Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Apple cinnamon coffee cake

It's November. The day is new, the kitchen is cool and morning-lit, and there's a 15-inch roll of sweet dough spiraled around an apple marinade of brown sugar, cinnamon, butter, walnuts, and lemon juice, risen and ready for the oven.

And I'm sick.

I have a nose stuffed to capacity with who knows what (I guess I know what) and a cough that won't quit. But what am I to do? 
The coffee cake is waiting.

I brush some melted butter over the dough and make up a small bowl of sugar and cinnamon. My intention is to recreate the crust of my beloved cinnamon rolls that owe their glory to those three ingredients. I lift the bowl to my nose to see if I added enough cinnamon, and that's when I realize my handicap. I can't smell a thing.

I look at the apple-cinnamon-sugar-nut parcel that's about to be treated with the baker's trinity and sent to tenderize and bubble and caramelize in a 350 degree oven, after which it will cool off and get sliced and I'll have nothing to do but get lost in the turns of bread and filling because  I can't taste a thing.

I snap out of my sickly torment. What can be done?
The coffee cake is waiting.

Into the oven it goes. See you in thirty minutes.

But not two minutes go by and it takes me by surprise. Melting cinnamon and sugar, ever so briefly. In my nose! A second later, it's gone. It returns in fleeting waves, penetrating the unwelcome monster in my nasal cavity and greeting my olfactory receptors like an old friend. So nice to see you again.

Thirty minutes later it's out of the oven, and the cinnamon sugar runs rampant. I don't mind. Run along, I say.

It runs across the parchment paper. It runs to the corners of the apartment.

The apple filling is creeping out of the slits in the dough, and the just-from-the-oven warmth will only last so long. I know I won't pick up the more delicate suggestions of my morning treat, but there is nothing more that I can do.

The coffee cake is waiting.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Cinnamon Sugar Pull-Apart Bread

I've been doing a lot of business talk. And cupcake talk, and vetting cupcakes for the business talk. It's exciting stuff, indeed. But we must continue to practice that part of baking dearest to us: the one that leads not to publicity, or profit, or a bakery, or even a blog post - but to comfort, and catharsis, and aesthetics; to uninhibited indulgence; to a warm oven and the smell of melting brown sugar and chocolate on a rainy evening; and in this case, to the unmistakable current of caramelizing cinnamon and sugar, slowly filling our fall morning.

This is why we bake.
So let's regroup with some bread.

After some basic sweet dough preparation, this process gets fun. The dough is rolled thin and coated generously with butter, cinnamon, and sugar. Then it's sliced into strips that are stacked and sectioned. Those sections are placed in a bread pan to rise.

Each individual slice does its own thing in the oven. Some recede into the pan, others tower over the runts; some lose themselves in the loaf and become indistinguishable from the rest; and yet others push hard to set themselves apart from the group. I'd imagine putting a pan of these little dough squares in the oven is much like sending your kids off to school. You've done your best to shape them, and now you've got to let them grow. As their parent, of course, you love them all the same, and will eat them indiscriminately.

Warning: it's hard to quit with these things. Every slice is different from the last and appetizing in its own unique way. Your mental workings go something like this:

"Okay, last piece."
[Eats slice]
"Oh, look at this one! Okay, last piece."

This could easily go on until the loaf is gone, so watch it. I managed to freeze a third of the loaf, and it reheats beautifully. But really, if you eat it all and you feel warm and full and happy, then well done to you.

After all, that's why we bake.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Baptism By Fire

That's what my mom called it.

It was our first large-scale baking gig. It was the first time all three of us produced and delivered something together. It was 200 cupcakes in a wooden lodge lit by white lights in a backwoods campsite in northern Wisconsin.

And that last part is key. Because as it turns out, 200 cupcakes isn't too difficult. It's just short of a breeze, in fact, if you don't have to haul them over 200 miles into east jesus nowhere. That's over a mile per cupcake, people.

So let me tell you how this went.

Friday night: We bake half the cupcakes and two 6-inch cakes at Caitlin's apartment. We part ways.

Saturday, 5:15a.m.: I bake the remaining pumpkin cupcakes in my kitchen, Caitlin and Mom bake the remaining chocolate cupcakes and mix up the frostings in Caitlin's kitchen. I arrive at Caitlin's, we pack the cupcakes in carriers, put the frosting on ice, and we're out of there.

Saturday morning: We drive by Taylors Falls and long to be hiking the trails. We make jokes about calling to warn the bride and groom that we have found a new way to spend our Saturday and will not be making it this evening.

Saturday noon: We almost hit a dog.

Saturday afternoon: The road is long and convoluted, and the impending drive home is weighing heavy on us. We joke about getting there and setting out the cupcakes, then plopping our buckets of frosting next to a sign that says "Frost Your Own!" and hauling ass out of there.

Later that afternoon: We are almost there! I check the frosting and it's completely solid. Mom and Caitlin say "Take it off the ice!" I say "Nah, it'll soften just fine once we get there." Then we joke about the frosting not softening, and us plopping it next to the cupcakes with a sign that says "Do What You Will With It" and hauling ass out of there.

3:30p.m.: We have arrived, and right on schedule! Hooray for us and our planning and punctuality. We make our way through a charmingly rustic reception room and open the door to a tiny, freezing kitchen space.

3:35p.m. "It's freezing in here."

3:45p.m.: We're scrambling. We're skirting cupcake carriers, 9x13 pans, and bags of supplies. We're transferring blocks of solid frosting (that are not softening to room temperature because room temperature is actually fridge temperature) to smaller containers and microwaving them (there was a microwave! Sweet Martha there was a microwave!), then whipping them with my electric mixer. My piping bag breaks. The consistency isn't what we planned on. We may not have enough frosting. I'm afraid I cannot joke about this.

3:50p.m.: We've altered our piping to accommodate the new consistency and the looming depletion of frosting. We're flying through rounds of cupcakes and getting them out on the display table with both the swooping force and deft finesse of a (you guessed it) well-oiled machine. We have just enough time to clean up our mess and change before the guests arrive.

And this is what they see.

And now, armed with valuable experience, empowering perspective, and the comforting knowledge that we won't abandon a project no matter how badly we'd rather go hiking at Taylors Falls...

On to the next.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Mini Mission

I hate to rob my peach tart of the spotlight so soon. Normally it would have enjoyed a good month-long reign before a new post took its place.

But today is an important day.

Today, Caitlin and I baked and delivered 50 mini cupcakes for an engagement party her co-worker is hosting. It was a modest and relatively stress-free undertaking, but its significance was not lost on us. We brought back the winners of the chocolate v. chocolate showdown from a few weeks back, and we made carrot cupcakes as well.

This was the first baking venture that we started, finished, and delivered together, and it was a (very) light warm-up for our wedding gig this October. We're getting ready to take on the Twin Cities baking scene, if for no other reason but the damn shame it would be to deprive you people of the best cupcakes in the world. It's a lame superlative, I know - but I'm not sure how else to put it. I've never had a better chocolate cupcake, not in any established bakery I've been to.

To be fair, maybe a certain amount of quality-sacrifice is inevitable in mass production.

Or maybe we're just better at this. :)

On a not-so-side note, my mom turns 58 today. She couldn't stick around to bake the cakes with us, and it's weird to bake cupcakes for not your mom on your mom's birthday. So Mom, this is the best I can do: imagine the most luscious dark chocolate sponge topped with a perfect button of pillowy bittersweet chocolate...

And a heart on top, 'cause we love you like crazy.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Peach Tart with Vanilla Almond Crust

Full disclosure: I sat down to write this post the other night and I had nothing. The words just weren't coming. I believe the first thing I came up with was, "Oh, hello. I didn't see you come in."


Then it was, "This is my peach tart."

Then I settled on a picture-heavy post with a feeble introduction. Finally I scrubbed the whole thing. I told myself this blog could go downhill fast if I start pulling shit like that. My goal here was to give the people something nice to look at and something nice to read with every post, and if I couldn't do that, then I should wait until I could.

But I was concerned. Why was I struggling? Was it because I was rushed and zapped of creativity? Was it because, a measly 18 posts in, I've recognized a certain futility in this blog and become disillusioned by the whole thing? Or could it be that the peach tart, photogenic as it was, didn't offer much fodder for blog talk?

I won't leave you hanging: I think it was the first one. Because really, it was an exciting venture for us. My mom bought her first food processor for the occasion, and I bought my first springform pan. And I admit, I not long ago challenged the necessity of a food processor with a certain amount of scorn ("We don't need no stinking food processor" - I think that's how it went), and I do believe one can get by just fine without a springform pan. But! Well, but nothing. Kitchen tools are fun.

And I haven't lost purpose either. I just wasn't having fun the other night. Now I'm having fun. I have a cup of hot cocoa, and I have something to say.

Vanilla wafers, almonds, and sugar: the stuff of the crust

Butter brings it together
Cream cheese, sour cream, sugar, and an egg make the filling

Bake for 15 and freeze for 15

Everyone held their breath as I unlatched the pan and slipped it off...
Tart unbound!
Do you remember that Friends episode where Monica is catering a party at her parents' house and her mom has frozen lasagnas, just in case Monica screws something up? Well, we had my grandparents over for dinner and dessert (the tart), and my mom bought and made frozen cookies. Now this is misleading, because my mom didn't doubt me or the tart. She just wasn't sure if my grandpa would eat it. She's a lovely lady.

Let the record show, though, that grandpa chose the tart. And after he finished his first piece he informed me that the remaining cut was a bit uneven, and he would be glad to straighten it up by eating the unruly protrusion. Thanks, grandpa.

Crunchy crust, creamy filling, and juicy, slightly acidic fruit: it was le piece de resistance. And it had a story after all.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Chocolate v. Chocolate


I'm currently authoring a series on healthy eating for work. It's been interesting and (sort of) fun, but the books are for beginning readers, and they're about - well, healthy eating. Which I am all for, but - suffice it to say that writing this post is like sinking into a cushy chair after a full day on foot.

Now, I come with exciting news. You know the whole dream-turned-obsession-turned-inevitability of co-owning a bakery one day? (See post 1, The Reason I'm Here.) Well, we're inching in the right direction. We are slated to bake for a small party at the end of this month and a full-blown wedding at the start of October (so much for baby steps). Are we ready? I'm not sure, but we're doing our best. For instance, we decided it pertinent to settle on a basic chocolate cupcake recipe. And that we did.

The contenders: Dark chocolate cupcakes made with sour cream and regular chocolate cupcakes made with buttermilk. Which would claim victory? It was anyone's guess.

That's the dark chocolate/sour cream on the right and regular chocolate/buttermilk in the orange. Look at them, sitting together in perfect harmony. Aw.

But we meant business. Caitlin, Shawn, and I sampled each cupcake without any frosting to distract. After we scrutinized their physical appearance, we sniffed them, popped them into our mouths, and chewed (more accurately, mashed them against our tastebuds) with our mouths open - you know, to let the oxygen in. At least that's what I did. What I'm saying is, this was serious.

And the vote was unanimous. The winner was richer, moister, and denser. There was no question! We high-fived (or maybe I just wish we had...) and whipped up some celebratory frosting.

Now for the icing on the proverbial cake: we were riding on that feeling of great satisfaction that comes from, you know, getting things done, and we decided it was time to purchase the domain name for our future bakery AND set up a business email account. So we did all of it, right then and there, and we are now the proud owners of --

Maybe it's too soon. Give it a couple weeks. (I've got to do something to keep the five* of you coming back for more.)

*That's not a self-deprecating understatement. It's entirely accurate. And slightly self-deprecating. On an unrelated note, what do I need to do to get noticed around here?!

So, there you have it. We've found our chocolate cupcakes, we've purchased our title, and some custom-designed business cards are in the works. Shit's about to go down, folks.

What's that? I never announced the winner of the cupcake battle? Now really. Is that necessary? Come on, people.

It actually may be necessary. I introduced the regular chocolate cupcakes as the ones "in the orange," but this one here is a dark chocolate/sour cream cupcake - the winner! But you knew that, right?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Five o'clock mustache

This is a story about the business of baking. It is a small tale of great toil, tribulation, and ultimate success.

Early this week my housemate called me at work: the ad agency she works at was planning a mini ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Skyway Museum and they wanted cookies for the celebration. She asked if I would be up for making them. I said yes.

I was to make two dozen cookies of my choosing. The only requirement: mustaches.

There was no question about it - I would make my sugar cut-outs, cover them in vanilla butter cream, and pipe on the black mustaches. Right then.

On Wednesday night I commit myself to the kitchen. I mix up the dough right after work and put it in the fridge to chill. Then I mix up the icing and put that in the fridge. A couple hours later I take the dough out.

Too soft. Much too soft. Maybe I didn't add enough flour?

So I work some more flour into the dough...a bit more...okay, one more handful - good - then pop it into the freezer to harden it up a bit. When Caitlin and Josh arrive, it is time to roll out the dough.

I pull it out of the freezer and flour the work surface. Twenty seconds later, the dough is soft and sticky. More flour!

But that's not doing the trick. It's just too hot in here. The dough can't hold its own, and the cut-outs are a floppy mess. Caitlin suggests rolling the dough into balls and then flattening them on the pan. Yes!

And it works beautifully. Hooray for us, we have overcome. We make 30-some cookies that way, and they don't look bad at all.

Ah, but then we taste them.

Flour. They taste like flour. And they are dry as a bone. Oh, what fresh hell.

But oh well, we think, the icing will save the day. And the mustaches! They will be charming little cookies no matter what. So I practice piping the mustache on a cookie, and after one flub, I perfect it. Whoopie, we did it, it's smooth sailing from here! My sister leaves and we begin to clean up.

But I'm not feeling good about it. There is a growing knot in my stomach. I am feeling more and more devastated by the minute. I say to Josh, "Maybe I'll just tell them they don't have to pay me."

But that doesn't help. I take another bite of the sandy little cookies and my heart sinks. I can't be proud of these cookies, no matter how much icing I load on top. I float around in a daze for fifteen minutes before accepting my brand new task: I must make another batch.

10:30 p.m. and I re-enter the recently cleaned kitchen. It doesn't take long before the dough is mixed and wrapped up (with NO extra flour) and in the fridge for the night. That was easy. My dismay is in the five a.m. alarm.

I go to bed and sleep lightly until 3 a.m. I toss and turn from there. What if the second batch doesn't turn out? What if I'm forced to serve the first? What if I don't have enough black frosting for the mustaches?

The stress!

I am relieved when my alarm goes off.

The kitchen is cool and silent when I turn on the lights. I flour the work surface and take the dough from the fridge. It is cold, solid, and ready to be rolled out.

A minute in, however, the same thing happens. It turns soft and sticky. There will be no cutting cookies. I resort to the method of the previous night and get those cookies baking.

They look gorgeous out of the oven: light, thin, perfect circles. I let them cool. I take a taste.

YYYYES! Bingo! Yahtzee!

All that's left is frosting and decorating. I am judicious with the butter cream, and I have just enough to drape each cookie with a smooth layer.

Now, the 'staches. I pipe the outlines only, thinking that if I don't have enough icing, I will at least have the shape of a mustache. But all my worrying is for naught. I have plenty to go around, and I make those mustaches sing.

Sweet relief comes, and this time it stays. As I help pack the trays into Sara's car, I feel proud of what I've done. A few hours of sleep is a small price to pay in exchange for a product I can stand behind.

And you: you stuck with me through this harrowing account. Here's what you've been waiting for:

Was it worth it?