Lemon Meringue Cake

Lemon meringue pie has always been my favorite dessert. I'm not a huge fan of cake. Because I lack a sense of smell, I can't taste the subtleties of spices or chocolate. But tart lemony custard contrasted with the sweetness of the meringue - that's something I can taste. And I love the soft, pillowy texture of the meringue (and as I got older, the almost guilt free feeling you get from eating the sugar egg mixture). So when I found this recipe in Food & Wine a few years ago, I thought maybe it could make a cake lover out of me. Or at least allow me to make a cake for my husband (who is not a fan of pie) that I'd actually enjoy. It had been stashed away in my recipe box with plans to make it last year for my birthday. When I mentioned it to my assistant, she was aghast that I planned to bake my own cake and offered to do it for me. The result was truly delicious, and I think it's a cake I would not be loathe to eat in the future. It had a light and airy texture, perfect for a summer day. No feelings of cake heaviness to be found after eating it, just a delightful sweet-tart taste in the mouth that left you feeling refreshed. Although I can't attest to whether it was difficult to make (supposedly it wasn't), this is definitely a 4 whisk effort.

Cake: 3 cups cake flour; 1 tablespoon baking powder; 1/2 tsp. salt; 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened; 2 cups sugar; 4 large eggs, room temperature; 4 large egg yooks, room temperature; 1 tsp. vanilla extract; 1 cup milk, room temperature. Curd: 9 large egg yolks; 1 cup sugar; 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice; 1/4 tsp. salt; 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 8 tablespoons. Meringue: 2 1/4 cups sugar; 1 1/2 cups egg whites (from about 1 dozen extra-large eggs); 3/4 tsp. fresh lemon juice.

Make the Cake. Preheat oven to 350. 1. Butter 2 9-inch round cake pans and line bottom with parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust pans lightly with flour, tapping out any excess. In medium bowl sift together cake flour, baking powder and salt. Beat butter with sugar at high speed until fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs and egg yolks, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Beat in the flour mixture at low speed in 3 batches, alternating with the milk, until just smooth. Scrape the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the surfaces. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool cakes in pan on rack for 10 minutes; remove and let cool completely on rack. Make the Curd. Fill large bowl with ice water. In heavy, medium saucepan whisk the egg yolks with the sugar, lemon juice and salt. Add butter and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until curd is thick and beginning to simmer, about 5 minutes. Set the saucepan in the water bath and chill the curd, whisking constantly. Make the Meringue. Whisk sugar, egg whites and lemon juice in bowl of a standing mixer. Set bowl over double boiler with approximately 1-inch of water, whisking constantly, until the sugar dissolves, about 6 minutes. Return bowl to the mixer and beat meringue at medium speed for 10 minutes, or until room temperature. Continue beating at high speed until meringue is thick, shiny and billowy, about 15 minutes. Assemble the Cake. Using a serrated knife, level the cake tops, then halk each cake horizontally. Set 1 layer on cake plate and spread with 1/3 of lemon curd. Top with second cake layer and spread with 1/3 of lemon curd. Repeat once more and top with final layer. Using a large offset spatula, frost the side of the cake with a thin layer of meringue. Top the cake with the remaining meringue and swirl decoratively, then serve. Garnish with curled lemon slices, if desired. Note: Cake layers can be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for 2 days or frozen 1 month. Curd can be refrigerated for 3 days. The assembled cake can be refrigerated up to 2 days. Tips/Comments. Since I didn't make this cake, the only comment I have is that apparently 1 cup of milk seems like too much when you're making the cake. They ended up using 1/2 cup, and although the cake wasn't horribly dry, you could tell that using the full cup would have made a difference.

Chocolate Griddle Cakes

I claim to love pancakes. I go on and on about them, and order the hugest stack on the rare occasions we go out for breakfast. Halfway through the stack, I have that pancake lump in my stomach and, in between the waitress checking on us, quietly whine that I hate pancakes and swear to never eat them again. Portion control and pancakes are apparently not my strong suit. So I've taken to making them on Sunday afternoons to have for the rest of the week's breakfast. Something about not being in a restaurant helps me keep the portions well with the limits of what one person should eat. And these chocolate cakes are a nice departure from the typical sourdough or buttermilk pancake. They're not overly sweet or chocolately, and are cleaner than chocolate chip pancakes, I haven't quite mastered the art of bake-in's in my pancakes, so usually wind up with chocolate pancake bits stuck to my skillet. I've never made the chocolate sauce because it would be too much chocolate for me, and I rarely use syrup on my pancakes anyway. But I include the recipe for those who want to make a richer treat. And no, they're not burnt (not entirely, really). Think of it more as a deep concentration of chocolate.

Total Calories: 2200; Yield: 12 4-inch pancakes; Whisks: 3. Chocolate Sauce: 1 cup heavy cream; 7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped. Griddle Cakes: 1/2 cup dutch-process unsweetened cocoa powder; 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour; 1 cup sugar; 1/2 tsp. baking soda; 1/8 tsp. salt; 2 whole large eggs; 1 large egg yolk; 3/4 well-shaken buttermilk; 1/4 cup vegetable oil; 1 tsp. vanilla.

Make Sauce. Bring cream to a boil in 1-quart saucepan, then pour over chocolate, gently whisking until smooth. Keep warm or at room temperature. Make Griddle Cakes. Sift first 5 ingredients into a large bowl, then whisk in remaining ingredients until well-combined. Heat griddle over moderately-high heat and lightly coat with butter. Pour 1/4 cup of batter onto griddle and cook until bubbles appear on surface, 1-2 minutes. Flip cakes and cook until tops spring back when pressed gently, about 1 minute more. Transfer to a plate and keep warm. Tips/Comments. After the pancakes cool completely I freeze them to take to work later during the week. Depending on the level of toastiness you like, 1-2 toaster oven cycles do the trick of defrosting (and I'm told they smell wonderfully chocolately). They're also a nice snack, especially when spread with a thin smear of peanut butter.

Mexican Chocolate Sorbet

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, I made Mexican Chocolate Sorbet. Apparently, the addition of almond extract helps make it mexican. Who knew? I don't remember almonds being a part of any Cinco de Mayo celebration we had in elementary school. But maybe I was just more focused on the pinata. The downside to making ice cream is the lack of instant gratification. You have to let the mixture chill, preferably overnight. As I've been having not the greatest of luck since we moved into our house with ice cream - it always comes out of the machine almost as liquidy as when it went in (and apparently, after 3 1/2 years of living here, I'm too lazy to fiddle with the temperature knobs in my fridge), so I chose to let it chill in the fridge overnight. So to get my instant gratification, I made a strawberry kuchen. That turned out to be a bit of a disaster. The upside, however, is that I found out a day in advance that the spice girls also finished my cinnamon, which I needed for the peanut butter torte I planned to make on Sunday. To be fair, I may have finished the cinnamon before I went on vacation, but 1) they did finish my cumin and paprika and 2) they made a bunch of other messes while I was gone, so I blame them. I'd made this sorbet a few years back, in my old apartment where the ice cream froze perfectly every time. It comes from The Ultimate Ice Cream Book by Bruce Weinstein. I remembered it being rich, creamy and chocolate, which it should be, considering the official name for the master version is "Chocolate Sorbet #3 (Rich and Creamy)". It's almost as rich as ice cream, although a tad grainy from the cocoa powder - but not too much to make it unpleasant. Just make sure to mix well before pouring it into the freezer. A trip through a fine meshed sieve before placing in the fridge to chill may help too. It also wasn't fully frozen when I ate it last night, so the bit of graininess may disappear entirely when firm. The cinnamon probably would give it a kick to somebody with the ability to smell, but I need much more than 1/2 teaspoon to have any noticeable effect. I do think the tiny bit of almond extract added a bit of something, as it tasted slightly more than just chocolate. But it's still a tasty sorbet. Viva la Mexico!

Total Calories: 1639; Servings: 8 (about 115 grams per serving); Whisks: 3. Ingredients: 3 cups water; 1 1/4 cups sugar; 3 tablespoons light corn syrup; 2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder; 1/4 tsp almond extract; 1/2 tsp cinnamon; 2 ounces semisweet chocolate; 1 tablespoon vanilla extract.

Combine the water, sugar and corn syrup in a heavy saucepan. Place over low heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat to medium, bring to a boil, adn cook 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Whisk in the chocolate, almond extract and cinnamon and simmer 2 minutes more. Remove from heat, and add the chocolate, stirring until it's completely melted and the mixture is smooth. Cool to room temperature, and stir in vanilla extract. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour. Stir the cooled mixture and freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's directions. Eat directly from machine, or place in freezer for 2 hours to firm.

Peanut Butter Torte

On my refrigerator is a list titled, Foods I will not eat! I started making this list about two years ago, to try and stop myself from eating things that I can't taste, due to my anosmia. What is the point, really, of consuming excess calories if the only satisfaction I get from them is a full stomach? The list is done in spurts, because if I wrote down everything I couldn't taste, I'd get depressed, basically, there would be nothing left for me to eat. At number 5 on the list, which I added last summer, is peanut butter treats, except peanut butter cups (yes, it is that specific). It's somewhat perplexing, then, that I chose to try my hand at this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe for Peanut Butter Torte. It has 1 1/2 cups of peanut butter and 1 1/4 cups of peanuts, for crying out loud. On top of that, it is basically a cheesecake. I don't quite understand why she calls this a "torte" rather than a cheese cake, since that's exactly what it is. Maybe something can only be called "cheesecake" if it's baked, and this torte isn't. Maybe it's because the end result is not smooth and creamy like a cheesecake, but more like mouthful of peanut buttery cheese. I don't know, but rest assured that this is, most definitely, a cheesecake, just perhaps in an altered form. I'm not a cheesecake fan, and my husband won't even venture a nibble. So I spent about $10 and 2 1/2 hours total baking a torte for my co-workers. I hope they enjoy it. That being said, I actually could taste the peanut butter in this (see lots of peanut products description above), so I could add it as an exception to my banned foods list. Except this torte didn't really do it for me. I'm not opposed to cheesecake, I don't order it in restaurants, but if it's the dessert of choice at a party, I will take a slice. But like I said, this torte wasn't smooth and creamy like a cheesecake and, although Dorie refers to the peanut butter/cream cheese filling as a mousse, it was a bit thicker than that, without the light-as-air consistency. It really did taste like I had put a dollop of peanut butter on top of a scoop of cream cheese, and sprinkled some nuts and chocolate chips on top. I used whipping cream instead of the heavy cream called for, but I've intermixed the two before with not much difference. The lighter cream probably helped the mousse not firm up as much as it should have (note the drooping tip of my slice), but I don't think it altered the final outcome tastewise. I used double-stuff chocolate creme Oreo's in the crust to give it an extra bit of chocolate oomph. The crumbs didn't seem to be enough to go two inches up the sides of my springform pan, and my filling creeped up over the edge. To be fair, I've only made one other cheesecake in my life, and I had the same issue with the filling creeping over the crust, so it may just need to be something for me to practice. The mousse didn't ooze out after I'd removed the springform, as I'd originally feared. But if I made it again I'd probably use the entire package of Oreos - I'd rather deal with a thick crust than have the filling creep over the edge. The cake did look beautiful - my husband agreed that it looked fancy, and I don't think his comment was meant to placate me. But the chocolate ganache topping is way to thin - there's about 3 inches of peanut butter filling, and then the tiniest layer of chocolate on top. Maybe it wouldn't have looked so silly if the crust had come completely up the sides of the filling. But on my torte, it seemed more like a ridiculous afterthought. In the future, I'd do what some of the other bakers did, which is just sprinkle the top with peanuts and shaved chocolate.

Total Calories: 9847 (or 1,231 calories for a 1/8 slice, 615 for a 1/16 slice); Servings: Dorie says 6 to 8, but based on that calorie count, I'd say as close to invisible as you can get without actually eating air; Whisks: I'd give it 1.5, with the caveat that PB is on my banned list. For me, it totally wasn't worth the calories. Ingredients: 1 ¼ c. finely chopped salted peanuts (for the filling, crunch and topping); 2 teaspoons sugar; ½ teaspoon instant espresso powder (or finely ground instant coffee); ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon; pinch of freshly grated nutmeg; ½ c. mini chocolate chips (or finely chopped semi sweet chocolate); 24 oreo cookies, finely crumbed or ground in a food processor or blender; ½ stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled; small pinch of salt; 2 ½ c. heavy cream; 1 ¼ c confectioners’ sugar, sifted; 12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature; 1 ½ c salted peanut butter, crunchy or smooth (not natural, I use Skippy); 2 tablespoons whole milk; 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate finely chopped

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9 inch Springform pan and place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone mat. Toss ½ cup of the chopped peanuts, the sugar, espresso powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and chocolate chops together in a small bowl. Set aside. Put the Oreo crumbs, melted butter and salt in another small bowl and stir with a fork just until crumbs are moistened. Press the crumbs evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the spring form pan (they should go up about 2 inches on the sides). Freeze the crust for 10 minutes. Bake the crust for 10 minutes, then transfer it to a rack and let it cool completely before filling. Working with a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, whip 2 cups of the cream until it holds medium peaks. Beat in ¼ cup of the confectioners' sugar and whip until the cream holds medium-firm peaks. Scrape the cream into a bowl and refrigerate until needed. Wipe out (no need to wash) the bowl, fit the stand mixer with the paddle attachment if you have one, or continue with the hand mixer, and beat the cream cheese with the remaining 1 cup confectioners’ sugar on medium speed until the cream cheese is satiny smooth. Beat in the peanut butter, ¼ cup of the chopped peanuts and the milk. Using a large rubber spatula, gently stir in about one quarter of the whipped cream, just to lighten the mousse. Still working with the spatula, stir in the crunchy peanut mixture, then gingerly fold in the remaining whipped cream. Scrape the mousse into the crust, mounding and smoothing the top. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight; cover with plastic wrap as soon as the mousse firms. To make topping, put the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl and set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Leave the bowl over the water just until the chocolate softens and starts to melt, about 3 minutes; remove the bowl from the saucepan. Bring the remaining ½ cup cream to a full boil. Pour the cream over the chocolate and, working with a a rubber spatula, very gently stir together until the ganache is completely blended and glossy. Pour the ganache over the torte, smoothing it with a metal icing spatula. Scatter the remaining ½ cup peanuts over the top and chill to set the topping, about 20 minutes. When the ganache is firm, remove the sides of the Springform pan; it’s easiest to warm the pan with a hairdryer, and then remove the sides, but you can also wrap a kitchen towel damped with hot water around the pan and leave it there for 10 seconds. Note I didn't need to do the hairdryer/warm towel trick, mine slid right off. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Vanilla Pine Nut Cake

My college had no campus, to speak of. It was in Washington, D.C. and was built simply around the blocks of Foggy Bottom. Most of the dormitories were converted apartment buildings. So my sophomore year, my dorm had a kitchen. Junior year, in addition to a kitchen, I became a vegetarian, and was no longer forced to be on the meal plan. I was also about 30 pounds heavier than when I'd started college. So it was at this point that I decided I needed to start cooking for myself. One of the first things I did was join a cookbook of the month club. And since I was trying to lose weight fast, I bought One-Pot Cakes by Andrew Schloss (and to think, I didn't even drink or do drugs in college, so the logic of a baking book being necessary to help lose weight was all mine). I bought this book in 1995 and, with the exception of an easy peasy mint frosting recipe using Peppermint Patties, which my mother used to send me every holiday, I'd never baked a single recipe from it. On Saturday, I wanted to make something. I had planned to make a Brownie Souffle cake from Pillsbury, but wasn't in the mood to wrestle with whipping meringues and folding them into the brownie batter. As I sat on the couch, staring forlornly at my cookbook rack, my eyes rested on One-Pot Cakes. If it's all capable of being made in one pot, I thought, it must be easy. At the least, it won't require me to whip whites, because that would require two pots. Flipping through I found several promising prospects, none of which required egg whites. I finally settled on the recipe for Vanilla Pine Nut Cake, since I had a huge bag of pine nuts sitting in the freezer from the pignoli I baked last Christmas. Surprisingly, the spice girls had left the pine nuts untouched in their nut-eating frenzy (2/3 of a pound of almonds and 1/2 pound of pistachios gone when we returned from vacation). 

The cake was incredibly easy to make, thanks to the fact that the butter is melted. From plopping the butter in the saucepot until pouring the batter into the prepared cake pan took 12 minutes - had I been more organized, it would've taken less. The batter is sprinkled with pine nuts and brown sugar and baked for 45 minutes. The cake comes out toasty (mine's a bit toastier, since my husband apparently cannot talk on the phone and listen for the timer beep at the same time) on top with a nice crumb that didn't crumble when sliced. The brown sugar melts in forming a light crumb-like topping. Nothing that you'll be able to pick off, ala Entenman's crumb cake, but along with the pine nuts, it gives a nice crunch. I only had 3/4 of a cup of vanilla yogurt so used sour cream to make up the difference. It didn't taste overpoweringly of vanilla to me, but that's generally a subtle flavor that I can't detect. My husband, however, says it did taste like vanilla. And thanks to Peabody, who unknowingly taught me that there is a lovely macro function on my digital camera that lets me take close up shots, so my photos will no longer be blurry, and www.prajituri.net for the wonderful cookies inspirations! I guess that manual really was supposed to be read, and not just tossed on top of my dresser for a year.

Total calories: 3176; Servings: Recipe says 12, I sliced 8; Whisks:3. Ingredients: 1 stick unsalted b utter; 1 cup granulated sugar; 1 cup lowfat or nonfat vanilla yogurt; 2 tsp vanilla extract; 1/8 tsp salt; 2 eggs; 1 1/2 tsp baking soda; 1 tsp baking powder; 2 cups flour; 1/3 cup pine nuts, coarsely chopped (I left mine whole); 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350F and great an 8 inch layer pan. In large heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt teh butter, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and stir in the granulated sugar, yogurt, vanilla, salt and eggs. Add the baking soda and baking powder in pinches, breaking up any lumps with your fingers (I used a whisk). Stir in the flour until just blended. Pour batter into the pan and scatter pine nuts over top, pressing gently into the surface. Sprinkle with brown sugar. Bake for 45 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool for about 15 minutes more.

Food and More Food

That headline makes me feel like I'm the Little Caesar's pizza guy. I opted against this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe, although it makes me feel like a slacker. I had even decided to make individual pies in my brulee dishes, with a ginger cookie crust, a sweetened cream topping and a sprinkle of ginger cookie crumbs. But the more I thought about. I didn't want to clean up my food processor, grinding up those cookies. And I really, really don't like foods mixed. Each to its own side of the plate. So I just couldn't motivate myself to make the Florida Pie, which put a key lime filling on top of a coconut cream filling. It just went against my sensibilities and tastes. Plus, I'd forgotten to buy cream. So instead, I decided on a run down of my Sicilian Adventure (with a side of Amsterdam). That I just now was able to get around to this post shows how still deeply depressed I am to be back, a month later. "Just look at your pictures, you still have the memories" my dad said. Not quite the same, but I guess it will have to do. Especially the memories of the food. Normally when I travel, I go armed with lists, where Rachael Ray went on $40 a day, any place that's been highlighted on the Best of Gourmet, Food & Wine, Budget Travel, or any other magazine or website I can get my hands on. 

These lists are cross-referenced, with those garnering the most mentions by each source climbing higher and higher up the list. Then, before heading out each day, I review the list, see which restaurants are in the vicinity of that day's sights, and make a plan to visit. This works on short trips, like when my husband and I went to Monterey, California two years ago. The only other time it worked was when I dragged my sister around Rome last year trying to find San Crispino gelato near the Trevi Fountain. Usually, we just end up winging it, which is what we did in Amsterdam and Sicily this past March. This worked out fine in Amsterdam, as I had more of an idea of the types of food I wanted, as opposed to specific places. For instance, I totally wanted pannenkoeken, pancakes. On our way back from visiting the Anne Frank House, we passed Pancakes (they get excited for you with that exclamation point). The Dutch pancakes are thin and crepe like. I got lemon. My husband got the American stack, with bacon (as did many of the men in the restaurant, American or not). The bacon was stacked on the syrup-laden pancakes. Which is odd, but then not, if you like maple smoked bacon.

Our last night in Amsterdam (were there only 2 full days) we wanderd and found a Nepalese restaurant. On vacation we try to eat food we can't get at home, and Nepalese fit the bill, I'd never even seen a Nepalese restaurant in the states, and I've lived in some pretty big cities. My husband got mis mas mosas, a Nepalese ravioli, some were filled with potatoes, some ground lamb and a third were filled with vegetables. I got a rice, black-eyed peas and ground lamb mixture, that was different from what I'd make at home only in the spices used to flavor the lamb. Unfortunately the menu didn't say what those spices were. Sicily was where I had the greatest idea of what I wanted. First order of business was a cannoli, which I bought within three hours of arriving (the first two being spent driving ourselves from the airport to our villa and finding our way into town). It was light and creamy, with a not-too-crispy shell. In two words, marvelously delicious. No trip to Italy is complete without gelato. In the town where we stayed was a gelateria called Artik Bar. It was the Baskin Robbins of gelateria, it must have had at least 40 flavors, and each cup was topped with a mini cone that matched the gelato color. I had green apple one day and cinnamon another. My husband stuck with fragola, strawberry, because "I know what I like." One day we spent in Mondello, a seaside town on the outskirs of Palermo. We wanted seafood. My husband got a pasta with shrimp. The head on nature didn't freak him out, because they came off easily. This was in sharp contrast to the next evening's dinner of fried shrimp, where the shrimp were fried with heads and shells on - my husband was so angry at how little meat he could get from the shells that he was tossing them onto the plate provided, dangerously close to throwing them in my lap (to be fair, we'd sat in the car 10 hours that day trying to get up close to Mt. Etna, so he was hungry and exhausted).

In Mondello I ordered gnocchi with mixed seafood. Gnocchi are my absolute favorite Italian dish. It's not available at any restaurant in Juneau, and while I could make it myself, my husband doesn't enjoy it so I don't expend the effort. This didn't disappoint (although this was our 10th of 12 days in Sicily, and we were a bit tired of pasta, impossible as I thought that would be). One of our final meals in Sicily was a simple buffalo mozzarella and tomato pizza, pulled fresh from the wood burning oven. It was the best tasting pizza I think I've ever had, with the little tomatoes roasted to bring out their sweetness combined with the creaminess of the buffalo mozzarella. I was glad my husband wasn't so hungry that night, because it meant breakfast and lunch for me the next day. We ate in a lot at our villa and took advantage of the fresh meats and produce, artichokes, potatoes, broccolini and fresh made sausage. My husband ate two croissants for breakfast every day, plain, with chocolate, vanilla cream and with marmelade (the latter his favorite), and ate another baguette and a half each evening. I sampled pasta con le sarde, pasta with sardines, a signature Sicilian dish (glad I tried it, but not for me), swordfish rolls and smoked swordfish. When we came home the food was so boring, and my husband still pines for his daily baguette from the local panificio. Last Friday, though, I did bring a bit of our adventure home, I made fettucini carbonara, ala Mario Batali, a dish my husband ate two days in a row at a little cafeteria we found in the next town over from our villa. I think this may become our new Friday night tradition.