Good Things Come In Small Packages

Tom and I just returned from a weekend trip to Wisconsin, where we were visiting his mother. I made some baked goods to take along, but I was in such a rush to pack and get to the airport that I didn't have time to post about them before we left. So now that we've returned home, I can belatedly write about the fall goodies I made last week.

First, I made individual banana caramel cakes, from a recipe in Robert Steinberg and John Scharffenberger's Essence of Chocolate: Recipes for Baking and Cooking with Fine Chocolate. Steinberg and Scharffenberger are the founders of Scharffen Berger Chocolate in Berkeley, now owned by Hershey's. I learned during a factory tour I took a few months ago that Scharffenberger used to own a winery bearing his name; when he sold the winery in 1995, he also sold the rights to use his name for marketing purposes. Thus, the chocolate company is "Scharffen Berger" broken up into two words.

Anyway, I like this cake recipe a lot. It's a little different from normal banana bread because of the addition of chocolate and pecans. But the most important part -- the part you absolutely should not omit if you try the recipe -- is the caramel topping that you pour onto the cake right after it comes out of the oven. I have made this cake several times, and I have screwed up the caramel more than once. It's just a mixture of 1/2 cup brown sugar, two tablespoons of milk, and 4 tablespoons of butter. According to the recipe, you are supposed to start the caramel 5 minutes before the cake is done baking. You bring the ingredients to a boil on the stove, and remove the caramel from the heat once it is amber in color. The reason I think this part is slightly tricky is that: 1) it definitely takes more than 5 minutes to cook the caramel, 2) you have to pour it on the cake immediately after it comes out of the oven for it to be absorbed, and 3) if you make it too early, it can harden into an ugly unworkable mess once you take it off the heat. Hence, your timing has to be just right to get everything to come together correctly.

I decided to make mini cakes, so I had no idea how long it was going to take for them to bake or when I should start making the caramel (I have previously always made this cake in a 12-cup bundt pan, as the recipe specifies). I started the caramel early and tried using the simmer feature on the Viking range. I was able to get a very low simmer going and hold the caramel at the appropriate temperature for about 15 minutes, as I waited for my mini fluted loaves to finish baking. When you make the caramel correctly, it is glossy and transparent, and it looks like this when you pour it over the hot cake:

The caramel absorbs into the cake (you poke holes all over it with a skewer before pouring it on), and goes onto the sides of the cake as well (as you can see in the picture of the mini-loaf at the top of this post). I don't even generally like caramel, but I think the flavors of this cake with the caramel are just delicious. Plus, I think the caramel seals off the cake to some extent and helps keep it moist. I also made two larger rectangular loaves, which took an additional 25 minutes to cook. I was unable to hold the small amount of remaining caramel at the proper temperature while I waited for these to finish, so by the time these larger loaves came out of the oven, all I had to put on them was an opaque and grainy caramel-colored paste that hardened instantly (still tasty, but not nearly as attractive):

I also made some mini-gingerbreads to take along, using the Gramercy Tavern Gingerbread recipe. I think that the best thing about this recipe is the incredibly chewy crust, so by making mini-cakes, you improve the crust-to-cake ratio (and there are other fun things about making mini-cakes: they bake faster, cool faster, are easier to pack when you are traveling by plane, and heck, they are just so darned cute). I was able to bake exactly 12 mini-bundts with the recipe, each using one-half cup of batter. Unfortunately, they did not maintain their chewy crusts by the time we ate them in Wisconsin (maybe they weren't completely cool by the time I packed them, or maybe I shouldn't have individually wrapped each one so tightly). But they were still terrific with vanilla ice cream!

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