Sunday, March 7, 2010

Cornmeal Ricotta Cake

One day last fall, my sister-in-law--in a conversation she probably doesn't even remember--mentioned in passing a favorite treat from her local bakery. It's only taken me like four months to finally get this thing out of my head, where it has been rattling in the ensuing time, and into my belly, where it is now sitting comfortably. As with so many other foods that I am just now discovering at the ripe old age of 27, I am left wondering: why haven't I been eating this cake all my life? It's like an Italian miracle.

What makes this thing so good? Crunchy cornmeal. Sweet and slightly tangy ricotta. It's like your favorite cornbread made little dessert babies with a cheesecake. LORD this is yummy. But it also loses freshness fast. Make it on the day you plan to serve--ahem, scarf--it, wrap leftovers tightly and store at room temperature.

As you can see, we served it with hand-whipped cream (that's right--hand whipped, thank you David) and a little bit of jam we heated in the micro.

Cornmeal Ricotta Cake
Serves 4 easily; ready just over an hour; based on this recipe from the LA Times, which includes orange zest and fresh cranberries--yum!--but not what I was going for...

2/3 cup flour
1/3 cup stone-ground cornmeal (aka polenta)
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg
2 Tbsp maple syrup
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp vanilla
5 Tbsp butter, soft
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup ricotta cheese
  1. Preheat oven to 350º. In one bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, and powder. In another, whisk together egg, syrup, oil, and vanilla. Set aside.
  2. With electric mixer, beat butter with sugar and salt until thoroughly combined. Add half of flour mixture and beat again, just until mixed. Now, switch to a spatula because you DON'T want to overmix. Gently stir in ricotta and rest of flour mixture. Again, DON'T over mix here. Just until combined.
  3. Pour into greased 4-inch square or 5-inch round pan. Spread to cover. Bake 35-40 minutes, until tester inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool at least 20 minutes.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Meyer Lemon Bars

Man, oh man, have you tasted this delicious cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange? It's just a hair short of bitter but strangely sweet at the same time. Kind of earthy. Kind of funky. Kind of unexpected.

Nice twist on regular ole lemon bars if you ask me.

Meyer Lemon Bars
makes enough for 2-3; takes a couple hours (including cooling)

2 Tbsp butter, soft
1 Tbsp powdered sugar
1/4 cup flour
pinch salt
  • Preheat oven to 350º. Beat butter and powdered sugar with electric mixer until incorporated. Add flour and salt and mix well. Press into bottom of well greased pan, 4-inch square or equivalent. Prick with a fork several times and bake 18 -20 minutes, until lightly browned.
1 egg
1/3 cup sugar
2 Tbsp Meyer lemon juice
1/2 Tbsp Meyer lemon zest
1/2 Tbsp flour
  • Beat egg and sugar well, until incorporated and smooth. Mix in juice and zest, then flour last. Pour into warm shell and return to oven. Bake another 15-18 minutes, until set. Cool completely, top with powdered sugar and serve.

Single Serving Creme Brulee

This one goes out to my mom, the woman who first brought creme brulee into my life, who first introduced me to the idea of a "favorite dessert", who still talks about that one creme brulee she had at the hand of Wolfgang sometime in the late 80s.

And yet, I'm really torn about sharing this recipe with you, and here's why: the custard itself is kind of amazing. The original recipe comes from Larousse--how could it not be? But the execution ... eh, a little tricky. In fact, I've been through two batches and have yet to really master it. At least I get to eat the end result, however mangled.

The trouble, you see, is that crispy brulee topping. You need the right kind of sugar. You need some flames. In fact, you need enough heat to cook and crystallize that sugar without turning your custard--that custard you spent all day waiting on--into a weepy mess. There seem to be two ways of achieving spoon-cracking perfection, either with a torch (the preferred method) or under your broiler.

If my experience is any indication, those of you with an electric oven better go ahead and order that a torch--or just order creme brulee every time you go to a restaurant--because I couldn't get it done at home. Those of you with a gas oven or a torch, you're in better luck, though you still have to be pretty aggressive about getting your ramekins right up against the flame. Don't be shy. And electric oven owners, feel free to prove me wrong.

Creme Brulee
This will make enough to fill a 4-inch round ramekin, which was just the right amount for David and I to share; if you're feeling especially dessert-hungry, it should be enough for you. Takes 5 hours or overnight to wait for chilling. Only about 5 minutes of active time.

2 egg yolks
1/4 cup powdered sugar
3/4 cup half and half, light cream, or a equal parts milk and heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, scraped - OR- 1 tsp vanilla extract
raw or turbinado sugar for topping (big crystals: not granulated)
  1. Preheat oven to 350º. Put a kettle or saucepan on to boil with several cups of water.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together yolks and powdered sugar. Gradually add milk, then whisk in vanilla. Pour into a ramekin or ramekins of your choice.
  3. Now, for the bain marie (water bath), which is essential. It's an extra step, but it keeps the temperature of the custard steady and ensures even cooking without curdling or cracking. Set your ramekin inside a larger pan with high sides. When your water starts to boil, pour it into the pan, taking care to avoid the creme, until it comes about halfway up the sides of the ramekin. Using potholders, slide carefully into to the preheated oven. Bake 45-55 minutes, checking often, until sides are firm but middle is still giggly.
  4. Remove from bain marie and set out on a rack to cool. Once you can handle it, transfer it to the fridge overnight or--if you are impatient like me--into the freezer for a couple of hours. It should be firm and cold.
  5. When you are ready to get your brulee on, fire up the torch or preheat your broiler. Sprinkle a thin layer of sugar over the whole surface of the custard. Torch or broil NO MORE than 1-2 inches from heat source for just a couple of minutes--until brown, crackling, and deliciously crisp. Tap tap away with your little spoon and enjoy.