4.30.2009

BEFORE I LOVED EGGS


First, I've made about a million things since Earl Grey cake, mostly tests of recipes from Deb's archive. Whole wheat apple muffins (incredible), "Car bomb" cupcakes (boozier and better a day later), pear ginger coffee cake and sour cream poppyseed bundt cake (both forgettable). Even currently waiting for two and a half sticks of butter to soften, so I may join the legion of bloggers who've eulogized David Leite's nearly year-old perfect chocolate chip cookie. But I'm not in the mood to format fractions, so here follows the long-researched Chicago French Toast Round-Up.

You know those things so irresistible their presence alone necessitates indulgence? Like Blade on TNT. Fried plantains, red-velvet-and-cream-cheese cupcakes, an Old-Fashioned. And, up until this past winter, french toast. While I've recently come to the savory side of well-done (both quality and cook time) eggs, thanks to Brett's paper-thin sriracha omelets and grana padana-laced scrambles, my heart belongs to the sweets. Here, modest findings accumulated over line-braving weekends between 2006 and 2009.

1. Raspberry french toast @ Victory's Banner

Being OCD about wet ingredients and potential sog, I order the fresh raspberry sauce on the side. The bread (challah, I think) is thick-cut but light, gently sweet, and only dusted with powdered sugar. You can finish the plate without feeling like crying. It's as if the transcendental aura so adamantly performed by the servers suffuses the french toast, saving it from the saccharine density from which most other toast suffers. This is my far and away favorite french toast in the city, and possibly anywhere? (Blue Moon french toast with fresh fruit and vanilla ginger syrup, I think of you).

2. Two-cream challah french toast @ Earwax (pictured)

Not for the nascent sweet tooth: two slices of thick challah stuffed with pastry cream (think lighter than the typical ├ęclair, with a bright sweetness) and topped with whipped cream and sliced strawberries. Yet this toast turns out an unexpected lightness (which is then challenged by my/your insistence on veggie sausage patties and potatoes). I'm usually turned off by stuffed toast since it's invariably a cream cheese sandwich (I'm looking at you, Caffe DeLuca: your banana french toast was a fucking atrocity), but this, this is different. Big enough to share but I no longer want to.

3. Sunday Brunch french toast @ M. Henry

Left ambiguous because those crazy Andersonvillains are always changing it up. I've had a surprisingly delicious brie and granny smith french toast, an ambitious-if-cloying Key Lime pie french toast, and heard stories of mascarpone and Grand Marnier. Their plain old toast (last ordered with a small platoon of strawberries crowning the top slice) is pretty great, but the inventions are worth coming early.

& now, the losers. In no particular order:

* Housemade Brioche french toast @ Hot Chocolate

There's a lot to like about Hot Chocolate: its proximity to BCBG and Nine West, their eponymous drink menu, the breakfast pastry sampler thing which really blew my hair back. The french toast, sadly, is ordinary. Even heavy. A big-ass portion on a little rectangular plate. Even Joseph gave it a miss.

* Brioche french toast @ Lula Cafe

Came here for brunch on my birthday, felt ambivalent at best toward the toast and downright hostile toward my blackberry bellini. Like Hot Chocolate, Lula seems to rest on the laurel of brioche to produce a worthy french toast. It doesn't work.

* Kitchen sink french toast @ The Bongo Room (Wicker Park)

Just kidding. It was pineapple rhubarb: "brown sugar crusted brioche on top of warm pineapple rhubarb compote topped with fresh strawberries, strawberry coulis and candied ginger gelato." All those on-top-ofs and topped-withs and I ordered the components all separate, which our impossibly likable server accommodated kindly. I can't say the isolation saved this toast - for me, too many elements, all of which tasted more like granulated sugar than fruit. I'm not wooed by most candying and crusting (see: cornflake-crusted french toast, or mortal sin; exception: M. Henry's oat-crusted toast and pancakes), but perhaps you are, like so many Chicago brunchers loyal to the Bongo Room. For me (again), their elaborate combinations evade subtlety and inspire the urge to brush teeth.

* Plain french toast @ Bite 

Bite, I love your dinner specials, your buffalo tofu and your homemade desserts. I think you are the perfect casual date restaurant and I've reconciled myself with your oppressively policed "Close the door before you open the second door!" policy. However, your french toast is totally regular diner french toast: two slices of nondescript bread that tastes only like bread and comes with not-for-real syrup and sometimes fruit. It's fine, but I'm glad I eat eggs now.

I can't remember the toast at Milk & Honey. I haven't been to Toast or Yolk. I watched my fellow french toast loving friend Chase eat some pretty insipid looking stuff at Nookie's Too (and my "spring" frittata was garbage). I've only enjoyed a single stolen bite of the chai french toast at Orange, but am happy to join any takers in giving them a fair shot. Even higher on my to-eat is Sweets & Savories

4.19.2009

EARL GREY CAKE w/ KUMQUAT MARMALADE and ALMOND BUTTERCREAM



Me: What would you like for dessert? Any requests?
Raechel, blowing in from Palo Alto for all of 48 hours: Obviously anything is fine, but if you're up for trying something new, can you make an earl grey tea cake? I've never had one but it just sounds like it should be good?

If you're coming to visit me, particularly in South Bend, you get a dessert. Ingredient of your choosing. That's my way of purposing what would otherwise be (and often is) entire cakes/pies/tarts for myself (minus about four bites for Brett, unless it's lemon-based), and getting some direction (it's not easy for an obsessive-compulsive to privilege one recipe over another, or branch out when certain flavor profiles consistently satisfy). Which, speaking of, I can't wait to try the car bomb cupcakes featured at smitten kitchen, spotless and navigable home of indexed cake recipes & my new porn. 

Anyway.

Earl grey cake: this recipe comes to me/us from Roopa at her dessert & vegetarian resource raspberry eggplant, and as I wrote her in a borderline sycophantic email, it's not only inspired flavor-wise but wonderfully user-friendly, right down to the suggested time tables and upright mixer settings. Both unusual and accessible, this layer cake comes together stresslessly and yet is special enough to produce the appropriate levels of triumph (baker) and desire (eaters). I am, consequently, rabid for perfect layer cakes, of which I can confidently say this is one.

Adapted from raspberry eggplant, Jan. 30 2008.

Ingredients:

Equipment: Two 8" (Roopa used 9, but 8 worked great) cake pans, stand mixer (if not for cakes, then for frosting). Optional but useful: candy thermometer.

Cake:
8 bags of Earl Grey tea (I used Twinings)
1 1/3 cups whole milk
6 large egg whites, room temperature
2 tsps vodka
¾ tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp almond extract
2 ¼ cups cake flour, sifted, plus 2 tablespoons for the pans*
1 ¾ cups granulated sugar
4 tsps baking powder
1 tsp salt
12 tbsps (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into teaspoon-sized chunks, room temperature

* In lieu of cake flour, I put 2 tbsps of corn starch in the cup and filled the rest with all-purpose. Kind of eyeballed the remaining ¼ cup.

Kumquat marmalade:
8 ounces (2 cups) of kumquats
½ cup sugar
½ cup water

Buttercream:
4 egg whites
¾ cup + 3 tbsps sugar
2 ½ sticks (10 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into small chunks, room temperature
½ tsp almond extract

Procedure:

Cakes:

1. Set an oven rack in the middle position. Preheat to 350. Spray/butter the bottoms of your cake pans, line greased bottoms with parchment paper (do this) and re-grease, dusting with flour.

2. Cut open 4 of the tea bags and pour their contents into a small bowl. Bring ½ cup of the milk to a strong simmer (scald, don't boil). Pour the hot milk over the tea and let it steep for 5ish minutes. Pour the milk and tea mixture into a fine mesh sieve and strain the milk into a small bowl, pressing on the tea leaves to extract all of the milk. Pour the tea-infused milk into a measuring cup and pour in the remaining milk to make 1 cup. You may not need all of the remaining milk.

2a. If your tea is coarse, pour the contents of the remaining 4 tea bags into a clean spice grinder and grind the leaves to a fine powder. Since Twinings is already fine, I just jabbed at it with my mortar.

3. Using a fork, mix the milk, egg whites, vodka, and extracts together in a bowl and set it aside. These are your wet ingredients.

4. Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and ground tea into the bowl of a standing mixer or a large bowl. Using the paddle attachment, mix the dry ingredients together on the lowest speed for 5 seconds. (If using a handheld mixer, stir the dry ingredients with a large spoon.) Add the butter and increase the speed to 2 or mix on low speed of a handheld mixer. Mix until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
Note: I found these instructions right on, in terms of times and settings.

5. Add all but ½ cup of the wet ingredients and mix at medium speed (6 on a stand mixer) for 1 ½ minutes. Add the remaining ¼ cup and mix for another 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides and mix for another 20 seconds.

6. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and spread it out to the walls and smooth out the tops. Bang the pans against the counter a few times to even out the batter.

Arrange the pans on the oven rack so that there is at least 3 inches of space around each pan. (This allows for proper air circulation and even baking.) Bake for 23-25 minutes; a toothpick should come out clean.

Let the cakes cool in the pans for 5 minutes, then invert them onto a plane and then onto a cooling rack. Let the cakes cool completely before assembling.

Marmalade: 
1. Wash and dry the kumquats. Cut them into thin slices (no thicker than 1/8”) and remove all seeds.
This will take forever unless you have mad knife skills. Be careful.

2. Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a small saucepan. Boil for 2 minutes, then add the sliced kumquats. When the mixture starts to bubble, reduce the heat to medium and cook until the kumquats are very tender and the mixture is thick, about 20-25 minutes.

3. Strain the mixture over a bowl, pressing on the kumquats to release the syrupy juice. Reserve the kumquats in a bowl and return the syrup to the pan. Cook on medium low until it's reduced by half, about 10-12 minutes. Add the reduced syrup to the kumquats and stir well to combine. Let the marmalade cool completely.
You can slow cook the syrup awhile, it'll smell incredible, assuring you you're doing it right. If it doesn't look congealed enough, it should be glossy and spreadable once it's cooled.

Buttercream:
1. Add the room temp. egg whites and sugar to the bowl of a standing mixer. Put 1-2” of water in a small saucepan and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat so that the water simmers. Put the mixer bowl on top of the saucepan and whisk the egg whites and sugar until all of the sugar has dissolved, the mixture becomes opaque, and the temperature reaches about 110 F. (If you don't have a thermometer, make sure that all the sugar is dissolved and that the mixture is very warm – this will take about 3-4 minutes.)

2. Put the bowl on the mixer and, using the whisk attachment, whip the whites for 8 minutes on high speed (mixer speed 10). They whites will be very thick and glossy and the bowl should be completely cool the touch. If the bowl is not cool, continue beating until it is.

3. With the mixer running on high, add the butter to the bowl one piece at a time, waiting until each piece is incorporated before adding the next. After all the butter has been added, continue beating until the mixture becomes very thick and smooth and looks like frosting.
Here, as the meringue kind of deflates, it may look very weird before it looks very good.

4. Add the almond extract and mix on medium speed for 10 seconds to fully incorporate. Switch to the paddle attachment and beat briefly on low to remove air bubbles from the frosting.


To assemble, level the completely cool cakes with a serrated knife. Flip the lower layer so it's flat bottom is now the top (where you'll spread the filling). Spread the cool kumquat marmalade all over this lower layer. Top with upper layer. If you're going to decoratively pipe on the cake, reserve about ¾ cup of the buttercream frosting (and if you don't have pastry bags, look at this handy tutorial to Macgyver one from parchment). 

You want to start frosting by applying a crumb coat, or a thin, uniform coat of not very much frosting at all that holds in the cake's crumbs and provides an even surface for the pretty coat. Once the crumb coat is applied, put the whole cake in the fridge until the crumb coat is fairly hard...

...at which point, you'll apply the rest of the buttercream with your Wilton spatula, decorate with reserved frosting and whatever else (I'm a piping greenhorn. I did some primitive stars around the cake's border and used a round cookie-cutter to create circles of ground almonds, only to elicit Raechel's excitement for "Mickey Mouse.").

This cake keeps extremely well, refrigerated overnight and removed to come to room temperature - the buttercream should be slightly softened - before serving. And finally, what it actually tastes like, lest the ingredients fail to sell themselves: whether or not you like tea, this cake is moist, textured, fragrant. Herbal. Subtly citrusy, thanks to Earl Grey's bergamot, which marries smoothly with the marmalade, the foil for which is the rich, nutty buttercream. If you've ever enjoyed a vacuumed-sealed plastic cup (or subsisted through college on iced coffee with almond), this entire cake - but particularly its frosting - will smack of bubble tea. Bubble tea! No greater evocation.