Monday, September 14, 2015

Italian Purple Plum and Almond Cake

At the farmer's market, Italian prune plums are finally in season!

Smaller, denser, and a little less juicy then the summer plums you usually see, their flavor truly blossoms in dessert, concentrating wonderfully when they're baked or cooked.

The most famous recipe using these plums is the Purple Plum Torte by Marian Burros, originally published in the New York Times in 1982.  They were so popular that the Times published the recipe every year from 1982 to 1989. When the editors stopped, the paper was flooded with angry letters, protesting that the appearance of the recipe every year was a tradition to mark the end of summer.

But today, I'm not going to talk about that recipe (not yet, at least!) but another recipe also making use of these delicious purple plums. That's the Torta di Prugne e Mandorle or Plum Almond Cake from Rustic Italian by Domenica Marchetti. It's a easy recipe (no stand mixers needed!) that befits the rustic nature of the cake. I could imagine eating a slice, or two at a local trattoria in a local Tuscan village. The cake is full of sweet, nutty, almond flavor with a toothsome, tender crumb, and a burnished crunchy almond top. My family devoured half the cake the very day I baked it.

Italian Purple Plum and Almond Cake
Adapted from Domenica Marchetti's Plum Almond Cake

The cake sticks the pan, so I would using parchment paper on the pan, before oiling and flouring it. 
The batter is quite wet, but don't worry, the plums won't sink to the bottom of the cake.   

Although the original recipe says that any plum will do, I strongly recommend prune plums because they'll exude less liquid when baked, and thus make the cake less soggy.

The original recipe included weight measurements that didn't quite add up to the volume of the ingredients given, so after a few tests, I found that something in between those given amounts created a sturdier (but still light!) cake, which accounts for the addition of a tablespoon here and there.
I used barley flour, which accentuated the nuttiness of the cake; it has a silky texture that gives the cake a lightness to the otherwise moist batter. But if you don't have it, you can use exclusively all-purpose flour (a total of 1 cup + 1 tablespoon or 127 grams).

There is a slight lemony scent that only accentuates the almond flavor. If you want more lemon zing to shine through, use the juice of a whole lemon.

The original recipe also specified the plums should be placed cut-side up on the cake, which as you see in photos above what I originally did. But from the recipe's photos, and my own experience with Marian Burros' cake, plums are usually placed cut-side down. That's what I did the subsequent times I made the cake, which has no change in flavor, but makes what I think is a prettier end result. 
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon (70 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (55 grams) barley flour
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon (65 grams) almond flour
2 teaspoons (7 grams) baking powder
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
Zest and half the juice of 1 large lemon
3/4 cup (170 grams) sugar
1/2 cup olive or other neutral-tasting vegetable oil
1 large egg
1/2 cup half-and-half or whole milk
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
10-12 purple Italian purple plums, halved and pitted
1/3 cup (40 grams) sliced almonds
2 tablespoons (30 grams)
2 tablespoons (28 grams) butter, room temperature

  1. Preheat over to 375° F.  Line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Butter the paper, and then dust with flour. 
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the all-purpose flour, barley flour, almond flour, baking powder, and salt.
  3. In a medium bowl, rub together the 3/4 cup of sugar and lemon zest with your fingers so the lemon flavor really comes out. Add the oil, egg, half-and-half, lemon juice, and almond extract. Whisk to blend thoroughly.
  4. Add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture, and whisk until just combined. 
  5. Pour the batter into the pan. Arrange the plum halves, cut side down, on top of the batter.
  6. In a small bowl, combine the sliced almonds, 2 tablespoons sugar, and butter. Mix well. Dot the almond topping all over the cake.
  7. Bake the cake for 45 minutes, or until the topping is golden brown and a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
  8. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for at least 15 minutes and remove the ring from the pan. The cake keeps 5 days, well-wrapped at room temperature (if you can make it last that long!).

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Fresh Fig Swirl Ice Cream

Autumn is fast approaching and figs are available in abundance, finally.

After they sold out every other day at my local grocery store, I finally wised up and bought two baskets of figs instead of just one -- half the figs are eaten raw for breakfast, the other half for dessert!

And one of my favorite recipes I've made recently is fig swirl ice cream.
The fig swirl retains that marvelous pop of fig seeds and winey, plush figgy flavor, which works so well against the backdrop of sweet, cold ice cream.

Inspired by the fig ice creams made by both the Bojon Gourmet and Pastry Studio, I decided to combine both ideas and run with it a little further.

The figs only need a touch of sugar, some cognac to add a complex fruitiness, and spices to give some fall warmth.

For the ice cream base, I used a slightly modified base from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. There's no need for tempering yolks, the base has a higher ratio of milk to heavy cream but still feels rich and smooth, with no iciness at all, and still has the delightful chewiness classic to American custard-based ice cream. I added some vanilla and more port to deepen the figgy fragrance and warmth.

Fig Swirl 

I used black mission figs because of their beautiful purple color, but I think any variety of fig will do. You can substitute the cognac for bourbon, as originally done by The Bojon Gourmet. The alcohol will cook out, leaving a lingering warm aroma. But if you don't want any alcohol, you can substitute the cognac for orange juice and decrease the sugar to 2 tablespoons (25 grams).

Makes about 1 cup

1 1/2 cups (225 grams) chopped fresh figs
1/4 cup (50 grams) organic granulated sugar
6 tablespoons (90 ml) cognac
1/2 cinnamon stick
2 inch piece of orange peel
1 teaspoon lemon juice
a pinch (1/8 teaspoon for you technical folk!) of fine sea salt
  1. In a small saucepan, combine the figs, sugar, cognac, cinnamon stick, orange peel, and salt.
  2. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a simmer. Then lower the heat to medium low and cook for 20 minutes or until thick and jammy. The mixture is done when the figs have broken down slightly and the cognac has reduced into a syrup. Stir the mixture occasionally with a wooden spoon to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning.
  3. Let the mixture cool slightly and remove the peel and cinnamon stick. 
  4. Spoon out the mixture into a food processor or blender and process until the mixture (the figs and port syrup jam) is combined. It's fine if there are some chunks of fig.


Fresh Fig Swirl Ice Cream

I use 2% milk instead of whole milk but that's what I have in the fridge, and I don't want to buy whole milk only to have leftovers go to waste. But I promise - I actually think the 2% milk is better than whole milk because it lightens the ice cream a bit to let the fruit flavors shine through all the cream, without sacrificing any richness or adding any iciness. And there's less of a danger of any greasy mouthfeel that I think some homemade ice creams have.
There are two times in the recipe where lumps could possibly form: First, when you whisk in the cornstarch slurry into the hot ice cream base. If the cornstarch is not fully incorporated into the milk in the first step, it'll form into tiny lumps so make sure to give it another good whisking right before you pour it in! Second, when you whisk in the hot base into the cream cheese. So make sure the cream cheese is at room temperature and slowly whisk in a small amount of the hot milk into the cheese. 
Still got lumps? Just strain the mixture when you're done chilling it! 
When churning the ice cream, aim for a soft-serve consistency. Churn any more, and you might start churning the cream in the base into butter, which would lead to a oily aftertaste!
Makes about 1 quart
2 cups 2% milk
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon (7 grams) cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
3 tablespoons (43 grams) cream cheese, softened at room temperature.
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup (95 g) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons (40 grams) light corn syrup
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped lengthwise (or 2 teaspoons of vanilla paste or extract)
2 tablespoons cognac (30 ml), optional
1 recipe Fig Swirl

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together around 2 tablespoons of the milk and cornstarch together with a fork. Set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the cream cheese and salt until thoroughly combined. 
  3. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk together the remaining milk along with the cream, sugar, corn syrup, and vanilla bean seeds. 
  4. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 4 minutes.
  5. Take the mixture off heat briefly, and whisk in the cornstarch slurry. 
  6. Return the pot to a boil and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until thickened, about 1-2 minutes. You can tell if the mixture is done by carefully running your finger (it's really hot!) on the custard coated on the back of the spoon. If there's a track left by your finger, the mixture is done cooking. Take off heat.
  7. Pour in around 1/4 cup of the hot cream mixture into the bowl with cream cheese. Whisk until smooth. Then whisk in remaining cream mixture. 
  8. Cool until room temperature, and then chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours until very cold, preferably overnight. Alternatively, you can pour the mixture into a large plastic bag, and submerge the bag in an ice bath for quicker chilling.
  9. The next day, or whenever the base is cold, you can pour it through a strainer for a perfectly smooth ice cream, but it's not necessary. Stir in the cognac.
  10. Place a large glass storage container in the freezer to chill.
  11. Churn the base with your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. 
  12. When done churning, spread approximately 1/3 of the ice cream into the container. 
  13. Spoon 1/3 of the fig swirl puree all over the surface. Repeat with the remaining ice cream and fig puree. Swirl the top layer with a knife. 
  14. Freeze until the ice cream is set, approximately 4-6 hours depending on how cold your freezer it. The ice cream will keep for several weeks...if you can wait that long!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Not another food blog!

There are so many food blogs out there, so why should I drop another blog into the infinite foodie internet universe?

I mean, look at Smitten Kitchen, the Wednesday Chef, Orangette, Seven Spoons, not to mention actual famous cookbook writers David Lebovitz and Dorie Greenspan online already!

But to back it up a bit: I'm Shennon and yes, I'm adding to the food blogs out there. I have a huge sweet tooth, in that I need something sweet to finish off every meal. Not that I want to be covered in sugar up to my ears, with cavities until my teeth fall out.

And what I've noticed over the years are two big trends: towards the super sweet or the super healthy. I'm no vegan, nor do I have celiac disease, but nor am I sold on caramel-sauced everything, butter stuffed cakes, or exclusively white flour pastries.

So, instead --all in moderation, right? 

So this will be primarily a blog on sweets. But nothing too sweet, too complicated. When I first started baking, I rushed into it headlong trying to find the most complicated stuff I could find. I could be a pastry chef! I could do all those fancy, complex techniques!

But whew! It was a lot of work and time to create some weeknight or even weekend desserts. I'm a nervous baker, too. It's hard to have to wait until something finished baking or freezing or whatever to know if it tastes good! Only after assembling all those components can you know if a recipe has failed or not. No tasting along the way like cooking. When a layered cake has three, four, five components? Forget it, I was a nervous wreck.

So here I am. Returning to some simple cakes, I realized that desserts with pure flavors are sometimes the most comforting and the best to eat. And along with a few original recipes (that I promise to test!), I'll mostly be posting recipes on the internet with my own baking notes and modifications: replacing some flours, reducing the butter a smidge, adding yogurt, replacing the fruit, and maybe even a little booze added in for fun.

Naught too much, naught too sweet.