Thursday, September 11, 2008

A 9/11 Remembrance: Baking a Little Love into the World

On September 11, 2001 I was 23 years old, one year out of college, and working as an analyst with the Department of Defense just north of Washington DC. I remember that day like it was yesterday -- the intensity of the fear, the profound sadness, the confusion, and the incomprehensibility of what had happened.

I'd gotten into work early that day, by 8:00, which was highly unusual for me. I answered the phone when one of my co-workers (who was on leave that day) called in to say "Turn on CNN, someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center." I remember thinking it must have been an inexperienced pilot who lost control of his little plane when out flying. It NEVER occurred to me that someone had intentionally flown a plane into the WTC with the intent to cause as much death and destruction as possible.

The one TV for our entire office was in my cubicle area, and I went and got someone who knew how to turn it on (with the way it was set up, you practically needed an advanced degree to turn the dang thing on!). When I saw what was really happening, that this was not an unfortunate accident, but rather a terrorist act, my jaw dropped. As word spread around the office, more co-workers trickled into the area, and before long, the entire office was standing around the television watching in a stunned silence, trying to comprehend what was happening.

I remember calling Psycling, who was a grad student at UMD at the time, and I asked him "are you watching the news?" He said he'd been trying to get to the CNN website for his daily news check, but assumed the server was down because the page wasn't loading. Then I told him what was happening. He and his friends found a television and joined the rest of the nation as we watched events unfold.

I remember watching CNN, a journalist reporting live from the Pentagon, when the third plane hit there. I remember hearing the fear and confusion in his voice (his initial assessment was that "a bomb just went off here at the Pentagon"). And I remember the intense fear I felt at that moment. This was not an isolated event in New York City, this was national. And it was happening near me. And they were targeting Defense facilities in the Washington DC area. And there I was, working in a Defense facility in the Washington DC area. It didn't take very long for me to realize "IT COULD HAPPEN HERE!!!" The fear I felt at that realization was deeper and more intense than any other I had ever felt up until then, or since. My legs were shaking, I was feeling nauseous.

At that point I decided to go home. I wasn't getting any work done, and I knew I wouldn't the rest of the day. We were all just standing around the television, and I figured I could do that much more safely from my apartment. After shutting down my computer and locking up my work space, I practically ran out of the building. And then I got outside, where the perfect fall weather seemed so eerily at odds with what was happening in the world. It was warm for September, sunny, with bright blue skies, puffy white clouds, and just a hint of red and yellow dotting the green trees that lined the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

I got home and Psycling arrived not too long afterwards, as did my roommate, who also worked for the DoD. It turns out they evacuated the facility. We were out of work for three days, as the powers that be figured out what was going on, and made sure everything was safe.

The next day, I was so overwhelmed with the death and destruction that I could not bring myself to continue watching the non-stop news coverage; I did not want to be continually bombarded with the image of the planes hitting the towers. As it is, that is something that is seared into my brain forever. Amid all this craziness, sadness, hatred, evil, I needed to do something good; I needed to create, to prove to myself that good can and will triumph over evil, and we will get past this. Not knowing what else to do, I baked. I'd recently been to a wedding where the favors were heart-shaped cookie cutters attached to a recipe for sugar cookies. Hearts represent love, and to me, love was the antithesis of the evil and hatred that perpetuated these terrorist attacks. Baking these heart shaped cookies was my way of saying "F$*K YOU" to the terrorists, of saying that despite this horrible thing that you have done, you HAVE NOT WON!! Because I still have love and soul and passion and those cannot be taken away. And those things will over come in the end.

This year, the 9/11 anniversary has hit me harder than it has in recent years. I had a hard time falling asleep last night, as the images and feelings of that day played through my head like a movie. And I knew what I had to do. I had to make cookies.

I still believe that in the end, love and compassion will win out. I have to believe that. So today was spent doing what I love with the people I love.

When I woke up this morning, Psycling agreed to watch LC while I got busy in the kitchen. I couldn't find my original sugar cookie recipe (I tore through all my folders of recipes looking for it), so I looked for a comparable one, one that uses confectioners sugar instead of granualted sugar, and includes Cream of Tartar. None of my cookbooks had an acceptable recipe, and couldn't find one on Epicurious either. So I turned to my friend Google, and after some searching found this recipe.

These cookies came out really well. They were soft and chewy; sweet but not overly so. In essence, exactly what I wanted in my sugar cookies. I baked these cookies in remembrance and honor of all who lost their lives or their loved ones on 9/11, and as an outward display of my faith that the goodness that is inherent in humanity is stronger than evil and hatred. What better way to demonstrate that than to share the love. So we took the entire batch of cookies into Psycling's lab at school to feed hungry grad students.

I may not be saving the world, but at least I can bake a little love into it.


* 1 cup butter, softened
* 1 1/2 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
* 1 egg
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
* 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 teaspoon baking soda
* 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
* 1/4 cup granulated sugar for decoration


1. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and confectioners' sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg and stir in the vanilla and almond extract. Combine the flour, baking soda and cream of tartar; blend into the creamed mixture. Cover and chill for at least two hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Divide the dough into two parts. On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece of the dough out to 3/16 inch in thickness. Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters. Place cookies 1 1/2 inches apart onto greased cookie sheets. Sprinkle cookies with plain or colored granulated sugar.
3. Bake for 8 minutes in the preheated oven, until lightly browned. Allow cookies to cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Daring Bakers: Better Late than Never

Though I'm not officially "back" from my Daring Bakers maternity leave, but the August challenge, Chocolate Éclairs by Pierre Hermé (hosted by Meeta and Tony), was calling my name. Besides, cooking and baking are things I enjoy, and getting back into the kitchen, even though it takes a lot more time and planning than it did before the Littlest Chef arrived, I feel less stressed and overwhelmed after some good kitchen time. So I made it work, but I couldn't have done it without Psycling (who is Super Dad) helping out with LC.

Eclaires are something that I have been wanting to try for a long time, so this seemed like the perfect excuse! This particular recipe is great for chocoholics like Psycling and me. In addition to the traditional chocolate glaze on top, they are filled with a chocolate pastry cream as well. Since I had to fit this baking project in between LCs feedings, I had to break it up and make each component separately (the choux, pastry cream, chocolate sauce, and glaze), then assemble them later.

I noted that the recipe stated that the choux could be made in advance, shaped, and then frozen. So I made that first:

While Psycling took Thea and LC for a walk, I had *just* enough time to make the choux and get it piped out onto some parchment and into the freezer. I've never made a choux before and it took a couple of tries to get it right. The first time, something seemed off. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but it just wasn't behaving the way the recipe said it should. So...I grabbed Psycling's laptop and went to the DB forums to see if anyone else had trouble with the choux (something I probably should have done *before* starting to cook), and saw that a few people had trouble with the choux leaking oil. I saw their pictures and they looked how mine was starting to look. It seems that this is the result of the milk/water mixture not being at a full, rolling boil before adding the flour. So I tossed that batch and started over. This time, I made quite sure that the liquids were at a rolling boil before adding the flour. This attempt seemed to go much better, though I was still a little nervous because a crust never formed on the bottom of my pan like the recipe said it would.

Then I went to pipe out the dough. The recipe called for using a 2 cm tip to pipe the dough into little fingers, but the largest tip I had was 1.5 cm. So, I went with it, and decided we'd just have mini eclaires. After I piped out the dough, I stuck the baking sheets in the freezer. The next day, I transfered all the little frozen choux-fingers to a zip lock freezer bag for use later.

The next day, while Psycling was holding a fussy baby, I made the chocolate sauce, which would be used in the glaze. It was pretty straight forward, and there was no real trouble there. But, it was quite yummy! We have a fair amount left over, which other DBs say is really good in chocolate milk. I'll have to give that a try!

Then I made the pastry cream, which for me ended up as more of a pudding. But it still worked, it was just thicker than I expected it to be. I have to admit to taking a little shortcut...LC was getting increasingly fussy and hungry, so I needed to finish up so I could feed him. So, I didn't strain the mixture after tempering the eggs and before putting it back on the heat. Fortunatley, everything worked well, and there were no scrambled eggs in my pastry cream. Once the pastry cream was finished, Psycling helped by "cleaning" the chocolate-covered bowls, spoons, and whisks, and I took over baby duty.

We were planning on unloading these eclaires at a labor day cook out with some friends, so on Monday, I skipped my normal afternoon nap (they say you should sleep when the baby sleeps, but that's surprisingly difficult sometimes) to bake and assemble the eclaires.

While the choux was baking, I made the glaze. It was very easy and stright forward, and also very yummy. It was basically a ganache thinned with the chocolate sauce I'd made the day before. I was a little worried about how the choux would bake up. I know that several of the DBs had trouble with the pastry either collapsing, or just not puffing at all. Because mine were smaller, they needed less cooking time than the reicpe called for, but in the end, I was very happy with how well the puffed up.

See? Nice and puffed and golden, just like they're supposed to be!

Then it came time for assembly. I sliced each eclaire in half and piped on some of the pastry cream.

I then dipped the top in the glaze, and placed it on top, then put them in the fridge until time to eat. They were a big hit at the cook out, with some guests stationing themselves next to them and just eating one after the other. There were hardly any left by the time we left, but with so many volunteers to take home any left overs, we just left them there. I would bet there weren't any left overs to take by the time all the guests left.

The verdict: these eclaires were really good, and fairly straight forward to make. I also liked it that this was a recipe that could easily be broken up and made in stages, making it easier to complete it, even if your life is controlled by the feeding schedule of a new born ;-)

Speaking of LC, look how much he's growing!

He's already 6 1/2 weeks old, and is lifting his head, smiling, gurgling and all the cute stuff babies do. Now, if only we could work on the sleep thing...

Pierre Hermé’s Chocolate Éclairs
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 20-24 Éclairs)

• Cream Puff Dough (see below for recipe), fresh and still warm

1) Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Divide the oven into thirds by
positioning the racks in the upper and lower half of the oven. Line two baking sheets with
waxed or parchment paper.

2) Fill a large pastry bag fitted with a 2/3 (2cm) plain tip nozzle with the warm cream puff dough.
Pipe the dough onto the baking sheets in long, 4 to 41/2 inches (about 11 cm) chubby fingers.
Leave about 2 inches (5 cm) space in between each dough strip to allow them room to puff.
The dough should give you enough to pipe 20-24 éclairs.

3) Slide both the baking sheets into the oven and bake for 7 minutes. After the 7 minutes, slip the
handle of a wooden spoon into the door to keep in ajar. When the éclairs have been in the
oven for a total of 12 minutes, rotate the sheets top to bottom and front to back. Continue
baking for a further 8 minutes or until the éclairs are puffed, golden and firm. The total baking
time should be approximately 20 minutes.

1) The éclairs can be kept in a cool, dry place for several hours before filling.

Assembling the éclairs:

• Chocolate glaze (see below for recipe)
• Chocolate pastry cream (see below for recipe)

1) Slice the éclairs horizontally, using a serrated knife and a gently sawing motion. Set aside the
bottoms and place the tops on a rack over a piece of parchment paper.

2) The glaze should be barely warm to the touch (between 95 – 104 degrees F or 35 – 40
degrees C, as measured on an instant read thermometer). Spread the glaze over the tops of
the éclairs using a metal icing spatula. Allow the tops to set and in the meantime fill the
bottoms with the pastry cream.

3) Pipe or spoon the pastry cream into the bottoms of the éclairs. Make sure you fill the bottoms
with enough cream to mound above the pastry. Place the glazed tops onto the pastry cream
and wriggle gently to settle them.

1) If you have chilled your chocolate glaze, reheat by placing it in a bowl over simmering water,
stirring it gently with a wooden spoon. Do not stir too vigorously as you do not want to create

2) The éclairs should be served as soon as they have been filled.

Pierre Hermé’s Cream Puff Dough
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 20-24 Éclairs)

• ½ cup (125g) whole milk
• ½ cup (125g) water
• 1 stick (4 ounces; 115g) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
• ¼ teaspoon sugar
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 1 cup (140g) all-purpose flour
• 5 large eggs, at room temperature

1) In a heavy bottomed medium saucepan, bring the milk, water, butter, sugar and salt to the

2) Once the mixture is at a rolling boil, add all of the flour at once, reduce the heat to medium
and start to stir the mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon. The dough comes together very
quickly. Do not worry if a slight crust forms at the bottom of the pan, it’s supposed to. You
need to carry on stirring for a further 2-3 minutes to dry the dough. After this time the dough
will be very soft and smooth.

3) Transfer the dough into a bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or using your
handmixer or if you still have the energy, continue by hand. Add the eggs one at a time,
beating after each egg has been added to incorporate it into the dough.
You will notice that after you have added the first egg, the dough will separate, once again do
not worry. As you keep working the dough, it will come back all together again by the time you
have added the third egg. In the end the dough should be thick and shiny and when lifted it
should fall back into the bowl in a ribbon.

4) The dough should be still warm. It is now ready to be used for the éclairs as directed above.

1) Once the dough is made you need to shape it immediately.

2) You can pipe the dough and the freeze it. Simply pipe the dough onto parchment-lined baking
sheets and slide the sheets into the freezer. Once the dough is completely frozen, transfer the
piped shapes into freezer bags. They can be kept in the freezer for up to a month.

Chocolate Pastry Cream
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by PierreHermé

• 2 cups (500g) whole milk
• 4 large egg yolks
• 6 tbsp (75g) sugar
• 3 tablespoons cornstarch, sifted
• 7 oz (200g) bittersweet chocolate, preferably Velrhona Guanaja, melted
• 2½ tbsp (1¼ oz: 40g) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1) In a small saucepan, bring the milk to a boil. In the meantime, combine the yolks, sugar and cornstarch together and whisk in a heavy‐bottomed saucepan.

2) Once the milk has reached a boil, temper the yolks by whisking a couple spoonfuls of the hot milk into the yolk mixture.Continue whisking and slowly pour the rest of the milk into the tempered yolk mixture.

3) Strain the mixture back into the saucepan to remove any egg that may have scrambled. Place the pan over medium heat and whisk vigorously (without stop) until the mixture returns to a boil. Keep whisking vigorously for 1 to 2 more minutes (still over medium heat).Stir in the melted chocolate and then remove the pan from the heat.

4) Scrape the pastry cream into a small bowl and set it in an ice‐water bath to stop the cooking process. Make sure to continue stirring the mixture at this point so that it remains smooth.

5) Once the cream has reached a temperature of 140 F remove from the ice‐water bath and stir in the butter in three or four installments. Return the cream to the ice‐water bath to continue cooling, stirring occasionally, until it has completely cooled. The cream is now ready to use or store in the fridge.

1) The pastry cream can be made 2‐3 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator.

2) In order to avoid a skin forming on the pastry cream, cover with plastic wrap pressed onto the cream.

3) Tempering the eggs raises the temperature of the eggs slowly so that they do not scramble.

Chocolate Glaze
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 1 cup or 300g)

• 1/3 cup (80g) heavy cream
• 3½ oz (100g) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
• 4 tsp (20 g) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces, at room temperature
• 7 tbsp (110 g) Chocolate Sauce (recipe below), warm or at room temperature

1)In a small saucepan, bring the heavy cream to a boil. Remove from the heat and slowly begin to add the chocolate, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula.

2) Stirring gently, stir in the butter, piece by piece followed by the chocolate sauce.

1) If the chocolate glaze is too cool (i.e. not liquid enough) you may heat it briefly
 in the microwave or over a double boiler. A double boiler is basically a bowl sitting over (not touching) simmering water.

2) It is best to glaze the eclairs after the glaze is made, but if you are pressed for time, you can make the glaze a couple days ahead of time, store it in the fridge and bring it up to the proper temperature (95 to 104 F) when ready to glaze.

Chocolate Sauce
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 1½ cups or 525 g)

• 4½ oz (130 g) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
• 1 cup (250 g) water
• ½ cup (125 g) crème fraîche, or heavy cream
• 1/3 cup (70 g) sugar

1) Place all the ingredients into a heavy‐bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil, making sure to stir constantly. Then reduce the heat to low and continue stirring with a wooden spoon until the sauce thickens.

2) It may take 10‐15 minutes for the sauce to thicken, but you will know when it is done when it coats the back of your spoon.

1) You can make this sauce ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator for two weeks. Reheat the sauce in a microwave oven or a double boiler before using.
2) This sauce is also great for cakes, ice-cream and tarts.