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Entries in cake history (57)

Sunday
Jul122009

Candy Mountain: The Story of the Mountain Bar, An All-Terrain Treat

Cherry Mountain Bar
Have you ever heard of the mountain bar?

It first hit the CakeSpy radar a few months ago when buddy Allison picked one up at the drugstore as a bit of a consolation because they had run out of Cadbury Creme Eggs. Not that it's a new thing, mind you: the Mountain Bar has actually been around since 1915.
Mountain BarMountain bar
The mountain bar is a thing of beauty. Upon opening it, you may remark that it looks not so much like a mountain as a present left under the sofa by a naughty pet. But there's a delicious secret inside, as shown at the top--this is the cherry mountain, but it is also available in the original chocolate-nut flavor as well as a peanut butter filled variety. These are dense and rich little nuggets--definitely not a subtle or sophisticated food, but they will give you a sweet fix, and fast.
Mountain Bar

But what is even more compelling than their flavor is their story, as discovered on their site:

The MOUNTAIN® Bar was first put on the market by Brown & Haley in 1915 as the "Mount Tacoma Bar". The bar began with a fondant vanilla center...Sitting before individual warm chocolate pots, the dippers would make a puddle of tempered chocolate mixed with freshly ground peanuts. After rolling the center a little bit more, they would take a scoop of the tempered mix, forcing the center into the scoopful of the mixture. Then, with the heel of the hand, the bottom would be smoothed off and deposited on a waxed card. After the bar was made, it was put in a blue, hand-folded box that had a picture of Mount Tacoma (now Mt. Rainier) on it. Today our state of the art machinery turns out 592 MOUNTAIN® Bars per minute under the strictest sanitary conditions.

By 1923 the name of the bar had changed to just plain "MOUNTAIN®" due to the fact that its sales were beginning to spread into regions beyond Tacoma and the name "Mount Tacoma" conflicted with Seattle's name, Mount Rainier, which was beginning to gain ascendancy.

When World War II arrived, Brown & Haley was making as many as 25 different candy bars. With a shortage of sugar, the company decided to concentrate all of its efforts behind the production and marketing of its leading candy bar, the MOUNTAIN® Bar. This had the effect of establishing the brand as a regional favorite. Shortly after that the company decided to change the name of one of its brands from Cherry Bounce to Cherry MOUNTAIN® Bar in order to capitalize on the brand's strength. In 1974, Brown & Haley introduced the Peanut Butter MOUNTAIN® Bar.


Of course, all of this learning may ultimately lead you to the same question being tossed around Chez CakeSpy: is it possible to make the Mountain Bar even more delicious?

 

The answer is yes: just add ice cream. For an amazingly rich and decadent treat, why not try the Mountain Milkshake?
Milkshake time!
Cherry Mountain Milkshake

Serves 2

  • 1 Cherry Mountain Bar (or two, if you're feeling particularly decadent)
  • 4 generous scoops vanilla ice cream
  • 1/4 cup milk (or more, or less, depending on how thick you like it)


Combine ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. If desired, add more milk for a thinner shake, more ice cream for a thicker shake. Enjoy.

Milkshake!

 

Wednesday
Jun242009

Malasada Madness: The Portuguese Doughnut That Took Over Hawaii

Malasadas!
Recently, a new espresso stand opened up very close to the CakeSpy headquarters in Seattle, a little outpost of North Shore Hawaiian BBQ. Now, this is one of those places that looks like it might be awful or awesome, but probably not in-between.


North Shore BBQ Espresso StandMalasadas on the menu!
Admittedly, most of their bakery offerings--prepackaged muffins, biscotti and cookies--didn't appeal too much. But upon noticing that they fry up malasadas (little rounds of sweet, yeasty fried dough topped with granulated sugar) to order, a visit was definitely necessary.


While waiting for the malasadas to fry up, however, I noticed something unusual: they were listed on the menu as Portuguese Doughnuts. Now, this seemed a big incongruous on a Hawaiian menu. Naturally, I ran home to Wikipedia the *&^% out of this.

 

As Wikipedia tells me, it was a development borne of immigration patterns: "In 1878, Portuguese laborers from the Azores came to Hawaii to work in the plantations. These immigrants brought their traditional foods with them, including a fried dough pastry called the 'malasada.' Today there are numerous bakeries in the Hawaiian islands specializing in malasadas."


The article references one of the most famous malasada vendors in Hawaii, Leonard's Bakery, which may not have been the first place to sell them, but it certainly sounds like it's the place that made them popular; their story further illuminates the phenomenon of the Portuguese doughnut in Hawaii:

 

In June 1882 the British sailing ship 'Monarch' brought Arecnion & Amelia DoRego from San Miguel Island, Portugal to Maui under contract to work the sugar cane fields.

Some 33 years later, their grandson Leonard was born. In 1946 Leonard and his wife Margaret moved to Honolulu with their daughter Diane, age 8. Leonard worked at Snowflake Bakery until he founded Leonard's Bakery in 1952

Leonard and Margaret were no strangers to hard work, both coming from very large families. The bakery prospered. Not long after opening, Leonard's mother suggested making malasadas for Shrove Tuesday - a Portuguese tradition.

Although thinking it may be too ethnic, Leonard's bakers complied. Malasadas were a huge hit. And, the appetite for malasadas in Hawaii was born.

Due to Leonard's popularity Leonard required a larger, more modern facility, moving into their present location at 933 Kapahulu Avenue in 1957.


These days, malasadas are closely associated with Hawaii. They're seen dressed up at fancy restaurants, they're sold out of mobile trucks, and they're naturally a delicious breakfast.

 

(CakeSpy Note: Strangely enough, according to Wikipedia, Hawaii is not the only place where malasadas are readily available: "Malasadas are also very popular in the New Bedford and Fall River, Massachusetts region, which has a large Portuguese population. Malasadas are also popular in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where they are called 'flippers'." So perhaps there is a hidden malasada belt in New England?)
Inside of the Malasada
Which brings us back to Seattle and North Shore Hawaiian BBQ. Remember how I said that this place was going to be either awesome or awful? Well, I can't speak to the savory fare there, but these malasadas were pretty awesome. They charmingly misshapen rounds, served unpretentiously in a plastic container and they were still hot and slightly dripping with the oil in which they had just been fried. The first irresistible bite, taken while they were still way too hot, was yeasty, sweet, pleasingly greasy, and, well, pretty perfect.

Of course if you're not in Hawaii or Seattle or Portugal, no need to panic. Here's a recipe (discovered via TastyIsland) for malasadas which are said to taste similar to the legendary ones at Leonard's!
Places mentioned:
North Shore Hawaiian Barbecue, 101 Boren Ave. S, Seattle (206)621-1121; online at northshoreseattle.com.

Leonard's Hawaii, multiple locations; online at leonardshawaii.com.

 

Monday
Jun222009

The Whole Kit and Kugel: The Story of a Sweet Noodle Pudding

Kugel
If you will, picture CakeSpy and a buddy walking by the beach with soft lighting:

CakeSpy: Have you ever tried kugel?
Buddy: Isn't that like, an excercise...for your female parts?
CakeSpy: No! It's a noodle pudding!
Buddy: Is that a euphemism?

Clearly, it's time to set the record straight about kugel.

What is it? Simply put, kugel is noodle pudding. Grossed out? Get over it by giving a long, hard look at its more popular friends and neighbors like bread pudding and rice pudding.


Kugel
Need more information? Literally translated, "Kugel" (or, if you're speaking Yiddish, קוגעל) means "ball", but apparently this translation also sometimes means "pudding" or "casserole"--according to Wikipedia, this may be a reference to "the round, puffed-up shape of the original dishes (compare to German Gugelhupf — a type of ring-shaped cake)". These days, the dish is generally baked in a square or rectangle pan, but apparently the name stuck. But back to the dish. 
How did it come to be? Well. According to Jewishrecipes.org,
Made from bread and flour, the first kugels were plain, and salty rather than sweet. About 800 years ago, their flavor and popularity improved when cooks in Germany replaced bread mixtures with noodles or farfel. Eventually eggs were incorporated. The addition of cottage cheese and milk created a custard-like consistency which is common for today's dishes.
Apparently though it wasn't til the 1600s that its potential as a sweet dish was realized:
In the 17th century, sugar was introduced, giving home cooks the option of serving it as a side dish or dessert. In Poland, Jewish women sprinkled raisins and cinnamon into recipes. Hungarians took the dessert concept further with a hefty helping of sugar and some sour cream.
Why is it popular? Well, aside from being delightfully carbohydratey and delicious, sweet kugel is also rich in tradition. It's long been associated with Rosh Hashanah, a holiday on which sweet foods symbolically represent a sweet new year ahead. Naturally, it was also a cinch for popularity as a traditional dessert to serve straightaway following the Yom Kippur fast
, which is traditionally broken with a dairy meal.

 

Here are some other things that might interest you about kugel:

 

immigrant Jewish women asked if the company could make a specialty pan that could be found only in Europe. The women tried to explain the pan, used to make a pudding called Kugel, by using a word that sounded like "bunt" and meant "a gathering of people," David Dalquist said. And the fluted, cast-aluminum design -- trademarked as a Bundt pan -- was born.
(CakeSpy Note: Of course, it wasn't 'til 1966 when the Tunnel of Fudge cake, a winning entry to the Pillsbury Bake-Off contest, really popularized the pan...but hey, kugel paved the way!)
  • Second, did you know that it also has mystical powers? According Allan Nadlar, a professor of religious studies at Drew University, in a 2005 NY Times article:
According to Hasidic interpretations of Kabbalah mysticism...kugel has special powers.

 

"Clearly the spiritual high point of the meal is the offering of the kugel," Professor Nadler said. At that moment the rabbi has the power to bestow health and food, and even to help couples conceive.

  • In the late 19th century, Jerusalemites combined caramelized sugar and black pepper in a noodle kugel known as Jerusalem kugel, which is a commonly served at Shabbat kiddushes.
  • Finally, if you're "Crazy for Kugel", you can find more tips and trivia on the Manishewitz website.
Want to make Kugel? OK. So there are some delicious sounding recipes out there, like Peach Noodle Kugel and Fruit Noodle Kugel (try and say that five times fast!)...but if you want to start basic, here's a traditional kugel recipe so that you can learn the rules before you break them.
Ingredients:
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 pint sour cream
  • 1 pint cottage cheese
  • 6 ounces wide noodles, cooked
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • Cinnamon, to taste

Directions:
Butter!Mixing it!
In a 9 x 13 pan melt butter in a 350 degree oven. In a large bowl, mix eggs, sugar, sour cream, cottage cheese, noodles & vanilla (I used some from a local company called Singing Dog, who recently sent me a sample) and cinnamon, if desired. Remove pan of butter from oven & pour in egg & noodle mixture.
Baking the Noodle PuddingFreshly baked Kugel
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Serve warm.Kugel time

 

Thursday
May212009

Pity The Fool...and the Grunt, Buckle, Slump and Cobbler: An Examination of Fruit Desserts

Jumping into fruit desserts 

Betty, Buckle, Slump, Grunt, Fool. Sounds kind of like a string of words that might describe the before-and-after of a bar fight  or seedy rendez-vous, but really, it's a suite of sweet fruit desserts. But what exactly are they?
For those of you who have ever woken up in a cold sweat, plagued by the mystery of what's up with these desserts and their funny names (it's not just me, right?), here's a little primer on some of the different types including defining characteristics and a recipe link:

Betty (or Brown Betty)
What is it? It all starts with buttered bread crumbs, which are then topped with a fruit-and-spice mixture and baked, often with a brown sugar crumb topping. While apple is probably the most popular fruit filling, it can be made with berries, peaches, or really just about any fruit that you'd like. Choice recipe: Epicurious has an interesting take on this sweet dessert with their Apple Betty Squares.
What's with the name? Alas, as much as I looked, I could not discover the history of its name. I did, however, learn that it's got the best cultural reference of all of the desserts, having been mentioned (if not in a flattering light) in The Catcher in the Rye.
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Birds' Nest Pudding
What is it? Per What's Cooking America, this one is "A pudding containing apples whose cores have been replaced by sugar. The apples placed in a bowl and a crust/batter is poured around it and then baked. It is also called Crow's Nest Pudding." Choice recipe: Why not party like it's 1894 with this recipe?
What's with the name? It's the look of it: the apples are like little eggs to the crust's bird-nest. Sweet.
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Buckle
What is it? According to this article on about.com,
Buckles are baked and are usually made in one or two ways. The first way is that bottom layer is cake-like with the berries mixed in. Then the top layer is crumb-like. The second way is where the cake layer is on the bottom of the pan, the berries are the next layer and the top is the crumble mixture. 
The writeup also mentions that the most popular version of the buckle is blueberry. Choice recipe: Rachel of Coconut  & Lime has never led me astray, so why not try her Blueberry Buckle?
What's with the name? I wasn't able to discover the true meaning, but I like to think it might have something to do with the cakelike bottom buckling under the weight of all the sweet, ripe fruit.
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Charlotte
What is it? The Charlotte seems to be similar to the Betty, but Frenchier: according to Encyclopedia Britannica,
For a fruit charlotte the mold is lined with well-buttered bread, filled with a thick puree of apples, apricots, or other fruit, topped with additional slices of bread, and baked. It is served warm, often with a sauce.
Of course, this is not to be mixed up with Cold Charlotte or Charlotte Malakoff, which you can read about here. Choice recipe: Go to the NY Times for an Apricot and Apple version of the Charlotte.
What's with the name? Some say it takes its name for Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
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Clafouti

What is it? According to Wikipedia, it is
a custard-like baked French dessert that is typically made by baking fresh fruit (traditionally cherries) and a batter, somewhat similar to pancake batter, in a baking dish.
Of course, the article does go on to say that 
When other kinds of fruit, such as plums, prunes, apples, cranberries or blackberries are used instead of cherries, the dish is called a "flognarde" (sometimes spelled "flaugnarde").  
Choice Recipe: Joy of Baking always does a great job--here's their cherry clafouti recipe.
What's with the name? Originally from Limousin, the dish's name comes from Occitan clafotís, from the verb clafir, meaning "to fill up" (implied: "the batter with cherries"). Clafoutis apparently spread throughout France during the 19th century.
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Cobbler
What is it? This one is a dessert for biscuit lovers: a thick, biscuity crust, topped with fruit and then another biscuit layer on top--often these top bits are dropped onto the fruit so that they bake in a "cobbled" sort of way. Choice recipe: Paula Deen's peach cobbler, which will probably make you fat.
What's with the name? The definition says it all: those top bits of biscuits form a cobbled little top on the finished dessert, from which it takes its name.
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Crisp

What is it? By most accounts, it seems that the crisp is the same dish as a crumble, separated only by language; though some say that the crumble is more likely to have oats on the topping. See Crumble, below. Choice Recipe: Gosh, this one--with mixed berries and almonds-- looks good.
What's with the name? "Crisp" refers to the lightly crunchy topping once it has been taken out of the oven.
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Crumble

What is it? According to Cookthink, A crumble is a fruit-based dessert with a crumbly topping called a streusel that's a mixture of flour, butter and sugar -- plus optional flavorings like cinnamon, vanilla extract, lemon zest or nuts -- that is baked until crisp. The flour, butter and sugar are combined until they form crumbs; some people like to add oats or nuts to the mixture. Choice Recipe: See above, under Crisp.

What's with the name? "Crumble" refers to the topping on so many levels: it's a crumbly streusel which is then crumbled on top to form perfect crumbles. Crumbly deliciousness.
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Fool
What is it? Per the Epicurious food dictionary, England is the home of this old-fashioned but delicious dessert made of cooked, pureed fruit that is strained, chilled and folded into whipped cream. The fruit mixture may be sweetened or not. Fool is traditionally made from gooseberries, though today any fruit may be substituted. Choice recipe: Papaya lime fool gives an old time-y dessert a modern twist.
What's with the name? Per Wikipedia, it is said to be derived from the French verb fouler meaning “to crush” or “to press” (in the context of pressing grapes for wine), though there is some argument about whether this is true or not.

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Grunt
What is it? Similar to a cobbler or slump, the grunt "piles biscuit dough atop stewed fruit"--it is defined by the fact that it is steamed rather than baked. Choice Recipe: A nectarine-cherry grunt sounds awfully good.
What's with the name? Though the fish of the same name is called such because of the grunting sound it makes, no information was to be easily had on the sweet treat's name. Perhaps it's so delicious that piggie-like grunting takes over before it is served? Sounds good to me.
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Pandowdy
What is it? With a pandowdy, the fruit is topped with a rolled piecrust, which is then broken up a bit and this allows the juices from the fruit to bubble through. Choice Recipe: This rhubarb version sounds tantalizing.
What's with the name? As learned in Nancy Rommelmann's wonderful book Everything You Pretend to Know About Food And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask, the process of breaking up the pie crust to let the fruit bubble through is called "dowdying"; bet you can guess where the rest of the name comes from.
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Pavlova

 

What is it? Per What's Cooking America, The Pavlova consists a base made of a meringue crust topped with whipped cream and fresh fruits such as kiwis, strawberries, etc. It is considered a fresh fruit pie with a meringue crust. Choice Recipe: This one looks beautiful and delicious.
What's with the name? This light dessert is named after Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova was considered the greatest ballerina of her time--and of whom it was said "She does not dance; she soars as though on wings." Oh, and now this dessert is also immortalized on stamps!
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Slump

What is it? Though very similar in composition to a grunt, the difference is that a slump is sometimes baked (often upside-down), though steamed variations are out there too. It is sometimes made with pie crust, sometimes biscuit dough. Choice Recipe: How 'bout a blackberry slump?
What's with the name? It seems to refer to the homely look of the dessert; it even gets a nice little pop-culture shout-out, as it seems that Louisa May Alcott lovingly referred to her house as "Apple Slump".
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Sonker
CakeSpy Note: I found this one on What's Cooking America and though it seems little-known, I couldn't resist including it! Here's the WCA Definition:
A sonker is a deep-dish pie or cobbler served in many flavors including strawberry, peach, sweet potato, and cherry. I’ve also read this same dish is called zonker (or sonker) in Surry County, North Carolina. It seems to be a dish unique to North Carolina. The community of Lowgap at the Edwards-Franklin House, hold an annual Sonker Festival. Choice Recipe: Find it on Hallmark's website, along with a more in-depth explanation of this charming dessert.

 

Saturday
May162009

Getting Canned: An Exploration of the Tomato Soup Cake

Andy Warhol Cupcake

From Soup to nuts? Pshaw. We're talking soup to cake, baby.

 

With Seattle's brand new Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co. offering an attention-grabbing Tomato Soup cake, it seemed appropriate to talk a little bit about the background of this unusual confection.

How long has it been around? foodtimeline.org, Tomato Soup Cake, which is also known as "Mystery Cake" or "Tomato Soup Spice Cake", was perhaps first mentioned in 1928 in a Los Angeles Times snippet about cooking classes--however, in 1932 the same paper had a more official mention of the cake, including a recipe.
Tomato Soup Cupcake, The Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co., Seattle

Why did it gain popularity? Consider these factors. It made its debut on the cake scene right around the Great Depression, when times were lean. Certainly there was bound to be a place for a cake that required limited ingredients (some early recipes include no eggs, no butter, and little sugar) but still tasted good, and that kept well too. Additionally, it's been proven that soup consumption holds steady during times of depression, so Tomato Soup was probably something that would commonly be found in a pantry. Further to this point, this was around the time that manufacturers were getting savvy to the concept of using back-of-the-box style recipes to promote their products. 
What does it taste like? Well, the reason it's referred to as "mystery cake" is that if you didn't know the secret ingredient, it's not likely you'd guess it to be tomato soup. The cake is generously spiced, and the flavors of cloves and nutmeg tend to hit you first. Some say they can distinctly taste the tomato, but it would be interesting to see how many of them already knew it was an ingredient. 
Is it delicious? Some love it, some loathe it. M.F.K. Fisher was a fan, citing that "This is a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people while you are cooking other things, which is always sensible and makes you feel rather noble, in itself a small but valuable pleasure". Personally I find it to be a pleasant, if not especially memorable, spice cake. Original recipes don't always call for topping, but I think it needs a healthy dollop of cream cheese frosting.

How do I make Tomato Soup Cake? Here's a recipe from the venerable foodie M.F.K. Fisher, from her classic How to Cook a Wolf:

 

 

  • 3 tablespoons butter or shortening
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon soda
  • 1 can tomato soup
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg, ginger, cloves mixed
  • 1 1/2 cups raisins, nuts, chopped figs, what you will
Cream butter, add the sugar, and blend thoroughly. Add the soda to the soup, stirring well, and add this alternately to the first mixture with the flour and spices sifted together. Stir well, and bake in a pan or loaf-tin at 325 degrees F.
(CakeSpy Note: At this point, upon cooling, topping it with a generous amount of cream cheese frosting would be appropriate).

 

 

 

Sunday
Apr262009

A Rosette By Any Other Name: Getting To Know a Sweet Nordic Treat

Rosette, Hillcrest Bakery, Bothell, WA
Last week while trolling the Seattle suburbs for baked goods, we came across one that completely caught our fancy at the Hillcrest Bakery in Bothell: the rosette. Displayed in sweet little rows in two shapes (rosettes and butterflies), these cakes were available plain or garnished simply and prettily with powdered sugar.

Hillcrest Bakery, Bothell, WAHillcrest Bakery, Bothell, WA
Dainty yet substantial would be the perfect way to describe these treats, which are actually hollow (see below); while they are light and delicate, they do get a substantive and delicious boost from deep-frying, which gives them a flavor something like funnel cake, but with a tantalizingly crunchy texture.
Rosette, Hillcrest Bakery, Bothell, WA

So what's their story? Well, according to Epicurious.com's food dictionary, the rosette is:

A small fried pastry made by dipping a rosette iron first into a thin, sweet batter, then into hot deep fat. When the mixture turns crisp and golden brown, the rosette is removed from the iron and drained on paper towels. While warm, these pastries are usually sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar. A nonsweetened batter may be used to make savory rosettes, which can be sprinkled with salt and served as an appetizer. A rosette iron has a long metal rod with a heatproof handle at one end and various decorative shapes (such as a butterfly, heart, star or flower) that can be attached to the other end. 

They are also cousin (that is to say, there are attachments that can be added to the same handle to make them--see left) to a sort of open-ended pastry family called timbale, which  Epicurious.com tells us is
a pastry shell made by dipping a timbale iron first into a batter, then into deep, hot fat. When the crisp pastry is pushed off the iron and cooled, it can be filled with a sweet or savory mixture.
The rosette cookies, it seems, are typically served in Sweden as a Christmas cookie; however, as discovered on a Rosette wikipedia blurb, in Finland they "may be served at May Day (Vappu) celebrations as an alternative to funnel cakes (tippaleipä)." Clearly they've got the right idea--these little treats are definitely too good to hide away most of the year.
Hillcrest Bakery, Bothell, WA
If you're not near a Swedish bakery (poor thing!) don't despair quite yet--you can make your own at home. The only catch is that they do require specific equipment--those signature delicate shapes are, after all, the result of special molds; however, they're not outrageously priced (here's one set for $23!). However, beyond that they don't seem too difficult to make; according to Diana's Desserts, which also has recipes,  "The trick to making good rosettes is to preheat the iron in the oil, and to be sure not to dip the iron so deeply into the batter that it coats the top of the iron."
Of course, if all that seems too hard, you could always hop the next plane to Sweden. We hear airfare's good right now.

 

Thursday
Mar262009

Totally Swede: A Loving Look at a Sweet Bun Called Semla

Semla from Svedala
Semla. There are so many things to say about the sweet treat (which we recently scored at local Swedish bakery Svedala), but first let's just get acquainted, shall we?

First, what is it? Delicious, that's what. While there are different variations, what it comes down to is a cardomom-spiced yeast-raised wheat bun filled with almond paste and whipped cream. 

What's with the funny name? According to the internet, the word "semla" actually is derived from the Latin similia, which means "fine wheat flour". Apparently in Sweden "semla" can be a catchall phrase for "bun"; therefore it may also be known in Nordic regions as "Fastlagssemla" or "Fastlagsbulle" or "Fettisdagsbulle" (thoughts from readers from these Nordic regions?). But for ease of use, let's stick with Semla.
Semla!

 

Where does it come from? Semla is a pastry which has roots in Finland, Norway, Denmark and Estonia, but is probably most closely linked to Sweden. 

When is it available? Semla is most commonly associated with Shrove Tuesday (we call it "Fat Tuesday") as a fatty and decadent kickoff to that season of deprivation perhaps better known as Lent; however, according to Sweden.se ("the official gateway to Sweden"), the delicious treat "has arguably outgrown its religious symbolism", noting that 

The plump, cream-filled buns traditionally eaten on Tuesdays begin appearing in shops as early as January 1. Fat Tuesday would be more aptly named fat January, February and March.

Semla from Svedala
How is it eaten? Apparently, the traditional way to eat Semla is served in a bowl of hot milk; however, as we were assured by the owner of Svedala Bakery in Seattle, eating it on its own (at room temperature) is really just fine, and as we discovered, even finer with coffee or hot tea. Of course, as we also learned from Sweden.se
in Finland, the bun is sometimes filled with strawberry jam instead of almond paste, and bakeries in Finland usually offer both versions. (Many bakeries distinguish between the two by decorating the traditional bun with almonds on top, whereas the jam-filled version has powdered sugar on top).
Where can I get it? Well, if you're in Seattle and are willing to order enough to warrant her baking a batch, the owner of Svedala would probably make you some; check out their webpage here. 
In Portland, OR, Broder seems like a good place to try--after all, their motto is "Sweden in Portland".
In NYC, a little bird tells me that Semla can be found at Fika Espresso Bar on West 58th Street.
In Sweden, one famous retailer of Semla is Nybergs Hembageri, a cafe which has served the Semla-hungry masses since 1949; during the peak Semla season, they'll make over 350 semlor a day. That's a lotta love (and cardamom)! 
Could I make it myself? Sure, why not? We found this recipe online. If you make some, please be sure to make enough to mail some to the CakeSpy Headquarters.

Semla
Do you have any Semla trivia to share? But of course! Via Wikipedia and Sweden.se:

 

 

  • Sweet Surrender: King Adolf Frederick of Sweden died of digestion problems on February 12, 1771 after consuming a meal consisting of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring and champagne, which was topped off by 14 servings of semla, with bowls of hot milk. Semla was the king's favorite dessert. (CakeSpy Note: One should hope so!)
  • Gimme some sugar: Semla was the sweet chosen to represent Finland in the Café Europe initiative of the Austrian presidency of the European Union, on Europe Day 2006.
  • Swede Fancy: Each Swede eats five semlor per year on average.

 

Thursday
Feb262009

Short But Sweet: A Salute to Shortbread

SHORTBREAD!
Shortbread is certainly one of life's small pleasures: crispy, tantalizingly buttery, and when done right, the perfect combination of sweet and slightly salty.

With only three main ingredients (flour, sugar and butter--with a dash of salt for good measure)--traditional shortbread isn't a complex thing, but we would be hard-pressed to call it simple food. Because certainly there is an art to mixing those ingredients, to yielding the elusively perfect, buttery crumb.
But what else lies beneath this humble cookie? We took some time to think about various aspects of the cookie--here's what we discovered.
First off, where does the cookie come from?

As Historic-UK.com informs us, the story of shortbread begins with the medieval biscuit ("twice-baked"), wherein leftover bread dough was baked a second time to form a type of rusk--this is to say, if you picture a family tree of cookies, this would mean that shortbread, rusks and biscotti all share some relatives.
While by some accounts they existed as far back as the 12th century in Britain, it seems to us that it is truly Scotland where shortbread as we know it was developed: it is here that gradually the yeast began to be replaced with butter, and oat flour, which were some of their agricultural staples. These "short" bread cookies were a fancy dessert, reserved for the wealthy and for special occasions. And certainly their popularity was bolstered by the fact that in the 16th Century, they are said to have been a favorite of Mary, Queen of Scots (she liked a variation which included caraway seeds, in case you were interested).

Dipped Shortbread at Au Bon Pain, Penn Station
Why are they called "short"?
It's all about the butter, baby! According to Everything You Pretend to Know about Food and Are Afraid Someone Will Ask, which is like, our favorite book ever,
short pastry is a nonyeast pastry that has a high ratio of butter to flour. Short pastries bake up crumbly rather than chewy and tend to keep well, owing to their high fat content.
What is the proper shape for a traditional shortbread cookie?
We've seen them round, rectangular, diamond-shaped, and cut into wedges from a larger round--so what gives? Is there a proper shape for a traditional shortbread cookie? Once again according to Historic-UK.com,
Shortbread is traditionally formed into one of three shapes: one large circle divided into segments ("Petticoat Tails"); individual round biscuits ("Shortbread Rounds"); or a thick rectangular slab cut into "fingers."

Of course, having taste-tested each of these traditional variations, we can report that while they may differ in look, each shape is delicious.
Dog Portrait Cookies
What is the best shortbread cookie recipe?
These days, shortbread recipes are available in a dizzying array of flavors and variations: and from chocolate peanut butter to gorgeously decorated chocolate shortbread (above, photo c/o Whipped Bakeshop) to Earl Grey to cherry almond to even lavender vegan variations, we have enjoyed many of them. But moreover, we love this simple, classic recipe, which is a wonderful springboard for variations (note: though it can be made into round cookies rather than a big round, it is a fragile dough so may be harder to handle in that way).


Scottish shortbread in a pie tinShortbread
Classic Shortbread
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Preheat oven to 300°F. Lightly butter 9-inch-diameter springform pan (we couldn't find ours so used a pie plate--it worked just fine!). Whisk flour, sugar, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Add 1/2 cup butter and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Gather dough together and form into ball; flatten into disk. Roll out dough on lightly floured surface to 1/2-inch-thick round. Transfer round to prepared pan. Using fingers, press dough evenly over bottom to edges of pan. Using tip of small sharp knife, score dough into 8 equal triangles, then pierce all over with fork. Bake until shortbread is cooked through and pale golden, about 45 minutes.

 

Using tip of sharp knife, cut warm shortbread into triangles along scored lines. Run knife around shortbread to loosen. Cool in pan at least 30 minutes. Using spatula, carefully remove shortbread from pan.

Can be made 1 day ahead. Store shortbread airtight in single layer at room temperature.

 

Monday
Dec222008

The True Meaning of Christmas (Cookies, That Is)

Christmas cookies
What is a Christmas cookie?

Is this a trick question? Perhaps.

Cookie ShotsChristmas Cookies
On the one hand, you may think that a Christmas cookie is one that you make (and eat) around Christmastime. But is that all there is to it? Because certainly Christmas cookies aren't just a result of everyday recipes dressed up with red and green sprinkles or dye, are they? It seems to us that certain cookies, while available at other times of year, proliferate around the holiday season--spritz cookies, gingerbread, cutout sugar cookies, for instance. In addition, how is it that nearly every family has a unique collection of cookies--ranging from bonbons to melt-in-your-mouth meringues to Rum balls--that only come out around the holidays?


Christmas cookies from our neighbors
To discover the true meaning of Christmas (cookies), we had to look back--way back--in time. Now, it's no secret that sweets have been part of holiday rituals since long before Christmas was a declared a holiday (which was in 1870, in case you were wondering). But according to Foodtimeline.org, it was a combination of Eastern spices and European flair that contributed to the cookie's success:
Gingerbread Men
Ancient cooks prepared sweet baked goods to mark significant occasions. Many of these recipes and ingredients (cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, almonds, dried fruits etc.) were introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages. They were highly prized and quickly incorporated into European baked goods. Christmas cookies, as we know them today, trace their roots to these Medieval European recipes. Dutch and German settlers introduced cookie cutters, decorative molds, and festive holiday decorations to America. German lebkuchen (gingerbread) was probably the first cake/cookie traditionally associated with Christmas.
Naturally, cookies lend themselves very nicely to cookie cutters, which we would surmise is one reason why they tended to stick around as a Christmas tradition--not to mention that they have a long shelf life, travel well, and are made in larger batches that imply bounty (that is to say, even though 24 cookies and one cake may have the same surface mass, the number of items can fool us into feeling as if there is more to share).
Of course, the article goes on to state that sugar cookie type recipes descended from English traditions; perhaps their trip over the Atlantic was the inspiration for Animal Crackers, which were originally designed as Christmas ornaments
The best sugar cookies...EVER
While the tradition of Christmas cookies may have its roots in Medieval Europe, and while we may associate some cookies with the holidays more than others, it's also true that Christmas cookie recipes today come from all over the world--it would not be unusual to see German Lebkuchen, Scottish Shortbread, Italian Pizzelles and all-American Cornflake wreaths sharing the same plate. Why so? Well, we surmise that it's an illustration of evolution--as people immigrated and adapted, naturally they would want to honor their culture's recipes with the Christmas cookie tradition. While this may blur the boundaries of what is a Christmas cookie and what is just a cookie, it certainly does make the variety and joy of discovery at holiday parties a whole lot more fun. 

Sugar SkatesChristmas cookies with matcha glaze by MPG
And of course, it makes us all better able to add a few more recipes to our arsenal--as well as experiment--each year, sometimes with delicious results

Bonbon Cookies in pink!
But what of the US tradition of leaving cookies for Santa, you may be asking? Well, to us, that one's easy--clearly, Santa (whoever he or she is) wants a midnight snack. Duh.


Want more?

  • For a by-country list of Christmas cookies, visit christmas-cookies.com (though we didn't recognize any of the US ones!)
  • For more information about Christmas cookies in history, visit The Food Timeline.

 

Friday
Dec052008

Hats Off: A Loving Look at Two Chapeau-Inspired Baked Goods

Napoleons Hat
It's a funny thing about hats. Some people can "do" hats--some most definitely cannot. The beret that looks jaunty and artistic on one may have a mushroom-head effect on another. The straw hat that looks so breezy on carefree on one person...well, you get the point. However, baked goods made to look like (or inspired by) hats seem to work a little bit more universally. Now, we could really go wild on this theme--from Pilgrims' Hats to Southern Belles to Nuns Habits, a lot of hat-pastry connections have been made over the years. But for now, let's just focus on two, with respective histories as rich as their sweet buttery cookie crusts:

Stop! Hamenstashen Time!
Hamentashen: These tricorner cookies are folded over on the top  so as to reveal just a small, alluring bit of the filling within, usually poppyseed, apricot or prune. Don't let those flavors put you off: really, they're very good, almost like a danish but with a cookie crust. As for the hat that inspired it all? According to Wikipedia, the name hamantash (המן־טאַש), is a reference to Haman, the villain of Purim, as described in the Book of Esther. Apparently, 

a likely source of the name is a corruption of the Yiddish word מאן־טאשן (montashn) or the German word mohntaschen, both meaning poppyseed-filled pouches; over time, this name was transformed to hamantashen, likely by association with Haman. In Israel, they are called אוזני המן (Oznei Haman), Hebrew for "Haman's ears" where children are taught these tasty pastries are the ears of Haman that fell off at his execution.
However, ears aren't necessarily the most appetizing cookie inspiration, which is probably why 
some Hebrew schools teach that Hamentashen are made in the shape of Haman's hat. There's even a song to go along with it (sung to the tune of "Carnival of Venice"):

My hat it has three corners.
Three corners has my hat.
And had it not three corners,
It wouldn't be my hat.

 

Napoleon Hat
Napoleonhattar (Napoleon's Hat): We first came across this cookie at local Swedish bakery Larsen's; while we can't say why the Swedes saw fit to name a cookie after the petite ruler's signature hat, we can guess that it dates back to their involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. More important than the roots though, is the joy that this cookie has brought to our lives. Larsen's version was fully covered on top, with an outer cookie crust and almond paste-innards that approached the chewy consistency that one might expect in the center of a coconut macaroon. As an added bonus, theirs was chocolate-dipped on the bottom for extra decadence. We located a recipe in the Sunset Magazine archives, but theirs more closely resembles Hamentashen (at least visually).

Recipe Links:
Hamentashen: You can find recipes at jewishappleseed.org or this one looks good too!


Napoleon's Hats: Does anyone have a good recipe for them? We could only find a few; you could try the one we found in Sunset Magazine, or you could try this one. We couldn't find a recipe for chocolate-dipped ones, but probably you could do it the same way you'd do chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons.

 

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