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 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.