maandag 28 januari 2008

The piano

This post has nothing to do with baking, but since it has something to do with how I spend my free time, I thought it was warranted to post about it.

Since I was 7 years old and my parents introduced me to music by taking me to the local orchestra, I have been playing a musical instrument. During that first visit, when the music teacher thought I was too young to learn reading sheet music (but mom persisted) and reluctantly let me in, I knew this was for me. Soon, I was handed a french horn and began practicing. The horn was never a conscious choice, but it was the only instrument the orchestra had available for new students at the time, so that's what I played. After a year or so, I switched to the trumpet, again because a new student needed the horn and I was given a slightly better available instrument ;o). I did like the trumpet better and played it for more than 12 years after that, so it was a good match for me.

An even better match was the piano though. After playing that horn for a year, the orchestra hired a wonderful, talented director. He seemed to like me and talked to my parents, convincing them they needed to let me try to play the piano. He told them it would help develop my skills, and also, would give me more satisfaction in making music as I would be able to play by myself without missing the orchestra. My parents agreed, and bought me a piano. Of course, this was a tricky move, as they didn't know whether I would like it and be consistent with it, at the age of 8. But I fell in love with it the moment I laid eyes on it. I took lessons, and playing on it was my favorite thing in the world. I remember my mom encouraging me to do something else for a change ;o).

Making music became more and more important. When I was 15, I was playing in three orchestras with my trumpet, and seriously considering a career in music as a pianist.
I accompanied many of my friends on the piano, played the organ in church whenever needed, and accompanied the high school choir and orchestra. I owe that director so much for his encouragement.

When I left high school, the director of the orchestra asked me to accompany his men's choir, and I did. This is when I became more interested in singing and vowed I would take lessons one day.

Slowly my life changed though. After I finished college and started working and met my now husband, I found myself with a lot less free time on my hands. I quit the orchestra, but still continued to play the piano. A couple of years later I quit the men's choir, and the piano lessons and took up singing lessons. I loved everything about it and accompanied myself on the piano, but it was quite hard for me to get my voice to do the things I wanted it to. I could read the more complicated pieces but couldn't sing them, lacking technique, which became frustrating. When I started taking an interest in baking and decided to take pastry classes, I quit singing and focused on something else for a while.

All that time, I took the piano with me when I moved out of my parents' and started my own life with my new husband. The piano never found a good home in the living room as there simply wasn't any room for it, but it was always there. Now that we are building a house, I decided it was time to move the piano back into a proper spot in the living room. Seeing it desperately needed a new caot of paint after 26 years of use and 3 moves, I decided to give it a whole new look and make it black. It is now waiting for us to move to our new home, ready to reclaim it's position and waiting for me to get back to playing it regularly. Which I fully intend to do :o). So here it is in it's new 'do': I know a professional would definately find the flaw in my paint job, but I think it looks pretty darn good :o).

Woman with a mission

This weekend I got serious about my oven troubles, and was determined to go look for an oven thermometer and not come back without one. And I did find one I was happy with, took it home and declared it my new personal assistant.

I knew that the temperature would probably be off, and decided to just preheat the oven and wait what happened. I turned the knob to 350 and found a nice, uncomplicated recipe for Cape Cod Cranberry muffins in my brand new Carole Walters book that I decided to turn into a quickbread, as a baking time of an hour seemed less sensitive to wonky ovens than one of 20 minutes.
After half an hour, I checked for the temperature. It was about 250 degress. After 40minutes, it was about 280. Long story short, I turned up the temp, turned it down and did my best to get some consistency in oven temperature. My conclusions after the oven had been on for 2 and a half hours didn't really make me happy, but I got the quick bread baked, within the indicated time, and it was cooked perfectly.
But yes, the oven takes one FULL HOUR to preheat properly, and the knob indication is off, way off, at least 50 degrees. At least I'm no longer in the dark about what I'm doing, but one hour of preheating does seem rediculous. Just to prove my small succes, I'm attaching a picture of the bread. We really liked it, I added lots of cranberries and nuts, and as the recipe called for orange juice, I used the zest of the orange as well. I think I could easily have added the zest of two oranges, as I think the bread would benefit from the extra flavor kick, but other than that, it was good.

dinsdag 22 januari 2008

I'm bad...

About blogging. And about other things as well, the main thing being baking. I just can't seem to get over my oven-intimidation. I need an oven thermometer, and of course I can't find such a thing in the stores I've been looking in. I did see them ALL OVER before I was looking, I know that for sure ;o).
I do have more excuses than the lack of a decent oven and a thermometer though. First of all, the move and the funny effect it has had on me. I'm feeling somewhat disoriented 4 weeks after the fact, as if reality has finally set in. Then there's the task of copying what seems like a 100 documents a day, for insurances, financial advisors, mortgage brokers, the contractor and the architect. We're still stuck without an internet connection at home, an have no telephone to beat (I'm so not amused about this). Then there's the fact that I have the most horrible cold and I'm painting my piano which has kept me awfully busy in my 'free' hours. I promiss to at least blog about those results soon. For now, I'll hide in my corner, allowing myself to wallow in self-pity for a little longer :o). But not for too long, I promiss!!

maandag 14 januari 2008

Cranberry bar cookies and the 'new' oven

This weekend I finally found some time to think about baking for a change. Things have been crazy with the move, finalizing the sale for our 'old' house, trying to turn the rental house into something that resembles home for the next 10 months, and building plans, contractor meetings and whatnot.

So back to baking. I was so pleased to find an oven in the rental place, and one that looked that it hadn't been used much to boot. The only thing that concerned me was the less than precise temperature knob. Right on the knob are the indications for temperature. What is problematic, is the fact that the distance between 100 and 200 degrees the same as the distance between 200 and 350 degrees, and the same as the distance between 350 and 400 degrees (??). Yes, I scratched my head a couple of times over that too.
I had used the oven twice before, to bake frozen mini-quiches, that admittedly took me 50 minutes to bake instead of the usual 30 in my left-behind oven. I decided right then, that I would not make cookies first, because I feared ending up with either raw or overbaked cookies.

I came across this recipe for cranberry-bar cookies, in Fine Cooking magazine Issue 82. I probably raved about thsi issue before, and I'll do it again. It is magnificent, and you should have a copy in your library :o).

The recipe states you need to partially bake the crust (20 minutes), add a cranberry topping and streusel, than bake another 25. First bake is at 325, second at 350. Setting the oven was a challenge in itsself. I followed the recipe, took out the crust after 20 minutes, even though it looked a little too raw. I added the topping and the streusel, and checked after 20 mintes. Raw. I kept checking at 5-minute intervals, until the whole thing had baked for 60 minutes instead of 25 and I had turned up the heat. It was the strangest thing, still only slightly pale, golden would be a stretch. But it was presentable and quite nice, even though I found it a tad dry. I loved the filling though, and think it will be lovely in any kind of linzer-like cookie or torte. I'll have to think of what to bake next, which has to be something that can withstand serious oven-abuse ;o).

woensdag 2 januari 2008

Apricot crumb cake

As promised, I'm coming back to share my mother's recipe for this fabulous, home-style comfort food :o). It is called 'kruimelvlaai' in Dutch, ('kruimel' = crumbs, 'vlaai'= a typical pastry made in the southern part of the country, where it is eaten on every possible occasion that calls for the smallest celebration ;o))

I usually double this recipe and fill a rimmed baking sheet with it, but the recipe as is, can be used to make a 10 inch round (I use a fluted pan with removable bottom) or a 9 by 13 inch rectangular pan. The pan needs to be buttered.


For the dough:
• 250 grams (8.75 oz) self rising flour
• 100 grams (1/2 cup) of sugar
• 100 grams (7 TBS) of unsalted butter, softened
• 1 large egg
• salt to taste

For the crumbs:
• 125 grams (a little less than 4.5 oz) self rising flour
• 100 grams (7 TBS) unsalted cold butter, cubed
• 100 grams (1/2 cup)of sugar (I sometimes use vanilla infused sugar)
• salt to taste
• optional: cinnamon or speculaas spices to taste

Filling(adjust to your liking):
• pureed apricots (I usually use 2 large cans of apricots, drained, per recipe
We have also succesfully made it with cherries, plums, peaches and vanilla
custard, but we like the tang the apricots give best. Of course, fresh apricots
are to be preferred, but you can only buy them for about 4 weeks in the summer.


Mix ingredients for the dough with a cool hand until a smooth dough forms (this also works in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix on low speed and no longer than necessary).Wrap in foil and let firm up in the fridge for at least two hours (or up to three days).
Mix ingredients for the crumb topping, using your fingertips to rub the butter into the dry ingredients, forming crumbs (this can be made up to three days ahead and stored in the fridge).
Puree the apricots or prepare other fruit you're using.
Butter the pan.

Preheat oven, I mostly use my convection setting on 350 (180°C), but if you're using upper/lower heat, set the oven to 390 (200°).

On a floured surface, roll our the dough and fit it in the bottom of the pan. Don't worry about tearing, just patch it up and pat into the pan to form an even layer.
Spread the filling over the dough, leave a rim of dough on the sides to prevent the filling from sticking. Sprinkle crumbs evenly over filling, covering it completely.
Bake until golden brown, 30-40 minutes. (If double the recipe, it might take 40-50 minutes).
Let cool completely in the pan. Cut into squares or as desired, directly from the pan (remove rim if using a pan with removable bottom).
This is best eaten the next day. It keep for at least three days, and freezes beautifully.


Now I don't have a picture to show you exactly how wonderful this looks, but it is a true favorite of all of us. I made a double recipe to have something on hand during the move, and it was very much appreciated. It's not fussy because it keeps well and doesn't have to be stored in the fridge.

We're slowly trying to adjust to living in a very different place that doesn't feel like home yet. It does have everything we need though, and will certainly do for the next 8-10 months when the house is being built. I cannot wait for the new kitchen!
Meanwhile, the rental place does have an oven that has barely been used (judging from the way it looks on the inside). I've been testing the waters with 'safe' things, like baking quiche and pizza, and so far, apart from everything taking a lot more time than the oven in the old house, it works. I hate guessing for the right temperature (it has a know that you turn to faded numbers indicating temperature), but I'm sure I can learn to deal with it :o). I'm browsing my new books, trying to find something not too complicated for the weekend!