Yesterday marked eight years of this site. One year ago, there was cake, and I was thinking a lot about writing.

When I brought up the same subject recently, it wasn't intentional. In fact, I didn't make the connection. Maybe it is that the time around anniversaries encourage the taking of stock. I'm thankful for the tendency, as I am thankful for the generous comments and letters from many of you that followed that mention, sharing personal experiences of trying to put thoughts into words, or your own processes from a variety of creative disciplines.

I feel lucky to have been part of the dialogue. If you don't mind, it's a thread I'd like to continue.

It begins with a reoccurring analogy: on the road.

(In next the twelve months, I'll work on some new analogies.) 

Right around this time two years ago, a windstorm hit where we live. 

That morning I had a meeting out of town. I planned to leave early, and because I would be away for the day, my boys were going to spend it with my parents at their house. I remember standing in the driveway, waiting to kiss Sean goodbye while he buckled in the lads to take them there, when I heard the wind blowing high in the trees. It was a sustained howl. I looked up and saw clouds moving with such speed that I said something to Sean about it; for whatever reason, neither of us were concerned, and neither of us checked the weather report. At the time, nobody seemed to grasp how bad the day would become. Even when I did turn on the radio, there was a warning to take things slow, but no real sense of urgency.  

Traffic was heavy. Street signs and billboards bowed and rattled. My hand cramped from keeping a firm grip on the wheel. I made it to my meeting on time. I turned off my phone.

I wasn't aware of it then, but I'd driven out of the path of the storm. What seemed only gloomy, but not wholly memorable where I was, brought 100-kilometre-per-hour gusts at home. It knocked out power, knocked off siding, and blew roofs clean away. It could have been much worse that in was. We were fortunate. 

By the time I tried to head back, the storm was over. The winds had stopped and the once-troubled sky was now a clear, bright, and almost surreal blue. Nonetheless, the bridge that arches over the bay was still closed. There was a lineup of cars inching forward, jostling for position, as four lanes were reduced to three, then two, then one. Police cars with flashing lights directed us through the supports of that bridge, to cross the water on a much smaller one. Past that place, the highway itself was barricaded.

The service roads and side roads were packed. There were detours marked, but with all the scattered debris, it wasn't long before you were redirected by a downed power line, or a tree snapped like a twig or, in one case, an overturned, life-sized, ornamental elephant. 

There is a landmark near our house that's visible from quite far away. Three-and-a-half hours into a drive that usually takes 90 minutes, I caught sight of it for the first time. As I made my progress in lurching zigzags across the backroads in between me and that beacon, it would blink in and out of my view. I'd get a glimpse as I crested a hill, only to lose it again as I dipped into a valley or the road turned away. There was no specific logic or wisdom to the route I chose; with no insights into which course was clear, I simply did my best to keep myself aimed at where I knew I wanted to end up.

It took more than five hours to get there. 

For me, writing is often that drive. You see, I'm not a great planner. I can't lay out a itinerary of introduction, thesis, support and conclusion, and hit all the points, neat and tidy with time to spare. I will have an idea of where I need to finish, and there are occasions when I'll take the scenic route. Usually, however, the distance from the beginning and end is a winding one. There are false starts. And misdirection. And turning back. I stretch, wander, and push the boundaries of the map. I get another map because the old one was covered in scribbles and ripped in places, and I couldn't seem to fold it right. Then I'll fill that map with so many scribbles that I'll need a new pen. 

It's good to keep a stack of maps. 

I'm not above asking for directions; there's wisdom to be learned from who have travelled here before and from those who are still part of the caravan. They'll give you a lift when your tank runs dry. What's more, a travelling companion can calm the nerves caused by a motor that clatters and sputters with every jolting mile, or the stomach-churning feeling that you're in a neighbourhood you don't recognize. It's nauseous mix of terror tinged with exhilarating curiousity. You might want to sip some ginger ale.

Guides and company can only get you so far. Much of the mechanics of writing is hidden, isolating work. That's when the sun is gone and darkness sets in. Bring snacks.

Scour the landscape for sign posts — those points upon which the whole adventure pivots, the phrases that stick out of the scenery like an upside-down cement pachyderm. I'm telling you, keep an eye out for those markers. They get you through. With them, you might find a different approach. Follow their directions, even when the passage seems too narrow, when you're filled with paralyzing doubt and can't remember why you wanted to take this trip in the first place, and it's quite certain that the pavement will crumble under your wheels. Don't stop. Keep moving.

It's the only way you'll get anywhere.

 

In the end, you'll be hunched and achy from sitting too long and your mind will want to hurtle ever forward, not ready to relinquish its hard won inertia. Take a lap. It will take even more effort to realize when you arrive. You'll feel a mess, most likely.

Wear the miles like a trophy. 

 

 

BROWN BUTTER PISTACHIO FINANCIERS

Recipe from Kristin Kish, as published in Food and Wine magazine, June 2013.

These tea cakes were one of the recipes Kish came up with when challenged to create three simple desserts. The batter comes together in minutes, and is fairly straightforward; the only caveats are to make sure that the brown butter and toasted pistachios are cooled before proceeding. If the butter is too warm you might scramble the egg whites, and if the nuts are still hot when processed, they will turn to paste. 

The financiers are moist and toothsome, somehow suited better for being held between two fingers rather than eaten with a fork. They remind me of everything I like about a butter-rich coffee cake, and they are best used in very much the same manner. That is to say with tea or a glass of cold milk or a thermos of coffee. Good at home, they're happy travellers too, sturdy and packable. They don't require hullabaloo.

I baked most of the batter in mini muffin tins as directed, and some in 1/3-cup tins. The latter were meant for a homecoming, and if you're in need of some fanciness, they were quite pretty after a roll in granulated sugar. The muffin-tinned version could also be given a similar treatment, as well. The sugar crusts the outside, giving gritty crunch to the soft density of the interior. The brown butter and the almond extract suit the pistachios for all their waxy greenness, emphasizing the nut's richness and fragrance respectively. Almond extract always tickles my nose.

Kish suggests the financiers be served with whipped crème fraîche and fresh berries. I'll be trying that. We're not yet at berry season, but we're pointed in the right direction.   

Makes 36 small cakes. 

INGREDIENTS

  • 7 ounces unsalted butter, plus more for coating
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for coating
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
  • 1 cup toasted unsalted pistachios, finely ground
  • 1/2 cup cake flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • Sweetened whipped crème fraîche and fresh berries, for serving

 

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Butter and flour 36 mini muffin cups. In a saucepan, cook the 7 ounces of butter over moderate heat, shaking the pan, until the milk solids begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Scrape the butter and browned solids into a bowl and let cool. Whisk in the brown sugar, egg whites, granulated sugar and almond extract.

In another bowl, whisk the pistachios with the 1 cup of all-purpose flour, the cake flour and the salt. Fold the dry ingredients into the brown butter mixture until combined.

Spoon the batter into the muffin cups and bake for about 15 minutes, until risen but still slightly soft in the center. Let cool slightly, then invert onto a rack to cool. Serve the financiers with crème fraîche and berries.

Notes: 

  • A heaped tablespoon is about what you need for each well of the mini muffin tin. I started checking my financiers at 12 minutes.
  • I've got it in my head that these would be tasty with some vanilla bean in the batter, or crushed up cocoa nibs, but neither is necessary.   
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I was looking at some photographs and noticed that 50 weeks ago, I was wearing sandals. Sandals! With jeans and a sweater and no coat! In March! I realize last winter was an exceptionally mild one, and I swear I'm not going to talk about the weather, but still, I'm putting that out there.

I'm also putting out a krantz cake and putting up water for coffee. Things for which you might want to stay tuned.

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Although sandals do feel very far away, it's not dark at dinner any more, which is nice. In fact, it is, right now, bright enough at my desk that I should probably pull the window shade. I'm choosing not to, and so squinting awkwardly, just to let more light in.

Still, March makes me fidgety. It feels like I'm already signed up for the new that's coming, with the old stuff hanging around. March gives me a short attention span.

In the middle of doing laundry over the weekend, I started stripping the wallpaper off the last room in our house that has any left over from the original owners — save for the wallpapered closets. It takes a special type of commitment to paper a closet, and an exceptional type of twitchiness to remove it. I haven't finished getting all the wallpaper down, because I stopped the job to bake a cake; an intensely satisfying, yeasted cake, with a butter-and-egg-rich dough that requires a long knead and an even longer rise. Sometimes, it is needed to bake a chocolate krantz cake, not only because of the desire to eat one (although, yes, please!) but because of the need for the busyness of making one.   

plaiting the dough

plaiting the dough

The krantz is from the Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. I've been meaning to write about it for a while now. It is a book that honours the cooking of Jerusalem and the heritage of the authors, and in the celebration they consider the breadth of that food legacy. I'd first thought I would mention their mejadra, a rice that's full of lentils and spices and crispy onions, the kind of dish that's welcome year-round. When I saw the two men speak last year in Toronto, it was Tamimi who said something to the effect of "I think there's nothing more comforting than a bowl of lentils and rice." I'm one to agree.

At the same time, I couldn't stop thinking about their salad of spicy beets, leeks and walnuts. That recipe has tamarind water in the dressing, and the green of cilantro and arugula, and it is one that sums up one of the many reasons Jerusalem  is such a winner of a book for me, with the use of ingredients in combinations and ways I'd never considered. As Ottolenghi and Tamimi cover the ground of many influences, I found an appealing familiarity to the recipes; their yogurt and cucumber condiment is akin to the raita we Indians make, there are lamb koftas, and a cardamom rice pudding with pistachios that makes me think of kheer. Then, there are recipes that take you someplace completely different. They start on a common path, then veer off road into a new direction; when the authors blacken eggplants like my father does, theirs is with lemon and pomegranate while Dad dresses his with ginger and chilies. Both use garlic. Throughout the book, Jerusalem pulls you along in different directions, with such signposts of recognition along the way.

Any and all of those recipes warrant praise and they could have easily carried a conversation, but, as I said, a chocolate krantz  cannot be denied.

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It is with good reason. A krantz requires attention, but offers awards as you go. Once it's made and rested, the dough rolls out pleasurably smooth, draping like a down comforter, with both fluff and heft. It gets covered edge-to-edge with dark chocolate and nuts, coiled as you would for a roulade, then split down its length and twisted into a simple braid. The effect of the shaping is graphic and striking, and looks far more complicated than it is. The loaves are set aside so the dough puffs and the stripes burst. Once they're baked the cakes are finally lacquered with a sugar syrup. It may take multiple bathings for your loaves to soak up the all the liquid, and there's a sense of accomplishment when they do. 

The cake isn't particularly sweet without that glaze, so even with the bathing, it is not intensely so, rather almost elegantly, surprisingly restrained. And, what's more, the liquid slips into all the twists of the dough, softening the crisp peaks and seeping into the squidge of the crumb, and smoothing out the filling so it comes across as a Nutella-ish frosting. As you can imagine, that all amounts to a very, very good cake. The loaf is tender, and pulls apart with an exceptional delicacy, while the nuts provide the perfect crunch against the softness of the crumb and chocolate.

I'd like to try these cakes with marmalade, and some whole wheat flour in the dough. That's next on my list. After the wallpaper.

 

CHOCOLATE KRANTZ CAKES

Excerpted with permission from Jerusalem: A Cookbook  (Appetite for Random House, 2012). The recipe below is as written in the book, with my notes following after. You might also know this type of sweet, yeasted cake as a babka.

From Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi:

Making a krantz isn’t easy or quick. You need to let the dough rise overnight and then fill and shape it, which is quite an elaborate process. But, and it is a big but, we were guaranteed by two of our recipe testers, Claudine and Alison, that it is well worth it! (Their exclamation mark.)

Although this recipe makes two fairly large cakes, there isn’t really any risk of anything going to waste. They are just the sort of thing everyone hurls themselves at as soon as they come out of the oven. They will also keep for up to two days at room temperature, wrapped in foil, and up to a couple of weeks when frozen.

For a fabulous alternative to the chocolate filling, brush each dough half with 6 tbsp / 80 g melted unsalted butter and then sprinkle with 1⁄2 cup / 120 g light muscovado sugar, 1 1⁄2 tbsp ground cinnamon, and scant 1⁄2 cup / 50 g coarsely chopped walnuts; then roll as described in the chocolate version.

Makes 2 loaves. 

For the dough

  • 4 cups / 530 g all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1/2 cup / 100 g superfine sugar
  • 2 teaspoons fast-rising active dry yeast
  • grated zest of 1 small lemon
  • 3 extra-large free-range eggs
  • 1/2 cup / 120 ml water
  • rounded 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2/3cup / 150 g unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 3/4-inch / 2cm cubes
  • sunflower oil, for greasing

For the chocolate filling

  • scant 1/2 cup / 50 g confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/3 cup / 30 g best-quality cocoa powder
  • 4 oz / 130 g good-quality dark chocolate, melted
  • 1/2 cup / 120 g unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup / 100 g pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons superfine sugar

For the sugar syrup (enough for both cakes)

  • 2/3 cup / 160 ml water
  • 1 1/4 cups / 260 g superfine sugar

 

Method

For the dough, place the flour, sugar, yeast, and lemon zest in a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook and mix on low speed for 1 minute. Add the eggs and water and mix on low speed for a few seconds, then increase the speed to medium and mix for 3 minutes, until the dough comes together. Add the salt and then start adding the butter, a few cubes at a time, mixing until it is incorporated into the dough. Continue mixing for about 10 minutes on medium speed, until the dough is completely smooth, elastic, and shiny. During the mixing, you will need to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times and throw a small amount of flour onto the sides so that all of the dough leaves them.

Place the dough in a large bowl brushed with sunflower oil, cover with plastic wrap, and leave in the fridge for at least half a day, preferably overnight.

Grease two 2 1⁄4-lb / 1kg loaf pans (9 by 4 inches / 23 by 10 cm) with some sunflower oil and line the bottom of each pan with a piece of waxed paper. Divide the dough in half and keep one-half covered in the fridge.

Make the filling by mixing together the confectioners’ sugar, cocoa powder, chocolate, and butter. You will get a spreadable paste. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle measuring 15 by 11 inches (38 by 28 cm). Trim the sides to make them even, then position the dough so that a long side is closest to you. Use an offset spatula to spread half the chocolate mixture over the rectangle, leaving a 3⁄4-inch / 2cm border all around. Sprinkle half the pecans on top of the chocolate, then sprinkle over half the superfine sugar.

Brush a little bit of water along the long end farthest away from you. Use both hands to roll up the rectangle like a roulade, starting from the long side that is closest to you and ending at the other long end. Press to seal the dampened end onto the roulade and then use both hands to even out the roll into a perfect thick cigar. Rest the cigar on its seam.

Trim about 3⁄4 inch / 2 cm off both ends of the roulade with a serrated knife. Now use the knife to gently cut the roll into half lengthwise, starting at the top and finishing at the seam. You are essentially dividing the log into two long even halves, with the layers of dough and filling visible along the length of both halves. With the cut sides facing up, gently press together one end of each half, and then lift the right half over the left half. Repeat this process, but this time lift the left half over the right, to create a simple, two-pronged plait. Gently squeeze together the other ends so that you are left with the two halves, intertwined, showing the filling on top. Carefully lift the cake into a loaf pan. Cover the pan with a wet tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place for 1 to 11⁄2 hours. The cake will rise by 10 to 20 percent. Repeat the whole process to make the second cake.

Preheat the oven to 375°F / 190°C, making sure you allow plenty of time for it to heat fully before the cakes have finished rising. Remove the tea towels, place the cakes on the middle rack of the oven, and bake for about 30 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.

While the cakes are in the oven, make the syrup. Combine the water and sugar in a saucepan, place over medium heat, and bring to a boil. As soon as the sugar dissolves, remove from the heat and leave to cool down. As soon as the cakes come out of the oven, brush all of the syrup over them. It is important to use up all the syrup. Leave the cakes until they are just warm, then remove them from the pans and let cool completely before serving. 

Tara's notes: 

  • I did not have a lemon on hand, so used the seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean instead. I also used walnuts rather than pecans, as that's what was around.
  • I used less sugar syrup, mixing mine at about a scant 2/3 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water. I steeped the empty vanilla pod leftover from the filling in the syrup as it simmered and cooled.
  • Just so the photos don't confuse the directions, I rolled my dough larger than specified, in the aim of getting more turns in the swirl and thinner ribbons of chocolate. While pretty, the tactic makes for a trickier assembly.  My pans were 8-by-4-inches. 
  • Speaking of assembly, if your kitchen is chilly, keep an eye on the chocolate filling. If it seems to be firming up, give it a quick warming over low heat; it needs to be glossy and just this side of liquid when it comes into contact with the cold dough, or it won't be sticky enough to keep everything together when you roll it all up.
  • I found that these cakes baked best when the oven rack was placed in the lower third (or just under the middle) — this may be the result of the irregularity of my oven, yet still worthy of a note.

 

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