Mar 30, 2010

Last Cake, Next Cake

Le Succes will, I believe, always be known to the Heavenly Cake Bakers as either "that cake that made me buy a giant jar of instant tea" or "that cake that forced me to come up with a substitute for disgusting instant tea." Lois, a self-proclaimed "pantry snob," refused to buy the tea and substituted tea steeped in lemon zest and cream. Vicki used English breakfast tea infused with lemon extract. Mendy also went the teabag route because he couldn't find kosher for passover instant tea.
Jennifer used the instant tea, but nobody can accuse her of having plebeian tastes, since she's the one who knew that this cake is called a dacquoise. Katya admitted to using "plain old Tetley's," and Raymond loved the subtle taste that the instant tea imparted.
Jenn went in a totally different direction, and used Starbuck's instant coffee. Lisa improvised with cream and chocolate chips. Some people just march to a different drummer.
As usual, I think Rose knew what she was doing with the instant tea. Although you might not ever use the tea for drinking, it was perfect for the ganache because it added a little sweetness, a little lemon flavor, and a little tea.

is this week's FEATURED BAKER--even though she didn't especially like the cake. But her rendition is beautiful, and I liked how cranky she got when things weren't turning out the way she wanted. (A girl after my own heart!) And I liked it even more when I read how much she hated piping. (REALLY a girl after my own heart!). So, Monica, you are awarded the coveted title of Featured Baker, with all the rights, privileges, and appurtenances thereto accompanying. Not just because you spent two days turning out a beautiful cake, but also because you just wouldn't give up! You will soon be rewarded for your perseverance. At least, that is what your fortune cookie said.

I was concentrating so much on finding cakes suitable for Passover that I forgot that this weekend is also Easter. I plan to make the pecan torte with coffee cream for my Easter dinner, and I don't see any reason why a Passover dessert can't double as an Easter dessert. As an added bonus, the pecan torte is Quick and Easy. If you want something else, though, you could skip ahead one week and banana cake with white chocolate frosting. (If you're having a crowd, you would probably want to double this to make a layer cake). The banana cake is also Quick and Easy.
Enjoy these cakes while you can, because coming up in May is one of the five or so cakes that filled me with dread when I read the recipe: the Saint-Honore trifle. It's not the five separate components to the trifle itself that are bothering me--it's the spun sugar. Here are a few excerpts from the instructions: "Cover the floor ... with newspaper." "Add the beeswax...." "When any smoking stops...." "Stand on a stool...." This is in the same category as the pinecone cake, the category being "Cakes that Make You Wonder if You're Totally Insane for Attempting Them."

Mar 29, 2010

Le Succes (Passover Cake #1)

I hope that none of you decided not to bake this cake because of my whininess about piping the batter onto parchment paper rounds. As Jennifer (Evil Cake Lady) assured me, it's not that hard. In fact, it wasn't hard at all, although it was a little messy, and that is probably where my lack of experience is most obvious.
Besides being worried about the piping, I was also feeling a little unnerved by what seemed like the complexity of the initial directions. Once I actually read through them a few times--always a good idea--I realized it wasn't that difficult. I just had to make 8-inch parchment-paper circles on which the meringue would be piped.
And then I just had to make the meringue. Again, not difficult. The almonds didn't even have to be toasted, so I actually felt like I was omitting a step. This also gave me a chance to use the blanched almonds I mistakenly bought when the recipe called for unblanched almonds. I feel like I should be able to draw a lesson from this, but I can't think of one.
Despite all the self-imposed angst I endured about this cake, putting it together is about the easiest process so far. Just beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. There's no scientific test for this stage, as far as I know, but since the instructions warn about wilted meringues if they whites aren't properly whipped, it's better to err on the side of over-beating.
Then whisk the ground almond/sugar mixture into the egg whites. That's it!
Well, not quite it. "It" doesn't really happen until you pipe concentric circles on the parchment paper. The nice thing about this piping exercise is that it really doesn't matter how clumsily you do it because it gets flattened anyway. I should have spent all day doing this piping exercise.
My guess is that a Master Piper doesn't have so many squiggles. But so what?
See, after you flatten it out, there's no way of knowing whether you need to take a Piping 101 class.
I loved the way the sweet little meringue cakes looked when they came out of the oven, all brown and puffy.
They very quickly lose their puffiness and become thin, sad little wafers.
These wafers are also extremely delicate. You can see a few tears in the first one on the plate. (You can also see the can of infamous instant lemon-flavored iced tea, which Katya, I think, described as so "ghetto" for an ingredient of Rose's.)
I agree, but I can see the method in the instant tea madness--it imparts just a whisper of lemon and tea flavors, and real lemon would probably be too strong for the chocolate.
You know the drill for the ganache. Pulverize the chocolate in the food processor and add hot liquid--cream and creme fraiche in this case. Add the instant tea and let it stand until it becomes the right consistency.
Although making the cake was quick and easy, putting it together is slow and tedious. Each layer has to be refrigerated for about an hour before the next one can be added, so the whole thing takes about three hours to assemble. Fortunately, we had a CD of the last episodes of season 3 of The Office, so we just watched Pam and Jim discover they were in love with each other (finally!) at the same time I put the finishing touches on the cake.
Are you a cake person or a frosting person? I'm a cake person myself. I love a big piece of unadorned pound cake, for example, and I've been known to scrape off frosting and put it on Jim's plate. (He's such a good sport). On the other hand, I love truffles. If you're a cake person, the best way to eat this cake is to think of it as a giant (and delicious) chocolate truffle, textured with a little almond meringue.
If you're a frosting person, you may wonder, as Jim did, why even bother with the cake. I would have preferred another layer of the meringue, with a little less ganache between each layer. If I make it again, I think I'll try it that way. I loved the nutty taste and texture of the paper-thin cake layers; Jim just thought they were grainy. I think we have a Jack Sprat situation here.
     Jim:  "The frosting has a rich chocolate taste, but I don't like the graininess of the cake."
Woody: "I'd forgotten how good this is--all the layers of flavor; first, bitter, and then pow! Everything else. You did good."
Jan: "It's delicious."
Rachel: "The passover cake was excellent. It was rich, but not in an overwhelming way. And the wafer or sponge layers, whatever they were, were perfect with the chocolate. I wish I had another slice right now to have with my afternoon coffee."

Mar 25, 2010

Last Cake, Next Cake

The people have spoken about peanut butter ingots, and, although it's not completely unanimous, it's fair to say that the peanut butter ingots were more universally popular than say, health care reform. There were actually not too many "ingots"; that is, most of these financiers were not baked in the traditional financier pan. We did have a wealth of cupcakes, however. Gartblue made hers as cupcakes, as did Lois (mini-muffin pans, covered with chocolate glaze); Katya (addition of a bit of buckwheat flour); Mendy; and lanier.
Jennifer had some adorable flower-shaped cakelet pans, so she used those, and, like Lois, drizzled hers with chocolate. (Well, the combination of peanut butter and chocolate is pretty natural, isn't it? Just ask Reese's). Kristina used a silicone brownie pan and some silicone cupcake liners; she also has some good hints on making and storing beurre noisette.
Raymond, who plans to make these once a week (!), actually bought the financier pans, although his were a little larger than the ones I bought.
Svetlana piped hers. She didn't like the way they turned out, but I thought they looked cute--like Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies. And, of course, I'm very impressed that she piped anything voluntarily.
Two different people, Faithy and Nancy B., made two different kinds of financiers: Faithy went for green tea as well as standard peanut butter, and Nancy B. tried the praline paste variation along with her peanut butter version. Very impressive!
And now, our FEATURED BAKERVicki. Just so you know how arbitrary and capricious I am in choosing the Featured Baker, I will tell you why Vicki's post attracted me so--reasons that actually have almost nothing to do with the actual baked product. First, I was charmed by the picture of one of her horses. Second, I loved the mental picture of Woody and Hector pounding on her door with a Cease and Desist order. Third, her comparison (complete with link) of her merger of two recipes with Rachel's merger of a trifle recipe with a shepherd's pie recipe was a funny reminder of one of the best episodes of Friends. And fourth, her sweet granddaughter told her, "Grandma, you could sell these to Starbucks." Oh, and her ingots looked good too, despite the fact that they were an unintentional combination of plum and peanut butter ingots. But I also have an actual justification for choosing her as Featured Baker--the imagination she showed in decorating her hybrid ingots: peanut butter drizzle, mini chocolate chips, cornflakes, muscovaco sugar, and melted chocolate.

Next up: TWO Passover cakes. I'm unreasonably excited about baking Passover cakes. Even though I don't celebrate Passover, I love traditions, especially traditions that are thousands of years old, and that are modernized without losing their essence. Not that Le Succes or Sybil's Pecan Torte are traditional Passover cakes (at least I'm pretty sure they're not), but they are flourless.
As I mentioned, however, I am not looking forward to all the falderal associated with piping batter in three 8-inch circles. Why couldn't I just use three 8-inch cake pans? I'm sure there's a reason, but I'd love to know what it is. A friend of mine was recently quizzing me about one of Rose's recipes. "Why are her directions so complicated? Why can't she just have plain, regular instructions?" Finally, I just said, "Because Rose knows all!" I suppose that's why I can't just use the cake pans. And I won't, I'll use the danged pastry bag. But I won't be happy about it.
Other than the pastry bag, there's not much to worry about with this cake, now that we know that powdered tea is just Lipton's Instant Tea with lemon. If, like me, you bought blanched almonds instead of unblanched almonds for your peanut butter ingots, the succes provides you with a way to use them: two whole cups of blanched almonds.
And for the pecan torte, which comes next, you need only a 9-inch springform pan, lots of pecans, coffee extract or instant espresso powder. I finally used up all my instant Medaglia d'Oro espresso powder that I've had since we were in a different century. This time I bought some espresso powder from King Arthur, and will see how it compares. Gentiles may use cream of tartar in the cake, but you shouldn't use it, according to Rose, if you're making the cake for Passover. But my Google sources say that it's perfectly fine to use cream of tartar of passover. I'll admit to being confused about the status of cream in a Passover menu. Is it okay to include it if there's no meat in the meal?

Another new baker this week--Zerin Bobby, all the way from the United Arab Emirates. Zerin says she's not that good at baking or at blogging, but she wants to get better at both. And, because Rose's Heavenly Cakes was prohibitively expensive in the UAE, she actually got someone to bring her a copy from the U.S.--much cheaper. Zerin made the double chocolate Valentine's cake as her debut cake, but she will be following our cake calendar from now on. I confess when I saw her name on an email, I thought of Bobby Darin, and I thought we'd have another man in the group, but it's not Bobby Darin, or even Bobby Zerin. Welcome, Zerin.

Mar 22, 2010

Peanut Butter Ingots

These are on the Quick-and-Easy list, as befits anything with peanut butter in the title. Did Escoffier use peanut butter? I think not. Translated to Financiers au Beurre de Cacahuetes, however, they sound less quick and easy. Personally, I question whether something should be considered Q&E if it requires making beurre noisette. But, since I already had some in the freezer, I won't quibble.
Well, I'll quibble a little bit because the recipe also requires roasting sliced almonds, preferably unblanched.
I seem to have reverted to the bad old days of not paying attention to directions. I knew I needed almonds to make these ingots, and I thought the recipe specified blanched almonds. But no, it wants sliced unblanched almonds. I started to toast them anyway, when I noticed I had whole unsalted almonds in the freezer, so I combined whole unblanched almonds and sliced blanched almonds. It worked out just fine.
The toasted almonds are processed with powdered sugar, and I will admit that that step is quite easy. I don't like powdered sugar all that much, and I don't like frosting made with powdered sugar at all, which was why I was so amazed to taste a real buttercream instead of what passes for buttercream in church-basement-potluck land: powdered sugar, margarine, and milk. But powdered sugar is just right in these ingots, just as it is in the Christmas cookies called Russian tea cakes or Mexican wedding cakes, depending on your geographical preference.
About 4 large egg whites (which I also had available in my freezer) are beaten just until frothy,
and then combined with the ground-almond, sugar, and flour mixture.
Then begins a five-minute process of drizzling warmed buerre noisette into the batter. I know I said I wouldn't quibble, but a five-minute process of adding butter is probably not included in a recipe that most people would recognize as quick.
Add a few spoons of peanut butter, and you're done. (You could also add praline paste, according to Rose's comments, which sounds considerably less plebeian than peanut butter). (Try this tongue twister: Piles of peanut butter pastry are more plebeian than praline paste pastry.)
I was a little confused by the instructions at this point. The "Plan Ahead" warning says to make the batter at least one hour ahead, but the directions didn't seem to require chilling unless you're making more than one batch, so I just transferred the batter to a measuring cup and poured it in the financier molds. "Poured" makes it sound more liquid than it was: the batter is quite thick. I made 18 ingots because I have two pans, each making nine. A little late, I noticed that the recipe makes 16. This probably explains why a few of mine were a little puny.
After 16 minutes, they were done. I recognize the virtues of the silicone baking molds, but they're also a pain to work with because they're so floppy. I think it's only a matter of time before one of them ends up on the floor at some point in the process, and I don't want to be around when that happens. I suppose I will be though. Around, I mean.
I think the degree to which you're smitten with these financiers probably depends on the degree to which you're smitten with peanut butter.
I thought they were good, but not as good as the classic plain almond financier in the plum round ingots, which is the recipe following this one. I love the delicate flavor of the clarified butter and the ground toasted almonds, and I thought the peanut butter, although it wasn't overwhelming, disguised that delicacy to some degree. On the other hand, Jim, who is crazy about peanut butter, was also crazy about these.

Jim: "Delicious! They have a nice peanut butter taste--distinct, but not too heavy. I like the slightly crunchy top."
Joyce: "Reminds me of a biscuit--not too sweet, and with the right amount of peanut butter."
Wayne "Subtle peanut butter taste. I like the texture and that it's moist."
Billy "The almond really adds to it. Tasty and light, not too sweet."
Karen: "Really yummy. A light peanut butter taste and just the right size for a snack."

Mar 17, 2010

Last Cake, Next Cake

I think that Rose's butter/sour cream cakes are the ones that get the most universally positive reviews. This pistachio cake drew raves or near raves. Possibly the most negative comment--and it's not even negative--came from Nancy B.,, who said that she liked the cake, although she found it "right on the edge of dry." Several others, like Jenn, praised the cake, but wished the pistachio flavor had been a little more intense.
Most people just served their cakes with the plain frosting sprinkled with chopped or slivered pistachios, as shown in the book, but we also had some creative and beautiful decorating. Faithy, our 90-pound dynamo, had not even planned to bake this cake, but after she read the early reviews, she decided she just had to, and went into high gear, topping the cake off with piping she did in minutes, in order to meet her midnight deadline. Monica, who is addicted to pistachios and was overjoyed when she saw that we were going to bake this cake, turned out a very pretty cake which was singled out for praise by Rose herself. Rozanne decorated hers with exceptionally pretty swirls, and Katya's was so professional-looking that she sold it at a bakery that likes her work and is glad to give her space in their display case. As usual, Raymond has decorated his cake to the nines, prompting me to ask him if he'll give decorating lessons.
I love the weeks when we have cupcake versions. This time it was Nicola who baked the cupcakes, to the obvious delight of her assistant-in-a-highchair. Special props to Vicki, who cleverly used up her buttercream by making "faux truffles."

The pistachio cake FEATURED BAKER is Rachelino, who begins her blog with these lovely words: "Implausibly green blanched pistachio batons have danced in my head...." Her cake is beautiful--especially impressive because the minimalist decorations (carefully placed pistachios supplemented by a few rows of pepitas) were a product of necessity. She ran out of pistachios, and didn't want to go to the store. Likewise, her clever addition of a bit of molasses to the Lyle's syrup was prompted by running out of Lyle's and--again--having no wish to leave the warmth of her kitchen to brave the supermarket. I understand that wish and applaud the creative substitutions. Rachel served this cake to friends, one of whom surely earned a repeat invitation by telling her that the pistachio cake was the best cake she'd ever had.

If you're not allergic to peanuts, get ready to make the Peanut Butter Ingots, another version of the Financiers. (If you remember, we used these same financier molds to make the Barcelona Brownie Bars.) Or not. Many of you were quite creative in coming up with substitute pans. If you decide to get the silicone molds (and I'll admit it's pretty late in the day to do that), get the bigger blue ones, and not the smaller terra-cotta colored ones that are labeled "financier" pans.
Enjoy the easy ingots, because the week after that we're doing Le Succes (not pronounced "success," but souk-SAY), which requires marking 8-inch circles on baking sheets, then piping the meringue batter onto the circles. Anything requiring piping gives me cold chills. After you're done with the piping, making the tea ganache should be a snap. This is our first Passover cake, although I believe that if you're actually making this for Passover, you're going to have to modify the ganache, which is made with creme fraiche and cream. I have a friend who told me I could make a fortune if I could actually produce a good-tasting Passover cake. I'm not sure about making a fortune, but I'll bet that if this has passed Rose's taste tests, it's going to be good.

Mar 15, 2010

Sicilian Pistachio Cake

I guess if you're away from baking for even a few weeks, you lose your mojo. I made a couple of amateurish mistakes (well, after all, I am an amateur!), and I was annoyed with myself for forgetting to order some of the beautiful, brilliant green pistachios that Rose and Matthew had for their cakes before I left for Hawaii. I knew I wasn't going to be able to find pistachios that totally satisfied me, and I was right.
These are from one of the local food co-ops, and were expensive enough--$13.99 a pound--but they weren't amazing. At least they were organic.
Still, I ended up being quite satisfied with this cake, especially with the frosting. The cake is easy enough to make--a fairly standard sour-cream/butter cake--it's hard to go wrong with that combination--made more intriguing by the addition of finely processed (but not ground to a powder) pistachios. I liked the textural addition of pistachios, so I agree with Rose's decision not to over-process them. Matthew's cake was a much brighter green than mine, because he thought ahead and ordered them, while I had to settle for what was available locally. OK, I'll quit grousing about that now.
The batter turned out thick and rich-looking--definitely not one that would smooth out by giving the cake pan a few shakes. This needed serious evening-out with the spatula.
If it weren't for the buttercream frosting, this cake would be on the quick-and-easy list, and the buttercream isn't difficult unless you screw it up, as I did.

You have to make an initial decision about whether to use Lyle's Golden Syrup or white corn syrup. This decision will have a big impact on the color of the frosting and its flavor. Lyle's has a very distinctive, sort of caramel-y taste, and it becomes the most noticeable flavor element in the buttercream. I used Lyle's syrup, and loved it, but you shouldn't use it if you want a more traditional vanilla buttercream. You can see that the "golden" syrup is actually a deep amber.
In case you missed the Plugra label in the background of this picture, here it is again. I figured that the buttercream was a good place to use the richest butter I could find. Someday I'd like to do a blind taste testing of butter. I think I might find that my real preference is for butter from Vermont Butter & Cheese, but I suppose it might also depend on how old the butter is.

The syrup (whichever kind you use), sugar, and lemon juice are mixed together and boiled.
This boiled mixture is poured carefully into the already beaten egg yolks. Easy peasy.

Everything was just going merrily along with the buttercream, but I decided that the butter needed a little more softening in the microwave before I added it to the egg mixture. For some reason, I punched in Power Level 4 for two and a half minutes; then I left the kitchen. Suddenly, I realized what I'd done. I dashed back to the kitchen, and opened the microwave. I found a big bowl of melted butter. You may not need this advice, fellow bakers, but I will give it to you anyway: it's much better to soften butter in short bursts of the microwave at low power, even though it gets annoying to do it over and over again than it is to do what I did.
I still could easily have rescued the buttercream by just softening some more butter. (I could have clarified the melted butter and put it in the freezer for some later cake. But I didn't. First, I didn't think of it until it was too late and second, I really wanted to see what was going to happen. I'm pretty sure that butter undergoes some molecular change when it melts. Even after I put it in the refrigerator, it hardened, but it never turned back into anything resembling softened butter. Call it scientific curiosity, call it stubbornness--I was driven to find out what would happen.
What happens is that the buttercream never gets to a frosting-like consistency. It's more like sludge. Delicious sludge, to be sure, but still sludge. You don't really frost a cake with this stuff; you just pour it on and hope that some sticks.
You can see how it's gathering at the bottom of the cake. I had strips of waxed paper on the cake plate to keep it from getting messy (ha!), but it just kept slowly dripping off the waxed paper onto the counter top. I tried to scoop it up and flop it back on the top of the cake, but gravity kept pulling the sludge down. I yelled at Jim to come and eat a piece of cake very quickly before it went completely bald. After I cut two pieces, I put the cake on a table on the cold front porch to see if it would firm up a bit. (It did).
Here's another cake that proves my point about these recipes having a pretty big margin for error.
So it didn't turn out quite the way I was hoping--if only I'd been able to stop myself from announcing that I'd made a Pistachio Sludge Cake, no one would ever have known it wasn't supposed to turn out the way it did. The cake is excellent, but it's the frosting that really shines here--even if the frosting is more like ooze.
If I'd happened to have some pistachio essence on hand, I might have added a little bit to the cake, but not the frosting--I think it would have fought with the rich taste of the golden syrup. But my pistachios were pretty mild, and the cake itself could have used a little more pistachio pizzazz.
And just to make those of you who knew I'd never stick to the eat-one-piece rule--I had three pieces of this cake.
Laurel: "Rich, but subtle--like a French dessert."
Sarah: "Delicious--love the texture that the nuts give it."
Jim: "I like the chewy nuts." (Please note that Jim had four pieces of cake this week).
Jan: "Delish."
Karen: "I like the greenness--did you choose it for spring? The frosting is very good. That syrup adds a lot of flavor. The cake has a sophisticated texture."

Mar 11, 2010

Catching Up

I was going to surprise you by showing you a picture of Hector and me in Honolulu, but Hector beat me to it.  When Hector found out Jim and I were going to be in Hawaii, he generously offered to find us, wherever we were, and cook dinner for us.  I said I'd love it if he would show us a restaurant that he likes--something low-key and Hawaiian, a place that a tourist probably wouldn't go to.  He agreed.  So he, along with his friend Craig, picked us up at our hotel and gave us both leis (Jim's was a beautiful and masculine one made of kukui nuts.  Jim, being a Minnesotan, would have thought it not quite the thing to wear flowers, so Hector made a good pick).  I thought it was very much the thing to wear flowers, and was delighted with mine. Then he drove us around to some scenic or historic spots, including President Obama's high school.
Hector and Craig took us to his favorite Chinese restaurant, an unobtrusive place called Asia Manoa, where we had an array of wonderful food. And, ironically, given the brouhaha that has recently erupted over Rose's seemingly innocent request to a waiter to bring her and her guests some forks so they could try out a cake she'd just baked, Hector treated us with a Rose Red Velvet cake that he'd made. The server and staff were delighted to see the cake--and they know that he always shares.
This version is made with beet juice, so it doesn't have the same shocking red as the one made with a bottle of red food coloring.
I can't tell you what a charming and delightful host Hector is, and Craig, who has lived most of his life in Hawaii, also had wonderful stories and great recommendations of off-the-beaten-path things to do in Maui, our next destination.
Let me give you just a very brief travelogue....
The banyan tree in the center of the outdoor bar and restaurant in our Honolulu hotel.
The view from the lanai of our B&B in Lahaina, Maui.
It's whale season in Lahaina, and we saw them almost every day, frolicking in the ocean. (Maybe they weren't frolicking--maybe they were arguing. I don't know. I'd prefer to think of them frolicking).
I don't know if there's anywhere else in the world that has more waterfalls than Maui. Especially on the famous Road to Hana, you can hardly shake a stick without hitting a waterfall. The only thing that there's more of is people taking pictures of waterfalls. My grandfather loved to take pictures of waterfalls. But he had a policy of never going anywhere he couldn't drive to, so that pretty much eliminated Maui. My grandpa was a gentle and forgiving man, but if he saw all the waterfall pictures that Jim took on this trip, it would have been pretty hard for him to just swallow hard and admire.
Some taro fields. The taro is heavily irrigated, and grown in patches. I didn't eat any poi while I was in Hawaii, but if you want poi, you've got to have taro.
A lavender farm in central Maui--one of Craig's recommendations. The photo can't begin to do justice to the vista. Even in central Maui, there's a fabulous view of the ocean.
And more ocean.
But now, on to cakes.
I loved reading all your comments on my blog, and loved seeing all the different versions of your poppyseed cake and apricot roll. Jet lag or no, I couldn't go to bed the first night we were back until I'd read every single post.
If you want a sneak preview of the pistachio cake that's scheduled for this weekend, go to Rose's forum, and look at Matthew's pictures. Unless you're a pistachio nut hater, I think the photos will make you want to try the cake--that was the effect it had on me, anyway. He splurged on nuts from Kalyustan's, and from the looks of it, the splurge was justified.

Please welcome Katya, of Second Dinner, who, while patiently waiting for me to come back from Hawaii, has already posted the poppyseed cake and apricot roll.

Also welcome Svetlana, who is from Israel by way of the Ukraine, and is brand new to blogging. Her post on the apricot cake roll is her first ever.

There are several more people in the wings, waiting to set up a blog or to get my OK to join. This means, unfortunately, that I will have to be stricter about checking to see when people have not been active bloggers for a while, so please let me know if there is something that's keeping you temporarily away from cake baking. I'll be glad to keep your spot open temporarily, but we all agreed that we'd like to keep the group of bakers to a manageable size. If there are people who are waiting to join, it doesn't seem fair to save the spot indefinitely.

Mar 8, 2010

Chocolate Apricot Roll with Lacquer Glaze

This cake showed me how far I've come since I started baking Heavenly Cakes. Although this cake has five different elements, a name that I didn't know how to pronounce six months ago (biscuit = bees-KWEE, not biskut), a filling I've never heard of (lekvar), another trip to the liquor store to buy yet another bottle of some expensive alcoholic liquid), and the jelly-roll technique I've done only one other time in my life, I was not even daunted when I looked at the recipe. My only thought was, "This is not on the Quick-and-Easy list." (It's not, in case you're wondering). I've learned that it's possible to get yourself in a zen-like state where you are methodically measuring, boiling, adding, pouring, and so forth, without even worrying about whether it's going to turn out all right. I've also learned that it takes way more than four hours to make this cake from start to finish.
I got home from having lunch with friends around 2:00 on Saturday. I had to leave by 6:00 to have a pre-play dinner with other friends, and I thought it would be nice to invite them back to our house after the play for cake, so at 2:15, I started to get into cake gear.
First, the apricot ganache filling, which is just Rose's tried-and-true food processor method of making ganache. The only difference is that it's flavored with a bit of apricot brandy.
Now I take a deep breath and go on to the lekvar. To my dismay, I see that I've ignored the fact that the first thing you have to do is soak dried apricots in water for two hours. A little doubt about being able to finish this cake by 6:00 began to creep into my consciousness, but I tried to ignore it.
I put both the apricots and the doubts aside, and went on to the sponge roll, AKA the biscuit roulade.

This is another one of those cakes that undergoes some miraculous chemical transformation--from the rich golden yellow of egg yolks to a thick, pale yellow batter. All it takes is five minutes of mixing on high speed.
After the flour is added in, you carefully fold in the egg whites, which you've beaten in another bowl. Actually the cake comes together pretty easily, and then it just has to be smoothed into a jelly roll pan and baked for 13 minutes.
Now I'm thinking maybe it's possible to make my 6:00 deadline after all. I transferred the cake to a towel without any problem, peeled off the parchment paper, and sprinkled on some sugar.
I wrapped it cozily in a tea towel, and checked the progress of the apricots, but they clearly weren't ready.
It was the lekvar that stopped my progress dead in its tracks. If you're short of time, you should definitely take Rose's suggested shortcut, which is dispensing with the homemade lekvar, and just using apricot filling or preserves. The lekvar recipe may not be 100% authentic anyway, because traditional lekvar is made from fresh fruit at the end of summer (or so my Google sources tell me), instead of reconstituting dried apricots. On the other hand, the lekvar has a very intense taste, so I'm not sorry that I made it--just sorry that I didn't read the recipe more carefully and start soaking the apricots before I went out for lunch. If I'd done that, I might have had a cake to come home to at midnight. Meanwhile, I made the apricot syrup, a process that Jim apparently didn't memorialize. Well, not too exciting: mix sugar, water, and a soupcon of apricot brandy. Boil. Remove from heat.
I decided that I might as well wash my hair while I was waiting for the apricots to soften. If I couldn't give June and David some chocolate apricot cake, I could at least be well-groomed. With clean and shiny hair, I checked the apricots. They were at last ready to be transformed into lekvar (which is, by the way, just the Hungarian word for jam).
It was 5:30 by this time, and I barely had time to change into non-floured and non-lekvared clothing. Dave and June picked us up to go to Bryant-Lake Bowl for dinner. I challenge readers to tell me about another bowling alley that serves an entree like I had for dinner: chickpea pilaf over a bed of steamed mustard greens. I was very apologetic about the lack of cake for late-night dessert, especially since I had spent the entire afternoon working on the dang cake.
The next morning, I unwrapped the cake. I foresaw a bad end result. It did not want to unroll, parts of the cake stuck to the dishtowel, and one end felt hard and stale.
I lost the zen sense I'd had the day before and became pouty and resentful. Why had I spent the entire day trying to bake a cake that had way too many steps and wasn't even going to taste good anyway? And why did I still have to try to put it together and make a glaze as well? My mood wasn't enhanced when I took the lekvar out of the refrigerator and found that it resembled apricot-flavored concrete. It needed a machete, not a spatula. And the ganache, which had been so smooth and creamy yesterday, was today just a hard mass of chocolate.
I added water to the concrete, and was able to drop globs of it onto the cake, and take a stab at spreading it.
And the ganache got to spreading consistency with just a few quick zaps in the microwave.
But see how the cake now has all those odd little fingers sticking up on the side?
It wasn't hard to roll up again because it had permanently adjusted to its rolled-up position, and had no desire to become flat again.
Only one thing left to make: the lacquer glaze. This is the glaze that's on the cover of Heavenly Cakes and that people have been buzzing about. It's not at all hard to make, but it does require sieving--a step I'm always tempted to eliminate. But here's proof that I didn't.
Pouring it over the cake is not a neat and tidy procedure. You lose a lot of glaze, as it falls off the cake and drips from the rack. You can rescue some of it, but not without getting chocolate all over your hands. Then I went shopping, leaving Jim detailed instructions about how he could give it away to anyone who happened by. He had to cut off the end slice and then he had to apologize for the cake, explaining that it was probably not up to my usual standard because of a series of events, which he was not to go in to because it would be too boring. (And yet the fear of being boring has not stopped me from telling you, has it?)
I served more cake when I got back from shopping. To my surprise, it was actually good. Not just "good considering that it was stale and misshapen," but actually good. The apricot-chocolate combination was dynamite, and the total of 3 teaspoons of apricot brandy really perked up the taste of everything. It wasn't stale at all--the cake was tender and flavorful. The only problem was that I couldn't feel aggrieved any more. And here is the lesson I learned: even though these recipes are detailed and specific, there's actually quite a lot of wiggle room. It's not impossible to ruin one of these cakes, but it's harder than you might think.

Mary: "The cake is very good, but it looks like it was a lot of work."
Karen: "It presents very well on the plate. It has the flavor of something made by a really fine pastry chef."
Jim: "I like the taste of the apricot--it's distinct, but subtle. The layering brings out the combination of flavors nicely."
Sarah: "The chocolate filling is amazing. The apricot is delicious."