July 20, 2012

Summertime Baking: Rhubarb Upside Down Cake

fleet·ing (flē’tĭng)  adj. Passing quickly; ephemeral

There is the slow, snail-like wait.  Daylight encroaching into darkness at an ever-later hour; the thermostat rising in degrees haltingly like a cranky mid-century oven.  Closets in between sweaters and shorts; shoots barely breaking the soil to reach for the sun.

And then suddenly it's summer - blazingly hot, electric blue-sky summer. The heat blasts at 500˚F, and the days start to get inexplicably shorter, even before the dog days have truly begun.  The flowers wilt in the heat and you do too, cooling off in barely there dresses and flipflops.  Your favourites - the ones that you have waited for with longing and anticipation - make their glorious entrance and just as quickly begin to maddeningly disappear.  Juicy peaches; the season's first cherries and strawberries; asparagus so tender green it makes you weak. 

Here today, gone tomorrow rhubarb

And perhaps most fleetingly of all, ruby red, tangy, tart and slender rhubarb stalks.   While strawberries and rhubarb have had a long love affair with one another, I prefer to give this most ephemeral of vegetables a starring role all of its own.  The taste will linger long after rhubarb pulls up its roots and leaves town. 

Rhubarb Upside Down Cake
with slight adaptations, from Melissa Clark, New York Times 
serves 8-10

1¼ c unsalted butter (2½ sticks), at room temperature
1½  pounds rhubarb, rinsed and sliced into ½-inch cubes (about 6 cups)
1 tbsp cornstarch
1½ c granulated sugar plus 2 tbsp
½ c light brown sugar plus 2 tbsp
2 c cake flour
1½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp fine sea salt
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
4 large eggs
c sour cream
2 tsp lemon juice

1. Heat oven to 325˚FLine the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Butter the paper and sides of the pan. Wrap two layers of foil under the pan, and place it on a baking sheet.

2.  In a medium bowl, mix rhubarb, cornstarch and ½ cup plus 2 tbsp of granulated sugar.

3.  Sift together the cake flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.

4.  Blend the remaining 1 cup sugar with lemon zest with your fingers until the zest is distributed evenly throughout the sugar.  Set aside.

5.  In a stand mixer, cream 1 c butter for two minutes. Add the lemon zest-sugar mixture and cream together with the butter at medium-high speed until it is light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down the bowl periodically.

6.  Add the vanilla bean paste and mix well. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the sour cream, and then the lemon juice. 

7.  Turn the mixer to low, and slowly add the flour mixture, ¼ cup at a time, until well combined, scraping down the bowl periodically.  The mixture should be very light and fluffy. Set aside.

5.  Heat all of the brown sugar and remaining ¼ c butter in a pan over medium heat. Whisk until smooth and bubbling, about 2 minutes.

6.  Pour the brown-sugar mixture into the prepared cake pan, then spoon in the rhubarb and its juices. Spoon in the batter so it covers all of the rhubarb, smoothing out the top evenly.

7.  Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes.  At this stage check for doneness: if the top of the cake is firm and springs back and a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean, it is done.  In my oven, the cake takes 1 hour and 45 minutes to completely bake, so don't worry about overbaking the cake.

8.  Place the pan on a wire rack, and cool for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the cake, place a plate on top of the pan and turn it upside-down.

Enjoy with a cold glass of milk and save room for seconds.

July 11, 2012

Peas Please: Sweet Pea Summer Soup with Marjoram

Is there anything more delicious than a simple bowl of sweet pea soup?  The variations are infinite, needing only imagination and whatever the garden or cupboard will yield.  Pick a herb; parsley for freshness, basil for bite, mint for green coolness.  Choose a base: something from the allium family; liquid as simple as water or as complex as rich chicken stock.  Fresh peas are best; in a pinch or in the dead of winter, frozen nearly as good. The pleasure of leisurely shelling peas on a warm summer afternoon is almost as satisfying as sipping the results.  Served warm or chilled, sweet pea soup is what summer is all about.

Sweet Pea Summer Soup with Marjoram
serves 4-6

You don't need to plan far in advance for sweet pea soup.  With willing hands to help with shelling, the soup can be ready and on the table in less than 30 minutes.  I love using marjoram for a unique and subtle flavour that complements the fresh green sweet pea taste.

Farmer's market peas, ready for shelling

1 leek, trimmed and thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
⅛ lb pancetta, minced into very small pieces
1 shallot, minced
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2-3 sprigs marjoram
4 cups chicken broth
4 cups fresh shucked peas (or 4 c frozen, thawed)
Salt and white pepper (optional) to taste
¼ cup heavy cream

1.  Melt butter over low heat and add leek, pancetta and shallot.  Saute, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are very soft, about 10 minutes.  Do not brown.

2.  Add the majoram and the broth, turn heat to medium and bring to a simmer.  Add peas and simmer for 6-8 minutes.  Turn heat off and let soup cool slightly.  Remove marjoram sprigs.

3.  In a blender or food processor, puree soup in batches. 

4.  Warm soup over medium heat, adding ¼ cup heavy cream and stirring to incorporate. Season with salt and white pepper to taste. Serve with crème fraiche, if desired.  Soup can also be served chilled.

Serve this flavourful soup warm or slightly chilled

July 04, 2012

Toasting Spain: Spanish Style Stuffed Prunes

European football isn’t usually my thing.  I’d be hard pressed to tell you who plays for Manchester City or Manchester United, or what the difference is between A.C Milan and F.C Internazionale Milano.  But I do love championship football.  The athleticism, the speed, the elaborate hairdos and drama – all of it combines for high octane entertainment.

Living in Toronto makes it easy to know what’s going on and who’s winning. Cars suddenly spout flags and a victory for Portugal or Italy in my neighbourhood is signalled by cars honking long into the night.  Fever pitch excitement mounted all across the city last week as the finals for Euro Cup 2012 wound down to Sunday’s Italy-Spain showdown.   

My patriotic Italian blood runs high when Italy makes it beyond the preliminary rounds.  But I also know when my team is outplayed.  Spain came in and dominated from the first kick of the ball.  In honour of the winning team, here's a sweet and salty bocadillo to nibble with cocktails.  It somehow makes defeat a little easier to bear.

Stuffed Prunes
(adapted from Tapas, by Simone and Ines Ortega)

3-4 oz Stilton or Roquefort cheese
¼ c raisins
¼ toasted pine nuts
1 tbsp sweet sherry
12-15 pitted prunes

1.  In a small bowl, mash the cheese gently with a fork until creamy.  Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly until combined.

2.  Fill each prune with a teaspoonful of filling.  Refrigerate if making ahead, bringing to room temperature before serving.