Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tuesdays with Dorie: Perfect Party Cake

You know, I'm not the most obedient Tuesdays with Dorie baker. Sometimes I take liberties with an ingredient (or two, or three...) and I don't always stay true to the recipes. But I like to think I have my priorities in order, and I follow the instructions when they're absolutely necessary.

So when Dorie ordered us to have a party to go with this Perfect Party Cake, by golly, I had a party.

Okay, so she may not have demanded the party, so much as suggested that this is a good party cake. And I may not have had a party so much as a mini partylet. But still. An excuse to hang out with friends and eat lemon-strawberry cake? A fine recipe indeed!
You know what was not fine about this recipe? The combination of soft buttercream, slippery jam, and sweltering midday heat. I don't usually have issues with layer cakes, but this one gave me fits--it kept shifting and sprouting jam leaks from the sides. I went from having a tidy cake to a leaning tower of Pisa to a Sissy-Spacek-in-Carrie-when-she's-covered-in-blood monstrosity in about two minutes. Which wouldn't have been the end of the world, except I had the partylet planned for that evening, and kind of needed a party cake to go with it.

After much chilling, straightening, spackling with buttercream, and voodoo, I had an approximation of a straight layer cake...as long as no one looked at it wrong or breathed near it. And of course, once it was cut into, it started its slow slide into entropy once more. But at least it (moderately) held its shape until then.

As for the cake itself, I thought it was good. I liked how well it came together, and it was very easy to cut and layer. The buttercream had too much butter for my taste, and not enough sugar or lemon flavor. My biggest problem was the (cheap, supermarket brand) jam. It was way too sweet and didn't have enough strawberry flavor, and as I mentioned above, it was too loose and didn't work well as a filling. I topped the cake with lemon curd and fresh strawberries, which helped add some flavor and some tartness, but in the end it was just a little too sweet for me, without enough fresh berry taste.

I think the basic cake recipe is good, and I would make it again, but I would either add fresh berries and omit the jam, or make jam from scratch so that I could control the texture and sweetness. So for me, I guess I would have to say it was a not-quite-perfect party cake, but it still made for a great evening. Party on, Wayne.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

DB Bakewell Tart: In Which I Abuse British-isms

This month's Daring Bakers challenge was that most English of desserts, the Bakewell tart. Jolly good! Shortbread crust, a layer of preserves, and a frangipane (almond paste) topping, all baked up nice and brown, and Bob's your uncle.

The June Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar. They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart... er... pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800's in England.
But the Barney Rubble* is, I don't really like aggressively almond desserts. You know, the ones that rely on lots of almond extract, like those almond danishes, or anything with lots of marzipan, or (sigh) this tart. And I kind of knew that going in, but I hope that through the magic of the daring bakers, my tastebuds would be transformed and I would enjoy it. Alas, the whole thing was just too almondy and fakey and, I don't know, chewy and cakey in a weird and dodgy way.
I made a custard sauce to go with the tart, because when I lived in England, it seemed like I couldn't get a dessert without custard, try as I might. Apple pie? Mandatory custard on the side. Chocolate mousse? Not complete without custard. Want a jam doughnut? Not without custard, you don't! Cup of custard? How's about a nice dollop of custard on top. Cor blimey, it was everywhere. Fortunately, vanilla custard sauce was a really nice accompaniment to this particular tart, and helped cut some of the almond flavor for me.

My absolute favorite part of this tart, though, was the homemade apricot preserves I used. The apricots were a little tart to eat on their own, which made them perfect for the jam and kept it from being too sweet. I had a little extra tart dough left over, so I made small shortbread cookies out of it, and topped them with the apricot jam. It was brilliant! So delicious.The jam was a slapdash experiment that worked perfectly, and I was chuffed to bits at how well it came out. And it couldn't be easier! This makes a little more than a cup of jam, perfect for filling this tart and nibbling on leftovers.

Apricot Jam

1 lb apricots, ripe but firm
12 oz sugar
1/4 cup honey
juice from 1/2 lemon

Pit the apricots and coarsely chop them--their skins are so thin, they do not need to be peeled. Place them in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and add the sugar, the honey, and the lemon juice. Stir until the sugar dissolves and the apricots are evenly coated.

Allow the apricots to cook and break down, stirring frequently to prevent scorching on the bottom. After a time, the mixture will start to produce an orange froth on top that bubbles vigorously. Use a spoon to skim this off the top. If you save the orange foam in a small container, it will liquify and become an amazing apricot syrup--great on french toast or pancakes!

Continue to cook the apricots until they have broken down and are at a consistency you like--for me, this was about 35-40 minutes.

*Speaking of Cockney rhyming slang, did you know "raspberry tart" is rhyming slang for "fart"? Think about THAT the next time you're blogging about a nice fresh berry tart.
...And many apologies for the wanton abuse of the English language, next post will be back to our regularly scheduled American slang.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

TWD: Coconut-Roasted Pineapple Dacquoise

In honor of this week's TWD recipe, a coconut-roasted pineapple dacquoise, I have composed an original song. Sing with me now:

If you like pina colada,
and making egg white meringue
and placing chunks of pineapple
under an open flame,
Even if fancy french dessert names
tend to stick in your craw
You will like this week's pick of
Coconut-Pineapple Dacquoise!*

*recipe name shortened because the lines already had enough trouble scanning as is, thank you
Yes, folks, this week's dessert made me want to sing. It's hot, it's officially summertime, and what better way to celebrate than with a fruity tropical dessert? Never mind the 3+ hours of baking time to cook the dacquaoise layers, the oven temp is so low it's *practically* like it's not even on! (Riiiiight.) Seriously, though, all that baking in the heat was worth it because this was delicious!

A number of people on the TWD blog commented that the white chocolate ganache either failed for them, or was really too sweet for the rest of the dessert. I took their advice and skipped the ganache and filled my coconut dacquoise layers with a simple whipped cream instead. It was the perfect touch, but I definitely went too heavy on the cream--look at how thick it is! Next time I'll hold way back so that the cream doesn't overwhelm the rest of the dessert.

The oven was taking too long to roast the pineapple and give me my nice caramelized color, so I brought out my butane torch to do the job for me. You remember Old Sparky, right? He joined my kitchen family for the creme brulee challenge, and he's been teacher's pet ever since. I have one other regret with this dessert. I was kind of hypnotized by the picture of the dessert in the book, and like a good sheep I blindly mimicked the precise rows of roasted pineapple in the layers and on top. It looks good, but it wasn't enough pineapple for me! Along with decreasing the amount of whipped cream, I would definitely increase the roasted pineapple next time.

These leftovers are what I want my next attempt to look like:
Other than that, I loved this one. Tangy, juicy fruit, rich cream, crispy coconut meringue melting together in one dish...definitely song-worthy!


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

TWD: Peach-Honey Ice Cream

I'm baaaaaack! Peru was amazing. We hiked the Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu:

And visited various islands on Lake Titicaca, including these crazy floating islands made entirely of reeds:

We explored the rainforest and saw way too many enormous insects and spiders, but also lots of cool stuff, like a whole family of capybaras! Check out the little babies near the bottom. Awwww.We also visited some OG markets in the bigger cities and expanded our pansy American culinary sensibilities:

One of the best parts was stalking the local wildlife and taking photos with whatever poor animal was too slow to evade my grasp. I have tons of pics like these:

Clockwise from top left: rare Andean deer, alpaca (not llama!), tuckered out donkey, Peruvian hairless dog.

However, after several weeks of frequent travel, erratic meals, days without electricity, bathrooms without toilet seats, and non-potable tap water, we are glad to be back home. I am also excited to get back to my dessert (and dessert-blogging) routine. No offense to my Peruvian peeps, but I was decidedly underwhelmed with the desserts we tried. When plain old ice cream is consistently the best thing on the menu, something is wrong.

I guess all the ice cream tasting was in preparation for this week's TWD recipe, though. And what perfect timing: peach-honey ice cream to welcome in the official start of summer next week.

I'm not usually a huge ice cream person, but I was excited about this recipe for nostalgic reasons. Growing up, we had several peach trees in our backyard that always produced tons of peaches every summer. So my childhood is marked by canning peach slices, making sticky peach jam, luscious peach cobblers and pies, and of course, homemade peach ice cream. We had an old machine that used rock salt and ice, and I still remember the vibrant, creamy ice cream bursting with chunks of soft peaches. Well, friends, here is the sad truth: the hard little stones sold as "peaches" at my local market are poor imitators of the soft, juicy, bursting-with-flavor peaches I remember from my childhood backyard. And try as I might, my nostalgia is no match for their bland taste and texture. So while I didn't think this ice cream was bad (on the contrary, I liked the honey addition, and thought the texture was perfect) the lack of strong peach flavor was really disappointing. I may have to try this recipe again the next time I visit my folks and have access to real peaches.

But I can say that the spiced sables I made to accompany the ice cream were terrific. These were based on Dorie's basic sable recipe, and they're absolutely perfect. Love the extra hint of salt, and the sandy texture.

I would also be interested to try this with apricots or plums instead--maybe those'll prove to have a bit more flavor. Happy summer, everyone!


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Tuesdays with Dorie: Parisian Apple Tart

I'm still in Peru. Holla! By the time you read this, I will have already hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and will be in the Amazon, taunting piranhas and taming capybaras and hopefully not contracting malaria from mosquitoes the size of grapefruits. Good times!

But of course I wanted to vicariously participate in all the TWD recipes with my peeps, so the week before we left was a frantic blur of working, packing, baking, and pre-blogging. This recipe was especially awesome because I was able to rush home from work (by way of the grocery store), make the recipe (including adding extra steps), bake the tarts, and photograph them, all in the space of about an hour, before losing the natural daylight. I also had time to compose the world's worst run-on sentence!

My recipe change was to caramelize the apples before baking. I don't like it when fruit dries out during the baking process, and I thought that putting raw apples in a 400* oven for 25 minutes might not leave them as luscious as I like. So, I made a caramel of butter and sugar, and cooked my apple slices for about 10 minutes, until they were softened and a nice golden brown.

It's important not to pre-cook them too much, so they don't get mushy. I also kept the caramel that I cooked them in, and brushed on an additional layer after they came out of the oven, so they were moist and glistening:

I thought these tarts needed a little ice cream love, but I didn't have any around and time was short, so I decided to do the next best thing: creme anglaise. I made a vanilla-cinnamon anglaise to go with (and under, and on top of) the tarts. The vanilla and cinnamon flavors went perfectly with the caramelized apples and the buttery puff pastry. After rushing around to make this recipe and photograph it, I couldn't wait to give it a taste. I thought it was great! Really simple, but clean, classic flavors. I loved how fast it came together, but how it looked and tasted like a sophisticated dessert. I will definitely be keeping puff pastry in the freezer to whip these babies out in case of dessert emergencies.

Next week I'll be back to my normal life, and I look forward to baking in 'real time' and catching up with everyone's blogs.


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Tuesdays with Dorie: Cinnamon Squares

You guys, my brain is fried. There is a small pathetic puddle of gray jelly in between my ears, where my thinkbox should be. I can't even summon the mental fortitude to wax rhapsodic about the cinnamon squares we made this week:

See, I'm writing this entry a few days in advance, because we're going to Peru for a few weeks and I don't want to leave my blog sad and outdated, so I've been planning on writing and dripping the TWD posts while I'm gone. However, I have also been working, and hosting my visiting brother, and shopping for the trip, and making endless (endless!) checklists and plans and contact lists, because I am a high-strung Type A monkey who can't eat breakfast without a 5-bullet point plan of action. Long story short: I have been trying to write this entry all evening and have not been able to concentrate long enough to think of something clever to say.

Which is a shame, because this was a really nice cake. I love the combination of cinnamon and chocolate, and I thought the cinnamon swirl running through the middle was a really nice touch. The cake came together easily, and had a nice, moist crumb. I might have wanted a little ice cream on the side, but that's really not the cake's fault, now is it?

Sorry Dorie, it's a nice cake, but it's no match for Vacation Planning Brain. Cinnamon Squares: 0, Mush Brain: +1. Rematch next week!