Sunday, October 03, 2010

Early fall dinner

Editor's disclaimer: on the slim chance that any reader still exists for this knitting blog, rest assured that I'm not converting it to yet-another-food blog. This is a one-time posting to efficiently distribute information to a few friends.

For a seasonal cook, the first days of October in northern Michigan offer tantalizing options. My CSA box this week was a bridge from summer to fall. The tomatoes are still producing (quite late for this region!), the greens are still rich from the fields and the fall carb-fest of winter squashes and root vegetables are rounding it out. I could still make something summery and light, with tomatoes and dragon beans and kale, but with the wind howling and the skies gray, fall comfort food beckoned.

First up was the chunky apple walnut cake I've been making for more than 20 years. The recipe comes from The Silver Palate Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. This is one of the first, if not the very first, cookbooks I ever purchased. I bought it when I was still in college, so that's basically how long I've been a foodie and aspiring cook. The dust jacket is in tatters, and leafing through, I found a receipt from 1988 and another from 1986 tucked in the pages. I know this cookbook has some mistakes, so it always pays to be careful and thoughtful when using one of these recipes, but the apple cake, which I make almost every fall, is perfect just as written. I rarely leave a recipe unaltered, but this is an exception (well, a tiny amount of editing).

Chunky Apple Walnut Cake
from The Silver Palate Cookbook

1.5 c. vegetable oil
2 c. sugar
3 eggs
2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp. cloves
1 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. mace (or nutmeg)
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1 c. whole-wheat flour
1 1/4 c. walnuts, chopped and toasted
3 1/4 c. coarse chunks of peeled and cored apples (recipe calls for Rome Beauty, but use what you have)
3 Tbsp. Calvados or applejack

1. Preheat oven to 325F.
2. In a large bowl or your stand mixer, beat oil and sugar until thick. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition.
3. In another bowl, stir together the flours, soda, salt and spices. Add to oil mixture and blend.
4. Add walnuts, apples and Calvados and stir until evenly distributed.
5. Pour batter into a greased 10-inch round cake pan (I use a bundt). Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until done.
6. Let cake rest for 10 minutes, then unmold and pour glaze over warm cake.

Apple Cider Glaze

4 Tbsp. sweet butter
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
6 Tbsp. sugar
3 Tbsp. Calvados or applejack
4 Tbsp. sweet cider
2 Tbsp. fresh orange juice
2 Tbsp. heavy cream

1. Melt butter in a small saucepan and stir in both sugars.
2. Add remaining ingredients, stir, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat slightly and cook for 4 minutes.
3. Remove from heat and cool slightly. Pour while still warm over warm cake.

Note to northern Michigan readers: I bet Left Foot Charley's Cinnamon Girl hard cider would be a terrific substitute for the sweet cider, or the Calvados. I might make it again to find out. Or, better yet, just buy a bottle to drink with the cake.

While the cake was baking, I started a leek bread pudding. At the risk of being struck by lightning, I will confess to altering this original Thomas Keller recipe. I'm sure it would be even better if I had made it exactly as he specified, but I am but an ordinary home cook, not a great chef, so I must sometimes modify.

The inspiration for making this came from a loaf of homemade sourdough that would be hitting the compost in a day or two if not eaten. The recipe calls for 12 cups of bread cubes, so that would take up most, if not all, of this poor forsaken loaf. Mr. Keller would have me make a loaf of brioche instead, but I couldn't see why a multi-grain, multi-seeded sourdough couldn't substitute. I also didn't seek out his specified cheese, just getting a basic Swiss from Oryana. And I used less dairy and a slightly different herb mix, based on what was growing in my back yard.

So here's what I did.

Leek Bread Pudding
with apologies to Thomas Keller, from his wonderful ad hoc at home

2 c. 1/2-in thick slices of leeks (white and light green parts)
salt (he calls for kosher, I used sea salt)
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
freshly ground black pepper
12 c. bread cubes (he makes a brioche; I used a sourdough)
1 Tbsp. finely chopped chives
1 tsp. fresh oregano (he called for thyme)
a little bit of fresh chopped parsley (my addition)
3 large eggs
2 c. whole milk (he called for 3 c.)
2 c. heavy cream (he called for 3 c.)
freshly grated nutmeg
1 c. shredded Swiss (his recipe used Comte or Emmentaler)

1. Preheat the oven to 350F.
2. Put the leek rounds in a large bowl of water and swish to clean, then drain. Saute over medium-high heat, seasoning with salt, for about 5 mins. Lower the heat to medium-low and add the butter and pepper. Cover the pan (he says use a parchment lid, but I just used the pan lid) and cook, stiring every 10 mins, until the leeks are very soft, about 30 mins.
3. Meanwhile, spread the bread cubes on a baking sheet and toast in the over for about 20 mins. (I put them on the rack under the cake).
4. Mix the leeks and break together, then add the herbs. (Sage would probably be nice with this, too.)
5. Lightly whisk the eggs in another bowl. Whisk in the milk, cream, salt and pepper to taste, and a pinch of nutmeg.
6. Sprinkle 1/4 c. of the cheese in the bottom of a 9x13-in baking pan. Spread half the leeks and croutons in the pan and sprinkle with another 1/4 c. cheese. Scatter the remaining leeks and croutons over and top with another 1/4 c. cheese. Pour in the custard to cover and press the bread down into it. Let is soak for about 15 mins.
7. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top and sprinkle with salt. Bake for 1.5 hours, or until the pudding feels set and the top is brown and bubbling.

The leek bread pudding went into the oven just as the cake was coming out. While that baked, I whipped up a very simple potato-leek soup. Probably every cookbook I own (no small amount) has a version of this recipe, but I used Julia Child's, which is the very first recipe in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Potage Parmentier
adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child

3 to 4 c. or 1 lb. peeled, diced potatoes
3 c. or 1 lb. thinly sliced leeks, white and green parts
2 qts. water
1 Tbsp. salt

1. You know the drill -- swish the leeks around in water to clean, then drain.
2. Put the potatoes and leeks in a big soup pot with the 2 qts. water and salt. Simmer for 40 to 50 mins, or until all is tender.
3. When it's cooked, do whatever you need to do to make it all smooth. Julia recommended mashing with a fork or passing through a food mill. I used a food mill, but I took the lazy method and ladled the soup into the mill while I held it over the pot, so it wasn't perfect. I suppose a stick blender might work. I'd be hesitant to use the food processor or blender for fear of rubberizing the potatoes. Next time I'm at Patisserie Amie (nice French bistro near my house), I'll ask Chef Eric what he does to make his vichyssoise (the cold version of this) like velvet.

While the soup was cooking, I stared at the tomatoes. Then I chopped up a couple and made a salsa to placate the hungry until dinner was ready. Everyone knows how to make salsa fresca, right? The variations are endless, but basically it's tomatoes chopped finely, lime juice and salt. I always add garlic and cilantro, and some chopped jalapeno when I have it. Experiment! You can't go wrong.