Thursday, February 14, 2008

Kind of like the best of relationships

There are few things that surprise me about Husband. I've known him for 12 years; we've been married for 2 1/2. Just over 5 years ago he uprooted himself from his large hometown of New York City to move to my small hometown in Northeast Ohio to see if we could make it as husband and wife. It took a couple years for us to get hitched, but hitched we got and, well, here we are. I anticipate his every move, his every thought. I know when he is going to tell certain stories. I know what punch lines are coming. I know if they are going to be hilarious punch lines, or offensive ones. I know what sweaters he's going to don before they emerge from the dresser drawer. I know the tone of voice that is to be used in a variety of situations. I know when he is about to quote Howard Stern or Larry David. (Subsequently, I know when to run for cover.) I know him almost as well as I know myself.
But I don't understand why he loves Boston cream pie.

He is not from Boston. He never lived in Boston. He has no real emotional attachment to Boston, other than the fact that his brother went to MIT. He is not the type who is enamored with custard. He would never turn down a good chocolate glaze, and does enjoy yellow cake (but not uranium). But the combination of custard, glaze and cake? What is so special about that?

Husband was trained as a journalist. So to honor his vocation, I shall ask why this pastry of choice:
Not My IM: Why do you like Boston cream pie so much?
Not Husband's IM: i dunno. it just tastes so good
Not Husband's IM: i have random memories of it from when i was a kid, going to boston to see my brother in college
Not Husband's IM: and my parents, being them, always insisted on getting it somewhere
Not My IM: Ah yes
Not Husband's IM: that's a part of my life that i kind of forget about since it was pretty isolated.. four years of going to boston all the time
Not Husband's IM: we never had been there before andrew's first day there, and really only went back a handful of times after
There you have it. A combination of the very simple fact that it tastes good, and a specific childhood memory to boot (I had no idea). It just goes to show you: just when you think you know your spouse like clockwork, he might have a new answer for you that you weren't expecting. I'm just glad that this one had to do with dessert and, not, say, cross dressing. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Husband first told me of his affinity for Boston cream pie (but not the reasons behind it) when he moved to Ohio in late 2002. When Valentine's Day 2003 rolled around, it was quite clear what type of dessert I'd be baking for him. (Each February 14th he receives the rich baked goods, I receive the expensive gifts: each of us is spoiled in his or her own luscious way on this Cupid-filled holiday that somehow warrants jewels and chocolate.) The icing on the cake in 2003, so to speak, was a set of heart-shaped cake pans that a friend had given me just before Valentine's Day. Though it didn't quite make sense to me why I had to embark on a sea of custard and glaze, embark I did nonetheless, smashing an expensive bottle of pure vanilla extract upon the hull of my new heart bakeware to the cheers of the crowd and the refined handclaps of the Queen. My place was not to ask questions regarding his motives or why he couldn't choose a baked good with fewer steps; my place was to set sail across new culinary waters in his service, especially on Valentine's Day.
The result was very pleasing, indeed. I was proud of my effort, though the chocolate glaze didn't set as well into a lovely shiny coating as I'd hoped it would. (The excess pooled into a sinful reservoir on the edges of the cake plate but, really, who could cry about that? Grab a spoon and hop to it.) Husband (then-Boyfriend) loved it. The sponge cake was moist; the custard was rich with flavor; the glaze was, well, made from cream and chocolate.
Regardless, Boston cream pie did not become a fixture in my repertoire -- I reach for the recipe less than once a year. It really is a special occasion confection. And I don't always make it for Husband on Valentine's Day. In fact last year, in the midst of the Great Valentine's Day Blizzard of Ought-Seven, and as a nod to Husband's similarly-baffling obsession with Conversation Hearts, I made him a small red-velvet cake with cinnamon frosting that recalled the beloved chalky Necco candy. But this year I am falling back on the classic (though I'm using standard 8-inch cake pans). It only seems fair, given his insane work schedule that has him in New York City half the time, and here at home with me the balance of this work days. He drove home late on the 13th to spend Valentine's Day with me, so the very least I could do was bake his favorite dessert for him. And anyway, I'll take straining egg custard over driving 400 snowy miles on I-80 across Pennsylvania any day.

Happy Valentine's Day. Should you make a Boston cream pie for your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, friend, sister, mom, self, whatever, may you indulge unapologetically in each of its rich layers. May you appreciate each and every bite, each and every nuance of flavor and texture. May you be grateful for the tempered egg yolks, the two types of flour, the egg whites whipped to soft peaks, the precise method of folding the batter exactly 12 times. The layers of that Boston cream pie just didn't fall into place; someone put them there -- lovingly, carefully -- from disparate, thoughtfully prepared elements. Kind of like the best of relationships.

Adapted from Baking Illustrated, by the editors of "Cook's Illustrated"

The intelligent and thorough editors of "Cook's Illustrated" say that it "seems that [Boston cream pie] does indeed have its roots in Boston, where it developed in the middle of the 19th century. Modern baking experts believe that since pies predated cakes in the American kitchen, pie pans were simply more common kitchen equipment than cake pans. Hence the name pie was originally given to this layer cake."
The cake is comprised of three elements: Prepare the pastry cream first; it can be done up to 2 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator. Then bake the sponge cake. You can even do this step a day ahead and store the cakes, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, in the refrigerator. Not long before serving, prepare the glaze.

For the pastry cream:
2 c. half-and-half
1/2 c. sugar
Pinch salt
5 large egg yolks
3 T. cornstarch
4 T. (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract
Heat the half-and-half, 6 T. of the sugar and the salt in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat until simmering. Stir occasionally to dissolve the sugar.
Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl until thoroughly combined. Whisk in the remaining 2 T. sugar and whisk until the sugar has begun to dissolve and the mixture is creamy, about 15 seconds. Whisk in the cornstarch until combined and the mixture is pale yellow and thick, about 30 seconds.
When the half-and-half mixture reaches a full simmer, scoop about 1/2 c. of it into the egg yolk mixture -- whisking constantly -- to temper the egg yolks. Make sure you scrape the sides of the egg yolk bowl as you do this. When the egg yolk mixture is incorporated, add it to the half-and-half mixture that's in the saucepan, whisking to combine. Return to a simmer over low heat, whisking constantly until a few bubbles burst on the surface and the mixture is thickened and glossy, about 30 seconds. Don't stop whisking! It will seize and become very lumpy and unpleasant if you do.
Remove the saucepan from the heat. Whisk in the butter and vanilla. Strain the pastry cream through a fine-mesh sieve that you've set over a bowl. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface to prevent a "skin" from forming and refrigerate until cold and set, at least 3 hours or up to 2 days.

Makes about 3 cups. This is more pastry cream than you'll need for this Boston cream pie, so by all means keep the rest for ├ęclairs or donuts or tarts or licking off a spoon or whatever.

For the sponge cake:
1/2 c. cake flour
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1/4 t. kosher salt
3 T. milk
2 T. unsalted butter
1/2 t. vanilla extract
5 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 c. sugar
Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle portion of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 8- or 9-inch cake pans (you can use shortening or a non-stick spray). Cover the pan bottoms with rounds of parchment or waxed paper.
Whisk the flours, baking powder and kosher salt in a medium bowl to combine and break up any lumps. Heat the milk and butter in a small saucepan over low heat until the butter melts; cover and keep warm.
Separate 3 of the eggs, placing the whites in a large bowl. Reserve the yolks and place them plus the remaining 2 whole eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in another medium bowl if you do not own a stand mixer). Using a hand-held mixer, beat the 3 whites at low speed until foamy. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and gradually add 6 T. of the sugar; continue to beat the whites until soft, moist peaks form. Make sure you don't overbeat! Set aside the whites.
(If you don't have a stand mixer, clean the beaters and proceed to re-use your hand-held mixer in the next step. Otherwise, use your stand mixer in the next step.)
Beat the whole-egg mixture with the remaining 6 T. sugar. Beat at medium-high speed until the eggs are very thick and a pale yellow color, about 5 minutes.

Pour the beaten eggs on top of the whipped whites.
Sprinkle the flour mixture over the beaten eggs; fold very gently 12 times with a large rubber spatula. Make a well in one side of the batter and pour the milk mixture into the bowl. Continue folding until the batter shows no trace of flour and the whites and whole eggs are evenly mixed, but take care not too deflate the whites too much, about 10 additional strokes.
Immediately pour the batter into the prepared cake pans; bake until the cake tops are light brown and feel firm and spring back when touched, about 16 minutes for 9-inch cake pans and 20 minutes for 8-inch cake pans.
Immediately run a knife around the pan perimeters to loosen the cakes. Place one pan on a towel and cover the pan with a cooling rack. Using the towel to protect your hands and catch the cake, invert the pan and remove the pan from the cake. Peel off the parchment. Reinvert the cake onto another cooling rack. Repeat with the remaining cake.
Cool the cake layers to room temperature before proceeding with Boston cream pie.

For the glaze:
1 c. heavy cream
1/4 c. light corn syrup
8 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
1/2 t. vanilla extract
Bring the heavy cream and corn syrup to a full simmer over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Remove from heat and add the chocolate; cover and let stand for 8 minutes. Uncover and stir to combine the melted chocolate with the cream mixture. (If the chocolate has not completely melted, return the saucepan to low heat; stir constantly until melted.) Add the vanilla; stir very gently until the mixture is smooth.
Cool until tepid so that a spoonful drizzled back into the pan mounds slightly. (The glaze can be refrigerated to speed up the cooling process, stirring every few minutes to ensure even cooling.)

To assemble the Boston cream pie:
While the glaze is cooling, place one cake layer on a cardboard round on top of a cooling rack that's been set on a cookie sheet or a piece of waxed paper. Carefully spoon about 1 1/2 c. of the pastry cream onto the cake and spread it evenly up to the edges. (I like to use an offset spatula for this task, but a butter knife will work just fine.)

Place the second cake layer on top, making sure the layers line up properly.

Pour the glaze onto the middle of the top layer and let it flow down the cake sides. Try to keep an eye around the entire perimeter of the cake to make sure it's flowing evenly; if it's not, give the glaze a nudge with an offset spatula or butter knife. Completely coat the cake with the glaze. If desired, use a small needle to puncture any air bubbles that form in the glaze.

Let the cake sit until the glaze fully sets, about 1 hour. Serve the same day, preferably within a couple of hours.

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