Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Tale of the King Cake That Wasn't

Once upon a time I used to live in Louisiana. It wasn't for a terribly long time, just a few years. Until then, Mardi Gras was not a holiday I had ever celebrated or even knew much about, other than it looked like some wild party and involved wearing a lot of colorful beaded necklaces. I never got into the party aspect of Mardi Gras, but while I was there, I did learn to love the food. And of course for me, with my love of baking, my favorite part of Mardi Gras food has to be the King Cake, a tricolored sweet bread flavored with cinnamon sugar, often filled with sweetened cream cheese and sometimes fruit. Chunks of King Cake go great with a cup of morning coffee. Typically, a tiny plastic baby or a dried bean is inserted into the cake before baking, to bring good luck to the person who gets the slice and to determine whose job it is to bake the cake next year.

There is a neat little place in southwestern Louisiana called Vermilionville, which is one of those re-enactment type museum villages.. the sort of place where they restore or at least replicate buildings from some historical period reflecting the past of the region. Employees dressed in clothing of the time period, etc. I had been drawn to the kitchen area when I visited, where a lady was demonstrating a quick and easy version of King Cake. She gave me a little pamphlet with the recipe, but explained that the recipe wasn't really terribly accurate. I jotted down a few notes and enjoyed a sample of the cake. Unlike the usual yeasted versions, the Vermilionville recipe was based on a biscuit dough. It was good, a bit sweet, and definitely had a different taste, a bit more flaky.

Unfortunately for me, I did not try out the recipe while the employee's improved instructions were fresh in my mind. I instead tucked the recipe pamphlet into my jammed box of recipe clippings and forgot about it. After all, when I lived in Louisiana still there were plenty of bakeries selling gorgeous and delicious ready made King cakes. I meant to try the recipe out, but didn't get around to it until after I moved away from the area.

Since I was just testing out the recipe and the only person who would be sharing it with me is my daughter, I decided to leave out the plastic baby. It wasn't as if she'd be making the cake next year for me if she got the slice with the baby since she is, sadly, completely uninterested in learning how to bake. The dough seemed at first to come together nicely .. it was fast to make, there was no rising time since it was not yeast based, and it rolled out smoothly without being sticky. One of the things I had been warned about was to cut down the filling in half from what was printed on the pamphlet, which I did. However, even that amount was far, far too much. It oozed and cracked the surface of the dough, preventing the cake from ever fully cooking inside. My results were a gummy, gooey, inedible mess. I did try baking it longer, but that just seemed to make matters worse. Disgusted, I promptly tossed out my cake and picked up a version at the local grocery store.

This is what I get for leaving out the traditional bean/baby that gets inserted into the dough before baking!

What you see pictured above is my cake, which at least least looked pretty.. on one side only. I might try to work with the recipe again and see if I can get it right, maybe for next year. For now, the shop bought variety will have to do.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ah the Starbucks Bakery Counter... pleasure

I think it is high time I held another fun little poll. Now a word about these polls...last time it took me what felt like ages before I was able to present you with what I felt was an accurate enough recipe to represent the winning poll selection. If you have forgotten (and likely you may well have since it was back before Thanksgiving that I held my first and until now only poll... ), here is the link to the previous one, a selection of Cracker Barrel items, the winner being a moist and please-give-me-more-ish chocolate fudge cake.

Cinnamon Cake

I love, truly LOVE coffee. I am definitely one of those people who cannot begin a day without fueling on several cups of piping hot and most certainly caffeinated coffee. I drink it both for the pep and the flavor and quite honestly how can anyone ever not be awoken by the heavenly scent of freshly brewed coffee? I know I can't possibly resist. I am perfectly content to brew my own at home, with either my lovely french press when I am not feeling lazy or more typically with my not-quite-as-good-but-works-when-half-asleep automatic drip machine. If I am out and about and there is a Starbucks in the vicinity, I am certainly very often persuaded to plunk down my $3.75ish and order a drive-thru grande.

Mixed Berry Cake with Crumb Topping

Normally my trips to Starbucks have consisted of a long wait on line for a cup of coffee and by the time I have approached the finish, I tend to just get my coffee and be on my merry way. I have rarely even glanced at the bakery counter before. I am a bit of a baked goods snob actually, preferring my own home baked items to most served in cafes and bakeries, no matter how prettily they have decorated their muffins and cakes. I always tell myself ... I can make that at home, no need to buy it here.

This weekend, as I stood before a surprisingly line free Starbucks counter, I took a closer look at what they had to offer. Everything looked quite tempting really.. a selection of really nice plump slices of cakes, muffins, sparkling donuts, huge oatmeal cookies bejeweled with cranberries, sultanas, and raisins, vanilla bean flecked iced mini scones. I decided to buy a selection and take everything home to analyze (ok fine...sample) and no, I certainly didn't eat everything all in one sitting and yes I shared.

Banana Mini Chocolate Chip Cake

The cakes and the muffin I chose were all labeled as "reduced fat" versions and I have to say, they neither looked diet-y nor did they taste even remotely so. Considering how much fat and calories must be in a typical non-reduced muffin or cake slice, I suppose it is quite possible that "reduced fat" in this case is only a small reduction really. Still, if it tastes and looks good, I am all for saving a few calories. The cookie and the scones were fully-loaded versions.

Personally, I thought the cakes and muffin were perfect - not too sweet and very soft and rich tasting, with the right amount of soft, crumbly texture and moisture. The cookie was marvelous although far too massive and slightly too sweet after a few bites. I loved it, but would prefer to just have tiny cookies rather than one massive one, no matter how delightful it is to grasp a huge cookie in one's hand and begin to nibble. The scones are one of their most popular items, but for me were a bit stale and dry tasting. More cookie than scone. I liked them, but I wished mine were a bit more fresh.

Raspberry Sunshine Muffin

I would be very happy to try to recreate all of these treats, but I will try to focus on just one for now. This is where you lucky readers come in.... please make your selection in the poll in the sidebar and also optionally leave a comment telling me why you chose it (and mention anything else you love from the Starbucks bakery that I might have missed).

Oatmeal Cranberry Raisin Cookie

*NOTE: The mini vanilla bean scones were finicky and refused to come out nice and clear in my photos. They are the three small white almost egg-shaped items on the plate in the main picture.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Copycat Panera Broccoli Soup and a bowl of Homemade Caesar Salad with Croutons and Parmesan Crisps

How is that for a mouthful of a title, eh? Well it is only 7 AM-ish in the morning and I have only had one cup of coffee so far, so that is about the best my brain can come up with at this hour, forgive me.

Last night I tried out a recipe I found for Copycat Panera Bread Broccoli Soup. When I used to live in Connecticut, there was a little Panera Bread shop right next to the video game store. Since I am also an avid gamer, I spent a lot of time perusing the shelves, looking for great deals on used games and to see what new things had just been released. And of course while I was there I just had to stop in and see what Panera was serving as the soup of the day. How could I possibly resist when you could smell their bread baking all the way down the street?

I usually ordered a cup of soup when I stopped in and although I can't actually remember if I sampled their version of Broccoli soup or not (although it is very likely since I love broccoli soup), I do remember loving all of the soups I did try. Their soups were always hearty and rich and wipe-the-bowl-clean-with-your-hunk-of-bread good. So I was pretty excited to find a recipe that claimed to be a copycat of one of their soups.

The recipe was quite easy to follow really, just a simple matter of making a roux, adding in some half and half and chicken stock and letting it reduce a while, then steeping some broccoli, carrots, and sauteed onions until they soften and meld with the base of the soup, and finishing it off with a handful of grated Cheddar cheese and a dusting of nutmeg. Rich velvety comfort on a spoon. It was so hard to not go for another serving. My daughter was unfortunately less impressed, although she did eat every bit of hers as well.

To accompany the soup, or rather, to devour while hungrily waiting for the soup to cool, I made a Caesar Salad. I had been watching one of my favorite YouTube cooking channels, Betty's Kitchen, and she had been doing a three part demo series on Caesar Salad. This reminded me that I had not made my version of this classic salad in a really long time. You can find the recipe here. I did however, make Betty's Buttery Croutons, which were simply buttered stale bread (I used honey wheat) that get toasted in the oven and stirred occasionally until they are crisp and golden. I skimped a little too much on the butter, so mine turned out more like plain toast cubes than croutons, but they were still crunchy and tasted fine.

I also made Betty's Parmesan Cheese crisps, which are just grated Parmesan melted in the oven until they become thin little crispy wafers, to adorn the finished salad. I had seen this done on other cooking shows as well and just hadn't gotten around to trying it myself before. What an easy and tasty garnish - very elegant. I would certainly make these again.