Monday, December 17, 2012

Belated St. Lucy's Day: Norwegian Caramel-Almond Tosca Cake

Your December 13 may have been a lot like mine.  My thankfully uneventful work day included leftover Chinese for lunch, plus a trip to the fabric store, followed by a two-hour committee meeting.  It was 8 pm by the time I made it home for a little dinner and fretting over what still needed to be accomplished for the week.

Saint Lucy by Francisco de Zurbaran,
oil on canvas, c. 1625/1630
from the Chester Dale Collection at the National Gallery of Art
Hardly a day spent honoring St. Lucy or celebrating the triumph of light over darkness.

So, I decided to add tributes to St. Lucy to our weekend festivities… starting with Norwegian Caramel-Almond Tosca Cake for my boss’ holiday party.  Swedish Saffron Buns (Lussekatter) or Saffron Bread (Saffransbullar) are the more traditional Scandinavian treats for St. Lucy’s Day.  But this Tosca Cake is always a crowd pleaser.

The recipe comes from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas.
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ cup butter, melted
3 tablespoons milk

1/3 cup butter
½ cup slivered blanched almonds
½ cup sugar
½ cup whipping cream
Beat the eggs until foamy.  Add sugar and beat until light and lemon colored; add vanilla.  Mix flour with baking powder and fold into the egg mixture until blended.
Mix the melted butter and milk and stir into the flour and egg mixture until batter is smooth and blended.  Turn into a buttered 10” springform pan or an 11” or 12” tart pan with a removable bottom.  Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.  Meanwhile, prepare the topping.  Melt butter in a 8” or 9” frying pan.  Add almonds, and stir over medium heat until almonds are toasted and golden.  Stir in the sugar and cream.  Turn heat to high and bring to a vigorous boil, stirring constantly.
Boil for 2½ minutes just until mixture begins to become slightly darker tan and thickens slightly.  Pour hot topping over cake and place under broiler until topping is bubbly and lightly browned.

I follow the recipe as written and use a springform pan.  Our medium frying pan bit the dust awhile ago, so I just use a saucepan to brown the almonds and boil the caramel.  It works well, because there is sometimes a little splatter.

Here are two tips:
Gather your ingredients, but delay cooking the caramel until you have about 18-20 minutes left on the cake.  You don’t want it to harden or darken too much.
Once you have broiled the topping, allow the cake to cool on a wire rack for 15-20 minutes.  Then release the cake from the springform pan.
I know it sounds time-consuming to cook the cake three times: bake, boil and broil.  But you can tackle it all in about an hour.

No one has adequately explained to me why this cake has an operatic name, especially from such a violent opera.  But the sponge cake and crispy almond topping definitely seem like northern renditions of classic Italian flavors (with the addition of lots and lots of butter).  I’ve made the cake for birthdays and showers, but perhaps it is best suited for a celebration of Santa Lucia – the young Italian saint, whose story has been adopted and adapted and revered throughout Scandinavia, even now, more than a millennium after her death.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Gift Guide: Around the Kitchen and Garden

Are you just now starting your holiday shopping?  Or need one or two extra gifts?  Below are 5 things I love for working around the kitchen and garden.  While none are absolute necessities, they are all incredibly affordable.  And to be honest, I’m not sure how I ever survived without them!  One, or more, may be the ideal present for someone on your list.

Pineapple Slicer
Mine is by the Dutch-based company Vacu Vin.  It cores a pineapple and slices the fruit into even rings.  Plus it keeps the pineapple shell intact… in case you want to re-use it to serve drinks or fruit salad.  Just slice the top off your pineapple and drill down as if uncorking a bottle of wine.

Vacu Vin also offers their Pineapple Slicer in stainless steel.  But mine is only plastic and has lasted almost 20 years.

Vacu Vin’s Slicer costs about $10 for the plastic version and $20 for the stainless steel one.  You can find them at Bed Bath and Beyond or Williams-Sonoma.  But check your local grocery store first.  They are often for sale in the produce section.  Add a fresh pineapple for a great hostess gift.

Mango Pitter-Splitter
Mine is by OXO.  Mango is one of my favorite tropical fruits, but I’ve never been very adept at removing the pit. It normally gets so juicy and slippery.  I used to cut myself all the time until… I was given a Mango Pitter-Splitter.  Ta da!

Just slice a little off the bottom of your mango, so it can sit vertically upright, and push down with both handles.  The tool cuts around the large pit and slices the mango into 2 fleshy halves.  Then, you just need to peel off the rind.

The OXO version costs about $15 and, once again, can be purchased at Bed Bath and Beyond or Williams-Sonoma.  It’s a fun gift for that person who has just about everything or pair it with a decent paring knife for someone who is just setting up house.

Velcro Plant Ties
I started using Velcro-brand Plant Ties about a year and a half ago.  I was training my standard-form Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ and was concerned about damaging its delicate bark.

These “plant ties” are actually a soft, ½”-wide Velcro tape that clings to itself.  You just cut off the length you need and wrap it around your plant and support.  They are amazingly strong but gentle… much more forgiving than plastic ties or even string.  And I don’t lose little bits all over the garden.  I wish I had this product when we were first tying up our roses.

It comes in 30’, 45’ and 75’ rolls at $3-$9.  Velcro also makes a 2”-wide tape for trees and individual garden ties that work like zip ties.  All are adjustable and reusable.  Check your favorite garden center or nursery for a selection – the best stocking stuffer for gardeners in your life.

Galvanized Watering Can
We have 4 rain barrels, and so I spend a lot of time watering by hand.  This old-fashioned model makes the job a pleasure.

You wouldn’t think there was much to a watering can, but I’ve tested out many.  Here’s what I love about this one:
  • The upper handle lets me carry the can almost-level, so there’s no sloshing.  That water is precious in the middle of August!
  • The secondary handle offers a good tilt for watering.  No extra strain.
  • The 2.5 gallon capacity is just about the perfect weight… much easier than moving a 4-5 gallon bucket from rain barrel to plant.  Plus, the fairly standard measurement helps me track water per plant: 1 can per small shrub; 2 cans per large shrub; 4 cans per ornamental tree.
  • And finally, its heavy-gauge galvanized steel means mine is no worse for wear even after years of neglect in the rain and sun and dirt.
These simple watering cans are surprisingly hard to find, particularly this time of year.  Check your local hardware store.  Southern States and Tractor Supply usually stock them year-round in our area.  Make sure you get one with a removable nozzle.  Expect to pay $12-$25.
I know this may not be the prettiest present, but it will soon become something beloved.  A definite must for anyone who has invested in a rain barrel.  Believe me.  Just add a huge red bow.

Silicone Bowl Lids
I’m completely flummoxed by plastic wrap and prefer to use aluminum foil for baked goods.  So imagine my joy when I learned about these fun flower lids from my cousin.  Designed and manufactured by Charles Viancin of France, the Lily Pad and Sunflower Lids are crafted out of high-quality, food-grade silicone and were introduced to the U.S. about 3 years ago.

Just place one over any bowl or baking or serving dish with a smooth rim and push down.  Voila!  The lid forms an air- and watertight seal with suction.
Charles Viancin’s lids are safe for use in the refrigerator, freezer, microwave, oven and dishwasher and look adorable.  Different sizes include: 4”, 6”, 8”, 9 7/8” and 11 3/8” in diameter.  Lids run $9-18 each, depending on the size, and $35-$45 for a set.  There’s even a Hibiscus variety.

I purchased my Lily Pad and Sunflower from Pomegranate Seeds in Arlington, Virginia, and spotted them at Ladles and Linens on our recent visit to Lexington, Virginia.  This might be the gift you save for yourself.

I hope my 5 favorite things for the kitchen and garden inspire your Christmas shopping.  Good luck!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Think Pink

Most of the autumnal golds and tangerines have faded to paper-bag-brown.  And neighbors are starting to hang their boxwood wreaths.  But I can’t stop thinking about pink!
I think Benjamin Moore's Minstrel Heart (1297) is one of the prettiest pinks known to man.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit two amazing exhibits: Maharaja: The Splendors of India’s Great Kings at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Worlds Within Worlds: Imperial Painting from India and Iran at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.  In fact, I visited them several times each.

The two exhibitions focused on royal patronage of the arts in India.  For hundreds of years, art, ritual and pageantry were interwoven with the identity, both personal and imperial, of India’s rulers and those close to them.  Paintings chronicled and idealized.  Beautifully-crafted and bejeweled artifacts legitimized regal authority.

Maharaja: The Splendors of India’s Great Kings was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, from their huge Southeast Asian collection, and broadly addressed the changing roles of maharajas, through shifts in power of India’s political and ethnic dynasties and, of course, British rule, from the early-18th century until India’s independence in 1947.  By embracing tradition, and innovation, these last kings encouraged the creation of stunning paintings, textiles, metal goods and jewelry.
Detail of Allegorical Representation of Emperor Jahangir and Shah Abbas of Persia
(from the St. Petersburg Album), ca. 1618
Decorative margins, not seen in this detail, were added later in 1747-48.
Opaque watercolor, ink, silver and gold on paper
from the Smithsonian's Freer and Arthur M. Sackler Galleries
Worlds Within Worlds: Imperial Painting from India and Iran dealt with portraits, manuscripts and historical paintings of the Mughal Empire.  Mughal rulers controlled most of southwest Asia, India and the rest of the subcontinent, from the 16th until the mid-19th century, and recognized the power of art to reinforce their sovereignty, both home and abroad, justify their political ambitions, build alliances and foster a sense of oneness within their vast empire.

At the height of their influence, emperors Akbar (1556-1605), Jahangir (1605-1627), and Shah Jahan (1627-1658) sponsored literary and academic endeavors, supported ateliers and commissioned monumental buildings, including the Taj Mahal, as advocates for a consciously new and identifiable Mughal style.

Both exhibitions confirmed that so many Indian rulers of the past, whether they actually ruled or not, were extremely savvy patrons of the arts.  Through the centuries, they understood the role of art as propaganda – to define and promote ideals of beauty and piety and kingliness – and to acknowledge India’s diversity of cultures and religions.  It was also a way to develop local economies and make sense of new customs that were continually being introduced through travel and trade.  They appreciated fine craftsmanship and were genuinely fascinated with artistic styles from other places, including Europe.

But what was the most prevalent aspect of each exhibit?  Pink, of course!

Despite the dimmed lighting and hushed crowds, the museum galleries seemed to glow pink, like the inside of a conch shell… a pink cocoon, warm and joyful.  The paintings, in particular, whether majestic
Portrait of Maharana Amar Singh
ca. 1700
Opaque watercolor on cotton cloth
from the Victoria and Albert Museum
or intimate
Raja Bhup Singh with a Rani Under a Quilt
ca. 1800
Opaque watercolor on paper
from the Victoria and Albert Museum
or epic,
Umar Disguised as the Surgeon Mazmahil Arrives before the Castle of Antali
(from a Hamzanama)
ca. 1570
Opaque watercolor, ink and gold on cotton cloth
from the Smithsonian's Freer and Arthur M. Sackler Galleries
appeared to be illuminated from within with so many different shades of pink.

I’ve always been drawn to these coral-y, melon-y, sunshine-y pinks.
Opal (891) and
Ambrosia (893) are barely pink but stand out in the evening sky when tinged with a bit of
Polka Dot Pink (004).
These three pink paints, and the others following, are all from Benjamin Moore as well.
I wear a lot of pink: pale pink instead of white, ballet pink instead of yellow and even hot pink instead of true red, simply because pink is more flattering on me.  But I tended to think of pink as a rather “decorated”, almost superfluous color until I experienced Maharaja and Worlds Within Worlds.

Now, I look for pink everywhere, especially in hues I could add to my home.  Have you ever noticed?  Pink is the color of autumn flowers.
A bed of blooming Gaura looks like dozens of butterflies in...
Authentic Pink (2006-60),
Hydrangea Flowers (2008-40),
Pink Buff  (1285)
and Soft White (2170-70).

These fall roses are a kaleidoscope of pink.
Sweet Taffy (2086-60)
Florida Pink (1320)
Cactus Flower (1335)
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1329)
Mardi Gras (1342)
Milano Red (1313)

Abelia x 'Mardi Gras' sports
Confetti (1311) on its blossoms
and Old World (2011-40) on its leaves.

A pair of rambunctious Chrysanthemum x grandiflorum, 'Hillside Pink Sheffield, I think,
just finished up blooming after two months.  Don't adjust your television set!
The variations in color are natural.
Antique Coral (1198)
Bridal Pink (2013-70)

The umbels of Sedum x 'Frosty Morn'
Country Pink (2001-60)
Whispy Pink (2005-70)

and 'Autumn Joy', pincushions of pink when in full glory,
have now aged to rosy tan and brown, respectively.
Glamour Pink (2006-40)
Secret Garden (1284)

Butterfly Kisses (902)
Firenze (AF-225)
Even now, in this almost-winter, I can find pink in little doses of abundance.
My blueberry shrubs are ablaze with leaves of ruby-pink.
Even the sprout of new growth shimmers a nearly-blue pink.
Aniline Red (1350)
Pink Begonia (2078-50)

Charming Pink (2075-70) highlights
wispy remains of Muhly Grass.

My Japanese Maple, which smoldered bright orange just a few weeks ago,
is a fringed parasol of faded corals.
Blanched Coral (886)
Conch Shell (052)
Fruit Shake (2088-60)

I discovered Razzle Dazzle (1348)
and Hot Lips (2077-30)
in the stems and veins of Hypericum androsaemum 'Albury Purple'.

While Bayberry (2080-50)
and Peony (2079-30)
capture the velvety remnants of Echinacea purpurea
and hint at the spring to come.

But the leaves of Azalea x 'Christie Lyn' may be my favorite.
Normally creamy butter and grass green, they are currently flushed pink,
as if wearing a little rouge for a Christmas party.
Heartbeat (1319)

Some folks will tell you that pink is passé.  Don’t believe them!  Pink feels safe and a little off-beat; feminine and powerful.  It speaks of exotic places and charming garden walks.  But most of all, pink is inherent to light and living things.  So it can never go out of style.
Doesn't this Magnolia pod look like it's been dipped in the appropriately named
Spring Blossom (2172-70)
and Autumn Red (2087-40)?
If you happened to miss Maharaja: The Splendors of India’s Great Kings and Worlds Within Worlds: Imperial Painting from India and Iran, check out the permanent Asian galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum or Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for a gorgeous selection of Indian paintings and textiles.  The Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries house some of the finest examples of Mughal painting in the world.  So visit often for rotating displays.

And in the meantime, add a bit of pink to your life.  It will make you happy.