Before anyone becomes too excited, or feels inclined to pat me on the back for baking this cake (or any of the cakes that will follow in this series) on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I feel bound to point out that I’m not actually baking this cake right now. This is not to say that I’m not baking at all right now, because I am. Inspired by Bunni‘s New Year’s resolution to cook or bake something new every week, I have decided to do something similar...only different. This year marks 10 years since I quit my day job to attend culinary school. I would be fibbing if I said that life post-culinary school is what I had hoped and worked for, but I don’t regret having tried, not for one minute. Without indulging in too much rose-colored-glassvision, I will say that I worked harder in pastry school, in restaurants and in bakeries than I have ever worked anywhere. I made clumsy, silly mistakes, I was yelled at on a near-daily basis and I cried more than any 30-year-old woman should ever cry, for any reason, but even on top of all of that, I had a blast. Should I ever have the opportunity to do it again, I shall jump on it in a heartbeat—right after I make arrangements to hit the pool and a weight room with a trainer to whup my ass into fighting shape. It was always a point of pride with me that I could lift a 50-pound sack of flour without throwing out my back. I’d like to be able to continue doing that.
Once again, to nobody’s surprise or shock, I digress. While cataloguing some of my little-used cookbooks before packing them for storage, I found the binders that served as my textbooks in culinary school. Paging through them brought it all back to me: walking to school from the 86th Street IRT stop during a surrealistically hot summer; walking through the door of the pastry kitchen and feeling the temperature drop 40 degrees; hours and hours of chopping chocolate and boiling sugar and whapping pounds of butter around in Hobart mixers; studying our finished desserts and breads as we learned to evaluate them critically; tasting, tasting, tasting; packing everything up and either taking it home or sharing it with the school staff and the mechanics at the garage next door; and scrubbing down every surface in the kitchen with sanitizing solution (1 tablespoon chlorine bleach to 1 gallon water), longing to be done with the day’s work as the chlorine smell settled on our hair and skin. I lived, ate and breathed all this stuff, spent all of my waking life consumed by poached pears and nougatine and three different formulae for ganache—and then I graduated into a soft job market, learned that the company for which Lloyd worked was on the verge of collapse, knew that there was no way I could support us both on a pastry monkey’s salary, and returned, cap in hand, to packaging. Even as I shifted my focus away from pastry and toward bread, even as I researched and drafted and redrafted a business plan, I never opened my school textbooks again—until yesterday, that is.
In short, I’m in a mood not only to revisit, but also to share, which is why I have a sponge for pain brié working in the kitchen even as we speak. Pain brié is a rustic French bread, made from a relatively stiff dough that is not only kneaded but beaten with a heavy rolling pin for 10 minutes to develop the gluten. I’m sorry to say that my only memory of this bread is that the dough refused to smooth out when my team made it. I ended up beating it so vigorously that I was nearly jumping up and down with the effort. (A chorus or two of “Unbelievable” by EMF would have been not only appropriate, but also welcome.) I’m keen to try it again, to see not only how the recipe works but also if any of the additional baking trucs I’ve learned over the past decade can help make the bread even better. And so I shall.
Since I have no bread to share just yet, I can at least share the cakes that have made their way through the PTMYB kitchens over the past few weeks, like this beauty right here:
Warm Applesauce Cake with Cranberry Syrup (from Roland Mesnier’s Basic to Beautiful Cakes by Roland Mesnier and Lauren Chattman, Simon & Schuster, 2007
makes 1 10-inch tube cake, serves 12
Despite my regular mewlings to the contrary, I am a lucky, lucky bakerina. Not long ago, my father attended a bookfair in Washington, DC, where, in addition to meeting Chris Matthews and Letitia Baldrige, he also met Roland Mesnier, who retired as the White House pastry chef in 2004 after 25 years of baking for presidents, kings and other heads of state. During their chat, Chef Mesnier totally charmed my dad, who not only picked up Chef Mesnier’s new cake book for me, but also asked him to sign it for me. Maybe it was just bookfair shmoozing, but there was something particularly mood-elevating about coming into work one morning, finding a package waiting for me, opening a book full of dessert recipes and finding the first page emblazoned with “To Jennifer, A great pastry chef to another, Your friend in the White House, Roland Mesnier.” Six hours after I opened that package, I was laid off from my job, proving that my dad is not only a fine and generous fellow, but he also has a superb sense of timing.
Those of you who know how tetchy I am about things like chemicals and box mixes and fake foods may be surprised to see me countenancing a recipe that calls for maraschino cherries, a frankly-weird food that I have not enjoyed since I was eight years old, when the bartender at the restaurant where my folks and I used to go for pizza would throw them into my Coke. Normally when I find something like this in a recipe, I opt right away to substitute something more to my liking, like bottled sour cherries marinated in brandy, or dried cherries plumped in a little boiling water or tea. This time, though, I decided to trust Chef Mesnier’s judgment and make the cake as he directed it, and I had to admit that not only did the maraschino cherries not ruin the cake, they added an interesting fillip to a moist, spicy, fragrant cake. I might try it again with the aforementioned brandied cherries, just to see how they work, but I wouldn’t think twice about buying another bottle of maraschino cherries for this cake. Only for this cake, though.
For the light syrup (to be used later in the cranberry syrup:
4 cups water
2 cups granulated sugar
Combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan, place over heat, stir to dissolve the sugar and heat to boiling. Let cool to room temperature. You will have more syrup than you need for this cake. Leftover syrup can be sealed and stored at room temperature for up to two weeks; it’s great for poaching fruit or for adding to tea instead of regular granulated sugar.
For the cake:
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour*
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
1/2 cup applesauce
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup canned crushed pineapple, drained
1 10-ounce jar whole maraschino cherries, drained, patted dry and stemmed
*Normally when I try a recipe for the first time, I measure and weigh the ingredients, and make a note of the weight for future reference. This time, though, I let laziness get the better of me. Very often, when recipes are converted from weight to volume measurements, you will see odd measurements (x cups plus or minus x teaspoons or tablespoons). This happens particularly with recipes written by French chefs, who write their formulae to metric weights. One of these days I’ll get my act together and plug the weight measurements in.
Set a rack to the center of the oven and preheat to 375F/170C/Gas Mark 5. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.
Sift the first five ingredients together into a medium bowl.
Using either a hand mixer or a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together until smooth, light and fluffy. Beat in one of the eggs and half the applesauce. Stir in half the dry ingredient mixture. Beat in the remaining egg and applesauce, add the rest of the dry ingredients and stir gently but thoroughly to combine. Stir in the raisins, pecans and pineapple.
Pour the batter into the tube pan and smooth the top. Arrange the cherries on the surface of the cake and press them in gently, but do not embed them (the cake will rise around them, and they will sink below the surface). Bake 35 to 40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack. Do not remove the cake from the pan.
For the cranberry syrup:
1 12-ounce bag fresh or frozen cranberries
4 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups + 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 cups Light Syrup
Combine the cranberries, 4 cups of the water and the sugar in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to medium high and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the berries are very soft and nearly all popped.
Strain the syrup into a large bowl. Press on the solids with a spoon, forcing as much of the strained solids into the syrup as possible. Add the remaining 1/2 cup water to the solids in the strainer and keep pressing on them. When as much of the pulp that can go through the strainer has done so, return the solids remaining in the bottom of the strainer to the syrup. (As you may have noted, the objective is not to produce a clear or smooth syrup, but a deeply-flavored one. Chef Mesnier is a big fan of not wasting flavorful pulp.) Stir in the lemon juice and the light syrup.
Preheat the oven to 150F/60C/Gas Mark 1/2.
Place the cake pan (with the cake still inside it, natch) on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour about 1/2 cup of the hot cranberry syrup over the cake and let it sink in. (The effect you’re going for is akin to watering a houseplant, where you let the water sink into the soil before adding more.) Add about 1/2 cup syrup at a time, in 5-7 minute increments, until the cake is saturated. Chef Mesnier doesn’t specify how much of the cranberry syrup you will need; I found that I had a lot left over. If any syrup leaks from the cake onto the baking sheet, pour it back into the pan and reheat gently.
Remove the cake pan from the baking sheet and return it to the warm oven. Keep the cake in the oven until serving time, up to four hours later. When you are ready to serve it, just invert the cake onto a platter. It should pop right out of the pan. (I’ll admit to some trepidation when Chef Mesnier assured that it would happen, but odds my bodkins, he’s right.) Slice and serve with sweetened whipped cream, if you so desire.