Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cooking to Save the Planet: Poison the Old Lady Torte

Today's a significant day for Steve (and me): Steve's 60th birthday.  Spurred by valuable suggestions from many friends and family members, I've put together a small party--an indoors picnic--to celebrate.  Steve insisted there not be a big production, so I've invited a few close friends and family members, and have made fried chicken, potato salad, and macaroni and cheese, along with a cake.  A friend is bringing deviled eggs, and my aunt will make her Chinese cole slaw and a fruit salad.  We won't lack for good food.

The cake: I hope I haven't shared this recipe before, and would therefore be boring readers by repetition.  I've done a search of previous postings and am not finding it, but the search engine for the blog sometimes fails to pick up words.  So my apologies if this is a duplicate posting.  We old people are wont to repeat ourselves at times.

This is a cake I actually first baked for Steve's 40th birthday.  It turned out so well (despite one unfortunate incident, on which more below) that I wrote down the recipe and we have continued to make the torte for one special occasion after another over the years.  

And I was very proud of myself to have invented what I regard as a very fine torte, until, some years down the road from that 40th birthday party, I happened on Julia Child's recipe for a Queen of Sheba cake, and to my horror, discovered that my recipe is almost, though not entirely, a duplicate of Julia's.  I have, as it were, plagiarized hers, since I had certainly read her book French Chef by the time I thought I was inventing this cake.

It's entirely possible that I tucked her recipe away in the back of my subconscious mind, and remembered salient features of it when I put together my torte, though I thought I was making mine up out of whole cloth at the time I first baked this cake.  Or it's also possible that there truly are no new recipes under the sun, and that no matter how innovative we imagine our newest creation is, it rings changes on something older and long familiar in other places.

Anyhow, for what it's worth, here's how I make my Poison the Old Lady torte: in the top of a double boiler over boiling water, melt 3/4 cup of unsalted butter with four ounces of high-quality unsweetened baking chocolate.  When the chocolate is entirely melted and amalgamated with the butter, beat in four eggs, one at a time, with a cup and a half of sugar.  The mix will thicken as you do this, and should be of a pudding-like consistency by the time you have added all the eggs and sugar and beaten them well.

After you've done this, beat in 2 cups finely ground (whole) almonds, 3 Tbsp. flour, 1 tsp. vanilla, 1/2 tsp. almond extract, and a pinch of salt.  Mix well and turn the batter into an 8-inch springform torte pan, buttered and floured.  Bake for 45 minutes in a 350-degree oven, or until the cake is not wet to the touch in the center if  you press on it.  Cool on a rack.

Some tips: I grind the almonds in our food processor, using the blade attachment, and I do this by using the feature that allows you to turn the grinder on and off throughout the grinding process.  I find that grinding most nuts continuously in the food processor, with no interruptions, tends to produce nut butter, and that's not what you want for this recipe.  You want something approximating the texture of a coarse cornmeal.

Another tip: we make this torte at least a day before we serve it, and let it mellow.  The flavor and texture seem to improve wonderfully after a day or so.  I also usually sprinkle some Kirschwasswer or brandy onto the cake once it has cooled.  In fact, I take an ice pick and poke holes into it to facilitate the absorption of the liquor.  Then I cover it well until the day it's to be served.

At that point, I spread cherry preserves on top and serve it with whipped cream.  It's very rich and you don't really need or want many other adornments.  A small slice is filling.  I have made the cake with other nuts, as well, and they work well.  I've used both pecans and walnuts, and each gives the cake a unique, delicious flavor.  When I've used pecans or walnuts, I have also omitted the almond extract and have used other preserves, like orange marmalade or apricot preserves, to top the cake.  And I don't use Kirschwasser, but some other liquor, for the mellowing process when I use pecans or walnuts.  I've used brandy, Cointreau, slivovitz, depending on what I have on hand and what flavor I think might marry well with the pecans or walnuts.

Poison the Old Lady?! you ask.  That's an unusual name . . . .

Why, yes, you're right.  It is unusual.  Here's why we've given that name to this cake: I actually did poison an old lady--literally so--the first time I made the cake.  For Steve's 40th birthday . . . . 

When I served it, it never occurred to me to mention to the guests at his party that the cake contained almonds.  To be honest, I'm not even sure I knew at that time that people are sometimes allergic to almonds, though I should have done so.

And so we enjoyed the cake, and then not so very long after we'd eaten it, a friend who had brought her mother to the birthday party sidled up to me and whispered, "Did the cake contain almonds?"  Yes, I told her, it's made largely with ground almonds and not flour.

And off to the emergency room our friend and her mother went, as the mother's tongue swelled up.  And I'm ashamed to tell you that friends of ours who had talked to this particular old lady at the party and had seen her in action, particularly in confabs with my mother, who happened to be visiting at the time and who hit it off with the old lady in question, since both were Southern belles of mature years who loved to gossip about how wicked their devoted children were to them, decided this particular old lady needed to be poisoned.  Just a little bit.  À la Flannery O'Connor and the grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."

And that name stuck.  And the old lady in question survived the ordeal, thank God.

Can it be that Steve and I have lived together all these years and are now growing old together?  Both over sixty now . . . . I have been fortunate, indeed.  Fortunate to have been given the gift to share my life journey with a man of such deep understanding, compassion, patience, long-suffering concern for everyone around him but himself.  And intelligence and wit.  Fortunate to have God's love for me embodied in a companion who has taught me so much about love, by who he is and how he lives his life.  I am grateful to the Lord whose grace has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love.

The picture: our friend Wolfram took it at Café du Monde in New Orleans in the mid-1980s.  Steve has aged well, and doesn't look much older than he does in that picture today, on his 60th birthday.  Wish I could say the same for myself, but each day now when I look in the mirror, I see my grandparents' faces looking out at me, and wonder how they got inside that mirror and became me.

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