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Posts Tagged ‘chocolate’

byrn-american-cakeI’ve just acquired an intriguing new cookbook, devoted entirely to cakes. Anne Byrn’s American Cake tells the story of cake making in this country from colonial days forward, illustrating changing trends and fashions in baking with well-documented classic recipes and gorgeous photography. I’ve never been much of a cake maker, relying more on pies and tarts for dessert-making occasions, but this book looked like a good opportunity to try new things.

As soon as the book arrived, Beloved Spouse – who has developed more of a sweet tooth than he had when we were young – fell on it joyfully and put in an immediate request for its Boston cream pie, a kind of cake I’d never made before and could only vaguely remember even having tasted:
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books-cake

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This picture made it look almost cloyingly rich, oozing with custard between the layers of cake and dripping with a thick chocolate glaze. I was sure the two of us wouldn’t be able to consume a whole cake that size before it went stale.

Then I had my Great Idea: Make half of it! Instead of baking two layers of cake, bake only one, slice it in half, and put the halves together with half batches of the custard and the glaze.  What simplicity! What genius!

It was easy enough to reduce the quantities of the ingredients, but it’s still an elaborate process to follow. I had to start early in the day, because the custard had to be made and chilled for at least five hours before being used.

First I whisked together milk, sugar, gelatin, and salt in a saucepan and simmered it until the sugar and gelatin were dissolved. Next I whisked together an egg yolk, cornstarch, and a little more milk, and gradually combined the two mixtures. It all went back into the saucepan, to be cooked and whisked continually until it thickened. It did, very properly. So far, so good.

I strained that mixture into a bowl, stirred in butter and vanilla, and whisked, yet again, until the custard was smooth. Covered the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing it right down onto the surface of the custard, and set it in the refrigerator.
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custard

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Then it was on to the cake. I creamed butter, sugar, and vanilla in the heavy-duty mixer, beat in an egg, then added flour, baking powder, and salt, alternately with milk, to make a smooth batter. The batter baked in a greased 8-inch round pan for about 20 minutes, until the cake was golden. Unmolded, it had to cool completely on a rack.
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cake

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I sliced the cake in half, put one piece on a plate, spread the custard filling over it, topped it with the other cake piece, and put the plate in the refrigerator while I made the glaze. That was easier to do than I expected. In a saucepan I melted semisweet chocolate, heavy cream, and a little syrup. (It should have been corn syrup but I didn’t have any and didn’t want to buy a whole bottle for one tablespoon’s worth, so I just made up a bit of simple sugar syrup.) Off heat, I added vanilla and stirred until the glaze was smooth.

The last step was to pour that glaze over the cake and let it drip artistically down the sides, as shown in the book’s photo above. That was not as easy as it sounds, as you can see from my results. There must be an art to manipulating glaze that I never learned.
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my-cake

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And if you think that looks terrible, have a peek at the cut side of the cake.
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back-side

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Not a thing of beauty, and not one I’d dare set before anyone other than ourselves. But you know what? – It was great. The textures and flavors of cake, custard, and glaze made a marvelous combination. Not as overly sweet as I’d feared it was going to be, either. I now see why Boston cream pie is such a classic American dessert.

And, when sliced and served, it was almost decent looking.
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cake-slice

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Beloved Spouse would like another.

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Every December, I make many kinds of the same much-loved Christmas cookies: ginger snaps, ruggelach, kourambiedes, Toll House, peanut butter, walnut crescents…. it’s glorious holiday excess, but by mid-January Tom and I are fairly sated with cookies. This year I vowed more restraint: only two of the traditionals, plus one new kind, as much for novelty as for this blog.

After lengthy research, I chose a new recipe from the Cookies and Crackers volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series: Linzer Nussgebäck, or Linz Nut Cookies from Germany. The technique is to make a pastry base, partially bake it, spread it with a layer of chocolate-nut cream, bake again until the topping is firm, and cut it into squares or bars. It sounded delicious.

This was, however, the most worrisome cookie recipe I’ve ever attempted. At no point in the very long procedure was I at all confident that anything edible would result.

Start with the pastry base. In my Kitchen-Aid mixer I put flour and sugar, worked in butter, and added 5 egg yolks – the only liquid. This was supposed to turn into dough and be kneaded well. (That was weird. You never knead pastry; too much handling makes it tough.) My mixture refused to come together. It remained sticky crumbs, even when I tried to compress it by hand. I had to add 5 tablespoons of water before the dough grudgingly formed.

The next step was to roll the dough to a thickness of ¼ inch. It kept trying to break apart under the rolling pin, and I had to virtually mold it by hand like clay. By the time it was thin enough, it was about 12 inches square, which I was sure would fall to bits if I tried to transfer it to a baking sheet. I cut it in two pieces and persuaded them onto separate cookie sheets.

While they had their first baking, I prepared the topping. I blanched, peeled, and ground 7 ounces of almonds; ground 8 ounces of semisweet chocolate (a very messy task!), mixed these with the 5 egg whites and a cup of sugar. It was all to be stirred over low heat until it became “thick and creamy.” Well, it was thick to begin with, and the chocolate and sugar melted all right, but with all those gritty ground almonds the mixture wasn’t what I’d call creamy.

When I subsequently spread it on the pastry base and saw how thickly the soft topping lay, I feared I’d made a terrible mistake by using flat baking sheets instead of pans with a rim. I could visualize the chocolate liquefying, running over the edges of the pastry, spreading out over the sheets, and dripping onto the floor of the oven. But it was too late to change, so I slid the sheets into the oven and prayed to the pastry gods and the spirit of Christmas Present.

Mirabile dictu, the topping stayed just where it was put! (One of the few cooperative things about this recipe.) It took twice as much baking time to firm up as the recipe called for, but I was immensely relieved. When the pastry cooled, I carefully cut it into 2-inch squares. Here they are:

Not bad looking, are they?  But how do they taste? Well, I have to say I was underwhelmed. The thick pastry base was bland, without the richness you’d expect from all the butter, sugar, and egg yolks it contained. The equally thick nut-chocolate topping was rich and fudgy – a great wallop of sweetness – but the two parts of the cookie didn’t do much for each other. They just sat there separately in the mouth. When Tom tasted one, he said it was like commercially made cake: something you’d find on a grocery store shelf wrapped in cellophane.

Now, this was only two people’s opinion. We aren’t great sweet eaters in any case. I had some contrary evidence the next day, when I brought a batch of them to a Solstice Cookie Exchange, a holiday event for Morgan Library staff and volunteers. There was an abundance of homemade treats on offer, and an abundance of enthusiastic nibblers. Within an hour my nut bars were all gone. Some folks must’ve liked them!

So, tastes vary. Never mind; it was an experiment. And I’ve got my other two kinds of Christmas treats to console me: This year I did my excellent ginger snaps and peanut butter cookies. (Tom says yum!)

 Merry Christmas, everyone!

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