Friday, February 27, 2009

Baking As A Pre-Concert Ritual

Many of my non-musician friends have recently asked me, "What do you do to prepare for a concert on the day of the performance?" This has prompted me to think about pre-concert rituals. Some of my musician friends are superstitious, in that they have to eat a certain meal beforehand or wear the same special pair of lucky cranberry-colored socks on stage, for instance. Generally speaking, most musicians I know try to take it easy on a concert day. Of course that's not always possible, but on the day of a big performance, one would ideally have time for a leisurely walk and a good catnap, after having done just enough light practicing of one's instrument to feel warmed up and ready for action. I have one friend who invariably relies on a minor caffeine transfusion and a substantial hit of nicotine before he performs, yet even with all of that coursing through his system, he still manages to walk out on stage and play like an absolute god. (As someone who is very caffeine-sensitive, the merest thought of drinking coffee on the day of a performance is enough to give me a serious attack of the jitters on the spot!) Another friend of mine calms her pre-concert nerves by giving shoulder rubs to whomever is fortunate enough to be nearby. That's lucky for all of us, but she swears that the act of massaging other people's shoulders limbers up her own hands so that she then feels warmed up enough to play. I don't do anything out of the ordinary immediately before walking on stage, but I've just come to realize that my afternoon pre-concert ritual is perhaps not so typical, for I usually get in the kitchen and bake.

It's always baking, not cooking. Any substantial knifework tires my hands easily, something I can't afford to do before performing, and let's not even talk about what disasters could occur if a knife slipped. So as long as I have good oven mitts, baking is safer, and it's also particularly easy when you have a stand mixer to help. (How I love my KitchenAid!) Baking is also comforting. I don't know anyone who would not be moved to happiness by the warm toasty aroma of a freshly baked cake filling the house. I am forever improvising in my savory recipes, but baking is more of an exact science and I am much more inclined to follow a recipe more carefully, especially when I am guaranteed success. (Kitchen failures always make me especially sad, something I don't want to run the risk of before a big concert!)

I realize I have a history of pre-concert baking, starting from when I was in college. I usually threw a party after my recitals, a tradition that still exists today. In thinking back over of my various recitals over the past fifteen years, there is frequently a dessert attached to the memory of that day. It's one of those strange ratios, in that the more important the evening's concert is, the stronger my compulsion is to get in the kitchen in the afternoon. But I don't think my musical performances have suffered too much from this diversion of energy, and if anything, my kitchen endeavors have possibly even helped me. A brief case history, if you will:

When I gave my final recital in graduate school, I did not spend that afternoon slowly going over the notes of the Brahms Concerto or anything else on my program that evening. Instead, after a brief morning warm-up, the violin was safely in its case while I attended to a poached pear cheesecake that I had made earlier. I had poached the pears in a red wine mixture, letting them bathe in the syrup until they turned a stunning burgundy color on the outside, and as I arranged thin slices of these beautiful blushing pears on top of the cheesecake, I heard the gorgeous slow movement of the Brahms running through my head. I guess you could call it mental practice, for I was almost in a meditative state. My heart rate was steady and my breathing was even as I fanned the pears decoratively over the cake while slowly turning musical phrases over and over in my mind. I was calm and happy by the time I got to the hall that night, and not only did I have a blast performing, the poached pear cheesecake at the reception was a major hit!

When I performed the complete cycle of Bach and Ysaye Solo Violin Sonatas several years ago (a massive undertaking not for the faint of heart), I think it's fair to say that my nerves were a little on edge before that first marathon recital. To be more accurate, my pre-concert nerves were throwing a full-blown gala bash that afternoon, and I had to do something to calm myself down. I had already taken a walk, and I was too wound up to nap. I don't know if I even consciously thought about it, but before I even realized what I was doing, I found myself in my kitchen, whipping up my favorite chocolate praline cake. I know that most musicians probably wouldn't divert their energies that way, but making a pinenut-almond praline certainly worked as a successful distraction technique! I was steady and focused by the time I was on stage with the violin under my chin, thrilled to play this music I dearly loved for a lot of people whom I also dearly loved. And as if the recital weren't already enough of a high, it gave me great pleasure that my friends had a fabulous cake to enjoy afterwards. (Yes, this is the same cake which appeared in the form of THOSE Cupcakes last November!)

There have been many other occasions like this. There was my first Beethoven Concerto with orchestra, in which I spent the day of the concert hand-scooping dozens of truffles for the party afterwards. (How could I not make earl grey truffles for my wonderful friends in the orchestra?!) I had my first encounter with a fluted tart pan and a batch of homemade vanilla bean pastry cream when I attempted my first fresh fruit tart, an event which occurred the same day my trio gave our big recital in Jordan Hall in Boston. And when I performed all of the Bach Solo Violin Partitas to celebrate my 10th year anniversary of being in New York, you'd better believe that there was a big party afterwards for which I baked up a storm earlier that day. I was a multi-tasking maniac that afternoon, putting the finishing touches on a truly outrageous chocolate raspberry cake as a luscious panful of lavender-infused lemon bars in the oven perfumed my apartment with the most intoxicating aroma as they baked. My friend Lisa, one who has known me since college and has partaken of many of these pre-concert baking results, drove down from Boston for my recital, and when she arrived at my apartment that afternoon, she burst into laughter as she surveyed my flour-dusted clothes. "You are insane!" she said, as I tried to wipe streaks of chocolate ganache off my face with my raspberry-stained hands. "I don't know ANYONE who would prepare for playing three solo Bach Partitas by making a cake! But you just can't help yourself, can you?!" I guess I can't.

All of these oddly timed baking adventures would indicate that I definitely have a very particular pre-concert rhythm of my own. And today provided further supporting evidence of that fact. On a day when I had to be at 150% while leading an orchestral performance in Zankel Hall, especially during a crazy complex piece by Elliott Carter in which I didn't dare lose concentration for even a second, I must confess that I did not spend the hours before the concert studying my music or listening to recordings of these pieces. Instead, I spent the afternoon making coconut cupcakes with my nephew Mac.

Mac, aka The Little Chef, arrived today for another visit, as his dad (my brother Peter) had several paintings being exhibited in a gallery down in Chelsea. In typical Little Chef fashion, Mac hadn't even been in my apartment five minutes before he was asking me what we were going to bake together. How could I refuse? And since his mom (my sister-in-law Alison) had a birthday two days ago, we would have been seriously remiss had we not baked her some birthday cupcakes. The fact that they were coconut cupcakes--topped with Alison's favorite cream cheese frosting and more coconut shavings on top--made them downright celebratory.

My Little Chef is becoming a seasoned cupcake baker. He was always good at lining the pans with paper liners, but he's growing more comfortable measuring the dry ingredients and sifting them into the bowl. (Well, most of it makes it into the bowl! Mac has some very creative sifting techniques, including the making of a flour volcano that erupts.) 

And he now does a good job spooning the batter into the prepared cups, though he definitely faces a temptation that most 7-year-olds do, that of wanting to lick the batter off the spoon each time you dip it into the bowl!

It was a playful afternoon, as my kitchen was filled with the gentle hum of whirring mixers and laughter. We watched our favorite movie "What's Up Doc?" yet AGAIN as we waited for our cupcakes to bake. Mac discovered the audio button on the remote control, and suddenly we found ourselves watching the movie dubbed in French, laughing our heads off as though we were seeing this screwball comedy for the first time. Neither of us speak French, by the way, but that didn't seem to matter! Mac's persistent little fingers kept finding their way into a large bowl filled with cream cheese frosting, and much hilarity ensued as deals were struck. ("You can have one little spoonful of frosting for every three cupcakes that you frost!")

Soon it was evening. I donned my black concert clothes and switched gears as I arrived at Carnegie Hall and took the elevator down to the backstage of Zankel Hall. I'd had the afternoon distraction I needed, but now I was ready to charge into this program, feeling on top of my game and ready to lead the troops, so to speak. Everyone played incredibly well and I was so proud of my string section that night. And each time I turned to face the audience during the applause, I saw a small figure towards the back waving quite enthusiastically at me. My family had come to the concert that night, and it gave me an extra dose of happy confidence on stage to see my beloved Little Chef, my afternoon cupcake-baking partner in crime. And when we came home that night, riding high after a satisfying performance, these beautiful coconut-laced treats were waiting for us. It was definitely the best of both worlds.

adapted slightly from The Barefoot Contessa by Ina Garten

I've been wild about these unsweetened coconut chips I recently found at Kalustyans. Paper thin with an appealing crunchy texture, these unsweetened coconut shards add a layer of something special when you garnish the cupcakes with them. But you can definitely use regular angel flake shredded sweetened coconut for this recipe, and you will have very happy results. I have adapted this recipe slightly from one in The Barefoot Contessa, reducing the sugar and punching up the vanilla and almond flavors in the cake. I've decreased the proportions for the cream cheese frosting, but it STILL makes an incredibly generous amount of icing. Even if you slather it on thickly, you will definitely have leftovers, enough to satisfy a frosting-loving kid. Or do what Mac and I did: we cut some of these large cupcakes in half horizontally and topped each half with frosting and coconut. Talk about stretching out your coconut cupcake pleasure!

For the cupcakes:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1-3/4 cups sugar
5 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup buttermilk
1-1/2 cups shredded sweetened coconut

For the cream cheese frosting:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 - 8-oz. packages of cream cheese, softened to room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
3 cups powdered confectioner's sugar
2 cups shredded sweetened coconut, or more as necessary

Make the cupcakes:
Preheat the oven to 325°. Fill two standard-sized muffin tins with 24 paper liners.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a medium sized mixing bowl. Set aside.

Combine the softened butter and sugar together in the bowl of a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment to cream them together until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. (Alternately you can use a handheld mixer for this.) When the butter and sugar are well-combined, add the eggs, one at a time, making sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula after each addition. Add the vanilla and almond extract and mix well.

Add one-third of the flour mixture to the butter-sugar mixture, using the mixer on low speed, just until the flour is blended in. Add one half of the buttermilk and blend in. Continue alternating the flour and buttermilk, scraping down the sides after each addition, and ending with flour. Mix until just combined. Fold in the coconut.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups, filling them to the top. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, until the tops are golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of one comes out clean. Let them cool in their pans for 15 minutes, and then remove from the pan to a wire baking rack to cool completely.

Make the frosting:
Beat together the softened butter and cream cheese in a large bowl with an electric mixer. Blend in the vanilla and almond extract. Add the powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time, beating until the frosting is light and fluffy. Taste to make sure that this is to your liking. I don't like an overly sweet frosting, but you may want to add a little more sugar to suit your taste, or feel free to heighten the vanilla or almond flavor as necessary. (Be mindful that a little almond extract goes a long way.) Store the frosting in the fridge until ready to use.

When the cupcakes have cooled, top them with a generous slather of cream cheese frosting and sprinkle the shredded coconut over the top. Makes 24 cupcakes.

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