Monday, July 10, 2006

A Big, Big World

I am tearing myself away, only momentarily, from a cookbook which came all the way from the beautiful French Basque region. It is a generous and thoughtful gift from my friend Renee whose husband hails from that part of the world. I am fascinated, not only by the good enough to eat photographs of the food and those of the varied and breathtaking landscapes but the similarities between some of my favourite food and the Basquaise cuisine of which I knew nothing!

The Dorade à l'Espangnole on page 46 is almost identical to how I have been cooking Besugo (same as the dorade; snapper in English). I have been a traitor to my culture, using an oven to cook fish, since the level of freshness of seafood here doesn't allow me to use a steamer. I wrap the fish up in foil with a lot of fresh/ dried herbs, juice from a whole lemon and lashings of olive oil. If we are having it with rice, I would throw in a couple of glasses of white wine too. 25 min. in my turbo charged oven and a scrumptious meal is ready.

However, even more surprising is the Revuelto de Gambas (shrimps with scrambled eggs) in this cookbook; it is a popular dish in bistros across Hong Kong. It is served with rice, and most diners would have an iced tea with lemon & syrup on the side and finish their meal off with a baked egg tart. I gazed at the picture of the Revuelto and longed for old places and faces.

While I was waiting to pick up my porcion de Empanada Gallega (pie from Galicia, my slice of pie was filled with red peppers, onion and chicken) at my local greasy spoon, La Americana, just now, I spied two trays of giant meringues. These meringue halves, sized and shaped like babies' bottoms, were held together by at least half a pint of whipped cream or dulce de leche. The entire meringue sandwich was bigger than a baby's head. I squinted to look more closely and instantly remembered a book I read a lifetime ago, Losing Alexandria. The author described the same treat, from French patisseries, she had as a child living in the then European Alexandria. This is another piece of evidence for my long held suspicion that globalisation has been around long before McDonald's and Starbucks'. The French patisseries were the Starbucks' of the 18thC!

I really shouldn't have been so surprised; globalisation hasn't stopped, beside happy meals and watery American coffee, Lenôtre and Pierre Hermé both now have outposts in Asia. The famed Japanese Cream Puff outlet, Beard Papa, can now be found north of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

After setting foot in Pierre Hermé's shop in Paris and devouring those delicate macarons, I have been trying to hunt down as many of his recipes as possible. His book on chocolate desserts is not only beautifully photographed but has wonderful recipes, nicely explained. This beautiful chocolate cake is named Suzy's cake by the maestro himself, after his dear friend – unfortunately that has nothing to do with me.

The cake is wonderfully moist, terribly delicious and very easy to prepare - its secret lies in the quality of the chocolate. It is one of the most wonderful non fussy chocolate cakes I have eaten. Have it with some ginger ice cream as suggested by Hermé.

Suzy's Cake by Pierre Hermé

250g bittersweet chocolate, preferably Valrhona Guanaja
250g unsalted butter, at room temperature
200g sugar
4 large eggs at room temperature
70g plain flour

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 180C. Butter a 24-cm round cake tin that is at least 5 cm high, line the bottom with parchment paper, butter the paper, and dust the inside of the tin with flour; tap out the excess and set it aside.

Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over – not touching – simmering water and heat until the chocolate is melted; or melt the chocolate in a microwave oven. Set the chocolate aside to cool; it should feel only just warm to the touch when you mix it with the rest of the ingredients.

Put the butter and sugar in the bowl of a mixer and beat on medium speed for about 4 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl frequently, until the butter is creamy and the sugar well blended into it. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for about 1 minute after each addition. Reduce the mixer speed to low, pour in the cooled chocolate, and mix only until it disappears into the batter. Alternatively, you can fold in the last of the flour with a rubber spatula. You'll have a thick, smooth, satiny batter that looks like old-fashioned chocolate frosting.

Scrape the batter into the tin, smooth the top, and slide the tin into the oven. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the cake has risen slightly and the top has lost its sheen. The top may crack a bit and the cake may not look entirely set in the center; when you test the cake by inserting a slender knife into the center, the knife will come out lightly streaked with batter, which is what you want. Transfer the cake to a rack to cool.

When the cake has cooled, chill it in the refrigerator for an hour or two to make it easy to unmould. Turn the cake out, remove the parchment, and invert the cake onto a serving platter so that it is right side up. Allow the cake to come to room temperature before slicing and serving.
La Americana, Av. Callao 83, la esquina de Bartolomé Mitre

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