Friday, July 26, 2013

Baked Ricotta with Figs


A sweet baked ricotta is much like a crustless type of cheesecake... although if you're expecting it to be the smooth/rich/creamy cream cheese style of cheesecake, you may be disappointed.
Ricotta cheese's texture definitely isn't the same as cream cheese, so please keep that in mind. 
It's not bad, it's just different.
And as compared to other, more traditional types of cheesecake, this version is lighter.

The brown sugar gives the baked ricotta a caramel-y flavor.  If you don't have access to brown sugar, granulated sugar would be fine. But if you end up using granulated sugar, maybe consider adding a little fresh lemon or orange zest.
Perhaps lemon zest if you serve it with fresh figs and orange zest if you plan to roast the figs?

As for fresh figs, they can usually be found between summer and autumn.
I think I prefer the fresh fig variation for summertime, and the roasted style of this dish for the autumn.

The figs make a beautiful and flavorful addition to the ricotta, whether you choose to serve them fresh or cooked.  Fresh figs are lighter and more floral in flavor, perfectly perfect in taste and presentation when ripe and halved. The roasted figs are more intense and earthy, and open up to look like a flower or starfish as they cook.


I like the idea of a lighter honey for the fresh figs, and a deeper honey for the roasted figs.

Baked Ricotta with Figs
makes 5 servings

15 oz (425 g) whole milk Ricotta
2 T (30 ml) cream
2  large eggs, slightly beaten
1/3 c (83 g) brown sugar, packed
Salt, a generous pinch
1 t (5 ml) vanilla extract
5 large, or 10 small fresh, ripe figs

Optional: toasted sliced almonds, walnuts, or pine nuts

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C.
Butter the bottom and sides of 5, 6 oz (177 ml) ramekins and set aside. Place the ricotta, cream, eggs, sugar, salt, and vanilla in a medium bowl. Whisk until well combined.  Divide the ricotta mixture between the prepared ramekins and bake on the center rack about 25 minutes, or until the tops are golden and the centers are set.
Remove the ramekins from the oven and let cool at least 10-15 minutes.
The ricottas can be served warm or at room temperature.

To remove the a baked ricotta from the ramekin, place a plate (topside down) over the top of the ramekin. Using both hands and holding tightly, invert both the plate and ramekin so that the ramekin is upside-down over the plate. Continuing to hold tightly, give the ramekin and plate several good shakes until the ricotta falls out of the ramekin and onto the plate.

Garnish with halved figs and drizzle with honey.
Sprinkle with toasted nuts if desired, and serve.

Roasted Fig Variation:

5 large, ripe, fresh figs
1 T (15 ml) honey
1 T  (15 ml)water

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C.
Remove the stems from the figs and coat the outsides lightly with olive oil (to do so, pour a small amount of olive oil onto one palm, rub your palms together, then massage the outsides of the figs lightly with the oil). Cut the figs from the top almost through the bottom, making two perpendicular cuts to form a cross pattern. Place the figs in a roasting dish and add a dab of butter to the center of each cut fig. Drizzle the figs with the honey.
Roast the figs 10-12 minutes (turn the pan halfway through the cooking time), until they are soft and have fully opened flat.

Turn off the oven and gently remove the figs from the pan. Add 1 T water to the pan, swirl the mixture, and return the pan to the hot oven for about 1 minute. Remove the pan from the oven, and stir the mixture to fully combine the honey sauce.

To serve, place  a warm fig on top of each baked ricotta and spoon a little sauce over the top of each. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Cucumber and Feta Salad

Cucumbers definitely have their own flavor: light, fresh, cool and green.

While technically a fruit, most of us probably use cucumbers as a vegetable. 

Because they are so mild, they can work well with a variety of other ingredients, but they seem to do particularly well with other things things that have "fresh" flavors.

Cucumbers act a bit like a sponge- taking on other flavors, but they are still able to hold their own and maintain their uniqueness.

I think this is a good example of a classic cucumber-based dish. It's an easy to prepare and refreshing summer salad, Greek in flavor, and one we've been eating quite a bit lately.

The flavor combination is perfect with the salty and slightly tangy feta and the fresh herbs.

It works very nicely as a side with grilled meats, or even with pita or crackers.

Cucumber and Feta Salad
serves 6 or more

3 large English cucumbers (about 1 1/2 lb or 700 g prepared)
coarse or kosher salt
1/4 c (60 ml) olive oil
1 T (15 ml) water
1 1/2 T (about 22 ml) lemon juice
6 oz (170 g) feta cheese, crumbled
freshly ground black pepper
generous 2/3 c (110 g) diced red onion
generous 1 T (5 g) chopped fresh mint
generous 1 T (5 g) chopped fresh parsley
generous 1 T (5 g) chopped fresh dill

Peel and seed the cucumbers. Cut cucumbers into a large dice and salt them with 2 t (14 g) salt. Toss the cucumbers and place in a colander over a bowl. Let the cucumbers sit 30 minutes to 1 hour to drain, shaking the colander occasionally. 
While the cucumbers drain, mix the olive oil, water, and lemon juice in a small bowl. Set aside. 
Once the cucumbers have finished draining, give the colander one last shake and place the drained cucumbers in a large bowl. Add the previously prepared lemon juice dressing, the feta cheese, several good grinds of black pepper, the onion, mint, parsley, and dill. 
Fold the salad together to combine. Taste and season as desired with extra salt, pepper, and/or lemon juice. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Red Plum Jam

The other day we were given red plums by a friend- it seems some of the branches broke off the tree because they were so heavy with plums.
We'll happily take them, of course, but I don't think we could eat them all before they start to turn.
Something needed to be done.
The best way to quickly dispatch a weighty gift of plums...?

Jam comes to mind.
The difference between supermarket plums and plums fresh off a tree? In taste, color, texture, and scent there's no contest.
It doesn't matter if they're bruised, it doesn't matter if they're overly juicy. In fact, it's great.
They smell wonderful! Fruity, floral, a little tangy.
Some were red as garnets inside, others with flesh a combination of red and gold.
And when the jam began to cook, the fruity perfume wafting from the pot was like no other- it's sort of intoxicating.  Someone is going to have to start marketing a red plum perfume.

Not too sweet, tartness intact (but I like it a bit tart).

So, it seems I've been making jam quite a bit. 
It's not completely intentional. It just happens.

If you happen to have plums but don't want to make jam, there are other options. Eating them fresh is an easy one.  A crostata, if you like the idea, is a fantastic option. Really ripe plums, crème anglaise, and some toasted almonds sounds pretty good, too.
Fruit desserts are always welcome in the summer.

Plums naturally contain pectin, so if you plan to make jam, there should be no problem with it jelling properly.  However, since fruit can vary so widely, there shouldn't really be a set time for when jam is finished when you don't use commercial pectin- especially when you're cooking a large quantity. It depends on how juicy the fruit is, how much the jam has to reduce before it jells, your stove...
For me, it took about 65 minutes to reach the point I was looking for. If your plums are particularly juicy, maybe this will be about right for you.

Other options that might be nice with plums:
orange zest
vanilla bean
a little cinnamon
some fresh ginger

Red Plum Jam
made about 4 1/2 pints (a little more than 2 L)

5 lb. (about 2.26 kg) ripe red plums
3 1/2 c (700 g) sugar
zest of 1 lemon

Quarter the plums (skin on), discarding the pits, and place the fruit to a large non-reactive pot. Add the sugar and lemon zest and stir until all the plums are coated. Leave the mixture to sit 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally so the plums release their juices.

Place a small plate in the freezer.
Heat the pot over medium and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the jam reaches the jelling point. While the jam cooks, skim off any foam that rises to the top. 
To check if the jam is set, remove the plate from the freezer and place a small amount of the jam on the place. Return the plate back to the freezer and let it set a few minutes before removing it again. Using a finger, nudge the jam. If it wrinkles, it should set just fine. If not, try again after the jam cooks a while longer. 
Ladle the jam into clean jars and screw the lids on (be careful, the jars will get hot).
*Process the jars of jam at this point if you would like them to last longer and be shelf stable. 
Let the jars sit at room temperature until you're able to handle them easily then place the jars in the refrigerator.
Jam should last at least a month and up to several if kept refrigerated. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Gluten-Free Chocolate Layer Cake

One of my sisters was visiting this week, just before her birthday, and I was luckily able to make her a birthday cake. I wasn't able to make one when one of my other sisters was here around her birthday (very sorry about that), but maybe we can remedy it with a very belated birthday cake next time you're in town.

Not that everyone is going to want a recipe for a rich chocolate cake in July, but it may come in handy some day.

I knew a great gluten-free chocolate cake to use as my base...

Gluten is a protein found in many grains including barley, wheat, and rye. It's what makes dough elastic and it's what gives bread it's characteristic springy texture.  While it's contained in many grains, it is not in all grains. Rice, millet, and quinoa are all examples of grains without gluten. 

Working with gluten-free flours can be kind of a challenge, but it can also be fun to experiment. And it's certainly an interesting learning experience. Too much of one type may make a finished cake gummy and unappetizing, too much of another could lead to a tough cake, using too much of a third kind may cause things to be too crumbly, another may have too strong a flavor if used alone.
Different flours have different textures, different shades, different properties, different flavors (and that's why it's a good idea to use a combination of flours). For example, coconut flour adds a nice flavor, but if you happen to use it, you'd want to use extra liquid as it absorbs a lot. Almond flour, on the other hand adds protein to baked goods and gives a nice nuttiness as well as moisture to the finished product. Great examples though they may be in my opinion, neither of those are used in this recipe.

In the above photo, the flours used in this particular chocolate cake are pictured.
In order, 1-5, the flours are: glutinous rice, sorghum, millet, tapioca, and cornstarch (with cocoa powder in the center). Without knowing anything else, one only needs a quick to look to see these flours have variations in color and texture.

While it doesn't contain gluten, glutinous (or sticky) rice flour is obviously light and very fine. It adds a light texture to the cake. Sorghum is slightly earthy and adds a little nutty sweetness. Millet, which to me has a scent like a sweet buttermilk pancake mix, helps create a cakey texture along with flavor benefits like those of sorghum (and both of these two add protein and fiber). In a cake, tapioca flour aids in a springy texture and it, along with  cornstarch, acts as a thickener.

Although I certainly don't know everything there is to know about them, I do like to play around with the gluten-free flours- especially if I have a recipe in front of me as a springboard.

A tip: if you want to try using different gluten-free flours, it's best to substitute little by little and see how a recipe changes. 

The cake was a hit, so it's a recipe that can be saved for another celebration, another time. Although for anyone under the age of four present, frosting was probably the only draw (why else does one eat cake?).  I suppose that could be considered an endorsement for the frosting... unless, of course, all sugar is equally good.

This one is a combination of three recipes.
I always like the idea of a little fruit with my chocolate. Raspberry is a wonderful partner for chocolate- it can cut some of the richness quite nicely, but at the same time compliment it so well. And since jam makes such a simple and lovely cement between the  layers of cake, we decided to go with a raspberry jam filling.

As for the frosting I initially just wanted a ganache. But because it's summer I thought maybe I should go with something a little lighter. 
It's a bit ironic that something can be lightened with the addition of butter.

Of course, the complete recipe could be cut down to two if you would like to use store-bought raspberry jam or extra chocolate frosting as the filling between layers (... or go with something completely different).

Gluten Free Chocolate Cake
serves 12 to 16
cake recipe slightly adapted from Blackbird Bakery Gluten-Free by Karen Morgan
makes 1, 8 or 9-inch round layer cake (20-23 cm)

1/4 c (28 g) sorghum flour
1/2 c (70 g) cornstarch
1/2 c (65 g) millet flour
1 c (118 g) glutinous rice flour
1/2 c (58 g) tapioca flour
2/3 c (53 g) cocoa powder
1/2 t (2 g) guar gum
2 1/2 t (11 g) baking powder
1/2 t (4 g) kosher salt
1 1/4 c (258 g) sugar
8 oz (226 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 large eggs
1 c (240 ml) whole milk
3 T (45 ml) vanilla extract
1/2 c (120 ml) peanut oil or another vegetable oil

Raspberry jam (recipe follows, or use store-bought)
Chocolate ganache buttercream (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350 F/175 C, with racks placed in the center.
Butter the inside of two 8 or 9 inch round cake pans (somewhere between 20 and 23 cm). Line the bottom of each pan with parchment paper. Set the pans aside.
Combine all the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low several minutes until well-combined. Cut the butter into 16 pieces and add it to the flour mixture. Beat the mixture on low several minutes, until the butter is incorporated throughout and the mixture resembles wet sand in texture.
Lightly beat the eggs in a medium bowl. Add the milk, vanilla extract, and oil. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and beat on low speed about a minute until the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat a few more minutes until the cake batter is smooth.
Divide the batter between the two prepared pans and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean or with a few crumbs clinging to it (25 minutes or so for 9 inch pans, or about 30 minutes with 8 inch pans), rotating the pans about halfway through the cooking time.
Remove the cakes from the oven and let cool 5 minutes. Run a knife along the perimeter of each cake and turn the cakes out onto a cooling rack. Peel the parchment paper from the cakes, flip the cakes top side up and let cool completely. 

Quick Raspberry Jam
makes about 1 1/2 c (360 ml) 

1 lb. (458 g) raspberries, rinsed and drained
1 1/3 c (285 g) sugar
zest of 1/2 lemon, finely grated
1 T (15 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally at first and then more often nearer the end of the cooking time. Remove the jam from the heat and let cool. If not using soon after cooling, place the jam in clean jars and refrigerate.

Chocolate Ganache Buttercream Frosting

1/2 c (120 ml) heavy cream
5 oz (142 g) good quality dark chocolate (chopped if in large pieces)
4 T (56 g) unsalted butter
2 1/2 c (300 g) confectioners sugar
1/2 t (2.5 ml) vanilla extract

Heat the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat until just simmering. Add the chocolate, remove the pan from the heat and stir until smooth. Let the ganache cool completely.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment cream the butter until smooth. Add the cooled ganache and stir until incorporated.  Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add the confectioners sugar to the chocolate mixture. Once all the sugar has been added, increase the speed and whip the frosting until smooth.  Scrape down the side of the bowl, add the vanilla extract, and whip the frosting about a minute more. 

When ready to finish the the chocolate layer cake
Cut one of the cakes horizontally through the center. For a more accurate central cut, rotate the the cake while cutting with a large serrated knife- at first with a shallow cut around the outside edge, then cutting deeper with each rotation. It's a little easier if you have a piece of parchment to aid in turning the cake. Carefully separate the top layer from the bottom and place the top side down on a large plate or cake stand. 
If using raspberry jam, spoon about 1/3 c (80 ml) of jam onto the cake. Spread the jam evenly across the cut side of the cake and place the other cut side down on top of the jam layer. 
Spoon another 1/3 c (80 ml) of jam onto the cake and spread evenly. 
Cut the second cake in the same manner and place the flat side (bottom) of the cake on top of the jam. Add a third layer of jam and top with the last piece of cake, top side up. 

Place a few toothpicks in the cake, and refrigerate at least 30 minutes to make sure the layers join together (this can be done a day or two in advance if the cake is wrapped well). 

Remove the cake from the refrigerator, remove the toothpicks from the cake, and frost with the chocolate ganache buttercream frosting.  
Let the cake sit at least an hour so that the frosting sets before serving.
Store any left over cake in a cool place.