A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Epiphanies At Year's End

 I sit on the cusp of a new year. 2012 has been a whirlwind of wonder and banality. There has been so much excitement and horror that I often marvel that I am here at all. I marvel at the fact that I have the kind of life that enables me to do what I do and that is something I'll never take for granted. My trials have been manageable and my joys have been many. Along the way, as I've documented some of what I do here, I have, once or twice, been struck by insights that sent me soaring with "I get it!" tumbling from my lips.

Allow me to give you an example. For almost three years I've been using Michele's rolling pin for my pies and cookies with varying degrees of success. It's one of these:

Yep, that's it.
Finely crafted, solid wood, nice balance. And I have the hardest time controlling it. My old rolling pin, which I gave away (along with my marble slab) when Michele and I combined our lives into this apartment, was marble and cylindrical; it was heavy enough to keep me from having to put too much muscle into the rolling. This one is tapered from center to ends and requires a completely different techniqueone I couldn't figure out for the life of me. Don't get me wrong, I made good pies and cookies with it, but I've never felt comfortable with this rolling pin. That changed at the beginning of this month. 

As part of the Birthday Tea menu, I'd decided on my apple-pear pie (one of my staple baked goods). I'd prepped the dough in my usual way (which ends with the dough disc cooling off in the refrigerator). I readied the pastry cloth I now use because a few months ago I broke the marble slab Michele moved with. I began rolling the bottom crust and suddenly it was as though time slowed down as I looked at my hands on the rolling pin and watched the pin flatten the dough. I could see everything that I was doing right and understood everything I was doing wrong. And I knew this crust would turn out exactly how I wanted it to. The same thing happened when I rolled out the top crust. I'd finally gotten a feel for the rolling pin and it was like catching lighting in a bottle: exhilirating and triumphal!

It was one of those moments in which you know you're doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing. And you just smile and keep on doing.

Have a happy new year and may it bless you with adventure, joy, wonder and love.

I leave you with this:

  Currently listening to: Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 "From The New World"

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Forward To The Next Half Century (Or: It's My 51st Birthday...Let's Have Tea!)

I have a confession to make: I love celebrating my birthday! I always have and I imagine I always will. Some of my fondest early memories of my birthday include geeky gifts such as a transistor a.m. radio from – get this – Radio Shack and mint chocolate chip ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins (Mmmmmm.... Mint chocolate chip....). As a kid I thought that the two best things about my birthday were 1) it was two days before my father's birthday and 2) it was early enough in December that no one could combine it with Christmas. In all honesty, though, I still think that.

That being said, I remember the year that changed the way I thought about celebrating my birthday: my thirtieth. Thirty was a milestone for me if for no other reason than that I was leaving my twenties behind me. I was so happy not to be twenty-anything that I made up my mind to extend my thirtieth birthday for as long as I could afford to. I decided on a three-pronged attack. First I would bake my own cake and take that to work to share. Then I would have a small group of people over for dinner the night after that (which I would plan and cook). Finally, I'd invite a larger group over for brunch the following afternoon. A day's celebration for each decade of my life. I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams and had my happiest birthday since I first discovered Baskin Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream cake. (Mmmmmm.... Mint chocolate chip....)

One of those wildest dreams was the cake I chose to bake. At the time I had a subscription to Bon Appétit and that summer the cover of one issue featured a beautiful wedding cake that really made an impression on me: three tiers, dark chocolate inside, white chocolate outside, with white chocolate ribbons and bows. I fell in love with it and became determined to make it someday. Well, that day turned out to be thirtieth birthday. It took four days to make, what with all the different kinds of chocolate I had to work with and the four different forms it needed to take (cake, icing, ganache, fondant). I needed two trips on the subway, from 96th Street and Broadway to 16th Street and 5th Avenue, to get it to the office. And then it took some minor engineering to set it up. Quite a trial! But it was, and remains, the best chocolate cake I've ever baked, served or eaten.

Look, Ma! No gray hair on my chinny chin chin!
The folks in my office thought I was nuts. And they were right. But that didn't stop them from enjoying the cake! (I know I have other pictures from that day and when I find them I'll be sure to post them.)

So. How did this change my attitude about my birthday, you may ask? My thirtieth gave me my first taste of celebrating by serving. I got such great joy out of planning, preparing, baking, cooking and sharing those meals with my friends that I was smitten with the idea from then on. I found it much more fun than having someone plan a party for me. That extended celebration led to the idea of gathering a group of friends for occasional afternoon teas, which led to what I called my "Big Dinners" (seven-course meals – I'll talk about those at some point). These eventually inspired my Birthday Teas.

For the last twenty years (with only a couple of missed opportunities) I've had a Tea to celebrate my birthday. I invite several good friends (all girls, well, just because), plan the menu, which always includes scones, cucumber sandwiches, some form of ginger cookie and at least a one "show stopper".

2005: cranberry scones, cucumber sandwiches, gingersnaps and apple-pear pie
A Tale of Two (Types Of) Scones: I've been baking scones for more than twenty-five years. Back in my life BNYC (Before New York City), I dated a young lady from England and one year for her birthday I decided to bake her something from her country. I chose scones because they are odd cousins to biscuits (although the English would deny such a connection). I used the recipe from my favorite quick breads cookbook, Carol Cutler's Greatest Fast Breads, and the young lady pronounced them almost as good as what she could get at home. My scones are small, rounded, light and easy to slice and spread with whatever jam, jelly, butter is on the table. That's one type, the correct type, of scones. The other type, the type usually found in bakeries and coffee shops and similar places in America, are gigantic, mutant shaped and generally scoffed at by anyone from the British Isles. I will not eat any of these and I suggest you run like mad if ever anyone tries to serve you one.


I always have a variety of teas for the tea drinkers and good coffee for those who enjoy their cuppa Joe. The menu is usually pretty easy, since, as I said, I know the dishes that will serve as the anchor of the meal. The surprise dishes are always fun to plan and bake.

2010: I added sweet potato pie and shortbread to the table.
Last year I completely ignored a rule I made up on the spot and served two dishes I'd never made before: what turned out to be the first iteration of my ginger lemon creams and my first take on my Nana's egg custard pie.

2011: scones, ginger lemon cream cookies v1.0, apple pie (not pictured: egg custard pie)
This year I had to serve the new ginger lemon creams (since there were several guests who'd had them last year) just to show how they'd evolved. I also baked an apple-pear pie (one of my staples) but this year I used 1) the second of two pie baking dishes Michele got for me last year and 2) an antique porcelain pie bird (c. 1920, if my hasty research is correct) that my step-mother-in-law gave me. Michele told me that this actually belonged to her grandmother (her father's mother).

Royal Worchester, England bird inside the Emile Henri, France dish
Two parts, which is a bit uncommon, I think.
I'd never seen one before and had to ask her what it was for. Once she explained that it was a way to vent steam out of the pie (usually the job of slits cut in the top crust) I knew I had to use it with the very next pie I baked. This one is different from most of the ones I've seen on-line because it's in two pieces and the bird is graceful, even regal in appearance. And it helped make one of the best, if not the best, apple pies I've ever pulled out of an oven!

Not one of the four-and-twenty blackbirds but it did help the pie sing with sweet deliciousness!
2012: slice of apple-pear pie and ginger lemon cream cookie
The other show stopper on the menu was a batch of half-sized ice cream sandwiches. I made something like nineteen of them because I wanted leftovers. I love them so much that I'll eat them even in the "off-season"! They were exceptionally well received...as I knew they would be.

Half the size. All the tastiness!
I do get presents on my birthday and I'm happy to receive them but my biggest present is hosting the Tea. I love finding new recipes for the show stopper(s). I love the smells the inhabit the apartment when I'm cooking and baking. I love it when I pull a batch of scones out of the oven and they've got just the right amount of brown on the crust. I love the smiles and "Ooos" and "Ahhs" as each dish is presented and the thrilled jaw-drops at the show stoppers. Plying my friends with warmth, delicious food and wonderful camaraderie is the birthday present that fulfills me like nothing else in the world.

I want to do this forever.

Currently listening to: Michael Henderson and Roberta Flack – At The Concert

Monday, December 24, 2012

cattus rumpo baker.

Or, to loosely translated: "The cat interrupts the baker." I was deep in prepping and baking for Christmas Eve gathering of friends and Christmas Dinner with in-laws. While I was waiting for Michele to finish up something in the kitchen a cat suddenly appeared in my almost lap.

This is what I get for slowing down for even one second...
Close enough, I suppose. (And, yes, they're Grinch pants - thank you, big sister Karla!)

Speaking of laps and cats...doesn't every baker research recipes using a cat to warm up his apron?

Lectio per cattus in sinus. (Reading with cat on the lap. I know it sounds much worse in the Latin.)
That is all.

Currently listening to: Little Dragon - Twice (16 Bit Remix)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Law & Order: SBU (Special Bakers Unit) - Part 2

In the last episode, the lemon pound cake laid the ground work for a baking sequel. This is that sequel. The names of the dishes haven't been changed to protect the innocent. You have the right to remain hungry. Anything you eat may be used to delight your taste buds or add inches to your waistline. Or some such silliness.

When you're on a jury for such a long time, you can grow a little fond of the people with whom you serve. You trudge through the depths of the criminal justice system, deciding the fate of people's lives, having heated deliberations, sharing bits and pieces of your own lives outside of the jury room and when you realize it's almost over you're struck with the sense of an impending loss. As I said earlier, I've served on three other juries here in New York but this was the first time I felt that. Yes, I was going to be happy to get back to my normal routine but I still felt a kind of connection with these people and I wanted to leave them with something that would give them a smile or a fond memory of our time together.

Thus I hatched the grand baking plot. Something savory and something sweet. Since I'd been mulling over a new version of the ginger lemon creams, that was an easy decision for the sweet part of the plot. The savory part initially was to have been scones but I had to shelve that idea for want of buttermilk and clotted cream. I know I could have made both of those items but I really didn't have the time. Corn muffins would have to do. Granted, I'd never made corn muffins before but I had a jury to feed, dang it! I wasn't about to let something like a lack of experience with a dish get in my way.

Usually that kind of attitude sets the stage for some little baking disaster; not so this time. I had the right recipe (thank you again, Good Housekeeping Cookbook), two muffin tins and plenty of cornmeal for the endeavor. 

Assemble the ingredients!
By the by, one of these days I'll have a proper prep counter. This one I got at Ikea many years ago and it has a bit too much lateral shimmy when I roll pastry or use the mixer on it.

Förhöja - how in the heck do you pronounce that?
Still, has its advantages, not the least of which is that I can move it pretty easily if I need it in another room. Also, it's been a boon since we have such a small kitchen, with very limited counter space. It's like having a little kitchen extension.

You know, there's something about the smell of mixing anything involving cornmeal that takes me back to my mother's kitchen. I loved her cornbread and her dressing, which was cornbread based. I used to hang around the kitchen just to smell the cornbread baking after she popped it into the oven. This little project connected me to my mother in a way that I hadn't anticipated and for that I'm truly grateful.

Take all this....
...mix and bake...
...and pop them out!

All of this I did in the morning of my last day of jury duty. It's a good thing I naturally get up early, yes?

As for the ginger lemon creams, I started those days and days before. You'd think by now I would have settled on the definitive version of these cookies but something happened that made me want to refine it even more: I bought (wait for it)...a zester!

(dramatic sting)

Michele and I went for a wander around Brooklyn for flea markets, brunch and window shopping and I ended up in Whisk. It's a pretty cool, if small store, chock-full of gadgets that could get a guy like me to spend a lot of money (if, that is, I had a lot of money, which I don't). I resisted every temptation the place threw at me but I kept coming back to the Microplane zester. Something about hating zesting lemons and oranges and never having a proper tool bubbled to the forefront of my baking brain. It bubbled so hard that I threw caution to the wind and bought this one:

It was the purple handle that did it for me!

I know what Isaid about keeping this cookie as simple as possible but I just couldn't resistthe desire to taste what lemon zest would add to the filling. So there I was,scraping the outer rind of a couple of lemons into the other ingredients. Ihave to admit using a proper zester made all the difference in my experience. Iwas finished in no time -- and not once did I scrape any knuckles orfingertips! Oh the years I've wasted and the skin I've lost for want of an actual zester!

Once I had allthe zest I thought I'd need, I made another recipe-altering decision: use the lemonsto make a little reduction to add to the filling. Why the heck not? In for apenny, in for an even more complicated process, I always say. At this point I was kind of off the beatentrack and had to let my instincts, and what small amount of dessert making skill I've garnered over the years, guide me in.

A quick word about "skill": I think it's important to point out that there are times in my baking life in which I got lucky when I was trying to be skillful. Trust me when I say it's better to be skillful.

A quick word ends.

Luck and skill combined to give me a filling that seemed to have more lemony body than before and that made me very happy indeed!

Adding those two steps increased the difficulty of the process, so I had to devise a way to reduce the difficulty just as much. Fortunately for me, my brain had already devised just such a way. Using the "Just A Guy Who Bakes" stamp causes problems for me because it tends to squish the cookie rounds a bit so that some of them are larger than others and some of them lose their round shape. Not only that but a high level of dexterity and delicate spatula work is involved in transferring the rounds to the cookie sheet for baking. This can also deform them somewhat. Remember, the idea for these cookies is to approximate something I'd buy in the store (but much better all the way around), so I'm a big stickler for uniformity. How to surmount this problem?

Easy-peasy. Cut parchment paper to fit the cookie sheets. 

These are baking tools?
Roll the cookie dough on the parchment. Cut the cookie rounds. Then comes the cool bit: Work with negative space! Stamp the desired number of rounds with "Just A Guy Who Bakes" and simply remove the dough around each round until all you have left are the rounds, already on the parchment! 

Negative space...the final frontier!
See? It works!
Then take pick up the parchment, put it on the cookie sheet, and pop the whole kit and kaboodle into the oven. Once the cookies finish baking, put them on the cooling rack and reuse the parchment for the next batch. I couldn't believe how much quicker things went after I started using this process.

I guess I was on a roll because another idea hit me. Actually, it's something that should have occurred to me for my first ever batch of these cookies. I was staring filling, ready to spread onto the cookies and it hit me. Why use a spatula when you can use a pastry bag? Actually I had a pretty good answer to that question: "Because I forgot I had a pastry bag! I pulled it out, loaded it up and squeezed out dollop after dollop of icing. It's a crappy pastry bag, plastic and slippery, but it worked like a charm.

Use the bag, Luke!
The pastry bag made for much less mess and also made it easier to gauge how much filling I was putting on each cookie. I love learning things as I go! I will be procuring a couple of better pastry bags in the future. I already know of at least two other uses for them, so they're now a necessity for me to have.

I packed everything up and took it downtown to the courthouse. Getting it through security proved no problem. I envisioned having to bribe the court officers with a muffin or a cookie, but fortunately the X-ray machine doesn't register baked goods. Once upstairs I placed it all in the little break room and let everyone know that there were goodies to be had. And had they were! At the end of the day, my baker's heart was light and happy because there wasn't a muffin or a cookie left!

Case closed. (Oh, come on! You knew I'd have to do that!)