Monday, February 28, 2011

Amaretto Peach and custard cake

My Dad never had much of a sweet tooth. Whenever a special event was taking place and he would be asked, 'what kind of cake would you like to have?' the answer was always the same-- plain white. When I say plain yellow, that translates according to Dad as, no frills, no frostings, no embellishments whatsoever. And if it were made from a packaged box, even better.
I think for this reason I've never been a big fan of yellow cakes. But then some years ago, I found a recipe in a magazine that offered the most moist yellow cake recipe I'd ever tried, and I've been making it ever since. Dad would probably just love this cake, but if he really had the option of choosing, he'd still stick with 'plain Jane', dry yellow cake.

Last August when juicy fresh peaches were abundant in my neck of the woods, and while it didn't hurt any to have good friends that just happen to have a fruit orchard, I put every last peach that came my way, and there were bushels, to the task. I simply adore fresh peaches. With some of my golden treasures I made peach brandy, a spicy peach salsa, fabulous jellies, I canned many quarts for winter use, froze some for breakfast scones and made an old family favorite -- Amaretto peach jam for holiday gift giving, and was wise enough to put a few jars aside just for us. I'll save the jam recipe for another post, but here's the recipe for the best yellow cake you'll ever want to prepare. Even straight up and simply plain, it's a wonderful recipe. The really special treat for me is this fluffy golden cake, redolent flavor of vanilla, that always makes me go back for seconds.

Moist Yellow Cake

3/4 cups butter
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs--fresh from the farm, even better
2 cups flour
1 TBLS baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup whole milk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Butter and flour two 8-inch cake pans. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy-about 10 minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Sift the flour, salt and baking powder and add, a little bit at a time, alternating with the milk and vanilla, while beating. Beat until very smooth. Pour into prepared bake pans and bake 30 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool on wire racks for 15 minutes. Then remove cakes from pans and cool completely on racks. While the cake cools, prepare the pastry cream filling. When the cakes are cool, place one on a cake dish. Spread a layer of preserve along with a thin layer of custard. Top with second cake and spread remaining custard on top. You may use any fruit preserve you have on hand, or even a sprinkling of Amaretto, about a tablespoon or so if you don't want to use the custard filling--but for me, this is the best part.

Simple pastry cream

This is a basic all purpose pastry cream that can be used for a variety of desserts: ├ęclairs, cream puffs, Napoleans, fruit tarts, even layered cakes. And you may use any flavorings such as vanilla, almond or anise extracts to taste.

2 cups milk
2 eggs – room temp
¾ cup sugar
½ cup all purpose flour
1 tsp flavoring – or omit.. it’s yummy enough without

Bring milk to scalding stage in a pan or double boiler (Do not allow it to boil.) Beat the sugar, eggs and flour together with a whisk and pour into the scalded milk. Lower the heat and with a wooden spoon, stir continuously until the pudding has thickened. Remove from heat and add your flavoring.

I've used this base yellow cake recipe for numerous dessert dishes here, so use your imagination. Fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced on top of the custard comes to mind vividly ;) or even chocolate custard filling with a simple drizzled ganache topping will just fly off your serving dish. A very lovely orange torte can be assembled easily from this basic cake as well. Slice the cakes horizontally in half once cooled to form four layers,with a drizzling of (about a tablespoon) before spreading the custard of Grand Marnier along with an orange sour cream frosting is just plain scrumptious! Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hearty Farro soup

All in all this has been a great week. The snow never materialized that the weatherman predicted, my tomato and pepper seedings are beginning to sprout, and I made a big pot of farro and bean soup. This is a soup that I make routinely around here, and is a fave of my family.

Who wouldn’t enjoy this delicate nutty whole grain that’s extremely satisfying. An ancient grain, that is rich in fiber, and so very easily digested, plus one that’s low in gluten and is an extremely versatile whole grain. From soups to salads, to risotto like dishes it will heartily fill you up without the calories. It’s just that good! Try some and maybe you can make it a favorite of your family too!

I was lucky enough to come across Seeds From Italy in one of my ordering searches for San Marzano tomato seeds one day, and even better, they are located right here in New England. Yes, I am one of those die hard gardeners, that is seriously itching to get her hands back into the earth.

San Marzano seedings Not too sweet are they?

What a great selection of seed they offer along with rapid shipping. I ended up ordering many basils, some more herbs, romanesco zucchini that I'm anxious to compare to what I normally grow, peperone friggitello, a frying pepper from Naples, (I could feel my Nonna & Dad smiling down on me when I picked these out), far too many San Marzano's--but the garden wouldn't be complete without them, along with a new chard that was advertised to 'cut & come again'-- verde da taglio. We are major chard eaters here, so this too will be a fun seed to try out for me. After this long snowy winter--green is just what I need to see. So if your in the market for some seed directly from Italy, give them a try--you won't be disappointed.

There you go, once I get started on gardening, there's no stopping me ;-) But now you need to try some fabulous farro soup. Add whatever beans you have on hand. I used a mix of dry pinto and frozen edamame that I tossed in at the very end of the cook, along with a few handfuls of baby spinach, or even try some's all good and plenty of cheese.

Hearty Farro Soup

1 cup dried pinto bean - save the liquid you will cook them in
2 sage leaves, minced
3 dried bay leaves, crumbled
olive oil, or you may use canned beans
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 medium shallots, minced
1/4 cup white wine
2 stalks celery, minced
3 carrots, diced
a few slices of pancetta, chopped
1 1/4 cups farro, rinsed
8 oz low salt vegetable broth -- if using canned beans, use 16 oz of broth
3 TBLS tomato paste
1/2 cup frozen edamame
1 cup baby spinach or kale, roughly torn
fresh parsley
fresh basil
sea salt, ground pepper to taste

Soak the beans overnight, or for at least eight hours. Cover the beans with water, sage, bay leaf and a clove of garlic and bring to a medium boil. Once it begins to boil, turn it down to just a simmer and cook until beans become tender, about an hour. Strain the beans, reserving the liquid and set aside.

In a large pot saute the pancetta, shallots and garlic in olive oil five minutes. Add white wine, carrots, celery and tomato paste. Cook a few minutes more. While this is cooking, take two thirds of your cooked beans and run them through a food processor until you have a smooth paste. You can add some of the vegetable broth or reserved cooking liquids to help form the paste. Add this puree to the pot along with the remaining whole, unprocessed beans, your rinsed farro and fresh herbs. Add vegetable broth or enough water to cover, plus an inch of liquids. I don't add my salt until the end of the cook. Cover and simmer about an hour or until the farro puffs up and tender. This grain absorbs a lot of fluids during the cook, so you may need to add a little more liquid. During the last ten minutes of cooking, add edamame and fresh spinach. Give it a few stirs while it's simmering away and try not to dip into this delicious broth before serving ;) Serve with plenty of grated parmesan cheese and some crusty bread. I really love this soup served even better, reheated the next day.. when it becomes a thick more stew like dish. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Creamy Polenta

I absolutely adore polenta. How about you? Polenta is a ground cornmeal that can be served hot and creamy, or once it sets, cut into shapes and grilled. This past week, I served it both ways. It all began with a big pot of brasciole that I had simmering on the stove. The sauce was just too inviting and being the chilly day that it was, I decided to prepare an easy lunch for myself. One of my favorite dishes is simply creamy polenta with sauce.A few slices of pecorina and viola! Simple, filling and delicious lunch.

Once the polenta was made, I scooped out what I'd need and with the rest, added a bit of this and a bit of that and poured it all out onto a damp sheet pan spread about 1/2 inch thick. There it sat to cool and shape. I wasn't certain just what I was going to do with this excess, but a friend sent me her Mama's recipe for dolce polenta that really sounded too good not to try.

Well, the dolce never materialized because I forgot I had this wrapped half sheet pan until a couple of days later. I'm kicking myself now for not setting some of it aside to freeze, as polenta freezes beautifully. Instead, I decided to bake it--layering it with assorted mushrooms and loads of cheese. I make this often, but typically with greens--spinach, chards or kale and sometimes even sausage, sort of a vegetable pasticchio, the polenta being substituted for lasagne noodles, and served with a simple salad on the side.
It didn't turn out as formed as any baked polenta I'd made in the past,nor visually appealing but was it ever scrumptious! So if you've never tried making creamy polenta, give it a try--you won't be sorry.

Creamy Polenta

1 1/2 cups fine cornmeal or half fine ground & half coarse meal
2 cups water
1 1/2 cups light cream
1 1/2 tsp Kosher salt
2 TBLS butter
1 cup whole milk
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup grated Pecorino cheese
ground black pepper
herbs of choice * optional
1/4 cup EV Olive oil to drizzle over at the end of the cook

In a large saucepan bring the cream and water to a light boil. Add the salt and ground pepper and then gradually add the cornmeal while stirring with a whisk, whisking vigorously to prevent lumps from forming in the cornmeal. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer, stirring constantly. The polenta should be smooth and some large bubbles may pop to the surface, so do be careful. Remove from heat and add butter cheese and milk. Stir very well until all is blended. For this batch I sprinkled in some dry ground rosemary, thyme and summer savory, but this is optional. Just before serving drizzle with olive oil, mix once again and serve plain, or with a ladle of fresh tomato sauce and dig in. Enjoy!

Now if you want to try my baked polenta you should have more than enough creamy polenta now on hand. Pour off approximately 3 cups of finished polenta while it's still hot onto a dampened sheet pan. Spread it all out to a thickness of about 1/2 inch. Allow to set, about an hour. Or you can forget about it like I did :-) Just keep it covered and refrigerated until ready to use.

Baked Polenta,Creamy Mushrooms & Fontina

8 creamy (set up & (firm) polenta squares, cut into 3 inch squares
2 TBLS dried porcini mushrooms
1/2 cup hot water
1/2 lb fresh button mushrooms, sliced
1/2 lb fresh shittake mushrooms, sliced thin
1 TBLS olive oil
2 TBLS unsalted butter
1 medium onion, sliced
1 shallot, minced
3 TBLS white wine
sea salt & white pepper
1/2 cup light cream
1 1/2 cups shredded fontina cheese
1/4 cup grated parmigiano

Mushroom Sauce

Combine the dried porcini mushrooms with the hot water in a bowl and allow to sit for an hour until softened completely. Remove the porcini, squeezing out excess water, reserving all the liquid. Roughly chop the mushrooms and set aside.

In a skillet melt the olive oil with butter over medium heat. Add the onions slices and shallot and saute just a few minutes until softened. Add the porcini mushrooms and saute another five minutes or so. Add the rest of the sliced mushrooms and continue to saute until tender, about five minutes. Pour wine over all. Add sea salt and pepper and then add the reserved shitake mushroom liquid. Allow this all to simmer for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Then, stir in the cream and bring to a light simmer. Once it begins to simmer, remove the pan from heat.

Place half the polenta squares in a bottom layer in a lightly oiled casserole dish. Spread half the mushroom sauce over them, then sprinkle with half the blended cheeses. Place the top layer of polenta squares over the cheese. Spoon the remaining mushroom sauce and sprinkle on the remaining cheese. Bake in a 350 degree oven until the cheese is melted and polenta is bubbling. Remove from the oven and allow to settle for about 10 minutes before cutting and serving. Once baked, the polenta, sauce and cheeses fuse into one delicioso dish. Enjoy!