Instant Sponge Cakes

Pastry chefs have been using this method for making quick sponge cake for years. As far as I know Albert Adria invented it years ago at El Bulli in Spain. I saw him “cook” it in a microwave on Anthony Bourdain’s “Decoding Ferran Adria“. I’ve never managed to give it a shot because until recently I did not have an iSi canister and that is essential. The idea is to make a loose cake batter and fill the cream whipping canister with it. Then the canister gets charged with N2O. The N2O produces the bubbles essential for the cake to rise. These bubbles are normally produced by leaveners in traditional cakes like whipped egg whites or chemical agents (baking powder and/or baking soda). To “bake” the cake, some of the batter gets dispensed into a small plastic cup and microwaved for 40-50 seconds. The result a light and very airy sponge cake with a perfect texture. Of course due to the size of the cake it is usually either served whole as an individual serving or in creative chunks as part of a plated dessert. 

I tried it out in two variations. The first was a chocolate flavored version from the playing with fire and water blog. I served it with strawberry ice cream cherry red wine reduction and marinated pears.

The other version is based on Albert Adria’s recipe via Michael Laiskonis and I flavored it with orange blossom water. I served this one with passion fruit pudding (set with Agar), cinnamon-rose water flavored sweet ricotta and toasted almonds. This one felt more moist than the chocolate version. However, both recipes’ cooking time will vary based on the cup used and the microwave. I found this one worked best with holes in the cups and a cooking time for about a minute.

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Eggplant Involtini with Ricotta and Scallions

I  forgot I had these nice eggplants I got from the farmers’ market until I saw them in my crisper drawer a week later. So, I needed to use them right away. For a quick weekday dinner, straight from Mario Batali’s “Molto Italiano“, I made this addictive dish (I had tomato sauce on hand from another dinner).

Thinly slice eggplant.

Fry eggplant.

Spread slices with a mixture of ricotta, Parmesan, egg and scallions and roll them.

Layer in a baking dish with tomato sauce and bake.

Delicious.

A Cake for Mom: Strawberry Ricotta Cake

The decision was made a while back by my 6-year-old that the cake for Mother’s Day will have lots of strawberries. So that was that. Diana had to choose if she wanted it chocolate mousse based or “something white and lighter”. She went for the latter choice. This delicious cake is a perfect spring time cake and a very good showcase for ripe strawberries. The recipe is from “The Pastry Queen” the book by Rebecca Rather of Rather Sweet Bakery and Cafe in Fredericksburg, Texas. That’s about an hour from Austin, in the Texas hill country. Her Tuxedo Cake, Mahogany Cake, Orange Muffins and Chocolate Chip Scones are all-time  favorites in my house. 

The base here is an angel food cake (egg whites+sugar+flour and NO fat) that incorporates orange and lemon zest and lemon juice in the mix for a good kick of flavor. I’ve baked this by itself before to eat with a dollop of whipped cream and a cup of coffee. The cake is sliced horizontally and built in a plastic-lined bowl with a filling of sweetened ricotta flavored with vanilla. I let it sit in the fridge overnight to give it a chance to “meld”, the cake gets a bit softer as it absorbs a little of the ricotta’s water and the whole thing holds together very well in a dome shape.

To finish the cake, I flipped it out of the bowl and frosted it with sweetened whipped cream. To make sure any whipped cream frosting stays put on a cake, especially if the cake is not going to be served right away, I always add a little bit of gelatin (about 1/2 teaspoon per 2 cups). It’s enough to make sure the frosting is stable but certainly not high enough to be noticable or to make the frosting rubbery. The last step is to cover the cake with rows of sliced ripe strawberries to resemble shingles on a roof. I served it with a bittersweet chocolate sauce. The cake was fantastic and mom was pleased.

VDP: Penne with Cauliflower and Pesto-Ricotta Sauce

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Having a bounty of basil in the backyard gives me more of an excuse to eat pesto. I love the stuff on almost anything. Here as a pasta sauce for cauliflower. I was hoping to make some fresh pasta for this dish, but on a Tuesday in a busy week, I had no time. First, I par-boiled the cauliflower. Then it went in a pan with olive oil, onions and garlic while I boiled the pasta, Penne in this case.

For the sauce I mixed pesto with homemade ricotta, minced garlic and parmesan cheese. When the pasta was done and the cauliflower fully cooked, sweet and starting to brown I tossed everything in a large bowl and mixed in some lemon zest for good measure. The addition of the lemon zest was a spur of the moment thing, but it really made a big difference and transformed a good dish to an excellent one. I served it with chilli flakes, more grated parmesan and olive oil toasted breadcrumbs.

If it sounds a bit odd that I add toasted breadcrumbs to the pasta, let me write a couple of lines of background. It is not something I made up or thought of myself. First time I read about it was in one of Jamie Oliver’s books. It’s correct name is Pangriata or Pangritata and it’s origin goes back to poorer Italian cooks who used it as a substitute to the more expensive grated cheese topping. It really is a wonderful way to add crunch and extra flavor to pastas and risottos especially. Anything can be mixed in it too, like maybe some herbs or chilli flakes.

VDP: Summer Risotto with Pesto and Ricotta

Saturday, July 26, 2008

This is the first risotto I made without using chicken stock. Instead if the customary butter in there I also used olive oil. The result was quiet good, but I did miss the goodness of a rich stock in there. Instead, I used some fresh vegetable stock to cook the risotto.

The process is classic. The onions and some celery get sautéed in fat (in this case olive oil), then in goes the risotto  rice (Arborio in my case). I make sure the grains are well coated with oil and after a minute or two they get a bit translucent around the edges. At that point I throw in some white wine and let it cook until evaporated. Now, hot stock gets added in ladlefuls until the rice is cooked. That’s a basic risotto and it can be flavored a hundred different ways. The most basic flavor is butter and Parm cheese added after the heat is turned off and allowed to mingle for a few minutes.

In this summery version, I added diced zucchini, peeled and chopped tomatoes and roasted red peppers. I also finished it up with Parmigiano cheese.

To serve it I topped the risotto with homemade ricotta cheese and almond-basil pesto. I have a bunch of basil in my garden, so pesto was a no-brainer. I had no pine nuts on hand so I used almonds instead in it. I bashed the herbs and nuts with garlic and salt in my mortar until fairly smooth, then mixed in olive oil, Parm cheese, and a touch of lemon juice. The sharp and deliciously fragrant pesto really made this dish perfect. I counter-balanced the sweetness of the peppers and the blandness of the zucchini perfectly.

VDP: Vegetarian Grilling

Sunday, June 15, 2008

I love a good steak or pork chop (or chicken or ribs for that matter) cooked over natural wood charcoal as much as the next guy. Let’s face it, the reason we light up our grills is to cook meat. It is the ultimate pleasure that hot charcoal can provide. However, with some creativity and little effort one can make a very tasty vegetarian meal on the grill.

This Sunday, in addition to putting a few chicken legs on the grill for the kids, I prepared a few dishes for Diana and I with no meat. From Mario Batali’s “Italian Grill” I made the marinated zucchini with homemade ricotta. The vegetable is sliced thin on a mandolin and marinated it with some herbs, oil and vinegar. After grilling, some more marinade is poured on top, in addition to chopped mint leaves. It is served with ricotta mixed with olive oil and with slices of grilled rustic bread. This a delicious mix of flavors and textures.

Another dish was something improvised, a sort of potato and green bean salad. I ‘steamed’ the green beans in aluminum foil with lemon slices and a bit of white wine. The packet was placed right on the grill. I grilled the potatoes directly on the grill and I also wrapped a few garlic cloves in foil and put them straight on the coals to roast. I made a dressing using those garlic cloves after mashing them. I mixed them with olive oil and lemon juice. I sliced the potatoes and tossed everything together. Not bad at all.

Last but not least was a cherry tomato and basil salad. Nothing more than tasty tomatoes, olive oil, torn basil, salt and pepper.