CELEBRATE SUNSHINE AND the start of spring by having friends over for something delicious. The task of making cake, or any of a number of tasty desserts, takes less time now thanks to two excellent new cookbooks devoted to sweets.
The first, "Tea Breads and Coffeecakes" by Elizabeth Alston, (HarperCollins 1991, $10.95 hardback) is a charming, miniature volume devoted to quick breads and cakes. An hour and a half is about the total time needed to mix and bake Alston's delicious tea breads, coffeecakes and kuchens, middle-European fruit and cookie-crust creations. Vanilla Pear Custard Kuchen, Intense Chocolate Tea Bread and Lots-of-Blueberries Coffeecake are typical of the book's range -- from sophisticated enough for company to homey for a family breakfast. The introduction holds a lengthy list of cake-baking tips for beginners, and at the end of each recipe, instructions for proper storage are helpful.
"Sweet Times" by Dorie Greenspan (William Morrow, $19.95 hardcover) recognizes the fact that a dessert-lover has specific cravings -- you can't just satisfy him or her with a chocolate bar. The book has a matrix at the front which matches the yen for something creamy, say, with something suitable for a large gathering; or something chocolatey with the desire for a quick snack. All recipes are charted this way and appear a bit mind-boggling; the real treat is to dive into the book and start trying out the recipes, which are uniformly well-written, producing delicious results in record time. Fifteen-Minute Magic, drop-dead, stunner of a chocolate torte, really does take just 15 minutes to get into the oven. There are also terrific recipes for pancakes, cookies, puddings, pies and candy.
Fifteen-Minute Magic: A Chocolate-Amaretti Torte
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
3 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate, such as Lindt or Tobler
6 large, double Amaretti (Italian macaroons available in specialty stores and some supermarkets; look for the Saronno brand)
3/4 cup sliced or julienned blanched almonds
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
Cocoa or confectioners' sugar, optional
Heavy cream, lightly whipped, or premium-quality vanilla or coffee ice cream
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an eight-inch round cake pan. Line the bottom with waxed paper and butter the paper. Dust the inside of the pan with flour and tap out the excess. Melt the chocolates in the top of a double boiler over hot water or in a bowl in a microwave; set aside.
Place the Amaretti and almonds in a food processor and pulse several times, until the mixture is evenly ground. Turn out onto a sheet of waxed paper and reserve. Put the butter, sugar and eggs into the work bowl and process until the mixture is satiny smooth and no longer grainy, about three minutes. Stop to scrape the bowl occasionally to ensure that the batter is properly blended. Pour in the reserved Amaretti-almond powder and the melted chocolate. Pulse just until the mixture is well combined.
Turn the batter into the prepared pan and bake 25 to 30 minutes. The cake will dome slightly and the top will look dry and, perhaps, cracked.
Cool the cake on a rack for 30 minutes. Run a blunt knife around the edges of the pan and turn out the cake. Peel off the paper, invert, and cool right-side up on the rack. The cake is only about one-inch high, but it packs a lot of taste.
Serving: This is best at room temperature. Dust the top with cocoa or confectioners' sugar, if desired, and cut into very thin slices. (It's richer than it looks.) Finish each plate with a small scoop of ice cream or a spoonful of unsweetened, lightly whipped heavy cream.
Storing: Wrapped in plastic, the cake will keep for three days at room temperature; wrapped airtight it can be frozen for one month. Makes ten to 14 servings.
Orange Sour-Cream Loaf
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange peel
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup reduced-fat or regular sour cream, divided
9x5x3-inch loaf pan
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the pan.
Beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer on high speed for five to seven minutes, until pale and fluffy. Scrape the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each. Add the orange peel. Scrape the bowl.
Meanwhile, put the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a bowl. Stir to mix well.
With the machine on low, add about one-half cup of the flour mixture, and without waiting for it to mix in completely, add about one-third of the sour cream. Add the remaining flour mixture and sour cream the same way, ending with flour. Mix only until well blended.
Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Bake until a wooden pick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 55 to 65 minutes.