A Natural Wonder: Strawberries and Cream Polenta Orange Cake

This weekend we have finally been able to string a few warm days together.  It’s a welcome reminder that summer is on the way and flats of fresh strawberries are just around the corner.

One of my favorite ways to show off the season’s best berries is with Polenta Orange Cake, a low squat European-style beauty imbued with a slight crunchy-sweet corn essence.  The orange zest and polenta join together in a burnished gold crumb dense enough to welcome a good soaking of orange syrup or juicy berries.

Strawberries & Ricotta Cream Orange Polenta Cake

For strawberries and cream cake, slice the cake in half torte style, fill it with sliced strawberries, and spoon on whipped cream. Or, for my favorite ricotta cream, cut the whipped cream with half ricotta.  It’s a natural wonder.

Polenta Orange Cake

Ingredients
Cake
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup medium to fine-grained cornmeal or polenta
2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 orange, zest and @ 1/3 cup juice
Orange Syrup
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup orange juice
1 orange, cut in half
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F.  Line a 9″ cake pan with parchment or foil and spray with baker’s spray.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients and set aside.  In a mixing bowl, cream butter until light, slowly add the sugar and beat until light. Add the eggs one at a time, until fluffy.  Add the vanilla, orange juice, the zest and mix. Don’t worry if it curdles. Add dry ingredients, mixing just to incorporate.  Scrape bowl down and spread the batter evenly into pan.
  3. Bake for 30 minutes, until cake springs back when touched.  Remove from oven and brush liberally with orange syrup while still warm.
  4. For the Syrup:  place all but extract in a small saucepan and bring to a boil; continue to boil briskly for 6 to 8 minutes, until it begins to thicken.  Let cool slightly, remove orange and strain.  Add the almond extract and brush over the warm cake.

Strawberries and Cream Cake
4 cups strawberries, rinsed, hulled, sliced (save a few for garnish)
2 tablespoons sugar
Sweetened Whipped Cream topping
1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

  1. Prepare strawberries and cream:  combine the berries with sugar and chill; save a few pretty whole ones for garnish.  Whip the cream, add the sugar and vanilla.
  2. To assemble:  slice the cake in half horizontally, brush the bottom layer with orange syrup, layer with some of the sliced berries, spread with whipped cream.  Add the top layer, top with more berries and garnish with whipped cream and few pretty berries.  Serves 6 or more.  The cake can be baked a day ahead.

Malted Milk Cake: retro relevance

The idea of a malted milk cake has been on my mind for a while now, but it wasn’t coming together. Things started clicking when my friend Pat Clark mentioned memories of  hot milk cake.  She grew up in a large Southern family and fondly recalls her mom’s cake as a childhood favorite of all of her brothers and sisters.

After a little preliminary research the hot milk cake began to look even more intriguing.  This no-frills sweet has a rich history spanning back to the Depression era, when the most basic staples were hard to come by. Here, the clever use of sugar manages to transform a few simple ingredients into a memorable cake with impressive texture, volume, and flavor.  hot milk cake dusted

Take a generous amount of sugar, whip it with eggs until a voluminous mass forms, add a bit of flour, the hot malted milk, and you’ve got the basis of light, high flavored cake that’s not cloyingly sweet—and requires no frosting.

Pairing malted milk with the hot milk cake is a natural combination, injecting an inspired caramel nuance into this vibrantly moist cake and giving it a relevant retro touch. Bake it all in a bundt pan or other pretty mold, a dusting of confectioners’ sugar across the top is all that is necessary to make it unforgettable. If you must, serve it with a caramel glaze or drizzle.

Vanilla Malted Milk Cake

Ingredients
1/2 cup butter
1 cup milk
½ cup malted milk, such as Carnations powdered
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 eggs, room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.  Prepare a bundt or 9”x 13” pan: spray with non-stick spray and dust with flour.  Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and set aside.
  2. In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter.  Combine the malted milk, the milk, and the vanilla and stir into the butter; heat until small bubbles form around the outside of the pan and the mixture is very hot but not boiling. Reduce heat to low.
  3. In an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, combine eggs and sugar and beat on medium-high speed for 5 minutes, until light, thick, and tripled in volume.  On low, slowly add the hot milk mixture, mixing until incorporated. Add the dry ingredients in two batches, mixing after each addition until just incorporated.
  4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake bundt pan for 1 hour, checking 5 minutes prior to baking end time;  9”x 13” pan 40-45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean, with a few crumbs attached. Do not over bake.
  5. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes before inverting onto a cooling rack or serving plate to cool completely. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve.  Serves 12

Code Red: Chocolate Torte

cake cutting redluxYes, the picture says it all.

Instead of Happy Birthday, there should be a warning stamped on the top of this cake:  Hazard to One’s Health.  Standard symptoms:  lightheaded, dizzy, blurred vision (and not from the wine).

I started out this month working diligently on genoise and other cakes with the specific goal of creating a chocolate cake for my daughter’s birthday, and this is where it brought me.  In fact, I was not going to even blog about it, because I would not recommend making this cake; it is too deadly.  But at my daughter’s urging, I am giving it a mention.

Irresistible, mercilessly entertaining, menacing…” certainly apply here.  In fact, these descriptive were picked from the cover of a book that my daughter just loaned me:  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, a popular head-spinning thriller.  I didn’t mean to scare everyone at my daughter’s dinner, but this cake really did the trick.

So Happy Birthday, ChyAnn, your mother really does love you.

Choc Bday cakeThe recipe follows with the best directions I can give.  Standard warnings prevail.

Chocolate-Almond Raspberry Torte

Inspired by America’s Test Kitchen.

Ingredients

  • 8 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 12 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 -1/2 tsp vanilla extract or paste
  • ½ tsp almond extract
  • ½ tsp instant espresso powder
  • 4 oz almond meal
  • ¼ cup all purpose flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 5 large eggs
  • ¾ cups sugar
  • Raspberry Syrup
  • Chocolate Ganache (divided)
  • 12 fresh raspberries

Directions

  1. Line 2 – 9” or 2 to  3 – 8” cake pans with parchment (see below).  Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2.  Melt the chocolate and butter in large heat proof bowl over simmer water, stir until smooth. Allow to cool for 30 minutes and stir in vanilla and almond extracts and espresso powder.
  3. Process almond meal until fine in food processor; add flour and salt and pulse to combine. Transfer to medium bowl.
  4. In bowl of mixer, beat the eggs to combine then add the sugar and beat until thick and light, about 3 minutes.
  5. Gently fold the eggs into chocolate mixture until nearly blended; sprinkle in the almond-flour mixture and gently combine.
  6. Divide the batter into pans and smooth with spatula. Bake until center is firm when pressed and toothpick inserted comes out with a few moist crumbs, 14 to 16 minutes.  Transfer to wire rack and cool in pan about 30 minutes.  Run sharp knife around edge to loosen cake and turn out on to cake boards, right side up.

Note:  prepare the raspberry syrup and the ganache.  The filling will be whipped, the glaze is the same recipe, but will be poured over the cake and sides to finish.  The ratio of chocolate and cream  is 1:1. It can be made in one large batch if making the same day.

If using 8 inch cake pans, fill 2 pans evenly, or fill one pan with twice as much as the other and adjust the baking time with a difference of 5 minutes or longer.  You will slice this one in half to make 3 layers.  (this is dumb, but 3 layers does make a nice, albeit rich, torte)

Raspberry Syrup

  • 12 ounces fresh raspberries
  • ½ cup water
  • Sugar, approximate 1 cup
  1.  Combine raspberries, smash with a fork or potato masher in small pan, and bring to a boil. Simmer until soft and juicy, 3 to 4 minutes.  Strain through a fine sieve.
  2. Rinse out the pan; measure the raspberry liquid and return it to the pan with an equal amount of sugar. Simmer until slight thickened, 1 to 2 minutes.  Add 1/3 cup Chambord, rum, or brandy and simmer briefly.  Strain mixture again, removing any foam as well.  Pour into a clean container to cool and set aside.

Chocolate Ganache  divided, for filling and for glaze

Filling for 3- 8 or 2-9” layers

  • 5 oz good quality bittersweet chocolate (60% or more cacoa butter), chopped in food processor
  • ½ cup plus 1 Tbsp heavy whipping cream
  1.  Chop the chocolate and place in a bowl. Heat the cream to a simmer; do not boil. (In microwave, about 40 seconds to 1 minute. )  Pour the cream over the chocolate and let is set briefly, for a minute or two.  Gently stir with a fork to melt the chocolate and it is silky smooth.  Let stand to cool, about 30 minutes.
  2. To lighten the filling, beat with a hand mixer for 1 to 3 minutes, depending on the volume desired.

Finishing Glaze

  • 8 oz good quality bittersweet chocolate 960% or more cacoa butter), chopped in food processor
  • ¾ cup heavy whipping cream
  • 2 Tbsp butter (optional, for sheen)
  1.  Chop the chocolate and place in a bowl. Heat the cream to a simmer; do not boil. (In microwave, about 1 minute.)
  2. Pour the cream over the chocolate and let is set briefly, for a minute or two. Gently stir with a fork to melt the chocolate and it is silky smooth.

To assemble the torte

  1. If cutting one of the layers in half, use a long serrated knife to slice into 2 equal layers. Have an 8`springform pan ready as a mold to hold the torte in place.
  2. Brush the cut surface of one of the layers evenly with a light coating of syrup. Spread it evenly with about ½ of the whipped ganache filling, then place it in the springform pan, filling side up.
  3. Repeat with second layer, using cut side to coat with syrup and then with chocolate filling and place it in mold. Brush the third layer keeping the bottom of the layer to the top of the cake and coat the cut side with syrup.  Place it in the springform with the bottom side up.
  4. Cover the cake and chill well; up to 24 hours.
  5. To finish to the torte. Unmold the cake and brush any loose crumbs off the exterior of the cake.  Coat the cake lightly with ganache using an offset spatula or knife to seal both top and sides.  Chill to set, about 5 minutes.
  6. Place cake on wire rack and crumb coat the cake by spreading top and sides with a thin layer of the ganache glaze to cover. Let set in fridge 15 minutes.  Meanwhile, keep the ganache over warm water, stirring occasionally to keep it from thickening too much.
  7. For final glaze, pour some of the ganache into center of the cake, using offset spatula, spread with broad strokes so that residue will to run down the sides; spread to evenly coat any uneven spots.
  8. Add a circle of fresh raspberries around the outside edge of the torte. Chill for 30 minutes or several hours before serving.  If made ahead, allow to come to room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.  Serves 10 to 12

Genoise… the thing that dreams are made of

Back in July I mentioned that I was working on mastering the French genoise.  I am still at it and am more impressed than ever with the amount of technique and skill required to pull this off.  When you consider it is just a basic recipe of eggs, a little sugar, a bit of flour and a smidgen of butter, you wonder how anything so simple could be so complicated.

Well, this could easily stand as a metaphor for any one of life’s lessons that come our way regularly.  In this case it is all about knowing when to follow the rules:  to recognize that tricks in fine baking have been passed down because they work.  For example, bakers weigh their ingredients because proportions and formulas are the backbone of their craft.

In the case of the genoise, nothing could more essential to its success than the eggs.  It is recommended that eggs and sugar be beaten over simmering water:  the gentle heat further binds the eggs and sugar and creates the massive volume.  Of course, I resisted this process until attempt number three, and it worked beautifully. Then you have to maintain its structure since there is no other leavener.

To deal with egg deflation, the other vital trick I learned was how to fold.  I had to practice the process of correctly lowering a wide spatula into the batter, bringing it up, dragging it gently over the top, turning the spatula in a gentle folding motion down into the batter, and back up again. Genoise folding This slow folding is used to incorporate the flour and even more crucial, the butter—which lends richness and texture to a fairly dry cake.

With a description like that, why bother with such a  dreary cake?  Because it is lean and incredibly versatile.  The genoise is regarded as the foundation in a world of sweet fantasies.  So well structured, it can be torted, or cut into multiple layers.  These layers can be brushed with a wild variety of syrups which soak into the cake, tailoring both flavor and moisture.  The sky is the limit when it comes to accessorized fillings:  curds, creams, chocolate fillings, you name it.

Finally, I actually achieved a cake tall enough to safely cut in half (so very proud).Genoise layer I brushed the layers with hibiscus syrup (made from hibiscus jelly) and heaped on an Italian style ricotta filling laced with almond and chocolate.   Since I had extra chocolate on hand, the rest was drizzled across the top.

Genoise cakeWords fail me.  The genoise was amazing and got better the longer it sat.  On average, I like a cake that is not loaded with heavy creams and butter, and this one hit the mark.  It is  not your average cake…

genoise slice

It is the thing that dreams are made of.  

Genoise

Ingredients

  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¾ cup cake flour
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into chunks

Directions 

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour 8” or spray 8” cake pan, line it with parchment or wax paper.
  2. Melt the butter and set aside in a 2 cup bowl to melt further and re-thicken.
  3. Whisk the eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl over simmering heat, until the mixture feels lukewarm. In bowl of standing mixer using wire whisk attachment, whisk the eggs until they have tripled in volume, 5 to 10 minutes. They should be thick, creamy and fall from the whisk resting in ribbons onto the batter surface. Whip in the vanilla or other flavoring.
  4. Sift the flour while the eggs are beating. Re-measure to ¾ level cup and sift again with salt.
  5. Fold in the flour: for ease, pour the egg mixture into a wider bowl. Using a wide spatula carefully sift flour onto surface in 3 portions, To fold in the flour, carefully cut down and fold up and over, stretching the batter to lighten and incorporate the flour in about 10 turns each time – scrape the sides and bottom, too.
  6. Add butter to batter: re-combine the melted butter; it should be slightly warm and creamy. Gently spoon out about 1 cup of batter and fold into the butter until thoroughly mixed and light. Gently pour this onto the side of the batter and fold another 10 times to incorporate. The batter is at its weakest point: it may not be completely smooth, still have streaks, and begin to deflate. Fold cautiously.
  7. Pour batter into pan, gently smoothing surface from middle out. Tap the pan on counter a few times to remove lingering air bubbles.
  8. Bake at 350 degrees in center of oven 25 to 30 minutes, until the edges begin to come away from pan and the center springs back when touched and is golden brown.
  9. Let cake rest briefly, run a sharp knife around the edge of pan and cool 5 to 10 minutes on rack. Unmold the cake, remove paper from bottom and cool right side up. If not using same day, it can be held at room temperature overnight, well wrapped. Can be stored well wrapped – up to 3 days in refrigerator or in freezer for up to 2 months.
  10. If frozen, defrost wrapped cake at room temperature. It is ready to be sliced horizontally into 2 or 3 layers, filled and decorated.

Note:  Above, you’ll note I am still resisting the weighing of ingredients. So far, I have good luck with careful measuring  (I measure the flour twice).  It seems to work deliciously!