Sunday, December 02, 2007

There have, in fact, been a few cakes

There have, in fact, been a few cakes, in spite of what is suggested by the LONG neglect this poor blog has endured. Nothing like the frenzy that was indicated in this post, but, a few cakes, here and there.

Over the summer, this cake was a big hit. I then went on to experiment with a few other simpler blueberry cake deals, but, nothing all that noteworthy came out of that. That remains a project for another August.

This fall, in our new fancy schmancy kitchen (one of the big selling features of this house we bought in Maine was the kitchen – it was remodeled by the previous owners, and it has “chef-quality” appliances and so on. There is definitely enough cupboard space, which is a very nice thing. But, upon moving in and trying to actually live in and use this kitchen, I have discovered what I certainly already knew in theory: that throwing a lot of money at things does not necessarily mean you end up with the functionality or quality you want. One of the first nights we were here, the fake-cupboard panel that hide the dishwasher fell off and nearly busted Milo’s tow. Then, we also couldn’t use the dishwasher until we figured out how to get the panel back on, a slightly more challenging task than it should be. The professional stove top is so powerful that the pots and pans of mere mortals are really inadequate, and the oven is so complicated that, even with instruction book in hand, I cannot always figure out how to work it. So, I haven’t been having quite as much fun in my new kitchen as I had hoped to. Plus, sadly, there seem to be no neighbors to bake for. Alas.

Okay, sorry, just a little rant there. Try to end on a good note: I do admit to liking the mammoth Sub-Zero refrigerator.)

… I have baked two cakes.

First was the Double Apple Bundt Cake, from the Dorie Greenspan book. I had meant to throw out my bundt pan, when we were moving. I have decided that bundt pans might just need to be replaced regularly, that the non-stick just stops working, and then you have sad cake removal from pan issues. So, with a few other odds and sods, I had placed the pan in the garage at Raintree Ct, in preparation for throwing out. Then, in their over-zealousness, the movers somehow packed it into the truck. That is always a drag, the discovery, when unpacking, that a certain amount of what you hauled across the country (or, rather PAID to have hauled across the country) was garbage. Then, the formerly destined for the dump bundt pan sat around in the garage here, until I realized I had a bundt cake to make, and no new bundt pan. It was then pressed into service one more time, with only slightly dicey results (that is, the cake did stick a bit….).

I made this apple cake just because…. It seemed like the right thing to do in fall in Maine. I might have made it with apples from our apple-picking expedition. But, now I am not quite sure. Regardless of which apples I used, I do know this: they were very local, which is cool.

Really yummy cake. Most compelling proof: Alden ate quite a bit of it and even wanted to have some sent in his lunch one day. High praise. Ingredients of note: apples, apple butter, typical apple pie type spices, raisins and nuts (I used pecans).

The other cake was a pumpkin one. I am pretty sure I have made a pumpkin cake in the past – for Karen’s birthday? But, no blog record exists, and there have clearly been too many cakes at this point, to allow me to call up the particulars of something I might have made over a year ago. I googled around, found this recipe, and went for it. It was a really easy recipe – oil, rather than butter, which makes it extra easy (and, less expensive too, I suppose.)

We had been invited to a family-oriented Halloween party, by one of my colleagues. It was a potluck, and you know darn well what I’ll try to bring in any sort of a potluck situation. I had fun decorating this cake with my silly little Halloween bits and pieces. Sadly, another problem with this new kitchen I am in is that it is really hard to photograph things in it. Bad light (er, no light….).

Note: I just realized that there was another cake, but, this post is getting way long, so, I’ll have to come back to it another day.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Four Layer Funfetti, or, Happy Birthday Alden!

Some of the details on this one may be lost at this point, but I’ll see what I can dredge up. It was Karen who suggested the homemade funfetti cake. So, this brings us to funfetti, and just exactly what it is. Okay, I still don’t know what it is. I guess for starters there is the word play: funfetti – confetti… throw some colorful sprinkle-y type things in a cake and you are going to have some sort of a fun celebratory confetti type experience, funfetti, there you go.

The thing is, it is the colorful sprinkle-y type things that are still the mystery. My gut feeling is that the sprinkles that exist in the Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines box are different from the sprinkles I used. I just used regular colorful jimmies, as it were. And, while I think it looked pretty similar, I think it was not exactly the same. So, what exactly is in the little packet you get (and throw in the batter at some designated time) in those boxes of funfetti cake mix? I am somewhat pulled to go buy and make one, but, so far, it hasn’t happened. Too many other cakes to make.

For one thing, I am pretty sure that the box mix funfetti does not include brown/chocolate sprinkles, whereas my Kroger brand did. Seems minor, but, I think that the color array might look really different depending on the presence or absence of chocolate/brown sprinkles. Another thing is size and shape – are the funfetti sprinkles the same shape as the jimmies? And what about chemical reaction during baking? Do they both melt, or dissolve, or break down in similar fashions? These and other burning questions remain unanswered.

Now for the four layer part. Alden has long been really excited about my development as a cake baker and just exactly when I would be able to make the leap to four layer cakes. Classic “more is better” thinking on the part of the younger set. Here is the thing: a four layer cake is just two cake layers, each cut horizontally, making four. So, in truth, it is all a trick, and in fact less than a three layer cake. Lucky for me, when he saw me do the cutting the cake layers part, he thought it was cool, rather than a total cheap trick.

The cake was pretty, very white, as it was an egg whites only cake, and relatively tasty. But, not a knock your socks off cake. Alden wanted chocolate frosting, and, as always, I struggled with this part. In the end, I chose a chocolate ganache type frosting – I think it came from the lots-of-ways banana cake that I also have yet to write about – and it just was not all that special. This brings us back to the difficulty of finding great chocolate frosting recipes….

Not only did Alden get the funfetti cake, but, there were, of course, the obligatory school cupcakes. Being the ambitious soul that I am, I went for homemade cupcakes rather than a mix. I found the recipe for these on my friend Melissa’s blog, where she is writing about her experiences cooking out of the new Gourmet cookbook. She made these buttermilk cupcakes for a school function for her son, and I decided to follow. I read a lot about them, in the reviews and on her blog, so I was well forewarned, but, I just have to emphasize, in case anyone tries them: they really are exploding, and the quantities, as Gourmet talks about them, are really off. Recipe says 24 cupcakes, and I think I made slightly over 36. Notice, in this picture - of the cupcakes upside down - all the (now cooked) batter that overflowed on to the toaster oven tray (which I had to use for baking, as I had already filled all of my cupcake/muffin tins, and still, there was more batter to be dealt with)

In all honesty, I think these were a bit yummier than the cake. And, perhaps more importantly, look how cute they are.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Baked, Not Blogged

You might think there’s been no baking, based on the amount of writing about baking I am producing. But, no, baking continues, even when writing stalls. So, for those of you who check in from time to time, I thought I’d give you an update. Some of these cakes warrant proper entries, but, maybe, in the interests of time, and moving forward, I’ll let go of some of them.

In the meantime, here’s the rundown on what we, and our fine friends, neighbors and colleagues, have been getting to eat lately.

Alden’s birthday cake – the much anticipated homemade funfetti in four layers

Nicky’s Vanilla Cake

Nicky is Ruth Reichl’s son, and this cake is from her book, Garlic and Sapphires

All the rest of these are from the Dorie Greenspan:

Coconut Orange Tea Cake – two times, once a non dairy version.

Lots-of-Ways Banana Cake

Nutty Chocolaty Swirly Sour Cream Bundt Cake – three times

Apple Coconut Family Cake

note: this batter does not go with the apple-coconut family cake just mentioned. I just wanted to end with an action shot, so to speak.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Happy Birthday Ray!

When I finally managed to get some information out of Ray, about what kind of a birthday cake he wanted, this is what I got:

Ray waxing nostalgic about a cake from his days at Goshen scout camp, where he was both a camper and a staff person, at different times. What he described was a coconut cake: a yellow cake with white frosting in a rectangular shape. The cake in question came out of some sort of an industrial kitchen, what we are talking about here is mainstream food service fare, with all the accompanying trans fats and high fructose corn syrup type ingredients. Actually, I recently learned, from my reading of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that high fructose corn syrup has only been around since 1981. I thought that was interesting, something so ubiquitous has really only been on the landscape for a quarter of a century?

Regardless, the point here is that we are not talking about some warm, cozy homey cake, emerging from memories of the kitchens of Ray’s childhood, made with love by Geraldine. Here, my husband has the choice of anything, a wife who will happily take on any cake challenge, and what does he pick? A food service cake. A food service cake coming out of a fascist organization that promotes bigotry and intolerance.

So I start thumbing through the cake books, and settle on a yellow cake recipe, really a “golden sponge” from the Tish Boyle Cake Book which I got out of the Louisville Library last week. It’s just a basic yellow sponge cake. But a few things worth noting: the recipe calls for two extra egg yolks, plus the regular three that a cake this size has, and the eggs being our wonderful local farm fresh eggs, really did make for a lovely yellow cake. I then chose a frosting from Dorie Greenspan, what she calls a buttercream – basically, egg whites and sugar and butter, and more butter, and then some more butter. I am not kidding. Huge amount of butter. Then, you sprinkle coconut shreddies all around the top of the cake.

I was a little worried about the whole thing not being quite coconutty enough, since it was just a yellow cake, and since the frosting was not actually a coconut frosting. So, I decided to try something (not easy for me to go out on a limb like this, as some of you know.) The yellow cake calls for 1 1/3 cups of whole milk. So, here is what I did, replaced 2/3 of that milk with 2/3 c of organic coconut milk. I have to say, I think this was a really successful adaptation. The cake was not very coconutty, but I think did just have a hint of coconut flavor, which of course Ray liked. Really, I have to also just say, that in terms of texture and taste, this was one of the best cakes I have made, I think (I am just talking about the cake here, not the frosting).

The frosting was fine, I guess. I think the coconut on top works really well for Ray. For Alden and me, not so much. You remember how I feel about coconut cake… Alden did not eat any of the cake at all, claiming not to like the frosting, although, interestingly, he had managed to lick the mixer beater clean, after he and I made the frosting together. He was momentarily sad, about not getting to eat cake, even though it was his choice to not eat it. But, I reminded him he would be getting his own cake very soon.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Cakes of Dubious Appearance

David had a birthday a while back, about a month ago now, in fact (still behind on the cake blog writing…). Of course his devoted wife Karen made him a cake, with lovely daughter Samantha’s help. But, I found I couldn’t resist the opportunity to also make a cake. So, this is a two for the price of one entry.

This was during my bad spell, in terms of altitude problems (I am not actually sure I am out of this bad spell. Of late, I have been making cookies, or, cakes that I’ve had success with in the past. My avoidance of new cakes is not because I am afraid of failure, or fallen or dubious looking cakes; I want to assure you of that. I am just avoiding new cake-making until I get caught up on the cake-writing.)

Karen outdid herself with a Betty Crocker/Duncan Hines type deal: funfetti cake. Not exactly sure what the industry title actually is. She did, however, decide that homemade frosting was in order. Well, that is where, in her opinion, things went south.

For some reason, her homemade chocolate frosting just did not come out looking all that great. Evidence above...

Me, I went for another Jeanne Lemlin cake, Lemon Almond Cake. While I think it tasted okay (though nowhere near as good as the funfetti cake – I am a total sucker for cake mix cake…. What is up with that?), it looks bad bad bad. New pan – a 9 inch springform pan, which I purchased specially for this occasion. Having never baked a regular cake (meaning not a cheesecake) in a springform pan, and having not baked this cake before, I have no basis for comparison. I cannot really tell what is “normal” for a pan like this (in terms of rising) and what might be the ill effects of the altitude (in terms of sinking).

Here is a question/problem. A few cakes I have made recently have called for “finely ground” nuts – almonds in this case. So you throw a bunch of nuts in the food processor and push the button. What I cannot quite figure out is what is the just right consistency. One cookbook does note not to over-grind, or you’ll get nut butter. But, how do you know what the right amount of processing is? And, could my lack of awareness of when to stop pushing the button be another contributor to my final (fallen) cake results?

While many challenges and ideas for future “research” have emerged from this cake baking effort, none is so compelling as the challenge Karen set me: make a homemade funfetti cake. Her hypothesis is that what makes a funfetti cake a funfetti cake is just the tossing in of a handful of colored jimmies (sprinkles, if you will). But, she is not totally sure. So, she wants me to make a homemade cake and experiment with jimmies, to see if she is right.

This is just the kind of challenge I am up for.

Right now, I am toying with two possibilities, in terms of the cake: one – some sort of a yellow cake, maybe Nigella’s Victoria Sponge; alternately, some sort of a white cake, maybe Dorie’s Celebration Cake. If I pick the celebration cake, I'll also be taking on another challenge I’ve got hanging over me, one set for me by Alden: my first four layer cake.

Stay tuned….

Friday, February 23, 2007

The problem with prunes…

…is that I think maybe I don’t actually like them so much, and this cake, it had a strong prune flavor. I still think I am going to need to do some more experimenting – especially since Dorie Greenspan, author of that new favorite baking cookbook of mine, really seems to love them, and uses them in quite a lot of baked goods. I know, some people just swear by them. And, I’ve been feeding them to Milo like crazy. Poor kid. (I’m sure that when he’s a teenager he’ll be so happy to discover that I’ve been sharing this kind of info.)

Anyway, I loved the sound of this cake, Brown Sugar Bundt Cake; goes well with tea, she says (Dorie, not me). And I was really good, meaning I followed the directions exactly (using pears and prunes, instead of substituting apples for the pears and raisins for the prunes – substitutions that would have been much easier (and maybe tastier). And, remember me and the difficulties of buying good fresh fruit and getting it to the appropriate stages of ripeness. Sticking with the pears piece was hard.). Also, Dorie suggests making the cake a day before you want to eat it. It’s one of those “gets better the second day” cakes. So, I did all that, carefully wrapping the cake in plastic to make sure it didn’t get dried out. Still, I was just not that thrilled by the outcome. It was pretty though, as bundt cakes usually are.

For a moment there, I even thought this cake might be the first that ended up with some going in the garbage can. But, in fact, that did not happen. I think slightly less than half got consumed the first night, when Ben and Buzzy and Susan and Jordan came for supper (okay, well, we ordered pizza… hey, I had made a cake, so, my culinary duties were done). The next day, though, it was nice weather, and people were hanging out in the cul-de-sac, so I brought the cake out. Lo and behold, it got eaten. Much of that eating was done by two of my most loyal fans: Alden and Samantha. But Karen also managed to choke down three pieces, all the while saying that it was not her favorite cake. She’s a good friend!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Altitude kicking my butt?

It is, as many of you know, much to my ongoing chagrin and dismay that I do not live near the sea. The fact of the matter is, not only do we not live near the sea, but we don’t even live near sea level. We’re about 5300 feet above sea level here. While this isn’t super up there, in the thin air zone, it’s enough up there to be of note. I tend to ignore this altitude thing in my baking; maybe it’s denial, maybe it’s stupidity; maybe it’s just that mostly I seem to get lucky and my baked goods don’t suffer any ill effects of altitude. People ask, “do you adjust for the altitude?” “Nope.” I blithely reply. I’m alternately too lazy, too cocky, too dumb (those adjustments just seem way too tricky for me to really get my mind around. I’m not kidding). Well, maybe I should be rethinking my bad attitude.

This recipe for Yogurt Cake with Marmalade Glaze came out in a Bon Appetit issue a year or two ago; it’s a Dorie Greenspan cake (she’s the author of my new baking cookbook, Baking: From My Home to Yours, the one my sweet husband gave me for Christmas). Accompanying this recipe was a totally wonderful article about French women, and how they make everything look lovely and glamorous, but how, in fact, they actually put little effort in: they are just damn good at knowing clever short cuts (e.g., where to buy excellent baked goods that look homemade). It was one of those pieces that I read out loud to anyone I could and, for a while, I made the cake again and again. Oddly (I think), the reviews are really mixed, and some people had really bad experiences with it.

In spite of the rather suspect appearance of this cake (I know, it's not that bad, but it does have a noticeable dip in the middle, and Ray called it “horribly disfigured”), it was still as yummy as ever. But, I do wonder if I maybe need to start taking that whole “adjust for altitude” thing a little more seriously.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Chocolate Cake Woes

This is a long one, but if you look at it as three for the price of one, maybe it won't seem so bad...

In pursuit of the perfect chocolate cake, I have made three chocolate cakes during the last two weekends. It began a little over a week and a half ago, when Wendy, David’s mom, was in town. We were going to have our usual Friday night supper together, and I decided to make a cake (big surprise). The choice was chocolate, a genre I have for the most part avoided, as you can see if you look through the archives here. But, Wendy apparently likes chocolate cake, and that was reason enough for me to take it on. I settled on two choices, and emailed Karen for input. She went for the fancier sounding one: Cocoa-Buttermilk Birthday Cake. Fancy sounding, but it didn’t look too difficult to make. Just another better basic cake… nevertheless, as I was making it, I couldn’t help but be a bit nervous, this whole chocolate cake thing just strikes me as extra-tricky. Well, I was right to be suspicious…

I broke the cake.

Yup, that’s right, there it is, a lovely 9 inch round cake, with a crack down the middle, and another one through the half.

Well, I have learned not to despair about these things. Nothing a little frosting cannot fix, so I proceeded, trying to be a bit more gentle with the other cake (one theory is that I caused this break, sort of, by resting the cooling cake in a non-standard way, tilted on a plate, since I only have one cake cooling rack; maybe the bending contributed to the cracking). Alas, this theory was disproven as I tried moving the other layer, which was resting flat on the one aforementioned rack, and it started to break as well. Dry. This is what this means to me, dry cake.

Now I was worried.

But, I did have about a gallon of this spectacular sounding and quite complicated to make chocolate malt buttercream frosting.

The end results looked great, according to Ray. I actually thought it only looked okay, but it’s possible I’m a bit hard on myself here.

Karen and Wendy raved about the cake. I thought it was dry. I did think the frosting was really pretty good, better than average even. But the cake, I was just not that impressed. Later, Ray confessed that he thought it was dry, too. On Saturday, though, he had some more and had a change of heart. Reflecting on the prior night’s experience, he hypothesized that maybe he had over-eaten at supper, and so the cake had not seemed that great. In the sober light of day (literally and figuratively), he was thinking it was actually quite good.

Me, I continued to be plagued by misgivings and general chocolate cake doubt. I just couldn’t quite let go and by Sunday was ready to try again. This time I went for the other cake I had been considering on Friday, Dressy Chocolate Loaf Cake. This one was also easy, extra easy; the usual suspects, in terms of ingredients, plus sour cream. Make it in a loaf pan and then – and I think this is pretty cool – slice it in three (horizontally) and you get a three layer loaf cake thingy. The filling is raspberry jam (Wendy was still here, and she had indicated that the chocolate raspberry jam combination was something she liked, so this re-affirmed my choice of this cake) and then the frosting on the outside is just a chocolate and sour cream mix.

This cake was spectacular (in my humble opinion…), just plain delicious. Moist, tasty, good flavor combination, etc. The problem here is presentation. Round peg square hole sort of thing. Square peg round hole? Here I am, making all these cakes, and all I have to put them on are two lousy serving plates. Okay, now I’m being melodramatic, and really, if you count my lovely Christmas plates from Stephanie and Peter and Tristan and Karen, then I have more than just two nice plates to serve on. But, if you look through the pictures here, I pretty much have two big round plates, and what with all these cakes, I am beginning to feel a bit greedy for more variety and depth in terms of serving/display options.

So, lovely rectangular loaf cake, and no good plate to put it on. It neither fits properly, nor does it look all that nice, on this round plate I had to put it on. I thought it tasted great though, and that’s something anyway, right? Nevertheless, I still wasn’t quite done with the broader chocolate cake problem.

Lurking in the back of my mind, last weekend and throughout the week, was my old standby chocolate cake. This is a cake I’ve had in my repertoire since I was a teenager, I think. If I am remembering correctly, I began making this cake when I worked at the Crocker House. It was a dessert menu item, and I spent at least one summer, if not more, making desserts there – lemon cream sherbet, peach ice cream, carrot cake, cheese cake, some of you will certainly remember these. …

I’ve made this chocolate cake over the years, and always felt okay about it (you know, in the cake self-esteem department). As I struggled with these other chocolate cakes (I guess I was only really struggling with the first one, since the second one was actually really tasty, there were just presentation problems), I kept coming back to this one, thinking I needed to make it, just to see how it held up, in reality… The main thing that kept blocking me was the frosting, not knowing what type of frosting to use, or even really having a stock frosting recipe/type to accompany it. So, I agonized and agonized and kept not making it, paralyzed as I was by the indecision of how to frost it.

Sunday afternoon rolled around, and I decided it was just time and, to hell with my husband, I was just going to frost the thing with cream cheese frosting. The problem here is that Ray claims not to like cream cheese frosting, and that is the frosting that I have pretty much always used with this cake.

The denouement: both cake and frosting easy to make, looks pretty good (round cake on a round plate), tastes just fine and, after all that, Ray said he liked it, and even made some nice remarks about the frosting cake combination. Go figure.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Happy Birthday Milo!

Milo turned one today. Poor kid got no presents (He didn't really even get a proper birthday cake). My theory here, I guess, is - small person, small cake(s). We have another year or so before we have to make a REAL birthday cake for him, I think. At least I baked something! The highlight of the day for him was probably playing around on the floor with his big brother (except for the mysterious part that resulted in him getting a bit of a bump on his forehead).

Alden and Samantha chose two star candles for the baby cupcakes I had made, and we lit them, sat Milo at the head of the table, and sang happy birthday. He didn’t seem all that impressed. Oh well.

Maybe it was because his two cupcakes were not covered in chocolate, like the ones that the grown-ups got to eat later, after he had gone to bed. (Sorry Samantha – my sister Samantha, that is, I guess I am just a really mean mom.)

Friday, January 05, 2007

Coconut Cake

I’m not a coconut fan. Actually, I’ve loosened up a bit in the last few years and can tolerate a bit of coconut in some of the desserts I make (my preferred pineapple upside down cake has coconut; my granola – cranberry almond – calls for coconut and sometimes I follow the recipe and do include it; there may be a few other places where I allow coconut in, though I can’t think of any of them at the moment).

I’ve been eyeing this cake for a while, primarily because I know that Ray likes coconut, AND because this cake looked super easy. Right now, Anne is here, and she also likes coconut, so I finally decided to make it.

This is of course really clich̩ but, visually speaking, I was kind of thinking that a coconut cake would go well with our snow-covered world of late. The cake is topped with bits of coconut, looking like snow. Our roof is topped with mounds of snow, looking like coconut. Sorry Рthat is just bad.

I think I’m really just looking for an excuse to post a few snow pictures, as well as a picture of the cake.

Did I mention that we had our third significant storm in the space of two weeks today? School was cancelled for Alden. And, even more noteworthy, the garbage and recycling folks blew off garbage and recycling pick up AGAIN (note Geoff-Steve’s snow capped and overflowing garbage can in the background).

Back to the cake:

Anne says: I ate too much of it. Moist; phenomenal icing: creamy and juicy and complemented the cake (that’s complemented, not complimented, Anne emphasizes). [Clarissa notes: it’d be nice if the icing COULD compliment the cake. It would certainly make for an interesting relationship]. I really love coconut (Anne again).

Ray says: yummy; tasty; nice texture; like the coconut shreddies.

Clarissa’s final word: did nothing for me. Still don’t like coconut and didn’t need to eat more than the one bite I felt I should at least try. The King Soopers house brand Cookies and Cream ice cream I followed it with was way more satisfying.