A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

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“1-2-3-4…”

“Like the Feist song!”

My son, who had just asked me about the recipe for that day, reeallly likes the singer Feist.

“It’s a 1-2-3-4 Cake.”

Blink, blink, blink.

“I’ll tell you more when everyone gets here.”

Once we were all assembled around the table, I explained that the numbers referred to the amounts, measured in cups, of the ingredients in a basic yellow cake: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs.

“This was a simple cake recipe that you learned to make while at your mother’s knee. You didn’t even need to be able to read. The baker would just use whatever cup they had–big or small–just as long as they used that same cup to measure all of their ingredients.”

The origin of the recipe is uncertain–it seems to be just one of those things that turned up, handwritten, in the margins of cookbooks or jotted down on scraps of paper, though published versions of the recipe date to the late 1800’s. At the end of that century however, American cooking entered the age of science.

“Have you guys ever heard of home economics?”

They hadn’t.

The home economics movement gained steam when American families began to consume more goods and services than they produced. People were eager to buy items that they had previously grown, made, or processed at home. Proponents of the field saw a need to train women to be more efficient household managers and to guide them in their new roles as purchasers.

“So things like cooking schools became popular.”

The first of these was the Boston Cooking School, founded in 1879 by the Women’s Educational Association of Boston. Mary Johnson Lincoln became the principal of the school and eventually authored six cookbooks. She was self-taught, having started cooking in earnest at age 7 when, after her father’s death, she helped supplement the household income. Later, when her own husband fell ill, she was again forced to join the workforce.

This information prompted a whole slew of “whys?”: Why were only the women expected to cook? Why couldn’t they do some other kind of work? You get the idea.

Mrs. Lincoln lamented women’s lack of scientific knowledge in the kitchen, and in her Boston Cook Book: What To Do and What Not To Do in Cooking, sought to provide not only recipes, but “all the chemical and physiological knowledge that is necessary for a clear understanding of the laws of health, so far as they are involved in the science of cookery.”

Before Lincoln’s cookbook, American recipes called for amounts like butter “the size of an egg,” a “teacup” of milk, or a “soup spoon” of cream. She was the first to use standardized measurements and to list the ingredients in their order of use.

Mary Lincoln wrote her recipes so that they “explained, illustrated, and reiterated for the inexperienced and the careless,” and afforded a “word of caution for those who seem always to have the knack of doing the wrong thing.” In other words, she endeavored to eliminate the chance of failure in cooking by also furnishing a practical and scientific “reason for every step taken.”

We were reminded of Malinda Russell’s instruction-free Sour Cream Cake recipe: “We could have used a few more details on that one.”

Following in Mrs. Lincoln’s footsteps was Fannie Farmer. At age 16, Miss Farmer had had a paralytic stroke that left her bedridden and therefore unable to attend college. She enrolled in the Boston Cooking School at age 31, became a top student and eventually the school’s director.

The Boston Cooking School Book (aka The Fannie Farmer cookbook), published in 1896, is possibly the most well-known and most influential of all American cookbooks. Like her predecessor, Farmer focused on nutrition and the science of cooking. While Fannie Farmer is generally considered the mother of level, standardized measurement, Mary Johnson Lincoln definitely paved the way.

“So what does all of this have to do with the 1-2-3-4 cake? Well, before standardization, you and your neighbor could bake the same cake recipe, but get different results–you might use this regular-sized coffee cup, while your neighbor used this much larger one.”

The kids all said they would go to their neighbor’s.

It was time to use these much talked about cups.

We quickly reviewed the basics for making a butter cake, then got to work.

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I pointed out that the 1-2-3-4 recipe was almost identical to the Choose Your Own Adventure cake we had designed, just doubled. Ratios. Pretty neat.

They were far more interested in testing the batter.

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While the cakes cooled, I whipped up some strawberry Swiss meringue buttercream. The kids had made this once before, so they allowed me to forge ahead on my own.

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We lopped the tops off the cakes and sandwiched them together with the pink speckled frosting.

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After a quick finish with the remaining buttercream, we sat down with our sunny looking slices. And unsurprisingly, those plates were clean before you could say 1-2-3-4.

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1-2-3-4 Cake, makes 2, 9″ round layers

The basic 1, 2, 3, 4 produces something more like a cookie; cooks knew from experience that they would need to add liquid to achieve a more cake-like texture. The earliest recipes called for sour milk and baking soda for leavening; baking powder was included once it was available.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature

2 cups granulated sugar

3 cups cake flour, (fluff it up with a spoon before measuring)

4 large eggs, at room temperature

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole milk, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and butter the pans. Place a round of parchment in the bottom and dust the inside of the pans with flour.

Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer. Cream the two together until light and fluffy, 2 – 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well until each is incorporated. Scrape down the sides and the bottom of the mixing bowl.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together into a medium-size bowl. Add a third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix on low until just incorporated. Add half of the milk, blend just until absorbed, then scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Repeat the process with the rest of the ingredients, ending with the flour.

Divide the batter between the pans and smooth the tops with a spatula. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the cakes spring back when lightly pressed in the center. They should be just pulling away from the sides of the pan and will be lightly browned.

Cool the pans on racks for 10 minutes, then run a thin knife or spatula around the edge of the pan to help release the cakes. Turn them out of the pans and place right side up on a rack to cool completely.

To frost and finish:

I used a half-batch of this standard Swiss meringue buttercream recipe.  Your butter should be cool room temperature before adding it to the completely cooled meringue. It might seem like the frosting is not coming together, but have patience, it will.

I’ve found that the easiest way to get a pronounced strawberry flavor is to use frozen berries, thawed overnight so that they are soft enough to mush into a puree. I used a 10 ounce bag for the above amount of buttercream. Reduce the puree over low heat until it resembles ketchup, (see the photo above). Stir occasionally so that it doesn’t scorch. You can add sugar to taste, but I generally don’t. Push the puree through a sieve and let cool completely before adding it to the buttercream. A squeeze of lemon juice will further enhance the berry flavor.

 

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

Chocolate Cake for a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

 

 

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

 

 

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

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Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready fourteen ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon–mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,–a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

— Eliza Leslie, The Lady’s Receipt-Book, 1847

“This is the first chocolate cake recipe ever published in America.”

I don’t know if the kids were more intrigued by the novelty of the recipe or by the main ingredient, but I did notice that at least one of them recognized Miss Leslie’s name from our last baking project.

They also knew, from a previous session, that by 1847, chocolate had been around for a very long time.

“I wonder why it took them so long to work it into a cake?”

It turns out that the method of chocolate consumption hadn’t changed much from the 16th century, when the Spaniards brought it from Mesoamerica to Spain and, by extension, to the rest of Europe.

Two hundred years later, people still drank their chocolate — hot, with milk and sugar. It was considered healthful and they drank it as often as possible despite it being very labor intensive:

A portion of one of the cakes must be scraped fine, added to a sufficient quantity of water, and simmered for a quarter of an hour; but milling is necessary to make it completely smooth. For this purposes [chocolate pots have] a circular wheel of wood or metal within, fixed to a stem that passes through the lid, and which, being whirled about rapidly by the palms of the hand, bruises and mixes the chocolate with the water. The chocolate must be milled off the fire, then put on again to simmer some time, then milled again until it is quite smooth. From the fineness there should be no sediment, and the whole should be drunk; cream is generally used with it … Sugar may be put in with the scraped chocolate, or added afterward.

— Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy, 1845

We checked out some pictures of these special chocolate pots and mills.

“They had to use the stirring rods in order to keep the chocolate from separating. Cocoa beans are 53% cocoa butter, so that fat will want to rise to the surface unless you keep mixing it. Otherwise, you’d have a bit of an oil slick on top of your hot cocoa.”

The kids remembered trying cocoa nibs and happily dug right in.

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“People could buy ‘prepared cocoa’ which meant cocoa nibs that had been ground into a powder, or they could purchase chocolate in tablets, where the nibs had been ground into a paste and let harden. Even Ben Franklin sold chocolate tablets in his print shop.”

I explained that the process of manufacturing chocolate was even more labor intensive than the lengthy preparation of hot cocoa — many chocolate makers still ground their beans by hand, though some used rudimentary machines or even grist mills.

“Like the Indian corn?”

“Yeah, just like that. Then, factories started popping up. The first was Hannon’s Best Chocolate in Massachusetts in 1765.”

None of the kids had heard of Baker’s Chocolate, so my story of how Hannon’s became Baker’s, which is still in business to this very day (!), was met with blank stares.

Moving on.

“So all this industrialization made chocolate that much more available and affordable.”

A Dutch chocolate maker’s patent of a press that removed the cocoa butter from ground cocoa nibs was the next major development in the chocolate world. Casparus van Houten’s hydraulic press removed the cocoa butter from the ground chocolate mass to create a “cake” that could then be pulverized into what we now call cocoa powder.

Then, van Houten’s son, Coenraad Johannes, developed a process  in which cocoa is treated with alkaline salts to reduce its natural acidity. This “dutch process” results in a product that is much darker than natural cocoa due to the chemical reaction of the salts and the cocoa.

“So when you bake with cocoa you need to pay attention to the recipe and whether it calls for dutched or natural cocoa — that tells you which leavening to use: baking soda for the acidic natural cocoa, or baking powder for alkalized cocoa.”

They examined the two powders, smelling and sampling each.

“Yuck.”

I promised that, once we got our cake mixed and in the oven, I would make sweetened pastes with both kinds of cocoa so they could have a more pleasant tasting experience.

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While Miss Leslie’s original recipe called for either prepared cocoa or “scraped” chocolate, the updated recipe we were using called for grinding unsweetened chocolate in a food processor — because now we have electricity and modern appliances, and for that I am thankful.

“Can we taste the chocolate?”

Sour faces.

I warned them it wasn’t sweetened!

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“So, Miss Leslie would have grated her chocolate by hand. She would have also mixed this cake by hand. Notice there is no chemical leavening in the recipe.”

We discussed how a cake of this kind gets its loftiness, and how much muscle would have gone into mixing it without a machine: first beating the butter and the sugar, then whipping the yolks, and finally, whipping the egg whites. Whew.

“I bet you’d have one arm a lot bigger than the other!”

Ah, but we did have a machine. And we were more than happy to use it.

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The kids took turns gradually adding sugar to the creamed butter and chocolate mixture.

“We are trying to create as many air bubbles in the butter as possible. The edges of those sugar crystals rubbing against the butter will do that.”

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Once all the sugar was added, we continued beating the mixture for several more minutes to aerate it even further.

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Then, they added the eggs.

“That’s a lot of eggs!”

I explained that the original recipe called for even more eggs because, when whipped, they act as additional leavening; since our electric mixer had the ability to incorporate a lot more air into the batter than mixing by hand, we could use fewer eggs.

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And finally, they added the flour.

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We popped the cake into the oven and the kids made short work of the mixing bowl.

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While the cake was baking, I kept my promise to provide the crew with a better taste comparison of the two cocoas by mixing up a bit of each with sugar and hot water.

They were unanimous in their preference for the natural cocoa.

“It tastes more chocolatey!”

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And we were all unanimous in our approval of Miss Leslie’s cake.

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Whatever it was that prompted Eliza Leslie to incorporate chocolate into a pound cake recipe, we approved wholeheartedly.

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Eliza Leslie’s Chocolate Cake, 1847

Adapted slightly from Greg Patent’s recipe in Baking in America

Makes one 10-inch bundt cake, about 12 servings

3 cups sifted cake flour

3/4 tsp sea salt

2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

3 oz unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter at cool room temperature, (about 70 degrees)

1 T vanilla extract

8 large eggs at room temperature

2 T whole milk

Adjust the oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and 10-inch (12 cup) bundt pan and flour it, set aside.

Place the cake flour, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl and whisk to combine.

Process the chocolate with 1/4 cup of the sugar in a food processor until the chocolate is chopped into very small granules and set aside.

Beat the butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Add the ground chocolate mixture and vanilla and beat for 1 minute on med-high speed. Beat in the remaining 1 3/4 c sugar about 1/4 cup at a time, beating for 20 to 30 seconds after each addition.

When all the sugar has been incorporated, beat for 5 minutes.

Beat in the eggs two at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition; stop to scrape the bowl and beaters occasionally.

On low speed, gradually add half the flour mixture, beating only until incorporated. Beat in the milk, then the remaining flour. Use a rubber spatula to finish folding the mixture together.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and gently shake it to level the top.

Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the thickest part comes out clean. Cool the cake in its pan for 20 minutes.

Gently loosen the edge of the cake from the pan and cover it with a wire rack. Invert the two and carefully lift the pan from the cake. Let cool.

 

For more on this historical cake series:

Cake As a Lens

I Vote For Cake

Redemption of a Sad Paste

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

Multifunctional

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I couldn’t find more than four of my small tart rings.  They are probably buried in the backyard somewhere.  Or being used as some sort of contraption for Batman.  Or hidden somewhere with my brain.

Not looking forward to running out to the cooking supply store with two kids in tow, I was trying to think of any alternative when I remembered something I’d seen on Pinterest…canning jar lids as tart pans. Hooray for Pinterest!

This lesson was a departure from our previous projects as it was the first time we made two different pastry components which we then brought together to form frangipane and apple tartlets.

First up, the tart dough, also known as pate sucree.

We talked about the differences between pie dough and tart dough.  Typically, the first is flakey, and not overly sweet.  The latter is sturdier, (to stand unsupported by the pan), sweet, and crunchy or sugar cookie-like.

Now the ingredients are not wildly different in the two doughs; the primary distinction is how the butter is incorporated into the flour and to what degree.

Me: “Does anyone remember how we mixed our butter into our pie dough?”

“We cut it up into little squares?”

“Was it supposed to be cold?”

They recalled cutting the cold butter into the flour, and I reminded them that we did that to avoid completely mixing it into the dry ingredients.  Those chunky bits of butter gave us the flakiest dough.

I explained that tart dough is more like a cookie dough, so that is how we would mix it.  Just like our gingerbread cookie dough, we would start with room temperature butter which we would then cream together with the sugar.

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Me: “If we are using room temperature butter should we try to mix in a cold egg?”

“No!”

Flour was measured and added and, that was that.

Tart dough.  Easy peasy.

Again, just like our cookie dough, we would need to let this dough rest in the refrigerator for a couple of hours to let the flour absorb the liquid from the egg and allow the butter to firm up enough to roll out.

I had some dough already made and ready to go.  And roll they did.

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We worked on keeping our hands closer together to even out the pressure of the pin on the dough.

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And what to do if the dough started getting too long or misshapen in one spot: “Turn it!”

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As well as how to use small bits of dough to press into and patch the spots they weren’t happy with.

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We tried to roll “around the clock” to keep things somewhat circular.

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Once the dough was bigger than the tart ring, we gently picked it up and placed it over the top of the tin.  I showed them how to lift the outer edge of the dough and use their thumbs or fingers to ease it into the bottom contour of the lid.

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We didn’t worry about getting a perfect round, but aimed more for an even thickness.  At one point we even got something that resembled the continent of Africa, though there was some discussion about whether it looked more like Louisiana.

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Once the dough was settled nicely in the pan,

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we rolled the pin over the top to make a nice edge.

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Further refinements could be made once the extra dough was removed.

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The tartlet cases were then placed in the refrigerator to chill while we made our almond filling.

Frangipane, or almond cream as it is also known, is very versatile and besides being used for filling tarts, it can be swirled into a quick bread or pound cake, spread onto pastry or yeasted dough and rolled up cinnamon bun style, or even spooned over fruit in a dish and baked as is.  Another cheer for multifunctional items!

But back to the task at hand…

The first step required a food processor.  The kids were excited to see an actual piece of cooking equipment as up until then we’d mixed every other recipe by hand.

To avoid making almond butter, we ground the sliced almonds with a little bit of sugar, pulsing the blade until the nuts were a fine meal and beginning to climb the side of the bowl.

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We creamed room temperature butter with sugar and salt, then added our reserved almond mixture.

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Finally, the egg and vanilla were beat in with a tiny bit of milk.  We finished the filling about the time that the tartlet shells were sufficiently cold.

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The kids took turns scooping the frangipane into their shells, (yes I did label the bottoms so there wouldn’t be a question of which belonged to who!), not quite to the top of the pastry.

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They used a spoon to spread the frangipane over the tartlet cases while I sliced some apples.  We kept the slices together and just pushed them slightly forward to get a nice fan.  These were placed directly on top of the almond filling.

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We had extra frangipane, which they had ideas for…

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About 25 minutes later the small tarts emerged from the oven, slightly puffy and nicely browned.

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I warmed up a bit of apricot jam to glaze them with and removed them from the tins.

I think we even won over the “non-almond” person in the group.  There were only crumbs left on the plates.

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Sweet Tart Dough    yield: two 9″ tart shells or six 4″ tartlet shells

1/2 c + 1T unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 c granulated sugar

1/4 t salt

1 large egg, at room temperature

1 3/4 c all purpose-flour

Either by hand or using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, and salt until smooth.  Mix in the egg.  Scrape the sides of the bowl, then add the flour all at once.  Mix until just incorporated.  Divide the dough as necessary and shape into a disk about 1/2″ thick.  Wrap well and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Let dough sit out of the refrigerator for a few minutes to take the chill off and become just malleable enough to roll.  Roll to 1/8″ thick and line tart pans. Patch as necessary.  Chill until firm, about 15 minutes.

Frangipane      yield: about 1 1/2 cups

1 c sliced almonds **

1/2 c granulated sugar

7 T unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/8 t salt

1 egg, at room temperature

1 T whole milk

1 t vanilla

In a food processor, grind 2 T of the sugar with the almonds until fine.  Set aside.

Either by hand or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the remaining 6 T sugar and salt.  Add the almond mixture and beat until combined.  Add the egg, milk and vanilla and mix until light and fluffy.

** Alternately you can use purchased almond meal.  I chose to grind the almonds because commercial nut meals are more likely to have been processed on equipment also used for processing peanuts.  Just FYI for those with allergy considerations.  Also, grinding your own is a bit cheaper.

To assemble and bake the tarts:  heat oven to 350 degrees.  Spread frangipane over chilled tart shells.  Add fruit.  Bake 25 – 30 minutes or until nicely browned.

‘Tis the Season…

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December. The shortest month of the year in my book.  It comes in fast and goes by even faster.

But I knew we’d have to find time to have a class on gingerbread houses.  We would make them from scratch, from start to finish.  In a few hours.

Right.

The plan for the lesson: mix gingerbread dough, roll and cut out dough shapes, bake pieces, and finally, build and decorate houses.

Obviously we would have to fast track the process to fit in with time constraints, kid attention spans and patience levels.

This took a bit more prep on my part.

Namely, I made a triple batch of dough and used two-thirds of it to pre-bake the gingerbread house pieces that we would assemble in class.

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(Small confession: I ate the trimmings from all 36 of them.)

The last third of the dough would be chilled and ready for the kids to roll out.  I also made a double batch of royal icing.

Roll call. 5 kids. 3 moms. 1 dog.  Commence baking class.

Gingerbread dough, just like most cookie doughs, is made by first “creaming” the fat with the sugar, blending the two together to make a, well, creamy mixture.

I explained to the kids, that in order to combine these two ingredients, the butter would need to be at room temperature; soft enough to stir together, but not melty or oily.

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We plopped our stick of butter into the bowl and mashed it around with a wooden spoon to soften it a bit more.

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The kids took turns adding the brown sugar, three kids, 1/4 cup apiece.   We beat the two ingredients together until they were well combined.

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We weren’t trying to incorporate a lot of air into the mix, but just trying to get it well blended.

“What do you think would happen to the butter if I added a cold ingredient to our bowl?”

We talked about how it would make the butter clump up, which might make it harder to combine with the rest of the ingredients.

“So it would be better to add a room temperature egg instead of a cold one?”

Affirmatives all around.

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We finished mixing in our wet ingredients, then set them aside to concentrate on our dries, which they took turns whisking together in a separate bowl.  After smelling all the spices, that is.

“Don’t inhale the clove!”

The last step was adding dry to wet.

“What do you guys think would happen if I dumped this whole bowl of flour into the wet ingredients and tried to mix them?”

Eyes from bowl to bowl.

kid 1: “Would it be hard to mix?”

kid 2: “You could mix in a little at a time.”

Three additions later, with the help of a bowl scraper, we had our gingerbread dough ready to be wrapped in cling film and placed in the refrigerator.

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First I asked what kind of shapes they thought we would be making for our houses.  They took a look at the already baked cookies.

“Rectangles!” “Squares!”

Me: “So should I form my dough into a big round ball?”

“A rectangle!”

I showed them how to use the plastic wrap to press the dough into a nice, flat rectangle.

I explained that the dough would be too soft and sticky to roll so it would need to chill for the butter to firm up, and for the flour to keep absorbing the liquid in the dough.  For about 3 hours.

Concerned looks.

Aha! But I had dough ready for them to roll so we could proceed immediately.

Hurray!

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A quick explanation of how to roll followed:

Parchment paper, a little flour on top of that, then the dough, a little more flour, and finally a second sheet of parchment paper.

Anchor an edge of the paper/dough “sandwich” against the side of the table with your body and start rolling.

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The dough should roll nicely between the two sheets.

If it starts to stick, peel off the top sheet of paper, dust with a bit of flour and replace the parchment, then with both hands, one on each end of the paper/dough sandwich, flip the whole thing over.

Peel off the top sheet of paper, (formerly the bottom), dust with flour and continue until the dough is about 1/4″ thick.

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They were more interested in cutting out the shapes, so we moved on.

They used a knife to trace the edges of the parchment paper patterns: one square side, one front/back, and one roof piece.

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kid 1: “Wait, so we need two of each, right? Six pieces?”

yep.

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kid 2: “It’s easier to cut them out if you line the sides up.”

yep again.

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We removed any unnecessary bits surrounding the cutouts, slid the whole sheet of parchment onto the back of a the flattest sheet pan we had, and placed it into the oven.

They were anxious to decorate, but were curious about the gingerbread they could smell baking.

Me: “You get to eat that”

“Yay!”

Assorted candies, piping bags and bowls of royal icing, and spatulas were distributed around the table.

Royal icing designs they wanted to pipe on the house walls, and any candies they wanted to stick to that icing should be done first, I explained, before assembly.  The roof pieces could be added last and decorated in place.

There was little hesitation to jump in.

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While they were working on decorating, I pulled the gingerbread out of the oven, and while the cookies were still hot, used a sharp knife to trim and straighten the edges. This is super important as there is nothing more frustrating for a kid, (or adult for that matter!), than trying to fit wonky sided shapes together.

I had covered heavy, 6″ x 6″ cardboard squares with foil, which we would be building the houses on.  I showed them how to spread a layer of icing on the square to act as a foundation for the walls.

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I was a little worried that the younger kids, specifically mine, would get frustrated with assembling the houses.  The royal icing acts like cement, but it does take a few minutes to set up enough to have the pieces stand on their own.

And too much icing creates a lot of slipping and sliding.  A moderate amount is best.

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There were lots of requests to “hold this please” and “can you help me with this wall?”, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that once they got the feel of it, they did great with the construction.

The small size of the houses allowed the process to go rather quickly.  Larger houses would have required more drying time to be stable enough to continue decorating.

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Roof pieces were added. More candy. A marshmallow snowman here, a red vine path there.

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Finally, “I think I’m done! And I’d like to eat now.”

Me: “I have some leftover split pea soup.”

“Uh”

Warm gingerbread pieces are passed out to the kids who have had enough decorating.

Some decorate until the last possible moment.

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My daughter: “But I’m not done yet!”

Me: “You live here.  You can decorate all day if you want.”

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At least for another hour.

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We mixed this dough by hand, (I like the kids to be able to see the process), but it can certainly be done in a mixer, especially if you are making a larger batch.  I doubled this recipe to make enough dough for six small houses.  The walls measured 3″ x 3″, the front and back pieces were 3″ x 4 1/4″, and the roof pieces were 3″ x 2″.   The scraps can be re-rolled and re-cut.

Gingerbread

4 oz unsalted butter, slightly softened (room temperature)

¾ c packed light brown sugar

¼ + ⅛ t salt

1 egg, room temperature

½ c dark molasses

½ t vanilla

2 ¾ c flour

2 t ground ginger

1 t cinnamon

½ t baking soda

¼ t cloves

Cream butter, sugar and salt together.  Add the egg, then the molasses and vanilla.  Set aside.  Whisk the remaining ingredients together in a separate bowl, then stir them into the wet ingredients in three additions.  Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight.

Roll dough between parchment, dusting with flour as necessary.  Roll to ¼” thickness.  Leaving the dough on the parchment sheet, use a parchment paper template to cut house shapes.  Remove any scraps and slide the dough and parchment onto the back of a flat sheet pan.  Bake in a preheated, 350 degree oven until gingerbread is firm and toasty, about 10 – 15 minutes.  Use a sharp knife to trim still warm gingerbread pieces.  Let cool completely.

Make plenty of royal icing!  You can use ziploc bags to decorate with, but I prefer plastic piping bags and decorating tips with couplers, as the ziplocs tend to bust seams pretty easily.  This will result in kid meltdown.  If  you have to use ziplocs, you might have better luck with the heavier freezer bags.