Friday, January 23, 2009

The Great Pear Cake

I love cake.
(That sentence, by the way, should be pronounced with an emphasis upon every word, slow and punctuated with no small sense of gravity. Let's try again.)

I love cake.
(Yes. Very good.)

Whether dense and bready like a cornmeal cake, or an airy layered confection cool from the fridge, I have since childhood conducted a long and sustained love affair with anything taking cake form. Cakes can be comfortable, impressive, assuring, sublime; they make the most lovely gifts on any occasion, but are equally enjoyable lifted silently in the night, cut off sliver by innocent sliver.

This particular cake is a knock-out. Though it reads like a carrot cake, it also asserts itself a bit beyond the paradigm with its subtle pear taste and sophisticated frosting made with lemon and honey. And it's easy. So very, very easy.

Pear Cake with Lemon-Honey Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from

For the cake:
2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1/3 cup whole milk
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 cups coarsely grated peeled Bosc pears (from about 3 pounds), well drained
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted, chopped

For the frosting:
1 package cream cheese (here's where you could use more; the recipe cut off so I wasn't sure)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. grated lemon peel
3/4 cup honey

For cake: Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter and flour two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides. Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and spices in large bowl. Make well in center of flour mixture. Add oil, eggs, milk and vanilla; whisk just until evenly moistened. Fold in pears and nuts; divide between pans.

Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on racks.

For frosting: Beat cream cheese, butter, powdered sugar, vanilla and lemon peel in large bowl until fluffy. Add honey and beat until smooth. If frosting is very soft, chill until firm enough to spread.

Cut around cakes; turn out of pans.* Place 1 cake layer, flat side up, on platter. Spread with 1 cup frosting. Top with second layer, flat side down. Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake.

*or if you're like me and only have pie pans, turn it out of the pan and then cut each layer into a more circular shape, using the base of the pie as your guide. This yields a smaller, but arguably more endearing cake. The best part about this is your leftover scraps, which you can frost:

...and then eat for yourself. It's the gift that keeps on giving!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Green Goddess Dressing Vegetable Platter

If you're ever wondering what to bring to a dinner party, brunch, or even holiday feast, look no further. It's a cinch to make, fun to arrange, green and fresh and delicious. Throw all the ingredients into a food processor, blanch some vegetables, and you have the makings of a simple and beautiful platter.

And the best part about green goddess dressing is that you can use any herbs you want. My version uses parsley, tarragon, and chives; I've also seen it done with dill, basil, and probably any combination you desire. Add a green onion and a tad vinegar, and you're golden...oops!

Green Goddess Dressing
adapted from Gourmet, March 2002

Although I'm not one for major substitutions, I took one look at the original recipe and thought surely one can substitute something for that whole cup of mayonnaise. So I tried using half a cup plain yogurt and a half cup mayo, and ended up liking it very much: it was a bit tangy, not as thick, and overall deemed a good decision. I also upped the amount of herbs, as I like my dressing intensely aromatic.

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup plain yogurt
3 anchovy fillets, minced
1 chopped scallion

2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
1 teaspoon tarragon (or white wine) vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste

Purée all ingredients in a food processor or blender. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and pour into a small bowl nestled amongst an array of vegetables. My favorites are asparagus, snow peas, beans, carrots, celery and cucumbers; I usually blanch* the first four.

*On blanching: Bring a pot of water to boil and liberally salt. Cook vegetables in like batches until crisp-tender, about 3-5 minutes (depending on the vegetable.) When finished, "shock" them in a bowl of ice water in order to preserve freshness and color.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pan-browned Brussels Sprouts

Growing up, I never had a strong aversion to Brussels sprouts. Perhaps it's because I hardly encountered them, and if I did have that sickly, limp, overly bitter version remembered and reviled by so many people, I must have conveniently blocked it from my mind. (Lima beans, however, are a different story.)

So when I first found this dish featured on Smitten Kitchen, I was happy to find a recipe for Brussels sprouts, period. Little did I know that it would transform the lowly, oft-dismissed sprout into a golden god in the minds of all who ate it, especially those reliving the childhood trauma of sitting down to these mini cabbages. And oh, am I glad I found it. They come out warm and welcoming, their beautiful browned flavor accented by roasted pine nuts. The garlic flavor does not overwhelm the dish, but rather serves as a mellow undertone. We scooped them up with expressions of delight--partially, of course, because we were eating brussels sprouts (ew? never!), but more, I think, because these were just simply divine.

Pan Browned
Brussels Sprouts
adapted from

1/2 lb Brussels sprouts
2 large garlic cloves (I used 1)
1 1/2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp pine nuts

Trim Brussels sprouts and halve lengthwise. Cut garlic into very thin slices. In a 10-inch heavy skillet (preferably well-seasoned cast iron) melt 1 tablespoon butter with oil over moderate heat and cook garlic, stirring, until pale golden. Transfer garlic with a slotted spoon to a small bowl. Reduce heat to low and arrange sprouts in skillet, cut sides down, in one layer. Sprinkle sprouts with pine nuts and salt to taste. Cook sprouts, without turning, until crisp-tender and undersides are golden brown, about 15 minutes.

With tongs transfer sprouts to a plate, browned sides up. Add garlic and remaining 1/2 tablespoon butter to skillet and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until pine nuts are more evenly pale golden, about 1 minute. Spoon mixture over sprouts and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Virginia Woolf on food

It is already well-established that I love Virginia Woolf.  I love her
irony, her whimsy, her luminous sentences; I even love her habitual use of
the semi-colon. But one thing that often goes overlooked--a thing, I
confess, of which I am overly fond--is her generous descriptions of food.
Take, for example, the following bit from "A Room of One's Own":

It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that
luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that
was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom
spare a word for what was eaten. It is part of the novelist's convention
not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings, as if soup and salmon and
ducklings were of no importance whatsoever, as if nobody ever smoked a
cigar or drank a glass of wine. Here, however, I shall take the liberty
to defy that convention and to tell you that the lunch on this occasion
began with soles, sunk in a deep dish, over which the college cook had
spread a counterpane of the whitest cream, save that it was branded here
and there with brown spots like the spots on the flanks of a doe. After
that came the partridges, but if this suggests a couple of bald, brown
birds on a plate you are mistaken. The partridges, many and various,
came with all their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the
sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard;
their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent. And no sooner
had the roast and its retinue been done with than the silent servingman,
the Beadle himself perhaps in a milder manifestation, set before us,
wreathed in napkins, a confection which rose all sugar from the waves.
To call it pudding and so relate it to rice and tapioca would be an
insult. Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed
crimson; had been emptied; had been filled. And thus by degrees was lit,
half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard
little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out
upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow which
is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No
need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself. We are all going to
heaven and Vandyck is of the company--in other words, how good life
seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that
grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one's kind, as,
lighting a good cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the

This all, of course, serves as an elaborate analogy for the varying states
of men's and women's colleges; she later goes on to describe a more stodgy
dinner at Fernham, the women's college, in which she is served more homely
fare ("biscuits and cheese came next, and here the water-jug was liberally
passed round, for it is the nature of biscuits to be dry, and these were
biscuits to the core"). I applaud her move here; the feminist, certainly,
and especially the culinary. I like a woman who takes her food seriously
and writes about it beautifully and in such a compelling fashion
(partridges, many and various!)

It is precisely in this spirit that I begin this food blog. Although I may
not be up to the whole retinue of sauces to go with the partridges (many,
various) nor the sprouts foliated as rosebuds (but more succulent), I
promise you that like Virginia Woolf, in my kitchen at least I will overlook
all the witty things said and wise things done, and focus on the more
important aspect of breakfast, lunch, and dinner--what was eaten.