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In Search of the Perfect Crab Cake

November 23, 1990|MARION CUNNINGHAM

If you love crab cakes, American history and miles of green-grass horse country, head for Baltimore. I did the other week. My mission: to check out the variety of crab cakes and come home with a recipe for the best.

One of the interesting variations I tried had a base of mashed potatoes instead of mayonnaise (it was too thick and clumsy for the delicate crab; mayonnaise seems just right). Others were doctored up with dry Sherry, mustard, bits of sweet red and green pepper, chives or Worcestershire sauce. Most crab cakes had hot pepper sauce or a hint of hot, spicy pepper. The flavor of crab should not be suppressed with other assertive, mundane ingredients.

One of the most famous crab restaurants in Baltimore is Obrychi's, which has been serving crab, clam and shrimp to a steady stream of customers since 1949. We arrived at Obrychi's at lunch time, and the dining room was already filled with diners unabashedly eating food with their fingers and wiping their chins constantly. The room was cheery, noisy and communal.

We first ordered crab cakes. They came moist, sweet and golden, with French fries, coleslaw and catsup on the side. It was hard to fault the cakes, but the flavor was slightly flat. A few drops of lemon juice helped, but this was not the recipe that I came for.

Our next order was for Obrychi's famous steamed hard-shell crabs. Before they arrived, the waitress covered our table with brown wrapping paper and brought us each a little wooden mallet and a paring knife, plus a stack of paper napkins. In a few minutes she arrived with a dozen smallish crabs and dumped them on our table. They were dark red, streaked with brown from the Old Bay spice mixture in which they are steamed. The crabs are layered in pots with a shallow amount of water and vinegar, sprinkled with salt and spices. The pot is tightly covered and the crabs are steamed about 20 minutes. They were the best ever.

But I was looking for crab cakes, and I finally found the ones I was looking for at the Lexington Market. This is the oldest market in America, a gigantic two-story building that has myriad food stalls, ready-to-eat everything, and stands with fresh produce, poultry, pork and fish. We went to Lexington's on Saturday around noon, and it was teeming with the regulars who shop, eat, meet friends and have their weekly spree.

Faidley's is a food stall with one continuous line of waiting customers. No wonder people wait: The crab cakes here were incredible--moist, creamy, full of the taste of crab.

A large sign on the wall said that Faidley's makes the crab cakes with backfin crab, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard and saltine crackers. I have tested and rearranged amounts of these four ingredients, and the following recipe is an example of the Faidley crab cake. Serve these cakes with coleslaw, bread and butter and ice-cold beer. Grapefruit Ice and a cookie will neatly finish the meal.

BALTIMORE CRAB CAKES

1 cup mayonnaise

4 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 cups saltine cracker crumbs

2 cups cooked crab meat

2 tablespoons oil

Lemon wedges

Hot pepper sauce

Combine mayonnaise and Dijon mustard in mixing bowl. Stir until well blended. Add 1 cup cracker crumbs and crab meat and mix well.

Spread remaining 1 cup cracker crumbs on large piece wax paper. Divide crab mixture into 8 equal portions and pat each into ball. Gently flatten each ball into 3-inch round, about 3/4-inch thick. Lightly dredge each round cake with cracker crumbs.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Fry cakes over medium heat until golden on each side. Serve hot with lemon wedges and hot pepper sauce. Makes about 4 servings.

GRAPEFRUIT ICE

3/4 to 1 cup sugar (depending on tartness of grapefruit juice)

1/2 cup water

3 cups freshly squeezed grapefruit juice

Combine sugar and water in saucepan and boil until sugar is dissolved, about 1 minute. Cool. Stir in grapefruit juice. Pour into ice cube trays or bowl. Cover and freeze. Serve in little glasses or bowls. (If ice is frozen in bowl, let stand few minutes to soften slightly for easier scooping.) Makes about 4 servings.

Cracking Crab

The method of cracking and extracting crab meat from the shell is simple. Place the blade of a paring knife across the middle of a crab leg and give the top of the blade a crack with a mallet. The blade cuts through, and then you can easily pry the meat out with the tip of the paring knife.

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