A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Can You Keep A Secret?

So can I!

Actually, I'm in the process of gathering materials for a secret treat for someone. I'll spill the beans when it's all said and done.

Not to worry. I'll post the story and process pictures as well.

This is Mr. Mysterio signing off (for now)!

Currently listening to: Joan Field (Violinist): Menddelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor (Berlin Symphony Orchestra • Rudolf Albert, Conductor). This recording is my favorite version but it only exists on vinyl (recorded in the 60s, I think)  so I'll link to the first movement by Perlman.
Berlin Symphony Orchestra • Rudolf Albert, Conductor

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Request Line Is Open...

...for a select few (and by "select few" I mean "my father-in-law"). A few months ago, or late last year, when I was doing some baking, Michele's father asked me for a cream pie. I can't remember if it was when she was telling him about what I was making for Birthday Tea or if she was describing one of the experiments I was gifting to her co-workers but he put in an order for a cream pie of some kind. He recently put in the order again when we got together for lunch. "Chocolate or Banana?" were the options I gave him because I am not making a coconut cream pie; I hate coconut. As much as I like him, I can't bring myself to get over my aversion to that tropical delicacy enough to bake with it. Michele ended up being the deciding factor, mainly because she had a hankering for bananas the other day.

After a lovely afternoon wandering around the Greenmarket at Union Square yesterday, I stopped in at Fairway on East 86th Street to pick up ingredients. Both of these shopping destinations are ripe for deeper blog exploration (it's amazing to me how many topics can present themselves to me here) and made the crust late last night. I'm not one hundred percent sold on the crust, though. It's graham cracker and my technique with that kind of crust isn't the best...yet. We'll see

An aside: I love doing some baking tasks just before what should be bedtime. I get a sense of accomplishment just before I conk out for the night and the apartment smells like freshly baked somethingorother. Talk about fodder for good dreams!

So, it's now father's day, Sunday, and I'm having some coffee while finishing the pie. I don't normally have coffee on the weekends before Michele gets up but today I really needed the warmth of that cuppa' as I worked on the filling. Usually I wait until she wakes and make coffee for both of us. This morning it was percolated coffee for one, using this cute little, vintage percolator.

Crust made, coffee percolating!
I'll go into the story of this coffee maker later but for now, let's just say that it was the perfect contraption to make the perfect amount of coffee to have with filling fixing! The recipe I used for both the crust and the filling is in Judith Choate's The Great American Pie Book, one of the cookbooks I've had for many years that I'm rereading with renewed baking vigor. It's a very good book for basic technique, ingredient suggestions and good recipes. I highly recommend it.

The custard was very simple enough to make and it firmed up perfectly. I think I'm starting to get the hang of some custards. (I'm definitely going to compare and contrast this recipe with the one I'm using for the egg custard pie.) I figured cooling the custard on the marble slab while I worked on lining the crust with bananas would work nicely. I was right.

Custard, coffee, cookbook
Not quite "bell, book and candle", but baking is magic, anyway. Twenty minutes later and, look! Filled pie crust!

Sans topping
I'm chilling the pie in the refrigerator and will transfer it to my all-purpose Pyrex dessert transporting container in a couple of hours so that we can carry it to my in-laws downtown. I'm making the whipped cream topping there, so I'll post pictures later.

Currently listening to: Virginia Coalition, Sing Along 

7: 59 p.m. – The results are in!

Michele and I just got back from her father and step-mother's apartment and we're full of Ford Farm Dorset Red cheese (with which I'm dying to make a grilled cheese sandwich sometime soon), artichoke hearts, French breakfast radishes, baby spinach salad with smoked chicken breast and walnuts – dressed with fig-infused balsamic vinegar and olive oil. And the finished banana cream pie. Michele took these pictures with her phone (I totally forgot my own camera, so thank goodness for technology) the topping.

Is my hand really that big?
I was right about the crust, though. I need to work on it. Still, it was quite tasty and I'd make this one again for sure. I love the way the taste and aroma of the bananas wrapped themselves in the sweetness of the custard. Quite tasty indeed.

Something I appreciate a great deal is sitting with my in-laws, sharing a meal and swapping  stories. I find that Michele's family has that in common with my own and that makes for some delightful times together. My father-in-law did indeed enjoy the pie and offered to taste-test anything else I'm concocting. My step-mother-in-law seconded that. It's good to have volunteers.

Now, on to the next adventure, which is something I'm working on for my father.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Scenes From The Table

There are times when you're at family gatherings that you find yourself thinking that you picked the exact right place to sit at the table. I don't get to visit with my family very often, so hitting that sweet spot is important to me when I do. This time around, at the bar-b-cue for my oldest niece, I hit a jackpot. I shared the kitchen table with two of my aunts, Johnnie and Mable, my uncle Leon and one of my oldest friends, Mary, who I saw here in NYC a couple of years ago (and with whom I wish I could visit much more often).

Picture this: a quiet, slightly nervous, kid transfers to a new high school school midway through his freshman year. He's befriended by a sweet young lady in his geometry class. They remain fast friends for the rest of their high school career, graduate and go their separate ways but manage to stay in touch. Thirty-six years later, not only are they still fast friends but she has become a high school teacher, worked along side his aunt (Johnnie) and taught his niece for a year. If you can imagine that, you've got the gist of my relationship with Mary. We share so many connections that it seems as though the universe demands our friendship remain intact. The latest connection we share is blogging. Hers is here and you should check it out; what she has to say about living a sustainable (in all its definitions) life is worth reading.

I've missed being able to sit across a table and talk with Mary, so I made the most of it. Cooking, baking (she brought a fig cake, which everyone loved, to the meal), writing and even graphic novels (she recently read her first one and I'm sending her a copy of V For Vendetta) were all on the agenda. Interestingly enough, we didn't touch on any high school memories; I guess we're more interested in connecting our present lives than in reliving the past.

Auntie Johnnie joined in the conversation and I got a chance to tell her that I still use her sweet potato pie recipe. Many years ago I was talking with my mother about sweet potato pie because I wanted to bake one for some holiday or another. She suggested I call Johnnie because she thought Johnnie's sweet potato pie was delicious. I ended up combining Johnnie's recipe with another I'd found somewhere else into what has since become my sweet potato pie. That's something I'll talk about in a future post. Discussion of buttermilk-based pie crusts, crusts made with vinegar, souffle-like fillings and technique kept us smiling, and eating, for quite a while.

I got an opportunity to talk with my Nana about my attempts at making her egg custard pie. She smiled when I told her that her pies and the love she put into them inspire my final version.

By the end of the night, most of the cherry cheesecake was gone. Mary's fig cake, and the glaze she provided for it, had taken quite a few hits. The strawberry cheesecake had just enough left for my brother to lay claim to at least two more slices. It was a joyous gathering.

Full hearts, full stomachs and well-fed spirits.

Oh. Did I mention that I brought a box of ginger lemon creams with me? When I arrived, I gave it to my father (who was rationed just one from the batch I sent one of his sisters for her birthday) with the intention of it being "for the house". He interpreted that to mean "for him" and by the time I left, he'd managed to scarf down the majority of them. I guess I can't ask for a better compliment than that, can I?

Currently listening to: Andreas Vollenweider - Letter To A Young Rose (Just seemed appropriate...)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Filling

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I'm was at home in San Antonio, in the house my folks bought when I was a freshman in high school. My oldest niece, my sister Mony's daughter, graduated high school Saturday, June 2, and we had a bar-b-cue that was kind of in her honor. I got the chance to hang out with my father, sisters and younger brother and, as I told them, I had a great time! It was hard on my stomach muscles, though, because I hardly stopped laughing! It was a bittersweet visit because we've been without my mother for almost four years, now. The five of us are finding ways of filling in for her presence in each others lives and that's made us all stronger and closer than ever. But we miss her terribly. This was the first time I'd been back there since the funeral.

And that underscores the significance of my decision to make a dessert for the bar-b-cue. I wanted to fill in for my mother in that regard. She would have happily made something delicious for us, so I took on the responsibility of doing just that – despite the fact that I haven't had much success baking in that kitchen. (Astro Dome Apple Pie, remember?). But which dessert? It needed to be something that was evocative of past celebrations. My mother's favorite dessert to make was cherry cheesecake with pecan crust and if she were alive, that's what she would have made. I even had the recipe, which she gave me many years ago, so that's was that.

I've actually made this dessert a few times but I've always swapped real whipped cream for the Cool Whip the recipe calls for. I would stick with that alteration this time. Why change the recipe from what she did? Why not go for authenticity, you might ask? Remember who you're talking to here. Let's see: take the time and effort of making actual whipped cream to mix with the cream cheese for the filling or use a tub of ready-made conglomeration of who-knows-what? Extra work versus easy-to-spread-could-be-plastic? Heavy whipping cream, here I come! Besides, I don't like not knowing what's really in Cool Whip.

My older sister doesn't bake these days – although she used to be fond of popping a batch of Toll House or oatmeal cookies in the oven from time to time when we were kids – so I made sure she had a few basics: blender, mixer, measuring cups, pie plates, Pyrex baking dishes, etc. When I arrived there were two boxes waiting for me – a blender and a hand mixer. I was hoping to use the Sunbeam mixer that both my parents used for so many years but my father told me it gave up the ghost when they checked to see if it was still working. That was disappointing but life goes on. So far so good. I was less successful with wooden spoons, rolling pin and pastry blender but another quick trip, or two, to the grocery store took care of first two, and I could use the old "two knives in scissor fashion" technique for cutting in the butter for the crusts.

A word about grocery stores: For the last twenty years I've called New York City home. There are no large grocery stores here. Oh, there are stores that think they're large, and, yes, they're bigger than the corner bodega but they're not large. I was born and raised in San Antonio and the the small grocery stores there could swallow three "large" New York grocery stores and still have room for a bodega for dessert. Talk about your one-stop-shopping! Practically the only thing you can't get at a grocery store in San Antonio is your tires rotated, or, apparently, a pastry blender. You can, however, get tires at some of them.

Though all the ingredients and equipment was assembled, I'd have to wait until after my siblings and father, along with some other friends and family, assembled to watch the Avengers assemble. Yes, it was my third time seeing the film. I'm a geek; sue me. Consequently, I didn't get started on the crust until almost midnight. That actually went very well. It's been ages since I used knives instead of a pastry blender but the technique worked for the pecan crust. I always have a more difficult time using it for a regular flour crust.

Not being in my own kitchen, where I have access to a marble slab for rolling out crust, was an experience. I had to improvise with wax paper and a cutting board because there's nowhere near enough counter space to work with in that house. Oh, rolling the pecan crust isn't what my mother did when she made this dessert; she patted the crust into the baking dish instead. We'll add that to the ways my version is different from hers. Also, she usually made one big cheesecake, in a rectangular Pyrex dish but I used two 9.5" pie plates because of my little brother, Rob. He likes strawberry but I like cherry, so I decided to make both of us happy.

While the crusts baked, I turned my attention to the cream cheese part of the filling. And immediately found out that the Hamilton Beach hand mixer wasn't as heavy duty as it thought it was. Even though I've been without it for years (the beaters got lost in a move and I've yet to replace them), I'm still used to my Kitchen Aid hand mixer, which had power to spare. Sixteen ounces of cream cheese had that Hamilton Beach motor wheezing! I decided to put the filling back in the refrigerator because there was no way I'd be able to finish the cheese cakes that night. It was nearly two in the morning and I was so tired that I could see myself getting into a tragic kitchen accident that I'd never live down. I devised a good way to cool the crusts, since I was also without a cooling rack, and tucked myself in bed. "Nighty, night! Sweetums go to bed now," (which was something my mother used to quote to me when I was a kid because she knew she could crack me up by doing Sweetums' voice.)

When I woke up, I dove right back in because I knew Karla and Rob would need the kitchen to work on the bar-b-cue meat and Mony and company would arrive soon. I divided the cream cheese in half to spare the poor Hamilton Beach. It handled whipping the cream well enough, though. After I blended the whipped cream and the cream cheese together, being very careful not to lose any volume in the whipped cream, I filled in and topped the crusts. The completed cakes went into the freezer to set up in time for the bar-b-cue. If I had been able to finish them the night before, I would have put them in the refrigerator. Oh, well.

The Results

Two cheesecakes and a piePad
The majority of the folks who were at the bar-b-cue had tasted my mother's cheesecake, so I had a bit of anxiety about how they'd like my version. But I could almost hear her saying "Baby, if you think you can do this, I have no doubt that you'll do it well." She said stuff like that to me all the time. I had her love with me and that was all that mattered. They were very well received. And at the end of the night, after everyone had left, my father had a second slice.

Me: "So...what do you think?"
Daddy: "It's very good. But I'll tell you what: it's not your mama's."
Me: "No. It's not," I had to admit. "But I'll tell you what: this version's better for you because we know what's in whipped cream."
Daddy: "You're right about that, son."

We all miss her. And I can't do things exactly like she did. I'm just doing my best to fill in.