Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Eleanor's Amazing Date (Cake)


At the beginning of the 20th century, and right through the 1950s, date cakes were commonplace.  They were served at church dinners and picnics, at afternoon tea and Sunday supper.  Nearly all of my recipe boxes and cookbooks feature at least one, and often several, date cake recipes.


I don't know why date cakes fell out of favor; dates add moisture and a unique complex sweetness to baked goods.  (Plus, they are a truly sensuous fruit, unlike raisins which I associate with disappointing childhood snacks and dried up pellets whose only use was to turn their cardboard box containers into rattles.)  I bought the box of dates (above) and they were so addicting that I had to put them in a cake before I ate every last one.

Try to get "real" buttermilk, instead of the commercial product sold in most supermarkets.

This takes a *bit* of work to put together, but your efforts will be rewarded with a stunning, scrumptious cake.  The steps are many:  grate the orange peel, chop the nuts and dates and flour them, separate the eggs and whip the whites, alternate adding the dry ingredients with the buttermilk -- you get the picture.  The dates I used were so moist that even after being chopped and floured  they clung together in clumps, as if they were on teenagers on a date.

Using good eggs (not the cheap supermarket variety) makes for a better cake.

Grating orange rind is easy if you use a microplane.

To avoid overbeating the egg whites, add a bit of cream of tartar to them shortly after you start whipping them. Fold carefully into the batter, so as not to deflate them.

This recipe calls for a topping to be spooned over the cake while it's still in the pan.  Don't cook the ingredients (as I did until I realized my mistake).  Just mix them together and spoon atop the warm cake while it's still in the pan. I was worried that the sugar in the topping would cement the cake to the pan, but it released beautifully.  It was a sweet, comforting, real taste of the past.




Sunday, July 24, 2011

What Happened at the Pie Contest?


The Daisy Flour Pie Baking Contest, held yesterday at the Brooklyn Kitchen was a fabulous event, and it was truly exciting to just how many accomplished pie bakers are around.  There were several super imaginative entries -- a frozen watermelon pie and one called chubby hubby that had pretzels arranged on top.  And I don't believe that there were two pies alike.  They ranged from coconut cream to blackberry, and beyond.  The only rules were that entrants had to use Daisy pastry flour and that the pie be a sweet, not savory, one.

Pies on parade.  There were about 40 entries.
The event was packed and I didn't get to taste -- or even see -- all the pies.  It was a bit chaotic, and I'm not sure exactly who got second and third place (one was a fruit pie), but the first prize winner entered a lemon chiffon pie.  I was glad to note that the pie baker was a woman "of a certain age."  Probably my age, but I think everyone is older than me (especially the older I get -- call it denial).

Once the judges got their slices, it was open pie season (read: feeding frenzy).
It was disappointing not to win, but once I tasted a piece of my buttermilk pie I knew I wouldn't.  The filling, which should have been smooth and creamy, was a bit grainy.  Perhaps I overbaked the pie, or maybe it was because I inadvertently bought skim buttermilk instead of full fat and it was too late to get the right stuff by the time I realized it.  However, DH, who was roaming the event with his camera (he took all these photos), said that my pie created a lot of buzz -- everyone's talking about it, he reported.  Everyone but the judges, I guess!

After.
Still, I learned a valuable lesson and you can too:  Always, always use pastry flour in the crust.  It made a world of difference.  The dough was much easier to handle, and it didn't brown too quickly in the oven, eliminating the need for the always annoying aluminum foil collar.  My filling wasn't first rate, but my pie crust really rocked.

My entry, a buttermilk pie

Friday, July 22, 2011

Pie Contest on Saturday!


Here's an idea for all you pie-loving New Yorkers out there -- come to the Daisy Pie Contest at 4 p.m. tomorrow (July 23rd) at the Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg.

The $5 ticket (all proceeds go to the Greenpoint Soup Kitchen) will get you a taste of the entries -- 40 sweet pies in all.  The first, second and third prize pies will be judged by baking experts, but the Grand Prize can literally be bought.  For just $1 per vote, you can vote early and often for your favorite (all proceeds go to charity).    So bring lots of money and vote!  And I wouldn't mind if you all cast a few ballots for my entry, a buttermilk pie.

My Mother's Mandel Bread


Mandel bread -- aka Jewish biscotti -- is among my mother's favorite treats so for her 82nd birthday (today!) I prepared the cookies from her own handwritten recipe card.  Of course, the recipe called for chocolate chips, a rather nontraditional  ingredient, but to my mother, it's not dessert unless there's some chocolate involved.


Like biscotti, mandel bread is baked twice, first in a loaf form.  When the loaf is still warm, using a good serrated knife, slice it just like you would a loaf of bread.


Lay the slices (they will be somewhat soft) on a cookie sheet or hotel pan and then bake them at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes. (This detail is not in the recipe below.)


Is this easy?  Absolutely.  IF you're not making it for your mother.  (You can read about some previous issues in my post, Calling Dr. Freud.) I had to toss the first dough -- I had forgotten the sugar.  You can see the loaf below, leaching oil, on account of this essential missing ingredient.


And for my second attempt, I mis-measured the oil but, determined to save the dough, I simple added some extra flour and sugar.  Although the loaf spread way more than I thought was normal, I plowed through and it all turned out ok.

Mandel bread is not my cup of tea (or coffee), but it makes a nice gift.   Happy birthday, Mom!



Friday, July 15, 2011

Red Currant Tea Cake


Impulse buying is among my favorite hobbies, which is how I ended up with a pint of fresh red currants from the farmer's market.  Who could resist these glistening ruby-like berries?


I nearly succumbed to a modern recipe for a financier-like cake which would have been appropriate because yesterday was Bastille Day, but I found a c.1904 blueberry tea cake recipe that I thought might work.  And it did, beautifully. Both the folks at DH's workplace and mine quite enjoyed these tea cakes, although one wag suggested that a glaze would "enhance the experience."  (Of course, he works with DH, and not at the illustrious Henry Street Settlement with me.)


Except for the truly tedious task of removing the stems from  the currants,  this may be the easiest recipe I've made this year.  No need to add ingredients in stages, mixing this with that, beating eggs separately, etc. -- all the ingredients (except the currants) are simply poured into a bowl and mixed together.


The currants should be "floured" before adding to prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the cake.  Just put them in a bowl with some flour and shake them around to coat.  Then carefully fold them into the batter.


Like many old recipes, this one didn't specify the size or number of pans to be used.  I guess everyone simply knew what should be used to make tea cake.  Luckily, at the last minute (when the batter was already prepared) I remembered a vintage mini-loaf pan I bought a while back at a flea market in Pennsylvania.  I quickly greased and floured it and spooned the batter in.  Miraculously, I had the perfect amount of batter to fill all 12 molds.



A few production notes:
If you don't have one of these molds, don't worry.  A loaf pan would be fine, as would a round cake pan or two.  And you don't even need currants to make this -- blueberries are called for in the original recipe. I added about 1/3 cup extra sugar above what the recipe called for and sprinkled some on top of the cakes before baking because I thought the four-cups-of-flour to one-cup-o- sugar ratio would yield a cake that wasn't sweet enough.  Plus, currants are much more tart than blueberries.
And finally, watch the butter closely while melting it.  If you're fortunate enough to have a pilot light on your stove (like I do, below), simply set the butter in a small saucepan or measuring cup atop that for a few minutes.



Monday, July 11, 2011

Dutch Apricot Cake


While one can buy apricots all year round, the only ones worth eating -- the really delicious local ones -- are in season for just a few weeks.  I was thrilled to find some at the farmer's market on Saturday.


Ah, but what to make with these pale pink blushed beauties.  I had eaten too many out of hand, so didn't have enough for a pie, but then I discovered an unusual recipe -- an adaption of a Dutch Apple Cake -- in the 1931 edition of The Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer.


If you like biscuits and fruit, you'll love this.  And it took literally five minutes to make.  First, I cut the butter into the flour, salt, sugar and baking powder quickly using my food processor.  Then I poured the milk in slowly and mixed until the dough came together.  The batter is easy to work with; you just pat it into an eight-inch pan.


Pit and slice the apricots and place atop the dough.


Next, sprinkle on some sugar and cinnamon.  The amount isn't specified; next time I will be much more generous with the sugar.   For good measure, and because butter can only improve everything, I deviated from the recipe by dotting it with butter before placing in the preheated oven.


Voila.  After a while in the oven (I forgot to time it, but an intoxicating aroma will alert you when it's done) a gorgeous cake emerged, the top all caramelized from the butter and sugar.  This is less a cake than a very moist and toothsome biscuit with fruit, and one perfect for an afternoon snack with a crisp white wine or cup of fresh brewed coffee.

The basic recipes are below.  Make the shortcake and then simply substitute apricots for the apples in the recipe below.  Fannie calls this fruit kuchen.  Peaches or plums can be used, as well.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cold Oven Cake on a Hot Summer Day


Much to DH's dismay, the name of this delicious cake is a bit of a misnomer.  It's not like this miraculously bakes in a cold oven, but it is placed in a cold oven (and then you turn the heat up to 325 degrees).  As you might imagine, this is not ideal in 90 degree July temperatures.  In New York City.  In a house without air conditioning.  Ah, the sacrifices one makes for pastry.


There seems to be a whole genre of cold oven cakes. I have many in my collection; most are from the 1920s, 30s and 40s.  I selected this one because I found two cards, each written in a different hand, each bearing this exact recipe.  Cold oven cakes go against the prevailing baking chemistry that the batter needs to be placed in a hot oven so that it can properly rise.  Baking powder, for example, reacts with heat to help raise the cake.  But this cake has no leavening in it -- save for the beaten egg whites folded in at the end.  Yet, rise it did.


The key to easy cake and cookie baking is having the butter at room temperature. This way, you (or your mixer) need not fight with it, but instead beam with pride as it whips easily, smoothly blending with the sugar. (Of course, I just this minute realized that I misread the recipe and used just two instead of three sticks of butter.* I also mistakenly used the skim milk instead of whole milk.  I even can't blame the heat of the preheating oven for clouding my judgement.)


Even if I was a stick short of butter, the five egg yolks added a rich texture to the cake.


Although this  recipe doesn't mention it, I'd advise greasing and flouring the pan.  It makes releasing the cake so much easier, and practically eliminates the possibility that you'll be scooping out chunks of stuck cake from the pan.  If that should happen, as it did to me once during a dinner party, simply put the cake pieces in large wine goblets, and spoon fruit or chocolate sauce over them and pretend this was your intention all along.


Most tube pan cakes are turned out from the pan and served as is, so that the cake at the bottom of the pan becomes the top.  But, as you can see (above), the cake looked upside down when I did that, so I just flipped it over (below), to create a more pleasing presentation. Don't be afraid to buck convention and flip your cake.


This was an absolutely wonderful cake, with a dense texture and nice, subtle flavor reminiscent of Sara Lee pound cake, only far better as homemade cake tends to be.  I can't imagine how much this cake will rock when I make it again -- using the right amount of butter and whole milk.  I look forward to turning on the oven for this cold oven cake -- as soon as it's November!

*This recipe, like so many others, calls for Oleo, but I always use unsalted butter.