You should know by now that I wouldn’t invite people over for dinner and not serve dessert. So, in following yesterday’s entry of A Winter Dinner for a Crowd, this is the cake I prepared for our guests.
Since I was going with a rustic Italian theme for the dinner, I turned to one of my well-loved cookbooks:
I knew there would be a perfect dessert recipe here that would be the right sweet ending for the evening, and the Torta di Mele fit the bill. It was an unusual cake recipe–most cake recipes start out with creaming butter and sugar, or whipping eggs–this starts with blending flour, sugar and butter together, as if you were making shortbread, and using a portion to press into the bottom of a springform pan to create a thin, crunchy crust. The rest of crumb mixture is blended with the rest of the wet mixture, leavening and apples which creates a fluffy but moist texture; plenty of lemon zest keeps the flavor light and fresh. The cake is topped with a very light coating of meringue, when after the cake is baked, creates a crackly sweet top–there is absolutely no need for icing or confectioner’s sugar to finish it off. All it needs is a big dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream on the side, and maybe a cup of coffee.
Torta di Mele (Apple Cake with a Crackly Meringue)
from The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper
2 cups plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
Generous pinch of salt
1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3/4 cup milk
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Shredded zest of one large lemon
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 large apples (Granny Smith, Braeburn, Gala are good choices), peeled, cored, cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 large egg white
- Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375°. Grease and flour a 9″ springform pan. In a large bowl, with your fingertips, rub together the 2 cups flour, the 1 1/2 cups sugar, salt, and butter until crumbly (note: I just used a pastry blender). Remove 1 cup of the crumbs and press them over the bottom and about 1/2″ up the sides of the springform pan, making a crust about 1/8″ thick.
- Make a well in the remaining crumb mixture. Add the milk, eggs, vanilla, lemon zest, the remaining 3 tablespoons flour, and the baking powder. With a whisk, blend this mixture thoroughly without incorporating the crumbs. Then, with a wooden spoon, stir in the crumbs until well blended but still a little lumpy. Fold in the apples and scrape batter into prepared pan.
- In a small bowl, beat the egg white until foamy. Beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and beat until the whites barely stand in peaks. Spread over the top of the batter.
- Bake 65 to 75 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool 30 minutes on a wire rack.
- Slip off the sides of the pan and finish cooling the cake. Serve at room temperature. Covered in plastic wrap, the cake holds well at cool room temperature up to 2 days, and up to a week in the refrigerator.
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Do you remember when Phil Hartman played The Anal Retentive Chef on Saturday Night Live? You can’t help but think that when you take a look at Chris Kimball, Editor in Chief for Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, that you could swear that’s where Phil got his inspiration. All bow tie jokes aside (we won’t go into Choo’s belief that there is a Bow Tie Federation who send out messages on their plan for world domination by the color of their ties), the people at America’s Test Kitchen are serious about the recipes they publish and the products they recommend. Their ability to be fastidious yet completely unpretentious is one of the reasons why I love just about anything they put out. One of their cookbooks, The New Best Recipe is, out of my library of cookbooks, is one of the few that actually take residence in my kitchen (next to The Joy of Cooking and my own hand-written book). This isn’t any fancy cooking, either; this is the book to open when you want to roast a chicken, make a perfect macaroni and cheese, or the best way to prepare oven fries. It’s not just how: they explain the why. For this Banana Bread alone, they dedicate nearly a full page in describing all of the different ways they came about to deciding what worked best.
I’ve made many a loaf of banana bread in my life. I have to say this is definitely my favorite one of the bunch. (Pun intended.) I do make a few small personal tweaks: I skip the nuts, since Kiddo doesn’t like them, use brown sugar instead of white (hence, the loaf pictured is a little darker than what you’ll get using white), and I add a 1/2 tsp. of ground cardamom. Yes, cardamom. Trust me on this, it’s really good. But, I’ll give you the recipe as it’s given in the book.
Banana Bread, from The New Best Recipe, from the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting the pan
1 1/4 cups walnuts, chopped coarse
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 very ripe, darkly speckled large bananas (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup plain yogurt
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
6 tablespoons melted butter, cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle poistion and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9 x 5″ loaf pan; dust with flour, tapping out excess.
- Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and toast until fragrant, 5 to 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
- Whisk the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and walnuts together in a large bowl; set aside.
- Mix the mashed bananas, yogurt, eggs, butter, and vanilla with a wooden spoon in a medium bowl. Lightly fold the banana mixture into the dry ingredients with a rubber spatula until just combined and the batter looks thick and chunky. Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan.
- Bake until the loaf is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. (The bread can be wrapped with plastic wrap and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days.)
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