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Let’s Celebrate! Have a Lavender and Lemon Cookie

Lavender and Lemon Cookie

Though I have somewhat forgotten what the sun feels like due to this three-day sheet of rain it’s hiding behind, over the weekend a picnic was considered and I found myself in need of a simple, portable, no-silverware-required dessert-type experience. Since the suggested locations included our stunning local tulip patch, my mind turned to flowers–specifically the bag of dried lavender flowers I was already stocked with.

I must have googled lavender cakes and cookies and lemonades dozens of time in the past few years, but I had never followed through and actually executed a recipe. In this case, I needed something efficient in terms of time and effort, and bake-able out of what was already in the house. Giada De Laurentiis delivered with charm. Her Lavender and Lemon Cookies are short on ingredients, gentle on effort, and impressive on a plate.

Lavender and Lemon Cookie

Get the recipe: Lavender and Lemon Cookies

Other obligations meant that in the end we had to scrap the picnic, but inspired by these delicate treats, I broke out the fancy china for an appropriately random Wonderland-style tea party on the front porch.

This morning I’m enjoying the last of the cookies over on the music side of my life, as I try to get Dave Malloy’s highly addictive music out of my ear now that production is done on his profile and we begin to celebrate the 15th (15th!! Wow, where did the time go?) anniversary of NewMusicBox! Feeling like a little old lady in internet terms, so tea and a biscuit is quite the proper thing to indulge in.

The Returned: How to Cook a Wolf

Tomato Soup Cake from How to Cook a Wolf

If I’m making amends for the sins of abandonment committed against my cookbooks here, it seems extra appropriate to do right by a book that isn’t even actually mine but rather one I borrowed from a neighbor and then proceeded to bury under an ever-growing pile of unread Lucky Peach issues. (Okay, I have a problem. We’ve clearly established that at this point.)

If you’re unfamiliar, How to Cook a Wolf (published originally in 1942) is a quick read, part rallying cry and part cookbook designed to aid and inspire home cooks in a time of stress and limitation. When I started the book, I was immediately struck by how much the ideas M.F.K. Fisher had about economics, nutrition, and making do had to say (adjusting for inflation and accounting for the proximity of war) to me sitting in my living room arm chair in 2014. My appreciation for her outlook only grew as the pages turned, as did my trust in her advice and appraisals after acknowledgements such as this one, crediting her sources for a “Cream of Potato Soup” that follows a bit of a tirade on doing things “correctly” vs. “eating according to your own tastes.”

However, there are compromises that can be admitted, whether you approve of them or not. Here is a recipe, a combination really of Escoffier’s Soupe à la Bonne Femme and one I found in a calendar published by the gas company in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland.

Hear, hear! That’s a world-aware outlook and a flexibility of approach I can get behind. (It’s also probably why I can’t really hang with the Cook’s Illustrated folks, but that’s a convo for another post.)

Canned Tomato Soup

Think of it as adding a little Warhol pizzazz to your baking?

I’m personally satisfied to report that I have now finished the book and returned it to its rightful owner, along with a portion of a cake from its pages that I just had to try out: Tomato Soup Cake. Also known as Mystery or Conversation Cake due to its surprising secret ingredient (which I doubt any taste tester would be able to ID), this is one of those recipes that seems to trace back for a lot of people to grandma’s special version and holiday family gatherings (and probably an advertising pamphlet produced by Campbell’s Soup!). It’s a spice cake that uses no eggs and only three tablespoons of fat, making it easy on the pantry and easily vegan to boot. You can dress it up with the mix-ins and spice combinations that best suit your guests and top it (maple cream cheese frosting, anyone?) however you like. I’ve included my version below, but as Fisher says, you should make yours “to you own tastes!”

Tomato Soup Cake: Ready to Bake

Tomato Soup Cake
from How to Cook a Wolf

3 tablespoons shortening (or butter)
1 cup sugar
1 can condensed tomato soup
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups AP flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon mixed spice (I used 1/4 teaspoon of each of the following: ginger, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg.)
1 1/2 cups nuts and fruit, roughly chopped (I used 1/2 cup of each of the following: raisins, walnuts, and dates.)

Optional topping:
3 tablespoons powdered sugar dusted over top

Heat oven to 325°F. Butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan (line bottom with parchment if you are extra nervous about cake removal—I did and don’t regret it, but it was perhaps overkill for a cake of this texture). Set aside.

Measure flour and spices into a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Set aside.

Using a hand or stand mixer, cream shortening and sugar together until well blended and fluffy.

Stir baking soda into the soup and mix well. Add this and the flour/spice mixture to the creamed sugar in several alternating portions, mixing until fully incorporated. Fold in nuts and fruit.

Spoon into the prepared cake pan and smooth the top (batter will be quite thick). Bake for 45 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for ten minutes in the pan and then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Top as desired.

Cake stores well and pleased even my non-spice-cake-liking friends, for what it’s worth.

Tomato Soup Cake from How to Cook a Wolf

Ripe Strawberries, Ripe!: Strawberries and Cream Cake

Strawberries and Cream Cake

I’m not really much of a fruit person, but when there were strawberries–strawberries everywhere–it felt shameful to walk away from the farmers market empty handed.

So it was that I ended up with about a pound of perfectly ripe fruit and no practical application in sight. What I did happen to have was a pint of gloriously rich heavy cream, which led pretty quickly to baking motivation, a sentiment efficiently fueled by a fear that this lovely fruit would be left to spoil as the busy week wore on. Add in our great neighbors willing to share an evening on the front porch, provide the Prosecco, and supply the plates and napkins, and a party was in process before the dessert was completely situated on the cake stand.

After reading through the comments, I decide to pour my cake batter into two pans rather than split a single layer after baking, which sped the cooking time up considerably (about 17 minutes total) and cut down on the mess. The next time I try this recipe, however, I think I’ll stick to one and see if that alters the texture favorably. This cake is firm and heavy–a bonus if your berries are very, very juicy, but mine were of the smaller and tarter variety. I think splitting the cake before baking may have only made the density more of a challenge and I found the crumb to be a shade drier than preferable. Could have all simply been a matter of user error on the part of the infrequent baker, admittedly. I’ve never claimed to be much of a Martha Stewart. More of a Mr. Wizard, if we’re frank about it.

 Strawberries and Cream Cake: Assembly

But I doubt I’ll ever be able to top the look of this cake when assembled. I had never heard of mixing in a bit of plain gelatin with the whipping cream to help it maintain its form, but that is a take away I will not soon forget. Even a couple days later, a lone leftover piece still held up well in the fridge.

And of course, I couldn’t help but belt out “Ripe strawberries, ripe!” from the iconic street scene in the musical Oliver Twist while hulling the fruit to fill this cake. My sincere apologies to all those within ear shot.

Strawberries and Cream Cake
from Martha Stewart

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar, plus more to sweeten berries
2 large eggs plus 2 large egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup whole milk
1 pound strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Butter two 8-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with circles of parchment. Butter the top of the paper and thoroughly flour the pans.

Heat the oven to 350°F.

Mix the sliced berries with the desired amount of sugar and toss gently to coat. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, measure flour, baking powder, and salt. Whisk to combine.

Using an electric or stand mixer at medium speed, cream butter and 1/2 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Scrape down sides of bowl and add eggs and yolks, one at a time, mixing thoroughly between each addition. Beat in vanilla. Reduce speed to low and add in the flour mixture (in three parts) and the milk (in two parts), alternating between the two and mixing just until combined. Divide batter between the two pans and smooth the surface.

Bake about 17 minutes. The edges of the cakes should be deeply golden and a cake tester inserted into the center should come out clean. Cool ten minutes in the pans before turning out on a wire rack to cool completely.

When ready to assemble the cake, prepare the whipped topping. In a small sauce pan add two tablespoons cold water and sprinkle gelatin over top. Heat on low just until gelatin dissolves and then allow to cool down.

Beat the cream with 1/4 cup sugar until soft peaks hold. With mixer running, drizzle in cooled (but still liquid) gelatin and continue beating until cream is once again holding soft peaks.

Place bottom layer of cooled cake on serving plate. Top with half the strawberries (I had fewer berries, so went with the slight variation you see pictured) and half the whipped cream. Top with the second layer of cake and the rest of the cream. Chill for at least one hour to allow cream to firm up and berry juices to penetrate the cake. Remove from refrigerator and top with remaining strawberries 15 minutes before serving.

Getting Corny: Momofuku Milk Bar’s Corn Cookies

Momofuku Milk Bar's Corn Cookies

Based on the sheer number of somewhat bizarre drying experiments I’ve been running around here lately, you might have caught on that I’m a new convert to the joys home dehydration. Beyond your basic fruit snacks and carrot chips, I’ve been particularly interested in manufacturing my own DIY vegetable powders–everything from your standard garlic and onion to your more exotic tomato and red pepper.

In the course of things, I ended up dehydrating a bag of frozen sweet corn for a recipe that never materialized, so I packed the dried kernels away in a mason jar until a good use for them presented itself.

A few weeks later, however, I caught Savory Simple’s post on Momofuku Milk Bar’s Corn Cookies and was immediately seduced by the quirky taste profile the recipe suggested. I was less attracted to sourcing the unusual ingredients required. Did I really want to special order corn powder? Hmm, might my dehydrated corn step in to save the day? I committed…to thinking about it.

DIY corn powder and corn flour

And so the recipe went into my “to make one day” pile, and there it sat. For months. Finally, frustrated by my own inaction, I pulled out my “coffee grinder reserved for spices” and got to work. The dried sweet corn was powdered; lacking corn flour, I also blitzed some of my DIY cornmeal until the motor was near to overheating and my fingers were satisfied with the texture. I sifted for good measure. Twice.

Do these cookies match the originator‘s? I actually can’t say, since for as much time as I spend in New York City, I have yet to make a pilgrimage to the Milk Bar. Perhaps I shall pop in this month, now that I have a mission. What I can say is that I made these with just what was in my pantry, and they were fantastic. The freshly powdered dehydrated sweet corn and corn flour provided a strong corn flavor that made for a particularly unique treat.

DIY Corn Powder

Corn Cookies: Pre-bake

NOTES: Before baking these, I read a recommendation to substitute bread flour for the AP to help the cookies stand up to the high butter content, controlling spreading while maintaining a chewy rather than crisp texture. It was suggested that King Arthur bread flour was what they use at the Milk Bar, and I liked the results I got this way (though I did not bake a comparison batch).

On baking day, it was cold enough in my house, and I was impatient enough to get started, that getting my butter to room temperature seemed like a battle I was destined to lose. However, I remembered a neat trick I learned (via Food in Jars) to soften butter in warm tap water. Killer kitchen tip for the poor planners in the crowd like myself!

Corn Cookies: Ingredient Prep

Momofuku Milk Bar's Corn Cookies

Momofuku Milk Bar’s Corn Cookies

1 1/3 cups (225 g) King Arthur bread flour
1/4 cup (45 g) corn flour (I ground cornmeal to a super fine level; for international readers, this is NOT corn starch)
2/3 cup (65 g) freeze-dried corn powder (I used finely ground dehydrated sweet corn kernels)
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
16 tablespoons (225 g) butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (300 g) sugar
1 egg

Measure dry ingredients into a mixing bowl and whisk to evenly incorporate. Set aside.

Cream butter and sugar together (medium-high for 2 to 3 minutes). Scrape down bowl, add egg, and beat for 7 minutes more.

Reduce speed to low and add dry ingredients to wet. Mix just until combined.

Portion into 15 rounds on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Flatten each cookie to about an inch thick. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour before baking–do not skip this step! Cookies baked several days later, however, were just as good.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 350°F.

Place six raw dough pucks spaced well apart on a parchment-lined cookie sheet (they will spread considerably). Bake 16 minutes, until edged have lightly browned. Allow cookies to cool and firm up before removing from pan. Store in an air-tight container.

http://wonderlandkitchen.com/2013/05/getting-corny-momofuku-milk-bars-corn-cookies/

1 1/3 cups (225 g) King Arthur bread flour
1/4 cup (45 g) corn flour (I ground cornmeal to a super fine level; for international readers, this is NOT corn starch)
2/3 cup (65 g) freeze-dried corn powder (I used finely ground dehydrated sweet corn kernels)
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
16 tablespoons (225 g) butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (300 g) sugar
1 egg

Measure dry ingredients into a mixing bowl and whisk to evenly incorporate. Set aside.

Cream butter and sugar together (medium-high for 2 to 3 minutes). Scrape down bowl, add egg, and beat for 7 minutes more.

Reduce speed to low and add dry ingredients to wet. Mix just until combined.

Portion into 15 rounds on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Flatten each cookie to about an inch thick. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour before baking–do not skip this step! Cookies baked several days later, however, were just as good.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 350°F.

Place six raw dough pucks spaced well apart on a parchment-lined cookie sheet (they will spread considerably). Bake 16 minutes, until edged have lightly browned. Allow cookies to cool and firm up before removing from pan. Store in an air-tight container.

Picture Imperfect Tastes: The Apple Dowdy

Aunt Hanner's Apple Dowdy

I wasn’t going to write about my little weekend adventure into historical cooking, but then I caught this post which, in addition to being very moving in its broader terms, included a kicker towards the end: “I sometimes worry that commoditized simplicity will become fetish, and ultimately an over-stressed trend.” Ah, yes, that back-to-basics lifestyle showcased so perfectly on many a Pinterest board transformed into a danger all its own? I took her point.

Here I’ll offer a flip side to the situation, however. Ever since devouring Della Lutes’s The Country Kitchen (Little, Brown, and Company, 1936) during a road trip last summer, I’ve meant to go back and actually try to cook some of the classically imprecise recipes sprinkled throughout the text (though Lutes does go the extra mile in trying to help the reader get a handle on how things were done if classic biscuit ratios aren’t already ingrained). It was the current chill that finally got this project accomplished, however, and in the end I settled on making the Apple Dowdy: “not a dumpling, a pudding or a pie–deep-dish or otherwise. It is just a dowdy–sort of common, homely, gingham-like, but it has character.”

The Country Kitchen

Now, as I have likely mentioned before, I hate to measure. Reading and then correctly following instructions goes against my genetic makeup. As a result, baking often terrifies me. But in this recipe, I felt a permission to follow instinct that your typical, weighed out in grams baking situation doesn’t encourage. Portions where emotional (“with generous judgment”) and relaxed (“a slight scattering”). Plus, with a suggested cook time of 3 hours (!!) there would be none of this “at 18 minutes it’s baked through, at 20 minutes it’s burned” stress. I exaggerate, but you’ve been there, right?

Not having a “deep earthen pudding dish” on hand, I used a ceramic pie plate. This turned out to be too large, requiring that I roll my dough thinner than the indicated 3/4 inch and, as a result, reducing my baking time to 2 hours. I suppose I could have tented it with foil to prevent over-browning, but it smelled so good that I could wait no longer. I’ll try and follow the directions more carefully next time, but served warm out of the oven with a splash of cream, this dowdy was straightforwardly delicious. I hesitate to get into any additional cliches of “classically simple” and “old world,” but maybe because its construction was so basic (pantry staples!), its assembly so laid back (15 minutes, inspiration to oven!), it was a truly fine and satisfying way to warm up the house and the spirit on a cold winter’s afternoon.

Aunt Hanner's Apple Dowdy

Aunt Hanner’s Apple Dowdy

for the filling

4 or 5 medium apples, tart and firm, peeled and quartered (I used an apple slicer/corer and so ended up with 8 slices per apple)
brown sugar (sprinkle enough to suit your apples)
nutmeg (“a slight scattering”)
cinnamon (“a little less”)
salt (“dash”)
butter (“with generous judgment,” about a teaspoon per serving)
1/2 cup warm water

for the crust

1 cup AP flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup milk

Heat oven to 325°F.

Fill your baking dish with prepared apples and scatter sugar, spices, and butter over top. Pour in water at the side.

In a medium bowl whisk flour, baking powder, and salt, and cut in butter. Add milk and stir just until dough comes together. Roll out on a floured counter until about 3/4-inch thick and just large enough to cover apples. Fit and crimp down over top and slash top to vent.

Aunt Hanner's Apple Dowdy: Unbaked

Bake for three hours, watching to make sure crust does not over-brown. Serve warm straight from the oven with a splash of cream and extra sugar if desired.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker: Salted Caramel Cheesecake Pie

cheesecake_top

Note to self: Never volunteer to make the dessert (or any dish, for that matter) for any social occasion unless you have already determined what you will make. You have an underdeveloped ability to make a decision and an overdeveloped fear of disappointing people. You are also a Libra. This is a deadly equation. Even your cat worries for you when, four hours later, you are still Googling things and changing your mind every 10 minutes. It’s dizzying.

Yes, faithful readers, here I was once again this weekend hunting for a little something sweet to take to an informal gathering of music friends. While I had strong interest in things like browned butter and salted caramel, and a love/hate thing going on with cupcakes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d know it when I saw it. And I simply wasn’t seeing it. Meanwhile, I saw this, and this, and this, and this, and this. But not it.

The day winding down and the grocery store ingredient run eminent, I decided to turn yet again to Joy the Baker. She had served me more than well in my last tight spot by providing some awesome cookie ideas. Perhaps she could lend a girl her icing smeared hand just one more time? I was hopeful.

And after only a few minutes nosing around in her index, I had found love.

Second note to self: Never Google “over-baked cheesecake” one hour before you are about to take a cheesecake you fear you have over-baked to a house party. You’re just being neurotic; all will be well.

Otherwise, the food was fantastic, the company stellar, and the dessert enjoyed.

Get the recipe and make one for yourself:

Salted Caramel Cheesecake Pie-Eaten