Rachel Bennett

Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

Have Cake and Eat Cheese Too

In Food on June 24, 2011 at 15:43

I made a cheesecake for Father’s Day. This decadent confection has always been a favorite of my dad who used to demolish half a cake in one sitting. Perhaps his love of it comes from the lavish fact that this dessert combines the delights of cheese with those of cake – you could not ask for more.

Whenever Mom was away and Dad and I had to fend for ourselves the menu was predictable: take away Chinese (or pizza if I whined enough) and a frozen Sara Lee cheesecake. It was his rebellion at a time during which health foods were resolutely dismal and mom was obsessed by a sequence of odious nut cutlets and endless sprouts; if it is was dull and brown it was deemed good to eat.

I am also partial to this luxurious cake but have outgrown the Sara Lee variety—too dense and sweet. To my mind, a good cheesecake should be at once rich and light, silky, slightly tart and with a fine, biscuity crust.

In this version I went for a white chocolate cheesecake edged by a ginger crust and piled high with fresh raspberries. It was a beauty.

White Chocolate, Ginger and Raspberry Cheesecake

10 oz. ginger thins or other crisp gingery biscuits
2 tbsp. granulated sugar
8 tbsp. unsalted butter

3 8-oz. packages cream cheese
8 oz. white chocolate
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
Table salt
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp. cassis, chambord or other berry liqueur
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs

4 cups fresh raspberries
1/4 cup red current jelly

Heat the oven to 375°F. For the crust, whiz the ginger thins in a processor or crush by hand until you have fine crumbs. Melt the butter over a low heat. Mix together the crumbs, sugar, and melted butter until the mixture sticks together when pressed between your fingers. It will not come together as a ball of dough. Press the mixture into the base and sides of an eight-inch round, spring-form cake pan, taking care to make the crust as even as possible. Note: make sure it is not too thick along the bottom edge of the pan where the base meets the sides otherwise you will end up with an annoying wedge of too thick crust just here. Bake the crust for about 10 minutes, until it has darkened slightly. Leave too cool.

Next, lower the oven temperature to 300°F. For the filling, first melt the white chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water; allow to cool a little. Then mix together the cream cheese, melted chocolate, flour, and a pinch of salt, beating well until light and puffy. Blend in the sugar, liqueur and vanilla, then gently beat in the eggs one by one. Pour the filling into the crust, place on a baking sheet and set in the oven. Bake for about 50 minutes, until puffed up and set. Allow to cool and then refrigerate until fully chilled, at least 8 hours or overnight.

To serve the cake, slide a thin knife around the edge to loosen it from the pan and carefully remove pan’s side or ring. Then use the knife to loosen the cake from the pan’s base and gently slide the cake onto a plate. Pile the raspberries on top of the cake, melt the red current jelly on the stove, and then drizzle it over the berries.


In Food on June 22, 2011 at 14:03

The plan was set and all eventualities considered. I had bought three plastic bottles, the sort designed for traveling shampoo, careful to check that they were under 100 millilitres each. Then, twelve hours before the moment of departure I extracted a Tupperware container from the fridge, opened the lid and peered within. She looked healthy enough but I could only be sure after administering a feed. With more care than usual and in the manner of one performing a solemn rite I weighed the contents of the Tupperware, added equal weight again of rye flour and warm water, and swirled the mixture into a soft paste with my hand, the remoteness of a wooden spoon feeling like sacrilege.

Twelve hours later I bend over my mother* once again, relieved to see how she had grown. She was large and very definitely alive, oozing up towards the oxygen as I removed the lid. Here goes, I thought, offering up a silent prayer to the gods of sourdough as I funnelled some mixture into the first shampoo bottle, we’re heading west. Please, for the love of good bread survive the journey!

I was given this 16-year-old sourdough mother (also known as a starter) by a baker at Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire. At the end of our day long baking course, Clive Mellum had scooped a noxious looking grey paste from a vat, plonking handfuls unceremoniously into plastic bags. “There you go,” he said, as my fellow baking enthusiasts and I received our ziplocks reverently. “Just promise me you’ll look after her.”

Since that day I’d been worrying about how to get her back to America. There were several hurdles to jump. Firstly there was the problem of feeding. When chilled in the fridge, a sourdough mother hibernates, becoming almost dormant so that she can go weeks, some say months, without a feed. But at room temperature she awakens and her appetite, suppressed for so long, becomes voracious. She must be fed ever 24 hours. Furthermore, during the first twelve hours or so after feeding, she expands dramatically—almost explosively—so that given half a chance she will hiss and ooze out of any confining container. Given this somewhat excitable and delicate nature, any delay or cancelled flights would jeopardize my precious cargo.

Secondly there was the question of security. To the knowledgeable baker there is nothing more wholesome and innocent than a mixture of flour and water, endowed over the passage of time with an ever richer colony of wild yeasts. It is a beautiful thing. And yet I was doubtful that either the security guards at Heathrow or the customs officials in Seattle would appreciate my perspective. To them an unlabeled bottle, secured against gaseous explosion by duck tape and containing an oozing grey goop, might raise alarm. I decided to divide my mother and so avoid that pitfall, common in life as in poultry farming, of putting all your eggs in one basket.

So I arrived at Heathrow, one bottle of Millie (so named for her native home in a flour mill) nestled amongst my tubes of face cream and lip gloss in that officious little bag you now have to use for all carry-on liquids, and one bottle in each of my suitcases. Perhaps my fears were absurd, but I breathed more easily once we passed the x-ray machines without so much as a second glance.

Considered logically, the whole palaver of transporting Millie was a waste of energy. It would be simple to find a baker in Seattle willing to give me a scoop of a good strong starter. But logic is besides the point. I don’t want just any old starter; I want Millie. So that I can take a piece of England with me. So that each time I bake bread I will think of a little flat on Saint Andrews road, of the thoughts I had then, of the warp and weft of my life then.

Sitting in the sky 37,000 feet above the Atlantic I was as ever unsure about my leaving or arrival (for I have become so woven into a London life I hardly know whether it is a journey or a homecoming). Last weekend I rode home on the night bus, angry against the inconstancy of the world, sure in my tequila-laced state that we have in so many places broken the chains of tradition and provincial small-mindedness only for an imperative of cruel mobility. Why am I—why is the world—so restless and shifting? But there was an inertia to my leaving.

This nomadism craves an opposite, and this Millie provides. I make bread every week or two, and each time gain an existential confidence in the tangible rhythm of it: feeding the starter; waiting as she grows; kneading, resting and proving the dough; finally drawing a round and fragrant loaf from the oven. On the day I received Millie I resolved to keep her forever. No matter where I find myself, there she will be—a visceral cord, staunch throughout my sometimes hesitant, mercurial, but always passionate wanderings.

She will be there, that is, so long as customs don’t make a fuss.

*Note: This mother is not to be confused with my biological mother, who, although partial to a diet of rye flour and water, also requires regular cups of Yorkshire tea, marmalade and butter. She is also a lot more interesting, conversationally.

Royal Mud

In Food on June 19, 2011 at 15:15

It was beguiling day in May when I received the email. London was blooming a pastel pink and the sun beamed confidently down. “Another reason to dress up and drink Champagne,” my friend wrote, “lets buy tickets to Ascot.”

I looked out of the window. The sun spilled like caramel across the street below and beyond the row of red brick houses the tops of oak trees swayed in the breeze, green halos of leaves bright and beckoning. I couldn’t really afford Ascot, and yet . . .

My friends and I are lounging on a vast picnic blanket, decked out in bright summer dresses and flashy hats. In the center of the blanket lies a large wicket picnic hamper—one of those regal baskets lined with tartan cloth and filled with a voluptuous array of provisions. There are pates, cheeses, and olives, a long crusty baguette, generous fruitcake and an ice bucket cradling a bottle of champagne. The sun is beaming down and we have an unobstructed view of the course. The races are thrilling and the Champagne flows.

“Yes!” I typed, succumbing to that bucolic vision. “I’m in.”

One month later I found myself struggling along the side walk, sweating under the weigh of a picnic basket—aesthetically pleasing perhaps, but an awkward burden to manage in high heels. It is a contraption clearly designed in the days when those with romantic picnic visions could leave the actual transportation of their feasts to menials, strong armed servants with fewer sartorial constraints. To make matters worse the sky, which had been gathering black and ominous clouds all morning, chose this moment to fulfill its threat and let loose a deluge, soaking my jacket, bare legs, and the infuriating hamper, and turning my carefully arranged hair into a thin, deshevelled mat.

I met Elizabeth and Catherine at Waterloo and we travelled to Ascot by train, eating strawberries and trying valiantly to maintain the vision. After an hour we arrived at a diminutive station and made our way towards the course. Struggling yet again with the cursed hamper, it occurred to me that perhaps it had been slightly extravagant to pack an entire carrot cake for three people. But it was too late.

There were loudspeakers set at intervals along the way and from them a cheerful voice emanated, redundantly informing us of our location. “Welcome to Royal Ascot.You are now in front of a pedestrian bridge,” No, really?

Before entering the grounds we had to pass through a security gate. The guard opened my hamper, gave the contents a cursory glance, and was on the point of closing it when something caught his eye. “What’s this,” he asked rhetorically, picking up my bread knife. “You can’t take this in. Why did you bring it?” It was large and gleaming with a heavily serrated edge.

“To cut the bread,” I replied, bristling and bewildered by the question. “We need it. Why can’t we bring it in.”

“It’s, um, rather large.” He replied.

The knife was confiscated and we continued on, my mood blackened by the episode. Honestly, if I were a psychopath with a predilection for slaughtering racing fans I would a) choose a standard chef knife, not a serrated one, and b) stick it down my shirt, not in my picnic hamper. Evidently, however, the knife-wielding criminal element at Ascot is not credited with even this level of creativity.

From this inauspicious beginning our experience of the Royal event did not improve. We had bought cheap tickets and found ourselves fighting for a vacant patch of mud on which to spread our beach towels (none of us possessing the visionary picnic blanket). At last we found a spot, settled down and cracked open the Champagne, trying not to shiver in the damp, chill air. We sipped and looked about, still determined to enjoy ourselves.

The scene differed from my vision of English country bliss with its dignified picnicking groups arrayed on sunny lawn. Instead, there were throngs of men staggering about with pints of beer, these sloshing at intervals over the sides of plastic cups, adding a sticky, bitter odor to the air. There were also throngs of women, sporting orange tans and bleached hair. A good portion of them also appeared sloshed, although in fairness their lurchings and wobblings may have been the consequence of attempting to navigate the muddy field in spindly, vertiginous heels.

Entertaining as this spectacle was, we were hungry and turned our attention to the picnic. I opened the hamper and surveyed the contents. Besides the monumental carrot cake there was a farro and lentil pilaf with ginger, chili and cilantro. There was a tomato peach and fresh herb salad, a jar of olives, and a smoky eggplant and white bean dip.

“Oh no,” I said, staring into the hamper in dismay. “I’m afraid I forgot the bread.”

There was a pause as we all stared into the hamper and then at each other. It was too much. We burst out laughing—we laughed at the absurdity of the day, at the mud, rain and cold, our forlorn picnic and at how damply and endearingly English it all was.

We ate, half heartedly watched a race, and went home.

Olive Pits and Bread Crumbs

In Food on June 18, 2011 at 08:43

It is the roughness I love in Spanish food. The tangle of squid’s tentacles, the glassy-eyed fish and bulbous, potent olives. It is earthy, almost gritty, a cuisine that requires attention—fingers peeling shrimp, extracting olive pits from your mouth and prying mussels from their shells. And throughout there is a hint of excess; the manzanilla is bright and brittle on the tongue, the cured queso de oveja is hot and salty, and the salami sweats too much. It is as if nature and cuisine are in a battle, the latter fighting a relentless heat that would reduce milk and meat to putrid swill. In this battle, the Spanish attack with old ingenuities of preservation: sharp brines and salty cures, sweet syrups and fierce spirits. Today, although modern technologies of refrigeration and chemical preservatives may have rendered these old excesses technically unnecessary, they still define the character of Andalusian fare. It is a guttural, riotous cuisine.

My particular love of Spanish food comes not only from its superficial qualities. Rather, like so much else, my hunger is not for the olives but for the people with whom I share them, for our conversation and friendship, and also for the memory of other olives, pits now long buried, and of other friendships. The word “companion” comes from the Latin companio, literally meaning “with bread.” Companions are those with whom you break bread and it has long been acknowledged, perhaps since the first barbecue, that shared food binds people together.

Last weekend I took a trip to Jerez with three friends. It was a warm few days, full of sunshine and sea salt in our hair, of long lazy afternoons on the beach and equally languid evenings wandering about, stopping frequently for a plate of shrimp or pitcher of sangria. One night we decided to eat in and prepared a feast artichokes with lemon butter, sole baked with tomatoes and onions, thin green peppers roasted with olive oil, salt, and pimentón, and a large vegetable stew. It was a simple feast, constrained as we were by an unfamiliar kitchen and and a bare pantry. Yet the food was good and I ate with abandon.

We sat around a cramped table in the tiny courtyard. The sun had left, sauntering off behind our existential curve and sweep of earth, leaving a soft, attenuated hue in the air like the dust kicked up by a thousand retreating footsteps. We sat around talking and picking idly at the food, our conversation wandering between serious and silly in that easy way it does among friends, between the progress of our tans and the future of food, between love and lust and stupid mustaches. I picked up an oily, fragrant pepper and ate it whole, struck by that bittersweet thought I often get late at night over the debris of a good meal. I thought about how these contented moments sit like islands in an ocean of breadcrumbs—remnants of our sacrifice to the gods of conversation. And I thought about how these moments are sweet because they bind us together and bitter too because in that very binding there is the prospect, cruel and inevitable, of being broken.

How to Open a Bottle of Champagne

In Food on June 7, 2011 at 20:20

There are many ways of tackling a champagne cork: the practiced dexterity of a sommelier as, with gentle pop and vaporous sigh, the bottle is unbound and bubbles cascade into your flute; the violent yank of tipsy revelers and attendant cheer as the bottle emits a shower of froth and drenches the drinkers. And then there is my favorite.

I first witnessed Catherine’s method of uncorking champagne at a brunch party in honor of the royal wedding. For some reason the happy couple had chosen marry at 11 in the morning, evidently not anticipating the destabilizing effect this would have on the nation’s sobriety.  Naturally, such an occasion called for serious bubbles and by 10.30 we were ready to uncork the first bottle. Catherine obliged.

She began in routine fashion, peeling off the foil and freeing the cork from its wire cage. Here her method diverged from the norm. She tugged and twisted the cork so that it began to give a little. Then she held the bottle with both hands and an expression of mingled curiosity and alarm, like someone witnessing the final moments before the detonation of an explosive. After several seconds the cork began sliding of its own accord and Catherine’s eyes widened as with a resounding pop the cork launched across the room with the speed of a determined torpedo.

Catherine’s method may not be graceful or practical but it possesses a certain panache that other, more conventional methods lack. Last weekend, during brunch (always incomplete without mimosas) I had Catherine aim the bottle out the window, to avoid damaging my cousin’s flat. The cork erupted from the bottle and sailed across Saint Andrews Road heading towards the tennis courts beyond. As it happened, a man from downstairs was walking his scottie just as the cork took its maiden voyage though the bright, morning air. Fortunately, the cork missed both man and dog, yet both looked up at the sky and then down at the fallen cork, bemused.

Summer Tarts

In Food on June 6, 2011 at 21:23

Culinary adventures are exciting, plunging into new territory with only a vague notion of what the final dish will look like or how it will taste, where the pitfalls are and what species of kitchen stupidity to avoid. Yet there are times when these explorations are too taxing. Last friday, recovering from a marathon month of exams, was once such occasion.

I was cooking for potluck picnic with my classmates in the anthropology of food. Not wishing to take risks among such discerning diners I turned to an old faithful, a dessert that exudes all that is lovely, plump, and juicy about summer. It is Ann Willan’s fresh fruit tart. With a sweet crust, rich almond filling, and mountain of glossy fruit, it is as gorgeous to the eye as to the palate. It is also wonderfully adaptable and you can ring the changes with any berries or stone fruits that are at their prime: strawberries, cherries, peaches and plums all work wonderfully. Once I made a version with nothing but a mound of wild northwest huckleberries, picked laboriously from the dark evergreen woods, where they grow best.

This time I opted for raspberries and blueberries (they were on a half price offer at the shop; sometimes economy trumps romance). As we were picnicking, I decided to go for a platter of mini tartlets instead of one big messy tart. Either way it is a winner.

Fresh Summer Fruit Tart

Adapted from Ann Willan’s wonderful cookbook From my Chateau Kitchen. 

Pâté Sucrée:
1½ c. flour
½ tsp. salt
½ c. sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla extract
7 tbsp. butter

Frangipane filling:
¼ c. butter
1/3 c. sugar
1 egg
½ tsp. vanilla extract
½ c. ground almonds

Fruit topping:
3-4 c. sliced strawberries, other berries, or sliced stone fruit such as peaches, plums or a mixture or fruits.

Make the shell: Mix together flour, salt and sugar in a bowl. Make a well in the center. Pour egg yolks and vanilla into the well. Dice the butter into large cubes, place between two large sheets of wax paper and pound to soften a little. Add pounded better to the well and mix with the egg yolks and vanilla to form a paste. Slowly add in surrounding flour until it comes together into a soft dough. Work as quickly as possible and don’t over work the dough. Form into a ball, wrap in wax paper and chill in fridge for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Roll out dough and press into a tart dish.  Poke a few holes in pastry with a fork to prevent air bubbles while cooking. Press wax paper on top of pastry and blind bake for about 12 minutes or until hardened and slightly golden.

Meanwhile make the filling: beat the butter until soft. Add the sugar and beat until creamy. Beat in the eggs, then mix in the vanilla and ground almonds. When tart is blind baked, pour filling into shell and return to the oven for another 12 minutes or so until browned and firmer. Remove from oven and let cool. Top the filling with prepared fruit just before serving.