Sunday, February 12, 2006

In Which Your Intrepid Author Regrets His Lack of Skill with a Pastry Bag

There was a bit of snow here yesterday, and despite A.'s assurances that none of her friends would mind driving in the middle of a heavy snowfall and that, if they did, they could all just sleep over, I prevailed upon her to put her party off for a week. She was disappointed, but at least the anapestic readership is, temporarily, spared another cake post, or, more accurately, you are spared a post about yet another cake. Sort of.

The birthday cake, which was served Friday night and which you can see in the picture above, was a big hit. I thought that it was a little undercooked, but that may have been the result of it spending two days wrapped in plastic, and regardless, everyone likes a slightly undercooked cake better than an overcooked cake. When you start with a moist cake, and you split the layers and fill them with lemon curd and then you put a very soft raspberry buttercream between the filled layers and on the top and sides of the cake, you end up with something very moist and delicious.

You can recreate my lemon curd recipe by using my lime curd recipe. In place of the lime juice and zest, just use the juice and zest from one large lemon. For whatever reason, a whisk did not suffice to re-emulsify the lemon curd after its final sojourn in the microwave, so I dumped it into the food processor for half a minute, and everything was once again groovy. When you have to involve the food processor, you start to feel like you're using so many implements that it would be easier to make the lemon curd on top of the stove, but on Friday, I didn't get home until 6:15, and I had to make both the lemon curd and the buttercream, plus I had to assemble the cake, and people were arriving for dinner at 7:00, so I was very happy to not have to stand over the stove and babysit the lemon curd.

I'll give you the recipe for my raspberry buttercream, but I had some trouble with it. When it was done, it was really too soft, so I had to pop it in the refrigerator for a few minutes before I could finish the cake. I used that time to split the layers and put the lemon curd in the middle of each layer, so everything worked out okay, but -- even if I had enough skill with a pastry bag to think of decorating a cake, which I most emphatically have not -- I could not have thought of piping it. After its brief cooling off period, though, it was easy enough to spread on the cake, and sweet mother of Cthulhu did it taste good.

Raspberry Buttercream

1/3 c. water
1 c. granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 pound butter, at room temperature
Raspberry liqueur

Put the water and sugar in a small saucepan and cover with a tight lid. Put on medium heat and bring to a boil. Take the lid off and insert your candy thermometer.

Meanwhile, break the eggs into the bowl of your stand mixer, fit it with the whisk attachment, and mix on low.

When the boiling sugar reaches 240 degrees, remove the pan from the pot. Turn the mixer to high, and carefully pour the boiling syrup into the mixer bowl, on the side so that the whisk doesn't spray boiling syrup all over the place. When all the syrup is in, turn the mixer to medium and continue to beat until the mixture is nearly down to room temperature.

With the mixer still running, add the butter a tablespoon at a time. Wait until the tablespoon you have just added is fully incorporated before adding the next. If at any time the buttercream starts to break, stop adding butter and let the mixer run until it is smooth again. If that doesn't work, refrigerate the buttercream for a few minutes, then return it to the mixer and mix again until it is smooth, then start adding more butter.

When the butter is all incorporated, add the raspberry liqueur. What you want is to add as much as possible without losing spreadability. If it gets too soft, refrigerate it briefly, then mix again. You want to add at least two tablespoons of the liqueur, but more is better.

As I said, the buttercream tasted wonderful, and the cake was a big success, but I'm afraid that after I had lit the candles, and we'd sung "Happy Birthday to You" and "How Old Are You Now" and the ex was insisting that we then sing "Joyeux Anniversaire," I rushed through the last bit of the last one because the buttercream was beginning to melt. Not that anyone else noticed. They were too stunned by how good the cake tasted. And all A. really cares about is that there is a cake and it has the right number of candles and that she blows them all out on the first breath, which she did without undue effort.

The ex was watching me make the buttercream (they were a little bit early), and she said, "You're not going to put all that butter in, are you?" to which I replied, "Yes, but I'm not going to use all the buttercream," and I thought that I was very polite for stopping there. I mean, really, am I in the habit of walking around the kitchen with a pound of softened butter that I'm not going to use? Am I about to change my recipe or my plans because you show up at the last minute claiming to be surprised that I'm using butter. Did I ever once, during the entire thirteen years of our marriage, convey any sort of disdain for butter? Have I not already made enough allowances by not serving beef because of your bizarre conviction that we're all going to die of Jacob-Kreutzfeld or Creutzfeldt-Jakob or whatever it is that they call the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy? (You may be getting some inkling here as to why, after having to face two birthday dinners in two weeks, I feel the need to wrap myself in a comforter and curl up in the comfy chair and watch Amélie while sipping a large mug of hot chocolate.) In fact, the recipe makes a lot of buttercream, and I had about two cups leftover. Even upon refrigeration, it did not harden completely, which is probably a testament to my ability to insert plenty of alcohol into my buttercreams.

I wasn't sure quite what I was going to do with all that extra buttercream, but the answer (or at least part of the answer) presented itself today. For years (though not, I think, lately), I have heard various television cooks say that it is relatively hard to find good ladyfingers but very easy to make them. I have never really had much need for ladyfingers. I like tiramisu sometimes, but I've never really wanted to make it myself. But I was thinking that some ladyfingers might be nice to have around to go with coffee or tea, and I felt like doing some baking this afternoon, after having sloshed about with L. in the snow earlier this morning.

You will note that this post has no recipe for ladyfingers. You may infer from this omission that my ladyfingers were not an unqualified success, in which case, you will be correct. As it happens, unconvincing ladyfingers are at least as easy to make as good ones because I had plenty of time to make two batches. Really, from start to finish, including baking time, it only takes an hour to make a batch of ladyfingers. I looked up a couple of recipes online for the first batch, and I tried what seemed to me to be a classic method, whereby the egg yolks and sugar are mixed together, then the flavorings (I used vanilla and almond extracts and grated orange zest) and half the flour are mixed in, then the egg whites are beaten to stiff peaks and the rest of the flour and the egg whites are folded into the batter. Then you put the batter into the pastry bag and pipe little lines of batter onto your lined baking sheets, then you bake.

And the first batch tasted pretty good, or at least the ones that I baked long enough did. But they spread out an awful lot. I suppose I may have misguided ladyfinger notions, but I thought they should be somewhat more vertical and less horizontal. These looked a lot more like the outside of Milano cookies, and if I wanted that, I have langue de chat molds (somewhere), and I could just have used those.

So, a few hours later, I decided to try again. This time I increased the amount of flour significantly, in order to get a stiffer batter. I also decided that instead of doing the yolks and whites separately, I would just beat the whole eggs with the sugar until they had tripled in volume and got to the au ruban stage, as if I were making a genoise. Beating eggs with sugar in this manner has long been one of my very favorite tasks in the kitchen (and don't ask me why, because I don't really know, and I would just have to make up some story about how I used to watch Julia Child make genoise and that when I finally got my Kitchenaid, the first thing I did with it was make genoise and how much easier and more fun it is to do genoise with a Kitchenaid than with a hand-held mixer, and while all of that is true, who knows whether it's really why I like doing it so much?), and I was pretty sure that the resultant batter would be at least as light and would incorporate at least as much air as the original method. (For whatever reason, and I suspect it has something to do with the shape of the Kitchenaid bowl on my K45, I don't like folding egg whites into batter as much as I used to, even though I still do it competently when I have to.) And I think I was right, but even after having added half again as much flour as in the first batch, the batter, while slightly stiffer than the batter from batch one, still spread out almost as much as the first batch did. This batch was slightly more vertical, but probably only because I incorporated half a teaspoon of baking powder.

I did not do a great job of getting the batter onto the Silpat and parchment paper (I really should get a second Silpat), and while most of the resultant ladyfingers were more or less straight and longer than they were wide, you really wouldn't want much to do with any lady who had fingers like those. I didn't actually use a pastry bag to form them. I do have several pastry bags, but they are all somewhere in the basement, and it is a lot of trouble to go down and find a pastry bag when you can just use a Ziploc bag with a hole cut in the corner. The problem with using the Ziploc bag is that it's not easy to get the whole the exact right size. I could, of course, use a real pastry tip inside the Ziploc bag, but the pastry tips are, presumably, in the same place as the pastry bags. Anyway, I am nothing if not competent at basic geometry, so I was able to determine that for an opening with a half-inch diameter, I needed a circumference that was π times a half-inch, and that to get that, I would need to cut a slit whose length was half of π times a half inch, because the bag is made of two pieces of plastic sealed together. Now because the corner of the bag is a right angle, in order to get a slit of one-quarter π inches in length, I would have to cut a straight line between two points, each of which was π-divided-by-the-square-root-of-thirty-two inches away from the corner. This turns out to be just slightly over half an inch. I am absolutely certain that this is the very problem that dear Mr. Pythagoras needed to solve when he came up with his eponymous theorem. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.

Anyway, I was not loving my ladyfingers, even though A. was eating them with great alacrity (there were not all that many of them), and I was especially not liking their great variations in size and shape, a sound knowledge of basic geometry being somewhat less helpful than practice with the pastry bag in this particular instance. But I was determined to make something of them, and I had all that delicious buttercream left over, so I took a couple of ounces of dark chocolate, melted it in the microwave, spread a thin layer of chocolate on half the cookies, a thicker layer of buttercream on the other half, sandwiched them together, and voilà raspberry Milanos. Which you can, of course, buy at the grocery store, and those cookies are crisper than mine were. Alas.

Still, the end result was pretty good, and I may try it again if I ever perfect my ladyfingers. Or I might just take any relatively plain cookie, make a raspberry-chocolate buttercream (the melted chocolate being a force for solidification when it cools, thus allowing the addition of even more liqueur), spread and eat. Perhaps there is a box of vanilla wafers or gingersnaps in my future. Why don't I ever get that in a fortune cookie?


Blogger Sangroncito said...

Happy Valentine`s Day from Brazil!

6:35 AM  
Blogger MzOuiser said...

I have been lurking on this blog for what seems like years, but has probably been about, oh, eight months.

I will not tell your your writing is delicious or your humour is delightfully sour, or any other such food jokes. You just kick ass.

And so does your Raspberry buttercream, although I substituted White Godiva Liqueur. Talk about the big O...

1:42 PM  

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