Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dessert In The Raw

I like to eat. As such I don't really have much experience with any of the fad diets that have come and gone over the past few years. The Zone, Atkins, South Beach, Gwyneth Paltrow's veggie, bean, and well-chewed rice macrobiotic diet (I'm serious, look it up)...all of these pretty much just serve the purpose of depriving me from my favorite foods, usually desserts. But lately several new cookbooks have attempted to incorporate desserts into the New Age Diet fold and I'm not sure how I feel about it.

Specifically, I'm talking about the raw food diet. Arguably less of a diet than a lifestyle, "raw foodists" consume only uncooked, unprocessed, often all organic foods. While raw diet foods can be warmed to a temperature of less than 104 degrees, the idea is that all foods are served uncooked to preserve the highest possible level of naturally occurring nutrients and to keep digestive enzymes intact. Having read that last sentence, like me you're probably wondering how BAKED goods could possibly fall within the realm of options under a diet that does not allow food to be cooked. But two new books, Raw for Dessert by Jennifer Cornbleet and Ani's Raw Food Desserts by Ani Phyo, tell us that incorporating simple, healthy, delicious and raw desserts into our diet is simple! Cookies, brownies, even cheesecakes!

Uh huh.

I'm still skeptical.

While I'm all for retaining nutrients and think it's unfortunate that so much nutritional value can be lost in the cooking and preservation process, I'm just not convinced that vitamins and minerals are usually what we're concerned with while we're downing that brownie sundae. Additionally, what you gain in nutrition you may lose in value. In order to warm your "baked" goods into anything resembling a cookie, brownie, etc. you'll need a food dehydrator. Cost? Anywhere from $50-$200 depending on the level you select. Also, in order to substitute for items like milk and eggs, most raw dessert recipes call for uncommon and expensive ingredients like agave nectar, carob powder, or cacao butter. However, some of the raw dessert blogs I've come across in my research look downright delicious so I'm trying to keep an open mind on this one, but I'll probably just stick to sorbet next time I'm looking for a raw dessert.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Just as summer tends to lead to an overabundance of certain garden fruits and vegetables (zucchini comes to mind...) bananas are also a summer fruit that I can almost never seem to get through before the bunch seems to speckle and soften almost overnight. Such was the case this weekend when I came home from a business trip to be greeted by the sickly-sweet smelling present of overripe bananas I'd inadvertently left on the counter in the mad dash to make it out of the house the week before. Yummy. My mom is almost religious about freezing overripe bananas, which is a great idea for not wasting food and also to have bananas on hand whenever you need them for dishes like banana bread or even smoothies. Eyeing up the brown bunch, naturally banana bread was my first thought but having just made more zucchini bread than one human needs to eat, I was hoping to skip the loaves and mix it up a little.

Flipping through the tome of Martha Stewart Cupcakes I'd received for my birthday, eagerly deciding which recipe I should pick to take the plunge into the 175 (Yes, 175) recipes, I happened to stumble across one for Roasted Banana Cupcakes with Honey-Cinnamon Frosting. Bingo! At first I thought "Roasted Banana" was simply the name of the recipe but, reading on, Martha does in fact call for you to actually roast the fruit. Don't worry, there are no spits or fire pits involved, simply placing unpeeled bananas into a 400 degree oven to enhance the flavors. Similarly to roasting almonds or hazelnuts (which, admittedly, I often skip in recipes) you'd be surprised how much a shot of heat really increases the taste.

Lately I'm also a really big fan of nontraditional frosting combinations, and I think that cinnamon-honey does a lot more for this cupcake than a typical vanilla or even cream cheese would. Because the cake recipe itself doesn't call for any spices, the cinnamon in the frosting makes it just slightly reminiscent of banana bread but in a modern way. Also because banana is a more neutral flavor, this would also be a good candidate for a filled cupcake (I just bought a Wilton #230 Bismarck Tip, stay tuned!) maybe with an apple cinnamon, or chocolate hazelnut filling, or something of that nature. I'm so glad I gave these cupcakes a whirl and I know they will definitely be on my recipe rotation from now on for whenever I have those pesky brown bananas hanging around.

Roasted Banana Cupcakes
makes 12-16

3 ripe bananas, plus 1-2 more for garnish
2 cups cake flour, sifted
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
3 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line muffin tins with paper liners. Place 3 whole unpeeled bananas on a baking sheet and roast 15 minutes (the peels will darken). Meanwhile, sift together cake flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Remove bananas from oven and let cool before peeling. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

2. With a mixer on med-high speed, cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated. Add roasted bananas, and beat to combine. Add flour mixture in three batches, alternating with two additions of sour cream, and beating until just combined after each. Beat in vanilla.

3. In another mixing bowl, with mixer on medium speed, whisk egg shites to soft peaks; fold one-third whites into batter to lighten. Gently fold in remaining whites in two batches.

4. Divide batter evenly among lined cups, filling each three-quarters full. Bake, rotating tins halfway through, until a tester in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool completely before frosting, thinly slice remaining bananas and place atop cupcakes just before serving, if desired. Cupcakes can be stored up to 3 days at room temperature, or frozen up to 2 months, in airtight containers.

Honey Cinnamon Frosting
2/12 cups powdered sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 Tbs honey
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

With an electric mixer on medium speed, beat all ingredients until smooth. Use immediately, or refrigerate up to 5 days in an airtight container. Before using, bring to room temperature and beat until smooth.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Good Enough To Eat

When it comes to baking, I know that I may not be the most elegant of dessert connoisseurs or the most delicate of decorators, but I like to think that I know my limitations, and I know that I am a heck of a lot better at layering a terrine than, say, painting a portrait. Or throwing a clay pot. Or knitting. Or, frankly, anything remotely artistic. For example, in an ill-fated childhood foray into design I once sewed together dried orange peels in an attempt to fashion an avant-garde costume for a stuffed animal, so...yeah. Similarly, I'm sure there are plenty of readers out there that are gifted with deft sewing fingers, crafty scrapbooking hands and a headful of decoupage ideas that would put Martha to shame, but feel they come up short in the baking department. For all those crafty dessert fans that, for one reason or another, can't express their cupcake love in the kitchen--this new book from Lynn Koolish is for you!

"Cupcakes! 30+ Yummy Projects to Sew, Quilt, Knit and Bake" is devoted entirely to crafts paying homage to the cupcake! Pin cushions, recipe boxes, picture frames, you name it. If you're crafty enough to crank out any of these adorable projects, I am very jealous. I'm also on the lookout for cupcake-themed cup cozies, so remember to keep your Cupcake Avenger in mind if you are so artfully inclined :) In addition to adding a playful touch around the home, the best thing about these cupcake crafts is that they're all fat-free, so feel free to indulge!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Magical Midwest Bakery Tour

Being from the Midwest, I've written before that I think America's heartland sometimes gets a bad rap. When I tell friends and colleagues that I'm visiting Ohio, they usually roll their eyes and try to commiserate with how boring and slow-paced a trip back to the Buckeye State must be ("What IS a buckeye??" they always ask sardonically). In fact, I'm proud of my roots as a Columbusite (yes, that's a person from Columbus) and on my recent trip I was eager to take advantage of all that Ohio's capital city has to offer. It's true that Columbus offers many of the typical summer activities you'd expect in the Midwest; there's a state fair with livestock shows and fried anything on a stick, as well as a festival devoted entirely to sweet corn. However, I was excited to checkout many of the same activities that I often enjoy while living in the big city. In addition to a gallery hop, wine tasting and international heritage festival, I was thrilled to learn that the global fad of cupcakes has even made it to my hometown.

Thanks to a great tip from My Columbus Ohio Blog, my first stop was Bakery Gingham in the German Village neighborhood of Columbus and, taking one look at their website, I knew that I had made a good decision. Just opened at this location in January, I was intrigued by owner and chef Amanda Ellis, who started her career in the corporate world before following her passion for baking (if only I could be so brave!) Stepping into the shop around 10 am (admittedly the crack of dawn when it comes to respectable cupcake eating times) the bright decor with splashes of green and pink was immediately inviting and uplifting. After waiting patiently for what seemed like an entire preschool class to make their cupcake selections, my co-taster (Hi, mom!) and I quickly went to work picking out just about one of every cupcake in the case. What I liked best was the unique use of flavor combinations like Twice Chai, Neopolitan, and peanut butter/banana creation Elvis Has Left The Cupcake. I also loved the moistness of the cakes and thought they were just the right sized portions. Checkout Bakery Gingham's website to see all the great flavors they have on rotation (Cinnamon Toast!) as well as their full menu which also features cookies, bars (it is the Midwest after all), scones, coffee cakes, ice cream and cakes to order. As a bonus, the nice employee that helped us also used to work at Billy's Bakery in NYC, which would have been the next stop on my Big Apple Bakery Tour if only I'd had just thismuch more time in town.
Our next stop on the Columbus Cupcake Crusade was Pink Moon Cupcakes in historic Powell. Opened in 2007, I don't know how I could have missed this adorable bakery for so long. Nestled among antique shops housed in 19th century clapboard buildings, it's hard not to be wooed by Pink Moon's location. Once inside, the quaint atmosphere continues with cupcakes showcased by flavor in individual cake domes, the menu in pastel on a giant chalkboard and a small seating area straight out of an old-time soda shop. Our cupcake mania continued here where we chose Buckeye (chocolate cake and real peanut butter frosting inspired by the state candy...yes, the buckeye) Pineapple Crumbcake, Devil's Food and were gifted a Strawberry cupcake baked with pieces of real strawberry throughout--a first for me! Also owner-operated, Pink Moon is inspired by a lifetime of home baking and is a tasty addition to the community.

By the way, during my research I came across this Wikipedia article on Cuisine of the Midwest, do you think they captured the flavors of your hometown?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Cupcakes, Chicago-style

Hey everyone, please join me in welcoming Tanya Brothen, The Cupcake Avenger's first ever guest blogger! Creator of the award-winning travel blog Parisian Spring, Tanya took some time out from a recent business trip in Chicago to enjoy some of the finest cupcakes the Windy City has to offer.

I blame Cupcake Avenger. After months of reading about my friend and fellow blogger's love for/obsession with baking (and sampling her wares with reckless abandon), I've officially caught the cupcake bug. They're all I can think about. I lust after them at lunchtime, and dream about Sunday brunch at DC cupcake hotspots. So when I was planning a weekend in Chicago, my first question, naturally, was, "who has the best cupcakes in the city?" With help from Hilary and the gals at @explorechicago I tracked down two locations with websites that made me drool.

First up was Molly's Cupcakes. Located in Chicago's trendy Lincoln Park neighborhood, Molly's is sweet tooth heaven. In addition to regular, center-filled, and build-your-own cupcakes, there are cookies, bars (it's a Midwest thing), and homemade ice cream. Oh, and cheesecake. It took me at least 15 minutes to decide on a center-filled mixed berry cupcake. The blueberry cake, purple frosting and raspberry blueberry filling tasted like an extra decadent blueberry muffin, and although the frosting had an almost unappealing, slimy consistency, I still couldn't get enough. The fun neighborhood and outdoor patio added to Molly's charm.

My cupcake craving not yet sated, I headed over to Sugar Bliss. Less than two blocks from Millennium Park, and near Chicago's elevated transit system, Sugar Bliss has a more tourist-friendly location than Molly's. I was immediately intrigued by such flavors as raspberry lemonade and orange creamsicle. Not able to decide, I took four minis: cinnamon carrot was divine, vanilla milk chocolate a bit dry, red velvet uneventful and raspberry lemonade a tangy-sweet combination that would keep me coming back for more. If only I didn't live halfway across the country. Bonus: Sugar Bliss also has "breakfast cupcakes," which I'm pretty sure is one of the best ideas yet to come out of the cupcakery explosion.

Molly's Cupcakes: 2536 North Clark St., 773-883-7220,

Sugar Bliss: 115 North Wabash, 312-845-9669,

Tanya Brothen is a Minnesota native who began her travel blog, Parisian Spring, after moving to Paris while completing her Master's Degree in International Affairs. She is currently planning her next international excursion to Brussels, Belgium as a Presidential Management Fellow for the U.S. Department of State.