Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dare We Talk Discipline?

I have struggled with this blog. Why? You intrepid reader may ask.

Well, it's be so long since we cooked. The last post was May 16 and it's now June 1. That is such a long time. I know we started doing this to hang out but also to bake better. That is one definition of discipline: an "activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training: A daily stint at the typewriter is excellent discipline for a writer." (

I love baking and hanging out with Janet (baking in the evening means we can drink wine -- because drinking wine at 9 am makes for a long, long nap in the middle of the day.)

But after the last couple weeks -- my trip to Connecticut to do an evening event for framesi (the color company I work for), a baby naming at the begining of my vacation and my best friends' father's death the week before really limited baking time. Seymour was a great guy who could identify a song if you said a phrase from it -- he'd sing the whole song. If you had a question about a Yiddish phrase or what it meant -- he was the go to person for that. I thought of him as a human

So, with all the precariousness of life, we finally got together on Tuesday (I realize that I'm typing this on Friday -- but vacation takes a lot out of a guy.) I hope that explains the long gap from the last installment and some of my hesitation in writing.

And, honestly, nothing much happened in this session. Well, nothing except we turned out two very good cakes with lovely icings (or is that frosting) and we drank wine (one nice one and one that wasn't so nice).

So, why is it hard to write about? Well good writing needs conflict. A tension, if you will. There wasn't really any tension this time. Perhaps it was the wine or it was the fact that we've become old hats at doing these.

Well, as is usual, we did two cakes: Buttermilk Country Cake (page 41) and the Triple Layer Devil's Food (page 62). Here, don't they look pretty:

Really both of them turned out beautifully.

The Buttermilk Country Cake was made in a springform pan and used a lemon buttercream. It was the variation of the NeoClassic Buttercream, lemon variation (page 234). It was one of the best colors of buttercream that we have created from this book. It's a soft butter color, but not flat. The lemon adds a brightness to the color and a pleasant, sharp tang to the buttercream, which to me can become a bit cloying. Why is it called a buttercream frosting when there isn't a drop of cream to be found. (I assume it's because the butter gets creamed, but I do love asking that question.)

The Devil's Food layers were a bit thin, and slightly domed. We have begun to suspect the oven doesn't like more than two pans at a time. The crumb and structure of the cake was nicer than the previous chocolate cake. It wasn't so aerated. We did honestly count the time for all inclusions. And, there were no cracks, the cakes were quite strong, but still light.

After we did both of them, we realized that when you have completely aerated the cake and developed the structure, you find that it almost ribbons in the stand mixer. You can see a "spirograph" image in the top of the batter. For those of you who remember the Spirograph, it really does look like that!

My favorite frostings so far is the one that we used on the Triple Layer Devil's Food -- Burnt Almond Milk Chocolate Ganache (page 277). You start with a chocolate bar. Yes, a candy bar! You know it's not going to get any better than that, right?
You add a bit of cocoa and heavy cream. It all gets melty and good -- i seriously considered eating it right off the spoon. But, Janet, being the voice of reason, talked me off the ledge (so to speak).

It's sorta weird. You have this melty, crunchy concoction that is way too soupy to be a frosting. Matter of fact, you can pour it like a glaze. Janet had made it earlier in the day and it needed more time to set up than we had, so we used our new favorite technique an ice water bath. In a couple minutes, it was a rich frosting. And, the pictures don't do it justice, it was just amazing.

After I arrived at Janet's I started to complain about the baking, making a cake and doing the whole process. It seemed daunting and unimportant. Half way through cooking the first cake we were both humming along like a well oiled machine -- she did the combining of the dry ingredients. I got the wet ones whisked together. Then we'd alternate who was the sous chef and it flowed.

It was after that happend a couple times that I realized the other defintion of discipline: doing something even though you really don't want to.

So, here's to discipline. Just leave the leather straps at home.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

It is a Bible after all

Well, we had some fun with our maple items: natural flavor, sugar and syrup. We made the All-Occasion Downy Yellow Butter Cake (p. 39) with Neoclassic Buttercream (p.230) using the maple substitutions at every option. We added some toasted nuts to the sides and it was pretty as you can see, more about the nuts later.

Maple sugar, should you ever choose to find it and use it in your baked goods requires a larger volume measure than regular granulated. The amount remains the same if you measure by weight. The maple sugar was a light brown powdery substance that apparently is made by cooking down maple syrup until it crystallizes. It must make very small crystals, since it really did look pretty much like powder. In our travels, we did run across a jar of granulated sugar with maple flavor added to it... hopefully we used the right product. More about that later.

We also made the Down-Home Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake (p. 64) with Milk Chocolate Buttercream (p. 250). This cake was a cocoa based cake without butter or eggs. Since the mayonnaise contains egg and oil, this makes sense. Also, the recipe called for the cocoa to be non-alkalized (in other words, not Dutch processed). The leavener was baking soda, not baking powder, which has something to do with the cocoa and pH level. Any chemists out there, please do enlighten us.

I wonder about all the extra stuff in commercially produced mayo? Makes me wonder about using homemade mayo. Then I wonder if the emulsion really necessary? Or could you just use oil and eggs? Maybe the acid in the mayo plays a role with the whole pH level, baking soda not powder, non-alkalized cocoa thang.

Hmm, there's a science project... Hellman's (that's Best Foods for you west coaster's), vs. Kraft, vs. homemade, vs. Miracle Whip? Eww, maybe not Miracle Whip- is that even food? vs. liquid oil and eggs.

Both of these cakes ended up sharing oven space for a period of the baking time. It was a tight fit, and possibly not the best move. The maple cake layers were very beautiful, even mostly- the oven may be slightly tilted or the pans might have been tilted due to the tight fit of all 4 pans. The chocolate layers were nice and springy- looked really good, except that they were domed. That was curious since the recipe indicated that we would see a depression in the center. And, while the chocolate layers we cooling, we had some major seismic activity with cracks in multiple directions through perhaps 1/3 the depth of the layers.

We soldiered on and made our buttercreams. A word about buttercream frosting/icing what ever you'd like to call it. There is no cream. And most folks will find surprising, there are lots of egg yolks. Basically you whip some yolks and pour in hot melted sugar, beat it till it's cool and beat in butter. Voila! The sugar part of the formula can be granulated sugar cooked with water to soft ball stage, or without the necessity of a candy thermometer, you can use a mix of sugar, water and corn syrup. The maple buttercream was a variation on the latter which used - you guessed it! - maple syrup in the place of corn syrup.

Basically any way you do it, you heat sugar and add it to egg yolks, then beat in butter. And you get such an amazingly silky, soft, smooth, light but not fluffy frosting that is so very shiny and did I mention smooth? Once it chills in the frig, which is necessary at temps above say 62 degrees!!, it becomes a firm version that is less shiny, but it turns back into the silky, smooth, etc. frosting once it warms up in your mouth. The maple syrup gave it a really beautiful color. We did have a bit of a scare initially- it was soupy! It didn't look right at all. Continued beating with an ice bath was the remedy- whew!

The milk chocolate buttercream was a different formula all together. Melt chocolate, cool and beat in butter. What could be wrong with that, huh? It was warm on baking day, and this one benefited from an ice bath, too. I can't gush about the texture of this one- chocolate and butter- what more can you say?

We frosted the maple cake and decided we'd like toasted nuts on the sides. What a great idea! The crunch and toasty quality that this added was really a plus. We used 1/2 walnuts and 1/2 pecans just because that's what we had between our two cupboards. Robb was chopping the nuts and working really hard at getting them uniform. Well, a fit of obsessive precision came over us- shocking, I know. Thankfully we are simpatico in the kitchen and this was no exception. I suggested that it was too bad we couldn't shake the nuts through a screen the way archaeologists/ geologists & others do with dirt and get a uniform size of chopped nut. It took about a 1/2 a second for us to start looking around for a screen to use. I keep kitchen utensils in a metal mesh drawer and that turned out to work just fine. We were really pleased with ourselves. Knowing that all the nut pieces were uniform made me like this cake a lot.

Once we got it cut, we noticed large air bubbles- not tunnels really, but large bubbles for sure. Paired with the domes and subsequent fault lines on the chocolate layers (see photo above), we wondered what the heck had gone on. We tasted the cakes and they tasted good. The maple cake has a very nice texture, maybe a little dry, that is to say not wet with moisture the way the pound cakes have been, nice crumb, firm without being heavy. The chocolate cake had that very dark chocolate look that plain, regular, dare I say, box cakes (and I don't mean that negatively!!) have. As Robb put it, every family has a recipe that makes this kind of chocolate layer cake. You know the taste and texture. This is that cake. (So what is the devil's food cake coming up next time going to be??)

We studied the recipes and scratched our heads. Maybe the oven was too full and they cooked unevenly? But you'd have expected the oven to be too cool as a result of overcrowding, not too hot as would be suggested from the domed layers. Maybe the maple sugar wasn't the right stuff and contributed to creating air bubbles some how? That seems a stretch, but what do we know. Maybe the baking powder was old- but that would make less CO2 not more. We sent up the bat signal for rescue, and called my mother in Cincinnati. She immediately said she knew what was going on- she'd call right back.

We waited anxiously for the jewel of wisdom that she was going to share with us from her vast vault of knowledge created from years of professional work as a pastry chef. She called and said,"Yeah, turn to page 476 in that book of yours. There's a section called 'What can go wrong'. I think you must have overmixed the batters" and reading to us from the book that we were looking at "cracked or peaked surface and or large tunnels [caused by] oven too hot or batter overmixed."

In the very book we were poring over- each of us with our own copy on the work bench- staring intently at the recipe and trying to divine some explanation through sheer concentration, and all we had to do was look in the index under P for problems. It took a call to the queen city for us to turn the pages.

"It is a bible after all," said Robb.

Maybe a stopwatch will be employed in future sessions to ensure the proper mixing time down to the second? It is listed by seconds, and Rose doesn't seem to estimate.

Bake Through!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Dog Days... well not quite.

This week, we took road trips in search of maple products. The scarcity of all things maple in Westchester County was surprising. I had totally taken for granted the bounty of New England. Once we started looking for maple sugar and real maple flavor/extract I noticed the absence of the usual supply of maple creams and candies, those small, gritty, brown, leaf shaped treats. The strange pale tan squares of maple flavored fudge sealed tightly under plastic wrap perched at the quickie mart check out next to the grimy leave a penny tray aren't so common around here either. That may not be a bad thing.

You also don't see different grades of maple syrup. Yes, in NE, you can not only get a jug of the Real Stuff for 5x the price of Mrs. Butterworth's, you have different grades to tempt you. If I remember from the maple sugaring farm tour (that's a pre-req. for living in the NE states), I think the grade is based on the color of the syrup, and flavor. All that is determined by the temperature and when the trees are tapped: mid-season maple is different than late season, and some seasons produce more of one grade than another. I think the winter frost or thaw has something to do with it, too. I'm sure we've heard reports about the perils of global warming for the maple sugar farmers. Won't somebody think of the children!!? (Simpsons reference for a few of you.)

Well, we found our maple sugar relatively easily. It took a trip to the Whole Foods in White Plains, but that's hardly a sacrifice! What a great store.

The maple flavor was another story. Imitation maple extract is in plentiful supply at the local A&P, but the real stuff wasn't available there, or at Stop n Shop, ShopRite, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Mrs. Green's, a natural/health foods store near Robb in the city, through Dean & Deluca's website, or Penzey's... it was beginning to look grim.

Robb was determined, to say the least.
He found a couple of natural foods markets in the next county to the north- maybe it was two counties away. So we traveled to Cold Spring in search of a place called Maison Glass and sadly found a for rent sign in the store front. On to Beacon, NY and to a very large market called Beacon Natural Foods where they had the much sought maple flavor. I'm not sure we even noticed the price of the tiny little bottle. I didn't. I'm sure Kevin is not surprised at that.

Along the way we considered the differences between lilac and wisteria and enjoyed the landscape of spring blooms on the backdrop of just barely green trees and steely gray rock. The weather was clear and hot, my arm even got a little pink hanging out the passenger window. It was really a beautiful day, which I hope helped Robb. Our road trip was a bit of a distraction for him. His beloved dog Maggie was having some dental work done- doesn't that sound funny to say about a dog? Like maybe she was getting veneers or whitening! However, it was no laughing matter, she had a tooth go bad and was in a bit of discomfort. For those of you who are pet people, you know the concern whenever your pooch/kitty is in distress and especially when general anesthetic is involved. She's a trooper and came home groggy, but ok.

To satisfy the weekly baking habit that I've developed- no, I'm not a creature of routine or anything, really!- I made some dog biscuits. They are Maggie inspired, even though she is a one biscuit girl, preferring the classic Milkbone only. My neighbor dogs and Comet will enjoy them. There are a basic wheat, and a cheesy one (foreground) that tastes good to people, too!

Until next week's maple session...

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

There comes a time...

There comes a time when you are learning new things when you have to sort of lay back and go with it. Think Hippies in 1969. Think skiing. Think diving off a board into a lake. That first jump is more of a walk, but then you get grabbed by gravity and you know that it's going to be ok -- different than you imagined, but ok.

The same thing happened with this installment of Bake Through for me. I struggle with baking. I know it's a simple thing of mixing flour and fat and some liquid. At least some people think of it as simple. And, my mother's maiden name is Baker so, I know it's in my genetic make up somewhere.

But, often I bake in fear. Fear that it's going to be a big brick; fear that it's going to be "raw" inside; fear that, even when it turns out ok, it's all a fluke.

In our last installment, I touted how we frosted the cake. This time, as you can see by the pictures, we have done it twice.

Two cakes: 1. the Sour Cream Butter Cake (p.35) and 2. the Golden Almond Cake (p.37).

You can tell we are in the butter cake recipes -- oh the butter. We must be getting good at doing them. There were no forgotten ingredients, no hustle or bustle. It was so relaxed that we only made one mistake, more on that later.

I so love working at Janet's place. The kitchen has a counter that we can stand next to each other and chat and work, not crowding each other. Now that we've got good weather in Northern Westchester, we can hang out on the back porch.

Ms. Beranbaum often tells us to beat for a certain amount of time to "develop the cake's structure". You can actually see the change take place. What was a bowl of various things, all of a sudden become a bowl of stuff and it's smooth and silky and a totally different color. On the Sour Cream Cake she instructs you to beat for 1 1/2 minutes to do just that same thing. We get to talking and Janet asks if that was the full 1 1/2 minutes that it requires. I said, "I don't know, let me think about how long sex takes...." Janet giggled and blushed and I said, "And multiply by three." (This is the one post that I hope Michael doesn't read :)

We have been asked to use, at various times, a wooden toothpick, a metal cake tester and a sharp knife. After our last blog, I asked one of my clients Jennifer Abadi author of the fantastic cookbook, _A Fistful of Lentils_ (Check it out!) Why there were so many options. She suggested that the wooden toothpick would "grab" hold of crumbs indicating that we'd need more cooking time, where a metal cake tester would be smooth and slip out "clean" before a wooden tester would. This seemed like a possible answer to our question. So, we tried all of the cake testing options that are included thus far in the book and each one produced the same result. This could be do to the fact that in our being so relaxed, we hung out chatting a bit longer and went about two minutes too long on the Sour Cream Cake. Yes, it was a noticable amount of time. We could tell in the crust of the cake (a bit too brown and it even smelled "brown").

Following Ms. Beranbaum's suggestion, we used the Sour Cream Ganache (p.275). Damn, this icing/frosting rocks! It was even fun for me to use in the frosting of the cake.

The Golden Almond Cake has just a hint of almond, but has a nicer texture. We decided that texture difference was based on two things: 1. we slightly overcooked the Sour Cream Cake and 2. this cake had ground almonds in it. Both of these cakes were very easy to put together. Janet opined that it was because they are becoming variations on the same theme -- butter cakes. She's definitely right, but I'm still stuck to the book.

Please raise your hand if you think that putting buttermilk and heavy cream into a jar and sitting it on the fridge sounds like a good idea. I have to say it goes against everything that I've ever heard about food safety. With that said, follow the directions for the Creme Fraiche Topping (p.259). That with raspberries is probably the best non-chocolate topping that we've done so far (I do realize it's only our third topping, but it truly is that good.)

Kevin told me today that both of the cakes were "m'm m'm good". I hope Campbell's doesn't come down on us for that quote. He did mention that the texture of the Sour Cream Butter Cake was a bit dry -- Janet let him know that was probably our fault with over cooking it just a bit.

Like I said, I started this blogging as a way to learn how to bake. What's happened? I found that Janet has the right idea, it's not learning how to bake, it's hanging out with a friend and learning from each other.

Sometimes, you have to lay back and trust the recipe. Hopefully, it's the first step toward great taste.

Bake through


Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Here are the fruits of our labors this May Day. The Sour Cream Ganache tops the Sour Cream Butter Cake, and creme fraiche and raspberries are on the Golden Almond Cake. The image doesn't do them justice. If this is any sign of what is to come, I need bigger pants.