the genoise that almost wasn’t

June 19, 2012 § 17 Comments

I was lucky enough to still be in Portland OR when I made Flo Braker’s French Strawberry Cake from Baking with Julia. Pastry chef Braker currently writes and has written “The Baker” column for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1989 and has also written a few pastry cookbooks, of which I own two. I considered myself lucky because

  1. Strawberry season was just getting underway with farmers’ market stands displaying flats of varieties new to me. My favorite was called Hood which had a nice balance of sweetness and acidity; one that is a little harder to grow and probably only available at local markets as I don’t think their tender juicy flesh would stand up to much handling.
  2. I also got a glass quart of local HEAVY cream from the PSU farmers’ market. Wow, was that a rich treat, worth every artery-clogging calorie.
  3. I was able to easily get a copy of “The Book” from the Portland public library, since I didn’t pack my tome to take on the airplane.
  4. And I got to bake a tricky cake recipe at sea level, instead of my mile-high home altitude.

That said, I had more trouble with Flo’s recipe than with my altitude-adjusted genoise that I’ve baked many times without a hitch. Should I blame it on the cold damp weather or baking in a foreign kitchen with an unfamiliar oven and the wrong size cake pans? Nah! Since I’m posting late today, I took a peek at some of your results already. Don’t feel bad if this recipe didn’t work for you either. It’s a little more delicate than some genoise with the use of cake flour (less gluten strength in the batter) and the generous dose of melted butter (I could hear the swoosh of air coming out of my egg foam when I made it the first time). If I try a third time, I might use all-purpose or even some whole wheat pastry flour like Lynn of Eat Drink Man Woman Dogs Cat did. Here’s how it rolled for me in my daughter’s small duplex kitchen in Portland…

Here’s the quick, easy and accurate way I like to cut the parchment paper to fit in the bottom of any round cake pan. Fold the sheet in half, then in quarters, then into triangles twice making sure you keep the long pointy end oriented where the center of the pan would be. Place the folded paper on the bottom of the pan and note where the edge is, cut it straight across and unfold it to see if it fits the pan. Refold and trim if it’s a little too big because you want the paper round to lay flat so batter doesn’t get underneath. Don’t worry if it’s a little too small as long as you’ve greased the pan’s bottom (which will help the parchment stay in place) and sides; be sure to grease all around the bottom’s corner edge too.

I sifted the cake flour with the dry ingredients three times to aerate and ensure that there were no clumps. Since I used a 6 quart KitchenAid mixer, I doubled the recipe so the whisk attachment could efficiently aerate the larger volume of egg-sugar foam (baked genoise freezes well as long it’s wrapped airtight).

Even though Flo’s recipe didn’t call for this step (common to many genoise recipes), I gently heated the egg sugar mixture in a bain marie (Mary’s warm bath in French) while stirring just until it was barely warm to the touch. This starts to “relax” (denature) the egg proteins slightly so it will be easier to incorporate air into the egg foam by beating. Turns out this allowed my first batter to over-aerate during beating and it started to collapse when I folded the melted butter in at the end and barely rose in the oven.

For genoise (which is simply a sponge cake made with whole instead of separated eggs) the egg-sugar mixture is beaten until it “ribbons”. The first time I made the recipe I beat until I got a very noticeable ribbon which lasted for several seconds when I dropped the batter from the whisk.

Since the first batter deflated and didn’t rise much in the oven, I knew that the egg foam had collapsed. I’d seen this problem before baking cakes and even soufflés at altitude. The air bubbles get too big when they expand from the heat of the oven and pop. So the second time, I skipped heating the egg-sugar mixture and I didn’t beat it as long. This gave a softer ribbon indicating less air was incorporated into the egg foam, so it hopefully could still expand in the oven. Can you see the difference?

I sifted the sifted flour mixture (yes, this is not a typo) over the egg-sugar mixture in three or four parts and gently but quickly folded it in without leaving any small dry lumps of flour. (Notice that I transferred the batter to a large shallow bowl to make folding easier and more efficient. I think those narrow KitchenAid mixer bowls with the bump in the center make folding more difficult.) A small amount of the batter was “sacrificed” by mixing it with the melted butter. This made it easier to fold the butter into the rest of the batter, deflating it less. (Were you able to keep the batter and butter straight?)

Cakes out of the oven looked promising, nice and level and with sufficient height, even in the 9-inch pans. I let them cool, then wrapped in plastic to let the cakes “settle” overnight.

Onto some beautiful Albion strawberries, rinsed, hulled, sliced and sugared. The Albions are less sweet and firmer than the Hoods, so they keep some of their texture as the sugar draws out their moisture. After a couple of hours they have softened so I mashed them and refrigerated overnight as well.

The bottom of this Rubbermaid cake keeper easily rotates when placed upside down on the cover so it provided me with a convenient makeshift decorating stand. I split the cake into two layers, and initially all looked well, but I noticed a heaviness to the bottom of the cake.

Sacré bleu! There was a dense tough “door mat” in the center of the cake where the batter collapsed during baking (though not as much) again. I switched from “prepare” mode to “repair” mode, and surgically removed the door mat, leaving a very thin bottom layer. Luckily, I made two cakes! So I removed the door mat from the second one, and then split it into two more even but thin layers.

Onto more pleasant tasks of whipping that wonderful cream and getting the strawberry filling from the refrigerator.

Since there’s just three of us eating this cake, I decided to take the best and prettiest layers and made a four-layer half cake! The troublesome melted butter does make for a more tender and moister genoise, and the sugared juice from the mashed berries made a perfect soaking syrup for this cake.

From the “front” you can’t really tell that I had such a problem with that genoise.

And since I made just half of a cake, there’s plenty of the whipped cream frosting and berry filling to serve alongside.

Which is just what we did! There was a bit of “leaning tower of Pisa” effect from all the cake surgery, but it was pretty delicious, and I would say even better the next day when the strawberry filling settled into the cake and soaked the layers even more. Would I make this again? With a little more work on the genoise recipe and excellent strawberries and cream available, I would say “oui”!


my Portlandia

June 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m closing in on two weeks visiting a few friends and my daughter and her husband in Portland, OR. It’s my kind of place–lovely green spaces in the city, residences with beautiful ornamental and edible gardens, lots of good eateries and bakeries and an almost over the top local food and wine culture. Of course, you need to work off all those accessible and delicious calories, so there’s plenty of opportunity for walking, biking and other outdoor activities as long as the weather cooperates. Sigh, that’s where Portland falls short in terms of “a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there”. Last weekend provided the only two warm sunny days on the whole trip; that’s an average of one sunny day per week.

On approach to Portland you can see the Willamette (rhymes with “dammit”) River bisect the city from north to south. The airport isn’t busy at all even on a Friday when I walked by the passenger pickup zone and parking structure to catch a MAX train into town, part of Portland’s good bus and train public transportation system.

My daughter Laurel and I went to farmers’ markets on both Saturdays I was in town. Of course we had to go to the big central market on the PSU college campus which has EVERYTHING, but she usually shops at the small Hollywood neighborhood farmers’ market which is less of a zoo and has most of the local produce, baked goods and prepared foods.

Here’s a couple of items I can’t get from any Colorado farms, big porcini mushrooms (we bought one that fed all three of us) and sea beans, a unique crunchy salty vegetable that grows in salt marsh conditions.

I turned the porcini and sea beans into a Portlandia Salad with the addition of spring onions, fresh garlic and hazelnuts on greens (no, the vinegar, oil, salt and pepper were not local). The rest of our almost local meal were DIY fava bean purée, Oregon hard cheese and radish bruschetta and some king salmon (alas, from Alaska) son-in-law Alex grilled in The Big Green Egg (see previous post).

Avid bread baker Laurel made beautiful sesame semolina loaves. While they baked she enjoyed a plateful of local strawberries made even better with cake and whipped cream!

Of course, not all of our meals were at home. Portland definitely gives you that “so many restaurants, bakeries and food carts, so little time” feeling. We enjoyed an excellent Japanese bento lunch at Chef Naoko’s and an artful and delicious Mediterranean dinner at Tabla.

Here’s the Oaxacan pork tamale from Porque No taqueria and a scene from Ping, sister restaurant to the now well-known Thai-influenced Pok Pok.

I took many neighborhood walks, trying to work off those yummy calories. The lush growth in many front yards proved that you don’t need a green thumb to successfully garden in Portland. Here’s some of what’s growing and flowering in June–

…white dogwood tree, simple magenta peony…

…pink rhododendron, though I saw more white ones, and a climbing rose…

…leaf patterns including one of my favorites, Japanese maple…

…Japanese maples grow in almost every yard to majestic stature…

…even the less cared for curbsides were blooming profusely, lilies and passionfruit…

…gardens, both whimsical and elegant…

…and homes, traditional and whimsical…

…good bye for now, Portlandia…


June 5, 2012 § 17 Comments

1. A fertile spot in a desert where water is found.
2. A pleasant or peaceful area or period in the midst of a difficult, troubled, or hectic place or situation.

1. I am most definitely where water is found, here in Portland, Oregon; I haven’t seen too much of the sun and plenty of drizzly grey. After our sunny SoCal visit to see family, I’m visiting my daughter Laurel and her husband Alex, who share their small duplex with two big cats nicknamed Smooth Cat and Fuzzy Cat (a brother and sister duo who obviously wear very different style coats).

Alex built this crazy cat house for Smooth and Fuzzy out of scrap and recycled materials; it makes for very happy cats!

2. And I’m in a pleasant, peaceful though still occasionally hectic time right now, so baking the Oasis Naan with the Tuesday group was a nice diversion. Laurel herself is an accomplished and worldly cook and baker. Most recently her go to book on Indian food has been How to Cook Indian by Sanjeev Kapoor. She selected and prepared the tandoori chicken with chaat masala spice mix, and a spicy dal of red lentils and kale. Alex manned the Big Green Egg wood-fired grill to cook the chicken and bake the naans, and opened a bottle of one of Oregon’s famed pinot noirs. It was a fun and delicious first dinner in their Portland home for me. Here’s how Oasis Naan fared for us…

Even though baker-authors Jeffry Alford and Naomi Duguid directions were for hand kneading, I elected to use the big KitchenAid mixer. Yup, Laurel has one just like her mom. And of course, I just had to make one of the cups of flour whole wheat. I used the flat beater for the first “100 strokes” since the mixture was more like a batter than a dough at the beginning.

Five cups total of flour went into the mix, the lowest amount so it was a pretty wet dough. But five minutes or so of kneading on speed 2 with the dough hook brought the dough together with a good amount of gluten development. Here it is before rising.

And here it is after a second rise. I actually let it rise a third time as we wanted to cook the tandoori chicken first so the naans had to wait an additional hour before baking.

Here are the naans, portioned and lightly rounded. The wet dough wanted to stick, so there’s some flour on the parchment paper. Since there so much more humidity in Oregon than Colorado, I used a tea towel instead of plastic to cover the dough at various stages. Notice the tight quarters; the wood bench is just slightly bigger than a 2×2 foot square.

On the generously floured bench I rolled the dough to about 1/4 inch thickness and then pricked heavily with a fork.

Laurel keeps a heavy duty water sprayer on hand for creating steam when she bakes bread, so I used it to mist the top of the naans so the toppings of seeds and scallions would stay put.

Meanwhile Alex’s been cooking the tandoori chicken in the Big Green Egg. To save fuel and time, the baking stone is heating on a rack beneath the chicken (protected by a large drip pan), so cooking is by indirect instead of direct heat.

When the chicken is done, the stone is moved up to the top rack and heated some more for baking bread. We didn’t have quite enough fuel for the long cooking/baking time, so while the last naans finish, the temperature was low enough to put the chicken back on the grill for a quick reheat. This naan has black onion seeds (nigella or kalonji) instead of the cumin specified in the recipe. Since she’s travelled in Asia and enjoys cooking various world cuisines, Laurel has the most extensive spice collection I know.

Dinner is served – dal, tandoori drumstick, oasis naan and the Oregon pinot. The naan bread had some earthiness from the whole wheat and the extra bit of salt sprinkled on top brought out the flavors. The breads were crusty on the bottom, softer on top and chewy inside, so the Big Green Egg did a good job. It probably helped that the dough was wet since baking in an outdoor grill which is vented is much more drying than a conventional oven. A fun and delicious meal, and made with joy with family! Thanks, Laurel and Alex!

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