A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!

An Opening Declaration:

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

An Opening Declaration Ends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Great Cobbler Caper

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

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

Cobbled apples.

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

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

Cherries and blueberries, anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief Note About My Process:

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

A Brief Note About My Process Ends.

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

Slightly different crust recipe. A little more crumbly.

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

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

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

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

Currently listening to: Tony Rice Unit - Mar West

Monday, October 26, 2015

October Birthdays...Celebrated Via Courier!

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

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

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

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

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

A Word About Reusing Photos Ends.

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

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

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

My results:

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

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

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

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

The final results:

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

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

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

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

Five apples are better than three?

• • • • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 17, 2015

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

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

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

Sidebar On My Nephew's Baking:

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

Sidebar On My Nephew's Baking Ends.

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

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

Mix masters!
...and kneading. 

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

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

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

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

Checking on the rise...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Currently listening to: Pockets - Come Go With Me

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Brief Morning Encounter

I got off the subway this morning and instead of going straight to the office, I veered down the sidewalk, skimming the edges of the Thursday Farmers Market to get to my favorite orchard stand. The object of my search? Italian Prune Plums for another zwetschgendatschi. I sent one with Michele to work last week and it got rave reviews. 

Said Rave Reviews:

"Very Good!" "Amazing!" "Thrilled!" All kinds of thumbs up and an offer to support my "art form" whenever the need arises. And one broken gluten-free fast.

Said Rave Reviews End

Said plum tart:

Spell it with me: "zwetschgendatschi"!
Obviously, I never got to taste this one, so I was hoping to nab one more batch to bake another for myself, now that I'm getting the hang of making this so that it tastes much more like what I had in Munich thirty-one years ago. I was in luck! There was one bin of plums (down from two last week, so we're definitely at the end of the season) and they were mostly squishy firm, as opposed to rock-hard firm. 

That's a good thing because I've determined that the secret to my success with this tart is to ripen the plums within an inch of their lives. That seem to release the best taste when they bake. Also, I now prefer to bake it in my square tart pan, since I don't remember ever getting a slice of this in Munich that was wedge-shaped. Oh, and use about half as many plums as the recipe calls for, and twice the raw sugar for topping.  

I was in the process of snagging a bagful when a woman with lovely gray hair and a sweet smile, got my attention. I had to unplug myself from my shopping play list, though. Don't laugh. My whole life has soundtracks. I'm still cognizant of my surroundings, which is why I knew she was talking to me, instead of thin air.

At any rate, she said I seemed to be a fan of the plums (I was rather focused and engaged in choosing good ones) and asked if they were good, even though they aren't usually very sweet. I told her about making the zwetschgendatschi instead of just eating them. She was intrigued and said I was inspiring with the idea of baking with them. I don't know so much about inspiring; I was just talking about making my favorite tart of all time. 

After I showed her a picture on my phone, and failed miserably at helping her spell and pronounce it (one more time: zwetschgendatschi - ts-vetch-kin-dah-chee), we talked about the crust and how what I used to top the tart. I gave her my card and that I've written about this, and posted a link to the recipe.

When she asked if I sold what I baked, and if the blog was about that, I had to shake my head, and tell her it's more about my process of becoming a better baker than it is about recipes. And I don't sell my baking. This brought another smile to her face and she thanked me for sharing the idea of the tart with her. And I have to thank her for giving me an amazing morning!

Currently listening to:  Venemy - New Life (Part 2) (Feat. Notelle)

Friday, October 2, 2015

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

Last month I got to spend a bit of time in San Diego visiting with my brother and his family. It was short but very, very sweet – filled with great food, lots of hugs, laughter aplenty, and more than a few surprises.  For instance, I didn't know my nephew, Robbie, was taking German and that my nieces, Jeanine and Denise, sang songs in Japanese. What wasn't a surprise was that my sister-in-law, Wynter, looked at my brother, Rob, and me like we were crazy when we finished each others' sentences and movie quotes. That much I happily expected.

Rob, told me that the kids were excited I was coming because they figured I'd probably be doing some baking. In fact, my nephew, who has baking aspirations himself, was hoping I'd teach him something. I guess my reputation preceded me. (Actually, many boxes of shipped baked goodies preceded me, since I've been sending them gifts from my oven for a little while now.)

So, it was a forgone conclusion that I'd be using their oven for at least a couple of baking projects. I was prepared with two very good recipes. I was prepared to have to pick up some ingredients. What I wasn't prepared for was the need to also procure some very basic baking implements and pans and such. Many excellent meals come out of that kitchen, and from the grill in the back yard, but my brother and his wife don't do a lot of baking. We made lots of jokes about this and I was all too happy to leave behind a lot of "house warming gifts".  

After a few trips to the store, I was ready for my first baking project, which turned out to be a Saturday morning biscuit banquet. I used what I thought would be a good recipe from Food52.com, even though I've never made it before. (There I go again, breaking my rule of never serving a meal from a first-time recipe. I'm starting to think that I made that rule just so I could laugh at myself.) I thought I'd get up in the morning, bake the biscuits, and sit down with my family and devour them.

The blank slate. So clean...for now.
Mise en place. Please notice the iPod with my baking soundtrack queued up.
That plan went off without a hitch...with one major addition: my youngest niece, Denise, wanted to help me bake. And that changed the whole experience for me because it went from making something for breakfast to teaching my niece about baking biscuits. With a recipe I'd never made before. In a kitchen and oven I'd never used before. No pressure. Really.

As you should know by now, I'm always game for a challenge, even one as daunting as this. Still, teaching a thing is different from just doing a thing. With teaching you have to create a structure for imparting information in a way that the student will understand and readily assimilate. You have to give them the basics but at the same time take care to keep it interesting. And you've got to make it fun! Because if it's not fun, then why do it in the first place?

A Quick Sidebar:

Can you tell I'm the offspring of two teachers, with family on both sides with deep roots in Education? Guess I might have picked up a thing or two.

A Quick Sidebar Ends

With Denise (6 years old), I started off very simple: making sure she knew the measurements we'd be using, and identifying all the ingredients. After she donned her cute little apron, that is.

Please to observe these measuring spoons!

I told her about the importance of having everything you'll need right, mise en place, to make it easier to mix, add, stir, and (Got to add a little French to her go along with the Japanese she sings.)

"Mise en place" is French for "Don't run around the
kitchen like an idiot, trying to find stuff!" I think.

Now, I was a kid and I remember how overly excited I got when grownups let me do things with them. I caused more than a couple of...incidents because of my enthusiasm. Kids haven't changed that much over the years, so I made sure to watch out for this when I let Denise stir the dry ingredients. I only had to caution her about flinging everything out of the bowl once.

Carefully adding ingredients.

I had to use two knives to cut in the butter because I couldn't find a pastry blender at the store. It was just as well, since I got to refine my technique.

Using the old double-knife technique.
One of the reasons I chose this particular recipe was that I was curious about the lack of rolling pin use. I really wanted to see how it worked. I think both of us agreed that it was fun to gather and smush and gather and smush the dough (also known as "kneading"). I taught myself a little something about the right handling dough like that: easy-does-it. Press hard enough to combine and create the layers, but not hard enough to overwork the dough.

Rolling pin? We don't need no stinkin' rolling pin...
even though I bought one for the house.
We laughed about there not being a lot of baking tools in the house but I was actually glad to improvise the way I did; using knives to work in the butter, and small-rimmed glasses to cut the biscuits, is very traditional and connected me with my Granma (my father's mother) who made biscuits from scratch in a similar fashion. So, in a way, this direct line through four generations of Bakers baking.

A couple of shot glasses will do in a pinch.
"Press hard!"
Loading up the baking sheets.
One other thing I tried to teach Denise was to try to keep the mess to a minimum, and confined to the table (something I'm not always so successful with at home). Fortunately for me, I was quick with the bowl to catch most of the flour she shook off her hands.

Aaaand...there goes the flour all over the floor.

Once we had the biscuits in the oven, I had to do some internal wrestling with the oven. It's probably about five or ten degrees off because the biscuits took about fifteen minutes longer than they should have. Hmmm. It's a good thing I have experience with recalcitrant ovens, isn't it? 

A little pale but still very well baked.
In the end, we pulled out two trays of utterly delicious and flaky biscuits! 

Delicious with honey!
I couldn't have done it without my able assistant, though! And thanks to my other niece assistant, Jeanine, for helping us butter the tops of the biscuits before we popped them in the oven.

Thus ends Part The First (the easy part).

Currently listening to: Brenda Russell - A Little Bit Of Love