Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Midweek Roundup: Cranberry Bogs Forever

Photo by Kristina

This was a simple cake, both in easy of preparation and in its basic ingredients.  In fact, it reminded Anna, who called it "simply delicious," of the "Busy Day" cake made by farm women in the 1930's.  I had never heard of this Busy Day cake, and I suspect I came closer to living in the 30's than Anna did.  My link is to a recipe from the Orangette blog, which is in turn from the famed Edna Lewis, author of Taste of Country Cooking.  

Jenn thought it the "easiest recipe so far from TBB," and as for "quick," it took her only one hour and 55 minutes to make it, including oven time.  If Jenn had a criticism it was that it was almost not sweet enough, with the tartness from both lemon and cranberries.  But Glori thought it was "easier than most things we've baked, but not necessarily quick," although she added, "Maybe I'm just a slow baker."  Somehow I doubt that.

It was Raymond who really stopped me in my tracks when he said it was "easy enough to put together when unexpected company arrives."  This really makes me want to stop by Raymond's house.  If someone stops by my house unexpectedly, I probably would give them the old fish-eye.  Maybe I'd offer them a cup of coffee, preferably cold and bitter, but what I would not do is whip up a dessert for them.  Raymond is clearly more hospitable than I am.

Whether you're a fast baker or a slow baker, this is never going to be classified as quick and easy in your mind if you end up making it two, or even three times.  Faithy's first attempt burned, so "in the dustbin" it went.  The second time, no burnt berries.  But Faithy "would have liked it more if it had more cake."  She wasn't the only one to say that, but it's hard to tell whether the proportions were off or whether the cake was so good, it just seemed like more would be a good idea.

Orin's third cake was "a winner."  Her first two cakes had both burned bottoms.  She changed flours and thermometers, but only when she removed the baking stone did it come together correctly.  And with the baking stone gone, she waxed euphoric:  "I took my first bite and it was light, fresh and moist" with a "wonderful sweetness from the raspberry combined with tartness from the cranberry."

From the large pool of those who did not have to bake it more than once, there was still some concern about the darkness of the fruit.

When Glori took off the parchment, her "heart sank.  It was SO DARK."  She liked it better the second day, but because it turned out so dark, she said she'd probably only bake it again to test her theory that the baking stone was the Prince of Darkness.

Catherine claimed that her picture looked "a bit more like roadkill" than the cake pictured in The Baking Bible, although the "tart lemony berry caramel flavour" probably tasted nothing like roadkill in reality, although it's probably true that none of us have tasted roadkill, and I'm not sure I want to find out about it if you did.  Catherine can be forgiven for not wanting her cake to look nasty since she purchased $22.95 of frozen cranberries to make it.  (Apparently frozen cranberries are hard to find in Australia).

When I saw the pictures of the dollops of meringue in the posts of the people who made that instead of the whipped cream option, I had to rethink my bias against meringue.  Orin's "meringue had an elegant and silken texture ...," which was "a perfect match to the cake.  Anna said her meringue reminded her of "iridescent pearl," yet it was so easy to make.

Jen went so far as to say she "might like the meringue better than the cake itself,"  which is saying something because this butter sour cream is her very favorite.  But she thought she might have "gone too far" in her substitutions when she subbed goat's milk yogurt for sour cream, because the cake turned out  "mushy and flat" and not like her old standby butter sour cream cake.  And although
Kim thought her cake looked like "smashed berry jam" when it came out of the oven (which is at least better than roadkill), her meringue, made with raspberry puree instead of seedless preserves, turned out a pretty birthday-party pink!  Maybe catch-up week will call for a upside-down cake with the meringue variation.

Several people, including Nancy, opted for the rhubarb variation with strawberry whipped cream.  In an interesting twist, she stabilized her whipped cream with cream cheese, which probably made it taste a little like creme fraiche.  Although Nancy swore that the effect of her cake was "rustic," she got plenty of complements, including a friend of her sister's who asked how much Nancy would charge to make one for her.  Being willing to part with your money is about the highest possible compliment.

Milagritos also made rhubarb variation, which looks beautiful, even though she has yet to taste it.  She said she made it in a "hangry state" (a mix of hunger and anger that causes you to do silly things., like not reading directions or failing to heed warnings.  Her cake is in the freezer, waiting to be unveiled (and tasted) on Easter.  You have to let us know how the hangry cake turned out!

Vicki didn't really want to try the cake with cranberries--in March "Cranberries belong in the cold autumn and winter months.  Or so I thought."  But it turned out to be so good that "some of us" couldn't even wait for the topping--and then "had to have another piece for comparison."  And Vicki's Italian meringue looked absolutely sumptuous, by the way; although she was doubtful, it turned out to be easier to make than she thought it would be.

But, as Raymond pointed out, the cake would be a "perfect base for many fruit toppings," so if enough of us drop in on him, maybe he'll come up with all possible variations.

Kristina certainly didn't think cranberries would do it for her husband, Jayy, who is not a "squishy fruit" fan, and cranberries are at the bottom of his list, although Kristina thought they were probably tied with rhubarb for last.  Yet, on tasting the cake, Jay said, "This is really good.  Can you keep it at home for us?"  Which goes to show that men are unpredictable.  Or that upside-down cake is good.

Joan not only made a beautiful cake, but also used beautiful utensils.  She had a lovely old (but scrubbed and polished) copper tarte tatin pan, a little smaller than the 9-inch cake pan, and so not fitting standard cake strips.  But the result still looked gorgeous.  After all, such old-fashioned recipes were not originally made with silicone strips or KitchenAids.  But isn't it nice to have them?

Congratulations again to Rose and Woody for winning the best baking cookbook award from the IACP.  And thanks especially for thinking of us Alpha Bakers in what must have been the first seconds knew you had won and gave your "Titan" acceptance fan.  We are some of your biggest fans, and we also appreciate how you go out of your way to make us feel that we add to your success.  I can't imagine anyone else who would take all the time you do to answer questions, encourage, and attempt to stave off disasters.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Cran-Raspberry Upside-Down Cake

I love butter cakes.  And somehow baking a cake seems more like real baking than baking cookies or even baking a pie.  That feeling is probably something I developed when we were Heavenly Cake Bakers, and a cake came out of my oven once a week.  Now I never know what's going to emerge.

Because I noticed all the frozen cranberries when I was looking for frozen sour cherries, it didn't occur to me that other people's supermarkets weren't similarly prepared for people making cranberry upside down cakes in spring.  Cranberries freeze very well and defrost without leaving puddles of liquid, so I think there was no real difference in flavor.

I bought a white silicone spatula just for such caramelizing occasions.  The mixture starts out so light and lemony-looking that it's hard to believe it's really going to caramelize in just a few minutes.

But it does.  I actually think mine got a little darker and thicker than it should have.  I seem to have the best luck when I take the caramel off the heat when it's about 10 degrees lower than specified.  Maybe my thermometer is off or maybe my pan holds the heat too well or maybe I don't move quickly enough--whatever the reason, the caramel ended up so dark that if I'd put the pan on the baking stone I think I'd have had blackened berry upside-down cake.  

Ha.  I just realized that I was using my old recipe that says to cook the caramel until it's "deep amber" in color, and the final draft says until it's "light amber."  I just hate to use my good cookbook to cook, but I may have to give in.  "

I had some raspberries that might not have lasted another 24 hours, so I mixed them in with the pretty red cranberries.  Raspberries that are soft to start with sort of bake down to mush.  When the cake was flipped over, there were no discernible raspberries.  

I wonder why people like to eat cookie dough, but don't have a hankering for cake batter.  I'd be happy to eat this, but I guess I'd rather have it as cake, especially since the cake layer seemed a little thin anyhow.  

I LOVE it that Rose warns us that the cake will come out of the oven with "what appear to be many hillocks."  Only Rose would use the word "hillocks," even though it's the perfect word.  

I held my breath when I pulled to cake pan off the cake, but almost all of the fruit stayed with the cake and not with the pan.  I do see discernible raspberries in the photograph, which makes me wonder why I didn't notice them in real life.  Maybe it's an optical illusion, like the black and blue or gold and white dress.

Here it is with the raspberry glaze brushed on.  I see another raspberry.

I will confess that I didn't make the meringue, even though it was Italian, and that nationality is usually enough to tempt me, but it looked like it would taste like regular meringue, which is too sweet and too airy for my taste, although I'll tolerate it on a lemon meringue pie for obvious reasons.  I put the rest of the jar of seedless raspberry preserves in it, but it wasn't quite enough, so I added a little sugar too.  Adding seedless preserves to whipping cream is genius.  I notice that we'll do it again next week, except that it won't be cheating to do it.  And it will also be strawberry.

You can see that the whipped cream barely has a pink tinge, but the raspberry meringue has only one tablespoon of preserves, so it probably doesn't get very pink either.  The strawberry jam has 1/4 cup of jam, so it should be pretty and pink.  

After I tasted the cake, I immediately sent half of it to our neighbors because I didn't want to have it around the house or I'd have to try to do 20,000 steps on my FitBit.  If you do 20,000 steps, when do you have time to sit down and relax?  Oh, I suppose that may be the point.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Midweek Roundup: Livin' in the Lap of Luxury

Photo by Katya
Second Dinner

Jen's summation of the charm of these cookies may have said it best, especially since she began with this diatribe:  "I hate oatmeal cookies.  I find them bland, boring, and they contain raisins, which I also hate."  But, and it's a big but, "these oatmeal cookies are completely different.  I love these!"   They "have that buttery toffee like flavor of a good choc. chip cookie" plus "added texture and crunch from the granola."  Orin described them as "crispy/chewy, soft/robust ... "loaded with the right amount of spice, raisins and chocolate.  These are genius cookies!  I can confidently say, "the quest for the perfect cookie is over!"

Now that is high praise.  But of course, this being a group of opinionated bakers, not everyone called this "the perfect cookie."  Poor Monica, for example.  Although she freely admits that she is not a "big cookie fan," she swears that she "can appreciate a good one."  In TBB cookie category, though, she's "batting 0 for 5."  Her granola didn't get crunchy, and her cookies didn't get crisp.  I hope she finds her cookie moxie soon!  And Kim thinks she's just outgrown her former love for oatmeal cookies.  She used to be wowed by "their chewy, sticky sweetness."  Now she doesn't like them for--you'll never guess--"their chewy, sticky sweetness."  

But even some who were neutral about the cookies themselves were crazy about the granola.  Joan
loved the granola, even though she found the cookies a little "crumbly" and "hard to shape," and even though she approached the whole oatmeal cookie project "with a jaundiced eye," remembering all the times oatmeal had been put before her and eaten by the cat.  Glori thought the granola was so good she "couldn't stop eating it when it came out of the oven."   Kristina says she'll be "keeping the maple-walnut granola on hand" even when she's not making the cookies.  Milagritos, who was so wrapped in baking she forgot to take pictures, also made a double batch of granola "half for breakfast baked longer and toastier."

Lois called the granola "dangerous" because you could eat it all in one sitting and her husband, Ed, said that the making oatmeal cookies with granola may be Rose's "best idea yet."  Anna--our newest Alpha Baker--noticed that the recipe is similar to "Mrs. King's Irresistibles," in Rose's Christmas Cookies.  Those cookies are made with unsweetened store-bought granola, and Anna, who has now made both kinds of cookies, declared that "homemade granola made all the difference.  Jill summed it up by saying that the "granola alone" is worth the purchase price of the book.  

In one of her comments, Vicki noted that you could play around a lot with this cookie while still maintaining the integrity of the original recipe.  And there was a lot of playing around.

Vicki added orange oil to the "so-good" granola and turned her "yummy yummy" cookies into ice cream sandwiches.  Hanaa used apple syrup instead of maple syrup, almonds instead of walnuts, and replaced the chocolate chips with butterscotch chips.  She pronounced the granola "awesome" and thought the cookies were as good as her go-to recipe, which she'd already tweaked to make it "perfect."

Tony fell "absolutely in love" with both the granola and the cookies, but he also changed it quite a bit.  He used a mixture of dried fruit (cherries, cranberries, blueberries and white raisins) that he macerated in orange oil and orange liqueur.  He also added almonds and a few other spices. 

There was a little bit of rebellion about the chocolate chips in the cookies, though, with Katya taking a stand that she just "doesn't hold with" chocolate in oatmeal cookies, although she also admits that oatmeal in chocolate chips is "a plus."  Librarian and voracious reader Katya clearly knows all about foolish consistency and little minds.  Jenn called the cookies "amazing"--"chewy and yummy" and ones she's make "again and again," but added that although she loves chocolate, she loves it "not so much in oatmeal cookies.  Faithy didn't use chocolate chips, but instead made hers with Valrhona chocolate pearls.  Served with her own foam-decorated latte, the cookies-with-pearls looked luxurious indeed.

Some disagreement arose about when these cookies were at their best.  Patricia found that the cookies, "not quite an oatmeal, not quite a chocolate chip," overbake easily and are "best as a breakfast cookie" and "better a few days after baking.  On the other hand, Nancy described the cookies as "crisp-chewy" that were "very good when freshly baked" but "lost some of its character" after a few days."

Finally, have any of you been wondering how our cookie-hater Raymond did this week?  He admitted that "a feeling of dread came over me as I saw this week's recipe.  Cookies again."  But he gamely went forward and pronounced them "fantastic," "big and chewy and loaded with flavor."  But beware, Raymond--cookies will be up again before you know it.

NEXT UP:  Two fruity cakes.  A cran-raspberry upside down cake that is Q&E, and a strawberry genoise shortcake that looks neither quick nor easy.  I don't remember why I put these in tandem.  Hopefully, they'll be different enough that you won't be grumbling under your breath.  If you have a pretty Marianne basket weave pan, you can use it for the shortcake, but there are other options that don't require you to buy anything new.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Luxury Oatmeal Cookies

I love oatmeal cookies.  For many years, oatmeal cookies and sugar cookies were the only ones I'd eat.  I was skinny then.  You don't think that branching out into all of cookiedom and no longer being skinny are somehow connected, do you?

This being a Rose recipe, it begins with making granola.  At first I was disappointed that the granola didn't have dried fruit or other add-ins, but then I tasted it with yogurt (and this was before I'd even made the cookies) and realized that it was perfect with plain Greek yogurt.  The maple syrup and the Muscovado sugar add intense highlights and just the right amount of sweetness.

I used a combination of dark Muscovado and light brown sugars.  And thanks to you who told me different ways of keeping brown sugar in good shape.  I ended up getting some plastic jars that have a little terra cotta disk in.  The disk just needs to be moistened periodically.  So far it's working like a charm.  I put two rock-solid plastic bags of Muscovado sugar into one of the jars, and within 2 days, the sugar was back to its original condition.

You just press down the granola a bit to make it an even layer, and then you let it cool.  After the granola is finished, it's very easy to put together the cookies.  Just get the raisins and chocolate ready to add.  I used golden raisins.

And a combination of Ghiradelli chocolate chips and, to make of the difference, a chopped Green & Black's hazelnut and currant chocolate bar.  This was a good addition to the cookies, and I might just chop up a whole candy bar next time I make the cookies.

The sugar and butter mixture (I used the electric mixer method):

And mixed some more, chilled, and measured into 42-gram blobs.

Weighing blobs of cookies is, to my surprise, one of the most relaxing parts of baking.  I'm always happy when I get a chance to do it.  Well, unless I'm in a hurry, and then I just don't do it.

Into the oven they go.

And out they come, completely cookified.  One thing I like about cookies is that you don't have to wait for some event to serve a cookie.  There they are--take one while they're still warm.  Have two or three, I don't care.  There are plenty more.  On the other hand, a pie, for example, has to cool for hours, and then you don't just tuck into it in the middle of the afternoon.  We don't anyway, although that's probably a good thing to do.

Also, eating one cookie seems like a harmless thing to do, even if you're dieting.  One cookie probably barely has any more calories than an apple (if this is not true, don't bother to tell me; I don't want to know it) and does not lead to bouts of self-recrimination.  And they're practically a health food:  oats, walnuts, raisins--fruit, fiber, protein, antioxidants.

I will have to admit, though, that JJ, given the choice between this cookie and a dark chocolate Milano cookie, took the Milano.  A packaged cookie.  Well, he's only two years old and at least he likes dark chocolate.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Midweek Roundup: Can They Bake a Cherry Pie?

Photo by Vicki
Baking with Granny

When I think of Rose's style of baking, I think of something fancy-schmancy, with fondant, or luster dust, or homemade lekvar--15 pages of instructions with multiple, complicated steps.  Yet, look at what we've baked lately, as well as what's coming up:  caramel sticky buns, cherry pie, and oatmeal cookies.  Simple yet delicious American homestyle cooking:  things that most of our mothers made (witihout recipes to speak of, probably), made with ingredients that could be grown in the garden and canned or frozen for the winter.  Things you might enter in the state fair.  Not at all fancy, not to mention schmancy.  But of course, all these recipes have been tweaked and prodded into perfection.

Rose's cherry pie, like her caramel sticky buns, won almost universal raves, including the highest possible compliment, which must be spoken in whispers, lest feelings be hurt.  "This pie is better than mom's." A friend of Kristina's was heard to say it was better than her mother's, and Raymond himself admitted that the crust "topp[ed] even his mother's....  Kudos to Rose for this pastry."

On a par with the "better than mom's" compliment is the "this is the best pie I've ever eaten" compliment, which, I guess subsumes "better than mom's" unless mom wasn't a pie baker.  (My own mother made cherry pie from the sour cherry tree in our back yard, which I remember being an excellent climbing tree except when cherry-eating birds pooped on your head).  Even with those good, fresh cherries, I recall the pie as having too much cornstarch or tapioca, making it gummy, and she made a standard Crisco pie crust, with very little Crisco, since she didn't want my dad to gain weight.  I know, it doesn't make sense to me either.

Anyway, Kim was among those saying it was the best cherry pie she'd ever eaten (the first and only actually), but she was "gobsmacked" by how good it was.  Patricia also said it was the best ever, and although Patricia usually has a few helpful suggestions, this time she said her only tweak would be to remember to set the timer so that one half of the pie didn't look too brown.  (If you've seen the photos of Patricia's pies, you'll know that's a very minor tweak.)  Not only did we think it, but so did our tasters.  Monica's husband's cousin (I think I've got that right), said those sought-after words, "This is the best cherry pie I've ever eaten!"  In a variation on this theme, a friend of Kristina's told her that it couldn't be cherry pie that she was eating because she doesn't like cherry pie.

And Monica came right out and said what many of you were thinking:  "Why did Marie schedule this pie when sour cherries are not in season?  Why?"  Um.  To challenge you?  Well, in part because I wasn't always sure when the season was and because nothing is ever going to be "in season" for everybody in this project, living all over the world as we do.  I did actually originally have this pie scheduled for the summer, but I got a few requests for a double-crusted pie for pi day, and I chose this one.  Also, partly because I thought it would be easier to find frozen cherries than it was.  I'm actually also wondering why a scheduled the cran-raspberry upside cake at the end of March, when neither cranberries or raspberries are in season (at least not in MN) and it's still a little early for the rhubarb alternative.  I have no clue.

Maybe I should have just stopped my reasoning after saying I did it to challenge you, because you all certainly lived up to the challenge!  Lois's grocer looked at her blankly when she requested canned or frozen sour cherries.  He'd never heard of such a thing; nor had he heard of cherry pie filling.  What's going on in this country?  How will Billy Boy ever find a girl to marry?  But, undaunted, Lois bought some frozen sweet cherries and some frozen cranberries for added tartness, and pronounced it all "delicious."  Faithy (another "best pie I've ever eaten") used a combination of jarred Morello (sour) cherries and Griottines (Morello cherries packed in brandy or kirsch).  Both inventive and delightful!
Catherine did something very similar, using Morello cherries and cherry brandy (apparently sour cherries are called Morello cherries in other parts of the world, which sounds much fancier--maybe Rose should have called this a Morello cherry pie.)  She didn't get enough Morello cherries to fill the pie, so it was a shallow-dish pie, but still good, and "fun to do the lattice."  Vicki, on the other hand, had "no patience with the lattice" but still thought the pie was "incredible."  (In addition to the photo of the week, I also like Vicki's picture of her empty pie tin, showing only a few traces of what was just minutes earlier a whole pie).  Once Tony started shopping to find a sour cherry substitute, he couldn't stop:  he ended up with canned sour cherries, black cherry juice concentrate, cherry-infused craisins, and some brandy.

Orin (who I'm beginning to think may be a person you wouldn't want to cross), decided that sour cherries must be in season somewhere so she made it her mission to find the "freshest cherries available in the United States."  She happened on Northwest Wild Foods, and phoned them to find out if she would be getting the freshest possible fruit.  She was assured that the cherries were flash frozen at the peak of their ripeness, and she ordered them.  If you glance at the picture of a bowl of her magnificent red cherries, you'll remember your own anemic-looking canned cherries and wish you'd had Orin doing your shopping.  At least, if the "you" in that sentence is me, that's what you're thinking.

Milagritos reminded us that cherries are not in season in Australia, either, but she used frozen sweet cherries and added lemon to adjust the sweet/tart ratio.  Jenn made that adjustment in a different way; she used a mixture of sweet cherries and raspberries.  It made a very pretty picture.  In fact, Jenn admitted that sometimes she doesn't care if she "likes the taste, as long as it looks pretty for the picture."  Our own Knitty Baker may have to change her moniker to Knitty Baker Photographer.  Speaking of "looking pretty," Glori announced on the Facebook page that her pie was an "epic fail," I turned to her blog like someone rushing to the scene of an accident.  What I saw was a beautiful pie. The crust was perfect.  The lattice was perfect.  If you saw a picture of this pie, you'd try to eat it. Where was the epic fail?  I read on, and it seems that Glori forgot to put her baking stone in the oven, and her bottom crust was raw.  I can see how that would be disappointing, and I don't mean to sound like I'm being all schadenfreude-ish, but I expected less beauty from an "epic fail"!  And who would have thought that omitting the baking stone would make such a difference?

Mendy had no trouble finding the cherries, or making the lattice, or baking the pie.  But he did manage to put together the most poetic and philosophic cherry pie blog I've ever read.  First this:  "A surrounding lattice, made as a net of copper."  Exodus 38.4.   Such a lovely image. Then there's this:  
"חי is a word that means life and looks suprisingly similar to the pi symbol π. A connection between the infinite source of life and a number that goes on forever?"  See what I mean?

Finally, let's just have a round of applause for Monica, who established and manages the Facebook page that has allowed the Alphas to ask for, and receive, such great advice.  Of course, it was Raymond who brought up the cherry problem, and a good thing he did, or we wouldn't have been alerted that it was not going to be easy as pie to get pie cherries.  When Vicki was stressing over a pie filling that wouldn't thicken, Hanaa told her just to add more cornstarch.  And Joan was struggling over some "crumbly dough," when Patricia came to her rescue, leading to a result that, "in the end, is another recipe that needs to be tripled!"

Thanks, Monica, and to all the other bakers who so willing to troubleshoot and come to the aid of a fellow baker.

NEXT WEEK:  We continue on the classic Americana road, with oatmeal cookies, the kind that my grandmother always had on hand.  (How is that possible?)  I don't think there should be any ingredient difficulty here, unless you can't find the light brown Muscovado sugar (in which case you can just substitute dark brown sugar, so no worries).  You do have to make the granola ahead of time, but it's possible to do that just before you start on the cookies. You could use different granola, but since most granola includes fruits and notes, I think that a storebought granola might throw off the proportions, and Rose's granola is good and easy to make.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sour Cherry Pie

My second fruit pie.  I'm beginning to feel like Raymond feels about cookies--why are there so many fruit pies in this book?  I'm also beginning to feel like Raymond when he gamely bakes a cookie and then decides he really likes it.  I'll admit it.  I liked the Black and Blue pie, and now I find out I like the Sour Cherry pie.  Even with canned cherries, which surely must be third or fourth on the list of most desirable sources of tart cherries.

On the cans, the cherries look bright red.  (And they're called "red tart cherries").  I wasn't expecting the brilliant and unreal red of maraschino cherries but I was hoping for something a little better than the sickly pink I saw when I opened the can.

Fortunately, they were water-packed, and the water must have picked up some of the color missing from the cherries, so when I mixed the juice with the cherries, cornstarch, and sugar, the mixture got a little less sickly-looking.  I toyed with the idea of adding a little food coloring, but I decided just to see what happened.

They didn't get much better, so I decided to wait and see what happened when I baked the pie.

Now we talk about the pie crust.  Making and rolling out the pie crust is usually where I go ballistic, but since Rose so kindly devised and introduced us to the wonders of cream cheese pie crust, my ballistic level has gone way down.  Some would say I'm downright serene, although I guess, in reality, serene is a word used only by me.  Jim would say I'm less volatile.

Rose's pie plate was a nice treat to get for myself, because it means I don't have to fuss with making a decorative crust, which, frankly, never looked all that decorative.

I still have jagged edges after I roll something out, with inlets and ravines.  At least my inlets and ravines are all 1/8-inch thick, thanks to the pastry wands.  I want to get Rose's new rolling pin too.
My hope, which is not borne out by experience, is that if I get enough gadgets and tools, I'll never have to actually improve.

Let's talk a little bit about the lattice top.  I could not think of any reason to require this other than torture.  It's hard enough to get two pie crusts to go together in such a way that people don't have an urge to giggle when they see it.  I could only imagine a worse fate for the lattice.  Some of my lattice strips broke apart just sitting on the counter.  It was scary to think about what they might do when I lifted them up.

One down, thirteen to go.

Here's where it starts to get tricky.  I tried to remember how my mom did her cherry pies--the only ones she made with a lattice.  Where is it written that cherry pies must have lattice tops?  I thought about topping the pie with lattice strips shaped into the numerals "3.14," but that seemed even more difficult.  There was nothing I could do at this point but trudge ahead.

No one was more surprised than I was when I finished the braiding and it didn't look horrible.  There are definitely some missteps along the way, but it's not the mess I thought it would be.

We had only two guests for dinner.  At dessert, my daughter said, "Just a small piece.  I don't like pie that much."  She also said, "Don't even bother giving JJ pie.  He'll just eat the ice cream."

But he decided he'd try the pie.  "This is yummy, Lulu.  I do like pie."  Words to melt a grandmother's heart.  His mother decided she liked pie too.  And Jim.  And me.  But if I can't complain about pie crusts and fruit pies, what am I going to find to complain about?

I'm sure there'll be something.  But not this.  This is yummy.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Midweek Roundup: Buns in the Oven

Photo by Monica
Sweetbites Blog

That picture pretty much says it all, doesn't it?  If you've been following our progress, you know that the Alpha Bakers are a pretty strong-willed bunch with strongly held opinions, but this soft caramel bun melted the hearts of the most irascible bakers.  As Raymond asked rhetorically, "Is there anyone who doesn't like sticky buns?"

Patricia called them "scrumptiously sticky."  Vicki announced to Pillsbury that they'd "just lost a customer," and said that none of her tasters could "believe the caramel."  Nancy called them "heaven on a plate," and Catherine advised that "if you were in a cinnamon bun contest, these are the ones you'd wheel out to win."  Jen said they were the "best version of a sticky bun" she has ever tasted.  Monica, who wasn't going to make them, but got out of her sick bed when she heard the advance raves, liked them--they were "soft, gooey, and sticky"--but she would love to be able to figure out how to make them in just one day.  Milagritos's debut blog described "the softest, most enticing caramel rolls I've ever had the pleasure to bake."

And not only were they good to eat, they were fun to make.  Tony said he was "simply in heaven" making these; he loved working with the delicate, airy dough.  Kim called the dough "silky smooth and cooperative."  (She enjoyed making the rolls so much she almost forgot she was dieting and couldn't eat a whole pan-full).  Katya was very fond of the dental floss cutting trick, which she described as "weirdly satisfying," and a definite exception to her firm rule against flossing in public.  

To be sure, there were some nits to be picked, but most of these were matters of personal taste.  

Some people were worried that these rolls would be over the top--too sweet, too rich, too too.  In fact, Orin could not bring herself to eat the caramel because of all the sugar, although she noticed that other people must have been fond of it since the rolls with caramel had magically disappeared.  But maybe Orin will relent after she reads Faithy's post.  Faithy was afraid these caramel rolls would be "icky sweet," but felt as if she would "not be doing her homework" if she passed them by (Faithy was obviously an obedient little girl), and was glad she did because they're "SOOO GOOD!!"  Take note, Orin.  They're good enough to warrant all caps and two exclamation marks.

And while most people liked the brioche--even Raymond, who confessed to having a "former aversion" to it"--Patricia was "not crazy" about the brioche base.

There were also raisin fans and raisin foes.  Jenn thought the "fantastic rum raisins" really added to the taste.  Jen said she would add more raisins next time even thought she "generally hates raisins."  But Nancy thought the raisins were a "no value-added distraction."  And Michele, who described the rolls as "obscenely delicious," wasn't taking sides:  much as she liked the filling with raisins, she also thought it would be great raisinless but with more pecans.

Of course, the caramel, which  Lois described as "fantastic," was the star of the show.  But not everyone's turned out quite the same.  Jenn said hers was more like toffee than caramel, and she refused to be responsible for any dental damage.  But Kristina would have liked it better if her caramel had hardened more.

Spouses seemed to play a larger and more enthusiastic role in the caramel roll blogs than in most others.  For example, Lois's husband was eating the last roll on the plate, Lois "grabbed a spoon and scooped up some of the caramel that had dropped onto the platter...."  Her husband told her that the caramel went with his bun and was rightfully hers.  And Hanaa made the caramel rolls as an anniversary treat for her husband.  When she told him she wasn't entirely happy with the way the caramel turned out, he told her, "Sounds like you've lost your touch." To prove this was not the case, Hanaa ran back out in the kitchen and made a second batch of caramel that was "super awesome and delicious."   Guess she showed him!

Next week is the Sour Cherry Pie with the mysterious and elusive cherries.  If you start looking right now, you may be able to find the cherry concentrate, which Rose says is a wonderful flavor booster. On the other hand, it's optional.

Judy and Maggie were no longer able to commit to the weekly baking project, but we hope they'll still follow the progress of the Alpha Bakers.  Judy will continue working on her wonderful and informative wine postings on her Outside the Bottle website.  Maggie may be able to occasionally bake along; you can look for her posts on her Simply Delicious blog.  We'll miss these talented bakers and bloggers.

Please welcome Milagritos Pan, who came off her spot on the waiting list to fill in, with her Custard Guts blog.  Must ask her about that name sometime.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Caramel Buns

When I invited my friend Erika to help me make caramel buns, she was very excited.  It seems she had a dream that I never knew about, which was to become an expert in making sticky buns, so that people would talk about Erika's Fabulous Caramel Rolls.  That was before she found out how much work was involved.

When Erika arrived around 9:00 a.m., the dough was ready to start rolling out after resting in t he refrigerator all night.  She said, "Oh, you've already made the dough!  Won't I ever get a chance to make bread?"  I asked her if she wanted to plan a sleepover, but she changed the subject.

She volunteered to roll out the dough.

"This dough is awfully sticky," she complained.  "How can you 'lightly flour the counter' when it still sticks?" she asked rhetorically.  "Was it hard to make?"  "No," I said.  "Yes," Jim said.  I looked at him.  "Well," he said, "It's true.  You were up all night with that dough."  "Only if you consider 10:30 all night."  "Stop squabbling, you two," said Referee Erika.

Erika was distressed that her rectangle was only vaguely rectangular.  "Don't worry," I assured her, "No one will ever know."  (Unless they look at this picture.  Hee hee.)

Erika was very impressed with my large selection of sugars, none of which was light brown Muscovado.  I had dark Muscovado, light Demerara, golden caster, superfine, and regular light brown and dark brown sugars.  The dark brown was pretty solid, but I softened it up in the microwave and it was fine.  Erika was also impressed that I knew a remedy for softening brown sugar; she said she always just throws hers away.  I'm happy when Erika is impressed, because, although in theory she's learning from me, she usually tells me that I'm not reading the directions clearly or points out some shortcoming.  To be fair, she doesn't have to search that hard for a shortcoming.

I used currants instead of raisins because my selection of dried grapes was limited to golden raisins and currants.  I'm so glad I chose the currants.  They were fabulous once they were plumped in rum, and they're so small that there was a rum-raisin flavor in every bite, whereas raisins would be more dominant in bites they were in.  Erika said the rummy currants reminded her of Haroset.

After we got the dough rectangle filled and rolled up, it was easy to shape in in more or less the correct size.

I appreciated the advice about the dental wax, but everything I could find in my medicine cabinet was mint-flavored.  The serrated bread knife worked fine.

Here is one pan of rolls after they rose in my proofing box.  I obviously didn't have a Ball jar.  (But at least I know what it is, in part because I grew up in Indiana, home of Ball State University, or Ball State, which was a "normal school" purchased by the Ball Brothers after Indiana Normal went out of business.  We thought it was hysterical to say Ball State.  I wonder if they tied up the diplomas and put them in a Ball jar.  If they didn't, they should start doing it right now.)  The only problem with the little ramekins is that they were hard to remove.  Erika suggested using thongs.  "I mean tongs," she said.  Of course, we also thought that was very funny.  Ball State and thongs--that is the unfortunate level of my humor some days.

After we brushed the glaze over the rolls, Erika was finally able to start making the caramel sauce, which she had been wanting to do all day.  At one point, she said, "Why don't I make the caramel sauce ahead of time?"  I yelled, "NO!"  I truly didn't mean to yell, and I quickly said, "I mean I think we should wait until we're ready for it."  She asked Jim how he could stand to live with me.  He said, "Well, I try not to cross her."  I'm right here in the kitchen, people, simply trying to turn out some nice caramel rolls.

When I saw how dark the caramel suddenly turned, I realized I didn't even have time to take its temperature.  I turned it off and yelled, "Cream!"  Erika poured the hot cream in, I stirred, and Jim tried to get a picture of the "furious boil" stage.

And now I'd yelled at Erika a second time.  I never yell at her in real life.  So when she asked to taste the caramel, I didn't tell her to wait until it was on the roll.  I said, "Absolutely."

Erika is placing the four pecan halves on the buns after I'd covered them with a little caramel.  "You know," she said, "decorators hate even numbers.  They always have odd numbers.  I think we should either have 3 or 5 pecan halves on each roll."  I told her 3 wasn't enough and I hadn't toasted enough for 5.  But I didn't yell.

At last!  We all had one and all loved them.  The roll itself was soft and tender, and imbued with the tastes of brown sugar, rum raisins, and chopped nuts:  lots of flavor, lots of texture.  The caramel was first-rate--dark, but not burned, soft and sticky, not gummy or too hard to chew.  I asked for Erika's verdict.  "They're really, really good, but I don't think I'd ever spend this much time making a dozens buns when I could buy some really good ones at a bakery.  And you can buy perfectly good caramel sauce at Whole Foods.  I guess I don't quite get why it's worth it."

That's not a question that has a rational answer.  Why is it worth it to knit a sweater when you can buy a beautiful sweater?  To me, that's answered easily with "it's not," because I don't like knitting.  But I like baking.  I like the smells, the touch, the transformations, and the precision.  I get into a zen-like state that's calming and comforting.  Even when things go wrong, I don't get completely out of that state.  And there are days when I'd rather just go to a bakery and pick up something wonderful. But I'm so glad that I now have a recipe for perfect caramel rolls that I can make at a moment's notice (actually, with a day's notice if you insist on getting picky.)