Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Daring Baker: Danish Braid

My dear readers and fellow daring bakers - I have SO SO SO much to tell you, and I'm a day late for the Daring Bakers (I just typed Darting Bakers, which was a typo, but in retrospect seems appropriate) monthly post, too - but the last four days have been a culinary whirlwind of sipping herbed granité at the Food, Body, Planet benefit, snapping food photos for Pure Food and Wine, selling cheese at New Amsterdam Public's sustainable/regional market, and baking an honest-to-goodness wedding cake (and creating floral arrangements!) for my best friend's wedding last night. My blog is struggling to keep up with all that!

So for now, here are a couple of "teaser" shots of my Cream Cheese Danish Braid, made for the Daring Bakers' June Challenge, with more - and yummier! - images to come with the full post. If you just can't get enough, check out the Daring Baker's blogroll (not sure how recently updated that site is - our new site is under construction) to see many other braids - wonderful work, bakers!

I'll be back soon with stories to tell of cheese, monsoons, and wedding cake...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Best Mess

Sometimes praise comes at unlikely moments. Like during a slapped-together Tuesday night "dinner" consisting of a heap of steamed asparagus and a messy bowl of unattractive, sticky-sweet chicken wings.

"This might be my one of my favorite foods you've ever made," J declares seriously, licking sauce off his fingers. He even declines a movie with dinner so he can "concentrate on this amazing chicken."

It's hard not to measure success in moments like these. If only success in pairing oneself with such a generous palate.

Sweet Soy-Glazed Chicken Wings


1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

4 cloves minced garlic

3 scallions, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup ketchup

2 tablespoons white vinegar

1/2 cup brown sugar

3 tablespoons honey

Crushed red pepper, to taste

1/4 cup peanut oil (or other vegetable oil)
8-10 whole chicken wings (about 1 1/2 lbs.)


To prepare wings, take a sharp knife or kitchen shears and cut off the wing tip (I freeze the tips to use later for stock) , then cut at the joint, separating the drummette and the wingette. If desired, trim off excess flaps of skin. (This recommendation is not particularly for health purposes - I just don't care for the texture of extra skin in this recipe.)

Combine fist nine ingredients in a medium bowl, mixing thoroughly until sugar dissolves; Add wings and toss to coat. Cover and marinate for one hour at room temperature, or up to overnight in the fridge (though your scallions will lose some texture).

Remove wings from marinade and place in a separate bowl. Warm up a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat; add oil to the pan. When oil is hot, pour in the marinade; when the mixture begins to foam, arrange the chicken wings in the pan so that they are all touching the bottom. Cover and cook on medium heat for 20-25 minutes or until cooked through, turning wings periodically to prevent sticking. After 20 minutes, if sauce seems thin, cook uncovered for remaining time.

Serve hot, with extra sauce and plenty of napkins.

*I wasn't measuring, so all amounts are approximated. Feel free to do your own estimating!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Local Event: Food, Body, Planet

Play4Life, a cross-national children's food advocacy organization, is hosting a yummy NYC benefit event on Thursday, June 26, called Food, Body, Planet. If you can afford to snag a ticket, come out and support local food programs and the expansion of this awesome group, Powerful Lifestyles Advancing Youth, whose mission states that:

"Play 4 Life, Inc. is committed to transforming the lifestyles of America's youth by empowering school-age children to use their natural inclination toward play and creativity in the four areas of cooking, movement, conscientious eating and gardening. Our programming encourages community collaboration to advance today's youth in realizing their goals and dreams by teaching that a healthy body can produce and sustain a healthy mind."

Food, Body, Planet focuses on the importance of local, organic eating, and will feature all-star food sustainability scenesters such as prolific food writer Joan Gussow, Slow Food USA's formidable director Erika Lesser, and artist, activist, and outspoken locavore Leda Meredith. Your $95 (or $150 for two) also gets you a local, sustainable food tasting by ten chefs, including health activist and Top Chef Andrea Beaman, local wine and beer tasting (featuring the delightful Peak Organic Brewing Company), and a silent auction of wellness-related products and services, as well as student art. Sound like fun? See you there!

Event: Food, Body, Planet, hosted by Play 4 Life

When: 7-10 PM, Thursday, June 26

CUE Art Foundation
511 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001

Tickets: NYCharities.org

I am affiliated with Food 4 Life via the NYC Food Systems Network, a "membership based organization designed to foster communication and cultivate community amongst various stake holders and professionals working across the food system." They're a wonderfully useful network - sign up!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Cakespiration: Round 1

Let me just cut to the chase and say that I am going to bake my own wedding cake next year. Don't sigh like that! Don't give me that exasperated look! It was hard enough, acknowledging that I probably oughtn't single-handedly prepare dinner for fifty-odd guests on my wedding day. Yes, I know it will be a busy time, I know I will be spazzing out about a million other things, but I am going to make my cake, okay?

Why? Because baking cake is my favorite thing ever. :)

In case you were concerned, the cake pictured above is not my wedding cake. Rather, it is, in traditional bootstraps-in-the-sky fashion, Lesson One in my self-taught series, How to Bake Your Own Wedding Cake! Get ready...

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Lesson One: Structural Integrity

I had never made a stacked cake before, beyond regular layer cakes - never anything tiered. (in fact, last time I made an eight-layer peanut butter cake, the middle layers oozed woefully out one side. A delicious, embarrassing mess!) The point of my first trial cake was to learn the rules of Big Cakery - that is, what makes it stand up? What keeps it from collapsing into itself? How do you stabilize a cake? I decided to focus on these questions and leave fillings and decorating for another trial.

The first thing I learned is that different types of cake are good for different styles. Light, airy cakes like angel food or sponge cake are good for sheet cakes or tall cakes with separate tiers, but bad for stacking, since the cake itself can't provide much support. Shortened cakes (pound cake or any basic butter cake) have a higher density that can make tiers precarious, but is great for stacked layers. For my first trial wedding cake, I wanted to stack - so I went with a shortened cake: Tish Boyle's Basic Golden Cake Layers (The Cake Book, page 120; recipe approximated here). I made one-and-a-half times the recipe for three layers: a five-inch, a seven-inch, and a ten-inch.

I divided the batter to an even depth between the three pans (though, in retrospect, I should have added a bit more to the biggest pan, to give that layer a little extra height), and baked them for 45, 50, and 55 minutes, respectively. I cooled them in the pan for 30 minutes, then removed them onto cardboard circles I had cut out of cereal boxes and covered in foil, and let them cool completely. To make the layers perfectly flat, I used a long, serrated knife to cut the domed top off of each one; then I cut each cake in half horizontally to create two layers.

Obviously, I used the presence of the discarded domes as an opportunity to taste the cake. It was great! I know that some people are picky about having wedding cake be white, which is achieved by excluding egg yolks, but I like the richness and moisture that yolks add, so I used a yolky recipe. The result was an ivory-colored, tender crumb that was just sweet enough and very vanilla-y. Delicious!

Next up: icing. I had never made or worked with fondant before, so even though it isn't my favorite, I decided to give it a go. At the very least, fondant is great for sculpting decorations, so I figured I might as well give learn my way around that chewy confection. But first, the fondant needs a layer of buttercream to help it adhere to the cake and seal in moisture.

I had read that buttercreams containing some vegetable shortening are good for outdoor events - which our wedding will be - because the shortening raises the melting temperature, so I decided to try it out and see how much the shortening affected the taste (I worked from the first recipe from this website, although I made a few minor changes). And, while the icing was easy to work with and didn't get too soft during assembly - despite my steamy summer kitchen - I felt that it was definitely "short" on flavor. I carefully iced each tier, spreading thick between cake layers and very thin on the top and sides, then put the whole lot in the fridge to chill and stiffen up a little, so it wouldn't goosh out the bottom when I applied the fondant.

While the iced layers were chilling, I made my fondant. Now, I find that fondant, by and large, tastes like vinyl, but my soon-to-be-sister-in-law once made J and I an engagement cake with fondant made with marshmallows (rather than the traditional corn syrup), which I found more flavorful and delicate, so I went with that. It couldn't have been easier - I put 16 ounces of mini marshmallows in a large bowl with two tablespoons of water and microwaved it for about two minutes, pausing every thirty seconds and giving it a stir. Once the marshmallows were melted, I poured the warm, sticky mass out onto a heavily-greased counter and kneaded in a pound and a half of powdered sugar (with equally heavily-greased hands - take off your rings or else!). Once the mass looked a bit like gluey bread dough (re-grease hands and counter when necessary), I added in another half a pound of sugar, a little at a time, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. After about eight minutes, I achieved a firm, elastic ball of doughy fondant. (If it seems like it's tearing easily, knead in a little water, about a half a teaspoon at a time.) It's wise to let it rest for at least thirty minutes here before rolling it out.

Once my fondant had rested, I divided into three balls, which I estimated to be appropriately relative in size. I cleaned my counter top and dusted it with cornstarch, then carefully rolled out each ball to about a 1/8th-inch thickness - some people prefer to work with a greased counter top at this stage, rather than starch, but bear in mind that if your fondant tears, sealing it back together without a line is almost impossible with greasy dough!

About here, it became clear that I had made way too much fondant. I draped each sheet over the chilled cakes, gently shaping the edges with my hands (there's a special tool that makes this process a lot easier and more geometric), and used a serrated knife to trim off the plentiful excess "skirt."

Now for assembly. I inserted four evenly-spaced dowels into each of the bottom two layers to provide support; wooden dowels are advised, but I don't have a saw and I hadn't thought to use drinking straws, which would have been better, so I used sucker sticks, which are made out of tightly-rolled paper. I was worried that they might disintegrate in the moist cake over a period of days, but they ended up working just fine. Anyway, I trimmed each stick to be exactly level with the fondant, then rested the next layer on top. (If this had been an important cake, I would have measured, but my eyeballed efforts looks fine.) The last step is to insert a long, sharpened dowel all the way through the cake from top to bottom, piercing the cardboard cake boards as you go, but I didn't have a long or sharp enough dowel, so I skipped that step and hoped for the best.

I hadn't intended to decorate at all, but the foil-covered cardboard glimmered out from under each later slightly, so at the last minute I added some bright green food coloring to my leftover buttercream and dabbed on some messy impromptu ruffles with a Ziploc baggie (I haven't bought a pastry bag or decorating tips yet). Suddenly I had something approximating a St. Patrick's Day cake - but that was alright. It was upright, symmetrical, stable! Victory!

We sliced the top layer after dinner. I wasn't anticipating a flavor powerhouse or anything, but like most wedding cakes, the taste was a bit of a letdown. The cake itself was moist and tender (Tish's cookbook never lets me down), but the buttercream was a little waxy, and the fondant...well, it was better than most fondant, but, you know.

A cake that size makes about 40 wedding-size (a.k.a. teensy) slices, so even while pawning off slabs of it to neighbors and friends, I had a few days to see how it aged, which is important, since most wedding cakes are made a day or two ahead of time. My observations are as follows:

- No slipping, sliding or sinking occurred at any point, despite the fact that the cake underwent various forms of transportation over the weekend to a number of friends' houses, without a central dowel. So A+ for structural integrity!

- A layer entirely encased in fondant (no missing slices) stayed very moist and fresh for three days; sliced cake dried out quickly, even when wrapped up or protected with parchment paper.

- The buttercream improved over time as some of the sugar crystallized and acquired a little texture. I also realized that it would have been much improved with an extra bit of salt. Also, most people who ate the cake seemed to like the buttercream more than I did, so maybe I'm just sensitive about shortening.

- Nobody likes fondant, even good fondant. So I guess I'm ruling fondant out, despite its protective qualities. This scares me a little, because the hardest part of making the cake was getting the buttercream even (some tools would help) and keeping it crumb-free. Any advice on how to keep pesky crumbs out of pristine buttercream?

I also think that my brief flirtation with vanilla-all-the-way wedding cake is over; at the very least, I'd opt for a lemon curd filling. I'm definitely ready to discard the White Wonder and move on to more adventurous flavors. Speaking of which - my best friend is getting married in a couple of weeks, and she's commissioned me to make a cake for their informal affair. A red velvet cake! It will be a small crowd - maybe twenty people, tops - so I think I might take the opportunity to try pillars! On the subway! I think my blog has found a theme...?

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Things I want to learn about next:

- using columns;

- the durability of un-fondanted buttercream, whether I can use a cream cheese frosting, and whether the aforementioned options will melt outside;

- How long in advance buttercream can be made;

-How much cake layers are affected by being frozen (should they be iced first?).

Lastly, have any of you readers enjoyed memorable wedding cake (or other-event-cake)? What was special about it?

Here are some beautiful cakes that inspire me. :)