Monday, July 30, 2007

Mirror, Mirror on the Cake

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away there lived a group bakers. Now these bakers weren't just any ordinary bakers but they were Daring Bakers who leapt tall mountains of pastry cream with a single bound and slew evil crepes with their magic whisks and all was well in the land of Sugar and Butter.

I'd like to tell you that the rest of this tale will have a happily every after ending but this ain't no fairy tale because it is a monthly challenge of the Daring Bakers! And pray tell, what would a monthly Daring Baker challenge be without a few kitchen mishaps I ask??! This month's challenge was presented by the fabulous Peabody of Culinary Concoctions by Peabody; who apparently was on the same fairy tale wavelength as I this month when she wrote her post! She selected a summery sounding (and tasting) dessert called a Strawberry Mirror Cake.

When I first read the recipe for this cake, I thought to myself, "Piece of cake! I've done all these things (meaning the pastry cream, the cake, and aspic)". The only thing I hadn't done was put them all together. Basically, a mirror cake is an egg white based layer cake, slathered with pastry cream, and then topped with a fruit flavoured colored gelatin to create the mirror.

Making the cake was a piece of cake (he-he). The cake is baked in a jelly roll pan to make nice thinish layers. The batter came together well and baked nicely. My first problem came with cutting the cake out of the jelly roll pan. I had it in my head that the circles had to be 8" in diameter and the springform pan called out in the recipe was a 10" diameter pan. I also had it in my head that my springform pan was 9" in diameter. So, knowing the recipe called for a 10" springform pan and 8" cake meant you should have 1" of pastry cream between the pan and cake right? RIGHT??!! So, dufus-marlow here cuts her pattern for her cake circles to be 7" because 9" minus 7" equals 2", meaning 1" of pastry cream right? RIGHT??!! Um...I own a 10" springform pan. Who knew??!! The cake circles were nice though.... AND I didn't burn any sugar when I made the soaking syrup for the teeny-tiny cake rounds, making it the FIRST time in a Daring Baker Challenge I didn't have to throw away any sugar/water cooked mixture, burn my fingers, or scrub out a pan!!!

The pastry cream also came together pretty well even though I wasn't thinking straight at the grocery store when I got the milk. I grabbed 2% instead of whole milk so I had to stand for forty-five freakin' minutes stirring and stirring and stirring and stirring and stirring...well you get the picture. It took about twice as long for the pastry cream to thicken but it finally did and it was ever so lovely and tasty and yummy and scrumptious once the strawberry puree was added. I decided to go for "Girly Pink" for my pastry cream, so I was very light on the red food colouring. Plus, since I had decided that more pastry cream was better as a frosting when I cut out the cake rounds too small (eh-hum) I didn't want a dayglo red frosting. I was actually kind of worried there wouldn't be enough pastry cream to frost the cake (especially after having to "sample" it on a scrap of the cake left over from cutting out the circles...ok maybe there two or three samples...but who's counting??) But, by the hair of my chinny chin chin, I got the two layers frosted and deposited in the fridge for its overnight sitting...and THEN read Tanna's of My Kitchen in Half Cups advice to make sure the pastry cream was absolutely even on top or a lopsided mirror would result. WHAT!!! The recipe didn't say anything about that!! I had gotten all fancy with swirlies on top.

I dashed for the fridge in hopes to smooth out my top but it was too late, the pastry cream had set and all I managed to do was mangle the top...

Perfect, I'm going to be lopsided... Oh well, the pastry cream was still delicious.

The next morning, I made the mirror part of the cake by combining strawberry juice with unflavoured gelatin, oh bother...go read the recipe over at Peabody's. Anyways, it was easy-peasy and set up really nice. Loosely covering the cake, I put it in the fridge to finish. A few hours later, I decided to check on the cake and to my horror I found that my loose covering had deflated itself onto the gelatin mirror! I had a smuged and splotched mirror!!!

Oh the humanity of it all... I quickly wondered if this meant seven years of bad baking but after throwing some salt over my left shoulder, removing all ladders from the house, I felt pretty sure I would be ok. Notice the really crappy smoothing of the pastry cream poking up through the mirror? Nice huh?

I took the cake to Connecticut to share with my landlady and her family. I must say that despite the heat of the summer the cake traveled very, very well! It arrived in good shape, and after letting it cool a bit, I unmolded it. Yup, Tanna was right, lopsided.

But look at all that pastry cream! Have I mentioned how good that pastry cream was?

And how did it taste you ask? Did the mirror reflect darkly you inquire? Well look for yourself, do you see a reflection?

Yup, it reflected. It shimmered. It wiggled when I flopped the slice over onto its side. And notice how much pastry cream is all over those pieces of cake!!! Oh yum...

Now go check out all the other wonderfully summery Strawberry Mirror Cakes my fellow sisters and brothers have made! You can find links to all their blogs at the new official home of the Daring Bakers.

Did I mention the pastry cream was yummy??....

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

What's On My Desk: I Just Play a Sound System Designer on TV

A few days ago, the fabulous and fellow Daring Baker Peabody of Culinary Concoctions by Peabody posted about all the toys and items on her desk at work. When another wonderful fellow Daring Baker, Elle of Feeding My Enthusiasms read the post, she wondered about what the rest of us had on our desks at work and even offered, tongue in cheek I suspect, to do an unofficial round-up if we posted about our work desks; not unlike Becks and Posh's impromptu "What is in your Fridge" event. This got me thinking about the two sides of every food bloggers life.

Most of us aren't employed full time in the food industry, though some of us are or have been in the past, so even though we blog about food some part of our "real" life invariably slips into our posts. I'm going to take Elle up on her offer and even though I've in the past blogged about my job as a sound system designer, give you a little peek into my whacky and seriously deranged office...

You first know you are approaching the office of someone who has spent too much time in the back of a tour bus (not the band's bus...get your mind out of the gutter) and then transitioned to a corporate office by looking at the window to the left of my office door

Then by looking at the door itself, festooned with cartoons

A few of my favourite cartoons are this Bloom County from the late 80's

And the best Far Side ever for a reformed sound man. Notice the button the sound guy is reaching for...

I find this next piece of paper invaluable for keeping people asking stupid questions out of my office...

On the left wall of my office is a cork board with my dart board, my audio related Magnetic Poetry, and very importantly for others in my office, the "What type of mood am I in" chart; just a gag...most of the time ;-)

I especially like the "Executive Decision Maker" dart board ala the CareerBuilder Monkey characters!

Speaking of the CareerBuilder Monkeys...go check out Monk-e-Mail! Send one to your boss!!! Let him know how hard you are working....

Here is my experiment in growing an herb garden in my office (See, some of my cooking life has spilled into my office!). Basil happy, chives and thyme not so much....

Lest you think no real work goes on in my office...

You'll notice my computer monitor background image is of my favourite place to sit, enjoy a glass of wine or a cafe' and people watch in the whole world , The Brasserie de l'Isle St Louis in Paris to be exact. Best of all, I took the picture while sitting at Berthillon, enjoying coconut ice cream.

If you looked closely at the picture above, see the Office Space Flair! "Um, Yeah...."

There is a serious side to my office with this shelf. On it is a picture of LB (Lil' Bastard for those who didn't know my cat's name), my little Eiffel Tower, two rocks from Lake Huron (in about 10' of water off my parent's dock in Michigan), my Boston mug and my dinosaur mug (I've had a thing for dinosaurs since I was little kid), the Mackinac Rubik's Cube, and a few other sentimental things.

And then there is the toy shelf...

Complete with Mardi Gras bead wearing voodoo doll, my Lego sets, my Peace Bunny, and my Dilbert M&M Dispenser!

I have so many toys, they spill over to half another shelf. Like most upper management at a large corporation, at that other job I once had, I made all my managerial decisions with the Magic 8 Ball...

Which brings us to the last shelf of any interest, my collection of old audio gear and the first custom loudspeaker cabinet I worked on at that other company.

Now, since we are on the office stuff and this is a food blog after all, I did some baking in my microwave the other night! Yes, baking in the microwave.

On Monday, several of us office ladies were standing around in the ladies room chatting about how we never sit down to lunch together or even have a cup of coffee together. Of course, before I was even thinking, I blurted out "I'll make a cake and bring it in tomorrow and we can do a coffee break!" How stupid of me!! I'm in Connecticut where I don't have a real kitchen!!!

I had read that you could bake in the microwave with Jiffy Mixes. So, a few weeks ago, I wrote away to the folks at Chelsea Mills for their recipe pamphlet for Jiffy Mixes and had brought it back to Fairfield with me.

(excuse the picture, the lighting in my room in CT isn't the best for photos)

Stopping by the store on the way home, I picked up a box of the Jiffy Yellow Cake mix and some powdered sugar for a glaze. I got home, opened up the pamphlet and sure enough, there was recipe for a single layer cake with frosting made in the microwave. The recipe in the book is slightly different than the recipe on the box. The recipe on the box basically calls for water and egg. The recipe in the pamphlet says to follow the directions on the box but add 1/3 cup of vegetable oil to the mix as well. Hum...isn't that going to be too much liquid?

Nope!!! It was perfect. Apparently adding the oil keeps the cake from drying out and becoming hard and crusty on the edges from the microwave because the cake came out perfectly fluffy and moist!

Since food doesn't brown in the microwave, you definitely want to use a glaze or frosting to make it look nicer.

Microwave Jiffy Cake

1 box Jiffy Cake Mix
1/2 cup water
1 egg
1/3 cup vegetable oil

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Pour into a prepared round 2 quart casserole dish. Microwave on high for 5 1/2 minutes or until top is set and edges pull away from the sides of the casserole. Immediately invert onto a dish and let cool. Frost with your favourite frosting or glaze.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Adventures of an Italian Food Lover: Cooking for Friends


A few weeks ago, Cathy, the wonderfully funny and incredibly busy mind behind A Blithe Palate and Ivonne, good blogging friend and fellow Daring Baker (she is one of the founders!) and keeper of Cream Puffs in Venice asked me if I wanted to participate in a cookbook blogging event based around Faith Heller Willinger's new cookbook "Adventures of an Italian Food Lover". Never one to turn the opportunity to add a cookbook to my ever expanding collection, I enthusiastically said yes!

Since "Adventures of an Italian Food Lover" is a collection of recipes that Ms. Willinger collected from friends from all over Italy; a tribute to them and the country she has called home for the past 30 years (The book is full of wonderful watercolours painted by her sister), the premise of this event wasn't to review the cookbook but rather to select a dish from the cookbook and then tell a story about yourself and the friends and family you shared the meal with, would have shared the meal with, or wish you could have shared the meal with.

As you know, I spend my work week in Connecticut sans a real kitchen. Luckily, I have a fellow co-worker (and fast becoming good friend), Weedhopper who is as serious about his food as I am; a fellow foodie! From the day I met Weedhopper, we have discussed food, shared cooking tips, compared dishes, and basically talked food. The first week I was at my new gig and when Weedhopper (WH) learned I didn't have a full kitchen at my disposal, he generously offered the use of his and his lovely partner, Wife of Weedhopper (WOW) kitchen. So, it wasn't long after I received "AoaIFL" that I knew with whom I was going to share this meal with, Weedhopoper and WOW.

Last weekend, I sent the cookbook home with Weedhopper with the instructions to pick out one or two recipes for dinner. We would split the shopping for the ingredients and on Wednesday I would come over and cook dinner for him and WOW. I was very excited that WH picked a dish for the main course that I had really wanted to cook when I flipped through the book, Polenta with Tomato Sauce and Sausage Ragu, a family recipe of Ampelio Bucci, who owns the vineyard of Azienda Agricolo F. Lli Bucci. WOW picked a very interesting dish for our first course, Fulvio and Emanuela Pierangelini's Chickpea Puree with Shrimp. Finally, I picked dessert in the form of Silvano Paris' Pears with Red Wine. With the menu set we went to Wild Oats on our lunch hour on Wednesday to pick up the ingredients for the meal and then after work we drove to WH's house.

One of my favourite things to do is cook with friends or at the very least, have a kitchen full of friends to keep a steady banter of good conversation going while I cook. WOW was home working on a mix tape project in the kitchen, so with her for our entertainment (she has this incredible knowledge of up and coming musicians that she enthusiastically shared with us), WH and I set about prepping the various ingredients for the meal.


WH had soaked the chickpeas the night before and since they would take the longest to prepare, we got those going first by putting them in a large pot with garlic and fresh rosemary from the garden (you should have SEEN this rosemary plant!!) and setting them to boil until they were soft.


Next I set WH to peeling and prepping the shrimp.


While he was doing that, I chopped the lovely tomatoes for the ragu and got the polenta going. Both WH and I were excited about the cooking method for the polenta; the old fashioned slow cooking of polenta in a double boiler! We had both read about cooking polenta this way but since we are both basically lazy about making polenta, and typically buy the fast cooking kind. For this recipe, we got the real deal, slow cooking kind. Using a double boiler to cook the polenta is suppose to result in ultra creamy polenta. Since WH doesn't have double boiler, I got to do another thing I love to do in the kitchen, improvise a cooking implement! I'm not sure why, but I love to McGyver things in the kitchen. Don't have a rolling pin? Get a wine bottle, wrap it in plastic wrap and use the big end. Don't have a double boiler? Find a big saute pan and medium sized dutch oven with two handles. Fill the dutch oven pan with water half way, place the saute pan over the dutch oven, and Viola! Double Boiler!!


With the polenta and chickpeas cooking, both would take about 45 minutes - 1 hour to finish, the shrimp peeled and in the fridge, the tomatos diced and the Parmigiano-Reggiano shredded, all that was left to prep was the pears. I discovered another kitchen gadget that WH and WOW don't own while prepping the pears, a good vegetable peeler. I ended up using a really nice paring knife but I know what I'm gifting them with (and before we cook together again), a good OXO peeler. Before I knew it, we had dirtied almost every pan WH owns, giggled at WOW's observations about the state of the music industry, shared some incredible cheese and had just about every burner on the stove going!


About 2 hours after we arrived at WH's house, the meal was ready to plate. First, we started by pouring the polenta into the bottom part of a broiling pan. The recipe for the Polenta with Tomato Sauce and Sausage Ragu calls for the polenta to be poured onto a large cutting board, but since WH doesn't own a really large cutting board, we improvised (yea!!). Next you spread the tomato sauce over the polenta.


And top it with the sausage. I ran out to the garden and plucked a few fresh basil leaves as a garnish. This dish is a basically a polenta pizza!!


While I was doing this, WH was making the chickpea puree. I had a blast watching him mash the chickpeas through the strainer. The recipe says to do this method vs using the food processor so you end up with a more chunky consistency. After making the puree, you top the chickpeas with four or five steamed shrimp. Again, running out the garden for a garnish (rosemary this time), we had what I think was the star of the dinner, Chickpea Puree with Shrimp.


While we ate dinner, the red wine sauce I had poached the pears in reduced. When it had reduced to a sryup, I plated the pears with a dollop of creme fraiche and then drizzled the reduction on top. This was a stunning dessert!!


WH and WOW were heading to the Finger Lakes Wine Festival this weekend, so of course we had to make room in their wine collection for new bottles. I have to admit, I don't remember what we drank but it was very good! Perfect with the two dishes. While we ate, we talked about various subjects ranging from politics to plays. Perfect dinner conversation to go with great food!


But the best par of the meal was I got to cook dinner for two friends!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Who's Sneaking Sucralose in my Food??!!

Pre-post warning: This a bit of a rant. I have no scientific or definitive knowledge that what this post is about is really happening (and for that reason, I've not named names). This post is the result of my recent experiences with some foods from a few different manufacturers/restaurants and my own personal observations and opinions. You know...sorta like an editorial. Also there will be no holier than thou comments about how only buying natural or organic food is the only answer. I already try to do this when possible and I suspect most people do as well or would, if they could all afford to do so. Otherwise, I welcome and encourage civil and thought provoking discussion on this subject!

There has been a lot of press lately about how certain huge food conglomerates are not going to market their breakfast cereals and other types of food and snacks to children until they meet a certain level of nutritional value; including lowering the amount of sugar in their products. This is in response to the overwhelming evidence that all the sugars and fats in these foods are a leading cause to the worldwide epidemic of childhood obesity and these companies want to be seen as proactive before the government begins to crack down ala the trans-fat model. While on the surface this would seem like a good thing, I am beginning to wonder.

Walk down any aisle of the supermarket and you will see more products offered as low in sugar but pick up the package and read the ingredients and you might find something sinister is really going on. You see, that sugar isn't being replaced by better recipes and better ingredients but by a marvel of modern chemistry, Sucralose sold under the trademarked names of Splenda and Altern. So, while the food may be lower in sugar and calories, is pumping our children and ourselves full of a chemically altered sugar really any better than using real sugar?

What is even more disturbing to me is that I am beginning to suspect that some manufacturers and restaurants are using Sucralose and aren't telling. The reason for my paranoia? Well, I can taste the difference when a product uses Sucralose. It leaves a funny bitter taste in my mouth and I get a headache from it. Lately I've been noticing that taste in a lot of foods I have been eating but I'm not seeing Sucralose on the labels. I'm starting to get a bit angry.

This first happened about two months ago during a day filled with meetings and little time to sit and enjoy a leisurely meal. My client decided to have a working lunch and offered to go to a chain take out restaurant around the corner to bring back food. Taking a look at the menu I ordered a chicken garden salad, a bottle of water and a small side of cinnamon apples. The salad was quite good but as soon as I took a bite of the apples I immediately tasted Sucralose. I put the lid back on the apples, put them in the bag my salad had came in and threw them out. Later that evening, when I was back home, I went on the restaurant's website and looked up the nutritional information for the cinnamon apples. The ingredients didn't list Sucralose, but I still suspected it was actually in there because I had tasted it.

This same taste has all the sudden appeared in a favourite all natural cereal bar I eat in the afternoon when I'm craving a chocolate bar or a cookie. I also noticed that I tasted Sucralose in my orange juice (not on the label) and it has even found its way (labeled this time) in my secret guilty pleasure, Tang (along with some other really nasty fake sweetners). I'm also seeing it pop up in labels for foods you wouldn't suspect like baked beans and tomato sauce.

Tonight, I practiced what W calls the rule of two. On my way home from the gym, I drove by the same restaurant chain to pick up a salad and a small side of the cinnamon apples. Two guesses where those apples are right now...

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Yea, it's been a bit quiet around here lately...

Yup, I know, you are wondering what has been going on around my both of my kitchens haven't you? A whole lotta nuthin' that is what!!

It has been a bit crazy lately on the radio ranch to say the least. Between the long 4th of July holiday week when I had planned to bake quite a bit (didn't, way too hot!!) and long hours at work both in Boston and NYC, frankly the only thing I've felt like cooking is a bit of granola tossed into a bowl with blueberries and raspberries from the Westport Farmer's Market covered with ice cold milk.

Tonight will be no different because I'm still at work (even as I type this little ole post) but tomorrow is Friday and even though it is Friday the 13th, it is still Friday which brings hope for a little real cooking for the weekend. Also, I have it on good authority, that one of my all time favourite movies is waiting for viewing (W hasn't seen it; which is hard for me to fathom) and as you, good readers, know movie night in the Cambridge Kitchen means a themed meal based around the plot or setting of the movie.

I'm thinking something nice and plebeian, like pork chops, to serve for a movie all about a poor civil servant who has been obsoleted; not unlike my life you might say....