A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Zwetschgendatschi, ein Mal noch ("Long German word for 'plum tart', one more time")

With what I'm sure will be the last of the plums for the summer, I attempted my third zwetschgendatschi, the German plum tart I fell in love with when I was in München in1984. My first two attempts really didn't meet with my personal approval, although other folks enjoyed them. There was something off about the crust, as well as the taste and consistency of the plums for me: too gummy, not tart enough, and too runny, in that order. I really wanted to get this one right, as per my memory, since one of the reasons I bake is to recreate my pastry past. Having some folks over for a little afternoon chin wag and nosh, gave me the perfect opportunity to give this a go.

Once again, I referred to the recipe I found on NPR, trying to pay attention to subtleties I might have missed before. The plums, this time, came from my favorite farmers market apple vendor. None of them were firm, which told me I was right on the edge of not being able to make this attempt. I didn't buy the amount required by the recipe because if these weren't going to be any good, I didn't want to waste so much money if I was forced to 86 the dessert.

A Word For Those Not In The Know:

The term, "86" is something I learned when I was a room service waiter at a Marriott hotel the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. When something is "86" that means the kitchen is out of it and some customer is going to be sorely disappointed to have to change his or her order. It works both ways, too. For example, I will order a burger but tell the waitperson to "86 the onions". More times than not, they know exactly what I mean.

A Word For Those Not In The Know Ends.

Another decision I made on the fly was to use my square tart pan instead of my round one. I remembered that I never got a slice of this dessert that was wedge-shaped when I was in Germany. (Not that I thought that had anything to do with the taste, mind you, but it sure couldn't hurt.) Besides, I just like using that pan; I've had it for about twenty-five years.

I made the crust by the numbers, as I did the last time, but I looked at the process with two years additional years of experience with crusts, plus a more recent experience of making my own pasta, to back me up. The dough felt better as intuition I didn't even know I'd cultivated helped it come together. 

My intuition about the amount of plums turned out to be spot-on, too. I picked just enough to cover the crust in the size and shape of pan I was using. The plums were a little watery but I figured that wouldn't be a problem because of my plan for baking time.

The recipe called for forty-five minutes at 350º and my experience with my oven told me that it would probably have to go longer. I actually ended up baking this for about fifty-five minutes, using not only my eyes but also my nose as guides to when it was done. I'm finally beginning to trust my sense of smell when it comes to telling when baking fruit has reached its peak in the oven. 
Quite a sight!
It looked right and smelled right. And the slice?

Rectangle slice, not wedge.
Yep. A nice rectangle that was easily cut. 

The first bite told me that my patience had been rewarded. The plums were tart but with an underlying, offsetting sweetness. The crust wasn't gummy and had the right mouth feel. Memories of late summer afternoons in München came flooding back with that bite. And all the bites that followed. 

I don't think I'll have time to make another before decent plums totally disappear from the farmers market. I'll be headed to San Diego this week to visit with my brother and his family, so I won't get to do any tart baking until the following week. We'll see what the future holds. For now? I'm going make myself a nice cuppa and enjoy my zwetschgendatschi to my heart's content. After all, I've only been waiting thirty-one years for this.

Currently listening to: Juventa - Superhuman (Feat. Kelly Sweet) (Culture Code Remix)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Transatlantica – A New Direction in Shipping

I've shipped baked goods and ice cream to friends and family across the country. From East to West and Northeast to South, boxes from me have covered a lot of ground. I've even sent cookies and cakes to a friend in Hawaii. I always use the USPS because I've got a soft spot in my heart for the Post Office. They gets a bad rap, and in some cases that's deservedly so, but for the most part, I've had great experiences them. 

I think some of that comes from the fact that I use to have an extensive correspondence and dropping letters in the mailbox was one of my joys. The other was receiving something other than bills in return. I'm so old school! (And I'm more than willing to restart that correspondence, should anyone out there want to join me in putting pen to paper.)

Oh. Wait. Back to the point of this blog entry. I've never shipped anything The Continent. And by "The Continent" I mean, Europe. (See? Old school!), mainly because I didn't have anyone there to ship to. That changed earlier this year when my friend Grace and her husband (who is from the Netherlands) moved from Dallas to Paris. They were here for a wedding in July (I believe I posted something about that). I meant to give them a box of my lemon-ginger cream cookies to take back with them but they were so jet lagged, and I was more than a little exhausted from a week of the 9-5, that I clean forgot to give it to them! 

Don't worry. I was able to find a local home for the orphans. Still, that oversight made me determined to get something tasty to them anyway. And since I had a stash of Michele-o-mars handy, I thought, "Why not a transatlantic shipment?" Why not? Because, my goodness, who can figure out the customs forms and the shipment requirements and the timing and the...! Stop. Chill out. Take a deep breath and do one thing at a time. 

I boxed the cookies in such a way that I thought they'd shift as little as possible. I'm finding that this is key to anything I send through the post; the less room the goods have for moving around as the box gets assaulted by man and machine from here to there, the better. But you also have to leave enough room inside so that the goods don't get squished when the box inevitably gets compressed. 

Once I got that done, I weighed it and settled in to figure out the forms. Nothing I've shipped has ever had to make it through customs before, so I paid close attention to the "Keep this crap out of our country" section. It seems that "chocolate cookies" isn't on that list. *phew*. I selected the shortest time between two points postage option (that I could comfortably afford), slapped the label on the box, and set off to the Post Office to consult with a clerk to make sure I filled everything out right.

A Word About Postal Clerks:

I know a lot of people have had horrendous interactions with postal clerks. I've seen the videos, heard the stories, seen the tantrums on both sides of the desk. Heck, I've had one or two less than satisfactory experiences myself. However, by-and-large, I prefer dealing with them when I've got something tricky to send. I always approach them with a smile and a "good morning", and never fail to get the same back. We acknowledge each other's humanity and establish a little rapport. Most everything from that point on goes smoothly; they're always helpful, efficient, and pleasant with me.
A Word About Postal Clerks Ends.

The sweet clerk took me through the form, point by point, double-checked the weight and amount of postage, and assured me that everything was in order. She took the box into her charge. Off it went and off I went back to work, and to tell Grace, via FaceBook, that I'd sent her a box of something. I wouldn't tell her what was in the box because I'm evil that way. I made her promise to take pictures of the box and the contents, though, because I really wanted to see the shape in which everything arrived. 

Days later, after numerous checks on the tracking number, the package arrived at her mailbox in Paris. Via Facebook (again) I told her she might want to check her mail. She disappeared and soon after I was greeted with these images:

Seems intact! And look at all the check boxes to choose from on that form!
First bite of a cookie sent across the Atlantic!

 Our Facebook message exchange when thus:

Grace: Already being devoured! I can not believe you did this. You are so amazing. I love you so much!

Me: Cool! I'm glad they got there in one piece. :) And save some for Leon!

Grace: I'm afraid I can not make that promise.

Me: My first transatlantic delivery is a success!

Grace: A ripping, tripping, light dimming success! But as much as I love them, you can never do this again...It's ridiculously expensive.

(I laughed using my inside voice)

Me: Oh, no, honey. Shipping ice cream overnight is ridiculously expensive. This? I could do this a couple of times a year.

And who knows. I just might!

I wasn't surprised that the marshmallow had started coming through the chocolate a little. The coating was fairly thin, as per Michele's specs. Next time I decide to ship these somewhere, I might put a double coating on them. We'll see. 

Currently listening to: Tori Amos - Baker Baker


Saturday, September 5, 2015

My Oh My Oh Mallowmars! (Part III)

Leaving the cookie dilemma behind for just a moment, I had to turn my attention to the next big hurdle for this custom designed treat. 

Briefly, A Note About The Cookie Dilemma

In a word, I was exhausted! I made so many cookies, which were good but not right, in such a short time, that I was all cookied-out. The chocolate had to be easier, right? Right?

Briefly, A Note About The Cookie Dilemma Ends 

Yeah. Right. Easier. I had three (3) challenges to overcome with the chocolate: 1) sweetness, 2) thickness of the coating, and 3) hardness of the chocolate coating. One thing at a time. To address the sweetness, I figured I'd need to test different kinds of chocolate. Please to observe:

Come on! I had to use Baker's brand, right?
I needed to establish where Michele's tastes fell when combining chocolate and marshmallow. So, I sacrificed some of the marshmallows I'd given her for toasting (another post, for sure) to test the above three.

The line-up.
Suspect number 1.

Suspect number 2.
Suspect number 3.
After sampling the line-up, the witness...I mean Michele...determine that none of them had the means to achieve the proper balance. Simultaneously, though, both of us concluded that a mixture of the unsweetened and the bittersweet would probably do the trick. And it did. Number one out of the way. Two to go.

I kind of had to tackle number three out of sequence because it was more important to get the right formulation to make the chocolate hard at room temperature. I've been reading on-and-off about tempering chocolate for just such a purpose but have had little luck in recreating the results of others, no matter what recipe I used – and I used two or three different ones for this cookie. All the attempts yielded a tacky, sticky coating at best, and a gooey mess that defied being handled at worse. (Well, that's not quite the worst case, but we'll leave that alone.) 

There are recipes that call for using vegetable oil, butter, or melted shortening. These did not do the trick for me. There are techniques which require a marble slab (which I no longer own), chilled, and lots of spatula work. No way was I going to go down that road. I am crazy but I won't be that crazy until I am working out of my dream kitchen.

After all these attempts completely failed to yield the right chocolate consistency/hardness, I told Michele that it might be impossible for me to design this cookie for her. If I couldn't get this one element right, with my current skill set and equipment, then it really didn't make sense to continue working on it. I'd have to wait until I grew up a little more as a confectioner. She understood but hated to see all the work I'd done up to this point go to waste.

That made me smile because, as I told her, none of this was a waste because I'd taught myself a lot of valuable lessons, even in my failures. Nope. Even if I couldn't make her the cookie she wanted, I'd have to consider this a win. A qualified win but a win nonetheless. 

I figured I'd give it one last try so I scoured my cookbooks for chocolate recipes and had one more consultation with The Google. That's when I came across the Cooking For Engineers Website, and a discussion about the very problem I was having. Confectionery science to the rescue! Finally someone laid things out for me in a way I could understand, and presented a solution that made sense to me! I was already clear on the concept of "seizing" chocolate but the underlying science of seeding the melted chocolate to help form the crystal structure necessary for tempering and, thus, hard shell at room temperature, new to me. 

I set things up and decided to use a variation on the double-boiler technique that I was familiar with. I created a hot water bath using two different sized Pyrex bowls, with the chocolate in the smaller bowl. The heated water melted the chocolate perfectly, even though it did take about fifteen or more minutes of stirring. Yes, this technique was a little tricky because of the proximity of the water to the chocolate, but I just felt I could work better that way. And the test I did on the remaining rejected digestive biscuits proved me right.
Dipped and hardening.
Once these had been sitting out for a couple of hours, I touched them and absolutely no chocolate came off on my finger. The covering was still soft but I new it would harden sufficiently for me to continue my quest!

I determined that number two, thickness of the coating, wasn't nearly as important as the chocolate sweetness and the shell hardness, so I just skipped it. 

Back to the cookie, which by now I was ready to figure out. I'd had a little epiphany after the digestive biscuit didn't work. I liked the recipe, so why not use all white flour instead of mixing it with the whole wheat flour? The dough would be easier for me to work with and it wouldn't yield a graham cracker, which wasn't what Michele wanted, anyway. Et voila! The biscuit cookie.

Exactly what Michele said she wanted in the first place!
The irony of ending up with what Michele had jokingly wanted at the beginning of this whole process was not lost on me. These were delicious and easy to make. Heck, they'd even be nice to spread a little jam on and just gobble up! They were also neutral enough with regards to sweetness that they'd work perfectly with the marshmallow and the chocolate. And they were tender to the bite but substantial enough to take the other two ingredients without going mushy. Time to assemble!

Biscuit cookies laid out.
The next problem to solve was how to actually get the marshmallow onto the cookies. Last time I let the marshmallow set and then used a cookie cutter to chop out cylinders of fluff to place of the cookies. Fail. This time I used another Alton Brown idea and put the freshly made marshmallow into a pastry bag and piped it onto the cookies. That way, I'd used the stickiness of the marshmallow to my benefit. Once set, the cookies would be much easier to dip into the chocolate.

A Disclosure:

I absolutely suck at using a pastry bag and decorating tips. Absolutely. Suck. I have no feel for them and generally make a huge mess when using them. If you asked me to decorate a cake, I'd tell you to take a long walk off a short pier. Despite that, I use a pastry bag to load up my ginger lemon cream cookies and decided that it was the way to go with these as well. By the time I'm done with this project I'll either throw away all my pastry bags and decorator tips or come away with techniques that I'm happy with.

A Disclosure Ends.

Piped-in marshmallows!
I waited three or four hours for the marshmallow to set before I dipped the cookies into the chocolate.

Set and dipped.

Take a closer look, why don't you?
As I discovered, once the chocolate finally set, it maintained a hard shell but lost the glossy sheen.

Hard shell, less sheen. Wait. No sheen!
That's a trade-off I could live with. And the absolute best part of all? Michele loved them! Her only further desires were: thinner cookie, if possible, and more marshmallow. Did I mention that my girl is just mad for marshmallow?

This definitely goes into the "Win" column. Michele-o-mars are now part of my baking repertoire and I am ecstatic!

One Last Note Regarding Pastry Bags:

I won't be throwing my decorating tips away. I will, however, be looking for larger bags to use. I need to load up as much marshmallow as possible so that I can pipe it onto the cookies before it sets up too much. Oh, and I finally began to see what techniques I'd need to master in order to get better at cake decorating, too. 

One Last Note Regarding Pastry Bags Ends.

Currently listening to: Dvořák • String Quartet no. 12 in F major, op. 96 "American" - I. Allegro ma non troppo - Emerson String Quartet