A Better Bagel

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On weekdays at breakfast-time, my daughters almost always ask for toasted bagels with cream cheese.  The early morning shuffle to school and work ranks among my least favorite hours of the day, and thankfully, this toast-spread-and serve repast helps ease me into it.  It provides a predictable element to the bleary-eyed chaos and minimizes the likelihood that I’ll completely lose it before 8:00 am and then feel like a crappy mom for the rest of the day.  In the interest of keeping our mornings moving along smoothly, my kitchen’s always stocked with at least one bag of mini bagels from the grocery store.

On most mornings, Tessa eats half of her bagel and asks, “Can I please be done?”   Last week, I told her yes, picked up the remaining half of her breakfast, and took a bite.  The bland flavor and dry texture tasted decidedly uninspiring.   This uninspiring bite did spark inspiration, though:  I got right to work on improving the quality of the bagels busting out of our toaster.

If I didn’t live on an island, I probably would have simply added a weekly bagel shop stop to my list of errands.  Instead, I consulted cookbooks and compared bagel recipes.   I found potato-based recipes, whole grain recipes, recipes with starters, recipes that relied on steaming rather than boiling, and recipes that suggested shaping bagels from strips of dough rather than the more traditional “just poke a hole in the center with your finger” method.

I settled on a recipe from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion as a starting place.  The recipe looked straightforward, and the off-putting, obscure-sounding ingredients like non-diastatic malt powder came paired with recognizable alternatives, like brown sugar.

As I prepared to make my first batch, I felt surprised that I hadn’t made homemade bagels before.  The dough looked no more difficult to make than any standard bread recipe, and the idea of boiling dough before baking it–which had always intimidated me before–didn’t seem complicated at all.  Perhaps my recent adventures dropping doughnuts in seething oil made slipping rounds of dough into simmering water look easy.

My anticipations of simplicity proved correct.  The recipe was so simple, in fact, that when Tessa declared that she didn’t like bagels with sesame seeds, I made her some plain ones the very next day.

This wasn’t a completely selfless endeavor;  our freshly baked bagel supply was dwindling, and I wanted to eat at least one more bagel myself.   I had my heart set on a bagel sandwich for lunch the next day — chock full of  leftover steak layered with red onions, Swiss cheese, and mustard.  But impending breakfast bagels and lunchbox peanut butter and jelly bagels stacked the odds against my bagel sandwich becoming a reality.

I started making dough after dinner, and, by 9:30 pm, pulled 12 unadorned, golden beauties from the oven.  This happened long before I started getting tired or annoyed with myself for embarking on a baking project in the evening.   Instead, I decided I had room for a warm bagel.  I ate it plain and savored the soft-dense, chewy interior inside its thin, crisp crust.

And my sandwich for lunch the next day?  Just as good as I imagined.

This morning when Tessa said, “”Can I please be done?”  I excused her from the table.  When I took a bite of her remaining breakfast, the satisfying crunch of toasted bagel combined with smooth, creamy cheese prompted me take another bite.  And then another.  Before I knew it, I finished the rest of her bagel.  I’d already had my own breakfast.  This could be dangerous.


Adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion.  Makes one dozen 3-inch bagels.

1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
4 cups unbleached all-purpose or bread flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar

Water Bath
2 quarts water
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon granulated sugar

Add water to the bowl of a standing electric mixer, sprinkle yeast and and a pinch of brown sugar over its surface, and stir to combine.  Let sit for 10 minutes until it begins to bubble.

Add one cup of flour, the salt, and brown sugar to the yeast mixture and stir with the paddle attachment until well-combined, 1 to 2 minutes.  Add remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, to form a thick dough that clears the sides of the bowl.  Change to the dough hook and knead for about 3 to 5 minutes.  If desired, transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead briefly by hand.  The dough should feel stiff but springy to the touch.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl and set it aside to rise until about doubled in bulk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Transfer the dough to a work surface and divide it into 12 equal pieces. Working with one piece at a time, shape into tight, round balls, pinching and smoothing the seams on what will be the bottom side of each bagel.  Cover the balls with plastic wrap and let them rest for 30 minutes. They’ll puff up slightly.

While the dough rests, prepare the water bath by heating the water and sugars to a gentle boil in a large, wide-diameter pan. Preheat oven to 425°F.

Use your index finger to poke a hole through the center of each ball, then twirl the dough on your finger to stretch the hole till it’s about 1 inch in diameter. Place each bagel on a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet.  Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.

Transfer the bagels, four at a time, to the simmering water. Increase the heat under the pan to bring the water back up to a gently simmering boil, if necessary. Cook the bagels for 2 minutes, flip them over, and cook for 1 minute more. Using a skimmer or strainer, remove the bagels from the water and place them back on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining bagels.

Bake the bagels in the lower half of your oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until they’re as deep brown as you like.  If they brown too quickly, place a baking sheet on the top rack to diffuse the heat.  When finished, remove the bagels from the oven and cool completely on a wire rack.

For seeded bagels:  Just before baking, brush each bagel with a glaze made of 1 egg white beaten till frothy with 1 tablespoon of water. Sprinkle heavily with seeds.

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Birthday Surprise

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Several months ago, my youngest daughter requested a Tinkerbell cake for her fourth birthday party.  This week, she turned four, but I had no plans to make her a cake this year.

In lieu of a Tinkerbell cake and birthday party, we decided to surprise her with a glimpse of the real Tinkerbell at Disneyland.  We managed to keep our plans under wraps, but Eliza kept volunteering her services as birthday party-planner.  Finally we had to let her in on part of the secret.

“We’re worried it might rain, and you know how small our house is,” we told her.  “Instead of having a party, we thought we’d surprise Tessa with a trip to see Grandma and Grandpa.”

Since my parents planned to meet us there, we didn’t even have to lie.

The idea of a secret tickled Eliza.  She even came up with a scheme to keep Tessa in the dark once we loaded on the ferry bound for the Seattle airport:  “Maybe we can tell Tessa we’re going to Disneyland.  And then she’ll be so surprised when we get to Grandma and Papa’s house instead!”

“Let’s just pretend we’re going to Seattle,” we said.

The fireworks show featuring Tinkerbell’s flight over Sleeping Beauty’s castle brought Tessa to tears, and not the good kind, either.  As the show began, we found ourselves near Small World, far too close to the pyrotechnic staging area.   “The sky will rip open,” Tessa wailed in my ear between detonations.   Watching Tessa’s Tinkerbell-surprise terrorize her made me feel like a crummy parent.

The next day, she astonished me by describing the birthday cake she wanted me to make for her: “Tinkerbell will fly in the sky under the fireworks.”

Instead of saying, “But we’re celebrating your birthday at Disneyland this year,” or “Maybe next year,” I found myself wondering how her the previous evening’s torment had transformed itself into a vision in fondant.  “Tell me more about this cake,” I said.  Pretty soon, I realized that, party or no party, I was going to spend the better part of a day making her a cake.

Later that evening, we watched the fireworks from Main Street.  This time, instead of crying, Tessa grinned the entire time.  At show’s end, she said, “She’s on a wire.  So it’s not real, right?”

This disappointed her slightly, but she still wanted the cake.

Since Tessa envisioned Tinkerbell flying through the sky, I decided to attach the mischievous pixie to the side of a tall, narrow cake.  I baked six six-inch rounds and stacked them six-high. Looking back at those numbers, I should have known only trouble would arise from a cake built on a trio of hexes.  I now recognize that only pixie dust held it together.

If you ask Tessa what kind of cake she wants to eat, she always says, “Strawberry-Raspberry.”  Since I’ve never seen a recipe for such a cake, I cobbled one together and hoped for the best.

I worried that covering the towering stack with fondant from the top down would create too many folds to smooth out, so I reluctantly topped the cake with a disk of fondant and wrapped a wide fondant band  around its sides.  I had done this before when I made a flower-pot cake;  at the time I vowed never to do it again.  This time, though, instead of wrapping the fondant free-hand around the cake, I rolled it around an empty paper towel tube so I could unroll it onto the cake. This might have worked perfectly except for a series of misadventures.

I hadn’t given myself much wiggle room when measuring the fondant since it usually stretches quite a bit during application. I had wrapped a piece of thread around the cake to find its diameter, and then used the thread to eyeball the length of fondant I needed to wrap around the cake.   Since I unrolled the fondant directly onto the cake’s frosted surface, it didn’t stretch at all;  this left a gap down the cake’s side.  I gently massaged the fondant until the edges met, pleased to discover, unexpectedly, how to avoid awkwardly trimming excess fondant from a cake.  The feeling didn’t last though.

I had had the idea that cream cheese frosting would taste fantastic with strawberry-raspberry cake.  Unfortunately, the cream cheese frosting’s slippery, slick texture allowed elasticity and gravity free reign to do their work.   This seems so obvious now;  I can’t believe I actually made slip-n-slide frosting and applied it to this skinny tower of a cake.  The tidy seam down the cake’s side refused to hang together and the fondant strained at staying put on the cake.

On the bright side, my husband’s Facebook plea for sparklers had procured the necessary fireworks for the cake.  Cheered on by the availability of July 4th paraphernalia in late February, I set my mind to the task of creating Tinkerbell.  I pieced together body parts and adhered them to the cake’s side with dabs of water.  I made the mistake of drawing Tinkerbell’s face with edible markers before sticking her head to the cake;  her features got a bit distorted during the process, especially when I had to remove her head and then reapply it after I realized I had forgotten to give her wings.

As dinner’s hour approached, I cut some yellow stars to attach around the top seam in an effort to prevent the fondant from sliding down the sides of this Tinkerbell cake.

All that was missing was pixie dust.  I dug out the edible silver stars tucked beneath my icing colors.  I ran a damp finger along the fondant and pressed the tiny stars against it gently.

By the time we got home from dinner, the fondant hung on by a thread.  Tessa didn’t care though.   She got to have her cake–with a bang–and eat it, too.

Strawberry-Raspberry Cake

Inspired by Smitten Kitchen’s Pink Lady Cake.  I used three 6-inch round pans (two times for six layers), but they really aren’t quite big enough for the volume of batter in this recipe.  Next time I will use 8-inch pans or discard some of the batter for more even baking.

3 cups cake flour
2 cups sugar
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cups pureed frozen strawberries
1/4 cup de-seeded raspberry puree
5 egg whites
3 fluid ounces milk
1 to 2 drops red or pink food coloring, if desired

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter three cake pans (see note above), line with parchment paper, butter the paper, and then flour the pans.

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large mixer bowl. With the electric mixer on low speed, blend for about 30 seconds. Add the butter and fruit purees. Mix to blend the ingredients. Increase speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.

In another large bowl, whisk together the egg whites, milk, and food coloring, if using, to blend. Add the egg white mixture to the batter in two or three additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl well and mixing only to incorporate after each addition. Divide the batter among the three prepared pans.

Bake the cakes for 30 to 40 minutes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow the layers to cool in the pans for 10 to 15 minutes. Invert and turn out onto wire racks and peel off the paper liners. Let stand until completely cooled before assembling the cake.

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Project Cupcake

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Whenever I decorate a cake, my daughters eagerly await the moment when I hand over the extra fondant.  Within minutes, they look just like kids busy with Play Doh.  They roll out the pliant confection and cut out shapes or fashion it into puppies or vegetables or letters.

But fondant is better than Play Doh;  it feels silkier and less sticky in your hands,  it smells like marshmallows, and, unlike Play Doh, it’s actually designed for human consumption.  Strangely, my girls always ask before they start chowing down, which makes me generous with the leftovers.

Their fondant creations often share the theme of the cake I have spent all night decorating.  My little helpers invariably present me with small creatures.

“Mommy, I think this jelly fish would look great right here,” they say, jabbing a finger dangerously at the undersea scene on the side of the cake.

The girls look at me sad-eyed when I tell them gently that I’m happy with the cake the way it is.  Sometimes I feel like I should relent, but I’m just not that nice.  I feel guilty about this, but clearly not guilty enough.

This weekend, though, I came up with a plan to assuage my conscience.  I causally asked if anyone felt up for making cupcakes.  Every eye in the room lit up.

“I thought I could make some fondant, too,” I added.  “Everyone can decorate their own cupcakes.”

As baking cupcakes filled our small kitchen with a warm, chocolatey aroma, I grabbed the ingredients I needed for fondant.  Fondant’s smooth finish and fancy French name make it seem rather intimidating, and I’m sure intimidating recipes exist, but my version’s simple:  microwave a bag of mini marshmallows and knead–with Crisco-slathered hands–the sticky, gooey mess into a pile of powdered sugar.  It’s easy, fast, and much tastier than any fondant I’ve sampled on professional cakes.

I had the idea that we might make Valentine’s cupcakes, but I didn’t have a specific agenda.

In an attempt to avoid my usual control-freakishness around baking projects, I asked my daughters to decide on the colors to work into the fondant.  They pulled their favorite colors from my icing dye collection while I kneaded ever more powdered sugar into the stiffening marshmallows. While they were at it, they found my edible markers.

We rolled out and shaped  fondant circles using a cupcake-sized round cutter.  After spreading a thin layer of buttercream on a cupcake, we’d stick a fondant round on the top, smooth it down, and then start decorating.   Mostly, but not exclusively, we used heart cookie cutters.  No two cupcakes turned out exactly the same, but they made an awesome collection.

Marshmallow Fondant

Adapted from Peggy Weaver’s recipe on What’s Cooking America.

16 ounces mini-marshmallows
2 to 5 tablespoons water
2 pounds confectioner’s sugar
1/2 cup Crisco shortening
corn starch, for rolling and shaping

In a large, microwave-safe bowl, toss marshmallows with 2 to 3 tablespoons of water (if your marshmallows are super-fresh, use 2 tablespoons of water;  if they’re a bit dry, use 3 tablespoons).  Microwave for 30 seconds, open microwave, and stir mixture with a silicone spatula before microwaving again.  Repeat heating and stirring at 30 second intervals until the marshmallows are melted.  This usually takes about 2 1/2 minutes total.

Pour about one-quarter of the bag of the powdered sugar on the top of the melted marshmallows.  Stir until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the bowl.

Grease your counter top, hands, and wrists generously with Crisco. Pour about half of the remaining powdered sugar on top of the greased counter and scrape the marshmallow mixture onto the sugar.Knead the mixture as you would bread dough, adding more Crisco to your hands as needed;  it will be very sticky. Continue to add powdered sugar and knead until the mixture becomes stiff but remains pliable.  If the mix begins to tear, it is too dry;  add water about 1/2 tablespoon at a time and then knead it in.

Use immediately or store in plastic wrap coated with Crisco inside a Ziploc bag, squeezing out as much air as possible.  Store fondant unrefrigerated for up to a week.

Knead in icing color as desired.  To roll out, dust counter top and rolling pin generously with corn starch to prevent sticking.  Roll to 1/8-inch thickness.  Apply a thin layer of buttercream frosting to cake or cupcake surface to hold the fondant in place.  Dust off remaining corn starch with a pastry brush or soft towel.

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I Give You an Onion | Caramelized Onion Tarts

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I‘m not opposed to the giddy sweetness of Valentine’s Day.  Chocolates, roses, champagne? Yes, please.

But ever since one of my students presented Carol Ann Duffy’s “Valentine” as part of her poetry final project five years ago, I can’t think about Valentine’s Day without thinking of onions. Sound crazy?


by Carol Ann Duffy

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

In homage to love fierce and faithful, to love frank and unvarnished, to love at times tear-wrenching and tenacious, I made some onion tarts.

A set of nesting cookie cutters makes mini tart shells simple to pull off.  If you decide to make your own puff pastry, a task easier than you might think, you’ll feel extra cool.  Go ahead and do it for love.

Caramelize an onion and you bring out its deep, lush sweetness. Pair it with goat cheese and you create a savory memory of sweetness that lingers long after the chocolate caramels disappear.

Caramelized Onion Tarts

Adapted from Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen .  Makes 12 small tarts.

1 recipe puff pastry
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 red onion, halved and sliced thinly
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, coarsely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup (4 ounces) soft goat cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

Preheat oven to 375° F. Parchment line a baking sheet.

Roll out puff pastry to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut into 3-inch rounds or hearts. Transfer to prepared baking sheet, flipping over so the bottom side faces up. Using a 2 3/4-inch round or heart cutter, make an indented border on the pastry shapes.  Cut almost all the way through, jiggling the cutter slightly to separate the centers from the edges;  this will make it easier to remove the centers after partial baking. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

While pastry rests, heat olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions, vinegar, sugar, and rosemary and season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated and the onions are caramelized. Remove from heat to cool.

Combine goat cheese and parsley in a small bowl. Stir to soften and combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Bake the pastry for about 15 minutes, until it puffs up, looks firm, and just begins to turn golden. Remove from the oven, depress and remove the top layer of puff centers with a fork or small knife. Spread a heaping spoonful of the cheese mixture into the center of each shape. Return to the oven and bake until the pastry is golden brown and the cheese is warm. Remove from the oven and top each tart with caramelized onions. Sprinkle with chopped parsley, if desired.  Serve warm.

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