CAKE

One of the oldest forms of what originated as a sweetened bread is cake.  In its simplest form, it is flour, sugar, milk, eggs, and butter, but it can be so much more than just that.  Cake can evoke so many different emotions and memories in each of us.  From the modest, but much-loved birthday cake of our childhood, to the multi-tiered symbol of love, the wedding cake, to the rich, decadent torte we enjoyed during our last extravagant dinner.  Or perhaps it was that $5.00 cake at the grocery store which looked so good you couldn’t pass it up.  Today a celebratory Cake is a ‘must have’ for most cultures at every occasion … from the baby shower to the anniversary dinner to the retirement party.

Duff Goldman photographed next to one of his designer cakes, a floral wedding cake at Charm City Cakes West.

I am fascinated by the incredible cakes produced on some of the Food Network shows. Watching episodes of Cake Boss or Ace of Cakes can leave you feeling hopelessly inadequate as a baker.  But you must know that lavishly decorated cakes didn’t begin when the Food Network started showcasing these professional bakers and their cake masterpieces.  It began during the Victorian era.

When hubby and I have a weekend free, we love to spend a Sunday afternoon strolling around rural town centers, browsing through curiosity and antique shops.  Recently I came across a fascinating  book entitled The Victorian Book of Cakes, Recipes, Techniques and Decorations from the Golden Age of Cake Making”.  Not the original, this reproduction, written in 1958, is taken from the turn-of-the-century tome which was the standard for professional bakers during the Victorian era. The recipes range from petit fours to pound cakes, slab cakes and shortbread, to gingerbread and marzipan.

The illustrations in this book are remarkable in that they are not photographs but drawn capturing the precise details from each original baked item.  The images of wedding cakes are astonishingly beautiful, each having won prizes at the London International Exhibition 100 years ago.

The book has hundreds of recipes, which are quite interesting.  Most use the same simple ingredients, but with very minimal direction.  The cakes are generally traditional fruit cakes, with nuts, spices, and rum or brandy, such as the wedding cake Prince William and Kate Middleton served for their wedding.

For leavening agents, although they do not call it “baking powder”, a blend of ‘cream of tartar’ and baking soda (two pounds of cream of tartar to one pound of baking soda) is used – which essentially is ‘baking powder’ (invented by Alfred Bird in 1840).  Yeast or beaten egg whites were also used to lighten batters, all of which leads me to think that most of these cakes were probably more ‘bread like’ and quite dense.

In a Victorian bakery or pastry shop there would be a variety of cakes and biscuits for sale from scones and shortbread to meringues, marzipan and trifles.  This book gives the bakery owner, not only recipes for its ‘best sellers’, but advice on how to display these confections and what to charge … with cakes starting at a shilling.  One description for a “SHILLING GATEAU” is described as “very saleable and enhance the general shop display.  They should be made from a good Genoese base, either a light egg mixture or a closer-eating butter mixing.  The latter seems to be the favorite of the cake-eating public.”  How fun!  I guess we ‘cake-eating public’ like a ‘closer-eating’ mixture … whatever that may mean.

In addition to the advice and recipes are the original advertisements for all the baking essentials required, from flours and sugars to cake stands and ovens.  One advertisement which I found interesting was for a “vegetable butter” made from “cocoanuts, as an excellent substitute for butter, margarine and lard”.  Why has it taken us another 100 years to fully incorporate coconut oil into our baking?

Times may have changed and although some of the ingredients have stayed the same, progress seems to be  mostly in the preparation, and in the myriad of flavors we have today.

I’m sure you’ve probably realized by now that ‘I like to bake’.  Breads, cakes, cookies, it really doesn’t matter.  I find baking to be relaxing.  It also provides a much-needed creative outlet.  Taking an assortment of unrelated ingredients and turning them into, hopefully, a confection that not only tastes good, but is pretty to look at, is quite satisfying.  Not all my ‘bakes’ have been successful, of course.  In fact, some have been complete disasters, requiring a quick trip to the nearest bakery when it was an occasion for which I was to supply the “cake”.  But, for the most part, they’ve been pretty decent.

I’m not sure any of us would enjoy making the seemingly simple, but on closer inspection, overly-complicated recipes in this “The Victorian Book of Cakes” today,  but I do feel challenged to try my hand at making one or two – some shortbread perhaps?  Not that I would ever do what Julie Powell did with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  But, then again …

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‘GROWNUP’ CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES

I recently visited a bakery.  A brand-new, just-opened, homey, woman-owned and operated bakery right in the center of town.  Everything should have worked.  Was there a part of me that was just a wee bit envious?  Absolutely.  I won’t deny that.  So what did I do?  I ordered one of everything.  Yup!  One frosted brownie, one macaron of each flavor, one cupcake of each flavor, one chocolate chip cookie, one sandwich cookie … on and on.  Looking for inspiration, unique flavor combinations, whatever, I justified this outrageous purchase as “research”.

My partner-in-crime and I (no, I wasn’t going to eat all of this myself) took our treasure trove of goodies outside to the nearest bench and dove in head first.  What???  Everything was terrible.  For the first time in my life, I have to say I’ve never had bad bakery goodies …. ever!!  Until today!  (No, I’m not going to tell you the name of the bakery.)  I was sooooooo disappointed.  What should have been a belt-loosening, belly groaning sugar high, was just a grimace and a groan.

What just happened?  And, now what do I do?  Do I go back and tell the bakery staff their stuff is sickly sweet, flavorless and has the mouth feel of cold vegetable shortening?   Or do I just toss everything into the bin and say nothing.  Part of me says the owner/baker should know.  If it were my bakery, I’d want to know.  But I didn’t.  What I did do was to come home and bake a batch of “good” chocolate chip cookies.  I hope you like them.  And, if you don’t, PLEASE let me know!!!

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GROWNUP CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Why do I call them”grownup?  Because they are very rich, but aren’t overly sweet.  I use bittersweet, high cacao content chips, not semi-sweet or milk.  You can certainly use whichever you prefer.

Bake 350° for 10 to 13 minutes.  Don’t overbake!  Makes as many cookies as you want, depending upon the size.

1 cup(2 sticks) butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 eggs, beaten
2-1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup old fashioned oats
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 10 oz. pkg. 60% cacao chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

Using a stand mixer (or hand mixer), beat the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy.  Then add the vanilla and beaten eggs.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, oats, baking soda and salt.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients.  You can use a big wooden spoon, or, if you are like me, you just switched out the paddle on your stand mixer to the bread one.

Add the chocolate chips and the walnuts to the batter.  Mixing well.  If you don’t like nuts, leave them out, and add more chocolate chips.  They’re your cookies.

On parchment-lined baking sheets, drop spoonfuls of dough (or with an ice cream scoop).  The size is up to you.  Larger ones will take another minute or two to bake, but PUHLEEZE don’t overbake these cookies.  They need to be a bit soft in the middle and gooey!

After spooning the dough onto the baking trays, dip the bottom of a drinking glass into flour and press onto each ball of dough.  You want to flatten them slightly.  If you are making these ahead, you can chill the trays at this point, if you like, up to four hours.

Bake at 350° for 12 to 15 minutes … again, depending upon the size.  If you want small, “adult-sized” so that you can eat three or four and not feel guilty, fine.  And, if you want one big “two hander”, go for it!  Just remember …. underdone is best!


These ultra-rich, dense, gooey chocolaty nutty cookies should make you smile.  If they don’t, please contact me.

Your welcome!
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TOAST

Have you wondered why I’ve named this blog ‘Tea, Toast and Travel‘?  Well the ‘tea’ seems fairly obvious as does the ‘travel’, but ‘toast’?  I’ve had that question asked more than once. For me ‘toast’ is a warm, crunchy accompaniment to a hot cuppa tea … slathered in creamy, salty butter and, most often, a thick, sweet, fruity jam.  As a child, whenever I was sick … cold, flu or just a belly ache … my Mother would make me “toast” which now epitomizes comfort food.  I also use ‘toast’ as a category for recipes that I feel pair well with a cuppa tea … whether hearty soups or quick and easy desserts.  And this blog is meant to be about me sharing what I enjoy, so “Tea, Toast and Travel” suits me to a ….. T.

Years ago, I mentioned to hubby that I would love to open a small restaurant called “TOAST” and just serve just that – ‘toast’.   High-quality, loose leaf teas would, of course, be served too, but it would be ‘toast’ with all kinds of specialty toppings from savory to sweet.  How about bacon, avocado and poached egg on toast … or a garlicky ricotta cheese and English peas spread with a hint of lemon … or a thick slab of roasted turkey breast smothered in pan roasted drippings (yes, I used to have that same lunch sitting at the Kresge’s counter with my grandmother) … or Nutella and banana slices, a sprinkle of pecans and topped with Marshmallow Fluff under the broiler all melted and gooey?  My ‘toast’ would not be thinly sliced, pre-packaged white bread. It would be crusty, thick slices of artisanal breads from sourdough to whole grains.

When I mentioned my idea to hubby little did I know I was a few years ahead of a trend.  Today it seems ‘toast’ has already become the latest fad among foodies.  There are restaurants named ‘TOAST’ in New York City, Los Angeles, Long Island, one in Michigan, another in Charleston, and there’s even one here locally. They’re all over the country and they are all individually owned … not a chain, each one with a different image and menu.  There’s even a point-of-sale system for restaurants called “toast”.

I know trends are short-lived, but how fun to ride the wave. We’ve survived the freeze-dried coffee era, the fondue dinner party fix, the ubiquitous seven-layer dip which appeared at every social gathering.  Then there were bagels:  breakfast bagels, pizza bagels, dessert bagels, bagel chips, bagel bits.  And, of course, thanks to Oprah, the never-ending parade of cupcakes.  From smoothies to sliders, mac ‘n cheese to short ribs, we now have ‘toast’.

The word ‘toast,’ in fact, comes from the Latin word tostum, meaning to scorch or burn.  It is believed that 5,000 years ago Egyptians used ‘toasting’ bread was a way of preserving it.  (Not quite sure how researchers have been able to determine that time line.) Romans also preserved bread by toasting it, and this continued to be spread throughout Europe.  The British really took to ‘toasting’ (what goes better with a cuppa?).  And, of course, anything that was popular in Europe found its way to the Americas.  Cutting slabs of bread and roasting them on an open fire sounds intoxicating and romantic to me.

Although its only been around for about 100 years, the most common household item is the electric toaster.  Doesn’t everyone have one?  The invention of the electric toaster in 1893 by a Scotsman was thought to be the greatest invention of all time, although sliced bread wasn’t invented until 1928.  I’m not sure how popular it was, having to lay your bread against the coils and and watch it, quickly taking the bread off before it burned.  It wasn’t until the 1920s when the electric toaster as we know it today was perfected, evolving into a two-slice, pop-up device with a timer.  And with the invention of pre-sliced bread, the world was changed forever.

As a child isn’t toast the first thing you learned to make?  Ask someone who may not know how to cook if they know how and you’ll probably hear “I can make toast”.  So now how do you feel about slicing bread, toasting it under some type of heat source, spreading your favorite topping on it and then sitting back and savoring its sweet, crunchy goodness?  Serve that up with a piping hot mug of tea, and I’m yours!


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References:  Thoughtco, H2G2, Today I Found Out
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The Classic Tea Sandwich

It’s August and my garden is overflowing with cucumbers.  Yes, I’ve made pickles.  I love half sour pickles …. absolutely delicious!  And we’ve been slicing and dicing them for salads for weeks. But today, in this hot, sticky weather, I have friends coming over for tea ….. the perfect time to make my favorite classic English tea sandwich ….. CUCUMBER!

Garden fresh cucumbers

Garden fresh cucumbers

If you’ve never had a classic cucumber sandwich, you’re in for a treat.  They are so easy to make …. light, delicate and refreshing …. ideal for a summertime treat. Just keep these few tips in mind and you’ll have the perfect tea sandwich:

1.  If you don’t have fresh cucumbers from your garden or farmer’s market, use English cucumbers, which are readily available in most supermarkets today.  English cucumbers have a much thinner and easier to digest skin than American-style cucumbers. Also the cucumbers we generally see in supermarkets have been dipped in wax to keep them from spoiling.  Yuck!

Thinly sliced English cucumbers.

Thinly sliced English cucumbers.

2.  Slice the cucumber thinly and either spread the slices on paper toweling, or put them in a colander and then lightly sprinkle with sea salt.  Leave them for about an hour.  This will remove the excess water and ensure a more crisp sandwich.

3.  Always butter the bread!  Don’t think about unnecessary calories …. think about not having soggy sandwiches!  The key to good tea sandwiches is to always lightly butter the bread.

CLASSIC CUCUMBER SANDWICHES
Makes 10 finger sandwiches

1 large cucumber
1 8 oz. pkg. good-quality cream cheese
softened butter
chopped parsley
Arnold’s Thinly Sliced White Bread

Lay out the bread (thin-sliced dense white bread is best) on the counter and spread both slices lightly with butter.  On one slice arrange the thinly-sliced cucumbers.  Depending upon how thinly you sliced them, you might use 4 to 6 slices.   On the other slice of bread , generously spread the cream cheese.  Put the two together and press firmly.  Now is when you either trim off the crusts or cut with a cookie cutter.  If using a cookie cutter, be sure it’s sharp, otherwise you’ll have slippage.

If you are having a tea party, to impress your guests, you can use two different types of bread – one white, one whole wheat.  You can also lightly spread the outside rim of your sandwiches with butter and dip the edges in the chopped parsley.  So pretty!

To make ahead, place the sandwiches in a plastic container covered with a very damp tea towel.  Cucumber Sandwiches .... easy and delicious!

Cucumber Sandwiches …. easy and delicious!