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Entries in regional specialties (22)

Wednesday
Jul232014

Crumb Cake: An Extremely Opinionated Education

NYC crumb cake

Before we even get into the issue of "what is crumb cake, anyway?" I'd like to address why, exactly, I ought to be considered an authority on the subject. In my opinion, of course.

First off, I was born and raised by the Jersey shore.

This is part of what you could consider the "crumb cake belt", extending into New York state to the North and down as far as the mid-Atlantic to the south. To the best of my knowledge, though, the New York metro area and about an hour outside of it is really where crumb cake is a prime time food.

I have experienced a lot of crumb cake in my time.

From the time I was able to eat solids, it was a favorite of mine as I grew up by the Jersey shore; the square box of Entenmann's crumb cake was a constant in our house, and whenever I had the opportunity to get a treat at the bakery or a deli, crumb cake was always my pick. For me, crumb cake has always been one of those foods, that like pizza, "even when it's bad, it's still good." 

I've tried it all: artisan versions, commercially produced versions, bakery versions, homemade ones. And with nearly 33 years of crumb cake eating under my belt, I'd like to offer some opinions and thoughts on the stuff.

Crumb cake in America

If I were to make an educated guess on the history of crumb cake, it would be this.

What we know today as crumb cake is most likely the adaptation of coffee cake recipes by German bakers who came to America. The cake does bear a passing resemblance to many of the streusel topped kuchen recipes, a popular coffee-friendly cake from Germany. 

To further my conjecture, I would guess that stateside bakers responded to the fact that everyone loves crumb by adding more to theirs, thus making everyone come back for more. As we all know, a lot of the NYC deli treats (black and white cookies are a good example) are often impressive in scale; if some is good, more is better. Today, many crumb cakes boast as much as a 50-50 ratio of crumb to cake. We live in a blessed time.

A regional treat

Curiously, while crumb cake is delicious regardless of your geography, it seems to be available primarily on the east coast, with a particular concentration in the New York metro area. In general, from New York city out to commuter areas is going to be the epicenter. 

As a result of the regional aspect, many people further away have no idea what crumb cake actually is or should be. I remember in Seattle, people would think that a coffee cake with a streusel topping was a crumb cake. Sometimes, bakeries would even label it as such, adding to the confusion. 

So here, let me show you in pictures a review of what crumb cake is and is not.

What crumb cake is

In a world full of cakes that have crumbs, defining true crumb cake can sometimes be difficult.  So let me illustrate some examples of what crumb cake is.

NYC crumb cake

This is crumb cake. Note the lightly yellow-hued cake. It is not to be confused with yellow cake, which is sponge-like and airy. There should be a certain fluffiness to the cake, but it needs to be sturdy enough to be weight bearing, because as you may have noticed, there is a rather top-heavy coating of fat brown sugar crumbs. However, it is not as firm as pound cake; it has a little give.

As for the crumb, this is important: it is not a solid layer of brown sugar, but a collection of fat brown sugar clusters. 

crumb cake

In contemporary times, it is my belief that crumb cake should be at the very least 1/3 crumb, preferably 1/2 crumb to cake. But less than 1/3 and it's not crumb cake, it's cake with a crumb topping.

Crumb cake

If you are worried about adding too much crumb, don't be. As you can see from the above, even a 9/10 crumb to 1/10 cake ratio is just fine.

Crumb Cake!

Crumb cake can be purchased in a few places: prominently at delicatessens, where it may be individually wrapped in plastic. It can also be found at bakeries and bagel joints. It is not necessarily a fancy food, so you should be wary of fancy establishments who try to take a unique spin on crumb cake.

What crumb cake is definitely not

I want to say from the get-go that it's very possible for non-crumb cakes to be delicious. However, tastiness aside, none of the below cakes are crumb cake, and should not be referred to as such. If I asked for a slice of crumb cake and one of these were delivered, I would definitely have words with the baker about their terminology.

Photo via wikipedia commons

Cake with a streusel topping. I can see how you're confused. But NO. Streusel is a topping, not an ingegral half of the cake. Not crumb cake.
Photo via pixabay

Things called "coffee cake" with crumbs on top. Still not crumb cake. 

Macadamia caramel chocolate crumb bar, Seattle

Crumb topped bar cookies. Tasty, but not crumb cake. They have a cookie base, not cake, and a more dense, cookie-like crumb. Not crumb cake. Bar cookies. Got it?

Apple Crisp From Eat Local, Seattle

Desserts with crumbs on top. Even if they are fat crumbs, like on this apple crisp, they are not crumb cake.

Almost but not quite crumb cake (in CakeSpy's opinion)

This is a coffee cake, not a proper crumb cake. The brown sugar swirl hidden inside is delightful, but it doesn't fully detract from the fact that there is 9/10 cake and 1/10 crumb going on here. The crumbs are too small; they aren't tightly packed or large enough. No.

Crumb cake

Here is a fine example of a cake that almost, but not quite, classifies as crumb cake. While the ingredients are right, the ratio is off: it's more about the cake than the crumb. And speaking of the crumb, that's a problem, too: it's more like a thin layer of brown sugar topping rather than an assemblage of crumbs. This particular one tasted great, but lacked the satisfaction of crumbs the size of walnuts which you could pick off and enjoy.

Variations can be all right

Crumb cake is allowed to come in different variations and flavors. In New York delis, you'll see raspberry crumb cake (a thin layer of raspberry lives between the crumb and the cake), chocolate (the cake is marbled or two-tone and there is a chocolate ribbon on top), and a handful of other flavors. It is OK to add flavors to crumb cake. What is not ok, however, is to alter the architecture of the crumb top.

The crumb-heavy top is a constant, and must remain consistent.

As for the confectioners' sugar, I'm not a stickler. If they put a drizzle of glaze on top instead, I am fine with that.

Crumb cake, Cameo Cakes, Brielle NJ

What makes a good crumb cake

Here's a quick guide to the characteristics of a fine crumb cake:

  • Ratio. Lots of crumb. No more than 2/3 cake.
  • The perfect cake. Fluffy, but not spongey. Rich, but not pound cake.
  • Salt. You have to have salt added to the crumbs. It makes them irresistible.
  • Fat crumbs, presence of. The crumbs can be varied in size, but each slice should have at least one or two very fat crumbs. 
  • Coffee. Not as in you have to drink coffee with the cake (although that's quite nice) but as an indicator of the time of day best for eating crumb cake. It's the morning. Coffee time, and a cake that is not coffee cake, but crumb cake. If you have this cake for breakfast, it means you can still have dessert later!

Hey, if you love crumb cake, you may be interested in these recipes of mine:

Behemoth crumb cake, featured in CakeSpy Presents Sweet Treats for a Sugar-Filled Life

Classic NYC Crumb cake adapted from Arthur Schwartz

Do you have any thoughts to add on crumb cake? Leave a comment!

Monday
Sep162013

CakeSpy Undercover: The Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

I first heard about the Buttermilk Drop in a New York Times article, gloriously entitled "A City Drenched in Sugar". I had known that New Orleans was a city famed for its sweets, but I don't think I really knew until I read this article. Not only King cake waited for me in the Big Easy, but doberge cake and snowballs and doughnuts, too.

Actually, a particular type of doughnut called the Buttermilk Drop.

As I learned from this site, the buttermilk drop is a doughnut unique to New Orleans which gained fame at the now defunct but still beloved McKenzie's Pastry Shoppe. It is, on the surface, not an incredibly unique treat. It looks like a doughnut hole, but it's bigger. But not quite as big as a full-sized doughnut. But one taste will tell you that this is a very special doughnutty morsel. Rich in buttermilk, yes, which gives them a perfect delicate crumb yet substantial texture, which is gorgeously and generously coated in a thick glaze. 

I can understand why New Orleans would simply not stand for this doughnut disappearing.

Today, from what I gather, you can get buttermilk drops at two places: Tastee's, which apparently purchased the rights to a number of McKenzie's recipes, and The Buttermilk Drop Cafe

I recently tried them at The Buttermilk Drop Cafe, an establishment with an interesting story. Owner Dwight Henry first gained fame as a maker of sweet treats, then gained local celebrity status when he put incredible effort into helping re-open businesses in his Seventh Ward neighborhood following Hurricane Katrina.

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

And then, he was "discovered" when the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild was filming in his neighborhood, and ended up being featured in the movie. So basically now, in addition to being famous for making doughnuts, he's being featured in New York Times Magazine style shoots

Well, I will tell you, I was intrigued.

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

So when you walk into The Buttermilk Drop Cafe, I was greeted by an odd sight. A large room with ample seating space...but no seating. A menu that seemed to invite sitting and staying a spell...but nowhere to sit and stay. Cool artwork on the wall and even ceiling. 

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

A large case greeted us, but only a portion of it was filled. All of what filled it looked good though: DOUGHNUTS. Glazed and cake, vanilla and chocolate, in rounds and braids... Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

and, of course, the famed buttermilk drops.

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

From behind a small glass window, a friendly girl took our order. It was alarmingly affordable. The doughnuts and buttermilk drops were all well under a dollar each, which was refreshing. 

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

We got a few buttermilk, a few chocolate, and of course several buttermilk drops.Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

The doughnuts were very, very good. Light in texture, with a solid buttermilk flavor, and most importantly, drenched in a highly delicious glaze.Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

But the real star was the buttermilk drops. Was it the power of suggestion, that I was ready to love these best because I had heard so much about them? Perhaps. But d-a-m-n were they fine doughnuts.

The texture of the buttermilk drop is perfect. Like I said before, it's a delicate crumb, but a substantial doughnut in nature. I love the size, too. It's more serious than a mere doughnut hole, but not quite a full size doughnut. It is the perfect snacking size. And the glaze was so liberally applied that it kind of fused into the drop's crust...oh, heaven.

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

So what am I saying here? Get yourself to the Buttermilk Drop Cafe. I was impressed by how "real" the place has remained even following its fame. Weird about the seating, but you can deal. This is an experience that must be lived by doughnut lovers.

The Buttermilk Drop Cafe, 1781 N. Dorgenois Street, New Orleans. Online here.

 

Friday
Mar292013

An Introduction to Cactus Candy

YEAH! That is the coolest kind of parcel to receive, let me tell you. How did it happen that I was on the receiving end of such a treasure? Well, let me tell you, I did the best thing ever: I put two children on the job for me! Seriously, it was like having my own personal Oompa Loompas. Two very cool kids that I know were headed to Arizona for vacation. I told them to keep an eye out for cactus candy for me. A couple weeks later I received a parcel containing the above. AWESOME! 

But seriously. We need to address something more serious than your jealousy about my awesome mail. It's possible not only that you've never heard of Cactus Candy, but that you've never even considered its existence. It's possible that the possibility of it has never even entered your mind.

And that pains me, sweet friends, because I really think you should know about this stuff. So...for your continuing life learning...

Cactus Candy

Photo: Flickr user Branflakez

Cactus Candy: A Primer

What is cactus candy? Quite simply, it is candied cactus: pieces of cactus which have been coated and treated with a simple syrup mixture to make it immortal. It sort of resembles pate de fruit or gumdrops (but flat) in texture and look. However, keep an eye on the ingredients. As one candy blogger noted, in a sea of a Cactus Candy flavor assortment, only one flavor (Prickly Pear) actually contained cactus. 

Where can I get cactus candy? In Phoenix, there is a cactus candy company. They have a store. They also sell cactus jelly and salsa and the like. But you don't have to visit the store to buy--they also wholesale to a lot of tourist type operations, so you'll see it in the greater Phoenix area. If nowhere else, you'll find it in the airport gift shop. 

When is it in season? Well, prickly pear season is late Spring and summer, but really, in candy form, you can enjoy it just about any time. 

Why is cactus candy a thing? Cactus is a pretty big deal in Arizona. Prickly pear, as it is called, is in frequent rotation regionally as an ingredient. It is used as a syrup, stand-alone ingredient, beverage component (prickly pear margarita, anyone?). It stands that the candy made from this local ingredient would feature prominently in local cuisine. 

Cactus candy inside

Photo: Flickr user Seldo

How is Cactus Candy Made? I'm not sure how the commercial candy is made, but I have seen recipes for DIY Cactus candy online. It basically goes like this: chop down a cactus, remove thorns and simmer in simple syrup for several days. You weren't busy, were you?

How does it taste? This is a fruit-ish flavor that isn't strongly recognizeable. It almost tastes like a few different fruits you can't quite put your finger on. It's not overwhelming or as signature as, say, lemon. But it's pleasant.

Curious to learn more? Check out cactuscandy.com

Monday
Mar182013

Unusual Sweet from Wisconsin: Wild Rice Dessert Topping

Wild Rice Dessert Topping

Recently, I found myself poring over the fantastic volume Hungry for Wisconsin: A Tasty Guide for Travelers. The reason why I was looking through this book is this: I was seeking out unusual regional specialties or bakeries that I simply needed to visit. What can I say? I love armchair food travel. 

Wild Rice Dessert Topping

One thing caught my eye right away, as in on page 2: a story about wild rice in Wisconsin. As it turns out, wild rice is a pretty big deal in what many would consider the Dairy State. It grows "freely in cool, northern rivers, shallow lakes, and other wetlands", and commands a high price, because the harvest is done by hand. This love and care gives it a unique, nutty flavor that Uncle Ben could only dream of attaining. 

For generations, the Native Americans of the area have harvested rice in a ritual that brings together the whole family. Unfortunately, this tradition seems to have been dying in recent years. 

But at least a few brave Wild Rice soldiers want to bring back the tradition. And as part of their dedication to bringing back the wild rice harvest, the fine people of Bear Clan Wild Rice do various events to raise awareness.

Wild Rice dessert Topping

At these events, they hand out recipes for wild rice, including this unusual one, which is in the book and caught my attention right away: Wild Rice Dessert Topping. At first it struck me as an odd recipe, but when I thought about it further, it came to me sort of like this: I like rice. I like dessert. I think rice pudding is great, but why should it have all the fun?

And so I gave it a try. If you have wild rice on hand, the recipe is a snap. Getting used to the flavor might involve a learning curve--it's definitely different. Earthy, and nutty, sort of granola-esque but with that distinct rice flavor, it works best with fairly neutral flavored desserts--I tried it on top of vanilla ice cream. It's a fascinating flavor, and once I got past the "oh! weird!" aspect of it, I found it highly enjoyable.

Wild Rice Dessert Topping (Printable recipe here!)

  • 1 cup cooked wild rice
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar or maple sugar
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries (original recipe suggests dried cranberries or raisins)
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (original recipe calls for pecans)

Combine all the ingredients together in a bowl. Wild Rice Dessert Topping

Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes, so that it can all meld together. Wild Rice Dessert Topping Wild Rice Dessert Topping

Spoon the mixture over ice cream, custard, or pudding directly before serving.

Wild Rice Dessert Topping

Thursday
Mar072013

The Curious Case of the St. Patrick's Day Frog Cupcake

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

It's a funny thing about regional baked goods. Sometimes, you don't realize they're regional until you move away from an area. And for me, one such baked good is the St. Patrick's Day Frog Cupcake.

I grew up in a magical part of the world known as the Jersey Shore. And every year around the first of March through St. Patrick's day, local bakeries such as Freedman's Bakery would bake up a very interesting confection: the frog cupcake.

Let me explain a bit further, though. A frog cupcake is NOT simply a cupcake decorated with a frog face. Its construction is like so:

Frogs chart

When assembled, it looks like this:

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

Now, chances are, if you aren't a local in the NY metro area, you may never have seen this glorious confection. For me, it wasn't until I relocated to Seattle for a time that I realized that this wasn't an everywhere treat. So what gives?

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

Well, I have to say, this is a moment where I want to say "Bless the Internet", because, as it turns out, there's an entire website dedicated to the subject  (and preservation of) these delightful frogs. It's called Follow Your Frog. It even has a page dedicated to the evolution of the frog. The research isn't scientific, but references that the frog pheneomenon could date back to the 1920s, in Australia:

A place called Balfours, which evidently still has them today. These Froggies are quite different than their American cousins (well, OK, we haven’t tasted met them yet, but from what we've read). These are tea cakes, originally just green, then also pink and chocolate coated (yes, chocolate!). Were these the frogs that came to America and were supersized? Or are the Frogs that settled in the New York metro area instead from Europe? Frog historians (ok, there really is no such thing...crazy people obsessed with Frogs) are attempting to trace their path…

But then the page goes on to say

Next sighting - bakeries in the NY Metro area in the 1960s-70s. These are the frogs of our childhood, and all the local bakeries (Coquelle’s, New Garden) in the Newark NJ area had them for St. Patrick’s Day (and ONLY then).

Newark area bakeries disappear over time, with Coquelle’s ending in the 90s, and we thought they were extinct. Uncontrollable sobbing continued every St. Patty’s Day. Until…

Frogs found in Central Jersey! In fact they were there all along, probably as long as the Northern NJ frogs – we just didn’t know. Vaccaro’s in Clark NJ saves St. Patty’s Day!

Frogs go mainstream with the Wegmans supermarket variety – although for the last 2 years in NJ they were MIA… so hopefully they have not gone the way of the dinosaur…

An internet search leads to the discovery of La Delice in NYC – another older bakery which has had them for a long time. And these frogs don’t hibernate – they proudly show their googly eyes every day of the year.

The fantastic creators of the Follow Your Frog site have even started something called FrogFest, which pits frog cupcake makers from NY, NJ, and PA against one another to see whose frogs are the finest. My goodness, why haven't I been to one of these?

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

As the site notes, and as I can attest, the frog is a dying breed. When I visited Freedman's in Belmar recently, which is under new ownership since my childhood, the employee had no idea what I was talking about when I inquired about frog cupcakes. A longtime employee's face, however, lit up as she said "Oh my god! I remember the frogs. They were like sugar bombs! So good!". 

However, in nearby Spring Lake Heights, the frogs are available at a bakery called What's For Dessert. Their specimen is a fine one, with a decadent edge owing to a butter cookie leprechaun hat (adhered with a birthday candle!). And by a "fine" specimen I mean a true and complete sugar bomb of a delight. It's not fancy eating but it sure is fun. Here is my nephew about to dig into one:

Dylan and his frog

It is humane to remove the eyes before eating, but that's not to say you can't have a little torturous fun with your frog. Sensitive readers may want to skip the next few photos.

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

OK, OK. I hope I've expanded your sweet horizons by offering you the fable of the Jersey Shore frog today. If you're curious, I highly suggest visiting the Follow Your Frog website, where you can find frogs and report sightings!

It may not be easy being green for these frogs, but life is certainly sweet for the eaters of these treats. 

Wednesday
Apr112012

Regional Sweets: Mom Blakeman's Creamed Pull Candy

Mom Blakeman's

How can I describe Mom Blakeman's Creamed Pull Candy in a way you'll understand?

Well, here goes. First, imagine taffy.

 But not sticky like taffy. Maybe the smoothness of taffy, but with the melty texture of a butter-mint.

...but even more butteriness. Like a dab of buttercream frosting in there, too. But not a fancy meringue buttercream...more like the grocery-store birthday cake frosting that you probably would never admit you like to your foodie friends.

Imagine all of these separate aspects, and now swirl them into a sort of nugget of candy. A deliciously rich nugget of creamy candy. Now you're getting the idea of the magic that is Mom Blakeman's.

Mom Blakeman's

I honestly forget where I first heard about this candy. Maybe my college roommate, who was from Kentucky? Or perhaps one of my awesome friends in KY like Brigitte or Stella? I don't know. But I definitely know how I first tasted it: a reader, Melanie, sent me a tub of the stuff. Related: I like Melanie.

Naturally, I got curious about this sweet treat's pedigree. Founded in 1961, the company was founded by Mom herself--here's what I learned:

The website told me a little more about the candy itself: "The candy is better-known in local community as "cream" or "pull" candy. Creamed Pull Candy is a team effort involving several people to cook, pour it on cold marble, pull, cut, cream, pack and seal the candy. Making creamed pull candy is an art passed from generation to generation."

And then it told me the fascinating story of how the company took off.

 Maxine "Mom" Blakeman started making her creamed pull candy in her home in Lancaster, KY in the 1940's. She had a restaurant on the public square and made her candy available to her patrons. She was known for her generosity. During World War II, she always served any armed service men who came into her restaurant a free meal.

Residents of Lancaster who knew Mom Blakeman still talk of how she always had some candy for any school children who stopped by. After her husband passed away, she sold her large house to a couple on the condition that she could live in and make her candy in the two story garage on the property.

Mom Blakeman's candy was well known throughout central Kentucky. Mom Blakeman was encouraged to market her candy in 1961 by her good friend, Colonel Harlan Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Upon her death in 1970, the business was passed down to a friend who worked with Mom. Changing owners only a few times, the company is family owned and operated with one focus...making great candy.

Sweet! I always love a good backstory with my delicious treat. And this is certainly a sweet one--I can understand why Mom Blakeman's is sought out from far and wide! It's exactly the type of treat you'd really miss if you moved away from a place where it was readily available.

Mom Blakeman's

Of course, happily, in the age of the internet, we can order online and get it delivered to our door. Should you want to do such a thing, hit up the Mom Blakeman's website here. I also found a creamed pull candy recipe here.

Saturday
Jan212012

Sweet Discovery: Trenary Toast from Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Image: Trenary Toast website

Have you ever heard of Trenary Toast?

It's sort of like a cross between biscotti and cinnamon toast, and it's a specialty of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I learned of it on The Splendid Table and nearly broke everything in my path to google the stuff.

To learn a little more about the sweet itself, I'll give you the description from the Trenary House Bakery website:

Our toast is made from a sweet white bread, baked fresh daily. To create our cinnamon toast, we paint the bread with a wash and hand coat each piece with a tantalizing cinnamon and sugar mixture. It is then baked again to acheive that delicious crispy crunch for dunking into your favorite beverage.

As Jane and Michael Stern echo, "Like biscotti and zwieback, Trenary Toast is a brittle breadstuff eminently suitable for dunking."

Seems that this has been a specialty of the area since the 1930s, when the bakery was built; even through the time the bakery (with living quarters) was changed to a boarding house, and then back to a bakery (which it is now), the toast has been a mainstay. 

You can order online, or as they urge on the site,

Come and visit us in Trenary in the heart of Michigan's beautiful Upper Peninsula and try some of our delicious Trenary Toast in the familiar brown bag, have a cup of coffee and freshly baked Cinnamon Roll. Take yourself back in time when everything was fresh and sweet to the taste. A simplier time, hand crafted by people who care.

Sounds good to me. Find out more at the Trenary Home Bakery website!

Tuesday
Aug302011

Going Dutch: Cake Gumshoe Kate Lebo Investigates the Dutch Letter in Iowa

CakeSpy Note: When I heard a rumor that Kate Lebo of Pie-Scream (I'll tell you more about THAT soon) was headed to Iowa to judge the pie contest at the Iowa State Fair, I had a request: FIND MORE ABOUT THE DUTCH LETTER. This elusive sweet seems to be an Iowa specialty...but why? Here's Kate's report.

  1. “If it’s almondy and crispy, it’s Dutch” said Cassie Van Wyk of Jaarsma Bakery in Pella, Iowa. I’d asked her why so many of the peach pies I’d tried at the Iowa State Fair had almond extract in them. I’ve seen that addition in cherry pie, sure, but peach? It makes peaches taste canned! Cassie’s response also applied the baked goods she was selling me: Almond Banket (pictured below), St. Nick Cookies, and what I’d driven an hour down I-163 to find, Dutch Letter Cookies.
  2. When Jessie Oleson found out I was going to spend two weeks in Iowa so I could judge the State Fair pie contest and spend some time baking with Beth Howard of The World Needs More Pie at the American Gothic House in Eldon, IA, she asked if I’d take on a sleuthing assignment for Cakespy. “Dutch Letters,” she said. “Ever heard of them?” Nope. What did they look like? “They’re S-shaped pastries. Apparently they’re an Iowan specialty.” The S-shape brought to mind the S-cookies my mother used to feed me when I was a small child in Southern California. She’s from Iowa, so the connection isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. That’s how my search started with a phone call to Mom.
  3. “Dutch? I’m pretty sure they came from an Italian bakery.” There goes my S-cookie theory, I thought. “When we moved to Washington, I couldn’t find them anymore. They were the perfect snack for small kids because they were just a little sweet and soft, not crumbly or flaky, so they didn’t make a mess when you snacked on them.” That’s my mom, Ms. Practical down to desserts. I remembered S-cookies as being about five inches high, golden brown and lemony. And the texture--Mom had that right. It would dissolve in your mouth before crumbling in your lap. But Italian? That couldn’t be right. Dutch Letter Cookies are, well, Dutch.
  4. So I asked my mom’s other sister, Gail, the one I’d be staying with in Des Moines, if she’d ever heard of Dutch Letter Cookies. “Oh sure. I have one in the freezer. But they’re not called Dutch Letter Cookies. They’re called Dutch Letters.” Ah ha! When I got to Iowa, my quarry would be waiting for me.
  5. Gail's Dutch Letter had wilted in the freezer, but I could get the general idea with just a couple bites: flaky pastry stuffed with mildly-spiced sweet almond paste, studded with chunky sugar and arranged in an S-shape. Why an S? I asked Gail. “Santa? I’m not really sure.”
  6. The day I met Beth Howard at the Iowa State Fair, it was 90 degrees in the shade but still not too hot for pork chop on a stick. While we wolfed down our snack, I told her about my Dutch Letter quest. “You have to go to Pella,” she told me. “It’s a Dutch community about halfway between Des Moines and Eldon, so that’s perfect. Most of the bakeries there make Dutch Letters, but the Jaarsma Bakery’s are the best.” A couple days later, after eating mountains of almond extract-flavored peach pie, I charted a course for Pella.
  7. Pella has windmills. Huge windmills. Plus lots of antique shops, old European storefronts, and dutch bakeries, Jaarsma chief among them. When I walked in, I noted the white lace hats the workers wear and the fact that Jaarsma’s dry goods section carries De Ruijter, a Dutch treat I’ve been dreaming about since I last made it my daily midnight snack during a week-long stay in Holland. De Ruijter are essentially soft chocolate sprinkles you serve on hot toast. They melt where they touch the bread but stay crunchy on top, and unlike Nutella they have no nutritional value whatsoever. I picked up a box and made my way over to a pastry case full of S-shaped stacks of Dutch Letters. “Why the S?” I asked Cassie Van Wyk. “It stands for Sinterclaus. It’s also the easiest letter for our bakers to make. Way easier than E or an R.” Except for I, right? I asked. “We have those too,” she said, pointing toward a pyramid of boxed I-shaped pastries labeled Almond Banket. They’re surprisingly heavy. “That’s because they’re super-stuffed with almond paste. My boss says that one Banket is the equivalent of about four Dutch letters. When I have one, I have to share it with two or three friends.” Thinking of Beth and the folks that I’ll soon meet in Eldon, I added one to my shopping basket.
  8. Cassie told me that Jaarsma is still owned by the family that opened the bakery in 1898. The owner is a direct descendent of founder Harmon Jaarsma, who brought traditional Dutch recipes with him when he emigrated from Holland. The spices they use in their Dutch Letters and other pastries are imported directly from Holland, as are their Pickwick teas, licorice, and De Ruijter. “We make our own Dutch Rusks though.” Dutch Rusk? “It’s a crispy, twice-baked biscuit (like zwieback or digestives) you dip in your coffee.” St. Nick cookies--thin spiced crisps in windmill and other shapes--serve that purpose as well. That’s how Cassie and I got on the subject of crispy almondy things. She said it’s still custom in Pella to have a plate of these crisps with coffee when guests come over. I asked her if she’s Dutch. “Nope, Bohemian. But I married into a very Dutch family.”
  9. A fresh Dutch Letter tastes like a defrosted Dutch Letter times ten. It is a tidy mother’s nightmare--so flaky and light that pastry shards cling to your mouth with every bite. The almond paste inside gives the pastry some heft and substance, the way De Ruijter transforms toast into dessert. The almonds are ground so finely that the only suggestion this dreamy paste was once made of crunchy nuts is its unmistakeable marzipan flavor. It reminds me of an almond croissant, but you don’t have to work so hard to find the almonds hidden inside. My aunt’s guess was almost right--Dutch Letters were originally baked as special treats for Sinterclaus Day (the Dutch Santa Claus Day) but at Jaarsma you can have a Dutch Letter any day of the year. Thanks to the internet, that goes for all you non-Iowan folks too. Order on Jaarsma’s website and they will ship them straight to you.
  10. I still don’t know why Iowans put almond extract in their peach pies. Could it really be just “a Dutch thing”? Gail says my grandmother uses almond extract, but we’re German. She puts pineapple in her peach pies too. God knows where that idea comes from. When I asked again why all things crispy and almondy are Dutch, Cassie brought a baker from the back out to help answer my question. She smiled at me over the glow of the pastry case, shrugged and said, “it’s tradition.”

To order from Jaarsma, visit their website; to see more of Kate's work, visit Pie-Scream.

Tuesday
Aug092011

Letter From Whoopie Pie: Please Stop Trying to Fix Me Up With Boston Cream Pie

To Whom It May Concern:

Hi, Whoopie Pie here. Now, I know I'm kind of easy to make fun of. I have a stupid name, and even my regional variation in Pennsylvania is called "Gob"--not much better. But today I'm not here to lobby for a cooler name like Sweetburger or Awesome Sandwich. 

No, I'm here to talk about matters of the heart.

Now, before you start to titter about "making whoopie", please know that your comments cannot hurt me, because I have heard them all. ALL OF THEM I TELL YOU.

I am writing to implore you to please, please, please STOP TRYING TO FIX ME UP WITH BOSTON CREAM PIE.

I get it, ok? I totally get it. We're both baked goods that have "pie" in the name that are not actually pies. We're actually both more cakey. In my case, cakey cookie. And in Boston Cream Pie's case...well, just cake, layered with cream and chocolate.

I hear Bostie's name comes as a result of his ancestors being baked in pie tins, so I guess there's some connection, even if it's weak. But in my case, no, I can't tell you why pie is in my name. It's like asking why is birthday cake delicious or who first combined peanut butter and chocolate . Nobody knows for sure, but we know they're Good Things.

So yeah, we do have stuff in common. We're both cakey, we both contain chocolate, and we're both delicious. 

But here's the thing. Just because we're both from the Northeast, just because we're both Official State Foods (I'm the official state snack of Maine; Boston Cream Pie holds the honor of official state dessert in Massachusetts), just because we're both Pie misfits, just because we both contain butter and sugar and eggs...it doesn't mean that we complete each other.

For one thing, Boston Cream Pie is a cool guy, really he is, but he's so uptight, you know, in that reserved Boston blue-blood sort of way. I mean, he's from the Parker House. As much as he says he can just "roll with it" (I don't think he's trying to make a Parker House pun, either), it's just not true. Boston Cream pie is stiff, and kinda stale. It's all about the cream in the middle, but the cake is kinda boring.

He's just not my type. As for me, I like a tall drink o' milk. I've always been attracted to dairy types--milkshakes, flan, or tres leches cake any day. Don't believe it could work? It can. It has. I have a cousin who got married to Frozen Custard and they made a very beautiful baby.

So in closing: let me live my life, and you live yours. It's my body, and I can do what I wanna. And my fate isn't to become a Boston Cream Whoopie Pie (although that does sound tasty).

Sincerely,

Whoopie Pie (but my friends call me Sweetburger)

Thursday
Jun232011

Ooey Gooey: Chocolate Gooey Butter Cake Recipe for Serious Eats

Gooey Butter Cake: there is no part of these three beautiful words that is wrong. This cake, which is actually more like a two-part bar cookie, is the pride of St. Louis, MO, a cake steeped in legend and even a little controversy.

It is also unique in that recipes almost always call for a cake mix, and many will argue that this is the "traditional" method of preparation—and yields the best end result.

This version twists the tradition slightly, using a chocolate cake mix instead of the usual yellow, and employs cocoa in the filling. The result is an addictively sweet variation on this rich regional treasure.

For the recipe, visit Serious Eats!

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