Before The Battle At The Polls … A Presidential Food Fight

In celebration of Election Day, We The Eaters is dedicating November to a new series, “Historical Foods: A Presidential Perspective.” We’ll work our way backwards, starting with recent history, bringing you comfort foods of — or inspired by — Jimmy Carter, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

But before you cast your vote on November 6, let your belly do the choosing as we pit the current candidates against each other. Does chili reminiscent of President Obama’s family recipe make your mouth water? Or is it opponent Mitt Romney’s fave — meatloaf — that you crave?

Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Featured, Food Fight

A Fluffy Sweet Ending To Our Horror Story

How do you cap off a month filled with monsters, suspense, and murder? With a sweet, happy ending of course! Sadly, nothing in life can be that easy, especially with the mysterious concoction I’ve got my heart set on: the soufflé.

They rise and fall at will, seeming to defy gravity.

I tried to making one on my own, realizing only after the fact (and lots of Internet research), that it wasn’t a traditional soufflé at all, but more of a chocolate lava cake. So I enlisted the help of Chef Warren Brown, founder and owner of the legendary D.C. bakery, CakeLove, entrepreneur, baker, cookbook author and mad cake scientist. I was hoping he could help us make something more authentic … but that’s not what he had in mind at all.

The issue with soufflés, Warren says, is that the proteins in the batter stretch up, rising as it bakes. Once you remove it from the oven, it falls, and your beautiful creation collapses in on itself. This causes the texture to change, and that means the best bite of a soufflé is always the first, right out of the oven (also, tongue-burning hot!). But once you cut it, the air you whipped into it so carefully deflates like an old tire. What was once light and airy soon becomes tight and rubbery.

It doesn’t make sense for a cake shop to bake a soufflé. It’s an on demand dessert.

But Warren has a secret up his sleeve to slay this beast — Italian meringue. Consider it like Fix-A-Flat for your soufflé. No surprise, then, that meringue just happens to be the secret ingredient in his delicious Amaretto Soufflé Cake, the recipe he’s sharing with us.

And why is he sharing it, you may ask?

“You can put it on the web site,” he says. “Nobody’s going to make it — it’s too complicated.” (Which is funny, because he makes it look so easy.)

The meringue was a discovery born in his early baking days, before he opened CakeLove and while he was still honing his baking skills. Like most home cooks, Warren had one mixer and one bowl at the time. When a recipe called for whipped egg whites, he would whip them first and then transfer the mixture to a new bowl, where the whites sat while he prepped other ingredients in the mixer. Inevitably, the whites would separate and de-puff.

But after making an Italian meringue one day, something clicked.

By pre-cooking the egg whites with sugar and a touch of water, none of that puff and consistency are lost, because the tempering stabilizes the egg whites.

Wait … tempering?

Tempering isn’t commonly used in recipes. Normally, the process is reserved for chocolate or increasing the toughness of glass. Turns out it works on egg whites too.

“Slowly introduce heat, same concept with chocolate,” Warren says, demonstrating this magic — er, science — while moving to the stove to collect a pot. There, sugar and water have been heating up in a pan with a thermometer resting inside.

“Not enough home cooks know what a thermometer is,” says Warren. He recommends the Taylor candy thermometer. Not only does it have easy to read numbers, he says, but also notes candy-making temperatures from “thread” to “hard crack”.

The right-sized pan is also key.  Too heavy, and the slow pour becomes taxing on your arm and shoulder. Something too large means the liquid will be too shallow, making it harder to gauge the correct temperature. Warren used a one-quart saucepan.

Once the sugar water hits the right temperature, 230 degrees, Warren demonstrates tempering by slowly pouring it into the egg whites. While the stand mixer beats away, he pours the liquid in a slow, steady stream aimed at a spot between the whip attachment and the bowl. He points out his technique for pouring: Rather than turning the wrist, raise the shoulder.

“Eye in the bowl,” Warren urges. Pouring too quickly causes the hot sugar water to ball and knot at the base of the mixture. Slow and steady wins the race.

Sure enough, light, fluffy meringue begins to puff up in the bowl. The chef whips until it is fully dispersed, about a minute or two. He removes the bowl from the mixer and sets it aside.

After mixing up the rest of the batter in a separate large bowl attached to the stand mixer, he turns back to the meringue, which has stayed fluffy and puffy. No falling! He adds half the puffy mix to the cake batter while the mixer is still running. He leaves the rest in the bowl attached to the stand mixer, but removes the paddle attachment in order to fold it in manually. He doesn’t work fast, but uses pressure along the sides of the bowl to incorporate the blobs of egg whites.

After adding the finished batter to mini brioche pans and baking for about 15 minutes, we’re ready to see the results. I wasn’t expecting a dramatic soufflé puff — which is definitely not there — but I’m not sure I was expecting this thing he calls “crunchy feet,” either. After checking the done-ness of the cakes with a long cake tester, he pops them out of the molds and we taste test. Indeed, they are light. This cake is truly gravity-defying, and with the use of the Italian meringue, it actually stays that way.

Warren uses this technique in several of his signature cakes, like pistachio, peanut, white chocolate, and Neil’s Hat Trick. But it is this cake that he considers his big epiphany — his Newton’s apple. In the end, I discovered that just as lobster can be bisque and artichokes can be stuffed, even the terror of the soufflé can be tempered, with meringue.

Amaretto Souffle Cake 

Chef Warren Brown has written several cookbooks, including CakeLove: How to Bake Cakes from Scratch and CakeLove in the MorningMany thanks to him for inviting We The Eaters into his kitchen, and for sharing the recipe below with our readers. 

Note: The recipe calls for weighted measurements (using a kitchen scale) rather than volume — a mainstay for professional bakers, as different flours have different weights, and many volume measures can vary slightly with humidity and other factors. For a comprehensive conversion chart, check out The Baking Pan.

9 ounces egg whites
10 ounces sugar
1/4 cup water
4 egg yolks
2 ounces sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup amaretto
2 1/2 ounces butter, really soft
10 ounces almond powder
4 ounces rice flour
4 ounces all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoons baking powder
pinch salt
1/2 teaspoons vanilla powder

To make the meringue:

Create the sugar syrup by adding the sugar and water to a 1-quart pan. Bring to 230 degrees, using a candy thermometer. Whip the egg whites and slowly pour in the sugar syrup until the mixture is stiff with white fluffy peaks. Set aside.

To make the cake batter:

Whip the egg yolks and sugar until the mixture is light in color and has a ribbon-like texture. Still mixing,  add the cream and amaretto, then the butter. In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients, mixing with a whisk. Add to the egg mixture and continue to mix until combined.

Add about 1/2 of the meringue to the mixer and mix. Then stop the mixer and fold in the rest of the meringue by hand, breaking up the egg whites into the batter.

Add to two 9-inch cake pans. Bake 30 minutes, checking after 22 minutes for done-ness. You can also use the mini brioche tins, which should be well-sprayed with cooking spray. You’ll need to adjust the cooking time accordingly — about 8 to ten minutes, depending on the size of the tins.

Molten Lava Cake

This was the chocolate soufflé I attempted on my own — which turned out to be more of a lava cake. I found it on The Girl Who Ate Everthing blog. While it’s not a traditional soufflé, it did puff up and was quite good. Note the recipe calls for refrigerating the batter overnight. I also kept leftover battter in the fridge and made little ones on demand.

8 ounces chocolate (I used Ghirardelli 60 percent cacao)
12 tablespoons butter
1 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
4 whole eggs plus 4 egg yolks

To make the soufflé batter, combine sugar and cornstarch in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs and yolks. Bring butter to a simmer in a saucepan. Add chocolate and mix until smooth. Continue to mix until chocolate begins to simmer along the edges.

Incorporate the chocolate mixture into the dry ingredients until combined. Add eggs and mix at low speed until mixture is smooth and sugar dissolved. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Prep the ramekins or souffle rings by lining with parchment paper or spraying with cooking spray to make it easier to pop out later. I used smaller ramekins, about 3 inches wide by 2 inches tall.  Place the ramekins or rings on a baking sheet.

Fill each ramekin with soufflé batter three-quarters of the way full. Bake on top oven rack for about 21-23 minutes, basically until the tops are set but the middle is still gooey. Remove from oven and serve immediately. Left over batter can be refrigerated for up to 10 days.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Dear Diary, Featured

Meet The Chef: Warren Brown

It all started in 1999, when Warren Brown began honing his baking skills by experimenting in his home kitchen. He was a full-time lawyer by day, so how did he find the time to fine tune all those cakes? Do all the trial and error that goes into getting the ingredient ratios and the temperatures just right?

By basically giving up his social life, he says, baking every night and on the weekends. He was entering his 30s at the time, the age when the bar scene starts to get a little old and the desire for different pursuits and challenges springs up.

“Life was about to get really boring unless you introduced something,” Warren says. “Everyone was complaining about their quality of life.”

And CakeLove was born.

Since opening the business in 2002, that initial spirit of experimentation has continued. It’s fueled by a passion for staying true to the homemade and natural, in keeping with the “cakes from scratch” mantra emblazoned on the company’s T-shirts. But not cutting corners on ingredients or methods, Warren says, can be a tough balancing act.

CakeLove’s signature — what really sets it apart — is Warren’s Italian meringue buttercream icing. When Warren tasted his creation for the first time, memories from his childhood returned. He and his sister loved to eat a certain chocolate roll cake made in a bakery outside of his hometown, Cleveland, Ohio. It was like a giant Ho Ho. His new creation was reminiscent of that icing. Warren swears it was the same kind of European buttercream — smooth and light.

The base for his Italian meringue buttercream, and the cake itself, is butter. And this is what creates an issue. The cake can’t be eaten straight out of the refrigerator, because the icing would be too hard. It needs to sit for about 10 to 15 minutes to give the butter ample opportunity to soften. Warren says this is when his cakes are at their best, but that doesn’t necessarily work for some of the companies CakeLove serves. Customers order instant gratification. They want to eat it now.

“I feel sorry for people who are so resistant, who don’t want to wait. I know a lot of people who don’t like it wham-bam,” he adds with a wicked grin. It doesn’t seem he’s referring to the texture of the cake here.

Warren used to work as an educator in reproductive health. He says students used to ask him, ‘What am I supposed to do [with] 15 minutes?’ Again, he smiles.

Hmm … our imaginations are all aflutter now! Sadly, girls, Warren met the love of his life at CakeLove — and we’re not talking about that buttercream. He and his lovely wife are celebrating their fourth anniversary on the day we visit. She’s not into sweets, so clearly the man knows more than one way to a woman’s heart.

I digress.

So, Warren is looking to alter his recipe into something that tastes good and has the right texture/consistency, straight from a cooler case. His personal preference is to use butter in his recipes — he says it’s his “aesthetic.” And he doesn’t want to completely compromise by using an ingredient like Crisco. His happy medium has been experimenting with vegetable oils, which he already uses in his vegan recipes.

On the day we visited his store at the National Harbor in Maryland, he was doing some more experimentation, and asked We The Eaters to help taste test for him. Oh, drats.

As he offers us layers from his test cakes, he analyzes the cake’s appearance. He’s like a cake geologist — or cakeologist — inspecting the striations for clues on what he needs to tweak next.

This is natural for someone who likes chemistry and science. His dad, who passed away last year, was a pathologist. Warren watched him do his own prep work at home. This seems to have sparked his love of baking, which we see first-hand in how he measures and mixes his ingredients, and in his critical appraisal of the test cakes.

Holes in the cake, says Warren, mean the flour measurements were off. He stresses the importance of measuring by weight, not measuring cups. All flours weigh different amounts, so it’s even more important when a recipe calls for something like pastry or almond flour. He experienced this first hand, measuring with cups in the early days. It’s one reason why you’ll find the baking recipes in his cookbook offer measures in weights. You can definitely tell the difference, he says.

“You absolutely HAVE to measure by scale,” he says. “If the recipe calls for more than 2 tablespoons — use a scale!”

Warren Brown’s Tips for Eaters

  1. Scale – If measuring by weight, you must have a scale! Warren recommends a basic digital scale, nothing fancy. A little detail like an angled front is important, too. It keeps you from straining your back as you try to read it.
  2. Adequate amount of space – This one seems too simple, but is the most important for any cook and applies in all aspects of the kitchen. Large prep bowls allow you to mix and stir without any spills. Removing any clutter from your workspace not only lets you focus on your tasks, but also gives you plenty of room to spread out.
  3. Thermometer – Heating to a proper temperature, whether you’re cooking or baking, makes a big difference. Warren recommends the Taylor Classic Candy thermometer and we saw him using it in his kitchen when making his meringue.
  4. Hitting the right temperature –  Play with the heat during cooking. Take the food off the heat or out of the pot. Food will keep cooking when off of the heat, so timing can be key.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Featured, Meet the Chef, On The Road
photo credit to Aaron Otis Photography 2014

Watermelon is the perfect summer food. It hydrates, it cools, it's sweet and juicy. We have some great ideas for your table, including a salad, ceviche cups, popsicles and cocktails. Get ready to beat the heat with us!

Twitter: wetheeaters