Nov 30, 2009

Pure Pumpkin Cheesecake

Ever since Jim saw this recipe for pumpkin cheesecake, he's been excited to try it. Many, many years ago, I baked a pumpkin cheesecake (recipe probably from Bon Appetit magazine). It was a huge cheesecake, and I made it for dessert at a dinner party where we had only two guests. The cheesecake went on and on and on. It wasn't all that good, but we had it for so many days and nights that we were getting quite attached to it, and Jim, especially, yearned for it once it was gone. "I sure wish I had a piece of pumpkin cheesecake for dessert," he'd sigh mournfully. Even after all these years, he sometimes talks about that cheesecake the way you'd talk about an old friend whom you haven't seen for years. "How nice it would be to get together again!"
I've resisted the pumpkin cheesecake's siren song until now, mostly because a) pumpkin pie is better and b) I did not want another dessert to haunt my refrigerator for weeks. How nice to discover that this cheesecake a) is better than pumpkin pie and b) is already gone.

This cheesecake is a two-day affair, but an easy one. On Day One, you make the cheesecake and on Day Two, you make the caramel. The crust is made from gingersnaps, pecans, butter, and sugar. Rose says the crust is even more delicious if it's made with beurre noisette instead of plain old melted butter. I declined this invitation to do more work, because I believed that you would have to be a super-super taster to tell the difference. After eating the cheesecake, I am very satisfied with the melted-butter choice, and still don't think I would have known one from the other.

The big excitement for me in making this cheesecake was using a silicone cake pan to keep the springform pan away from the water bath so nothing could soak through. If you don't have this, you have to double-wrap the springform pan in heavy duty aluminum foil, and even then, a little hot water may seep in.

The down side to all this cleverness is that my springform pan no longer fit snugly in my roasting pan, as it did before. This is the second week that my roasting pan, inherited from Jim's mother, has failed a size test. I love using this pan because it has roasted so many turkeys for so many Wolf family Thanksgivings--long before I was in the picture and before I myself was a Wolf. I had to put the 9-inch springform pan in a 10-inch cake pan, which didn't leave much room for a water bath. Faced with a too-small roasting pan, I really should have used a 12-inch cake pan (didn't have) or a disposable roasting pan (ditto). Still it did the job, which, according to Baking 911, is to make the cheesecake creamier, without the top forming a crust or, even worse, cracking.
When you first read this recipe, you may be surprised to notice that there are no typical pumpkin-pie spices: not even a pinch of cinnamon. When Rose devised this recipe, she thought the spices would overpower the pumpkin. Instead of using spices to amp up the flavor, she used turbinado sugar, which makes the pumpkin darker and richer looking.

Once you've made the crust and cooked the pumpkin and sugar together for a while, the rest of the preparation is pretty much just putting everything in a food processor and letting it do all the work. All you have to do is lean over the counter and watch the pieces of cream cheese--and then the eggs--disappear before your eyes.

When it's poured in the pan, it's a thinner mixture than most cheesecakes. If you're a worrier, you will think that it won't set.

But it does.

That's the end of the first day. Let the cheesecake cool at room temperature, and put it in the refrigerator overnight.
The second day is trickier because it's caramel. And you're supposed to have an instant-read thermometer. When Woody saw a picture of me using an old-fashioned glass candy thermometer with mercury, he was shocked. He was trying to be tactful (he didn't say, for example, "do you do your laundry in a wringer washer too?"), but he didn't sound thoroughly approving either. I had to explain about how I'd bought a digital thermometer, but the sensor was not on the tip, so I didn't like to use it. Still, I think I'd better not use the old glass one again. At least not in pictures. (I don't think it really is mercury anyway, so if it broke it probably wouldn't kill us. Which is comforting).
I'm getting pretty good at telling when a sugar-water mixture has reached the appropriate "dark amber."

Almost. I tried the thermometer again, taking the pan off the heat, and tilting the pan so the sensor could work.

It never did give an accurate reading, so I gave up, and just guessed. But I was so annoyed by this thermometer that when I was done with the cake, I ordered the thermometer that Rose recommends. I had a Therma-Pen thermometer (the Cadillac of instant-read thermometers) on my Christmas list, but if this works I'll cross it off. Should we still be using the phrase the "Cadillac of..." now that GM is bankrupt?
I know that thermometers are very good--essential, even--and I don't know why I'm so resistant to them. I would rather buy another cool bundt pan than a boring thermometer. In my defense, I've always said I'm more of a cake-eater than a cake-baker.
I love the rich, brown caramel that I ended up with.

The cake came out of the pan without a snafu, and I liked the idea of ringing the outside with pecans, as in the book's photograph.

That was the easy part of decorating. The harder part is drizzling the caramel artistically over the top. "For the greatest precision, use a pastry bag..." Compared to how I feel about pastry bags, I'm ardently in love with thermometers. I am truly, truly resistant to pastry bags, and no good has ever come from a pastry bag in my hand. So I decided I'd use a spoon. This actually was fine, except that it only took a few spoonfuls of hot caramel to get the effect (more or less) in the book's photograph. After a few more spoons, the drizzles started to fill in, and it was clear that a decision must be made: either use all the caramel and just have a glob of caramel on top, rather than artsy drizzles, or maintain the drizzled effect and have a lot of caramel left over. Each option had its benefits: with option A, the cheesecake eaters would get more caramel but less decor; with option B, I would end up eating an ungodly amount of caramel straight from the cup and the other eaters would have prettier pieces.

I opted not to gorge myself on caramel, which was probably the right choice. Maybe I should have presented the decorated cheesecake and passed a bowl of additional caramel sauce, but that didn't occur to me at the time.
Serving the cheesecake with a lot of caramel, rather than with mere squiggles, made this dessert sweeter than Rose's norm. The cheesecake itself is more a more typical Rose dessert--subtle, complex,and light. The caramel does give it a serious dose of sweetness. I'm not complaining, not at all: the caramel was delicious, and I loved the taste contrasts with the cheesecake and crust. I think I would actually have to have another piece before I could make a final decision on whether the amount of caramel per slice was too much or just right.
P.S. I liked this cheesecake so much that I ignored my usual one-piece-only rule, and had another (very thin) slice on Monday. It was even better and more flavorful than on the day before, so do not fear making this cake a few days before you need it. I also now believe that the caramel amount is just right.


Fred: "It was a very delicate flavor, and it's almost chiffon-like in texture."
Betty: "It's lighter than most cheesecakes. The caramel goes really well with the pumpkin. A dessert very appropriate to the season."
Karen: "It's incredible."
Doug: "A nice combination of flavors. Sometimes caramel can overwhelm things, but this doesn't."
Jim: "It's lighter than the pumpkin cheesecake you made years ago--and it's better too. The crust is very good."
Laurel: This cheesecake was delicious. It was amazing. How could the combination of two heavy pies be lighter than either ? The crust and toppings added the extra pizzazz that, while unneeded, was superb.
Tansy Rose (Karen's cat, who stole a taste of the piece Karen took home): "Four paws up."

Nov 25, 2009

Last Cake, Next Cake

The Catalan pinch cake was not a unanimous hit with the bakers. Raymond gamely gave it a true, although he said that when he read the recipe, his first reaction was, "Yuck. Why would anyone want to make this?" Then he reported that it looked unappealing and tasted unappealing. Vicki, as of this writing, has tried the recipe twice, and is determined to get it right on the third time. Her first she described as a "Catalan pinch meteor crater cake" and her second as "even naughtier." You've got to give her a gold star for perseverance. But Gartblue thought it was a "pleasant, light cake" that you can even eat for breakfast. What's not to like about a breakfast cake?

The FEATURED BAKER this week is Faithy, who not only loved the cake, but also made really adorable little pinch cakelets (pinchlets?) in cupcake pans--each with parchment wings.
She also has a stunning picture of the cakes in the oven (which, I must say, looks admirably clean). I'm pretty sure that I remember reading someplace that these pinch cakes are often sold in Spanish bakeries as individual cakes wrapped in parchment, so either Faithy read that too, or she just thought it up on her own.
Faithy, who lives and bakes in Singapore, is amazing. She started baking only a year ago, after getting a new oven, and she has poured herself heart and soul into her new avocation. She's absolutely fearless, and loves to tweak recipes to suit her taste. (Remember, Faithy is the one who made the pumpkin cake into her 20th anniversary cake covered with white fondant). She had no misadventures while baking this cake except that a mosquito bit her leg while she was standing around for the 20-minute mixing period. By the mention of the word "mosquito" at the end of November, it's pretty obvious that she doesn't live in Minnesota.

Next week is the Pure Pumpkin Cheesecake, and I'll tell you ahead of time that it's excellent! I hope you give it a try.
If you're planning on making the fruitcake, you might want to start thinking about soaking the fruit in rum because the rum-soaking period is supposed to be about a week.
I'm going to be gone this week (Thanksgiving in Las Vegas!), so won't answer any email until next week. We're going to be eating Thanksgiving dinner at Tom Colicchio's Craft restaurant, Las Vegas branch.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Whether or not you make the pumpkin cheesecake, I hope that your Thanksgiving days will be filled with good fellowship and good food--especially good food.

Nov 23, 2009

Catalan Salt Pinch Cake

What the heck is a salt pinch cake? Does it help to know that in Barcelona it's usually known as pinch bread? No, that didn't help me either. Does it help to know that it's a "salt" pinch cake because it's named after the Salt Bakery in Barcelona, which is named for a little village called Salt? That didn't help me either, especially when I tried googling "salt & bakery & barcelona." Google is as confused as I was; it kept sending me to sites that talked about salt and olive oil in Barcelona. But it turns out that there really is a village in Spain named Salt, which is the home of Gas Gas motorcycles. And I found that Miquel Costabella, from whom Rose got this recipe, teaches at a place called Bons Focs in Barcelona. At least, I think he does. My Catalan is a little iffy.
Two more things about this cake: 1) I would have passed it right by if I hadn't been baking every cake in the book. It sounded odd, plain, and not very interesting. 2) It's easy. I fully expected it to be on the Quick-and-Easy list. I'm not sure why it isn't, except that it takes at least 20 minutes to mix the eggs in, but the KitchenAid does all the work.

You make a cute little parchment-paper collar for the spring-form pan, but that's not hard.

You beat up two egg whites until they form soft peaks, and that's not hard either.
You grind toasted almonds with a bit of sugar in a food processor. Not at all difficult.
And mix the almond mixture in with the egg whites.

Then all you have to do is make sure that you have a cup of coffee and the Styles section of the NYT to keep you occupied while you add five eggs, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating two minutes after each addition. If you did this by hand, it would be hard. But you don't.

You can see some of the egg yolks in the batter before they've all been absorbed.

Add cake flour and grated lemon peel. You have plenty of time to grate the lemon and sift the flour during the 20 minutes you're adding the egg yolks. If you were really good, you'd have time to do the crossword, but I've never in my life done the Sunday crossword in 20 minutes.

The batter, which is still quite thin, comes almost all the way to the top of the pan.

The cake starts to sink in the middle just as it's coming out of the oven.

The tradition is to pinch off pieces with your hands. With people so freaked out about H1N1 and other viruses and bacteria, I thought that nobody would want to pinch off their own piece, and I didn't want anyone spraying hand sanitizer on my nice cake, so I went to Plan B: Catalan Slice Cake, with whipped cream and raspberries. What isn't better with whipped cream and raspberries anyhow?
Before I started on this harebrained scheme to bake the gazillion cakes in Rose's Heavenly Cakes, I didn't like sponge cakes. I didn't like their sponginess or their lack of butter, which, in my opinion, was the best thing about cakes. I wasn't crazy about angel food cake, nor about meringue. The first time I had lemon meringue pie I thought the meringue was whipped cream. I was so disappointed I almost cried. But so far I've made six cakes from the Sponge Cakes chapter, and I've liked all of them. This is a plain cake, but its almond and lemon flavors are true, and don't need to be disguised or dressed up. I'm also adding it to my own personal Quick-and-Easy list, so it will be made again--if I'm still eating cake after this cookbook adventure.


Karen: "It reminds me of the wonderful sponge cakes my mother made for Passover, and this is as good as any of them."
Laurel: "I liked the texture, I liked the ground nuts, I liked the subtle lemon, and I especially liked the fact that the cake was not overly sweet. Very satisfying."
Jim: "Nice flavor. I like the coarse texture from the nuts, and the springiness of it."

Nov 17, 2009

Last Cake, Next Cake
There were some very impressive-looking lemon cakes being made out there last weekend, not to mention hundreds of egg yolks being turned into lemon curd. It seems that almost everyone had some kind of problem with the buttercream. Mine curdled. Sherrie also ended up with a "curdled mess," which she managed to whip bake in shape. Raymond's buttercream didn't curdle, but he had to keep refrigerating it to get it to the right consistency. And Bungalow Barbara's separated into a "grainy mess," but she righted it too.
By the way, I wrote about a dental floss trick that I'd read about, and several readers said they'd never heard of such a thing, except with cheesecake. That made me wonder whether I had imagined it, but I googled the appropriate words and ended up with many, many hits. Not to mention the fact that Raymond explained the dental floss trick himself. What I didn't realize is that you use the dental floss as a kind of cake garrote, placing the floss around the cake and pulling it together as if you're strangling the cake. You also have to have unwaxed, unflavored floss. I'm still going to try it sometime.

The FEATURED BAKER this week is Jenn, of Knitty Baker.
Jenn has been a dedicated Heavenly Cake Baker, and has so far made the Almond Shamah Chiffon, the apple-upside down cake, the Hungarian Jancsi Torta, the pumpkin cake, the baby chocolate oblivions, and now, Woody's Lemon Luxury Layer Cake. (Doesn't that sound so much more impressive than plain old lemon cake?)
I think the only thing that she's missed were the Barcelona brownie bars, and she made up for that by getting Rose's Bread Bible from the library and baking the olive bread and the raisin pecan bread, plus Rose's chocolate cupcakes with chocolate egg-white buttercream in one crazy baking weekend.
Jenn requested this cake in the early days of this baking group, and I was only too happy to oblige because I love anything that's lemon. Although Jenn eventually turned out the cutest lemon cake ever--with lemon peel roses and adorable buttercream decorations, she gives a frustrated account of the full weekend she spent baking (and rebaking) the cake. Unlike some of us, Jenn had no problem with the curd or the buttercream, but the perfect cake seemed to elude her (or so she says. I say it looks good).
Check out her cake--baked in 6-inch pans--and her beautiful lemon roses--and tell her she was not crazy for spending 3 hours composing the cake because it looks gorgeous!

The next cake--the Catalan salt pinch cake--has no buttercream or icing at all, and some of us (at least me) will be relieved. There is no equipment necessary for this cake other than a 9-inch springform pan and plenty of parchment paper.
Looking ahead, the next recipe after the pinch cake is a pumpkin cheesecake. This cake requires a hot water bath, and you can either wrap the cake pan in layers of foil to protect it from the water, or you can put the springform pan into a 9-inch silicone pan. When I baked the ginger cheesecake, my foil wrap turned out not to be completely waterproof, so I went out and bought a round silicone pan just for this purpose. I'm excited to try it out. (Only fellow bakers can understand how "excited" and "silicone pan" can be used in the same sentence). And looking ahead even further, if you're going to bake the fruitcake, you might want to think about ordering the dried fruit. Rose does not like citron, which is included in most mixed fruit peels, and she specifies "high-quality glaceed fruit." The glaceed fruit that's readily available in my supermarkets does not, frankly, look particularly high-quality. And it probably contains large amounts of citron, which is apparently like millet seed in birdseed mixes--nobody likes it, but it's cheap. So if you want to go whole hog (shamelessly mixing metaphors), you might consider buying, as recommended, candied orange and lemon peel from You want to soak the fruit in rum for at least a week before baking the cake, so start thinking about this if you are planning to do it.
Please someone else do it--I am not a fan of fruitcake, but I'm taking Rose's word on this. I don't want to be the only person slaving over a hot fruitcake that weekend. (The picture does look awfully pretty).

Nov 16, 2009

Woody's Lemon Luxury Layer Cake

I had eggs on my grocery list. Jim asked me why I was getting eggs since we had nearly a full carton. I told him that the cake I was baking required 17 eggs. He said, "Holy shit!" I understand his surprise, but that exclamation is actually more appropriate for when you take your first bite of this cake. You'll be amazed that you made something that tastes this good. (Well, maybe you won't be amazed, but I'm still surprised when a bake a cake that comes out of the oven looking okay, so anything that turns out way beyond okay is a treat for me).
The cake has three components: the cake itself, the white chocolate buttercream, and the lemon curd. Since both the buttercream and the lemon curd had to be made ahead of time, I decided to spread the baking of this cake out for the entire weekend--curd and buttercream on Saturday; cake on Sunday. I was glad I did, especially because the buttercream-making was such a traumatic event.
The curd took 7 egg yolks (7 down, 10 to go!) and was pretty easy. It's basically just stirring all the ingredients (egg yolks, lemon juice and zest, sugar, and butter) over low heat until it's thickened but not boiling.

If you boil it, it will curdle! I read the directions carefully, but couldn't quite figure out how I'd know when it was done. (I knew how I'd know if it was overdone). The most amazing thing happened--I just felt it when it was done. I can't quite explain how you can feel something that you're stirring with a spatula or how you can "know" by feel. I can't explain it, but I felt like I'd just passed my midterm exam for Baking 101.

My euphoria didn't last long. I'd already made the white chocolate custard base for the buttercream, and refrigerated it. This is the custard when it's just butter and white chocolate:

This is the custard with 4 eggs added (11 down, 6 to go):

I'm using my old-fashioned glass thermometer because I'm used to it. Also I haven't ordered a better instant thermometer yet. Also I couldn't find my new one.
I wasn't sure whether I was going to finish the buttercream on Saturday or wait until Sunday, but I finally decided just to do it. Finishing it just meant mixing more butter, and then adding the white chocolate custard base until it's smooth.

Smooth, I say! I did not say curdled. And yet curdled was what I got. I refused to start all over again, so I ran to my computer and Googled "curdled buttercream." I got a lot of hits, and one of them told me that I had tried to assemble the buttercream when it was too cold (Doh! The custard base was just out of the refrigerator). It told me that I could fix it by putting the bowl over direct heat until it started to melt, and then mix it again. Oh, right, I thought; that sounds bloody likely. But it worked.

OK, so I failed the final exam of Baking 101, but I'm going to see if I can do something for extra credit so I'll squeak by with a D-. I put everything in the refrigerator and opened a bottle of wine.
By Sunday, I had recovered and was ready to go.
The cake was pretty easy. White chocolate,

the last six egg yolks, milk, flour, sugar, and baking powder, more butter and some lemon zest. Only a teaspoon, so the cake would clearly be much less lemony than the lemon curd.

Have I mentioned how much I love not having to scrape down the bowl now that I have my BeaterBlade?
The last time I made a layer cake, I ended up with one layer that was significantly bigger than the other, so this time I weighed the batter that I put in each pan.
Have I mentioned how much I love my scale?

But, again, pride goeth before a fall. My second big mistake was forgetting to spray the cake pans with Baker's Joy. I always spray the pans at the same time I put the baking strips around the pan and the parchment circles on the bottom, but this time I didn't. And I didn't realize it until the cakes were in the oven. I was pretty sure that I wouldn't be able to get the layers out in one piece, but somehow it worked.

I don't like splitting layer cakes. I tried the dental floss trick, but it just didn't work for me. Maybe there's a dental floss especially made for cakes?

Filling the split layers with lemon curd went pretty well.

But I got confused and one layer of filling didn't get put in between the layer; I accidentally put the crust part facing the layer and the cake part facing up (if you know what I mean).

The result of this mistake was that one layer of lemon curd looked brown because it took on the color of the crust. It also made it hard to frost the top of the bottom set of layers.

I've just been told that my extra credit project is not going to save me, and I'll have to repeat the course. Fine.

I know that some of you experienced cake bakers are going to turn out a finished product better-looking than this, but I'm actually pretty pleased with my icing job. True, there are some crumbs showing, and it's not completely level, but it doesn't slant (much) and its shoulders are straight.

See what I mean about one layer of filling looking brown?
I didn't mind that much about the amber-appearing lemon curd, because the whole thing was just so good! The cake was only mildly lemony, and had a very appealing crumb and texture. It's a good thing it wasn't strongly lemon, because that would have made it fight with the lemon curd--very lemony and tart. But not too tart, because it was balanced by the sweet buttery lemon of the buttercream. Okay, I know I'm fickle, but now this is the one I want for my birthday.


Laurel: "Better than lemon pie--and lemon pie is my favorite."
Doug: "The lemon filling really makes it."
Jan: "I could get used to this."
Jim: "Great lemon flavor. The cake is light despite all the eggs and butter."
Rachel: "That cake is very good."
Ben: "This may be the best one you've made."

Nov 11, 2009

Last Cake, Next Cake

I'm always surprised by the ingenuity of the Heavenly Cake Bakers. I'm such a rule-follower myself that daring - for me - would be using 57% cacao dark chocolate when the recipe called for 62%. Not that I've done such a scofflaw thing.
But you--you just blithely substitute white chocolate for part of the dark chocolate, or make them in square brownie pans instead of the requisite muffin pans.
Bungalow Barbara, this weeks's FEATURED BAKER is a good example of such direction-flouting daring. First, she cut the recipe in sixths because she wanted only two servings. Good for her--she didn't have to try to get 10 baby oblivions away from her sight so as not to give in to temptation, but she did have to divide everything in sixths. I call that impressive. Then she added raspberry liqueur to the cakes and to whipped cream and served them with a black raspberry puree (from black raspberries harvested from her own canes).

Barbara, her husband, and her cats, seem to lead a pretty idyllic life in her bungalow in Mazomanie, Wisconsin, a little village close to Madison, Wisconsin--famous for having the only de facto nude beach in Wisconsin (called Mazo Beach) and for being voted one of America's Coolest Small Towns. Lest you think that Barbara spends all her free time gamboling on the nude beach, my guess is that she doesn't have a lot of time to fritter away on such nonsense. Not only is she a Heavenly Cake Baker, but she's also a member of Tuesdays with Dorie, and she's already got Dorie's Cran-Apple Crisp posted on her blog.

I don't think next week's cake would work very well divided in sixths, but I could be wrong. The upcoming cake is the two-layer Woody's Lemon Luxury Layer Cake, with lemon curd filling and white chocolate buttercream. Its claim to fame, besides being the cake requested by Woody's t'ai chi sifu for his wedding, is that it uses 17 eggs (mostly yolks). Yes, 17. I expect a noticeable uptick in egg sales this week. Farmers won't know what to make of this break from the law of averages, but we'll understand what's going on. Save and freeze the egg whites for the angel food cake that will be coming up in January.
If you like lemon, do not be tempted to skip this wonderful cake. It doesn't have any unusual ingredients nor does it require odd-sized cake pans. You just need the courage to break 17 eggs.

* * * * *
Two new cake bakers on the blogroll: Jennifer, my good blog friend, who has been baking cakes from The Cake Bible for many years (not that many, really). I know her as Evil Cake Lady, although she is not at all evil.
We've also added Joan. She has a brand new blog, and has, in fact, just posted her first blog entry ever.

Nov 9, 2009

Baby Chocolate Oblivions

This picture says it all. How do you feel about unvarnished chocolate? If the idea of something that is the essence of pure, rich chocolate, enriched by butter and saved from heaviness by the addition of beaten eggs, this cake will be your idea of heaven. If that description sounds over the top, then this is probably not the cake for you.
Compared to last week's various buttercream fiascos, these baby cakes are simplicity itself: Melt together a bit of sugar and a lot of high-quality butter and chocolate,

heat a half-dozen beaten eggs until they're lukewarm,

and then beat them again until they've tripled in size and gone from egg-yolk yellow to eggnog cream.

Then fold the eggs into the chocolate.

Actually getting them baked was much tricker than mixing them up. I had two six-cup silicone muffin pans instead of one twelve-cup pan, and an ancient roasting pan that was just a hair too small to hold both pans without smooshing them up a bit. Fortunately, because they're silicone, they smooshed easily.

But the really tricky part was getting the pans and the rack out of the roasting pan, which had hot water on the bottom, without a) burning your hands, b) getting hot water on the cakes, c) accidentally squirting more water on the cakes when trying to pull water out of the pan with a bulb baster, or d) all of the above. Note to self: throw that miserable cheap bulb baster away and get one that works. Also, Rose says that the cakes just twist easily out of the pans. I didn't think it was that easy, and many of the cakes left little pieces behind. This was not all bad, of course, because I was forced to eat all these little leftover pieces. And eventually, I got them all out of the pans, and even the ones that had absorbed a bit of hot water seemed none the worse for wear.

I invited a few neighbors over to test these cakes. Fortunately, they were all chocolate lovers. These baby Oblivions is that they come within just a hair of being too much--too rich, too chocolatey, too fudgy. But even the small piece of cake is probably too much. With the first bite, you may think this is the most delicious thing you've ever eaten. By the tenth bite, you're not sure you can, or should, eat another forkful. When I took the rest of the cakes into work, I noticed that everyone dived into theirs with great enthusiasm, but not everyone ate the whole piece. Even with these provisos, my final verdict is that this cake is chocolate with a soul.

Nov 3, 2009

Last Cake, Next Cake

This week's headline: Rose's Heavenly Cakes has just been named one of Amazon's Top 10 Cookbooks of 2009. For those of us who are working our way through the book (and who have used Rose's other cookbooks), this isn't a big surprise, but it's certainly deserved. Congratulations, Rose!
Some of the other books on the list look good too. Does anyone have any experience with any of the others?

The pumpkin cake brought out a burst of creativity in the Heavenly Bakers. Not only were there some great decorations, but there were also some clever substitutes for the pumpkin mold. Kristina used a Fairytale Cottage bundt pan, but ended up lopping off the trees because they stuck in the pan. Several people used bundt pans, and others made cupcakes. Mendy made a layer cake and Hanaa used a 9 x 13-inch pan. (This is the first week Hanaa has had a workable kitchen, so she was finally able to bake along). Faithy has got to get the award for the cake that's most unlike the illustration in the book. She covered her pumpkin cake in white fondant and made it her 20th Anniversary cake! (Check out the wedding couple on and around the cake). Also worth checking out is Kate Coldrick's blog. Kate is the woman who has gained fame by figuring out how to turn British flour into an approximation of American cake flour. She and fellow blogger Melinda have dubbed themselves the "Fallen Angels" because, although they follow the adventures and misadventures of the Heavenly Bakers, they have decided to cheer us on from the sidelines.

This week's Featured Baker is Nancy B. She managed to buy the pumpkin cake pan at a bargain price on eBay, an excellent idea if you plan ahead. Nancy said the pan was out of stock at her regular cooking supply store because a cake using the mold was recently featured in Southern Living and there was a run on it at the store. Good thing it wasn't feature on Oprah, or none of us would have it.
Nancy decided to make Rose's golden neoclassic buttercream instead of the burnt orange meringue buttercream, but she had a few difficulties with that. (There is a theme in this week's icing attempts. Only a lucky few got it just right the first time). She also thought it was tricky to frost the pumpkin and was not completely satisfied with her marzipan ornaments. I personally think her completed pumpkin looks terrific! But we're more critical of our own work, aren't we?

We get a total break from any kind of icing, buttercream or otherwise, for the next cake: Baby Chocolate Oblivions. I think a lot of us have made this cake before. I first heard of it from Evil Cake Lady, who referred to it as a gluten-free cake. Which it is, I guess, but calling it gluten-free makes it sound so healthy and virtuous, whereas the cake itself is so ... not. The recipe has only four ingredients: chocolate, butter, eggs, and sugar.
Rose highly recommends using silicone cupcake pans for their ease in unmolding the little cakes. I made these cakes last weekend and had a little batter left over, so I made one in a custard pan that I sprayed with Baker's Secret. It unmolded very easily with a sharp knife, so I would recommend that as an alternative to the silicone cupcake pans. In fact, it actually unmolded a little easier than the cakes in the silicone pan, which tended to leave behind a small bit of cake. This was actually good, because you couldn't tell it when the cakes where rightside up, and it also allowed me to sample little bits of the cake.

Nov 2, 2009

Pumpkin Cake with Burnt Orange Silk Meringue Buttercream

When you apply to colleges, the standard advice is to apply to a mixture of "reach," "match," and "safety" schools. The safety schools are the ones you're sure to get in; a match school is a good fit for your qualifications, and the reach schools are the ones you want to go to, but probably won't get in to, like Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.
As I looked through this cookbook, I divided the recipes in a similar way. The safety cakes are the ones on the quick-and-easy list. The match cakes are a little more complex and time-consuming, but within my range. The stretch cakes, though....that's another story. As I browsed the book, I saw some cakes that I knew I just couldn't make. My Harvard cakes. This pumpkin cake was one of them--not for the cake itself, which is easy--but for the icing and the decorations. Those were clearly beyond me. And yet, I finished it. It took two tries for the burnt sugar creme anglaise, and the frosting job has kind of a sixth-grade look about it, but still. I did it.

The buttercream was amazingly good, and such complexities of flavor! My first try on the creme anglaise was a disaster. Ironically, the reason for the disaster was that I was trying to make sure I'd get it right. A burnt sugar creme anglaise is the first step in making this buttercream, and I decided I'd get a new instant-read candy thermometer, so there would be no doubt about the temperature of the sugar.

Here's a picture of my pan with the sugar turning just about the right color of deep amber. But the thermometer was reading only about 200 instead of the 370 degrees it was supposed to reach. So I let it cook, and cook some more.

Any moron can see that this is beyond deep amber, but my thermometer was still nowhere close to 370. Finally I gave up and poured in the hot milk. Indeed, it did "bubble up furiously," as the directions promised. But it smelled a lot like burned sugar. I don't mean burnt sugar, as in a nice burnt sugar cake. I mean burned sugar, as in charred. I persevered, and got a disgusting dark brown mess that I couldn't even strain because it was too thick.

I was still deluding myself that possibly this was what it was supposed to look like until I tasted it. It was gross. I dumped it out and started over. I looked at the my brand-new instant-read thermometer directions (some might recommend doing this before using it) and saw that its temperature sensor was three inches above the tip of the thermometer, which might work splendidly if you were making a big pot of fudge, but didn't work at all for a tiny quantity of creme anglaise. And, while I'm being cranky, I'll point out that the creme anglaise recipe says it makes two cups, which is completely impossible when it contains only 3 egg yolks, a half-cup of milk, and a quarter-cup of sugar. But it worked just fine on the second try.

I think this is more or less what it's supposed to look like.
After my second try, I decided I'd had enough for the day and put it in the refrigerator until Pumpkin Cake, Day 2.
Bright and early on Day 2, I made the cake. Completely uneventful and easy.
Because I was in such a good mood, I worked extra hard on skinning those dang walnuts.

Here's what the cakes looked like coming out of the oven in the pumpkin-shaped pan:

And this is what they look like after being unmolded from the pans:

When I saw how cute they looked, I was glad I'd used the pan.
Back to the frosting--the next step is the Italian meringue, which I'd already made so the thrill was gone. Jim said the boiling sugar/water combo looked like a thousand little fish eyes. I wished he hadn't said that.

My hand mixer died a few weeks ago, and I have trouble beating a small amount of meringue (this one uses only one egg white), so I had to run to Target for a new one. I couldn't remember which one was recently recommended by Cook's Illustrated, so I bought a KitchenAid. It works just fine.

You can't tell from the picture, but I'm pouring about a quarter-cup of reduced orange juice into the frosting. The instructions say you can either use frozen orange concentrate or reduce your own by microwaving freshly squeezed orange juice until it's thick and syrupy.

Now it was time for the decorating: the moment I'd been dreading. I called my daughter Sarah and whined to her about how I was going to mess it up and she, of the more artistic nature, should come and help me. She was busy, so I took a deep breath and started in on it.
Enough orange food coloring to tint the frosting light orange and a smaller amount a darker, deeper orange.

Slicing off the top of the cakes and putting a little buttercream between the layers.

Jim ate most of the scraps from the top-slicing-off exercise, and proclaimed them excellent.
I taste the burnt orange meringue buttercream and also proclaim it excellent.
It does not, however, go smoothly onto the cake. Observe my icing skills, all you people who think I'm being too hard on myself when I say I'm not a polished cake baker.

This is the best I can do. My pumpkin is not nice and smooth like the picture in the book. My pumpkin looks like it has warts. On the other hand, my cocoa-colored marzipan stem is more successful than I thought it would be. (If you don't think it's successful, there's no need to be brutally honest).

The marzipan tendril--not as successful, but it's a recognizable tendril. Maybe a squirrel sat on it. Not everything in nature is perfect, you know.

I had a leaf-shaped cookie cutter, so I wasn't left to my own devices in shaping the leaves, for which I was grateful. One leaf is green, the other is starting to turn colors.

I was really getting into stamping out the leaves. And the brown tendril looked better than my earlier green ones.

By the time I'd done the cocoa tendril, I was getting tired of the whole marzipan thing, and I was hungry. Fortunately, as my cake was by no means perfect, it didn't bother me too much to cut into it.

This cake was so good. As is true with so many of Rose's cakes, the flavors and textures blend perfectly and you want to savor each bite because there are so many levels. Here, the buttercream is intensely and authentically orange because of the homemade orange concentrate and fresh orange rind, and the undertone of burnt sugar is a perfect counterpart to the tartness of the orange. It's rich (well, of course, it's buttercream), but the meringue makes it so light you forget you're eating two sticks of butter. The cake is just about perfect. You expect a pumpkin cake to be dense, but this one manages to be light as well.
But, while I'm pleased that I did the whole pumpkin shebang because it was a real challenge to me, I don't think I'd go that route again. It would be so much easier in a bundt pan or a couple of loaf pans, and is so rich in flavors that I'm not sure it even requires a frosting. I think an orange glaze might also be a good idea and much easier. This cake is so good that it deserves to be made more than a special-occasion, pull-out-all-the-stops kind of cake. We're going to be making a pumpkin cheesecake for Thanksgiving, but this would also be a fantastic Thanksgiving dessert--or a dessert that you make just because you feel like having pumpkin cake.


Sarah: "A perfect autumnal cake. It's really good, and the spices are perfect. The nuts add a lot to the texture."
Jim: "I love the pumpkin flavor and the frosting is not too sweet."
Karen: "It's a nice, light frosting. The cake is great. It's moist, but light too--the pumpkin could make it heavy, but it didn't. It's everything you'd want in a pumpkin cake."
Rochelle: "The best cake you've baked."

* * * * *
We have three new bakers this week. Welcome Jeanne, who hails from a small town in Mississippi that was nearly flattened by Katrina, and who lives in Louisiana now.
Also new is Shoshana, who will adapt the recipes to be non-dairy. Her blog should be a helpful resource for people who need to make those kinds of recipe adaptations.
Finally, as you might guess from the name of her blog, Positively cupcakes

is a big cupcake fan. We'll have to see whether she converts all the recipes to cupcakes. That could be a challenge.

I'd like to get people's input on whether we should think about limiting the number of bakers. I'd hate to say no to people who are willing to make the commitment to do this, but there is an advantage to being small enough so we can check each other's blogs and learn from one another. Please let me know your thoughts.