The Cake That Was Twenty-Four Years in the Making

It was in the fall of 1993 that I first read Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and, hence, in the fall of 1993 that I first read about Black Cake. Black Cake is a West Indian fruit cake. Because I am no fan of fruit cakes I had little interest in eating one of these things, but I enjoyed the essay very much and it stuck in my head.

Over the years, my feelings about fruit and fruitcakes haven’t evolved much but my feelings about cooking have evolved tremendously and in the last, say, twenty years, I’ve thought, “Some day I will attempt to make a Black Cake.”

To this end, sometime around the year 2000, when a bottle of Jamaican burnt sugar presented itself to me while in a specialty shop, I bought it. “NOW I can make a Black Cake!” I said to myself. But I didn’t.

A decade went by. I moved in and out of apartments. Every time I moved the kitchen I packed up that pretty little bottle of Jamaican burnt sugar. I felt stupid and thought, “I should really make a Black Cake this year.” I said this in 2002 and I said it in 2011 and I said it many, many times when I noticed the jar on a shelf or in a drawer. I knew that it did not speak well for me that I’d had this stuff so long and never opened the jar.

It was last fall when I decided enough was enough and I had to get my shit together to do this. Late last fall, then, I went and bought a vast quantity of dried fruit and dark rum and I spent considerable time whizzing these things together in the food processor. We’re talking pounds of dried fruit and an entire bottle of dark rum and a ridiculous quantity, too, of Manischewitz, which is mysteriously called for in this recipe. I carefully spooned this almost-black sludge into several Mason jars and stowed them away. It was clear to me that I would not be baking for Christmas 2016, but, having made the fruit sludge, I was obligating myself to bake the cakes in time for Christmas 2017.

“In March I will bake the cakes,” I said to myself.

In March, I did not bake the cakes.

And then it was summer, and the thought of baking fruitcake was — impossible.

However, in the last few days, the tag end of August into early September, the weather here has cooled down significantly — thank God — and so it was that one recent morning I was putting things away in the kitchen and I realized that the house was a comfortable temperature and I had a dozen eggs in the fridge and just enough brown sugar; what’s more, it was 10.30 in the morning and I didn’t have to be anywhere until 3 p.m.: if I wanted to, I could, on this very day, finally assemble Black Cake.

It was eleven in the morning by the time I got my shit together, and I did not waste time after that. Because, to be quite honest, I do not often have an entire dozen eggs and that much brown sugar just sitting around. What’s more, the Mason jars of fruit — which I had moved from the basement pantry up to the counter in the kitchen sometime over the summer, in hopes of forcing myself to deal with the issue — were really starting to annoy me. They were taking up too much space. “Make the freaking cakes already,” I said to myself, as I pulled out the brown sugar. “They need to sit around for several months before serving them anyhow. Just do this and be done with it.”

I pulled out the eggs, I went to the basement and took out the requisite entire pound of butter (stowed in the freezer down there), and I plugged in the Kitchen-Aid. Because the butter was frozen I had to grate a lot of it into the mixer. I decided that the thing to do was soften some of it by nuking and let grating half of it be sufficient. A pound of butter went into the Kitchen-Aid, and I began to cream it. I propped the Laurie Colwin cookbook up on top of the toaster and referred to it constantly as I worked. I also did one last series of Google searches for Black Cake to confirm that the recipe would work, that I was on the right track. It was clear that I did have one significant problem. Colwin’s recipe — which she says, mind you, that she herself never made — calls for two very deep 9″ cake pans: something I do not own. This meant that I was about to mix up a truly vast quantity of cake batter and I was going to have to really wing it in re: cake pans. Not ideal, to put it mildly. But I was game and determined. So I greased and floured five tinfoil mini-loaf pans and two not-so-deep 9″ cake pans, thinking, “Surely this will hold all the batter.”

How innocent I was in those days (seven days ago).

I had the butter and brown sugar creamed together, and it was time to add in the fruit. I opened one jar of fruit, and used a spatula to get it all out of the jar and into the mixing bowl; and then another jar; and it was at this point that I realized that my Kitchen-Aid was not going to be up to this task. Not because it wasn’t powerful enough to stir the mixture; but because the mixture was just going to be….. too damned much for the bowl to hold. It was at this point that I looked up on my shelf for the biggest mixing bowl I own, which is vast, not very deep-but-deep enough metal bowl we generally use for things like making a lot of whipped cream or for serving salad to 20 people at Thanksgiving. It’s a big bowl.

I transferred the contents of the mixer bowl to the metal salad bowl, kept adding Mason jars of fruit sludge, and then added seven jumbo eggs (which I figured would be roughly the equivalent of the dozen eggs St. Colwin called for). I mixed and mixed and mixed, alternating between using a spatula and a wooden spoon, because no one utensil could manage the task. I added the vanilla and I added the cinnamon and nutmeg and I mixed and mixed and mixed. Finally it was time to add the flour. It’s an incredibly small amount of flour this recipe calls for — perhaps all fruitcakes are like this — a pound of flour plus 1/2 cup, combined with three teaspoons (that’s one tablespoon to you and me) of baking powder. I weighed and measured and, bit by bit, I combined everything into one massive lumpy mess. This is not a cake batter that makes me swoon because it’s so beautiful. It looks like the devil’s vomit, to be honest. But I pressed on.

I then looked at the mixing bowl, and contemplated the pans I’d prepped — let’s run through this again: five tinfoil mini-loaf pans, and two not-so-deep 9″ cake pans — and grasped immediately that this was not going to handle all the batter.

As it happens, I recently attended a talk at the Institute Library in downtown New Haven, where a forensic linguist, Dr. Robert Leonard, was talking about his work. He uses linguistics to help solve crimes. Among the many interesting things he said was, “When someone starts a sentence with the word “fuck,” that’s not normal.” Dr. Leonard is a very interesting guy, and very smart, but the woman sitting next to me and I disagree with him entirely: we feel it is very common for people to start a sentence with the word “fuck.” “I often use it as a complete sentence,” I said to my friend, who nodded.

Contemplating the range of cake pans buttered and floured before me, I used “Fuck” as a very complete sentence. And then I opened a drawer where I keep baking equipment and I began to rummage around looking for smallish Bundt-type pans. I pulled out one pudding tin and one small Bundt pan, greased and floured them as fast as I could, and lined up all the pans on the counter. The oven was pre-heated to 350°, the batter was activated, and I had to be at school to pick up my daughter at 3 p.m. It was a quarter after one.

I got out my kitchen scale and began to carefully ladle cake batter into the mini-loaf pans, weighing them so that each pan would have roughly the same amount of batter in them. I had no idea at all how much these cakes would rise (not much, I now know: I could have put more batter into them and everything would have been ducky) so I was conservative and put 13 oz. of batter into each of them. Then I set them on a cooky sheet (to make it easier to move them in and out of the oven). I ladled cake batter into the two 9″ rounds and set them aside. I peered into the bowl and saw that I still had a ridiculous quantity of cake batter in there, and I sighed, and I started to ladle batter into the two little bundt pans. To my considerable relief, I was able to fit the rest of the batter nicely into those pans. So in the end, this recipe made nine — count them, nine! — Black Cakes. Two nine inch rounds, five mini-loaves, and two little Bundt cakes.

This is more fruitcake than anyone needs. “I will give these away to people come Christmas,” I told myself. “Which is fine. But I just don’t understand how this is supposed to be a batter for two very deep 9” rounds. The “very deep” would have to mean six inches.” Thinking about it now, I still don’t understand at all how two 9″ rounds is supposed to be enough to hold this batter.

But I slid all the pans into the oven and then I set the timer for an hour and thirty minutes and I went about my business, which means I started the heroic process of leaning up the huge fucking mess I’d made.

By the time I’d wiped down the counter and got everything squared away, the only thing left for me to to do was throw myself on the couch for ten minutes before starting to check on the cakes. I did have a small logistical problem, which was that I had to go get my daughter at the end of her school day, and I of course had no idea when these cakes would actually be done. I started testing them after an hour and thirty minutes and found them…. not done.  It was clear that the proscribed baking time was something of a flight of fancy. “Fine,” I said to myself, “I’ll go get my daughter, let her play outside for a bit, and when we come home, they’ll be done.” This plan worked just fine, and so it came to pass that at around 3.30 in the afternoon, I had nine Black Cakes resting on racks on the counter. “That’s a lot of cake,” my daughter observed.

It took several hours for the cakes to cool down enough for me to feel confident about turning them out. In the end, the two bundt cakes came out like a charm, fat little cake ladies, and the 9″ rounds were no trouble at all, but the mini loaf pans were a bit more problematic. Well, one was. There’s always one, isn’t there. So out of nine cakes, eight sprang from their pans with good cheer, and one kind of tore and was an irretrievable mess. I let them finish cooling on the racks for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening; these things have to be wrapped and stored for a long time, and I wanted to be absolutely sure they were cool before I moved onto the next step.

That evening, as I was washing the dinner dishes, my husband was standing at the counter where the cakes were resting. “So these are the cakes, huh?” he said. He clearly had what we might call mixed feelings about this enterprise. On the one hand, he’s all for cake; on the other hand, these are fruitcakes, which aren’t, you know, fun. I turned toward him to say, “Yup, now they sit for a few months —” and saw him take a bit of the broken cake and pop it into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed and got a look of disappointed surprise on his face. “You’re not supposed to eat it NOW,” I yelped.

“You’re not?” he said, yanking back his hand. “I guess that’s good, because….” He looked sad. “It has a kind of raw, raisiny quality to it.”

“It’s supposed to mellow, or something, for MONTHS,” I said. “MONTHS. You don’t eat this for MONTHS.”

“Okay,” he said apologetically, backing away from the cakes.

I’ve wrapped them all in tinfoil and I’m storing them in the metal cabinet in the basement where I kept the Mason jars of macerating fruit. There, they will be safe from cats, children, peckish husbands, and probably also fire and brimstone. I’ve made the Black Cakes; in December I will frost them with the requisite white icing, assuming that when I unwrap them they’re not just covered in mold and completely vile looking; and if it turns out we all hate the stuff, I’ll never do it again.

On the other hand, if I unwrap them, and there’s no mold, and I frost them, and it turns out we all find it delightful, I guess Boxing Day will find me going out to buy five pounds of dried fruit again.

 

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A Rainy Memorial Day

Memorial Day: it’s supposed to be about remembrance and Noble Americans — which it is — but also supposed to be about family and friends barbecuing, and people making potato salad, and celebrating the fact that you can finally wear your white shoes with impunity.

Well, folks, today it’s grey and rainy and cold. It’s like London in April out there. So we’ve spent the day at home. I would have spent the day feeling like nothing whatsoever was happening, except that I had the presence of mind, yesterday, to finally do something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time, which is prove that I can make better ice cream than my husband. Because I made the ice cream batter yesterday — you do call it batter, don’t you? — and because we always keep the ice cream maker bowl in the freezer, I was ready to go this morning. The batter churned for about twenty minutes, and got to the thickness of soft-serve, and then I spatula’ed it into three little pint containers, and now it’s in the freezer hardening up.

However, I can tell you that this stuff is good. How do I know? Well, I got to lick the spatula, and also I ate the blobs of ice cream that landed on the counter, and the little bits that were too hard to scrape out of the bowl and into the pint container. In other words, I got to eat about three tablespoons of homemade ice cream that I’d made myself, and I am quite confident that this is good, good stuff.

My husband is in the habit of making French vanilla ice cream, of which he is very, very fond. It is a product that involves a lot of egg yolks, a lot of cream, and sugar. I never really like it. I feel bad admitting this, but it’s simply true. I always feel like it just coats the inside of my mouth, greasy and heavy. I always attributed this to the cream he uses — he uses cream which has thickeners added, guar gum or something. Whatever it is, I do not like it.

A couple of years ago, during a phase when we were consuming a lot of this kind of dense, heavy ice cream, I happened to notice an article in the paper about “Philadelphia” style ice cream. I realized that for years and years, I’d been reading cookbooks where they talked about “French” ice creams and “Philadelphia” style ice creams and that I’d never really thought about it hard enough to grasp that these were really different things. I’d never thought about it because, well, I’d never made ice cream myself. Reading the article about Philadelphia ice cream made me grasp that while it may have been that my big problem was too much guar gum in the cream or whatever, the fact remained that, at heart, I was probably someone who just preferred a Philadelphia-style ice cream.

The difference comes down to eggs.

French custard ice creams have eggs; Philadelphia ice creams don’t.

I am normally someone who would say “Eggs? Custard? I am IN.” But somehow, with ice cream at home, I’ve got this idea that it’s just not my thing. Perhaps there are other issues I’m not grasping; some sources I read online suggest that perhaps the greasy mouthfeel I’m not so into could be attributed to over churning, and that the problem isn’t the eggs but the fact that we’re eating, essentially, vanilla-or-coffee-flavored butter. This could be.

But here, for the record, is what I did, and it’s resulted in some delicious, clean-tasting stuff. I considering going the adventurous route re: flavors, but for this maiden voyage I reined myself in and stuck with a simple, plain, vanilla ice cream.

In my medium-size enameled cast iron pot, I combined the following: 2 cups heavy cream (Farmer’s Cow brand — no extra crap in it); 1 cup of milk (Farmer’s Cow whole milk); just under 1 cup sugar; 2 tablespoons dry milk; 1 vanilla bean (sliced lengthwise, most of the seeds scraped into the pot); 1/2 tsp kosher salt; 1 tsp. vanilla extract (I was using Penzey’s double vanilla, which is phenomenal stuff and worth the money).

I heated these things up enough, stirring constantly, to dissolve the sugar and dry milk into the liquid. This wasn’t a mixture that had to cook, per se; but the heat made dissolving the solids much easier. I removed the vanilla bean pod from the pot and set it aside to dry (it can be used again) and covered the pot and put it in the fridge, where it stayed overnight.

The next day, I set up the Kitchen Aid ice cream attachment — ok, I had to have my husband show me how to do it, because it made no sense to me how the thing worked, even after watching three different YouTube videos on the subject, because none of the videos showed the same model of ice cream attachment gizmo that we have — and I churned the batter for about half an hour and then I took a spatula and filled my little paper pint containers. Three little tubs got filled — so we’ve got three pints of ice cream, here. If I were a good person, I would bring some over to a friend’s house and say, “Here, have some ice cream.” (And maybe I will do this yet; if my husband says he doesn’t like the ice cream, I almost certainly will, because this stuff won’t keep indefinitely (no stabilizers) and I can’t eat it all myself.)

If I feel, after eating a dish of ice cream tonight, that this is an unqualified success, then I am shortly going to branch out into chocolate ice cream, and it’s just a matter of time before I’m setting sail for the land of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and also coconut ice cream.

Last week my family ate, for the first time, a local ice cream treat called a Downside Watson. This is something that can only be purchased at Ashley’s Ice Cream, which is our gold standard for ice cream. A Downside Watson is assembled on a frisbee (which you get to keep). It’s supposed to come with bananas, but the night we were at the store, they were out of bananas, so a brownie was placed in the middle of the frisbee, to make up for the lack of fresh fruit. Atop this were piled seven scoops of ice cream and nine toppings. This sugar monster cost $26.95 plus tax, and it took us three nights to finish it. (We ate about half of it at the parlor, first night, but I had to say “OK, everyone, STOP” before we faced imminent collywobbles; and the rest was doled out after dinner two nights running).

We will always love Ashley’s more than any other ice cream parlor. Going to Ashley’s will always be a treat. But even so: if I can make my own platonic ideal mint chocolate chip ice cream, how can that be a bad thing?

But that doesn’t mean we cannot have nice things at home, too, right?

Homemade Goodies: or, How I am Under Strict Orders to Not Make Cracklin’ Oat Bran from Scratch

This morning, out of the kindness of my heart, I slipped a few pieces of Cracklin’ Oat Bran (the finest and possibly most expensive of all schlocky breakfast cereals) into my daughter’s morning bowl of Grape-Nuts. “Almost used up,” I said, peering into the box, which I’d given to my daughter as a silly birthday present.
“Buy more,” my daughter advised.
“Nah, this crap is too expensive for me to buy it all the time,” I said.
“How much could it cost?” asked my husband.
“It’s almost six dollars a box,” I said.
“Well, that’s bullshit,” he said. “Considering what breakfast cereal is made of, too.” He spared us his traditional diatribe about pencil shavings but only because I stepped in to distract him by suggesting I might attempt to make them from scratch. This proposal was made entirely in jest — I’m not messing around with that kind of thing anymore, I’ve learned my lesson — but he was fast to say, firmly, “No! Don’t do that!”
“You should make oatmeal cookies instead,” he said.
“Oatmeal cookies are awful,” said our daughter.
“No, they’re not!” my husband and I said as one. “What are you talking about?”
“They have raisins in them!” she insisted. “They’re bad.”
It was odd, because in fact this is a child who doesn’t mind eating raisins, but she has apparently absorbed the notion (held by me, to be sure) that raisins in desserts are a real bummer. My husband consoled her, “Oatmeal cookies don’t have to have raisins. They can have chocolate chips! And that’s a really good cookie. Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies are really, really good.”
He did admit that he likes them better with raisins AND chocolate chips. The skeptical girl at the dining table looked at me askance: she would have no truck with this.
“This afternoon, we can make oatmeal cookies,” I told her. “Good ones. No raisins.”
“Okay,” she said gamely.
“Check Cook’s Illustrated,” my husband reminded me. “I’m sure Christopher Kimball has some ludicrously elaborate and perfect way to make oatmeal cookies.”
We can do that. Because here it is. (Though I think this is from an issue that’s post-CK’s tenure at CI; the basic premise still holds.)

1 cup (5 oz.) all-purpose flour
¾ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking soda
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
¾ cup (5 ¼ oz.) dark brown sugar
½ cup (3 ½ oz.) granulated sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 whole egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 cups (9 oz.) old-fashioned rolled oats
½ cup raisins, optional

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour, salt, and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

Melt butter in 8-inch skillet over medium-high heat, swirling pan occasionally, until foaming subsides. Continue to cook, stirring and scraping bottom of pan with heat‑resistant spatula, until milk solids are dark golden brown and butter has nutty aroma, 1 to 2 minutes. Immediately transfer browned butter to large heatproof bowl, scraping skillet with spatula. Stir in cinnamon.

Add brown sugar, granulated sugar, and oil to bowl with butter and whisk until combined. Add egg and yolk and vanilla and whisk until mixture is smooth. Using wooden spoon or spatula, stir in flour mixture until fully combined, about 1 minute. Add oats and raisins, if using, and stir until evenly distributed (mixture will be stiff).

Divide dough into 20 portions, each about 3 tablespoons (or use #24 cookie scoop). Arrange dough balls 2 inches apart on prepared sheets, 10 dough balls per sheet. Using your damp hand, press each ball into 2½-inch disk.

Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until cookie edges are set and lightly browned and centers are still soft but not wet, 8 to 10 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through baking. Let cookies cool on sheet on wire rack for 5 minutes; using wide metal spatula, transfer cookies to wire rack and let cool completely.

Adventures with Heavy Cream

It sounds like it could be a previously unpublished with by William S. Burroughs, but no, it’s just me in my kitchen.

It took me several days to reach a point in our schedule when it was feasible and reasonable for me to leave the oven on at 180°, which is what I would have to do to try my hand at making clotted cream. But I hit that golden hour on a recent Saturday night. And so, armed with the link provided me by a staffer at Kimball Brook Farm, I tried my hand at making clotted cream.

The instructions, from this website, are very easy. You buy cream and pour it into a shallow pan; you cover the pan with tinfoil, and then you leave the pan in the preheated oven for twelve hours. After twelve hours, you take the pan out of the oven, and peel back the foil a bit to let steam escape. When the cream’s cooled for 30 minutes, you decant the stuff into a jar, pop it in the fridge for another twelve hours, and at the end you’re supposed to have — WHOO HOO! CLOTTED CREAM!

So I did all this. At eight thirty in the evening, after the dinner dishes were cleaned up, I turned the oven to 180° and I poured the cream into an 8″ square Pyrex dish and I covered it with tinfoil and I slid the pan gently into the oven. Then we all went upstairs. Eight-thirty the next morning, after my first cup of coffee, I removed the pan from the oven, peeled back the foil a bit, and let the cream cool. After thirty minutes, I got out a little Mason jar and a shallow spoon and did the big reveal.

What I saw was a thick layer of stuff on top and… warm cream underneath. I was frankly not sure what the big deal was; was the stuff on top the clotted cream? Because it really wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Or maybe it was; no, it definitely was; but there wasn’t much of it.

Nonetheless, I had a sense that separating the cream from the cream, if you’ll follow me, was not what I wanted to do quite yet; I needed to get all of this stuff into the Mason jar. It wasn’t easy to spoon it into the jar, but I managed, and only made a small mess (which the cats were happy to clean up) (yes, I cleaned the floor afterwards), and then I bunged the jar into the fridge and told myself that no matter what happened, I would be able to use the cream, and it was just some dairy products and everything would be ok.

I didn’t dare to open the jar until Monday morning. The jar made a strong “pop!” sound as I opened it, and the cats came running. “Okay,” I said to myself reassuringly, like the way the surgeons do in movies when they’re reconstructing the violinist’s hands and rebuilding his heart at the same time. Sure, it’s tricky work, but if you stay calm, you can do it. As I was saying, I opened the jar and I gingerly stuck a teaspoon in. Sure enough the top of the jar was nearly-solid cream — butter, more like — and underneath it was a pool of heavy cream.

Bearing in mind that my husband had been very curious about this process, I decided to not muck with it any further until he got home from work. During the course of the day I decided, too, that I would use some of the cream to make biscuits for dinner — because, frankly, I’d have to use the cream up, and it would probably only be suitable for baking. He came home from work and as he poured himself a drink and lifted the lid of the pot on the stove to see what we were eating for dinner (chicken and lentil soup), I said, “You gotta see this.” I took the Mason jar from the fridge.
“What’s that?” he asked

“This is the cream from Vermont,” I said. “Check this out.” I opened the jar and jabbed another spoon into the thick cream. “Oh, nasty,” he said.

“Come on, you jerk,” I snapped.

No one wanted to try it. I ate some of it myself, on toast, and found it fine, but to be honest, not particularly compelling; and it wasn’t the kind of thing I’m capable of eating in vast quantities anymore. I guess I’m getting old. And, given my family’s reception of the results of all this work and attention, I don’t think I’ll be bothering to do this again anytime soon.

I have no need for runny blue cooky icing, do you?

I try very hard to keep track of what I’ve got on hand in the house and what I need to stock up on. For example, I knew that it would become necessary for me to supply various social occasions with vast quantities of baked goods, and so I would need a lot of flour, a lot of sugar, and a lot of butter. Accordingly, when I placed a Peapod order, to be delivered a few mornings ago, I requested several five-pound sacks of flour (on sale! lucky me!), many pounds of butter (also on sale! More lucky me!), and many pounds of granulated sugar (not on sale, but also not that expensive, so it’s ok).

However, I made what my husband might call a rookie error. I neglected to order several pounds of confectioner’s sugar. Any idiot knows that if you’re baking snazzy desserts, you’re going to need confectioner’s sugar; and, what’s more, that it’s the kind of thing it’s smart to over-purchase, because you often need to add it with abandon to get icing or frosting consistencies just so. Recipes SAY “Combine two cups confectioner’s sugar to four tablespoons of creamed butter” or whatever but I’ll be damned if two cups has ever really been sufficient. They say two cups, I say three and a half cups. Basically, I know better. And I need, like, six pounds of confectioner’s sugar, easily, if I’m going to ice 58 little cookies shaped like letters.

One recent fine, cold morning I set aside several hours in which, I told myself sternly, I was going to make icings in pretty colors to decorate the 50-odd alphabet cookies I had already baked. I was going to mix up the icing and sit down at the table with the cookies and many sheets of wax paper and squeeze bottles and I was just going to do this thing.

Except I had no confectioner’s sugar.

Shit.

Furthermore, the grocery stores, which are normally an easy stroll away, were treacherous to get to because they were covered in sheet ice. I love my neighborhood, I do, but too many homeowners do not shovel their sidewalks as they are supposed to; this is a real bummer (and also illegal, but we won’t dwell on that). Did I want to risk falling and hurting myself to get confectioner’s sugar? No. I remembered that I could, hypothetically, make my own confectioner’s sugar out of granulated sugar and some cornstarch, and so I cheerfully took out the food processor, the sugar, and the cornstarch, and got to work.

I won’t go into the boring details, but let’s say that 90 minutes after embarking on this project, what I had was something that was totally unsuited to the task before me. I wasted a cup of sugar, two teaspoons of cornstarch, about two tablespoons of milk, two tablespoons of corn syrup, a squirt of fancy blue food coloring gel, and even — added in a moment of hope and desperation — two tablespoons of Bird’s Custard, to arrive at…. nothing useful.

In the end, I waited until the next day, when I felt more confident about my ability to walk safely to the grocery store. I paid a ridiculous amount of money for four pounds of confectioner’s sugar; I took it home; and then I got to work, feeling totally on top of things. The cookies were iced (not beautifully, but for sure colorfully); my daughter came home from school and expressed deep admiration for them, asking if I would do another batch but this time do only purple and green because those are her colors; and they were dispatched to the art opening. I washed my hands (and my pastry bag) of the whole enterprise, and had, happily, a whole bag of confectioner’s sugar left over for the next project.

One problem remains: what should I do with the two squeeze bottles of different shades of blue icing I have leftover? I see more cooky decorating in my near future.

Kimball Brook Farm Milk: For When You Can’t Fly to England?

Americans with an interest in English cookery are aware that there are dairy products that are normal in England that basically don’t exist in America. For one thing, there’s clotted cream. For another, there’s double cream. These are creams that have a significantly higher butterfat content than any of the conventionally-available American forms of cream (light cream, half-and-half, heavy or whipping cream).

Those of us who have eaten the real things in England know that once you’re back home in America there’s really no way to get your hands on any of this stuff. It’s a sadness to which one becomes resigned. You have to maintain a stiff upper lip about these things.

So it comes as a shock to buy a carton of milk at the store, bring it home, and find at the neck of the bottle a dairy product that you regard as impossible to obtain in the US. When I bought this milk and brought it home, I had no idea that I would find white gold stuck in the neck of the bottle.  I tasted a little of the cream, gawped, and used some of it to make carrot pudding. I spent a long time reading online about butterfat percentages and different types of cream, trying to establish some ideas regarding what kind of cream this really was.

I had no butterfat numbers for this product; but I did have the means to reach out to Kimball Brook Farm and ask them questions. So I did.

I had a lovely exchange first with a farm staff member and then I got transferred to one of the farm’s owners. I learned a great deal. My basic question was, “Hey, is the stuff on top of your whole non-homogenized milk double cream, in the English sense?” It became clear that the woman I was writing to didn’t understand what was meant by double cream, so using the information at this chart I rephrased, asking if they had percentages regarding butterfat content of the product (actually the two products that came in this one milk bottle).

The farm owner told me that the whole milk is usually 4% butterfat, but that the cream at the top of the bottle is 40-45% butterfat. This would put it in the double cream range, according to the WhatsCookingAmerica information. They say double cream is 48% butterfat. So not identical — but close.

Before I’d learned about the very high butterfat content in this stuff, I decided to jump in with two feet and attempt  to make yogurt with a mixture of the cream and the milk. I had to decant the milk into another container so that I could cut the milk carton with scissors to get at the cream: there was no other way to get at the cream. Using a skinny silicone spatula and a Hello Kitty chopstick, I scraped out about 1/4 cup of cream; I then added milk to make 2 1/2 cups, and put it in a pot to come to a boil. As soon as the cream began to melt, a yellow buttery film appeared on the surface of the milk. “Okay,” I thought, “this is going to be weird.”

And weird it was. I boiled the milk, cooled it to 110°, and added the yogurt starter as you’re supposed to do, and then I decided to do as a friend of mine does and just let the yogurt ferment in the Dutch oven where I’d boiled the milk. It seemed like a good idea, and if I’d been paying closer attention to maintaining the requisite warmth around the pot, I’m sure it would have proven to be a brilliant idea. But in my case, I got distracted by other things, and what happened was, when I checked on the yogurt around 5.30 yesterday evening, what I had was slightly yogurty-smelling milk with little yellow bubbles of butterfat floating on top. Cue Kevin Kline. It wasn’t that it looked scary or smelled rancid or anything like that; but it was plainly not right.
So: Operation Yogurt Rescue commenced. This meant trying again by letting the yogurt warm up to 110° again. It took a little maneuvering and juggling to do it, but I did it; in the end I transferred the stuff into a glass jar, wrapped the jar in towels, put the jar and towels into a clean Dutch oven with a lid, and put the whole shebang into a pre-heated oven (as low as I could get it, 170°). Then I left it there overnight. “We’ll see what happens,” I said to my husband. He replied, “Look, if it fails, don’t agonize over it, ok? It’s just some milk.”
This morning, I was awakened by the cats and staggered into the kitchen to feed them; while they snarfed their yummy slop, I opened the oven and pulled out the Dutch oven. I was not exactly optimistic about what I’d find. To my considerable surprise, the yogurt had thickened, beautifully! It was definitely yogurt-textured. Sure, it still had the weird buttery dots on top of it, but it was definitely yogurt.
Late in the morning, I baked a yogurt cake using the top several tablespoons of yogurt; the cake, which I dosed with some vanilla and cinnamon, came out a delicious, slightly sweet snack cake. What shocked me about the yogurt was that once I’d used the buttery layer of yogurt at the top — which was also slightly grainy-looking — the yogurt that remained in the jar was so smooth, and so rich, it was shocking. It was also rather more tart than I expect my homemade yogurt to be, probably because of the long fermentation period. But no matter: this stuff is lush. If I strained it to make yogurt cheese, it would be the yogurt cheese of the gods.
The graininess of the top was a little off-putting. I read up online about this grainy quality in yogurt. The consensus was that you could just whisk the yogurt and that graininess would disappear; this was exactly what happened when I whipped those top tablespoons of yogurt before using them in the cake. It was definitely unappealing, but clearly a non-issue if you just stirred the yogurt after it had chilled.
In the meantime, we ate the snack cake and I got another message from Kimball Brook Farm, this time from the person who does all the in-store tastings. She wrote that she thinks I’m basically correct about the cream-on-top being more or less an analogue to British double cream, though the numbers are not precisely matched. She admitted that she’d never personally made yogurt with any of their products, but said — and this was exciting — that she had made clotted cream at home. She gave me a link to a recipe, and said, you have to use the heavy cream to do this, but here’s how you do it.
Naturally, when I was downtown yesterday, I picked up a bottle of the cream on top milk and a bottle of the heavy cream. My husband, opening the fridge last night, said, “You know, I remember ten years ago, you were someone who only bought 2% milk; you would yell at me if I bought whole milk. And now you’re buying heavy cream with abandon.” “I’m going to try to make clotted cream,” I said.
He didn’t complain.
It turns out you have to keep your oven at 180° for 12 hours straight to make clotted cream. This means it’s something I can’t decide to do just any old day. However, I have announced my plans to my husband, and so, probably after dinner on Friday night, I intend to turn the oven on, pour the cream into a pan, and then…. see what happens.
I will report back.

I lost my cookies. And I forgot about them. But then I found them again. In FudgeTown.

Some months ago my daughter asked me why we never have Oreo cookies in the house and I thought, “You little ingrate.” Then I went and wrote a few hundred words on the subject, and made a plan for Chanukkah. I have since executed this plan. The plan was, Have boxed, storebought cookies make up a significant portion, if not all, of my daughter’s Chanukkah gifts this year.

In the end, it’s about 60% cookies, 40% other stuff (the Big Present being, She got her ears pierced), but every time she pulled out a box of cookies, she was thrilled. The biggest hit was the Mallomars. (Not that there were complaints about any of the other cookies.) I said “These cookies are, like, these are not normal, everyday, box cookies.” My husband piped up, “I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never had a Mallomar.” “You HAVEN’T?” I asked, astonished. It’s not like I grew up with stacks of boxes of Mallomars in the house, in fact I don’t think my parents ever bought them at all, but I’ve certainly consumed them, sometime in my 46 years. I said, “Well, now’s your chance.” That night, our daughter opened the package, shoved one into her mouth, declared it the best cooky ever, and handed the box to my husband. He gingerly pulled one Mallomar from the plastic packaging and considered it; then he bit in. “These are good,” he said. “These are really good.” I threw my hands in the air: “Of course they’re good!”

“I could eat a whole package of these,” my husband said thoughtfully, reaching for a second one.

Talking about Mallomars led to my Googling Mallomars, and reading an extensive Wikipedia entry on the subject of chocolate-covered-marshmallow cookies. It was here that I read the name of a cooky company, Burry, that I swear to God I had not thought of in probably thirty years. And yet I was immediately thrown back to the kitchen where we kept cookies on this one long shelf, boxes and boxes of cookies (and also variety pak boxes of Fritos, Doritos, and Cheetos, and tall boxes of cold cereal). Burry brand cookies were a major part of my childhood, along with some Nabisco classics (Oreos), some Keebler classics (chocolate covered graham crackers), and — the best — Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies (Freihofer’s a close second).

So how on earth had I forgotten about them?

It wasn’t that they were so great. They were, in fact, kind of schlocky. But I loved them. I could not, at first remember what the specific cooky was that we used to get; but we live in the era of Google search, and specifically Google Image search. And this is how I had my Moment of Cooky Memory, The Cooky I’d Lost and Unexpectedly Found: the Fudge Town cooky.

Burry’s Fudge Town cookies. Which came in two varieties: “vanilla” with a “chocolate creme filling,” and “chocolate” with a “chocolate creme filling.” They were awesome. They were kind of flower-shaped, with a hole in the middle of the cookies and you could take your finger and pop the blob of filling in the middle right up and eat it separately.

A Google search for Burry’s Fudgetown Cookies results in an appallingly low number of hits: 1230. Even if you spell “Fudge Town” as two separate words, you only get about 15,000 hits. Compare this to “Oreos”(more than 22 million hits). Statistically speaking, almost no one loves these cookies. But I loved them, and though I’d forgotten about them, I will never forget them again. It turns out that I am not the only person who fondly remembered plowing through cellophane sleeves of these things, but I am the only person in my household who remembers them at all. I also remember Mr. Chips, which I think my brother liked, and the Burry’s Best bagged cookies, which were kind of competition for the Pepperidge Farm bagged cookies (like Milanos and others). We never had the Gauchos, the peanut butter cookies — oddly, though my mother and I both love peanut butter, we never ever had peanut butter cookies — but I bet they were really good.

The lost cookies of my packaged-snack childhood will no longer be forgotten. I may use the recipe linked to above to try to recreate them. Maybe not for a while. We’ve not even started the Keebler Deluxe Grahams, or the Oreos, yet, because since I’ve discovered how to make Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies… well: I am easily distracted. My family even more so. Last night we watched a DVD of Two Fat Ladies in which the ladies made a raspberry-strawberry shortcake that caused my daughter to croon at the tv, “I need that.”

If I can find a source for double cream….

 

 

A Holy Grail: How to Make the Entenmann’s Chocolate Chip Cookie at Home, or, Ok, it’s not EXACTLY the same but it is damned close

As a child, we almost never made cookies from scratch. My aunt taught me how to make something called Chocolate Pinks (chocolate cookies with pink frosting) that we found in a cookbook (I should Google it and try to figure out where it came from, and make them again and see if they’re any good). My brother used to make chocolate chip cookies sometimes. But 99% of our cooky consumption was store-bought boxed or bagged cookies. Some of them were wonderful and some of them were pretty crappy but we loved them anyway and some of them we bought and then hardly ever or never got again because they were so uninteresting.

The Platonic ideal of the chocolate chip cookie was the Entenmann’s chocolate chip cooky. They were small, soft, generous with the chocolate chips, and had a real, genuine brown sugar taste and texture to them. They were wonderful. My brother and I could eat an entire boxful in one sitting. But they were expensive, as store-bought cookies went (and go today), and so they were a once-in-a-while treat.

I’ve long wished I could just live on Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies. In recent years it’s occurred to me, I’m a good enough baker now, I could maybe try to make cookies that good on my own. But I never thought hard about it. To be honest, I just didn’t believe it was possible. But the other day I decided to give it a roll. I Googled “soft chocolate chip cookies” or something like that and scrolled around a bit and eventually I landed on a website that had a cooky recipe titled “The Best Soft Chocolate Chip Cookie.” The photos — of which there were many — did indeed look more or less like Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies. So I took out a stick of butter and an egg and did some thinking.

The list of ingredients was this:

  • 8 tablespoons of salted butter
  • ½ cup white sugar (I like to use raw cane sugar with a coarser texture)
  • ¼ cup packed light brown sugar — I used 1/2 cup brown sugar, which was a big deal I think.
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 egg
  • 1½ cups all purpose flour (more as needed – see video)
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt (but I always add a little extra)
  • ¾ cup chocolate chips (I use a combination of chocolate chips and chocolate chunks)

What you do is, you preheat the oven to 350°, and you set up a couple of baking trays with parchment paper. Then you soften the butter so it’s almost liquid, and you cream the butter with the sugars in your mixer (or do it by hand, whatever, I don’t care). I used 1/4 more brown sugar than the original recipe called for, which I think was a significant change — I really wanted that brown sugar taste to be strong. Add the egg (I used an extra-large egg) and the vanilla. The original writer says that if you beat this for too long it toughens the egg and makes for a stiff cooky; I have no idea if this is true, but I’m reporting it just in case.

Then you mix in quickly and completely the dry ingredients, which you’ve whisked together (the flour, baking soda, and the salt). Then you add the chocolate chips. The dough will be a very soft, cohesive blob in the mixing bowl.

Take the dough by the teaspoonful in your hand and roll nice little balls. Put the balls on the baking sheet about an inch apart from each other, and press them down ever so slightly to flatten the tops a tiny bit. Bake these cookies for about ten minutes. The tops should look dry, but alarmingly close to uncooked. You will think, “Damn, these are still raw.” Nothing should be golden brown — you know how some cooky recipes say “bake till edges are golden brown”? Sometimes, that’s a good thing, that’s what you want. In the case of the soft chocolate chip cooky, it means you have gone too far and have made a cooky that will not be soft or chewy once it’s cooled. It means you have wasted your time and effort and ingredients. We will not discuss it further.

Let the cookies set on the baking tray for a few minutes to cool before you transfer them with a spatula to a baking rack. You can eat them now that they’re not scalding hot, the chips will remains melty for a while yet.

These are without any doubt in my mind the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever made. My husband, who is not a worshipper of the Entenmann’s chocolate cooky, but knows it well, said that it was absolutely clear these were the best possible approximation of the Entenmann’s cooky as could be produced by a home baker. I baked two dozen of these cookies (the original recipe, which tells you to make the cookies big, produces between 9 and 12 cookies, according to the author) and they lasted all of two days. Writing about them right now, I wish I had about five of them to eat all by myself, and I would make more, except I made a chocolate cake yesterday and I’ve got to be responsible about these things.
But as soon as the cake is gone, I’ll be making more cookies.

Sour Cream: No Sour Grapes

A few months back I read a new Jewish cookbook — The Gefilte Manifesto — which had in it instructions for making your own sour cream. It seemed to me that it would be rather pointless to do this, but on the other hand, it would take almost no effort to make the attempt and see if it might possibly be worth doing. So a few days ago I did as instructed. I took a cup of heavy cream (the best cream I could find, which has no added thickeners or other mishegas in it) and a half a cup of buttermilk (again, the best stuff I could find) and I put them in a jar with a lid and I shook them together, hard, for a minute. Then I left the jar on the counter top and waited.

Eventually, this stuff turns into sour cream.

It took about six hours for me to have the nerve to open the jar and see what would have developed inside. It turned out to be a combination of things. The top inch or so was thick, fluffy sour cream that tasted lovely, and the rest of the jar was filled with runny sour cream that seemed like a good useful product to me, but not to anyone else in the family. When we had latkes for dinner, I was the only one who’d use this sour cream. In other words, this was an interesting experiment, but not one that is likely to be often repeated unless I am willing to figure out a way to thicken the product (I glean that this is easily done with unflavored gelatin, but do I really care?). It turns out that I know a woman who makes her own sour cream all the time. She admits it’s not the same thing as storebought, but loves it on its own terms; I tend to think that I’m in that camp. It’s not “sour cream” as we’ve all been raised to think of it, but it’s a very good thing if you accept it for what it is.

In the end, I worked out a process in which I’d use the top layer, then shake the cream again and let another top layer develop, and so on and so on. It was not unlike the way when you toast marshmallows, you can toast the outside, slip it off, eat it, and then re-toast the marshmallow, and take off the “skin” and start over and over again until you’ve eaten the whole marshmallow. But it was silly, if I was the only one going to eat the stuff. I decided, after a few days, that I’d be better off just using the sour cream up in some recipe, because homemade sour cream doesn’t last very long. No preservatives, don’tcha know.

It was time for me to set up a loaf of bread, and I decided on a whim that it could not possibly hurt to use the sour cream as the primary dairy product in the bread. I’m talking about my usual pain de mie, the bread we use for breakfast toast and sandwiches and all that. Instead of adding dry milk and regular milk to the dough, I just threw in the last of the sour cream (it was about one cupful), and prayed. The dough was rather slow to rise at first, but after the first knocking down, I knew everything would be fine. I did my usual three rises, and when we baked the bread we wound up with this incredibly, ridiculously, tender loaf of bread that has been almost entirely consumed after two days. People keep coming up with excuses to eat toast. My daughter’s been asking for toast with butter and capers to have as her afternoon snack. My husband’s been eating it toasted with cream cheese and sliced green olives. It’s nearly gone.

I’m almost wondering: is it worth it to make a second batch of this failed experiment just so I can use it in more bread?

 

“You realize we are never doing this again, right?”

These were the words I spoke to my beloved daughter after I’d been rolling spring rolls for about fifteen minutes and realized that I could never work in a Vietnamese or Thai restaurant. Basically, any restaurant that features spring rolls on the menu is a place where the chefs have earned every ounce of my respect. Because few things in the kitchen are more infuriating than working with rice paper wrappers. It’s right up there with exotic buttercream frostings, something I will never muck with again since the last time I tried and wound up crying. Some kitchen enterprises are just not worth it.

This all started months and months ago. We had been out to lunch at a Thai restaurant with my mother. We decimated a tray of spring rolls in about three minutes and my daughter said, “We could make these, couldn’t we Mama?” I said, “Well, probably.” I meant this to mean, “I COULD, but I am not going to.” She took this as “Sure, we can ABSOLUTELY DO THAT!” and never let the subject drop. So all the rest of the school year, I’d say, “Some day over the summer, we’ll make spring rolls. It’ll be an Activity.” And she got more and more psyched about it. Which is great, to be honest. But it means the bar for success is pretty high.

Yesterday was the day we finally got around to it. We went to the Hong Kong Grocery downtown — they have pretty much everything you need to make pretty much anything except matzo ball soup — and we carried home a tote bag filled with the necessary stuff. We had a packet of rice paper wrappers — mysterious things I’d never used before — and a nice bunch of cilantro and a head of lettuce. We had surimi (imitation crab sticks), purchased because the more traditional spring roll animal flesh, shrimp, is unacceptable to my daughter. We had a fat carrot to grate, bean sprouts, a package of bean thread noodles. At home I already had a cucumber and all the condiments I’d need to pull this off.

It was early in the afternoon when we began the prep work: I explained to my daughter that making the spring rolls would be a lot of work and that it’d be easier if we got the veggie prep done well in advance. “We have to wash all this stuff before we can use it,” I said. “Let’s just get it done and then we can hang around and be lazy for a couple of hours before we really get to the hard part.”

“Why is it the hard part?” my daughter asked.

“Because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,” I said.

We stood at the sink and spent some quality time with the salad spinner. We washed cilantro and bean sprouts and lettuce; my daughter plucked the leaves from the stems of the cilantro and filled the 1/2 cup measuring cup I’d put out for this purpose. She did a great job. I made sure that the surimi was thawed, and then we played a game of Scrabble.

At five o’clock, I filled a big enamelware bowl — I usually use it as a salad bowl — with hot water, and we lined up our mise en place, and we got to work.

Within roughly fifteen seconds I realized I was going to lose my mind. I knew that working with rice paper wrappers wouldn’t be fun, but I hadn’t fully grasped how evil those little shits would be. You have to soak the wrappers and dry them before you put them on your work surface, lay filling on them, and then roll them up. It makes hamantaschen-folding look like pouring a bowl of cereal.

I produced four spring rolls, all of them technically correct — untorn, complete — but they were messy, ugly, and I said to my daughter, “This is going to kill me.” I had no idea how many spring rolls I’d have to make in order to have spring rolls be an entire meal. In the meantime, I was tired and cranky and losing my ability to be patient with this very, very fiddly work. We had to empty out the water bowl and refill it several times: no cookbook or website I looked at mentioned this, but if the water’s not hot enough, the wrappers don’t soften correctly. And if you don’t time it JUST RIGHT, the wrapper’s not worth a damn, either. Every recipe I read said to soak the wrapper for 10 to 20 seconds, turning it once in the process. Well, no: it was more like 5 seconds on one side, three seconds on the second side. We counted aloud, that’s how I know.

You soak the wrapper and lay it on a towel, and then you fold the towel over so that you dry the top of the wrapper quickly as well. Then you have to somehow migrate the very delicate wrapper to a place where you can roll the thing up. (I suppose it could all be done on the towel, but it’s hard to see the wrapper when it’s on the towel.) A little bit of bean noodle; a little bit of carrot, of cilantro, of surimi — then you fold it like a little bitty burrito. Or, as I observed to my husband, when he got home, like a boerek. (How do I know about making boereks, those little Turkish cheese pastries? It was an annual fundraising project at my daughter’s nursery school. Don’t ask.)

Making spring rolls is one of those things where, It’s not that it’s hard; but it’s HARD. I assume it takes hours of practice to get really skilled. I had a running monologue going on the subject as I took the wrappers from my daughter and laid them on the towel and dried them and then filled them and rolled them. “The kitchens at the Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are probably all staffed by people who’ve been making these things since they were six years old,” I spat. “By the time they’re teenagers, they can do this in their sleep.” “Uh-huh,” my daughter said sympathetically. She knows when I’m on a tear. “You realize we’re never doing this again, right?” I said. “Uh-huh,” she said. At one point she refilled the bowl with hot water and carried it back to the counter saying, “I’m not gonna spill, I’m not gonna spill,” (and she didn’t) and she said, “I would give you a hug except I’d get in your way.”

I muttered my way through rolling a platter’s worth of spring rolls. A couple of them were so wretched I just fed them directly to my daughter, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. She declared them delicious. I got through my supplies of slices of surimi, cucumber, cilantro leaves, and grated carrot, and thought, “I’ve had enough of this crap.” I still had a huge bowl of bean thread noodles in front of me. And my husband and child were looking hungry.

So I cooked up a sauce out of peanut butter, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and peanut oil, and mixed it into the noodles with my hands (this is the only way I can effectively mix sauces in with noodles like this; I don’t know how other people manage it otherwise). I sprinkled the last of the bean sprouts on top and set the bowl on the dining table. Then I whisked up a sauce for the spring rolls (peanut butter, soy sauce, Sriracha, garlic) and brought that to the table. Lastly, I brought out the spring rolls.

I had to admit, it all looked fairly impressive. Spring Rolls Cellophane NoodlesMy family certainly inhaled vast quantities of food. I think I’d rolled well more than a dozen spring rolls, when all was said and done — I could figure it out by counting how many wrappers were leftover, but that’s too depressing to contemplate, because it means I’d have to face how many I have leftover to deal with in the future. And a dozen spring rolls doesn’t sound like a lot of spring rolls, but when you’re an incompetent klutz and a novice at working with rice paper wrappers…

 

Well. I think, actually, that I can handle it. I think that given a little more practice, I can get good at it. And that if I do get good at it, it will be worthwhile. Just like with the hamantaschen. But in the meantime, I’m going to order spring rolls in restaurants as often as I can to try to figure out how to get mine better. Yesterday’s spring rolls were a new room in the Museum of Tsuris, but I have to believe that given practice I can demolish that room.
In the meantime, the leftover cilantro’s been turned into chimichurri sauce, which we’ll be having with a broiled steak for dinner tonight. Potato salad on the side. Very straightforward compared to last night, to which I say, Thank god.