Sunday, June 26, 2011

Three Moistened Cakes

This week's show dealt with cakes and solved an age-old problem faced by home cooks ever since someone grabbed a potholder and removed a circular pan from the oven, namely the dry cake.
I posit that the scoop of vanilla or the tall glass of cold vitamin D showed up as a cure for dry cake syndrome. There has to be an easier solution in our post space-age. Turn the clock back 600 years and, in the words of Sofia Patrillo, "Picture it, Sicily, 1500." The Spanish (one in a long line of conquerors of the Mediterranean's largest island) brought their cuisine to mingle with the kitchen treasures of so many other cultures. One of Spain's main contributions was Pan di Spagna, Spanish bread, or, as it is more commonly known, sponge cake. Not very high falutin' sounding to be sure but nonetheless a staple in the day of the Baroque where ornamentation ruled. That Bread of Spain was the canvass on which the artists of the kitchen (actually the convents in those days) would heap their fanciful creations, the most famous and surviving one being The Triumph of Gluttony, a veritable tower of overindulgence and decadence. But it wasn't only what could go on the cake that was important but also what could go in the crevices of the cake itself. Enter the Cassata.

Although The Triumph of Gluttony can still be had (with notice, of course, it takes some time to put those super structures together!), the cake that survives to this day from the Italian Baroque and is displayed in the windows of the pasticcerie all over Palermo to any passerby (by the slice) is the renown Cassata, a sponge cake filled with a sweetened ricotta that may or may not contain chocolate chips and candied fruit and be surrounded with a green-hued marzipan and be topped with a citrus icing wherein various candied fruit are embedded like so many gems in a gold leaf sculpture. Not impossible for the home cook to put together--I've make a few of these myself with good results--but there are easier (and just as good) things to do with your Pan di Spagna that will bring you results that are just as good and impressive.

Last August, as in every August for the past I-don't-want-to-remember-how-many years I have been making Joel a strawberry cake of some sort for his birthday. Last year I decided to make the cake I wanted to make him for his birthday and proceeded to start a few days ahead making Cassata starting with the sponge cake and even homemade ricotta. Down to the wire, I only had to get the marzipan (my marzipan recipe was not quite there yet) so I went to my favorite super market to pick up two tubes of the almond confection to complete the celebratory pastry until I was stopped dead in the baking aisle by the price of marzipan. It would have cost me $14.00 for the marzipan alone. Initially possessed by the spirit of Fred Mertz, I went into a momentary panic attack. (To the youngsters out there, I suffered sticker shock.) After a quick recovery, I saved money, the premade ingredients and the day by quickly concocting a recipe in my head. Strawberries were on sale and I had a half pint of whipped cream in the fridge. Thus was born, Strawberry Cassata. Without further ado, here's the recipe:

Strawberry Cassata

For the cake:

6 eggs, separated
3/4 sugar, divided
1 tablespoon hot water
1 teaspoon vanilla
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 1/4 cups cake flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350F and line bottom of 10 x 3-inch spring form pan with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whip egg yolks with 1/2 cup sugar, water, vanilla and lemon zest until light yellow and tripled in volume. Sift flour, baking powder and salt into yolk mixture and fold in.

In a separate bowl, and with clean beaters, whip egg whites until soft peaks form. Whip in remaining 1/4 cup sugar, a tablespoon at a time, until stiff peaks form. Fold the whites into the other mixture, gently but thoroughly, until no streaks remain.

Spread batter into prepare pan and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick or wooden skewer inserted comes out clean. Cool completely on rack before removing from pan. Using a large serrated knife, carefully cut cake in two which will leave you with 2 cakes approximately 2-3 inches thick.

For the Sweetened Ricotta:
15 oz contain of ricotta, drained
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Blend all ingredients until well combined. Refrigerate until ready to use.

For Assembly:
1 cup cut up strawberries
Whole strawberries for decorating
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup strawberry liqueur (optional)
4 oz cream cheese
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 pint whipping cream (not all will be used)

Heat water and sugar in sauce pan and boil until sugar is dissolved and liquid reduced by 1 quarter. Add strawberries and simmer for a few minutes just until they start to break down.
Drain liquid and save.
When strawberries are cool, fold them into ricotta mixture.
If using, stir optional liqueur into syrup.
With a pastry brush, brush both sides of cake (on the rough sides) with the syrup.
Spread ricotta mixture evenly on one half of cake and top with the other.
Using a hand mixer, beat cream cheese until soft and then add sugar and beat until mixed. Slowly add cream to mixture and beat until a soft but sturdy consistency is achieved.
Apply frosting to top and sides of cake.
Decorate cake with whole strawberries.

The next cake, though not nearly as complicated as the previous, also uses syrup as a moistener. Like the Strawberry Cassata, it too uses fruit--citrus this time--as not only a main ingredient, but also as a main feature throughout its different components.

The Amalfi Coast in the Camagna region of Italy, stirs up visions of bleached hill towns gazing down into the blue Bay of Salerno, of bright walkways winding up and down and through the small passageways of ancient stark white houses and of carefree tourists relaxing at cafe tables sipping an afternoon quaff of chilled Limoncello, one of many inventions the people of the area have found for which to use the abundance of lemons that grow there. But what would an afternoon, just the time of day for a nibble and a sip (dinner is not until around 9pm), be without that little something something to tide one over til the evening meal?

My first taste of Amalfi Coast Lemon Cake had me hooked. (I'm sure I was "hooked" into eating two pieces that first time.) Not only the cake itself a bliss of lemon flavor but the also the syrup and the outer glaze which held decorative slices of almonds in place. (See upper left hand picture.) This is certainly a cake that works for everyday or a company cake. (For the latter, try dousing a little limoncello on each slice of cake for the grownups before serving. Not that the syrup by itself is not enough to add any needed moisture but...)

Amalfi Lemon Cake

6 oz unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs (room temperature)
Grated rind of four lemons
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
Sliced or slivered almonds for garnishing

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9-inch bundt pan.
In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
Add eggs one at a time beating well after each addition and scraping down sides of bowl.
Beat in lemon zest.
In a separate bowl, sift flour, salt and baking powder together.
In four additions, fold flour and milk into sugar mixture beginning with flour and ending with milk.
Pour into prepared pan and bake in center of the oven for 40-45 minutes or until a wooden skewer or toothpick inserted comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, make the syrup by combining the 1/2 cup of sugar and the water in a saucepan and stirring over high heat until the sugar melts and the mixture boils. Let cook briefly and add lemon juice.

While cake is still warm and still in pan, poke holes throughout with a wooden skewer and drizzle the syrup (holding back several tablespoons) over the top allowing it to seep into the cake.

When the cake is cool, remove from pan to a plate. Boil the remaining syrup and reduce slightly.
Brush onto cake and garnish with almonds.

With the advent of the Internet, has come both a blessing and a curse. By the flip of am switch and the click of a mouse, we are able to do in mere moments what it used to take us many hours and many trips to do in many libraries. (Do they still make note cards?) Just about any question you have can be answered as fast as you can click on a link. Or several links. For several answers. Unfortunately, all those answers are to the very same question. (I wouldn't suggest cramming for a test using the Internet. It's easier just to read the text book.) Where am I going with this and what does it have to do with syrup-moistened cakes? As I mentioned on Monday's show, our final cake (Kentucky Butter Cake) was the winner of the 1963 Pillsbury Bake off. Wanting to double check for accuracy before I repeated the credit, I went online and checked several sources. It turns out that there were several different winners that year depending on which site you checked. If I have to make a judgement on which one is correct, I'm sticking with my initial announcement just because I want to believe that someone named Nell Lewis of Platte City, MO was the winner. If I was a mid western housewife in 1963, I would want that to be my name, my place of residence and my winning cake for the 15th annual Pillsbury Bake off!
So, without further ado, here is the recipe for Kentucky Butter Cake.

Kentucky Butter Cake

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk, well shaken
2 teaspoons vanilla
For syrup:
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons rum
Grease and flour a tube or bundt pan.
Sift flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda together and set aside.
Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time and continue beating until well mixed.
Add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately beginning and ending with flour until just mixed.
Pour into prepared pan.
Bake at 325F for about an hour or until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean.
While cake is baking, make the syrup:
Heat sugar, water and butter in a pan until butter melts and sugar dissolves. Heat to a simmer and take off heat and add rum.

While cake is still warm and in pan, poke holes all around and drizzle syrup on letting it seep into the cake.
Let cake cool on rack for 15 minutes and insert onto plate.

Quick Fix is still to come in my next blog!

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