A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Pie's The Thing... (with apologies to W. Shakespear)

All legends are based on truth but the farther you get from the actual event, the more suspect the legend becomes. You need eye witnesses or participants to bring veracity to the story, to corroborate, verify and independently confirm what happened. This is the story of a pie – an egg custard pie – that became a legend.

Pretty much everyone who takes up baking and sticks with it through the inevitable failures, ends up with at least one dish that becomes their signature dish – the one everyone requests at family gatherings and holidays. For my father, it was the banana pudding. For my mother it became her cherry cheesecake. For me? I'll get back to you that because I've yet to figure it out. For my Nana, mother of my mother, daughter of my great grandmother, it was the egg custard pie. Hardly anything disappeared faster than Nana's egg custard pie. If you dallied too long after dinner, there was no way you were going to get a slice.

It's difficult to quantify the taste of Nana's pie. It wasn't too "eggy", nor was it too "custardy" (are those even words?). It was almost always just right, with just a hint of nutmeg to top it off. True there were times when things just didn't come together right for her and the pie didn't live up the the legend but for the majority of its holiday appearances, it was perfect.

A word about my early relationship to baking: magic. As I said previously, I didn't bird-dog the people in my family who baked when I was a kid, so the process was a bit mysterious to me. Baking actually came closest to what I thought magic was. Let me explain. No. There's too much. Let me sum up: Someone you loved dumped a bunch of stuff into a bowl, used a big spoon or an arcane instrument called a "mixer" to scramble it all up then they put that stuff into other containers, popped those containers into a giant crucible and an indeterminate time later, they pulled out something delicious that looked completely different from what they put in. Magic.

Of course now that I've been baking for many years I've learned that I was spot on! It's magic! Absolutely! It doesn't matter that I know how it's done or, rather, how I do it, what matters is how much everyone enjoys your finished product. (Please note the apparent recurring theme of this blog.) My Nana understood this when she baked the egg custard pies.

The thing about that pie is that no one in my family has ever successfully recreated it. Nana didn't write down the recipe. Wait. That's not true. I know for a fact that she wrote it out for my friend Steve way back when he was visiting one Thanksgiving when we were in college. He's never been able to duplicate what she did, though and he's since lost the paper she gave him. My beloved little sister, Monique, a.k.a. Monica, a.k.a. "Miss Kee", said she came close a couple of times. Personally, I'd never been tempted to attempt it and I'm sure that temptation would have remained tempered had not my big sister, Karla -- my very own "Special K" -- planned a visit last December right around my birthday.

Part 1 Ends
**Cue ominous, dramatic musical riff.**

Thursday, April 19, 2012

This just in!

I talked with my father about his banana pudding and he confirmed that the recipe for the pudding itself did indeed come from the Nabisco 'Nilla Wafers box, but the meringue technique came from his mother. Unfortunately he hasn't made it in about six years. Hopefully he'll break that dry spell soon.

Personally, though, I can't imagine anything made with Nabisco 'Nilla Wafers tasting good these days. Is it just me or has the taste completely changed? The last time I had any they were so awful I had to toss the box. When we were kids, our great grandmother used to give us a few when we would visit with her. 'Nilla Wafers and a glass of cold milk. Ahhhhh! There was nothing like it! (Unless, of course, it was ginger snaps and a glass of cold milk.)

In other news, the conversation my father and I had has inspired a new challenge for the summer. I can't talk about it just yet because, well, it's not summer! Despite the spate of much unseasonably warm days here in NYC, the season hasn't started. So mum's the word for now. Besides, I find that the more "I'm going to" creeps into my vocabulary about a project, the less likely said project will ever see the light of day or the inside of an oven. Suffice it to say that he put a great big smile on my face when we told me "Well, good luck!" and if I can pull this one off, I know I'll put a smile on his face!

I promise I won't leave you hanging for too long about this one.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Inspiration Inspection Interlude: Like Father?

There are several people who have imprinted themselves on my baking memory. From time to time I'll post a little bit about them.

Most people who delve into cooking and baking usually trace their love and desire for the art to their mothers/grandmothers/aunts. I'm a little different because I can draw my baking lineage directly to my father. True, my mother, grandmother and at least a couple of aunts all contributed to my interest in cooking – directly and indirectly – and I'll definitely be writing about that later. However, the first memories of baking that struck me with a sense of a sense of awe came from my father.

Sidebar: I often rail that so many popular films have as their central theme the father/son relationship. Star Wars comes to mind. Although I love the original trilogy, it gives short-shrift to mothers, as though they aren't important. And don't get me started on the "Prequels"! At any rate, here I am writing a food blog and the first post exploring my inspirations is about my father. How ironic. End sidebar.

It was the banana pudding.

My father, whose namesake I am, made the best banana puddings. He used the recipe from the Nilla Wafer box, I'm sure (I'll have to ask him). I always loved to hear the cookies hit the Pyrex pie plate when he started working on it; there was something about that sound and the smell of the cookies that just filled the air with promise. I rarely stuck around for the intermediate steps; I didn't watch him prep the bananas, whip the egg whites or combine it all in the plate. I didn't trail behind him to learn his baking secrets. I was an end-product kid, so I loved to watch him pull the finished pudding out of the oven. The meringue never failed to thrill me; it was always a perfectly browned and sculptured thing of beauty. It was always awesome.

And it took about ten years to cool enough to eat!

We had a conversation not too long ago in which he told me that not even his sisters could make better banana pudding than he could -- and they're good cooks. He had a knack for it.

There is a memory that will always stand front and center in my mind regarding my father's baking. I was at home for Christmas break during my first year of college. It was late on Christmas Eve and my mother had already prepped the bird and ham for the next day's meal. I was in our living room being entranced by Ahmad Jamal's "Poinciana", from the album "At The Pershing - But Not For Me". This was from my father's collection and I just simply fell in love with that song. My father was in the kitchen preparing to bake cookies and I managed to snap this picture – one of my favorites (please note the pastry blender in his right hand and the cookbook on the table - I spend a lot of time like that):

Between the sound of the music and the smells from the kitchen, it was a kind of magical moment. Thinking back on it, I've since come to realize a thing or two about my father and baking: following a recipe does not a great dessert make...being able to imbue it with love and passion each time is what does it. And that was what my father did, each and every time he baked for us (or made S.O.S. for us – he was in the Army, after all). Every pudding and every cookie was a way of showing his love. For that I'm truly grateful and I try to do the same for others with every dessert or meal I prepare. I think I've inherited his knack.

Thank you, Daddy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Of Ginger and Lemon and Cream (Cheese) - Part The Fourth and Final

You know in the science fiction movies when Earth is invaded by aliens with more advanced tech and we're getting to pojees beaten out of us? Some quirky genius guy comes along and figures out how to reverse-engineer the technology he shouldn't be able to understand, no matter how much of a genius he is, and saves the day, right? Well, I'm here to tell you that advanced cookie tech is no match for the Quirky Guy Who Bakes! (Please notice that I didn't put "Genius" in there. I have some modicum of humility.)  This is the cookie:

This is an Austrian cookie, marketed heavily in Germany and imported here. Finding these locally reignited a long-lost love affair with wafer cookies. They are, however, best when eaten fresh from the freezer, in my opinion. Using my uncanny ability to read the back of a package, I discovered the ingredient that I thought would allow me to save the day.

But where to purchase it? This was a job for Kalustyan's! (I am seriously going to have to take you all on a pictorial tour of that place one day.) They may not have everything I need but they have enough of what I need that from now on, that store is going to be my first stop on any shopping outing.

Now armed with the citric acid and the lemon oil, I knew I'd be able to finally perfect my ginger-lemon creams. I figured out the proportions for the filling (and by "figured out" I mean "took an educated guess") and came up with a filling that was lemony and zingy and would set just right to help give the cookie a nice texture.

Oh. A word about citric acid: it actually softened the cookies somewhat, making them a little chewy towards the center. I guess it was drawing moisture out of the filling and the cookie absorbed it. My solution was to let them sit for a couple of days before handing them out or eating them myself.

I was happy with all the elements I was bringing together for this project but there was one thing still missing. It took a while to realize what I needed was an imprint of some kind. Once that idea presented itself, I didn't have any trouble procuring it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the birth of The Cool Factor:

Yes! A rubber stamp! Simple. Elegant. Cheap! But would it work? I don't know. You be the judge.

Not bad, eh? It could be better, though. I'm looking into having a metal stamp made because as cool as the rubber one is, it doesn't make as deep an imprint as I think is necessary.

Remember what I said about patience and obsession? The recipe I'm using regularly makes around one hundred cookies. That means I'm cutting, stamping and baking over two hundred rounds. Now, does this justify my not simply buying prepackaged cookies? Probably not. But it does give me a lot of joy and satisfies something that's an intrinsic part of my life.

And I get to share them with people. I sent a batch to work with Michele and she said that they disappeared rather quickly. Actually, I've sent a batch of each test along the way and the response has been encouraging each time. One of the students in Michele's office commented that visually she thought the cookies were "fancy...like Williams-Sonoma." As for taste, it was "light and delicious! I feel like I'm in Paris!"

It was this last batch that prompted the response from our friend John that helped launch this blog. Thank you for reading! There are many, many more adventures to come!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Of Ginger and Lemon and Cream (Cheese) - Part The Third

They say you can learn more from your failures than you can from your successes. If that's true, then what about your near misses? Your qualified successes? What did I learn from my first attempts at my ginger-lemon creams? I learned that I needed some new tools, a refined technique and a couple of different ingredients to make them the cookies I so desired. And that I needed to figure out the cool factor pretty darned quickly because my next test batch wasn't far off. I was so close I could almost taste it. Literally.

Taste was part of the problem to be solved. I needed to ramp up the lemon flavor and I didn't relish having to zest any more lemons because I hate zesting! I'm sure that's just because I don't have the best tool for the job or the right technique or the best lemons or...or.... Whatever! Even I don't have the kind of patience it would take to produce enough zest to see me through another test of this recipe, let alone using it on a regular basis. Just as I was getting the brain up to speed to work on this problem, brilliantly resourceful Michele (a tremendous cook in her own right) dropped this in my hand:

Kalustyan's is a specialty food store on Lexington Avenue at 28th Street and it's amazing. When you walk in your nose transports you to places East. Intense aromas build up, layer upon layer as you travel deeper and deeper into the store. You can smell the potential delicious meals with each step. How anyone gets out of there without drooling on themselves I don't know. Me? I carry a tactical sleeve. Just in case. Michele was shopping there after work one evening and found the lemon peel powder. Having heard my rassen-frassen-bricken-bracken about zesting, she thought it would be a good solution. It was, even though lemon peel powder doesn't pack quite the same punch as lemon zest. Using it would certainly save bunches of lemons from my little grater, and save my sanity as well. And it would work for both the cookies and the filling.

Speaking of the filling (which I was -- you can check the above paragraph if you don't believe me), I came to the conclusion that it needed two things: to be less stiff and to have a bit of zing to it that lemon zest or lemon peel powder couldn't give it. The former was easy enough to rectify. I'd just add less corn starch. Much less corn starch. The answer to the latter wasn't as forthcoming. Michele and I talked about lemon reductions and such, but, like zesting, that wouldn't lend itself to easily making this recipe on a semi-frequent basis.

And then it hit me like a tangy bolt from the blue! Sour Brite Crawlers! No, not the candy itself but the ingredient that gives my favorite gummi of all time its bite: citric acid. A little of that would make the filling perfect! I didn't find it at Kalustyan's, or any of the local stores I thought might have it. Granted, I was in kind of a hurry so I didn't have the time to do a spice shop crawl. Quick! To the Interwebs and my trusted on-line spice purveyor, My Spice Sage! I discovered this great site a couple of years ago when I was looking for hot salt -- but that's a story for another time. Sure enough, they had said citric acid and I was well on my way to my next test!

Now, here's were some of that "learning" I mentioned above comes into play. My previous attempts taught me how to alter my rolling technique to get a more uniform thickness for each cookie. They taught me how to cut and lift each round from the marble slab so that the they deformed as little as possible because, as it turns out, I wanted a particular visual uniformity that would be part of the cool factor. I'd also learned how to gauge my poor oven's shortcomings.

A word about our oven: a little not well. (I know that's more than a word but I'm a good tipper.) The oven itself isn't old. In fact, it's the most modern oven I've ever had in a New York apartment. It's just that the preheat thermostat thingy has been lying to us of late. It beeps to tell us the oven's ready when it's really anywhere from 15 - 50 degrees away from ready. Talk about a temperature swing! How does one use an oven that lies like that and have any hope of success? By purchasing a good oven thermometer and giving the oven a lot of time to preheat. What I discovered is that it heats up accurately; I just have to let it do its "Little Oven That Could" thing. And, yes, I'll eventually get the super to have someone take a look at it.

After deciding how much lemon peel powder to add to the cookie dough, how much citric acid and peel powder to add (and how much corn starch not to add) to the filling, I embarked on the next test. The result was a cookie that was a half a light year beyond that one that preceded it. The citric acid added the lemony zing I was looking for in the cream filling and the cookies themselves were snappy enough without drifting into jaw-breaker territory. I pleased indeed!

But there was still something missing. My taste buds informed me that they were on the verge of the very experience they'd been seeking. However, as good as this batch was, it  still came up short. And I still needed to figure out the visual cool factor. Drat! I still had work to do.

End Part The Third

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Of Ginger and Lemon and Cream (Cheese) - Part The Second

All I really wanted were cookies that I could rely on to a) make my mouth curl into a smile when I bit into them and 2) not make me have to fight my wallet to afford them. Oh, and c) they had to actually look kind of cool, too. I'd already established the parameters that would satisfy the first part: gingery, snappy, lemony and creamy. I quickly gave up on the second part because if these cookies could satisfy the first part, I wouldn't care about the second part! (I know what you're thinking: If I didn't really care about how much they cost, why not just go with Newman's? I'm glad you asked! As soon as I come up with an answer that makes any kind of sense, I'll let you know. Suffice it to say that I got a baking bug up my butter and I couldn't let the idea go.) And I had no idea how I'd accomplish c).

The first attempt was last December, just before my birthday, using what I'm now calling my "classic" gingersnap recipe which usually yields these:

Mix the dough, roll the dough into small balls, bake the dough, cool the cookies, make the filling, assemble and serve! Perfection, yes? Um. No. Even cutting back on the baking soda, they still rose too much to be good sandwich cookies (although they were still quite tasty). To use the vernacular: drat!

A little closer to my birthday I tried again. After consulting the wondrous Google (because love them though I may, none of my cookbooks had what I was looking for), I found and adapted these two recipes:



(mostly for the filling)

In the world of baking, I'm what you might call a recipe "tweaker"; I love to find recipes that interest me and then nudge them along to get slightly different results. It's not that I think I can do better than the originators; I don't have that kind of hubris. I just give the recipes a little push to get the dish I'm looking for. The above proved to be ideal for this approach.They had to be, because my birthday was fast approaching, my big sister was arriving soon for a visit and I had already confirmed a full house for the celebration.

Please allow me to digress a little to explain about my birthday. Twenty years ago (okay, it's more than a little digression) I left my twenties behind me and celebrated my thirtieth birthday. It lasted for about a week and included baking a cake (which I mentioned here), making dinner for a few friends and then having a big lunch for a larger group of friends. A good time was had by all! Over the years I've distilled that joyous experience into an afternoon tea with a select group of friends and I bake up a storm for that day. The ginger-lemon creams were part of the storm for my fiftieth (and if they were a success I'd bake them for myself from time to time) so I needed to get the recipe to work post-haste! Digression ends after I tell you that I'll talk about my Birthday Tea in more depth at another time. Digression ends.

I sort of smushed the two new recipes together with elements of my classic gingersnaps  and came up with something that I thought would do the trick, so long as I could get my technique ironed out. It's not just the mixing of the ingredients, it's also the rolling and cutting of the dough, which I hadn't ever done for cookies. And because these are sandwich cookies I had to make twice as many as the recipe called for -- which meant that the process would take twice as long. Good thing I've got strong arms and more than a dollop of patience! (But then, how often is patience just another word for obsession?)

The result of all this smushing, rolling, cutting and filling was a cookie that was tasty, exceptionally snappy and looked kind of cool:

They were a hit at the Birthday Tea and at Christmas but they still weren't what I was looking for. They weren't lemony enough. They were a tad bit too snappy. Okay. I'll fess up: they were on the hard side. They tasted good but they were a bit too much work. Hmmmm.... Perhaps I shouldn't have put quite so much cornstarch in the filling when it refused to set the way I thought it should. (Gee. Ya think?) Also, the cool factor wasn't quite there, yet, and I still had no idea what to do about it.

Three rounds in and my quest had only just started. I had only just begun to bake.

End Part The Second

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Of Ginger and Lemon and Cream (Cheese) - Part The First

Gingersnaps are perhaps my favorite cookie of all time. I remember occasionally liberating one or two from the pantry late at night when I was a kid (I believe the brand was Archer's but I could be wrong). After I moved to Manhattan, I discovered that Nabisco made a pretty good snap and from time to time I'd buy some and have them with a glass of cold milk. I did this even though I'd gotten from a co-worker a really good gingersnap recipe that I loved to bake. That changed the day I bought a box and noticed something different about them. Gingersnaps are supposed to have cracks in them from the rising during baking and cooling after they're pulled out of the oven. The cookies from the box I'd bought were flat and the cracks were actually stamped into their tops! Well, that was just cheating! I've never bought a box since.

I thought my dalliances with prepackaged snaps was over but then I discovered Newman's Own Ginger-Os! What a delicious cookie! What a wonderfully gingery flavor! What tasty cream filling! What delightful organics! What a staggering price to pay for them! My wallet absolutely refused to cough up the $5.59 plus tax per 16-ounce package.

*Allow me to backtrack just a bit. I enjoy having two cookies as a little lunch dessert. It's a kind of mid-afternoon treat I give myself. ("Congratulations! You've made it through most of your day!") That being the case, I want it to be a good treat and one that wouldn't cost me an arm and a leg. This is why Newman's was out. Backtrack complete.*

For a while I settled on an off-brand lemon sandwich cookie from the supermarket across the street from my office. Decent lemon flavor at a good price. I made do with them...until the company started skimping on the filling even as they raised the price. I understand the economics of cookie production and sales, but this was yet another insult to my cookie experience!

There was only one thing for it: bake my own. What could be better than combining the best parts of three different cookies I enjoyed into one simple sandwich cookie? Absolutely nothing better. But simple? Not on my life.

The stage was set for my ginger-lemon cream cookie challenge.

End Part The First

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Gotta Start Somewhere!

In case the title didn't give it away, this is a blog about my adventures in baking. To be honest, I never would have thought to create a "food blog" if not for a friend of my wife's who, upon tasting the latest iteration my ginger-lemon cream cookies, blurted out "Food blog! Corporate sponsorship! Food Network show!" (He's an incredible "anything is possible" kind of guy, so it was a really small leap from blog to television show for him.) Once the hyperbolic excitement died down, though, I had to admit the idea was attractive, so here I am writing about baking!

But why baking? I do a pretty good job with cooking and have turned out many a fine meal. I've created about a dozen amazing seven-course dinner events over the years. My absolute favorite thing to do, though, is present a delicious and spectacular dessert to top off those meals. I love creating the perfect baked good. And by "perfect" I mean a dish that makes me happy and puts smiles on the faces of my guests. Not every dessert or meal I make comes out looking as though it could be on the menu of a four-star restaurant but seeing people react as though it could be is one part of the thrill for me. Another is going through the process: finding the recipe, determining if it will work for my purposes, shopping for ingredients, deciding on substitutions or alterations to fit my tastes, putting it all together and then seeing it come out of the oven ready for consumption. And, of course, watching it disappear from the plates.

I bake to share and I write to share, so I hope I'll be able to comment back and forth with people here. I don't pretend to be the greatest baker in the world or even a true gourmand. I know what I like and I have fun pursuing that. Sometimes it's upscale (remind me to tell you about the three tier chocolate cake I baked for my 30th birthday) and sometimes it's down and dirty comfort food (biscuits). It's all joy to me! 

So, I'll be talking about my baking inspirations, sources for recipes, successes, failures (there have been plenty and I'm sure there will be plenty more), obsessions and desires. I'll take any excuse to bake -- dinner parties, high teas, afternoon teas, birthday gatherings -- and I take pictures of nearly everything, so there will be a visual record to go along with what I write. I'm just looking to share the fun of all this with anyone who's interested enough to stick around.

Besides, my last name is Baker! How else should I be spending my spare time?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

This is a test of the Just A Guy Who Bakes blog. If this was a real blog post, you would be directed to the nearest comment box for further instructions. This is only a test.