Skillet Lemon Cake

 

imageDaniel is in a cook off with another boy in another fraternity, to raise money for charity.  They are allowed a hot plate, a grill and a sous vide, since they both have one.  I have to chuckle here as it’s not the customary possession of a college boy and yet, Daniel found possibly the one other boy in this huge University that owned one as well.

The boys were to prepare an entree using pork tenderloin, a side dish and dessert.  Daniel is making prosciutto wrapped tenderloin which he will cook to temperature in the sous vide and finish in a hot pan.  We discovered this technique at one of Jean-George Vonderrichten’s New York City restaurants, “Nougatine”. We had some unbelievable Berkshire pork chops which were tender with a crisp surface.  The sous vide Is perfect for tough cuts of meat, like pork chops, because you can cook them for a long time to tenderize them without overcooking them. In addition to the pork, Daniel will make a butternut squash risotto with rosemary and sage.

I was tasked with finding a desssert that could be made solely on top of the stove, that didn’t require any pre made items or special equipment and could be cooked in 30ish minutes. Hmmm!

My immediate thought was poached fruit served with creme fraiche or Greek yogurt, sprinkled with some lightly toasted nuts for crunch.  Too easy!  Serious Eats has a skillet cobbler that sounded good but I wanted something that was more Mediterranean in nature.  I’d been looking at Mark Bittma’s skillet lemon/almond tart and decided to try that.  However, it would have to be adapted as it was cooked for a few minutes in a skillet and spent the rest of the time in the oven to which Daniel would have no access.  I’m going to refer to the Bittman tart as a cake because in my mind it’s closer to a cake than a tart. There was also a discrepancy between Mark Bittman’s video and the recipe published by the New York Times that would have to be addressed.  The article gives you the option of using 1/2-3/4 cup of sugar and the video calls for 1/2 cup.  Since I was going to bake this entirely on the stove top I opted to go with 1/2 cup of sugar in the batter and save the 1/4 cup to sprinkle on top and caramelize. The recipe calls for the juice of one lemon, which I find to be unecesarily imprecise.   I did in fact use the juice of a lemon but it was a huge freakin lemon and I think it was more juice than necessary.  When I looked at the video it looked like there was twice as much cream as lemon juice and the recipe called for 1/2 cup of juice, so, I figure, 1/4 cup of juice is fine.

The next issue was the cooking method.  My Italian grandmother never used her broiler and taught me how to make a frittata using only the stove top and a covered pan. I thought that might work for this dessert which seemed to be essentially a sweet frittata.  They key is to put the batter in  a non stick pan with sizzling fat (butter or olive oil) so it doesn’t stick and so you can slide it out and flip it back into the pan to brown the other side.  Now, if you don’t want to mess around with flipping the cake I don’t think it’s critical.  Just make sure you place the cake in the plate so that the browned side is up.  This can easily be done by placing a plate on top of the pan and flipping the plate and pan as a unit so the pan ends up on top, the plate on the bottom and the cake drops out of the pan in one piece.  If if the cake does’t come out in one nice piece, don’t panic.  Smoosh it together, sprinkle some toasted almond slices on top and dust it with powdered sugar, or place the reserved sugar on top and hit it with a blow torch.

  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup almond meal
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds plus more for decoration
  • 1/2 cup cold whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar for batter plus 3 tablespoons for the top
  • 1/4 cup cold lemon juice
  • zest of 1 large lemon
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  1.  Mix eggs until well combined, but not fluffy, into a homogeneous yellow mixture.
  2.  Add the cream, salt, and lemon juice to the eggs and mix well.  (Combining lemon juice and cream can curdle the cream. Keeping the ingredients cold reduces the likelihood that will occur. Also, the longer you let the cream and juice sit together the more chance you give the juice to curdle the cream so don’t let the mixture sit around).
  3. Rub the lemon zest into 1/2 cup of sugar and add to the eggs along with the almond meal and sliced almonds. Combine well
  4. Heat 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter to an 8″ skillet and melt over medium heat foaming subsides
  5. Pour batter into the pan and cover it.
  6. Lower the flame to low.
  7. Cook for about 5 minutes and check it.  You are looking for the liquids to be set.  If you stick a wooden skewer into the mixture it should come out with mois crumbs but not wet.  If it’s not ready, cover the pan for another 5 minutes and check again.
  8. When the tart is completely set, loosen the edges from the side of the pan.  Take a plate and place it on top of the pan.  Take a deep breath, cross your fingers and flip the plate and pan unit upside down so the pan is now on top.  With any luck, the tart will release cleanly.  If it’s doesn’t scrape out the remainder in the pan and pat it on top of the cake.
  9. Now you have two options:  you can scatter some toasted sliced almonds on top and dust it with powdered sugar or you can sprinkle the top with granulated sugar and caramelize it with a blow torch.

Veal and Ricotta Meatballs

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The first time I had this dish was with my son Daniel.  We were on a week long eating and walking tour of NYC.  Daniel and I had both researched restaurants and pastry shops but one of the best meals we had, which was not on our list,  was at Vinateria in Harlem.  I ordered an amazing whole grilled Branzino and the young daughter of our friends had meatballs on a bed of Polenta.  She gave me a bite and I dreamt about them for the next two days: tender little meatballs the size of a walnut on a creamy, cheesey bed of polenta with a bright tomatoe sauce.  We went back the night before we left and when I returned home I vowed to recreate them as best I could.

So, here is my version and I think it’s pretty close, but it will never replace the meal I had at this neighborhood bistro with my son, my childhood friend, her lovely husband and charming daughter.

Many of these components can be made ahead of time.  The sauce can be made in advance and frozen.  I make a lot of this sauce in August when the tomatoes are at their peak and I can use locally grown Roma tomatoes.  You will not get the same result with supermarket tomatoes.  The meatballs can be mixed and shaped a day ahead of time and then rolled in flour and fried the day you want to serve.  The meatballs can also be mixed, shaped fried and placed in the tomato sauce a day or two ahead.  I think they actually improve with a 24 hour rest in the sauce.  I have also frozen the meatnalls cooked and in sauce.  They defrost quite well. So, here’s what you need:

Make The Tomato Sauce:  (variation from Marcella Hazan)

  • 2.5 pounds of fresh Roma tomatoes
  • 5 Tablespoons of european style or cultured butter.  I like Kerry gold but President, and Organic Valley Cultured butter are also good.  You can use Land O Lakes or a store brand butter but the result will not be as good.
  • 1/2 of a large sweet yellow onion

Wash tomatoes and cut them in half.  Remove skin from onion but leave the onion half whole and still attached to the stem.  Melt the butter in a wide shallow pan, like a sautee pan.  Add the tomatoes and onion and cook, uncovered until the butter floats to the top and the tomatoes are soft and falling apart, about 1 hour.  Remove the onions and peel,the skin off the tomatoes. Pass the tomatoes through a food mill, using the disc with the largest wholes.

Make the Meatballs

  • 2/3 pound Veal, ground 3X
  • 1/3 pound fresh whole milk hand dipped Ricotta cheese ( absolutely not the stuff that comes in a plastic tub. It’s grainy even if you force it through a sieve. If you can’t find hand dipped either make your own or make something else.)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/3 cup Freshly grated Parmiggiano Reggiano cheese
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • flour
  • 1 tablespoon minced parsley
  • Extra Virgin olive oil
  • canola oil
    Remove Ricotta from it’s tin and spread it out to be about 2″ thick on a paper towel.  Place another paper towel on top and gently pat it on the ricotta.  When there paper towels become wet, change the paper towels.  This removes some moisture from the cheese. Do this a few more times until you’re not getting a lot of moisture.  You can also place the cheese in a sieve, place it over a bowl and let it sit overnight in your fridge.  Make sure you cover the cheese with Sara wrap so it doesn’t pick up odors from the refrigerator.

For a more delicate meat ball mix together ricotta, egg, veal, parmesan, minced parsley, salt and pepper and mix with your hands until completely homogenized.  For a sturdier meatball you can throw the ingredients in a kitchen aid and let it mix on low for about 5 minutes, with the flat beater.  Test the seasoning by making a tiny patty and frying it in olive oil.  Adjust seasoning as necessary.  You can add up to a teaspoon more salt, and a few more tablespoons of cheese, although be aware that there is Parmesan cheese in the polenta. Take an ice cream scoop that holds approximately 2 tablespoons, scoop out a level scoop, roll it between the palms of your hand until it’s round and put it on a tray.  Do this with the rest of the meat.  Let chill 1 hour.

Roll each meatball in flour and fry in 1.5″  of oil until all the sides are brown.  Don’t crowd the pan.  Do the browning in several batches, changing the oil if it gets too floury or dark.  I like to use 50/50 canola oil and olive oil because canola oil has a higher smoking point and keeps the olive oil from burning.  When the meatballs are done put them in the sauce and let them hang out until you are ready to use them.

Make the Polenta

  • 1 2/3 cups polenta (not instant!)
  • 7 cups water
  • 2 tsp salt

Bring water and salt to a boil.  Slowly pour polenta in with one hand while wisking with the other.  Many suggest making a fist around a handful of the polenta and letting it fall through your fingers.  I find that awkward.  I just put some in a beakered measuring cup and pour slowly.  You should be pouring so slowly you can see individual grains.  Stir for two minutes.  Now, at this point you can stand over the pot and stir for forth minutes or you can follow an alternative technique as follows. Adjust the heat so it is at a simmer and cover the pot.  Cook 10 minutes then uncover the pot and stir for one minute.  Continue this sequence of cooking covered for 10 minutes and stirring for one minute until 40 minutes have elapsed.  It should be a soft creamy mass.  If it’s not, let it cook for a few more minutes covered.  Add two tablespoons of unsalted butter butter and a bit of grated Parmesan cheese to the polenta.  Use immediately.

Some feel that you get the best texture from constant,y stirring but I use the alternative method and am very happy with it.

Plating

Place a ladlefull of polenta into a shallow rimmed soup bowl or a flat plate. Add some tomatoe sauce and a few Meatballs.  Garnish with basil.  Once you’ve plated everything pour the rest of the polenta onto clean cutting board and let cool.  The next day you can make polenta fingers by cutting the polenta, rolling them in cornmeal and frying them in 50/50 canola and olive oil.  Sprinkle them with Parmesan cheese.