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!)



  1. You're the coolest. Would love to be on jury duty with you! Merry Christmas, honey.

    1. Mary Christmas to you, too, Grace! Check the mail in a few days; I'm sending you something tomorrow. ;)

  2. Most awesome! MonY