Thursday, April 30, 2020

More COVID-19 Chronicles - Baking in Place


This post is not about smoking weed while sheltering in place. It’s about actual baking. If you’re a ganja aficionado looking for hot tips on how to score the kindest bud, you’re on the wrong blog. Also, if you’re high right now, I guarantee you won’t make it to the end of this post. Maybe you can half-watch the vlog version, though:


As we all shelter in place, it’s natural to think, “There’s must be more to life than working from home and watching Riverdale and Stranger Things.” So why not learn to bake? In this post I provide advice on how to source your ingredients during these trying times, and then I’ll walk you through some tried and true recipes and share some expert techniques.

Stocking your pantry

Stocking up on baking supplies is going to be very difficult during the pandemic due to all the hoarding that’s going on. The entire baking aisle has been ransacked … no flour, no sugar, no yeast. As if people even knew how to bake! This is what happens when everyone’s garage is packed to the gills with extra toilet paper but they still feel like they need to do something.

If you can’t find cake flour but do have all-purpose, here’s a neat tip from The Joy of Cooking
Cake flour is made of soft wheats, and their delicate, less expansive gluten bakes to a crumblier texture. Although you will not get the same result, in emergencies you may substitute 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour for 1 cup cake flour.
Note bene: it says right there, you can only make this substitution in emergencies. Well, guess what? The US has been formally declared to be in a state of national emergency, so you may make the substitution! Nobody will come after you … you are within your rights. 

But what if you can’t even find regular flour? Just keep looking! And do not, in desperation, resort to gluten-free flour. With all this coronavirus craziness, haven’t you suffered enough?

Finding unsalted butter is going to be a particular challenge. You have two options (beyond showing up within minutes of the store’s dairy delivery):
  1. Go ahead and buy salted butter. How bad could it be? Surely a little salt never hurt a baked good? Just use less added salt in the recipe, and if it doesn’t call for any, just add more sugar. (Note: I haven’t actually tried this.)
  2. Take off your damn surgical mask for a few seconds, let your glasses un-fog, and then stare really hard at the supermarket shelves. Look all around, scanning first left-to-right and then in an expanding spiral. After your eyes have roamed around long enough, they’ll get so tired you’ll be unable to focus and you’ll just sort of zone out, like looking at one of those Magic Eye autostereograms, and then suddenly you’ll see it: a block of super-fancy Irish unsalted butter that costs like $9 for half a pound. In fact there are two boxes left. Buy them both. Yes, it’s a ripoff, but remember, your 401(k) has lost like $300K in the last two months. It’s all Monopoly money now. Get that butter.

Now, yeast can be even harder to find right now. There are two ways forward. Option one: you could phone your mother-in-law and she’ll actually mail you some. This puts her at risk, though, as she must brave the post office because her mailman doesn’t pick up outgoing mail.

Option two: you could borrow some yeast from a neighbor. Remember, though, you can’t just walk over there and ring the doorbell. You’ll have to stake the place out. Stand in the driveway for as long as it takes for somebody to come out, knowing this could be days. (I know, that’s crazy—but do you want to bake or not?) If your neighbor doesn’t recognize you, back up an extra six feet and take your mask off momentarily. If you’re still not recognized, it’s because your hair has gone grey for the first time due to the salons being closed. Loudly announce yourself by name (but for God’s sake put your mask back on first, as loud voices more readily transmit the coronavirus)! Instruct your neighbor to leave the loaner yeast on your porch for you to retrieve later.

(Why wouldn’t you just get yeast from Amazon? Think about it. This is Amazon’s finest hour. They couldn’t have engineered a better way than COVID-19 to finally gratify their rabid appetite for total retail domination. Don’t let this pandemic be the death blow to all small businesses. Save that Prime membership for when things are back to normal!)

Now, if you run out of baking powder, that’s actually not so big a deal. You can make your own! It’s even easier than homemade hand sanitizer. All you do is substitute, for each teaspoon of baking powder, ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar, 1/3 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda, and 1/8 teaspoon salt. But don’t try to store this—use it right away. And don’t get all clever and add some Drano or Comet thinking that’ll protect you from the coronavirus. It won’t, and your baked goods will taste like store-bought.

Okay, enough about ingredient sourcing. It’s time to explore some classic recipes.

Gold layer cake

2 cups cake flour (remember, subtract 2 tbsp if using all-purpose!)
2 tsp double-acting baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ cup butter
1 cup sifted sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla
¾ cup milk
Lemon custard or raspberry jam
Whipped cream (not from a can!)
2 small children

Have all ingredients at about 70 degrees, except the children, who should be at about 99. Sift the flour. Resift with the baking powder and salt. At this point in the preparation the two children should come running through the kitchen, fighting as they go, and knock the mixing bowl from your hands. About half the dry ingredients should end up on the floor. Using the kind of right-brain, gut-fueled math that chickens employ when they bob their heads while walking, figure out how to add back in the right combination of dry ingredients to replace what you lost. Now cream the butter, work in the sugar and egg yolks, add the vanilla, and mix together all the ingredients, gradually, in 3 parts, alternating with the milk, though at this point you’re too furious to really follow these directions very carefully—everything has frankly become a bit of a blur. 

Stir the batter until smooth. Bake in two greased layer pans about 25 minutes at 375 degrees. When both you and the cake have cooled off, use a long serrated knife to slice off the convex part of each layer, so they’ll be flat. Take the part you cut off and shovel it into your mouth. “Holy shit,” you’ll say, “that’s amazing.” This will be the best cake ever, trust me. Your kids will run over and start cramming cut-off bits into their mouths too, and nobody will be able to believe how phenomenally good this cake is. As if it were even necessary at this point, assemble the cake layers with the lemon custard or jam between, and coat it with the whipped cream.

Now, if you don’t have two small children, and don’t dump half your dry ingredients on the floor, and just follow the more basic recipe, will the cake still turn out? It will be … okay. Just okay. For it to work right, you need the accident to happen. Don’t ask me why.

Sugarless chocolate cake

10.5 oz unsweetened chocolate
10.5 oz unsalted butter (or regular butter in a pinch)
6 eggs
½ cup almond flour
1 cup powdered erythritol (C4H10O4)

Melt the butter and chocolate. Beat the eggs until foamy, then add the sweetener, and mix. Add the butter and chocolate, along with the almond flour, and stir just until combined. Bake in a greased pan at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. When it has cooled, dust with cocoa powder and then throw the whole thing straight into the garbage. When your kids protest, shriek at them, “People are dying, and you’re all broken up about not getting to eat a stupid cake that’s totally disgusting anyway, due to having no sugar?! Really?!” That ought to teach them a lesson. The little bastards.


Sift together in a large bowl:
   1¾ cups sifted all-purpose flour
   2¼ tsp double-acting baking powder
   1 tbsp sugar
   ½ tsp salt

Cut into these ingredients, until the size of small peas, using a pastry blender or 2 knives:
   ¼ cup cold butter

Wait a second. Cut into them? Size of small peas? Two knives? Sounds like a lot of hassle! And look at the ratio of ingredients: a single tablespoon of sugar, and a quarter cup of butter? Scones are ridiculous. If you think these things are worth the inevitable heart attack, why not just peel a stick of butter like a damn banana, and eat that? Go ahead. You’ve earned it.

Uncle Max’s 2D biscuits

Sift together:
   1 ¾ cups sifted all-purpose flour
   ¼ tsp yeast
   ½ tsp salt
   2 tsp double-acting baking powder
   2 tsp sugar
   ½ tsp baking soda

Cut in:
   ¼ cup lard (yeah, baybee!) or 5 tbsp unsalted butter

Add and lightly mix:
   ¾ cup buttermilk

Turn the dough onto a floured board. Knead it gently for 30 seconds. Pat the dough until it’s ¼” thick. Cut with a biscuit cutter. Bake 10-12 minutes. Note that the biscuits will not rise, due to the yeast being dead. It expired in 2012. What the hell were you thinking? Didn’t I give you two perfectly good strategies for obtaining fresh yeast? These biscuits will be so flat, you’ll practically lose sight of them when turning them sideways. Serve them anyway and tell your family it’s matzo.

Mom’s amazing boule

Note: these ingredient quantities are for a 4 quart Dutch oven (i.e., the kind of shallow, enameled, cast-iron covered pot that costs like a gazillion dollars). If you don’t own one of these, now’s a great time to buy one online. I mean, what else are you gonna spend your money on right now?

3 cups white flour
½ tsp non-dead or undead yeast
1 ½ tsp sea salt
1 ½ cups warm water

Dissolve yeast in water. If you’re not sure it’s alive, take some more of it from the package and put it in warm water with a little sugar, and wait 5-10 minutes. It should get all bubbly. (This is called proofing.) If it doesn’t bubble up, your yeast is dead! Damn it, how could you let this happen again?! Go back to the earlier step of hustling up fresh yeast wherever you can. Then, combine dry ingredients, and add the water/yeast solution and combine well. Cover with plastic wrap and a damp towel. Let sit at room temperature for 18-24 hours.

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place Dutch oven with lid in (actual) oven to heat up. Transfer dough to floured surface—it will be almost sticky—and form into a round boule. Use as little flour as possible! Place round on a piece of parchment strewn with coarse cornmeal.

When Dutch oven is hot—after about 1/2 hour—take it out, carefully, using a proper potholder that your mom sewed, not one of those stupid knitted ones you got at the middle school craft fair, because with that knitted kind your thumb will go right through it and you’ll burn the crap out of yourself, causing you to drop the Dutch oven on the floor, barely missing your foot due to your catlike reflexes but denting the hardwood floor because the Dutch oven weighs like a gazillion pounds. When you’re done cussing and running cold water over your thumb, place dough with parchment into Dutch oven, replace lid, and slide into oven; reduce heat to 425 and bake for 30 minutes. Remove lid and bake for another 15 minutes until nicely browned. Cool on rack; cover with towel. Eat with good butter—salted, perhaps, just to use it up because that’ll give you a smug feeling, knowing you can buy more salted butter easily, though deep down inside you’re wondering: how did we get to this place, where we can get a smug feeling just from eating butter?!

Other notes: did I forget something? Like, kneading the bread? Who ever heard of bread dough you don’t need to knead? Believe it! You really only knead this for about 10 seconds before forming it into the round. Also, you can slash the dough in a pattern just before baking if you wish. Optional: give it a second rise of 2-3 hours before baking, and/or add 1 tbsp vinegar to dough before first rise. If your Dutch oven is larger than 3-4 quarts, adjust recipe accordingly so your bread is not too flat.

By the way, I feel honor-bound to point out that the photo below is from my mom (as is this recipe). I’ve never baked bread in my life. (But the burned thumb due to knitted potholder? Yeah, that was me.)


Follow the instructions in your favorite pizza recipe, except when it’s time to move the unbaked pizza from the cutting board to the heated pizza stone, fumble it completely so it is not longer even remotely disk-shaped, but more closely resembles a deflated basketball. Cover any gaping holes with bits of dough, performing dough-grafts by harvesting from other parts of what is now, let’s face it, a calzone. Lower the oven heat because this bad boy is going to have to bake slowly for a long time so the middle isn’t raw. Would it help to try to stuff some ricotta in there? No … I think you’ve caused enough damage already.

Virtual baking

Binge-watch The Great British Bake Off while practicing calligraphy.

Flourless chocolate cake

This is a great recipe for when you can’t buy flour, duh!

¾ cup unsalted butter
12 oz. bittersweet baking chocolate
6 eggs
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream (because it’s just about the only brand left with real vanilla and no “natural flavors” by which the food industry means “artificial flavors”)
Brandy or chocolate liqueur

Chop chocolate into ½” pieces. Put in saucepan with butter and cook over low heat until melted. Let this cool until it’s room temperature. While it’s cooling, beat together eggs, vanilla, salt, and sugar, using an electric mixer at full blast. It should be thick enough to form little crests, more like waves than dunes. Gently mix with chocolate mixture but don’t overdo it. Pour into darling little ramekins that you’ve buttered generously. Bake for about 20 minutes. Be sure to test the mini-cakes for doneness by putting a fork in them. If the fork comes out clean, it’s time to take them out of the oven and serve them warm with vanilla ice cream. Actually, you baked the little cake-lets way too long and they’ve turned into little hockey pucks. You’ll know you’ve failed when your small children only pick at them, and/or try to lever them out of the ramekins and hide them under a napkin.

After a reasonable period of mourning—perhaps a week is enough since pandemic time crawls by so slowly—try again with a whole new batch of ingredients. This time, take the little cakes out of the oven a lot earlier, so they are almost still a liquid. They should jiggle just a little. Again, serve them warm. Now they’re underdone but you’ve already added the ice cream so it’s a little late to put them back in the oven. Instead, drizzle them with 2-3 tbsp of brandy or liqueur, and then drink a large tumbler of it, neat. See? Your stupid cake is getting better already. Next, leave your rapidly puddling dessert on the table, abandon your family sitting there, take the bottle of brandy or liqueur with you to the living room, and binge-watch Tiger King. There. Now you’re sheltering in place!

More reading on the pandemic
For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

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