Archive for the ‘Daring Bakers’ Category

It’s Daring Bakers time again!  And this month…I’m sitting the challenge out.  It was bound to happen some time, and turns out, November 2008 is the time.  I am planning on participating next month, but November was not to be…

Not wanting to disappoint, please check out these other amazing blogs for beautiful incarnations of the Caramel Cake with Caramelized Butter Frosting from Shuna Fish Lydon as published on Bay Area Bites.  And thanks to our ever-resourceful and brave-baking hosts Delores from Chronicles in Culinary Curiosity, Alex from Blondie and Brownie, Jenny of Foray into Food and the amazing Natalie of Gluten-a-Go-Go baking up all those alterna-darers for this challenge.  Right there you’ve got five amazing bloggers to check out, even without my list…what are you waiting for?  Go check them out!  I’ll wait.

Hey, you’re back!  So if that wasn’t enough caramely goodness for you, have a gander at these fine blogs, or head over to the (somewhat daunting) Daring Bakers Blogroll and shoot the entire day checking out however many of the 1000+ spectacular bakers you can (if you decide to join us, you should be able to get in for January).

So without further blathering on, here are a handful of caramel cakes for you to peruse at your leisure.

Use Real Butter
Half Baked
Strawberries in Paris
Confessions of a City Eater
Dolce Cakes

And these fine ladies hadn’t posted as of my writing this, but check them out anyway!

A Hot Dish
Chasing Some Blue Sky

Thanks to everyone who participated and shared their experience (I especially love the tips on spun sugar, which I will be attempting myself, stat) – keeping baking into the daring future!



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The Daring Bakers, that illustrious and intrepid group of folks world-’round that takes on a monthly challenge de four and posts the results together on the same day is two years old this month.  In honor of this great group (which happens to be the reason I started blogging), I spent part of this afternoon making the very first challenge, homemade pretzels.  Ah, who am I kidding?  The husband wanted them.  But happily his craving for East Coast street food coincides with the anniversary of that great day that Ivonne and Lis started baking together in public…

Without further ado, my sincere and humble nod to the first Daring Bakers


Seriously, Santa, please bring me a decent camera!

But you get the idea.  We chowed down on these with some fine organic yellow mustard from Trader Joe’s and I have to say, they were pretty yummy.  Far better than those things you get at the movies.  Probably no match for the authentic NYC sidewalk stand, but hey, I’ll take “almost as good as sidewalk bought.”  Plus they were fun.  And I’ve never made them before.  And there was beer.

This is a very easy recipe.  Because I’m not going step by step through the recipe like I normally do, I’m going to make my comments up front here.

1. My pretzels were mostly too fat (pictured specimen excepted).  They don’t need to go on a diet, but they do need to rolled thinner.  Also, it took me so long to roll all eight of them, the first four had re-risen by the time the last four were ready for the oven.  My suggestion – either haul ass and roll a lot faster than I do, or bake them in batches.

2. As directed in the recipe, we ate one warm, right out of the oven.  It was very bready, kind of fluffy, definitely not pretzely and rather disappointing.  Thinking I (or possibly my weirdo oven) had flubbed it, we abandoned the pretzels and figured we’d just go for a walk and pick up some beer and nacho cheese to drown our sorrowful pretzels.  They didn’t have any fakin queso at the local liquor store, so we settled for the beer and figured we’d just use extra mustard.  Turns out, the waiting is the hardest part, but it’s also the most helpful part.  Waiting about an hour made the pretzels…more like pretzels.  I don’t know how exactly to explain it, but letting them sit around definitely improved the little guys.  And that’s not just the beer talkin.

3. Last but certainly not least, thank you to Lis and Ivonne for starting this fantastic group.  You ladies are wonderful and have done all of us crazy folks who think spun sugar, kitchen scales and pizza stones are more fun than a trip to Disneyland a huge service by making a place to do our thing together, no matter how far apart.  Happy birthday to you and thanks for letting me play.


Hot Buttered Pretzels

Adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion.

For the dough:

  • 2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 package (2-1/4 tsp.) instant yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (you may need a little more)

For the pretzel topping:

  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • kosher salt
  • 3 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  1. Combine all the dough ingredients in a large bowl with your hands. Work the ingredients together until you can form a ball. If the dough is very dry, add a bit more warm water until it comes together. The dough will look messy, but don’t worry about it.
  2. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and begin kneading by pushing the dough away with the heel of your hand, and then folding it back in onto itself. Push the dough away again and then fold back in. Continue this motion, working the dough until it’s smooth. This should take anywhere from 8 to 10 minutes. (Alternatively, you can knead the dough in a mixer with your dough hook for 5 to 6 minutes).
  3. Once the dough is done, sprinkle some flour on the dough and put it in a large, oiled bowl. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 30 minutes to an hour. It will rise considerably.
  4. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  5. Dissolve the sugar in the warm water and set aside.
  6. Divide your dough into 8 equal pieces. Roll each piece out into a long rope that’s roughly 24 inches in length. (Don’t make it too long or your pretzels will be too thin.)
  7. Taking hold of the ends of the rope, cross the rope over itself to form a circle with about 4 to 5 inches on each end that are sticking out. Twist the ends over themselves and secure each end on either side of the pretzel.
  8. Carefully dip the pretzel in the water and then place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the other pieces of dough.
  9. Sprinkle the pretzels with the kosher salt and let them rest for about 15 minutes.
  10. Put the pretzels in the oven for 6 minutes, then rotate the trays and bake for an additional 6 minutes. Keep an eye on the pretzels so that they don’t burn.
  11. Remove the pretzels from the oven and immediately brush them with the butter. Keep brushing them with butter until you’ve used it all.
  12. Serve the pretzels warm with plenty of mustard or another condiment of your choice.

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Did someone say “pizza”…again?

I love pizza.  Who doesn’t?  Weird kids maybe.  Anyway, I love it because it’s really tasty and easy to make and cheap.  In fact, I love it so much that I already posted about it and not too long ago.  Which might make you think “well, I can skip this post” but you’d miss out because our illustrious host Rosa from Rosa’s Yummy Yums* gave us a dough recipe far superior to the one I posted previously.  And as we were required to make two pizzas for this challenge, the creativity of limitation pressed me to find possibly the cheapest ingredient ever to top a pizza.  Curious?  Read on…

The recipe for this pizza dough comes from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart and is a bit more fussy than what I’d normally do – here at BLAN (wow, not the best acronym – should have been more thoughtful about the blog name) we’re all about simplicity, but will bend to fussiness when it serves the outcome.  This pizza is most definitely worth the extra bit of work that it requires.

Enough!  Let’s get to it.

I used plain old unbleached flour (I’ve never used high-gluten flour – I can’t even find it at our over-priced fancy-pants grocery Gelson’s) and it worked quite fantastically.  I also used dry-active yeast instead of instant (which I’ve also never used) and increased the amount by 25% (which seems to work every time).

Everyone into the pool!

Almost the ingredients went into a mixing bowl and got the paddle treatment.  You could also use an electric stand mixer for this – which would in some ways be easier (“easier = better,” one of the core BLAN mottoes).  But our apartment is small, and so am I; the stand mixer sits on top of the fridge and weighs at least five hundred pounds – without the husband here to take it down, it’s not likely to get used.

Since I was a lazy-ass and didn’t get the stand mixer down, I was also obliged to knead the dough for five hundred years (5-7 minutes).

Maybe the kneading will make me strong enough to handle the mixer.  At any rate, once that was done, jelly pans were lined with parchment paper, dough dividing happened, rolling piece into balls ensued and the end result

little balls of future pizza!  Gorgeous.

The balls were floured and misted with oil and wrapped in a ridiculous plastic wrap cocoon (note to self – don’t ever think it’s a good idea to buy the cheap plastic wrap).  The tray was then put into the fridge overnight.

Okay – a couple of things here.

1. Normally I would have a lot more pictures – almost too many.  But I got this idea in my head that this challenge would be a great opportunity for me to add some video to the blog (part of the challenge was to have a video or picture of yourself throwing the pizza, so it made sense, right?).  Oh how I underestimate the effort of things.  I am still planning on adding video to the blog, but when that does happen, it will be for a much less ambitious project and will be of something that I already forking know how to do!  Sometimes I just have no sense.  Anyway, the video took up so much time that I didn’t get very many photos.

2. As I just mentioned, there should be a video or photo of me tossing my pizzas.  And I tried.  I really did.  The pizzas turned out great but both of them immediately thinned out so much in the middle that tossing them was out of the question.  It was a miracle that they could be arranged on the peel at all and hold sauce.  But oh what a miracle they were…

The dough had a sleep overnight in the fridge.  It was removed two hours before baking and I set to work on the toppings.  For pizza one, red sauce, artichoke hearts and sun dried tomatoes with Parmesan cheese.

This one is a bit of a cheat, since we’ve done it before and knew it would be delicious.  But with the untested dough, I wanted to be sure we could rely on at least one of the pizzas to be edible (a girl does have to eat).

For pizza two…well, I was at a bit of a loss.  We’re pretty cheap around here and I’m a bit lazy, so I didn’t want to go to the store again and spend more money.  Besides, we had a half bag of potatoes threatening to go off so…

Heck yeah I did!  I made potato pizza – and it was amazing.  I mean really amazing.  The potatoes need to be sliced super duper thin (I used a mandoline and you could see through the slices).  The upside is that the whole pizza only required one small potato (although I have no idea what I’m going to do with the rest of them) and a small amount of salt, chopped rosemary and a bit of olive oil.  That’s cheap!

This challenge was so much fun.  This dough recipe will be our new staple for pizza – the crust was so thin it was unbelievable, and that’s how we like it.  I’ll be playing with it in the coming weeks (we eat pizza at least every other week) and doing what damage I can by adding wild yeast.  Heck, I might even go out and get some high gluten flour…if I ever run out of potatoes.

For more info on The Daring Bakers, visit www.thedaringbakers.com.

Basic Pizza Dough

Original recipe taken from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart.

Makes 6 pizza crust (about 9-12 inches/23-30 cm in diameter)

4 1/2 Cups (20 1/4 ounces/607.5 g) Unbleached high-gluten (14%) bread flour or all purpose flour, chilled
1 3/4 Tsp Salt
1 Tsp Instant Yeast
1/4 Cup (2 ounces/420g or 420 ml) Olive oil or Vegetable Oil (optional but better with!)
1 3/4 Cups (14ounces/420 g or 420 ml) Water, ice cold (40F/4.5C)
1 Tb sugar
Semolina/durum flour or cornmeal for dusting


1. Mix together the flour, salt and instant yeast in a big bowl (or in the bowl of your stand mixer).

2. Add the oil, sugar and cold water and mix well (with the help of a large wooden spoon or with the paddle attachment on low speed) in order to form a sticky ball of dough.  On a clean surface, knead for about 5-7 minutes, until the dough is smooth and the ingredients are homogeneously distributed.  If it is too wet, add a little flour (not too much!) and if it is too dry, add 1 or 2 teaspoons extra water.  NOTE: If you are using an electric mixer, switch to the dough hook and mix on medium speed for the same amount of time.The dough should clear the sides of the bowl but stick to the bottom of the bowl. If the dough is too wet, sprinkle in a little more flour, so that it clears the sides. If, on the contrary, it clears the bottom of the bowl, dribble in a teaspoon or two of cold water. The finished dough should be springy, elastic, and sticky, not just tacky, and register 50-55F/10-13C.

3. Flour a work surface or counter.  Line a jelly pan with baking/parchment paper.  Lightly oil the paper.

4. With the help of a metal or plastic dough scraper, cut the dough into 6 equal pieces (or larger if you want to make larger pizzas).

5. Sprinkle some flour over the dough.  Make sure your hands are dry and then flour them.  Gently round each piece into a ball.  NOTE: If the dough sticks to your hands, then dip your hands into the flour again.

6. Transfer the dough balls to the lined jelly pan and mist them generously with spray oil.  Slip the pan into plastic bag or enclose in plastic food wrap.

7. Put the pan into the refrigerator and let the dough rest overnight or for up to three days.  NOTE: You can store the dough balls in a zippered freezer bag if you want to save some of the dough for future baking.  In that case, pour some oil (a few tablespoons only) in a medium bowl and dip each dough ball into the oil, so that it is completly covered in oil.  Then put each ball into a separate bag.  Store the bags in the freezer for no longer than 3 months.  The day before you plan to make pizza, remember to transfer the dough balls from the freezer to the refrigerator.

8. On the day you plan to eat the pizza, exactly 2 hours before you make it, remove the desired number of dough balls from the refrigerator.  Dust the counter with flour and spray lightly with oil.  Place the dough balls on floured surface and sprinkle them with flour.  Dust your hands with flour and delicately press the dough into disks about 1/2 inch/1.3 cm thick and 5 inches/12.7 cm in diameter.  Sprinkle with flour and mist with oil.  Loosely cover the dough rounds with plastic wrap and then allow to rest fr 2 hours.

9. At least 45 minutes before making the pizza, place a baking stone on the lower third of the oven.  Preheat the oven as hot as possible (500F/260C).  NOTE: If you do not have a baking stone, use the back of a jelly pan.  Do not preheat the pan.

10. Generously sprinkle the back of a jelly pan (or your pizza peel) with semolina/durum flour or cornmeal.  Flour your hands (palms, backs and knuckles).  Take one piece of dough by lifting it with a pastry scraper.  Lay the dough across your fists in a very delicate way and carefully stretch it by bouncing it in a circular motion on your hands and by giving it a little stretch with each bounce.  Once the dough has expanded outward, move to a full toss.  NOTE: Make only one pizza at a time.  During the tossing process, if the dough tends to stick to your hands, lay it down on the floured counter and reflour your hands, then continue tossing and shaping.  If tossing is impossible, you can let it relax for 5-20 minutes.  You can also use a rolling pin but it is not as effective (or as fun!) as tossing.

11. When the dough has the shape you want (about 9-12 inches/23-30 in diameter for a 6 ounce/180 g piece of dough) place it on the back of the jelly pan (or peel), making sure there is enough semolina/durum flour or cornmeal to allow it to slide and not stick to the pan.

12. Lightly top it with the sweet or savory toppings of your choice.  NOTE: Remember that the best pizzas are topped not too generously.  No more than 3 or 4 toppings (including sauce and cheese) are sufficient.

13. Slide the topped pizza onto the stone in the oven or bake directly on the jelly pan.  Close the door and bake for about 5-8 minutes.  NOTE: After 2 minutes baking, take a peek.  For even baking, rotate 180 degrees.  If the top gets done before the bottom, you will need to move the stone or jelly pan to a lower shelf before the next round.  If the bottom crisps before the cheese caramelizes you will need to raise the stone or jelly.

14. Take the pizza out of the oven and transfer it to a cutting board or your plate.  In order to allow the cheese to set a little, wait 3-5 minutes before slicing or serving.

NOTE ON SAUCE: Your sauce should not be too thick as it will thicken in the hot oven.  Less is more but make the less truly more by using quality ingredients.


*Rosa’s co-hosts for this challenge were to have been Sherry Cermak from What Did You Eat? and Glenna Muse at A Fridge Full Of Food.  Sadly, Sher (as she was fondly known) passed away suddenly a few of months ago.  I never knew her but have been fortunate enough to visit her blog and she was clearly loved and clearly is missed.  Rosa’s other partner in hosting, Glenna, has decided to bow out of DB for now.  I wanted to mention that Rosa did an amazing job of hosting unexpectedly by herself and love the fact that she decided to honor Sher by keeping the original challenge they had discussed.  Many thanks Rosa – well done!

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I’ve gone crackerdogs for vegan lavash!

First off let me say that I’m a die-hard omnivore who really doesn’t understand leaving meat, dairy and eggs out of her diet.  I’m always a little surprised when I find out that I’m eating something “vegan,” void of any yummy animal products, and loving it.  Turns out that lavash, a wonderful Armenian crackerbread, is one of those happy baked goods that is both delicious and vegan and also happens to be this month’s Daring Bakers Challenge, hosted by the intrepid Natalie from Gluten A Go Go, and co-host Shel, of Musings From the Fishbowl.  Lavash Crackers from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice were so easy to make and so wonderfully tasty, I’m afraid there’s not much drama for a good story…but here goes!

Almost all the ingredients go together in a bowl

and get mixed into a rough ball.

One modification I did make – the recipe calls for instant yeast, which I don’t keep in the house, so I substituted dry-active yeast, which worked just fine.  I read somewhere that you just use an additional 25% dry-active, although that formula does tend to create amounts like “1/3 teaspoon,” which isn’t easy to measure.  I always just guesstimate and it always works out.

This recipe calls for ten minutes of kneading and then the “window pane” test, which I had heard of, but never done.  I am happy to report that my first attempt failed! (We have to have some drama here)

A few more minutes of kneading (another five, I think) and a successful window pane.

The very uniform dough was then oiled, put in a bowl, covered with plastic and set to rise for 90 minutes.

It doubled in volume right on schedule. I turned it out onto an oiled surface, then…I…started rolling…and..it was great…and…zzzzzzzzzzzz…oh, sorry.  It’s just not as interesting when everything goes right!  Once the dough had risen, it was turned out onto a cutting board (the recipe calls for it to be turned out onto the counter, but ours is tile and not flat) that’s sprayed with oil, which I thought was a little odd since the dough was already oiled.  You can see from the photo how slick it all is.

A couple of points here.  The recipe calls for the dough to be rolled out to fit on a cookie sheet.  Mine rolled out so thin it made two baking sheet’s worth of crackers.  I’m not sure if the dough was supposed to roll out that thin, but the crackers were wonderful, so I’m suggesting separating the dough in half and rolling it out thin enough to make two standard sized baking sheet’s worth of lavash.  The dough went out very thin, very easily.  I didn’t need to let it relax and there was no way I could pick it up and wave it about like the recipe suggests.

It was also not a uniform rectangular shape, which necessitated some trimming.

I took the trimmed scraps and rolled out a third batch of lavash.  That one did not roll out nearly as thin, but still produced some nice crackers, although they were definitely more like pita bread than the super-thin crisps from the first two batches.

Since we were going vegan with the topping as well, I wussed a bit and decided to make the Cook’s Illustrated Restaurant-style Hummus for a dip, because it’s easy and I knew it would be delicious.  For cracker toppings, I opted for cumin seeds and salt as flavoring, to compliment the hummus.

I had a little difficulty getting the crackers to brown evenly and had to turn them a couple of times.  Our oven is very small and for some reason, is much hotter in the front than the back.

I did two batches as a sheet like this one and one batch pre-cut.  The perfectionist in me like the pre-cut idea, but the shards were definitely prettier.

The squares just aren’t as sexy as the random pieces, which go with the exotic nature of the lavash.  The other thing that goes with this lavash?  The hummus.  I might have wimped out by falling back on an old standby, but it was delicious.

Both of these recipes are fantastic, straightforward and easy to make.  They can be made in advance and travel easily to a party or picnic.  They will be devoured in no time…just don’t tell any thick-headed omnivores like me that they’re vegan!

Lavash Crackers from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice

The key to a crisp lavash is to roll out the dough paper-thin.  The sheet can be cut into crackers in advance or snapped into shards after baking.  The shards make a nice presentation when arranged in baskets.

Makes 1 sheet pan of crackers

* 1 1/2 cups (6.75 oz) unbleached bread flour (I used unbleached regular flour)
* 1/2 tsp (.13 oz) salt
* 1/2 tsp (.055 oz) instant yeast (I used dry-active yeast – use 2/3 of a teaspoon if you use dry active)
* 1 Tb (.75 oz) sugar
* 1 Tb (.5 oz) vegetable oil
* 1/3 to 1/2 cup + 2 Tb (3 to 4 oz) water, at room temperature
* Poppy seeds, sesame seeds, paprika, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, or kosher salt for toppings

1.  In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, salt yeast, sugar, oil, and just enough water to bring everything together into a ball.  You may not need the full 1/2 cup + 2 Tb of water, but be prepared to use it all if needed.

2. Sprinkle some flour on the counter and transfer the dough to the counter.  Knead for about 10 minutes, or until the ingredients are evenly distributed.  The dough should pass the windowpane test (see http://tinyurl.com/4kox7z for a description of this) and register 77 degrees to 81 degrees Fahrenheit. The dough should be firmer than French bread dough, but not quite as firm as bagel dough (what I call medium-firm dough), satiny to the touch, not tacky, and supple enough to stretch when pulled.  Lightly oil a bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

3. Rise at room temperature for 90 minutes, or until the dough doubles in size. (You can also retard the dough overnight in the refrigerator immediately after kneading or mixing).

4. Mist the counter lightly with spray oil and transfer the dough to the counter.  Press the dough into a square with your hand and dust the top of the dough lightly with flour.  Roll it out with a rolling pin into a paper thin sheet about 15 inches by 12 inches.  You may have to stop from time to time so that the gluten can relax.  At these times, lift the dough from the counter and wave it a little, and then lay it back down.  Cover it with a towel or plastic wrap while it relaxes.  When it is the desired thinness, let the dough relax for 5 minutes.  Line a sheet pan with baking parchment.  Carefully lift the sheet of dough and lay it on the parchment.  If it overlaps the edge of the pan, snip off the excess with scissors.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit with the oven rack on the middle shelf.  Mist the top of the dough with water and sprinkle a covering of seeds or spices on the dough (such as alternating rows of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, paprika, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, kosher or pretzel salt, etc.)  Be careful with spices and salt – a little goes a long way. If you want to precut the cracker, use a pizza cutter (rolling blade) and cut diamonds or rectangles in the dough.  You do not need to separate the pieces, as they will snap apart after baking.  If you want to make shards, bake the sheet of dough without cutting it first.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the crackers begin to brown evenly across the top (the time will depend on how thinly and evenly you rolled the dough).

6. When the crackers are baked, remove the pan from the oven and let them cool in the pan for about 10 minutes.  You can then snap them apart or snap off shards and serve.

Restaurant-style hummus (worth the fussiness – do all the steps!)

3 tablespoons juice from 1 to 2 lemons
1/4 cup water
6 tablespoons tahini , stirred well (see note)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 (14-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (see note)
1 small garlic clove, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1/2 teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch cayenne
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro or parsley leaves

1. Combine lemon juice and water in small bowl or measuring cup. Whisk together tahini and 2 tablespoons oil in second small bowl or measuring cup. Set aside 2 tablespoons chickpeas for garnish.
2. Process remaining chickpeas, garlic, salt, cumin, and cayenne in food processor until almost fully ground, about 15 seconds. Scrape down bowl with rubber spatula. With machine running, add lemon juice-water mixture in steady stream through feed tube. Scrape down bowl and continue to process for 1 minute. With machine running, add oil-tahini mixture in steady stream through feed tube; continue to process until hummus is smooth and creamy, about 15 seconds, scraping down bowl as needed.
3. Transfer hummus to serving bowl, sprinkle reserved chickpeas and cilantro over surface, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand until flavors meld, at least 30 minutes. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.

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Ok – éclairs – go!

This month’s challenge was Chocolate Éclairs by Pierre Hermé, a challenge posed to Los Bakers de la daring by Tony Tahhan and MeetaK.

No problem I thought. Piece of cake. Or piece of puff. I thought…

One of my favorite things in life (always in retrospect because when it’s happening, it usually sucks at least a little bitty bit) is when I think something is one thing, and I’m proven wrong. W-R-O-N-G. Keeps me humble, which is not something the women in my family are known for. So it’s always good, and in the end, always funny…

So éclairs. Well, look. I’ve made really glorious cream puffs before without breaking a sweat. Chocolate sauce? If anyone was born to make chocolate sauce, t’was I. So how hard could these things be? Start with the requisite obscene amount of butter.

Melt it down with some goodies in a medium sauce pan.

Add some flour then stir like superman (faster than you can see – wooden spoon a blur)…

then add you some eggs. One at a time. And stir. Keep stirring. Stir until your arm falls off.

And you end up with something beautiful, that looks like this

Get your ghetto-fabulous make-shift pastry sleeve (aka a ziplock baggie with a corner cut off)

And pipe these bad boys

Put them in the oven at the proper temperature with extreme confidence that you are going to have the most beautiful little éclairs in the world. Your husband will fall all over you. You will be hailed at work on Monday as a pastry queen. Because, after all, you’ve done this before…so what could go wrong?

This photo comes nowhere near showing what a disappointment these shells were. That’s my husband’s fault – he’s a really good photographer. The one you can see here is actually fairly nice looking…in all, there were four (out of at least two dozen) that wound up being worth using. What happened? I’m not quite sure – underbaking most likely. The puffs were flat and full of wet gunk that had to be picked out. Also, Julia Child’s recipe, which is what I’ve used in the past, calls for slashing the puffs open when they are taken out of the oven, to let the steam escape. Whatever the case, most of the puffs were unusable, which makes me quite sad as I am a tightwad and hate to throw out food.

On to the chocolate sauce(s) – and as a side note, what’s up with these recipes that have us making a chocolate sauce to make a chocolate sauce?

Anyway…started out with some pretty egg yolks and corn starch

scalded some milk

and made a lovely pastry cream.

Oh dear…here’s where it gets a bit fuzzy…I really need to write this stuff down as I go along…

I made some chocolate thing – I think it was the FIRST chocolate sauce – I didn’t have anything to make a proper water bath, so into the sink it goes.

Oh wait! Now I remember. This is the pastry cream..and it turned out beautifully

So NOW I made chocolate sauce…I think

At some point I added cream and made a glaze. I really have to take notes while I do this. There’s just so much stirring, it’s hard to write anything down as I go along.

The four surviving shells were split and picked for filling

and four baby éclairs were glazed and filled.

Assembly complete.

And because we’re all secret aspiring food photographers here’s the glamor shot

If last month’s lesson was never overestimate a recipe, this month’s was definitely never underestimate a recipe. It was fun – super fun – no doubt about it. And the four éclairs were great. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I think the double chocolate was too much. One of the ways I know I’m 100% girl (despite occasional evidence to the contrary) is that I will eat chocolate any time of the day or night. Full? When presented with a piece of chocolate I will forget the meaning of the word ‘full.’ But this was a lot of chocolate and sometimes, a little less of the thing you love makes you love it a little more.

Next time I make these (the husband is a big fan of éclairs and I am bound and determined to make them better than the cafe down the street), I will try a vanilla or a cream filling and see what happens. In fact, I may need to go right now and get one for, uh, strategic research purposes….

Next time I will also bake the puffs until I know they’re done. Can I please just learn to trust my instincts every once in a while?

This was a great challenge – I learn something every time I bake – I can’t wait for September…

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I joined a nice group of folks called The Daring Bakers. They choose one thing a month as their “challenge,” bake it, and then post the results later in the month, all on the same day. This is my first challenge, a Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream from Great Cakes by Carol Walter.

I read the recipe, and…it’s really hard. No, I’m serious about this. This cake is hard. I’ve never made a cake like this before. I’m freaking out.

After I hyperventilate into a small paper bag, I look at the recipe again. This cake presents a number of challenges, but mostly, it just looks hard. I decide to break it down into steps, which turns out to take all three days of the 4th of July weekend, causing the cake to be renamed “all effing weekend” cake.

Putting into practice the theory that anything is possible if broken down into small enough steps, I start with the easiest thing; the simple syrup.

So far so good. Aside from my family thinking that it will become yet another thing that I abandon in the fridge (which is admittedly filled with things like small containers of egg whites waiting to be made into meringues), it is my first (very small) success and I am so happy with the result, I decide to push on and roast the hazelnuts. Unfortunately, the heady victory of the simple syrup made me a little too relaxed and I over-roast the nuts. That’s ok! I decide that this will give a deeper flavor to cake when done.

The husband and I celebrate the 4th and my cake triumphs by eating a very fine potato salad and brats in beer.

On to day two and the more daunting task of praline and buttercream. Fortunately I’ve made brittle before (why I have no idea) so the praline doesn’t scare me

and comes out looking very well.

Unfortunately, again filled with hubris from minor success (or maybe it’s the G&T I’ve been drinking), I am not paying exact attention with the final stages of heating the praline and smoke comes off the pan. I don’t have any more hazelnuts (and at $6 a bag, I’m not about to go out for more) so away we go, making the paste.

It does have a distinctly roasted smell and is not overly sweet, but doesn’t taste burnt, so all seems to be okay.

The buttercream is tackled next (tasks getting progressively more complicated) – I’ve made a fair number of icings, but not one using this exact method. The husband is enlisted in helping add the sugar and ta-da –

a very nice looking meringue is born. Adding it back into the butter and adding the hazelnut paste is easy, if gadget and bowl consuming. I think I washed every bowl in the kitchen that night.

Day three and the task I dread – the cake. I have never made this style of cake successfully, and have no reason to think that today, with a less than adequate oven and pans, will be any different. The one good thing about never having made anything but a decent chocolate cake is that I don’t expect it to be good and if it is anything but a sponge-shaped rock, I will be pleasantly surprised. Either way, by the end of the day, there should be a lovely to look at cake, which is half the fun of baking.

So I melt the butter and sift some flour and…okay, truth be told, I’m not entirely sure what I did, because I stopped writing as I was going along. The cake made the ribbon did what it was supposed to do

a bunch of stuff got folded in

and got poured into floured pans.

It was baked. And baked. And baked a little more and was finally done, but not without the oven demanding her ritual sacrifice. At one point during baking, I managed to grab the oven rack without a mitt and very successfully burned my finger.

I didn’t have cooling racks, so the cakes were left on their own on a board to cool, making them a little mushy on the tops. Since I didn’t have the right pan, I actually had four layers to play with, cutting off the mush and when one layer fell apart completely, it was no problem. The cake was assembled, glazed and ready for icing.

Ganache? No problem. Could make it in my sleep…or maybe not. The chocolate and cream mix that had always been so easy to pour and make into a mirror smooth finish…it just wasn’t setting up. I cooled it, I stirred it – no, not happening, not today. So I poured it anyway. Sunday night radio was starting and we needed to get dinner on. I did the best I could, but the glaze, while sort of holding after a while, was not mirror-smooth. The perfectionist in me really wanted to quit. The cake was going to be ugly. It wasn’t round, it wasn’t level, and now, the one thing I thought would cover everything and at least make it into a nice photo that would fool everyone into thinking that I was a halfway decent baker, was refusing to come together.

One great thing about this challenge is that it’s so expensive. It’s not really all that great when I’m actually in the store buying everything, but when it gets down to a time like this, when the cake has had a series of setbacks and now it’s looking like the thing is going to be ugly…well, there’s no turning back. I’m not going to make a new cake. I’ve promised to make this cake this month. This is it. This is my cake. It’s the one I’ve made.

After a few “it is what it is” and “it’s all good” moments, I convince myself to just let the cake be. It’s going to be fine. And then I take out the buttercream for pipinig.

In my own defense, I’ve never made this kind of buttercream before, so when it came out of the fridge and was hard as a rock, I think it was perfectly natural to assume that I should go ahead and put it in the mixer for a bit to soften it up. WRONG.

Now I had a lumpy cake with icing that looked like something my old sick cat would leave on the carpet. Oh please can I quit now? I know I promised these nice ladies that I’d make this cake, told them I loved to bake, told them this would be so much fun, but really, this is too much.

After making a pouty face for about 15 minutes, the husband gives me a look like “really?” and I suck it up. It’s a CAKE for crissake!! Having gotten rid of all my decorating supplies when we moved here, I make a pastry sleeve out of a ziplock bag (the husband loves this – he digs it when I get a bit of can-do pioneering spirit in me) and pipe the damn thing.

And in the end, my cake looks like this!

The piping ‘weeps’ down the lumpy sides, but the cake actually tastes remarkably good (much better than we thought it would). Everyone at work raves about the cake and is amazed that I made it (I’m not sure whether or not that is a compliment). The neighbor guys both get a piece and thank us for it profusely later when they return the plates.

Ok…maybe I’m not such a bad baker after all. And maybe that’s not the point. In spite of myself, I had a blast making this cake. It reminded me why I bake – because it’s one of the few times I lose myself completely in a task and nothing else matters. That and I really like to eat sugar.

Bake on daring ones, bake on!

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