I am so not a baker. I’m also of the school of thought that it’s either in your DNA or it isn’t, unlike cooking, which can be learned. Don’t believe me? A culinary arts degree, pastry internship at Chez Panisse, two years of employment at an Oakland bakery, and a brief stint filling in on pastry at The Providores & Tapa Room in London speak otherwise.
Sure, I can make pretty decent quickbreads and cookies; I’ve even made a good cake or two. But when it comes to anything more complex that sifting and measuring, forget it. I can’t even ice a cake to save my life, despite the Nazi-like anal retentiveness of my European pastry instructor in culinary school.
At Chez Panisse, I managed to gain enough trust to be allowed to prep fruit and make truffles, but my tart-making privileges were quickly revoked. The last attempt I made at bread was nothing short of pathetic (I was also distraught after discovering that the 100-year-old sourdough starter I’d been given had exploded in my refrigerator…I’d killed history).
So I’m always in awe of people who can deftly crimp pie shells or turn out flaky croissants. When I first met my friend Kate Leahy, it was while working at aforementioned bakery. I was just a counterperson, which meant that I had to scale out cookie dough, make sandwiches, and fold tart boxes in my spare time (having failed at tasks that involved actual baking talent).
I would watch Kate–all five-foot-one of her–hucking around 10-quart mixing bowls for the standing Hobart mixer nearly as tall as she, or blithely crafting wedding cake roses out of fondant. She says she learned to bake “the old-fashioned way, through trial and error, but my parents were very kind, especially when I got carried away with the baking soda.”
On a totally random, but incredibly awesome side note, Kate lived in the Philippines as a young child, because of her dad’s job. She once told me about the time a sewer rat came up out of their home toilet, an incident that would leave me permanently constipated. In fact, that’s my worst nightmare, right after a cockroach nesting in my ear.
After the bakery, Kate went on to culinary school, and has worked as a line cook at some of the nation’s most prestigious restaurants, including Radius (Boston), Terra (St. Helena), and A 16 (San Francisco). Then, not satisfied with conquering the savory side of things, she got an MS in Journalism at Northwestern.
After working as a food editor and freelancer for a number of years in Chicago, she co-wrote 2008’s IACP-winning A 16 Food + Wine cookbook (don’t let the other names on the cover tell you otherwise) and on April 3, her latest book, written with acclaimed Chicago chef Paul Virant (Vie), The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux, was released.
Kate–I swear I’m not her publicist–also has another major cookbook coming out, SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine (SPQR is A 16’s sister restaurant), written in collaboration with co-owner Shelley Lindgren and executive chef Matthew Accarino; release date October 16.
Anyway. The point of all this is that Kate is awesome and talented and you should buy her book. What’s it about, you ask? I’ll let her describe it:
The premise behind the book is giving people a fresh way to think about preserves. We weren’t just concerned with providing recipes that challenge cooks to think beyond strawberry jam, but also giving readers ways to use the preserves in meals. When you can turn a pickle into a sauce or vinaigrette, it becomes much more than just a condiment. Paul summarizes his strategy like this: ‘I eat what I can and what I can’t, I can.'”
I asked Kate for a summery recipe and she generously provided me with a cake that even I can’t screw up. Now let’s see if she can solve my sewer rat issues.
RASPBERRY BROWN BUTTER CAKE
Recipe from The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux, by Paul Virant with Kate Leahy (Random House, 2012).
What separates this cake from similar creations is the brown butter, which gives it an almost savory edge, and the vanilla bean, which is infused into the hot butter. While delicious with tart, fresh raspberries, you also can make this cake with frozen cranberries and lemon zest in the fall and winter. A spoonful of summer berry jam added to the batter also works as a stand-in for fresh fruit.
6 ounces salted butter
1 vanilla bean
1 cup sugar
½ cup all-purpose flour
1½ cup raspberries
1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan or small rectangular pan.
2. Melt the butter in a pot over medium heat. Split the vanilla bean in half and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a spoon. Mix in the seeds and bean and continue to cook the butter until it browns. (It will turn amber in color and smell like toasting nuts.) Immediately take off the heat to prevent the butter from scorching. Remove the bean and reserve for another use. Cool the butter to room temperature.
3. In a medium bowl mix the sugar and flour together. Whisk in the eggs, and then drizzle in the butter. Scatter half of the raspberries in the bottom of the cake pan and pour the batter on top. Scatter the remaining raspberries on top. Bake for 35 minutesor until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and the top no longer looks raw.