Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Queen of Hearts Overbaked those Tarts . . .

I took the plunge this week and made a fruit tart. I'm more of a cake/cookie baker than a pie/tart baker so it wasn't as if I was betting on a sure thing when I decided to do this. Granted, it was a pretty tart, all in all, but far from perfect. I didn't expect perfection, though, and maybe you shouldn't either, especially if you've never made one before.

The first problem I encountered involved the crust. Despite my anxious hovering, the outer edge obviously overbrowned, thanks at least in part to my recalcitrant oven. I can hardly wait for that old tin can to keel over so I can start combing the stores for a beautiful new convection oven. You know, one of those polished-nickel-finish professional-looking jobs that every food magazine is touting these days? It's only a matter of time, or so I keep telling myself. (We're going on fifteen years with the current oven. Can it really be that much longer??)

Forgive me, I digress.

Back to the tart. I had no trouble at all making the tart dough itself. Against my better judgment I used one of Martha Stewart's recipes; she and I are not always sympatico, if you know what I mean. There's a bit of a rift in the trust department, as far as her recipe reliability goes. I've been let down, and more than once. But yesterday, turning the other cheek, I gave the old gal another chance at bat and used the basic tart dough recipe from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook. I wasn't wholly disappointed this time. In fact, the dough came together very smoothly and rolled out with no glitches whatsoever. It was an extremely cooperative dough, with an unexpectedly pleasing buttery color. (Leave it to M.S. to take the color palette of the unbaked dough into account when concocting the formula. She probably used paint swatches to get it just right.)

Using a French rolling pin, I rolled the dough out between two pieces of parchment on my cold marble pastry slab. (The slab had been in the freezer for about 20 minutes.) That worked like a charm and kept the dough from getting too soft. The paper peeled off cleanly and the dough settled comfortably into a nine- inch tart pan. After a little tucking, and the requisite docking with a fork, it resembled a cozy blanket, what with that pretty scalloped edge. And the warm golden glow it gave off had me mesmerized . . .

So I put the unbaked tart shell in the fridge to chill a bit before baking. Once cold enough, I laid a piece of parchment over the dough and filled it with dried beans to act as "pie weights" and keep the shell from puffing up in the oven since it would be blind baked. Put it in the oven.

It soon became clear the outer edge of the crust was well on its way to browning, long before the rest of the dough could reciprocate. After about ten minutes of baking, I covered the edge with a larger sized, overturned tart-pan ring.

That helped, I'm sure, but ultimately the whole thing just got too toasty. The shell was usable, and use it I did, but it was certainly not as picturesque as I'd hoped it might be. I set the shell aside to cool.

Same breezy process with the pastry cream. (I used the recipe from the King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion cookbook; the King's never really let me down.) It blended together just as the recipe described, with no problems. The recipe didn't even mandate straining the pastry cream, and yet it ended up quite smooth. I put the hot pastry cream into a glass bowl, covered the surface of the cream with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming, and it went into the fridge to chill.

At this juncture I started preparing the fruit. Shooting for a vivid tart, I used blackberries,
strawberries, and kiwis. I actually did a test run of the fruit placement on the inside of the tart pan ring, to see what arrangement would look best and to make sure I had enough pieces/slices of each fruit. (I thought I was leaving nothing to chance . . . how poignant.) After I sliced the kiwis, being obsessive, I rounded them with a cookie cutter to eliminate the uneven edges left from the knife. The stage was just about set.

It's amazing how little pastry cream you need to fill a shallow tart shell. After seeing the amount of pastry cream the recipe yielded--perhaps one and a half cups--I was afraid there might not be enough, but the opposite was true. After I'd poured and smoothed the cream in the shell there was actually some leftover. Fruit placement, the next step, was relatively stress free.

Now, as you probably know, the final touch on a tart like this is typically a glaze, both to add that beautiful sparkly quality and, in some cases, to help stave off deliquescence. (For the unitiated among us, deliquescence refers to something becoming soft, fluid, melty. Not a good thing when used in reference to a tart.) There are as many recipes for tarts as there are for pies, cakes, cookies, and every baking expert seems to have their own opinion on the best type of glaze to use on fruit.

There are those who advise using heated, strained preserves, typically either apricot, currant, or strawberry. There are those who advise using strained jam mixed with a liqueur like kirsch. There are those, Martha Stewart among them, who advise using a homemade sugar syrup comprised of granulated sugar, water, and lemon juice, boiled and left to simmer for a while. The latter is what I used. As I gently brushed the crystal clear syrup onto the fruit, its impressive shimmer warmed my heart. (Yes, yes, I used one of those new floppy silicone-bristled brushes, have no fear. No stiff old bristle brush for me. I didn't just fall off the turnip truck, you know.)

At this point, one could say I rested easy. Grabbing the camera, I photographed the tart for a few minutes and felt pleased with its overall appearance, despite the darkened crust. I put the tart, in a covered glass cake dome, into the fridge as it wouldn't be sliced for hours.

Perhaps three hours later I looked at the tart again, the way a new mother admiringly peeks in on her sleeping newborn. Sigh. . . Said newborn was looking alarmingly watery on top. Crestfallen, I delicately dabbed up the watery liquid with the corner of a paper towel, being careful not to mess up the cream. Long story short, the tart kept deliquescing throughout the evening. That sparkly glowing aspect, which in my hubris I had so coveted, was now sadly diminished . . . along with my dreams of a tarty triumph.
Postlude: The tart was sliced and eaten about six hours after it was glazed, and it certainly wasn't bad. But, next time, I'm holding off on the glazing until perhaps half an hour before serving. And, I'm going with the strained jam method instead of sugar syrup. I suppose I should have known there was a reason Ms. Stewart mandated the glazed tart should be served "immediately." But I find it disagreeable to admit she was probably right. Most disagreeable.

(To comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please click on the word "COMMENTS" just below.)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What's next . . . McCupcakes?

In the last five to ten years, depending upon whom you ask, cupcakes have taken on an entirely new aura. The cupcake extravaganza, expressed in terms of shops dedicated almost solely to the petite cakes, presumably began in New York City. What was once just a chic Manhattan fad, like most chic Manhattan fads, eventually infiltrated even the most white-bread suburban hideaways of the not-altogether-sleepy Midwest.

No longer just a fad, independent cupcake shops of every stripe abound these days, sprouting like dandelions where one least expects. They entice with their unavoidable cuteness, their coy come-hither window displays (often featuring color schemes heavy on pale pink and chocolate brown), and--most critically--their promise of a momentary return to those vanishing memories of childhood bliss. In other words, they are virtually inescapable. But then, who would want to escape? Not I. Nor you? I didn't think so.

Of course, there are those among us who believe the flurry of such shops opening in the last few years is directly related to a sense, at least among society's more enlightened members, of the value of moderation in all things. That moderation includes the need for dietary self restraint, coupled with the irrepressible hedonistic and very human urge to indulge impulsively from time to time.

The demure cupcake, though majestic in its own quiet way, satisfies this urge perfectly. It's relatively inexpensive, certainly so when compared to the cost of purchasing a whole cake. It discourages the opportunity for one to eat to excess, especially given that its size is fairly standard and predictable. It arrives on your plate, or in your white paper bakery bag, as a single self-contained unit, making it easily portable and thus eliminating the need to wolf it down immediately if one chooses not to do so.

So there it is, in a nutshell (or, more appropriately, a cupcake liner). Whether motivated by nostalgia, economics, moderation, portability, or the simple unquenchable craving for something soft and sweet, there is always a good reason to invest in the tender joy of a cupcake. What harm can it do?

And as far as the ongoing proliferation of cupcake shops, where to draw the line, you may ask? Well, don't start worrying about that just yet. Don't you have enough on your mind already just wondering where your next cupcake will come from?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Inspiration is just a Bakery Away . . .

I've been visiting some fantastic bakeries lately. Not buying a doggone thing, but loving just about everything I've seen. You might say I've been in these bakeries in spirit, though not incarnate. I've been virtually visiting an array of utterly stunning and unusual establishments' websites, looking for ideas and inspiration to fuel my daydreams. I stumble upon these sites now and then via other baking related blogs, through magazine articles, by perusing readers' comments in a wide spectrum of foodie websites, and sometimes by googling odd or not-so-odd baking terms/phrases. You name it, these wonderful bakeries and pastry shops are lurking out there, waiting to be found. I thought it might be fun to share with you a list of a few of these extremely appealing, occasionally daring, always yummy-looking shops.

Particularly encouraging to me, for some of these enterprises, are the "pin-stripe-suit to pastry brush" stories that describe their beginnings. Frequently, or so it seems, these businesses are conceived by individuals who've left the corporate world either by choice or by force. They're often started by people who are bound and determined to pursue a different kind of professional life. I can relate to that dream. And so, now and then, I love to take a few minutes to meander hypnotically through such sites. Maybe you feel the same way?
That's just a tiny group to start with. I'll add more as I find them and deem them worthy of our list. If you find any you deem worthy, please let me know!


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Nothing Comes from Nothing, as the Song Says, but Something Definitely can come from Leftovers

What does one do with a little bit of this and a little bit of that after a cake or cookie project? A few tablespoons of shaved chocolate, a baggie full of chopped pecans? A scant cup of chocolate ganache that was tossed into the freezer at Christmas time? Well, sometimes odds and ends like this can contribute to a joyful amalgam. That's what happened with the cake pictured here. On a Sunday afternoon a month or two ago my husband mentioned he would like to bring a cake to work the next day for a small birthday celebration. So, being in a baking mood (which is most of the time, of course) I set to work and quickly baked a two-layer yellow butter cake from scratch. Nothing fancy or too laborious.

Things were looking a little dicey when the new frosting recipe I tried didn't come together well. Though it tasted good, it didn't look smooth and worthy of coating a special-occasion cake. So I used it only to fill the cake, not on the outside. Afterall a cake's visual appeal is often partly illusion, is it not? Next, I defrosted a container of ganache leftover from a holiday project and used that to cover the outside; perfect, I thought. But, despite ganache's natural lusciousness, more illusion was called for. Out came the chopped toasted pecans. I think these were leftover from a cookie project, also at Christmas. But just which cookie, I can no longer recall. No matter, the pecans complemented the ganache perfectly in taste and substance. For the final touch, I sprinkled the top generously with shaved/grated chocolate, a combo of dark and milk chocolate Callebaut. (This intriguingly flavored, very high-quality chocolate can be purchased in roughly hewn chunks from a local gourmet market near my house. I use it frequently for a variety of purposes when baking. It's pretty versatile and extremely handy to have around. Not really too pricey either, all in all.) And the final touch for this impromptu celebration cake? A charming little starfish crafted in a flash with a tiny bit of the dark Callebaut, melted in the microwave and poured into an inexpensive Wilton candy mold. Voila! An easy and relatively quick cake worthy of an office celebration.

So, if anyone ever tells you there is no room for improvisation or creativity in baking just tell them to back off, because we all know that's simply not true!

Friday, April 10, 2009

My Favorite Blueberry Muffin Recipe

I like to use frozen Maine blueberries when I make these. They're small, tasty, available all the time (you can get them in a big bag at Costco, for eg.), and not horrendously expensive. The texture of these muffins is beautifully soft, not tough or rubbery at all. They are delicious and they smell great when they're in the oven. Don't expect them to stick around your house for long. My kids absolutely love them.

This recipe is from the book Baking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America, on page 72. I hope they won't mind me sharing it with you. This is an excellent book, by the way. I bought my copy used for about half the cover price.

Makes 12 muffins.

Flourless cooking spray for greasing (if you decide not to use paper liners)
2 cups plus 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour (divided use)
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. nutmeg (the CIA says "grated nutmeg" but heaven knows I never have a real hunk of that around)
3/4 whole
1 large egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 stick of unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups of fresh blueberries, washed and patted dry, or unthawed frozen blueberries

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray muffin pans lightly with cooking spray or use paper liners. Sift the 2 cups flour, the baking powder, salt, and nutmeg into a bowl and set aside.

In a separate bowl, blend the milk, egg, and vanilla extract.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until light and smooth in texture, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the wet ingredients, mixing on low speed and scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed to blend the batter evenly. Increase the speed to medium and mix until the batter is very smooth, 2 minutes.

In a bowl, scatter the 2 tbsp. flour over the berries and toss to coat them evenly. Working by hand with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, fold the blueberries into the batter, working gently and just long enough to distribute the berries evenly.

Divide the batter evenly among 12 muffin cups. Bake until the top of a muffin springs back when lightly pressed, about 18 to 20 minutes.

Let the muffins cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Remove them from the pans to finish cooling.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Double Chocolate Zucchini Cake

Yep, this is one of those recipes with the "hidden" veggie. They seem to be all the rage lately, and they're not always all they're cracked up to be, but this one is a delicious exception. Seems like everyone and their sister are cranking out cookbooks chock full of this kind of stuff. This recipe won't disappoint you, though. It's moist and tasty. The chocolate pictured below (with the sliced zucchini) is from a milk chocolate Easter bunny who sacrificed his life for the greater good. The good of cake, that is. You can use regular chips or any broken bits of chocolate you have lying about--dark, semisweet, or milk, as you prefer--in this recipe. Even a mixture of all three, though I admit I haven't tried it yet, sounds interesting to me. Whatever you have on hand should do nicely.

2 and 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 and 1/2 cups softened unsalted butter
1 and 1/2 tsp. vanilla
3 large eggs
3 and 3/4 cups sifted all purpose flour
3/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa (use Dutch process cocoa if you, like me, crave intensity)
1and  1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
2 and 1/2 cups grated zucchini (drained if very wet)
1 and 1/2 cups semi-sweet mini chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 12-cup bundt pan.

Mix sifted flour, cocoa, soda, and salt in a bowl and set aside.

In a large mixer bowl at low speed, beat the sugar, butter, vanilla, and eggs until blended. Increase speed to high and beat until fluffy (about five minutes). Reduce speed to low, and add flour mixture alternately with sour cream. Scrape bowl as needed and continue beating on low until well blended. Increase speed to medium and beat for one minute.

Fold in zucchini and chocolate pieces. The batter will be thick. Spread evenly in the pan. (The pan will be pretty full, and the cake may puff up in the oven a bit beyond the rim.) Bake approximately 45 to 55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the top comes out clean. Cool cake in the pan, on a rack, for 15 minutes. Remove from pan and complete cooling on a rack.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

And now for a little 20th century classic American poetry . . . because poetry and baked goods just go so well together . . .

The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

--Wallace Stevens, 1945

**Stevens was an insurance executive by day, and a brilliantly original American poet by night. So you see, anything is possible. Even creating enduring poetry in the midst of what appears to be a garden variety, middle-aged guy's daily existence.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Stella's Sour Cream Pound Cake

This is a very good pound cake with a wonderful velvety texture. One of my mother's classics.

2 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
6 large eggs
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour (sift first, then measure out 3 cups)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 cup good quality dairy sour cream (use a high-quality brand like Breakstone or Daisy; thicker and creamier works better than moister generic brands)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 tsp. almond extract
1/4 tsp. lemon extract

In large mixer bowl, cream together sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stop and scrape bowl as needed.

Sift together flour, salt, and soda. Add dry ingredients to creamed mixture alternately with sour cream, beating on medium-low speed after each addition. Add extracts and vanilla; beat well.

Pour batter (it will be thick and fluffy, and it won't actually "pour" like typical cake batter) into greased and floured 10" tube pan or bundt pan. Smooth out top of batter to make it even all around and, because of the batter's thickness, try to ensure air "gaps" don't exist that will create bubbles in the finished product. Bake in 350 oven for at least one hour (my mom used to need to bake it about 1.5 hours in her oven, but that's much too long for my oven); don't underbake. Cake may test done with a toothpick inserted but not have reached the stage that will produce the nicest texture. This may be a trial and error proposition based on the idiosyncracies of your own oven. Cake top may be fully golden brown long before cake is really done baking, so beware. Cover cake top lightly with foil if you're afraid it will overdarken but cake is still not done.

Cool in pan for 15 minutes before removing from pan to cool completely on a rack. When completely cool, the cake can be glazed (chocolate ganache, lemon zest glaze, vanilla glaze -- all are good) or left unglazed, as you prefer.

One interesting variation that my teenage son requests, is to use granulated sugar, vs. flour, when greasing-and-flouring the pan. The sugar lends a subtle, sweet, crusty aspect to the outside of the cake.