Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bakeries in the Big Apple

I think that one of the best ways to learn things about oneself is to plan a trip. Are you spontaneous, taking off on a whim with no plan and no suitcase, throwing caution to the wind? Or are you relentlessly calculated, planning each stop, meal, visit and mode of transport down to the dollar and the minute? I think most of us probably fall somewhere in between, romanced by the thrill of spontaneity but reassured by the safety of tickets and reservations. Travel also reveals much about ourselves because it forces us to prioritize. Given only a brief window to experience everything new and exciting about our destination, what gets top billing on our list of to-do's? Deciding to plan a last minute day trip from DC to New York City for this past Saturday is perhaps how I came to realize that I've officially crossed over into the world of "The Foodie."

For my quick, 8 hour trip to Manhattan last Saturday I knew that I wanted to see as many famous sites as I could in such a short timeframe, but my very first priority without question was, Where am I going to eat? And not in a basic human need kind of way, but in a sugarlust-fueled, must try new bakeries kind of excitement. I'd even picked out Bombay Talkie in Chelsea as my dinner locale before I'd purchased my bus tickets (courtesy of a great tip from Juli B). If you're a fan of Indian cuisine this hotspot puts a chic spin on traditional Indian roadside fare. The malai kofta and Toofan cocktail I had were delicious. When it came to bakeries, the number of amazing choices in NYC are simply overwhelming so I put out a call on Twitter for suggestions from those more knowledgeable. Thanks to Tweeps TanyaBrothen and FrenchTwistDC I got great recommendations for bakeries both classically famous and freshly unique.

After a three hour open bus tour, you can bet that I was ready to beat the rush of the big city with a cupcake timeout, and my first stop was to Magnolia Bakery. While Magnolia is arguably The Bakery That Started It All, pioneering the cupcake craze in New York 10 years ago, you may also know them as Those Cupcakes From Sex & The City. Magnolia now has several bakeries throughout the city and I stopped by their Midtown location, which I'd be willing to bet has the most expensive rent of any bakery in the country. On the same block as Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall and just a block from shopping mecca 5th Avenue and the Diamond can imagine that these cupcakes are doing pretty well for themselves. So, you may be surprised that I visited this epicenter of all things cupcake and did NOT have a cupcake. That's right. I wasn't able to get to the shop until late in the afternoon, by which point the place was jam-packed and the only cakes left were chocolate and vanilla. Call me a cupcake snob, but I feel like anyone can crank out a chocolate or vanilla cake and call it a day so I wanted something truly spectacular to remember Magnolia by. I saw it the minute I walked through the door. Red velvet cheesecake. I've never even heard of such a thing, let alone even imagined its existence. It. Was. Glorious. The flavor of red velvet--so difficult to even describe--was captured perfectly in this individual serving of cake. Paired with a chocolate crumb crust and plain whipped cream, I can honestly say that this is the best dessert I have ever eaten. It is worth the trip to NY, I don't care where you live.

My next stop was just three blocks away at Kyotofu. I know what you're thinking, Tofu? Bakery? But stick with me here. Kyotofu is actually a unique concept that fuses Japanese flavors and French culinary techniques into what is essentially a dessert restaurant. Opened in 2006 and already voted New York's best cupcake in 2007 by New York Magazine and one of the Best Worldwide Meals of 2008 by USA Today, you can bet that these people are on to something. Unfortunately, I was short on time so I was only able to grab a selection of Okara Soybean Cookies to go in flavors like matcha green tea and black sesame ($3.25 for 5 mini cookies) but if you have a chance you MUST take a seat in the back dining room. Sleek and sophisticated, the ambiance perfectly frames the elegant dessert selections. Though the sweet tofu has garnered rave reviews, for those not ready to take the plunge Kyotofu offers plenty of other delectable, less tofu-heavy options like miso chocolate cake, chocolate soufflé cupcakes or a seasonal selection. If you drop by for bruch, some of their savory options even include a complimentary cocktail! I wanted to include a photo of my cookies here but somehow they managed to get smushed either during the 27 block hike from Kyotofu to Bombay Talkie or the mad dash at 6:48pm to catch my 7:00pm bus back to DC. Such is the life of the traveling baker...

Some other fun places I passed:

Friday, July 24, 2009


I don't really know why I associate zucchini bread with summer. It's not something I make on a regular basis, but seems to be something that I always have a memory of from summers past, either at home on the kitchen table or at any number of summer BBQs back in Ohio. I guess it's not such a stretch, zucchini falls under the category of "summer squash" with a peak growing season of May through August. I think there's also something sentimental about cooking activities that can be enjoyed out on the front porch in the warm weather like shucking corn, snapping green beans, or shredding tons of zucchini. However, as far as season-food associations go, I'll go out on a limb and guess that when most people think of summer the vast majority of them don't give zucchini bread a passing consideration. Frankly, I'm a little surprised that I even like zucchini bread. I don't care for plain zucchini but, for some reason, I'm always in the mood for this moist, spicy-sweet loaf of bread. I know that a sweet bread studded with shredded vegetables might not seem appealing to most (sort of like that V8 juice that tastes like fruit...I just can't do it), but the idea is similar to carrot cake--the texture of the veggie is present but definitely not the dominant flavor.

I didn't have any specific plans for zucchini bread yet this summer but, when a coworker brought in some extra summer squash from her home garden, I was struck with inspiration. But first I was struck by how freaking enormous this zucchini was. The squash I selected was at least a foot and a half long but, apparently, zucchini can grow up to 5 feet, with the world record being 69 and 1/2 inches long! The typical zucchini bread recipe calls for about 1 cup of shredded zucchini per loaf but, with a high quality food processor and Martha Stewart-like determination, I bet I could have gotten a good 6 loaves out of this zucchini. I'm also particularly partial to this batch of bread since I got to use a home grown squash. I may not grind my own peanut butter or infuse my own olive oils (here's looking at you, Martha), but I do appreciate getting to use all natural, home grown ingredients when possible...even if they have to come from someone else's home :)

I'm planning to take this loaf to another coworker's BBQ this evening and I'm secretly hoping she didn't partake in any of the office zucchini as well or else I think we'll be in for a summer squash bonanza tonight. And, just for the record, I managed to use the word 'zucchini' 17 times in this one blog post.

Zucchini Bread
(makes 2 loaves or 24 muffins)
3 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
2 cups grated zucchini
2 tsps vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tsps ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
1 cup raisins or chocolate chips (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Grease AND flour two 8x4 inch loaf pans (don't be lazy and skip the flour like I usually do!) or line 2 cupcake pans with paper liners.
3. In a large bowl beat the eggs with a whisk. Mix in oil and sugar, then zucchini and vanilla.
4. Combine flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder and salt as well as nuts and raisins or chips if using.
5. Stir this into the egg mixture. Divide the batter into prepared pans.
6. Bake for 60 minutes or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. For muffins bake 20 minutes and serve with cream cheese frosting, if desired.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Red Velvet Cupcakery: Review

I'll be the first to admit that I've been slightly remiss in dropping by to visit one of the newer players in the DC cupcakery game. Opened in December 2008, I really have no excuse for not dropping by Red Velvet Cupcakery sooner, especially since I can be found in Chinatown or Penn Quarter almost any day of the week. Nevertheless, I finally got a chance to check out this cute little shop over the weekend and had a very good experience all around. Located at 675 E St. NW, an added bonus for this bakery is that it is very metro accessible--only a block from the Verizon Center--and within walking distance of the National Mall in case you decide to have a cupcake picnic.
Though I'd intended to behave myself and order a modest two cakes for sampling, my fellow cupcake taster had other plans, "I'll take one of each," he ordered proudly. So, please withhold your judgment when you hear that I've sampled no fewer than a dozen varieties of cupcake over the past few days, the circumstances were clearly out of my hands. :) Like most cupcakeries, Red Velvet offers a selection of classic cakes (Vanilla Bean, Devil's Food) as well as seasonal selections (currently Key West- key lime cake with white chocolate buttercream, and Summertime- lemon cake with coconut frosting).

As the cupcake trend grows, a criticism that often arises is that no one cupcakery seems to have mastered both the perfect cake AND the perfect frosting. Personally, I believe this is impossible because each individual has different cake/icing preferences and one cupcake could never hope to be all things to all people. Deep, I know. However, while I don't believe that Red Velvet has necessarily mastered this task, I do believe that they have some of the best cakes and frostings that I have tasted yet, though not always together on the same cupcake.

In terms of flavors, my friend and I both agreed that the Cafe Latte cupcake was the standout winner. A moist, extra chocolately cake topped with an extraordinarily smooth (almost whipped) texture of buttercream, what we liked best was that the latte flavor was so subtle that it balanced the chocolate of the cake perfectly while still leaving the slightest aftertaste of mocha. Definitely recommend this one (unless you don't like coffee, of course...).

For the traditionalists, I'd like to say that I loved the Vanilla Bean, but what I mostly liked was the cake. I found the frosting too sweet but loved that the cake was slightly sweeter than your average white cake--paired with a tangy raspberry or lime frosting instead, I bet this could be a standout as well. If you typically go for the vanilla cupcake, I might recommend Birthday Cake instead. This yellow cupcake is topped with a unique milk chocolate frosting that is remarkably reminiscent of Betty Crocker (but in a good, reminds-you-of-childhood kind of way). Finally, the namesake Red Velvet.

At Red Velvet, the red velvet cupcake they feature is actually named the Southern Belle. I knew I couldn't properly review this bakery without trying this cake and I was not disappointed. Even though I tried this one the day after purchasing, the cake was still moist inside and out. While I think the decorative sugar on top takes away from the texture, I do love that the cream cheese frosting is just strong enough to remind you that red velvet is a cupcake with attitude.

Overall, while Red Velvet may not serve up the fanciest cupcakes, I like that their classic approach seems homemade, approachable and friendly. One downside, don't think that your $3.25 will also buy you a place to sit down to enjoy your cakes, this teeny shop is carryout only. However, a sign inside directs patrons to another local business that allows Red Velvet customers to enjoy their cakes seated. But if it's a nice day, you're just as well off to take a stroll over to the Mall or the steps of the National Portrait Gallery and inspire cupcake jealousy in all of the passersby.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vive La France!

As you may know today, July 14th, is the French national holiday. Typically referred to by Anglophones as "Bastille Day," in France the celebration is usually known as Fête Nationale or le quatorze juillet ("14 July"). Bastille Day commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison by the French people in 1789. Although the Bastille held only seven prisoners at the time of the rebellion, the symbolic fall of the power of Louis XVI was followed by the end of feudalism, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the rolling of a few heads and, well, you know the rest. Bastille Day is one of my favorite holidays to celebrate for several reasons: I love France; I'm a firm believer that we could seriously use some more excuses to party between the 4th of July and Labor Day; and you can never have enough crêpes or champagne. This year I celebrated with just those two tasty treats. While I would have loved to entertain my friends with some homemade crêpes, I know by now that this is one speciality best left to the professionals. While I had intended to grace this blog with a picture of my gorgeous crêpe aux bananes et chocolat paired with a crisp glass of champagne à la vanille unfortunately, before I even realized, this was all that was left. It was that good. Bonne fête à tous!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tiramisu For Two

This week I was honored to help a good friend celebrate her birthday, and was super excited to plan just the right birthday girl dessert to present her for the dinner à deux we had planned. I went to work trying to decide on just the right treat for the occasion, hoping for something that could be served individually (so that we weren't tempted to polish off an entire dessert along with an entire bottle of amazing Champagne) and something with an international flavor that captured the spirit of my globe-trotting friend and travel blogger extraordinaire. I knew that she was planning to serve her famous risotto (this risotto's reputation precedes itself, people) and, inspired by the Martha Stewart tiramisu cupcakes I've been dying to try, decided on individual tiramisu cups to round out the Italian flavor of the evening (except for the Champagne, of course).

These are great not only because of the quick, no bake assembly (are you sensing a theme for this summer?) but also because all of the components are easily transported, making it no trouble to assemble the cups individually at my friend's house as soon as I arrived and allow the dessert to chill throughout dinner. There are tons of great tiramisu recipes and, in case your grocery store doesn't carry lady fingers you can also substitute cubed pound cake. In Italian, 'tiramisu' actually means 'pick me up' and, with a combination of sugar, coffee and alcohol, I don't see how it could not :)

Individual Tiramisu
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
8 oz marscarpone cheese
1/4 cup Marsala
1 to 1 1/2 cups strong brewed coffee or espresso
1/4 cup brandy or Frangelico
18 lady fingers
2 oz bittersweet chocolate, shaved
Unsweetened cocoa powder, for dusting

1. Place 6 wine glasses or serving dishes in the refrigerator or freezer to chill.

2. In a large bowl, whip the cream to soft peaks. Add the sugar and whip 10-15 seconds longer, just until thoroughly integrated.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the marscarpone and Marsala together until smooth and creamy. Gently fold a third of the whipped cream into the marscarpone to lighten. Fold in the remaining whipped cream to combine.

4. Remove the wineglasses. Stir the coffee and brandy or Frangelico together in a small bowl. One at a time, dip the lady fingers into the coffee mixture twice, being careful not to over-soak them. Place one lady finger into each glass, pressing down so that it fits snugly.

5. Spoon one third of the whipped cream mixture throughout the 6 glasses then top with and third of the shaved chocolate and another layer of soaked lady fingers. Repeat the layering two more times, ending with the cream. Dust lightly with cocoa powder and chill 3 hours to overnight.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Patriotic Pastry

Living in Washington, DC sometimes I take for granted the wealth of historical treasures and building blocks of American heritage that exist throughout our nation's capital. For example, although I live only four Metro stops from the National Archives, the only time I drop by to visit the Constitution is when I'm taking out of town guests for a tour of the city. Similarly, I've never been to the top of the Washington Monument and I've never managed to make it on a White House tour, although I know that I should have a greater appreciation for the fact that these are even options in my day-to-day life. So today, when we take a moment to celebrate what it means to be American, I'm looking forward to joining with the mass of humanity that descends upon the National Mall each July 4th. I generally eschew activities that involve packing into Metro cars so full that that only things keeping you in place are the knobby shoulders and elbows of your fellow passengers just trying to get from Point A to Point B. But there's just something about sitting on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, oohing and aahing and the fireworks display, watching children with red, white and blue bomb pop dripping down their chins, and appreciating what it means to have independence, perhaps for those around the world who aren't as fortunate.

For this year's picnic at the memorial, I (of course) wanted to make cupcakes. However, due to the aforementioned Metro conditions, I wasn't sure those would really survive the trip in my tote bag all the way across the city (even with my nifty new individual cupcake tupperwares!). Similarly, although a brief glimpse across the internet gives hundreds of red, white and blue dessert recipes, you'd be surprised how many involved Jell-o or whipped cream. Again, not very public transport or sweltering heat-friendly. Fortunately I happened to come across a Taste of Home recipe for a rainbow angel food cake. Though the original recipe calls for layers of orange, yellow and green cake, I thought I'd try to substitute red and blue for a patriotic treat that would easily survive a trip in tupperware and definitely wouldn't melt. As an added bonus, this recipe can be used just as easily for Bastille Day on July 14th :)

Angel food cake is another example of a cake that I frequently buy but never thought to make myself because I assumed that a cake with such a light and delicate texture must be complicated to execute. In fact, angel food cake is hardly much more than a meringue with flour added to provide more structure. You will need a tube pan, though a bundt pan will do in a pinch but will be more difficult to turn out the cake due to the fluted molding design. A few more notes:
  • Gel or liquid food coloring may be used (I used about 10 drops for each color) if you have access to white gel coloring you may also add this to the white layer of batter for a brighter contrast.
  • It is important to cool the cake upside down so that it does not fall in on itself
  • When serving it is best to slice an angel food cake with a serrated knife so that the cake does not squish under the pressure of a more dull blade.
  • Save your yolks! Reserve the unused yolks for a custard or Hollandaise later on in the week. They can even be frozen for up to four months, but be sure to stabilize them first

Red, White and Blue Angel Food Cake
1 1/2 cups egg whites (about 10)
1 cup cake flour
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1 1/2 tsps cream of tartar
1 1/2 tsps vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/4 tsp salt
Red and blue food coloring

1. Separate egg whites and let stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes.

2. Sift flour and 3/4 cup sugar twice; set aside.

3. In a very large bowl beat the egg whites, cream of tartar, extracts and salt on medium speed until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating on high until stiff, glossy peaks form and sugar is dissolved. Gradually and gently fold in flour mixture with a spatula or large serving spoon, one fourth at a time.

4. Divide batter into three bowls. To the first bowl add red food coloring to shade desired. Repeat with second bowl, using blue food coloring. Leave third bowl of batter white. Fold food coloring into each batter.

5. Spoon red batter into an ungreased, 10-in tube pan; carefully spread to cover the bottom. Spoon white batter over the red layer (do not mix). Spoon blue batter over white layer. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until top springs back when lightly touched and cracks feel dry.

6. Immediately invert pan; cool completely. Run a knife around sides and center of tube pan and invert onto a serving dish.