Sunday, March 21, 2010

- Don't take a picture ... remember this in your heart

Once upon a time there was a little church.

As with most little churches, it was rather humble and not very well to do. But it was led by a gentle man named Father Jim+ who reassured my long-ago-young-mother self that offerings of time and talent would be valued as highly as monetary treasure. So it was that I offered my time to the cause of baking Simnel (var. Simnal) Cake.

Jim supplied both the recipe and the following explanation to the bakers who were charged with feeding the hundred or so souls who were expected to attend church the following Sunday:
Simnel Cakes are traditionally prepared on the fourth Sunday in Lent, called Mid-Lent or Mothering Sunday. The name Mothering Sunday originated from the medieval custom of visiting the Mother Church, or cathedral, on this Sunday. In parts of England, it was also the tradition of servants and apprentices to make a special visit to their parents on this day. Whatever the occasion, especially popular was the gift of Simnel Cake. It is a very rich cake shared during a brief break from the Lenten fast. Simnel Cake can be given as a gift: cut into small pieces, wrapped in shiny foil, and tied with a bit of colorful ribbon or string.
Merriam-Webster's (at, my favorite online dictionary) defines simnel as "a rich fruitcake sometimes coated with almond paste and baked for Mid-Lent." As with most Simnel Cake recipes, Jim’s called for currants and citron. And indeed it made sense that any mid-winter confection made centuries ago would have dried fruit in it. Unfortunately, a fruitcake is a fruitcake. And though I followed Jim’s recipe to the letter, I watched as most of the gifts were unwrapped and then surreptitiously trashed after a single bite.

Not being a great fan of dried fruit myself, I reasoned that my medieval predecessors would certainly have used fresh fruit had it been available. It didn’t take much of a mental leap to conclude that the candied lemon and orange peel in the recipe could be replaced with freshly grated citrus rind. I self-servingly passed over the issue of dried currants and reworked the recipe to my liking. The resulting new-style Simnel Cakes were offered at the little church for many years, with more than one parishioner requesting an “extra to take home.” If any ended up in the trash, they were few and far between … victims, no doubt, of stalwart fruitcake aficianados.

Fast forward twenty years. My younger daughter, now twenty-four, dropped in from St. Louis last weekend. Since eating well is de rigueur at any Ackert family reunion, I had stocked up, adding almond paste and fresh fruit to a shopping list heavy on tortillas, avocadoes and chipotles. Though I didn’t wrap them in foil, the Simnel Cakes made for a proper Mid-Lent celebration … a welcome break from the fast of missing Meliss.

Simnel Cake

3/4 cup butter
2 cups sugar
3 eggs (or 3/4 cup Better’n Eggs)
1 Tbs. grated lemon peel (one lemon)
1 Tbs. grated orange peel (one orange)
1 ½ cups flour
7 ounces almond paste (I use Odense)

Use a 13" x 9" baking pan with sides. Spray the pan with Baker's Joy or Pam cooking spray. Line it with parchment paper. Spray the paper with more cooking spray.

Grate the orange and lemon peel, with a microplane if possible. Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and grated peel. Stir in the flour. The dough will be like a thick cake batter.

Warm the almond paste in the microwave at 20-30% power (warm) for 30-60 seconds, until soft and pliable. Roll out the almond paste on parchment paper. The idea is to roll the paste thin enough to cover 13" x 9", but since it won't show, it doesn't have to be perfect. It can even be in pieces, which is actually easier.

Spread half the dough in the pan (the trickiest part). Lay almond paste on top of the dough. Spread the remaining dough on top of that. Don't fuss with it too much ... it will spread out as it cooks.

Bake at 300 degrees for 50-55 minutes, until golden. Cool slightly before inverting onto a cutting board. Peel off the parchment and trim the edges (great for nibbling!)

Ice with 1 to 2 cups of confectioner's sugar, 1 Tbs. melted butter, and enough lemon and orange juice to make a thin glaze.

Cut into bars. Wrap in foil and colored ribbon to make a proper gift.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

- Oh fudge!

I am absolutely, undeniably, no-doubt-about-it addicted to chocolate. Gotta have it … every day … just a little bit. Okay, sometimes more than a little bit. Hey, I’ve heard chocolate is actually good for you and until it’s proven otherwise, I’m inclined to believe it.

And so, in a conversation over dinner at the Cool Mint Café last night (a wonderfully spontaneous trek to San Marcos with our Garrison Trail neighbors), I mentioned my Mom’s hot fudge sauce with a fair degree of enthusiasm. Incredibly easy to make, it was the topping of choice on Hildebrandt’s hand-dipped vanilla ice cream when I was growing up. These days, I must confess that I sometimes make microwave ganache as an even quicker route to chocolate bliss when the vanilla Häagen-Dazs is looking lonely.

Then there’s the fudge I made for the first time this week. Inspired by a New York Times Dining section recipe, which I changed of course, it received rave reviews when passed around to my colleagues at the Alkek Library. So, without further ado, I present chocolate three ways: sauce, ganache, and fudge. May you eat them all in good health.

Mom’s Hot Fudge Sauce

2 ounces unsweetened (baking) chocolate
¼ cup sugar
1/3 cup water

The original recipe calls for cooking the sauce slowly over medium heat until satiny smooth (5-10 minutes of constant stirring). It can also be made in the microwave by alternately nuking it on high for one minute, then stirring, nuking for another minute, stirring, and finishing with another 30 seconds if needed before stirring it to its final satin glory.

Lazy Ganache Sauce

2 Tbs. heavy cream
1/3 cup Ghirardelli 60% Cacao bittersweet chocolate chips

Nuke the cream for 30 seconds. Stir in the chips until melted. Done.

I-did-it-my-way Fudge

12 ounce bag of Ghirardelli 60% Cacao bittersweet chocolate chips
4 ounces unsweetened (baking) chocolate
4 Tbs. butter
14 ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
Generous ½ cup of walnut pieces

Line an 8x8 pan with waxed paper. Melt the first four ingredients over hot water in a double boiler (you must own one of these … they are indispensable … more recipes to follow). Stir constantly (having a phone conversation at the same time is not recommended).  Fold in walnuts, pour into 8x8 pan. Refrigerate until set. Take out of pan and peel off the waxed paper. Cut into ¾” squares (they’re too rich to be any bigger … besides, you can always eat two).

And though I haven’t tried it yet, I’m thinking that toasted hazelnuts could substitute for the walnuts. Another possible variation: a sprinkling of grey sea salt. Ah … life is good when you have something to look forward to.