Monday, June 18, 2012

Who put the nectar in the nectarine?

Pity the poor nectarine. Talk about your inferiority complex: "A peach without the fuzz." "A cross between a peach and a plum.” Never its own identity, yet as far as nomenclature is concerned, the nectarine stands alone. The peach and plum can’t hope to compete. The peach owes its name to no more than a mistake. Believing it to have hailed from Persia, the Romans named it a malum persicum, or “Persian apple,” which, as the years rolled by, was shortened to persica, from which Italian derived its pesca, French its pĂȘche, and English its peach. The plum derives its name more matter-of-factly from the Latin prunum.

Only the woefully misunderstood nectarine owes its name to the drink that both slaked the thirst of the ancient Greek gods and insured them their immortality. Who would have guessed that nec- comes from the Greek word for death (think necrophilia and necromancy) or that tar comes from a verb that meant “to overcome”? The next time you bite into the smooth-skinned yellowy-orange drupe (as the botanists like to refer to single-stoned fruits) and feel its sticky sweet syrup dripping down your chin, you can envision yourself lolling for all eternity with Zeus, Hera, and the rest of them up there on Mount Olympus. 

But did you ever wonder how the fruit got such a mythical name? Because I’m the sort of person who does wonder about such things, I’ll share with you the fruits of my research (I just couldn’t avoid the pun).

It turns out that it doesn’t have its beautifully evocative name everywhere. In Italy, it’s called a pesca-noce (or a noce-pesca), which may sound lyrical yet means no more than “nut-peach” or perhaps “peach with a nut” (presumably the nut in question is the pit, but don’t peaches have stones too?). In France, it’s a brugnon, named after the city in Provençe today called Brignoles, famous for its plums and smooth-skinned peaches since the days of the ancient Romans. Apparently, there’s nothing particularly poetic or mythic about the fruit when it’s eaten by people who can pluck it from a tree any old time they want to. 

In Germany, on the other hand, where not a whole lot of fruit grows easily, it’s called a Nektarpfirsich, or “nectar peach.” Now we’re getting warmer. It’s unclear whether the English borrowed the word from the Germans in the seventeenth century or whether they adapted it from their own now-obsolete adjective “nectarine” which used to mean, not surprisingly, “sweet as nectar.” In either case, what a sea-change the fruit went through went it traveled up north! Can’t you just hear the yearning of the fruit-deprived people of northern Europe who so treasured their nectarines that they bestowed on them the name of the elixir of immortality of the ancient Greek pantheon.

The next time you find yourself with a nectarine in your hand, take a second look and see it for what it really is: the fruit of immortality. At the very least, savor its summery nectar. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Citrus-Scented Wine Cake, or Baking for the Lactose Intolerant

Some of you might remember that a few months back, I quoted a tribute to the classic American butter cake, the truth of which I believed at the time to be self-evident: “When you are thinking of making a cake, a butter cake is likely to come to mind. Butter cakes are part of our past. Our birthday cakes, our wedding cakes, our everyday cakes are butter cakes.”

What, then, is one to do when one wants to produce a triumphant celebration cake but one’s guests suffer from the condition that afflicts some 75% of the world’s population: lactose intolerance? (Can one even call what’s obviously the norm an “affliction”?)

Well, on the one hand, you can go whole-hog (so to speak) and whip up a vegan masterpiece, avoiding not only dairy but eggs into the bargain. Which is precisely what I have done in the past. Now, there’s not a thing in the world wrong with soy milk, almond milk, soy margarine, flax meal, or silken tofu, but somehow they just don’t get my poetico-gastric juices flowing. I can’t conjure up a story for soy milk, no matter how hard I try.

Is that why my Vegan Lemon Cupcakes didn’t appeal? Because my heart wasn’t in the baking? They tasted bright enough but had all the texture of a sodden sponge and they never rose into the gently rounded domes that always make cupcakes look so cheery.

Back to the drawing board. Think poetry, I told myself. Think history. Think cultures that don’t have to search out substitutes for milk and butter because they never relied on dairy in the first place.

And then I thought of the Mediterranean. The land of olive groves and grape vines. Where the grape harvest is celebrated with a cake known as a Schiacciata con l’uva, or Tuscan Grape Harvest Cake. Now we’re talking poetry, history, and a whole lot of culture. 

Traditionally, a schiacciata (which is Italian for “flattened” or “crushed”) con l’uva is baked throughout Tuscany in the fall, when the grapes and olives which comprise its chief ingredients have just been harvested. Sort of like a focaccia, a schiacciata is flat, dimpled, and—in the case of a schiacciata con l’uva—covered with grapes, the juices of which burst joyously forth before being absorbed into the dough, often flavored with rosemary and walnuts. (Keats-lovers will know that I’m thinking of “him whose strenuous tongue/Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine”—there’s poetry for you.) 

Delicious, but not desserty enough for my purposes, I thought. And then I came across a recipe for a Citrus-Scented Wine and Olive Oil Cake in a recent issue of Vegetarian Times. It “takes its inspiration,” I read, “from the harvest cakes of Italy and Provence, where grapes and olives grow in abundance.” Instead of grapes, the cake features a sweet dessert wine such as a Marsala or Vin Santo; and instead of rosemary and walnuts, the batter is flavored with orange and lemon zest. Fruity olive oil. Sweet wine. Citrus perfume. What’s not to love?

And so I baked it. It was all I wanted it to be—beautiful, traditional, poetic, and entirely dairy-free. Topped with berries and dusted with sugar, it was also very delicious.

Citrus-Scented Wine Cake with Fresh Berries

2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1/3 cup sweet dessert wine, such as Marsala or Vin Santo
1/3 cup fresh orange juice
1 tsp grated orange zest
1 tsp grated lemon zest
4 large eggs
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp confectioners’ sugar
Fresh berries

-       Preheat oven to 350. Lightly brush a 9” springform pan with oil and line the pan bottom with a circle of parchment paper.
-       Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, wine, orange juice, and both zests.
-       Beat eggs and sugar with an electric mixer for 4 minutes, or until very pale yellow and tripled in volume. Add half of the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until blended. Add half of the oil mixtures, and mix to blend. Repeat with remaining dry ingredients & olive oil mixture.
-       Pour the batter into the pan & set on a baking sheet. Bake for 50 minutes or until a toothpick comes out dry. Cool 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan & cool completely. Top with berries & dust with sugar (or dust with sugar & serve with berries).