Sunday, May 3, 2009

Limey Bastards, or How Bitter Citrus Nearly Sunk My First Cinco de Mayo Cake!

I don't think Cinco de Mayo is a day usually associated with panic -  unless of course you were French in 1862 and on the losing side at Puebla - but the impending observance of this week's holiday was cause for some serious chaos in my kitchen yesterday. By the end of the day, all wrongs were righted, but not before I learned a few valuable lessons. The first is never wait until the last minute to test a recipe; the second is don't get cocky; and the last is know your produce.

The trouble started about a week ago when I got all caked up on what I thought was a great idea for a Cinco de Mayo dessert. Go ahead and boo the bad pun, but the only white powder I indulge in, at this age, is confectioner's sugar. Anyway, when some of our  neighbors asked if we wanted to get together for the Fifth, I excitedly accepted their invitation. After all, I already knew what I was going to make - a Tequila Lime Glazed Cornmeal Cake! What better occasion than Cinco de Mayo for this cake to have its debut! It seemed festive and fitting, and if everything went well my own kitchen could have a new annual tradition. As of yesterday morning I had yet to give the recipe its test run, and while I had never actually made this tequila glaze before, I wasn't all that concerned.  I mean really, how could it fail? I was making a margarita, more or less, on top of a cake. I knew these ingredients fairly well, I was adapting a recipe I'd made before, and as I thought about how complimentary all of the flavors would be, I asked myself again, "What could possibly go wrong?" 

If I ever write a memoir, those last five words are going to be the first sentence in a chapter entitled "When Good Recipes Go Bad." 

So, what went wrong? The limes. Now, bitter isn't a flavor I necessarily find objectionable, but this...  This was unlike any bitterness I'd experienced before. I want to describe its ghastliness in words that should never appear in a food blog. Allow me to interject that I cook with limes all the time. I love their versatility and I especially love their clean, bright flavor. But there was nothing bright about these inedible green gremlins. I wondered how an ingredient I thought I knew so well could turn into such a stranger. And such an unpleasant one at that. A little research gave me my answer. 

"A single citrus tree can be turned into a carnival with lemons, limes, grapefruits, tangerines, kumquats and oranges all ripening on its branches at the same," John McPhee wrote in his book, Oranges. And like a lot of other citrus, limes are often grown from branches, or sports, that have been grafted from one tree onto another. For instance, most lemons grown in California are grown on orange tree rootstocks. So in the case of my limes, if their original sport, or volunteer - as a to-be-grafted shoot taken from one tree is called - had any sour orange, bitter lime or even Rough Lemon parentage in their lineage, or rootstock, there was a chance that the fruit the sport produced might be equally bitter in the future. 

In the end it seems a little unfair to fault these limes for their flavor. There is, as it turns out, a legitimacy to their bitterness. They didn't ask to sprout from that particular family tree. But still, can I blame the bastards for ruining my cake? Absolutely. 

A re-do, with limes purchased from a different store, produced excellent results. What follows is an adaptation from a recipe that appeared in Bon Appetit magazine's April issue of this year. I am providing my version below. I've found this formula to stand up well to almost any flavorings and spices you want to throw at it. Um, except really, really bitter limes.

Tequila Lime Glazed Cornmeal Cake 
For the cake... 
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup yellow cornmeal (I used Bob's Red Mill, Medium Grain)
3/4 cup sugar
1 TBS plus 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk, almost room temp (see NOTES)
2 large eggs, room temp
1 TBS plus 1 tsp lime zest
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted, cooled to room temp (plus more for buttering pan)
For the glaze...
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted (be prepared to add extra if glaze needs thickened)
2 TBS fresh lime juice
1 to 2 TBS tequila 

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Butter sides and bottom of a 9 inch cake pan - I use a spring form - and line bottom with parchment paper. 
2. Combine flour, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar and salt in bowl. Stir well. (Rather than sifting, I placed these in a large strainer and tapped them through into the bowl. The cornmeal will not completely go through the holes but more on that in NOTES.) 
3. Whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, lime zest, and vanilla in a separate bowl. 
4. Pour liquid mixture into bowl with flour and cornmeal mix. Fold the two batches into one another. Do not overmix. Stop to occasionally scrape sides and fold back in. Pour into prepared cake pan and slide onto center rack of your oven. 
5. While cake is baking, mix together the powdered sugar, tequila and lime juice. The less liquid you use the thicker the glaze is going to be. You don't want it to be clumpy but you don't want it to be runny, either. (I did not add any extra sugar for my glaze on the cake in the pic above.) Set aside. Bake about 30 minutes or until inserted toothpick comes out clean. If you use a spring form pan you won't have any trouble with the releasing and inverting of the cake onto a wire rack, then turning right side up again. If not, slide a wire rack under your cake pan and turn upside down to release the cake. Use pot holders or oven mitts while doing this. Place another rack on top (which is actually the bottom) of the cake, then flip again. 
6. Place cake on server. If glaze has thickened, give it another stir. Begin spooning glaze onto the cake. If the cake is too hot, like seconds out of the pan, if your glaze isn't thick enough it can either drip off the surface without adhering or it sink down into the cake. (I had that happen once.) Spread evenly across top to the edge. Some of the glaze will run down the side (no matter what the original recipe might say.) 
NOTES: When combining the dry ingredients I tried to, for lack of another description, grate the bits of cornmeal through the strainer that still remained in the sieve. The result looked like yellow dust. Still the larger grains remained and I probably could've pushed all of them through if I had about, oh, an hour, to continue to do so. Now I've experimented with bringing the buttermilk and the eggs almost to room temperature ever since I made this cake the first time and the cold milk caused the melted butter to get clumpy. Regarding the glaze, after I placed it on the cake I immediately sat it in front of a fan to force the liquid to set. It worked, but it also caused small cracks to form on the surface.  


Charles G Thompson said...

Glad you were able to find limes with less lime-ness and make the recipe work. And I wish I was your neighbor so I could taste it! Happy 5th of May.

Steven said...

Charles, you guys are always welcome at my table. (I think it even says that to the right of this comment somewhere on my page!)
Yeah, I love the lime, but these little you-know-whats were mos def not housing the flavor I was looking for. Luckily, I found replacements!

Chef E said...

This is a brilliant recipe and idea as far as I am concerned!

How exciting about your book as well...glad I found you...

Chef E said...

PS I love the title of this blog, as I love humor infused writing!

I wrote a poem about a bad experience with an Iceberg salad, and called it 'The Iceberg that sunk my pallet', gets a lot of laughs!

Steven said...

Chef E, always happy to give a laugh, and always humbled by such praise. [Insert hands clasped, head nodded here.] Thank you very much and I look forward to sharing and swapping stories, and especially laughs, with you in the future. Thanks again for the great feedback! Steven