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Not all of the recipes I turn up are winners from the get-go. My “eureka” moment in finding Gram’s recipe for soft chocolate custard with meringue turned sour the other day.

Why? Because I forgot the primary rule of melting chocolate: Don’t get it wet.

Remember that bad experience you had with the old double-boiler — the one where the top didn’t quite fit — in your attempt to melt four squares of Baker’s unsweetened chocolate? The splash, and the subsequent seize-up? Yeah. Well. I blocked that out. When this newly found recipe read “melt chocolate in 1/4 cup water and stir,” my red flags just lay there on the tarmac.

Seized up and not mixing well!

After the seizure, I dumped the hardening chocolate into the custard base. Much stirring later, the chocolate still clumped.

My friend Zoë and I reminisced about chocolate and water disasters, and we talked about fixes for this recipe. Cocoa, maybe? (Possibly not chocolatey enough.) Melt the chocolate straight in the custard? Melt the chocolate plain, and temper the custard and chocolate together? Any of these might work. And I now dedicate myself to the pursuit of chocolate custard that doesn’t fight in the pan.

Local tasters for chocolate pudding? Anyone? Anyone?

The ratio of cake to icing is a very important area of focus for bakers. Too heavy on cake, and you may have a Sahara desert. Too much icing . . . well, can there really be too much icing?

My mother makes a killer layer cake by starting with a pound cake and carefully slicing it into seven layers. Given its pound-cake shape — and density — this can be accomplished by turning the cake on its side, taking a big serrated knife, and boldly slicing downward. You adjust a bit for the slight tilt caused by the outward bow of the cake sides. And pound cake is solid enough that spreading on icing will not usually cause the layers to crumble. (I say “usually” because faithful readers know about my solid-icing incident, in which topping and cake fought to the death.)

Slicing round layers into two, and then finishing your cake, takes a bit more thought. Here are three tips, however, that will make your life easier. All of these start with one or more cooled round cakes, out of the pan. (Carrot-cake fans: Never tried this on a carrot cake. Let me know if it works!)

1.   Pick your weapon. If you’re almost comfortable slicing horizontally with a big knife, try adding toothpicks to guide you: Insert toothpicks horizontally into the cake, halfway up, spaced about three inches apart all the way around. Your cake will look like a Tinker Toy piece. Slice above the toothpicks.

If you had a bad bagel-slicing incident in college and have not picked up a big knife since, use dental floss. (I can’t quite believe that I have to specify UNFLAVORED dental floss, but I probably should, right?) Get yourself a nice long piece of floss. Start your slice by cutting into the far side of the cake from where you are standing; plant the middle of the floss in there, wrap the ends around the sides of the cake — halfway up the sides — and cross your ends (so the left end is now in your right hand, and vice versa). Begin a gentle sawing motion, slowly tightening the loop of floss that is working its way through your cake. Make sure you’re pulling out to the sides, not up towards the ceiling. Eventually, the loop will close up on itself and pop out the side of the cake right in front of you.

2.    Make structure work for you. Each new layer has one “finished” side and one “unfinished” side. Either the top or the bottom of the original cakes count as “finished,” while your crumbly sliced side is “unfinished.” The finished sides have more structural integrity: Those are what you ice. That way your spreading knife has something to push onto, and you’re not crumbling…the…cake…with…each…pass. So however you have to flip or flop your layers, do it so the unfinished side is always DOWN.

3.   Go for icing with spreadability, not spackle. Again, you have less structural integrity in your cakes at this point. Any engineer would tell you that the more you drag and pull on the cakes as you spread icing, the more likely you are to create havoc. So if your icing is a bit stiff, thin it down — lemon juice, milk, cream, whatever works with your icing — so that you have a spread that glides on.

I want to hear who’s slicing and icing, and how you up your frosting-to-cake ratio. Which is, of course, always the end goal.

All content copyright 2010 Garside Group LLC

My grandmother used to send Christmas cookies in several tins, most of them large, round and gently dented. However, there was often a slightly smaller tin tagging along. Nestled in the waxed paper of this tin would be these powdered-sugar coated crescents, rich with nuts and butter.

Theoretically, these cookies were packed on their own because they were a bit fragile and because the powdered sugar would otherwise have had its messy way with the other types of cookies. But really, they were packed alone so Dad could abscond with the tin. The look he’d get as he popped a whole sugary cookie into his mouth was pure guilty bliss.

The recipe below is lightly adapted from Grammy’s, which came from a slender book, “Holiday Cookies,” from Peter Pauper Press. (I wish Peter Pauper Press still published cookbooks: I’d go straight to them to publish the Baking Family dessert book. Beautiful typesetting and design, all in a neat little old-fashioned package.)

For finishing, I just pour about a half-cup of confectioners’ sugar into a cereal bowl and gently roll the cookies one by one in the bowl.

Almond Crescents

Makes 5-6 dozen cookies

  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup blanched slivered almonds, finely chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1-2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • Confectioners’ sugar

Cream butter and sugar together. Mix in chopped nuts and salt, then add flour gradually, mixing well after each addition. Refrigerate dough for at least one hour and as long as two days.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Remove dough from refrigerator. Pull off small pieces and work with hands until somewhat pliable. Roll into two-inch long pencil-thick strips and shape into small crescents.

Bake until set, not brown — about 14-15 minutes. Allow to cool for a few minutes on the cookie sheet, then remove to cooling rack or plate. When fully cool, roll in confectioners sugar.

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