Recipe #14: Pumpkin Tea Cake

The list was quite short, but pumpkins were directly on the top of the things I detested as a child.  You know, that irrational repulsion that kids create for no rhyme or reason?  That was pumpkins for me – maybe it was the guts?  The smell?  Maybe it was the fact that the only thing I’d ever tried was a pumpkin pie from the grocery store that was from the can and was pretty slimy?  Hmm… I would carve them for Halloween, and even loved scooping out all the slippery pumpkin guts, but eating them?  That’s crazy talk.

It wasn’t until last Thanksgiving when I grew up enough to give pumpkin pie another try.  I insisted that I call the shots, so I baked a pumpkin pie myself.  I roasted the actual pumpkin, which puts me that much closer to the Baking Goddess Dup (Ina Garten and Martha Stewart).  Turns out, I love me some pumpkin pie when it’s done right.

Here we are today, and I’m even excited about baking other things with pumpkin in them.  Although, oddly enough, I recently read that pumpkins were once suggested for removing freckles and curing snake bites.  I must have subconsciously known this as a kid – I like my freckles and I steer clear of snakes, so pumpkins just didn’t make sense.

Mt. Sifted Spices

I know what you’re thinking.  I was just bragging about roasting my own pumpkin and making the purée, and here I am with a can.  I am not above using the good basic purée canned stuff, then spicing it up myself.  In the directions they give the big okay for using store-bought pumpkin purée, so it’s a free pass to save myself a handful of steps. 

You will find an egg shell in roughly 94% the eggs I crack, so using a bowl before incorporating the eggs into the mixing bowl is completely necessary.  And, probably what you’re supposed to do anyways.  

Yet again, another preemptive strike warning to not over-mix the batter.  The last similar warning had me panicked and I found two little pockets of flour in the brownies once I was cutting them up.  No such bad fortune this time!

Cooling right out of the oven.

Before diving into this baking project I had no idea what to really expect from the many tea cakes that you find in this cookbook.  I’d pictured a dense, dry biscuity thing that the Queen of England may nibble on with her afternoon tea.  (I mean that as no disrespect to the Queen, “Sorry, Queen, if you read this.  Nothin’ but love.”)  I even looked into this tea cake conundrum so to provide a good definition for you, readers, but the spectrum of tea cakes is vast, spanning many different explanations in different countries.  Basically, tea cake and coffee cake are the same thing – potato, potato.  (That doesn’t translate to the written word very well.  Potato, Po-tah-to?)  These tea cakes I’ve been making are these super moist loaves of flavorful magic.  Harry Potter, armed with a goblet of fire and a Half-Blood prince at his side, could not conjure up such a perfect treat.

It makes for a lovely breakfast.


Recipe #10: Brownies

It’s recipe #10 (double digits!) and it’s about time I have some chocolate!  I eat chocolate every day – most days it’s like a handful of M&M’s like Cher from Clueless, and then they’re days when I truly need to indulge.  I’ve made brownies many times in my life, and the vast majority of them were from a box.  I’m not proud of that, but I’ve never found a brownie recipe from scratch that didn’t turn out like chocolate cake in the end.  If I wanted chocolate cake, I would have made chocolate cake!  Geesh!  Qualities I desire in a brownie: super fudgy, very chocolaty, keeps its shape when cut and put on a plate, and it must have that crispy thin crackled crust on top, just like the ones you see in pictures.

Conversation at the grocery store, buying four chocolate bars:

Cashier (19-year-old dude/hemp necklace/tie-dye peeking above the collar of his uniform):  That’s a lot of chocolate.

Me: Yeah, I’m pretty sure one of these has the golden ticket.

Dopey Cashier:  I don’t know…You mean our customer perks card?  It’s green, not gold.

Me: No…I was talking about Willy Wonka.

Dopey Cashier: This isn’t Willy Wonka chocolate, it’s “Gurrdelli”.

Me: I just meant…the movie.  You know, everyone’s hunting for the golden tickets…

Dopey Cashier: I don’t think that’s real.

Me: Well I guess I won’t win.

One beautiful pile of chocolate! 

I’m glad I went with Ghiradelli – even though I’ve won no trip to the Wonka factory – it is a nice nod to San Francisco.  When we were in SF and had visitors, I would take them to Fisherman’s Wharf.  Yes, a classic touristy spot, but I love that once you step foot into the Ghiradelli shop they hand you a square of chocolate!  I would always hope for the ones filled with caramel or peanut butter.  And you could leave, turn right around, walk back in, and they give you more chocolate!  I think my record over the span of 15 minutes was four re-entries.  Five just seemed a little too brazen. 

I loved chopping up this chocolate so much.  SO much, in fact, that I thought taking a video was a good decision.  It’s probably the most boring video, but there’s something mildly hypnotizing about watching those bittersweet bricks get chopped up.  It probably helps that I could smell it, so it really attacked all of my senses.  Smell-O-Vision, where art thou?

Whenever I see liquid chocolate the first thing that enters my mind: “Agoooostus!” and then I replay that plump German lad falling into that chocolate river over and over in my mind.  Yes, another Willy Wonka reference.  I can’t promise that’ll be the last either.

Most people keep white sugar in their fancy sugar containers.  Dan decided to put the brown sugar in ours. 

All of my previous cake-like brownies called for plain ol’ sugar, but this recipe uses brown sugar.  Maybe some magic lies with that change up.  Once you have the eggs, sugar, salt and vanilla mixed up, there’s five minutes or so of whisking it like crazy before the flour and chocolate are added.  A metamorphosis unfolds before your eyes as you watch that high-speed mixing take place.  It changes from this really dark mixture, to a very light-colored, thick, super airy and bubbly mixture.  It’s like this oxymoron of the baking world – thick AND light, sticky AND soft.  I know you’re doubting me, but I feel like we’ve got some trust going on here.  Believe me, I saw it before my own eyes!  I was afraid to breath around it for fear of making it deflate. 

After spending so long whisking the air into the mixture like some sort of magic airbender, you’re to fold in the chocolate and flour “quickly” and “carefully” as to avoid ruining that airy consistency you’ve worked so hard for.  After I just witnessed this transformation, I hesitatingly used that rubber spatula to fold it all together.  It worked out well, even though there was a tiny pocket of flour in the final product.  Turns out I was too careful and too quick about it.

Some people have moving water in their homes to aid the serenity of the home – I’m looking into fountains that pour brownie batter into ceramic dishes. 

It took all the restraint this chocolate-lovin’ soul could muster not to eat the brownies before the little dude’s friends came over for a Halloween party.  Making them the evening before meant an even longer span of time where I had to patiently wait to dig in.  With all the frequent trips to the kitchen, just to look at the brownies, I did notice they sank down into the dish a bit.  Not enough to create panic, but enough to be slightly concerned.  Reading the directions, you find that using the toothpick tester method is useless because of the amount of chocolate!  I’ve found that I’m baking things a lot longer than the recipes call for – I think that’s pretty normal for a cookbook.  I actually baked these for the exact twenty five minutes that were suggested and even thought to myself I should let them bake a bit longer.  Visually, they were on cue.   

Here’s where I scrambled today.  I cut into the brownies, and they were so very gooey.  I didn’t think you could have a brownie that was too gooey, but these were clearly under baked a bit.  (Just a couple more minutes were needed after all!)  A little debating and then discussion with friends, and throwing them back in to the oven seemed like a good idea.  I’ve always heard that when people are going through a traumatic moment, they don’t think clearly.  I’ve actually seen it on all of the Law & Order-s and know that’s how every scary movie works.  I wasn’t thinking – who puts something like this back in the oven?  If you were watching it all go down, I know you’d be screaming, “What is she doing?!  Stop!  Don’t open to oven!  She’s opening the oven!!!  Oh my god!  SHE’S PUTTING THEM BACK IN THE OVEN!”  It was pretty much reverse baking, creating brownies approximately a million percent gooier.  So – off to the freezer they went!  They cooled quickly, but then we were left with cold crazy gooey brownies.  Then it dawned on me.  These were about to be served to kids ranging from 2 – 5.  They wouldn’t care about consistency – they looked like brownies, and that’s all that mattered.  You try to tell a handful of kiddos we’re going to skip the brownies.  Yeah, exactly.  AND!  After dessert we found out it’s National Chocolate Day!  How perfect. 

I think Spiderman wanted seconds, but his mom put her foot down.

After all is said and done, I’m unsure whether to mark this as a win or loss.  They tasted amazing, but lack the perfection I seek in my brownies.  I guess I’m making a new column – “Pretty good, almost there, shall be perfected the next time I bake them”


My kitchen soundtrack

Another important necessity in my kitchen? A soundtrack! Listening to music while I bake means some good stuff is going on – there could be dancing, singing, and there’s always the hope that I’m making something edible and delicious. Or, there’s a chance to be serenaded, we all need that once in a while, and that way I can pretend there’s a soundtrack to my life. The best thing to do is choose a playlist in accordance with my mood, then press shuffle. (example lists to choose from: Party Party Dance Time, My movie soundtrack, Belt-It-Out-Sing-a-Long) I am addicted to music, so here’s just a l’il sample of what’s in the mix around here:

Yann Tiersen: (You know, the guy behind the music of the film Amelie?!) For those moments I need to feel like there is a real possibility that I’m working at a bakery in Paris, or in some tiny town in Southern France. My husband, Pierre of course, rides his bike around training for the Tour de France.

Bonnie Prince Billy: For those moments that living in a remote cabin in Montana where the nearest town is twenty miles away with a population of 76, and homeschooling, sound like a great idea.

Fun upbeat stuff (i.e. Eliza Doolittle, The Cults, Oh Land, or that famous duet of Elton John and Kiki See (You know, “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart”): I’m shooting the intro for my movie, a romantic comedy of course, where I run the course of getting dumped/meeting Mr. Right/running away from Mr. Right/falling in love with Mr. Right. Oh, and also trying to get that promotion I so desire, and dealing with a disobedient dog who keeps eating all of my shoes and bras! ARG! Sounds like a great movie, right? You’d totally watch it during the day on a Sunday when there’s nothing good on TV.

The Kinks/The White Stripes/Gang of Four/Stevie Wonder: Perfect for days when I am so happy that I actually have the delirious notion that Amy Poehler may walk through my front door for dinner, or there may be a package on my front porch from Marc Jacobs himself containing the entire Marc by Marc Spring 2012 collection and a note that reads, “Love you Emmy!” I am literally sliding on the floor to ‘Superstitious’ in my socks and doing spins from the sink to the stand mixer.

Nina Simone/Adele/Whitney Houston?*: Whenever there’s a need to sing along loudly, I mean really loudly. As a result I have to read, then re-read, directions many, many times over. Pretty much I am always reading directions at least a dozen times when I am baking. *I actually don’t have Whitney Houston in my music collection. I should though…

Sergio Mendes/Beastie Boys: When a dance party in the kitchen is in order, where Jack will definitely take it literally when Mike D says “Kick it!”

And finally, if ever Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” comes into the shuffled mix, I have to stop what I’m doing, cross my legs to prevent myself from peeing my pants, and find tissues to wipe my eyes because I’m crying as I am hysterically laughing. I have no idea why this song does what it does to me, but it does. I think it’s a curse, not sure though.

I don’t have a picture of the dancing that goes on in the kitchen. I’ve got this one though where I think I’m busting a groove to Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface”, and I’ve cropped it to save myself some shred if dignity. But you can imagine a whisk in one hand, and a wooden spoon in the other.


Recipe #6: Apple nougatine tart

So I’m a total jerk and have to fess up.  In my last post, I mentioned a few things that I need to clear up. (I’m not really a jerk)

#1:  I DID wake up before the sun (for the first time in I don’t know how long!) in order to bake my first flaky tart shell and give it sufficient time to cool before I filled it up with delicious goodness.  Having a quiet house to myself for awhile was nice – I think I’m going to do more of that, but only if there’s coffee in the house.

#2:  I DID Google “What is nougatine?” because who in the world knows what that is?!  Clearly, some people do know what it is because Wikipedia tells me that it’s “a term used to describe a variety of similar traditional confectioneries made with sugar or honey, roasted nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachios, or hazelnuts are common), and sometimes chopped candied fruit.”  Makes sense.  This recipe is of the nutty variety, specifically almonds. 

#3:  And finally, and thankfully, there was NO close-call involving my fingers, apples and knives.   I briefly entertained the idea that some intense drama would spice things up around here.  That ended when well-meaning friends started sending me messages and tips for safely coring, peeling and slicing apples.  But!  You’re here, so my climatic cliffhanger brought you back!!!  So I win.  You’re here and reading, and I have all of my fingers. 

Okay, now the details.  The tart.  That tart has this one worried.  You know, panicky and sweaty palms and a racing heart; all of that would set in these last few days as I was thinking about that tart.  It just sounds so fancy.  There’s no picture in the book to show me what it’s supposed to look like.  It’s a multi-step process.  Yeah, yeah, yeah…the blame game, pointing the finger.  It took a brief self pep talk involving profound phrases like, “Just do it,” “I think I can,” and “Go for the gold.”  Actually, I didn’t think any of those things.  I just realized that I was going to have to suck it up because this there were a crazy load of tarts to make in this cookbook, so I’d better figure it out now.  That, and I had a crazy amount of apples sitting on my counter.

The secret to a perfect tart shell?  Cold water and cold butter.  You can see how cold that water is!  I was off to a good start – inevitable success, right?

The recipe makes two flaky tart shells, so I stuck one in the freezer.  Hopefully that’s okay.  See?  I’m a worrier.

Transferring the shell into the tart pan was simple and worked out well.  I even could see chunks of butter in the dough, which I was promised was important for a flaky dough.  Yes!  At this point, gliding around the kitchen on fueled on the high of feeling like I was on a roll, and doing things right, and getting up early to bake, and feeling like a real deal adult, and not even caring that I didn’t have a coffee in my hand.  I read the direction, “something something something pie weights…” PIE WEIGHTS!  I missed that!  I scrambled and all I could find was a bag of sushi rice.  In the world if rice, I’d venture to say sushi rice is the waif-ish 90’s supermodel lacking the girth needed to keep my tart crust from rising.  But I rolled with the baking punches.

Chopping, coring, and slicing the apples went quickly and smoothly.  My dramatic cliffhanger was in the back of my mind, so I was subconsciously hoping I didn’t have a moment of clairvoyance.  All my fingers are in tact!

Melting the butter and incorporating the sugar lead to caramelizing the sugar, then adding batches of apples lead to one of my favorite smells in a sauté pan.

More lemon zest and lemon juice!

I totally eyeballed what three and a half pounds of apples looks/feels like.  I was so excited it fit into the shell, especially since the shell kind of shrunk a bit when it baked. 

The mixture of egg whites, sugar and almonds looks remarkably like snot when you spread it out.  That’s right, I said it!  It looks like snot.

I’m already learning lessons from my baking adventures.  I put the tart on a rimmed baking sheet as to avoid fires in the oven!  Hooray!

I must say, this is one of my favorite things I’ve made yet.  The crust turned out well, the filling was sweet and tart, and the crisp almond crust lends itself for all sorts of fingers picking away at it when passing through the kitchen.  That’s a good sign, right?


The tart is in the oven!

The tart is in the oven!


a little help, s’il vous plait

Today is a baking day.  You’ll hear all about my escapades in the world of apple nougatine tart baking tomorrow, including but not limited to: Googling “What is nougatine?”, waking up before the sunshine, and nearly losing all my fingers slicing/peeling apples. 

What I would like your help with is a little decision for one of my baking adventures next week!  I’ve got three choices, and it’s up to you to help me decide!

A.) Chocolate truffles

B.) Buttermilk scones

C.) Almond rochers

PLEASE leave a comment with your vote!


Recipe #2: Apple Crisp

The most perfect fall days in my memory revolve around trips to cider mills.  Doughnuts, apple picking, cider, doughnuts, hay rides, doughnuts…  A friend recently mentioned hanging doughnuts from a tree so I could pick them and my heart skipped a beat.  

Next on the Tartine cookbook docket:  apple crisp.  I absolutely love how much Elisabeth Prueitt and her husband focus on seasonal baking and eating locally as you read through the narrative-style recipes and the brief snippets of background stories you find stylishly tucked away between each section.  There are a handful of apple-based pastries and confections in this cookbook, and I couldn’t be more exited to start this project during the fall season.  After kicking this whole project off with the foreign-marathon-kitchen-experience of croissants, perusing the apple crisp recipe yesterday was like coming home. 

Our trip to the cider mill today:

This is our little guy and he loves apples.  Clearly.

This lovely cookbook encouraged the at-home baker to mix up the apple variety, so I was on the hunt for McIntosh, Gala, and Golden Delicious on this outing.  While the orchard had a train, pony rides and tasty doughnuts (!!!), they had none of the apples I was looking for.  I tend to be a strict follower of recipes, so my obedient self was spinning a bit when I found this out.  After some not-exactly-helpful help, I ended up with two varieties:  Yellow Delicious and Empire.  I’ve made apple crisps a few times before, but it’s never crossed my mind to use more than one kind of apple.  The not-so-helpful fellow also insisted I ditch whatever recipe I was using to use his fool-proof recipe.  No thank you, kind sir.

I was so excited to use my apple corer again.  I bought it a few years ago at Apple Hill, which is a cluster of orchards near Sacramento, CA.  Amazing place!

The joy came to a halt when it stopped working smoothly, turning this yellow delicious into…

At this point, I’d successfully speed-raced through a little over half of the three pounds of the apples when that corer bailed on me.  Cutting and peeling a handful of apples wasn’t bad.  I actually like how they turned out better by using a knife and some elbow grease – they were sturdier and were like snowflakes; they each had their own shape.  Mixing the size up a bit really helped the final product have good balance of texture.  Who wants a mushy apple crisp?  Not I!

The apples made their way into the baking dish (my new Emile Henry ceramic baking dish!  It’s yellow!), and they were ready for the topping.  If you look closely, you’ll see about one quarter of the apples still have skin.  Like I’ve mentioned, I’ve made apple crisps before, but I’ve never left the skin on.  (This doesn’t work with apples with tough skin that have been stored for some time.)  It seemed weird leaving the skin on, but I went with it. 

The topping was the easiest part!  Ready for the oven!

And, the finished product!  I wish I could convey the seriously amazing aroma of apples and cinnamon that was floating through the house for just about an hour and a half while it was baking away.  Our little Jack came into the kitchen on more than one occasion, inhaling deeply, and saying, “MMMMMMmmmm!!!”  My thoughts exactly.

The moral to this apple crisp story (that I will repeat every single fall for the rest of my life): leave some skin on those slices, slightly vary the size of the slices, and be sure to have different types of apples in order to incorporate soft and crisp textures as well as the sweet and tart flavors that different apples bring to the table.  We tasted this apple crisp and stared at each other in amazement.  Complete magic and a flavor-filled crisp experience like we’ve never had before.  So good!  And, I’m 2/2 so far! 

Next up: Caramel apples!!!


Apple picking! Getting ready for that crisp and caramel apples! (Taken with instagram)

Apple picking! Getting ready for that crisp and caramel apples! (Taken with instagram)


Our friends came over and they love the croissants! C’est magnifique! (Taken with instagram)

Our friends came over and they love the croissants! C’est magnifique! (Taken with instagram)


Tartine Baking Project: #1: CROISSANTS!

This croissant-baking process began Tuesday evening and has been completed at noon today (Thursday).  At last!  The reason to start with the croissant is twofold (get it?  A folding reference as I’m talking about croissants!  You fellow croissant bakers get the pun!): I picked the croissant for my inaugural Tartine baking attempt because it was my favorite treat from the actual bakery, and it’s also the first one in the book.  Why not start from the beginning?  I went into this knowing that making croissants was labor intensive, not from experience or even knowledge of the subject, but because the narrative of directions spanned five pages.  That, and anyone I mentioned it to this week seemed ever-so mildly skeptical of such a lofty undertaking.  Throughout the past few days, this was my mantra: It’s a great way to start – if they turned out well, brilliant!  If it was a flop – fine!  I could only go up from there.

Between Tuesday and today, the majority of the time the dough was resting, just taking a little break from the stress of its doughy life, in the fridge, and even spent a brief stint in the freezer.  The second biggest slice on the pie chart of ‘How I Spent the Last Few Days’ would be reading directions.  I read them, re-read them, read them aloud, whispered them to myself, and had my husband read them to me when I was in elbow deep in dough and/or butter.  I just didn’t want to get it wrong.

Apparently this is what I look like when I’m reading something pretty intensely.  Good to know.

A cheesecloth blanket, then waiting for it to rise.  And it did!

Laminating the dough = slathering with butter, then folding, rolling out, folding again, rolling out some more.  This happens one million times.

Folding into a “plaque”.

The rolling part.  My arms are ripped now.  Not really, but I imagine those bakers at Tartine have bulging biceps.  I’ve never checked, but I definitely will the next time I’m there.

All that folding and rolling pays off!  Look at those layers!!!

Cutting them, stuffing half with smoked ham and gruyère cheese (pain au jambon!), then rolling them up was the most fun part!

It was this point right here when the romance of the life of a pastry chef blew out the window, along with the smoke.  Yes, smoke.  I’ll touch on that soon.  It’s like you’re light on your feet, glowing with the magic of a new relationship where everything is falling into place, and suddenly you wake up and they haven’t called you and it’s like 6 o’clock and they should have totally called.  You find yourself anxiety-ridden, questioning your every move, scrupulously analyzing every detail of the other person.  In my case, it was no man, it was those croissants!  Putting them in the oven to “proof” means putting them in a warm-ish spot for them to double in size.  The oven is off, and I even put a pan of steaming water in there to make it a slightly warm 75 degrees.  Well, I left the oven light on and then things got crazy.  Some started to get melty-ish.  Maybe that’s how they’re supposed to look?  I was so worried the butter was melting, I was concerned it was too hot, too cold, were they sagging?, are they noticeably puffy?, do they look spongy?  slouchy?, etc., etc., etc.  All these concerns resulted in me changing the water, turning off the oven light!, taking the water out all together, putting it back in, cracking the oven door.  This was two hours of this nonsense!  And they were all touching each other!  AH!

And then there was the baking.  I then added a baking sheet, and spread the 16 croissants over the two of them, squeezed them into the oven and started the timer.  The smoke began to fill the air as the butter oozed all over the oven.  And the fire (YES, FIRE!) happened soon after my husband, Dan, came home.  Good timing.  That fire was hot and I didn’t want to touch it.

We pressed on.  There was a lot of rotating them around to ensure even baking (which still wasn’t completely successful) and a lot of comparing/contrasting to the picture in the cookbook.  The cook time was increased by ten minutes, I guess because there were so many croissants in that oven!

I’m sure when you saw a picture of a fire you were worried of the outcome.  Believe me, I was too as I was coughing and my eyes were burning from sticking my head in a smoke-filled oven to rotate those croissants a million times, and I looked at Dan and my friend Colleen (who was entertaining the kids) for support as I panicked.  Ultimately, it worked out and after much convincing for honest feedback we all considered it a success!

The final result: a warm flaky croissant oozing with ham and cheese, alongside a coffee with my sugar cubes from our trip to France last fall.  How perfect!