Blindsided by a cake on Route Nuptial.

I’m sorry that I’ve been neglecting the blog. Several planned posts flew out the window when my brother recently announced that he will marry this fall, wants us to help commemorate his new life with a wonderful woman with whom he’ll have children and grow old, yadda yadda. The point is that the couple has asked me to bake the wedding cake. In my recently formed opinion, the wedding cake is the single most important part of the big day. In fact, Webster’s (probably) defines a wedding as “n. A grand celebration involving a beautiful cake and at least one fork.” Sometimes I hold weddings late at night after a long day of baking. You may be having a wedding right now.

Despite ownership of a cake decorating kit, five decorating spatulas, and Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible, I am not a cake decorator. I know the difference between royal icing, gum paste, and fondant, but I have never worked with any of them. I and most of my eaters prefer our cakes unadorned. We’re a simple people. Actually we’re an impatient people. Waiting for a cake to cool just to put stuff on it seems like a waste of perfectly good cake-eating time. [Pictured: Chambord French buttercream]

Chambord buttercream

Here’s a list of what I know how to do:

•  Bake a delicious cake

Here’s a list of what I don’t know how to do:

•  Bake a delicious big cake
•  Ice a cake to a perfectly smooth finish
•  Pipe anything
•  Form anything
•  Store a big cake
•  Transport a big cake
•  Make a cake pretty. Really pretty.

Six books and 50 web sites later I have my bearings now. Those bearing are What the heck was I thinking? and What’s the best way to fake a car accident if the cake goes in the pooper? Did you know that sites on how to make your own wedding cake outnumber the sites on how to fake your own car accident? Shocking. I’ve already baked four practice cakes for tasting, honing recipes, and mastering techniques. Two of those cakes went to my mother. The strain is starting to show.

Me: Are you out of cake yet?
Mom: Almost.
Me: What kind do you want this time?
Mom: I don’t want any more cake.
Me: But…but…
Mom: I can’t eat cake all the time.
Me: How about chocolate? I haven’t made chocolate yet.
Mom: Sometimes you need a break from cake.
Me: But…but…

I’m honored that the couple have confidence, faked or otherwise, in my ability to create the wedding cake of their dreams. Considering that the crowning achievement of my artistic ability to date is a brain I drew on a transparency for a freshman high school biology class presentation on autism, that means I’ll be relying solely on practice and determination (and imitation). I apologize in advance for the disproportionate number of cake posts and cake pics that I may be posting. Not only do I have to practice, I have to start eating everything we have in our refrigerator and freezers in order to make room for wedding cake component storage. This cake will be the most important thing I have made in my kitchen to date. I hope you don’t mind coming along for the buttery ride.

Bread basket case.

Lots of coal making, lots of heat,
Warm face, warm hands, warm feet.

— “Wouldn’t It Be Lovely” from My Fair Lady

No, it wouldn’t be lovely. Warm hands kill pie crusts. They destroy biscuits, ruin scones, and wreck marriages. The butter melts, the water in the butter activates the gluten, and next thing you know you have tough dough and your loved one has filed for divorce on grounds of spousal cruelty.

These hands melt then disengage.
— Lycia, “Distant Eastern Glare”

Velvety Bean BreadAll that stress from terror of gluten takes its toll on me and my radiator hands. Making pastry isn’t relaxing because I dislike every pastry cutter or pastry fork that I’ve ever tried, and I refuse to use my food processor featuring 100 hard-to-reach areas for your dishwashing pleasure! Instead I use my fingers, and I use them fast. So when fall comes, I’m eager to make bread again, to take my time and work the dough without fear. In bread making, you want water in the flour, you want to make gluten, you want to toughen the dough. I thrust my fists into my first batch of autumnal bread dough with more glee than a child grabbing at the innards of a destroyed piñata, and I eat the crusty warm fruit of my hard labor with more satisfaction than any kid with cheaply earned candy ever could. Unfortunately, I keep forgetting that my hands aren’t merely warm.

There’s a lot of hot hands around.
— Hank Williams Jr., “Waylon’s Guitar Lyrics”

Bread dough is generally supposed to be covered and left to rise in a warm draft-free place for three hours to double in size. How I wish! More than once, my dough has quadrupled in size after half an hour. I’ve resorted to putting my bread in the freezer after kneading just to calm the yeast down. While I could use my stand mixer, that defeats the purpose of making bread—I want to squeeze, and squish, and squash, and squeal, because it’s darn good fun to sink your hands into a rubbery ball of satiny bread dough.

Take your warm hands off me.
— Ian Anderson, “Toad in the Hole”

My first batch this fall was Velvety Bean Bread from the gorgeous Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Traditions from Around the World. It’s an intriguing recipe that uses pureed white beans that add no bean flavor but does add, according to the authors, a velvety texture and moisture that helps the bread keep. As the only bread eater in the house, I rely heavily on freezing fresh bread or baking good-keeping breads to keep from wasting loaves. This bread’s moisture and nutrition from the beans had fascinated me since I first read the book.

Bean Bread 2[Pictured: “It’s okay, it happens to lots of bakers…”]

I forgot about my hands and failed to let the dough rest in the refrigerator during autolyse or reduce the liquid and knead with some crushed ice (a clever idea from food scientist, Shirley O. Corriher). The bread rose too fast and too much; I barely caught it before it dropped. After punching down and shaping, the dough rose quickly but weakly in the pan, dragging and deflating under my knife when I tried to slash it. I considered reshaping and letting the loaves rise yet again but decided not to worsen the already compromised flavor. The loaves went into the oven and emerged dense and flat. Ashamed.

Maybe not this time.
— “Baker Baker,” Tori Amos

Fresh bread is still fresh bread, and though dense, I took some satisfaction in the yeasty flavor. The loaf didn’t live up to its velvety promise. That’s my fault, it’s a recipe that deserves another chance. I learned a hard lesson, forgot it, and learned it again. We all have our handicaps in the kitchen—hot hands are mine. Bad memory doesn’t help either.

Don’t give up.
I know you can make it good.

— “Don’t Give Up,” Peter Gabriel

I’ve made decent bread before, I can do it again. I think. I hope. World Bread Day is October 16…

Asian pear pie: Annie battles the pastry demon.

I made my first pie crust at the tender age of 14 armed with a local church cookbook, a rolling pin, and a stick of margarine. Yes, margarine. Did I mention that I was 14? My dough, instead of becoming a circle, become California, Texas, and at the worst point, both halves of Michigan. The pastry demon told me to just fold it back over and try again because, after all, a perfect circle was a good circle. It made sense at the time. When the dough got dry around the edges, he told me to add more water. In the back of my mind I vaguely remembered someone somewhere saying something about how you shouldn’t overwork pie dough, but my demon laughed it off as an old wives’ tale and told me to fold my Florida into a Virginia for another round of violent rolling, which I did. (Incidentally, old wives generally make good pies.)

The result? Double-crusted denim apple pie: cooked apples on and under layers of off-white extra rugged denim, weatherproof and completely impervious to both kitchen utensils and teeth. I think my mother’s response was, “This is . . . pie?” The trauma of that “pie” would endure for eighteen years. Every pie or tart that I made thereafter featured a press-in crust, a crumb crust, or a store bought crust. Clearly my fear ran deep.

[Pictured: Freeform Asian pear pie in glass pie plate]

Asian pear pie

Three years ago I decided to conquer my demon. I made two pastry cloths out of spare canvas, bought a tapered rolling pin, and dusted off a pair of 9-inch Pyrex glass pie plates. Oddly, I became obsessed with Indian cooking instead. Two years ago I studied the learned texts of Brown and Corriher and studied recipes to compile data on shortening vs. lard vs. butter vs. oil vs. cream cheese. Strangely, I started making homemade ice creams instead. One year ago I bought a 10-inch deep dish pie pan, a pastry fork, and two sets of pie shields. Funnily enough, I started baking lots of cakes instead.

One week ago my copy of Pie by Ken Haedrich arrived. One day ago my aunt dropped off an entire bucket of Asian pears from her Asian pear tree, which seems nice until you learn that our own Asian pear tree has several buckets of Asian pears waiting to be picked and she knows that. Rather than give her a bucket of our pears in revenge (I considered it), I decided that it was time to make pear pie. The demon had to go.

I picked a freeform pie style inspired by one of Haedrich’s pie recipes. Unlike a galette, which is a freeform pie baked on a flat pan, this pie is made in a pie pan with a single crust 13 inches wide. The excess edges of the crust are folded over the top of the filling, leaving a large center hole. It was the perfect choice because it eliminated my least favorite part of pie—the thick, dry, overbrowned edges. In addition, it wasted no dough via trimming, I could focus on roling just one dough instead of two, and the single crust lightened the overall calorie content of the pie. Finally, and best of all, the seamless edges contained the filling so that I didn’t have to worry about sticky spillover. The only downside was the rustic appearance of the crust, but who cares? It’s pie!

I wrote out a checklist of equipment and prepared my mise en place. Remembering some of Alton Brown’s advice, I stashed two quarter-sheet pans in the freezer (half sheet pans won’t fit) to chill the rolled dough should it get too soft. I whisked my dry ingredients in a bowl, cut up some cold butter and cold trans-fat free shortening on a plate, and set everything inside the fridge. A while later I pulled the cold bowl of flour out of the fridge and rubbed my hands on the bowl to cool my fingers.

asian pearThen the fat hit the flour.

My demon laughed and pointed. Biscuit and scone skills gave the confidence to work the fat into the flour, but adding the scant bit of water made me so nervous that I might have underdone it. After an hour’s rest though, the dough seemed fine. I set it on floured wax paper (I’ll try my pastry cloth next time) and turned the paper counterclockwise after every two swipes of my rolling pin. To my amazement, the dough rolled out into a circle, not Florida or Maine. I set the frozen sheet pans on top of the dough whenever it seemed to get too warm. Then I finally nestled the dough into the plate and put it in back into the refrigerator.

While my demon had a cup of coffee and picked at his claws, I turned on the oven and cored and sliced enough unpeeled pears to make five cups and mixed them with sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice (for tartness), and vanilla (I decided against cinnamon to keep from overwhelming the pears). I mounded the fruit on my precious crust, folded the dough over the edges, and brushed the dough with a mixture of the leftover liquid from the bowl of pears and milk. A light sprinkle of demerara sugar topped off the crust, and the pie went into the oven. An hour later, as my demon smoked a cigarette, I pulled out a bubbling pie.

We ate the pie after dinner. The taste was . . . did I mention that this is my first pie since age 14? Well the taste of the pears was lovely, but it seems that fresh Asian pears stay very crunchy even when baked for an hour. I think next time I’ll try macerating the pears in pear brandy, sugar, and lemon juice overnight then reduce the juices to a syrup. Or I’ll pre-bake the crust and pour a cooked filling into the shell then top it with a delicate streusel. Then again I might be making things complicated—chopping the pears into a very fine dice might do the trick. Or maybe paper thin slices would be a wiser . . . well this is a post and recipe for the future. If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

The important thing is that the pie tasted good. The crust was flaky, browned nicely, and while not as tender as I would have liked, didn’t require sewing shears to eat. I had the basics down well enough to make even better pies in the future. My demon folded up his newspaper, stood with a sigh, and shook my hand. He then left to terrorize budding bakers elsewhere.

So he’s gone, just like the pie (my cousin came over to share). I’m left with crumbs and the memory of my pie cooling in front of the window. The off-center crust covered one side of the pie more than the other side. The skins on the pears had shriveled in the heat, the juices had splattered and blackened on the edges of the glass, and patches of white crust showed signs of underbaking. It needed improvement. But the hot flour and butter filled the entire house with that familiar fresh-baked fragrance that makes people drop what they’re doing and run to the source with a fork in hand. I made that smell. It took only 18 years to do it.

I smiled sheepishly down at my crooked creation, embarrassed by my pride. It was the most beautiful pie I’d ever seen.