Thursday, March 26, 2009

Stealing Cakes from Ray

T.S. Eliot claimed, "good poets borrow, great poets steal." I would agree. I would also speculate this maxim applies to cooks as well as poets. A good cook will improvise, but a great cook can steal a recipe and reinvent it, tweak the tiniest of ingredients and bloom something, even the simplest of cakes, into something sinful. I confess. I steal all the time. Yet, I'd like to think of myself more as the innocent bystander type, rather than the main accomplice. I am not talented enough to carry out a crime alone or re-invent the creme brulee, not yet. Frankly, I think of myself in the kitchen as I do a writer : I am a revisionist. After teaching writing long enough, I know if you want to write well, then you have to read well. I read all the time, write a lot, but revise the most. Revision is really re-seeing, re-inventing and fundamentally an essential part of trying to clarify what you want to say. Revision is also an essential part of learning how to cook well.

Perhaps I have my midwestern background to thank for my revisionist approach. Maybe it comes from yet another maxim often under-heard at church potlucks. It is commonly heard at humid family reunions in the middle of July in mosquito infested lakes of northern Minnesota. This phrase is often muffled or said as an aside and the speaker rarely expects a reply in return. Perhaps you've heard this even out of the midwest by a midwesterner fumbling to compliment with the token phrase: "It could be worse." After this is said, expect a long pause by the speaker, followed by a shrug of their shoulders and almost always staring at their shoes or the sky.

Thankfully while living overseas, I didn't have to translate this phrase for any of my students in Polish, French or even Italian. No, the Poles would say, no, actually it can be worse. The French, they would argue what is worse for whom and the Italians, well, this as a concept doesn't even exist for them. Why should it? Why would an Italian even think about something being worse, when life is so good? What would be the point?

And frankly, what is the point in thinking about how something could be worse? Are midwesterners really the downers of this nation, tugging all us down as the great Bible belt of our country expands? Or are we the great realists ready for something really bad? Of course, I am biased. I was born there so I prefer to think of midwesterners as merely revisionists or ironic idealists. We appreciate something by stressing that it is good, by recognizing that it could have been bad, but it isn't. It would sound too cliche and vulnerable for someone while putting a spoon into a red jell-o mold with floating tangerine pieces or piling on another portion of a green bean casserole to say, "this is great, I've never had jell-o like this before" or "I cannot believe these beans aren't fresh?" Could someone really say, "when did mushroom soup become so good?" Nope. We return to what we know with our paper plates filled with slightly muted shades of green or more vibrant hues of red and respond with, "well, it could be worse."

However, it is preciously these kinds of food experiences which haunt me today and cause me to steal recipes--to resurrect my taste buds and believe there is more to flavor then salt and sweet. I have grown to believe canned mushroom soup is not to be trusted, ever and cakes don't have to be drenched in sugar frosting iced with phrases like, "happy retirement chuck" to be considered a cake. Cakes, as I have written about previously, can be bound by Spanish cheese instead of gluten and this cake that I share with you can be made with only seven ingredients and not one egg. I cannot say that this cake reminds me of anything I had at a church potluck and of course this is a recipe I have stolen. Ray Risho, a guru in our cooking school and community, made this cake for a class and I want everyone I know to make it.

Ray Risho looks like he came out of the streets of Damascus but with a Cape Cod accent. I love Ray because he greets me in Polish, calls me Amelia and teaches cooking classes with maps. He once did a cooking class on Lebanese Mountain cooking and brought in a faded atlas with a pointer and said, "Amelia, focus the television on this." Looking up to the audience, grabbing each person's eyes, he slowly said, "This, this is Lebanon. And I am sorry that we don't have a fresh goat to slaughter for you tonight." This was said in earnest seriousness. We may not have had a goat, but we ate some of the best lamb I have ever had. I have learned more from Ray than any other individual in the kitchen, because he doesn't just teach how to be a better cook, he teaches how to be a better human. For Ray, food is something to honor, savor, and really not how it can be worse, but how something simple can be the best. To learn that flavor has a history, it comes from a marriage of culture and language, and that cooking doesn't have to be complicated to be good.

And this cake is that, so simple it will surprise you. Ray made this for a Tuscany Cooking class and asked me if we should serve it with cream. I thought it needed a little something while reading the recipe on the page, but it doesn't. And Ray said, "Okay Amelia, you young people like things sweet, I'll whip up some cream." But the cream wasn't whipped cream with a dash of sugar. It was infused with saffron and pear juice with a bit of sugar. It was a trip in white. I'll let Ray keep his cream recipe to himself, but I have stolen and now will share his Fennel Cake recipe with you and I bet you won't be saying, "it could be worse" by the smells that will fill your kitchen or the flavors in your mouth.

Fennel Cake

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup ground almond flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup milk or 1/2 & 1/2
1 1/2 tablespoons of fennel seed

1. Preheat oven at 350 degrees.
2. Rub butter into a 9 inch spring form pan.
3. In a small bowl, combine flour, almond flour, sugar and baking powder. Mix well.
4. Gradually add milk or half and half.
5. In a small saute pan, dry roast fennel seeds. Crush seeds, slightly, using a mortar and pestle. Fold seeds into batter.
6. Pour batter into prepared pan.
7. Bake for about 30 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve.

Yields: 4 to 6 servings.

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