Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lemon Layer Cake

We had a birthday in the house this week, and birthdays call for layer cake. I made this one with fresh lemons from the tree in our yard.

For the cake layers I made the Whole Wheat Genoise from the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking book. The only change I made to the recipe was to blend a about 2 TBSP of fresh lemon zest with the melted butter before adding that to the cake. This recipe made a generous amount of batter. So generous it was almost too much for my mixer bowl. If I make this again (and I probably will) I'll adjust the quantity downward by about 20-25%. Other future changes include adding lemon extract, which I would have used  had I remembered to buy some). With just lemon zest the citrus flavor of the layers was not as pronounced as I would have liked.

This genoise is the basis for Daffodil Cake on page 404 of the cookbook. I glanced at that recipe but planned to use other sources for the lemon filling and buttercream parts, so didn't study the details. Now I wish I'd read the bit where they recommend soaking each cake layer with 1/4 cup of citrus syrup, which seems like a lot. I thought I'd drenched generously, but probably only used at most half that amount per layer and yes, the final result is a little dry. Not a problem if the cake is served with lots of icecream, but next time around I'll drench more thoroughly.

Overall, I'm impressed by any genoise that can handle 1-3/4 C of whole wheat flour, even if it's ww pastry flour. This did turn out well, and managed to not have the overly eggy flavor of the last genoise I made. It is a little denser than a white flour genoise: it does not slice as cleanly and should be flavored more aggressively.

I cooked the genoise in two 8" round pans (rather than the three pans the recipe calls for), so they came out about 2" thick each. I then sliced each into two layers, to make four total.

For between-layer filling I started with a half recipe of Master Lemon Curd from this reliable book (made a couple of days ahead).

I did not bother to strain the curd as recommended, because I felt leaving the little bits of lemon zest in there would improve the flavor and I knew no one eating the cake would notice or object to the zesty bits. The lemony-ness of the curd improved noticeably from the make-ahead date to the time the cake was assembled, so advance prep is not only convenient, it resulted in a better flavor, too.

When I was ready to fill and frost the layers I turned the lemon curd into a mousse by first soaking 1 tsp of powdered gelatin in 2T of lemon juice mixed with water. The next step with gelatin (after soaking in cold liquid) is to heat and dissolve, which I accomplished by pouring in a little bit of the hot lemon syrup I boiled up for the Italian Meringue Buttercream frosting (more on that, below). I stirred the warmed gelatin into the lemon curd, then used a whisk to fold in some of the (extra) meringue I'd made for the frosting. Mousse typically also includes a fair amount of whipped cream, but I left that out as unnecessary excess and well over the line into just-too-much-more-work land. I chilled the mousse until it had started to set, then spread some over each of three cake layers and chilled the layers until the mousse was fully set before assembling the final cake.

This lemon mouse made a not-too-heavy but very stable cake filling that did not squish out the sides even under the weight of multiple whole wheat genoise layers. I will definitely use it again, and look forward to experimenting with other flavors.

The final piece of this effort was a lemon frosting which was close to a disaster. I have not attempted a classic Italian merinque buttercream in many years and thought I'd give it a go. As mentioned above, I made extra (2 add'l egg whites) of the meringue so I could use some for the lemon filling. The meringue turned out perfectly! I've used my stand mixer to whip egg whites before, but this was the first time I'd done a hot sugar syrup meringue with it, and the results were awesome, huge, voluminos peaks of fluffy but exceptionally stable sweet lemony whiteness.

Unfortunately, that's where the success ended. Adding the butter sort of seemed to go okay: the whites did not curdle, and remained a smooth emulsion, but the loss of volume seemed way beyond what it should have been, and the result, while not the "soupy" texture threatened by too-soft butter, was not stiff enough to frost with. So I stuck it in the fridge to chill up a bit.

In hindsight, I can see that's where I went wrong. I should have put the bowl of not-stiff-enough into an icewater bath while continuing to beat with my hand mixer as it firmed up. Left to its own devices in the fridge a horrible separation of liquid into the bottom of the bowl occured. This appeared to be way, way, way beyond the "curdled" effect that buttercream troubleshooting tips say can be saved, and I was running out of patience, so I drained off the liquid and beat in another stick of butter and some confectioner's sugar.

At that point it was still a bit soft but I could see it would be way too much quantity by the time I got it to a spreadable consistency, so I removed half of what was in the bowl to a freezer container for some future use. To the remaining portion I mixed in a quickie white chocolate ganache I made by melting a bag of white choc chips in some heavy cream. I have great faith in the firm-up potential of ganache and it did chill up beautifully. The final result -- half failed lemon buttercream and half white choc ganache -- handled extremely well, did not sag or droop or end up in a pool on the cake platter, and tasted divine, with an exceptionally smooth texture and a lovely subtle flavor hinting of vanilla, white chocolate (which can be too cloying on its own), and lemon with no one element dominating. Too bad this exact frosting will never be duplicated, as it is well worth eating again and again, but that's what usually happens when I cook.

Although I will do some things differently next time I make a lemon layer cake (which will not be for a good long while, layer cakes being way too much work for anything other than special occasions, although they can be a fun way to make a mess of the kitchen), this was a delicious cake and we ate a lot of it. Leftovers have been divvied up into more reasonable portions and frozen for future cake night indulgence.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Farewell, my toasty friend

My toaster, a Cuisinart model from the late 1980s, died yesterday. I am very sad. And guilty: I suspect I killed it when I turned it downside up over the trash bin and shook it to get the crumbs out. I'm so sorry...

This toaster served me well for many, many years. About twenty of 'em, in fact. I bought it at the flagship Macy's in NYC (I lived in Brooklyn then), and I think I paid $39 for it, which was a lot for a basic toaster in those days but works out to only half a penny per day.

The plastic knob on the lever came off several years ago, but the lever still worked, so we kept using it. And the chrome finish, as you can see, has been no match for the humid ocean air here in Hilo. Even the shiniest bits are no longer very shiny. (Ignore, please, the streaks of flour dusting Hercules, perched to the left; I'm in the midst of making bread and haven't cleaned up yet.)

My husband has been dropping new toaster hints for some time now, but the grungier and more pathetic-looking this one got, the more loyal to it I became. It worked so well still, and I felt compelled to reward its stalwart service with continued use and appreciation.

But the dreaded day has finally come, and we have replaced it. Our new toaster is a KitchenAid, sleek and black and shiny, and it works fine, but I'm having a hard time warming up to it. It's from Macy's, too (the Hilo outpost, which we're glad to have in town, but which is much, much, smaller than the Herald Square store, with only three toaster models to choose from). I paid $50 dollars for this one (sale price). I wonder if I'll get 20 years of use from it....

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Pineapple-Mango Upside Down Cake

I was all set to make an apple dessert the other day. But apples keep for close to forever in the fridge, whereas the white pineapple and a lone mango in my fruit dish were aging quickly and needed to be put to use soon or end up in the trash.

So I made a Pineapple-Mango Upsidedown Cake instead. As you can see, it's the kind of "cake" that is at its best spooned into a bowl and topped with the creamy dairy product of your choice. My husband ate his from a plate, with a fork, and without the topping, but I think he was missing out. I've tagged this post as both "breakfast" and "dessert" because the result has performed delectably in both functions.

There's no precise recipe for this, as I was in my typical slapdash baking mood, and didn't bother to measure anything. For those who are curious, here's my best guess at what I did:

1) Lavishly buttered a 9x13 baking dish.

2) Cut up approx. 4 cups combined fresh mango and pineapple, in roughly 1" pieces, which was extremely juicy so I set it in a strainer over a bowl to catch the juice. Went off to do something else for about 20 minutes, then put the drained fruit in the baking dish and sprinkled with two handfuls of macadamia nut pieces.

3) Added the reserved juice (1/3 C?) to some light brown sugar mixed with lemon juice and zest (which was loitering in the fridge as an uncooked syrup waiting for me to do something interesting with it; quantity is anyone's guess), and brought it all to a boil in a small saucepan to reduce for a few minutes. Don't ask me how long; I didn't time it. Stirred in about a tablespoon of unsalted butter and set it aside to cool slightly.

4) Cracked three eggs into the bowl of my stand mixer, added a splash of vanilla extract, and whipped on high with the whisk attachment, while drizzling in most of the sugar-juice syrupy stuff (still warm, but not so hot it would cook the eggs on contact). Let Hercules (my mixer) run for a few minutes, and drizzled the remaining syrup (a few TB) over the fruit.

5) When eggs were very light and foamy (though not greatly increased in volume, probably because the fruit syrup had a lot more moisture in it than straight sugar would have), I added about 3/4 C ww pastry flour and tapped in some baking powder straight from the cannister.

6) Ran the machine on medium briefly to mix it all up, then poured the batter over the fruit and baked at 360 for 40 minutes, until a lovely brown on top.

Experienced cooks will recognize this as a very haphazard sponge cake. The result was a very light, not too sweet cake with a delicate fruity aroma/flavor. The fruit was nicely cooked without disintegrating, and the whole thing was not overly juicy or mushy. I'll definitely take this approach again, although next time I might reduce the fruit syrup a bit more before adding to the eggs.

I doubt this would win any cooking awards, but for a slapdash effort it turned out extremely well. We've been enjoying it both as dessert and breakfast, with plain yogurt. It's the kind of dessert that is awesome warm from the oven with vanilla icecream, but that's not the sort of thing I keep in the house.