A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

My Oh My Oh Mallowmars!

Mallomars are Michele's favorite cookie. Personally, I don't care much for them but she adores them. Why? Marshmallow. They have marshmallow in them. My wife is just absolutely loves marshmallow. Rocky Road is her favorite ice cream because of the marshmallow in it. She loves Peeps because they're made of marshmallow. She loves marshmallow because of the...well you get the idea. 

Bottom line is, a couple of years ago, I surprised Michele with my own version of Mallowmars. 

A Quick Word About Surprises For Michele:

There are times when Michele's job requires her to be out of town. When that happens there is apparently a switch that gets flipped inside my culinary brain. This switch seems to control the impulses that lead me to obsess about creating something delicious for her to enjoy upon her return. Ice cream, marshmallows, cookies, red velvet cupcakes...all have been the result of being unable to resist this obsession. So long as she keeps getting a kick out of it, I'll keep giving in to it.

A Quick Word About Surprises For Michele Ends

It was a qualified success. I had a few firsts with that project. First time making marshmallow. First time making graham crackers. First time tempering chocolate for covering a cookie. I made more than a few mistakes, too. I think I chose the wrong technique for the chocolate (and maybe the wrong chocolate). Assembly was a bear. And though I enjoyed making my own graham crackers, I reminded myself that I didn't really like graham crackers. 

Turns out, neither does Michele. There I'd gone through all this trouble to make her a version of her favorite cookie only to find out that part of her favorite cookie isn't her favorite cookie! Not quite an allegory of O. Henry proportions but eye-opening nonetheless.

There were a few problems with this version besides the dislike of the graham cracker. 

Stacks of grahams. Delicious but not the right taste.

The marshmallow was good but the recipe was a little convoluted in my opinion (which is subject to change, by the way)
 

Fluff in the pan.

I didn't get the chocolate right because it was too gooey instead of being hard and shell-like. The marshmallow was quite the wrong shape, which added to the problem with the chocolate. I used a cookie cutter to cut out the marshmallows and the cylindrical shape, smaller than the diameter of the cookie, meant the chocolate covered more of the cookie and thereby softened it. 

Problem solving.

Assemble the mallows!
I think being under the gun, trying to get this done as a surprise for Michele, and having never, ever made marshmallow before were factors in my considering this a qualified success. 

Three on a plate.

Not bad for the first try but I could do better. Don't get me wrong. She loved that I'd made them for her as a surprise and she enjoyed the cookies. I just know I can do better. 

Two years later and I'm finally ready to give it a go. Part 2 forthcoming.

Currently listening to: Dexter Wansel - Voyager

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Make Mine (Own) Marshamallow!

I've always loved marshmallows, especially the giant ones. The only brand I indulged in (especially after I left home for college), though was Kraft. Those other brands just didn't seem to have the right flavor or texture. That said, the only other brand I took a liking to was Stay-puft. I mean, who's going to argue with their spokesmallowman? 

"It's the Stay-puft Marshmallow Man."
When I was in college I discovered that there wasn't anyone who was going to tell me I couldn't buy myself a bag of giant marshmallows for my birthday, so for four years I did just that. Oh, I bought myself marshmallows at other times, but I made it a tradition to always get a bag specifically to celebrate my birthday. Share? Are you kidding? Those babies were mine, all mine!

Though I enjoy having marshmallows in my hot cocoa or just raw  out of the bag,  I don't care for s'mores. Milk chocolate? Ugh! 

A Word About S'Mores ("No Thank You"):

I didn't do any camping when I was growing up. In fact, my first time sitting around an actual camp fire didn't happen until I was in college. There I was, surrounded by peers from around the country, facing a blazing hot pile of flaming wood when the topic of s'mores came up. I had no idea what the heck they were talking about, I'd never heard of s'mores. Then they started making them. I watched in awe as these people proceeded to do what they all must have done around dozens of campfires as kids, resulting in a gooey mess of a "sandwich" that made me think they were all crazy. I understood the concept of toasted marshmallows but combining them with chocolate and graham crackers? Yeah, no. 

A Word About S'mores ("No, Thank You") Ends

As I said, I like marshmallows. Michele? She loves marshmallows. She'll eat cereal with marshmallows in it for a snack. She loves Peeps. She adores Rocky Road ice cream. Her favorite cookies are Mallowmars. A couple of years ago, I used the marshmallow recipe I found in the Bi-Rite Ice Cream recipe book to make her my own version of Mallowmars, but that's a different blog post. Let's just say, it was a qualified near-success.

A couple of weeks ago she was going to be out of the apartment all day at a work thingy. I knew I would have time to take care of some errands and to also prepare her a surprise batch of marshmallows. Actually, the idea came to me after watching one of Alton Brown's "Good Eats" episodes. It was about marshmallows and his recipe seemed like it would work perfectly for me. At the very least it wasn't as convoluted a recipe as the Bi-Rite's and that couldn't hurt.

When time came for Michele to leave for the work thingy, I very calmly kissed her good-bye and then set out to run my errands and get back in time to make the marshmallows so that they'd be ready by the time she got back. I don't think she noticed me practically shoving my proxy peach pie into her hands and pushing her out the door. I don't think.

I'm just getting into working in the confectionery world, and though there were areas of my process that could definitely stand some improvement and refinement (perhaps I need a different style of candy thermometer), what I ended up with was most definitely better than any marshmallows I've ever had before!


Chock full o' mallows!


Even better up close.

I think I might have to start a new birthday tradition.

When Michele (finally) got home, I had a bowl of marshmallows sitting ready for her. When she finally saw them – walked right by them, she did – the smile on her face let me know that I'd done a very, very good thing. And the look of ecstasy that replaced the smile when she popped one in her mouth let me know that the good thing was delicious. I took the bulk of the remainder to the standing Saturday night dinner engagement we have with friends and shared them with the table. I was left with very few to take back home with me. A good day, I think!

One question remained, though: Would they stand up to toasting? There was only one way to find out. Tonight we broke out the kitchen torch, found some bamboo skewers and Michele put the heat to the mallow.

Roasty.

Toasty.

Browny.

Caramely!
I think it held up rather well. And Michele pronounced it "delicious" so that settled the matter.

Someone mentioned that we should descend on the home of some friends in Connecticut and commandeer there fire pit and toast up a batch of these. I might just be up for that....

Currently listening to: Tina Moore - Never Gonna Let You Go

 


Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Brulee By Any Other Name...

...is caramelized sugar. I sort of learned this fact about twenty-four years ago when I made my first Raspberry Bakewell Tart (with Burnt Cream). Actually, it was a creme brulee with with fresh raspberries on top. I found the recipe in one of my issues of Bon Appetit and it was a hit with my dinner guests. This was well before I actually had my first true creme brulee, mind you. I hadn't even heard of that dessert at the time. Yet I made one just the same. Go figure.

What does this have to do with the price of tea in China, you may ask. Well, not much, except that I recently got back into the creme brulee game, and by "creme" I mean "ice cream". The story goes like this:

Remember a while ago when I made all that ice cream to send my father? Remember the Golden Double Vanilla? Remember when I told a  friend mine about it and he issued a challenge? Of course you don't because I didn't tell you about it then! Don't pout; I'm telling you about it now. Being an excellent cook himself, he said something like "Now I challenge you to put some of that in a heat resistant bowl, freeze it hard then put some turbinado sugar on top of it and caramelize the sugar." Essentially he wanted me to make an ice cream brulee. Hot sugar on still frozen ice cream? How could I resist?

It just so happens that I actually have a kitchen torch. It was a birthday gift from someone (a professional chef) and I'd never used it. The box just gathered dust for nearly twenty years until this challenge. I bought some butane for it, filled it and prepared to light it for the first time.


KABOOM!
No, it didn't explode but it was rather unnerving to have that kind of controlled flame so close to my hand. An arc welder I'll never be. I was a little incredulous how this little experiment would turn out, especially since I had zero experience with the torch. Still, I was committed so I set things up...

With sugar on top.

...put the fire to the ice and watched what happened.

Poufe! Caramelizing sugar.
 
Working. Sort of.

And I ended up with:


Sort of.
As another friend of mine told me when I showed him a picture, I need a bigger torch so I can broaden the flame to get a more even melt. The tiny torch I have is prone to hot spots. Not that I gave one wit about all that when I was broke through the hardening hot crust to dig into still frozen ice cream. I cared even less after the first spoonful hit my tongue. Delicious! I call this challenge mostly met.

But, yeah, I'll get a bigger torch. Later.

Currently listening to: Azedia - Calm Down

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Lattice Eat!

I believe I've stated upon an occasion or two how much I like peaches. My favorite jam/preserves/jelly to put on toast (or scones)? Peach. My favorite summer fruit to chomp into? Peaches. My favorite cobbler to gobble? Peach! I don't think I've stated yet  how disappointed I've been in the peaches here in NY this summer, though. Most of the ones I've had have been mealy, tasteless and difficult to work with. Not like last summer at all. I will now amend that statement: I've been disappointed up til now.

Michele had a work picnic thingy out in Jersey last weekend and I wasn't going with her, so I needed to send a proxy. I really wanted to bake a pie but the scarcity of good summer fruit put that idea out of mind. 

A Brief Interlude:

I have to insert a caveat here. I haven't gotten good summer fruit. Several of my friends, who live in different parts of Manhattan than we do, have told me that they've found good peaches and cherries. That very well may be so but since it appears that I'm not part of the 2015 Good Summer Fruit Cabal, I've been stuck with less than stellar stone fruit. C'est la vie.

A Brief Interlude Ends

I was about to gather ingredients for a big batch of cookies when I noticed the peaches at the farmers market that sets up outside my office every Thursday. These were the first peaches that I'd come across that actually smelled like peaches. They were kind of mostly bruised but that really doesn't matter when you're talking pie, so I took a chance and bought a couple of pounds.

When I prepped them, I found that it was relatively easy to separate the flesh from the pits. This is always a good thing as far as I'm concerned. I hate when I get the "cling" style peaches and have to wrestle to get the pit out. So much wasted fruit when that happens. I know there's a technique to it but I haven't sussed it out yet. I will in time, though.

After I got the peaches cut up, something made me change up my process. As normal, I added my sugar and spice (and some lemon was nice) but instead of giving them the slow cook to help bring out and concentrate some of the flavor, I just kept them sitting in the bowl to let the sugar and lemon do some of that work. What I did do was put some well-washed peach skins (which still had peach flesh clinging to it from the peeling) to about a cup of water and boiled until the liquid was reduced by two-thirds. I added a little sugar and the liquid from the sitting peaches to that and continued cooking to reduce. Eventually I got a lovely, thick syrup that I added back to the peaches for the filling. 

Since I was sending this pie as my proxy, I wanted it to look its best, so I made sure I had enough dough for a lattice crust. I've made lattice crusts before to varying degrees of success. Each one has taught me a little more about their construction. Don't roll the dough out too thin or too thick. Watch the width when cutting out the dough strips. Make sure to keep track of the over and under. And by all means, figure out some way of hiding the ends of the weave!

Et voila!

First good peach pie of the season!
The best lattice I've ever done...despite having to fight our finicky oven. Again. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

What took you so long?
 Of course I could make things more even, actually measure the dough strips instead of eye-balling them, be more careful with the spacing, etc., etc., etc., but I don't care about measured perfection in this. I have way too much fun doing all this on the fly to worry about making it perfect. For me it just needs to be at least as good as the last time I did it. I call this one an unqualified success!

I sent Michele off in the morning to meet with her traveling companions and asked if she'd send me a picture of the pie once it was cut. I was reasonably sure it would taste good but I was a little concerned about the consistency of the filling. I really do hate when filling comes tumbling out of a crust when start slicing up a pie. I also hate when a filling is so congealed that it's like eating a chunk of Styrofoam. I thought I'd gotten it just right but since I wasn't going along with the pie, I could only wait for her text. (Well, I another project to take care of while I waited but that's another story.) Hours later I got these:

Traveled well!

And the hole:


Take a slice out of pie!
And the slice.


Holding it together.
This made me very happy to see because some lattice crusts fall apart when you cut into them and the slices just don't look right when you serve them. This one seems to have held together exceptionally well. And when I asked Michele about the taste, she sent the following texts:

"It was perfect."
"Really. Best flavor of any peach pie yet." (Which is saying a lot because last year's peaches were so superior in taste to this year's.)

"And everyone loved it."

After she got home she told me that the husband of one of her co-workers used to be a professional chef and he was extremely impressed with the lattice because he knew how difficult they are to do. He thought mine was very well done, indeed! 

And "very well done, indeed" is enough for me.

Currently listening to: Herbie Hancock - Gentle Thoughts 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Ships Ahoy!

Actually, that should be "Shipping Ahoy!" but that's a little clunky, yes? 

One of the things I love most about baking, and teaching myself to be a better baker, is sharing what comes out of my oven with friends and family. I get great joy out of surprising someone with a box of hand pies or a bag of cookies or even a loaf of bread. That's one of the reasons I've hosted my birthday tea for the last twenty years or so. 

Needless to say, it's much easier to do this sharing with local friends because my family is kind of spread out across the country. Sharing with them involves the USPS, FedEx, or UPS. Or flying with boxes of cookies (which I have done). Whatever it costs, though, it's more than worth it to be able to send some of my love to them.

Now, I'm not saying I'm crazy but I am. For the third time since launching this blog, I sent ice cream to my father's house in Florida during the summer. This time was a "just because". We were talking about my ice cream making and mentioned my Golden Double Vanilla (a happy accident) and the Maple Walnut I make. I said I'd send him a sample of something for his evaluation. What he didn't know was that I was planning to send him as many different flavors as I could make in a short amount of time. See? Crazy. 

Originally, I thought I'd make three different flavors but when I saw the size of the insulated box I ordered from Amazon, I figured, what the heck, I'll make it four flavors and five pints total, since I'd have enough room. 2 (two) pints of Golden Double Vanilla, 1 (one) pint of Maple Walnut, 1 (one pint) of Butter Pecan (which used to be a favorite of when I was a kid), and 1 (one) pint of orange sherbet.

Sidebar – What's In A Name Dept.

I've always heard the word spelled "sherbert" and pronounced "sher_burt". Never questioned it. I mean, I'm was a kid, eating a delicious frozen dessert. Why in the world would I question its pronunciation? That would have gotten in the way of the bowl-to-spoon-to-mouth action. As I've found out, though, "sherbet" is the most accepted spelling, with "sherbert" being a simple misspelling of that. Granted, this icy dessert has gone by other names, too: Zerbet, cerbet, shurbet, sherpet, sherbette, and sarbet, among others. Me? I'm not going to worry about it. I'm just going to make it and eat it. Bowl-to-spoon-to mouth.

Sidebar – What's In A Name Dept. Ends

Some pictures of what I sent him:
Golden Double Vanilla
As I mentioned above, this was a happy accident. The recipe I use calls for a half cup, plus two tablespoons, of sugar. I was on auto pilot and used brown sugar instead of white sugar. "Argh! I can't believe I did that!" I said. "Calm down. It'll be fine." Michele said. She was right. It's delicious!

Maple Walnut (and Apple Pie)
This recipe comes from Bi-Rite in San Francisco; it's in the recipe book that Michele got me last year. It's a perfect accompaniment to Apple pie.

Once I'd gotten all the ice cream made, I needed to figure out how to pack it in the shipping box. 

Boxing Day

There's an art to this and I'm still learning it. From how to assure there's adequate airflow, the right amount of frozen gel packs, positioning of the ice cream containers, even how/if to wrap the individual pints themselves. 

Five pints went in, four came out.
I was only partially successful. One of the Golden Double Vanilla pints got turned upside down and the box warmed enough for it to leak out. The rest were somewhat mushy but able to be refrozen, according to my father. And when he was finally able to taste the Maple Walnut and the Butter Pecan, he said they "would not go to waste". 

A Father/Son Exchange Regarding Shipping Ice Cream

Quoth He: "I'll tell you, son. This is a little expensive."
Quoth I: "Well, Daddy, I don't really care. I happen to think you're worth it."
Quoth He: "Okay! I'll call you when it gets here!"

A Father/Son Exchange Regarding Shipping Ice Cream Ends

Next time, though, I'll make sure he comes here to visit so I can serve him the ice cream fresh. Or just fly down there with it.

*****

Two more rounds of shipping involved my brother and his youngest daughter. I sent him a box of ginger-lemon creams, which actually travel pretty well, but she is mad for chocolate (all of his kids are) so I had to come up with something else for her. I initially thought it would be some kind of chocolate cookie with chocolate filling but time was getting away from me so I settled on this chocolate drop cookie recipe from The Food Network. Just the cookie part, though, not the filling.

The cookie is a lot like a brownie in consistency and texture. This meant one to me in this situation: it would possibly be too fragile to ship. Challenge accepted! (See, here we are back to that "crazy" bit.)

The cookies baked up brilliantly.

Dropped Chocolate Brownie-esque Cookies
And immediate proved to me how fragile they were when one of them slid off the cooling rack, fell all of three inches and shattered. 

Okay. The challenge was going to be a little more difficult to overcome. I couldn't just pack them into a box and expect them to arrive in one piece. I needed to figure out a way to cushion them without squeezing them too tightly. After some cogitation, I went with my friend, wax paper. I thought that wrapping each cookie individually...

Wrapped for their protection!
...then packing them into my presentation boxes in such a way that the wax paper absorbed some shock...

Such cute packaging!
...then packing those in a shipping box so that they moved as little as possible but had enough surrounding cushion that would absorb as of the pressure and jostling the USPS was bound to subject it to. And off they went.

Several days later, I got a call from my brother to tell me that he receive his cookies the week before and loved them. And my niece thanked me for her cookies, which arrived mostly intact. There were a few that were broken but she and her sister and brother were singing my praises as the best baker in the world! You know... because chocolate! 

I am an intuitive shipping genius! (Even if I have to say so myself.) And hearing the happiness in their voices makes all of this worthwhile. 

Currently listening to: Mika - Relax, Take It Easy


Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Visit, Some Pie and A Lot of Lag

You know how things get when someone you haven't seen in way too many years drops you a line on FaceBook to tell you that she and her husband are going to be in town for a wedding and they have about thirty seconds of free time so you need to make a plan to get together...three months before the visit? Oh, and did I mention that all this coordination had to happen between Paris and here (with a stop-over for them in Iceland)? Right. 

I've known Grace for more than half my life. We met in college when she was a freshman and I was a senior. We've shared more than a few adventures in Texas, L.A. and NYC, and shared many a dinner. I've always enjoyed cooking for her and I was hoping to sandwich in a meal (see what I did there?) with her and her husband within the thirty second time limit we had. It would be tight. Obviously.

They landed, dove right into wedding prep madness, and then made it up to our neighborhood in record time, where we actually did do sandwiches for dinner! Not, however, before we tried to make of for about seven or eight years of missed bear hugs. 

An Unapologetic Side Note

I will not apologize for being so sentimental in this part of the post. Grace is someone whom I love dearly, even though distance and "life" have kept us from communicating more regularly. Reconnecting face-to-face, even for a short time made both of us rather mushy. I'm good with showing that here. If there are any eye-rolls out there, all I can say is: suck it up, buttercup. 

A Unapologetic Side Note Ends

We made short work of some perfect crispy chicken cutlet sandwiches at Vietnaam, and came back here for dessert, which turned out to be apple pie and ice cream. I've been having limited success this summer with my pies, mostly the cherry and peach varieties, but I knew I could bake an outstanding apple pie for Grace and Leon. Turns out I was right.

Apple pie bird!
Bird's eye view of the pie bird!
This one sliced perfectly and tasted delicious, although I was still analyzing the danged thing with every bite. And, of course, I came up with at least two things I'd change the next time I baked an apple pie: a little less lemon, different apples, change up the spices a little. I've been baking them for almost thirty years; you'd think I would have perfected my recipe by now! Sheesh!

Just a slice before I go.
At any rate, it was the absolute right thing to serve my friends. And we all opted to pair it with some of my Golden Double Vanilla ice cream. ("Golden Double Vanilla" you ask? That's a story for the next post.) The only unfortunate thing about this little visit was that they were so jet- and prep-lagged, and I was a tired from a week of baking and ice cream making, and Michele was exhausted from being out of town for work (she got back just before Grace, Leon and I hit the apartment for dessert), that no one thought to take any people pictures! Gah!

Despite that, it was truly wonderful to see my Grace and her Leon, and that they were able to visit with Michele for a bit. Next time, we'll have to get together with them at their place in Paris. 

Currently listening to: Angélique Kidjo - Wombo Lombo

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Of Pies, Contests, and The Will To Not Win

Last month, I did something that I didn't think I'd ever do: entered a pie baking contest. The event, The Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governor's Island, holds a "Royal Court of Pie" contest and this year (our second, and last, time attending) I decided to enter. I've said that I'm not very competition-minded with my baking, or anything else for that matter. I bake because I enjoy it. I bake to improve my craft. I bake to make my friends, and the guests at my table, smile. I don't bake for ribbons or even bragging rights. But this year I figured, why not? 

I put a lot of consideration into what kind of pies to bake, balancing what I thought would be interesting for the judges against what was easily transportable. After all, not only was I entering the contest but I was also going to bring enough pie for our party. After discarding several ideas, I went with something out of season – a sweet potato pie – and something that was more summery – a batch of peach-blueberry hand pies. 

Let me be clear: I was nervous but the only way I'd even consider entering the contest was by completely divorcing myself from the idea of winning. If someone liked the pies enough to vote for them, fine. If not, then I'd done something for fun and still had enough to feed my party.

We had to wait until late afternoon before they announced the winners of the contest. There were five categories and prizes ranged from gift certificates to cook books and other such culinary fare.  

A box of bags of pies along with some sweet potato goodness.
Photo by Michele der Beker (She to whom I am married)

I didn't win. Neither did I place or show. I cared a little but the truth is, I didn't bake to "win". I baked to bake. And I'll consider that my portion of success.

*****

We had an exceptionally long and cold winter. I was looking forward to peaches and cherries this summer. Peach-blueberry pies seem to be one of my obsessions this season, so I wanted to make a full pie. Thing is, the peaches this summer, in my area, seem to be dry and kind of tasteless, which is very much unlike last year. 

And Aside Of Minor Importance

The cherries this season are quite watery and also kind of tasteless. I'm more than a little disappointed that the two fruits I most look forward to baking with in the summer are proving inferior. I don't know what I'm going to do about that but it looks like I'll be baking more apple pies....

An Aside Of Minor Importance Ends.

I normally blanch the peaches to peel the skin but these just wouldn't cooperate! If you leave the peaches too long in the boiling water, they cook in a way you don't want them to (and cutting them up is exceedingly difficult). I ended up peeling them with a knife...

Look great! Taste "blah".
Prepped for cooking down.
...and cooking the skins to make a reduction that would help intensify the peach flavor. 


For extra flavor.
It worked. Mostly.


Add those little "blue" flavor bombs!
Of course, adding that much extra liquid, even in a reduction leaves me with my age-old problem of filling consistency. I don't like filling the falls out of the crust the moment you cut it, so I end up adding a thickener, usually corn starch and sometimes flour. Trouble is you can add too much and then the filling becomes the next best thing to mortar. I'm still very much a learning baker, so I'm doing a lot of trial and error with this sort of thing.

Covered...with experimental steam hole cutting, even!
Baked, brown, and beautiful!
When I pulled it out of the oven, I could tell that things weren't going to be to my liking. That little trickle of juice seeping out of the steam vent meant the filling was going to be a bit too watery for my taste.

Pie and home made double-vanilla ice cream. Unbeatable combination!
Yes. A bit too watery for my taste. But the taste? Almost right on the money. I made the right choice about the peach skin reduction; it added just enough flavor to almost completely compensate for the poor quality of the peaches. Michele said she thought it was delicious, so that's good enough for me!

Currently listening to: Amel Larrieux - INI