Perfection

I’m lucky to have a cousin who lets Laura and me stay at her house in San Francisco. This, and reasonable airfares from Salt Lake City, make regular food trips to that city possible. Over the years, like dogs returning to where they have buried bones, we visit Delfina, Tartine Bakery, the Slanted Door, and Rainbow Grocery. About Rainbow Grocery: where else can I find (in small quantities, without shipping costs) light teff flour, purple barley, and scarlet runner beans?

On our last trip in November, we walked up Valencia street bemoaning the fact that I had missed the window to make a dinner reservation at Flour + Water, a restaurant in the Mission. So we headed to Delfina for a pizza, salad, and maybe arancini. Just before turning onto 18th street, I noticed a new Flour + Water pizzeria on the corner! Fifteen minutes later as we tucked into a Marguerita pizza and salad, we ruminated about why this pizza was not only leagues better than anything available in Salt Lake City (sorry, Settebello and From Scratch), but also even better than Delfina. A chewy, charred, perfectly crisp cooked crust (yeah, gluten!) full of wheaty flavor, a sauce that was the essence of summer tomatoes. A few basil leaves and some mozzarella. Attention to detail and purity of ingredients. Flour + Water bakes its pizza at 600 degrees; Settebello in SLC advertises a Neapolitan pizza cooked for just one minute in a 900 degree oven—but often I’ve had soggy, not just foldable, pizza.

At Flour + Water we noticed also the camaraderie and joy of the workers; during shift change, one baker walked out the door with three boxes of pizza, while another stood at the corner of the oven in his leather jacket and bantered with the people coming in for the new shift. Producing perfect food requires not only the best ingredients but a consistent attention to detail, to which every worker signs on.

Also on that weekend, before  lunch at the Slanted Door, we walked through the farmer’s market outside the Ferry Building. We admired organic red gem heads of lettuce for $2, five different kinds of Asian pears, and at the stall run by June Taylor, jams, candied and jellied fruit, and one pound loaves of Christmas cake. Since I, too, make these things, I talked to June about her ingredients and process. She stressed the necessity of pure ingredients and attention to detail, time that she acknowledges not everyone may have, costly time. She sun dries different grapes for her fruit cake, sources unusual citrus (yuzu, heritage grapefruits, mandarins, lemons, and limes) from local and organic growers (varieties we never see in the grocery because they are either hard to grow or otherwise not moneymakers) and candies the peel herself, using organic sugar. She dyes and block prints paper to wraps the $75 cakes. Years ago, when I first acquired a dehydrator, I decided to make my own raisins. In went four pounds, laboriously washed and stemmed. Four days and who knows how many kilowatts of electricity later, I had a handful of lovely, juicy raisins. They were unlike anything commercially produced—so full of flavor. Maybe this fall I’ll try sun-drying another batch—if the weather cooperates.

In any case, I came home from this San Francisco trip committed to seeking out more pure ingredients—switching from white cane to organic sugar, for example. And paying more attention to detail.

 

Mistakes Were Made

 

I couldn’t find my recipe (computer files are no better than a file cabinet if you’re an impatient person who throws something in a bin instead of figuring out exactly where it belongs), so I tried to recreate it from memory. In the first attempt I used too much walnut meal. In the second, my cake rose unevenly so it was hard to cut off a neat top. So I reduced the amount of walnut yet again and added a teaspoon of baking powder—it’s not a large amount and won’t be noticeable in taste, but it should help stabilize the batter. This may seem like a lot of steps for a cake, but the advantage to having different components is that you can taste and correct each part as you go. And the result was worth it.

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Coffee Cream Walnut Torte with Raspberries (serves 10)

Cake Base:

9 ounces walnuts. Finely grind in a food processor with 1/2 cup chestnut flour and 1 tsp baking powder. You could use all purpose or a gluten free blend or corn starch. Chestnut flour (which is also gluten free) is naturally sweet, so if you use something else you might want to increase the sugar a bit. The flour or starch keeps the walnuts from clumping together by absorbing some of their oil.

9 eggs, separated

3/4 cup sugar, divided

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp cream of tartar

2 drops  lemon or orange oil, optional

9” springform pan, bottom lined with parchment paper and the whole sprayed with Baker’s Joy (or buttered and floured).

Filling:

16 ounces heavy whipping cream

Up to 3 Tbs. instant espresso, instant coffee, or Dandy Blend (made from beet, chicory and dandelion)—taste as you add. If you want a lighter coffee flavor, use less.

3 Tbs. powdered sugar

2 pints fresh raspberries (frozen will work, too)

2 Tbs. raspberry liqueur or syrup (optional)

 

Ganache glaze:

Melt (gently) 14 ounces of good quality dark chocolate (for this cake, I recommend between 45% and 55 % cocoa content) with 16 ounces heavy cream and add 2 Tbs. corn syrup (optional, for shine). Any leftover can be frozen. One fool proof way to make ganache is to finely chop the chocolate in a food processor, then pour in almost boiling heavy cream through the tube and process until smooth. Let the ganache cool to room temperature before covering the cake.

Make the cake:

Beat egg whites with cream of tartar until soft peaks form, then beat in half the sugar until stiff (but not dry). Dump into a very large bowl.

In the mixer bowl, beat the egg yolks with half the sugar and salt (and optional flavoring) until thick and lemon-colored.

Gently fold together the egg mixtures in batches, alternately with the ground nut mixture, in three batches, in the large bowl. A sifter or sieve will help distribute the nut mixture evenly. Take care to deflate the eggs as little as possible.

Spoon into prepared pan and bake until the cake begins to shrink from side of pan, about 40 minutes at 350 degrees, or until a pick comes out clean from the center. The batter will rise up an inch or so above the pan as it bakes and then sink a bit once it’s taken out. Let cool for about ten minutes, loosen the spring form, and cool further on a rack. Unmold the cake, use a cookie sheet or flat plate to turn it upside down and finish cooling it on the rack. Peel off the paper from the bottom.

Once the cake is cool, with a sharp and serrated knife, cut off about one inch off the top of the cake and set aside. You could use something flat and strong, like an extra large spatula or a pizza peel to keep from tearing the top as you lift, but if it does tear, don’t worry, the chocolate glaze will cover flaws.

With a small sharp knife, and/or a serrated grapefruit spoon, cut around the inside of the cake, leaving 1 inch walls and a 1 inch bottom. You want the cake to hold its shape with a sturdy frame. Scoop the crumb-center into a bowl, and crumble into pieces, pea-sized or smaller.

Whip the cream until soft peaks form, then whip in the powdered sugar and instant coffee, until stiff. Gently mix the flavored whipped cream with the cake crumbs and pat back into the cake shell. Top with raspberries and drizzle with the optional raspberry syrup or liqueur. Replace lid on cake and cover the cake with ganache glaze. (I use a small angled spatula to spread the glaze.)

Refrigerate—the cake will last at least four or five days, especially if made with fresh raspberries. Don’t be afraid to take it out of the refrigerator a few hours before serving.