Monday, November 23, 2009

Lafayette, We Are Here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bez práce nejsou koláce

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

Monday, November 9, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm back to being a Clabber Girl!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the kids LOVED Peanut Blossoms!

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

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

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

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

Peanut Blossoms

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

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

Peanut Butter Sealed with a Kiss

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

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

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

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

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

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

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