Friday, May 28, 2010

Mexican Dessert Classic, Made Easy

photo by Anthony Palatta

When I used to teach English to immigrants in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, one of my students brought in a freshly made tres leches cake from a nearby Mexican bakery.  The light, sweet taste and soft, moist texture were a revelation.

Little did I think that one day I could make my own.

That's where Martha Stewart and the June issue of her handy-dandy Everyday Food Magazine came in with an easy, almost foolproof recipe.  Unfortunately, it isn't yet posted online, but you can easily buy a copy of the magazine at your local grocery store, along with all the necessary ingredients.

The nice thing about Everyday Food dessert recipes is the way they manage to simplify techniques and ingredients, yet still achieve impressive results.  I noticed that in many tres leches recipes, you have to separate eggs and beat the yolks and whites separately.  Not in this one.  You just throw in the whole eggs and then beat them up with sugar.  Another unusual feature of the recipe is that rather than creaming the butter, you melt it into a liquid and then fold it into the batter at the end.

This was the first time using the oven in my new apartment for baking, and luckily for me I checked the cake a bit more than halfway through because it was done 15 minutes early!  (Something tells me my oven is quite a bit hotter than the temperature dial indicates...)

The "tres leches" or "three milks" in the cake's name refer to a mixture of three types of milk—evaporated, sweetened condensed, and regular—that get poured over the cake, once it comes out of the oven.  A student of mine from Mexico told me her mother used to cut off the top crust of her cake to get it to really absorb all the liquid, but I just poked my cake with holes using a toothpick.  At first, I was a bit nervous at the idea of pouring all that milk, about 3 cups total, over the cake, but it absorbed the whole thing.

After it cooled, I whipped up some heavy cream and then decorated the cake with sliced strawberries, supremed orange sections, and blackberries.

The result was a deliciously moist and spongy cake with hints of tangy fruit in each bite for contrast in texture and flavor.  The perfect summer dessert.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Rhubarb Season!

photo by Anthony Palatta

Growing up, I had never heard of "rhubarb" until my junior year of high school, when my biology teacher raved about a pie made with the stuff.  Then again, my biology teacher was the kind of guy who had bits of lunch of stuck in his beard.

Years later, when I moved to New York, I had my first taste of strawberry-rhubarb pie, and was immediately hooked.  The tartness of the rhubarb chunks provided the perfect balance to the sweetness of sliced strawberries.  And recently, I tasted a rhubarb pie gone solo, sans strawberries.  The sourness of the rhubarb paired with the flaky, buttery pie crust danced on my tongue.

However, for my first foray at cooking rhubarb, I lost my nerve and decided to go for the classic strawberry combination.  This despite recently reading an article by NYTimes food writer Mark Bittman praising the delights of rhubarb, now in season, as well as exhorting readers to forgo the temptation of adding strawberries, which are not yet in season.

Every weekend, there's a small farmer's market in the park down the street from my apartment, so there I went in search of rhubarb.  The vegetable comes in long red-streaked stalks, like branches of celery.  I realized I wasn't sure how to pick out a good rhubarb.  (Turns out it's quite simple:  just choose a firm stalk without blemishes, and whatever you do, don't eat the leaves!)

Back home, I trimmed off the ends of my rhubarb and cut it into a small dice, as if I were chopping celery for a tuna salad.  I then mixed in two cups of sliced strawberries (using proportions from Bittman's recipe), some sugar, cornstarch, fresh lemon juice, vanilla, cinnamon, and lemon zest.  After patting this down into an 8 x 8 pan, I covered it with the crumb topping from Bittman's article, mainly because it has oats and I've got an extra canister in my pantry that I'm trying to use up.

After baking at 375 for 45 minutes, the rhubarb and strawberries were bubbling through the topping with bright red juicy lava.

Originally, I'd intended to share it with several friends and co-workers.  Instead I've been steadily chipping away at the sweet results all week long.

Rhubarb-Strawberry Crisp


2 lbs rhubarb, cut into small dice
1lb strawberries hulled and quartered
½ cup white sugar
3 tbsp cornstarch
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1 tablespoon zest (about 1 lemon)
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon

Topping:  (from Mark Bittman)
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch salt
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup pecans

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix rhubarb and strawberries with white sugar, cornstarch lemon juice and zest, vanilla, and cinnamon.  Spread in an 8 x 8 glass baking dish.

2. Pulse 6 tablespoons butter in a food processor with brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, oats, and pecans until it looks like wet sand.

3. Pat the topping over the rhubarb mixture and bake until golden and beginning to brown, about 40 minutes.

4.  Let it cool slightly, then serve warm, at room temperature, or even cold from the fridge!

Serves about 8

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Week Off

Every once in a while, even the most hardworking bakers need a bit of time away from the kitchen.  In my case, I had no choice because I've been living without a kitchen while in residence at the Yaddo Artists Colony in Saratoga Springs, New York.

At first I thought maybe I'd try to concoct something in the microwave, or a no-bake dessert that simply required putting together.  Somehow those options didn't seem too tempting.

Anyway, just because I couldn't bake didn't mean I couldn't eat.  And so, off I went into town in search of something delicious to sample.  I ended up at the Putnam Market, where I found not one but three distinctive citrusy desserts.  (I know, three citrus-themed posts in a row.  I promise next week to branch out.)

The first dessert I tasted was a lemon petit four, glazed in white chocolate dyed yellow.  To me, there's something magical about petit fours.  Sometimes I have dreams that I'm at a buffet table covered with trays of petit fours in rainbow colors and I can have as many as I want.  In real life, petit fours do come in an array of astounding colors, but they certainly aren't free, and they don't come cheap, often going for three bucks a pop.  But these amazing little confections, like this one, are worth every penny:  delicate layers of cake glued with lemon curd, coated in a firm candied glaze.

Next, I tried a "lemon burst," a lemon cake with lemon curd and a lemon "ganache" inside that tasted like an intense, creamy mousse.  The cake layers were pillow soft with a bright citrus flavor that seemed to melt into the mousse and curd on top and in between.  I need to try to recreate this one at home.

The final treat was a "mojito cupcake."  The name alone compelled me to buy one.  It's a standard buttery cupcake filled with lime curd and topped with a mint buttercream.  The cupcake, I have to say, tasted nothing like a mojito, but was delicious all the same, maybe because the combination of the mint and lime flavors didn't really blend, as in a mojito.  It was more that I tasted them separately, but each was delicious on its own.  And the cake was feathery, with a rich buttery flavor.

Next week, back to the kitchen!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Eating a Margarita

photo by Anthony Palatta

A few months ago, at the end of a Mexican-themed dinner party, I brought out slices of this pie and my guests were moaning with pleasure.  "Aaron," said one of them.  "How is this possible?"

Part of the fun of this dessert is its name:  margarita pie.  Everything about it is designed to mimic the classic drink.  To make the filling, begin by using your favorite key lime recipe (mine has sweetened condensed milk, fresh lime juice, lime zest, folded into whipped heavy cream), then spike it with a couple tablespoons each of tequila and Grand Marnier.  (You could use Triple Sec instead of the G. M. if you wanted.)

When I serve the pie, I sometimes play a game with my guests and ask them to guess what's in the crust, which has a rich salty-sweet flavor.  Usually they say graham crackers.  Actually, it's crushed pretzels, mixed with brown sugar and butter, to give the flavor of the salted rim of a margarita glass.

I use about 1 1/2 cups pretzels, 3/4 cup of brown sugar, and 4 tablespoons melted butter, all thrown into the food processor.  Press the wet crumbs into your vessel, making sure to put extra pressure against the sides with a measuring cup or your fingers so you don't get a thick crust at the edges.  Bake at 350 for about 11 minutes.

I learned this recipe in a class taught by chef Ann Rossi at the Institute for Culinary Education, only in class we made it in a pie plate.  I find it more impressive to make it in a springform pan, as shown above.  Release the springform in front of your guests for that added "Wow!" factor.

I garnish the edges with half-lime slices, and if I can find mini-pretzels to crush, sometimes I save one and put it in the center.

One warning:  after eating this pie, regular key lime will seem boring by comparison.