Top 100 Cake Blog

Top 100 Cake Blog

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Icebox Cookies = Brownstone Brown Out

Not one to limit icebox cookery to merely cake, I also prepared the dough for Butterscotch Icebox Cookies this past weekend.

But when I turned on the oven to bake them last night, lo and behold, the kitchen lights all dimmed.*

"There's a brown out in the kitchen," I called to DH, who was upstairs, busy at work on his memoir (soon to be a book and major motion picture, I hope).  He thoughtfully shut off our one window air conditioner so I could continue baking, all the while shaking his head in disbelief that in this 90+ degree heat and high humidity, that the oven could triumph over a cool bedroom.

The idea behind icebox cookies is that one keeps the dough in the freezer and, at just a moment's notice, homemade cookies can be served hot from the oven.  The dough is rolled into logs, the precursor to all those commercial slice-and-bake cookie dough products in the supermarket.

So here's the problem with having logs of delicious cookie dough at the ready.  If you think the ice cream is calling your name from the freezer, just try keeping these around.   My logs have been shrinking, as DH and I check on them periodically and helpfully even out the ends, a quarter inch at a time.**

For those of you who can avoid temptation, please try these and do add some grated coconut to the batter for added flavor and texture.  I used unsweetened coconut, figuring that the sweetened product would have sent my tasters into a diabetic coma.

These are simple cookies, which reflect the era from which they emerged.  They're almost the opposite of today's popular cookies, packed with all sorts of yummy ingredients, like the fabulous Compost Cookies from Momofuko, which are over-the-top concoctions of pretzels, potato chips, Rice Krispies, lots of butter and chocolate. While I adore these new fangled cookies, sometimes a simple cookie is best.

The recipe I used, below, is from the Cookbook for Girls and Boys by Irma S. Rombauer and published in 1946.

*I just read this morning that Con Ed reduced power to several New York City neighborhoods last night, including my own, so it was more than just the window air conditioner that caused the brown out.

**My attempt at the South Beach diet only lasted five hours -- I caved yesterday when a colleague offered me a Compost Cookie.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Icebox Cake on a Hot Summer Day

What better way to combat the blazing New York City heat than to engage in some icebox cookery.

Yesterday morning, I had no idea what icebox cake was.  I had heard of it, for sure, and it always conjured up a simpler era, and images of a luscious homespun treat, the very essence of wholesomeness served with fresh lemonade to suntanned children running into the kitchen laughing, slamming the screen door behind them, after a rousing game of kick the can in the sunny backyard.

Ok, ladies and gentleman:  I am about to shatter your (or at least my) notions of icebox cookery.

First, it involves heat.  That alluring "icebox" is just part of the picture, and one that doesn't come into play until after you've turned on the oven to 350 degrees to bake ladyfingers and stood over a hot stove for at least 15 minutes, stirring (constantly) the custard filling.

Above, is the mixture for the lady fingers; below shows them piped out (using a pastry bag with a round tip) on the baking sheet and then the finished cookie. The lady fingers recipe is from the c. 1931 Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer.

I did a little research and discovered all manner of icebox cakes exist.  Most of those created after 1925 (and popular today) involve a combination of store-bought chocolate Nabisco wafers and sweetened whipped cream or pudding.   The wafers are either stacked on top of one another (forming a cake shape) or placed sideways to form a log, using whipped cream as the mortar to hold them together. The idea is that stored in the icebox (refrigerator) overnight, the cookies (sometimes graham crackers are used) soften and become infused with the cream or pudding mixture, a case of the sum exceeding the parts.
These are true no-bake desserts -- assemble, chill and serve. The photo below is from Billy's Bakery in New York, which sells this version of icebox cake.

The more traditional mocha icebox cake that I made from a recipe in the c. 1953 Settlement Cookbook predates that version and is probably a closer to a charlotte, a chilled dessert that was very popular from after the Civil War to World War I, in which lady fingers or spongecake was used to line a mold, and filled with chocolate, lemon or other flavored custard.

This old-fashioned icebox cake (shown above, before being filled with custard) was delicious and worth the heat and effort.  The mocha custard made the already delicious lady fingers even more so and although it's only 10 a.m., I've eaten more than half of it.  If DH hurries home from yoga, there may be just a bit left for him.

Update: DH arrived home just in time -- he got to try the icebox cake. And loved it.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?

Yes, if she has a lot of time, patience, sour cherries, a cherry pitter -- and a compelling reason.*   In my case, it was DH's Father's Day gift.  (He's not my father, but he is a fabulous father to our children, so I like to celebrate his parenting skills whenever I can.)

The pie baking was delayed after I realized that the sweet cherries I purchased were the wrong type for pie, so I returned to the farmer's market to get sour cherries.  I had made the pie dough early in the morning, so that was set.  But what a lot of work cherry pie is.  First you have to buy the right cherries and then you have to pit them all.  Luckily DD was visiting, and did about one-third of them.  I finished up. What a mess (see below).

When you're done with the pitting, you have a bowl of gorgeous cherries (below), to which you simply add some tapioca, flour, sugar, lemon juice and almond extract, spoon it all into a pastry lined pie pan and cover it with the top crust.

I used a recipe from A Cookbook for Girls and Boys, written in 1946 by Irma S. Rombauer, author of The Joy of Cooking.  (When my scanner is working again, I'll post the recipe.)

Despite the mess and the time, it was worth it.  This pie is spectacular, and made more special by the very short (approximately three week) growing season of sour cherries in the northeast.
It wasn't until about 8 p.m. on Father's Day that DH was able to enjoy his present, but he loved it.  And unlike Billy Boy (see below), he already has a wife (and a cherry pie, for that matter).

*Other reasons to bake a pie may have to do with finding a mate.  The lyrics to Billy Boy, a nursery folk song about a man searching for a wife, ask in one refrain:

Can she make a cherry pie,
Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she make a cherry pie,
Charming Billy?
She can make a cherry pie,
Quick as a cat can wink an eye,
She's a young thing
And cannot leave her mother.

In examining the song, British writer Robin Fox observes that food and courtship are closely linked and that cooking ability is highly prized in a bride -- in some cultures, more valued than virginity!

What Would You Do?

DH just returned from a week in the Pacific Northwest, where he enjoyed delicious cherry pie.  So being that it's Father's Day (and he is such an extraordinary father), I thought I'd bake him one here in the Northeast.

But, as I went through some recipes this morning, I realized that I bought the wrong kind of cherries. I didn't know that one was supposed to use sour (not sweet) cherries in pies.

As many of my readers know, I often make mistakes *during* baking, and then meeting (or not) the challenge to correct them.  This is a first, though, knowing in advance that something is wrong.

I'm hoping an answer will emerge during yoga this morning: Just plunge ahead and bake a pie that may not be so good, or abandon the project entirely.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Tassie by Any Other Name Ozone!

After a brutally hot weekend, I succumbed to DH's desire to buy a bedroom air conditioner and last Wednesday I stayed home to await its delivery.   The weather turned quite cool that day (as it always does once air conditioning is an option), enabling me to turn on the oven and bake these yummy treats while I waited.

These bite-size pecan pies have been a favorite on dessert tables for years, and I found two recipes, c. 1950, for them in my collection.  They are identical except for their names:  One is Tea Time Tasses [sic] and the other is Ozones (found in the recipe box from Texas).

What can I say?  These are delicious and a real crowd pleaser, but certainly not exciting (though there was a moment of drama when I thought the filling would overflow the cups while baking). And they are so easy, that one can make these, and still find time for a nap and an episode of Judge Judy.

I'm coming to realize the value of adding cream cheese (like Philadelphia brand) to pastry.  Although it seems a bit too commercial, it really does impart a really lovely flavor and texture, a je ne sais quoi. The top rated pie crust recipe (after extensive testing) in Rose Levy Berenbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible lists cream cheese as an ingredient.  So while I am a pie crust purist (flour, salt, butter/shortening) in theory, I concede that a little cream cheese can go a long way.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Layer Cake -- A Fine Wine

Layer Cake, a wine I bought for the label (which is how I choose wine anyway), turned out to be fabulous, so I thought I'd share my happy discovery.

Here's one description I found on the internet, which is pretty much how I would describe it, if I had a good palate (and vocabulary) for such things:  Dark, dense and creamy, complex aromas of black plum, Bing cherry, blackberry and pepper merge with licorice, tobacco, mocha and dark chocolate. This is one inky Shiraz... Chefs will save this cake for themselves…

I bought the bottle pictured above in Shisler's, a store in Copley, Ohio, that features Amish cheeses (and the butter I bought, below, but sadly forgot in my mother's refrigerator).

When I returned to New York and asked for Layer Cake at my local wine store, the descriptively named Big Nose, Full Body, the guy there said something like, oh, that wine is very popular in the suburbs. They obviously didn't have such an unsophisticated wine in the well-curated shop, but luckily I found it -- on sale --in a small liquor store in Lambertville, New Jersey, where DH and I spent Memorial Day weekend.
Sometimes the suburbs are better.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

English Muffins in America

Last Monday morning, I made English muffins for breakfast.  I mean, I "made" English muffins -- as in, from scratch.

I had been wanting to make these for a while but lacked English muffin rings -- really, not even I had those in my kitchen drawer. But I was able to track some down at Sur la Table in SoHo, where I conveniently had a gift certificate, thoughtfully given to me by my good friend (and future boss) David.

The recipe I used was published in the 1908 New York Evening Telegram Cook Book.  I don't know much about the genesis of the cookbook, as the six-page introduction is missing.  I do know that there were a lot of New York daily newspapers at that time, maybe dozens (historian friends -- please correct me here), and now we're down to just three all, very sadly, barely hanging on.

The recipe for Toasted Muffins, written in narrative form, begins: "The English housewife usually serves toasted muffins with sole for breakfast."  Being an American, I served them with jam and butter.

These couldn't have been easier to make.  Just mix a few ingredients together in the Kitchen Aid, and spoon the batter into the rings (which I greased and placed on a well-heated electric frying pan.)

These were easy, but were they good?  I was pleased to see that they looked just like English muffins, complete with nooks and crannys, but DH and I thought they tasted a bit, um, gummy.

It was only several days later that I realized the problem -- and I'm almost embarrassed to admit it -- we forgot to toast the muffins!  That would have surely addressed the slightly gummy texture and toasting seems to concentrate the flavor of bread, so I bet they would have been really delicious.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Poppy Seed Cake

There are only a few cakes I've made since January that I would make again.  And again. This very special poppy seed cake (isn't it gorgeous?) may be first on the list.

Simply called Poppy Seed Cake, it from the collection of Mrs. Lloyd (Ruth) Duenwald, and is among the South Dakota childhood taste memories of her daughter Mary, a dear friend of mine.   About two weeks ago Mary brought over not one, but THREE poppy seed cake recipes (and two Red Devil's Food cake recipes) from her late mother's extensive recipe collection.  Mrs. Duenwald was a woman who clearly knew her way around a kitchen.

This is a delicious cake that packs an unexpected surprise (though aren't all surprises unexpected?) What makes the cake so special is the explosion of tastes and textures via  its three distinct elements -- the cake itself, the surprise filling (a vanilla custard with walnuts, pictured below) and an unusual white frosting.

By the time Mary arrived for our afternoon of baking, the poppy seeds had been soaking for a couple of hours. It's always important to read through the entire recipe before beginning, so you don't get surprised halfway through by an instruction that says something like "refrigerate for twelve hours"  when you're planning to serve it for dinner that night.

This cake takes time, so I'd recommend doing it with a friend (and a bottle of wine wouldn't hurt either!) who is happy to stir the filling (see Mary below) while you beat the egg whites.  Baking must be in Mary's DNA.  In addition to being the daughter of a great baker, her grandmother baked a cake every day!  When we at last sat down to taste the cake, I was thrilled when she said it was just as she remembered it.

For those readers who want to make this cake (and I hope many of you do), I've written up a few notes that  follow the recipe, pasted below.  

Ruth's Poppy Seed Cake (as interpreted by Mary and Susan)
Cake: Soak 1/2 c. poppy seeds in one cup milk, refrigerated for several hours. (This is a different amount than in the recipe.  Ignore the 1/2 cup of water.) Cream the butter (make sure it's at room temperature) and sugar.  Mix the flour with the baking powder and salt.  Alternately add the flour mixture and the milk/poppy seed mixture to the butter/sugar mixture, beating well to incorporate the ingredients.  Add the almond and vanilla.  In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry (you can add a bit of cream of tartar to help insure that they won't be overbeaten).
Filling: Follow recipe exactly (but you might consider adding the juice and zest of a lemon for another flavor note).
Frosting: Beat the egg whites first, and have them nearby in a bowl.  Cook the sugar/water until thread stage (230degrees).  Ignore the words "4 marshmallows" -- unless you can figure out what to do with them (we couldn't!).  At the very end, add as much butter as you want.
DH suggested sprinkling some poppy seeds atop the cake to give people a preview, which does give it a nice touch.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Brooklyn Blogfest: Thank You!

DH and I were among the hundreds of bloggers (four of us pictured above*) who attended the wonderful Fifth Annual Brooklyn Blogfest last night organized by pioneer blogger Louise Crawford (Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn) and were lucky enough to be among the 18 chosen to have excerpts of our blogs read (performed) on stage by actors.
It was thrilling to hear stage and screen actress Charlotte Maier read a few sentences from the "About Me" section of my blog -- something I dashed off quickly and have been meaning to rewrite ever since.  But after hearing them performed by a professional, who made them sound really good (or at least not in need of an immediate rewrite) I think I'll just leave them and spend the extra time baking.

*Above, left to right, me, Beth Arky (Seventh Generation), Nancy McDermott (Park Slope Parents) and Susan Fox (Park Slope Parents).

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Making Pie is NOT a Piece of Cake

I was planning to make donuts yesterday, but because both the temperature and the humidity registered around 90, I thought better of it.

Instead, I cranked the oven up to 350 degrees for about three hours, in order to bake Strawberry Rivel Pie and Lemon Cake Pie, both from a scrapbook filled with hand-typed recipes.  Did I mention we don't have air conditioning?  The recipes are from the 1930s, so they probably predate air conditioning anyway.

Pie crust has always flummoxed me.  I made my go-to pie crust (from the c.1980 Silver Palate Cookbook) but I don't know why it's my go-to crust, since it often doesn't work.  (I guess it's a case of choosing the devil I am most acquainted with.)

Pie crusts are sticky and messy and one never knows how much water to add -- too little and it's crumbly, too much and it's like glue.  I've rarely made a crust that rolls out beautifully and at the right thickness. I actually tense up when I make crust and I think it can sense it, the way a dog senses when someone is frightened.

I once considered a blog where I'd bake one pie a day -- mostly because I wanted to finally master the pie crust and, like most baking tasks, if you do them often enough, you become an expert.  Occasionally people are naturally good at something, but often, it's a matter of practice, a lesson DH heard Sonia Sotomayor tell students at his (and her) alma mater, Blessed Sacrament, last week.

Back to the pies.  You can see (above) my need to patch the pie crust.  Still, the flavor and texture were excellent, and one day, I'm sure I will make a crust without fear.

The Strawberry Rivel Pie is FANTASTIC!  These days, it would probably be called strawberry crumb pie. Rivel (a term I've never heard of) is flour, sugar and butter "mixed as for pie crust," according to the recipe's author Ida Bailey Allen which, in modern times, means putting it all in the food processor and pulsing a few times.  One difference is that 1/4 of the rivel, or crumbs, are placed at the bottom of the pie, before the strawberries are added, and the rest go on top, which is quite brilliant because of the sweet crunchy bite it gives each piece.  I followed the recipe exactly, but baked it for much longer, maybe twice as long, and at 350 degrees.

To use the second crust (for the recipe makes enough for two), I chose Lemon Cake Pie, which was pasted in the scrapbook near the Strawberry Rival Pie. The words: VERY GOOD MOTHERS were typed right at the top of the recipe.

Lemon Cake Pie is good, but not great. Part of the problem was that I became impatient while it was in the oven, so I cranked up the temperature and went upstairs and got really into the movie, He's Just Not That Into You.  So the top of the pie browned more than it probably should have, while the center didn't set well, though it did eventually look much better than the slice above.   This really does call for a slow (300 degree oven).

 It's similar to another old-fashioned recipe called Lemon Pudding Cake, in which a cake layer forms atop pudding when baked. I think this recipe has potential; the lemon flavor is excellent and the thin layer of white cake at the top is very nice (you can see it through the small hole I made in the photo above.)  One day, when the weather is nicer and I have a bit more patience, I may try this again.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Today is National Donut Day!

And its origins go back to World War I.  So naturally, I planned to celebrate by frying up some donuts last night, from a c. 1917 recipe in my collection, but instead I attended Henry Street Settlement's fabulous Youth Scholarship Awards Ceremony.  
So this weekend, first on my list (after making strawberry pie to use up the berries DH and I picked a few days ago), I'm getting out the big boy vat of oil and making donuts.  If I don't set the kitchen afire, look for a report next week.
Meantime, here's some history from Wikipedia:
National Donut Day was the creation of the Chicago Salvation Army in 1938 to honor women (called "lassies") who served donuts to soldiers during World War I.  But I can't let 
Soon after the US entrance into World War I in 1917, the Salvation Army sent a fact-finding mission to France. The mission concluded that "huts" that could serve baked goods, provide writing supplies and stamps, and provide a clothes-mending service, would serve the needs of US enlisted men. Six staff members per hut should include four female volunteers who could "mother" the boys.
(The canteens/social centres that were established by the Salvation Army in the United States near army training centers were called "huts".)
About 250 Salvation Army volunteers went to France. Because of the difficulties of providing freshly-baked goods from huts established in abandoned buildings near to the front lines, two Salvation Army volunteers (Ensign Margaret Sheldon and AdjutantHelen Purviance) came up with the idea of providing doughnuts. These are reported to have been an "instant hit", and "soon many soldiers were visiting Salvation Army huts". Margaret Sheldon wrote of one busy day "Today I made 22 pies, 300 doughnuts, 700 cups of coffee."