The Haunting Power of Miso-Maple Loaf Cake

After 30 years of having a room in the basement devoted entirely to Lego towns and villages, space stations and parking garages, railroads, trolleys and a few funiculi, my husband and son agreed to pack up all the pieces and replace them with cabinets, shelves and a big worktable, which, for the past few months, has been used to support boxes of my old notebooks that were recently excavated. Some of the books have stories that go on for pages, and others have just a word here, nothing for a while and then another word farther on. They’re fragments from every part of my adult life, not journals — they’re too disjointed to be called that — but vignettes that often spark a memory and sometimes don’t. I’m sure that the notebooks I now keep at the ready everywhere in the house will soon resemble the old ones.

It was Michael, my husband, who planted the current crop of notebooks, and the sharpened pencils that keep them company. We’ve been together forever, and since forever, he’s heard me say, “I’ve got an idea” — almost always an idea about food, a new recipe, an ingredient I wanted to use or a combination I wanted to try — and then, an hour later, I’d ask him if he remembered what the idea was. Now if he hears me mumble “hmmm,” “ahhh” or “what if,” he’ll call out, “Write it down!” Sometimes I just keep chopping the onions or frosting the cake or doing whatever I was doing when the thought flew through my brain. And sometimes I scrawl a word or two, and when I do, I often think of the French pastry chef Pierre Hermé, with whom I wrote cookbooks.

Pierre and I were at a book signing in Paris when a woman he knew came into the shop carrying a very little baby. He chatted with the woman and asked the baby’s name. When she said, “Céleste,” he pulled out the notebook that he always kept in his breast pocket in those days and wrote it down. When I asked him what he was going to do with the name, he shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just like it.”

Miso and maple syrup hover in that space between sweet and savory.

Years later, he created a cheesecake and gave it that name, and then a large collection of pastries based on strawberry, rhubarb and passion fruit that he christened Céleste. I recently tried to recall when this all happened and asked Pierre, who wasn’t certain, but added, “Céleste’s a young woman now.” I loved that he held onto the name, waiting for the moment when inspiration and reality could meet.

I’m not as patient as Pierre, but there have been instances when those “what if” mutterings and notes jotted down in a hurry became something delicious. One night in Paris, the city of dreams, I woke up having imagined a cookie that was topped with a spoonful of jam surrounded by streusel, and I made it. Another time, a friend had a cocktail — a Bee’s Knees — and when she told me what was in it, I scribbled down the ingredients and later made a savory nibble out of them. It was the first time I ever baked with gin.

Most recently, I made a loaf cake inspired by the dinner I cooked the night before, salmon with a miso-maple syrup glaze. It seems odd to have found sweet inspiration in something salty, or to even think that a fish supper could become a cake for breakfast. But in the moment, it all made sense: Miso and maple syrup hover in that space between sweet and savory.

To me, maple syrup, like honey, is on the border of sweet. It has a little edge, a little bitterness to it, a little sharpness. I think it’s this teeter-tottery quality that makes it so perfect with foods that are definitively salty, like the miso in this cake. Miso is always described as having umami, that fifth flavor that makes you long for another spoonful. It’s salty, for sure, but there’s something haunting and unknowable in the flavor as well. It’s a powerful flavor — unmissable, but supple enough to be matched with other ingredients.

When I started to play with miso and maple, my idea was to lean into their sweetness. But they pushed back, and I let them. I made a cake that’s sweet enough to be called cake but savory enough to be as good with a slice of Cheddar as it is with the gloss of warm jam that I spread over its top. I grated orange rind into the batter for a little brightness, but when I have a tangerine, I use that instead: Its zest is a little more flavorful, a little more distinctive. And I moisten the batter with buttermilk, for tang of course, but also to make the crumb, which has a pleasant coarseness, a little more tender.

In the end, the cake surprised me. The miso and maple syrup mellowed when they were mixed with other ingredients and given time in the oven, just as I hoped they would. Each so strong and singular straight from the cupboard, they proved themselves to be excellent team players.

In the notebook I used when I worked on this recipe — one with a lot more notes, cross-outs, colored lines, dates and annotations than my catch-a-thought books (as haphazard as I am about jotting down memories, that’s how detailed I am about recipe tests) — there’s a line that says, “If I owned a bed-and-breakfast, I’d make this my signature.” There’s nothing in my notebook about the salmon dinner we had the night before. Nothing about my having stopped in the middle of mixing the glaze to say, “I wonder if. … ” This time I got lucky — I didn’t forget it.

Recipe: Miso-Maple Loaf

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