Chocolate Cake for a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

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“We started this ‘history through cake series’ at the end of the 18th century.”

They all laughed at me. Then I realized what I’d said.

“No, not literally. The first cake recipe we made in the series was written at the end of the 18th century!”

Darn sticklers.

“We started out with an English-style cake, leavened with yeast, then we baked a couple of cakes that were leavened manually, by beating air into the butter. If we look at the progression of the recipes, it seems like we are moving away from heavy traditional cakes. What are some things that brought about these changes in cake baking?”

We talked about the railroad — new ideas about food spread with travelers, and both ingredients and baking equipment could be shipped across the country.

“You could order a cake pan from the Sears and Roebuck catalog…”

“And three weeks later you could bake a cake!”

Exactly.

What else happened?

Baking powder became commercially available; Worlds Fairs in Philadelphia and Chicago exposed people to new foods, (bananas!), and showcased more modern cookstoves; chocolate manufacturing was a growing industry; and new equipment continued to be introduced.

“So, it was getting much much easier for people to bake. They no longer had to grate their sugar, churn their butter, or make their own chemical leavening agents. Cakes were getting lighter. And because people were spending less time on preparation, cakes were getting fancier.”

We had already made a chocolate cake recipe from 1847.

“But that cake contained just grated chocolate. It took decades for someone to fully incorporate melted chocolate into a cake — the first recipe of that kind was published in 1886. It seems odd considering that chocolate was thought to be somewhat of an energy boosting health food.”

The kids got a kick out of that.

Yet once chocolate became the main ingredient in a cake, the idea took off.

“Bakers mixed in all kinds of spices and odd ingredients like mashed potatoes. Or sauerkraut.”

“Sauerkraut?!”

“It’s a thing! But the most popular all-chocolate cake was devil’s food.”

Perhaps the name devil’s food came about as a reaction to the popularity of angel food cake — it was as dark and rich as angel food was light and airy, or it may have been named after the reddish hue of the baked cake — a result of baking soda, an alkali, reacting with the acidity of the cocoa.

The kids were over talking about it.

We got to baking.

Ingredients were measured.

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They were excited by the idea of using coffee in the batter.

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Dry ingredients were sifted together.

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Creaming the butter and sugar together creates pockets of air that increase in size when baking soda reacts with cocoa powder.

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They took turns adding the eggs.

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Our experienced bowl scraper made sure that there were no bits of unmixed batter stuck to the bottom of the bowl.

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Dry ingredients were added alternately with the liquid.

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Finally, we finished off mixing the batter by hand.

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We divided the batter into the prepared pans and loaded the cakes into the oven.

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“Do you guys want to help me make ganache for frosting the cake?”

“No, we’ve done that before.”

Alrighty then.

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Chocolate cake fresh from the oven is just about one of the best smells ever.

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I explained what one should look for when a cake is fully baked:

“You should be able to press the top lightly, right in the center, and it should spring back. The sides will just begin to pull away from the pan. If you are unsure, you can always test it with a toothpick — at most, there should be moist crumbs clinging to the tester, but the toothpick shouldn’t emerge with batter on it.”

I also showed them how to run a thin spatula around the side of the cake, against the pan, so the the top edge doesn’t stick to the pan as the cake cools.

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Once the cakes were sufficiently cooled  no longer scorching hot, I demonstrated how to remove the very top of each layer with a serrated knife.

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These were promptly eaten.

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We place one cake layer right side up and poured ganache on top of it.

We flipped the second cake layer cut side down and sandwiched it together with the first layer and ganache.

Now we had a nice flat surface to work with.

Ideally the cake would have been completely cool and the ganache would have been room temperature, but that doesn’t always happen.

There were no complaints.

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Especially when the slightly warm and melty chocolate cake was paired with ice cold milk.

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“Should we have made it with sauerkraut?”

“Noooooo!”

It was perfect just as it was.

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Devil’s Food Cake, from David Lebovitz

9 tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups cake flour, not self-rising
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup strong coffee
1/2 cup whole milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9″ x 2″ cake pans and line the bottoms with circles of parchment paper.

Sift together the cocoa powder, cake flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder in a bowl.

In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, or by hand, beat together the butter and sugar about 5 minutes until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time until fully incorporated. (If using a standing electric mixer, stop the mixer as necessary to scrape down the sides to be sure everything is getting mixed in.)

Mix together the coffee and milk. Stir half of the dry ingredients into the butter mixture, the add the coffee and milk. Finally stir in the other half of the dry ingredients.

Divide the batter into the two prepared cake pans and bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Let cakes cool in the pans for about ten minutes before turning them out onto a rack and removing the parchment. Flip right side up.

Cool completely before frosting.

Chocolate Ganache

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.

To assemble the cake:

Again, it is much much easier to cut and work with a cold cake. Pop them in the freezer if you have time. Otherwise forge ahead, a little crumbs won’t hurt you.

Slice the very top off of each layer.

Place the first layer, cut side up, on a plate. Spread room temperature ganache on top of the layer.

Place the second layer, cut side down, on top of the ganache.

Spread more ganache on the top and sides of the cake as decoratively as you like.

Cake is best served the day it is baked, but can be kept for another day, covered, at room temperature.
For more in this historical cake series:

Cake As a Lens

I Vote For Cake

The Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

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).

Hopping on the pumpkin bandwagon…

It’s October. You can’t walk 2 feet into a store without running into pumpkins or pumpkin flavored food items.  Orange is everywhere.

My kids began asking for pumpkin baked goods as soon as Trader Joe’s started in with their fall displays back in September.  So I took that into consideration when trying to decide which recipe to make with them during our next baking class, and finally settled on Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Crumb Cake.

Pumpkin. And chocolate.  A win-win in my book.  More importantly, it continues to build on the baking concepts we have already covered.

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Because the ingredient list was pretty lengthy compared to our first two baking projects, I gathered everything in advance.

As the kids crowded around my kitchen table, I explained that the cake we would be making fell into the category of “quick breads”.  Usually the method for mixing these kind of items, (banana bread is another example), involves just mixing “wet” ingredients in one bowl, “dry” ingredients in another, then combining the two.  Easy peasy.

The kids separated all the ingredients into the two categories.  I reminded them how important it was to read their recipe through first, as sometimes it might call for an ingredient to be added out of the usual order.

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They all remembered how to measure flour, and took focused turns scooping and leveling.

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We talked about how two 1/2 cup measures would fit into one 1 cup measure. Everyone seemed clear on that.  Three quarters of a cup took a bit more thinking.

Me: “The recipe calls for 3/4 cup of brown sugar, but my measuring cups only say 1 cup, 1/2 cup, 1/3 cup and 1/4 cup.”

Collective pondering.

Younger girl: “You could use three of these.” (1/4 cup)

Nodding heads.

Older boy: “You could also use one of these and one of those.” (1/2 cup and 1/4 cup)

Perfect.

They were all tickled by measuring the brown sugar, “like you’re making a sand castle at the beach!”, and each time the cup was flipped over to reveal a perfect cylinder of sugar, we heard a round of “ooohh”. Simple pleasures.

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We had another discussion about equivalent fractions in figuring out how to add 3/4 teaspoon of salt, then it was back on easy street when we only had to use one spoon to measure each of the spices.

There was plenty of sniffing of the contents of the spice jars.  Cinnamon was generally well favored, while ginger and clove garnered very strong opinions.

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Then, “Is nutmeg a nut?”

Wikipedia break.

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(FYI nutmeg is a seed.)

Time to mix in the butter.  This is where this recipe differs from the usual quick bread recipes where the butter is either creamed with the sugar or melted and added to the wet ingredients.

Cutting the butter into the dry ingredients serves two purposes here.  We are making the crumb topping, aka streusel, but we are also insuring that our cake will be super tender.  How?

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I referred to our first two classes.  When we made our pretzels we mixed flour with water and kneaded the resulting dough.  When we mixed our pate a choux we stirred our flour into the liquid ingredients and cooked it on the stove.  In both instances the goal was to activate and strengthen the gluten necessary to help leaven our product.  In the pretzel dough it provided the structure needed to capture the carbon dioxide expelled by the yeast, and in the pate a choux it provided the structure needed to trap the burst of steam that created our puffs.

But we don’t always need or want a lot of gluten development in our baked goods because it makes things chewy.  It is desirable in sourdough bread for example, but I can’t think of anybody who likes chewy muffins or chewy birthday cake.

The kids all agreed wholeheartedly with this statement.

Now that we knew how to create gluten, (adding liquid and physical manipulation), we could discuss how not to create gluten.

Back to the butter.

I explained that since we would be adding liquid to our dry ingredients we could help protect our cake batter from forming too much gluten by covering the flour granules with fat, kind of like outfitting them in itty bitty raincoats.  This, along with minimal mixing, would insure that our cake would be far from chewy.

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Once that was finished we removed part of the mixture to use later as our crumb topping.

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Next, chocolate chips were eaten added to the remainder of the crumb mixture in the bowl.

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Then we turned our attention to the wet ingredients.

The kids remembered that liquids always get measured in a liquid measuring cup and viewed at eye level.

“But what about the pumpkin?”

The puree is wet but it wouldn’t pour and settle into the pitcher like the buttermilk.  One could measure it in the dry cups and level it with a knife, but if one doesn’t enjoy washing extra dishes (me) and can employ a little math, (1 cup buttermilk + 1 1/4 c pumpkin puree = 2 1/4 c total volume), then it would be easy to measure it directly into the pitcher.

The kids understood this to mean that, as we added it, the pumpkin puree would cause the level of the buttermilk in the pitcher to rise and we would just stop adding when it reached 2 1/4 cups. Ta da!

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Vanilla was a much coveted item.  More sniffing of the contents of the bottle.

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Lastly, we added the baking soda to our wet ingredients.  This would provide the leavening in this recipe.

Fortunately, the kids had all experienced the vinegar/baking soda reaction before via some version of the volcano project, so they already knew that the baking soda would react with, well, something in our cake batter, but what?

We discussed how baking soda, a base, requires an acid to react with to create the carbon dioxide bubbles that would leaven our cake.  But we definitely didn’t have vinegar in there.

Me: “Acids taste sour.  What else did we add that was sour, or tangy?”

Kids: “Buttermilk!”

Me: “What else could we use from our kitchen if we don’t have buttermilk on hand?”

Kids: “Juice?” “Lemon?” “Pickle juice?”

Me: “Well that’s basically vinegar”

Kids: “That would be gross anyway”

Me: “What about sour cream? or yogurt? or even milk with vinegar or lemon juice added to it?”

Other mom: “or kefir?”

Yep, all those would work.  Basically anytime baking soda is the sole leavening agent, an acidic ingredient is required.

We could see very fine bubbles form in our liquid mixture once our baking soda was added.

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We gently mixed our wet ingredients into our dries.

At this point we were less worried about over mixing causing toughness than over mixing deflating our batter.  When baking soda is the only leavening agent it’s best to get the product into the oven as soon as possible, before the bubbles make their way out of the pan.

The cake batter went into the baking dish, was topped with the reserved streusel and slipped into the hot oven.  About 30 minutes later, kids began wandering in and out of the kitchen, noses in the air.  It smelled just like fall.

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This recipe is heavily adapted from the Quintessential Coffee Cake recipe in Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Crumb Cake

2 ½ c whole wheat pastry flour
¾ c firmly packed golden brown sugar
¾ t sea salt
¾ c (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 t ground cinnamon
1 t ground ginger
½ t freshly grated nutmeg
⅛ t ground clove
1 c finely chopped chocolate or chocolate chips
1 c buttermilk
1 ¼ c pumpkin puree
1 t vanilla
1 large egg
1 t baking soda

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt and spices. Cut the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or 2 knives until crumbly. Remove and reserve 1 cup of the mixture for the topping. Mix chocolate into the remaining flour mixture and set aside. In a separate container, mix the buttermilk, pumpkin puree, vanilla and egg together. Beat the baking soda into the buttermilk mixture and add to the flour and chocolate bowl. Fold to combine. Scrape the batter into a 9” x 13” pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle the reserved crumb mixture over all. Bake the cake until golden brown, about 35 minutes. It should feel firm but spring back to the touch. Cool to lukewarm.

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** I get asked a lot about gluten-free recipes.  This recipe works just fine with gluten-free flours, just be sure that if you are using a packaged flour blend that it doesn’t already contain any kind of leavening.

Photo credits: 3,6,7,13 by Helena Ottoson