un deux trois ~ FFwD! and eggplant tartine?

September 7, 2012 § 21 Comments

Okay, now you’ve done it! All of you French Fridays with Dorie (FFwD) cooks made me do it. (The end of a Colorado summer produce bounty was an added incentive.) I bought the book and now I’m boogie-ing trying to catch up since I’m 100 recipes behind the rest of you. Actually, I’ve known about this challenge group since the beginning of the year, as I bake with many of you (all of you?) in the Tuesdays with Dorie (TwD) group. There were a few reasons I had NOT to do this –

  1. I already own several French cookbooks that I haven’t cooked from
  2. I already participate in Dorie Greenspan’s baking challenge
  3. Could I really commit to a recipe per week, when sometimes it’s hard for me to bake every other week with TwD?
  4. Am I developing a Dorie cookbook compulsion?

Then I rationalized, we have to eat everyday, so it should be easy to do one recipe from Around my French Table per week. And I have other five nights to cook Italian, Mexican, Spanish, regional American, Indian, other Asian, Greek, etc. and still have a night to go out or get takeout. We would eat the leftovers all this cooking generated for lunch (we’re both at home, Phil’s retired and I haven’t returned to work yet), and hopefully not put on any extra weight.

So my personal FFwD goal is to cook the weekly recipe and two past recipes – un, deux, trois! Hopefully in a year, I’ll catch up with the rest of you.

This week is Dorie’s riff on a tartine, an open-faced sandwich, with eggplant slices standing in for the bread. My riff was a salad with lots of contrasts – still warm creamy-flesh-chewy-skin roasted Japanese eggplant topped with our favorite farmstead chèvre , juicy heirloom tomato “salsa” spiked with bites of celery and salty capers and olives, and crunchy cucumber slices drenched with olive oil and finished with large grained salt. A perfect end-of-summer salad as all of the produce came from a local farm or our garden.

This is a light and easy supper. While the eggplant roasts in the oven (mine was already hot from baking dessert, but you could also grill the eggplant if it’s too hot to cook in the house), cut and toss most of the other ingredients into a bowl for the tomato salsa which is brightened with some red wine vinegar.  Thinly slice the cucumbers and drizzle and toss with olive oil. When you’re ready to eat, assemble eggplant, chèvre, tomato and cucumber. Voilà, dinner is served.

This was such a light dish, we had to have dessert too! I took the very ripe peaches from the fruit bowl to top a thin cake batter, and used the forgotten streusel from my last peach cake to provide a crunchy edging. This cake was the complete opposite from the upside down chiffon cake – straight forward, easy, foolproof and all about the peaches! The perfect ending for a weeknight meal.

Here’s the roll call of the other FFwD dishes I made this week from local farm and garden produce and herbs. It sure is easy to eat well in the summertime!

Un – a simple last-of-the-season creamy corn soup (September 2011)

Deux – slow-roasted cherry tomatoes from the garden (August 2011)

Trois – classic leek and potato soup with cheese crouton (December 2010)

I have to say that both of the soups were striking in their bright clean flavors. The simple preparations, a light hand with fat and seasonings, and relatively short cooking times really allowed the freshness and taste of the vegetables to shine. Kudos to Dorie!


an upside-down cake

September 4, 2012 § 19 Comments

As you can see, I had a hard time wrapping my head around this cake. It looks nothing like the caramelized and streusel-filled Nectarine Upside-Down Chiffon cake by pastry chef Mary Bergin in Baking with Julia. And while my version has a pretty face, I do wish I had remembered to include the streusel; I made it but forgot to add it when filling the cake pan. My cake could have used that extra punch.

Replicating Mary’s nectarine cake was just not to be. First of all, this has been a great year for fruit in Colorado, and our most important fruit crop is probably peaches (move over Georgia). I had bought a case, “inherited” a case and then was given cases of peaches. I needed to preserve the onslaught of peaches without having an extra freezer or the time it takes to make several batches of jam or butter; these babies were RIPE and needed to be processed right away. So I now have several pint jars of canned peaches in light syrup in the basement. I used three of them to make this cake! I opted for granulated instead of the brown sugar under the peaches thinking I’d get some caramelization during baking.

Chiffon cakes, like genoise (remember June’s French Strawberry cake) rely heavily on the nature of eggs, in this case separated yolks and whites. Since I used these lovely farm-sourced eggs which vary in size as well as color, I selected the ones closest to large size. You can also measure them if needed allowing 1/2 oz per yolk, and 1 oz per white. (Check out this new and amusing way to separate eggs.) At this point, the rest of the dry and wet ingredients have been combined and are just waiting for perfectly whipped eggs whites at medium stiffness. If the whites are under whipped they won’t contain enough air to lift the batter, but if they’re over whipped they contain too much air and end up popping as the heated air expands in the oven and your cake collapses. At sea level, you can whip the whites a little stiffer than mine at 5000 feet, but definitely don’t let them start looking like popcorn or weep, both signs of severe over beating and impending cake disaster. Start over, it’s worth it.

“Sacrifice” 1/4 to 1/3 of the whipped eggs whites to lighten the batter. I just quickly whisk in with the mixer attachment and avoid one more things to wash. Don’t worry if the whites are streaky in the batter at this point.

Now add the rest of the egg whites and quickly fold in with the spatula. Stop once the batter looks uniformly mixed. If you continue to fold pass this point, you start to deflate the batter and are also on the road to a tough cake.

Working quickly to avoid losing the precious breath of your cake, pour it into the prepared cake pan (don’t forget to have buttered the sides) and level by just tilting the pan around instead of using the spatula to smooth the surface (the less touching, the better now). Here’s the cake just before going into the oven, and here’s my streusel I discover in the refrigerator just after that. Oh yeah, forgot to bake and cool the streusel, so it’s not going to happen this time.

Another altitude adjustment I made was to increase the oven temperature by 25°F for the first 10-15 minutes of baking, but again I forgot to turn the oven back down to the correct temperature. So it’s a little dark on top, but you see how level it is as the top sets before it can dome too much and then collapse. The final verdict after altitude adjustments and boo-boos? Pretty peaches, but the cake’s a little too wet (almost like pudding, if you like that) just underneath them. Beautiful yellow color, but actually a little too eggy in taste for chiffon to me. A little bit of a plain-jane, should’ve remembered the streusel layer and used the brown sugar with the peaches.

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”!

I’ve been loafing

April 15, 2012 § 12 Comments

OK, you caught me. I haven’t posted for two weeks. But I’ll have a note from my doctor for an excused absence, promise!

Subtitled: A Lemon Loaf with Altitude (at 5000 feet)

I baked this Baking with Julia recipe in two small ceramic bakers, so I’d have one to give and one to taste. After reading a few of the TWD P&Q (translate Tuesdays with Dorie Problems & Questions) posts (dry, not enough lemon flavor), I made some on-the-fly changes. The resulting loaves seem true to the recipe’s introduction (moist, firm, rich and dense) and I was able to slice them as thinly as the recipe promised, yielding many servings/samples. The lemon loaf got many positive reviews and my husband thought it quite lemony. I think adding a little lemon juice, and some plain yogurt imparted a tartness that reinforced the lemon essence from all of the zest. Also, the acid from these ingredients helped keep the cake tender since I used all-purpose flour, and the extra liquid helped keep the cake moist. Here are my high altitude (and other) adjustments explained:

  1. increased salt to 1/4 teaspoon (improved flavor)
  2. added grated zest of 3 limes (my lemons were small and I also wanted the color)
  3. switched cake flour to all-purpose (made cake sturdier so it didn’t fall in the center, but could become dry and tough)
  4. added about 2 tablespoons of lemon juice (flavor, additional moisture and avoid problem from 3.)
  5. added 1/4 cup plain whole yogurt (flavor, additional moisture and avoid problem from 3.)

There are some common high altitude adjustments that I didn’t make to this recipe:

  1. reduce sugar – sugar tenderizes, so I kept it the same since I used AP flour
  2. reduce leavening (baking powder) – it was such a small amount already, and I didn’t want a brick
  3. increase oven temperature by 25°F – this helps set the exterior of the cake quicker so it doesn’t over rise and then fall in the middle, but I had already reduced the size of the cake by using 2 loaf pans (they baked in less time)

The science behind high altitude baking is based on the fact that the higher you go, the lower the air pressure (think thinner atmosphere). Picture a balloon; if there’s less pressure surrounding that balloon, what might happen? Yup, it’ll get too big and pop. When you make a cake batter, you want it to have a lot of fine bubbles that will leaven and lighten the cake as the air bubbles expand from the heat of the oven. When the cake is done, hopefully the liquid batter has set into the desired type of cake, light and airy angel food to dense and rich pound cake. But if the ingredients aren’t balanced for altitude, you can get a cake that rises to great height in the oven and then collapses, leaving you with a dense gooey center (the classic high altitude dog dish cake). Or because water boils at a lower temperature at altitude (same reason, less air pressure so it changes to steam quicker), breads and cakes dry out during baking. Adding some extra liquid is almost always a helpful adjustment. It can seem like a maddeningly impossible task to learn how to make such a variety of adjustments. Be patient. Pay attention to your measurements and technique. Observe, dissect, taste and analyze your results. Decide on a small number of adjustments, and try again. With experience, you’ll be able predict what adjustments might help when trying a new recipe, and you’ll become a more confident high altitude baker (and a more knowledgeable food scientist).

The recipe began similarly to a genoise sponge cake, but the eggs, sugar and salt are just mixed to uniformly combine, not to a ribbon stage.

I combined the zests with a little lemon juice and mixed that into the egg-sugar mixture.

The rest of the ingredients are ready for the final mix. In the top bowl, I’ve combined the cream and melted butter with some yogurt; all at room temperature or slightly warmer so the butter doesn’t solidify. The egg mixture is on the right, and the flour and baking powder has been sifted 3 times so that it will blend in quickly and easily without forming dry clumps. The flour is sifted over the egg mixture in portions and folded in with minimal stirring.

I took a small amount of the batter and quickly stirred it into the cream-butter-yogurt mixture. This made it easier to fold the “batters” together and avoid over mixing which can lead to dry tough cakes.

Thin slices of the lemon loaf are rich, moist and pack a lemon-lime punch! They reminded me of a pagoda when I took this picture.

Happy Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2012 § 3 Comments

When I awoke this morning, I fully intended to do some sweet baking for my sweet heart. But last week’s “Last Chemo” must have kicked my butt a little extra, just for good measure I suppose. I just didn’t have the energy to stay on my feet in the kitchen. Lucky for me, we have a new cute little Walnut Café in the neighborhood, and cupcake creator (aka cupcake countess) Nicole had just the what I needed, the perfect little Red Velvet cupcake with cream cheese icing and a heart! Thank you, Nicole!

Perfectly moist Red Velvet cake with tangy cream cheese icing! Hana visualizing from her sub-cupcake location. I should mention that Nicole is a former star student from my teaching days; you make me proud, Nicole!

Celebration Carrot Cake

February 11, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m more of a pie baker than a cake baker (hence my moniker Piebird), but a cake seemed more appropriate to celebrate the end of my chemo treatments. Wanting a somewhat “healthy” cake (hey, I’m taking this to the oncology office), I chose carrot cake, which I’ve probably only made a couple of times way back, probably post-college days. I was short one key ingredient (no, had plenty of carrots, freshly dug from the snowy ground no less), and that was a “neutral flavorless oil”. Now, with a description like that, why would I keep vegetable oil around? I know some of them are good for frying, with a higher smoke point than olive oil, but somehow I’ve managed to get by with butter (straight or clarified), olive oils, coconut oil, and bacon drippings. No flavorless oils for me, apparently!

So I googled up a few recipes, and even found one that used butter, compared it with who knows how many regular oil carrot cakes, and came up with this. It baked up nice and was easy to assemble into its three-layers-with-cream-cheese-frosting finished form. One important caveat to remember: all the ingredients must be at room temperature when you make the cake, and you MUST serve this cake at room temperature; remember butter, unlike oil, is a solid when cold. Everyone seemed to love the buttery carrot cake! There were lots of smiles and finger-licking.

This recipe turned out fine at 5000′ altitude. Since it has a dense texture, I think it would be fine at sea level too. Also, here’s a good article I found on Fine Cooking’s website about using olive oil in cakes. I’m going to try that next time!

Buttery Celebration Carrot Cake

Yields one 3-layer cake (recipe works at 5000 ft.)


2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

2-3 cups finely grated carrots*

1 cup finely chopped toasted nuts or shredded unsweetened coconut

1/2 cup golden raisins

1 15-oz can crushed unsweetened pineapple, well-drained (save the juice)

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger (or substitute 1 teaspoon ground)

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, melted

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup honey

4 large eggs, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

*Use less carrots for a “cake-ier” texture, more for a dense moist texture, depending on your preference

Preheat the oven to 350°F (start at 375°F for 5000′ altitude) and place oven racks in the center. Prepare three 8-inch round pans by buttering, placing parchment in the bottom and flouring the sides. Combine all of the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt and ground ginger if using) mixing well to thoroughly blend and set aside. Separately combine the “add-in” ingredients (carrots, nuts/coconut, raisins, drained pineapple), except the pineapple juice.

In the mixer bowl add the melted butter, sugar and honey and mix to uniformly combine. On medium-low speed, add the eggs one at a time, blending well before adding the next. Add the vanilla. Now blend in all of the add-in ingredients. The mixture may appear “curdled” but will improve after you add the flour. Stop the mixer, add half the flour mixture and blend on low speed. Add 1/2 cup of the reserved pineapple juice (a little more if the batter seems tight or dry), then the rest of the flour. Mix just until uniformly combined. Be sure you have scraped the sides of the bowl and the beater once or twice during mixing.

Evenly divide the batter between the three prepared pans (I like to check the filled pan weights on my scale) and level the tops (pushing a little extra batter around the edge of the pan can help prevent the cake from doming too much). Immediately place the pans into the hot oven evenly spaced apart. Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating once partway through baking if needed to get even doneness of all the cakes. If you’re baking at the higher temperature of 375°F for altitude, lower the temperature to 350°F for the last ten minutes. When done, cakes should be evenly browned on top, springy to a light finger touch in the center and just starting to pull away from the sides of the pans. Set on racks to cool and settle for at least ten minutes. Place a small rack on top of the cake pan, gently invert and let the cake drop out of the pan. Leave the parchment on the bottom for now (it helps hold the cake together) and gently invert again so the cake is right side up on a cooling rack. Cool completely. I wrapped and chilled the cakes overnight and assembled the next day.

Sweet Cream Cheese Frosting

Yields enough to thinly frost a three-layer cake

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature

pinch salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 pound powdered sugar, sifted

Place all of the ingredients except for the powdered sugar into the mixer bowl and beat on medium speed with the flat beater until uniformly blended. Stop the mixer to add the sugar a cup at a time, mixing on a low speed to evenly combine and occasionally scraping the bowl.

Assemble and frost the cake. You can spread a thin layer of orange marmalade on the two lower cakes before applying the frosting for a touch of bitterness. Don’t forget to remove the parchment papers while putting your cakes together!

Serve at room temperature and Celebrate!

Day Zero

February 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

Yesterday was my last chemotherapy treatment. Hurray! I have to say that this area of medicine has really progressed in the past 20 or so years. My husband Phil’s son died of cancer in his early 20’s. He stayed with us during his treatment, and I remember how hard the chemotherapy was–his weight loss, inability to eat or keep food down, and just feeling crappy. So it’s scary when you learn that you have to go through this treatment. My experience was completely different, thank goodness. The management of side effects seems so much improved.

I did have to take a lot of medicines to mitigate those side effects though. My protocol began with 2 doses of dexamethasone (a steroid) the night before, a Zyrtec allergy pill an hour before, pre-meds of Zofran anti-nausea, and Pepsid for stomach upset just before the chemo drugs, of which I got two: Taxol and Carboplatin, so commonly used together that they’re called CarboTaxol. The port infusion of just the chemo took 4 hours at best, so I caught up with quite a bit of reading over six treatments.

I usually feel pretty good day after chemo (all those drugs, especially the steroid probably), then there’s three or four days of feeling like a have a slight flu–ache-ness, tired, headache, but no nausea since I’m taking three types of anti-nausea medication four times a day. I also give myself five daily injections of Neupogen, which jumps starts the bone marrow into producing the white blood cells (neutrophils) needed to fight infections (sometime this drug made my bones ache a little). One of the main dangers of the chemotherapy is the suppression of your immune system which can lead to illness or infections if your skin is broken (scratches, cuts, bites, etc.). In fact, if your body temp goes higher than 100.5°F, you have to go to the doctor or emergency room. Luckily, I haven’t had to do that! During the second week after chemo, I take an antibiotic twice daily to provide protection while my immune system is at its lowest state. Finally, I start feeling “normal”, but still pretty fatigued the third week, and then we go in for another treatment. But not this time! I’m done, and that feels Great!

I baked a carrot cake to celebrate my last chemo with the wonderful nursing staff of Kaiser’s Infusion Clinic.

At home, the finished cake, clean and simple

The cake is demolished in a couple of hours

Word gets around there’s cake in the clinic!

The RN’s help me celebrate my Last Chemo!

Thanks to the wonderful RN’s who administered the chemotherapy and provided warm supportive care to a lot of patients like me!!!

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