Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

Mother’s Day is the perfect chance for me to tell my incredible mom how special she is.  She deserves to be thanked for all the thoughtful things she does every time I talk to her but life being life, it doesn’t always happen.  This past year was particularly rough for my family as my dad was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and his health was touch and go for several months.  Through it all, there was Mom – holding down the fort, playing Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy, staying positive and strong when it all looked pretty grim.  My father readily admits if it weren’t for my mother scheduling his doctors, handing him his pills at the right times, and basically standing over him telling him what he could and could not do, he wouldn’t still be alive.  Thank goodness for her. 

Judging from my Facebook page this past Sunday, many of you feel the same way about your mom as I do mine.  If so, make her (or another special someone) this cake.  I promise you, it will not disappoint.  It’s not a difficult recipe and oh so pretty and delectable when it’s done. 

As I’ve mentioned before
, rhubarb is one of my favorite dessert ingredients and a true harbinger of spring.  Last week I saw it at the market for the first time this year and knew my mom would like anything I made with it.  I was right!  She loved this upside down cake.  The sour cream batter produced a soft and delicate crumb, the rhubarb was sweetened just enough to take the edge off its inherent tang, and the crumb topping (which actually ends up on the bottom) gave each bite a pleasant crunch.  This cake, like my mom, is an absolute keeper!

Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake
Adapted from Martha Stewart

Whoever designed this KitchenAid beater is a genius!  The spatula-like edge eliminates the need to scrape down the sides of the electric mixer bowl.  I’m not a fan of too many kitchen gadgets but this one is worth every penny.

Crumb topping
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
½ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for buttering pan
1 pound rhubarb, trimmed and cut on a very sharp diagonal about ½ inch thick
1 ¾ cups sugar
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
Coarse salt
½ teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
2 large eggs
1 cup sour cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit with rack in center of oven.  Make the topping:  Stir together butter, flour, sugar, and salt until moist and crumbly.

Make the cake:  Butter a 9-inch round, 2-inch deep cake pan.  Dot with 4 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces.

Toss rhubarb with ¾ cup sugar; let stand for 2 minutes.  Toss again, and spread in pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, and 1 ½ teaspoons salt.  Beat remaining stick butter and cup sugar with a mixer on medium speed until pale and fluffy.  Beat in zest and juice.

Beat in eggs, 1 at a time, until incorporated, scraping down sides of bowl.  Beat in flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with sour cream, until smooth.  Spread evenly over rhubarb.

Crumble topping evenly over batter.

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and top springs back when touched, about 1 hour.

Let cool for 10 minutes (less time and the rhubarb will be too hot to handle; more time and the cake might stick to pan).  Run a knife around edge of cake and invert onto a wire rack.  Let cool completely.

Serves 10

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lisa Bynon's beautiful garden gates

I sometimes find it hard to believe I’ve lived in New York City almost 20 years because at heart I’m really a country girl.  Growing up in Somerset County, New Jersey, my family lived across the street from a farm with fields of corn and strawberries and a barn where my mom bought fresh eggs.  Although the barn and fields are long gone (thankfully the old farmhouse was saved and restored), my country upbringing remains with me.  Part of what draws me to support local farms and cook simple meals with the freshest ingredients is my fondness for where and how I was brought up. 
As much as I loved being a kid in the country, every month I anxiously awaited the next issue of Vogue and Bazaar to arrive and counted the days until I could move to the Big City, wear beautiful clothes and go to the Met and MoMA on a whim.  Well, I’ve done that and consider myself lucky to have lived both dreams of City Girl, Country Girl.  The call back to the country is getting stronger but for now I content myself with fantasies of hanging laundry outside on a line to dry, raising chickens, and having flower and vegetable gardens...

Speaking of gardens, my jaw dropped when I saw these garden gates!  If and when I have a garden, I’d do a cartwheel if it could look like this.  The garden, in Southampton, NY, is owned and created by landscape designer Lisa Bynon and recently featured in House Beautiful.  
Hatfield House

The fence was inspired by one she saw in the gardens of Hatfield House, a Jacobean masterpiece just north of London and home to the 7th Marquess and Marchioness of Salisbury.  Bynon increased the scale of the fretwork, which is what makes the fence modern and chic.  If you’re wondering how she keeps critters out with such an open design, look a little closer and you will see she cleverly added chicken wire to the frame.

Her table is likewise bold in scale yet simple and clean; she continues the theme with her plates, glasses, and flowers.  Can’t you imagine how soft and luscious the carpet of grass feels underfoot?  Yes, if I had a garden, I’d love it to look like this.  Thank goodness for dreams; without them I never would have left New Jersey for Manhattan...or let a garden gate inspire me to maybe "go country" once again.
Photos of Lisa Bynon's garden by Ngoc Minh Ngo

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Donna Hay's Red Lentil and White Bean Soup with Crispy Bacon

Speaking of food magazines, this easy, flavorful soup comes from one of my favorites, Donna Hay.  Donna Hay is the name of a magazine but also of a real live person who lives Down Under and is often referred to as the “Martha Stewart of Australia”.  I imagine Martha likes Donna – Donna’s recipes are simple, elegant and beautifully photographed, much like Martha’s.  In addition to her eponymous magazine, Donna Hay has published over a dozen bestselling cookbooks

Lentils may be small but they are a nutritionally powerful little bean.  The heart, in particular, loves this legume; its very high levels of fiber help fight cardiovascular disease as well as lower cholesterol and maintain healthy blood sugar levels.  Lentils are an important and inexpensive source of protein, making them particularly valuable to the vegetarians of the world.  High iron and magnesium levels provide energy and aid the flow of oxygen from the lungs to blood cells. 

I feel I’m constantly being bombarded with dietary do’s and don’ts so I wouldn’t blame you if your eyes glazed over reading the last paragraph.  That’s fine, just know this:  lentils are one of the healthiest foods for you.  Eat more and you’ll be better off for it.

Red Lentil and White Bean Soup with Crispy Bacon
Adapted from Donna Hay

Compared to other beans, lentils cook quickly.  Red lentils cook the fastest of them all, needing only 15 - 20 minutes of simmering on the stove before they are ready to eat. Another bonus is lentils, unlike other dried beans, do not require an overnight presoak before cooking.  A quick cold water rinse and scan for the occasional stone and the beans are ready to go.

The original recipe calls for pancetta but I had bacon on hand and used that instead.  Leave the bacon or pancetta out and make the soup vegetarian; you’ll lose some depth of flavor but it is still delicious.

My dad was diagnosed with congestive heart failure last year.   One of the changes he has had to make to his diet is a drastic reduction in salt intake (in other words, NONE).  Now I look at every food box, can, and package to find out the sodium content.  It’s shocking how much salt is added to just about all packaged foods, including those that say “no salt added” (do not be fooled!).  Eden Organic is an exception, with just 40 mg of sodium in each 15 ounce can of cannellini beans.  Even if a doctor hasn’t told you to watch your salt, it’s a smart idea to take note.

2 tablespoons olive oil
6 slices bacon or pancetta, roughly chopped
6 sprigs thyme
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup red lentils, picked over and rinsed
1-15 ounce can diced tomatoes
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
2-15 ounce cans white cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium - high heat.  Add half the bacon and thyme and cook for 4 minutes or until golden and crisp.  Remove from heat and set aside.  Add the remaining bacon and thyme, onion and garlic to the pan and cook for 4 minutes or until softened.  Add the lentils, tomatoes, stock, and water and bring to the boil.

Reduce heat to low and cook for 20 minutes or until the lentils are tender.  Add the white beans and cook for 3 minutes.  Top with the crispy bacon.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pistachio and Dried-Cherry Biscotti from the new Bon Appetit

A year and a half out and I still miss Gourmet magazine.  Like a not-so-good friend, I took Gourmet for granted, thinking it would always be there for me.  Now I want to hang out and it’s gone.  The magazine’s sudden departure from the food scene hurt a little more given the publisher, Conde Nast, chose to keep their other food title, Bon Appetit, around instead.  From an advertising and overhead perspective it must have made good business sense but from an historical, visual and content perspective, there was no comparison between the grande dame, Gourmet, and it’s younger, less sophisticated relation, Bon Appetit.  In my opinion, that is.

My disappointment comes from the loss of Gourmet, not the survival of Bon Appetit and I don’t mean to pick on the latter.  It’s not that Bon Appetit’s recipes are bad; in fact they are generally good and reliable.  But a food magazine should be enticing and Bon Appetit underwent a redesign a few years back that I found unappealing enough to cancel my subscription.  Starting on the cover, the food was often shot close up with harsh lighting, sometimes in a messy, half-eaten state - the culinary equivalent of a mug shot.  I’m pretty sure it was meant to be modern, edgy and cool, but in the end it was plain unappetizing!

Unappetizing is not how I would describe this month’s newly redesigned Bon Appetit.  Adam Rapoport was brought over from GQ to be the editor-in-chief and he has given the magazine a more natural, hip look. The articles and recipes are interesting and accessible. The photography is lush and ironically (or not), more Gourmet-like.  I find the graphics too busy for my taste, but I’m from the less-is-more school so don’t mind me.

My first impression is the new Bon Appetit looks and sounds too similar to other food magazines to truly stand out but, like a new restaurant, it’s only fair to give it time to find its legs.  For now, there's an improvement and I’m rooting for it to succeed.

The May issue is all about Italy, a safe bet for a re-launch because, well, who doesn’t love Italian food?  Inside I found a biscotti recipe from Tribeca's Locanda Verde that made a terrific housewarming gift for a friend who had recently moved to a new apartment.  The distinctive combination of flavors in this classic Italian cookie - pistachios, cherries, orange, lemon, and oats - made for a memorable sweet treat and hopefully eased the turmoil of her move just a bit.

Pistachio and Dried-Cherry Biscotti
Adapted from Bon Appetit

Using anything but olive oil in an Italian recipe seems wrong so I swapped out the vegetable oil for a mild olive oil. 

Don’t have almond extract on hand?  Neither did I.  Add that much more vanilla extract instead.

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
½ cup old-fashioned oats
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon orange zest
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
1 cup dried cherries
1 cup unsalted, shelled pistachios

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.  Combine first 6 ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle.  Blend on low speed for 30 seconds.  Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, whisk together eggs and next 5 ingredients.  Add egg mixture to flour mixture; beat until combined.  Fold in cherries and pistachios.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface; divide in half.  Using floured hands, shape each dough half into a 12” long log.

Brush off excess flour; transfer logs to prepared sheet, spaced 5" apart.  Flatten each log into a 2” wide strip.  Bake, rotating sheet halfway through, until browned and set, about 30 minutes.  Transfer to a rack, let cool for 15 minutes.  Reduce oven to 250 degrees and arrange 1 rack in top third of oven and 1 rack in bottom third.

Line a second baking sheet with parchment paper.  Transfer biscotti to a work surface.  Using a serrated knife, cut each strip diagonally into 1/3”-thick slices.  Arrange slices, cut side down, on baking sheets.

Bake biscotti, rotating baking sheets halfway through, until crisp, about 40 minutes.  Transfer baking sheets to racks; let cool.

Makes about 2 ½ dozen

Friday, April 15, 2011

Living on Vineyard Sound

We all have our secret spot, the place we go to decompress and feel the weight of the world a little less. A place that puts a smile on our face just knowing it exists, that makes us long for time spent there, if only for a bit.  If you know me, you know that place is Martha’s Vineyard. 

I’m going through some serious Vineyard withdrawal lately, wishing I could escape work and make a getaway up the coast for a few days.  Alas, it doesn’t appear likely right now, but I did have a transporting moment recently while flipping through the February issue of Architectural Digest.

One look at this house perched on a bluff at dusk and I knew in an instant where it was.  My secret spot!  The light and landscape along Vineyard Sound is like nowhere else I’ve been.  As soon as I saw this picture, I recognized the coastline as the same one I’ve spent many heavenly days walking and sailing along. 

I would happily live in a shack to have this view! Clearly that is not necessary for the fortunate family that really does live here.  Designed by Ferguson & Shamamian and decorated by Victoria Hagan, the house is grand and formal, not at all what I consider Vineyard characteristics.  Leave that on Nantucket, please!!  But still…the home is an elegant beauty with a mellow Yankee vibe.  Yes, it’s fancy, but it’s New England fancy, not Hamptons fancy, if you know what I mean.

What I love most about the interiors is the warm-colored oak wood used throughout and how the rooms all have views of Vineyard Sound.  That is, after all, what I love most about the Vineyard: being surrounded by nature, embracing the water and the woods.

Photographs by Scott Frances

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Spiced Applesauce Cake

This time of year is full of anticipation – warmer weather, longer days, and farmers introducing springtime favorites back into their market stalls. The thought of buying fresh asparagus, fava beans, and ramps is very uplifting to a cook! I’m afraid, though, we’re not quite there yet. It may be getting warmer but at my market it’s still all about potatoes, carrots, and onions, potatoes, carrots, and onions.

Oh, yes – and apples. Apples are a good source of fiber, which is great for digestion, and vitamin C. Half of the vitamin C content in an apple is in its skin, which is also where the majority of its fragrance comes from. Apples have no fat, cholesterol, or sodium and contain a bit of potassium, which is helpful to the heart.

Terhune Orchard continues to supply Manhattan with crunchy, flavorful apples thanks to their nitrogen storage and I have the perfect cake recipe to put them to tempting use. The apples are cooked down into applesauce and then folded into a warm, spicy batter. It makes for a satisfying, not-too-sweet cake that helps take the bite out of any lingering, chilly days. April showers eventually bring May flowers (and rhubarb and nettles and radishes) but until then, here’s a last hurrah for a faithful wintertime favorite.

Spiced Applesauce Cake with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Gourmet

All this talk of spring has got me thinking it’s time to do spring-cleaning of my baking supplies. If you suspect your baking powder, baking soda, and spices are over a year old and losing flavor and potency (guilty as charged!), toss them and buy fresh. Spices can be pricey so it’s smart to keep track of when you bought them; the easiest way is to write the date of purchase right on the bottle.

Baking powder and soda only cost a few dollars and are easier to part with. They make a world of difference in the lift of cakes and cookies and if you’re going to the trouble of making something homemade, you may as well stack the deck in your favor by using the freshest ingredients.

It’s not necessary to make your own applesauce but given how quick and easy it is, why not? I leave the apple skins on because I like the rosy color red-skinned apples give applesauce (and now I know it adds to the fragrance and Vitamin C content, too). Run the applesauce through a food mill to remove the skins or if, like me, you don’t a mill, mash the soft apples through a strainer for the same results.


2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 ½ cups unsweetened applesauce
½ cups walnuts (optional), toasted, cooled and chopped


5 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup confectioners sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack in the middle. Butter an 8 – 9 inch square cake pan.

Make the applesauce (optional)
3 – 4 pounds apples, with or without skins, cored and cut into chunky pieces
2 or 3 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
Sprinkle of cinnamon, to taste
1 cup of water
Pinch of salt

Put all the ingredients into a large pot. Cover and bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 – 25 minutes.

Remove from heat and mash apples with a potato masher if you like chunky sauce or put through a food mill if you prefer a smooth sauce and/or left the peels on the apples.

Make the cake
Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices.

Beat butter, brown sugar, and vanilla with an electric mixer at high speed until pale and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in applesauce. At low speed, mix in flour mixture until just combined, then stir in walnuts (if using).

Spread batter evenly in pan and bake until golden-brown and a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Cool in pan 15 minutes. Run a knife around edge of cake to loosen, then invert onto a plate. Reinvert cake onto a rack to cool completely.

Make the frosting

Beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla with an electric mixer at high speed until fluffy. Sift confectioners sugar and cinnamon over cream cheese mixture, then beat at medium speed until incorporated.

Spread frosting over top of cooled cake.

Serves 6