Cruel and unusual punishment

Hello, friends. I had one heck of a nice Saturday, and I hope you did, too. My day included pajamas until noon; the New York Times Magazine; and an inaugural round of Pandemic, the newest German-style board game in the growing collection that belongs to my German-style-board-game-obsessed husband, who likes to comment on the “game dynamics” while we play, and say things like, “I imagine this game has good replayability,” and “Yes, that’s an actual word!” and, my favorite, “Ooooh, nice bits!” (referring to all of the little tokens and figures that come with the game). There was also a nap on the sofa; a slice of spinach cake for lunch; and a taste test of a new recipe for mini chocolate hazelnut cakes with sea salt that, just as I suspected, are even better after a spell in the freezer.

If you’re anything like me, I’m guessing that all you heard was “chocolate,” “hazelnut,” and “sea salt.” Those three little words, especially when they occur in the same sentence, have a way of wiping out all memory of whatever meaningless drivel may have come before them. A word like “spinach,” I imagine, is particularly susceptible to this kind of erasure. It doesn’t stand a chance. Dropping a bomb like mini chocolate hazelnut cakes with sea salt (whoops, I did it again!) and then blathering on about spinach might, in some countries, fall under the category of cruel and unusual punishment. But the thing is, I made a spinach cake this week that I would really like to tell you about, and since you have to eat your greens before dessert anyway, I hope you won’t mind. Stick with me on the spinach and then, I promise, you can have dessert.

This spinach cake comes from David Tanis’s book, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the words “spinach” and “cake” getting so cozy there on the page. Spinach pie, yes, but spinach cake? That seemed a little reckless. When I hear the word “cake,” I think flour and sugar and crust and crumb, but the thing is, it’s not that kind of cake. That’s what you need to remember. Tanis writes that his cake is “a cross between a custard and a frittata,” but I would go further than that. It’s far airier and more delicate than any frittata I’ve ever had and, while the milk and egg that pools at the bottom does indeed bake into a lovely pale-green custard, the top of the cake is so light, it’s almost mousse-like. When Eli tried it, his first response was, “It’s good. But it tastes like spinach.” Swap that “but” for an “and,” and we were on the same page. I know what he means: It would be easy to jazz up this recipe with, say, a few dashes of marjoram, or some extra cheese. It would probably be delicious. But sometimes the very best food is food that just plain old tastes like itself.

That may very well be the running theme of this cookbook: food that tastes like itself. Take Tanis's apple tart, for example. It’s the plainest darn apple tart I’ve ever seen. There’s no messing with cinnamon or vanilla or heavy cream. It’s just a good, flaky pastry dough, topped with thinly-sliced apples, and a sugar glaze. It’s perfect. Or his rhubarb kumquat compote, which boasts only the two fruits (well, one fruit, and one fruit-ish vegetable) that I’ve already mentioned, and a cup of sugar. I haven’t yet tried it, but it’s on my list for this spring. A lot of food out there these days looks as if it has been prepped for the runway, lipstick, false lashes, five-inch heels and all. David Tanis’s recipes, on the other hand, are bare-faced beauties. It’s my kind of food. That’s what I was thinking about this afternoon as I ate my slice of spinach cake.

There. Spinach blathering over. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Now, eat up, and I’ll be back with dessert in a day or two.

p.s. The Jewish holiday of Passover begins on Monday night. Some of you may have noticed that this spinach cake recipe just so happens to be kosher for Passover. That is, it’s bread and leaven-free. Here are some other recipes from the archives that can be made kosher for Passover:

Broccoli Salad
Herbed Goat Cheese Spread
Muhammara (minus the breadcrumbs)
Shakshuka (without the beans and rice; instead, try serving over quinoa, a Passover-friendly “grain,” according to most)
Simplest Tomato Soup

Cherry Almond Chocolate Chunkies
Chocolate-Covered Coconut Macaroons
Salted Chocolate Almond Toffee

Spinach Cake
Adapted from David Tanis’s A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes

Spinach and leeks both tend to harbor a little extra dirt, so be sure to wash them thoroughly. You don’t want any grit in your cake. David suggests serving this cake at room temperature. I was certain that I would prefer it warm, but he was right. Room temperature is better. Today, I enjoyed it chilled, right out of the refrigerator. Everything about this cake – the flavor, the texture, the consistency – improves by the second day. In the future, I will make it the day before I plan to serve it.

About 2 pounds of spinach, stemmed, washed, and more or less dried
2 medium leeks
2 T. butter
Freshly ground salt and black pepper
Several dashes – about ¼ tsp., I’d guess – of nutmeg (David’s recipe calls for grating it fresh, but the ground, jarred stuff will work in a pinch.)
2 c. whole milk
6 large eggs
A generous pinch of cayenne
About 2 T. of freshly grated Parmesan

Over a medium flame, melt the butter in a deep, heavy-bottomed pot (I used my enameled cast-iron pot). Add the leeks, a few grinds of salt and pepper, and sauté, stirring occasionally, until they are tender but still green, about five minutes. Sprinkle the nutmeg over top, add a layer of spinach, and season with a few grinds of salt. Next, add another layer of spinach, a few more grinds of salt, and repeat until all of the spinach is in the pot. (If your pot isn’t large enough, you’ll have to steam the spinach in two batches.) Turn up the heat slightly, cover the pot, and let the spinach steam over the leeks. Lift the lid to stir once or twice so that you get an even steam. You want the spinach to be just barely wilted, so the steaming should take no longer than two minutes. Turn the leeks and steamed spinach out onto a cutting board and let it cool. Save any cooking juices that are left in the pot.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and butter a deep, 10-inch pie dish. When the spinach-leek mixture is cool, taste it and adjust the seasoning, as necessary. Remember that you are about to blend it with a lot of unseasoned eggs and milk, so if the spinach and leeks taste a little over-seasoned, that’s actually okay.

In a blender, puree the vegetables with the milk and eggs in two batches. Add a few final grinds of salt and pepper, and a pinch of cayenne. Add any remaining cooking juices from the pot to one of the batches before you puree.

The batter will be thin and soupy. Pour it into the buttered pie dish, and grate about two tablespoons of Parmesan over the top. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean and the top is lightly browned. The cake will puff up and dome slightly in the oven and then collapse back onto itself as it cools. Mine cracked a little bit around one of the edges, but the cake in the cookbook photograph cracked even more, so I’m assuming that it’s supposed to be that way.

Serve at room temperature, or chilled.

Yield: 8-10 servings

Note: My pie dish was not quite deep enough to contain all of the batter, so I poured the rest of it into a ramekin and made one small spinach cake. It worked beautifully, and made for a very nice presentation. If you’re making individual ramekin cakes, bake for only about 25 minutes.


Rosiecat said...

Spring really feels like spinach season, doesn't it? And it's nice to have some options other than spinach salad over and over again. This cake sounds delightful!

And about that chocolate hazelnut bit: YES! I'm ready for dessert. Even after two helpings of chocolate cake and ice cream last night!

El said...

I must get Pandemic. Looks like fun, especially good gift for anyone working in public health. I've never seen a cake like this. Incredibly colorful and fun.

Rogue Unicorn said...

Chocolate hazelnut, yes please
Spinach is good too. And I especially like that this recipe is a spinach cake. It makes it seem so delicate and elegant.

Happy Passover.

Lo said...

How fabulous.
And when I say that I'm talking about both the spinach cake AND your Saturday. I haven't had a wonderful weekend day like that in a long while... and it's definitely time!

whisk-kid said...

This sounds really interesting. I assumed it would be sweet too when I saw the title, but his description certainly makes sense!

I know my family wouldn't like it, but I would certainly like to give it a go! Thanks for sharing the recipe!

Jess said...

Hi, all. I got a little caught up in holiday travels and I'm afraid I let these comments slip by. I apologize for the silence. Leave it to you fine people to get excited about a spinach cake! I was mildly worried that it might fall flat here. It is, after all, awfully green. I should have known that I could count on you.

Rosiecat - As long as you eat your spinach, I see no reason why you can't have a little extra cake.

Rogue Unicorn - Happy Passover to you, too, friend.

Lo - You get yourself a nice lazy weekend sometime soon, okay?

El, about Pandemic - yes! One of the neat things about it is that instead of playing against the other players, you all work together to beat the game. It's really fun.

whisk-kid - Hmmm, maybe if you give it a try, your family would come around? Either way, if you think of it, let me know how it turns out.

Jo said...

Hi, hope you are well. Do you and your husband play Settlers of Catan? Very good bits and very fun! How does Pandemic rate in comparison? We are not very game-y people but we are currently into bananagrams (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bananagrams)
- I highly recommend!

Kelsey, at Happyolks said...

Oh my, I want to make these RIGHT NOW. I think the ramekin idea is just adorable too, knowing me I could totally justify eating the larger dish entirely because of all the yummy spinach. I love your blog! Please keep posting :) :)

Elizabeth said...

I woke up thinking I had to make the spinach cake you once posted a long while ago, so I signed on to your blog, but I couldn't find it!

It doesn't come up under your recipes archive, Jess! I did a blog search for spinach cake, found it on David Leibovitz's blog, did another blog search for spinach cake and David Tanis, and then I found you. I was right all along, you had made it!

So excited to try this cake.

Jess said...

Oh dear, Elizabeth, I'm sorry for the trouble! Thanks so much for letting me know about the omission. It's all fixed now! I hope you'll enjoy the spinach cake.

And shoot - I see that I somehow missed your notes, Jo and Kelsey. I realize that you probably won't check back so many months later, but just in case:

Jo, the answer is yes! The biggest difference between Settlers and Pandemic is that with Pandemic, you're not playing as individuals, but as a group to beat the game. It's fun. And hoooo boy, don't get me started about Bananagrams. I am an addict.

Kelsey, I remember seeing your note back when I was taking a little unplanned hiatus from blogging, and I very much appreciated the encouragement. So, late as I am in responding, thank you!

Steph said...

This was great. I couldn't find spinach (living abroad now) so I substituted with chard. I was also cooking for someone who can't eat dairy from cows. So I left out the cheese and used goats milk. Was excellent. Thank you Jess.

Amrita said...

Oh perfect...I've been looking for a great savory cake recipe and this sounds so good for a quick lunch!