Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Macarons, or, The Ideal Self

Unless you’ve been frozen in permafrost for the past five years, you’ve likely noticed that cupcake bakeries have popped up all over like iced mushrooms. Knock one down, and three take its place. Much has been made about not only the cupcake’s popularity, but also its incipient demise as the sweet du jour. Since we seem to be a culture intent on the next sensation, pundits, food enthusiasts and bloggers have all wondered what this sensation might be. More than a few have suggested that French-style macaroons (called macarons in France) might supplant the cupcake. This may or may not come to pass, but the basic premise of the French macaroon is pretty damned tasty.

In the United States, the term “macaroon” generally refers to a cookie made primarily of coconut. But European macaroons are based on either ground almonds or almond paste, combined with sugar and egg whites. The texture can run from chewy, crunchy or a combination of the two. Frequently, two macaroons are sandwiched together with ganache, buttercream or jam, which can cause the cookies to become more chewy. The flavor possibilities and combinations are nigh endless, allowing infinitely customizable permutations.

French macaroons are notorious for being difficult to master. Type in “macaroon,” “French macaroon” or “macaron” in your search engine of choice, and you will be inundated not only with bakeries offering these tasty little cookies, but scores and even hundreds of blogs all attempting to find the perfect recipe, the perfect technique. Which one is right? Which captures the perfect essence of macaroons? The answer is all of them and none of them. Macaroons are highly subjective, the subject of passionate, almost Talmudic study and debate. Chewy? Crisp? Age your egg whites? Ground the nuts or use nut meal or nut flour? Cooked sugar syrup, or confectioners’ sugar? In the words of a therapist, what do you think is the ideal macaroon? The answer lies within you.

Will French macaroon supplant the cupcake as the next sweet trend? There’s no way to know. I couldn’t have predicted the resurgence of leggings, yet here they are.

I’ve tried many, many recipes, and have discovered that my favorite macaroon recipe comes from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern. They have given me the most consistent results and so, for everyone’s delectation, I present to you an adaptation of Ms. Fleming’s recipe.


2 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 cups almond flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
5 egg whites, room temperature

1. Preheat the oven to 200°F. Combine the confectioners’ sugar and almond flour in a medium bowl. If grinding your own nuts, combine nuts and a cup of confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of a food processor and grind until nuts are very fine and powdery.
2. Beat the egg whites in the clean dry bowl of a stand mixer until they hold soft peaks. Slowly add the granulated sugar and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks.
3. Sift a third of the almond flour mixture into the meringue and fold gently to combine. If you are planning on adding zest or other flavorings to the batter, now is the time. Sift in the remaining almond flour in two batches. Be gentle! Don’t overfold, but fully incorporate your ingredients.
4. Spoon the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a plain half-inch tip (Ateco #806). You can also use a Ziploc bag with a corner cut off. It’s easiest to fill your bag if you stand it up in a tall glass and fold the top down before spooning in the batter.
5. Pipe one-inch-sized mounds of batter onto baking sheets lined with nonstick liners (or parchment paper).
6. Bake the macaroon for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and raise the temperature to 375°F. Once the oven is up to temperature, put the pans back in the oven and bake for an additional 7 to 8 minutes, or lightly colored.
7. Cool on a rack before filling.

Theoretically, this yields 10 dozen macarons. My own attempts yielded 2 dozen filled, sandwiched cookies.

P.S. When I'm not baking, I'm writing romance under the name Zoe Archer. Please pre-order my book, Half Past Dead, and keep me in almond flour.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Old World and New

It's been...what...a month since my last post? Life has a habit of making itself known, and with deadlines, vacations and sundry other events, there just hasn't been time. Even when it comes to my Daring Bakers' post.

But I've taken my machete to the overgrowth of obligations, and carved a swath of time to post now. Hopefully, my DB license won't be revoked.

For the month of June, the DB Challenge (hosted by Jasmine and Annemarie) was the storied, historical Bakewell Tart, also known as a Bakewell Pudding, though the two are rather different from each other. I quote liberally from our hostesses:

Bakewell Tart History and Lore

Flan-like desserts that combine either sweet egg custard over candied fruit or feature spiced ground almonds in a pastry shell have Mediaeval roots. The term “Bakewell pudding” was first penned in 1826 by Meg Dods; 20 years later Eliza Acton published a recipe that featured a baked rich egg custard overtop 2cm of jam and noted,

“This pudding is famous not only in Derbyshire, but in several of our northern counties where it is usually served on all holiday occasions.”

By the latter half of the 1800s, the egg custard evolved into a frangipane-like filling; since then the quantity of jam decreased while the almond filling increased.

This tart, like many of the world's great foods has its own mythic beginnings…or several mythic beginnings. Legend has it in 1820 (or was it in the 1860s?) Mrs. Greaves, landlady of The White Horse Inn in Bakewell, Derbyshire (England), asked her cook to produce a pudding for her guests. Either her instructions could have been clearer or he should have paid better attention to what she said because what he made was not what she asked for. The cook spread the jam on top of the frangipane mixture rather than the other way around. Or maybe instead of a sweet rich shortcrust pastry case to hold the jam for a strawberry tart, he made a regular pastry and mixed the eggs and sugar separately and poured that over the jam—it depends upon which legend you follow.

Regardless of what the venerable Mrs. Greaves’ cook did or didn’t do, lore has it that her guests loved it and an ensuing pastry-clad industry was born. The town of Bakewell has since played host to many a sweet tooth in hopes of tasting the tart in its natural setting.

Bakewell tarts are a classic English dessert, abounding in supermarket baking sections and in ready-made, mass-produced forms, some sporting a thick sugary icing and glazed cherry on top for decorative effect.

For this quintessentially Old-World dessert, I decided to pair it with the fruits of the New World. Recently, my husband and I had the incredible pleasure of visiting Glacier National Park in Montana. Situated along the Continental Divide, no place could more represent the bold pioneer spirit of America than this incredible glacial valley, with its snow-topped mountains, its cold, deep lakes, its evergreen and deciduous forests. In addition to spectacular scenery, this part of the country is known for its wild huckleberries. They grow in such abundance, you can find huckleberries in just about everything: jam, jelly, preserves, candy, muffins, lotion, candles. I bought myself a jar of huckleberry preserves (admittedly in the Kalispell airport, since I ran out of time during the trip itself) with the express interest of putting them in my Bakewell Tart.

Home again, I made the tart post-haste. In order to achieve an authentic, Old-World appearance, I baked tartlets in pastry rings. As they baked, the apartment filled with the exotic but comforting aroma of almonds, and, once removed from the oven and the pastry rings, I couldn't contain my pleasure. The tartlets looked gorgeous--exactly like the kind of pastry someone would have eaten a hundred and fifty years ago.

And the taste? Z. is often vocal with his praise of my baked goods, but he declared the Bakewell Tartlets to be "wonderful." He's never said that before. And I had to agree. The short crust was flaky, the huckleberries provided some New World zest and life, and the almond frangipane baked up into a luscious golden sponge with perfect tooth and light, but substantial crumb. Z. announced that the tartlets were "a keeper," and I fully intend to make them again. The Old World and the New coexist perfectly within the realm of the oven.

Bakewell Tart

Makes one 23cm (9” tart)
Prep time: less than 10 minutes (plus time for the individual elements)
Resting time: 15 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
Equipment needed: 23cm (9”) tart pan or pie tin (preferably with ridged edges), rolling pin

One quantity sweet shortcrust pastry (recipe follows)
Bench flour
250ml (1cup (8 US fl. oz)) jam or curd, warmed for spreadability
One quantity frangipane (recipe follows)
One handful blanched, flaked almonds

Assembling the tart
Place the chilled dough disc on a lightly floured surface. If it's overly cold, you will need to let it become acclimatised for about 15 minutes before you roll it out. Flour the rolling pin and roll the pastry to 5mm (1/4”) thickness, by rolling in one direction only (start from the centre and roll away from you), and turning the disc a quarter turn after each roll. When the pastry is to the desired size and thickness, transfer it to the tart pan, press in and trim the excess dough. Patch any holes, fissures or tears with trimmed bits. Chill in the freezer for 15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 200C/400F.

Remove shell from freezer, spread as even a layer as you can of jam onto the pastry base. Top with frangipane, spreading to cover the entire surface of the tart. Smooth the top and pop into the oven for 30 minutes. [ed. note: I baked the tartlets for a total of 25 minutes] Five minutes before the tart is done, the top will be poofy and brownish. Remove from oven and strew flaked almonds on top and return to the heat for the last five minutes of baking.

The finished tart will have a golden crust and the frangipane will be tanned, poofy and a bit spongy-looking. Remove from the oven and cool on the counter. Serve warm, with crème fraîche, whipped cream or custard sauce if you wish.

When you slice into the tart, the almond paste will be firm, but slightly squidgy and the crust should be crisp but not tough.

Sweet shortcrust pastry

Prep time: 15-20 minutes
Resting time: 30 minutes (minimum)
Equipment needed: bowls, box grater, cling film

225g (8oz) all purpose flour
30g (1oz) sugar
2.5ml (½ tsp) salt
110g (4oz) unsalted butter, cold (frozen is better)
2 (2) egg yolks
2.5ml (½ tsp) almond extract (optional)
15-30ml (1-2 Tbsp) cold water

Sift together flour, sugar and salt. Grate butter into the flour mixture, using the large hole-side of a box grater. Using your finger tips only, and working very quickly, rub the fat into the flour until the mixture resembles bread crumbs. Set aside.

Lightly beat the egg yolks with the almond extract (if using) and quickly mix into the flour mixture. Keep mixing while dribbling in the water, only adding enough to form a cohesive and slightly sticky dough.

Form the dough into a disc, wrap in cling and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

[ed. note: after I had chilled my dough, I cut it into smaller pieces and rolled them to fit my pastry rings]


Prep time: 10-15 minutes
Equipment needed: bowls, hand mixer, rubber spatula

125g (4.5oz) unsalted butter, softened
125g (4.5oz) icing sugar
3 (3) eggs
2.5ml (½ tsp) almond extract
125g (4.5oz) ground almonds
30g (1oz) all purpose flour

Cream butter and sugar together for about a minute or until the mixture is primrose in colour and very fluffy. Scrape down the side of the bowl and add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. The batter may appear to curdle. In the words of Douglas Adams: Don’t panic. Really. It’ll be fine. After all three are in, pour in the almond extract and mix for about another 30 seconds and scrape down the sides again. With the beaters on, spoon in the ground nuts and the flour. Mix well. The mixture will be soft, keep its slightly curdled look (mostly from the almonds) and retain its pallid yellow colour.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Climbing the Mountain; or, Why I Don't Bungee Jump

**another Greatest Hits from the vault**

It’s part of the human experience to try and push oneself to new heights. Most of the time. Often, we find ourselves settling into routine because it’s comfortable, familiar, easier than taking chances or moving beyond the realm of the known. I’m sure even astronauts sometimes say, “Oh, look, the Earth from space. Again. Sigh.”

There are others who continually strive for new experience, to challenge themselves. Some of those people are admirable. Others, slightly insane. I’m looking at you, wilderness survival guy on the Discovery Channel.

While I long for adventure, I’m also constrained by my own sense of practicality as well as knowledge of mortality. So, while it sounds intriguing, you won’t find me base jumping, storm chasing, street luging, or going to Wal-Mart the day after Thanksgiving. I spend my days writing about death-defying adventure, so, for myself, I adhere to a slightly more feasible, less life-threatening list of culinary challenges. The prospect of making cupcakes no longer thrills me (though I definitely enjoy the end result). On this list of challenges are such daunting Mt. Everests such as puff pastry, dacquoise, croissants and pâte à choux.

Am I fan of the éclair, the cream puff, the profiterole? Not especially. But I needed to make pâte à choux because, in the words of George Mallory, it’s there. I was also pleased, when learning of this month’s DB Challenge, that there were multiple components to the éclair recipe. Therein lies the more esteemed aspect of the pastry chef’s art. Anyone can bake a cake and make a simple powdered-sugar buttercream, but pâte à choux, pastry cream and chocolate glaze all held the possibility of failure, and thus, challenge.

What did I learn from this experience? The mountain is much smaller than it had looked at the base. Granted, it wasn’t a completely smooth climb, fraught with occasional stumbles and slides, but, when I reached the summit, I could bask in the glow of my accomplishment—éclairs with butterscotch pastry cream and chocolate glaze. I even delivered éclairs to my friends, which, for me, is a sure sign of success. The two different cakes I made for last month’s challenge were not distributed to the public because I was mortified by the utter failure of the glaze, rendering gateaux that were delicious but aesthetically displeasing. In fact, the hazelnut gateau went straight into the garbage in a fit of pique.

But not so with the éclairs. I stood on the mountaintop and hoisted my flag, announcing that I’d made it.

So, how do I get down from here?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Reader--in an attempt to get myself ready for bathing suit season, I'm taking a temporary hiatus from baking. Don't despair, however. I'm posting some of my "greatest hits" about baking, dating to before I maintained this blog. So, sit back and enjoy this journey into the delicious past.


The process of retrospection is one in which we begin to engage early in life. When we’re children, we often ask our parents about what we were like as babies. The teen years are often marked with a disgust and dismissal of our childhood, even as we cling to small talismans of those first years or invest in them a kind of kitchy reverence. Who amongst us hasn’t pondered the manifold mysteries of the Kroftt Superstars, especially whilst under the influence of controlled substances? (Not I, of course. )

But those are external factors. A fascinating aspect of growing older is observing our internal changes—why something that once seemed so pleasing or wonderful to us is now appalling, or vice versa. Food is one of the best indicators of these changes. One day, we wake up, and smoked gouda cheese is suddenly delicious, but uncooked Pop Tarts are not. (Again, this might change under the influence of certain controlled substances....)

As a child, I had a boundless appetite for sweets. I used to be able to eat, in one sitting, two full-sized candy bars and drink an entire soda, and not feel like purging afterwards. It also helped that I had the metabolism of a bee, and could cram fistfuls of Rolos into my mouth without gaining a pound. The thought is less than appetizing now. Also, the metabolism has slowed considerably since then, which is not helped by my journeys into gourmandism.

In my childhood, anything chocolate, especially milk chocolate, was my favorite. A slice of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting was the height of gastronomic pleasure. Gradually, however, my love of intensely sweet desserts waned, until, one day, I discovered that my favorite desserts involved the salty sweet flavors of butterscotch and caramel. The innovation of adding salt to caramel was a revelation. The perfect sharp note that helped ground the fancies of caramelized sugar—the bliss of heaven, tempered by earthy reality.

This month, the DB challenge was a caramel cake with browned butter caramel frosting. I was ready to embrace the mature me.

To ensure that all facets of my personality were satisfied, I made sure to liberally salt the frosting with kosher salt. I also added some toasted pecans as a garnish, a touch which the young me would have sneered at. The cake was baked up as cupcakes, to be served at P.’s birthday dinner, and also to give to L. for her birthday present. Fitting that this cake, the signifier of maturation, was to be served for several birthdays, but yet in the shape that evoked the innocent years of childhood.

The verdict? The cake was moist and had a pleasing, dense crumb without being heavy. The caramel flavor of the cake was, however, muted. But the frosting...ah, the frosting. It won acclaim from both birthday girls as well as other friends. Sweet, but perfectly mitigated by the salt. I could have eaten it alone with a spoon and, in a moment of weakness, I did just that when alone with some leftover frosting. It was also liberally smeared upon some chocolate chip pumpkin bread. Z. and I were rapturous.

There was actually a little bit of cake batter left over from the cupcakes, so I caved my less mature side and baked up a tiny cake that looked exactly what I wished had emerged from my EZ Bake Oven twenty five years ago. (All the cakes that did come out of the EZ Bake resembled burnt little pucks, so now I have my retribution. Take that, Hasbro!) Perhaps not the most sophisticated and adult decision, but if we can’t indulge our childish whims every once in a while, then what’s the point of getting older?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In Search of Lost Inspiration

I approach this blog not just as a record of what I bake, but a documentation of the complex networks of memory, ambition, skill, desire and the of love sweet and tasty treats. Our Western, first-world culture has come to view cooking and baking as merely an obstacle to the proper enjoyment of life, and not an integral component of the human experience. I'm contrarian in nature and wanted to explore not just the end result of baking, but the multilayered psychological process that transpires every time the oven is preheated and butter set on the counter to soften.

Each time I sit down to compose one of these posts, I try to embark on a journey that draws together the sometimes dissonant, often fragmentary nature of what it means to prepare one's own food. Regardless of what it is that I'm baking, I want to invest myself fully in the process, and find some means, however small, of expanding my consciousness.

Reader, I can't do that today. Try as I might, I could find no means of discussing this month's Daring Bakers challenge in a way I could find significant. I admit to being somewhat underwhelmed when the challenge was announced by our hosts, Linda of Make Life Sweeter, and Coco of Coco Cooks: traditional Apple Strudel. The recipe comes from rick Rodgers' Kaffeehaus - Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafes of Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

Maybe, to paraphrase Edmund in King Lear, the fault lies not in the strudel but ourselves. After all, strudel has a long and storied past, an exotic origin in the bakeries of Vienna, fond associations of coffee houses and intellectual discussion. Couldn't I muster some enthusiasm for this delicate, refined and esteemed pastry? Couldn't I use it as a springboard into a Proustian digression on childhood, on lost time? Couldn't I fabricate a memory of sitting at my grandparents' vinyl-topped table, eating strudel from a Jewish bakery as we played poker using the plastic bear bank full of pennies?


Strudel holds no place in my heart. It played no significant role in my youth, and even less so in the fullness of my maturity. I saw this month's challenge as an obligation I was honor-bound to meet, like giving every kid in my 4th grade elementary school class a Valentine, even the kid who chewed his sweatshirt collar, because I didn't want anyone to feel left out.

One aspect of the strudel-making process I did find intriguing, and, as it turned out, was actually kind of fun, involved taking the dough and stretching it out. Slowly, slowly coaxing it from a ball of dough into a sheet so thin, you can read through it. I covered the top of my kitchen table with parchment paper, dusted that with flour, and then circled the table in a slow reel, pulling the dough over my knuckles until it became fine, the kind of milky membrane over a newborn calf's eye.*

Rather than use the traditional apple filling, I decided to take my own advice and use what was seasonally available.
Since peaches are now beginning to show up in the market, they were my choice. Peeled and sliced, I tossed them with brown sugar, a bit of lemon juice, cornstarch for thickening, and nutmeg. Then onto the dough (which had been lightly brushed with butter and topped with toasted breadcrumbs - the bread being courtesy of Z., who looked justifiably appalled when I reached for commercial bread at the supermarket). I rolled it all up like Cleopatra in reverse, and into the oven it went.

Though I don't have a lot of experience with strudel, I'm pretty damn sure it's supposed to be crispy and flaky, a shattering of pastry encasing a tender filling. The top of my strudel seemed crispy...at first. But after letting it cool (as the filling was molten right out of the oven and likely to turn into some variety of peach-flavored napalm), what I was left with was soggy and bland. The peaches themselves had a lovely, bright flavor that spoke of the incipient warmth of summer, but as for everything else.... I think the most appropriate word would be "meh."

Yes, reader, meh.

I don't doubt that the problem lay in my choice of fillings. Peaches are juicy, and I think that the very thing that makes them so delicious is what undermined the success of my strudel. After Z. and I ate a couple of slices (it may have been bland and meh, but it was still dessert), I bundled the whole thing up in the parchment paper in which it was baked, and escorted it to the trash.

If I was truly motivated, I might consider attempting the strudel again, but I've a whole library of cookbooks, a caloric allowance that I'd rather spend on something I really like, and a hunger not only for sweets, but for inspiration.

*I've actually never been an eyewitness to a calf being born, but I did read Lonesome Dove.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Strawberry Simulacrum; or, The Persistence of Memory

People who aren't from Southern California don't believe we have seasons here. Every day is ablaze with sunshine and reality t.v. stars traipsing up and down Robertson Boulevard in shoulder-baring tops under the blameless, clear sky. Okay, yes, many days in Los Angeles are like that, but we do have subtle seasonal variations--especially now that global warming has given Earth the big middle finger in response to our wholesome ecological practices.

Still, I can't help the burst of excitement when spring arrives, followed by summer. The bounty of warm weather produce, especially fruit, is something I look forward to almost as soon as the last plum is eaten. It's a baker's wonderland, and I can't wait to make cobblers, crisps, pies and cakes, bejeweled with the harvests of summer.

Strawberries are just now beginning to appear, and truly, few things are as wonderful as a perfectly ripe, red strawberry napped in plain yogurt and drizzled with honey. They don't make for particularly good baking, but when presented with a basket of succulent strawberries, one's mind is immediately awhirl with possibility.

Naturally, when these beautiful gems appear in the market, heralding the onset of longer days and warmer nights, I decided to bake a Strawberry Cake, following a recipe that called for a box of white cake mix, frozen strawberries and as a packet of strawberry Jell-O. No fresh strawberries were harmed in the making of this cake. However, my ethos as a baker was.

I'll come right out and say it: I staunchly refuse to use boxed cake mixes. I don't care what Sandra Lee or the Cake Mix Doctor tell you, boxed cake mixes cannot and do not substitute for a cake baked from scratch. They simply don't taste right. Consider how much research and development go into the manufacturing of a box cake mix, the endless hours spent in a laboratory trying, through various chemical processes, to produce a simulacrum of what cake supposedly tastes like. I know it's trite to advise any prospective purchaser of a pre-made food item to read the ingredients listed on the box, but, seriously, do it. There's nothing listed there I want to ingest. And do you want to feed your friends and family polysyllabic chemicals?

Admittedly, early on in my baking career, I used boxed mixes. I even attempted, at the age of 11 or so, to have a cake-baking business, called, cleverly enough, Bear Love Cakes. (I had a thing for teddy bears at the time. And also wearing purple every day. But that's another story for another time.) Even up to college, I used boxed mixes. When I was very young, I had attempted to bake a white cake from scratch using a recipe from my mother's Women's Day cookbooks she received as a newlywed. The end result was something resembling failed sourdough bread. Scarred, I used mixes for a long time.

Then I discovered that to bake a cake from scratch isn't such a daunting prospect. I bought butter, flour, sugar, eggs. I learned that a few minutes of patience, versus dumping a box of powdered additives into a bowl, produced results so far superior to what I'd previously believed to be cake, I may as well call those earlier, mix-based items "schmake," because they were definitely not cake.

At least a decade has gone by since I used a boxed mix. But for over a year, I'd been eying one recipe for a Strawberry Cake. The recipe came from Patty Pinner's Sweets: Soul Food Desserts & Memories. The book itself is lovely: a combination of old-fashioned dessert cookbook combined with memoir, that features anecdotes and photos from Pinner's large, loving family. It's not a cookbook about haute cuisine desserts from Michelin-starred pastry chefs. These are tasty sweets to serve people you truly care about.

On the cover of Pinner's book is a photo of an incredibly pink three-layer cake. It's hypnotic. Who can resist the idea of a giant, sweet cake that looks as if it stepped out of a stoner's midnight fantasy? I certainly couldn't.

I decided to bake the cake. Which meant that, if I followed the recipe, I would need to use a box of white cake mix and a package of Jell-O. It felt strange to stand in my kitchen and tear open paper and plastic packages, dump everything into a bowl, and consider it baking. The act felt incomplete, as if I was opening my mouth to sing and prerecorded music came out. But I persisted, determined to follow the recipe.

The pink batter, as I spooned it into the waiting pans, disturbed me. And when the cakes baked, they filled the apartment with the smell of pre-adolescence. The baked layers, cooling, resembled giant patties of raw hamburger.

When it came to the icing of the cake, I did deviate from the recipe by choosing to not add food coloring. I mashed some thawed, frozen strawberries and let them tint the icing. Forgive me, Ms. Pinner. I just couldn't comply.

So, how did it taste?

Both wrong, and right. The cake was quite moist--but I would expect no less from something produced by a massive corporation that somehow convinced people all over the world that baking from scratch was not only time consuming, but nonessential. The flavor resembled strawberry as one would remember having eaten a strawberry many years ago: distorted, yet some how evocative. Without question, the cake was one of the sweetest things I have eaten in my entire life, and I used to devour Lik-M-Aid . Since baking the cake, I searched online and found variations for Strawberry Cakes that used cream cheese frosting. If I ever baked this again, I would assuredly do that, instead, or else face the prospect of a diabetic coma.

Friend, reader, I urge you, just once, to try making a cake from scratch. It needn't be an elaborate layer cake. A simple sheet cake is something truly anyone can accomplish. Also, for the love of Isabella Beeton, don't use a tub of pre-made frosting. And then, when the fruits of summer do appear, celebrate them in all their natural glory.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Unexpected Gifts

In this uncertain climate, we have a tendency to eliminate things we deem extraneous or inessential. What constitutes luxury versus necessity? Over the past twenty years, our nation has not developed a sense of restraint or moderation, or, indeed any kind of delay of gratification. We want something, we immediately obtain it, regardless of whether or not we can afford--or even need--the obscure object of desire.

I'm not a financial analyst. In truth, my grasp of economics is about as robust as my understanding of nuclear physics or the rules of American football. But I
do believe that the collapse of global banking institutions was greatly influenced by the fact that banks were throwing loans at people who had no business asking for loans in the first place. People wanted homes, regardless of consequence, and banks indulged their adolescent demands.

Do I have numbers and statistics to prove this? No. This is a baking blog, not The Huffington Post.

All this is to say that generally, Z. and I conduct our financial affairs very moderately. We're pretty good about delaying or even abstaining gratification when it comes to purchasing things. (Though Z. has been known to develop crushes on jackets, knives and camera equipment, and I'm always prowling the sale section of Anthropologie and Banana Republic Petites, not to mention constantly putting books on my Amazon wish list. We're wishful consumers.)

Some time ago, Z. received a free subscription to Food & Wine magazine. Both he and I would thumb through it whenever it showed up and idly remark, "That looks good," then set the magazine aside to collect dust.

But, in part of our general ambition to expand our culinary repertoire, we both found recipes in some issues of the magazine that caught our attention. Our usual modus operandi of idle remarks gave way to asking ourselves, "Why the hell not?" Just admiring a recipe benefited no one, least of all our stomachs. So we invited some friends over and had ourselves A Very Food & Wine dinner.

Z. made Vaca Frita (Cuban Crispy Beef), gougères (taken from the Tartine cookbook), and I attempted the F&W Milk Chocolate Tart with Pretzel Crust. Z.'s dishes were fantastic, and between the four of us, we decimated the gougères like the clearance rack at Loehmann's. And when dinner was devoured, it was time for dessert.

Just for laffs, I smeared the crust with the remainder of the sea salt caramel from last week's cheesecake (which, incidentally, should be some band's name: Last Week's Cheesecake, opening for Burnt Toast at the Whiskey), then poured the milk chocolate ganache over all that. Again, I returned to that age-old combination of salty and sweet, which pleases my palate more than unexpurgated sweetness. My favorite Muppets were always the adults: Bert, Kermit, Rowlf. Unlike their juvenille counterparts (Ernie, Big Bird, and later, Elmo), the grown-up Muppets were always kind of pissed off and exasperated by the ridiculous shenanigans going on around them. Save the cutsey schtick for some other sap. I've got bottle caps to collect.

The end result was an exceptionally crispy crust that had to be chiseled apart, topped with a very silky and rich ganache. Oddly, the caramel largely disappeared beneath the chocolate filling, but it contributed a warm undercurrent to the whole dish. I abstained from sprinkling the top of the tart with more sea salt, as advocated by the recipe, thinking that the caramel would provide enough salt, but if I were to make the tart again, I'd definitely add an additional bit of salt. Not only was the tart delicious, though, I was also able to cross "tart" off my personal challenge list.

Wending our way back to the state of the economy, Z. and I had initially thought we'd not renew our subscription to F&W. After this unexpected bounty, both gustatory and skill-enhancing, I renewed the subscription as an early birthday gift to Z. Perhaps, too, the dying print medium can eke by for just a little longer, thanks to my measly $12. Everyone wins.