Slightly Past Prime Cake, a recipe that never gets old

I’m particular about my fruit. I like my grapes firm and cold, bananas greenish or not at IMG_0009all, and strawberries blemish-free. Fruit that is just at or slightly past peak is not for me. The flavors are too intense, too fruity for my palate.

Oddly, these preferences alone don’t prevent fruit from aging on my counter or in my fridge. When it does, it’s time for “Slightly Past Prime Cake,” a homey and homely white cake to which you can add almost any overripe fruit, especially berries and stone fruit.

Strawberries in particular seem to sit for days in the market, hard and greenish, but ripen almost immediately as soon as they enter my house. As happened this week with a lovely basket of berries that I meant to get to on Sunday. By Monday, they were a touch squishy, and by Tuesday they were cake. It happens.

The basic recipe is straight out of the 1940s. My mom made a version of it throughout the summer that we called “Rotten Fruit Cake.” In my version, modernity comes from creme fraiche for the dairy and a generous sprinkling of turbinado sugar over the top before baking to get a crunchy sparkly crust. I serve it with mascarpone whipped cream and another pinch of the turbinado. It improves on sitting,  second day slices are best.

I never get tired of this cake! Try it. You might think differently about aging!

Slightly Past Prime Cake

Oven at 350. Butter bottom and sides of a 10-inch cake pan with a removable bottom.

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup crème fraiche
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 pound berries or stone fruit, about 1/4 of the fruit reserved in a separate bowl:
    • Weigh stone fruit only, not pits, sliced into about 1/4-inch slices
    • Strawberries, hulled and halved
    • Blueberries and small raspberries or blackberries can be used whole; extra large berries should be halved
  • 2-3 Tbs turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw)

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. (I just toss this a few times with a balloon whisk.)

Sprinkle a little sugar over the reserved fruit and set aside.

Mix butter and sugar in an electric mixer on medium until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

Reduce speed and mix in the egg, crème fraiche, and vanilla.

On low speed, gradually add the flour mixture and mix until just combined.

Using an old fashioned potato masher, pastry cutter or two forks, mash the reserved fruit. (Pour off some of the juice if the mixture is very wet. You can use it in cocktails before dinner.)

Add the mashed fruit to the batter and mix on low until combined. Be careful not to over-mix, you want some small pieces of fruit.

Scoop the batter into the prepared pan and smooth with an offset spatula. Arrange the IMG_0002IMG_0001strawberry halves decoratively over the top, pressing them down slighty with the offset spatula. Sprinkle with the turbinado sugar.

Bake in the 350 oven for 10 minutes.

Reduce heat to 325 and bake for about an hour, testing in the last 10 minutes with a toothpick – it should come out clean.

Cool in pan on rack for 15 minutes.

Push cake up from the bottom of the pan and slide onto rack. Place a cookie sheet, bottom side down on top of the cake. Gently grasp the sides of the rack and the cookie sheet, and flip the cake onto the cookie sheet. Remove the rack and, using a small offset spatula, gently pry off the pan bottom. Replace the rack and gently flip the cake back onto the rack to cool completely.

IMG_0010Good the first day, better the second, having sat at room temp loosely covered with plastic wrap. Serve with mascarpone whipped cream and a pinch of turbinado sugar. (After day two, either refrigerate or freeze any leftovers.)

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Magical Tweed Torte

When I tell people about my mother, the word I most often use is “magic.” She proved it again and again during walks in our favorite nature sanctuary. We’d sit very still on rocks,252097_10150282511387375_7182998_n barely breathing, and suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, deer appeared. It felt like Mom apparated them just for me. (Perhaps it was her Finnish heritage, but my mother made all of nature an enchanted forest.)

She revealed a most potent magic one afternoon when I was about three or four. I wanted cookies. “We can make them,” she said. Wha-a-t? What was this “making” of cookies? She parked me in a kitchen chair, pulled ingredients from shelves, and made a quick batch of drop sugar cookies. I was amazed. It was magic how an assortment of ingredients could come together and become something else, something delectable. That moment lit the spark for baking that still burns. I feel the same amazement today when a pile of stuff becomes a cake, or bread, or pie.

Slide1I’ll admit, though, that some transformations amaze me more than others. Few more so than egg whites beaten with sugar until stiff, additional elements folded in and baked until it becomes a CAKE. How is that possible?

A favorite version of this manifesting comes from another wonderful Alice Medrich* book, Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts (Quicker Smarter Recipes by Alice Medrich). The recipe, Chocolate Walnut Tweed Torte, is simplicity defined but complexity experienced. (The fact that it’s gluten free is a happy bonus.) It’s dense, sort of chewy, chocolaty, but exceptionally light – exquisite. I’m not a walnut fan so I make it with almonds.

Chocolate Almond “Tweed” Torte Adapted from a recipe by Alice Medrich

  • 1 cup almonds (3.5 ounces) – I’ve used slivered, sliced and whole almonds and always measure by weight
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 9 ounces 70% cacao bittersweet chocolate (I use Valhrona)
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 7 large egg whites (about 1 cup)
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Put oven rack in the center. Preheat oven to 350.

  • Lightly grease a 9 inch spring form pan.
  • Pulse the almonds with 1 Tbs of sugar in a food processor until finely ground. Wipe out the processor bowl with a paper towel to remove any lingering oils.FullSizeRender
  • Pulse the chocolate with one tablespoon of sugar until crumbled into small pebbles (no larger than ¼-inch).
  • Combine the chocolate and almonds with the salt and side aside.
  • Fit your electric mixer with the whip attachment and Slide1 copybeat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Continue beating at medium speed while slowly adding the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and beat until the egg whites are stiff and glossy, but not dry.
  • Fold half of the nut and chocolate mixture into the egg whites with a large rubber spatula until nearly incorporated. Then add the remaining nuts and chocolate, and continue folding until evenly incorporated.
  • Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly with an offset spatula.IMG_9774
  • Bake for 30 minutes or until the torte is puffed and brown. A toothpick will come out clean except for some melted chocolate.
  • Cool the torte on a rack. Run a knife around the edge before removing the spring-form.
  • Transfer to serving platter and serve with coffee whipped cream (I just add a touch of coffee extract to lightly sweetened whipped cream).

IMG_9818It’s just terrific and comes together in about an hour. It doesn’t really need the whipped cream. The torte keeps covered for about two days, but I freeze remaining slices after serving. To me, it’s just as delicious ice cold, but frozen slices can sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes before serving.

My mom would love it.

*I first “met” Alice through her 1990 book, Cocolat (now out of print, but available through Amazon resellers), named for her chocolate truffle and baked goods empire. Cocolat is a beautiful book. The recipes are complex but extraordinary, and there are copious tips and notes throughout. I didn’t start small with this book. My first outing was a dessert called Pate Trompe: A deep, dense chocolate mousse chilled in a loaf pan containing about ¼-inch of coffee gelee. Plated, surrounded by mounds of diced gelee, the effect is of a traditional liver pate. It’s a show stopper. I have made many cakes from Cocolat in the ensuing years, but none as often as the Aztec Layer Cake, tantalizing layers of pecan meringue, chocolate genoise, and chocolate buttercream, scented with coffee and cinnamon. It’s divine. Alice is definitely a soul sister.

Viva la Joan’s on Third:Studio City

A friend recently mentioned that I seem to be doing a lot more baking than braking on this blog. Tis all toFullSizeRendero true – I have been dealing with a recurring health issue for lo these past three months. (Dear reader, let me just say that if your eye doctor offers you the optional retinal exam for an extra fee, get it.) So I haven’t been getting out much. But I recently had the opportunity to visit the Studio City outpost of Joan’s on Third.

Angeleno’s, you no doubt know Joan’s 3rd Street location, for a long time, its only location. Parking was miserable but everything on offer was so delicious and the space so delightful, it was worth circling the block 10 or 15 times. For those who don’t know, Joan’s on Third is sort of an upscale deli plus gourmet market. I first discovered it about, gosh, 17 years ago? I was looking for Israeli couscous for a special dinner date. My relationship with Joan’s has far outlasted that with said date!

Joan’s had me at black-and-white tiled floor. That first trip I found the couscous plus a ham-and-brie on baguette that is still my favorite. Over the years I’d visit every so often, for that sandwich or to order boxed picnics for the Hollywood Bowl, that sort of thing. And then I moved away.

And then I moved back. And was very happy to learn that Joan’s had opened a new location, larger than the original and less than a mile from my house. It was on! Just as soon as I could get there.

Joan’s on Third, Studio City, is in a lovely spot on Ventura Place, high ceilinged and airy. FullSizeRenderThere’s the same divine black-and-white tiled floor. A well curated selection of cookbooks and various gourmet items line one wall. I found myself looking at artisanal chocolates with interest and a sudden longing to be back in Bruges where I bought chocolate from just about every shop I came across. I don’t do that at home. But I may start.

I purchased my standard order: Apricot Glazed Ham and Brie on baguette, and a Dream Bar (more on that later). I also ordered my version of a “tasting”: A chocolate cupcake with about three inches of chocolate covered marshmallow on top, a slice of chocolate roulade, and a slice of Crown Cake.

First, the Dream Bar, which didn’t last long enough to photograph. It’s sort of a brownie base with toasted marshmallowy stuff browned on top. There may be more in it, but I don’t really care. It’s marvelous and always has been.

Chocolate Roulade: What I love most about this is that Chocolate Roulade is something we all often want but can’t often find – it’s a regular item at Joan’s. While there’s FullSizeRender_1nothing new in the preparation, it’s very good, tender and not too sweet. The cocoa showered over the outside does make it a touch messy. (At home, I tapped most of it off into the sink.)

Crown Cake: My sister-in-law is a fantastic baker. She’s renowned in the family for her Strawberry Shortcake which is a soft-as-velvet white layer cake with crushed strawberries and cream between the layers, and a whipped cream frosting. I don’t care for the traditional biscuit version, but I could eat my SIL’s all day long. Joan’sIMG_9743 Crown Cake is redolent of home: Light white cake with a delicate whipped cream filling and frosting. Very subtle strawberry infusion. I really loved this. It lets you have party cake “just because.” It, too, is a staple menu item.

Marshmallow Cupcake: Joan’s is well known for its cupcakes, which are exceptional: Not too big, just the right amount of frosting, and not overly IMG_9174sweet. Except for this marshmallow topped version. New Yorkers, picture a Carvel chocolate bonnet on top of a chocolate cupcake. That’s the aesthetic. I cut it down the middle – that’s IMG_9175alotta marshmallow! There was no practical way to have cake and topping together so I tasted them separately. The marshmallow was just too much. The cupcake, though, was as good as ever. Moist, chocolaty and delish. In this instance, more is not more. Order any other version of a Joan’s cupcake. You’ll be so happy.

Overall, I’m delighted Joan’s on Third has moved into the neighborhood. As with the original location, it’s popular and super crowded. Take advantage of the takeaway aspect and enjoy a French-style picnic anywhere.

Joan’s on Third, 12059 Ventura Place, Studio City, CA 91604; www.joansonthird.com

Who’s in the kitchen with Gwyneth? Mac! And Cheese!!

Gwyneth Paltrow has become a polarizing figure in many ways. I don’t really have a dogFullSizeRender copy in any of those races. Where Gwyneth and I cross paths is in the kitchen. Her cookbook, My Father’s Daughter, Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family & Togetherness, is one of my favorites. (In fact, when I recently downsized my living space, hers is one of the few cookbooks I brought with me (out of a rather large personal library).)

This book satisfies on so many levels. It’s the perfect combination of name dropping, anecdotes, and recipes that work and are easy to accomplish. (One of my guilty pleasures is celebrity gossip. Safari can autofill people.com, let’s just leave it at that.)

And so, here (call it healing #2), ironically, is a recipe for macaroni and cheese. Specifically GP’s Mac and cheese. A word before we dive in: I enjoy Mac and cheese well enough. But all that orange cheese or wettish sauce has made our relationship hit or miss, and generally I feel if I’m investing in a thousand calories, I’d rather have something else. Capisce?

So when reading My Father’s Daughter, I noticed that GP’s recipe calls for mascarponeIMG_9689 and Parmesan – nothing orange (Wisconsin or otherwise). Intrigued, I gave it a whirl. And, dear reader, we’ve been dancing ever since.

The recipe as written is good, but I found the flavor a touch…delicate. (GP includes several options for jazzing it up.) So I typically make the following tweaks:

  • Rice pasta instead of traditional elbows
  • Cream instead of milk
  • Crushed rice cereal instead of bread crumbs for the topping
  • Add caramelized shallots
  • For fun, add browned, diced bacon (because with the cheese and cream, more is more, right?)

FullSizeRenderNote: I’m not 100% gluten-free, but I avoid it when I can. In this dish, trust me, when it’s all done, you cannot tell that you’re not eating standard pasta and breadcrumbs. It’s delicious.

So here you go – take Gwyneth’s Mac and cheese out for a turn. You don’t always have to dance with the one what brung ya’. It’s a recipe you’ll come back to.  Enjoy!

Macaroni and cheese  Adapted from a recipe by Gwyneth Paltrow

Oven: 350

Rub a baking dish bottom and sides with butter (to get a nice crust all around)

1 lb. rice pasta (I use Trader Joe’s brown rice and quinoa), boiled a few minutes shy of al dente

1 c. packed shredded Parmesan

8 oz mascarpone

1/2 c. cream

Pinch of nutmeg (genius on GP’s part!)

Sea salt and pepper to taste

1-2 medium shallots, diced and caramelized in butter

1/3 c. browned diced bacon (optional)

Topping:

1/2 c. shredded parmesan

1/3 c. crushed plain rice cereal

2 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted

Combine the mascarpone, 1 cup of parmesan, nutmeg and cream in saucepan and melt together over medium heat. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Stir the sauce into cooked pasta in a large bowl. Add caramelized shallots and bacon (if using), and stir to combine. Pour into baking dish.

Combine ½ cup Parmesan with rice cereal and sprinkle over top. Drizzle with melted butter.

Bake in a 350 oven for 20 minutes. Cool slightly and enjoy with a mustardy frisee salad.