20 July 2011

The facts about Plain Jane Double Cream Scones

Fact:  Scones should not be dry, hard or pale.

Fact:  Scones should be light, flaky and golden brown.

Fact:  Scones are easy to make.

Fact:  Scones are versatile.

Fact:  Scones with clotted cream and plum jam are outstanding.

Please do not buy dry, hard or pale scones.

I'm begging you.

It hurts my heart to think of you settling for such substandard things.  I promise you they are not good.  I doubly promise you that you can make them better yourself.



I made these for a wonderful girly brunch chocked full o' jibber-jabber and laughter.

I made them big so we could say we only ate 1.  You can't feel guilty about eating just 1 of anything.

So the next time you want to showcase jam or lemon curd or homemade butter let these beauties be the means of transport.


19 July 2011

Not everyone likes my baking!

Whenever I mention that I'm a baker I usually get what I think is an extraordinary response.  The reaction is often positive and always...big.  At least it seems big to me.  It's always surprising and a bit of a mystery.

This is how it goes...

Them:  What do you do?
Me:  I'm a baker.

First, there's some sort of noise that sounds almost involuntary.  It ranges anywhere from an animated, "Ooooh!" to something wordless that sounds like...a cheer?  Or maybe shock?
Then...

Them:  Really?
Me:  Yep.  I'm a baker.
Them (Turning to someone else in the room): You know, Jennifer's a baker.

I'm curious about the "Really?"  Do they think I'm making it up or are they thinking of a cake they need and now they know who can make it?  It makes me laugh almost as much as the repeating thing.   No kidding, I can't count the number of times I've told someone I bake and they have to spread the news right away.  I can only guess that telling someone else makes it real, like when you have a secret.  All I know is that it's free advertising for me--yay!

But why a big reaction at all?  Does it come from being impressed that they now know someone who may actually understand what happens in that big mystery box in their kitchen, a.k.a. the oven, or is it that they can't imagine why anyone would actively choose a profession that has so little income potential?!  That one still surprises me!  What I can tell you is that when I told people I was a publicist I got a much different reaction.

The best part is when I show up somewhere with my signature brown and white striped boxes.  No one questions what I do.  I always get an unbridled, gleeful reception. 

I like that.

But that's the good stuff.  Sadly, there is someone who does not dig my baking.  Ever.

Gigi. 

Gigi likes string, comb and shadows.

Gigi does not like my baking. 

This is what Gigi looks like when I'm baking--except for the open mouth and head reared back to let out her LOUD and disturbingly mournful cry.  I couldn't capture that.  More accurately, she wouldn't let me show you that.


You may think this is just an ordinary picture of an ordinary cat.  Look closer.


That squinty eye says it all.  That and the relentless crying.  Still don't believe me?


This is the same cat.

Gigi's never actually tasted anything I've baked and that may be part of the problem.  She in no way benefits from the hours spent in front of the oven.  In fact, she only suffers the cost.  She would much rather I blog than bake.  At least then she can sit beside me on the desk or curl up in my lap while I type.  In the kitchen I am not accessible.  In the kitchen I cannot play string.  In the kitchen I cannot animate comb for her.  In the kitchen, I am dead to her and she lets me know it.

So at the end of the day, I know not everyone likes my baking.  Sigh...

12 July 2011

Dumpling time! Erdbeerknödel (Strawberry Dumplings)

Dumplings...knedliky (Czech), knödel (Austrian), gombóc (Hungarian)... are entrenched in Austro-Hungarian cuisine.  Sweet, savory, stuffed, plain--the dumpling is a mainstay.  

Dumplings are edible nostalgia, like meatloaf, linked to family and homemade meals.  I'm guessing these are good memories for them because honestly, I still hate meatloaf!  

Come summertime, fruit-stuffed dumplings are all the rage.  Strawberry, plum, apricot, you name it they stuff with it.  I guess cobblers and slumps would be as close as American food gets to combining these flavors and textures.

Strawberries are everywhere right now, so I thought I'd give the Erdbeerknödel a whirl.  

Basically, it's a farmer's cheese and flour dumpling stuffed with fresh strawberries and coated in toasted breadcrumbs.

Oh yeah, did I mention you don't have to turn on the oven?  Huge when you're in the middle of an unbearable summer heatwave!  (Sorry, oven.  Some days you're just TOO much.)

New ingredient time--farmer's cheese!  Farmer's cheese is the American version of the Topfen or Quark used in Europe.  It was a first for me and I was excited to see what it was like.  Verdict?  Goat cheese without the goaty-ness.  Less twang.  Smoother than ricotta, but in certain recipes ricotta would work as a substitute.

On to the dumpling experiment... 


What Happened:
I put these doughy bundles together in less than an hour.  Some of that time was rest-time for the dough which gave me time to clean up between steps.  I like it when that happens in a recipe.  Makes cooking feel like less work.

The only challenging bit of the recipe was the softness of the dough.  I knew softness meant the dumplings would be tender, but there's a fine line between soft and pain-in-the-ass!  This dough walked that line, BUT I have some ideas about fixing that.  The rest of the recipe was easy.

Things I would change:
  • About that dough--first, I upped the flour a bit in the revised recipe.  I ended up adding a significant amount during the kneading process to make the dough workable.  I decided it would be better to have more of the flour in the dough to start.  That way the dough can absorb the flour while it rests and you aren't forced to handle it as much when you knead and shape--handling that could make it tough.  Second, I recommend chilling the dough before shaping the dumplings to make it easier to handle and again, requiring less flour.
  • I added a splash of vanilla to the fruit sauce to soften its flavor.
  • Melted chocolate instead of strawberry sauce????
  • Variations of the recipe could include using other fruit: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, peaches, nectarines
The Result:
I liked changing up dessert with something like this.  I was a little afraid of having a warm fruit incident, but it was fine.  I let mine get closer to room temperature before digging in, but Cody liked it warm--with lots of sauce too.  The other thing that helped me avoid a hot, mushy fruit filling was quartering the strawberries.  That way they didn't totally break down when the dumplings were boiled--YAY!

The dumpling was chewy and the toasted crumbs added some variety in texture.  The fruit sauce was raw which suited me nicely.  

Overall, it was tasty and brightly flavored.  The lemon zest in the dough and the sauce really added a lot.  It wasn't too heavy either. 

Traditionally, dumplings aren't served with sauce so you could ditch it entirely if you wanted.

I realized once I started thinking about dumplings, the flavor possibilities are virtually limitless.  Fun stuff.  So what's stopping you?  Start stuffing.

08 July 2011

Tackling the Punschtorte

I’ve been promising to tell you about the Punschtorte for a while now.  I’ve even teased you with a photo of the one I had in the Czech Republic.  But I’ve also baked one of these bad boys.  Today I can finally face telling you my Punschtorte tale.

But first, what is it?   

It’s a sponge cake that is hollowed out and then refilled with a drunken version of itself.  Basically, you make a citrus/alcohol punch and let the cake innards soak it up then stuff it back into the cake and glaze.  Voila, Punschtorte.

Some versions add chocolate to the crumb filling mix which explains the chocolate squiggles traditionally found on the pink glaze, but I’m not a fan.  The chocolate overpowers the brightness of the fruit punch.  Besides who’s ever heard of chocolate in punch?  Gross!  While the punch filling may vary from recipe to recipe, one thing that doesn’t is the pink glaze.  It’s always pink.  Hot pink versions use food coloring to get there, but I prefer the pastel pink (and flavor) Chambord alone brings.

When I decided to make this cake for a party I was looking for something unusual.  I was intrigued by the citrus punch and repulsed by the idea of potentially wet cake.  I don’t dig wet cake.  At all. Ever. Period.  I had to try it.

What Happened:
This was a really easy cake to put together and I enjoyed cutting it apart only to put it back together again.  I know, procedure geek.  It was easy and the “punch” was the perfect amount for the cake cubes to absorb without falling apart.  When I put it all back together it was like I’d never deconstructed it in the first place.


So that’s the cake part.  Glazing was where things got interesting.  It was a nightmare--an unstoppable disaster!  

I prepped.
  1. Paper cone with melted chocolate to decorate the glaze.  Check.
  2. Cake suspended on wire rack.  Check.
  3. Warm pink fondant.  Check.
I poured the fondant over the cake.  It covered nicely with a little spatula help on the sides.  As instructed, I moved fast and used my paper cone to draw a spiral of chocolate on the top of the cake while the glaze was still fresh and then I used a knife to feather the lines.  It was working!! 

Or was it? 

By the time I finished feathering the lines the first feathers had slid halfway down the side of the cake!!!! 

Ahhh!!! 

I didn’t know how to stop it.  The glaze kept flowing like lava.  It was weird because it’s not like I could see it moving.  It wasn’t fast.  It was slow and powerful.  I screamed.  For the record, that didn’t help. 

I didn’t know what to do.  I reread the recipe.  “Pour all of the warm icing over the top of the cake, smoothing it over the top and down the sides with an offset metal spatula.  Immediately [!] pipe lines of the melted chocolate on the top of the cake…”  IMMEDIATELY!  I did that.  No warning that the lines might slide off the cake.  

Undeterred, I decided that I could scrape the glaze off and try again.

I removed what I could.  This time I let the warm fondant sit for a bit before pouring it on.  So far so good. 

This go ‘round I tried a simple powdered sugar icing mixture instead of melted chocolate and didn’t go as close to the edge.  It still slid.  I tried pressing crumbs on the sides thinking that would help cement the glaze.  WRONG!  I grabbed toasted almond slices figuring they were...stronger…  OK, I was panicking.  They actually stuck.

I scraped the cake off the rack and ran it to the refrigerator.  After 20 minutes I checked on it.  The cake had grown almond/fondant feet, but it was finally stable.  I cut off the feet and pressed a few more almonds onto the sides to make it look the best I could.  I also added a few more icing swirls to the top of the cake before putting it back in the fridge and saying a few choice words.  Yeah, no pictures of this experience—no time.  I was too busy trying to stop this thing from sliding off the counter and onto the floor!

I was so irritated by the glazing fiasco I didn’t even serve it.  I was convinced it was a disaster head-to-toe.  WRONG AGAIN. 

I cut a slice before sending the rest of it to work with Cody.  

It was fruity and delicious.  I loved the look of the punch layer.  The cake inside was moist NOT wet.   

I can also tell you that it was infinitely better than what I tasted in the Czech Republic!  The challenge for me is figuring out how to glaze the thing.


Things I would change:
  • The cake is terrific as is so I wouldn’t change a thing.
  • Glazing…I will try the petit fours method.  Instead of heating the glaze over direct heat I will simply warm it over a double boiler until it was thin enough to pour in a stream from a spoon.  I will also do a double coat like with petit fours to make the glaze more opaque.  After the second coat I’ll press the crumbs or sliced almonds onto the sides.
  • Until I figure out how to control designs laid into a glaze (like the chocolate feathering) I will stick with simply adding flourishes to the top of the set glaze.
The Results:
This is a really tasty, unique Austro-Hungarian cake.  If you have experience with fondant glazing, do yourself a favor and try this recipe.  I love that there’s no artificial colors in this version and the flavor is bright and fresh. I will make this again, but next time I’ll know better what to look for.

Here’s the lingering quandary for me:  the cake before glazing is covered with an apricot glaze that not only adds flavor but is supposed to help the smooth the fondant glaze and help it adhere.  What bothered me was the instruction to use warm glaze (90 degrees) in a situation where melting was not only possible but very likely.  That’s exactly what happened.  So when I do it again I will get the fondant just warm enough to flow.   

I still feel like I’m missing a small bit of info that will make it all make sense and WORK!  If anybody knows what that missing link is PLEASE tell me!

01 July 2011

Plum, Plum, Plum Tuckered!

First, I'm sorry.

Really.

I wanted to talk to you sooner, but I haven't had a even a minute.

I really want to tell you about my exciting plum adventures.

I'm lucky enough to have a friend, Corrie, who's lucky enough to have a plum tree in her backyard that luckily has the most deliciously sweet fruit.  However, we are not lucky that they all seem to turning ripe NOW!

Knowing that either we get them immediately or face a yard full of stinky, sticky plum goo, Cody took an old shopping bag and filled it with 15 POUNDS of plums!

My mission?  It was time for me to learn to make jam.  Lots of jam.

I should maybe mention I have never liked jam, jelly, preserves.  Nope, didn't eat PB&J as a kid (still don't).  It's probably because of my hatred of cooked fruit--although I do like applesauce...  Who knows?  I'm just a weirdo.

My thought was that can use it on cakes and stuff, right?  I was definitely excited about that.

I've never canned anything (although I'm hoping I'm flooded with tomatoes this summer) so I don't have the right equipment--yet.  It worked out fine though. I muddled through with a pasta pot and tongs and all the jars sealed!

I read through lots of recipes and tried to find the common thread and came up with a plan.

I don't know if you can tell by the photo, but these plums were on the small side so that meant a lot of pits to remove.  Honestly, pitting was the "hardest" part of the whole process and it gave me pink fingers for days! 

What Happened:
I learned that you can't make big batches of jam.  Apparently, it effects the jam's ability to set properly.  I also learned that it doesn't take as much fruit as I thought to make it.  A single batch usually yields about 8 jars of jam (8 oz. each) and it only takes about 4 pounds of plums.

Pectin was another big unknown for me.  I understand about apples and what that does in pies, but I'd never used the powdered product.  Sure Jell is the most easily found brand and they have two varieties:  full sugar (yellow box) and no sugar/low sugar (pink box).  I ended up trying both and found that I preferred the no sugar/low sugar option.  I was more able to control the amount of sugar in the jam.  It also made the most sense to me because fruit sweetness varies and the plums I had were deliciously sweet so I didn't want to add any more sugar than I had to.  You want the jam to taste like the fruit you pick, right?  The full sugar batch was just too sweet to me and that may explain why I've never liked the stuff.

To peel or not?  I found recipes that insisted the fruit be peeled and others that didn't.  I tried this both ways too and found that there's no reason to peel plums for jam.  Again, I wanted the end result to capture as much of the plum essence as possible, so I wanted see the fruit. The peel breaks down and actually adds a nice thickness to the jam.

I love vanilla and it seemed to be a natural fit with the sweet plums so I added a bean to the jam and used it for all three batches.  I also added a little lemon for brightness.

I ended up making three batches (about 22 jars) and now I feel like I have a clue what I'm doing!  Woo hoo!

Things I would change:
  • After the first batch, I cut the fruit in larger slices and cut out a preliminary cooking step too so that there was more chunkiness in the jam.
  • To make sure the jars were sterile and warm until I needed them I just left them in simmering water on the stove rather than using my dishwasher to sterilize.  The dishwasher sounded more convenient, but turned out to not to be.
  • I prefer the pink box of fruit pectin to keep the jam from being cloyingly sweet and so that it tastes like the fruit I took the trouble to pick.
The Result:
I actually like this jam.  A lot.  I'm never going to put it on peanut butter, but I'll definitely have a bit on morning toast.  I'm also really excited to use it on petit fours and as a glaze on cakes.  It would be a delicious base for a sauce on beef too.  I love that the uses seem limitless and makes the effort worthwhile.  Did I mention how pretty the jars look sitting on my shelf?!

Oh, I still had plums left over!!  So I got creative and turned them into this...

and this...


so yummy!