Thursday, October 23, 2008

Four Tea Cake

We made this cake for a British friend's fortieth birthday party -- a tea party, of course. I came up with the "four tea" idea pretty quickly. I figured I'd just cut a flat cake into an appropriate shape and "draw" four tea cups on it. I sketched something up, thought of some decorating ideas and was quite pleased with myself. Matt the architect objected, saying it was cheating to make a flat drawing, rather than using the actual shape of the cake. Intense interspousal negotiation ensued which finally resulted in a much better plan. Or at least more ambitious. Certainly more architectural. And full of learning opportunities.


The first question was how to make teacup-shaped cakes. We envisioned using 4 small metal bowls. They didn't have anything like that at our local cake decorating store, but they had something even better - a Wilton 6 Cup Kingsize Muffin Pan. (The only problem with the pan is that I can't imagine what else we might use it for.)

The highly experimental cake turned out better than we had any right to expect. We used the White Cake from The 1997 Joy of Cooking (White Cake 1 in earlier versions) and added some tea and lemon to the batter. Then we added chocolate to half the batter and made a marbled cake, with the idea that it would look reminiscent of tea with milk swirled in. We made four cupcakes and baked the remaining batter in a 9" round pan. (Recipe details are at the end of the post.)

The sour cream chocolate frosting (also from the 1997 Joy) worked as advertised. (Our commission included a specific call for chocolate, or we probably would have ventured in another direction.) The flavor of the frosting was a bit assertive in comparison to the delicate cake, but not incompatible. It took about half of the recipe to frost the single 9" round.

Decorating with coarse sugar and lemon zest was elegant, although the zest flew everywhere when the guest of honor blew out the candles. The effect was festive, if a bit chaotic.

Then there was the crockery. It ought to have worked. We considered the qualities of our materials. Matt made a jig...



...and a prototype.



The prototype used up all of our frozen sugar cookie dough. We weren't sure what recipe we had used for the frozen dough, but figured it wouldn't matter too much. (Edited to add: I think we have finally identified the mystery recipe. You can find it in the Holiday Cookie Making Party post.) So we picked a recipe and whipped up another batch the night before the party. And made bikini cups.



Tried another recipe a couple of hours before the party. Added extra flour. And made Jabba the Cup.



The lesson here is probably that cookies are meant to be cooked horizontally. Given the success of the prototype, I am still not ready to accept this. Had there been time, I probably would have tried using a gingerbread cookie dough that is specially designed for making gingerbread houses. Fortunately, there was no time for that quixotic venture, so Matt employed surgery to salvage one of the Jabbas...





...and I made the other two cups out of rolled marzipan.



We made a paper template to help in rolling out the marzipan. The handles tended to pull off under their own weight. They might have worked better had we been able to prop them up and let them sit for a day.

The cookie saucers (baked over a greased Pyrex bowl) generally worked better than the cups, but some of them required special decanting techniques as well.



We would never let cookies go to waste, so we served the broken crockery on the side.



As usual, we came up with lots of other ideas for materials. We cannot vouch for them as we haven't tested them (and apparently even testing provides no guarantee), but here they are for what they're worth.

  • Apply decorative bits to the cup and saucer to create a china pattern - slivered almonds, flattened gumdrops, marzipan shapes, cookie shapes, chocolate candies, etc.

  • Make the cups from pie crust (we are kicking ourselves for not thinking of this earlier).

  • Make cups by frosting the cupcakes. Make sure the frosting projects above the cake so your "tea" doesn't overflow. The saucers and cup handles should probably still be made of cookie or pie dough.

  • Pour a brown glaze over the cupcakes to simulate tea - maybe caramel sauce or a thin penuche frosting (this brown sugar brandy sauce looks good). This would work best with cookie or marzipan cups, unless your frosting cups set up really firmly.

  • Omit the cupcakes altogether and just fill cookie teacups with a light brown cloud cream per The Cake Bible (colored with maple syrup, perhaps).

  • Try different tea flavor combinations. Put macha powder in your cake and frosting for green tea. Make spice cake and gingerbread cups for chai.

  • Make coffee cups instead. Use a mocha cake and top with swirls of whipped cream.


Marbled Tea Cake

Starting from the White Cake recipe in The 1997 Joy of Cooking (White Cake 1 in earlier editions), we made the following modifications.
  • omitted vanilla

  • added zest of 1/2 lemon to butter and sugar

  • for the milk we substituted 1 scant cup double bergamot Earl Grey tea, cooled, 1/3 cup nonfat dry milk, and 1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice

    • if you wanted to keep the whole milk, you could omit the tea and add a tiny bit of oil of bergamot instead

      • you can buy oil of bergamot at the health food store in the essential oils section
      • bergamot is a citrus fruit that actually doesn't taste a bit like tea but is evocative of tea because of its use in Earl Grey
      • there is also a purple flower native to the Great Plains called wild bergamot, which is unrelated to the citrus fruit
  • added 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda to dry ingredients (to compensate for the added acid of the lemon juice and chocolate)

  • marbling

    • before adding egg whites, divided batter into two parts and added 2 ounces melted unsweetened chocolate to one part
    • then mixed half of egg whites into each half of batter
    • alternated spoonfuls of each into prepared cake pans and drew knife through to marble
By measuring the volume of our pans, we had previously determined that about 10% of the batter should go in each of 4 muffin cups, with the remaining 60% for the 9" round cake pan. We put a little water in the empty muffin cups to prevent warping.

In retrospect, we should have made an extra muffin. Usually, when you make a cut up cake, there are plenty of tasting opportunities. Since these cakes weren't cut up, we couldn't taste them until the party - that was hard on us. It also meant we didn't have any extra "canvas" on which to experiment. We might also have made the muffins slightly larger. Had we done that, the 9" round cake probably would have cooked for more like the advertised 25 minutes. As it was, it took a lot longer.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Cake In A Bag

Traveling has been interfering with posting. Lots of backpacking, so I thought I'd share this recipe for backpacking cake. (For the person who reached this blog earlier on a search for "backpacking cake" - come back! We've got your answer now.)

Baking while camping presents unique challenges. If you are car- or canoe-camping, and you have room in your luggage, you can bake directly in a Dutch oven. Unfortunately, you can't bake in a backpacking cooking pot because the walls are too thin. The cake batter would turn into a charred cinder crust surrounding undercooked goo.

Cake in a bag avoids this problem by steaming the cake, instead of baking it. You cook the cake batter in an oven food bag or slow-cooker liner on a steaming rack inside your cooking pot. Technically, I suppose that makes it a pudding, rather than a cake, but "pudding in a bag" just sounds weird.

This recipe is entirely a Matt creation. The goals for the cake were to:
taste good - It's not hard to make cake that tastes good after a hard day of hiking, but this cake is yummy even when made at home.
require minimal extra weight - Eggs, oil and other liquids are relatively heavy and require separate sturdy containers to transport safely. This recipe can be carried as a dry mix in a single plastic bag.
require minimal extra gear - In addition to your one-burner backpacking stove and cooking pot, you will need only an oven food bag, a steaming rack and a couple of ounces of extra stove fuel.
be simple to prepare in camp - It's hard for any food, no matter how wonderful, to receive the acclaim it deserves if it isn't ready until the mosquitoes have devoured the children.

Note that beauty is not a criterion. This cake is ugly! It is not browned, and it comes out lumpy, or even lobed, based on the contours it assumes in the plastic bag.


On the other hand, the cake does not have to be as ugly as this picture suggests. Just use a better glaze recipe (as included in this post) and employ moderation in the number of birthday candles you use.

The recipe for chocolate cake in a bag was inspired by a recipe in Light Muffins by Beatrice Ojakangas. (I recommend this cookbook. The recipes are good, and neither taste nor texture suffers appreciably from the reduction in fat.) Matt has also developed a recipe for a date spice cake in a bag.

Gear Needed

Stove- your usual one-burner backpacking stove and some extra fuel
(We've used a white gas stove in the past. We haven't tried making cake in a bag over an alcohol stove; we don't see why you couldn't, though you may have to increase the baking time.)

Pot - the pot you would normally use to cook for more than two people while backpacking (we have a very light 8-cup aluminum thrift store pot that works well)

Steaming rack -
  • We use a homemade chicken wire steaming rack that weighs about an ounce and packs compactly in the pot.

  • You can buy a backpacking cake cooker (the Bakepacker) but, at 8 ounces, it's too heavy for our purposes.

  • We've never tried a home steamer basket, but it might work (this kind would definitely work if your pot is big enough). Ours weighs in at 6 ounces and is relatively bulky, but you could take it car camping and experiment.

  • Someday, we plan to try using a magic wire puzzle. No clue what it's made of or how much it weighs, but you can't deny the cool factor, and the price is certainly right.

  • For the ultra-light backpacker, you could try using a loose pile of twigs. The oven bags are pretty stout.

Oven food bag - Glad and Reynolds are widely available brands of oven food bags

When Matt was first developing this recipe, I wondered about the safety of baking in plastic, since these bags are not marketed for that purpose. So I sent an email to Reynolds and got this response from someone named Ethel - "Unfortunately, we have never tested these bags for baking a cake by any method and could not recommend it." Those people have no spirit of inquiry. (And could her name really be Ethel? It sounds like the customer support person in India who has to say his name is Mike.)

We decided to forge ahead on the theory that, if these bags are safe for cooking fatty meat at 400 degrees F (a big if), they should be no worse for baking low-fat cake at 212 degrees or less.

Chocolate Cake in a Bag

serves roughly 8, depending on how many miles you've hiked (the recipe makes the equivalent of 12 muffins)

At home, mix in a heavy-duty gallon bag:

1/4 cup hazelnuts, finely ground (see note at end of post)
1 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, grated
1 3/4 cups white flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup cocoa (preferably
Dutch process)
3 teaspoons instant coffee
8 teaspoons powdered egg whites (or powdered whole eggs to equal 2 eggs)
3 tablespoons powdered buttermilk
4 tablespoons vegetable or nut oil (mixing the oil with the dry ingredients makes it fairly safe to travel with)
Optional: seeds and pulp scraped from one vanilla bean (vanilla powder would be easier; you want the equivalent of 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract, which would be 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla powder according to one vendor)


Be sure to carry enough stove fuel for 35-45 minutes of cooking.

In camp:
  1. Fill your cooking pot with water to just below the level of the steaming rack and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer if your stove allows.

  2. Pour dry ingredients into oven bag. Add 1 1/2 cups water to dry ingredients and mix.

  3. Close oven bag loosely (to allow steam to escape, so bag won't burst). Steam, covered, for 35-45 minutes. To test for doneness, remove bag from pot, open and poke a utensil into the middle of the cake.

  4. Peel back the bag and serve.

Chocolate Glaze

Because it's not super-rich, this cake benefits from the extra moisture of a glaze. The easiest thing to do is use instant pudding. Try this recipe for something a bit swankier (in taste, not appearance).

At home, mix in a heavy-duty plastic bag:

1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 1/4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, ground
2 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons powdered buttermilk


In camp:
  1. When your cake is done, add 3 1/2 tablespoons of the boiling water to the dry ingredients in the plastic bag. Mix immediately and thoroughly by squeezing and agitating the bag. (The water must be near boiling to melt the ground chocolate.)

  2. Pour glaze over individual hunks of cake (to call them slices would be misleading).

Preparing Hazelnuts

Specifying finely ground hazelnuts in a recipe is a bit like a car repair manual saying "first remove the transmission."

I have yet to find a satisfactory method for removing hazelnut skins. The standard instruction to roast the nuts and rub the skins off with a towel is just a mean joke. Using baking soda in boiling water works beautifully, but imparts a baking soda taste. Most people don't find this offensive, but a few (like me) really have a hard time with it. While looking for a link explaining these methods, I was excited to find that someone suggested using plain boiling water. Definitely worth a try.

Grinding the hazelnuts is fun and easy if you have a good nut grinder. If you are thinking of buying one, I would suggest avoiding this type. Almonds will defeat it every time.

If you prefer, you can have someone else do the work for you and buy ready-made hazelnut meal.

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