Friday, May 20, 2011

This week's amazing discoveries--peach cake and mushroom clafouti

My writing class meets at my house on Wednesday mornings.  It's a small group, a great size for an informal writing class taught by Alex Tinari, a wonderful young teacher.  I enjoy having the group over partly because it gives me an excuse to bake tea breads and cakes.  This week I made a peach cake tI found on (from savour) that was sensationally delicious.  Even though I made a few mistakes with it, the class voted it best of the taste treats I've made so far. 

It calls for fresh peaches, but this is mid-May so I needed a substitute.  Luckily I still have some jars of the finedishly tasty honeyed peaches I put up last autumn.  The recipe called for soaking the cut up peaches in 2 T sugar and a bit of nutmeg, but since my peaches were already soaked in honey syrup, I just sprinkled them with a flick of nutmeg and skipped the sugar marinade.  I should have eliminated 2T of sugar from the recipe, but I didn't think of that until I took the cake out of the oven.  Next time, though, that's what I'll do.

I didn't have any buttermilk in the house so I made some by using 1/2 T of vinegar with 1/2 c milk (I could have used lemon juice instead of vinegar).  That's a nice trick if you don't feel like buying a quart of buttermilk for a cup or less of it.

This was the first time I'd used turbinado sugar, which is a real find.  I just sprinkled it on top of the cake before it went in the oven, and that it made the crust nice and crunchy.

I'd also never used almond flour (or almond meal, as it's sometimes called).  That adds a tasty note to baked goods.  My friend Megan Moore, a seasoned chef, says that when baking tea or sweet breads, muffins, cookies, and some cakes that you can use half almond flour with half regular flour and nothing bad will happen to the texture.  In fact, the result is often a firmer crumb.  After googling almond flour, I looked at a few other flours, e.g., coconut flour, and learned that these unusual flours can be used in proportions varying from 10-40% of the flour called for in a recipe.  But check to see what proportion you can safely use.  For example, when using coconut flour, it's recommended to use it as a substitute for no more than 10% of the total flour.  I feel sure I'll be writing more about the use of alternate flours.  My first try was a winsome success.

Most Wonderful Peach Cake

3 ripe peaches
¾ t freshly ground nutmeg
1 c sugar
6 T softened unsalted butter
1 large egg
½ c buttermilk
½ t vanilla extract
¼ t almond extract
1 c all-purpose flour
½ c almond flour (or finely ground almonds)
1 t baking powder
¼ t baking soda
Turbinado Sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan.

Cut the peaches into bite sized pieces. Toss the peaches with nutmeg and 2 tablespoons sugar. Set aside.

Cream together the butter and remaining sugar with a wooden spoon or spatula. Add the egg, buttermilk and extracts, and stir to combine.

Combine the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add this flour mixture to the butter mixture, mix until smooth (some lumps may remain). Pour into the prepared pan.

Press the peaches into the top of the cake. They can be nicely arranged, but I like to cram as many peaches as possible into the cake. Sprinkle turbinado sugar over the top.

Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the oven heat to 325 degrees and bake for an additional 45 to 55 minutes, or until a toothpick in the center comes out clean.

P.S.  You might want to toss the peach pieces in a bit of flour to keep them from sinking to the bottom of the cake.  Or not.

Sherried Mushroom Clafouti

I'm quite the fan of, from which this recipe comes (drbabs).  Years ago, when I took cooking classes at Peter Kump's school in NYC, I first learned about clafoutis and made them frequently.  I always associated them with fruit, so seeing one made with mushrooms caught my eye.  I read the recipe, and knew I'd make it soonest.  Which I did.  Today.  It was most winsome.  Everyone at the dinner table ooohed and aaaahed, and demanded the recipe.  Once you read it, you'll understand why you've got to make it right now. 

For the sherried mushrooms:

1 lb assorted mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed and sliced (about 4 cups)
2 T butter
½ t salt
1 large (or 2 small) shallots, chopped fine
⅓ c dry sherry
1 T chopped fresh thyme
salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

For the clafouti:

3 eggs
½ t salt
⅔ c all purpose flour
1½ c milk
2 oz aged Gruyere, grated
fresh ground black pepper

For mushrooms:  In a large skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat and let it brown, watching carefully so it doesn’t burn. As soon as the butter is brown and smells nutty, scrape in shallots, turn heat down to medium, and stir and sauté till they soften. Pour in mushrooms, add ½ teaspoon of salt, and stir shallots and mushrooms together. Cook mushrooms with shallots and browned butter until they are soft and browned, turning occasionally. This should take about 15 minutes. When the mushrooms are browned and most of their liquid has evaporated, pour in the sherry and stir in the thyme, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Continue to sauté the mushrooms until the liquid has reduced and thickened. Taste and add salt and fresh-ground black pepper as desired.

For clafouti: Heat oven to 375. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, blend the eggs with salt until frothy. Add milk and mix well. Add the flour and mix until frothy and thoroughly incorporated, 1-2 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Pour the batter over the mushrooms. Sprinkle the top with the grated Gruyere. Grind a little black pepper over the top. Place the dish in the center of the oven. Bake until the center puffs and turns a golden color, and the clafouti is set, about 30-40 minutes. (Cover with foil if the top browns too quickly.) Serve warm or at room temperature.

This is every bit as delicious as it reads.  I may have to make another one tomorrow.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Is there a perfect banana bread?

Is there a perfect banana bread?  Like millions of others, I can't resist a good one.  I can't even resist a mediocre one.  For years, my go-to banana bread recipe has been from my daughter Debbie.  It's decadently rich even when you don't add a lot of chocolate chips.  Recently, though, I started experimenting with other recipes.  The net result of this exercise stunned me.  I can't believe it myself, but I learned I actually prefer banana bread without chocolate chips!  I'm still having a rough time comprehending that my palate, conditioned after years of chocolate indulgence, wants a chocolate-free banana bread.  It comes down to this--the taste of really good banana bread is a joy onto itself.  It simply doesn't need the chocolate. 

Perhaps you don't believe me.  If so, I suggest that you make two breads, one with and the other without chocolate chips.  That persuaded me.  It may change your mind, too.

Herewith are two outstanding banana bread recipes.  They're very bananaish, moist, toothsome.  They freeze beautifully.  A good cup of tea or coffee goes beautifully.

The first is daughter Debbie's.  It's huge and rich and full of bananas (and chips).  It freezes well, and children of all ages love it.

4 c bananas (approx 6 bananas)
3 c flour
2½ c sugar
1¼ c veg oil
4 eggs
1 T vanilla
1 t salt
1½ t baking soda
½ t baking powder
1 – 1 ½ c choc chips

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a long loaf pan (pullman).

Mix flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and baking powder together and set aside.

In food processor, mix bananas, eggs, vanilla and veg oil together until smooth.

Whisk banana mixture into dry ingredients and mix well.

Transfer mixture to loaf pan and bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes or until done.

Can also be made into muffins.

Sour Cream Banana Bread (

Makes: 1 (9-inch) loaf

Butter, for coating the pan
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting the pan
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon plus ⅛ teaspoon fine salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
⅓ cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 very ripe medium bananas, mashed about 1¼ cups
½ cup sour cream

Heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Coat a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with butter
and dust it with flour, tapping out the excess. Whisk together the measured flour, baking powder,
salt, baking soda, and cinnamon in a large bowl to aerate and break up any lumps. Set aside.
Place the sugar, eggs, oil, and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle
attachment and beat on medium speed until thoroughly combined, about 2 minutes. Add the bananas and
sour cream and mix until just combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the flour mixture,
and mix until just combined.

Turn the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center
comes out clean, the top is golden brown, and the bread is pulling away from the sides of the pan,
about 1 hour.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Slide a knife around the perimeter of the pan,
invert to release the bread, and cool completely on the wire rack before serving.  This is the one I've been making of late, the one that persuaded me not to add chocolate chips.

But I can't help but looking at banana bread recipes, and when I came across this one, I knew I'd have to make it soonest.  I haven't yet, but doesn't it look interesting?

Coffee and Chocolate Chip Banana Bread (

2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 packet Starbucks Via, or 1 tbsp instant espresso powder
½ cup sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
2 medium bananas, mashed (approx 1 cup)
¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup buttermilk
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup milk chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease two two 5×3-inch loaf pans (or use disposable foil pans).

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, Via or instant espresso, sugar and brown sugar.

In a medium bowl, whisk together mashed bananas, vegetable oil, buttermilk, egg and vanilla extract until smooth and well-combined. Pour into dry ingredients and stir only until no streaks of flour remain. Add in chocolate chips and stir to evenly distribute.

Divide evenly into prepared pans. Place pans in a baking sheet.

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Cool in pans on a wire rack.

Makes 2 mini loaves

Note: This bread can be baked in a 9×5-inch loaf pan, increasing the baking time to about 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Happy baking!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Hosting a Tea for the Wharton Salon

Last year I attended an afternoon garden party introducing guests to Catherine Taylor-Williams, director and producer of the Wharton Salon, produced at The Mount in August.  Catherine and her crew create a play every year from one of Wharton's short stories or novellas, and perform it at The Stables at The Mount.  The excellent cast is mostly local (my fave Diane Prusha stars in this year's production).  A certain firsson is created by seeing the play written in the author's home.  Especialy when that home is The Mount. 

I was so impressed with Catherine and the Wharton Salon that I offered to host an afternoon tea this year to introduce others to her and her mission.  As a lifelong reader and theatre fan, I wanted to know more about what was involved in translating a published story with much exposition into a staged performance.  And as I thought about all of the people I know in book groups, I realized there was a large audience for such an event.  Sure enough, about 35 people showed up yesterday, one of the first beautiful spring days (about time, too!) to meet Catherine and three of the actresses who will be in the play this summer--Diane Prusha, Rory Hammond, and Corinna May. 

There wasn't any question about what to serve at this tea held from 3-5 p.m.  Tea sandwiches.  Of course.  What could be more Whartonian on a Sunday afternoon?  Luckily I had a crew of good friends who helped make the sandwiches, which, unfortunately, can't really be made much ahead of time.  Annette Grant, Amy Rudnick, and Barbara Zheutlin came over an hour early to prep -- I even took pix but can't figure out how to load them onto this post.  (hazards of being so old)

We made five tea sandwiches and one open-faced sandwich with tapenade.  The five sandwiches were made with Pepperidge Farm white and whole wheat thin breads.  The tapenade went on standard small pumpernickel slices that come wrapped in cellophane and must last forever until they're opened.

When I say "butter," I'm referring to an excellent one, in this case Plugra. Butter plays a large role in the sandwiches, so it must be the best.  Here's the recipes. 

Smoked salmon tea sandwiches
Thinly sliced smoked salmon slices
Butter whipped with dill, parsley, chives, and Dijon mustard

Sliced egg sandwiches
 Hard-boiled eggs (best eggs for boiling are old, so buy good local ones a few weeks ahead)
Bibb lettuce leaves
Butter whipped with tarragon, parsley, and salt

Radish sandwiches 
Sliced radishes
Butter and salt

Cucumber and watercress tea sandwiches
Thinly sliced cucumbers
Butter whipped with parsley, chives, and salt

Mushroom tea sandwiches
Duxelles (recipe below)
Butter whipped with parsley and salt


Melt the butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat until foaming. Stir in the mushrooms, a handful at a time, and cook each batch until the mushrooms wilt enough to show the bottom of the pan. Continue adding mushrooms until all are in the pan. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms seem to have given up all their liquid, 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the types of mushrooms. (If in doubt, let the mushrooms stand off the heat for 5 minutes to see if they give up any more liquid.) Turn the heat to high. Stir the mushrooms until the liquid is evaporated and the mushrooms begin to sizzle, about 3 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms-to a plate and let cool to room temperature.

Place the mushrooms in a food processor and use quick, on/off pulses until the mushrooms are finely chopped. Store, covered, for up to 1 week in the refrigerator or freeze for up to 3 months. To freeze cubes, place 1 tablespoon of the duxelles into each compartment of an ice-cube tray. Tamp down the duxelles and freeze with a piece of plastic wrap applied directly to the surface. When solid, transfer the cubes to a sealable plastic container or freezer bag.

Variations: Parmesan Duxelles: Stir 2 tablespoons grated Parmagiano-Reggiano or other good-quality
Parmesan cheese into the duxelles after it has cooled to room temperature.

Creamy Duxelles: Stir 2 tablespoons heavy (or whipping) cream into the duxelles before removing from the heat.

Chunky Duxelles: Cool the sautéed mushrooms to room temperature. Transfer to a cutting board and coarsely chop. Do not use the food processor.

Annette Grant's fabulous olive and fig tapenade

  • 1 cup black kalamata olive, pitted
  • ⅓ cup dried mission figs, stems removed
  • zest of one lemon or ½ orange, grated
  • 1½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme or rosemary
  • ½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup fresh Italian parsley, coarsely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ cup toasted walnuts
1. Place the olives, figs, lemon zest and juice, garlic, capers, red pepper flakes, thyme, pepper, and parsley in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to blend, but do not puree. Add the oil and pulse a few more times to form a cohesive but still coarse paste. Add the walnuts and pulse until they are chopped but small pieces are still visible.
2. Make ahead: Tapenade can be made up to 1 week ahead and kept, covered, in the refrigerator.

So now you know what you missed if you didn't attend the tea party yesterday.  But now you can make your own.