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