Thursday, May 29, 2008

L'opéra est un succès!

I was so excited with the announcement of this recipe for May that I immediately churned fantasies of how my process will be. I’d make this cake with Pavarotti playing in the background, remember the Parisian opera cake I had last year with my favourite friends, and perhaps celebrate a special occasion with this cake.

Well, this was a very, very good cake indeed. My opera cake did have a touch of brown however. I used almond meal that was ground from unblanched almonds – I had a lot left over from a previous recipe, and really had to use them up. And then I ran out of white sugar and decided to use brown sugar for the syrup. For the flavouring, I kept it really simple – just real vanilla all the way through with a touch of orange flower water.

I didn’t make the cake with Pavarotti in the background. The weather wasn’t great over the last weekend – in fact, it was downright dreary. I was filled with doubt about whether I could pull this cake off. There’s something intriguing about my baking exploits – on some level, I’m sure it’s possible, but that feeling is never quite as loud and resonant as that part of me that’d focus on the seemingly endless layers and components and steps as if they were insurmountable obstacles.

Therefore, I decided to break the challenge up into two temporal parts. I made the syrup, joconde, buttercream and ganache the night before, and assembled them the next morning for this gathering that I was going to. This was a good idea, except I ended up not being able to distinguish the buttercream from the ganache in the morning!

When I got to the venue with the cake, the ganache started slip-sliding off the cake. It did look a mess, but the taste made up for it. I was getting heaps of compliments for the cake - and it once again reminds one how gratifying it is to make a good cake. Because it is an offering to your friends!

I think being in DBB has changed my baking mental framework forever. Why ever bake for yourself when you can be baking for everyone else?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

When the sum of the parts is not tastier

Until very recently, I'd bake a cake every weekend - that was how dedicated I was to feeding my sweet tooth. So, of course, I welcomed this challenge to bake an actual cake, especially after the several intervening months of making non-cakes.

The strange thing about this cake is, all of the parts were beautiful, but became less appealing upon assembly. I would have loved to have eaten the cake by itself, sans frills; the white buttercream was heavenly to look and work with; my raspberry jam was an excellent version which I would've loved to have on hot buttered toast. But when assembled, I just didn't like it so much.

I mean, look at how light and silken the buttercream is, and how fine the crumb turned out on the cake.

I asked myself why I didn't like the assembled cake, and came up a few possible explanations:

- I just don't like raspberry jam on cake, and I didn't know that. While I was careful to spread the merest whisper of raspberry jam on the layers, I was nonetheless extremely assiduous in doing so, ensuring that every inch out to the edges was covered. As such, no bite offered a respite from the raspberry flavour.

- I used up all the buttercream on the cake, and frankly, this was just too much cream for me. I started to feel a little nauseous even while spreading it on. Even if I could've done things differently, I imagined all the DBBs in the world making this cake, and couldn't bear the thought of deviating from the instructions. I ended up with a half-inch of icing on the cake, with more in between. (I realised, however, that it was the perfect amount of icing for ensuring a good cloak over the naked cake.)

Maybe there's something psychologically irksome about making a super-creamy cake yourself, than if you were to consume only one slice of super-creamy cake in a restaurant.

- In spite of its name, I didn't have a party to bring this cake to, and don't know that I would. Last time I made a cake for a party, it was an Italian recipe that used much less fat, and which incorporated heaps of fruit. That was a hit. It sat alongside a store-bought creamy cake which hardly anyone touched. The compliments I had on the cake were uniformly along the lines of, "it's not too sweet at all", "it's healthy", "it tastes different, and healthy!". I guess this is a sign of the times.

However, I enjoyed a couple of slices of it after it was all done. I enjoyed it in the obligatory manner that you would a festival food, like a red-dyed egg when a baby turns one month old (in the Chinese tradition), or a mulled wine at Christmas.

My overall assessment, however, is an overwhelmingly positive one. The base recipe is so fundamentally good, and such a pleasure to work with, that it can stand being deconstructed and reinterpreted in other contexts. And I'm definitely going to do that.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A comparative study of my Daring(tm) attempt at making Pain Francais (using Julia Child's recipe) with my memories of the real deal

It’s not my first time making bread.

But. Having only recently returned from Paris, where I ate baguette literally everyday; I still have such fresh memories of how it should be that I was, from the beginning, already a little psychologically prepared that my home made baguette just probably won’t be the same. I wasn’t just an eater of baguette, I purposefully sought baguette out from different boulangeries, never stepping into the same one twice (which was easy enough to do). I cradled, listened to, and savoured the taste of every single baguette. I felt that, at the end of my 3 week stay in Europe - especially after concurrently experiencing a number of very different Italian breads when in Italy, and a brief encounter with Belgian baguette when I somehow got lost between countries - that I can say, I developed some very personal memories of French baguette.

What can I describe of my experience of French baguette? It produces this tantalising crackle when you slice through it, there’s that soft fluffy bread belly that is sort of like a super elastic cotton candy. I was told that kids love to just eat that fluff and forget the crust. Baguette has a full bread flavour – that’s not very descriptive, but suffice to say, it gives one a feeling of well-being. You feel like going for a walk through the Tuileries, even when it’s cold and grey.

There’s always a baguette in my backpack with some cheese – truffle brie, Roquefort papillon, whatever. My backpack smelt so much like a stinky old shoe - even though it was midwinter - that I felt vaguely paranoid whenever I opened my backpack on the metro. Sometimes, the crust wore my gums out – too much, too tough - but I crave the bread again the next day. It’s true that I had so much baguette, that I sometimes fantasised about rice or noodles.

However, I fell deeply in love with French cheese, all because of baguette.

My white pain, with a tinge of brown

The comparison between my pain francais and my memories of the actual pain francais frankly fails – not surprisingly - but there were some saving graces. I finished all of the bread on my own in two days, in a number of combinations with other foodstuffs. It was still a pretty damn good pain.

But since this is a comparative study, some comparison needs to be made.

My crust was rather more hard than crackly, and it didn’t produce the tantalising music of baguette when I sliced it through. The “brush with cold water when fresh out of the oven” trick really lent a golden sheen – nice. And actually, in spite of the disappointing texture - the flavour of my pain francais was just downright delicious. I think it was the salt. I was initially shocked at the amount of salt I had to add – in this day and age? - but that is something I’m going to be doing for all future breads I make from now on.

The texture of the bread belly was most inauthentic. As you can see, it simply wasn’t elastic enough. It came off like a humongous crumb, even though there were some very pretty irregular holes from the perspective of the cross section. I’m sure it was the flour – I used a normal plain flour because I simply could not locate any flour anywhere that printed their gluten content anywhere on the package that I can inspect. I went all over town, squinted at flour packages, but there was no special gourmet or AP flour to be found. Furthermore, I used up every last bit of flour I had with only a couple of pinches left for flouring the kneading surface that, half way through, I bit my lip and floured the surface with wholemeal flour. So my pain francais had that quirk of being mostly white, with a smattering of brown.

I'm an artisan enveloping a bubbly clod

I believe that many home bakers of bread agree that the breadmaking process always brings with it a little bit of self-discovery. Maybe it’s the time you have to spend indoors with yourself – pretty much the whole day. Or the attention you suddenly have to devote to taking care of something that seems to have a life of its own – a breathing, sweating clod. Or something to do with the softness of the dough – like this dough - that somehow has a soft yielding quality that’s similar to flesh. During the second kneading, I had a vague impression of it somehow feeling like a rather moist baby. It encourages you to treat it gently.

This was also the longest recipe I’ve ever read - man, was this a long read. But it was worth it. I can see the results of the enveloping – something that at first I cursed silently at (“why can’t I just shape it anyway I want”). Thus, I tamed my impatient nature momentarily, my tendency for action – which was very satisfying. It was especially exciting watching the bubbles develop, whenever I peeked in at the fermenting dough every so often. Then it was fun puncturing the gas bubbles during the kneading, the way I would bubble wrap as a child. I imagined myself, while kneading the dough, as an artisanal French baker who would wake up at 4 am in the morning, in order to bake fresh bread for my regular customers; but one who is also so on to the times, that she would dedicate her afternoons to making Youtube videos of her art – kneading, enveloping and such - in order to share the baguette tradition with the rest of the online world.

It's a coup!

Then I used my Henckels slicing knife to execute la coupe. German knives on French bread – pourquoi pas, c'est wunderbar! I’m very proud of my knives, so I took lots of pictures of various slits. At first, I thought that the paring knife might be best, but that pulled at the dough, and was no good. The slicing knife, however, was perfect.

I admit that the dough baby fantasy went on for a bit, that by the time slashing time came, I couldn’t really do a good samurai on them, but only very shallow, careful slits. I really loved the slashing most. If bakers actually worked in some sort of a chain process, I would most like to be La Slasher. I was a little disappointed I could only do three coupes per bread.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Lemon Meringue Love

This is one truly good pie. It may not look like much, but it was so good.

I followed the recipe exactly, and produced an absolutely delicious Single Free-Form Tart.

The "fruit slices" on top are thinly sliced pate de fruit (grapefruit) from Hediard's, which I bought from my recent trip to Paris. They went perfectly with the lemon meringue.

However, it was not all plain sailing. (So far, none of my attempts have been - and I'm wondering if that is not actually part of the joy of it.)

First, there was the self-doubt. "I don't know that I'm up to it this month." "I don't have x or y equipment - it's going to be too hard." "Sure, I like cake - but who's going to eat ALL that cake?" "I'm not too fond of this kind of cake though."

Then, somehow, you find the grit to make it anyway. Even though you've just returned 3 days ago from a month-long backpacking "holiday", are feeling a little under the weather, and had just found your lost luggage the day before. Somehow, you find the equipment . Your food processor's broken, so you make short pastry using the rubbing in method you learnt in home economics class. You don't have a juicer, so you use the underside of a mini strainer to squeeze out 9 tiny warmed up lemons. You use a full bottle of fish sauce as the rolling pin.

And you discover that there's plenty of people to share your cake with, if you stopped to think for a couple of minutes.

You also realise how competent you actually are, in spite of your self-doubt, creating a cake you'd never even think to make. You fall in love with lemon meringue pie.

Most of all, you discover how much you really, really do like your own homemade cake. Unreservedly!

By the time I finished the pastry dough, I was starting to glow with pride. But (as is usual), that quickly disappears as the realisation dawns on me that I don't have any beans to weigh the dough down with, not enough lemons, 50g short of the total amount of required butter, and probably cornstarch.

But a quick dash out to the supermarket at 9.30 pm took care of that.

Once the dough is chilling, the rest was about strategically timing everything so that I can get to bed before 12.30am. Bake dough, juice and zest lemons, bake dough again, break eggs, and so on.

When I made the meringue, I had my victory. How satisfying it is to watch the white satiny swirls in the bowl. I was at peace. A perfect play putty. I learnt that every stroke you make when piling the meringue onto the pie counts. It's like an egg white sculpture which you send into the kiln.

I was going to give the whole pie to Joanna -who's moving into her new place in Newtown - as a housewarming gift. But even when the pie sort of crumbled on me, due to my miscalculating the fit between pie and cake box, I was unfazed.

She loved it, and she's not one to mince words. I happily enjoyed the remains.

Next time - and there'll be many more times - I'll be making a sunburnt snowman out of this.

And here's the recipe for posterity - big thanks Jen!:

Lemon Meringue Pie

Makes one 10-inch (25 cm) pie

For the Crust:

¾ cup (180 mL) cold butter; cut into ½-inch (1.2 cm) pieces

2 cups (475 mL) all-purpose flour

¼ cup (60 mL) granulated sugar

¼ tsp (1.2 mL) salt

cup (80 mL) ice water

For the Filling:

2 cups (475 mL) water

1 cup (240 mL) granulated sugar

½ cup (120 mL) cornstarch

5 egg yolks, beaten

¼ cup (60 mL) butter

¾ cup (180 mL) fresh lemon juice

1 tbsp (15 mL) lemon zest

1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla extract

For the Meringue:

5 egg whites, room temperature

½ tsp (2.5 mL) cream of tartar

¼ tsp (1.2 mL) salt

½ tsp (2.5 mL) vanilla extract

¾ cup (180 mL) granulated sugar

For the Crust: Make sure all ingredients are as cold as possible. Using a food processor or pastry cutter and a large bowl, combine the butter, flour, sugar and salt. Process or cut in until the mixture resembles coarse meal and begins to clump together. Sprinkle with water, let rest 30 seconds and then either process very briefly or cut in with about 15 strokes of the pastry cutter, just until the dough begins to stick together and come away from the sides of the bowl. Turn onto a lightly floured work surface and press together to form a disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for at least 20 minutes.

Allow the dough to warm slightly to room temperature if it is too hard to roll. On a lightly floured board (or countertop) roll the disk to a thickness of ⅛ inch (.3 cm). Cut a circle about 2 inches (5 cm) larger than the pie plate and transfer the pastry into the plate by folding it in half or by rolling it onto the rolling pin. Turn the pastry under, leaving an edge that hangs over the plate about ½ inch (1.2 cm). Flute decoratively. Chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Line the crust with foil and fill with metal pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Carefully remove the foil and continue baking for 10 to 15 minutes, until golden. Cool completely before filling.

For the Filling: Bring the water to a boil in a large, heavy saucepan. Remove from the heat and let rest 5 minutes. Whisk the sugar and cornstarch together. Add the mixture gradually to the hot water, whisking until completely incorporated.

Return to the heat and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until the mixture comes to a boil. The mixture will be very thick. Add about 1 cup (240 mL) of the hot mixture to the beaten egg yolks, whisking until smooth. Whisking vigorously, add the warmed yolks to the pot and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in butter until incorporated. Add the lemon juice, zest and vanilla, stirring until combined. Pour into the prepared crust. Cover with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming on the surface, and cool to room temperature.

For the Meringue: Preheat the oven to 375ºF (190ºC). Using an electric mixer beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar, salt and vanilla extract until soft peaks form. Add the sugar gradually, beating until it forms stiff, glossy peaks. Pile onto the cooled pie, bringing the meringue all the way over to the edge of the crust to seal it completely. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden. Cool on a rack. Serve within 6 hours to avoid a soggy crust.