Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Baker but not a Cake Maker: Cinnamon Cake with Chili Chocolate Buttercream

I'm always a little stumped when people ask me what I like to bake. My baking choices change by the week, season, holiday, zodiac calendar... seriously, one of my favorite activities is picking, each week, what recipe I'll make next. I like variety and I don't have favorites (at least not for long), although like every cook, I do have staple recipes that never leave the repertoire. You might have noticed I'm pretty partial to tarts- sweet and savory.

It's probably easier for me to answer the question by listing what I don't like to make, although that isn't what people usually want to hear so I just hedge whenever I'm asked (which is often). Maybe people feel the need to make small talk whenever they're partaking of my baked goods. Maybe they're trying to avoid my asking how they like the goods. Who knows? I do tend to run into the question frequently, though. So, I'm going to give an honest answer here... I don't like making buttercream, anything that requires squirting filling inside (i.e. eclairs), desserts that use gelatin, and cakes. There, I said it. Let the gasping commence.

People love cakes. This is probably because most major celebrations require a cake. They're just festive dammit! To make matters worse, cakes are quite the rage right now - witness Ace of Cakes, Cake Wrecks, etc. Cakes are definitely high on the food chain in the baking realm. They're the upper crust, the icing on top, I'm running out of silly puns (aren't you glad?).

What's even worse is that I come from a long line of cake makers. My mom and her sisters are experts in the art of cake makery and each has a specialty. Mom bakes a mean carrot cake- despite my avowed love of all things from Rose Bakery their carrot cake cannot touch my mother's. My Aunt Shelley (whom I was named after) makes an amazing pound cake with a cooked chocolate icing and my Aunt Ferolyn makes so much good stuff, I can't even choose. She has supplied me with homemade strawberry preserves and venison sausage- I'm not about to burn that bridge! Between the sisters, at least one cake is baked weekly (probably a couple). They're all terrific, tasty, and beautiful in that homemade way that just can't be replicated in a bakery.
An old friend I recently reconnected with invited my husband and I over for dinner last Saturday night. Despite my misgivings about my cake making skills, I decided to bring a cake. Hope was making fried chicken and cake just seemed to be in order. She's very kind so I knew she'd forgive me even if the cake turned out to be a total mess. It wasn't but I still need a lot of practice (you can judge for yourself by the pic above). 
I pulled out a recipe I've made a couple of times before- cinnamon cake with a chili-chocolate buttercream. Yes, I know I don't like buttercream. I am a walking contradiction. I can make an exception for buttercream when it calls for both bittersweet and white chocolate. This icing is really good and it doesn't have the slippery texture of a cooked buttercream. Note that the icing recipe as written makes enough for about two cakes. I stored the extra in the fridge for a future batch of chocolate cupcakes but it could be halved easily. Be careful when baking this cake- even a minute too long will cause the cake to be dry. 

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mad for Macarons

Macarons are the quintessential Parisian cookie. There is an art to making them and they are often mercurial, maddening, and mysterious. Some would say like Parisians themselves. 

The Japanese have an actual psychiatric diagnosis called the "Paris Syndrome" to describe the shock some Japanese tourists experience caused by encounters with rude Parisians. Actually, I found most Parisians to be pleasant and even helpful. Only twice did I encounter the difficult stereotype you hear of so often. Because I pretty much ate my way through the city, both occasions involved food. The most absurd instance involved a particularly hostile fruit vendor who refused to sell my mother and I figs because we didn't request a sufficient quantity for him to deign to take our money. I refer to him as the Fig Nazi as he very much reminded me of the infamous Seinfeld episode. Come to think of it, they even looked alike. The other episode was of a more pedestrian variety and involved bad service from a harried server at the neighborhood pizzeria who seemed to be having an off night. As a former food server who has worked during high season and dealt with one too many tourists, I can sympathize so I didn't take it personally. The fig fiasco still burns me up, though.

But back to macarons... I've made several recipes, a few varieties, and over a couple dozen batches. Whenever I'm feeling masochistic, I make macarons.  I've made the classic recipe with almond flour but I find the taste to be a little off (maybe it's the oils in the almonds). I've tried subbing pistachios for almonds- they taste great but the cookie is so delicate that it crumbles to pieces. So far, I've had the best success using roasted hazelnuts. I like to sandwich the hazelnut cookies with Nutella instead of a traditional buttercream. I think I've covered my aversion to buttercream ad nauseam so I'll skip it here. Also, I can't bring myself to load my macarons up with food coloring and fake flavor essences so I've never made the multi-hued, crazy flavor combos that are the rage in Paris patisseries. Although I didn't seem to have any problems eating ones others made. Those of you who followed my Twitter blow-by-blow (or cookie-by-cookie) account of the taste-off I conducted between Pierre Hermé and Laduree's confections will recall that Laduree won by a crumb.

LCB didn't teach lowly Basic Patisserie students how to make the exulted macaron. You have to go on to Intermediate Patisserie for that. Fortunately, the Culinary Institute of America isn't so hierarchal. I took a one week Career Discovery: Baking & Pastry Arts class at the Greystone campus in Napa, CA last year. My fellow classmates and I were thrilled to learn that the pastry program students were learning to make macarons the week we were there because we got to sample their creations at the dessert table during our communal lunches.  A chef shared the recipe with fellow student who passed it on to the rest of us. Of all the macaron recipes I've tried, it's the most fool proof. Or as fool proof as macarons get...

CIA Macarons *as told to me

250 g hazelnuts- roasted and skins removed
400 g powdered sugar
10 g egg whites
200 g egg whites (use half fresh and half aged- left to dry out approx. 24 hrs at room temp)
80 g sugar

Grind hazelnuts with powdered sugar in a food processor until finely ground. Sift the ground mixture into a bowl and add 10 g egg whites. 

Make a meringue with 200 g egg whites and 80 g of sugar.  When egg whites and sugar are combined, turn the machine on high and whip for 10 minutes to dry out the meringue.

Fold, not too carefully, the meringue into the dry ingredients.  Keep folding over until the macaron batter is ribbon-like and spreads. Pipe out into rounds on parchment and allow to rest for approx. 1 hour to form a skin.

Bake at 350 degrees.  Baking time will differ by oven but I usually bake for approximately 12 minutes until the tops are just slightly browned.  

Allow cookies to cool and match up by size. Sandwich with Nutella spread.

*Some tips I've read for dealing with tricky ovens include using doubled pans if your oven floor is hot and some bakers swear by using a wooden spoon to slightly prop open the oven door to release a little heat. I cross my eyes, toes, and hold my breath. Do whatever works for you. Also, plan on throwing out a few batches - that way you won't be disappointed. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Texas Book Festival Rocks!!!: Baked's Peanut Butter Crispy Bars

People around the world flock to Austin for the Austin City Limits and South by Southwest festivals. They are sooo missing out. For my money (which is none because it's free!!!) the Texas Book Festival is the best festival Austin hosts, although it's probably not as cool to brag to your friends that you're headed to a book festival as opposed to ACL. Former First Lady, Laura Bush, founded the festival in 1996 and it has been an annual event ever since. Despite my reservations about her taste in men, I've always admired Mrs. Bush (if nothing for her perseverance). Held in late October when the weather is amazing, the festival setting at the state capitol is beautiful and the crowd is manageable, well behaved, and no one ever pukes on your shoes. At least not so far but it's a very family friendly festival so you never know. Kids and projectile vomit go hand in hand. Compared to some other Austin festivals, there are never any dust storms, mud slides, or drunken idiots to contend with. Lidia Bastianich was a guest author this year and her session was packed! I showed up 20 minutes before the scheduled time and there wasn't a seat to be had.
Fall comes late in Central Texas but it is worth the wait. Last weekend was the perfect fall weekend- cool in the evening and pleasantly warm during the day. Eric and I took advantage of the season and took the boat out on Lake Austin. He enjoyed casting his fly rod and I enjoyed my book. I've been reading Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from my Kitchen Table. I've read her blog, Orangette, for some time now but am just getting to her book.

My idea of a perfect weekend always includes some kitchen time. I made peanut butter crispy bars from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking because they worked with the Halloween color scheme so well and just happen to be delicious! The guys from Baked, a Brooklyn bakery, did a demo at the Texas Book Festival last year to promote their cookbook. I picked up a copy of the book and have ejoyed most of the recipes I've tried so far but this one is, hands down, my favorite. These bars combine two of my favorite childhood treats- rice crispy bars and Reese's peanut butter cups. They're as decadent as they sound but that doesn't stop me from eating at least two at a time!

Peanut Butter Crispy Bars
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

Crispy Crust:
1 ¾ cups crisped rice cereal
¼ cup sugar
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Layer:
5 ounces good-quality milk chocolate coarsely chopped
1 cup creamy peanut butter

Chocolate Icing:
3 ounces dark chocolate (60 to 72% cacao), coarsely chopped
½ teaspoon light corn syrup
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

Lightly spray a paper towel with nonstick cooking spray and use it to rub the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking pan.

To make the crispy crust, put the cereal in a large bowl and set aside. Pour ¼ cup water into a small saucepan. Gently add the sugar and corn syrup (do not let any sugar or corn syrup touch the sides of the pan) and use a small wooden spoon to stir the mixture until just combined. Put a candy thermometer in the saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat and bring to a boil; cook until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage, 235 degrees F. Remove from heat, stir in the butter, and pour the mixture over the cereal. Working quickly, stir until the cereal is thoroughly coated, then pour it into the prepared pan. Using your hands, press the mixture into the bottom of the pan (do not press up the sides). Let the crust cool to room temperature while you make the next layer.

To make the milk chocolate peanut butter layer, stir together the chocolate and peanut butter in a large nonreactive metal bowl. Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, until the mixture is smooth. Remove the bowl from the pan and stir for about 30 seconds to cool slightly. Pour the mixture over the cooled crust. Put the pan in the refrigerator for 1 hour, or until the top layer hardens.

And to make the chocolate icing, combine the chocolate, corn syrup and butter in a large nonreactive metal bowl and follow the same steps as the milk chocolate peanut butter layer. Once you pour the chocolate icing over the chilled milk chocolate layer, refrigerate the pan for 1 hour or until the top hardens.

Cut into 9 squares and serve. The bars can be stored in the refrigerator, covered tightly, for up to four days.