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Bonne année chers lecteurs! Apron cat is back again, and is starting the new year out right with a failed, but highly tasty, rendition of the latest in the apron cake series: Tarte Tatin.

Je vais les manger tout

Je vais les manger tout

One of the left-most desserts on the apron, this was something I wasn’t familiar with, but looked like an apple tart to me. No problem! Er, excusez-moi: pas de problème!

Take note of how all of those apples are nicely tucked into place

Take note of how all of those apples are nicely tucked into place

A tarte tatin, I found out from some Wikipedia and New York Times research taught me that a tarte tatin (this is going to be a super annoying blog post because Word Press keeps auto-correcting this to “taste satin”) is sort of the apple tart equivalent of a pineapple upside-down cake. The basic recipe from the various sites I looked at seems to start with caramelizing apples in a cast iron skillet, throwing either pie crust, pastry dough, or puff pastry on top, baking the whole thing in the oven, and then dramatically flipping it over onto a plate so that the apples are on top, magically held together in a big clump.

Cool.

I found a lot of recipes for this, but ended up going with this one because I preferred a pie crust to a puff pastry. I’ve used recipes from the Food Network website before, but this is the first time I’ve used it for a pastry or dessert. I have learned my lesson and will stick to my tried and true pastry sites from now on.

I have a few issues with this recipe. The instructions were pretty imprecise. What exactly do you mean by a baking dish? It sound to me like a pyrex dish, but you can’t put that “over a medium heat.” (You’ll notice, if you happen to visit the recipe, that the baking dish text is a hyperlink. If you click the link, it takes you to a general “food encyclopedia,” helpfully queued up to the letter C, and there is no entry for “baking dish.”) The other recipes I’d seen called for a skillet, so I chose to use that. (Also, who has a 10″ pyrex?) Another imprecise moment – I would expect that the thickness/shape of the apple slices would be slightly important. That affects how long they’ll cook, as well as how the whole deal holds together. This recipe said to halve the apples, remove the cores, and then cut “them” into 4 big pieces. Is “them” each apple? Each half of an apple? I went with the latter and chopped each half into fourths. Also, the entire beginning claims to be done in a mixer (making the pie crust), but the instructions sound like it’s trying to talk about a food processor. “Pulse” the butter for 2 seconds. How do you pulse something in a mixer?

I dunno. I did this.

I dunno. I did this.

The recipe was very concerned about the speed at which I made the dough and cautioned against over mixing. So I didn’t over mix, and I came up with this:

Huh.

Huh.

I formed it into a ball and put it in the fridge for an hour. I then spent that hour chopping apples. (Note the recipe’s prep time of 30 minutes.)

Steps 1, 2, and 3. Not 30 minutes.

Steps 1, 2, and 3. Not 30 minutes.

IMG_1687 IMG_1690

When I took the dough out, I was pretty furious to notice that there were chunks of unmixed butter throughout. Okay, furious is a lie. I was more annoyed and just kind of resigned at that point.

Anyway, in the meantime, I had to caramelize sugar, one of my most stressful kitchen tasks. I cannot explain why, but I am so afraid of setting off smoke alarms. Maybe this is because I live in an apartment building and I’m concerned about upsetting the neighbors. Maybe because I think that the smoke alarm automatically calls the fire department (I don’t know if this is true). Maybe it’s because it’s a stressful noise. Maybe because one apartment building I lived in had a fire in the apartment directly below mine, and I wasn’t home when it happened, and the firefighters wouldn’t let me go in and check on my cat (she was fine – it was a minor fire). Maybe it all goes back to the recurring nightmares I would have when I was 5-9, after every visit by the firefighters to my elementary school.

There are a lot of possibilities, but the end result is that cooking sugar, butter, and water in a skillet on a stovetop is pretty stressful for me. But it didn’t burn, and because this recipe gave me no guidance about when it was done, I used an old trick from Annie’s Eats and dripped drops of the sugar/butter/water mixture onto a white plate to check its color periodically. When it turned amber (in my assessment) I pulled it off the heat and tossed in the apples. I might not have waited long enough, because I do tend to be conservative when it comes to burning butter or sugar.

Shockingly, I don’t own a “heat diffuser,” (seriously, Food Network?) so I simmered the apples in the “caramel” for 15 minutes over medium-low heat. It seemed to be working, because the caramel did bubble up through the apples as the recipe indicated. And it smelled pretty awesome.

The next mystery to me was how to follow the instructions about the pastry. I was able to roll it out and place it over the apples as instructed, but it was really not clear to me how to fold it “in at the edges.” Did this mean to fold it in towards the center of the pan? Surely it couldn’t mean to fold it over the edges of the skillet, right? The end goal here was to turn the entire deal upsidedown, so I did my best to tuck the pastry up in between the hot apples and the edges of the hot skillet.

I also put these awesome slits into the dough, but you don't hear me bragging about it.

I also put these awesome slits into the dough, but you don’t hear me bragging about it.

The whole skillet went into the oven for 20 stressful minutes (zOMG sugar water in the oven watch the smoke detector OMG) and then cooled on the counter for the prescribed 15 minutes. We might have been running a little bit late to get this to its destined dinner engagement, so I didn’t let it cool any longer than 15 minutes.

It looked and smelled done, though. More than this picture would indicate.

It looked and smelled done, though. More than this picture would indicate.

And then, the moment of truth. When it came time to flip this thing, I went at it with the same gusto I used the first time I tried to dive off the starting blocks into a pool, or the first time I clipped into bike pedals. If you’re going to go for it, go for it:

Oh.

Oh.

The result? Sugar water everywhere. Grey apples. It didn’t even remotely hold together. The beautiful amber color appeared only on the Food Network website. After cleaning the kitchen counter, cabinets, floors, and cutting board, I scooped the apples into the pie plate and settled for an open top apple pie. And you know what? It actually tasted pretty effing amazing.

That being said, this one is getting a retry. The NYT has what it describes as a “fool-proof” recipe, and my mom has a Julia Child recipe, so between the two of them I have to give this another go.

In the meantime, the Food Network can stick to entertaining me with Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen and leave the pastry recipes to sources I trust.

(For the record, if you need good pastry recipes, I highly recommend Annie’s Eats. Epicurious is usually also reliable. Julia Child knows what’s up.)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, so here’s a lightning round series of updates. No more than a paragraph for each topic!

Escort Service:

I volunteered as a bike escort at the Madison half marathon last week. This was the first time I’d done so, but ever since I noticed bikes riding with the leaders at a few of the races I’ve run it’s something I wanted to do. Since I was a rookie on the escort service I didn’t get to ride with the leaders, but I was a “pack escort,” which meant that I rode back and forth on miles 10-13 looking for runners in distress and making sure that no one needed medical assistance or a SAG ride. It was a lot of fun, way more physically demanding than I would have expected (even though I never rode fast), and next time I want to escort the leader. Also, I got to put a sign on my bike identifying it as an Official Race Vehicle, and even got cheered on by a couple of spectators (“Way to go race vehicle!”). Finally, I rode up Edgewood Hill five times. So.

Proud Graduate:

I’m happy to report that I was graduated from physical therapy a few weeks ago. My knee is still not 100%, but I’ve reached maximum benefit from the PT interventions and I have improved quite a lot. I saw a sports medicine doctor who gave me some feedback that I’m still sort of mulling over, but among other things he recommended picking up some orthotics to help my knee stay as well-aligned as it can be when I’m running. I’ve only taken them out running a few times, but I’m cautiously optimistic that they’re helping.

Open Water, Open Mind:

I’ve joined an open water swim class, and I might say that the lake panic is shifting into a lake anxiety. I can’t really say I enjoy going to my open water class, but I take that as evidence that it’s good for me. Once again, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’m getting better in the open water. I’m still allergic to the lakes, by the way, but I think I have a fairly good one-two punch going on with Zyrtec followed by Advil Cold and Sinus.

Bike Shoe Fail:

I’ve been working on getting onto my bike barefoot with my shoes already clipped in. Here’s how it started:

To Sock or Not to Sock:

My first race is a week from today, and I’m still struggling with the sock issue. You’ll notice in the video above that I was originally trying to do the bike shoe thing with socks. I’m pretty sure for this first sprint triathlon I’m going to go sock-free on the bike, but I am going to wear them on the run. I’ll get there; I just haven’t practiced enough without them to feel comfortable yet, especially with the new orthotics.

“World’s Healthiest Cake”

I came across this recipe for what’s described as possibly the world’s healthiest cake, made with beet root and avocado. So I made it. Except I used real butter instead of vegan margarine (sorry, there are some lines I will not cross). It’s pretty good. I’m not going to tell you it tastes like for real cake, but it’s a decent substitute. I’ll certainly eat it all.

Why yes, I did sprinkle edible gold glitter on top of this cake. Thank you for noticing.

Why yes, I did sprinkle edible gold glitter on top of this cake. Thank you for noticing.

Shoes:

I have a race in a week! Time for me to go do this. Stay tuned for (possibly) a pre-race freakout post and (definitely) a post-race recap.

 

Bonjour! C’est moi, le chat de tablier.

J'ai mangé votre pyjama

J’ai mangé votre pyjama

The first day of spring has arrived, and that can only mean one thing — it’s time to make another apron cake.

Today, I decided to tackle eclair et religieuse, which translates to a religious eclair. I could argue that most eclairs, if made well, are akin to a religious experience, but this one in particular is thought to have this name because when the little eclair is stacked onto the large eclair, dipped in chocolate, and dotted with whipped cream, it resembles a nun. That is, if we envision human body types the same way we do snowmen.

That's the way I remember the nuns from my Catholic school looking.

That’s the way I remember the nuns from my Catholic school looking.

The first clue I had that this recipe was perhaps a bit more superFrench than the Opéra cake came when I typed “eclair et religieuse” into Google. All the results were in French. When Google offered to search for results in English, correctly deducing that my French skills stopped after the first paragraph of this blog, I found a few more results, including a film titled Un éclair, une religieuse, which I can only assume is about a nun who found an eclair behind the altar, a blog with a very pretty eclair et religieuse pictured, but no recipe, and finally this recipeon the BBC’s website from something called The Great British Bake Off. Works for me.

As an aside, you may wonder why I never copy recipes directly onto this blog (other than recipes I learned from a friend or just consider a basic part of my repertoire). The answer is that I worry it can be a copyright violation or a form of plagarism. If I were modifying or making these recipes my own in any way, that would be different, but I really just make them by following the directions 95% of the time. I do, however, always try to include links to the original so if you’re interested in joining me on my French pastry adventures, it’s easy enough to do so.

The BBC recipe had the advantage of being written in English with the not insignificant challenge of using metric measurements and British terms for ingredients. Here’s a quick primer:

  • Apparently “corn flour” in British means cornstarch. I’m glad I looked that up before I dumped a pile of what I consider corn flour into my pastry cream.
  • “Double cream” means heavy cream.
  • “Caster sugar” is superfine sugar.
  • I’m still not sure what the recipe meant by “plain chocolate,” but I used bittersweet chocolate and it worked out fine.

The other main challenge was translating from grams to cups. I know that many serious bakers use scales to weigh their ingredients, and I don’t fault them for it. That being said, it’s not a direction I want to go in my own baking. I absolutely appreciate the chemistry and science of baking, but I also feel like some of the art gets lost in the quest for ultra precision. I measure, but don’t weigh, everything that goes into a cake or a pastry, but you can’t calculate the grams of panache that I also throw in. (That may be the worst joke I’ve ever made.)

I knew we were short on flour, sugar, and butter, so I went to the store to buy the basics along with the chocolate and a few other small things I’d need for the pastry. I did this before I calculated how much 75g of flour or sugar is. Let’s just say, I didn’t need to buy the two extra bags of each.

Once I was home, though, I used a combination of random Googling, my calculator, and this amazing conversion table to go through the rest of the recipe and make the changes. For the record, 75g of flour is a mere 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons. (This got complicated.)

Since I already did the work, here are the conversions for the rest of the BBC recipe in case you want to play along at home. All of these are approximate (see the bit above about science versus art):

60g butter = 4 US tablespoons (to further complicate things, during my research I learned that apparently British tablespoons are different than American ones, but I’m not clear if (a) that’s true and (b) that’s only for butter).

75g flour = 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons

500mL of milk = 2 cups

75g of sugar = 1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons

20g of cornstarch = 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon

25g of flour = 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons

150ml of heavy cream = 2/3 cup

The eggs translate 1:1, British to American. (That was a joke. A pretty good one, actually.)

So here we are, almost 800 words in, and we haven’t even gotten to the baking yet.

The eclair pastry starts with a choux dough, which sounds super exotic, but was actually incredibly easy to make. All you do is put butter and water on the stove together until the butter melts, then stir in the flour super fast and cook and stir for about 5 minutes. I loved the way this dough looked, so springy and grabable:

I choux choux chooooose you!

I choux choux chooooose you!

After that, it’s just a matter of adding a few eggs and piping it into 2″ and 1″ circles to bake into nun bottoms and nun heads.

I drew misshapen circles and...

I drew misshapen circles and…

...filled them with misshapen dough

…filled them with misshapen dough

I have a serious piping bag problem at the moment, which is that I’ve lost all my tips except for the thin narrow one (this guy), and I’m out of piping bags, so I’ve been cramming my one, often inappropriate tip, into the corners of Ziploc bags. This is a situation that could be easily remedied by buying a new set, but I haven’t gotten around to it. Hence the un-round nature of my pastries.

But oh my goodness, they looked great when they came out:

I almost ate them all right then.

I almost ate them all right then.

The recipe instructed me to draw those pencil circles on the parchment paper. I was a little upset to see that the graphite circles transferred onto the pastries themselves. But I figured that a little graphite never hurt anyone (I did not look this fact up to confirm, so please don’t put any stock in it) and pushed forward anyway.

The crème pâtissière isn’t what I think of as a pastry cream, but was more like a vanilla custard. At any rate, it seemed to take forever to make, but turned out nice and thick and rich.

The real problem was filling the choux pastries. My lack of an appropriate pastry bag and tip was a problem. The recipe helpfully suggested using a “jam syringe” as an alternative, but alas I have never heard of or owned such an implement. I ended up using a combination of my one sad tip, a Ziplock bag, a skewer, and my fingers to shove the filling inside, then tested to see if I had enough filling by picking up the pastry to see if it felt heavy-ish. It was a highly precise process that ended with my hands covered in crème pâtissière.

The eclair et religieuse as a whole consists of a little eclair filled with crème pâtissière and covered halfway with ganache stacked on top of a big eclair filled with crème pâtissière, and covered halfway with chocolate ganache. Then whipped cream is piped along between the two eclairs to make a “collar” and on top to make a “habit.”

This is what my little nuns looked like when they were all assembled:

I said there was an art to baking pastry, not that my creations looked artistic when they were finished.

I said there was an art to baking pastry, not that my creations look artistic when they’re finished.

My husband’s commentary on my interpretation of eclair et religieuse: “After my first bite, a good deal of it stayed on my nose, but I left it there to enjoy later.”

Like this post? Check out A Night at the Opéra, the first in the series of apron cakes. Honestly, it’s probably funnier than this one, but I’ll let you be the final judge of that.

The story:

One day last summer, my father called me.

“I need to ask you something important about your birthday,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

“How do you feel about France?”

This sounded good. “I love France! Why?”

He cleared his throat. “Your mom and I found a great deal on a vacation to France and we were thinking–”

“Yes!” I said. “That would be amazing!” A free trip to France for my birthday? Why was this even a question?

Dad sounded a bit taken aback. “Oh! Okay. So it would be okay with you if your mom and I were out of the country on your birthday?”

Oh.

The gift:

All was not lost, though, as they brought me back an amazing birthday present. Behold, my French cat apron:

I can haz desserts?

I can haz French desserts?

I legitimately love this apron. Not only is it practical and something I needed, but this cat has everything right going on. The chef’s hat, the lick of the lips, and even the little bandana are all coming together. Notice the tiny paw prints on the napkins — does the double paw print mean the Créme caramel is his favorite?

Best of all, every single one of these desserts look amazing.

So I decided to make them all.

Up first: Opéra cake

Macaron not included

Macaron not included

Opéra cake can be thought of as the French version of tiramisu (although I’m sure that’s not how the French would describe it). It’s made up of three layers of a thin almond sponge cake (Joconde) soaked in cognac, stuffed full of espresso buttercream and topped with a bittersweet chocolate glaze. According to Wikipedia*, the cake was invented in 1955 by a chef working at a Paris pastry company. The idea was to show the layers of the cake and to be able to put all the cake’s flavors into a single bite.

According to this website, The Food Timeline (I have no idea if this is accurate), there are some Middle Eastern roots to every cake that layers pastry, sweetness, and liquor. The Romans spread the recipe to Europe, and it took on different forms in different countries (trifle, tiramisu, opéra, and so on). Furthermore (from the same link), “some pastry shops decorate the top with the word Opéra, written in panach [sic] with all the swirls that the French love so much…”

I used this recipe from Epicurious.** The sponge cake recipe was different than any I’d made before. It starts by combining eggs with almond flour and powdered sugar, plus a little bit of regular flour.

Then I beat the egg whites with cream of tartar, salt, and a little granulated sugar, and folded the egg whites into the original batter.

Then it got weird. The last step was to pour melted, cooled butter, with the foam “discarded” over the fluffy airy batter and fold that in. I wasn’t sure how to discard the foam, so I ended up pouring the butter into an espresso cup (sticking with the theme of the flavor profile) and scooping off the frothy parts with a spoon. This seemed to work alright, but I was nervous the butter would collapse the batter.

It turns out there was no reason to worry. It turned out like this:

Shockingly good looking! (Just like me)

Shockingly good looking! (Just like me)

It’s a quick bake — 10 minutes, tops. Here’s my interpretation of baking until “very pale golden.”

More very pale in some parts than others

More very pale in some parts than others

The buttercream was a recipe I had made before, where you cook sugar and water to softball state, and then drizzle that hot syrup into egg yolks. I get it right most of the time, but have had problems from time to time with cooking the sugar too hot, creating hard, tooth-crunching chunks into the buttercream. When that happens, I usually call it a toffee buttercream and hope no one gets hurt.

This time it worked out great, though. If you’re ever making a buttercream like this and you’re afraid it’s curdling, just keep the Kitchen Aid beating. It’ll come together eventually. It always does.

And this is what it looks like when it does

And this is what it looks like when it does

In contrast to the buttercream, I had some problems with the cognac syrup. I don’t think I boiled the sugar water at a high enough temperature, so the syrup was too liquidy. Not a huge problem, though. I still poured it over the cake layers and just transferred the cake to another plate once it had solidified in the fridge.

The bittersweet chocolate glaze was also quite easy to make – just butter and chocolate in a double boiler. Hard to go wrong there.

The recipe linked above leaves out instructions about how to cut the cake, saying just to “cut the cake into strips and squares.” Modern art? One reviewer included instructions, though, and really the only point is to make it into three even squares, which I did like this:

The first cut is the deepest -- and the middlest

The first cut is the deepest — and the middlest

The second cut is... the most horizonal?

The second cut is… the most horizonal?

To assemble the cake, I started with a square layer, covered by cognac “syrup,” and some buttercream. That’s topped with the two half squares, some more cognac “syrup,” and (because I read the recipe wrong in my excitement to put everything together) the rest of the buttercream. I topped it with the chocolate mixture, and popped it in the fridge to set.

It really should have gone like this:

cake with cognac

buttercream

cake with cognac

chocolate

cake with cognac

buttercream

chocolate

Either way, I got all the layers in there, and even wrote the word “Opéra” on the top with those swirls the French apparently love so much.

The swirls!

The swirls!

It tastes real good.

When asked to provide a quote about the flavor for this blog, my husband said, “It reminded me of a tres leches cake that I would actually want to keep eating.”

See, it would look a lot better with that dark chocolate in the middle.

See, it would look a lot better with that dark chocolate in the middle.

Spam comment of the week:

What a material of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable know-how regarding unexpected emotions.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

*Yes, all you former students, I would never let you cite Wikipedia, and I just did it here. Haha!

**By the way, when you google, “Opera cake recipe,” one of the suggested alternatives is “Oprah cake recipe.” Fun facts from me to you.

Postscript: This is one of the rare posts I get to categorize as both baking and pictures of cats.

My friends and I have a long-standing tradition of celebrating what we call “Giant’s Christmas.” It started with 13 Cornish game hens and a dream, and the most recent incarnation involves making tiny (“human-sized”) versions of  traditional, favorite, or random foods, and pretending we are giants at a holiday party while we eat the tiny treats. At the original Giant’s celebration, which was a Thanksgiving in May, I made miniature pumpkin pies. This Giant’s Christmas in early December, I pulled out my new mini-muffin tray and my relatively new blow torch and made my first attempt at miniature cupcakes.

I’m not sure how I got the idea to go for s’mores mini cupcakes, but I’ve learned a long time ago that when a dessert gets in my head as being “right” for a certain occasion, it’s never the wrong choice. The only time, really, that I get into trouble with pastry is when I’m trying to force a specific recipe into a time and place that it doesn’t belong. I’m a fairly practical person, but I’ve accepted that there’s an inexplicable feeling to baking and I need to accept that and not fight against it.

Originally, I spent a few hours finding competing recipes for graham cracker crust or graham cracker cake, fudgy chocolate cake, and homemade marshmallows, but (it’s always in the last place you look, even on the Internet) right before I went out to buy ingredients, I came across everything I needed in one recipe: S’mores Cupcakes, complete with a graham cracker crust, a chocolate cake, and a marshmallow on top. Who could ask for anything s’more? (I’m sorry, I had to. It’s in the Constitution.)

Ready to bake! But wait--

Ready to bake! But wait–

There was just one problem. This was a recipe for regular sized cupcakes, and I was interested in making the much smaller, human-sized cupcakes, so we giants could remember all that we are thankful for this Christmas season. Or something.

This website was really the only reference I consulted when trying to miniaturize the cupcake recipe. It’s titled “How to turn cupcakes into mini cupcakes,” and that’s basically what it offered tips on. Here are the ones that stuck with me.

  1. Mini cupcakes take about a third of the batter that regular cupcakes do.
  2. Mini cupcakes bake for about 9-11 minutes instead of the more typical 18-20 minutes.

Notice that’s a 1/3 to 1 ratio for the batter, but a 1/2 to 1 ratio for the cooking time. I find that interesting.

Number one immediately presented me with a problem. Annie’s recipe made 28 full-sized cupcakes. Did I really need (28 * 3 =) 84 human-sized cupcakes? I mean, yes, obviously, but also no. (But really yes, right?) But no. Whenever I am scaling down a recipe, I usually look first at the eggs. Although I have used my approximation of half an egg before, it’s not exact and it’s not all that easy. This recipe called for three eggs* so I decided to make two-thirds of the recipe, to use only two eggs. This involved some weird math and estimating with other ingredients, but in my opinion those are easier to fudge. Like fudge cupcakes! See how that works?

The cupcakes were a three-part process. Step one was baking the graham cracker crust for 5 minutes to set it. Step two was baking the chocolate cake on top of the graham cracker crust. And step three was piping the homemade marshmallow topping over everything. I didn’t feel it was worth the effort to use a piping bag for such a tiny and sticky finish, so I used a spoon and a swirl to top the cupcakes.

Step one: complete!

Step one: complete!

In the future, I would recommend NOT choosing a multi-layer cupcake like this (with a graham cracker crust plus a cake) for miniaturization, especially for the first time. It was painstaking to press the tiny crusts into the tiny openings in the tray. I also discovered when trying to remove the first batch of completed cupcakes that scaling down the baking time for the graham cracker crust from 5 minutes to 3 minutes was not a good idea. By the final tray (and remember, there were a lot (2/3 * 28 * 3 = 56 cupcakes) of trays, I had gotten the hang of it. Some tips:

  • I used a pestle (from our mortar and pestle) to press the graham cracker crust into the bottom of the tray more firmly and evenly than I could with my fingers alone.
  • Filling tiny openings 2/3 full with cake batter is difficult, especially when they already have some of the already small real estate taken up by graham cracker.
Step two: complete!

Step two: complete!

I finished the cupcakes at the Giant’s Christmas celebration by brûléeing them with my blow torch. They char and burn much more quickly than crème brûlée, my other main use of the torch, so watch out for that. It really only takes a moment (less than a second) on each marshmallow to get it golden brown. And I’m lucky that I still haven’t had to deal with a petroleum flavor from the blow torch. Either I have a really great blow torch or I have some sort of beginner’s luck technique that’s avoiding the problem.

My blue steel flame of flavor.

My blue steel flame of flavor.

I topped each cupcake with a small piece of graham cracker (achieved by cutting full-sized grahams with a very sharp knife) and a small piece of dark chocolate.

They were delicious.

Obviously.

Obviously.

*This has nothing to do with anything, but the Annie’s Eats blog (where the s’mores cupcakes recipe is from) taught me the importance of using room temperature (as opposed to cold) eggs in cakes. I think this has to do with easier whisking and helping the yolks and eggs combine more thoroughly. It makes a noticeable difference in the outcome of the cake, and I highly recommend it.

When Josh and I were driving from Georgia to Wisconsin, we made a strange caravan. I led in Josh’s old Toyota Echo, our chinchilla Jimmy Stewart in a cage on the passenger seat next to me. Josh followed behind in a 16-foot moving truck. I was responsible for navigation and ensuring that I didn’t drive too fast for the moving truck’s capacity, although when we were going through the mountains in Tennessee the truck was able to move much more quickly than the Echo. Throughout the two-day winter drive, in which we traveled identical but solo routes, we did share one thing: listening to non-stop NPR. This included (my mom will be happy to hear) two repeated hours of Garrison Keillor, the first when we were still in Eastern time, and the second identical hour once we had passed into Central time.

We also both listened to an interview with the authors of The Cultural Revolution Cookbook. Maybe it was the increasingly cold air swirling at our ankles or the bird-like hooting of the chinchilla, or the shaking of the moving truck in the winds of Southern Illinois, but we both latched onto the descriptions of slowly braised pork and simple recipes with basic ingredients made flavorful and wholesome. As we hunched over sandwiches at a Subway attached to a gas station, we sipped caffeinated beverages and said, “Yeah, that book sounds good,” and “Yeah, pork.”

We were tired. And the chinchilla was waiting.

The cookbook has yielded some delicious wok-based dinners that we’ve greatly enjoyed, but until tonight, we hadn’t attempted any desserts. I like the desserts I’ve had in Chinese restaurants (red bean paste, I’m looking at you) and I was intrigued by the recipe for Yellow Split Pea Cake at the back of the book. With only four ingredients (peas, sugar, water, and gelatin) it seemed easy enough to make.

Not how most of my cakes begin.

Not how most of my cakes begin.

First, I cooked the peas in sugared water, then dissolved the gelatin and mixed it in. Simple as that. A quick puree in the food processor, and the “cake” (really more of a gelatin or paste) was ready to firm up in the fridge. After a dinner of braised beef in soy sauce (from the same cookbook), the cake was ready to slice.

Just like a lemon meringue pie.

Just like a lemon meringue pie.

The cake was delicious. The texture is exactly like the filling of a red bean bun in a dim sum restaurant. The flavor is sweet, but not too sweet, and sumptuous with the peas adding a depth and a heartiness that usually I don’t associated with desserts. If you look closely at the picture above, you can see that there’s a layer of not very chopped up peas at the bottom of the cake. I should have processed the mixture in the food processor longer (or tried a blender, maybe, or some other way of puree-ing the whole deal until it was silky smooth). This is the only hiccup in the cake, as chewing through peas at the bottom of a cake is, shall we say, not so appetizing.

I would definitely make this again, though, and I’d recommend The Cultural Revolution Cookbook to anyone with a wok and some curiosity about traditional Chinese food.