Thursday, February 18, 2010

BAKING: 1st Cake from Scratch!

Yesterday's Creative Output:
1 Chocolate Buttermilk Cake with Mocha Whipped Cream Frosting
2 8-inch round layers

Life can be home schooling for grown-ups.

That's how I see it. I've turned off the TV, where I'd just be watching other people do things, and I've tuned in to learning and doing things myself instead, using my unscheduled time to following my curiosity.

It has been a goal of mine for a long time to bake a cake from scratch. Why? I'm not entirely sure. Sense of accomplishment? Potentially delicious results? Happy husband?

It's one of those urges you don't question. You just go with it. But where to start?

For my first scratch-baked cake, I meticulously went through all my cookbooks and compared all the chocolate cake recipes (no exaggeration). If I was going to put in the effort to bake a cake this way, I wanted to understand what I was doing and what the options were. I wanted to maximize the chances of success. Nothing is more discouraging to a novice baker that an unpalatable result the first time out.

At the risk of revealing the level my enjoyment of detail and depth, and looking a little crazy in the process, here is a picture of the table I created and filled in with ingredient quantities from 18 different chocolate cake recipes (not including the flourless or chiffon varieties).
Earlier this week, when the number of choices and amount of information was feeling overwhelming, I put this chart together so I could look for patterns. I enjoyed imagining each one as I looked over the recipes.

That's probably why I have so many recipes collected and organized into binders on a shelf in our kitchen. I read recipes the way some people read trashy novels.
Though the cake in the picture above wasn't from the recipe I ultimately used, the photo supplied inspiration for the finished result.

Some recipes used powdered unsweetened cocoa, some solid, some Dutch-process, some non-Dutch-process (wasn't even sure what this meant when I started). Some specified butter or shortening or vegetable oil, or milk or water or buttermilk or yoghurt or sour cream, white sugar or light brown sugar, baking powder and/or baking powder and/or salt. And so on. A lot to understand.

Got a wide variety of reactions when I told people I was planning to bake my first cake from scratch this week--everything from "Why would you want to do that?" to "You've got to try this great frosting recipe!"

Ultimately, I took a friend's advice and chose a recipe with buttermilk for my first attempt. She said it would be more moist. For the frosting, I decided on a flavored whipped cream for simplicity's sake--I already knew how to whip cream and add things to it. Other frostings required unfamiliar steps. One can only take on so many unfamiliar steps at one time.

Mixing the cake ended up not being a big deal. Creaming butter and sugar together on a stand mixer? I knew how to do that. Easy! Measuring and sifting together dry ingredients? I could do that. Again, easy! Breaking eggs? Mixing it all together? Putting the batter into the greased and floured pans? All easy!

Why had it seemed to overwhelming to begin with? Too many choices. Multiple steps examined as a whole. The print began to swim on the page. Until I took it all a little at a time.

Choose and do! That's it.

This is an approach that applies to any other undertakings. Face down the feelings of being overwhelmed by choices and the worry about making the best one. Take the time you need to understand what you're about to do, as much as you can without having done it, then choose and do! Or just jump in and try stuff, see what works and what doesn't. Either approach works.

Many kinds of knowledge only come from the doing.

Three years ago I decided I wanted to learn to bake my own bread. Now I'm very comfortable with the process and enjoying experimenting with methods, inventing my own recipes. I would love to get to this point with other areas of cooking.

Cooking is just another thing to know, useful knowledge with edible results. It's a way of relating to the things that us bring sustenance. It's the raw material for an enjoyable experience, sitting down with others to converse.

So many of the other creative things I'm involved in are what I would call "long cycle" activities.

From concept and clay to finished piece to gallery or market is a relatively long cycle, on the scale of weeks or months, sometimes years. From concept to song to performance to recording to distribution is another long cycle of months or years.

Baking is a creative activity with a "short cycle" from beginning to end, just a matter of minutes or hours. The recipe I chose said "2 1/2 Hours Total, including cooling, 25 minutes active." A small investment when I know we will enjoy this cake all week.

Besides, what else was I going to do? Watch TV?

[I have chosen not to include the recipes I used, leaving the fun for you to choose your own. Both cake and frosting recipes came from "A Piece of Cake", by Susan C. Purdy, which has 380 recipes for all varieties of cakes and frostings--purchased used for $3 at last spring's library book sale.]

Friday, February 12, 2010

SACRED SHARDS: New Blog, Vessel Shown & Sold

Sacred Shards Pottery, new blog, new post:

I recently imported all the posts I've made on this blog to a new blog that will focus specifically on "Sacred Shards Pottery." I will continue to update this "Quiet Little Life" blog with links over to my other topic-specific blogs so those who wish to can follow those areas in more depth.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


When I saw this morning that Colin Beavan had mentioned sprouting on his No Impact Man blog as an easy way to start growing your own food, I just had to join the fun.

This quart jar of sprouts was started last Wednesday with 1 Tbs each organic radish, red clover, and alfalfa seeds, rinsed and drained twice a day morning and evening each day since.

In this picture are the sprouts remaining, and continuing to grow, after I've already enjoyed several servings atop salads and on sandwiches.

Growing my own sprouts is a two-fold environmental act.

First, I'm avoiding the environmental costs associated with grocery store packaging, storage and transportation.

At the same time, I'm returning the means of production to the hands of the people (well, this one person) while becoming more engaged with and aware of where my food comes from--actual living, growing things. This, for me, has value for both body and spirit.

If I were to buy sprouts at the grocery store they would be packaged in a one-time-use plastic carton which required energy to make and would require additional energy to recycle. My glass jar may have been more energy intensive to produce, but it is essentially infinitely reusable. Grocery store sprouts are started off site, transported to the store, refrigerated and misted until purchase, transported home, then must be refrigerated until they're used up. Because they're sold at peak growth, they have a shorter useful life for the consumer. When I've bought grocery store sprouts I rarely use them up before they start to get slimy.

Today, this tiny forest in a jar is sitting on an old wooden trunk by a south-facing window in our kitchen, while heavy snow falls outside.

It is a reminder that spring is just around the corner, a reminder of the force to grow contained within all living things, including myself.

(c)2010 Kay Pere ~ Effusive Muse Publishing

Monday, February 01, 2010

BREAD: Project Sourdough~Basic Recipe

Some people have plants in their offices. In my studio, today, I have a living ball of sourdough on a slow rise to keep me company.

2 c active sourdough starter* (wild yeasts, all purpose flour, water)
1 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp salt
2 c bread flour.

That's it! Following usual bread making methods: stir, knead, rise, punch down, rest, form, rise, bake, EAT.

This little ball-o-dough will be 6-8 oval sourdough sandwich rolls before the day is done.

No matter how much I have to do during the day, the slow rising of dough is a calming ostinato played in mellow tones on a double bass. The smell of the yeast and flour says "home" and "sustenance" to my soul. The whole process is a sort of working meditation.

The picture above was not staged, except to pull back the damp towel from the top of the bowl. This is what the work surface just inside my studio door often looks like. That is, when it's not covered with piles of papers.

CHALLENGE: In the picture, see if you can find [clockwise from L]: a computer speaker, a Kleenex box (my students don't use handkerchiefs like I do), a paintbrush, a pottery bowl, a sumi-e board, a box of 96 crayons, a pink pearl eraser, an unfolded paper clip, a few remaining Hard Rock Cafe promo stickers, a 4x normal size larynx model, hand sanitizer, a pile of 3x5 cards, a 3-hole punch, a file cabinet, 3 packets of tiny star & smilie stickers, a zip-lock bag full of misc stuff & pile of papers to be sorted.

In the hour since I took the picture, the dough has nearly risen to the top of the bowl. Soon, I'll form the rolls and leave them to rise while I lessons. Baked in time for dinner.

*My sourdough starter has been in our family for 60-70 years, when it was passed along to my father's brother by an very old man, one of the original homesteaders in Idaho. Follow the link to directions for making your own.