Choose Your Own (Baking) Adventure

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“Can we just make something up?”

My son and I were standing in the kitchen chatting before our guests arrived.

“Well yeah, but you probably wouldn’t want to just throw a bunch of stuff in a dish and bake it –”

He cut me off: “Oh I know — you would want to know what the different ingredients do first.”

This little conversation got me thinking about our recipe-less baking lesson for the day. We really wouldn’t be winging it — it would be more structured than that. It would be more like one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that my kids enjoy: “If you choose scenario A, then turn to page X…”

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“You guys have baked a lot of things so far. And even though you’ve used the same ingredients over and over, the products have been very different.”

Together, they identified the familiar ingredients on the table: “flour, sugar, butter, eggs, baking powder, baking soda, salt…and vanilla!”

“So what makes the end result so different if the ingredients are mostly the same?”

“How much of an ingredient you put in? Like maybe something more in a cake. Or something?”

“Yeah. Remember when we made ganache and talked about ratios? A ratio tells how much there is of one thing in comparison to something else. So if we wanted to make truffles with a ratio of 2 parts chocolate to 1 part cream, how much cream would we need if we had 1 pound of chocolate?”

“One-half of a pound?”

“Right. And say we wanted to make a ginormous batch of truffles and we had one hundred pounds of chocolate. How much cream would we need?”

“Fifty pounds?”

We looked at a chart I had drawn up that morning that showed some time tested ratios for batters and doughs.

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“Pie dough is known as 3-2-1 dough because it is made from about three parts flour to two parts fat and one part liquid. Now compare that to the ratios for a biscuit or scone, which are made the same way — by cutting the butter into the flour; those ratios are about three parts flour to one part fat and two parts liquid.”

“Oh, I see! Like the pancakes, they have the same amount of flour and eggs as a muffin, but there is just more liquid. Oh, and a little less fat.”

I explained that the ratios I had listed were very general, and that specific recipes are built from those ratios.

“Recipes are just ratios that somebody has adjusted to their own liking. There’s no reason you couldn’t change a recipe to your own liking, provided you didn’t mess with the ratios too much — you’d still want a cake to look like a cake and not a soupy pudding. If you know what the function of the ingredients are, there’s no reason you couldn’t just make up your own recipe.”

Which is what we would be doing. It would be a simple cake. But I suggested that we have a plan to work towards.

“These are the fruits that are in season right now.”

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There was immediate talk about lemon. Then tangerine. Somebody pointed out the blood oranges and I mentioned that my son and I had talked earlier of an upside-down blood orange cake. A couple of the kids really seized on that idea. There was also a suggestion of a blood orange layer cake with frosting, “maybe pink?”, that we had to reject because of time constraints. After some additional chatter about icings, we returned to the upside-down cake idea.

We looked at our chart again. The ratio for a cake was 1:1:1:1, flour to fat to sugar to egg.

“This ratio would produce a pound cake.”

Now pound cakes are delicious, but we wanted something a bit less dense. We would definitely need to tinker.

“Flour and egg whites are the protein ingredients. They provide the structure for the cake, while sugar and fat weaken the structure. In order to create a cake that will hold itself up yet still be moist and tender we have to have a balanced recipe. What do you think would happen if we had a lot of flour and not much fat?”

“Would the cake be dry?”

“Yeah, it would be dry and crumbly. And if we had way too much fat or sugar?”

This one was harder for them.

“It would be too sweet!”

“Yes, it would be way too sweet, but sugar doesn’t just make things sweet, it also contributes moisture, so the cake might be really wet and soggy inside. So to avoid that, one well-tested formula for this kind of cake would be to make sure the weight of the flour equals the weight of the sugar.”

I suggested we just measure out one and one-half cups of flour, (good for a cake that would serve eight people), and weigh it.

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“Seven and one-quarter ounces!”

They used a separate bowl to weigh an equal amount of sugar.

“Now, the weight of the eggs should be about the same weight as the fat.”

We had already decided that we didn’t want a pound cake, so we reduced the amount of butter to a reasonable four ounces, or one stick. Also, convenient.

They cracked two eggs into a bowl on the scale.

“Three and one-half ounces! But that’s not the same as the butter.”

I explained that eggs have two parts: the whites provide structure, but also make baked goods dry, and yolks, which are mostly fat and therefore add moisture and help create a velvety texture.

“So we could add just one yolk. It would bring up the total weight of the eggs to equal that of the butter — actually it would be slightly over, but we don’t need it to be exactly the same.”

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“Next, we need the weight of the eggs plus the liquid to be about the same as the sugar.”

I suggested buttermilk just because I like the tanginess of it, but they voted unanimously against that and opted for milk.

“How much did the eggs weigh again?”

“Just under three and a quarter, ” I reminded them.

“So we need about four ounces of milk.”

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“We still have to think about leavening.”

We reviewed the differences between baking soda and baking powder. I even poured a little vinegar over some baking soda to remind them how the soda reacted with an acid to create carbon dioxide, which in turn would create bubbles in the cake batter. Those bubbles would grow larger in the the heat of the oven, thereby leavening the cake.

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But we had not chosen to use buttermilk, so we would use baking powder instead — one teaspoon per one cup of flour.

“Now sometimes recipes will have both baking powder and baking soda because the amount of soda necessary to react with the acidic ingredient, (one-quarter teaspoon soda per one-half cup of an acid), is not enough to leaven the total amount of batter.”

Finally, we added the flavor enhancers: vanilla, orange zest, and most importantly, salt.

“Baked goods aren’t very tasty without salt. I left it out of some muffins once and how were they?”

My daughter wrinkled up her nose. “Blah.”

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We prepared our pan by buttering it, dusting it with flour, then sprinkling some granulated sugar over a round of parchment set in the bottom of the pan.

Then we got to review some knife skills.

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The kids each took a turn removing the peel from an orange.

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Then we sliced the blood oranges into rounds.

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They arranged the brilliant red wheels on top of the sugar in the pan.

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Finally it was time to mix the cake.

We creamed the butter with the sugar, salt, and orange zest until it was fluffy, then added the eggs a little at a time.

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We had a very conscientious baker on hand who scraped the bowl after every addition.

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Milk was added next.

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The flour and baking powder came last. We mixed those on the mixer just until there were a few streaks of flour, then we finished mixing it by hand.

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They each got to dip just one finger to taste the batter.

“Yum!”

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We could see lovely red and orange specks of zest in the fluffy batter.

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The top of the baked cake was nice and golden, but we were all more interested in seeing the bottom.

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It did not disappoint.

“Oooh, so pretty!”

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And they all agreed that the cake was delicious and beautiful. And theirs.

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Blood Orange Upside-Down Cake

7 oz all purpose flour, (about 1 1/2 c)

1 1/2 t aluminum-free baking powder

4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature

7 oz granulated sugar, plus more for the pan

1/2 t fine sea salt

2 large eggs plus one yolk at room temperature

4 oz whole milk

1 t vanilla extract

zest of one blood orange

several blood oranges to slice

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour a 10″ cake pan, preferably springform or one with a removable bottom. Place a round of parchment in the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle about a tablespoon or so of sugar over the parchment and arrange the blood orange slices on top of that.

Whisk the flour and baking powder together and set aside.

With the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, salt, and orange zest together until fluffy. Add the eggs, about one at a time, mixing well then scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula after each addition. Add the vanilla to the milk and then mix that into the butter and egg mixture. It will look curdled but will smooth out once you add the flour. Add the flour and mix on low until most of the flour is incorporated. Finish mixing by hand until no streaks of flour remain.

Gently spread the batter over the blood orange slices and level it as much as you can.

Bake the cake in the middle of the oven for about 35 – 40 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and springs back when pressed in the center. A toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake will come out with moist crumbs attached.

Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan, invert the cake, and remove the parchment.

 

Formulas for cake creations:

Butter = Sugar

Eggs = Fat

Eggs + Liquid = Sugar

Leavening guidelines:

1 t baking powder per cup of flour

1/4 t baking soda per cup of flour and 1/2 cup of acidic ingredient

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Fall. Finally.

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I wanted to do something with apples, because it’s supposed to be fall darn it, and so we could start working on knife skills.  But with the weather we’d been having I was afraid we’d end up making apple ice cream.  Not tragic by a long shot, but then there was the issue of The Biscuits.  I had flaky buttermilk biscuits on the brain.  With vanilla apple butter.

The high was forecasted at 85 degrees on the day of class. The biscuits were calling.  That would have to do.

“What are we making?”

I told the kids that since we would be making two items, we would need to do a little planning.  We talked about the steps involved in each recipe and estimated how long they would take.

“I think we should work on the apple butter first.”

I agreed, “Then while the apples are cooking, we can work on the biscuits.”

Out came the knives.

But first, a safety briefing.

“We need to move slowly and keep the blades pointed away from our friends and our own bodies.  Once we start working, if we need to look away from our project at any point, we just. stop. cutting.  When you’re holding your knife you should be looking at your knife.  If you need to put it down, make sure the blade is facing away from you.”

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I showed them how to anchor the cutting boards to the table by placing a dampened kitchen towel underneath, explaining that their first concern should be making certain their cutting surface was nice and stable.

Next, I modeled the proper way to hold a chef’s knife: with the blade sandwiched between the thumb and index finger, directly above the bolster, leaving the three remaining fingers to wrap around the handle.  Their non-knife hand, or guiding hand, would serve to secure the food on the cutting surface.

We placed one board, on either side of the table, to be manned by one child, who would be assisted by one slightly nervous mother.

Having a stable item to cut is just as important as having a stationary surface, so we began by slicing off the bottom of the apple.  Now the fruit would not roll around on us as we made four cuts around the core.

Deep breaths…

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Now we had four, flat-sided pieces of apple to slice.

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Keeping fingertips out of the way, we proceeded to make thinnish slices.  We talked about using a slight rocking motion: tip down, then the heel of the blade down and through the apple, rather than trying to push the entire blade through the fruit in one movement.

That round went surprisingly smoothly.  Two kids down, three to go.

At this point, the moms opted to switch positions and assist their own child; somehow the idea of maiming your own offspring seemed more palatable than injuring that of another.

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We turned our apples as needed, making sure that the fruit was always very stable on the board.  If we came to a place where it was too tight to cut safely, we adjusted the piece so that our guiding hand had more room.

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The kids stayed remarkably focused on their tasks.

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Unsurprisingly, some were itching for more independence.

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After several sweaty, (by the moms), minutes, we were done.

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We placed the apple slices in a pot with some apple juice and the pulp of half of a vanilla bean.

“Can I smell the vanilla?”

Deep inhales and appreciative murmurs all around.  Somebody adopted a really bad French accent.

We would let the apples cook while we turned our attention to the biscuits.

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We weighed the flour into a mixing bowl.

“You guys tell me when it gets to 8 oz.”

“6…6 and 3/4…7 and 1/2…3/4…a little more…7/8…STOP!”

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And added salt, sugar, baking powder and baking soda.

“Wait, why are we adding both baking powder and baking soda?”

We recalled how baking soda, an alkali, was able to create carbon dioxide in and leaven baked goods by reacting with an acid, like buttermilk.  We would be using buttermilk in our biscuits, so why the baking powder as well?

We needed a specific amount of baking soda to neutralize the buttermilk, but that small amount wouldn’t provide enough leavening.  We couldn’t just add more because without the additional acid required to offset it, the excess baking soda would leave a soapy or bitter taste.

This is where baking powder comes in.  Because it contains an alkali/acid component that reacts in two stages, (once when liquid is introduced, and again when it is heated), it can be used in addition to baking soda, or even in place of it, depending on your preference.  We could substitute milk for the buttermilk and use only baking powder, but then we would lose the tenderizing effects and tangy flavor of the buttermilk.

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Once we had the dry ingredients in the bowl, we used a whisk to combine them. Or something like that.

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Just like our flaky pie dough, we cut the very cold butter into cubes and added it to the flour.

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Rather than using a pastry cutter to blend the butter into the dry ingredients to form smaller, flour covered bits, we left the butter in cubes, handling it only enough to separate the chunks and coat them with flour.

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The whole process took just minutes.

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When the butter cubes were evenly distributed through the flour mixture, we poured the cold buttermilk over everything and used a rubber spatula to quickly and gently combine the ingredients.

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Nearly all the flour was absorbed by the buttermilk, leaving us with a shaggy dough.  To keep our biscuits tender, we stopped mixing as soon as the rough mass came together.  Overworking the dough would risk developing the gluten in it, thereby increasing our chances of producing tough and chewy biscuits.

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We dusted the table lightly with flour and dumped our dough on top of it.  We could see that the butter was still in chunks, exactly how it was supposed to be.  With floured hands, we pressed and patted the dough into a rectangle, about 3/4″ thick.

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“You guys know how you have to fold a letter when you put it into an envelope?”

Using a bench scraper, I showed the kids how to fold the two short ends of the rectangle back onto itself, like a letter.

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We made sure we had a massive amount of light dusting of flour on the table and used the bench scraper to pick up and reposition our parcel of dough. Just as before, we patted that rectangle down to about 3/4″ thickness.

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We repeated the process two more times, for a total of three letter folds.

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What was the point of all this folding?

“Who likes croissants?”

A chorus of “me”s.

We were borrowing from a technique called lamination, which is how croissants and puff pastry are made. The folding action creates alternating layers of fat and dough, in this case, butter. When the butter is heated, the water in it turns to steam and causes the layers of dough to puff and separate, resulting in crispy yet tender flakes.

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After the patting and pressing, the dough finally looked more uniform in finish and more like, well, dough, yet with nuggets of butter still visible.

Opting to make square biscuits, (less waste and no re-rolling of scraps), we portioned the dough into eight pieces.

“You can cut that rectangle in half.”

“Then, this one, cut this way.”

They were giving each other good instructions.

I cautioned against messing too much with it at this point.  We didn’t want to “glue” together the layers that we had just created by sawing back and forth through the dough.  Just one slicing motion, straight down, would give us the best results.

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A peek at the sides of our biscuits would give us a preview of the layers to come.

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We placed the biscuits on a sheet pan and into the refrigerator to allow the butter to firm up again.

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By this time, our apples had cooked until the point at which they were breaking down.

“Something smells really good!”

We used an immersion blender to quickly process the apples in the pot, then took turns pushing them through a strainer into a shallow pan.

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The kids all grabbed spoons and had a quick taste of the now peel-free applesauce before we seasoned it with a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. This puree went back onto the stove to cook over a low flame and reduce to a thick and spreadable apple butter.

The kids took off into the backyard to run wild burn off some pent up energy, and I popped the biscuit tray into a hot oven.

15 minutes later we had buttery and flaky goodness.

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And last but not least, sandwiched with the apple butter.

It was totally worth firing up the oven in 85 degree weather.

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Vanilla Bean Apple Butter      makes about 1- 1/2 cups

2 lbs of flavorful apples, skin on, sliced thin

1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped

1- 1/2 cups unfiltered apple juice

cinnamon, nutmeg or other spices to taste

salt to taste

Place sliced apples, apple juice and vanilla bean in a pot.  Cook over moderate heat for about 30 minutes, or until the apples are soft and breaking down. Puree with a hand blender or in batches in a regular blender.  Strain into a shallow pan.  Add spices and salt to taste.  Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 1 hour.

 

Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits, adapted slightly from a recipe by Peter Reinhart

makes 8 – 10 square biscuits

8 oz. (1-3/4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour; more as needed for shaping the dough
1 1/2 tsp. granulated sugar
2-1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp.  fine sea salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
4 oz. (8 Tbs.) very cold unsalted butter
3/4 cup very cold buttermilk

Heat the oven to 500°F and position a rack in the middle of the oven. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Put the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a large mixing bowl and stir with a whisk to distribute the ingredients evenly.

Cut the butter into small cubes and add them to the flour mixture.  Use your fingers to separate the butter bits (they tend to stick to each other), coat them all with flour, and evenly distribute the pieces throughout the flour mixture. Don’t rub the butter too hard with your fingertips or palms, as this will melt the butter. You’re just trying to break the butter pieces apart, not blend the butter into the flour.

Add the cold buttermilk and stir with a large spoon until all or most of the flour is absorbed by the buttermilk and the dough forms a coarse lump.

Dust a work surface with flour and dump the dough onto it, cleaning out the bowl with a spatula or a plastic bowl scraper. Dust the top of the dough and your hands with flour, and press the dough into a 3/4-inch-thick rectangle. Sprinkle a small amount of additional flour on the top of the dough. Fold the dough over on itself in three sections, as if folding a letter (also called a tri-fold). With a bench knife or metal spatula, lift the dough off the work surface and dust under it with flour to prevent sticking, if necessary. Dust the top with flour and press the dough out again into a 3/4-inch-thick rectangle and repeat the tri-fold. Repeat this procedure one more time (three times in all).

After the third tri-fold, dust under and on top of the dough, if needed, and press the dough into a 1/2-inch-thick rectangle.  Mark the dough into even portions.  Use a sharp knife or bench scraper to press straight down to cut and lift straight up to remove; a sawing motion will seal the sides and interfere with rising. Use a bench knife or spatula to transfer the biscuits to the baking sheet, placing them about 1/2 inch apart.  Refrigerate for 10 minutes.

Put the baking sheet in the oven and reduce the temperature to 450°F. Bake for 8 minutes; rotate the pan 180 degrees; continue baking until both the tops and bottoms of the biscuits are a rich golden brown and the biscuits have doubled in height, revealing flaky layers on the sides, 4 to 6 minutes more. It’s all right if some butter seeps from the biscuits. Remove the pan from the oven and set it on a cooling rack, leaving the biscuits on the pan. Cool the biscuits for at least 3 minutes and serve them hot or warm (they will stay warm for about 20 minutes).

How Not To Bake A Doorstop

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“Take a Pound of Butter, beat it in an earthen Pan, with your Hand one Way, till it is like a fine thick Cream; then have ready twelve Eggs, but half the Whites, beat them well, and beat them up with the Butter, a Pound of Flour beat in it, and a Pound of Sugar, and a few Carraways; beat it all well together for an Hour with your Hand, or a great wooden Spoon. Butter a Pan, and put it in and bake it an Hour in a quick Oven. For Change, you may put in a Pound of Currants cleaned wash’d and pick’d.”

—The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse, facsimile 1747 London reprint [Prospect Books:Devon] 1995 ( p. 139)

We read this recipe together at the start of our class.  What exactly is an “earthen pan”?  Twelve eggs? What are caraways? (We pulled some out of the spice cabinet and had a sniff.  The kids were not impressed.)

I imagined that the women of that day must have had very large biceps, what with beating their cakes by hand everyday for an hour.  I hope that was some damn good cake!

Pound cake gets its name from the traditional weight of its ingredients: one pound each of butter, sugar, flour and eggs.  The result was, arguably, a pretty substantial loaf.  Since there was no leavening aside from the air incorporated through the creaming of the butter and the sugar, (an hour!), or through the whipping of the egg whites, (by hand!), it is highly likely that many cakes did turn out to be somewhat doorstop-ish.

Thankfully most modern recipes deviate from the historical ratios.  Many now also include chemical leavening for additional lightness.

Even talking the kids through manually mixing a pound cake seemed exhausting.  Hello Kitchen Aid, my lovely modern appliance!

After a quick safety/practical pep talk we got down to business.

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The first step in cake baking is pan preparation.  Always.  It will save you grief later on if you just get into the habit of prepping your pans first.  Trust me.

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Then we measured the dry ingredients into a bowl, by weight this time.  We went over how to use the tare function on my digital scale and why it was necessary.

“So we aren’t weighing the bowl?”

Right!

The kids were anxious about putting too much flour in, as if we couldn’t also remove the excess. Funny.

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Salt and other small amounts were more easily measured by volume.

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And for our first detour…

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Sugar.

Me: “Have you ever really looked at it?  What does it look like?”

“It’s white!”

Me: “Yes, but anything else?”

“It looks like snow!”

Me: “It does! But what about the shape?”

Blank stares.

Ok. So out came the microscope.

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“It looks like ice cubes!”

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“It looks like diamonds!”

Those little crystals would come in handy later when we were combining them with our butter.  When creamed together with the butter, the sugar granules’ sharp edges would cut into the fat and form little pockets of air that would help leaven the cake and give it a nice, even crumb.  The small amount of baking powder we added to our flour would enlarge these bubbles further once the batter was in the hot oven.

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We continued weighing and measuring.

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Then, detour #2.

Eggs. Specifically, separated eggs.  Kids love to crack eggs.  Separating them is even more fun!

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I helped each of them crack their egg, (firmly! wishy-washy will get you lots of bits of shells), and showed them how to use half of the shell to hold the contents of the egg while discarding the other part of the shell.  They encouraged each other during their respective turns, yet trepidation crept in once they themselves were faced with the task of juggling cracked shells and runny egg.

“What do I do with the other half?!”

“Oh, it’s falling out!”

But all was well!  We simply poured the egg into our bare hands, letting the white slip through our fingers.  A quick and gentle pass of the yolk from hand to hand was all that was needed to finish the job.

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We went through more eggs than we needed for the recipe; those became lunch.

Now that all the ingredients were measured we could finally get to mixing!

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Considering how long it took us to scale out our ingredients, the butter was probably a tad warmer than it should have been.  Ideally, the butter should be at cool room temperature; just soft enough to be malleable but not so warm that it is too melty to trap air.

Onward!

Mixing always seems to go so much faster than measuring…

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We creamed the butter and sugar with the paddle attachment until it was nice and fluffy, then added our room temperature eggs, one at a time.

Why?

“Because if we put all of them in, they would splash out?”

Yep.  Or they would just slosh and spin around and around.

After each addition, we used a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl to make sure everything was getting properly combined.

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Then we added half of our flour.

“Because if we added all of it, it would fly out?”

These guys were getting good!

Yes.  Also, it would be difficult to incorporate all the flour at once, which would force us to mix the batter longer, thereby increasing the chances of developing the gluten which would result in a tough and chewy cake.

We scraped down our bowl again and added our milk, and finally, the rest of the flour.  We mixed it until it was just combined, then finished it off with the spatula.

Trying to get the batter into the pan proved difficult with all the eager fingers barely waiting to get a swipe at the mixing bowl.

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After smoothing the top,  we ran a knife through the middle of the cake to get rid of any large bubbles.

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The pan went into the oven and I stepped quickly away from the bowl!

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About 50 minutes later:

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And 15 minutes  10 minutes after that:

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We were under the gun so we were forced to eat warm cake.  Darn it.

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Butter Pound Cake  (only slightly adapted from this recipe)

10 oz. (1 ¼ c) unsalted butter, softened at cool room temperature; more for the pan

11 oz. (2 ⅓ c) unbleached all-purpose flour; more for the pan

1 ½ tsp. aluminum free baking powder

¾ tsp. fine sea salt

12 ¼ oz (1 ¾ c) granulated sugar

2 large egg yolks, at room temperature

3 large eggs, at room temperature

⅔ cup whole milk, at room temperature

1 ½ tsp. pure vanilla extract

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 12-cup Bundt pan, dust the pan with flour, and tap out the excess. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt until evenly combined. Set aside.

Add vanilla to the milk. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and the sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.

On low speed, beat in the yolks until smooth. Stop the mixer and scrape the bowl and the paddle. With the mixer running on medium-low speed, add the whole eggs, one at a time, mixing for at least 20 seconds after each addition. Stop the mixer and scrape the bowl and paddle again.

With the mixer running on the lowest speed, add half of the flour mixture and mix just to combine, add the milk and vanilla and mix until combined, and then add the remaining flour mixture and mix just until combined.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread it evenly. Run a knife through the batter and tap the pan against the counter to dislodge trapped air. Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with only moist crumbs clinging to it, 45 to 55 minutes.

Let cake cool for 15 minutes then invert onto a wire rack and let cool completely.