A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Monday, March 28, 2016

2015 Into 2016 – The Answer To The Questions (Part The Third)

Let's see. Where was I? Right.

Appetizers! I made appetizers for a post-Christmas dinner with friends. Years ago, I first baked up some "Russian Pastries" for a Ukrainian violinist who swore they tasted just like what her grandmother used to make for her. (Thank you, Good Housekeeping Cookbook!) I love them but they're kind of a pain in the neck to make. Small rounds of dough, stuffed with a ground beef/egg/dill/relish filling, folded and crimped then baked. After a few dozen of these, you just get pooped. So, I decided a change-up was necessary, especially since I was going to be making bread for this same dinner. Add a small muffin pan, subtract the folding and crimping, et voila! Please to observe:


So much easier! And artistic!
Still bite-sized, still delicious but a heck of a lot easier to make! 

Detail of deliciousness.
True to form, I'll refine the process – pay more attention to how I seal the dough, maybe add an egg wash, bake a little longer for color. And totally make them in a puff pastry.* I need to work on making them look a bit neater and but I'm over the moon with the way these turned out. And they were devoured pretty darned quickly!

*Of course, I need to learn how to make puff pastry first.

What else? Michele-O-Mars! I bought a second set of silicon molds so that I can make what I consider a normal sized batch of these. 

Yes, they're pink. What of it?

My biggest problems, which I'm still working to solve, are tempering the chocolate to get a good shine...

Cool down, already!
...getting the cookies sized just right (they're not turning out uniformly round or thin enough)...

So close!
...figuring out how thick the chocolate dome needs to be (and the best way of coating the molds)...

Still a bit messy, yes?

...and finding the right piping bag for the marshmallow, a better way of filling it, and a better technique for actually piping the marshmallow into the molds. 

Mmmmmmm! Marshmallow filling!
Okay. So there are more than a few things I still have to work out with this. I'm getting there!


Well, at least one of them turned out the way I wanted!
Oh, and I need to learn how to pop them out of the molds a little better. 

I think I'm close to wrapping up the wrap up! I've actually started baking bread in the new kitchen, so I'll have reports on the new oven and work space next time. I'm excited!

Currently listening to: Said The Sky - Disciple (Feat. Melissa Hayes)

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

2015 Into 2016 – The Answer To The Questions (Part The Second)

The Next Question: Are you going to play catch up with what you baked last December(ish?)

The Next Answer: Uh...yes(ish)?

Tarts!

I really wanted to make a decent pear tart, so I grabbed a bunch of Boscs from the farmers market and gave it a go.

Let's try these.

Hmmmm....
Partial success on this one. The oven was misbehaving – again – and I got some curdle in the custard. It tasted great, though! I'll have to make another attempt soon. I have so much to learn about making custard.


*****

Bread! I baked lots of bread. Well, actually, I baked one loaf over and over again. A French Country Loaf from King Arthur Flour. I made it six times. "Six times," you gasp! "Why, in heaven's name?" Because the first time it was pretty good. 

Looked weird. Baked well!

I was nervous and slashed it a bit too deep. I actually eviscerated it! But it was mostly baked all the way through and it tasted great. The crumb was a bit dense. 
 
The second time, however, it was awful. 

Looked  pretty good. Awful bake.
It was raw inside, despite making sure it reached a good internal temperature. I should have known just by how heavy it felt when I took it out of the oven.

And so it went.












I made strides in my confidence at slashing and flouring the top but the the actual baking varied so much. It went from mostly done, to raw, to almost perfect, to really doughy. I partly blame the oven (which seemed to just leak heat like there's no tomorrow) but it mostly comes down to my own learning curve. I'm just at the beginning of developing my feel for bread.

My goal as a bread baker is to be consistently turn out a good loaf. To me that means baking a loaf that's got a great crust and a perfect crumb at least twice in a row before I screw it up. 

I've got a long way to go.

I'll try to finish up the recap next time.

Currently listening to: Andreas Vollenweider - Unto the Burning Circle and Dancing With The Lion

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

2015 Into 2016 – The Answer To The Questions (Part The First)

Question the first: Why haven't I posted since last year?

Answer the first: For the last two-and-a-half months we've been in the process of moving. From the latter part of December until just last week, we've been busy with finding a the right new place, finding the right moving company, packing up all the stuff (and we've got a lot of stuff), filling the new place up with boxes, cleaning out the old place (and carrying over more boxes), making almost a dozen donation runs to Housing Works, and slowly figuring out how we'll fit into this place. It's an exhausting endeavor and I hope we don't have to do it again for many years. 

The place we found puts us back on the West Side of Manhattan, just a stone's throw from the first apartment I rented after moving here in '89. Also? My office is in the kitchen! I'm sitting at my desk, facing the kitchen window(!) and writing in my baking blog. This is a dream come true that I didn't even know I had. I can't wait to get the rest of the kitchen set up. It's going to take a while though:







So many boxes....


Next question: What was the last thing I baked before we moved? 

Next answer: The last thing I baked in the old kitchen was a sweet potato pie at the beginning of this month. 

Best one yet!
I've been making this pie for a quarter century and this was the best one yet. But, after twenty-five years, I tasted it and began figuring out how to make it even better. I finally tasted, with a critical palette, exactly what spices needed tweaking and what spices I need to stop adding so that this pie can be spectacular and not just "good". I also finally began experimenting with the way I make the crust edges, too. The next one will be so much better!

I'll answer more of the questions you didn't ask in the next post. Right now I've got to find which box we packed the kettle in. Michele needs tea!

Currently listening to: Stephan Jacobs - Anywhere (Feat. A. Rose Jackson & Henry Strange)

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Season's The Reason for Spices and Seasonings (And Lots Of Cake)

On the last day of the year 2015, I'm trying to play catch up with the baking I've done since my last post. This will be kind of a no-frills update, so bear with me.

I baked quite a lot this holiday season. Not that this is any different from the last few holiday seasons; I just like being able to say it because it's something that brings me a lot of joy. Most of my baking was, as per usual (which makes me exceedingly happy) for my family. I shipped sixteen Sour Cream Lemon Pound Cakes to three different cities in two different states across the country. (I also made a few of these to give to a work colleague who appreciates my baking.) In addition to the lemon glaze, I decorated them with some candied lemon peel – rather poorly, I'll admit. But I'm stretching some wings here, so give me a break.

The full-ish compliment to the family.

In detail.

Yeah, I've got to practice with that lemon peel.
I made the full-sized version for Christmas Eve dinner at my in-laws.

Lots of drizzled lemon glaze. Yep. Working on that, too.
Oh. And challah, using this recipe. 

One of my better braids. Working on that, too.
I had a slice the next day, spread with some wonderful honey a friend in Hawaii sent us.

Mmmmmmmmm! Working on finishing off that jar of honey!

But wait! That's not all! I also made Russian Pastries for Christmas Eve dinner.

Pastries of the Russian variety. And, yes, I'm working on these, too.
These are normally made like little pies but they're such a pain in the but to fill and crimp that I decided to enclose them more like little pot pies. Sort of. They're still just as good but much easier to make and bake. I want to figure out the right type of pastry is best to use for this technique.

Christmas dinner was spent at the apartment of a couple of friends. Everyone brought something and it was a potluck instead of a big sit-down. Everything was delicious. I brought a lemon ripple ice cream pie. I had planned on bringing another challah, this time I use the recipe from one of Peter Reinert's book but things went awry and I had to trash the dough. This is an inferior recipe in my opinion. I'll never use it again. Oh. And more Russian Pastries. My apologies for not having any pictures of anything from this meal.

And we had dinner the next night in the same place, with a much smaller group of folks. But I'll have to tell you about the bread I baked for that one later. It's getting on towards midnight and I want to post this before the new year rings in.

May 2016 be a banner year of good things for us all! 

Currently listening to: Beethoven's 5th Symphony in C Minor

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Seckel Selections (Or: It's All Gone Pear-Shaped)

A few months ago, I found, at the farmers market, a variety of pears I'd never seen before:

New to me.
Seckel pears. They were so cute that I had to get bunch even though I had no idea what I was going to do with them. When I told Michele about them, she said she used to get them all the time as a kid. Pretty much everyone I spoke to about them that day made similar comments. "I see them all the time!" "My family has them every season." "I grew up eating them." Well, I've been coming to this same farmers market for over a decade, and I've lived here in New York for over twenty-six years, and I've never, ever seen them.

A Brief Cogitation:

I am not above thinking that these pears are actually brand new and that everyone's winding me up about knowing about them. That's how my brain rolls sometimes.

A Brief Cogitation Ends

Paranoia aside, I determined that pear tarts were the way to go. I don't do a whole lot of baking with pears, aside from adding one to my apple pie (which I don't do any more) so this was pretty new territory for me. Two things came to mind. Wait. Three things came to mind: 1) I wanted to use my mini tart pans, 2) I wanted to pair the pears with ginger, and 3) there was no way I was going to peel these pears! Seriously! Take a look at that picture again. They're tiny! By the time I peeled and cored them, there'd be nothing left of them!

Actually, since this was a grand experiment, not peeling the pears made sense. So did using the basic pastry recipe for the zwetschgendatschi. And so did adding a bit of the ginger spread I use for some of my ice cream.

Pears and pastry.
What I ended up with was something that I thought was plenty tasty.

Double seckel.
The pears were al dente and the ginger spread was fairly close to the consistency I thought it would have (despite having never used it in that way). The pastry was the thing that I wasn't thrilled with. A bit thick, due to the technique used in pressing it in the tart pans instead of rolling it out and laying it in. Still, all-in-all, not bad.

The next week I bought some more pears because I got the idea of poaching them with vanilla bean and drizzling a balsamic vinegar reduction on top of them. I changed the crust recipe to something I rolled out because I could get that thinner and it would bake up crispier.

Oooo! Shiny!
Drizzled.
Oh. And I went with the full-sized tart pan.

Not bad but let me tell you, making that balsamic reduction was something else! Talk about a lingering, pungent aroma! Maybe next time I try it, I'll try to cook it down quicker. Wowf!

Michele's co-workers liked this version. I took another one with us to a gathering of friends the following week and it was fairly well-received, too. I wasn't quite convinced, though. The bottom was a bit soggy (between carrying it around in NYC and the moisture from the vinegar and the vanilla glaze, the crust suffered), and there was something missing in the overall taste of the tart. I liked it but, as a couple of the foodies at the gathering said, it needed some kind of bottom note to balance out the reduction. 

So, this one stays on the drawing board for now because the season for seckels is over and I'll have to wait until next summer to give it another go. I'm thinking a gingered custard to sit the pear on top of instead adding the balsamic reduction. 

Assuming, of course, that I'll find them again. (Conspiracy theorists, arise!)

Currently listening to: Noel Pointer - Wayfaring Stranger

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Pie-saster 2015

So, this happened on the evening of December 4:

Whoops!
It was supposed to be an apple pie for my Birthday Tea guests on Saturday. I'm not sure how it happened. There was some molten filling spitting, skin burning, pie plate sliding, don't grab the four-hundred-degree ceramic thingy action. Why the pie plate didn't shatter is beyond my capacity to explain. 

Then following morning (my actual birthday), I screwed up the mint chocolate chip ice cream I was going to serve. Apparently I made the custard too thin and turned into slushball midway through the freezing process. I think I was overcompensating because my usual problem is that I cook the custard too much and I get some scrambled egg batches. This was ice milk in a bad way.

That was two items off my menu with about seven hours to go before the arrival of guests.

Ten years ago, two kitchen disasters in a row like this would have devastated me. I would have called and canceled the Tea and then stewed for the rest of the day. This year? I cleaned things up, made myself a cup of coffee, sat on the sofa with our cat, Nikolai, and worked out how I was going to recover. (Certain friends have suggested I did this on purpose because I wanted to pretend I was baking in the marquee of The Great British Bake Off. I dispute this interpretation of events. I will not, however, deny that I did indeed hear the strains of their "Oh no! Something catastrophic is happening!" violin music in my head.

After caffeine and commiseration with the cat, I assessed what I had on-hand and what I could comfortably bake in the time I had left, without a major shopping excursion. I came up with this:

The Replacements!
Lemon Pound Cake with Lemon Glaze and Orange Chocolate Chip-Vanilla Ice Cream (a flavor I invented.) I used this recipe or the cake. For the ice cream, I made my tried and true Double Vanilla but added chocolate flavored with a little orange extract to make the chips. The orange comes in as a lovely finishing taste.

Rescue Cake
Orange chocolate, anyone?

Utterly delicious!

I guess there's something to be said for maturing.

Currently listening to: Bob James - Tappan Zee  

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.
Minis!
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