Thursday, January 8, 2015

"The Italian Slow Cooker" & "Camille Glenn's Old-Fashioned Christmas Cookbook" - Lentil Soup and Good Fortune Tea Cake - Lucky Foods for the New Year

Date I made these recipes:  January 1, 2015 – New Year's Day

The Italian Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone
Published by:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN:  978-0-547-00303-0
Recipe:  Sicilian Lentil, Vegetable, and Pasta Soup – p. 32

Camille Glenn's Old-Fashioned Christmas Cookbook by Camille Glenn, author of The Heritage of Southern Cooking
Published by: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
ISBN:  1-56512-102-1
Purchased at Arc's Value Village
Recipe:  Good Fortune Tea Cake – p. 200-203

Well, Happy New Year, everyone!

As is usual and customary, I decided to make something with beans (or lentils, as the case may be) to bring good fortune to our household for the coming year.  And then I found this recipe for Good Fortune Tea Cake and thought "why not," right?  Can there ever be an abundance of good fortune?  I think not.

And though we are far away from baseball season, let me use a baseball analogy for these recipes:  the soup was a swing and a miss as it lacked any flavor whatsoever, but the tea cake was a home run.  This concludes my baseball analogy.

Let's start with the Italian Slow Cooker cookbook.  I have a couple of books by Michele Scicolone and so when I saw this one, I thought it would probably be fantastic because her stuff usually is.  But I sensed going in that this recipe would not be another home run hit based on two things:  1) using water instead of chicken or vegetable broth to cook these lentils.  Water doesn't have much flavor, folks.  Broth does.  And 2) the instructions call for you to add salt and pepper but only after cooking the soup for 7 hours.  Believe me, I salted and I peppered and it was still one very bland meal.

Normally, I never alter a recipe for this blog because I want to evaluate the thing "as is," but this time around,  after tasting it midway through, I added a lot of Italian spices.  Still, this only upped the flavor profile (such that it was) a little bit.  And I should have really cheated and used chicken broth.  Live and learn, folks.  Live and learn.

The author also suggests that we add Pecorino Romano to the dish which is always a good idea, but in my book, the flavor should be there before adding any accoutrements.  So for this boo-boo, I'm going to have to ding our author. Nothing personal, Michele!

As to other recipes in this book, many sounded good but I was stuck on the lentil thing to bring us good luck and so there's that.  Still, two good things came out of these experiments from New Year's Eve (previous posts) and New Year's Day:  first, deep down, I'm a bread stuffing versus cornbread dressing gal, and by bread stuffing, I mean my mother's recipe that includes bread, onions, celery and sage.  No need to get all crazy about this stuff.  Second,  as between lentils and the black eyed peas used in Hoppin' John, another New Year's Day southern favorite, it's lentils every time.  I just don't get the point of black eyed peas.  Do not. 

But the cake.  Oh people, THE CAKE!  My gawd, it was awesome and so unexpected!  And hilariously, it was from a southerner so I figure that balances out my previous attempts with cornbread dressing and Hoppin' John.

And although I intended that just my husband and I partake of this incredible edible, we were invited over to my mother-in-law's for a New Year's Day open house and so we came bearing gifts.  There's nothing like the pressure of serving all these people a cake we've never made or had yet to taste but they swooned at first bite. 

I suppose I could just tell you all that the making of this cake was all so simple but that's not how these things go.  So here's how this thing went:  I was too busy cooking on New Year's Eve to get around to making the cake the night before so I asked my husband if he would take out the butter and eggs on New Year's Day to bring them up to room temp (as directed) so I could make the cake that morning.  But when I woke up that morning, I had a near-migraine and so he ended up making the entire cake.  And for the record, no, this was not a hangover migraine.  We ate dinner kind of late on New Year's Eve, and as soon as we sat down, I was wiped out.  In fact, I only had half of my usual and customary martini and that was all the "good cheer" I was able to manage that night.  I fell asleep at 10:30 and so Andy had to ring in the New Year all by himself and that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

So I don't know why I had the headache the next day but it was awful.  And so I pressed  Andy into service to help out and am I a lucky gal or what that this man likes to bake?  And this recipe is a bit involved so it took some doing.  But to paraphrase the old Shake and Bake commercial "Here's how I helped:"  I pointed to the cupboards containing the sifter and the grater as well as some of the ingredients he needed and had already put out the springform pan he needed the night before so he was all set.  But thereafter, I was on the couch until go time.  But PS—I normally like the smell of oranges and orange peel but that day, the stuff smelled like that awful Orange Glo stuff you use to remove stick adhesive and if it wasn't zero outside, I would have opened a window to clear the air.  Sorry, Orange Glo people.

This recipe makes enough for either two 8 ½-inch springform pan's worth of batter or one 10-inch and we went with 10-inch.  And it makes a ton of frosting, not that there's anything wrong with that, but we had more than what was needed seeing as how we made one cake.

This recipe also calls for you to insert randomly two small blanched almonds into the cake batter with the instruction that whoever finds the almond in the piece of cake they are given will have harmony and good fortune in the year ahead.  Well folks, if some is good, more is better, right?  So I bought about a cup's worth of almonds and then blanched them and we put them all throughout the batter so that everybody got good luck.  The New Year is no time to be playing favorites with the roulette wheel of life.

I was also to have purchased 1-2 tiny mirrors to put in the center of the cake(s) and before serving the cake, everybody was to look in the mirror and make a wish.  I hate to tell you but we defied fate and skipped the mirror part.  I figured between the cake's name and the overabundance of almonds, we were good to go.

As to the rest of the cookbook, I may just have to keep this one at the ready for next year's holiday dinners.  I don't normally do that but this cake was so good and the rest of Camille's recipes also sounded so awesome that I just may.  What I loved about this book is that she put together suggested menus for the entire season and sometimes you just cannot beat that. 

So, even though the lentil soup was disappointing, the lentils alone should bring us luck and the addition of the cake into the mix should have put us over the top.

May all good things come your way in 2015.

Spinach Lentil, Vegetable, and Pasta Soup – serves 6
*Ann's Note:  Please consider using at least a half and half mixture of water and broth of your choice.  And spices such as basil, oregano, etc.  The author also suggested you can add a couple of chopped potatoes or two cups chopped green beans, winter squash or spinach leaves.  I used potatoes but they were just too bland for this dish.  Should have gone with the green beans...
1 pound brown lentils, rinsed and picked over
1 large onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
1 large celery rib with leaves, chopped
2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped or 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes
6 cups water (*Don't say you weren't warned)
 1 cup ditalini, tubetti or elbows
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Freshly grated Pecorino Romano

In a large slow cooker, combine the lentils, vegetables, and water.

Cover and cook on low for 7 hours.  (Ann's Note:  I don't think that's enough as my lentils were still a bit al dente.  I tried 8 hours and that was a little better but not by much.)  Add the pasta and salt and pepper to taste.

Cook on high for 30 minutes more, or until the pasta is tender.

Serve hot, sprinkled with the cheese.

Good Fortune Tea Cake – serves 6 to 8 per cake
For the cake
2 cups sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of ½ navel orange
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 large eggs, separated
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoons fresh orange joice
1 ½ teaspoons cognac vanilla (see page 29) or 1 tablespoon cognac
2 whole blanched almonds (Ann's Note:  most grocery stores carry slivered blanched almonds but you need them whole.  To do them yourself, pour boiling water over your almonds, just enough to cover and let sit for 1 minute.  Drain, rinse, drain again.  Peel off the skins.  Do not let the almonds sit for too long or they will be soggy.)
For the frosting
½ cup heavy or whipping cream
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 cups sifted confectioner's sugar
¼ teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 ½ teaspoons good-quality pure almond extract, or more to taste

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350F.  Butter two 8 ½-inch springform pans and dust them with flour.  (You can also use one, 10-inch springform pan).  Shake out excess flour and set the pans aside. 

Combine the sugar, lemon zest, and orange zest in a food processor and twirl until the zest is finely grated (or grate the zest by hand and add it to the sugar).

Using an electric mixer, beat the zest mixture and butter together until thoroughly blended.  Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating until the mixture is smooth and creamy.

In another mixing bowl, combine the flour with the baking powder and salt; stir well.  Alternating, add the milk and the flour to the egg mixture.  Do not overbeat.

Add the lemon juice, orange juice, and vanilla and blend carefully.

Beat the egg whites until they hold a stiff peak.  Gently fold a third of the whites into the batter to lighten it.  Then fold in the remaining whites, mixing gently but thoroughly.  Pour the batter into the prepared pans and poke and almond down into the batter of each pan. 

Bake the cakes on the lower rack of the preheated oven until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean, 50 minutes to 1 hour.

Watch the cakes carefully – if they overbake they will be dry.  Don't let them cook so long that the cake separates from the sides of the pan – that's too long.

Allow the cakes to cool in the pans for 5 minutes.  Then remove them from the pans and set them on wire racks to cool thoroughly before frosting them.

Frost the cakes:  place a small mirror in the center of each cake and frost around the edges to seal it in place.  Then cover the remaining top and sides of the cakes with the frosting.  Place each cake on a stand or platter and arrange a few very small edible flowers around the mirrors.

Before serving the cakes, each guest in turn looks into the mirror and makes a wish.  The person who finds an almond in his slice will have a year of harmony and good fortune – it's a promise!

The author also notes that "This is one of the best cakes I know for its "keeping" qualities.  Store in an airtight container, it will stay moist for days.  (Ann's Note:  this is assuming you have any left!)

To make the frosting, heat the cream in a small saucepan until it is warm. 

Using an electric mixer or food processor, cream the butter, confectioners' sugar, and salt together until smooth.  Slowly add the warm cream, beating until smooth.  Add the almond extract.  If you won't be using the frosting immediately, cover and refrigerate it.

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