A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

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 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Just The Bread Pics, Ma'am.

I just thought I'd post a few images of some of my past challah attempts. These are the good, the bad, and the ugly. Each and every loaf has taught me something. I've got a long way to go before I consider myself more than a novice at this craft. But the learning has been as much fun as it has been frustrating.

Just the pictures this time around. It's late and I still have hand pies to bake for tomorrow's outing to The Jazz Age Lawn Party, where I will do something I never thought I would do: enter a pie baking contest. I'll give more background on that after it's all said and done.

Currently listening to: Loz Contreras - Liberta

Monday, May 11, 2015

If The Challah Bakes, Eat It!

Yes, I'm still baking challah. Yes, I'm still working off of this recipe. And, yes, I'm still fighting with my oven whenever I bake bread. But you know what? I'm really pretty happy with how this effort! I think I'm starting to understand this recipe and the process it entails. Or, rather, I'm beginning to develop a relationship with this recipe. 

A "relationship" with a recipe. I just read what I typed above and for half a second even I thought I sounded kind of, well, you know: nuts. But in all honesty, I have to admit that this is a real thing with me and recipes. I find ones that I like, or they find me, and I bake them once or twice and if I feel good about them after the second time, I know they'll be around for a while. I begin to learn their ins and outs and they teach me what I don't know. Constantly. I am definitely in a relationship with my scone recipe and my pie dough recipe. I'm on the verge of a relationship with my new ginger-lemon cream cookie recipe.

We Interrupt This Pronouncement Of Esoteric Ephemera...

...to bring you this word from Reality: I find recipes I like. I bake them until I get the hang of them. I serve them to people who tend to like them. And so it goes.

Interruption of Pronouncement Of Esoteric Ephemera Ends

The bottom line about this challah recipe is that it's turning out good loaves more often than not, and each one is better than the last. And that makes me happy. 

I baked up a couple of loaves to serve some folks who were coming over to visit last Sunday, so I got up at 4:30 a.m. to get a good jump on things. I side-stepped a potential problem by realizing I'd have to add more water (for whatever reason) than the recipe called for. I believe I'm starting to develop a baker's intuition. And it's about danged time, too! I've tossed more baked goods than I care to admit because I've not been able to tell when I'm about to screw up and how to correct the damage before it happens. 

After all the dough gathering and kneading, the rising went well and I ended up with these, ready for one last rise before I popped them into the oven:

The good kind of inflation.
My braiding can be tighter but I'm getting better at pinching off the ends.

Thirty five minutes of keeping as close a watch on my recalcitrant oven as I could and...:

A baker and his loaves.
Best yet!

Our guests went through a little more than half a loaf. I took the rest of that one with me to work to have with my coffee over the next couple of days. I gave the other loaf to Michele to take to work with her. At lunch time she shared this in the virtual world:

"Ahhh, summer. My husband sent me to work with a home-baked loaf of challah bread so I took a leisurely stroll down to the Polish butcher on 2nd Ave for some of their special ham (omg so good. why don't I buy this every week??), the good mustard, and a little container of beets with horseradish, just because, and a leisurely stroll back under the newly leaved trees & blooming wisteria.. Also, lilacs were acquired. Because why shouldn't Monday have lilacs in it?? So very nice. And for an hour of Monday I pretended it was still Sunday. And, it was."

I responded with: 

"You are going to make me expel droplets of moisture from my light-activated visual acquisition orbs."

To which she responded:

"What can I say? You inspired a superb lunch break." And she sent this to me:

My sweetie's lunch
She also told me that one of her co-workers wasn't going to have any of the bread until she found out it was challah and then she made a mad dash for the loaf. After Michele explained that I wasn't Jewish, and that she had given me cultural reference and guidance, this co-worker pronounced it "the real deal".

And I can't ask for more than that.

Currently listening to: Bic Runga - Election Night 


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Back Where I Started, Or: Those Darned Ginger Lemon Cream Cookies

The impetus for this blog was a batch of lemon ginger cream cookies that a friend of ours tasted and caused him to enthuse that my culinary skills should be filling up the pages of a food blog. The jury is still out on the latter. And it's still out, as far as I'm concerned, on the tastiness of the lemon ginger creams. It's been a couple of years since I made them and part of that lag has been the fact that despite how much people have enjoyed them, I've felt they could be better.

And what, precisely, do I think can be better? The cookie: a little too thick, even though it was a good thickness for an ordinary cookie. The filling: too hard and a bit chalky in my hindsight. And the lemon flavoring wasn't quite right for what I wanted in that cookie. Of course, this could all be hindsight and "miss-remembering" considering so many people liked that last version. I think I have the right to second guess myself here, especially when that second guessing leads to another round of baking! (See? I create my own ulterior motives.)

A few months ago, I tested four(!) versions of this cookie. I found a secondary recipe for both the filling and the cookie and mixed and matched them with the cookie and filling from my last version. The group of friends who endured this test cursed me with thanks and compliments for a whole weekend. When the dust cleared, though, they were split on which cookie was better but approved of my original (but slightly tweaked) filling recipe.

The results, though ego-boosting, weren't conclusive enough for me, so I made my own decision about the cookie (a modified gingerbread cookie recipe) and kind of pulled elements from each of the filling recipes to create a third. And got down to baking another batch.

The first thing I did, though, was change my technique a little. I'd been using the whisk attachment on my Kitchen Aid mixer to work the dough from start to finish. This time, though, I switched to the paddle attachment before I added the flour and it did a much better job of thoroughly mixing the dough. See? Always teaching myself the obvious. There was not a dry patch to be seen once I separated the dough into manageable batches and wrapped them in plastic. 

Ready for the chill stage.
 Rolling the dough out proved to be a little easier, too, which was good because I wanted a thinner cookie that I could bake for a shorter time.

Rounds upon rounds.
Nothing like having to bake twice as many to half as much. By the time I got done baking, all of my cooling rack were covered with stacks of cookies. I was afraid to count how many I'd made.

One of the things that I'm always afraid of is running out of filling, so I made a quadruple batch. 

Full of filling.
So. Much. Stirring! Working with this stuff is probably my biggest challenge because right now I don't have a method of easily doling out the right amount of filling per cookie. The pastry bags that I have aren't really suited for it, nor are any of the tips I have. I used a teaspoon for this batch but I can tell I'm going to have to make a trip down to N.Y. Cake to find the right equipment. (I'd send you to their Website but it appears to be a bit screwy at the moment, so, you'll have to imagine a giant room filled from stem to stern with all manner of cake baking and decorating utensils, tools, molds, and more.)

The end result was a cookie that I'm almost one hundred percent happy with. Of course, there's one more thing I think I want to try, but that's a story for another day.

Stacks and stack of ginger snacks.
As it stands, a batch went to my bread baking student Hannah (which was actually a ruse for me to send her one of my packages of instant yeast so that she'll have it for our next "lesson"), another went to two of my aunts in Florida (belated birthday gifts), some went to my father-in-law, and the rest got distributed to friends here. So far no one's been injured and I've seen lots of smiling faces. 

I might be onto something here.

Currently listening to: Al Jarreau - We Got By

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Facebook Inspired FaceTime Face-Off Bake-Off

Or: I Must Be Out Of My Yeast-Addled Mind!

Sometime last year I posted a few of my challah attempts on my Facebook page. I've yet to make what I consider a good enough loaf (still working on getting the braiding right), but I'm not half-bad when it comes to presentation and taste (according to Michele). An old friend, Hannah, whom I haven't seen in thirty-four years (although we've pinged each other from time to time on Facebook over the last couple of years) commented on one of my posts and expressed a desire for me to teach her a bit about bread baking. "We should set up a FaceTime call and you can teach me how to bake bread!" or words to that effect.

Now, I'll be the first person to tell you that I am not a baking instructor. I mean, I'm still only just getting my hands wet in this arena and my skills are tenuous at best and anyone who comes to me for tips is likely to leave with a lot of bad habits and questionable information. I said as much when I told Michele about the Facebook exchange.

Her reply? "You should do it." My reply to her reply? "What?!?" Her reply to my reply to her reply? "I think it'll be good for you as a baker. And I think it'll be fun!" 

At about the same time, I got a message from another friend of ours (local) who asked me to teach her how to make chicken pot pies. And my older sister, Karla, called from San Antonio wanting me to teach her how to bake scones. Universe to Carlton: Bloody-well get off your duff and teach some baking! Carlton to Universe: Ouch! Don't hit so hard! Michele to Carlton: See? Told you. Carlton to Michele: Side-eye.

After getting over myself, I set up a FaceTime session with my big sister and over the course of a couple of hours, did a passable job of teaching her how to bake scones. Proof of Concept Achievement unlocked! 

After rescheduling several times (hey, adults are busy bees) Hannah and I settled on a date we could both make. I sent her a few recipes to choose from, and, after she went on an unsuccessful flour hunt (who knew it was so difficult to get white whole wheat flour in San Francisco?), we decided on an oatmeal toasting/sandwich bread. I thought it was simple enough to start with and would give us the best possible outcome. We'd work each step together, so she could see what I was doing and emulate it. That way, we'd have pretty much the same visual, tactile, and olfactory cues for the different stages of baking.

And then I waited. And worried that I'd bitten off more than I could chew. I mean, scones are one thing; I've been making them for almost thirty years. Bread? I've made maybe four or six decent loaves in the last few years. What was I doing thinking I could teach anyone anything about bread? I had my doubts but something I've come to realize about myself reasserted itself: whenever I've taught anyone anything, I've learned quite a bit through the act of teaching. So, regardless of whether I was actually able to impart any wisdom the next day, I'd come away from the experience with something for myself.

Coordinating across four time zones, and almost three thousand miles, wasn't easy but it gave me time to pull everything together mise en place. That in itself helped calm me down so when Hannah called at her 10 a.m., I was ready. It's very interesting reconnecting with someone with whom I shared a relatively brief sliver of life, and doing so over a mutual desire to bake. It was lovely playing a little catch up, meeting her son and her husband, and introducing her to Michele (as she breezed in and out on various errands), all through the magic of the Interwebs.

Once we settled into the actual "lesson", I began to understand exactly what my goal would be: to have Hannah end up with a loaf of bread that was something other than a hockey puck...which is what she claimed to always bake. Maybe I couldn't teach her how to make a "perfect loaf" but I could definitely help her get past the block she was currently experiencing. We talked yeast, and did a little experiment with some of what she had there. We discussed process and technique and I think I gave her a better understanding of the concept of kneading. 

The thing about bread baking is that it comes with breaks built in because of the time needed for the dough to rise. This gave us opportunities to get things done around our abodes and to do more catching up. It also gave me the change to realize that Michele was right: I was having fun. I also realized that Hannah's enthusiasm was making it very easy to find ways to guide her and to share this experience. 

So, how did it turn out? Please to observe:

Yes. I remember that smile from three decades ago.

Under the watchful eye.

How meta!
And mine:

I had to have a slice....
Hannah's loaf didn't rise as much as mine because we, unfortunately, had to use different types of yeast. She also had to add more flour to the mix because of the extra water in her yeast preparation (something I'm going to do a little research on for myself). And we both agreed that she needs to knead better next time. But it wasn't a hockey puck! She said it tasted excellent and she was so happy with how things turned out that she wanted to bake another loaf the next day.

For myself, I identified more than a few areas that I'll need to work on but I was very, very happy with how the session went. Just seeing her smile at the end of it all was worth it! So, thank you Hannah; you were a fabulous student! You taught me a lot (even if you don't think such a thing is possible).

End Note:
There's more to this story but I'm still processing it. Considering myself as someone who is not only in the middle of the beginning of his baking journey, but also someone who has one or two things worth teaching, is a lot to take in. It's actually changing how I think about baking and what I'm learning for myself. I can guide even as I explore. Heavy concept.

End Note ends.

Currently listening to: Jonatha Brooke – Charming/Andrew Duffy's Jig