After a recent trip to Montreal I wanted to bake something as a thank-you for our catsitter– after spending time surrounded by images of maple leaves, a maple cake seemed like the perfect gift!
I wanted to be mindful of potential nut allergies, so I looked for a recipe without pecans or walnuts, both of which were very common pairings with maple syrup. I ended up with a recipe from King Arthur Flour that was billed as a pound cake, but which was ultimately too light and delicate to really count as a pound cake in my opinion. That being said, the texture of the cake was perfect for a layer cake, and I will absolutely be trying to figure out how to replicate it (without the use of maple syrup) for future adventures! Can I just note that the batter smelled amazing while baking? I’d be tempted to make this just to make my house smell good… and the finished cake was buttery and maple-y, very reminiscent of pancakes with syrup (in a good way). I sprinkled a touch of kosher salt on top, just to emphasize the sweet-salty combination.
I wanted to make a pretty bundt cake, but also wanted to make another cake to eat at home since I can never give something away without taste-testing first! I doubled the recipe to make an 8-cup bundt as well as a loaf cake. (quantities below are for a single recipe) Sadly, the bundt cake refused to release cleanly from the pan and it literally fell apart on me, so it was in no condition for gifting– we’ve been eating it out of the pan with a spoon, and it’s delicious that way too! Luckily I’d lined my loaf pan with a parchment sling, so the loaf was much easier to lift out in one piece!
So after my adventure with the Great American Baking Show where my loaf of bread was deemed not quite up to par, I decided that I wanted to learn more about bread baking. I really haven’t done all that much of it before, though I have some general knowledge and have made several different kinds of bread with varying levels of success (and of course spent that fabulous week in Paris watching a professional at work), and I think it would be worthwhile to acquire some extra knowledge and perhaps make some tasty things along the way.
I’m going to do a series of posts about my bread-baking experience and make specific note of the things I’ve learned. Hopefully by the end I’ll be a better bread-baker!
My first attempt was a basic loaf– no special shaping, no special ingredients, with the only deviation from standard procedure being the use of a poolish (a mixture of yeast, flour, and water that you start the night before to give it time to develop some flavor). I used a recipe from King Arthur Flour’s website and opted to use the full sixteen hours of fermentation for the poolish to see what would happen.
I know what you’re thinking– tortillas? Why make tortillas at home when you can buy a package at the store for a few dollars? I was thinking the same thing myself, right before I decided to do it anyway because I didn’t want to go to the trouble of leaving the house just to buy mediocre, mass-produced tortillas when I could experience the joy of making my own for the first time.
Okay, perhaps “joy” is a bit strong of an adjective– let’s just say it was interesting, and the tortillas came out reasonably well, and I’m glad I at least gave it a try. I definitely think there’s something about the pillowy chewiness of a handmade tortilla that beats out the flat, soulless ones you find at the store– even if it’s not perfectly round or evenly rolled.
Ordinarily tortillas are made with lard, or perhaps shortening, which is cut into the flour before warm water is added to make the dough. Unfortunately I didn’t have lard or shortening, or even regular vegetable oil, so I ended up using olive oil, figuring that a little extra flavor never hurt anyone. I had a little trouble rolling out the dough into a roughly circular shape (mine were more freeform), and probably should’ve used my cast iron skillet instead of a nonstick pan to get better browning on the outside, but overall I think they were pretty good!
So this was one of the treats I brought with me to my casting session for The Great American Baking Show. Given the timeframe I really only had a day or two to come up with the idea, but the flavor profile had been marinating in my head for a while, so it only remained to figure out how to implement it!
After some experiments with flavoring I concluded that rose-flavored cake was only mediocre and the pepper didn’t come through all that well in the frosting, so I used crushed pink peppercorns (which are really not peppercorns but are an unrelated berry) in the cake batter and made a buttercream flavored with rosewater to set it off. The floral notes really complement each other well (pink peppercorn cake may be a new favorite of mine), and adding fresh raspberries really added a punch of flavor to make it light and refreshing. I really, really like this cake as a whole, and will totally be making it again at some point.
I confess that out of paranoia over flavor and texture, I eventually made no fewer than four different versions of my cake layers for the big day, deciding at the last minute which one to use (the first one– go figure). And then my favorite cooked-flour frosting was too loose to properly frost the outside of my cake, so I had to make a second batch of frosting, this time with powdered sugar, for the outside. And while I made my initial batch of meringues with freeze-dried raspberry powder, the resulting grayish-purple color was very unattractive, so I made a second batch that was plain vanilla. So to summarize, there was a LOT of stuff leftover from making this perfect-looking cake!
So remember how I made the porg rice balls for at May 4th Star Wars party? I also made these Wookie Cookies. Mostly they were an excuse to use up some of the quick-cooking oats in my pantry (I’ve decided that they’re too gluey to make oatmeal out of), but they turned out really well, especially for a no-bake recipe. They’re extremely sweet (to be expected) but they have a great texture and are kind of addictive.
Unlike what appears to be the “standard” no-bake oatmeal cookie recipe, these do not have peanut butter in them, and they include marshmallows (melted in to give a chewy texture). I’m not sure if I’d prefer the original recipe– I’ll have to try it sometime– but these were good and I particularly liked the addition of coconut to add some dimension to the vaguely chocolate-y flavor of the base cookie. Admittedly, the chocolate chips didn’t really make them look all that much like Wookies, but they were close enough.
Okay, so I admit that candied nuts are something I’ve long associated with the winter holidays– they’re so great for eating by the handful along with all of those rich, cheesy, sugary holiday foods– but there’s no reason to restrict one’s intake of these deliciously crunchy, sweet-savory snacks to the winter months! They go just as well with bright, crispy salads as they do with melty brie (mmm, brie…). Brown sugar gives them depth, while cinnamon gives them a hint of spice. I’ve been known to add 1/8 tsp. of cayenne pepper for an extra kick, but you don’t have to if you want something a bit milder.
I will note that I’ve tried different methods of getting a nice, crunchy coating on the pecans, and the egg white method is the only way to go. Works every time, and no hassle with trying to caramelize sugar!
For May the Fourth I attended a Star Wars themed party, so of course I had to make something in-theme to contribute! I decided on these porg-shaped rice balls, which are rice balls rolled in crushed sesame, with nori accents and a chunk of cucumber in the middle for extra crunch. They turned out adorable, if I do say so myself, and were popular with party-goers, so I consider them a success!
While you can make these without any special tools, it’s a lot faster and easier to do if you have the right equipment. I used a nori punch for the facial features, and a rice-roll press to make my pieces evenly shaped and well-compressed. That being said, you can feel free to shape your rice by hand (wet hands make it easier) and to cut out eyes and mouths with scissors. I would definitely recommend using the parchment paper cutout to mask off the white parts of the rice during the sesame step, though!