Monday, April 25, 2011

Bake It Forward: A Few of My Favorite Things

Last fall, Lucy Mercer initiated a project to bring Open Salon food writers – and the products of our kitchens – together in meatspace. As part of Imperial Sugar Company’s Bake It Forward program, we’d each have a turn to receive a box of home-baked treats from the kitchen of another Open Salon writer, who would then blog about the goodies she made. (“She” is the right pronoun here; unfortunately, no boys have chosen to play with us yet.) Next it would be the recipient’s turn to fill the box, send it to another writer, and blog about it. Would I be interested in joining in? Lucy asked.

At the time, Thanksgiving and Christmas were looming and I was overwhelmed with work-related matters, so I declined. Then the first few Bake It Forward posts appeared and I felt like a shmuck. (Linda’s cookies look amazing! And I could be eating them right now, if I weren’t such a lazy-ass slacker!)

But a few months later, I had my shot at redemption. Gabby Abby sent me an e-mail: would I be interested in taking her sour-cream pound cake and stewardship of that box? This time, I couldn’t say no.

Inside that box was not only some extraordinary pound cake, but a delightfully unexpected treat: a packet with about six envelopes inside, each containing a handwritten card from one of the bakers to the recipient of her treats. I was the last link in the chain:

I could never relate to people who consider online communities their lifelines and fellow bloggers or forum members their only friends. Don’t they realize most online personas are the same dude posting under multiple pseudonyms and most online groups, even the most potentially useful, are peopled with spammers and frauds? But opening and reading all these cards made me realize that there are real, warm, and decent people behind those avatars – people I’d love to meet in person, should the occasion arise.

If they are all the same dude posting under multiple pseudonyms, he makes a mean pound cake. And has a real talent for feminine penmanship.

Scarfing down Abby’s pound cake was easy. Now I had two things to figure out: who should get the box next and what to put in it.

The first question had an easy answer: the box would go to Christine Geery, who blogs prolifically about food and everything else and would no doubt enjoy thinking of a fun way to refill that box. But first, I had to think of something to send Christine.

I have no shortage of recipes for baked treats. But I’m always a bit self-conscious about cooking for people I don’t know well. I’m aware that I cook with roughly three times as many chiles and twice as much garlic as most normal people—when I give out recipes, I always dial down the quantities of these for decency’s sake. I love things that a lot of people hate, like fish sauce and coconut. And now I was baking for someone I’ve never met in real life. It’s always easier to please unfamiliar palates with sweets than savories, but still.

Then there was the issue of portability. Whatever I made had to be something that could endure whatever abuse the postal service dished out and something that could travel halfway across the country though goodness-knows what kind of temperature fluctuations and come out unscathed. So, alas, nothing with chocolate glaze or cream filling or anything that could melt or get soggy.

I decided on two of my favorite things. The first is my favorite scone recipe, Hollyce’s Oatmeal Scones from the Stars Desserts cookbook. (Stars being a now-defunct restaurant in San Francisco.) The name of the recipe really doesn’t do it justice. Yes, there are oats in there—lots of them, contributing a wonderful toasty, nutty flavor. But there is also a serious hit of orange zest, lots of butter, and chewiness and sweetness from raisins. (The recipe officially calls for currants, which would be smaller and prettier by far, but I couldn’t find any in my local supermarket.) The scones travel and freeze well, and are among the few scones I’ve had that taste good cold as well as warm.

The second recipe is a sentimental favorite of mine: a lemon-square recipe from a 1970s charity cookbook. I’ve re-christened the recipe Led Zeppelin Lemon Squares for reasons soon to be made clear, and I’ve been making them since I was about ten. This recipe has never let me down. It has gotten me invited to sleepovers (so I could teach my friends how to make it), helped me kiss up to my teachers in high school, kept several boyfriends (temporarily) loyal, and even placated the dysfunctional French family for whom I worked as an au pair.

And in one of the most awkward stages of my life, these lemon squares made me feel powerful. Back in high school, I was nerdy and shy and spent almost all my Friday and Saturday nights at home. I couldn’t be the party animal I wanted to be, but I could stay up dangerously late, listening to KMET (then Los Angeles’ premier heavy-metal station) while baking up batches of cookies, getting a serious sugar buzz, and wondering how long it took Jimmy Page to learn to play like that. I may have been a social wipeout, but even the popular kids loved my cookies. No matter what, I knew I could rock that cookie jar. On most Saturday nights, that was good enough for me.


(adapted from The Three Rivers Cookbook)

For the base:

1 cup all-purpose flour

¼ cup powdered sugar

½ cup (1 stick) butter

For the top layer:

2 eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Combine the base ingredients; they will form a crumbly dough. Press the dough evenly over the bottom of an 8-inch square baking pan.

3. Bake the base for about 15 minutes, until it starts to brown at the edges.

4. While the base is baking, thoroughly combine the remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl. If you leave the mixture alone, the flour and baking powder will separate and form a layer on top of the lemon goop. Do not be concerned; this is part of the plan.

5. When the base is done, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool slightly. Then pour the remaining ingredients over the base and return the pan to the oven.

6. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the surface of the lemon squares is evenly golden brown. (The flour and baking powder will have risen to form a thin, flaky crust over a creamy lemon filling.)

7. Allow the confection to cool completely before you cut it into 16 squares. Top with sifted powdered sugar if desired.


(adapted from Stars Desserts, by Emily Luchetti)

3 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

11/4 teaspoons salt

11/4 teaspoons baking soda

21/4 teaspoons baking powder

10 ounces (2 ½ sticks) cold, unsalted butter

2 cups rolled oats

1 cup currants or raisins

2 tablespoons finely chopped orange zest

¾ cup buttermilk

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Combine the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the paddle attachment, mix at low speed until the butter is the size of small peas.

3. Add the oats, currants or raisins, and orange zest. Continue to mix, slowly pouring in the buttermilk, just until the dough comes together. It may be a bit sticky.

4. Put the dough on a lightly floured board and roll it out into a ¾ -inch-thick circle. Cut the dough into 10 circles, each 3½ inches in diameter. (If you have extra dough fragments after cutting the circles, gently press them together, roll to ¾-inch thickness, and try to cut out extra scones if you can.)

5. Put the scones on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

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