Monday, March 29, 2010

Chocolate sponge cake, or I'm no Macgyver

I have to say that I approached this recipe with trepidation. Reason One: Maida's chocolate cakes and I don't always get along, as seen in the Chocolate Festival Cake, Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake, and Red Beet Cake. Reason Two: Maida mentions in the headnotes that "You need an electric mixer on a stand for all the beating." Uh, no. Excellent workout for the arm, though. And Reason Three: You need a metal tube pan ("It must not be nonstick") for this thing to work. All I brought with me was silicon bakeware (it's much lighter in the suitcase), and the tube pan I borrowed from a friend was nonstick. So I had to improvise. If there's one thing I'm learning from this blog experience, it's how to improvise.

Here are the ingredients--oops, forgot the flour. But you can see right away that this will be a light, fluffy, no-butter cake.

Here's my improvised tube pan--a springform pan with a tin can in the middle. I probably should have opened the bottom of the can. And I probably should have centered it better.

Here's my improvised pan with the batter I spent 20 minutes mixing. It's a testament to how much I've been doing with my right arm that it didn't even hurt after all that.

Here's the cake out of the oven. As it was baking, I noticed that the batter got underneath the can and lifted it up. Oops. As I said, I'm no Macgyver.

And here's the cake. If my pan had been the correct size (I believe it was a bit big, although at one point the cake threatened to escape and spill over), perhaps it wouldn't be this flat. Still the cake is indeed "so light it feels as though it might fly away." And it did--straight into our mouths. But as light as it was, it was just kind of fluffy and sweet and cinnamon-y, but not very chocolatey. Claire said it needed frosting. I agreed--though I think a couple ounces of shaved chocolate folded into the batter might be even better. So I made ganache for the second half.

Mmmm...much better. This had better "fly away" to someone else's stomach before Claire and I devour the whole thing!

Here's the recipe. This is a great time to use the whisk attachment on your Kitchenaid.

Chocolate Sponge Cake
3/4 c. (2.6 oz.) sifted cake flour
1/4 c. (.75 oz.) cocoa powder
2 t. powdered instant espresso
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. salt
6 large eggs, probably best room temperature
2 t. vanilla
1 scant cup (6.5 oz.) sugar
(2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, shaved)

Preheat the oven to 325. Get out an angel food cake pan--a two-piece metal tube pan, but don't butter or spray it. Get out a sifter or strainer and two pieces of waxed paper. Put the flour, cocoa, espresso, cinnamon, and salt in the sifter and sift that mixture 6 times onto the waxed paper (actually, Maida says 7), alternating pieces of paper. I'm not sure what exactly the function of all this sifting is, but it's kind of fun.
Now put your eggs and vanilla in the mixing bowl, put in the whisk attachment, and crank up the mixer to high. Let that go for about 15 minutes, or until the mixture has "the consistency of soft whipped cream." This took 15 minutes on my hand mixer; it may take less time with a more powerful stand mixer. Then add the sugar very gradually, beating 3 more minutes while you add it. Sift the dry ingredients over the eggs, give that a couple of quick folds, and then VERY BRIEFLY use the mixer to get the flour incorporated. (If you choose to, fold in the chocolate now.) Wet the angel food cake pan with cold water, shake it out, and then fill it with the cake batter. Maida says to put half on one side and half on the other; this was a very good idea for me since the can kept sliding around. You shouldn't have that problem with a real pan. Bake for 50-55 minutes (mine was a bit overdone at 35 minutes, but I have trouble converting Fahrenheit to Celsius), "until the top just barely springs back when pressed with a fingertip." Turn the pan upside down (no, you don't need to hang it from a Coke bottle like Mom used to do) and let it cool like that. When the cake is completely cool, carefully cut around the edges and then unmold the cake. Maida recommends serving this upside down, which is actually more attractive. You can serve this plain, with fruit and powdered sugar, or with a lovely ganache. And get ready for it to fly off the plate.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cinnamon Rolls

These cinnamon rolls turned out to be completely unnecessary but ultimately much-loved.
Why? I had planned to have them for Saturday breakfast, my usual time to crank out sweet breads and muffins. It was going to be a bit tricky because Sami needed to leave for Paris relatively early, we had overnight guests, and we were having a dinner party for said guests the night before. And as we all know, yeast dough needs time to rise. Lots of time.
No problem, I told myself, I'll make the dough Friday afternoon, roll it up and set it to rise before I go to bed Friday night, and then I'll just rise bright and early and put the rolls in the oven so that everyone can have fresh, hot cinnamon rolls in the morning.
Well, I did one of those things: I made the dough in the afternoon.

Note the mashed potatoes. They make all the difference in the dough, I think. Maida's yeast doughs are always a delight to work with--springy and not too sticky. I mixed this with my hands, and it turned out perfectly.

Here's the dough Friday afternoon. I covered it and put it on a cool windowsill so that it wouldn't rise too fast. It filled up the bowl and puffed up a few inches over the top. By the time our dinner party, which didn't get started until 8 and involved several bottles of wine, was over, I was in no condition to roll out dough. So I just punched down the dough and hoped for the best.

Note to self: when hosting French people, have less food than you think you need and more wine than you think you'll want.
Late in the evening, after the vegetable tart and the lamb cooked in milk and the spicy Swiss chard and the delightfully smelly Saint-Nectaire our guests had brought, I put the beautiful banana upside-down cake on the table. Everyone cooed, but for one guest who proclaimed that she could not abide cinnamon. Note to self: This seems true for a majority of French people. Very little of the cake got eaten.
Great, I told myself, those cinnamon buns will be quite the hit tomorrow morning!

So I got up and went to the bakery for something more traditionally French, like a baguette. Note to self: many French people prefer not to eat in the morning. Don't bother.

Nonetheless, they oohed and aahed over the rolls and their progress. But Claire was the only one who actually ate one. Can you tell which one?
Later I had one for lunch. It was sooo good. I wanted to be like Maida's husband Ralph, who apparently ate a whole batch over the course of the day: "It was his dinner. Then he had to go to bed. A few hours later he asked for more." But I had to hold firm, so I packed a basket with some of these and brought them to a French-American family in town. I told the French husband my story of the unnecessary cinnamon rolls, and he told me, "You shouldn't force people to eat food they don't like. You should bring it to people who appreciate it." And I believe they did.
One more note: Claire's friends at school, seeing her pick at her cafeteria lunch, sent her to the nurse to get a lecture on eating disorders. Apparently they've never seen her eat cinnamon rolls.

Here's the recipe. Serve it to appreciative folks.

Cinnamon Buns

210 g. or about 8 oz. potatoes
4-1/2 c. (22.5 oz.) unsifted bread or all-purpose flour (I used about 1-1/2 c. whole wheat)
1/2 c. (3.5 oz.) sugar
1/2 t. salt
1 envelope (2-1/4 t., I think) instant yeast
1 c. milk
1 egg
1 t. vanilla
2 oz. (1/2 stick) melted butter, cooled a bit

Peel the potatoes and boil them (no salt!) in water just to cover. When they are tender, drain off some of the water into a bowl for later. Mash the potatoes by themselves--no butter, no salt. Let the potatoes and water cool to warm room temperature.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast. Make a well in that and add the potatoes along with 1/4 cup of the potato water, the milk, egg, vanilla, and butter. Use the dough hook of your stand mixer or a wooden spoon or your bare hands to work that all into a smooth dough that "feels alive." If you have a mixer, it'll just do its thing; if you're working by hand you'll want to dump out the dough and knead it for a while. When the dough feels smooth and lively, put it back in the bowl, cover it with a towel, and let it rise 1-1/2 hours in a warm place or 4-5 hours (or overnight) in a cool place.
When you're ready to roll, have ready the following ingredients:
2 T. sugar, mixed with 1-1/2 t. cinnamon and 1/4 t. nutmeg (This may not seem like enough cinnamon sugar. I worried about that, but the rolls were cinnamon-y enough. You could add more if you feel it necessary.)
1 oz. (2 T.) melted butter
5 oz. (1 c.) soft raisins (I probably used half of that)

Punch down the dough and roll it out (on a floured surface) into a large rectangle: Maida says an 18-inch square. I didn't measure, but rolled it as far as my Sil-Pat went.
Now smear/brush the dough with the melted butter, sprinkle it with the cinnamon sugar, and then distribute the raisins. Roll it up into a nice log. Since there's not too much sugar, this should roll neatly. Mark the log into 12 even pieces and then slice it. If you've got unminted dental floss, you can use that to cut your pieces. I love doing that. I did not, however, so I used a knife and that was fine. Put the pieces on a greased jelly roll pan (or back on the Sil-Pat), cover them with a towel, and let them rise for an hour in a warm place, or in a cool place overnight.
When you're ready to bake, heat the oven to 375. Take the towel off the rolls and put them in the oven for about 20-25 minutes (mine needed at least 25, and my oven seems to run hot).
While the rolls are baking, make the glaze:

1 T. (0.5 oz.) butter, room temperature
about 1 c. (4 oz.) powdered sugar
Pinch salt
1/2 t. vanilla
a few drops almond extract
2-3 T. light cream (or half and half or milk)

Mix this all together in an electric mixer, or mash it together with a fork. Glaze the rolls while they're still hot, preferably. Enjoy. Try to restrain yourself. But you'll probably ask for more in a few hours.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Maple Syrup Ice Cream

One of the things I'm really enjoying about our stay in Pontlevoy is our colleagues. There are two French teachers, two history teachers, an art history teacher, an English teacher, and Sami. The group ranges in age, nationality, and gender, but we seem to mesh very well. This is evinced by the social events we like to participate in: dinner at our house, drinks at someone else's house, a trip to the market, and of course, the potluck.
Last week was a potluck: everyone brought a dish according to their culinary means and abilities. There was a ton of cheese (but not too much!), too much bread, a delicious roast boar, salad, and two, no make that three desserts. And of course multiple bottles of wine. And after dinner half the group talked heavy-duty philosophy and the other half fled to the kitchen to "help with the dishes." Delightful.
So I brought two of the three desserts: my favorite apple crumble and this maple syrup ice cream.
Ah, maple syrup. It's surprisingly easy to get here, but expensive. I happen to have imported my own. I think there's about one-third of a jug left. We like pancakes. I therefore cut the recipe in half, so that I would only need one cup of precious Canadian-ness.

I always forget that ice cream takes a long time to chill. I didn't have that time, so I cooled the custard (maple syrup plus egg yolks) in an ice water bath.

One cup of maple syrup seems like a lot until you fold it into 2-1/2 cups of whipped cream!

So this was my ice cream maker. I was a bit worried about this part of it. I don't have one here, and I didn't feel like buying one for 65 Euros. So I went to my ice cream guru and found out how to do without an ice cream maker. It turns out to be easy, assuming you remember to check on your ice cream every 30 minutes. So I turned on the freezer upstairs in Claire's room, popped my pan of ice cream in...and forgot about it. For about 3 hours. When I got to it, it was frozen solid. I tried many tactics, including scraping with a fork and processing it in a food processor. Turned out that letting it thaw a bit was the best technique...huh.
Long story short: this was delicious. It's not too sweet but has nice maple-y flavor, and it went well with the crumble. Our Canadian colleague told me that it reminded her of home. The art history teacher, an 80-year-old former priest, asked me to run away with him so that I can make ice cream for him every day. And the English teacher, who has problems digesting starches, just kept dipping her spoon into the dish. Unlike my brownies, unlike my cake, there was no ice cream left over. Not a drop. Success!
Here's the recipe, if you want to get some indecent proposals...

Sugarbush Maple Ice Cream

3 egg yolks
good pinch salt
1 c. maple syrup (the darker, the better)
2-1/2 c. (20 oz.) whipping cream
1/2 t. vanilla
1/4 t. almond extract

Don't forget to get your ice cream freezer ready, if required. Put a pan of water (the bottom of a double boiler or a saucepan that your mixing bowl will fit over) over medium-low heat to simmer. Now in a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks and salt until they're thick and pale, about 5 minutes or so. Then put the maple syrup in a Pyrex measuring cup and microwave until it's just boiling--it took just about 2 minutes in mine. You'll want to watch it carefully so that it doesn't boil over. Then start beating the egg yolks again while you pour in the hot syrup in a thin, steady stream. Make sure that's all well beaten (scrape the sides), and then put the mixing bowl over the simmering water and heat, stirring, until it reaches 178 on a candy thermometer (this took me at least 10 minutes, though Maida says 5). Take the mixing bowl off the heat and somehow get the mixture cooled down completely. You could let it cool to room temperature and then refrigerate or freeze it, or you could put the bowl in a larger bowl full of ice water and cool it down that way.
Now that you feel your custard is cool enough, get ready to whip a whole lot of cream. If you have the stand mixer with the whisk attachment, get that going with all that cream, along with the vanilla and almond extracts. You want to get soft, not stiff peaks. Then gradually fold the maple custard into the whipped cream. When that's all mixed together, freeze it however your ice cream maker works. Enjoy alone, with candied nuts, or with your favorite fruit dessert.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Cristina's Brownies

Last week was busy in terms of both cooking and work. We had some of our "ch√Ęteau" group over for dinner one night, I made couscous for all the students the next night, and made dessert for a faculty potluck the next. All this among editing clients with trying texts and difficult deadlines. It just makes me want to alliterate. And among all this came brownies and ice cream.


I made the brownies for the small group of students as a dessert. It was a large pan of brownies, but I figured, "Hey, college students! They'll eat this in no time flat!" Somehow I overestimated their appetite for brownies. Most of them, while telling me, "these are the best brownies ever!" ate TINY little pieces. One girl did what I call a "Claire": took a bite, complimented me extravagantly, and left the rest on her plate. Claire has avoided dinnertime lectures for years with this technique...
So now, I'm stuck with a whole lot of brownies. A whole lot of DELICIOUS brownies (because no matter what these students' behavior would have you think, these are awesome brownies). Brownies mocking my Lenten no-snacking, no-seconds resolve. Those brownies had to go. So I pulled a Maida Heatter: everyone who crossed my path for 24 hours got brownies. I don't know exactly how many people I gifted, but it was a lot. And then there was just a small square left. And then Sami howled with disappointment because Claire had beaten him to the Breakfast Brownie. No one will ever say I don't feed my family right!

So, the technical details of this brownie: it's a cocoa brownie, which makes it easier for me. Unsweetened chocolate is not easily available here. And I had recently made these brownies, which are quite similar. Except that Maida's brownies are over the top. Three sticks of butter. Seven eggs. A pound of walnuts. These are not brownies for the faint of heart.

Normal brownie batter barely makes it halfway up the sides of the pan. This recipe goes way up, almost to the top. It takes almost an hour to bake these babies (but it only takes about 10 minutes to put them together).

Big, thick, larger-than-life brownies. Take them away, please!

Here's the recipe. You could cut it in half if you're not planning to make friends with an entire village (or student population).

Cristina's Brownies

12 oz. butter
1-1/4 c. (3.75 oz.) unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 t. salt
Scant 3 cups (19 oz.) sugar
2 t. vanilla
7 large eggs
1-1/4 c. (6.25 oz.) flour
1 lb. walnut halves or large pieces (make sure these are fresh)

Heat the oven to 350. Get out a 13x9-inch pan and line it with foil or parchment; butter the foil/parchment. Put the butter, cocoa, and salt in a large microwave-safe bowl and microwave it about 1-1/2 minutes, until the butter is melted. Stir it carefully (the cocoa likes to fly around) until smooth. Add the sugar and then the vanilla and stir; the mixture will be grainy, but that will change. Now add the eggs one at a time, stirring just until incorporated after each. Stir in the flour and then the walnuts. Pour all that into the prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until a toothpick comes out not quite clean. Cool completely and then freeze for best cutting results. Cut into fairly small pieces since these are quite thick. Feeds many, many people.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sweet Potato Pound Cake

This week I posted on Facebook how busy I was, which prompted Dad to suggest that the blog might suffer. Uh, no. I can cut a lot of corners in my life, but baking is something I almost need to do. When things get stressful--when you're contemplating a move to another country, when your child is getting ready to leave you again, when your client asks you if you could just completely rearrange a document within the next couple of hours--there's something soothing about turning butter, sugar, eggs, and flour into something completely different. So I baked this week. I waited until my most urgent project was finished, but I baked.


It was a very American cake this week. Fortunately, I bought my sweet potatoes from a different vendor this time, and they were the "normal" orange kind. I got one for the cake and one for me to eat for lunch--in Mississippi I would eat a sweet potato for lunch just about every day. Now it's an exotic treat. But hey, there are many, many food items to compensate for that. Unfortunately they're not quite as cheap and low-cal.



This is a good cake, though maybe not a great one. It's moist and dense and sweet and cinnamony, which are all good things, but there's nothing that made me go wow! And then there are the peanuts. Salted peanuts, like almond extract and Meyer's dark rum, are kind of a Maida Heatter signature ingredient. She likes them in banana bread, cookies, and in this cake. They go on the top and bottom of the cake and add some crunchiness and saltiness.



This did not go over well with my crew. We were all tasting our first slice when Sami said, "Ew! There's something salty in the cake!" The girls, meanwhile, carefully trimmed their crusts to avoid the peanuts as well--I think they objected to the texture more than the salt. Julia said that they looked pretty, though. I kind of liked them, but then again, I'm a salty-sweet-crunchy kind of girl. Ever had matzoh crack? I rest my case. And one of our friends who got a piece of this cake asked me to make it again months later.





Here's the recipe. If you like a moist, dense, sweet, cinnamony cake with a salty, crunchy exterior, go for it!

Sweet Potato Pound Cake

2/3 c. (3.2 oz.) salted peanuts, chopped very fine, divided (I imagine pecans would be good here--or even cashews)
8 oz. (2 sticks) butter
2 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1 t. cinnamon
3/4 t. nutmeg
1/4 t. salt
1 t. vanilla
1 scant cup (6.5 oz.) sugar
1 scant cup (6.5 oz.) brown sugar
4 large eggs
10 oz. cooked sweet potatoes (preferably baked/microwaved), peeled and mashed
3 c. (12 oz.) sifted flour

Heat the oven to 350. Butter a Bundt pan and sprinkle in half of the peanuts. Swirl and tap them around to coat the pan; leave any remnants in the bottom of the pan.
Cream the butter with the baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt until nice and fluffy. Add the vanilla and then gradually add the sugars, beating about 5 minutes until light and fluffy. Then add the eggs one at a time, beating a minute or so after each addition. If you're using a hand mixer, your arm should be getting a pretty good workout. Now add the mashed sweet potatoes and beat until they're incorporated. Finally, mix in the flour on low speed just until it's incorporated. Pour the batter into the peanut-crusted pan and sprinkle it with the remaining peanuts. Now put the pan in the oven and let it bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes (check it after an hour--mine was done after only 1 hour). Cool on a rack for 15 minutes and then unmold onto a plate or another rack. Enjoy warm or room temperature. Julia highly recommends microwaving slices of cake on the next day.