Summer is an ideal time for improvisation-- especially for those of us living in San Francisco. If the sun is shining for more than 30 minutes at a time, we get a bit giddy and wonder if we should just leave our sweaters at home and head for the nearest park or beach to get a much-needed dose of vitamin D. Long term planning is often shed as quickly as our layers of clothing.
Dinners are no exception. Last Sunday, I was invited down to Hillsborough for an al fresco meal in an impossibly rose-scented garden. The event had been in the planning for several weeks, owing to the varied schedules of the guests and host. All that was required of me was to show up-- with dessert. When the idea for the dinner was germinating, I had proudly announced that I would make cannoli because of some unaccountable need to flex the confectionery muscle of my father's people. Besides, I knew my friend Cybele, in whom Sicilian DNA also makes its home, would be there. I think I wanted to impress her.
For those of you with little or no experience with cannoli, it is about the least spur-of-the moment dessert one can make. The dough is made, it rests for a couple of hours. It is rolled and stretched and rested again. And rolled again. It is cut and fried, cooled and filled.
The day prior, I had the dough ready for preparation. The day of the dinner, I got as far as mixing the filling when, suddenly, it just felt allwrong. It was a warm day. Cannoli are for holidays. They are not for garden parties. The dough is still sitting on a shelf in my refrigerator, getting to know its neighbors, the cornichons and mustard.
When I arrived at Cybele's house, I showed her the cake I'd made, and the figs and cream with which I'd planned to serve it. I had planned to simply slice the figs, toss them with a little sugar, and be done with them.
"Figs?" she asked, "What about putting a little pomegranate molasses in them?" She took me into the kitchen, and poured two slow-moving drops of the stuff onto the end of a fork and put it in my mouth. It was a flavor new to me-- sweet, sour, full of depth. It was exactly what the figs needed to make them interesting without taking over the dessert. I learned something new.
One of the many things I love about this woman, apart from her warmth, humor, intelligence, and just-plain-great-to-look-at-ness, is her uncanny cooking-sense. She goes by instinct. She just gets food. It is something that cannot be taught. Not completely.
The dinner was a complete success. Boccalone salumi and Beecher's "Just Jack" cheese (in honor of our host) washed down with a couple bottles of cool Pinot d'Alsace, which fit in nicely with my current obsession with World War I military planning errors. Rib eye prepared by my friend Lyle (who often refers to himself as the luckiest man alive, owing to his partnering with Cybele), roasted, garlicky potatoes and mushrooms to smother- but-not-choke the steaks, accompanied by good, elegant bottles of Rioja. And a perfect salad of Asian pear, lettuces, and summer tomatoes ended the meal. Digestion-aiding conversation followed.
We were ready for dessert by sunset. Given the gargatuan nature of the meal consumed-- especially the 22-ounce steaks, I was grateful I followed my now-engorged gut and decided to leave to cannoli for another day. As I served out dessert, I asked for a bit of feedback, as is my habit with anything I make for the first time. I had mentioned substituting much of the cornmeal with corn flour. Jack rightly commented that "any more cornmeal would have made this a dessert for hamsters." I was rather inclined to agree. Everyone was in full agreement about the addition of the pomegranate molasses-- it was just the right touch.
This post is just my little way of thanking Cybele for simply being around. She is, in her own way, the pomegranate molasses in everyone's life- sweet, with just the right amount of acid wit. A blend of the exotic and oddly familiar, she adds a touch of subtlety and depth to everything she does. And, as if by instinct, it is always the right touch.
So, thanks, Cybele. You have a habit of making good things better.
The idea of this cake came from a recipe by Lorenza di Medici, who knows a thing or two about al fresco dining. And Italian food. As I made the dough, I realized it was going to be too dry for my purposes. I wanted something moist-- a word I detest but, at the same time, a quality I treasure in baked goods. Too late in the day for going back to the market for fresh supplies, I decided to wing it and make some major adjustments, in keeping with my own rigidly, self-imposed idea that improvisation was the theme of the day. Fortunately, it worked, and worked very well.
This cake plays well with late-summer fruits. I chose figs, but berries would do well, too. Or just a big dollop of sweetened cream and a good, cool glass of Tokaj.
Serves: 6 to 8
1 cup almonds, blanched and without skin
1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
2/3 cup corn flour
1/4 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
4 ounces unsalted butter
3 egg yolks
a pinch of salt
powdered sugar for decoration
1 pint of fresh Mission figs
2-3 tablespoons of sugar, depending upon the ripeness of the figs
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses
1. Grease with butter a 9-inch cake pan with removable bottom, lining the pan with similarly-greased parchment paper.
2. In a Cuisinart, or whatever you wish to call yours, combine almonds, cornmeal, corn flour, all purpose flour, baking powder and salt. Pulse until the almonds are crushed sufficiently to make a fine meal.
3. Cream butter and sugar until, well, creamy. Add yolks one at a time. The color should be roughly equivalent to that of a blinding afternoon sun.
4. Combine the butter mixture with the flour group until well incorporated. Spread into cake pan and bake on the middle rack of a pre-heated 400° oven for about 30 minutes, or until done.
5. Wash figs, slice into quarter segments. Toss them in sugar and molasses, but gently. Let sit for about an hour.
6. Remove from oven. Remember to turn off your oven. Place the now-baked cake on a rack to cool. Remove from pan. Please remove the parchment paper. Dust with powdered sugar when plated.
7. Slice cake and serve with prepared figs and sweetened cream.