Buttercream and Party Cakes

You can lick the spoon

Among the world of bloggers are an amazing group, consisting of over 600 to date, who once a month conspire about one recipe challenge, chosen by a different member each time. The monthly challenge remains a secret until the last day of the month, when everyone blogs about their results; a kind of gang-blog. These are not your run-of-the-mill bakers, friends. They are the Daring Bakers, and for some reason I thought it would be fun to join up. What was I thinking? I should have been thinking that I was out of my league.

I am not a fancy-pancy cake decorator. I think I’d rather pick nits off a monkey’s back than to obsess over making intricate flowers made out of sugar or enrobing a cake in fondant. It’s just not my thing. After looking at some of my blogging friend’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous creations, I became comfortable with the realization that I am a peasant cook at heart. When I bake, I always gravitate toward the simple and rustic, like free-form tarts and cakes baked in loaf pans.

This month, the recipe was chosen by Morven of Food Art and Random Thoughts; Perfect Party Cake from Dorie Greenspan’s fantastic book, Baking, From My Home to Yours. I enjoy Dorie’s recipes because they aren’t too fussy and she obviously writes them after lots of testing. In fact one of my all-time favorites is Dorie’s Lemon Yogurt Cake (baked in a loaf pan!).

The party cake is a fairly simple recipe, and I can see why it should become a stand-by recipe. Plus, I have a weakness for any cake made with buttermilk and lemon. I love the tangy moist texture of this cake, and would make this again just smeared with some jam, lemon curd and powdered sugar.

However, the highlight in my house was the luscious meringue buttercream. I can’t remember the last time I smeared a cake – or anything, for that matter – with a substance containing three whole sticks of butter, multiple cups of sugar and fluffy marshmallow-like beaten egg whites. This stuff should be classified as a dangerous substance by the DEA. My kids were content to lick the beaters and spatula (and I was too, just in case you were wondering), to the point that there was barely enough left to frost the darn cake.

Now that I think about it, that seems like a perfect arrangement. Piece of cake, scoop of buttercream on the side.

 

Classic Italian Meatballs

Classic meatballs, Italian-American style
Meatballs are personal.

Let me rephrase that: Show me your meatball, and I’ll show you mine.

Oh, wait. No. Not that personal. That’s the sort of thing that goes on in other blogs, the after bedtime, Not Safe for Work kind.

What I meant was, meatballs for me are like Proust’s madeleine. Like any childhood comfort food, meatballs represent a time, place and taste that exists only in my memory. But when prepared in just the right way – today, right now- one bite into a really good meatball could transport me back to my parents’ Sunday afternoon dinner table.

My mother would set out a large platter of meat that had spent the better part of the day braising in thick, rich tomato sauce – the gravy. On it, there would usually be a beef chuck roast, a braciole (a rolled beef flank steak stuffed with cheese, breadcrumbs and fresh parsley), sweet and spicy pork sausages handmade by my grandfather, and meatballs. I always went straight for the meatballs.

Meatballs are so personal that even among family there can be great disappointment. My bias unfailingly (some might say stubbornly) swerved toward my mother’s meatballs. Even as much as I loved my grandmother’s Sunday gravy, I was ambivalent about her meatballs. And because each person’s meatball is as unique in form as their own fingerprint, it was always immediately apparent to me when someone other than my own mother or grandmother had shaped meatballs and surreptitiously slid them into the family gravy pot.

There was that one Sunday gravy which has traumatized me for life. I can’t remember the distant relative who’d prepared them, all I know is this: one hopeful bite of her meatball revealed something dark, chewy and slimy-sweet, an alien nugget that could only be… a raisin. A raisin.

Who would go and put a raisin in an innocent-looking meatball? Why?

Later, my mother explained to me in a stage whisper that it was because great aunt Carmella was Sicilian. Oh.

Needless to say, my family was spoiled by my mother’s stellar meatballs and as a result grew very particular. It was standard for us to rate the quality of the meatballs whenever we ate at a restaurant. We could spot inferior execution every time. Like meatballs made with stale, dried, seasoned breadcrumbs or those that were so firm and rubbery you could set one on a billiard table and smack it into the corner pocket.


Because I believe my mother made the very best meatballs, hers are the standard by which all others are judged. They were generously portioned – almost the size of a baseball; crusty on the outside, tender and almost fluffy within. They were strewn with flecks of fresh parsley, garlic and soft bits of milk-soaked Italian bread. They were sharp with the salty tang of Pecorino Romano cheese. They were big juicy spheres I couldn’t wait to stick my fork into.

My mother is no longer with us, and sadly, she took her meatball recipe with her. She’d told me her meatball secrets, probably more than once, but that was a while ago and the details are sketchy. Did she say to remove the crusts from the bread before soaking in milk? To squeeze out the milk thoroughly or to keep the bread dripping with liquid? To flatten the meatballs slightly while frying? Can’t remember. I didn’t write it down.

Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have inherited the gene for meatball mastery from my mother, and I’ve yet to work out her perfect ratio of meat-to-seasoning-to-filler. I hang my head in frustration, but I’m working on it.

I’ve turned to cookbooks lately, and recently found a recipe in Two Meatballs in an Italian Kitchen that seemed eerily familiar. I played with the recipe a bit and came up with this one. They are very close to my mother’s in method and taste, but just not as light as I’d like them to be. Back to the mixing bowl.

As always, I’ll keep you updated with breaking meatball-recipe news as it occurs.
Until then, what are your cherished food memories? Visit the comment section at the end of this post and share them with me.

You might also like Rigatoni with 20-Minute Sunday Gravy.

Classic Italian Meatballs

3 thick slices Italian-style bread, crust trimmed
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 pound ground beef chuck
½ pound ground pork
2 egg yolks
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 tablespoon kosher salt or 1 ½ teaspoons table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
¼ cup olive oil

1. Tear the bread into small pieces and place in a medium bowl. Cover with the milk and soak 5 minutes. Squeeze the milk out of the bread until just moist.

2. In a large bowl, use your hands to combine bread, beef, pork, egg, cheese, salt, pepper, garlic and parsley until evenly mixed. Break off ¼-cup sized pieces of mixture and roll into balls. They don’t have to be perfect – craggy meatballs have character and hold the sauce better.

3. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add as many meatballs as will fit in the pan without crowding. They should sizzle as soon as they hit they pan or the pan isn’t hot enough.

4. Cook meatballs until browned on all sides and cooked through, 6 -8 minutes total.

5. Serve hot with your favorite tomato sauce.
Makes about 15 meatballs

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Candied Tangerines and a Tangerine-Tini Cocktail

This is your Drink of the Week
So, now that it’s Friday, let’s have a drink!

After looking at Elise’s Candied Kumquats at Simply Recipes and thirsting for one of Vanilla Garlic’s Kumquatinis, I rediscovered a container of candied tangerines I made last week to serve over pound cake. I’m crazy about these things.

The tangerine segments get plump as they soak in the thick, vanilla-bean laced syrup. When you put one in your mouth they burst with a juicy, tangy pop.

A week in the fridge is about long enough to keep them; any longer than that and they become limp and puckered, like a vinyl baby pool with a slow leak.


After fishing out the fruit, I gave the syrup a second life in my cocktail recipe.
Whoa, this drink is good.

Maybe too good for an afternoon sipper. I think I need a nap now. Hic-up.

Candied Tangerines
From Sunday Suppers at Lucques (Suzanne Goin)

½ vanilla bean
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
6 tangerines, peeled, separated into segments and any white pith removed

Split the vanilla bean lengthwise with a small sharp knife. Open up the bean and scrap the back of the knife down the inside to collect the pulp.

Add the vanilla bean, pulp, sugar and water to a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.
Turn the heat to low and add the tangerines to the pan. Simmer 3 – 5 minutes, until the fruit looks puffy and shiny.

Strain the mixture and return the liquid to the pan. Bring to a boil over high heat and reduce until slightly thickened – this takes just a few minutes. Cool the syrup completely before stirring in the tangerines. Store in the refrigerator.

Tangerine-Tini
Makes one drink

1 tangerine
2 ounces very cold citrus-flavored vodka
1 teaspoon chilled syrup from Candied Tangerines, or 1 teaspoon simple syrup

Juice the tangerine into an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Add the vodka and syrup; shake vigorously and strain into a cocktail glass. Salud!

If you need another drink, check out my other adult libations:

Juniperotivo

Passion Fruit Caipiroskas

Basil-Vodka Gimlets
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