Wednesday, December 30, 2009


As previously discussed, I bake because I'm vain. But that's not the whole truth. I also bake because I like easy success. I've never met a muffin right out of the oven that I didn't like--or a cookie that made me feel like a loser. But two short days into my New Year's project I'm hating life.

The facts:

I followed the pain au chocolate recipe.

The pain au chocolate failed to rise.

I baked it anyway.


Beautiful, awesome smelling, hard, flat pain au chocolate.

So, no big deal. Start over. I have pounds of flour and butter but am out of chocolate. That's probably for the best. Plain croissants are delicious and I should master the basics first anyway. Scales come before etudes and etudes before concertos.

I vow to practice croissant dough until I reach a facility that convinces passersby that my house is actually a transplanted patisserie.

So I go at it again. And about 12 hours in, I fail again. The croissants rise but they're a bit hard and have an ugly split down the middle. So then I'm pissed and the smell of butter and yeast makes me want to gag. My fantasies of feeding the masses of Eagle River as they genuflect because of my obvious superiority turn to fantasies of angry e-mails with photos that I send off to James Peterson. I ask him: Why did this happen? Why the big split down the middle of the croissants? What obviously important step did you leave out? Why didn't you test properly for home kitchens? Why don't you ... care? I imagine him nestled in a cozy brownstone in Brooklyn reading my e-mail with smug satisfaction and asking his purring tabby, Why does she even try? Then he finishes off a bottle of Chateau Margaux and never thinks of me again.

I think. I wonder. I compare my recipe to others online. Not enough yeast? Rookie technique with the butter? I realize the e-mail to my new boyfriend a.k.a. arch nemesis James Peterson will have more weight if I outline the dozens of fixes I attempted that were thoughtful and earnest yet not heroic enough to save me from his folly. I vow to push on and master the dough.

But the part about the smell of yeast and butter making me want to gag is still true (about a day has passed). So I'm giving flaky pastry a rest for a bit and moving on to macarons. Mark fell for them on our trip to Paris and they seem fun and ... dare I say it ... easy. The only problem is almond flour. Anchorage doesn't stock it. So I'm either going to order it, or order an attachment for my Kitchenaid and make it. The time it takes to consider that decision will give me a window to shop for a pastry bag and tip.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Love and Affection

My husband takes photographs and is great at it. I'd like to learn and so he's teaching me.

I don't want to create art with photos, to compete, mostly because I'd lose but also because I don't like the way competition feels when it's with someone you love (but I love the way it feels when it's with someone you don't). I want to document food. Until a few days ago, it was mostly produce from the CSA in the Mat-Su Valley I wanted to remember. I don't have the skill to write about produce in a way that isn't trite or laughable, so I'll leave it alone. But fresh produce is a brand of beautiful I wish I could capture.

When I bring food to an event I want it to be memorable. This is mostly because I'm vain, but also because I take pride in what I do because I value quality and nuance. We had a potluck at work on the Friday before Halloween and I brought devil's food cupcakes filled with (orange tinted) cream cheese frosting and iced with bittersweet ganache. I piped creme cheese frosting curly Qs across the top so they'd resemble Hostess treats. They were fantastic, but not very popular. My hypothesis is that they looked so professional that people thought they were store bought and so passed and ate my friend's obviously home made bars instead, but really, her offering was probably better (I was too full of cupcakes to try the bars so I wouldn't know).

The cupcakes aren't an isolated event. There was a rhubarb cake. And apple crisp and carmel sauce we brought to friends. And a heavily spiced custardy pumpkin pie we contributed to Thanksgiving.

We were invited to Christmas dinner and I wanted to bring something special. I wanted it to matter. I thumbed though cookbooks and chose truffles and an apple tart from James Peterson's Glorious French Food. They were both show stoppers. They made me want to learn to bake with gravitas, bake in a way that would make me unusual. So, looking for counsel, I typed baking into the Amazon search and the first thing that popped up was a new book called Baking by James Peterson. I bought the book the next day and started Pain au Chocolate (chocolate croissants) the day after that (which is today).

Tomorrow morning is the test. My husband will wake up to either delicious Pain au Chocolate, or a very crabby wife. We'll see.

The goal is to bake my way through James' new book and to learn how to take passible photos as I do it. I'm off this week (thanks to an incredibly generous holiday gift from the firm of a free week-and-a-half off) and have ambitious plans for my canister of flour.