Saturday, November 10, 2012

Law & Order: SBU (Special Bakers Unit)

(Preface: I started this post a couple of months ago but am only just now getting around to posting it. I had to recreate the dishes I prepared because at the time I didn't have the time to photograph them. Oh. And there was a giant super storm that swooped in on us. Oh. And then there was the snowstorm.)

In the Criminal Justice System the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These aren't their stories. This is my story of baking and jurisprudence.

The mailbox is an amazing thing. You open it up, reach in and pull out all manner of missives from people who want your money. Every so often, though, you pull out something that causes your heart to seize, your stomach to drop and your blood run cold: "Official Notice: Grand Jury Summons". Yeah, that's the one. Over the twenty-odd years I've lived in New York, I've had jury duty three times and I've been picked to serve on a criminal jury each time. No one else I've talked to has that kind of, for want of a better word, luck. For some reason prosecuting and defense attorneys seem to love me. Come to think of it, I've never gotten out of serving, even when I lived in Dallas. This was, however, the first grand jury summons I'd ever gotten. Sure enough, I got picked and had to serve for ten, count them, ten days. Not a complaint, mind you; I happen to think jury duty is one of the most important responsibilities we have as members of this society, so I was happy to serve.

I can't tell you about the cases we saw because grand juries are sworn to secrecy. I also can't tell you about our deliberation process because grand juries are sworn to secrecy. Furthermore, I can't talk about the witnesses, undercover cops, victims or defendants from whom we heard testimony because grand juries are sworn to secrecy. There's a lot of secrecy swearing involved with grand juries, apparently. However, we weren't sworn to secrecy about what prosecutors were wearing: really unattractive ties, ill-fitting suits, badly-chosen hairstyles and ill-advised shoes. 

The other thing about which I am not sworn to secrecy is how cool I thought the other jurists were, even the ones I didn't get to talk with much. We had a broad range of ages, varied backgrounds, and careers that ran the gamut. And there was not one of us who took the duty lightly. I have to take my hat off to my associates. And that's where the baking comes into the story (Took me long enough, didn't it?)

Just like in the show! 

After having convened for almost a full week, I figured that I could help ease our deliberative burden by bringing in something delicious, but not too decadent. Pound cake was the obvious choice. I say that because it's the dessert I've been working on lately.

A Brief Personal History of Pound Cake: My pound cake experience begins and pretty much ends with my grandmother's version. The summer before I entered the first grade – 19 and 69, I believe – I took a cross country car trip to from San Antonio to L.A. with one of my aunts and her family. It was quite a journey which included a stop in Arizona, a gift of a rubber bladed tomahawk/flute and a deep appreciation of an overnight stay in a  motel (my first, if memory serves). The highpoint, however, was helping to devour the pound cake my Nana baked for us. This is a memory I'm preserving for both of us, since she says she doesn't remember it now. At any rate, the cake was moist, buttery-delicious and has been the gold standard for pound cake for most of my life.

A Brief Personal History of Pound Cake ends.

As I said, I'd been working on pound cake recipes before my jury duty stint, mainly because that L.A. trip memory bobbed to the surface of my mind when I was fishing around for a new baking project. The first recipe I tried came from my copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum's Cake Bible.

I got this years and years ago but have barely touched it because I've been more of a pie/scone/tart baker than a cake baker over the years. I've only recently started going through it again and it's proving to be very interesting in its lessons on technique and attention to process detail. I figured if there was any place I'd find an excellent pound cake recipe, it would be between the covers of this book. I was only partly right.

When I told my father that I was baking pound cake, he laughed and suggested I not use the traditional recipe of "a pound of everything", which I'm sure is close to what Nana did for her cake. Fortunately the recipe in The Cake Bible
substantially reduces the chances of a coronary incident for anyone partaking.

I have to admit that I wasn't pleased. Despite the description of the cake being velvety smooth and moist, mine turned out drier than I wanted. It was tasty but not what I was looking for. I'm going to have to give the recipe another shot later, because I'm sure something in my technique screwed it up. Still, I learned a bit from the book. For example, according to Ms. Beranbaum, sugar in a recipe also serves to cut up flour in the mixing to help release gluten. Baking is science!

Learning is fine but I still needed a cake I felt good about sharing with folks. I wanted something as rich and moist as my Nana's cake but without the heavy ingredients. Unfortunately the Good Housekeeping Cookbook wasn't any help. It's perfect for many things but sometimes it just comes up short. Once again, it was up to the Internet to lend a helping hand. Searching turned up several interesting recipes but only the one from King Arthur Flour caught my eye.

Another quick aside: Something I discovered years ago when I started doing my seven course, sit-down "Big Dinners" (again, remind me to tell you about some of them), is that I have the ability to read most recipes and tell if they are in the ballpark of what I want from a dish. It's a kind of recipe sixth sense ("my dessert sense is tingling...") that seems to keep me on the right track. It kicked in when I found the King Arthur recipe, and saw the addition of cream cheese; I just knew it was the right one. Also, any recipe that calls for lemon oil can't be bad! I mean, in case you haven't noticed yet, I do enjoy lemon-flavored foods.

Another quick aside ends.

The recipe was easy to make and the end product, especially with the addition of the lemon glazing, was delicious! Just the right amount of moist for the desired texture but not heavy at all. It wasn't as fluffy and tall as a Sara Lee pound cake (which used to be very good and even Ms. Beranbaum talks about it in her book) but it certainly had a superior taste. The lemon glaze hits your tongue with an initial "zing" and then the buttery sweetness of the cake just melts in your mouth. Days later, it's still moist and tasty.
This one is certainly a keeper for sure.

Interestingly enough I baked two different versions of this recipe: a round, bunt-style, for lunch with a friend of ours visiting from San Francisco, and the standard loaf pan-style for the Grand Jury. I love a recipe that gives me pan options because that helps with presentation and transportation. I very much enjoyed baking both versions and rekindling certain cake skills from memories of watching my mother, such as using wax paper coated in shortening to grease the pans – which suddenly reminds me that she also dusted the pans with flour to further keep her cakes from sticking. The advent of non-stick pans practically eliminates the need for these steps but the traditionalist in me wants to keep them – to honor my mother and grandmothers and all the bakers who preceded them. And I shall.

At any rate, here's how the cake turned out:

Deliberate this!
I pre-cut the cake, boxed it up and carried it downtown to the ccourt building in which our grand jury was impaneled. My fellow jurors were pleasantly surprised when they saw the cake on the table in the break room (yes, there was a break room; I wasn't sworn to secrecy about that). It warmed my heart every time someone came out of that room with a slice and a smile. That's the best payoff for me as a baker.

This, of course, set the stage for a SBU sequel.

Currently listening to: Stevie Wonder - Free



  1. Now I want lemon pound cake. Luckily for me, there's a half a loaf sitting out on the counter :)

    1. I made sure there was enough to share when you got back from Denver, honey. :D

  2. Oh I love a good pound cake. I just found a recipe for a hard cider pound cake that I am aching to try. Until then, I'll enjoy your post.

    1. Hey, Sandra! You'll have to tell me how that cider cake turns out when you bake it! This cake is definitely on my list of "go-to" desserts now.