Trial, Error, and Tribulation: Tales of a Troublesome Tart

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BSMbanner_baked-150Many times as a baker, when you go into a recipe, you really never know what you are in for.  A recipe that looks really difficult at first read can be an absolute cinch.  On the flip-side – a recipe can appear deceptively simple, when in truth, it’s an absolute monster.  This was true for me with those Brooksters a while back.  This week’s Baked Sunday Mornings selection from Baked Elements – the Chocolate Banana Tart – wasn’t too monstrous, but by the time I had spent a couple hours attempting to at least slightly master ‘caramelized bananas’, followed by scalding bits of my hand on a cookie sheet fresh out of the oven, I was about to throw the towel in.  Ever stubborn, I forged on and came up with a fairly decent result – which nevertheless didn’t completely sway my slight repulsion for (raw) banana.

The description for this sleek tart in the book sets the basis for this being a fairly simple recipe to put together.  It begins with a baked sweet tart crust base, filled with luscious layers of chocolate ganache sandwiching thinly-sliced bananas.  The trouble, I found, came in the final pièce de résistance: a smattering of caramelized bananas on top of this tart.  Having never made caramelized bananas before, I knew going into it that this might be an experience for me, and I was game to at least give it an old college try.

The sweet tart crust came together fairly simply in the mixer.  Once chilled, you’ll want to very gently roll it out on a surface liberally sprinkled with flour.  Sweet tart doughs, or short doughs, can be very sticky and warm up fast.  Of course, after I maneuvered my dough into my tart pan with nary a crack except one (I patched it up by pressing in some excess dough), my boyfriend Jake showed me an excellent tip on YouTube for filling a tart pan without risking cracks in the dough.  I’m embedding the video as a good tip for you to file away.  I know that I will.  The tip is from England’s own master baker, Mary Berry, a co-host on a fascinating reality show much revered my the Brits – and now by me as well – called The Great British Bake-off.  Gosh, have a I fallen in love with this show.  I’m watching as many bits and pieces of it as I can on YouTube.  I wish it were more easily available for viewing here in America, because it is utterly addicting.  And – my experiences with this tart notwithstanding – I want to go on it as a contestant and see how I fare!  Enjoy Mary’s expertise and suggestion:

While the dough was chilling in the freezer, I decided to jump right in with those caramelized bananas, knowing the ganache in the next step might firm up a little too quickly if made it too early.

Here’s the trouble I ran into, right away, with these:  for one thing, I don’t have a large, heavy-gauge aluminum skillet to brown things in.  I still need to get some new, better pans.  I only had a yucky, nonstick wide sauté pan to contend with for these.  I melted together what seemed to be copious amounts of butter and brown sugar until bubbling, according to the recipe, and added my diagonally-sliced pieces of banana in a scattered layer.  After 45 seconds bubbling away, you’re supposed to gently turn each banana slice to brown the other side.  Okay.

IMG_3453When I attempted this, I sadly found that, not only had my bananas not browned as promised, but they had overcooked and were a mushy mess that disintegrated when I barely touched them with the spatula.  I realized fairly quickly that I displayed excellent foresight in buying a large bunch of bananas, rather than just the amount called for in the recipe.

I decided to try adding small spoonfuls of the butter/brown sugar mixture to a nonstick, aluminum saucepan, heating it up to a very hot temp, and making smaller amounts of caramelized bananas at a time (with less caramel).  This seemed to do the trick a little better.  The bananas had a decidedly more browned, caramelized surface – though they still seemed mushy.  The recipe suggests transferring the browned banana slices to a plate and dabbing at them to remove excess moisture.  However, ripe bananas already have a lot of moisture to them.  That’s why they turn to mush fairly quickly.  When I dabbed at my browned slices, OFF went all of that beautiful caramelization, onto the paper towel.  Realizing I needed to attempt a third batch – and my supply of bananas was dwindling – I was starting to lose it.

Around this time, I also had set my crust  in the oven to bake.  It turned out beautifully golden-brown, but even with pie crust weights in the first half of the baking, it had really seized up and shrunken a touch, which was odd (overworked dough?  I swear I was gentle with it!).  I grabbed the hot sheet pan – on which I placed the tart for baking – with an oven-mitted hand out of the oven and placed it, a touch catty-wumpus, onto a cooling rack.  Absolutely not thinking, with my other BARE hand, I went to straighten out the pan. YEEEOOOOUUUUCCCHHHHH!  I sustained a major, painful burn all the way up the side of my left hand, grazing a couple fingertips in the bargain.  I dropped everything straight away – thankfully, not the just-baked, delicate crust – and had to delay my baking endeavors yet a little longer while my ever-patient and concerned boyfriend ministered to my throbbing, red hand and endured my frequent whines of “DAMN IT, THIS HURTS”.

About an hour later (after resting and watching several clips of The Great British Bake-Off), I carefully slipped a latex glove over my Burnjel-slathered hand and forged ahead with the rest of that *insert expletive* Chocolate Banana Tart recipe.  I attempted the caramelized banana technique of only a few at a time in a small amount of bubbling caramel again, this time trying to pat the banana slices dry prior to putting them to sizzle away in the pan.  It wasn’t very successful.  I just think ripe bananas are far too soft and wet.  I wonder if this technique would be better with firmer, less ripe – perhaps green – bananas.  Anyhow, I yielded a fair amount of caramelized banana slices, which I let sit on a plate as I assembled the rest of the tart.

As this blog post is already far too long, I won’t elaborate on the particulars of putting together chocolate ganache.  I’m assuming you, my readers, are already familiar that a ganache is simply a delectable mixture of chocolate and heavy cream.  Baked cleverly combines bittersweet, or dark chocolate with milk chocolate for this tart – which I think is truly essential for a nice, balanced chocolately flavor finish.  I adore all ranges of chocolate from extra dark to milk, as you know, but you can go too far one way or another at times, and sometimes recipes (like that one) call for a balance so the end result is not too overpowering.  You want a nice complement to the banana in this tart.  Half of the ganache is spread across the bottom of the baked crust, then the entire tart is put into the fridge to firm up while you slice another 1.5 bananas to layer inside.

IMG_3457Here’s the thing:  I’m pretty sure I’ve stated this before, but I’m not a huge fan of raw banana.  I’ve never been one for banana cream pie, as beautiful as it frequently looks.  I prefer my bananas baked into a yummy, homey banana bread or muffin.  So I was a little skeevy about putting raw banana between two decadent chocolate ganache layers.  With that in mind, I sliced up the banana fairly thin – as in, almost paper-thin.  I then tossed the thin slices with a small splash of orange juice to keep them from browning, removed the cooled ganache layer from the fridge, and arranged the slices in a pretty, circular petal-like pattern on top.  The second half of chocolate ganache is finally smoothed over the top of the bananas, then the entire tart is placed back into the fridge to firm up.

Now… back to those pesky caramelized bananas.

After all of that persistence – and your faithful reading of all this nonsense, I have a sheepish confession to make:  I decided to leave the dreadful things off the top of the tart.  They pooled up on the plate, seeped out their sugars, and some even lost their beautiful browned effect… so, nix on those.  If there is anything I learned from those tireless British bakers on The Great British Bake-Off, sometimes you just need to concede defeat of one element and do your best attempting something else.

That in mind, I also scrapped decorating the tart with a caramel sauce cooked up from the butter/brown sugar mixture used in the banana caramelization, as IMG_3461instructed in the recipe.  This was not done without trying:  I followed the instructions to a T and added the heavy cream, stirring it up into a thick caramel reminiscent of penuche fudge… but that was just the trouble.  It was simply too thick, grainy and sugary.  I quick whipped a batch of Baked’s Classic Caramel Sauce (recipe also in Baked Elements), put that into a squeeze bottle when slightly cool but still runny, and did a fancy, artistic Jackson Pollock splash on top of the tart.  I think the result was quite nice.  To hell with those mushy caramelized bananas.

(For the record, not wanting to waste all those bits of sweet tart crust, I cut the IMG_3471scraps up into coins with a cookie cutter and baked them off into little cookies to serve alongside the tart.  I even attempted topping them with the caramelized bananas – but ended up scraping them off and dipped the cookies in the extra homemade caramel sauce instead!)

In the end, I can say that for all of this trial and error, I yielded a pretty elegant little tart that would please any chocolate-and-banana enthusiast.  The flavor is decadent and rich (you’ll want to aim for serving this in thin wedges), and the ganache and banana has a smooth, creamy finish inside the buttery crust.  My crust was a touch too crumbly, shattering into pieces when I cut into the tart… but after the aggravation of the day, I decided I was ready to put aside sweet tart crust experimentation for another day.

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Let me not deter you from attempting your own Chocolate Banana Tart by directing you to this link at Baked Sunday Mornings:

Chocolate Banana Tart

And please support my fellow BSM friends and bakers by paying a quick visit to their wonderful blogs to see how they fared.  Beware the caramelized banana debacle, keep oven mitts on BOTH hands, and Happy Baking, friends!

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Have your vanilla bean malt cake… and eat it too

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For faithful Neufangled Desserts followers, it’s no secret that I am not exactly the world’s biggest fan of malt.  I detest Whoppers malted milk balls and stick firmly to my guns that a milkshake is sullied by the addition of malt powder. Following along in Baked Elements with the Baked Sunday Mornings group has presented a slight challenge to me, with an entire chapter devoted to malted milk powder.

Surprisingly, I’ve learned to embrace the nutty flavor of malt a touch, and find that it definitely depends on what food the malt is incorporated into for me to appreciate it.  When Jake and I visited NYC in fall of 2012, I enjoyed sweet, delicious cereal milk from Momofuku Milk Bar that tasted like a faint throwback to childhood, when I had finished my cereal and all that was left in the bowl was milk infused with the flavor of the cereal.  Indeed, Momofuku Milk Bar’s cereal milk is just that: milk that has been steeped in cereal (such as Corn Flakes).  For me, malt in baked goods harkens to that same nostalgic flavor.  As a lot of cereals today have malt included in the ingredients, this makes complete sense.  Mind you, I’m still not about to down a box of Whoppers or sprinkle a couple tablespoons of malt into a chocolate shake that is purely delicious on its own, but I’m beginning to understand its appeal to malt fans (albeit in smaller doses).

Speaking of malted milkshakes, this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment from Baked Elements can almost be considered a cake-form take on a classic vanilla malt: the Vanilla Bean Malt Cake.  Baked up in a fancy Bundt pan, it’s a cake simple enough to whip together for a fun get-together with friends or family, or simply enjoy on your own.

As Matt Lewis states in the recipe preface, this cake comes together fairly quickly. I opted for mixing Knob Creek bourbon whiskey with vanilla paste instead of fussing with a good vanilla bean in the first step.  I have to admit I’m intrigued by the bourbon inclusion, as I barely tasted the liquor in the finished cake, or perhaps it was there, but very subtle.  Aside from the bourbon and vanilla bean addition, the batter mixes up easily and isn’t too unusual.

Matt also mentions that if you do not own a 6-cup Bundt pan to bake this cake in, a standard 9- or 10-cup Bundt is perfectly fine – you just will have a shorter cake.  You could do as I did and make a recipe and a half.  It filled my 9-cup Heritage pan perfectly and didn’t rise over the edge.  It did require a touch more time baking in the oven (about 55 minutes over all), and be sure to check on it to make sure it doesn’t brown too much.  I tented the cake with foil in the last 10-15 minutes.

IMG_3431My fellow BSM bakers mentioned in their blogs that the glaze providing the crowning touch on this cake seemed too thin, so I was careful when whisking it together.  I didn’t think the ratio of liquid (milk/vanilla) to dry (confectioners’ sugar) was too outlandish, but I drizzled the milk in slowly just in case.  All told, I think I used about 1.5 tablespoons of milk instead of the listed 2, and I added a small splash of regular vanilla along with a touch more vanilla paste, as I wanted some specks of vanilla bean to show up in the glaze as well.  I achieved a thicker, glossy glaze that was nicely conducive to drizzling over the cake.  (Also note that if you are making 1.5 of the cake recipe as I did, there’s really no need to do the same with the glaze recipe.  A little goes a long way.)

This is really one of those Bundt cakes you’ll want to store under a cake keeper or IMG_3438glass dome on your kitchen counter, so you can slice off pieces at leisure to enjoy with a glass of milk or cup of coffee.  I think its buttery texture and flavor would only get better with age.  I like the airy, light crumb to this cake, and the nuttiness of the malt sneaks through at the end, almost accenting the vanilla and giving the cake a subtle tang when paired with the buttermilk (which also keeps the cake slightly moist).

While I enjoyed this cake, I felt it was lacking something.  I wanted the vanilla to be punched up more, perhaps.  Dare I even say that there could be a touch *more* MALT?  It didn’t strike me as a particularly memorable cake overall – just so-so.  I’m not sure I would rush to make it again any time soon, or label it a must-make, go-to cake.  It does lend itself well to being baked in a Heritage Bundt pan; with a good greasing and flouring, the cake plopped right out the moment I turned the pan over, and had a beautiful golden hue to it all around.  The glaze might be better and compliment the cake with a little bit of malt powder added to the milk as well.

To try your own Vanilla Bean Malt Cake, follow this link to Baked Sunday Mornings:

Vanilla Bean Malt Cake

My fellow bakers in Baked Sunday Mornings also had some interesting results with this cake, so make sure to check out their blogs as well before you tackle your own, and if you have any suggestions, please post them below!

Until next time, friends, and as always, Happy Baking!

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Christmas in July

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Scrooge-ish curmudgeons like yours truly don’t even want to conceive of the notion that the holidays are nearly 4 months off at this time of year.  This particular blog’s moniker may be a touch off by the time it is published (July being, well, over), but with how rapidly 2014 is already flying, we will be – shudder – decking the halls in only a matter of time.

Typically, Christmas is a time of year I take off from baking.  However, the recent assignments of two tasty treats through Baked Sunday Mornings – Chewy Chocolate Mint Cookies with Chocolate Chunks and Cinnamon Spritz Sandwich Cookies – have me putting aside a prematurely grumpy holiday spirit.  These two cookies are not only fantastic, they are an outstanding addition to your holiday baking repertoire.  File these away in your December baking files, folks.

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The Chewy Chocolate Mint Cookies with Chocolate Chunks truly put those bland Girl Scout Thin Mint Cookies to shame.  I hesitate to mention those cookies together in one sentence, because I feel like Thin Mints went downhill when they redesigned them with scalloped edges.  I’m weird, I know.  That aside, I’m a tremendous fan of a good mint and chocolate pairing, and when I first got Baked Elements, this was a recipe that stood out for me to try.  I’m only curious as to why it took me this long!

I also understand why store-bought cookies maintain their incredible softness and chewiness, as these chewy delights do, indeed, contain a hefty half cup of light corn syrup.  I know, I’m not a fan either, but if you love chocolate mint as I do, you are depriving yourself a true indulgence if you hesitate to make these based on this alone.  It’s okay once in a great while, though I dare you to make a batch of these and not want to quickly make another once you have devoured the lot of them.  Use really nice dark cocoa (Hershey’s Special Dark does fine, if you cannot afford the expensive stuff).  I also swapped out Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips for the chocolate chunks called for in the recipe.  Slightly flatter and disc-like, they substantiate the size of chocolate chunks and melt beautifully into the midnight-dark chocolate cookie.

Inititally, I was a trifle stymied by the full 1.5 tablespoons of peppermint extract in the recipe, and felt perhaps I had read it wrong.  A little peppermint extract goes a long way.  Unless you use the full measurement of extract called for in this recipe, however, the true “pow” factor of the mint will be dwarfed by the intensity of the cocoa and chocolate, so add those full 1.5 tablespoons. You want to go ultra-mint here.  Of course, if you’re not a fan of intense mint, scale it back a touch.

IMG_3348These gems are sinfully good and easy to put together, but allow yourself some planning and time with these.  As suggested, an overnight refrigerator rest of the dark cookie dough perfectly weds the mint and chocolate flavors, so don’t skip this step because of impatience.  With their coat of sparkly sugar and crackly tops, these cookies are beautiful to boot.  Soft, chewy, and delightfully chock-full of chocolate chunks or chips and permeated with the effervescence ofmint, I found it hard to eat just one… or two.  Okay, maybe I ate three.  Then a couple more later in the day.

First batch - definitely held their shape better!

First batch – definitely held their shape better!

A word to the wise:  if you’re super-particular about your cookies like me, preferring them more on the plump, chewy side as opposed to thin and wafer-like, fold in your dry ingredients and chocolate chunks by hand, rather than using the mixer – taking care not to over mix. Chill the dough well and keep it chilled as you scoop off, roll, and bake the cookies.  I made two batches of these, and my first batch was infinitely better (I folded in the dry ingredients by hand).  The cookies held their shape and were fatter and soft.  The second batch spread and were not as attractive – though they still tasted fabulous.

For a bit of almost old-fashioned whimsy on your cookie plate, the Cinnamon Spritz Sandwich Cookies are just the thing.  I tend to avoid spritz cookie recipes, leaving them to those select few who seem to ace them every holiday.  I loved Baked’s idea of a cinnamon spritz, however, and decided to give these a go.

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I’m a fan of anything cinnamon, and the stronger and hotter the cinnamon, the better – so I went for Penzey’s Vietnamese cinnamon here.  I balked at the inclusion of cardamom.  I’m a traitor to my Danish heritage, I realize, by stating that cardamom is not one of my favorite spices.  I find it a bit too floral and musky in taste, but I included it when making these nonetheless, to stay true to the recipe on my first go-round with these.

IMG_3371The dough mixes together incredibly quickly and easily, with minimal ingredients.  As with any spritz or shortbread cookie, the butter shines appropriately as the main player here. Upon discovering that I had misplaced my cookie press (I had really hoped to pipe these out like true spritz cookies), I used a pastry bag and star tip as the recipe suggests, but I’m pretty sure I piped my cookies out slightly larger.  The dough may feel a little tough at first to work through the pastry bag; just carefully manipulate it down through the piping tip and don’t apply so much pressure that you risk splitting your bag.  Make sure your piped-out spritz are chilled well on the cookie sheets before baking.  I also opted to bake the spritz in-between the recommended cakey and crispy times – for about 15 minutes or so, until I could see the edges brown slightly.

A subtly sweet, glossy, soft meringue filling is made to sandwich two spritz halves together.  Again, the filling recipe comes together fast and shouldn’t be too daunting – but feel free to substitute a nice jam or speculoos spread if you feel so inclined.  All that is left for presentation is a delicate dusting of powdered sugar.

The flavor of these is reminiscent of a lightly-spiced snickerdoodle; not as intense, but similar.  I liked the slightly crisp texture of the cookie, and the warm notes of the cinnamon are nicely rounded out by the touch of cardamom (indeed, the cardamom intensifies a little after a day or two).  The light meringue filling is a nice contrast to the cookie flavors.  My slight complaint was that my first bite into the sandwich cookie had the filling oozing messily out of the sides.  What was a very elegant-looking cookie fast turned to sticky chaos between my fingers.  I’m wondering if letting the filled cookies sit on a plate to ‘dry’ slightly might firm up the meringue and remedy this effect a touch.

If these cookies tempt you to fire up your stove in the heat of summer to give them a whirl long before the snow flies and the tinsel is on the tree, check out the recipes on the Baked Sunday Morning site:

Cinnamon Spritz Sandwich Cookies

Chewy Chocolate Mint Cookies with Chocolate Chunks 

I guarantee that these festive cookies will not having you saying “bah, humbug!” like yours truly, regardless of the time of year.  Please be sure to visit the wonderful sites of my fellow BSM bakers as well.  They have some wonderful blogs and photos to share with you!

Until next time, thank – as always – for reading and Happy Baking!

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