ratatouille de grandmere

August 27, 2012 § 8 Comments

I guess this is my first realtime post. Dinner is finishing in the oven, I’m sipping an Oregon pinot noir and remembering my longtime friend and culinary mentor Robert Reynolds. Like me, Robert conquered cancer. His victory lasted for three years before lymphoma returned in the form of a brain tumor earlier this year. One of my reasons to travel to Portland in June was to see him. He had just had surgery but some of the tumor remained. He contemplated a horrendous chemotherapy regimen for a brief time. Not surprisingly to me, he courageously chose quality of life over quantity. He shared his strength with me during my treatment last winter. I wasn’t sure what I could bring to the table, but now it was my turn.

Tonight in Colorado hubby Phil and I raise a toast to “Rowbear” (he liked to go by his French moniker Robeirt) over a light supper of some roasted tomato focaccia I had made this weekend and a zucchini dish from the cookbook he co-authored with his mentor, Josephine Araldo. I loved the cooking technique of lightly cooking each vegetable or leaving raw as it needed, then gentle baking in the oven (even though it’s still summery warmish here). This left each ingredient’s nature distinct, yet in harmony with the dish, a perfect example of the whole, being more than the sum of its parts. Au revoir, Robeirt, until we meet again.


the genoise that almost wasn’t

June 19, 2012 § 17 Comments

I was lucky enough to still be in Portland OR when I made Flo Braker’s French Strawberry Cake from Baking with Julia. Pastry chef Braker currently writes and has written “The Baker” column for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1989 and has also written a few pastry cookbooks, of which I own two. I considered myself lucky because

  1. Strawberry season was just getting underway with farmers’ market stands displaying flats of varieties new to me. My favorite was called Hood which had a nice balance of sweetness and acidity; one that is a little harder to grow and probably only available at local markets as I don’t think their tender juicy flesh would stand up to much handling.
  2. I also got a glass quart of local HEAVY cream from the PSU farmers’ market. Wow, was that a rich treat, worth every artery-clogging calorie.
  3. I was able to easily get a copy of “The Book” from the Portland public library, since I didn’t pack my tome to take on the airplane.
  4. And I got to bake a tricky cake recipe at sea level, instead of my mile-high home altitude.

That said, I had more trouble with Flo’s recipe than with my altitude-adjusted genoise that I’ve baked many times without a hitch. Should I blame it on the cold damp weather or baking in a foreign kitchen with an unfamiliar oven and the wrong size cake pans? Nah! Since I’m posting late today, I took a peek at some of your results already. Don’t feel bad if this recipe didn’t work for you either. It’s a little more delicate than some genoise with the use of cake flour (less gluten strength in the batter) and the generous dose of melted butter (I could hear the swoosh of air coming out of my egg foam when I made it the first time). If I try a third time, I might use all-purpose or even some whole wheat pastry flour like Lynn of Eat Drink Man Woman Dogs Cat did. Here’s how it rolled for me in my daughter’s small duplex kitchen in Portland…

Here’s the quick, easy and accurate way I like to cut the parchment paper to fit in the bottom of any round cake pan. Fold the sheet in half, then in quarters, then into triangles twice making sure you keep the long pointy end oriented where the center of the pan would be. Place the folded paper on the bottom of the pan and note where the edge is, cut it straight across and unfold it to see if it fits the pan. Refold and trim if it’s a little too big because you want the paper round to lay flat so batter doesn’t get underneath. Don’t worry if it’s a little too small as long as you’ve greased the pan’s bottom (which will help the parchment stay in place) and sides; be sure to grease all around the bottom’s corner edge too.

I sifted the cake flour with the dry ingredients three times to aerate and ensure that there were no clumps. Since I used a 6 quart KitchenAid mixer, I doubled the recipe so the whisk attachment could efficiently aerate the larger volume of egg-sugar foam (baked genoise freezes well as long it’s wrapped airtight).

Even though Flo’s recipe didn’t call for this step (common to many genoise recipes), I gently heated the egg sugar mixture in a bain marie (Mary’s warm bath in French) while stirring just until it was barely warm to the touch. This starts to “relax” (denature) the egg proteins slightly so it will be easier to incorporate air into the egg foam by beating. Turns out this allowed my first batter to over-aerate during beating and it started to collapse when I folded the melted butter in at the end and barely rose in the oven.

For genoise (which is simply a sponge cake made with whole instead of separated eggs) the egg-sugar mixture is beaten until it “ribbons”. The first time I made the recipe I beat until I got a very noticeable ribbon which lasted for several seconds when I dropped the batter from the whisk.

Since the first batter deflated and didn’t rise much in the oven, I knew that the egg foam had collapsed. I’d seen this problem before baking cakes and even soufflés at altitude. The air bubbles get too big when they expand from the heat of the oven and pop. So the second time, I skipped heating the egg-sugar mixture and I didn’t beat it as long. This gave a softer ribbon indicating less air was incorporated into the egg foam, so it hopefully could still expand in the oven. Can you see the difference?

I sifted the sifted flour mixture (yes, this is not a typo) over the egg-sugar mixture in three or four parts and gently but quickly folded it in without leaving any small dry lumps of flour. (Notice that I transferred the batter to a large shallow bowl to make folding easier and more efficient. I think those narrow KitchenAid mixer bowls with the bump in the center make folding more difficult.) A small amount of the batter was “sacrificed” by mixing it with the melted butter. This made it easier to fold the butter into the rest of the batter, deflating it less. (Were you able to keep the batter and butter straight?)

Cakes out of the oven looked promising, nice and level and with sufficient height, even in the 9-inch pans. I let them cool, then wrapped in plastic to let the cakes “settle” overnight.

Onto some beautiful Albion strawberries, rinsed, hulled, sliced and sugared. The Albions are less sweet and firmer than the Hoods, so they keep some of their texture as the sugar draws out their moisture. After a couple of hours they have softened so I mashed them and refrigerated overnight as well.

The bottom of this Rubbermaid cake keeper easily rotates when placed upside down on the cover so it provided me with a convenient makeshift decorating stand. I split the cake into two layers, and initially all looked well, but I noticed a heaviness to the bottom of the cake.

Sacré bleu! There was a dense tough “door mat” in the center of the cake where the batter collapsed during baking (though not as much) again. I switched from “prepare” mode to “repair” mode, and surgically removed the door mat, leaving a very thin bottom layer. Luckily, I made two cakes! So I removed the door mat from the second one, and then split it into two more even but thin layers.

Onto more pleasant tasks of whipping that wonderful cream and getting the strawberry filling from the refrigerator.

Since there’s just three of us eating this cake, I decided to take the best and prettiest layers and made a four-layer half cake! The troublesome melted butter does make for a more tender and moister genoise, and the sugared juice from the mashed berries made a perfect soaking syrup for this cake.

From the “front” you can’t really tell that I had such a problem with that genoise.

And since I made just half of a cake, there’s plenty of the whipped cream frosting and berry filling to serve alongside.

Which is just what we did! There was a bit of “leaning tower of Pisa” effect from all the cake surgery, but it was pretty delicious, and I would say even better the next day when the strawberry filling settled into the cake and soaked the layers even more. Would I make this again? With a little more work on the genoise recipe and excellent strawberries and cream available, I would say “oui”!

my Portlandia

June 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m closing in on two weeks visiting a few friends and my daughter and her husband in Portland, OR. It’s my kind of place–lovely green spaces in the city, residences with beautiful ornamental and edible gardens, lots of good eateries and bakeries and an almost over the top local food and wine culture. Of course, you need to work off all those accessible and delicious calories, so there’s plenty of opportunity for walking, biking and other outdoor activities as long as the weather cooperates. Sigh, that’s where Portland falls short in terms of “a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there”. Last weekend provided the only two warm sunny days on the whole trip; that’s an average of one sunny day per week.

On approach to Portland you can see the Willamette (rhymes with “dammit”) River bisect the city from north to south. The airport isn’t busy at all even on a Friday when I walked by the passenger pickup zone and parking structure to catch a MAX train into town, part of Portland’s good bus and train public transportation system.

My daughter Laurel and I went to farmers’ markets on both Saturdays I was in town. Of course we had to go to the big central market on the PSU college campus which has EVERYTHING, but she usually shops at the small Hollywood neighborhood farmers’ market which is less of a zoo and has most of the local produce, baked goods and prepared foods.

Here’s a couple of items I can’t get from any Colorado farms, big porcini mushrooms (we bought one that fed all three of us) and sea beans, a unique crunchy salty vegetable that grows in salt marsh conditions.

I turned the porcini and sea beans into a Portlandia Salad with the addition of spring onions, fresh garlic and hazelnuts on greens (no, the vinegar, oil, salt and pepper were not local). The rest of our almost local meal were DIY fava bean purée, Oregon hard cheese and radish bruschetta and some king salmon (alas, from Alaska) son-in-law Alex grilled in The Big Green Egg (see previous post).

Avid bread baker Laurel made beautiful sesame semolina loaves. While they baked she enjoyed a plateful of local strawberries made even better with cake and whipped cream!

Of course, not all of our meals were at home. Portland definitely gives you that “so many restaurants, bakeries and food carts, so little time” feeling. We enjoyed an excellent Japanese bento lunch at Chef Naoko’s and an artful and delicious Mediterranean dinner at Tabla.

Here’s the Oaxacan pork tamale from Porque No taqueria and a scene from Ping, sister restaurant to the now well-known Thai-influenced Pok Pok.

I took many neighborhood walks, trying to work off those yummy calories. The lush growth in many front yards proved that you don’t need a green thumb to successfully garden in Portland. Here’s some of what’s growing and flowering in June–

…white dogwood tree, simple magenta peony…

…pink rhododendron, though I saw more white ones, and a climbing rose…

…leaf patterns including one of my favorites, Japanese maple…

…Japanese maples grow in almost every yard to majestic stature…

…even the less cared for curbsides were blooming profusely, lilies and passionfruit…

…gardens, both whimsical and elegant…

…and homes, traditional and whimsical…

…good bye for now, Portlandia…

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