April 28, 2010

German Chocolate Cake

A couple of weeks ago I was charged with making a birthday cake for a friend whose favorite is German chocolate cake. (which, by the way, is not from Germany at all but is named after Mr. German, the founder of the Baker's chocolate company who came up with the recipe.)

I googled around looking for a recipe and came upon this one from David Lebovitz, whose blog is full of divine desserts. What was new about his recipe was the chocolate ganache that he used to frost the sides and I was immediately intrigued by that.

But I didn't want to make his cake layers, because they involved melting chocolate and separating eggs and beating the whites separately and when you're as lazy busy as I am, you just don't wanna do all of that.

So I hunted around some more and found this recipe at Apartment Therapy, which is basically the recipe from the back of the Hershey's cocoa tin. Perfect. Super easy. I did substitute sour cream for the milk and weak coffee for the water. Came out great—have no idea if it was any better than the original, though.

Then I turned my attention to the coconut-pecan filling. Though David's filling seemed fine, I remembered seeing an Epicurious recipe with a dulce-de-leche filling, which I found here. I was mainly interested in this filling because I had read somewhere that you could make dulce-de-leche in a pressure cooker by boiling a can of condensed milk for about 20 minutes. And you know me, any excuse to use my pressure cooker!

So in the end I used David Lebovitz's idea (and his frosting, although I had to add a lot of powdered sugar to it to make it spreadable. I was in a hurry, however, and I think if I had had time to refrigerate it, it would have spread just fine.), the Hershey's tin cake recipe, and the filling from Epicurious.

The verdict: People seemed to swoon over this cake, though I wasn't bowled over. It was much better a day or two later. I do like the darker chocolate cake rather than the lighter one you usually see for German chocolate cake. I also like the idea of the chocolate frosting—it adds another dimension. Would go for a less-sweet frosting next time—not David's fault but mine for adding all that powdered sugar.

In the end, I think my biggest disappointment was the dulce-de-leche filling. The dulce-de-leche itself came out great (20 minutes in the pressure cooker, people! Have I mentioned how much I love my pressure cooker?) but I didn't love that flavor profile for the filling. I think I like my filling straighter, with white sugar and a little brown sugar, so that it has more of a pecan-pie like quality.

But I would make this cake again. It was fairly easy and came out nicely impressive looking.

April 21, 2010

Lentil Salad

I didn't used to be a huge lentil fan. (Dal is another matter entirely.) Like many people, I thought they were boring and bland. But then, while I was living in Rome, I had a revelation one night at a restaurant.

It came in the form of lentils with cotechino, that quintessentially Italian winter dish of lentils and sausage. The unctuous cotechino sausage had deeply flavored the lentils with its fat, and the result was tiny orbs of rich, slightly creamy, deliciousness.

I was hooked. But, like many new converts, I had some caveats that continue to this day. I only like small lentils, like the Italian or the French "Le Puy" style lentils, except in soup.

Then, at Kalustyan's, an overpriced but fabulously stocked store in Manhattan's Little India, I discovered beluga lentils. Tiny and black, their name comes from their resemblance to caviar. Unlike other lentils that often turn slighly mushy when cooked, these stay firm and whole. Perfect for salads.

These days, I cheat and buy beluga lentils already cooked in a vacuum-sealed bag from Trader Joe's. They're one of my pantry staples, as it takes about five minutes to whip up a delicious salad with them. The one above has diced yellow pepper in it, and you could add all sorts of things like garlic and feta cheese and olives and capers and tomatoes, but honestly I prefer the salad very plain--as simple as possible. Do use the best olive oil you have, though, and don't be skimpy with it. You want them nicely glossed.

Lentils are another great thing to cook in the pressure cooker--like most legumes done in the pressure cooker, they come out cooked but firm, not mushy. (Have I mentioned how much I love my pressure cooker?)

Do make this salad. It's the kind of thing you bring to a pot luck or a party and everyone wants to know how you made it. I always fess up about how easy it is, but you are welcome to keep the secret to yourself.

Lentil Salad
2 cups cooked beluga or Le Puy lentils (If you don't have a pressure cooker and aren't buying the lentils already cooked, watch carefully to make sure they don't overcook and turn mushy. You want them to be cooked but firm and separate.)
About a half a bunch of chopped flat-leaf parlsey
Olive oil
Vinegar (I use an orange vinegar)
Salt and pepper
Toss lentils with enough olive oil to make them look glossy. Toss in chopped parsley. Add vinegar, salt, and pepper to taste. Let sit for at least an hour, or overnight in fridge. Serve.

April 13, 2010

Pizza Pizza

When I was a kid and we used to go on long car trips, my mother had these harness-type seatbelts that she would strap us into that allowed us to stand and move around a little bit in the back seat. While I'm sure these seatbelts are exceedingly unsafe and no one would use them today (except my mother, who was always begging me to take the wee Soccer Monster out of his car seat and nurse him when he cried--she's old school, is my mom), they were great fun. The only problem with them was that they allowed my brother and I to move around enough to touch and bug each other constantly. (Now that I ponder it, what was she thinking?) So eventually, we would have to create that inviolable divide between us, an imaginary line down the middle of the back seat that neither one of us was allowed to cross. I had my side and he had his, and that was that. (For at least five minutes.)

What does all this have to do with pizza, you might ask? Well, if you live in the kind of household I do, in which one of your children eats no meat and the other essentially eats no vegetables (unless olives count), making a pizza that everyone enjoys can be a little tricky. That's when I invoke the spirit of my youth and create a line down the middle of the pie, with sausage on one side and none on the other. Bliss for everyone. Except for the caramelized onions, which I snuck in and which they both pulled off their slices while making extreme yuck faces. Ah, solidarity!

But really, what I want to post about is the pizza. It couldn't be easier. Make this.

I gave up on trying to make real pizza a long time ago, because it seems silly living in New York. My oven is not going to get to 800 degrees and I don't have a coal or wood burning hod, so that kind of pizza is out of my reach. But easy focaccia-style pizza? Why not? It only takes a few minutes of hands-on time. Seriously.

First you make a batch of no-knead bread dough. Then, sometime after its first rise (and it could be days later), you preheat the oven to 450, split it in half and stretch one half out in a well-oiled cast iron frying pan. Leave for 20-30 minutes, Top with whatever you like (mine had caramelized onions, whole canned tomatoes, olives, feta cheese, thyme, and sausage on one half), bake for 20 minutes, and voila!—it's a pizza.

For the dough:
3 cups white flour
1/4 teaspoon yeast
1 tbsp salt
1 and 1/2 cups tepid water
mix dry ingredients together and then add water, mixing until shaggy dough forms. Cover loosely and leave in warm place for about 18 hours, or until doubled in size and surface is riddled with bubbles. At this point you can use it or put it in the fridge for a couple of days. It will actually taste better if you leave it in the fridge for a day.
To make the pizza:
Preheat oven to 450. Take the dough out of the fridge and divide in half. Put half back in fridge for another time. Oil a 9 or 10-inch cast-iron pan (or other heavy frying pan or baking pan) liberally with olive oil. Oil your hands. Take the dough and stretch and press it into pan. If it keeps springing back, stretch as much as you can, leave it for five minutes, and then come back and stretch some more.
Now top it. You can use sauce or just good quality whole peeled canned tomatoes straight from the can. Use a light hand with the topping. After all your toppings are on, drizzle with a little more olive oil and sprinkle with salt if your toppings weren't too salty. 
Slide pan directly onto floor of oven for 10 minutes (to brown the bottom) then move to center rack for another 10, until crust is golden and toppings are bubbling or browned.
Cool for a few minutes, slice, and eat.

April 8, 2010

Nice Neighbors

One of the things I love about my neighborhood is its friendliness. A few weeks ago, I gave someone from the neighborhood a parking space. We were vying for the same space and he wanted it so he wouldn't have to move his car the next day. I didn't care since I was using my car later that day anyway, so I let him have it.

In New York terms, that's very generous.

After that, he always made it a point to say hi when we passed, and then this morning, he actually came up to me as I was passing him on the street. He introduced himself, thanked me for giving him the parking space (only New Yorkers will understand) and offered me some eggs from the chickens he and his wife keep in their backyard. According to him, New Yorkers are allowed to keep up to 99 hens in their yards for personal use—but no roosters and no selling of the eggs or hens themselves.

Well, I am never one to turn down delicious, fresh, locally-hatched eggs,  and honestly, it doesn't get more local than this, unless I decide to raise my own chickens.

They keep three different breeds of chickens and he gave me two eggs of each. The middle ones, which are a lovely soft greenish-grayish-blue, come from their Araucana chickens.  They also keep Rhode Island Reds, which are reliable layers and I think must be responsible for the hearty large brown eggs on the left. The third breed is a black and white one whose name I've forgotten but whose fluffy feathers The Vegetarian loves to cuddle at fall harvest fairs. I'm assuming they produced the lovely cafe-au-lait eggs on the right.

I can't wait to show The Vegetarian the eggs and then fry one up for her in some fresh butter for dinner. She'll be in heaven. (Thank goodness she's not a vegan.)

And who says New Yorkers aren't friendly? Sure, I've lived here for ten years and seen this neighbor countless times and pass his restaurant daily, but never met him until now. And okay, he had to come up to me and finally introduce himself. But now we're friendly. Hey, anyone who keeps chickens in his backyard is the kind of person I would like to know. I guess I should have said hi nine years ago.