Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cakes with whom I have philosophized

Have you ever arrived home after a long day at school, or work, or even an hour at the gym, and despaired at having all of the ingredients to make food, but no actual, palatable food?

Cans of condensed soup? Shelf-stable cheese? Better go find a Pinterest recipe. source

I imagine you have. Takeout to the rescue, y’all.

Recently I attempted restaurant-style paneer tikka masala, which is frankly one of the most delicious concoctions to ever grace planet earth. Came out fabulously, albeit a bit under-spiced (but nothing a glug or ten of hot sauce couldn’t solve). But damn. Too. Much. Work. Seriously—who wants to cobble together homemade cheese, blend together a vegetable gravy, and simmer five hundred ingredients together for the better part of an afternoon just for a bowl of curry that one could easily obtain with a simple phone call?

The struggle is real. And it is even more real in the realm of cake.

Why, exactly, I thought I could go from a half-hearted chocolate cake trifle to a Boston cream pie is beyond me, but so went my next big kitchen adventure as I prepared for my own birthday. It seems that the more one bakes, the more inexorably one is drawn to the kitchen, the more one feels the need to create everything from scratch, without fail, whether it is productive or not, the more one decides “I shouldn’t buy that, I should make it” only to spend hours in the kitchen in pursuit of some impossibly perfectionistic goal. 

No, silly June Baby, you can’t “try” mille-feuille. You have to learn how to make chocolate chip cookies first. source

That same local grocery store sold a Boston cream pie, all wrapped in acetate and covered in glossy ganache and filled with perfectly smooth pastry cream. But no. I was a chef now, an accomplished, capable pastry chef, and it would be below my sensibilities to purchase such a thing. Of course.

Admittedly, that cake was not a solo effort—my mother was a significant help this time around in things like beating egg whites until they reached this mysterious condition called “soft peaks” and folding other, more solid mixtures into them (something I had no idea of how to do, given that I couldn’t even confidently cream butter on my own). But while making pastry cream, my mother was, for some reason or another, forced to abandon the kitchen and leave me to finish the delicate process alone. I was a nervous wreck, to say the least. Yet somehow, I managed to temper eggs without wreaking havoc on the sweet, vanilla-infused pudding (which would have been a tragic waste of an expensive vanilla bean). Smooth. No lumps.

Unlike the pastry cream I made a few days ago for my mother’s birthday. That goop was like scrambled eggs, I swear (but in my defense, the three cream varieties were sufficiently palatable after being infused with healthy doses of chocolate).  

Anyway. The point being that I, Baby June, profeshunal sheph, managed to temper eggs and make pastry cream without completely ruining the pseudo-pie I would be serving a my birthday party. Even more miraculously, the cake came together perfectly, and although I did request my mother’s assistance in torting the layers, you can’t deny my ganache-pouring technique is just delightful. 

What, that’s not ganache? Because that’s how I eat drink my ganache. source

Since my success with the Boston cream pie, I have naturally gravitated towards ever more daring endeavors. Once, over the summer, my family had an unnecessary abundance of fresh plums festering in the fridge and nothing much to do with them other than—of course! Let Baby June incorporate them into some fabulous bakery concoction! What could possibly go wrong? 

Challenge accepted.

And yeah, I think I pretty much fulfilled that challenge. 

The Tale of the Great and Terrible Plum Cake

Ahem. So, ah, let's begin.

My initial inclination, upon receiving permission to go ahead and bake my heart out, was to make a traditional plum tart, or perhaps a slightly more interesting version of an upside-down cake. But no—too easy, too bland, not cake-y enough (please don’t hate me, that’s just what I thought at the time, I swear). Then I stumbled across this.

Five spice? Four layers, plus a jewel-like filling and silky smooth icing? Now that’s what I’m talking about, naïve little June thought. I bet it’ll look just like in the pictures

Oh sure, I can totally frost a cake smoother than a freshly ironed shirt and cut slices without disturbing one crumb. Why the hell not? source

So I breezed my eyes over the recipe and determined that indeed, I would first need to roast the plums. Sounds easy. With my parents absent from the house, I preheated the oven and prepared a baking sheet with aluminum foil, then scattered the juicy plums across it like balls of cookie dough. In the oven. I turned my back, browsed the internet, only to realize that yes, there was a black stream of smoke pouring out of the oven’s vent. In a panic I pulled the sheet out of the oven and saw plum juice still dripping onto the oven floor, blackening and burning as billows of smoke poured out into the kitchen and sent the alarms ringing like mad. 

It was cold (for a summer day), but I dutifully opened the doors and windows in hopes it would drift outside in time, but no. Upstairs, the entire hallway smelled of smoke, and a smoky grayness settled on everything, like a Halloween movie (okay not that bad, but you could definitely see it). Every single alarm clock in the whole goddamn house was ringing. My brother and I—alone, without parental supervision—stepped outside and marveled at my immense naivety and then ambled back inside because what the hell. 

Wow all of that effort was so totally worth it! *pukes*

So I removed the plums from the oven, dumped them into a bowl, and proceeded to line the baking sheet with aluminum foil in a remarkably elaborate construction to prevent the juices from dripping, only for my construction to fail, utterly, and result in more alarms and more smoke and more facepalms. Only when my dear mother arrived home did I learn of the solution.

Ever heard of a quarter sheet pan, dumbass? 

What the actual source

I mean, no, the concept was much too foreign to me, it was something I’d never used before, I had no idea. And June Baby is pretty stupid. And by that I mean really stupid.

By that point I was thoroughly frustrated but had no plans of turning back—I had yet to make the cake itself, chill the cake, fill the cake, stack the cake, frost the cake…oh Lord I had a long way to go. What a dreadful self-induced mess it was.

The making of the cake itself was not difficult, as it followed the basic pattern of a creamed-butter cake: cream the butter and sugar, add eggs one at a time, then add the dry and wet ingredients one at a time, being careful not to over-mix. Once you’ve made one butter cake, you’ve made them all most of them some of them. However, there of course had to be an element which I would not be able to capture, and in this instance it was the pan size. I completely understand why bloggers feel the need to use six-inch pans so frequently, but still—WHY?!? 

Aaaannnndddd...there goes all the heat in the oven.

So I got a little lesson the art of adjusting baking times. “All was well,” as Ms. Rowling would say.

That bowl in the background is filled with sweat and tears.

But no, more work was still to be done. In the realm of layer cake, one must always make the frosting last, taking great care to prevent the formation of all lumps and frosting the cakes delicately and smoothly and with an even, steady hand.

Well fuck that. Because that…that was not what happened.

You see, this frosting was a unique, unforeseen kind of frosting. The kind of frosting that has flour in it. Yes, indeed; not only does this magic concoction contain copious amounts of butter and sugar, but it is also laced with the white powdery magic that is AP flour.

On the other hand, my frosting skills were essentially the culinary equivalent of a headdesk at that point in life, so you must understand that my efforts were doomed from the start. That, and the fact that I had about a half a drop of “plum syrup” leftover from my plum-roasting catastrophe.

The first step of the frosting required making a sort of pudding on the stovetop: a combination of sugar, baking soda (for reasons unknown), flour (yay!), cornstarch, five spice (the flavor of this particular cake), and salt. And of course, despite my relentless whisking, I end up slightly overcooking the mixture and infusing my frosting with a permanent array of lumps. I attempted to smush them out, but I was far too tired and bored and impatient to turn back and begin again. In the beautiful and all-knowing KitchenAid it went. After adding whipped butter a couple tablespoons at a time, the odd-looking mixture was beaten and beaten and beaten until it was black and blue all over and looked positively disgusting—like overcooked oatmeal. So much for success. 

Someone teach me how to focus (or on second thought, don’t—you don’t want to focus on this).

In retrospect, I know much more about what went wrong with this peculiar boiled frosting (as Pioneer Woman calls it). I overcooked the pudding, for starters, and the butter probably wasn’t sufficiently warmed and thus became a gross, clumpy mess upon being whipped with the remaining ingredients. But alas. Little June was crushed.

And so with a heavy heart, I torted the cake (without cutting my hand open, mind you—that would be too much fun) and added my pitiful wedges of roasted plum and smeared on the oatmeal frosting.


But hey, nobody cares so long as it tastes good, amiright?

So I cut the stupid fucking cake open. Upon my first bite, I discovered that no, I don’t actually like Chinese five spice (in sweet contexts, anyway) and how this was the biggest waste of time I had ever willfully engaged in and how I would never, ever be so idiotic and ignorant of my own tastes, let alone simple baking techniques, again.

How funny is that? I spend all day making a cake, albeit a chaotic, discombobulated train-wreck of a cake, and I don’t even like the flavor at the heart of the recipe itself.

The next day, the five spice aspect had toned down a little bit and was somewhat more palatable (although not without copious amounts of whipped cream). But nothing could ease the bitterness in my cold, rage-infused heart.

Now: don’t get me wrong. Hungry Rabbit NYC is a fabulous blog, and I am forever thankful that I happened upon it despite my painful initiation into Sir Ken’s recipe collection. I hope someday to be able to frost a cake as smoothly as he does (or for that matter, as well as any other food blogger or pastry-maker across the world). Not to mention, there are some seriously delicious looking matcha recipes over there.

So many recipes, so little time.

But you’ve got to make time for failure…I guess.