Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Too Big To Fail...

Let me just start by saying that, try as I might (and I do try) I am not much of a baker.

I love the IDEA of baking... The thought of spending an afternoon or a late night listening to music, sipping wine and baking a cake sounds so romantic.

Deeply nurturing.
It sounds like the person I want to be.

Smash cut to reality, like an episode of 30 Rock!

Flour-covered measuring cups strewn all over flour-covered kitchen...

A five pound bag of sugar upended because, naturally, I forgot to roll it closed...

Recipe book open, pages glued together with drying egg...

The wall beside the Kitchenaid mixer Jackson Pollocked with cake batter from when I thought I was turning off the motor as I lifted out the arm, but instead was turning it to high...

It is a sad state of affairs when your face, hair, shirt, and even your bra are covered in olive oil cake batter and there is no one to help, let alone lick it off. Gaah!

The worst part of my romantic delusion, is that, in my head, I am a bad-ass, Iron Chef challenge baker. Recipe looks really difficult? Sign me up! A cake always seems like a better idea when the recipe is too complex to fail...

Right before Christmas there was this great article in the New York Times about women in Alabama who make these crazy layer cakes. For the three of you readers who have been along since the beginning, you know that I am particularly obsessed with layer cakes. I love that someone cares enough to make three, four or even fifteen layers of cake! And then Filling. And then frosting. And, layer cake being a southern phenomenon, many of them also include a significant amount of booze, which just makes me love them more.

So, back to that article. Naturally, I just HAD to make the caramel cake, because Nancy McDermott, the author of "Southern Cakes" described the boiled icing as "just a demon to make." Who wouldn't want to immediately abandon all other projects to make a demon cake?

Particularly a demon cake that involves Hot Caramel: The Other Napalm! (I am a scarred veteran of the Hot Caramel Wars, people: See Croquembouche, one of the original "Too Big To Fail" baking projects... Scroll down for the step by step...)
You may be impressed, or more likely, troubled by the fact that I built an entire dinner for twenty around a cake that I didn't know how to make.

The really hilarious thing is that because I was feeding so many people (okay... It ended up being twenty-five) I had to make TWO layer cakes. Thinking back to numerous other baking disasters, I had a moment of clarity and figured I ought to make one caramel cake and another cake that I (gasp!) knew how to make, so, worst-case scenario, IF the caramel cake is totally fucked up, at least I will have an INSURANCE layer cake to feed the crowd á la loaves and fishes.
But what other cake? Something boozy. Something buttery. Something tall...


I remembered that I WROTE the recipe for the perfect cake! I made the Lane Cake recipe from Forking Fantastic, but instead of dried fruits and nuts and the, um, bacon in the frosting, I just made it with butter, egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla. Oh, and BOURBON.

As you probably predicted when you began reading this post (because, let's face it, I'm no Agatha Christie,) The Caramel Cake... fine, but the icing? Kind of fucked up. The instructions about caramelizing half of the sugar and then adding the rest was a little bit strange. Also, so sweet it made my teeth hurt even to look at it, but the Lane Cake adapted?

RiDONKulous. Ri-fucking-diculously delicious.

Were both cakes listing slightly because the layers weren't even? Definitely.

Did I try to level it with more icing between the layers, making it more uneven? Oh, hells yeah.

Was there flour all over the kitchen and a horrible sugar spill that rivaled the Exxon Valdez? Ummm... what do you think?
Did it take me three hours to make two cakes? Nine to Noon, baby.

Oh.... right. Then there was the REST of the meal...

I had another lovely Middle Of The Night visit to the Hunts Point Fish Market to purchase oysters from my boyfriend John at Blue Ribbon Fish (Karl insists that all my boyfriends be purveyors). John suggested Wellfleets and Hemlocks, so that's what I bought...

When I got the oysters home at 3 AM (thanks to Mackenzie's sweet VW) I had planned to put them on the balcony (what I call "the walk-in") and quickly realized that the outside temperature was going down to 19 degrees, lethal to the little fellers. Fortunately, my friends at the corner restaurant, being awesome neighbors, kept the bags of oysters in their fridge overnight. The original plan for the oysters had been to grill them, but the frigid forecast killed that idea. Matt and Ted Lee's book gave me the idea to grill them about five years ago, and their fallback plan was to do them in boiling water in the oven. If it's good enough for The Lee Brothers, it is certainly good enough for ME!

So I put the oysters in hotel pans, poured in a little boiling water, and let them ride it out in a 475 degree oven for ten minutes or thereabouts. The first batch, only a few opened so I decided to throw them back in for two more minutes.

They all opened, and were partially cooked, warm and briny. PERFECT for the classic mignonette of shallots, black pepper, and red wine vinegar.

Since this was the first SND of 2010, I thought Hoppin' John would be a great addition. I combined 2 recipes-- Edna Lewis' from In Pursuit of Flavor, which calls for Ham Hock, onion, garlic, chili flake, black eyed peas and rice, and a Lee Brothers recipe which also adds tomatoes.

I added some slab bacon lardons for good measure. The result? Smoky, Spicy, rich bean and rice goodness. A GREAT way to start the new year!

I creamed some scallions (trimmed them, wilted in a little boiling water then reduced heavy cream and butter a bit and combined them)

Hoppin' John and Creamed Scallions!

Turnips got peeled, diced and were poached in pork stock with their tops, some radish tops and watercress, then finished with Bittersweet smoked paprika.

Karl made FABULOUS slaw from red and savoy cabbages, fennel, green apple and daikon radishes, apple cider vinegar, olive oil and fried pickling spices. It rocked.

Oh... and to start? Crusty bread slathered with butter, canned tomatoes and fresh garlic. I know... it sounds ghetto, but it is soooooo good! Think of it as the winter version of Pan Con Tomate.

Look at this beautiful crowd!

Look at this sexy-ass cake perched on this stunningly beautiful cake stand! (Thanks, Maria!)

Every Sunday Night Dinner crowd is different. There is never a 'bad' crowd, here. Sure, there is the occasional guest who doesn't "get it," treats us like The Help, and is subsequently disappointed with the quality of "service" and never returns.

This Crowd? Hall Of Fame.

The most fun, partying-est (not really a word, I know,) eat it all up (in a good way) crowd that I can recall. Truly excellent. Half old peeps, half new. Of the new guests, the Most Inspiring Award goes to Dave and Emma from Brighton, ENGLAND, who came after seeing us on Jamie Oliver's American Road Trip. They were so delightful, and had such a good time, and, most importantly, they willingly came to a house full of strangers to have dinner. They said it was the highlight of their trip, which made Karl cry.

And what did we learn?

1)According to a very nice police officer, if you are driving home from the fish market at 3 A.M., and there is a car accident BEHIND you you do NOT need to exit your car to be verbally abused by an old Greek man until the Po Po arrive. You are, in fact, free to drive away once you determine that no one was injured and you can tell the aforementioned old Greek man to Go Fuck Himself (in the nicest tone possible, of course.)

2) As safe as New York City is, you are wise to feel a teeny bit hinky when you are shopping for shellfish at the Hunts Point Market by your little lonesome at 2 A.M.

3) Oysters take about twelve minutes to open up in the oven, and they won't be overcooked so don't worry about that.

4) Oyster knives are DANGEROUS. (I'm looking at you, Annemarie...)

5) If you live in another state and come to Sunday Night Dinner it is right, good and proper to hit it off with two nice Astoria boys and crash on their sofa. Especially when you have teenagers at home. (I LOVE this woman. She is my HERO.)

6) I wrote a Fucking Delicious layer cake recipe.

7) Using my favorite enamel top table as a barrier/buffer/surface in the kitchen is seriously good for my mental health.

8) The Sunday Night Dinners In Astoria are going to be FABULOUS this year. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Meleyna said...

Gaaaah those layer cakes! I made one for my son's second birthday because I'm pretty amazing like that. And for future cakes, I highly suggest baking ahead and freezing the layers seperately. Not only does it make party prep easier, but it makes assembling the cake less stressful, because the layers are a lot sturdier frozen. They thaw out like that.

A coworker that you went to high school with shared your blog with me--glad she did!