Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Alpha Bakers - Lemon Posset Sponge

A quick and easy recipe this week--or at least easy. One sponge cake (let's not kill ourselves and call it shortcake), covered in a quick lemon cream. Right up my street. A few special things:

1. The sponge included brown butter. Brown butter is a very good idea. Deb over at Smitten Kitchen tends to suggest brown butter even when it isn't called for. Since I have some leftover, I will probably take her advice soon.

2. The sponge is brushed with lemon syrup and then with apple jelly. There was no apple jelly to be had at the approximately 17 gourmet stores and delis near me, so I settled for pear. Pear jelly is also a very good idea.
The recipe was for individual sponges, but my Maryann pan is a single, and I was taking it to work anyway, so I just made the one. I had a few flour balls in the bottom but just picked them out with a knife tip.
3. Posset is fun. Posset is all of the medieval children's books I used to read. Posset is nursery sponge and jam and mysterious things people in books eat that I never really knew were things. Posset is just cream thickened with, in this case, sugar and Meyer lemon juice. Posset posset posset. Drink your posset. Posset is fun. My posset was creamy and nice, and a little mild for my taste. Regular lemons next time.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Chocolate Pavarotti with Wicked Good Ganache

The wind is howling outside, the radiator is gurgling, and it's good to be inside. It seems like the ideal time for oatmeal, or cocoa. Instead, I bought two kinds of ice cream yesterday and made chocolate cake. I might be the only person in the world who likes oatmeal and cocoa more than chocolate cake, though not more than strawberry ice cream. Strawberry ice cream is fantastic. Why would anybody ever eat any kind of ice cream other than strawberry? My deviant predilections aside, the Chocolate Pavarotti (so-called because it 'sings in the mouth') is a very nice cake. 

If you detected a bit of damning with faint praise there, your detector is working. The Pavarotti is a smooth, almost dense single layer, made with the addition of melted white chocolate (I used Trader Joe's chips). Perfectly delicious, a bit forgettable. More like my response to opera than Rose's. I always want to love opera more than I do. It's such spectacle, such grand location, such mystique and heavy wigs and wild feats of vocal daring, but ultimately, I find it slow. I want more choreography. I want the story to move more quickly. I was raised on the American musical, not the opera, and there's very little help for it now. 

As for the 'Wicked Good' ganache, it is indeed very good ganache. I find this unsurprising, because the name indicates that it is clearly from Massachusetts, and all things from Massachusetts are excellent, including yours truly. While I continue to refuse to make ganache in the food processor if it is not a special occasion, I followed all of the other meticulous steps to make this one carefully. Corn syrup makes it shiny, cream makes it rich. In this case the cream was not dairy but coconut cream, lightened with a bit of coconut milk. I've found that for most things coconut will make a good substitute--it's fatty and coconut oil hardens up nicely at a cool room temperature. The substitution wasn't a matter of avoiding dairy, just a matter of realizing that there was no cream in the house and I wasn't going out for groceries again.

We ate the cake as part of an impromptu Valentine's Day celebration that included a feverish and cranky baby, sauteed greens and macaroni and cheese, and highlights from High Fidelity ('it. was. called. James') and X-Men: Days of Future Past. I can't talk about High Fidelity right now, that would take most of seven more posts and some sobbing. X-Men, on the other hand, is great fun, but apparently impossible to follow if you have never seen or read anything about it before. Days of Future Past spends an absurd amount of time on expositing its own absurd plot, but expects you to know exactly who its characters are and what they're up to already. I do, but a certain friend who shall not be named Miriam was unable to master even the basics of their names and relationships. "They all have three names and two ages," she very reasonably complained, and "also Katya WHY is it called a Pavarotti?" 

A little recourse to the book and I was able to answer that question (see above), but I couldn't convince her not to call Magneto 'Cogneto' (actually a very decent amalgam of Professor X and Magneto) or Incognito. Everyone liked the cake, at least. One person said that its dense texture and very sweet filling (I added some raspberry cream cheese frosting) made it taste 'like a candy bar.' So there you have it. Opera plus comics plus indie geekery = chocolate cake that tastes like candy bars. Don't say you weren't warned.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Alpha Bakers: Swedish Mango Mixed Nut Bread

My to-do list is reaching frightening heights. Small tasks such as 'tidy the desk' and 'put away the laundry' are piling up under larger ones ('write book review', 'find new roommate,' 'do taxes') and even larger ones ('buy apartment,' 'improve job performance,' and 'evaluate books for major award'). I might be starting to panic a bit. In fact, the only time I make to-do lists is when I'm on the verge of panic. They do help, although I rarely remember to actually check things off. Not really a to-do list kind of person.
One thing I am quite good at, though, is making bread. Somehow, I had gotten it into my head that the Swedish Apricot Walnut Bread from The Baking Bible was a rye bread, and I held off making it for a week so I could get my hands on some good rye flour. And so I could traipse around frozen Chicago with a lot of librarians in brightly colored cardigans and cool tights

The Chicago thing went very well--I met some lovely people, ate and drank with some special people I've already met, got heavily snowed on, got a dose of Midwest nice (THANK YOU, Metra conductors who held the Sunday 6:12am train for me when I was on the wrong platform with my giant suitcase and there were 8 inches of snow and counting and the next train was not for two hours), and got to hear LeVar Burton and one of my library inspirations Scott Bonner speak. The Youth Media Awards were announced, including the Newbery and Caldecott Medals. There were some surprises, and as usual, some excitement. Here is a good roundup of what the children's librarians in your life were talking about last week. Here is a good round-up of what we'll be talking about for the rest of our lives if we do our jobs properly.
Speaking of jobs, here's the bread. As it turns out, the bread uses a miniscule proportion of rye flour to regular bread flour (or in my case Hecker's unbleached, which has a reasonably high gluten content). The dough begins with a biga starter, to which I added about 1.5T of leftover sourdough starter, for flavor. The biga then spent about 9 hours out on a table, followed by a few hours in the refrigerator. Then it was mixed into a dough with additional yeast, given a two hour rise, stretched and folded, and left overnight in the refrigerator for a second rise. 
I stretched it out, laid in a pattern of soaked dried mango (standing in for the apricots, golden raisins and mixed nuts had already been added to the dough), and folded and rolled the dough into a reasonable batard, which I then left to proof in the refrigerator while I was at work. Finally, I gave it a short time on the counter while I pre-heated the oven and the baking stone, slashed and baked, and there it was. I like this bread, but I would never make so small an amount again. If you're going to all the trouble of making a bread dough, make more than one wimpy batard. Also, if we're advertising this as a nutty bread that's good with cheese, I'd like a slightly more dense, rye-heavy bread. A friend has requested that we try out this Scandi Rye from Food & Wine next. Any ideas on good wheat-free replacements for the bread flour? She can have gluten, just not wheat.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Alpha Bakers - Gingersnaps

Once upon a time, in a far-off kingdom. No wait, it was a democracy. Or a collective farm. Or a free anarchist experiment in non-authoritarian communism. Once. A strange glow of sunlight streamed in and illuminated...the gingersnap.
I have a real thing for ginger cookies. I once spent the better part of several months testing different versions of large squashy ginger molasses cookies and hard gingerbread recipes to find the best one (verdict--Tartine recipe for cut-out cookies and gingerbread houses, still haven't found the dream squishy sugar-crusted molasses style cookie, and I've already made the ones in TBB). With these gingersnaps, I was on familiar ground, or so I thought. I did everything I was supposed to. I chilled, I weighed out the dough balls (who DOES that?), and I baked with precision. I also forgot to add ginger.
Needless to say, this made the first round of cookies out of the oven a little dull, with a pronounced taste of leavening and not much else. For the second round, I sprinkled each cookie with ginger, and for the third, I dumped a large pile of ginger right on to the chilled dough and squished it in. Much improved. I think I'll quite like these when I make them properly. Or with a little extra ginger. With ginger, more is almost always more.

Been baking quite a lot lately, between the 'blizzard' and the wall. Sometimes I bake ahead in TBB, take a picture, and hope I'll remember. I also made these Pecan Potato Chip Cupcakes, from Bay Ridge star bakers the Robicellis. RECOMMENDED. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Golden Orange Panettone

Shortly after Christmas, someone brought a commercial panettone to my office. It was one of those breads in a box that line the top shelves and promotional racks of supermarkets everywhere, and that I rarely consider buying because they have candied peel in them and are stale. This one was not stale. This one was soft and delicious and I ate it by the fistful, ignoring whatever lunch I had brought. I put it down next to the Chocolate Cuddle Cake and laughed inwardly at the success of my decoy as I ate all the panettone. 
Then I checked the Alpha Bakers baking schedule. The next decoy was on me. Rose's version of panettone uses a biga (a stiff pre-ferment) to intensify the flavor of the dough. While this means starting the bake a few days earlier, it's anything but difficult to make. I'm pretty used to refrigerated rises and long baking runs from my various sourdough adventures (and in fact I baked my first sourdough in a while in tandem with the panettone), so as far as I'm concerned all went well. Then the mixing. These soft doughs really are so different when you have a strong mixer. Just throw it all in and whip, and no hour-long slow sighing over a knead. I had some candied orange peel left over from last year's fruitcake (that wasn't supposed to have candied orange peel in it), so in that went along with some dried prunes and dried cranberries. In retrospect, I wish I'd added some candied ginger as well. 
The only thing that was a little rushed for me was the bake itself--I was leaving for Boston the next day and had to get it done, well after midnight. Because of that, the final proofing was a little less thorough than I would have liked, and thus my cross on top wasn't pretty and the oven spring came close to a blowout. Inside, though, the crumb was consistent and light. There has been a lot of discussion about proper flours to use for some of the newer formulae in The Baking Bible. I take the flour suggestions as recommended and use my judgement, which is pretty well honed after years of bread baking. I don't always expect the exact same results that Rose predicts, but I appreciate knowing why she's made her choices and what the rationale behind each one is. Baking, like cooking, is a dialogue, and a participatory one. And panettone is delicious, although I don't really like candied orange peel and next time would probably leave it out. Then it's just basically brioche, I guess. I'm down for that. I think I've mentioned on this blog before that one of my favorite things ever is to sit down with a large loaf of squashy bakery challah and dip it into a bowl of milk. Brioche works too.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Black & Blue (& Bloody) Pie

Why do I bake so much? The pursuit of attainable goals. I am in all things a procrastinator. Like Mr. Bennet, I'm "dilatory in undertaking business, [but] quick in its execution." I have trouble stirring myself to do things other people consider basic. I don't hang pictures on my walls. I rarely dust. Half of my furniture is broken. Once I begin a project, I am happy to have begun it, but it is terribly hard for me sometimes to begin even the simplest-seeming things. For this reason, I love structure. I love step-by-step guides and challenges and deadlines. And I love baking--quickly executed projects that use skills I enjoy, that produce tangible and pleasing results in a minimum of time. Low commitment, quick execution, ephemeral decision. It's not the only reason I love baking, but it does seem to be the one discipline I have where I am quick, decisive, and good at planning out my time. Baking gets me out of bed better than anything else--I will lounge if required to shower but happily hop up at 4am to preheat an oven--which has made bread baking a great structure to hang things like writing articles or papers, as the time constraints marry nicely. 

Add on the domestic goddess aura and a sexy if slightly nuts whiff of Little House self-sufficiency, and it becomes clear why this happens so much. Also, pie is delicious. 

This week's pie was the Black & Blueberry pie, a mixed berry with a cream cheese crust. Unlike some of the Alpha Bakers, I make a lot of pie, and I love it. I don't find pie crust daunting, and I like to make it with my hands. I don't mind runny fillings, (John Thorne says they're the way to go, and he's always right), and yet pie always carries with it a certain anxiety that doesn't come up in most other baking circumstances. 

Pie is more than a set of instructions. It's a skill. A physical skill. Because of this slightly mystical truth, pie gets a lot of reverence and a lot of fear. It's not hard, it's just not easy to get right. Pie can turn and bite you in the ass. Every pie is different. I realize that to the true baking personality (or the true librarian) this unpredictability can be painful, even destabilizing. Luckily, I'm more the kind of baker (and librarian) who is caught up in the story and careless of some details, so pie is my kind of game. Also, pie is so, so delicious. I would rather have pie than cake any day, but that's another story (never mind).

It's a story about fruit. We can talk about it when it is not winter any more.

Black & Blueberry pie. A fairly straightforward double-crust pie, made with Rose's cream cheese enriched pie dough. I like this pie dough, but it hasn't become my one and only. An all butter crust still has my heart. The cream cheese crust is very friendly, though, and holds a very nice shape without getting too tough. I can't bring myself to put it in and out of a bag and the freezer as Rose instructs (sorry Rose, I know your detailed instructions really do get unexpectedly perfect results, I just can't be perfect about pie. Talk to me when we're back to wedding cakes), but my hands-in technique yielded some quite acceptable pie crust action. Substitution alert: I misread the amounts I would need so the final product had subbed in mascarpone for 1/3 of the cream cheese (richer, but not devastatingly so), and I used leftover coquito (condensed milk, evaporated milk, coconut milk, and rum) for the three tablespoons of heavy cream. Alcohol is good in pie crust--some people swear by vodka.

I also mis-read the filling amounts a bit so the final mix was 12oz frozen blackberries and the rest frozen blueberries, with a handfull of cranberries and strawberries thrown in, making this a Black & Blue & Bloody pie (Black & Blue & Bloody new band name I call it). I didn't change the ratio of other filling ingredients because I judged it close enough, and so it was. I added the berries to the cornstarch (all right, it was tapioca), sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest straight from the freezer, then let the pie rest filled for roughly the recommended hour and had no problems. There were plenty of juices but it wasn't runny at all. I would have possibly opted for a runnier pie and a slightly less thick tapioca twinge, but that's a personal preference. It did run enough to resemble a very satisfactory crime scene.  
We had it for brunch, along with a very excellent quiche. My friend 'BeeBo,' below, is a big fan of blueberries.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Chocolate Cuddle Cake

Drifting into 2015...
In my storytimes at the library, I talk. A lot. Most of it goes over the heads of the kids, but at my best moments I like to think that I'm embellishing their worlds with rich language. In the winter, I find myself using words that fall in the 'hibernation' spectrum: snuggle, huddle, wiggle, shelter, and cuddle. I like to imagine us as a pile of soft sleepy baby bears under a pile of leaves, warm and safe for winter.

In that kind of mindset, the Chocolate Cuddle Cake from The Baking Bible couldn't be better named. What can I say? I come from a family that has a tendency to lie in a heap, frequently while watching A League of Their Own. Since some of my heap-mates recently had a baby bear of their own, I was on my own for this baking, and while I can't say I hit a home run, I made it around the bases (mixed metaphor alert! don't care!).

The Chocolate Cuddle is a pillowy soft cocoa chiffon, baked in a parchement-lined springform (see above). Aside from some lazy egg-white mixing (see white spot in photo below), mine came out perfectly. I did not measure how tall it was, because, as our bake-through leader would say 'there's nothing I can do about it now'. I did trim the sides a bit to ensure an even rise, as it sagged a bit like a turban or a decorative squash.
The lovely squashy cake was then frosted with a quick ganache--I followed Rose's recipe but made mine on the stovetop instead of the food processor. I notice a slight difference in texture but it's not enough to make me get out my food processor. All extra ganache becomes truffles, by royal decree.
Things were going so well and then I tried to make the caramel whipped cream, which sounds like a good idea, and probably is, except that I screwed it up royally. Royally as in epically, not as in by royal decree. I am not, in fact, royalty.

Ideally, the caramel whipped cream goes like this:
1. Make caramel.
2. Soften gelatin.
3. Whip cream.
4. Whip in the caramel and the gelatin.
5. Oooh, ahh, frost.

Instead, the whole thing seized miserably and looked like vomit.
Note to self, be more careful of temperatures. I made some half-hearted attempts at rescue, but in the end I just whipped up a little extra cream, added a bit of the lumpy mixture to it, and frosted away. Next time.

It was very pretty all the same--a light and easy cake to carry, make, and eat. One co-worker commented that its spongey nature made it a bit difficult to cut, but everyone seemed to manage all right in the end. There you have it.
Please do forgive any whiff of brimstone or verbal loopiness in this post--I'm high as an off-brand DayQuil kite can be, and most of my internal monologue looks like this.
"I'm Leslie Monster, and this is Nightline."