Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cake, cake, cake, cake, cake

I have lost it. I have become a person that thinks about cake, makes cake almost every day, reads recipes for cake, talks about cake. Feel sorry, very sorry, for the poor folks that have to live with me. There is no escape from my cake obsession.

I have jumped the rails and I am now on the cake train. It is all about cake. I just can't stop it.

I know how this all started, but I am not sure how, or when for that matter, it is going to stop.

Lucky you, you all get to come on the Crazy Cake Train with me. Come along, won't you?

The front of the museum, a converted mill.

It all started on a crisp, blustery day in Eastern Pennsylvania. We were visiting the Brandywine River Museum. This was a journey into the past for my brother and me.

 The house my brother and I grew up in on Twist Lane.

Our family would visit the museum every holiday season (usually more than once) and several times through the years we lived in Wilmington, Delaware. It was a distant time and place and we were excited to return with our own spouses and children.

Each year they have evergreens decorated with ornaments made from items gathered in the surrounding woods. The whole museum seems to have been taken over and decorated by creative wood nymphs and fairies. As a child it was so magical to me before I realized that actual human beings did this. 

 There is also a large room devoted to an elaborate model train display that had Grand Master H in its spell. He did not want to leave, even for a moment.

Like always, The Smith Family Players were on Pacific Time and can't plan ahead and take lunch with us. That meant eating at the museum restaurant. It is a lovely spot on the Brandywine River.

Can't you just picture both of my children running amok through these little tables. Each of them at different points, laying on the floor, throwing a tantrum? Delightful.

The view and the food made me almost forget my lackluster traveling companions.

Mr. Smith chose a piece of Boston Cream Pie for his dessert. I asked if I could have a bite. I am deeply ashamed to admit that I ate the whole piece of cake, pie...what ever you want to call it. Yup, I did that to poor Mr. Smith. He got a bite. That's it, just a bite. I was so busy chowing down this dream of a cake, that I completely forgot that I was only supposed to taste it.

The cake itself was such a fine grain, so delicate, so was as if it had been made by angels. Angels created this confection.

That was it. That is where this all started.

Now I wanted to recreate this magical cake. I looked for recipes for Boston Cream Pie, thinking that this was a cake recipe specific to that dessert. How is it possible that this has been kept from me for all these years? How did I not know about this?

Wrong wrong wrong. All wrong.

My first outing was an unmitigated disaster! I found the recipe from Country Living.  I can't recommend the cake recipe. The pudding is to die for. I never would have thought of Vanilla Bean Pudding, but it is amazing. Perfectly fine, lovely even, without the rest of this recipe.

Alas, there are no photos for obvious reasons. It was just too sad. Too too sad.

Back to the drawing board.

Actually, back to Fannie Farmer. The solid old standby. The one that no one can keep house without. My ace in the hole. Someone with a wholesome name like Marion Cunningham wouldn't steer me wrong, right?



This time I made the Boston Favorite Cake. It is a "basic butter cake."

6 Tablespoons butter
 1 cup water
2 eggs, separated
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 3/4 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and lightly flour two 8-inch cake pans. Cream the butter until softened and slowly add sugar, beating until light. Add the egg yolks and vanilla and beat to blend well. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt onto a piece of wax paper. Alternately blend the dry ingredients and the milk into the butter mixture in three stages. Beat until smooth. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry. Stir a third of the whites into the cake batter and gently fold in the remaining. Spoon into the cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a straw inserting in the center of the cake comes out dry. Cool in pans for 5 minutes before turning out onto racks. Frost as you see fit.

Seems simple enough. I made cupcakes instead of a layer cake. By and large, layer cakes and I are not friendly. There have been multiple occasions when I have sworn, before witnesses, never to venture into Layer Cake Land EVER AGAIN!

This recipe is quite good. It is light and subtle, easy to make and frost. It makes lovely cupcakes that were a big hit with Mr. Smith and The Monkey (very tough cake critics!)

Around this time is when I really started to lose it. I started doing more and more research. I found out about all the different types of cake. There are sponge cakes (make without baking powder), there are butter cakes, shortening (some with butter, some made with shortening), and on and on and on.

This just kept escalating and I kept getting more and more obsessed with finding the recipe for this Holy Grail of Cake.

So, on to the Sponge Cake arena. I had never made one. Just the name turned me off. I was not interested in anything that could potentially soak up liquid. Wet cake, the thought of it, YUCK!

But try it I did. Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!

I figured I would try another recipe from Fannie Farmer. This time the True Sponge Cake. Doesn't that just sound good? So few things in life are just "true." But, by God, the sponge cake was going to be one of them!

On this front, however, I will leave the Sponge Cake alone. I did not like it, Mr. Smith did not like it, The Monkey did not like it. The frosting (or filling, depending on your perspective) was a hit. The recipe is below.  A nice alternative to butter cream frosting.

The only one that liked it, Grand Master H. The one who doesn't like anything! Drat!

Yup, that would be him. Eating the cake like a turkey drumstick and leaving behind the frosting. This is the same kid that eats doughnuts with chocolate frosting, leaving behind all doughnut and no frosting. Go figure.

H with his signature cake-eating technique known as The Turkey Leg

Again, this cake was not right. I have a feeling that it was a problem on my end. I don't think I had the "courage of my convictions" as Julia Child would have said.

I start to freak out and second guess myself and get worried that I am doing it wrong. The result is a cake that just didn't work.

Chocolate Whipped Cream Filling

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2 Tablespoons butter
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a small pan or bowl over simmering water. Set aside to cool. Combine the cream, 1 cup of confectioners' sugar, and the salt in a bowl; add the melted chocolate and butter mixture. Beat, slowly adding the remaining cup of sugar, for about 10 minutes, until the filling is light and fluffy. You will have enough filling for an 8- or 9-inch three-layer cake.

I would recommend chilling the completed filling before whipping. Mine did not completely get fluffy and I think that was due to the warmer temperature from the melted chocolate.

That brings us to yesterday. I decided to try the classic 1-2-3-4 Cake recipe on the back of the Swans Down Cake Flour box.

1 cup butter or margarine, softened
2 cups sugar
3 cups cake flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract (I left this out)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour three 9-inch (I used three 8-inch) pans. Make cake: In a mixing bowl cream butter and gradually add sugar, creaming until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. In another bowl, sift flour with baking powder and salt. Add flour mixture alternately with milk and vanilla to creamed mixture, beating after each addition until smooth. Pour batter into cake pans. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Cool in pans 10 minutes. Remove from pans and finish cooling on racks.

I also used Chocolate Buttercream Frosting recipe from the back of the box. Here it is:

3 3/4 cups confectioners' sugar
1 stick butter, softened
2-4 Tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled

Combine in a large bowl, confectioners sugar, butter, milk and vanilla. Beat at medium speed 1-2 minutes until creamy. Add chocolate and beat until well-blended. If necessary add more milk 1 Tablespoon at a time to reach desired spreading consistency.

Even this recipe is all well and good. Cake is good, but the cake at The Brandywine was beyond good. I am still looking, still trying recipes. Nothing is quite the same, but I will keep looking and I will keep posting my experiments.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Of Cupcakes and The Big Love

I have never been a big fan of Valentine's Day. It just sets you up for all kinds of trouble. Okay, it sets me up for all kinds of trouble. I have heard tales (probably urban legends) of other people who can navigate the day without incident. Unfortunately, that is not me.

The days when I was dating/living with The Dead End Guy were the worst Valentine's Day experiences. My favorite was the year I made him peanut butter fudge and he informed me (after opening it) that I should not expect any gifts or cards from him because he was really busy. Gotta love that kind of heart-felt sentiment.

In 2005 everything changed. Now I feel like (and believe me, I know how gross this sounds. It even makes me want to puke) every single day is Valentine's Day, but even better.

I met Mr. Smith and he swept me away. When we went on our first date and he kissed me goodnight, that was it for me. I knew from that moment we would get married and we would have children together and our life would be a wonderful, exciting adventure. We had, after almost 39 years, finally found each other.

I got lost for about 45 minutes in an area I know fairly well. I got on the freeway, going North instead of South...three times. It was like I had been hit by a bus. I didn't see it coming and it just hit like a sudden storm.

Oh boy has it been an adventure! Two children under four, a whopper of a lawsuit, a new business, so much love and so much laughter.

Every day when I get to wake up with this man, it is like Christmas, even when we wake up at 3 am. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I think Christmas (not because of the presents) is far better than Valentine's Day.

I still get butterflies when I hear him open the front door. He makes me laugh harder than any other human being on the planet. He smiles and it is like the sun broke through the clouds.

I am the luckiest woman in the world and I am thankful every single day that I found what everyone looks for in a mate. I found a soul mate. I never believed that such a person existed. Every day, every single day, I am surprised and amazed that this has happened to me and to us.

Now I have Batman and Robin running around with sunglasses, masks and capes. I have a crazy dog racing around the backyard barking at nothing. I get to live the life I used to only dream about.

This week I made these cupcakes for Mr. Smith. My Mr. Smith. He is a tough audience. A self-described picky eater, he is hard to please.

Smitten Kitchen gets a win for this one.

I only made one small adjustment. Instead of mint (because I have a long, checkered history with Peppermint Schnapps that prevents me from making mint-flavored anything without gagging, which almost inevitably leads to dry heaves, or not so dry heaves. Sorry, but it is the truth.) I added 1/8 teaspoon of cinnamon. It gives just a hint of cinnamon and is just wonderful with the chocolate. If that doesn't do it for you, stick with the mint. I won't think any less of you.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Macaroni and Three Cheeses

1/2 pound medium pasta shells (I usually make a full pound, otherwise there is just too much sauce).  I have also used fortified penne and even rigatoni. Use the shape you like, believe me, it won't make a difference!

2 3/4 cups whole milk
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 1/4 cups (packed) grated white cheddar cheese (8 ounces)
3/4 cup (packed) grated Gruyere cheese (about 4 ounces)
1/2 cup (packed) grated Fontina cheese (about 3 ounces

6 Tablespoons panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)

Cook pasta in large saucepan of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally. Drain.

Meanwhile, bring milk to simmer in heavy medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Remove from heat. Melt butter in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. When butter foams, add flour. Stir until pale golden, about 1 minute. Whisk in hot milk. Cook over medium heat until thick and bubbling, stirring occasionally, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in salt, black pepper, nutmeg and cayenne. Add cheeses and stir until melted and smooth.

Preheat boiler. Add pasta to cheese sauce and toss to coat.

Divide pasta mixture between six 1 1/4-cup custard cups (or in a casserole). Sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Broil until crumbs are golden brown, about 1 minute. Serve.

I also make this ahead and heat for about 30-40 minutes at 350, adding the breadcrumbs at the end and broiling them right before serving.

Add some tomatoes or steamed broccoli and you are in business!

Recipe from Bon Appetit, January 2002, so you know it is good!