Somebody please come save me from myself. I am home alone with this now 2/3-eaten cake. Every morning I tell myself I’m going to throw it into the compost bin*, but somehow I talk myself out of it and find a reason to cut myself another “sliver.” This isn’t even the kind of dessert I really adore. I much prefer a dense almond torte or chocolate souffle cake or fruit galette. Alas, it’s still too good to trash or turn into soil for my garden. (*Yes, I purchased the Back Porch ComposTumbler!)
Why do I have this cake all to myself? Well, on Sunday, Ben and I celebrated with cake and champagne the recent marriage of two friends. Because the bride had to jump on a plane shortly after the festivities and the groom would be out of town for a month, the cake remained with the Staffords. And the reason I say I have this cake all to myself is because Ben never pulls his weight when it comes to sweets. Blast him!
Anyway, this recipe can be multiplied and turned into a real wedding cake. Last November, I made this exact cake with the exception of the frosting, strawberries and assembly for two dear friends. The lemon-buttermilk cake bakes evenly and is both moist and light. The lemon curd adds a nice tang and helps keep the cake moist. And the bright-white, Swiss Buttercream frosting (made in place of a cream cheese frosting) gives the cake a really festive, professional feel. If you don’t feel like making a Swiss buttercream, which really is not too difficult, a cream cheese or whipped cream frosting will work just as well.
Emily and James’ & Ibeth and James’ Wedding Cake
Adapted From This YouTube Video
Lemon (or Orange) Buttermilk Cake
Yield = 2 9-inch cakes (the amount used in this four-layer cake)
3 cups all-purpose flour
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 T. baking powder
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, whisked lightly
1¼ cups buttermilk
1 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice (or orange juice)
1½ tsp. lemon extract (or vanilla extract)
¼ tsp. lemon zest (or orange zest)
1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Sift together the flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder.
2. In an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about five minutes. Slowly add the whisked eggs to the mixture and beat until combined. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the buttermilk to the mixer. (The recipe says to start and end with flour, but I’m not sure there is any science behind that.) Add the lemon juice, extract and zest, and mix just until combined.
3. If making this layer cake, coat a 9-inch cake pan with nonstick spray (or butter liberally). Pour half of the batter into the pan and bake for about 35 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan for 15 minutes before inverting onto a cooling rack. Note: If you have two pans, bake the cakes simultaneously. If you have only one pan, repeat with remaining batter. Alternatively, bake all the batter at once. The cake will take longer to bake and might not bake as evenly, but it certainly can be done.
Filling for the wedding cake:
Lemon (or Orange) Curd
¼ cup sugar
7 egg yolks
½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (or orange juice)
6 T. unsalted butter, room temperature (butter really must be at room temperature)
1. In a double boiler (or a stainless steel bowl over a pot of simmering water), whisk sugar and yolks together until pale yellow. Whisk in the juice. Stir constantly until mixture starts to thicken, about 8 – 10 minutes. (This is always a little tricky to gauge, but you’ll know it’s ready when it starts to thicken.) Remove bowl from heat and slowly whisk in the butter about a tablespoon at a time. This is sort of tedious, but only add more butter once the previous tablespoon has been fully incorporated. Cover with plastic wrap (place the wrap right up against the curd) and chill until ready to use.
Frosting for wedding cake:
For Emily and James’ wedding cake, I made a cream cheese frosting, which I love. For this layer cake, I took a stab at making Swiss Buttercream following the method described on Smitten Kitchen, which worked perfectly. This recipe produces a bright white, more professional looking icing, but either frosting tastes great.
Cream Cheese and Butter Frosting
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
½ tsp. vanilla extract
confectioners’ sugar to taste
Beat cream cheese and butter together until light and fluffy. Add vanilla. Add confectioners’ sugar to taste. Chill if not using right away or frost cake immediately. (It’s easier to use if you use it right away.)
For a 9-inch cake (plus filling, or some to spare):
1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
26 tablespoons butter, softened (3 sticks plus 2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Whisk egg whites and sugar together in a big metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Whisk occasionally until you can’t feel the sugar granules when you rub the mixture between your fingers.
2. Transfer mixture into the mixer and whip until it turns white and about doubles in size. (Here’s a tip: when you transfer to the mixer, make sure you wipe the condensation off the bottom of the bowl so that no water gets into the egg whites. This can keep them from whipping up properly. Ali’s note: I whipped the egg whites in the bowl that fits into my stand mixer so that I didn’t have to transfer anything.)
3. Add the vanilla. Finally, add the butter a stick at a time and whip, whip, whip.
Note: If you refrigerate the buttercream, leave it at room temperature for at least 10 hours before using. Also, the icing has now held up perfectly (on the cake) for three days. I’m not sure if there is any health risk here, but so far it still tastes good, there is no sign of mold, and I have yet to get sick.
If I were to make this cake again, this is what I would do: I would reserve enough of the Swiss Buttercream to swirl all over the top of the cake. Then, I would whisk together equal parts lemon curd and buttercream to spread in between each layer. I find the buttercream to be a tad rich and think the lemon curd would cut it nicely. So, cut each cake in half with a serrated knife. Spread center with lemon curd-buttercream mix, frost top with buttercream, top with strawnberries and serve.
Oh, to live in New York in August. And late July and early September. To have access to New York bagels during tomato season would just be a dream. I’m not trying to dis Bagel Shack (my local bagel shop, which I love) or anything, but there really isn’t anything like a New York bagel.
That said, however, the tomato here is the star. Subpar bagels are just fine when meaty, heirloom tomatoes sit on top of them. This has been my breakfast now for three days in a row: A toasted sesame bagel spread with chive cream cheese (purchased from bagel shack but which could easily be made from scratch) topped with a slice of tomato and sprinkled, of course, with sea salt. Amazing.
Also, I feel I must clarify something I said last post. I do feel that tomatoes, when being prepared for Caprese salad, should be cut into irregular chunks, for reasons explained here. That’s not to say, however, that tomatoes should always be cut this way. The heirloom tomato varieties, in particular, look stunning when cut into rounds, which is a practical shape for certain dishes, namely this breakfast.
Also, it should be noted that tomato rounds look completely different depending on which way the knife passes through the fruit. Cut the tomato crosswise (not through the stem) for the prettiest slice. (In other words, if a tomato is sitting just as it would on a board, you would cut the tomato holding the knife parallel to the board. Does that make sense? Or, turn the tomato on its side, then cut down, perpendicular to the board.)
It has been done to death. Caprese salad that is. But there’s a reason it appears on nearly every restaurant menu come summertime: It’s so unbelievably good. I promise I’m not trying to bore you. I just have have a few things to add, in an effort, I hope, to maximize your tomato-eating experience this summer.
1. Tomatoes. I’m sort of stating the obvious here, but likely the tomatoes you pick up at your local farmers’ market will be superior to store-bought varieties. This past Sunday at the San Clemente farmers’ market, I learned from one of the Carlsbad farmers that the darker tomatoes tend to be sweeter. The man wasn’t lying. The tomato pictured in the upper left corner of this photo was the sweetest and tastiest of the bunch. It reminded me of a variety I discovered last summer, back in Philadelphia, called Black Prince, which I loved for the same reasons.
2. Fresh basil. Nothing like it. So fragrant. So sweet.
3. Mozzarella. I hate to be a snob, but buffalo mozzarella is so good, and there’s really nothing like the imported Italian varieties. However, as we are all so aware of our food miles these days, we can make smarter choices. I just discovered this Bubulus Bubalis mozzarella, which is made in Gardena (near L.A.) from the milk of water buffalo grazing in Northern California, if I understood the story correctly. Anyway, it is exceptional. And for Philadelphians, Claudio’s mozzarella is wonderful. (For all of you in between CA and PA, I wish I could give you more direction. Alas, my knowledge extends only to two places.)
4. Salt. Invest in a small tub of nice salt, like this one pictured below. I use it only on special occasions, like when I’m salting tomatoes or salting avocados or salting butter spread onto bread. So, basically I use it every day. My sister found this little tub in France earlier this summer but any variety of nice sea salt will do. (If you can’t resist this precious container, you can buy it from Salt Works.) And don’t be afraid to give the tomatoes a real sprinkling — I swear it makes them sweeter not saltier. Really.
5. Olive Oil. With good tomatoes, a drizzling of extra-virgin olive oil is the only dressing needed. I have yet to add a splash of vinegar to my tomato salads this summer. Though a splash certainly wouldn’t hurt. And it does make a nice little sauce to soak bread in.
6. Preparation. Try cutting your tomatoes into irregular shapes as opposed to thin slices. They look prettier; they’re easier to eat; and the tomatoes taste better, too. Really, they do. Cut the mozzarella the same way. And when you arrange it all on a platter, don’t toss it around to much. Just sprinkle the tomatoes and cheese with salt; tear basil leaves over the top; drizzle it with oil; and serve.
Two very hot peppers, cherry tomatoes, one heirloom tomato and a few very tired sprigs of basil picked from my garden. Yay, the tomatoes are turning red!
I am particularly enjoying the dark red heirloom tomatoes. They are sweet and delicious. I found these along with Bubulus Bubalis mozzarella at the Santa Monica farmers’ market this past Wednesday.
So, I sort of have this habit. I tend to add cheese to every salad I make. In large quantities. And often nuts, too. And maybe dried fruit if I don’t have any fresh on hand. I tend to turn salads into mini meals themselves, even when, as I often am, just serving them on the side.
For whatever reason, I refrained from adding more than what was prescribed in this recipe: melon, cucumber, lettuce and a mint vinaigrette. And I’m so glad I did. This salad does not need anything else. It is light, refreshing, summery — perfect as is. Thank you Sarah Cain at the Fair Food Farmstand 2,378 miles away in Philadelphia for supplying such a wonderful recipe in the weekly “At the Farmstand” email.
Now, for my friends out there looking for simple recipes, this one is for you. If you can chop up a melon and a cucumber, you can make this dish. The dressing is made right in the jar, which means no whisking and minimal cleaning. I love it, and you will too.
The dressing for this salad is made right in the jar: Equal parts vinegar and oil along with a pinch of sugar and salt, a dab of mustard and tons of mint and parsley combine to make a bright and flavorful dressing.
½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
½ cup of best white wine vinegar (I used rice vinegar and loved it.)
½ teaspoon of dijon style mustard
3 tablespoons of finely minced fresh mint
1 tablespoon of finely minced parsley
big pinch of sugar
big pinch of salt
2-3 cups mixed honeydew, cantaloupe and watermelon, peeled, seeded and diced
2 cups mixed greens
1 English cucumber, diced
1. In a jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the dressing ingredients. Shake like crazy. Let stand a room temp for 40 minutes to meld the flavors.
2. Meanwhile, combine the melon, greens and cucumber in a large bowl. (I also added some more mint and parsley (roughly chopped) to the salad.)
3. Shake the dressing vigorously before pouring just enough to moisten the chunks of melon, greens and cucumbers.
• So, after a week of feasting, I considered, for the first time ever, making tofu for dinner. As I passed down the freezer aisle of Ralph’s, however, a blue-and-white label caught my eye. Much to my surprise (and delight), that label marked an MSC-certified package of halibut steaks. Unlike many labels today, an MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) label truly means something — it is a guarantee for consumers that the purchase of the product will not contribute to the social and environmental problems of overfishing. It also guarantees that the fishermen receive a fair price for their catch. Holding the world’s most rigorous sustainability standard, the MSC has awarded their coveted eco-label to only 31 fisheries worldwide. (You might recall that American Tuna also bears the MSC label.)
• With my discovery, I took the opportunity to make a dish I have been meaning to make since dining with my cyber friend, Melanie Lytle, of Livin La Vida Local at Whisk n’ Ladle in La Jolla. This restaurant strives to use all local ingredients and makes nearly everything in house, including the delectable scone — pistachio-orange, if I recall correctly — with which I began this memorable brunch. (Incidentally, Melanie has just completed a year of eating locally: Read her Long-Winded Summary To a Year of Eating Locally here.)
• Last night, I discovered that the mango-jicama slaw served with the tilapia fish tacos at WnL is surprisingly easy to recreate. Please don’t be frightened or turned off by the idea of julienning or using a mandoline. Dicing the fruit would be just as tasty and effective. In diced form, in fact, the mixture becomes even more versatile — it could be served with tortilla chips or toasted baguette slices for a nice appetizer. Really, this slaw could not be simpler to prepare — you just mix everything together and season with salt and fresh lime juice according to taste. It could be served with chicken, beef, maybe even tofu.
• Last night I also got over the idea that fish should never be frozen. These frozen halibut steaks fried up beautifully, and once wrapped in the tortilla, spread with a dab of sriracha-sour cream and topped with this tasty slaw, the fish becomes a second-string player. Fresh fish, in a way, is better used for simpler preparations, with lemon and herbs, for example, where the flavors of the fish can really shine.
• Lastly, a word about reamers: There is no better tool, I profess, for extracting juice from citrus fruit than a wooden reamer. This one from Sur La Table is fantastic.
Fish Tacos with Mango-Jicama Slaw
Inspired by tacos recently savored at Whisk n’ Ladle restaurant in La Jolla. This recipe calls for julienning the jicama and mangoes, but dicing the fruit will work, too. In fact, this mixture, in diced form, would be yummy served with chips.
For the Slaw:
1 jicama, peeled
2 mangoes, not too ripe, peeled
1 small red onion, peeled, diced to yield about ¾ cup
1-2 chili peppers such as Thai bird or jalapeno or Serrano, finely diced
cilantro to taste, washed and chopped
1. Using a mandoline, julienne the jicama to yield about 2 cups. Place in a large bowl. Julienne the mangoes (to yield about 2 cups as well) and add to the bowl. (Alternatively, just dice the fruit.) Add the onions, peppers and cilantro to the bowl. Season with a big pinch of salt. Juice one lime over top of the mixture. (A reemer is a great tool for this step.) Toss gently, then taste. Adjust with more lime juice or salt. Set aside until ready to serve. Note: Can be made ahead, but not too far ahead — no more than an hour is ideal.
Whisk n’ Ladle spread some sort of creamy, tomato salsa across their tortillas. It definitely was something more substantial than sriracha sauce, but this combination served the purpose quite nicely.
1. Mix sriracha with sour cream according to taste.
Assemble the tacos:
fish: Any white fish — halibut, tilapia, cod, sea bass, etc. — works really nicely in fish tacos. I found MSC-certified halibut steaks in my Ralph’s freezer section.
small, white flour tortillas
1. Heat the oven to about 450ºF. Wrap as many tortillas you want in foil and place in the oven to keep warm. Make sure the tortillas are hot and pliable before serving.
2. Season the fish lightly with kosher salt. Pan-fry or grill the fish until done.
3. To assemble, spread a small amount of the sriracha-sour cream on the bottom of the taco. Top with the fish. Top with the slaw. Repeat.
When you see this blue-and-white eco-label, you can be confident your purchase has not contributed to overfishing or the harming of marine ecosystems. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a global, nonprofit organization devoted to promoting the best environmental choice in seafood.
Two years ago, while visiting San Francisco for a wedding, Ben and I discovered the Primavera Mexican stand at the Saturday Ferry Building farmers’ market. I have not stopped dreaming about the guajillo-chile chilaquiles since. Yesterday, for breakfast, after waiting in line for 30 minutes, Ben and I savored this dish again, washing it all down with a watermelon-lime agua fresca. We didn’t eat again until dinner.
Anyway, I assure you this is not a comprehensive showing of everything we’ve been eating the past few days during our drive from L.A. to San Francisco. Two of the best meals — dinner at Burma Superstar last night with five friends and breakfast at Tartine this morning — in fact, have not been photo-documented at all. I am overwhelmed by all of the good food we are finding in San Francisco, including a home-cooked meal prepared by friends beginning with Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, starring a lentil and grape salad and ending with thinly sliced melon drizzled with freshly grated ginger. (So yummy!) The tea leaf salad (allegedly seasoned with one million spices) at the Burmese restaurant and everything we sampled this morning at Tartine — a frangipane croissant, a morning bun and a slice of ham quiche — also top the list of particularly memorable bites.
Red Snapper tacos and a red snapper sandwich at the Sea Shanty in Cayucos (located just north of San Luis Obispo).
Last night at 10:30 p.m., Ben and I finally dined at Pizzeria Mozza, the Nancy Silverton-Mario Batali-Joseph Bastianich pizza joint in Hollywood.
To start, we shared one order of fried squash blossoms — one order of delicately battered, ricotta-filled, piping-hot blossoms. Unbelievably tasty. For pizzas, we ordered the Ipswich clam (clams, oregano, pecorino and Parmigiano) and the Margherita (tomato, mozzarella and basil.) These wood-fired pizzas, I hate to admit, rival Bar’s, my absolute favorite spot on earth to eat pizza. (I’ve never been to Italy.) Two Amy’s in northwest Washington D.C. is a close second. Pizzeria Mozza, if I lived closer and if I didn’t need to make a reservation a month in advance, would surely be third. I loved everything about this place.
Well, nearly everything. Last year, shortly after Pizzeria Mozza opened, NY Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni gave it rave reviews, lauding in particular the butterscotch budino. The Times even provided the recipe. Ben took one bite and put his spoon down, declaring it cloyingly sweet. I agreed and then polished off the rest. No seriously, this dessert does not deserve the hype it has received. The little rosemary-pine nut short bread cookies provided on the side would have been the perfect finale to this long-anticipated dinner.
Over the weekend, during a little trip to Half Moon Lake, Wisconsin to visit Ben’s family and friends, a classic, summer deluge left eight of us housebound. Not to worry. Within minutes, Tom and Liz Bennett had whipped up this concoction and delivered it in festive glasses to all the guests. With the fridge fully stocked with back-up pitchers, the storm and afternoon passed in no time.
Simple, tasty and lethal, the Bennetts’ margarita is a must try:
The original recipe calls for one can of each of the listed ingredients, but the Bennetts have tweaked the recipe slightly for taste. The recipe below, I considered perfection, but feel free to adjust according to taste.
3/4 of a 12-oz can limeade (the frozen can of concentrate)
1 beer, such as Corona
salt for the glasses if desired
1. Place the limeade and beer in a pitcher. Discard (or reserve for another use) the remaining limeade. Fill the can halfway with tequila and add to the pitcher. Fill the can with Sprite and add to the pitcher. Stir. Taste. Adjust as needed. Pour into salted, ice-filled glasses.
So, I thought I’d give a brief update on my Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day escapades. This batch is my third, and I experimented with using nearly 50-percent whole-wheat flour. The dough rose just as beautifully as the 100-percent all-purpose flour batches, and held up just the same in the fridge during the week in which it was stored.
And, on a whim, I decided to use the Jim Lahey-Mark Bittman No-Knead Bread method of cooking — in a pre-heated, covered ceramic pot. Success! After 30 minutes in my Emile Henry dutch oven, the bread emerged with a crispy, golden crust. Since I don’t have a pizza stone, cooking in a pot is my best bet if I want to achieve the steam-injected-oven effect, which produces that professional-bakery crust. I have to say, however, that the bread tastes just as delicious when baked in a buttered Pyrex bowl — it doesn’t have the same crust, but the flavor is just the same, and the method is truly no-fuss.
I have decided I sound too freaky to speak on camera.
And so, I present to you a silent film: Fish en Papillote:
(The video seems to stall a bit at 1:18. Just help it along by scrolling past that point.)
Yesterday, 2,438 miles away from me, two very good friends resolved to make fish en papillote for their Sunday night dinner. I tried to explain the process to them via a series of emailed pictures, but I have yet to hear if they were any help. I hope this video might assist them in the future.
In any case, en papillote is currently my favorite way to prepare fish. These parchment packages are magical. How so? Let me tell you:
1. When cooked en papillote, a fish fillet retains its heat to the last bite. I love fish, but it’s tricky to cook — so easily overcooked — and it cools down quickly. These packages somehow manage to keep the fish fillets hot without drying them out one bit. And by keeping the fish piping hot, the en papillote method helps you eat more slowly, allowing you to savor your dinner, which I appreciate. I tend to eat very quickly. Like its a race or something.
2. Because I like to eat cake for breakfast these days, fish en papillote makes for a very healthy finish to the day. Seriously, not even a splash of olive oil or a dab of butter is used when assembling the packages. These added fats are truly unnecessary because all of the juices from the fish and the vegetables combine to make a nice little sauce. Served with a simple salad and homemade bread, fish en papillote makes a wonderful summer meal.
3. The packets can be prepared ahead of time — perfect for entertaining. I know summer is prime barbecue season, but it’s OK to give the grill a rest every now and then. You can still eat your en papillotes outside. (Warning: Because of the lemon juice and the salt, these packets should not be assembled for more than two or three hours ahead of time — I prepared them and stored them in the fridge for two hours when I made them for my parents last weekend.)
4. This recipe is so versatile. Although I’ve only experimented with sea bass and halibut, I suspect many fish species would take well to this preparation. Please let me know if you find success with any other varieties. Here, I’ve used Mexican sea bass because I can find it fresh at my Sunday farmers’ market.
Fill the packages with whatever you like: squash, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, scallions, herbs, etc.
4 18×13-inch (approximately) pieces parchment paper
about 16 leaves Swiss chard, washed and dried
4 6-oz fish fillets, I buy the Mexican sea bass from my farmers’ market, but any fish will do
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 tablespoons chopped shallots
2 tablespoons caper
2 lemons, quartered
½ cup Nicoise or Kalamata olives, pitted
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1 cup sliced zucchini
sliced basil, parsley or tarragon
1. Preheat the oven to 500ºF.
2. Lay one sheet of parchment paper on the counter and fold it in half lengthwise just to make a crease. Open the parchment paper. Place about four leaves of Swiss chard in the center of the parchment paper just below the centerfold. Top with fish fillet. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Top with shallots and capers. Squeeze half a lemon on top and tuck lemon half next to fish. Sprinkle olives and tomatoes around fish.
3. Fold top half of paper over bottom half and begin folding tightly from the center to one of the sides. Go back to the center and fold tightly in the opposite direction. (See video for more assistance.)
4. Repeat with each fish. Place packages on a cookie sheet and cook about 10 minutes. (Estimate about 10 minutes per inch — if the fillets are a little bit thicker than one inch, add 1 or 2 minutes.)