Monday, January 26, 2009

Polenta Soup

We eat a fair amount of polenta here--always have. Early on, I liked the idea in Carlo Middione's book, The Food of Southern ItalyItalian Cooking of pouring the batch onto a slab, saucing it, and putting it in the center of the table for everyone to share. True, with small kids it could have been a bit unhygienic. But for me it fell into the cozy food category--like eating Raclette fireside.

A couple years ago dear friends gave me Paula Wolfert's book, Mediterranean Grains and Greens. Tucked in towards the back was her recipe (adapted from the back of the Golden Pheasant polenta bags--we'd had that when I was a kid, but I don't think anyone ever tried it) for baking polenta. Now I had never been a very good polenta maker--I just cooked it until I was ready to eat, stirring the whole time. The polenta spat at me (rushing my readiness), and when it seemed thick (but well before the prescribed hour of stirring), I called it good.

Baking polenta was a revelation. You simply combine 2 cups polenta, 2 teaspoons salt, 8, 9, or 10 cups of water (or stock), and a couple tablespoons of butter or olive oil in a greased pan. I use a big open Le Creuset gratin dish. The bigger the surface area, Wolfert suggests, the better the polenta. It bakes for an hour and 20 minutes at 350 degrees, comes out for a quick stir, and then goes back into the oven for 10 more minutes. That's it. It's kind of a miracle--no lumps, and the flavor is wonderful. As the polenta cooks, it toasts as well, deepening the flavor.

So now that it's so easy we eat it even more often. Leftovers were always put away, and then fried on the second day. Sometimes for breakfast with eggs, sometimes for lunch with a little cheese. But recently my mother mentioned, quite nonchalantly, as if it was something she'd told me years ago, that you could just reheat the cold polenta and it would melt back into its old self. I should have known that--I'd long since figured out you never need to scrub out the pan--if you soak it, the next day you can peel back the polenta that just the night before had seemed fused indelibly to the pan.

This led to a little experimentation, and finally, to polenta soup. Now when I make polenta, I always try to have enough for the next day's soup. Tonight's was one of the better ones. I started by cooking about 1 cup of cranberry beans. While they simmered, I defrosted about 5 cups of chicken broth, and dumped the leftover polenta (about 4 cups)in. In the soup pot I browned some onions, and then added sliced chard stems, and a little of the bean water. The stems braised a bit while I whisked together (more or less--small lumps are no problem here) the polenta. When it reached a consistency I could live with, I dumped it into the soup pot. Sliced chard went in as well, and a few minutes later, the cooked beans. Once the chard was cooked enough, I declared the soup done. Delicious--just a bit of salt this time. Some red pepper flakes would be nice as well.

New Years Resolution #1

Like most people, I start each new year with the best of intentions. This year I'm hoping to be more organized (hey, a girl can dream, can't she?). I haven't carried a pocket calendar for years--I scrawl haircut dates on the back of my checkbook (which I never have in my purse unless I'm getting a haircut), and write down important dates (school meetings, dentist appointments, and birthdays) on the backs of receipts that seem always to float around in my purse. Lunch and drink dates I can track in my head just fine. Go figure.

But this year I had a lapse that really hurt. I missed the eggnog at Pearl Bakery. Perhaps you already know how much I love eggnog, especially the kind with plenty of bourbon and fluffy beaten egg whites trapped within. This is not the kind Pearl makes. Theirs was made, I think, mainly for use in the eggnog latte. I opted last year for a cold cup of it--they humored me, but I got the feeling I was the first person to want it that way.

Their eggnog isn't like the one I make at home. For starters, no bourbon (note to self: bring a flask). And I always make mine with raw eggs--a no no for a business. Did any of this mean their eggnog wasn't as good? Not at all--what it meant was when I sat down to my cup of eggnog, what I got was a cup of crème anglaise.

And I love crème anglaise as much as, or maybe more than eggnog. As a child, it was my first favorite dessert at Chez Panisse, where my mother was pastry chef. For 75 cents (okay, I guess I got it for free) you could get a small metal dish of it, plain. Later, one of my favorite birthday celebrations was with floating island--in a sea of tangerine crème anglaise.

Back to today. Soon after New Years, I was at Pearl and remembered. Did they still have any? The answer was predictable--"We sold the last of it yesterday."

Luckily, Powell's bookstore is a block away--I stepped in and bought a red moleskine 2009 calendar (oddly reminiscent of the 'Little Red Book' people used to sell in the Berkeley of my childhood). Inside, I made a note on the week of December 14th: "Look for Pearl eggnog".

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Eggnog Pound Cake

Last week, I used up my birthday Powell's gift certificate, and bought Flo Braker's new book,'Baking for all Occasions'. I have a hard time letting go of Christmas, and more exactly, of eggnog. So when I saw a recipe for Eggnog Pound Cake, I knew I'd found the perfect dessert to bridge the holiday and the new year.

But I didn't read through the recipe. When I pulled out the ingredients, I realized it called for eggnog. Store-bought eggnog--something I've never bought. And also something that (at least in my neck of the woods) isn't available in stores after Christmas.

Store-bought eggnog is somehow thicker than homemade; I imagine in the better brands that's due to eggs being custardized through pasteurization? I hate to think what does it in other brands--strange unpronounceable thickening agents. Probably whole milk with some flavoring would have done for this cake. But I decided to make a creme anglaise.

Luckily, just before I started, I remembered (truly in a flash) a post I'd read a while back on David Lebovitz's blog. It was a recipe for an almond cake, and one suggested accompaniment was creme anglaise. For creme anglaise in-a-pinch, melt premium vanilla ice cream (which, after all, is frozen creme anglaise).

I usually have ice cream on hand. I melted a cup of vanilla Haagen Dazs, grated in a generous amount of nutmeg and added a splash of rum. The cake turned out perfectly.  Baked in a Bundt pan, it's brushed after baking with a rum glaze. The sugar crystallizes over the surface, making for a shiny, crunchy top.
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