Sunday, December 31, 2006

Cross-genre baking

There’s the bundt cake. Mini-bundts, to be precise (see below).

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

Josh and the Gingerbread

My wonderful friend from college, Josh, came to visit. That in itself was enough reason for a cake. But wait, there was more: Karen’s friend Nancy had decided that she wanted to do some sort of a Christmas craft project with the kids (Alden, Samantha, Melba and Holly). She would take the kids for the afternoon, do the craft (it’s still a mystery, as we have been told to wait until Christmas to open whatever it is!), and then the grown-ups would come back and we’d all have supper together. Needless to say, I volunteered a cake for that. Trying to decide what kind of cake to make, I asked Karen, who suggested gingerbread. Off I went, on my little cake recipe finding research project.

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

there's more than just cake...

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

Cranberry Season

(what Ray calls “cramberries,” a malapropism that NEVER ceases to amuse him…)

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

More Bundts and the Trouble with Glazes

Once again, or still, I find myself behind. Cake writing cannot seem to keep up with cake production. There turn out to just be so many opportunities and occasions to make more cakes. Yet, finding time to actually sit down and write about the cakes is a bit more of a challenge. Consequently, we’re going to try a new approach. We’re going to go with the “theme” entry, thereby dispensing with two cakes for the price of one, so to speak.

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.