January 22, 2012
If you read last week’s post, you know I have a problematic relationship with ovens and that this has led me to experiment with alternative ways of making dishes that are traditionally baked or roasted. Ovenless these last few weeks, my focus turned to cake. After all, two weeks without cake? The horror!
I do realize I could have bought cake. And that there are plenty of desserts that don’t require baking—mousse, panna cotta, no-bake cheesecake, stovetop pudding, ice cream, to name a few. And I’m quite sure that in the past I have survived more than two weeks without eating cake. No one has ever died of cake withdrawal that I’m aware of.
However, the inability to eat or cook something, for whatever reason, makes me crave it all the more. When I was living in Egypt, I made my own ricotta cheese, rolled out pasta with a rolling pin until my hands were the color of boiled lobsters, and fried tortillas to make chips for guacamole (actually, tortilla chips are available in Cairo, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend $7 on a bag of crumbled Tostitos). And so, for me, not being able to bake a cake is a challenge, not an inconsequential irritation. Thus began my crock-pot cake journey that resulted in these delectable Raspberry-Vanilla Pudding Cakes.
Steaming is a widely used alternative to baking. Steamed bread, for example, is a staple in northern China. I’ve made this recipe for mantou (steamed buns) with very good results. I also made a fantastic, inauthentic variation of mantou with spinach and feta cheese that I will write a post about at some point. Then there’s rava dhokla, which is—according to the owner of my favorite Indian grocery store in Danbury, Connecticut—a savory steamed lentil cake from West Bengal, India. I’ve made this recipe for rava (rawa?) dhokla, and it is unique and delicious—kind of like a spicy, curry leaf–flavored cornbread—although I will never again grate fresh coconut. Merely opening the coconut turned out to be a nightmare that involved an hour of research followed by a series of failed attempts using nails, a hammer, a freezer, and a food processor and almost resulting in a few lost fingers.
But back to the subject. There are other alternative cooking methods to baking. Tortillas and lefse, a Norwegian potato bread, are cooked on a griddle. In fact, most of the world eats some kind of stove-top bread. Using an oven is, after all, expensive. In Canada, bannock—a Scottish type of bread or scone—is sometimes cooked on a grill or on a stick over a campfire. So why cling to this American/European notion that bread must be baked in an oven? (To be fair, English muffins are made on a griddle.) And if one can make bread without an oven with such great results, why not cake?
A crock pot makes an excellent pudding cake—cake with a layer of pudding on the bottom and a layer of cake on top. While I don’t really understand the science behind pudding cakes, I know it has something to do with the batter having so much liquid that it separates as it bakes.
In my opinion, pudding cake is the ultimate comfort food. My mother makes a chocolate pudding cake called “State of Maine Pudding” (thank you, Brenda Hio-Hamden, for sharing this family recipe with my mother), a dessert I request whenever I’m home and not feeling well—this cake, I’ve discovered, has the capacity to cure both mental and physical ailments. I can’t find an online version to give you, but the general idea, which seems to be common in chocolate pudding cakes, is to make a batter and pour hot water over it before baking it in an oven (not a crock pot).
When I decided to make pudding cake last week, I could find only recipes for lemon or chocolate versions. The grocery stories in the Asian neighborhood I live in don’t sell lemons or baking chocolate (weird, right?). So instead I flavored the cake with grapefruit and fresh ginger, and I divided the batter into ramekins to make individual-size portions. The cakes were good, but the ginger was a bit overpowering.
I decided a plain vanilla version would be much better, so next time I used vanilla extract as my only flavoring. These came out pretty much as I imagined, but they were a little too one-note. In my next and final version, I added raspberries. I put the raspberries in the bottom of the ramekins to create a raspberry pudding with vanilla cake on top. The results were unexpected and even better than I had imagined: The raspberries floated to the top of the pudding, resulting in a layer of vanilla pudding on the bottom, followed by a raspberry middle, and finally a very delicate, spongy cake on top. It’s three desserts in one!
If you’re not yet convinced of how awesome Raspberry-Vanilla Pudding Cakes are, consider this: there are only 6 ingredients (not counting the oil for the ramekins). The most difficult step in making the batter is folding in the egg whites, and unlike most batters that involve beaten egg whites, this one is so thin that you don’t have to worry too much about overmixing. Most importantly, there is no oil or butter (again, not counting the miniscule amount of oil on the ramekins). They’re only 200 calories each with about 4 grams of fat. You can have your cake and eat it pudding too!
Note: You don’t have to cook the cakes in a crock pot. I adapted the recipe from Gourmet’s Lemon Pudding Cake recipe, which is baked, so I imagine they would cook just as nicely in an oven. Don’t try cooking them in a water bath on the stove, however—I tried this and the result was a gooey, deflated mess.
Now that I have a working oven again, I can’t wait to make Molly Wizenberg’s Custard-Filled Corn Bread, which is, as the name implies, corn bread with a layer of custard in the middle that is made by pouring heavy cream into the center of the cake before baking. And just when I thought cornbread couldn’t get better!
Fill the crock pot with roughly 1 inch of water. Set on high. If not using a crock pot, preheat your oven to 350°F and set up a water bath in a shallow baking dish.
Butter or oil 4 small ramekins (mine are 1-cup), making sure you get all the way up the sides. Roughly chop about half of the raspberries (I used 6 per ramekin) until they resemble a chunky paste. Divide amongst the ramekins and press down so they cover the bottom.
Whisk the egg yolks with half the sugar until pale thick ribbons form when you raise the whisk. Whisk in the milk and vanilla, and then the flour. In a separate bowl or stand mixer, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the remaining sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. Whisk a third of the egg whites into the batter and then fold in the rest. Since the batter is very thin, I do this by folding, cutting my spatula through the batter, and pressing the egg white clumps against the sides as necessary. The batter should be the consistency of thin pancake batter. Pour into the prepared ramekins.
Place the ramekins in the crock pot and steam on high for 1 hour and 20 minutes. They will look very spongy on top—don’t worry. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.
If using an oven instead, bake for 30-35 minutes until puffy and golden on top. Let cool 20 minutes before serving.
Serve hot, warm, or cold, decorated with the remaining raspberries. Eat them straight out of the ramekins (recommended) or run a sharp knife along the sides and turn out onto a plate (warning: this could result in a big mess if the cakes are warm).
*Note: Vanilla bean or vanilla paste would probably be better than extract, but I’m not sure of the quantity you would need—probably the seeds from one bean or 1 teaspoon of paste.