Monday, November 23, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Pecan Pumpkin Pie

I've never hosted a Thanksgiving dinner, and for the first 20 or so years of my life, I wasn't even present at the creation of one, arriving as a guest just in time for appetizers. Nonetheless, every November my general predilections combine with the larger media input to prompt an almost subconsciously motivated flood of sympathy cooking. My usual dinner is a quesadilla with a cucumber nearby, or a few handfuls of whatever is lying around, but suddenly and suspiciously I start roasting chickens and root vegetables, over-buying butter, and tripling my oven output. This makes Thanksgiving more of a seasonal eating fad than a single meal, but seems to work out for everyone involved. I like pumpkins, puddings, panades, and roasted things, and at least it means more variety in the fridge.

I've given up on the notion of ever truly cooking for one. Even when I can manage food that will feed only me, or at least be appealing over a week of leftovers, I simply can't manage shopping for one. Abundance is my natural state, and as long as it's abundance of reasonably cheap ingredients, the Yiddishe mama in me surrenders to it. Yesterday, I tried immersion therapy, buying two pounds of butter and a pile of dried fruits and telling myself that the day's only task was to stay in and bake whatever I wanted from the piles of books in the living room. I'm particularly taken with The Violet Bakery Cookbook, by Claire Ptak, this month, and will be messing about with it some more soon.

On the list, though not at the top, was this week's Alpha Bake, Rose's Pecan Pumpkin pie. Essentially two fillings baked on top of one another in the same crust, a classic pumpkin pie on top of a classic pecan pie. Not entirely necessary, but why not? This week I played it straight, making the recipe more or less as written. Rose's flaky cream cheese pie crust, rolled out with a heavy lip to prevent early shrinkage (no par-baking in this one). The pecan filling is a simple treacle-y custard, made with corn syrup as I couldn't find the golden syrup that I thought was in my cabinet. It's probably in there somewhere. After that, a classic pumpkin filling is layered on top. I used an organic pumpkin puree, frozen and drained, mixed with some not very flavorful but nicely textured cubes of roasted cheese pumpkin. I baked the pie for a few minutes over the recommended baking time, which I worried was going to be too much for the pumpkin custard, but I really wanted to see some browning on the bottom crust. What's the point of a bottom crust if it's just going to be a layer of cardboard wax?

In the event, the pecan underlayer lent moisture to the pumpkin and there was no harm done, although it was a bit firmer than I might have cooked a plain pumpkin pie. The one co-worker who has tried it so far ate a slice very quickly and announced 'That was great!' Hopefully he and everybody else will take some home, as my freezer is filling up and I have tomorrow off as well...
although I'm already out of butter.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Alpha Bakers - Walnut Praline Cookies

Last week, I made only half of the recommended recipe. This week, I went in the other direction. These praline cookies start with the making of a toasted nut praline, which is then ground to a paste in the food processor. The recipe nut of choice was hazelnut, but I used some walnuts that I had, which are a bit oilier.
Knowing this, I left out the tablespoon of oil called for in the final mix, but missed the instruction to use less than half of the praline paste in the cookies. 

When I realized my mistake, I doubled the amount of the dry ingredients, but that still left me with a very wet mix, that, as can be seen below, leaked oil and butter.
There were no pictures of these cookies in the book, so I don't know how far off the mark mine turned out.They were nice enough, dark and bitter (the walnuts), and leaving a large lacy crust behind. I gave some to my upstairs neighbors, who recently helped me track down a mystery package, and froze the crumbs and the last few crumbly cookies to use as a crumb layer in some future cake or trifle. I'm looking forward to seeing what the cookies look like made properly by the other Alpha Bakers. I didn't have it in me to make them again, so it's all a mystery to me. 
I did make a truly lovely quince frangipane tart out of the Tartine cookbook. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Sugar Rose Brioche

The Sugar Rose Brioche, much like a Krantz Cake, is one of those fun baking jobs that delivers overtime in return for a small twist. Just by cutting a roll in half, an already impressive brioche becomes an impressive presentation.  To make this little masterpiece, all you need is some regular brioche dough. I used butter that was too cold in mine, so there were some bigger pieces left as it proved, but because it's folded a few times they smoothed out in the end with no trouble.

The only instruction I flubbed was the one to make a double recipe of the dough. Just as well, as I already had to dip into my stock of fancy expensive spreading butter to make one recipe. Too much pie dough happening. Curse you, Great British Baking Show (and WHY can I only access a season and a half when I KNOW there have been six????). All turned out well, though, I just scaled down, and baked it in a 7"x3" cake pan with a removable bottom and cut the baking time by about 10 minutes. Due to my recent bulk order of Baker's Joy, nothing stuck in the least. I went through the whole bake slowly, over 36 hours, and the loaf's small size allowed me to prove and bake thoroughly, while pitying some of those poor British bakers who had doughy centers.

The final result was lovely, with a light and mostly even crumb. Now I'm feeling a bit smug, so I'm sure I'm due a downfall.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Alpha Bakers - Marble in Reverse

Costumes are the greatest. If someone would just make me a costume every morning and lay it out for me, I would never stop cosplaying. I love dressing up, especially if someone else does the hard part. When it goes well, I love Halloween, especially because I also love candy and running around outside at night. This year, most of the running around was done during the day, but I did get the chance to see some suburban costume action (first prize to the 10 year old girl who went all in as a toilet). 

The sugary part of the night was embodied in a ridiculous birthday cake that I made for my dear friend, the second in a yearly series of cakes based on Herrell's Ice Cream flavors. Last year I made 'Cafe L'Orange' in fluffy sponge and coffee mousseline. 

This year, the flavor inspiration was Malted Chocolate & Vanilla. The final product was an unfrosted beauty alternating layers of banana cake and chocolate chip malt cake with layers of chocolate malted Bavarian cream, malted whipped cream and Whoppers. 
After all that cake-making, I didn't think I had enough chocolate left to make the reverse marble bundt that was this week's Alpha Baker project, but I plundered the leftover Halloween candy (news flash: orange KitKats are great) and made my marble out of fun size Hershey bars instead of the the dark chocolate called for. I threw in the towel when it came to making the ganache topping, though. Enough is enough. 

The cake came out beautifully, with a very light texture. I sent a picture to a friend, who exclaimed that it looked 'delicious and also a bit like a butt.' 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Alpha Bakers - Cookie Strudel

Thanks to my new obsession, The Great British Baking Show, I've really been wanting to step up my game. Home baking is home baking, and I usually am just fine with letting my work look sloppy and skipping the chocolate shapes, but the level of inventiveness and simple excellence the contestants display is working on me. So of course, when I went to make some simple cookie strudel, it stayed true to my true nature and tasted great but looked a mess. 

True strudel is a paperlike multi-layered dough, preferably eaten at the Hungarian Pastry Shop opposite the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, but this here cookie strudel is something closer in nature to rugelach. The dough is delicate, though, and very buttery, so it does get a convincing flake on. It's a simple mixture -- flour and salt with butter and sour cream (in this case bulgarian full-fat yogurt, with some water drained out). 
The dough is chilled, rolled out, and rolled up with jam (Wild Plum Jelly, in point of fact), nuts (pistachio and flaked almond), and currants. We were then instructed to make some small slits for steam to escape.

Pretty sure I made mine too large. 
All the same, the general premise was very successful and the final cookie strudel was significantly delicious. I definitely had at least three large pieces.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Alpha Bakers - Club Med White Chocolate Bread

I've never been to Club Med, and in the aftermath of the paleo and low-carb crazes, I'm startled to learn that they still are known for handing out loaves of...bread to guests. Still, since I'm never going to go to Club Med nor demonize carbohydrates, I was happy to bake Rose's version of the Club Med, a slightly lighter and more bread-like version, a variant on her cinnamon toast bread. Since it's one of those recipe variants that is actually just the same recipe with a different filling, I was tempted by the original and some golden raisins found their way in to my white chocolate bread.

The recipe is fairly simple--overnight sponge rise, butter incorporation (it's a light brioche), rest, rise, shape, rise, bake. Rose suggests wrapping the rolled and shaped loaf in a little skin of dough so that it looks like non-white-chocolate bread on the outside and then all the little pockets of goo are a surprise. As you can see from that twisted and misshapen shot above, mine did some escaping from its respectability blanket, resulting in delicious caramelized bits of white chocolate. 
As you can see from the slice shots, though, the general shape and character and crumb were flawless. I stuffed these hastily cut slices into my bag, slammed the rest into the freezer, and took off on an 8 hour train and van journey to Lake Placid, NY. I had packed many snacks for the train, but none of them savory, so after 8 hours of white chocolate bread, yogurt raisins, and apples, I was losing my mind. Definitely buying sandwiches or just straight jerky for the ride home. 

The bread was delicious--light crumb, gooey bits, raisins... It will, as advertised, make a great toast bread and possibly a good bread pudding.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Alpha Bakers - Fudgy Pudgy Brownie Tart

I spend my days with toddlers, but I've never been a fan of cute for cutesy's sake, and so it must be registered that I object to the name of this confection. From this time forward, in order to allow me to continue typing, it will be referred to as simply the Brownie Tart.
With this one, what you see is pretty much what you get--a gooey brownie (unsweetened chocolate, dark chocolate (I ran out of unsweetened), white chocolate, cocoa, and cacao nibs) in a chocolate pate sucre (cookie) crust. Overkill, in my opinion, but much appreciated at work. I think that one of the nicest things about a brownie is that you get a lot of bang for very little work, and you don't have to make a fancy multi-step crust. If you're going to make tart crust (not that it's hard, but still), why not put something tart-specific, like lemon curd or raspberries and pastry cream, in it? Still, who am I to deny the chocolate fiends their fix?
A few notes on the process: As mentioned above, I ran out of unsweetened chocolate so I subbed in a bit of dark chocolate, which I'm sure sweetened the pot but not disastrously. Instead of the suggested walnuts, I used a generous handful of cacao nibs. Like many brownies, I baked it to the gooey side of fully cooked, and was happy with that choice.
As you can see, the light in my kitchen and the light in my breakroom are worlds apart, but I include the reddish photo in order to brag about my new gigantic stove! Center burner!