Of milk and sponges

August 31, 2009

This is a very British sort of recipe.
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I memorized this recipe early on when I was a teenager, growing up in Jos. It was not uncommon for me to show up at the home of a family friend and be greeted with the words: “ah Ruth, we have flour and eggs. Please make us a cake!” A girl learns to have a quick crowd pleaser tucked under her sleeve. I have made this cake under dire circumstances, in Nigeria with no electricity, a dodgy gas stove, armed only with a wooden spoon, powdered milk and a tin of margarine. The results have still been wonderful.
The whole cake takes about 10 minutes to prepare, and is delicious served with tea, or as a light desert after a heavy meal (paired with some fresh berries and cream you can’t beat it).  The recipe has very little oil or shortening and is thus exceeding light and fluffy. It travels well for dinner parties too. I sometimes substitute lemon and lemon peel for vanilla. I served this recently, filled with a bit of apricot preserves that I had sitting in the back of the fridge.

Hot Milk Sponge Cake
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
1 scant cup sugar
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
1 tsp vanilla
Preheat oven to 350.
Whisk together flour and baking powder. Beat eggs with electric mixer for 2 minutes till thick and lemon coloured. Slowly add in the sugar and beat another 3-4 minutes. Add dry ingredients and beat just till combined. Meanwhile heat milk in pan till hot, add butter and heat till melted. Do not allow to boil. Add hot milk butter mixture and vanilla. Beat till smooth.
Pour into wax or parchment lined, or just buttered and floured 9” cake pan. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes until golden brown and toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Cool on a rack—invert onto a platter. If desired, split cake in half horizontally and spread a thin layer of your favourite jam onto the lower half. Replace the top half and gently sift powdered sugar over the top of the cake.

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chocolate mousse cupcake

August 23, 2009

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The more I bake cupcakes, the more I discover that sour cream is the wonder ingredient that gives moistness and creaminess to these little desserts. I grew up on oil cakes—back home in Nigeria we didn’t eat much butter and certainly my mother would not have indulged us with real butter for baking. Bright yellow, slightly slimy Blue Band margarine was the standard baking fat in our household, and so the light, creaminess of butter cakes was wholly lost on me until I arrived in the States. Back home we instead made oil cakes—lovely pans of golden chiffon which we would cut into squares and serve with steaming hot yellow custard for company dinners. Does anyone remember Bird’s Custard? It came in the blue and red tin and you could whip it up in a matter of minutes on the stove.  I had a craving for custard a few months ago and bought a tin of Bird’s at the West African Grocery store near Port Authority. I made myself a bowlful of custard but I must say, it wasn’t the glorious treat I’d remembered it to be, largely because I realized the primary ingredients in it are corn starch and Sunset Yellow C1 15985. I’ll make a butter cake to go with it next time.

What I have recently discovered with all this cupcake baking is that many recipes call for sour cream in their batter and it really is a wonderful addition, producing cakes that are rich but not overly heavy, better to receive luxurious quantities of delectable frosting.

A Perfect Sunday Lunch

August 16, 2009

I cooked a raucously delicious Sunday dinner for some friends after church the other day. The setting was our friend Alan’s apartment, overlooking Gramercy Park, and we had our meal looking out over the lovely garden.  I’m not usually privy to such gorgeous views, so I must say, I felt rather fine being able to serve Sunday dinner in such a location. It rained during the afternoon so the cool sweet air blowing in from the balconies made the kitchen bearable and our lunch all the more pleasant.

The great thing about roast chicken is that it is so darned easy to make, and is always a crowd pleaser, even for the pickiest of people (ahem Thomas). In a matter of an hour the two chickens were stuffed with fresh herbs from my garden and lots of garlic, lemon and good sea salt, and tucked away into the oven along with the side dish: a  quick courgette pie made with  a giant zucchini (about the size of my arm!) that I’d harvested the day before. (Just you wait until I take you to see my community garden plot. You’ll be amazed at what the Brooklyn soil can do with just a bit of coaxing, compost, and attention) The courgette pie baked in the upper part of the oven while the chicken roasted. With a green salad and some chilled white wine we were in business. And I had time to sit and socialize with everyone while lunch cooked itself.

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Huy had brought a tasty home made apple pie for dessert and we did our best by that as well…

Herb Roast Chicken
One 3-4lb freerange, certified humane, kosher or organic chicken (farmers market, Bell and Evans, Murrays, or anything decent.)
Medium bunch each of fresh oregano, sage, and thyme
6 garlic cloves, peeled and slivered
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ a lemon cut into 8 wedges, keep the other half for basting.
2-3 teaspoons of sea salt
12 whole black peppercorns

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Rinse chicken (or not) and pat dry. If using a glass baking dish (9” pie dish works fine) rub about a teaspoon of olive oil into the pan. Rub a heaping teaspoon of salt into the central cavity of the chicken and sprinkle in the peppercorns. Put in 2 wedges of lemon, about 1 clove of garlic, several sprigs of thyme, oregano and sage. Repeat lemon, garlic, and herbs until the cavity is full. Really, just pack it in there. Save equivalent of one garlic clove and a couple sprigs each of the herbs.
Rub the entire outside of the chicken with 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 heaping tsp of salt. Gently loosen skin over the breast and along the thighs and at the neck and slip in a couple slivers of garlic, a bit of butter, and some sprigs of thyme and oregano. In the neck cavity, pack in some chopped sage. . Place the chicken in the pan. Sprinkle any remaining thyme leaves over the bird, grate some fresh pepper, and drizzle the remaining oil. Roast uncovered for ½ hour at 400 then reduce temperature to 375 and roast another 45 – 60 minutes until a fork poked into the thigh produces clear juices and you can see juices bubbling in the cavity. Baste with pan juices and a squeeze of lemon every 15 minutes while roasting.
Remove from oven and set chicken on serving platter to rest. Prick chicken lightly all over with a fork and pour pan juices slowly over the chicken. (Or serve juices in a side dish).

ps. You can add in rosemary as a fresh herb too. Or if you don’t have herbs, substitute all of that for a large bunch of parsley. Omit the herbs beneath the skin and just sprinkle with dried thyme or herbs de provence.

For the courgette pie, you need a very large zucchini, a tablespoon of butter, a couple tablespoons of olive oil, about 6-8 garlic cloves (minced), one small onion (sliced) and generous amounts of fresh herbs (same ones used for the chicken). Slather a bit of olive oil into the pan. Sprinkle in some onions, a layer of sliced zucchini, some dots of butter, some of the minced garlic, some fresh herbs, a drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper. Repeat this a couple of times till you’ve used up your zucchini. Finish with herbs and onions and a generous drizzle of olive oil. Bake in upper part of oven for an hour. Remove from oven, grate a bit of parmesan over the top and put under the broiler for 5-10 minutes until it browns up and some of the vegetable juice dries up.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

August 12, 2009

This particular pie recipe always makes me think of some dear colleagues who I used to work with at my former architecture office. For about a year a few of us developed a tradition of having pie and ice cream on Friday afternoons (or anytime the mood hit us, for that matter). It became somewhat of an addiction. Now we are all scattered around the country… I don’t think any of us still work at the office, but I can’t make or eat strawberry rhubarb pie without thinking fondly of these lovely people. (Yes, Second Floor, you know who you are!)

pie adjusted

Early in the summer I bought several long stalks of rhubarb at the farmers market which I cut up and froze in anticipation of strawberry season. August in my view is pie season— tucked into flaky buttery pastry, fresh summer fruit barely needs sugar, just a long spell in a hot oven. Last weekend I made a strawberry rhubarb pie to take to a dinner party. Strawberry rhubarb pie is probably the only time that I indulge in making a lattice top pie—it can’t be helped, the bubbling juicy filling simply must be exposed.

pie pre lattice
I’d spent the whole morning taking my niece to have her hair braided (she is a handful!) and I was a bit tired when I started making the crust. The lattice making took longer than usual—it is essentially braiding or basket weaving isn’t it, and I kept forgetting which piece needed to go on top of the other, but it turned out alright.

pie with lattice

In my distracted state I also put the oven on 475 instead of 425 for the first half hour of the baking so the crust was rather more brown than anticipated. But the pie tasted fine, served with ice cream from, a local ice cream shop in Park Slope. And following on the heels of a delectable meal of Vittesh and Amrita’s coconut goat curry, masala roasted potatoes and lime carrot salad, it was the perfect way to end a delightful evening.

pie pretty

p.s. Thank goodness L was also on hand to take this gorgeous photo.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie (adapted from The Joy of Cooking)
Crust:
2 heaping cups of flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
2 sticks of cold butter cut into small pieces
1/3 cup plus 3or 4 tablespoons ice water
Whisk together the flour, salt, and sugar. Add in the cold butter pieces and work into the flour (quickly) with your fingers until mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. You’ll have bits of butter throughout, don’t worry about working them in. Work quickly so the butter doesn’t melt or the pastry become greasy. Add in 1/3 cup of ice water and toss with a fork. Mixture should start to clump together, add in the 3 to 4 tablespoons of ice water just until you can form a ball. Divide dough in half—roll out one round and fit into a 9” pan leaving a 1 inch overhang. Refrigerate the pan and the second ball of dough until you are ready for the filling.
Preheat oven to 425.

Filling:
2 ½ cups fresh strawberries hulled and sliced in half
3 cups rhubarb chopped into ½ inch pieces (if frozen, use straight from the freezer)
1 cup sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Mix all the filling ingredients together and let stand 10 to 15 minutes, stirring every few minutes.
Roll out the second ball of dough into a rectangle. Cut ½ inch strips of dough lengthwise.
Pour the filling into pie crust and dot with 2 tablespoons of butter cut into small pieces. Brush edges of bottom crust with cold water and make the lattice top. (A bit tricky to explain, but see the picture I suppose.) Fold over the overhang of bottom crust and crimp edges with fingers. Brush top of crust with cream or milk and sprinkle a tsp of sugar over the top.
Bake pie in 425 oven for half an hour. Slide a pan in under the shelf below and reduce heat to 350. Bake another 30 minutes until juice bubble over and crust is brown. Remove and cool on rack. Serve warm or at room temperature—pie is best eaten on the same or next day with vanilla ice cream.