A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Interlude: Flight of the Gingersnaps

Every so often, while New York trudges through its yearly January deep freeze, I end up in San Francisco for a few days. Michele's best friend, with the judicious use of copious frequent flier miles, flies her out to S.F. for a few days of relative balmy Bay area weather. I get to tag along because this arrangement makes it affordable.

I always bake this friend something as a little thank you for her generosity. We've already established that she enjoys my baking, so I know I'm on safe ground with whatever I decide to bring. During this trip, though, we were going to be gathering with a big group of friends and I wanted to bring something to share with everyone. My time was at a premium so whatever it was going to be needed to be quick and easy to prepare and travel well. Gingersnaps, of course!

A Quick Note: I know this is beginning to look like the "All Gingersnaps All The Time Blog" but there are some situations that only my favorite cookie can address. And it just so happened that since I was baking a batch to send to Honolulu (a story for another time), I'd have enough for this trip.

A Quick Note Ends

I'm really getting better at making my version of this cookie. One of my friends, who was at my Birthday Tea, asked how I got them all so uniform in shape and thickness. "I use a rolling pin and a cookie cutter," was my answer. It was a revelation to her because she'd only ever seen the regular "roll into a ball and lightly press" version, which was how I used to make my gingersnaps. Granted, my current process limits the development of the characteristic cracks but I still get them and I end up with a cookie that is, to me, the perfect thickness. Remember, part of my desire is to recreate snack foods that Iove, and Nabisco gingersnaps were some of my favorites. This is a pretty good approximation of that. And much better tasting to boot!

I made enough cookies to: leave a batch for our cat sitter, have a batch to give to a friend in S.F. who did another Neil Gaiman favor for me (yet another story for another time), slip a batch to our flight benefactress, and still have plenty to share at our coffee shop gathering. I never go small when I bake these.

The problem of how to travel with them wasn't a difficult one to solve. I did, after all, take a box of twenty-three hand pies with me to Texas last August. I just bagged up the batches (eight cookies to a bag) and put them all in a cake box to carry on the plane with me. No sweat. The sweat came later, as I was boarding the plane and the eyes of our Virgin America flight attendant crew fell upon the cake box. There's no disguising that there's some kind of treat contained in a cake box. When I told them (they all asked) that it was gingersnaps, they smiled and sighed happily, and a little covetously. In the back of my overly-imaginative brain I thought "I'm not going to get jacked by these folks for my cookies, am I?" Of course not. But those side-eyes as I passed each crew member made me a little nervous.

The flight attendant who smiled the biggest and told me that gingersnaps were her all-time favorite cookies was the one who would be working our part of the plane. "You should give her a bag!" Michele encouraged. I'm not a cruel sort, and I had more than enough cookies to share – and Michele's elbow makes my ribs hurt after a while – so I did just that after she took our drink orders. "I have a little something for you but you have to promise to share with the rest of the crew," I told her as I handed her the bag. Her genuine appreciation made me happy. Less than ten minutes later, she was back at our row, one cookie in hand and an ear-to-ear grin on her face. "Thank you so much! They're delicious!" We had a little conversation about my baking and this blog, with several interjections from her about how good the cookies were. That was quite a boost for my ego.

I'm going to have to get better at this part of the my baking life, considering I'm putting it up for public consumption. (See what I did there?) I know I make tasty treats but I have some trepidation about sharing that with strangers. My self-doubt kicks in and I worry that no one's going to like it. So it takes a bit of a push, which often Michele supplies, to get me over that hump. I try to approach this with a little humility, an open mind, and a generous heart. I have to trust that those qualities, along with the skills I will never stop developing, will imbue my dishes with great taste and good memories.

As we were trundling up the aisle after landing, the flight crew thanked me and told me how much they enjoyed the cookies. In front of me, Michele chuckled, which I translated as "Told you so."

Just share.

Currently Listening to: Artful Dodger (Featuring Lifford) - Something

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Christmas Cakery: Doubling Down on Disaster (And What I Taught Myself) - Part 1

Christmas for me, as with a lot of people around the country and the world, means a lot of time spent in the kitchen. Popping pans, tins and sheets into the oven and pulling out freshly-baked desserts, treats and snack of all kinds is a singular joy for those of us who aspire to be good bakers (or pastry chefs, if you want to get all high fallootin' on me). Actually, I can't speak for others, just myself. This past season was an exceptional joy for me...even when things went horribly wrong and I had to fix them. And, trust me, things went horribly wrong.

Things Went Horribly Wrong Dept. – Layer Cake Division

Let me go on record right now: I have a checkered past with layer cakes. I enjoy eating them but I often have the devil of a time baking, filling and frosting them. I've ruined more layer cakes than I care to count and every time I convince myself that it's a good idea to bake one, I know that I'm taking a risk of it just blowing up in my face. To be fair, I've had some very successful layer cakes, including the two times I made the three-tier, three layers to a tear, wedding cake (pictured here) and several "special effects" cakes (I won't tell you about them now because I want to bake them again and show you). But I've botched a lot of cakes in my time.

So, I wanted to bake a few things and send them to my family (three homes, two states, and a combined 4,010.31 miles) for Christmas. Component A went off without a hitch: gingersnaps. I've gotten those down to my deep satisfaction, so no worries there. Component B hit snags like you wouldn't believe. Small chocolate cakes. With layers. And Icing. And filling. The very first snag I hit with this idea was time. It took me long enough to decide what I wanted to send but then understood that I might not have enough time to obtain the right sized cake pans. I found these on Ebay (although Bed, Bath & Beyond now has them, too) but knew I wasn't going to get them in time to do the baking. So I fell back on my two six-inch springform pans and a chocolate cake recipe from my trusty Good Housekeeping cookbook (good old Good Housekeeping):

2 cups cake flour
3/4 cup cocoa (I use Droste or Rademaker) (And, yes, I know that you're not supposed to substitute Dutch processed for regular cocoa but it seemed to work for me)
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups milk
3/4 cup shortening
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs

1. Preheat oven to 350º. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans. Dust pans with cocoa. (I use the cheap stuff for dusting. Also, I've learned that it doesn't matter what size your cake pan is, just make the batter and fill the pan about halfway. You can always make more if you need more or use whatever excess you have in muffin tins or cupcake tins.)

2. Into large bowl, measure flour, remaining ingredients, and 3/4 cup cocoa (the good stuff). Note: I sift all the dry ingredients together. With mixer at low speed, beat ingredients until mixed, constantly scraping bowl. Increase speed to high; beat 2 minutes, occasionally scraping bowl.  

3. Pour batter into pans. Bake 30 to 35 minutes until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool layers in pans on wire racks, 10 minutes. Remove from pans; cool completely on racks.

Now. All of that went as planned. This gave me enough cake batter for four six-inch layers, so I doubled it to make three cakes and extras. So far so good. Even the simple chocolate ganache I made – one cup of Ghiradelli semi-sweet chocolate chips melted in one cup hot (not boiling) heavy cream – was good. A lot of folks don't like Ghiradelli chocolate but it actually made a pretty good ganache. Plus, it was what I had on hand. So there!

Combining the two is where it all fell apart. Literally. I sliced the first two rounds into four. Simple enough. But filling the layers with the cooled ganache was a mess. Yeah...chocolate mess! It just wasn't stiff enough and the layers slipped and slid all over my work surface. Not able to be salvaged. Into the trash it went.

An Aside About Frustration and Perfection: Someone, I can't remember whom, asked me if I was a perfectionist with my baking. Knowing all the imperfect cakes, pastries, pies and more that I've served people over the years, I said that I considered myself a failed perfectionist. Things have to be just perfect enough to serve to guests and have them enjoy them. But I do get frustrated when I can't make the vision in my head appear on the table and that's led me to dump all manner of tarts, chocolate confections, pie doughs, fillings, etc. into the trash over the years. "Why didn't you just put it in a bowl and leave it for me to nosh on?!?" I've been asked. Because, it's not what I want it to be, so no one gets to see it, eat it, comment on it. 

So. I guess I'm something of a baking perfectionist after all. "Um. Yeah." Michele rolls her eyes.

End Frustration and Perfection Aside.

I had two more 6" cakes and a second attempt at using the ganache proved just as unsuccessful but instead of frustration, I let myself deviate from the initial plan enough to cover it and put it in the refrigerator for later use. The third cake I wrapped well and put in the freezer for later later use. It was like putting them into cryogenic freeze so that they might cured of their ailments once baking science (and inspiration) catches up to them. I promise that story is coming soon.

What would I do with the remaining cake batter, though? Well, I have a heavy mini bundt cake pan I found in my storage, and the silicone molds that my little sister, Miss Kee, sent me a couple of years ago. I used them for small pies a while ago but I don't think I ever posted the image here. Let me rectify that oversight.

Butterflies and Flowers!
I made apple and cherry "tartlets"/hand-held pies last December and I can't believe I didn't write about it! They were delicious and looked so cool! I promise I'll talk about this (or detail a new pie project using these molds) soon.

I'll get to how I used them for cake in the Part II.

Currently listening to: Holly Cole Trio - Trust In Me

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Birthday #52 (2013)

For my 52nd birthday I had a smaller gathering than usual because a few of my stalwarts were just plain unavailable due to travel and winter illnesses (curse you, tiny viruses!) but we still had a lot of fun. Here's the table:

2013: Return of the Tea Table!
Clockwise from top: Monchego and Red Dorset cheeses, cucumber sandwiches, crackers, home made butter pats, cranberry scones, cherry-peach pie, and ginger snaps. The pie I made with peaches and cherries that I bought over the summer and froze for just such an event. Not as good as fresh but way better than using canned fruit.

But what about this year's "show stopper"? It didn't take much thought to come up with it because the memory of my seventh birthday and my first Baskin & Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream cake! I thought it was the coolest thing ever back then. I mean, it's cake that's also ice cream! It's ice cream that you can cut! How cool is that?!? You're never too old for ice cream cake! I knew I wanted to make single-serving sized cakes but I didn't have the right cake pans or even the slightest clue as to how I was going to form the ice cream into the right shape and size. As usual, I didn't let that stop me.

The cake recipe wasn't a problem. Good Housekeeping solved that. (I'll give the recipe in another post I'm currently working on). The ice cream itself wasn't a problem; the Williams Sonoma book I bought in 2012 had an excellent recipe. Putting the two elements together was the problem. Without the right sized cake pans, I also couldn't work out the way to form the ice cream layer. With time ticking away, I ended up making a quick stop into N.Y. Cake to pick up a muffin pan with relatively straight cylindrical sides – meaning they didn't narrow so much at the bottom. I wish I had more time to spend there, because they've got a lot of things I want! But they were closing so I had to make my choice quickly and get the heck out. I'll make another visit later and document it here.

That done, I had to figure out how I was going to make the ice cream the right size to fit with the cakes. I realized that there was no way for me to make that happen this time around because the muffin pan cups sloped inward ever so slightly, which meant the cakes would have an ever so slight conical shape and I couldn't see a way to use the same tin for the ice cream. I'm sure that given enough time I could have come up with a clever way of doing it but I didn't have that time.* I had to find a work around.

I have a new rule: before you panic, look to the cookie cutters. The largest of my circular cutters is almost the same circumference as the muffin tin. How did that help me solve my problem, you may ask? By using the same tart pan I use for ice cream sandwiches, freezing the mint chocolate chip in it and then using said cutter to chop out perfect cylinders of ice cream. It was just like I was drilling for ice cream core samples. (I swear I'll make my own version of Neapolitan ice cream using this technique.) True, that left the ice cream a little smaller than the cake but I could live with that. As a proof of concept batch, I was very happy with the way they turned out!

Two, two, two desserts in one!

I used a simple ganache technique to make chocolate to pour over the cakes, froze those while I made the ice cream, and then put them together to form a very tasty two-fer!

In detail.
The fresh mint in the ice cream complimented the sweetness of the chocolate cake and added an earthy undertone to the whole dessert. The seven-year-old in me was ecstatic and fifty-two year old in me couldn't help but celebrate with him! I repeat: You're never too old for ice cream cake!

Currently listening to: Pat Metheny Group - Vidala and Slip Away

*I have, indeed come up with a clever way of doing it because writing about this little adventure has given me a whole new perspective and a couple of new ideas on how to solve the problems. I will, of course, post the process and the results.