A Simple Salad from Alsace

Communication and connection are the main themes of my life.  My methods have varied:  serving food, of course; learning foreign languages; being a closet writer; being dissatisfied with superficiality.  The latter, especially, can lead to pithy comments or jokes that are sometimes not well received, but my attempts to break the ice are almost compulsive.  Yet sometimes they do work, and the breakthrough is worth the effort.

Several years ago, on the last night of a holiday to Austria, we found ourselves at a campsite in Alsace near the Swiss border.  We had hit the Swiss motorways for seven or eight hours straight from Salzburg, and were exhausted.  All we wanted were showers and a hot dinner; but it was August in France, and a public holiday to boot.  Put both facts together, and that spells fermé: “closed”.

Except . . . the campsite owners were an enterprising couple, and they had a tiny café which was open.

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Sami met us at the door.  Sami was the resident black Lab.  He was friendly, wagged his tail, and didn’t seem to care that we were not French.  His owner, the maître d’hôtel, did seem to care.  A lot.

He wasn’t quite rude, but the frost was really on the pumpkin.  My husband speaks very good French, but that made no difference.  The contrast of his demeanor with the few other diners–obviously locals and regulars–was painful.  My compulsion to connect took over, and I asked him the dog’s name.

“Sami.”  . . . ahh, ok.  Well.  It’s time to order, I guess.

The steak au poivre and pommes frites were excellent.  We gained a couple of points for cleaning our plates, but that was not enough.  The salads were set down.  They were extraordinary.  Dessert was on the way, the patron was still as cold as his homemade ice cream, and I was desperate.

Before the steaks arrived, we’d noticed a poster or two on the walls, advertising upcoming events at the campsite–it was a happening place–one of which was a party hosted by a celebrity DJ called Sami Somebody-or-Other.  Some reckless part of my brain kicked in, and as the glace was set before us, I nodded toward the poster and said (in French), “So the DJ is Sami?”

“Oui.”

“And the dog is also Sami?”

“Oui.”

“Are they the same?”

“Non.”

I was utterly defeated.  I had met my match.  And then . . . the corner of his mouth twitched.

Breakthrough!!

It wasn’t necessarily warmth from then on, but it didn’t matter.  The connection had been made, common humanity established.  In exchange for a silly joke, he gave me an almost-smile: a gift I treasure still.

He also gave me the gift of this salad.  To this day, it is one of the best I have ever eaten.

It was the most understated salad in the world:  ribbons of young romaine lettuce, dressed with a piquant sauce of white wine vinegar, lemon juice, and olive oil.  That’s all.  No fistful of herbs and spices, buttermilk, or even mustard, nothing to distract from the absolute purity of the greens and the bracing sharpness of the dressing; it was a perfectly-judged palate cleanser after the rich main course of meat, fried potatoes, and cream sauce.

In recreating this salad over the last few years, I’ve made some tweaks depending on its position in the meal and its function.  As a light lunch salad, it sometimes includes fresh herbs, and it has been known to rest on a bed of sliced avocado or tomato.  Accompanying other items, say a quiche, the dressing may be softened by slightly more olive oil than usual.  But its full glory is revealed after the main course, before the cheese or dessert.  There, it cannot be bettered.

In the version below, I’ve included chives and dill for their subtle flavor notes–I understand the stripped-down version may seem too spartan at first–and edible flowers because their petals add beautiful flashes of color to the greens.  We’ve been rather conditioned to look for salads that are exuberant and full of ingredients; in the quest for “interesting”, we’ve forgotten how phenomenal “simple” can be.  Give it a try, and I think you might be convinced.

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 A Simple Salad from Alsace

Serves four as a lunch salad, or six as part of a multi-course meal
Makes 90ml / just over 1/3 cup dressing

1 head romaine or green leaf lettuce

9g / scant ¼ cup fresh chives, trimmed and cut into 1cm / ½ inch batons

6g / packed ¼ cup fresh dill, picked from stalks

6g / 1 small box edible flowers (5-6 flowers)

15ml / 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

30ml / 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

pinch of salt

45ml / 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

  1. Wash the lettuce and dry it wrapped in a linen tea towel, or in a salad spinner.  Set aside for the moment.
  2. Chop the chives and strip the dill stalks.  Pull the petals from the edible flowers, reserving a couple of the whole flowers for garnish.
  3. In a small bowl, stir the lemon juice, vinegar, and salt together vigorously, until the salt dissolves.
  4. Add the olive oil and stir again.
  5. Have a bowl to toss the salad to hand, and your serving plates or salad bowl.
  6. Pile the dried lettuce leaves on top of each other, and with your sharpest knife, slice them crosswise into 2cm / 3/4 inch ribbons.  Put the lettuce ribbons into the bowl to toss.
  7. Add the herbs and flower petals to the lettuce, and toss thoroughly, preferably by hand.
  8. Give the dressing another good stir to re-combine it, and sprinkle about 30ml / 2 tablespoons over the salad.  Toss again, and taste a leaf to test the amount.  Add a little bit more if necessary, but not enough to leave a puddle of dressing in the bottom of the bowl.
  9. Pile the salad onto serving plates, or into your large salad bowl.  Garnish with the reserved flowers:  either pull the petals and sprinkle around the individual plates, or garnish your salad bowl with the whole flowers, as you please.
  10. Serve the salads with remaining dressing in a ramekin, so guests can add a bit more if they wish.
  • If you’d prefer a milder dressing to serve the salad alongside the main course, increase the olive oil to 60ml / ¼ cup.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oxfordshire Seed Cake with Lemon-Lavender Cream

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Hello, and welcome to Red Mountain Refuge!  

For my introductory post, I shall start as I mean to continue, i.e. opinionated, and discuss the most civilized of English social events, Afternoon Tea.  Please let us get clear on this once and for all: Afternoon Tea is the classic 4:00 p.m.-ish light meal revolving around pots of Earl Grey, proper scones and cakes, clotted cream, jam, and crustless finger sandwiches in rose gardens and tea rooms across England.  In Devon it might well be called Cream Tea.  But it is not High Tea.

Still with me?

I bang on about this periodically to anyone who is at least superficially interested (and admittedly, the number grows fewer); but I shall continue to defend this noble tradition, as one who has baked a lotta years’ worth of scones, Maids of Honour, and Battenburg cakes.

“High tea” must sound more elegant, as though one were part of the Downton Abbey set or sitting at an Oxbridge college High Table, and “afternoon tea” is strictly for the plebs; but in fact, it’s the opposite.  High Tea is the name for the evening repast in working class homes; yes, with tea, but also with a hot meal: stew, pasties, fish pie.  In short, High Tea is what we know as dinner, served around 6:00 p.m. and washed down with tea, ideally  followed by one of the glorious steamed puddings that is also part of England’s culinary heritage.

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A classic Afternoon Tea offering, Seed Cake dates from at least the 16th century; the earliest recipe I’ve found was for a yeast-raised cake, and suggested anise, caraway, cardamom, or coriander seeds.  More modern recipes have added nutmeg or mace, cinnamon makes an appearance, sometimes frosting, and  frequently the amount of seeds, nearly always caraway, has been reduced to a genteel sprinkle.  My version is a dense, rich cake liberally endowed with two kinds of seeds and lemon zest, served with a lavender-scented lemon cream and fresh berries.  It is an Oxfordshire cake because: 1) Oxfordshire is my old stamping ground, and 2) there is a traditional, local sausage, still sold in the Oxford Covered Market, flavored with lemon zest.  I feel this gives me cultural permission to create a traditional, local seed cake flavored with lemon zest as well.

Please enjoy this cake at your next 4:00 p.m. Afternoon Tea with a lovely cup of aromatic Earl Grey or smoky Lapsang Souchong in the garden, on your most elegant china.  Alternatively, it is equally suited to be part of your picnic hamper as you punt down the River Cherwell, or tube down the Rio Salado.  It adapts well to any of the aforementioned cultural pursuits.

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Oxfordshire Seed Cake with Lemon-Lavender Cream

Makes one large ring cake (full recipe), or two smaller cakes (half recipe)

225g / 2 sticks softened butter, plus extra for the cake pan(s)

450g / 2 cups caster or fine sugar

4 eggs

230g / 1½ cups all-purpose flour and 230 g / 1½ cups cake flour (OR 460g / 3 cups all-purpose flour)

¼ teaspoon baking soda (bicarb)

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt or kosher salt

240ml / 1 cup buttermilk

1½ tablespoons caraway seeds

1½ tablespoons anise seeds

minced zest of 3 lemons

Lemon-Lavender Cream (recipe below)

fresh berries–strawberries, raspberries, etc.

 

  1. Prepare your pans first:  butter generously, then flour.  The full recipe is for a 10″ ring mold; a half recipe will fill one small 3½”x6″ loaf pan and one small 6″ ring mold.  Second, prepare your dry ingredients:  measure the flours, soda, and salt into a medium bowl, give them a good stir, and set aside.  Measure out the seeds into a small bowl and set them aside.  Zest the three lemons, and mince the peel (see note below).  Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. In a large bowl, cream the softened butter for about 2 minutes, until it holds a peak when you lift the beaters; this is called “beurre pommade”, and is a significant first step in making nearly any butter-based cake or filling. Then gradually add the sugar while continuing to beat the butter.  Fiddly as it seems, this beating sequence aerates the batter from the start, giving an extra boost to the baking soda.
  3. When butter and sugar are completely mixed, add the eggs one at a time, beating each one in thoroughly before adding the next.  As well as additional aeration, this will minimize the chance of the mixture curdling; if it does, it is fixable, but better not to have it happen at all.
  4. Beat in the buttermilk.  When the batter is thoroughly blended, start adding the flour mixture in two or three additions, beating just enough to get the flour completely mixed in.  If your batter has curdled, the flour will pull it back together.
  5. Switch over to a spatula, and gently fold in the seeds and lemon zest.
  6. Scoop the batter into the pan(s), and bake at 350°F for approximately 35-65 minutes, depending upon their size and your oven.  I use the convection fan on my oven, so the large cake takes 55 minutes, the smaller cakes around 35-40 minutes.  Check and turn your cakes at the 25 minute mark, and then keep checking.
  7. Cool on a rack, and unmold the cakes after 10-15 minutes.  Serve with the Lemon-Lavender Cream (below) and fresh berries.

Notes

  • Using half all-purpose and half cake flour gives a more tender cake; but using entirely all-purpose flour still gives an excellent result.  I don’t recommend using all cake flour, as the texture goes soft to the point of mushiness; this cake needs the extra strength from at least some all-purpose flour.
  • If you don’t have buttermilk in the fridge, use one half plain yogurt and one half milk instead; this substitution has worked beautifully for me when I’ve been caught short.
  • The easiest way to zest your lemons is with a microplane-style grater—it does the job perfectly, no mincing required, and is also a swell tool for grating onions, Parmesan cheese, chocolate, whatever else you grate.  Otherwise, a standard zester that peels the zest in long shreds is your next best option, but the shreds do need to be minced.
  • This cake freezes very well.  I usually make one large cake, cut it into quarters, wrap, and freeze them.  Works a treat.DSCN0929

 Lemon-Lavender Cream

Makes about 725ml / 3 cups

4 eggs

120g / ½ cup caster or fine sugar

juice of 3 lemons, to make 120ml / ½ cup

½ to 1 teaspoon highly-scented lavender buds

113g / 1 stick of butter, diced

120ml / ½ cup heavy whipping cream

 

  1. Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl until they are thoroughly beaten.  Whisk in the sugar, lemon juice, and lavender buds then transfer the mixture into a saucepan.
  2. Heat the curd batter over medium-low heat, whisking constantly until the curd thickens, between 5 and 6 minutes.  If the curd starts to “boil”—i.e., if a large bubble or two break the surface with a resounding “plup”, it’s ready.  Remove the pan from the heat.
  3. Whisk in the butter one cube at a time; when each cube has melted in completely, add another and whisk, until all the butter is in.  Leave to rest in the pan, allowing the lavender to infuse, for another 5 to 10 minutes.
  4. Pass the curd through a strainer into an 8″x8″ baking dish, or other shallow pan, and let cool briefly until it’s barely warm.  Cover with plastic wrap, and chill until completely cold.
  5. When the curd is cold, and right before you’re ready to serve, whip the cream until it holds soft peaks.  Gently and thoroughly fold in the curd.

Notes

  • My method is contrary to that of many lemon curd recipes, in that I don’t melt the butter with the eggs, sugar and juice.  In my experience, that method can sometimes lead to a greasy curd if, for whatever reason, the emulsion does not happen properly—and that’s what we’re making here, an emulsion sauce.  So I prefer to whisk the butter in bit by bit.  To my palate, this also makes a thicker curd.

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  • The amount of lavender depends on your taste, and on the age and strength of the lavender.  Mine has been kicking around for longer than it should, and I prefer a pronounced flavor, so I used 1 teaspoon of buds to get the effect I wanted.  If your lavender is young and strong, start with ½ teaspoon, and taste it after the butter has been added.  Stir in more buds to steep at that point if you wish, and remember that the cream will also blunt the flavor.  If you’re unsure, I would advise caution; lavender can overwhelm if used with too heavy a hand.  If it’s too light, just add a bit more next time.
  • Straining the curd is essential; there will be little bits of egg white in the curd straight from the pan, no matter how briskly you have whisked it, which need to come out.  If you’re in love with lavender and want buds in the finished cream—likewise lemon zest—fine, but add them back in after the curd is strained.