Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Strawberry Cake with Cream -- Italian style

It is always a joy to go to the farmers market. Not just because the veggies, fruit and flowers are always local and the best of the season, with a freshness, color and smell you do not get at the supermarket. As a professional chef, I have purchased produce from some of the best purveyors in the San Francisco Bay Area. They have an extensive list of quality products from local, national and international suppliers all the time. But for me, finding great produce at the farmers market, where I can feel the open air, see and smell the seasonal products... that is priceless.

Strawberries are in high in season now, and their sweet smell, luscious looks and good prices are everywhere, but nothing is better than getting them at the farmers market. They are fresher and cheaper and brought out by small farmers only a day or two after they are harvested. And there is no white flesh or hole inside. They smell and taste like strawberries!

When I was a child, strawberry season was very short and expensive, but my whole family loved it. I remember my grandmother often made me simple, fresh strawberry juice with a little sugar and whole milk. And my sisters loved making something similar to this cake, which we called Strawberry Shortcake. So when I saw this cake in the magazine (La Cucina Italiana), memories of the smell and taste returned, and I thought, I have to make it!

Strawberry Cake with Cream (trionfo di fragole)

Recipe adapted from  La Cucina Italiana (June 2012 issue)

Makes 1 (8 or 9-inch) layer cake

For cake
1 stick (4 oz) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing pans
2 cups cake flour (not self-rising), plus more for dusting pans
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs, kept at room temperature for 30 minutes
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
¾ cup whole milk

For filling
5 ½ tablespoons granulated sugar
¼ cup limoncello (Italian lemon liqueur)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 pound strawberries, preferably small ones, trimmed
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
Mint leaves for garnish

Making the cake:
Heat the oven to 350° F with rack in middle. Lightly grease 2 (8 or 9-inch) cake pans with butter and dust with flour. Into a medium bowl shift together the flour, baking powder and salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat together butter and sugar on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until combined, then beat in the vanilla. With mixer on low speed, alternately add the flour mixture and milk in four batches. Beat until just combined.

Divide batter between cake pans, spreading evenly with a spatula. Bake until cakes begin to pull away from sides of pans and testers inserted into centers come out clean -- about 20 to 25 minutes (tops of cakes will be pale in color). Cool 5 minutes in pan on wire rack, then invert onto rack and cool completely.

Making filling:
In a small saucepan, combine 3 tablespoons sugar, limoncello and lemon juice. Heat over medium heat, whisking, just until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat. With tops of cakes facing up and avoiding the outer ½-inch border, poke both cakes all over with tines of fork. Brush with syrup.

Slice half of strawberries. In the bowl of an electric mixer beat the cream and remaining 2 ½ tablespoons sugar to stiff peaks. Cover one cake with ½ of the cream, leaving a 1-inch border.
Arrange sliced strawberries on top. Top with second cake layer. Cover with remaining cream, leaving a 1-inch border. Top with whole berries, then dust with confectioners’ sugar. Garnish with small mint leaves.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Babas Infused with Limoncello

The sun is strong and the air is warming up in the Bay Area. It makes me think about Napoli. I miss Napoli! Since I was young, images of Napoli have always been irresistible to me:  sun, blue sky, songs, sea, vibrant people... and delicious food, of course – pizza, spaghetti, ice cream. Naples did not disappoint the first time I visited there 10 summers ago.

Napoli is better explained by Lildia Matticchio Bastianich in her book, Lidia’s Italy: “Naples is a very special city where life is palpable. You sense it the moment you get there. You are caught up in the energy and you become part of the life there, especially when walking the winding cobblestone streets of the Centro Storico. The moment is now, and although there are three thousand years of rich history in Naples, life is very much in the present tense. In the streets, children play hide-and-seek and chase stray cats; laundry lines full of clothes hang from one window to another like festival banners. Music belches forth from open windows, modern rock and traditional stornelli folk songs, clashing in the air. There is the wafting aroma of the ragù perking behind some open windows, the inviting smell of fritto misto floating from others; laughter, discussions, and arguments all spill onto the streets and are part of the Neapolitan way of life….. I fell in love with the Neapolitans in Naples. I fell in love with their zest for life, the communal beat of the city where everyone is included. And I fell in love with their food.”

It is all so true, and I felt exactly the same, despite seeing the chaotic reality of city life… wild teenagers on their mopeds on backstreets, and trash piled high on the sidewalks that never seems to be picked up. But the city has spectacularly beautiful scenery on the other hand… and of course abundant delicious food.  I enjoyed Napoli very much; it became my favorite place in Italy.



And the Neapolitan desserts! There are pasticcerie  all over Naples. They offer so many delicious pastries,  among the most famous being sfogliatelle, shell-shaped layers of flaky pastry filled with pastry cream, and the babàs al rhum. This recipe, using limoncello (lemon liquor, a southern Italian specialty) instead of the typical rum syrup, will make you taste Naples and feel Neapolitan. I guarantee it!

Babas Infused with Limoncello
(Babà al Limoncello)

Recipe adapted and modified from Lidia’s Italy by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich
Makes 12 small babas  

 For the dough:
1 package (2 teaspoons) dry yeast
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour (1 cup can be whole-grain pastry flour if desired)
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 stick (4 oz) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the bowl and molds

For the syrup:
1/2 cup (2 lemons) freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 cups water
2 ½ cups sugar
½ cup limoncello

Whipped cream, Pastry cream (custard cream) or cannoli cream for the filling or decoration
Candied cherries or fresh berries for garnish

To make the dough, dissolve the yeast in 2 tablespoons warm water in a small bowl and let it sit for several minutes until it starts to bubble. Put the flour, salt and sugar in bowl of food processor, and run the machine for a few seconds to blend the dry ingredients.
Mix the beaten eggs with the dissolved yeast. With the food processor running, pour all liquid into the flour mixture, and process for 20 seconds or so. A stiff dough will gather on the blade and clean the side of bowl.  Now drop in the soft butter, and process for another 20-30 seconds, until it is fully incorporated.
Turn the soft dough out onto the board, knead by hand briefly to form a smooth round, and drop it into a lightly buttered bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise for 30 minutes or so---It does not need to double.

Butter the baba molds. Deflate the dough, and cut it into twelve equal pieces (about 2 ounces each), or fewer, or more, depending on size and number of pans used. Roll each piece into a round, and place dough in the molds/pans to fill them two-thirds full. Let the babas expand to fill the molds, about 30 minutes or more.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 400°F, arranging two racks if necessary. Bake the babas for 15-20 minutes (30+ for larger pans), or until they are dark golden on top; shift the pans on the racks for even baking. Turn them out of the pans and cool.

To make the syrup, bring 2 cups water, the lemon juice and sugar to a full boil in a wide skillet or sauté pan (12” or wider); add the limoncello and boil for 4-5 minutes. Turn off the heat and immediately push as many babas as will fit into the hot syrup, weighing them down with a plate or pot cover to keep them submerged. When they have soaked up enough syrup to expand, about 10 minutes, remove them from the pan and drain on wire rack set over a large plate. If you have more babas to soak, heat the syrup to boil again, then submerge another batch.

Serve the soaked babas within a short time, or set them, sitting in a shallow layer of syrup, in a pan to stay moist. For serving, slice them in half lengthwise (or leave whole for small ones), and spoon in your filling and candied or fresh fruits. You may drizzle some warm syrup over the top if you like.

Note:  If you do not have baba molds, use mini cake molds or 2 medium-size Bundt pans. I used a large Bundt pan for the photos above, and baked it in the middle of the oven.  For the dough making, it is best to use a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. However, if you are using a food processor it should be at least a 12-cup bowl capacity to do the job for this recipe.

The babas will keep for a week if well wrapped and placed in refrigerator, before being soaked with syrup and decorated.