Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The End

This entry is long overdue.  I made the last cake amidst a flurry of visitors, packing, and last minute experiments before heading off to Europe for a conference and some intense sight seeing.  There was no time for blogging.  Admittedly, I was probably putting off writing this entry a bit, because the completion of this entry is truly the end of this project.  And that makes me sadder than I thought it would.

Coincidentally, this cake also made me sadder than I thought it would.  Entitled “Towering Hope Chocolate Walnut Torte,” it was comprised of eggs, eggs, a touch of chocolate, a sprinkling of walnuts, and eggs.  I was slightly irked that I was forced to finally invest in a legitimate angel food cake pan, but with a short ingredient list and a name containing the word “hope,” it seemed a sure thing that the cake would be a simple ending to the cake adventure.

But endings are never simple.  The essential instructions were to beat egg yolks, beat egg whites, mix together with some other stuff, bake.  Of course, in the process of separating the one dozen eggs, yolk number 11 fell into the whites.  Thankfully, it came out easily and intact with a slotted spoon.  Or so I thought.  I knew something was wrong when the KitchenAid had been working on the whites for 15 minutes and failed to yield a “soft shape.”  I had to turn off the KitchenAid and switch to a hand mixer, and then go back to the KitchenAid, so that nothing overheated.  But at long last, I did get what I thought were fluffy, firm egg whites, so I mixed everything together and put it in the pan.

The baking process was another indication of a problem.  According to the instructions, “during the baking, the top of the cake will rise in a dome shape, but it will become almost level with the top of the pan when it is done.”  My cake, while it smelled enticingly chocolaty, never rose.  When I took it out and flipped it upside down to cool, it fell out of the pan, and instead of a light, airy cake, I had a heavy, dense mess.  There must have been some contaminating yolk in the whites, or my beaters weren’t as clean as I thought, or I should have used a metal bowl for the whites instead of  glass, or in the lengthy process of beating the whites, the yolks may have deflated.  There could have been any number of problems.  I have had some close calls, and some not-quite-rights, but never once during this process have I had a complete failure.  It was a devastating experience, especially since it was supposed to be the end, a time of reflection and hope.  But I was hopeless and cakeless, and the only reflection was the irrational metaphors my melancholy mind created to equate the failed cake with my current life situation.

Even worse, I had invited people over for a final cake gathering, and would have to disappoint them.  My guests, however, were not deterred by my sad news and insisted we still try it.  So we made homemade ice cream, a process that led to much laughter and many bruises, and ate Flat Failure Chocolate Walnut Torte with vanilla ice cream.  It actually tasted fine, but I vowed to conquer the cake the following week.

So I bought another dozen eggs and tried again.  This time, I worked as quickly a possible to ensure there was no time for either mix to lose the air whipped in.  My egg whites beat perfectly.  The cake rose and stayed in the pan when I flipped it over.  And the end result was a light, airy, chocolaty, nutty cake.  It was aesthetically pleasing, quite delicious, and there was plenty to share.  And that is how this cake adventure ends.

At the end of her project, Dr. R reflects on a few questions about the changes over the past year, and I thought I might consider them as well.  First, is the world less safe than when I started?  In her Year of Cake, Dr. R witnessed Hurricane Katrina, an oil spill, and bombing in Israel.  As for me, I’ve seen an endless of number of economic crises and violent shootings, and watched the debates over gay marriage and women’s health issues tip toward the boiling point.  In this election year, campaign battles are being undertaken through social media, which in turn has been taken over by anger and ignorance, and I am terrified of what this election could bring.  But I’ve also witness the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, and the world experienced a brief period of unification in the 2012 Olympics, signs that this crazy world still has room for progress and hope.

Am I happier or better for eating cake every week?  Dr. R says yes, and I have to agree.  Maybe a few pounds heavier, but I think it’s worth it.  On this journey, I discovered the power of cake: to bring people together, to light up someone’s face, to bring a bit of sweetness to a bitter day.  I think cake is called for far more frequently than we indulge in it, and while it’s nice to know I am not required to bake every weekend, I foresee the continuation of cake days (or pie or cookies or brownies) whenever there is time or a need for a sweet treat.  Sunday morning, in fact, I was up early making the strawberry pie I promised Maureen, and we had Pie & Bones night that evening.  There’s just something comforting about ending a weekend with baked goods and good friends.

Dr. R also reflects on the changes in her family, good and bad.  Tragically, her oldest daughter was diagnosed with MS at the end of her year, which is why the proceeds of this book go to MS research.  I remember this happening, how sad she was, and how strong.  Scientists approach scary issues by learning everything there is to know, because if you understand it, it’s not so scary.  Dr. R read everything she possibly could about MS and ongoing research, and even e-mailed scientists working on the disease, all of who responded.  There was, of course, happy news for her family too.  Maybe that’s why she chose this cake: to represent the hope they needed to get through the bad, and the hope their blessings gave them.

As for my family: My sister is settled into graduate school living through all of the trials and tribulations graduate school brings.  My mom got a promotion, complete with a raise, at work, and has a more colorful social life than my sister and I combined.  My grandmother moved out of the house she’s lived in since as long as I can remember, the house my mom grew up in.  And me?  I got the green light to graduate in the spring, which brings on an overwhelming amount of work, planning final experiments, writing a dissertation, applying for postdoctoral positions, planning a move.  I just received my first invitation to interview for a position in a lab at NYU, which has sent me into full panic mode.  Am I ready?  Am I smart enough?  Is this really what I want to do?  It seems kind of unreal… I feel neither old enough or mature enough to be interviewing for real jobs.

I’m also planning the trip I will take to solidify the transition between the end of graduate school and the beginning of the next stage of life: El Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile pilgrimage across Spain.  I think it will provide a necessary mental break from science and a chance to reconnect with life, with myself.  In the past year, I’ve noticed that people spend far too much time trying to prolong and perfect life and not enough time living it.  I think that, every once in awhile, it’s ok to drink a bit too much of a really good red wine, just because it’s really good.  It’s ok to splurge on that fabulous pair of shoes.  It’s ok to savor every sip of a giant pumpkin spice latte in the crisp fall air for those precious few steps between the car and a long work day.  It’s ok to lick the raw cookie dough (or cake batter) off the spoon and giggle with your mom, your grandma, your daughter, or your roommate while the kitchen fills with the sweet scent of homemade baked goods.  To skip a workout to catch up with friends you haven’t seen in weeks.  To lose a night of sleep to a marathon of your favorite show, or a marathon phone conversation with your best friend.  To skip brushing your teeth before bed because your partner has already fallen asleep curled up next to you and you just want to absorb every peaceful moment.  To eat a giant piece of cake, even though it’s full of – dare I say it – carbs, for absolutely no good reason.  These are the experiences that make up the true substance of life, and I pray I never become one of those people so obsessed with “success,” “health,” and doing everything by the book that I let these moments pass me by.

So that’s it.  An entire year of cake.  I can’t think of a better ending than the one used by Dr. R., so I’ll leave you with the final words of The Cake Chronicles: “And remember that when life gets you down, there is always a slice of hope close by, whether it be angel, pound, chocolate, or chiffon.”

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The cherry on top

Technically, this is the last chapter of the cake book, and bears all aspects of a respectable last chapter.  The text is rich with memories, wisdom about coming full circle, and wishes for the future.  But the epilogue remains, as does one more cake.

The penultimate cake was a Michigan Sour Cherry Pudding Cake.  There were two issues with this cake: first, you'll remember my less-than-fond feelings towards cherries; and second, I don't have access to Michigan cherries.  Or sour cherries, for that matter.  So I grudgingly bought the dark cherries available to me at the Farmer's Market, pitted 3 cups, and set about making my DeKalb Farmer's Market Dark Cherry Pudding Cake with little enthusiasm.

Thankfully, aside from the pitting of the cherries, the cake was extremely easy to make, and was actually baked in a pie plate instead of a cake pan.  Any recipe that requires me to bring out my mom's old brown Pyrex glass pie plate earns points in my book, cherries or no cherries.  I have accumulated several pie plates, from cheap metal ones that never cook quite right to an oversized, thick, fancy, maroon ceramic Longaberger pie plate my grandmother got me for Christmas that promises to bake the best pies ever.  I've used all of them, particularly for Thanksgiving, when I am assigned the role of Pie Baker Extraordinaire.  And I will say that that Longaberger one is quite lovely and the only plate tough enough to handle my massive apple pies.  But if I'm only making one pie, my go-to plate is that old brown Pyrex plate.  It was the plate my mom used to make my grandmother's pecan pie on Thanksgiving, and the only plate (as well as the only recipe) I will use for pecan pie to this day.  I also vividly remember eating my mom's strawberry pie from that plate on summer evenings, scraping the last of the crust and gooey filling from the bottom of the cold plate.  I swear that strawberry pastry is made of magic.  I've made it once or twice, and Maureen has requested it repeatedly.  I have yet to make one this year, but have promised that the first dessert I make upon completion of this cake marathon will be the strawberry pie.  I will use my Pyrex plate, we will enjoy giant slices over an episode of Bones, and I will save one last piece to eat the following evening right out of the pie plate.

I hoped my treasured pie plate would bring a little luck to this cake, because I was unconvinced of its ability to actually become a cake while examining its pre-oven state.  It was essentially cherry halves floating in a puddle of egg and milk.  But, in the oven the cherry soup went, and off I went to make good use of the 50 minutes I had while it baked to clean my horribly messy apartment so as not to be embarrassed when guests arrived for Cake and Bones.  When the timer went off, I returned to a puffy, golden heap of cherries.  I texted Maureen to tell her we probably would not enjoy this cake.

I am pleased to admit, however, that I was completely wrong.  The cake was more like thick vanilla custard topped with baked cherries.  Maybe it was the magic of the pie plate, maybe it was the perfect combination of ingredients, or maybe cherries are just starting to grow on me, but this cake was good.  Maureen was also surprised to find she enjoyed it, but suggested trying it with other fruit.  In fact, upon reading the intro to this cake, Dr. R does say it can be made with peaches, plums, blueberries, or almost any other fruit that suits your fancy.  I think blueberries would be fantastic.  Next time.

The other detail I was pleased to read in the intro to this cake was that it is made to serve 6.  Because Tim, Maureen, Chris, and I ate all but one piece.  I felt less guilty about the amount we had devoured.

This cake, like my mom's strawberry pie, is perfect for summer: served cold, slightly creamy, and full of bright, juicy summer fruit, a fantastic complement to a hot late summer night.  And it's so simple!  I vow next summer to try it with every beautiful, delicious summer fruit I can get my hands on.

This weekend brings the last cake.  I am feeling quite sad over it, as is everyone else.  Like I won't continue to bake when I'm done or something.  I can't believe I've done this for a whole year.  I suppose I should start considering my deep thoughts for my final post.  And probably stock up on tissues.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Summer Bakin'

Once again, I am a month behind. I'm getting so close to the end, and I'm kind of looking forward to it. Time is short, money is tight (and so are belts, let's be honest). This project has been a truly wonderful experience, but I am ready to be able to bake at will, and not accrue a month's worth of blog debt.

So, let's go all the way back to the 4th of July. My sister was in town, so she, Chris, and I threw a party for the holiday (with help from everyone who came... I hang out with some talented chefs... or shoppers... we all have our gifts). Naturally, we had to have cake for the occasion, and while I had originally planned to use the week's cake, Chris and I made the mistake of looking through the summer issue of Taste of Home magazine and finding a feast's worth of recipes we wanted to make, including an awesome-looking red, white, and blue cake. I had to make it. The recipe called for a box white cake mix, which I snobbishly scoffed at, and broke out the white cake recipe from the beginning of the project (you know, THE white cake). I have no doubt it made this cake way better. Anyway, the red and blue are from strawberries and blueberries boiled to make a syrup and then mixed with gelatin and poured over the cake. Mine didn't turn out quite as tie-dyed as the magazine picture, but it got the point across. The frosting was plain and simple whipped cream. You'd actually be surprised how many people have never had real whipped cream. I get asked a lot, "What is this frosting?! It's so good!" It's kind of disappointing to have to say it's just a pint of whipping cream and some sugar. I should start making up something fancy so I sound impressive. But, short story long, this bonus cake was fun, delicious, and perfect for the 4th of July. Now on to the real stuff...

The weekend after the 4th of July called for a Fresh Raspberry (or Blueberry) Breakfast (or Dinner) cake. Clearly there's some wiggle room, so I turned it into Fresh Blackberry and Blueberry cake, since I had blueberries left over and blackberries were on sale (and delicious). It was super simple to make, one of those recipes you could make the old fashioned way with a spoon and some elbow grease. The end result was somewhat like a large, flat muffin: slightly sweet, moist, bready cake full of bright, juicy berries. I took it to Tim and Maureen's for Cake and Bones, which is becoming a Sunday evening tradition. We didn't eat it for dinner, but we did polish off a good portion of it.

The chapter for this cake is entitled "How to Not Go to Work," which made me laugh a lot. Dr. R outlines her week off, which really wasn't a week off at all, since she made a trip to lab and edited a graduate student's dissertation. But she did spend a lot of time doing the things we all put off for work: writing, laying in the hammock, spending time with her daughter, catching up with neighbors and friends. And of course baking. It's an amusing chapter, but makes a good point: "It's important at times to refrain from human do-ings to become human be-ings." I think we all forget that more than we should. Cake baking and Cake and Bones nights are good little reprieves at the end of what is always a full, busy week, which is why I'm certain Cake Day will live on long after the final recipe in this book is baked.

The next week's cake was a disappointment from the get-go: Downy Yellow Cake with Milk Chocolate Buttercream Frosting. Sounds delicious, right? Don't be fooled by adjectives. It's still just yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Which is my LEAST favorite cake combination in the entire world. It's so boring... what is yellow cake? It's not chocolate or vanilla or peanut butter or fruit; it's just... eggs. And chocolate frosting is not my favorite, and in general I feel there's always something off about the combination of flavors. But apparently it's the favorite combination of everyone else. There was much excitement and anticipation from the crowd, and much eye rolling from me. I think this soured my relationship with the cake a bit, because, while the cake was easy enough, the frosting spitefully dealt me fits.

I should have known the frosting would be trouble when it required 1 pound of milk chocolate and half a pound of dark chocolate. When I relayed my disbelief to Randy, he commented, "You know it's a good cake when you have to measure the chocolate in pounds." A valid point. But I was still skeptical. And rightly so. The frosting took forever to melt (I mean 1.5 pound of chocolate, right? See photo), and then wouldn't cool. To speed the cooling process, the recipe recommends putting it in the refrigerator and stirring every few minutes. The trick, though, is that you have to catch it exactly on time, or it over solidifies and becomes unspreadable. Which, of course, is what happened. So then I had to re-soften the frosting in the oven, but again, the window of time between too solid and too liquid is small, so naturally the frosting melted. A second round of cooling made it somewhat workable, but I wasn't thrilled with the result.

Tim, Maureen, Chris, and I all helped ourselves to fairly impressively sized pieces. Yellow cake with chocolate frosting happens to be Maureen's favorite, and she loved the cake, which made it worthwhile. I thought it was just ok. Better than a box or the store, but still just boring. This one goes in the "By request only" folder.
Finally, we have the cake from two weeks ago, Tangerine Cake with Brown Sugar Icing, which made up for the yellow cake debacle at least two-fold. It was a ridiculously easy throw-in-bowl-mix-and-bake kind of cake, with pecans and mandarin oranges, and fell solidly into the breakfast cake category. The frosting was nearly caramelized brown sugar, intensely sweet. It was a slightly strange combination of flavors, but it was magical. Maureen and I had had a particularly harrowing weekend, so we enjoyed our slices of cake with margaritas, and much of the stress soon subsided. I took the rest to work Monday, but our lab is small right now, so I had a lot left, and unfortunately for my waist, I made sure it was gone by the end of the week.

This chapter discusses the difference between a house and a home. A house is merely a physical building. A home is not about the physical space, but about emotional, spiritual, and psychological place, a place where one feels safe, happy, content, and is surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones. I have been thinking about this a lot recently as I get ready to graduate. I love living in Atlanta; to me, it feels like "home," and I am not excited to move away, particularly to a place with a less optimal location. But at the same time, there is something missing to make it feel complete. My family is 700 miles away, my significant other is 800, many of my friends have graduated and moved away or become less available. And I think that having those people close is a critical part. I think that, when I finally do have to move, being closer to my family and being with Randy will make any place, regardless of how "optimal" the location may be, feel like home. And of course, there's nothing like the smell of cookies or cake in the oven to make even the ugliest apartment feel more homey. Home is where the heart and the cake pans are. ;-)

I confess that I had to skip last week, because I had a wedding last weekend in Ohio followed immediately by a conference in Boston. Time and travel made it impossible to get any baking done. But my week was not devoid of cake... the priest at the wedding of my beautiful Little gave a fantastic homily using cake as a metaphor for marriage. There were silent giggles shared among those of us familiar with my cake story. And of course there was an amazing wedding cake, one I will contemplate adapting for the amateur baker. This weekend I am still away, so I will have to do two cakes in the upcoming week. But looking at the book... I only have two left. In one week, I will have baked my way through an entire year of cakes. I feel a little teary-eyed just thinking about it.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Fruit Cake (but not fruitcake)

I feel like I am drowning in cakes made with fresh fruit lately. The strawberry shortcake, the orange marmalade cake (omg, I still dream about how good that was), and now three more cakes made with the abundant summer fruit available. Best season for food. I dread winter and its drab ingredients. Good thing I have months before that happens.

The cake from three weeks ago was called the Great Flower Cake, so named because it looks like a flower once assembled. It utilizes a massive amount of whipped cream and strawberries, which seemed fantastic when reading through the recipe, until I saw the "Cake Assembly" section. This section is reserved for particularly complicated cakes, such as the Yule Log. I nervously went back to look at the pan preparation, and sure enough, there it was: a jelly roll pan. A roll cake?! NOOOOOOO...

 I begged Tim, Maureen, and Chris to come over (and by begged I mean, "Hey, wanna help me make a cake?") to help me maintain composure and sanity during what was sure to be an epic adventure. I was nervous from the start, because the cake part of said roll contains no flour, getting its delicate structure from eggs and pecans, which made it extra nerve-wracking to flip out of the piping hot pan. The filling was simply rum-flavored whipped cream (it was supposed to be Grand Marnier, but I had rum, and I figured daiquiris combine strawberry and rum, so I just went for it), easily prepared and spread thickly on top of the flat cake. Then came the moment of truth. Thankfully, instead of having to roll the whole giant cake, I had to cut the cake lengthwise into long, thin strips, and roll the individual strips, one around the other, to make a giant cinnamon roll-looking cake (or a cake roughly the size of one regular Cinnabon... Emily: Do I sit in it or eat it? :-p ). The delicateness of the cake required two sets of hands, which Maureen helped me with, while Tim took copious amounts of pictures, which actually look pretty cool...
The cake was then topped with strawberry slices in a spiral pattern to look like a flower, and glazed with a blackberry jelly and rum glaze (supposed to be currant jelly and Grand Marnier, but... sometimes you gotta improvise. Where do you even find currant jelly?!). Dr. Robinson promises that the cake is worth the effort, and that was not a lie--the four of us ate almost the entire thing. It was fantastic. The cake was not too sweet and a texture somewhere just between crisp and soft, complimented perfectly by the sweet, airy whipped cream, and the tart, juicy berries. There are no words that can do it justice.

I was kind of taken aback when reading the chapter accompanying this cake. Apparently, Dr. R was interviewing for a position at a university in Atlanta the week she made this cake. Somewhere that would "hire [her] and give [her] lots of money" and give her the funding to "make [her] mark as a scientist," which she felt she had not yet done. In the end, she chose to turn down the position, because she didn't want to give up her short commute, lovely neighborhood, and the good schools for an Atlanta commute. (Amen to that.) I wonder which university it was... Georgia State? Georgia Tech? Emory? Is that why she suggested Emory when I said I wanted to go somewhere in the southeast? I had no idea she had interviewed here. And here I am, I left the comfort of my home for an Atlanta commute. Was it worth it? Actually, probably. I just hope that Dr. R feels now that she has made her mark as a scientist. Or at least is content with the fact that she has made her mark as a mentor, a writer, and no doubt a parent.

The next week's cake was Hawaiian Wedding Cake. Which, after trying, solidified my decision that I should probably just live in Hawaii. Does food get any better? Coconut, pineapple, fresh fish, macadamia nuts, and those amazing purple sweet potatoes I can NEVER find to make myself. If this is what they eat at their weddings, I'm so in.
The cake is essentially carrot cake, but instead of shredded carrots, it uses shredded coconut. Before this little project, I felt somewhat ambivalent toward coconut. But my baking adventures made me realize... I LOVE coconut. Seriously. I cannot get enough. So this cake was fantastic to start with. But then it was also filled with pineapple and pecans and topped with cream cheese icing (another direct line to my heart). So good, and so easy, and so perfect for summer. It was a hit in the office as well.

This week's cake was peach upside down cake. Upside down cakes rank just below jelly roll cakes on the list of Cakes That Scare Liz too Badly to Bake. There's too much flipping of hot pans and magic involved. Especially when you don't have the right pan. I was supposed to use a cast iron skillet, which is something I dearly desire, but I don't have one and after a month of surprise bills and subsisting off left over baked beans from a graduate school mixer (no, seriously, there were so many beans, they have lasted a month), I was not about to spend $15.95 on one. That's like a week's worth of groceries if I eat rice with frozen vegetables and yogurt. So I used the alternative plan outlined in the book, which was to wrap a springform pan tightly in aluminum foil. I melted the butter and brown sugar in the bottom, lined the bottom with peaches and cherries (ugh, cherries... apparently an essential part of upside down cake and another reason not to make them) and pecans, made the ridiculously thick batter and coaxed it into the pan. Then I baked it and flipped the hot pan as described.

When you use a cast iron skillet, the walls are very low and when the pan is flipped over, the bottom of the cake will touch the cake plate. A springform pan, however, has very high walls, so when it is flipped over, the cake is left hanging precariously by it's top from the bottom of the pan. Not thinking of this, I released the side of the springform pan, and... WHAM! My cake went crashing to the plate. When my heart resumed beating, I carefully pulled off the pan bottom. While the structural integrity of one side of the cake was questionable, the rest of the cake seemed alright. Almost pretty, in fact. I took it to Tim and Maureen's, where we again devoured about 2/3 of the cake. It was actually quite good... the cake was slightly crumbly and almost velvety in texture, and the sweet brown sugar glazed peaches showcased the fantastic early peaches we're getting now. (I tried to eat as few cherries as possible... Maureen, who shares my aversion to cherries, described them as not bad, but not essential. Agreed.)

And now, a Cake, Hope, and Love special report, brought to you by Liz's Lab: My boss's birthday is this week. We always have a little celebration, with a card and a cake. This year, when the planning commenced, I volunteered to make the cake if people would pitch in a couple dollars to help with ingredients, so we wouldn't have to worry about buying one. I have been thinking that if I really want to open a vineyard bakery one day, I can't just steal other people's recipes, so I need to get creative. I used this as opportunity. Instead of choosing a cake recipe, I chose 4, and modified. I used the dark chocolate cake from the New Orleans chocolate cake (I still dream about that one, too), the chocolate frosting from the Perfect Chocolate Cake (the very first cake made for this project), the meringue buttercream from the Yule Log (hey, I just said I wasn't making the log again... the individual parts were delicious) flavored with vanilla instead of white chocolate, and used the protocol (wow... I'm obviously a scientist) for the orange marmalade filling from the Orange Marmalade cake to make a raspberry filling. It took me 4 hours, and my kitchen looked like a war zone, but it actually came out beautifully. I'm so proud. I have clearly come a long way in my cake baking and decorating skills. Now... we just have to hope it tastes as wonderful as it looks...

Monday, June 11, 2012

Strawberries and Cream... and Oranges

Ah, late spring and early summer... the best time of year for food.  The weather is warm, the sun is brilliant, produce is bright and colorful again after the dull colors of winter, berries are in season and available for infinite uses, and seasonal dishes are light, crisp, and refreshing.  The cake recipes from the past two weeks fit excellently into this time of year.

Two weeks ago, the cake recipe was a Strawberries and Cream Shortcake.  I was visiting Randy for Princeton's Reunion Weekend.  Imagine slightly to highly intoxicated old people wandering between white tents with makeshift bars and cover bands sprawled over the perfectly manicured lawns of the architecturally stunning campus of Princeton University, and that's pretty much reunion weekend.  Barbecues, bands, and beers.  Among the other festivities, we were to attend two barbecues in one day, so I made this cake to take to one.  (Side note: I remade the Tres Leches cake for the other, and doubled the recipe and used a 9x13 pan.  Upon eating it again, I fully realized the extent of its greatest.  It's in the top 10 from this project.  Maybe the top 5.  And it was quite the conversation starter... it made a good impression on Randy's boss and labmates, who I was meeting for the first time.  Thank you, Tres Leches.)

WAAAAYYY back at the beginning of this whole adventure, I had to make a raspberry shortcake, and it was the saddest, most disappointing-looking cake ever.  I couldn't split the cake in half evenly, I didn't have enough raspberries, and my frosting skills were sub-par.  So I was a bit nervous about making this cake for a bunch of people I'd never met.  But surprisingly... it came out beautifully.  I was so proud of how pretty it was... a true sign of how far my cake-making skills have advanced during this process.  While admiring the finished product, I didn't really care how it tasted, because gosh darn it, it looked impressive.  It received lots of compliments at the party as well.  If cakes could be vain, I know this one would have had an ego the size of Texas.

As for taste, however, I think it was kind of a let-down.  When people think of strawberry shortcake, they think of those weird spongy cakes with dents in the middle that you buy and throw some sliced strawberries and canned whipped cream (or Cool Whip... *shudder*) on top of.  But this cake was legitimate short cake, similar in texture to short bread, and the whipped cream was just barely sweetened, resulting in a denser, less sweet cake than expected.  But considering this cake as an independent entity, I think it's actually quite good... there's a great contrast in textures between the crumbly cake, the airy whipped cream, and the juicy berries, and it's light and refreshing, perfect on a hot day after burgers and beer.  It just didn't go over quite as well as I'd hoped.  I think it deserves a second chance at some point, though.  I personally enjoy it more than those cake sponges, and its a great use for strawberries when they're in season.

Last week's cake actually began as a fictitious cake.  It was an integral part in The Mitford Years Series, by Jan Karon, which means little to me.  Perhaps I should read them.  Regardless... the author created a character, named Esther Bolick, famous for baking cakes, and dreamed this cake into existence as the baker's specialty.  Apparently, many readers wrote to the author asking for the recipe, and she had to explain that it wasn't a real cake.  Finally, she gave in and collaborated with the authors of The Gift of Southern Cooking (hint: that would make a great birthday gift...) to make the imaginary cake a reality.  And so, the Orange Marmalade Cake was born.

Dr. Robinson notes, "It required almost every bowl I own, but it was so worth it."  That is pure fact.  Three layers, a filling, and a frosting... my kitchen looked like a battle ground when all was said and done.  But despite its many pieces, the cake is actually not too complicated, and it is, indeed, well worth it.  Dr. R also comments that "this cake is so pretty and cheerful that it is hope itself."  I'd have to agree with that as well.  It's beautiful when assembled, and it's so fresh and citrusy and bright, you can't help but feel warm and happy after your first bite.  This cake is definitely a top 5.  It has claimed a permanent spot in my regular repertoire.

I shared my first bites with Tim, Maureen, and Chris after a minor nervous breakdown at work.  Assembling and frosting the cake had been therapeutic and calming, and sharing it with friends lifted my spirits.  I brought the rest to work today.  We've all been having a pretty rough go of it lately, and the abysmally gloomy weather has done nothing for our moods, so cake seemed almost a necessity, and this one was particularly fitting... it brought a little sunshine into the overcast day and the overcast atmosphere in our lab.  It was well-received.  I love big cakes like this because there's so much that I can spread the joy beyond my own lab.  One of the PIs in my hall actually asked me if it was the cake from the Mitford books.  I was so amazed that someone knew the legend of the cake, and so excited that she recognized it by taste.  Maybe I am becoming a real-life Esther Bolick.  It's a position I would gladly accept.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Month of Cakes

Yes, I still exist, and I am still baking my cakes. I’m four weeks behind. I don’t know how that happened, and it’s really just inexcusable. I don’t know what to say, other than to just get started with the many cake stories I have.

The cake from FOUR weeks ago (ugh) sounded promising: the Brownie Pudding Cake. According to the description, as this dessert bakes, “the cake rises to the top and leaves a layer of fudgy pudding below.” I was going to be at Randy’s, after traveling back to Princeton from Tim and Maureen’s wedding in Pittsburg (which was beautiful, by the way), and we were both looking forward to warm, chocolaty goodness on a relaxing day after a busy weekend.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get quite what we had hoped for. Instead of cake on top of a layer of pudding, we got a cake sitting in a pool of chocolate water. I was incredibly upset; I’ve had cakes come out not quite right, and I’ve had to take shortcuts here and there, but I have never had a cake totally fail. I read and re-read the recipe to assure myself I had done everything right. Then I ran a Hail Mary Google search on the off chance the recipe was available online and other bakers had run into the same difficulties. I was not disappointed. Thanks to the power of public comments, I read a plethora of tragic tales like my own involving this cake. Finally, I stumbled across a baker clearly much wiser than the rest of us, who revealed that the cake should be served with ice cream, and the “pudding” was more of a chocolate sauce to drizzle over the cake and ice cream combo. Curse this recipe’s misleading title. It should be called Brownie Sauce Cake, then, right?

The cake wasn’t totally awful; we didn’t have ice cream, so we just drizzled the sauce over our pieces of cake. It was rich and chocolaty and moist, but not quite the stunning dessert we had hoped for. I think this recipe is banished to the shelf with the Yule Log. Funnily, this chapter was about one of the Robinson daughter’s science fair projects, and Dr. R makes a statement that “the chemistry of cake is simple but not always fail proof.” I have always said that baking is more science and cooking is more art, and that’s why I excel at baking and should probably just give up on ever trying to cook. I’ve always liked baking, though, because, unlike science, it rarely fails. This cake was a somewhat cruel reminder that science is science, whether it involves agar plates, chemicals, and microorganisms or chocolate, eggs, and butter.

The following week’s cake was far more successful, and far more delicious: Tres Leches. I often see the Tres Leches cake on restaurant dessert menus, but didn’t really have a good concept of the physical manifestation of the cake. I now know that it’s pretty much exactly what the name implies: three types of milk. The cake part of a Tres Leches cake is a simple, thin, flat cake that appears rather unimpressive by itself. The magic comes from a combination of sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, whole milk, and a touch of light rum, which is poured over the cake until the cake is saturated.
The recipe calls for 3 cups of this mixture, with a disclaimer that you might not need the entire amount. Looking at the thin little cake in front of me, I doubted I’d even need half. But that was one thirsty cake. I just kept pouring milk over it, and it kept absorbing. I went through 2.5 cups. I have no idea where it all went, but somehow that tiny little cake soaked up an exorbitant amount of liquid. The cake was then topped with whipped cream and chilled. Clearly not a cake for the lactose intolerant.
This cake was one highly anticipated pastry. The people at work were getting antsy and actually quite demanding because there hadn’t been cake in awhile. Also, we had several performances for dance over the last two weeks, and the girls in the small group I was rehearsing with discovered my cake project and were highly intrigued. The first question, of course, was why on earth would I do a silly thing like bake a cake every week for a year? I realized that I don’t really have a good answer to that. Either I have forgotten my original greater purpose, or it has evolved over the course of the project, or both. I think that now, having to bake a cake every week forces me to take some time alone with myself, to think or to not think, whichever it is I am needing that week. It also provides a guaranteed chance to make people smile. And making someone else smile is guaranteed to make you smile. And I need some reasons to smile right now. But I will reflect on this more later. Anyway, the second question, of course, was when would they get to partake in some of these baked goods? So the cake was well-traveled, and did not disappoint. It was fantastically moist (which I guess you would expect with 3 cups of milk in it…) without being overly heavy, and was just sweet enough. There were plenty of smiles all around. This one I will most definitely be making again.

I had the honor of baking for my dance group again the next week. It was the end of several weeks of late night rehearsals and the night before a weekend that would be full of performances, so as a reward and celebration, I whipped up the Caribbean Pineapple Corn Cake. The name alone hinted that it would be one of those cakes that made me question whether it should be served to people at all, and with a list of ingredients including creamed corn, crushed pineapple, and Monterey Jack cheese, I did experience a brief moment of hesitation as to whether I should take it to dance or just secretly suffer through it on my own. The moment was fleeting, though; after all the strange cakes I’ve made, my qualms with weird ingredients are shrinking. Remember the Tomato Cake.
So I took it to rehearsal, and it was fantastic. In fact, when I took the rest to work the next day, Bree said it might be her favorite so far. It definitely dances the line between cake and bread—it makes a lovely dessert for those with less fervent sweet teeth, but could also compliment barbeque and baked beans (and macaroni and cheese and collard greens… hmm… I’m in the mood for a good southern dinner just thinking about it.) The cake was super simple and is pot luck perfect, so I can see this one becoming a permanent part of my repertoire.

Finally, last week’s cake, which was probably the scariest on of the bunch. A gluten-free Garbanzo Cake, the main ingredient was chickpeas, which seemed a bit odd. While the ingredient list was short and the recipe looked simple enough, I had no idea what I was in store for me with the first step: remove the skins from the chickpeas. First of all, chickpeas have skins?! Who knew? The directions suggested rubbing the chickpeas between one’s palms to loosen and remove the skins. I gave it a go, and sure enough, chickpeas really do have skins. But the rub-between-palm method was not so successful, and I had to individual skin nearly two cans of chickpeas, a tedious task that left my kitchen covered in chickpea carnage.
Next, I had to food process the chickpeas, which turned them into essentially flour, which was simply mixed with the other ingredients and then the cake was baked. I invited Tim and Maureen over to partake, despite the fact that I was nervous the cake would taste like hummus, but when we tried it, there was no hint of chickpeas. It was moist and tasted like cinnamon and orange deliciousness. Skinning aside, it was kind of an interesting little science experiment. I actually know a lot of people who are gluten intolerant, so it’s nice to know I now have a cake I can contribute to events that they can eat, too.

I think that this chapter is my favorite in the book (I may have read ahead…), because I can relate to it so well. It’s entitled “Science Never Sleeps,” and describes Dr. R’s experience at a conference, and the competitive nature of science, the panic that you need to work faster, that someone else is working on the same thing at the same time and maybe doing it better, quicker, more efficiently. Publish or perish, they say, and I can only imagine the devastation one must feel reading his or her research published by someone else, before his or her results ever had the chance to see the light of day. I have to admit that, as little as I enjoy what I do, I am thankful that my field is much more cooperative than competitive. The Neisseria field is a web of collaborations and friendships, and conferences are full of not only great science, but great fun. There is little “scooping” that occurs. I have heard that it was not always so, and I am glad that I am here for this more positive, cooperative era.

 So concludes cakes for the month of May. Hopefully I’ll be more prompt in June.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Doves, Daffodils, and Divine Intervention

Three posts behind, what?! I promise the cakes have been made. I just lost the entire month of April, and May isn't looking much better. So, to catch up so far... I had to cheat a bit on the cake from THREE weeks ago... first of all, I switched it with the cake before it, and second, I was one day late getting it into its appropriate week. I was traveling, so I had to pick the cake that would be easier to make away from home and had to bake it when I had the most free time. I was actually in New Jersey visiting Randy; that week had been so bad at work that I literally ran away. I just booked a last minute plane ticket (special thanks to mom's AirTran points, my Delta miles, and a bit of cash from each of us) and took off for a week. To be fair, even my boss said I could use a few days off to recover from the trauma, and I did do some reading and prep work while I was up there, so it wasn't like I was being delinquent or anything. I just needed to get away. So I traded in lab work for a week of playing house wife, Pilates, nursing a sprained ankle, watching countless episodes of What Not to Wear, and enjoying some quality time with Randy.

The cake was an Italian Easter Dove Cake. It was really more of a bread, but as it says in the chapter, the difference between bread and cake is "not much." Technically, breads use yeast and cakes do not, but then what do you consider treats like banana bread? The line separating bread and cake is thin, if it exists at all. Anyway, this cake/bread, as you might guess from the name, is apparently an Italian tradition at Easter. I was skeptical about my ability to make it, because, while the dough is simple enough, it requires the baker to shape pieces of dough into doves. As we've seen before, I'm a baker, not an artist. But I carefully followed the directions, and while my birds seemed more
eagle than dove, I think I sufficiently conveyed the avian concept. We were well past Easter, and Randy is Jewish anyway, so eagle or dove, it was all the same. Sadly, Randy's oven cooks much differently than mine, and my two eagle-dove cake-breads (a cake with an identity crisis?) burned to a black carbon crisp on the bottom. We managed to salvage the more central parts of the less burnt dove, and had it not been burnt, it would have been quite tasty. It was light, slightly sweet, and slightly citrusy. It would indeed be an excellent Easter morning treat.

Upon returning home that weekend, I prepared the cake I switched with the Dove Cake, which was named Daffodil Cake with Orange Glaze. Daffodil being mostly due to the coloring, and if prepared properly, the glaze over the cake would probably make a sight reminiscent of a flower. This cake mandated the KitchenAid and a bunch of ingredients bakers keep in their kitchens, but single boys do not, so I imagine it would have been a far more stressful experience trying to make it in Randy's closet-sized bachelor kitchen. The instructions were INTENSELY detailed, which seemed daunting when reading the recipe, but it wasn't actually that difficult. The worst part was the eggs... a whole dozen, separated. (All these cakes made entirely of eggs has me seriously considering just raising some chickens. I'm sure my apartment complex would love for me to turn my screened-in porch into a chicken coop.) Also, this cake was yet another cake requiring a tube pan, so I had to substitute the springform again. In fact, this cake required all the items on my Need In Kitchen list: 10" tube pan, zester, sifter. I MacGyvered my way around the kitchen as usual, though, and it came out just fine. I invited Tim and Maureen over because I wanted to taste it and felt sad eating cake alone.

There are two awesome things about this cake. The first is that it's marbled. Marbling a cake is literally magic. You pour alternating layers of two different colored batters into the pan, and then just run a knife straight through it a couple times. No stirring or mixing or back-and-forth motion, just cut straight through. In my mind, there was no way it was going to come out marbled, but when we cut into it, it looked awesome! Super exciting. The second awesome thing is that Dr. Robinson made this cake for Jane Goodall when Dame Goodall came to UD to give the keynote speech at our undergraduate research symposium. Jane Goodall has been my hero since I was young. I remember doing a report on her for class in grade school. The day she spoke was thrilling... it's always a bit surreal to see your celebrity role model in real life. I even got her to sign my copy of one of her books! It gave me a bit of a chill to read this chapter about Dr. Goodall's visit, reliving what I saw through another's eyes, and getting a glimpse of what went on behind the scenes. Sadly, Dr. Goodall never got to eat this cake. The reason for having a cake in the first place was that Dr. Goodall's visit to UD was the day after her birthday, and the planner wanted a cake to celebrate and put Dr. Robinson in charge. But after making the cake, Dr. Robinson got a message from the planner to pick up a cake from a local market, and suddenly got too nervous that her homemade cake wouldn't live up to expectations, and so replaced it with a store-bought carrot cake that remained largely untouched. Apparently, on the ride back to the airport, the topic of cake came up, the dilemma was revealed, and Dr. Goodall assured Dr. Robinson she would have much rather had the homemade cake. I think this is evidence that Jane Goodall is a real, regular person who has accomplished the extraordinary and not some untouchable science celebrity who has let success and fame change her.

Finally, last week's cake. The saddest one, and the one I don't want to write about. Konrad and Ivana have accepted postdoctoral positions in the UK and are moving tomorrow. I'm having separation anxiety... they have been such fantastic friends to me, always ready with a margarita or glass of wine to celebrate or commiserate. I met them through Randy not long after moving here, and they took me in as a real friend, not just the girlfriend of their friend. They've been there for the ups and downs of science, my relationship, and life in general. I think it will be a bit quieter without them, and not the good kind of quiet, but the lonely kind. Anyway, they had a goodbye party at a local pub Saturday night. I desperately wanted to make a cake, because lately, it's not an occasion if cake isn't involved. But last week was so utterly crazy I didn't think I would have time. Bright and early Saturday morning, though, I checked the book on a whim, just in case it would be possible. The cake, a Krumb Kuchen, was the second easiest and quickest recipe in the book thus far, following only the dump cake in simplicity. It required only the most basic baking ingredients and took a total of an hour to make. A miracle, no doubt. There would be cake, after all!

I showed up at the party, cake in tow, and settled in for a Guinness and a few last memories. The party was well-attended, and the cake well-enjoyed. It was essentially a crumb cake, full of cinnamon and brown sugar. I had an early morning, so I couldn't stay out late, but I left the remaining cake, which was also serendipitous because Konrad and Ivana, having cleaned out their apartment, needed something for breakfast the next morning, and apparently the cake was perfect with coffee. Gotta love dual-purpose dessert. And that is all I will say about this one, because I will continue to deny they're leaving until they get on the plane tomorrow. Hurray for finally being caught up. My apologies for the epic post.