A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Birthday Mini Big Dinner

Introductory Note:

So. I've always known I'm a little crazy when it comes to event meal planning. Nothing proved that to me more than the dinner I put together for Michele in celebration of her birthday. Why crazy? Please read on.

Introductory Note Ends.

Michele's birthday was in July and we had a get together dinner at a Malaysian restaurant, Nyonya, downtown. It was a lovely gathering of old and new friends and delicious food. Though she received many gifts that day, mine was not among them. The reason for this was I really couldn't figure out anything tangible to give her because my mind had already settled on the dinner party. Actually, it was more that the irrational, thrill-seeking part of my brain won the battle with my practical, level-headed part of my brain. It went something like this: "Yes, yes, yes

I wanted to give her something special, something that only I would be crazy enough to attempt: a multiple-course dinner, which I would plan, shop for, prep, cook and serve on my own – for us and a group of friends. I've mentioned in this blog that I've done similar dinners before in my past. The seven-course "Big Dinner" was a yearly event for almost a decade, and I arranged a five-course meal for Michele's 50th birthday, which turned into our engagement dinner (and was held on my mother's birthday – quite auspicious). She was four-square for it so I was off to the races.

The guest list went from six to ten and finally settled at eight (including Michele and me). That wasn't going to be the biggest challenge for me, though. The biggest challenge was going to be preparing and serving this meal in our apartment. The kitchen is a bit small and we really have to go through some gyrations to seat that many people. With the help of one of our guests, we came up with enough seats for people, and I figured out my staging for the prep, plating and serving, setups.

Actually, I take that back. The biggest challenge was going to be deciding on a menu. I always obsess over menus but this one needed to be extra-special. First because it was for Michele and second because all of our guests were foodies of one flavor or another (see what I did there?), and several of them are excellent cooks. No pressure. Right? No! It took me two months to decide on a menu...and only three days (right before the dinner) to rip it to shreds and make a new one.

Crazy as that seems, I've learned over many, many years of doing these kinds of dinners that I should trust my instincts. I may not be the most creative culinary chef, but I can plan a menu in which the courses compliment and foreshadow each other so that everything, no matter how odd, creates an experience of tastes and aromas that will leave my guests sated and pleased.

A Word About My Culinary Experience: I follow a recipe pretty danged well, and can even make subtle changes on the fly, but I'm not a "throw a bunch of stuff together and create a delicious meal" kind of cook. I'm "re-creative" as opposed to "creative" when it comes to non-dessert cooking and I don't consider that a negative. I have fun with what I'm doing, feed people good food, and end up happy at the end of the night. What more could I ask for?

A Word About My Culinary Experience ends. 

So here's the menu that I ended up shopping for and cooking. I'll post links to the recipes whenever I can.

Appetizer Course Part 1 - Rosemary and Thyme Bread Sticks

Homemade Sticks of Bread
I got the recipe for these from an amazing book gifted by by a friend who works for Penguin books. In Search Of The Perfect Loaf - A Home Baker's Odyssey, by Samuel Fromartz, has been inspiring me to roll up my sleeves and get back to baking bread. It's given me a historical perspective, and a deeper appreciation, of bread baking and its importance to the development of human society. I highly recommend it. I've never made bread sticks before and these could have done with a bit more trial and error testing but they weren't bad for a first time.

Appetizer Course Part 2 - Smoked Trout Fish Cakes with Horseradish Cream 

Fish cakes ahoy!

They look even better up-close.
I'm not usually a fan of trout, or river fish in general. Not quite sure why that is but I just have more of a taste for salt water fish. Shrug. What about salmon, you ask? I only like it half the time. That being said, when I saw this recipe while searching for an appetizer, I just couldn't get it out of my head. I knew the horseradish would provide a link to the meat course I had planned. This turned out to be a wise choice because they were delicious! They certainly beat the salmon croquettes (which were actually made with mackerel) our high school cafeteria served on Fridays.

First Main Course - Individual Turkey Pot Pies

One pie to serve them all.
I love chicken pot pies and thought since I have a bunch of little ramekins, it would be great to fill them with said pot pies! The only snag in that plan was that Michele prefers turkey over chicken. Not only that but she loves dark meat turkey most of all. Guess what is impossible to find in a skinless, boneless form. If you said "dark meat turkey", you get the No-Prize! Guess who was skinning and de-boning several pounds of dark meat turkey parts the day before the dinner. If you guessed it was me, then I commend you for paying attention. Dammit, Jim! I'm a baker, not a butcher! It wasn't easy but I muddled through and got enough meat for the pies. Well-worth the effort, though, or so our guests, and my Guest of Honor, said.

I made a savory version of my pie crust, adding a little bit of curry and some rosemary and thyme to give the whole dish an interesting aromatic flair. And, yes, the pies were double-crusts because no chicken pot pie is truly a pie if it just has a top crust. That's a chicken pot cobbler in my book. And that just doesn't sound right.

Second Main Course - Garlic-Crusted Beef Tenderloin with Sauteed Asparagus

Still Life with Tenderloin and Asparagus

I don't cook beef very often. I enjoy chicken and pork more but when I saw this recipe in "Cook's Illustrated," I just couldn't resist it. The horseradish, I knew, would go over well with all the guests (having been foreshadowed by the fish cakes sauce), and the garlic crust would bowl them over. I decided I'd take the chance and stretch my cooking skills more than

There was only one place I trusted to buy the meat, though: Schaller & Weber, the same place I get my lard. One of the butchers showed me what they already had available but it didn't meet my weight requirement. He told me to wait for a bit and disappeared into their gigantic refrigerator room. About ten minutes later, he returned with an amazing tenderloin cut. I love having an excellent butcher in my neighborhood again!

An Aside Regarding The Neighborhood Butcher: When I was a kid growing up on the East Side of San Antonio, TX, we lived one door down from a little grocery store, East Lawn Food Center. It was owned by a German, Mr. Ulrich, a friendly barrel-bodied man with a good smile, thinning gray hair and a touch of a German accent. The back of the store was where the meat counter was and he employed a couple of butchers. I'd watch from time to time as they ground up the beef for hamburger meat and made perfectly cut port chops, among other things. Never a bad cut or an "off" selection came from his meat counter. Compared to the memory of that little store (which, sadly no longer exists), even the finest grocery store in New York City pales. 

Except for Schaller & Weber. I feel as though I've come home every time I shop there.

An Aside Regarding The Neighborhood Butcher ends. 

This was the course that required the most prep. The garlic crust is done with panko bread crumbs and shredded, fried potatoes. There's work with gelatin as well. Then there was our recalcitrant oven, which made cooking this a little difficult but the guests assured me it was good. I'll definitely make it again at some point in the future, though, to get it 100% right. And maybe I'll use a with pork loin. Or not.

Salad Course - Mixed Greens Salad with Broccoli and Plums

Palette-cleanser with bits of summer.
When I began cooking these Big Dinners, I decided to go with serving salad as the last course before dessert because it's a perfect way to prepare the taste buds for the show stopper. Since the stone fruit was so good this summer, the plums I got were still amazing and added just the right touch. And now that there are affordable pre-packaged lettuces, it's easier to prepare. Sometimes I love the modern life!

Dessert Course - Triple-Chocolate Mousse Cake

Still needs some work but it's amazing!
This is another recipe from "Cooks Illustrated." One issue of provided recipes for two courses. Actually, I shouldn't be surprised because that same issue has provided me with no fewer than four amazing recipes. Perhaps I should consider a subscription.

Despite the bottom layer not setting up quite right, it was a hit. I've made this before but I still need to work on that bottom layer; it's pulling away from the sides of the pan as it cools I think I need to change the kind of chocolate I use for it. Still, the mousse is light and airy and served as a perfect ending to what was a wonderful afternoon-into-night.

Antique samovars at work!
Also? I made the coffee in two of my antique percolators (samovars). They've never let me down! I know a lot of coffee loves eschew percolated coffee but I don't really care. I adore the taste, the aroma, and the process of percolated coffee. And when it's served from such cool appliances, what's not to like?

I prepped, cooked and served each course but I was also able to sit and eat with the guests. I always try to set things up so that I have almost all of my prep work done before the guests arrive and each dish just needs some some minimal work before I cook it, so there isn't a lot of "down time" between each course. It would be less fun for me if I couldn't join in on the conversation and enjoy the fruits of my labors.

That being said, I would like to pull a Babette's Feast sometime, and stay in the kitchen preparing, arranging, and sending out each course to the expectant guests. That would actually require me to have "staff", who could serve and clear (and eavesdrop) for me. Hard to come by for such an intimate gathering. One day....

Currently listening to: B-Complex - Beautiful Lies VIP

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Summer Saved!

Someone saved my summer right at its official "end". I didn't actually know my summer needed saving but on Labor Day, it was salvaged nonetheless. Here's the skinny:

Last May my Oster blender, the one I've had for about twenty three years, finally gave up the ghost. It served me well and had a very good, long life but I finally burned out the motor. Right at the beginning of proper milkshake season. Of course I had to get another blender but the question of what kind (another full-sized one, one that was more of a single-serving drink maker, or maybe an immersion style) was a bit insurmountable and it dragged on. We eventually got used to having a little extra counter space with the blender gone, so footprint became another factor to take into account. Weeks of consideration, on-line research, and stopping into kitchen wares stores from time-to-time, stretched into months. Nothing seemed quite right, though, and the summer months ticked by one after another. And milkshake season drew closer and closer to its end.

A Brief Word About Milkshake Season: This is a completely arbitrary designation on my part. Actually, I should call it "Prime Milkshake Weather Season" but that just adds two more words to say. Basically, it just means that I enjoy drinking milkshakes more during the months of June through August than I do at other times during the year. That's not to say that I don't drink milkshakes in the winter, spring, or fall; if I talk about having a milkshake in deep December, you cannot sue me.  

A Brief Word About Milkshake Season ends.

I made several kinds of ice cream this summer but none of them was the straight vanilla that is my favorite for milkshakes. Thus, the impetus for deciding on the new blender was lessened. Actually one of the main reasons I didn't make a decision was that the available options, within my price range, were just plain ugly! I mean, lots of plastic, several unappealing pastel colors, and shapes that weren't pleasing to look at. I just couldn't imagine myself crafting a milkshake using any of the machines I was looking at. Also, the more expensive models (out of my immediate reach) were just too danged powerful and much too big.

And suddenly it was Labor Day and I hadn't had a milkshake all summer. Michele and I spent the day visiting with her father and step-mother. I've mentioned Connie upon more than one occasion here. She has been my gracious benefactor of several beautiful kitchen tools and items that I use frequently. We were talking about ice cream, milkshakes and such when I told her about my blender dilemma. She told me about her Waring blender and how, years ago, she had to take it all the way to Brooklyn to have it serviced. The repair people begged her to sell it to them, which seemed to surprise her. I told her that depending on how old the blender was, and what kind of shape it was in, it could be worth some cash to collectors. It was around fifty years old, she said. Um. Yeah. That's going to be of interest.

Then she asked me the question that saved my summer: "Do you want it?" After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I consulted Michele, whose only caveat was that we maintain a more cleared space on the counter. Mentally, I shifted bottles, salt grinders, and tools until said space shone on the visualized counter. "Yes. I'll take it!" I retrieved the blender from their kitchen counter and immediately realized that all my concerns had just evaporated. It is a thing of beauty! Please to observe:

Seriously, it's beautiful!
Once I got it home and cleaned it off, it fit on the counter exactly as I'd envisioned. Over the next twenty-four hours, I made a batch of double-vanilla ice cream and had my first homemade milkshake at the end of milkshake season and my summer was finally complete!

Chilled milkshake glass at the ready.

Carefully scooping.

Load it up!

Agitate well.



And Summer is saved!
The only thing I need to do is replace the rubber gasket on it because the current one is old, cracked, and leaks a bit. In looking up parts I discovered that this particular model of Waring Bender is probably from the 40s or 50s (and maybe even the 30s), so it's more likely at least sixty or seventy years old!

I'm proud that Connie has entrusted it to me and I promise to make many milkshakes, and memories, with it.

Currently listening to: Patrick O'Hearn - Homeward Bound

P.S. The above song is rather appropriate because I'll be headed home to San Antonio next month.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Just Add Blueberries!

The summer pie baking continues with more than a few light bulb moments. So far it's been peach pies, peach-nectarine pies, Rainier cherry-peach pies, cherry hand pies, and apple hand pies. I've been unhappy with the full-sized pies, though, because the crust edges have been somewhat more...well done than the rest of the pie crust, despite the silicone crust protector I got to alleviate that very problem. After three pies, my lightning quick baking analytical skills ("Quick! To the Bake Computer!") immediately zeroed in on two problems: 1) I needed to roll the dough to be slightly thicker than is my standard, and 2) I needed to ditch the high-tech protector and go back to tin foil.

Please to observe the result!

Nary a burned bit to be found!
The filling was a new combination, as well: peach-blueberry! That actually came about because we had a friend of ours visiting from Seattle and she brought me a pint of blueberries from her backyard garden as a house gift. They were deliciously tart and I thought (again with the analytical skills) that they'd make a perfect counterpoint to the peaches. Turns out I was right! The above pie traveled with us over to Governor's Island for the Governor's Island Jazz Age Lawn Festival, where we had a lovely picnic with several friends and watched hundreds of people amble about in their best versions of 1920s style.

It didn't take too long before we broke into the pie. Look at the colors! And it tasted amazing!

Jazz Age Pie! (Photo by Michele)
And it looked and tasted amazing a day later, too!

Still colorful. Still delicious.
The next time I do a similar pie, I'll add a little more cornstarch/Sure Gel because the filling was a little sloppy for my taste on the first day. I know the combination won't be quite the same because of the quality of those amazing blueberries but I'll still give it a shot. Peach-blueberry hand pies, anyone?

Michele's Addendum begins: Michele commented below to remind me that several people passed by our little spot on the lawn, did a double-take and had to come back and ask about the pie. "You have pie!" "Where did you get that?" "You made it?" "Wow! It looks fantastic!" Nice to know that some things I do can catch the eye.

Michele's Addendum ends.

Currently listening to: Happy Rhodes - Warpaint

Sunday, June 29, 2014

There's Ice Cream in the Mail...

...therefore it must be summer! Or rather, it's summer so therefore I must be sending ice cream sandwiches to my father's house in Florida. And hand-held pies.

Here's the back story: my big sister, my little sister and her kids, and my little brother and his wife and kids were all going to converge upon my father's house in Florida. I thought I could get away for a few days and meet them in down there. The best laid plans of mice and Carltons often go awry, though. Turns out that getting to my father's little corner of Florida would cost anywhere from just over $500 to nearly $600 at this time of the year! (Go home, Airfare! You drunk!) If I'd wanted to be there in October, it would cost half that. Not being made of money, there was no way I'd be able to make that work, especially not with the limited amount time I'd be able to spend there.

Needless to say this struck a chord of sadness in me that ran very deep. I don't get to hang out with my family very often, and I hated missing this opportunity. So, to make up for my absence, I decided to send something from my kitchen as my proxy. Since it was summer, ice cream sandwiches were an obvious choice, despite the difficulties in shipping. No one who'd be there, except my father, has tasted my ice cream sandwiches, so it would be a good treat for them. I knew that I would send some kind of pie as well and if I'd had these –

Mini Tart Molds, made of paper!
– I would have attempted to send mini-egg custard pies. I'll have to give that a go some other time. I decided on hand-held pies, mainly because I noticed that the cherries this season were looking exceptional. My brain was wanting to throw a third dessert into this mix, either a cake (since one of my nieces would be having a birthday while she was there) or gingersnaps, which are by far the easiest things to ship. I decided to let time be the arbiter on that.

I'm Growing Dept. Actually it was a difficult decision to not commit to three pastries right off the bat. I was so sorry that I couldn't make it, that I wanted to fill the place with my baking if I couldn't fill it with my presence. I'd actually planned on commandeering my father's kitchen to do some baking had I been there. The temptation to overload my schedule and overestimate the time I actually had to accomplish this feat of culinary and postal legerdemain was great. In the past, before I embarked on this little baking and blogging adventure, I probably would have said "Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!" and just flailed about trying to squeeze two weeks of baking time into five days. I've learned a bit about scheduling and my limitations. I think I'm doing a bit of growing. 

I'm Growing Dept. ends.

I did the math and figured there were going to be thirteen people there, including my father, and I wanted everyone to have at least two each of whatever I was going to send. That meant a lot of sandwich halves, a lot of ice cream, a lot of pie crust, and a lot of filling - and a lot of cookies, if I was going to add them to the package. Time would indeed have to tell but do you think I flinched at the enormity of this project? No and heck no! I may be growing but I'm still kind of nuts.

First up were the ice cream sandwiches. It's been two years since I made these but I knew they'd still turn out fine. I wanted to do half-sized squares this time, though. The initial cutter I bought is actually too wide for a true single serving. I think the whole "eyes bigger than stomach" thing took over when I did this the first time around. Imagine that! Eventually I'll order a new cutter that's more of an appropriate size for a traditional sandwich. Until then, I'll go with the "Klondike Bar"-esq square. Little did I know what a good decision this would turn out to be.

Half the size. All the chocolate!
Two batches of cookie dough yielded ninety-six sandwich halves. Not one of them burned, stuck to the cookie sheet, fell off the spatula, or broke on the cooling rack. In other words, ninety-six perfect halves! The smell of baking chocolate filled the apartment for more than a few days (especially since I had to divide the baking into two sessions) and I'm sure made more than a few neighbors who walked past our door very hungry.

For the ice cream, I decided to make a "double-vanilla" flavor because I've found that the recipe I use just doesn't cut it for my taste. Adding a second vanilla bean to the custard definitely did the trick. I'll probably do that for all my vanilla ice cream from now on! Yum!

A Somewhat Sad Side Note: A few months ago I had to finally let my blender go. The motor had given up the ghost and it was time. I had it for about twenty-five years and it served me well. The reason this is somewhat sad for me is that it's now milkshake season and I have no blender! Prime shake consumption days are just slipping from my grasp. 

A Somewhat Sad Side Note ends.

I changed up my choice of containers to freeze the ice cream in this time around, too. I still used the square tart pan with the removable bottom for one half of the batch but I opted for a rectangular cookie tin for the other half. Little did I know what a good decision this would turn out to be. (Now, where have I heard that before?)

Old Tin. New Use.
Since this container didn't have a removable bottom, it was even more important to line it with plastic so that I could remove the ice cream easily. Not a problem!
Cutter, cookies, and slab!
Once I had the first batch of ice cream frozen, and the first batch of cookies made, I was ready to start putting them together.

Cutting the slab.
It was easy to cut the slab into the sandwich-sized portions. I just did the initial full-sized cuts, then using the edges of the slab, chopped those in half. Easy-peasy!

Ready for their cookies, Mr. DeMille
Please to notice how evenly this technique divided the slab. One of these containers equaled a dozen ice cream sandwiches with little to no waste! See? It was a good decision to use this one, yes? And the other tin also gave me twelve (ten straight cuts and six slivers that I could use to make two more cookies). Perfection!

Herein lies they good decision of making the sandwiches half-sized squares: assembling the cookies turned out to be even easier than last time, since I was working with smaller pieces of ice cream. Last time I had to deal with some breakage when I lifted the pieces away from the slab. This time, not nearly as much!

Ease of assembly.
Even taking into account the sheer number of sandwiches I was making, the overall process was simplified and streamlined this time around so that I wasted much less ice cream...and energy.

Ice Cream Sandwiches, Assemble!
See, kids? It pays to have process considerations constantly grinding away in the back of your brain. Sometimes.

Wrapping them was easier, too.

All wrapped up and somewhere to go.
So, twenty-six ice cream sandwiches ready to head south. Which left twenty-two here for me! That's what I call a win-win scenario.

With regards to the pies, I decided that I'd make thirteen cherry and thirteen apple. I've pretty much got my hand-held pies down to a science but I knew I could still improve the filling. I made a change in a batch of cherry pies I made a few weeks ago by adding a bit of vanilla extract to the filling, as one of the recipes I was using required. Mistake, in my opinion. The vanilla distracted from the taste of the cherries and became the unwanted star of the show. Not that anyone who had one of these pies noticed.

For this batch, I left out the extract, and improved on my reduction technique for the filling. I needed to make a thick syrup that concentrated the cherry taste without ending up a burned, solid blob. I'm still working out the timing and process but this turned out to be my best cherry filling yet.

The same for the apples. In most of the previous batches of apple pies I've made, the filling consistency was off, in my opinion, with the apples sometimes still being hard enough to punch holes through the crust when I sealed the pies. I chalked this up to the wrong combination of apples. Some apples work for regular pies but hand-held pies are a little different. I used golden delicious, Braeburn, and Roma apples this time. When I cooked these down they actually made filling that had an excellent consistency and rendered apple chunks that were still crunchy but wouldn't punch through the dough.

Thirteen plus thirteen equals lucky number twenty six!
After I'd finished this part of the project, I knew that my window for making a third dessert was closed. There was no way I could get everything packaged up and shipped down to Florida in time for them to enjoy it all before they had to leave my father for various point west. So. No cookies. (Rassenfrasssensassafrass.)

And once again, I was on pins and needles waiting for the Postal Service to do its thing. Believe it or not, checking the tracking information every fifteen minutes didn't make anything go faster. But it did make my nerves all jangly. When things finally did start moving, however, the tracking informed me that the the pies and the ice cream sandwiches were going to be delivered on the same day, instead of the sandwiches first and then the pies the next day! Stroke of luck, that! But I still ended up shouting at the computer screen (which was embarrassing since I was at work) as I waited for any kind notification.

When my father finally called to say that the ice cream sandwiches had arrived, I breathed a sigh of relief. And immediately started planning for the next time because he told me they were a little melty. I must find somewhere to buy dry ice in a quantity that makes sense for my needs. A couple of hours later, he called to tell me that the pies arrived in very good shape. This was a tremendous relief because I've never shipped these hand pies before and they can be somewhat delicate. It turns out that I'm really getting very good at figuring out how to pack a box, or two, of baked goods!

All-in-all, I'd have to say that this was the most complicated baking project I've done to date. There were more components to make and assemble, more parts to the process that could have gone wrong, more variables to juggle, than anything else so far. And for the most part, it all went according to plan. Now the only thing that would make me happier would be to get pictures of my nieces, nephews, siblings, and father enjoying everything! We'll see what I can do.

Currently listening to: Bobby Womack - Woman's Got To Have It

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Kosher For Passover, or What I Swore I'd Never Do

"Never Say Never" is something my mother often told me when she advised me in my life's pursuits. Basically, she was telling me to keep an open mind because opportunities are often disguised. That became even more obvious recently when I bumped up against the necessity of doing something that I thought I'd never do: bake gluten-free.

Okay. I'm over fifty years old and for most of my life, the concept of "gluten-free" was nowhere to be seen. In the last twenty years, "food allergies" have become more and more talked about and marketed to, so I'm a little more conversant with the concept. I don't scoff at those afflicted but I was convinced that I'd never be able to bake for any of my friends who have taken to removing gluten from their diet. In fact, I had to cancel a plan to offer a friend her choice of baked goods as a birthday present because she was now "gluten-free".

A Brief Word On The Subject Of "Gluten-Free" Baking: Why the reticence? It's simple, really. I'm barely beginning to get a handle on "gluten-full" baking! Why should I clog up my hard-won progress as a baker with trying to learn how to bake without the very thing that provides structure and texture to so much of what I do? 

A Brief Word On The Subject Of "Gluten-Free Baking Ends.

"Never say never," I heard my mother's amused voice say. And then came...(insert dramatic suspenseful music here)...Passover 2014. We've been fortunate enough in the last few years to be invited to a Seder that our friend "L" and her wife "K" host. It's an amazing gathering of unique and far-ranging folks and our hostesses provide a ritual and celebration that relates to each and every one of us, no matter the paths we walk in life. How they manage that is beyond me but it's an event that means more and affects me more deeply each year I attend. Not only that, but "L" prepares one of the most delicious meals for their Seder! Her brisket is to die for!

I've baked for this event before and they kind of let me slide with what I chose (a coffee-walnut tart served with coffee-flavored whipped cream) but this year I wanted to go full-on kosher with my dessert, a flourless chocolate torte that I made years ago for one of my Big Dinners. I ran the recipe past "L" and she gave me the thumbs up. Out of the blue, I asked if she would mind if I brought more than one dessert. Maybe it was out of gratitude for the experience in which I was to take part.

Of course she didn't mind she told me. And she was going to let folks know that she was outsourcing dessert this year! She might as well have waved the green flag at me because I was off to the races! I decided on the the second recipe, a French-styled apple tart, that I planned to pair with a gluten-free crust recipe I found.

Never say never.

Of course, I also put my foot in it, pretty deep because of this whole "never baked gluten-free before" thing. Actually, that's not true. I mean, the chocolate torte didn't use any gluten. But this tart would be different because it had a crust and as we all know, I take pride in my dessert crusts. I would be mortified if I flubbed this dessert because I couldn't make a decent crust.

The crust recipe I found seemed like I wouldn't have too much trouble with. Right out of the gate, however, I tripped a little. I was hung up on nut flour and procured a bag of Red Mill Almond Flour – at a prettier penny than I was prepared for. But it was for Passover, so I didn't much mind. Until I found all-purpose non-wheat flour, apparently made from all the kinds of beans in the world, from the same company at half the price! Needless to say, with my crust-making ability in question, I opted to use the less expensive version...just in case.

I opened the bag and immediately smelled one of the problems I'd have with this flour: it smelled like beans! And what something smells like to me is what it'll taste like. I hoped that once I pulled it out of the oven, it wouldn't smell like baked beans. My baker's intuition told me not to fret, though. A little more sugar and some cinnamon (which I rarely use) and all would be well. Time and baking would tell. The second hurdle, the olive oil, was more of a speed bump. I started my pie baking with making vegetable oil crusts, so that technique wasn't foreign to me. Pulling it all together wasn't that big of a problem.

The thing that really threw me, though, was patting the dough into the tart pan. It wouldn't mush around the pan like normal. It was like wet sand! I might have added a bit too much olive oil or this may just be the way this recipe works. I'll have to try it again to make sure, but it took more work to get the dough evenly spread on the bottom and up the sides. Once it was baked, though, it looked, and smelled pretty good.

My first gluten-free crust!
The filling was a bit different for me, seeing as the recipe called for Granny Smiths, which I find to be just too tart for my tastes. I had to throw a couple of Jonagold's in there to sweeten it up. I like the technique of baking them and then mashing them a bit before putting them in the tart crust to finish baking. That brought out some lovely flavor. I did a reduction of the water and juices and added that back to the filling before I put it in the crust, though. So that probably added to the richness of the apple flavor.

Filled and ready for the topping.
I decided to use my square tart pan instead of my round one because I find the square one easier to manage. Plus, this pan and I go back quite a few years; it's never let me down. I'm sure it values my loyalty. Here's where I sacrificed finesse for speed (I did have a second dessert to bake and a batch of ice cream to make – and the dinner was less than twenty-four hours away at this point). I should have sliced the apple wedges a little thinner, and covered the top of the tart with about half-again as many wedges but I really needed the time for other things. The amount I put on top was actually fine and they were thin enough so that the edges browned. However, had I cut them thinner, the edges would have gotten black, as is called for in the recipe, and looked fabulous against the brown brown of the crust and in contrast with the rest of the apples. Live and learn. It still looked good regardless!

Nicely browned edges.
The last element to add to the tart was the glaze.The recipe called for apricot jam but apricots and I have a sordid history. Actually it just boils down to the fact that I don't like them because they masquerade as little peaches but don't taste like peaches. I could have stuck to the recipe and used the apricot jam but then I wouldn't have been able to taste, with an unbiased palette, the  result of this little experiment in kosher baking. Did I say I don't like the taste of apricots? I had some lovely plum preserves in the house and used those instead.

I will have to admit that there are things I'll do differently if I ever attempt this tart again but I had a slice and it really did taste pretty good. The non-flour flour crust didn't come within a hundred miles of the taste of my regular crusts but I was very pleased with the results! And the plum preserve glaze was perfect. (Take that, apricots!)

Plum glazed over!
Next up was the flourless chocolate torte. This is something our host "L" usually makes for for the dinner, so she was very glad I wanted to include my version, which uses this recipe. I didn't deviate from it too much; I mean, it's pretty basic. Egg yolks, sugar, egg whites, butter, chocolate, vanilla extract. I love the process of this dish, though. I love to see how the chocolate mixture and the yolks combine to make a batter. I love whipping egg whites to the right consistency. Wait. I should say that I love learning how to whip egg whites to the right consistency. I am by no means an expert at this! It's just...fun for me. I love checking in on the torte after it's baked and watching it collapse like a building that's been rigged with explosives for a controlled implosion. Only slower. And with much, much less, plastic explosive, detonator caps, and foremen with bullhorns telling the crowd to keep behind the barricades.

Baked and beginning to sink.

Check out those edges!
It amazing me that I do as well as I do with our oven. Having to frequently check the temperature is a drag, but it's necessary. One of these days I'll have an oven that will be consistent and much less of a pain in the buttocks.

The collapse of the Torte Empire.
As I said, I've made this dessert before and I'm very happy with the way it turned out. It's rich, dense, and delicious. I added powdered sugar and raspberries and it positively burst with flavor!

The golden table setting!
The ice cream was a little bit of a surprise in that I suddenly decided to make it to leave with "L" and "K" as a special thank you for hosting the Seder. Not only is vanilla my favorite to make, it's also the simplest recipe so i can do it quickly. Truth be told, I was also looking for a reason to use the ice cream containers I just bought, so there you have it.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for new ice cream containers!
I learned an awful lot with this little adventure. Not only about gluten-free baking but also about how to turn out two or more great desserts in a short amount of time. It's all about picking the right dishes, those with an element of simple complexity, if that makes sense. I also learned more about how to trust my baking instincts and intuition.

And I learned to "Never say never."

Currently listening to: Oraanu by E.S. Posthumus

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Christmas Cakery: Doubling Down on Disaster (And What I Taught Myself) - Part 3

Well, the telling is almost over but for the screaming (and yes, there is actual screaming involved with finishing this story).

The advantage of missing deadlines for presents, at least for me, anyway, is that it gives me a chance to fine-tune the gift (or to actually make or acquire said gift). The pressure's off and I can at last figure out almost everything that went wrong with the initial attempts. So it went with the Christmas presents once the actual day had passed. I now had time to apply the lessons learned and set things right.

After acquiring the diminutive springform pans, I made new cake batter and tried again. There really is nothing like having the right tool for the job and these pans were awesome at doing their job! When I pulled the cakes out of the oven, my heart soared because they were nearly perfect. By this time, I'd gotten so much experience cutting layers that it didn't take me long to slice, fill and ice the little cakes.

Sliced and chocolate filled!
The mini bundt cakes and the butterflies were a little more problematic but I still managed to improve my process with them. I was more diligent about greasing up the pan and the molds this time and had much less trouble extricating them after things cooled down. I really am going to have to invest in some of this stuff soon.

Boy, do I need this!
It seems I'm truly going to need it.

Could have been worse. In fact, it was!

They looked a little odd for sure but when I got them covered in chocolate...

The chocolate coating helps it go down easier.
...tasty was all I could see! Eventually I got everything baked, filled, frosted, coated and ready to box up.

Ready to fly in formation to their destinations!
I shipped three different boxes to three three different cities (although two of them are very close) and waited. And waited. And waited. And waited some more. Herein lies the part of my tale that elicited the screaming: only one box showed any kind of movement in the postal tracking – the one to my brother's family in California. Now, I Priority mailed these a couple of days after Christmas, knowing that it might be a little longer than the usual two-to-three days but I was relatively certain that things would arrive in good shape. But the boxes to Texas didn't show movement for over a week! And no one at the Post Office could help me find them.

A Side Note About My Relationship With The U.S. Postal Service: I genuinely like the post office. It's usually my preferred method of shipping anything anywhere. I guess I'm a lot old fashioned because I would rather deal with a postal clerk than the Automatic Postage Machine Thingy. Not that I have trouble using the machine, mind you. The real trouble that the locations I normally use are so poorly run and staffed that it's nearly impossible to get in and out without a long line and a frustrating wait. So I end up buying my shipping labels online and just dropping the packages off, or using the Automatic Postage Machine Thingy. I'm all for progress but I do wish they'd run their locations better because I do enjoy that human touch. 

Side Note About My Relationship With The U.S. Postal Service Ends

The California contingent, including my father (who was visiting my brother Rob and his family) received their box in short order and informed me that all the contents were intact and delicious. The boxes to Texas didn't arrive for another week! I ask you to imagine the screaming that went on over the last three paragraphs as lasting almost a week and a half. The situation was, how shall I put it, annoying! Even so, the goods finally arrived in Texas in perfect tasty condition.

I'm beginning to think I'm learning a thing or two about shipping baked goods. Case in point: we have a friend in Hawaii to whom we've owed a reciprocal Christmas gift for a year-plus. I baked her a cake and some ginger snaps and added them to the box Michele and I finally put together for her. I shipped the package, also Priority, and everything arrived without so much as a crumb being shook loose. And she described savoring and saving the cake and cookies in a way that made my baker's heart nearly burst with pride.

One last cake tidbit. Another friend of ours, this time here in NYC, presented me with a large rubber stamp which I just had to use on a congratulatory gift for him (on getting a new job):

A cake that knows it's place at the table!
I'm not saying that buying me baking/cooking accessories is a way to get a dessert from me but it does stack the odds....

Currently listening to: Seal - Get It Together

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Christmas Cakery: Doubling Down on Disaster (And What I Taught Myself) - Part 2

Christmas was barreling down on me as though it was a runaway sleigh and I was a human frozen in the headlights of a mutant reindeer with a glowing nose. I'd done wrong by the six-inch cakes, leaving two of them in cryogenic sleep. I had a fall-back plan, however. And you know what they say about fall-back plans: The best laid plans of bakers and cooks often fall flat on their backs.

Things Went Horribly Wrong Dept. - Molded Cupcake and Mini-Bundt Cake Division

It seemed like such a simple plan: use the remaining cake batter in the mini-bundt cake pan I found in my storage facility (I'm really going to have to clean that out one day – mainly because it costs too danged much every month) and in the butterfly silicone molds.

Colorful butterflies!
These molds came from my little sister, the ever-brilliant Miss Kee. She also included a set of flower-like cupcake style and a set of a kind of star-pattern style. About one hundred per set. I had no idea what I was going to do with them but she seems to have faith in my ability to figure things out. I ended up using them for handheld pies. Here's another look at what I did with them last year (as I said, I'll either tell the story of how these came about, or chronicle a new adventure):

Butterflies and flowers
As for the mini-bundt pan, I'd never used it before, even though I've owned it for well over a decade, so I was venturing into new territory, as is my way with so many of my baking projects.

Bah-weep-graaaaagnah wheep mini bundt!* *No-prize for anyone who gets the reference!
Let me go on record as saying I'm not a great lover of cupcakes. The trend that swept the nation for the past several years seems like it's receding; it just left me with a mouthful of "meh". As the competition for the public's pocketbooks heated up, the purveyors promoted baked goods that got farther and farther away from what a cupcake is supposed to be (in my purist opinion). So, the fact that I was considering what were essentially cupcakes as the fall-back position for my holiday cakes was saying something about my desperation regarding the time constraint under which I'd foolishly put myself. Still, it was a sound plan. Or so I thought.

I introduced the batter to the baking containers. This is the point at which things went south. Because even though the silicone molds worked brilliantly for the pies, and the bundt pan seemed as though it would work as well, non-stickiness proved to be qualities they lacked when it came to this cake batter. Once I pulled them out of the oven, I couldn't pull the cakes out of the molds or the pan! After they'd cooled, they never released! Absolutely. Held. On. For. Dear. Life! No amount of shaking or threatening (and I did a fair amount of that) made them let go. It was as though some chemical binding process happened that caused the cakes to merge with the molds and the pan at the molecular level. I mean, even after I conceded and put everything in the sink to soak and clean, it was nearly impossible to extricate the cakes! I'd never seen anything like it.

I was mortified and a bit despondent. This meant I'd never make the mailing deadline for Christmas and my presents would be late. Again. Not that my family isn't used to me sending out Christmas and birthday presents and cards (very) late; I just wanted this year to be a little different. Alas. As I sort of said earlier, "The best-laid schemes o mice an men ang aft agley."

A Note On The Gaelic: I've always heard and read that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. I never knew about the original version of this saying until Eddie Izzard used it as one of his tangents in "Definite Article". I still laugh my butt off whenever I see it.

A Note On The Gaelic Ends

It was here that I discovered something very important. Something that would shape the rest of my December and part of my January: I don't actually have a cake problem! The recipe I was using and my execution of it were fine. The failures actually tasted great! What I had was an assembly problem, which is an altogether different thing. I discovered this when I pulled the 6" layer cake out of the refrigerator and saw how the cold had solidified the chocolate ganache enough for me to actually work with the layers. I determined that a thicker version of the ganache, or a different filling/icing altogether, would make the cake viable again. Being one who likes to cover as many bases as possible sometimes, I opted for both.

I made a stiffer ganache to fill the layers, then refrigerated the cake to solidify the ganache on each layer. I made a stiff butter cream frosting and added a thin layer on top of the ganache. Then, after another brief stint in the fridge, put the layers together and iced the whole cake with the butter cream. The result:

Cake salvage!
One of these days, I'm going to have to get one of those Lazy Susan turntable thingies to make this process easier. No, it's not as smooth as I wanted it, but it looks pretty darned good for someone who doesn't consider himself a cake decorator. But, you may ask, how did all that in and out and in and out of the refrigerator affect the texture and taste? Didn't that dry it out? Well, I will answer, apparently not! I served this, and its cryogenically frozen companion to two different groups of friends and both were pronounced delicious! See for yourself!
Looks pretty darned moist to me!
Also, this cake was so proud of itself that it insisted on having a photo taken with everything that had made it was it was today.

The Lineup.
How did this help me with my late Christmas gifts? Confidence – as in it gave me lots of confidence in my cake baking abilities. I mean, seriously, what kind of baker would I be if I couldn't consistently make a good cake? Also, it gave me something to do while I waited for these to arrive:

Smallest springform pans ever!
I'd ordered these 4" Wilton springform pans but I knew they wouldn't arrive in time for the Christmas cakes, so that's why I went ahead with using my own 6" pans. Now that I'd spent time flailing and fumbling about as I learned important lessons about cake, they arrived and I could put all that hard-earned knowledge to use.

But that's going to have to wait for Part 3!

Currently listening to: Sara Bareilles - Fairytale