Woman Bean Soup with Pesto Orzo

These delicate little legumes are an heirloom variety called yellow Indian woman beans from Lonesome Whistle Farm. Since we'd been battling flu-like symptoms in our household, I was inspired to make a soup with them. Also, I'd been chatting with my sister about soups and she'd extolled the virtues of bacon in minestrone, which got me thinking about noodle soups and why I don't cook more of them. 

When I make a pot of soup, I want it to last for days, the flavor deepening with each reheating, but when noodles are a part of the mix they become flaccid by the second day, seeping up the broth like inebriated dinner guests who have overstayed their welcome. It occurred to me that I could keep the noodles well behaved by serving them a la mode, just like a garnish of chopped herbs. Which got me thinking about combining the fresh chopped herbs with the noodles on the side. And so I made this soup with a rich base of bacon, caramelized onions and cabbage, and slow cooked beans, and finished it with a dollop of bright pesto-coated orzo. The soup improved with each reheating, the orzo stayed fresh and firm, and it doubled as the main course for certain soup-averse people at the table.

Yellow Indian Woman Bean Soup with Pesto Orzo

for the soup
1 cup yellow Indian woman beans (or substitute navy beans)
1 rosemary sprig
2 slices bacon, cut into 1/4 inch strips
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion
1/2 regular-sized or 1 small cabbage
14 ounce can chopped tomatoes
4 carrots
~2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
salt to taste

for pesto orzo
1/2 lb orzo 
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup whole almonds
2 ounces pecorino romano or parmesan cheese
1 cup combination of Italian parsley and basil leaves (or just use one or the other)
1/4 cup olive oil
salt to taste

1. If you remember, soak your beans overnight. Drain (or rinse unsoaked beans) and combine with 6 cups of water (7 if unsoaked), rosemary and a pinch of salt. Cook at a very slow simmer until tender, about 90 minutes for fresh beans. Remove the rosemary sprig and generously salt the bean pot to taste. Allow to cool, then drain the bean broth into a large measuring cup or pitcher and reserve the beans. For this recipe, I used all of the broth and I saved some of the cooked beans for other uses, but if you like your soup to be dense with beans, you can use all of them in the soup.

2. Peel and dice the onion. Cut the cabbage into quarters, slice out the the core, then halve again lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/4 inch thin slices.

3. Heat a large, heavy soup over medium heat. Add the bacon pieces and cook, stirring, until they are browned and have released their fat. Remove the bacon pieces with a slotted spoon and reserve. Add the olive oil to the rendered bacon fat. Lower the heat to medium low and add the onions. Cook until very soft, but avoid browning. Now add the cabbage, stir to coat, and continue cooking over medium low heat in a covered pot, stirring frequently, until the cabbage is very soft and the onions have caramelized. This will take about 20 to 30 minutes and will build up a rich smoky, sweet base for your soup.

4. Now add the canned tomatoes, the broth from your bean pot (should be about 4 cups), and enough stock to dilute your cabbage to a desired thickness (remembering that there will be more things added to the pot.) Simmer on low for about an hour to meld the flavors. 

5. When you are about 40 minutes from serving the soup, peel the carrots, cut them lengthwise, and then slice them widthwise into 1/4 inch thick half moons. Add them to the pot. Set a pot of salted water heating for the orzo.

6. Prepare the pesto. In a dry skillet, heat the unpeeled garlic cloves until they are soft and blackened in spots. Transfer them to a cutting board to cool before peeling. Put the whole almonds in the hot skillet and toast until they are fragrant, but don't let them burn. Combine the almonds, peeled garlic cloves, and the cheese in the bowl of a food processor and chop coarsely. Wash the parsley and basil leaves and add to the food processor. Blend while pouring in the olive oil until it is a fairly smooth paste. Taste and add salt or more olive oil to taste.

7. When the water is boiling, add the orzo and cook until just al dente. At the same time, add the desired amount of beans to your soup pot. If necessary, thin the soup a little with more broth. Taste and adjust seasoning. When the orzo is cooked, toss it with the pesto in a serving bowl. Serve the soup and pass the pesto orzo for people to add to their bowls. The next day, reheat the soup pot and warm the pesto orzo in a microwave and serve again. Enjoy.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Cornmeal Popovers

The popover recipe in the children's cookbook Pretend Soup by Mollie Katzen (of Moosewood fame) is the perfect gateway project for budding chefs. Both my children loved pouring over the cartoon instructions, and the first word they learned to read was "EAT", the last step of every recipe. As a parent, my favorite part of the book is the collected words of wisdom at the beginning, "Children's Own Rules", which includes such sage advice as: "It's not okay if you spill on purpose" and "The most important rule of all is don't cook in a volcano."

The great thing about this recipe is that it's so reliable and resilient, producing consistently delicious popovers after all the haphazard sloshing and spilling that is to be expected of young cooks. Thus, it occurred to me that this recipe could handle a little tinkering, so in my last batch, I slipped in some of my Lonesome Whistle Farm corn flour. The result was delicious; the simple milk batter let the fresh corn flavor of the flour shine.

These popovers are wonderful with butter and jam, and they also made a lovely lunch with a salad of blood oranges, hazelnuts and a medley of endives, escarole, and radicchio from Open Oak Farm.  And both will make nice accompaniments to tomorrow's Super Bowl pot of chili.

Cornmeal Popovers
adapted from Mollie Katzen and Ann Henderson's Pretend Soup
makes one dozen popovers

2 Tbsp butter
2 eggs 
1 cup milk
2/3 cup white flour
1/3 cup fine cornmeal or corn flour
1/4 tsp salt

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Melt the butter and use it to brush the insides of 12 muffin tins.

3. Whisk together the milk and eggs very well. Now whisk in the remaining melted butter and the salt. 

4. Mix together the flours and stir them into the batter until they are just incorporated.

5. Use a 1/4 cup measuring cup or small ladle to fill the batter into the muffing cups, filling them about halfway up.

6. Bake for 30 minutes without opening the oven. 

7. Remove the popovers from the pan and EAT!