Saturday, September 24, 2011

Zuccotto, Dessert of the Gods

Just when I'm ready to write off all things cake, cup and otherwise, something comes along that completely changes my mind. This time it is a cake called zuccotto. It's Italian, as all good things are, and it is divine. 

The cake is constructed, something I love about pastries. It's layers pieced into layers; in the way a good tart has a crust, a filling and a garnish, this cake has a crust filling and more filling. I made the cake for a school presentation--because I had time and desire to make more cake last week (I was so over them until this moment). Look at my kitchen. It's a complete mess; I don't even want to talk about it. I had signed up for the cake on a whim from a list of 18 choices. When I did a quick look online about the cake I saw "semifreddo Italian confection" and I wanted to scream at Chef Mar, "You assigned a freaking ice cream cake?!" I was thinking of the quick Italian ice cream that doesn't need a machine to aerate it, but I was blessedly wrong. Semifreddo in this case refers to mousse.

Mousse has been my new sweet obsession since Sylvain Leroy visited the Institute. I made chocolate-raspberry-lime flavored mousse and plain vanilla for my pastries final, mixed berry for a catering order at work and a chocolate mousse pie with candied pecans and caramel sauce for the deli. This is a new incarnation that tops all the previous efforts, thanks, in no small part, to the inclusion of amaretto liqueur, which improves all baked good, if you ask me.

The cake starts with a pound cake base lining any sort of bowl. I followed Giada dii Laurentis' recipe, which recommended store-bought pound cake making the zuccotto that much simpler. I questioned things pretty whole-heartedly at this point. Martha Stewart's Real Simple makes the cake look so easy and beautiful, but you know the cake in the photograph could very easily be glued together with actual glue. Mine would not have glue and could feasibly fall apart once I turned it out. I had nothing to do though but continue on. I soaked the pound cake in amaretto liqueur and then lined the inside with a concoction of whipped cream, sugar, almond extract and ground almonds leaving a large well to be filled with the food of the gods, chocolate mousse. I closed the cake with more pound cake and refrigerated it overnight. 

The cake flipped out of the bowl in a snap and looked nearly as good as the Martha Stewart version (except for the visible uneven distribution of amaretto syrup in the pound cake). But the real life flavor of the cake was just perfection. The cake was soft with an aroma of almond and cherries, the whipped cream with almond was light and crunch and then the mousse, the mousse was light and fudgy. Just the absolute perfect combination. I won't speak badly of cakes for at least another week. 

Zuccotto: Giada dii Laurentis (with some help from me)
1 loaf store-bought pound cake
2 tablespoons amaretto liqueur
4 cups whipping cream
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup almond, ground
1 teaspoon almond extract
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate morsels

The proportions here depend on how large your bowl is. I used a fairly big on and had to increase the amount of chocolate mousse filling (what a shame). You can buy or make the pound cake for the shell. Slice the cake and arrange along the bottom of the bowl. Whip two cups of the heavy whipping cream with sugar and almond extract until stiff peaks. Fold in the almonds. Spread the cream across the pound cake, leaving a well in the middle. Whip the remaining cream until medium-stiff peaks. Melt the chocolate in the microwave or in a double boiler. Combine the chocolate and whipped cream, being sure that the chocolate is just barely warm to the touch, not too hot or the whipped cream will melt and it won't be good at all. Fill the rest of the bowl with the chocolate mousse. Cover with the rest of the pound cake, wrap and refrigerate until the mousse has set. Turn out, slice and enjoy.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cupcakes and a Broken Dream

Having a cupcake stand at the Old Market Farmer's Market was a lot like the KoolAid stand my sister and I set up in front of our house when we were six and three years old except more expensive. It was fun and silly and we ate more product than we sold.

Back in March when I hated my job, I signed up to sell cupcakes weekly at the farmer's market. Now I love that same job and I hate all things cake. I had this fantasy of my sister and me frolicking around the  Old Market in sundresses selling cutesy little cupcakes with fancy garnishes, flavors like French lavender, apricot and Meyer lemon. We would be the most popular vendors at the market. Men would cluster at our table, vying for our phone numbers. Reality, my friends, is cold and cruel.

They called me Tuesday of last week to see if I could work the market. I said yes without even thinking about the logistics of my weekend. Fridays I wake up at 4 a.m. to bake something I like to make (bread) and work for 10-plus hours on my feet the entire time. That leaves the rest of Friday to make 200-some cupcakes and interview three people for a story due Monday. Stupid. Just stupid. I don't function well on not enough sleep. I get mean and dramatic and I have big meltdowns.

After work and emergency errands, I got started on the cupcakes around 4 p.m. I made a large batch of orange-chiffon and burned one tray. Calmly, I threw them out and kept going--really keeping my cool. My sister joined me at 5:30 or so and got going on the sign (see top photo of the classy sign to go with the "classy" Husker tent we were extremely happy to have). The sign, so cute, but never to be used again. She worked on the sign for four hours. She was happy. She was singing, talking aloud "Oh I just love this. It's so creative. I just love making things like this. Lalala." She cut out letters and ironed them to the banner while watching episodes of Sex and the City. Meanwhile, I labored away in a hell of my own making. Cupcakes are messy. And for a messy person such as myself, things get out of control quickly. There's runny batter and sticky icing, flour everywhere. I would gaze into the oven after each batch, hoping that they would rise to the perfect level, ballooning over the rim of the cupcake liners. But the cake-making was a cinch compared to the icing.

Buttercream, real buttercream, is a hot whipped meringue that you let cool and then add butter until it forms a fully emulsified, creamy and airy, delicious frosting. The key here would be letting the meringue cool. Patience is not something I can boast about personally. In the end, it took half an hour or so of whipping on near maximum velocity in the mixer until I could add the butter. This was after two failed attempts. It was 10 p.m. or so, my sister was nearly done with the sign and I was totally ready to give up. It seemed like a better idea to call the market people and tell them I couldn't do it. Or better, just not show up. I could sleep in until 10 p.m. on a Saturday, at which point the market would be nearly over, and life would be beautiful and cupcake free. Instead, I took a shower. In the shower, I was so tired that I couldn't stand anymore, so I sat down and took a bath. I thought about giving up a little more. One more attempt at buttercream, I thought, one more attempt.

I sent my sister to the store for more butter and eggs. I hated just a little to tear her away from the happy world of sign-making into the den of cupcakery, but also, I wanted to scream at her. I told her we should give up. She was so cheery in her response "No, this is great." Her sweetness doesn't belong with the cupcakes. I called my mom. We had a pep talk, I got a new plan and called Allison to pick up cream cheese and powdered sugar at the store. "I'm baaaack," she answered in a sing-song voice. There's nothing worse than happiness when all you want to do is throw a pastry bag of whipped cream at the wall (which I had earlier that day at work). But it worked. Allison filled the peach cupcakes with mousse while I made cream cheese icing, just enough for the peach and orange-chiffon cupcakes. And this time, I made the buttercream right. I was in bed in time for four hours of sleep for the second night in a row.

Even after the cupcakes were made, our farmer's market dreams did not come true. We did not wear sundresses and only a few young men visited our tent but only because they happen to be good friends. We froze our asses off when Seattle weather descended upon Omaha, Neb., in September. Hardly anyone came to the market; the balloon man who usually has a line 10 deep was pacing around quite bored. I actually will give myself a little credit for not crying on the spot. I didn't care anymore about selling the cupcakes to make back all the money I had spent on supplies and a portion scoop ($18!). At least the cupcakes were over and I never have to make them again. And the sign really was quite cute

Friday, September 9, 2011

Tortilla Soup

Some weeks life feels a little like a no-hit winner. It's long. Nothing really good is happening. Thankfully someone makes a mistake and you get on base with a ball and you steal your way to home plate.

I chipped a tooth at work this week. Big time. I looked like a hillbilly when I opened my mouth. I bumped into a cart I was pushing when it bumped into the sink in the meat kitchen. My right front tooth just crumbled in my mouth, painlessly but dramatically nonetheless. In the basement bathroom, I cried, sobbed actually, and for three straight hours, any extended thought spent on my tooth and my now inability to ever get a date ever again led to more and more tears. It wasn't until lunch that I pulled it together and not until 2 p.m. that I got official word that workman's comp was going to cover it. One of my co-workers hugged me and said "Don't worry baby, you still sexy." Something I needed to hear, though I'm not sure I really believe I'm sexy at all (I'll take the compliment).

I got my tooth filled the next morning and things are fine, though no dates to speak of--I will forever blame the tooth. I've been babying my mouth ever since. Avoiding apples and carrots, even gingerly biting into crackers with my left front tooth instead of the right. Soup seemed about right for the occasion. So I dusted off my Dutch oven for the first time in months and made a tortilla soup.

I don't just search for any recipes online. There are a lot of bunk tips on the interwebs. Mark Bittman plus anything food is a worthy search, and this time proved to be no error. I didn't even have all the ingredients--avocado would have been a plus, but my fresh chili pepper (straight from the garden) worked just fine. The garden is wilting a little, so I plucked all the ripe black cherry tomatoes I could and plopped them in with an onion and some garlic. I added about a tablespoon of chili powder plus my very spicy pepper (serrano? habanero? not sure). The soup, once blended with roasted chicken added, was comforting in a way only soup can be with a little fire to finish.

Tortilla Soup: inspired by Mark Bittman
6 flour tortillas
1/2 cup canola oil
1 large onion, small dice
3 garlic cloves, sliced
3 medium tomatoes, diced
1 serrano pepper, finely chopped
1 teaspoon chili powder
6 cups chicken stock
6 ounces shredded chicken
juice from one lime (or lemon)
avocado and Mexican cheese to garnish

Heat up the oil and then fry the tortillas. Remove from pan. I tried this but my tortillas were about one year old and started to smell sour and break apart in the pot so I tossed them. Chips will work fine. With the remaining oil, saute the onion for a couple minutes then the garlic, which cooks faster and should be added second. Once the aromatics have softened, add the tomatoes, the pepper and the chili powder. Saute for five minutes. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Puree the soup. Put back in the pot and add the chicken. Simmer for five minutes until chicken is warm. Add juice and serve garnished with avocado and/or cheese.