Bread pudding. The words themselves are hardly inspiring. Stodgy, pedestrian, British, with those overtones of school dining halls and hospital food. There are some truly execrable bread puddings — dry, almost crusty, with little discernible flavor other than that provided by a few sugary raisins, and no give. And frankly, most bread puddings I’ve had in even the best bakeries and restaurants have been in this mold — cut into neat squares and utterly unappetizing. But a good homemade bread pudding is a different beast. This is spoon food, creamy and gooey and served warm from the oven in a bowl. Bread and milk and eggs and sugar combine to form an alchemy — no longer distinct elements but something altogether new and wonderful. Comforting and exciting all at once, bread pudding has the potential to hit exactly the right dessert spot. Bread puddings can range from the basic bread and butter pudding, also known as “make a dessert from things in your pantry” to the very fancy indeed. This one is somewhere in between. It is an easy bread pudding, make no mistake about that. And most of the ingredients are in my pantry, but the basic sandwich bread and milk and eggs is kicked up a notch — the bread is a brioche (the best bread for bread pudding hands down, if you can find it), spread with a sweet and tart raspberry jam. The custard is thickened with cream and scented with the floral aromas of Tahitian vanilla extract and Amontillado sherry. And to top it off, the pudding is taken from the pedestrian to the porsche with a topping of creamy, dreamy, meringue, browned to perfection. [...]
I am not the most precise of cooks. I take shortcuts, measure by eyesight, play fast and loose with recipes. I never use cake flour, rarely sift anything, freely substitute ingredients. And most of the time, things turn out very well indeed. Some people would say, “Oh, you’re a cook, you’re not a baker. Baking must be done with precision!” But I do bake quite a bit, and while baking requires MORE precision than cooking (I would not suggest, for example, leaving out baking powder altogether), there’s still quite a bit of wiggle room, and most things come out just fine, even with my wild and crazy ways.
Macarons are not one of those things.
The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S of Baking Without Fear. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.
If you’ve never had a macaron, you should. These are not the gooey, coconut confections ubiquitous at Passover, but French almond cookies similar to meringues sandwiched together with a creamy filling. A properly made macaron has a smooth, crisp shell over dainty, ruffled “feet”, and when you bite into it, you get first the crunch exterior shell then chewy almondy macaroon then creamy filling. In Parisian patisseries (where they are all the rage), you can find them in a glorious rainbow of colors and flavors. Trust me, when made properly, they are a treat. [...]
People who don’t live in Los Angeles say that we don’t have seasons. The sun is always shining, the grass is always green, it’s always swimming pool weather. That’s not entirely true. We have seasons. In the winter it rains and the world is green. The spring is full of marine layers and fog, studded with purple jacaranda blooms. Summer is hot and dry and brown and ridden with wildfires. In the fall it smells of dirt and the Japanese maple trees in Beverly Hills turn glorious colors and the silkfloss trees burst into glorious pink blooms. We have seasons.
They just don’t change in September.
September in Los Angeles just an extension of summer, with less vacation and more traffic. At its worst that means triple digit temperatures, smoke filled skies from wildfires, and faded, stretched out summer clothes that need another month’s wear squeezed out of them. But I like to think of this as a little blessing of Indian summer — sunny mornings warm enough to eat breakfast on the patio, evenings with a light breeze that are the perfect temperature for gin and tonics, tomatoes that continue to ripen on the vine, and summer fruits at the markets. Simple. [...]
Is there anything more wholesome than pie? The very word brings a smile to one’s face, and it’s associated with all sorts of pleasant things — someone who is sweet as pie (or a sweetie pie) may wish for their pie in the sky which may be easy as pie to get or as American as apple pie. In the eternal debate that rages between cake and pie, pie is eternally the winner, being both less serious and less frivolous than that cake frippery. Liking pie is almost a moral imperative. And yet … I don’t. Or at least I didn’t.
The problem with pie is nearly always in the crust. Crusts in pies that aren’t homemade is nearly always somewhat tough because it has to stand up to storage and handling. And homemade is hard. Those premade pie crusts have a funny taste or a greasy mouthfeel (though I will recommend Trader Joe’s brand frozen pie crusts in a pinch). And making it from scratch is just fraught — there’s all that nonsense about cold hands and whether to rub in the fat or cut it in or use a food processor or NEVER USE A FOOD PROCESSOR or only use lard or only use crisco and the whole thing is so nervewracking that your hands are sweating buckets and OH NO YOU’VE JUST RUINED YOUR PIE CRUST. IT WILL NEVER BE TENDER AND FLAKY AGAIN. Or if by some miracle you manage to make a pie crust that has flaky possibilities then you have to roll it out, and it cracks and sticks and then you have to worry about patching holes because IF YOU HANDLE IT TOO MUCH YOU WILL HAVE RUINED YOUR PIE CRUST AND IT WILL NEVER BE TENDER AND FLAKY AGAIN.
No thanks, I’ll just sit over in this corner with my cake, thank you very much.
However, because I love my faithful readers so much I will give you the recipe for my super secret foolproof crust. [...]