Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday Pinecone Cake

IMG_0430Time consuming. That's my summary. After all the baking and tasting, I find I have a comment not on taste, but on time. The cake tasted good, looked at least somewhat like a pinecone, but the results just didn't equal the effort it took me. Part of that is my amateur decorating efforts (I'm sure I could make several more practice cakes and perfect the technique of making the pinecone out of fondant, but...), part is my relatively young skills at both sponge cake and cake rolls so the process took extra time and nail-biting, and part is that even homemade chocolate fondant doesn't taste all that good. With the presentation somewhat disappointing, the lack of a knock-out, Wow! cake taste left me a little flat.

Here's my notes on the process.

IMG_0376First up, a week or so ago, was the making of the chocolate fondant. I recruited younger niece, who did the hard stirring of the mixture of powdered sugar, cocoa, glycerin, gelatin, corn syrup, Spectrum shortening, vanilla, and water into a paste of sorts. Then we both donned latex gloves and started kneading. I was tentative about adding water at first, so we kneaded quite a while and still found the fondant would break if folded. I did some quick Googling, reached no real conclusions, but came back and started adding water by the tablespoon. After several rounds of that, the fondant finally reached a state that could be called 'smooth and supple'. IMG_0377 We wrapped it up well and left it at room temperature for several days before tackling the actual pinecone cake roll.

Looking at the timing, I decided to make the almond ganache first to give it several hours to set at room temperature. That went smoothly--I do ganache a lot, as it's the favored cake frosting around here. I didn't get my almonds chopped very evenly, but I figured that just added a little extra texture. <g> Then it was on to the cake, a sponge cake roll. That went smoothly too, considering I'd never made a sponge cake before starting the Heavenly Cakes bake-along, and made my first cake roll in October. A few things didn't go according to Rose's instructions. I was using one of my baking mats, first time to use it for a cake. Rose says "Grasp the long edge of the liner and gently slide the cake from the pan...". Uh, no way. IMG_0402 I couldn't get an edge up to be able to grasp the liner, or even see the liner, so I flipped the pan over onto a rack in classic fashion, then flipped the cake back with the liner. The cake got a quick dusting of powdered sugar, then was rolled up, liner and all, to cool. The liner made this much easier than the cake I tried without, which threatened to crack and break as I rolled. Unrolling also was easier with the liner, and the liner peeled off pretty easily at that point so I could roll the cooled cake around a layer of chocolate almond ganache.

IMG_0410Then it was on the decorating. To get a pinecone shape, the instructions said to cut pieces off one end of the cake and attach them to the other end. Well, the cake instantly looked like a rocket. Frosting the pieces over with more ganache only reduced the rocket shape slightly. Next was rolling out the fondant, which did stay supple--guess I did need to add all that water back when kneading it. Once the fondant was covering the cake, I did my best to smooth out the corners and get a nice base for the look of the pinecone. The result was a very long and skinny pinecone, maybe like a longleaf pine cone, unopened. All that botany I took before settling in with my geology courses in college must have stuck with me a little...

IMG_0419 The idea for decorating is to cut a V shape, then lift the point of the V slighly to look like the scales of a mostly closed pinecone. It took a few attempts before younger niece and I got a reasonable shape--my first cuts were about a 45 degree angle, but a wider angle worked better. Lifting the point of the V was accomplished with some pointed fondant tools, and then the lifted section could be smushed a little and made convex upward to look vaguely scale-like. Even after we had a technique, I didn't think the cake was going to look much like a pinecone, but after we had about a third of the cake done, I must say it didn't look half bad. Pinecone-ish, certainly.

The ends remained unfinished, and I don't know what could have been done to complete them in theme--the larger end could have had more V cuts, I guess, but the small end of a pinecone comes to a point, and the blunt end of the cake didn't lend itself to that. As it was, niece and I left the ends smooth and rounded.

IMG_0431I decided to complete the picture with some sugar-dusted pine needles as Rose suggested. That meant scouting my back yard for little branches that the squirrels had cut and dropped, as the branches on my pine trees aren't quite within reach. <g> Luckily, the squirrels had left several branches for me to work with.

IMG_0500 We cut and served the cake for afternoon tea on Christmas Eve, along with the non-wreath fruitcake that had been aging for a couple of weeks. The cake itself was enjoyed by all, though almost everyone pushed most of the fondant aside. A good dollop of whipped cream helped cut the intensity of the chocolate cake and dark chocolate fondant.IMG_0507

Other process pictures, or just see the whole set on Flickr:

IMG_0372 IMG_0373 IMG_0391 IMG_0396 IMG_0397 IMG_0401 IMG_0406 IMG_0407 IMG_0414 IMG_0415

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Cookies

IMG_0348It was a year of baking from Internet recipes, it seems:

Cottage Cheese Cookies

Chocolate Almond Spice Cats

Espresso-Chocolate Shortbread

Pistachio Cranberry Icebox Cookies

Sparkling Ginger Chip Cookies

Aunt Fan's Caramels, chocolate and vanilla, both with pecans

Later addition, not pictured: Salted Chocolate Caramels

The stars, for me, were the Pistachio Cranberry Cookies, and the Espresso-Chocolate Shortbread. And the caramels, Aunt Fan's being a family tradition and the Salted Chocolate ones are very similar if a little fudgier.

IMG_0384Later note: over the weekend, younger niece and I made our first attempt at dipping chocolates, and used some of Aunt Fan's caramels (vanilla with pecans) and the Salted Chocolate Caramels. And a few dried cherries, to use up the last of the chocolate. Oh, dear, those are wicked. Takes the caramels to a whole new level. Our dipping-chocolate expertise has a way to go, as I had trouble maintaining the proper temperature to keep the chocolate (60% cacao Ghirardelli, from the "Intense Dark" line) properly tempered, but most of the results seem to have a good snap once completely cooled so perhaps we did OK after all. If we decide to do this next year, I'll experiment with using a heating pad to maintain the temperature. Sorry, bad pun, couldn't resist...

Lemon Sauce for gingerbread

In my English Gingerbread Cake post I mentioned my grandmother's lemon sauce, which she always (at least as I remember it) served with gingerbread. Nicola remarked on it and that inspired me to get down the box of recipe books I have from Grandmonther and start looking.

Grandmother Lee kept clippings and hand-written recipes garnered from other people, and she organized these by pasting them into blank spaces in cookbooks (the flyleaves, any empty half pages, you name it) and sometimes into school notebooks. There's no organization to the recipes pasted into the cookbook--the first copy of a "lemon sauce" recipe I came across is handwritten on a page opposite another handwritten recipe for ham and cheese souffles.

First version:
Lemon Sauce

1 cup sugar
1 tbs flour
1 lemon
2 eggs
1 cup water

That's all it says, other than "Ruth", who was one of her sisters and perhaps the source of the recipe. This is written into a blank page of Holland's Cook Book by Mrs. V.E. Turner, copyright 1923 by the Texas Farm and Ranch Publishing Co. Eleventh edition, 1936. Grandmother was born in 1896, if I recall correctly, and my mother was born in 1924, so this cookbook was purchased after she'd been been keeping house for quite a while.

Another lemon sauce recipe showed up in a spiral bound school notebook of handwritten recipes and clippings. It was also handwritten:

Lemon Sauce

1 cup sugar
1 tbs flour
1 lemon + rind
2 eggs
1 cup water
2 tbs butter
Cook together until thick.

OK, pretty consistent, and this one has a measurement for the butter. I think I'll give this one a try next time I bake gingerbread. There's also a recipe for "Lemon Cheese" on the same page, which has more lemon juice and flour, but no water. No cooking instructions on that one. Googling, I see lemon cheese is a firmer spread, even thicker than lemon curd. I recall the lemon sauce as thin enough to pour pretty easily.

Incidentally, I saw no recipes for gingerbread other than the ones printed in the Holland cookbook. I'm afraid whatever recipe Grandmother used is now lost to time, as there's no one left to ask. It's even vaguely possible she used a boxed mix by the time I was in college and driving out to have lunch with her (read: have her cook lunch for me). Memory says no, though--she wasn't a gourmet cook, but she usually cooked from scratch. I think.

I also found another version of my Great-Aunt Fan's peppermint pie in Grandmother Lee's notes in the Holland's cookbook. Aunt Fan was my father's aunt (Grandmother Lee was my mother's mother), so this was cross-family-pollination of recipes. I now have 3 versions of the peppermint pie: one in my recipe box in my own juvenile hand, one in a recent cookbook of recipes from the restaurant Aunt Fan ran for a few years, and this one. We've decided to try to make this pie for Christmas, so I'll have to decide exactly what set of amounts and instructions to follow. If I hit a snag, I'll call my cousin Joy--I think she makes the peppermint pie every year. I don't think I've tried it since my high school days.

Oh, and there's my other grandmother's "nut cake", which she made as my father's birthday cake when he was a child. It used only egg whites, and with his early December birthday she could use the yolks in her fruitcakes and the whites in this nut cake. The only time I tried it, the cake was pretty dry and unremarkable in taste, though my father said at the time that the taste was what he remembered.

Monday, December 21, 2009

English Gingerbread Cake

IMG_0339I baked the English Gingerbread Cake the same day as the Classic Carrot Cake, and the gingerbread got somewhat neglected in the photo area. It's a pretty simple cake to bake and the presentation is not elaborate either--quite appropriate for a gingerbread. The batter is mixed up, the cake bakes in a round or square pan, then a lemon-butter syrup is brushed on the top of the cake while it's still in the pan. The cake is then turned out, the syrup is brushed on the bottom crust, then the cake is turned back over and allowed to cool.

My gingerbread cake baking went smoothly until the 'turn out on rack' part and my good racks were already in use cooling the carrot cake layers. The flimsy wire rack that I used sagged while the cake was on it and I was brushing the lemon-butter syrup on the bottom, and the top of the cake touched the counter. When I turned the cake back right-side-up, cake stuck to both the rack and the counter top. Oh, well, not a big deal--I just served it upside down.

The taste test? This cake is not gingery enough for my tastes in gingerbread--it's heavy on the cinnamon, too, giving closer to a spice cake effect. I also tend to prefer my gingerbreads darker and moister. The lemon syrup was perhaps the best touch, and I think if I had wanted to serve the leftovers the the family again I'd have dug out my grandmother's lemon sauce recipe that she always used over gingerbread. In the same vein, my older niece said she thought the parts where the lemon-butter syrup had penetrated were really good--the rest she found unexciting. On the other hand, when the leftovers went into the office a co-worker stopped in to tell me she liked it so well she'd gone back for seconds.

Ginger Cheesecake with Gingerbread Crust

IMG_0365The Ginger Cheesecake is another recipe from Rose's Heavenly Cakes that Marie baked before the Bake-Along started. I decided it would be a great addition to my office holiday party, a pot-luck lunch held last Thursday.

IMG_0325First up was baking gingerbread cookies--that was part of last Monday's baking marathon, though the dough was mixed up the night before. I would probably have used purchased Swedish gingersnaps, except for the decorating idea of putting cookies around the outside of the finished cheesecake--Rose's has gingerbread men and women 'holding hands' around the cake. I opted for various Christmas designs: a gingerbread man, a holly leaf, a tree, and a candy cane. It took me a while to grasp how small the cookies are--2 inches high by 1-1/2 inches wide for Rose's gingerbread men. My set of Wilton mini Christmas cookie cutters turned out to be just right.

I used the new-to-me technique of rolling the cookies between two sheets of parchment, and it worked like a charm and avoided my frequent problem of using too much flour as I roll out cookies. As Rose's note warns, I did have to put the cookies back in the freezer or fridge before moving them from the parchment to the baking sheets, but that was a small price to pay for the ease of rolling them out. I also got a couple of batches of cookies a little too dark (it was hard to tell with the fairly dark gingerbread dough), but it didn't seem to hurt the taste.

IMG_0353The cheesecake mixture was a snap once I'd managed to grate enough ginger for 3 tablespoons of ginger juice. The temptation to use bottled ginger juice was strong, but I resisted. If I hadn't had a Microplane grater, though, the bottle would have won. I discovered the drawback to my new handleless Microplane, bought to replace one where the handle broke--that handle is a real help in keeping the grater stable and avoiding grating of your fingers. Anyway, once the ginger was grated I put it in a very fine strainer and pressed to extract the juice. The cheesecake then mixes up in the KitchenAid in a snap, using the whisk beater. It's a pretty light mixture--not so much cream cheese and a relatively large amount of sour cream.

I baked it in a 9-inch springform (Rose suggests either an 8-inch or a 9-inch) and so had a little less height on the finished cheesecake. The cake bakes for 30 minutes, then the pan is rotated in the oven, and it bakes another 30 minutes. Then the oven is turned off and the cake is left in the oven for another hour without opening the door. As I peered through the oven window after the initial hour, I was surprised to see that the cake had risen unevenly and the back of the cake was above the rim of the springform pan. However, by the end of the second hour in the oven, it had shrunk back to more-or-less even with the rest of the cake.

I chilled the cheesecake overnight before removing the sides and removing the bottom (warily--Marie had problems getting hers off)--I inverted the whole cheesecake onto a plastic-wrap-lined cookie sheet, and gently pried off the springform pan base. It came off cleanly, and I flipped the cheesecake back over onto my foil covered cake circle. Despite the reduced height from using a 9-inch pan and some inward sloping of the edges, the gingerbread cookies still looked fine around the outside. The larger diameter cake did make it easier to cut small slices for the party.

The taste was great--the ginger is distinct but not overwhelming, and the gingerbread crust helps bring it out further. This is a light-textured cheesecake with the high proportion of sour cream to cream cheese, but it's still got a very creamy mouth feel. Definitely a winner.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Classic Carrot Cake

I rather overdid it in the kitchen today: it started with experimenting with Durham scones I'd started last night, cooked for breakfast. Then I blithely thought I could bake 2 cakes plus some other stuff, and still have time for other chores. Right. The baking got done, but little else.

I did bake the cake o' the week, the Classic Carrot Cake with Dreamy Creamy White Chocolate Frosting. And the cake o' next week, English Gingerbread Cake. That's because my sister-in-law is having a Hanukkah gathering tomorrow evening, and I asked for opinions on which cake I should bake for the party. The consensus was the gingerbread, but I wasn't going to skip baking the carrot cake (I love carrot cake!). Carrot cake will also be on offer at the Hanukkah party.

I also baked gingerbread cookies today--these will become crust and decorations for the Ginger Cheesecake with Gingerbread Crust, which Marie baked before the group bake-along started. I'm taking the cheesecake to the office holiday party on Thursday, so will probably bake it Tuesday. I made the cookie dough last night, and rolled and baked the cookies today.

And the last bit of kitchen activity was carrot-parsnip "latkes" (riiiight), adapted from a Weight Watchers' recipe handed out at this week's meeting. Not bad, but not latkes. Insufficient oil for a real Hanukkah treat. :) The distractions of the latkes reduced my photography of the gingerbread, so illustrations will be a little sparse next week.

IMG_0347On to carrot cake. This is my sort of carrot cake recipe--no pineapple, raisins are optional (and I option them out), no other additions. The new twist to me is the addition of a tablespoon of cocoa powder, which for my inferior sense of taste does nothing but darken the color of the cake. I'd really rather have the cake a lighter color, if color was the primary reason, but I suspect better tastebuds than mine find that touch of cocoa adds something.

The cake mixing and baking went smoothly. The frosting preparation wasn't quite so smooth, and harking back to my attempt at Woody's Lemon Luxury Cake, I'm beginning to feel jinxed with white chocolate. My butter-cream cheese mixture was at cool room temperature, the melted white chocolate was not warm but still stirred easily, but when the chocolate was added to the butter mixture, I got solidifying white chocolate on the top of the Cuisinart knife blade (must have been slung there, as I put the white chcolate around the edge) and on the sides of the workbowl. I heated a towel and wrapped the workbowl to get the bits stuck to it to re-melt, tried not to touch the top of the knife so as to not have chips in my frosting. It's not like my kitchen is very cool, and I was working close to the oven, which had been on most of the day. Why does my white chocolate go solid when I try to combine it with something else? I suspect I've got technique problems with my mixing...defintely had 'em with the Lemon Luxury Cake, and maybe here too.

Despite the difficulty mixing up the frosting, it tasted great and was easy to use, not needing any time in the fridge before I could go ahead and frost the cake. I added the suggested chopped nuts to the top of the frosted cake--toasted pecans for me, not the walnuts Rose mentioned.

I like the finished product. The cake is nicely moist as a good carrot cake should be, and the cream cheese-white chocolate frosting is not too sweet. The pecans on top make for a nice crunch of contrasting textures. I don't have a standard carrot cake recipe, so this one may become the one I go to.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Fruitcake Wreath...well, Fruitcake, anyway

IMG_0306Due to extreme prejudice of most members of my family against fruitcake, I expect I'll be the only one to eat much of this week's cake. I am attempting to get around glacéed cherry aversion by using a mix of non-glacéed dried fruit and candied ginger, but that will only put the cake in other people's aversion zone. Fruitcake is just one of those polarizing things. You might think the high alcohol content would help, but most of my captive cake-testing panel are under the legal drinking age.

Last weekend I put together my fruit mix, raiding my rather large and somewhat old collection of dried fruit, which I keep in the fridge hydrator. I ended up with:

1/2 c. dried cherries

1/2 c. dried cranberries

1/3 c. dried blueberries

1/3 c. dried apricot, chopped to about the size of the cherries

1/3 c. total of a mix of dried peach and apple

2 T. crystalized ginger, minced

the peel of an orange and a lemon, coarsely chopped

The general idea of a non-glacéed fruitcake, and ideas on the fruit to include, I took from Alton Brown's Freerange Fruitcake. I doused my mixture with dark rum and stored it in a plastic container with a good lid, and shook it a little every day to mix up the fruit. The rum disappeared early, perhaps because my dried fruit was drier than normal (the dehydrating hydrator drawer!), so I added a couple of tablespoons twice during the week. By Friday, the fruits were getting pretty plump.

Then it was on to the cake. I had the same confusion as others about the butter first being described as creamy, then as melted, but went with my idea of creamy--still the color of solid butter, but so soft as to feel like I was stirring whipped cream. My muscovado sugar didn't quite beat in smoothly and little tiny lumps were still visible in the mixture even after beating in my 1-1/2 egg--the sugar might have been a little on the dry side, too. Then the dry ingredients went in, then the fruit, then the nuts, and the batter was ready. It did almost fill my 6-cup fluted tube pan.

I forgot to note my final cooking time for the half-cake--about 50 minutes, I think. And I didn't read all of Rose's note (raps knuckles, promises to do better) and didn't tent the pan with foil, so the outer edges look a little over-done. However, it came out of the pan very smoothly and looks very pretty.

No taste-testing results this week, as I'm letting my cake age a couple of weeks at least. It's swaddled in rum-soaked cheesecloth and plastic wrap, and I have a little spray bottle of dark rum to spritz it with every few days when the cheesecloth gets a little dry. I'm looking forward to a slice with a nice cup of hot tea somewhere in the week before Christmas, when I'll need a sanity break.