Maple sponge cake

Hooray! I decided to be inventive and it wasn’t a desperate failure.

I’d entered the ‘I want to make something and I don’t know what’ phase again, but then I had thought. I’d got almost a whole bottle of maple syrup left over from Shrove Tuesday (because maple syrup and bacon is the best thing to have on pancakes and I’ll cut anyone who says otherwise) and no real means of using it up.

So I made a basic sponge, and added a bit of maple syrup to the mix, just for ease of spreading in the tins, really. Then for the icing I made a buttercream and thinned it out with maple syrup. So yes, that’s butter, sugar, and then liquid tree-sugar basically. I ended up with so much icing that I managed to do a middle layer, and a crumb coat, and then fully ice it, sides included. I was only aiming for enough to keep the pecans on top.

Of course, I salted the cake batter and the icing, which was definitely a good thing. The salt, along with the slight smokiness in maple syrup means that it’s not too cloyingly sweet. Which is not to say that I can’t feel my arteries slamming shut after eating a piece, or that the sugar rush I’m feeling right now isn’t making me dizzy, or that I’m not fairly sure that I’m seeing unicorns. Because I can and it is and I am. Just that it doesn’t TASTE too sweet.

It looks like this:

I’m pretty pleased with it, to be honest. It’s not the wildest creation ever, but it’s something that I did without a recipe and it worked. I work without recipes all the time for savoury cooking, making sauces and what have you, but experimenting with baking is still pretty new. It gives me confidence to try more inventive stuff in future.

Today’s new cookbooks, and a plan

So, I like to buy cookbooks. I then put them in the cupboard and forget about them, or sometimes read through them. What I rarely do is actually cook from them. A big part of this blog is to encourage me to actually use them. I plan to pick a recipe, cook it, and write up my experiences with it. Hardly startlingly original in terms of blogging – Julie Powell says hi, for one. But, you know, it might get me cooking more. An audience to keep me honest, so to speak.

I generally like to go for old second-hand books, and ones that are a little bit unusual. I think that they can tell you a lot about the time and society they were written in, just by their approach to ingredients and even things like portion sizes. What was readily available? How many people were they expecting to cook for? What tools and kitchenware were to hand? With that in mind, I like books that have a bit of background to them. Things that talk about the cuisine they’re describing, and so on, rather than just straight up recipes.

At the lovely second-hand book shop My Back Pages (which always sounds a little smutty to me), I bought the following.

Book one
Cooking with Herbs | Irma Goodrich Mazza
(Methuen, 1975)
I think that starting with the flavouring is a really interesting approach, and as the book has almost 70 pages of background before the recipes even starts, it certainly meets my ‘background’ criteria. The intro calls it ‘a highly personal book’, and this certainly seems true. Mazza talks about her difficulties growing tarragon in her garden, and how her neighbours have it in abundance. Even though I have no garden, and my closest experience of growing fresh herbs is those little pots of windowsill basil from the supermarket, the propogation information is still really interesting. Did you know that you should ‘never let anyone talk you into sowing tarragon seed if you want the flavourful variety’? I certainly didn’t. Apparently ‘new plants must be made either by slipping or root division’. I’m not entirely sure what those things are, but that’s just another thing to learn. I’m actually quite excited about reading all this extra detail, before I even try cooking from it.

Book two
The People’s Republic of China Cookbook | Nobuko Sakamoto
(Random House, 1977)
Although Nobuko Sakamoto is clearly of Japanese origin, she grew up and lived/s in America (it says here). Although there are countless Chinese cookbooks, this one struck me as interesting, because it’s an American ‘translation’ of recipes from government-published Chinese cookbooks from the 1950s and 1960s – The Treatise on Famous Chinese Dishes, The Cookbook of Famous Dishes from the Peking Hotel Restaurant, and The Masses Cookbook. It’s got a lot of details of technique, nicely illustrated. I never really knew how to devein a shrimp, for example. While some of the recipes are rather beyond my comfort zone (Roast Suckling Pig Banquet, anyone?) and it presents the common difficulty of American ingredient terms (I’m not entirely sure what to make of pork butt) and enormous portions (anything that starts with ‘two pounds of ham’ isn’t a dinner for one), I’m certain I can find things in here that are interesting and achievable. Also, it does use meat other than cuts of pig.

Check back later for the first recipe from the cookbook project. Not from either of these books, mind.

The mysteries of kosher salt

As an avid viewer of Top Chef – and its sister show, Top Chef: Just Desserts, the first season of which was the greatest reality TV ever (say ‘The Red Hots are for my mommy!!’ to anyone who saw it for instant recognition and a nice bonding moment), the second season of which was really kind of meh – I’d grown accustomed to seeing them cooking with kosher salt. I figured that this was mostly just a product placement thing. In the same way that they get into their AMAZING SPACIOUS TOYOTAS and drive to WHOLE FOODS. Or the Project Runway people go to MOOD. (That one totally worked on me, by the way. I really want a Mood tote bag.) Or how in The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, despite the fact that she was, like, the messiah of a race of catpeople and had all sorts of creepy dudes trying to murder her and her family, she found time to say ‘Thanks Mom! It’s the disgusting Kia shaped like a post van that I wanted! And it’s a really awful colour, kind of like the vomit of someone who’s eaten only olives! I love KIA!!’, when, you know, you’d think she’d have more important things to worry about. I digress. You’ll have to get used to that.

Anyway! While it certainly is product placement (although not that effective, because I still couldn’t tell you the brand), apparently kosher salt is actually also a thing. For the longest time, I thought ‘how can salt be kosher?’, or rather, ‘surely all salt is kosher?’. After extensive research (that is, falling into a wikipedia hole), I learned that it should really be called ‘koshering salt’, in that it’s the salt used to remove the surface blood from meat to make it kosher. It’s got long flakes, rather than crystals.  For Christmas, I received the book Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery and Cafe. It’s awesome and is getting me into baking, like I’ve meant to for about half a decade. Joanne Chang, the lady behind Flour (also a Harvard graduate in Economics and Applied Mathematics), claims ‘it has a cleaner, milder flavor than table salt and its coarser grains allow you to control the amount you use more easily’, and has based all the books recipes around the use of kosher salt.

So I figured I’d try to get some. Of course, as Top Chef and Flour are both American, and I’m in the UK, that was easier said than done. So I didn’t. I did, however, manage to find flaked salt, in the shape of salt from The Cornish Sea Salt Company. Forgive the product placement, but I figure it’s worth declaring. It’s got to be better than ‘Mum discovers amazing beauty secret! Botox doctors hate her!’ anyway, right? I could do without the twee little ‘low tide’ and ‘high tide’ markers on the tub to indicate that you’ve nearly run out of salt, because I’m able to tell that from the fact that I’ve nearly run out of salt.

Now, I can be unforgivably pretentious about food. The height of it was buying white balsamic vinegar for the sole purpose of not discolouring a risotto. And even though I will argue vociferously that there’s an appreciable difference between different waters, I still thought that salt was salt was salt. Turns out I was wrong.

The recipes from Flour call for tiny amounts of salt. Half a teaspoon in a whole cake. Super-rich cakes that are made with, like, three packets of butter and a pound of sugar. And even that tiny amout of salt cuts through the sweetness and gives a bite to the cakes that makes them taste, frankly, amazing. It ‘completes’ the taste in your mouth, if you like. I really think that using table salt in its place wouldn’t have the same effect. The other day I did a chicken breast on my flatmate’s George Foreman grill (which is a whole nother post in itself) and put on some pepper and a tiny bit of the Cornish salt. It was kind of a revelation.  Salt working properly as a flavour enhancer. Nature’s monosodium glutamate!

Now I still don’t know about kosher salt specifically. Maye one day I’ll try the schmancy food halls, or go to Whole Foods in my spacious, smooth-driving Toyota (just kidding, I can’t even drive) to try and find some. But there are differences between salts, flaked salt makes a genuinely difference to the way things taste as compared with table salt, and I’m one step further along with path to being an insufferable food snob. Hurrah!