Choose Your Own (Baking) Adventure

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“Can we just make something up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One-half of a pound?”

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

“Fifty pounds?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This ratio would produce a pound cake.”

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

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

“Would the cake be dry?”

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

This one was harder for them.

“It would be too sweet!”

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

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

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“Seven and one-quarter ounces!”

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

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

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

They cracked two eggs into a bowl on the scale.

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

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

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

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

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

“How much did the eggs weigh again?”

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

“So we need about four ounces of milk.”

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“We still have to think about leavening.”

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

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

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

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

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

My daughter wrinkled up her nose. “Blah.”

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

Then we got to review some knife skills.

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

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Then we sliced the blood oranges into rounds.

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

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Finally it was time to mix the cake.

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

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

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Milk was added next.

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

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

“Yum!”

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

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

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It did not disappoint.

“Oooh, so pretty!”

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

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Blood Orange Upside-Down Cake

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

1 1/2 t aluminum-free baking powder

4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature

7 oz granulated sugar, plus more for the pan

1/2 t fine sea salt

2 large eggs plus one yolk at room temperature

4 oz whole milk

1 t vanilla extract

zest of one blood orange

several blood oranges to slice

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

Whisk the flour and baking powder together and set aside.

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

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

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

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

 

Formulas for cake creations:

Butter = Sugar

Eggs = Fat

Eggs + Liquid = Sugar

Leavening guidelines:

1 t baking powder per cup of flour

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Spring Strawberries, Fractions, and Harry Baker

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“Careful, those are sharp.”

I had just passed my six-year old son a handful of steak knives to distribute to the other kids. Don’t worry, they’ve had a class in knife skills.

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They made short work of the strawberries while we talked about what we’d be baking.

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“Chiffon…what is that?”

They were happy to hear that it was a kind of cake, and even happier to hear that we would be topping the cake with the lovely strawberries they were preparing.

I tossed the berries with some vanilla sugar and set them aside to macerate.

Me: “Prior to 1948, cakes were traditionally classified as either butter cakes or sponge cakes. Chiffon cake is neither. In fact, a chiffon cake is its own special thing, somewhat of a hybrid of the two.”

“Hybrid, you mean like a hybrid car?”

Me: “Exactly!”

I reminded them how we creamed butter with sugar to make a butter cake. But we were using oil for this cake. We all agreed that the oil wouldn’t be able to trap air the same way that butter would.

Me: “What other ingredient do we have that could trap air?”

“Eggs?”

Enter the sponge cake component of our hybrid: whipped eggs, specifically whites.

We turned our attention to the recipe.

Me: “This recipe makes way more cake than we need, so we’ll have to cut it in half. It calls for 11 ounces of cake flour…”

“So we need 5 1/2 ounces!”

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They took turns weighing and measuring the dry ingredients, helping each other with the appropriate calculations. Some were harder to figure out, half of 3/4 teaspoon or half of a tablespoon for example.

I pointed out that they needed to reserve some of the sugar, 1/2 cup for a full recipe. They recalculated.

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

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The dry ingredients were sifted together into a large bowl.

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The wet ingredients minus the egg whites would go into another.

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As they finished scaling out the ingredients, I laid some cake trivia on them.

Me: “So this kind of cake was developed in the 1920’s by a guy named Harry Baker. He worked on the recipe and kept it secret for 20 years! Then he sold it to General Mills so they could market it and make a bunch of money.”

They found this funny.

Me: “What do you think this guy did as a profession?”

“Was he a baker?”

I thought they’d guess that. I also thought they might say scientist or something of that nature.

Me: “He was an insurance salesman.”

They knew nothing of insurance. This resulted in so.many.questions. I promised we would revisit the topic…but first, back to cake!

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I explained why chiffon cake was such a hit when it came out. People liked them because they were very moist due to the oil in the batter, and since oil is liquid even at cooler temperatures, chiffon cakes do not tend to harden or dry out as traditional butter cakes might. This makes them better choices for fillings that need to be kept refrigerated, like cream or mousse, or even frozen, like ice cream.

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Wet ingredient were added to dry ingredients and whisked together until smooth.

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Then we whipped up the egg whites with the reserved sugar.

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They remembered the different stages of whipped egg whites, and helped keep an eye on them as the mixer did its thing.

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We checked the meringue to make sure we were at a nearly stiff peak.

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We used about a third of it to lighten the batter in the bowl, then gently folded in the rest.

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About 30 minutes later…

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Once the cake had cooled, we added our sweetened strawberries and a dollop of whipped cream. I’m pretty sure Harry Baker would have approved.

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As I said, this recipe makes enough for two tall 9″ layers, or one large tube pan. (We used a 10″ round by 2″ tall pan to make our single layer, which gave us twelve slices) Do not grease your pan, the batter needs to cling to the sides to rise properly. If you are making layers, simply line the bottoms with parchment.

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Orange Chiffon Cake

11 oz    cake flour

2 c        granulated sugar, reserve 1/2 c

1 T        aluminum-free baking powder

3/4 t      fine sea salt

6           large eggs, separated

1           orange, zested and juiced

3/4 c     liquid, (juice from the orange plus enough water to make 3/4 cup)

1/4 c     neutral tasting oil like safflower

1 1/2 t   vanilla

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Fit a round of parchment into the bottom of a cake pan. Do not grease the pan.

Sift dry ingredients together into a large bowl. Combine egg yolks with the zest, juice and water, oil, and vanilla. Whisk the egg mixture into the dry ingredients until smooth. Whip the egg whites with the reserved 1/2 c sugar to a nearly stiff peak. Fold 1/3 of the meringue into the batter to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining meringue. Place batter in pan and gently smooth the top. Bake for about 30 – 35 minutes or until the cake takes on a light gold color and springs back when pressed in the center. Cool completely before using a thin knife or spatula to release the cake from the sides.

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.

‘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.

Small Pies for Small Fries

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Hand pies to be exact. And apple because Thanksgiving is coming up!

People love pie. However, the idea of baking a pie from start to finish makes many people anxious. One need only peruse the aisles of the grocery store for the evidence: multiple buying options for ready made crusts.

The kids found this funny, the notion that anyone would be hesitant to make pie dough. Five ingredients that they’d already manipulated in three other projects; this would be a piece of cake. Or pie, rather.

“The most important thing about making an all butter pie crust is to always keep the dough cold, but how can we keep it cold while we’re working with it?”

Kids reading recipe…

“Start with cold ingredients?”

Bingo.

I showed the kids how to cut the butter into cubes. First in thirds, lengthwise.

“Does everyone know what I mean by thirds?”

“In three pieces!”

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Then we rolled the whole cube of butter onto its side and repeated the process. This gave us nine skinny rods. Next, we cut the cube in half, crosswise.

“Anyone want to guess what I’ll get if I cut each half in thirds?”

“Six?”

“Yes, sixths!”

Now we had perfect little cubes to put in the freezer to chill while we measured out the other ingredients.

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A pitcher of cold water went into the refrigerator to chill down even further.

The kids measured the flour, salt, and sugar into a heavy, shallow bowl.

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I placed the pastry cutter on the table and somebody said, “oh we’re going to make it like we did the pumpkin cake.”

I explained that yes, we would be cutting the butter into our flour mixture, though not as thoroughly as in the last recipe. Our goal was to blend some of the butter in with the flour, keep some of the butter separate, in bigger pieces, and leave a bit of the dry ingredients uncoated by the fat.

The best way to achieve this is to keep the butter, you guessed it, cold.

I pointed out that if we took a long time to cut our butter in, there was a good chance it would start warming up. Not that I wanted them to move so fast that we had flour flying everywhere, but…

“Should we each take a quick turn then?”

They were all very agreeable to this and after I started the ball rolling, the kids each took a few passes with the pastry cutter before pushing the bowl towards their waiting neighbor.

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Luckily, most of the ingredients stayed in the bowl.

The whole process took just a few minutes and the butter stayed quite firm. I explained that if we could squish a piece of butter between our fingers without it leaving a melty residue, then we could keep going. If the butter had gotten soft at any point we would have needed to refrigerate the mixture for 10-15 minutes before moving on.

We took a look inside our bowl. There were three different things going on in there: coarse sand, slightly larger bits like lentils, and finally, bigger chunks, about the size of large peas.

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Time to mix in the water.

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Using a rubber spatula, I gently folded and pressed the ingredients together while each of the kids took turns dribbling in tablespoons of water.

We stopped adding water when large clumps of dough began to form, after about 6 tablespoons in all. They could see that there was almost no dry flour left in the bowl.

A few pushes of the hand was all it took to gather it into a ball.

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We could still see chunks of butter in the dough, exactly what we were going for. This went back into the fridge so we could ready the table for rolling out our crusts.

Why wouldn’t we want the butter to be fully mixed in?

We talked about the texture of pie dough.

“Is it crumbly and sandy like a shortbread cookie? Or is it flakey?”

Careful consideration…”flakey!”

We discussed gluten, and how it makes baked goods like bread chewy. We reviewed the ways to avoid activating the gluten in flour: by using a gentle hand in mixing, and by coating the flour with fat so that it doesn’t absorb water, which we did, partially. This keeps the crust tender. The little bit of flour that was left uncoated does mix with water to kind of glue the whole mess together. When the resulting dough is rolled out, the pea-sized chunks of butter get flattened out and sandwiched between the thin sheets of slightly glutenized dough. When the pie crust is placed in a hot oven, the water in the butter converts to steam and causes the dough to puff up. Flakes!

We divided our ball of dough in two and flattened each half into a disc. (These would normally be the top and bottom crusts). Then each disc was divided into four even pieces for a total of eight.

My five year old son: “Hey, this is math!”

We would need to take turns with the pin, so the portions we weren’t working with went back into the fridge. I know, I know, but we have to keep the dough cold so the butter never melts into the flour.

Onto rolling.

“Give yourself plenty of elbow room!”

I grabbed a handful of flour and flung it across the table, not just a little sprinkle of flour, but more like a spray, like rolling a pair of dice.

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The rounded portion of dough went on top of the flour and the top got dusted as well.

I showed them how to roll from the middle of the circle out, but not back and forth, and “around the clock”: 12, 2, 4, and so on. I slid my hand under the dough to make sure it wasn’t sticking and gave the dough a quarter turn.

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I explained that the flour acts like little ball bearings under the dough, so they should flour the table as needed. The bench scraper would come in handy in the event the dough did stick.

I reminded them to use the dry hand towel to wipe off any bits stuck to the rolling pin as they would encourage the dough to stick to it even more.

When my dough was about 1/8″ thick overall, I stopped rolling and encouraged the kids to try.

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We didn’t worry so much about getting a perfect circle, we just worked towards an even thickness.

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Any excess flour got brushed off with a dry pastry brush.

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We piled sliced, cinnamon-sugared apples onto the dough circles shapes, leaving enough space to fold it over onto itself.

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The kids squeezed and sealed the edges together, some even getting a bit fancy with the pleating.

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Once all the hand pies were placed on a sheet pan, we used a pastry brush dipped in milk to brush over the tops. A sprinkle of turbinado sugar would make the crust extra crackly.

A sharp knife was used to cut a few steam vents, and the whole tray went into a 400 degree oven.

About 25 minutes later we spoiled our dinners with warm apple pies.

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It was the quietest moment of the entire day.

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All Butter Pie Dough

2 cups all purpose flour
2 T sugar
¾ t sea salt
8 oz, (2 sticks) sweet butter
water
ice cubes

About ten minutes before mixing the dough, cube butter and place in freezer. Fill a measuring pitcher with 1 cup water (you won’t need it all, but it’s better to have more than enough ready), and place a few ice cubes in the pitcher, refrigerate while you measure the remaining ingredients. Place the flour, sugar and salt in a heavy, shallow bowl. Whisk to combine. Cut butter into flour with pastry cutter until largest chunks are no bigger than pea size. You are looking for a mixture of sand, small bits of flour and butter combined, and larger chunks of butter coated in flour. Check to make sure that the butter is still fairly firm. You should be able to squeeze a piece between your fingers and feel some resistance. If the butter is soft, place the bowl in the refrigerator for 10 – 15 minutes. Sprinkle ¼ c water over the flour mixture and toss together with a spatula. Add more water as needed, 1 T at a time. Stop adding when you see clumps of dough form, with little to no dry flour at the bottom of the bowl. The dough should just hold together in large clumps. Remove dough to a lightly floured board. Press dough together and divide in half. Form into rounds. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate if not using immediately, for up to 3 days.

Photo credits: 4, 7, 10, 12, 14-16 by Helena Ottoson

Hopping on the pumpkin bandwagon…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collective pondering.

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

Nodding heads.

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

Perfect.

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

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

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

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Then, “Is nutmeg a nut?”

Wikipedia break.

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(FYI nutmeg is a seed.)

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

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

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

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

The kids all agreed wholeheartedly with this statement.

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

Back to the butter.

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

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

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

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Then we turned our attention to the wet ingredients.

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

“But what about the pumpkin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kids: “Buttermilk!”

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

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

Me: “Well that’s basically vinegar”

Kids: “That would be gross anyway”

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

Other mom: “or kefir?”

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

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

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We gently mixed our wet ingredients into our dries.

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

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

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

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Crumb Cake

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

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

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

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

Math and science and history, oh my!

I had envisioned adding to the last post, some thoughts on Learning Stuff Other Than “How To Bake” In A Baking Lesson, but then that post would have been annoyingly long.  So, perhaps from now on I’ll just do a follow-up post with any ideas.  I’d love it if people could chime in with their suggestions too.

What can you learn besides baking fundamentals from these sessions?

Language arts skills.  Reading and following a recipe.  Pretty straightforward, right?  For my youngest who is just learning how to read, simply identifying and understanding the difference in what T and t means in a recipe is pretty important. For kids working on grammar, looking for the adjectives, nouns, verbs, etc. in a recipe could be a new activity.  Putting together a grocery list for a baking project, or even using that recipe as a guide in writing out the steps for how to prepare a favorite snack could be another.

What else?

Math.  You cannot bake without using math. Whether you are measuring ingredients by weight or by volume you are working with numbers.  The decimal system, fractions, equivalent fractions, time.  For instance, in the last recipe we needed 2 oz. of butter and we had a 4 oz. stick.  I asked the kids for advice.  Or we had to divide the dough into eight equal portions.  Again, the kids helped figure that out.  At 12:15 we had to let the dough rise for 50 minutes.  When will it be done?  See? Math. The younger kids benefit from simply exploring with measuring cups.  For older kids you could have them halve or double a recipe. Just make sure you have freezer space for all the extras!

Science.  So many opportunities for further investigation! Can I predict what might happen if I mix the yeast with cold water instead of warm, or without the sugar?  What difference would it make if I split my pretzel dough into two bowls and leave one in a warm spot and the other in a cooler spot? If I don’t boil some of the pretzels before baking will they taste the same?

History.  Food history is pretty fascinating if you ask me.  We are studying the Middle Ages in Story of the World right now, so the kids were interested to learn that pretzels may have been invented by monks sometime in the 5th century. Ok, they weren’t quite as excited as I was about the connection, but still. Wikipedia is always helpful, but foodtimeline.org is a great resource for answering those “who thought this up?” kind of questions.

I almost forgot home economics! Do they even teach this in school anymore? In my home ec class I think I learned how to make chocolate chip cookies and sew on a button.  I also have a vague memory of parker house rolls.  In this age of grab and go food, I think it’s more important than ever for kids to be comfortable in the kitchen, to know that armed with some basic cooking skills and research they can take any packaged food they find in a grocery store and make it at home cheaper, healthier and tastier.  It’s not magic.  It’s food.

What are your thoughts on extending the learning?