Growing up, I loved my Mother’s biscuits and considered them to have an untouchable quality that was nothing short of a gift from God. Only the finest butter and most divine syrup could grace the flaky, cottony inside of her biscuits even though we could barely splurge on Aunt Jemima. With each bite came a hallelujah and deepening religious experience. We became a family of believers.
The last time she made biscuits, the cancer had already taken hold.
So I started this baking obsession with chocolate cake but, soon found that most days my love for citrus flavors was much stronger. The most challenging part is combining multiple flavoring components to create depth,complexity and yes, swooning. Admittedly I’m no flavorist though—that takes a calling from above like a priest, kindergarten teacher or, Jedi. I do take great pride when someone raves about the flavors I create and this was no exception.
I waited for that. I was all ears.
After experimenting with Meyer lemons, I returned from a trip to find a few moldy ones in my basket. Que será, será: I convinced myself that regular lemons would do just fine. The tartness would be a nice contrast to the ricotta. I used the juice of 3 lemons, zest of three lemons, lemon flavor and a dash of vanilla as a flavor enhancer.
The ricotta was strained in cheesecloth for 3 days until almost dry. It tasted slightly sweet with the concentration of flavor and richness. I also used a combination of cake flour and whole wheat pastry flour (2-to-1 ratio) because I would need some extra strength with the addition of the cheese. I never used to think about these things until multiple failures became my Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Over years of baking I still stand by the thought that the cake should stand alone. Its flavor and texture is the ultimate baking test long after the icing is scraped off to the side of the plate. You just can’t make a not-so-great cake taste spectacular with icing—my cake house rule #1.
I expected a light, spongy cake because I gently folded the ricotta into the batter. The cake had some small pieces of ricotta in the slices. Since I love lemon, I decided to make a glaze by boiling fresh lemon juice and sugar then garnishing with lemon drenched lady fingers and strawberries.
Cake house rule #2: Resist the temptation to overdo it. That was a disaster.
A small dollop of lemon curd or mascarpone cheese would have been genius. My greatest regret was not using the Meyer lemons. Surely Yoda would call that a double-edged sword.
While others try to slay red velvet or chocolate decadence, I’m stuck on lemon. My favorite local baker and baking guru, Barbara Merola used to say: “A beautiful cake taste better,” but I believe beauty is in the eye of the beholder–the one eating the cake! No journey is without challenges and only perseverance gets you through the trials. That’s why whether it’s a rabbit hole or, dark, ominous cloud, I must and you must, keep going.
In the words of Darth Vader (to Obi-Wan): “You underestimate my power.”
Stay tuned for more adventures on my journey to the best lemon cake—ever!
Food writing is not for the meek, befuddled, or the self-absorbed. It’s for those who can cook up a feast from a few simple ingredients: effective words, good grammar and, organized thoughts–mis en place. Combine these with a mouth-watering idea and create a masterpiece sans pareil.
The command of proper grammar is a major ingredient–word usage, its salt. A hard copy of a thesaurus is a great tool, or the internet version works just as good. Some of those great adjectives learned in high school can finally be rediscovered. Put them to use, if they fit.
In order to develop a strong, flavorful story, it must be reduced multiple times without mercy. Use one color highlight for sentences that should be omitted and another for those that just need reworking. With a watchful eye, monitor word count. Too many unnecessary words leave the reader wondering about the point being made.
Now let the story rest: Walk away from the draft version for at least 12 hours, gain perspective then come back to edit again—without ego. Show no favoritism for words or, sentences that do not support the main idea. These will only produce a story with no distinctive taste.
Respect the reader’s need to be full and satisfied but always leave them wanting more. Bon appétit!
It seems that you can share a family recipe or find one from somebody else’s kin folk. Whatever you need at the time, this is definitely off the beaten path so far as recipe sites are concerned. Engage!
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
(Yields 2 six inch pies)
Plum & Blackberry Filling
7-8 large, ripe plums, skinned, halved and seeded
2 cups blackberries (about)
1 cup sugar + ½ cup
2 tablespoons water
¼ cup lemon juice + 1 tablespoon
4 tablespoons berry jam
2-3 Cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoons cinnamon, divided into ½ teaspoons each
¼ cup half-and-half, plus more as needed
¼ cup of cornstarch, divided in half
Sweet Dough – Hand Method
2 ½ cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into pieces
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, beaten
¼ cup ice water, plus more as needed
Peel plums and set aside in a bowl with ¼ cup of sugar and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Wash blackberries and set aside to drain. Put remaining cup of sugar and 2 tablespoons of water into an uncovered sauté pan over medium heat and stir to dissolve. As it starts to boil, add in berry jam. Put plums into mixture and add in the lemon juice and cinnamon sticks. Simmer over medium heat for about five minutes and then toss in the blackberries. The sugar mixture should thicken. Spoon some of the sugar mixture over the blackberries. Remove from heat to cool.
Sweet dough Instructions:
Combine flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl. Put chunks of butter into the flour mixture and rub through your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse oatmeal. Add beaten egg to ice water and slowly add this mixture to flour mixture stopping to squeeze dough in your hand to see if it comes together. (see tip below)
Divide into two flat disks and wrap tightly in plastic. Chill for at least one hour or up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. When ready to use, unwrap one disk and place on lightly floured pastry board or table. Roll out to 6” diameter circle about ¼” in height. Place circle on an ungreased cookie sheet or line with silpat.
Tip: Adding the water is an important step. Pastry dough always requires a slightly different amount of water. The dough should hold together but not feel wet. It should also not feel dry.
Place plums in middle of pastry. If you are using blackberries, toss them around plums. Sprinkle cornstarch, ¼ c of sugar, and cinnamon. Fold over edges of pastry to form a free-form, round pie, leaving center open. Brush crusts with half-and-half and sprinkle sugar over. Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes until top crust is golden brown. Reserve the berry and sugar mixture from pan for a topping.
Tip: Remember to bake your pies in bottom third of oven to get the bottom browned and done.
It’s sobering of course, to realize that we are almost at the end of another growing season in New Jersey. This year seems to have been particularly good for fruits especially the tomato which is considered to be the Mother-of-all-fruits in our state. But this time I went a little off my regular path because I often get to the market late and have to grab whatever is left over. I got lucky last week though when I pick up two containers of plums that were dark purple, firm and plump. Yeah–that will do it, I thought and I forked over my six dollars.
I made a sweet pastry on Saturday afternoon and tucked in the refrigerator to chill. I love doing this because I know it’s easier to work ahead especially when you only have one oven. On Sunday afternoon however, my husband had his own ideas about the oven. . .to slow cook ribs all afternoon long. Good-bye to my pie dreams! The pastry was on one shelf and the plums on another and they would not be united into a masterpiece of flaky pastry and plump Summer fruits. How could this happen?
Monday. My husband kisses me and heads off to work. I open one eye as I hear the alarm go on. Then I pull back the covers rush to do morning routines and then straight to the refrigerator. I only had time for a few sips of coffee before I started to roll out my dough…it was nice and cold. I peeled off the skins to the plums and macerated them in a little white sugar and lemon juice. Then I split them in half and boiled them in a sugar-water bath with some cinnamon sticks and mixed berry jam. I tossed in some fresh blackberries toward the end. My eyes knew exactly how this would taste.
I am so thankful for having people committed to farming. Somehow it forces us to comply with the simplicities of life. The good stuff comes and goes and you have to appreciate it when you have it at your fingertips. You have to savor every flavor, every moment, every season. After a great dinner, I cleared the table and cut into the plum pie. One large slice was just enough to make you know you want more. “Mmm…this is so delicious,” my husband said, “we should have had this yesterday.”
NJ Farmers markets will run until early November. Remember to eat locally and Savor every season of your life.
I am an almost empty-nester (-2 two and 1 to go) and that comes with its own waterfall of feelings. I discovered this weekend that it also comes with a certain freedom and an emerging rediscovery of self. While working on a project, I was interrupted by a vision of myself sitting in a cafe slurping java, nibbling on a whole-grain muffin and people-watching from behind a Sunday paper. I felt the urge to have some fresh-baked goods and after doing a little research, I closed my laptop and headed to Gotham. My husband accompanied me assuming the role of my muse and confidant. My fourteen year old was willing to come along as she understood that these spur-of-the-moment trips would soon be the norm and not the exception. I was driven by the mission to become the image of myself in my head…beatnik mom…almost empty-nester…fighting against the invevitable…reinventing herself again. Perhaps I could even write a poem or two with at least one being about my muffin with its whole-grain goodness oozing with a schmear of butter. (I was told by my local bagel shop owner that you can’t really use this word for butter, only for cream cheese). Of course, I would have to snap a picture while sitting in this cafe and MMS (message) it to my children to show that I was really fine and could enjoy a cup of java, a muffin and a life that did not involve them every moment.
My desires were maligned by the bakery-cafe with its sparse and underwhelming display, sterile smell and absence of whole grain muffins. I think it would be fair to demand that the bakery-cafes actually stock some of the items they taunt you with on their websites. The java was so bitter that I had to put nine sugar packets in it. I convinced myself that all empty-nesters must be able to handle this bitterness so I drank on. I ordered a muffin that was made with raisin bread dough, cinnamon, raisins and walnuts. It was good but lacked depth of flavor and of course, decadence. The chocolate chunk cookies were fresh out of the oven and screaming for a glass of milk so we all agreed to try one. In this case, happiness was not a warm cookie because there was too much chocolate (sorry ladies) that sank to the bottom and burned. I would have preferred to have the bar of chocolate, a plain cookie and a glass of milk, a deconstruction of sorts. Eventually, the cool music subdued my mood as I watched people tapping on the keys of their laptops. Most likely people come here so that they can tell their friends: “Oh I’m at the such-and-such right now doin’ some work and drinking java…tweet…tweet.” Hooray for branding!
I was just here for the butter–pure and simple, undefiled by margarine or shortening. My taste buds were waiting to experience this measure of heaven no matter how small. Where was the smell of butter so reminiscent of my childhood? While the food pyramid has pushed us toward healthier lifestyles, I can’t help but think that it has conspired to kill our sweet tooth. Is that why butter has disappeared out of most bakery items? Why do we demonize butter and continue to use pesticides?
What has happened to our bakeries? We are cheating this generation out of having an authentic bakery experience. As the old-world bakers retired, we accepted the nouveau-bakery as the standard. Admittedly, I do enjoy cool music and free wireless. But who will extol the benefits of the cream puff, the cinnamon roll and, the crumb cake? At the end of the day, this almost empty nester, needs to have a healthy schmear of real butter cream icing on her cupcake. If this is a revolutionary thought to anyone, please respond, “Yes We Can!”