In Season: Berries and Peaches

July 31, 2012.

Many things are the embodiment of summer to me, so it’s difficult to say this fruit or that vegetable is my favorite one of the summer. But ranked closely behind a perfectly ripe juicy tomato are perfectly ripe juicy berries and run-down-my-arm juicy peaches that I can smell a room away. Don’t you agree? And right now, those berries and peaches are in season and just waiting to be the main ingredient in cobblers, crumbles, pies, cakes, muffins, you name it.

I could barely get home the pint of blueberries I picked up from Phil at his Willow Branch Farm’s stand at the St. Michaels farmer’s market because my hand kept reaching into the container for just…one…more. These blueberries actually tasted like blueberries, the blueberries I remember from the u-pick place in Indiana my mom and I would go to. It had been a very long time since I had a blueberry that tasted like that. With these beauties from Phil, I naturally thought, “Muffins!” I upgraded this blueberry muffin recipe from the Williams-Sonoma Muffins cookbook by tossing in blackberries I got from him as well. Nothing fancy or complicated, but they sure tasted like a homemade berry muffin should and my friend Jeannie smiled ear-to-ear when I dropped off at her house some still warm ones. Frozen and subsequently reheated, they were still a delight. My only complaint about the recipe is I wish the crumbly topping and the muffin itself had browned a bit more. I think the added crunch would have made a nice difference. Maybe increase the heat slightly next time or bake them on a higher shelf? Either way, I think the recipe is a good basic one that would perform well if you experimented with other berries or fruits.

With the local Caroline County peaches I picked up, I wanted to bake something out of the ordinary – no peach pie, no peach cobbler, no peach Melba. All delicious, to be sure, but I wanted to make something different, and it needed to be special in its own way. As it turns out, I had been asked to make the birthday cake for the 15th birthday celebration at the St. Michaels farmers’ market. My friend Cathy had given me the Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook by The Fabulous Beekman Boys and I thought, “Ah ha!” Really, who better to come up with a unique twist on using peaches in a dessert than two gay gentleman who have parlayed restoring an historic farm estate in upstate New York into a wildly successful television series, a line of goat milk soaps, cheese products and a cookbook? Turns out my instinct was right on. Buttery Peach Cake, anyone? This cake is right up my baking alley: old-fashioned, uncomplicated and seasonal. It’s an interesting cake, too, as the peaches go on the bottom and the batter goes on top.The cake itself is moist (and buttery!) and the ginger and cardamom spices on the peach slices are an unexpected treat for the tastebuds.

The review. First off, patrons of the farmers’ market were offered little bites of the cake and most of the comments I heard sounded like “Delicious!” or “Yum!” or “Different!” Phew. I really didn’t want to be remembered as the volunteer who brought a crappy birthday cake to the market’s well-attended 15th birthday celebration. Second, this cake scales very well (I made two cakes – one a single recipe and one a double recipe). Third, although not complicated, it’s a bit time consuming given steps like first blanching the peaches in hot water to help remove the skins. Fourth, the cake (even the single recipe), took close to an hour or so to bake – almost double the time indicated in the recipe – and I had to cover it about halfway through to avoid overbrowning the top. (And about that, don’t make the mistake I did and get impatient and take off the foil to check it while it’s still baking. Let’s just say that in lieu of a cake skin graft, strategically placed homemade whipped cream provided the necessary cover and distraction.) Finally, the Beekman Boys suggest eating the cake right from the pan once it’s cooled (I love the mental picture of a bunch of friends just sitting around after dinner, forks in hand, snarfing away on this cake), but I made it a day in advance, refrigerated it, then let it come to room temperature before serving and it still got rave reviews.

Whether you’re inspired by these recipes or some of your own, now’s the time to enjoy fresh, local berries and peaches. But, hurry, before they’re gone.

Spring Fever

April 4, 2012.

Spring has sprung! Literally. About a month early, at least here in the mid-Atlantic. And when I think of spring, I think of lemon cake. That’s right, lemon cake. I don’t think of baseball training camps, or Peeps, or pastel-colored eggs, or cherry blossoms, or that gigantic upright-walking rabbit. No, I think of lemon cake in all its yellow-y, zesty sweetness. So, imagine how ecstatic I was when searching for a perfect, new lemon cake recipe and I came across this one: lemon cake with fresh raspberry buttercream. Hallelujah!

The recipe calls for making the cake using two, nine inch cake pans. Not having any of those, priority one was a trip to Sur La Table to procure said pans. I ended up with Sur La Table’s own new (oooh) and exclusive (ahhh) Platinum Professional pans which, I am happy to say, are made in the good ‘ol U.S. of A. (Pittsburgh, to be exact) using 65 percent recycled steel. How could I not buy these? These commercial-quality pans also have a nonstick silicone coating. So, even though the recipe called for lightly coating the pans with baking spray and lining them with parchment paper, I was feeling a bit daredevilish and only coated the pans with a light amount of baking spray. You have to take risks in life sometimes.

The always-important mis en place (for the cake) and the fancy pants new pan.

The cake is similar to a basic 1234 (yellow) cake with the addition of lemon zest and lemon juice. It came together quickly and easily despite one small mistake on my part. Step two of the recipe suggests, but it is not necessary, pulsing together one and one-half cups of the total one and three-fourths cups sugar, with the one-half remaining cup of sugar to be used when whipping the eggs for the meringue. Oops. I pulsed together all of the sugar and the lemon zest, so I didn’t have any “clean” sugar left to whip with the eggs. The meringue turned out seemingly fine, so I didn’t worry about it too much. Reminder to self: always read recipe slowly and at least three times.

Final step of making the batter: folding the whipped egg whites (meringue) into the batter. Notice the dark yellow color? Courtesy of farm fresh eggs from chickens raised by my friend, Carol, who runs Pot Pie Farm in Wittman, MD.

Since the cake pans used were larger (nine inch), the batter filled each pan only about half way up the two inch side. Although, in theory, the recipe should have accounted for filling up the pans to a higher level. At any rate, I wasn’t too concerned about this at the time as the cakes rose while baking (good). But, then, they fell when removed from the oven (bad), so the final cakes were back to the original one inch height of the batter. This was going to result in a pretty wimpy-looking frosted cake if I didn’t do some quick thinking. Based on some Google research and a conversation with a knowledgeable person, as it turns out, I think I made a couple of crucial mistakes while baking the cake: I opened the oven a couple of times (cakes do not like this) and I moved the pans around once (cakes really do not like this). Oops.



Next up was making the fresh raspberry Italian meringue buttercream. If you’ve read any of my past posts from the pastry techniques course I took, you might remember that making Italian meringue buttercream can be scary stuff. This type of buttercream involves heating sugar to softball stage, which is 238 degrees Fahrenheit, and subsequently adding that very hot sugar into whipped egg whites, thereby creating the meringue. Done correctly, you’re a superstar. Done incorrectly, not so much. The biggest issue is making sure the sugar reaches the correct stage and temperature. Thankfully, they make tools known as candy thermometers to help with this. I’m happy to report that the meringue came out fine as did the buttercream, so I guess, technically, I’m a superstar. You know I’m just kidding. (Or am I?)

Step one of the buttercream: making a raspberry puree.

Raspberry puree mixed in with the buttercream.

Ta da! The fresh raspberry (Italian meringue) buttercream. See the crushed up fresh raspberries mixed in as well?

With the cake done and the buttercream done, it was assembly time. As I mentioned, I was pretty certain that just putting together the two cakes with only one layer of frosting between, as directed by the recipe, I would end up with one short little cake and not a cake I’d be proud to take to a dinner party. Enter my quick thinking. I figured if I sliced each cake in half and slathered buttercream between those layers, I’d have a shot at a cake with a more normal height. I followed the technique I learned in the pastry course, which is to run the knife around the edge while rotating the cake and gradually moving the knife toward the center. It worked like a charm. Granted my layers were layers similar to those of Smith Island cakes, but now wasn’t a time to get fussy and particular. I had a cake to build.

Frosting in progress. I didn’t plan this, but I think the mood lighting makes the cake layer look a little taller.

In addition to making four layers, my quick thinking came up with the idea to put raspberry jam between one of the layers for a little something different. I’m not sure it helped the height any, but visually it was interesting and gave the cake another dimension.

The finished cake ended up being about four inches tall, which all, told, wasn’t too bad. I would have liked it to be about another inch or so, but it was what it was. I also had about one and half cups of buttercream left over. I thought that with the extra layers, I would have had barely enough. However, I’m a bit skittish when it comes to (over) icing cakes, so that may have been the problem. All told, I was happy with the end result and would happily make this cake again as well as recommend it. I think the recipe could be used to make great cupcakes, too.

Now, I present to you: Lemon cake with fresh raspberry buttercream.

And just in case you’re wondering…
Well? Pretty close, I’d say. The recipe can be found on Serious Eats.

Hello, Spring. You can arrive early any year.

Icing on the Cake

Week 10.

Remember in my last post the exuberance I had about the fact that class was moving on to cakes? Do you also remember my mentioning that I wondered if past debacles with making Italian meringue buttercream and frosting a cake during the same class may have sent too many students over the edge? I was right – it would have sent me over the edge, and very nearly did during week ten’s class, even though that was pretty much the only thing we did. It’s interesting how quickly exuberance can turn into despair.

Icing a cake, excuse me, building a cake as it is technically known in the pastry world, is not easy. You may be envisioning afternoons of your youth with your mother or grandmother happily smearing icing all over a cake and thinking “What’s so tough about that?” That’s not building a cake, that’s what. Building a cake involves anywhere from 12 to 17 steps depending on how many coats of frosting are applied. Typically, a birthday cake requires three to four coats while a wedding cake requires seven to eight coats (probably more) and, of course, the requisite chilling of the cake in between coats. I’m sharing with you the process so you can understand for yourself.

Step 1. Mis en place. In French, this literally means “put in place” and is a technique used as well in cooking. It means having all ingredients, pans, tools, etc., in place before setting out on the recipe, or cake building as it were. Mis en place for cake building includes “bringing back” the buttercream (assuming that is what you are using for icing) to its original state because it should always be well-chilled before using, but you can’t work with it when it is well-chilled. Bringing back buttercream to its original state is a delicate exercise of alternating between mixing it, placing it over a pan of steaming water and stirring it without melting the butter (as my partner and I did, a little, and which is not good because it can permanently alter the buttercream’s consistency such that you have to start over) and trying to get it back to its original consistency. Once that’s done, assemble the pastry bag with pastry tube of choice (we used a #15 star), fill bag with the buttercream and set aside. Mis en place for cake building also includes having the right tools set out, to include: large knife, spreader, spare bowl, parchment paper and shot of tequila.

Step 2. Cutting the cake. There are two steps to cutting the cake: removing a thin layer off of the top dome and cutting in half horizontally the cake. Supposedly the first step is optional, but Chef Theresa did it during week nine’s class and Chef (he’s back!) did it during week ten’s class, so that’s enough evidence to suggest I should be doing it, too. The top dome layer is removed by shaving off the top layer of the cake with a long serrated knife to create a nice even surface with which to begin working.

Then, using the same knife, cut the cake in half. This is most easily accomplished by sawing back and forth with the knife while simultaneously moving the cake around the knife. In other words, the knife should remain in place, but the cake is rotated around the knife. I know, just trust me. Remove the top half and brush off any crumbs on the bottom (and top) half. Insider’s tip: crumbs are cakes’ kryptonite and can easily ruin a cake (and your mental health). So, regularly scrape up crumbs and place them on a piece of parchment paper away from the cake; keeping the cake building area clean and crumb-free.

Step 3. Creating the “dam.” The dam is a ring of buttercream (or whatever icing you are using) piped around the outer edge of the bottom layer. The dam holds in soft or semi-liquid fillings. I didn’t ask, but it seems it wouldn’t be necessary if the filling is all buttercream or some other stable filling.

Step 4. Spread around the filling inside the dam. The filling doesn’t need to be anything fancy. We used raspberry jam. You could also use the buttercream to make it really easy, but that isn’t as visually appealing as a pretty pop of red color. Start with a fairly large dollop of jam and spread it around from the middle out, making sure it is smooth. The trick here is to avoid picking up crumbs while in the process of smoothing out the filling. I suppose it doesn’t matter if there are some crumbs mixed in with the filling, but I think that looks amateurish and we are striving for perfection, remember?

Step 5. Place the top half on top of the bottom half, press down lightly. I actually took a picture of this. Why? I know, Step 5 is the most self-explanatory of all the steps. Sigh. I am becoming neurotic about capturing every piece of information. Help.  

Step 6. Icing the cake. This is when it is appropriate to have that shot of tequila. Icing a cake requires a steady, deft hand. The first coat is called the “crumb coat.” The crumb coat is a thin layer to seal in as well as remove excess crumbs. It doesn’t need to look perfect, but it is still tricky to accomplish. Start by placing a large scoop of buttercream on top of the cake. Spread the buttercream out with a large spreader, always moving the buttercream from the previous area to a new area. Keep moving along the top and side of the cake, smoothing out the buttercream. If crumbs are picked up in the buttercream on the spreader, scrape off the buttercream into the spare bowl. Chef said this buttercream may be saved and used for another cake’s crumb coat. If there is excess buttercream without crumbs on the spreader, scrape it back into the bowl of “good” buttercream.

(Editor’s note: My cake, crumb coat completed, is the one at the bottom of the picture.)

Step 7. Chill the cake for at least ten minutes or until the crumb coat feels firm. Integral to cake building success is ensuring the coats are well-chilled between each one which makes the icing application go much more smoothly (pun intended). Repeat the icing process described in Step 6 (although, in theory you shouldn’t get any more crumbs in your buttercream at this point) until you’ve reached the desired number of coats. Unfortunately, we were in a bit of a rush during class and we were only able to do two coats after the crumb coat. Nina, class assistant extraordinaire, kept telling me not to worry, normally the cake would be chilling longer between coats, we wouldn’t be rushing and so on. Yet, I noticed she was spending a fair amount of the icing time by my side, saying these things and helping me. Hmmmm. She even offered to let me come and watch her some time when she’s building a cake (she does it on the side). Basically, that was her polite way of saying I needed some extra help, I think.

Step 11 (or up to Step 16, depending on the type of cake you are building). I say Step 11 because technically the minimum number of coats is three. So, Step 7 is chilling the cake after the crumb coat, Step 8, 9 and 10 (with chilling in between which I’m counting as part of each icing coat step) are the minimum number of coats, at which we arrive Step 11 (or up to Step 16 if you’re crazy enough to work on a wedding cake) – finishing the cake. The cake should be very cold before beginning this step. Using a spreader dipped in hot water, very lightly work the final layer of icing so the cake is shiny and smooth. The following is my cake at the finishing point, but it is not truly representative of what a cake would look like at this step.

Step 12 (or up to 17). Decorating the cake. There are three basic piping shapes for cake decoration: dropped star, rosette and shell. Rather than attempt a written description of each, here is a picture of the drawing in my notes:

As you may notice, I also don’t draw well, but hopefully you get the idea. A couple of notes about piping shapes and placement. Traditionally, the rosette is used to indicate the number of slices intended for the cake. So, if you see a cake with, say, eight rosettes evenly placed around the top of the cake, the pastry chef intended that eight slices would be served from that cake. The shell shape is typically not used as an individual decoration; instead it is connected together to create a chain pattern. Regardless of the shape or pattern used, when creating a border on the cake, the shape should be placed two-thirds on the top and on-third on the edge. Take note of this the next time you’re in the market for a new cake.

I chose the dropped star pattern as it seemed like the easiest to pipe and somehow I managed to be the last person in class decorating her cake, so I was under the gun. When everyone has left the practice kitchen and Chef comes in and starts counting, you don’t mess around. I’d like to say that’s why my decorated cake looks a bit blah, but who am I kidding. I’m not sure it would have looked any better if I had a little more time. Not to worry, that’s what practice is for!

And hopefully with practice I can one day make something like this:

Chef’s Boston cream pie creation he made and decorated in class, an example of fine piping technique. A slice of that along with the maple ice cream he also made, maybe cake building wasn’t so bad after all.