It's All About the FoodChristmas Baking with SusieJ

2010 Archives

Dobosh cake

It was time for the annual parent association fundraising dinner. Every year I bake something. And every year something goes horribly wrong, and I need to bake twice.

Dobash cake is the Hawaiian specialty I chose to bake for this year's party (luau theme, no nuts). It's vaguely related to Hungarian Dobos torte. There is apparently only one recipe for dobash cake on the whole net. I picked it because it's a fairly simple chocolate cake with poured chocolate icing, and who doesn't like a chocolate-chocolate cake?

Transplanted Hawaiians raved about the cake, and looked for places where they could by it.

All recipes call for two eight-inch pans, which I don't own. But I do own a Kaiser bottomless adjustable cake ring. Which, as it turns out, will not hold a thinner batter without the batter leaking out the bottom. After transferring the ring (and leaking batter) from one baking sheet to a flatter sheet, I popped it into the oven for 45 minutes (50% longer time) ... and watched a quarter of the batter seep under the ring.

I quickly whipped up another batch of batter and baked it in two nine-inch pans (while driving my husband and son to poker night). The cake recipe was straightforward enough that it wasn't much trouble — although I would recommend adding the oil, milk, egg yolks and sugar at once, rather than in two additions.

Dobash cake should be a four-layer cake. The two layers are each sliced in half. My nine-inch layers were only about an inch and a half tall, too short for slicing. I looked over at the first cake; it was tall enough to slice into three layers. Good to know I'd baked a cake I wouldn't use!

(The extra layers did keep well, even unfrozen. I later iced the layers with some leftover buttercream and took it into the office. Always freeze any leftover icing.)

The icing calls for corn starch, an ingredient I use mostly in Chinese stir fry, a tablespoon or two at a time, and rarely when baking. Of course, I was nearly out. Of course, I don't keep a second box on hand. After a trip to the grocery (most of which was spent driving and cursing), the icing was underway.

Dobash cake has the oddest icing I've ever encountered. It's closest to a chocolate pudding, but made with water and butter, not milk. After boiling water, sugar and butter, cocoa and corn starch are added (and the sifting step really is needed; without sifting, it's necessary to pour the icing through a strainer to remove lumps). The corn starch absorbs the water, and the mixture cools to a pudding consistency, in the end becoming, er, very springy, shall we say. For a long time, it was too liquid to really ice the cake. It was best when thicker and gloppier. Unlike buttercream or ganache, it wasn't good at hiding flaws, like unevenly aligned layers or a domed top.

Overall, I'd give the cake a better than average rating, but the icing does leave me scratching my head. I'd rather have a buttercream. On the other hand, I drink kräuter liqueur and red vermouth (straight).

Cooking with kids

Food writer Anne Mendelson reviewed a number of cookbooks aimed at kids about two years ago. She passed the stack on to me, as I am in possession of an actual child. The stack included:

  • Fun Food, Williams-Sonoma, publisher
  • Children's Quick & Easy Cookbook, Angela Wilkes, DK Publishing
  • Children's Cookbook, Katharine Ibbs, DK Publishing
  • Grow It Cook It, DK Publishing
  • Cooking with Children, Marion Cunningham
  • Kitchen Playdates, Lauren Bank Deen
  • Salad People, Mollie Katzen
  • Real Food for Healthy Kids, Tracey Seaman and Tanya Wenman Steel, review copy
  • Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook, Brennan/Frankeny
  • The Family Kitchen, Debra Ponzek
  • Kids' Kitchen, Amanda Grant
  • The Toddler Cookbook, Annabel Karmel (my own)

They range from kids cooking alone (I'd put Marion Cunningham, Williams-Sonoma, and perhaps Kids' Kitchen here) to cooking for kids (Real Food for Healthy Kids and the Seuss), with the rest in the cooking with kids as helpers category, more or less, although the titles (with the exception of Cunningham) imply that the kids will be the main cooks in the kitchen. What the hell a kid is, I don't know. Jake's helped in the kitchen since he was 18 months old (and was more interested then than now). Most authors probably assumed a child old enough to read and reason, so at least seven or so, up through pre-teen, as a teen would probably cook from an adult cookbook.

I found Real Food for Healthy Kids irksome in its constant requirements for "whole-grain" and "organic." It's off-putting to parents unable to spend the extra money or go the (literal) extra mile. Any parent dedicated to whole grains and organic would naturally substitute. The authors also claim that freezing breast milk destroys the nutrients. I don't remember my son Jakob being malnourished from 3 months to 12 months of age, when half his calorie and nutrient intake was frozen milk I'd pumped two days before. That statement needs references to solid studies to back it up.

Green Eggs and Ham is a gimmick cookbook, and works about as well as you would expect a gimmick cookbook to work. I couldn't imagine eating anything from it.

Most were geared to experienced cooks, especially the lavishly photographed books from Dorling Kinderly (DK Publishing). DK produces some wonderfully photographed books for young children with lots of pictures and few words, but for a new cook, extensive and accurate directions are necessary, unless the authors expect an adult to interpret every step. Really, what is "gentle heat"? Cunningham and Fun Food both give thorough directions.

And then there is the knife and stove question. Cunningham, Kids' Kitchen and W-S expect their young cooks to wield a knife; most others expect an adult to step in for that task and anything involving heat. Kitchen Playdate and The Family Kitchen both have sidebars for super-simple steps the authors feel children can cope with. Perhaps they were written with a younger audience in mind. By 12 I was cooking unsupervised, and our teenaged exchange students both cooked and baked occasionally. But even Jake wants to be really involved now at five, no longer just doing simple tasks. He also wants to do what he wants to do, like zesting lemons and digging in the flour container.

Many of the recipes were attractive to me and my adult palate, but I can't imagine Jake now, or my nine-year-old self, wanting to cook anything outside a narrow list of likes (anything sweet or starchy, and tomatoes). Even older children have foods they absolutely won't eat or try. Lemon sole with creamy spinach and mushrooms (The Family Kitchen)? Jake's already far head of me at the same age in that he'll eat fish sticks and raw spinach, but he tolerates no sauce on anything. Fish is also difficult to cook properly, especially to saute. Even Annabel Karmel's The Toddler Cookbook was over optimistic; Jake has just started eating plain quesadillas, let alone anything with corn or beans in it!

Cunningham and W-S stuck to more standard fare. Kids' Kitchen was a bit more adventurous (sesame fish sticks), but still had things kids are known to eat or that they are likely to have seen at home. (I must confess a failing here: Jake refuses mac and cheese but gobbles up Kraft.) Mollie Katzen (Salad People) was decidedly on the edge here; I can imagine kids of vegetarians eating many of the dishes, but the kids of my more mainstream friends turning up their noses. And the eponymous salad people are not nearly as fun to eat as to look at or make. On the other hand, she does have testimonials from kids who tested the recipes for her.

I'd say Cunningham's Cooking with Children and Williams-Sonoma's Fun Food came out best, good books even for adult cooks with no skills, followed by Kids' Kitchen. It's a hard audience to write for: picky eaters with short attention spans and no skills in the kitchen.

My own advice is to start them young: Jake was 18 months when he first mashed bananas with his father to make banana bread. Lay down some safety rules (hands off the cutting board always, step away from the stove). Small kids can dump ingredients; at three Jake could measure badly, by four he could measure well, although he has a habit of packing the flour in. My girlfriend confessed she doesn't even tell her kids she's making something if she cares a lot how it comes out. Baking is easier than cooking. Be prepared for a mess, and make your helper help with the clean up. You will need to be very patient. Small kids can roll dough, use cookie cutters and cookie presses (aka, a spritz gun), decorate, spread, flip pancakes, put pans in the oven if wearing oven mitts, and probably do more than we think they can.

Considering Cake

All Cakes Considered, Melissa Gray, 2009

This book made me want to buy a Bundt pan.

It forced me to consider (briefly) which kitchen tool would be replaced to make room for the Bundt pan, until I realized the "broiler" drawer on the electric range was half empty. Now the drawer stores all my oddly shaped pans.

The book came from a project by the author to teach herself to bake. Deciding to learn by doing, Melissa Gray baked a cake every weekend. Wanting to spread the love (and calories) around, she took her cakes into the office, in this case NPR Washington.

Gray takes her reader through the same journey of slight skills (knowing how to measure) through understanding baking jargon to building multi-layered masterpieces, with a detour for fried pies. The first recipe, for a sour cream pound cake, breaks down those short-cut directions like "creaming" and "preparing a pan" that experienced bakers naturally do. The recipes that follow build on the base of knowledge, adding new skills. As a producer for NPR's All Things Considered, Gray could easily ask questions of experts you or I might be too intimidated to ask, like Dorie Greenspan. She could find out why her meringue buttercream didn't work, and get a simpler, more reliable recipe.

The book might be limited to cakes (and fried pies), but there is a lot of variety in cake, and Gray touches on most of it. She also catalogs her co-workers' reactions to the cakes she brings in: the pro- and (adamantly) anti-coconut factions; those who love sweet, American-style icing; those who prefer a plain cake. Most of her recipes are American, and she gives as much history as she can of how they developed. It is a good read.

But are the recipes any good? Yes, hence the need for a Bundt pan. I've made a couple of pound cakes, a rum-vanilla cake and a spice cake. All worked, although I'd add more cocoa to the chocolate pound cake. I'm intrigued by the many spice cakes (and the fried pies).

A Yankee makes biscuits and gravy

In Heartburn, Nora Ephron writes about how cooking became her way of showing love to her husband and son. Clearly, I should have married her rather than Carl Bernstein, because it's perfectly obvious to me that serving someone the perfect vinaigrette is a declaration of love. [Doorway on the plaza in Taos, New Mexico]Thus, this snow day found me tackling biscuits and gravy for brunch, and remembering our trip to Taos, where the Hampton Inn served biscuits and gravy, and salsa at the breakfast buffet.

I live in Philly, and the closest I come to "Southern" is a grandfather from Kentucky I never knew, and grandparents from and family in southern Germany. But I don't believe that biscuits or sausage gravy are something you need a drawl to learn how to make. Sure, a Meemaw who can show you the right way to make biscuits and the correct ratios for gravy, gives you a head start on the those of us raised on scrapple, but a good cook can cook anything.

First, you need to be able to make a good biscuit. If you have some experience baking, this isn't hard. Just remember it's not bread dough, and doesn't need to have a uniform texture.

For the gravy, I started at (Remember them?) and just winged it when I got into the kitchen.

Preheat your oven for the biscuits. Using a 10" pan, start frying a 12-ounce package of breakfast sausage links. The original recipe said to break them apart, but someone likes his sausage whole, and will need years to before he'll think about trying sausage gravy. It turns out only half the links went into the gravy, and that was more than enough. I started the sausage frozen in a cold pan. While the sausage is frying, start making the biscuits.

By the time the biscuits are in the oven, the sausage should be just finishing. Move the links to a plate, leaving behind as much fat as possible. I had about a tablespoon (I'm really bad at estimating) and added another two tablespoons of butter. Whisk in three to four tablespoons of flour to make a roux; cook until the roux is light to medium brown. The leftover fond will make it hard to tell the color of the roux, but exactness is not required.

Whisk in two cups of milk, and get the nice brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Keep whisking as it thickens. The gravy will be very, very thick; if it cools, it will become pudding. If you'd like a thinner gravy, use less butter and flour, or add more milk.

If the reserved sausage is whole, chop into small pieces. Add the sausage bits back into the gravy. There will be a lot of sausage in the gravy. This is not mediocre diner gravy that's mostly flour and milk. Whisk in a dash of cayene, and white pepper and salt to taste.

(I didn't actually do this, I made the gravy, then the biscuits, and the gravy congealed on the stove. I added an extra half cup of milk (two cups total) and stirred over medium heat until I had gravy again.)

Serve over biscuits. Moan quietly.

Doing it right

When my friend Cecily tweeted about an article on organizing kitchens, I had to pop over to see if I could learn anything new. Unfortunately, the article was superficial to the point of uselessness: Clean, throw out what you don't use, look at the pretty pictures. And the pictures! Only glass cabinets with dish services for a dozen guests eating six courses! A walk in pantry half as big as my kitchen! Real people do not live like this.

I can do better, I wrote Cecily.

Pull everything out and make it look "artistic" doesn't help when you need to get dinner on the table in half an hour. Well organized cabinets save you time hunting for what you need, and save you energy because what you need is close to where you are already working. Two people can work in a well organized kitchen without tripping over each other.

So here it is. This is what I did for my kitchen's last big re-organization. I've tweaked the kitchen since the big re-org, but haven't made any substantial changes, as that would require contractors and licensing and who wants to go that route?

Think about how you use your kitchen, and spend a week or two observing yourself and everyone in the household in the kitchen. What happens there: cooking, baking, eating, homework, talking? Watch where it happens: I do almost all of my food prep to the right of the stove. Watch how often you need to walk across the kitchen; something should move closer: you or what you are running to. If anyone else is in the kitchen while you work, do you get in each other's way?

Ask yourself what you want to do in the kitchen?, but be realistic. If you aren't throwing dinner parties for six people now, it's unlikely you'll throw parties for twenty. Where will you want to do things; in a restaurant kitchen this might be called stations. I bake a lot, and need a place with at least three feet of counter space, with an outlet, and near the stove.

Put the things near where you use them (or will use them after re-organizing), just like keeping the dish soap and extra sponges under the sink. Near the oven and the fridge (for eggs, milk and butter), I have a baking station with the mixer, bowls, cake pans, measuring utensils, rolling pins and all my baking ingredients. The pots are next to the stove, as are the spatulas and a set of prep bowls. The dishes are near the sink, dishwasher, and also the door to the dining room. The knives and cutting boards are next to each other and near my prep area and the fridge (but far from the sink).

Ideally, everything is in arms reach, especially the potholders and fire extinguisher. The most frequently used items should be on the lower shelves, the least used on the upper shelves or across the kitchen or in the pantry. My husband loves biscuits; the biscuit cutter is in the drawer with the rolling pins and cupcake liners. Because all the other cutters only appear at Christmas, they live across the kitchen, in a little angled cabinet with a nut grinder and the wedding cake accessories. (This does lead to an out of sight, out of mind problem, and I now have half a shelf full of very interesting but unopened Asian sauces at the very top of one cabinet.)

Not every small appliance must be on the counter. Things that are particularly heavy — the microwave — or that are used at least weekly should be there. If you have the room, put the infrequently used in a cabinet.

Keep like with like: all the vinegars together, even though you never use that sherry vinegar. Don't be afraid to designate, say, the left side of the lower shelf of the pantry cabinet is the oils, next to that the vinegars, then salts, then rices. Whisks go on the left in the drawer, spatulas on the right. When everything has a very specific place, and you've gotten into the routine of if it being there, you won't have to think where to find it or where to put it away.

The specialty organization gadgets are sometimes worth it. Things that I've seen actually used:

  • a stepped spice shelf, to see the jars, if you have a lot of spices. (The spices are organized by short jars in front, most used in the second row, others in the third and fourth rows grouped by cuisines. Baking spices are in the baking cabinet. Cardamom in the freezer.)
  • in-drawer knife blocks to protect the blades and keep them off the counters, again, if you have a lot of knives
  • bars under the cabinets for hanging towels or tools
  • jar of tools on the counter
  • flatware holder
  • the plastic wrap/tinfoil box holder screwed onto the back of a cabinet door
  • towel rack on the end cabinet
  • wire plate shelf if you have lots of plates
  • floor to ceiling free-standing cabinet in an apartment with only two built-in cabinets
  • wire rack on the kitchen door when there are few cabinets

Once you have an idea of where you want to move things and what organizing tools you'll use, then, and only then, do you clear and wash out the cabinets. (Bicycle chain degreaser works wonders, by the way, and don't overlook the efficiency of a vacuum over a broom.) While pulling everything out of the cabinets, do some purging:

  • any ingredient over two years old
  • anything past its expiration date
  • anything open with moths or other hitchhikers (check everything)
  • anything you don't need so many of, like coffee mugs and deli containers
  • any equipment unused in the last year

And if you really, really think you'll eat that box of stale cookies or will use the fondue pot, leave it on the counter to remind yourself. In six months, if it's still unused: purge.

Craigslist or Freecycle is your friend here, unless your kitchen disgorges enough for a yard sale.

Now put everything into its new home. Something won't fit (are the shelves adjustable?), or was overlooked (sippy cups), or someone can't bear to part with it (the mugs), or you just have too damn much stuff? There are solutions:

  • my mother stored her pots in the oven; only a solution if the pots are oven safe (Farberware is, but the handle of the splatter guard wasn't.)
  • my "broiler" drawer holds roasting pans and odd-sized cake pans
  • put the most-used things on the counters or on the walls
  • anything pretty can be displayed, and extra points if it doubles as storage; the onions live in a lovely, blue bowl from my aunt and we know when we need onions

And that is how you organize your cabinets, and your kitchen along with it.

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