Saturday, December 26, 2009

Almond Joy

I'm a sucker for weird ingredients. Ok, let's call them "unique" ingredients. Whenever I come across a new, uncommon ingredient that I know will likely use a single time or, more likely, never actually use, it's hard for me to resist buying it anyways in the hopes of giving it a whirl.

Like that pot of Adriatic fig spread I once ate with pears.

Or the jar of tahini I used the single time I made falafel.

Even when I show self restraint, my mind always wanders back to that ingredient on the store shelf and I invariably give in with an "Oh, what the heck." Such was the case with the cans of Almond Cake and Pastry Filling. For some inexplicable reason making a prominent appearance that I don't remember from holiday seasons past, I had successfully avoided making the purchase of this odd ingredient back home--though I admit to picking up a can several times and actually wondering out loud--"What do you use this for??" While home visiting family, however, it was a different story. I mean, what better way to experiment with a strange new ingredient than in someone else's big, well-appointed kitchen? :)

The back of the Solo-brand can quickly gave me a couple of ideas on what, exactly, you do use this product for. One of which was an almond bundt cake. BORING. Doing a quick search on the interwebs I came across a delightful almond cake recipe from one of my fave chefs, David Lebovitz, and couldn't wait to try the simple yet moist cake. If you haven't read David's book, The Sweet Life in Paris, put it on your holiday reading list now because the man is hysterical.

Also to all of you out there that say baking is too difficult: While there is some truth to the saying that "Cooking is an art, but baking is a science," let me tell you that you can mess up a lot more than you think before it will actually affect your recipe. Case in point: almond filling is NOT almond paste. This was mistake #1 in my attempt to recreate David's divine recipe in the blind desire to try out my can of almond filling. #2) after searching the house top to bottom, Mom and I came to the conclusion that she must not, in fact, own the 2 round cake pans that she and I distinctly remembered her owning. No matter, I made this cake in a round springform pan instead and, you know what, this cake was still amazing! It has incredible almond flavor and was still extra moist, as promised.

David Lebovitz's Almond Cake
1 1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup almond paste (not marzipan, maybe almond filling)
10 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9" round cake pan (or springform pan) and dust it lightly with flour, tapping out any excess.

2. With an electric mixer, beat together the sugar and almond paste (or reduce sugar to 1 cup if using almond filling).

3. Now add the butter and beat for a few minutes until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, or a measuring cup with a spout, stir together the eggs then dribble it into the batter as you beat. Add the vanilla.

4. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Stir the dry ingredients into the batter until just incorporated.

5. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake for about 1 hour, or until a toothpick in the center comes out clean. Some variation in baking time may be needed depending on the brand of almond paste. This cake is extremely moist and, if wrapped well, will keep up to a week.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Top Secret Sweets

Moonlighting as a restaurant hostess extraordinaire in the nation's capital, I often have conversations with guests that I walk away from thinking, "Did that really just happen?" Case in point, a recent exchange with one unassuming gentleman:
"I'm waiting for my friend. She used to be a chef for the CIA."
"Oh, haha!" I retorted to this common culinary conundrum in Washington, DC. Whenever throwing around an acronym like that in a town like this you can never be quite sure whether the speaker is referring to the Culinary Institute of America or, well, that place where Jason Bourne likes to hang out. In this case, it happened to be the latter, instantly summoning up images of another famous spy chef enjoying a recent bout of popularity.

Anyways, if you want to tell your friends you whipped up a creation with help from the CIA and leave them wondering, just in time to use up those holiday gift cards that other CIA is releasing a new tome to help you create candied confections in your home kitchen (or secret spy lair) just like the professionals. Chocolates and Confections at Home with The Culinary Institute of America is an unpretentious, step by step guide to help you tackle all types of sweets by taking the intimidation factor out of words like "candy thermometer" and "soft-ball stage." With chapters on truffles, brittles, fondants, marshmallows (!), molding and more, these recipes will be perfect to round out your holiday treat-making schedule once you just can't bring yourself to decorate another single gingerbread man.

So, when you arrive to your next holiday bash with a plate full of delicious buttercreams and meltaways and the host asks for your recipe, just be sure to say, "I'd tell you, but then..."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Attack of the Gingerzombies

I have a slight obsession with World Market. This has been ongoing ever since my days as a poor college student when I first walked there (yes, walked) to buy the requisite dorm room place setting of a single plate and bowl. Thanks to World Market, instead of the typical bag of 500 paper plates gathering grime on top of the mini-fridges of my fellow students, I got a sleek, Asian-inspired, MATCHING black ceramic plate/bowl set for about $10. Now that I'm getting more into cooking and exotic foods, World Market is still my first stop as they import tons of ethnic goodies from around the world and stock them at affordable prices (All spices are $1.99-$2.99. Yes, all of them. Even vanilla beans and whole nutmeg. Believe it). So, I was very excited last week when I found my favorite store also branching out into cupcakes. Nestled somewhere between the English clotted cream and the Italian fruit syrups I happened to spy this friendly looking canister cupcake kit.
Complete with gingerbread cupcake mix, cinnamon frosting mix, white sprinkles, cupcake liners and gingerbread people cupcake toppers, the Jo Cupcake brand kit contains everything you'll need to whip up 8 holiday-themed cakes in no time.

It's been awhile since I've made a dessert from a box (and definitely a first for one from a canister) but there are a few things I admire about pre-packaged mixes. The first is consistency; the ingredients are well-mixed and perfectly proportioned and you can pretty much count on what you're going to get every time. Portion control is also a plus; generally you're not going to end up with enough dessert to feed an army (here's looking at you, Martha, and your recipes for 36 cupcakes). Finally, time and money; when you don't have a lot of time or resources, packaged mixes are great for getting that home cooked feel in a jiffy and on a dime. As for this particular mix, it cost $4.99 and I'd give it a B+.

What I liked
  • Seasonal decorations included. These are the kind of details that really make a dessert stand out on a holiday table but that can also send the cost of your recipe sky high. The fact that they are included in the kit really gives you a lot of bang for your buck.
  • Amazing frosting. The flavor and color of the cinnamon icing really pack a punch and it's a great complement to the gingerbread cake.
  • Great texture. These cakes came out soft and spongy and were still delicious the next day as well.
What I didn't
  • Where's the batter? There wasn't really enough mix to fill all 8 liners, and I only got about 6 1/2 cupcakes out of the batter.
  • "They taste like gingerbread-flavored Necco wafers." I don't recommend actually eating the gingerbread people cupcake toppers. Unless you're looking for some dental work on the cheap.
  • Gingerzombies. Most of the cupcake toppers had also gotten damaged in transit. Try not to notice the empty, eyeless stares of the ones in the pic below.
Overall, I do recommend this kit if you're looking for a quick, homemade treat to bring to a holiday party this season. The flavor is delicious and the kit is relatively easy as long as you have some standards on hand (oil, egg, butter, powdered sugar). If there's not a World Market in your area, the Jo Cupcake line is also carried at some Bed, Bath and Beyond stores in a range of flavors.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Magical Midwest Bakery Tour, Pt. II

Possibly spurred by my inexplicable lack of cupcake baking of late, my cupcake eating has somehow not suffered in the least. After cupcakeing my way through New York, Paris, Chicago and Boston during the past four months, I saw no reason to stop on my Thanksgiving trip home last week to Columbus, Ohio. With hometown faves Pink Moon and Bakery Gingham under my belt, I was excited to checkout two more cupcakeries in the Historic Dublin area of northwest Columbus. Located just a few storefronts apart, Our CupCakery and Sugar Inc. Cupcakes are both perfect stops after a late fall stroll amongst the quaint shops of Historic Dublin.

And when I say "historic", I mean OLD :) Settled in 1810, nearly every building on High Street proudly displays a plaque denoting its status on the National Register of Historic Places. Nestled in one such stone building was our first stop, Our CupCakery. Primarly a custom-order bakery, this shop also offers a small selection of cupcakes to-go and a unique, build-your-own cupcake bar that is beyond fun. Sorry, no cocktails at this cupcake bar. Set up assembly line style and sold by weight, Our CupCakery provides a selection of several cake choices, fun frostings, toppings and sprinkles for you to create your very own masterpiece. I went with the delicious combo of almond cake, coffee frosting and Heath bar crumbles. As you can see, my brother was a little more adventurous with his choice of red velvet cake, raspberry frosting, Ohio State Buckeye sprinkles and a side of gummy worms and Coke bottles. But, I have to admit, the combo of red velvet and raspberry was delicious--he's clearly the artiste of the family.
If one cupcake stop just isn't enough (and when is it ever?) just continue a few steps down N. High St. to Sugar Inc. Cupcakes & Tea Salon. Outfitted in pale blue and light wood accents and featuring 100% organic cupcakes, this outpost of cupcake zen is possibly the most inviting cupcakery I've ever been to. With ample seating room, abundant natural light, a small food menu and 50 fresh-brewed teas to choose from, it was a delight to sip our tea and nibble our cupcakes in such a relaxed environment. The day we came in there were a few cupcake flavors left on offer including Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, dark chocolate, strawberry and, of course, Buckeye. We sampled a selection of minis, with dark chocolate the runaway hit. The cake was so moist it practically fell apart, and I was also a fan of the decadent peanut butter "silk" frosting. I've never had 100% organic cupcakes before and was afraid that some of the sweetness would suffer, but not so. The only downside with this sweet shop is that you also get what you pay for--at $3.75 for a cupcake and $1.50 for a mini, these are also the most expensive cupcakes I've sampled. Though, I do have to say, the experience is definitely worth it and you can bet I'll be back on my next trip home for Christmas.

P.S. Just in case you're not in the mood for cupcakes (gasp!), stop by Jeni's ice cream at the corner of High and Bridge streets if you happen to find yourself in Dublin (next year's Memorial Tournament, perhaps?). With flavors like White Chocolate Evergreen with Red Currant Garland and Goat Cheese with Cognac Fig Almond Compote, I can promise you it's like no ice cream you've ever had. Not planning on making it to Ohio anytime soon? Oh yes, they deliver... :)

If you go
Our CupCakery
16 N. High St.
Dublin, OH 43017
Tues-Sat 11am-5pm

Sugar Inc. Cupcakes & Tea Salon
36 N. High St.
Dublin, OH 43017
Mon-Sat 11am-9pm

Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams
1 Bridge St.
Dublin, OH 43017
Apr-Sept 11am-11pm
Oct-Mar 12pm-10am