To Happier Anniversaries and Recommitting to Goals

This month Salt Sweet Bitter turned a year old. Happy birthday, little blog!

When Margaret first suggested the idea of a shared blog to me, I was not at all certain I was the right person to trust with such a venture–I have always had a bad track record for beginning things with great enthusiasm and abandoning them when I run out of steam weeks or months later, and at the time I was still struggling with grief and severe anxiety. I really liked the idea, though, so I said yes.

I have been glad I did so every week. I have not always been able to finish my posts on the deadlines I have set myself, but I have kept to them more often than not. My baking projects were a large part of what pulled me out of the depression I had been struggling with since before my mother’s death, and learning to write coherently about politics has been a buffer against some of the despair that set in after the election. Having a place to report about these things, however informal and forgiving, has proven to be vital.

Last week I got to spend time in Boston with Margaret for the first time in far too many years, and it was glorious. She graciously guided and drove me to various locales so that I could indulge my obsessions with history and chocolate and bookshops. We also did lots of talking and lots of eating popcorn while watching films and television, and lots of cooking. And more eating. If you have not been to Boston, the food is flipping incredible, whether it comes from Margaret’s kitchen or any of the innumerable awesome restaurants. (I expected I would lose a few ounces due to all the walking that I am not used to. This did not happen, because Burdick’s and lobster rolls.)

I do not think I am a bad cook, and I will certainly stand up and say I am a good baker of most things that are not bread–at least, not yet–but my range is limited. I can do a few excellent cakes, good roast potatoes, and I can manage baked salmon and fried pork chops without drying them out. I haven’t practiced enough to call it a talent yet, but I’ve had remarkably good luck with joints of roast beef thus far, even the cheaper cuts that are likely to turn out tough. Margaret’s abilities, however, remind me that if I’m not exactly a beginner, neither am I far into the intermediate level, and as much as I enjoy making salmon en croute and noodles and shrimp with lime-sesame dressing, there are only so many times one can serve these things to guests before everyone gets bored.

One recent success: Christmas morning cinnamon rolls using an ATK recipe, which were in all honesty the best I’ve ever had, if I do say so myself. Including Cinnabon.

Without quite noticing, I’ve found over the past couple of months that I’ve achieved a lot, if not all, of what I kept telling myself I had to do after my mother died. The house is mostly tidy, a great deal of the clutter has been either parted with or better organized, and cleaning takes a fraction of the time it used to, even if I still hate doing the ironing and the carpets need vacuuming on almost a daily basis (because cats…). The silver kittens are almost full-size cats and very affectionate, if still shy. I have done some reorganizing of the house, and have a clearer idea of what else I want to do. So far this year has been devoted to politics, writing, and reading. I have no intention of giving up any of those, but I have worked through enough grief and despair to start focusing on some of the other things I love again, especially cooking. I have a growing collection of cookbooks that I am quite proud of; it is time to start using them more frequently, trying out dishes I am entirely unfamiliar with and finding new ways to cook foods I know I like. I have a collection of herbs in the garden that have been entirely neglected while I focused on the inside of the house, so they desperately need some care and attention. I am also determined to become a very good baker, particularly of bread, including sourdough. It should be interesting, if nothing else; in between the political writing and gushing about chocolate and pop culture, I promise to get back to documenting more of what I’m working on. I would love to hear more from our readers–if you have any suggestions or requests regarding recipes, please do let me know.


Black Forest Gateau

A few months ago I asked my friends for suggestions about what cakes to make in the future. Most of the requests I got I tried to act on quickly, depending on the availability of ingredients and whether I possessed all the tools needed to accomplish the dish in question, but one I put off. My friend Zoe asked for a Black Forest gateau, and in Googling recipes I came across this:

Black Forest Gateau

And just stared at it for a wee while, in awe. I know this woman has a good photographer–or is herself a good photographer–to produce images of her creations, but that cake is amazing. And she apparently created it in her own kitchen, no exceptional tools or training needed. I looked at a few other recipes, and decided that nothing was going to equal that cake. I wanted to attempt it, but lacked the courage. After a few weeks’ thought, I decided to give it a try as my birthday cake, in lieu of buying one this year. (Choosing a birthday cake has always been something of a ritual for me, and something I’ve been known to spend a disproportionate amount of money on. If you’re in Atlanta, give one of Metrotainment Bakery‘s creations a try some time. Their Georgia peach pound cake with bourbon caramel sauce is insanely good.)

Some adaptation of the recipe proved necessary, as thickened cream is something that apparently exists only in Australia, and I didn’t have cake tins of the specified size. (I found a nearly brand-new set of the requisite three tins at an estate sale about 24 hours after I finished the cake. As you do.) I also did something wrong with the ganache–at first the butter wouldn’t blend properly, or I didn’t have enough chocolate; it looked greasy and unpleasant. I added a bit more chocolate and cream, which improved it greatly, but it still lacked the consistency I wanted. I haven’t had much trouble with ganache in the past, so next time I’ll use a different recipe for that element.

Ganache mishaps aside, it was actually far less difficult than I’d feared. The cakes themselves are very easy, and turned out perfectly. They didn’t seem dry to me when they came out of the oven, but after being soaked with probably more than half a cup of syrup and kirsch each, they did not turn into a soggy mess. The other steps were almost as easy as the cake, but there was a fair bit of waiting for everything to come to room temperature before assembly, so I ended up running a bit low on counter space.

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Once everything had reached the requisite temperatures, the fun part began: dousing everything in kirsch. Because the alcohol evaporated out of the syrup in cooking the cherries, I added a few tablespoons of fresh kirsch to the cakes as well; the cherry flavour certainly came through in the finished cake, but I couldn’t taste the alcohol, as you would in a rum or a whiskey cake. Whether or not this is a good thing I will leave to your discretion. (Side note–I bought a variety of preserved cherries for the project, thinking I would need all of them–tinned cherries, frozen cherries, cherry jam. I may in the future add a swirl of cherry jam to the cake before baking, but on this occasion I used only the frozen cherries, boiled in kirsh. They were Trader Joe’s dark sweet frozen cherries, and they held up beautifully after a ten-minute boil, so I recommend them.)

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My finished cake didn’t look like Thalia’s, but I don’t think I did too badly. The cream looks like it overwhelms the cake, but it actually deflated a bit when the cake was chilled and I ended up adding a bit of the excess filling when serving slices once the cake was a couple of days old. It was also huge–I couldn’t get the top of the server on until a few slices had been cut and some of the fruit eaten. Next time I am determined to get the ganache to drip prettily down the sides–I am in the process of thinking up a recipe of my own for my next attempt.


Fresh Fruit Tart

Tarts seem to be becoming a theme around here–must be the season. This week’s iteration of “probably a bit too ambitious for my skill level but I’m going to try it anyway” is a fresh fruit tart. A few years ago I ordered an enormous fresh fruit tart for a birthday cake from a swanky local baker’s, and I’ve been meaning to try doing one myself ever since. A friend of mine is planning a lunch party a couple of weeks hence and has asked me to provide the dessert, so I thought it a perfect time to try it; this is my practice run, because I’ve never made pastry cream before.

I couldn’t find a full recipe that had everything I was looking for, so I cobbled this together from a Martha Stewart recipe (the pastry) and the America’s Test Kitchen version (the pastry cream). Because this is my practice round, I went for the easy way out on the fruit–just raspberries and blackberries. Next time I’ll go for the fresh kiwi and mandarin orange slices and the works, but this time I just wanted to make sure I could cope with the tempering eggs part of the recipe. I managed to curdle the eggs in such a maneuver once before, and the fear has dogged me ever since.

Similar to the lemon meringue pie, this is one of those recipes done in stages–everything has to be chilled between assembly steps. This experience was less intense than the lemon meringue, though–the only part that requires careful attention is the pastry cream.

The first step is the crust. The birthday fruit tart of memory had a dense, thick crust, so instead of using the ATK recipe I went with Martha Stewart’s pate sucree (I can rarely bear to watch Martha Stewart on television, but she does have some good recipes.)

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I am eternally grateful for our Cuisinart. It’s about twenty-five years old, and I hope it never dies–I don’t think I’d have the patience to make pastry crust or shortbread without it. One day I will be organized enough to spend a morning making several batches of sweet and savoury pastry crusts so that I can just pull them out of the freezer…one day. When I’ve made up my mind which specific recipes I like best. The pastry crust was mixed, shaped into a ball, chilled for two hours, rolled out, shaped, and went into the oven. I wanted a relatively thick crust, so I rolled the circle out to about half an inch, and lined the inside edge with the excess dough, which turned out to be unnecessary. The dough was deceptively soft when raw, even when chilled, and I feared it was going to come out puffy and soft. It didn’t; it was firm without being claggy and overwhelming, but the next time I do this I’ll roll it out a little bit more, to leave more room for pastry cream.

After baking, the crust went back into the refrigerator to chill, and I started on the pastry cream. I used the ATK recipe, but halved it as it looked like it would produce a lot more than what I needed; this recipe from The Joy of Cooking is close to what I did. (And as a bonus you can add the liqueur of your choice! Something that did not occur to me until I tasted the final result.)

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Making the pastry cream was less fearsome than I expected, and I managed not to curdle the eggs (hurrah!). I added some almond flavouring, as I thought it would go nicely with the raspberries; next time, I’ll use amaretto rather than artificial flavouring. Once complete, it went back in the refrigerator–the instructions required a very specific three hours for this, although I’m sure if you poured it in a shallow pan it would take less time, even for a full recipe.

While the pastry cream was chilling, I added another tweak from the birthday tart of fond memory–I heated about 2/3 of a cup of chocolate chips and painted the inside of the cold shell with melted chocolate. Aside from being delicious, this seems to prevent the softening of the crust by the pastry cream and juice from the topping.

Finally all the elements were cooked and properly chilled. Assembly was easy, particularly as I wasn’t concerned on this occasion with layering everything in a nice pattern, as I will next time. Even with only half the recipe, I had more pastry cream than I could use, so next time the dough will definitely be rolled more thinly. I meant to use apricot jam to make the glaze (half a cup of jam + 1-2 tablespoons boiling water, mixed until the jam thins out), but discovered the jar I’d squirreled away mysteriously absent, so I used seville orange marmalade instead.

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I was concerned that the orange marmalade would be too strong a flavour and overwhelm the berries. If I’d used a different combination of fruit, I think I would have been right; with the blackberries, however, it tasted a lot like I’d added sherry to the mix, an effect I was quite pleased with. I also like the effect of the little shreds of orange peel on the finished product. I think in the future I will stick with the apricot jam, though; the marmalade glaze was still quite thick and made it difficult to cover all the fruit. All that said, I’m quite pleased with the result, and look forward to trying a grander version for company.

last tart

Lemon Lavender Meringue Pie (and Brownies)

I’ve been back and forth these last couple of weeks housesitting, so planning time to bake things has been tricky. I was away for most of Sunday, so my planned baking project–the pie–had to wait. Instead, I made Ina Garten’s outrageous brownies the Friday before, because they looked easy and I had a chocolate craving.

They are easy. They are also lethally rich. Half went in the freezer, four largish ones to the friends I was housesitting for, and the remaining ones are slowly slowly disappearing from the cookie jar, half-square by half-square. You can find the recipe (and demonstration) here. I neglected to take pictures of the process this time because I was in too much of a rush, but here is the final result:

Pie 11Not a drawback by any means, but I was a bit surprised that they didn’t have that crispy crust on the top that rich, sugary brownies often do–they’re gooier than I expected, particularly as I left them in the oven rather longer than recommended. My only other variation from the recipe was to leave out the espresso powder, although I’m sure they’re even more delicious with it.

Yesterday I set out to make my lemon meringue pie. I used the America’s Test Kitchen recipe, which can be found here (unfortunately there’s a paywall, although they do offer free trial subscriptions. If you come across any of their massive cookbooks in a second-hand shop or a yard sale, I recommend them–I have their meat book, their classic cookbook, and their baking book, and while this hasn’t stopped me from buying other cookbooks, they’re great fail-safes and they often explain a lot about the chemistry of why some techniques and recipes work when other standards are a matter of luck.)

It turned out to be an all-day affair; there’s quite a bit of make a part, let it chill, add another part, etc., and I was in and out running errands in between. I grated the lemon zest and squeezed the juice the night before, and started on the crust in the morning. I’m growing to like making pie crusts quite a bit–they always used to be a disaster for me when I was younger, so I’ve been buying ready-made ones for years. I’m not sure what I was doing so wrong before, but they’re working much better for me now.

Here are some of the ingredients, the chopped and frozen butter, and the completed and wrapped dough, ready for chilling. Allegedly there is some way to do this that does not involve a food processor. I would not recommend it–surely trying to incorporate frozen butter into flour rather defeats the purpose of the butter being frozen?

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Above is the dough after a couple of hours in the refrigerator. Rolling it out wasn’t as difficult as I’d anticipated. I used an all-butter crust for this recipe, not having any graham crackers on hand, but I think a graham-cracker crust is traditional for lemon meringue pies? My experience is limited. I’ve had lots of key lime pies in the past, but very few slices of lemon meringue.

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It did shrink a bit on one side; not sure why, as the dish was in the center of the oven. The damage wasn’t bad enough to make a difference to the end result, happily. Back in the fridge it went, for another hour or so.

Next was the filling. I was worried about this, because my cornstarch has in the past proved rather weak when it comes to doing its job, and I had barely enough for the recipe. I was also terrified that I would curdle the eggs–in all the recipes I’ve tried that required adding eggs to a moderately hot liquid, I’ve actually succeeded in not doing this, ever (knock on wood), but it remains one of the aspects of cooking I fear most.

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The eggs didn’t curdle, and the cornstarch did its job. This was the only point at which I altered the recipe, by adding about 1/4 of a teaspoon of culinary lavender oil (lavender and rose oils are strong stuff, one to two drops is enough for a cup of hot chocolate). I love the flavour of lavender, but there aren’t many other tastes it mixes well with; it does best with lemon and with chocolate.

I probably could have stopped at this point and been happy with the result, but the lemon curd by itself makes for quite an overpowering pie.  Back in the fridge again, for two hours this time.

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Finally came the meringue. This was an Italian meringue rather than a French, like the one I got wrong before. Again, I was worried I would get the temperatures wrong and ruin the whole thing, but all came out well. I used an extra egg white, as the eggs I’d started with weren’t as large as I tend to use. I ran out of white sugar in this last measure, so I topped up the cup with turbinado. It didn’t make any difference to the taste, but the meringue was more ivory than white. (I don’t recommend this as a replacement–I used only a couple of tablespoons, but adding more would probably alter the chemistry of the meringue and cause disaster. I only resorted to the turbinado because the thought of going back to the grocery store close to rush hour nearly reduced me to tears.)


I’m quite pleased with the finished product. The meringue did not collapse in the oven or afterward; it’s still fluffy and pretty this morning, although the necessity of covering it with plastic wrap for storage has damaged a few of the peaks. The flavour of the lavender didn’t come out as much as I’d hoped, so next time I’ll increase the amount of oil, perhaps a half or two-thirds of a teaspoon. It’s not the most complicated of recipes, but given the need to wait between the steps and before serving, it’s best kept for a weekend. On the plus side, there was plenty of time for cleaning up between steps, so at the end I didn’t have stacks of pots and equipment to clean–I got to sit down and enjoy a slice in peace.

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