Friday, March 4, 2011

Simple. Sort of.

A few weeks back I did a small wedding cake for a church friend. She just wanted something very simple for their small wedding party.

I soon realized that very often the simplest cakes can be difficult to pull of because there's no room for flaws - they have to be perfect. You can't cover mistakes up with a multitude of decorations. It was a good reminder how important it is to have strong fundamental skills. Also to thanks to my friends Pat and Amy for helping me with the bow. To quote Mr. Wickham, "I can't be trusted. I have poor taste in ribbons."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nutmeg-Scented Scones

One of my favorite things to do is lay in bed with a big fleecy blanket and read about food. Now, I understand this comes dangerously close to the Costanza Pastrami Experiment ("I find pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted cured meats...") but no worries - in this case it's just me, my blanket, and the latest issue of Bon Appetit.

The upside of this practice is food dreams, where one can experience the pleasure of indulgence without the consequences. The less-desirable side effect is actually waking up in the middle of the night thinking about a recipe you just read. Sadly for me, I woke at 2:00 in the morning and started thinking about scones: rich, tender, hot from the oven with a little butter and raspberry jam. Unable to get back to sleep, I tossed and turned, my stomach predictably growling, yet I refused to suffer the indignity of actually getting out of bed for some 3 a.m. baking.

Needless to say, the next morning I was busy making Nutmeg-Scented Scones. They were simple, tender, and had that nice "edge" that I like in a scone. If nutmeg isn't your thing, decrease the amount (1 t. is really a lot of nutmeg and the flavor is really pronounced) or swap it out with something else like cinnamon, orange zest, or mini chocolate chips. And like biscuits, use a light hand when working the dough. It's better to have an ugly scone that a tough one.

Nutmeg-Scented Scones
Adapted from Bon Appetit

2 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup golden brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons freshly grated whole nutmeg or ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup sour cream
1 egg white, beaten to blend with 2 teaspoons water (for glaze)
2 tablespoons sugar

Preheat oven to 425°F. Combine flour, brown sugar, baking powder, 1 teaspoon nutmeg, baking soda, and salt in processor; blend 10 seconds. Using on/off turns, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add sour cream. Using on/off turns, blend until moist clumps form. Turn dough out onto floured work surface. Knead 4 turns to form ball. Roll out dough to 8-inch square (about 3/4 inch thick). Cut square into 8 wedges. Brush with egg-white glaze; sprinkle with 2 T. sugar and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. Transfer to baking sheet, spacing 2 inches apart.
Bake scones until tops are golden brown and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Transfer scones to rack and cool slightly. DO AHEAD Can be made 3 days ahead. Store scones airtight at room temperature. Rewarm in 350°F oven 10 minutes, if desired.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Because I Can

Ask anyone who does home canning to describe the feeling when the kitchen is finally clean and the hot gleaming jars filled with jam or tomatoes or pears are cooling on a tea towel and you can her the faint click of the lids sealing. It's a great feeling, which I'm almost embarrassed to admit. Does this mean I need to get a life? Do I need to get off my sanctimonious canning pot? Does it mean I'm an idiot because I can get pears at Wal-Mart cheaper and faster? Maybe. Canning is time-consuming, messy, and tiring. Why bother?

My mom and dad have been canning like crazy, putting up their famous chili sauce, tomato soup, salsa, pickles and pickled beets. While unloading some of their surplus tomatoes they were commenting on how much canning is becoming a thing of the past. Back in the day, you couldn't walk into a grocery store in August or September without seeing huge canning displays and promotions. Now, you usually have to ask were it's all hiding.

I guess there is much to be said for simply knowing how to do something. I can sleep at night, knowing that what I grow won't rot on the vine and that I can preserve food for my family. I know what's in those jars - no weird ingredients, no preservatives, no junk.

And it keeps me honest because it connects me with the past and reminds me of the true price that was once paid to keep food on the table. Sure, I still get dollar menu, drink Diet Coke and know that the vast majority of what I make will fall short of the pinnacle of food purity and virtue. But every once in a while, make something from scratch. You will feel oddly redeemed.

Canned Tomato Soup

1 peck ripe tomatoes (about 8 quarts)
4 onion sliced
12 sprigs parsley
2 bay leaves
1 tsp peppercorns
1 tsp celery seed
1 tsp cloves
2 TB salt
1 TB sugar

Skin, seed, and quarter tomatoes. Tie spices in a bag. Combine all ingredients and heat very slowly; simmer for 1/2 hour. (You may want to simmer longer if you want a thick soup.) Strain, reheat and bring to the boiling point. Pour into sterilized air-tight jars leaving 1/2 inch head space. Process in boiling water bath; 40 minutes for quarts.

*Note: I added 1 t. red pepper flakes to the spice bag and 10 mintues to process time for high altitude
This makes a thin soup that would be an excellent base for any vegetable or creamed tomato soup.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Scrollin, scrollin, scrollin...

You know when someone asks you to do something, and because your kind and accomodating, you're like, "Sure!", and then a month later you find you and your hot kitchen covered in melted dark chocolate, surrounded by 3 kinds of buttercream, two fillings, four kinds of cake, three batches of fondant and you wonder, as the Talking Heads infamously did, "How did I get here?".

That happened to me this week. My cousin Becky got married on Friday and I was thrilled when she asked me to make her wedding cake. A three-tier Italian buttercream-covered chocolate scroll-lined cake. Nevermind I'd never done chocolate scrolls. And then, another cousin's friend asks you to make a purse cake, which is, again, so great but you don't immediate realize that they need to be picked up a day apart.

Well, the Week of the Chocolate Scroll is finally over, and I'm proud to say I didn't break down and purchase these but rather perservered and made about 180 of these bad boys for my cousin Becky's wedding cake. Which, in short, was no easy task given the August heat and dearth of information on how to make them. But I did it, and am disturbingly proud of myself for figuring it out.

Also finished the purse cake in the nick of time. Funny, if somewould would have asked me five years ago if I'd be making pink and black zebra printed purse cakes I'd tell them they were crazy. What a ride.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Daisy, Daisy

Here's a very pastel-y, mid-western-y cake I made for my friend Amy, for her mother-in-law's 70th birthday.

Here's the example the design was taken from:

It was a fun cake to do. With every cake I learn something new, and if anyone has any secrets as to how to get the petals to stay on those blessed daisies, please let me know.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I'm Melting!

Oh. my. heck. From This is why you're Aparrently the guy from Man vs. Food tries to take one of these babies on, made at Melt Bar & Grilled.

Some of you may be aware of my aversion to 1) fake cheese; 2) large amounts of melted cheese; and 3) cheeses mixed together. This pretty much covers it. I gotta wrap this up. I'm seriously feeling gross.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mother's Day Pies

I had big ideas for mom's Mother's Day cake, but as the day drew nearer, those big ideas turned into big questions: Did a tiered cake with light yellow fondant and fresh flowers really reflect my mom? Does my mom even like cake? And ultimately, was this cake about my mom, or me?

At length I concluded that the best cake I could make for my mom was in fact a pie.

Sure, mom busted out the occasional cake from a boxed mix, but pies were something special altogether. Pies mean thanksgiving and hold the literal fruits of our labors. A good pie demands patience, practice, skill, trial and error. The rewards of a good pie? A knife shattering the sugary top, cutting through the sweet, tangy fruit through to the crisp bottom crust. Quickly lift the slice, dripping its juices, onto a plate, spoon on some loosely whipped cream, and you have what almost everyone wants at the end of their last meal on earth: a pie. In short, cake may be for celebrations, but pie means going home.

(Grandma Ginny's Pie Tin)

I made three pies for Mother's Day: Banana Cream (for the kids), Apple Blackberry (for the traditionalists) and French Lemon Cream Tart (to cover my bases). It was way better than making a cake.

Banana Cream Pie
(adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking from my Home to Yours)

The use of brown sugar and a few spices in the custard and a little sour cream in the topping adds a new dimension to the old standard.
For the custard:
2 c. whole milk
6 large egg yolks
1/2 c. light brown sugar
1/3 c. cornstarch, sifted
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. freshly grated nutmeg
1 t. vanilla extract
3 T. cold unsalted butter
3 ripe but firm bananas

1 9-inch single crust, fully baked and cooled

For the topping:
1 c. cold heavy cream
2 T. powdered sugar, sifted
1 t. vanilla extract
2 T. sour cream
Bring the milk to a boil. Meanwhile, in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk the yolks together with the brown sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt until well blended and thick. Whisking without stopping, drizzle in a bout 1/4 c. of the hot milk to temper the mixture. Still whisking, add the remainder of the moil in a steady stream. Put the pan over medium heat and, whisking constantly, bring the mixture to a boil. Boil, still whisking, for 1 to 2 minutes before removing from the heat.

Whisk in vanilla. Let stand for 5 minutes, when whisk in the bits of butter, stirring until they are fully incorporated and the custard is smooth and silky. Cool in ice bath or refrigerate until cool (press a piece of plastic wrap on the surface of the custard if you refrigerate it).

When you are ready to assemble the pie, peel the bananas and cut them on a shallow diagonal into 1/4-inch slices.

Whisk the cold custard vigorously to loosen it, and spread about one quarter of it over the bottom of the crust. Top with half of the bananas. Repeat, adding a thin layer of custard and the remaining bananas, then smooth the rest of the pastry cream over the last layer of bananas.

For the topping, beat the cream until it just starts to thicken. Beat in the powdered sugar, vanilla, and continue to beat until the cream holds firm peaks. Gently fold in the sour cream. Spoon the whipped cream over the filling and spread it evenly to the edges of the custard.

The aftermath: