Building Blocks, Pastry-Style

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“I remember making those!”

I had a tray of pâte à choux shells resting on top of the stove; the kids were immediately reminded of the lesson in which we made cream puffs.

“Do you guys also remember when I told you that pâte à choux is kind of like a Lego brick in the pastry kitchen? That it can be used to make lots of other things?”

We gathered around the iPad to take a look at examples of some of those things.

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“What’s a Lady’s Navel?!”

“Or a Moooor kop?”

They were intrigued by the funny sounding pastries, and even more excited about the one we would be making that day — the Religiuese.

I’ve heard a couple of different explanations of the pastry, whose name means “Nun.” The first theory is that it is supposed to represent the papal mitre; the other interpretation describes the similarity in the pastry’s appearance to a nun’s habit. I’ll let you be the judge.

I had baked the choux cases that morning so that we could have plenty of time to focus on making the filling, the chocolate glaze, and assembling the pastries.

Traditionally religiuese are filled with mocha pastry cream, but I thought it would be better if we went with vanilla. While us moms can always use the coffee, the kids definitely didn’t need any caffeine.

“Pastry cream is another building block in the kitchen. You can use it as a filling for cakes, tarts, and all kinds of different pastries. You can thin it and use it as a sauce. You can even turn it into a soufflé.”

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They measured the milk and salt into a heavy-bottomed pot, then placed the cornstarch and sugar into a bowl.

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Finally, they whisked the eggs into the dry ingredients to make a slurry.

Vocabulary word for the day — slurry.

I explained that pastry cream is a custard, which means it is a liquid that has been cooked and thickened or set by eggs. They considered other things that might be custards: pudding, cheesecake, pumpkin pie filling, and ice cream.

“What happens when you heat up eggs?” I asked.

“They get clumpy?”

“Right! They cook and become solid. But too high or too long a heat will overcook them. We don’t want clumpy, lumpy custard, so we have to treat them gently. Otherwise you get scrambled eggs.”

We checked our mise en place for making pastry cream: we had a mesh strainer suspended over a bowl that would hold the finished custard, a ladle, and a damp towel that we wrapped around the base of our mixing bowl to keep it in place.

“Like a little nest?”

“Right!” I agreed. A little nest to hold our bowl of egg-slurry.

We moved over to the stove and began heating the milk.

“Milk can scorch, or burn, really easily. And once you scorch it, the whole pot will taste burnt. So we’ll use a spatula to gently stir the milk as it’s heating.”

I also advised that they keep a close eye on any dairy heating on the stove, as it has a tendency to boil-over pretty quickly. I cranked up the heat for a minute to demonstrate and they watched the milk race towards the top of the pot.

“That went fast!”

We turned off the heat and let the milk settle.

“What do you think would happen if we poured the eggs directly into this really hot pot?”

“Would they scramble?”

They remembered!

“So,” I continued, “we use a method called tempering, where we introduce a little bit of the hot liquid into the eggs to heat them gradually. Once we’ve added about half of the milk to the bowl, we’ll pour everything back into the pot to finish cooking.”

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They took turns adding the milk to the eggs, using one hand to ladle, the other to whisk.

“It’s kind of like rubbing your head and patting your tummy at the same time.”

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The kids traded off whisking the mixture over medium heat.

I showed them how to work the whisk around the pot, making sure to scrape the entire bottom surface, including the edges.

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We watched for big bubbles, a sign that the custard had come to a boil.

“The starch and sugar will keep the eggs from overcooking, to a point, but if we let it go too long the custard can become grainy.”

When we were sure the cream had come to a boil, we immediately strained it into a clean bowl.

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They added vanilla and butter, one tablespoon at a time, to the pastry cream.

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“Can we taste it?!”

They all promised not to double-dip, so…

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“So good!”

I beat back the advancing spoons, placed a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the remaining pastry cream, and popped it into the fridge to cool.

Now for the chocolate.

“Ganache is another good thing to have in your baking ‘tool box’. You can use it to fill, frost, and glaze cakes or pastries, but you can also let it cool completely and make truffles.”

“What else is in it besides chocolate?” someone asked.

“Cream. That’s it. The only thing you need to worry about is having the proper chocolate to cream ratio for whatever you will be using the ganache for.”

Another vocabulary word — ratio.

“If we have 4 ounces of chocolate and need a ratio of 1 part chocolate to 1 part cream, how much cream would we need?”

“4 ounces?”

“Right! And if we needed a ratio of 1 part chocolate to 2 parts cream, we would need…”

“8!”

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I showed them how to use a serrated knife to cut small, uniform pieces of chocolate. It had been awhile since we worked on knife skills, but they quickly caught on.

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We brought our cream to a bare simmer, poured it over the chopped chocolate, waited a few minutes, then stirred it together. Easy peasy.

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It was time to assemble the religuese.

I pulled out a batch of pastry cream that I had made the night before, and we filled up a piping bag.

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“Remember, don’t squeeze it from the middle!”

They each filled two choux shells, one large and one small.

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We took turns dunking the tops in the glossy ganache.

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Finally, they piped circles of whipped cream on top of the larger puffs, then set the smaller puffs on top.

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“Can I pipe a little hat?”

“They look like snowmen!”

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I wasn’t sure about a papal mitre or a nun, but I did see a happy little clown. Sadly, we had to eat him.

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All of the components for the religuese, except the whipped cream, can be made in advance.

Pâté  à Choux recipe (Bake two sizes)

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Ganache recipe  (We used equal parts of 60% chocolate and heavy cream, see recipe link for alternate percentages)

Pastry Cream

Yield 2 1/2 cups

2 c (16 oz)     Whole milk

1/4 t               Salt

4 T                 Cornstarch

1/2 c (4 oz)    Sugar

2                    Large eggs

4 T (2 oz)       Unsalted butter, cut into 1 T pieces

1 t                  Vanilla extract

Have a bowl ready for the finished pastry cream, with a mesh sieve resting on top. Place the milk and salt in a heavy saucepan and heat to just under a boil, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, whisk the cornstarch and sugar together, then add the eggs and whisk until smooth. Wrap a damp kitchen towel around the base of the bowl to keep it from sliding around. When the milk is ready, begin ladling the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. When about half of the milk has been incorporated, pour the egg-milk mixture back into the pot and continue whisking over medium heat until it just comes to a boil, (you will see some slow bubbles that do not stop after whisking). Immediately remove from heat and pour through the strainer into the bowl. If at this point the cream looks slightly curdled, an immersion blender or countertop blender can be used to smooth the texture. Let cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Whisk the butter into the pastry cream one tablespoon at a time, always whisking until smooth before the next addition. Whisk in the vanilla. Cover the custard with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap directly onto the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Cool completely before using. Do not whisk the cream once it has set to avoid breaking down the starch and thinning the custard. Pastry cream will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

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All Mixed Up – A Heritage Potluck to Start a New Year

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It started with a book I picked up at the library called International Night, in which chef Mark Kurlansky and his daughter Talia, cook a meal from a region chosen randomly, by the spin of the globe. I thought this was a brilliant idea, and one that I would like to do one day with my own kids. What a great way to learn about the world!

The book started me thinking about what similar things we could do within our homeschool group. Cooking a whole meal was out of the question, but the idea of focusing on the kids’ own background was interesting. Ultimately, we settled on a potluck where everyone would bring a dish from the country of their ancestors.

The kids were pretty excited about this concept, and not just because it would involve eating. I think children like to contemplate their roots, mine do anyway, and researching and cooking food is a fun way to explore their cultures even further.

We planned on each of the families choosing one or two dishes to prepare and share at a little party to kick off the school year. My kids are all mixed up, ethnically speaking, so they had plenty of food options. We floated some ideas around…Chinese? We were sure one of the other families would bring at least one Chinese dish. Mexican? We eat Mexican food all the time here in California. They passed on German and Irish, and vociferously rejected my husband’s suggestion of haggis. Finally, they committed to making a couple of the local dishes of Hawaii.

I own a fantastic book on the culinary history of Hawaii, which helped us narrow our choices. Hawaii is all mixed up too; its multicultural population is widely reflected in its local foods, which borrow and blend dishes that are of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asian, Filipino, and Portuguese origin.

The kids chose a popular local dish called Chicken Long Rice, and for dessert, (because we had to have dessert!), they picked an east/west mashup cake? custard? confection? See, I don’t even know how to categorize the dish called butter mochi.

In The Food of ParadiseRachel Laudan theorized that butter mochi was the idea of one of the home economists employed by the gas and electric companies to increase the use of ovens in Hawaii, where most of the population had cooked for generations without them. Perhaps a Western cakelike dessert using Asian sweet rice flour might do the trick?

However butter mochi came to be, that’s what we were making.

First step: Asian market. This was a fun little trip. There were new sights and smells and colorful labels on odd looking items. We found packages of mung bean threads that were nearly as tall as my son.

“Surely these would be for a restaurant,” I commented.

“Or if you really liked noodles.”

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So, ginger and noodles for the chicken dish, and glutinous rice flour and coconut milk for the dessert. The boba were an impulse buy.

This recipe could not be easier. Wet ingredients in one bowl, dry ingredients in another, put them together, done.

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Once everything was mixed together, we poured the batter into a rectangular dish and baked it for 90 minutes.

Our friends arrived with their dishes: a Swedish beef and potato dish, some yeasted buns stuffed with sauerkraut, and a Chinese steamed cake. We added some pineapple for good measure.

The kids took turns talking about the dishes they brought and pointing out the country of origin on the globe. We chatted about grandparents and immigrants and food.

My kids’ takeaway from the whole thing? We are all mixed up. Every single one of us.

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FYI – this makes quite a bit. We’ve never had a problem with that, but you could cut the recipe in half.

*Sweet rice flour is flour milled from glutinous rice. This doesn’t mean it contains gluten, nor is it sweet. It simply means that it is made from a kind of rice that gets really sticky when cooked, rather than from a strain of non-glutinous rice.

Butter Mochi (Sweet Rice Flour and Coconut Cake) Adapted from The Food of Paradise by Rachel Laudan

1 lb (3 cups) *glutinous rice flour/sweet rice flour (mochiko)

2 cups sugar

2 tsp baking powder

3/4 tsp salt

Two 12-ounce cans coconut milk

5 large eggs

4 oz melted butter

1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl, the wet ingredients in another, and combine both mixtures. Pour the batter into a 9 x 13 inch baking dish. Bake for 90 minutes. Cut into 24 small squares to serve.

A Cake of Their Own

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“Mommy, daddy’s birthday is coming up! What are we going to make him?”

She said “we”, but that usually means me.

“Do you guys want to make it this year? Just a little cake for the three of us to share with dad?”

“Yes! Can we get sprinkles?!”

“Of course.” I would come to regret these words later.

We decided on a sour cream butter cake with dark chocolate frosting. And sprinkles.

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They proudly cracked open eight eggs in order to get a total of four whole yolks. I fished out the shells from the rejected mix of broken yolks and whites and put the blended eggs into a jar to save for breakfast the next day.

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A bit of sour cream and some vanilla were added to the egg yolks, then the kids took turns weighing the cake flour and sugar.

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They measured the remaining dry ingredients and everything was sifted together into the bowl of my KitchenAid.

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Sifting became a two-person job, slightly messier than one, but pretty efficient.

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Finally, they each buttered and floured a six-inch cake pan.

This is another two-stage cake recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum. I really like using this mixing method because a) it results in a very tender cake, b) it’s fast and nearly foolproof, (the most time consuming part is measuring the ingredients), and c) kids, (see b).

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Softened butter and more sour cream went into the bowl with the dry ingredients and mixed together until just moistened.

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We cranked the speed up to medium for a bit, then began adding the egg mixture in three additions.

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The kids really enjoyed seeing the transformation from yolky soup to fluffy cake batter in a process that took barely minutes.

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I helped them portion the silky batter into the pans, then we popped the cakes into the oven.

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While the cakes baked, we turned our attention to the chocolate filling and frosting.

Ganache, while fancy-sounding, is actually pretty simple; it is just a combination of chocolate and heavy cream. The trick with ganache is to use the proper ratio of chocolate to cream — more cream will result in a more fluid product, (for glazing or to use as a sauce), slightly less cream will produce something firm enough to use as a frosting, while an even greater ratio of chocolate to cream will become firm enough to scoop and roll into truffles. The method is the same for any variation.

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I chopped the chocolate while my daughter heated the cream to simmering. She poured the hot cream over the finely chopped chocolate and we let it stand for a few minutes before she whisked it until it was shiny and smooth.

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The keys to baking and pastry? Timing and temperature. We now had a still warm cake from the oven, and a ganache that needed to firm up a bit. Lunch break.

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After everything was close to optimal temperature, we started assembling the cake. I like to cut the tops off my cakes to make them as level as possible. Also, you get to eat the scraps.

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We placed one cake, cut-side up, on the turntable, then topped that with a dollop of ganache. We smoothed the chocolate out to the edges of the cake with an offset spatula and added the second cake, cut-side down.

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Then the real mess-making began.

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I showed the kids how to hold a flat icing spatula in their dominant hand and dip it into the bowl of ganache resting on the opposite side.

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Using their other hand to rotate the turntable, they scooped up small amounts of ganache with the tip of the spatula and pressed it against the sides of the cake, sliding the spatula back and forth to spread the ganache evenly, (sort of). I resisted every instinct I had to jump in and smooth it out, or at least mitigate the flinging of chocolate, but they stayed on task and did a very fine job. When they had had enough, I tidied up the sides and evened out the top.

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Another key to pastry work? Decorate to hide mistakes! We had some crumbs mixed in with the frosting, so the kids opted to cover the entire cake with sprinkles.

They also covered the table, the floor, the dog…

But they were so happy with the results! And they were beyond excited to present it to their father, who was just as happy to eat it.

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Sour Cream Butter Cake, adapted just slightly from The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

Makes one tall 6-inch cake, (two layers), serving 8, or a 9-inch springform pan (one layer)

4 large egg yolks

2/3 cup (5.5 oz) sour cream at room temperature

1 1/2 t vanilla

2 cups (7 oz) sifted cake flour

1 cup (7 oz) sugar

1/2 t baking powder

1/2 t baking soda

3/4 t salt

12 T (6 oz) unsalted butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour the cake pans. In a medium bowl combine the yolks, 1/4 of the sour cream, and the vanilla. In the bowl of a standing mixer combine the dry ingredients. Add the butter and the remaining sour cream and mix on low until everything is just moistened. Increase to medium speed and beat for 90 seconds to develop the cake’s structure. Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides and place the batter into the prepared pans. Smooth the tops of the cakes with a spatula. Bake for about 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the cakes spring back when pressed lightly in the center. Let the cakes cool in the pans on a rack for 10 minutes before removing. Let cool completely before frosting.

Ganache Frosting

I used 70% bittersweet chocolate for this recipe. If you choose to use chocolate with a lower percentage of chocolate liquor (cocoa bean solids), you can use slightly more chocolate and less cream. For example, if there is no percentage marked on a standard bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, or anything marked 50 – 60% use 1 cup of cream for 8 oz of chocolate. For 61 – 66%, use 1 1/4 cups for 8 oz of chocolate.

7 oz bittersweet chocolate, (70%), chopped into small pieces

1 cup heavy cream

Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring the cream to a simmer and pour it over the chopped chocolate. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir until the chocolate is smooth. Let the ganache cool at room temperature, without stirring, until it looks thick enough to spread. If it firms up too much before you can use it, set the bowl in a pan of barely simmering water until the ganache is partially melted, then stir gently to the desired consistency.

When life hands you pits…make ice cream! (and a tart)

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“You want me to do what?”

My son was looking at me funny.

I repeated my request.

“I need you to take this hammer and smash open these apricot pits. We’re making ice cream.”

Hammer. Ice cream. My son was totally onboard with this. My daughter was wearing her concerned face.

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(Safety note: I did have him cover the pits with another towel as he whacked away at them to avoid flying pit-shrapnel.)

While my son continued cracking I explained, over the din, that stone fruits like peaches, plums, cherries, and apricots contain a small kernel within their seeds that the French call noyaux. They look like almonds and have an intense, bitter-almond perfume and flavor. Imagine store-bought almond extract minus the artificial undertones.

We broke a kernel in half and took a whiff.

“Ooh, that smells good!”

“Right?” I agreed. “Now imagine that in ice cream.”

Now for the intriguing part.

“Noyaux contain a very small amount of an enzyme which, when digested, becomes prussic acid (or hydrogen cyanide).”

“Is that bad?” my daughter asked.

“Well cyanide is poisonous, but unless you were planning on eating a ton of apricot kernels it won’t hurt you.”

In fact, cyanide does naturally occur in several foods: apples (in the pips), spinach, tapioca, soy, bamboo shoots, and all stone fruit pits.

“And anyway, we aren’t going to eat them. We’ll just steep them like tea leaves in our hot cream.”

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We gently warmed our cream and milk until just beginning to boil and added the noyaux. I covered the pan and we played Quirkle while the kernels steeped.

We tasted the cream every so often to make sure the flavor wasn’t getting too strong. It was to our liking at about the 90 minute mark.

We strained the noyaux and set the flavorful cream aside.

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The kids separated the eggs.

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They never seem to get bored with this process.

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The yolks went into a mixing bowl and I placed the whites in a container to freeze for a future recipe.

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They measured the sugar.

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And whisked both the sugar and salt into the egg yolks.

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Meanwhile, we reheated the aromatic milk and cream.

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I placed a damp towel on our work surface to anchor the bowl.

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When the cream had come to a boil, my son used a ladle to introduce the mixture, a little at a time, to the yolks in the bowl. My daughter whisked the two together as he ladled.

“Why do you think we couldn’t just add all the egg yolks directly to the pot?”

I explained that we needed to bring the eggs up to temperature gradually so that we didn’t inadvertently scramble them — a process called tempering.

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Once we had about half of our hot cream added to the yolks, we poured the contents of the bowl back into the pot.

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Over medium-low heat, the kids took turns stirring the mixture with a heat-proof spatula, making sure they scraped the bottom and edges of the pot.

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We took the mixture off the heat when we could feel it thickening and it coated the back of a spoon, (about 170 degrees on an instant read thermometer).

We immediately strained it into a clean bowl. The kids could see coagulated bits of egg white caught in the strainer.

“Egg whites cook at a lower temperature than egg yolks, which is why we need to strain the mixture again. You can never get all the whites out when you separate eggs, and the cooked whites would make our ice cream lumpy.”

They expressed their disapproval.

We set up an ice bath to cool the mixture quickly.

Now the hardest part — waiting. While the ice cream base was cool now, it would make much smoother ice cream if it was really and truly cold. The longer the ice cream takes to freeze, the larger the ice crystals will be in the final mix. If you start with a really cold base, your mix will take less time to freeze. Easy. Unless you are 7.

Noyaux ice cream is very tasty on its own, but what could make it better? I’m happy you asked…

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What could be better than pairing noyaux ice cream with the fruit it came from? And in the form of a warm and buttery pastry of course!

While we waited for the ice cream base to chill, we made pastry dough and rolled it out into a large circle.

The noyaux we had used earlier came from a container I keep in the freezer where we hoard our stone fruit pits. Now we could replenish those with new kernels from these babies:

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The apricots were on the riper side, so they would need something between them and the pastry dough to soak up all the juices they would release in the oven.

We ground together some blanched almonds, a bit of sugar, a touch of flour and a pinch of salt, and sprinkled that all over the dough circle.

The kids placed the apricots cut-side up in concentric circles on top of the almond mixture, leaving a border all around.

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They took turns pleating the dough. We weren’t concerned about spacing; they just folded the crust up and over the fruit where it seemed like a natural spot. Galettes are supposed to look rustic.

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They brushed the pastry dough with a little milk.

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Then sprinkled sugar all over the top of the galette.

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We popped the galette into a hot oven for about 50 minutes. The smell of hot apricots and butter does not suck.

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Later we topped slices of the rewarmed galette with scoops of noyaux ice cream. It was not even close to the pits.

Noyaux Ice Cream   makes about a quart

35 – 40 apricot pits

2 cups whole milk

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar

1/8 tsp salt

7 egg yolks

Cover the apricot pits with a towel and crack them open with a hammer. It doesn’t matter if you mash or break the kernels inside. Place the kernels in a pot with the cream and milk and heat to just boiling, taking care not to scorch the mixture. Remove from heat and cover to let the kernels steep. Check the mixture every 30 minutes or so until the flavor is strong enough. Strain the cream and set aside while you separate the eggs. Place the yolks in a bowl and whisk in the sugar and salt. Anchor the bowl to the work surface with a damp towel. Bring the infused cream back to a boil. Use a ladle to add some of the hot cream to the yolk mixture with one hand while whisking it together with the other. When you have incorporated about half of the hot milk, pour the mixture back into the pot and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until just beginning to thicken. It will coat the back of a spoon, (about 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.) Strain the mixture again. Chill completely and freeze according to your ice cream manufacturer’s instructions.

Apricot Galette   serves 8

pie pastry, (a little more than half of this recipe)

2 T blanched almonds

1 T flour

1 T sugar

pinch of salt

1 1/2 lbs of apricots

1/4 cup of sugar

Roll the pastry dough out to form a circle about 14″ in diameter and 1/8″ thick. Transfer the dough to a baking sheet and place in the refrigerator while you prepare the rest of the components. Grind the almonds, flour, sugar, and salt together, (I use an old coffee grinder for this. You can also just use almond meal in place of the almonds). Cut the apricots in quarters, removing the pits (save them!) Sprinkle the almond mixture over the dough, leaving about a 1 1/2″ border. Place the apricots, skin-side down, in concentric circles on top of the dough, fitting them snugly and leaving the border bare. Fold the dough up and over the galette, pleating it as you go. Brush the crust with a little milk and sprinkle the 1/4 cup of sugar over the fruit and crust. Bake in a 400 degree oven on the lowest rack, (use a pizza stone if you have one), for about 50 minutes. The crust should be nicely browned and slightly caramelized. Use a large spatula to transfer the galette to a wire rack to keep the crust from getting soggy. Cool for about 20 minutes before serving, or cool completely and rewarm before serving.

Spring Strawberries, Fractions, and Harry Baker

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“Careful, those are sharp.”

I had just passed my six-year old son a handful of steak knives to distribute to the other kids. Don’t worry, they’ve had a class in knife skills.

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They made short work of the strawberries while we talked about what we’d be baking.

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“Chiffon…what is that?”

They were happy to hear that it was a kind of cake, and even happier to hear that we would be topping the cake with the lovely strawberries they were preparing.

I tossed the berries with some vanilla sugar and set them aside to macerate.

Me: “Prior to 1948, cakes were traditionally classified as either butter cakes or sponge cakes. Chiffon cake is neither. In fact, a chiffon cake is its own special thing, somewhat of a hybrid of the two.”

“Hybrid, you mean like a hybrid car?”

Me: “Exactly!”

I reminded them how we creamed butter with sugar to make a butter cake. But we were using oil for this cake. We all agreed that the oil wouldn’t be able to trap air the same way that butter would.

Me: “What other ingredient do we have that could trap air?”

“Eggs?”

Enter the sponge cake component of our hybrid: whipped eggs, specifically whites.

We turned our attention to the recipe.

Me: “This recipe makes way more cake than we need, so we’ll have to cut it in half. It calls for 11 ounces of cake flour…”

“So we need 5 1/2 ounces!”

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They took turns weighing and measuring the dry ingredients, helping each other with the appropriate calculations. Some were harder to figure out, half of 3/4 teaspoon or half of a tablespoon for example.

I pointed out that they needed to reserve some of the sugar, 1/2 cup for a full recipe. They recalculated.

“This is kind of like a math lesson too.”

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The dry ingredients were sifted together into a large bowl.

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The wet ingredients minus the egg whites would go into another.

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As they finished scaling out the ingredients, I laid some cake trivia on them.

Me: “So this kind of cake was developed in the 1920’s by a guy named Harry Baker. He worked on the recipe and kept it secret for 20 years! Then he sold it to General Mills so they could market it and make a bunch of money.”

They found this funny.

Me: “What do you think this guy did as a profession?”

“Was he a baker?”

I thought they’d guess that. I also thought they might say scientist or something of that nature.

Me: “He was an insurance salesman.”

They knew nothing of insurance. This resulted in so.many.questions. I promised we would revisit the topic…but first, back to cake!

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I explained why chiffon cake was such a hit when it came out. People liked them because they were very moist due to the oil in the batter, and since oil is liquid even at cooler temperatures, chiffon cakes do not tend to harden or dry out as traditional butter cakes might. This makes them better choices for fillings that need to be kept refrigerated, like cream or mousse, or even frozen, like ice cream.

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Wet ingredient were added to dry ingredients and whisked together until smooth.

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Then we whipped up the egg whites with the reserved sugar.

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They remembered the different stages of whipped egg whites, and helped keep an eye on them as the mixer did its thing.

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We checked the meringue to make sure we were at a nearly stiff peak.

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We used about a third of it to lighten the batter in the bowl, then gently folded in the rest.

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About 30 minutes later…

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Once the cake had cooled, we added our sweetened strawberries and a dollop of whipped cream. I’m pretty sure Harry Baker would have approved.

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As I said, this recipe makes enough for two tall 9″ layers, or one large tube pan. (We used a 10″ round by 2″ tall pan to make our single layer, which gave us twelve slices) Do not grease your pan, the batter needs to cling to the sides to rise properly. If you are making layers, simply line the bottoms with parchment.

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Orange Chiffon Cake

11 oz    cake flour

2 c        granulated sugar, reserve 1/2 c

1 T        aluminum-free baking powder

3/4 t      fine sea salt

6           large eggs, separated

1           orange, zested and juiced

3/4 c     liquid, (juice from the orange plus enough water to make 3/4 cup)

1/4 c     neutral tasting oil like safflower

1 1/2 t   vanilla

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Fit a round of parchment into the bottom of a cake pan. Do not grease the pan.

Sift dry ingredients together into a large bowl. Combine egg yolks with the zest, juice and water, oil, and vanilla. Whisk the egg mixture into the dry ingredients until smooth. Whip the egg whites with the reserved 1/2 c sugar to a nearly stiff peak. Fold 1/3 of the meringue into the batter to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining meringue. Place batter in pan and gently smooth the top. Bake for about 30 – 35 minutes or until the cake takes on a light gold color and springs back when pressed in the center. Cool completely before using a thin knife or spatula to release the cake from the sides.

A Bowl Full of Sunshine and a Nod to the Irish

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It was baking class day and St. Patrick’s Day. A two-fer! In that case, we’d need to make two things: scones, for a little celebration of Irish culture, and lemon curd, to make good use of the beautiful citrus piled up in the markets right now.

“What are scones?” my son asked. I think I may have gasped. Clearly I have been remiss in providing my children with a proper education in baked goods.

“They’re kind of like sweet biscuits. But not too sweet. They’re usually eaten with tea and jam, clotted cream, or some kind of fruit curd.”

I explained that scones, while not originally from Ireland, are made and enjoyed all over the British Isles. The original scone, from Scotland, was round, flat, and unleavened, and cooked on a griddle.

“This is like history!” (My son again)

“When chemical leaveners became available in the 19th century, the breads could be made a bit lighter. Now we use baking powder and bake the scones in the oven.”

We took a look at the recipe.

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We had baked biscuits together in a previous session, so they understood why we would need to cut the butter (Irish, of course!), into cubes and put it in the freezer while we measured out the rest of the ingredients.

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Somebody finally discovered the backlight feature on the scale, so we had many eager hands involved in the weighing process.

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Flour, salt, sugar and leaveners went into the bowl.

“Make sure you pay attention to the baking soda and baking powder measurements,” I reminded them, “as they aren’t interchangeable.”

They remembered some differences in the two ingredients, for instance, baking soda requires an acid, while baking powder does not.

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All of the dry ingredients were whisked together.

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Then they used a pastry blender to cut in the cold butter.

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Just like biscuit dough, scone dough turns out best with minimal handling.

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We wanted to cut the butter into the dry ingredients just enough to end up with a hodgepodge mixture of bits and flakes no larger than pea-size.

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The addition of cold buttermilk would bind everything together and bring tenderness and tang to the finished product.

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“What is buttermilk?”

They had each tried the kid activity of shaking heavy cream in a jar to make butter, and remembered that there was liquid left over once the butter had formed. I explained that the leftover liquid is what we used to call buttermilk; the buttermilk of today is a cultured product, like yogurt.

They were all interested in trying it by itself, so I passed around some half-full cups.

“It’s sour!”

I reminded them that yes, it is acidic which is why our scone recipe called for baking soda in addition to the baking powder; the soda was there to neutralize it.

It got 4 thumbs-up from 5 tasters.

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Just like all heritage recipes, some scone recipes call for buttermilk and some don’t; it all depends on the baker’s preference. In our case, bring on the buttermilk!

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A quick and gentle stir would bring all the ingredients together.

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Our mixture still looked a tad dry and floury, so we chose to add a little more liquid until the dough formed slightly moist clumps.

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We dumped the dough out onto the lightly floured table and quickly pushed and patted it into one mass.

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Then we divided that into two halves sort of equal rounds.

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We discussed how to further divide each round into sixths.

“In half? Then two more cuts?”

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The second round ended up in eighths, but it was the larger of the two anyway.

We had a tray of not exactly evenly portioned scones, and even though some of our wedges had become rounds there were no worries as we placed the tray into the fridge to chill.

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Time to whip up the lemon curd.

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Separating eggs is always fun.

And sometimes gross.

“It looks snotty.”

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Egg yolks, sugar and salt were beaten together in a pot.

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Then we added lemon zest, lemon juice and cubes of butter before everything went on the heat.

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A little ro-sham-bo would decide the order at the stove.

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The kids took turns stirring the mixture over low heat.

Somebody made a remark about scrambled eggs, and I pointed out that even though we had the pot over a direct flame, our eggs were far from scrambled. I explained that the sugar in the mixture raises the temperature at which the eggs would start coagulating. The result? Silky smooth lemon curd.

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The curd needed so little time on the heat that we barely got through the queue. In fact, I had to surreptitiously turn off the flame so the curd wouldn’t overcook as the last two kids in line took their turns at stirring.

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It was sufficiently cooked when the curd coated the back of the spatula. We drew a finger across it to test the thickness. Done!

We strained the lemon curd into a bowl and set it aside to cool.

I brushed the chilled scones with milk and then sprinkled the tops with a bit of crunchy turbinado sugar before sliding them into a hot oven.

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Twenty-five minutes later we had lovely sandwiches of warm scones and tangy lemon curd.

Once the kids had devoured theirs, the moms were forced to defend their own plates from greedy little hands.

We so love our kids, but we do have our limits.

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Buttermilk Scones adapted slightly from a recipe in Tartine, makes 12 large wedges

4 3/4 cup (24 oz)  all-purpose flour

1 T aluminum-free baking powder

3/4 tsp baking soda

1/2 c (3 1/2 oz) granulated sugar

1 1/4 tsp salt

1 cup (8 oz) unsalted butter, cold and cut into approximately 1/2″ cubes

1 1/2 cups (12 oz) buttermilk, cold

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Scatter the cold butter over the mixture and use a pastry blender to cut it in. The finished mixture will be coarse, with bits of butter no larger than pea-size. Add the buttermilk all at once and mix gently, the dough should form slightly moist clumps. If the dough seems dry, add more buttermilk a little at a time. You should still be able to see some butter pieces. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into two portions and pat each into a round about 1 1/2″ thick. Cut each round into 6 equal wedges and transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Chill for 15 minutes. Brush the top of each scone with a little milk and sprinkle them with coarse sugar. Bake until the tops are lightly browned, 25 – 30 minutes. Serve warm.

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Lemon Curd, original recipe by Russ Parsons

2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon
6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) cold butter, cut into pieces

Put a small bowl in the refrigerator to chill. (You will use it later to cool the hot lemon curd.) In a small saucepan, beat the eggs, yolks, salt and sugar until smooth and light-colored.

Add the lemon juice, the lemon zest and butter and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the butter melts, about 2 minutes.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue cooking and stirring until the curd is thick enough that it coats the back of the spoon and when you draw your finger across the curd it leaves a definite track, about 5 minutes. The curd should be the consistency of thick hollandaise sauce. Pour it through a fine strainer into a chilled bowl and let stand to cool to room temperature.

Fluffy White (and One Chocolate!) Clouds

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“Is that it?”

My son was concerned about the minimal ingredients I had placed on the table to use for our baking project.

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Butter, chocolate, sugar, eggs. Do you ever really need more than that?

I pointed to the photo of a Chocolate Cloud Cake.

“Ooooh!”

All concerns went right out the window.

We made sure the oven was heating and cut out a circle of parchment for the bottom of our cake pan.

The next step was to separate the egg yolks from the whites.

“Does anyone remember what ‘leaven’ means?”

I could see the wheels turning. And finally…

“To put air into something?”

“Yeah, kinda! It means to lighten something. Like when we lightened our pizza dough with yeast. Or a cake with baking powder and/or baking soda. What else? What about our cream puffs? What did we use to leaven those?”

“Eggs?”

“Yep, we added eggs, which in the hot hot oven, created the steam that provided lift to our cream puff dough. So we’ve used yeast, chemical reactions, steam, and now…foam.”

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They had separated eggs once before, and needed little encouragement to jump in again.

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I recommended that they crack the eggs on the table instead of the side of the bowl, so that any wayward shells would land on the table instead of in their egg whites.

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Each kid separated their egg over a small bowl and then combined that white with the rest of the whites needed for the recipe, thus avoiding ruining a whole batch of egg whites with one broken yolk.

For example…

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“Those are what we call goldfish. We want to keep those bits of yolk out of the whites.”

Fat, as in the case of the egg yolks, would keep our egg whites from foaming. For this reason, we would also make sure our whisks were very clean and would avoid using plastic bowls.

It was a good thing we had plenty of eggs on hand.

But back to this foam-as-leavening idea.

I explained that egg whites are mostly water, 90% to be exact.

“Can we make a foam with just water?”

They each tried whisking a bowl of plain water. We got some bubbles, but as expected, no foam.

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Then we tried whisking one egg white.

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That was more successful.

So besides water, what was in an egg white that could create a foam? We looked at it at and agreed that it was definitely thicker than water. Vocabulary word for the day: viscous.

I pulled out some bits of string and coiled them up to represent the remaining 10% of an egg white: protein.

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“So these protein molecules are usually all wound up. When you guys whisk the egg white, the proteins unfold. One end likes the water, the other likes the air; they continue to open as they are exposed to the air you are incorporating with that whisk, and they trap it like so…”

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“But they also like to stick to each other. So you end up with this network of many little bubbles. The more you whip, the stronger the network gets…to a point.”

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We continued whipping by hand so that they could see the egg white go through the different stages.

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At soft peak the whites will just start to hold shape, but will melt back into themselves after a second…

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At medium peak or firm peak, the whites will form more distinct ridges but the tip will fold back onto itself. I like to think of a soft serve ice cream cone…

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And at stiff peak the point will stand up proudly…

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The trickiest part to whipping egg whites is taking them to the correct stage; too little whipping results in poor volume or collapse of the foam, while too much looks…

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grainy, curdled, not smooth. The whites take on a dry appearance as the network gets tightened up so much that the water is essentially squeezed out.

Now that we were clear on the different stages of whipped egg whites, we could start mixing our cake.

Chopped chocolate was gently melted in a bowl set in a pan of barely simmering water.

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We added soft butter to the chocolate and…

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Well, just trust me that we mixed in the butter.

The kids whisked the whole eggs and yolks together with half of the sugar…

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…some salt…

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and added the chocolate and butter mixture.

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They were pretty much ready to eat it as is, but I convinced them that the cake would be so. much. better.

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The kids had had enough whipping by hand, so we chose to use the mixer to make our meringue. We waited until the egg whites were foamy, then began slowly adding the sugar.

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Once it had thickened and began showing streaky paths from the beater, we pulled the attachment off to check…

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Not quite ready yet. Back on for a sec…

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Bingo.

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They were tickled that, once whipped to a stiff peak, we could turn the whole bowl of egg whites upside down.

I lightened the chocolate mixture by folding in about a quarter of the meringue. They reminded each other how to fold as they took turns mixing in the rest.

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The batter went into our parchment-lined pan and I slid it into the oven.

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Like sharks I tell you. Sharks.

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About 35 minutes later we had our chocolate cloud.

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Ahh, but we had to wait for it to cool!

We used the time to whip up another cloud, this time with very cold cream, a pinch of sugar, and a splash of vanilla.

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I explained that the stages of whipping cream were similar to those when whipping egg whites.

Me: “What do you think we would get if we over whipped this cream?”

“Butter?”

Yep. Still delicious, but not what we wanted to top our cake.

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After it had cooled a bit, the middle of the cake had sunk in just enough to leave us with the perfect place to cradle some cream.

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A little white cloud of cream on top of slightly warm chocolate. Best thing ever.

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Chocolate Cloud Cake adapted slightly from Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts

Makes one 8-inch single-layer cake; serves 8 to 12

Cake

8 oz best-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (we used 72%)

1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

6 large eggs at room temperature: 2 whole, 4 separated

1 cup sugar

1/4 tsp fine sea salt

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Whipped Cream Topping

1 1/2 cups heavy cream, well chilled

sugar to taste

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom of an 8-inch springform pan with a round of parchment paper; do not butter the pan. Melt the chocolate in a bowl set in a pan of barely simmering water. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter until melted; set aside.

In a bowl, whisk the 2 whole eggs and the 4 egg yolks with 1/2 cup of the sugar just until blended. Whisk in the salt and vanilla. Whisk in the warm chocolate mixture.

Using a standing mixer with the whip attachment, or in a bowl with an electric mixer, beat the 4 egg whites until foamy. Gradually add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat until the whites form firm to stiff but not dry peaks. Fold about 1/4 of the meringue into the chocolate mixture to lighten it; gently fold in the remaining whites. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top.

Bake until the top of the cake is puffed and cracked and the center is no longer wobbly, about 35 – 40 minutes. Do not overbake.

Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack; it will sink as it cools forming a crater with high sides.

At serving time whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla until not quite stiff. Run the tip of a knife around the edges of the cake and carefully remove the sides of the pan. You can choose to fill the crater of the cake with the whipped cream, pushing it gently to the edges; it looks very pretty that way. Or, if you are fighting off a crowd of impatient children, cut it into slices and top each piece with cream as it is running by.