Saturday, November 29, 2008

Daring Bakers Challenge: Liquid Gold

This month the daring bakers return to the sweet side of baking after several months of being on the savory side.

And the bakers were champing at the bit: once you join the ranks of the daring bakers, you eagerly await the posting of the challenge on the first of each month. I checked the daring bakers website early in the day. Nothing. Nothing except lots of posts from other daring bakers wondering when the heck the challenge would be posted. I checked off and on throughout the day.

Our fellow bakers in countries outside the U.S. were especially antsy given the time difference.

Finally, late in the day California time, the challenge was posted. And after all that waiting, it wasn’t a let down.
This would truly be a challenge for me:

Caramel Cake with Caramelized Butter Frosting

A challenge because making caramel is just not my thing. My past attempts at making caramel always ended up a burnt smoky mess. And my saucepan from my last attempt never did fully recover.

I have spent all day on creating a challenging cake and without batting an eye, buy a beautiful gourmet caramel sauce to top it.

But not this time. That would be cheating – big time.

But wait, there’s more – the optional second challenge this month is to make:

Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels

Oh no.

Actually, it was a bit of a coincidence that caramel was the star of this month’s challenge. I had just finished reading a tutorial on making classic caramel from the November issue of Fine Cooking.

So I guess the desire was there – now for action!

The cake recipe is from Shuna Fish Lydon of Eggbeater and it is a signature cake of hers. According to Shuna, “This is one of those cakes that is truly about baking”. She goes on to explain, “What I mean is that getting this cake to bake is about balancing fat with acid and protein just right”.

Shuna offered to take questions from the daring bakers via email even though she was leaving for London within the next few days. Well, her comments and the offer of assistance all served to make me a bit nervous so I decided to check out her blog for further instructions from her. Turns out LOTS of bakers have failed miserably in trying to make this cake. So Shuna devotes several pages on her blog to answering questions on how to get this recipe to work.

Of course I printed them out.

As I scanned the notes, I realized that most bakers didn’t have a problem making the caramel syrup or the caramelized butter cream frosting which to me would be the tough part. The most common problem seemed to be that bakers had a hard time getting the cake to rise. Having just taken a baking class at Tante Marie Cooking School in San Francisco with Meg Ray of Miette Pâtisseri fame, I knew that the secret was the mixer speed and getting the creaming of the butter and sugar just right. It was also important to add the ingredients to the butter and sugar mixture in the right order : dry, wet, dry, wet and dry because of the high proportion of liquid in the batter.

The cake calls for 1/3 cup of caramel syrup and the frosting needs four tablespoons of the syrup. Armed with my knowledge from the Fine Cooking Magazine article and Shuna’s web site notes, I started boiling the sugar and water. The finished caramel was a beautiful liquid gold color. And no burnt saucepan.

The cake rose beautifully. The caramelized butter cream frosting was a bit too sweet for my taste but that can be easily fixed when I make this cake again -- because I will be!

Flushed with success I turned to the recipe for the Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels. This recipe is from “Pure Dessert” by Alice Medrich. This recipe uses that very British of products, golden syrup, instead of the usual corn syrup.

The recipe came together easily, especially since I used my new Raytek laser thermometer instead of a candy thermometer!

The flavor of the finished caramels was just amazing – buttery and rich. Not overly sweet or grainy as some of the best purchased caramels can be. I sprinkled a bit of fleur de sel on the caramels but I think I preferred the plains ones best.

These would make a beautiful holiday gift or a nice addition to a dessert buffet

Many thanks to our hosts this month:
Dolores of Chronicles in Culinary History

Her cohosts are:
Alex of Blondie and Brownie , Jenny of Foray into Food and Natalie of Gluten-A-Go-Go for our alternative bakers.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Baking with Meg Ray of Miette Pâtisseri

I recently had the pleasure of attending yet another cooking class at Tante Marie Cooking School in San Francisco.

This time I spent three sugar filled days learning the ins and outs of baking with Meg Ray of Miette Pâtisseri fame.

I had long been a fan of her stylish bakery located in the San Francisco Ferry Building. When I saw her name as a guest teacher at Tante Marie, I signed up tout de suite!

Curriculum for the three days was divided into Oil Cakes, Sponge Cakes and Mousse Cakes.

As my baking partner and I mixed and measured and fretted about our various cakes, it was Meg's attitude toward this profession that she had chosen (or had it chosen her) that was really teaching me what baking was all about.

I felt like I was being taught by Julia Child. And by that I mean by someone who loves the science behind what she is doing and who likes to take the mystery out of it -- like Julia Child took the mystique out of French Cooking. Julia Child revealed to audiences that with a little technique and mastery of the basics, you could be not just a good cook, but also a gourmet one.

In the same way, Meg takes the basics of French and other European baking techniques and makes them her own:

•Not sure yet of your baking skills?
Make an oil-based cake. These cakes use oil instead of butter and as a result are incredibly moist and delicate. But more importantly, they are very forgiving and hard to mess up! And unlike butter cake, which is rock hard when refrigerated, an oil cake keeps its moist and delicate texture whether it is refrigerated or kept at room temperature.

•Too intimidated to make a Bûche de Noël for the holidays?
Use a chiffon cake recipe. This oil-based cake is much easier to roll into a roulade, which can then become a Bûche de Noë,l if you so choose.

•Batter not coming together in the mixer?
Push the metal bowl up against the paddle -- it will make a terrible noise but it doesn't hurt the machine and your batter will be mixed just right. This is also a good idea to do when mixing a meringue.

•Batter curdling after you add the eggs?
Don't worry, your batter probably isn't ruined, try turning the mixer to a higher speed and it should come together again into a smooth batter. But to avoid this problem in the future, make sure your ingredients aren’t too cold and be sure to add the eggs one at a time.

Meg also is an advocate for finishing all cakes by hand. Once the batter has come together in the mixer, take it off and finish it by hand. This gives the baker a better feel for how the cake is coming together.

Meg uses the same mix of science and gut instinct to run her successful bakery.

Meg and her partner in the bakery business, Caitlin Williams, were determined to use only the best ingredients in their baked goods. We have all heard that before about many food products but the world of pastry could be one of the last holdouts in using organic and locally grown products.

This means not only using locally produced products like butter from Straus Family Creamery or fresh eggs from Eatwell Farms but it also meant choosing organic for those building blocks of baking -- -- the flour, sugar, baking powder, etc.

For example, a lot of trial and error went in to Meg learning how make a delicate French cake using organic sugar in the raw -- not exactly a fine white sugar as it typically used in such cakes.

Being novice bakers without degrees from culinary school meant Meg and her partner had to approach the business of baking as a problem to be solved.

“We had no idea what we were doing but that often meant that we weren't tied down to the traditions of the profession and could come up with a technique that was innovative or more efficient than other bakers.” Said Meg.

For example. at Miette, the ingredients are scaled out for all the items to be baked by one person -- a very unusual process for a commercial bakery where the bakers usually scale their own ingredients.

"This person is the bad-ass of the bakery!" laughed Meg. “But this process allows the bakers to focus on what they are the best at – baking – and it also allows us to have tight control on our ordering for ingredients.”

Meg was practically bouncing with excitement when she announced to our class that her bakery and a new project for Meg, a cooking school, would be one of the new tenants in the recently renovated Jack London Square in Oakland, California.

I was more excited by the prospect of a cookbook from Meg. She hinted that one might be in the works. But in typical Meg fashion, she is insisting that photos accompany each recipe – an expensive request for any cookbook publisher to consider.

“I don’t want the reader to be afraid to try a recipe just because they can’t visualize the final product, “ she says.

"Remember, you are the boss of the cake!" says Meg.

And this sums up the take-away from the class for me – yes, I learned some great tips and techniques but now I have a Baking Attitude!

Madeleines Teacakes

Messing with Proust:

One of Meg’s tips that intrigued me was her idea to use Madeleine batter for cupcakes. My first batch was a dismal failure. Meg was kind enough to give me some guidance via email and my next batch was perfect. These are really more like a teacake than a typical cupcake since the flavor of a Madeleine is similar to that of a pound cake.

Makes about 24 mini teacakes

200 grams butter

1 and 1/8 cup flour

¾ cup + 1 Tablespoon Sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/3 teaspoon honey

4 eggs

Melt and cool butter to 100 degrees F.

Using a whisk attachment, mix dry ingredients in the mixer bowl for about 30 seconds to incorporate.

Add eggs and honey and mix for one minute.

Stream in butter and mix for another minute on medium speed. Crank speed to high and mix for 15 seconds. Batter should be silky and smooth.

Let batter rest in fridge overnight.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Brush mini-muffin pans with melted butter.

Scoop batter into mini-muffin cups and bake for approximately 13 minutes.

Turn out from muffin tins and let cool on wire rack.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Daring Bakers Challenge: Pizza Pie!

Pizza? The October challenge seemed like an easy one at first glance. Then I read the fine print, so to speak.

Hosted this month by Rosa of Rosa's Yummy Yums -- a food blogger based in Geneva, Switzerland, the real challenge wasn't making pizza dough but instead was in how the pizza was formed.

THE CHALLENGE: You have to use the tossing method for at least two pizza crusts. You should also capture the moment by either filming or photographing yourself while tossing the dough.

Toss the dough?? Well, I was up for it. I was also excited to see that we were once again using a recipe from "The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread," by Peter Reinhart.

The recipe is Pizza Napoletana and yields six 6-ounce pizzas.

Several keys to success according to Reinhart:
•Chill your flour at least one hour before making the dough and preferably overnight
•Make sure the water you use is also chilled to at least 40 degrees F
•Use either unbleached all-purpose flour or unbleached bread flour

According to Reinhart, bread flour, because of the high gluten content, holds together better during handling. The fans of all-purpose flour tout the tenderness of the crust made with this flour. The downside of all-purpose is that it is easy to tear when rolled out or tossed.

Reinhart recommends a compromise of sorts by suggesting the addition of olive oil to high gluten dough to tenderize the crust.

As a novice pizza tosser, I decided to take the safe route and use bread flour to increase my chances of success.

But the most important factor for success, according to Reinhart, "is to allow the dough to rest overnight in the refrigerator. This allows the enzymes time to go to work, pulling out subtle flavor trapped in the starch".

With my dough safely in the fridge with its enzymes working away furiously, I searched the Internet and cookbooks for information on tossing pizza dough. Reinhart provides instructions in his recipe but I wanted a visual if possible.

My search yielded lots of tips and the videos I found were hilarious but surprisingly useful. Even if you never want to learn to toss pizza dough, you must view these for the humor they provide! A list is at the bottom of this post.

The next day I took out four dough balls to bake now and froze two for later. I let the dough rest for several hours as instructed by the recipe then prepared to toss.

I nervously dipped my hands, including the back of my hands and knuckles, in flour and very gently laid the dough across my fists. I carefully stretched it by bouncing the dough in a circular motion carefully giving it a little stretch with each bounce. Once it expanded outward, I gave it a full toss in the air.

My first dough ball was stretched too thin and ripped. I gamely tried the next dough ball and was successful although I wouldn't call it pretty. The third one was much rounder and even in its thickness.

I used traditional pizza sauce for all three pizzas. The first pizza was topped with sundried tomatoes, fresh basil, and Gouda cheese. The toppings for the second pizza were more traditional with mushrooms, basil, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. I used all the toppings on the third pizza.

They were delicious.

How to toss pizza blog

YouTube Pizza Toss

ehow Pizza Toss


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cakes For Tots: An Interview with Victoria Muramoto

I recently attended a baking class at Tante Marie Cooking School in San Francisco taught by Meg Ray of Miette Patisserie fame. It was a great class, but more on that in another posting.

While taking this class I met Victoria Muramoto, founder of
Cakes for Tots.

The class we were taking focused primarily on baking and decorating cakes. Victoria announced to our class that she had just launched Cakes for Tots so that no child would go without a birthday cake just because their parents couldn't afford one.

Victoria lives on the S.F. Peninsula and she was asking for volunteers who also lived on the Peninsula to help her bake if her project created too much demand for her to do all the baking. She also wanted us to refer families in need to her.

I was intrigued by her project and wanted to know more about her and it. I couldn't help wondering who couldn't afford $2-$3 to buy a cake mix.

I spent some time with her on the phone last week and after I hung up, I felt humbled by her explanation and inspired by her mission.

Here is my interview with Victoria:

How did you come up with the idea for Cakes for Tots?

A few months ago I read about a woman in Georgia who was baking cakes for families in need. I was intrigued by her story so I contacted her to find out more. We started corresponding and she encouraged me to reach out to families in need in my own area.

It was hard for me to believe that a parent couldn't afford a cake for their child. I learned that not only do these parents not have money to spend on the luxury of a cake, those in homeless shelters don't have a kitchen at their disposal to bake one.

I wasn't sure if I could replicate her success -- she is a social worker and has a lot of ways to find out who might be in need.

But I made flyers and distributed them to a women's shelter in San Jose.

I now bake about three cakes a week for them.

Are you focusing exclusively on the San Jose area?

No, my vision for Cakes for Tots is one that encompasses the SF Bay Area.
I hope to have bakers that can help with the baking and delivery throughout this area.

How are you getting the word out?

I continue to hand out flyers to women's shelters, homeless shelters and similar organizations.

I recently launched my website and I'm in the process of creating an ad that will run in Bay Area Parent Magazine.

I realize that my target audience may not have access to a computer to see my website but I'm hoping that people who know of someone in need will refer them to me.

Have you always been a baker?

About a year ago I got really interested in baking. It was just a sudden desire. I didn't bake as a child. Once I started baking, I found I had a real knack for it. I find it to be incredibly relaxing -- I turn on Billie Holiday and go to it!

What kinds of cakes do you bake -- do you have a signature cake?

Red Velvet is my signature cake. It looks really dramatic once it is cut -- the layers of red and white create quite a contrast.

I generally ask the parents what kind of cake their child would like -- chocolate or white and what kind of frosting. I always put the child's name on the cake. I also provide the candles.

I primarily bake two-layer cakes and sometimes a sheet cake. I generally don't get requests for cupcakes although I did just buy a giant cupcake pan to try!

Right now I only bake birthday cakes for young children but I am open to providing cakes for other celebratory events and also to other age groups.

How did the Tante Marie class with Meg Ray help you?

Well, I usually make the cakes from a mix but I really wanted to branch out and make them from scratch. I also wanted to improve my decorating skills. The class helped me in both areas.

But what really helped was that after the class, Meg Ray invited me to a one-on-one class with her at her bakery in Oakland. I just completed that this week and I learned a lot. Meg is incredibly generous.

How do you pay for your supplies?

Right now I pay for everything. I'm hoping that as the word spreads about this project, people will go to my website and make a donation. But for now it isn't more than I can handle.

So, do you sit around and bake all day or do you have a day job?

I work as a bio-pharmaceutical consultant and I have a 12-year old daughter. So, life is busy!

What does your daughter think of Cakes for Tots?

She loves it! And she helps me bake as well. She is at the age where everything and everyone are influencing her. I love that I can show her how to be of service to others.

After I spoke with Victoria, I did an Internet search to see if other groups or individuals were providing a similar service. I found only one organization in the S.F. Bay Area: the East Bay offices of CB Richard Ellis, a commercial real estate firm, hosts a program called CBRE Cares. On the East Coast, I located a firm in Maryland called Cakes for Cause.

Both organizations have official programs with board of directors, mission statements and press releases.

Although both are providing a very worthwhile service to their communities, I couldn't help but admire Victoria's more personal approach and her commitment to preserving the dignity of the people who request her cakes. When I asked her how it felt to see the child's face light up when they saw their birthday cake, she said, "I love giving parents one less thing to worry about and a way to celebrate their child's special day. But I prefer to remain in the background so I simply drop the cake off at the front desk of the shelter."

So, help Victoria spread the word about this wonderful project. You can contact her at 408-507-2239 or go to her website:

Monday, September 29, 2008

Daring Bakers Challenge: Loving Lavash

September's daring bakers challenge departed from the sweet side of these last two months and landed on the savory side.

This month's challenge: Make lavash crackers and create a dip to accompany it.

And not only did we make crackers, we also made Daring Bakers history: for the first time ever, the torch has been passed to our Alternative Bakers as our September challenge is vegan and/or gluten free. This month's hosts are Natalie from Gluten A Go Go, and co-host Shel, of Musings From the Fishbowl.

The recipe for the lavash crackers is from "The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread," by Peter Reinhart.

I was intrigued by the challenge not so much because it would give me a chance to practice my "alternative" baking skills but more because I had never made crackers before and had actually never even contemplated making crackers. Baking fresh bread can't really be replicated but certainly what could be special about home-made crackers?

Well, I'm sure you can see where this is heading, the crackers were amazing. Certainly none of the gourmet crackers purchased at my local market even came close to tasting this good.

I made scallion hummus (vegan) as an accompaniment and the entire batch of crackers were almost consumed by my family in a matter of minutes.

I topped my crackers with sesame seeds and kosher salt but I've already started wondering how I can change the toppings in my next batch.

The key to crisp lavash is to roll the dough paper thin. Once the dough is rolled out, you can use a pizza cutter or sharp knife to cut the dough into squares or diamonds. Or, you can bake the sheet whole and break the sheet into shards once cooled.

The shards looked very cool in my basket.

Peter Reinhart is a well-known author and instructor. I especially liked the commentary that the author includes in the margins by each recipe. The commentary to this recipe included how to make a softer variation of the dough to use for making roll up pinwheel sandwiches.

Although I have been a bread baker for quite a while, I had never heard of the windowpane test to determine when the gluten development is sufficient in the dough. To test for this, cut off a small piece of dough and gently stretch and pull and turn it to see if it will hold a paper thin translucent membrane, or windowpane. If not, knead the dough for another minute or two and try the test again.

So, whether you call them lavash, pita bread or flatbread, you will be crackers over this delicious and easy recipe from Peter Reinhart.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Basque Country Mystery

This summer I traveled to the Basque region of Spain with my family. We traveled from Bilbao down to La Rioja Alta wine region then back to Bilbao and up to San Sebastian while visiting all the small coastal towns in-between. The people, the architecture, the food -- it was a memorable trip.

This area is home to many of the best restaurants in the world. We were fortunate enough to dine at our share of great restaurants including Arzak Restaurant in San Sebastián (three Michelin stars), The Gastronomic Restaurant at the Guggenheim -- a Martín Berasategui restaurant and we also dined at what has been called Frank Gehry's favorite restaurant in
Bilbao, El Perro Chico.

While our meal at Arzak was truly amazing (and only included one dessert where foam was to be found), it was the traditional Basque breakfast pastries and desserts that caught my attention.

Morning after morning we would have what appeared to be a soft yeast roll either shaped like a round bun or in a torpedo shape. The filling appeared to be a whipped cream of some sort. The filling had a glazed look and was not overly sweet.

In the afternoon, we would bypass the Basque attempt at cookies for a small tart filled with custard and sometimes topped with apples.

We discovered that these two items were found in almost every cafe or bar in Bilbao and the surrounding area, but we did not find them in our adventures outside of Bilbao.

So what were these Bilbao specific goodies? I finally asked a friendly cafe owner in my limited Spanish the name of the two items. I tried to repeat it back but he kindly wrote it down for me in his very neat handwriting:

Bollo de mantequilla and tarta de arroz.

So, butter bun and rice tart? I didn't notice any rice in the tarts. But now I knew what the filling was in the buns. The filling sure didn't taste like any butter I had ever had before though.

Once home, I tried to find recipes for these two treats and I was successful in finding a recipe for tarta de arroz in Teresa Barrenechea's excellent book on traditional Basque foods, "The Basque Table."

According Barrenechea, "Basque desserts are simple, homey fare. Most are made with ingredients commonly found in every kichen -- eggs, milk, and sugar and consequently tend to be smooth, rich and custardy".

We found this to be true as well as the fact that cakes, in the traditional American way, were not to be found and chocolate desserts were also scarce.

In her book, the author includes a recipe for Tarta De Arrese: custard tart bilbao-style.

According to Barrenechea, "This crustless tart is typical of my hometown of Bilbao. Its traditional name, tarta de arroz, is misleading, since the tart doesn't contain rice. So I have renamed it in honor of a bakery in Bilbao, Pasteleria Arrese, a favorite haunt of mine..."

I made the tart and was transported back to Bilbao.

But it is probably easier to get the keys to the Bilbao Guggenheim than it is to find a recipe for bollo de mantequilla!

I emailed Teresa Barrenechea but to date, haven't had a response.

My search on the Internet yielded several blogs dedicated to singing the praises of bollo de mantequilla but included no recipes. I guess I wasn't the only one who fondly remembered bollo de mantequilla.

I finally landed on a web site of from what I can tell, Spain's answer to that larger than life chef, Emeril Lagasse. The site is and features the cooking universe of Karlos Arguiñano. His site did have a recipe but it was a gluten-free, "alternative" recipe. Not what I was looking for.

I had what I thought was a clever idea to email the Sheraton Bilbao, the hotel we stayed in while exploring Bilbao and the wine country. I received a very polite email advising I check the site of Karlos Arguiñano!

Not such a clever idea I guess
. I called the Center for Basque Studies located at the University of Nevada, Reno. The librarian there kindly pointed me to, yes, Karlos Arguiñano.

I decided that I simply must try his recipe and I did so. Let's call the outcome buns of steel and not buns of butter.

My search was starting to make me bleary eyed, much like the jumble of letters of x, z and k in the Basque language that we futility tried to translate and understand.

So, my attempts to replicate the seemingly simple bollo de mantequilla failed, and the recipe remains a mystery, much like attempts to discover how the Basque people got to this area of Europe and how their language developed is still a mystery.

Custard Tart Bilbao-Style: Tarta De Arrese

from The Basque Table by Teresa Barrenechea

2 cups whole milk

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

3 large eggs, separated

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1 to 2 cups Sweet Basque Cream (recipe follows)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter a 9-inch pie plate.
2. In a blender or in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the milk, flour, egg yolks, and sugar. Blend just until the contents are mixed. Transfer them to a bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites with a wire whisk to the "snow point"-just until they start to thicken to soft peaks.

4. Gently fold the egg whites and the melted butter into the milk mixture until the whites are almost completely incorporated. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pie plate, and bake it for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the custard is golden brown and a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool the custard on a wire rack until it is just lukewarm. Cut the custard into wedges, and serve them warm or cool. Spoon the Sweet Basque Cream onto the dessert plates, spreading it to cover the plate. Set a wedge of custard on top of the sauce.

Serves 8

Sweet Basque Cream: Natillas

from The Basque Table by Teresa Barrenechea

Natillas is often served as a dessert in itself, served in small custard cups but it is also used in many Basque recipes as a sauce. It is similar to crème anglaise.

1 quart heavy cream
2 cinnamon sticks

6 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Ground cinnamon

1. In a saucepan, combine the cream and cinnamon sticks, and bring them to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low, and cook gently for about 10 minutes, until the cream is well infused with the cinnamon. Set the pan aside so the cream can cool.

2. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, and vanilla until they are well mixed. Add the cream and cinnamon sticks, and whisk well.

3. Heat 1 to 2 inches of water in the bottom pan of a double boiler, and transfer the custard mixture to the top pan, or set the bowl over a saucepan containing 1 to 2 inches of hot water. Bring the water to a boil, and cook the sauce, stirring constantly, for about 30 minutes or until it thickens, adding more hot water to the bottom pan if necessary. Remove the top pan or the bowl from over the hot water, and let the custard cool.

4. Strain the cooled custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a glass or ceramic container, and refrigerate the natillas for at least 4 hours, until it is cool. Stir before serving, adding a little more heavy cream if necessary to smooth the natillas. Divide it among six custard cups or transfer it to a pitcher to use as a sauce. Serve the natillas sprinkled with cinnamon.

Makes 5 to 6 cups. Serves 6

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Daring Bakers Challenge: Chocolate Éclairs

After my failure with the July daring bakers challenge, I was anxious to redeem myself with this month's challenge.

Although I was happy to see that this month's challenge had nary a hazelnut or layer cake in sight, I was still a bit taken aback by the choice: chocolate éclairs.

Now, I have often admired éclairs looking like the prettiest thing in the pastry case, but I would bypass them any day for an apple tart or piece of chocolate cake. I would never pick a fancy pants éclair.

But I was ready to learn French if it meant I succeeded at this month's challenge.

This month's challenge is hosted by Tony Tahhan and MeetaK and is from the Picasso of pastry, Pierre Hermé. The recipe is from "Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé," written by Dorie Greenspan.

The recipe consists of three parts:

1. The Choux Pastry
2. Chocolate Pastry Cream

3. Chocolate Glaze

As I read through the recipe for the choux pastry, I realized that it might be called choux pastry in the French language, but in the mid-west where I grew up, we call it cream puff dough.

I wasn't quite as nervous now.

The only stumbling block I encountered in gathering my supplies was the required pastry tip.
The recipe called for a 2 cm plain tip nozzle to pipe the choux dough into éclairs. How hard could it be to find a 2 cm nozzle? Plenty hard. None to be found at Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma or my local gourmet market. The helpful clerk at Sur La Table did direct me to a jumbo box of 12 tips for $35 but it seemed a bit pricy when I only needed one tip. In the end my solution was to not use a pastry tip at all.

Instead, I used the 2.5 cm coupler tip that came with a mechanical pastry bag that I purchased from Williams-Sonoma for $25.

The clerks at W-S and I huddled together and discussed this radical idea. I guess necessity really is the mother of invention. In the end we all agreed that it just might work.

For those pastry bag novices (like myself), couplers are used to change pastry tips without having to empty the pastry bag every time you want to use a different tip.

This solution had the added benefit of my not having to use a traditional pastry bag. Plus the kit came with ten tips for my future baking experiments

The choux dough came together easily and I slipped the warm dough into the metal pastry cylinder. I quickly piped the dough into chubby fingers about 11 cm long.

They were a thing of beauty when I took them out of the oven. I let them cool on a wire rack while I made the chocolate pastry cream.

When I next checked on my beauties, my éclairs had deflated into a custardy mess.

A frantic look through my various cookbooks yielded no clues. That is until I checked a book I had recently picked up: "Best-Ever Pastry Cookbook," by Catherine Atkinson.

Atkinson recommended an additional step before taking the finished éclairs out of the oven to cool. She recommended cutting a small slit along the side of each éclair to release the steam. Then, lower the oven temperature from 375 degrees to 350 degrees and bake for an additional five minutes.

My next batch was perfect. I filled and glazed them then gazed at them.


Éclairs are one of those desserts that are best consumed immediately. That wasn't a problem for my family. Although they were very good, I realized that I didn't have a taste memory to compare them to.

The next week I found myself at Tartine Bakery, the famous San Francisco bakery. I ordered one of their éclairs and was pleased to discover that although not even close to the perfection of a Tartine Bakery
éclair, mine were a pretty good first attempt.

Bring on the September Challenge!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Daring Bakers Challenge: Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream

In A Lather Over Layers

I first read about the daring bakers on the blog of my favorite baker and cookbook author, Dorie Greenspan.

A little digging led me to the daring bakers blogroll and its amazing members. I contacted one of the co-founders to see if I could join their growing ranks.

Started by Lis of La Mia Cucina and Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice, in 2006, the daring bakers blogroll has since grown to more than 1000 bakers worldwide. Click here to read a recent interview about them and the daring bakers.

Each month, members of the daring bakers community all bake the month's baking challenge. Designated hosts pick challenges each month. The host issues the challenge and gives any additional rules to the challenge. There is assistance for all the bakers on the daring bakers website. I posted several questions during July's challenge and always received a prompt reply from one of the many bakers.

All the bakers taking the challenge post on the same day at the end of the month.

I call Saturdays at my house -- Test Kitchen Saturday -- because I enjoy the challenge of a new baking project so joining the daring bakers seemed right up my alley -- I especially like their tagline: "We Knead to Bake!".

I waited until July to join the daring bakers so that my calendar would be relatively free for my baking experiments. I nervously waited for the challenge to be posted.

The host for July is Mele Cottee and the challenge was Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream from "Great Cakes" by Carole Walter.

I wasn't exactly thrilled that my first challenge was a layer cake -- one of the weakest areas of my baking skills. So this would certainly be a challenge for me.

The cake also called for filberts -- or hazelnuts, as I call them, which is one of my least favorite ingredients. I mean really, how many of you actually get the skins to come off after baking them and rubbing them in a kitchen towel?? I remember throwing away a great salad recipe that called for hazelnuts after making it for a dinner party almost drove me nuts!

But again, this was a CHALLENGE.

This recipe had numerous steps so I knew I better give myself several days to complete the challenge.

I wanted to get a copy of the book even though the host had posted the ingredients and instructions online. My local bookstore didn't have a copy so I biked down to the used bookstore. They had a copy and I was in business.

My next trip was to Sur La Table where I purchased the required pan, cardboard cake round, pastry bag and tips.

I was excited to get started.

The base recipe is a Filbert Genoise. So besides those pesky hazelnuts, there was also butter to be clarified. The Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream also included four additional steps in addition to baking the cake:
A sugar syrup
An apricot glaze
A praline buttercream, which also included an additional step of preparing a praline paste
A ganache glaze

All but the praline buttercream and the ganache glaze could be prepared a day ahead. My plan was to shop for the ingredients, bake the cake and prepare the praline paste, sugar syrup, apricot glaze all in the same day. The next day I would assemble the cake.

Skinning the hazelnuts was just as difficult as I remembered. I surfed the internet and scanned my large collection of cookbooks for newer ways to skin hazelnuts but most of the sources agreed that the toast and rub them method was the most successful.

My finished cake was beautiful but I was alarmed that it was only about three inches tall. I posted an inquiry on the daring bakers site asking if this size was correct. I noticed that others had posted the same inquiry so I breathed a bit easier. The responses back reassured me that my cake was the correct height. I couldn't see how this short cake was going to be divided into three layers!

The next day I once again turned to the internet and my cookbook library for the best way to divide a cake into layers. The author of the recipe actually had the best-written instructions and diagrams. I dutifully marked off my first layer by inserting toothpicks into the sides at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock. Because of the hazelnuts, the cake wasn't soft and spongy but instead had a strong framework. I hoped this would give me a better chance at successfully dividing the cake.

I gingerly picked up my long serrated knife and started sawing. And sawing. And sawing. This was one tough cake.

As I lifted the first layer off with what I though was the flush of success, I was shocked to see that there was a hole in the bottom of my cake!

I emailed Lis of La Mia Cucina to see if I was the only failure in the history of the challenges. "Of course not," she assured me. "And as proof, I will email you a photo of my finished cake"! Lis is a very gracious person!

So, where did I go wrong? I think that although my serrated knife was long enough to go through the cake, it still wasn't long enough. A longer knife would have given me a bit more leverage in dividing the layers.

Despite failing the challenge, I enjoyed the prep work and interacting with the other bakers. I'm also pleased to add "Great Cakes" to my baking shelf.

So, onward to the next challenge!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Tempering Chocolate: The Buckeye Experiment

Tampering with Tempering

Somehow the words "working" and "chocolate" don't seem to belong in the same sentence but in June I did just that -- attended a "working with chocolate" seminar taught by Anni Golding, owner of Gateau et Ganache -- an online chocolate boutique that offers a variety of handmade truffles, bonbons and marshmallows.

Also, Draegers, a gourmet grocery store chain located in the S.F. Bay Area just started carrying her handmade marshmallows at its San Mateo location -- go Anni!

The workshop was held at the Gamble House in Palo Alto, CA. There were about 12 of us crammed into the small kitchen of this beautiful mansion. Have you ever noticed when you tour old mansions how the kitchens are often tiny compared to the living quarters? Why is it the servants were expected to turn out dinner after dinner in such a small working spaces?

But I digress.

Our task today would be to learn how to temper chocolate.

But first, we were treated to quick tutorial on the history of chocolate and much to my delight, a chocolate tasting.

I never knew how complicated chocolate could be or just how little I knew.

These days chocolate is often talked about with terms that I've typically heard used to describe wine or coffee -- words like terrior, single origin, and organic.

And chocolate tastings are a trendy and fun way to end a dinner party -- especially if you pair it with fine port.

I was particularly interested to learn more about the percentage numbers that are becoming more common on U.S. produced chocolate. Most of the recipes I have encountered simply specify "fine-quality chocolate" which isn't much guidance.

Anni explained that the percentages on the bar of chocolate referred to how much chocolate in that bar comes from the cocoa bean as chocolate liquor (the ground nib of the cacao bean) and added cocoa butter. The rest is mainly sugar. So the higher the percentage the more chocolate there is in the product.

My own personal rule is the same rule I have for cooking with wine, never cook with chocolate you wouldn't deem suitable for eating.

But back to tempering chocolate.

We divided up into partners, donned our aprons and gave Anni our complete attention. In front of us were our tools for the day: instant-read thermometer, rubber spatula, parchment paper, 1-2 lbs of chocolate, knife and cutting board, small and medium microwave-safe containers.

What does it mean to temper chocolate? The tempering of chocolate is all about the fat crystals in chocolate. The tempering process consists of three steps: heat the chocolate to melt all of its fat crystals, cool it to form a new set of crystals and then heat it again to melt the unstable crystals so only the stable crystals remain.

Why learn how to temper chocolate? After all, purchased chocolate is already tempered, that's why it is shiny and has a nice snap when you break it. But chocolate loses its temper (so to speak) when it is melted (as do I).

That is fine if you are using the chocolate in a cake or as a filling. Certainly you can melt chocolate and use it to dip fruit or as a coating for cookies. The end result will taste fine but the finish will look dull and the coating will be soft instead of snappy.

But if you want a shiny finish with a nice snap to it when eaten, you need to temper the chocolate. Tempered chocolate can be used to make chocolate "bowls" to fill with fruit and cream, or to dip fruit. The fancy "chocolate box cakes" that you see in many bakeries are made using tempered chocolate. Tempered chocolate can even be painted on to leaves, allowed to harden then gently peeled off. These chocolate leaves can be the finishing touch on top of a cake to give it that professional look.

If appearance matters, and doesn't it always, then the chocolate must be tempered.

There are several methods for tempering chocolate but the method Anni likes best is the Seed Method (see "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee for a more in-depth look at tempering chocolate and the various methods).

The web site also does an excellent job of taking you through the steps needed to temper chocolate.

What did I learn? Well, tempering chocolate takes the cook's ENTIRE attention. Since you are constantly checking the temperature of your chocolate -- you must pay attention. So don't multitask while you are tempering chocolate. Anni uses a Raytek laser thermometer, which is fast and accurate and very Star Trek-like. I want one for Christmas.

I also learned that MOISTURE MATTERS. Even the smallest bit of water can make the chocolate seize up which is a graphic way to say that all that lovely chocolate is ruined. So if you are dipping strawberries, make certain the berries are completely dry.

Back at home I decided to try Anni's method on an old family recipe: Buckeyes. Buckeyes are peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate with just a small portion of the peanut butter left so that they resemble a buckeye nut from the buckeye tree. It is a very mid-western treat. Since I enjoy combining gourmet skills with down-home skills, I decided to temper the chocolate used to dip the peanut butter balls into. Typically, semi-sweet chocolate chips are melted with paraffin to create the coating for the buckeye.

I would like to tell you that I was successful but after checking the temperature of that chocolate obsessively like I do with a sick child, my chocolate ended up dull, not shiny and was definitely snap-free.

What happened? According to Anni, the most likely reason for my chocolate failure was that the peanut butter balls were too cold when they were dipped. "That would cause the temperature in your bowl of chocolate to drop faster than if you're dipping room-temperature items".

So, here is the original buckeye recipe. Many versions of this recipe can be found on the internet.

This recipe is from my mother
(see ringalings)

If you want to temper the chocolate just remember not to refrigerate those peanut butter balls.


1 pound butter

3 pounds powdered sugar

2 pounds peanut butter (not natural)

24 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/2 block paraffin

Combine butter, sugar and peanut butter in a large bowl. Chill the dough for 30 minutes. Roll into 3/4 inch balls. Pierce with a toothpick and submerge into melted chocolate. Place on waxed paper on a cookie sheet. Store in refrigerator. Makes about four dozen.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Jessica Gilmartin, Founder of Fraiche Yogurt

Yogurt Evangelist of Emerson Street

Jessica Gilmartin wants to convert you. She wants to convert you from your obsession with frozen yogurts that are more of a dessert than a healthy snack. And she wants you to know the joys of both fresh yogurt as well as frozen yogurt.

And the converts are lining up -- often out the door and around the block since Gilmartin, along with her business partner, Patama Roj, launched Fraiche Yogurt in Palo Alto, CA in June 2007.

A typical day finds Gilmartin in her colorful and hip orange and white shop. Today she is ripping blue tape off the floor that a well-meaning employee thought would help customers queue in a more efficient manner.

She notices everything even though she is talking one-on-one with a customer: She corrects a staff member when he tells a customer they are out of fresh pineapple topping. She notices that someone left the store without buying anything and you feel like she just might run after them to find out why. Customers want a minute with her to give her a compliment. Parents of her young staff want to tell her how glad they are that their kid is working there. She greets most customers by name. You aren't surprised when she says that, "community is everything to me."

How did the thirtyish Wharton School of Business graduate find herself co-owner of not just a yogurt shop but also poised at the beginning of a market that is just getting ready to explode with competition?

Gilmartin spent the last ten years helping large corporations with their business restructuring efforts. When the New York native relocated to California, she decided to launch her own company. But she had two criteria that had to be met: she wanted to sell a healthy product that she was passionate about and she wanted to be in business with her fellow graduate and good friend, Roj.

While brainstorming business ideas, the two entrepreneurs realized that they were both crazy for the tangy yogurt they had experienced in their European travels.

"Most yogurt shops offer frozen yogurt that is, in my opinion, junk food," says Gilmartin. "That type of yogurt is usually a powdered mix blended with milk that contain none of the healthy live cultures that make yogurt such a healthy snack option. And we didn't find any shops that offered both fresh as well as frozen yogurts.

"We realized that there were very few healthy, delicious food options to enjoy on-the-go. We wanted to open a yogurt shop that had a cafe feel to it that health conscious people could enjoy."

In a first for a yogurt shop, the owners of Fraiche make and pasteurize their yogurt on-site with the help of a 50-gallon custom-fabricated steel tank that they imported from Italy.

Gilmartin's business savvy also helped her pick the location of her cafe. Fraiche is located near many startup companies including Facebook. And Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley elite have been spotted in her shop.

When Gilmartin is asked about franchising Fraiche Yogurt, the high-energy field that seems to emanate from her subsides and she gets very calm and careful in her answer.

"Our heart and soul are in this shop and this community," sys Gilmartin. "Yet we have both made big financial commitments to this venture. So while we do want to expand from a profit standpoint, we want to make certain we don't lose our unique vision and our sense of community."

Sounds like an evangelist preaching to her choir.

According to the July 23, 2008 edition of the Palo Alto Weekly, Gilmartin and Roj are opening a new store in San Mateo, CA. Stayed tuned for opening date.
Go Fraiche (or don't go at all)!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Baking Croissants with Jim Dodge

I recently sweated through a croissants class taught by pastry chef Jim Dodge at the Tante Marie cooking school in San Francisco.

Actually, the class was taught at Tante Marie's other teaching site -- owner Mary Risley's home. Mary was in China so I was sorry not to see her. I was especially sorry not to see Mario the orange cat whom I had been honored to name when I attended another class at Mary's house. Mario the cat was named after chef and carrot-top, Mario Batali. Rumor has it that Mario has moved on to other adventures (the cat, that is).

Anyway, I say sweated because this was hard work. Plus, San Francisco was experiencing a rare heat wave that made working the dough an adventure since the dough consists of butter, butter and more butter.

The class started at 10 and my partner and I mixed and folded croissant dough until 4 pm with only a quick break of 30 minutes or so to mix and bake brioche dough. So, about five hours to prepare those delectable bits of dough. I now have a new respect for bakers of croissants and now think the price of a croissant is extremely reasonable given the work involved!

I suffered through this class because I am a bit of a croissant addict. In the interest of science, I consider it my duty to test every croissant I come across. I have now compared the typical American croissant with croissants from Argentina (called medialunas), Italy, Spain and, of course, France.

My favorite so far are the medialunas from Argentina. They are smaller than your average croissant and are slightly sweet. You are generally treated to a plate stacked with six or seven croissants at breakfast. All the cafes we visited were set up with what looked like a convection oven busily at work baking these small delights.

Sadly, I have been unable to find a recipe for medialunas. I emailed a friend of mine who lives in Buenos Aires and she said that no one bakes them; they buy them at the corner bakery. She gave me a recommendation for a bakery in San Francisco to try. I will report back on that later.

Jim Dodge is best known as the long-time pastry chef at the historic Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco. I have read that he was a favorite of M.F.K. Fischer. He has written two baking books: "Baking with Jim Dodge" and "The American Baker". He is now serving as director of culinary programs for Bon Appetit Management Company -- famous for their food offerings at such highflying companies as Google and DreamWorks.

But why did he leave the pastry world for management?? Baker's Lung. As we worked on our croissants, Jim sniffed and dabbed at his dripping nose. Yes, this pastry legend developed an allergy to flour! He recommended wearing a mask if we intended to make pastry/baking our career.

Jim is an excellent teacher and brimmed with good ideas that even the more experienced among us scribbled down in their notebooks. But he also has firm ideas and I could easily visualize him holding court and taking his assistants to task for their baking errors. He also doesn't hold back on what products to buy and from where.

We left the class not only with a bag of baked butter croissants (the chocolate croissants were consumed immediately out of the oven), but also with a bag of dough to bake at home.

I live about 30 minutes from S.F. so I put my dough on the floor of my car and blasted the air conditioner so my dough would survive the hot car ride home. I'm happy to report that I successfully shaped and baked the dough the next morning much to the delight of my happy family.

Baking Tips from Jim Dodge:
•Use a rolling pin without handles so it is weighted correctly
•Quarter sheet pans for the dough make it easy to roll into a rectangle

•Use sea salt
•Unbleached flour only -- do not use bread flour or bleached flour of any kind
•Buy European butter -- Pulgra is his favorite. American butter has too much water in it.
•Butter for croissants must be brick hard
•Ok to use instant yeast

•Only flour the dough, not your rolling pin
•Be obsessive about brushing flour off the dough. Excess flour will prevent the dough from fusing with the butter and that is what makes a great croissant.
•When rolling the dough, make sure you even out the dough because your dominant hand will make that side of the dough thinner.
•Roll the dough from the middle then to the edge then back and forth. Creates an even dough
•Make certain you roll out all the butter pellets because they can tear your dough
•Each time you roll the dough, pick it up and set it down again so that it reveals its true shape
•Every corner must be lined up
•When brushing on the egg glaze, make sure you scrape off excess glaze from your brush. Otherwise the glaze can roll down the croissant and form pools of egg that can burn

And never ever bake or eat the croissants that you can buy in your grocer's dairy case!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

ring-a-lings: A Pillsbury Bake-Off Winner

What is a Ring-A-Ling?

In January 2008, we moved my mom into an assisted living facility. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and could no longer live on her own.

One day while I was visiting her, I asked her if she remembered making
Ring-A-Lings. She had no idea what I was talking about.

I was heart broken. My mom had been an accomplished baker and it seemed the disease had robbed her of yet another precious memory.

Although I often baked with my mom while growing up, I hadn't made this recipe with her. It was her claim to fame in the family and the star of all celebrations in my childhood home. Even though they were more of a breakfast item, we ate them as a dessert as well.

I decided to search for the recipe after my visit with her. The recipe she had printed on a note card seemed incomplete. A bit of research at my local library yielded a surprise.

I discovered this recipe was the 1955 Grand Prize winner of the famous Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest. According to the book, "Pillsbury: Best of the Bake-Off Cookbook", Bertha Jorgensen of Portland, Oregon, created the recipe. The judges of the contest were so impressed with "the eating quality of Jorgensen's nut filled rolls and innovative shaping" that they picked her recipe as the best recipe for 1955.

Using both the Pillsbury recipe and the one my mom had used, I was able to create the Ring-A-Lings I remembered my mom baking at home while I was growing up.

So thank you, Dorothy Hanna, for a recipe that will be passed down to my own daughter.

It is with great sadness that I report that Dorothy Hanna passed away on Monday, February 16.
Although Alzheimer's disease took her away from us more than two years ago, her passing is a great sadness to us all.
I like to think that she is preheating her oven and setting butter out to get soft up in heaven. She is smacking those hands that try to steal the cookies while they are still cooling or those that try to sneak globs of cookie dough from the mixing bowl.
Don't worry mom, I won't forget the pinch of sugar.
She will be missed.

Ring-A-Lings: Sweet Yeast Rolls
as adapted by Dorothy Hanna from the original recipe by Bertha Jorgensen, Pillsbury Bake-Off Winner, 1955.

Makes 22 rolls

4 to 4 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 tsp. salt
2 pkg. instant dry yeast
(rapid rise or quick rise)
1 cup milk
1/3 cup butter
2 unbeaten eggs

1/3 cup softened butter
1 cup pecans, hazelnuts or walnuts, ground
1 tbsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar

Alternate Filling:
1 cup powdered sugar
Fruit Preserves

3 tbsp. sugar
1/4 cup orange juice

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly spray a bowl and two large baking sheets with cooking spray. Set aside.

2. In the bowl of a standing mixer, combine two cups flour, 1/3 cup sugar, salt, and yeast. Mix well. Set aside.

3. In small saucepan, heat milk and 1/3 cup butter until warm.
(120 to 130 degrees F.)

4. Add warm liquid and eggs to flour mixture. Blend at low speed until moistened; beat 3 minutes at medium speed. By hand, stir in remaining 2 to 2 1/2 cups flour to form a stiff dough.

5. Place dough in greased bowl and rotate to cover with oil; cover loosely with plastic wrap and a towel. Let rise in warm place until light and doubled in size, 35-50 minutes.

6. In a small bowl, combine nuts, cinnamon and brown sugar. Set aside. See step 8 if topping rolls with fruit preserves instead of cinnamon and brown sugar.

7. In second small bowl, blend glaze ingredients. Set aside.

8. Roll out dough to make a 22x12 rectangle. Spread the soften butter lengthwise over half of the dough. Sprinkle filling over butter.
If you plan to top the rolls with preserves, spread powdered sugar only over half of the buttered dough.

9. Fold dough over filling to make a 22x6 rectangle. Cut crosswise into strips 1x6. Twist each strip 4-5 times. To shape rolls, hold folded end of strip down on greased cookie sheet to form center; coil strip around center. Tuck loose end under. Cover with towel and let rise in warm place 35-45 minutes.

10. Bake for 10-12 minutes then brush tops with glaze. Bake an additional 3-5 minutes.
If topping with preserves, top each roll with approximately 1-2 Tsp. preserves of your choice. Cool on wire rack.

11. Serve warm.