Friday, February 1, 2013

A Bad Cook, a Good Friend, and a Smiley Cake

My friend Sheila came over last night.  We try to get together once a week when she's not travelling for her job with Doctors without borders.  She's decided to quit her day job and become a pastry chef (empty threats), so she's starting a Saturday internship at a local cake shop.  Since my kitchen is well equipped and since I like cooking too, we sometimes bake together, just after I teach us a yoga class (or not).  Balance.  Other times we try out new Parisian restaurants.  She has an uncanny ability of finding the good ones.  
We are polar opposites in the kitchen.  She measures and weighs and follows all the mixing and adding instructions, and I almost always fudge something.  A little less sugar, that looks like a tsp of vanilla or baking powder, the butter doesn't really have to be at room temperature and completely incorporated... I'm not sure if it's because I'm a terrible cook or a good one.  Sometimes, it's simply because I don't have the proper ingredients on hand, or they just can't be found here.  I once used a mix of raw brown sugar and honey as a sub for the wet brown sugar found in the US.  Buttermilk, I almost always make myself with milk and vinegar or a lemon, and we don't have sour cream.  You can look up 'equivalent' ingredients for most things, but in my book, sour cream = greek yogurt = thick creme fraiche = full fat fromage blanc.  Whatever's in the fridge.  I recently made a birthday cake from scratch using an ancient Betty Crocker cookbook recipe.  It was as dense as a brick and almost as dry.... I need to throw out that cookbook.  (Poor Franck)  I'm still in search of the perfect recipe to replace my beloved Duncan Hines butter recipe golden cake mix.  It was one of the only 'processed' things I had in my kitchen in SF.  And I think I may try to use the base of this coffee cake, without the cinnamon streusel part. 
Some recipes, though, I never fudge, like bread recipes.  Even when I follow the recipe perfectly, I always panic that it's too wet, or not wet enough, or it didn't rise well, or it rose too much.  That reminds me.  I only have a few days to make a king cake!  
Anyway, Sheila brought over a recipe from America's Test Kitchen, aka Cooks Illustrated, for coffee cake.  I had actually made one a few weeks back that turned out well enough.  I didn't follow the instructions exactly as written and it rose a little lopsided, but you can't really go wrong with butter, flour sugar and cinnamon (or maybe you can if you count Franck's cake).  We must make a good team, because this cake turned out very very nicely! Or perhaps, as she informed me last night, it's because America's Test Kitchen tests all their recipes until they find the perfect one.  How did I never know about them?  

Here's my fudged (adapted) recipe.  I always use less sugar, more butter, and less equipment when possible.  

Cinnamon Streusel Coffee Cake
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2.5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1 cup pecans, chopped (I usually break my pecans by hand)
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sour cream (we used frommage blanc)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened but still cool, cut into 1-inch cubes

To make the streusel topping, combine flour, sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar and cinnamon in a medium bowl.  Mix well.  To make the streusel for the interior of the cake, remove 1 1/4 cup of the mix to a new bowl and add the remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar.  Mix well.  With the remaining ~1/2 cup streusel topping, add the pecans and butter.  Hand mix until crumbly (then lick buttery sugary fingers, followed by a thorough washing).  Set Aside.

Adjust oven rack to lowest position and set to 350F (175C).  Grease a bundt pan.  Beat to combine: eggs, 1 cup sour cream, and vanilla in a medium bowl, set aside.  In a separate mixer bowl combine flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, and salt.  Mix on low speed to combine for 30 seconds.  To mixer, add butter, remaining 1/2 cup sour cream and mix on low speed until moist.  Add egg mixture in 3 additions beating 20 seconds between additions (denise's translation -- slowly add egg mixture).  Increase speed to medium high and beat 1 minute.

Assemble by adding 1/3 of mixture (~ 2 cups) to greased pan and smooth with a spatula.  Sprinkle with 1/2 of the interior streusel (no nuts).  Add another ~2 cups mixture, smooth and top with remaining interior streusel.  As evenly as possible, add the remaining mixture and top with pecan crumble.  Bake 50-60 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean and cake bounces back a bit.  (streusel will make toothpick dirty even if the cake is done, so try to poke a streusel free area.  Remove from pan, and cool as long as you can stand it before eating! 

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