Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Italian Cream Cake

I hit the cake jackpot this weekend. Actually, the true jackpot was a few years ago, I suppose, when The Carnivore's lovely Aunt Jen brought an Italian Cream Cake to a family function and changed the way I looked at cakes forever.

See, I'm not really a cake person. I mean, there have been a few memorable cakes, most notably my wedding cake (which I could hardly taste on our wedding day because my stomach was doing backflips, but which I did enjoy one year later, defrosted and slightly stale, on our first anniversary); but for the most part, if it's time for dessert, I'd rather have a tiramisu or a cannoli or, God help us all, a true pain au chocolat. The Carnivore goes for German Chocolate Cakes, which I like, but as a general rule, if there's a cake sitting around here, it will get stale before we finish it.

My first taste of an Italian Cream Cake was a life-changer though, and Aunt Jen sends us home with the better part of one of these cakes every couple of years. She rocks, that Aunt Jen.

For some reason though, mostly due to my inexperience with, and ambivalence towards, cakes, I elevated those Italian Cream Cakes to some bizarre status by which it never even occurred to me to actually bake one myself. I would just wait patiently for Christmas to roll around, and then, if Aunt Jen showed up with cookies or pie, I would sigh pitifully and just let my hedonistic craving simmer for another year.

Often, there is no method to my madness.

Last September, for Little Miss Piggy's first birthday, I lucked into a Strawberry Cream Cake recipe that we fell head-over-heels for; in fact, I made another one the very next month for another birthday. Come to think of it, maybe I do love cakes - that is a really spectacular recipe.

This year though, I wanted something different for Little Miss Piggy's second birthday. This was the last year, I figured, that I would be able to get away with a small luncheon rather than a messy shindig, and now that she is, ahem, getting a little more opinionated with each passing minute, this will most likely also be my last chance to choose the recipe myself.

So of course, since I am known for organization and planning, I stared balefully at my shelves full of cookbooks and started to panic a few days before the birthday. And then, after walking away numerous times and procrastinating for another day or two, as I was squinting again at the cookbooks, I started thinking lustfully about Italian Cream Cakes.

Still, it took a few minutes before it even occurred to me that I could bake one myself; then, and only then, did I finally started to get interested in the process. I wasn't sure where to even start looking for this kind of recipe though, and my first few book choices yielded nothing but frustration; then, in a moment of desperation, I pulled down my tattered old Southern Living annual index that covers something like 20 years worth of their cookbooks, and I stumbled right into a recipe that was listed in the 1996 cookbook which, because pigs were flying somewhere, was indeed one of the books I owned.

Let it be known that I am admitting publicly that I would be lost without my mother and her yard sale scavenging.

It was still with no small amount of trepidation that I set to work on this cake the afternoon before Little Miss Piggy's birthday. I have a history of cake-baking trauma, and since I was working on a tight schedule, with layer-cooling time to be built in, and places to be both that evening and the following morning before I needed to cook the other elements of her birthday lunch, to say I was pushing my luck was putting it mildly.

And I do realize how utterly absurd it is that I was even dealing with nerves over a two-year-old's birthday meal, but I have long since grown accustomed to my neuroses and rarely even question them anymore.

The thing is though, this recipe turned out to be foolproof (even for me), and so completely delicious that I swear my eyes rolled back in my head. There were three layers involved, which is far easier than it sounds, and the crumb was simultaneously rich and delicate at the same time, if you can imagine. Beaten egg whites were folded into the batter, which allowed for a certain amount of lightness of texture, and large and luscious amounts of coconut and buttermilk were mixed in as well, giving a moist decadence that paired gloriously with the toasted pecans in the frosting.

We had this cake polished off within 36 hours and I'm thinking seriously about making this The Holiday Recipe to accompany us to any and all potluck gatherings this winter. It is an uncommon enough recipe that it should be a welcome addition at most tables, but is rustic enough in presentation to cover a multitude of cake-decorating sins, which means even I should be able to pull this off.


ITALIAN CREAM CAKE (from Southern Living, serves 12 or so)
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 5 large eggs, separated
  • 1 Tbs vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup sweetened flaked coconut
  • Nutty Cream Cheese Frosting (recipe follows)
  1. Beat butter and shortening at medium speed with an electric mixer until fluffy; gradually add sugar, beating well. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating until blended after each one. Add vanilla and beat until blended.
  2. In a separate medium bowl, combine flour & baking soda.
  3. Add flour mixture to butter mixture, in batches, alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat at low speed until blended after each addition. Stir in coconut.
  4. In a clean bowl, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form (this takes a few minutes and provides endless entertainment to young children); fold whites into batter.
  5. Pour batter into three heavily greased and floured 9-inch round cake pans.
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes, then run a knife around each pan to loosen the layers and remove from pans; cool completely on wire racks or on parchment paper laid on a counter.
  7. Spread Nutty Cream Cheese Frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake (refrigerating or briefly freezing cake layers will allow for easier frosting - so that layers do not tear so much, though perfection is not necessary).
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 8-oz package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 Tbs vanilla extract
  • 16-oz package powdered sugar, sifted
  1. Bake pecans in a shallow pan at 350 degrees for 5 to 10 minutes, until toasted. Cool.
  2. Beat cream cheese, butter and vanilla at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Add sugar in batches, beating at low speed until blended. Beat at high speed until blended; stir in pecans.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Oregon Tuna Melt

I almost hate to admit this, because by saying it, it seems more starkly true somehow, but I'm quickly becoming a fan of fast and easy dinners. Not the capital letter kind of Fast-And-Easy that involves using cans of Cream of Mushroom or buying frozen shredded potatoes, mind you, but there are times in a person's life when kneading dough and simmering stocks just can't be wedged into the schedule.

I don't want to make a habit out of all this rushing around, because being in a hurry just goes against the whole lifestyle I'm attempting to raise my children within, but being busy for a season has it's place, too. And for right now, there are a couple days a week in which we're nearly out of breath when the day is through, after we've done our lessons, run errands, raced The Big Boy either to Flag Football or home from his homeschool P.E. or fine arts classes, and found the time to (grrr) make an Egyptian Death Mask between fielding phone calls from clients.

Those kinds of days are not the best time to roll out fresh pasta or to braise a cabbage, if you know what I mean.

So we're making a few compromises around here for now. I still insist on us sitting down at the table as a family every evening to eat our dinner, even if we do have to shovel everything in and hop back up 20 minutes later, and I still want us to eat well, both healthfully and mindfully, which means, of course, no entrees out of boxes and no over-cooked vegetables (a girl has to have her limits), but the bread won't always be from scratch anymore.

Most of my recipes are not conducive to eating on the fly, so I've been digging around for more time-conscious dishes lately and while some of them have been disappointing, we hit the jackpot when I came across a Tuna Melt recipe in a recent issue of Food & Wine. We're fans of hot sandwiches anyway, especially those that are gooey and oozy with melted cheese (be still my beating heart), but this one, which uses rich, tangy balsamic vinegar in lieu of mayonnaise in the tuna salad, and which adds a little sprinkle of crushed red pepper and fresh basil to brighten up that aforementioned gooey, oozy, melted cheese has turned into our new go-to dish on those crazy busy nights.

Actually, I could eat this sandwich any night of the week. This is tuna melt nirvana. And it's a silly kind of fast and easy, taking only about 20 minutes to throw together and lending itself pleasantly to a little bit of messiness in presentation. Just like my life right now.


OREGON TUNA MELTS (adapted from Food & Wine, serves 4)

Note: I have been using hoagie rolls from the deli, though I would prefer a ciabatta roll if given the, um, added time to bake fresh bread, but a little bit of hollowed out baguette would work just as well. Also, rather than using a panini press, which I don't have, I have instead been cooking these on a cast-iron grill pan, weighing them down with a heavy, pre-heated cast-iron skillet laid on top of the sandwiches while they cook.
  • Two 6-oz cans of tuna packed in olive oil, drained
  • 1/4 cup finely diced red onion
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbs balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Tbs minced fresh basil
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
  • salt & freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 ciabatta or hoagie rolls, split (see note above)
  • Dijon mustard and mayonnaise, for spreading
  • 6 oz Swiss or cheddar cheese, sliced into 1/4-inch thick slices
  • 4 Kosher dill pickles, sliced lengthwise into 1/8-inch thick strips
  • 2 Tbs unsalted butter, melted
  1. In a medium bowl, mix the tuna with the onion, olive oil, vinegar, basis and crushed red pepper. Season with salt & pepper.
  2. Heat a grill pan, griddle or panini press.
  3. Spread mustard on the cut sides of four of the pieces of bread, and mayonnaise on the cut sides of the remaining four pieces. Divide the cheese amongst the pieces of bread (the cheese should be on both the top and bottom of the finished sandwiches). Spread the tuna salad on 4 of the pieces of bread and top with the pickles. Close the sandwiches and spread the outsides of the rolls with butter.
  4. Cook the sandwiches over low to medium heat (see note above) for about 5 to 10 minutes, until cheese is melted and bread is browned. If bread is browning too quickly, reduce heat so the cheese has time to melt.
  5. Cut the sandwiches in half and serve immediately.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Homemade Play Dough

Our kitchen really is, for better or worse, the center of our household. Physically, it is the newly-built room that connects the two hundred-year-old houses we renovated into one sprawling, slightly odd residence, but of course I am being a little less literal when I refer to it as our center. The majority of our time is spent in this room, if not cooking and eating, then doing schoolwork, playing and writing. There is now a race car rug by the fireplace, parking against the walls for not one, but two tricycles; a small table for coloring and other art projects, a drawer devoted to marbles, a basket full of two or three thousand Hot Wheels, and a paint-spattered school desk that I pull up next to the kitchen table when The Big Boy practices his handwriting.

We love this room.

The kids have long since learned to appreciate cooking time, and they both happily pull up chairs on which to stand and, um, help me prepare meals; and the sound of the mixer will bring them careening from opposite ends of the property so they can be first to lick the beater. Come to think of it, I even kept a bassinet in the kitchen for Little Miss Piggy when she was an infant, and her favorite book for the longest time was A Little Book of English Teas. The Big Boy still happily snuggles up to look through cookbooks and cooking magazines with me, and can spend hours debating the merits of different cake icings. His picture pages that we make for letter sounds are, of course, covered in clippings of food photographs ('A' is for avocados, asparagus, apples; 'F' is for fruit, fish, fennel...).

I can only hope these are the things happy childhood memories are made of. I mean, I spent my formative years following my mother around her garden, and that has been nothing but a positive influence in my life. This should be the same, right?

It's either that, or they'll spend thousands on therapy with which to overcome this madness...

Lately, our learning projects have begun to take over the kitchen - after all, what other room is as full of math manipulatives and craft supplies - and the kids have learned the absolute joy involved in making our own play dough.

Actually, I don't think 'absolute joy' is an adequate enough descriptor in this case. The Big Boy was so transfixed the first time we made a batch, and he was so utterly thrilled by how quickly it came together, that he begs almost daily to make more, and I'm fast running out of plastic containers to devote to the cause (though I have found play dough containment to be the perfect use for those non-recyclable plastic ricotta cheese and sour cream tubs).

Play dough can be made with items nearly always kept around the house (well, the kitchen, at least) and is shockingly easy to make; so surprising, in fact, that I am embarrassed to admit I used to buy Play-Doh at the store. And while the homemade version still should never be referred to as 'edible' (because who knows how toxic food coloring really is), at least I don't sweat things nearly as much when Little Miss Piggy ingests her usual RDA serving of the fascinating little dough.

The whole preparation takes less than 15 minutes, it seems to keep nearly forever as long as it is kept in an air-tight container (after being pried from the plump little hands of sleeping youngsters), and the texture of this stuff is far superior to the store-bought version. Truth be told, I now grab handfuls of homemade play dough and squeeze it like a stress ball when I go through those inevitable, not-quite-daily, moments in which I question my sanity in choosing to embark on this homeschool adventure in the first place.


HOMEMADE PLAY DOUGH (makes about two cups)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 1 Tbs vegetable oil
  • 2 tsps cream of tartar
  • 5 to 10 drops of food coloring
  1. Combine the flour, water, salt, oil and cream of tartar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture forms a ball, about 3 to 5 minutes.
  2. Cool on waxed paper for a couple minutes.
  3. When cool enough to handle, knead in the food coloring a few drops at a time until desired color is achieved.
  4. Store in a plastic container or ziplock bag.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes and Herbs

I have found a way to prolong summer. Here in September, when the heat is finally breaking and our schedules are already getting overbooked for the year, I am wistful about the end of summer. The sounds of football are too loud, and with them come the inevitable changing of the color of the leaves, plans for Halloween costumes (oh wait, I'm actually excited about that part), and the waning of the summer harvests. But like I said, I can make summer last longer now.

The tomato season is still going relatively strong around here at the farmer's markets, and the thing is, fresh tomatoes and basil actually harness the flavor of summer. It is a splendid thing, really, and even now, when the novelty of fresh tomatoes is wearing thin, most notably for those who have been canning and freezing tomatoes until their kitchens were covered in seeds and juice, the taste of summer remains a welcome thing indeed.

I spent the better part of July chasing the perfect recipe for fresh tomatoes and pasta, and nearly drove The Carnivore crazy with practically imperceptible variations on the dish. It seemed that I never received more than one pound at a time of fresh tomatoes in our CSA box each week, not enough to do very much with, after all, and besides, sometimes I just can't let a project go until it has been conquered. That, of course, was precisely how I felt about this recipe quest.

If I found myself with green tomatoes, I fried them (be still my beating heart) and if I picked up two pounds of red tomatoes at the farmer's market on Saturday mornings, then I made salsa. Clearly I was running low on creativity, though I prefer to view such inertia as centering on my great love for those two recipes. During the week though, when we would come in hot and tired from afternoons splashing around at the pool, and The Carnivore would arrive home exhausted from working in 90-degree heat, time was short and our appetites were more in line with simple, light dinners than anything else.

So I worked diligently, if slightly neurotically, at finding the best way to serve fresh tomatoes and pasta, and I swear, it is harder than it looks. We started with noodles tossed with chopped tomatoes, basil and olive oil, but it wasn't quite complex enough. Later variations included minced garlic (of course) and sauteed onions, and at least one recipe involved pureeing the tomatoes with the olive oil to make a more traditional looking sauce. Nothing quite worked. And, fresh tomatoes should never be pureed, I found; a lesson I would rather save others from having to learn the hard way.

Towards the end of July, while flipping idly through the August issue of Food & Wine early one morning before my odd little time-suckers woke up, I stumbled across yet another very similar recipe. This one, though, called for a minced small chili pepper (a forehead-smacking moment, if ever there was one) that brought to mind one of my other favorite pasta recipes, which also has a minced hot pepper that isn't so much tasted as it is sensed, if you know what I mean. It is a lesson I often forget, that the tiniest amount of heat, whether from a fresh pepper or even a pinch of dried crushed red pepper flakes, can enhance the other flavors of a dish in much the same way a squeeze of lemon juice completes and balances many recipes.

Balance is not my strong suit. You should see me trying to walk in a straight line without bumping into something. Or, for that matter, trying to juggle homeschooling, housekeeping, bookkeeping, and creative pursuits.

This Food & Wine recipe turned out to be a true blessing, and also inspired me to let the chopped tomatoes lounge around in the olive oil with garlic for an hour or so, letting the flavors fully meld. I altered the recipe slightly to fit the ingredients I had on hand (another sign of the perfect summer recipe: that it uses what is seasonal along with what can always be found in the pantry) and spent time that afternoon making a batch of fresh pasta to go with the sauce. I have finally gotten relatively quick at rolling out pasta dough, and what could be better than the toothsome texture of fresh pasta along with the light, bright, picked-that-day freshness of a simple tomato sauce, right?

I can think of no better description for this sauce than it tastes exactly like summer. And since summer is quickly coming to an end, I will make this dish again and again until the last of this season's tomatoes disappear from the market.


PASTA WITH FRESH TOMATOES AND HERBS (serves 4, adapted from Food & Wine)
  • 1 pound tomatoes, cored and finely chopped
  • 1 Tbs chopped basil
  • 1 Tbs chopped parsley
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tsps kosher salt
  • 1 small red or green chili pepper, seeded and minced
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound fettucine or linquine
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
  1. In a large bowl, toss the tomatoes with the basil, parsley, garlic, salt, chili pepper and olive oil. Allow to sit for 30 minutes or an hour to give the flavors time to meld.
  2. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta until al dente; drain.
  3. Add the cooked, drained pasta to the bowl along with the cheese and toss well.
  4. Serve immediately, topped with additional grated cheese.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Mozzarella-Stuffed Arancini

I am one of those people who gets very excited about cheese. Mild cheeses, melty cheese, sharp cheese, stinky cheese, crumbly cheese - I love all of them. So much so, in fact, that I am pretty sure I will never convert to veganism. I can live without meat - I've gone without red meat or poultry since 1980 - but I'm just not giving up cheese.

The thing is, though, I have been trying to further limit animal products from my meals, and even toyed briefly with the idea of going vegan at least part-time. The environmental impact of the production of animal products is hard to ignore, and seeing Food, Inc. a couple weeks ago has planted the issue squarely in the forefront of my mind once again. So here I am, again, trying to find ways to improve my family's consumption habits, while being limited by both finances and my fascination with cheese.

A little over a year ago, I began sourcing locally-produced raw milk, feta cheese and chevre, and eggs from Athens Locally Grown, which eased my concerns considerably, but still left some glaring inconsistencies when I continued to insist on purchasing other imported cheeses. And then, obviously, the recession entrenched itself a little more deeply into my wallet and I found myself holding my nose and again buying $0.99/dozen supermarket eggs.

Which all brings me back to my initial question. Can I go vegan? Well, no.

I don't wanna. Because it all comes back to my love of cheese, and the small fact that I am drawn, nay magnetically-lured, to recipes that include the words 'stuffed' and 'cheese' in the title. I mean, I live for that kind of thing. I'll toss hot, fresh pasta with handfuls of blue cheese, stir copious amounts of cheddar into grits, broil a layer of Parmesan on the top of my frittatas and casseroles, and knead grated Romano into my bread doughs.

A meal without cheese is rare around here, indeed, which brings me to the picture at the top of this post. A couple years back, when flipping through an issue of Vegetarian Times, I came across a recipe for Mozzarella-Stuffed Arancini. I had never before had arancini, and hadn't a clue how to pronounce it [ah-rahn-CHEE-nee, as it turns out), but I couldn't ignore that key phrase of 'mozzarella-stuffed.'

So I tried it, of course, and it was love at first bite. These things are downright addictive. Arancini, if you've never had it, are little Italian rice balls that are rolled in crispy breadcrumbs and filled with any number of stuffings (mostly meat and cheese), and are then typically fried. In this particular recipe though, the arancini are not made with meat and are baked instead of fried.

Even prepared this way (hereinafter referred to as the 'won't-kill-you' way), they're still crispy on the outside and melty on the inside and just chock full of flavor, and they still remain frighteningly high in fat.

You're welcome.

They are a slight pain to prepare, especially if you don't like to get your fingers sticky, and every time I make these I swear I'll never do it again. But then I eat one these little hunks of heaven, biting through the crisp exterior to get to the moist, richly-flavored rice that surrounds the core of stringy, melted mozzarella, and I forget all about the hassle, and then I end up making them again within a week. They're that good.


MOZZARELLA-STUFFED ARANCINI (serves 6, adapted from Vegetarian Times)

A few things to note: this is no time to scrimp on the mozzarella - store brand will not work. Buy the gourmet fresh mozzarella from the deli or the fancy cheese section. Also, the rice is a crucial component, and cooking it in water will yield too bland a taste. Go for the broth.
  • 2 1/2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 cup brown rice
  • 1 Tbs butter
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 green onions, finely chopped
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/3 cup grated Romano cheese
  • 2 cups whole-wheat breadcrumbs
  • 6 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into approx. 3/4" x 3/4" pieces
  • 1/8 cup olive oil
  • approx. 28 oz marinara sauce (I love these with my favorite spicy marinara sauce)
  1. In a small saucepan, bring the broth to a boil. Add the rice, butter and salt. Cover the pan, reduce heat, and simmer for 40-50 minutes, until broth is absorbed. Set aside until rice is cool.
  2. Grease two large, heavy baking pans, and preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  3. Fold green onions, eggs, parsley and cheese into rice.
  4. Spread some of the breadcrumbs on a large plate (as you work, add more breadcrumbs to the plate as needed).
  5. Place about 1/4 cup of rice mixture into palm of hand, form into a ball, and press piece of mozzarella into the middle. Coat ball with breadcrumbs (you can sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the ball in your hand, and flip ball as needed, or, alternatively, roll ball in breadcrumbs on plate). Place ball on greased baking sheet, and repeat with remaining rice, cheese and breadcrumbs. Leave a little space between balls on baking sheet, and just push back together with your fingers if they start to fall apart when they are placed on the sheet. Perfection is impossible here.
  6. Sprinkle bald spots with any leftover breadcrumbs, and drizzle rice balls with olive oil.
  7. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until outsides are brown and crisp.
  8. Warm marinara sauce, and ladle onto large serving platter. Place arancini on top of sauce, and serve immediately.
Note: leftovers can be drizzled with a little additional olive oil and re-warmed in the oven at 350 degrees.