Friday, June 18, 2010

Dessert First


My parents were in for a visit a few weekends ago.  I always love cooking for them, and wish so much I could do it more often.  Were Ben and I living in Toledo, I imagine myself cooking for the two of them all the time - having them over for weeknight dinners, bringing them samples of new recipes I’m experimenting with, or the left-overs from too-big-for-just-the-two-of-us desserts, and making for them all of the delicious things I can now only describe in our phone conversations.  Ah well, someday maybe.  But until that day, I’ll just have to keep on relishing their special visits, and keep on celebrating these visits with extra-special food. 

And that reminds me of something else special – the two other guests we had over this night.  Tim, a man whom my dad had recently met at a business seminar in Chicago, and his wife Maggie.  Aside from Dad and Tim’s quick meeting and mutual agreement that they’d like to meet up again, Tim and Maggie were, on the whole, complete strangers to all of us.  So when Dad had the idea to invite them over for dinner, I was, to be honest, a little nervous.  Nervous to be  cooking for people I didn’t yet know, and nervous too, that the night might turn out to be a total dud.  This kind of stranger-filled situation could easily turn out to be a more than bit awkward.  So, in the back of my mind, I was a bit afraid it wasn’t going to be all that fun of an evening.  Needless to say, I was completely wrong.  As soon as Tim and Maggie entered our apartment, all full of smiles and warmth and grace, I knew these were wonderful people, and that this was going to be a really wonderful night.  And this time, I was completely right. 

Radishes & Butter on Sliced French Bread
Baked Radicchio & Goat Cheese with Herbed Olive Oil & Crostini
Bacon-Wrapped Salmon with Whole-Grain Mustard
Wild Rice Risotto Cakes
Vinegary Red Cabbage and Beet Slaw
Black Berry-Brown Sugar Cake

When designing the menu this week, I worked backwards, deciding on dessert first, then picking and choosing the entree, sides and appetizers to go along with it.  So I think today, just to mix things up a bit, I’ll follow that pattern again, and we’ll have dessert first. 

Fresh Blackberries

Earlier in the week, needing inspiration for this dinner party, I ended up turning to an old shoe box, sitting  way up on the top shelf in our office closet, packed full of ripped-out recipes from old cooking magazines.  In the midst of this unruly stash, I found a jagged patch of paper containing both a picture and recipe for the absolute most gorgeous cake I’d ever seen.  I’d completely forgotten about this all-too-beautiful confection, with its three-layers of walnut-brown sugar cake, its topping of fresh blackberries, and its decadent brown sugar buttercream frosting.  As soon as I stumbled upon this recipe, I knew beyond a doubt that I’d found this week’s dessert.  And I could think of hardly anything else for the rest of the week.

Blackberry - Brown Sugar Cake

Isn’t she a beauty?!  It’s one of those cakes that’s just so pretty, it’s hard to imagine it tasting as good as it looks.  But I’ll tell you honestly, that was not the case with this cake.  Not the case at all.  If anything, this cake tasted even better than it looked.  Way better.  In fact, flipping through the files of my memory, I do think this is the best cake I’ve ever made.  It was incredibly, unbelievable delicious.  First of all, the brown sugar buttercream frosting – rich and smooth and utterly luscious – was simply out of this world.  And the cake itself was just incredible.   Tender and unbelievably moist, with hints of orange lingering among the vanilla and brown sugar, each delicate layer with enclosed within a crackly crust of sugar and finely-ground walnuts.  On top of the cake glistened lovely, fresh blackberries, coated in blackberry syrup.  The sweet-tart berries were perfect companions for the sugary cake and rich, creamy frosting, making every last bite taste like pure heaven.

Bacon-Wrapped Salmon with Wild Rice Risotto Cakes & Vinegary Slaw

After deciding undoubtedly and all too easily on this fabulous dessert, it was a bit more difficult coming up with a fitting main course.  Thinking and thinking about it for way too long, and talking and talking about it with my incredibly helpful and wonderfully creative friend Ralph, I finally settled on bacon-wrapped salmon with whole grain mustard.  It turned out to be, just like the cake, absolutely delicious.  As the salmon cooks to a perfect doneness, the bacon crisps beneath the oven broiler, and its melting fat bastes the fish.  A light smear of whole grain mustard adds a spicy punch to the rich bacon-wrapped salmon, pleasantly taming its richness and toning down it’s decadence to the perfect level.

Whole-Grain Mustard

Alongside the salmon, wild rice risotto cakes.  Chewy, nutty wild rice is folded into velvety smooth risotto, along with a gigantic handful of sliced scallions, and a more modest amount of parsley and parmesan cheese.  Small scoops of this risotto batter are dropped in sizzling oil, then pan-fried to form crunchy, golden brown cakes with tender, creamy insides.  The smooth insides and crispy outsides, with chewy specks of nutty brown rice and fresh green flecks of spicy scallions, combine to make every bite of these pretty cakes downright delicious. 

Wild Rice

To cut the creaminess of the risotto cakes and the impressive richness of the bacon-wrapped salmon, something tart and tangy was certainly called for.  And that’s where this vinegary slaw came in to play.  Sweet beets, bright crunchy red cabbage, crunchier carrots and a puckery vinegar dressing all came together to create the perfect foil to all that lavish richness.  With its touch of mustard and bit of dill, this vibrant coleslaw would be delicious next to any rich dish.  Or any poor one for that matter.  Or even, all on its own.

Thinly Slicing Red Cabbage

If I had a hard time making up my mind about a main course, I had an even harder one deciding on hors d’oeuvres.  In the end – i.e. in the aisles of the produce market - I finally though up what I should make to start off the night.  Some beautiful radishes reminded me of a classic and (more importantly) simple hors d’oeuvre:  French bread with butter, sliced radishes and sea salt.  It’s hard to imagine, and also hard to describe, how tasty these simple little open-faced sandwiches are.  You’ll just have to try them out for yourself.  Lucky for you, this will be quick and easy to do!
The other hors d’oeuvre I served this night, was nearly as quick and easy as the first.  A crumbling of creamy goat cheese topped a quick shredding of radicchio, then got popped into a hot oven, until it was hot and melty and golden brown on top.  Fresh out of the oven, it was drizzled with a fragrant herb-infused olive oil and sprinkled with a pinch of fresh thyme leaves.  With some crunchy French bread crostini served on the side, this baked goat cheese was a delicious and sophisticated dip, a perfect start to a meal that started with a perfect dessert. 
Radicchio & Goat Cheese
Radishes & Butter on Sliced French Bread
Serves 4
Radishes & Butter on Sliced French Bread
about 1/2 a French baguette
great quality butter, unsalted, room temperature (I like this brand.)
flaky sea salt (I love this brand.)
1 bunch radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced
Slice the baguette cross-wise into 1/4-inch thick slices.  Spread butter liberally over the bread slices, then sprinkle with the salt.  Top with the sliced radishes.  Serve immediately.


Baked Radicchio & Goat Cheese with Herbed Olive Oil & Crostini
Adapted from Bon Appétit Magazine, May 1990
Serves 6
Baked Radicchio & Goat Cheese with Herbed Olive Oil 
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled & smashed
1 sprig rosemary
4 sprigs thyme
1 large head radicchio, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
12 oz creamy goat cheese, crumbled
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
about 30 French bread crostini (from about 1/2 a baguette)
Combine the olive oil and garlic in a small saucepot.  Place over medium heat and cook until the garlic is golden, about 10 minutes.  Turn off the heat, then add the rosemary and thyme sprigs, submerging them beneath the oil.  Allow the oil-garlic-herb mixture to rest at room temperature 1 hour.  Strain, discarding the garlic and herbs and reserving the oil.  The flavored oil can be made a day or two ahead and stored at room temperature in an airtight container. 
Preheat the oven to 400ᵒF.  Arrange the sliced radicchio over the base of a shallow baking dish.  (I used a 10-inch wide circular ceramic dish.)  Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Crumble the goat cheese evenly over the radicchio.  Bake until the cheese begins to melt, and the top is lightly golden brown, about 15-20 minutes.  Remove from the oven, drizzle with a couple tablespoons of the herbed olive oil and sprinkle with the thyme leaves.  Serve hot with the crostini on the side.


Bacon-Wrapped Salmon with Whole-Grain Mustard
Serves 4
Bacon-Wrapped Salmon with Whole-Grain Mustard
4 6-0z skinless filets of salmon (about 2 inches wide)
4 tsp whole-grain mustard
4 slices bacon
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
8 wooden toothpicks
Preheat the broiler on high, and arrange an oven rack 4-inches under the broiler.
Pat the salmon filets dry with paper towels, then season with salt and pepper.  Spread 1 tsp mustard evenly over the top (the pretty, presentation side) of each filet.  Trim each bacon slice so that it’s just slightly longer than the length of the salmon filets.  Lay one slice of bacon length-wise over each fillet.  Using two toothpicks per fillet, secure the bacon to the salmon, at each end of the fillet. 
Arrange the fillets, bacon-side up, on a wire rack placed over a foil-lined baking pan.  (Arrange the fillets in a straight line down the center of the rack, so that they fit evenly under the broiler flame.)  Broil for about 7 minutes, until the bacon is crispy and golden.  Flip the fillets over, then place under the broiler again.  Bake until the fish is just cooked through, about 3 minutes more.  Remove the toothpicks from the ends of the salmon fillets, then serve immediately.  


Wild Rice Risotto Cakes
Makes about 12 cakes
Wild Rice Risotto Cakes
1 quart (4 cups) water
2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup wild rice
1 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbl butter
1 cup chopped yellow onion (about 1 large onion)
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced, white and green parts separated
1 Tbl chopped fresh thyme
1 small garlic clove, finely minced
1 1/4 cup Arborio rice
3-4 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock, hot
1/4 cup sherry
1/2 cup finely-grated parmesan
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 large egg yolks, lightly whisked
about 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, for pan-frying
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Combine 1 quart water and 1 tsp salt in a medium-sized saucepot.   Bring to a boil over high heat, then add the wild rice.  Simmer, covered, and stirring occasionally, 60 minutes. Drain and reserve the wild rice.
Heat the olive oil and butter in a medium-sized pot over medium heat, until the butter is melted.  Add chopped yellow onion and the sliced green onions (white parts only).  Season with a good pinch of salt and a few good grinds of pepper.  Sauté, stirring occasionally, until softened and translucent, about 5-7 minutes.  Add the chopped thyme and minced garlic, and continue to cook, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes more.  
Add the Arborio rice and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes.  Stir in about 1/2 cup of heated stock, and simmer, stirring frequently, until the stock is absorbed.  Continue adding stock, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently as it simmers, and letting each cup be absorbed before adding another, until the rice is tender but still just a bit al dente, about 20-25 minutes.  (You may not need all the stock.) Stir in the sherry, and simmer until absorbed.  Remove the risotto from the heat, add the grated parmesan, and stir vigorously to combine.  Taste the risotto, and season as needed with salt and pepper
Add the cooked wild rice, the sliced green onions (the green parts now), and the chopped parsley to the risotto.  Using a rubber spatula, fold everything together until well combined.  Allow the mixture to cool, about 15 minutes, then stir in the egg yolks, mixing thoroughly with the rubber spatula.  Chill the risotto in the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap, for at least 4 hours, and up to 1 day. 
Heat about 2 Tbl olive oil in a large non-stick sauté pan until very hot, but not smoking.  (You can test the heat of the pan by dropping just a small bit of batter into the oil.  You’re hoping for a gentle sizzle.  No sizzle at all means the pan and oil aren’t hot enough yet, so give it a bit more time.  If the bit of batter burns right away, the pan is too hot, so lower the heat.)  Place four 1/4-cup sized scoops of rice batter into the pan one at a time, using your hands to flatten them into disk shapes (about 3-inches wide and 1/2-inch thick) just before lowering them into the pan.  Cook until the cakes are golden brown on the bottom side and they lift easily from the pan with a metal spatula, about 5 minutes. (Resist the urge to touch these before they’re done.  Don’t force them up from the pan with the spatula, or you’ll have a mess.  They’ll life easily when they’re ready.)  Lower the heat if the cakes are browning too quickly.  Carefully flip the cakes over using a metal spatula, and cook until golden brown on the bottom, about 4 minutes.  Transfer the cakes to wire rack placed over a baking pan.  Repeat these steps to pan-fry the rest of the cakes, wiping the sauté pan clean with paper towels between batches, and adding more oil as needed.  This pan-frying step can be done ahead of time, by about eight hours.  Keep the cakes refrigerated and covered with plastic.  Warm to room temperature before continuing.
At dinner time:  Preheat the oven to 450ᵒF.  Place the pan of rice cakes into the oven and bake until hot and sizzling, about 7-8 minutes.  Serve hot.


Vinegary Red Cabbage & Beet Slaw
Serves 6
Vinegary Red Cabbage & Beet Slaw
2 medium-sized beets
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbl apple cider vinegar
2 Tbl sugar
1 Tbl whole grain mustard
1/3 cup vegetable oil
6 cups thinly sliced red cabbage (about 1/2 a large head)
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion, soaked in cool water for 15 minutes then drained *
3 large carrots, peeled, coarsely grated (about 3 cups)
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cut off and discard the stem and tails of the beets. Wrap each beet in foil and place on a sheet pan. Roast until a toothpick can easily be poked into the center of the beets, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Cool.  When beets are cool enough to handle, peel them.  (The skins should easily slide off – you shouldn’t even need a vegetable peeler, just use your hands.)  Using the large holes of a vegetable grater, coarsely grate the beets.
Combine the apple cider vinegar, sugar and mustard in a large mixing bowl.  Season with a good pinch of salt and a few good grinds of pepper.  Slowly add the vegetable oil, pouring in a thin stream and whisking as you pour.  Add the sliced cabbage, chopped onion, grated carrots, dill and grated beets to the dressing, season with salt and pepper, and toss well to coat.  Let stand for about 45 minutes, tossing occasionally.  Taste, and season as needed with more salt or pepper.  Serve at room temperature. 
* This tempers some of the onion’s pungency.


Blackberry-Brown Sugar Cake
Adapted from Gourmet, September 2006
Serves 10
Blackberry-Brown Sugar Cake
For the blackberry syrup:
1 # blackberries (about 3 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
For the cake:
2 oz walnuts (2/3 cups)
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing the cake pans
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk, well shaken
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
2 Tbl fresh orange juice
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs
For the buttercream frosting:
3 large egg whites, room temperature
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup water
3 sticks unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
For assembling the cake:
1 # blackberries (about 3 1/2 cups)
Make the blackberry syrup:
Combine the blackberries and sugar in a medium-sized saucepot and mash using a potato masher or fork.  Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 10-12 minutes.  Stir in the lemon juice.  Strain through a mesh sieve, pushing down on the solids to extract as much juice as possible.  Discard the seeds.  Chill the syrup in the refrigerator, until softly set, about 15 minutes.  This can be made at least a day ahead and kept refrigerated in an air-tight container.  Bring to room temperature before using. 
Make the cake
Preheat the oven to 350ᵒF and arrange the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.
Using a food processor, pulse the walnuts with 1/2 cup sugar until finely ground.  Generously butter 3 8-inch round cake pans.  (It’s okay to use 9-inch pans too, but your cake won’t be as tall.)  Divide the walnut-sugar mixture between the three pans (about 1/3 cup per pan).  Tilt the pans to coat the bottoms and sides with the walnut-sugar mixture, letting the excess remain over the bottom of the pans.
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking soda and salt.  Whisk to thoroughly combine.  In a separate small mixing bowl, stir together the buttermilk, orange zest, orange juice and vanilla.
Using an electric stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter (2 sticks), light brown sugar, and the remaining 1/2 cup of granulated sugar, on medium-high speed, until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Add the eggs, one at a time and beating well after each addition.  Reduce the speed to low and add the flour and the buttermilk mixtures alternatively in batches, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.  Mix just until the batter is smooth.  Divide the batter evenly among the three cake pans.
Bake, rotating the position of the pans about half-way through baking, until the edges begin to pull away from the sides of the pan and a wooden skewer inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean, about 30 minutes.  Cool the cakes in the pans, placed on wire racks, for 15 minutes.  Then run a thin knife around the edge of each pan.  Invert racks over the pans, then flip the cakes onto the racks.  Cool completely to room temperature, about 1 hour.  The cake layers can be baked up to 2 days ahead and kept at room temperature, wrapped in plastic.
Make the buttercream frosting:
Place the egg whites and salt into the bowl of an electric stand mixer, fitted with the whisk. 
Combine the the dark brown sugar and water in a small saucepot.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.  When the sugar syrup begins to boil, start beating the egg whites at medium-high speed until they just hold soft peaks (When you stick a spoon into the cream and lift it out, a point will form then droop down after a second or two). (Do not beat them again until the sugar syrup is ready.)
Meanwhile, continue boiling the sugar syrup until it reaches 238-242ᵒF.  Immediately remove it from the heat and with the mixer at high speed, slowly pour the hot syrup into the egg whites (avoid the beaters), beating constantly.
Continue to beat the meringue, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula once or twice, until the meringue is cool to the touch, about 10 minutes.  (It is very important the the meringue is cool before continuing, or the butter will melt!!!) 
With the mixer at medium speed, gradually add the butter to the meringue, 1 piece at a time, and beating well after each addition until it is well incorporated.  Continue beating until the buttercream is smooth.  (The mixture may look curdled and thin before all the butter is added.  But don’t worry – it will come back together as the beating continues.)  Add the vanilla and beat 1 minute more.  The buttercream can be made ahead and chilled in an air-tight container for up to 1 week.  Bring to room temperature and beat with an electric mixer until smooth before using.
Assemble the cake
Put 1 cake layer, nut-side up, on a cake platter.  Spread half of the buttercream (about 1 1/2 cups) on the top, but not on the sides.  Top with a second cake layer, nut-side up.  Spread the top with the remaining 1 1/2 cups buttercream.  Top with the remaining cake layer, nut-side up. 
Gently toss the whole blackberries with the syrup in a mixing bowl.  Arrange the blackberries, stemmed sides down, on top of the cake.  The assembled cake with keep at room temperature, loosely covered, for 1 day.  


  1. Food looks great Kate! Erin and I say hi! Keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you, Kipp. Great to hear from you! And hello back to the two of you, from me and Ben!