Lifestyle & Culture

Kitchen Detail: You Need This Grater

Above is Microplane’s five-blade box grater with catch plate. The company also offers a four-sided grater (four blades) on rubber feet. / From the Microplane website.

By Nancy Pollard

After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years—La Cuisine: The Cook’s Resource in Alexandria, Virginia—Nancy Pollard writes Kitchen Detail, a blog about food in all its aspects—recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources, and food-related issues.

Nancy Pollard's original Microplane

Nancy’s original Microplane. / Photo by Nancy Pollard.

BY NOW almost everyone on the planet knows about the miracle woodworking tool that became  indispensable in professional and home kitchens alike. To briefly recap, Grace Manufacturing, a small company in Arkansas, had developed unique shaping tools used in woodworking, car designs and aeronautics. Their chemical photo-etching process created holes in almost paper-thin metal sheets, leaving edges that finely slice instead of tearing or shredding. In 1990, Richard and Jeff Grace first developed shaving tools with unique razor-sharp teeth that they sold to large industrial design companies and hardware stores. That was only the beginning. Pictured here, above right, is my original Microplane shaving tool when we first sold them at La Cuisine in the mid-1990s. You can see how it was designed to be attached to a hacksaw handle for woodworking.

Eureka Moments

In 1994 an exasperated Canadian cook, Lorraine Lee, “borrowed” her husband’s woodworking rasper to grate zest for her Armenian Orange Cake recipe. Recovering from their Eureka Moment, the Lees, who sell woodworking equipment, including Microplane’s, through their Lee Valley Tools catalogue, described the wood shaver as a kitchen zester as well. Orders kept coming in, and not from woodworkers. A New York Times reporter caught wind of it and wrote about Microplane’s “new” tool.

And thus was born the tool that not only made citrus zest into velvet but made grated Parmigiano truly the food of the gods. I remember taking a handle version of the Microplane grater to my daughter in Bologna, thinking her Italian friends would be amazed and pleased. I was wrong. Oh no, it does not grate it properly, I was told.  But then her Microplane grater disappeared and she asked me for another. And then it happened several times more. Now you see them all over Europe, so much so that Microplane has a European division. And like Kleenex, Xerox, and iPhone, Microplane had become a commonly used noun. Currently the Grace brothers’ company designs and produces more than 40 tools (and gadgets) solely for kitchen tasks.

So, About That Box Grater

The Microplane box grater. Note the use of the cut-resistant glove: These blades are sharp!

Even if you have dedicated precious cupboard or counter space to a food processor, I still think you need a box grater. Using one not only works your triceps a bit, but they are efficient to use, and a heck of lot easier to clean and store. I first graduated to Microplane box graters years ago, and after my first one gave in from much abuse, I love the improvements made with this one. It has five blade styles with a fine and coarse blade on one panel, which I use for zesting, grating chocolate and hard cheeses; a double-edged ribbon blade, which makes it a lot easier to make shavings. And then there is a larger coarse blade panel for apples, cabbage, and potatoes, as well as a large shaver that is perfect for truffles (which I get once every two years), or slicing ginger. The handle is easy to hold and if you tilt it like I do when I grate a lot of cheese, the grater stays in the tilted position. I particularly like the sliding catch plate that holds the grated food until you pull it out over a bowl.  The measurement guide on that corner side is helpful, but you have to tap the grater on the counter to get a rough measurement.

The Cake That Changed Our Lives

As a coda to this discursive history, you should make Lorraine Lee’s recipe for the Armenian Orange Cake. It is quite an unusual cake, with its sandy base and thick batter spread on top. I don’t tamp down the shortbread-style base layer, merely tap it into place. Use a hand mixer to blend the batter from the remaining crumb mixture. The thick top batter is better spread out by a fork than by a rubber spatula, as the latter pulls the batter away from the crumb base. And do make the whipped-cream topping that accompanies the cake in the recipe. I always use a Thermapen to test cake doneness, and this one is perfect between 195F and 200F. It is this cake recipe that created the Eureka Moment in Lorraine’s kitchen and why we all have a Microplane tool in our kitchen drawer.

Armenian Orange Cake

A very unusual cake that is not too sweet or fudgy, but redolent of orange. Do make the whipped-cream topping. Perfect for morning coffee cake too.
Recipe by Lorraine Lee.
Adapted from the Microplane archives.
  1. 2 cups (396gr) Light Muscovado Sugar
  2. 2 cups (284gr) white all-purpose flour
  3. ½ cup (113gr) unsalted butter, plus butter for the pan
  4. ½ teaspoon salt
  5. 2 tablespoons freshly grated orange zest (around two oranges’ worth)
  6. ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  7. 1 teaspoon baking soda
  8. 1 cup (240gr) sour cream
  9. 1 egg, slightly beaten
  10. ½ cup (50gr) chopped nuts (walnuts, cashews, almonds are suggested)

For the orange whipped-cream topping:

  1. 1 cup (240ml) heavy cream (not ultra-pasteurized)
  2. 2 tablespoons (16gr) confectioners sugar
  3. 1 teaspoon grated orange peel (around half an orange’s worth)
  4. 2 tablespoons (30ml) Cointreau or Grand Marnier
  1. Butter a 9-inch-square (23cm) cake pan and preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Combine sugar, flour, butter, salt, orange zest, and allspice in a medium-size bowl.
  3. Blend with a pastry blender, fork or your fingertips until the mixture is crumbly but completely incorporated. You should have about 5 cups of crumbled mixture.
  4. Take half of this mixture and spread it over the prepared cake pan.
  5. Stir the baking soda into the sour cream and mix into the remaining crumb mixture.
  6. Add the beaten egg and combine thoroughly. Use a hand mixer as it is easier.
  7. Pour the resulting batter into the pan and sprinkle with chopped nuts.
  8. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. The cake is done when an instant-read thermometer reads 195-200F.

Serve warm with the following topping:

  1. Whip the heavy cream until stiff,
  2. Fold in sugar, orange zest, and liqueur.
  3. Allow to rest for an hour in the refrigerator to combine flavors.
  1. I make the whipped-cream topping first and then the cake.
  2. You can make this in an 8-inch (20cm) pan as well. The cake will be higher but will still fit.

This post first appeared on the Kitchen Detail blog.

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One thought on “Kitchen Detail: You Need This Grater

  1. Barbara Kreger says:

    Great way to get our attention by writing: YOU NEED THIS da da da

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