Le Cake.

I haven’t been cooking much recently. Or: I haven’t been cooking much interesting food. We’ve been traveling nonstop to races – a week and a half in Rumford, Maine, almost immediately followed by three days in Lake Placid – and cooking on ski trips is rarely exciting. It’s a lot of pasta, stir fry, and other basics which are tasty but uninspired.

Luckily, when I was home for the holidays I had enough culinary adventures to satisfy me during this boring interlude. I wrote about Christmas dinner, but I neglected to mention that I made a giant, very fancy cake for dessert that night. I think the cake might have taken about as much energy as the entire rest of the dinner, as well as approximately the same number of special ingredients, so it deserves its own post as well.

I’d had my eye on a particularly spectacular cake since April, I kid you not. I had dreamed about this cake for months, but never even thought about making it. For one thing, it is a huge cake. I only make layer cakes for birthdays, and this one never seemed right. Secondly, I never had any hazelnuts. Those are expensive little suckers.

But on Christmas, I had to pick something for dessert. We traditionally have pie, but since I was completely abandoning tradition with regards to dinner, I figured I might as well make something completely wild for dessert as well.

And so: triple caramel cake, a recipe from Melanger, one of the food blogs that inspires me quite often. If you look at the photos of the cake, you’ll see immediately why I wanted to make it. It’s beautiful! Also, I love caramel. And hazelnuts. It seemed like a classy cake. A winter cake. I went for it.

I made the cake layers themselves early on Christmas morning, even though I was exhausted and could barely function in the kitchen. Still, I knew that the rest day would be hectic – I had to make a roast and a dinner for five people! – so I managed to whip up some cake.

The one problem with the layers was that they sunk a bit in the middle. This is a problem I’ve had in the past with cakes with a dense crumb, and I’m not sure how to solve it. Luckily, with a layer cake, you can just fill the dents with more frosting, so it isn’t a huge problem. Frosting can cover up any number of blemishes….

Once I was over at my grandfather’s house and the dinner was in the oven cooking its merry way along, I tackled the buttercream. It isn’t a true buttercream, but luckily for me, it is modeled after an American buttercream, and doesn’t have any egg in it. The one time I tried to make a real French buttercream, it didn’t go very well. But this frosting was a cinch to whip up. Instead of mascarpone, I used quark. Quark, a soft European fresh cheese, is one of my new obsessions. The Vermont Butter and Cheese Company makes a good version.

So: buttercream complete, I started assembling the cake, which meant trimming up the cake layers first. I got to sample some of the cake trimmings and confirm that the cake was in fact delicious. Then I frosted the cake, much less elegantly than Julia over at Melanger did, partly because I wanted to actually use up the buttercream.

The last step was to make the top look fancy. I started making the praline and…. it was a terrible disaster. I won’t elaborate. But it ended with me boiling some water in a pan and hoping that my grandfather wouldn’t walk in and ask me what I was doing. I  pressed the hazelnuts into the frosting, minus their praline, and then drizzled on some store-bought Vanilla Bean Caramel from Fat Toad Farm, a goat creamery in Brookfield, Vermont. Highly recommended for putting on top of ice cream, in baked goods, or just for eating. I’m jealous that my grandfather got to keep the rest of the jar.

So: the finished product was revealed after dinner, and we all ate slices which were much too big. It’s a big cake. It’s a rich cake. It’s a delicious cake. Definitely worth the time and effort, although I can’t say that I will make it again unless another fancy occasion pops up. Did it live up to my expectations? Not quite. But my expectations were pretty high. And part of the reason it wasn’t as good as I was hoping was because it didn’t look as nice as the one Julia made. But we can’t always be perfect. I am an amateur home baker, after all. Thanks, Julia, for inspiring me, as always.

Triple Caramel Cake

recipe adapted: from Trish Deseine’s Caramel via Melanger.

Cake

3 ½ cup plain flour
1 1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons white sugar
8 eggs
2 cups salted butter (4 sticks), or use unsalted butter and a dash of salt
2 teaspoons baking powder

This is a really, really basic cake. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Then pour them into two largeish round cake pans lined with parchment paper. Bake the cakes for 30-40 minutes. Let them cool 5 or 10 minutes, then turn them out onto cooling racks. That’s it.

Quark Caramel Buttercream

1 ½ lb powdered sugar
1 ½ cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
1/4 cup caramel sauce
1/4 cup quark

Cream the butter and powdered sugar together in a bowl until it is smooth and no longer lumpy. Add the caramel sauce and the quark and continue beating until smooth. The buttercream should be sweet but slightly tangy as well from the quark. Sample it to see if you want to add more caramel to give it a stronger flavor.

Assembly/Finishing Touches

1 cup toasted hazelnuts
more caramel sauce

Trim the cake layers so that they are flat on top, not domed, if necessary. Then, cut one of the layers in half. Put one of the half-layers on your cake stand or platter, and plop some frosting on top of it. Then put your full layer on top of that. Then frosting. Then the last half-layer, crumb-side down. Frost around the outside and add an extra thick layer on top.

Press the toasted hazelnuts slightly into the frosting on top of the cake, just so they stay put. Drizzle caramel sauce over the whole thing; I think it looks nice to have some drips headed down the side of the cake, but others might think that’s just sloppy.

Épis de Blé

My bread is often appreciated, but is rarely remarked upon. Baked goods aren’t exactly a scarcity at our house.

This bread was different though.

“That bread you made was really good,” Matt said. “What was different about it?”

“Yeah, it wasn’t that different, but it was just so good,” said Ollie. “I had to restrain myself from finishing it all in one sitting.”

I consider this a victory, and told them that the more compliments they gave me, the more bread I would make.

I call this bread “épis de blé”, but that’s actually just the term for the shape of the loaf. The buns coming off the main stem are supposed to look like a stalk of wheat. And you can see it, even though mine was not as delicate as some. I didn’t take any chances and checked the shaping technique in my old handbook, Hamelman’s Bread. And they were great instructions: make a long, skinnier loaf than usual; hold the scissors at a very shallow angle and cut, parallel to the roll, almost all the way through the dough. Then pull each of the buns off to the side to form the “grains” of your wheat.

You can make this shape with any type of dough, so the shape alone wasn’t want made the bread tasty.

The recipe came from the February 2009 issue of Gourmet. Of the 13 issues of that magazine that ever arrived in my mailbox, this one was by far my favorite. The recipe caught my eye because of the unique shape of the loaf, but I was wary about the recipe itself. There are (or were) only a few bread recipes in Gourmet, and I had worried that maybe it meant they were lacking in bread expertise and the recipe would suck. I had baked enough bread to be a bit of a snob.

I baked it the first time that winter, minus the épi shaping. It was pretty good.

Recently, I got inspired to try the bun/roll recipes from this issue again, but using sourdough. This is the first recipe I tried, and I think the sourdough really improved it. Perhaps it’s my personal preference for sourdough talking though.

So in answer, finally, to Matt’s question: the bread was barely different at all from my usual sourdough loaf. I used honey instead of sugar, and a small amount of cornmeal mixed in instead of the wheat or rye flour. That’s all.

I would definitely urge you to try it, and even try the shaping, which looks difficult but is not. It makes a beautiful loaf, and one of the few tasty enough to get a comment from the boys!

I’m sending this one to YeastSpotting, as usual.

Crusty Sourdough Épis de Blé

(adapted from “Crusty Cornstalk Rolls”, Gourmet Feb 2009)

1 to 1 1/2 cups fed sourdough starter

2 cups warm water

2 teaspoon honey

1 tablespoon salt

5 cups white bread flour

1 cup cornmeal

Stir together the sourdough starter and the warm water until the structure of the starter is broken up a bit. Then add the honey, salt, 2 cups of flour, and the cornmeal. Stir into a slurry and then add more flour, a cup or half-cup at a time, until you have a nice, though slack, dough to work with. At this point turn the dough out onto the counter to rest for 5 minutes while you clean the mixing bowl and smear some olive oil in it. Knead the dough, adding flour as necessary, for a few minutes until you have a smooth ball. Plop it back into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise 2-3 hours.

Once the first rise is complete, divide the dough in half. Shape each half into a long, narrow log – like a baguette – and let rise, preferably supported from the sides so it spreads up rather than out, for one hour.

Preheat your oven to 425°. Once it’s hot, throw a few ice cubes in to moisten the air. While they evaporate, transfer the loaves to your baking sheet and cut the them into the épi shape. Using a good pair of scissors, take shallow cuts in the direction of the loaf. You can cut most of the way through the log. After you’ve made a cut, pull the upper part of the dough over to one side, so that the point is toward the edge. Alternate which side you pull the “grains” to.

Put the baking sheet in the oven, and throw a few more ice cubes onto the bottom to create more steam so you get a nice crust. After 15-20 minutes, open the oven and rotate the pan 180°. After 5-10 more minutes, take the loaves out! Be sure to let them cool before you move them from the pans, because they are delicate and will break.

Photos: a day in the life of a full-time ski racer.

I read somewhere that in order to develop a readership for your blog, you should only ever write about one thing. That way, people know what to expect and won’t be disappointed when they come looking for one topic and find something completely unrelated.

Well, I haven’t followed that rule, have I? I write about what I do and what interests me. And in any given day, that can be a lot of things. I wanted to share, visually, one day in my life, so that you can see what it’s really like. I was lucky enough to get Pepa to take some pictures of our workout this morning to start us off.

Click photos to enlarge.

At 9 a.m., we headed out on a 90 minute rollerski, classic, with ~23 minutes of threshold in the middle.

Threshold means working hard, but not too hard. This wasn’t a time trial although the course was identical to our usual time trial course. You don’t want to build up lactic acid in high quantities, but rather work at a level just below that, where your body can clear the acid quickly and efficiently. Threshold should feel good, and today it did for me (some days I’m tired and it doesn’t). The tape on my arms is to combat tendonitis in my elbows, which I developed to a debilitating degree last summer from the impact of my pole tips hitting the pavement. I’m considering getting cortisone injections this year. Also, I’m not sure if you can tell, but my poles are bright pink. I spray-painted them: no more boring black! It cheers me up every time I ski.

It started pouring as we were skiing back to our cars. It was a hot day, though, so the rain felt good.

The Craftsbury Public Library was having a used book sale, so Lauren and I drove up before lunch. I came home with three books I had bought at the sale (for $5 total), one which had come in on interlibrary loan, and two movies we had picked out to borrow. But when will I have time to read all these books?

After lunch I baked the loaf of sourdough which I had started before our rollerski. When I bake, I usually make two large oval loaves, but with the boys away in Bend, we’ll go through bread much slower. Anna has a really nice round brotform which she lets me use, as well as a lame.

In the afternoon, we had practice with our elementary school skiers. Algis Shalna, one of the US Biathlon Team coaches and a former Olympic gold medalist for the Soviet Union, was on hand to teach the kids about biathlon.

Shooting was the exciting part. Not being a biathlete, I was there to direct the kids in a bounding workout in between their shootings. It was very hot and I felt bad asking them to bound up the hill three times before they could go back to shoot again. But not too bad… you have to toughen them up a little!

After a quick break to put my feet up and recover from standing around in the sun and the 80 degree heat, I headed out for my second workout of the day, a 2-hour bike ride. I traipsed about for 33 miles, touching at least the corners of Craftsbury, Wolcott, Hardwick, and Greensboro.

I got the chance to appreciate some beautiful scenery on my ride, like these happy cows in a green, green field.

I was late for dinner because my ride took so long – I swear the same route didn’t take 2 hours last year. Lauren had done a shorter ride, but she had also shot with Algis earlier in the afternoon. We were both exhausted. Dinner was heavenly, thanks to the dining hall staff: roast beef, braised chard, a rice-nut loaf, baked potato, the usual excellent salad bar. The cooks had made homemade ice cream, too, in cardamom ginger, maple vanilla, and chocolate flavors, to be topped with chocolate sauce and raspberries. They really outdid themselves this time.

We were both exhausted, but managed to drag ourselves to a birthday party for one of the staff members. They burned a hollow log, which they stood up like a chimney; it burned from the inside out, throwing a large flame out the top. I forgot my camera, but the way the millions of sparks flew out and into the night sky, dancing around on the breeze, was beautiful. They all landed on in the grass, and I couldn’t help but feel lucky that the lawn didn’t catch on fire. There was also a very delicious pistachio cake from the Edelweiss Bakery in Johnson.

Every day is different, and not every day is a Saturday, but this is a taste of my life. For some full-time athletes, being an athlete is enough. But for many of us, it is not enough, and we have to pursue our other interests at least to some extent. We have to remain human, not become physiological machines, and we have to balance ourselves mentally. That’s why you’ll find me writing about baking and farming and the environment and pretty much anything that pops into my head.

Oh, and isn’t Vermont beautiful?