Saturday, January 31, 2009

Boozy Baking

After the success of my chai recipes, I’ve started wondering which others of my favorite flavors I could meld into new baking projects. Seeing as how “loaded baked potato” doesn’t exactly come down on the dessert side of the menu, I turned to one of my other favorites: wine.

After a study abroad stint in Paris a few years ago, I came back to the States with a serious wine and cheese habit. However, while I may be an oenophile, I am certainly no sommelier. I might play along with my drinking companions when they start to rave about the “blackberry notes,” or the “honeysuckle in the nose” (I’m not joking…) but if you start to tell me about the “spicy earth flavors and cedar finish,” I will probably tell you that I just think it tastes like dirt. That being said, I know what I like (anything red) and what I don’t (Chardonnay).

I don’t have to tell you that it’s not uncommon to use wine in cooking. Probably all of our mothers have one of those kitschy kitchen placards saying something about how they love to cook with wine—if there’s any left! (chortle, chortle). But wine in baking? Similarly to cooking, when baking with wine the alcohol cooks out during the baking process leaving only the flavor. I thought a white wine cake would be nice, but if you’d like a chocolate/red wine variety, this one looks amazing. I think the white wine glaze also adds a lot but if there’s still not enough wine flavor for your taste, just go ahead and have a glass alongside :) Next I think I’d like to experiment with infusing champagne flavor into a sponge or angel food cake, and now I have plenty of reasons to keep hanging out at my new favorite wine bar, Vinoteca. You know, for…inspiration.

White Wine Cake with Glaze
1 box white or yellow cake mix
1 (3 ¾ ounce) box instant pudding (omit if using a cake mix with pudding included)
½ cup sugar (or ¼ cup white and ¼ cup brown sugars)
4 eggs
½ cup canola oil
½ cup water
½ cup white wine
1 ½ cups chopped pecans (optional)
2 tsp cinnamon (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix all ingredients, except nuts (if using) for 1 minute on low speed. Scrape sides of bowl, and mix on medium speed for two minutes. Fold in 1 cup of pecans. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube or bundt pan, and sprinkle remaining pecans on bottom of pan. Add cake batter and place in oven. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes. Cool on baking rack

1 stick butter
1/4 c. water
1 c. sugar
1/4 c. white wine

Boil butter, sugar and water 4 to 5 minutes. Add wine, bring back boil. Pour 1/2 glaze over cake while still in pan. Let stand for 10 minutes. Turn cake out on plate, pour on remaining glaze.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Not-So-Vanilla Vanilla

I had a close call today. You may have heard of some people that refer to themselves as “emotional eaters.” Well, I have suspicions that I may be an emotional shopper. I’ve never done well with buyer’s remorse, so it’s even worse if I go shopping only because I am sad, anxious or (worse yet) bored. Both conveniently and unfortunately, there is a 4-level shopping mall only one Metro stop from my apartment. Also to my horror, they have a Williams-Sonoma. Ah, to die only to be reincarnated as an upscale cookie cutter hanging on the wall of a Williams-Sonoma….Needless to say, this morning I barged into the store like any number of similes or analogies you could think of to describe someone barging into something. Only now, because of this blog, I have essentially become my own enabler because any little knickknack or ingredient could be justified as a blog post. I think the store clerks were probably taking bets on how much of my drool they were going to have to clean up off of the floor.

Luckily, a good friend has recently directed me to our nearest public library, so I was able to keep myself from purchasing every volume from the Williams-Sonoma cookbook/entertaining anthology. I was also thisclose to buying a set of baba au rhum molds; if they’d had cannellĂ© molds I think that would have pushed me over the edge. What mostly caught my eye, though, was a bottle of Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Paste. Vanilla what? Obviously I am a baking novice, but I have never in my life even seen a recipe that called for vanilla paste. And don’t get too excited, the ‘bourbon’ in the name comes from the history of where the vanilla is produced, it is not alcoholic *shucks* I know. The bottle contends that it is a sweetened paste containing the vanilla bean seeds and can be used as a substitute for vanilla extract in baking. But at $11.50 per bottle I’m wondering if this paste can possibly be worth its price. I managed to resist it this time, but the 3-pack of vanilla extracts from around the world is calling to me. With vanillas of different flavors and characters coming from locales as far-flung as Mexico, Indonesia and Tahiti, maybe vanilla isn't so 'vanilla' after all.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Reading the tea leaves

I am officially a chai fiend. Lately, I just cannot get enough of that sweet/spicy mix of cinnamon, cardamom, pepper and vanilla in my tea. I think that chai is one of those things that a person either loves or hates. I know that I am a “lover” because I can even stomach the Starbucks variety which tastes, basically, as if Christmas has exploded in your mouth. Sipping possibly my fourth cup of the day, I started to wonder if there was a way to effectively steep these chai flavors into a baked good without it coming out tasting essentially like gingerbread. After a bit of research I also came to find out, lo and behold, that January is National Hot Tea Month! Holy tea leaves, Batman! And, while I would just about die for a chai latte cupcake, I figured it’s about time to lay off of the cupcake posts for now and branch out a little. So, I give you: Chai Spice Biscotti, courtesy of (from Cooking Light, November 2000). Enjoy the last week of Hot Tea Month!

Chai Spice Biscotti

Makes 2 ½ dozen


  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon loose Chai spice tea or orange spice tea (about 3 tea bags)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon triple sec (orange-flavored liqueur) or orange juice
  • 3 large eggs
  • Cooking spray


Preheat oven to 350°.

Lightly spoon the flour into dry measuring cups, and level with a knife. Combine flour and next 6 ingredients (flour through allspice) in a large bowl. Combine the oil, liqueur, and eggs, and add to the flour mixture, stirring until well-blended (the dough will be dry and crumbly). Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead lightly 7 or 8 times. Divide the dough in half. Shape each portion into an 8-inch-long roll. Place rolls 6 inches apart on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray; flatten each roll to 1-inch thickness.

Bake at 350° for 30 minutes. Remove the rolls from baking sheet; cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack. Cut each roll diagonally into 15 (1/2-inch) slices. Place the slices, cut sides down, on baking sheet. Reduce the oven temperature to 325°; bake 10 minutes. Turn cookies over; bake an additional 10 minutes (the cookies will be slightly soft in center but will harden as they cool). Remove from baking sheet; cool completely on wire rack.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Where have all the bake sales gone?

Next week I’m participating in what must be one of the oldest of those time honored traditions: the Bake Sale. After jumping at the chance to donate a baked good for this upcoming charity sale at work, I began to wonder when was the last time I’d even come into contact with a bake sale? And, no, Girl Scouts outside the supermarket don’t count. Short of church fellowship meetings and elementary school lobbies have bake sales gone the way of the lemonade stand? (And don’t even get me started on the extinction of the Cake Walk…) Anyways, as I eagerly plan what to provide for the sale I’m looking for any suggestions of bake sale favorites, as I’m guessing the charity planning committee will have more lemon bars than they know what to do with.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Well, you knew it was coming. Living in DC, there’s no way I could appropriately celebrate/survive the inaugural madness without some type of Obama-themed dessert. While I wish I could say I came up with some stunningly clever type of baked good in homage to the Obamas, I’ll have to admit that I stuck with a rather traditional chocolate layer cake with vanilla buttercream frosting. But, for what it’s worth, I have to say that this is possibly one of the more difficult desserts I’ve ever attempted (I know that’s not saying too much). But this time last year you would have found me dumping out the contents of a Duncan Hines box and stirring up the contents of a can of Pillsbury frosting/cement mortar/ceiling spackle.

This project also meant I had to buy my first ever pastry bag and set of decorating tips. Again, I am of the Good Housekeeping mindset that you can generally pipe out just about anything through the snipped tip of a Ziploc baggie filled with frosting (shush, I can hear your gasps of horror). But somehow I had a feeling that my MacGyver approach to bakery design was just not going to cut it for this one.

Unfortunately, as you can see, maybe I would have been just as well off with a paintball gun because this cake is not exactly what you’d call…elegant. But that’s ok, right? It’s the spirit of the thing that counts. Hope and Change and Perseverance and A New Day and all of that. And now I have my very own pastry decorating tips to practice decorating with on all manner of cookie, cupcake, pastry and greeting card and you can bet I’ll bring my A Game for next time around in 2012.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cupcake Wars

If you’ve spent any time lately in my home of Washington, DC and neighboring northern Virginia, you’ve probably caught sight of a new rising starlet in town. Well, she’s not exactly “new,” really, she’s always been around; the girl next door, usually overlooked in favor of her flashier sisters or delicate and exotic French cousins. Soft, yet full of in-your-face sweetness, the public can never get enough. That’s right, I’m talking about cupcakes.

I can’t speak for other cities nationwide, but a quick survey of recent media tells me that the cupcake phenomenon sweeping DC is not unique. In fact, the “cupcakery” has become so ubiquitous here that the Washington Post devoted 8 weeks of its Food section to the “Cupcake Wars.” Each week the paper put two cupcake-bakeries head to head in a contest comparing the desserts in areas like variety, texture, flavor and cost.

And when I say “cupcakery” I don’t mean bakeries that just specialize in upscale cupcakes. I mean that, if you stop into the shops for a cookie or a brownie, you will be disappointed because these bakeries are devoted entirely to the cupcake. Not surprisingly, to me this is a godsend. But understandably, I have had some difficulty convincing my friends that, in the midst of a crappy economy, up to $3.25 for a cupcake is money well spent. But one stop into my favorite new cupcake shop in town, Hello Cupcake, tells me that I am not alone. When Hello Cupcake opened in the Summer of 2008, I made sure to stop in during its first week in business. My friends and I eagerly walked through the doors at midday on a Friday only to find that by 2:00pm only 3 out of 13 daily flavors were left. With flavors like ‘Peanut Butter Blossom,’ ‘Tiramisu,’ and ‘Raspberry Beret,’ these cakes are clearly hard to resist and I find it easy to justify the cost of a boutique dessert by comparing it to something like a scoop of ice cream or a happy hour drink after a long day at work.

It doesn’t matter to me if DC might be somewhat behind the curve of the cupcake wave, because the simple pleasures of this old-fashioned dessert are timeless, an endless source of baking inspiration and, dare I say it-sexy?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Red Velvet, if you please

Given the admittedly silly title of this blog, I thought it only appropriate that the first recipe featured on it be—cupcakes! And not just any cupcake, but a red velvet cupcake.

I can hear you now: “Red what?”

You’d certainly be forgiven if you’ve never crossed paths with the unique red velvet cake. In fact, even for most the proficient bakers it’s difficult to describe what, exactly, is red velvet. Clearly, it is red. And although the ingredients include cocoa powder, you’d probably be hard pressed to find a sampler who could pick out anymore than the slightest wisp of chocolate flavor. So isn’t this, essentially, a yellow cake dyed red? Oh, but it is so much more.

As a Yankee through and through, I suffer from the perception that everything in the south is just a little more...larger than life. So, perhaps that this southern comfort dessert is simply bright red should come as no surprise. Though the red velvet cake is usually associated with the southern US in popular imagination, its historical origins are also tied to any number of myths and urban legends since it first became popular in the early 1900s. This cake has enjoyed a surge in popularity over the past two decades--you may have recognized an armadillo-shaped one in Steel Magnolias, and popstar Jessica Simpson even chose a six-tiered red velvet behemoth for her wedding cake in 2002. Ever since I was young I have memories of my mother raving about an unbeatable, 7-layer red velvet cake that her grandmother used to make. While I may not yet be ambitious enough to attempt a full seven layers, maybe these delicious little cakes are just the place to start.

If you’d like a more traditional red velvet cake, try one with a butter roux frosting

The recipe I followed is from "Hey there, cupcake!" courtesy of Recipezaar


  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 2 ounces water
  • 2 ounces red food coloring
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

cream cheese frosting

  • 1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease 12 cupcake cups or line with paper liners.
  2. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy.
  3. Add eggs and blend well.
  4. Make a paste of cocoa and food coloring and add to the butter mixture.
  5. Sift flour and salt together into this mixture.
  6. One at a time, add the following ingredients: buttermilk, vanilla, and water.
  7. In a small bowl, combine the vinegar and the baking soda. Fold it into the cake batter. Make sure it's incorporated, but don't beat it.
  8. Pour the batter into the cupcake cups. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the cake springs back when touched.
  9. Remove from oven and let cool for about 10 minutes, then turn out of pan and onto a rack to finish cooling completely.
  10. Cream Cheese Frosting: Blend together the following: 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened, 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened, 1-1/2 cups powdered sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Blend until smooth.
*A couple of notes.
  • You can make your own buttermilk by adding a tablespoon of distilled white vinegar to milk and letting it stand for 10 minutes.
  • Due to the cream cheese frosting, these cupcakes must be refrigerated
  • If you can't find liquid food coloring gel dye is fine, it will just take extra-thorough mixing to be sure it is distributed evenly

Thursday, January 1, 2009


“Do you like to cook?” It’s an easy enough question, and yet somehow I’m always slightly stumped. I do like to cook—I can make a mean Chicken Francais with Basmati Pilaf, and I enjoy browsing the aisles of markets like Whole Foods, seeking out new and unique ingredients. However, the entirety of my recipe repertoire exists to answer one question: Can it be made in under an hour? I even have a lasagna recipe which does not require one to cook the noodles before popping it into the oven.

The truth is, while I do enjoy cooking, I love to bake. However, I think there’s more to my passion for pastries than the amount of labor involved, as some desserts can be quite complicated. My own personal philosophy is that all people fall into one of three categories: Salty, Sour, or Sweet. I am a Sweet person. Try this for yourself: Picture yourself at a movie theatre concession stand. Which treat do you routinely leap for? Popcorn and nachos? Sour Patch Kids and Lemonheads? Snow Caps and Chocolate-covered Raisins?

I suppose I should have realized this sooner. One peek in my kitchen cupboards reveals that while I have 2 skillets, 2 pots and one measly casserole dish for cooking, I have a virtual battery of pie plates, cookie sheets, cake pans, muffin pans, bundt pans, springform pans, tart pans and even one of those miniature blow torches for perfectly crusted crème brulees. So, I like to bake—Why blog about it? Well, I’m hoping that by creating a blog to follow my baking exploits it will give me just the encouragement I need to dive into all the baking projects I’ve always wanted to undertake. I’m also hoping that this blog will inspire others that might be afraid to take the baking plunge by showing how easy it truly can be—I do not own a stand mixer, I generally eschew even a hand mixer, and I have never used a “dough hook.” I look forward to exploring regional dessert favorites, exotic dishes from around the world, seasonal specialties and classic stand-bys. I plan to post all of my recipes and look forward to suggestions and stories from all of you. I hope you’ll join me in my virtual kitchen!

P.S. The above photo is to prove that I can cook on occasion :) This is one of my more adventurous meals: A Moroccan-inspired lemon chicken and couscous with chickpea tagine.