23 May 2011

Strawberry Rhubarb Cake

Tis the season of rhubarb and strawberries and I must say, it does my heart good. I love the luscious red aroma of strawberries just waiting to be gobbled up and enjoyed with wild abandon and the contrast of tart rhubarb. I like to add rhubarb for contrast and balance when you find you have started to have eaten your fill of strawberries as themselves and have moved on to the next stage of strawberry enjoyment. I have three rhubarb plants that give my stalks through out the whole summer and are yet seldom ready when the strawberries are. Fortunately for me, there is an abundance of berries in the market to indulge the perfect marriage of these two fruits, in this simple and yet extravagantly flavorful cake. 
Rhubarb is not found in much of anything here, except in the use of its roots for the famous digestive bitter elixirs Italians are so crazy about. My in laws are always mildy puzzled with my love of this lowly stalk and even more suspicious when I remind them every year that yes, the leaf is poisonous and yes the stalk is quite edible. Perhaps they are uncertain of my intent. They have politely tasted everything say that it is tasty, and yet, they are not completely convinced. I maintain my love of rhubarb and am convinced that you will find this combination a winner. The addition of the rhubarb to the batter adds moisture and cuts through the sweetness to make for a delicious combination. The cake is great with only the addition of strawberries on top, but I think you'll find the rhubarb will elevate the cake with that little something extra and well worth adding. Let me know what you think.

Strawberry Rhubarb Cake
Adapted from Martha Stewart

(86g) 6 T unsalted butter, at room temperature
(190g) 1 c granulated sugar (I use raw cane sugar like turbinado/demerara but fine grain )

1 large egg
1/2 c yogurt, ( or buttermilk)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

(140g)1 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c farro/spelt or all white
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
(100g) 1 c rhubarb, cut into small slices or cubes if stalks are large

(450g) 1 pound strawberries, hulled and sliced in half if not too large or smaller
(24g) 2 tablespoons turbinado sugar, for sprinkling on top of cake

Preheat oven to 180 C/350 F degrees. 
Butter and flour a 10-inch springform pan or other type removable bottom pan or line a pan with baking paper.  I like to make small individual cakes sometimes.
Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together into a medium bowl. Set aside.
Put butter and 1 cup sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  I mixed this by hand with a flat wire whisk with good results.
Add in egg, yogurt, and vanilla extract. 
Mix until combined.
Gradually mix in flour mixture.
I begin to mix and then add the rhubarb and continue mixing, being careful not to over handle but thoroughly combining.
Transfer batter to prepared pan. 
Arrange strawberry slices on top of batter. 
Sprinkle turbinado sugar over berries.
Bake cake 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 170C/ 325 degrees. 
Bake until cake is golden brown and firm to the touch, about 50-55 minutes. I have a convection oven and it took a lot less time. 
Let cool in pan. 
To serve, cut into wedges. 
Store cake at room temperature, for up to two days.
Serves 10

16 May 2011

Damanhur, Torino's secret 8th Wonder of the World

At last, I have finally laid my own eyes on the actual spot here in Torino province, what has been called by London's Daily Mail, the 8th Wonder of the World.  You can read the story of how the temples of Humanity came to be in the Daily Mail's 2007 article on Damanhur on the above link. Having said all that, I didn't actually get to see the actual sight itself. Quite the shame, but it means we'll just have to return another time. We arrived late in the afternoon after having been a little further up the road to visit a cantina in Carema, that is part of our Strada Reale dei Vini Torinese associtaion. We're visiting our greater neighborhood of Torino Province while we stock up on some of our small wine producers goods for our summer season to delight our guests and tickle their taste buds. That part of the trip is a different story coming soon. 
Probably not surprisingly, it took a bit of an effort to locate the actual site. We're pretty good with directions, but these are small country roads and there isn't a yellow brick road leading to the temples. After a few fits and starts and getting some interesting stories about working with Damanhur from people  that live close by whom we stopped to ask directions of, we arrived to a fairly modest welcome point. Modest, although abundant colorful paintings and flowers did help you realize that you had indeed arrived. When the friendly woman at the entrance enquired what it was that I was seeking. I found that I hadn't really thought about it enough to give a non stammering answer, especially in Italian.  Well, ah, umm, ah, hum, I don't know and finding it pretty difficult to articulate. 
Damanhur Welcome Center and Forestiere
I had read about Damanhur a a couple of years prior to the 2007 Daily Mail article when I was searching for something on the internet, and found it all quite intriguing. A while later I met some people in London whom had actually visited it and I didn't realize until the Mail article that it was so close to us. We had guests a couple of years ago who visited while they were here as they were from Findhorn community in Scotland and were interested in Damanhur, as it is an intentional community. In their own words, "Damanhur, is an eco-society based on ethical and spiritual values, awarded by an agency of the United Nations as a model for a sustainable future." Their web site is here. It is quite an extensive site now compared when I first ran across it when I was searching out organic foods and other types of food that were difficult to find when I first arrived in Val Chisone.  After chatting with the welcome lady, we went on up to the Crea, which is a kind of community and business center further up the road. I have been fascinated by this community and it was wonderful to place it in my minds eye. They are a multifaceted community that have fit themselves into a part of Torino province, that at one point, was abandoned due to local dynamics of the Olivetti plant all but shutting down and people moving on to find work and livelihoods somewhere else. I didn't know what to expect, but we were delighted to be greeted by Kiwi, a local resident who was the greeter at the door to the Crea. Walmart greeter she was not, "Hello and Welcome".  She explained what the center was about and invited us to join in on a evening of Spanish food and dancing if we'd like and have a look around. Unfortunatley we arrived too late to go into any of the shops, but the window peering was interesting and the €10 plate of Spanish themed organic food was tasty and fun. We sat out doors where we were eventually joined by Kiwi and another visitor from Holland and the people who ran the natural food store and a former Carabiniere and his son who is currently a working officer for a lively and animated dinner. There was a crowd of people all scattered about on a casual Saturday night out with food and friends. A small gang of small fry tore about making good use of all that energy. We took our leave just as the dancing was about to commence as we still had a journey home, arriving at midnight, we did. I really would have loved to have stayed and joined in as it really was a pleasant atmosphere with a number of languages spoken. We noticed in the parking lot on our way out, that there were a variety of nationalities represented on the license plates, Germany, Spain, Slovenia. Fabrizio and I both enjoyed the people and the place and look forward to visiting again one day, as I really would like to see these temples and learn more about their life there. There truly was a peaceful, pleasant welcoming spirit to a place that seems to always be welcoming strangers that turn up at their door. Perhaps that is why we felt so at home. 
One of the underground temples
Photo courtesy of Hotel-Erbaluce

08 May 2011

Anise and Dried Fig Bread..... and a small tribute to my mother

Spring Orchids and Lily of the Valley from our garden

Today people are celebrating their mothers by many varieties of tributes, thoughtful gifts and gestures. My mother has been gone a long time now, but never far away in my thoughts and always carried closely in my heart. She was a great lady, poised and graceful. One of her most enduring qualities, that many people remember her for, was as a wonderful home maker, cook and hostess. No, she never worked outside of our home, but she never stopped working to keep all four of us, her children and my father too, clothed, fed and educated in so many ways other than just what one learns in school. As a partner to my father, she was tireless with her support of his work as a minister, ever the wife looking after many details and leading the way with so many church projects and endlessly opening our home to many people along the way that found a nights rest or an outstanding meal and a kind word of support when it was needed. She was usually over shadowed by my father, whose personality and profession kept him in the spotlight, but naturally she could hold her own and did regularly. I'm fairly confident my love of cooking and cuisine is directly related to my mothers determination to have the best fried chicken and apple pie on the over burdened potluck tables at the church dinners of my youth. And it probably didn't hurt that my father was her best sampler and always sang her praises when it came to her cooking. His waistline was proof of that. But I think back to when she started to make bread on a regular basis and I think it really struck a chord for me, as she began with refrigerator rolls, like angel biscuits, that her mother gave me the recipe for and I still like to make on occasion, and whole wheat loaves. It really caught my interest because, well, because, it just plain tasted good. Store bought bread growing up was no treat and I had always felt indifferent to bread unless it was home made. When she got going on the whole wheat bread I was hooked. I soon was out of the house and on my own and started to make bread too, as I found that it really satisfied some basic yearning within me. I love the feel of the different textures of flours and the smell of the levito madre, or sour dough as we call it in the states, and the feel of the liveliness of the dough when it comes together. I always have a catch in my breath when the dough just has a feel of life to it. I don't know how else to explain it. Then there is the satisfaction when it comes out of the oven all brown, aromatic, and crackling as it cools and the crust starts to soften a little. The pride of a well made loaf is second only to eating it fresh or even better when given away to an appreciative receiver.
Mom and me with her 70th birthday cake I made her
This mothers day I made a couple of Fig and Anise loaves to great approval. We almost devoured one loaf this morning with a thick slathering of my apricot and rosemary jam on it. I was fearful that the other loaf wasn't going to make it to my mother in law, but it did. I think my in laws enjoyed it almost as much as we did. It's always a delight to see their eyes light up when I come over with a fresh loaf of bread. They are appreciative bread eaters and that makes a bakers heart dance. All these years later, it's still an endless journey and even though I have made thousands of loaves of bread over the years, there are still so many flavors and combinations  yet to discover. I have a few bread books that although I seem to use them frequently I never seem to exhaust all the possibilities. I find that I will use one book relentlessly for awhile, sometimes repeating the recipe several times in a row to try and get it to my satisfaction and then will move on to one of my other bread bibles and keep jumping around and some times just keep making my simple "daily bread" version endlessly.  This bread is Nancy Silverton's recipe and is really just about perfect. I might increase the anise slightly next time and if I had read the directions a little more closely I wouldn't have pureed all of the figs and would have left a few for a bit of flavor spikes here and there, but it is a delicious bread that would go great with prosciutto crudo and goat cheese as well as for breakfast with jam. Anyway you slice it, I think you will like it and do your mom proud. Thanks Mom for teaching me to be fearless in the kitchen and many other valuable lessons that have come in handy over the years. I wish I could share a slice with you right now, but will enjoy sharing it with some of the people that I love.
Anise Fig bread,
with an olive loaf on the right side
This is Nancy Silverton's recipe. I highly recommend buying the book for complete instructions and a full understanding of baking with a natural starter. I will give you the basic instructions and it helps if you are familiar baking with a sour dough starter. 

Anise Fig Bread
2 smallish loaves approximately 1 pound or 500g

10 oz (1 1/2c ) dried figs
4 T hot water
4 oz (1/2c cool water 70*F
2 tsp instant dry yeast (.6oz /or 1 cake fresh yeast)
9 oz (1c) white sour dough starter (mine does not have a sour taste to it)
12 oz (3 c) white bread four
3 3/4 (6T) sugar, I used brown Demerara
1 1/2 tsp  sea salt
1/2 tsp anise seed, I think I would go 1 tsp next time
2 T polenta or corn meal
oil, I used olive

Cut up the dried figs into small pieces, placing about  1/3- 1/2 of the figs in a small food processor with the hot water and blend till smooth. ( I actually didn't really read this correctly and blended all of the figs and the bread turned out fine)
You can mix the bread up in a stan mixer, but I did it by hand with good results.
Place the flour, yeast, sugar in a bowl and lightly mix together. Then add the cool water, white starter and mix till smooth and pliable.
Add the salt, and mix till fully incorporated and smooth again.
Add the pureed figs, the fig pieces, anise seeds, and polenta. MIxing until it is smooth and very pliable. 
Lightly oil the dough, place in a covered plastic container and let rise for a couple of hours before putting it into the refrigerator overnight.
The next day remove fromt he refrigerator and divide into 2 equal pieces. Lightly pull the sides down and into the middle of the dough. Lay the dough rough side up on a lightly floured surface and shape the dough into either a round boule or a slightly oblong loaf. I have a variety of baskets that I used lined with   canvas/ light cotton muslin that I line the baskets with, then sprinkle it generously with flour and place the bread in the baskets to let them rise. I turn them completely around on all edges to lightly cover them with flour so they don't stick to the material while rising. The top of the loaf is down in the bottom of the basket, the rough bottom is facing toward you and then I fold the extra material loosely over the dough and place both of the loaves in a roomy plastic bag and leave them in a warm room to rise.  It can take 3-4 ours to rise till there is a light feel to the dough when you poke it with a finger to see if it has risen. 
Preheat your oven to as high as it will go and just before putting your loaves in pour some water in the bottom to create steam. Close the door and let the temperature rise again. Bring the dial down to 200*C or 450* F. 
Flip your dough out onto a sheet pan. I usually use a silicon pad or baking paper to insure it doesn't stick to the pan.  Slash the tops of your with a razor if you have it or a very sharp knife with an x for rounds and long slashes for oblong loaves or any way that you like and put in the oven. Take another bit of water and throw it int the bottom to create some steam and then leave it shut for at least 20 minutes before checking it again to insure a good rise.  Check on it rotating the loaves if necessary for an even browning and cook for at least 35 minutes. This loaf gets quite dark but that is a good thing. I used regular light colored dried figs and it was quite dark due to the sugar and natural sugar of the figs. If you use black figs, it will get even darker, so don't be afraid that you are burning it. It will taste great really.
Anise Fig Bread
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