Wednesday, January 20, 2010

You Say Sherbet I say Sherbert: We All Say Yum

I love the idea of hostess gifts. It's so retro. I imagine a scene from the 1960s with a woman answering the door in her billowing hostess pants outfit to receive a bottle of wine or flowers from her guests.

I have received some interesting hostess gifts including a bottle of my favorite wine with the date of the dinner party inscribed in glittering silver pen. Another friend brought a box of note cards featuring the vibrant pastel pastry paintings of Wayne Thiebaud.

Recently I received a very simple hostess gift. A friend bought a gift bag filled with Meyer lemons from her garden. As I set the bag aside, I was already thinking about what I could bake with them as the main ingredient.

Since lemons last for quite awhile on the kitchen counter, I didn't feel rushed to use them as I would another edible gift.

Citrus fruit has always seemed so exotic to me -- even after all these years of living in California. I don't think I had tasted a lemon or lime until I moved here as a young adult. Even oranges were considered exotic -- every Christmas each of us kids would find an orange in the toe of our Christmas stockings. Sounds very Little House on the Prairie now!

I certainly had never heard of a Meyer lemon. It still seems amazing to be able to open your back door and have lemons, limes or oranges available for the picking.

Winter is peak time for Meyer lemons in California. Meyer lemons were brought to the U.S. from China by agricultural explorer (what a great title) Frank Meyer in the early 1900s. The Meyer lemon, which is a cross between a lemon and a sweet orange, became a popular tree to grow in California until the 1940s when it became responsible for a virus that was killing all citrus trees. Most of the Meyer lemon trees were destroyed and didn't make a comeback until a virus-free selection was developed in the 1950s.

Compared to its lumpier cousin, a Meyer lemon has a smooth, thin skin and is almost a canary yellow.

Its reputation as a favorite among foodies was cemented when it was popularized by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse restaurant in the 1970s during the California cuisine revolution. Lindsey Shere, the founding pastry chef at Chez Panisse was known to use Meyer lemons in her desserts. Her Meyer lemon ice cream was a favorite of diners.

Reading about Lindsey Shere inspired me to use Meyer lemons in some sort of frozen delight. I could use a "lighter" dessert after these past months of cakes and cookies.

It seemed fitting then to use a recipe by Shere's protege -- pastry chef and ice cream master David Lebovitz.

I decided ice cream was still a bit too rich for what I had in mind but his recipe for sherbet in his book, The Perfect Scoop, sounded just right.

It also made me nostalgic.

As a kid growing up in Indiana, my mom used sherbet as bribery to get us to visit the dentist. I know it is a bit ironic to use a sugary treat in connection with a dentist visit but I think my mom thought it was a healthier choice.

After the dentist we headed to Rexall -- the corner drugstore for cones of sherbet. I asked for either green (we never called it lime) or orange.

And in the area of Indiana where we lived, we pronounced it sherBERT as in Bert and Ernie.

You don't hear much about sherbet in California but its close relative, sorbet, seems to be a standard dessert item on almost all restaurant menus.

In The Perfect Scoop, Lebovitz has this to say about sorbet vs. sherbet, "The difference between sorbet and a sherbet can be elusive. Technically, sorbets are never made with milk or cream, and sherbets often have milk or buttermilk added. But these definitions are not set in stone, and I've seen the terms used interchangeably, even by professionals."

Using my Meyer lemons, I adapted Lebovitz's Lemon Sherbet recipe.

The resulting sherbet was fragrant and light -- a refreshing way to begin a new year no matter how you pronounce it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

For Royalty of Every Age: Shortbread

When my daughter was very little, her favorite cookie was shortbread. This, of course, was before she discovered the magic of chocolate and way before the wonders of the peanut blossom cookie was revealed to her.

She had her first shortbread cookie from the bakery case at our local market. I think the beauty of the cookie caught her eye. The scalloped edges and the sprinkles of sparkly and brightly colored sugar made the cookie look like it was meant for a princess. And the Disney princess stage was in full bloom in my little darling.

From then on most trips to the grocery store started with one shortbread cookie handed over the counter in its little white bag meant just for her.

Of course I didn't go to the grocery store every day and children must have their regular cookie intake so I was happy to come upon a shortbread cookie recipe in one of the parenting magazines that seemed to be my main reading material in those days.

I thought of this memory as I was planning a party during the holidays. I already had a chocolate cake and a lemon tart on my menu. I like to have both ends of the taste spectrum represented for my guests. But I wanted just a little bit of something sweet for guests to nibble on with their coffee if they didn't want a slice of something bigger.

I had been rereading More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin at the same time I was mulling over my dessert choices.

In her essay titled, Butter, Colwin tells the reader of her passion for shortbread, "I would rather eat shortbread than any cake or cookie in the world. I would turn my back on a chocolate truffle or a banana split for one piece of crisp, melting shortbread. It is the essence of butter."

The idea of some short of shortbread cookie struck me as just the right choice for my third dessert offering.

In pastry, the word short refers to a tender, crumbly texture caused by the high fat content of the dough -- shortbread has a high ratio of butter to flour.

Shortbread is also usually flat due to the lack of any type of leavening in the batter. Shortbread is very similar to the classic French butter cookie, sables, except that sables have an even richer taste because the dough includes eggs. Many of the traditional shortbread recipes use rice flour but unbleached all purpose flour can easily be substituted.

In the Field Guide to Cookies, Anita Chu states, "the round shape (of shortbread) came from old (Scottish) pagan beliefs; the round shape scored with lines was meant to symbolize the sun, and shortbread was used as an offering at the end of the year."

I liked the idea of shortbread being my offering at my end of year party!

But most of the recipes I had for shortbread were either very plain or were the base for some other ingredient to shine -- like raspberry jam.

I wanted something sophisticated but not camouflaged.

Then I received an email from baker Susan Spungen. I had recently read an article by her in More Magazine that was called, Cookies for Grownups. In this article Spungen, who created the food for the recent movie, Julie and Julia, had taken many traditional cookies and had given them a bit of a twist. For example, cardamom cookies, double-ginger chocolate chunk cookies and yes, a shortbread cookie she called espresso shortbread.

I had emailed Susan because More Magazine hadn't included her instructions on how to measure the flour in her recipes. And after learning the hard way, I won't attempt any recipe unless I know how the flour is to be measured.

I found her website and dashed off an email. And to be honest, I didn't really expect to hear back from her.

But in a true professional manner and much to my pleasant surprise, she answered my question right away (spoon and sweep).

That decided it then -- espresso shortbread would be my cookie choice for my very grownup party.

Of course I would use a scalloped cookie cutter but instead of sparkly sprinkles on the outside, these cookies would have espresso sprinkles on the inside. Perhaps what a Disney princess would have first thing in the morning before putting on her crown and making her list of good deeds to do that day. I know I certainly need my coffee before putting on my crown every morning!

But this time I would be putting on my New Year's Eve party hat and bidding farewell to another year.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Seeing Red: Cupcakes and Sunsets in Los Angeles

There is nothing like a road trip -- especially after the hectic holidays.

This week we headed back to the Los Angeles area to take in a few museum exhibits and (of course) to check out more sweet shops.

After viewing the Irving Penn photo exhibit at the Getty Museum and swooning over the L.A. skyline at night, we headed to our hotel for a late check-in.

The Hotel Palomar, owned by the Kimpton Group, is known for its quirky interiors and overall playful approach to the hotel scene. Last time I stayed in a Kimpton Group Hotel, we were offered a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies as we checked-in. Sadly, no cookies at this check-in but the hotel (almost) made up for the loss with free cocktail coupons.

The next morning we headed to the Eagle Rock neighborhood -- the latest "fringe" neighborhood to become somewhat gentrified in L.A.

We decided on Auntie Em's Kitchen in Eagle Rock for breakfast. Described by the blog, Eat: Los Angeles, as "essentially L.A.", I had first read about this snug cafe months ago in an article praising not only its cupcakes, but also its French toast. And the French toast was indeed delicious. No pats of butter or pools of syrup topped the diagonal slices of brioche but instead honey and oranges gave the dish a hint of sweetness.

We snagged one of their mini red velvet cupcakes to feast on later as we headed to our next stop.

I had been looking forward to seeing the Wayne Thiebaud exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of Art. I'm a big fan of his pastry paintings but hadn't seen his very vertical paintings of San Francisco or any of his early paintings from the 1940s.

It seemed fitting after viewing all those paintings of cakes to search out a few pastry shops.

Sunday in Pasadena isn't exactly bustling but we were lucky to find Dots Cupcakes open in Old Town Pasadena and ready to serve us as many cupcakes as we could consume.

We selected two mini cupcakes: Fleur Del Sel and red velvet. We decided a taste test between Auntie Em and Dots red velvet cupcakes must be held!

The Auntie Em's cupcake with its bright red cake and swirl of frosting looked like a practiced home cook had baked it for a party. By contrast the Dots cupcake could have been in a Thiebaud painting -- it was certainly a work of art with its tiny swirl of vanilla cream cheese frosting topped by a delicate frosting flower. The cake was more dark red than the Auntie Em cupcake.

Both cupcakes were tender and not dry -- often an issue with red velvet cakes.

A quick call to both bakeries confirmed that while both cakes are a buttermilk chocolate cake, red food color is used to enhance the natural reaction between the buttermilk, vinegar, baking soda and cocoa powder.

Obviously Auntie Em uses a heavy hand with her red food color!

But despite its homely and homey appearance, the cupcake from Auntie Em's Kitchen was the winner -- its cake was just a bit more tender and flavorful than the Dots cupcake.

Although red velvet cake is often thought of as a traditional southern dessert, many of my fellow Midwesterners would disagree with that assumption.

In fact, before I left on my road trip, my sister-in-law and fellow Midwesterner requested that I bake her a red velvet cake for her birthday. But despite being from Indiana, I didn't have a red velvet cake recipe and didn't have time to find one for her big celebration.

I must admit that I always thought of the red velvet cake as a novelty cake and had never been motivated to perfect a recipe for this cake. Making a cake with a bottle of red food color seemed wrong somehow.

When the cupcake craze hit and red velvet cake became a measure by which cupcake shops were compared, I still wasn't motivated to try my hand at baking the cake.

And then Rose Levy Beranbaum released her latest bible -- Rose's Heavenly Cakes. To my surprise, in her introduction to Rose Red Velvet Cake, she had similar feelings about this cake:

"I long resisted the charms of this cake, believing it to be merely a layer cake tinted red with a bottle of food coloring. But when several people on my blog sang its praises, I decided to investigate it more thoroughly. It turns out that there is more to this cake than its shocking color."

Beranbaum goes on to create a cake that she liked so much -- she put her name on it!

So what exactly is the background of this crowd-pleasing cake?

According to Cooks Illustrated, the word velvet that always follows the red in red velvet cake refers to the cake's texture as well as distinguishing it from what a classic devil's food cake, which is sweeter and more spongy.

According to the blog, The Joy of Baking, "even though the original red color of the cake was supposed to have been achieved by the reaction of vinegar and buttermilk with the cocoa powder, it is no longer the only reason for its bright red color."

In fact, my research found that now most recipes for red velvet cake include red food color as a standard ingredient to enhance the red color of the cake. So while traditional red velvet cake recipes always included vinegar, buttermilk, baking soda and cocoa powder as standard in its ingredient list, some newer recipes are simply a devil's food cake with red food color added to the batter.

In Beranbaum's recipe, she does away with the baking soda and the vinegar and uses baking powder with the buttermilk to create a tender cake.

Red velvet cake is also typically prepared with oil, not butter. Beranbaum also messes with that tradition by using both oil and butter to create a more flavorful cake.

So, according to Beranbaum, she has turned the traditional red velvet cake recipe on its head by eliminating the traditional ingredients of baking soda and vinegar and by using both oil and butter to create a cake which is tender and has a great taste.

I had to bake this cake to see if Beranbaum had truly improved this classic.

Following Beranbaum's always exacting guidelines, the cake was indeed a thing of beauty.

But how did it taste? The cake had a tender and delicate crumb unlike any red velvet cake I had ever tasted. I didn't top the cake with the white chocolate frosting Beranbaum suggested. I instead used a vanilla cream cheese frosting since that is the type of frosting traditionally used on a red velvet cake.

The cake's red color was indeed a vibrant red. While the cake and its nail polish hue seemed a bit out of place in January, it would look appropriate at Halloween, Christmas and of course, on Valentine's Day.

But more importantly, it would look just right set aglow with birthday candles.