A Little Nosh Avec Friends

Savory Prosciutto Gruyere Cake

Savory Prosciutto Gruyere Cake

Parisians and New Yorkers have an awful lot in common. We both take undeserved hits for rudeness (I’m not rude, I’m just reserved), we both live in congested cities that are often crammed full of tourists (I’ll never forget the day I heard a woman at the corner of 44th and 8th yell at the top of her lungs, “GET OUT OF MY CITY!”), and we both love to eat.

I’ll give the Parisians points here. I’ll concede that, as “head-spinningly” great as New York food can be, Parisian food – especially bread and pastry – may be better. Or am I comparing pommes to oranges?

For New Yorkers, a great deal of entertaining is done over shared meals in restaurants. There are a few reasons why: many New Yorkers have small kitchens — small enough that they were built with the thought of limited use. Also, many New Yorkers do not have space for a dining room table, often making due with couple of stools at a counter, or a table for two folded or pushed into a corner.  (Furnishing a New York apartment is a game of constant tradeoffs where potential pieces of furniture compete for finite space. Dining tables often lose out to sofas. Flat panel TVs have been a boon: hang them on the wall and you’ve gotten rid of a major space gobbler, the TV table.)

While this sounds like New Yorkers are living lives of some kind of dining privation, nothing could be further from the truth. The sheer variety of cuisine just down the block or around the corner more than compensates. Only in a big city like New York can your Monday through Friday dinners take you from Down South to Down East to Vietnam, and back, even if you are a Kosher vegan.

The great New York City home buffet is often served from a coffee table, an arrangement I enjoy, as seconds are never far out of reach. Often, during the week entertaining consists of quick cocktails or wine at someone’s apartment before heading out to a restaurant. It is for the latter type of entertaining that Parisians have come up with a great idea: cake salée.

The English translation of cake salée is “savory cake”, and the implications are obvious: instead of fruit or chocolate and lots of sugar, a savory cake is made with hors d’oeuvre ingredients such as meat, cheese, and herbs. The job of a cake salée is to give folks having a little pre-dinner beverage a little pre-dinner – alcohol absorbing nibble. This frees the host from the bondage of preparing a variety of little cracker-borne nibbles.

A sensible idea, I think, although I suspect that if Americans had thought of it first the French may have turned up their noses; the convenience-over-art factor may have offended them. (Or am I paranoid?)

Of course, this is really just a baking powder or baking soda quick bread, not that far from drop biscuits or muffins. I baked a version of this over the weekend, using a variation of my Asiago Cocktail Bread recipe from last year. My version this past weekend stuck to the meat and cheese formula by using gruyere and prosciutto. It was delicious, although to be honest I think the combination lacked a certain spark of originality.

I think the challenge — and here’s where the French would approve — is to bring art to the convenience by choosing combinations that are not, to borrow a phrase from a friend, “typical.” So while the combination of prosciutto and gruyere was delicious, it was also predictable: a little bacony, a little cheesy, with the richness (heft?) that accompanies a double dose of indulgent ingredients.

Better would have been something with a touch of surprise without the extreme my Dad used to call “baloney and whipped cream.”

Roasted figs and rosemary sound like an unlikely pairing, but the intensity of the roasted figs would more than match the power of the rosemary, especially if roasted with a touch of brandy or calvados and a bigger touch of honey before mixing into the cake salee’s batter.

Of course, unroasted figs pair beautifully with Gorgonzola Dolce cheese, but I’ll have to run this cake salée through the Butter Flour Eggs Testing Lab; I’ll happily make this sacrifice as I have a few concerns about how the cheese will appear in the cake.  I’ll likely stick with a Gorgonzola Dolce with minimal blue veins.

Caramelized onion and black olive would bring a great sweet and salty combo to cocktail hour without a sugary hit, and would bring to mind Pissaladière – the classic French onion tart.

The standard 8” x 4” size loaf pan is fine for this bread / cake, but I also experimented with a 5” x 3” mini loaf pan and I think I prefer using the smaller pan. When the little loaves are sliced, each piece is the perfect size for pre-dinner nibbles.

No one will beg you to share a piece with them.

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Click here for my recipe for Savory Prosciutto Gruyere Cake.

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