Archive | March 2010

Just in time for St. Paddy’s Day: Sara’s Irish Soda Bread

Sara made this soda bread last year, and it was moist and great. It was actually the first time I’d ever had it, despite being part Irish (25%? I think). St. Patrick’s Day is not as big a deal in LA, where I grew up, as it is in Chicago, where I live now. It’s a citywide celebration here–the river is green, the beer is green, the drunkards are green. This bread isn’t green, but it’s as Irish as you can get. It apparently rose in popularity when baking soda was introduced to Ireland, during the 1880s. According to this msnbc article, soda bread was embraced because it could be made without an oven. A simple cast iron pot with a lid over a fire was enough to do the trick. Plus, it doesn’t require kneading–smart Irish folk!

Grandma Donlin’s Irish Soda Bread

Top O’ the mornin’ to ya! You may notice from my guest entries that I am a fan of holiday-themed food. Since I am 50% Irish, St. Patrick’s Day is no exception. I tend to eat potatoes and cabbage and drink Irish stout all winter long to stay warm and healthy, like a good Irish leprechaun, but March is the time for Irish Soda Bread. In addition to being a great treat for St. Patrick’s Day, it is nice for Easter brunch (for the Irish Catholic folks out there). For years, I tried different recipes to find one that is easy, authentic, and moist (a lot of soda breads tend to be dry and crumbly). I finally asked my mom to ask a family friend, Mrs. O’Connor, for her family recipe. This bread is really easy to make and is nice and moist–it will surely bring out your freckles. It is delicious with Irish tea or a pint of stout. I’ve frozen it too, and it still made me jig a few weeks later.

3 c flour
1 Tbl baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2/3 c sugar
1 or 2 eggs
3 Tbl melted butter
1 1/4 c buttermilk
1 c raisins

Sift flour into mixing bowl. Add baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, and butter. Mix in buttermilk. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients. Add raisins. Mix all together. Pour into cake pan. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Cool on rack and serve.

Gaelic proverbs:

Bidh mìr a’ ghill’ èasgaidh air gach mèis.
The smart fellow’s share is on every dish.

Cha dèan cat miotagach sealg.
A cat in mittens won’t catch mice.

A Very Merry Unbirthday!

At work on Thursday, I received pretty much the best package ever: a box of Alice in Wonderland-themed sweets from Laurel Avenue Bakery. These goodies were sent from California by Kasia, with a note requesting I enjoy them in a grand Mad Hatter tea party. How could I refuse? I invited Sara and Melissa to meet me in my office on Friday afternoon for tea and treats.

The package was wrapped in a large blue Alice ribbon with a small note asking us to “eat me.” I could smell the sugar and chocolate before I even opened the box, and struggled with the string and tape to get it open as quickly as possible. Inside was a nest of brown scrunched-string confetti cradling delicately wrapped treats in vivid pastels. Pink rose water cakes. Blue meringue mushrooms. Chocolate unbirthday cupcakes.

The rose water cake, I think, was my favorite. It was moist and sweet with a slight painting-the-roses-red perfume. My grandmother used to give me rose perfume as a kid, so the whole sensation was evocative of the childhood grandeur of playing dress up. I’m pretty sure I got it all over my face as I devoured it.

a very merry unbirthday to you

The cupcake was amazing too. A very merry unbirthday to me.

Melissa supplied us with pomegranate white tea for the occasion.

And effortlessly, a Friday afternoon was transformed from being the exhausted end of a busy week to a magical, nostalgic sugar rush with friends.

As a cheer-up package, it was pretty damn effective. It’s amazing what being surprised with sugar will do to a gal.

Thanks, Kasia! I wish you could have joined us at the tea party. It made my day.

Penne alla Cobb

I drove south on Lake Shore Drive this morning, and for a glance I almost felt like it was PCH, and the Pacific was breaking waves to my left. And it was because of SUN. Not even that much–just a pinch, by California standards. But after so long of being boxed in by snow and clouds, I felt like I could see clearly for the first time in months.

Man, I miss California. I miss the excess of sun that soaks into your skin and simmers your heart just a bit. The generosity of sun. California feels maternal to me. Giving.

But back in Chicago, back in reality, things are inching toward spring, and that is amazing enough for right now. I’ve been cooking a bit less lately. I’m moving this month and don’t have much to spend on groceries. Plus, my wonderful friends keep feeding me. This week, I did cook a pasta that was big on flavor. There are a few tweaks I’d make to the recipe, and the one I’m posting below reflects those. I caramelized the onions in the bacon fat, which made things a bit greasy–so I’m recommending caramelizing in olive oil. Nonetheless, the flavor was golden. Sunny.

I’m dubbing it Penne alla Cobb for now, because it’s reminiscent of a cobb salad, which is a classic California combination, invented at the famous Brown Derby. Pasta is such a wonderful base carb–my favorite. You can pile on the good stuff and it will always welcome it with open arms.

penne sweet potatoes

Penne alla Cobb

1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into chunks of about 1/2″
olive oil
salt and pepper
5 slices of bacon, diced
1/2 yellow onion, diced into thin strips
1/2 pound of penne pasta
blue or gorgonzola cheese
parsley for garnish

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Place a pot of salted water on the stove over high heat until it boils.

Arrange the sweet potatoes on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Drizzle olive oil, salt, and pepper, and make sure that they are easily coated. Roast until tender, about 10 or 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, add the bacon to a cold pan, then cook over medium until crispy.

In another pan, warm a few tablespoons of olive oil over low-medium and slowly cook the onions until they caramelize. Watch them so that they don’t burn or brown. You want them to be rich and golden.

Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving some of the cooking water.

In a large bowl, combine the pasta, bacon, onions, and sweet potatoes. Liberally grate or crumble the cheese on top. Sprinkle salt and pepper. Mix well until combined, adding a bit of the cooking water to melt the cheese and coat the pasta. Garnish with a few sprigs of parsley (not shown because I didn’t have any).

Belgian Chocolate Cake

I have recently discovered the joys–and dangers–of leftover ganache. You should make this cake just for that factor alone, though the cake is a dense, bittersweet indulgence in itself. But the ganache–that’s really where it’s at.

When I was in Panama two years ago, Juliette made the most amazing hot chocolate from dried cacao beans, sugar, salt, and milk. We were staying with her in Cano Quebrado, a small 50-person village that is a two-hour hike from the road. The milk was warmed over her little bunsen burner, and we sat on her porch drinking it, looking out into the black night. It was the closest my brain can conjure to a pure chocolate experience.

This cake might be the next closest. The cake itself gets its chocolate from cocoa powder–I used Dagoba–so there’s a nice balance of molasses-y brown sugar and rich, chocolate tartness. But the ganache is just bittersweet chocolate and heavy cream. Just the stuff you want. It’s a denser version of the hot chocolate I can’t get out of my head.

Chocolate is a known booster of seratonin levels. Chocolate is sensuous. Chocolate is ceremonial and celebratory. Chocolate, I’ve found out, does not fix everything. I ate this cake and still felt sad and wintery afterward. But there’s something about indulging in chocolate that feels like a living in the moment; an embrace of reliable pleasure and comfort. Food is fuel and pleasure and culture, and there are so many ideas surrounding every food decision–health, guilt, desire, class. What signifies relinquishment to the pleasureful side of things more than chocolate cake? So, my motto for this winter: Let me eat cake.

Belgian Chocolate Birthday Cake
from Martha Stewart Living Annual Recipes 2003

*Note: Hazelnuts weren’t available when I shopped for this, so I just left them out. I’m including them in the recipe below because I imagine they’re fabulous. But I can’t say I missed them in the finished product.

4 oz. hazelnuts
13 1/2 tbsp. unsalted butter (1 2/3 sticks), softened, plus a bit for pan
2/3 c. Dutch-process cocoa powder, plus more for pan
1 2/3 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
2/3 c. boiling water
1 3/4 c. packed dark-brown sugar
4 large eggs , at room temperature
1 1/3 c. buttermilk, at room temperature
2 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Ganache Glaze (recipe below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9×3″ springform pan. Dust with cocoa, tap out any excess.

(If using nuts: Spread nuts in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until fragrant and toasted, about 12 minutes. Transfer to a clean kitchen towel; rub to loosen skins. In the bowl of a food processor, grind nuts with granulated sugar until fine but not pasty. Transfer to a large bowl.)

In the large bowl, add flour, baking soda, and salt (to the nuts if using).

In a medium heat-proof bowl, whisk together cocoa and boiling water until smooth. (Mixture will thicken as it cools.)

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and brown sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until well blended.

Stir buttermilk and vanilla into cocoa mixture. Mixing on low, add half the flour mixture to butter mixture until well blended; pour in cocoa mixture, and add remaining flour mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Scrape batter into prepared pan; smooth top. Bake 60 to 70 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven; let cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and cool completely.

Place half the ganache (recipe below) in a bowl set in an ice bath; whip with a balloon whisk until pale and spreadable, removing bowl from ice bath and returning it as needed.

Spread the whipped ganache smoothly on top and sides of cake; chill the cake in the refrigerator.

Ganache Glaze
1 lb bittersweet chocolate, finely choped
2 1/2 c. cream

Place chocolate in a large heat-proof bowl. Bring cream in a small saucepan to a boil over medium-high heat; pour over chopped chocolate. Let stand 10 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to gently stir chocolate and cream until well combined. Let stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until cooled and just thickened, 30 to 60 minutes.