Category Archives: Pastry

How long did the Arabs occupy Spain?

I like that question reader Zsa Zsa, if indeed that is your real name! It’s popularly said that the Islamic occupation of the Iberian peninsula lasted for 800 years. That’s technically true, though Muslims didn’t hold the entire peninsula for all of that time. The invasion commenced in 711 A.D. when the first Arabs crossed over from North Africa. By 720 virtually the entire peninsula was occupied. A capitol city was set up in the southern city of Córdoba, which in relatively short order became one of the dominant economic and culture centers in all of Europe and the Middle East. This “golden age” only lasted for a couple of hundred years or so, however, as infighting soon divided up the Caliphate into some 20 separate states, which fought with outside powers and one another until they were ripe for attack by Christian peoples pressing in from the north.

Truth be told, this re-conquering (“Reconquista” as it’s known in Spain) of Al-Andalus started almost immediately after the Arabs took the place, but really began to pick up steam starting in about 1100 A.D.. That’s when the Muslim-dominated areas of the peninsula began to contract in a serious way, until by 1249 the only remaining region under Muslim control was a small state all the way south near Gibraltar called the Emirate of Granada. Though I should point out that technically the Emirate only survived because it was a convenient way for the new reigning powers up in Castile to extract gold from what was left of the old Caliphate.

By the time Ferdinand and Isabella — of Christopher Columbus fame — came along, Granada was on its last legs, so to speak. And indeed they crushed it militarily the same year the Americas were discovered, in 1492. So you see Zsa Zsa, that’s not really an easy question to answer, but I hope I’ve put up a valiant effort!

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What makes alfajores different?

Alfajores are widely thought to be little sandwiches made of shortbread. In fact that isn’t the case. The two little disks that contain the filling most closely resemble cakes. They contain flour, butter, leavening and eggs (cooked egg yolk). They also have one other rather unusual ingredient: cornstarch (cornflour) usually in abundance. Indeed it’s not unusual to find an alfajores recipe that contains as much cornstarch as wheat flour.

The question is: why? The answer is: gluten. Cornstarch has no gluten in it, and when it’s added to a dough in that kind of quantity it has the effect of undermining any gluten than happens to be present. The cooked egg yolks do much the same thing, the effect being extreme tenderness. This is the secret to good alfajores, which have a tooth that’s even softer than an American biscuit. Superior alfajores are so melt-in-mouth tender that they give you the impression that it’s the filling that’s holding the outsides together, not the reverse.

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So what is an alfajore?

Good question! The word can mean different things in different places, but let me ask you this: from what language does the word originate do you think? Any guesses? No? Well what if I wrote it this way: al-fajore. Does that help any?

If you said “Arabic” then you’re correct. Alfajores were an Arab import to Spain, back when most of it was under Arab control and called Al-Andalus. The word “alfajor” could be derived from one of several different words. It could come from an old Arabic word meaning “excellent” or “luxurious”. Alternately it might come from the word al-hasú which means “filled”. Or it might come from the word alfahua which means “honeycomb”. Or maybe it’s derived from a Spanish-Arabic hybrid term that means “nectar”. Whichever is the case I think you can see we have a theme emerging here: alfajores are sweet and they taste good. Pretty much all you need to know.

I will say however that alfajores are rather different in the New World compared to the Old. Over in Spain, or so I understand it, they’re little elongated treats full of nuts, spices and honey. In other words, they still have all the hallmarks of a Middle Eastern sweet. Over on this side of The Drink they’re quite different: little sandwich cookie-type confections filled with dulce de leche, caramel, jam or even chocolate. Depending on where in Central or South America you find them they might also be enrobed in chocolate or a sugar glaze.

Oh and why we’re on the subject of giving names to things I have another question for you: who named the stars? Here’s a hint: Aldebaran, Altair, Alpheratz, Fomalhaut, Rasalhague, Sadalsuud. Any guesses?

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This Week: Alfajores

I didn’t get any at the Señor de los Milagros party yesterday and I’m still ticked about it. So darn it I’m making my own.

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Miracle Sunday

We had a little taste of Lima in Louisville yesterday. The Peruvian members of our parish hoisted the image of Señor de los Milagros (Lord of Miracles) and carried it down the street, in keeping with annual tradition (in Peru).

The procession commemorates the famous Lima earthquake of 1746 which destroyed virtually the entire city — except — the wall upon which this image was painted. So every year in October, the month of the quake, fellows in purple robes carry this image through the city of Lima in remembrance of the miracle. Here in Louisville they carried it about six blocks because that thing is heavy, heavy, heavy and we have only so many Peruvians to do the lifting.

Afterwards there was some delightful entertainment involving a woman in bare feet and a dancing horse (paso fino I think it’s called?). The horse had a gait I’d never seen before. It produced a rapid clickety-clackety-clickety-clackety sound on the pavement. I’d never get near a fast dancing horse in bare feet I can tell you. But she did and I liked it.

Anyway, once tradition had been honored we headed to the parish hall for chicken. I have no idea what that yellow sauce was but on a potato it was heaven. I didn’t get the name of any of the pastries because there was too much hubbub, but I tried everything I could get my hands on. Except the alfajores, I was too slow, dangit.

This tasted like flan on top of chocolate cake:

This was a bread pudding:

And this, well, I have no idea. A sponge cake and fruit gelatin extravaganza it was. Fabulous.

Our parish is heavily hispanic. People there come from all over the Spanish-speaking world: Spain, Colombia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Cuba you name it. So hardly anyone there was familiar with this Peruvian tradition, but let’s face it, what was not to like? After the food was gone the dancing started. The music combined some Peruvian dance music with our usual parish party mix of ranchera and American country. What a party. America, I love ya.

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Making Black Forest Cake

One taste of Black Forest cake made with the traditional sponge cake and it all makes sense. This cake is as light as air. Then the kick of the cherry brandy and chocolate hits you and you think wow, those German Black Forest hillbillies were really on to something! Try this and I promise you’ll never think of Black Forest cake as a deep chocolate indigence again but rather as a chocolate and cherry cream cake. One with a nice alcoholic payoff which, let’s face it, doesn’t hurt. You’ll need:

1 recipe chocolate génoise
1/2 recipe cake syrup combined 8 ounces kirsch
about 1 cup sour cherries (frozen is fine, bing cherries will do in a pinch)
stabilized whipped cream (about 2 1/2 cups liquid heavy cream sweetened with 5 tablespoons sugar)
2 ounces chocolate shavings
maraschino cherries for garnish

Start by trimming up your génoise layer. This one I froze because bad weather kept me from making this cake for about a week. When you freeze a génoise layer it sinks a little more that normal so my edge trimmings were substantial. It still left me with a nice thick layer though.

See? Still close to two inches. I trimmed the sides as well to straighten the edges. You don’t need to do that unless you’re uptight like I am.

The next step is to split the sponge layer. Start by making a shallow cut all the way around the layer in the center. Keep cutting around and around, steadily getting deeper until…

…you’ve cut all the way through.

Place your bottom layer on a cardboard cake circle, then paint it liberally with the kirsch syrup. Don’t soak it, just moisten it all over.

Now apply the whipped cream. A very large dollop, and spread it to the edges. You want a nice thick layer that’s about as thick as your sponge layers.

Press your cherries into it.

Apply the next layer of cake and similarly apply the cake syrup. You won’t use all your syrup. Use it to make some sort of celebratory cocktail once you’re done making the cake.

At this point I enlisted my cake wheel, since I had a few flourishes in mind.

See here how you want the cream about an equal thickness with the sponge. Just about perfect.

I spread the whipped cream out to the edges…

…then spread it out, over and along the sides…

…and applied a cake comb to give the sides a texture.

I did a wavy thing on the top because, well…what da hey.

I was gonna cover most of it with chocolate shavings anyway.

Then using a pastry bag with a nice big star tip…

…I piped some dollops of cream and topped them with maraschino cherries for color.

I piped a bottom rim but I think that was too much. Made the cake look like a wedding gown.

Still the slices looked good.

Good enough to eat, no? Reviews were phenomenal.

Filed under:  Black Forest Cake, Pastry | 12 Comments

Weren’t we just talking about browning enzymes?

And suddenly here comes a high-tech genetically modified apple that doesn’t brown. Why not? Because it has very little in the way of either polyphenoloxidase or peroxydase (more on what those do here). Which means when you cut it you don’t get browning pigments. Very interesting.

Those readers who know me know I have nothing against GMO crops, but my reaction to this is…why? Aren’t the apples we have pretty darn good as they are? And if you don’t want them to brown there’s always citric acid or lemon juice. This is a pretty cool science experiment, but I don’t see myself buying them over say, the Honeycrisps I bought at the supermarket this week. Well, to each their own!

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Do Your Bit(map)

Most of us are at least a little freaked out by all the Ebola news these days. The majority of it is extremely overblown. A whole lot of it is downright panic-mongering. But one thing is for sure: the taste of fear we’re getting here in the developed world is nothing compared to what the poor folks in West Africa have been experiencing for some time now. If you’re like me you’d like to do something about Ebola instead of just worry about it which, let’s face it, doesn’t do anyone any good.

And in fact you can do something: you can draw maps. You heard right. The World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders and a variety of NGO’s are on the ground in West Africa and ready to fight the disease door to door. Unfortunately they don’t know where a lot of those doors are — especially out in remote villages or in densely populated urban areas — because they don’t have have accurate maps.

Which is where the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team comes in. You may have heard of OpenStreetMap, they’re the organization which, with the help of lots of volunteer contributors, creates the data that companies like MapQuest and Foursquare use to generate their street maps. The process of making the maps is actually pretty simple. OpenStreetMap puts up satellite photos of the surface of the Earth, then ordinary users like you and me trace the streets, buildings, parks and bodies over water over them. Those traced lines become data that mapping apps like MapQuest use to show us where to go.

Right now the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team needs people to do this sort of tracing over satellite images of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. And just about any idiot can do that. I know because I happen to be an idiot and I’ve probably spent 10 or 12 hours this rainy week tracing buildings in Freetown. I’m not lying, it’s sorta tedious work, but I do it at night after the girls are in bed. I put on some music or call someone up on the phone and click, click, click. I’m sure the doctors on the ground don’t care how loud the music is in my office, they’re just happy they can find their way to some shantytown in Liberia where some poor man, woman or child needs help.

You can find out more about the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team by going here. My experience getting going was rather confusing as the links under “Get Involved” don’t necessarily take you where you want to go. You can subscribe for mailing lists (unnecessary if all you want to do is map) and download the Java version of the editing tool. That’s not necessary either since you can do it more easily with the online map editor. Someone really needs to streamline the process for volunteers.

If you want to get involved my suggestion is to simply go to, get an account and take the online tutorial, which is really quite simple. You’ll be able to edit your own neighborhood right away if you like. Note to Apple users like myself: to finish a line or a shape, you need to double click (a detail mysteriously left out of the tutorial). Once that’s done go here to get working on a task in Africa. Select “Edit with ID Editor” which is the online editing tool, and get mapping! You can finish a whole section of a grid or just edit a little and save your work. Every click helps and could potentially save a life, and that’s no exaggeration.

So turn that anxiety in action why don’t you? I know from the comments I get that I have an awful lot of readers with technical interests and talents. An hour a day tracing buildings and roads can help put the hammer down on a dangerous disease. See you (virtually) in Liberia! And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

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Brioche Dough: How Much Gluten?

It’s still the age of Ragnarök here in Louisville, I’m looking out at dark grey skies and more rain, rain, rain. I don’t let that slow me down if I can help it but blowing, misty rain is hell on whipped cream. Fortunately reader David has a question for me. It goes like this:

Your brioche dough recipe calls for all purpose flour when one might expect to use bread flour for a higher rise. Is brioche not typically expected to be as airy and light or is there another reason for it?

Interesting question, David. It all depends on what you want to use the brioche for. Will you be making a simple loaf? Dinner roll-type têtes de brioche? Or perhaps you’re using it as a base for a bee sting cake or cinnamon rolls. In any of those cases you might want to vary the formula a bit to achieve a difference effect.

For a straight-up brioche loaf, a higher gluten flour might be desirable since as you say, you’ll get a higher rise and a lighter crumb. The increased gluten will make that crumb a little tougher and chewier, but a certain “tooth” is expected for a bread or a roll.

A pastry is a completely different story. There you want rise and structure, but not at the expense of tenderness. In that case a brioche dough made with a lower-gluten all-purpose flour works better. You might also want a little more butter in that particular batch, maybe even some browned butter…I’m just sayin’.

All of which is to say that brioche is adaptable stuff. As a general rule I think all-purpose flour makes a nice all-around brioche dough. But adjust it as you see fit!

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Where does génoise come from?

And for that matter sponge cake in general? Nice question reader Holly! The answer is: um…

Génoise is clearly named for the city of Genoa in northern Italy. However the word is French which means it’s a French-ified version of a type of sweet bread or cake that was once made in Genoa. Does that mean that sponge cake was invented in Italy? Probably not as it seems most sponge-type biscuits and cakes that were made in Italy can be traced to an earlier confection that the Italians called pan di Spagna. “Spanish bread”. Everybody loves something that comes from somewhere else, knowadimean?

It seems that this — at least semi-spongy — Spanish bread arrived in the trading city of Genoa sometime in the middle 1500′s. At that point it was probably more like a light cookie, or biscuit, as our friends the British like to say. How or why the preparation moved northward is something of a mystery, though it seems clear that the French dramatically lightened and enriched it, eventually turning it into a base for cakes.

Back then a substance as fine and delicious as a génoise would only have been found in the kitchens of the nobility. Who else would have had access to fine white flour, good butter and — rarest of all in those days — refined sugar? Which is why it took until the Industrial Revolution before sponge cakes entered the common lexicon. The first printed instance of the words “sponge cake” in English occurs in 1808, in a letter written by Jane Austen.

As the Industrial Revolution picked up steam (no pun intended) it begat commerce. That commerce begat wealth and that wealth begat an ever-greater demand for life’s finer things. Sponge cake was apparently one of those, as it proliferated wildly all through the 19th century. And that’s really all I know about that, reader Holly. Thanks for the question!

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