Birthday Baking with Jessica

Today I am proud to present my guest blogger Jessica Hirashima. As a hobbyist baker for years she has enticed many a family member, coworker and/or friend to cheat on their diet with her amazingly delicious food. I asked her to document in her own words and photos the birthday dinner and dessert she made for friends last weekend. Enjoy and try not to drool on the keyboard.

Baking has been a favorite pastime of mine ever since my mom let me be the “Official Taster” when she’d bake cookies and cakes when I was little. I would stand by ready to take any used mixing spoon or beater off her hands and lick it clean. One year when I was maybe about 10 my cousin Rachel who is herself a skilled baker, bought me a book of “quick and easy” recipes for kids for Christmas (She also bought me the silicone bakeware pictured below, though years later). The recipes were neither quick nor easy, but that book (which I still have, on the shelf next to all the rest of my cookbooks) might be what got my cooking and baking to really take off. Following recipes came very naturally to me perhaps because I have always been that little goody-two-shoes who would follow the recipes the same way she’d follow the instructions to her math homework which was always finished to gold star quality.

As I struggled through the engineering program at UC Berkeley I would often have Food Network on in the background while I spent hours upon hours trying to figure out my ‘Computer Programming for Engineers’ homework on my laptop. Watching Food Network was where I learned that you can elaborate on recipes and substitute ingredients for a different result if you know what you’re doing. The rigid, “always follow directions” me learned to loosen up a little bit, but still no one was allowed in the kitchen while I cooked.

Fast-forward to the present day. I live alone and I don’t cook often. I still love to cook and bake, but I don’t really feel the need to go out of the way for myself all too often as it’s hard to cook just enough for one person for one night, and I usually get bored of leftovers after the second or third night of them. Plus I live in NYC, where the culinary options are infinite. Every once in a while I’ll bake something to bring into the office, or out onto the job site for my boys, and I have kind of installed myself as the official goody-bringer for the bimonthly Kids’ Guitar Showcases at my guitar school. But, I guess I reserve going all out for special occasions, and my birthday last weekend seemed like special enough occasion to break out the pots and pans and jack up the temperature of my one-bedroom apartment to one too hot for an actually pleasant mid-spring day.

I would make pizza and cupcakes. I use the pizza crust recipe from Artisan Baking Across America (by Maggie Glezer, Artisan, 2000), which calls for:

– 3.5 cups of unbleached bread flour (though I used all-purpose flour)

-1/4 teaspoon of instant yeast (though I always double this to ½ teaspoon for a fluffier crust)

-2 teaspoons of salt

-1.5 cups of lukewarm water

I add the yeast to the warm water and let it sit and fizzle for about 10 minutes. Sometimes, I add a tablespoon of honey, to give the yeast something to feed on, thereby causing it to become even fizzier, but I forgot this time. I combined the salt and flour.

Once the yeast has fizzled, I add it to the flour and salt and stir to combine. Then, I place the shaggy dough under the bowl on my work surface to rest for 15 minutes.

While the dough rests, I simmer a few garlic cloves in olive oil, being careful not to burn the garlic.

After the dough has finished resting, I uncover it and knead it for 10 minutes without adding any flour.

The recipe says to cut the dough into four pieces, but I divide it into 3 because I have plans for only three pizzas (they’ll just be a little larger). I spread about a handful of flour on my work surface, and one dough ball at a time, cover the ball in flour and roll it up like a carpet. I do this three times, seam side up each time. After all of this rolling, I pat the ball into a tight round, seam down, as pictured.

I pour a little bit of the cooled garlic oil (sans garlic cloves) into each of 3 ziplock freezer bags and then transfer one dough ball into each. I make sure the balls are coated in oil (so they won’t stick to the bag), and I try to remove as much air as possible out of the bags before placing all three bags in my oven. The oven isn’t turned on, but it’s a gas unit with a pilot, so it’s always warm. The heat will help the bread to rise more rapidly. The dough balls will “proof” for 5 to 6 hours.

Okay, now the pizza is taken care of for the moment, so I go for a jog, vacuum, and do laundry (yes, exactly what I want to do on my birthday, thank you very much).

Now onto the cupcakes. I would be making chocolate cupcakes filled with chocolate mousse with a vanilla bean buttercream frosting. I used this recipe for chocolate chiffon cupcakes.

I used buttermilk as the recipe suggests, and instead of the 1 cup of granulated sugar mixed in with the dry ingredients I used brown sugar. I almost always substitute brown sugar for granulated sugar because it has more flavor and it adds moisture to the recipe. I cooked a dozen cupcakes at a time on the middle rack, at 400 degrees for about 24 minutes. I might have been able to cook them for a few minutes less (I have issues with overcooking cake), but because the chiffon cake is made with oil instead of butter, and I used the brown sugar instead of the granulated sugar, the cupcakes were still pretty moist. And anyway, I would be coring them and filling them with chocolate mousse which would also increase the moisture content.

Now, onto the chocolate mousse. I used this recipe from Tyler Florence of Food Network.

I highly recommend Tyler Florence’s recipes; they are pretty much always very easy to make, even though they look like they were hard to make, and they are, in my experience, always very delicious. (And for baking, King Arthur Flour recipes are pretty dependable). Here, I used Trader Joe’s 72% bittersweet chocolate, though I would also recommend Scharffenberger’s bittersweet chocolate. They both have great flavor, in my opinion, whereas some bittersweet chocolate seems to have no flavor at all.

I found this great cupcake corer, made by Cuisinart, at Sur La Table, but a small pastry circle would probably work just as well. After the cupcakes were cored, I piped in the mousse.

For the frosting I used this recipe

For the pure vanilla extract, I substituted the seeds from one vanilla bean, which really added a lightness to the flavor. After dividing the frosting into three bowls and adding food coloring, I piped on the frosting, and then transferred the little cakes into the refrigerator. (If you’re wondering, I got this great double-decker Snapware cupcake carrier at the Container Store. You can take the cupcake trays out and flip them over for a flat surface as well.)

By this time, my kitchen was boiling and I was sure to remove the pizza dough from the oven before preheating it and using it to bake my cupcakes. I took a swig of my Brooklyn Summer Ale and wiped sweat from my forehead with my forearm. I wanted to take a break, but really the pizzas would not take long.

Once I had taken the dough out of the oven, I spread it out into a pizza shape atop a piece of parchment paper. And, once the cupcakes were finished baking, I turned the oven up to 500 degrees as high as it would go, and heated up my pizza stone so I could slide the parchment and pizza right off of the baking sheets and cook them directly on the stone for a crispier crust.

I used this recipe for tomato sauce which would top two of the pizzas, but I didn’t have marjoram so I used about a half teaspoon of oregano. Also, I like to add a tablespoon of sugar whenever I’m making tomato sauce, so as to lessen that bitter, acid-y flavor that sometimes accompanies canned tomatoes. Diced tomatoes will also do as well as crushed tomatoes, for a chunkier sauce.

I also made a pesto, with unsalted pistachio nuts, basil, parmesan cheese, garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil. I didn’t really use exact quantities here, maybe a half cup of pistachios, a bunch or basil leaves, a half a cup of parmesan, 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of salt, a few grinds of pepper, and enough oil to make the mix spreadable. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and adjust quantities to taste and consistency desired.

I had made the sauces while batches of cupcakes baked (ever the multi-tasker, haha). One of the pizzas would be classic Margherita: tomato sauce, slices of fresh mozzarella cheese, and basil leaves. The next would have tomato sauce, grated mozzarella, yellow and zucchini squash, prosciutto, and a sprinkling of pecorino romano cheese. The final pizza would have the pesto with pecorino romano cheese, sliced portabellini mushrooms, and sliced kalamata olives.

 

I baked the pizzas for about 12 minutes each, until the crust looked cooked. You’re supposed to bake them at 700 for only 4 minutes, but my oven doesn’t get nearly that hot (thank goodness- my apartment was hot enough as it was).

And after the cooking, I was finally able to join my guests. I cranked up the AC in the living room, and we enjoyed the pizza, records, board games, and each other’s company. A couple hours later, more guests arrived for cupcakes, ice cream (Breyer’s Natural Vanilla- love Breyers, yum!), and continued festivities.

It was really a wonderful day; I was very happy with how all the food came out, and even happier to have such a great party of people to have prepared it for and to share it with. But maybe next year, we can bring the board games to a bar, and I’ll take a birthday night off 😉

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