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.