March 27, 2008


Before I share the recipe for this little cupcake here—because I know I’ll be poked with pointy sticks if I attempt to post a picture and then skedaddle without including a recipe—I do want to thank everyone who either commented here, sent email or called in response to the “Bay Area v. Beantown geographic smackdown” post.  I heard from a lot of you, and I am touched to know that so many of you care, and wish both me and Lloyd well in the coming months and years, when we’ll need as much luck and intelligence on our side as we can muster.  I am refraining from commenting further right now—although Bog knows that won’t last long wink—simply because for all that this is an exhilarating process, it is a stressful and exhausting one, too.  I won’t enumerate on all of the factors we need to consider for our future; the most important one, of course, is to stick by each other as long as we live*, but there are other factors, too, factors that both require Lloyd to stay in New York for at least another year, and also require us to contemplate our post-New York future—because, as I predicted on this very page nearly 4 1/2 years ago, our time in New York is running out, and we’d like to get a head start before the rug is pulled from under us.  In short, Lloyd and I are not going into anything with blinders on.  We’re trying to make the smartest decision that can be made, even if that decision does not look smart in the short term.  For that reason, I am holding off on any more discussion until I’m ready for it.  Thank you all, in advance, for your patience and understanding.

Yes, yes, so noted, blahdeblahdeblah.  Cupcakes, please?

Absolutely.  smile Today’s bit of Sunday Thursday afternoon cake love was inspired by bunni, who made beautiful little cakes using the Magnolia Bakery vanilla cupcake recipe and her bunny cakelet tins.  From the minute she called to tell me about them, I’ve had cupcakes on the brain—but not the cupcakes that are ubiquitous in New York (and, to hear my dear friend Sharon tell it, are making an inroad into the same nifty neighborhood in Pittsburgh where, once upon a time, I wanted to open my bread bakery).  I recognize that from an aesthetic viewpoint, a steep tower of icing atop a cupcake might look sexy, but the result is always the same:  after two bites, my head rings, my teeth hurt and my stomach feels like a canvas bag with a medicine ball in it.  As much as I hate to admit any fealty toward packaged food, I’m afraid that my idea of the ur-cupcake stems from the Tastykake chocolate cupcakes I loved as a kid:  a small, intensely-flavored cake, a thin ribbon of icing across the top.  If you are familiar with fairy cakes, those are pretty much where my cupcake tastes lie.

Once I knew that cupcakes were in my future, it was a short skip to determining the flavor.  Ever since I acquired my copy of one of my favorite cookbooks, English Food by the late Jane Grigson, I have been enchanted with her recipe for Parsnip Cake, which she describes in her recipe headnote thusly:

In recent years, American carrot cake—sometimes, and I am not sure why, called passion cake—has become popular in Britain.  A friend from San Diego sent me her recipe, and I thought it might be good made with parsnips instead of carrots.  And it was, in fact it was even better.  That is my excuse for including it in a book of English food.

I am of the opinion that, as Robert Heinlein said of little girls and butterflies, Jane Grigson needs no excuses.  About the cake, she is bang-on.  I made two changes to her recipe.  One was to bake the cake in muffin cups, rather than layers; the other was to substitute half the plain flour with whole-wheat pastry flour, inspired by my new copy of King Arthur Flour Whole-Grain Baking, which I bought on Monday after spending Easter weekend reading Momerina’s copy.  There are other changes I’ve thought of making:  adding raisins, adding pineapple, replacing the traditional cream-cheese icing with with seven-minute coconut icing—but really, I would just be gilding the lily here, and I know it.  I tried one of these with a cup of tea at 11 a.m., and it was just right as is, the perfect thing to bake—and to eat—while contemplating one’s stressful and uncertain future.  smile

Parsnip Cupcakes
inspired by Jane Grigson’s parsnip cake in English Food (Ebury Press, 1992)
makes 18 medium-sized cupcakes

Note:  Because Jane Grigson gives both metric and imperial weight measurements, that’s what I’m using here.  Normally I try to include volume as well, but this morning I just weighed everything right into the mixing bowl.  If you’d like volume measurements, let me know, and I’ll edit accordingly.

For the cupcakes:
375g (12 oz.) peeled, grated parsnip (peel and grate first, then weigh)
125g (4 oz.) chopped hazelnuts or walnuts (again, chop first, then weigh—I used hazelnuts)
400g (13 oz.) caster or golden granulated sugar (if you have regular granulated white sugar, that’s fine)
125g (4 oz.) all-purpose or plain flour
125g (4 oz.) whole wheat pastry flour (or use 250g all-purpose flour if you don’t have whole wheat pastry flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon (Because this is an English recipe, I used Ceylon cinnamon, which is the predominant cinnamon used in British baking.  After I added it, I remembered that the original recipe source was American, and what we Americans consider cinnamon is the stronger, more pungent cassia.  Really, though, you can’t go wrong here, no matter what you use.)
1 teaspoon salt
250ml (8 fl. oz.) oil (Jane Grigson recommends either sunflower or a 50-50 sunflower/walnut or hazelnut oil mix.  I used peanut oil, which is my default oil of choice, but if you can’t have peanuts, canola, safflower or even plain vegetable oil will work just fine)
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (Jane Grigson suggests either the vanilla extract or the seeds from a vanilla pod; I think that the pod vanilla flavor might be lost in this cake, but in all fairness, I haven’t tried it yet.)

Preheat oven to 400F/185C/Gas Mark 6.  Set a rack in the center of the oven.  Line a 12-cup muffin mold with paper liners or spray with nonstick spray.

Mix parsnips and nuts together by hand and set aside.

In a stand mixer or food processor, combine the sugar, flours, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.  Add the oil and beat just until combined.  Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until just combined.  (You can also do this in a regular bowl with a hand mixer.  If you beat this by hand, make sure that the oil and eggs are very well combined.) Add the parsnips and nuts, stir to blend.  Add the vanilla.  Be sure that the parsnips and batter are all evenly distributed.

Divide the batter between the cups.  (I used a 1/4-cup Zeroll cookie scoop, which gave me 18 total.) Bake on the center rack for 28-30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the bake.  When they are done, the surface will look moist, but they will be firm to the touch, and a toothpick plunged into the center of the cake will emerge clean.) Let rest for a few minutes before decanting the cakes to a cooling rack.  If you have batter left over (there should be enough for six more cakes), let the pan cool down, then line and bake off the rest of the batter.  Let cool completely.

parsnip cupcakes

first and last

For the icing:

250g (8 oz.) cream cheese (Jane Grigson specifies full-fat, but I used reduced fat [Neufchatel], which worked nicely.  Fat-free, though, I wouldn’t do.)
125g-175g (4-6 oz.) softened unsalted butter (I used the smaller amount)
4 tablespoons confectioners sugar, sifted (This makes a not-too-sweet icing, which I love; if you like a sweeter icing, add more)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or lemon juice

This is a doddle.  Cream the cheese and butter together, add sugar, add vanilla or lemon juice, stir until smooth, well-blended and fluffy.  Ice your cupcakes all at once, or just put them in an airtight container and ice as needed.  Keep the icing in the fridge.  Let it come to room temperature and stir before you spread it.

elevenses macro

*Astute readers among you might recognize this line from ”Song of the Open Road” (stanza 17) by Walt Whitman, which my dear friend Sharon—the same dear friend Sharon who told me about the arrival of hepster cupcakes in Pittsburgh—read at our wedding.  It still resonates with us.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:50 PM in • (0) Comments
March 24, 2008

(Originally published on Scrineblog.  Reprinted by kind permission of Keith, the architect of the PTMYB template and all-around swell guy.)

In the great “Bay Area v. Boston” geographic smackdown, I do not intend to fight fair.—‘mouse

So noted, sir… rasberry

1.  Tuition, room/board, expenses.

Bay Area and Beantown charge approximately the same tuition and on-campus room/board.  Living expenses are also approximately the same.  Draw.

2.  Financial aid.

Beantown has awarded me a scholarship that will cover approximately 22% of my tuition costs over three years.  Bay Area has sent me paperwork to apply for a scholarship that will cover about 15% of my tuition costs over three years—assuming that I am one of the lucky scholarship recipients in the first place. Advantage:  Beantown.

3.  Job opportunities.

Bay Area does not allow first-year students to work.  [Edit: ‘mouse, who is a Bay Area alum, has questioned this.  I am reinvestigating.  It’s possible that first-year students are merely discouraged from working, in accordance with the American Bar Association recommendations.] However, Bay Area’s campus is close to the office of an attorney who has suggested that there might be work available for me in the area.  Beantown has a co-op program embedded in its curriculum:  students attend classes for 11 weeks, then work for the co-op for 11 weeks.  Depending on where the co-op places the student, pay ranges from fairly low (for public service work such as with the public defender’s or district attorney’s offices) to almost livable (for big corporate Satan-on-a-retainer firms).  Draw.

4.  Accessibility to off-campus amenities.

Bay Area has a public transit system, but so far it is an unknown quantity; the school literature says only that it’s *possible* to attend school for three years without requiring a car.  Beantown has the T.  Draw, with possible advantage to Beantown.

5.  Weather.

Okay, on this there’s no contest.  Advantage:  Bay Area.

6.  Food.

Both Bay Area and Beantown have abundance of swell places to eat.  Grocery situation uncertain without further study.  Rumors abound of swell roadside produce stands in Bay Area.  Draw, with possible advantage to Bay Area.

7.  Exercise.

Bay Area and Beantown both have huge, sexalicious fitness centers and swimming pools, all free for enrolled students.  Draw.

8.  Curricula, clinics, special programs.

This is where the choice can really make a body’s head hurt.  Bay Area has a community law center, an institute for redress and recovery for the victims of torture and other human rights abuses, the Northern California Innocence Project and several clinics and programs on sustainability.  Beantown has clinical courses on criminal advocacy, domestic violence and public health; a program on civil rights and restorative justice, and a project that sends students into Beantown-area public schools to teach constitutional literacy to high school students.  I am only scratching the surface of what both schools offer.  Draw, dammit, a complete and utter draw.

9.  Going home.

Going to Beantown will allow me to come home and see Lloyd at least once or twice a month.  Coming home from Bay Area will be considerably more expensive and difficult.  On the other hand, one could argue that being 3,300 miles away from home will force me to focus on my coursework, with no distraction.  Advantage:  Beantown, but since I have no idea whether I’ll be too embedded in first-year boot camp to enjoy any time at home, this might be a draw, too.

10.  Future practice, a/k/a Where do you want to be when you grow up?

I have been advised that the place where you pursue your education generally determines where you build your career (or did I get that backwards?) If I go to Beantown, the odds are good that I will work in Beantown or points nearby—or possibly as far south as Washington.  If I go to Bay Area, it would not be a stretch to consider one day living and working in San Francisco.  Draw, draw, draw.

But wait, there’s a wild card! I have yet to hear from two schools in New York City, one in Pittsburgh and one in Boulder.  If any one of those schools offers me a superior financial aid package, all of the previous considerations are hereby rendered null and void.

Edit: Yes, there are open-house days for admitted students at both schools.  Yes, I plan on attending both, which should either cement a decision or just make the whole damn decision that much more difficult to make. smile

Posted by Bakerina at 11:44 AM in • (0) Comments
March 15, 2008

east coast school vs. west coast school

It was about this time last year that I was a woman of few words.  Once again I am a woman of few words, albeit for much different, much better reasons.

I had thought that the adventure started once I finished my applications and sent off my fees.  That only goes to show what I know.  Now the adventure starts, namely, how in the world am I going to pay for this?  (There are options, of course, but I dare not disclose them for fear of hexing them.  There are also four other schools from which to hear; out of the same fear of hexing, I am being cagey about them.)

Of course, I have the rest of the spring and summer to figure out how I’m going to pay for this.  Today I can read and reread these letters, and be thankful that the word “regret” does not occur in either of them.  I can’t think of a better way to spend the day than that.

Posted by Bakerina at 04:15 PM in • (0) Comments
March 12, 2008

pain brie crumb (a.p. flour)

On Friday it was a loaf of bread—or, rather, eight loaves of bread—and an opportunity to spend the day doing something I loved.  Today it is a moral dilemma, and possibly an exercise in decadence.  Of course, it was a moral dilemma, and possibly an exercise in decadence, long before this weekend.  It was only this weekend that my conscience finally caught up to reality.  I realize fully that my conscience is a little slow on the uptake.

The plan had been simple:  Make a batch of pain brié as I’d been taught to make it in culinary school.  Tell an amusing story about how, back in school, I had beaten that damn dough for half an hour and it had never, ever smoothed out.  Discover that the first batch I’d made in ten years was spoiled by an overproofed sponge and a surfeit of flour (I had forgotten that my instructors who had written our bread curriculum had built 10% additional flour into the base recipes, and I had forgotten to leave it out).  Make another batch, then decide to make a control batch with a lower-protein flour, to see if I could achieve a smoother dough.  Spend a day in the kitchen, rediscovering how malty and clean is the scent of flour and water being mixed together; how satisfying is the whole shaping process, turning par-shaped loaves into bâtards, feeling air bubbles pop under gentle pressure, how thrilling it is to draw a razor blade against the top of an oven-bound loaf and get it right on the first whoosh.  Bake the breads.  Pull them out of the oven.  Love the way the hot crust crackles in the cool air.  Note ruefully that the bottoms are burned thanks to one of the oven racks being placed too closely to the bottom of the oven.  Let it cool.  Let it rest.  Taste it.  Discover, sadly, that the loaves made with bread flour taste like nothing, while the loaves made with all-purpose flour taste only marginally better than nothing.  They’re definitely not reflective of the work I put into them.  Still, there’s nothing shabby about having a freezer full of sandwich-suitable bread, and a story to tell about it.  Vow to try again with an overnight-risen dough.  Tell the story, all of it.

Now, I realize I’m talking about all of this as if it has occurred in a vacuum.  It has not.  Long before I decided to embark on this little baking adventure, the price of flour was increasing, and I knew this.  I confess now—and I’m embarrassed to confess this—that I didn’t pay too much attention to root causes.  Ever since oil prices began to climb, I took it for granted that eventually these increases would result in higher prices for food.  When the price of milk began to climb, I knew that it was due to a combination of increased fuel costs and increased feed costs:  as more corn is being used to produce ethanol, less of it is available for animal feed.  I started seeing a news story here, an email from my flour company of choice there, an occasional news report in between:  the price of flour is going up.  I didn’t pay too much attention.  I would be still be buying all the flour I needed; I’d just be paying more for it.  It’s all about the fuel.  Nothing to see here.

It’s not all about the fuel.  Thanks to this article in Sunday’s New York Times, I know just how wrong I was.  Fuel pricing is a factor, of course.  So is the diversion of land from wheat crops to corn crops to feed the growing market for biofuels.  So is the weak dollar.  So is the drought in Australia, which has proven devastating for Australian wheat crops, and which has sent the buyers of Australian wheat to look to the U.S. for exports.  So is the growing global demand for wheat-based foods like bread and noodles, even—especially—in countries where they have not historically been staples.  All of these factors have made wheat a dear commodity, growing dearer by the day, and have plunged the U.S. grain reserve to its lowest level since 1947.

I went to bed on Sunday, contemplating all of this.  On Monday morning, I walked past the bakery around the corner on my way to the laundromat and found this article, laminated, hanging in the front window.  It was then that I realized just how dire the situation has become.  We now have 30-year-old and 50-year-old bakeries in the city, pleading with their customers to remain patient, and to understand that nobody is getting rich off that extra 40 cents being charged for bread.  We have decades-old businesses, well established in the community, facing closure because they can’t continue to absorb these increases indefinitely, and there does not seem to be any end in sight.

Dear friends, I am confounded.  I do not know whether I am part of the problem or part of the solution.  Is it better to keep buying flour, to continue patronizing a company whose product I really like, to help keep them afloat through the rough waters of a grain shortage?  Or should I realize that I am part of that insistent global demand for wheat and wheat products, and modify my flour purchases accordingly?  Do home bakers use enough flour to even register as a blip on the radar of world commodity markets?  Is this all, in fact, an exercise in decadence?

Posted by Bakerina at 09:12 PM in • (1) Comments
March 06, 2008

gateau au chocolat et aux amandes

Good morning.  Happy Friday. smile

Lest you think I have finally lost all sense of time now that I don’t sit in a cubicle anymore, I promise that I know it’s Friday morning, and not Sunday afternoon.  I’d like to say there’s some bright and clever story behind the Sunday afternoon cake love series, but the truth is pretty prosaic.  I’d had the idea last Sunday to write a big ol’post about cake, and include three recipes, one for the Roland Mesnier applesauce cake, one for the pistachio-nougat torte I made for Julie’s birthday party the previous week, and one for the famous Elizabeth David flourless chocolate cake that inspired so much conversation around here.  Alas, I’d had this brilliant idea at about the same time I’d had the idea to start experimenting with the pain brié that I hadn’t made since culinary school.  Two hours later, I had only got as far as the applesauce cake; the pain brié starter was overfermented, the resulting dough was overfloured and sharp-smelling, and I was filled with the vague sense of guilty self-loathing that always comes with not planning well.  (Confidential to e:  Yes, I seem to remember promising something about no more self-loathing.  Hey, these things take time.  You can’t just jump into ‘em.) That was the moment where I decided that Sunday afternoon cake love would make a super three-part series. wink

I know I’m breaking at least one heart by not posting the pistachio nougat torte recipe this morning, but in my infinite genius, I forgot to take a picture of the one I’d made for Julie’s party.  (In my defense, I had also made a pair of Trianons for the same party; by the time I finished the finishing on the torte, I was a little addled, to say nothing of sticky and cream-covered.  This was not nearly as attractive as it sounds.  Give it up, already, you perverts.) Fortunately, it’s easy to put together and will keep in the freezer (although the original recipe doesn’t specifically recommend this).  The only thing keeping me from making it right now is an insufficient supply of pistachios, but a quick trip to the Greek supermarket around the corner will fix that sharpish.  In the meantime, I do have the fixings for the Elizabeth David cake.  I made the one in the photograph on Tuesday afternoon.  Lloyd and I finally killed it last night.  It took everything in me not to make one for breakfast, but even I have my limits.  smile

Elizabeth David’s Gâteau au chocolat et aux amandes (from French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David; also found in More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin)
makes one 8” cake

Note: As is the standard operating procedure around here, the recipe is Mrs. David’s, but her instructions are rewritten in my own words.  I have also changed the methodology a bit, most ly by adding some of the sugar to the egg whites during the beating process.

4 ounces (115g) bittersweet chocolate (I used Green & Black Dark, which contains 85% cocoa solids; this gives a slightly bitter, very intense chocolate flavor.  If you’re not wild about bitterness in a chocolate cake, you can use a less-dark chocolate, although I think semisweet makes this cake a little too sweet.  Unsweetened chocolate is, to my taste, much too bitter for this cake.)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon espresso or other strong coffee (I used 1/4 teaspoon of espresso powder from King Arthur Flour dissolved in a tablespoon of water—this is strong stuff.  If you have access to a decent instant espresso, like Medaglia D’Oro or Cafe Bustelo, you can up the ratio of coffee to water a bit.)

1 tablespoon brandy

3 ounces (85g or 6 tablespoons) unsalted butter

3.75 ounces (106g or 1/2 cup) granulated sugar (After you have weighed/measured the sugar, measure out one tablespoon.  This will be added to the egg whites; the rest will be added to the chocolate mixture.)

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (not in the original recipe, but I think it boosts the flavor nicely)

2 5/8 ounces (75g or 1/2 cup) ground almonds

3 large eggs, separated

Set a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 300F/135C/Gas Mark 2.  Butter an 8-inch springform or loose-bottomed cake pan (which is what I used).

Melt the chocolate, vanilla, coffee and brandy together in a double boiler.  If you have a heavy saucepan, you can heat it right in the pan as long as you keep the heat low.  Stir everything together gently.  The liquids may cause the chocolate to seize up a bit.  This is nothing to worry about; it will all smooth out once you blend everything together.  Add the butter, sugar, salt and ground almonds.  Stir together until the butter is melted.  Remove the pan from the heat.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks until they are lightened in color ("lemon-colored," in Laurie Colwin’s words).  It’s fine to do this by hand with a small whisk.  Add the beaten yolks to the chocolate mixture.

Using either a hand mixer or a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites.  Begin by beating them slowly while simultaneously adding, slowly, the tablespoon of sugar you held back from the rest.  Once the sugar has been added, turn the motor to high and beat the egg whites until they just hold stiff peaks.  Take a spoonful of the egg whites and stir them into the chocolate mixture to lighten it a bit.  Fold in the rest of the egg whites gently.

Turn the batter into the prepared pan.  Bake the cake for 45 minutes.  When it is done, it will be slightly risen (but will sink back down upon cooling) and dry to the touch, but a cake tester will not emerge cleanly.  Cool on a rack; remove the side of the pan once the cake is thoroughly cooled.

Posted by Bakerina at 10:29 PM in • (0) Comments
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