holiday baking



Heaven & Hell

I had a really weird experience with 7-minute frosting about a month ago.

I have, on my wordpress dashboard, a half-written post about how I really messed up the frosting for my mom’s birthday cake. It was so unfortunate, I couldn’t bring myself to publish the pictures. I had crafted this amazing, sumptuous vanilla cake. It was all super-yellow irish butter and whole vanilla bean goodness. The batter was a voluminous mousse of what appeared to be lighter-than-air vanilla pudding. While it baked, a heavenly vanilla scent filled my apartment.

Deciding that this cake was perfect in every way, I set about deciding on the perfect flavors to accompany such a cake. I would turn some egg yolks (I have a bowl in my freezer containing no fewer than 2 dozen yolks…more on that later) into a raspberry curd fit for the finest vanilla gelato. I’d lighten the curd with freshly whipped cream, and make a giant raspberry whipped-cream sandwich on perfect vanilla cake. I’d top it with great swoops of marshmallowy 7-minute frosting. What could be better?

Probably nothing, if that was how it had actually gone down.

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One stormy February evening, I decided to try my hand at making guimauve. Actually, it wasn’t any old stormy February evening. It was the night of the harshest, scariest, and worst blizzard that I have even known. My roommate and I spent that afternoon making preparations: we got sandwiches and spicy mac & cheese at Costello’s in Lincoln Square. We also bought tons of Kit Kat bars.

We had the day off from work because we were planning to attend a tour of the Goose Island brewery (this was prior to the acquisition by Anheuser-Busch. RIP Goose Island), but it was surely going to be cancelled as the weather grew worse and worse, so all of our friends opted to stay home and avoid whatever fate awaited the overly brave.

the door to my building

As the night approached, we warmed ourselves in our cozy living room, watching court shows and episodes of Cheaters. I searched for marshmallow recipes as we waited for the storm to begin. I found what I was looking for at Bravetart.

No matter what the circumstances, I always find it soothing to be alone in a kitchen, whipping up some confection. That night, as my roommate nailed a sheet over a living room window that was especially drafty, I happily boiled sugar, knowing I was doing my part to ensure we’d be comforted that very cold night, in our now slightly less drafty apartment.

my car, the morning after

The owner of the recipe warns of a weird “barnyard” smell, if you opt to use honey in place of corn or maple syrup. I was all out of corn syrup, and maple syrup is like TWENTY DOLLARS (which is why  i only use it on fake bacon and french toast), so I used some lovely local honey a coworker had given me. (I’d love to post some information about who makes the honey, as I hear it’s acquired by some awesome guy who rescues beehives from your house so you won’t vacuum them, and then he cultivates them. When I have that info, it’s yours.) It smelled crazy and malty, like we were brewing beer. We actually also brew beer in our apartment so we have a bit of an affinity for the aroma. :]

my roommate, helping me dig out my car

After a short boil, the mixture set in the fridge for a few hours. Then, a big pan of marshmallow was cut into uniform little cubes, and rolled in powdered sugar. Some went straight into the freezer, where they have kept beautifully for months now. Others went into the fridge, and several days later, when my work re-opened post-blizzard, were divvied up amongst coworkers. The rest were tossed almost immediately into jacuzzis of hot chocolate, prepared from some homemade “instant” hot cocoa I had made to get us through the winter.

In total, we spent about three days stuck in our apartment. My roommate crafted a sign for our snow lodge that we hung on the outside of our apartment door. We watched the commercial for Debt Stoppers until we liked it. We ate tons of marshmallows.

Hot Cross Buns, even if you don’t like hot cross buns.

We sell hot cross buns at work, and nobody likes them. When I made these, I brought them into work the next day because I wanted to point out to my coworkers that hot cross buns could taste good. Many were skeptical. Everyone liked them. I made them again the next day, and they were even better. Here’s how I did it.

"These remind me of clarinet practice." -my sister (these were attempt 01. The second batch I made was gorgeous, and looked just like Gesine's)

This recipe belongs to Gesine. She posted it on her blog, along with some pretty awesome trivia about hotcrossbunlore. Apparently, if you make them on Good Friday, there are a ton of delightful benefits to having done so. I’ll admit that when I read about them, I thought that must be some sort of cosmic consolation prize for having just made the driest, spiciest, most-stale-tasting mini breads ever. Hot cross buns always seemed to me a cinnamon roll, without filling and with not enough icing. What it lacked in tender, delicious bread stuffs, it made up for in tasting strongly of spices and fruit. Yay.

This nutmeg is fresh-to-death

I was wrong, though. And if you yourself have been the victim of a terrible hot cross bun, there’s still hope that you could love one, someday. Maybe tomorrow if you have some time to bake these!

Since I fancy myself an apprentice of sorts when it come to Gesine, I made these, on Good Friday, after a grueling day of working for a  grocery store when people are out shopping for a holiday meal. I found that the instructions left a bit of room for interpretation, and I learned some things after the first attempt at making them.

Freshly ground cloves contribute a good amount of spice, without inducing frown-y faces.

When I have seen hot cross buns in the past, they’ve looked a lot like dinner rolls, and they’ve tasted like dinner rolls infused with festive flavors. Just…soul-less. But Gesine’s recipe works very much like a brioche. Her instructions call for combining everything in stages into a stand mixer, and then you “mix with the dough hook until just combined.” I can’t work with instructions like this. I mess things up, really badly, when I’m not sure what to do.WHAT SPEED??? These details are important to me.


I thought I needed to mix slowly, and prevent too much gluten from developing. After a long time of mixing and not achieving the right look, I turned the mixer way up, but it was just sort of too late. As a result of mixing too slowly, I spent a lot more time on these than I needed to. On top of that, and way more importantly, the dough remained pretty sticky, and scoring a little cross into each bun was painfully difficult and frustrating. The buns were delicious, but sort of flat and underwhelming in the looks department.


The second time I made these, I had it figured out. I mixed everything together on a fairly high speed, and when I added the butter, I took it right up to about 8 on my Kitchenaid. That’s how I’d do it if it was brioche. It quickly pulled away from the bowl (in about 6-10 minutes) and while it wasn’t firm, I had a very easy time bouling it into tight individual pieces. Scoring the crosses was very easy, also. I’ll totally make these again, very soon. They were the best right out of the oven Saturday night, but everyone really enjoyed them on Easter as well.
I saved one to keep in my kitchen and prevent fires.

Oh, ps. I left out the cranberries. I love fruit-less bread.

The best thing. Ever.

This book.

I have packages mailed to my sister’s house in the suburbs, so I don’t have to worry about signing for stuff (buzzer doesn’t work) or things getting stolen sitting outside my apartment. I come here every week to babysit, and last week, I was greeted with Gesine BullockPrado‘s memoir. I read it in three days, and it only took that long because I was heartbroken by the idea of finishing it.

I had ordered the book based on how much I love her blog, and I’m really happy I did. Within this really moving story, she describes so many wonderful sounding pastries, and then at the end of each chapter, she gives a recipe. I had to google a number of German words, and some pastries to be able to follow at times, and I actually thought that made the book really enjoyable.

Basically, in about a week, I went from having this woman’s blog in the back of my mind (after someone suggesting I check it out), to having read her memoir, and waiting patiently for her cookbook (that I pre-ordered) to come in the mail. Actually, if I had been waiting patiently, I probably wouldn’t have ordered a coffee mug bearing her logo in the same week.

The book wasn’t due to come out until early April, but it got released ahead of schedule, and when I arrived at my sister’s house yesterday, there it was. The book, and the mug. Oh yes, and the mug was filled with macaroons. In the last 24 hours, I have read most of the cookbook, and have eaten every single macaroon, except for the mocha flavor (because of that whole ‘no coffee during lent’ thing). When I gave it some thought, I realized that I should have asked in the comments section of my order if they could omit the mocha. They may not have done it, but if they had, I could have eaten so many more cookies. Plus, I’ll probably order more very soon.

I have such big plans for this book. Right now I’m contemplating some rock candy with my oldest nephew, a cake for Easter, and some candies for the people I work with.

Something I’ve noticed about my weird fan-girl obsession with all things GESINE: unlike so many other food bloggers who are also amazingly talented pastry chefs slash food photographers slash their lives look like an Anthropologie catalog, Gesine’s whole schtick is a little different. She embodies most of those things (I don’t think she’s going  for the whole Anthropologie thing), but when I read her blog, I don’t find myself wanting to redesign my blog to emulate her style. She does, however, make me feel like I have a story to tell, like she has.

In high school, I was well on my way to becoming a writer. My creative writing teacher told me that I was a good writer, because I wrote. Use it, or lose it. I didn’t use it. I also worked for about a year doing pastries, being the absolute happiest version of myself. I gave that up in favor of trying to move up within a company, always telling myself it’s good practice for when I actually run a bakery some day. Maybe it is, but it feels a lot like trading down. My roommate says I’m a writer even if I’m also lower level management at a grocery store bakery. I’m also a pastry chef.

There’s a part of Gesine’s memoir where she cautions those of us thinking about baking for a living against it. After reading that book, I have never in my life been so sure that this is what I want to do.

nobody spoke, and i went into a dream

One of the first days off I spent in my new place, I spent doing a puzzle and drinking tons of coffee. Now, as I wait for Easter from the black confines of a sleepy, coffee-deprived Lent; that sunny, java-soaked July afternoon is ripe for remembering.

It started, as many happy days too, with an amazing breakfast. I toasted some croissants from work, fried some eggs and potatoes, and washed a big bowl of cherries. I used my previous roommate’s amazing coffee grinder (he was briefly staying with myself and my new roommate before moving to New York), and brewed a perfect french press. We drank orange juice from little beer glasses, and Kym crafted some flowers for the table, in like, 9 seconds.

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