Saturday, June 27, 2009

Daring Bakers Challenge: Tarts, Puddings and Murder

The June Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar. They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart... er... pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800's in England.

One of the reasons I like to participate in the Daring Bakers’ Challenges each month is each challenge offers me a chance to learn something new. Even if the item itself is not a challenge for me to make, I generally take away something from the experience.

And this month’s challenge is no exception.

Although a common treat in England, I had never heard of a Bakewell Tart before this challenge. The three elements of the tart were not hard to master:

Sweet Shortcut Pastry
Jam (purchased)
Frangipane (a filling made from almonds)

But I did find the legend and lore behind the Bakewell Tart to be fascinating.

First, it should be noted that because the Bakewell Tart is British in origin it is also referred to as a pudding since that is the British term for all of their desserts. What Americans call pudding the British call banana custard.

Like Tollhouse cookies and puff pastry, the Bakewell Tart was also created quite by accident.

Although there are several versions of the legend of how a Bakewell Tart was created, most people agree on the basic facts that sometime in the 1800s in the village of Bakewell in the town of Derbyshire (England), a landlady of one of the inns asked her cook to produce a pudding for her guests. Either her instructions could have been clearer or the cook should have paid better attention to what she said because what the cook made was not what the landlady asked for.
The cook spread the frangipane on top of the jam rather than the other way around.

Today, several different versions of a Bakewell Tart exist including the popular version found in grocery stores throughout England that sport a thick sugary icing with a glazed cherry on top.

This origin of the Bakewell Tart is interesting but here are a few more tidbits surrounding this pastry that I thought were even more memorable:


In 1974 17-year-old Stephen Downing was convicted of killing Wendy Sewell in the town of Bakewell. His conviction was overturned in 2002 thanks to the efforts of journalist Don Hale. The case is thought to be the longest miscarriage of justice in British history. The story became a BBC TV drama and Don Hale also published a book about it.


Because of this murder case, there now exists this not so funny insult: “The Bakewell pudding is a dessert. The Bakewell tart is that girl over there.”
It seems Wendy Sewell was a bit promiscuous.

Bakers of the Bakewell Tart/Pudding have aspirations similar to many winemakers: In 2008, several bakers in Bakewell asked the European Union for sanctions to be placed on what ingredients can be used and where they can be made before a Bakewell Tart/Pudding can be called by that name.

In March 2009 the owner of holiday cottages for rent in the village of Bakewell used the tarts to promote his cottages. Ten tarts contained a gold key. The lucky ten were invited to a grand finale where one key unlocked a cottage. The winner is the owner of the cottage.

The British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver served Bakewell tarts to the G20 leaders assembled in London in April 2009. I wonder what our health conscious President Obama thought of it!

But I guess what I find the most interesting is the enduring appeal of the Bakewell Tart and how over the years it has become part of the national identity of the British people – similar to how apple pie is to Americans or kolaches to the Czech people, or the perfect macaron to the French.

And isn't that the goal of all bakers -- to have their creations endure beyond the last bite?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Popcorn Balls: Updating an American Classic

I recently found myself in a popcorn ball frenzy. It was one of the many treats my mom used to make for the snacking pleasure of her five children. My siblings and I were recently reminiscing about our childhood favorite foods. Mom passed away in February 2009 and the thought that we wouldn’t have her around to make our favorite treats was a bit disconcerting.

This blog is named after her signature dessert,

The popcorn ball she always made was the classic caramel popcorn ball. They were as big as softballs.

The making of popcorn balls in our family was a group effort. For years, as the youngest, I was not allowed to help because the caramel syrup was too hot for me to handle.

My mom and siblings would pour the caramel syrup onto a cookie sheet of popped corn and with movements that made them look like synchronized swimmers, quickly distribute the caramel and popcorn into softball size balls. Mom would then leave them to harden on waxed paper. Later, she would wrap each ball in plastic wrap.

Popcorn balls are one of those treats that you don’t really read about much anymore except during the fall when cooking or family oriented magazines might feature them as a good Halloween treat for kids.

But according to the Andrew Smith, author of
Popped Culture, “Popcorn balls were among the most popular confections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

And they appeared in many works of literature during that time including the
Little House on the Praire series and My Antonia.

According to Smith, “Although references appeared as early as the 1840s, the first recipe seems not to have been published until 1861 in Housekeeper’s Encyclopedia.”

My older cookbooks like Joy of Cooking and The Fannie Farmer Cookbook offered recipes for popcorn balls but recipes have all but disappeared in our modern cookbooks.

So maybe it is time for a popcorn ball comeback! Given our perilous economic times, popcorn balls can soothe us with feelings of a simpler time and it doesn’t hurt that popcorn is relatively cheap compared to chips and salsa or other pricey snacks. And they have the added benefit of being gluten-free!

But how to jazz up this treat to compete with Chipotle Ranch Doritos or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos? And could this snack be made more appealing to adults by offering a more sophisticated taste?

I decided to blend my Indiana sensibilities with a California twist and experiment with different takes on this classic treat.

My mom did leave us her typewritten recipe with her handwritten notes so I used this recipe as my master recipe.

For several week-ends the smell of popcorn permeated my house. My husband and daughter kept sneaking fistfuls of popcorn. My hair (my dog) and every surface in my kitchen were covered with a thin sticky film.

My testers turned up their noses at the combination of peanut butter and chocolate as well as caramel, garlic salt and chile powder (I wonder why…) but they were thumbs up on:

Dark chocolate and espresso

Dark chocolate, chile powder and lime

Dulce de Leche and coconut

I also took a few liberties with the size of these treats making some golf ball size and some into small clusters.

The teenagers and the adults love the novelty of these combinations but I have to admit that the old-fashioned caramel popcorn ball is still the crowd favorite.

Caramel Popcorn Balls: Master Recipe
Adapted from a recipe by Dorothy Hanna
Note: see tips from for essential tips on making the syrup.

Makes about 15 softball sized balls

1 cup sugar

1 cup brown sugar

¼ cup dark corn syrup

1 cup water

1/3 cup butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

8 cups popped corn (about 2 ½ quarts which is about 1 cup of unpopped popcorn)

Distribute popped corn in one layer on as many cookie sheets as needed.

Put sugars, corn syrup and water in large saucepan. Stir until sugar is dissolved, then cook to hard crack stage (300 degrees on candy thermometer).

Remove from heat and add butter and vanilla. Stir until melted and combined.

Pour over popped corn and quickly form into balls.

Let stand on waxed or parchment paper until cool.

Dark Chocolate and Espresso Popcorn Balls

Use Master Recipe but add:

2 Tablespoons dark cocoa powder
(Hershey Special Dark is a good choice)

1 Tablespoon espresso powder
(I used instant espresso crystals from Medaglia D’Oro)

Add both of these ingredients when you add the butter. Stir until melted and combined.

Pour over popped corn and quickly form into balls.

After the balls are formed, quickly roll in mini semi-sweet chocolate chips. Nestle and Hershey both make mini chocolate chips.

Let stand on waxed or parchment paper until cool.

Dark Chocolate, Chile Powder and Lime Popcorn Balls

Use Master Recipe but add:

1 Tablespoon dark cocoa powder

(Hershey Special Dark is a good choice)

1 teaspoon lime juice (or to taste)

1 teaspoon chile powder (ancho, Mexican or chipotle) or more to taste

Add these ingredients when you add the butter. Stir until melted and combined.

Pour over popped corn and quickly form into balls.

Let stand on waxed or parchment paper until cool.

Dulce de Leche and Coconut Popcorn Balls

On my first attempt I made my own dulce de leche but I couldn’t get the consistency to be sticky enough to form into balls. Best to purchase a jar of dulce de leche which can be found in most grocery stores. It will typically be found with the ice cream supplies like cones and toppings.

1 cup dulce de leche

1 cup brown sugar

¼ light corn syrup

1 cup water

1/3 cup butter

About 1 or 2 cups of shredded, moist coconut

Distribute popped corn in one layer on as many cookie sheets as needed.

Put dulce de leche, sugar, corn syrup and water in large saucepan. Stir until sugar is dissolved, then cook to hard crack stage (300 degrees on candy thermometer).

Remove from heat and add butter.

Pour over popped corn and quickly form into balls.

Roll into shredded coconut.

Let stand on waxed or parchment paper until cool.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tour de L.A.: Bakeshops and Sunshine

Bypass the Getty and forget lurking for celebrities at Fred Segal. If you are heading to the Los Angeles area this summer, make sure you make time for a tasting tour. No, not just of wine bars but of bakeshops! Here are a few to get you started from several of my recent trips to the area.

First stop, Joan’s on Third located on West Third in L.A. a few blocks east of the Beverly Center and west of The Grove/Farmer’s Market. Although Joan’s is also a café offering breakfast and lunch as well as a retail gourmet marketplace, they offer some of the best baked goods in this area. The bakery case is loaded with cupcakes, cookies, coffeecakes, and their famous lemon bars.

Get your goodies to go and stroll down the few blocks that make up this trendy stretch of W. Third. See if there are any celebrities having lunch at Toast or see if you can resist the gallery quality house wares and funky ceramic offerings at OK and Zipper. The Cook’s Library, a bookstore specializing in cookbooks for chefs and the rest of us, is worth a few minutes of browsing time.

Finish your treat and tear yourself away from the rest of the shops and head to Culver City. Long a hub of the film industry, Culver City is now home to the hottest boutiques and restaurants in L.A. But we are bypassing all this trendiness – our stop is the Grand Casino Bakery.

Grand Casino Bakery has been in this area long before it became trendy and judging by the lunchtime rush – it will continue to hold its own against its hipster neighbors. Grand Casino offers the best medialunas outside of Buenos Aires – these sweet croissants are small enough that five or six go down easy. Butter cookies sandwiched together with dulce de leche and membrillo (quince paste) spill out of baskets just asking for you to grab a handful. And if you want to pick up one of their savory empanadas to go, no one would blame you.

There are many sites to see in this rejuvenated section of Culver City but the favorite of any baker has got to be Surfas – the most amazing restaurant supply store I have ever seen. I still pine for it and I live in the San Francisco area – another mecca for cooks. Surfas offers not just your typical restaurant supplies like dinnerware and cookware but also hard to find items like edible silver petals and sugars in every color of the Pantone color chart. And the building isn’t one big drafty warehouse like some of these places can be. Surfas also brings together some of the luminaries of the cooking and restaurant world for technique classes and product demonstrations. And they even have an onsite café so you can take a break from shopping. Their oatmeal cookie is outstanding. I tried to take a few photos of some of their amazing wares but was caught in the act. As the manager patiently explained as he berated me for taking photos, “we have a lot of celebrity chefs in here and they don’t want their competition to see what they are buying. “ Ok, I still like this place even though that was a bit pretentious.

Next stop, Vanilla Bake Shop in Santa Monica located on Wilshire Blvd. -- a few blocks from the Third Street Promenade. This tiny shop with its brown and white color scheme offers cupcakes, cakes and confections with a contemporary twist. Their designs remind me of the style of clothing of designer Vera Wang – sweet but hip. But their treats are not just all look and no taste. Although they have become known for their fancy sounding chocolate cake with Fleur de Sel caramel filling, don’t pass up their cupcake babies – three mini cupcakes in a variety of flavors. My favorite flavor is Mom’s Birthday Cake – an all American yellow cake with milk chocolate frosting. In a “this is becoming hilarious” moment – I was warned not to take photos when I whipped out my camera to take a few snaps. I guess illusions of celebrity grandeur or perhaps fear of competition is rampant in L.A.

A short drive to boutique lined Abbot Kinney Blvd. in Venice Beach gives you two bakeshop choices. If it is Friday, your first stop has to be the Three Square Bakery and Café before they run out of their famous Berliners. Offered only on Friday, a Berliner is a German donut made from a secret family recipe. The donuts are filled with sweet seedless raspberry jam and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. This labor-intensive pastry is made in small batches so the store limits one dozen per customer. I was sad to see that there were only two left but not as sad as the person behind me.

Walk off your Berliner by strolling the few blocks that make up Abbot Kinney Blvd. The Street, as locals know it, is home to many art galleries as well as funky and eclectic shops but there are two shops not to be missed.

Taj Taj Jewelry pulls together a unique combination of items including intricate wirework, beautiful gemstones and Irish linen to create necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Down the street a funkier store but no less passionate about design is Surfing Cowboys. I love their tag line: Vintage, The Original Green! No one will blame you if you start humming an old Clash tune as you browse this eclectic furniture and design store. After all, Charlie don’t surf…….

All this strolling will leave you needing a nice cup of tea so cross the street and open the gate to Jin Patisserie for entry into a Zen-like state. This is just the place to end your tour of L.A. bakeshops. Perhaps just one of their exquisite artisan chocolates flavored with lemongrass or black sesame with a cup of tea might soothe you but for me it was one perfect French macaron.

And I took all the photos I wanted.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Baking Failures & A Hamburger Bun Quest

"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude."
— Julia Child

“Perfect Baking,” “As Easy as Pie,” and “How to be a Domestic Goddess” are titles of just a few of the baking and dessert books I have on my bookshelf.

These authors have very good intentions – I truly believe that they want me to be a domestic goddess. But the truth is that baking, unlike other aspects of cooking, is a very exact science. A pinch of this and a smidge of that doesn’t work that well when you are making something as perilous as a three-layer cake with a Swiss meringue buttercream frosting and fondant decorations. There isn’t much room for error.

But I confess that one of the things I enjoy about baking is the experimentation. So I don’t really mind these baking failures. I always keep in mind that we owe the very versatile puff pastry dough to a baker who forgot to put butter in their dough then tried to roll it in after the fact.

No one likes to talk about his or her failures in life. But in baking, that final spectacular product is often preceded by many many failures. And even a recipe that has been made hundreds of times before can fail.

Fortunately, in most cases, those failures are edible.

I typically try a recipe two or three times before I debut it at a dinner party or family gathering or before I try to change an ingredient in the original recipe.

But sometimes I’m tempted to try a recipe before I test it. I have found out the hard way that sometimes the seemingly easiest recipes are the hardest to perfect.

I vividly remember the simple chocolate cake with a buttercream icing I made for a dinner party. I hadn’t bothered to test the recipe -- I had made similar recipes many times. And this cake looked pretty good when I took it out of the oven. But after a few minutes, I watched in horror as the middle of the cake sunk. I now had a nice little dip in my beautiful cake. And no time to make another one before the guests arrived.

Being an avid wearer of makeup, I knew a little concealer was called for to camouflage my blemish. I made the buttercream icing and iced that cake anyway. I built up the icing over the dip, put the cake on a pretty platter and no one was the wiser. Of course, I made certain to take the cake to the kitchen to slice it. I very neatly sliced around the middle of the cake.

Each baking disaster teaches me something that I can use next time. Sure I’ve learned to measure correctly, have ingredients at the right temperature, have the right equipment for the job but surprisingly, one of the most important factors in successful baking is to check the weather first. A cold kitchen can make your bread decide not to rise and high humidity can cause havoc with meringue.

My husband writes a popular hamburger blog. Recently, he decided that he would like to include a posting about how to make your own hamburgers from scratch. For him, this means to grind your own sirloin and make your own hamburger buns and sauce. He had been pestering me to create a hamburger bun for him.

I usually would try several recipes first before I settled on a favorite one but he had already bought the meat and wanted to make the burgers that night. How hard could it be I thought? A little yeast and flour thrown together and I would make him the best hamburger bun he ever consumed. After all, I know how to make croissants; hamburger buns would be a walk in the park by comparison.

My baking prowess would soon be on display for all to see on

Last summer in the annual BBQ issue of Gourmet Magazine, a recipe for hamburger buns was featured. It was first published in the magazine in 2002 and it was a favorite of the editors. But in my mind what made it a special recipe was that the creator of the recipe is from the same small town where I grew up in Indiana. I had torn it out and saved it but hadn’t yet tried it.

I carefully made the dough and set it in a bowl to rise on the stove. The yeast did its job and the dough doubled in size. I then shaped the dough into buns and covered them for their final rise.

They looked good until I took the cover off to put them in the oven. The dough was so sticky it was like gum on a shoe. The dough stuck to the plastic wrap.

Blog fame would not be mine that night.

I started researching possible hamburger bun recipes to try next. I decided that I needed a sturdy bun that wasn’t too bready -- one that didn’t overwhelm the burger but still melded well with the cheese, meat and condiments and sauce.

Also on my wish list was a bun that wouldn’t take all day to make -- ideally one that had only one rise instead of the typical two. The above recipe took more than five hours from start to finished bun. It would be great to find one that I could make on the spur (almost) of the moment – whenever the burger whim hit which at our house was quite often.

Many of the recipes I encountered were brioche dough but I didn’t want a hamburger bun that was that rich; the bun needed to be the supporting player and not the main attraction.

Then I happened upon a recipe from The recipe called for instant yeast so the time to finished product would be quick and it wasn’t heavy on the butter but was more of a dinner roll.

From start to finish the recipe took only about 1.5 hours. Not bad! I made each dough ball about 3 oz. The bun was light and didn’t detract from the hamburger. I tried it several more times -- eventually increasing to about 4 oz for the perfect size.

This recipe has now become a favorite – we also use it for turkey cheddar burgers and rosemary Portobello mushroom burgers that are both a nice break from beef.

As Ray Kroc, creator of the McDonald’s franchise noted, “It requires a certain kind of mind to see beauty in a hamburger bun.”

I take that as a compliment.

The latest Gourmet Magazine annual BBQ issue (June 2009) features yet another hamburger bun recipe but I’ve decided not to be tempted – I have plenty of other uses for those four hours.

So while I haven’t made any major discoveries like puff pastry yet, my experimentation has led to some signature desserts and baked goods that are requested over and over again by friends and family.

In fact, I find the more I mess up, the more I learn. And there lies the trick to being a good baker.

So, there are actual times when I made that pie to die for that I felt like the perfect baker, a true domestic goddess.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Fabulous Boys from Baked

Last week I, along with other devotees of a certain Baked brownie, crowded together at Omnivore Books on Food in San Francisco to hear Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito entertain us with stories of the founding of their now famous bakery, Baked, in Brooklyn, NY.

Much has been written about these two – yes we all know that they and their baked goodies are included in Oprah’s list of favorite things and we know they write for Bon Appetit and then there is that hipster tag that they and their shops are getting but really – what this writer found the most refreshing is that after all this acclaim and about five years of being in business which isn’t made up of all Oprah type moments:


Sorry, didn’t mean to shout but it is so refreshing to listen to them speak about their passion for baking. They are truly having fun with it. And it appears they still enjoy being in business with each other – also not something to take for granted.

Lewis and Poliafito are not just passionate about baking, but also passionate about preserving the classic American desserts that most of us (Americans) grew up eating.

As Lewis put it, “many classic desserts are no longer part of our heritage. It is almost easier to find an authentic croissant in America than it is a good brownie or piece of pie.”

He continued, “and if you do find a good brownie, it just might be from Costco or made from 98 ingredients.”

He cracked up the crowd when he said, “I guess you could say that our bakery was founded on anger!”

Their goal was to not have a bakery focused solely on production but a bakery filled with the love of baking.

They focus on “old-school” desserts but they put their own spin on them. For example, a basic chocolate cake becomes milk chocolate malt ball cake. The classic whoopie pie becomes a pumpkin whoopie with cream cheese (instead of the traditional shortening) filling.

And how about their most requested cake that has now become their signature creation: the sweet and salty cake, which mixes salted caramel with rich chocolate.

The recipes for these creations plus many more can be found in their best-selling cookbook, Baked: New Frontiers in Baking.” I love that title – it so aptly describes their baking mission.

Next up from Lewis and Poliafito is a cookbook focusing on regional desserts – they contend that despite what we all hear about the world becoming homogeneous with a Starbucks and McDonalds on every corner in America, baking is still very regional.

Their examples include the passion New Yorkers have for the black&white cookie and the banana cream pie often found in Los Angeles and of course, Boston’s claim to fame – no, not the Red Sox, Boston cream pie.

They also cite as evidence the very regional differences in tastes between their bakery in New York and their second bakery in Charleston, South Carolina.

“Charleston dessert lovers crave all things boozy and sweet!”

They hope to have the book out in October 2010.

I couldn’t get them to commit to including a recipe for that Indiana classic and my hometown favorite, Indiana Sugar Cream Pie.

Maybe they aren't aware that on January 22, 2009 the Indiana General Assembly passed a bill introduced by State Senator Allen Paul to have sugar cream pie become the official state pie of Indiana?!

So, of course, I had to bake a few test recipes of Indiana Sugar Cream Pie.

Although you can find many conflicting opinions on the origins of sugar cream pie, all purists (ok, I’m biased) know that Indiana sugar cream pie shouldn’t be confused with the brown sugar pie generally thought to be created by the Amish. There is also another version that is sometimes called Quebec Sugar Cream Pie, which calls for maple syrup.

I even saw a recipe for sugar cream pie in a recent issue of Metropolitan Home magazine. They elevated this humble pie by using golden syrup and serving it with baked peaches.

What most of the recipes have in common though is that the pie can typically be made with ingredients found on hand. That is why this pie is sometimes called “desperation pie.” Certainly this pie was commonly found on most dinner tables in the Indiana farm country.

Grandma Kline lived on a farm in northern Indiana. She used lard for her piecrusts because they raised pigs on this farm but also because most bakers commonly used lard at that time.

The basic ingredients for the filling are sugar, flour or cornstarch for thickening, milk, cream or half and half, butter, vanilla and nutmeg or cinnamon dusted on top.

This pie may have the consistency of custard but none of the recipes for a true sugar cream pie will include eggs on the ingredient list.

I dug out Grandma Kline’s Indiana Sugar Cream Pie recipe. But I wasn’t sure about the crust that called for lard, which sounds much better when you call it by its Spanish name, manteca.

Matt Lewis encouraged me to try the lard. He is a big fan of manteca but it has been a hard sell to customers.

I was up for the challenge but disappointed by the results. My house smelled like carnitas! The resulting pie filling was delicious but the crust was dark, crisp and porky tasting.

The next pie I made I used the modern equivalent of lard – good old Crisco. I grew up eating shortening piecrusts. I routinely turned my nose up at butter crusts. But now, I must admit, I have compromised and have been using a combination of butter and Crisco for my piecrusts in order to obtain that holy pie grail of a tender and flaky crust that melts in your mouth.

But no butter or butter/shortening compromise for a true Indiana Sugar Cream Pie!

Cosmetically the second finished pie was a beauty. The crust was lightly browned and tender. The filling was set but had just the right amount of jiggle in the middle.

That first bite was a cool, creamy, tender, flaky, cinnamon induced mouthful of goodness! (I think I just murdered the English language!)

Grandma Kline’s Old Fashioned Sugar Cream Pie

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

One pre-baked piecrust

1 cup sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

2 cups milk

½ cup butter (one stick)

1 teaspoon vanilla

dusting of cinnamon

Whisk together sugar, milk and cornstarch in saucepan.

Cook over medium heat until thickened.

Remove from heat and add butter then vanilla.

Pour into pre-baked pie shell.

Sprinkle with cinnamon.

Bake for 35-45 minutes or until middle is set but not firm.

Cool on wire rack.

Once cool, I like to chill the pie (uncovered) for several hours.

It can be eaten chilled or at room temperature.

Note: use the leftover scraps of piecrust dough to make what my mom always called “pinwheels.” These flaky morsels are hard to resist -- I think my family likes them more than the pie! Push the scrapes together in a ball then roll out on floured surface. Sprinkle with cinnamon and roll up like a jellyroll. Slice each piece about ½ inch thick. Bake in 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes or until brown on bottom.