March 19, 2005

Dear friends, we have achieved sugar cake.  smile


Brown Sugar Cake

serves 12- 16

Note:  This is a variation on what is known as 1-2-3-4 cake (1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, 4 eggs).  Of course, if you bake by weight, the 1-2-3-4 name isn't all that useful, but somehow it's not quite the same when you convert it to ounces (8-16-13-8 cake?), and don't even ask me for a working mnemonic for the metric equivalents.

8 oz. (1 cup or 2 sticks) butter, softened

1 pound light brown sugar

1/4 tsp. salt

4 large eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract*

13 ounces (3 dip-and-sweep cups) flour*

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup buttermilk

*For today's cake, instead of vanilla extract, I used vanilla brandy, which I make by steeping used vanilla bean hulls in a bottle of mid-priced cognac.  I used to just throw all of my used beans into the bottle until I realized I had so many in there that I couldn't actually pour the brandy out.  Either works well, and each imparts their own flavor to the cake.  Also, for the flour, I used pastry flour, which has a lower protein content than all-purpose flour, and thus yields a softer, more tender crumb, but all-purpose flour will still make a delicious cake, just one with a bit more body to it.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a 12-cup Bundt pan (a 10-cup will also work, but be careful not to overfill) and dust it with fine dry breadcrumbs.

Beat the butter about 1 minute until soft.  Add the brown sugar and salt and beat until light and sand-colored, about 5 minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl after each addition.  Add the vanilla and mix in.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and baking soda and mix well. Add to the wet ingredients in thirds, alternating with the buttermilk (i.e. flour, buttermilk, flour, buttermilk, flour).  I usually give everything one good stir once the bowl is taken off the mixer, as it's a real disappointment to find a big clump of unmixed butter and sugar after you get the cake into the pan.

Pour the batter into the cake pan.  Pass a spatula over the surface of the cake to make sure the batter is evenly distributed in the pan.  Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 55-60 minutes, or until done.  (When the cake is done, a cake tester will emerge clean from the cake.  If you pull the cake from the oven and hear fairly consistent bubbling noises coming from the cake, put it back in the oven and check it at 5 minute intervals.  When the bubbling is very, very faint, the cake is done.)  Let the cake rest in the pan for 10 minutes before turning it onto a cooling rack.  The crust may be a bit damp, but it will dry and take on a nice crunch as the cake cools.

Everything I said about this cake two weeks ago is still true.


Posted by Bakerina at 06:12 PM in • (1) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
March 18, 2005


(Time for our favorite disclaimer around here:  This is not the wave of the future.  This is just a bit of housekeeping.  If braindroppings are not your favorite reading, I won't take it amiss if you decide to come back later.  Tomorrow I'm going to try the brown sugar cake again, and if I can manage to get the whole damn thing out of the pan, there will be a recipe, honestly.)

Dear friends, each and every one of you, I am sorry for this sudden precipitous degrading of my hostessing-with-the-mostessing skills, particularly after I made such a noise about my newfound, spring-based optimism (admittedly, I made that noise by pilfering other people's song lyrics).  I could blame it on the sinusitis, but that would be piking.  I blame it on sinusitis, too much exercise, not enough exercise, too much sugar, not enough magnesium, job torpor, bad attitude, reckless disregard for the time/opinions/hearts of others, cruelty to people who wanted nothing more than to be kind to me, not calling my mom enough, not calling my dad enough, spending money at the stationery store and then never writing letters, not working up to my potential, going nowhere fast and just general badness.

To those of you who were nice enough to send me e-mail to which I haven't replied, I'm sorry.  To those of you who were nice enough to leave comments here, comments which I haven't acknowledged, I'm sorry.  To everyone who has blogrolled me and hasn't received so much as a thank-you from yours truly, I'm sorry.  To anyone whose letters have gone unanswered, phone calls have gone unreturned, kindnesses gone unacknowledged, I'm sorry.  To those of you who came to me, cap in hand and heart on sleeve, only to receive a big fat nothing sandwich, I'm sorry. To the recipients of my terrible advice and worse attitude, I'm sorry.  To anyone who lives with me and has to listen to me cough all night long...well, I'm sure you get the point.

Did I mention that there will be cake tomorrow?  Would you like some?  smile

Posted by Bakerina at 10:45 PM in stuff and nonsense • (3) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
March 17, 2005

Dear friends, what I thought was just a cold turned out to be sinusitis.  While I wait for the Robitussin to do its thing, here is another blast from the past, originally posted on May 18, 2004.

It is a sign of how citified I have become that a visit to my mother and stepfather's house feels like a trip to the country. It is far from rural, where they live; even though there are still pockets of undeveloped farmland, and even though they have neighbors wealthy enough to keep horses, we are still talking about suburbia. Mom and Bob live in Montgomery County, half an hour from Philadelphia, five minutes' drive from the closest train into the city, 15 minutes' drive from three other train lines, surrounded by cheesy new McMansion developments that pop up with the rapidity and subtlety of cereal bugs. There is a town center that theoretically should be an easier trip for them to make, but in the 13 years since they've moved there, the population has become so dense that driving through town has become an exercise in forehead-smiting and teeth-gnashing. It is almost a textbook example of what people in other parts of the country think of when they think of the East Coast, just wall-to-wall people. And yet, it is a respite being there. My folks were lucky enough to find a house in a development that was planned and built in the 1940's, by builders and architects who eschewed the cookie-cutter impulse that would later mark areas like Levittown (both the Long Island and sub-Philadelphia versions). The exteriors of the houses are all stone, consistent with the older houses in the area, but they don't have that patina of faux history about them, the kind I often see in mock Tudor houses. The lawns are roomy, the trees are giant and lacy and generous. My mom's azaleas were in bloom this weekend, fuchsia, light pink, white, all being shaken by bumblebees half the size of my thumb. While Mom and Lloyd and I were in the city yesterday, Bob went to the farmstand and bought the plants that would go in Mom's garden: three varieties of tomatoes, including an heirloom native to Bucks County and a San Marzano for future tomato sauces (woo-hoo!); eggplants and peppers; various lettuces, including romaine and radicchio; herbs, herbs, herbs. No matter that when I lived in what really was the country, I took our half-acre garden for granted, nothing more than an onerous weed-filled chore that kept me from following my heart's desire to go swim in the pond instead. Now my mom's little garden, a fraction of the size of our old garden, is a wonder to me. Looking out of her kitchen window and seeing little striped eggplants on the vine, I am kicked back to kindergarten, discovering that those little red roots peeking under those little green leaves are radishes and yes, they are ready to eat. Even the stuff that isn't in the garden, the oregano growing next to the patio, the mint growing kudzu-like all over the place, the wild onions that nobody but me seems to like, it's all neat to me, all the more so since I moved to a place where I can't even grow basil without it withering and dying in three weeks.

There have been two houses in my life I've considered my childhood home, even though I only had them for a short while, shorter than the house in Honesdale in which I really did grow up, which my folks built and in which we moved in 1979, right before my 12th birthday, out of which they moved in 1991, when I had already crashed and burned in New York and took them up on their offer to join them in the new Philadelphia house. I grew up in the Honesdale house, but it was not my childhood home. That honor is reserved for two places and two places only. One was the house I briefly mentioned here, a house in northeast Philadelphia that my great-grandfather built when my grandmother was a child. It was a two-family house, and generations of us came and went; my great-grandfather and great-grandmother; my maternal grandparents; my mom, my dad, my teenage uncles. I was the last generation of our family to know that house, which was acquired and torn down by the great commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the early 1970's to make way for a service road that was never built. There is a cavalcade of memory here; I won't tap it tonight because if I do, I will be up all night, and I will be too wrecked to go to LuthorCorp in the morning. But I won't let that house go without a fight. There will be more, and soon.

Unlike the house in Philadelphia, the other house is still standing, in this little town. (#7 or higher will show you where we were in relation to the larger world.) It is not, however, the house I knew. I haven't seen the house in 15 years; even then, it had been almost 10 years since we'd lived there, and when I drove by it, I could hardly recognize it. Since we moved out, the house had changed hands three times. All of our fruit trees were gone. The pond was long dead, covered with algae. The little barn where we had kept our chickens and my pet rabbit had been torn down. The front yard was bisected by a concrete walkway. The new owners thought it would be nice to plant some flowers out front, which it was; less nice was the wooden cutout, painted to look like a fat lady bending over in the garden. I am a big fan of folk art of the windmill and whirligig persuasions, but for the life of me I don't know why people like those fat-lady things so much.

I know that we have a tendency to burnish the better moments of our childhoods until they attain a mythic status far beyond anything that the reality could hope to attain. I remember plenty that was difficult about living in such an isolated area, so far to the north. I remember being unable to make concrete plans to do anything between the middle of October and the end of April. You could have every intention of taking your family to Florida, but if three feet of snow fell the day before you had to leave for the airport, then you'd better just sit back and put on another sweater, because babe, you aren't going anywhere. I remember sporadic tv reception and the intermittent failure of our phone service. I remember playing in the backyard and being startled by a night crawler the size of a snake. I remember seeing a snake the size of a snake attach itself by the fangs to my mom's ankle. I remember a period of hot dry summer weather where I rode my bike as fast as I could in dried-up creek beds by the side of our road. One day I took a hill too fast and wiped out; after I surveyed my dusty bloody self, I determined that I was okay to ride, but I would probably forsake the creek bed for the road. On the road, less than 15 feet from where I'd wiped out, I happened to glance into the creek bed and saw a fierce eye staring back at me. Had I kept riding in the creek bed, I would have run right into the biggest snapping turtle I'd ever seen. I was petrified of snappers, thanks in large part to apocryphal horror stories told to me by the mean boys in my class. One day I was swimming in the pond with the kids from the dairy farm up the road. The oldest daughter, four years older than me, started screaming that she saw a snapper in the pond. I was eight, just learned to swim that summer, floating on an innertube in the deep water in the middle of the pond. I knew then that I would lose a leg. Maybe both legs. I was too frightened to even thrash. I didn't want to lose a leg. As it turned out, she had mistaken an old discolored piece of Tupperware, embedded in the pond floor, for a snapper. I was so relieved that I didn't even bother to ask her how she could have mistaken a Tupperware for a snapper.

However big a fraidy cat that I was -- and I was a *big* fraidy cat -- I loved that house. The original house had been built in the 18th century. This meant that there was no baseboard heat in the bathroom, kitchen, dining room, study (which became my room after my brother was born) and my old bedroom (which became bro's room). During a visit from my grandparents one weekend, my grandmother discovered there was ice on the inside of my windows, and within 24 hours I had a new electric blanket. The old house was heated by a Franklin stove, which my parents taught me how to fire. In the 1950's the owners at the time had an addition built onto the house, a new living room (with a picture window facing the side yard and our pond) and bedroom (this was my parents' room). The pond, simply put, was a kid's dream; swimmable in summer, skatable in winter, ringed by willow trees from which my friends and I tried to swing into the pond, never with any success. When my stepdad put the pond in, he had it stocked with fish, mostly sunnies, but we had some big fish, too, and I was encouraged to try to catch them. Our neighbors up the road had a dairy farm, 27 cows, a flat field for pasture and a steep hilly field that made for perfect sledding. While some of my harshest winter memories come from that house -- whenever I saw frost on the grass when I woke up in the morning, I knew that would be the kind of cold that hurt all of my exposed skin -- some of my best winter memories come from the same place. I remember walking outside one gray morning, seven inches of new snow on the ground, snowflakes the size of quarters, absolute stillness, trees looking like sparkling sugar. Even as I knew my parents were inside the house, and our neighbors were up the street, I felt as if I were the only person around for hundreds of miles.

I can't even think of how well we ate, what was at our fingertips, without edging close to tears. We had our garden, of course. We had two apple trees in our front yard. One day the cows from up the street broke through the electric fence, which had become de-electrified, and they walked the 1/8 mile to our house and settled themselves in our front yard, noshing on the apples. Eventually they went home, with great reluctance, the farmer and his kids prodding them (figuratively!) all the way. I didn't blame the cows for not wanting to go home. Those apples were wonderful. We also had wild red raspberries and blackberries ringing us for miles, and a pear tree in our side yard. Because the pears were so small and hard, I thought they were inedible ornamentals. Now I know that those "ornamentals" were actually Seckel pears, and every time I pay $2.00/pound for them at the farmer's market, I want to kick my own self in the head. We ate bacon from our own pigs. We had free-range, cage-free eggs before I even knew what free-range was. I never ate an egg that was more than two days old. I drank unpasteurized milk with a line of cream across the top, cream so thick that we had to thin it with a little milk to whip it properly.

I have no interest in going back in time, or in moving back to a place that doesn't exist anymore, but I do miss my childhood home, I do, I do. Last summer I was lucky enough to be invited to a friend's house in the country. The house was built at approximately the same time as my old home had been built, and I almost cried when I saw the antique door latches on every door. Sure, they were just door latches, but they were such a fixture, literal and figurative, of our old house, they were so embedded in my memory, that the sight of them, the feel of them in my hand, kicked me right back to our house, one of the two best houses I'd ever lived in. I never thought I would see another latch like that again, and I felt so thankful that I had the chance to see them one more time.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:17 AM in valentines • (0) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
March 15, 2005

She was in fact perfectly familiar from his last night's studies, yet as he led Stephen up and down the ladders, along the decks and into the holds he kept exclaiming 'Oh what a sweet little ship!  What a sweet little ship!' And when they were on the forecastle again, looking back towards Batavia, he said 'Never mind the paintwork Stephen; never mind the masts; a few weeks' work in the yard will provide all that.  But only a brilliant hand with noble wood at his command -- you saw those perfect hanging knees? -- could produce such a little masterpiece as this.'  He considered for a while, smiling, and then said, 'Tell me, what was the title poor Fox tripped over during our first audience of the Sultan?'

'Kesegaran mawar, bunga budi bahasa, hiburan buah pala.'

'I dare say.  But it was your translation of it that I meant.  What was the last piece?'

'Nutmeg of consolation.'

'That's it: those were the very words hanging there in the back of my mind.  Oh what a glorious name for a tight, sweet, newly-coppered, broad-buttocked little ship, a solace to any man's heart.  The Nutmeg for daily use:  of Consolation for official papers.  Dear Nutmeg!  What joy.'

-- Patrick O'Brian, The Nutmeg of Consolation


(With thanks to 'mouse, who always gives me something wonderful to read.)

Posted by Bakerina at 08:03 PM in valentines • (3) Comments • (0) Trackbacks

Dear friends, I had such plans today.  I am housebound, at home with a nasty head cold.  Normally when I'm not feeling well, I take advantage of the time at home to watch a few hours worth of cartoons or cooking shows.  Today, though, I felt anxious and jumpy after about an hour, and found myself in the kitchen with a bowl of cut lemons and a box of kosher salt, scrubbing the oxidized copper off the surface of my big copper bowl.

In general, I am not a bug for fancy cookware.  I do have some enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens that I received as Christmas presents, and that I would not give away for love or money; I have a couple pieces of nice French tinned bakeware and some heavy steel bread pans, but with the exception of the bakeware, the most-used items in the kitchen are our cast-iron skillets, for which I don't think we've ever paid more than twenty bucks.  I have no plans to buy those nasty Calphalon pans that feature in kitchenware catalogs; I don't really understand why All-Clad bakeware is supposed to be better than the pans I've bought for a third of the price; and I don't care how many people swear by Emile Henry pie pans:  I've tried them, and they do *not* give a better crust than the Pyrex pans I buy at the hardware store. 

Having dissembled like mad about why you don't always need the big fancy, I will now backpedal and say that the copper bowl has been worth it.  I think about what I paid for it, and how often I use it, and I figure that by now, the bowl costs me about sixty cents per use.  The only drawback to the bowl is that it is big and heavy, which is why my mom thoughtfully gave me a smaller one for Christmas, the perfect size for beating two or three egg whites, or for making zabaglione.

Yes, it's easier to beat egg whites in the mixer, particularly if you've been skipping your tricep exercises at the gym and you are sheepish about the, er, extraneous movements of your arms.  Yes, it's a bit of a grind to go through the lemon-and-salt routine every time you want to beat some eggs.  Once you reconcile yourself to the idea, though, you get a double payoff:  You get better egg whites, and you get to look at something really beautiful.

One of the best descriptions of the effects of beating egg whites in a copper bowl comes from Shirley O. Corriher's Cookwise.  She said she had understood that egg whites beaten in a copper bowl achieve better volume, so she was disappointed when she put the theory to the test and discovered that the volume was the same as those egg whites that were beaten in other bowls.  That disappointment turned to pleasure, though, when the egg whites were turned into souffles and baked:  the souffle with the copper-beaten egg whites rose to twice the volume, and produced a more stable structure.  She consulted with an egg researcher at Purdue University who told her that when air is beaten into egg whites, the air bubbles are linked together by a protein called conalbumin, which surrounds the bubbles.  Conalbumin combines well with copper, so when egg whites are beaten against a copper surface for more than a minute or two, the copper combines with the conalbumin to form a compound called (no surprises here) copperconalbumin, which is more stable, does not dry out as easily, does not weep fluid as readily, and has a higher coagulation temperature than conalbumin.

I am glad to know that copper-beaten egg whites perform better in cookery, because they are just plain fun to beat; while they don't whip as quickly as they do in a mixer, they do whip pretty quickly if you just apply plenty of elbow grease.  I am smiting my forehead for not taking a picture of the bowl of egg whites I beat for the cake I made on Sunday, because it is probably one of the most beautiful things I've seen in a kitchen since last summer's cherry pies.  Ah, well, this just gives me an incentive to bake another cake, and to take another picture.  In the meantime, this is what the bowl looks like after a fresh application of lemon juice and salt, rinsed and buffed.  The first time I used the bowl, I was sad that I had to mar that beautiful surface, but now I know better:  the real beauty is in use, and the more I use it, the more beautiful it gets.


Posted by Bakerina at 01:48 PM in stuff and nonsense • (1) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
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