Sunday, June 12, 2011

No, I don't drink coffee

I sort of like coffee now. Before my sister starts to do a dance in the barista area of her favorite independent coffee shop, I need to explain. I still don't drink coffee. I find the taste of coffee bitter. Or, I should say, I now find
the taste of coffee by itself bitter. This week, I have learned something new - coffee WITH quality chocolate wrapped in something else (like a coffeecake, perhaps) doesn't taste bitter. In fact, it tastes amazing.

I can't explain why I didn't figure this out earlier. I know that everyone and their neighbor's neighbor has discovered the world of dressed-up coffee drinks with shots of flavorings, foams, steamed milks purveyed by Starbucks and kin. But, I don't drink coffee. (Do you sense my incredulity?)
My first exploration of coffee in baking this week began with a kids' sleepover. The usually demanded breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes spongy with syrup and ignored fruit made me nauseous. The kids don't mind repetition,
but it makes me feel tired. So, while the charming-while-asleep room of girls slumbered on, I thumbed through one of my favorite all-things-before dinner brunch cookbooks and found a coffeecake with chocolate chips. (Chocolate chips make almost anything palatable to children ages 2 to 22.) It wasn't just chocolate chips, it was chocolate coffee cake with chocolate chips. No, it was mocha chocolate coffee cake with chocolate chips. Mocha? That's java code word for coffee and chocolate, right?

The kids were initially suspicious of the coffeecake, but after the first bites, I took the silence in the dining room to indicate approval. Score one! With sleepovers, you learn that not only are your kids ridiculous in their rejections of all things orange or green or smelly or fishy or simply unusual because they have never heard of it in their short lives palate-challenged, but so are other people's children. The coffeecake, baked in a bundt pan I've owned for 21 years and bought at an honest-to-betsy yard sale in New Hampshire when first assembling my (then tiny) newly married kitchen, was moist, with good volume and a not-too-dark not-too-milky coffee chocolate flavor that actually made me think there was a reason coffeecake could have coffee in it. In a word, it was yummy.
Later this week, I needed to bake a cake. Yes, needed. I'm taking part in a wonderful informal cake decorating class on Saturdays offered by a woman who has travelled the world with her considerable Wilton cake pan collection, teaching friends, work associates, orphanage children, strangers and people like me to decorate cakes. The class is wonderful and a challenge for a traditional bread baker who never wants to be a pastry chef in her life type person. Yet, after four or five weeks of making cakes and frosting (lots and lots of frosting), I start to balk and look for something a little different.
The normal frosting for a Wilton class is shortening-based. Yes, the stuff you get on kids' cakes everywhere around the world. Why? It is ridiculously easy to make--you don't have to turn on a burner or pull out a pan--and it is temperature-stable, which means newbie student tolerant. This is not the frosting used by most professional bakers in Europe and the more rebellious in the US. Yes, it has that Crisco-coating tendency, but you can dress up the flavor quite a bit with chocolate powder, butter flavoring, vanilla, orange, lemon, etc. It benefits from one or more of these additions. I've faithfully creamed pounds and pounds of it (sounds better if you say the number in kilos as it is lower) over the last month.
Not this week, I said in my head. I had made a lovely devil's food cake recipe in the shape of a cat (it was shaped cake class day) and, even though I sruggled to get the moist, heavy cake out of the pan, I couldn't bear the
thought of putting Crisco on it. Instead, I found a seemingly-easy recipe for French Buttercream icing, the one with the boiled sugar syrup and egg yolks and a pound of real BUTTER. I wanted my icing to be dark because my cake was dark and I had already learned about the chocolate crumb issue with light colored frosting from an earlier class debacle. (I don't care what “they” say about a crumb coat, you really should just decide on anything other than chocolate cake if your design vision calls for white frosting.) The deceptively-short, not telling the whole truth recipe had some side notes, including one for chocolate and then one for mocha. I'd learned in class that both chocolate and coffee are great ways to make dark icing colors.

The buttercream was amazing, but temperamental. The heating of the sugar syrup requires some patience and then thin stream of the syrup into the egg yolks requires a skill I have not quite perfected. The result was a not-so-temperature stable, but truly lick-the-spoon fabulous frosting. (I can state this because at the decorating class, my classmates kept licking the spatulas I had used to mix in colorings or scoop the frosting into pastry bags.) I had to repeatedly re-freeze the blasted wicked wickedly good frosting and my efforts partly melted into a smooth-coated, instead of shaggy, cat during the 15-minute car transport back to my refrigerator.
I'll post up the recipes soonest. Or, maybe not as we are to begin the wonderful, but incredibly long trek back to the US this week. A piece of the kitty cat mocha buttercream-frosted devil's food cake will probably be desired around hour 20 of the journey. Who knows? By hour 30, I might be ready for an actual mocha.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Better Watch Out

Updating a blog is a bit like a job, unpaid, fun, but sometimes challenging. A friend emailed me today, wondering why we had quit updating. Sigh. I could claim mitigating circumstances: the challenges from here include blocking and slow to intermittent to non-existent connections. Really, though, I've just been struggling with the concept of blog. Do people read it? Do they care? Who are they? Do I want them reading it? Is this just an open journal, preserving our adventures for our kids to read later?

My friend (who I had no idea actually read our blog, much less was interested enough to spur me on) gave me the kick in the pants I needed. So, with my one-year only Girl Scout fingers raised, "I promise to update our blog more regularly."

Today's topic is urban obstacle running, which is how I like to refer to my runs around town. Now, I need to first say that I am thankful every day I run that we live in a place where I can run on the streets safely and freely in normal running kit, including shorts. Friends in other countries are not so lucky, living in locations that are either not safe or do not provide personal liberties for women to run in public.

I often run from our house out to one of the main roads. At the juncture, I need to choose to run right which takes me (eventually) around the lake, intermixing road, sidewalk, lake park trail and parking lots or left to quite a bit of large and small road running. Running here requires scanning, a technique I have named to describe the process of constantly shifting sight from right in front of my feet to ahead to the sides to determine what obstacles are coming. Obstacles here range from the mundane of car traffic to the more interesting. Street dogs, pedestrians, bicycles are all assumed. Perhaps more unique is the surface, the terrain.

At one point in time, the city built a sewage drainage system bordering streets with sidewalks placed above the drainage system. That point in time was a long time ago, at least judging by the current state of the sidewalks (and the drainage system). Pedestrians of all sorts must pay attention - the sidewalks are decaying daily, creating craters, pits and unstable areas that are really better off not explored by feet and ankles. Some of these pits drop down two to three feet into the sewer - not where I want to lose my shoe or twist an ankle. In my recent desire to improve my running to the point of less to no pain and moderate enjoyment, I have been practicing "barefoot" running techniques (actual barefoot running might not be advisable here - the authors of such books talk about choosing not to run in areas harmful to ones' soles). My urban obstacle runs are perfect practice for being light on the feet, lifting up, not plopping down. The zig zags and up and downs from sidewalk to road to sidewalk to leaps over holes or ditches encourages that light feeling of just touching down on the earth. Today, the run was nice, aided by a breeze that kept me upwind of most of the garbage areas and cooled the rivulets of sweat down my back. I saw two young chickens rummaging in the undergrowth, an assortment of dogs who like to sit on top a five-foot stone wall (for a better view?) and the morning bicycle delivery guys with their bikes stacked impossibly high and wide. A most enjoyable start to the day.