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
Bite-sized!
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




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.