Friday, November 19, 2010

Pies and Pumpkins!

It was one of those beautiful, warm, November days in Northern California that make me totally forget those harsh Indiana winters of my childhood.

Even though I had baked Friday night for the farmers' market and had sold ipies all morning at the market, instead of feeling like I wanted to flop on the couch and stay there -- I just had to take advantage of the beautiful weather.

And since my motto is to always: eat more pie, what better place to visit than Pie Ranch in Pescadero -- a quick jaunt over the mountains to the coast.

With the top down on the Mini Cooper and a large Starbucks coffee in the cup holder, I headed to the ocean.

The fields were still full of pumpkins but I could see the Christmas tree farms starting to take over and claim their season.

It was a bit hazy at the coast but still warm. The air smelled like brussel sprouts, artichokes and salty sea air -- almost like being at the farmers' market but without the ocean.

Pie Ranch is so named not only because the land is triangular shaped, but also because it is a place for "pie in the sky" thinking regarding social change. Pie Ranch is a working farm and is dedicated to hosting youth from regional high schools to participate in farm-based programs and activities.

But best of all they raise the animals necessary and grow all the crops necessary to make a pie!

They sell their goods to farm stands as well as to two bakeries in my area -- Mission Pie in San Francisco and now Companion Bakers in Santa Cruz.

Old school sandwich board signs announcing "pie and coffee" clued me in that I must be getting close. Their farm stand is actually a beautiful old barn a few miles from the historic town of Pescadero.

Inside, Megan and Lizzie were further proof of my claim that "pie is optimistic" -- they cheerfully greeted each customer and were quick with offers of help in selecting the right pie -- which after all is a critical decision at any time.

I had on my ipie cap and Lizzie recognized me from the Palo Alto Farmers' Market -- she works for a local farmer -- Green Oaks Creek Farms -- who also sells at the market.

The pies that day were baked by Companion Bakers. I actually thought the pies on display were fake they were so beautiful. Offerings included cranberry pear with a beautiful lattice crust, pumpkin pie with a crumble topping and a prebaked pie shell filled with the last fruits of the season -- strawberries and blueberries.

I picked out a small strawberry mini Galette and a very cute Pie Ranch t-shirt which was emblazoned with Eat Pie across the back -- kindred spirits!

On the way to Pie Ranch I spied a small table set up on the side of the road with a sign proclaiming Local Honey. I hoped they would still be there on my return trip.

And I was in luck -- Wayne and his son Dillan were doing a brisk honey business. Turns out they are part of a co-op that help local beekeepers gather and sell their honey. He offered tastes of eucalyptus, lavender and orange honey. I bought a large jar of the orange blossom.

As I tasted and chatted, I found out that Dillan helps his dad sell honey each weekend because he is saving for a new car. He currently owns a Hornet (not kidding). His dad was enthusiastically also trying to sell bags of bee pollen extolling its healing properties for everything from weight loss to sexual dysfunction (!).

On my way home I detoured from the ocean highway through the small town of Half Moon Bay. In one of the local bakeries I came across a cookie that I haven't seen in awhile -- a pumpkin cookie.

And how appropriate in the land of pumpkins! After all Half Moon Bay is known for its Pumpkin Festival held each October and now in its 40th year.

Pumpkin cookies are similar to big soft sugar cookies but are jazzed up with spices generally found in pumpkin pie with a texture somewhere between a cake and a cookie.

Once home I scoured my extensive cookbook collection for a pumpkin cookie recipe to try. I was surprised to find that most modern cookbooks lack a recipe for this homely cookie. I then turned to my older cookbooks and found that recipes for the lowly pumpkin cookie was a regular in The Joy of Cooking, The Fannie Farmer Baking Book and Maida Heatter's Book of Great Cookies. Later, I also found a recipe in the 2001 cookbook by Nancy Baggett, All-American Cookie Book.

It was interesting to note that the recipe for pumpkin cookies was often next to recipes for pineapple cookies and banana cookies -- also cookies you don't see much anymore.

These cookbooks all described the cookie in similar ways but I think I liked Marion Cunningham's description from her Fannie Farmer Baking Book, "Thick, soft, substantial and inexpensive." Not that's my kind of cookie!

It was also interesting to note that these cookies were known as "rocks" -- not because they were hard as a rock but because of their shape. And this batter takes well to add-ins -- pecans, cranberries, etc. Most of the cookies were iced with either a cream cheese or simple confectioners sugar glaze.

Although I am a fan of plain, old-fashioned cookies, I wondered how I could modernize this cookie from our past. Then I thought of the honey I had just purchased as well as all of those pumpkins I had seen.

I decided on pumpkin seeds (pepitas) candied with some of the honey I had bought with a bit of cinnamon added. I put together a batter using the pumpkin rock recipe from The Fannie Farmer Baking Book as my guide and added the cooled candied pepitas to the batter.

Delicious! But of course, I fiddled a bit more with it -- I tried different shapes by using a cookie scoop and then a pastry bag to pipe the batter. I even added a cup of chocolate chips to the batter.

But in the end my simple Pumpkin Rocks with Candied Pepitas was the winner.

Candied Pepitas

2 TB butter

1 cup of raw, shelled pepitas

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 TB honey

1. Melt butter in saucepan over low heat

2. Mix pepitas and cinnamon in a small bowl then put in saucepan

3. Saute for 3-4 minutes until pepitas are brown

4. Add honey and saute one more minute

5. Turn out in one layer onto cookie sheet and let cool

Monday, October 18, 2010

Baking and Baseball: Can of Corn or Torture?

"Statistics are to baseball what a flaky crust is to Mom's apple pie."
(harry reasoner)

It's baseball playoff season and as a S.F. Giants fan, I've been struck lately by how much baking is like baseball.

Sometimes you hit a home run and sometimes it is just pure torture. And there is the every day grind of trying to perform at your highest level and more often than not, falling short.

I've been testing a lot of recipes lately and there is nothing like paying for big talent (ingredients), putting in lots of batting practice (test after test) only to lose the game (an inedible mess).

But what is there to do but start over again, maybe change your batting line up and get to work. And even after the worst kitchen disasters, there is generally either something learned (measuring accurately matters!) or an actual win (let's eat!).

I certainly am a believer that just as in what is called small ball in baseball -- working the count, stealing base, bunting when your manager asks you to, is more effective although not as exciting as long ball -- the big home run. So, researching recipes, talking to baking experts, making sure your equipment works, putting in the time to test, test and test, is going to be the norm -- not the first time success we all wish would happen.

In fact, one of my favorite stats in baseball is how many times you can actually lose a game and still have a winning season. As legendary baseball hitter Ted Williams once said, "Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer."

And even though he is an L.A. Dodger lover, I agree with long-time Dodger manager, Tommy Lasorda, when he said, "No matter how good you are, you're going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are you're going to win one-third of your games. It's the other third that makes the difference."

I recently had the amazing opportunity to be interviewed for an article in Oprah Winfrey's O Magazine about my individual pies (ipies). The reporter asked me how many ipies I had tested before I had a success. As I did the math I was astounded that the number was about 1200 ipies over a five month period! That's a lot of pie!

But I didn't think it was out of the ordinary for what I was trying to accomplish -- the reinvention of the pie.

The article was also about the reinvention of my career -- finding your "true calling" as O Magazine called it. I feel like the time I spent in my "former" life was my time in the minor leagues -- all if it helped prepare me to pursue my passion of writing, baking and teaching -- the major league of my life.

I knew I had to keep practicing, show up every day and wait for talent, luck and hard work to all come together for a win.

I find career inspiration and root for those players that have struggled for years -- maybe even out of baseball (Pat Burrell) or claimed off waivers (Cody Ross) or never made it to a playoff season after more than ten years in the major leagues (Aubrey Huff) than those that didn't have to struggle for their position on the team (Barry Bonds).

As Andres Torres, the feisty outfielder for S.F. said of his friend and teammate Pablo Sandoval the struggling third baseman for the Giants, "He's doing a great job," Torres said. "I told him to be positive. Every day we're going to battle to win. Forget about concentrating on what happened before. We've got to go out and play every game hard. That's the key for us."

I love that every day in baseball is a new day -- a chance to forget about the errors of yesterday and start fresh -- just like in baking.

Karen's Apple Pie

Karen works at my favorite cafe -- Cafe Borrone. I've been known to have breakfast, lunch, wine time and dinner at Cafe Borrone all in one day. Karen is a manager there and is always cheerful and willing to help -- even early in the morning.

I was talking to her one day about baking and the next time I saw her, she gave me her recipe for her favorite apple pie. I thought it would be a good addition to this article -- you know, baseball and apple pie are made for each other right?

Well, little did I know that this recipe of hers would prove my point about trying over and over again to get a recipe right.

The crust in this recipe is oil based. An oil crust is easy to put together and if you don't bake pies a lot -- you don't need to worry about all the so-called rules of pastry: don't overwork the dough, keep it chilled, worry about the weather and so on.

I don't find an oil crust to be a flavorful as a butter or cream cheese crust but I wanted to give her recipe a try.

What a mess. For the life of me I couldn't get the crust to roll out and not fall into pieces. I made it twice and I tried all my tricks. So much for the ease of an oil crust!

I had already made the filling so I was determined to find an oil crust that would work. I turned to one of my classic cookbooks -- As Easy As Pie by Susan Purdy. Her oil crust was similar to Karen's recipe but Purdy's recipe called for more flour and less oil. The resulting crust was easier to roll out between sheets of waxed paper and had a velvety texture compared to the sandy texture of Karen's recipe.

I rolled it out and fitted the bottom crust into my mom's faded pink pie plate. So far so good. I piled the filling high and tried to fit the top crust over the filling but it tore and looked terrible.

So I patched and pulled the crust the best I could and put it in the oven.

It wasn't the prettiest pie I had ever made but the teenagers that devoured it were not judgmental in the least.

(can of corn: an easily caught fly ball)

photos by Scott R. Kline photography

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Burning Love

I've hesitated to write about this because break ups are always hard. Sometimes it is best to let some time go by to let the wound heal. “Time heals all” as the old saying goes.

But the saying is true and the hurt feelings aren't as painful two months later. I guess that is one benefit of growing older -- you've had a few close calls in the past.

In May when I moved it meant the end to a pretty steady relationship. My friend was young, sleek, warmed up quickly and was pretty even tempered. All qualities you look for in a relationship. It didn't mind when I spilled things on it. But neglecting it could cause quite a blow up. We had three years to get to know each other. Sometimes it would be fickle and what worked before now didn't work. But we were made for each other.

Prior to this three-year relationship, I had a relationship with twins. Don’t judge. Both had electric personalities. And when one was occupied, it was great to have a second just waiting for me.

We had quite a run of it the three of us – five years. But then it was time to move on.

Those relationships were nurtured when I was in my 30s and 40s. In my younger days I often didn't even know the name of my friend. I just needed it to be functional and be there when I needed it. By then we had a baby and I didn't have time to spend on nurturing relationships.

It was even worse when I was right out of college – I neglected my relationships and often didn't even come by to say hello more than a few times a month. I was busy building my career and didn't have much time for hearth and home.

Perhaps as psychiatrists often claim, the way we treat our relationships are formed early in life. And maybe that is true. I do seem to have a vague memory of begging my friend to make soup with me. I think I made up the soup just to feel more confident and to spend time with it – I think it was raisin soup. Not a big seller. I was whiny and demanding. But then years would go by and I wouldn't give it another thought.

Since that early time I've had relationships where there were ah, “functional” issues and sometimes age was just too big a factor to overcome. I even tried to really bond with one by making a Thanksgiving turkey with it but it wouldn't shut up and the turkey was almost ruined.

My latest relationship is quite a bit older than my others. Maybe 30 years older. I groaned when we met but somehow I saw potential. I now know that first impressions can be false. I called up others who knew it better and found out how to make the relationship work. I spent more time on this relationship than on any of the others. Trying to figure out how to make things click between us. It was moody and inconsistent. It takes its time in warming up to me. Sometimes I think it is ready but it isn't. It still is all of those things but we seem to have established a truce. I’m more patient than I was in my younger days and relationships are more critical to me. You might say I depend upon them now.

I’m talking of course about that most serious of relationships – the one between a baker and her stove.

What did you think I was talking about?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Back Home Again

A visit to my home state of Indiana is always like a trip back in time. Time seems to move more slowly there. The summer days are hot and humid and this time, stormy. The mosquitoes have landing gear and my hair well, let's just say the flat iron was useless.

But the days also seem longer than normal and I seemed to have plenty of time to search out the best sweets in the area.

While we were visiting, we took a side trip from the family farmhouse in Culver, Indiana to the big city of Chicago which is about two hours north. The chaotic freeway system hasn't improved much since my childhood and by the time we got to our hotel, I was in urgent need of a cupcake to calm my nerves.

Luckily, our hotel, the Hotel Burnham -- another lovely vintage building revitalized by the Kimpton Hotel Group -- was not only a few blocks from Millennium Park, but also a short distance from Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique -- a jewel box of a cupcake shop offering traditional cupcakes but with a twist -- how does lemon drop, orange creamsicle, or banana banana cupcakes sound to you?

The compact shop also offers breakfast cupcakes for those bleary-eyed morning commuters. I know an apple cinnamon, cranberry orange, blueberry vanilla or berry berry breakfast cake would brighten my morning! But breakfast cupcakes aren't the only different twist this group puts on its cakes, the shop also offers 6" cakes and shots of frosting for those of you who need an extra rush of sugar. I'm glad owner Teresa Ging left the world of finance and joined the sweet world of sugar!

Sufficiently revived, we strolled the few blocks to Millennium Park where we were impressed by the Frank Gehry's designed concert pavilion and the nearby aptly nicknamed "bean" -- the Cloud Gate elliptical sculpture by artist Anish Kapoor. It was another hot day and we enjoyed watching the kids splash in the Crown Fountain by spanish artist Jaume Plensa. Although I thought it was a bit creepy to have the kids watched over by two 50 foot glass block towers that projected video images of a variety of Chicago residents -- the kids didn't seem to mind.

The next morning we headed to the Farmers' Market in Daley Center Plaza. It was an amazing site to see the beautiful produce displayed amidst all those concrete buildings. I especially liked how Picasso's 50 foot tall untitled sculpture seemed to keep a safe watch over the market.

At the market I was happy to meet Ivy Tack owner of uppercrust pastry and her beautiful mother selling Ivy's pies and other goodies. Ivy, who had started college intending to be a surgeon, became a different kind of cutter -- a pastry cutter and we are happy she did. Her butter crust pie pastry wrapped around a sour cherry filling was amazing.

Of course a trip to Chicago wouldn't be complete without the traditional munching of popcorn from Garrett Popcorn. I prefer the sticky caramel corn. There seems to be a Garrett's shop on almost every corner -- I couldn't walk more than a few blocks before I was tempted by the smell of corn being popped and coated with some delicious concoction. We stopped in for a "small" bag of caramel corn to munch on as we headed to the Museum of Contemporary Art. This museum is a bit overshadowed by the Art Institute of Chicago but it is definitely worth a visit. And it is also worth the trip just for the Wolfgang Puck restaurant that is part of the museum.

Our traditional sightseeing completed, it was now time to hunt down a few bakeries that spiked my interest when researching my trip to the windy city.

Being from Indiana and as a pie baker, I was excited to check out Hoosier Mama Pie Company. I've been following owner Paula Haney on Twitter for awhile and I was excited to hopefully meet her and to taste her pies.

Her shop is located in a very old neighborhood known as Ukrainian Village west of Chicago's downtown. I think this area is now trying to reinvent itself as West Town.

Her shop is a small slice of real estate along Chicago Avenue. We could see Haney in her pink chef's jacket in the back assembling her pies and laughing with her staff. As the counter staff got busy, she came up to help out so I got to meet her. It was fun to chat with her -- she obviously loves what she does for a living. And her strawberry pie with a butter crust was delicious!

Our next stop was to Cookie Bar located in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago. A few blocks from Hoosier Mama Pie Company but economically a world apart! I felt like I was in chic Santa Monica -- high-end designer shops lined the streets and lots of beautiful people strolled down the street. So Jeff and Joe, two escapees from the Los Angeles entertainment industry, knew what they were doing when they located and recently opened their cookie shop here.

Their shop has a cool retro 70s look -- I particularly liked the disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Although they have humorously dubbed their shop a bacon free zone -- alluding to the lengths some bakeries will go to distinguish their cookies -- they still manage to offer traditional cookie offerings as well as cookies with a bit more zip such as lemon ginger and raspberry chocolate. Check out their website if you want a good laugh.

Fearful that I might be the cause of Chicago losing its nickname as the city of big shoulders to being called the city of big stomachs, I left a few bakeries on my list to check out on my next visit.

As we headed back to the quiet of the family farm, I almost ran off the small two lane road when I saw a sign for Kountry Barn Bakery. I did a quick U-turn and headed down an even smaller lane to check out yet another bakery.

And I'm glad I did! What a great find. The owner Eileen Mullet was taking a nap after pulling an all-nighter baking pies for the various farmers' markets that she sells at. Her very capable young daughters Vonda and Alisha manned the store while she slept.

They generously agreed to give me a tour of their kitchen and chatted happily about how they help their mother bake. I was impressed by their maturity and was amazed at how they didn't seem to mind being left in charge on a beautiful summer's day.

But I was even more impressed by the goodies in the bakery case. We picked another sour cherry pie to try along with a dozen butter horn rolls. I couldn't resist the rolls -- my mom had made many a butter horn for Sunday dinners when I was growing up. And the prices were very small town -- $3 for a dozen butter horns and the 9" pie was only $7!

They don't have a website but here is a link to their address.

One bite of the sour cherry pie and I was transported back to my own childhood. I've written before about how I miss being able to bake with sour cherries -- we just don't get many of them in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although I wasn't able to verify with the baker, the crust tasted like the crust my mom would bake using Crisco as her shortening.

It was a lovely way to end our sweet journey back to our childhood.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

ringalings will be back!

I'll be back in July with more stories and photos!

In the meantime, if you live near Palo Alto, California, come see me at the Palo Alto Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings.

You can check my ipie site to see what dates I will be there.

The photo is of a blueberry ipie -- yum!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Beranbaum and a Bake Sale: Alchemy in Action

"Bakers are born, not made. We are exacting people who delight in submitting ourselves to rules and formulas if it means achieving repeatable perfection"
Rose Levy Beranbaum

Last week I was fortunate to be not only in the company of master baker and cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum, but also dozens of talented bakers from San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area.

The week started with a gathering of the Bakers Dozen in San Francisco at Foreign Cinema Restaurant. Thanks to Baker Dozen member and baking goddess Flo Braker, we were gathering to hear Beranbaum, author of The Cake Bible, The Pie and Pastry Bible and other masterpieces speak about her latest book, Rose's Heavenly Cakes.

And not only did we get Rose, but we also got someone who mostly remains behind the scenes but is well known to bakers who follow Beranbaum's every step, her assistant, Woody Wolston.

But before we heard Beranbaum speak, we first got to sample a variety of cakes from her new book.

This seemed like a good idea to me when the organizers of the event requested that members pick a recipe to bake from a list they had compiled from her new book and to bring it to share before the lunch and meeting.

I picked the Hungarian Jancsi Torta -- a flourless cake made primarily with nuts and meringue.

It was only when I was parking for the event that I realized just who would be tasting my cake: ROSE LEVY BERANBAUM! And not just Rose, but many of the leading bakers in the U.S.! I must be crazy!

I looked at the cake sitting next to me on the car seat and thought briefly about not bringing it in. Then I decided to at least taste it. Although it may not look as good as a cake made by Beranbaum or the other master bakers in that room, at least it did taste good.

So my cake (with a bit of a gap in it) and I headed into the restaurant where I hoped I could slip it onto the cake table unnoticed. Of course being all about baking meant that there was practically a receiving line for the cakes. But no one mentioned the gap in my cake and minutes later it was devoured. No traditional appetizers for this bunch!

I even received a compliment on my cake from Rose and Woody who had piled their plates with a slice of each cake and were taking small bites of each one. Of course, I just might have put them on the spot...

After our cake tasting we all crowded into an adjoining room that had been set up for the high priestess of cake to preach to her choir.

The front of the room had already been set up with a plain chocolate cake with all the supplies to glaze it at the ready.

Rose wanted to share with us the story behind the glaze that adorns the Bernachon Palet D'Or Gateau on the cover of Rose's Heavenly Cakes and to demonstrate how easily and beautifully the glaze covered the cake.

The story was almost like listening to a good detective yarn as it involved a trip to Japan, the secrets of a special sugar, a recipe for lacquer glaze, a longing to make it but a fear of failing, a chocolatier in Dallas and finally, a trip to France.

Rose is an engaging speaker and it was enthralling to hear her stories about the many interesting people she has met during her baking career and to hear her humanize these luminaries for us.

Makes me almost hope that her next book is a memoir and not a baking book -- almost.

I don't think I was alone in wondering if we could skip lunch or at least eat it at our seats so she could talk for a couple more hours.

If you follow Beranbaum's blog, you know she and Woody are always discovering new techniques and tips that they then generously share with the baking community.

In addition to encouraging us to make the lacquer glaze, she also wanted to share with us their discoveries about how different types of flour give different results in cake baking. It is an involved discussion so click this link to read more about what they call Flour of Power.

That's just one more reason why Rose is so adored by bakers -- she doesn't hesitate to update even her own methods if she or one of her readers finds a better or just another way to make one of her recipes even better.

As riveting as all this discussion of technique was, I think the most important thing I heard Rose say that day involved how she defines what it means to be a baker.

Rose related a story about how she always felt that her husband was putting her down on some level when he would tell her that he thought of baking as alchemy and her as an alchemist.

She told us that one day during a presentation she was making in New York, she talked about her thoughts on baking and science vs alchemy. Her husband happened to be present at the meeting and later told her that she had misunderstood him. He in fact meant it as a compliment when he called her an alchemist because in his mind, she wasn't just spouting unproven scientific theories but was actually using science to perform the "experiments" and to then 'enchant and transform' the world of baking.

I sat up and took notice of this because I also often feel that baking isn't looked upon as a creative endeavor. But it is this combination of science and magic that helps us create our own masterpieces -- or edible art, as I like to call my creations.

Rose's words inspired me the rest of that week as I prepared for the First Annual Food Blogger Bake Sale that was to be held on 4/17 in front of Omnivore Books on Food. On that day, bakers across the U.S. would be holding bake sales to raise money for Share Our Strength -- a national organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger.

Beranbaum would also be speaking at Omnivore Books later that day so we bakers anticipated a large crowd of Rose's faithful to be tempted by our goodies.

After the torrential rains of the prior weekend we were happy to see the sun shining brightly in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco where Omnivore Books is located.

The beautifully packaged baked good were indeed a sight to behold. There is definitely not a lack of baking talent in the SF Bay Area.

I brought my individual pies -- ipie -- with blueberry filling.

I was happy to see lead organizer Anita Chu of dessert first again and to meet her significant other, Mike. We called him Mike the money man as he manned the cash box that day.

I met many bakers and bloggers that day including Lisa of lisa is bossy, Shauna Webb of piece of cake and Katie Rutledge of i'd of baked a cake. All not only talented bakers, but also caring and goodhearted women.

Please see Anita's post about our great day for a complete list of the bakers who participated.

And this cake! Rachel Boller of milk glass baking baked and donated this amazing cake. It was snapped up within seconds. The cake was such a towering masterpiece that a box to fit it couldn't be found so I actually carried it to the buyer's house who lived nearby!

Later we found out from Anita that we had raised $1,650 for Share Our Strength that day. A sweet day indeed.

When I got home after that exhausting but fun day, I thought about another thing that Rose had said earlier in the week about bakers:

"We don't need to be competitive with each other -- there is room for all of our voices."

And on 4/17 we were heard loud and clear.

So, as Rose also said, "Let us all continue to be alchemists and 'enchant and transform' our world."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

First Ever National Food Bloggers Bake Sale: April 17!

I'm very excited to participate in the very first National Food Bloggers' Bake Sale!

This Bake Sale is part of the Great American Bake Sale which was created by Share Our Strength, a national organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger.

Gaby of What's Gaby Cooking came up with the idea to mobilize food bloggers and very wisely asked cookbook author and food blogger Anita Chu to lead the charge in organizing food bloggers in San Francisco and the Bay Area for this worthwhile cause.

On April 17, bake sales will be held across the U.S. as we try to reduce this unbelievable fact: almost one in four children in America face hunger -- that's nearly 17 million children!

The Bake Sale will be held at the amazing Omnivore Books On Food (thank you Celia!) in San Francisco on Saturday, April 17 from 12 pm -3 pm.

I will be offering ipies in the very seasonal filling of blueberry! So come out and support this worthwhile cause, meet some of your favorite food bloggers and see what kind of goodies they have whipped up for you!

As a special bonus, cookbook author and master baker Rose Levy Beranbaum will be speaking about her latest baking bible, Rose's Heavenly Cakes at Omnivore Books on Food from
3 pm -4 pm that same day.

So consider it a triple treat: goodies, cookbooks, and Rose Levy Beranbaum!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Poofy Woolly Biscuits: Lamington Love

A friend of mine is from New Zealand and as I tend to do, I asked her what her favorite sweet treat from childhood had been.

Without hesitation and in that very cool accent of hers she answered, "Lamingtons."

Of course I love it when I have never heard of a dessert -- it sets my inner Sherlock Holmes at the ready.

I've written before in this blog about taste memories and just how hard they are to replicate. This particular treat also fell into that additional category of sweets much like medialunas or kolaches that are typically bought at a bakery instead of made at home making it harder to find a recipe.

A Lamington is a square piece of cake dipped in chocolate icing and rolled in dessicated coconut (very finely ground coconut). Lamingtons are typically eaten at breakfast and teatime.

And just why is it called a Lamington? What is known for certain is that Lamingtons are named after Charles Cochrane-Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington. Lord Lamington, A British Subject, was Governor of Queensland (a state in Australia) from 1896-1901.

But just as in the creation of the Dundee Cake, Lafayette Gingerbread or Banbury Tarts, the way the dessert came into being is the subject of several different legends.

One story is that Lamington's chef was called upon to provide a dessert to Lord Lamington's guests on short notice. Having only sponge cake left over from the day before -- he improvised with ingredients he had on hand and created the Lamington. Other stories state the dessert resembles the hat favored by Lord Lamington and yet another says the cake was accidentally created when one of Lord Lamington's cooks dropped sponge cake into a bowl of chocolate. The cook then rolled the cake in coconut to make it presentable to Lord Lamington and his guests.

Unfortunately, Lord Lamington wasn't as fond of them as the rest of the nation and referred to the dessert Lamington as those "bloody poofy woolly biscuits." But then again, that could also be legend and not fact.

But of course, it doesn't matter what the creation story is but rather how this humble dessert became the flagship dessert of a nation: in 2006 the Lamington was inducted into the National Trust of Queensland's list of Heritage Icons (it is in good company -- anzac cookies and vegemite are also on that list) and each year on July 21, Australians celebrate National Lamington Day.

And yes, even though this is considered an official Australian sweet, New Zealanders also claim Lamingtons as their own dessert even it is isn't a Heritage Icon of New Zealand.

But probably even more indicative of how Lamingtons are part of the fabric of Australia and New Zealand, is that it is the primary treat sold at most bake sales. In fact, bake sales are typically called Lamington Drives.

Depending on what cookbook or Internet site you look at, the cake part of a Lamington is butter, sponge or pound cake.

And as often happens with a dessert, variations are bound to happen. Some bakeries split the Lamington in half and add jam or custard between the layers. Others have the audacity to cover the cake in pink icing before rolling them in coconut.

But my friend only had disdain for those impostors.

In her opinion, the Lamingtons she found only on trips back to New Zealand were large -- about three inches square -- a yellow cake that she called squishy and were dipped in chocolate.

She encouraged me to give them a try saying that her young son would be so excited to have them again having been introduced to them on a recent trip to New Zealand with her.

In my quest to find a recipe for Lamingtons, I was a bit frustrated to find that most recipes started with the instructions to "first, buy a sponge cake at the bakery."

Not very helpful. The first few recipes I came upon that didn't instruct me to buy the cake were for a simple butter cake. Turns out there is also a special Lamington pan that is used to bake Lamingtons. This pan is 7x11-inches. Of course, I didn't have a Lamington pan so for my tests I used a 9x9 square pan.

I thought it would be easy to give my friend a taste of home. I put together a simple butter cake, mixed together an icing of cocoa powder, milk, butter and confectioners sugar, got out the coconut and assembled.

The process was quite messy but easy. I boxed up my beauties and took them to my friend for a taste test.

She eyed them critically. "The coconut is too big and the chocolate icing isn't dark enough," she said. She took a bite.

"Nope, cake isn't squishy enough," she said.

She told me next time I saw her that her son wouldn't even try them because they didn't "look right."

This Lamington Love was serious business.

Her comment that the cake wasn't squishy enough made me wonder if I should have used a sponge cake. But her description of the cake didn't match my idea of a sponge cake -- American or French.

So I did what most people do these days when they need an answer -- I twittered about my quest.

I knew I had several followers from New Zealand and thought they might be able to help. And I wasn't disappointed. I even had one follower promise to send me her mum's recipe.

During my search I also noticed that the photo on the cover of Karen DeMasco's new book, The Craft of Baking, looked familiar. I quickly turned to that recipe and yes, it was for Lamington Cupcakes. Could a Lamington trend be brewing?! Unfortunately her recipe was a butter cake.

In the end, after I waded through all the ideas and suggestions, I discovered that there is such a thing as an Australian sponge cake. And here are the main ingredients:
self-raising flour, all-purpose flour, corn flour, sugar and eggs. No butter.

The first time I made the cake using a butter cake recipe, it was really difficult to cut the cake in to even and nice looking squares. This time I froze the cake after it was cooled. The next day I trimmed the edges and cut the cake in to nicely shaped squares.

I mention this because believe it or not, my friend said that these Lamingtons were pretty darn close to the Lamingtons she had back home. And her son loved them. Her only comment was that they tasted like day old Lamingtons. Not a bad thing but the cake was not as squishy as it should be. So perhaps if I had only refrigerated the cake for a few hours instead of freezing it, my squish factor would have been higher.

The exacting baker in me wanted to make these several more times until my friend said those magic words, "these are just as I remember them." But I think I had come as close as I could get without the pan and the ingredients that could only be found or perhaps better said, understood, in New Zealand and in the exact bakery where the Lamingtons of my friend's childhood were purchased all those years ago.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sugar Cakes and a Valentine

I'm always happy when a sugar cookie holiday rolls around.

You know, those occasions when it is time to break out the sprinkles and cookie cutters.

From the time my daughter was very small, we enjoyed baking and decorating sugar cookies for not only the typical sugar cookie holidays like Valentine's Day or Christmas, but we also took every opportunity to make up our own special occasions to break out the cookie sheets.

We weren't fans of icing but we did eventually branch out beyond colored sugar to the fancy shaped sprinkles.

My daughter would take about five minutes per cookie putting each individual grain of sugar on the cookie but maybe it just seemed that way to her overly efficient mother.

The days of her helping decorate sugar cookies are long gone but I still can't let a holiday go by without breaking out the cookie cutters. And I'm always on the lookout for unusual cookie cutters -- I just snagged a cookie cutter in the shape of a martini glass from Surfas Restaurant Supply in Los Angeles that I will use at our next cocktail party.

And yard sales are a surprising source of fun cookie cutters. I'm always amazed at the unopened boxes of cookie cutters I find at yard sales. I always imagine that the owner in a fit of baking optimism bought them but lost their enthusiasm when faced with the actual task of pulling out ingredients and mixing bowls. Of course, I have to give them a good home. The most unusual box of cutters I have come across is of vegetable shapes -- I especially like the celery shaped one...

Our sugar cookies were always thicker than the typical sugar cookie -- we don't like them crispy but instead as soft as possible. I keep an eye on the timer and take them out when the bottoms are just barely starting to turn brown.

I do this because despite the thousands of sugar cookies that I must have baked over the years, I've yet to find a sugar cookie that resembles the one I had growing up in Indiana.

My mom worked full time and had five children so she often found herself doing her grocery shopping on a Friday night.

I would often accompany her on these shopping trips before I turned into a teenager and stopped leaving my room. My reward for tagging along to keep her company was one gigantic sugar cookie from the grocery store bakery. And this was in the days before serving sizes got out of control.

This cookie was a beauty. As I said it was large -- about five inches wide. It was snow white, about an inch thick in the middle tapering down to 1/2 inch at the edge. I would usually break it in half so I could get to the center part right away. The center was puffy soft, and seemed to evaporate on my tongue with only the crumbs as evidence that there had been a cookie consumed.

As a grownup I would often spy a cookie that resembled it in a bakery case but I was always disappointed by the taste and texture of that impostor. Nothing could approach the softness and slightly tangy flavor of this sugar cookie.

But then (thanks to Celia Sacks of Omnivore Books on Food in SF) I came across Marcia Adams' classic cookbook, Cooking from Quilt Country: Hearty Recipes from Amish and Mennonite Kitchens. In this classic cookbook Adams shares family recipes from the Indiana Amish and Mennonites.

And there it was, just like that -- Big White Soft Sugar Cookies -- yes, that is the actual name of the recipe!

Adams described these cookies, "It comes very close to those cookies of our memories -- white, soft and cakelike, with just a touch of nutmeg."

The final evidence was when she said, "The cookies should be just barely done -- still almost white. If they are golden, you have left them in too long."

Now that I knew what I was looking for I started finding similar recipes: The All-American Cookie Book by Nancy Baggett has a recipe for Pennsylvania Dutch Soft Sugar Cookies and Anita Chu in her book, Field Guide to Cookies, gives us Nazareth Sugar Cookies (as in Nazareth, Pennsylvania), a "soft and fluffy sugar cookie."

The recipes were similar in that they all made a cakelike and saucer-sized sugar cookie and most required that the dough rest overnight. The recipes differed in a few ingredients with the biggest difference being in the choice of either sour cream or buttermilk.

And although I don't remember it, it appears to be traditional to decorate the sugar cakes with a raisin in the center.

I used a combination of several recipes to come up with my own. I no longer needed them to be saucer-size but it was fun to make a few large and some more the size of an espresso saucer instead.

I was a bit nervous as I waited for them to bake. But they tasted just as I remembered. Although I don't think my daughter or husband thought they were that special -- I actually think they thought they tasted rather bland. But that is the beauty of a memory -- it belongs to the one looking back after all.

And now I want to remember Dorothy Hanna, my mom and the inspiration for this blog. She passed away a year ago this month. She is missed.

Mom, thanks for the sugar cookies but most of all, thanks for the sweet memories.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bakers Dozen Meeting: Gluten Free Doesn't Mean Taste Free

A large gathering of the Bakers Dozen members and guests gathered last week at the Foreign Cinema Restaurant in San Francisco to hear two experts speak on a very timely topic -- gluten-free and allergy-friendly baking.

Professional food writer Jackie Mallorca and nutritionist and writer Bonnie Presti spoke to the group about celiac disease, gluten intolerance and dairy, soy and egg intolerance and how as bakers, we are well positioned to use our exacting skills to service this growing market.

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune digestive disease that basically means the body attacks itself every time a person with celiac diseases consumes gluten -- the protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to malnourishment as well as other diseases such as cancer.

According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, one in 133 Americans has celiac disease. The disease doesn't discriminate; it affects all races, genders and ages.

Unlike celiac disease, food intolerance doesn't involve the immune system. So while not dangerous, food intolerances can make you just as miserable.

While celiac disease and food intolerances are not new, awareness has been growing over the last decade with 500,000 new celiac diagnoses expected to occur in the next five years (also according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness).

The Fancy Food Show held in San Francisco in January called gluten-free foods one of the top food trends of 2010.

So gluten-free has gone mainstream. There is no cure for gluten intolerance but completely eliminating gluten from the diet can reverse the damage done to the digestive system.

And according to Jackie Mallorca, the solution lies in the kitchen.

As a professional food writer, Mallorca had authored or co-authored many cookbooks including one on French patisserie and another on bread baking.

So she said it came as quite a shock when she discovered she was a food writer with celiac disease. She said, "As I had absolutely no intention of giving up good food, I acquired a lot of funny flours and set to work."

Now she feels having celiac has given her a built-in alarm system for avoiding junk food because gluten-free foods are typically fresh and minimally processed.

Mallorca noted that gluten-free foods, especially baked goods, may have once been for the "counter-culture" or "the hippies" but the good news is that many gluten--free products are now available in grocery stores.

But, she insists, the best place to prepare gluten-free foods is still in your own kitchen.

She began with the food she feels we all identify with and craves the most, our daily bread.

She related her humorous efforts in trying to create bread without gluten that met her exacting taste standards only to end up with bread that was dry, crumbling and inedible.

She said, "My first effort at bread baking resulted in a loaf that was smaller when it came out of the oven than when it went in!"

She persevered and Mallorca has now written two cookbooks on this topic: The Wheat Free Cook and her latest, Gluten-Free Italian. More information about Mallorca can be found on her website, glutenfreeexpert

If Mallorca presented the reserved, sophisticated face of the gluten-free movement, then writer and nutritionist Bonnie Presti is the movement's cheerleader.

Dynamic and energetic, Presti has made it her life's mission to help others with food allergies and gluten intolerance by developing nutritional programs to meet their goals.

"Having celiac disease or other food intolerances is like a repetitive stress injury to your body," said Presti.

Presti was diagnosed with celiac disease and intolerance to soy, eggs, dairy as well as other foods.

As did Mallorca, instead of feeling sorry for herself, she got to work developing recipes. She returned to school to earn her certification as a nutritional educator.

These days Bonnie can be found working with patients in her office in Sunnyvale to develop individualized nutrition programs as well as lending her nutritional expertise to schools and corporations.

One of Presti's greatest joys is to take favorite recipes and make them gluten-free like her family's favorite snickerdoodle recipe or her mother's recipe for honey cake.

But in a comment that had many of us in the room laughing out loud, she said she has given up trying to make an angel food cake egg free!

She has just released the second edition of her cookbook, Allergy-Friendly Cooking. More information about Presti can be found at her website, thesensitivediner

Both Presti and Mallorca fielded numerous questions from the audience. A reoccurring question was the cost of the various speciality flours used in gluten-free baking.

While acknowledging that gluten-free baking was expensive, both Mallorca and Presti encouraged the bakers to considered gluten-free baking as a growing market for our products and services.

Kara Lind, owner of Kara's Cupcakes, agreed that gluten-free is a growing market for her cupcake business. She noted that as a result, she has decided not to charge a higher price for her gluten-free cupcakes.

Another frequently asked question concerned how to keep gluten-free products fresh. Both speakers agreed that gluten-free products were best consumed the day they were baked and went stale faster if stored in the refrigerator. Presti did note though that gluten-free foods not containing eggs would keep fresh a few days longer in the refrigerator.

As bakers, we all have a bit of the chemist in us. Gluten-free baking gives us another opportunity to tinker with our recipes and perhaps to bring some sweetness back to someones life that thought they had to give up baked goodies.

In the next few weeks I will be writing about my own adventures in gluten-free baking.

Until then, here is a recipe Rum-Raisin Genoa Cake from Jackie Mallorca's Gluten-Free Italian Cookbook. She gave me permission to share it here. They taste amazing.

Rum-Raisin Genoa Cake
Serves 8

1/3 cup (2 ounces) raisins

2 tablespoons dark rum

9 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for pan, softened

3/4 cup sugar

3 large eggs (room temp)

1 cup (4 ounces) almond meal (room temp)

2 tablespoons (1 ounce) potato starch

Confectioners' sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease the sides of an 8-inch square cake pan with butter, line the bottom with parchment paper, and butter that as well.

Combine the raisins and rum in a small saucepan and heat gently, stirring, until the liquid almost evaporates. Remove from the heat and let the raisins cool to lukewarm.

Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the vanilla and salt. Blend the almond meal with the potato starch and beat in. Fold in rum-soaked raisins.

Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Bake for about 30 minutes, until risen and golden-brown and an inserted toothpick emerges clean. Place the pan on a wire rack and let the cake cool for ten minutes. Unmold, peel off the parchment paper, and let the cake cool completely, right side up.

When ready to serve, cut into 16 bars, but do not separate.

Dust with confectioners' sugar and then transfer the bars to a plate.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Who You Calling Baby Cakes?!

A lot of the inspiration for my baking projects comes from my background as a Midwesterner.

But this Indiana baker has been influenced by my more than 25 years of living in California and the access that has given me to new trends in the pastry arts and to the talents of all the many baking pioneers that live in the San Francisco bay area.

So I find it great fun to give traditional childhood desserts a makeover.

And maybe it is the down economy and the resulting urge to consume comfort food that has made this a growing trend in the pastry world.

For example, recipes in the February issue of Sunset Magazine draw upon our love for traditional desserts such as chocolate cream pies, ice cream sandwiches and chocolate mousse but makes them a less guilty pleasure by presenting them in bite-size and miniature versions.

And bakery owners and cookbook authors Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito gives us the vanilla cream cake we crave but their version uses malt ball powder and tastes just like our beloved Whoppers Malted Milk Balls candy. I'm also a big fan of their root beer Bundt cake.

The February issue of Bon Appetit features that star of many childhood favorite treats -- milk chocolate. In these recipes milk chocolate is used in desserts that give it a more sophisticated image or, as writer Rochelle Palermo puts it in her article, "a childhood favorite grows up."

I like the many possibilities presented by that idea of a childhood favorite all grown up. Some of my greatest baking pleasures come from giving someone a favorite dessert from childhood. But a dessert that is perhaps a bit more grown up like a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie with just a bit of espresso mixed into the batter to give it a more nuanced flavor.

During my recent red velvet cake experiments, I was thrilled to see that Rose Levy Beranbaum had included the Tomboy Cake -- a signature dessert of one of my favorite San Francisco bakeries, Miette Patisserie -- in her latest masterpiece, Rose's Heavenly Cakes. Unlike most cakes that typically bake in a standard 9-inch cake pan, this recipe calls for a 6x3-inch pan.

This dark chocolate cake is sliced into layers and sandwiched with vanilla buttercream. It is adorable (childlike) and elegant (grown up) at the same time. This photo is from the Miette website.

These recent articles and cookbooks recently inspired me to not only try the recipes, but to also experiment with different size baking pans as well as flavor combinations.

Of course, it can be frustrating to try a recipe in a different sized pan than the author specifies in a recipe -- after all, the author tested and retested the recipe for that pan size so you and your finished dessert would get rave reviews.

But sometimes authors will give alternate choices, like in Flo Braker's essential, The Simple Art of Perfect Baking, where she specifies one type of pan size for the recipe but gives alternatives in the margin for other sizes in case you want to experiment. She does all the work for her reader!

Several of the baking "bibles" offer invaluable charts that help a baker calculate what pan to use if they should veer off the beaten pan path. Of course, Rose Levy Beranbaum's Cake Bible and Rose's Heavenly Cakes offer expert guidance but I also find myself turning to Cindy Mushat's The Art and Soul of Baking to help me puzzle out the correct pan size.

I belong to the Bakers Dozen professional group and every few months the question about how to substitute pan sizes comes up. This link was recently given as a good place to start.

But really bakers, sometimes you just have to experiment and take a chance. That is part of the fun after all.

Maybe try a favorite recipe that doesn't rely on pricey ingredients or on a time-consuming procedure like whipping egg whites just right.

I started with a favorite but very basic snack cake recipe -- old-fashioned gingerbread -- that can be made quickly with ingredients that I bet are sitting in your pantry right now.

I had purchased four 4x2-inch round cake pans for my experiment. I quickly made the gingerbread batter and had enough to fill three of my pans to various levels -- half full, 2/3 and 3/4 full.

I didn't change the oven temperature called for in the original recipe but after the first 20 minutes of baking, I did start peeking at them to check their progress.

When you are experimenting with pan sizes it can be hard to test for doneness. One easy way to tell is to use an instant thermometer, a method I learned from Rose Levy Beranbaum. The range you are looking for is 190-205 degrees.

Two of the cakes had an interesting belly button-like formation on the top. No matter -- it could be easily covered up with a caramel sauce or some other sort of topping. Since I had made three cakes and they all looked a bit different, I knew what I needed to adjust to get the look I wanted next time.

The day before my experiment I was lucky enough once again to be presented with a big bag of Meyer lemons.

Of course my cute gingerbread baby cakes gave me the inspiration to use the lemons as a topping for the cakes. Ginger and lemon are one of my favorite combinations.

Then I thought of the Miette Tomboy cake. What if I sliced the baby cakes into several layers then spread Meyer lemon curd between the layers and on the top?

Well, the result was a childhood favorite with a grown up twist -- a lemon twist.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

SF Ferry Bldg: Protestors, Walking Sausages and oh yeah, Lots of Artisan Treats

One of my favorite places to visit in San Francisco is the Ferry Building.

Sure, I love the bustling outside Farmers' Market but I really enjoy browsing the food merchants inside.

Lately there have been various news reports about possible cracks in the foodie fabric of the Ferry Building as some long time tenants are priced out and are moving out -- despite the well-publicized original philosophy of the Ferry Building property managers to nurture local food vendors and give them an affordable place to do business.

I felt the need to reassure myself that the beloved Ferry Building was still a vibrant place to visit despite the turmoil.

So, one very rainy day last week I headed to the Ferry Building to get my fix of sweets and to see what was new. There always seems to be new products to check out at the existing tenants venues or a temporary kiosk with an enthusiastic staffer giving out product samples.

And I love talking to the merchants about how they got into their chosen ventures.

Little did I know all the obstacles I would encounter in my journey from car to foodie destination.

First of course there was the rain -- buckets of it. Once I put my head down and headed into the wind and rain, I realized that the roads, sidewalks and just about every available space to walk was taken up by a very loud and aggressive crowd.

Seems it was the anniversary of Roe versus Wade that I had waded into.

As I made my way through the crowd I couldn't help wondering why some people think that screaming into another person's face would make that person change their views. One of life's many mysteries I guess.

I also had to side step the man in the Aidells sausage costume protesting (very politely) the controversial decision by Cuesa, the group who runs the Farmers' Market, to refuse to allow the Aidells Sausage Company to continue to sell their meat goodies at the market. Some believe the banishment is because Aidells has gotten a bit too successful and are no longer considered a local vendor but instead is a national brand. Check out this link for more information on that debate.

All this controversy made me long for sweets -- I might have to have several macarons or a bomboloni (or two) to calm down.

The first vendor I encountered when I finally emerged from the outside elements was a small kiosk manned by the Mariposa Bakery Company, a local baker of artisan crafted, gluten-free goodies.

Their brownies, breads and cinnamon rolls were flying off the shelves.

I chatted with owner Patti Crane who happened to be hovering nearby that day. She was excited about her new spot at the Ferry Building.

Mariposa was also playing host that day to a book signing event: Jackie Mallorca, author of Gluten-Free Italian, was patiently signing books and answering lots of questions about gluten-free cooking.

Gluten free baking has become a hot topic among bakers these days. It is really a challenge to develop baked goods that have the same consistency in crumb and flavor as gluten-based products.

Just try some of the gluten-free products made by non-artisan bakers available in your local grocery store. Actually, you don't need to taste them -- just pick up a gluten free loaf of bread or a cinnamon roll -- they weigh a ton.

It is really hard to obtain that melt in your mouth quality or light as a feather consistency that is the goal of most bakers.

But more on this timely topic in another post.

On February 9 the Bakers Dozen organization will be hosting a luncheon to discuss gluten-free baking at our next meeting at the Foreign Cinema Restaurant in San Francisco. Both Jackie Mallorca and nutritionist Bonnie Presti will be on hand to answer all our questions.

I will be covering the meeting for the Bakers Dozen and will post a summary of the meeting on this blog as well as on the Bakers Dozen members site.

As I've mentioned in a prior post, I always head first to the merchant selling bomboloni -- doughnuts to us non-Italians -- before they sell out.

I Preferiti di Boriana offer many products from Tuscany -- wines, cheeses, etc. but I go for the bomboloni. As I made my usual selection of one raspberry and one custard bomboloni, I noticed a pastry that I hadn't seen on previous visits.

Sfogliatelle. As I inquired about what this was, the people in line behind me offered their own rapturous reviews of this little pastry.

Sfogliatelle means many layers or leaves. This shell shaped pastry is made from phyllo dough and is filled with orange flavored ricotta filling. I thought they looked like miniature lobster tails.

I chose one of the small sfogliatelle amid choruses of "you will be sorry you didn't get the big one" ringing in my ears.

As I strolled down the main hallway munching on my Italian pastries, I met a representative of the California Coffee Cake Company handing out samples from their small kiosk.

Founder and pastry chef Nancy Lee Hawkins has turned her passion for coffee cake into a thriving business. Her employee was frantically trying to keep up with the demand for the walnut spice coffee cake samples from the coffee cake deprived crowds. Nancy sells her cakes and mini loaves at Ferry Building market place vendor Village Market as well as at other local markets. She recently opened her first retail location nearby at the Westfield San Francisco Centre.

The next new vendor I encountered manning his small table was Bruce from CJs Stix. This company makes pretzel sticks dipped in chocolate and rolled in English toffee. Bruce was handing out samples of the company's latest product extension -- bite sized pretzel nuggets. CJs Stix are sold at the Ferry Building merchant Farm Fresh to You as well as at other markets throughout the U.S.

Bruce is a charming and energetic spokesperson for the company, which happens to be a true family business. Owner Cheryl Jagoda ha enlisted her dad Bruce, plus her mom and husband to create another San Francisco success story.

It was fun to meet the new merchants and to see the vitality and creativity of some of San Francisco's best food entrepreneurs.

But no visit to the Ferry Building would be complete without a stop at one of the first tenants, Miette Patisserie.

I've taken a baking class from owner Meg Ray and I admire both her business and baking prowess. Today I bypassed my usual choices of shortbread and cupcakes and went right for the French macarons.

As they are in many bakeries, the macarons are displayed in tall glass candy jars. And they were a spot of bright color on this rainy day.

I chose two basic flavors -- chocolate and vanilla. I'm taking a class in March from Helen Dujardin -- macaron goddess and writer of the baking blog Tartelette -- on how to make macarons and in the name of research, I've been sampling as many macarons as I can.

As I left the Ferry Building the sun was trying to throw some sunshine over this beautiful city. I felt a bit sunnier myself as I was now reassured that the spirit of independent food merchants remains strong at the Ferry Building.