Sunday, March 30, 2008

Daring Baker: Cakes on a Train!

Nothing about my first post as a Daring Baker is going quite how I planned it.

For those of you who aren't familiar, the Daring Bakers are a group of fearless pastry entrepreneurs - there are some 700 of us now - who, once a month, all bake the same thing at the same time. Founded in 2006 by my friend Ivonne of Creampuffs in Venice and Lis of La Mia Cucina, the growing group vows not to reveal the selected recipe until the prescribed date. This month's recipe, proffered by Morven, is Dorie Greenspan's "Perfect Party Cake" from her cookbook Baking: from My Home to Yours (page 250). You can see several hundred versions of this cake over at the Daring Baker's Blogroll!
So I haven't told you all this, but I'm moving. Or rather, I moved yesterday; I am currently hunching amid towers of boxes in my half-assembled new home (J and I now share an office, so we're presently sitting at our respective desks, back-to-back). Never fear, neighbors and Brooklyn enthusiasts - we are still proud residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn...since we only moved five and a half blocks.

It's a long story that I won't get into now. But prior to moving, I was packing, painting and panicking, and frankly, party cake was the last thing on my mind.

To be fair, I wasn't too enthused about this recipe to begin with. I - don't kill me - don't particularly care for Swiss meringue buttercream (egg whites and sugar are whipped over heat until a marshmallow-fluff-consistency meringue develops, then softened butter is beaten in). I find it a little waxy and...oh, i don't know, butter-textured. I knew that a white cake with the light, perky flavors of lemon, raspberry and coconut would be divinely spring-timey, but I guess I was still feeling wintry here in Manhattan, bundled up in my big coat with a lot of things to do.

So I approached this cake with dedication, it being my first attempt as a Daring Baker, but also with a certain amount of brisk, I-can't-be-botheredness that I suppose wasn't really in the spirit of Daring Bakerhood. An occasion to make a cake presented itself - a coworker's birthday - and while I enjoyed the baking and assembly process as much I always do, I think I would have had a better time (and better results!) if I had taken a few moments to experiment (within the strict parameters of DB rules, that is). I didn't do any variations or try anything fancy - this is Dorie's cake all the way.
My cake came out beautifully: snow white, sleekly iced, swathed in a coconut scarf, crowned with a ring of plump raspberries. It survived a crowded and hectic subway journey from Brooklyn to midtown under a glass dome, and elicited several oohs and aahs from adjacent passengers. My coworker was appropriately surprised and (I hope) charmed by its appearance. It sliced like a dream, with crisp, elegant veins of jam running perfectly parallel. I served each of us a picture-perfect wedge. Forks clattered and there were a few appreciative murmurs. I describe the Daring Bakers, by way of making conversation.

"Wait, you made this?" My boss looked confused.

"Yeah," I replied, half-smiling.

"I thought it was store-bought. Very impressive," he nodded and sidled back to his desk.

It was meant to be flattering. But store-bought is pretty much how I would have described this cake too - and the problem I had with it. You see, the pure-white, straight-laced, wax-figure elegance of this cake - which endured virtually unchanged in the refrigerator over the subsequent weekend, store-bought style - lacked that quality that I feel sets a homemade cake apart: ephemeral decadence. There was no toothache-sweet caramel, no dense, moist crumb, no creamy pudding filling - not to mention the absence of wonky icing handwriting and layers all akimbo. This symmetrical white wonder lacked personality and satisfied no particular craving.

So I think I learned something about what it means to be a daring baker. It's not about producing some Platonic Form of the recipe; there's no prize for The Perfect Cake. That isn't even very daring! What's daring is to explore new realms of creativity in appearance and flavor. So I made a store-bought cake at home, and I can't wait for next month. Thanks, Daring Bakers!

Dorie Greenspan's Perfect Party Cake

Words from Dorie
Stick a bright-coloured Post-it to this page, so you’ll always know where to turn for a just-right cake for any celebration. The original recipe was given to me by my great dear friend Nick Malgieri, of baking fame, and since getting it, I’ve found endless opportunities to make it – you will too. The cake is snow white, with an elegant tight crumb and an easygoing nature: it always bakes up perfectly; it is delicate on the tongue but sturdy in the kitchen – no fussing when it comes to slicing the layers in half or cutting tall, beautiful wedges for serving; and, it tastes just as you’d want a party cake to taste – special. The base recipe is for a cake flavoured with lemon, layered with a little raspberry jam and filled and frosted with a classic (and so simple) pure white lemony hot-meringue buttercream but, because the elements are so fundamental, they lend themselves to variation (see Playing Around), making the cake not just perfect, but also versatile.

For the Cake

2 1/4 cups cake flour (updated 25 March)
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups whole milk or buttermilk (I prefer buttermilk with the lemon)
4 large egg whites
1 ½ cups sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 stick (8 tablespoons or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon pure lemon extract

For the Buttercream
1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 large lemons)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For Finishing
2/3 cup seedless raspberry preserves stirred vigorously or warmed gently until spreadable
About 1 ½ cups sweetened shredded coconut

Getting Ready
Centre a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9 x 2 inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each pan with a round of buttered parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

To Make the Cake
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl.
Put the sugar and lemon zest in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant.
Add the butter and working with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light.
Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed.
Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated.
Add the rest of the milk and eggs beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients.
Finally, give the batter a good 2- minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and well aerated.
Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.
Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen and springy to the touch – a thin knife inserted into the centers should come out clean
Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unfold them and peel off the paper liners.
Invert and cool to room temperature, right side up (the cooled cake layers can be wrapped airtight and stored at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to two months).

To Make the Buttercream
Put the sugar and egg whites in a mixer bowl or another large heatproof bowl, fit the bowl over a plan of simmering water and whisk constantly, keeping the mixture over the heat, until it feels hot to the touch, about 3 minutes.
The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture will look like shiny marshmallow cream.
Remove the bowl from the heat.
Working with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, beat the meringue on medium speed until it is cool, about 5 minutes.
Switch to the paddle attachment if you have one, and add the butter a stick at a time, beating until smooth.
Once all the butter is in, beat in the buttercream on medium-high speed until it is thick and very smooth, 6-10 minutes.
During this time the buttercream may curdle or separate – just keep beating and it will come together again.
On medium speed, gradually beat in the lemon juice, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding more, and then the vanilla.
You should have a shiny smooth, velvety, pristine white buttercream. Press a piece of plastic against the surface of the buttercream and set aside briefly.

To Assemble the Cake
Using a sharp serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, slice each layer horizontally in half.
Put one layer cut side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper.
Spread it with one third of the preserves.
Cover the jam evenly with about one quarter of the buttercream.
Top with another layer, spread with preserves and buttercream and then do the same with a third layer (you’ll have used all the jam and have buttercream leftover).
Place the last layer cut side down on top of the cake and use the remaining buttercream to frost the sides and top.
Press the coconut into the frosting, patting it gently all over the sides and top.

The cake is ready to serve as soon as it is assembled, but I think it’s best to let it sit and set for a couple of hours in a cool room – not the refrigerator. Whether you wait or slice and enjoy it immediately, the cake should be served at room temperature; it loses all its subtlety when it’s cold. Depending on your audience you can serve the cake with just about anything from milk to sweet or bubbly wine.

The cake is best the day it is made, but you can refrigerate it, well covered, for up to two days. Bring it to room temperature before serving. If you want to freeze the cake, slide it into the freezer to set, then wrap it really well – it will keep for up to 2 months in the freezer; defrost it, still wrapped overnight in the refrigerator.

Playing Around
Since lemon is such a friendly flavour, feel free to make changes in the preserves: other red preserves – cherry or strawberry – look especially nice, but you can even use plum or blueberry jam.

Fresh Berry Cake
If you will be serving the cake the day it is made, cover each layer of buttercream with fresh berries – use whole raspberries, sliced or halved strawberries or whole blackberries, and match the preserves to the fruit. You can replace the coconut on top of the cake with a crown of berries, or use both coconut and berries. You can also replace the buttercream between the layers with fairly firmly whipped sweetened cream and then either frost the cake with buttercream (the contrast between the lighter whipped cream and the firmer buttercream is nice) or finish it with more whipped cream. If you use whipped cream, you’ll have to store the cake the in the refrigerator – let it sit for about 20 minutes at room temperature before serving.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Forbidden Fruit

Just a quick check-in to share this compelling peek into Minnesota's local food politics. Jack Hedin is a small-time farmer who gets penalized for planting watermelons for local markets on land previously reserved for corn. Because of this violation of "corn-base acreage," not only does he forfeit subsidies (which seems reasonable, insofar as not subsidizing local watermelons is reasonable - which is to say, not at all); he is also penalized for the value of the "illicit" crop.

Federal law effectively prohibits new, small-time cultivation of any crops but the "big four" (corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat) through this cruel and absurd legal system. And, as Hedin points out, consumers are also paying the price - both in produce prices levied to pay for his "violation" and in minimized access to fresh, local fruits and vegetables.

On a large scale, U.S. agricultural policies are shutting down small producers all over the country before they even get a foothold, in order to defend the sovereignty of big fruit-and-vegetable agribusiness in California, Florida and Texas. This is yet another example of federal policy supporting the producers' interests at the expense of consumers.

Note: You might need a New York Times account to view the original article -sign up here. It's free!