Sunday, November 26, 2006

Blueberry-Buttermilk Bundt Cake

I have three things I want to say related to my recent Blueberry-Buttermilk Bundt Cake.

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

Upside-down Pear Gingerbread

Time for a change. Ray thinks the last few cakes have all fallen into the same category: some sort of spice cake/pumpkin cake with cream cheese frosting. For him, they were all blending together.

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

Golden Pumpkin and Apricot Layer Cake

This cake first appeared in the 1994 Bon Appetit Thanksgiving issue. I remember looking at it at that time, thinking it looked yummy. I may have made it at some point in the months following its appearance. But, sadly, I don’t know for sure.

A little history, a little digression…
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

Karen's Birthday Cakes

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

Wacky Cake

Wacky cake is one of the more delightful discoveries of this fall’s cake baking efforts. I had long seen it in one of my favorite cookbooks (one of the vegetarian cookbooks by Jeanne Lemlin). I always glanced at it, with mild curiosity, but never before managed to take it on as a project.

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

some backstory

Lately, I am obsessed with food (more than usual even), baking especially, but, food and cooking in general. I’ve been reading about food. Recent specifics include: an article in the New Yorker about public school lunches in Oakland, and one woman’s efforts to improve them (it’s in the Education issue, which I cannot currently find, so I can’t give the date and title details). Also in the New Yorker, an article about the Food Network (10/2/06, by Bill Buford “Notes of a Gastronome: TV Dinners”): its popularity, but also its lack of attention to real cooking; the rise of the TV food personality, rather than the genuine chef; the difference between Julia Child, the first ever on-air chef, really, and Rachael Ray, who is full of “trademark” expressions (“yum-o”) and cute shortcuts to fast meals, so you can avoid any real cooking.

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.