05 June 2011

Cake Tips

Recently, I've gotten a lot of questions about cakes, so here is a 101 of sorts for your convenience.

If you are doing a big cake, whether a sheet or 100+ servings, try the recipe out first. Cut the recipe in half and make a few cupcakes. Make sure that the cake has a good crumb, no tunnels, good moisture content, flavor, and gauge how delicate it is.

When mixing the batter, typically you mix the wets, including sugar, and the dries separately. You then alternate and mix just until combined. You don't want to overbeat the batter, or it will be stiff. When using dairy products, such as butter and eggs, bring those things to room temperature. Other items, such as milk, sour cream, etc. should be set out for a bit but not too long or it will spoil. When mixing hot liquids with eggs, you want to temper the eggs first. Add a bit of the hot liquid to the eggs and mix. Add a bit more and mix. If you just dump them together, you'll have scrambled eggs in your cake. Not too yummy.

If you don't have cake flour, or don't want to buy the expensive stuff at the grocery, you can make a substitution. Measure out the flour that is called for, using all-purpose flour. For every cup, remove 2 Tbsp of the flour and add 2 Tbsp cornstarch. Sift and sift and sift and sift again. Seriously. Sift 4 times so that the cornstarch is distributed evenly. You can, of course, use regular all-purpose flour, however the texture will be more dense.

To prep your pans, use parchment whenever you can, and grease and flour. You can use butter, shortening, oil, but I always go with a nonstick spray. Toss in a couple tablespoons of flour, or cocoa if making a chocolate cake or brownies, and tilt the pan to evenly coat. Knock any excess out into the trash.

After baking, let cakes cool in the pan. Here there is a little variance. I prefer to freeze in the pan; others depan, sometimes wrap the cake, and freeze. Freezing in the pan ensures the cake freezes in the correct shape, and depanning is much easier. Usually, I can just bang it upside down, and the cake comes right out. Then you can brush on a simple syrup and toss back in the freezer. The syrup adds flavor, moisture, and stability. Once the cake is frozen it is very easy to handle and sturdy. I also prefer not to wrap, instead leaving the layers open on a baking pan lined with parchment.

Level off your layers, unless you really don't care. I only do this when it is for someone else or for work. More cake, more better for me. If leveling, use a bread knife or other serrated knife. I cut outwards in, while rotating the cake on the counter. (Use parchment or a board!)

To keep crumbs at bay, use a crumb coat. This is a very thin layer of icing that acts as a primer. You can a portion of the icing to thin it. You want the crumb coat to become one with the cake. It doesn't sit on top but fills in all the nooks and crannies. Freeze again. Trust me, it helps.

When icing, always use room temperature frosting. Sometimes beating it on high for a minute will help keep a smooth consistency. There are several different methods to ice a cake. I typically pile about 2 cups (for a 9" layer cake) on top and spread it out in a circular pattern, overlapping the sides. Then I either hold the cake with my left hand or use a pedestal stand and rotate the cake while icing the sides, again, overlapping the top. A dough cutter works great with this, since it is usually as long as the cake is tall. With an offset spatula, rake the edges inward, keeping it level. Once you're done, pop it back in the fridge.

If you want to try something fun, just swirl the icing around with a knife, or flick it out with the tines of a fork. You can also use the tines to make interesting patterns. It doesn't have to be all smooth and pristine. Cakes are fun!

If you are stacking tiers, stick a dowel, straw, or skewer into the bottom tier. Mark the depth and cut 4 more the same length. Arrange in a star and push all the way to the bottom. Add the next layer, making sure to stay centered. I've only done 3 tiers, so I can't give much advice on super heavy and big cakes. However, this is the method I use.

When cutting cakes, or really anything, I use a sharp knife that has been dipped in hot water. Sometimes I dry it, depending on what exactly if being cut.

21 May 2011

Pineapple Upside-Down Cornmeal Cake

I love pineapple upside-down cake. It always reminds me of my Aunt Pat, who served her cake warm and accompanied with a rum glaze. I'll never forget that one Easter, she gave me a special nod, while she drizzled the glaze on top of my slice. I was now, in her eyes at least, an adult.
This version was inspired by Alton Brown's recipe. I added a little triple sec and one of my favorite spices, nutmeg. I know the use of cornmeal tends to be a Southern thang, and you must try it at least once. It has a wonderful texture, and the sweetness is balanced out a bit. I also love that I get to use my cast iron for dessert.

1. Heat 3/4 cup milk until steaming, being careful not to scorch. Pour into a bowl. Stir in 1 cup cornmeal (I prefer yellow.) and set aside.
2. Melt 4 oz (or half a stick) butter in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add 1 cup packed brown sugar and 2 Tbsp triple sec. Cook for a few minutes until all the sugar is dissolved, and it's a bit bubbly.
3. Carefully arrange pineapple slices on the bottom of the pan. (If using crushed pineapple, drain very well.) Don't burn your fingers! Sugar burns are wicked. If you like, you can add maraschino cherries and/or nuts.
4. Whisk 3 eggs and 1/2 cup sugar into the cornmeal mixture.
5. Mix in 1 cup AP flour, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 1/2 tsp nutmeg, and 2 tsp baking powder. Batter may be lumpy.
6. Carefully pour over the pineapples and gooey goodness. Place skillet on a baking sheet. (Just in case the gooey goodness overflows.)
7. Bake at 350 for 40-50 minutes, when top is golden.
8. Let cool. Place a plate on top of the skillet and invert in one quick motion.

After trying this recipe, I'd consider browning the pineapple in the skillet first. I also think this would work best in a 10-12" skillet. I used an 8". The cake did not overflow in the least bit, however it was very thick. The cake to fruit ratio was not as even as I prefer.

30 March 2011

Sorry for the hiatus. But I am working on some great posts!
I recently joined Au Bon Pain. They are brand new to Nashville, found predominately in the north. It seems like a great company, and I'm not just saying that. To be honest, I was a little hesitant to consider this position. I'm used to baking from scratch, and I freely admit that I'm a bit of snob when it comes to that. However, Au Bon Pain makes all the products. It's not contracted out or just Sysco products. It's their recipes made by their people in Boston, where headquarters is also located. The bread is prepared and shaped by an actual person. Breads come in parbaked, and everything else is frozen, raw dough. Everything is proofed, baked, and finished in house everyday.
From a customer's viewpoint, they have some great options. Sure, you can have a ham and cheese, but you can also have salmon on a freshly baked dill onion bagel with herbed cream cheese, wasabi mustard, cucumbers, and tomatoes. (left) Heavenly! They also have hot sandwiches, such as grilled eggplant with mozzarella on a ciabatta. (below) Their soups are awesome, as are the fresh salads. Every 3-4 months, new items are featured, so there is always something new to try. They have a more than decent selection of pastries, excellent cookies, bagels, bread, and breadsticks. (Oatmeal cookies are something special. Fleur de creme is the most sinful-but-worth-it pastry. It's a croissant baked with sweetened cream cheese, then stuffed with more sweetened cream cheese and dusted with powdered sugar.)
Portions are by far my favorite thing. They are bites, accompaniments, snacks, etc. There's fresh fruit, brie, hummus and veggies. (My favorite is the turkey rolls, filled with cranberry chutney, fresh asparagus, and Gorgonzola.) The cool thing is that whatever is inside will not exceed 200 calories. Great idea if you are watching your intake.
Speaking of watching your intake, the most innovative thing I've ever heard--a "nutrition kiosk." It's a touch screen computer where you punch in your meal, and it gives you the full nutritional value of your whole meal. Awesome for those with special diets, allergies, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
I spent two weeks in Chicago with their training baker, so I will have a post on that coming soon. I found some great bakeries and snarfed stuffed pizza. I even mastered the CTA!
If you are in Nashville, definitely check it out. June is the grand opening. It's located at Vanderbilt Hospital, across from Light Hall. It will be open 24/7! This makes my heart super happy. Night owls can rejoice in a late night option that isn't a bar or Waffle House.

04 March 2011

Red Velvet Cake

I recently picked up a copy of Baked's first cookbook, New Frontiers in Baking. Baked is located in New York City, and a colleague of mine was their cake decorator for some years. I first picked it up, because his recipe is featured, however all the recipes are great. They pull inspiration from nostalgic desserts and candies and give it a little kick. I can't wait to work my way through this book. The first recipe I tried was red velvet cake.
Red velvet is a classic Southern staple. Who can forget the armadillo cake in Steel Magnolias? Or Tom Skerrit's line "Nothing like a good piece of ass." I have noticed that red velvet has gained popularity as a wedding cake flavor here.
Unfortunately, I have run across some dry, crumbly, radioactive-looking versions. Not so with this recipe. It is well-balanced, moist, and has actual flavor beyond sugar. I did not make the recommended cinnamon frosting, a cooked icing without a trace of super sweet powdered sugar. It sounds very intriguing, but I had to make use of vanilla buttercream to which I simply added cinnamon. Of course, the traditional cream cheese frosting would do as well.

1. In a bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup cocoa powder, 1/4 cup boiling water, and 2 Tbsp red food coloring. Let cool.
2. Cream 6 Tbsp unsalted softened butter, 2 Tbsp vegetable shortening, and 1 2/3 cups sugar until fluffy. Add 3 eggs, one at a time, til well combined.
3. Add 1 cup buttermilk and 1 tsp vanilla extract into the cocoa mixture.
4. Sift and combine 2 1/2 cups cake flour and 1 tsp salt together in a separate bowl.
5. Mix half the flour mixture into the egg mixture. Mix in the cocoa mixture, then the remaining half of the flour mixture.
6. In a small bowl, stir together 1 Tbsp cider vinegar and 1 tsp baking soda. (Don't worry. It's supposed to fizz.) Stir into the batter just til combined.
7. Bake at 325 for about 35 minutes, til center springs back or toothpick comes out clean.

15 February 2011

Memories of Provence

Provence was my second position as a baker. It was wonderful to learn a bit about French baking. That interview was the most nerve-racking. Just that it's French was intimidating, and the head pastry chef requested a portfolio. I had never once thought to take pictures of my products. So, I made a batch of my "Tiramisu Bars" that were featured at Merridee's. It could have totally back fired on me, as it borders on edible bribery. However, it was well-accepted and instantly gave me a shoe in with future co-workers. (That reminds me that I'll have to post that recipe.)
Provence is a much bigger company than what I was used to. They had 5 locations spread throughout Nashville, as well as a large clientele from local restaurants, hotels, and other catering gigs. They also made appearances at the Nashville Farmer's Market during the spring and summer months. All the baking was done at a lovely, flour-dusted building in the Gulch, and it later moved to the airport area.
Baking at the Gulch was non-stop entertainment. In the morning, you get to see hipsters do the walk of shame, as they slink back to their cars with smeared makeup and disheveled hair. I met an interesting group of gutter hippies, who offered me some ganja to go with the biscotti ends I offered to the hungry bunch. At night, there was no telling who would pass by. One night I had a European fellow burst in, flanked by two young hotties, demanding fresh pastries "like in the old country." Being across the street from the Station Inn, which was also Jimmy Carl's by day (excellent coleslaw!), meant a steady stream of bluegrass and country artists. I even caught an impromptu after hours show in the parking lot one night. I swear that one day I saw Robert Irvine of Dinner Impossible.
Our team was amazing. We pretty much all got along. We made vulgar jokes all day, dotted with poorly done Borat impressions. Listened to NPR and pop music. It was common to find something, whether it was European butter or sucree dough, shaped into a sexual organ. Awesome for a morale boost on those early 4am mornings.
There were actual relevant experiences as well. I learned how to make genuine croissants and danishes. I burned caramel at least a dozen times before getting it down. I think my decorating and finishing skills soared. Blair, a Baked veteran, showed me how to flawlessly decorate cakes. Well, his were flawless. I swear, watching him was like watching a ballet. I iced way too many Christmas tree cookies. Discovered the endless possibilities in macarons. Discussing new flavors and ideas was a great exercise. Pistachio. Mango. Espresso. Lavendar. Megan, our head chef, even experimented with bacon pecan bars. Talk about sinful!
The best thing about my time there was learning from all my different co-workers. They all had different paths, skills, and tastes. Our head pastry chef had never been to culinary school but had a degree in psychology. Three of the chefs had culinary degrees with various results. One was a nurse full-time who came in to work for free, because he loved baking so much. There were a slew of interns from the few schools that offered culinary degrees in the area. I also got to know some of the bread department, as well as our administration.
The universal factor was passion for food. Not everyone was a Provence fan so to speak, but they all loved food and wanted to be involved with it in some way. Everyone kept up on new restaurants and new menu items. It was a blessing to be surrounded by so many foodies.

09 February 2011

Memories of Merridee's

I was brushing up my resume and thought about taking a stroll down memory lane. I have worked with 3 different companies so far, and each one was a unique experience.
I first worked for Merridee's. To be honest, I was just looking for a part-time job. This extremely vague classified ad began a whole new world for me. (Yes, now I'm envisioning Aladdin and Jasmine on their magic carpet ride.) Back to the story, I remember thinking, 'Yeah, I could do that. Why not?' I spoke with the head baker at the time, Donnie, and set up an interview. I was so nervous that I got there an hour and a half early. I remember peeking in the windows before calling to see where to go in, since the front doors were locked. Yeah, I just woke up my very groggy future boss. Once he arrived, we talked about tattoos, skating, wine, motorcycles, and the details of the position.
I think I took to it fairly well, even though I had only baked the regular stuff at home. The biggest thing that helped me was that Donnie emphasized using your senses instead of tools. Feel the dough. Smell the fermentation. Hear the thwap. See the stretch.
To congratulate me on my new venture, my husband gave me Brother Juniper's Bread Book. I think they meant Bible; it surely is mine. Through the two sources, I learned how all of this came together. Flour. Liquid. Salt. Yeast. Heat. Bam. Bread.
The second after holiday season was particularly slow, so I switched to the day shift. Nothing too exciting, baking wise, but the people! I got to know our regulars, see kids press their faces against the window. We even had a steady stream of celebrities, including Naomi Judd, Kal Penn, and Hayley Williams. I even met a couple, who remembered when Merridee's was in Fairview, its original location when it was a pioneer in the local, organic movement. I met Merridee's widower and got to know our owners better. I won over the Mr. Wilson type by calling him "Sport".
I think it was important for me to see the other side. We always joked that we bakers were the Keebler elves. Most of the employees never saw us until the holidays, when our shifts crossed paths due to over-time. Customers were struck with awe, when I informed them that I was the lovely lady baking their beloved Viking bread. I was proud of our work before, but now I got to see how much others enjoyed it. How much this place meant.
But at night, that's where the fun was. Friday nights were a guaranteed good time. That's when all three of us worked, me, Donnie, and Amy, the current head baker and my best girl friend. The neighboring bars and restaurants meant rich drunks stumbling about, usually asking if we would open just for them. "Just ONE cookie!" Most nights were calm, and the square took on a peaceful, if not mystical, persona.
I learned about so much music. Now, I have this collection of music dedicated just to my time at Merridee's. I know you're begging to know. Dresden Dolls, Snake River Conspiracy, Ratatatat, Dropkick Murphys, Days of the New, Tool, Queen.
I look back on it now as a good time. I got a best friend out of it, a ton of knowledge, mad props for featuring my own recipes. Most importantly, I discovered that my hands are my best asset. They can create food. Not just food but memories. They can help celebrate milestones, bring comfort, or just give people an excuse to meet or catch up.

31 January 2011

I remember Thanksgiving dinner not being complete without a slice of my Aunt Sherry's fudge pie. Rich chocolate taste. Smooth and creamy. I would never divulge family secrets, but here is an equivalent.

1. Melt 1/2 cup butter and let cool.
2. Whisk together 1 1/2 Tbsp cocoa, 4 Tbsp all-purpose flour, 1 c sugar, and a pinch of salt.
3. Whisk in melted butter, 1 tsp vanilla, and 2 eggs until smooth. If your butter is still a bit hot, temper the eggs first.
4. Pour into crust and bake at 325 until middle is set. Let cool before serving.

For something new, try replacing the vanilla with your favorite liqueur, such as Bailey's or Kahlua.