Saturday, May 30, 2009

Finally Finding THE ONE: A Chocolate Cake for All Occasions

All bakers can easily tell you the recipes that they consider to be their signature recipes for various occasions. Recipes that they use over and over again. The

tell-tale stain spotted recipe card or the cookbook pages that stick together all leave a trail to a bakers favorite recipes.

Over the years I have narrowed down my brownie recipes to various degrees of effort required. I have one family recipe that calls for cocoa powder and bakes in only 15 minutes. Another brownie recipe is a bit fancier and calls for good chocolate and can be dressed up for a special occasion.

I’ve never had anyone wish for a traditional birthday cake when they see the unexpected sight of brownies poked with candles and piled high on a cake stand for a last minute birthday celebration.

I have a chocolate chip cookie recipe that has become so well known and liked that my daughter often use them as currency (or bribery) at her school.

Years ago I started a Christmas tradition of baking a chocolate chip coffee cake for each family to take home for Christmas morning. I’ve threatened to stop this tradition but intense lobbying on behalf of the tradition flattered me into keeping my oven humming and my house smelling like chocolate and cinnamon each holiday season.

And of course, I have a sugar cookie recipe that comes out with the cookie cutters for all major holidays.

But I have yet to really commit to any one chocolate cake recipe. Sure, I have had many flings with various chocolate cake recipes over the years but none that I considered to be THE ONE or at least one of a few that I go back to time and time again.

It was with this thought in mind that I looked at the recipe for chocolate cake that master baker, teacher and former bakery owner Evie Lieb had emailed to me after the Baker’s Dozen meeting in April.

Perhaps this recipe was going to be THE ONE.

I decided to take a look at the other cake recipes that I had collected but had never made a commitment to as my go to chocolate cake recipe.

Time for a Bake-Off at the ring-a-lings Test Kitchen! I decided that I would look for the following criteria:

Ingredients typically found in pantry or fridge
Multiple serving options: berries, whipped cream, dusting of powdered sugar, frosting, glaze, caramel or chocolate sauce or plain
Looked good – good presentation
Mixed together quickly with a minimum number of bowls and utensils
Consistent results
Minimal time in the oven
Easily made in various pan sizes

First up, the aptly named Everyday Cocoa Cake, a recipe from the February 2003 issue of Gourmet Magazine. I like this recipe because it uses always on hand cocoa powder and is quickly mixed together and poured into a 9” cake pan. I sometimes substitute coffee for the 1.5 cups of water for a richer taste. I can dress it up with a chocolate or caramel sauce or just fresh berries. But I found that the cake didn’t hold up to a glaze or frosting very well. It just wasn’t sturdy enough. So anything other than a dusting of powdered sugar was out of the question. This cake also has to bake for almost an hour, which is a bit long for a last minute gathering.

I next considered a recipe from the February 2008 Gourmet Magazine issue called amusingly enough, Devil Dog Cake. The recipe calls for the cake to be piled high with marshmallow frosting but I nixed that in favor of a simple chocolate frosting. This cake also uses cocoa powder and is baked in an 8” square pan. It bakes for about 55 minutes. I made this cake three times and the first time it was a big hit in the flavor department and it looked impressive with its chocolate frosting thickly spread on top. The second and third time I made it the cake fell in the middle after it cooled. It also only looked good with frosting, not powdered sugar.

I recently read Molly Wizenberg’s (creator of food blog, orangette) new book, A Homemade Life . In her book she talks about her favorite chocolate cake recipe. In fact, she loves it so much she baked 20 of them to be served at her recent wedding! I just had to consider her recipe in this competition. She calls this cake “The Winning Hearts and Minds Cake” because according to Wizenberg, that’s what it does. It uses a good bittersweet chocolate and is pretty much a one-bowl cake; it bakes for about 25 minutes. It doesn’t need a glaze or frosting – it is best served with lightly sweetened whipped cream. And it was a great tasting cake but it wasn’t a good-looking cake. In fact, the cake structure was quite delicate and not that attractive.

On to a recipe from a 1976 issue of the now defunct House & Garden Magazine called Six-Minute Chocolate Cake. I found this recipe in my well-thumbed Moosewood Cookbook. It is certainly the easiest recipe of the ones I tried. You actually mix all the ingredients in one pan so clean up is a breeze. There are no eggs in the recipe, which makes it a good choice when you really are down to the last quart of milk in your fridge. It is another cake that calls for cocoa powder so another ingredient typically on hand in the pantry. I tried this recipe with a simple chocolate glaze. After the glaze is applied to the cooled cake, the cake is then refrigerated. This cake gets rave reviews from guests when served on a hot day with a simple addition of raspberries. The downside of this recipe is that it can’t be released from the pan making for an unimpressive presentation. I might try it in a 9” springform pan next time. It also calls for vinegar, which reacts with the baking soda in the pan. I had a few cakes where the vinegar didn’t get distributed enough throughout the batter despite my best efforts making for a few forkfuls of strange tasting cake.

And last, I tried the recipe from Evie Lieb called “The” Chocolate Cake. I had the pleasure of sitting with Evie at the last Baker’s Dozen gathering. She told me that this is also one of cookbook author Flo Braker’s favorite chocolate cake recipes. In fact, Braker included this recipe (with a few minor tweaks) in her latest masterpiece, Baking for All Occasions under the title of Dark Chocolate Cake, page 350. Lieb and Braker have been friends for many years. They both discovered that this was the other’s favorite chocolate cake back in the 1970s. The original recipe came from Family Circle Magazine. Both Lieb and Braker have adopted this as one of their signature cakes for all types of occasions.

This recipe calls for unsweetened chocolate, sour cream and cake flour -- all ingredients that are typically found in a baker’s pantry.

Because of the sour cream and cake flour, the texture of this cake was very light with a fine crumb. It reminded me of the cake mixes my mom would use in the 1970s but without the chemical aftertaste.

But one of the best things about this cake is that it can be baked in various sizes: 3-8” layers, a single 9”x13” pan or two 9” layers making it a very versatile option for all kinds of occasions. Braker includes even more pan suggestions in her book. Depending on the pan, this cake bakes from 15 minutes to 40 minutes.

It is great served plain, dusted with powdered sugar or frosted. It can also be served with fruit, whipped cream or a caramel or chocolate sauce. As you can see from the photo, my family liked it right out of the pan.

I also made this recipe into a 3-layer cake using 8-inch pans. Fancy!

Evie also gave me her recipe for chocolate frosting which comes together quickly using her food processor method.

So, I think I have a winner – “The” Chocolate Cake met all my criteria. I have already put the recipe Evie Lieb emailed to me in a clear plastic sleeve for all those sticky fingerprints that are sure to accumulate as I reach for this recipe again and again.

(note: at a recent book signing for her latest book, Baking for All Occasions, Flo Braker noted to fellow blogger Rachel Boller that there was an omission in the dark chocolate cake recipe. The correction is to add the melted chocolate just after the eggs.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Daring Bakers Challenge: You Say Filo I say Strudel!

The May 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caf├ęs of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

This challenge was truly all about technique. The hosts specified that the only mandatory component of the challenge is to make the strudel dough. We could choose any filling – savory or sweet -- that we wanted although the hosts very kindly provided us with a recipe for an apple filling.

A strudel is a type of pastry made up of many layers of dough that has been stretched very thin then spread with a filling. The filling can be sweet or savory. Strudel is most often associated with German or Austrian baked goods but it is also related to Middle Eastern and Greek pastries such as baklava.

The word strudel means vortex or whirlpool in German. According to the website, this refers to the method of rolling the dough around the filling.

The art of making strudel dough from scratch is pretty much a lost art. Most bakers – professional or dedicated home bakers, usually pick a good quality commercial filo (or phyllo) dough and focus their expertise and creativity on the filling.

The image I have of making strudel dough is of grandmotherly European women with lots of time on their hands stretching and pulling the dough then carefully lifting and rolling it over the filling.

I have never had much luck manipulating the commercial filo dough but it had never occurred to me to make my own.

I did use the strudel dough recipe provided by our hosts as required but I was curious as to what my many other baking books had to say on the topic.

I turned to my cookbook-laden shelves and started pulling down books.

I thought it was amusing how many of the books had recipes for strudel dough and offered detailed instructions with color photos outlining in great detail how to make strudel dough but then their recipes specified filo dough!

As the wonderful book, Best-Ever Pastry Cookbook by Catherine Atkinson put it, “This classic apple strudel recipe is usually made with a strudel dough, which is wonderful, but can be tricky and time-consuming, especially for a novice. Filo pastry makes a good shortcut.”

Oh my. I was definitely a novice at this!
But the basic strudel dough recipe is very simple: flour, salt, water, vegetable oil and cider vinegar. How hard could this be?

The best description of strudel dough and tips for making it came from a book published in 1984 by well-known author Susan Purdy called, As Easy As Pie.

The author gives the reader a delightful description of how she was taught to make strudel dough the “correct” way by (of course) a very old woman born in Yugoslavia and now living in Florida. From this woman, Nada Gerovac, the author learns the secrets of making strudel dough and shares them with her readers.

From Gerovac we learn several tricks to making perfect strudel:
“In order to transform a ball of kneaded unleavened dough into a large translucent tissue, you must have an elastic dough, one that will willingly stretch, not a short, flaky dough such as you would use for a piecrust.”

What does that mean? The flour needs to have a high gluten content to permit the necessary stretching to get the dough as thin as possible.

Ok, I decided to use bread flour for its high gluten content.

Second tip from Purdy’s source, ”remember the importance of “resting” the dough. Kneading dough develops the elasticity of the protein strands, or gluten, in the flour. Resting gives the strands time to lose their tautness, like a stretched elastic band returning to its original shape. Once relaxed the dough can be stretched again. “

Ok, the dough needs to rest 30-90 minutes – the longer it rests the easier the dough will be to stretch.

The third secret is to oil the dough when you let the dough rest. Put it in an oiled bowl and then put a tablespoon or two over the dough ball and wrap tightly.

Well, I was ready to give this old-world art a try!

The dough was simple to put together. I used my stand-mixer then finished kneading the dough for a few minutes by hand. I put it in the oiled bowl, put oil on top of the dough and wrapped it tightly.

I hadn’t spent much time figuring out my filling yet so I decided to see what Purdy had to offer since she had already been so helpful.

Although apple strudel is the classic filling, it just seemed like a treat for October and not for springtime. I decided to go with a cherry-filling recipe offered by Purdy that combined sweet bing cherries and tart cherries.

All the tips from Purdy’s cookbook were helpful but remember the cookbook that said making strudel dough from scratch was tricky and time-consuming? Well,
the biggest challenge was in stretching the dough.

I was aiming for 2 feet by 3 feet. But how in the world was this very tiny ball of dough going to be stretched to these dimensions?

The trick is to first cover a large work surface with a cloth tablecloth. Yes, I thought that was strange as well but that is the gold standard for making strudel from scratch.

Several of the cookbooks I referred to advised using a tablecloth with a pattern on it so that when you saw the pattern through your dough, you knew the dough was thin enough!

So, since I didn't own a tablecloth, off I went to my local Macy’s store to find a cheap tablecloth. I was helped by Victor Mota who as it turned out was really a chef. He had spent quite a lot of time creating pastries and so knew a thing or two about strudel. His opinion, “why would you want to make it from scratch? Just buy filo dough.”

Very funny. He did manage to find me a tablecloth with a lovely design on it (and it was cheap, thanks Victor)

I put the dough ball down on the lovely printed tablecloth that was now covered with flour. I used the rolling pin to roll it out as much as possible before I started stretching it.

I then picked up the dough and placed both my closed fists palms down under the center. I slowly moved my fists apart – almost like I was spinning pizza dough. The center started to look translucent.

Now for the actual stretching! With the backs of my hands I reached under the dough and spread my hands slowly apart as I raised them up – this allowed the dough to lift and stretch. I was lucky; no holes appeared that would need to be patched.

I didn’t quite make it to 2 feet by 3 feet – more like 2 feet by 2.5 feet but close enough.

I then spread the filling as directed on the dough.

Here is where the tablecloth is really needed – I lifted the cloth high to allow the dough to roll over onto itself. I did this over and over until I had a nice log about 5 inches wide by 2 inches thick. Probably a bit out of proportion but not bad for my first attempt!

After it baked, it needs to be cut into slices immediately so that the steam doesn’t make the dough soggy. It was just the right balance of crispy dough and lightly sweet filling.

Yes it was time-consuming but guess what – not nearly as hard as using filo dough! I was amazed, this was easier than working with filo that had to be thawed and constantly dried out and ripped.

So I think I might actually make strudel again – especially since I have the lovely printed tablecloth.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Matter of Some Measure: Flour Power!

As I gazed at the dismal results of my lovely cake – I wondered where I had gone wrong. The night I read about the recipe on a popular food blog, my mouth watered. I had to make it.

Although the cake looked beautiful when I took it out of the oven, it had a finer crumb than the text of the article had mentioned. Further investigation with my fork revealed white streaks that tasted like raw flour.

I went back to the food blog and found out where the original recipe appeared. I checked out the cookbook from my library and found that sure enough, dip and sweep was the measuring method used. If I’m not using a scale, I use the spoon and sweep method. My method had yielded too little flour.

In fact, the texture of the cake as described in the cookbook was totally different than what my finished product was. Besides not giving measuring technique in the blog, this blogger had also adapted a few other ingredients in the cake. It was now totally different than the author’s original version.

My cake was more like a cupcake in texture but the author of the cookbook, according to the recipe notes, intended it to have more of a pudding-like texture.

I actually made the cake a second time using the original recipe. Look how different they look.

Weighing is the most accurate way to follow a recipe, but many home cooks do not have a scale.

And not all recipes give metric or measurement by volume. In that case, either the spoon and sweep or dip and sweep method of measuring flour by volume is used.

Spoon and Sweep and Dip and Sweep – sounds like a dance from the 1920s and in fact sometimes the end result of using one or the other method to measure flour in baking can be as disorienting as such a dance sounds if the intent of the author of the recipe is unknown.

The spoon and sweep method requires that the baker first gently stir the flour then lightly spoon the flour into the measuring cup then level it with a knife. The dip and sweep method requires the baker to also stir the flour but then to dip the measuring cup into the flour then level with a knife. There can be as much as a 2-Tablespoon (.5 oz) difference in these two measuring methods.

If too little flour is used in a recipe, the finished product will be flat, wet and lacking in structure. Too much flour and the baked good can be dry and tough.

And not just the difference in how a baker measures flour can change its volume. Flour volume can change just because it is humid outside the day you want to bake or there is some other change in temperature.

Generally the introduction notes or the section on techniques in a cookbook gives the author’s preferred method of measuring flour.

But many home bakers these days get their recipes not just from cookbooks. Now there are cooking shows on TV, food sections of newspapers as well as hundreds of women’s and general interest magazines offering lifestyle articles with recipes included. But the biggest source of recipes these days has got to be food blogs.

But do you know how many of these sources offer guidance on how to measure the ingredients for their recipes? Not many.

And even some cookbooks don’t always specify a technique -- for example I was surprised to find that the popular Barefoot Contessa cookbooks by Ina Garten don’t specify how to measure dry ingredients.

I decided to do some research to see which method was preferred most often by authors of cookbooks, magazine and newspaper test kitchens.

It appears that this has been controversial subject for quite a long time. One of the first articles I found on this topic was from a 1945 piece in the New York Times. In the article, News of Food: A, B, C’s of Baking A Cake Are Outlined For Novices By Expert At The Red Cross, the expert implored bakers to measure flour by the spoon and sweep method: “lightly pile the material in the utensil and then cut off the “extra” by running a knife across the top.”

My mind spun when I discovered that Gourmet Magazine (and their cookbooks) use spoon and sweep but Bon Appetite Magazine (and cookbooks) use dip and sweep!

This means that all the recipes on that come from those two magazines use two different measuring methods!

And the measuring method for newspaper recipes are a mystery. The Los Angeles Times still has a test kitchen and they use spoon and sweep. I couldn’t find any information on test kitchens for the San Francisco Chronicle or the New York Times.

Who else uses spoon and sweep?
Flo Braker: cookbook author and master baker – she even gives her preferred measurement method in the text of her recipes if she contributes to a newspaper or magazine
Nick Malgieri
Joy of Cooking
Alice Medrich
King Arthur Flour cookbook
Fannie Farmer Cookbook

It seems that newer cookbooks are also using the spoon and sweep method
Anita Chu, Field Guide to Cookies
Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, authors of Baked: New Frontiers in Baking
•Molly Wizenberg the creator of the food blog orangette in her first book, A Homemade Life, includes only several instructions to following her recipes but on that short list there is the instruction to use spoon and sweep to measure flour.

But then in the dip and sweep camp we have some master bakers that you might have heard of:
Julia Child
Dorie Greenspan – who of course wrote Baking with Julia Child
•Edna Lewis, The Gift of Southern Cooking
•Sherry Yard, The Secrets of Baking
Cook’s Illustrated

But my research also yielded a promising trend in measuring flour – one geared toward consistency, which is the name of the game in baking. Many of the newer baking tomes give measurements by both weight AND by volume.

For example, one the funniest bits of information on measuring flour comes from the recent winner of the James Beard Award in the Baking category, Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking, by Shirley Corriher.

Corriher states in her Introduction chapter that “I find that many cooks will not read this Introduction or the headnote on a recipe that explains how the ingredients were measured. They do, however, read the ingredient line, so that is where I put which measuring technique was used.” In the ingredient list she specifies the weight of flour in both ounces and grams, the volume and how she measured the volume.

But the real trend is in the urging of master bakers for the home baker to finally buy a scale.

Although Cindy Mushet in her excellent book, The Art and Soul of Baking, specifies the dip and sweep method, she advises the reader to “put aside the dry measuring cups, purchase a digital scale and start weighing. If one thing can improve your baking, beginning with your first pan of brownies, it’s a scale.“

I also like the tone of Aliza Green, author of Starting with Ingredients: Baking: Quintessential Recipes for the Way We Really Bake, when she says that her mission is to convince home bakers to use a scale.

Fran Gage author of many baking books states plainly, “A good digital scale can be had online for about $30 so, in my opinion, not having a scale is no longer an excuse.”

Even Cooking Light Magazine is easing its readers into the transition to using a scale. Their test kitchen uses the spoon and sweep method but they recently announced that the magazine started calling for flours by weight, followed by an approximate cup measure. According to the magazines website, “With light baking, there is even less margin for error than with conventional baking, and even a couple of tablespoons too much flour may yield a dry cookie or cake. A kitchen scale is a smart tool to ensure you measure accurately and achieve the same great results we enjoy in our Test Kitchens.”

Famous pastry chefs don’t even bother to give you a choice, they only specify ounces and grams. As Claire Clark, pastry chef at the French Laundry, says in her beautiful cookbook, Indulge – 100 Perfect Desserts -- “I recommend you invest in some weighing scales before starting to cook from this book.”

So what is the bottom line?

Use a scale to measure flour. But if you still can’t bear to use one, use the spoon and sweep method. According to Fine Cooking Magazine, it results in the least amount of variation.

Here is a link to one scale you might like to buy. It is affordable and easy to use.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Art of Syrian Cookery

When my mom passed away in February 2009, my siblings and I moved my dad to a small studio apartment. He had been living with my mom in a senior care facility.

Although the apartment is small it has one feature that he has been longing for since he moved to the senior facility several years ago – a kitchen!

My dad is Syrian and he has sorely missed preparing his favorite Syrian foods. To say that the food was bland at the senior home is a bit of an understatement. I’ve always wondered how all the food there could smell and taste the same no matter what it was!

Although we gave away most of their books when we closed and sold their house, my dad insisted on taking his favorite cookbook, The Art of Syrian Cookery by Helen Corey with him to the senior facility.

He was elated that he could once again crack open its pages and get cooking.

The first day he moved into his new apartment, my sister took him grocery shopping. A few pots and pans and a bag of lentils and he was in business.

Growing up in Indiana, I must admit that Syrian food was not something I craved.

Unlike his father who went back to Syria from America to find a bride after WWI, my father married a local Indiana girl of English/Scottish descent. As such, the food I grew up with was roast beef and noodles and not the Syrian foods of my father's youth.

When I was in grade school, my older brother and I would walk from our elementary school to my Syrian Grandma's house for lunch since our mom worked during the day.

Grandma always made us scrambled eggs cooked in lots of butter and served with icy cold coke in a glass bottle. A strange combination to be sure but in her eyes, it was very American. I don't remember if my brother and I turned up our noses at the thought of eating Syrian food or if it didn't occur to her to serve it to her very American grandchildren.

While we ate, we would watch Grandma prepare Syrian dishes to be served to her family later that evening. She never used a measuring cup. She would sift dry ingredients into the palm of her hand, feel its weight for a few moments, then add or subtract as needed.

By the time I was in middle school, my Grandma was blind. But being blind didn't stop her from cooking -- with my aunt's help at the stove, my Grandma still prepared her Syrian foods.

Eventually I did grow to love several of the dishes Grandma made although the Syrian dish I disliked the most but loved by my siblings is a dish called yubrak. It is ground lamb or beef mixed with rice then rolled in cabbage leaves and simmered on the stove until done. I can still smell the mix of cabbage and steam to this day.

All the siblings loved baked kibby (kibby bil sin-ee-yah) which is ground lamb or beef, cracked wheat (bulgur), onions and pine nuts. Although now that I know a thing or two about good nutrition, the cup of melted butter she poured over the pan of kibby before baking it now makes me shudder. The meat pies (sfeeha) were also a favorite.

But the easiest foods to love were the breads. Bread, khobaz, is very important in Syrian life. The traditional round yeast bread served at most meals is called talamee. It is a thin round loaf about sixteen-inches in diameter.

But the Syrian food I loved best was a bread that my Grandma made only at Easter although in Syria it is a typical street snack. It is called ka'ick, which means anise. It is very similar to talamee but it is sweet. The sweetness comes from syrup that the bread is dipped into after it is baked. This syrup, called qatir lil ka'ick, is made from milk, butter, sugar and rose water.

On our Easter buffet would be the typical Easter ham served in the mid-west but our Syrian heritage was also represented by ka'ick and it always disappeared fast.

Recently I was in one of my favorite used bookstores. I tend to haunt its cookbook section more often than my budget allows. While there, I was surprised to find a copy of The Art of Syrian Cookery.

In the book I found the recipe for the sweet Easter bread. It was as good as I remembered.

Note: The names of the Syrian dishes and their spellings were verified by the book, The Art of Syrian Cookery, by Helen Corey published in 1962. The recipes for Ka'ick and the syrup are also from this book.


Anise Bread

Makes 50

8 cups flour (spoon and sweep)

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon anise seed

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 pound butter

About 1 1/2 cups milk

1 package active dry yeast

2 eggs

Mix flour, sugar, anise seed, and salt. Heat butter with milk to lukewarm. Dissolve yeast in milk and add to flour mixture. Add eggs and knead well. Cover and set about 2 hours until dough rises. Then cut in small pieces 3 inches in diameter. Cover with damp cloth and allow to rise for 30 minutes. Flatten each piece to 1/2 inch thickness and place in dry pan in slow oven (250 degrees). Bake until bottoms are golden brown, then place under broiler until tops are light brown. Dip in the syrup while both syrup and bread are still hot.

Qatir lil ka'ick

Syrup for Anise Bread

1/4 stick butter
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon rose water

Combine all ingredients and boil 2 minutes. Place in a bowl and dip each ka'ick in this syrup.