It’s practically the crack of dawn; I had a job interview this morning to become a baker at a chain restaurant, and the interview was at six. Thirty. In the morning. That is bloody early. However! It works out well for me, because I get a chance to get caught up on some of this blogging that I’m way far behind on. (I was going to go back to bed, but I already took a bath and put on makeup and everything.)
Today is a day for sweets. Partially because I skipped over cakes and candy already doing Ca-Ch, and partially because I spent most of yesterday cleaning my messy house and I think sweets would be way more fun to cover than, say, cheese or something. As much as I love cheese, it’s just not as exciting overall as the wonderful world of desserts.
Of the categories covered in this post, I think cakes probably qualify as my favorite sweets. The combination of moist cake and gooey icing (not “oohey-gooey,” never ever on this blog shall those words be uttered after this point–seriously, if you say “oohey-gooey,” which is probably the dumbest fake word in the English language, your comment will get edited in some creative and not-very-nice way) is always satisfying. Ice cream, which I love above all of the C desserts, pairs perfectly with cake–especially warm cake. The Book describes cake as “a sweet, baked confection usually containing flour, sugar, flavoring ingredients and eggs or other leavener such as baking powder or baking soda.” That is such an incredibly bland description for something as magical as cake.
Some of the defining characteristics of cake are the fine crumb of the finish product; unlike bread or even muffins, cake has an even disbursement of extremely small bubbles running throughout. Cakes are generally moist; although I’m sure there may be a few exceptions, usually if your cake is not moist, you baked it wrong. (Angel food cake comes to mind as an exception–while not dry, it’s not an extremely moist cake.) Many, but not all, cakes are frosted or iced in some way. Cakes are sometimes consumed for no special reason, especially if you’re at a bakery or a restaurant with a nice dessert menu, but quite often, cakes mark a special occasion–a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary, Tuesday.
The Book has a few tips on baking cakes:
- Have your mise en place ready before you begin to assemble your batter. Bring ingredients to room temperature to get the best effect; don’t make substitutions or change proportions unless you know what the hell you’re doing (it doesn’t say that, but you can alter a cake recipe–just know what you’re doing first). Use the right size pan, again, unless you know how changing the pan will affect your baking time.
- Always preheat your oven. If using a glass baking dish, decrease the oven temperature by 25F.
- While The Book says to spoon flour into your measuring cup and then level it with a knife, I recommend instead to try to figure out how the person who wrote the recipe measures their flour (often, if the person is a serious baker, they will note somewhere in the book or the recipe their method of measuring flour) to get the proper weight. When possible, use recipes that go by weight and weigh ingredients rather than measuring.
- Don’t overcrowd your oven while baking cakes. Three layers of a cake in a residential oven is probably enough.
- Don’t open the oven for the first 15 minutes after you put the cake in, or you may cause the cake to fall; this is a critical time for the batter to rise and begin to set. Begin checking your cake for done-ness 5 or 10 minutes before the cake is set to be done (go by your past experience with your particular oven). Generally, the toothpick test will let you know if your cake is done–to do the toothpick test, insert a toothpick into the center of the cake and see if it comes out clean. I have also used a butter knife for this in a pinch.
- Allow cakes in greased pans to cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes before attempting to remove. Allow cakes in ungreased pans to cool in the pan (such as angel food cake).
- You can use a pastry brush to clear crumbs off of a cake before icing. To get a really smooth icing job, apply a very thin crumb coat and allow it to set before fully icing the cake.
Every culture has some sort of cake-like substance. In Poland, they serve a traditional cake called baba, a yeast cake with raisins and currants soaked in a rum or “Kirsch” syrup. (A quick flip back tells me that Kirsch is some kind of liquor, so we’ll see it again in the L’s, perhaps.) The German “king of cakes” is the baumkuchen, which is popular at Christmas and translates to “tree cake” because of the concentric layers of thin cake. A baumkuchen can be made in a variety of ways, but only a master baker can bake it the traditional way, which is to spoon sponge cake batter over a spit, browning it a layer at a time before adding more cake. The French have galettes, which I always thought was more of a pie, but The Book informs me that it is a type of cake; the Scots have dundee cake, a cake made with orange, lemon, and covered in almonds; the Italians jalousie, a “cake” (here it’s getting dubious as to the definition of cake) made of pastry, almond paste, and jam. Madeleines and magdalenas are eaten as cookies, but made of cake. Pastel de tres leches, or “cake of three milks,” is a popular Latin American cake that has been soaked after baking in a mixture of evaporated milk, cream, and sweetened condensed milk.
In America, we’re more familiar with sheet cake, pound cake, sponge cake, most of which we eat glazed with sugar or frosted with a buttercream or boiled icing. The Book says that a white or yellow cake covered in white, fluffy frosting and coconut is called Lane cake; we used to make this for my dad on his birthday, only he liked orange cake instead of white cake. For extremely special occasions, lavish cakes covered in fondant and detailed decorations are becoming increasingly popular as bakers become more and more creative.
So-called cheesecakes are not really cakes, at all. They’re more like custard pies.
And when all of the flourless chocolate cakes and chocolate mousse or ganache cakes have come and gone, there will still be nothing with a fudgy brownie, dry and cracked on top, moist and dense within, with a glass of cold milk.
–Richard Sax (from The Book)
The word “cookie” comes from the Dutch koekje, meaning “little cake.” The term refers to, according to The Book, “any of various hand-held, flour-based sweet cakes–either crisp or soft.” I think that calling a cookie a cake is stretching it in most situations; the batter is completely different and the end product, while it does have a fine crumb, is not airy or moist like a cake.
Cookies come in six basic types; cookie types have nothing to do with the ingredients and everything to do with how the cookies are produced: drop cookies are what we make often at home, where we spoon the batter onto a tray (the batter that we don’t eat raw out of the bowl, that is–come on, I know you do it, too); bar cookies, which are baked as one large mass and then cut into bars or other shapes (like brownies); hand-formed cookies, which are pressed into various shapes by hand; pressed cookies, which are formed by pushing them through a press; refrigerator, or icebox, cookies are made by shaping dough into a “log,” then refrigerating until firm, at which point you can slice-and-bake; and rolled cookies, or cookies that are rolled out and cut with a knife or with cookie cutters into various shapes. Chocolate-chip cookies are drop cookies, whereas gingerbread cookies are rolled. Cat’s tongues are pressed cookies, and rugelach, a cookie traditional to Hanukkah, are hand-formed.
The Cookie Glossary is full of different kinds of cookies, but very few of them are cookies that we often eat in the U.S. I’m sure the kipfel is a lovely cookie, but I’ve never heard of the thing. Kourabiedes, a buttery Greek celebration cookie rolled in powdered sugar, I have heard of and probably have eaten a time or three. The list includes macaroons, which are becoming ever-more popular as bakers figure out crazy flavors to inject into them, from old favorites like lemon to more exotic flavors like green tea or more elaborate flavors like brown butter cashew (not to mention, just plain weird combos like black pepper and strawberry). Shortbread probably ranks as one of my favorite kinds of cookies, with its crumbly texture and rich, buttery flavor. Snickerdoodles are another favorite, sugar cookies with cinnamon and nutmeg spice.
Have a favorite cookie? Tell me in the comments below. ^_^
I realize this photo is sort of awkwardly-placed, but I like it, so, it stays.
And no, that is not me. Though I wish I had cookies on what looks like a mattress. Or any cookies, anywhere.
Let me just say, candy is woefully underrepresented in The Book, as far as I can tell. I may have to go Beyond The Book for information about candy. I’m doing this because I like candy. At no extra cost to you.
The most basic form of making candy is candying food, such as violets, ginger, mint, rose petals, et cetera. Candying food preserves the food by drawing out moisture; it also helps the food retain its shape and color. I’ll confess that I am a bit of a candied ginger addict; I will sit and eat it until I am almost sick, and then lay about the house moaning because I ate too much candied ginger.
The basis of most non-chocolate candy is sugar and/or sugar syrup; whether you’re making hard candy, taffy, nougat, fudge, or caramels, sugar is your go-to ingredient. This is why candy is delicious and addictive. Sugar undergoes many stages during the cooking process; in order to effectively make the right kind of candy, the temperature must carefully be monitored, either via a thermometer or by subjecting your candy to a cold-water test. When dropping your cooked sugar solution into very cold water, it will have different effects depending on what temperature the candy is. At lower temperatures, from 223-234F, the sugar will form a soft thread. From there, in roughly ten degree increments (so, you really have to be on your game), you go through soft ball, firm ball, hard ball, soft crack, hard crack, light caramel, and finally, dark caramel at 350F to 360F. Sugar can get hot. Like, really hot–dark caramel sugar is as hot as oil in a fryer. If you’re making candy, you need to take care not to spill it on yourself, unless you want to be covered in what amounts to sticky molten lava.
The Book disparages healthful candy, saying that “so-called ‘nutritious’ candy bars typically contain honey instead of sugar, and often substitute carob for chocolate.” Reading between the lines, I think the editor of this particular section both did not think that these candy bars were any more nutritious, and probably thinks they taste like crap, too.
A project that I may or may not try to tackle for the C section is one of my favorite homemade candies. Homemade candies are generally nothing like what you get at the store; rather than gaily-colored hard candies or chocolate bars, you get fudge, candied orange peels, candied nuts, toffees, brittles, pralines, and the one that I want to try to make, divinity–a fluffy white candy made of sugar, corn syrup, and egg whites. My grandma used to make this candy for holidays and special occasions when I was a child, and I love it, but I haven’t had it in ages. Other homemade candies that are becoming popular are homemade chocolate truffles and homemade marshmallows.
Also, if you want to share any recipes for homemade candy with me, if it doesn’t look too complicated, I may try to make it. Because I love candy.
I had originally planned to do chocolate in this post, but looking over the chocolate section, and considering how different chocolate is from candy, I think I will reserve chocolate for its very own post. Tell me about your favorite confections down below, in the comments!