A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Season's The Reason for Spices and Seasonings (And Lots Of Cake)

On the last day of the year 2015, I'm trying to play catch up with the baking I've done since my last post. This will be kind of a no-frills update, so bear with me.

I baked quite a lot this holiday season. Not that this is any different from the last few holiday seasons; I just like being able to say it because it's something that brings me a lot of joy. Most of my baking was, as per usual (which makes me exceedingly happy) for my family. I shipped sixteen Sour Cream Lemon Pound Cakes to three different cities in two different states across the country. (I also made a few of these to give to a work colleague who appreciates my baking.) In addition to the lemon glaze, I decorated them with some candied lemon peel – rather poorly, I'll admit. But I'm stretching some wings here, so give me a break.

The full-ish compliment to the family.

In detail.

Yeah, I've got to practice with that lemon peel.
I made the full-sized version for Christmas Eve dinner at my in-laws.

Lots of drizzled lemon glaze. Yep. Working on that, too.
Oh. And challah, using this recipe. 

One of my better braids. Working on that, too.
I had a slice the next day, spread with some wonderful honey a friend in Hawaii sent us.

Mmmmmmmmm! Working on finishing off that jar of honey!

But wait! That's not all! I also made Russian Pastries for Christmas Eve dinner.

Pastries of the Russian variety. And, yes, I'm working on these, too.
These are normally made like little pies but they're such a pain in the but to fill and crimp that I decided to enclose them more like little pot pies. Sort of. They're still just as good but much easier to make and bake. I want to figure out the right type of pastry is best to use for this technique.

Christmas dinner was spent at the apartment of a couple of friends. Everyone brought something and it was a potluck instead of a big sit-down. Everything was delicious. I brought a lemon ripple ice cream pie. I had planned on bringing another challah, this time I use the recipe from one of Peter Reinert's book but things went awry and I had to trash the dough. This is an inferior recipe in my opinion. I'll never use it again. Oh. And more Russian Pastries. My apologies for not having any pictures of anything from this meal.

And we had dinner the next night in the same place, with a much smaller group of folks. But I'll have to tell you about the bread I baked for that one later. It's getting on towards midnight and I want to post this before the new year rings in.

May 2016 be a banner year of good things for us all! 

Currently listening to: Beethoven's 5th Symphony in C Minor

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Seckel Selections (Or: It's All Gone Pear-Shaped)

A few months ago, I found, at the farmers market, a variety of pears I'd never seen before:

New to me.
Seckel pears. They were so cute that I had to get bunch even though I had no idea what I was going to do with them. When I told Michele about them, she said she used to get them all the time as a kid. Pretty much everyone I spoke to about them that day made similar comments. "I see them all the time!" "My family has them every season." "I grew up eating them." Well, I've been coming to this same farmers market for over a decade, and I've lived here in New York for over twenty-six years, and I've never, ever seen them.

A Brief Cogitation:

I am not above thinking that these pears are actually brand new and that everyone's winding me up about knowing about them. That's how my brain rolls sometimes.

A Brief Cogitation Ends

Paranoia aside, I determined that pear tarts were the way to go. I don't do a whole lot of baking with pears, aside from adding one to my apple pie (which I don't do any more) so this was pretty new territory for me. Two things came to mind. Wait. Three things came to mind: 1) I wanted to use my mini tart pans, 2) I wanted to pair the pears with ginger, and 3) there was no way I was going to peel these pears! Seriously! Take a look at that picture again. They're tiny! By the time I peeled and cored them, there'd be nothing left of them!

Actually, since this was a grand experiment, not peeling the pears made sense. So did using the basic pastry recipe for the zwetschgendatschi. And so did adding a bit of the ginger spread I use for some of my ice cream.

Pears and pastry.
What I ended up with was something that I thought was plenty tasty.

Double seckel.
The pears were al dente and the ginger spread was fairly close to the consistency I thought it would have (despite having never used it in that way). The pastry was the thing that I wasn't thrilled with. A bit thick, due to the technique used in pressing it in the tart pans instead of rolling it out and laying it in. Still, all-in-all, not bad.

The next week I bought some more pears because I got the idea of poaching them with vanilla bean and drizzling a balsamic vinegar reduction on top of them. I changed the crust recipe to something I rolled out because I could get that thinner and it would bake up crispier.

Oooo! Shiny!
Oh. And I went with the full-sized tart pan.

Not bad but let me tell you, making that balsamic reduction was something else! Talk about a lingering, pungent aroma! Maybe next time I try it, I'll try to cook it down quicker. Wowf!

Michele's co-workers liked this version. I took another one with us to a gathering of friends the following week and it was fairly well-received, too. I wasn't quite convinced, though. The bottom was a bit soggy (between carrying it around in NYC and the moisture from the vinegar and the vanilla glaze, the crust suffered), and there was something missing in the overall taste of the tart. I liked it but, as a couple of the foodies at the gathering said, it needed some kind of bottom note to balance out the reduction. 

So, this one stays on the drawing board for now because the season for seckels is over and I'll have to wait until next summer to give it another go. I'm thinking a gingered custard to sit the pear on top of instead adding the balsamic reduction. 

Assuming, of course, that I'll find them again. (Conspiracy theorists, arise!)

Currently listening to: Noel Pointer - Wayfaring Stranger

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Pie-saster 2015

So, this happened on the evening of December 4:

It was supposed to be an apple pie for my Birthday Tea guests on Saturday. I'm not sure how it happened. There was some molten filling spitting, skin burning, pie plate sliding, don't grab the four-hundred-degree ceramic thingy action. Why the pie plate didn't shatter is beyond my capacity to explain. 

Then following morning (my actual birthday), I screwed up the mint chocolate chip ice cream I was going to serve. Apparently I made the custard too thin and turned into slushball midway through the freezing process. I think I was overcompensating because my usual problem is that I cook the custard too much and I get some scrambled egg batches. This was ice milk in a bad way.

That was two items off my menu with about seven hours to go before the arrival of guests.

Ten years ago, two kitchen disasters in a row like this would have devastated me. I would have called and canceled the Tea and then stewed for the rest of the day. This year? I cleaned things up, made myself a cup of coffee, sat on the sofa with our cat, Nikolai, and worked out how I was going to recover. (Certain friends have suggested I did this on purpose because I wanted to pretend I was baking in the marquee of The Great British Bake Off. I dispute this interpretation of events. I will not, however, deny that I did indeed hear the strains of their "Oh no! Something catastrophic is happening!" violin music in my head.

After caffeine and commiseration with the cat, I assessed what I had on-hand and what I could comfortably bake in the time I had left, without a major shopping excursion. I came up with this:

The Replacements!
Lemon Pound Cake with Lemon Glaze and Orange Chocolate Chip-Vanilla Ice Cream (a flavor I invented.) I used this recipe or the cake. For the ice cream, I made my tried and true Double Vanilla but added chocolate flavored with a little orange extract to make the chips. The orange comes in as a lovely finishing taste.

Rescue Cake
Orange chocolate, anyone?

Utterly delicious!

I guess there's something to be said for maturing.

Currently listening to: Bob James - Tappan Zee  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!

An Opening Declaration:

In keeping with my original mandate for this blog, that being to write about my failures as well as my successes, I present below a recounting of the former. Not all is perfection and grace in my kitchen.

An Opening Declaration Ends.

I hate it when my oven picks a fight with me! Invariably it does so when I'm baking for company. I suppose I should have expected it; the danged thing had been behaving much too well for much too long. This time it happened at a gathering of friends who happen to be artists. Everyone talks about their projects, ideas, and connections. My contribution to the conversation tends to be my baking. "It is your art form," Michele likes to say. I'm not quite convinced but I do love feeding people good food.

This time around I thought I'd make two dishes – biscuits and a zwetschgendatchi – and since biscuits are best eaten warm, I waited until after folks had arrived to begin baking. I wanted the tart to be a little warm, too, so it would go in after were done. 

The biscuits went in. The biscuits came out. And I thought "Those don't seem to have risen like they should have." The tart went in and I finally had a chance to have one of the biscuits. When I split it to put butter and jam on it, it was very clear to me that they hadn't baked through and through. And when I took the tart out of the oven, after leaving it in longer than I ever have, it looked like this:
What a mess!
The pastry was crap. The plum juice hadn't gelled like it normally does. I was mortified...absolutely mortified. I take a lot of pride in what I do and even when things don't quite go to plan, I can put something delicious on the table. When I serve something that is basically inedible, I feel as though I've let down not just my guests but my baker's heart (if there is such a thing). I removed the busted biscuits and the terrible tart from the table.

Thank goodness I had two flavors of ice cream in the freezer to offer folks; that somewhat salvaged things. But this oven debacle wrecked me for the rest of the night, most of the next day, and into the next evening. I went to bed but my brain buzzed with all the different reasons for this problem and how to address it. I hope against hope that the answer wouldn't be "convince the management company to get us a new oven."

The next day, I couldn't wait to get home from work with a new oven thermometer to run some tests. (We used to have two of those at some point. Don't ask me what happened to them.) I used it to test the oven at three different temperatures and found that the preheat time had increased from about fifteen minutes to almost a half hour from when the electronic thermostat beeped readiness! Big, big change! The oven seemed to hold a temperature okay but I'd have to build in an extra twenty minutes or more into my prep time, to be on the safe side, to make sure it actually reached the target temperature before I put anything in it.

Armed with that knowledge, I bought more plums – the last of the season – and set out to redeem myself. Please to observe:

Full Size.
They were perfect. Crust, filling, taste...all were as I wanted them to be! Tart Redemption Achievement Unlocked! *phew* 

Time put this particular fight behind me and move on to other things.

Currently listening to: The Dramatics - Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Great Cobbler Caper

In a previous post, I mentioned that I love peach cobbler. You wouldn't know it from the number of times I've had peach cobbler. When I was a kid, it was offered every so often at family gatherings, and if you bought your lunch at school, they served it as dessert sometimes.

I decided I didn't have enough cobbler in my life, so I set out to make some of my own. Early in the summer, though, the peaches just weren't very good so I started with apples. I love apple pie and figured apple cobbler wouldn't be a bad thing. I sort of used some of this recipe as my starting point.

Cobbled apples.

I love that cracked crust.
I pretty much used my apple pie filling recipe but didn't make my standard pie crust. The taste was good on both filling and crust but this particular crust was a bit thick for cobbler. I love the way it cracked in baking, though.

Then there was the cherry and blueberry combination with a take on my standard pie crust to top them off.

Cherries and blueberries, anyone?

"And I even like the color."
(Kudos if you get the reference.)

Thing is, I'm just not sold on the combination. I'm not the greatest fan of blueberries and this past season I found it difficult to get really good ones; they were mostly too tart. It also wasn't my best season for finding good cherries, either. The crust was tasty but still not up to snuff for a cobbler. So, although this was a good effort, I'm going to put it in the "To Revisit" file. I'd like to put together an exceptional filling in which the cherries and the blueberries compliment each other instead of fighting.

Eventually, I began to luck into some good peaches. This was towards the end of the season, so I knew I wouldn't have a lot of time to work with them. By the way, what was up with the stone fruit this year, anyway? Hit or miss, but mostly miss, from my usual sources. Still, I was able to get some decent peaches in August to make a couple of attempts at peach cobbler. The first was okay.

My first peach cobbler. Served with
some of my golden vanilla ice cream.

I added ginger to the filling because I always think ginger and peaches go well together. It had a good taste and the crust (the one I used with the apples) was taste but still a bit thick. Not a bad effort but I was still missing something. I needed some good advice so I called my little sister, MonY, who's made her share of good peach cobbler. 

A Brief Note About My Process:

I probably should have called Miss MonY when I first started down this path but I really wanted to work though my ideas first. I wanted to see where I'd succeed and fail before I got her advice. 

A Brief Note About My Process Ends.

We had a very good conversation during which she helped me better understand some of the elements of the dessert. And her suggestion about how to work in the crust was inspirational. She also pointed out that the crust should be truly cobbled, as in cobblestones (duh!). I had to laugh at myself because it's been so long since I'd actually had a true peach cobbler that I'd actually forgotten that simple fact. It definitely make a difference in how I approached things. I bought another batch of half-way decent peaches and dove in.

Slightly different crust recipe. A little more crumbly.

Ramekins at the ready!
The thing that probably hindered my attempts the most, though, is the one thing I couldn't compromise on: the need to make these as individual servings. Traditionally, cobbler is made in a pan and then scooped out for each serving. Sometimes the bottom of the pan has a layer of crust as well, so that when you scoop out a portion, there's crust mixed all the way through it. This is very difficult to achieve in single-serve dishes because then you end up with more crust than filling, and cobbler is all about filling, in my estimation. 

But why the need for single-serve dishes in the first place? Logistics. We don't have enough room in the refrigerator for a big pan, and since we don't have kids and our gatherings with friends didn't coincide with my obsession with this dish, I didn't have a large group to serve a big pan of cobbler to. I really needed to make things modular so that I could fit them all in the fridge with out taking up prime storage space.

Cold storage problems aside, I was very happy with the last batch. It had a good taste and the crust was pretty much where it needed to be; it could have had a better bake, though. I think I know the reason for that problem but that's the subject of my next blog entry.

Cobbler, coffee, and cold stuff on the side.
My biggest, most important takeaway from this project, though, is the reinforcement of the idea that what I'm trying to do with my baking is to better understand the nature of the dishes I prepare, of my culinary and emotional connection to them, and my connection to those with whom I share knowledge. If I succeed in this, in even the most limited way, then I succeed as a baker.  

Currently listening to: Tony Rice Unit - Mar West

Monday, October 26, 2015

October Birthdays...Celebrated Via Courier!

"Via courier" sounds so much more romantic and exciting than "by the mail carrier," don't you think? This is just my way of saying I shipped a few things made of flour and sugar across the country this month. My little sister's second-oldest daughter, two friends in Seattle, and my big sister all made October quite the month of celebrations! And how better to celebrate birthdays than with cake?

There was just one problem: I really suck at cakes! That is to say, my cake technique isn't as refined or developed as my pie technique. There are many things about my cake skills that makes me cringe – from mixing to frosting. But cringe or not, I really do want to be a halfway decent cake maker. I'll probably take a class or something at some point but until then I insist on stumbling along on my own.

This time I stumbled into the need to make my own fondant. Why? The reason is pasta. I've been making my own pasta lately and using my hand-crank pasta machine to do so. I bought it twenty-three years ago to make the fondant (I didn't know it was called that back then) for my three-tiered cake for my thirtieth birthday.

So happy not to be twenty-anything!
A Word About Reusing Photos:

I know I've posted this image before but I'm still very proud of this cake!

A Word About Reusing Photos Ends.

At any rate, I've finally started using the pasta machine for it's intended purpose, which got me to thinking about fondant for cakes again. But before that, I needed to find a way to make a way to convert a recipe for a nine-inch diameter cake into a recipe for a six-inc cake. I've done this before, just winging it, and ended up with a royal mess, so I figured I'd find some good advice this time.

I happened upon the CakeOmeter on Cakebaker.co.uk. It was helpful but it didn't quite work for the orange cake recipe; that cake turned out a little short so I only got two layers out of it instead of three. Next time perhaps I'll find another source but this worked well enough for my current needs.

I used this fondant recipe, which was very different from the recipe I used for my birthday cake. Still it was pretty easy and did the trick. It was too fragile to run through the pasta machine, though, so I ended up rolling it by hand. I turned to the Cake Boss on Youtube for hints on that. (Gotta love the New York accent! Also? Gotta bookmark that channel!) 

My results:

...and orange.
Not bad but I really do need to learn to cut even, smooth layers. 

But how to decorate them? I knew I'd be shipping them and whatever I did to make them the look special would have to survive that. My first thought was to use one of my silicone molds and make something out of fondant. Roses! Yes, roses would do nicely!

Orange roses?
But I didn't have the time it would take for them to dry properly. I had to get these cakes in the mail fairly soon. I needed something else. Roses! Yes, roses would do nicely! But roses made from sugar using a technique that I think will come in handy when I get back to candy making. 

Sugar-sweet roses.
I opted not to flavor the roses because I didn't want to add one more level of complexity with this monstrous endeavor. 

The final results:

Headed to Seattle.
Cibolo, TX bound.
Oh, I know there are many more ways I could have solved all the problems this project presented but I'm pretty happy with how these turned out. Heavy. Imperfect. Probably lacking a certain sublime taste. But as first attempts at this kind of project go, I'm happy to have these as a jumping-off point. Hold onto your serving platters boys and girls; it only gets better, and crazier from here!

• • • • •
The last bit of birthday baking I needed to do was for my big sister, Karla. I decided to keep things simple and send her part of my first batch of apple hand pies of the season. 

First of the season.
What wasn't simple was the fact that I decided to mix and match a very different bunch of apple varieties – most of which I'd never seen before. I usually mix three types of apples in my pies; this time I went with five:

I've had a couple of the pies and I must say this batch is among the best I've ever made.

Five apples are better than three?

• • • • •

My curiosity has gotten the best of me regarding how my shipping techniques fare against the vagaries and whims of the U.S. Postal Service pipeline, so I asked my Seattle friends and my sisters MonY and Karla to send me pictures of the baked goods after they opened the boxes. For the most part, everything arrived in pretty good shape, with pretty much the amount of "shipping subsidence" I expected – four days for the cakes (which were only supposed to be in transit for a maximum of three days) and two days for the pies.

Subsidence in Seattle.
A little squished in Cibolo...

...but niece MoRanda doesn't seem to mind! Happy birthday, darlin'!

Just a little saggy in San Antonio.
Karla said she wasn't sharing. Don't blame her one bit!

Self Portrait With Apple Hand Pie!
(I love making my big sister happy!)
So, I only have one niece to bake for next month. Then it's December, with birthdays and holidays galore! I'd better rest up.

Currently Listening to: Gemini - The Fire Inside (Mr. FijiWiji Remix)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

California Baking...On Such An Autumn Day (With Apologies to The Mamas and The Papas) - Part The Second

Once we finished devouring the biscuits Denise and I made, I had several hours to contemplate my second San Diego baking adventure: teaching my nephew, Robbie, something about baking bread. I'd chosen this recipe from King Arthur Flour, which is turning out to be quite the resource for me. Again, this was a recipe I'd never made before, so I was taking a chance using it to teach Robbie about bread baking. 

Truth be told, though, all I really wanted to do was give him a good first experience, and regardless of how the bread turned out, I'd be successful in that goal. Because even when you turn out a bad loaf of bread, you learn something and grow as a baker. At least that's how it's been for me...and I've made a lot of bad loaves of bread. I just wanted us to get our hands covered in flour, and inhale the smell of the yeast, and fill the kitchen and the house with the aroma of sugars caramelizing in the oven as the bread baked. That experience I knew I could give him.

Sidebar On My Nephew's Baking:

My brother an I are sci-fi nerds in general and Star Wars nerds in particular. His first child is no different, which usually made shopping for him pretty easy. One year for his birthday, which falls right between mine and my father's, I bought him a Star Wars cookbook because it was cute...and included a recipe for "Wookie Cookies". He actually made some and said they were pretty good. My brother told me that he's been interested in baking since then. So, I guess you could say that it's a little bit my fault that my nephew enjoys baking. 

Sidebar On My Nephew's Baking Ends.

Of course, I had to wait until after he got home from band practice before we could start. This was a good thing because it gave me time to prepare myself for the lesson. A teacher should never stop learning as far as I'm concerned and I figured I would learn a thing or two by the time we were finished. More on that later.

Once Robbie got home and washed up, we started with a quick tour of our work space, set up everything mise en place, and give him a brief lesson on the type of yeast, Saf Instant, we'd be using to bake the bread. Then we got into mixing...

Mix masters!
...and kneading. 

Prep the hands. Prep the table. And prep the mind.
I had to smile as I showed him how to knead bread dough. I don't think he realized how much work it would be – how much arm and upper-body strength he'd have to use. It was a kick watching this young man, whom I used to be able to toss into the air with one arm, get his hands covered in flour and wet dough.

Gathering it all together...
...and press, roll, fold, press, turn, fold-fold-fold, press, turn...
Although he's tall, almost as tall as I am, he hasn't filled out yet, so he had to really throw himself into working the dough. Trooper that he was, though, he stuck with it for the full eight minutes. (Nice little workout, yes?) I'm not sure he got the more subtle techniques of using the heels of your hands and rolling the dough while pressing down. Or how to gently lift and turn as you knead. Heck, I'm only just now getting the hang of it, but I'll be able to help him figure it out. It's really a shame that we're on opposite sides of the country; I'd love to have more time to teach him all these nuances I'm beginning to learn for myself.

That's something I really wanted to impart to him was that even though it seemed difficult, he'd get better at it the more he did it. I know that I felt a lot of discouragement at his age when things I wanted to do didn't come easily. I also wanted to get teach him to appreciate some of the unexpected elements of baking, such how amazing the dough begins to smell as it's coming together...and later how the kitchen fills with the aroma of the dough rising as the yeast does its thing. It's not all about the smell of baking (although, yeah, it kind of is).

The results of our kneading were different, as I expected.

Checking on the rise...

And again...
I had to hold myself back from laughing when I called him in to check on how things were progressing. He kind of couldn't believe how big the dough in our bowls had gotten. He'd never seen yeast bread rising before.

Remember when I said I learned a valuable lesson or two myself? Well, Here's where one of those lessons comes in: be a bit more aggressive with punching down my dough. Why? Because:

Second rise looks good but we're not even halfway through it...
Halfway through the second rise, my dough was still doing some powerful rising (and Robbie's wasn't rising quite enough). And...

She's gonna blow!
 ...*foom!* Too much carbon dioxide production! I supposed I could have taken the dough out of my pan, punched it down and then shaped it again, but I didn't want to overwork it. I think I'm conditioned to chilly things are in my kitchen at home; that makes the yeast have to work harder to get dough to rise. Not so in San Diego at the tail-end of summer. I just let my dough do what it was going to do; we'd just see how it baked up.

And this led me to another lesson: never leave home without an instant-read thermometer! After the biscuit experience of that morning, I knew we'd have to bake the bread a little longer than the recipe called for. So, after what I thought was an appropriate time, we pulled the loaves out of the oven.

Looks good!
Oh. Did I mention that my brother and his wife don't have a cooling rack? We ended up using a cooking rack for their grill. I love doing the MacGyver in the kitchen! Everything looked good...

Prepare for the first incision, Mr. Baker!
Nice cut!
...but both loaves weren't fully cooked. By this time my Rob, Wynter, and I had to leave to pick up Michele at the airport, so I put the bread back in the pans and left Robbie with instructions to check on them at ten minute intervals and they should be done within a half-hour. I pinged him via text twenty-five minutes later and he told me the bread was done and quite tasty! I knew he was right because I had a couple of slices toasted the next day. Mmmmm!

And thus ended my San Diego bread baking adventure. I hope I get to bake with my nephew again soon because this was way too much fun!

Currently listening to: Pockets - Come Go With Me