Monday, September 13, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Scones and Biscuits

Introductory baking class, week three. At the end of the second baking class we were given a homework assignment: make a Sour Cream Coffee Cake from a recipe in the textbook and bring in a slice or two for the following class.

The recipe looks simple enough: a filling of brown sugar, cinnamon, butter and chopped pecans is layered on top and in the center of a simple yellow cake. The recipe calls for a 10-inch bundt pan (or tube pan as it’s called in the profession), but the chef says we can make it in a loaf pan if necessary.

The day before class I assemble my ingredients. As I get into making the cake I realize there are many small things that can trip up the novice baker and result in a less-than-stellar product. As in most professional recipes, the ingredients are listed by weight (e.g. 7 ounces of flour vs. 1 1/4 cups). Thankfully I have an old “diet” scale in my home kitchen that is not as good as the scale used in class but will have to suffice. I own a 9-inch bundt pan, not a 10-inch as called for in the recipe. This should be no problem but will require some watchfulness in terms of the baking time. Also I have doubts about the accuracy of our oven temperature, so I’ve invested in an oven thermometer to make sure the cake actually bakes at 350 degrees. I’m trying to give this my best shot.

I’ve made cakes before and have no problem with the recipe. It comes out moist, buttery, and tender. Very happy there. Unfortunately the filling is crumbly and doesn’t meld with the cake very well. When cut, the filling crumbles away from the top and center, resulting in a small pile of brown sugar and nuts on the plate and slices that don’t look neat. I probably should have chopped the pecans more finely, or added more butter to the filling to hold it together better.

On the whole I rate my cake an 8 or 9 for taste and maybe a 5 for appearance. The next day I plate the two best-looking pieces and take them to class.

I intend to talk to Chef Dennis about the crumbling problem, but never get the chance. A glance around the kitchen tells me that some students had much bigger problems than I did. One baked his in a disposable aluminum cake pan but something happened and it didn’t rise properly, so instead of a fluffy cake four or five inches high he ended up with a dense, undercooked cake about 1 1/2” high. Another student made the cake but it didn’t turn out for some reason, then made it a second time in muffin tins because she didn't want to use the thicker pan. Every student's version looks different. Chef Dennis has us place our cakes on a side table, and later while we're baking he looks at them intently while making notes.

This week we’ve got two in-class baking projects: Country Biscuits and Chocolate Chip Scones. Both use the “biscuit method” of cutting butter into the flour before the wet ingredients are added, so the recipes are very similar. The scones are a little sweeter and a little richer due to the addition of egg and half-and-half.

Each student makes his or her own biscuits and scones. I’m happy about this because I like working on my own. Like last week there’s a mad rush for the equipment and ingredients. Everyone, including me, acts as though we were on one of those competitive Food Network shows, and whoever gets done first wins. Later Chef Dennis tells the group that baking isn’t a race, but then says it really is a race. He says something to the effect that “when you’ve got 10,000 biscuits to make…” and a few minutes later makes virtually the same comment about scones ("10,000 scones to make..."). I guess in a professional kitchen the race is to get everything done so you can go home.

During the scone making I reach into my bag of equipment and cut my left index finger on my paring knife. Chef Dennis has to find bandages so I stand around for a few minutes, losing time. We’re cutting the butter into the flour by hand, and it’s definitely awkward with a bandaged, bleeding finger. After a few minutes the first bandage is soaked with blood and I need another. Sometime later the second bandage slips off without my noticing. I discreetly look around for it, checking the worktable, the floors and the sinks where I had washed some dishes, but can’t find it. I try to tell the chef but his attention is torn in ten different directions and I don’t get a chance. The bandage never does turn up. Needless to say I’m glad no one outside of my family will be eating my scones.

When all the biscuits and scones are out of the oven and cooled, we have a group critique. I seem to be one of the few people who actually want to taste their efforts, and stand there eating a scone while the chef talks. No one else is eating. The chef brought in a jar of Nutella and some Bonne Maman strawberry jam, thinking we might have a scone party, but no one seems interested. Baking takes a lot of mental and physical energy and we're all pretty tired.

I’m happy with my biscuits and scones, and both taste good, but they're kind of flat. They would have looked thicker and more appealing rolled out to 3/4” rather than the 1/2” called for in the recipe. Note to self.

My take-home haul is 23 biscuits and 4 1/2 chocolate chip scones.

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