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Posts Tagged ‘cake’

Coming up for air after baking eight pies (sold seven, ate one) last week for Thanksgiving. Coming up for air, that is, just in time for Christmas baking, which is like going to a water park on Tuesday and on Wednesday thinking it might be fun to swim the English Channel. For some reason I’m not wired up to hit the bakery for holidays. I have in my collection recipes that wait politely all year for their moment in the (waning) December sun, and I can’t say no — sleep and sanity be damned.

This month I’m making profiteroles for a going-away party, gingerbread reindeer for gifts, and chocolate-Grand Marnier cake for New Year’s Eve orders. For me, I’m making Irish fruitcake, my former neighbor’s cinnamon chocolate-chip coffee cake, and my mom’s sour-cream coffee cake for Christmas morning.

But today I opened up the month with the stollen below: a very tender, not-too-sweet German bread made with toasted almonds, chopped orange peel, lemon zest, and raisins I soaked for an hour in my honeysuckle vodka. It’s supposed to evoke the swaddling clothes wrapped around the Baby Jesus, but I never get it right. It always looks rumpled, like he was caught off-guard and jumped out of the manger to validate the Wise Men’s parking. I ate warm wedges of it for breakfast, and luckily the flavor never fails.

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This time of year is a mad scramble for parents scurrying kids to graduations and planning parties; for kids sitting shoulder to shoulder texting each other on the way to graduation and planning their own secret parties; and for me, heading to the hedgerows and planning secret wild edible heists. And everything seems to be growing at once this year, so I’ve had to act quickly (and often under cover of darkness or in early dawn—more on that later).

A couple of weeks ago I had to dash to pick mulberries for myself and for a pastry chef before going out of town for a week. And now the elderflowers and wild black raspberries down by the lake are ready, and I found a sour-cherry tree on an abandoned property (!)

It’s go time.

(This will be the elderflower post. Stay tuned for what I do with the fruit. I haven’t completely figured it out yet.)

So Harry and Meghan had a lemon cake brushed with elderflower syrup, made from flowers growing on one of the royal properties. I absolutely adore both flavors but have never tried them together. Figured I can do this, and for far less (theirs cost an oxygen-sucking $71k).

I started with a lemon cake recipe in a French cookbook. It called for 1.5 cups of sugar, which also seems excessive. Instead I used 1/4 c of my elderflower simple syrup in the batter and saved the rest for apres-bake. Aside from that, I essentially stuck to the recipe: why not? I admire anyone who has you put four entire lemons, zest and juice, in a batter. I poured it into little tart pans, baked them, and docked them with a fork when they came out of the oven. Then they got a pour of that reserved elderflower syrup. Good God…a hearty cheers to the royal couple; this is an incredible combination.

Heads-up: This is the more civilized of the foraging posts I’m planning. I even listened to a bossa nova while I made these cakes. Next time I post the Chronicles of the Intrepid and Sometimes Ridiculous Forager of the Jersey Shore.

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Making food props for any theatre company has its own unique challenges, but making them for a high school adds another handful (and another unique, while we’re at it).

I’m in the middle of a run of Les Miserables, the much-loved opera with an unusually high body count. Most of its characters don’t make it to curtain call. I told the actors we could easily hand out pens with playbills and have the audience cross out characters throughout the play. When only Marius and Cosette are left, the French Revolution is over and so is the show.

Despite the loss and poverty depicted, there is also great wealth. When the above characters marry, they have a lavish wedding and cake. I asked what side of the stage the wedding cake will enter from, and when the director said stage right, I knew it couldn’t be too tall; that side of the stage has only shelves on which to store props. He agreed to a layer cake, so I made one (above) with three batches of homemade play dough, cake tins, mini tart tins, and paint applied with a piping bag and tips as if it were buttercream. Young Zak found a gold bead somewhere and pushed it into the cake. I’m not sure why. Being a freshman might have something to do with it.

But when I brought the cake in, the director said it was too low, and that if I built a taller one, we could store it somewhere off stage and bring it on just for the wedding.

Would that I had known this before.

So yesterday I built the below with three storage boxes from AC Moore stacked and glued together with wood glue, and painted using the same technique as above. My crew let me know that young David, who plays a police officer in the show, opened the lid of the top box to peer inside. I said if they see him doing that again to tell him Marisa is going to hide his billy club and he will never find it in a million years.

The cake is tall, and one of the young musicians saw me walk past with it and gasped, ‘Is that real?’ so my work is done.

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Actually, my job with food for this show isn’t entirely done; I have to feed four loaves of bread per night to the cast, who eats it on stage behind the barricade. I don’t want it to be stale, so I buy it fresh every day. The girls who bring it on from stage left eat most of it while they’re waiting to go on.

When I first brought bread to rehearsal last week the director skipped that scene, so I told Cristian, who plays Enjolras, to take the bread for his side of the stage downstairs to share.

Teenagers of every stripe don’t stop eating. It’s fascinating and almost eerie to witness. They always have their hands in a box of Cheez-Its. But this is a boarding school, which means the kids are even hungrier; and this was a sophomore boy I was talking to. He gaped at me and shouted, ‘We can have the whole thing?!’ When I said yes, he almost bit my hand off.

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Its hours are numbered.

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The holiday season is a cranium-clocker of a monkey wrench when you’re told to keep an eye on your sugar intake. Ten years or so ago I significantly lowered the amount I eat, but of late, have had to reduce it further. A treat now and then is fine, but when you bake a cake for yourself, that’s some ten or twelve treats. And if you only eat certain cakes once a year, and really look forward to them…well, let’s just say the treat quotient adds up.

I wasn’t about to bend on making my favorite holiday cakes. I have to have two—sour-cream cinnamon chocolate chip cake, and sour-cream coffee cake. I’d already reduced the sugar in them, and had for a few years. But now I either had to reduce it further, or go without. I think we both know what happened.

Solid recipes stand up to almost anything, thank goodness.

The result was surprising. When you’re already accustomed to tasting less of one thing, everything else on stage steps forward to mug for the audience. (This is why I rhapsodize about restaurants who have the stones to serve a plain dessert on a plate. It means they trust that it can hold its own without a pile of goo on top.) Going even further: Making a cake with far less sugar, even than usual, made the other ingredients pop that much more…and the biggest diva in this cast of ingredients was butter.

As I ate, I thought about the things in our lives that we’re used to doing, and the things we’re obliged to change for whatever reason. Granted, some things just don’t fly, and never will.*

But who among us, biting into warm homemade cake and eagerly awaiting the first hit of flavor, would snub butter?

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*Things That Don’t Work Despite Any Amount of Optimism
1. Driving while eating yogurt
2. Bruce Willis’s 1987 R&B album
3. Me wearing anything Empire-cut

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A few nights ago I made an apple cake with buttermilk and a good hit of my homemade apple vodka. I would have done it anyway; I love cake…it’s Fall…I love cake (this bears repeating).

But I wanted to try making a recipe with even less sugar than I normally use. In the past 10 or so years, I’ve been typically cutting back the sugar in recipes by half or more because sometimes I’ll have the cake for breakfast. Too much sugar in the morning grosses me out, and moreover sends me into a stupor. But my doctor told me I should be moderating my sugar even more, so I added just two heaping tablespoons of organic sugar to the batter along with something like a half cup of apple vodka, which contains sugar. So the cake is somewhat bland—I might have gone overboard—but I’ve been dressing it up with a blop of plain yogurt. The sour tang is surprising against the gentle sweetness and tender texture. So I’m proud that I made it work and that it works beautifully. Every day I’m looking forward to a piece of my apple cake.

*

Tonight I worked at a soup kitchen a few blocks away. It was a Thanksgiving feast for the needy in the community, a couple of days early. When I arrived I saw a young lady wearing a cocktail dress, with her hair in an upsweep, crouching and peering into a rolling cart of canned soft drinks. She asked if there were any iced teas that weren’t diet. (Can’t blame her.) We scanned the cart and said we were sorry, but didn’t see any.

The young lady sighed and frowned, thanked us, and turned to go. Then suddenly the event organizer said, ‘Wait!’ She reached into the back and pulled out some regular iced teas that had been hidden. I started laughing as the young lady started loading them under one arm, and she turned to me with a big grin and a question in her eyes.

‘It’s just—really wanting something, and then getting it,’ I said. She laughed with me and said, ‘Yeah.’

The world is a spinning top—it always has been, if we’re going to be honest. There will always be things we want and don’t get, and we need the strength and tenacity to keep moving forward when that happens.

But I’m not going to sit here and say it doesn’t get tiring when, over and over, we don’t get what we want, or have it and lose it. And this year has been a doozy. I’m wishing you your regular iced tea, at the very least one, whatever that is to you…more even, as many as you can carry.

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Maybe 30 years ago I read Katherine Paterson’s brilliant Bridge To Terabithia*. There was a note at the end which said the illustrator drew the pictures while listening to the music of the Beatles. (To see one of Donna Diamond’s beautiful drawings from that book, click here.) Her work was so ephemeral and dreamy, and I was not surprised to learn of the particular musical influence. I’d bet you aren’t either.

In my Advanced Studio Art class in high school we always had the radio on, set to a local station, while we drew. My work was inevitably co-authored by Mister Mister, Heart, and Dream Academy. By college I’d graduated to Belinda Carlisle and MC Hammer.

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This is a Lady’s Speed Stick. Hammer would be proud.

Sometimes I listen to music while doing busy work like cutting and freezing produce. Once I wrote to Gourmet Magazine** and told them I spent the afternoon slicing organic strawberries while accompanied by Led Zeppelin. It was a solid choice, I thought. Gourmet agreed. They printed my letter.

But back to the vein of Donna Diamond, Bridge drawings, and the Beatles; and me, my drawings, and late ’80s power ballads: I think the music I’m listening to when I’m creating has a hand in the product. That includes cooking. This past few weeks I’ve needed some deep rest—soul-core rest. Aside from sleeping, that means comfort food; and in my case, making it.

First I went to my farm and bought some local, low-spray, ripe peaches. Then I sliced them and tucked them into a butter crust, latticed and sprinkled with demerara sugar. My co-author was The Carpenters. I felt like I was moving not through air but through Karen’s exquisite honey-colored contralto. That was a mellow-tasting pie, indeed (there it is above).

A couple of days ago I became oddly obsessed with a recipe I’ve had for years but have never made: blackberry brown-sugar cake. I took some liberties, since it was to be a breakfast or teatime cake for me, not a celebration cake for others. Omitted the buttercream and jam and half the sugar, swapped in some olive oil for part of the butter and whole-wheat pastry flour for some of the all-purpose. The recipe also called for ground walnuts and a little sugar at the base of the pan, but I didn’t have any walnuts, so I used hazelnuts instead. They were so heady and delicious that going forward I’ll never use walnuts. I topped the cake with tangy, organic plain yogurt and blackberries I’d just picked at the farm. The result was subtle and moody and surprising.

Nat ‘King’ Cole made this cake with me. You might not be able to tell by the photo, but you’d know for sure when you ate a slice.

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*The movie is rubbish.

**Requisite whimper that they’re gone. 😦

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Dear Bakers,

First, mad props to you. Honest. Life is hard; you make us treats. Without you*, how could we forget about the workaday world of Cadillac SUV drivers who don’t signal, about 16-page apartment leases, about presidential candidates who strut and fret their hour upon the stage? A cinnamon croissant roll takes five minutes to eat, but what a blissful five minutes. How unburdened an experience. You are gods and archangels.

Thank you for the variety on your menu, thank you for offering both plain and fancified, thank you for blueberries in high summer and spiced pumpkin in the fall. Thank you for little saucers of broken-up scones to try while we wait for service. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I pop one to soothe a hungry stomach and then go. But you know I spend liberally the rest of the week. We’re cool.)

Thank you, so many of you, for making pie crusts with lard, or butter, or a combo of the two. Thank you, others of you, for eschewing shortening entirely for the glory of butter. You know your cookies will be flatter, but firmly avow that flavor must never fall to the ax of showboating.

But I must take exception to those of you who bake with excessive amounts of sugar. Of course America has a sweet tooth. We just don’t need as much sugar as you’re adding. Many of your cakes and cupcakes are too darn sweet, and lots of bakers don’t stop there: even a corn muffin these days can make a girl’s mouth pucker. My argument:

  1. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the product is dull.
  2. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the rest of the ingredients don’t get their say.
  3. Ibid., the structure will be gritty.

I love chocolate brownies, for example. But when did we make sugar more important than the quality of the chocolate, the richness of the butter, and the fudginess or cakiness of the square itself? I ate a brownie on Sunday that was gorgeous to look at. But it was so packed with sugar that I crunched my way through it.** The chocolate, fat, and texture were very much an afterthought.

Last point:

4. If one ingredient isn’t allowed to be a diva, we can appreciate the subtlety and balance of the other ingredients.

Like seals being tossed fish time and again, pushing sugar into the spotlight of baked goods narrows our thinking, dulls our senses, and deprives us of a fuller experience. Let us taste the almond extract in your cherry scones; we’ll be excited to learn they’re such a winning pair (cousins, almonds and cherries, you know). Let us search for a hint of orange peel, or come to adore exotic cardamom on first taste. We love to learn. Let us get excited by the nuances of your work.

The brownie above, now. Good example. Much less sugar, in the European tradition. More excellent-quality chocolate, cream, and butter. It was dense, sticky—a deep and powerful experience. I’ll drive a half an hour north for this thing, and I cannot imagine I’m alone.

Being active observers of flavors and textures is a positive; looking for them with eagerness and learning from them is a blessing. Conscious, discerning eating can’t help but inform conscious, discerning thinking outside the bakery, and goodness knows we can all use a little more of that.

Two thumbs up, and best regards,

~M (and my dentist)

*And maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda.
**Of course I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t a good brownie, but it was a brownie.

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