Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country


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Zucchini Cake

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I did not plan on blogging this recipe.  

For one thing, I’d never made it before.  And, anyway, I would hate to give the impression that we are sitting around eating dessert all day.  (I swear, nutrition police, we’re eating our vegetables…usually, without mixing them into a cake!)  But plans change.  And this cake, heaven help us, is the tastiest thing I made all week.  And not because it didn’t have some stiff competition. 

I wasn’t planning to blog about this recipe, so I didn’t take any process photos.  You’ll have to use your imagination.  You won’t mind, though.  You’ve seen cake batter in a mixer bowl before, right?  And you’ve seen the kind of zucchini that inspired me to bake this cake: the kind that sneakily, while your back is turned, transform themselves from pinky-sized baby zucchinis into fruits the size of a toddler’s baseball bat.  The kind whose guts have turned unappealingly spongy, like eggplants, so that you can’t really treat them like vegetables anymore.  Frankly, they leave you no choice: they require that you bake them into some kind of tasty treat…or that you trash them.

I wrenched two mammoths from my zucchini plants on Friday afternoon.  If it hadn’t been Friday, I might have chucked them straight into the compost bin.  If it hadn’t been late August, when my zucchini plants are, one by one, succumbing to annihilation by squash borers, I almost certainly would have considered them waste.  But, happily, it was a Friday afternoon in the waning days of August, and I knew that soon, I’d have a houseful of happy, hungry kids (and one happy, hungry husband) and that before too long, I’d be nostalgic for the kind of summertime excess embodied by those giants.  So, I decided a zucchini cake was called for.

I’d never made a zucchini cake, but I have a great carrot cake recipe (a Cook’s Illustrated recipe), and what’s the difference between shredded carrots and shredded zucchini…except that zucchini are waterier, and I was pretty sure I could solve that problem?  I had almost everything else I needed, except that I was a little short on cream cheese, a fact which turned out to be the mother of invention (or at least of fortuitous adaptation).  

It’s so good.  If I accidentally allow a few more zucchini to grow into unwieldy monsters this summer, then it’s possible I’ll have to make another before the growing season is over.  And, honestly, it’s so hot right now that I can hardly be bothered to go outdoors to check on the garden, so matters are out of my hands.

If your late-summer zucchini outgrow their more healthful applications while you aren’t looking, please: Bake this cake!  

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Do you see that layer of frosting?

Zucchini Cake with Extra-Sour Cream Cheese Frosting

(adapted from Cook’s Illustrated‘s Simple Carrot Cake)

4 cups coarsely shredded zucchini (about 2 BIG guys)

1 1/2 cups white sugar

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

4 large eggs

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 1/2 cups flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 9 X 13 cake pan. 

2. In a large bowl, mix together the sugars and the eggs until they look well emulsified.  With the mixer running at medium speed, stream in the oil.  Continue mixing until fluffy and light in color.

3. Place half of your shredded zucchini into a clean tea towel.  Over the sink, twist the towel to wring as much water as possible from your zucchini.  Don’t be gentle!  Use some muscle.  Dump the dried shreds into the batter, and repeat the wringing out process with the second half of the shreds.  Very briefly mix the shreds into the batter.  (They will be incorporated more fully with the dry ingredients.)

4. In a small bowl, combine the dry ingredients, then add them all at once to the wet ingredients.  Mix just until incorporated.  Don’t over-do it.  Mix only until combined.

5. Pour your batter into the prepared pan and bake just until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 35-40 minutes.

Extra-Sour Cream Cheese Frosting

8 ounces of cream cheese, room temperature

6 tablespoons butter, room temperature

1/4 cup thick sour cream (not reduced fat–get the good stuff!)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/3 cup powdered sugar

Mix together everything except the sugar with an electric mixer.  Get it fluffy and super-smooth.  Then mix in your powdered sugar.  

Smooth over the surface of the cooled cake.  (You should have plenty for a nice, thick layer.)  Refrigerate your cake. 

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This is what was left on Sunday evening. And, no, we didn’t let that little jigsawed corner stick around. We tidied up the shape before putting it back in the fridge.

 

 


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Individual Key Lime Cheesecakes

A few weeks ago, when it was still summer proper, while strolling around the neighborhood, we ran into a woman who works as a substitute teacher in the school system.  I asked her if she’d had a good summer, and she said something like, “Yes, but I’m looking forward to school starting back because I really love my job, you know, and I just miss being with the kids.”  Then she looked at my husband and said, “I’m sure you know what I mean.”

I studied him as he silently debated whether to give the right answer or the real answer.  I don’t remember what he ultimately said.  Something charmingly equivocal, I suspect.

I don’t want to divest you of your illusions if you still believe that teachers, unlike almost all other professionals, don’t see their work as “work,” that they would rather be in front of their classrooms than be anywhere else on earth, that they teach solely for the love of the kids.   But, well, that’s all nonsense.

He loves his work, but he loves his summers more.  As he says, “Since I have to do something, I’m glad I’m a teacher.” You can go ahead and fill in the unspoken corollary to that statement, if you want to.

Of course, I love being married to a teacher.  I love the fact that he’s almost always home by 4 p.m.  I love the fact that his “work clothes” are a pair of Levis, a button-down shirt, and a tie.  I love the fact that I frequently run into people who say to me, “Are you married to Mr. Gaylord?  He is so _____” (awesome, funny, cute, smart):  It’s a little like the grown-up version of being married to the quarterback.  And I love the fact that when the kids are on breaks, he is, too.

Given all the perks for me, I have a responsibility to manufacture some type of fringe benefit for him. To that end, during the regular schoolyear, I try to serve up Friday dessert treats. This one is a shared favorite, which I prepared at the end of the first full week of school–for the grown-ups only, of course.  Let the kids eat popsicles or something…these would be wasted on them!

(I prefer to make this in ramekins as individual servings, so that I don’t consume absurd quantities in slivers and smidges over the next several days, but to make a full-sized pie, just double the recipe.  And invite over some friends. )

Individual Key Lime Cheesecakes

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3/4 sleeve saltine crackers

1/2 stick butter, softened

1 tablespoons sugar

1/2 can sweetened condensed milk

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 egg yolks

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

Whipped cream

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  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Crush the crackers using your hands or a pastry cutter. Don’t powderize them.  Aim for “crumbles.”  Then, using your hands, incorporate the softened butter and the sugar.  The resulting mixture should hold together when pinched, much like a regular pie dough.
  3. Press the mixture into ramekins and bake for about 10 minutes, until golden but not browned.  (I use two regular sized ramekins and one smallish casserole dish, which serves as my husband’s man-sized portion.  Four regular sized ramekins will also work.)

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       4. Using a stand mixer or a hand mixer, whip together the condensed milk, softened cream cheese, and egg yolks. Beat it until it’s completely smooth. Then add the lime juice and mix until well blended.  As this mixture sits for a few minutes, waiting for the crust to be ready, it will stiffen into a beautiful, thick custard.  Then spoon it into your ramekins (the crust doesn’t need to be completely cooled) and smooth it out.

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5. Bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees, preferably in a water bath, just until the filling is barely set.  (To bake individual ramekins in a water bath is a snap.  Just put them inside a larger pan–like maybe a couple of loaf pans or a couple of 8-inch baking dishes–and carefully fill the larger pans with not-quite-boiling water, just to submerge the ramekins about halfway.) The cheesecakes should have some jiggle when you remove them from the oven.  Cool at room temperature and then refrigerate until serving time.

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Top it with whipped cream if you have some.  (I didn’t remember to get any this time, and we missed it!)


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Roasted Whatever

I’m pretty sure this doesn’t count as a recipe. Maybe it’s a technique, if you’re feeling generous. If you’re not feeling generous, you could say that I’m phoning this one in, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.

My whole brood started to school last week, which ought to have freed me up to prepare, record, and write about elaborate gourmet meals…but didn’t. What it did was create a deep sense of disequilibrium in me. Twelve hours a week with no kids at home when I have, for all practical purposes, not spent more than an hour alone in nearly 8 years…Well, I’ve been a little bit scattered.

But not too scattered to document the preparation of one of our favorite summer vegetable side dishes. It’s an unlikely one. It doesn’t involve beefy August tomatoes or steamed white half-runners (Kentuckians, represent!) or freshly shucked corn so sweet and crisp it requires no butter. It involves yet another humble ingredient, this one elevated so simply and quickly that it’s not even a real recipe!

Last week, I made a case for the power of the peely, subterranean onion, and this week, I hope to redeem for you the slime bomb of the vegetable kingdom: okra.

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I realize I’m an outlier in my affection for it, but that’s only because so few people have ever prepared it. They’ve eaten it deep-fried at restaurants or, maybe, in a goopy gumbo. But, seriously, it’s un-slimy, toasty, salty and crunchy (thanks to the exploding little seeds) when roasted in a super-hot oven with just a teeny bit of olive oil and a good dash of salt.  I like to spritz it with some fresh lemon juice when it’s still hot, but, to be honest, I put lemon juice on virtually everything, so you can skip that part if you want.

This is also a great way to prepare just about any veggie that doesn’t benefit from steaming (like brussels sprouts) and even some that do (broccoli, cauliflower, etc.)

So go ahead and roast your whatever.  Who knows what you’ll elevate…

Roasted Okra

1. Heat your oven to 500 degrees.

2. Chop your okra thinly.

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3.  In a big baking dish, toss them with enough olive oil to coat them lightly.  The dish needs to be big enough to allow them to rest in a single layer.

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4.  Then sprinkle them with more coarse salt than you think they’ll need.

5. Roast them in your preheated oven until they smell toasty and wonderful.  Your nose will know when they’re ready.  Then yank them out.  (It usually takes about 7 minutes in my oven.)

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6. Spritz them with lemon juice if you’re an acid-lover.  And serve alongside whatever else you’ve got.

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