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.