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.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

In Search of Lost Time -- Memories and Taste

After I wrote about inheriting my Grandmother's cookbook, The Household Searchlight Recipe Book, I received an email from Judy in Oregon:

"That was one of two main cookbooks my mother used and from which I learned to cook. I am now 63 years old and have not seen that cookbook for over 40 years, but there is one recipe I truly miss and would love to have again."

"It's a one-crust pie made with sour cream and has a streusel top crust as I remember. It is so-o-o-o-o-o-o good!"

Judy was hoping I could send her the recipe fro Apple Cream Pie that she had such fond memories of baking and eating.

I turned to the pie section but no apple cream pie recipe was listed. But then I checked out the index and found it listed under Special Suggestions at the end of the cookbook -- go figure. But I was relieved; I didn't want to disappoint Judy!

I emailed her the recipe and then checked in with her a few weeks later. I wanted to see if it was as good as she remembered:

"I made the pie the next day and it was fabulous. I've had other sour cream apple pies through the years, but never as good as that one. Making that pie again took me right back to my youth and the cooking I used to do on our 1950s GE Pushbutton Range."

I was glad to help Judy relive a cherished taste memory. This got me wondering about just that -- taste memory or to use the term coined by Marcel Proust as he munched on those madeleines, involuntary memory (sounds better in his native French: souvenir involontaire).

I often wonder what will be the dishes from her childhood that my daughter will remember when she is older. Will she crave the chocolate chip coffeecake that we always make on Christmas morning? Or will it be the endless batches of my chocolate chip cookies that she often uses as currency at school? I often find myself wondering as I bake if this pie or cake will become a favorite.

That's part of the fun of baking and the challenge as well.

For me the taste of a ring-a-ling brings memories of Sunday mornings in the house where I grew up. For my sister, the perfect coconut macaroon evokes memories of Christmas mornings and for my sister-in-law, it's a sugar cream pie that transports her back to growing up on a farm in Indiana.

And it isn't just the taste that can transport us back to another time. In an article for The New York Times Magazine, cookbook author and food writer Molly O'Neill said, "Indeed, taste summons memory, but context imbues it."

So it isn't just the taste of the ring-a-ling that makes up my good feeling it is the ability of that taste to transport me back to the kitchen in my childhood home where I'm standing on a stepstool watching my mom fill and shape yeast dough into ring-a-lings while the smell of cinnamon and baking bread fills the air. It is the smell of the honeysuckle outside the window that drifts in as we bake and the hot and humid air that hangs heavy around us.

The context of that taste memory makes it a cherished memory. And in the same way, Judy remembered more than just how good that pie was, she was transported "right back to my youth and the cooking I used to do on our 1950s GE Pushbutton Range."

In a piece for The New Yorker, cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey relates a question posed to her husband who is a musician, "Can you hear the music as you read it?" In a similar way, even thought it was decades before I made my own batch of ring-a-lings, my taste memory had recorded much of what I needed to know to recreate them.

My grandmother used to wear an apron that almost looked like a dress. It completely covered her from the neck down -- it resembled a hospital gown with its full coverage in the front and exposed back. These aprons always had a flower pattern -- usually an explosion of wildflowers. The edges were often trimmed in white rickrack (talk about memories -- where did that word come from!)

I found just such an apron one day as I was poking around a vintage clothing store. It only seemed appropriate to wear this apron as I used my Grandmother's cookbook to make Judy's cherished Apple Cream Pie.

Like many older cookbooks, this one assumed that you grew up at your Grandmother's knee making these recipes. As such, a general assumption of baking knowledge was assumed. The recipe didn't elaborate on many of the details. For example, no mention of size or type of pan to use, no details on whether the butter for the topping should be soft, firm or melted. And bake in a hot oven then a slow oven? Huh? And is the pastry shell prebaked or partially baked? And how should I know when it was done -- what should I look for at the end of the baking time?

But I used my memories to assemble and bake the pie. I did know what to do simply because I did help my mother bake. My souvenir involontaire kicked in.

The day I baked the pie it was way to hot to be baking pies and apples weren't exactly in season but I didn't want to wait any longer to make Judy's pie. I decided to stay in the spirit of the book and use the book's recipe for piecrust. It was a standard shortening crust and was called simply, Plain Pastry, in the cookbook.

The finished pie was truly as fabulous as Judy promised. It reminded me (taste memory) of the apple puffed pancake my husband bakes every Christmas morning.

I would not have made this pie if I hadn't received that email from Judy. I'm of the two-crust pie with a fruit filling camp. But this pie was irresistible. It tasted even better right out of the fridge and it only got better the next day as the flavors deepened.

This pie would be right at home on the Thanksgiving buffet next to the pumpkin pie. The melding of sour cream and apples baked into a custard then topped with a buttery cinnamon streusel is a taste memory that will linger long after the pie was gone.

Apple Cream Pie
Mrs. Roy B. Olsen, Driscoll, N.D.
From The Household Searchlight Recipe Book, versions 1931
(no changes made to recipe. Use whatever piecrust you prefer)

2 cups finely chopped tart apples
3/4 cup sugar

2 Tablespoons flour
1 cup sour cream
1 egg, well beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla flavoring

1/8 teaspoon salt

Combine sugar and flour. Add cream, egg, flavoring and salt. Beat until smooth. Add apples. Mix thoroughly. Pour into pastry-lined pie pan. Bake in hot oven (450 degrees) 15 minutes; reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake 30 minutes. Remove from oven.

Combine 1/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/3 cup flour, and 1/4 butter or butter alternate. Mix thoroughly. Sprinkle over pie. Return to oven. Bake in slow oven (325 degrees) 20 minutes.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Buzz Is On!!!

In May I received a “save the date” email from the Bakers Dozens membership for upcoming field trips and other meetings.

This year the summer field trip for the bakers would be at Marshall’s Honey Farm in Napa Valley.

Not being a big fan of honey, I didn’t really take much note of the field trip. Sure, I had a plastic bottle shaped like a bear in my pantry.

My husband was the one who liked honey – he put it on his peanut butter sandwiches. Sometimes I would buy a jar of unusual honey, like white honey, to put in the toe of his Christmas stocking.

Instead I noted the October meeting on my calendar since it would be with authors Harold McGee and Shirley Corriher. Now, that was a meeting I didn’t want to miss.

But then a strange thing happened. I started noticing one article after another on honey and bees.

The first article I noticed was an announcement of a shop that had just opened in June in San Francisco. This shop is called Her Majesty’s Secret Beekeeper. Owner Cameo Wood is an urban beekeeper and her shops carries not only honey, candles and other honey related products, but she also offers some most unusual classes including how to get started in becoming a beekeeper.

Hmm, urban beekeepers? Sounded like crazy talk. But I vowed to check out her shop. Being an avid Sherlock Holmes fan, I liked the name she had given her shop.

Then in early July, Florida became the first state (and actually probably the first in the world) to regulate honey. The regulation prohibits any additives, chemicals or adulterants in honey produced, processed or sold in Florida, which is a big producer of honey.

Regulate honey?

It seems that children’s toys and pet food from China aren’t the only products that this government produces that can make us sick. The claim is that honey is being shipped to the U.S. from China and other countries that are full of additives and much worse.

Then I heard about an upcoming PBS show on bees called “Silence of the Bees.” Like many, I had heard that the honeybee population was on the decline but I had chalked it up to another bad thing caused by global warming.

But it turns out that the disappearance of the honeybee is a mystery that Sherlock Holmes would have relished.

According to an article in Environmental Nutrition, it all started in the fall of 2006 when beekeepers around the world reported that honeybee colonies were mysteriously missing large number of bees. In 2007 the mystery was given the name of colony collapse disorder. According to this article, “colony collapse disorder is a syndrome characterized by the disappearance of all adult honey bees in a hive while immature bees and honey remain. “

The PBS documentary, while not putting its finger on one reason for the collapse of the hives, did identify several possible causes including new pathogens and pests in our environment as well as the push to use hives to supply pollination services.

Hoping to help the bees recover and in the interest of riding the trend of all foods being as local as possible, some chefs are actually raising their own bees.

An article in Caterer and Hotelkeeper noted that the Royal Lancaster hotel in London installed beehives on its roof in an effort to reverse the worldwide decline in honeybees. The hotel, situated next to Hyde Park, is an ideal stomping ground for the bees to flourish. And of course the restaurant in the hotel is looking forward to the use of all that honey produced by the hive.

Closer to home, two chefs in the Washington, D.C. area are also tending to their own hives.

It seems that foodies as well as the mainstream press are all on the bee bandwagon.

In the Atlantic Magazine, writer Ryan Bradley has been treating his readers to the saga of his parents in their new role as urban beekeepers.

And in a recent article for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, writer Amy Seidenwurm talks about her adventures in beekeeping and how she was able to use the honey to create a honey driven menu for the exclusive, “Friends Cook at Canele Restaurant “ gig.

The day of the tour at Marshall’s was grey and chilly – a typical summer morning in northern California. The farm is located on the outskirts off the Napa Valley – I must have passed it numerous times on my way to the wineries. As I pulled into the dirt lane that I assumed must be the parking area, I noticed two or three ramshackle buildings – none of which I thought could be the heart of an artisan honey farm.

About 40 of us bakers shivered in the gloom as we waited for owners Spencer and Helene Marshall to begin their talk and tour. Kittens that must have been only a few weeks old threaded their way through our group. I picked up one of the kittens and nuzzled its fur – honey – the kitten smelled like honey!

As I have found over and over again in meeting with small business owners in the food business, Helene and Spencer are very down to earth and passionate about what they do and the product they make.

They gave us the history of how they started their business and how grateful they are that after all these years -- the foodie spotlight was on honey. As Helene put it, “there is a new appreciation for ingredients in our own backyards.”

Their farm has about 600 hives in 70 different locations. They have been around for many years – they provided honey to Postrio restaurant when that restaurant first opened their doors and delivered honey to Whole Foods when it was just a local grocery store. They use no chemicals or antibiotics on their hives.

Helene said that they think of themselves almost as modern day cowboys as they herd their hives around California to assist farmers in pollinating their crops. But they are adamant in not overly stressing their bees by constantly moving them outside of California to various farms as other beekeepers so often do. They agree that these pollination trips might be one of the possible factors in the colony collapse disorder.

We toured the farm including the shed where they remove the wax from the combs, spin the combs and drip the honey into a bucket to be put into small stainless steel vats. Each vat has a different type of honey.

Then it was time for the tasting and also food pairing. As I mentioned, I wasn’t a big fan of the taste of honey so I didn’t intend to taste too much honey.

But then I tasted the orange blossom honey and then the blackberry honey.
Turns out my notion of what honey should taste like was limited, to say the least.

I tasted wildflower, alfalfa, almond blossom, and clover honey among many others.

The food pairing included a fragrant blue cheese topped with a bit of honeycomb all on a rice cracker -- an easy and tasty appetizer. I commented to Helene that I would love to buy some of their honeycomb but had missed out on the limited amount offered for sale that day.

Helene asked me to follow her to the honey-processing shed. She pulled out another honeycomb, asked me how much I wanted and cut a chunk right off the comb.

It doesn’t get much more local than that.

When I returned home, I searched my cookbooks for a recipe that would highlight the flavor of the orange blossom honey I had brought home.

The Honey Peanut Wafers from The Modern Baker by Nick Malgieri was just the right vehicle. These thin and sticky cookies were chewy and full of the great taste of my honey - the honey that Spencer had filled a jar with from one of the vats, screwed on a lid and slapped on a label indicating the varietal -- just for me.

A few days later I visited the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. I couldn’t resist chatting with Bill Lewis, beekeeper and owner of Bill’s Bees. I told him about my tour and how I was a converted honey lover. He seemed gratified not only that I knew a bit about the work involved in keeping bees, but also that I understood his passion for beekeeping. By the way, L.A. Magazine named Bill’s honey Best Local Honey in 2008.

Somehow I don’t think it will be too much longer before we start seeing more chefs keeping their own hives and see honey identified by place of origin and type on menus.

And of course I have to say that when that happens, it will be BEE-UTIFUL! Had to say it.