The pressures of coming up with regular specials are very new to me. In my previous restaurant position, all of my new dishes had to meet with the approval of the owner and the director of creative development before they could be placed on the menu. Those two individuals being fairly difficult to pin down, I generally had quite a bit of time to tweak and refine a dish before I could sit them down and get the thing on the menu. Under those circumstances, daily specials were not an option.
Now at No. 7, the restaurant I work at the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, I have free reign to do whatever strikes my fancy. Because we have a pretty limited menu, we try to keep things interesting for returning customers by offering regular specials—dishes that we come up with, more or less on the fly, every few days. It's liberating and exciting, but it's a bit harrowing, too.
With no editors, I feel more exposed and more responsible for my actions. What if I serve up a total flop, and all of our guests run straight home after their meals to post evilness about our restaurant on every message board available just because my dessert—their last memory of the meal—turned out to be god awful? Then again, they're just specials, they're just for a night or maybe a few, so if people don’t like them, how bad can the fallout really be? That's the attitude I had when making cranberry zingers, one of our dessert specials last week, paired with frothy creamsicle soda.
When Tyler came in Friday morning to find me cutting an unfamiliar cake (a vanilla version of the steamed Devil’s food) into mini logs, he asked what I had up my sleeve.
“Cranberry zingers,” I said, expecting to get an enthusiastic response. Instead, he looked at me blankly for a few seconds before asking if this had anything to do with that insipid berry tea.
“No, dude, really? You’ve never had a raspberry zinger? Like Twinkies or Ho Hos, the cellophane-wrapped snacky cakes, but with raspberry and coconut? Really?”
Nope. If Tyler—who is my age, who grew up just an hour from where I did, who has a certain penchant for lowbrow junk foods—had no idea what a zinger was, would our guests be totally confused as well? Would the dish be tasty and interesting enough to stand on its own if they hadn’t ever heard of it?
I already had the whole thing laid out in my head though, and I wanted a new special for the evening, so reminding myself that this was just temporary, I forged ahead. Because I wanted to play up the tanginess of the cranberry sauce that I was going to roll the cakes in, I chose a slightly tangy cream cheese filling instead of a light whipped cream or butter cream. Using a squeeze bottle, I injected the filling into the bottoms of each cake in four different locations, squeezing gently and stopping once the filling started to back up out of the cake. After filling the cakes, I put them in the refrigerator for a while to allow the filling and the cake itself to stiffen a bit before coating.
While the cakes chilled, I made a cranberry sauce using more or less the same recipe as the one provided on the back of the cranberry bag, with the exception of the addition of some orange juice and zest to bridge the cake to the soda in the finished dish. I strained the sauce into a wide, shallow pan, where I allowed the sauce to cool while I prepared an assembly line with the cakes, the tray of cranberry sauce, a tray full of shredded, sweetened coconut and a parchment-lined tray for placing the finished cakes.
Working quickly, I used my right hand to pick up each chilled cake, roll it around in the pan of sauce and place it in the pan of coconut. With the left hand, I tossed coconut over the cake and pushed some up against the ends and sides of the cake to make sure that it was fully coated before transferring it to the parchment-lined tray.
The results looked pretty similar to the store-bought raspberry variety (aside from the slight shagginess imparted by the coarsely shredded coconut that I used), and they tasted even better—fresh, moist and tender, their sweetness mitigated some by the tartness of the sauce and the filling. Whether or not our guests knew what their servers meant when they said “cranberry zinger” that night or needed to have it explained didn't seem to much matter.
The next day, we had only a couple of the cakes left, and I heard no complaints.
- For the cake:
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons AP flour (135g)
- 3/8 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup sugar (105g)
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 5 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil (70g)
- 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
- 6 tablespoons water (84g)
- For the cranberry sauce/coating:
- 3/8 cup sugar (80g)
- Zest of one orange, finely grated
- ½ bag cranberries (6oz or ~170g)
- ½ cup orange juice (112g)
- Shredded, sweetened coconut to coat (about 2 cups)
For the cake: Lightly grease a standard metal loaf pan (9X5X2 or 3), and line the bottom with parchment or wax paper. Place a cooling or roasting rack in the bottom of a deep metal roasting pan and fill with water to just below the level of the rack. Position the roasting pan over two stove burners. Turn burners to medium-high and invert a metal baking tray over roasting pan.
Combine first three ingredients and whisk to evenly distribute and break up any lumps.
In a separate bowl with an electric mixer, whip together egg and sugar on medium-high speed until very light and thick, about two minutes.
Add juice, and whip briefly to incorporate.
Continuing to whip, add oil in a slow stream, stopping the stream every so often to allow mixture to fully emulsify before proceeding.
Add about 1/3 of the combined dry ingredients (from step 2), and mix just to combine.
Add extract and half of the water and mix just to combine.
Add half of remaining dry ingredients; followed by remaining water, finishing with the rest of the dry ingredients, mixing between each ingredient addition just to combine. Turn the batter into the prepared loaf pan.
Carefully remove the inverted baking sheet “lid” from the roasting pan, avoiding steam and hot water that may have collected on the underside of the pan. Place filled loaf pan on rack inside roasting pan, re-cover the roasting pan with baking sheet, and steam cake until a thin knife or toothpick inserted in the center comes out free of uncooked batter (a few moist crumbs are okay).
Cool the cake completely. Run a knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the cake and turn the cake out onto a cutting board. Using a bread knife or other long serrated knife, cut cake into about 10 even rectangular logs, about 1” wide. Place the cake logs on a parchment- or wax paper-lined sheet tray. (If you are going to fill the cakes, pipe the icing in using a squeeze bottle or pastry bag fitted with a Bismarck tip, then cover the cakes and refrigerate. If you are just going to coat the cakes – unfilled – just wrap and refrigerate until needed.)
For the sauce/coating: Combine the sugar and zest in a small sauce pan and rub together between your hands to release the oils from the zest.
Add the cranberries and juice and cook over medium heat until mixture comes to the boil. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until all cranberries have popped.
Immediately pour mixture through a fine mesh strainer set over a wide bowl. Press gently on the solids to release trapped liquid. Discard solids. Place sauce in refrigerator to cool to luke warm or colder.
To assemble: Set up a coating assembly line. Line a tray or storage container with parchment or wax paper. Set beside it a wide, shallow dish or pan filled with an even layer of shredded coconut. Beside the coconut, place the cooled cranberry sauce, and beside the sauce place the tray of chilled cakes. (Chilling makes the cakes a bit more sturdy for rolling and handling.)
Use one hand to coat the cakes in the cranberry sauce and transfer them to the coconut pan. Use the other hand to coat the cakes with coconut and transfer them to the clean paper-lined tray. Once all cakes are coated, they may be wrapped and stored at room temperature for a day or two or stored in the refrigerator for several days. (For the most eating pleasure, be sure to allow chilled cakes to come to room temperature before serving.)