The Easy Battle

Sometimes I forget myself. I forget that I am good at what I do, do it every day, and have a solid lump of experience under my belt.

Hmmm…. that’s not quite right.

Sometimes I forget you. I forget that you aren’t me and don’t have the experience and daily handling that I do.

I am reminded of this occasionally when I am teaching a class and say things like, “it should be the texture of pastry cream.” You blankly stare at me, and I remember that you came to a beginners baking class today and may not have even heard of pastry cream, let alone know what it’s texture is like.

Molly Moon laughed at me a couple of days ago, saying, “Dana, I just love that you talk to me like I know what the heck you are talking about.” I thought we were discussing the hydration properties of the pectin in her stabilizer, but she just asked if I had put it in yet.

But often, my forgetfulness shows most when I make the statement, “oh this recipe is really easy.”

Then proceed to rattle off a dish that is easy to me in the professional kitchen I work in, or even in my home kitchen that I have outfitted with everything that makes my professional kitchen easy to work in, like giant super clingy cling film that sticks to everything, a box of full sheet sized parchment, a bakers bench with drawers full of every tool I could want, full of every pan I could need, bowls, sieves, and a stack of boxes filled with every pantry item I think to need.

My super easy strawberry buttermilk panna cotta is a breeze to me. But I have to admit, that the process might seem overwhelming to the novice. The cream is heated with sugar and lemon zest (everyone has a microplane, right?). The gelatin is soaked (everyone stockpiles sheet gelatin right?). Then the gelatin is melted into the hot cream and cooled slowly to body temperature (you have an hour to wait, right?). Meanwhile the strawberries, which have been frozen and thawed half way to damage the cell walls for better flavor, pigment, and pectin release, are pureed in a blender and sieved to remove the seeds and kept as cold as possible (you have a blender, sieve, and froze those berries in a single layer last night, right?)

Now, after all this, strain the cream into the strawberry buttermilk mixture, and pour into pretty little serving dishes (you have pretty serving dishes, and the refrigerator space to chill them, right?)

Well, I made a cake this weekend for a back yard barbecue that finally, finally, made me see what I was battling against when I tell people something is easy.

This cake is popular the country over with your church pot luck, back yard barbecue, and family gathering. While my family never made it, (we would have if my mom had the recipe), I have tasted this cake at friends gatherings. It’s nothing a “foodie” would claim to enjoy, although I bet many of them secretly do. During a plated dessert class we discussed nostalgic desserts and 3 of the students claimed this cake as their favorite nostalgic childhood dessert.

It’s called a poke cake, and it’s made by baking a white cake mix, and poking holes all over it, to which you pour jell-o across. The jell-o (I used orange) soaks in, and makes a moist, sweet, and yes, yummy dessert. Cover the whole thing with whipped cream, or better yet, a frosting recipe made by mixing a box of instant vanilla pudding with one cup of milk, and a tub of cool whip.

The result was actually fairly tasty. It’s not going on my menu, but I understand how it can be considered a favorite and brought to various events.

But after all was said and done, this cake was EASY. I had opened 4 containers, used only 3 ingredients that would be in everyones kitchen (eggs, oil, milk), and spent a maximum of 15 minutes preparing it. I used only 4 dishes, a measuring cup, a whisk, a spatula, and a bowl.

While I know this cake isn’t the crowining glory of american cuisine, it is the median. It is a cake that represents the word “easy” to many many home cooks. Compared to my experience in the kitchen this weekend, my easiest of recipes is a handful.

This cake helped put me in my place, and remind me that when I teach and discuss food with people not as entrenched in cuisine as I am, I need to remember where they are coming from. I need to remember you.

For further reading on my panna cotta process link here

For further reading on my puree process read here

“Easy” Strawberry Buttermilk Panna Cotta

250 g. heavy cream

200 g. sugar

Zest of 1 lemon

5 sheets gelatin

250 g. buttermilk

250 g. strawberry puree

1. Soak the gelatin leaves in ice water until soft and hydrated.

2. Mix the cream, sugar, and lemon zest in a small pot, and bring to a boil, whisking until the sugar is disolved. REmove from heat.

3. Remove the gelatin from the ice water, squeeze the excess water from it, and add it to the hot cream, stirring until disolved and evenly distributed.

4. Let this sit on the counter away from heat and come down in temperature slowly, until it is just below body temperature.

5. Meanwhile, mix the buttermilk and strawberry puree well and keep cold.

6. When the cream has come down in temperature, strain it into the cold strawberry buttermilk, and whisk to combine.

7. Pour this into pretty serving dishes, and chill overnight, or at least 8 hours.

7 Responses to “The Easy Battle”

  1. peabody says:

    I love the Jello cake as well as Dump cake. Both beyond simple.
    I forget often when I am talking to others also that it may be easy for me but not for them.
    I had a friend over awhile back and we were having bread pudding. I asked her what sauce she wanted and she said caramel. So while we were talking in the kitchen I just whipped some up. She just kept starring at me. And I was like what. She was beyond intrigued that I just made it without measuring and without really paying attention and it came out beautifully.
    Panna cotta sounds great.

  2. Richard says:

    Thanks for the tips on puree and panna cotta. I am looking forward to try them at home.

    Btw, can you bring the honey mousse back on the menu? :)

  3. Camille says:

    I’ve never had the Jello cake, but I immediately thought of the Dump cake as well. (As in, something I know I’m not supposed to enjoy, but do anyway.)

    And I suffer from the same distorted sense of what is easy… although there is a distinct difference for me between what is easy at work (in the professional bakeshop) and what is easy at home.

  4. Traca says:

    As someone who has taken many classes around town…and nearly every class you taught the first year, I have to say…your classes raise the bar and are filled with a ton of good content. I’d write pages and pages of notes!

    Dana, if I can hold my own in a kitchen and know exactly what you mean by the “texture of pastry cream” or learned that wonderful trick about freezing berries to express more flavor and better texture…that’s all thanks to your influence.

    Raise the bar, girl.

    Those who really want to learn…will find a way to leap over it.

  5. I am drooling with anticipation of making this recipe! I love that you give so much insight and scientific background to your technique. Pastry is a science! In culinary school they don’t teach you the whys and hows of pastry. They just teach you the recipe without the scientific reason or technique behind it. How can you make something better without knowing what exactly is happening. I am learning so much from just reading your blog!

  6. I don’t know how I grew up in Kentucky without tasting “poke cake”, but I have to say I’m glad I did! That sounds scary.

  7. Lee says:

    This is so well written and true to my experience too! I helped a friend make real buttercream for her kids birthday cupacakes the other day and while she admitted it was easy, said she probably still wouldn’t try it on her own. Gahhhhh! I just don’t understand what everybody is afraid of when it comes to baking.

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