Cake making stirs my earliest memories. My mother and my grandmother often allowed me to help, sat me up on the counter-top, wedged the large mixing bowl tight between my skinned knees, then said in a soft voice: “Here, hold the mixer steady.”
I was excited to see rhubarb at the Berkeley Farmers’ market last Saturday — I think it is the first time I have seen it there. I had seen a delicious-looking recipe for a rhubarb-cherry crumble with fresh ginger on local kitchen, one of the blogs I always enjoy reading. Kaela preserves a wonderful variety of jams, pickles and marmalades. Here was a crisp that I could tackle easily with cherries in season.
I have had few encounters with rhubarb in my life. My mother never cooked it at home, although she ate it as a child in Illinois. Neither of us like cooked strawberries, preferring to eat them raw, so strawberry-rhubarb pie is not in our pie arsenal. I once ate some rhubarb pie at a doll class potluck — the baker thought its pink color was particularly appropriate for a group of women artists. While I didn’t have to choke it down, I didn’t jump for joy and ask for the recipe either.
Now, if rhubarb grew abundantly in our yard or if a neighbor left baskets of it on our porch I would figure out how to make it palatable or resort to ferreting out all of my rhubarb-loving acquaintances and foisting it on them. Riverdog Farm has not included it in a box in the last five years either. But a couple of years ago I had had my best encounter to date with rhubarb: Toni, who grows it in her Oakland yard, smothered it with brown sugar, dried fruit, nuts and sweet spices, popped it into the oven and roasted it. The result was brown and syrupy and sweet. But when I asked her for the recipe this year she could not remember ever making it that way, a brilliant improvised recipe lost to the world.
When I bought the rhubarb last week, I tasted it cautiously at the bus stop, breaking a small piece off the end of a raw stalk. How sour would it be? I am happy to report that it didn’t lock my jaw. The taste reminded me of chewing sour grass when I was a kid, faintly reminiscent of lemon and green plants. But rhubarb is one of those things like quince — most people do not eat it raw. Cooking transforms it, but tasting it raw does not help you plan how to cook it.
This morning I turned to the guidelines of other cooks: what have they done with it? Well, they boil it with sugar, raw or white or brown. They stew it with prunes and apricots. They combine it with strawberries in pies and compotes and jam. Enterprising cooks use it in sauces for roast pork. I hunted through some cookbooks for awhile. Then I cut and measured my remaining rhubarb: I had three cups left.
Fine. Enough for three small experiments. Experiment #1, rhubarb roasted with vanilla bean and Creme de Cassis, suggested by The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market Cookbook. Experiment #2, rhubarb cooked down to a syrup, a variation on Heidi Swanson’s Rhubarb and Rosewater Syrup recipe. Experiment #3, rhubarb cooked in a compote with dried fruit, adapted from the Eat Fresh, Stay Healthy cookbook, an offering from the used book sale at the Kensington Library.
Experiment #1, the roasted rhubarb, smelled wonderful, both before and after baking, from the perfume of the vanilla bean and the Creme de Cassis. This rhubarb, mostly pale green with red ends remained green after roasting. The syrup has a slight dark red tinge. I tasted the result cautiously, one piece on a small spoon. It is delicious. The white sugar, vanilla and black currant liquor have mellowed the rhubarb into something tasty: I could eat it straight from a bowl, topped with cream, milk, half and half or yogurt, or I could mix it into cereal.
Experiment #2, rhubarb syrup, essentially rhubarb simmered in a simple syrup to which I added a vanilla bean, tasted good, with just a hint of rhubarb flavor. I used 1 cup of rhubarb, 1 cup of sugar, 1 cup of water and 1/2 of a vanilla bean. I let the rhubarb marinate in the sugar for a couple of hours before I added the water and brought it to a simmer. I strained the syrup from the cooked rhubarb. It came out blush pink. I tried an ounce of it in about four ounces of sparkling water with lime. I also tried an ounce of it in some cold tea. I’ll eat the leftover sweetened rhubarb puree with some light cream for dessert some night this week, or stir it into my morning cereal. It is too early in the day to put some of the syrup in a glass of sparkling wine, but I may get to that.
Experiment #3, the compote, may be the least successful. I simmered 3/4 cup dried prunes and 1/4 cup dried apricots in a cup of water with some nutmeg, fresh ginger and 1/3 cup of sugar before adding the rhubarb for five or six minutes. The problem with this is that the rhubarb has not absorbed the flavors before it begins to break down. But it may taste better tomorrow after sitting — compotes often do. I tasted it warm.
I brought the rhubarb-cherry crumble to a singing session on Friday. Some people liked it. I was disappointed. The color was lovely: the rhubarb and cherries melded into a deep red. The fruit proved to be too sweet for my tastes (I was afraid to scant the sugar due to my inexperience with rhubarb preparations) and there was an off-putting flavor, which I believe was the taste of the rhubarb. I made a crumb topping with butter, homemade granola (not very sweet), brown sugar and a few tablespoons of flaked coconut. I thought the topping was also too sweet and will go back to using plain rolled oats in crisp topping (Local Kitchen’s recipe calls for a gluten-free topping with brown rice flour, oats, butter, and flax seed).
Food notes: If you are a confirmed rhubarb lover and have no fear of canning, you might want to try Local Kitchen’s rhubarb prosecco jelly. It’s the sort of thing I would love to have a taste of, but would not want to commit to making it unless I had tasted it first. Disclaimer: I have been exercising a lot lately, which might be why the sweet rhubarb syrup, roasted rhubarb and puree suddenly tasted great…
P.S. I mixed rhubarb compote into my blue corn cereal this morning and it was just fine: with the heat of the cereal, the cooked rhubarb melts into the compote and what you get is a spicy syrup. And rhubarb syrup in water is nice on a hot day.
Warning: this post may contain an embedded rant or two.
In the kitchen this morning, I have two large dry crusts of French bread, three eggs and several heads of baby romaine lettuce from the farm box. This late spring day appears to be one of the warm variety. I don’t know if these ingredients suggest anything to you: to me they suggest Caesar Salad.
My mama told me that Caesar Salad contains anchovies in the dressing. Cursory internet research suggests that Cesare Cardini used Worchestershire sauce rather than anchovies. I don’t even like anchovies, but I was taught to chop them finely and put them in the dressing for a Caesar Salad, so I do. I would not eat them on pizza. I would not snack on them out of the tin. I have never dared to make a pasta puttanesca because of the anchovies in it, but I keep anchovies in a jar of olive oil just so that I can make this salad when the mood strikes or when the ingredients are sitting around in the kitchen.
Furthermore, I do not care for any egg preparation that involves soft egg yolks — or hard egg yolks, for that matter. That leaves out poached eggs, fried eggs, eggs sunny side up, deviled eggs, hard-boiled eggs and Easter eggs. But I make an exception for Caesar Salad dressing, which calls for a coddled egg, cooked for one minute before you mix it with the other dressing ingredients.
The salad that makes me set aside my food aversions is truly magical. You put in anchovies and barely cooked egg yolk, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice, black pepper. You toss the dressing with croutons, Romaine leaves and freshly grated Parmesan cheese and you have a crunchy, green refreshing salad with adequate protein from fish, egg and cheese. There is no need to add shrimp or grilled chicken to this salad as many American restaurants do.
First, make garlic-infused olive oil. Heat some garlic cloves in olive oil and allow the garlic and oil to sit while you do other things. While you are at it, halve a raw clove of garlic and rub it onto your wooden salad bowl. If you like raw garlic, set aside a couple of cloves to squeeze into the salad, or pound them in a mortar or mince them with a knife. I actually like minced or pressed raw garlic better than the more subtle garlic oil.
Then make croutons. Chop your leftover French bread into cubes. We like to use stale sourdough. You can saute them in a little of your garlic oil, or you can toss them with some of it and bake them in your oven for a few minutes at 300 degrees. I usually bake my croutons. Sometimes I just bake sourdough bread without any oil: the croutons will absorb dressing from the salad anyway.
Then wash your romaine lettuce and dry it thoroughly in a dish towel or a salad spinner.Tear into bite-sized pieces unless you particularly enjoy the exercise of cutting lettuce with your fork. Place lettuce in your garlic-rubbed salad bowl.
Take two or three anchovies from a tin and mince them finely — no one wants a big bite of anchovy in this salad — we just want the flavor. Set them aside for now.
Grate some Parmesan cheese. 1/4 cup will do in a pinch, but you might want to use more to get the snow drift effect.
Halve one lemon and get ready to squeeze it.
Dress your lettuce with a small amount of garlic olive oil. Add minced garlic if using.
Now coddle an egg: boil it for one minute only. Remove it from the pot. Crack it right into your salad bowl and toss with the lettuce.
Add the minced anchovies and toss again.
Squeeze lemon directly onto the salad. Toss again.
Add croutons and grated Parmesan. Toss again.
Grind some fresh black pepper over the salad. Toss again.
Taste and adjust seasonings.
Food notes: If you can’t stand handling anchovies, you could try using anchovy paste in a tube. I have never used it. Please do coddle the egg and use it in the dressing: the slightly-cooked egg, anchovies and lemon are what creates the distinctive Caesar dressing. You cannot get the proper effect without the egg. You cannot get the proper effect without some form of anchovies — if you are afraid of them, try using a little less — start with one anchovy if you are squeamish and work your way up. You cannot skip the cheese either, or the croutons — if you do, you have not made a Caesar salad, but some other kind of romaine salad. You cannot make a vegan Caesar — don’t even try. If you are a vegan, find some other way to eat your romaine. You cannot make a kale Caesar either: by definition, Caesar salad is made of romaine lettuce. Got it? You have latitude with the garlic, the oil, and the croutons and the amount of anchovy you use. For the Parmesan, you need to get the good stuff and grate it yourself: this is not the time to use stale, pre-grated cheese or the stuff in the green can: when you are only using a few ingredients, they need to be the freshest and finest you can get. That chicken and shrimp? Save them for another entree or cook and serve them on the side, please. Once you try the real Caesar salad, you will love it or hate it, but at least you will know what it is, that you have tried Caesar salad and not one of the many abominations that blacken and borrow its name.
If you’ve made it through the rant, you may notice that I put no salt in the dressing: both anchovies and cheese pack a lot of salt and I don’t miss it. But I did say you could adjust seasonings: that is code for add lemon, salt, pepper, garlic or cheese to taste. Enjoy. And if you experience any revelations after making proper Caesar salad, please come back to testify in the Comments section.
It is cherry season in California. For a few short weeks in May or June fresh cherries appear at the Farmers’ Market in Berkeley. First there are Brooks, then Burlats. Later there are Bing cherries. I eat them all. Mostly, I eat them fresh, for a snack. Lately I have been sneaking them into my morning cereal: my current favorite concoction involves 1/3 cup blue cornmeal cooked in 1 cup of milk with a bit of salt, a small handful of raw almonds pounded in a mortar, a handful of stoned cherries and a couple teaspoons of shredded coconut. This is also good with rolled oats — if you use oats, use 1/2 cup.
Do any of you have binders full of recipes that you have clipped from the food sections of local newspapers? Do you have a lot of recipes you haven’t actually cooked? Me, too. Sometimes I try one and toss it out with a “What were they thinking?” gesture. Sometimes I learn something. Sometimes I just store them, loosely organized by main ingredient, in a huge binder that takes two hands to lift off the shelf, but I know they are there waiting for “someday” when I’ll cook them.
One such recipe was Ed Murrieta’s recipe for cherry focaccia. A Google search for the original publication date in the Contra Costa Times informed me that I have been saving this recipe since June 7, 2004. I saved it because it has an irresistible photo of a golden brown round focaccia, dimpled with cherries, cut into wedges, with a pile of fresh cherries in the center. It looks so pretty that I wanted to make it “someday.”
Well, folks, today was someday. I made a trip on the bus to the Farmers’ Market yesterday to buy more basil for more pesto and to buy cherries for this bread. Insert disclaimers here. One, I don’t generally like focaccia — it is too thick, too bland, with the wrong ratio of toppings to crust: I think of it as failed pizza. Two, I think chocolate-covered cherries are revolting. My Grandmother liked them: nasty, sickly cherries in too sweet milk chocolate. And cherry cordials, worse, if possible: bad chocolate filled with wet cherry filling that squirts you when you bite into it. Yuck. Three, my favorite cherry recipes involve sour cherries, either canned or dried, since fresh sour cherries are hard to come by in this part of the world. Four, I can’t stand anything cherry-flavored: cherry flavor reminds me of medicine. This includes cherry Starbursts (why, oh why?). The only exception I can think of is Royal Crown Sour Cherry candy — do they still make it anymore?
But this cherry focaccia was calling my name. First of all, it is a filled focaccia: you make two circles of dough. You put fresh, pitted cherries on top of the first circle, sprinkle it with chopped bittersweet chocolate, and put the second circle on top. Then you push more cherries into the top layer and sprinkle it with raw sugar before it goes into the oven. Plus, you need a starter to make this and I keep a jar of sourdough starter in my refrigerator at all times. I fed the starter yesterday and let it sit out on the counter while I went to the market and bought cherries.
I wanted to send you to Ed Murrieta for the original recipe, but when I Googled him the first thing I found was an article about how his entrepreneurial business had failed, leaving him to live on food stamps. Then I found some recipes including marijuana. Wherever he is now and whatever he is doing I wish him well and thank him for this gorgeous focaccia recipe. I could send you to the newspaper site, but they seem to want you to activate a free trial subscription to let you read the recipe. What can I do? I can rewrite the recipe — I did make a couple of changes.
Here’s the bad kitty confession. Murrieta’s recipe calls for bread flour. In my heyday when I had a regular job and regular paychecks I would have gone out and bought bread flour. I would have insisted on bread flour. Now I am not so proud or so picky: I use what we have on hand. I am an experienced baker and can handle sticky doughs and doughs behaving badly. So I will tell you that Ed Murrieta called for 2 and 3/4 cups of bread flour, plus additional flour on the board during the kneading and shaping phases. I winged it with unbleached flour and some whole wheat flour to give it a more rustic quality. I’ll show you.
Murrieta called for a starter made of 1/2 tsp dry yeast, 2/3 cup of water and 1 cup of bread flour. You mix this up in a glass jar with a wooden spoon, cover it with cloth and let it ferment on the counter for at least twelve hours (and up to 36). I skipped this, and just added 2/3 cup of my sourdough starter to the dough. If you already have a starter, you are good to go. If you want an official sourdough starter recipe, go here.
Fresh Cherry Focaccia with Chocolate
Make the dough first. You can pit cherries and chop chocolate while the dough rises. You can even go to the store for cherries and chocolate while the dough rises if you don’t go on the once-every-forty-five-minutes bus.
Dissolve 1 and 1/2 tsp yeast in 1 cup warm water.
While the yeast proofs, stir together in a large bowl 2 and 3/4 cups bread flour, 3 Tbsp sugar and 1 tsp kosher salt. If you do not have bread flour and are intrepid, start with 1/2 cup whole wheat flour and 3 and 1/4 cups unbleached flour (You will have to add more).
Make a well in the center of your dry ingredients. Add proofed yeast, 2/3 cup sourdough starter (or Ed’s starter, above), 1 cup lukewarm water and 3 Tbsp olive oil. Mix with wooden spoon until a light dough forms. If your dough is more of a batter than a dough, add flour 1/4 cup at a time.
Flour a bread board or other work surface and keep the flour handy! You might want to make sure your flour bin is at least half-full. Turn out the dough onto the board and attempt to knead it. If it sticks to the board badly, knead in more flour, dust more flour on the board, pry it up and try again. Eventually, you will work enough flour into the dough that it resembles roll dough and is smooth and uniform in appearance. If you are smart, you will oil the bowl before you put the dough back in it to rise. Cover the dough with a damp tea towel and let it rise until double — 1 and 1/2 to two hours.
Now, go away and amuse yourself or clean your counters and put away your ingredients except the flour — you are not done with that. Before the dough is risen you will need to pit 2 cups (one pound) of cherries and chop four ounces of chocolate. I used a 70% Lindt bar that had cherries and chili in it.
When your dough is risen, put it on your floured board and let it rest for five minutes. You can use this time to oil a pizza pan or baking sheet.
Divide dough into two equal portions. Ignore one while you flatten, dimple and pull the other into a ten inch circle. See pizza-pulling instructions here. (Murrieta rolls out his). Transfer first portion to oiled pan. Spread 3/4 of your cherries on it and top with chopped chocolate. Flatten, dimple and pull the second circle into shape and place it on top of cherry-chocolate filling. Pinch the edges to seal the dough. Then decorate the top with the rest of the cherries, pushing them cut-side down into the dough at attractive intervals. Let the dough rest for thirty minutes while you preheat your oven to 400 and do a round of clean-up. Just before you put the focaccia in the oven sprinkle it with raw sugar.
Bake for forty-five minutes or until top and bottom are browned to your liking. Murrieta says to let the focaccia cool and then cut it into wedges. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I let it cool for approximately five minutes and then cut a small wedge, which I ate standing at the cutting board. Then I reached for the knife again, which was smeared with melted chocolate. I ate the second piece standing in front of the board. Then I cut a much smaller wedge. Then I stepped away from the cutting board, drank a glass of milk and made tea, which I took upstairs so that I did not stay in the kitchen eating focaccia.
It was that good. It was sort of like someone had taken my two favorite things, crusty bread and pie, and magicked them into a single entity. Crusty, gooey, chocolatey, not too sweet, with a fresh cherry taste on top.
Cherry season is short. If you like bread and pie, make this now. Now. And invite some friends over if you don’t want to stay in your kitchen eating the whole thing. You could just call it cherry Kryptonite.
Food notes. This recipe is perfect as is, once you get the flour right. But it is ripe for variations. Try other kinds of chocolate and other kinds of fruit: fresh figs? And then branch out and use almond paste or ricotta filling with cherries or peaches or blueberries. Yum.