“I like the improvisation of cooking, and the precision of baking,” said the bearded man in the Jurassic Park T-shirt, distinguished food writer Greg Patent. He swept the straight edge of a plastic scraper across the rim of a stainless steel measuring cup, trimming it down to exactly one cup of flour (unbleached, all-purpose).
“You can cook a piece of chicken, but it will still be just a piece of chicken,” he added. “I prefer the alchemy of baking.”
“Alchemy?” I asked. “Isn’t that the practice of transforming, uh, stuff, into…”
“Gold,” he said.
Greg would know. His first book on baking, “Baking in America,” won a James Beard award in 2003. A Baker’s Odyssey, his second book on baking—and tenth book overall—is due out this December.
He should have won another award last year for his Sept. 20 food column in the Missoulian, wherein he recounted a special recipe he got from New York Times food columnist Marian Burros (who was given the recipe soon after her wedding).
This recipe, for a torte made with Italian prune plums, became, literally, the talk of the town. Folks were gushing about the torte at the bank, waxing about it around the barbeque, recounting their pleasures, glaze-eyed, at the check-out line as they shopped for more baking supplies for more tortes!
When I asked Greg if I could watch him make this torte, he agreed. “Just bring a pound of Italian prune plums (12-16 plums),” he said, “I’ve got the rest.”
A note on prunes and plums: They are distinct categories of tree, both of whose fruits are called plums. Prune plums are smaller, denser, drier, very tasty, and longer-storing. Italian prune plums, those lovely purple oblong spheroids, are the most common prunes here in the Rockies.
For me, unlike Greg, baking is too exact a science on most days, and this day was no exception. My only task that day was to bring those prune plums, and I failed.
At the time of this research—about a week ago—the local prune plums weren’t quite ripe, so I stopped at the Good Food Store, where my only choice was black plums (a round, juicy variety) from California. I bought a pound, thinking inexactly, unlike a baker, that they’d work. Had I known how important this exact choice of fruit is, I would have pursued those prune plums elsewhere—even Wal-Mart if I had to.
Greg’s eyebrows raised when he saw my black plums, but he was cool. At least he had a torte from last year thawed and ready to warm in the oven. This was to verify Greg’s claim about how well the torte tolerates prolonged freezing.
Meanwhile, we forged ahead with a fresh, wrong-fruit torte, just to see what would happen.
He transferred two eggs from the fridge to a cup of warm water. Cold eggs can curdle when they’re mixed into the batter, he explained.
He washed and halved my wrong fruit and removed the pits, which disappeared through a sliding trapdoor in his cutting board.
In a medium bowl, he whisked that exact cup of flour with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon Rumford brand baking powder.
In another bowl he beat a stick of room-temperature butter until smooth, added 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and 1/4 cup of sugar, and continued beating (with electric mixer or wooden spoon) until the butter was ready to accept more sugar. Beating constantly, he gradually added another 3/4 cup sugar. When smooth and creamy—creamed, as it were—he beat in the warm eggs, one at a time, disappearing the shells through the trapdoor in his cutting board.
He added the flour/salt/powder and worked it all into a batter with a wooden spoon, then scraped the batter into a buttered 9-inch springform pan. He arranged the halved plums on top, and squeezed a teaspoon of fresh lemon over it, followed by a sprinkled mix of 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon.
While the torte baked (one hour, center of the oven that was pre-heated to 350), we sat down and tasted last year’s. (It had been frozen wrapped in foil. To re-heat, let the torte thaw to room temperature, preheat oven to 300 degrees and heat for 10 minutes.)
As claimed, it was still fabulous after a whole year!
After this year’s torte cooled on a wire rack, Greg went around the edge with a knife to make sure it wouldn’t stick, then removed the torte.
The wrong-fruit torte was…well…it was very good. But it wasn’t the same.
For confirmation, I brought both tortes to a friend known for his sharp sense of taste.
Without telling this friend, whom I’ll call Old Tasteful, anything about these two tortes, I let him try last year’s model.
“Oh, I like it very much,” said Old Tasteful. “Except I want more oven-fresh crisp on top.”
Next he tried this year’s model, which did have that fresh-out-of-the-oven crisp.
“This one is less satisfactory,” Old Tasteful said. “Something’s wrong with the fruit.”
Ask Ari: Show me the green
Q: Hi Ari,
I’m loving your road trip reports from New Mexico—they make me homesick!
Luckily, Caroline and Steve Bull are roasting green chiles at the Farmers’ Market in Hamilton, just like they do down south.
They grow Big Jims, Espanolas, Romeros and a bunch of other tasty green varieties of varying heat at their farm in Grantsdale, outside of Hamilton. Then they come to Market and roast them in one of those wire baskets. It smells so good!
They make it to Market about every other week starting in early or mid August. Their number is 375-0149.
The Farmers’ Market in Hamilton is located on Bedford Street and Third—just two blocks south of Main Street and one block west of 93. It’s open on Saturday from 9 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. Hope to see you there!
My favorite green chile sauce, by the way, is found at Tia Sofia’s just off the plaza in Santa Fe.
A: Dear Laura,
Thanks for the tip. Even though I already have about 50 pounds of New Mexico green chiles in the freezer, I’m so there! Of course, anyone can just buy Anaheim peppers and roast them on the grill. But the authenticity of these New Mexico varieties, and the sight and smell of massive quantities roasting, is quite a thrill.
By the way, the newest trend in green chile roasting down there is to peel the chile in a cool spray of water immediately after roasting. This fixes the chile’s bright green color and helps preserve its turgid body—as opposed to the standard soggy olive green roasted product, which is slightly reminiscent of four hours in the microwave on “HIGH.”
As for the best green chile being from Santa Fe, that sounds like pure Fanta Se to me. Santa Fe is in red chile country!
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