Saturday, April 28, 2007

Where's the Salt?

Over the past couple of days, I've bumped into two recipes that lacked an essential ingredient that bumps up the flavor of most baked goods: salt. After Karen and Claire got home from a spring-break Girl Scout trip to Savannah, Ga., I hauled out Paula Deen's The Lady & Sons Just Desserts. Although the girls enjoyed Paula's Gooey Butter Cake when they dined at The Lady & Sons, a different recipe caught my eye: Chocolate Cream Cheese Pound Cake. As I was assembling the ingredients, I pulled out the container of salt, then did a double-take when I saw that the recipe didn't call for it. Let's see: two sticks of butter, a block of cream cheese, 3 cups of sugar, 6 eggs, a bit of vanilla, 3 cups total of dry ingredients (flour and cocoa), some baking powder -- and no salt? I made a command decision and added 3/4 teaspoon of salt. Since I made this cake for PLTI, I didn't get to taste it, but I did sneak a small sample of the batter and think that the salt probably helped to enhance the chocolate flavor. (If any of the PLTI folks are lurking out there, let me know if this cake turned out OK.)

Meanwhile, on Thursday night, I needed to make something for the skaters to enjoy backstage at the skating club's spring show. Peanut-butter cookies sounded appealing as I browsed through The Greyston Bakery Cookbook by Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan. Again, assembling the ingredients, I was stunned to see no salt in the ingredient list. This time, I didn't add any salt. Big mistake. The cookies turned out fine, a nice, soft, chewy peanut-butter cookie. But they definitely lacked the rounded flavor that even a bit of salt brings, especially to something like a peanut-butter cookie. Karen and Claire each had a couple of the cookies. Karen said she enjoyed them; then, when I mentioned that they contained no salt and needed it, she paused a moment and agreed. Thumbs up for the recipe, I think, but I'll make a note in the book to add some salt next time.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Boston Cream Pie

All too often, my baking is motivated by the need to use perishables that are nearing the end of their shelf life. The other day, I realized that I had a half-gallon of whole milk that was perilously close to meeting its maker. Although I've tried using up milk in homemade pudding, those efforts usually end up with me using more ingredients in a final product that is ditched because I can't eat it all before it goes bad and because pudding doesn't seem like the sort of thing I can easily shuttle around the office.

One standby for using up milk, though, is Boston cream pie. I've tried various recipes and really like Lora Brody's in Chocolate American Style. At the same time, I enjoy the recipe from The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion, mostly because the King Art folks offer so many ways to tweak pastry cream. (Courtesy of the King Art folks, my favorite Boston cream pie variation to date is one with peanut-butter pastry cream.)

So it was to King Art that I turned, both for cake and for pastry cream. The pastry cream recipe in the Baker's Companion makes an insane amount of filling, way more than is even irrationally necessary in a Boston cream pie, unless you want the top of the cake to float away on an oozy puddle of filling. The pastry cream is nice, however, a pretty firm pudding lightened with a cup of whipped cream. I ended up using only half of it for this Boston cream pie -- which means that I have a Tupperware half-filled with lightened chocolate pastry cream at home.

After I made the cake, I remembered that I'd had a problem with this recipe. I've made it twice now, and both times, the cake has sunk in the middle. How did I manage to get a level top for the cake in the photo? I mounded the pastry cream in the middle, then very gently placed the top cake layer on the filling. It was a bit sloppy to slice and serve, but it tasted fine. I guess that's my typical happy ending for a baking tale that doesn't quite all add up.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Hummingbird Cake

A week ago, I had some bananas that were well beyond overripe. I didn't get around to using them for anything until yesterday. The sad banana peels had become almost leathery, but they were so intensely ripe that I figured they'd make for good flavor in a cake or bread.

I'm not sure what drew me to Elinor Klivans's Fearless Baking, but flipping the pages of that book turned up a recipe for Hummingbird Cake, which I'd never made before. This cake is a banana-flavored confection with pineapple and pecans, slathered with a cream-cheese icing. Bananas are tropical, so I figured Hummingbird Cake would be good for Lost Lunch Thursday.

I've just done a little online research to try to find out a little more about how Hummingbird Cake got its name. Unfortunately, that is going to remain a mystery because there's nothing definitive as to how that name got stuck to this cake. It is regarded as a Southern treat.

One big difference between the recipes I read online and the one I used is that Elinor's recipe uses butter rather than cooking oil as the fat. All in all, I like using butter rather than oil when I can. The cake layers turned out great, but when I was transferring them to the cake dome, I perceived that they were pretty heavy -- so much so that I was enormously, pleasantly surprised to discover how light the cake tasted. Once again, I've unearthed a recipe from a veteran cookbook and am left wondering why I haven't made this cake before. All I can think is this: so many recipes, so little time.


For me, getting ready for a road race means it's time to bake. Last Saturday, April 14, I ran the Brooklyn Half-Marathon (my favorite of the New York Road Runners Club's borough half-marathon series). Then, despite any shred of common sense, I ran the Boston Marathon two days later.

A frantically overjammed workweek and a sadly overjammed gear bag precluded me from bringing goodies to my pals in Brooklyn. However, I spent Saturday afternoon and evening preparing some stuff for my pals in Boston.

In this sort of situation, baking for friends requires me to keep a mental tally of food likes and dislikes, allergies, and so forth. Because I knew I'd be seeing my friend Victor, I put something chocolate-hazelnut in my planning. I ended up making Chocolate Hazelnut Pound Cake with Shiny Chocolate Glaze from Nick Malgieri's Chocolate. The cake is lovely. It's lightened with whipped egg whites, which is an interesting technique. I guess I never think of pound cakes as being too leavened. I also had dragged out Chocolate after the previous Wednesday's New York Times food-section cover story on brownies; that story featured Nick's Supernatural Brownies, which also made my Boston menu and, conveniently enough, are also in Chocolate.

Because I'd spent some time perusing Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours, I ended up making her Chocolate Oatmeal Almost-Candy Bars. These bars have a crust with the usual crust suspects (butter, flour, brown sugar) and some unexpected surprises (oats, chopped salted peanuts). A portion of the crust is reserved to be used as a streusel-like topping that goes over a gooey chocolate filling that contains salted peanuts and raisins. In her serving suggestion for these bars, Dorie recommends consuming them cold or even frozen. I thought they were great at plain old room temperature.

Finally, I made The Cake: Version 2.1, with pears and crystallized ginger. That flavor combination, which should have been obvious to me, was suggested by my friend Ken. I suppose that since he was due to get some of The Cake in Boston, he might have been a little self-motivated. In a word, The Cake Version 2.1 is a triumph. The pears and ginger are lovely together, although I think I ended up using pears that had gotten just a touch too ripe. The ginger is a nice addition and works well with the pears, the chocolate, and the other spices in the cake. Good suggestion, Ken. I'm also overjoyed that my friend Alison, from whom The Cake recipe came, was able to enjoy Version 2.1. (I'm already looking forward to cherry season for a new variation on The Cake.)

Farewell, Missy

(Catching up here. It has been a busy couple of weeks.)

My colleague Missy has vacated her cube and moved on to a nice new job. As one of the pillars of the Lost Lunch Thursday group, Missy offered lots of lively insights and analysis. She actually scheduled her last day at work so that she could have one final Lost Lunch discussion with the rest of us. To celebrate her good fortune and to wish her good luck, we had a special dessert for her last day at our office: Tropical Carrot Cake (see my previous blog entry), Version 2.0: Mangoized. Instead of using the original recipe's pineapple pudding, which flavors both the cake and frosting, I made a mango pudding with the same formula but starting with frozen mango chunks. I was unable to find frozen mango-juice concentrate, so I used pineapple-juice concentrate instead. Nevertheless, the mango flavor came through just fine. Note how the cake looks almost pumpkiny from the mango.

I will definitely do the Tropical Carrot Cake, Version 2.0 again; however, next time, I will take my friend Ryan's cue and reduce some mango juice or nectar to use in the pudding. That ought to send the mango flavor over the top.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies. Ever.

Last week when I blogged about chocolate cupcakes with fudge frosting, I used a Dede Wilson recipe and put a link through to her Web site. Since I'd never actually gone to her site, I took a look around, giving a quick scan to the recipes she has posted there. One really caught my eye: Coffee Toffee Chunk Cookies. I printed out the recipe, figuring it would be a good weekend project.

When I got home and really read over the recipe, I discovered that it appears in her Baker's Field Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies. Now that I've made these cookies, I'm left wondering how I could possibly have overlooked that recipe all these years.

Because they're not too sweet, believe it or not, these cookies seem as if they're a particularly adult indulgence. Imagine an espresso-flavored shortbread with chunks of dark chocolate and Heath Bar. The dough contains a minimal amount of sugar (1 cup total, halved between white and brown sugars) relative to the amount of butter (three sticks) and flour (3-3/4 cups). No eggs here, either. Mellowing the bite of the espresso? A bit of melted white chocolate. The cookies don't spread in the oven; they must be flattened slightly before baking. And they are divine: slightly crisp and brittle at the edges; soft and chewy in the middle; smoky from the espresso and dark chocolate; and sweet from the toffee candy chunks.

As someone who has never gotten the back-of-the-Nestle-bag Toll House cookie recipe to work, I'm always happy to find a recipe that leaves me with a nicely shaped cookie that doesn't spread to become threadbare. Dede Wilson's Coffee Toffee Chocolate Chunk Cookies might just be the best of all.

(Memo to self: Must revisit other slightly older baking books to uncover hidden gems.)

Also over the weekend, I made some "snowball" cookies, in honor of our Easter snow flurries. I'd been meaning to make them for a while, regardless of the Easter weather. Speaking of the back of the Nestle bag: Last Christmas, Nestle made white chocolate chips with red and green swirls. That bag had a really nice recipe for a simple nut shortbread with a chip-filled dough that is rolled into balls, then baked and dusted with powdered sugar. I had a partial bag of mint-swirled chips I wanted to use up, so I made these cookies with the mint chips and ground toasted walnuts. Very nice.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

More of the Same

I'm in a baking rut, it seems. I made another pound cake for the PLTI class and cupcakes for "Lost" Lunch Thursday.

The cake is a lemon Bundt, a recipe from a Land O Lakes butter ad. (Shrug. What can I say?) It's pretty minimally lemony (zest and a tablespoon of lemon juice), but it's not a bad pound cake at all. It's moist, it's buttery, it even has a hint of lemon (definitely a background player here, not something right up front).

The cupcakes are from Dede Wilson's Baker's Field Guide to Cupcakes. After last week's sunken white-chocolate cupcakes, I figured I needed some redemption and made Dede's chocolate cupcakes. The cakes are really good. However, the fudge icing I chose to coat them with? Not so much. The icing seemed promising when it was done coming together, but it took on a firm, fudgelike texture almost immediately after being made. On the one hand, it was fine; the frosting tasted great. On the other hand, it was pretty much unworkable. The cupcakes are definitely on the redo list, but next time if I want chocolate icing, I'll make a fluffy chocolate icing.