Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Summer Baking: Cake Night {Class 6}

Cakes come in so many shapes, sizes, flavors, and colors. Every culture has its signature cake. For cake night we baked three very different cakes and threw in some maple scones for added fun (and added butter). The first two cakes screamed for a cold glass of milk on the side – sticky toffee pudding and chocolate decadence cake.

Sticky toffee pudding is just as it sounds – a rich cake flavored with dates, brown sugar, and coffee. After baking it is perforated and doused (smothered? drowned?) in a sweet sticky toffee sauce. The sauce is pure sugar (brown, corn or golden syrup), butter, and heavy cream. This cake is for the sweet lovers out there. Baking the sticky pudding helped teach the importance of knowing the proper cooking vessel. The size and material will determine the cooking time. Thin aluminum baking cups will cook much differently than thick ceramic ramekins. It is also important to match the sweetness of the dish to the serving vessel. This sticky toffee pudding was perfect in small amounts.

Moving from sweet to rich, the next dessert for the evening was a Chocolate Decadence Cake, a recipe from Pierre Herme. The method was fairly straightforward but he result was as the title suggests – decadent. Bittersweet chocolate and four other ingredients come together for a fudgy treat.

With a well-stocked pantry, this cake could easily be thrown together for last minute guests. While it was tempting to eat this right from the oven it was even better after cooking. The secret to this cake’s success is using high quality ingredients. With so few ingredients it really makes a difference.

Next we jumped from fudgy and dense to light and nutty. Financiers are something that might appear on a dessert menu with no explanation – the diner is expected to know what the cake is by the name. I had never had these before and they are delightful. Financiers are named for their original eaters – the financiers of France. They are a petite cake baked into a rectangle, reminiscent of a gold bar. The cake base contains ground almonds, pistachios, and brown butter, and egg whites. The finished cake is a nutty and light two-bite treat. The recipe we used was by Paris baker Eric Kayser. Some of the takeaways from the cake baking portion of the night were technique focused. Things that seem easy are actually integral to the final result (don’t take them for granted). Whisking the batter just enough, but no too much. The more you mix the flour, the more gluten develops and the tougher the cake will be. Folding the dry and wet ingredients together is an art. Done right it is a fluid motion between spatula and bowl, perfectly combining the ingredients into a smooth batter. Paying attention to the little details makes all the difference in the end result.

Now even though scones aren’t a cake this was my favorite part of the night! I love biscuits and scones and just can’t get enough. And I love maple just as much as biscuits. The recipe we prepared was maple oatmeal scones – adapted from an Ina Garten recipe. Even though these had a full pound of butter, the oatmeal made it feel just slightly healthy. The glaze on the other hand….

 What was great about preparing these scones was learning an easy technique for producing layered, crumbly scones. Rather than cutting the butter in with a pastry cutter we took advantage of the food processor to quickly cut the butter. Instead of shaping into a perfect circle, rolling and cutting into wedges we used our hands to shape the scone dough into a large even rectangle. A bench scraper cut through the dough easily to make a lot of cute little scones. Cutting straight down and lifting straight up keeps the edges clean and allows the scones to rise high when baking. The large pieces of butter melt and release steam producing a crumbly texture. It could be easy to forget the amount of butter in these and eat a handful for breakfast (shh, don’t tell). This recipe will be added to my favorites list. 

These cakes (and scones) came together fairly quickly and easily. There really is no reason to buy cake mix or store bought cakes. All you need is a few high quality ingredients and attention to detail. I think my family is looking forward to my newly acquired skills!

My classmates and I glazing our scones
and marveling over all the cakes!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Summer Baking: Sweet and Savory Tarts {Class 5}

This summer I'm enrolled in the Culinary Lab: Baking course as part of my graduate program - the Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy at Boston University. For 6 weeks I'll be spending 2 nights a week in the professional kitchen learning all about baking. The course requires students to keep a journal of the experience and I've decided to record my adventures here on the blog. I hope you enjoy! You'll get the calorie-free version of my decadent baking experience. 

One word can sum up this class - butter. Butter, butter, and when you think you have enough, add a little more butter. Of course don't forget about the sugar and brown sugar.... Isn't it amazing that there are so many recipes that start at the same place - cream the butter and sugar together - and end up in wildly different directions?

First on this week's baking menu were tarts. Tarts can be sweet or savory and we tackled both in our time together. Pate sucree provides a sugar sweetened butter and flour tart shell. Pate brisee omits the sugar for a flaky buttery shell. Pate sucree provided a flaky base for a smooth, tart, brilliantly yellow lemon curd. Calling on our newly learned custard making skills we whisked, tempered, and whisked the ingredients into a luscious filling for a lemon almond tart. Not only is this curd perfect for filling a pie it would also be delicious as ice cream or mousse. One exciting learning from these classes is knowing that many of these recipes are quite versatile.

The next task of the evening was tartalettes aux pommes - individual apple tarts. Pate sucree is prepared and divided into four equal portions. A filling of sliced apples is sauteed with sugar until just browned in color. The pate sucree is gently folded around the apples, wrapping them like a little gift. Of course this couldn't be complete with out an additional sprinkling of brown sugar after coming out of the oven. The beauty of this recipe is in it's rustic appearance. Afraid that you can't make a perfect crust? Worried about rolling out the crust into an amoeba instead of a perfect circle? With this is doesn't matter - just fold, pinch, and tell you guests that you made them a rustic apple tart. They will think you are a baking genius and they will forget all about the appearance after they take a bite.

For both the pate sucree and pate brisee (sweet and savory) kitchen appliances are your friend. A few quick pulses will evenly distribute the butter into pea sized pieces. Although if you hit pulse one too many times, you might go too far. The idea is to have noticeable sized pieces of butter throughout to produce a flaky crust. The butter melts during baking and releases steam, giving the crust its flaky texture.

If butter was the theme of the week, it was included in all its glory in Julia Child's basic quiche recipe that we prepared. A buttery pate brisee was filled with caramelized onions and Gruyere. A rich, decadent filling of heavy cream and eggs was poured over the top. As if that wasn't enough the quiche gets dotted with 1-2 tablespoons of butter before baking. Wow. This is not a light lunch at all - usually you think quiche and a salad is a good choice! After baking the custard is light in texture but the taste is quite the opposite.  The additional butter caused our quiche to look like it was topped with an oil slick. It was quite decadent with the cream, eggs, Gruyere, butter, and butter crust.

Some of the takeaways from tonight's class:

  • It's not too early to plan for the holidays. Well wrapped pie crust can be kept in the freezer for up to 6 months.
  • Making the pie crust into a ball doesn't have to be a messy procedure. Dump the crumbs from the food processor directly onto a sheet of plastic wrap. Use the plastic wrap to push it together until it forms a ball. Flatten slightly and chill in the plastic wrap (or freeze) until ready to roll out.
  • With a little care it is easy to roll out an even crust. Roll just until the edge leaving a small lip. Turn 1/4 and repeat until the dough is the desired size.

  • Always make sure the crust is securely in the pie pan. If there are air pockets under the crust it could cause it to bubble up or crack. It is also important to seal any cracks and holes when making a tart with a liquid filling. Say goodbye to a crispy bottom if you don't do this! We tried using white sandwich bread to plug a few holes in our quiche crust and it worked quite well. 

This was a fun class and made tarts seem more accessible. There are a lot of techniques to remember but nothing so challenging that it can't be done at home. Do you have a favorite pie crust recipe? Any tips and tricks?

What is your favorite pie? I'm partial to fruit pies, pecan pies, and chocolate banana cream.


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