Monday, July 27, 2009

Daring Bakers Challenge: Marsh(mallow) Madness

The July Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

The Bakers were given the option to make both the Marshmallow and Milan cookies or just one of the recipes.

With the completion of this challenge, I’ve been a member of the Daring Bakers for one year.

And what an educational and sweet year it has been.

I’ve piped dough for ├ęclairs, sweated through a layer cake with five different complicated steps, stretched strudel dough and learned about Bakewell Tarts and murder.

Probably the challenge that was the most fun was learning to toss pizza dough!

Several of the recipes became favorites, like the caramel cake, and some were best forgotten, like that layer cake.

And it has been fun to see how differently the other bakers approached each challenge. It often seemed that the more than 1000 members had that many different ways to interpret each challenge.

For this month’s challenge, I chose to focus only on the Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies. I was excited to try my hand at making marshmallows. Making marshmallows has become the latest bakery treat but I hadn’t yet attempted to make a batch.

I flipped through a few of my newer cookbooks and was surprised to find only one or two that had recipes for making marshmallows. I plan to try both the recipes by Dorie Greenspan in her book, Baking: From My Home to Yours and also the recipes by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito in their recent book, Baked: New Frontiers in Baking.

I had to go all the way back to my cookbooks from the 1940s and 1950s to find recipes for making marshmallow.

It appears that once technology made it possible for marshmallows to be commercially produced in 1948 and became available as a standard grocery store product, it was no longer considered a skill cooks needed to have in their repertoire.

These cookies are also called Mallows by the host of this challenge but when I was growing up, we called them Mallomars.

Introduced in the U.S. in 1913 by Nabisco, a Mallomar is a graham cracker cookie topped with marshmallow then dipped in dark chocolate (the Nabisco description says “enrobed in chocolate!”).

Similar cookies have been around for hundreds of years. Many countries have their own version. Most likely the first “mallomar” was created in Denmark.

The cookie base in this recipe was more shortbread in consistency than graham cracker. I would be happy just having them on their own with a cup of tea.

The marshmallow component was the hard part of this challenge and my kitchen and almost every utensil shows traces of my efforts (not to mention my hair and clothes).

I had thought that the marshmallow would be made in a pan then cut to fit the cookie base. But of course that would have been too easy.

The recipe called for the ingredients to be whipped to stiff peaks then piped from a pastry bag onto the cookie paste. Not easy and very messy.

But it worked ok. But I hadn’t factored in Mother Nature.

As all bakers know, one of the most important ingredients in any baking project is the weather. A change in humidity or too hot or cold weather can alter any baking result.

In this case, although I live in Northern California where we don’t really have too many hot days or any humidity to complain about, this particular day was hotter than normal and there was a slight humid feel to the air.

So while the marshmallow did set up pretty well – not great though, the chocolate that I then dipped each cookie into did not.

Then I discovered an interesting fact about Mallomars – Nabisco considers them a seasonal product. Mallomars are only available from October-April then they disappear!

It appears that many people across the country anxiously await the appearance of that yellow box in their grocery stores.

Even shows the Mallomar as a product you can order online but if you try to order them now, they show as currently unavailable. The product description on amazon says, “product sensitive to heat”. You can even sign up to be notified when the product is available.

An article from the New York Times in 2005 titled, The Cookie that Comes Out in The Cold, focuses on the reappearance of this treasured cookie when the cold weather hits.

There are also numerous fan websites dedicated to singing the praise of this humble cookie. Movies, TV and print have all paid homage to the Mallomar.

I had no idea the Mallomar inspired such rapture and frenzy in its dedicated followers. I personally was a pink Sno-Ball fan…

So now it makes more sense to me why my cookies failed.

But of course now I want a box. I wonder if there is a limit to the number of boxes you can order on amazon………

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sour Cherries: Rare as Rubies

It all started with an email.

The email was from a fellow member of the Baker’s Dozen that was sent to the general membership. Jennie Schacht from Schacht & Associates wanted to know where oh where she could get fresh sour cherries in the SF Bay Area.

I read her email then followed the thread of responses with growing interest. I had no idea how hard it was to find sour (also called tart) cherries in this area.

I had no idea because having grown up in the Mid-West, finding sour cherries wasn’t a big deal. And for me, it was especially easy because we had a cherry tree in our back yard!

Every springtime our cherry tree would be thick with white blossoms foretelling the bounty we would soon harvest. And every June we would have Montmorency sour cherries – baskets and baskets of them.

My mom, who worked full time, had quite the difficult time keeping up with the harvest. Having grown up during the Great Depression, it went against her thrifty nature to waste anything.

As the youngest of five, the best way to get some of her time was to bake with her on her rare day off. And bake I did – pies, cakes, cookies, -- many a Sunday was spent rolling dough.

She would put up jars and jars of cherry jam. She would make lots of cherry pies. And when she was overwhelmed with too many cherries, she would make cherry cobbler.

I know that depending upon where you live or where you grew up, there is more than one definition of what makes something a cobbler as well as differing opinions on how to make a cobbler.

All I know is that in my house, cobbler was something that was made in a glass casserole dish that measured 9x13 and had a top crust only; no bottom crust. The crust was basic pie dough made from Crisco.

I guess this must have been my mom’s version of pie fast food – a way to use up a lot of cherries with a minimal amount of effort.

I ruined many a shirt pitting those cherries. I look liked I’d been shot – my shirts were scattered with brown stains. I didn’t wear an apron because she didn’t – I don’t remember why she didn’t but to this day, I often don’t realize I’ve forgotten to put on one of my many aprons until I’m covered in flour (or worse).

So, back to that email from Jennie. Her recommendation on how to score sour cherries in the SF area is to keep your eyes out for the cherries at your local market or ask one of the farmer's at your local farmer's market to hold some for you when they come in.

I checked with two local organic farm stands near me. The produce manager informed me that the season this year for the cherries was only about two weeks long and they sold out immediately. The local season is usually mid-May to early June.

Two of the gourmet grocery stores near me had the same response. At one of the fruit stands, I asked about a wait list for next year and was met with a long silence, then a nod and an offer to come see him next year so he could put me on the list.

I felt like I was making a drug deal.

I hadn’t made a cherry pie or cobbler in years – probably because of all those cherry pies in my past. I usually opted for a peach pie during the summer and apple in the fall.

But now I just had to make a cherry cobbler. But where to find cherries? And did they have to be the rare sour cherry? Is that the only cherry that would do? What about frozen or canned cherries from other cherry producing states?

Most bakers like to use sour cherries in their baked goods. These cherries are called Montmorency as I mentioned above. But some bakers like to use the sweet cherries, which are called Bing cherries. Bing cherries are easily found at grocery stores and farmer’s markets. There are of course many other types of cherries such as the Rainier cherry with yellow and reddish skin and the Royal Ann variety that are mostly used for maraschino cherries. But it was the rare and elusive sour cherry that I sought.

And as Matthew Amster-Burton put it in his May 2008 article for Gourmet Magazine, “they’re lovely, fleeting, and very expensive, like a pony. I’ve routinely spent $50 on them.”

If I had a back yard I would be planting a Montmorency tree right now. And in fact, that is what Jenni told us she was going to do. I will be sure to introduce myself to her at our next meeting!

In her book, The Pie and Pastry Bible, Rose Levy Beranbaum recommends that if you are unable to find fresh, local cherries, to get them from American Spoon Foods located in Michigan.

If Beranbaum says it is ok to use frozen or canned, who am I to argue??

Some markets carry frozen cherries from Michigan, Washington and Oregon – the primary states for cherry production. But most of the cherries were sweet cherries, not sour and I was too impatient to order them online.

But then I remembered the cherry strudel I had made for a recent Daring Baker’s Challenge. I hadn’t paid too much attention to the filling since the real challenge had been in making strudel dough. I had used canned cherries from Oregon Fruit Products. They were nothing more than fruit packed in water. No additives. And this time I noticed that the label declared that the cherries were Montmorency cherries. They were about $6/can.

I thought of my mom as I rolled out the pie dough and fitted it over my filling in my seldom-used 9x13 casserole dish. I put my own twist on the cobbler while remaining true to her original recipe.

For the crust I used Crisco but also added a bit of butter. For the filling I primarily used the sour cherries and a small amount of their juice, which I had thickened with a bit of cornstarch. I had decided to add some sweet Bing cherries to my cobbler --- also from Oregon Fruit Products -- so I added just a small amount of sugar to my filling. And in a nod to all those baking days with my mom, I didn’t wear an apron – but of course I didn’t have to pit those cherries either!

As it baked, my house was filled with the familiar scent of pastry dough and bubbling cherries. I wished that my mom were still alive to enjoy it with me. But like the rare Montmorency cherry, I didn’t know she would leave so soon.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Yes! We have no bananas

I was very annoyed the other day. I was feeling very virtuous, very shall I say, victory gardenish.

I had purchased bananas at my husband’s request. His intentions were good – he wanted a healthy snack to grab and instead of Oreos but somehow the Oreos often won the battle.

So now I had brown bananas drooping over the fruit bowl. Some looked like they had the banana version of the measles.

I decided to make banana bread with the abandoned bananas. But all the recipes I have call for the addition of an acidic ingredient: usually buttermilk but sometimes yogurt or sour cream. And I didn’t have any of these.

So now I was annoyed.

Banana bread becomes less virtuous not to mention less convenient if you have to drive to the store for buttermilk.

While I sometimes have sour cream in the fridge, I rarely have buttermilk or plain yogurt. And I know it is a real time saver and an economic choice but I dislike using powdered buttermilk. It just seems wrong to use an instant mix in a cake made from scratch.

All of this got me wondering about why I had to use buttermilk or equivalent at all. I mean, who decided that anyway?

I decided to burn off my annoyance by pouring through my cookbooks for a recipe that didn’t call for an acidic ingredient in its banana bread. I wanted to use the milk that I always I had in the fridge, which was generally 1% milk.

I didn’t find any recipes.

Time to experiment!

My first attempt at banana bread using milk was a dismal failure. The cake had a nice slick finish but had a metallic taste to it.

I had forgotten that the role of baking soda in a cake is to mellow out the acidic ingredient whether it be buttermilk, chocolate, yogurt or sour cream. In this case I had used the baking soda but it didn’t have a job to do.

But did I really need the baking soda if I wasn’t using an acidic ingredient? Could I just leave it out and rely on baking powder for the rise I needed?

According to Shirley Corriher in her latest book, BakeWise, the answer is yes:

“Many baking recipes call for both baking powder and baking soda (chemical leaveners that give cakes the rise they need instead of yeast). This may seem redundant since they are both essentially baking soda, but there can be reasons to use both. Baking powder is very reliable. It never leaves a soapy aftertaste because it contains exactly the right amount of acid for the amount of soda and most baking powder is double-acting, meaning it releases carbon dioxide both immediately in the batter and later in the hot oven. But if a recipe contains a considerable amount of an acidic ingredient such as yogurt or sour cream, a little soda may be added in order to neutralize some of the acidity. However, I am a strong believer in creating more acidic batters and doughs. I tend to avoid soda altogether or use it in very small amounts.”

So the baking soda was kicked to the curb.

I did find a small amount of sour cream hiding in a container way back in the fridge so I tried that next. The sour cream gave the cake a fuller, richer flavor but it made for an unattractive, dark crust.

Now I was on a real quest. I decided to make my own banana bread rules:

•Use non-acidic ingredient for the moisture. In my case I would use 1% milk
•Make it low fat by using vegetable oil instead of butter. That way I also didn’t have to remember to soften the butter!
•No loaf pan. I hated how often the middle of the loaf was often under baked. Baking in an 8 or 9-inch pan also let me have a cake that would bake in 35 minutes versus an hour.
•Leave out the baking soda and let the baking powder do the job of making the cake rise.

But of course now I was out of bananas! Usually I’m trying to find just the right bunch, the one that has a few bananas ready to eat now as well as ones that will be ripe later in the week. But now I was the shopper looking for the black and speckled bananas. I got quite a few strange looks as I dug through the banana pile.

My first attempt using my rebel banana bread rules was partially successful. The cake had a nice rise, good finish and nice texture. But it didn’t have the rich taste I was used to in banana bread. It needed the buttermilk.

As I pondered how to pump up the flavor, I remembered the cupcake baking class that I took with Anita Chu, cookbook author and food blogger, at Tante Marie cooking school in San Francisco a few months ago

In her class, we had experimented with infusions to add another flavor dimension to the cupcakes.

Since I think of banana bread as a breakfast or afternoon snack that I would enjoy with a cup of coffee, I decided to meld those flavors together.

I heated a bit of milk and added instant espresso (I ALWAYS have instant espresso in the cupboard!) to the milk. After the granules had dissolved, I took the mixture off the heat to steep.

The resulting cake was delicious. The banana flavor was enhanced by a hint of coffee. And you could easily increase the amount of espresso for a more pronounced coffee flavor.

My husband cut wedges and slathered peanut butter on them for a mid-afternoon protein pickup. Of course, that added calories to my low-fat offering but it seemed a better alternative to those Oreos!

As good as that cake was, I wondered if there was a way to make the flavor a bit more complex without using butter or other high fat ingredients.

The next version I made, I mixed in a cup of chocolate chips. Not a lot but enough to give my cake a more sophisticated taste and perhaps do away with the slather of peanut butter. I could have reduced this to ½ cup. With the addition of the coffee and now the chocolate, my bread had a rich mocha taste.

Now, as the song says, I've Got the Yes! We Have No Bananas Blues!

The Low-Fat, No Baking Soda, No Buttermilk
and No Loaf Pan Banana Bread

1/3 cup milk

1 teaspoon to 1 Tablespoon instant espresso – I use the Medagliadoro brand (to taste)

2 large Eggs

¾ cup of sugar

1 cup to 1.5 cups mashed rip bananas – about three or four ripe bananas

1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

231 grams flour (buy a scale already!)

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ to 1 cup chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 8x2 round cake pan with cooking spray.

Heat milk on low heat with instant espresso until dissolved. Remove from heat to let the mixture steep.

Beat eggs and sugar in bowl of electric mixer using paddle attachment until thick and light, about five minutes.

Mix in bananas, milk mixture, oil and vanilla and blend well.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add to batter and mix only until blended. Remove bowl from mixture and give the batter a few turns with a wooden spoon to ensure all the dry ingredients have been integrated.

Pour into prepared pan and smooth top.

Bake until golden brown and tester inserted in center come out clean, about 30-35 minutes.

Cool in pan on wire rack. Once cool, release from pan.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Nun's and Roses

Like most bakers, I tend to read cookbooks like they are novels: word-by-word,

Last week I read a cookbook that I had recently inherited from my mom. It was her mother’s cookbook and so I felt they were both with me as I read the recipes. It was a pleasant feeling. I felt that I was paging through a family scrapbook as I realized that several favorite family recipes had come from this cookbook.

The name of the cookbook is The Household Searchlight Recipe Book first published in 1931 by The Household Magazine. Ethel Wilson, my grandmother, had inscribed her name inside the front cover in 1940.

In the Foreword the publisher outlines their mission. A mission that takes the reader back to not exactly simpler times in American history but certainly a time in our history where a woman’s role was seemingly clearly defined:

“The Household Searchlight is a service station conducted for the readers of The Household Magazine. In this seven-room house lives a family of specialists whose entire time is spent in working out the problems of homemaking common to every woman who finds herself responsible for the management of a home and the care of children.”

I would have liked to visit that seven-room house.

The recipes were contributed by the readers of The Household Magazine as well as others developed by the magazines' “food specialist” as well as by food manufacturers (could this be an early example of product placement?).

As I turned to the section dedicated to cakes, a recipe called Nun’s Cake intrigued me. The recipe was submitted by Mrs. C. E. Beam of Statesville, North Carolina and the subhead of the recipe notes that it is a “Prize Winning Recipe.”

As I looked over the ingredient list, the cake appeared to be a type of seed cake popular in the British Isles. But the seed in this cake are caraway seeds. Caraway seeds are not typically found in most modern day seed cakes; most seed cakes are now made with poppy seeds. I tend to think more of sturdy dark breads when I think of baking with caraway seeds.

I decided to poke around a bit online on the Infotrac databases as well as on online sites to see what I could find about seed cakes.

I found that seed cake was a general term for a cake served to celebrate the spring sowing of wheat or to celebrate the autumn harvesting of the crop starting in the 16th century. The cake got its name not from containing seeds but from the occasion upon which it was served. It appears that early seed cakes were more of a typical fruitcake or even a simple and plain pound cake.

Although caraway seeds are not often used now in cakes, they were used quite frequently in all types of baking in the 16th to 18th centuries. Seeds cakes often pop up in literature -- seed cakes are mentioned in both The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien as well as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Early seed cake recipes didn’t use sugar but instead used yeast in the form of ale to raise the cake. Modern recipes of course now use baking powder and baking soda as leavening agents.

The other interesting ingredient for this Nun’s Cake is rose water. I have used rose water in Middle Eastern baking – see my post on making Syrian bread – but haven’t seen it used in this type of cake.

According to reporter Patricia Mack in a 1997 newspaper article titled “Flower Power” published in The Record a New Jersey newspaper, “It (rose water) is a very exotic and very ancient ingredient. The use of floral waters in cooking dates from the Middle Ages. Orange blossom and rose were the most commonly used extracts, which along with elderflower, gained popularity in the 17th century.

Rose water was also frequently used in baking in Western Europe and in the U.S. until the use of vanilla flavoring knocked it out of favor in the 19th century.

But my search for other recipes called Nun’s Cake turned up no other recipes other than the one in my cookbook. In fact, several other recipe sites use this recipe word for word -- right down to calling it a Prize Winning Recipe but the recipe is attributed to someone other than Mrs. C. E. Beam. Often the recipe was attributed to a grandmother or my dear mother but not to Mrs. C. E. Beam.

There actually was one exception – I did find a recipe for Nun’s Cake from The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse and published in 1747. I love how it is written:

A Rich Seed Cake, called the Nun's Cake.

Take four Pound of your finest Flour, and three Pound of double refine'd Sugar beaten and sifted, mix them together, and dry them by the Fire till you prepare your other Materials; take four Pound of Butter, beat it with your Hand till it is soft like Cream, then beat thirty-five Eggs, leave out sixteen Whites, and strain off your Eggs from the Treds, and beat them and the Butter together till all appears like Butter. Put in four of five Spoonfuls of Rose or Orange-flower Water, and beat again; then take your Flour and Sugar, with six Ounces of Carraway Seeds, and strew it in by Degrees, beating it up all the time for two Hours together. You may put in as much Tincture of Cinnamon or Ambergrease as you please butter your Hoop, and let it stand three Hours in a moderate Oven. You must observe always in beater of Butter to do it with a cool Hand, and beat it always one Way in a deep Earthen Dish.

Doesn’t sound that plain and easy to me!

But the following recipe is definitely easy but not plain tasting. When I tasted it, I thought that I was glad I had tried it but that I wouldn’t be making it again. But then I found myself breaking off bites and nibbles during the evening. My guests had the same reaction – they politely said it had an interesting taste as they moved on to the brownies on the tray but then I saw them coming back to the seed cake. My husband spread blackberry jam on slices. I could easily see slices spread thickly with peanut butter or even chocolate ganache. You could even make it fancy by serving slices with grilled peaches.

So, thank you Mrs. C. E. Beam – your Nun’s Cake is one habit I will keep.

Nun’s Cake
(Prize Winning Recipe)

(edited only slightly from original recipe wording)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Butter a 9x5 loaf pan

1 Cup Butter

1 ½ Cups Powdered Sugar

5 Egg Yolks

2 Egg Whites

¾ Cup Milk

3 Cups Cake Flour (sift then measure)

2 ½ teaspoons Baking Powder

¼ teaspoon Salt

3 teaspoons Caraway Seed

2 teaspoons Rose Water

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
(the original recipe calls for cinnamon flavoring. I used ground cinnamon)

Cream butter.

Add sugar and yolks of eggs and beat thoroughly.

Stir in unbeaten whites of eggs and beat mixture.

Sift flour, measure, and sift with baking powder and salt.

Add flour mixture alternately with milk to first mixture.

Sprinkle in caraway seed, beat well and add rose water and cinnamon.

Pour into prepared pan.

Bake for approximately one hour.