05 August 2010

A Paean to Pound Cake

Summer is not my season. The only word I can use to describe myself from June to August, to be brutally honest, is wilted. I feel listless, shiftless, useless for weeks on end. I can't even summon up the concept of cold, no matter how many lush cardigans or autumn serenades I sigh over.

But what this heat does bring is an ease. Shoulders relax, gaits slow; clothing is pared to an absolute minimum. And while I do tire of wearing the same stained wifebeater every single day (it's actually too hot to imagine any other outfit), there's something refreshing about feeling so simple and stripped down.

And though it's now that I enjoy experimenting with iced teas and infused herb and berry syrups, at this point in the summer, I tend towards straightforward cold brews (megami sencha is the standout this year) and more simple accompaniments- like a plum straight from the refrigerator, eaten over the kitchen sink. Or a single, plain slice of pound cake.

Pound cake is like the ancestor of all cakes. It stands proudly without frosting, filling or other decoration. It's perfect as soon as you turn it out of the pan; unadorned, it shines more deeply- and with more lasting intensity- than all those gilded, gussied-up confections.

I always love the classic, but this lightly spiced version, from one of the last issues of the venerable Gourmet magazine, is just as delicious. I initially made it back in early spring, and with the first bite, thought the flavors perfect for the burgeoning season.

And I can now verify the cake works just as well when it's 92°. The exotic, floral aroma of the cardamom and vanilla are even a little more intense every time I lift the cover to cut another slice- something, I will warn you, that may happen more than once a day.

Cardamom-Vanilla Pound Cake
Makes: 10 to 12 servings.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
2 vanilla beans, halved lengthwise
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup milk, at room temperature

1. Heat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Generously butter a 12-cup bundt pan and dust with flour, knocking out excess.

2. Whisk together flour, cardamom, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Beat together butter and granulated sugar in mixer at medium speed, scraping side of bowl occasionally, until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Scrape seeds from vanilla beans with tip of a paring knife into butter mixture (reserve pods for vanilla sugar), and beat until combined well, about 1 minute. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in lemon juice until combined well. At low speed, add flour mixture and milk alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture, mixing until just combined.

3. Spoon batter into pan, smoothing top. Gently rap pan on counter to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until toothpick inserted into center of cake comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool in pan 1 hour, then invert onto a rack and cool completely, about 1 hour more.

White tea, iced- or hot, if you're a masochist- is the best accompaniment. Its faintly smooth, sweet notes well complement the same in the pound cake. And since we're simplifying, look for a bai mudan (white peony) white tea, not necessarily the higher-grade silver needles. Bai mudan is a newer, much less expensive variety, but cold brewed, it's just as lovely.

03 August 2010

Tuesday Tea Tasting: Amithé

I'm sure it's happened to you: that feeling like you've accomplished nothing, the week quickly slipping from your grasp. It's not a pleasant sensation, but there is a painless remedy.

A Tuesday afternoon tea tasting.

Plus, my kitchen counters are slowly being taken over by clusters of little samples and packets, and I didn't get nearly enough sleep last night. So what better time to listen to Houses of the Holy three times in a row and brew up some offerings from Amithé, a new tea company I recently stumbled across.

First up, the signature Amithé ($17 for 1.5 oz.), a white tea strewn with rose petals that brewed up luscious, soft and sweet. Some claim white teas are redolent of perfume, and I can understand the comparison. But this one is so in the best way possible- think of sinking blissfully into a warm bathtub full of Chanel No. 5, not getting sprayed in the eye with a blast of Electric Youth. The tea gets even sweeter as it cools, which would make it perfect, iced, for any August picnic that stretches into dusk.

(Théo, left; Amithé, right)

Théo ($14.75 for 3.5 oz.) and I didn't along quite as well. An Earl Grey mixed with rose, jasmine and lavender, this is an ambitious blend, perhaps best for flavored-tea junkies. It's not cloying, as you might expect, but there were so many floral notes in each sip that I found it hard to concentrate and detect the base tea's essence. Maybe I'm just a lightweight. It certainly did look gorgeous as it was brewing- but then again, the most attractive ones are always the biggest troublemakers.

With a name like La Dame à Licorne ($17 for 2.5 oz.)- a little bit filthy, a little bit French- I was hooked before it even passed my lips. I kept trying to come up with descriptions as I sipped: was it earthy or grassy, slightly astringent or barely sweet? Then, suddenly, the cup was empty, and a sensation similar to what I imagine drives an alcoholic seized me. I'd never known this tea existed until two minutes before, but now I had to have another cup. This tea is so well-balanced and palatable; it's everything a Chinese green should be. At this point it may have been the tea talking, but those leaves really did look like miniature unicorn horns.

My final tea of the tasting was Fumoir ($21.50 for 7 oz.). Even while brewing, it smelled musky and dangerous, like someplace your mother would warn your teenage self to avoid. (She'd usually be right, but so what?) A gunpowder green tea, this full-flavored version is deliciously smoky- and if a nonsmoking vegetarian (ah, how boring we become with age) can be so bold, almost meaty.

Now it's turned into evening, I have a third cup of Fumoir in hand, and I'm not quite sure how it all happened.

But I suppose all the best parties end that way.