I did it! I recently opted-in to participate in a baking challenge on Baking on the 15th. The challenge works like this: Participants agree to bake the same recipe which has been selected in advance by the host. Each participant bakes the item and on the 15th of each month, the bakers post photos of their creations across their social media channels. We share stories of our experience and encourage one another’s passion for baking.
Today is the reveal day of my first baking challenge and I’m proud to say that, as far as I’m concerned, it was a complete success! At first I was a bit hesitant because the recipe called for an ingredient I’d never even heard of (ammonium carbonate) equipment I didn’t have (cake ring and sheet pans of the specified size) and a fairly complex-sounding method (even though I fancy myself a fairly competent and experienced baker). Bravely setting that all aside, however, I dove in – and boy, am I glad I did!
I did a little research (because I’m a curious sort that way) on ammonium carbonate, then purchased it on good ol’ Amazon. That’s also where I bought a replacement springform pan, which I determined would serve well as a cake ring for the purposes of this challenge. Also included on that Amazon order was the nicest sheet pan I’ve ever owned – and obviously the largest – as, alas, it turned out to be too big to fit in my oven. Good thing I know they have an excellent exchange/return policy!
With the baking challenge deadline drawing near, it seemed I’d have to do some problem-solving as to what to bake my choux in. Upon my umpteenth reading of the recipe, I determined that there would be little problem portioning the dough out into smaller batches that would fit an existing sheet pan. So I baked each layer separately, rather than enough for two layers at a time. Although this solution necessitated double the baking time, perhaps it turned out to be a stroke of serendipity; I had no issue of gummy, undercooked choux that I have heard about from other bakers of this challenge. My smaller batch may have allowed for more thorough baking?
I went all in and, despite warnings of the copious amount of dough it created, I made the full recipe. My initial plan was to make two complete cakes and “something as yet unspecified” with the extra third the choux cake did not require. Well, once I was in the trenches of baking, and realizing I didn’t have a second springform pan in which to build the second cake, it was “think on my feet” time once again. I did the “math” and realized that I already had begun the filling for two cakes so clearly I would have to find a use for the second half of that delightful strawberry concoction – because, boys and girls, nothing goes to waste in Gina’s kitchen. Cream puffs, I decided, were the solution. I watched a quick YouTube video on method and amount to pipe out for cream puffs – and away I went! Twenty four or so (some were taste-tested along the way, of course, so I lost actual count!) cream puffs later, the strawberry compote cream was used up – and the bowl licked clean (chef’s prerogative, am I right?).
So, to review… One-third of the chox for the cake. One-third of the choux for cream puffs. And a third for…well, I was still unsure. So I reached out to the Baking on the 15th community and they came through for me! Courtney Nzeribe was kind enough to suggest I make gougeres (a word I honestly had to look up and am SO glad I did!) A gougere, I now know, is a cheese puff; choux with cheese mixed into the dough. Perfect – one batch of savory puffs coming up! I grated up some lustenberger cheese and added it to that last third of the choux and got busy with more piping! I baked up a couple batches of these puffs (to make certain they were edible) and, to our delight, they were absolutely delicious! Yet another batch of piped dough went into the freezer for future cheese puffs. I was feeling extremely successful, accomplished – and resourceful – for utilizing all that dough.
I was also feeling hungry. I’d begun my time in the kitchen at around 1:00 PM and here it was nearing 7:00. Time for a meal! I was struck simultaneously with these feelings:
1. I have been in the kitchen for six solid hours. Enough with the cooking already!
2. How silly to be surrounded by so much food and feel like you don’t have anything handy to eat!
Leave it to my logical better half to suggest the perfect solution to our hungriness – “do something” with the cheese puffs for dinner. Ah ha! It was positively a revelation! I scoured through the contents of the fridge in my mind and devised the following very simple and satisfying dinner: Scrambled eggs, pancetta and cream cheese stuffed into those cheesy puffs – yes, it was magical!
Ok, back to the strawberry choux cake that started it all… C’est magnifique! It was important for me to follow the recipe as close to the letter as possible so that I felt that I accomplished the same challenge that was presented – and I did! I was frankly concerned when I began seeing photos of completed cakes that were taller than mine. I worried that I’d done something wrong and didn’t get good rise but I think they stacked more than two layers to gain extra height. Once I realized that, I felt good about my results. My pastry came out just beautifully – light and airy, just like it’s supposed to be! The filling is subtle, fluffy and just what you want mushed into those flaky layers! The whipped cream frosting tops it all with a light, warm vanilla sweetness.
In addition to completing the challenge as presented, it was also fun to be able to “riff” on it and explore some creative detours with all that extra choux. I appreciated the opportunity to experience a technical baking project. The science of ammonium carbonate was new and fascinating to me (I look forward to discovering more ways to use it, lest it wither away in my baking cupboard). I’ve also never weighed my baking ingredients before. And I’ve never cracked so many eggs in one day! Making this cake was an adventure – a challenge, even – that gave me the gift of a day of unbridled excitement in my favorite room of the house. I would definitely make it again someday without reservation.
And now… the challenge after the challenge is figuring out what to do with All. This. Cake!