Thursday, July 8, 2010

Guest Post: Steve Bakes a Polenta Cake

Hello everyone!  I am very excited to be pinch hitting while Debbie is in Oz (as in 'The Boy from Oz', not the HBO series about a brutal prison).  
My name is Steve Braverman and I currently live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  My wife and I moved here almost 5 years ago after spending our entire adult life in the Philadelphia area.  We have two grown (more  or less) children (24 year old twins actually) who still live on the East Coast.
My two avocations are fitness and cooking.  Almost every day they battle to a standstill.  I am currently training for a yet-to-be-determined triathlon.  That alone should get me a year of desserts!
One of the great joys about moving to Ann Arbor is to have inherited a wonderful kitchen garden.  The garden has added a new dimension to my cooking.  It makes me appreciate how difficult it is to produce quality food.  
I guess I have always cooked.  My mother was a great cook who never used a recipe and would never explain how anything was actually made.  I was pretty much on my own to figure it out.  My step-sister is a top food professional in the Los Angeles area.  She owns the Westlake Culinary Institute and Let's Get Cookin' in Westlake Village.

I use most recipes for inspiration rather than  step-by-step directions.  Typically I use a recipe to get an idea about ingredients --  what works well together and what cooking techniques work well with the key ingredients.  The sole exception to this casual approach is baking.  I have found that baking does not encourage that sort of freelancing. Not unless you want to produce either a gooey mess or a tooth-chipping, rock hard pastry (Believe me, I have done both!).  If a recipe says 7/8 of a cup, it means 7/8 of a cup!  If it says a "level" 1/4 cup, get the laser out!  If a recipe says a pinch of salt, use it!  Omit nothing, add nothing.  There is an alchemy to baking that defies experimentation.  Errors while baking are punished much more than errors, in say, making stews.  Also, unless your oven has been calibrated by NASA or some scientific governmental agency, use a good oven thermometer.  350 degrees in a test kitchen oven can be 325 degrees in your oven.  It can make a huge difference. 
It is between seasons in the garden. 

 Mostly all the spring plantings have been consumed or have gone to seed.  Strawberries are a pleasant memory for the chipmunks, rabbits and squirrels that ate 75% - 95% of them.   Tomatoes are still several weeks away.  That pretty much leaves herbs and trips to the Farmers' Market.  
When Debbie asked me to guest blog, I had in mind a summer dessert recipe that uses olive oil and a savory herb as a main ingredient.  My "discovery" of olive oil as a main ingredient in a dessert came last year when my wife and I had an olive oil and cucumber sorbet with fresh strawberries at Pramil, a small bistro in Paris.  It was very simple but perhaps one of the most  perfect and memorable dishes I have ever had.
I  have made a polenta cake with olive oil and rosemary.  
The rosemary is from the garden.  I used a course ground cornmeal that gave the cake a lot of texture.  The recipe is by David Lebovitz, one of my favorite authors and food bloggers.  David is the author of many fine dessert books and the blog.  David is a former pastry chef at Chez Panisse.  After a personal tragedy, he relocated to Paris and writes almost daily on cooking and life as an expat in Paris.  I highly recommend his blog especially if you plan a trip to France soon.
I hope you try David's creation.  I made it this Fourth of July weekend and served it with raspberry sorbet.  The raspberry sorbet recipe is from Claudia Fleming's The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern, which is a terrific book by the former head pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern in New York City.  Unfortunately, the book is out-of-print, but may be available at your library.  The raspberries are from the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market.  
We thought  the cake was terrific.  It was not very difficult to make.  It goes well with sorbet, fresh berries or whipped cream.

Polenta Cake with Olive Oil and Rosemary  from David Lebovitz's Ready for Dessert (Ten Speed Press, 2010)
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 cup of unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature
2 teaspoons plus 4 teaspoons of finely minced fresh rosemary leaves
2 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup of polenta or stone-ground yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil
5 large eggs at room temperature
2 large egg  yolks
1/2 teaspoon almond extract or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350o F.
2. Grease 1 tablespoon of the butter inside a 10 cup Bundt cake or tube pan.   Sprinkle the buttered pan with 2 teaspoons of the minced rosemary and then dust with 2 tablespoons of the polenta or cornmeal, tilting the pan, shaking out the excess.
3. In a small bowl sift together the flour, 3/4 cup of the polenta, the baking powder and salt.  Put the bowl aside.
4. In a separate bowl whisk the eggs, egg yolks, olive oil and almond or vanilla extract.
5. In an electric mixer cream 1/2 cup of butter and the sugar at a moderately high speed until it is entirely mixed and light and fluffy, about 3-5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed to make sure that the sugar and butter are completely combined.
6. With the mixer running at its slowest speed, slowly pour the egg-olive oil mixture , a small amount at a time , until it is completely incorporated.  Stir in the flour-polenta mixture along with the remaining 4 teaspoons of minced rosemary.  Do not over mix.
7. Pour into the prepared pan and bake in the middle of the preheated oven about 40 minutes.  A toothpick or cake tester should come out clean.
8.  After removing from the oven let it sit for about 30 minutes to cool.  Turn out onto a serving plate.

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