Rhubarb Upside Down Cake

Much to most Western Washingtonians’ surprise, we’ve had a warm, dry spring. It’s very strange. Most of my flower gardens are one month ahead of normal. The clematis have bloomed and gone, the calla lilies are in bloom (cue Katharine Hepburn) and the roses are very, very happy.

I inherited my rhubarb plants from the previous owner and they grew wonderfully the first year I was here. Last year, they happened to be in Tucker’s favorite path to the squirrels and they didn’t survive his trampling. This spring, I transplanted them in the side garden just above the rest of my edibles. Although they are small now, I believe they’ll be much happier there eventually. Since I’ve heard I shouldn’t pick rhubarb the first year of planting or transplanting, I’ve been depending on my friend, Peggy, to keep me well supplied. Her rhubarb is spectacular. The stalks are tall and healthy, the leaves giant. I tease her that she babies her rhubarb too much. (Rhubarb nearly grows like weeds in Western Washington.) But her rhubarb is some of the most beautiful I’ve seen. She has several varieties – both green and red – some quite old inherited from her mother-in-law.

Although rhubarb is still available, we’ll soon be distracted by the onslaught of berries. So as a last hurrah to rhubarb, here’s a simple upside down cake I created this spring to highlight this wonderful vegetable-turned-fruit. One of the keys to this cake is to separate the eggs and then fold in the whipped whites at the end, thus lightening the cake crumb. The other key is to not over mix the batter. Finally, this cake can be made with many types of fruit from peaches to apples to cranberries. You’ll probably find that you won’t need to roast other fruits much before adding the cake batter.

Rhubarb Upside Down Cake

The combinations of sugars in this cake deepens the flavor. As for flour, I like the nuttiness of whole wheat pastry flour. If you prefer a less earthy flavor, use half whole wheat pastry flour and half all-purpose or white pastry flour (see note). Cardamom pairs nicely with rhubarb, but feel free to leave it out or replace it with cinnamon or half the amount in nutmeg.

Yield: One 10 inch cake serves 8-10

Rhubarb Topping
1/4 cup (2 oz.) brown sugar
1/4 cup (3 oz.) honey
2 tablespoons maple syrup
4 tablespoons (2 oz.) unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 pound rhubarb, cut into 1 inch pieces

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Combine all of the above ingredients except the rhubarb in a 1o x 2 inch cake pan. Place the pan in the oven to melt the butter. Once the butter is melted, remove the pan from the oven and stir to combine the ingredients. Add the rhubarb and arrange it so that the rhubarb is in one fairly snug layer on the bottom of the pan. Roast the rhubarb for 15-18 minutes, or until is is just tender to the touch. (Don’t over cook it at this point or it will break apart and not look as pretty in the end.) Remove the rhubarb from the oven and let it cool some while mixing the cake.

Cake
1/2 cup (4 oz.) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup (4 oz.) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
3 large eggs separated, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups (9 oz.) whole wheat pastry flour or a combination of white and whole wheat flours
2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon (or more) cardamom
1/2 cup (4 oz.) whole milk
1 tablespoon granulated sugar

Cream the butter, sugars, honey and salt in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle until light and fluffy. Scrape well. Add the egg yolks one at a time, scraping well after each addition. Add the vanilla extract.

Sift together the flour(s), baking powder and cardamom. On low speed, add 1/2 of the milk to the creamed mixture, then 1/2 of the flour until almost combined. Scrape well. Add the rest of the milk and then the remaining flour, mixing again until almost combined. Scrape well and mix until just fully combined. Move the batter to a large bowl.

Whip the egg whites with 1 tablespoon sugar to medium peak. With a spatula, gently fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the cake batter until almost combined. Now fold in the remaining egg whites until fully combined.

Spread the cake batter on top of the roasted rhubarb, using light strokes to get it level. Bake the cake 45-55 minutes or until the cake springs back when touched. (You may see some rhubarb juices bubbling up on the sides.)

Cool the cake for about 1 hour. To serve,  first slide a knife around the edge of the cake. Place a serving plate on top of the cake and invert the cake onto the serving plate. Gently remove the cake pan. Serve the cake warm or room temperature with lightly sweetened whipped cream.

Note:  White pastry flour can be made by combining 2/3 all-purpose flour and 1/3 cake flour. I use King Arthur Unbleached Cake Flour which can be purchased in the Seattle area at PCC.

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How I Got Here

I’ve taken a bit of a break from posting on this blog – for many reasons. But mostly, it’s because I’ve been so busy teaching.  I hope you have all not deserted me in the last few months!

At the beginning of each class, I give a short history of my experience – what I did before teaching and where I’m at now. As I was giving my introduction the other day at a class, I realized that it’s just a snippet of my life in pastry. So this is for all of you who have always wondered how I got to this place.

My life has been a bit of a journey. A fortunate one at that. I spent many successful years in a different field before I made the critical decision to attempt pastry school. And with that decision, I also moved away from my home in Seattle to live in New York, go to school and experience the East coast. Like anyone, I don’t like to regret decisions, and I’ve never regretted that one. I loved going to school, immersing myself in the culinary world.

You might not know that I didn’t start culinary school as a baker. Yep, I was going to be one of those hot side cooks. But after basic skills and my first few cuisine courses, I came home one day and told my roommate, “I think I’m a baker.” Not that I didn’t love the hot side and I appreciate the skills I picked up in those first few months of culinary school. But these days, culinary school is deftly divided between culinary and baking and pastry with very little cross-over. I was craving getting into the baking and pastry kitchen. So I transferred over to the cool side and have never looked back.

I love the hustle of a professional kitchen. You work hard. You work fast. And you work more than you ever have. It’s hectic and hot (even in many pastry kitchens), exciting and exhilarating, and a huge education. At the end of the day you point to what you’ve created, hear the oohs and ahs from guests (via fine front-of-house staff) and you go home happy. Every day brings repetition and also something new.

I often get asked if I miss being in a professional kitchen. Going to culinary school in my 30s wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve done. You are side-by-side with students nearly half your age who have nearly twice as much energy (or at least think they do, which can go a long way for them). The professional kitchen was certainly made for the young. But it was also made for those of us who have some life experience, no matter the type of experience it is.

My favorite experience in the professional kitchen was teaching others to do what I knew. I enjoyed seeing them succeed. I could remember being there myself – the anxiety, the concentration, the drive to be better. More important, I always learned something from the person I was teaching and that made me better too.

When I decided to make a move away from the professional kitchen, I knew I wanted to teach. Baking and pastry isn’t rocket science. But it does take good instruction and some dedication to get it right. That’s what Pastry Craft is all about. I had been a home cook and baker for many years before taking the culinary school path, so I knew I could relate to home cooks.

Can home cooks do what the professionals do? Yes, there’s no doubt. I have a variety of students. Sometimes, we spend the entire lesson troubleshooting problems. Other students want to learn a skill that has eluded them. And some students have never even baked, but they feel they would like it, if only they had the right instruction. It comes down to those “ah-ha” moments when I see the nodding and recognition as students begin to understand and I know I’ve got them thinking. In the end, it’s the connection with students that makes it all work it.

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Coconut Tuiles

At a recent gathering with friends, I mused about the possibility that cooking is mostly about caramelization. Certainly, this is true with baking. The golden crust on a baguette – caramelization. The color of a croissant – caramelization. Any well-baked cookie – caramelization. There are plenty of technical reasons why caramelization is important in baking (the sugars and/or proteins in these items brown in baking to create both color and flavor), but the one thing to know is that it provides great flavor.  Think about any of these baked items I just mentioned without their golden crusts. They would be just faint shadows of their caramelized selves.

The savory side of cooking employs the same techniques resulting in the same properties.  Consider searing a beef roast before roasting in the oven. Beef Bourguignon would never be as flavorful without first flouring and then browning all sides of the meat cubes. Vegetables such as cauliflower and yams have their own sugars which, when roasted, produce distinct flavors. All due to caramelization.

As I thought of caramelization in cooking these coconut tuiles came to mind.  Start with shredded, unsweetened coconut, add a little egg white, sugar, honey, a pinch of salt and a bit of butter.  Mix, form and bake.  It’s in the baking of these crisp treats that they are transformed – because the added sugars as well as the sugars in the coconut began to caramelize, creating a golden and intensely flavored cookie.

When I was the pastry chef at Salish Lodge and Spa, these simple, crispy cookies became a mainstay on our bistro menu.  We served the tuiles on the sides of creme brulees, layered them with vanilla-roasted strawberries and whipped mascarpone and presented them  as a welcome amenity for guest rooms. A simple mix and a careful bake make these delicate coconut cookies a pleasure to make. Don’t be deterred by the French term “tuile” which is just a thin, delicate and sometimes moldable cookie.

Be sure to use unsweetened coconut (either finely shredded or dessicated) in these cookies. Although I mostly bake on parchment, I bake these delicate cookies on a non-stick baking mat.  The baking mat makes it easier to remove the cookies after baking, as they tend to stick to parchment. An added bonus – these cookies are naturally gluten free.

Coconut Tuiles

Yield: about 18 cookies

1 ¼ cups (4 oz.) unsweetened shredded coconut
¼ cup (2 oz.) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons (1 1/2 oz.) honey
1 tablespoon (½ oz.) unsalted butter, melted
2 large (2 ½ oz.) egg whites
pinch kosher or sea salt

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix using a stand mixer and paddle or with your hands. Scoop portions with a 1/2 ounce scoop onto a non-stick baking mat – about 8 cookies to a cookie sheet.  With damp fingers, press out each mound to about 3-4 inches diameter making each cookie flat, even and generally round.  (I keep a small ramekin of water nearby and dip my fingers as needed to keep the coconut mixture from sticking to them.)

Bake the cookies in a 325F oven for 8-12 minutes, or until the cookies are well browned.  Let the cookies cool on the baking mat until they are hard and crisp.  If you’re molding the cookies into shapes, let them cool for 1-2 minutes and then carefully pick up each cookie, mold it and set it on a cooling rack or cool baking sheet.  If the cookies get too cool to mold, return them to the oven for about 2 minutes to rewarm them.

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Quince Apple Pie

I had to make a pie today. It’s all because I’m not bringing pie to Thanksgiving tomorrow. Instead, I’ll be making sweet potatoes (the light fleshed ones) with bacon, maple and homemade vanilla bean marshmallows, roasted brussel sprouts with crispy shallots, and whole spelt rolls.

So this morning when I woke up, I started thinking about pie and some beautiful quince I still have in the fridge waiting for a purpose.  If you’re not familiar with quince, you can find more info here. Quince have a complex flavor and pair nicely with apples (they are a very distant cousin of the apple).  Here I combine the quince and apples with browned butter (beurre noisette for the Francophiles) and vanilla bean, my all-time favorite baking spice.  Both the brown butter and vanilla bean compliment, but don’t take away from the fruit, which is the showpiece of any fruit pie.  If you can’t find quince (they are still available in some stores like PCC), substitute a tart or tart-sweet apple such as a Granny Smith or Pippin variety. Use your favorite pie crust and find some tips here on surviving pie crust. Happy Thanksgiving!

Quince Apple Pie

2 pie crusts for a double crust 9 inch pie
2 large pineapple quince, peeled and cut into 1/8 inch slices
about 3 apples (combination of tart-sweet and sweet), peeled and cut into 1/8 inch slices
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pinches salt
4 tablespoons demarara or brown sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, scraped with pod
2-3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Roll out your pie crust for a double crust 9 inch pie and chill.

With the vanilla bean pod and pulp, melt the butter in a large skillet on medium-high heat until it bubbles and the milk solids turn brown. You should smell a nutty flavor. Add the quince slices and salt and toss to coat. Add 2 tablespoons of the sugar and continue to cook the quince until it is just tender. Cool the quince quickly on a baking sheet in the freezer.

Put the apple slices in a large bowl and combine with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and flour. Toss to coat.  Add the cooled quince and toss to combine.

Fill your pie shell and top with the crust. Bake the pie at 400F for 15 minutes. Lower the temperature to 350 and continue baking for 30-40 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and you can hear the juices bubbling inside the pie.

Cool the pie on a rack before serving. Serve room temperature with lightly sweetened whipped cream or ice cream. Caramel drizzled over the top would also be a perfect accompaniment.

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Autumn Birthday Cake

Once a year I delve in a several-hour project – making my niece’s birthday cake. Proudly, I’ve made cakes for seven or her eight birthdays.  Something different each year – girlie with pink and purple flowers, trains, animals, Tigger.  We’ve done it all.

This year Linnea picked an Autumn theme and I went to work.  Making a themed and intensely decorated cake is not something I do very often. I find myself more interested in fruit desserts, plated desserts, classic cakes and general baking. Kudos to the many cake creators who make amazing specialty cakes on a daily basis.

The base of this cake is devil’s food (Linnea always chooses chocolate) with dark chocolate Italian buttercream.  I had on hand white chocolate modelling paste (sometimes called chocolate plastic).  I prefer chocolate modelling paste over fondant and marzipan. Fondant is ultra-sweet with no flavor. Marzipan tends to get sticky and it can be a little more difficult to work with. Chocolate modelling paste, easily made at home with a good quality chocolate (white or dark), is easy to hand and roll and has a good chocolate flavor.  Don’t expect your guests to eat all of the chocolate modelling paste decorations on the cake, but they will find it to have a much more pleasing flavor than fondant.  Modelling paste keeps well at room temperature in an air-tight container.

These beautiful pictures were taken by Linnea’s dad and my brother-in-law, Brad Mitchell.  Brad’s specialty is outdoor and nature photography and you can find him at www.bradmitchellphoto.com.  Happy Autumn!

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