Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On the cake

Periodically--it seems to be about once a month--Susan hosts a friendly neighborhood wine tasting at her home.

For the event last week, I gathered about 14 stools around the kitchen island, put out lots of silver and 32 plates (one plate each for the shepherd's pie, salad and cheese and the others for dessert) with a nice blue trim and searched out the four boxes of tasting glasses in the back prep kitchen.

I was downstairs tidying up the kitchen when Baptiste walked in, his black curls bouncing everywhere, loaded up with a huge bag of his very tasty mache. I finished unloading the dishwasher after a friendly two kiss greeting, and he got to work washing the mache in the zinc vegetable sink.

Baptiste is one of my favorite farmers at the weekly market. His vegetables are incredible, usually arriving about a week earlier than anyone else and always tasty. We split our vegetable shopping between his stand and another run by an adorable older couple. But our endive? Those, we always buy from Baptiste.

Just a few weeks ago, while Susan was spending her week teaching in Paris and I was holding down the fort at home with the animals (except for two days of classes, when I took the train in to assist), I ate up our supply of four endive in salads inspired by this recipe. When she returned, we went to the Saturday market as usual and I was surprised that Susan didn't pick up any more endive. I figured maybe the season was over, or maybe she wasn't as much of a fan as I was, but I didn't say anything, not having had my coffee and croissant yet.

Days later, I heard my name called from the kitchen, and I went downstairs. There was Susan, visibly heartbroken at the idea that she wouldn't be able to eat any of Baptiste's endive until she returned home from her trip to the states weeks later. I couldn't decide whether to laugh or crawl under the kitchen island. I don't think she could either.

That night at the wine tasting, after finishing with the dishwasher, I came to take over washing duties from Baptiste, and he politely but firmly nudged me out of the way and continued his work. That, of course, didn't bother me a bit, until I happened to glance down at the mache floating in the sink.

On my first or second day here, Susan had shown me the proper way to wash and serve mache (bought at Baptiste's stand, bien sur). It takes anywhere between 5 and 7 washings, depending on how dirty it is, which can take quite a while, but you can't skimp for fear of allowing a single piece of grit to slip past your guard and onto an unsuspecting diner's plate.

She had also stressed that mache should be left in the little florets it grows in, so you can imagine my shock and horror when I saw that Baptiste, while washing his mache, had cut off all of the leaves from every floret, leaving them all swimming individually in the sink.

Knowing that there was nothing I could do to save the already massacred mache at this point, I casually mentioned Susan's theory of leaving the mache whole to Baptiste, who grinned at me, shrugged, then commented that seeing as it was his mache and he didn't care, neither should anyone else.

I knew someone else wasn't going to have quite the same point of view, and rushed upstairs to warn Susan so that she wouldn't faint at the sight of those desolate mache leaves.

Earlier that day I had baked and iced a cake for dessert. We had a glutton of carrots on hand, so Susan decided that I should try a carrot cake, a version from her delightfully stained and dog-eared copy of her own Farmhouse Cookbook.

This is not the fluffy, cream cheese frosting-swirled carrot cake of your youth, however. This is a down-home, thick, almost fruit cake-esque cake, full of warm spices and walnuts.

And did I mention that I topped it with a caramel frosting?

Whoa. I mean, the cake was good, though it probably would've been better if left to sit for a few days and have the flavors meld and marry a bit more, but that frosting was out of this world.

Imagine a (slightly) salted butter caramel melted all over a dense, nutty cake and you'll be getting warmer.

It was all I could do not to get out a spoon and eat the entire pan full myself, and it must be said that I was not overly pleased when Susan called in her daughter to help me lick the spoon after I had finished frosting the cake. I'm good at sharing, really I am, just not when there's caramel frosting to be finished.

I imagine that this would go equally well with white or chocolate cakes. Because of its thickness, I also think it'd be great on any kind of pound cake or spiced bundt cake. Come to think of it, I can't really imagine it not going well with anything, even an ice cream sundae.

Caramel Frosting
Adapted from Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Herrmann Loomis

1 stick (8Tbs) unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
2 Tbs. milk
1 cup plus 2 Tbs. confectioners' sugar*
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, add in the brown sugar and reduce the heat to low. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon until the sugar melts and is fully incorporated, about 2 minutes.

Stir in the milk, then raise the heat to medium. Continue stirring until the mixture just comes to a boil, then remove the pan from heat and cool slightly.

Once the mixture is lukewarm, whisk in the confectioners' sugar 1/2 cup at a time. Fully incorporate each portion of sugar before adding in the next one. At this point, the frosting shoud be smooth and free of lumps.

Whisk in the vanilla extract, then spread the frosting immediately over your cake.

Yields 1 cup, just enough for the top of a 10-inch bundt cake, with pretty drips down the side.

*If you run out of confectioners' sugar or just don't have any on hand, grind up your regular sugar to a very fine dust in a coffee grinder (clean it first!). You can add a touch of cornstarch as well, but I didn't this time, and the frosting was still unbelieveable. Just remember to measure the sugar after it's been ground, not before.

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