Monday, December 15, 2014

Alpha Bakers - The Ischler

A trusted authority once assured me that Christmas Eve is for Cookies. If we extend the Christmas Eve framework to encompass the month of December (and as everyone knows, we do), then yesterday was a true expression of the dream (everything is awesome).

EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!!!! (sorry, finally watched the LEGO Movie last night and even though it's a giant commercial, it is pretty good, and that song is insidious in the highest degree)

But why is this Jew making Christmas cookies? Well, I'm sure you caught the part about cookies.
And also, why not? And also, some really great people came over to make them with me. The cookie team assembled at 10:30 AM, and by 4:30 PM we were...almost done. If you're tired of me being so frantically cheery, here's where you get your kicks, because we definitely hit cookie burn-out before stuffing all the cute little bags, and if I had to cover myself in relentless holiday cheer on the regular I would be Not Happy. I do love most of the trapping of Christmas, but like any oversold quantity, it's easy to get overloaded, especially the day after the dreaded SantaCon*.

Still, with all that, cookies are wonderful and so is spending time with wonderful people and listening to music I haven't heard in ten years, and so we baked all day. What did we make, oh lucky landlords and co-workers of the world? Biscotti, gingerbread, bergamot caramels, and the glamorous sandwich cookie known in Rose-land as The Ischler. I like a cookie with a title--it has a bit more weight than just 'oatmeal raisin' or 'brandy snap.' You know right off the bat that this cookie is an institution with the full weight of the treasury behind it.

It's also a very classic Rose Levy Beranbaum cookie, with the flavors of Eastern Europe hard by (the original inspiration is Hungarian, I believe). A buttery almond cookie, sandwiched with a layer of thick ganache and a layer of apricot levkar (I used some thick preserves). I had made these before as part of the Beta Testing for this book, and they were a pleasure and a joy both times. The dough is a little sticky but not to the point of absurdity, and the flavor combination is up my street as well (would you ever guess that I too am an Ashkenazi wonder, Rose?). Also, they just look so pretty and stick so well.
Sometimes I'm the lone ranger of baking, putting in long hours with just the oven and the television, but yesterday I was joined by some of the best people in the world. Above is A's first encounter with the stand mixer, and she loved it, especially when she got to give the call on how fast it should spin. In the space of a few weeks she's gone from someone who can say a few words when prompted to someone who can carry on whole conversations with content, and it changes everything. That and the fact that she has one of the all-time best personalities in the history of all-time best people makes her a very welcome guest.

I like these big people a lot too. So much. I can't give out the recipe for The Ischler (shhh, it's here), but here's the recipe for the biscotti, courtesy of Nicola, A, and Eileen, one of the best bakers I know. It's possible I've posted these before, but they bear repeating. They are a treasure, people. Make them now.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Alpha Bakers - English Dried Fruit Cake

It has been a strange week. For the second week in a row, rain and sleet have alternated with suspiciously warm temperatures, and the emotional temperature of my city (and the whole country) has fluctuated just as much, with people out in the streets protesting the grand jury decisions in both Ferguson and Staten Island. My apartment was robbed (a comparatively minor incident, but one which left me feeling the usual degree of violated and confused), and a new baby was born in my family, seven weeks premature but already breathing on her own and beautiful. We are not fine, we are not safe, we are not cozy, and we are not alone. Upheavals and betrayals, community and joy. Heavy winds. Dear loves.

And fruitcake. This particular fruitcake is less of the classic alcohol-soaked candied fruit extravaganza, and more of a boozy apple cake with dried fruit in. With dark brown sugar, grated apples in the batter, and a rum soak after leaving the oven, it's a dark, sweet, strongly textured cake, sturdy enough to carry around all day.
I made the recipe two times, halving it both times. The first time I made it as an 8-inch cake round, and the second time as a dozen muffins. The first attempt, which was the one I carried around all day in my purse, was excellent, but slightly on the drier side (I skipped soaking the fruit because it was very soft), and would have benefited from additional syrup or rum. I was more careful the second time, soaking the dried fruit (prunes and cranberries) for the recommended time and keeping a tight eye on the baking. The resulting muffins were a perfect texture. Both times, I used cashew pieces in place of the recommended pecans, and added a handful of candied orange and lemon peel (the nice, not-harsh organic kind from the food coop). I know for some people this would negate the whole premise of a new kind of fruitcake, but I had them on hand and figured, why not? The candied fruit (in the muffin version) was actually a hit with several co-workers.
The first round was also a sleeper hit. I gave a wedge to my neighbor Pam the Cheesemonger, whom I'd helped out with a little brunch earlier in the day. Her take: "This fruit cake is so good! I don't normally get excited about this kind of thing, but this is, well, exciting." She should know, she had just showed up on my doorstep with a container of truffled mascarpone, a bottle of Cotes du Rhone, and some dried trompettes that she had foraged earlier in the year in Maine. What on earth do I do with dried trompettes?
All in all, simple and delicious. Probably not adding this one to the regular rotation but it's a handy cake to have in the repertoire.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Alpha Bakers - Kouigns Amann

Hear that? That's the echo of over a year of not blogging.

It's been a busy time, and I've been doing a great many librarian things, and may in fact be starting a separate librarian blog if I can ever tame my parentheses usage. At least I now have a large and hungry staff of colleagues to eat my baking (horrible flashbacks to working in an office of two...dancers). This will come in handy because I've gone and joined up with another bake-through. The book in question is The Baking Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Not only did I already make it through her Rose's Heavenly Cakes, I tested several of the recipes for this current title in a private group, the Beta Bakers. Now we have transmogrified into the Alpha Bakers, a select group indeed, and will be baking weekly, with roundups by Marie Wolf to be found here.

My hero John Thorne has said that his cookbooks function best when he lets them get into a conversation with one another. Baking with a group of opinionated bloggers allows this pleasure on the smaller scale. Some are precise and rule oriented, some mess around, some are just messy (I'm #2 and #3, respectively).

At the risk of sinking back into the smug domestic goddess that I was in mild danger of becoming, here it comes. Our first recipe was the book's cover recipe, and one we had tested together, Kouigns Amann.

Kouigns Amann are hard to pronounce (queen amANN) but easy enough to make. In fact, they're so hard to pronounce that I had been hearing them discussed on podcasts for months without connecting the pastry under discussion to the written name. I used to do that with 'sub-tle' the written word and 'suttle' the spoken word. Was convinced they were different concepts.

Whatever you call them, these pastries are essentially a cross between a croissant and a danish, glazed in caramelized sugar. The dough is a rich but not decadent brioche-style yeast dough, which rises and then is folded and rolled with a room temperature butter package (heh, butter package). Rose calls for bread flour to strengthen the dough and minimize butter breakouts. I used Hecker's brand AP flour, which is fairly high protein, with excellent results--I'll try bread flour next time I have it on hand but Gold Medal brand bread flour is only one or two percentage points off in protein content anyway so I don't know if the difference will be monumental.
After a few turns, the dough is rolled again, covered in granulated sugar, which quickly begins weeping moisture, and folded into little packages, which are set to rise in rings, or foil rings, or, in my case, some muffin pans. 
I cut mine smaller than recommended because my muffin tins and rings were smaller than the recommended 4". More pastry is not a bad thing.

Finally, they're baked until very brown and crisp. Mine leaked a fair bit of butter--next time I might take a tip from one of the other Alpha Bakers and freeze them for a moment before putting them in the oven.

These pastries have a high return rate for not too much work, although dealing with the wet sugar is a bit of a pain. They're best eaten shortly after baking, but colleagues will eat them the morning after with no complaint.

"You may feel that you have eaten too much...But this pastry is like feathers - it is like snow. It is in fact good for you, a digestive!" ~M.F.K. Fisher

Friday, June 7, 2013

Ivoire Royale

These pictures are terrible. You can't see the creamy inside, with strawberries and white chocolate sour cream ganache. You can't see the painstaking process of building this lovely cake, freezing it, and decorating it. You can see the melting whipped cream, and the beads of condensation decorating this cake because I lugged it to work in the heat. But you can't see the glee on the faces of co-workers who ate it anyway, because it was amazing.
Yes, it's another bake-through, with some old friends from the Heavenly Bakers crowd. Yes, their photos and blog posts are much prettier. Yes, I'll do better next time. But here's a look at a cake from a nice day a few weeks ago. It is from Extraordinary Cakes, by Karen Krasne and Tina Wright, and is a sour cream pound cake with whipped cream and berries and white chocolate ganache. It is excellent. That is all.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Edible Books: An Extraordinary Journey of Bravery, Endurance, and Jell-O

The Endurance in Jell-O, meringue, marzipan, celery, rice paper, and chocolate.

 The following is a guest post from my mother, Joan. My parents have a long history of diorama-making and Jell-O sculpting, but a few weeks ago they really outdid themselves. I'll let her tell the story, and I'll only add that there are few things more fabulous than calling up your folks on a routine Saturday to hear that they are deep in rigging a ship with spaghetti and celery threads. My parents are now heroes in my office, and we all have ideas for their next act. (Did I mention I work in the Youth and Family Services Office of a large library system?)

Our first entry in our local library’s seventh annual Edible Book contest was a lot of fun. The object of the event is to represent a book or literary genre with a 100% edible creation. This event is not unique to our library. Here is the blurb from the library’s website:

“The Edible Book Event began in 1999, when co-founder Judith Holmberg, of Santa Monica, California, got the idea during a Thanksgiving dinner with book artists. Since that time it has grown and become an international event. The festival honors French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), famous for his book, The Physiology of Taste, a witty meditation on food. His birth date is April 1st. He wrote:
The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star.
Since 1999, Edible Book events have been held in places as far-flung as Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Morocco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, and Russia. In most cities where Edible Book events are held, the sponsors are art centers, academic institutions, restaurants, and book arts spaces. Northampton was one of the first places where a LIBRARY hosted the event!”
*The original edible book event website is:

We decided to merge two of Stan’s favorite things – the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s amazing “Endurance” expedition in Antartica, and Jell-O. Spurred on by expedition chronicler Frank Hurley’s extraordinary photographs, we threw ourselves into our project. We had several days to test the properties of jello and meringue and learn how they coexisted. Lots of science experiments balancing heat and cold and timing.
 We were late to this game, only deciding to participate a week prior to event, so we had to source our ‘extras’ locally. Apparently, one can buy everything in gummi form online, but we were lucky to snag some gummi penguins in the downtown candy store.

Tiny people were challenging. Joan wanted to omit them altogether but Stan insisted that the story was one of human survival and they were important, thus the marzipan weirdly trollish forms.(Katya's note: I came down on my mother's side of this one--the people could have been still inside the boat. When she despairingly described her efforts as looking like 'gingerbread men sitting down,' I sympathized, but our resident Shackleton expert had the final say.)

The shipwreck was Joan’s favorite part, using celery strings to tie the spaghetti masts and rice paper sail onto the carved chocolate hull.

Most fun of all? Watching the kids eat the books at the end of the contest.
Here are some of our favorite other fabulous entries.
Blueberries for Sal! Chocolate cake with rich fudge frosting.
Four and Twenty Blackbirds. No word on what kind of pie it is.
And, for the aaarghh factor, a Catcher in the Rye.
Note the yellow bit on the side, which is a part of the striped cover
of the Little, Brown paperback edition.
(Katya's note: This whole adventure was extremely inspiring to me, and I am hoping to make many future cakes based on my favourite books. Most of my favourite books spell 'favourite' that it any wonder I spell British? Taking all requests for children's book themed party favours.)

Cakes and Cakes!

Baking phases come and go in waves. Inspired by my decorating session with Kristen and Jill, and by the ever-rolling tide of birthdays that fill the spring and summer months in my families, I've been making a lot of cake.

I've also been thinking more about cake, in the sense of giving more thought to the creation of unusual or special taste/texture combinations, rather than just following someone else's recipe. It's easy to over-reach in this vein--most people are happiest with pound cake and whipped cream, or devil's food with fudge. While I'm more than happy to whip up whatever makes the birthday person happiest (my preferred birthday cake is, I'll remind you, biscuits with whipped cream and ample berries), a birthday is a good excuse to work up a new speciality, or a surprise.

When planning a cake, I usually begin with a few pointers from the intended recipient or their spokespeople (i.e. 'Joe loves everything chocolate, but hates nuts.' 'Jane was really excited about some custard she had last year in Italy.') Sometimes, though, people give me too much freedom, and my imagination takes some bold leaps. This year, I was asked to make a birthday cake for my cousin Sophie, to be served at a family reunion. When I asked about her preferences, I was informed that she was a 'good eater,' and liked everything, and that I shouldn't consult her since it could then be a surprise. While the phrase 'good eater' is more associated in my mind with two-year-olds and meat animals than with my lovely 25-year-old cousin, I took the point. The options were endless.

Chocolate and banana layers, with peanut butter cream cheese frosting.
My first idea was a riff on this ever-popular birthday cake, stolen from Smitten Kitchen and wildly popular among my friends (requested for 3 separate birthdays in 2012, if you're counting). Instead of chocolate cake with peanut butter cream cheese frosting and peanut butter chocolate ganache, I would alternate layers of chocolate and banana cake, and top it with the peanut butter cream cheese frosting. For the cake layers, I used Rose Levy Beranbaum's recipes for 'Miette's Tomboy' and banana cake, from Rose's Heavenly Cakes. For sanity's sake, I made six-inch cakes. The result (above) was great but a little on the tooth-achingly sweet side (my co-workers disagreed).

Using the remaining layers from the first cake, I made another. Same cakes, different buttercream. To add a little more austerity (heh) I made a caramel silk meringue buttercream. Not austere at all, actually, but the burnt sugar does cut the richness a bit.
This was an easier cake to work with, and more stable at warm temperatures than the cream cheese, but I did get some comments noting that the buttercream was overkill, and that a thin chocolate glaze might be more appropriate. However, this comment did come from someone who has frequently suggested that strawberry ice cream and/or pie would be better with chocolate, so the grain of salt was firmly in place.

It is true, though, that buttercream can be very very rich, and maybe it was all just shaping up to be a bit too much. I considered all-banana, with mango buttercream, but got some late-breaking news that banana might not be the birthday girl's favorite.

After toying with this for the better part of two weeks, I ultimately decided to simplify. For cake, I went all chocolate (double recipe of Miette's tomboy, baked in 8" pans, split into four layers). Late at night, I made the final choice: orange or strawberry buttercream? For a five year old's birthday party (or mine), I would have gone with strawberry, but I was assured by several sources that orange would be more elegant and more generally preferred. The final cake, pictured below after 25 puncture wounds, was chocolate with orange mousseline buttercream, orange curd, and pistachio cream (from a jar that has been taking up cupboard space--more on cleaning out the cupboard shortly).
Birthday cake for Sophie
Birthdays are one thing, but I also make cakes for no reason at all when I get in this mood, as witnesseth the following masterpiece--Almond Shamah Chiffon (also from Rose's Heavenly Cakes) cake with an apricot mousseline. This is a slightly moister chiffon cake made with almond flour. I think people were a little bit frightened by the lipstick redness of the buttercream, but the cake layers, moistened with a light soaking syrup, were perfectly textured.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Lessons with Kristen II: Petit Fours

Petit Fours (© Jill Frutkin)
 Some of my loyal followers (is anyone still reading this blog? hello? hello?) may be under the entirely mistaken impression that I'm a baking master. After all, I make a lot of cake. And it looks pretty nice on this blog.

I'll admit it, I have some skills, including making things that taste fabulous, and other things that obey the laws of chemistry, but there's one area that I haven't come close to mastering. This area, arguably the most important in pastry, is aesthetics. I make bundt cakes. I make pies, and my three layer cakes aren't a complete disaster, but when it comes to inspired and masterful presentation, most of the baking population of the world leaves me in the dust. Marzipan flowers and shining ribbons? Fondant animals? Elegant composition? Cakes that resemble anything other than cake? This is another world altogether.

The truth is that I'm not that aesthetically gifted in any area of my life. Framed pictures would lean against the wall forever if I were left to my own devices when I move. I can dress myself, but am baffled by daily fashion. I never plate anything.

The upside to this general visual vagueness on my part, though, is that I'm quick to appreciate and admire the efforts of others, to marvel at their superpowers, and, at least in pastry, to be happy to learn from them with minimal ego, and go about squishing out buttercream roses and marzipan flowers with abandon.

Of my many aesthetically gifted friends, there are one or two who share my particular brand of dorkiness*, and some of the most beautiful cakes I've seen in the last few years have come from the hands of Kristen. Like me, Kristen is more or less self-taught, although she decorated cakes professionally for a few years. She's a talented and in-demand actress, but in the quieter parts of her schedule has managed to become an exceptional baker and decorator. (Really, buy her cakes.)  Kristen's work goes beyond rote skill--she's imaginative (my downfall as a baker), and visually inspired by a wide range of beautiful things.  Still, because she's a perfectionist, she isn't satisfied with what she knows, she wants to make her cakes better and better. After talking cake at parties for a few years, we decided it was time to take our combined talents into the kitchen. Modestly, she called it a skillshare (I teach texture and taste, she teaches making stuff pretty), but I think I'm getting the best of the deal. Watching Kristen bake is a revelation--her fingers and her mind move so quickly.
A lovely evening: Ladies Bake  (© Jill Frutkin)
Also she's beautiful and funny and interested in stupid chemistry and makes killer grilled cheese.
Our first meeting went straight to the basics--buttercream roses and yellow cake. For our second, Kristen suggested petit fours. For flower painting and other general prettifying, we brought in Jill, who loves to mess with things and get sticky.

The evening was a much-needed respite from a long week, with Chambord Royale, glittery dust everywhere, and much weepy watching of NBC as a friend's block became the epicenter of a citywide manhunt (no more on this for now, if there's one thing I learned from the news media this week, it's that there's no shame in waiting a goddamned minute to share how you feel and what you know (or don't) about a complex and painful event. I did not learn this by example). In the process, we made some quite lovely little cakes.

Traditional petit fours seem to be some sort of genoise, cut into small squares, sometimes filled with jam or soaked in syrup, and then covered in some kind of frosting--marzipan, fondant, poured fondant. Kristen was interested in trying poured fondant, made from sugar, corn syrup, and water. This kind of icing is easy to make but somewhat difficult to work with, as it hardens VERY fast. For the base, we used this almond cake from Dorie Greenspan's Paris Sweets.

I was rushed and a little scattered in making the cake, so it probably came out a bit more dense than it could have, with a few tunnels, but anything that is mostly almond paste will never be bad. The real work of decorating was concentrated in the marzipan flower making. Using marzipan, food coloring, and some nifty little flower-punchers, we made little flowers, and then Jill painstakingly painted each flower with gold dust and popped dragees in for the centers. I learned how to pronounce dragee
The layout.  (© Jill Frutkin)
The finished products were a little haphazard, as we'd all had a bit of cava by that point, but perfectly lovely, no thanks to me. But now I know more things, and I can't wait to see what our next project will be. Meanwhile, my mother was on an entirely different edible art quest--details to come. I'll just say that it involved Shackleton, celery, gummi penguins, and, of course, Jell-O.

I can't say I'll ever be a perfectionist, but I am lucky to share the world people who care passionately, and make good art.

*Can't stop baking.