Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Purple Plum Torte

In the spirit of a sweet Jewish New Year, I set out to make something sugary and delicious with my excess of farmers market stone fruits, ending up with this absolutely perfect Purple Plum Torte. For the Jewish Holidays, the stakes are always high—not only am I cooking for a crowd, but everyone’s brought their best tried-and-trued Jewish dishes to the table, so my dessert needs to be on par with its foodstuff competition. Which got me thinking a lot about Jewish Tradition.

The beguiling fondness of Jewish food is a simple recipe: equal parts tasty and association. Rather than just eating that brisket here and now, the ritualized dish extends beyond the present, touching on all the years past that its been enjoyed in this time of rebirth, religion, family, and friends. In a sense, horology is truly altered: time stops, remembers, anticipates. We look forward to the food with such pleasure, because the memories of the past are so rich. This is what was on my mind when I set out to create my Rosh Hashanah dessert.  I didn’t want to just make something palatable—I wanted something timeless, the stuff of tradition. That dish that people grow to expect year after year, a muddling of gustation and memory.

Alas, the discovery of this recipe was met with extreme pleasure (or shall I say, much cavort over torte!) as it fulfilled both of my objectives: to create a recipe as timeless as it is tasty. Marian Burro’s Plum Torte was published by the New York Times every single September from 1982 to 1989, after its last print the newspaper received a torrent of nostalgic complaints. The torte had come to be known as the marker of the changing of seasons and new beginnings; as predictable as the transition from August to September. The torte is nothing fancy— it has only 8 ingredients and is laughably easy to make. Yet the recipe is revered with an air of filial piety, a solemn respect to its longevity and endurance by all who make it— and a double underlined mandate to not change. Variations are discouraged here, because the torte has already been perfected. You make the torte, you enjoy immensely, you contribute to the legacy.

At this point, curiosity may have already caused you to glance at the ingredient list, and you’re thinking, this looks pretty basic—why all the hype? I've got a few reasons. It’s because nothing bad ever came of creaming together massive amounts of butter and sugar. It’s because when purple, bubbly plum juice seeps down into the depths of the cake, it creates a texture so moist it literally melts in your mouth. It’s because it eats even better the next day—and the third. Lastly, it’s because it tastes like tradition, like something your family will lick their lips over until the next round of Jewish holidays, associating the tremendous torte with these precious, beloved gatherings as we gear up to start the fresh new year. Which, I’d have to say, is the best taste of all.

Purple Plum Torte (by Marian Burros, originally published in New York Times)
Makes 1 torte

¾ cup sugar
½ cup (8 tbsp) unsalted butter
1 cup unbleached flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
2 eggs
12 pitted purple Italian plums, halved lengthwise (also called prune plums, the little guys)
Sugar (~2 tsp), lemon juice (~2 tsp), and cinnamon (~1 tsp), for topping—adjust to personal preference

1.     Heat oven to 350 degrees.
2.     Cream the sugar and butter in a large bowl. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and eggs and beat well.
3.     Spoon the batter into a spring form pan (a regular pan is fine, just don't expect to serve outside the pan) of 8, 9 or 10 inches. You can grease pan with butter first if preferred, but its not required. Place the plum halves, skin side up, on top of the batter concentrically, until entire surface is covered. Sprinkle lightly with sugar, lemon juice, and cinnamon.
4.     Bake for 40-50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. (Under bake if you plan on reheating the cake in the oven later.) Allow torte to cook for 10 minutes before serving.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Jerk Chicken and Tofu Kebabs

According to the New York Times, it’s not ice cream and watermelon that accompany the Labor Day cookout, but rather wistfulness and melancholy—as if igniting the grill on this early September Monday simultaneously blows out the eternal flame of easy summer living.  This is ridiculous, notes Sam Sifton, as you can ignite a grill any day of the year. But, I get it. Everyone wants to wallow in self-pity because summer is ending, playtime is over, back to the grind, yada yada. Throw on that grill cover (appropriately dressed in black) with a quiet, choking “see you next June” and you’re slowly walking away from sunshine, pools, beaches, shorts, happiness. Well, let me tell you what will help you get over grieving this so-called propane-fueled funeral. A brand new, super exciting, Labor Day kebab marinade! Yes, these Jerk Chicken and Tofu Kebabs are guaranteed to lift your spirits—after all, they did originate in the Caribbean, home of summer year round! (Which, you can always visit, you know. And like, not to make this about me, but some of us aren’t even allowed to have a grill.) So let’s abandon the grill noir, fire up that propane-powered bad boy (or oven—works just as well here!) and make some kick-ass kebabs.
In addition to being super tasty, a new grill marinade also has to harness the unique, because nobody wants to read another “1000 marinades that will make your summer” list. (Spoiler: over half will be some type of teriyaki.) Enter the jerk.  In the same way that Jamaican jerk seasoning has been molded and modified over hundreds of years as different cultures add influence, this marinade pulls from a bunch of recipes you’ve seen before—but transforms them into a totally novel rub. Yes, there is the soy sauce, brown sugar and ginger from ever-present teriyaki. But there’s also scotch bonnet peppers and Jamaican allspice—distinctive to the jerk—and orange and lime juice and zest, which rings almost Southwestern. Plus a whole bunch of other ingredients that will leave you breathless once you’ve rattled off the entire list, yet be met with pleasant surprise when you realize that all ingredients, save the peppers, are pantry items—you likely already have them in your kitchen.

Snaps to this recipe for eliminating the chopping board by calling to be made in the blender; the biggest effort you’ll make (before kebab-assembling) is pressing “blend” with your finger. I’m not going to lie, when the liquefying was finished, the marinade boasted the exact color of a mud puddle. But a quick lick established it was going to taste phenomenal, and in the oven it yielded a beautiful, caramelized bronze—on the grill, that perfect, signature blackened char.

Since we are celebrating (not mourning) summer; take this opportunity to stuff your skewers with as many late-summer seasonal vegetables as possible. From the farmers market, I loaded up with yellow squash, multi colored peppers, and onions.  The tangy, peppery bursting-with-flavor jerk marinade coats the vegetables beautifully: a piquant pop to the earthy produce.

The author of this recipe recommends serving the kebabs with coconut rice; I concocted a turmeric-laced yellow. Whichever flare you go with, choose rice for your accompanying grain—it soaks up the jerk drippings from the kebabs beautifully.    
One small note: if you use bamboo rather than metal skewers, make sure to soak in water for a few hours before cooking. This prevents the wood from burning when it meets the heat.
Jerk Chicken and Tofu Kebabs (adapted slightly from Food52)
Serves 6

For the jerk seasoning and sauce:
1 scotch bonnet pepper, chopped (remove seeds for less intense heat)
2 jalapeño, chopped (remove the seeds for less intense heat)
1 tbsp fresh thyme
4 cloves garlic
2 tsp whole Jamaican allspice (can substitute regular ground allspice)
2 ½ tbsp brown sugar, packed
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp powdered ginger
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup soy sauce
Zest of 1 lime
¼ cup lime juice
¼ cup orange juice
½ cup apple cider vinegar

For the kebabs:
2 lbs chicken and/or extra firm tofu*, cut into chunks
2 lbs assorted vegetables such as yellow squash, zucchini, peppers, and onions
20-25 skewers

*To prepare tofu, remove entire block from package and wrap in two layers of paper towel. Microwave for 2 minutes to remove excess moisture. Cut into ~1 x 2 inch rectangles.

1.     Make the jerk sauce and seasoning. Chop scotch bonnet and jalapeño peppers, removing seeds if desired. If using Jamaican allspice, smash in a mortar. Add peppers, allspice, and remaining seasoning/sauce ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth.
2.     Add chicken and/or tofu to a large zip lock with enough jerk sauce to completely cover them. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours (overnight preferred.)
3.     When the chicken and/or tofu has fully marinated, assemble the kebabs. Chop desired vegetables into uniform pieces (~1 x 2 inch). Alternate stringing 2 vegetables for every 1 piece of chicken/tofu on the kebab, keeping ½ inch of space in between each ingredient to ensure even cooking. Baste generously with reserve jerk sauce.

4.     Prepare to cook. For the grill: when grill is hot, brush with oil and cook kebabs for 3 minutes on each side. For the oven: preheat to 450 degrees. Line a  baking sheet with tin foil and spray with olive oil or cooking spray. Cook for 20-25 minutes, rotating kebabs 10 minutes in.