Musical Cake

When I was a child, my parents took me to see musicals in San Francisco on a regular basis.  Clearly they loved musicals;  our hall closet’s shelves sagged with Broadway musical albums.  Once my parents scored tickets for a show, I’d beg for them to play that record for me nonstop.  Long before I put on a fancy dress and headed across the bridge toward that sparkling city rising up from the bay, I knew all the songs by heart.   When the hum of orchestra members tuning their instruments filled the theatre, I could hardly wait for curtain’s rise.

I’ve seen many, many musicals (and even performed in Carousel in high school), but I now have a new favorite musical:  “Oh, No!  Granny’s Got the Remote!”

And I swear it’s not just because my daughter sang and danced across the stage as an oppressed worker bee.

Unless you live on San Juan Island, or know someone who does, you probably missed the show’s world premier the weekend before Thanksgiving.  I’m so sorry for you.

The talent on this tiny island amazes me.  It’s cool enough that 50 island kids and 11 adults pulled off this professional show.  Cooler still is the fact that that local Penelope Haskew wrote and directed the play, and that another local, Teddy Deane, composed original music for the production that I now can’t get out of my head (yes, that’s me lost in thought singing, “Cats,” or “Workin’ for the Queen,” in line at the grocery store).   It’s also cool how so many people came together to create this show, sewing costumes, painting sets, gathering props, creating choreography, and on and on and on.

As the show begins, children fight and adults one-up one another at a family holiday gathering.  Granny takes charge by whisking away the especially naughty kids with her magical remote.  Once they’ve been sucked into her giant television, they’re forced to watch vignettes highlighting life lessons they’ve somehow missed.  Poor downtrodden bees buzz, cats and rats brawl, and destitute shoemakers turn their fates over to a cuckoo bird.  Of course all ends well.  Almost everyone learns their lessons and gets to return home, where even the adults have learned to play nicely.  Imagine that.

The week before the show opened, Tamara called me during rehearsal.  Panic started to set in that Eliza might be up to some mischief, but I heard her ask, “Will you make a cake for the cast party?”

I had already agreed to make a three-tiered cake for a party the Monday following the show.  I mentally tried to calculate whether it was even possible to pull off two cakes in one weekend, but that made my head hurt.

“Sure,” I said.

Before I got off the phone, an idea for the cake started to take shape — a television set with characters from each vignette on or around it.

Because I had two cakes to decorate on a theatre-filled weekend when my parents were coming to town, I baked every night the week before the show started its three-day run.  I’d never frozen cakes before.  I wrapped each layer in plastic wrap and then sealed it in a zip lock bag.  I decided to thaw them in their wrappings.  The outer zip lock bags dripped with condensation, which made me crazy-nervous, but the thawed cakes emerged from their wrappings in perfect condition.  You can’t even imagine my relief.  I had no time to spare.

On Saturday night after curtain call and small girls’ very late bedtime, my husband and I got to work.  I lost count of how many batches of marshmallow fondant I mixed up to decorate it.  We covered a stack of four 9-inch square cakes with white fondant, and then re-covered it with brown fondant.  My husband produced a scalpel blade — an honest-to-God medical-grade scalpel blade — to cut the rectangle out of the brown fondant that would reveal a white television screen.  We take cake-making very seriously around here, but even I was impressed.  I’m glad he felt willing to wield it, because I would have probably cut my hand off in my semi-delirious state.

By the time we’d frosted, trimmed, covered, recovered, and incised the cake, formed fondant figures to decorate it, and produced a graham cracker remote with a laser pointer tucked inside to accompany the cake, the clock read 4:30 am.

The next morning came too soon.  The girls took one look at the cake and said, “You didn’t make any rats!”

Drat.

The night before, when I’d attached cat silhouettes all the way around the cake’s base for “The Girl Who Drew Cats” vignette, I tried to convince myself that they fully represented the scene.

After breakfast, I shaped some dead rats with the leftover fondant.  My husband made me stop at three.  This cake thing is some kind of addictive.  Declaring a cake finished is about as easy as getting a catchy show-tune out of my head.

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Sugar and Spice

Cold.  Rain.  Gloom.

On top of the lovely weather, my husband was out of town at a conference.

Eliza had departed on the 8:00 am ferry to go to a birthday party.

Tessa and I clearly needed something to cheer our Saturday morning.

Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to mix up a batch of doughnuts before I went to bed the night before.  Gingerbread doughnuts.

I’d invited some friends over late-night via text.  A person can only eat so many doughnuts.

In the morning, for some crazy, cooped up reason, the kids seemed to need help playing nicely;  this was no morning for me to linger and chat in the kitchen with friends.

“Come help make doughnuts!” I called.  The kids came running.

They got to try out my new doughnut cutter, which I’d purchased after making yeasted potato doughnuts recently.  This cake-style gingerbread dough rolls out much stickier than the yeasted dough I’d prepared before.

The cutter required more flour than the girls had patience for, and they took to poking the doughnuts and holes out of the cutter with chopsticks;  this worked perfectly aside from a few puncture wounds to the doughnuts.

Adam, who took over the role of fry-guy for my absent husband, revealed that he’d worked in a New York City doughnut shop as a kid.

He remembered the trick of  letting the doughnuts cool on racks with the second-fried-side down.  As the first side of a cake doughnut hits hot oil, the opposite side expands and cracks a bit.  Cooling it with that second-fried-side down allows the oil to drip off, rather than into any cracks that formed.

We started our operation following the recipe’s instructions of tossing warm doughnuts in a bowl of cinnamon sugar.  Our bowl of sugar quickly turned into a greasy mess.  It wasn’t pretty.

Instead of rolling them in the sugar mixture fresh from the fryer, sprinkle the doughnuts with it after they cool. Adam recalled using a shaker for sprinkling back in the day.  Since I didn’t have one, I just shook spoonfuls of cinnamon sugar over them with a spoon.

The adults nibbled freshly-fried doughnuts on the sly as soon as they cooled enough to handle.  The warm, spicy flavor tasted just like gingerbread — deep fried gingerbread.   When we finally began loading our plates with egg and sausage casserole, apple slices, and doughnuts, we noticed that the doughnut holes had disappeared.   Judging by the stack of doughnuts, we should have had a pile of them.

“I ate them all,” admitted Adam.  By this point he was sacked out on the couch.  Someone offered to bring him a doughnut, but he just couldn’t bring himself to eat another bite.

Gingerbread Doughnuts

Adapted from Gingerbread, by Jennifer Linder McGlinn.  Makes about 24 doughnuts and 24 doughnut holes.

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 cup sour cream
vegetable oil, for frying

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, allspice, and cloves in a large bowl.

Combine the brown sugar, molasses, eggs, and vanilla extract in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and mix on medium speed until smooth.  Drizzle in the butter, continuing to mix until smooth.  Incorporate the sour cream, 1/2 cup at a time, scraping down the sides after each addition.  Reduce the mixing speed to medium-low and gradually incorporate the flour mixture, beating until just combined.  Scrape the dough into a large greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set in the refrigerator to chill and rest for at least 45 minutes or overnight.

Heat oil to 375° F in a deep fryer or a large straight-sided saute pan.

Roll the chilled dough about 1/2-inch thick on a lightly floured work surface.  Cut with a 2 1/2-inch doughnut cutter or two round cutters.  Arrange the doughnuts and doughnut holes on a parchment lined baking sheet.

Carefully slip about 4 or 5 doughnuts at a time into the hot oil, adjusting the heat  as necessary to keep the oil temperature between 360° and 375° F.  Fry for about 2 minutes on each side or until the doughnuts are well browned and puffed.  Remove the doughnuts to racks to drain with the second-fried-side facing down.

Sprinkle doughnuts with cinnamon sugar.

Cinnamon Sugar

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

Stir together the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.

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Apple Cake Obsession

Apple Bundt Cake

I think we got a little overzealous gathering fruit from our recent Apple Raid to Shaw Island.  I’ve stocked my freezer with three apple pies-in-waiting.  I’ve baked sour cream apple muffins with streusel topping.  I’ve eaten my apple-a-day and then some.

I’ve also made the same apple cake three times in a seven day stretch.

Even as I type, I’m fantasizing about another forkful of this sweet, pecan-laced cake with its delicate apple flavor, but I’m going to force myself to attempt some other apple delicacy before I make another one.  Really.  I swear.

Sheer happenstance led me to the recipe. My husband had a lab dinner, and all that day I’d intended to make an apple pie to bring along.   The apples came from a lab event, so it seemed right come to the party bearing apple pie.  That afternoon as I started to pull out my food processor to make pie crust, I remembered that I’d broken the lid the last time I used it.  I could have made pie crust the old fashioned way, but it’s so much easier with a food processor.  Call me lazy if you will, but I had papers to grade in addition to making dessert.

Apple Bundt CakeAfter searching Epicurious for apple recipes and making a selection based on ease of preparation, I was back in the kitchen and relieved to find my Bundt pan in the cupboard.  I don’t recall using it in the three years we’ve lived here, but there it was, waiting to transform simple pantry ingredients into a transcendent fall dessert.

I shudder to think that I would have missed this recipe had I only used more care in my kitchen.  I’m not seeing a good lesson here.

Aside from chopping the apples, which didn’t really take that much time, the batter came together quickly and then baked for an hour.  This gave me some time to deal with those papers before heading to the party.

Some people dread getting dragged to their spouses’ work parties, but not me.  Hanging out with scientists rocks.   What other polite company talks about the ins and outs of barnacle sex while sipping wine and eating smoked salmon on fancy crackers?

After much racy conversation and a lovely meal, we sliced the cake.  The first moist, rich bite hooked me.  Several people eagerly asked for the recipe, but my husband didn’t love it.   He thought the pecan and apple pieces needed more knife-work than the coarse chopping and one-third inch cubes called for in the recipe.  I saw at least one person shoot him a dirty look.

I had fallen hard for this cake, but I agreed with his criticism.

So when my friend Sharalyn invited us over for dinner the next day, I asked if I could bring an apple cake.  “I may leave it with you,” I explained.  “Mike doesn’t love it.”

The smaller pecan and apple pieces improved the cake, as did the addition of some ground cloves.   And I almost got the caramel sauce right this time, unlike my first thick and grainy attempt.

You probably have the patience to refrain from bumping up the heat when making the sauce;  if you do not, do your best to trust that it will really boil in about five minutes.   It will.  Additionally, don’t let the sauce cool so much that you have to reheat it to drizzle it on the cake.  Did that on cake number three, which also resulted in grainy topping.  Someday, surely I will get it just right.

I left most of the cake with Sharalyn that evening.   The next morning right before 11 a.m., my phone buzzed, “I’m on my fourth piece.  No lie!” read her text message.

This got me craving another slice myself.  Since I couldn’t shake the feeling, I baked apple cake for my students.

Now that I’ve had one more slice, will somebody please hide my Bundt pan?

Apple Cake with Caramel Topping

Adapted from Epicurious.

Cake
3 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound apples, peeled, cored, cut into 1/8 to 1/4-inch cubes
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup pecans, chopped to desired consistency

Glaze
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Generously butter a 12-cup Bundt pan.  Sift flour, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl.  Transfer 3 tablespoons flour mixture to Bundt pan and tilt to coat.  Tap excess flour over apples in a medium bowl.  Sprinkle an 2 additional tablespoons of the flour mixture over the apples and toss to coat. Combine brown sugar, vegetable oil, sugar, eggs, and 1 tablespoon vanilla in large bowl.  Using electric mixer, beat until mixture is thick, about 4 minutes.  Gradually mix in remaining flour mixture;  stir until just combined.  Fold apple mixture and pecans into batter; transfer to prepared Bundt pan.

Bake cake until tester inserted near center comes out clean, about 1 hour.  Transfer cake in pan to rack.  Let stand while making caramel.

Melt butter in small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in brown sugar, then milk. Continue to whisk until topping is smooth and blended and comes to boil, about 5 minutes.  Allow to boil for about 1 minute.  Off heat, whisk in 1 teaspoon vanilla. Spoon 1/4 cup hot caramel topping over warm cake in pan. Let stand until topping is absorbed into cake, about 15 minutes. Turn cake out onto platter. Pour remaining warm topping over cake. Let stand until cool, at least 1 hour.

 

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Goat Cheese Redemption

This school year I’ve spent more than a little time making bread for my daughter Eliza’s sandwiches.  Tessa, my younger daughter — the one who wants to be a chef someday — refuses to eat sandwiches.  Because of this I often feel more than a little guilty about the minimal effort involved in producing her daily lunchtime bean and cheese quesadilla.

I could make fresh corn tortillas, which she prefers to flour, but just I haven’t had the urge to whip up a weekly batch of of them.  Does this mean I’m playing favorites?  Does it make me a bad mother?  Does it mean I will pay for this lunchtime slight in counseling fees at some future date?  So goes my angst.

Just the other day Tessa asked if I would make something with goat cheese in it for dinner.  I felt guilt’s grip loosen slightly as I envisioned preparing a special meal for her.  I knew just what to make, too:   goat cheese galette.

I asked her if she wanted to help me.   I knew she would say yes.  She always does when cooking is involved, even if the end product doesn’t sound delicious to her.  For a picky eater, she’s always willing to try things when we work together in the kitchen.

“Chefs have to try everything so they know what foods tastes like,” she invariably says in her crazy, high-pitched and surprisingly serious voice.

I should take more advantage of this mantra in an effort to balance her diet.

She loved mixing the various cheeses together for me, sampling each one as we worked.  For this meal, she never wrinkled her nose once — not even for the ricotta.  In no time at all, we had a galette ready for the oven.

Eliza usually jumps at the chance to saute zucchini.  The magic of calling squash “Zucchini Moons” transformed her into a fan a few years ago.   In an effort to rope her into our mealtime preparations, I’d picked up some zucchini, but she wasn’t interested in helping.  Tessa eagerly took over for her.

We have this great plastic knife that’s perfect for not chopping the fingers off of small hands.  The slices always end up alarmingly thick, even when Eliza’s chopping, but nobody around here complains about it, so long as everyone’s fingers remain intact.

While I felt sad that Eliza’s paper and pastels kept her out of the kitchen, the upside meant that Tessa, proud of preparing her big sister’s special dish, actually ate all of her zucchini at dinnertime.

She also devoured a sizable slice of galette.  This simple meal will find its way to our table again soon.

Goat Cheese Galette

Adapted from From Tapas to Meze:  Small Plates from the Mediterranean.

Filling
5 ounces goat cheese
4 ounces ricotta cheese
3 ounces mozzarella cheese, grated
1/4 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated
salt and pepper, to taste

Pastry
1 1/2 cups flour, placed in the freezer for 1 hour
1/4 teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in 1/2-inch pieces and placed in the freezer for 1 hour
1/2 cup ice water

Preheat oven to 350° F. Mix together filling ingredients until well combined.  Season with salt and pepper.

Cut butter into flour until half of the butter is the size of peas and the other half is smaller. Sprinkle the water over the top and mix together quickly. Press dough into a ball. On a well-floured surface, roll the dough into a 14-to 15-inch circle.  Transfer dough to a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Spread cheese mixture over the pastry, leaving a 2 1/2-inch border around the edge. Fold uncovered edge of the pastry over the cheese mixture, pleating it as you work your way around the filling. There will be an open hole in the center.

Bake until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes, then slide the galette off the pan onto a serving plate. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Zucchini Moons

Adapted from Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes.   This awesome cookbook provides pictorial recipes that young children love to prepare and eat.

3 small zucchini
2 teaspoons butter
2 tablespoons water
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup grated Gorgonzola

Cut the zucchini into rounds.  Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add zucchini and water, and shake in some salt and pepper.  Stir and cook until squash seems done, about 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of your slices.  Sprinkle with cheese.

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Apple Raid

I feel winter coming.  Every day we’re losing three-and-a-half minutes of sunlight.   I’m not happy about this.  I like sunlight.

Aside from the shrinking days, I love fall.   Big leaf maples so orange they look afire, pumpkins guts smeared on my kitchen table, hot cocoa in the afternoons, and apples.  Lots of apples.

One of my favorite events of the year happens each October when Friday Harbor Lab folks load onto a sailboat and head over to the lab’s biological preserve on Shaw Island.

After a gorgeous morning sail–which this year included sightings of porpoises, harbor seals, and great blue herons–we hike up a country lane to a decrepit apple orchard that cranks out more apples than you can even imagine.

I know I’m not really supposed to use the term Apple Raid to describe our adventure.  I’ve been told it might upset some or all of the 240 residents of Shaw who also happen to like these apples.   If I offend anyone, I apologize, but I really can’t help myself;  it just sounds better than calling it the Friday Harbor Labs Apple Picking Event or some other official sounding name.   In truth, I’m pretty sure the Shaw islanders actually do view our annual field trip as a raid.  This year, as usual, by the time we arrived on the scene, the Shaw folks had already picked their share of apples.  To them, I say, enjoy.  Some day, maybe we can harvest apples together instead of talking behind each others’ backs about who really deserves these apples.

This year, after our short walk from the beach, we reconvened with another group of labbies who arrived via ferry with vans full of ladders and buckets.  Moments after our arrival, students, professors, and small children were hanging from branches, shaking with all their might to unleash shower upon shower of apples into the thick grass below.  The plunkity, plunk, plunk of apples raining on the ground always sounds spectacular, especially when punctuated by the odd exclamation following a smack upon the head.

After each apple shower, we hunted though the grass for apples by the dozen, biting into one here or there to help us remember which trees produce the best fruit.  It turns out the ones bigger than your head don’t have a great texture or taste.  Pity.

We filled buckets and buckets, lifting, dumping, and tossing them into the van one after the other.

Last call came before we were ready, but some wanted more than apples for lunch.  So much fruit still hung on the trees; apple pies in waiting for the Shaw Island natives.

The next morning, we pressed most of the apples into cider.

If you’ve never tasted freshly-pressed cider, you really should.

Washing, rinsing, and pressing apples is cold work, so I usually mull a big pot of just-pressed cider on my stove and run thermos-fulls down to the dock at regular intervals.

Though apple cider is wonderful, every year I make sure to get to the pressing extra early to select some fruit for my own uses.  I especially love making apple pie pucks, which provide the perfect solution to a fierce onslaught of apples, not to mention an easy last-minute dessert. With 100 gallons of cider to press, my takings are never missed.

On some cold, winter day when I’m feeling sun-starved and island-weary, instead of moping about in a frustrated funk, I will roll out pie dough and drop a solid mass of icy apple goodness into my pie dish.  Soon the smell of apples and cinnamon will fill my small cottage.  Each bite of sweet fruit and buttery pastry will transport me back to a crisp, fall day climbing grizzled trees laden with red fruit.

If you have spare apples and freezer space, make a few pucks.  You won’t feel sorry you did.

Apple Pie Pucks

Scale your favorite apple pie recipe to fill as many pie dishes as you can get your hands on.  Carefully spoon filling into zip lock bags and nestle them down into your pie dishes. Freeze overnight.  Pop frozen pucks out of the pie dishes and return to freezer.

To bake, make a double-crust pie recipe.  Fill pie dish with bottom crust, insert frozen puck, and cover with top crust.  Crimp and flute edges.  Slash the top decoratively to create steam vents.    Bake on a cookie sheet at 400° F for 50 minutes.  Reduce oven temperature to 350° F and bake until juices bubbly thickly through the vents, 40 to 60 minutes more.

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