When it comes to indulgences, I prefer to blow my “calorie budget” on an exquisite piece of cheese*, a succulent slice of fat-studded saucisson, or a glistening leg of duck confit (with accompanying duck-fat-roasted potatoes, of course). In fact, I’ll usually forgo the dessert course altogether, having sated myself on one or more of the above. But I was making Marvin a Valentine’s supper, and the menu didn’t feel complete without dessert. Things were going in a somewhat Italian direction (rabbit braised in red wine; polenta with roasted garlic & honey; broccoli raab sautéed with anchovy & red pepper) so I thought of an olive oil cake- not too rich, just a subtly sweet ending.
The recipe I chose was a plain, unadorned sponge cake, enlivened with the zest of a lemon and an orange, a slug of late-harvest dessert wine, and some finely chopped rosemary. This simple, clean flavor combination struck me as the perfect ending to a rich meal. (If it sounds a bit too austere, don’t forget that you’ll have that open bottle of dessert wine to sip along with your cake!)
This cake was especially appropriate for Valentine’s Day (or an anniversary for that matter) because rosemary symbolizes “remembrance and fidelity”. It’s often used in weddings for this very reason- in fact, I attended one wedding where rosemary plants were given out as favors for the guests to take home. I like to think that remembrance is meant not just in terms of looking back on something in the past, but rather in the sense that we should always keep our partner in our thoughts on a daily basis, remembering why we chose them and not taking them for granted. Fidelity has the obvious connotation of sexual fidelity, but it also refers to being loyal to your partner- letting them feel secure in the knowledge that you’ve got their back no matter what.
I can’t say that either of us were thinking any of these deep thoughts while eating our cake, but it was interesting to look up the meaning of rosemary and to know that it had a symbolic connection with what is supposed to be a day of celebrating romance. Although Valentine’s Day may be behind us for this year, I urge you to make this cake anytime you want to honor remembrance and fidelity, or anytime you want a simple, uncomplicated ending to a rich meal.
(*This cheese is pretty amazing with dessert wine too if you’re ever looking for something really special- it’s an artisan blue cheese wrapped in grape leaves that have been macerated in pear brandy. It’s pricey, but no more pricey per pound than really good chocolate- for 4 bucks I bought a small piece that we didn’t even finish.)
5 eggs, separated
2/3 cup sugar
2 packed tsps rosemary leaves, very finely minced
zest of one lemon
zest of one orange
4 oz. fresh, whole milk ricotta
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup Moscato, vin Santo, or other late-harvest white wine
1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
3/4 tsp sea salt
Preheat the oven to 375. Prepare a 9″ or 10″ springform pan by buttering the sides and lining the bottom with a parchment circle. Beat the yolks and sugar until pale. Stir in the citrus zest and rosemary.
In another bowl, stir together the ricotta, salt, olive oil and wine until combined. Add the ricotta mixture and the flour to the yolks, a third at a time, alternating the two.
Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks and fold them into the batter. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 and bake an additional 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Be careful not to overcook, as this is a cake that can quickly go from perfectly done to dry.
Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then unmold onto a plate and allow to finish cooling. DeBlasi suggests serving a few roasted nuts alongside the cake, as well as the dessert wine you used in the cake. If you like, you can decorate the cake with a sprinkling of powdered sugar as pictured. My favorite way to do this is to put the sugar in a mesh tea strainer and lightly tap it over the surface of the cake (use a cardboard cut-out for a “stencil”).
For those of you who read my post last week about our Valentine’s day near-disaster, you know that we had originally planned on having oxtails. I’m happy to report that I was able to make them the next day without any problems, although we did still eat late, around 9PM. This really is a dish to make the day before, or to start first thing in the morning!
I wanted to make oxtails for many reasons- because I’d never had them before; because I’d read recipes in 2 of my favorite cookbooks saying how great they were; and, OK, just because it’s a cut of meat with a cool-sounding name!
(I have to pause here and chuckle a bit at a couple friends who asked me, quite innocently, “What are oxtails?” It was as if they couldn’t quite believe it would actually be what it sounded like. I hope the photos give you a vivid understanding!)
I’m going to be lazy and not post the whole recipe for the oxtails, since it runs a few pages long, and because I think you can probably get a good oxtail recipe several places on the internets. I read two different recipes before settling on one- one was from the Zuni Café Cookbook, and the other from All About Braising. I chose the latter, not for any reason in particular except that it seemed slightly simpler (that, and the fact that I don’t often have an excuse to use a whole bottle of wine in a recipe).
To start, after trimming as much fat as I possibly could, I marinated the meat in a bottle of wine with a sachet of aromatics in cheesecloth: bay leaves, peppercorns & allspice. The allspice made it smell like mulled wine after it had sat for a day, and I was afraid its flavor was going to be too dominant, but it turned out fine. The instruction to marinate the meat for a day or so caused me to ponder: wouldn’t this cause the wine to oxidize and lose flavor? We used a pretty decent bottle of wine on this recipe since we were “splurging” for Valentine’s day, but I have to wonder if after being open to the air all that time, plus the 4-hour cooking time, would anyone be able to tell the slightest difference between that and something for $4 from Trader Joe’s?
The recipe instructed me to broil the meat before braising, to get it browned. I liked this method; you just have to keep a careful eye because it can quickly go from browned to blackened. Meanwhile, I cooked onions, carrot, celery and garlic with diced pancetta. I have to say, I thought the pancetta was gilding the lily a bit given how much fat was in the oxtails, and I don’t know that I would have missed it had I used olive oil instead. (The Zuni Café recipe actually called for a pig’s foot to add “body” to the braising liquid!! Call me a philistine, and I do love my pork, but I think there’s plenty enough bones and fat in oxtails without having to pork it up.) After the veg was cooked and the bottom of the pan started to get brown, I added some tomato paste and dried porcini mushrooms that had been soaked in warm water, and then a couple tbs brandy to deglaze the pan. The next step was to add the wine, mushroom liquid and some stock in stages and reduce it on the stove. Then the meat went in the pot, nestled tightly so it was nearly covered by the braising liquid, and into a 300-degree oven it went.
The recipe I used suggested a 4-hour braise, but after 3 1/2 hours we were getting pretty hungry so I pulled the meat out to check it. It looked plenty tender, so I removed the meat from the braise with tongs and let it cool a bit. I’m glad I decided to take it off the bone before serving, because it was so incredibly fatty that we would have ended up eating big chunks of fat had I not separated the meat and thrown a lot of the fat away. Despite my best efforts, a good deal of fat still made it back into the dish because it was so marbled in with the meat. I probably skimmed about 1 1/2 cups of liquid fat from the braising liquid as well. I knew this wasn’t going to be diet food, but I had no idea it would be THAT fatty. I am pretty inexperienced with beef though!
The meat and braising liquid (more of a compote at this stage) formed a thick, chunky ragu that we served over polenta. Chopped fresh parsley was an absolute must- I don’t know about you, but I need to taste a little something fresh and green on my palate when eating a rich meat dish. I didn’t completely shred the meat; I tried to leave it in bigger chunks, but once it was separated from the bone it pretty much fell apart. I hadn’t intended it to be a “sauce” necessarily, but then I had never made it before so didn’t know quite what to expect. I added a small amount of tomato juice and diced tomatoes (from a can) to loosen the sauce a bit and add a bright acidic note to counterbalance the richness. I think if I made it again, I would add a can of tomatoes to the braise instead of just tomato paste. That was what the Zuni recipe called for. But I think in the recipe I used, the wine was supposed to be the star ingredient; perhaps more tomato would have thrown off the balance.
We definitely enjoyed this dish immensely, and I’m glad I got to try my hand at something new, but I’m not sure if it will become part of my repertoire. For one thing, the cost of the dish was just about as much as a fancy dinner for two in a restaurant! In addition to the $13 bottle of wine we dumped in there, the cheapest oxtails we found were at the Honeybee Market for $3.50/lb, and it called for 5 lbs. I would guesstimate that we ended up with less than a pound of actual meat at the end of the cooking process. I do kind of want to try Judy Rodgers’ recipe at some point for comparison’s sake though- she salts the meat a day ahead rather than marinating it, and her recipe calls for less wine (1 3/4 cup) and more tomatoes. I also wouldn’t mind trying an oxtail recipe from a different part of the world- my cousin mentioned she’d had a Chinese-style oxtail dish with star anise and it intrigued me!
My second day in Portland was just as filled with deliciousness as the first, if not more so. We started out the day with coffee and savory pastries at Crema, a coffee shop/bakery near Kathy’s house. Their black coffee was some of the best I’ve ever had, and I had a difficult time choosing between all the wonderful-looking offerings. I ended up with a manchego-mushroom biscuit that was somewhat like a scone; Kathy had some kind of flaky turnover filled with eggs & veggies. Apparently on the weekends, the line goes out the door, and for good reason. We were there on a Friday morning and it was pretty full but we got a table. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera battery charged when we were there, but I popped back in later that day to snap a couple pics of their delectable-looking baked goods.
After we were sufficiently caffeinated, we decided to do some shopping in SE Portland, on SE Hawthorne St. The neighborhood is a mix of trendy independent boutiques, a couple (inter)national shops like American Apparel, and lots of reasonably-priced restaurants. We decided to re-fuel
at the Cup & Saucer, a cute little diner-style place serving mostly soups and sandwiches. The food wasn’t anything “amazing”, just your standard stuff, but our BLT and Turkey Chili hit the spot after a morning of walking around, and between the staff and the customers, it was a good place to sit and people-watch.
Next on the agenda was Portland Wine Merchants, a little wine shop tucked on a side street just off Hawthorne and run by an old neighbor of Kathy’s. Although there were definitely some pricey options in the shop, the focus seemeed to be on great wines in the $10-to-$20 range. The owner was really helpful and the store had such a nice ambience that I wanted to linger there even after we had made our selections (a Pinot Noir for Kathy, and a Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Grigio for me, to go with the potstickers we were planning on making for dinner).
Our last stop for the day was at Zupan’s Market, an upscale grocery store, for ingredients for that night’s dinner. We picked up seafood and pork for our potstickers, and kale for a side dish. At that point it was getting late in the afternoon so we headed home to get organized for our evening of cooking. Very soon (I promise!) I will be posting Kathy’s mom’s potsticker recipe as well as my recipe for “Chinese-style” kale…