Fluffy White (and One Chocolate!) Clouds

IMG_0953

“Is that it?”

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

IMG_0001

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

I pointed to the photo of a Chocolate Cloud Cake.

“Ooooh!”

All concerns went right out the window.

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

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

“Does anyone remember what ‘leaven’ means?”

I could see the wheels turning. And finally…

“To put air into something?”

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

“Eggs?”

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

IMG_0002

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

IMG_0003

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

IMG_0004

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

For example…

IMG_0005

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

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

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

But back to this foam-as-leavening idea.

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

“Can we make a foam with just water?”

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

IMG_0006

Then we tried whisking one egg white.

IMG_0007

That was more successful.

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

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

IMG_0008

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

IMG_0009

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

IMG_0013

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

IMG_0010

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

IMG_0012

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

IMG_0942

And at stiff peak the point will stand up proudly…

IMG_0946

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

IMG_0951

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

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

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

IMG_0015

We added soft butter to the chocolate and…

IMG_0017

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

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

IMG_0018

…some salt…

IMG_0019

and added the chocolate and butter mixture.

IMG_0020

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

IMG_0021

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

IMG_0022

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

IMG_0023

Not quite ready yet. Back on for a sec…

IMG_0024

Bingo.

IMG_0025

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

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

IMG_0026

IMG_0027

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

IMG_0028

Like sharks I tell you. Sharks.

IMG_0029

About 35 minutes later we had our chocolate cloud.

IMG_0030

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

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

IMG_0031

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

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

“Butter?”

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

IMG_0032

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

IMG_0033

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

IMG_0887

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

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

Cake

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

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

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

1 cup sugar

1/4 tsp fine sea salt

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Whipped Cream Topping

1 1/2 cups heavy cream, well chilled

sugar to taste

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Cupcakes Versus the Eclipse

photo-104

“There’s supposed to be an eclipse today!”

“That’s right.  When?”

“Around 3:30, I think.”

“Ooh, perfect timing!”

The kids were running around, playing before our baking class.  The moms were thinking we might be able to view the eclipse while eating the cupcakes we would be baking.  A two-fer!

So, you knew this was coming, right?  Pumpkins I mean.  It is October.

photo-105

I roasted a sugar pie pumpkin the morning of class; just scooped out the seeds, oiled the cut edge and tossed it in a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes.

The kids eyed the slightly shriveled halves skeptically.  I’m sure they were thinking, “now how are we gonna make cupcakes with that?”

We set up the food processor, (always a crowd pleaser), and they took turns scooping the softened flesh of the pumpkin into the work bowl.

photo-84

We added a couple of tablespoons of water, gave it a whirl,  and voilà!  Pumpkin purée sans the can.

photo-90

We didn’t get around to baking many cakes during our previous series of classes.  My plan for this series is to cover the various methods of mixing a cake, starting with the easiest.

“When you guys make muffins, what do you do?”

“uh…”

I clarified.  “I mean when you mix the batter, do you just put everything in one bowl and mix it up?”

“No!” (silly me)

“Well how do you mix your muffins then?”

“You put them in different bowls!”

“So you put your milk in with the flour and the sugar in with the eggs?”

“No! You put the dry ingredients in one bowl, and the wet ingredients in the other bowl.”

“Yes! And that is what we call the muffin method.  Dry ingredients in one bowl, wet ingredients in another, mix them together…cake!”

We looked at our recipe and turned on the oven.

“Why should we turn on the oven first?”

We talked about how it was important to have the oven at the right temperature when the cake was ready to go in, otherwise any loftiness that had been introduced by chemical leavening, (baking powder/baking soda), or by mechanical leavening, (whipping), would be lost as the batter sat waiting on the counter.  This would mean flat cake.  And sadness.

Back to the recipe.  The next ingredient was butter.  Browned butter to be exact.  This would give the pumpkin cupcakes a little extra boost of flavor.  How so?  Butter is an emulsion of water and fat, with milk protein solids suspended inside. As the solid butter melts, the water evaporates and the milk solids cook, settle to the bottom of the pan, and turn brown; the resulting flavor is slightly nutty and altogether delicious.

We cut the butter into chunks and placed it in a light colored pan over low heat.  We could let that cook while we finished measuring the other ingredients.

photo-85

The kids weighed the flour.

“You have to zero out the scale so you don’t weigh the bowl!”

photo-86

And added baking soda, spices and salt.

They helped each other with the fractional measures.

“I’m using three 1/4 teaspoons for this.”

“You could also use 1/2 teaspoon and 1/4 teaspoon.”

photo-87

They measured the two sugars by volume as well.

photo-88

“Hey that looks like a face!”

The smell of the cooking butter reminded us that it was nearing the point where we should be paying attention to it.  It can go from brown to black in seconds, so we stopped mixing and stood guard over the pan on the stove.

photo-103

It wasn’t quite there yet, but we could see the solids gathering on the bottom of the pan.  We used a spoon to push aside the foam at the surface so we could better monitor the color below.  The goal was a deep nut brown, but we would need to pull it off the flame when it was just a shade lighter, as the residual heat of the pan would continue to cook the butter.  As soon as we took it off the heat, we poured the liquid into a dish to cool slightly.

photo-106

The eggs were whisked into the bowl of wet ingredients.

photo-89

I explained that while I had forgotten to pull the eggs out of the refrigerator before we started, I was able to bring them to the correct temperature quickly, by placing them in a bowl of warm tap water for 5 minutes.

photo-92

Buttermilk, vanilla, and the browned butter were whisked together with the other wet ingredients.

Before we combined the contents of the two bowls, I wanted to work on mixing technique.

“Do you guys remember what happens when we add liquid to flour?”

I reminded them about gluten and how it gives baked goods structure, but also makes things chewy.  That’s good in bread, but not in cake.

“Do you want chewy cupcakes?”

“No!”

“Then in order to keep from developing the gluten in our cake batter, we want to mix it as little as possible; just enough to combine the ingredients, but not so much that we make it tough.”

I filled a bowl with dried beans and demonstrated how to fold, which is the most efficient way to mix the ingredients together. I showed them how to hold the rubber spatula in their dominant hand and use it to cut down through the middle of the bowl, scrape up the side nearest to them and turn the spatula over, so the underside of their wrist was now facing up.  The other hand would rotate the bowl as they continued to fold its contents over upon themselves.

photo-95

They each took a turn at folding the beans in the bowl.  Though a bit awkward at first, they had the basic movement down by the second or third flip of the spatula.

photo-96

Finally, we moved on to more desirable ingredients.

photo-97

I advised against over mixing; little lumps in the batter are just fine.

photo-99

We used a portion scoop to divide the cake batter into the pan, filling the cups nearly to the top.

photo-100

While the cupcakes baked, we whipped up a bit of cream cheese frosting.

They whisked together room temperature cream cheese, a small amount of softened butter, maple syrup, vanilla and a couple tablespoons of sour cream, all to taste.

“It needs more vanilla!”

“Oh that’s good!”

“Perfect.”

They all agreed when to stop adding maple syrup, deeming it sweet enough.  And it was, pleasantly.  I was surprised, I thought for sure I was going to have to stop them from making it too sweet.

Once the cupcakes had a chance to cool, I spooned a little frosting on top and passed them around.

photo-102

They were gobbled up in no time.

The kids ran outside to play while a couple of us moms enjoyed our cupcakes with a cup of coffee.

“Hey, what’s going on with this eclipse?”

“Oh, did we miss it?!”

Engrossed in eating our treats, we had totally missed it.  Homeschool mom fail.

But really good cupcakes!

photo-101

 

Brown Butter Pumpkin Cupcakes, adapted from this recipe

Makes approximately 18 cupcakes

6 oz. (3/4 cup) unsalted butter

9 oz. (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour

1-1/2 tsp. baking soda

1-1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. ground ginger

3/4 tsp. fine sea salt

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

1-1/2 cups pumpkin puree, homemade or canned

1-1/2 cups granulated sugar

2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1/3 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F.

Melt the butter in a heavy-duty 1-quart saucepan over medium heat. Cook, swirling the pan occasionally until the butter turns a nutty golden-brown, about 4 minutes. Pour into a small bowl and let stand until cool but not set, about 15 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and cloves. In a large bowl, whisk the pumpkin purée with the granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs, and buttermilk until very well blended. Gently whisk in the brown butter until completely incorporated.  With a rubber spatula, fold in the flour mixture until just combined.

Divide into pan and bake until cupcakes are well risen and spring back to the touch.

Cool before frosting.

 

Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

Ok, so I always make my frosting to taste.  I don’t like the taste of powdered sugar so I use maple syrup.  Just make sure your cream cheese and butter are at room temperature so they are easy to whisk together.

8oz cream cheese, room temperature

4 T unsalted butter, room temperature

pure maple syrup, to taste

sour cream, about 2 T

vanilla extract, to taste

Whisk together.  You are supposed to frost the cupcakes with this, not eat it in spoonfuls out of the bowl.