Chocolate Pear Cake

Another beauty from Piero Polloni, whose tomato sauce and gazpacho recipes I shared with you on Tuesday.

This is rich and bittersweet and textural heaven. I especially love the crust, which starts out very soft, like a butter cookie dough. It’s made with “00″ flour, a finely milled Italian flour typically used for pizza and pasta doughs, which makes for a very tender crust. If you can’t find it, use unbleached all-purpose flour.

Piero’s recipe calls for Abate Fetel pears, a favorite in Italy. They’re tall, yellow and russet, white-fleshed, juicy and sweet, in season late August through early September. I used Forelle pears for mine: they’re firm-fleshed, sweet, excellent for cooking, and have an alluringly scarlet-freckled countenance.

Chocolate Pear Cake
Serves 8-10.
For pastry crust:
10 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 egg plus one yolk
1 1/3 cups “00″ flour
3/4 teaspoon instant yeast
Pinch of salt
For pear and ganache filling:
5 ripe firm-fleshed pears, peeled, cored, each cut lengthwise into 8 slices
1 cinnamon stick
4 oz. best-quality bittersweet chocolate (I used 60% cacao)
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 oz. rum

To a large bowl, add the pastry ingredients in the order in which they are listed above, and mix well with your hands to form a soft dough. Press into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least two hours. (Piero notes here that “Grandma would say 24!” I made Grandma happy and chilled mine overnight. It softens again very quickly.)

Preheat your oven to 350°, with a rack in the middle position.

Add a cinnamon stick to 3 quarts water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Carefully slip in the pear slices and cook for three minutes. Drain the pears thoroughly, discarding the cinnamon stick, and set aside to cool.

In a double-boiler or a metal bowl set over simmering water, combine the chocolate, cream, and rum, stirring until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Remove from heat and cool slightly.

Press the dough as evenly as possible into the bottom and up the sides of a cake mould; a loose-bottomed tart pan works well. (I used a 10-inch tart pan, but you could go with a little more depth and smaller diameter.)

Arrange the pears on the dough, and pour on your ganache. Place the cake pan on a baking sheet, and slip into the oven. Bake for about 35 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.

Let the cake cool completely in its pan on a wire rack. The ganache will set as it cools. For a firmer set, tent with foil and refrigerate after the cake has come to room temperature.

La Vie en Rose

ngélique, our sweet and gracious hostess aboard the Tango, delighted us day after day with beautiful table settings, fancifully decorated butter dishes (I’ll post a link to photos of those tomorrow) and intricately folded napkins. (And I thought I was brilliant when I made little cardinals’ hats out of my napkins at Christmas.) My favorite was this rose design, which she patiently taught us how to make.

Practice this three times and you’ll have it, even if you’ve been drinking wine, golden as this rose, all afternoon.

1. Lay a cloth napkin on a flat surface, “wrong” side facing up.

2. Hold a dinner fork vertically, tines down (like you’re about to twirl spaghetti), on the center of the napkin. Slip a little of the fabric between the tines to stabilize it.

3. Slowly turn the fork in either direction (the spaghetti-twirling motion) so that the napkin forms a spiral around the fork.

4. Carefully remove the fork. Encircle the napkin with both hands to keep the rose from unwinding. Flip it over.

Counting in Italian

When I travel alone, I can’t fully settle down in peaceful content until I’ve bought chocolates. It’s not that I desire so terribly to eat chocolates (they’re high on my long list of loves, but still come in below oysters, figs, and things flavored with aniseed); I just can’t deny myself the pleasure of buying them. A chocolate shop has all the allure of a giant jewel box, and the greatest joy for me is the fabulous luxury of choosing bonbons one by one like gems for an elaborate setting.

The Foodie’s Ascent to Paradise

You may already think I’m overwrought after that panegyric to my schnitzel. Now I’ll tell you that I almost–almost–cried as I ascended to the 6th-floor gourmet food halls at KaDeWe, the landmark Berlin department store currently celebrating its 100th birthday.

The venerable stink of 1,300 fine cheeses is enough to move a person to tears. But there’s much more to see, smell, and nibble: 1,200 types of sausage and cured meats (I didn’t count, but that’s what they told me), over 3,000 wines, hundreds of pastries, dozens of chocolatiers. There is beautiful and exotic seafood–scorpion fish, anyone?–and gorgeous produce, including some unfamiliar beauties and a few rare treasures, like mangosteens. There are aisles of international delicacies, coffees, a fragrant island of teas, and there are many, many gourmet bars to which you can pull up a stool and taste the treats on offer. People-watching here is part of the visual feast: at one of my favorite spots, the glamorous Moët & Chandon champagne bar, I spied two bubbly-sipping fashionistas sporting magnificent beribboned corsets, Madonna-style, on the outside of their tailored suits.

At Café Leysieffer, a branch of the famous German chocolate shop, I chose a seat with a view of the city’s rooftops and contemplated all these gustatory riches over a big milky coffee flecked with chocolate shavings. Then I headed to their adjacent boutique and agonized over which bars of chocolate to take home with me. I settled on the Mohn (poppy seed), Holunder-blüten (elderflower), and Meersalz (sea salt) bars, all of which come in milk and dark versions. On a return visit, I might try the lavender, honey, and jalapeño varieties.

The poppy bar has a subtle nutty flavor and, most importantly, whole seeds mixed in; the truth is I love poppy seeds not at all for their flavor–because I find there’s not much to it–and entirely for the grainy texture of a mouthful of them. The dark elderflower bar is potent and complex, with notes of spiced blueberry (I swear) and anise. The sea salt bar incorporates large, mightily crunchy flakes and is, to this lover of sweet-salty pairings, thoroughly addictive.

Fortunately, or maybe not, Leysieffer delivers worldwide from their website.

The Miss Scarlet of Risottos

Speaking of things to eat with a spoon, there’s risotto. It’s possibly my favourite thing in the world to cook (all that peaceful stirring). It’s tea-and-sympathy in starch-and-fat form. And every time I have it I’m ready to leap into bed afterwards and sleep for eight hours.

So in the last week of Lustful February I’ve tried to come up with a risotto that speaks of passion, that excites the eye and strokes the palate for the sweet hour (if that) between dinner and deep repose. The result is a flaming red beet, red onion, red wine concoction that’s pretty sexy if I must say so. I added a bit of dry-cured duck breast for a tinge of smokiness (actually, I felt compelled to buy it after an elderly gentleman at Fairway saw me holding the package and complimented my taste in cured meats). You could substitute a few slices of pancetta, or bacon, or leave it in vegetarian bliss.

Gothic Chocolate Cake

The winter winds are finally howling in New York, and I’m in mind of dark things…in a good way. I named this cake partly for the cathedral bundt pan I love best to make it in, but mostly because of the way the spices lurk wickedly within the velvety devil’s food. I’d be happy to curl up with a slice of this and read the more macabre tales from the Brothers Grimm to the strains of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” but you needn’t get as carried away.

Mayo Clinic

I’m about to encourage you to make your own mayonnaise. It’s easy.

Before you say, “Just as soon as I finish making the ketchup and mustard,” let me add that I made my own mayonnaise for the first time this evening, mostly because I couldn’t imagine how different it could possibly be from the mayo you buy in a jar.

And yes, fine, partly because a recipe called–ever so nonchalantly–for homemade mayonnaise, and I felt a little guilty.

Rosso Passione

On rather short notice, I’ve hit the road for a few days and headed to Ferrara, Italy. Last night, I found myself the only patron of the Ristorante Buca San Domenico (Piazza Sacrati, 22) without a hand to which I could weld my own. But that didn’t stop me from ordering the Valentine’s Day special, which my genial host described to me, spinster-with-a-novel, as roast beef, and to the lovers at the next table over as rosso passione (red passion). Indeed it was. The gorgeous beef, barely seared and sliced paper-thin, was drizzled with a rich olive oil and sprinkled with black, pink, and green peppercorns, each with a distinct perfume and piquancy. Chopped arugula decorated the margins of the plate.

Chocolate Sambuca Cookies

I don’t know what it is about Sambuca, the colorless anise and elderflower-flavored liqueur. The ancients believed anise to be an aphrodisiac, but I don’t set much store by such things. For me, a sip of Sambuca is something of an amorous madeleine, causing scenes of love both chaste and profane (profane but profound) to unfold in memory. Of course, to have such a Proustian moment, one needs the original experience. Without risking further indiscretion, I’ll say only that I’ve made these cookies for my family at Christmas and for one or two very small, very successful dinner parties.

I could eat you with a spoon

That affectionate phrase has always enchanted me, partly because I’ve never heard it lavished upon me personally. It implies some essential, personal deliciousness, innate sweetness, utter adorability; who wouldn’t want to be spoon-edible? (If you’re the person who rather aspires to be picked up and chomped on, sparerib-style, I might have something for you next week.)

Moreover, the things we want to eat with a spoon are soft, tender, yielding, or a little elusive–things we don’t want to miss a drop of, morsels deserving of the gentle utensil’s caress.

I began contemplating this, with the help of some Lambrusco, when a panna cotta arrived at my table last Thursday night at the Hostaria Savonarola in Ferrara. It occurred to me about halfway through this divine Piedmontese dessert of, literally, “cooked cream” that it was texturally rich but only subtly sweet, and that the pool of dark caramel on the plate had an earthy nuttiness about it and a faint, pleasant bitterness in the finish.

I could suddenly relate.