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?