05 8 / 2012

carrot cake

The summer months are pretty slow for our little bakery. Recently, a co-worker suggested making our cakes a little more cost-effective until business picks up in the fall by baking them in larger sheet pans instead of 8” rounds. It makes sense, and besides, who among the trickle of customers coming in is going to want a huge, fussy piece of cake covered in heavy frosting when it’s 100 degrees out? But there’s a challenge here, too: how do you make a sheet of cake sold by the square look as good as it tastes? How do you make it look elegant and just a little bit out of the ordinary?

That’s what I had in mind when making today’s cake. It’s just your basic single-layer carrot cake, frosted with traditional cream cheese icing. I piped additional icing around the edges using a medium-sized French star tip, covered the rest of the surface with chopped walnuts, and finished it all with a sprinkle of cinnamon and powdered sugar.

carrot cake

Most of the time when I decorate carrot cakes, I keep it pretty standard, tinting some icing with bright food coloring in order to pipe little carrots onto each slice. While the result is cute, and instantly lets people know what type of cake they’re looking at, the bright green and orange dye never looks too appealing to me. I decided to try something that, in my opinion, ends up being slightly easier on the eyes: the natural colors, scalloped edges and rough texture of the walnuts remind me of shells and pebbles on the beach. This is exactly the kind of thing I like to make — simple ingredients, with a personal and homemade — not artificial or mass-produced — aesthetic.

carrot cake

02 8 / 2012

the blind cook

When I was little, and drawing was the love of my life, I had constant nightmares about injuring my hands. Other than losing my family, I couldn’t imagine anything scarier than losing the ability to hold a pencil.

I think we’re all familiar with the fear of losing that one thing that enables us to do what we love best. Which is why it’s worth taking a lesson from a total badass like Christine Ha, a contestant on MasterChef who happens to be legally blind.

Christine wasn’t born without sight. Her condition results from a rare disease in which the immune system attacks and gradually weakens the optic nerve and spinal cord, resulting in deteriorated vision. On her blog, she describes what she sees as “shadows and extreme blurriness,” as though she’s walking through a cloud.

MasterChef, like most reality programming, relies on familiar gimmicks — long pauses to create drama and uncertainty where there might not otherwise be any; a panel of judges, each playing his assigned role as nice guy or total hardass; a cheesy soundtrack ranging from suspenseful to sentimental. When Christine enters the audition room sweeping a cane in front of her, led by her husband, the judges exchange exaggerated looks of shock and rudely audible “WOW”s. But all of that exaggeration is completely superfluous. She’s amazing to watch.

She feels around to familiarize herself with the kitchen setup, the sink, and the utensils. She makes sure everything she needs is arranged for quick and intuitive access. She tastes everything, at every stage in the process, to make sure it’s all fresh and impeccably cooked. When the rice she’s planning on serving with her braised Vietnamese-style catfish and pickled vegetables doesn’t turn out perfectly, she admits it, and doesn’t serve it.

The judges sit there watching her, astounded, very nearly speechless. One of them asks if it’s ever occurred to her that her condition, far from holding her back, lends her a distinct advantage in this field. We’re such visual creatures when it comes to the way we experience food, but a beautifully composed dish can still be overcooked or undercooked, soggy or crispy, too sweet or bitter. Perhaps the flavors clash, or you left out a crucial ingredient. Maybe it’s just bland. Looks aren’t everything. One judge points out the importance of blindfolded taste testing for new chefs in training, whose future careers depend on the ability to sharpen their sense of taste and smell.

So here’s where things get really interesting for Christine, in my opinion: when the judges set a challenge that’s not about cooking, but baking.

I KNOW, I KNOW. I’m sorry. There’s tension and crying and Gordon Ramsay’s rather severe initial assessment ultimately ending with “You’ve got to start believing in yourself!” while the uplifting piano music swells. But I stand by it.

Cooking, in some ways, can be a slightly more forgiving medium. You can’t try pastry as you go along, and it’s generally considered bad form to give someone a birthday cake that resembles Pac-Man. (Unless Pac-Man is the theme.) Ovens and their precise baking times and weird hot spots are very fickle; what turns out perfectly golden in one oven might burn at the edges or remain partially uncooked in another. Pie filling, left to its own devices, might bubble right out of the crust and make a humongous mess. There are an awful lot of variables, no matter how precise your measurements or how careful your timing, which is why baking is both art and science. A watchful eye and certain classic visual cues suggesting done-ness are pretty much a baker’s best bet.

The fact that Christine can create a perfect apple pie with zero pastry experience and no way to visually monitor baking progress isn’t just luck. It’s talent, fed by determination. And in her case it’s unstoppable.

Although part of me squirms at the gooey Hallmark-ness of words like “inspiring,” that’s what she is.

Thanks for the link, Ma. :)

28 7 / 2012

homemade rye bread with caraway and molasses

I’ve finally gotten around to organizing my kitchen, and guess what? It turns out I own a whole legion of little hand-me-down spice jars I’d completely forgotten about, from marjoram and mustard seed to coriander and caraway. That discovery prompted me to try my hand at my first batch of rye bread.

After reading through several recipes (and sifting through the comments for helpful tips), I felt pretty confident about two things. One, if the recipe calls for a scant tablespoon of caraway, double it. Two, allowing the dough to take a leisurely 18-hour rest will result in an incredibly concentrated flavor.

But who’s got that kind of time?

I confess that I’ve never made a loaf of bread that required more than a few hours’ rising time. I’ve never made sourdough because I’m intimidated and weirdly perplexed by the idea of cultivating the starter “sponge,” a little fermenting bread-pet one keeps in the fridge and “feeds” every day until it’s ready to be mixed into dough (am I the only one who thinks this sounds a bit like the stuff of sci-fi?). I’m a student in the kitchen, and I will tackle these mad science projects eventually, of course, just as one of these days I’ll finally attempt the glorious no-knead bread that a friend baked for our Thanksgiving dinner last year.

For now, I’ll stick with a recipe that only demands a few hours of coddling and fussing over the dough. Because in my experience, just about anything that contains flour and yeast and salt and bakes in the oven until attaining that perfect degree of golden-brownness is going to be delicious.

homemade rye bread

Adapted from Allrecipes.com

1 tbsp active dry yeast
1/2 c plus 1 1/2 c warm (but not hot!) water
1/4 c packed brown sugar
2 tbsp caraway seeds
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp molasses
2 tsp salt
2 1/2 c rye flour
2 3/4 c all-purpose flour

In a large bowl, combine 1/2 c warm water with 1 tbsp active dry yeast. Add brown sugar, caraway, vegetable oil, salt, and remaining 1 1/2 c warm water. Mix well and allow to stand about 5 minutes until surface is frothy.

Stir in rye flour and 1 c all-purpose flour until smooth. Add remaining flour to form a soft dough. Turn onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 6-8 minutes. Place in a well-greased bowl, turning once to grease the top.

Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Punch down the dough, then divide in half and shape each half into a ball. Place in two greased 8” round cake pans, or form into rustic loaves and place on a parchment-lined tray (you can also use corn meal). Cover and let rise again until nearly doubled, about 30 minutes. Brush tops with egg wash and dust with flour if desired. Bake at 375 F for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.

13 7 / 2012

home (a love story)

I treated myself to an incredible cookbook today: Tartine, from the Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. It is a truly beautiful book, from the photographs so full of air and light, right down to the texture of the pages themselves — not at all glossy like a magazine’s, thank goodness.

Inside the cover is this gorgeous black and white photo of a bunch of fresh pastries cooling on a rack. Although the pastries are expertly made (and in a renowned bakery I’ve never visited), the priority is on simple, high-quality, couldn’t-be-fresher ingredients, resulting in food that tastes like exactly what’s in it. Made with care, in small batches that sell out in a matter of hours — as the book puts it, “baking in real time.” The recipes are at once sophisticated and un-fussy, almost rustic. This sight is a familiar one for me, and one I find immensely comforting. One look at this and I’m home.

from the tartine cookbook

The fact that I feel so at home in the kitchen is one my inner feminist still grapples somewhat awkwardly with. I never would’ve dreamed it. Growing up, I saw firsthand the way my grandma was expected to cook what my grandpa liked, and have it on the table the second he was ready for it; the way he would sit expectantly while she fixed his plate, and afterwards, she would wash all the dishes. She didn’t drive, so she mostly stayed at home and watched Food Network and devoted a gigantic chunk of her time to planning out meals. When male relatives came over to visit, she’d tell me to get up, heat up some leftovers, fetch drinks, take their plates. It didn’t feel like I was being schooled in common courtesy; it felt like I was being prepared to take on my proper role as a woman: that of housekeeper, hostess, and cook. And I thought, “This isn’t me. This is never going to be me.”

I had a tough childhood, and it made me a difficult kid. I stayed out of trouble, but I was shy and resentful, had very little blind faith in people or in the idea that everything ultimately works out. I wanted nothing more or less than a radically different life.

And yet, looking back, I now see that I was lucky in this incredibly major way — because I got to live with my grandparents. They not only spent a great deal of time fishing and hunting, canning and preserving, but also grew just about everything else we ate in the summertime in their garden. That garden was an unearthly, idyllic chunk of land that began along the side of our house which my bedroom window overlooked, and continued alongside the curving road that led all the way to the end of our block.

That garden represents many of the ideals I’ve grown up to value most in the world: generosity. Patience. Hard work, performed by skilled hands. A kind of by-the-bootstraps self-sufficience that is rooted in a bygone era.

These days I have friends who pay top dollar for boxes of organic, locally and sustainably grown produce, the likes of which we used to give away to friends and family for free because we simply couldn’t eat it all. New vegetables appeared too quickly and plentifully for us to keep up. It was almost absurd. Every visitor to our house would go home with, at the very least, three or four comically plump tomatoes in the summer, or a jar of canned green beans in the winter. I can remember more than one stunned friend of mine from school closing the front door behind them in a daze, having never dreamed they’d be ending their visit with a plastic bag full of food forced upon them (and maybe some hand-knitted socks, for good measure). My grandparents could’ve sold all this stuff at farmer’s markets, but they chose to share it instead.


Grandma, hiding from the camera behind my mom; Papa, rocking a fedora in the army.

My grandpa is a Southern boy; my grandma’s Japanese. When they met and married in Hokkaido in the 1950’s, they barely spoke each other’s languages. I never really could figure out what they had in common, but I loved seeing them in the garden together day after day, mining the rows for newly-ripened cherry tomatoes and okra, snapping the ends and peeling the strings from bucketloads of fresh green beans. Or just sitting on the old wooden bench under the cedar tree after working all morning, Papa cracking open a cold can of beer on the hottest days.

That garden is one of those rare places that will always be a personal landmark for me, one of those benign entities of childhood forever fixed in time as it once was.

Like most of the things we miss as adults, I took it for granted back then. I found it irritating that each day when we sat down to dinner, the conversation immediately turned to the food. Two bites in, Grandma would ask how the meal was. She’d perfected the art of humble-bragging about her cooking skills, which we all knew were fantastic, and the “modest” food, which we all knew was extraordinarily delicious and fresh. She’d repeat her familiar refrain: “Nothing fancy, we just eat whatever we have.”

Those words used to bug me. Now, I love them. More than that — I want to live by them. We had no money, yet somehow we always ended up with more than enough of what we really needed.

Part of me is still caught in the trap of thinking that because I’m a progressive woman living in the 21st century, I need to be a civil defense attorney or a professor or a doctor or a social worker in order to matter. Or I need to work for a non-profit group that makes sure kids in developing countries have access to clean water. Part of me fears that by choosing to be a woman in the kitchen, who lives to make food, I don’t belong to the part of society that is helping to move the world forward.

However, I also feel like I didn’t really choose to be a baker. I lucked into it, and it chose me. When I started this job, and soon after started falling for it, my mom asked if it all felt “like a love affair.” It does. And you can’t help whom or what you fall in love with.

This part is my choice — to work hard, to be as generous as my grandparents before me, and to believe in the worth of what I do. Because when you feed good people honest food, you feed their humanity too.

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11 7 / 2012

cheesecakes of all kinds

You may have been able to tell, based on the lack of posts, that I’ve been stuck in a bit of an inspiration drought recently. And then, for some reason, I decided out of the blue that it’s time for me to master the art of the cheesecake.

By the word “mastery,” I am actually referring to general competence — not overcooking the cakes, and figuring out once and for all how to use a springform in a water bath without the crust getting soggy. Because in the fall, when students return to the university and the coffee shop gets busy again, I’d like to start churning out perfect cheesecakes with all kinds of rich fall flavors — pumpkin, chai, green tea — on a regular basis. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

strawberry cream cheese tart   raspberry chocolate cheesecake

oreo cheesecake   oreo cheesecake

From top left: fresh strawberry and cream cheese tart (I concede, this one’s not technically a cheesecake); cheesecake topped with raspberry puree, milk chocolate, and a sprinkle of confectioner’s sugar (I love the way it clings to the chocolate but melts into the puree, even though it leaves the center looking like a spiderweb… and I can think of far more appetizing things); and Oreo cheesecake with cookie crust.

I’ve all but stopped following recipes for cheesecakes, preferring instead to follow the basic cheesecake filling and graham cracker crust recipes I now know by heart, and to add variation from there. Whether this is wise for such a beginner… time will tell. But I’m pleased with how yesterday’s double chocolate cheesecake turned out. I love the homemade look of ganache that’s been swirled on with a spatula, and was tempted to leave it looking like this:

double chocolate cheesecake

But after it was sliced, I couldn’t resist adding a little star of cream cheese frosting to each piece.

double chocolate cheesecake

I love having the freedom to experiment, and to make whatever variety of desserts my heart desires at work. But I do tend to start feeling adrift if I don’t have concrete goals to focus on. I used to be such a hardworking student growing up, and since figuring out that this is what I’d like to to do with my life, I’ve definitely been feeling a need for more structure and expert guidance. So right now, I’ve got two big goals for myself: teach myself to make a mean cheesecake, and start a culinary program THIS FALL.

Stay tuned. :)

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05 6 / 2012

homemade peach pie

Baking pies is going to be addictive for me. I can just tell. The moment this one was fresh out of the oven, I immediately wanted to start making another. I certainly didn’t do anything interesting with the crust, in my eagerness to get this first one into the oven… which means next time, I’ll have to play around with fluting the edges or maybe making a lattice pattern for the top layer.

homemade peach pie

For this pie, I followed my favorite pastry crust recipe to the letter, wrapped and chilled the rounds of dough for a few days — and then when I showed up to finish this pie and make a few other desserts for the bakery yesterday, I realized I hadn’t remembered to bring my recipe for the filling. So I had to wing it.

I estimated that I’d need 3 to 4 cups of sliced peaches (I used frozen and thawed fruit for now, but can’t wait to visit the farmer’s market later in the season for fresher ingredients). I knew I’d need a couple of tablespoons of flour, plus a half teaspoon or so each of cinnamon and nutmeg. I’m certain I put a full cup of sugar in there. I wasn’t sure how it’d turn out, but I brought a slice to dinner so we could test it and was so happy with the results.

I honestly have the most fun in the kitchen when I’m either deviating from a recipe or improvising one. It doesn’t always work out, but I’m hooked on the feeling I get when it does.

29 5 / 2012

lemon cupcakes

I’m immensely glad that this time of year has arrived. Even though the month of May has been busier than usual at both of my jobs, I’ve been working hard to put my free time to valuable use, resisting the urge to collapse into an exhausted heap on the couch. Between trips to a nearby city to catch up with friends over really good sushi to a day of relaxation (and mild sunburn) at the lake, I’m gearing up for a pretty fantastic summer.

The heat and humidity here in the midwest inevitably change the kinds of foods we crave, but this is something I always look forward to — especially now that I spend so much time baking. It’s refreshing to break away from the dense, rich chocolate and caramel desserts I’ve been supplying, and to instead look forward to fresh fruits at the peak of sweetness for use in berry tarts, crisps and cobblers, and oh, peach pie. Stay tuned.

90 degree days have hit, so it seemed like the right time to bring this recipe in to work: lemon cupcakes, filled with lemon curd and topped with lemon buttercream. Light and simple, yet filled with fresh citrus flavor, they’re a perfect transition into the season.

lemon cupcakes

EDIT: I actually got an email about these cupcakes. An EMAIL. Someone liked the surprise “lemon goo” inside these babies so much that they typed up an email to my friend about it, which she forwarded to me. DAY: MADE.

For the lemon curd (Joy of Baking recipe):

3 large eggs
3/4 c sugar
1/3 c fresh lemon juice (2 to 3 lemons, depending on size)
4 tbsp butter, at room temperature
1 tbsp lemon zest

In a stainless steel bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water, whisk together eggs, sugar, and lemon juice. Stir constantly to prevent curdling until mixture becomes thick, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and immediately strain. Cut the butter into small pieces and whisk into mixture until fully melted. Add lemon zest and let cool slightly (mixture will continue to thicken). Cover immediately, pressing plastic wrap against the surface of the lemon curd. Refrigerate up to one week. Makes 1 1/2 cups.

For the cupcakes (from Sugarcrafter):

2 1/4 c flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
4 egg whites
1 1/4 c milk
1 1/2 c sugar
zest of one large lemon
8 tbsp butter, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

Preheat to 350 F. Line two standard cupcake trays with paper liners. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a small bowl, combine sugar and lemon zest. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together egg whites and milk. Add butter to sugar mixture and beat until light and crumbly. Add vanilla extract and lemon juice, then gradually mix in flour and egg mixtures until well blended.

Pour batter into cupcake liners and bake 18-22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Set on a rack to cool.

Remove a small circle from the top of each cupcake once fully cooled. Using a piping bag, fill each well with lemon curd and replace top.

For the lemon buttercream:

8 tbsp butter, at room temperature
1/2 c vegetable shortening
4 c powdered sugar
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract

Combine all ingredients, adding powdered sugar last, until smooth and fluffy, then transfer to a pastry bag to decorate.

02 5 / 2012

whole wheat apple muffins

whole wheat apple muffins   whole wheat apple muffins

Yeah, we’ll get to those. FYI, we’re taking the scenic route today.

windowsill succulents

I love my life. I support myself with creative work that I can share with others. I have a peaceful home, great friends, dear family, those lovely plants you see there on my windowsill (which I haven’t yet annihilated with my usual tendency to over-water!) and plenty of work to do. I’ve learned the importance of keeping myself active to avoid growing complacent or bored.

But lately, one big thing has been amiss. I’ve been living with chronic pain for a little over a year now. It comes and goes (but never goes completely). There are any number of factors causing it — being hit by a truck last year while crossing the street, that’ll do it; working two jobs that keep me constantly standing or moving; or maybe just being in my mid-twenties, going on forties.

There could be another reason behind the daily pain and stiffness that seem to be getting worse: rheumatoid arthritis and other joint-related conditions run in my family. And they don’t seem to waste much time. My dad had such debilitating pain and stiffness in his hips and knees that he had to go through physical therapy in college.

It doesn’t really matter to me why the pain exists (although I’ll still talk to a doctor about it and do what I can to treat or otherwise naturally manage it). And I don’t want to whine about it here. Or at all. The important thing is… well, everything else.

I generally avoid getting too detailed about my personal life here, but it seems right to mention what I’ve been going through and how it’s made my work and other projects that much more important. Baking isn’t a hobby for me, it’s an honest labor of love and an investment in my future career. It quiets my mind and gives me goals to accomplish, regardless of any real or perceived limitations. It requires minimal physical strain, so I don’t have to worry about wearing myself out or losing the ability to do it. Even though I only started baking about a year ago, it’s become part of my identity. I can no longer imagine it not consuming a giant chunk of my everyday life. What can compare to the satisfaction of getting a recipe just right?

That’s how today’s apple muffins turned out. Made with whole grain flour and vanilla yogurt, they’re moist on the inside, with a perfect rise, delicious apple in every bite, and a little bit of a crunch from the brown sugar on top.

In short, when I dream about running my own little business someday, it’s things precisely like this that I can see myself selling.

breakfast, day 3

So that’s Day 3: Not too shabby. Find the recipe at Smitten Kitchen.

01 5 / 2012

whole-grain pancakes with vanilla yogurt

I’m finally getting into a rhythm on my dessert-making days at work. On Sunday, I prep two rounds for the chocolate stout cake. Mondays I saturate them with chocolate Guinness syrup and finish with an outer layer of ganache. When that’s done, I choose two or three other desserts to make.

I thought about baking some vegan peanut butter cookies, but decided to save them for next time since we bake our cookies fresh daily and it was getting a little late. Instead, I made a couple of repeat recipes — chocolate chip salted caramel bars, and these strawberry cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. The shop was completely packed with students getting ready for final exams, some of them without seats, crowding around tables to study with their classmates. I hope these give some stressed-out kid’s day (or professor’s, for that matter) a little boost.

strawberry cupcakes with cream cheese frosting

Day 2 of my personal challenge to eat a real breakfast every day:I hope this starts coming more naturally to me. My body’s not exactly trained to expect a big meal in the morning right now, and when I started making these I wasn’t the least bit hungry. But as it turns out, they were tasty enough to wake up my appetite. And to make me wonder why I’ve never tried mixing yogurt into my pancakes before — the texture and flavor are completely heavenly.

whole wheat pancakes

These are definitely not the heavy, gritty whole-grain pancakes I’m used to. The batter’s pretty thick going into the pan, and getting it into a nice round disc instead of a dense little dollop of dough takes some finesse, but in the end you’d never know. Paired this meal with Blue Machine instead of coffee. Head over to Annie’s Eats if you’d like to try the amazing pancake recipe.

01 5 / 2012

the breakfast challenge

I’m kind of lousy when it comes to breakfast.

It’s not that I can’t appreciate breakfast foods. (If I owned a waffle iron I’d never eat a balanced dinner again.) My problem is that I only get around to starting my day with breakfast once or twice a week.

We’re talking basic life skills, here: waking up and feeding yourself so you’ve got energy for the day. One or two out of seven means I botch it almost every time.

Of course there are nastier habits for a person to pick up than skipping breakfast. But I spend my mornings in a bakery, cooking up breakfast for other people. And in the rush to get everything out on time I end up munching on scraps of sugary scones while I work (or worse, chocolate chip cookies, one of the few sweets I’m unable to resist fresh out of the oven). And eventually I’ll find myself chowing down on a gigantic lunch.

It’s a ridiculous trap to find myself in. I love healthy food. When I have time to cook at home, I pack veggies and protein into my dinners, eat whole grains and leafy green salads, graze on almonds and edamame and fresh fruit. And yet I can’t quite muster the effort to pull a decent meal together because it’s morning?

Forget that. This week I’m challenging myself to go about breakfast in a different way — deliberately.


Day 1: Frittata with green pepper, tomato, onion, garlic and basil, stuffed with cheddar cheese and just a tiny bit of salsa. It’s a little dark on the outside, but I like my eggs cooked to death. Delicious, though a little time-consuming for a typical morning. I give it an A-.