Sunday, September 15, 2013

Coconut Cake

If I am ever looking for inspiration to write about food, I need only read a few pages of Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. Her stories are peppered so subtly with bits of backstory and setting that the reader isn't forced to digest a hunk of exposition before getting to the good stuff. And in setting a scene, Hamilton picks out details that you wouldn't think to care about, but that come together in the kind of simply crafted sentences that you dance through with little effort.

You can imagine my delight, then, upon reaching the back feature of my May 2013 issue of Bon Appetit and seeing her byline at the head of a seven-page story on home cooks of the South. Food is the engine that powers her weeklong road trip through kitchens across five southern states, but her details paint the people who cook and where they cook as much as what they're cooking.

On Day Two of the trip, Hamilton met Laurie Osteen's coconut cake in Savannah, Georgia. She introduces it to us as "glistening white" and "practically levitating under its glass dome on the counter." Later she relays the anecdote that the cake may or may not have killed the diabetic local priest. I had already set my sights on this cake; having Gabrielle Hamilton conclude that it is "worth the peril" merely cemented my decision.

I was a little surprised (and, I'll admit, pleased) to find that Mrs. Osteen's coconut cake starts with a box of yellow cake mix. When I think of home cooks, I think of from-scratch recipes on wrinkled, smudged, and splattered index cards. Shortcuts carry a stigma; they seem aesthetically incorrect and compromising in quality. But Hamilton's story sings a different tune. She praises all the incomplete scribblings, last-minute substitutions, and time-saving expedients of the unpolished home cook. These people base their creations on what tastes delicious, or what they've been eating since childhood, or what they have on hand that day, and they don't take themselves so seriously that they can't rip open a bag of Duncan Hines along the way - because time is limited, perhaps, or because you actually can't beat the taste of boxed cake.
With the yellow cake, Osteen used the back of the box only as a guide. She upped the egg count, threw in some extra vegetable oil, and replaced the water with whole milk for a richer, moister, softer cake.

I was, however, disappointed when I first learned there was no coconut in the cake itself. Can you really call it a coconut cake? I wondered. Instead, the shredded flakes joined sugar, sour cream, and some milk to form a snowy icing that was to be spread over the warm cake and allowed to seep in for at least four hours. It seemed in keeping with the laid back Southern way, leaving a cake out for hours, the sour cream-based frosting weeping into its soft, warm pores.

I suppressed my uptight instinct to refrigerate the cake and let it sit at room temperature under its glass dome for more than seven hours before I took it to a friend's birthday party. I had a piece that night, and it was delicious. But I ate more of it the next day, and the day after that, too, and nowhere along the way did the cake go in the fridge. And I swear to you, good people, that cake got better with time. 

So now we must revisit the question posed by my doubting and critical past self: Can you really call it a coconut cake?

Yes, responds my present self, enlightened by a broader understanding that gives credence to all home cooks (even the ones who use boxed cake). 

Yes you can. Now lighten up.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Candy Bar Pie

Several months ago, I introduced you to Christina Tosi, Milk Bar, and Crack Pie. I told you that I was disappointed in my first Milk Bar recipe, but that my faith in Tosi was not shaken. I would move on to the next recipe, and the next, bound to find a dessert that tasted just as mind-blowing as it looked. What I haven't yet told you is, I have since been disappointed not once, but twice more.

First it was the corn cookies. These beautiful, grainy golden cookies that look like they came fresh from a farmhouse kitchen. Everyone else devoured them, but for me, the salty corn taste was all too reminiscent of that aggressive Crack Pie. Then there were the confetti cookies. They probably would have kicked ass, but I was convinced the milk powder I used had gone a little sour - so I once again hung back and let the co-workers take care of them (and they did, gladly).

So what was going on? So far I'd had an aversion to every Milk Bar recipe I'd tried.

Then a few things happened:

1. I quit my full-time job with the plan to be - temporarily - a freelance writer and author.
2. Josh turned 25 while I was in San Francisco. I wasn't with him on his birthday, and I made no cake.
3. After battling his way through a seemingly endless language requirement, Josh finished his undergrad degree.

With the intersection of these life events, I found myself with 3) a major cause for celebration, 2) an obligation to make up for Josh's cakeless birthday, and 1) plenty of time to tackle the most finicky, madcap, steps-within-steps complex recipe I've ever encountered.

Candy Bar Pie is Tosi's riff on the Take 5 candy bar. And as it turns out, this isn't just a matter of layering chocolate, caramel, peanut butter, peanuts, and pretzels in a pie tin. It's not like that wouldn't work - that actually sounds amazing - but it would lack Tosi's flair for ingenious complication of that which is familiar. 

Case in point? The recipe for Candy Bar Pie takes up eight pages of the Milk Bar cookbook. That includes the chocolate crumb + chocolate crust; the salted caramel; the peanut brittle + peanut butter nougat; and the chocolate glaze over whole toasted pretzels. The first couple times I glanced through this recipe/short novel, I'd end up shutting the book in defeat. I figured I lacked the proper equipment, and more importantly, I doubted my ability to maintain the grit and composure required for the nougat stage.

But the above interplay of life events kept poking me between the shoulder blades, reminding me of this circumstantial rarity. Or maybe that was Josh, asking me when I was going to make his pie. 

And so, despite my misgivings, I resolved to follow this recipe born of Tosi's deranged whim. 

Making stuff to make more stuff: that's the theme of Tosi's recipes. Cocoa powder, sugar, and butter bake up into these little chocolate crumbs only to be processed back into a powder.
Add some more melted butter, and you've got a chocolate crust.
You're looking at nothing more than shelled peanuts and melted sugar. A dry caramel, as it's called,  cooks up faster but burns easier than a wet caramel (sugar + water). I did what Tosi said and let it reach a deep amber. The resulting brittle was a little bitter, IMHO.
Petrified peanuts!

Bitter brittle shards!
Again, we build up to break down.
I make caramel again, this time with some corn syrup. Then I add it to this decadent pool of cream, vanilla, butter, and SALT.
What do you get? Salted caramel!

I should note that, up to this point, it's been pretty smooth sailing. Plenty of steps and a good dose of tedium, yes, but thus far nothing that demands a fight or flight response. Then came the nougat - that sweet, fluffy mystery junk that you love in candy bars but have likely not thought much about outside of that context. And let me say this: there's no reason to! I encourage you to disregard everything I say about making the stuff and continue on with the vague notion that nougat is an elemental substance harvested for use in our Snickers bars. Great.

Those of you who want the dirty truth, read on.

Tosi prefaced the nougat recipe with a slightly arrogant assurance that if there were an easier way to do this, she would have discovered it by now. But within the constraints of modern science, nougat can only be made by heating two different sugar + water solutions to two different temperatures. While that's happening, she tells me, I am to whip an egg white in my KitchenAid stand mixer. But I don't have a stand mixer. I could have borrowed one and saved myself a lot of sweat, but I often get defensive and stubborn when cookbooks imply that I need a more expensive version of what I already have.

So there I am, electric mixer in my right hand, candy thermometer in my left. If the first solution is nearing its target temperature, I am to turn up the speed of my hand mixer until the white reaches medium soft peaks (honestly...I'm familiar with standard egg beating terminology, but "medium soft peaks"? what does that MEAN?!). Conversely, if my egg white is nearing medium soft peaks, I am to turn DOWN the speed of the mixer and turn UP the heat under my first solution. When everything is where it ought to be, syrup #1 is whipped into the egg white. Then syrup #2 is brought up to target temperature and also added to the egg white.

How'd that go in real time? I'll try to be brief.

Attempt One: Syrup #1 hardens upon contact with the egg white. I trash it and start over, fully expecting at least one setback.

Attempt Two: Syrup #1 burns up and desiccates before it even reaches the target temperature. I am not expecting this affront to what I thought was reliable science. While Josh runs to the store for some fresh eggs, I clean all the pots and bowls and wonder if I am obligated to finish what I started.

Attempt Three: The egg white whips up properly. The first syrup does not dry up. I add it to the white in a slow stream to avoid hardened chunks. Meanwhile, Josh helps to bring the second solution to temperature. He drops the thermometer into the scalding syrup. I try to fish it out. We both raise our voices and burn our fingers. We sweat, and our patience runs thin. Finally the syrup reaches target temperature, and I add it to the egg white. Somewhere along the way, this mixture whips up into a toffee-hued cloud that I don't quite understand. But it's there! I MADE it! I resent it. I love it!

There it is - the product of sugar, water, egg white, some tricky heating, and lots of air. Work it into that pebbly bed of peanut butter + powdered peanut brittle and you can finally get on with your life.

The chocolate shell is a combination of dark and white chocolate, plus a little bit of oil. This is Tosi's clever way of avoiding tempering - a "fussy" method that sets the chocolate up for a shiny coat and clean break.

When Josh got home from his last day of Italian class, I warmed up some coffee and sliced into the pie with a dough scraper. The layers gave way to the blade with a satisfying resistance that reflected all the work that had gone into this 10-inch tin. Salted caramel oozed out on cue. This pie was showing off.

If you've managed to stick with me through this entire production, then the verdict on Milk Bar recipe #4 should come as no surprise to you. Candy Bar Pie has got to be the most complex tasting dessert I've ever made. Take a single bite with every layer intact, and you're in for a long, labyrinthine taste trip. Like, all expenses paid, airfare, lodging, rental car, and 3-course meals included. Like every other Milk Bar recipe I've made, it's salty. But it's also sweet, and crumbly, and smooth, and bitter, and crunchy. Our tastebuds were deeply moved.

We gave a couple pieces away and kept the majority of the pie for ourselves. In all, I think I only polished off about 1.5 pieces - but for a different reason than before. This pie had left a good taste in my mouth, and I wanted to keep it that way. Also, Josh kept asking if I was going to eat my pie. I probably would have eventually, but, admiring his stamina, I gave them up.

As philosophy mandates, the person who stands to gain the most happiness from the last piece deserves the last piece.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Apricot Cakes

When I started writing about food, I had this assumption. It's nothing I ever really thought about; it was more of a subconscious understanding of how it all went. I assumed that the more complex the recipe, the more I'll have to say about it. It makes sense, right?

Then I read this article by Amanda Hesser. She went on for pages about madeleines, those spongy little lemon cakes, elegant but so simple. There was no big epiphany on my end, but a new understanding had begun to seep in. I was slowly learning that the catalyst behind good food writing goes beyond an evaluation of the food alone. It comes from the whole experience that surrounds it, too.

I found these little cakes in the pages of my latest issue of Bon Appetit, tucked into a feature titled "Picnic in Province." All sorts of transportable delicacies posed for the shoot - olives, bean salad, goat cheese, a French baguette - and they all lay out on hardy kitchen towels and thick wood cutting boards that were weathered and stained by regular use. The cakes had their very own page. They had been piled casually in a metal tin and plunked down on long grass, all beautiful and low-maintenance. Right away I wanted to make them, and I knew I wanted to enjoy them in some re-creation of the alfresco scene presented to me. 

Ah, the power of suggestion.

I didn't have to wait long. An annual Memorial Day picnic brings a group of us to an open field of grass by Lake Calhoun, always an arm's length from hot dogs, sangria, and plenty of guac. This year, there'd be little apricot cakes, too.

There are all kinds of baking experiences. There's the adventure, where everything is new, the motions feel unnatural, and you have no idea if things are going to work out - but you're not too worried about it, either. There's the obligation, where you've made a commitment to bake a certain amount of something for a certain amount of money. It's work, and it's stress from start to finish, no matter how well you know the recipe.

Mid-morning on Memorial Day, I embarked on my favorite baking experience of them all. It's the kind you sink into; the kind where, although the recipe is new to you, the process is so familiar and the movements so second nature that your mind can let go a little. I've never baked with apricots. But how many times have I creamed butter and sugar til they're pale and fluffy, beat in eggs and flavoring before adding flour and salt at intervals? This is the kind of baking that slows my heart rate and brings me into balance. It's spiritual baking.

Bon Appetit was right: the little apricot cakes really were perfect for a picnic. I tied them up in a flour sack towel and carried them out to the lake where we munched our summertime food under an overcast sky, waiting for the rain.

But what I remember most about the cakes happened long before we had our feet in the grass. It was back at home when I stood over the cooling rack and grabbed a cake, still a little warm, to try for the first time. I met the light, tender crumb with a breath of lemon; the darker, chewier base; and the tart, slippery apricot embedded in the cake. It all came together with a force that literally drew my hand to my chest and swept my eyelids shut. This wasn't for effect; there was no one around to play for. And I don't think it was just the bite I was reacting to. It was the culmination of such a simple recipe, such easy baking, and the very moment when you discover how much can come of it.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Fallen Chocolate Cake

Not many posts ago, I told you about my 23rd birthday cake. I explained to you that a baker (or at least this baker) prefers to make her own birthday cake, because it's a gift to herself; because she finds catharsis in the process; because she's a little bit controlling. You watched as I greedily snatched the cake duty, and all the love that goes into it, from those in my life who would have liked to bake my birthday treat.

Well, folks: a year has passed. The Earth has completed yet another revolution. I am twenty-four, and just as greedy as ever.

I was under the assumption that Megan making her own birthday cake was an established tradition after one year. I had already taken it for granted. So when I casually mentioned to my sister what I was considering for this year's cake, I did not expect the startled response that I got.

"You're going to make your own birthday cake?"

"I did last year."

"You should let someone else make it."

That "someone else" was in front of me, nodding expectantly with wide eyes and a goofy smile. It was hard to tell which of us wanted it more. So I wavered, ever so slightly:

"I don't know. Maybe..."

Over the next week she wore me down, until I finally relented. She would make my cake.

Regret inevitably followed. I felt like I'd let myself down, like I'd surrendered when I ought to have stood my ground. Days later, Caitlin gave me a chance to take back the cake.

"If you really want to make your cake, I could wait to --"


The cake was mine again! And this time I wasn't letting go.

I think we're well past that time when a cake with no flour is considered wanting; we are all well aware of what magic can happen when gluten isn't around. But flourless chocolate cake is something else entirely. It has disassociated itself from the broad category of flourless baked goods - that is, baked goods that are customarily made with flour, but can exist in almost identical form without flour - and it has become its very own category. Really, it shouldn't even be called cake

Cake, in its most familiar form, is light and spongey. It becomes so by way of several chemical and physical processes, but it's the gluten from flour that is largely responsible for giving a cake structure as it expands. Without flour, the cake needs support from other ingredients. For this one, it's the eggs that do the heavy lifting. Whole eggs and egg yolks introduce protein into the batter, creating a similar, albeit weaker, structural network. Then egg whites are whipped and folded in to incorporate air, the physical leavener. That, plus steam, is what makes this cake rise. And rise it did.

Out of the oven, the cake's delicate surface had risen above the rest of it, creating a slivered portal into its dark netherworld. 

Then, true to its name, it fell.

The result is an intensely moist, dense vehicle for a rich chocolate taste that's both sweet and dark. Cake just doesn't seem to do it justice. I'd call it more of a brownie-torte. Top it with a smooth pile of mascarpone whipped cream, and you might even toss cheesecake into the mix. Who's to say, really?

I wanted so badly to get this shot in the light of day. But unless I decided to have a birthday lunch instead of dinner, I would have to accept a lamplit cake.
A lesson on life: opt for living it properly over capturing it properly.

And now, a lesson on mascarpone.


Add it to your whipped cream whenever possible, especially if it's going to top a dessert that has a strong presence to begin with. It makes the whipped cream thicker, creamier, and just a little bit sweeter.


Bring what's left of it to work the next day and, in lieu of a proper lunch, eat it with crackers and raspberry jam, thinking blithely that you've got it all figured out. You don't. You will feel disgusting later, and over the next 24 hours you will gag whenever you think of it, unable to shake the cloying taste memory.

I'm sorry to have ended with that; I feel it was my duty as someone who has learned the hard way. Just know this: when used correctly, mascarpone will take you to a very happy place. When used in due fashion, it is worthy of you, your family, and your birthday cake.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Milk Bar Crack Pie

I debated about this post. I had fully intended to write all about this baking adventure before I tied up my apron. I documented the whole process in photos. And when the pie was sliced and passed around, it wasn’t long before everyone’s plate was scraped clean, ready for a second piece. It was a hit.

Why, then, the debate? Because for me, this pie is a story of high expectations and ultimate disappointment. I know that’s not a promising way to begin a post on a food blog, but it’s the right thing to do. I want you to be prepared. But there’s still a story here, so you mustn’t let the inevitable disappointment deter you from enjoying the journey. Life leads to death, but we still opt to live, right? And just like life, my journey with Crack Pie didn’t come without a bit of fun, a few good drug puns, and a silver lining.

Milk Bar is an NYC bakery within David Chang’s Momofuku empire. Head pastry chef Christina Tosi runs the show there, and it’s her singular taste that gave the place a reputation that precedes it.

I discovered Milk Bar through the pages of its cookbook, written by Tosi and published in 2011. I stood in the book section of Kitchen Window and paged through gorgeous photos of day-to-day ingredients and candid shots of the kitchen staff. Alongside them were all the recipes to Milk Bar’s now-famous desserts. But having been unaware of the shop’s existence until that point, the revealed secrets are not what pulled me in. It was Tosi’s narratives throughout the book that kept me fixed in that aisle, turning the pages. Her prose was casual and edgy, and I immediately respected her. Even though she seemed to be up on a high horse at times, I figured she deserved to be there. Just glance at the Milk Bar menu and you can see it: she’s a dessert visionary.

The oat cookie crust - hands down, the best part of Crack Pie.

It’s funny, because if Tosi is at all pretentious, it’s because she’s trademarked the baking utility of the most unpretentious ingredients. She writes recipes that glorify her favorite sweet and salty snacks – marshmallows, potato chips, pretzels, Ritz crackers, graham crackers… - and she brings those flavors together over one simple, subtle, and soothingly familiar base ingredient: milk.

Virtually every recipe of hers uses some form of it, whether it’s whole milk, heavy cream, milk powder, or some combination thereof. It seems Tosi inadvertently discovered the secret to dessert one-upmanship – at a certain point, you stop fiddling with what’ll seem most exotic and fanciful and you go back to what everyone has loved from day one. You exploit it unapologetically, and you do it better than anyone else. Which isn’t too difficult when no one else is doing it.

So that’s Milk Bar, and that’s Christina Tosi. And that’s why my expectations were so damn high.

I received my copy of Momofuku Milk Bar this Christmas. Over the next couple weeks, I slowly made my way through the book, reading it, more or less, cover to cover. I wanted to make one of the recipes for my sister’s  birthday in early February. I quickly learned that, while Tosi’s raging sweet tooth and salty snack diet give her creations the illusion of accessibility, the lady is still trained in pastry arts – at the French Culinary Institute, to be exact. That means she can not only decide that salted caramel, peanut butter nougat, pretzels, and chocolate will get along more than a little nicely, but she has the knowledge of baking chemistry to make it happen. And she lets us know it, too, with her ingredient list. Alongside the everyday pantry items in Tosi’s recipes, you’ll find glucose, citric acid, gelatin sheets, and pectin. Pectin.

Tosi suggests separating yolks and whites in your hand; it's easier to feel when the last of the egg white has slipped off. You're left with an egg yolk that's surprisingly strong and self-contained. Go ahead, try it.
There are eight egg yolks in this recipe. That's split between two pie tins, but still. Maybe don't schedule any blood work for the next day. 

I narrowed my search to the recipes that would not require shopping for esoteric ingredients on amazon. (I’m not unwilling to do this, by the way. I just want to be sure I’ll have multiple occasions for glucose before I go online and buy a bucket of it.) I decided on Crack Pie because its most foreign ingredients were milk powder and corn powder, both of which I found at Whole Foods. 

I also chose it because it’s called Crack Pie. We’ve all heard of it, Jimmy Fallon has endorsed it, and it references an illicit substance that none of us were cool/stupid enough to have messed around with thus far. Allegedly, the first time Tosi made this pie, her staff flipped and kept crawling back for more. They ran on a high the entire evening, and eventually crashed. It sounded kind of fun. I wanted to know if the hype was legit. Was it really that cracktastic? (Warning: more wordplay to come.)

This is freeze dried corn. You can buy it online or in the bulk section at some Whole Foods. You could ask an employee for assistance if you have trouble finding it, but they will probably just ask you if you mean frozen corn. You don't.  
Mount Crackatoa: sugar, milk powder, and corn powder.

Remember that "bit of fun" I mentioned in my downer introduction? This is where it starts. When I was a kid, one of my favorite pastimes was mixing up concoctions. They were edible concoctions, but only insofar as all the individual components were fit for consumption. (Drawing inspiration from after-school viewings of Great Chefs, I’d really nail the presentation. I remember topping one bowl of beige slop with an artful arrangement of rainbow sprinkles, pine needles, and a pinecone. But I’m getting off point.) 

I’m telling you this because that’s what it was like when I made the Crack Pie. Mixing together sugar and butter and cream and egg yolks offers all the satisfaction of watching disparate ingredients meld together into a thick, glossy, homogeneous soup, only this one was actually meant to be ingested. You can’t get that same satisfaction from civilized desserts that don’t direct you to cram as much fat and cream and cholesterol as will fit into one pie tin. Yes, that’s right. Crack Pie is edible, but it’s completely uncivilized.

This is the kind of beautiful mess I strove toward in my early culinary ventures.

Caitlin's birthday crack pie. It's a pretty bland-looking thing in the end. The powdered sugar helps a bit. The flowerpot with a bow does not.

On the night of Caitlin’s birthday, I showed up at her place with the cold Crack Pie. Having never tried it before, we approached it with some trepidation. We took our first bites, a little afraid of what we might become. Caitlin, Shawn, and Josh all cut a second piece. I was doing fine with my single piece.

I brought the second Crack Pie to work that week. I drafted an email to the entire office, telling them about the treat I brought. “It’s called crack pie because of all the butter and sugar in the filling,” I typed. “It’s totally within the law, except for the crack sprinkled on top.”

See? I was having fun, even if I did delete that last part before sending.

The co-workers went back for seconds, too. But me, I'd had enough after one piece. I don’t know. If I had to describe Crack Pie, I’d say it’s like cookie dough gone bad. Not rancid bad; mean bad. Rough around the edges. Aggressive. Maybe a little malicious? I know, that’s a strong accusation to make against a comestible, but there you go. I guess I expected more.

There are so many beautiful desserts in that book. And now, having introduced you to Tosi and her manifesto, I can move on to the next recipe and subsequently write about it in a blog post that will be both a) more laudatory of the food itself and b) shorter. But that’s not even the silver lining.

Here’s the silver lining: Next time I’m in New York, I will make a special trip to Momofuku Milk Bar. Money will not be an object. I will stare at the big chalkboard menu for fifteen, twenty minutes as my poor, reeling brain narrows the offerings down, not to what money can afford, but to what my stomach will allow. Candy bar pie? Grapefruit pie? Cereal milk ice cream + berry milk crumb? It’s not going to be easy. And if I’d gone there a month ago, the storied Crack Pie would have been a shoo-in. Now, that slot is open. And that’ll make my decision just a little bit easier.

The hero shot, for what it's worth.