Friday, July 15, 2016

Baking a Cake on Bastille Day


Last night, distraught by the news of a terrorist attack in Nice on Bastille Day, I baked a cake. When the going gets tough, tough broads make lemon cake. I haven't baked in ages. But last night, it seemed like the right thing to do. To balance all that bitterness and grief with something rich, sweet and tart.

I surfed the net before settling on a recipe I could tolerate. And even then, I was adapting it in my head, unconsciously nudging it toward the sublime symmetry of poundcake—quatre-quarts—made  with a 1:1:1:1 ratio; a pound each of butter, eggs, sugar, and flour. Sturdy bread flour, not cake flour, that has no gluten to hold it all together.

I assembled the dry ingredients, and as the oven was warming, I plucked handsome lemons off the same tree where I had placed that orphaned towhee chick I rescued a few days ago. I added an extra egg for luck, three golden jumbo-sized suns glistened in the bowl. Melted butter.  The Mexican morada sugar gave the batter a faint caramel flavor.

I scraped little runnels of Meyer lemon peel into the batter, like the fine golden threads that connect us all. I jettisoned the sweet milk and substituted double the yogurt for sour cream. Alors, the yogurt had mold on the top, but I scraped it off, and carried on. I am amazed how people go off the deep end if there's a little extra spontaneous culture on their yogurt. I mean, it's already spoiled rotten. Just do a generous scrape-off and use it for cooking.

A friend sent a recipe for coffeecake. If only we could go back to a gentler time, to, say, The Koffee Klatch in Fairfax, circa 1972. The Bon Appétit recipe sounds divine. They're generally very good. Intriguing concept to brown the butter first, drive out all the water and whey, to give it a nuttier caramel color and taste. (Like ghee, but toasted).

Already I am adapting and revising that recipe in my head. I'd just use all soured milk products: buttermilk, or yogurt. No fresh milk. Why use both? What's the logic behind it? You balance the sour milk ratio with baking soda, and baking powder. Quick breads are a gaseous Alka Seltzer-laden  doughy mess that rises as the heat sets it in place. And soured milk products, besides being better for you, make for a finer crumb and taste.

A general yuppified recipe peeve I have for the Let Them Eat Cake crowd: Why use unsalted butter if you're going to add more salt to savory dishes, or cookies and cakes? What's the rationale? Who made it an inviolate "rule" is that you had to use unsalted butter? Nonsense. I get the theory (fresh vs old butter) but these days, there's little difference, cooking-wise—unless you're making chocolate truffles.

As it is, for that browned butter coffeecake recipe, you're going to fry the living daylights out of the butter, char the milk sugars and trace minerals to a crisp, and then vaporize the emulsified water, so all that's left in the pan is clarified fat. I say use whatever butter's at hand... Just remember to cut back on the salt. And buy butter you like to eat. Just don't use Crisco.         

And while we're at it, what's with the hoity-toity kosher salt? Is it a case of using iodized vs not-iodized salt? What's the rationale? I don't think anyone will be able to tell if rabbis or foreskins were ecumenically invoked. It's all NaCl, folks! Like bitter tears. Just use less salt. Always taste as you go. Ditto that with the butter.

For what it's worth, I generally argue with most online recipes. I question ratios, choice of  ingredients, order of preparation. I'm a member of the less bowls to wash up is more club. There is so much voodoo and hype around recipes—vs logic, or common sense. (My folklore prof., Dr. Dundes, would have called it the use of sympathetic magic.) It's chemistry, not alchemy, fergawdsakeses.

Do most of those internet foodies even know what they're doing? Or are they blind sheep? We can thank/blame reality cook shows for much of the hype. Ina Garten and Martha Stewart insist on using unsalted butter and kosher salt, but it doesn't blend as well as fine grained table salt. Julia Child's sidekick, Jacques Pépin—the only voice of reason—said if you use salted butter, cut down on the salt in the recipe. (Or eliminate it entirely). Not rocket science. The rule of thumb is to taste and correct seasonings as you go.

Apparently, during times like this, I seek logic and clarity. Something with discrete steps. Plausible. Logical. With a tangible end result. Hypothesis, theory, outcome. Sometimes, it manifests itself by my reorganizing decades' worth of photo files, or rebuilding my old computers. No emotion there. Unless I'm swearing because I fucked it up. Besides I've been doing that all summer long.

The errant cake overran the edges of the pan, sending smoke signals out the door, which brought Himself steaming into the kitchen, all in a huff, fretting with his manspeak vocabulary of blame. I told him to shove off. It is what it is. Was I supposed to pull the raw cake out of the oven and scrub the hot oven right then and there? Never mind that the cake would collapse into a hockey puck or a black hole. And the whole point was to make comfort food during this time of terror.

Je suis Charlie, je suis Paris, avec Brussels, Bagdhad, Orlando, Istanbbul, je suis épuisé. Je suis fatigué. Je suis fatigué. And now a coup in Turkey.

The timer rang in some good news. I found myself singing:

Orléans, Beaugency, Notre-Dame de Cléry.Vendôme, Vendôme.
Quel chagrin, quel ennui, de compter toutes les heures 

Quel chagrin, quel ennui, de compter jusqu’à minuit, 
Mes amis que reste-t-il?


The cake came out golden as the sun and sweet as a child's kiss and it satisfied a small corner of the soul.




Ask The Food Lab: Do I Need To Use Kosher Salt?
Unsalted v Salted Butter

original post: Last night, distraught by the news, I made lemon cake, I picked lemons off the tree where I had placed that orphaned towhee chick, and I scraped little runnels of lemon peel into the batter, like the fine threads that connect us all. I haven't baked in ages. It seemed like the right thing to do. I used some yogurt instead of sour cream, and alors, the yogurt had mold on the top but I scraped it off, and carried on.

Bon Appétit recipe sounds divine.They're generally good. Intriguing to brown the butter first, drive out all the whey, and give it a nuttier taste. (Like ghee, but toasted). I'd just use all soured milk products: buttermilk, or yogurt. No fresh milk. Soured milk products make for a finer crumb and taste.

A general yuppified recipe peeve I have: Why use unsalted butter if you're going to add more salt to savory dishes, or cookies and cakes? What's the rationale? Who made it a "rule" is that you use unsalted butter" Nonsense. I get the theory (fresh vs old butter) but there's little difference, cooking-wise—unless you're making candy. Just cut back on the salt. And what's with the hoity-toity kosher salt? Iodized vs not? I don't think anyone will be able to tell if rabbis were invoked. It's all NaCl, folks! Just use less salt. Taste as you go. Ditto that with the butter.

For this recipe, you're gonna fry the shit outta the butter, charring the milk sugars and minerals to a crisp, and vaporizing the emulsified water, so all that's left is clarified fat. Use whatever butter's at hand...

FWIW, I generally argue with most online recipes, amount ratios, ingredients, order of preparation—so much voodoo hype around them—vs logic. (My folklore prof., Dr. Dundes would have called it sympathetic magic.) It's chemistry, not alchemy. FGS. We can thank/blame reality cook shows for much of the hype. Ina Garten and Martha Stewart insist on using kosher salt, but it doesn't blend as well as fine grained table salt. Jacques Pepin said if you use salted butter, cut down on the salt in the recipe. Not rocket science.

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