Archives for category: syrups and sauces
Original painting shows cherry plums, plum cake, plum caramel.

Plum Cake. 9″ x 12″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil on Paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

Sometimes circumstances conspire to create an end. Today is my sister-in-law’s birthday and she is coming over to go out to lunch with my mother in Walnut Creek. Barbara likes plum cake. I had half a colander of fresh cherry plums on the counter and a jar of wild plum jam that I needed to use. I had just read David Lebovitz’s blogs on butterscotch sauce (which I am dying to make) and peach cobbler, plus a post on plum cake made with cornmeal from Two Peas and Their Pod. Barbara loves whipped cream. So what would I do? I would make the cornmeal-plum cake, adapting it a little to give it a more butterscotch-y flavor by substituting some evaporated cane juice for half a cup of the white sugar and I would use the jam to make some plum caramel to serve with the cake.

For the plum caramel, I followed a recipe from Chez Panisse Desserts, except, instead of cooking fresh plums, I just added plum jam (aka cooked plums) to the caramel base, cooked it for a few minutes and strained the results. You can make simple caramel by putting 1/2 cup of sugar in a saucepan with 2 Tbsp water and melting it over high heat, shaking the pan every now and then (do not stir). When it takes on a pale golden color, remove it from the heat and carefully add 1/4 cup water, not getting too close to the pan. You can stir now. If you are adding fruit puree to the caramel, add it now (this works with any berry or stone fruit), add it now and cook for a few minutes over medium heat. Strain out any solids or seeds that have slipped through, put your caramel in a clean jar in the fridge and you are good to go for later. Fruit caramel is less acidic and more complex than simple purees and is perhaps my favorite recipe I learned from this cookbook.

Now the cake. You can see the original here. Since cakes are not my favorite things I followed the recipe closely with just two substitutions (okay, three). First, I had medium eggs rather than large — they were organic and brown — so I threw in an extra one. Then, I had lots of cherry plums rather than the four or five large plums cited in the recipe. I already told you I put in 1/2 cup of evaporated cane juice for 1/2 cup of white sugar. Oops. Um. Four substitutions. I substituted a quarter cup of sour half and half for some of the buttermilk because, you know, we had it, and it is similar, but richer.

So, this is what you get when you put together all of those substitutions with the original recipe:

Barbara’s Birthday Plum Cake

Pit the cherry plums you are using (Or pit and chop larger plums into bite-sized pieces). Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350.

Measure 1 and 1/2 cups unbleached flour. After measuring sift it into a small mixing bowl.

Whisk into flour 1 tsp baking powder,

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1/8 tsp kosher salt

1/2 cup corn meal

Then soften 1 and 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter (12 Tbsp)

Cream butter with 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1/2 cup evaporated cane juice until light and fluffy.

Add — one at a time — 4 medium eggs (or use three large), incorporating egg fully before next addition.

Measure 1/2 cup buttermilk (or 1/4 cup sour cream or sour half and half, plus 1/4 cup buttermilk, which is what I used).

Alternate flour mixture and buttermilk, in increments, starting and ending with flour.

Butter and flour a cake pan. I used a bundt pan because it looks festive.

Scrape half of the batter into the pan. Scatter plums over batter. Top with remaining batter.

Bake for fifty minutes. Test to see if it is done. In a bundt pan, my cake took one hour and five minutes to show some browning on the top and to pass the toothpick test.

Cool by hanging bundt pan on a glass bottle. This is fun. Trust me.

Serve with barely sweetened whipped cream and a pool or drizzle of plum caramel. If you are my sister-in-law, add more whipped cream. Enjoy.

Food Notes: Keeping to the art of substitution, you can use any sour thing for the buttermilk — yogurt, sour cream, creme fraiche, even sour milk. You can make the cake as originally suggested with all white sugar, or use all evaporated cane juice. You can probably use some other fruit for the plums, although the plums (with skins) provide a beautiful color and a nice tartness that plays well against the cake. The whipped cream provides yet another contrast (and besides, we like whipped cream when we are celebrating).

Watermelon pickle: I had a problem with the watermelon pickle — it wasn’t the recipe — it was me. so I’ll be trying it again with this week’s watermelon and report back on that later.

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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.

painting shows rhubarb in various preparations.

Rhubarb Experiments. 8″ x 8″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

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.

painting of sour cherry pie, cherry syrup and ingredients

Sour Cherry Pie (Detail) 12″ x 12″ gouache and watercolor paper. Sharyn Dimmick

How can cherries be a part of seasonal cooking in November when I don’t live in Australia? When the weather turns cold we turn to preserved foods. We still have apples on our backyard apple tree, but Mom asked me to roast a pork loin and some squash while she and my sister-in-law Barbara scrubbed and taped walls for painting (I know I got the better part of this division of labor). Because I am supposedly getting ready for a week away, I wanted an easy pie with no peeling and paring, no slicing, so I went for the canned cherries in the garage. These are pitted sour cherries canned in juice. Mom had made crust earlier in the week, so it was pie time again. And while I’m at it, I’ll just say that I have made fresh sour cherry pie from some sour cherries I scored at the Ferry Plaza market in San Francisco and — drum roll — we prefer pie made with canned sour cherries.

Here is how to make cherry pie — my cherry pie.

Make the crust first. If you make Madge’s recipe, you will have enough crust for two cherry pies, so you can pit my cherry pie against your favorite recipe, double the filling recipe and make two cherry pies from this recipe or save the extra crust for quiche or apple pie. Our recipe is handy at Thanksgiving and Christmas when you are baking lots of of pies, but. truth to tell, pie is never a problem here: we’ll eat it for breakfast, dinner, lunch and tea.

Once again, the no-rant version* of pie crust for your convenience:

Cut 1 cup of vegetable shortening plus 2 Tbsp of butter into 3 cups of unbleached flour and 1 tsp salt  until the mixture resembles small peas. Do not overwork the dough — you want to see streaks of fat in the raw dough: they will melt while baking and create flaky crust. If you use salted butter, you can reduce the salt to 1/4 tsp.

Into a 1-cup liquid measuring cup, break 1 large egg. Beat egg with fork until blended.

Add 1 Tbsp cider vinegar to egg and stir. Then add water until combined liquids measure 1/2 cup, plus a little more.

Add liquids to shortening and flour and work just until combined. Pat dough into a flattened circle. If you are a novice pie baker, you may want to wrap the dough in waxed paper and chill it for awhile. The intrepid and experienced can divide the dough in half and proceed by cutting one half-circle in half again — this recipe makes four crusts, so half of it will give you the crust for your two-crust cherry pie.

Roll crust out on a floured work surface with a floured rolling pin. Roll firmly but lightly, being sure to roll all the way to the edges — you want the crust thin, but you don’t want to press it down and make it stick. You’ll figure it out — it’s not that hard. Try your best to keep the crust circular. Measure the crust by setting your pie plate on top of it, allowing for enough crust to cover the sides. Fold rolled crust into quarters to pick it up and unfold it again in your pie tin.

Now you have an aesthetic choice to make. For that classic lattice cherry pie you can roll your next quarter of crust into another circle and cut the crust into long strips, which you will lay crosswise over the filling later. If you don’t have the inclination to build a lattice, just take your circle and fold it into quarters, leaving it for the top crust later.

Go and preheat your oven to 375 degrees if using a Pyrex pie plate. If you use metal, you can start the pie at 400, but be on hand to turn it down after ten or fifteen minutes.

Now the filling:

Mix 1/4 cup cornstarch and scant 3/4 cup sugar in a dry saucepan. Whisk until blended.

Open 2 cans of sour cherries packed in water (Do not use cherry pie filling, which belongs on The Horror Roll). Drain the juice from the cherries into a 2-cup measuring cup — you will have about 1 and 1/3 cups. Leave the drained cherries in the cans for now.

Whisk 1/3 cup cherry juice into the cornstarch and sugar and stir with whisk until thickened over medium heat. The first sign that the cornstarch is working is the appearance of little shapes that look like ragged skin. If you don’t care for the pale pink color add the secret ingredient, red food coloring, drop by drop until you get a hue you like — I particularly recommend this option if you are going the lattice crust route or planning to take photos of your pie. When the mixture is thick and glossy add the reserved cherries, remove from heat and stir in

1 Tbsp butter and

a grating of fresh nutmeg

Pour the filling into your prepared pie shell and weave your lattice strips over the top, or plonk your unfolded top crust over the filling and make an attractive pattern of knife slashes for vents. Do not wash your saucepan yet! Place pie in oven. Bake for about 50 minutes or until crust is nicely browned and filling is bubbling.

Now, remember that other cup of cherry juice sitting in your measuring cup? You can drink it if you want to, which Mom does sometimes, but this is what I do with it: put it in your saucepan. Add some sugar — more than a Tablespoon, less than a cup. Turn the burner back on and boil it down until thickened — you want it to coat the spoon and be bubbly and shiny. Decant carefully into a glass jar (pour along a spoon or a knife if you are nervous — the metal absorbs some of the heat). Let cool and then refrigerate. This will keep indefinitely in a cold refrigerator. It is delicious on cornmeal pancakes, stirred into your morning oatmeal, over ice cream, with lemon pound cake …. You can also add some cream and cook it into cherry caramel — you’ll never drain cherries over the sink or throw out cherry juice again!

Let your pie cool while you eat dinner or make tea (at least fifteen or twenty minutes — the hotter the pie when you cut it, the more likely the filling is to run. We don’t care a whole lot about this, but for a prettier pie give it some cooling time).

Serve plain or a la mode.

*For the full rant on pie crust, please visit Gravenstein Apple Pie.

Food notes: For the full flavor benefit you must make this with sour cherries packed in water and scant the sugar as I do. For those of you stateside, canned sour pie cherries show up infrequently at Canned Foods Grocery Outlet — aka “Half Foods.” Some cherry pie recipes call for lemon — that will not be necessary with this pie. Please do not make it with sweet cherries (Bings, Burlats, etc.) — sour cherries have a different flavor, the ideal flavor for cherry pie in my opinion. Try them and see. If you are out of cornstarch, you can substitute flour: if you use flour, your filling will be cloudy rather than clear, but it will taste equally good.

On Kale: When I wasn’t making cherry pie, baking acorn squash with hot mustard, honey, lime and black pepper, roasting the squash seeds or boiling down cherry syrup I finally tried my friend Cathy’s version of kale with fresh walnuts and homemade raisins. The verdict at the table? “It’s still kale.” Back to the tasting laboratory…

I’ll be away for eight days starting Sunday sans electronic devices with which to entertain you or read and respond to your comments. Please make comments anyway if you are so moved. I’ll be back to coach you through your cherry pie crises well before the run up to Thanksgiving. I’ll also instruct the robot to give you a post to read on Wednesday while I am gone. Au revoir, dear readers. I’ll be back in person November 14 with stories to tell and perhaps a new recipe or two.