I have been spending a lot of time in kitchens, lately.
Of course, I generally spend time in kitchens. There’s something deeply comforting about that space. The warmth of the oven wafting through the room, the windows bright with light, the assorted smells and visual presents — everything lends itself to welcoming. When we are home, the Chef and I spend half our time in the kitchen. At parties, we are happy when everyone gathers there, together. That means our guests are happy.
But lately, I have been spending more time than usual in kitchens.
Last week, the Chef’s assistant — who comes in to help him prep and prepare food during dinner service on Thursday through Saturday nights — had to leave town unexpectedly for his grandfather’s funeral in Oklahoma. Without anyone else to help, he would have been “in the weeds” for days. And so, what else could I do but offer my services? I’m working on a piece about this, trying to find the words for my awe of him (my god, the man dances) and my exhaustion (writing means more meandering and sitting down than chefing). He amazes me, even more now. How he works in his tiny kitchen to produce such food? Wow.
When I haven’t been in the Chef’s kitchen, making mixed green salads and large cheese plates, I have been in our kitchen, testing recipes. The copy-edited manuscript of my book arrived in the mail the other day, and there goes any free time. Luckily, I still like the book, even with a few months’ distance. Even better, I have good eyes, enough to go through the thousand minute marks in red and purple ink, indicating hyphens and questionable spellings. I have a lot of work to do.
Along with the typographic work, I have been testing recipes. Actually, that’s not an accurate phrase. I have been re-testing recipes that I tested ten times before. There will be 29 recipes in the final book, along with a thousand suggestions for how to make food from your senses and what inspires you. Every one of those recipes represents a dish that I have made more than a dozen times. Every one of them has been gone over by the Chef, carefully, with a hundred tiny amendments that make them all better. And right now, they are being tested again, by friends and colleagues who are new to the curried carrot soup, blackberry sauce, and chilled millet salad with roasted jalapenos, mango, and silvered jicama. I can promise you this — the recipes in my book will be good.
They will be good because I’m still working on them. I won’t let a single one be published until I know that anyone reading can make that recipe and be successful. I want everyone to eat well.
The chocolate-banana bread? It’s quite a bit different than the one I first published on this site. And the result? Heavenly choirs should be singing right now. The Chef took one bite last week and said, “Damn, girl. You want to marry me?”
Along with this, I am also making new recipes, all the time. The Chef has made his restaurant entirely gluten-free. (Have I mentioned this before?) That means the desserts, too. He makes his apple crisp with a sorghum flour mix I concocted for him. He chooses crème brulées and pots de crème, because they don’t need flour. I will never be able to express just how much this moves me.
The Chef is a master. Truly. Desserts, however, are not his first forte. He’s unusual, because he does it all. He starts with the stocks, and he makes everything from scratch. In a larger restaurant, he would have a pastry chef. But at Impromptu, there is no room.
So now, I have become his pastry chef.
At home, all month long, I make one gluten-free dessert after another. We talk about what he might want, and then I try to concoct them. Since he makes up the menu new, every four weeks, I test recipes for him for three weeks straight. And then, together we choose the best three, and he starts making them for customers.
This month, for example, he is offering a sweet yogurt sundae, with cardamom, saffron, and toasted pistachios. Sometimes he tops it with rosewater, and sometimes with a honey from Hawaii. When my friend Amal had dinner there last week, she said, “This tastes exactly right. It tastes reminiscent of a rice pudding my grandmother used to make me.” That made the Chef smile.
He is also doing chocolate-ginger pots de crème, with fresh-made whipped cream and mint.
And there are rhubarb-meringue tartlets, with a gluten-free crust.
Yeah, not bad.
Last week, I tested a recipe that we will probably adapt for next month’s menu. This orange-almond cake comes from the Rose Bakery cookbook, which has been the darling of food bloggers all winter long. I can see why. Not only is the book laid out sumptuously, but the recipes also look smashing. On top of that, they offer a number of gluten-free recipes, mostly involving nut flours. Of course, I had to try.
This cake is fantastic. But recipes are a funny thing. They are an inert form for a living process. Every kitchen is different, of course. When I first attempted these, the thirty-five minutes of baking that the recipe stipulated turned into fifty minutes in my oven. I was late for dinner with two of my dearest friends anyway, so I grabbed the most-done one from the oven and turned it off to let the rest of the cakes finish baking in the cooling oven. (And I couldn’t quite remember turning off the oven, so I spent the entire evening wondering if the house would burn down before I could return home with the Chef.)
So here’s what I’m offering. I’d love to hear your opinions on this cake. As I made it, pretty straight from the recipe (with one cup of hazelnut flour instead of all almond, as they suggested), these cakes were spectacular. Moist and dense, they danced on the tongue with citrus-goodness toes. After a day of sitting out, they were even better. They won rave reviews from two-year-olds and forty-year-olds alike.
But part of me wonders if they wouldn’t be better if I cut one of the cups of almond flour with a cup of gluten-free flour (probably a sorghum/white rice/tapioca combination). After all, they were so moist and dense that few people could eat more than a slice. I could have waited to test this new idea before I showed this to you. But I’m wondering if someone else wants to try it and let me know.
The process of publishing recipes should be as interactive as making them.
Let me know what you think. But for now, I’m headed back into the kitchen.
Orange-almond cake, adapted from Rose Bakery
You have a variety of choices here for baking pans. At first, I used four small loaf pans (not the mini ones, which I found later). This worked well, but they still took a long time to bake. You could also use a cake pan, but apparently the cake is a little too delicate to make a large, whole cake. This recipe works best with a number of small cakes. I stumbled on my favorite variation — a small Pyrex bowl from the 1970s, which I found at Goodwill the week before. This little round cake turned out the firmest, with a lovely moist crumb. If you have a few small bowls that can go in the oven, I suggest using those for this recipe. Again, experiment and let us know what you think.
2 navel oranges
1 lemon, large
2 ¼ cups baker’s sugar (this is an especially fine sugar, made specifically for baking)
4 ½ cups almonds, ground fine and sifted through a fine-mesh sieve
1 cup hazelnuts, ground fine and sifted through a fine-mesh sieve
1 teaspoon baking powder
unsalted butter and rice flour for greasing the pans
Preparing the oranges and lemons. Wash the oranges and lemon well. Put them in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring the water to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a small simmer. Allow them to simmer for one hour.
When the oranges and lemon have become soft and easy to pierce with a knife, take them out of the simmering water. Transfer them to a food processor and pulse them until they have become a purée. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour the pan(s) you have chosen to use.
Putting together the batter. Beat the eggs and sugar together, until they are just combined. (This is easier in your KitchenAid, but make sure you do not over-cream them if you are using a machine.) Fold in the orange and lemon purée and combine together.
Combine the almond meal, hazelnut meal, and the baking powder. Fold one-third of that mixture, slowly, into the rest of the dough. If you are doing this by hand, you will develop your bicep muscles, because it will take awhile to incorporate the nut flours into the liquid mixture. Repeat this with the rest of the nut flours, slowly.
Pour the liquid into the prepared loaf pans (or whatever other pans you have chosen). Slide them into the oven.
Bake the cakes. Bake for about 35 minutes, and then check the cakes. You might have to go longer, if your oven is actually emitting less heat than you imagine. Check one of the cakes with a toothpick inserted into the middle. When it comes out clean, and the tops of the cakes feel firm, pull the cakes from the oven.
Cool the cakes. Allow the cakes to cool in their pans for at least fifteen minutes before you attempt to move them. Carefully, transfer them to a wire rack. Allow the cakes to cool completely before you slice them with a serrated knife.
These are especially good the next day, as that gives them a chance to harden a bit. We put a simple glaze of lemon juice and powdered sugar over the cakes, and our friends were thrilled.
Feeds eight people (if they can resist having a second slice!).