Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Comfort & Joy: Happy New Year!

This week many people will be making a self-improvement list for 2010.

But I won't be making any resolutions for 2010.

As did many other people, I have found this year to be filled with turmoil.

In fact, it seemed like the entire year was one long resolution -- I resolve to get through 2009!

This week I find myself thinking about things that I don't want to change -- things that bring me comfort and joy.

I came to this realization as I prepared my menu for a New Year's Eve supper with a few friends.

Normally, I can't wait to try out new recipes -- especially desserts.

But this year I find myself making a shopping list for dishes like beef stew, biscuits and chocolate cake.

Comfort and Joy.

I also find myself pulling out my brownie recipe more and more -- especially this week.

I have made it so many times I can make this recipe with my eyes shut and my wooden spoon tied behind my back.

I like to call them Boyfriend Brownies.

Brownies are often the first sweet a girl makes for her sweetie.

Growing up, I used the recipe on the back of the Hershey Chocolate tin. Yes, it was still made of metal then. And the lid wasn't plastic but a metal oval. When I was really little, my mom would give me the empty tin to use as a piggy bank. The coins made a very satisfying clink as they hit the bottom of the tin.

Later, I baked brownies using Katherine Hepburn's brownie recipe after reading the essay about it by the writer who died much too young, Laurie Colwin. Colwin wrote about this recipe in her collection of essays, More Home Cooking.

If you love brownies, you have strong opinions on what you think makes a perfect brownie. Some love nuts or other additions to their batter, some use gourmet chocolate and some prefer brownies with a cake or fudge-like texture.

I still prefer to use Hershey's cocoa powder and I like them plain -- no additions.

And as Colwin best described it in her essay, "I myself like brownies that are what I call slumped and the English call squidgy, which means slightly undercooked but not quite runny in the center."

I agree.

These days I use a recipe my mother-in-law gave me more than 20 years ago. I still have the chocolate stained slip of paper she wrote it on during a long ago visit. I bake them quite a bit less than my mother-in-law specifies so that they are "slumped."

I can have them mixed and out of the oven in 20 minutes. As soon as I hear a few teenagers come through the door, I start melting the butter.

They are great eaten right out of the pan but can also be dressed up with powdered sugar and a fancy platter. I also might serve them with caramel sauce and bit of ice cream on the side.

But the best part of this recipe is that it makes a great back up plan. There has been more than one fancy dessert gone astray where I've quickly mixed up a batch and served them to my unsuspecting guests.

Comfort and Joy indeed!

Boyfriend Brownies
Adapted from a recipe by Marrianne Scotten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

1 stick of unsalted butter (1/2 cup)
3 Tablespoons of cocoa

Remove from heat and add
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
1 cup of sugar
3/4 cup of flour (spoon and sweep)
1/4 teaspoon salt

Pour into 8-inch round or square pan

Bake for 18-20 minutes.

Monday, December 21, 2009

How To Make A White Christmas

No matter what the temperature is outside this week -- my kitchen will be tropical.

This week I will bake at least 15 Christmas cakes for family and friends as well as several types of cookies for the family cookie platter.

As I bake, I will think of each person who will receive the treat. It is my meditation time.

This year after more than a decade of making my traditional Christmas cake, I will be making a few of them a bit differently. Several of my friends and family members are gluten intolerant. After many trials and lots of errors, I've developed a flour mix that works in this Christmas cake so that it actually still tastes good.

I was very happy to offer someone their chance to once again eat a favorite sweet.

Every year I also try out a new cookie recipe. I still hadn't chosen one until just a few weeks ago. One afternoon I decided to head up to St. Helena in the Napa Valley for a quick road trip. This time of year is so beautiful up there and I needed a break.

No trip to St. Helena would be complete without a trip to the Model Bakery. This bakery has been part of the downtown scene for more than 80 years. They make the best ginger molasses cookie I have eaten - it is soft in the middle with a chewy edge - heaven.

As I strolled down the street admiring all the festive shop windows, I remembered that the test kitchen for the Los Angeles Times had just published the recipe for the Model Bakery molasses cookie. That sealed the decision - this cookie would share the Christmas cookie platter with the Peanut Butter Blossoms that I make each year.

I don't bake fancy or decorated cookies. I generally like to bake homey cookies with big flavor - like the ginger molasses cookie. So I had never mastered my mom's Spritz cookies. These buttery cookies were always her contribution to the family Christmas cookie platter. Since my mom had been in poor health for several years, one of my sisters had generously assumed the family tradition of baking the Spritz cookies each Christmas.

This year will be the first Christmas without my mom; she passed away in February 2009. This year I was determined to master this cookie.

My mom tried to encourage me one year by buying me my own cookie press. It remained unused in the back of my kitchen pantry until I finally gave it away.

Any cookbook with a Spritz recipe will warn the baker that getting the dough out of the press is the hardest part of making these cookies and that had certainly always been my experience. These recipes recommend making sure the dough is at just the right temperature although they never actually give a temperature range in their recipes.

Last week my sister generously gave up an afternoon to show me how to be one with the cookie press and to show me her secrets for getting the dough out of that device of the devil!

In memory of my mom, I turned to the cookbook she used the most for all her cooking and baking for the Spritz recipe: the 1963 edition of the McCall's Cookbook.

Spritz cookies are made from a simple butter dough that is pushed through a cookie press fitted with decorative disks. The resulting Christmas trees, wreaths, snowflakes and flowers are then decorated with gumdrops, red hots and sprinkles.

My mom would save white shirt boxes from her job at J.C. Penny's to package the dozens of Spritz cookies she baked each Christmas. As a child, I always thought the cookies looked like pieces of jewelry nestled in their white jewelry boxes.

Most recipes consist of just a few ingredients: flour, salt, sugar, butter, egg yolk and vanilla. Some recipes also add baking powder. Although my family prefers the plain butter dough, this type of dough adapts well to other flavorings like almond or peppermint.

I mixed up two batches of dough the night before my cookie tutorial - one of the plain butter dough and the second of a chocolate dough. Anita Chu's Field Guide To Cookies had suggested combining the two doughs in the cookie press for a marble effect. That sounded fun and not too far of a departure from the traditional family offering.

My sister was patient with me as she showed me how to work the cookie press. Turns out she gets just as frustrated with the process as I do but for the sake of that Christmas cookie platter, she has sacrificed her sanity each year to make them for the rest of us.

We decided to see if we couldn't come up with a way to ensure each cookie came out of the press easily (almost) every time. It was a fun couple of hours as we tried all kinds of experiments with the dough. In the end, we made an interesting discovery - despite what the cookbooks tell you, it really doesn't matter what temperature the dough is as long as you avoid the two extremes of too warm or too cold.

The real secret is to chill ungreased cookies sheets before trying to coax each gem out of the cookie press.

No go forth and press on!

Oh yes, and Happy Holidays!

"Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won't make it white."
Bing Crosby

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Do, or Do Not

Sometimes I long for the days when ignorance was bliss -- before we all knew that sunburns and cigarettes could kill us.

I'd kill for a good doughnut.

Ok, maybe those three things aren't exactly equal on the scale of vices but seriously, who doesn't love a good glazed doughnut or a bite of a doughnut just dipped in cinnamon sugar?

And my preference leans toward the yeast doughnut, not those heavy cake-like numbers.

In my hometown in Indiana we pretty much excelled in frying just about anything. In fact, the Indiana State Fair is certainly a candidate for the fried food hall of fame: fried strawberries, fried green beans, fried snicker bars and even deep-fried Pepsi.

If it can be breaded it can be fried. Not a bad motto to live by.

So I should be forgiven if I mourned the passing of each of my favorite food groups from my life once I moved to California and became enlightened to the horrors of the fryer.

But still, the doughnut never left my mind.

Because I give myself free reign to try all foods when travelling, I've encountered some pretty spectacular doughnuts across the world. Of course these treats go by much better names than the American word for fried dough.

In Italy we fell in love with ciambelle. We had rented a small apartment in Rome near the Piazza Farnese. Each morning we walked to our corner cafe. The first morning we saw the businessmen leaning against the bar sipping their cappuccino or espresso and eating what looked like a filled doughnut.

We asked the incredibly chic and snooty cashier what the name was of this breakfast treat and she said, "ciambelle." Of course, we didn't pronounce the name exactly right and every morning she would correct us as we asked for a jambelle.

But that turned out not to be a problem. In fact, by the end of our visit the not so snooty cashier would smile when she saw us coming -- knowing we were about to butcher her beautiful language asking for this delicious treat.

In other parts of Italy they call a similar treat bomboloni. I have been fortunate enough to find two shops in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live that sell them. One is in the beautiful S.F. Ferry Building. They only have a few each day so I always head there first.

The other is a small cafe in Palo Alto that sells bomboloni on Saturday nights only. Not a bad reason to venture out.

And in Los Angeles, the Three Square Bakery in Venice makes a German version of a doughnut called a Berliner. They only offer this treat on Fridays.

It seems a limited time offer lessens the guilt.

But doughnuts were not in short supply in my childhood home.

Despite working full-time, my mom routinely made doughnuts for her five kids. She thought nothing of mixing together a batch of dough and frying them up for us.

One of my sisters still fondly remembers watching my mom slip each piece of dough into the frying pan and waiting and watching until she turned the doughnut over to brown on the other side.

I remember the doughnut holes the best -- I always wanted to shake them in the brown paper bag filled with cinnamon sugar.

And perhaps the best part of making doughnuts is that they really don't keep well. You just had to eat them right away or they became greasy and heavy.

It probably isn't too surprising that when I was pregnant, my craving was for doughnuts -- the glazed ones.

And no wonder one of my daughter's favorite treats is a glazed doughnut. I routinely buy them for her each week as I'm shopping for groceries. Nothing like a cold glass of milk and a glazed doughnut after a hard day of teenage drama.

A long time ago I had acquired a doughnut pan for making baked doughnuts. I enthusiastically followed the recipe that had come with the pan. I couldn't wait to try them.

But they looked and tasted like what I imagined my dog's doughnut shaped chew toy to taste like: blah.

But now that my craving was growing, I either needed to find or develop a baked doughnut recipe.

Many of the recipes I found weren't really doughnuts but rather were cupcakes that resembled doughnut holes that once baked, were rolled in butter then cinnamon sugar.

I came across quite a bit of positive Internet chatter over the Baked Doughnut Recipe developed by Heidi Swanson of the website 101cookbooks.

I was all set to try it then I remembered to check The Breakfast Book by cooking legend and Bakers Dozen founder, Marion Cunningham. Sure enough, she had a recipe for baked doughnuts.

The recipe couldn't have been easier -- it mixed together quickly, the dough had to rise for only one hour and it took just ten minutes to bake each batch.

I even got to use the doughnut cutter that my mom used all those years ago -- thankfully one of my sisters had grabbed it while we were closing down my mom's house. It is a very retro cutter -- it has the piece for the doughnut hole attached to the middle of the bigger cutter, you can choose to leave it in or twist it out if you are baking cookies.

The doughnuts were delicious. But you really can't compare a baked doughnut to a fried one. It is just too different. They taste and have the consistency more of a cinnamon roll than a light as air fried doughnut.

And then I thought about the person that the recipe had come from and I adjusted my attitude.

As food writer Jeffrey Steingarten described her in his essay on making pie crust in his book, The Man Who Ate Everything, "Marion is a calmly fanatical believer in simplicity..."

And according to cookbook author, David Lebovitz, Marion "didn't suffer fools gladly.."

In other words, I think Marion would tell me that if I wanted a doughnut that tasted like the ones I remembered from my childhood to quit messing around with imitations and make the real thing.

Thanks for the reminder Marion. And I will use your recipe.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Even the Dalai Lama Can't Resist This Christmas Cake

Dundee Cake. Now why was that written on my clipboard? I was back at the farmers' market selling my ipies. As I mentioned in my last post, I keep a clipboard nearby so I can take notes about the different pie stories and dessert memories customers share with me.

But I didn't remember speaking to anyone about Dundee Cake. Intrigued, I looked it up once I got home and found that it is a popular cake similar to a fruitcake served throughout the United Kingdom -- primarily during the Christmas season.

And like the Lafayette Gingerbread, its creation involved yet another story that supposedly took place in the 1700s!

This time the location was Dundee, Scotland in 1797. There a Spanish ship carrying oranges sailed into a fierce storm. The ship took shelter in Dundee Harbor. Its cargo included Seville oranges, which were then purchased by a Dundee grocer named James Keiller.

Seville oranges aren't your typical sweet orange -- they are bitter. Mrs. Keiller decided to boil the oranges with sugar and the resulting product became known as Dundee Orange Marmalade.

But what about the cake? Most likely Mrs. Keiller created the cake so there would be something to spread all that lovely marmalade on. The marmalade is also used as a glaze for the cake. She created the concentric circles of whole blanched almonds on top of the cake to distinguish a Dundee Cake from other fruitcakes.

Mrs. Keiller obviously had quite a talent for marketing.

Both the marmalade and the cake became famous through the United Kingdom and continue to be extremely popular today.

I must admit I'm not a fan of fruitcakes. The cakes I have had the misfortune to taste have been very dry and the fruit overly chewy. The experience led me to almost believe that old joke by comedian Johnny Carson that there really is only one fruitcake in the world and it keeps getting passed down from one family to the next each Christmas!

And I don't think Italy's Panettone or Germany's Stollen taste much better. So I wasn't too motivated to experiment with Scotland's Dundee Cake.

But all this reading about Christmas cakes did get me thinking about my family's own Christmas cake tradition. I hadn't actually thought of the cake I make each Christmas as an official Christmas cake. But I guess it really is.

At least it is certainly an American version of what I think a Christmas cake should be: cinnamon and chocolate are important ingredients in this cake!

I'm not exactly sure when the tradition started. At least ten years ago -- maybe more -- I came across a recipe in a cookbook for a Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake. I decided I would bake one for each family and give them out when we gathered for Christmas Eve.

Now, I have a large family so that often meant at least ten cakes. But my family loved the cake so the Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake has become an annual Christmas tradition.

Then I thought how nice it would be to make each neighbor a cake. And the cleaning lady, dog sitter, dry cleaner, hair cutter......

My Christmas cake production was a bit out of control. And no, it hasn't changed -- I still bake at last 20 cakes during the Christmas season. Nothing like the smell of cinnamon and chocolate to get me in the Christmas spirit!

So maybe I should give the Dundee a try. Maybe it would become a favorite cake, maybe even a tradition.

There are many recipes claiming to be the original Dundee Cake recipe. All are pretty similar in that they use raisins, spices, and some type of candied fruit. Most also include a small amount of whisky. My 1959 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook has a Dundee Cake recipe that includes almonds in the batter as well as on top of the cake but interestingly, no whisky.

I came across a few recipes that called for sultanas -- a very exotic sounding ingredient, which I found out, is another name for golden raisins. I think I like the name sultana better!

In the end I used a recipe from the May 2004 issue of Bon Appetit Magazine. The recipe dresses up the small town Dundee Cake by including a sauce made of (of course) orange marmalade, whisky and orange sections.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that the James Keiller & Son Company (no credit given to Mrs. Keiller though) still makes the original orange marmalade! Of course I had to buy a jar to use in my Dundee Cake.

The cake uses almost a cup each of sultanas, dark raisins and dried currants so the batter was extremely thick. I hoped my Dundee didn't turn into a hockey puck.

But the finished cake was anything but heavy. Yes, it was a dense cake but the texture was crumbly but still moist because of all that fruit.

It was also delicious and addictive. I couldn't stop shaving off bits to nibble on. It was also a beautiful cake and wouldn't look out of place on a dessert or breakfast buffet.

Now I can understand why according to the Europe Intelligence Wire Service, when the Dalai Lama visited Scotland in 2005, he expressed his hope that he would be able to enjoy a slice of the "rich, fruity cake." It seems the Dundee Cake was a favorite of his!

Of course a Dundee Cake was quickly dispatched to His Holiness and we can only assume he was deeply contented.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Lafayette, We Are Here!

One of the things I enjoy most about selling my ipies at the farmers' market is the chance to talk to people about what kind of pie they love and their childhood memories of pie.

Pie talk invariably leads to a discussion of other kinds of favorite desserts. I keep a clipboard close at hand so I can make a quick note of desserts that people tell me I just have to bake.

One day at the market I met Helen, a beautiful woman with a southern accent that was as sweet as honey. She was an elderly woman and had grown up in North Carolina. She always had a rolling cart bursting with fresh bread and colorful produce. And she always bought an ipie from me to eat while she shopped.

She told me I just had to try a gingerbread cake that she was fond of and that was a tradition where she had grown up to eat on New Year's Day. She said it was called Lafayette Gingerbread. Now the tradition during my childhood on New Years Day was to eat cooked cabbage so this was a tradition I could easily make my own!

I've baked quite a few gingerbread cakes but hadn't heard of Lafayette Gingerbread. Helen said it was an old recipe from the 1700s and legend has it that it was served to General Lafayette (French hero of the American Revolution) by George Washington's mother, Mary Ball Washington, at her home in Virginia.

That is typically all you hear of the legend but if you remember your American history, you might remember that before he was General Lafayette, he was Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette.

Lafayette came to America at the age of 19 and was instrumental in convincing France to send aid to the fledgling American republic. He became an unpaid volunteer of the Continental Army under George Washington and distinguished himself not only on the battlefield, but also as a loyal friend to Washington. Congress gave him the title of Major General.

George Washington came to consider him as a son and Lafayette named his son Georges Washington with George Washington serving as his godfather.

So, no wonder George Washington's mother named the cake in his honor. But not only cakes are named in his honor, numerous streets, parks, colleges and cities were named in his honor including the town of Fayetteville, North Carolina. But of course the most important place to be named after him is West Lafayette, Indiana, home of my alma mater, Purdue University.

And just as important as the towns and parks were the sweets named in his honor. In addition to that famous gingerbread, other desserts named after the General include Lafayette Pie, Fayette Pudding and Lafayette cakes.

I asked Helen if she had a family recipe that she would share with me and she sheepishly admitted that she uses a recipe from Saveur Magazine!

The recipe for Lafayette Gingerbread from Saveur was typical of recipes of that era in that it called for numerous spices, citrus and dried fruit.

According to Mark Zanger, author of The American History Cookbook, "We imagine early American food as being very plain but, in fact, given half a chance, people still had a lot of the medieval British taste for a lot of spices and herbs."

And with two tablespoons of ginger among other spices, this recipe promised to be medieval indeed!

My house smelled like Christmas as the cake baked. The bite I took made my mouth zing -- the ginger was too overpowering to me. But other tasters with more "medieval British tastes" than me, really liked the flavor.

The same day I baked the cake I was also experimenting with my new ice cream machine. The same machine I had recently dragged to a book-signing event at Omnivore Books on Food in S.F. where cookbook author and ice cream master David Lebovitz nicely agreed to autograph the lid with his sharpie!

I had decided to make the salted caramel recipe that I had recently seen in an issue of Gourmet Magazine. I tried a scoop of the finished ice cream on the gingerbread. What a great combination. The caramel mellowed out the ginger in the cake and gave it a rich salty flavor.

And being from France but obviously a big fan of America, I think General Lafayette would have appreciated the sophisticated addition of salted caramel ice cream to a very American gingerbread.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Robot, Pistol and Kolache: What will those Czechs Think of Next?

About a year ago I read a story in Gourmet Magazine by Jane and Michael Stern of Road Food fame about kolache, sweet yeast buns that originated in the Czech Republic. The word kolach is loosely translated to mean cake.

I always enjoy the articles by the Sterns but this one was of particular interest. I have a good friend who left the Czech Republic when she was a young girl.

She and I share a passion for breakfast pastries. We figure if we are going to treat ourselves it should be coffee cake and croissants and not a huge dinner.

But I had never heard her pine for kolaches or for that matter, mention them at all.

When I asked her if she had ever had them she said, "of course." Turns out kolaches in Czech Republic are as ubiquitous as doughnuts in the U.S.

But similar to doughnuts and even to medialunas – the small, sweet croissants I fell in love with in Buenos Aires, kolache are a treat that is generally picked up at the corner bakery in any Czech town and not made at home.

Well, not now anyway. My friend quickly produced three Czech cookbooks with at least ten different recipes for making kolache. It seems there are as many different ways to fill and shape the buns, as there are ways to spell and pronounce its name.

Later that summer after my friend returned from a trip to Prague, she showed me numerous photos of kolache and none of them looked the same (and what a good friend to snap photos of baked goods for me while on a vacation).

The cookbooks were fun to look at (even the ones written in Czech) but what I was really excited about was the chance to bake with her family friend, Monika. Turns out her friend who is now in her eighties lived nearby and my friend was certain she would love to bake with us and show us how to make kolache.

I quickly sent Monika a copy of the kolache article from Gourmet Magazine and a note saying I looked forward to meeting her in a few months. She couldn’t meet with us any sooner given her busy social and travel schedule!

In the meantime, I set about learning all I could about kolache.

As I mentioned above, kolache are a sweet yeast bun. They can vary not only in size and fillings but also in the spelling of its name. I've seen the name spelled kolache, kolace, kolach, kolatchen and kolacky. I’ve also seen them called Bohemian, Festival and Moravian Buns.

(I also found it hard to find a consistent answer to what is the plural and singular of this treat. So, for purposes of this post, I’m going with kolache as the plural form and kolach for the singular!)

The traditional fillings are prune, apricot, poppy seed and cheese. They look very similar to traditional American danish in that a yeast dough is topped with a small circle of filling.

But most American danish have a bit of toughness or snap to the dough. A properly made kolach is all about tenderness.

As the name implies, the articles Michael and Jane Stern write for their Road Food series focus on one particular place in America where they have found a unique food or a traditional food that has frequently had an American spin put on it.

Now you can find savory Kolache stuffed with pork sausage and even jalapeños and kolache topped with all kinds of fillings including strawberry and blueberry.

After reading in their article about the obsession Texans have for their kolache, I also found a cookbook written by the Czechs of Nebraska that included numerous kolache recipes. There is also a huge population of Czechs in Iowa as another cookbook attests to.

And Montgomery, Minnesota considers itself to be the “Kolachy Capital of the World”!

How did all these Czechs get to the Midwest? A bit of research found that immigration to the U.S. peaked in the 1900s as many Czechs were lured to the U.S. by the promise of uncultivated land in America, specifically in Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. And as had many immigrant populations before them had done, they brought their food traditions with them.

And that’s also why many of my older cookbooks include at least one recipe for Kolache, including the Joy of Cooking. The kolach recipe in this cookbook is referred to as Kolatchen and calls for the more traditional fillings of prune and apricot.

Armed with this knowledge, I was ready to bake with Monika. But then sad news, Monika had injured her shoulder and was out of kolach baking commission for a while.

I decided I couldn’t wait to bake a batch so I started looking for a modern recipe for kolache.

Once again, cookbook author and master baker Flo Braker came to my rescue with a simple and straightforward recipe called, Bohemian Kolaches, from her latest cookbook, Baking For All Occasions. Other kolach recipes I found made them seem daunting to make – almost as if you had to grow up at the knee of a Czech grandmother to learn the secrets of how to shape the dough.

Not every baker likes to work with yeast dough. It is time consuming and getting the dough the right consistency can be tricky. But I can’t think of any cookie or cake that can match the smell of yeast bread baking.

One of the things I liked about Braker’s recipe is she acknowledges how time consuming working with yeast can be by offering the option of refrigerating the dough for several hours and up to a day. This cooling of the dough also had the added benefit of letting the dough develop more flavor and because the dough is so soft, refrigeration makes it easier to handle.

Braker also offers a recipe for the traditional kolach fillings – prune or apricot. I chose apricot.

Braker’s gift as a baking instructor shines in this recipe as she clearly sets out each step in the process. The filling of the buns looked to be challenging but Braker suggests a simple solution – buy a tart tamper.

This nifty and inexpensive little device is typically used to make miniature tart shells. In this recipe it is used to make an indentation in the dough. This makes it easier to have the filling stay where it is supposed to and gives the buns a professional look.

My finished kolache got the thumbs up from my friend and from her mother. But I would still like the opportunity to bake with Monika. The pinching and pulling of each piece of dough into a smooth ball was not easy. It would be helpful to watch someone who has made many kolache do it.

And something about reviving a recipe that used to be a standard item made by every home cook is appealing to me. My mom routinely made doughnuts at home while I was growing up. Kolaches are definitely not as messy to make as doughnuts but they still certainly take time and effort to put together.

But just as the Czech language gave us the words Robot and Pistol, they also gave us this very appropriate saying:

Bez práce nejsou koláce

Translation: There are no cakes without work (or no pain, no gain!)

Monday, November 9, 2009


Just about the time I lost my cookie mojo, I also thought I had the biscuit blues.

Luckily, I was so focused on my chocolate chip cookie disaster that I didn't have time to investigate the mystery of the no longer towering treasures of flaky goodness.

Lucky because it took only a few sentences by food scientist and cookbook author Shirley Corriher at a recent Bakers Dozen meeting to put me back on the tall and narrow biscuit path. A few words by food scientist and author Harold McGee at that same meeting added a bit of reassurance as well.

In the Midwestern town where I grew up, we were geographically close enough to both the northern and southern parts of the state that you had your choice of flaky or fluffy biscuits. Flaky biscuits are high rising towers and fluffy biscuits are soft mounds. Just like the type of fat you use in your pie crust, your preference was probably determined by what was served at your dinner table.

For me, it was flaky biscuits. The biscuits my mom often stirred together to serve with her creamed chicken were tall and flaky but they also looked a bit like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. So maybe they weren't picture perfect in the looks department but I always liked how the slope gave me a perfect lever to open up the biscuit for a knob of butter.

Most southerners prefer the fluffy biscuits, which require soft flour like the famous White Lily brand. This low protein, soft flour encourages a tender, cake like texture.

No cake like biscuits for us though. We used "strong" high protein all-purpose flour. This flour ensured a chewier and crispier biscuit but without any sacrifice of the flaky interior.

Besides the difference in flour, there are also strong preferences in the type of fat used -- butter or shortening.

I once substituted butter for the Crisco shortening we traditionally used but the sacrifice in height and texture made it a stranger -- Crisco it had to be. After all, I would soon be slathering the biscuit in butter anyway!

We also didn't use buttermilk -- an exotic ingredient in my childhood home. Our recipe was a basic baking powder biscuit recipe calling for all-purpose flour, salt, baking powder, shortening and milk. This recipe can be found in countless cookbooks for the beginner cook and in classic home cookbooks. Part of the appeal of the recipe is that it can be mixed together quickly and in one bowl.

A few weeks ago we had gotten an early rainfall and the house was feeling very cozy. I decided some homemade chicken soup and biscuits were just the ticket for dinner that evening.

I quickly stirred a batch of biscuits together. My dough was a lovely mass of stickiness -- perfect texture. I think rolling the dough can make the biscuits tough so I gently patted the dough into a circle -- adding just a pinch of flour to the breadboard to get a nice smooth circle.

Twisting the biscuit cutter into the dough instead of making one sharp punch probably caused my mom's lopsided biscuits. I cut them close together to generate fewer scraps. I then like to place them close together on a cookie sheet -- this keeps them moist and gives them each other to lean on as a support when they start to rise. Although you could space them one inch apart and this would just give you a crustier and drier biscuit.

The finished biscuits were a disappointment. Instead of my towering treasures they were now small, hockey puck like mounds of dough. Edible yes, but barely. Of course, butter saves most things and it was certainly the savior that night.

A memory tugged at me as I reviewed whether I had done anything differently this time when I put the biscuits together. I realized that last winter the same low rise had happened to a batch of biscuits the few times I had made them during that busy winter.

Now, as I sat listening to Shirley Corriher and Harold McGee talk about the ongoing difficulties bakers have with baking soda and baking powder, I hear Shirley say an interesting thing that made my ears perk up.

"I'm a lazy cook," Corriher said. "It often takes me a bit before I get my cakes in the oven. Therefore I need to use a baking powder that does its magic primarily in the oven and not while sitting on my counter waiting to be baked."

And then her words that solved my biscuit mystery, "Avoid Rumford Baking Powder, it creates 60% of its bubbles in the first two minutes!" proclaimed Corriher.


No wonder my biscuits were flat. Of course I knew that baking powder is what gives the nice rise to baked goods by introducing carbon dioxide into the batter and I also knew that there were different categories of baking powder: single, double, and fast-acting. Most grocery store brands are double-acting.

What I didn't realize is that although Rumford advertises itself as double-acting it in fact acts more like a single-acting baking powder. According to Corriher, Rumford gets most of its rise as soon as it is stirred into the batter and just a bit more in the oven. True double-acting baking powders give more oven rise.

I had grown up using Clabber Girl Baking Powder. In fact, it is produced in my hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana! It wasn't until recently that I realized that more serious bakers preferred the Rumford brand so of course, I had to switch to that brand. Later I found out that the makers of Clabber Girl also produce Rumford.

One of the reasons it appears that Rumford is preferred is that it is an all-phosphate baking powder -- it contains no aluminum.

This aluminum-free claim became a rallying cry several years ago as worries that excessive amounts of aluminum in the diet may contribute to Alzheimer's disease.

But according to Harold McGee, "You get more aluminum from eating a pickle than you do from eating half a cake."

Clabber Girl contains an acid that dissolves rapidly in liquid and an acid that does not dissolve until the batter reaches a higher temperature in the hot oven -- hence the double-acting label.

In her cookbook, Bakewise, Shirley Corriher has an excellent chart of Reaction Times of Leavening Acids During Baking. I also came across a great post on the different types of baking powders and their reaction times on the blog, thefreshloaf. Check out both of these if you want to find out more about the magic of baking powder.

I believe that just like measuring flour correctly (please buy a scale!), knowing what is in your baking powder is just as critical.

I also now know why some of my recent baking efforts didn't have the nice rise that I had expected from past efforts. Rumford literally was bursting my baking bubble(s)!

I'm back to being a Clabber Girl!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Beauty In the Eye of the Beholder: A Cookie Only A Mother Could Love!

When my husband and I were first married and moved from Indiana to California, his mother still sent him care packages even though he wasn't in college anymore.

Cookie care packages. Actually, primarily one type of cookie.

At that point in my life, I didn't really have much time for baking beyond the occasional chocolate chip cookie so I was glad he was getting his fix.

The cookie she sent him was quite a humble little thing -- not attractive by any stretch of the imagination. And the fact that they usually arrived in many broken pieces didn't matter to him at all.

As the years went by, his mom had less time to make his favorite cookie so I assumed the cookie mantle.

This unattractive and humble tribute to all that is American about milk-and-cookie-time after a hard day at school is none other than Peanut Blossoms. The blossom part of the name makes it sound like a beautiful cookie now doesn't it?

In reality it is a Hershey Kiss set into the middle of a partially baked peanut butter cookie then baked a few minutes more to meld kiss and cookie together. A mouthful of peanut butter and chocolate very much like a very tall Reese cup.

And the origin of this family favorite? Just like ring-a-lings, Peanut Blossoms were also an entrant in a Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest. This time the year was 1957 and was created by Freda Smith of Gibsonburg, Ohio. I guess I shouldn't be surprised given that both of our moms were from the Midwest and were housewives during the 1950s but still, I think it is one more reason for our compatibility!

The Pillsbury Bake-Off Cookbook noted that sometimes this cookie is also called Brown-Eyed Susans but I think the Peanut Blossoms moniker is more fitting. Something about that pointy Hershey kiss makes the eye reference a bit jarring!

So, I gamely made this reminder of his childhood for every Christmas cookie platter.

Each year at the holidays, my large family would gather for our annual cookie bake. Although we now bring our finished cookies to our Christmas Eve gatherings, in the early years we would actually bake and exchange the cookies at one of our houses the week prior to Christmas. It was a flour and sugar fueled afternoon and it was a lot of fun.

In the beginning, I couldn't see how my humble cookie could compete with the beautifully decorated sugar cookies or laboriously piped Spritz cookies that were my mom's claim to cookie fame. How could a cookie that took so much less time and effort and was ugly to boot share the same cookie tin?

But I baked them each year although I made sure to bake a second cookie selection in an attempt to deflect from my ugly duckling cookie. But Peanut Blossoms were always a constant.

I think my family took them to be polite and they made their way into the trash once they were home!

But then an interesting thing happened: children. Once my siblings and I started having kids, the cookie exchange got bigger in scope and definitely a lot messier!

And the kids LOVED Peanut Blossoms!

And not just the cousins but in confirmation of the magic of genetics, my daughter shares her father's love of Peanut Blossoms. It is her favorite cookie.

These cookies also make an appearance at another time of the year other than Christmas -- October 24. See, one of my nieces loves them maybe even more than my daughter.

I bake them for her on her birthday each year. Not sure how this tradition started but it makes me happy to do it for her. She is one of the more quiet members of our large family. We don't talk a lot or are overly demonstrative with each other but we share a quiet compatibility. I like to think she knows I accept her just as she is and that I would show up if she needed me.

That might be a big burden for one humble cookie to bear but when she is off to college next year I have a feeling I'll be mailing a few care packages.

Peanut Blossoms

Typical of a cookie that has been around for so many years, many different recipes exist. The biggest difference is usually the choice between shortening and butter. The original recipe used shortening but I now use butter. I think it makes for a richer flavor but either one works.

This recipe is from the 1998 cookbook, FamilyFun's Cookies for Christmas. They also have a recipe on their website but it is different from the one in the cookbook. The only change I made is that I don't roll the dough balls in extra sugar before the first bake. I think it makes the cookies too crisp.

Peanut Butter Sealed with a Kiss

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (spoon and sweep)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 9-ounce package chocolate kisses, unwrapped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cream the peanut butter, butter and sugars. Add the egg and vanilla.

Sift the flour, salt and baking soda together. Combine with the peanut butter mixture.

Shape the dough into 1 1/2-inch balls. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart.

Bake for 8 minutes, remove from the oven, and press a chocolate kiss into the center of each cookie. Bake for another 3 minutes.

Cool on a wire rack. Makes 40-50 cookies.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lost and Found: Cookie Mojo!

Mojo: urbandictionary.com:
Self-confidence, Self-assuredness. As in basis for belief in ones self in a situation.

I had been in such a pie baking frenzy (ipie, that is) that I hadn't been baking much else lately. But then I volunteered to bring cookies to a luncheon.

Not a big deal despite how busy I was. My go-to dessert in situations where I want to bring something special but don't have a lot of time is to bring a towering tray of my chocolate chip cookies.

I know, I know -- chocolate chip cookies don't usually fall into the oohh and ahhh category of baked goodies.

But through the years I had perfected this particular recipe. For people who tasted them for the first time, they quickly became a requested item. For those who had tasted them before, they were met with many happy smiles.

I often used them as edible thank you notes!

My daughter even used them as currency at school (and sometimes still does)!

I started freezing balls of cookie dough so I could quickly bake one or two in case of cookie emergencies like a bad day at work or unexpected guests.

I don't describe all of this to be boastful but so that when I say I lost it, the true loss is realized.

So, let me say: I lost it.

Not the recipe, my cookie mojo.

Several weeks before the luncheon I noticed I was running low on frozen cookie dough so I quickly stirred a batch together. I don't use a recipe anymore since I long ago memorized the simple ingredient list and instructions.

I usually bake a few of the cookies for my family to enjoy that day and then freeze the remainder.

I slid a few cookies onto a cookie sheet and popped the sheet into the oven.

Not knowing of the impending doom that was about to befall me, I innocently went about my morning chores as I waited for the timer to beep.

The cookies looked pretty good as I pulled them out of the oven - the dough had set around the edges but there was still a yummy softness in the center of each cookie. The top of each cookie was evenly browned.

But not on the bottom. As they cooled I took a look at the bottom of the cookies.


It took me two more batches before I realized that something more was going on than just burned cookies. In fact, something was terribly wrong!

I had lost my cookie mojo!

And I wanted it back. Quickly. Not just because these cookies had become such a critical part of my baking identity, oh no. Let's just say that life had become a bit uncertain in these dire economic times and I didn't think I could bear for one more thing I relied on to be unchanging to be castaway.

Ok, perhaps that is unfair to put all of that emotion on a simple cookie but there you go.

Being of the test kitchen mindset, I got to work. All other baking projects were put on hold.

I decided that there were only a few variables that I needed to check:
Oven temperature
Cookie Sheet

Just a note about the weather, I didn't consider the weather to be the cause because during the weeks I tested and retested these cookies the weather didn't experience any real swings in humidity or temperature.

So since I knew my ingredients and techniques hadn't changed, I investigated the first two -- oven temperature and my baking pans.

Baker, know thy oven. Not having the oven at the correct temperature is generally the culprit in underdone or overdone baked goods. Long ago I bought an oven thermometer and I automatically slap it into my oven whenever I turn it on. I'm always surprised at the difference between when the light goes out indicating the correct temperature on the outside oven dial and what temperature the oven thermometer actually registers.

My usual method is to bake one cookie sheet at a time on the center rack. I rotate the cookie sheet halfway through the cooking time.

Many of the cookbooks I consulted recommended baking two sheets at a time with the oven racks on the upper and lower middle positions. Then bake reversing position of cookie sheets halfway through baking -- from top to bottom and front to back. Sounded exhausting.

Perhaps something had changed with my oven. I bought another thermometer (just in case) and tested the temperature. Then I baked a few cookies (I started only baking a few at a time given all my tests!) using the rotating method and different rack position. Still burned.

Perhaps my reliable but very old cookie sheets needed replaced? I'd been using rimless insulated cookie sheets for years. Did I detect a bit of warping?

Here again, cookbook authors differed in their opinion on what cookie sheets delivered the best results. The choices and combinations seemed endless: rimmed half-sheet pans, rimless pans, pans with one rimmed side only, double-thick insulated, dark sheets, shiny light-colored sheets, and so on.

One option that sounded intriguing was to double pan the cookie sheets together. Perhaps it was BOTH my oven temp AND my cookie sheet that were the problems??

I quickly put a couple of dough balls on the cookie sheet, set it on another cookie sheet then started the oven rack and rotating dance. I think my poor oven never got to one steady temp!

But still no change.

I was out of control. My family started to tiptoe around me as I continued to pull two cookies out of the oven, look at them, snarl, then toss them in the trash.

I even started questioning my technique after all of these years of using the same method. I remembered an article in The New York Times where writer David Leite reported on crucial elements to turn out the perfect chocolate chip cookies. I tried some of the ideas in the article but none of them made much of a difference.

But then I noticed something that hadn't caught my attention before about the cookies -- they weren't exactly burned on the bottom -- it was almost as if there were a windswept pattern of brownness. Some cookies looked like they had dark brown and light brown stripes! And the entire cookie looked not burned but more golden brown than usual.

Now this was really getting strange!

I surfed the Fine Cooking website -- this site has great baking tips and techniques. Nothing-new here.

I logged on the King Arthur Flour live chat online and chatted with a woman about my cookie dilemma but she was stumped. She very nicely said she would check with their test kitchen and send me an email later with their suggestions. And she actually did send me an email later that same day which I thought was very cool. Their suggestion: double pan your cookie sheets.

Oh well. I decided to take a cookie break for a few days and think through all my testing and what I had learned.

And that turned out to be what I had forgotten. Did I ever mention that I'm a big fan of Sherlock Holmes?

Let's just say that I forgot what his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had to say:

"...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

I went back to my ingredients. And there it was. All I had to do was test my theory.

As we all know, baking soda is a type of chemical leavener that gives baked good their desired rise. It reacts with acids to create carbon dioxide gas which create the lovely bubbles that make our cakes and cookies rise.

The types of acids that baking soda neutralizes includes sour cream, buttermilk, honey, brown sugar, cocoa and molasses.

Most cookbooks tell you to measure baking soda carefully because if you use more than can be neutralized by the acidic ingredient, you can end up with a soapy or metallic tasting cookie with a coarse crumb.

But baking soda not only neutralizes acidity, it enhances the BROWNING of a batter -- like a gingerbread or carrot cake batter.

The sugar in my recipe is primarily brown sugar.

Could it POSSIBLY be that I hadn't measured my ingredients carefully enough and had used too much baking soda? Had this recipe become so known to me that I was no longer as exact as I should be?

Had I forgotten what Rose Levy Beranbaum had said:
"Bakers are born, not made. We are exacting people who delight in submitting ourselves to rules and formulas if it means achieving repeatable perfection."

Well, yes, as it turned out.

So I measured each ingredient carefully. I baked a batch.

They were beautiful -- top and bottom. I baked a few more batches just to be certain.

While I was glad I had figured out the mystery and had my cookie mojo back, I felt chastened.

A few days later an email popped into my inbox from a fellow member of the Bakers Dozen organization. Seems this baker had a recipe that he made all the time and all of a sudden it wouldn't work anymore.....

The emails back and forth from the bakers trying to help him out reassured me and reminded me that we bakers never stop learning (and relearning).

But what really reassured me happened just this week at a Bakers Dozen meeting. Food scientists and authors Shirley Corriher and Harold McGee were the featured speakers.

Before the formal presentation began, I asked Harold McGee for his thoughts on the evils of baking soda. He laughed and said that because baking soda gives so much trouble to so many bakers that both he and Shirley Corriher were going to open their presentation with a discussion of baking soda! Cookbook author Flo Braker had organized this event and had specifically asked them to talk about baking soda.

And in fact McGee spoke not only about the more common problems associated with baking soda -- soapy taste, coarse crumb, but he also talked about the overbrowning of batter that can happen.

Corriher added "baking soda (over leavening) is the cause of most baking problems!"
She also agreed "there is a humbling experience for every cook just around the corner!"

Come to think of it, how did I ever come to underestimate that little orange box? After all, a product that is used to soak up odors in my fridge and garbage disposal, used as a cleaning product for my bathroom, makes my stomach feel better and my teeth whiter must be one powerful product!

So I think there should be a campaign to have a warning label put on each box of baking soda:
"proceed at your own risk -- not for sissies!"

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Stress Cannot Exist in the Presence of Pie!

As I flip to the first page of my notebook, I note that it all started in early January 2009.

The "it" being my obsession with pie. And not just your usual 9-inch pie.

Small pies. Pies about 3-inches in diameter.

My mom, the inspiration for this blog, had been hospitalized after a fall.

Each night after visiting her, I found myself heading to the kitchen first for a glass of wine then reaching for the flour and butter and my favorite rolling pin.

I'm not sure why I reached for the cupcake pan instead of the faded pink pie plate that had been hers before we moved her to the Alzheimer's facility.

Somehow I felt the need to reinvent the pie.

Month's later people would ask me if I became obsessed with pie because I was simply tired of all the cupcake shops that had opened nearby or of reading about the latest cupcake craze in almost every food magazine and newspaper.

Maybe. But although not a fan of the three-inch high frosting on some of these cupcakes, I actually do like them. And I admire the cute shops and acknowledge all the work that had gone into testing those recipes and opening those shops.

My first attempts at putting dough in muffin pan and filling with fresh peaches, and a bit of ginger were not attractive although tasty. The bottom of each pie had big dimples as though I had pushed my finger into the bottom while they baked.

As January turned into February, I tried all kinds of crimping to the edges of the pie: checkerboard, flute, point and scallop, among others -- because I'm a double-crust girl at heart. Nothing against crumb toppings or pumpkin pie but double-crust will always be my first choice.

Some of the crimping looked good but others simply failed and my top crust popped off the bottom crust like a jack-in-the-box albeit with oozing peach juice instead of a clown.

I experimented with different sized cookie cutters -- I wanted my final product to be about 3-inches in diameter but that meant starting with either a five, four or 4.5-inch cookie cutter. I tried all the combinations.

I haunted cooking stores and checked out every pie book from my library.

In mid-February, my mom passed away. As we dealt with all the details of dealing with my dad, organizing her service, etc., my pie experiments stopped.

But I didn't quit thinking about them. In odd moments I would research pie on the Internet or browse my local bookstore.

In April, I began to fill the notebook again.

Now I began to focus on perfect cooking times, different fillings, the perfect crust.

I decided I wanted people to be able to eat the pie as they would a cupcake -- straight out of the bag without a fork and plate.

That meant a sturdy dough that wasn't all butter or shortening but yet still flaky and tender.
The perfect dough ended up being a combination of butter and cream cheese.

For awhile I tried different combinations of flour but then decided I wanted to make the recipe accessible to all and not dependent on hard to find specialty flours.

I tried to eliminate the gap between the top crust and my fruit fillings. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes not. Organic fruit seemed to cook down the most. I turned to the experts to find a solution including Rose Levy Beranbaum and Shirley Corriher as well as the online chat help at the King Arthur Flour Company!

I tried their solutions but in the end, decided that I would mound the fruit as high as possible, stretch the top crust over it and be done with it. My testers liked that they could bite into the pie without fruit squirting all over the place.

In June I contacted the farmers' market in Palo Alto. This market is one of the premier markets on the San Francisco Peninsula with its primary focus on agriculture. But they do have a few bakers and other specialty products in the market.

Many board meetings and taste tests later; they invited me to join the market in September. After suffering through the food safety exam required by the county and my hunt for a commercial kitchen, I was in business.

So, let me introduce individual pies or as I named them, ipies. You can see more about my adventures at the farmers' market at theipiestore.com

I've really enjoyed talking to folks at the market about their favorite pie memories. I notice that most people walk up to my stand and announce that they are a pie person. I love that.

It is almost like a code word that helps me to identify them and actually, it kind of does. It tells me a lot about them. It tells me that they are optimistic at heart because I believe pie is optimistic.

And as I learned over these long and fun months of testing and retesting,"stress cannot exist in the presence of pie" as declared by playwright David Mamet and confirmed by me.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Popovers: A Lot of Hot Air

I had quite the urge to bake popovers last week. Maybe it was the slight chill in the morning air that spelled the end of summer or maybe it was just my love of slathering butter on baked goodies but I had the urge to revisit a treat that I hadn't had for quite some time.

I remember looking forward to lunch at Neiman-Marcus a few years ago when I learned that popovers were always served at lunch. And not just any popovers but GIANT popovers.

Unfortunately, although they did have an impressive height, those dried out shells were not related to the popovers of my memory. The popovers I craved were tall yes, but the crisp exterior hid a custard interior that cried out for butter and sometimes jam as well.

Growing up, my mom would make popovers for the big meal of the week -- Sunday dinner. Sunday dinner was generally served around 1 p.m. on Sunday and the quantity of food prepared would ensure leftovers for the week -- even in my large family of seven.

I think part of what made popovers so special is that they really don't wait for anyone -- once they are out of the oven, they need to be consumed fast. They deflate quickly and lose any crispness that they might have had. Sure, recipes will instruct you to make them ahead for your dinner party then re-crisp them in the oven but trust me, the results dim next to popovers right out of the oven.

Mom baked them in clear custard cups set on a rimmed baking sheet. And she made just the basic popovers -- no fancy add-ins like Gruyere cheese or chives like you see in some cookbooks. Once they were ready, we all had to sit down immediately before their high hats deflated. I think there was a bit of the showman in my mom. We loved them though -- my brother and I could put away at least five each of those custardy goodies.

But big midday Sunday dinners don't happen at my house and fancy weeknight dinners don't happen much either. But I didn't want to wait for a special occasion to make them.

But one of the other great things about popovers is they are just as much at home on the breakfast table as on the dinner table.

And although popovers look like they are really hard to make -- nothing could be further from the truth -- although it is nice to blush and say, "oh it was nothing" when your dinner guests gush compliments at their appearance at your dinner party.

In fact, most popover recipes consist of just five ingredients -- flour, salt, eggs, milk and butter. It is hard to believe that a thin batter from just those four ingredients can pop up in the oven to almost triple their original height without help from any leavening agent.

The height is thanks to the steam released during baking to make what is really just a giant bubble.

Since I didn't have my mom's original recipe, I thought I would just pick a recipe from one of my many cookbooks. The first recipe I found looked pretty good but I kept looking. Then I felt like I was back in school trying to solve one of those horrid word problems (you know, "if a train leaves the station at 9 a.m and......) as I realized all the different variables that were possible.

It seems beyond those simple ingredients, almost every cookbook and every cook will give you "the secret" on just how to bake the combination of those simple five ingredients in order to achieve the maximum height.

Unfortunately, I found that the secret was different for each cook. The secret could be:
•only use a hot oven
•only use a cold oven
•start with a blast of heat in a hot oven then turn down to moderate oven
•preheat not only the oven but also the pan
•put batter in a cold pan
•all ingredients at room temperature
•it doesn't matter if the batter is chilled
•use a blender
•don't use a blender -- mix batter gently just until combined
•bake 50 minutes
•bake 20 minutes
•use a special pan made just for popovers called a popover plaque or gem pan
•use a muffin tin, no special pan needed
•only use whole milk
•use bleached flour
•let the batter stand for one hour
•use the batter immediately

You get the general idea!

As Dr. Seuss so eloquently put it in his poem, My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers,: "To eat these things, said my uncle, you must exercise great care."
Eating? Well, what about BAKING them?

Well, in the interest of once again enjoying popovers (and because I love a challenge) I tried five different batches of popovers using a combination of the above variables.

But although (most) of my popovers tasted good, they had no pop at all. Plus I had a hard time getting them to even pop out of the pan!

After scraping the last batch out of the muffin tin with the aid of elbow grease and an SOS pad, I decided to take charge and make up my OWN criteria.

Because I wanted to make these as a breakfast treat during the week, I needed a recipe that would be quick to mix and bake. To protect my sanity, I decided that my popover recipe had to have the following criteria:
•preheated oven
•no preheated pan
•ingredients would be chilled and sometimes I would even make the batter the night before then give it a quick whisk in the morning
•no special popover pan
•use unbleached flour because I always have it on hand
•use 1% milk or whatever I had on hand -- and I rarely had whole milk in the fridge
•no longer than 25-30 minutes to bake

I had glanced at the popover recipe in The Baker's Dozen Cookbook but dismissed it because the author used vegetable oil instead of butter -- that sounded unappealing to me. The recipe also called for vanilla which was unusual in a popover recipe.

But then I read the complete recipe again and read these words by well-known baker John Phillip Carroll who had created this particular recipe for this project, "The eggs and milk can be chilled or at room temperature; use unbleached or all-purpose flour. These variables won't make any difference in the popovers." And while he advocated the use of a popover pan he said, "don't let the lack of a pan stop you from bringing these delicate puffs of pastry into your life."

I liked his attitude!

And so using my criteria and his recipe, I had the chance once again to be a magician with only a few ingredients and a hot oven.

(and they really do look amazing baked in a special popover pan if you want to splurge for one!)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Angel Food Cake: Snow White Perfection

Not long ago I asked a friend who had a birthday coming up if he was excited to dig in to his special birthday cake. When he looked puzzled, I said you know, the one you had for each and every birthday when you were growing up and now that you are married, the one your wife bakes for you each year.

He looked at me like I was crazy. He asked me what I was talking about – he sometimes had a cake but often he didn’t even have a cake on his special day.

I thought EVERYONE had their very own special birthday cake that was baked just for them to celebrate their birthday.

Now, I don’t mean an individual cake meant to be eaten only by them.

What I mean is the same type of cake that they had YEAR after YEAR after YEAR on their birthday that was then poked with candles, lit on fire, then shared by all.

For example, my mom always baked an angel food cake for my birthday. And not just any angel food cake – my cake had been baked with confetti sprinkles folded into the batter so each slice included an exploded rainbow of color.

And each of my four siblings had their own special cake.

Having our own special birthday cake became yet another way we labeled each other in my family like being left handed or the one with the green eyes or the one who is best at card games or who could sew the best.

I knew this wasn’t just special to my family because my husband’s birthday cake while he was growing up was always, as he puts it, “white cake with white frosting” – he didn’t specify what type that white frosting was but I get the general idea.

But maybe it was a quirk of growing up in the mid-west as we both had. We certainly love our regional dishes -- I was particularly fond of pork tenderloin sandwiches.

But then I found out that the favored birthday cake of my sister-in-laws husband who grew up on the east coast is banana whipped cream cake. That cake is truly unique. Here is how my sister-in-law described the recipe:

“You take 2 8-inch rounds of yellow cake and slice them down the center. Whip cream with sugar and a little vanilla and then slice several bananas. Layer the cake with bananas and cream then cover it with the whipped cream. It tastes the best the next day after it has sat in the fridge overnight.”

Not exactly a gourmet cake but I have actually tasted that cake and it is pretty darn good! But this cake didn’t make the cut on a technicality – this cake was made for all family birthdays – not just her husband’s birthday.

One has to wonder how those cakes became identified with a specific kid. My mom loved to bake and here was yet another way she could indulge her passion. I certainly didn’t know that angel food cake was my favorite when I was only a year old. As I got older and also became passionate about baking, I often wondered why my mom who was such an accomplished baker would always use a cake mix when she baked cakes.

I never got to ask her but my guess is that at the time she was baking, cake mixes where seen as the modern way to bake cakes.

So, while she labored over her other creations – ring-a-lings, pies, homemade noodles, etc., she looked to Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines to celebrate birthdays.

But our special birthday cakes came to an end as the monster known as Alzheimer’s swallowed up my mom.

So there have been a few years where I also didn’t have my special birthday cake made by my mom and it has been a long time since I have bought a cake mix.

I didn’t intend to resurrect the angel food cake tradition but over the last few months the thought of making one has tugged at my thoughts.

In April, at the Baker’s Dozen Anniversary Celebration, we were asked to bring a recipe from the Baker’s Dozen Cookbook to help celebrate the day.

I decided to bake an angel food cake using Flo Braker’s recipe from the Baker’s Dozen Cookbook.

My finished cake looked ok and tasted ok but I was finding it hard to remember why I liked it so much.

As I mentioned in my post about the Baker’s Dozen celebration, Flo Braker commented that the photo in the Baker’s Dozen cookbook was not of a cake that she had baked. Actually, she said, “not that ugly brown thing!”

According to Braker the exterior of an angel food cake can be snowy white – as white as the interior.

Since my finished cake was certainly brown, I desperately hoped that she hadn’t seen it yet. I vowed then to try to bake one that was as snow-white and as tender as she said it should be.

Over the next few months I asked other baker’s their thoughts about brown angel food cake vs. snow-white angel food cake. Not surprisingly, most had never thought of angel food cake as any other way other than with the brown exterior.

Maybe I heard wrong – I decided to double check with Evie Lieb of The Chocolate Cake recipe fame and who had been at the same table when Flo Braker made her statement.

Evie confirmed Braker’s statement and pointed me to an article on the Fine Cooking Magazine's website that included detailed instructions on Braker’s technique for baking the perfect angel food cake.

Then I had the good fortune to actually run into Braker at our local farmer’s market. She confirmed that it was possible to bake an angel food cake that would “slip out of” its brown exterior – the brown crust would be left behind in the tube pan.

And finally, my birthday was fast approaching. Time to bake an angel food cake.

Although the recipe has only seven ingredients and comes together quickly, this is a cake that is all about technique. An angel food cake is a type of sponge cake – in contrast to butter cakes.

According to Flo Braker in her book The Simple Art of Perfect Baking, “ The methods for making these cakes are unlike those used to make butter cakes. The egg is to the sponge cake what butter is to the butter cake, and making a perfect sponge cake depends on how well you whip the eggs to create what is known as a foam.”

In the Baker’s Dozen Cookbook, Braker outlines the techniques that will result in a delicate and tender cake. I highly recommend checking out her recommendations in that cookbook as well as her articles on this subject online at the Fine Cooking Magazine website.

Probably the most important technique that I hadn’t paid much attention to was the temperature of the egg whites – Braker recommends 60 degrees instead of the room temperature 70 degrees that most cookbooks recommend.

According to Braker, “You want whites that are whipped to the optimum, but not necessarily the maximum, capacity. Angel food cake needs a smooth, shiny, and soft meringue that will incorporate easily with the other ingredients, leaving room to expand in the oven.”

Bottom line, stiffly beaten egg whites are too stiff to be folded correctly into the other ingredients.

For the first cake I made I left the egg whites out in the mixer bowl for one hour. I had a hard time getting them to 60 degrees because of the weather that day. The second time it only took a half hour. So, keep checking the temperature with an instant read thermometer after about 15 minutes.

But, now for the hard part – getting the brown exterior to stay in the pan.

According to Braker, the trick is to leave the cake upside down on a bottle or on the pan’s feet at least four hours or overnight if possible – not just for a few hours as most recipes state. Then, turn the pan right side up and run a thin knife around the edges. Don’t worry about the center tube. Turn the pan on its side. Tap the pan on the counter and rotate. Then carefully tap the bottom of the pan and release the cake.

Both my test cakes came out almost completely white -- if not snow-white, certainly closer to white than brown. What didn’t come off I could easily rub off with my fingers. This was a beautiful cake and because I had followed the other techniques, the cake almost melted in my mouth.

The reason I made a second cake was not so much to perfect my technique although that was certainly a factor. I needed my confetti! I gently folded in sprinkles into the batter. You could just see a hint of the sprinkles on the exterior of the cake as it slipped out of the pan.

And on the inside? Well, happy birthday to me.