My Baking ‘bête noir’

I’m convinced that just as every gardener has at least one particular plant that flatly refuses to grow for him/her anywhere or any time, the same exists in the world of cooking. My bête noir is (can you believe this?) streusel – that simple and tasty crumb topping on coffee cakes and pastries.

My failure is certainly not for lack of trying. I’ve attempted to make it in all the traditional ways: cutting cold butter into the flour/sugar mixture by “rubbing it in”, or by cutting it in with a pair of knives, and also via two different gadgets specially designed to incorporate butter (one has wires, the other has rigid blades). Nevertheless, I just can never get to that “sandy texture with tiny bits of butter smaller than a pea” which is what every streusel recipe calls for. I even tried a trick from Cooks Illustrated which is to freeze the butter and then shave it into the flour mixture using a cheese grater or microplane. No luck; the butter pieces insist on becoming either mini-chunks or small squooshed disks.

Then I decided to give the food processor a whirl. Using the steel blade did indeed incorporate the butter: it got shredded into invisibility, which is not what a streusel recipe is about, either (though it probably does wonders for pie crust pastry). Next time, I tried the plastic blade instead. The butter pieces laughed at it.

I’d feel better about this particular Waterloo if it were something more challenging, such as a souffle. There’s absolutely no shame in failing at a souffle; but streusel? That’s embarassing!

And while I’m playing True Confessions, I should admit that my gardening bête noir is none other than the winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis …. the very plant that apparantly spreads like the proverbial weed for 90% of all other gardeners. It was a spectacular failure in multiple situations within ALL of my first three gardens. I would plant a dozen bulbs (yes, soaked overnight) and they would all come up the next spring. The following year I’d be lucky to see six. And in the third year, either just one or none at all. Winter sun/summer shade, part shade, part sun; acid or neutral; evenly moist or well drained…..always, always the same result. The photo below is from WikiCommons, because obviously none of MY plants ever survived long enough to make a respectable patch!

Eranthis hyemalis

However, apparantly hope springs eternal because last year a chance local aquaintance (to whom I’d been bewailing my chronic lack of success with Eranthis — needless to say, she’s been practically overrun by hers for years) gave me a bagful of them in the green at the proper planting time. I tucked them under a viburnum near an east-facing house wall. Right now they’re buried under about 3 ft of snow, so there’s a ways to go yet, but I am crossing fingers that the difference between mail-order bulbs and in-the-green plants just might be the magic key. If so, then perhaps it will be time to give streusel just one more try!

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