Sunday, October 6, 2013

Zoe Nathan's Cornmeal Cake with Macerated Strawberries: Summer in October

I've been in a fog since I left New York. Partly because of the predictable post-vacation inertia, my body's obstinate desire to stay firmly at rest. Sleeping in, ignoring emails, eating doughnuts and cappuccinos for breakfast… and chocolate chip cookies for lunch.

But there's been something else, beyond my aching sweet tooth, that's been present too. Lurking at the back of my mind like the sinister burglars I always thought were hiding outside my bedroom window when I was growing up. To, you know, burglar me and my Barbie dolls. 

Once again, New York has cast its spell on me. Just like I knew it would when I purchased the plane ticket, my brain nearly exploding with giddiness because I was finally going back. And finally going somewhere other than my parents' house in the OC.

In the two weeks since I've returned, I've seen New York everywhere. Not because it's suddenly been more present and taunting in my world as part of some grander sign that I'm supposed to move there, but more because I've been looking for it. Lusting for it. Nearly choking myself on NYC guidebooks at Anthropologie, snorting along with Buzzfeed's 35 Things Most New Yorkers Do like I can totally relate (I can't relate), and drowning my earbuds with "Empire State of Mind" when it so happens to come on the radio.

In the interim, I've been desperately trying to fall back into the routine of my life here in LA, hammering the square peg back into the round hole with as much enthusiasm as a kid eating broccoli. Telling myself that New York isn't that great. That it would be different if I actually lived there. That I'd be poor and cold and living in Brooklyn with a roommate that smelled like curry and B.O.

And yet, somehow even that seems glorious and exotic just for the inherent differentness of it all. Aside from, well, the poor part. And the B.O.

So in the midst of the lust, the imaginings of starting over, of wiping the slate clean and scribbling over it with a new path toward perceived greatness (and a killer winter wardrobe), I've been searching for the reasons why I love LA.

My Melrose Place Farmers' Market that I walk to every Sunday morning for kale and farm fresh eggs with yolks as vibrant as sunflowers.

The proximity of my family and nieces who I can't corrupt from 3,000 miles away.

The friends who make me laugh and drink too much wine.

Running on the Santa Monica Bike Path.

The dining community that makes me feel more a part of something than I ever have in my entire life.

And the ability to make cornmeal cake with macerated strawberries in October.

It'll do for now. At least until big apples come into season.

Zoe Nathan's Cornmeal Cake with Macerated Strawberries
Adapted from Noelle Carter's Culinary S.O.S. in the LA Times, and KCRW's Good Food Blog
Serves at least 12, though likely more if you offer more restrained slices

Notes: My obsession with Zoe Nathan's pastries began with the salted caramel at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe, another reason that I love LA. While it's hard for me to stray beyond the illicitly buttery, salty square that beckons me whenever I'm in the near vicinity of the beloved Santa Monica brunch hub, whenever I do, my sweet tooth is more than rewarded -- with muffins so delicate they crumble at the mere hint of an ocean breeze, with mini chocolate cupcakes that eradicate the notion that chocolate cake could possible be dry, with bread pudding that could be the reason bread was even invented at all.

One of the desserts that Zoe has become most known for in the LA dining circuit is her cornmeal cake, sometimes served with sweet corn ice cream, sometimes hidden beneath an indecent smattering of macerated strawberries and a sloppy tuft of whipped cream, and always more delicious than something made with cornmeal has any right being. Most recently, I got a taste of it at LA Loves Alex's Lemonade, a charity event and food festival featuring bites from the brightest talent both in LA and the country, and I was once again reminded of why Zoe is one of our city's greatest culinary treasures.

With temperatures toeing their way into the 90's in Southern California this weekend, it seemed only proper to bid summer one final farewell with a take on her cake, cobbled together from an older recipe for a cranberry orange version of Zoe's cornmeal cake via the LA Times' Test Kitchen Director Noelle Carter (another culinary treasure!), and a recipe that was featured last year on KCRW's Good Food Blog. Needless to say, I omitted the cranberries and orange zest from the Times' version, trading in lemon zest which I thought might partner better with the macerated strawberry topping, and I also used plain yogurt in place of part of the ricotta as dictated by the KCRW version. The end result was exactly what I had hoped it would be - a final breath of summer in cake form that encompasses all that there is to love about LA and, well, life in general. Cake really does make everything seem brighter, don't you think?

One final note - while the cake is delightful as plotted out here, the caramelized sugar top giving way to an interior that straddles the space between cake and pudding, I think I might consider trying it in a tube pan the next time for more caramelized sugar surface area. If I do so, I'll be sure to return and indicate as much here. In the meantime, go forth - make cornmeal cake, and remember the reasons why your life is already wonderful, exactly as it is.


Cornmeal cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
3 eggs
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons salt (this isn't a typo - this cake can take it!)
Zest of 1 lemon
1 1/2 cups sugar + 2 tablespoons for dusting
1 cup whole fat ricotta cheese
1 cup plain yogurt (whole preferred)

Macerated strawberries
1-lb strawberries, quartered or halved depending on size
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice (Meyer lemon juice is brilliant here if you can find 'em!)

Whipped cream
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan with parchment paper, then liberally grease the bottom and sides, all the way up to the top.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking soda, and baking powder with a wire whisk. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, vanilla, maple syrup, and vegetable oil, also using a wire whisk until well-incorporated (this recipe is not shy with using bowls).

Finally, in a whole other large bowl (or in the bowl of a stand mixer - preferable), use the paddle attachment on your mixer or an electric handheld mixer on medium-high speed, to cream the softened butter with the salt, lemon zest, and 1 1/2 cups of sugar. You'll want to mix it until everything comes together properly, but not so much that it's completely creamy as the phrasing "cream together" would suggest. With the mixer still running over low, gradually add in the egg-maple-oil-vanilla mixture until just integrated. Add half of the flour-cornmeal mix, give it a 5-10 second whir in the mixer, and then add the rest of the flour, along with the ricotta and plain yogurt till, again, just combined. (Overmixing is the death of all good things aka cake.)

Pour the thick, fluffy mass of batter into the pan, admiring your work as it goes, then fanatically smooth the top using a flat knife so it's level. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in an even layer over the top.

Bake for 55 minutes to 65 minutes, checking after 55 minutes by inserting a cake tester into the center of the cake, but also giving it a good glance over for other telltale signs of doneness - a golden top, edges that pull away from the tin every so slightly, some crackly edges around the corners. The tricky thing with this cake is that the tester may come out clean when it isn't actually there, so better to gauge by the visual clues. Once you are convinced that it is in fact done, cool on a wire rack.

For the macerated strawberries:
While the cake is baking, toss the strawberries with the sugar and lemon juice. Let sit in the refrigerate to "macerate" (the technical term for what happens when those strawberries start to break down and release their juices into a puddle of strawberry au jus) for at least two hours.

For the whipped cream:
Just before you are ready to serve, combine the cream, sugar and vanilla in a large bowl. Use an electric mixer (or whisk if you want to be all proper about it) and whip ingredients until medium, yet somewhat fluid, peaks form.

For serving:
Slice cake into pieces. Top each with a couple spoonfuls of macerated strawberries and a heady dollop of whipped cream.


Lynn @ said...

I just saw a great exhibit at a gallery in Pasadena featuring NYC Storefronts, miniaturized. It might bring you back a little!

Gastronomer said...

This looks incredible. High-five, D!

Diana said...

Lynn - Sounds amazing! I'll need to check it out.. maybe with my gal Gastronomy who lives over there!

CC - I feel like I may need to make this one for you sometime. Let's talk dinner party on Sunday!