If I had to pick one thing I do not like about running a food blog that would be the need to write recipes. What is the point of having a blog then, one might ask, because food blogging and recipe writing go hand in hand -- they are a double act so to speak, like Laurel and Hardy, like Fred and Ginger, like Pat and Patachon? But as far as I am concerned, documenting the cooking process is a terrible chore. Worse than taking pin bones out of salmon, worse than peeling a pound of cipolini onions, worse than cleaning the kitchen and loading the dishwasher. And we all know how that feels like.
Writing recipes is a skill one grows into, a skill I failed to cultivate. I've gotten a teeny bit better in the last couple of years -- courtesy of the Three Little Halves enterprise -- but for a good chunk of my cooking career all I could do was a bunch of scribbles really, or a couple of notes on the margins of a cookbook. I am not good at following recipes either -- I am a better cook without them. When I cook, there is a genie that floats around and whispers into my ear, touching my shoulder, pointing his little finger towards spice jars, squinting hard and shaking his head vehemently if he disapproves of my choice of ingredients. I follow and together we create some mighty good dishes. Most of the time, I fail to document the process and the dish disappears back into the magic bottle where it came from, together with the genie.
True to the feelings of its master, my genie does not like to participate in the recipe writing process either. The moment I take a pad and a pencil, the moment I put the scale on the countertop and take the measuring cups out of the drawer, the little fellow gets terribly upset and refuses to cooperate. He takes a seat on the edge of the cupboard, and crosses his arms across the chest, giving me the look, a indescribably mean look, the kind of look only a genie can pull off, sort of like now-that-you-are-taking-notes-you-are-on-your-own look, and bails out of teamwork. And things go terribly downhill from there: I over-think and over-season; I pay attention to what I write, instead of what I cook; I begin to question times and temperatures, the size of dice, the choice of spice, until the brain takes over the spatula and the dish spirals out of control.
Case in point. There is this dish, let's call it a polenta cake for the lack of a better word, a dish I've been cooking at least once a month for over five years now. It's one of our family staples. It loves kids and playdates, and kids love it back, because it's cloudlike, soft and mellow. It goes well with weeknight dinners, because once can make it ahead of time, and then poof, as soon as you come back from a long day of work, in the oven it goes and you can sip that much deserved martini. The "cake" goes well with fancy dinners too, because you can "decorate" it with all kinds of nice things, like shrimp and tomato sauté, or caramelized onions, a splash of beef bourguignon, or a generous scoop of mushroom marmalade - our topping de jour. And most importantly, my dish is super simple to prepare: one makes a small pot of polenta, one adds to it some butter, grated cheese and eggs, perhaps a pinch of nutmeg, one seasons with salt, one pours everything into a baking dish, one bakes for like 40 minutes and -- tada -- out of the oven comes a miracle.
"A music to my tummy," as Miss Pain likes to say.
In all those years, I must have made over hundred polenta cakes, and never failed once. That is until I finally decided to immortalize my dish via a recipe.
"Mom, why did you change the recipe for the polenta cake?" asked Miss Pain after I served the immortal version for dinner. "This one is not as nice as the old one." I trashed the notes, and started all over again. The second attempt was borderline OK, except that it was too salty and it could have benefited from another couple of minutes in the oven. I made a third one, this time without doing anything, no note taking, no recipe writing, no time and volume measurements, nothing but a good old feeling of stirring a pot of polenta until it feels about right. This time, it was perfect.
What can I say... Over the next two weeks we ate nothing but polenta cakes and I could not get it right, unless I ditched the notes and focused on cooking.
The genie must have had a lovely time watching me suffer.
But those who know me know that I do not give up easily. So I gave the genie a look, the kind of look only I can pull off, a sort of like watch-me-do-it-ha-ha-ha look. And I closed my eyes and I closed them really, really tight, and I cooked the polenta in my head. Slowly. With gusto. Over and over again. And then I wrote it down.
Polenta Gruyere "Cakes" with Mushroom Marmalade
This is the most "complicated" version, which I serve for the parties. You can totally ignore all the hoopla and go for the cakes only, and you will not regret it. And you can change the cheese too -- sometimes I make it with parmesan, sometimes it is pecorino. Manchego goes well too and so does mild cheddar. It's is really an open playfield. Do whatever you like, and it will still love you back.
for the cakes
* 1 cup fine-milled corn flour
* 3 1/2 cups milk
* 4 oz aged Gruyere, finely grated
* 2 eggs
* 3 tbsp butter, plus another tablespoon for greasing the baking dishes
* a pinch of nutmeg (optional)
* 3/4 tsp salt
* one 9-inch round pie dish, or six or seven 3 1/2-inch round ramekins or pie dishes
for the marmalade
* 3 + 2 tbsp olive oil
* 16 oz mixed mushrooms (white button and cremini are a good starting point. Sometimes I use trumpets or shitakes), diced into 1/4-inch dice
* 1 small yellow onion (4 oz), diced
* 2 garlic cloves, smashed
* 1 tbsp carrots, grated on the microplane
* 1 tbsp celery, grated on the microplane
* 3-4 tbsp + 3-4 tbsp dry sherry
* 1/2 cup full bodied red wine
* 1/4 cup ruby port
* 1/2 cup red wine vinegar (6 %)
* 4 sprigs of thyme * 1 tbsp butter * 1-2 tbsp finely minced parsley
* salt and freshly ground pepper
* enoki crisps (optional)
to make the cakes
Heat the milk and salt in a medium saucepan set over medium heat. When the milk starts to simmer, remove the pot from the heat and slowly (slowly) sprinkle in corn flour, whisking constantly to prevent lumps from forming. (If you really mess it up, and the mixture is lumpy, once all the flour has been added, mix well, pass the mixture through a sieve and return to a clean pot.) Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the butter and mix well. Cook, stirring frequently until the mixture starts to bubble. Once the mixture is bubbly, continue to cook for another five minutes. The mixture should be smooth and velvety.
Remove pan from the heat and stir in the cheese. Once the cheese has been completely incorporated, and the mixture has cooled enough, add one egg. Mix well. Once the egg has been fully incorporated, add the second one. Mix well. The mixture should be creamy, with a consistency of hummus. If the mixture is too thick, add a bit more milk.
Butter the pie dishes. Pour the corn flour mixture into the dishes. Spread and flatten the mixture with a knife or spatula. (If the mixture is too sticky and you have a difficulty spreading it, wet your three middle fingers and gently press on top of the mixture, that will do the magic.) Cover the dishes with plastic wrap and leave in refrigerator for about two hours (or overnight).
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the baking dishes straight from the refrigerator into the middle of the oven and bake until cakes are golden, slightly puffed and crisp around the edges, for about 50 minutes for a large pie dish, or 25 minutes for small pie dishes.
Remove the dish from the oven, and let the cakes rest for about 15 minutes, so that they are gently warm.
to make the marmalade
In a large, nonstick skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of the vegetable oil. Add the diced mushrooms; season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over moderate heat until tender, 5 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring, until browned. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate. Deglaze the pan with 3 or 4 tablespoons of sherry. Add the liquid to the mushrooms.
In the same skillet, heat another 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add the onion, garlic, carrots, celery, and thyme, and cook over low heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the onion mixture to the mushrooms. Deglaze the pan with the remaining sherry and add the liquid to the mushrooms.
In a small saucepan, combine the wine, port and vinegar and bring to a boil over high heat. Once the mixture is boiling reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the mixture is reduced to one third of its original volume. Add the mushrooms and onion mixture and cook over moderate heat until the mushrooms are glazed, for about 2-3 minutes. Add the butter and parsley and season with salt and pepper.
(Mushrooms can be made a day ahead and stored in the refrigerator. Just gently reheat before serving. If you are making the mushrooms ahead of time, do not add parsley and butter to the mushrooms right away, add just before serving, after the marmalade has been reheated.)
to make the crisps
Preheat the oven to 300°F (275°F convection). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
You will need a small bunch of enoki mushrooms. Spray the enoki mushrooms with vegetable oil spray. Spread the mushrooms on the baking sheet sparsely and in one layer. Make sure there is plenty of room and the mushrooms are not overlapping, otherwise they will not crisp. Bake for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are the color of caramel and very crispy.
(Crisps can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a couple of days. Take them out an hour before serving to bring to room temperature, or gently reheat in the microwave.)
Serve the cakes when they are gently warm. If you are making one cake instead of individual ones, wait until the cake is slightly warm to cut it. Add an ice cream scoop of warm marmalade on top of each cake (or on top of each slice). Top the marmalade with enoki crisps. Enjoy.