Sunday, February 5, 2012

One last post

This is just to say so long and it's been fun. Two and a half years, give or take, and 195 recipes. I've made all the recipes you see here, and none of them looked as good. Six different kitchens, not counting "guest star" kitchens. Forty-three pounds of butter--yes, I counted. A few dismal failures, a few recipes that were on the "meh" side, and a lot of really delicious recipes.
I learned a lot about baking and about myself as I went through this blog experience:
  • I could bake twice a week and not gain weight. However, it took iron will in terms of portion control, not eating dough, and moving baked goods out the door. Also, moving to France and walking everywhere probably didn't hurt.
  • Baking made me a more social person.  Let's just say I'll never be an extrovert. I think I'm introverted and shy. But sharing all these baked goods helped me tell people I liked them without having to tell them. And I probably attended and created more food-sharing events because of the blog.
  • I will never win a photography award. See below for the overwhelming evidence. I use a better camera now, and I've done some messing around with the "food" setting and photo editing, but I'm a bit too impatient to fiddle with lights and settings. 
  • Baking for this blog has made me stretch and learn as a baker. There were some recipes that I would not otherwise have made because they were too fussy or sounded disgusting or involved a pound of butter. But I gritted my teeth and made them, and generally I was glad I did.
  • Baking for this blog has shown me that I don't know it all. I like to think I know better than Maida because I have done a lot of baking and reading about baking. And sometimes I'm able to get away with some tweaks in method or ingredients. But often the recipes I've deemed "failures" are ones in which I've made changes or not followed the directions. If I were a real food blogging professional, I'd make several versions to test whether Maida was really right. But then I'd have even more baked goods sitting around staring me in the face. No, thank you.
  • Baking on this blog has, on balance, been good for my sanity. These last 2.5 years have had their share of upheaval, what with our many moves and changes and culture shock. Telling myself and my family that I "need" to bake twice a week has given me that calming space in the kitchen, where the butter and sugar and flour do their thing no matter where the kitchen is.
My daughter Julia suggested I throw a party to celebrate the end of the blog and bake all our family favorites from the cookbook. I'm not sure that's in the cards, but if I could invite all of you and my friends who have supported me in this endeavor, these are some of the recipes I'd make for you, by section of the book:

Pies: Date Pecan Pie. It's sweet and chewy and nutty, topped with boozy whipped cream. And it's one of Julia's very favorite things to eat.

Cakes with Fruits and Vegetables: Prune and Apricot Pound Cake. Buttery cake, sweet-tart fruit, crunchy nuts. Easy and good.

Chocolate Cakes: Williams-Sonoma Chocolate Cake. This is one of the top five recipes on the blog in terms of hits, and there's a good reason why: it's everything a plain (moist, chocolaty, rich) chocolate cake should be.

Other Cakes: Miami Beach Sour Cream Cake. A classic pound cake with an almond twist. The first cake I baked in France. I still want to try it again with my Kitchenaid.

All the yeast pastries in the book, but especially the Cream Cheese Coffee Cake (Claire's favorite) and Carol's Crescents. But really, all of them. Maida has a particular genius for yeast-based goodies--she even mentions that this cookbook was originally conceived as a "yeast book". Her doughs are always so easy to work with, and always succeeded for me, whether in my giant Mississippi kitchen or in the tiniest, most rickety kitchen in Pontlevoy. 

Muffins, Cupcakes, and Tassies: The Pecan Tassies, hands down. I wish I had a plate of these right now. Like the yeast pastry chapter, this was a really strong chapter.  

Shortcake, Cobbler, etc: This was hard to choose: I liked but didn't love all of these recipes. But I'm going to give it to the Blueberry Crumble because I love streusel.

 Mousse, Flan, Puddings, etc: This was a chapter I struggled with, from overly rich chocolate pudding to overcooked flan. However, the Apricot Bread Pudding was an unqualified success. The Bread Pudding with Peaches, not surprisingly, was equally popular.

Cheesecakes: I loved all the cheesecakes, but my favorite was the Chocolate-Brownie Cheesecake. Of all the American desserts I made from the book, this one seemed the most deliciously over-the-top American.

Brownies: Again, I loved every single recipe, but I'm going to narrow it down to two: Cristina's Brownies (top) (giant, thick cocoa brownies) and Hershey's Brownies (bottom) (triple-chocolate icing. Need I say more?).

Chocolate Cookies: Another tough call, but I'm going to say Chocolate Whoppers, or the Cookies that Made me Famous at Work.

Other Cookies: the Eight-Layer Cookies. Never before have I made something that looked that professional and tasted that fabulous at the same time.

Fresh Fruit: Not my favorite chapter. Lots of fruit coated in raspberry sauce, which is fine in its way, but... We all really loved the Blueberries and Cream, though.

Ice Cream: This was before I had the picture-taking thing down (don't laugh), so no photo, but I loved the Spago Caramel Ice Cream.

Candy: The Texas Truffles were awfully popular, but I preferred the Brownie Truffles. Brownies, dried apricots, more chocolate, nuts. Wow.

And finally, Sauces: we all loved the Goldrush Sauce. I know at least two family members who ate it with a spoon, by itself.

Of course, if my blog readers came to the party, I'd want to bake a few of their favorites. Thanks to Google Analytics, I could easily determine the top five recipes people have looked at, and some ideas why:

#5: Williams-Sonoma Chocolate Cake (see above) This is a great cake, and I'm hoping that's why so many people have found their way to it. I think it's also possible that Google throws this one up when people type in "Heatter" and "chocolate cake"

#4: Emilio's Cheesecake. This is just a popular recipe. Not a week goes by when someone doesn't come looking for this recipe. It is a really great cheesecake that feeds a crowd.

#3: Kentucky Cake. This is also a great recipe, but the reason most people seem to look at this post is for the above picture: "cake one candle". Not sure why, but people are out there looking for (better) pictures like this.

#2: Cowtown Chocolate Cake. This is another one that pops up in the search terms a lot (also, see Williams-Sonoma Chocolate Cake). It's a really good chocolate cake (and even better frosting). Maybe someday I'll actually make it as a layer cake.

#1 Chocolate Sponge Cake. The Internet can't seem to get enough of my failed attempt at rigging a tube pan. While this is some very good cake, the fact that this recipe gets twice as many hits as any other can only be explained by my very lame engineering. You're welcome, people out there.

So now I shelve my Maida Heatter book. I'll miss seeing her smiling face every week, but I'm looking forward to baking from a variety of sources and moving back into the 21st century in terms of baking trends and technology. And I have a new cookbook blogging project, once again to force myself to stretch a bit and maybe also, by some miracle, improve my photography. A group of friends and friends-of-friends is cooking through Cook This Now! by Melissa Clark, so my butter consumption may be going down, and it looks as if I'll be eating a lot of greens, which is probably a good thing. So goodbye, enjoy the recipes, and hope to see you at the new place. It's been fun.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Cinnamon Crisps

 Here it is: the last recipe in the Maida Heatter book. Sniff, sigh. It's kind of a strange recipe, too, but at least the outcome was good, unlike the last recipe. As you see, it's kind of a cinnamon-raisin snail and reminds me of the little pie crust cookies my mother used to make whenever she made pie. However, these are much more work and involve some rather unusual ingredients and techniques.

The unusual ingredient is vanilla ice cream, which I suppose is there to provide liquid and sweetener and even some egg. It's mixed with butter and flour to make a kind of pâte à choux or cream puff dough, but it then gets rolled out and rolled up and baked. 

The recipe, while fairly simple, takes a long time: there's a lot of chilling involved: make dough and chill a bit. Wrap dough and chill quite a while longer. Roll out and wrap up dough and chill a few hours more. It really could spread out over a few days. However, I was impatient and used my freezer to get same-day results.
The result is a crisp but not flaky, slightly sweet pastry with cinnamon, walnut, and raisin highlights. I enjoyed the sample cookie I had, but it didn't send me into spasms of ecstasy either. It's a good cookie. In a way, it encapsulated many of my Maida experiences over the past few years: "What?? Why?? No!! Oh, OK...Hey, this is not bad!"
I'll do a summary post of the cookbook blog experience later: for now, let me give you this one last recipe to enjoy.

Cinnamon Crisps

1/2 c. (4 oz.) butter
1/2 c. (4 oz.) vanilla ice cream (I would try to do this by weight as volume/weight will vary drastically according to the ice cream brand you use)
Pinch of salt
1 c. (5 oz.) unsifted flour

Put the butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until it is melted (this is not a good time for the microwave). Remove from the heat and add the ice cream; stir with a wooden spoon until melted. Add the flour and salt and stir briskly until the dough forms a ball that comes away from the sides of the pan.

It will look a bit like this. Put it in a bowl and then refrigerate it for 20 minutes or freeze it for 10 minutes. Give it a bit of a stir--some of the butter may have separated out--and divide the dough in two. Put each piece of dough on a piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper and press into a square. Wrap up and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. I gave mine about 4 hours in the fridge, and I had no problems rolling it out.
When you're ready to roll, get your filling ingredients ready:

2 T. (1 oz.) butter, melted (you probably won't use it all: I didn't)
1/4 c. (1.75 oz.) sugar
2 t. cinnamon
Scant 1/2 c. (1.5 oz.) currants or chopped raisins
1 c. (4 oz.) walnuts, chopped fine

Mix the cinnamon and sugar together in a small bowl and have the other ingredients handy. Now get one package of dough out of the fridge. Put it on a lightly floured surface and start rolling. Your goal is to get the dough into a paper-thin 12-inch square.

 Well, I almost succeeded. I could see the pattern on the surface beneath, and I had about a 10-inch "square". It took a lot of rolling and patching: the dough likes to crack. I would say I spent at least 10-15 minutes rolling each piece of dough out. Maybe I'm exaggerating, but it is good exercise.

 Now brush the dough with half the butter, leaving a 1/2-inch margin around the edges. Sprinkle with half the cinnamon sugar, half the raisins, and half the walnuts. Roll up the dough into a tight cylinder (again, the dough will probably do some cracking, but at the end it should hold together). Wrap up the cylinder and refrigerate a few more hours or freeze for an hour or so. Repeat with the other package of dough.

 When you're ready to bake, heat the oven to 350 (I went below that a bit--175C--because Maida says these burn easily) and get out your dough cylinders. Slice each into 1/2-inch slices. I'm starting to enjoy using my ruler for this purpose!

Place the dough slices on "unbuttered" cookie sheets (you can line them as you wish; these don't stick, but the sugar may run and caramelize a bit) and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown. Maida emphasizes that these need to be crisp all the way through, so I let mine go to a darker shade of golden. Cool on racks and devour. I imagine they'd be good with a bowl of the remaining ice cream.