Feast of the Three or Four Fishes

First things first – I am not Italian. Not even in the least, most tiniest bit. I know this because I got the 23andMe test last year, and while the analysis of my DNA surprisingly revealed small parts Iberian, West African, and Middle Eastern/North African, there is 0% Italian ancestry in my genes.

What am I, though? Mostly Irish and British. Which means that when I say that something is “THE WORST,” I am always aware that my ancestors came primarily from a wet, starved rock in the Atlantic so maybe I’m just talking out of my ass.

Anyway.

I’m not at all Italian, but this doesn’t stop me from cribbing on their holiday traditions for food. This year I am borrowing from the Feast of the Seven Fishes and making it mostly un-Italian and also a little bit lazy manageable with Three to Four Fishes. Technically three, but could be four if we’re talking about format rather than actual fish species (ahem, salmon).

The menu:

– Potato latkes with crème fraiche, cured salmon, and ikura
– Roasted shrimp with artichoke-herb pesto
– Buttery crab bread pudding
– Strata with chard, roasted red peppers, butternut squash, chicken sausage, and sage
– Salami (a St. Louis tradition and Christmas present from my dad) and cheese
– Something sweet, hopefully brought by someone else because hello, I am making everything else
– Champagne. Lots of champagne.

Of all of the menus I plan during the year, Christmas Eve might be my favorite. Traditionally, the Christmas Eve meal is shared between myself and my boyfriend of 8 years, Graham. For those who don’t know Graham from my other blog, he is a professional cook who currently works as a sous chef and erstwhile pastry chef at a Seattle-area restaurant. The thing about dating a chef is a) they don’t cook at home and b) any expectation that you will get to spend weekends and/or holidays together is ludicrous and insane. So, then, getting to spend Christmas Eve together means I can go a little nuts and make the richest, most comforting, sooooometimes most expensive meal I can.

A few years ago it was shortribs braised in red wine and spooned over a gooey, creamy Parmesan polenta. Last year it was a breathtakingly pricey porchetta that I didn’t realize cost so much until I was physically handing over the money for it, effectively living out one of my recurring nightmares about buying things at mystery prices that turn out to bankrupt me (the porchetta did not actually bankrupt me, but thinking about how much it cost still makes my stomach hurt).

This year’s Feast of the Three or Four Fishes will be expensive but not prohibitively so, and we’re also sharing it with our friend Craig, who moved from St. Louis to Seattle a literal three days ago, and a couple of other friends with whom we booked an extremely fancy hotel suite last year and drank ourselves silly until six the next morning. Which, for someone who isn’t at all Italian, kind of beats having to slave over aeons of prep and homemade pastas only to have it consumed by a groaning table of hirsute gesticulators.

So we will have our busted Feast of the Seven Fishes, stolen from the Italians and infused with healthy amounts of Jewish potato presentation, Seattle seafood, and a little bit of Irish thriftiness.

Definitely nothing even approaching THE WORST.

A Bitter Cake to Swallow

When you’re a kid and don’t like something, people tell you it’s an acquired taste. Coffee, asparagus, molasses, and, later, I hope, beer and Scotch. It’s true that these tastes are more complicated than the ones a kid normally likes – as a kid, I would have been perfectly happy eating white bread, Capn’ Crunch, and chicken noodle soup every day until I died – but mostly, the tastes you’re supposed to acquire are the bitter ones. And you never believe the people who tell you this, because when something tastes so bad, why would you ever want to put the work into acquiring it?

Except you do. Your tastes change with age. A taste that was once simply bitter has turned out to be nuanced, and if you know how to pair that taste (coffee with milk and sugar, asparagus with hollandaise, Scotch with the unending trials of adult life), you learn to appreciate that it’s bitter in the first place.

There’s a whole movement out there for bitter foods. You could buy Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor by Jennifer McLagan. You could thumb through any collection of cocktail menus in any major metropolitan area and see that amaros are the new dessert martinis. You could go to Cupcake Royale in Seattle and ask for their Burnt Sugar gelato, which they warn you about if you ask for it but it is my favorite flavor forever and ever amen. Or you could throw together some bitter tastes yourself, which is what I did when I made the Bitter Cake.

Like all ginger cakes, apparently, this one is based on (and partially copied from) David Lebovitz’s Fresh Ginger Cake. It is slightly adapted, though, because I like orange with ginger and chocolate with cake, and because I don’t have (or regularly use) ground cloves, I omitted those altogether and subbed in allspice, for which I subbed out a portion of the cinnamon, as well. It’s flavor math. I suppose it’s more of a Ginger Orange Spice Cake with Dark Chocolate Orange Ganache, although to me, Bitter Cake seems like it would look much better on a recipe card.

ginger cake - unfrosted

The end result is a tad bitter. It is a lot dark. It’s deep, complex, and very grown up, so if you’re in the mood for a gum-searingly sweet devil’s food cake (and I completely support this, especially if it’s of the slightly grainy, preservative-laden cheap supermarket variety), you should look elsewhere. Or at least try a middle-of-the-road cake like chocolate stout (I recommend this one) or red wine chocolate (I recommend this one). Want something other than chocolate? Go jump in a lake.

Of course, you could make this less bitter, you know. You could add vanilla extract. You could dust it with powdered sugar. You could serve it with cream cheese frosting or a buttery, creamy vanilla ice cream (I suggest Snoqualmie’s Danish Vanilla Bean, although I suppose plain old Haagen-Dazs will do). You could even serve it plain with a tall glass of cold milk, and since it’s not terribly sweet, it’s basically breakfast. Or you could take a leap and try it my way.

Bitter Cake

  • 4 ounces fresh ginger (about a 2-inch piece), peeled and grated
  • 1 cup molasses
  • Zest and juice of 1 medium orange, separated
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 1/2 cups AP flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature, beaten
  • 1 ½ cups dark chocolate, chopped, or good quality dark chocolate chips
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • Position the oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9 ½ inch springform pan with a circle of parchment paper.
  • Chop the grated ginger very fine with a knife, mix with the orange zest, and set aside. Mix together the molasses, sugar, and oil in one bowl, and set aside. In another bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, allspice and black pepper.
  • Bring the water to the boil in a saucepan, and stir in the baking soda. When this is combined, pour the hot water into the molasses mixture and stir to combine. Then stir in the ginger-orange zest mixture.
  • Gradually whisk the dry ingredients into the molasses batter. Add the eggs, and continue mixing until everything is thoroughly combined. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for about 1 hour, until the top of the cake springs back lightly when pressed or a knife (not a toothpick! Dorie Greenspan says there’s not enough surface area plus I’m not a 70-year-old man so I don’t have toothpicks in the house) inserted into the center comes out clean.
  • Cool the cake on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes before removing it from the pan. To remove it, run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it, then remove the springform collar. Peel off the parchment paper and pan bottom and continue to let the cake cool on the rack.
  • To make the ganache, simmer a 1 ½ cups of water in a saucepan, and place a bowl on top (this is better than buying a double boiler, because if you do that then you’re a huuuuge sucker). When the bottom of the bowl is hot, add half of the chocolate and begin stirring with a spatula. Once half of the chocolate is melted, add half of the cream and continue stirring. Once this mixture is combined, add half of the orange juice and stir again. Repeat this process with the remaining chocolate, cream, and orange juice until the mixture is smooth, shiny, and pourable.
  • Remove the bowl from the saucepan and pour the mixture over the top of the cake. I garnished mine with a little bit of vanilla sugar because IT’S PRETTY, OKAY.

ginger cake - frosted