Sunday, March 30, 2008

Daring Bakers Challenge: Dorie's Perfect Party Cake, San Francisco Style

Remember the epic French bread post? And all of those amazing Daring Bakers? Well this month's challenge has now come and gone, and I managed to pull it off at the last minute, during our trip to California.

The recipe this time was decidedly less involved, and allowed for plenty of adaptations and creativity: Dorie Greenspan's Perfect Party Cake. The host of this month's challenge was Morven, whose blog can be found here.

I won't include the entire recipe here, but you should invest in Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours if you are curious. The original recipe is for a lemon-flavored white layer cake, complete with raspberry filling and a thick, luscious buttercream meringue frosting. We're talking 3-sticks-of-butter-luscious. While this may sound tempting, though, buttercream isn't really my thing....and neither is lemon-flavored cake, for that matter. I knew after reading the recipe a few weeks ago that I wanted to get the creative juices flowing, and make something a bit more in tune with my tastes.

Given that we were in the Bay Area for the past week, we made multiple trips to the Ferry Building Farmers' Market, in San Francisco. Trust me, this is really a farmer's farmers' market, and features heaps upon heaps of fresh vegetables, juicy citrus, and handmade breads, cheeses, and jams. We got up early yesterday morning after a 2-day romp in Big Sur to head on over, hoping to find some baking inspiration from the dizzying array of delicious foodstuffs.

We stumbled upon success at the second stand that we passed, which featured handmade quark. Quark is a mascarpone-like soft cheese, and this particular vendor sold it in a variety of flavors, including the utterly delicious vanilla bean. We tried a sample and promptly bought it, with visions of it oozing from between layers of soft, white cake.

A while later we happened upon a sample-happy vendor selling almond brittle which, crunchy with butter and sugar, made an obvious choice for our cake. And so, with quark and brittle in hand, and a jar of raspberry Bonne Maman in the fridge at home, I was ready to go on a baking binge.

I stayed true to the cake recipe, although I replaced the lemon extract with vanilla, and baked it in a sheet pan instead of in layers. I opted for a mini cake sandwich instead of a big layer cake; I wasn't sure if I could stretch the quark far enough to frost a whole cake. Besides, I can't resist making miniatures.

Once baked, I cut a small circle of cake, and sliced this circle in half to form two layers. I then spread each layer with thinned raspberry jam. Next came a hefty dollop of quark whipped cream, which I made by (surprise!) whipping the vanilla bean quark with some heavy cream to get a smooth, spreadable consistency.

To really push it over the edge, I crumbled up the almond brittle and tossed in a few Scharffen Berger cacao nibs (obtained during a prior Ferry Building visit), and then sprinkled this mixture over the cream.

Then a bit more cream, the final cake layer....

A touch more jam, and voila! A nutty, nibby, berry-y, creamy cake sandwich.

Take a look at this cross-section and tell me this doesn't look good:

Jonathan certainly enjoyed it, as did I. And in case you were wondering: no, I did not have the patience nor the time to make a whole bunch of these little creations. I cut the rest of the cake into cubes, whipped the rest of the cream and quark, and made a trifle which we gobbled up for dessert later that evening. It was heavenly.

So, another challenge down, and I'm anxious to see what next month's challenge is. Thanks to Morven for giving us a little wiggle room in this challenge; I had so much fun picking out flavors and ingredients to make this cake.

And now that I'm back from spring break, stay tuned for more adventures with cacao nibs...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Back in Action

Wow - it has been so long since the last Red Ramekin post! I didn't realize just how long it had been until I signed into Blogger to check up on my little baby has been neglected for the past three weeks, and I am very sorry about it. I won't let it happen again, I promise.

These past few weeks were pretty busy for me, but now I'm one huge step closer to graduation and I should have plenty of time to give Red Ramekin the love it deserves. On a related note, Jonathan and I are currently spring breaking, northern California style. Today it was 70 degrees outside, and in general the food here is so good it makes me wonder why I ever decided to commit to two more years of living in Boston. As soon as I stepped off the plane today, I was craving fruit and veggies and everything else that this Massachusetts weather has been keeping from me. Granny smith apples and root vegetables are great and all....but sometimes you just want some berries. And not those crunchy, vaguely berry-flavored specimens that cost $8 per pint.

Our first stop after the San Francisco airport was the Ferry Building, which on Tuesdays and Saturdays is bustling with a huge farmers' market. Today it was a bit quieter, but still lively; there was no farmers' market, but we had lunch at a little seafood place that really hit the spot. Super-fresh shrimp, crab, chowder, and salad was perfect post-flight nourishment.

We'll be heading back on Tuesday, though, because the farmers' market at the Ferry Building is not something foodies can afford to miss. I went once before, in December, and am anticipating an even more bountiful selection of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and other specialty comestibles. It's really all about the samples, though. Last time I sampled everything from pummelos to persimmons, so I'm looking forward to some new things this time around, too.

But back to the kitchen...

I thought I'd share a little entertaining tip that is becoming one of my favorite ways to play hostess. Some might call it half-assing, but that's OK. Half-assing is better than full-assing, right? In any case, the tip is: make half and procure half. Or, as it happened a few nights ago, make one really fantastic thing, and supplement it with some other, prepared things.

The really fantastic thing was homemade sushi, and the prepared thing was Whole Foods sausages that we grilled at home. OK, I know - not the most, um, cohesive meal. But it wasn't my fault - I was in charge of the sushi, and left the guests to pick out something else to supplement it. A few months ago we tried the same technique, but purchased the sushi and prepared some miso-soba noodle soup.

The make half procure half route is not just about half-assing though. In our case, it's about being able to entertain for a larger crowd and in a more relaxed setting. The kitchen and our cookware probably wouldn't be able to accommodate cooking a full meal for 8 people, but if you procure, instead of prepare, half of your food, dinner for 7 or 8 becomes completely possible.

On Friday night, we had a few people over and started rolling away. The sushi was such a huge hit that Jonathan and I decided to make it again this evening, just for ourselves. This way, we could stuff ourselves with 5 times as much sushi without having to expend any more time or effort actually preparing it (sushi, as it turns out, is a rather time-intensive affair). Tuna is the only sushi-quality fish we can get our seaweed-flecked hands on, so we had tuna, cooked shrimp, tofu, cucumber, carrot, and scallions in our maki.

I've made sushi in the past, but never with as much success as we had these past two times. We used short-grain brown rice instead of regular sushi rice, but it was fantastic sprinkled with some seasoned rice vinegar after it had finished cooking. I think the key to professional-looking rolls is to use very little rice. I hate maki with too much rice - it gets gummy and messy and hides the flavors of whatever it is that's rolled up in the middle. I'm not including a recipe here, but take a look to get an idea of how we roll:

The whole set-up: rice, vegetables, tofu, tuna, shrimp, nori, bamboo mat...and beer

See? Not much rice - only half of the nori sheet is covered.

Don't skimp, but don't over-stuff, either. Here is tuna with scallions and cucumber:

And the rolling. The key is to squeeze that baby tightly so everything is nice and compact when you go to slice.

Speaking of which:

And here it is, the finished product. These are tuna rolls and shrimp rolls.

This time around I think our rice was on the bland side; I couldn't find the right rice vinegar, and the one that we used was seasoned, but apparently not seasoned enough. That was mostly remedied by an enthusiastic approach to soy sauce and wasabi dunking. And scallions. Scallions make everything delicious. All in all, a fun little project and a really yummy meal. This is definitely not the thing to make when you want something quick, but now that all of this free time has reappeared in my life, I won't be wanting anything "quick" for quite awhile. Is there any better way to spend one's time than rolling maki?

One final tip for anyone looking to make vegetarian sushi (which, this time around, was actually my favorite): Use the tofu that comes in a cardboard box (ours was Mori-nu) - not the Nasoya stuff in the refrigerator case. The vacuum-packed variety is far superior in both taste and texture. To prepare the tofu, slice into thin rectangles, lightly oil a hot skillet, and let the tofu brown on both sides, being careful not to let it break when you flip it. Slice into strips and roll it up with some carrot, scallion, get the idea. For some added flavor, I drizzled a miso/rice vinegar/soy sauce dressing over the maki before rolling it up. Yum! Nothing (especially not thesis-writing) beats some time well-spent in the kitchen.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Bit of Baking Philosophy

Now that I've come down from my Daring Bakers high, I thought I might give you a little window into how I like to bake when I don't have a 15-page recipe staring me in the face. As you might imagine, most of my baking occurs sans 15-page recipe (like my French?).

For me, baking is one of those things that I can get really, really into. As in, if I make any more scones/cookies/bread/muffins/granola, I'm going to barf. But then I do it anyway. Like most people, I started baking before I started cooking, mostly because when you're 10 years old, making a chocolate cake is much more enticing than dicing up onions or browning chicken breasts. Baking is a comfort, an indulgence, and something I like to do when I feel the creative juices flowing but can only afford a brief diversion from some more serious endeavor or another.

Now that I'm responsible for crafting my own meals - not just my own desserts and treats - I have come to love cooking as much I love baking. But still, there is an element of surprise in baking that doesn't quite surface in the faster-paced, more evolutionary art of cooking. When I cook, I test, adjust, season, taste, and repeat until I'm done. Baking doesn't allow you the luxury of adjustment, though. Once it's out of the oven, that's it.

Of course, that doesn't mean that baking doesn't allow for experimentation. It just makes the experimentation that much more exciting. People always say that baking is a "science," which, in the chemical sense, it is. There seems to be a misplaced loyalty to following a recipe in baking, though, which I don't quite understand. I agree that when replicating a dish - from a restaurant, cookbook, etc. - it's essential to follow the recipe to the letter. An extra dash of salt or a misplaced 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda can make or break a fickle batch of popovers or a fussy little cake.

But baking doesn't always have to be about replicating, and for me, it's often about creating. In the past year or so I've started creating my own baking recipes, often drawing from other sources and applying my own modifications, but sometimes also starting from scratch. An idea pops into mind and I take it to the kitchen, where, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, it gets whipped, beaten, crumbled, folded, and kneaded into shape.

Even more recently I've started baking without a recipe at all. I start with an ingredient and keep adding until I think I've got something tasty. That's how my ricotta-veggie muffins were born, and they turned out pretty well.

But, in an effort not to bore you to pieces with my baking philosophy, I'll leave you with a quick recipe for some scone/biscuit hybrid specimens that I made this morning. I've spent a lot of time working recently in an adorable little cafe, and although I don't usually indulge in their baked goods, the sight of them (and my lonely coffee mug, with nothing dunked into it), has been making me crave something sweet and scone-like.

These little scones are a cross between rolls, scones, and biscuits - and they are full of whole grains. I had some leftover chai-poached prunes which I chopped up and mixed into the dough, but any dried fruit, frozen fruit, or nuts would also taste lovely. Enjoy these, or better yet, use them to inspire your own original recipe!

Improvisation Breakfast Scones

1/2 c. Bob's Red Mill 8-Grain Cereal (or substitute other cereal)
1/4 c. wheat bran
1/2 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. skim milk
1/2 c. barley flour (or use regular flour)
1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1-2 tbs. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
pinch of cardamom
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. caraway seeds (optional, but so delicious!)
handful of prunes or dried fruit, chopped if large

Combine cereal and bran and add buttermilk and milk. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit until softened, about half an hour. Add vanilla and dry ingredients, and stir to combine. Add dried fruit and stir until evenly distributed. Drop heaping spoonfuls of dough onto parchment-lined baking sheet (you'll get about 9 scones), and bake at 375 degrees for 15-18 min., until lightly browned on top and bottom. These will be softer than traditional scones, and are perfect dunked in coffee or tea.