December 15th, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
Ask me to make a pot of succulent coq au vin, a platter of spanikopita based upon that fragile phyllo dough or eggs Benedict with a picture-perfect Hollandaise sauce and I’ll rise to the occasion every single time. Give me a “simple” culinary task, such as using a 3-dimensional cake mold to make a cutesy Christmas bear, and I flounder over and over again.
Case in point: The Williams-Sonoma Build-A-Bear cake pan.
Sean bought this adorable, Nordicware pan and the accompanying fondant Santa bear outfit at Williams-Sonoma as an early holiday gift for me. The plan? That I master making this cake before our annual Christmas Eve party.
We both envisioned our friends and family crowding around the dessert table on December 24th, all smiles as they ooo-ed and ah-ed over the cake. ”Ah, look at the cute, little Santa bear. Isn’t he just the sweetest thing?”
They’ll definitely say something about that cake but more likely it will be, “What on earth is that freak of nature supposed to be?! Someone please take a knife to it and put it out of its misery!”
The first failure was completely my fault. Unwilling to invest the money ($18) for the Williams-Sonoma Bundt cake mix or the time to make my own batter, I skimped and bought 2 boxes of Devil’s Fudge mix for $1 apiece at the grocery store. Bad idea. Because I had over 2 pounds of cake mix for roughly a 1 1/2 pound cake mold, I ended up with extra batter in the mold, in the bowls and on my fingers and face (can’t let all that good batter go to waste). Ultimately, two massive brown bears commandeered my oven, littering the wire oven racks and floor with globs of bear waste.
Huge bears meant a huge amount of trimming. I suspect that’s when the next problem arose because, although I followed the directions for gluing the two halves together with buttercream icing, my two halves never quite melded. Instead of a seamless bear, well, I’ll just share this picture for, in this case, it really is worth a thousand words.
As if a giant gorge in the center of the bear wasn’t bad enough, I also faced decapitation. Yes, one half of the head fell off as I removed it from the baking pan. The other half then cracked at the neck. Thanks to extra buttercream frosting, Chef Frankenstein re-attached the head, mended the cracks and concealed the flaws with a very liberal dusting of powdered sugar. Problems solved, I had hoped.
Things went progressively downhill from there, culminating in the bear separating, falling onto my kitchen counter and then breaking in two, the torso staying plastered to the green countertop while the head flopped onto the antique white tile floor. Talk about a baking disaster. At least the frosting-covered tile made my fat cat Owen’s night.
Before starting the next cake, I looked online for customer feedback. Maybe I wasn’t the only one struggling with the Santa bear. ‘Fraid so. Everyone else loved it.
Feeling that I was missing something, perhaps many things, I decided to watch the 4-minute, instructional, Build-A-Bear cake workshop, online video. What did I learn? Most importantly, make a dense — not featherweight, el cheapo – cake batter that will support itself when placed upright. Don’t knock off the head or tail. Use parchment paper and not my bare hands to move the halves, which helps with all important rule #2 , don’t knock off . . ..
The second bear faired better, although Owen stayed close by, just in case another catastrophe sent more icing his way. This time, following the recipe listed on the back of the cake pan’s box, I made a denser batter from scratch. When removing the bear halves from the pan, I managed to keep both intact. As for using parchment paper, I skipped that step but still didn’t knock off the head or tail. I continued to have a problem with that unsightly gap where the two halves joined together but, sadly for Owen, the cake remained in one piece.
I’m hopeful that the Build-A-Bear decorating kit, with its red, fondant Santa suit and hat, will make my creation more attractive. My garish shower of powdered sugar certainly did nothing to help matters.
December 8th, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
In early October, when most people hadn’t even started thinking about Halloween, I sat in my kitchen, mounds of cookbooks spread out before me, mulling over Christmas recipes. That’s the thing about food writing. You never work within the season. In fall I’m researching summer sorbets. In spring I could be scouring upscale markets in search of an out-of-season persimmon. A quirky apsect of the field but one that leaves me well-prepared for every season and event.
What I learned on those warm, fall afternoons is that every country seems to possess a Christmas bread. In Germany it’s dried fruit and nut-studded stollen. Dusted with powdered sugar or iced with a powdered sugar frosting, stollen is a delectable snack, dessert or breakfast sweet. Forget Christmas. I could eat this every day of the week.
The same holds true for panettone. Originating in Milan, panettone is served year-round at special occasions. With its rich, cake-like dough and tall, mushroom-like shape, it’s a stunner in both taste and appearance. Traditionally, raisins, candied citron and citrus zest fill out the bread but my concoction contains macerated dried cranberries and white chocolate chips. So decadent and delicious. No question about it. I’ll be making this one well beyond the holiday season.
Although most of my ancestors came from France, I don’t usually associate the French with holiday breads. Sure, bakers there make the spectacular yet slightly campy buche de noel, the chocolate-buttercream iced, powdered sugar-dusted yule log cake. Well, they also bake pompe a huile, a Christmas bread flavored with orange flower water and said to represent Jesus.
Scandinavia offers several distinct breads, too. From Finland comes joululimppu, a molasses-sweetened rye bread. Norway and Denmark both claim julebrod or “yule bread” as its own. Since my friend Christina’s mother, who grew up in Bergen, shared her julebrod recipe with me, I’m siding with Norway on this one. With a hint of cardomom and bits of piquant citron and raisins julebrod provides a pleasant change from the surplus of sugary holiday sweets.
The variety doesn’t end here. Switzerland has birnbrot, a kirsch-laced pear and nut bread. Greece offers the anise-flavored Christopsomo. Made on Christmas Eve and decorated with an equal-armed cross, it may serve as the dinner table’s centerpiece on December 25th.
So many fantastic breads from all over the globe. Lucky for me that I have months and months to sample them!
White Chocolate-Cranberry Panettone
Makes 1 loaf
½ cup cranberries
¼ cup orange or cranberry juice
1 package dry active yeast
½ cup milk, warmed
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon sugar
5 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour plus a little extra for dusting the work surface
3 tablespoons butter, softened
¾ cup white chocolate chips
In a small bowl mix together the dried cranberries and orange or cranberry juice.
In another small bowl add the milk to the yeast. Once the yeast has dissolved, add the flour and sugar. Stir together until well combined. Cover the starter or biga with a sheet of plastic wrap and, placing in a warm spot, allow to rise until double in size, about 2 hours.
Grease a large mixing bowl as well as a panettone mold or 24-ounce coffee can. (If you do not have either a mold or empty coffee can, line a small, round, buttered baker with buttered parchment paper – the paper should be roughly 6” high.)
Whisk together the egg, yolks, vanilla, sugar and salt.
Add the starter and flour to the liquids and mix together. Once the ingredients are incorporated, place the dough on a floured work surface and knead for 5 minutes. Add chunks of the butter to the dough and knead it to incorporate. Continue to need the dough until the butter is well-combined. Form the dough into a ball.
Drain and pat the cranberries dry.
Flatten the dough then add a third of the cranberries and chocolate chips. Fold the dough over and knead the ingredients into the dough. Repeat the process until all the cranberries and chips have been added.
Form the dough into a ball. Place it in the greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rise for 1 ½ hours.
Punch down the dough, place it in the buttered panettone mold or buttered coffee can and cover it with plastic wrap. Allow one final rise, about 1 hour.
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the plastic wrap and insert the panettone into the pre-heated oven. Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.
Norwegian Christmas Bread
Courtesy of Eva Mangschou Anderson
Makes 2 rounds or 3 loaves
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 ounces fresh yeast
10 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups milk
5 ½ cups all-purpose flour plus extra for dusting, sifted
2 teaspoons cardamom
7 ounces raisins
1 egg yolk, for brushing on top of bread
1 tablespoon milk, for brushing on top of bread
Put the yeast and sugar in a medium-sized bowl.
In a small sauce pan combine the butter and milk, heating until the butter has melted. Remove from heat and cool to lukewarm before adding the liquids to the yeast/sugar mixture and stirring to combine. Allow the yeast to “melt” for a few minutes before stirring again.
Place the flour and cardamom in a large bowl. Making a small well in the center, pour the liquids into the flour and stir together until well combined. Add the raisins. The dough will be very sticky at this point
Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave it in warm spot to rise to double its size. Depending on how warm your kitchen is, this could take as little as 30 minutes as long as several hours.
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease two baking sheets and set aside.
Place the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Add enough flour to the dough to make it smooth and workable. Shape into 3 loaves or 2 rounds and place onto the greased baking sheets.
Whisk together the egg yolk and milk and brush over the top of each loaf.
Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the tops are golden brown. Cool on wire racks. Serve with butter and preserves or a dab of goat cheese.
December 2nd, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
Recently the New York Times ran a small story about Europe’s reversal of a ban on selling “ugly” produce. At the time I laughed at the bizarreness of this ruling. I did the same two weekends ago as I stood on line at the Phoenixville Farmers’ Market, a knobbly parsnip clutched in my right hand. Years of hanging out at farmers’ markets and of intermittently and unsuccessfully growing my own vegetables have taught me that beautiful does not mean better. In fact, in most instances the pretty produce found at grocery stores is downright bland.
Granted, every now and then my farmer’s market purchases might yield a crooked carrot or dirt still clinging to my microgreens. Yet, because of the wealth of good, seasonal products and opportunity to support local and increasingly biodynamic farmers, it remains my preferred place for produce. Thanks to the luxury of travel and of dividing my time between city and suburban life, I have a long list of favorite markets at which I shop.
In New York I go to the place that anyone who has ever lived in or around the city seems to know, Union Square’s Greenmarket. Greenmarket has multiple locations, including a spot right near my apartment on Columbus and 97th. Yet the Union Square locale, the biggest and most diverse in my opinion, is my favorite. In spring and summertime the grounds surrounding Union Square Park overflow with stalls bearing fresh berries, mounds of freshly picked corn, greens, locally baked breads, cookies and other treats. In fall apples, pumpkins, mums and hot mulled cider replace the summer offerings. On the coldest January days a few sellers persevere, providing root vegetables and warm winter cheer.
When in the Hudson Valley, I love stopping at the Sunday morning market in Rhinebeck. Held in the municipal parking lot from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., the Rhinebeck Farmers’ Market showcases local wineries, cheeses, honey, eggs, cut flowers, produce and baked goods. With its live music, free wine tastings and periodic cooking demonstrations I am in farmer’s market heaven.
In Lancaster, Penn. my mother-in-law as well as friends Scott, Dore and Julie have the pleasure of shopping at the historic Central Market. Scott and Dore, who live in downtown Lancaster, walk to the market whenever it’s open, which happens to be on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.
Whenever I visit Lancaster, I make an effort to arrive on a market day. There I stock up on Lancaster County preserves, relishes, red velvet cupcakes, organic dog treats and catnip toys. When I return home, everyone from Sean the spouse to Max the dog and cats Owen, Clive and Scooty in between revel in my haul from America’s oldest covered market, circa 1730.
Beyond my usual haunts I have had great fun walking the aisles of St. Louis’s Soulard Farmer’s Market. Open since 1779, it’s the oldest farmer’s market west of the Mississippi and an enormous one at that. Want a plucky, live chicken? Sunglasses? Watermelons? Flowers? Pigs’ snouts? How ’bout a $2 beer that you can drink while wandering around, looking for a slab of gooey butter cake? Soulard has it all and then some.