Sunday, December 31, 2006
There’s the gingerbread cake (see below).
Now, I bring you gingerbread mini-bundts drenched in yummy chocolate frosting (ganache, I think they call it).
I have to be honest, the idea to do this chocolate-covered gingerbread cake in mini-bundts was not mine. I was reading the reviews for this cake, and someone mentioned that they did it in mini-bundts (rather than the pretty boring 8x8 that the recipe calls for). Still pretty excited about that new mini-bundt pan, I decided to follow.
I finished these up while Ray and Alden and David and Samantha had gone sledding. Everyone was supposed to come back here afterwards, for tea and cake. But, somehow the communication got messed up, and Alden ended up over with David and Karen and Samantha, and Ray and I ended up home alone with the cake (well, we had Milo too of course, but he’s not allowed much in the way of cake yet.) Ray and I felt pretty guilty, what with us having lots of cake and no kids (and not even any friends to eat cake with), and we kept calling David and Karen to try to fix the situation, but, alas, their line continued to be busy.
We held out for a long time, hoping to make contact with David and Karen, but eventually gave up and decided we needed to try the cakes with our tea. They were a total hit. Ray did his “you’ve really done something wonderful here, Clarissa” response (which is always fun, especially following on the heels of “weird cake, honey…”).
Finally, after enjoying our chocolate gingerbread mini-bundt (but continuing to feel suitably guilty, of course), we packed up – Milo in the backpack (it is very snowy out still), Ray carrying two “forgive us for indulging without you mini-bundts” – and headed over to East Fir Court to see our friends, retrieve our older child, and proffer the gift of cute cake.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
One of the defining features of gingerbread layer cake with cream cheese frosting and candied pistachios is that it calls for STOUT (beer, that is…).
Intriguing, eh? Karen was pretty excited when I told her about the stout. And, let me tell you, the stout made for a pretty exciting cake-making experience.
One of the first things that you are supposed to do in this recipe is combine the beer and molasses (to be precise, this is what the recipe says: “Bring stout and molasses to boil in heavy medium saucepan over high heat. Remove from heat; stir in baking soda.”). Well, I heated the molasses and stout as directed, then took it off the burner and added the baking soda – again, as directed. I want to be very clear here that I was following the directions exactly as they were written (see prior entry on bundt cakes and the icing of…).
When I did this, I got the most intense chemical explosion/reaction. Totally out of control. I had even read most of the reviews for this cake, but not one mentioned this type of result, so, I guess I have to accept that it is just me, though I’m really not sure what that even means here.
I waited the requisite hour the directions advised (to let the frothing volcano cool, I suppose), and then decided to measure what I had left. I was worried that I might have lost a significant amount of liquid, and that this would negatively affect my proportions of wet to dry ingredients and that the cake in the end might be compromised. I guessed that if all had gone well, I should have had about 2 cups liquid (from the 1 cup of molasses and the 1 cup of beer); in fact, I had about 1¾ cups liquid. So, I tossed in a bit more of the remaining stout, to get my liquids up to nearly 2 cups (I didn’t add up to the full two cups, worrying that might be too much (I mean, hell, maybe this whole explosion piece and subsequent liquid loss was part of the plan, and they just forgot to mention it in the recipe), I was also nervous about adding too much beer, since I was now adding raw beer, so to speak, and who knew what that might do to the cake.
After that, things proceeded more smoothly, and I managed to get the whole thing mixed up and in the oven without further incident.
I got the cake put together and transported over to Nancy’s house (remember, kids and craft project over at Nancy’s house). Reviews on the actual cake were mixed. Ray was cagey, and said something slightly ominous like “weird cake.” Karen and Alden both seemed to like it (I need to add, at this point, that this is another of those cream cheese frosting cakes – and that tends to guarantee that Alden will like it, at least the frosting part). Not sure about the others.
I think Josh was my biggest fan for this one, really. He came home one night (he was in town visiting his sister; so he’d hang out with her during the day and early evening and then arrive back at our house in time for a little late night dessert.) One night he came back and, as we were talking, I noticed him glancing around the kitchen, beginning to look a little worried. Finally he said, “so, I guess the cake is all gone…” Lucky for him, it wasn’t; we had only put it away in the cupboard to clear the counter. Josh was just delighted and happily polished off a few pieces.
One final note: the candied pistachios that decorate the top of the cake were absolutely delicious (though they really only stay crunchy the first day…).
One more final note: I started writing this entry a few days ago. Now, we’ve opened the craft project present I referred to at the beginning, a lovely Christmas elf, pictured below. Thanks, Nancy, for doing such a nice thing with the kids.
Sunday, December 24, 2006
At this time of year, cookies are what we do (though I'll make a gingerbread cake tomorrow, and a new post on the other gingerbread cake I recently made is imminent). In the meantime, I thought those of you who are actually checking might like to see what's coming out of my kitchen.
We love Christmas cookies.
Merry Christmas to all.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
In the midst of the recent run of bundt cakes, I made a brief return to the upside down cake concept. I ended up using a recipe from Martha Stewart, of all people, Cranberry Upside-Down Cake. I adapted it a bit, which, for those of you who know me, is sort of a revolutionary move. I follow recipes. I do NOT improvise or make up my own approaches. I am not a creative person (well, there has been some discussion about that this fall. A few other people seem to think I actually am a bit creative, but I have always feared and thought that I am not.) If there are some rules, there must be a reason, and I’m not going to question. This is not a feature of my personality that Ray thinks is all that great. In his view, if you are not asking questions and breaking rules, then you really aren’t doing your job.
I added more butter – and actually melted it – to the butter sugar mix that goes on the bottom of the baking pan (and then in the end becomes the topping). See Martha’s instructions for the different approach she recommends (and prior entry on upside down cake to see the past experience I was working from). I’m not really sure what difference it made. The topping still stuck – to the bottom – a bit, though because it was cranberries, you could sort of mush the stuck bits back into the intact topping and not have it look too suspicious.
My students had been asking me to bake for them. They keep hearing about my baking, and were getting a little jealous. So, this cake was for them. Because I was teaching, and sort of preoccupied with all that that entails, I did have a piece, but couldn’t really get a good sense of it. Then, by the time I was able to really eat and focus at the same time, the cake was a day old. I think I may have to try this one again at some point.
As for Thanksgiving, while we actually MADE NO CAKES (can I really commit time and space on the “cake blog” to non-cake activity?…), in my opinion, we cannot let a holiday with such profound implications for food preparation in general go by without at least a brief mention. We had Ray’s brothers and dad here and, for Ray at least, Thanksgiving is all about PIE. So that is what we did.
I always do an apple pie. I always do the same apple pie (at some level, again, this speaks to the rule follower in me, right?), Spiced Apple Pie. My sister makes a five-spice apple pie that she prefers. I tried it once and thought it was yucky. Let me clarify here. I made it, and then tried it and rejected it as inferior to my apple pie recipe. I am NOT saying that I thought a pie my sister made was yucky. I would never say such a thing. I suspect that she is, in fact, a better pie maker than me. Anyway, in the interest of a more democratic approach to apple pie making (a classic American tradition, I suppose, just like democracy), I thought I should include both recipes here. (Actually, I just love the fact that you can embed links to other sites/recipes in your text.)
I also always make a pumpkin pie, with this year’s version being orange and spice pumpkin pie. Alden has decided to be an enthusiastic pumpkin pie eater, something that increases my enthusiasm for making pumpkin pie. Remember, I’m not just a lame pie maker, I am also a lame pie eater. I therefore have moments of not being that excited about pie-making. But, having Alden’s appreciation, as well as Ray’s, makes it that much more worthwhile.
Sunday, December 03, 2006
I decided I needed mini-bundt pans. They just seem so cute, and Nigella has a recipe called Baby Bundts in “Domestic Goddess.” Ray kindly ordered me a mini-bundt pan from Target (sadly, unlike the Ziggy Marley CD, we did not end up with three of them. Due to some sort of a Target error, we ended up with 3 copies of the new Ziggy Marley CD. Every few days, when I went to the mailbox, there would be another one. At first I accused Ray of rampant over-clicking while ordering the CD. But, a little research on our part and an eventual explanatory email from Target indicated otherwise.) After ordering the bundt pan, he joked that maybe we’d end up with three of these as well. Would have been fun, but would also have presented a bit of a storage problem.
They arrived on Monday afternoon (They? It? One pan, 6 bundt molds. Singular or plural here? I'm not sure...). My father-in-law was still here, and I had Samantha and Alden for the afternoon, so I decided a little baking project was in order, just to christen the pans and make us something nice for tea.
Pretty easy to make, even when you are trying to share the task with two 6/7 year olds. Into the oven, good smells wafting out, and half an hour or so later, out they come, 6 very cute little bundt cakes. And, indeed, they did come out perfectly easily, tumbling nicely all over the counter when I turned the pan upside down (in this case, I simply sprayed with Pam).
The real problem comes with the glaze. Nigella gives a very simple glaze recipe, confectioners sugar (1 1/3 cups) and the juice of one lemon. Her recipe has an accompanying picture (it really was the picture that originally sold me on this whole thing, they are so damn cute). She describes the final product as looking like “snow-capped peaks.” Now that I am re-reading her instructions, and reading more carefully, I see that she says “add enough lemon juice to make the icing thick enough to ice the tops and drizzle down like snow-capped peaks.” (italics mine...) I used the juice of one half of a lemon. A really large lemon. She must be buying much smaller lemons than I am. After putting some juice in, I then added more, b/c I thought the stuff tasted a little too confectioners sugary. My mistake (in retrospect). My icing soaked into the cakes completely, leaving just the palest of sheens. No snow-capped peaks here. Alas.
I wanted to blame Nigella, but now I see that I really do have to accept some of the responsibility; I didn’t pay quite close enough attention to the instructions. The cakes still got consumed in very short order. But, I wanted the same effect her picture had. This whole mini-bundt cake thing warrants further exploration and experimentation.
Glaze turns out to be an issue. How to get it the right consistency; how to get it NOT to just slide off completely and puddle in the hole in the middle of the cake or pool around the edges; how to get it to look like there is some frosting, etc. While I feel like I might actually be gaining some skill with my general bundt cake making – that is, my cakes are coming out of the pan in one piece (pretty much), my finishing touches still leave something to be desired. Any advice from readers welcomed and appreciated.
The other recent bundt cake was Sour Cream Maple Cake with Lemon Glaze. I made this for a work-related potluck evening meeting. Pretty basic cake, butter, sugar (actually, maple sugar crystals, not regular sugar; see final paragraph below, for more on this), wet, dry, the usual. This cake also had a glaze, and this one tasted better (check out all the ingredients that go into it – link to recipe above), and stuck slightly better. But still, a fair amount of it seems to drip down the sides.
Most notable thing about this cake: it was a “better the second day” cake. It was okay the first night. But, I was not completely taken with it. Thought it was fine, but not remarkable. Next day, when I started chipping away at what was leftover, I decided it was absolutely yummy; Ray and I kept eating, and eating, and eating. Luckily, Alden had had some for breakfast in the morning, and had deemed it not worthy, because it had nuts in it. So, Ray and I pretty happily polished it off ourselves.
I have to say, though, for those of you who may be reading with an eye towards recommendations. I'm not sure I'd fully recommend this one. Quite pricey to make, between the butter, the sour cream, and, most significantly, the maple sugar crystals, which are a bit of a specialty item, and cost accordingly. Also, while I did not think it was hard to make, it is one of those cakes with a lot of parts, lots of separate bowls with sub-mixes, which ultimately get mixed together. So, while I would not consider it a particularly hard cake to make, it might fall into the high-impact category, and therefore not be such a great choice, in some respects.
Sunday, November 26, 2006
First, bundt cake. I’ve been wanting to do a bundt cake for a while. But my bundt pan has been making me nervous. The last few times I have used it, big chunks of cake have stuck to the pan, and the resulting cake, while perfectly tasty (generally), just does not look that great. I bought a new pan in an effort to address this problem. Still, I was nervous, fearing that it might be me, not the pan, and that I would have yet another disaster.
Besides buying a new bundt pan, I did a few other things to try to ensure success. Rather than using Pam/spray, I used butter to grease the pan. I also buttered the pan so incredibly thoroughly I was pretty much up to my elbows in butter by the time I was through. Getting into all those grooves is not all that easy, but I really worked at it and made sure that every inch of surface was liberally covered.
When the moment of truth came, I placed a plate on top of the cake pan, and carefully turned it all over. Thwump. What a great sound, the sound of my cake solidly and easily falling out of the pan and smack onto the plate. Absolutely perfect.
Thing #2 – Blueberries. One of the appeals of this particular recipe was that the blurb mentioned using frozen blueberries (i.e., that these worked well with this cake). I’m worried that Cascadian Farms - my usual frozen blueberry supplier - is huge, and potentially just like corporate mainstream food. There is no rational reason for this, but I’m subscribing to the idea that local is better, that smaller is better, and that the big organic companies have some of the same issues as regular big agriculture. So I decided to experiment with a different brand, not one I recognize. Because I’m not familiar with the brand, I’m hypothesizing that they are a smaller outfit, and therefore possibly better in some way I can’t quite describe. I recognize that my thinking here is not particularly sound.
Anyway… when I opened the bag of blueberries to pour them into the cake batter, I was SHOCKED to discover that they were HUGE. I was completely taken aback, and I have to say, quite horrified. This was not what I was expecting at all. Being from Maine, what I am looking for in my blueberries is small small small. But, at this point, there was nothing to be done for it. The batter was ready, the pan was greased, and the oven was preheated. So, in with the blueberries. Did I mention that they were grotesque? Bigger than marbles, really.
Not surprisingly, the blueberries were still huge when the cake came out of the oven and the pan (the baking process can seem so magical sometimes; yet, sadly, this does not extend to the point of shrinking obscenely large blueberries to a more appropriate size). Regardless, the cake both looked good and tasted good (in my view – we’ll see what others have to say), and Alden pointed out that no one else would guess that I had made a mistake with the blueberries.
The third significant thing: Milo got to eat some of this cake. This was his first cake experience. Rather than actual bites of cake, I mostly gave him the (grotesque) blueberries, with just a few small bits of cake clinging to them. As always, he was pretty busy, moving all around and checking everything out, but in between all that activity, he seemed to like the cake. That’s my kid. [note: Milo is just eating here, not actually eating the blueberry cake...]
Sunday, November 19, 2006
I love the upside-down cake concept. So far though, my forays into it have been limited to the routine pineapple upside-down cake. Upside-down Pear Gingerbread is another Jeanne Lemlin recipe. It has always sounded a little weird to me, as I leaf past it, looking for some dessert to catch my eye. This time, however, I finally stopped, read the recipe more carefully, and decided to go for it. When you are trying to make more cakes, you just have to throw caution to the wind occasionally, and make some cakes you might otherwise turn your nose up at or skip right past.
Seemingly complicated: building the cake from the top up (top down?), the careful slicing and placing of the fruit on the bottom of the cake pan, holding your breath and waiting to see if the inversion event will actually work out, upside down cake is in fact pretty easy.
Okay, placing the fruit on the bottom is easy if you are just pulling pineapple slices out of a can… in this case, I actually had to slice the pears myself and then decoratively arrange them. In truth, the hardest part for me was finding pears that are just the right ripeness, and that would also hopefully taste okay. Those of you who know me well know that I absolutely suck at picking good fruit and generally have a very low sense of self worth in this department. Lucky for me, Karen said she had some perfect pears, and so I used hers rather than the ones I had made Ray get for me at Vitamin Cottage. Thank you, Karen.
I set out to make this a short entry, as I am several cakes (entries) behind at this point, and figured I needed to get this up, so I can get on to posting the next cake (already made and eaten) before I make a new one (which could happen at any time). But, already, we’re several paragraphs in, and I haven’t even talked about the finished product.
I thought this cake was beautiful. I’ll let Ray tell you what he thought…. I also thought it tasted great. Moist, tasty gingerbread. Can we consider gingerbread to be cake? Then, topping the lovely gingerbread were the now soft and buttery sugary soaked pears, embedded in slightly caramelized and sometimes crispy buttery sugary bits. Alden wanted nothing to do with the pears, but the cake still got a favorable review from him. We served it with fresh, lightly sweetened whipped cream.
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Because the cake in question appeared in the November issue of Bon Appetit, I began trying to recall just exactly how we celebrated Thanksgiving that year. Anne was on sabbatical, and spending the year in England. My best guess is that we went over to Blue Hill, and had Thanksgiving dinner with Grandma, who loved hosting us at Parker Ridge. 1994 was the year that Ray moved from Las Vegas to Maine, to live with me. We set up house in Southwest Harbor; me, teaching at MDIHS, Ray, tinkering around, and eventually building a boat in our basement during that first winter that we lived together.
When I was envisioning my next cake, golden pumpkin and apricot layer cake was the one I was vaguely remembering and looking for.
As for the occasion: my colleague Jennie was hosting a party for our department (Instruction and Curriculum in the Content areas), part of ongoing efforts to build a little more community and develop some collegiality. This seemed like a good event for the cake I had in mind.
Not a totally easy cake. Not so much difficult, just a bit time consuming, particularly the apricot puree. You need to make it in advance, it requires some cooking, then cooling, then pureeing in the food processor. Other than that, it is a pretty typical cake: beat butter and sugar; mix dry ingredients together; mix wet ingredients together; alternate adding wet and dry ingredients to the butter sugar mess. Glop in pans and cook. Voila, cake.
Probably one of the most noteworthy pieces of this cake effort was Anjali’s response to it. Anjali is the 2+ year old daughter of my colleague Shailaja. For most of the evening, she was quite quiet, hovering near her mom and just watching the room around her. When the cake was served, Shailaja was involved in conversation somewhere else in the room, and Anjali came over and began intently watching me eat my cake. She looked so interested that I checked with Shailaja and then offered her a bite. Anjali indicated that indeed, a little bite of cake was just what she wanted, so I fed her the tiniest bite, off the end of my finger. She continued to look expectantly at me. I gave her another bite. And another, and another and another. Before I knew it, my cake was pretty much gone. The wonderful thing about this (as both the maker of the cake and more generally a mom of small children) is the fact that Anjali is considered to be a completely fussy eater, or non-eater, really. Apparently, she eats practically nothing (and is indeed very small for her age). So, imagine my delight when I found myself faced with this tiny, serious-faced child, opening her mouth again and again to be fed more and more of MY cake!
Monday, November 13, 2006
The last two years, I have been lucky enough to make my neighbor friend Karen’s birthday cake. As long as her husband David is in the midst of writing his dissertation, I think I am safe, and will get to continue baking her birthday cakes (a privilege I enjoy; I figure I need all the excuses I can find to make cakes, otherwise I just look like a glutton making cake after cake after cake). But, I’m slightly concerned that once David finishes his “book report” as he currently calls it, and finds himself with a bit more time on his hands, he might want to take over and make the birthday cake himself.
What Karen requested last year was chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. I am pretty sure that I used my old favorite chocolate cake recipe (one that includes eggs… see Wacky Cake entry below). It is one that I feel pretty confident about and while it is not as easy as Wacky Cake, it really is a snap to make and seems pretty foolproof. As for the chocolate frosting, therein lies the problem. I have never, ever, ever managed to find a chocolate frosting that I am happy with. I don’t know for sure what frosting recipe I used for her cake last year, but I do know that I did not walk away from the experience feeling like I had solved my chocolate frosting problem.
This year, Karen asked for yellow cake with chocolate frosting. I used a basic yellow cake recipe, which I think came out okay. As for the frosting…. in retrospect, I am pretty sure that I used the same recipe from last year. Jeez, I can’t believe I did that, but, I guess a year is a pretty long time. Once again, I did not think it was all that great and, to make matters worse, I continue to be left without a decent chocolate frosting recipe.
In spite of my criticisms, the cake was enjoyed by Karen and Samantha, Alden, Ray and me, and also my father in law John and his traveling companion Bill, who were stopped over at our house on their way from 31 Mile Lake (Quebec) to Utah/Nevada.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
For some reason, I finally decided to try it. I was instantly taken by the whole process, as well as the end product. Wacky cake is so called for a few reasons. It uses no eggs, making it an atypical cake, I suppose. For a household like ours, which at times goes through eggs like there’s no tomorrow, a cake that you can make with no eggs is a good thing to have as part of you dessert repertoire. Wacky cake is also wacky because of the way it is made – and this is the really cool part: you mix it in the pan you are going to bake it in (and also subsequently eat it out of). A simple 8 by 8 glass Pyrex dish. You put all the dry ingredients in (and again, here is a cool part – the ingredients are ones I pretty much always have on hand – sugar, flour, cocoa, etc), mix them thoroughly – but gently, and then pour the wet ingredients on (again, stock stuff – water, vinegar, oil), mix again, and bake.
Very simple, honest.
The only thing is, you do need to start in advance enough for the cake to cool sufficiently so that you can then frost it and, again, leave time for the frosting to set up a bit. If you start too late, the cake will be lovely and warm when your dinner is done, but you won’t have been able to frost it, and, who wants to eat cake without frosting?
You leave the wacky cake in its 8 by 8 pan, cut pieces out, and serve them up with glasses of nice cold milk. Alden and Samantha love wacky cake.
For me, the thing about wacky cake is not its wackiness, but its texture. In a world in which dry, crumbly, not very nice chocolate cakes abound, wacky cake is remarkably moist and lovely. It is oddly light and rich at the same time (ill-making if you overindulge, in spite of its apparent lightness). It is nothing like a good brownie which, while moist, is also dense and chewy. Nor is it like cake, often crumbly and even if done well, probably verging on dry. In the end, it's the texture that is the magical thing about it.
Thursday, November 09, 2006
On a more depressing note, I also recently read, and enjoyed, Chew On This, the kids’ version of Fast Food Nation [classic Clarissa – reading the young adult version, so to speak]. Ray says I probably wouldn’t have been able to handle the rather more disgusting and disturbing Fast Food Nation. I’m not exactly sure how the two differ, or how much they differ. Chew on This tries to get at advertising and the ways in which the fast food industry tries to draw kids in and appeal to them on several levels, as well as addressing some of the health aspects of fast food and the problems with the production of the meat that becomes the food.
So, where does “make more cakes” come from?
My cake baking efforts began sometime last spring, and since then, there has been a little piece of paper on my fridge that reads “make more cakes”. I think it grew out of repeated readings of Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. Flora’s famous zucchini cake may have been the first. That cake and several others are from a similar “basic recipe” and once I had tried one, I felt compelled to try several others. So, I followed the zucchini cake with Boston Cream pie (don’t be fooled, it really is a cake), and Butterscotch layer cake. Somewhere along the line there, I even went out and bought two 8 inch cake pans, which is what she calls for for these cakes. Non-standard, it seems to me, as most recipes call for 9 inch pans.
Other cakes in between I’m having trouble remembering, but there have certainly been a few. Most recent was a sour cream spice cake, with sour cream frosting. Well-received by those who got to try it. My assessment was slightly less glowing. I thought it was a bit dry, though one of the prettier cakes I have made in a while. It was perfectly decent, just not knock your socks off.