cake

Un petit gateau

If you’re a food writer and you go to Paris, people are going to ask you about what you ate. Or, to be more specific, a remarkable number of people will ask “What was the best thing you ate?” It will be their first, and often only question about your trip.

If you answer that, honestly, the best thing you ate was the bœuf bourguignon you made yourself, well, they aren’t going to like that. They want, I assume, to hear about the best baguette ever or flaky croissants every morning or cheese that blew your mind (okay, I did have a cheese that was washed in walnut liqueur that was pretty crazy awesome). They want tales of loupe de mer so perfectly cooked it was worth the surly attitude of the waiter. They want you to be as enthralled by the meals you ate as they are about the idea of you eating them.

The problem is that while there is a lot of delicious food in Paris, there is also a lot of mediocre food there. There is also a lot of really good food here. And if you’re a family with tastes that tend towards either the ultra-fresh produce California-style and/or spicy, Paris in winter is not going to hit your culinary sweet spot. I first went to Paris 26 years ago. I lived there at two different points and visited many times in between. The difference in quality that used to exist between the average French meal and the average American meal – at least the average meal I eat in America – is no longer a giant slap in the face. And, I would humbly assert, if you’re operating on anything resembling a budget, the City by the Bay has the City of Lights beat by a mile on both variety and quality.

I’m not saying we didn’t eat well – we had some great meals and, just as importantly, we had some really super fun meals. And my son would point out that any place where steak frites is a normal lunch option and where escargots are thick on the ground is nirvana – I’m just saying that nothing stood out and grabbed us by the throat and screamed “eat more of me!” while we wondered where it had been all our lives.

Nothing, that is, except the individual gateaux Paris-Brest I bought at Maison Landemaine on the rue des martyrs on an impulse while picking up what are widely considered to be one of the best baguettes in Paris (yes, the baguette was very good indeed). As we ate them I kept wondering why they were so much better than any other I’d ever had.

A few weeks later, when called upon to bring dessert to a surprise birthday party, I though I’d make one. I pulled out a recipe I’d used before and what made the one at Landemaine such a winner slapped me in the face: they left out the pastry cream.

Genius.

The dessert was lightened considerably, the praline flavor could shine through, and it was scads easier to make in the bargain. I made the big traditional wheel-shaped version for the party, but had just enough choux left over to make this mini one, like that from Landemaine. It was perfect to photograph and, I’ll be honest, to eat all by myself with a cup of coffee after lunch. So far it’s been the best thing I’ve eaten while thinking extremely fondly of our trip to Paris.

Gateau Paris-Brest

Created, so the story goes, to commemorate a famous bike race between Paris and Brest in 1891, this cake will strike some as a fancy riff on an eclair. As mentioned above, usually the praline is added to a pastry cream which is then spread in there which is then topped by a lesser amount of whipped cream than used here. I am not lying when I say that this is a prime example of less being more. The whipped cream-only version may be less, but it is way, way more.

Part of what I love about this pastry is that it contains just butter, flour, eggs, sugar, almonds, and cream. That’s it. There’s some water thrown in here and there, but those six ingredients are used in various ways to create a remarkably complex, delicious confection.

Start by preheating an oven to 400°F.

First, you need to make a choux paste. In a medium (2-quart is ideal) saucepan, bring one cup of water and 1/2 cup of butter to a boil – start it off on a low enough temperature so the butter melts before the water starts bubbling. Dump in 1 cup of flour. Seriously dump it all at once. Use a wooden spoon to stir everything together into a mass. A dough will quite quickly, and rather surprisingly, form as you do this. Reduce the heat to medium or so and cook and stir the dough until it clearly forms a single mass that holds together as you stir it and pulls away from the sides of the pan. Take the pan off the heat.

Add an egg. Stir like hell. At first the dough will fall apart and look horrible. Do not panic. This is just what happens. Keep stirring. It won’t seem like it, but the dough will come together again. Now that you’ve passed that hurdle you need to do it a second time. And a third. And a fourth. For this cake, instead of adding a fifth egg I like to add two egg whites. And no, you cannot add all the eggs and egg whites at once. You must do them one at a time and go through the dough breaking apart and then you man-handling it with a wooden spoon to get it to go back together each time. Choux paste is not for babies. Man up.

Lightly oil or butter the largest baking sheet you have. Use your fingertip to trace as large a circle as will fit on said pan (I find tracing around a cake pan or plate works nicely). Use a spatula to transfer the choux paste from the pan to a pastry bag fitted with a large tip. Make a circle of the choux paste on that circle. Make a second circle directly inside the first. Now make a circle on top of the two concentric circles. See how it sort of looks like a bicycle tire? A little bit?

Brush the pastry with a beaten egg and sprinkle it with about 1/4 cup of sliced almonds.

Increase the oven to 425°F and bake until the pastry is a dark golden-turning brown and the whole circle feels fairly light when you lift it, about 50 minutes. Cut horizontal slits into the sides of the pastry and return to the turned off oven for about 10 minutes to dry out the insides a bit more. Transfer the pastry to a rack and let it cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, make the praline, which is a real flavor of this dessert. Bring a sauce pan of water to a boil. Add one cup of raw almonds and boil/blanch for about 30 seconds. Drain the almonds, rinse them with cold running water, and slip off all their skins. This is an excellent task for children, should any be loafing about. Spread the almonds to dry on a clean kitchen towel or layers of paper towels.

Place a baking sheet next to the stove. If it’s nonstick, great; if not, spray it with cooking oil or lightly grease it.

In a light-colored frying pan, bring one cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water to a boil. Swirl the pan as the water heats to dissolve the sugar. Add the almonds. Keep boiling and watching until the mixture turns a dark amber color. You want the sugar really caramelized and the almonds toasted. This goes from done to a burnt mess in the blink of an eye so, seriously, just stay there and watch it. When it’s ready, pour the caramel-almond mixture onto the pan. This mixture will be extremely hot and burn like hell, so be careful. Have the almond-peeling children well out of the way. If you happen to get the sugar mixture on you or someone else, get the coldest water possible on it immediately to harden the sugar and then pull the hardened caramel off the skin and get that skin under cold water.

Let the almond-caramel harden. Once it is completely cool, break it up and whirl it into a powder in a food processor. Now you have what the French call “praline.”

Just before serving, slice the pastry in half horizontally. Pull out any doughy bits of pastry, if you like.

Whip two cups of heavy cream until soft peaks form. Fold in about 3/4 of the praline. Spread the cream over the bottom of the pastry wheel. Sprinkle with about 1/2 of the remaining praline. Set the top of the pastry wheel on top of the whipped cream, being careful not to push down on it.

If at all possible, bring it to your friend’s house to surprise him for his 43rd birthday. Cut it into sections and serve the pieces sprinkled with the remaining praline, of you like (you may prefer to just eat the extra praline with a spoon). Set aside an extra slice for the birthday boy and stand with him while he eats it at the kitchen counter as you both sip a late harvest Riesling and reflect on the fact that being friends with someone for over 20 years is a fine and noble thing.

Paris
San Francisco
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Krabbe & kransekake

If K’s are funny, Norwegian is hilarious.

In all seriousness, it’s been a month of crab and kransekake. Crab because I wrote a story about going crabbing for Edible San Francisco, so I had to go crabbing to write it because the whole angle of the assignment was that 1) I love crab and 2) I’d never caught one before. Rough seas and crab fishermen strikes seemed like they were going to thwart my best efforts, but I finally found myself on Baker Beach at the ass crack of dawn with my My Very Tall Cousin Sam, a two-person kayak, a crab pot, and a professional photographer. My dad, who was visiting from Minneapolis, came along to see the show. You can read the full story in the Winter 2013 issue.

Kransekake because two different friends had occasions to celebrate and for both of them I made a kransekake. The one above was for our friend and neighbor. In place of the tiny paper Norwegian flags that traditionally decorate this wedding/birthdayChristmas cake, my son and I made flags with pictures of the man of honor on them. It was, to put it simply, a hit. I was thinking of baking kransekake for Christmas Eve, but the entire household agrees that two kransekakes in one month is sufficient.*

These kransekake-marked celebrations were both for people I admire a great deal. They are both smart, creative professional artists who are completely unpretentious and always up for fun. They remind me what I love about San Francisco.

And as much as I love my adopted city, there are times when I hate it. One of my younger cousins was in town and we met for lunch. Being the younger brother of the cousin I went crabbing with, he had heard about our adventure and was asking about it. As we talked, a woman eating several tables over came to our table and said “Excuse me, but I’m a vegetarian. I’m trying to eat my lunch and your discussion of crabs is disgusting.” She proceeded to use the word “disgusting” two more times and to have the unmitigated gall to ask us, in the most righteous, entitled way imaginable, to stop talking about what we were talking about.

I won’t get into how I laughed and asked if she was kidding, or how my cousin recognized that getting into it with such a person was a waste of time and told her sure, whatever. I won’t go into detail about how our discussion was not “disgusting” by any common definition or how we weren’t talking about killing, eating, or cleaning crabs, just going out in boats on cold water with traps. I won’t drone on about how her reward was getting to listen to us talk about how bat-shit crazy she was and trying to come up with scenarios where we would ever feel we had the right to tell someone else what to talk about (we only came up with examples that would first and foremost involve a call to the police).

I will, however, tell you my New Year’s wish: May all the grown-ups stop telling each other what to do.

I will eat my crab and bake my kransekake, as my adopted city and my homeland dictate, respectively, for this time of year. You can eat your bananas (disgusting!) or join a drum circle (my own personal nightmare!) and I promise I won’t get in your way.

* If you haven’t made any kraneskakes yet, here’s how: Whirl 1 pound blanched almonds (I use slivered almonds to avoid having to boil and peel all those nuts individually) in a food processor until they are ground to a fine meal. Stir in 1 pound powdered sugar to combine them well before stirring in 3 egg whites. If your kitchen is warm, you may be able to proceed as is, but I find the dough is easier to work with if I warm it in a double-boiler (or a metal bowl set over simmering water). Once the dough is malleable, transfer it to a pastry bag or large plastic bag with a snip of one of the corners cut off (I like this method because of the insanely easy throw-it-away clean-up). Pipe out thin rings into well-greased kransekake molds (you can get the Norpro Nonstick Kransekake Forms I use here) or, draw concentric circles on pieces of parchment paper and semi-free-hand it – a bold but workable move.

Bake the circles at 300°F for 30 minutes, remembering to rotate the pans or sheets about half-way through the baking time to avoid over- or under-done specimens. Let them cool for 10 minutes in the pans, then remove them and let cool on cooling racks.

If they break coming out of the molds, don’t stress – you can glue them back together easily enough when building the tower. While they cool, make a royal icing of about 1 cup powdered sugar, either a drop or two of vaniall extract or 1/2 tsp. lemon juice,  and enough milk to make an icing that is at once spread-able and drip-able. Stack the cooled rings, from largest to smallest, using the icing to glue each ring to the one underneath in. Decorate with drips of icing around the outside and any tiny flags you like.

My son dreams of the day I will let him add sprinkles to the whole thing. Serve the kransekake by letting people simply rip off pieces (in my experience, people need a bit of prodding to do this). Like all Norwegian desserts, it’s truly fabulous with coffee.

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crab

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Rhubarb coffee cake, bran muffins, and strippers

I’ve been meaning to bake bran muffins. Not of course, because I like bran muffins but because I’ve been wanting to write about them.

That is the life of a food writer — or at least this food writer – in a nutshell.

I wanted to bake bran muffins so I could write about strip clubs. Canadian strip clubs; or, to be fair and accurate, a Canadian strip club. So after procrastinating on the bran muffins for weeks because, honestly, no one in this house really likes muffins all that much, if at all, I figured I’d bake rhubarb coffee cake that everyone in this house wanted to eat and just tell you the bran muffin story.

I suppose you could bake the batter in muffin format and have a rhubarb-moistened crumb-laden muffin (cue Betty White joke here), but for the recipe to really segue into the story, the rhubarb cake would need to somehow morph into a bran muffin, which it just isn’t going to do in my hands, so I’ll need you to forgive and indulge me.

If it weren’t for the fact that I was carried down a mountain, the most interesting thing about my last trip to Canada would have been the fact that I went to a strip club. With my cousin. And a couple of French dudes (yes, they were total dudes). And a former member of the U.S. ski team. And an amazingly tall lady from Boston.

So I went to the strip club in a small town in the middle of nowhere British Columbia. Seriously. It was half way between Vancouver and Calgary. Check out a map. Go ahead, I’ll wait. See? Middle of nowhere.

The former U.S. ski team member and the amazingly tall lady from Boston were most persuasive. Just one beer, they said. It’s too early, they cajoled. You can’t even ski tomorrow, they pointed out. Don’t you want to drown your sorrows, they asked.

So I hobbled around the corner on my bum knee, watched with awe and amazement as my cousin talked the doorman out of making us pay the cover charge (he’s a charmer, my cousin), took the beer the amazingly tall lady from Boston handed me, and looked around.

There were videos of snow-mobile jumps and tricks projected on walls and a small square stage in the corner, but no dancing and most certainly no stripping. It seemed like a regular bar, and I’m going to guess that the male-female ratio of patrons was 60-40.

After about 10 minutes someone took the mic and announced that I-couldn’t-make-out-the-name was going to take the stage. Then a glittery-bikini-clad young lady emerged from the door behind the bar and made her way through the crowd to the stage. She started her sexy dance, up and down and around the pole, taking off her bikini top at some point along the way, and the mood in the room… well, the best way to describe it is like she was the wild neighborhood girl who’d gotten drunk at the block party and started taking her clothes off and no one quite knew what to do so they pretended it wasn’t happening and tried not to stare and kept watching the snow-mobile video playing on the opposite wall. Seriously. It was all so very Canadian, in ways admirable and troubling.

Of course, for all I know she was the nice neighborhood girl and the crowd was slightly embarrassed. What I know for sure is that no one was tipping her, which seemed really out of the purpose and principle of a strip club as far as a dancer would be concerned, so my cousin took up a collection and brought it up to her.

It was all very much not what it’s like in the movies, that’s for sure.

Since I was in said small British Columbia town for several days with nothing to do but nurse my injured knee, I made some friends at the hotel and at the public pool and at the corner café. I asked about the strip club, if the vibe was always like that, if anything about the place seemed odd.

No, people said as they looked at me like I was the crazy one, it’s always like that.

In the course of my investigations I then learned this fascinating fact: the club was fined last year. They are a bar without license to serve food and it seems the strippers baked bran muffins which they held between their legs and sold onstage, so the place was fined. For serving food.

Yes, you heard me right. Not cupcakes, not even sugar-topped blueberry muffins. The strippers baked bran muffins and sold them during their show.

The strippers held a bake sale.

I can’t help but think they would have fared better if they’d baked up a heavily crumbed rhubarb coffee cake, but that’s just me.

Canada
cake
coffee
rhubarb

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Walnut cake with maple hard sauce

I never would have come up with this recipe if 1) some lovely walnut folks hadn’t sent me five pounds of fresh walnuts in the mail and 2) I hadn’t just gotten back from Quebec City.

I had walnuts to use and maple on the brain.

Walnut cake

While not health food, there isn’t much refined nonsense in this cake. It is part very moist nut torta and part cake-like date sticky pudding. Top is with whatever you want – ice cream, whipped cream, or, if you serve the cake warm, hard sauce or even maple hard sauce (see below). It would be a lovely change from all that Thanksgiving pie, you know?

1 1/2 cups walnuts

1 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

12 pitted fresh dates

1 egg

3/4 cup pure maple syrup

1/2 cup walnut oil

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325. Spray a 10-inch cake pan (spring form is nice here) with oil, line the bottom with parchment paper, and spray the paper with oil.  You can also rub the pan/paper with oil if you don’t like the spray stuff.

Spread walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven until just starting to color, about 10 minutes but watch them carefully and take them out early rather than risk burning them. Seriously, walnuts will burn while you take a moment to blink your eyes. Let walnuts cool before going to the next step.

In a food processor, pulse the flour, walnuts, baking soda, and salt until walnuts are fairly well pulverized. Transfer to a large bowl.

Pulse dates, egg, maple syrup, walnut oil, vinegar, and vanilla in the food processor until dates are chopped. Whirl until the mixture is puréed. Pour into flour mixture and stir to just combine. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake until a knife inserted in the center comes out almost clean – a few bits clinging to it are fine.

Let cake sit at least 10 minutes before you take it out of the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Maple hard sauce

Cream 1/2 cup butter and 1 1/4 cup powdered sugar until light and fluffy. Add 1/4 cup maple syrup and 2 – 3 tablespoons whiskey or brandy. The addition of the liquid will make the lovely fluffiness you’ve made fall apart and separate and look a bit nasty. Keep beating it, it will all come together again, more or less. You can leave the maple syrup out for plain hard sauce (add another 1/4 cup sugar), or the whiskey/brandy out for just some maple-tinged yumminess that would also be good on a warm cake or, really, pretty much anything.

Thanksgiving
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maple syrup
walnuts

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Whole wheat buttermilk cake

I made a buttermilk cake last summer that I loved – I posted the recipe over at Local Foods. It seemed like the kind of thing that would work well with whole wheat pastry flour instead of the all purpose flour in the recipe. It is, it did.

Whole wheat buttermilk cake

This whips up in a snap – quick enough for a weeknight. Serve the original or the slightly heartier version below with some of those sweet and juicy strawberries that are all over the place these days. Or, if you’re like me, have a piece with a cup of black coffee and call it breakfast.

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 cup brown sugar (light or dark – either works here)

1/4 cup butter at room temperature

1 egg

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1/2 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 400. Butter a 8×8 cake pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

Beat the brown sugar and butter together until they lighten up and get a bit fluffy. Scrape down the bowl and beat in the egg and vanilla just until well combined. Stir in buttermilk.

Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir just to combine. Pour batter into the prepared pan, spread the batter in the pan evenly. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center come out clean, about 30 minutes.

cake

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Cake walk!

cakewalkcake

Please excuse my absence lately. It was quite a week last week and I’m still recovering. Between house guests and a big family to-do and the school carnival, I hardly know which way is up. On Sunday the house guests and the family to-do and the school carnival all came together in a whirling, swirling, perfectly sunny day of sno-cones, lollipops, and cake walks.

There were many Watsons on hand to help populate and energize the school carnival, and I will be forever grateful to my cousin and uncle who pitched in to help run the Lollipop Game. It’s been two days and my barking slogans are still running through my head: one ticket gets you two tries, everyone’s a winner at the lollipop game, worst case scenario is you end up with two lollipops, the lollipop game- where everyone’s a winner, there’s no skill involved – anyone can play the lollipop game. The thing about the Lollipop Game is you get to see which kids will become gamblers. Some kids pay their ticket, pick their lollipops and, if they get a dot on the bottom of one, happily pick another lollipop and then move on to another “game.” But the Lollipop Game really gets under some kids skins. They come back again and again, trying to game the board, hoping to decipher where the precious dotted lollipops are, working to figure out my strategy in arranging the board. (For the record, my strategy was complete and total randomness. I had a mix of dotted and plain lollipops and would mix them together and stick them in the board.) We started out with one lollipop out of five having a dot, but it was so fun when the kids got a dotted lollipop that my cousin started moving the ratio towards the 1 to 3 area, so kids were walking away with six or seven lollipops at a time.

My own family did very well at the Cake Walk. The very first winner was my Aunt Nancy. The second winner? Ernest. That’s the cake he chose above. The parents who bring the cakes know that the kids cannot resist a candy-laden cake and decorate accordingly. I called the parents who made this one out on their use of old Valentine’s Day candy – I was super impressed at the chutzpah required to do that.

I’m now thinking of heading up the carnival committee next fall. Please, dear readers, either talk me out of it or give me suggestions for fun and cheap games/events for a lively and profitable school carnival. What – besides the ever-popular Cake Walk – are your favorite carnival games?

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Kitchen for create re-use

Have you figured out that I love leftovers? I love having food already cooked and ready to eat. I love that many dishes taste better after a little time to themselves (stew being a classic example). I love that some dishes transform into whole new creatures as leftovers (you know how enchiladas sort of morph into a real casserole after sitting around for a day?). And I love that others offer themselves up to be turned into completely new creations, but with so much less fuss than the original dish. Leftovers? To me they are convenience food at its finest.

So what’s with the yummy looking cake, you ask? It’s a winter squash spice cake made with leftover roasted squash. I used my new secret baking weapon: whole wheat pastry flour. It’s not as heavy and dry as whole wheat flour, but it has some whole grains unlike all-purpose flour. I find I can substitute it 1-to-1 for all-purpose flour in most recipes – certainly any for homey cakes or cookies like this.

The hungry boy wanted noodles for dinner. Since I had no brilliant idea for dinner anyway, noodles it was. I tossed them up with some leftover dino kale with chiles and garlic from the other night. I put plenty of parmesan on Ernie’s and doused mine with the last of the leftover garlic yogurt sauce from the dumplings last week. Just yogurt, garlic, salt. How can it be so delicious? And yet it is. Even more so, some may say, from the extra garlicky-ness it exudes from having sat around for a week. Garlicky enough to be deliciously tempting but also garlicky enough to make a person think twice about drowning her pasta with a solid 1/2 cup of it if she had any chance of getting lucky.

Alas, my dashing husband is traveling. So I slept with cold feet and garlicky breath. Really garlicky. Garlicky enough to sort of bother me. I could hardly wait to wake up and quell the stench with coffee.

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cooked it
garlic
leftovers

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