Tag: The New York Times


The Brownies Heard ‘Round the World, or Cakewalk 101, Part 1: Equipment

May 26th, 2010 — 9:50pm

Surely every obsessive-compulsive baker shares my megalomaniacal fantasy that one of her best recipes will end up famous, clamored for the world over. Today must be my day for fantasy fulfillment, because my recipe for chewy fudge brownies is in The New York Times! I have never been so proud! There’s even one of those food-porn close-up shots of three of my brownies stacked on top of each other unabashed, like the teenage models in American Apparel ads, or a painting by Balthus. One little crumb has fallen seductively to the table, daring you to pluck it up between your fingers and eat it . . . well, in the photo that ran in the paper, there was a crumb . . .

Thank you, photographer Andrew Scrivani of the New York Times

At the lofty Times, it’s not enough for the reporter to test the recipe and vouch for it – a recipe tester has to try it out, too. Novelist and Mothers Who Think contributor Alex Witchel, who made the brownies for her biweekly column in the Dining section, “Feed Me,” told me during a fact-checking phone call that not only did she think my brownies were “like crack” (“I have to get these things out of my house! Now!”), but that the recipe tester thought so, too. Oh, the glory! I can hardly stand it.

Alex’s question about whether to use a glass baking pan or a metal one reminded me that I planned to offer some of my time-tested baking tips for Cakewalk’s readers, so here is part one of that post on Cakewalk 101: Equipment. These are the items I find indispensible for baking.

BOWLS: I used to like those big vintage earthenware mixing bowls because they were pretty and homey, but I always got nervous using a hand mixer – would the bowls crack or the glaze flake off into my cookie batter? Eventually, a few of them did crack, though mostly because they ended up dropped on the floor. I still keep them for backup, but in recent years I’ve moved on to sets of graduated metal bowls with rubberized bottoms. They don’t slip, they’re easy to clean and they’re lighter for pouring out batter.

MIXERS: I didn’t have a stand-up mixer until I was given one as a wedding present in my thirties, but there’s no denying that a standard KitchenAid is the only way to go. Get an extra bowl, too, great when your recipes call for beating egg whites separately, or for splitting large volumes of doubled recipes. And I also have a KitchenAid hand mixer that comes in handy for little jobs and taking with you when you’re baking remotely.

FOOD PROCESSOR or BLENDER: They’re not always interchangeable, but having one or the other is helpful, if not both.

MEASURING SPOONS and MEASURING CUPS: Forget those cutesy sets of spoons for measuring out a “smidgin” or a “pinch” and such, you’ll never use them. Get a set of metal measuring spoons (tablespoon, teaspoon, half teaspoon, quarter and eighth) and put them on a key ring if they don’t already come on a ring. Also get a set of metal cup measures as well as at least one glass liquid measuring cup: I have a 4-cup, 2-cup, and 1-cup.

WOODEN SPOONS: You’ll never find them in a commercial kitchen anymore, but I love the feel of them. They won’t damage the surface of your pots and pans and the handle is always cool while you stir.

WHISK: Metal balloon whisks are indispensable for stirring up flour before measuring as well as just about everything else.

SPATULAS: I love spatulas, but I’ve gone through dozens and dozens of cheap wooden and plastic-handled rubber spatulas over the years  — they break when you’re stirring dense batters, or the rubber end slips off the handle, or the wood gets gunky inside the rubber. Or villains in your household use them to stir their scrambled eggs, and the spatula end melts into postmodern sculpture. Get yourself a heatproof, silicone spatula with a metal handle, like one of these:

Make sure everyone in your household knows that this particular spatula is not for flipping pancakes or making scrambled eggs! “Heatproof” is a relative term, and they will eventually melt on the edges if they’re deployed on highly heated surfaces.

You also need at least one good thin metal spatula for lifting cookies from baking pans and that sort of thing. Here are my two favorites:

And for icing cakes and cookies, thin, flexible offset spatulas, like these:

METAL RULER: It comes in handy all the time, especially for scoring cookies and candies and making even-sized portions.

THERMOMETERS: You want an oven thermometer to, um, check your oven temperature and make sure it’s accurate, and a candy thermometer for getting sugar syrups, jams and candies to the correct temperature.

KNIVES: Your favorite sharp chef’s knife comes in handy for baking, as does a non-serrated table knife for leveling flour while measuring, etc..

ROLLING PIN and ROLLING RINGS: I use an ancient wooden rolling pin with fixed handles that I think was a pasta roller in a previous life, and another elaborately carved old pin that was used to make imprinted springerle cookies (and is great for decorating gingerbread!).

Many people like the weight and cool temperature of marble rolling pins over wooden ones. I highly recommend rubber rolling pin rings, which you put on your rolling pin to roll out dough to exactly the thickness you want. Genius!

DOUGH SCRAPER: It’s a square of metal with a wooden handle on one side, used to scrape the leftover dough from the surface where it was kneaded or rolled. It’s also great for scraping up flour after rolling cookies.

ZESTER: I use citrus zest in so many recipes I should really get a microplane, but I still use the tiny side of my trusty pyramid grater.

SIFTER: I use my sifter less often for flour these days than for sifting cocoa and powdered sugar. (For flour, a good whisking before measuring is usually all you need to do.) You can also use a sifter to shake powdered sugar over the surface of cookies or a baked cake to make it pretty.

PASTRY BRUSHES: These, like rubber spatulas, tend to be ruined by people using them for the wrong purposes, like school art projects. Get a couple in different sizes and hide them.

PASTRY BLENDER: A pastry blender is the best tool ever for mixing flour and fat into light, flaky pastry. I’ve had my grandmother’s wooden-handled pastry blender for a thousand years. That is, I had it until I took it to a rented beach house over Gary’s fifty-fifth birthday weekend to make blackberry crostatas from the berries we picked in the lane ourselves – and then left my favorite baking tool behind when we returned home. I never got it back, sob. What you want is a wooden handle with rungs of flat (not rounded) metal coming out of it in a sort of arched horseshoe shape. Push the metal part against your hand to find out if they stay in place when pressure is applied. If the metal rungs bunch together (as the rounded wires on these ones, pictured below, tend to do), it won’t work — keep looking for another pastry blender.

This is not the pastry blender you want.

And neither is this. Feh.

WAX PAPER and PARCHMENT PAPER: I use wax paper almost every time I bake – perfect for measuring dry ingredients and then pouring the excess back into their respective containers. Parchment paper is equally useful.

BAKING PANS: These are the ones I use all the time. Light-colored metal helps to keep baked goods from browning too much on the bottom, which is also why I prefer glass baking and pie pans: the bottoms will be crisp but not burned.

light-colored, heavy metal rimmed baking sheets (two or three at least)

9 x 13 glass baking pans

8- or 9-inch round, light-colored metal cake pans (I have three)

8- or 9-inch round springform cake pan (that’s a cake pan with a removable bottom)

an angel food cake pan with a removable bottom

a bundt cake pan in whatever shape or design you like

cupcake or muffin pans with 12 cup indentations (two or three)

9-inch glass pie pans (two)

a round or oval ceramic baking dish for bread puddings, fruit crisps, etc.

tart pans: I have 8- and 10-inch round fluted metal pans and another that’s 8 x 10-inch rectangular

two or three standard-sized metal loaf pans

WIRE COOLING RACKS: Get some that fit inside your rectangular baking sheets for use when you’re glazing cookies and cakes – that way the drips go onto the pans rather than spreading all over your counter.

…Next time at Cakewalk 101, useful ingredients to have on hand and what to do with them, based on the frustration and triumph of long experience…

8 comments » | Baking, baking tips, Books, CAKEWALK, Motherhood, Recipes

“…so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars…”

April 14th, 2010 — 8:12pm

Sometimes you just have to cheer because somebody got it right: That’s how I felt on Monday when I heard that Paul Harding’s brilliant, gorgeous first novel, Tinkers, had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

It is always exciting when a genuinely outstanding book — a real work of art — is recognized for its author’s achievement, but it’s even more gratifying when that book is an underdog: published by a small press (the first small independent press to publish a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in almost thirty years) and overlooked by many, including the New York Times, which acknowledged its oversight in a somewhat embarrassed-sounding column in The Paper Cuts blog after the Pulitzer announcement. Especially now, when the publishing industry has been so hard hit by the economic crisis, independent bookstores falling like flies and newspaper book reviews as rare as common courtesy, it’s so heartening to everyone invested in the future of books that a novel like Tinkers would get the attention it deserves.

Why is Tinkers so extraordinary and what’s it about? I think the clarity and seemingly effortless lyricism of Harding’s prose is the best answer to that question. An old New Englander who collected and repaired clocks in his retirement – a tinker, like his father — is dying:

“George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.”

As George Crosby’s mind wanders in his dying body he imagines not just his own past and present – in a tour de force opening scene he hallucinates that his house and then the entire universe, windowpane by coat closet by cloud by star, collapses in on him as he lies helpless on the hospital bed set up in his living room — but also that of his father, an epileptic who drove a wagon and sold sundries and fixed pots and pans for a living, whose inner life had been unassailable to the young son he left behind when he abandoned the family without a word.  From its description of a father watching his son conduct a private Viking funeral for a mouse to its sensory observations of weather and the changing of seasons, to its acute record of the minutia of family life or detailed instructions on how to build a bird’s nest, every page of Tinkers is dense with scenes and paragraphs and lines so freshly perceived and economically crafted and breathtakingly true – as art, as reflections of humanity — that you want to grab someone and read whole passages aloud.

Here is Paul Harding on what an oncoming epileptic seizure feels like: “The aura, the sparkle and tingle of an oncoming fit, was not the lightning – it was the cooked air that the lightning pushed in front of itself. The actual seizure was when the bolt touched flesh, and in an instant so atomic, so nearly immaterial, nearly incorporeal, that there was almost no before and after, no cause A that led to effect B, but instead simply A, simply B, with no then in between, and Howard became pure, unconscious energy. It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different direction: Instead of being emptied or extinquished to the point of unselfness, Howard was overfilled, overwhelmed to the same state. If death was to fall below some human boundary, so his seizures were to be rocketed beyond it.”

Or pulling the tooth of a crusty old hermit: “Howard could not imagine that this old husk of a man, this recluse who seemed not much more than a sour hank of hair and rags, had a tooth left in his head to ache. . . . squinting to get a good look, [he] saw in that dank, ruined purple cavern, stuck way in the back of an otherwise-empty levy of gums, a single black tooth planted in a swollen and bright red throne of flesh. A breeze caught the hermit’s breath and Howard gasped and saw visions of slaughterhouses and dead pets under porches.”

Or a patient dog lurking near the table during a Christmas dinner: “Buddy the dog sat at attention, as if recommending himself to the ham over the children by his proper manners.”

I particularly love this next scene, in which George Crosby’s father imagines what he might say to one of his hardscrabble customers, the frugal country wives who gazed at his display case of cheap jewelry year after year but never bought anything unnecessary, their lives as meager as their yearnings are unanswered:

“He thought, Buy the pendant, sneak it into your hand from the folds of your dress and let the low light of the fire lap at it late at night as you wait for the roof to give our or your will to snap and the ice to be too thick to chop through with the ax as you stand in your husband’s boots on the frozen lake at midnight, the dry hack of the blade on ice so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars, the soundproof lid of heaven, that your husband would never stir from his sleep in the cabin across the ice, would never hear and come running, half-frozen, in only his union suit, to save you from chopping a hole in the ice and sliding into it as if it were a blue vein, sliding down into the black, silty bottom of the lake, where you would see nothing, would perhaps only feel the stir of some somnolent fish in the murk as the plunge of you in your wool dress and the big boots disturbed it from its sluggish winter dreams of ancient seas. Maybe you would not even feel that, as you struggled in clothes that felt like cooling tar, and as you slowed, calmed, even, and opened your eyes and looked for a pulse of silver, an imbrication of scales, and as you closed your eyes again and felt their lids turn to slippery, ichthyic skin, the blood behind them suddenly cold, and as you found yourself not caring, wanting, finally, to rest, finally wanting nothing more than the sudden, new, simple hum threading between your eyes. The ice is far too thick to chop through. You will never do it. You could never do it. So buy the gold, warm it with your skin, slip it onto your lap when you are sitting by the fire and all you will otherwise have to look at is your splintery husband gumming chew or the craquelure of your own chapped hands.”

Paul Hardy’s Tinkers is an elegy to the passage of time, the randomness of memory and mortality, the startling grip of what lasts for each of us: a moving and life-affirming lament for  “the loss of this world of light and hope.” Don’t take my word or the Pulitzer committee’s word on it. Go to your neighborhood bookstore and buy a copy and read it for yourself!

1 comment » | Books, Uncategorized

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