Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Diversity Guest Cake wins “Most Delicious” at local competition

There's an old North American Indian term called Three Sisters. It has to do with putting together three things that are compatible and that assist each other. I've discovered the Three Sisters of dessert. I recently used the flavorings in a cake that I entered at a 20th Birthday Cake Competition sponsored by Summerlin and hosted at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas. I won “Most Delicious!”

My little introduction card said something like this:

"I deeply embrace the various cultural characteristics of my neighbors. In honor of diversity I came up with the “Diversity Guest Cake.” In this cake I used my favorite ingredients: Almonds, Lemon, and Cardamom."
The basis for this cake comes from the original called “Company Dessert Cake” which has been circulated through several small town newspapers over the ages. In the good old days company meant guests and a lady could honor and impress her guests by going all-out with this multi layered cake. Any woman worth her salt knew the effort that went into it and was appreciative.  I added two layers to the cake, inverting the top layers. To give mine a look of elegance I topped it with a glassy smooth cooked white icing. I covered the rather messy looking sides with toasted slivered almonds for that Viennese Bakery look. Most importantly I used my special ingredients: almonds, lemon, and Green Cardamom.
I was introduced to Cardamom when my husband brought some back from Kuwait after serving in the military there. I like to think of him walking along the market stalls picking out small treasures to bring back to me. This is one of my favorites. Cardamom is used widely in the Middle East, India and the Nordic countries. You can find it here locally at Wholefoods and several of the local specialty stores. It comes in a green seed pod form.

I think Cardamom represents diversity well. It is not well known by many in the US but is quickly embraced and accepted for its unique difference once you get to know it.

(Our Aunt Vee joked that you need a budget for this recipe. You will need 11 eggs, two sticks of butter and a Costco-sized bag of sliced almonds. Along with the exotic seed pods, it adds up! This recipe is not for the faint of heart, being at peace of mind before you start is recommended!)

Preheat the oven to 325°F

Step 1 – The Cake Layers
(you will be repeating this part twice so double up on the shopping list)
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon sea salt
½ cup unsalted butter
½ cup granulated cane sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 egg yolks 
6 tablespoons milk
Cut parchment paper bottoms and grease and flour two 9 inch round layer pans. Sift the dry ingredients together, cream the butter and sugar and then slowly mix in the wet and dry ingredients. The batter will be stiff and not seem like enough. Spread it evenly in the prepared pans with a rubber spatula and set them aside. Be prepared to repeat this step again.

Step 2 – The Garnish (as is)
2 cups sliced almonds
While the oven is hot spread at least 2 cups of sliced almonds on a cookie sheet and toast on the top shelf for just a few minutes. You want them lightly toasted, just a light golden color, not yet brown.

Step 3 – The Meringue Layers
(you will be repeating this part twice so double up on the shopping list)
4 large egg whites
1 cup granulated cane sugar
½ teaspoon fresh finely grated lemon peel
½ cup sliced almonds
a pinch of ground Green Cardamom seeds
Beat at a high speed until firm peaks form then reduce the speed to medium and very slowly add the sugar. Beat again at high speed until high peaks form. Then reduce the speed to slowest and run the mixture for just a few rotations while you add the lemon peel, the almonds and the cardamom. You will need to crush 10-12 cardamom pods. Some people crack them open with their teeth. I prefer to crush them and pull out the hulls. Pulverize the seeds to a very fine powder. I use a mortar and pestle. Spread half the egg white mixture evenly over each of the cake batter layers and place them on the middle shelf of your oven for 30 minutes. After they’ve cooled enough to touch run a knife around the edge and ease them out upside down on cooling racks so they don’t break. Don’t worry about the cracks in the meringue. To make the four-layer cake repeat steps 1 and 3 again. Some people may bravely double the recipe. I can’t accommodate the volume in my small mixer.  Important note here: I believe I used LESS sugar that the original recipe. I am not a sweet tooth so I always cut back. If you choose you can go with 1/2 cup of sugar, it will not affect the recipe. I confess I was playing when I made this cake so recreating what I did has been a challenge.

Step 4 –  The Cooked Custard Filling (as is)
3/4 cups granulated cane sugar
4 tablespoons cornstarch
2 pinches of sea salt
3 large egg yolks
3 cups milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons Italian Volcano Lemon Juice
( OR, use freshly squeezed
1/4 teaspoon finely ground cardamom

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1 pinch of powdered saffron mixed in 1/4 teaspoon of warm water for yellow color (optional, I used this in 1/3 of a batch for the center layer just to be creative)
Stir together the sugar, the cornstarch and the sea salt in a large saucepan. In the blender mix together the egg, milk and wet saffron until smooth. Gradually stir the blended yolk mixture into the dry mixture and cook over medium-high heat stirring constantly with a wire whisk until it thickens, about 8-10 minutes. Turn the heat to low and cook a little longer, stir in the dry cardamom powder, stirring briskly. Remove from the heat and continue to stir gently for about another minute. Then stir in the vanilla and lemon. Set the custard mixture aside to cool to room temperature. In your mixer whip the whipping cream until very stiff. It must make rigid peaks. Place the whipped cream in the refrigerator for 30 minutes then combine the whipped cream in a bowl with the cooled custard mix, gently folding in, a large spoonful at a time. If your custard is even remotely still warm it will melt your whipped cream. Let it all cool. NOTE: For my winning cake I actually reserved plain custard for the very middle without the added whipped cream. It was a separate 1/3 of a batch colored with saffron. Place the mixture in the refrigerator to keep it chilled.

Step 5 – Cooked White Icing  (as is)
2 large egg whites
1 ½ cups granulated cane sugar
5 tablespoons cold water
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon very finely micro grated fresh lemon peel
1 large pinch of ground Green Cardamom
Blend all the ingredients except the vanilla, lemon and cardamom flavorings on high speed in a blender until smooth. Pour the mixture into the top of a double boiler and heat over rapidly boiling water for 8 solid minutes, beating constantly with a whisk. No resting, no breaks! Remove from heat, beat in the vanilla, lemon peel and cardamom flavorings and transfer to a mixer. Beat until the icing thickens.  (Note: I got the Microplane 40020 Grater/Zester in my Christmas stocking one year. It's still one of my favorite tools; lemons being one of my favorite ingredients.) Important note here: My husband prefers this cake without the icing. If you are not a sweet tooth the icing will be too much! You could use home-made whipped cream, flavored with just a little sugar and a few drops of vanilla instead.

Step 6 - Assembling the cake
Place the first cooled cake layer meringue side up then spoon a generous amount of the custard cream over it. Add another cooled cake layer meringue side up and spoon either another layer of custard cream, or, as I did for my winning cake, use large spoonfuls of plain saffron-tinted custard in the very middle without the added whipped cream.
Next turn the third layer of cake so that the meringue is face down over the custard. On top of that spoon a generous amount of the custard cream mixture. On top of that place the last cooled cake layer, meringue side down. Gently push the layers into place to make it look even all around.
Now spoon all the icing over the top of the cake in the middle and let it ooz. It will have the consistency of white school glue that’s been left open. Very carefully nudge it around with a cake frosting spatula so that it flows flat across the top and globs over the sides. Next, without touching the top, which should by now look like a sheet of milky glass, run your spatula around the side of the cake spreading the globs of icing to act like “glue” for the toasted sliced almonds.
Don’t worry about what it looks like. It’ll look pretty bad. Next, with a cupped hand, pat a handful of toasted sliced almonds along the side of the cake over a cookie sheet. Turn the cake as you work. Keep scooping up almonds and patting them until you’ve covered the sides all around. I strategically placed the prettiest almonds along the top edge to give the cake a more polished look. Chill overnight in the refrigerator.  (Note: for the contest I didn't have enough time to allow the icing to set, you can see it's oozing down on the sides.)
This decadent creation serves 12-16 
Let me know how yours turns out! Mine was gone within minutes.

Karen Jaggi lives with her husband, their three kids, and a rescue dog (who is still learning his manners). You may contact her through her blog, she has been known to talk friends through the steps in her recipes.

KM Jaggi Copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.



Sylvia Thompson's book came highly recommended to me.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Herbs on Everything

Every season my cooking methods include a gardening goal. "I will put fresh herbs on everything I cook and I will grow all the herbs I need." This is no easy feat in the desert which is why so many people here turn to hydroponics or the grocery store. I personally must have dirt. I'm a closet composter quietly snuggled up in the suburbs, on a very small pail scale, and every ounce of black gold I manage to convert just makes me happy.

This year my Tarragon is surviving. I found out that if I place the pot near the grassline just under the shade of my Bottlebrush tree then the late evening watering sends a fine delicious mist over it; the soak is just enough to keep the delicate plant satisfied in our desert climate.

Even with the drought I'm not giving up my grass, which needs frequent waterings. This little patch keeps me sane. I love the fresh cut smell and I enjoy knowing that it's giving off good clean air around my house. My dog loves it too for his own personal reasons.

Life is a series of tangents as far as I'm concerned so while I'm mentioning fresh green grass I absolutely need to quote from a book I just read, and thoroughly enjoyed. This quote had poignant meaning for me since I spent several days early this past Summer hiking through France near the place the author is describing. Having experienced the smell in person reading this quote causes me to breath deep and wistfully remember.

"We took the train to Paris and later a car south into Cevannes. In the mornings I worked on two or three essays in my increasingly lucid French, to mail back to school. I still have one of these; even now decades later, unfolding it returns me to that feeling of the untranslatable heart of France in May, the smell of grass that was not grass but l'herbe, edibly fresh, as if all French vegetation were fantastically culinary, the ingredients of a salad or something to stir in cheese."  ~ excerpt taken from The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova.
The reviews on her other book, Swan Thieves, indicate it's just as supurbly written. Something to look forward to!

I'm getting all excited because that Fall crispyness is in the air and it's time for our second growing season of the year. The so-called crispy air starts with a semi-cool morning that climbs to 95°F by noon. (That's roughly 35°C for my friends across the pond.) Still it's cooling off from those searing triple digits.

I am itching to make a Fish Mold recipe right now but that little project absolutely has to wait until my birthday in December. So, to take my mind off the wait I've decided to make a small raised garden bed of my own design for the desert climate. I'll be using the portland cement recipe mixed with dolomite and peatmoss to make a manageable sized, suburb-oriented (hopefully desert-proof) raised vegetable garden. I'll be designing the tiers and collecting the materials next week.

Meanwhile, here's what I fantasize doing with my healthy green herbs:
  • Snipped bunch of Parsely played off my fingers over the morning eggs covered in melted Gruyure.
  • A sprinkle of Thyme casually dropped onto the cottage cheese heaped across the toasted Irish Soda Oat Bread.
  • Raw Shallots sliced thin and carefully arranged with delicate perfection across the cracked wheat crackers heavily loaded with homemade liver pate.
  • Chives chopped on an extreme angle strewn over the fingerling potatos already rolled in a bit of butter and sprinkled with sea salt.
  • Basil leaves rolled and finely sliced in one fell swoop practically covering the dish of sliced tomatos drizzled with Balsamic Vinegar and Olive Oil.
  • Tarragon leaves embedded with Garlic in the beef.
  • A handful of Tarragon stuffed inside a roasting chicken and doused with a glass of wine.
  • A handful of parsley chopped fine and immersed in the salad dressing, laced with a small spoon of plain greek yogurt.
  • Broad leaves of Cilantro or Italian Parsley and quartered cherry tomatoes gently folded in with tuna and buried with Garbonza beans. Oh, and copious amounts of fresh chopped garlic in homemade salad dressing, all served on a bed of leaf lettuce. (We call that one Aunt Bee's Salad, it's a great protein fix and a quick dinner.)
  • Rosemary chopped fine and flung across a baking pan filled with garlic roasted potatoes.
Mmmm! Inspired to write an herb haiku!

Basil leaves cut fine;
Cutting board stained juice green.
Rise sweet leaf odor.



The Smoke

(Setting: 24 years ago in an upper apartment in Holland)
My Godmother who is also my aunt drew in deeply from the Virginia Slim she had just lit. I sit there quietly sipping white wine, listening to a male voice croon to us in French from her record player… something about life being for our amusement and death being the time to rest, The singer's name is Moustaki.

My aunt has long brown hair that she likes to pin away from her face with a small clip. She sits back in her favorite easy chair, legs crossed, an ashtray carefully balanced on the overstuffed arm, and asks me a question.

“Karen, who do you love?”

She asked this of me with her gorgeous Dutch accent just out of the blue, blowing smoke upwards around the tops of our heads. She gives her cigarette a delicate tap over the ashtray and looks directly into my eyes. I stared at her through the downward drifting haze and pondered her intensity. She meant to get the truth from me... for me. I slowed down my breathing.

“The one I love is the golden love of my youth.”  I offered.

“Is he still available?” She asked.

“I think, maybe, yes” I said without certainty, peering up at the smoke caught in the light between us.

“Then find him.” she replied.

Her own story rolled across my heart unspoken. I pondered the difficult task of honesty at hand. I was grateful for that curtain of blue-white moving space between us. I stared at the swirls vaguely amazed that I hadn’t started coughing yet. Smoke in a room tends to set me off into hacking fits requiring water and a swift couple of whacks on my back. To this day I still associate the awareness that I had to track down my soul mate with a cloud of smoke. His return into my life is associated with a solid question lingering in visible drifts of air tinted with a melody to Live.

“Who do you love?”

He is a Firefighter. I awkwardly broke off an engagement from a distance and took a ferry across the English Channel to talk it over with him. It had been several years. He met me at the dock and took me by train through London to his military base. The whole time we never stopped grinning. The air around us shined.

On our first day together as a married couple in our snug little British apartment, I confessed to him the seriousness of my smoke allergy. I think he already knew based on how I reacted when we stepped into the local pubs. Bruno’s was the worst with their low ceiling but we kept coming back for their espressos; they rubbed the rim of the cup with an orange peel. At home he would sit on our snow covered front step and smoke. I never asked him to quit but he did within two weeks. He still likes to have a cigar with the guys once a year on some momentous guy day.
I love watching him prepare for the ritual of enjoying a cigar. He wears an English waxed overcoat that he refers to as his “smoke coat.” It keeps a lot of the smoke from settling into his clothes. He pours cognac for the guys and they sit outside next to the chiminea like a displaced men’s club from another time. I’ll glance at them with outward disinterest while I water the plants, checking really to see their togetherness. They are puffing in front of each other like dragons, occasionally turning the lit tips of their rolled brown leaves inward to have a glance at the burning ends.
I remember my aunt’s intense question. Are the guys asking each other questions of deep intensity? They’re probably discussing g-strings under knits. Does the smoke draw out the truth? I know the cognac will do that. Love draws out the truth; love of a dear aunt whom I respect. I gave her a truthful answer and changed the course of my life. I remember how I thought the smoke helped hide my confusion. Actually the smoke and Moustaki artfully softened the moment.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Almandejes Greies, I call it Oma's Fish Mold Pudding

A recent phone call to Mom cleared up the Fish Mold story for me. There were two molds, not one, which explains why I was a total fish mold klutz at the last family gathering I attended in Holland. I still think back to that dinner with a big grin. My younger cousin had made an almond cake of sorts that somehow didn't turn out. He was being all apologetic while holding this gorgeous dessert in front of me that he had made with his own two hands. I was so touched. Everyone cooked; my favorite kind of party! It was there that my Aunt who is also my Godmother gave me a green glass necklace, but that’s another story. Anyhow, I was given the honor of slicing the fish mold pudding. My cousin had to intervene when I started to slice off the wrong end, not realizing in this case that I needed to shave off the fish first. Ritual is important, especially this one.

"Well, this book
is very old

Of course Mom and I spent the next hour on the phone talking about the fish mold pudding and old recipes of her youth. I heard her rustling around. She had pulled out Oma's cookbook. I could hear her paging through it and she cheerfully said "Well, this book is very old, I can barely read the first and last page and it's falling apart." Being a vintage book lover and a book repair artist in training I cringed as I pictured pages falling out under her touch, “Be careful Mom,” I whispered while she pulled out little scraps of paper and enjoyed a trip down memory lane. I was so excited that she had a cookbook from my grandmother. “Is it her writing or a printed book?” I asked.

Mom was still paging through it and then recalled that Oma hardly used it because she cooked from memory. “Did you know she cooked for a major before she was married?” I knew she had cooked for a Jewish family and had to learn kosher cooking. Mom told me Oma had interviewed with the major’s wife who demanded, (probably with her nose slightly pointed upwards) “There are 365 days in the year I don’t want any repeats, can you cook 365 desserts?” I’m sure Oma politely, yet with dominating flippancy, probably replied (with her well-turned chin pointed somewhat outward) “But of course Madam, shall I start with your favorite or mine?” She had to get extra ideas from somewhere. Hence the book perhaps.

Mom read the title to me, translating it from Dutch. “The cookbook is called Cookbook from The Amsterdam Household School by C. J. Wanee, a teacher in cooking and nutrition. It’s the third printing published in 1910.

You can have it” she added. I squealed like a little girl...  In writing this I notice that I am still overjoyed. Of course I have to fly over to see her to get it.

We reviewed the fish mold recipe. I had asked her if it’s a special family recipe. She said, “It’s so popular in Holland that you can buy a readymade mix off the shelf. Of course you can write about it!” I chuckle; a box mix.

Mom cautioned me to have ice water sitting in the mold and to pour it out and immediately pour in the pudding. It seems to help it not stick. She also said it's great the next morning sliced for breakfast. Being an almond lover my mouth waters at the thought of this heavenly food for breakfast.

Here’s the ingredients:

1 Liter full milk (heavy not skim)
100-110 grams Cream of Wheat
¼ stick of vanilla bean OR grated peel of half a lemon (OR Mom uses Almond Extract) I personally think it would be heavenly with a combination of vanilla, lemon peel and ground Cardemom.
75 grams of sugar
1 or 2 eggs separated
40 grams of whole almonds boiled, skinned then chopped

I see I will need to do conversions for my US readers.

Picture this; Mom boils the almonds then stands at the oven stirring the cream of wheat mixture with one hand and popping skins off the almonds with the other hand. Tell me she's not talented! 

Here's how I'll be handling this line-up of ingredients: I'll be plopping the room temperature egg yolks in the room temperature milk and running that in my blender until smooth, then adding that to the dry ingredients already well mixed in a medium saucepan, which will then be placed over medium heat. I wonder if I can top my Mom's talents by stirring the cream of wheat mixture, popping skins off almonds AND pulsing the eggwhites in my mixer all at the same time. All that will be left to do is pull the hot mixture off the stove, add the flavorings, chop the almonds, fold them into the eggwhites which in turn gets folded into the cream of wheat mixture. Pour this into the mold and refrigerate until firm.

Did I miss anything? I better test this recipe. BUT I CAN'T (I wail emphatically here like a miserable child, it's really annoying sounding.) I don't get the Fish Mold until my birthday and this recipe MUST go into a fish mold. It's tradition. Should I wait?

More about this recipe to come.





Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fish Mold

I found a replica of a vintage fish mold last night at a cooking supply store called Sur La Table. I say last night because it was late, we were on a date and we ended up walking the Miracle Mile Shops in Planet Hollywood. It was in fact 11:47 pm and we had been drinking Terrazzo wine from Argentina. My teenage daughter was on the phone asking me when we'd be home, I said "oh when we're ready. Then I giggled into the cell phone and said "Oh look Lamb, it's on sale!"

Lamb is my pet name for my husband, which must be difficult at the fire department. It goes back to a day in October about 20 years ago when we drove into Las Vegas for the first time. We had been sent here by the Air Force. Our tour-of-duty choice had been Milano, Italy but we got Vegas. At the time I had been squinting out of the passenger window, the earth looked barren and roasted. I said, "it looks really dry here." My husband, a man who sails, replied, "Yes honey, we are Land Lubbers now." How the term Land Lubber became Lamb Blubber must have evolved around our Try-all-Vegas-Buffets era when we put on a bit of weight. By the time the kids came around the name was shortened to Lamb. It was one of those word evolution things that happen over time.

I handed Lamb the fish mold. He could tell it meant something to me. We passed it over to the cashier for a price check and I babbled. “You have to know what's in my heart about this fish mold. When I was a little girl our Oma (grandmother from the Netherlands) would make a Fish Mold Pudding. I just got the recipe from my Mom and I’ve been looking for a fish mold!” The cashier nodded patiently as I tried not to slosh my cappuccino on her counter.

Oma had two different molds, both were fish. I never knew what was in the pudding recipe but the flavor would sing to me, the texture would tantalize, and I learned from my cousins that you must eagerly wait for her to slice the fish off the top of the high mold and serve it to a deserving child. Slicing the fish was pomp and circumstance. There is a lot to be said for rituals, they make life interesting and moments memorable.

The fish was a sought-after
piece of pudding.

The first slice of her second mold; would it be the tail?  No the EYE! As a small child my mother always wanted the eye. Where did all this special ritual come from? I think it had to do with the war and raising kids. Oma raised her three small girls during World War II and simple things had to be made special and have delight attached to them. The fish molds were a delight. The porcelain molds have since been passed down and even now, 75 years later, the first slice is still an honorary slice in the family circle and the great grand children still squeal over it.

This past April the recipe was given to me. I cried at the sight of my mother's familiar handwritten words and felt humbled by the person who long ago had crafted this simple grain-based pudding flavored with almonds. Here it is October and I have yet to make the recipe. I couldn't before, I didn't have a fish mold.

My grandmother's fish mold was white porcelain, mine is a reproduction copper mold made in Switzerland for BIRTH-GRAMM. It's lined with silver metal, stainless steel, not aluminum. It says Massive Kupfer – Feuerverzinht. I usually call my Mom for German translations but I’m pretty sure this means something close to solid copper – heat resistant. I fell in love with it the moment I held it. It has a pleasant weight. The fish has a sweet curve and splendid fin detail. The mold was marked down on sale from $39 to $25. (yikes and gulp) I just had to have it. There are very few things I feel that way about. My Lamb bought it for my birthday present. My birthday is coming up in December.

Here's my dilemma. Ritual is important to us. I should wait until my birthday to use my fish mold shouldn't I? Yes, I could easily make the pudding as a test run while my husband is at work and gobble it down in sheer delight then wash the mold and put it back in the gift closet. But that would be deceit and gluttony, right? Not to mention that I would be depriving my beloved family of watching me enjoy a recipe of my childhood for the first time in ages. I should wait.

Recipe to follow.


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