Thursday, August 11, 2005

Feeding America

I can't believe I have not told you about Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project. It is an online digital collection of American cookbooks dating back to 1798 compiled by the Michigan State University Library and the MSU Museum. I read about it in an edition of Gourmet Magazine months ago. I saved the link and ever since have returned every so often to browse through these old works to not only learn what Americans have eaten since they won their independence, but also to understand the popular thoughts and ideas of the day. For an extreme example, check out Foods of the Foreign Born. This would never get published in modern times, (it was written before the term "PC" was even dreamed of) but is certainly an eye opening read that we can learn from. It is said that History repeats itself, but I think it only does if we do not study it, understand it, and can identify it before it returns.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Cinnamon Nut Coffee Cake

When I was little, my mom occassionally went to coffee klatches. As far as I knew, the ladies in the neighborhood drank coffee and ate coffee cakes and danishes while discussing whatever was on their minds-sharing their own troubles. I wouldn't know first hand because it was also an occassion to leave the kids at home with Dad. I don't think there was much gossip spread like there might be in a more "keep up with the Joneses" neighborhood typical of American suburbia. In this farming community, people had their own things to worry about...the crops, the cows, the machinery. Perhaps these coffee klatches were simply a very short vacation from the labors that awaited them when my mother and the neighborhood ladies returned home, or perhaps they were looking for an excuse to eat coffee cake...

There's nothing quite like coffee cake. Dense, rich, sweet, nutty. I love to have an excuse to make coffee cake and I found one yesterday when a friend of mine threw a brunch for another friend's birthday! I made my own favorite recipe that I evolved from one my mom used to make. Moist and slightly sour, the batter is perfect for swirling with a sweet and sticky brown sugar and cinnamon filling. There's no need to wait for an event to make this cake, but it's a crowd pleaser, so be prepared to share it.

Cinnamon Nut Coffee Cake

For the Batter
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature or just softened in the microwave (not melted)
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 eggs
3 cups unbleached all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoons salt
2 cups plain nonfat yogurt

For the Filling
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and mix until incorporated.
Combine dry ingredients in a medium bowl and add to the creamed mixture alternately with the nonfat yogurt. Beat until the batter is smooth.

Combine the ingredients for the filling in a small bowl. Spoon 1/3 of the batter into a tube or bundt pan, then spoon 1/3 of the filling over the batter. Do this 2 more times, ending with the filling.

Bake at 350 degrees for 50-70 minutes, depending on your pan and oven. I use a skewer to test it to be certain it is done. Let cool for 10 minutes in then pan, then flip it out onto a cake plate and allow to cool completely.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Pesto Season

An Italian friend of mine recently taught me how fresh basil should smell to make good pesto, as her mother taught her years ago. She said it should smell green and sweet and not at all like licorice, although much of it does. (I never realized basil could smell like licorice.) She said the freshness and quality of the basil is so important to the finished pesto that her mother would only make the green elixir when she found basil that passed her strict inspection.

At the farmer's market this past Saturday, Lou found a big bunch of fresh basil and suggested we buy it to go with the variety of fresh tomatoes we were collecting. I thought it might make a perfect pesto. I naively sniffed the herb and detected no hint of licorice, and so gave my approval of the purchase. We brought the bunch home and with roots in tact, placed the stems in a vase of water to keep the basil leaves hydrated until we were ready to use them. Today the leaves were lively and green and still I detected no hint of licorice!

I often undertake more than I have time for, and I thought the perfect accompaniment to some freshly made pesto would be freshly made pasta. At 7:45, when I started to make dinner, I came to my senses. Luckily, Marcella Hazan claimed at the end of her pesto recipe that the perfect accompaniment to this pasta sauce was spaghetti! Now we don't stock much pasta in our cupboard, but spaghetti I had, so I started boiling the water-we'd be eating in no time!
Pesto is traditionally made in a mortar and pestle, hence the name "pesto", but I found it just as satisfying to make it in the food processor. Here's her recipe for what Marcella Hazan calls "the most seductive of all sauces for pasta":

Pesto by the Food Processor Method

For the processor
2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine before putting in the processor

For completion by hand
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated romano cheese
3 tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature

1 1/2 pounds pasta

1. Briefly soak and wash the basil in cold water, and gently pat it thoroughly dry with paper towels.
2. Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, chopped garlic, and an ample pinch of salt in the processor bowl, and process to a uniform, creamy consistency.
3. Transfer to a bowl, and mix in the two grated cheeses by hand. It is worth the slight effort to do it by hand to obtain the notably superior texture it produces. When the cheese has been evenly amalgamated with the other ingredients, mix in the softened butter, distributing it uniformly into the sauce.
4. When spooning the pesto over pasta, dilute it slightly with a tablespoon or two of the hot water in which the pasta was cooked.

p. 176, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan.