Monday, October 5, 2015

Alpha Bakers - Luscious Apple Pie

Labor Day weekend was lazy. There was tubing. There were photo shoots. There were fires in the backyard at my parents' house and an abundance of tomatoes in all stages of ripeness. There was an Alpha Baker apple pie.

When I say lazy, I mean that I was lazy and went tubing, and while I drifted along wondering idly why the weirdos with the American flag on the bank were inquiring if I loved America and freedom, and calling me hipster scum when my enthusiasm didn't measure up to their beery standards, my hardworking mother and sister were shopping all over the Pioneer Valley for the pie ingredients. Rose's version of a classic apple pie includes apples, of course (we went with Empire and MacIntosh, given what was seasonally available), but also apple cider, preferably unfiltered. Even the apple haven that is Western MA couldn't provide us with unpasteurized cider (not freedom-loving enough?) but after a few stores my mother turned up some more pedestrian cider, which was then boiled down with some cornstarch to enhance the apple flavor in the pie. She also grabbed a half-bushel of peach seconds, which were so ripe they began to fall to pieces as soon as they got home, so I threw in a few of them as well.

For a crust, I used Rose's flaky cream cheese, despite my usual preference for a butter crust. I sliced the apples thinly and piled them in. My father asked 'how do you get it not to fall and leave a space?' I thought about it and then said 'I guess I don't. What's wrong with space?' Not to be cavalier, but some of NYC's most acclaimed pie makers, Bubby's included, leave big cushiony spaces in their apple pies.

I didn't actually wind up tasting the pie, as I left it for my Mother to take to a pot luck the next day, but she took this photo of the slice. Her verdict was that the filling was better than the crust, but I think this could have been addressed by a longer initial bake (always always take pie farther than you think you should...) or a re-warming before serving. Realistically, I am probably not going to make a boiled cider solution to thicken all of my future apple pies (I'm more likely to drink the cider), but it's a nice trick to know when faced with lackluster apples.*
 *Of course, I live in NY and am extremely unlikely to be reduced to lackluster apples at any time. But I do like cider.

Alpha Bakers -- Banana Chiffon Cake

I have a new home! After lots of soul-searching and apartment-searching, I've moved deeper into Brooklyn, to a quiet tree-lined street very near the buildings where some of my grandparent-generation family grew up. The apartment is, to me, a grandma apartment, with parquet floors and built-in cabinets and arched doorways. I love it. And it's a mess. A work in progress.
Between moving and other life things, baking and blogging has slowed. I did make an apple pie and some scones in there somewhere, and I'm sure I'll blog about them, but meticulous multi-step cakes were not on the docket. Even after my little kitchen was more or less set up (hello, Small Appliance Shelf!), I found myself avoiding cooking or baking, or gingerly cutting fruit as though I didn't belong there. Moving engenders in me a camping mentality that is hard to break, and I just didn't feel comfortable settling down to a big project. A few weeks in, I'm starting to feel easier, although everything still feels like it's in the wrong place and it would be a crime to smear the shine off of the microwave (this kitchen is so white).
Those who know me would be shocked to hear that I hadn't baked at all since moving on 9/14, until yesterday, 10/4, when I made both popovers and the Alpha Bakers project du jour, a Banana Split Chiffon Cake. Yes, people, it had been so long since I baked that there were beetles in the flour. Luckily, I am myself and there was a backup bag of non-beetled flour.

Everything else in place, at 10pm last night I pre-heated the oven, mushed up some bananas, separated and whipped some eggs, and made a chiffon cake. I used coconut oil in place of the recommended amounts of walnut and canola oils, but was otherwise faithful to the recipe on pp. 92 of The Baking Bible. The only place where I went astray was in getting it into the oven. As I went to put it in, I mistakenly picked it up by the center tube of the tube pan, causing a bit of a gusher that resulted in the 'undercrust' pictured above. No lasting harm was done, though, and the final result was a squishy, moist banana sponge with a strong (and welcome) lemon tang.

My original intention was to drizzle it with a bit of the chocolate ganache from the white chocolate brownies, but when I re-warmed that in the microwave at work I took it a bit too far and it was burned and separated, and best kept away from cake. Luckily, the cake itself was full-flavored and full of moisture and stood up well on its own, sans chocolate or even the other option, caramel (or my favorite suggestion, strawberry ice cream). I would definitely add all of the 'split' condiments for a fancier presentation, but the non-split banana cake holds up well on its own.

When I get my act together I'll post a little kitchen tour, and you too can see the wonder that is Small Appliance Shelf. For now, I made cake, don't be greedy!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Black and White Brownies

Brownies need frosting like this country needs Donald Trump. In. No. Way. In order to make any 'frosted-brownies' type recipe, I have to perform some mental gymnastics and turn the brownies into 'cake' in my head, thus negating their particular brownie qualities (dense fudginess, crackly top, ease of transport) but permitting them into the category of 'things that are acceptable with frosting'.
Mental tumbling achieved, here's the week's baking. It started with a pan of...cake. Brown fudgy...cake. Gently underbaked, minus the suggested pecans, and full of cream cheese and butter, the...cake...was baked and slipped into the refrigerator to cool. A loose, light, custardy white chocolate buttercream followed. The final touch was to be a bourbon ganache, but I resisted. And resisted. The whole thing was already sweet enough. It was one more step on a Saturday night. In the end, though, I couldn't resist the visual of the black and white layers, so I whipped up the chocolate ganache, adding a tablespoon of Portuguese cherry brandy.
The final product was very rich, very creamy, and in general the kind of thing that my workplace approves of, while they go and ignore perfectly delicious plum kuchen. I allowed a few of the twelve year olds to try it, and they told me that the white stuff was good but the chocolate ganache was 'kind of gross.' I'm assuming that the combo of very bitter chocolate and brandy wasn't for them. Then they stole a co-worker's string cheese and ran off.

Two year olds are so much more on my level than twelve year olds. Also, the Prospect Park Carousel has an excellent soundtrack. When every song began, little S, on the right, said 'I like this song!' His taste is questionable, as he followed that with a pretty rock'n'roll rendition of the Music Together classic 'Hello Everybody,' but at least he can appreciate quality.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Perfect Nectarine Galette

Summer is my busy season. While the schools are out, the libraries are full of children. Children gaming, children playing, children bored and causing mischief, children seeking summer reading books of all shapes and sizes (and publication dates). I run daily programs several times a day, and the library also serves as a summer meals site, serving food supplied by the Department of Education to anyone ages 0-18. I have a very supportive staff and a team of summer volunteers, but my limited training skills combined with their youth (many are no more than twelve) means that supervising them is actually the most exhausting part of a summer (well, that and waiting for a new full-time custodian to be appointed after our wonderful custodian's retirement at the beginning of  July (sigh)). 

The summer meals are served on a drop-in basis, with no signups or scheduled attendees. Because of this, it can be hard to predict exactly how many meals we will need, and there are sometimes shortages or overstocks. While most of the leftovers have to be disposed of pretty quickly, sometimes we hit the accidental fruit jackpot. A few weeks ago, I found myself looking at a large surplus of hard nectarines, and a peach galette on the Alpha Baking schedule. This thing pretty much planned itself. 

The fruit is macerated in sugar and lemon juice, and the resulting juices are then caramelized and returned to the fruit with cornstarch (tapioca starch as usual in my case). The whole is then piled onto a round of pie crust, which is folded up around it and the whole is baked and delicious. The pie crust Rose recommends is her flaky cream cheese formula, but I wanted something a little different, so I used the cornmeal crust recipe from the Four and Twenty Blackbirds book.

The caramelized juices were particularly nice. The nectarines don't get as soft as peaches would (I also didn't peel them), but as fruit salvage it was more than satisfactory.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Whole Wheat Walnut Loaf

Bread is so wonderful. My birthday breakfast this year was a large loaf of Zaro's raisin challah, eaten with coffee one day and dipped in milk the next (yes, it was a birthday weekend, nobody celebrates just one day). This week with the Alpha Bakers was 100% Whole Wheat Walnut bread, a cheese-friendly loaf that wasn't very pretty on the outside, but was lovely and simple inside. 
The bread begins with a small preferment, which rises under a blanket of the rest of the flour. The flour I used was Farmer Ground, from an organic cooperative from upstate NY that is sold for a very reasonable price at farmer's markets and my food coop. They have a whole wheat line, but all I could pick up yesterday was their all purpose, an 11% protein flour milled from 'Warthog' winter wheat. Warthog. This made my loaf a little lighter, and I'd like to try with the whole wheat, but the all-purpose is still much sturdier than your average store brand. Whole wheat flour is sometimes a little harder to bake bread with, so Rose's recipe includes a dash of vital wheat gluten, which increases gluten development and elasticity, contributing to a higher rise. 

My kitchen was very, very hot last night (I was making this in the middle of a heat wave) and I accidentally threw in a little too much yeast (must measure, weighing is too inaccurate at those small amounts), so my bread rose wildly and was a little more loose than I would have preferred. I did the first turn in the bowl instead of stretching it out on a counter, but I am pretty good at bowl turns after years of using the Tartine method, so I am confident in my choices. The looseness of the dough meant that the final loaf was a little sloppier looking and not as domed as I could have wished, but the interior was perfect. I'll be serving it for breakfast with jam and Comte, and then taking it to work. 

As for the pie I said it was too hot to make, I didn't make it. Blueberry pie is great but I have extreme difficulty holding on to blueberries long enough to get to that place. I've been skipping around a lot with the Alpha Baking lately but expect to be back on track for the rest of the summer (until I move, more on that later, cross your fingers...). The week before last I made some cookies but haven't blogged them yet because I went to the beach instead. In fact I took them to the beach. Behold the Kourambiethes in their fancy packaging. Buttery and nutty and buttery, we ate them on the beach and threw the crumbs everywhere. Everyone approved, and my friend's two and a half year old, who claimed to be too shy to interact with us, pronounced them 'nummy.' So.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Molasses Crumb Cakelets

Gingerbread. Definitely my jam. Definitely good with jam, also, if it comes to that. Gingerbread is also really molassesbread. This gingerbread below has no ginger. More on this.

This week's baking was a portrait of an internal tug-of-war, a crisis of place played out in butter, sugar, orange zest, and molasses.

I have been doing something that all East Coast people do, but most don't like to admit. I have been dallying with California. In my defense, it's San Francisco, people. A city so beautiful that residents of Lisbon and, well, New York, are impressed. Every block felt like a secret and a new beginning. I couldn't begin taking pictures of houses because I would have to take every one. Yes, I was staying in a neighborhood I couldn't begin to afford, and yes, I was drenched in what Matthew Amster-Burton calls 'Vacation Head,' but, oh, I was ready to really, truly say goodbye to Brooklyn and move to that strange, steep, city. Perspective. 

Maybe I am ready to leave New York, but more maybe what I needed was a reminder that there are other ways to do things, other values to value, other ways to make places lovely. I was very happy there. Thank you to Willa & Steve, my wonderful hosts, who gave me a beautiful home and a warm welcome, to the beautiful older butches riding fire trucks with their wives and the bookmobiles driving in the pride parade. To Clarence & Shefali & K & M, my old neighbors who showed me their new neighborhood. Thank you San Francisco, for a rest and for helping me breathe and wearing out my calves. To Miriam, with whom I drove over the longest and most amazing bridge, and then about 500 more miles. Zach, my dear cousin who just moved out there like a good little migrating tech-bird, I hope the Bay Area is wonderful to you. 

Eating (and walking) in San Francisco is much like eating and walking in any famous city--half-remembered terribly famous names just appeared every time I turned a corner, and I greeted them like old friends. On my first blissful walk through town, I walked past no less than the lovely Zuni Cafe, and two hours later I was there for lunch. It was perfect, as simple and as strong as could be, and I would have gone back over and over. It's the kind of fancy restaurant that isn't really fancy, the kind where you instantly want to be a regular, the proper treat.

And then there was Tartine. One of the reasons that I fell so deeply and suddenly back in love with San Francisco (seriously, why have I been going to Europe--I want to see much much more of the Pacific Northwest) was how easy things seemed to be. Yes, every block is an Everest, and there are two conflicting transportation systems and nobody seems to notice (WTF, Muni & BART?). Still...something about NYC (and apparently Paris, Mr. Lebovitz) that everyone just seems to accept is that everything is always a Gigantic. Effing. Ordeal. Protesting. Celebrating. Meeting for lunch. Renting a car. Hiring a roofer. Everything. I know that every place has complications, and some things are harder outside of the city, but I swear that there is some agreement among New Yorkers that every damn thing has to be just a little harder than it needs to be, a little more of a hassle, and so whenever I leave town I am struck all over again by how little I need to hunch my shoulder and gird my loins before, say, going to the supermarket, or checking out a large public event. I have avoided all parades in NYC for many years (with good reason), but I was able to stroll down to SF pride perfectly calmly, walk through a crowd, watch the parade at the barricade for a while, and then...walk away. This blew my mind. Do they just get to go see fireworks and then not have to walk down terrifying subway entrances after queuing behind weird traffic control buses too? What is this magical place? 

Of course, the magic I fell for was a place that embodies both the free and crunchy spirit of San Francisco and the celebrity-culture hassle of a New York or Paris. Tartine. 

Tartine, that bakery of beautiful conflicts. The line is long, but everyone is pleasant. The counter staff is calm and efficient. The place feels like a neighborhood coffee shop that just happens to have the best croissants this side of the Atlantic and you want to sit there forever. And you sort of can. There were lines both times I went there, but also seats. And I got a morning bun. 
I had heard many tales of the storied morning bun, a croissant-meets-kouign amman-meets-sticky-bun situation. I even tried to make them once, about two years ago for my former boss' birthday. As the person who most closely shares my love of breakfast pastry, I felt it was no more than she deserved. However, I found that I had completely failed her. The morning buns I had made using Tartine's recipe were crusty, sticky pleasures, but they were not Tartine's morning buns. Somehow, the ones they turn out are softer, fluffier. And very good. They somehow make it all the way through all the aforementioned pastries to an almost sugar-raised doughnut place. And, as we all know, sugar doughnuts are the creme de all cremes, so. I immediately texted said former boss, who luckily was in town for the same conference that I was, and confessed my failure and suggested she get herself over to Tartine immediately. 
When I got home, I tried again, and went through the, well, giant hassle of making croissant dough and making morning buns. 
They were still crunchier than Tartine's, but excellent.

Then, I moved into another path, wandered into a different idiom, really, and made this week's Alpha Bakers recipe, the Molasses Crumb Cakelets. If there is an opposite to Tartine's croissants, this is it. These are small, terse, vegan mini-muffins, with a stern hit of molasses (I used the Wholesome Sweeteners brand). These are the frugal, spicy face of Northeast austerity and hospitality. These are...really really good. There are things that need careful dexterity and long patience. And these are works of art and are good. There are also things that are simple, that mix in one bowl and bake in ten minutes and use no eggs and no butter, and they, too, are valuable parts of our lives. Richness isn't only in effort or butterfat. 

Or maybe there's no moral here and I just love gingerbread, even the kind without any actual ginger. These molasses cakelets are as worthwhile as any croissant, and maybe when I open my bed and breakfast, we'll serve croissants and elegant fruits in the morning, and these as a bedtime snack. They taste like home.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Alpha Bakers: Double Damage Oblivion

This world is full of some very serious chocolate lovers. I am not one. I love chocolate as much as some of the next guys, but there are guys out there for whom a dessert without chocolate might as well be a flip flop. When offered soup, a friend of mine has the habit of answering, 'No, thank you, I don't need a beverage.' I have many friends who react in the same way when offered pie--pie being all very well, but utterly beside the point. This cake is for those people.

You know, those people. The ones who need a flourless cake sandwiched between two layers of light, fudgy cocoa cake lined with ganache to be happy. The ones who'd like some cake with their cake, please. This cake is for them (although it could be improved by a layer of chocolate mousse, maybe).

So, what you see here is what you get--a thin, eggy, flourless cake layer inside of Rose's Deep Chocolate Passion, a light oil and cocoa confection that has served as the base everything from wedding cakes to cupcakes. The flourless cake, the Chocolate Oblivion, is very rich and bitter (at least with the chocolate I used), and the Chocolate Passion is essentially an improved Hostess product. Light and simple. I can't speak to the ganache because I followed the variation and used heated and strained raspberry preserves, rounded out with a little pear jelly, to glue the whole confection together, and, there you have it.

Done and done. The workplace did not complain. I am going downstairs now to investigate the leftovers, and there will probably be some, as it was very intense, but nobody quarrels with chocolate around here.