Monday, December 29, 2014

Frozen Pecan Tart

December 29, 2014

Pie is probably my least favorite dessert, but I love pecan pie.  I don't like desserts that are overly sweet, but I love pecan pie.  I'm not a big fan of southern food, but ... well, you get the picture.  Against all reason, I just love pecan pie.  This one was exceptionally good, although I don't think I really get why it has to be frozen.  I understand why it's a tart because that makes it shallower so it's not quite so tooth-achingly sweet, and I can see that slicing it when it's frozen makes it less messy to cut, I'm not sure why it remains frozen after that.  (In fact, at my house, it stayed in the refrigerator, which was a compromise to a problem I still don't understand).

This pecan tart would make a wonderful Thanksgiving dessert, and would be splendid at Christmas.  I made it for an Argentinian reunion.  It made no sense for that occasion, except that it was next on the list and the people coming over to our house to watch an Argentinian movie like good food.  (Don't you love it when people make happy noises when they're eating something you've cooked).  We ate this pecan tart while watching "The Motorcycle Diaries," an excellent movie about young Che Guevara and a friend of his motorcycling through beautiful scenery in Argentina and Chile while becoming radicalized politically.  After we were done with the pie, we drank several glasses of Argentinian Malbec.  I'm not sure pecan pie and Malbec is a match made in heaven, but it tasted good to me.  But this is all after the pie has been assembled, baked, and frozen.

"The dough will be in crumbly pieces."  If I do say so, I believe this is as close to a textbook example of "crumbly pieces" as you're likely to get.  I remind myself that "crumbly pieces" is not my final goal to stop myself from getting to pleased with myself.  And a good thing, too, because just a few minutes later, I find that the dough is sticking to my pastry mat and I have to scoop the whole mess up and start over.

This is the dough while it was still behaving itself.

This is my second try.  I put LOTS of flour on the pastry mat so I wouldn't make the same mistake twice.  I've found that there are plenty of brand new mistakes just waiting to happen, so it really is quite foolish to repeat an old one.

This frying pad lid is my template.  Only it's not 12 inches in diameter, so I have to make the dough a little bit bigger than the lid.  This obviously lessens the utility of the template, but it's surprising (to me, anyway) how difficult it is to find a 12-inch circle in among one's kitchen supplies.  I had many things that were smaller than 12 inches and a few things that were larger, but nothing was 12 inches on the nose.

If you don't look too closely at the flaws in this uncooked pie crust, you might think it looks pretty good.  I thought it looked pretty good myself, which is why I told Jim to take a picture of it.  Then I noticed the fat parts and the skinny parts, the unevenness, the blotches on the bottom of the crust.  Etc. etc.  I was growing less sanguine about having a presentable, edible pie for our friends, and I thought I might have to go buy several more bottles of Malbec so they'd forget that I actually invited them over for dessert.

I decided to make up for my devil-may-care attitude with the pie crust by putting  more weights than Charles Atlas could lift in my pie crust.  Oh, you don't even know who Charles Atlas was, do you?  Don't you hate it when you make a reference that leaves everyone looking blank?  How about Jesse Ventura?  Do you at least remember him?  I suppose it doesn't matter.  Even if you don't know about the poor sap who got sand kicked in his face at the beach because he was a weakling, you can still be impressed by my makeshift pie weights.

They did work.  The sides of the pie crust stayed firm and did not sink down into the bottom of the pan, as has often happened in the past.  It seems to me that there are more unfixable things that can go wrong with a pie than with any other kind of dessert.  Once a pie has slumped down into its shell, there's just no good remedy.

There is nothing instructive about this photo.  It's just golden syrup dripping slowly out of the bottle, but I like the shot.  It either looks like blown glass or like aliens.

Cooking the egg yolks, brown sugar, golden syrup and butter.  It doesn't look like a diet dessert, does it?

I'm actually pretty pleased with the way it turned out.  I could have fit some more pecans on top, but this is good enough.  I can't believe the crust hasn't folded in on itself, as it usually does.  I think that I can serve this to my friends after all, and not have to rely on Plan B, which was getting them drunk.

I didn't make the chocolate lace topping, both because I was running out of time and because I am kind of a pecan pie purist.  Topping a pecan pie with whipped cream is what a purist does.  However, I might try the lace topping at some later date because it does sound as if it would be very attractive.

This post makes me want to recommend three things to you, in order of ease and likelihood of accomplishment:
1.  Make the frozen pecan tart, and, if you don't mind, tell me your opinion of the usefulness of the "frozen" part.
2.  Watch The Motorcycle Diaries, while eating pecan pie and drinking Malbec, if possible.
3.  Go to Argentina, where you will probably not eat pecan pie but you'll have a good time anyway.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Midweek Roundup: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

December 26, 2014

You are not likely to get a simpler recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum.  It has only 8 ingredients, and you're likely to have most of them on hand.  You use the food processor, so you can mix the dough in minutes.  Yet just a few days into Week of the Almond Coffee Crisps, I started to hear rumblings of discontent.

Most of these comments came from Monica's very useful Facebook site, Rose's Alpha Bakers.  (Membership is by invitation only, but all you have to do to be invited is to be an official Alpha Baker and be on Facebook.  We heard first from Patricia:  "Has anyone made the Coffee Almond Crisps yet?  I just pulled my first batch from the oven and they're super thin ... almost as thin as a tuile.  Anyone else have the same results?"

It turned out that lots of people had the same or similar results.

Kristina said that when she pulled the first batch from the oven, she said, "This can't be right."

 Faithy chimed in that half of hers looked like they were probably right but half were flat, with holes.  The funny thing was, she said, that she preferred the ones that looked like mistakes:  they were more caramelized and crisper.  "Addictive," she pronounced.

Rose and Woody to the rescue.  They provided photos (with measurements) of their own test cookies.  Not a ultra-flat cratered cookie in the bunch.  What could be causing this snafu?

"Well," said Lois.  "I used Silpat."  True, the recipe says the cookie sheets should either be unprepared or parchment-lined, but could that really make a difference?

"Hmm," said Nicola.  "I used bleached flour."  Hanaa empathized.  "Rose usually uses bleached flour so I had to look twice when I saw "unbleached."  Well, yes, the recipe says unbleached flour, but could the kind of flour cause these odd holes?

Was it a too-long baking time? asked Glori.  Because she noticed that her "first batch baked just a little too much and the bubbles actually popped, leaving holes in the cookies.""

Mendy added, "Ya know.  Maybe that's it.  I used double-acting baking powder.  Maybe it puffed these cookies out and kept them from spreading out."

Alice had another theory:  "I didn't chill any of the dough.  Maybe I should have chilled all of it."  Alice also tried a variation with chocolate instead of coffee, and concluded they were both good.

Michele was sure she made no mistakes, because she made these cookies while having an internal conversation with Rose, which pretty much consisted of Michele asking Rose if [fill in the blank] wouldn't be a good idea, and Rose saying, "No, Michele, it wouldn't."

But here's the funny thing.  Although some of the cookies were a little, er, unconventional looking ("ugly" is a bit harsh), there was near unanimity in the final verdict:

Raymond:  "Light and crispy and totally appealing."

Kim:  "What a winner of a cookie!"

Jill:  "The results are definitely worth it, and, hey, I don't even like coffee."

Katya:  "A good return on a fairly low investment--the last-minute brush with espresso upped the game, and I will definitely be making these again."

Catherine:   "Lovely biscuits, thin and crispy with a lovely coffee flavour."

Jenn:  "I could not stop eating them."
Vicki:  "Everyone likes these cookies!"

Nancy:  "Really lovely....  I'm adding this cookie to the repeat pile."

So I don't know if the message we should take away from this is 1) follow the directions completely! or 2) don't worry about it--even if you screw up, it'll still taste good.  I'm pretty sure I know which lesson Rose would want us to learn.

For next week, the last assignment of 2004:  away from the cookie chapter and on to the Frozen Pecan Tart.  You need a fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.  Other special equipment that Rose uses, such as an 8-inch cake pan and a large coffee filter are nice (I used them both) but not essential.  The cake pan is to help maneuver the dough into the tart pan, and the coffee filter holds your pie weights.  Although, come to think of it, this may be the first tart I've made where the sides haven't fallen, so perhaps they are essential.

The dough is not a traditional pie crust, but a pate sucree, or a sweet cookie tart crust.  It's not flaky, but, as the name suggests, it's a little crunchy and tasty enough to be eaten by itself.

I'm going to Mexico tomorrow, so there will probably be no roundup next week.  Good luck with the pecan tart and happy new year!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Almond Coffee Crisps

December 22, 2014

Another quick and easy recipe!  I'm going to have to be careful lest I run out of the Q&Es and have to finish up with all homemade fondant recipes (horrors!) or the equivalent.  Quick and easy certainly doesn't mean dull and tasteless, as these lovely little crisps will demonstrate.

I'll confess that even though I know that toasting nuts for 7 minutes (see?  I have been paying attention) makes the finished product taste better, I often don't bother to toast nuts for recipes that don't demand it.  I guess my theory is well, it's your recipe and if you don't care enough to toast the almonds, I don't either.  I believe this is called cutting off your nose to spite your face.  But toasting the almonds is essential with this recipe.  (Also, Woody was standing by my side, and I don't like to think what he'd do if I told him I was going to skip this step).

Besides the almonds, this is it for ingredients--vanilla, butter, sugar, and a mix of flour, espresso powder, baking powder and salt.  If you keep some almonds in the freezer at all times, you'll probably always have the ingredients on hand to mix up these babies.

Processing the almonds with the dry ingredients.  It takes a few minutes of steady processing to get the almonds powder-fine.

Add the butter, and you get this lovely, very malleable dough.

Divide the dough into thirds.  One third should be 126 grams, and I got 125, but even Woody said that was close enough.  It's fun when he gets all reckless like that.

But not so reckless he forgot about the ruler--cookies should be 1 and 3/4 inches wide!

Like this one.

A sheet of cookies after 5 minutes of baking, just before being rotated.  They puff up slightly and smell wonderful.  Do you remember Smell-O-Vision?  Even though it was listed as one of the 100 Worst Ideas of All Time, I wish I had it on my blog so you could smell these cookies baking.

And here they are after having the espresso powder sprinkled over them.  I didn't use a blush brush, since I only have one, and it's used for its intended purpose.  Actually, a silicone brush also worked well.  

The cookies are pictured with a glass of milk, and that's how my two-year-old grandson liked them.  (Despite the espresso, which I thought would be too strong for his little taste buds, he was fond of them, but his favorite is still the Kouign Amann).  But they're delicious with coffee (of course) or tea or probably a glass of sherry.  The espresso and toasted almonds combine to make a rather mysterious flavor (more than one person asked me what kind of spice was in them) which is greater than the sum of this simple cookie's parts.  Rose says tasting these is "like eating coffee-imbued air."  When I read that, I was unconvinced--why would I want to eat air?  But now I see what she means--they are so delicate and airy, and yet rich with butter and almonds.  It's a culinary miracle and a wonderful tribute to "Tubby" Bacon.  This is a fine cookie to add to your Christmas cookie plate or to eat any time of the year.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Midweek Roundup: December 18, 2014

I've seen a lot in my almost 70 years (remember I was a public defender for most of my adult life), and I thought I was immune to shock.  But I was shocked to the core of my being when I hit a realization from this week's posts.  What I learned is that Some People Don't Like Cookies!  There it is, and it looks even more shocking when it's in black and white.

Raymond's post first alerted me to the SPDLC phenomenon.  He wasn't subtle about it:  "I admit to not being much of a cookie lover."  There you have it.  He explains that his mother only made them for the holidays, and otherwise, his family had store-bought cookies, including Pecan Sandies, which he described as "hard, dry, tasteless hockey pucks."  Raymond describes himself as "not a very patient person," who finds cookies to be "fidgety, fussy things, which don't really satisfy me in the end."  And this is from Raymond, who is not afraid to tackle anything, no matter how complicated or difficult.  I will just point out that there is a children's character named "Cookie Monster," and there is, as far as I know, no "Vacherin Monster."

Some of us don't hate cookies in general, but had some objections to this particular cookie. Patricia just flat-out didn't like the cookie.  She thought "the raw cookie dough was much better than the finished cookie," didn't like the chocolate and apricot combination, and couldn't understand "why these cookies are so loved."  Nicola also pulled no punches:  "Everything about this cookie annoyed me."  "They just tasted bland to me, overwhelmed by chocolate ... and underwhelmed by the lekvar..."  She admitted that she might have changed her mind about the merits of the cookie, but she only got a bite or two after her three boys "hoover[ed] ... [all but] 1/8 of a biscuit left on the dining room table."  I'll admit that I wouldn't be keen on meticulously making this cookies only to have them hoovered by three beautiful and no doubt charming boys.  But still boys.

The boys, however, may one day turn into loving and appreciative husbands, like Monica's.  Monica liked the cookies and had no problems with them, but she said that they were not her favorite cookie ever. But her husband, a serious "cookie aficionado, " ate two to four at a time.  Since they work different hours, much of their communication is by text:  Monica:  "Did you eat the cookies?"  Husband:  "I just tried them.  There might be an issue.  Is there a limit on how many I can eat tonight?"  It's nice to bake for an appreciative audience.

 Nancy was one of several who liked the cookie itself, but didn't like the process.  She said that, although it's "a very good cookie, ... it's not one I'm likely to repeat," given "the long and somewhat difficult rolling out process and the time to fill with 2 fillings."  Jen echoed this complaint:  "These are good cookies, but I am not in love with them.  They would have to be the most amazing thing on earth for me to feel they were worth all the rolling and cutting...."

 I thought at first that Jenn was going to join the Ischler Bashing Club, but when she tasted them, "They were so good that I forgot my annoyance from earlier.  They are totally worth the effort."  But then she goes on to say that the plain cookies, by themselves, are so good that she'll just forego the unnecessary chocolate and lekvar.  Chocolate unnecessary?  Heresy.  Alice was also so rushed that she decided not to use both lekvar and ganache, but she at least didn't dump the chocolate out with the bathwater.  She just sandwiched the ganache between her almond cookie layers--"so cute [with] ... the chocolate peeping out."  "Delicious!" she concluded, "light and flaky with a bit of chocolate."

After making 25 gingerbread houses, rolling out the Ischlers was nothing for Jill.  She used Christmas tree and snowflake cookie cutters in addition to her round cookies, and rolled it quite thin, for "a holiday theme ..., which turned out quite well."  She wanted a bite-size cookie--too bad she couldn't share them with Kim, who only wanted one bite.

For Hanaa, the anti-rolling-out-bias seems based mostly in simple arithmetic:   "I really dislike roll-out cookies, and I dislike sandwich cookies even more because for the amount of work you put in, you're only getting half the number of cookies."  Spoken like a true scientist.

Kim's objection to sandwich cookies comes not from the rolling-out part but from the tasting part. She thinks "they always look beautiful, and I reach for them without hesitating, but I find they are often too much for my palate....  For me, a sandwich cookie needs to be bite sized--two bites max.  Otherwise, it just overloads my senses."  Sure enough, these little, seemingly innocent cookies were too much for Kim, but they made her husband swoon.

On the other hand, some bakers were like Kristina, who finds "rollling, cutting and baking the cookies somewhat ...zen[....]  It may be the same reason I enjoy weeding, and have recently taken up weaving.  Something I can do with my hands where I can choose to shut my brain off...."

Maybe Mendy has the real secret - not to be a perfectionist.  He said, "not all the cookies were evenly rolled, but they were perfectly delicious."  He did say the flavor of the cookie and the fruit filling reminded him of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Apparently that's not a bad thing.

Catherine was prepared for failure, but surprised herself with success.  In the middle of her hot, humid Christmas summer, she expected to have to "wrestle with sticky dough and spreading biscuits.  However, miraculously, (a Christmas miracle!?), [she] was able to roll the dough out quite thinly and get the cut out shapes onto the trays without tears."  And the recipient of the cookies asked her for the recipe.

Fortunately, there were also plenty of cookie lovers in the group to keep me from getting totally discouraged about the human condition.  Glori, for example, exclaimed, "Cookies, oh boy!  I have a weakness for cookies and I won't turn down one or two or even three if offered."  A girl after the above-mentioned Cookie Monster's own heart.  And Faithy said, "I like making cookies and eating cookies."  Although she claimed to have done everything wrong (not realizing that you were supposed to fill cookies with both ganache and lekvar, instead of one or the other), Faithy's cookies look, as usual, perfect.

Katya described these "glamorous" cookies as a "pleasure and a joy,"--both times she made them.  Besides, she likes their name:  "I like a cookie with a title--it has a bit more weight than just 'oatmeal raisin' or 'brandy snap.'  You know right off the bat that this cookie is an institution with the full weight of the treasury behind it."  And the Austrian treasury used to carry a lot of weight.

Michele thought the cookie was "outstanding ..., first nutty and crumbly, then that fruity and chocolate finish."  She also thought it was "sophisticated and upscale ..., not the kind of thing I would include in a lunch pail for a lumberjack...."  Although I have never thought to divide cookies into lumberjack and non-lumberjack categories, I think she's probably right that your typical lumberjack might think the Ishler is a little too hoity-toity.

Our lovely over-achiever, Maggie, thought the cookies were "very easy and delicious indeed."  And she only made three or four fillings for the cookies and a dozen or so different shapes and sizes.  

For some of us, cookies are not just cookies--they're an integral part of the December holidays.  Vicki, for examples, says she "comes from a long line of Christmas Eve-ers who firmly believed the table should groan from plates upon plates of Christmas cookies.... while opening presents and singing carols surrounded by dozens of cousins."  Christmas meant cousins to me, too, Vicki, especially our much-loved cousins who came all the way to our Indiana farmhouse from the exotic metropolis of Cleveland, Ohio!

Lois, who's been living next door to Austria for the last few years and knows whereof she speaks, pronounced the Ischler a "very sophisticated, very European cookie--a nice addition to any holiday cookie tray!"

I think that making the Ischler was a memorable experience for everyone, even for those who didn't really love the final result.  It will be interesting to see how next week's cookie--the much easier Almond Coffee Crisp--will be received.  I've made them twice now, and I think they're delicious, although I do love coffee.  If you don't love it, I recommend that you omit the final step of brushing espresso powder over the tops; if you do that, people may not even identify them as coffee flavored, but may instead think that there's some spice in the cookie that they just can't place.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Ischler

Erika, a good friend of mine, volunteered to help me with the bake-through project.  "I'll be your sous-baker," she said.  "I'll do anything you tell me to do.  I want to learn how to bake."  I thought this was an excellent idea because I can always use help, and her offer sounded like an invitation to boss her around.  She's not a very bossable person, but this presented a good opportunity.  (I used to be able to boss Jim, but now he reads the recipe ahead of time, and tells me when I'm doing something wrong.)

I made the dough on Friday night so I was ready to start the cookie project bright and early Saturday morning.

Erika wanted to try out my new scalloped-edge cookie cutters, but she started complaining about the dough almost immediately.  "Marie, this dough is too sticky.  I don't think you did it right."  Jim chimed in:  "The recipe says to add more flour when it starts to stick.  I don't think you added enough flour."  I don't know what made me think I could be the boss of either of them.

We soon got into a rhythm, though, and managed to get 74 individual cookies out of all the dough, not too far from the 80 that Rose says the recipe will make.  (As you may have seen, Rose explained in a comment to last week's Roundup that she actually rolls the dough a little thinner than the 1/8-inch directed in the recipe.)

I used these green 1/8" dough markers part of the time, but I actually find them difficult to work with, and I can see that they stretch to fit the size of your rolling pin, making them not strictly accurate.  They did fascinate Erika, though, and made her think she was learning tricks of the baking pro.  Ha.  I didn't tell her the full truth of my ongoing battle with things that require being rolled out, like pie dough and cookies.

"Are we done now?"  Erika asked.  "But aren't they a little ... plain?"  "We're not done yet, and they won't be plain after we make the ganache," I said cheerfully, because making ganache is a lot easier than rolling out cookie dough.

Erika divided the cookies into pairs while I made the ganache, which came together so fast that no one got a picture of it.  Next came the apricot glaze, which I opted for over the lekvar filling, not because I'm lazy (though I am) but because I love Bonne Maman apricot preserves.  But I thought I had 2 jars of it; instead I had one jar of apricot preserves and one jar of orange marmalade.  The orange marmalade would have worked just fine, I think, as would raspberry or strawberry-rhubarb preserves, both of which I had on hand, but I decided to be faithful to the recipe.  "To the store, Jim!" I commanded.  And to his credit, the faithful Jim obeyed.

When he returned, I quickly made the hot glaze, which Erika spooned on while I sandwiched the cookies together.

They're not plain any more!  The interesting thing about these cookies (because I didn't weigh the ganache and the glaze, which, in retrospect, I wish I'd done for at least the first few) is that each one tasted a little different.  Depending on whether we'd been more generous with the apricots or with the chocolate, or whether it was one of the thinner or the thicker cookies, there was a slight distinction in the emphasis of flavor.  Some were definitely more chocolatey and others were fruitier.  I think that the best ratio was about 2 to 1, chocolate to apricot.  The thinner cookies were crispier and nuttier, but so much harder to work with that I would definitely not try to get them any thinner than 1/8".

This was Jim's favorite cookie shot, but I told him I wouldn't put it first because it reminded me of false teeth.

These were a huge hit with everyone who tried them, so much so that I believe I'm going to have to make a few more batches to give away.  Next time, I'll try the plastic wrap on top of the dough trick.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Midweek Roundup

December 11, 2014:

     There were a few recurrent themes in last week's English Dried Fruit Cake:  one was fear and loathing of fruitcake and the other was love of rum (or other spirits).

     Glori's comment was typical of the Fearsome Fruitcake Syndrome:  "Oh no, door stop or regift for the  next 5 years."  Nancy described fruitcake as that "sticky dense cake with all the candied cherries."  Kim couldn't even identify the cherries:  "I’m just not attracted to those fluorescent green or red or yellow bits of mystery fruit.".  Judy remembered fruitcake as "those things you see at Walgreens in the tins ... that ... at holiday parties ... [after] all the shrimp was gone, cold cut platter cleaned off, even the jello was eaten, but alas, the fruitcake ... remained intact..."  Harsh words. Or consider Nicola's recollection of her childhood experience with fruitcake:  "The only way to make them edible to my young palate was to eat the fondant, throw away the almond paste and slather butter on the cake.  Quite a complicated process really."

But, not surprisingly, Rose made believers of us.  Or, in Hanaa's words, "Who knew fruit cake could taste so good!!!"   According to Patricia, this cake is "packed full of flavor and was just enough to satisfy my taste for something sweet."  Kristina distinguished a Rose fruitcake from an ordinary one:  "I don't typically like fruitcake.  I like dried fruit, though!"  So did Lois:  "This full of flavor cake bears no similarity to something you might see at the dollar store in December."  Katya's neighbor told her,  "This fruit cake is so good! I don't normally get excited about this kind of thing, but this is, well, exciting."  Maggie liked hers too, although she did a lot of beautification, adding frosting (Rose's Dreamy Creamy White Chocolate) and fondant poinsettias.  Personally, I have a fear of fondant that's even stronger than my fear of fruitcake, but that's another story.  Alice brought hers to work, where it was a big success, but she made sure not to call it a fruitcake, so as not to frighten people away.  A fruitcake by any other name apparently tastes better.

     And Catherine, in this week's best (and only) use of obscure Australian slang, declared the cake "a doddle," even though in her first attempt she mistakenly used self-rising flour, along with baking soda and baking powder, with unfortunate results.  

     Some of us were downright giddy at the thought of saturating a dessert with rum.  "Rum! I love a boozy cake," exclaimed Evil Cake Lady.  As Jill said, "And don't forget the Rum!!  Well, you can if you want to, but who eats fruit cake without Rum??  Isn't that part of the fun..."  And Jenn, who thought the fruitcake in Rose's Heavenly Cakes didn't have enough rum to lift it from the fruitcake doldrums, this one, after being "doused with a whole lot of rum," did.  
     Monica thought the rum may have been the highlight of the cake:   "...[T]he rum gave it a nice boozy touch, which is always a good thing in my book with cakes."  Michele even upped the ante with  a "buttery rum sauce [that ] proved to be a perfect complement to the cake."  Although even here there was no unanimity.  Mendy took a more sober view:  "I could not bring myself to put rum on this perfectly decent cake."

   And there was an enthusiastic minority who looked forward to any kind of fruitcake.  Vicki announced to her family, "We have fruitcake!"  And it was not a warning, because "Rose is solely responsible for converting [her] offspring to the wonders of fruitcake ... and they consider it a holiday requisite."  And Faithy was rhapsodic:  "I love fruitcakes! I adore Rose's fruit cake recipe in HCB and bake them every Christmas without fail..and I will bake enough that will last till Chinese New Year."  Raymond is such a fruitcake lover that "every year my friends collect all the store-bought fruit cakes they get and give them to me and I enjoy them for weeks."

     By and large, this fruitcake appealed to both the confirmed fruitcake lover and the fruitcake convert.  But you may be happy to get to a recipe with no fruit.  (Unless you count apricot lekvar or apricot preserves as a fruit, which seems a lot like trying to say that ketchup is a vegetable).  Next up are Ischler cookies, aka The Ischler.  I made these last week, and they are fantastic.  However, you may want to read the notes to the recipe before you actually start baking, especially the suggestion about how to successfully roll out this quite sticky dough.  I'm sure that all of you will remember to read through the entire recipe, including the Notes, before baking, unlike some people I know.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

English Dried Fruit Cake

With apologies to Robert Frost, "something there is that doesn't love a fruitcake."  For weeks, I'd been talking about making this fruitcake, and Jim always made a face and looked morose.  I told him it wasn't a real fruitcake because it didn't have glaceed fruits in it, but he was unconvinced:  "If it's' not a fruitcake, why is it called a fruitcake?"  He almost had me there, but I countered with, "How do you feel about an apple-pecan rum cake?"  He said, "I feel just fine about that."  "Well, there you are," I said, "that's what it is."




Pecans, apples, and rum.  How could this be objectionable, except to those few people who object to lading a dessert with fruit.  I'm talking to you, Monica.

There were a few more steps, and a few more ingredients, but nothing that would cause a would-be baker to have even a moment of anxiety.  This is one of the few--maybe the only--Rose dessert recipe that doesn't require some kind of electric appliance.  You stir the ingredients by hand!

This is the flour and other dry ingredients being mixed together.  Then the dried fruit and pecans are mixed in until they're all coated with the flour.  Yes, I know that I haven't mentioned the dried fruit, which include prunes, but I don't think that those ingredients turn this apple-pecan cake into a fruitcake.  It's not even a full package of mixed dried fruit, people!

Besides, look at the next step--adding the apples, which have already been mixed in with eggs, butter, and two kinds of sugar, including this beauty:

Dark Muscovado sugar from Mauritius.   Sugars like muscovado, demerara, and turbinado have flavor depths and aromatic heights that blow plain ol' granulated sugar out of the water.  So says In the Kitchen.  It also suggests that when you travel you look for local sugars.  Jim would be ecstatically happy if I changed my ideal souvenir from a piece of good jewelry to a bag of sugar.  I'm not sure I'm ready to make the trade.

But back to the cake.  The nice thing about this cake is that you could be done making it in the time I was nattering on about sugar and jewelry.  It is a most pleasant, relaxing, project.  First you toast the nuts, dice the apples, and cut the dried fruit.  Then you mix everything together.  Seriously.  It's that easy.  The only thing left to do is bake the cake (or cakes).

I opted for two round pans rather than one 9 x 13" pan because I wanted to do one with and one without rum.  (Yes, I understand that I can't call it a rum cake if it doesn't have rum in it).

Here's the one that's becoming rum-soaked.  I like to say rum-soaked.  Even without tasting them, I'm pretty sure that my vote is going to the rummy cake, but I'm keeping an open mind.

JJ reaction:  "Lulu, what's that?"  Me:  "That's a fruitcake, JJ."  "Why?"  "Because it's a cake and it has fruit in it."  "Oh."  "Would you like some?"  "Yes."  "I should tell you it has pecans in it.  Pecans are nuts."  "Why?"  "It has pecans in it because that's what the recipe said.  Pecans are nuts because they are."  "Oh."  "Do you want some?"  "No."  So I would say this is not a toddler success.

But it was an adult success.  Moist and flavorful, this cake is a good thing to have in your repertoire. On a cold winter night, served with a dollop of whipped cream sprinkled with cinnamon, it's almost enough to make you feel good about winter.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Midweek Roundup

December 3, 2014
      Well, we did it! We conquered the elusive and mysterious Kouign Amann! (Or Queenie, as I've started fondly referring to it/them/her). I'll admit to getting some evil enjoyment at people's angst at starting out with such an ambitious, scary-seeming recipe, because what I hoped would happen DID happen. When you got over your initial fear that you couldn't do it (and I definitely include myself here), you took a collective deep breath and started reading the directions. Reading directions, following instructions, measuring, weighing, counting--that's Rose's way of doing things, and your results show how successful this recipe is. Not a failure in the bunch--although we'll probably all have some failures in the next few years--and every one a beautiful and delicious accomplishment. So hats off to us, and especially to Rose, who devised a recipe that a home cook can follow with, frankly, better-looking and better-tasting results than in some of the posh bakeries that turn out Queenies.

      It's wonderful for those of us who've been baking together for years to be back again on a regular basis. I felt so happy diving into your posts and hearing your distinctive voices again. We're also lucky to have some talented and enthusiastic newbies with us. If you haven't done so yet, try to check out their blogs. You'll love looking at Glori's photography. As you might gather from the name of her blog, she's a cook and food photographer, and she's got some great tips for successful food photography.

          Jill is a girl after Rose's and Woody's hearts. She uses the words "precise" and "meticulous" as favorable adjectives, and she writes, "yes, I do keep a tape measure and a few rulers in my kitchen just for baking. Doesn't everyone??"  Jill is a newcomer to blogging, but definitely not to baking. 

     Judy, from Outside the Bottle, isn't a new blogger, but this is her first bake-through. She is a wine aficianada, and if you read her blog, you'll remember that she told us a little about Muscadet, a wine from Kouign Amann territory. Judy also lives in high Colorado, and she may have some of the problems that high altitude brings to baking, along with some solutions.

      Catherine, of PhyllisCaroline, is neither a Phyllis or a Caroline, but is a Catherine. Catherine probably had the most legitimate reason to fear the Kouigns Amann. She lives in northern tropical Australia, and this is the worst time of year to be fooling around with laminated dough. Catherine doesn't yet have a stand mixer, although she is leaving Christmas hints right and left. If any of you want to convince her that it's worth the initial expenditure, I'm pretty sure you'll find a willing listener.

         Simply Delicious, is Maggie's blog. Maggie was born in Sicily, but now lives in Ontario, Canada. She's a retired long-haul truck driver, who spends time baking and playing with her grandchildren. Maggie tossed some almonds on top of her Kouigns Amann, which looks like a perfect addition.

      Michele, of The Artful Oven, lives in Durham, North Carolina, and has been baking Rose's recipes for over 25 years. Now that's dedication! Do look at Michele's baking rings. Her "brillant and resourceful" husband found an aluminum pipe at a scrap yard and cut the pipe into pieces for Michele.

     Also, in addition to the "Alpha Bakers" listed on the side of the blog, there are dozens more who truly wanted to join the group and bake through the book with us. I told them that I felt strongly that the group became too unwieldy if there were more than a few dozen people in it, but that they should bake along anyway, and keep us apprised of their progress by leaving a link in the comments section. This week, The Finer Cookie's Kim baked along and posted her comment. As you might guess from her blog's title, Kim is a cookie connoisseur, and we'll be baking plenty of those, but she does a mean kouign as well.

      While we're on the subject of waiting lists, I did notice that not everyone blogged about the kouigns this week. I'm not trying to be Simon Legree, and I know that there will be times when, for whatever reason, baking and/or blogging is just not going to be possible. That's why I've built some catch-up weeks into the schedule. But if you find that baking every week is just more time-consuming than you thought, and you can't fulfill that obligation, please let me know so I can give someone else a shot.

      There is a badge on my blog that you can use to show your membership in this great baking group. I see that most of you have figured out how to transfer it. It was no easy task for me, so if you need help, I would recommend that you ask one of the younger and savvier members (that's almost everyone). 

     And thank you to Monica, who put together the Facebook page for Alpha Bakers only. That page has been very helpful in giving people a place to ask questions, compare results, or vent. All of you who worked so hard on these demanding Kouigns will be relieved to see what's coming up in the next few weeks. For next week, the fruitcake that's not really a fruitcake but can still be doused with rum. I haven't tried it yet, but it appears to be more of a moist apple/pecan cake than what we think of as obligatory holiday fruitcakes. Special equipment: as Monica said, "Nada." Unless you don't yet have Rose's baking strips, you almost certainly have everything you need to bake this cake.

      The next two weeks are cookies. We will probably never again have two cookies in a row, but I was feeling obsessed with Christmas cookies when I planned the calendar. Again, nothing too difficult-looking in either one. The Almond Coffee Crisps are easy-peasy, and scrumptious too. The Ischlers just need you to remember to chill them ahead of time, and give you an excuse to buy some cute new cookie cutters if that will make you happy.

      Finally, I made the posting date on Monday so that you'd have the entire weekend to bake and write. I noticed that several of you posted on Sunday. If you'd rather have Sunday be the due date, I can easily change days. Let me know sometime this week if you'd prefer Sunday or Monday or if you really don't care, and I'll try to choose the date that seems to work best for most people. Remember that if you finish your blog early, you can just set it to post automatically at whatever hour and day you want. Thanks for all your hard work and enthusiasm this week! I know that Rose was in seventh heaven seeing her recipe come to life on all your beautiful blogs, and I feel rather like a proud parent myself. See you soon for Fruitcake Week!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kouigns Amann

December 1, 2014

How can I make you understand the incredible deliciousness that is the Kouign Amann?  I could tell you that the name comes from the Breton words for cake ("kouign") and for butter ("amann").  One bite and you can see why those Bretons didn't feel they had to come up with a name more descriptive of fanciful than "butter cake."  I could also tell you that it's the specialty of the tiwb Douarnenez in Brittany, which should certainly give you a heads up in a trivia game, if the topic ever came up.  But that doesn't explain how wonderful this cake/pastry is.
Let me try by giving you the reaction of my co-workers when I brought some to work.  "Oh, look, Marie stopped at that fancy patisserie in her neighborhood and brought us some treats."  "No, you did not make these.  I don't believe it."  Because they kind of do look pretty professional, don't they?
Day 2 at the office.  One-half of one lonely Kouign lies on the plate (because Minnesotans can never take the last piece of anything).  It wasn't covered or wrapped overnight, but my co-worker announced that she'd nuke it for 10 seconds and it'd be better than anything she could buy fresh.

Okay, I'm not going to tell you that you can put this together in 10 minutes or that it's carefree and easy to make, or even that you won't have moments when you seriously doubt this will all turn out right.  But I am going to tell you that it's not nearly as hard as it looks and you can certainly do it.

Mise en Place:  Note the expensive French butter.  It's not necessary to have French butter, but if you can find it, it's a good idea to use high-fat butter.  The folks from Brittany pride themselves on having the best butter in the world, and they might be right--theirs has a little salt in it, but American salted butter is way too salty to substitute.

This is my dough square.  Woody was with me when I was making these, and he helped me a lot.  In return for his help, he yelled at me.  Maybe "yelled" is too strong.  Maybe he gently remonstrated.  "Marie, where's your ruler?"  "I don't know, Woody, why would I need a ruler?  I'll just guess."  I got the dang ruler.

Butter package in middle of dough package.  Woody is still fretting that my corners aren't very corner-y.

But it didn't really make any difference because the corners all get pulled out anyway, and turn into flaps with which to cover the butter.  

This is the first dough package.  

This picture's for you Woody! See how precise it is?  It's a 13 x 7-inch rectangle.

Sprinkling superfine granulated sugar on the work surface.

First you roll the dough into a rectangle, then you measure it with a ruler, then you straighten it with a dough scraper.  

The corners are square!  The rectangle is perfectly accurate!  The sides have been neatly patted into place.  Even Woody is pleased.

Everything has gone smoothly so far, but you can see that sugary butter juices are starting to ooze out.  The best solution is to ignore it.

Because you're not done rolling, measuring, and primping.  Now the rectangle has to be 14 x 8 inches, and of course it's getting increasing difficult to roll out.  But not too difficult!  Trust me--I have not felt the slightest urge to swear.

Now you have to cut the rectangle into eight squares, which you would not be able to do properly if you didn't have a neat rectangle.  I feel like I'm channeling my old Home Ec. teacher, who thought I had slipshod tendencies.  

Shaped, tucked into the metal rings, and ready to go into the oven.  Fortunately, there are excellent pictures of the shaping process in the book.  Mine didn't turn out that well.  But the shaping is not difficult at all once you get the hang of it.

Baked!  A couple of them are a little small (perhaps my rectangle was not as perfect as I thought), but all in all quitie photogenic.  You may notice that the sugar on the foil is actually what you might call burned rather than caramelized.  Now here's the point where I would have started to swear but Woody just said, "It looks like we'll be doing a little scraping."  Heart-warming words to me, and, sure enough, a little scraping of the burnt bottoms was all that was needed.  

I think this is the one that caused my colleague to accuse me of buying this at a fancy Patisserie.

Yes, it's a long, occasionally tedious process to make these.  But it's long and tedious to play 18 holes of golf, too, and I can tell you that Jim was in a much better mood after eating one of these (heck, he even scarfed up the burned scrapings) than he is after he plays golf.  Apples and oranges you say?  I say Kouigns Amann.