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."

Monday, December 29, 2014

Alpha Bakers -- Frozen Pecan Tart

I don't do pecan pies. I just do not. Despite my love of caramel and nuts and pie crust, pecan pie is one of those things that people are yes or no on, and I am no. Why exactly? Can't say. But I don't make them and I don't eat them. There are so many good pies out there, why play around? Also, pecans are expensive.

It's just too early to bail on a bake-through now, though, so I made that Frozen Pecan Tart and now it is frozen and it is awaiting the first day of the new year, when it will be consumed with (presumptive) joy by the assembled crowd at my house. Here's how it went.

The crust: a food processor cookie-style dough, with turbinado sugar (I used raw). The dough was easy to work with, so easy that I didn't go through the elaborate pan-lining strategy outlined by the book, but just lined my tart pan as I always do, and was very satisfied with the results, especially the lack of puffing up in the par-baking. This may be my new go-to tart crust for sweet tarts. I'll probably stick with Dorie Greenspan's savory tart crust, but they're not that different.

The filling is a quick custard with egg yolks, sugar, butter, and golden syrup. I was glad to strain it because there were definitely a few egg bits, but the final product came out delicious. Can't I just eat that with a spoon and skip the whole dreaded pecan pie thing? Whatever.
My pecans were on the small side, so they didn't line up into the prettiest patterns, but otherwise the bake was uneventful. My only quarrel was with the instruction to un-mold the tart then slip it into a freezer bag once cooled. I had left the bottom round on instead of switching to a serving plate, and was glad I did, because the outer crust was too fragile to bag unsupported, and started crumbling off right away as I tried to get it in (cook's treat). I re-molded the tart into the tart ring and froze it that way. If I need the tart ring before we eat it it will come off easily, and the tart will be much sturdier now that it is frozen.

No comments on taste at this time, will update once we sample it on New Year's Day. 
UPDATE: The tart sliced beautifully, as promised. The filling had more stability to it than I expected, though, and remained reasonably firm even at a warm room temperature, rather than becoming a mess of goo, making it a perfect party dessert.

The pecan pie aficionados were loud in this tart's praise. 'Special,' 'good texture,' and 'delicious' were bandied about, and in general it was popular. I tasted it for authenticity's sake, and while I didn't love it, I think if the filling had been taken to a slightly deeper caramel stage and made into chewy caramels, I would have. Perhaps my pecan pie issue is more of a texture issue, in the end. It was a complete success of its kind.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Alpha Bakers - Almond Coffee Crisps

Happy Chanukah. One little Tomie DePaola board book behind the library reference desk, one hundred confused middle schoolers: "Ms. Katya, I thought it was 'HAN-u-kah', not 'CHA-nu-kah." Many lessons in proper Hebrew pronunciation handed out for free. Although one sullen child informed me that 'no one cares about candles' (let's see how happy she is when her next birthday cake is dark), I have reliable intelligence that frying things and lighting little lights is still more or less popular (although I'm definitely not eating cold leftover latkes while writing this post).
Not to say that there isn't still confusion in some quarters. No, seriously, I love this guy. He's so earnest.

The most recent batch of Rose cookies are actually throwbacks, made on a lazy Sunday afternoon over a month ago, one of the first recipes that I actually made from the book after it came in the mail. Like most Rose cookies, they're a paragon of share-able, slightly surprising, cookie-plate appropriate bits.
Some of the Alpha Bakers had issues with this recipe, but it was uneventful for me, at least in memory. A quick food processor dough with almonds and butter, a brief refrigeration, and a quick bake. Success in this case was largely a matter of not getting in the way of the cookie. And it was a good return on a fairly low investment--the last minute brush with espresso upped the game, and I will definitely be making these again. And if that baby from the last post looked a little excited that cookies were being made, blame this batch. She really, really...really liked them.

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.