31 May 2011

Prague's Grand Cafés - Café Imperial

Café Imperial is a beautiful coffee house on the ground floor of Hotel Imperial in Old Town Prague.

Everything I read about the café promised me a free donut with my coffee--a promise that easily landed it on my must-visit list.

Fact - I will happily walk an extra mile for a free donut.

Second fact, walking to a cafe totally off-sets any empty calories you may consume there.


Walking in I was struck by how light it was.  From the shiny ceiling mosaic and ceramic tile wall reliefs to the cherry wood paneling it was a site to see.

Settling in at a table with a view I ordered a coffee and did my best impression of "when in Rome" by reading, writing and generally slowing down.

When they brought the latte macchiato I didn't know what the metal thing clamped to the glass was.  I hadn't seen a spoon like that before.  Clever.

So good.  I do love a cream infused coffee.

OK, by now you know I have a bit of a bathroom fixation.  Here's what's happening at Café Imperial...

Tummy full from my warm coffee, I ventured out into the Prague morning sun.  Smile on my face, maybe even a spring in my step--that's when I realized, NO FREE DONUT!!!  Argh!!!

30 May 2011

Prague's Grand Cafés - Café Louvre

Café Louvre is situated on Národní trida, the main shopping street in New Town, Prague.

Originally opened in 1902 and said to be frequented by the likes of Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein, this café has seen its share of history.

There's no piano player tickling the ivories here, but there is a billiard room.  And while it's certainly a must for tourists, I was happy to see the local paper reading crowd filling chairs too.

I stopped in one evening to see what was in the pastry case.  The menu downstairs had sold me on a Ricotta Cake with Lemon, but when I saw the case, it was the Country Cheesecake Louvre that got my vote.

Country Cheesecake Louvre
  • No graham cracker crust here--this was a thin chocolate sponge cake
  • The cheese in the cheesecake is not Philadelphia's finest, but could be mascarpone or the topfen I keep finding in recipes.  It's not tart or zippy, it's creamy and a bit savory.
  • Topping the firm cream cake was a 1/4-inch layer "glaze" of soft cream, finished with even MORE whipped cream on top.
  • The sprinkling of chopped toasted almonds on the top and sides added great contrast in texture and a bit of flavor too. 
  • The peach nestled in the middle was the game changer.  It added needed brightness to this intense study of cream.  Without the peach the cake would have been flat, instead it was a luxurious indulgence.  I'm a fan.

28 May 2011

Prague's Grand Cafés - Kavárna Slavia

Sit anywhere you like.

Coffee on a silver tray.
No paper sleeves.
No sippy-cups.
No to-go.
No rushing.

Coat racks.
Big windows.
Wood.  Glass.  Tile.  Mirrors.  Detail.

Board games.
Piano music...sometimes.
House-made desserts.

This is the blueprint for a Grand Cafe in Central Europe.

I want one of these in my neighborhood or even in my city, but no, I have to drive almost 3 miles just to find a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.  Ugh.

Kavárna Slavia (the oldest coffee house in Prague--1881) sits across from the National Theater and has great views of the Vitava river and Prague Castle.

When I arrived, the piano player was churning out a lovely Gershwin tune (They Can't Take That Away From Me).  Happy, I grabbed a seat by the window and poured over the menu.

I like the clean lines of Art Deco and that's this joint from top to bottom.

There were plenty of tables and the service was attentive without crowding. 

The menu dedicated a whole page to "Asparagus Season" with no fewer than 8 items designed around the Springtime spear, so I had to get something asparagus-y before diving into the dessert case.  I opted for this soup.  SO GOOD!

It may not look like much but it was fantastic.  Hidden in this beautiful green puddle was sour cream, roasted asparagus bites and tender Parma ham slivers finished with lemon oil and black truffle shavings.  I can't say enough for this soup.

After seeing Jello topping cakes in dessert cases all over town and wincing every time.
Why Jello?

I had to know.

When the time came I went to the case of tasty treats. Everything was numbered for easy ordering.  I chose big, red, Number 5--in the back on the right. 

Number 5 - from the bottom up
  • Two layers of vanilla sponge cake (one thicker than the other) separated by strawberry jam.  
  • Plain pastry cream took the middle position.  I expected vanilla, but I didn't taste it.
  • On top was a melange of berries held together by gelatin.  The gelatin was NOT Jello!  It wasn't sweet, was more firm and it wasn't awful like I thought it would be.  In fact, I get it now, the gelatin serves two purposes: 1) to hold the berries in place so it's easier to slice and 2) it seals the cake keeping it moist and fresh. 

    The craziest thing to me about this cake was that separately the components weren't terribly tasty, but when I slid my fork through all the layers and took a composed bite it was really light and flavorful.  Soft, creamy and lightly fruity.  Hmmm.

    20 May 2011

    These are a few of my favorite Czech things...

    I'm not always face-first into the pastries--those elegant, inspiring, stuff-that-dreams-are-made-of pastries.

    Really, I'm not.

    Here are some of my other favorite Czech things. Don't be shocked, but they're not ALL food related.

    Turns out I notice other things too, especially practical things that make so much utilitarian sense (to me anyway).  It's probably creepy to go from talking food straight into talking bathroom marvels, but, well, that's me!  Check this out...


    Forget low-flow toilets, just choose small or large. Yep, that's what it means.
    Love it.

    Today I saw the perfect TP solution for bar bathrooms.  I've never seen this before, have you?

    It's like a tissue dispenser, but for TP.  I'll give you a moment to admire it--I did.

    Women, I know you've gotta be with me on this one.  How many times have you gone into a bar bathroom and all the toilet paper is strewn across that nasty floor?  With this, no one can drop it or unravel half the roll onto the wet floor with one careless tug.  Who knew there could be a world where TP stayed dry?                                                                                                                                                                         This makes me ridiculously happy!
    And the sugar dispensers.  No little flap to steam shut and it usually gives me a perfect teaspoonful.                                                                                                   I also adore the design of the light switches, but I think it's just a me thing.

    Okay, okay, you're not here so I can geek-out over toilet flushing and hand driers I'm going to throw in a couple of snacks too.

    I wish I could get this pear-flavored sparkling water at home.  I'd buy it by the case!

    Found this great candy bar too.  Papitas.  Most of the candy is unimpressive - wafer sandwich-y stuff - but this one stood out.

    It's a buttery cookie base with a thin layer of soft caramel topped with a layer of milk chocolate and dotted with tiny chocolate candies.

    Don't be fooled, these aren't exactly M&M's.  Happily, the chocolate inside the THIN candy shell is soft.

    One bite and I wanted a lifetime supply, but I settled for six. 

    Alright, I think I'm done.

    Let's get back to the cake and cream, already!

    Back in the Czech-Czech-Czech-R and I know how lucky I are!

    Like a moth to the flame, like a woman obsessed, like a crazy pastry stalker, this is what I wanted most...

    I'd dreamed about it.  I had no clue how to spell it and that left me totally fixated and with no access to info.  Maddening!  Now I know how to spell it.


    I still can't find much info about it, in English anyway, but at least I have the name burned into my brain.

    Vetrnik and a latte macchiato.  That's what I wanted and they did not disappoint!

    What is this Vetrnik anyway? It's a cream puff.  But it's not just any cream puff.  This cream puff has a caramel coating that sinks into all those airy bumps of the pastry--a crisp pastry that sandwiches a stiff caramel cream.  But the caramel is surprising.  It's more like butterscotch. I'm sure they they use brown sugar not white.  It's damn good.
    But wait there's more!

    Something tells me I'm not the only one wild about pastry around here.  Just look at the line at this Cukrárna (pastry shop) before 10am!

    Can I show you some of the beauties I've found so far?  I think you'll like it.

    So exciting.  My first pastry fashion show!

    They're in there.


    Now for the close-ups.

    This was better than I thought it would be.  A crisp, tempered-chocolate exterior, moist vanilla sponge cake with a rummy chocolate cream.  It's doesn't taste boozy at all, just a little exotic.  Took me a bite or two to figure out what that "something special" was exactly.  Golden rum. Yum.

    Pretty little torte (dort in Czech).  Milk chocolate sponge, milk chocolate cream and vanilla cream topped with a mirror-like orange gelatin with a slice of orange and grape to garnish.  I was a little disappointed that the gelatin didn't add much flavor-wise, but it's an excellent way to "seal" the torte for storage.

    This is a Punschtorte.  I've made one of these recently so I was very excited to taste the real deal (more on that adventure soon).

    The interesting thing about this cake is that the center is vanilla sponge cake cut up and soaked in a punch-like syrup then stuffed back into the center layer of the cake.  It's always coated with a pink icing.

    And then there's the chocolate, chocolate, chocolate torte.  It's dark chocolate through and through.

    Finally, the Marco Polo Dort.  Why Marco Polo?  Got me.  What I can tell you that it's light and airy.  Inside is an almond sponge cake, white chocolate mousse with almonds, pistachios and white chocolate shavings strewn on top.  It's not too sweet and has a more complex flavor than you'd think.

    That's it for now. Admittedly, I've gone a bit crazy and I'm not even to Prague yet!

    17 May 2011

    One more for the road - Heidelbeerroulade (Blueberry Cream Roulade)

    Enough with the chocolate, right??

    To truly appreciate chocolate you have to step away from it every once in a while, so I'm taking a day trip to the land of fruit and cream.  There must always be cream.  The truth is that I'm going on a trip - solo - and thought it would be sweet to surprise Cody with something to munch on while I'm away.  I'm also feeling a little anxious about leaving and baking calms me.

    Since this is a surprise, I thought it should be light and refreshing, like me! Reading through Kaffeehaus the Heidelbeerroulade in the Simple Cakes chapter sounded easy and made my lips smack. It's a rolled vanilla sponge cake stuffed with blueberry cream and fresh blueberries. This is more of a homemade dessert recipe, but roulades pop-up in small cafes in Austria too.

    What Happened:

    This recipe is as quick to make as a box cake.  I think I had it done in less than 90-minutes. That 90 minutes not only includes cooling time for the cake but also rolling it up the first time without the berries, realizing my goof, unrolling it, adding the berries and rolling it all up again!

    Just know the length of the recipe makes it seem more complicated than it is.  It takes a lot of words to describe simple actions.  Basically, you whip up a standard sponge cake, bake it for 15 minutes, roll it up using a kitchen towel, let it cool, unroll it, slather it with flavored whipped cream and berries, roll it up one last time and chill.

    Things I would change:
    • I would up the sugar in the blueberry puree to make sure it imparted flavor to the unsweetened whipped cream.  Taste it to make sure it's in the ballpark before folding in (sugar increase already in the recipe).
    • Make sure you like the taste of whatever orange liqueur you add to the puree as you will taste it in the background.  It might be worth the Grand Marnier splurge.
    The Result:

    Once the cake set for an hour in the refrigerator, the flavors melded well.  It's pretty and light and the cake is a chewy little pillow (weird, but true).  Like I said, I upped the sugar - a rarity for me - to make sure the blueberry came through.  I LOVE that this could be a weeknight splurge cake.  Flavor combinations are limited only by your imagination and what's in season at the market.

    This one's too simple to skip so don't.

    Your turn.

    14 May 2011

    On to Austria - Building the Panamatorte

    No time to rest, we're on a roll.

    Don't worry, this cake is a breeze to make even though we're still in the Fancy Cakes section of The Book AND it saved my bacon at a party recently.  The taste?  Well, there wasn't a crumb left after I cut the first slice.

    Panamatorte (a.k.a., Chocolate Almond Torte).  Not much info to be found on this particular confection.  I can tell you that it was invented to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 and that it remains really popular in Austria.

    What intrigued me about this cake was that it called for no flour, only nuts and breadcrumbs.  Of course that doesn't mean it's gluten-free because there's still flour in the bread (sorry!).  The more I read the more I'm finding that the breadcrumb thing would only seem unique to me, the naive American. In Europe using breadcrumbs for cake is common and dates back to, well, forever.  I like the frugality of it and I'm sure that's how it started--don't waste anything!  All the better if you can turn scraps into deliciousness.  So that's one more reason to toss those bread heels into a bag in the freezer rather than trashing them or feeding the birds.

    It wasn't breadcrumbs that led me to baking this cake the first time, it was cake panic.  I had made a dessert plan for a party that included 2 small cakes (Hazelnut Roulade with Mocha Cream and Punschtorte--more on these soon) and I was a little nervous about one of them. I wasn't wrong. After 3 attempts to fix the questionable cake, I admitted defeat and knew I had to come up with another cake and quick.  Cue my hero, the Panamatorte!!

    What Happened:

    I made this cake in under 2 hours.  It was EASY and resilient.  Because I was making a few different desserts for the party, I decided to make a smaller, 6-inch version of the cake (half the recipe).  The batter is quick and straight-forward to put together.  Although sponge cakes are thought to be temperamental, this one was a champ.  Batter made, I threw the cake in the oven and took 10-15 minutes to sit down and eat lunch--a rarity for me on baking day.  I came back to the kitchen to check on the cake and it hadn't risen.  Hmmmm.  Turns out, in my flurry to finish the day's baking (and before I'd decided to bake another cake) I had turned off the oven!  Ahhh!  I screamed in agony.  Yeah, I'm kinda vocal.  I announced to Cody it was ruined.  You can't leave a delicate egg foam cake to sit in a oven at mouth-temperature for half the baking time and expect it not to turn out like a lead pancake.  I was wrong.  I pulled the cake out and preheated the oven, threw it back in and it rose perfectly!  Crazy.

    The buttercream was a breeze and I chilled it for a couple of minutes just to make sure it wasn't too soft before frosting the cake.

    The cake was a hit.  I got no end of complements about how delicious and light it was.  This is definitely a recipe I will keep in my back pocket.

    Things I would change:
    • Don't turn off the oven before baking the cake!
    • Cut the cake into 3 equal parts instead of two to have more and thinner layers of buttercream sandwiched between the delicious chocolate almond sponge.  This would make it look as elegant as it tastes and guarantee the buttercream was evenly distributed
    • Okay, this is splitting hairs but if I wanted a perfectly smooth exterior I would take the time to chill the cake and use a warmed spatula to smooth the top. Then I would let the cake sit out long enough for the buttercream to soften just a bit before pressing on the sliced almonds.  It's a soft buttercream so it's hard (at least for me) to get a mirror-like top without going that extra mile.  Necessary--no, but it can be a nice touch for a truly fancy occasion.

    The Results:

    Outstanding.  The toasted almonds add flavor and great contrast in texture.  Not too sweet, not too rich.  The almond flavor is subtle, but it's enough to differentiate the torte from an ordinary everyday chocolate cake.

    Your turn.

    10 May 2011

    First stop Hungary: Lúdlábtorta

    First recipe, very exciting!! 

    Dying to bake something from Kaffeehaus I jumped into the middle of the book going straight to the Fancy Cakes section. I could tell you I’m using my friend’s birthday as an excuse, but the truth is I don’t do well with doing what’s expected, so starting at the beginning wasn’t something I would probably do anyway. Do I need to mention I’m impulsive in addition to obsessive? For the record, birthdays are meant to be fancy.

    So anyway, the “Fancy Cakes” in The Book are primarily tortes. What is a torte? Strictly speaking, it’s a type of cake made with lots of eggs and sometimes ground nuts or bread crumbs in place of or in addition to flour. It’s usually finished with a rich coating of buttercream or glaze. Generally I think of tortes as assembled sponge cakes that include at minimum 3 different elements and more often than not there’s some soaking syrup or jam layer both including alcohol. But that’s just how I file it in my head.

    Flipping through the pages I landed on the Lúdlábtorta. In Hungarian, Lúdláb means “goose leg.” Don’t worry there are no goose bits involved in this recipe. Some attribute the name to the richness of the cake and others have written that it’s the cake’s triangular shape when it’s cut that evokes the goose connection. But don’t most cakes end up with a triangular shape when cut? Whatever. Let’s just accept that this cake has some mysterious connection to the goose for Hungarians and get on with our lives. In English, this is a Chocolate Mousse Cake with Cherries and to me that sounds outstanding and just right for a fancy birthday!

    Now I know you’re going to kill me, but while I have pictures of the finished torte, I didn’t think to take a picture of the slices! Dumb, I know. Chalk it up to a rookie blogger mistake. In all truth, I took the camera to the party for the express purpose of snapping the cake. Cody was in charge of it and set it down somewhere. Before I knew it we were singing “Happy Birthday!” and I was dipping a knife in hot water to serve it up. Lame, yes I know that too. I’ll get better.

    Let’s get on with it. 

    What Happened:

    I took 2 days to make this torte.  It’s not that it took an inordinate amount of time, just that I wanted it to be chilled before I coated it and I didn’t want to be rushed on the day of the party.  You could probably tackle it in 1 day, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  You would wind up stressing yourself out by trying to rush through the chilling stage and the mousse must be thoroughly chilled before you glaze.  One obvious do ahead is to bake the sponge up to a month in advance, cut it in half horizontally (that’s all you need for this recipe), wrap it thoroughly in plastic and freeze it.  Just pull it out of the freezer when you start to make the mousse.

    Things I would change:
    • I didn’t want to wait until June for cherries to be in season so I used frozen black cherries.  When I make it again, I will definitely use fresh.  I think it will not only improve the taste, but the texture AND it will be much, much prettier to have the fresh cherries dancing across the smooth black ice of the chocolate glaze.
    • Use more cherry preserves.  The recipe calls for ½ cup and I would up it to ¾ cup
    • Use more cherries.  Maybe it’s because I used frozen but I would use 18 ounces of cherries next time instead of the 12 ounces recommended.
    • Chill the mousse for 20 minutes or so before attempting to spread it on the cake.  It was so loose when I did this that the cherries slid off the cake!  I screamed and scooped the mousse back into the bowl and chilled it until it was more firm.  I gathered up the cherries and rearranged them on the cake.  Once the mousse was more firm I was able to spread it onto the cake and moved forward with the recipe.  What a mess.  Don’t do this, chill the mousse first. 
    • A nice variation could be to stir in 1/3 cup chocolate shavings into the mousse to make it a chocolate chip mousse.  
    The Results:
    I was really happy with this cake.  It's definitely for chocolate lovers and works well with strong coffee (with a tiny cup of water!).  Someone described the taste like eating a chocolate cherry truffle.  I'd say that was close. For me it was a tiny bit lighter than that, but it gives you an idea of what to expect.

    I liked the look of the cake.  It was pretty and can only get prettier each time I make it.  The glaze had a nice snap, the mousse was firm but still creamy and the cherries added impressive color and a tartness that cut through that rich chocolate and butter.  The fresh cherry garnish would have been ideal.  I didn't know how to decorate it once I had it glazed.  I like garnishes to be a clue about what you're going to eat.  I needed to do something, so I went safe and melted white chocolate and piped circles over the top--safe I know, but I didn't want to risk ruining the cake an hour before the party!

    The recipe itself worked well for a first run-through.  I've made some adjustments that will help when I revisit.  I've included my changes in the recipe here.  Having experience with glazing cakes helps, but it's totally doable for first timers--just make sure the cake is chilled and have a spatula ready to go (not in the drawer!) so you can help the glaze spread and fill in the holes on the sides.

    Your turn now.

    07 May 2011

    You are an obsession, you're my obsession...

    I have a long-standing relationship with obsession.

    I should probably just let that sit there for a moment.


    Past fixations have included everything from Woody Allen and Depeche Mode to Maguerite Duras and canelés and of course certain boys who shall remain nameless. When I fall, I fall hard! I'm sure I don't have to describe to you what obsession can look like, just know that I am really good at it.

    Now I have a new object of my laser-like focus. We (Cody and I) recently traveled to both Austria and the Czech Republic and I did what I do on every trip - I ate every traditional food item I could manage to wedge into my mouth! It wasn't pretty or lady-like, it was base, carnal, and nothing short of amazing!


    I fell hard for all the tortes and schnittes. Pretty, tasty, elegant, creamy, and not too sweet. I always want my coffee served to me on a silver tray with a teeny-tiny cup of water!

    When I got home I combed the internet for information. I wanted books, history, recipes. I was surprised how difficult it was to find. There doesn't seemed to be the cult-like following that I expected for these pastries. Believe me, I was ready to join that cult. I did find one site that led me to a book that seemed written especially for me: Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. I ordered it right away.

    The days that passed until the book arrived felt like an eternity. When it finally did, I ripped it out of the envelope and started to read. I didn't speed through it like you might expect, I read slowly and deliberately. I wanted it to sink in. I didn't allow myself to try any of the recipes until I'd read the entire book and that was really, really hard. Now I've finished it and I am sated. Almost. 

    I knew 10 pages in that this was my new project. I knew I would bake everything in this book even the recipes that celebrated cooked fruit (gross!) and poppy seed paste (not gross, but no love connection either). Everything.  I will bake it all. This is our first project together. I hope you're as ready as I am.

    05 May 2011

    Ahem...Anyone out there??

    Check...check...testing 1, 2, 3...

    OK, this is it.  After much encouragement by friends and family that quickly turned into pushing which was aptly met by my resistance and a mountain of excuses, I'm finally, at last, sitting down and putting a few thoughts together to begin this next baking journey.

    So what is this anyway? 

    Sachertorte from Cafe Demel - beautiful but icing was grainy - ick!
    Well, best I can tell it's a baking travelogue.  I love to travel and whenever I take a trip I write down every single detail of that trip because I never want to lose it.  Good and bad I want to be able to relive those experiences.  I have countless journals from my trips because I want to be able to find that gelato stand in Rome that made me sing with pleasure with every spoonful.  I want to remember to avoid the Sachertorte at Cafe Demel in Vienna - no kidding - in favor of the one at Gerstner. 
    The Baking Life is my chance to record my baking journey in that same way.  I want to relive the successes and avoid repeating the failures.  I want to talk about how much I love putting together a genoise batter.  Or how I want to cry when my pastry cream is not PERFECTLY smooth.  I want to know why things fail and why things work.  I want to share that with you.  I want us to talk about it.  You want to talk about this too, right?  

    Sure, I do this for a living, but there are always missteps and I never stop learning.  I'm hoping together we can figure some stuff out and be better bakers.

    So stock up on your butter, flour and sugar and let's make something yummy!