Monday, February 23, 2009

"Laissez les bons temps rouler"

Cake may not be the first thing you think of when you hear the words "Mardi Gras." More likely, you have visions of raucous debauchery heralding the last hurrah before 40 days and nights of oh-so-exciting Lenten deprivation. But in addition to beads and booze, King Cake is another (albeit more tame) New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition.

There are a number of legends tracing the history of King Cake all the way from the pre-Christian times when the cake helped decide who would be sacrificed to please the gods for that year. (Ooh, maybe this cake is more exciting than I thought) Ultimately the tradition was one of many adapted to Christian worship and its descendant--the French Galette des Rois--was the inspiration for the cake prepared all across the southern U.S. today. There are also many traditions associated with the cake, like including an uncooked bean, nut or even tiny baby representing the baby Jesus hidden inside. If you get the piece with the hidden treasure you'll have good luck for the rest of the year as well as the duty of baking next year's King Cake (much improved from the pagan times when this meant you'd be the lucky villager sticking your next out for the gods).

Though the French still use the Galette des Rois to celebrate Three Kings' Day on Epiphany, the American custom that developed from French settlers in New Orleans also kicks off on Jan 6th but continues all the way through Fat Tuesday (this year on February 24), culminating on Ash Wednesday. This drawn-out celebration timeframe wasn't the only change. Whereas the French version of King Cake uses flaky puff pastry and marzipan filling, the French-American version developed as an iced, yeast-based bread covered in green, yellow and purple sugars (the official colors of Mardi Gras representing justice, faith and power). Leave it to the American influence to turn a French almond-paste galette into a coffee cake doused in garish colored sugar and stuffed with a tiny plastic baby Jesus. Oh well, it's still an improvement over human sacrifice.

Most recipes you see for King Cake are yeast-based doughs but, frankly, I don't have that kind of time. I've created an uber-lazy person's King Cake and thought it was just as tasty. You can make it even easier by substituting canned pie filling or just cinnamon sugar for the nut filling I have here. If you'd like to try the traditional New Orleans King Cake, try one of these.

Easy Mardi Gras King Cake
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup raisins
2 Tbs packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 Tbs butter or margarine, melted
1 Tbs half and half, or milk
1 Tbs honey
1 egg
1 (8 oz) can Pillsbury refrigerated crescent rolls or dough sheet

1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 Tbs milk
1/8 tsp almond extract

Yellow, green and purple sugars for decorating
*note, you can also make these yourself using granulated sugar and food coloring

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease cookie sheet or line with parchment paper. In a small bowl, combine all ingredients except dough; set aside.

2.If using crescent rolls: On lightly floured surface, unroll dough into 1 large rectangle; press or roll into 14x10-inch rectangle, firmly pressing perforations to seal. If using dough sheet: On lightly floured surface, unroll dough; press or roll into 14x10-inch rectangle. Spread nut mixture evenly over dough to within 1/2 inch of long sides.

3. Fold dough in half lengthwise pressing edges to seal in filling. Use hands to squeeze dough into a log and roll gently. Place on cookie sheet, bringing ends together to form a circle; press to seal ends together.

4. Bake 20 to 30 minutes or until deep golden brown. Cover loosely with foil if bread is browning too quickly. Cool 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in small bowl, mix icing ingredients until thin enough to drizzle and smooth.

5. Ice cake and decorate with sugars--don't worry about being messy, this cake is meant to signify the craziness of the celebration! Best served warm. (Oh, and this is when you insert the plastic know, in case you have one of those just laying around)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Can't afford Paris? Try Bucharest!

At first glance, you might think that this is a picture of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. But if you look a bit closer you’ll realize that you are only half correct. It is the Arc de Triomphe…in Romania.

One of the things I have most been looking forward to exploring through my new blog is baking traditions from around the world. For those of you that know me personally, you might not be that surprised to see that my first foreign food foray is into Romanian cuisine. On a whim I spent my first year at the Ohio State University studying Romanian language and had the time of my life. At the time I was burnt out after 6 years of studying Spanish and was looking for something new and different. Of course, being young and stupid, I didn’t realize that Romanian is a Romance language and, thus, not really all that different from Spanish. Oops. But I met lots of great people and had possibly the sweetest old lady teacher to have ever emigrated from a communist stronghold. Also unbeknownst to me, this may have been the subconscious beginnings of my Francophilia.

I don’t expect anyone to know anything about Romania, but one thing I was surprised to find out is that they think they are French. Witness: they have an Arc de Triomphe. They also refer to their capital, Bucureşti, as “Little Paris.” They say “merci” (but, then again, so do the Iranians so I suppose I can’t fault them for that). I’ll spare you the history lesson, but suffice it to say that as early as 1853 a Romanian politician was pleading with Napoleon III to annex Romania to France. Seriously.

Thanks to the generosity of my Romanian professor, I also came to love the nation’s food. With obvious Eastern European influences, having been conquered by the Romans, and this clear French obsession, Romanian cuisine has taken on the best of many worlds. Since college I have been searching for a baked mămăligă recipe, which is basically a baked cheesy polenta. I finally found one courtesy of Galia Sperber and could only smile when I read the description she included above the recipe: “For some reason, which is still unclear to me today, this dish is called an ours (the French word for a bear).”

Mămăligă la Culptor
2 ½ cups milk
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup soft white cheese
¾ cup butter or margarine
Salt to taste
3 eggs, beaten

Bring the milk to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the cornmeal bit by bit, stirring continuously so that no lumps form, until it reaches the consistency of porridge.
Add half the cheese, half the butter, and the salt and mix well.
Allow the polenta to cool slightly and mix in the eggs.
In a greased 11” round cake pan, place half the polenta mixture.
Cover with sprinkling of the rest of the cheese and remaining butter in small pieces.
Fill the pan with the rest of the polenta. Bake at 400 degrees for 30-40 min.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

C'est La V-Day

So, here it is. Valentine’s Day. Since the dawn of 1 February I’ve been debating the merits of a Valentine’s Day blog post. I guess because I’m one of those people that debates the merits of Valentine’s Day. Yes, I’m one of those people. When I’m with someone on Valentine’s Day I always enjoy whatever we do together, though I can never shake the feeling that it’s somehow cheapened by societally-imposed expectations, and when I’m alone, well, Hallmark does a great job of hitting that one home as well. I mean, I’m all for sharing a day together with the one you love, basking in each other’s doleful eyes, spoon-feeding each other from your respective overly priced desserts across a candlelit table and all that crap. But, I mean, why do we need to SET ASIDE a day for that? Shouldn’t we be doing this already??

But I digress.

I am doing a Valentine’s Day blog post because I have decided that it would be a disservice to have a blog devoted to baking and not participate in one of the few days devoted to all things sweet and sugary. I am also doing a Valentine’s Day post because it allows me to daydream once more about my one true love…France. On my last trip to Paris a friend and I got to spend an amazing three hours drinking wine and learning to make pastries from a French chef. The next time you are in Paris, I cannot recommend these classes highly enough. We even got to keep the recipes for all of our creations and I thought this would be the perfect occasion to break out the one for Moelleux au Chocolat. This literally translates to “Chocolate Softness.” Amazing, I know. Basically, they are individual chocolate lava cakes. In class we made them with (stick with me here) a banana-avocado sauce. Which I know sounds gross but really only tastes like banana and provides a striking green splash across the dark chocolate cakes—incredible. But, for the sake of St. Valentine, I thought I would try amending this to a pink strawberry banana sauce instead. Enjoy!

Moelleux au Chocolat
5 oz light brown sugar (2/3 cup)
5 oz butter (1 stick and 2 Tbs)
5 oz dark chocolate (70%)
6 eggs, beaten
2 oz flour (1/4 cup)
1 oz softened butter for the molds

  1. Slowly melt the chocolate and butter in a casserole dish over a pan of simmering water.
  2. Mix the flour and sugar together in a bowl.
  3. Remove the melted chocolate from the heat and add the eggs, mix well and add the flour/sugar mixture, stirring to combine.
  4. Pour the batter into buttered aluminum molds (the Reynolds ramekin-sized ones) and allow to chill for 1-2 hours.
  5. Heat the oven to 350 degrees and cook for 10-12 minutes.

Strawberry Banana Sauce
Strawberries (about 1/2 pint)
1 ripe banana
2 Tbs sugar
Juice of ½ an orange
Juice of ½ a lemon

Add all ingredients to a blender and mix well, refrigerate until ready to use.
For the avocado banana sauce, simply substitute 1 ripe avocado for the strawberries.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Mug Shot

Surfing the web I happened to come across what is possibly the most dangerous recipe I have ever seen. Not because it involves blow-torches or any other dangerous equipment, but because it is a recipe for a chocolate cake…an individual chocolate cake…which can be made in 5 minutes…in the microwave. As if you needed any more excuses to break your New Year’s weight loss resolutions. There is both an “easy” and an “easier” version of this recipe and I have included both (you’re welcome). These would also make great Valentine’s Day gifts for friends baked in cutesy holiday-themed mugs and wrapped in cellophane.

Easier Chocolate Mug Cake
9 Tbs hot chocolate powder mix
4 Tbs flour
1 egg
3 Tbs oil
3 Tbs water
pinch of salt
Chocolate chips (optional)

Easy Chocolate Mug Cake
4 Tbs cake or all-purpose flour
4 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs cocoa powder
1 egg
3 Tbs milk
3 Tbs oil
splash of vanilla
chocolate chips (optional)

Grease the inside of the mug with cooking spray. Measure and pour the dry ingredients into the mug and stir to combine. Add the egg and stir to combine. Measure and pour the remaining wet ingredients into the mug, stir to combine making sure that all dry ingredients are incorporated from the bottom of the mug, stir in chocolate chips if using. Microwave on HIGH for 3 minutes.

*NOTE: You may want to use a larger-than-average mug for this, as the cake does rise as it cooks

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Holy Crêpe!

Thanks to David Liebovitz (fabulous author and blogger on all things food and France) I found out just in time that today is World Nutella Day. Who knew? I guess nothing should really surprise me after the discovery of National Hot Tea Month. Frankly, Nutella always weirded me out a little bit growing up. I always just got the vibe that it was what hippie moms fed to their kids instead of peanut butter because they were afraid of the nitrate levels or something (no offense…) I wish someone would have converted me sooner because this stuff is amazing.

If you’ve never had Nutella, it’s a chocolate hazelnut spread that tastes basically like a straight shot of the filling from those Ferrer Rocher gold-wrapped truffles. Times ten. The jar advertises that you can spread it on everything from whole wheat bread, to bagels, waffles and English muffins. But if you’ve ever been to France or had the good fortune to discover a crêperie in your neighborhood, you know that Nutella’s true culinary soul mate is the crêpe. Corner crêpe stands in Paris are kind of like hot dog carts in the U.S.; ubiquitous and somewhere you can always get a decent snack for under $3. Also like the hot dog cart, each crêperie window will also have a menu of standards. Rather than half-smokes, brats and chips these always include the crêpe with butter and sugar (beurre et sucre), the ham and butter (jambon beurre), and of course…the crêpe Nutella.

Like ice cream cones and cream puffs, homemade crêpes can never be as good as the real thing (unless you are French, and then I am convinced that you are born with innate crêpemaking abilities) but because crêpes and Nutella are forever linked in my mind, in honor of World Nutella Day I just had to give it a shot. You can buy an actual crêpe pan (which of course I do not own) but the recipe I used from my old standby, the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook,actually makes mini crêpes and calls for a 6” skillet. You could certainly use a larger skillet if that’s all you have and simply add more batter. Also, if you’re like me and crêpeing alone, don’t worry; although the recipe makes at least 12 crêpes you can just freeze the leftovers to eat later. Overall I was pretty thrilled with these. But, then again, I can’t think of much that wouldn’t taste amazing slathered in chocolate hazelnut sauce.


2 eggs, beaten
1 ½ cups milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp cooking oil
¼ tsp salt

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and beat until combined (recommend a hand mixer). Heat a lightly greased 6” skillet; remove from heat. Spoon in 2 tablespoons batter; lift and tilt skillet to spread batter. Return to heat; brown on 1 side only (approximately 1 minute on med-high heat). Invert onto paper towels; remove crêpe. Repeat with remaining batter, greasing skillet occasionally.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cupcakes Go Global

I knew we were on to something here...

Italians go mad for Anglo-American cupcakes
Tue Feb 3, 2009 6:48am EST

By Eliza Apperly
ROME (Reuters Life!) - The notorious pride in their national cuisine has not prevented a diminutive foreign delicacy from conquering Italian taste buds -- all hail the cupcake. From do-it-yourself culinary websites to specialist shops, a growing number of Italians are catering to the growing taste for the miniature decorated sponge cakes popular in Britain and the United States.

One Roman establishment championing the trend is Josephine's Bakery, in Rome's cobbled historic center in the aptly named Piazza del Paradiso. Opened four years ago by London-born former model Josephine Scorer, it specializes in non-Italian patisserie and among the pastries from New York, France and Eastern Europe sit dainty little cupcakes at 2.50 euros ($3.22) apiece. Sometimes confused by locals for muffins, the cupcakes are decorated with the bakery's trademark iced flowers.

Optician by day, Rita Buzzacchi dedicates her spare time to British-style patisserie. Her website includes detailed cupcake recipes and effusive write-ups. "Cupcakes. Che Passione!!" the site declares. Since starting up her website three years ago, Buzzacchi has seen interest grow in the delicacy also known in Britain as fairy cakes. In style-conscious Italy, cupcakes appeal to more than just the taste-buds, she said, with their suggestion of childhood, fairy tales and the old-fashioned English tea room. "With their association with well-to-do society and the fine tradition of Victorian tea rooms, they have acquired a sort of romanticism which is often lacking in our own patisserie," Buzzacchi told Reuters.

Marica Coluzzi, another blogger, agrees. Though yet to be convinced that the dryer texture of the cupcake can match up to the creamy indulgences of Italian patisserie, she, too, is charmed by their creativity. "You can decorate them as you like, with almost no limits to one's imagination and the results are wonderful," she said. What's more, cupcakes are quick to cook, easy to transport, and can be eaten whole without a great calorific conscience.

But for all the cupcake craze, Italian palates are yet to be won over by British savory dishes. While some supermarkets stock Chinese, Japanese and Middle Eastern ingredients, there is little sign of British cuisine seducing Italian gourmands. "When it comes to savory produce, for many our own national cuisine remains irreplaceable," Coluzzi said.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)