Tag Archives: baking

Why I Do What I Do

19 Sep
cranberry ketchup

Hello, thick-luscious-tangy-umami-wonderful cranberry ketchup that-I-made-up-all-by-myself. This would never have happened before I had my food revelation.

*Voting is now open through Thursday, September 23.  To vote pour moi, click here.  Just scroll on down to the “P’s” until you get to Pastry Methods and Techniques.  Then, click the cute little gray heart to turn it red for me!

Oh, but you should have seen me when I first decided I wanted to cook and bake.  I was a trembling little thing, sweating with apprehension as I approached a recipe.  Here’s how it went:

  1. I would decide that I needed to cook a Dish of Some Sort
  2. I would pour through my cookbooks, trying to find the Perfect Recipe.
  3. I’d painstakingly copy said recipe onto a wee sheet of paper.
  4. Paper clutched in sweating hand, I’d head out to the grocery store.
  5. I’d wander up and down every aisle, searching for the Mandated Ingredients, checking them off (!) as I found them and placing them reverently in my cart.
  6. Having bought Said Items, I’d go home and follow my recipe blindly.
  7. Usually, and through no fault of my own, my Dish was generally edible, and even quite tasty.
  8. I’d breathe a sigh of relief and accept the Kudos of the Masses.

I went along for quite awhile thinking that my Seven Step Process was just the way it was.  That’s how to cook.  Right?

Wrong.  I was so wrong.

I didn’t realize this at first, of course.  It took years of obsessively buying and reading cookbooks, watching cooking shows on PBS, experimenting on my own, and finally going to culinary school for baking and pastry before I gradually came to the conclusion that nobody really wants us to learn to cook.  Sure, they want us to follow their recipes and then give them full credit when serving to a crowd–“These are She-She-Frou-Fee’s Brownies!” “Why,yes, isn’t it wonderful? It’s Monsieur Hoo Ha’s rack of yak.”

Here’s what I have come to understand over the years, and here’s what I want to share with you, dear readers.  And not just share it, I really want you to internalize it:  Recipes are Tyrannical.  I’ve written about it at great length on many occasions, but it’s impossible to say this too frequently:  a recipe isn’t the Word of God Writ Upon a Stone Tablet.  It’s just a list of ingredients married to a list of techniques.  The most important part is the techniques.  Where recipes fall down, and where I pick up, is in explaining that most of the techniques described are applicable to a wide range of dishes.  Yup, recipes tell us what to cook and how to cook the particular dish described in the recipe, but I walk you through the techniques, explain them in detail (some might say excruciating detail), and help you internalize the idea that once you’ve learned the techniques, you can apply them to many lists of ingredients.

Nutella cheesecake

Learn the Rules of Cheesecake, and this can be yours whenever you want it!

‘Member back up in the list at the top where I said I’d blindly follow my recipe?  Well, recipes tend to keep us in the dark and effectively blind by allowing us to assume that Recipe is Law and must be followed.  Blindly.  New cooks, especially, fall into this trap, and the myth is perpetuated by the majority of food magazines and cooking shows through omission.  It’s not that they are all telling you, “this is the only way to make Dish X.” It’s that they’re not telling you that it isn’t the only way to make Dish X.  So, we cook or bake with our lights out, relying on the road map of the recipe to lead us to our destination without really seeing where we’re going.  But, if I can show you that it’s the technique part of the recipe that’s the most important part, your lights will come on and you’ll be able to see your way to your destination before you even start cooking.  Glory, Hallelujah.

If the recipe rules start off “cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy,” I want you to know that the recipe is describing the creaming method.  I also want you to know how to perform the creaming method from start to finish without having to keep referring to your cookbook.  Furthermore, I’d like you to know that you can probably use the Two-Stage Method instead, if you’re feeling scrappy. I want you to be able to read through the technique portion of a complicated recipe for Gateau St. Honore and know that you’ll be rolling and folding in butter to make puff pastry, bringing some ingredients to a boil and then adding flour and beating in eggs to make pate a choux and making a starch-thickened custard (pastry cream) for the filling.  The rest is just assembly, a craft project.

I am absolutely passionate about this.  I share my knowledge freely, from how and why to do the Sneaky Egg Test to The Right Way to Whip Cream.  I try to answer all questions, even down to taking a look at the way folks find me in my Great Search Term Round Up posts.  Sometimes, I give out certificates, and sometimes I make videos.  I also try to knock the snobbery right out of cooking in as many ways as I can.

Can a Suc Puzzle Sugar

Want the low-down on what you need--and don't need--to be a better baker? I'm here to help.

Baking and cooking should be fun.  Unfortunately, most folks get stuck in “fearful,” leaving them unable to advance to “fun.”  If I can make you laugh while you’re learning, that might just be the spoonful of sugar you need.

My wee blog might won’t win any awards–yet–for Most Visited, but it is the Next Big Thing.  I’m not your typical food blogger.  I don’t take the most mouth-watering photographs.  I don’t even always rely on my own photos.  My goal isn’t necessarily to make you drool (although I give myself a Gold Star if I do), but to give you the confidence to go and make your own family and/or guests drool.  I don’t believe in secret recipes.  I believe in cooking and baking with real ingredients, and I enjoy Ridiculing fake food I hate Cool Whip with the burning passion of a thousand suns.  I believe in laughter.  I believe in knowledge. I believe in this blog.

If you believe in this blog, please vote for Pastry Methods and Techniques in Project Food Blog.  Take a look at my Contestant Profile.  You can also follow me on twitter, friend me on facebook and/or subscribe to my RSS feed to make sure you know when my challenge posts are up.  Here are the challenges and the dates for voting:

  • Challenge #1:  Ready, Set, Blog!September 20-23
  • Challenge #2:  The Classics September 27-3
  • Challenge #3:  Discovery Dinner Party October 4-7
  • Challenge #4:  Picture Perfect October 11-14
  • Challenge #5:  Recipe Remix October 18-21
  • Challenge #6:  Road Trip!October 25-28
  • Challenge #7:  Video 411 November 8-11
  • Challenge #8:  Piece of Cake November 15-18
  • Challenge #9:  You’re the Critic November 28-December 2
  • Challenge #10:  The Final Post December 6-9

Thank you, friends.

Miss Patsy’s “Van Halen” Pound Cake

2 Jan


Van Halen Pound Cake

Best. Pound-Cake. Ever.


I told you guys I would be reporting on the making/baking/de-panning/eating of Miss Patsy’s famous pound cake recipe, sent to me by friend and reader Cindy.  I have been sworn to secrecy about the exact recipe, so I can’t print that, but I can print my modifications.   And where does Van Halen come in?  I was invited to Mary Lou’s house for New Years Day.  She told me to bring something sweet.  I told her, via facebook, that I would bring this pound cake.  She posted, “Is that like Van Halen pound cake?”  I was confused, and I had to ask her what that meant.  She told me that Van Halen has a song called Pound Cake.  I don’t think it’s about a baked good, but that’s neither here nor there.  So, for my purposes, my few tweaks to Miss Patsy’s famous pound cake will be known from this point onward as Van Halen pound cake.

First, a bit about pound cake.  The original recipe is a perfect balance of structural elements and tenderizing elements.  1 pound each of flour and eggs for Team Structure balanced against 1 pound each of sugar and butter for Team Tender.  A perfectly balanced but fairly dense and fairly flavorless cake.  The recipe has been tweaked over the years and now usually includes extra sugar, some flavorings, a little extra liquid and some leavening.  Here’s the ingredient roll call for Van Halen Pound Cake:

  • 13 oz. cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt (fine sea salt–it blends in much better than kosher salt)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 8 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • 4 oz. butter flavored shortening
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon lemon extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • zest of 1 1/2 lemons
  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 1/4 cup half and half

First, you really need to use a stand mixer for this.  Generally, you need 1 teaspoon of baking powder per cup of flour (which I usually measure at 4-ish ounces), and I used just 1 teaspoon to leaven three cups of flour.  The baking powder will give off some carbon dioxide and keep the crumb from being really tight, but the main leavening comes from adequate creaming of the fat and sugar.  A stand mixer makes pretty short work of this.  I put this cake together using The Creaming Method.  You can read about it on this very blog.  This is exactly what I did:

  1. I measured all of my ingredients and let them sit until everything was no cooler than about 68 degrees, F.
  2. I whisked the flour and baking powder together really well.
  3. I creamed the butter and shortening together for about a minute.
  4. I added the flavorings and the salt and creamed for another minute.  (Fat carries flavor really well, so adding them at this point makes sense).
  5. In went the sugar, and I creamed everything on medium until the shortening was lighter in color and fluffy–about 3-4 more minutes.  Much bowl scraping occurred too, to ensure even creaming.
  6. In went 1 egg at a time.  I beat on medium for about 30 seconds with each addition, scraping the bowl every time.
  7. I dumped in about half the flour/baking powder and beat until combined.
  8. In went half the dairy.  I beat until just combined.
  9. Then, I put in 1/2 of the remaining flour/baking powder and mixed on low until combined.
  10. I drizzled in the last half of the milk, then added the rest of the flour and the zest.  (If you add the zest earlier, it will just get all snarled around your paddle attachment like seaweed around a boat motor, and none of it will end up in the cake).
  11. I turned the speed up for literally just 2-3 seconds to make sure everything was well combined.

How to prepare the pan:  I used a Bundt pan, and I knew that Cindy has had issues with the cake sticking.  I really like a Wilton product for this.  It’s their Cake Release.  It’s not the spray kind; it comes in a bottle with a flip-top lid, like the old Bactine bottles, if you remember.  I just squirted some in and then painted it all over the inside of the pan with a pastry brush.  I am truly convinced that the Cake Release is the Best Product Ever for making a cake come bounding out of a pan, and using a pastry brush really helps to get it in all the nooks and crannies in a Bundt pan.  If you don’t have any of this magical product, other options include pan sprays with oil and flour in them, fat and then flour or fat and then sugar.

I preheated the oven to 350 degrees, F, and baked the cake in the lower third of the oven for a total of about 1 hour and 10 minutes.  I knew he was done when he was just starting to pull away from the sides of the pan and when I toothpick I stuck in the center came out clean.  I let him cool in the pan for about an hour, then I turned him out onto a rack to finish cooling.  Fortunately my Cake Release did me proud and the cake sprang forth from the pan like the Little Gingerbread Man from the oven.

I made a glaze for the little guy, too.  I used some powdered sugar, a pinch of salt, the wee-est splash of my brand new Sonoma Syrup Co Special Blend Pure Vanilla Bean Extract “Crush” Madagascar Bourbon and Tahitian Vanilla with Vanilla Bean Seeds (that’s what the label says.  I just call it vanilla) and a little half and half.  Then, once the cake was cool, drizzle, drizzle, drizzle.  In case you were wondering, it’s called “Crush” because it has crushed up vanilla beans in it so there are wee vanilla specks.  It is, hands down, the best vanilla I’ve ever had.

This is a great recipe, folks.  It’s buttery, and the mixture of the extracts lends a subtle and can’t-put-your-finger-on-it quality to the cake.  I heard a lot of, “What exactly am I tasting?”  The folks at the party loved it, and I give full credit to Miss Patsy for the original recipe and to Cindy for sharing it with me.  Thanks, Cindy!

Here are some extra Van Halen pound cake pictures for your enjoyment.



You can see a bit of the lemon zest.  The crumb is tight, but not too tight.

You can see a bit of the lemon zest. The crumb is tight, but not too tight.



I hope everyone had a great celebration last evening and are enjoying a relaxing day.  By the way, I’m a bit peevish with Rita for believing that Dexter could possibly be addicted to heroin, but that’s a whole other story.

***For an updated, fiddled-about-with version, check this out.

Why, These Are the Best Oatmeal Cookies I’ve Ever Had!

15 Nov
Mmmmm...plump, juicy raisins!

Mmmmm...plump, juicy raisins!

I love raisins.  I love most dried fruits, actually:  dried cranberries, blueberries, cherries, apricots, dates.  They are wonderful and full of concentrated sweet fruity goodness.  The problem with dried fruits is that sometimes they can be too dry.  And that’s when you have to step in.  Measure must be Taken.  Even if your dried fruit is still relatively moist, this technique allows you another way to add some extra flavor to your muffins, pancakes, cookies, breads–whatever you’re using the dried fruits in.

Maceration, friends.  Maceration is when you soak fruits in a flavorful liquid so the liquid adds some flavor to the fruit.  You can macerate at room temperature overnight (if the liquid you’re using won’t spoil) or you can speed things up by bringing the fruit and the macerating liquid to a simmer and then letting the fruit soak for ten minutes or so, until it plumps up a little.

What liquids can you use?  Well, you can use plain old water, of course, but there’s no reason you can’t use wine, liqueur or fruit juices.  Why not macerate raisins in apple juice, or dried cranberries in cranberry juice cocktail?  Macerate dried cherries in Amaretto, or dried blueberries in Chambord.  Wow–the possibilities are almost endless.

So, the next time you plan on baking with dried fruits, plan ahead just a little and take the time to macerate your fruits.  It’s not hard to do, you don’t need a recipe, and people really will say “Why, these are the best (whatevers) I’ve Ever Had!”

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