Saturday, May 23, 2009

Temporary Hiatus

Hello faithful readers! I just wanted to let you know that I will be without internet access for the next three weeks but will return with regular posts starting the week of June 14th. In the meantime, checkout all the great foodie website links I have posted on the left of the page for great recipe, entertaining, and baking ideas. Thanks!


Cupcake Wars aka 'Dudecakes'

It's no longer a secret that cupcakes seem to be the hot new trend in popular pastries. I'd even venture to say that cupcakes have broken into the mass market in a way that few other baked goods ever have. I mean, when was the last time you went to a wedding and saw a cookie tower instead of a 5-tiered cake? But for cupcakes, even the most elegant of weddings are no longer out of reach. My local area now has nearly 10 bakeries devoted exclusively to cupcakes and I personally follow at least two blogs that pay homage solely to these little treats. There are Facebook "meetup" groups that plan outings to tryout new local cupcake shops. You can even buy "couture" cupcake liners made from laser-cut card stock. Outside of large U.S. cities, cupcakes have even gone global. Destinations as far flung as London, Paris, Rome and even Malaysia have jumped on the cupcake bandwagon (or "fairy cake" for the British folk). However, as with any popular fad, inevitably the backlash hits (Pogs, anyone?).

Since last year, a number of voices have started calling cupcakes their "least favorite" food trend, and begging to be rescued from the virtual inundation of cupcakeries on every corner. In Time magazine, Joel Stein went as far as to say that cupcakes are "fake happiness, wrought in Wonka unfood colors. They appeal to the same unadventurous instincts that drive adults to read Harry Potter and watch Finding Nemo without a kid in the room." Woah, now. Even putting aside that jab at Harry Potter--clearly some of these cupcake haters have some issues with reclaiming their childhood. But, unfortunately for the naysayers the ubiquity of cupcakes has only just begun; just as any overdone fad needs to morph itself in order to stay relevant and hip (Power Rangers, anyone?), so too has the cupcake market begun to transform...Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring you The Dudecake.

Just when you thought your local cupcakery had perfected the art of the plain old sweet cake with sugary buttercream--KABAM--the savory cupcake trend has arrived. Personally, this is the reason that I love cupcakes and will always love cupcakes no matter how passé they may become in the eyes of the public: they are so versatile. Just in the way that I was able to infuse a cake with the exact flavors of mint julep, so too can you create french toast cupcakes, or champagne cupcakes, or beer cupcakes. That's right, I am fully embracing the newly coined term "Dudecake" to describe the recent influx of savory cupcakes to dining menus because they all seem to be man-friendly flavors like pickle, or bacon and cheese, or tomato soup. So, what do you think, guys? Is the cupcake market successfully transforming to rope in another demographic with these savory cakes. For me, the jury is still out. But in the meantime, I will definitely count myself amongst the voices of the steadily growing anti-backlash backlash.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Naturally Surprised

I'm from the Midwest. I know this fact comes with all types of preconceptions and stereotypes, one of which being that those of us from the middle-section of the country must subsist primarily on the beef and corn that we all raise in our backyards. While I don't mind playing up the "Midwestern Girl" from time to time, the truth is that my hometown is the 15th largest in the country and the closest I've ever been to a cow was at the State Fair. That said, though our supermarkets are unnecessarily enormous, they're pretty much just stocked with the basics--no gourmet pizza bar, no made-to-order sushi, maybe a single aisle labeled "international." This may be why I'm still embarrassingly thrilled to stroll the aisles of supermarkets like Whole Foods and be bombarded by ingredients and condiments that I've never even heard of. I remember when my hometown got its first Whole Foods and my dad just kept telling people, "They have butter! In tins!!" Maybe it runs in the family.

On my last trip to my now-local Whole Foods, I was invited by a friend to try out their "foodie happy hour" with free wine and cheese tastings. After picking up a slab of my currently favorite cheese (Gruyère--possibly one of the few cheeses that is actually worth $11/pound) I wanted some type of cracker to enjoy it with later. In a hurry to beat the after-work crowds, I'll admit that my choice was made in haste and largely driven by the old-world but unfussy appearance of the packaging (when in a hurry, judge a book by it's cover). For $4.99, the six Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas were better than I ever could have imagined.

Because "torta" is the Spanish word for cake, I assumed that these round wafers would be similar to a thin pita bread. But, once I got one torta out of the butcher paper that declared "Las Legítimas Y Acreditadas!" and took my first bite, I knew I'd hit the jackpot. More like a cracker than a pita, these tortas also have a light shine from the olive oil that keeps them ever-so-slightly soft and less brittle than a cracker. This fist bite also immediately made me think of pizelle cookies (those Italian waffle-like cookies from Christmastime) which caused me to take a second look at the ingredients where, just as I suspected, I found the usual suspects--anise seeds and anise essence. Anise is typically what we associate with black licorice but, let me tell you that I HATE black licorice and I am completely in love with these tortas, so the anise flavoring is so light that it compliments the tastes perfectly. Unfortunately, this turn of events meant that my Gruyère had to go cracker-less, but it was a small price to pay to discover my new favorite treat.

If you have a Whole Foods in your neighborhood, or happen to come across a package of these at your local grocery store or cheese shop, buy them immediately. You can thank me later. Based on a recipe created by the real Ines Rosales in Seville, Spain, these tortas are still made according to her 100 year old recipe and, thus, are all natural. The ingredients are wheat flour, EVOO, sugar, baking powder, sesame seeds, anise seeds, salt and anise essence. That's it. Imported all the way from Spain, sold amongst the world's finest cheeses, but a recipe so simple and homespun that I bet even a Midwesterner could handle it :)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Coco-nut Crispies

Cooking for one is always a little complicated in that I'm always either working to reduce recipes to manageable portions or always stuck with lots of leftovers on my hands (living alone with entire cakes or pans of brownies is not a temptation I wish on anyone). For this reason, I was very excited when I came across Vanilla Garlic's baked banana spice wontons because I had what seemed like a metric ton of leftover wonton wrappers in my freezer. With the addition of the nearly full can of coconut milk leftover from this week's Moroccan shrimp with couscous dinner, I knew I had the makings of a great snack on my hands and didn't have to toss out any wasted food. 'Cause being wasteful is soooo passé these days :)

Wonton wrappers are a great ingredient because they are so versatile. Similar to large ravioli halves, these thin sheets of pasta crisp up amazingly when fried and also when baked (lower fat!). In addition to wrapping egg rolls, these sheets can be used for just about any other kind of filling--crab rangoon, strawberry cream cheese, Asian-inspired plum chutney--anything you can think of. I went with a spiced coconut pudding filling which is also great eaten warm and plain and, if you've ever been to Hawaii, will remind you of haupia but without the gelatin. I don't usually like coconut pudding because I think the flavoring tastes artificial, but using real coconut milk provides a light, natural tasting coconut flavor. I pretty much just added what I had on hand to the pudding, so recipe amounts are approximate and you should feel free to adjust to your tastes.

Spiced Coconut-Stuffed Wontons
24-30 wonton wrappers

For the pudding*
8 teaspoons flour
8 teaspoons sugar
pinch of salt
2 egg yolks (whites reserved)
1 14-oz can coconut milk (regular or lite)

My additions (optional)
Scant 1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/4 cup chopped pecans
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
Dashes of ground ginger to taste

In a medium saucepan combine flour, sugar and salt. Add egg yolks and whisk together. Add half the can of coconut milk and place over medium heat for 2-3 minutes. Meanwhile, warm the remaining coconut milk in a small saucepan. Once warm, add the milk to the flour mixture, whisking to combine. Simmer the mixture 7-10 minutes or until thick. Add all desired mix-ins and stir to combine.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Working with one wonton wrapper at a time, place a heaping teaspoonful of pudding slightly left of center, leaving a half-inch border between the filling and the edge of the wonton wrapper. Using the reserved egg whites, brush a light coating around the edge of the wrapper and fold the right side of the wrapper over the filling to meet the left, and press to seal the edges. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment or foil coated lightly with cooking spray. Brush the top of the wonton with egg white and sprinkle with sugar if desired. Repeat with remaining wontonts, working as quickly as possible, as they dry out quickly. Bake for 10 minutes, turn wontons and bake an additional 1-2 minutes if needed.

*If you'd like to make the pudding just on its own, the recipe can easily be increased for up to 10-12 servings, simply double or triple the amounts (1/4 flour and sugar and 4 egg yolks and 1.5 cans of coconut milk for 6-8 servings, or 1/2 cup each of flour and sugar and 6 egg yolks and 3 cans of coconut milk for 10-12)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Off to the Races

Seersucker. Popped collars. Madras plaid. Ridiculously ostentatious hats with brims wide enough to provide SPF 95 and more exotic plumage than the boa closet at the Moulin Rouge. On set at the Real Housewives of Arlington County? Close. It's time for Gold Cup!

A year ago I was naive to the ways of the annual Gold Cup steeplechase in The Plains, Virginia (Heck, I couldn't have even told you what a steeplechase was) and I'm typically reluctant to leave my bubble of Washington, DC and the 'burbs of northern Virginia, so a trek 50 miles out to "the country" was unlikely. But, last year I let my friends talk me into attending, and I'm so glad I did because it is an amazingly great time. Ostensibly, there is a steeplechase--a type of distance horse racing popular in Europe including diverse fence and ditch obstacles--but most come for the people watching. And the mimosas at 9am. Even though this year's forecast called for a bleak 60% chance of showers all day, we eagerly packed up our tent, tarp, table, chairs, umbrellas and, most importantly, copious amounts of pink wine sangria.

For this year's race I knew I needed something that was more than just an easily transported and handled picnic dessert, and I hoped to incorporate some of the stereotypical flavors popular at this type of event. I'm sure that, after a couple of months, you also know that I couldn't go any longer without a post dedicated to cupcakes so, I bring you two of the greatest cupcake recipes to ever encapsulate the sheer snobbery of a garishly over the top aristocratic sporting event: Mint Julep and Lemon Iced Tea cupcakes.
These recipes would be great for any warm weather function and don't worry about the alcohol involved--as I wrote in my Wine Cake post, the alcohol actually bakes out as the cupcakes cook, leaving only the flavor. I was worried about the taste being too strong (not really a bourbon girl myself...) but they weren't strong at all and the flavor combo was great. As for the tea cupcakes, I'd also recommend them as a gift for any tea lovers in your life. Experiment with your favorite tea (fruit flavors come through very well) and pair with a complimentary buttercream--the possibilities are endless!

Mint Julep Cupcakes
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon mint extract
4 eggs
2 3/4 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1/2 cup Jack Daniels (or other whiskey/bourbon)
1/2 cup Creme de Menthe

3 cups sifted powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon mint extract
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 stick unsalted butter, melted

1. Preheat the oven to 350F, and grease or line 36 cupcake cups.
2. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the extracts, salt, baking powder, and 1 3/4 cups of the flour.
3. Add the milk and liquors to the batter, then the rest of the flour. Mix as little as possible, just until the batter comes together.
4. Divide evenly among the cupcake cups. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Let cool.
5. To make the icing, combine the powdered sugar, salt, extracts and melted butter. (I think this works best with a stand mixer with the whip attachment or a hand-held mixer.) Add milk very slowly until the texture is right for piping.
6. When the cupcakes are completely cook, pipe or spread the icing on top and enjoy!

Iced Tea Cupcakes*
1 cup milk
4-6 iced tea teabags
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup yogurt (plain or vanilla)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tsp fresh lemon zest
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a cupcake pan with paper liners. In a small saucepan heat milk until almost boiling, add tea bags, cover and remove from heat. Let sit for 10 minutes. When ready to use, stir tea bags and thoroughly squeeze to insure as much tea is dissolved in the milk as possible.

In a large bowl, whisk together oil, yogurt, sugar vanilla, zest and tea mixture until all yogurt lumps disappear. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add to wet ingredients and mix until large lumps disappear; some small lumps are ok. Fill liners full and bake 22-25 minutes.

Lemon Buttercream
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 cups confectioner's sugar
2 Tbs lemon juice
2 tsp grated lemon peel
1 tsp vanilla extract

In a small bowl, cream the butter and add the flour in 1/2 cup additions. After each addition ad a splash of lemon juice and beat well with a mixer. Add vanilla and beat for another 3-5 minutes until smooth, creamy and fluffy.

*These cupcakes can be made as a vegan recipe by using soy milk and yogurt and using 1/4 cup each of shortening and margarine in place of butter for the frosting.