Rich Bread From Tiny Creatures


And when I say “tiny creatures,” I don’t mean the kids. I mean Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as baker’s yeast.

“It’s been a while since we’ve baked anything with yeast. The last thing was…”

“Pizza!”

“This time we’ll be making a yeasted French bread called brioche. It’s a rich dough, meaning it has a lot of fat in it. Doughs that become sourdough, or baguette, or even pizza crust are called lean doughs because they are made with little to no fat in them. This brioche has quite a bit of butter in it, as well as fat from lots of egg yolks.”

We took a look at a very traditional baking and pastry book. They could see that brioche can come in many different forms: loaves, braids, baked in large molds or as little knots.

“This version even has a little head.”

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We reviewed what yeast was and how it works.

“So these little guys, these simple organisms, they eat the sugars in the dough. They eat and eat and eat, and then they do what?”

“Fart!”

“Poop!”

I waited for the giggling to die down.

“Or burp. Yeah, they expel carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the dough and causes it to rise. The thing is, fat slows down the action of the yeast. So, in order to give them a head start on their work, we’ll make a sponge with some of the ingredients, then add the rest once we can see that the yeast are really active. Finally, we’ll beat in the butter.”

We heated some milk to about 110 degrees, warmer than body temperature, but not too warm for dunking fingers into.

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They added the yeast, an egg, and some of the flour. We mixed this together to get a shaggy dough, then sprinkled more flour over the top. We covered the bowl with cling film and set it aside to ferment.

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We were using fresh yeast for the first time, so while our sponge was rising, we took the opportunity to compare different kinds of yeast.

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First up, the yeast we couldn’t see.

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Though the yeast that had made the bubbles appear in my starter wasn’t visible, there were other signs that fermentation had taken place.

“It smells like sourdough.”

We talked about how the yeast in the jar, wild yeast (Saccharomyces exiguus), is always out there in nature. The only time we see evidence of its presence might be the funkiness on a piece of fruit left too long on the counter or on the tree in the backyard — after the yeast has already started the fermentation process, feasting on the fruit’s sugars, then excreting carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Then we checked out the yeast we could see: fresh, active dry, and instant yeast.

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“These forms of yeast are produced in big factories. They grow it in vats on sugars like molasses.”

“So kind of like yeast farmers?”

“Right! They end up with something like yeast soup. Then they remove the liquid and either compress the results to make cake (fresh) yeast, or dehydrate it to make either active dry or instant yeast.”

We examined the three piles.

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure?” I mean, I wouldn’t want to eat straight yeast, but I figured a tiny bit couldn’t hurt. “If anything, it might make you gassy.”

Giggles.

They inspected and sniffed and poked. And tasted. A little.

“This one is bigger and kind of round.” (Active-dry)

“This one is tinier, and sort of longish.” (Instant)

Fresh yeast resembled a crumbly eraser.

“Fresh yeast will work the fastest because it doesn’t need to be rehydrated. But fresh yeast doesn’t store well for very long and is harder to find in the market. You can substitute one for the other as long as you use the correct converted amount.”

There was some discussion about the need for rehydrating dried yeast. Yes, it is alive in the package, but dormant, kind of like the tree in my yard during the winter. Yes, it is alive in the bread dough. And yes, we kill it when we bake it. Poor yeast.

The yeast in our sponge was definitely alive and moving fast.
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The kids agreed that it already smelled like bread.

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They added the rest of the eggs and dry ingredients to the rising sponge.

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“It doesn’t look very yummy.”

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This dough requires a long mix, about 15 minutes on medium-high speed.

“Can you believe they used to mix this by hand?”

While the dough was mixing, I pulled out a batch of brioche I had made the night before.

“Because brioche contains so much butter, it is really impossible to work with unless it’s cold. I have dough ready and chilled so that you can see how to portion and shape it.”

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We divided the dough into 3 ounce pieces.

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I showed them how to cup their hands around the dough to shape and round it.

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Ok, so it takes a bit of practice. We got mostly rounded dough pieces.

We set the pan of dough balls aside to rise again, and turned our attention back to our mixing brioche.

It was smooth and sticky and very well mixed. Time to beat in the butter.

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“Here you guys, feel this butter. It should be somewhat soft, but not melty or oily.”

They pressed their fingertips into the butter.

“Now we’ll add it to the dough, a few tablespoons at a time.”

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They were really eager to throw their pats of butter into the mixer, but they patiently waited until I gave each person the o.k.

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Once all the butter was incorporated, we dumped the brioche dough out onto the lightly floured table and gathered it into a ball. We placed it into a buttered bowl so that it could rise.

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Our brioche rounds were ready.

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They pressed the spongy rounds flat, leaving a little raised rim around the edge.

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We spooned some crème fraîche into the center.

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Then we topped the crème fraîche with macerated strawberries and brushed the edge of the dough with a bit of egg wash.

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A sprinkling of sugar topped the whole thing off.

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The brioches went into the oven and emerged golden and puffy and smelling like butter and hot strawberries. And yes, they tasted as good as that sounds.

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But what of the first batch of dough? The one the kids actually mixed?

It was still happily rising on the counter.

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I pressed that out into a sheet pan and dusted it with flour before placing it in the refrigerator to chill.

We had needed extra dough for demonstration purposes. This batch would become cinnamon rolls for breakfast the next morning. The lengths I go to for the kids’ benefit. That’s the story I’m sticking with anyway.

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Brioche from Pastries From The La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton

yield:  2 1/4 lbs of dough

Note: This recipes takes 2 days because it must be chilled for at least 6 hours, but my preference is overnight. Also, the dough requires a lengthy mixing time to properly develop — keep an eye on your mixer so that it doesn’t shimmy its way off the counter while it’s working, and don’t let it overheat.

3/4 ounce (1 T) packed fresh cake yeast or 2 1/2 t active dry

1/3 cup whole milk, warmed to 110 degrees

6 extra-large eggs

3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 t kosher salt

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, soft but not melting or oily

Place the yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer and pour the milk over, letting active dry yeast proof for 10 minutes. Add 1 of the eggs and 1 cup of the flour and stir to combine. Sprinkle 1 more cup of flour over the mixture without stirring. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside until the surface cracks, about 30 minutes.

Add the remaining eggs and dry ingredients to the sponge. Using the dough hook, mix on low for 1-2 minutes, until combined. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and continue to mix for about 15 minutes, until the dough wraps itself around the hook and is smooth, shiny, and slightly sticky. It may be necessary to add another tablespoon of flour to encourage the dough to leave the sides of the bowl.

Turn the mixer down to medium-low and add the butter, a few tablespoons at a time. After all of the butter has been added, turn the mixer up to medium-high and beat the dough for about 2-3 more minutes, until the dough wraps itself around the hook. If necessary, add a few pieces of flour to encourage the dough to leave the sides of the bowl. The dough will be smooth and shiny, but not oily.

Remove the dough from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface and gather into a ball. Place the dough into a buttered bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size, about 2 – 2 1/2 hours.

Spread the dough out onto a floured parchment-lined baking sheet. Dust with flour, cover, and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.

For fruit-topped brioche:

Separate the chilled dough into twelve 3 ounce pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into balls. Flatten into discs and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Set aside to proof until spongy to the touch, about an hour. Make a depression in the center of the discs and spoon way more crème fraîche than you feel is reasonable in the center, (trust me, we used about 1T per bun and it was not close to enough). Top with fruit, (we used strawberries macerated with sugar and orange zest), brush the edge with egg wash, and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 – 30 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or if you really liked noodles.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 cups sugar

2 tsp baking powder

3/4 tsp salt

Two 12-ounce cans coconut milk

5 large eggs

4 oz melted butter

1 tsp vanilla

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

A 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.

A Banana Two-Stage

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No, that’s not a new dance move. We were mixing a cake using a different method — one that would require the kids to do the opposite of what I told them not to do the last time we baked a cake. Simple right?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, let’s talk bananas.

Me: “When you guys go to the farmers’ market right now, what kind of fruit do you see there?”

“Oranges!”

“Tangerines!”

Me: “So, citrus fruits, like lemons, limes, grapefruit…anything else?”

“Apples?”

Me: “Do you see peaches? Or plums?”

“No!”

Me: “Well, why not?”

“Cause they’re not in season?”

Me: “Right! But the kids and I were in the grocery store the other day and we saw cherries. So, where did they come from?”

“From somewhere where the season is opposite of ours?”

Exactly.

We talked about the different foods available to us in California during the different seasons and where those January cherries and plums might have come from. I explained how, as a pastry chef trying to come up with an interesting dessert menu in winter, I would often times turn to tropical fruits…pineapples, mangoes, passionfruit, and yes, bananas. We reviewed which areas would be considered tropical, and I reminded them that our lesson on cocoa took us to those same regions.

But back to the cake.

I’d already heated the oven, so the next step was to prepare the cake pan. For a butter cake, that means greasing the pan, (we used the butter wrapper), placing a round of parchment in the bottom, and dusting the surfaces with flour.

I showed them a photo that Dorie Greenspan, (a famous cookbook author and personal idol of mine), posted on Facebook recently of a “baking fail” in which a chunk of chocolate cake clung stubbornly to the bottom of her pan; the caption read, “should have used parchment”.

I have my own “should have” stories, but bottom line, you won’t ever be sorry for taking the extra few minutes to prepare your pans properly.

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“So is this like banana bread?”

I knew they had all baked banana bread or banana muffins before, so I asked, “How do you guys make banana bread?”

“You put the wet ingredients in one bowl, and the dry ingredients in another bowl. Then you put them together.”

We remembered that this muffin method is what we used when we baked pumpkin cupcakes. The resulting texture of that method is coarser and more open than the fine crumb achieved with the creaming method we used to make butter pound cake.

The process we were using for this banana recipe, called the two-stage mixing method, would result in a similarly fine textured, very tender cake.

Therefore, the difference is the crumb and tenderness — the texture and chew of a muffin versus the texture and softness of a birthday cake.

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We placed a sifter on top of our mixing bowl and placed the whole thing on a scale.

“Don’t forget to zero it out!”

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They took turns placing the dry ingredients into the sifter.

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Then, everything was sifted together directly into the mixing bowl.

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“Hello? Is that you?”

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Cause, bananas.

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Next, the wet ingredients, also measured by weight, were added to a pitcher.

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I was very proud when they remembered, without my asking, that all the ingredients should be at room temperature.

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A couple of eggs…

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Finally, they each took a turn using the microplane to zest an orange.

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A lot of concentration was required to keep a very large orange from tumbling out of small hands.

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“It looks like an ice cream sundae!”

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With all of the wet ingredients in the pitcher, we used an immersion blender to combine them and puree the bananas.

Vocabulary word of the day: immersion.

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This is where I had to instruct the kids to forget everything I had told them about over mixing their batter.

Up until now, I’ve always warned them not to mix the batter too much once the wet ingredients were added; that flour, when combined with liquid and agitation, results in gluten development, which in a cake is not usually a good thing. Gluten development is what gives baked goods structure and chew; strong gluten development is good in bread, not as much in a tender cake.

However, in this two-stage technique, by adding softened butter and a small amount of the liquid in the beginning, we would be coating the flour in fat while the sugar would suck up the liquid that would usually promote the development of gluten.

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And because we were using cake flour, which is softer than all-purpose flour, we could mix away without worry. In fact, we wanted to mix enough to develop some structure; about a minute and a half would do it.

“I need someone to count 90 seconds.”

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They sat silently counting. It was the quietest moment of the afternoon.

We scraped down the bowl with a spatula, added half of the remaining wet ingredients, and mixed for another twenty seconds.

That’s when the chanting started.

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We repeated the scraping, adding, and chanting to “twenty Mississippi.”

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The batter went into the oven for about 30 minutes, and ta-da…cake!

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Everyone agreed that this was way better than banana bread, and just as easy.

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Banana Cake, from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare a 9″ by 2″ cake pan by buttering it, placing a round of parchment in the bottom, and dusting with flour

2 large ripe bananas

1/2 c (4 1/4 oz) sour cream, room temperature

2 large eggs, room temperature

zest of one orange

1 1/2 t vanilla extract

2 c (7 oz) sifted cake flour

3/4 c +2 T (6 oz) sugar

1 t baking soda

3/4 t baking powder

3/4 t fine sea salt

10 T (5 oz) unsalted butter, softened

Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer. Set aside. Place the bananas, sour cream, eggs, orange zest, and vanilla in a pitcher and process with an immersion blender, or process them in a food processor. Add the butter and 1/2 of the banana mixture to the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until everything is just moistened. Increase to medium speed, (high speed if using a hand mixer), and beat for 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the remaining banana mixture in 2 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake 30 – 40 minutes or until a wire cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center. Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes before removing from the pan.

Indigenous and Upside-Down

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“In-dij-en-es”

We were talking about cranberries.  I had asked if anyone knew why people ate cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.  Besides being a tasty accompaniment to turkey that is.

No guesses.

“Indigenous means native; something that originates or occurs naturally in a particular place.”

I laid some cranberry info on them.  The cranberry, a relative of the blueberry and the huckleberry, is native to North America.  It grows in bogs from Virginia to Wisconsin, and extends all the way to the Pacific coast. Cranberries are harvested in the fall, from September to the beginning of November.

“So does that mean that the Indians and the Pilgrims ate them?”

We all agreed that since the Native Americans were using cranberries, it made sense that the Pilgrims would incorporate them into their harvest feast.

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

They had never eaten raw cranberries, so we cut some up to try.

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Yep, they were tart.  But several of the kids asked for more, and I had to cut them off lest we not have enough for our upside-down cake.

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We read through the recipe and I explained that, no we would not be eating the cake standing on our heads, but we would build it upside-down in the pan and then, once baked, flip the whole thing over.

“Ohhh.”

We started with 1/2 pound of room temperature butter.

“One pound of butter is the same as sixteen ounces, and is usually packaged in four sticks. So we need…”

“Two sticks!”

They noted that each was four ounces, and that each stick was marked in tablespoon increments.

“If we need four tablespoons for the topping, that would be…”

“1/2 a stick!”

“Which would be two ounces.”

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That went into a pan to melt.

We placed the rest of the butter into a bowl and used the wrappers to grease a springform pan.

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“I know the recipe calls for a 9-inch pan, but I don’t have one, so we’ll use this 10-inch.  Our cake will just be slightly shorter and should take slightly less time to bake.  I don’t want to use an 8-inch because I don’t want to risk overflowing the pan.  That would be sad.”

They all agreed.

Once the butter was melted, they added brown sugar and cinnamon and poured the crumby mixture into the pan.

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I asked them to pat it out evenly.

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I should have probably designated just one person for that job.

The whole cranberries went on top of that.

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“Our recipe calls for 2 cups.  Instead of measuring we can just look at the bag.  It says a serving size is 1/2 cup and that there are 4 servings in the bag.  So that would mean…”

“We use the whole bag.”

Except they had eaten a good portion of the first bag.  So we opened another and just made an even layer.

Back to making the cake batter.

They took turns creaming the butter, sugar, and salt together, and recalled why that butter needed to be at room temperature.

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Then, one egg yolk was whisked in.

“Can I just crack the egg into a bowl and scoop out the yolk?’

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Whole eggs were added, one at a time.

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“Why just one at a time?”

“So they don’t slosh out!”

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And the last of our wet ingredients, sour cream.

“Now it calls for 2/3 cup.  I’ve got a 1/3 cup measure, but sour cream is kind of annoying to scoop into it.  It’s messy and I don’t have a dishwasher and I don’t like to wash more dishes than I absolutely have to.  Do you think we could just weigh it instead?”

We looked at a chart of measuring equivalents.

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We determined that 1/3 cup is the same as 2.6 ounces.

“But we need 2/3 cup.”

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We placed the whole bowl onto the scale.

“Don’t forget to zero it out!”

And weighed 5.2 ounces of sour cream.  Without dirtying a cup.

Our next ingredient was flour.

I reminded them about the different types of flours.  Finely milled cake flour is made from a softer wheat than regular all-purpose flour, and as a lower-protein flour, it will develop less gluten when mixed with liquid.

“More gluten means chewy, like bread or pizza, less gluten means soft and tender, like birthday cake.  Do we want a chewy upside-down cake?”

“No!”

“That’s why we use cake flour.”

Because it is so finely milled, cake flour tends to clump up.

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Therefore, it needs to be sifted.

We put a sifter on top of the bowl of mixed wet ingredients and placed the whole thing on the scale.  This would allow us to weigh the cake flour directly into the sifter, measure our baking powder and baking soda on top of that, and then sift everything together right into the bowl.

Side note: If you don’t like to wash dishes, get a scale.

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The kids traded off hitting the side of the sifter with their hands or the handle of a spoon.  I think we got most of the dry ingredients in the bowl.

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They took turns incorporating the flour into the batter.

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I showed them how they could still use a folding motion with the whisk.

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The resulting batter was placed atop the cranberries.

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And they used a rubber spatula to spread the batter evenly.

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We had to wait about 45 (!) minutes while the cake baked, during which there were several pleading inquiries about its status.

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Finally it was done.  But we still had to wait!

(Just long enough for the cake to cool slightly, but not so cool that the cranberry syrup would get too thick and stick to the pan.)

They gathered around while I removed the collar from the springform pan and placed a plate on top of the cake.  We flipped the whole thing over and removed the bottom of the pan…

“Ooooh!”

Seriously, the unveiling never gets old.

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It was inhaled.  In fact, the small amount of leftover cake nearly caused a family fight the next day.

Cranberries, who knew?

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Cranberry Upside-Down Cake, only slightly adapted from this recipe.

Serves 12

1/2 lb. (1 cup) unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

2 cups cranberries, fresh or frozen (thawed, rinsed, and dried), at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

¾ tsp. fine sea salt

1 large egg yolk, at room temperature

2 large eggs, at room temperature

2/3 cup (5.2 oz) sour cream, at room temperature

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

7 oz. (1-3/4 cups) cake flour

1 tsp. aluminum free baking powder

1/4 tsp. baking soda

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan with sides at least 2-1/2  inches high. (A springform pan will work; just be sure to set it on a foil-lined baking sheet to catch any leaks.)

Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.  Melt 4 Tbs. of the butter and stir it into the brown sugar and cinnamon until well combined. Spread the brown sugar mixture evenly over the bottom of the pan and spread the cranberries evenly over the sugar.

Put the remaining 12 Tbs. butter in a medium bowl. Using a wooden spoon, cream the butter with the granulated sugar and salt.  Add the egg yolk and mix until well combined.  Switch to a whisk and stir in the eggs one at a time. Whisk until the batter is smooth and the sugar begins to dissolve, about 30  seconds. Whisk in the sour cream and vanilla.  Sift the cake flour, baking powder, and baking soda directly onto the batter. Using the whisk, combine the ingredients until the mixture is smooth and free of lumps.

Spread the batter evenly over the cranberry mixture in the cake pan. Bake until the center of  the cake springs back when gently touched and a skewer inserted in the center comes out with only moist crumbs clinging to it, 50 to 65  min. Set the pan on a rack to cool for 5  to 10  minutes (the cranberry syrup in the bottom of the pan will be too thick if you wait longer). Run a knife between the cake and sides of the pan. Place a serving plate over the cake and invert the whole thing.  Remove the pan or bottom of the springform. Let cool for at least 15 min. more before serving.

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.