If you live and cook the same way your grandmother did, you’ll probably never open a cookbook. Cookbooks, and everything they symbolize, are for people who don’t live the way their grandparents did…Once upon a time, food was about where you came from. Now, for many of us, it is about where we want to go—about who we want to be, how we choose to live. Food has always been expressive of identity, but today those identities are more flexible and fluid; they change over time, and respond to different pressures. -John Lanchester (“A Foodie Repents“)
I never realized just how strongly my mother felt about cake–what she considered to be proper birthday cake–until this past July. It was a day or two after I had posted about the pflaumenkuchen I had made for a friend’s birthday, and she and I were on the phone talking about the various things that mothers and daughters talk about: dogs, clothes, life, food. Then, there was a pause before she said in a voice that I had come to know throughout my life as half genuinely curious and half mildly critical (“No lipstick? Don’t you think some color would be nice?” or “Why do you carry such small bags? Don’t you want something roomier?”): “I saw your blog and that plum cake was beautiful; it really looked delicious. Don’t you think it was a bit plain for a birthday cake, though? There wasn’t even any icing!” I was about to become a little defensive and to explain to her that this friend, though I adore him, is one of those strange people who doesn’t even like dessert. I was going to add that I was 100% certain that, had I shown up with a chocolate frosted cake made in his honor, he would have expired at the sight of it. I also wanted to explain that, icing aside, I had topped each slice of the pflaumenkuchen with a more than generous spoonful of creme fraiche. But before I could say any of this though, she asked me, “Why don’t you cook the way that we do?”
To say I was caught off guard by her question would be a lie. It was a thought that I had had many times myself, the kind of thought that gnaws a little at your insides and makes you feel guilty, like you’ve pretended not to know somebody in the street who was once near and dear to you. Not out of any malevolence, but more out of a sense that there might not be anything to say and any attempts to overcome the distance might be too painfully awkward. I suppose you could say that I recognized the truth in my mother’s words. I would never dream of making Sloppy Joes for dinner (I wasn’t even much of a fan when I was a kid, although they eventually grew on me), it’s been years since I’ve craved broccoli and cheese casserole and, personally, I would like to forget that chipped ham (it’s a Pittsburgh thing; have any of you ever had it?) even exists. But for every dish that I’ve eclipsed, there are things that I still long to eat, foods that remain the hallmarks of my childhood: my grandma’s sour cream chicken and mashed potatoes, crispy cauliflower fritters, homemade noodles and my mother’s wedding soup with the perfect little meatballs that melt practically melt into the rich chicken broth.
After that conversation, I started thinking more about how and why I cook the way I do. While there are certain things you learn about cooking and eating during your formative years, from creaming butter and sugar to how to fry an egg, there are also experiences that you can’t anticipate.
I was always the person in my family who loved to read and cookbooks, though it would be years before I would both use and collect them avidly, were an early passion of mine. My grandma kept her slim collection in the squeaky third drawer of a cabinet in the dining room and I would always sneak in there (or so I thought; the squeaking gave me away) and pull them out, finding recipes that appealed to me and suggesting dishes that we could have for dinner. I should mention that, at that point in time, I wasn’t interested in the actual preparation of the food; I cared only about the the way it sounded and looked in books, the promise of the final product. When I look back now, I realize that all of this searching stemmed from a desire to be different from what I was. I sought the unknown, answers and foods that could be found either in far away places or in books.
This is why, if I look back at myself through the prism of Lanchester’s recent article in The New Yorker, I would almost call myself a “foodie” before the word even existed. That is, if I didn’t object to the inherent silliness of the term itself (nosh and nom nom are right up there in my list of hated “foodie” terms). But even as a lot of my food choices and cookbook purchases have been geared towards exploring the world from home and learning to appreciate new flavors through the words and palates of virtual strangers, there are ways in which all the places I’ve been and lived (Russia, Japan, Greece, France, Italy, New York, Berkeley) have left their indelible mark on me. In some cases, I cook from memory, hoping to recapture flavors from the past and, in others, I think of what I want to eat and where I want to be that night. By the next day, I may have changed my mind completely. Some nights I even think I’m happiest just eating toast. This is the privilege of living and eating in the twenty-first century; we, unlike our grandparents and, to some extent, our parents, travel widely and eat daringly and the world invites us to do both.
In short, I don’t know that I entirely agree with Lanchester’s overarching conclusion about today’s food-obsessed population. While, yes, I concur that everything has gone too far in that we all want to be cultured devotees of Ottolenghi, worshipping at the altar of fresh and local vegetables, as well as knowledgeable practitioners of the latest food fads (sous-vide, I’m sorry to say, is truly having a moment), we also all have our own personal food baggage that we will carry with us for all of our lives. Being a lover of food, at least to me, means that balance can be struck between the desire for novelty, an adherence to tradition and an appreciation for simplicity. Everything, as they say, in moderation.
I was again thinking about my mother’s words this past weekend when I was baking the White Rice Chiffon Cake from Alice Medrich’s wonderful new book, Flavor Flours. What I like about this book (and it’s been causing quite the stir around the internet here, here, here and here, so it’s not just me) is that in its focus on gluten-free baking, it’s not attempting to approximate the texture or flavor of all-purpose flour; instead, it asks the hypothetical question, “What if wheat flour did not exist?”, and uses it to explore the various baking possibilities that would exist in a world without wheat. Medrich experiments with different flours, from buckwheat and coconut to sorghum and white rice, in order to maximize and showcase their individual flavors. When flipping through the book, I was immediately intrigued by both the sound and photo of the White Rice Chiffon Cake; it promised to be light and airy, perfectly golden and dramatically high–all things that one should seek in a cake. An added bonus was that Medrich described the flavor of white rice flour on its own as soft and “floral” and suggested that the cake be topped with a halo of thick, white frosting. This alone meant that my mother would have no choice but to approve. Of course, it wasn’t quite the same kind of cake that my family would make (not suffering from any food allergies, gluten-free baking remains largely uncharted territory in our baking repertoire) for Sunday dinner or the like, but it combined my personal need to try new flavors and ingredients with my family’s love of traditional American desserts topped by the all-important frosting.
The cake comes together quickly and its texture, when you cut into it, is smooth, fluffy, and delicate, with none of the graininess that sometimes plagues gluten-free baking. Upon seeing it come out of the oven all pale and soft gold, I started fantasizing about how pretty a pink frosting would look on top of it and decided to play around with mascarpone, whipping cream and pomegranate molasses. While the pomegranate molasses lent a welcome tangy and sweet note to the frosting, one tablespoon sadly didn’t do much for the color. No matter, however; I had a pomegranate on hand and decided both to accentuate the pomegranate flavor of the whipped cream and to brighten up the cake with a handful of pomegranate seeds and, for contrast, a handful of chopped pistachios. The final product was vivid and seasonal, as well as utterly delicious.
I had given my neighbors, a couple, some cake of this cake on Saturday evening since they had helped me fix my bike tires a few weekends ago; though always friendly, when the guy and I met in the hallway early this morning, he was positively effusive: “That cake, that cake was A-MA-ZING. The texture and the frosting..What was in that?” More than happy to share, I told him and walked out of the building smiling. I was remembering my mother’s obsession with marbled cakes piled high with frosting from when I was a teenager. Everybody who would try them always wanted to know what was in the frosting. It suddenly seemed that I might cook just like my mother after all.
White Rice Chiffon Cake
from Alice Medrich’s Flavor Flours
Yields 8-10 ample slices
Medrich’s cake is fairly easy to make, although, just like with this cake, it’s important to proceed carefully when separating the eggs and then whipping and folding the egg whites into the batter. I’ve found that many online videos and tips suggest that, when folding egg whites into a batter, you cut through the whites before you begin scooping and folding the batter over them, but my grandma taught me that you should work from the outside in, starting from the edge of the bowl and scooping batter over the whites instead of cutting through and potentially deflating them. No matter what way you fold your egg whites, the final product will look somewhat streaky–a mix of buttercup yellow and creamy marshmallowy white.
In her book, Medrich suggests using a 10-inch tube pan with a removable bottom, but, not having one of these, I opted for my 9-inch springform pan, which worked well. Medrich also says that the cake pan should not be greased or lined with parchment paper and, while I had no trouble removing the sides of the springform pan, I did find that a thin layer of the cake’s bottom stuck to the pan’s base when I sliced the cake, which was then difficult to remove (rice flour in this sense acts like rice that sticks to the bottom of a rice cooker or pot; it’s stubborn and sticky). Next time I might try parchment paper to avoid this.
For the cake:
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (224 grams) granulated sugar
1 1/3 cups (200 grams) white rice flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
5 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/2 cup flavorless vegetable (canola, safflower, corn) oil
3/4 cup cool water
8 egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
-Place a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 325 F.
-In a small bowl, set aside 1/4 cup (50 grams) of the sugar to use when whipping the egg whites.
-In a large bowl, combine the rice flour, salt, baking powder, egg yolks, vegetable oil and water. -Whisk until thoroughly combined. The mixture should look yellow and somewhat grainy, with oil slightly pooling at the sides of the bowl.
-In the bowl of a stand mixer (a hand mixer and large bowl will work just as well) beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar with the whisk attachment until they are creamy. When you can lift up the whisk attachment and the whipped whites stuck to the whisk plop down into the bowl and loosely hold their shape, you will know they are ready for the sugar to be added to them.
-While beating the whites on a high speed, slowly add the sugar. The whites are ready when they remain firm and resemble whipped cream. When you remove the whisk, run it through the whites and, if the indentation remains and the whites hold their shape, they are ready to be folded into the batter.
-Scrape roughly one quarter of the egg whites into the batter and fold them in with a rubber spatula.
-Fold in the remaining egg whites, being careful not to deflate the whites. The batter, when ready, should look slightly streaky, both yellow and white, but with the egg whites having been almost entirely absorbed into the batter.
-Gently scrape the batter into the cake pan and spread it evenly.
-Bake for 50-55 minutes. The top of the cake should be golden and a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the cake’s center should come out clean.
-Set the pan on a rack to cool and, while the cake is still hot, carefully run a knife around the sides of the pan to avoid tearing the cake (remember that it’s fragile).
-After about 20-30 minutes, remove the sides of the springform pan and let the cake cool completely.
-Once cool, the cake can be removed very carefully from the base of the springform pan with a cake lifter and transferred to a cake stand. Once the cake is in its final position, it is ready to be frosted.
For the whipped cream:
4.5 ounces (130 grams) mascarpone
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
6 ounces (3/4 cup) whipping cream
handful of pomegranate seeds, for decorating
handful of roughly chopped and unsalted pistachios, for decorating
-While the cake is cooling, whip the mascarpone, confectioners’ sugar and pomegranate molasses together in the bowl of a stand mixer until creamy.
-Scrape into a small bowl and, after cleaning the bowl of the mixer and the whisk attachment, add the whipped cream to the bowl and whip until soft peaks form.
-Fold the whipped mascarpone and pomegranate molasses mixture into the whipped cream until well combined.
-Top the cake with the frosting and sprinkle with a handful of pomegranate seeds. Repeat with pistachios. Serve and enjoy.