Household circumstances sometimes have a way of forcing your hand. You know what I mean. There's the long front hedge bordering your neighbor's driveway, so shaggy at times it demands to be trimmed lest it bring shame upon the family. There's the faucet that gasps and yawns and refuses to put in an honest day's work until the plumber is finally called in.
And, this morning, there was the problem of the ignored bookshelf. I'm talking about the big 7x4-footer with six really deep shelves. It was barely 9 a.m. when that thing finally gave up the ghost, collapsing under its burden with a mighty crash.
I was in the basement, romancing the ironing board again, when thunder rumbled above my head. Instantly I knew what had happened. I'd been expecting just such a catastrophe. I merely nodded to myself in acknowledgment and kept on ironing. I'd confront the monster soon enough.
The warning signs had been staring me in the face for months, but I'd ignored them. I'd ignored the obscenely overladen shelves, each one sagging in the middle like a tired mule. I'd ignored the fact that the brackets holding up each shelf were pathetically inadequate even to my untrained eye.
Eventually I trudged upstairs and stood there silently, gazing in resigned disgust at the aftermath. Books that had been packed together sardine-style had thunked to the floor willy nilly, a few stragglers still plummeting now and then in solidarity.
The resulting pile was about 18" deep, easily six feet wide, and thoroughly impassable. It was the Niagara Falls of literature. I thanked the fates that my husband hadn't had to face this right before heading off to work. It would have been too much for him. There would have been copious cussing. Better it happened this way.
About this recipe . . .
As in so much of life, such mishaps often reveal their own silver lining. As I was sorting and stacking the victims, one volume fell open at my feet and a particular page caught my eye. It was The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater. (Slater, in case you're unfamiliar, is a British food writer and a passionate home cook.) I sat down amidst the destruction and read through the recipe that inspired today's dessert.
I made a few small changes to Slater's formula and ended up with something wonderful. Instead of using Bramley apples (which I've never seen in Michigan), I used Sweet Tango apples; they're firm, crunchy, and they'll make you pucker. Instead of turbinado sugar in the crust dough, I used light brown sugar, and I subbed some cream cheese for part of the butter, also adding in a generous pinch of kosher salt. I added a mixture of superfine- and light brown sugars to lightly caramelize the simmering apples, instead of just using a very small amount of superfine alone. We served this with a dollop of delicately sweetened whipped cream on top. Especially when served slightly warm, this makes for a comforting and rustic dessert.
English Apple Shortcake with Brown Sugar & Cream-Cheese Crust
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place a metal baking sheet in the oven to heat up. Butter a 9" or 10" pie, cake, casserole, or quiche pan.
For the crust:
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 egg, large, at cool room temperature
2 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I used unbleached.)
1 and 1/4 tsp. baking powder
1 generous pinch kosher salt
For the filling:
2 and 3/4 lbs. firm, tart, and sweet apples (I recommend Sweet Tango or Honey Crisp apples.)
half of a lemon
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 cup superfine sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar
For the top of the crust, before baking:
A couple tablespoons of milk, half & half, or cream
2 Tbsp. superfine sugar
Peel and core all of the apples, and slice them as you would for apple pie (I made my slices at least 1/4" thick). Put the slices into a big bowl of cold water and squeeze the lemon-half over them; this will help keep them from turning brown while you're preparing the crust. Set the bowl aside.
In a medium size bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In the large bowl of your mixer, on medium speed, cream together the butter, cream cheese, and brown sugar for a few minutes, until light and fluffy. Blend in the egg.
On low speed, add in the dry ingredients and blend until combined.
Dump the dough, which will be very soft, onto a heavily floured surface (do not skimp on the flour!).
Flour your hands, and knead the dough a few times, just for a minute or so, until it's smooth.
Divide the dough into two equal parts. Use a rolling pin to roll out half the dough; it will be thick. Carefully transfer the rolled out dough into the buttered pan and press it gently into the corners. It doesn't have to look perfect. Wrap up the second piece of dough in plastic wrap and place it in the fridge along with the dough-lined pan, while you finish prepping the apples.
Drain the apples in a colander. Heat a large frying/saute pan, and add the 4 Tbsp. of butter. Toss the apple slices into the hot butter and let them simmer over medium heat until the butter looks frothy and the apples start to just soften around the edges, stirring now and then.
Raise the heat and sprinkle the 1/4 superfine sugar and 1/3 cup light brown sugar over the apples. Cook the apples until they just begin to caramelize; they should be slightly soft and have taken on a deeper yellow color. Take the pan off the heat.
Remove the second dough half from the fridge and roll it out as you did the first piece.
Remove the dough-lined pan from the fridge. Spoon the apple slices into the dough-lined pan.
Carefully place the top crust over that.
Pinch the edges closed.
Use a pastry brush to coat the top crust with milk or cream, but don't brush it on the outer edge (that'll be the first area to burn). Sprinkle liberally with superfine sugar.
Bake the shortcake for up to about 40 minutes, or until it's fully golden and feels firm. Let the finished shortcake cool on a rack until it's no longer hot.
Good served warm or cold, with sweetened whipped cream.
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Jane's Sweets & Baking Journalwas born of my ever increasing desire to learn more about the baking and pastry arts, and of my love for anything and everything related to baking. Just as food is meant to be shared, so is knowledge among bakers and among those who enjoy delicious foods prepared from scratch. So, please partake, and feel free to share your thoughts and comments. I'd love to hear from you.
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JANE'S FAVORITE BAKING BOOKS
About Professional Baking: The Essentials, by Gail Sokol. This is a textbook, but not one that's intimidating. It contains lots of useful info, including interesting personal profiles of professional chefs.
All-American Cookie Book, by Nancy Baggett. Another winner of the IACP award. Loads of good looking cookie recipes with lots of very appetizing photos. (Don't you love cookbooks with tons of pictures? I do.)
All-American Dessert Book, by Nancy Baggett. Wonderfully detailed, with very reliable recipes, Baggett does it again in this valuable cookbook. Definitely worth your time!
Art & Soul of Baking, by Cindy Mushet. This large Gourmet Cook Book Club Selection is a feast for the eyes. I love the page layout, the photos, and the author's reassuring tone. Recipes range from the quotidian ("classic sugar cookies") to the ridiculous ("Moroccan-spiced sweet-potato tiropetes") to the absolute sublime ("duo-tone chocolate pots de creme"). Worth acquiring.
Baking and Pastry: Mastering the Art and Craft, by the Culinary Institute of America. This is a heavy duty textbook, not for the faint of heart. Intimidating, sure, but also kind of fascinating if you're an obsessive bake-a-holic like me.
Baking with Julia, written by Dorie Greenspan and based on the PBS series hosted by Julia Child. Yet another hefty and dazzling coffee-table-worthy cookbook. Wonderful to have around. (My copy was autographed by Julia herself!)
Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook, published in 1950 and available in a facsimile edition, holds a special place in my heart. This is the book my mom primarily used, or so it seemed, when I was a kid. The photos are such period pieces, and the little notations that accompany recipes are pricelessly cute and corny. I have an ancient copy that I still use. Every girl needs a copy of this in her house, for good karma if nothing else.
Bitter Sweet -- Recipes and Tales From a Life in Chocolate, by Alice Medrich. Much more than just a cookbook with a focus on fine dark chocolate, this is also a memoir of sorts from a legendary chocolate-dessert creator. Medrich is often credited with awakening American tastes to the finest aspects of superior chocolate. Very interesting read!
Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes,by Jeffrey Hamelman. An indispensable book for anyone who is seriously interested in learning to make fine yeast breads, Hamelman shares far more than just technical knowledge. Like fellow bread guru Peter Reinhart, his warmth of spirit and deep love for the tradition of bread baking shines through on every page.
Breakfast Book, by Marion Cunningham. Not to be confused with the character of the mom on Happy Days, the real Marion Cunningham has a long list of writing accomplishments, the most well known being that she completely revised The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. A contemporary of the late James Beard's, she is still held in high esteem.
Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Rose is really into the science of baking, which can be helpful in some respects and off-putting in others. Like gardeners who talk mostly about soil components without conveying their joy in the plants themselves. Maybe I'm too sensitive? Probably so, as many consider this to be an invaluable classic. Despite my reservations, I wouldn't part with my copy. One of several highly detailed books by Rose. Her latest book, Heavenly Cakes, is much more down to earth, loaded with photos, and truly beautiful.
Cake Book, by Tish Boyle. I've called it a treasure trove before and please allow me to say it again here. This book is jam packed with wonderful stuff that's well explained. I used the Sacher-torte recipe in the fall of '09 for a culinary school project and it didn't let me down. I can endorse this book without reservation. I love it.
Complete Book of Pastry Sweet & Savory, by Bernard Clayton, Jr. When this book appeared in 1981, famed food editor Craig Claiborne praised it in the NYT as "one of the most important cookbooks of this year, if not of this decade." No photos, but don't let that dissuade you.
Craft of Baking, by Karen DeMasco & Mindy Fox. In 2009, some great new cookbooks were published and this was one of them. Down to earth, straightforward without being condescending, this smart guide offers creative and simple twists on dozens of diverse and well-proven "cakes, cookies, and other sweets."
Dessert University, by Roland Mesnier. As the White House executive pastry chef for over two decades, Mesnier has a lot of wisdom to impart. He does so well in this book, which is designed specifically for home bakers. A good book!
Grand Central Baking Book, by Piper Davis and Ellen Jackson. Readers are welcomed into these pages with a tone of warmth and familiarity. The photos alone will have you scribbling a grocery list. Try the berry kuchen recipe--simple and scrumptious.
Hershey's Chocolate Treasury, published in 1984 by Hershey Foods and chock full of old reliables. The recipe for Black Magic cake is one I've used again and again--invaluable!
How to Bake, by Nick Malgieri. The writing style is matter of fact and fairly informal. That's one of my favorite things about Malgieri's books.
Magical Art of Cake Decorating, by Carole Collier. Sometimes at a used book sale you find an old gem like this. Published in '84, I found it very encouraging when I first began decorating cakes. The recipes are rock solid reliable.
Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, by Maida Heatter. Famed baker (apparently her "Palm Beach Brownies" are known far and wide), whose work has centered on wondrous chocolate desserts, Heatter received a James Beard award for this book, one of many she's published over several active decades.
Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, by Martha Stewart. Beautiful photos, but I must admit I've come to have reservations about the reliability of some of the recipes. Is it just me? Though I love flipping through the book for ideas, I'm a bit on the fence with this one when it comes to actual usage.
Martha Stewart's Wedding Cakes by Martha Stewart. Talk about a stunning and inspiring book! Chances are you may never decide to actually make one of the cakes from this glorious volume, but it's enough just to page through the gorgeous pictures and interesting recipes. Expensive? For sure, but worth it.
Passion for Baking, A by Marcy Goldman. If you're curious about how professional bakers manage to make things come out nicely every time, you'll appreciate this book. Goldman, in her highly approachable style, divulges many of their simple--but enormously helpful--tricks and techniques, and shows readers how to implement them throughout the wondrous array of down-to-earth recipes that pack this great book. Loads of enticing photos, too! I love this book!
Perfect Cakes, by Nick Malgieri. Can't say enough about Malgieri's books. Absolutely worth using, versus just reading! The white and dark chocolate cheesecake is to die for; I've made it a few times, along with many other recipes from this book, and it is superb.
Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Everyday, by Peter Reinhart. This book is a revelation for anyone who approaches yeast recipes like a vampire approaches the dawn. Talk about down to earth, encouraging, and flexible! This guy knows how to talk to rookie breadmakers. Well worth reading, and using, this volume will find a comfy place in your cookbook collection--a worthwhile purchase, undoubtedly!
Professional Cake Decorating, by Toba Garrett. I get the impression that this book is perceived as the most thorough and comprehensive text available for serious students of cake decorating. This is the text that we used for my culinary school Beginning Cake Decorarting class (which means I finally own my own copy!).
Sarabeth's Bakery: From My Hands to Yours, by Sarabeth Levine. Almost too pretty to use, but use it anyway! This big book is so appealing, and the photos so remarkably enticing, you'll want to pick it up like a sandwich and bite right into it. Fine recipes for updated classics, well explained, from the famous Manhattan bakery. Worth buying. (You'll love it!)
Secrets of Baking, by Sherry Yard. A must have, bakers! This cookbook's forte is the way it's organized; master recipes are presented with full explanations of how they can be used, and related recipes follow, section by section. An exceptional manual to refer to. Get your own copy!
Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes, by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne. Huntsman is the professional pastry chef behind this beautiful book, filled with many tempting recipes, all designed specifically and scaled perfectly for three layers. I've made the Devil's food cake thus far, and it was exceptional--it rose well, was very moist, and had great depth of flavor. I'll be using this book more in the future, without a doubt. Love the photos also!
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. . . to never endorse a product of any kind on Jane's Sweets & Baking Journal that I do not believe in. I've never done so thus far, and I vow never to do so. If I tell you I think something is great, or that I think it is worth spending real money on, then I mean it, rest assured. I promise. And, if I ever talk about a product that I've been given to review or try out, I will disclose that in the post.
I'm a mom with two great sons (both now in college), and a really nice husband. I left a long editorial career in reference publishing a few years ago and I've had nary a regret. I recently finished (after four part-time years!) a Baking & Pastry Arts Certificate program in the Culinary Studies Institute at a local community college. It was a lot of fun, a lot of work, and I am so glad I did it. These days, I do a lot of freelance editorial work, something that I really enjoy.
"Jane's Sweets" was the name of a very small baking enterprise that I started in late 2007. It bloomed a bit, for a little while, with encouragement from my husband, my aunt, and my first cake decorating teacher, Cindy. Because my Aunt Lydia was my most ardent female supporter in this baking endeavor (she was a lifelong independent business owner herself), this blog is dedicated to her memory. If heaven is real, then I know she's there with my mom, baking up a storm. Like Lydia said one day, just before her 80th birthday, while she and my mom and I were baking in my mom's kitchen, "It's been a fun ride. I'd do it all over again!"
If my house were on fire, I'd grab my family, then I'd grab my KitchenAid mixer.
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