27 December 2010


I have never been a big fan of ginger. Unless it's pickled and accompanies sushi. However, I wanted to try some gingerbread for the holidays. The kids love baking with me at home, and, really, what is more fun than decorating cookies?
This recipe turned out great. It was cakey and pleasant. It was rigid enough for a house but not dry or crunchy. I have to admit I played the spices by ear, relying mostly on cloves and ginger. Below is by the recipe.
1/2 lb unsalted butter (2 sticks), room temp
1 tsp salt
2/3 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
2/3 cup molasses
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp clove
1/2 tsp baking soda

1. Combine first five ingredients. 2. Stir in dry ingredients until a smooth batter. 3. Bake at 350 about 8 minutes. The cookies will darken slightly, and the edges will be firm.

You may spoon out round cookies. They do not spread, so we rolled them into 1" balls with our hands and then smashed them flat. I like to roll them in sugar before baking. Sanding sugar is gorgeous if you have it.
You can also roll them out to make shapes. I went 1/3" thin. My daughter made hearts; my son made rectangles. Then we made people, or rather giants, that the kiddos decorated with simple icing and candies.
A nice variation would be adding candied ginger pieces or chocolate chips. Golden raisins might be nice, too.
In the end, I am so glad I tried this recipe, as it has overpowered the memory of stale gingerbread houses.

14 December 2010

Why I consider myself more of a baker than a pastry chef

I don't get garnishes. I don't get chocolate pieces, sauces, ganaches, fruit, and other edibles used for a dessert that either don't get eatten or have no other purpose than to look pretty. Sure, some stuff is neat. Wow! That's sugar?! It's amazing what you can do with some things. I understand some garnishes actually compliment the dessert or meal. I endorse this category. It's the "Oh, it needs something. Let's throw a mint leaf on it." It's just so empty.
Fondant is a similar story. No doubt it is beautiful and smooth. You can do a lot of things with it. However, no one likes it. I can't tell you how many times I've watched people peel it off to reach the yummy cake inside. I've had the freshest of fondant, too. It still tastes like sweetened wax.
Some do the same thing with bread. Toss seeds, herbs, or whatever on top when it doesn't compliment the flavor at all. And let's not even discuss the gross overuse of kale, a delicious and severely under-appreciated green, as a garnish.
Let food be food. We all know what it is. No matter what mold you threw it in. Or special cut you used. Or whatever else. Make it count!

07 October 2010

Back to Basics

First off, I was just skimming through and noticed that the majority of my photos are out of focus. Sorry, guys, I'll pay more attention!

So me and my baking buddy Ames went to a class on baking with freshly ground flours. It was informative and I will definitely be looking into this further. I found the free class through another blog, Life's Daily Bread. A couple run the site and the classes; their adult daughter joined in, too. They also serve as a source for equipment and ingredients. They really are a nice couple, but I have to admit I felt like I stepped into Stepford once everyone else arrived. If anyone has experienced Franklin, TN you know exactly what I'm talking about.
What intrigued me was milling whole grains. I have never done it before, and as far as I can remember I have never known someone who did. It's something I have always been interested in, as I see it as a way to get back to the land, get back to simpler (ie better) ways. However, it seemed too daunting, like how I see canning. Both of those in addition to sourdough are on my divide and conquer list. The biggest thing I took from the class was Bob's story of the drastic improvement of his health since switching. He shares on the site:
“After three months of eating bread made with this freshly milled grain, my cholesterol dropped 30 points. It also helped me jumpstart my weight-loss and now that I am eating a healthier diet including 2-3 servings/day of our homemade bread, I have lost 40 lbs. I feel better than I have in years and look forward to sharing this with our family and friends.”
That my friends, is a good enough reason for everyone to look into this!
I was pleasantly surprised that the products--a wheat bread, some kind of taco pie casserole thing, morning glory muffins, apple spice cake, and blueberry bread--were not heavy and as dense as a brick but had a great texture and what I would consider umami . The electric mill was as loud as a plane and almost as expensive, so I'm looking out for an old-fashioned manual model.

06 October 2010

Last week was a lot of fun. We hold at least two themed dinners a week at the cafeteria. Here we have Root Beer Cake for root beer float night, a vegan Pumpkin Cake and Carrot Cake both for World Vegetarian Day.

The root beer cake was way too sweet for me, but it was a big hit with those who love to overdose on sugar. I modified this recipe a little bit, using only the cake, and I made a thick buttercream which I thinned with root beer.
The pumpkin cake came from Sinfully Vegan's P is for Pumpkin Cake!. I cannot believe how great this turned out. It is super moist and not gummy like some vegan items can be. You could easily add in nuts or raisins, top with a streusel, and use it for a coffee cake or muffins. The best part is that you don't have to buy super expensive ingredients you cannot pronounce.
Carrot cake is something I am never done with. However, I am satisfied with this version, as is everyone down at TSU. The football team even got into it. My recipe is from Better Homes and Gardens; I just swap in crushed pineapple for the oil. It keeps it super moist. I actually think my BHG cookbook is outdated; I can't find the correct recipe, so here ya go! I make this one by hand, so if you use a mixer, whisk on low or use a paddle. The batter is rather thin, so use your best judgment.
1. Whisk together 2 cups sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, 4 large eggs, 3 cups finely shredded carrots, and 3/4 cup crushed pineapple.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk or sift together 2 cups AP flour, 2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp cinnamon (or more if you like!), and 1/2 tsp baking soda.
3. Whisk and fold dries into wets until smooth. Bake 350 for about 25 minutes. Use the spring back test. This batch will make one layered 9" cake. Feel free to add coconut, nuts, dried fruits. I've seen it all but like to keep it simple. I frost with a cream cheese buttercream and press chopped and toasted pecans onto the sides.

I also made popcorn balls for Popcorn Night. It was my first time, and I thought they turned out great. They were not a big hit at the cafe, but I consider it a personal success. If I get another chance, I'll do a Poppycock/Cracker Jack/Fiddle Faddle type of mix. Caramel can be very intimidating. Thanks to my time with Provence Breads and Cafe, I feel comfortable with making my own. Plus, it's just sugar and water. You won't be losing a lot if you burn it. To jazz these up, I drizzled dark and white chocolate ganache, but you could also dip in one of these or a smooth caramel or peanut sauce and roll it in sprinkles, nuts, candy bits, etc. Any of those could go in with the popcorn in addition to dried fruit, chocolate chunks, cookie chunks, etc.

24 September 2010


Holy Cow! Work has been cray-cray, thus no updates. The adage "two steps forward, one step back" sums it up nicely. I made the most embarrassing rendition of bread pudding yesterday...and actually served it. Facepalm! On the plus side, the perfect cheesecake made an appearance as did white and dark chocolate mousses. AND my new favorite brownie! Read on!

Fall is here! Well, it was here in Nashville, then the sun decided to get one last punch in. Technically speaking though, the fall equinox has passed, so we are in the fall season. Glorious autumn. When I think of fall, I jump to pumpkin. I love its cheery color, moisture, and versatile flavors. There are a handful of favorites. (You know I couldn't have just one!) Pumpkin pie. Pumpkin cranberry bread. Pumpkin bread pudding. Pumpkin butter. Pumpkin curry soup. Cream of pumpkin. And of course simple roasted pumpkin with butter and nutmeg. When it comes to sweets, sugar and spices are a subtle accent. Pumpkin's natural flavor is really wonderful, and I like to showcase it rather than overpower it.

Pumpkin Cream Cheese Brownies
These brownies are killer. They scream Halloween with their black, orange, and white swirls, especially if you use a pumpkin cutter. These will definitely be making an appearance at our gathering. Now, I'm not fully satisfied with the brownie base, so use your favorite in a 3/4 batch. If you use a box mix, you can use the remaining 1/4 batch to make brownie cookies or muffins. Or eat it raw like a little piggy. *One of the best tricks I learned from Merridee's is to line brownie pans completely with foil, spray, then flour. Chill or freeze your baked nummies. Pull the whole thing out by the foil, unwrap, and cut into portions with little to no mess.*

1. Spread brownie base into a greased and lined pan.
2. Cream 1# cream cheese (room temperature, folks!), 1/2 cup sugar, 2 eggs, and 1 tsp vanilla extract. Spread evenly on top of brownies.
3. Mix 1 cup apple jelly and 1 cup pumpkin butter. Stripe over cream cheese and swirl using a knife, toothpick, or your finger (mmm!).
4. Bake at 350 for about 35 minutes. Pan should jiggle and cream cheese swirls should spring back with light pressure.

If you'd like to take a stab at pumpkin butter, throw some over medium heat, spice as desired, and stir in a sugar, syrup, or juice (apple works best). Stir often and cook for 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how thick you like it.

Alright, kiddies. Some things to look forward to: Root Beer Cake, Apple Cider Muffins, Carrot Cake (my unicorn), and plenty more pumpkin!

03 September 2010

I have just finished my first week as the head of Tennessee State University's bakery department. I am very excited and slightly daunted by this position. It's my first opportunity in management for one. Two, the department is brand new. This is somewhat a double-edged sword. Having no previous expectations gives tremendous freedom, which will take some adjusting. I also think everyone is afraid of too much change. For the past couple years, they have been serving prefabricated products or had random employees bake off their box mixes. A major change was needed. Products were overbaked. Oversweetened. Dry. Tasteless. Very bland. No variety. I think the students and faculty deserve better, and I want to bring it to them. Supplies and tools are still in transit. It will take a few weeks to transition and knock out any bugs in my recipes.In the meantime, I'm trying to make the best of what is available and incorporate small changes that will not explode heads. I think last night's dessert option is a good example of how you can make a box mix great. Kind of like Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee. (I am so jealous of her ever-evolving kitchen, but seriously whose wardrobe matches their decor and table setting?) They have been using a Ghiradelli brownie mix, which is not bad at all on its own. I luckily found a single box of chocolate chips, which became a ganache with the help of a little cream. Before it set I sprinkled the top with chopped pecans and slightly pressed them in. I found a caramel sauce in the coffee shop. A drizzle later, and there you have some rockin' turtle brownies from a box. Booyah.

I'm psyched about this opportunity. It could blow up in my face. It could be the best thing in my professional career. I find the possibilities intimidating, challenging, and exciting. My main goal behind it all is to comfort those students who miss home. I hope to provide a little spark to someone's day. To bring that satisfying "ahh" moment. School is hard; teaching is difficult. I think they deserve a little moment to breathe and send some love to their tummies.

27 August 2010

The Significance of Bread

Why is bread so important? The bread of life. Make some bread. Make some dough. Bread & butter. The bread-winner. Bun in the oven. Butter my biscuit. The best thing since sliced bread. The Eucharist. Cakes & ale. Peace! Land! Bread! Bread that this house may never know hunger. Salt that life may always have flavor. And wine that joy and prosperity may reign forever. Bread in all its forms has so many meanings in our lives. Ritual. Remembrance. Celebration. Thanksgiving. Offerings. Why climb on the soapbox? I had an epiphany last night. Lightning struck my brain. Bread is the perfect union of the elements.Flour from the Earth. Our grains and many other ingredients used in breads are birthed by our Mother Earth. In a way, vegetation itself is the elements combined--the soil, rains and dew, heat from the sun, and the air that carries seed.
Hydration through Water. Water is essential to life. Our water is older than we can imagine. It lives on and on, continuing through its cycle. The water that we use is the same water that our ancestors used.
When the yeast is activated and eating up precious sugars, bubbles of carbon dioxide are formed. Air. In naturally leavened bread, yeast in the air travels down to eat your starter. I shared a very interesting 1am conversation with Sous Chef Paul from Eastland Cafe about his 5-year-old starter, lovingly named Stewie.Fire is the baking. Originally bread was cooked by fire, and there has been a resurgence of wood-burning ovens in restaurants, bakeries, and homes. The hearth used to be the center of the home, and I still consider it to be vital.The Aether or void is your intentions entering the baked goods. One simply cannot knead by hand without feeling a connection. Some feel that baking is spiritual, just as many approach any task or craft. I can't remember the movie, but a baker is so sad that she cries all day over her dough. The result is salty, inedible buns. If you bake with sadness or anger, it will stay in your products. However, I have never not felt the healing aspects of kneading.
There is also the moment of enlightenment that is like a super orgasm. My husband loves driving, and I know there is that special moment for him. It's when he is so well connected with his car that it is an extension of himself. And when he drifts, he may as well be dancing or gliding over the road. His joy in driving is parallel to my joy in baking. We all find that niche in which we take great pride and joy.

All of these things brought me to this realization. I honestly started laughing with joy. Like the double rainbow guy! I think that video is hilarious, but I also get where he's coming from. I know not everyone will fully understand this. What really matters is that I do.

24 August 2010

Cobbler: This lazy lady's pie

Organic nectarines are on sale this week and, more importantly, smell ah-maz-ing. I had to throw a dessert together in just a few minutes before heading off to work. Pie? No, I'd have to wash my board, and I loathe washing dishes. Plus, rolling would take too long. Aha! Cobbler!
Typically, I do not measure the filling for cobblers. I would guess I had about 4 cups of nectarines, cut into wedges, plus 3/4 cup sugar, 2 tsp or so of cornstarch, pinch of salt, and nutmeg galore. (I love nutmeg. It is so versatile and overlooked. Try it with stone fruits and cheese. I think I'll do a post on overlooked spices. There is more than just cinnamon!) The crust was by eye again, but about 1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, 4 Tbsp butter, pinch of salt, and just enough milk to bring it together. I formed the top with my hands. No rolling required! Stab, stab, stab to vent. Brush on a lil egg wash. "Honey, pull the cobbler out when the timer goes off. It'll be golden and bubbly." And I was out the door. It made a wonderful breakfast. Hey, there's fruit in it!
The great thing about cobblers, pies, crumbs, crumbles, and buckles is that the fruit is the star. Avoid too much sugar so you can taste the fruit's natural sweetness. Look for what is in season and what looks good. Smell the fruit! You can tell a lot by the scent. If you go, 'Oh my gosh. I want to eat this now. Is the stock boy looking?' then you have good fruit. The snozberries smell like snozberries! And they will taste even better than they smell.
I wanted to ask my readers how they like their cobbler. Some do a flaky crust. I like a sturdy, dumpling-like crust. And the biscuit top! I love those for berries, so all their juices get soaked up. What do you like best? Does it change depending on what's inside?

15 August 2010

The Croissant

I always think it's interesting to see products made start to finish. It's kind of like a behind the scenes exclusive. I don't have the complete transformation for you today, but it is the best part. I currently do the night bake for Provence here in Nashville. That means I proof and bake all the pastries in addition to other tasks. The croissants are so adorable, resembling cross-armed men.
Here we have a tray of proofed croissants ready for the oven. To the side is a frozen croissant. How cool is it that a wee baby croissant grows into a big papa croissant? Double rainbow cool.
The finished croissant, all golden brown. I highly recommend that you toast previously baked croissants to reenact that crispy, flaky goodness. The sound of delicate layers snapping under my fingers, or better yet between my teeth, is music to my ears. Just look at all those lovely layers! That, my friends, is all thanks to butter. In the earlier stages, butter is wrapped by the croissant dough. It goes through many rolls and folds before being cut and shaped. This spreads the butter evenly (hopefully), and the result you see here.
Bravo, Shanny Shan!

Grapefruit Poppy Seed Muffin

I wanted to try out a new poppy seed muffin recipe, but I was out of the traditional lemon. Other citrus in my fruit drawer: lime (eh), orange (maybe, but not zingy enough), and a red grapefruit (bingo!). I just used the zest, so I could eat the insides for breakfast later. These turned out great! The oils give a slight numbing effect, less so than cloves. The flavors really compliment each other well, and I may try to up the grapefruit next time. I'm also not completely satisfied with the crumb. Perhaps some cake flour, replacing a portion of the all-purpose, would work well here. A light streusel may be a good choice as well. Overall, it was still a great success. Moist. Doesn't fall apart. Not overly sweet. The biggest victory here is finally recognizing that grapefruit does have a place in baking. I wonder what other ingredients I have overlooked?

05 August 2010

My best buddy, the bench scraper

Combine one of these: Bench. Pastry. Dough. Board. With any of these: Scraper. Lifter. Cutter. Knife. I've heard every single combination to describe this handy tool, but I stick with bench scraper. I find it to be the most versatile tool, and therefore the most valuable. Even though the blade is dull, it is able to cut many things. I love it for nuts and butter. It can slide over or scoop up ingredients. Use it to whack things, like garlic. Divide and cut dough, or use it instead of a wheel. It can be a measuring tool, and many models have inch marks right on the blade. When you're all done, it scrapes off all the gunk on your bench with only the aid of hot water. Many different handles are available, including wood, metal, silicone, and plastic. There are straight, rounded, and curved blades. I prefer the plain Dexter version. It doesn't wear out my palm, is sturdy, dishwasher safe, and just feels right. You will find this easily in every bakery for a reason.

02 August 2010

Struan Bread

Yesterday was Lammas, Lughnasadh, or Loaf Mass Day. Pick your name; it's all the same. Simply put, it is a day to celebrate the grain harvest. Last night, the kids and I made my beloved Struan bread. It contains wheat bran, rolled oats, polenta, and rice, so that covers a lot of appreciated grains. We mixed and kneaded by hand, which is the most rewarding method of bread making. The dough starts off sloppy and kind of chunky. You start to wonder if you did this right, even though you've made the same recipe for years. Then, as if by magic, it becomes bouncy, smooth, and even. You really just want to snuggle with it.

It only gets better with the rises. The honey aroma becomes more pronounced, and sometimes you can actually hear the gases swelling inside. I actually did a happy dance as I formed the dough into loaves, anticipating the scent of baking bread that would soon fill the room. There aren't many scents that match it.

Next to handling dough, my favorite part of baking is thumping loaves to ensure they are ready to be pulled. Testing readiness by sound is kind of silly. Sometimes I feel like a tuner, plucking the piano's strings. After baking comes the hardest part, waiting. The bread continues to bake for awhile, allowing the crust to achieve perfect, well, crustiness. The reward for your patience is great. Fresh, hot bread is amazing. Orgasmic even. Whoever started the term "foodgasm" surely thought of it while nomming on freshly baked bread.

This bread is hardy yet light. Sweet and nutty. Bright and rich. It's great for rolls, sandwiches, toast, and of course noshing. I adore this bread, and it will forever be special to me.

31 July 2010

Banana Caramel Coffee Cake

My mother asked me to make something for a brunch. I had a freezer full of bananas, so I wanted to put those to use. Ya know, one can only have so many smoothies. I have been fixated over caramel lately, more specifically creme brulee. (Sinful but worth it.) That recent obsession brought me to the great combination of bananas and caramel.

My coffee cake was moist enough on its own, but I really wanted spots of gooey caramel. Halfway through baking, I pulled out the cake, poked a bunch of holes, and poured a rich, bold caramel sauce over the whole thing. I returned it to the oven until it was done. The end result had gooey caramel inside and chewy caramel on the outside. I drizzled icing on top to jazz it up a bit.

I am so glad I made an extra one, as are my kiddos. This recipe will be a regular, I'm sure. But I'll need to buy more bananas first...

29 July 2010

Ribbon Rose Wedding Cake

This was my first wedding cake that I took on for a friend. Her favorite color is periwinkle blue, and she wanted something very simple and traditional (i.e. three tiered, white, and round). She had been in catering for a time and was sick of what a typical bride may want. Fondant and Italian buttercream were strictly banned!

The original idea was to have periwinkle pansies from her garden. Unfortunately they were drowned by rain shortly before the wedding. In fact, most of middle Tennessee was flooded. We threw around some alternatives, but eventually she got frustrated and said just to use whatever flowers Home Depot had in stock. I wanted her to be thrilled with the result. I wasn't about to throw in the towel.

I found the answer from none other than Martha Stewart. I thought this cake was a good way to incorporate the color she wanted with the other factors that were important to her. The roses are baked meringues, sometimes called cloud cookies or divinity. Using meringues was a great way to show homage to their Southern roots. I used various shades and sizes to help keep the cake fluid and more interesting. The couple and their guests were very happy, even though we had to cut the cake while it drizzled.

28 July 2010

Take 1

Fuin is Gaelic for bake or knead. Our family has a double dose of Celtic blood (Irish on one side, Scottish on the other), so I think it fits. In addition, a Scottish bread first won my heart, and I was forever lost to baking.

Struan bread is not a rarity, but the story behind it is mysterious and intriguing. I first read of it in Brother Juniper's Bread Book. My husband bought it as a congratulatory gift when I landed my first baking gig at Merridee's Breadbasket in Franklin, Tennessee. The author's words were my own. His passion was so moving and familiar. His version entails the Feast of Saint Michael, a harvest celebration, and giving loaves to the poor in honor of past loved ones. Other accounts include the harvest festival, Lammas, which is very similar in practice. However, most of the information I have found is a retelling of Reinhart's tale.

It is hearty, earthy, and sweet. Really, just a wonderful bread. I was actually able to feature a variation of Reinhart's recipe at Merridee's, which was well-received. I wish to play around a bit and serve it at my own bakery one day. Until then, I will share it's recipe via a former employee of Brother Juniper's.