Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Word About the Blog's Title

In general, when we speak of cut-up cakes for grownups, we do not refer to "adult" cakes, although I did have one minor lapse. I was showing pictures of my cakes to a five-year-old girl recently and, encouraged by her enthusiasm, showed her a picture of the lapse, thinking I might get a really good giggle out of her. She was Not Amused. At her age, I suppose I might not have been either. I hurried on to more acceptable subject matter.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Paean to the Joy of Cooking

Lest readers think I am a slave to the Moosewoodempire, I should say that another favorite cookbook in our house is the very hep 1953 Joy of Cooking-- so up-to-the-minute that it even includes special instructions for making cakes with an electric mixer.

A cookbook is not just a compendium of recipes. It is a book with a voice, and I am completely charmed by Irma Rombauer's voice.

"To give this book the impression of sobriety and stability it deserves, the alcoholic cocktails have been relegated to the chapter on Beverages. There they may blush unseen by those who disapprove of them and they may be readily found in the company of many other good drinks by those who do not." (p.1)

"The old definition of 'lady' is 'cake-giver.' Whether you bake a cake as an attention for a friend, send a box of cookies to a homesick child or hand a pan of gingerbread over a back fence, the gesture is one of fellowship that adds to your stature and enriches your life. Besides, it's fun to be a 'lady.'" (p. 592)

"A layer cake is a complete course. Unfortunately, it is frequently served in addition to a dessert, which dwarfs it." (p. 639; Wow! Can I go back and visit this time period, please?)

on Orange Cake - "A gorgeous gilded lily presented without apologies." (p. 644)

on Chocolate Spice Cake - "Having firmly made up my mind that this collection contained enough chocolate cakes, I have lost my strength of character sufficiently to lower the bars to let this one in. Its epitaph might well be--'If I am so soon done for, what was I begun for?'" (p. 613; I think this means it's a very good cake that will be eaten quickly, but I'm not sure)

on Mystery Cake - "It would not occur to me to bake it for my own purposes as I have many others to choose from that are better..." (p. 614; but how could you resist making a cake for which one of the ingredients is a can of condensed tomato soup?)

on German Cherry Cake - "There are, of course, different versions of the same cake. Mine is a fairly modern one which may call displeasure down on my head. However, even a German Cherry Cake rule must bow to the Zeitgeist." (p. 638; "rule" is the author's word for "recipe"; we can vouch for this one - it is a very tasty tart - not really a cake)

"Is there anything better than good coffee cake? I am told that the deposed King of Spain 'dunked.' Perhaps that afforded him some comfort." (p. 623; I have included a link for those of you who, like me, are not as historically fluent as we should be)

on Crumb Spice Cake - "This really deserves mention of some kind but I have run out of adjectives." (p. 615; a legitimate plea, given the thousands of recipes in the book)

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Volcano Cake

I had a party on May 18, and wasn't sure which of the designs in the queue would be best for the event. When I found out that May 18 is the anniversary of the 1980 Mount Saint Helens eruption, the choice was obvious. A volcano it would be.

I made a chocolate angel food cake from my go-to cookbook of the moment, the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts. I'm not sure I'd ever made an angel food cake before, but I'll definitely be doing it again. It is a hoot to beat twelve egg whites to stiff peaks, with the beaters wallowing in this incredibly sensual bubble bath. (It's faster with a standing mixer, if you have one, but the kinesthetic experience of using the hand mixer is worth it.)

I should confess here that, in yet another flagrant violation of Article 6, the manifesto article banning obscure tools and ingredients (an article more honored in the breach than in the observance), I used powdered egg whites. These can be a little hard to find (try a health food store or the Jewish section of your local grocery store), but they are a fabulous invention. I don't mind separating eggs, but what on earth would I do with twelve egg yolks? For that matter, I wonder what the powdered egg white people do with the yolks. Sell them to mayonnaise makers? the buttercream factory? (In the process of looking for a good link I discovered that Deb-El, which makes a common brand of powdered egg whites, also makes mayonnaise!)

Another excellent feature of the angel food cake is the apparent daring involved in cooling and decanting it. I remember being wildly impressed as a child when Mom cooled the cake in its pan hanging upside down on a soda bottle (the cake that is, not Mom). Glass soda bottles being a thing of the past, a wine bottle is an adequate substitute. I still find the process darn impressive.

angel food cake cooling

Since the footprint of the cake was relatively small, it fit on a cookie sheet (a large platter would make a nicer presentation - we just don't own one). I used a long serrated knife to cut chunks off the top of the cake to create an irregular mountainous shape with plenty of ravines. I piled the chunks at the base of the cake to create a more conical shape. A few smaller chunks went into the crater to soak up extra lava. You could also strew some chocolate-covered nuts, raisins, or espresso beans about as rubble.

At this point, the cake did not look like delicious food. The addition of ash and lava greatly improved things.

volcano cake shaping

I sprinkled the mountain with powdered sugar, followed by cocoa. If you're a gadgety person, we highly recommend this flour duster. It's great fun to use and works beautifully. (Article 6? Never heard of it.)

volcano cake with ash

I was mostly going for an ash effect. You could also apply a thick layer of powdered sugar, if you wanted snowpack or glaciers, although that veers toward violation of Article 2, which decrees that taste not be sacrificed for visual aesthetics.

Next I applied the hardened lava, made of chocolate glaze poured down the ravines. I topped the lava with a bit more ash after the chocolate cooled.

The molten lava was a raspberry sauce from (you guessed it) the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts. I filled the crater with the sauce and poured some along the paths of the cooled lava.

volcano cake with lava

The crowning touch was the dry ice. We bought the dry ice from the fish counter at our local grocery store. (Other possibe sources: party supply, welding supply, ice cream shop, or theater supply). Note that two pounds of dry ice, well wrapped and stored in a chest freezer, will reduce to about two ounces in less than two days. Ahem. Fortunately, two ounces was just about the right amount.

I had chosen to make a thick, delicious molten lava, knowing that it might not put on a very spectacular display, which it didn't. But the burblings and wisps of smoke were still a great hit at the party. Finkbuilt has ideas for increasing the vigor of the eruption, which I chose to ignore.

bubbling volcano cake

If I felt the need to impress a younger crowd, I might violate Article 4, the manifesto's ban on non-food items, and put a small bowl of water in the top of the crater to improve "smoke" production. A small waterproof flashlight shining up through the lava in the crater would also be a nice touch.

I didn't have clear memories of eating homemade angel food cake, so didn't know what to expect. Wow. Store bought angel food cake has nothing on this puppy. You know how store bought angel food is kind of tough and chewy? This cake was melt-in-your-mouth soft and stayed that way for the several days it took me to mop up the leftovers. I didn't get any help from Matt. He said it was the best angel food cake he'd ever had...and he still didn't much like it. The guests at the party more than made up for his lack of enthusiasm. Everyone went back for seconds without prompting. One of the virtues of a fat-free cake? You can eat a lot of it.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

In Praise of the Graham Cracker

When I was a child, there was still a treat to come after we finished the cake, because Mom served us the leftover icing on graham crackers. That dish is still one of my core comfort foods.

In addition to making thrifty use of leftovers, graham crackers are also excellent templates for swatching frosting and toppings. Is spirulina boysenberry frosting really edible? Mix up a tiny batch, spread it on a graham cracker and see. What should we sprinkle on white frosting to denote light brown fur? Nutmeg? Ground hazelnuts? Grated chocolate? Cocoa? All of the above? Set up a platter full of graham crackers and experiment to your heart's content.

blacktailed hare cake closeup

The one drawback of this scheme is that it's tempting to eat all of your swatches at once. Don't. They'll keep, and you need to save yourself for the cake.

P.S. Happy S.O.S.A.D.!

graham crackers with frosting


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Emperor Penguin Cake

finished penguin cakeThis is the first cake Matt designed for me, and it remains one of his best efforts. He is particularly proud of how efficiently the design uses the cake.

The penguin is straight out of Antarctic Antics: A Book of Penguin Poems. This is one of our favorite books. Where else will you find poetry with rhymes like "can't you be" and "anchovies," or "featherweight" and "regurgitate"? Well, maybe here someday, but in general...

Other than keeping the pattern, we didn't document the first iteration very thoroughly. So when it came time to make a cake for a fundraising auction, I decided to dust this one off and refine it a bit. Well, I decided, and Matt ended up doing all the work while I was occupied with other auction preparations.

Actually, I did make the cake itself. It's the Black Mocha Cake from the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts. I hadn't made that recipe before, and it turned out to be tasty, but extremely moist - reminiscent of a pudding cake and not well suited to a cut-up cake. So we froze the bejeebers out of it, and it worked pretty well. (On the cake's little sign at the auction, we called it a "moist gateau," figuring that would have more cachet than "pudding cake.")

The cake is presented on a piece of plywood that is first covered with gray paper, and then waxed paper. This creates a nice icy effect, and the waxed paper is easy to clean up when the icing goes astray.

The cake is quite sweet, and when you add frosting, it teeters over the edge of too much. To reel it in a little, Matt crumbcoated the assembled cake with an unsweetened chocolate glaze (recipe below). He used a skewer to score lines into the glaze to mark the border between the white frosting and chocolate ganache that were applied next.

crumbcoating the penguin cake

The "black" parts of the penguin are sour cream chocolate ganache (recipe below) - a lot of it. Matt used 10 ounces of chocolate. You could certainly use less without being accused of skimping, although it's easier to apply if you can spread it thickly.

After applying the ganache, Matt filled in the white belly with sour cream frosting (recipe below). I am grooving on sour cream frosting these days. It's an easy way to make truly white frosting, it's got a little tang to balance the sweetness, and (unlike butter-based frosting) it doesn't harden too much to spread when you put it in the fridge. The only difficulty with sour cream frosting is that it doesn't set up very well. So on a hot day the frosting is apt to sag and adds an extra layer of adipose tissue to your penguin's belly.

frosting the penguin cake

While cake turntables are a boon for frosting round layer cakes, they aren't much help for oblong cakes. But hunching over the table is no fun either. Brilliant innovation: put a cardboard box or other object of appropriate height on the table and place the cake board on top of that. You still have to be careful when turning the cake board, but it puts the cake at a much more comfortable height for frosting.

penguin cake head detailThe beak is defined with a sliver of a spear of dried cantaloupe (you could also use dried papaya).

The eye is a white jordan almond dabbed with ganache for a pupil.

The ear patches are grated zest from about 1/4 of an organic orange (it's best to use organic fruit for making zest). Our Microplane grater does a beautiful job of citrus zesting. Regular zesters are also nice, but produce zest bits that are too coarse for this application.

The wings are defined with licorice whip.

The feet are dusted with a crushed graham cracker. The first time Matt made the cake, he used cocoa powder, which also worked well.

At the auction, one of my colleagues spoke wistfully about the idea of a husband who makes cake. It is a very good thing.

penguin cake at auction

Chocolate Glaze

Use butter and unsweetened chocolate in a ratio of 1 tablespoon butter to 1 ounce chocolate. Matt made 6:6, but 4:4 would probably have been enough.

Melt butter and chocolate together over double boiler or in microwave. If microwaving, do something like 20% power in 3-4 minute increments. Start stirring once it's melted enough.

Drizzle the glaze over the cake, spreading it with a spatula as you go. You will probably need to reheat the glaze once or twice during the process.

Ordinarily it would be best to apply the glaze while the cake was on a cooling rack and then transfer the cake to a clean platter for serving. In the case of a cake assembled from multiple pieces (like, say, a penguin), or in the case of a fragile "moist gateau," you'll probably have to apply the glaze to the cake after it's already on its presentation board. You can clean up later by scraping the excess glaze off with a knife and then polishing up with a paper towel.

Sour Cream Chocolate Ganache

Melt as described in the chocolate glaze recipe:
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate (Matt used 8 oz bittersweet and 2 oz unsweetened chocolate because we didn't have enough bittersweet)

Beat in:
1 cup sour cream (Matt used 3/4 c sour cream and 1/4 c whipping cream because we didn't have enough sour cream)
1 1/2 tablespoons coffee liqueur

powdered sugar to taste (probably start with about 1/2 cup)

Sour Cream Frosting

Beat together:
3 tablespoons sour cream
1/2 pound (2 cups) powdered sugar

Add one or two more teaspoons of sour cream as needed to achieve the desired consistency. Don't add more or the frosting will be too runny to support itself.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Cautionary Tales of Waxed Paper

My usual protocol when preparing cake pans is to grease, flour and apply waxed paper to the bottom of the pan. This always seems like belt, suspenders and helium balloon, but it's commonly recommended and cheap insurance at the price. After all, you want a cut-up cake, not a break-up cake.

There are many theories on the order of application. It's good to start with grease, anyway, because it helps keep your paper stuck down. I used to think there was no need to grease the paper because, hey, it's already waxed. Mostly, that's true. With an ordinary butter cake, the crumb is loose enough that if a little sticks to the waxed paper, it doesn't mess up the rest of the cake.

However, if you have a particularly sticky or thick batter, greasing the waxed paper is a good idea. We recently made a flourless chocolate genoise that turned out fairly dense and sticky (much nicer than the usual flourless cake, but that's another story for another day). Pulling the waxed paper off that cake pulled off a substantial layer of crumbs. A tasty bonus for the cooks, but we would have preferred the crumbs to stay on the cake.

And then there were the sesame oatmeal bars we made for our wedding. (See the recipe at the end of this post.) I thought I'd get fancy and add waxed paper to the pan, even though I knew the recipe worked fine without the paper. With true motherly patience, my mom scraped the baked-on sticky mess off the waxed paper, and we served artisanal hand-formed sesame oatmeal balls at the reception. I'm not sure that even greasing the waxed paper would have helped with this recipe. Since the bars are removed individually, rather than turned out, just greasing the pan works fine.

But wait, there's more. Resist the temptation to use waxed paper between the pizza stone and the pizza. In the first place, you're not supposed to put exposed waxed paper in the oven - it should always be completely covered with batter, or it is apt to smoke and burn. Not only that, since pizza crust is not crumbly by nature, it turns out that waxed paper forms an unholy bond with pizza dough. As we learned to our sorrow, the amount of actual food that can be salvaged depends on how long you're willing to spend picking waxed paper off your dinner and how much paper you're willing to eat. Yes, parchment paper is more expensive than waxed paper, and the name sounds hoity-toity, but I'm willing put on airs if it means not having to eat waxed paper.

Sesame Oatmeal Bars
(from The Buffet Book by Carole Peck)
I generally don't reproduce recipes from books that are in print, but this book does not seem to be easily available, so here goes.

Melt together:
4 ounces (1/2 cup or 1 stick) unsalted butter
3 tablespoons honey
1/3 cup light brown sugar

Remove from heat.

Stir into butter mixture:
1 1/4 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/3 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1/3 cup sesame seeds

Bake in greased 9" square pan (do NOT use waxed paper) at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15-18 minutes, or until golden.

Cool 10 minutes and score into bars. Let cool completely and cut along score lines.

Dip or drizzle with chocolate if desired.
for dipping - 4 ounces melted semisweet chocolate and 1 teaspoon oil
for drizzling - 2 ounces melted unsweetened chocolate and 1 teaspoon oil

The bars are very sweet and somewhat crumbly. They keep up to two weeks in a tightly covered container.

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