Monday, May 16, 2016

Strawberry Shortcakes

Hello, hello!

I hope everyone is doing well, reading lots of books and baking lots of goodies!

And if you aren't, well... I can't make you read more books, but I can definitely help you out of a funk if you don't know what to make. Especially since it's getting to be summertime, I've been breaking out my best seasonal recipes to share with you. And have I got the perfect recipe for you--strawberry shortcakes!
I love strawberries. Peaches are my favorite fruit, but strawberries come pretty close to being first.

When I was a kid, there was a strawberry stand which we drove past all season long, waiting for it to open. My mom used to whip up cream cheese and sugar as a dip for the sweet, juicy berries. When I moved to Napa, there was a similar little stand off of the Silverado Trail at which my best friend and I would stop after school for a treat. These berries, you guys. They are SO GOOD. They are a smaller variety, but bursting with flavor and juice. It was only after being more incorporated into the Napa Valley community that I learned these berries are also used at Thomas Keller's famous restaurant, the French Laundry. And they're totally affordable without spending hundreds of dollars on a thirteen course meal (SCORE!).

Even at the place I'm working now, the grounds grow strawberries and small white Alpine strawberries (itty bitty baby strawberries that look unripe but are extremely sweet and flavorful.) I'm still waiting for permission to raid the gardens.

So, of course, when I teamed up with a classmate at culinary school to complete a farmer's market-themed dessert menu, I simply had to include these strawberries somehow. Strawberry shortcakes seemed the way to go, and with a lot of testing, several batches of dough pitched in the bin, (and admittedly a couple of hissy fits), a recipe emerged. And boy, does it deliver.

The strawberries are left sitting in a small amount of sugar to macerate for at least an hour. Even though the strawberries really don't need it, there is so little sugar in the overall dish that it works well. Also, sugary strawberry juice is the best byproduct ever.

Shortcakes are made of "short dough". This means it doesn't get mixed enough to form gluten, and it also has a lot of butter. Because butter makes everything better, am I right?  Another thing about shortcakes is that they must be baked cold. As cold as possible, people. Colder than Montana in January. Colder than liquid nitrogen. Or as close as you can get it. That's why I freeze the dry ingredients with the butter ahead of time and include plenty of chilling periods in this recipe. If you let the dough get too warm before baking, your cakes won't rise--they'll spread. (They'll still be delicious, but I can't say much for presentation.)

I make these shortcakes the way my grandmother used to make biscuits. The dough is mixed and formed into a rectangle. The rectangle gets cut into thirds, and one third is brushed with cream.
A second piece of dough is placed on top and also brushed with cream before it is topped with the last third.

This hunk of dough is then rolled out, chilled, and then cut with a sharp knife.
I use this method because I love the layers it produces. Using a sharp knife instead of a cutter ensures these layers are preserved, for optimal rise.
The result is a lightly sweet, tender, buttery cake that is easily cut in half. The savory butter in the dough deliciously complements the sweet strawberries.
But no shortcake is complete without a generous dollop of what we call chantilly. Which is basically flavored whipped cream. For this recipe, I add a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste to the cream for subtle flavor, since the focus should be on the strawberries.
The easy components and simple, elegant flavors of this dessert make it a family favorite. Use it in a family-style setting, or a for the conclusion of a summer dinner party. Either way, there will always be plenty of strawberries and cream leftover for dipping.

Anyway, enough with my rambling. The recipe is below. Please enjoy, and let me know what you think!

My current read is Neil Gaiman's "Fortunately, The Milk", and it's hilarious. What are you reading right now?

Thanks for reading! Until next time,

Strawberry Shortcakes
Yield: 12 assembled shortcakes

15 oz (3 cups) flour
8 oz (2 sticks) butter, cut into 1 in. chunks
3 oz (just under 1/2 cup) sugar, plus extra for dusting
1 1/2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup cream, plus extra for brushing
1 large egg

1 pint strawberries
1/4 cup sugar

Vanilla Chantilly
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste (or whatever flavoring you desire, really)
1/4 cup powdered sugar

1. Freeze the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt with the butter chunks until the butter is solid.
2. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Transfer the frozen ingredients to a mixing bowl. With an electric mixer, paddle the ingredients with the egg and cream until just combined. The dough should form a cohesive mass.
3. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface, and roll into a rectangle about 8" by 12". Using a sharp knife, cut the rectangle into thirds.
4. Using a pastry brush, generously brush one third with cream. Carefully place the second piece of dough on top of the dough that has cream on it. Brush the second piece of dough with cream. Place the last piece of dough on top of the second piece of dough. You should have a tall stack of dough with cream in between two layers.
5. Roll the dough out to a rectangle about 1 1/2 inch thick.
6. Using a sharp knife, cut into squares about 3" by 3". Alternatively, you may use a sharp rounded cutter, but DO NOT TWIST when pushing down. Doing so will seal the layers.
7. Transfer the cakes to a parchment-lined sheet pan and chill until very firm.
8. Brush the tops with cream and sprinkle with excess sugar before baking. Bake until lightly golden on top, about 15-20 minutes. In my oven, they take 17 minutes.
9. Let the shortcakes cool ten minutes on the pan before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
10. For the strawberries: Thoroughly rinse the strawberries. Toss lightly in the sugar. I usually let them macerate in the fridge anywhere from 1 to 5 hours.
11. For the chantilly: Add the cream and vanilla to a clean, cold mixing bowl with a whisk attachment. Whip on medium until frothy, then gradually add the powdered sugar. Whip on high to medium-stiff peaks.
12. Assembly: Carefully slice each shortcake horizontally with a serrated knife. Spoon a generous dollop of whipped cream onto each shortcake bottom. Add desired amount of strawberries on top. Cap the strawberries with the top half of the shortcake.
13. Dig in!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Andrew's Brain

Hi all!

Hope everyone has had a great... month? Good grief, I've let so much time pass. I'm so sorry I've been gone, but I'm back with good news! I spent the month packing up my little cottage and my dog in Oregon and making the trek back to the Napa Valley. That's right, I'm back in California. Not too pleased about that (I miss Oregon), but I have my own little family in Calistoga, and my dear older brother decided to join me in this new adventure.

Which means I have someone to eat all the leftover goodies I'm making for this blog!
Once again, I get to figure out where ALL of my books are going to go... I don't have too many books, just not enough space...
I have a strawberry shortcake recipe coming soon, but this post is dedicated to one of my favorite American authors, the late E.L. Doctorow, and his final piece, Andrew's Brain.

Photo Credit
I bought this book on a whim. Okay, so I bought this book during a book-buying binge. I've always had a fondness for Doctorow's work, my first being Ragtime (sparking a young interest in Harry Houdini) and later in high school I read Homer and Langley, which subsequently led to a fascination with the men upon which the book was based, and their female hoarding counterparts, the Bouvier Beales of Grey Gardens. Not having read anything of Doctorow's since Homer and Langley, seeing his name on a new book prompted me to pick it up without really knowing what it was about.

I opened it up a month later one rainy morning in Jacksonville and was not disappointed. 

Andrew's Brain is about a man named (surprise, surprise) Andrew. Andrew is a man. He is a father, a lover, a teacher, and a friend. Andrew is also a cognitive scientist, but he seems to have gotten himself into a bit of trouble. We actually don't know for sure. Throughout the novel, he talks to someone he refers to as "Doc". As the book unfolds, the story is brought to life through Andrew's broken narratives, and we discover just how he ended up talking.

In my head, this book is incredible. As a librarian and bookseller, I would say it's decidedly not for everyone. Though not as groundbreaking as Doctorow's previous works, Andrew's Brain hits home on a few levels. Andrew is someone, we learn, to often be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the worst possible ways. Even with the best intentions at heart, something small always seems to go awry and everything sort of blows up in his face. Familiar, right? (No? Just me?) He eventually gets to a point at which he figures everything is going to go wrong anyway, so he has a little bit of fun with it.

A literary note I wanted to point out is that Andrew often tells his stories from the third person. This is even addressed by "Doc", but Andrew's vague answers don't really satisfy. He tells certain stories from third person in order to separate himself from the parts of his past that are more difficult to  bear, something I find most of us strive to do. Doctorow continues to reach his audience in this way by making his character relatable to the things we try to hide about ourselves. 

The novel is littered with breaks in Andrew's stories when he decides to give brief, epiphanic lines about freedom, human consciousness, the characteristics of one's soul, and the illusion of society. These ultimately lack relevance, but we get a little more insight into the man telling the stories, his stalling methods, and his genuine moments of realization.

I'm not going to say that this is a "tale of tragedy and hope regained and tragedy again" (even though it basically is). There's a lot more to this novel than the plot. Andrew's stories are compelling, but there is quite a bit of piecing together to do on the part of the reader.

Andrew is a character with sarcastic, jaded views, brimming with ambiguous philosophy and visions of his own facade of brilliance. The point is, he recognizes this. I believe Andrew is written to give the reader a shadow of insight into the differences between who we are and who we present ourselves to be. Doctorow was an expert storyteller, and that is evident in this book.

Delving into one's brain to determine who they are and how they think is quite a lengthy and complex process. Luckily, Andrew's Brain is a short read, so if you're looking for something curious that will make you think beyond the printed page and Andrew's occasional prattle, pick up this novel. 

Have you read Andrew's Brain? What did you think? Let me know what you all are reading and baking in the comments below!

It's almost officially summer! Which means strawberries. Which means strawberry shortcakes. Excited? I AM! I'm super pumped! So next time, I'll give you my strawberry shortcake recipe.

Thanks for reading!
Happy reading and baking,