L.A. bakers suggest ways to make picking your cake a little sweeter


In Los Angeles, with today’s foodie culture in full tilt, there is no “one-size-fits-all” option when it comes to choosing a bakery to create the perfect wedding cake. And since it is the bride who usually makes the cake decisions, she’ll soon realize that it can be as complex as finding (and fitting into) her perfect wedding dress.

In fact, there are so many cake trends coming from all directions it would even make Martha Stewart’s head spin. Patrick Hansen of Hansen Cakes, Julien Bohbot of Delice Bakery (the only French bakery in the United States that is certified kosher by Kehilla of Los Angeles), Leigh Grode of The Cake Divas and San Diego-based wedding planner Melissa Barrad, all have very different notions on what the “it” cakes are this year and how to go about getting the “right one.” However, they all insist couples consider the cake basics knowing your budget, your crowd and yourselves before committing. There is also one critical, often-overlooked step they all touch on repeatedly-being sure ahead of time your venue of choice will allow you to bring in food from your caterers and bakery since rules vary from hotel to hotel and venue to venue.

“Doing different-flavored tiers offers your guests options, especially if the wedding cake is going to be your only dessert,” advised The Cake Divas’ Grode on the importance of offering something for everybody. “We usually suggest picking two flavors so the guests will have even amounts of each choice and won’t run out of either flavor. It is usually best to offer one chocolate choice and one non-chocolate choice.”

Grode notes that for many couples, classic white-on-white cakes are not only traditional, but also traditionally crowd-pleasing because of their simplicity. That being said, she notes that this year’s bridal customers are approaching her with such hot-button flavors as caramel, Meyer lemon and almond. Although she says buttercream frosting is beloved from a flavor standpoint, there are times when, based on the shape and design of the cake, the fondants (hard, sheet-like frosting), dark chocolate or whipped cream may be preferable. For strictly kosher clients, meanwhile, her bakery offers several good common sense alternatives.

“For kosher clients, we can create a pareve cake, or we can create a faux cake for display and the ceremonial cutting and then allow the client to provide sheet cakes from their favorite kosher bakery,” Grode said. “You can have a smaller cake for the strictly kosher guests, or have the entire cake made kosher.”

In terms of what will be, well, the icing on the cake, Grode observes that black-and-white designs within the frosting and cake toppers are making a comeback. Couples are further personalizing their cakes by replacing the familiar bride/groom topper with sleek monogram designs, crystals and family heirlooms. She also notes that creating cake layers with different shapes for a modern look is often requested.

Although Hansen’s Cakes has been a Fairfax Avenue fixture for decades, the favorite destinations of celebrities and studios still stands as one of the most trend-setting cake studios in town so much so that there are also Beverly Hills and Tarzana locations to meet the heavy demand. Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this all-things-to-all-people bakery has actually had a kosher kitchen (certified by Kosher Overseers Associates of America) from the very beginning.

The soft-spoken Hansen, who recently assumed the helm from father Gary, notes that the all-time wedding cake classics white cake with white buttercream and chocolate chocolate chip aren’t going anywhere. However, he says what’s new and exciting in wedding cakes are cake fillings (ranging from cream cheese-based preparations to custards and mousses) as well as cakes with a decidedly healthy twist.

“People are becoming more inventive with sauces used on and inside the cakes,” Hansen said. “Yet the most exciting new trend we’re seeing is the demand for cakes that are gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan and with no trans fat. The market is definitely shifting toward healthier alternatives.”

Although Hansen’s Cakes offers a full complement of frosting styles, Hansen says their fresh-made buttercream is the hands-down winner. Frosting style notwithstanding, he says couples need to come into the store fully prepared.

“If couples come to us ready with their dietary issues to the number of guests to what they have in their budget, to what hotels, synagogues and venues will allow them to bring in our products, we will be flexible and be able to work with them as well as their rabbi, if needed, on a very personalized level,” he said.

While Patrick Hansen’s particularly sweet on buttercream, Delice Bakery founder Julien Bohbot’s all about taking on the hard stuff marzipan, fondant and icing as they have their practical side as well as an adherence to authentic French dessert preparations.

“I do marzipan, fondants and icing styles of frosting because the cakes will hold up better, both during the delivery process from bakery to venue and during the dinner itself,” Bohbot affirms. “The look is sleek and smooth, verses buttercream, which often needs to be touched up every time it hits another object. Our cakes remain beautiful all night long. While other bakeries offer sponge cakes and cream, we can guarantee that what customers sample and order in our store will be what they get on their wedding day. If you want a cake that will be remembered for its elegance, less is more.”

Pico-Robertson’s Delice Bakery features a distinctively European experience, with such options as Opera, Tiramisu or Mont Blanc Cake, all with recipes true to their origins. Although customers can request multilayer cakes in different flavors, multiflavor cakes will cost much more from an ingredients and labor standpoint at Delice. However, as Delice is also noted for its diverse array of sweet table options, Bohbot suggests one way to approach offering guests a choice is to substitute one traditional cake with customized individual cakes for each guest who has confirmed attendance.

Wedding planner Barrad, of I Do …Weddings!, says she has observed myriad trends from different bakeries from satellite cakes (ensuring kosher layers will not be touching non-kosher layers) to couples ordering cakes made with fresh seasonal fruits. However, as dancing always follows the wedding dinner, she recommends fresh, lighter alternatives to deep dark chocolates, such as lemon and citrus-based cakes for summer and heartier flavors like pear/spice for fall and winter.

When it comes to the tradition of saving a slice for the first anniversary, some controversy remains. Based on her own personal and professional experience, Barrad does not recommend the practice. Instead, she suggests approaching your bakery about doing a small reproduction of the cake for the first anniversary and notes many bakeries she’s worked with will do that service for free or a small, reasonable charge.

Hansen and Bohbot can produce a mini-anniversary cake for a fee, but they also say cake preservation can be done as long as you wrap the cake pieces securely with plastic and foil over that. Bohbot says storing wrapped cake pieces in a bakery box also helps. But everybody can agree on one thing cake is best enjoyed on the big day.

How sweet it is: behind the buzz at two of California’s hives


Bzzzzzz.

 
I’m trying not to freak out at the high-pitched scream of the bees. See, I’m wearing full protective gear for the honey-making process — a white jumpsuit, a netted straw hat affixed to me with a series of complicated rigmarole of strings (the zipper ones had run out), long tan-leather gloves that reach past my elbow, and socks as high as my knees, with the pants taped down over them. Not an ounce of my skin is exposed, but still I can’t help but feel nervous — it’s Hitchockian, really — as thousands of bees swarm around me.

 
They’re doing this because I’m standing in the beeline — literally the line of passage of bees swarming from the hive because they have been smoked out of there; it’s kind of like the 405 during rush hour, except faster, as they stream out of their man-made hives and into the countryside of Northern California.

 
Call this my week of honey. As the High Holidays approach, I’ve embarked on a two-part honey tour: First, traveling to a friend-of-a-friend’s private honey extracting pre-holiday party at his family villa in Sonoma, and next at a commercial honey farm in Southern California.

 
For as long as Jews have been eating on holidays, it’s been customary to eat honey on Rosh Hashanah, as a symbol of hope for a sweet new year. The tradition of eating honey is ancient, recorded as early as the Babylonian Talmud in the seventh century. There are also many mentions of honey in the Bible, most notably in Exodus, when the land of Canaan promised to the Israelites is called “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Although that honey is thought to be fig or date honey, by using honey on Rosh Hashanah we are remembering Israel, no matter where we are.

 
It is also noted in Psalms that God’s commandments are “sweeter than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb,” and “sweeter than honey to thy mouth.” The High Holidays, which are a time of judgment and preparation for the upcoming year, should be filled with mitzvoth, and honey reminds us of that.

 
We usually eat it with apples, as well as challah, and for many, as part of every recipe on the table. (See recipes throughout this special Rosh Hashanah section.)

 
But where does the honey itself come from? I’d always known generally, on a third-grade science-class level, that bees make honey from flowers, but I’d never really thought about the complicated process that bees go through to make honey, or the complex operation that people go through to get that honey to the table. Until now.

 
It’s Labor Day weekend and instead of lounging out at some pool, I’m standing in a buzzing field, sweating profusely in my mad scientist/spaceship/safari outfit, invading the bees’ habitat in order to help take honey from their hives. These hives are not like I’ve imagined them: those brown, hairy ovals found in trees at summer camp and replicated in ceramic honey holders. Man-made hives look more like small armoires, a short stack of wood dresser drawers, called supers. Each super has about 10 frames, long rectangles dotted with the geometrically perfect honeycombs, the octagons where the honey is deposited. Our goal today: to remove the frames, bring them to the farm, extract the honey, then filter, bottle and label it.

 
They say it’s easier to catch flies with honey, but how do you catch honey?

 
The first thing we have to do is light a fire in the smoker, a can with an accordion-like pump that produces, eponymously, smoke. Bees hate the smell of smoke, so we pump smoke into the top drawer, close the lid and the bees make a mad dash out, which is when I discover, standing in front of the hive is probably not the best place to be.

 
Then we take the frames out of the drawer, brush off the bees and run it over to the car for transportation. (Walk is more like it; it’s not easy to run in this jumpsuit, nor is it smart to make sudden movements near bees — although swarming bees, rushing to get out of their smoky hives, don’t often stop to sting visitors). We have four hives here today — some 40,000 bees — but only two are producing honey. It’s tedious work, this smoking, brushing, transporting of the frames — and it’s only the first step. (I suppose that our job is nothing compared to that of the worker bee, who makes about 40 trips a day to the flowers).

 
Finally, we can take off our paraphernalia for the rest of the process and get out of the hot sun to go to the honey “farm”: It’s more like a high-ceilinged garage structure containing honey extracting equipment.

 
If you’re a good turkey carver, you’d probably be good at scraping off the capping, the layer of capped wax that seals the honey in the frames. But if you’re like me — someone who cooks the bird but never carves it — handling the hot knife turns out to be quite tricky. It’s easy to tell which rectangle frames hold honey — the combs are darker, heavier. I hold the frame diagonally over a container that will catch the drippings, and try to shimmy the knife at an angle. Oops! No, I didn’t slice my finger, just cut too deeply into the combs.

 
I uncap the other side too but my wrist aches and I feel kind of sorry for the poor bees that will have to rebuild the combs just because I’m a lousy home destroyer — I mean carver.

 
I decide to move over to the next step in our human assembly line: combing the frames. I use what looks like a hair pick to scrape off the last remaining wax.

Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Meal


The apple, even more than the bibical pomegranate, has become the symbolic first fruit to be eaten during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which will be observed at sundown, Wednesday, Sept. 15.

During Rosh Hashanah, tradition calls for a perfect apple to be pared and cut into as many pieces as there are people present. A piece of the apple is dipped in honey and passed to each person at the table before the meal begins to symbolize a sweet and joyous New Year.

Apples go into the making of countless dishes in most countries throughout the world for this holiday, and they often are included in every course. So let apples and honey dominate your dessert table this year.

The pie crust for the Apple Meringue Tart is made from a cookie-like dough, which is rolled and baked, then filled with honey-glazed apples and garnished with a toasted meringue topping.

The Apple Upside-Down Cake is a simple version of Tart Tartin, a wonderful French apple dessert.

Everyone loves homemade cookies and the combination of spices — ground cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg — compliment the Honey-Glazed Apple Cookies, making it impossible to eat just one cookie. This recipe makes six or seven dozen depending on the size of the cookies.

To ensure a "good and sweet year" add these apple desserts to your Rosh Hashanah menu, along with the tradition of serving sliced apples dipped in honey.

A Word About Apples

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• Look for apples that are firm and bright in color. Avoid any that feel soft or have bruised areas.

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• Depending on the variety, apples will keep two weeks or more in the refrigerator.

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• After slicing, green apples do not turn brown as rapidly as red apples.

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• Cook apples in a noncorroding saucepan: stainless steel, enamel or glass.

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• Peel apples with a stainless steel vegetable peeler or knife.

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• Granny Smith and Pippin apples are firm and tart and require more baking or cooking time; they also require more sugar.

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• Red or Golden Delicious apples need less sugar and take less time to cook.

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• Roman Beauty apples hold their shape and are good for baking.

Apple Meringue Tart

1 (11-inch) sweet pastry crust (recipe follows)

8 to 10 apples, peeled, cored, sliced

Lemon juice and grated peel

1 cup apple juice or water

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup apricot preserves

3 egg whites

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Pinch salt

3/4 cup sugar

Prepare sweet pastry crust and bake according to directions.

In a glass baking dish, place sliced apples in a single layer. Sprinkle with lemon juice.

In a heavy saucepan, combine apple juice, sugar, apricot preserves and juice and rind of one lemon. Cook over moderate heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Bring syrup to a boil and simmer for five minutes or until thickens. Pour over apples and bake at 350F for 10-15 minutes or until apples are soft but firm. Cool.

Beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Add cream of tartar, salt and continue beating until whites are stiff, not dry. Add sugar, a little at a time, beating well until stiff peaks. Fill pastry tube with meringue, using (48) rosette tube.

With a slotted spoon, transfer cooled apple slices to baked pie crust. Cover surface of apples completely with meringue. Bake for 10-15 minutes or place under broiler for a few minutes, or until meringue is lightly browned.

Sweet Pie Crust

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup powdered sugar

1/2 cup unsalted butter

3 tablespoons milk or water

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt and sugar. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. Blend in the milk until the dough begins to come together. Do not over-mix. Knead the dough into a ball, wrap it in waxed paper and chill it for at least 10 minutes in the refrigerator.

Roll pastry out, on two large sheets of floured waxed paper, to a round large enough to cover and overlap an 11-inch flan pan with a removable bottom. For easier handling, cover the pastry with another sheet of waxed paper and fold pastry in half. (The waxed paper protects the center of pastry from sticking together.)

Lift the pastry from the bottom waxed paper and place on half of the flan pan. Unfold the pastry and remove the waxed paper that covers it. (At this point the pastry can be covered with plastic wrap and foil and stored in the refrigerator or freeze for several days.)

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Bring the pastry to room temperature. Spread a light coating of butter on a sheet of waxed paper and place it, coated side down, inside of the pastry, overlapping around the outside. Cover with another piece of waxed paper with the cut ends in the opposite direction. Fill the center of the waxed paper lined pie shell with uncooked rice or bakers jewels. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the sides of the pastry begin to brown. Carefully remove the waxed paper with the rice and continue baking until the bottom of the pastry is lightly brown. Remove from the oven and cool.

Makes one (11-inch) Pie Crust.

Apple Upside-Down Cake

Honey and apples make this simply delicious Upside-Down Apple Cake symbolic of the New Year.

Apple Topping:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing cake pan

2 tablespoons honey

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

3 large tart apples, (Granny Smith or Pippin), peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch slices

Cake

2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

1 egg plus 1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/4 cups flour

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks, room temperature

1/2 cup sour cream

1 to 1 1/2 cups sifted dark brown sugar, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a 9-inch cake pan with parchment paper and brush with melted butter.

For Topping: In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, place butter and cook over medium-high heat until foamy. Add honey and sugar and stir to combine, cooking until sugar dissolves, swirling pan occasionally. Add apples and fold with spatula to coat apples. Cook until apples have softened slightly Remove pan from heat and transfer apples, to a flat plate. Return pan to heat and cook syrup until thick and reserve. When apples are cool enough to handle, arrange apples in the prepared pan in a circular pattern.

For Cake: In a small bowl, whisk together the whole egg, egg yolk and vanilla and set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, place flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt and mix well. Add butter and beat until crumbly, then add sour cream and beat until dry ingredients are moistened. Add egg mixture and beat until batter is well blended and fluffy.

Spoon batter over apples and gently spread out to an even layer that covers apple. Bake until cake is dark golden brown, and a wooden pick comes out clean when inserted in center, 35-40 minutes. Transfer pan to wire rack and let cool for five minutes. Loosen sides with a sharp knife.

Place serving plate over top of pan and invert cake so apples are on top. Let cake sit inverted for about 1 minute. Gently remove pan and peel off parchment paper. Just before serving sprinkle with sifted brown sugar, place under the broiler and broil until sugar begins to turn dark brown.

Serve about 10.

Honey-Glazed Apple Cookies

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 cup unsalted butter or margarine, room temperature

1 1/3 cups brown sugar

1 egg

1 cup roasted, chopped walnuts or pecans

1 1/2 cups chopped apples (1 large apple)

1 cup golden raisins

1/4 cup apple juice

Honey-Apple Juice Glaze (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Prepare the Honey-Apple Juice Glaze and set aside.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg and set aside.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft and smooth. Then beat in the brown sugar until the mixture is fluffy. Beat in the egg. Add half of the flour mixture, then walnuts, apples and raisins and mix well. Blend in apple juice then remaining flour mixture, mixing well. Drop, by rounded tablespoonful, 2 inches apart, onto greased baking sheets. Flatten the mounds slightly with a rubber spatula.

Bake for 12-14 minutes, or until golden brown. While cookies are still hot, spread thinly with Honey-Apple Juice Glaze.

Makes about five- to six-dozen cookies.

Honey-Apple Juice Glaze

1 1/2 cups sifted powdered sugar

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon softened unsalted butter or margarine

Pinch salt

2 1/2 tablespoons apple juice

In a small bowl, blend powdered sugar, honey, butter, salt and apple juice until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside. Makes about 1 cup.

Good Timing Lands Luck in Director’s Lap


I’m sure that when Greg Pritikin made his first feature film, "Dummy," now in theaters, he had no inkling that he had inadvertently grabbed an indie-film brass ring. But when he cast Adrien Brody as a maladroit but sweet schlemiel who is obsessed with ventriloquism as the way to win a woman’s heart, Pritikin really lucked out. Up to that point in his career, Brody was a well-regarded young actor who had displayed a wide range in American independent films. Then came "The Pianist," the Oscar, the Kiss and, suddenly, Brody is a movie star. Which means that "Dummy," a film that would have otherwise slipped through the cracks, is making its way into theaters, and that is not at all a bad thing.

Pritikin’s film takes place in a sort of every-suburb America of tract houses with manicured lawns and two-car garages, and is utterly devoid of anything to place it in historical time. Even the cars and the music — whether punk, show tunes or klez-punk — could be 20 years old, and the film’s story of a hapless schmo trying to find a way to express himself despite his suffocating Jewish family is a Philip Roth retread from the 1970s.

And yet, on a certain unadventurous level, it works. Steven (Brody) is fired from his job when he tries to give notice after deciding to surrender to a lifelong ambition to take up ventriloquism. He lives at home with his overbearing mother (Jessica Walter), omni-absent father (Ron Liebman) and chronically depressed sister, a failed singer-turned-wedding planner (Illeana Douglas). When he meets his unemployment counselor, Lorraina (Vera Farmiga), he immediately falls madly in love. With his deranged punk-rocker friend Fanny (Milla Jovovich) in a splendid against-the-grain performanc as his wildly inept guide, he tries to woo her, with disastrous results. Only when he begins to express himself through his dummy does the real, warm, sweet Steven emerge.

Although Pritikin seems to be laboring to tie up plot ends almost from the film’s opening shot, the film has a cheerfully dopey quality that can be quite winning. You know that Steven and his dummy are fated to bring happiness to Lorraina, his sister, Fanny and her cataleptic band and everyone else in the state of New Jersey (although Pritikin manages one hilarious and unexpected surprise during the final credits).

But for all its obviousness and the mechanical working-out of plot, "Dummy" has a certain tenderness towards its characters that is satisfying for its sheer unexpectedness. Pritikin starts out unpromisingly with a shrill, cartoonish tone, but once he gets the worst of the exposition out of the way, there is a warmth here that is quite pleasant. Moreover, "Dummy" has at least one really lovely moment of pure silence, a two-shot, held for nearly a minute, of a painfully awkward silence between the perpetually uncertain Steven and an expectant Lorraina; the discomfort in the air is palpable and moving.

It’s pretty hard to tell where a new director will go from the evidence of only one film, but Pritikin bears watching. After all, who could have guessed where Brody would land?

"Dummy" is in theaters now.

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