Saturday, December 25, 2010

Candyland

Once I discovered that it doesn't always take 9 years to make candy (if you're doing correctly), I guess maybe you could say I went a little overboard on the confectionaries.  But once I saw the gorge display of unique holiday chocolate barks in last month's issue of Martha Stewart Living, I couldn't wait to try out a few to finish off my holiday candy boxes.

I know it may be a little late for holiday cooking at this point, but just wait for that week-long lull between Christmas and New Year's when you've got nothing but piles of leftover dried fruit, nuts, and citrus falling down around you.  Then you'll be back :)

The basic recipe for this bark is super simple: just 1 pound of chopped dark, white or bittersweet chocolate depending on the recipe, and then whatever toppings your little heart desires.  Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler (or, let's be honest, a pan placed on top of another pan of simmering water) pour into prepared pans, top as desired, then pop them into the fridge to cool. And that's it. Srsly. 

A note on prep: there are also about a million ways to prepare these (...or at least 3) depending on the final look you're going for.  The easiest is simply to grease a cookie sheet or line it with a silicone baking mat, then break it into pieces by hand once it has cooled.  A great idea for gifting would be to line mini loaf pans with parchment then wrap the final product like homemade candy bars.  I just sprayed aluminum loaf pans with cooking spray, but I imagine you could also pour these into adorable holiday candy molds too.  See? A million ways.

Dried Cranberry, Pistachio and Toasted-Coconut White Chocolate Bark
1 lb white chocolate, chopped, melted and poured into prepared pans
1/4 cup each dried cranberries, roasted salted pistachios, large flake unsweetened coconut

Dried Cherry and Orange Zest Bittersweet Chocolate Bark
1 lb bittersweet chocolate, chopped, melted and poured into prepared pans
1/4 cup each dried cherries and finely grated orange zest

Each recipe fills 2 regular-sized loaf pans

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Boys of Baking

Don't get too excited ladies, we're not talking about the new 2011 Calendar you can expect under your tree this year :) Since beginning my blog, I've gotten to hear great stories from my friends about their baking exploits.  Surprisingly, a number of these came from my guy friends, eager to share that they, too, liked to bake the occasional cupcake or had learned to bake the most incredible fruit pies with their grandfathers growing up.  And so, in their honor, I am starting the Boys Who Bake series on The Cupcake Avenger.  Please join me in welcoming my second-ever guest blogger and super brave friend Matt Sullivan who agreed to be featured in volume 1!  Hit me up at cupcakeavenger@gmail.com if you'd like to be considered for the next installment of Boys Who Bake!
 
I was invited this week by my friend Hilary to write a guest spot for the "Cupcake Avenger". Yes, I am a male. And yes, I just successfully baked something. I consider this a minor victory for men everywhere. 

This may be blasphemous, but I decided to make my medium muffins vice cupcakes. And muffins are just bald cupcakes, right? :)

I spent some good time looking at recipes for this venture, and narrowed my focus down to creating something healthy I could bring back to my office, as we are constantly inundated with all sorts of caloric-packed treats. I finally landed on Oatmeal Blueberry Muffins, and found the healthiest recipe I could find. However, I currently live in the Middle East, and finding everything I needed for this was difficult and/or impossible. I did the best I could. 

The baking was actually quite fun. I am already ready for an encore. Perhaps if Hilary will host me again in the future I can take a crack at something a wee bit more complicated. 

When it was all said and done, they turned out rather flat looking, but they are delicious! It's an added bonus knowing they aren't completely terrible for you. 

*It is of note to point out I listened to rock music while I was baking to make this experience as masculine as possible. 

Here is the recipe for anyone who wants to try it out as well:
Oatmeal Blueberry Muffins
1/2 cup flour
1 3/4 cup uncooked oatmeal
5 Tbs Splenda brown sugar blend
1 Tbs baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup skim milk
1/4 cup Egg Beaters or 1 egg equivalent
1/2 cup unsweetened apple sauce
2 Tbs vanilla extract
1 to 1 1/2 cups blueberries (thawed, if frozen)
1 Tbs Splenda
1 Tbs ground cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 375° F and line a standard 12-cup muffin pan with paper baking cups.

2. In a medium bowl, combine flour, oatmeal, brown sugar blend, baking powder and salt. Mix well with a spoon.

3. In a small bowl, using a spoon or fork, combine vanilla extract, skim milk, Egg Beaters, and apple sauce.  Mix well.

4.  Add this mixture to the flour mixture and beat until ingredients are well-blended.  Fold in the blueberries.

5. Pour an equal amount of batter into each cup until cups are about 2/3 to 3/4 full.

6.  Combine Splenda and cinnamon; sprinkle evenly over muffins.

7.  Bake for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

Each muffin provides approximately 115 calories, .9 g fat, 0mg Cholesterol, 120mg sodium, 21.9g Carbohydrates including 2.1g of Dietary Fiber and 8.3g Sugar and 3.8g Protein

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Let It Snow

And so the first flakes have fallen on the DC area and residents wasted no time in responding with the traditional panic-stricken hissy fit.  After fighting my way home from work in the daunting 1" of slush, I was about ready to have a hissy fit myself, when I met a woman and her grandson in the lobby of my apartment building.  They were grinning ear to ear because it was the first time either of them had seen snow.  This totally made my day, and I guess it's those little things that we should remember not to take for granted this time of year.

These snowflake cookies will definitely NOT give you a hissy fit, because I think they are possibly the easiest cookies ever to make.  They are also super versatile and you can decorate them any way you like.  My grocery store happened to have uber adorable Andes holiday baking chips, but you could also substitute crushed candy canes, or nothing at all--the peppermint extract provides excellent flavor.  A little hint of red or green food coloring would also be great for the season, but maybe not quite so snowflake-like...


Peppermint Snowflake Meringues
3 large egg whites
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure peppermint extract
1/4 cup Andes Mint holiday baking chips (optional)
Clear sanding sugar (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 175 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper, set aside.

2. Put egg whites and sugar in the heatproof bowl. Set bowl over a pan of simmering water, and stir gently until sugar has dissolved and mixture is warm to the touch, 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Transfer bowl to an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, or beat with a hand mixer. Mix on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form. Mix in peppermint extract and baking chips, if using.

4. If desired, fit a pastry bag with an open star tip and pipe small star shapes onto prepared baking sheets. Sprinkle each star with sanding sugar, if using.

5. Bake cookies until crisp but not brown, about 1 hour 40 minutes. Let cool completely on sheets on wire racks.   Makes 3-5 dozen, depending on size.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fleur de Sel Caramels

Because it sounds fancier than "carmels."

I've never really been much of a candy maker (see: the fudge from hell). But for the holidays this year I plan to give homemade candy boxes as gifts for friends, and was inspired by a gift of gorgeous French fleur de sel to try these salted caramels (sorry to ruin part of the surprise for some of you!)

I know fleur de sel sounds super fancy and intimidating, but it's essentially just a coarse grain of salt that's now often available in most grocery stores, and is excellent for seasoning almost anything that calls for regular table salt.  As for those of you saying "Carmel and salt?? Eew!" The chocolate-covered pretzel people are way ahead of us on this one and we've never looked back. Just trust me on this one.

If you're sending any care packages to friends and family overseas this year, these candies are also an excellent choice because you get that homemade touch without having to worry about them getting stale, melted, smashed or otherwise manhandled en route.

As for the carmel vs. caramel debate, I'll leave that one up to you.  And that really annoying McDonald's carmel latte commercial.

A couple of notes: The recipe below is the "short cut" version.  Instead of using sweetened condensed milk, you can also substitute 2 cups half-and-half or light cream, but this may take about 60 minutes to reach firm ball stage, instead of about 20. 

There's really no easy way to cut carmels without making a sticky mess.  Let the carmel sit for at least 3 hours to help them set before you start cutting.  I read a tip about using a buttered knife, but didn't really find this to be any more effective.  Using your sharpest knife, press quickly and firmly on the back of your knife with your non-cutting hand to sort of "press" the caramels rather than using a back-and-forth cutting motion. After each row of candies you cut, run your knife under very hot water to remove any excess before moving on to the next row. 

As for the wrappers, I just cut waxed paper into 5x4" squares though, after the mind-numbing task of cutting and salting about 75 caramels, you may want to save your sanity by just purchasing pre-cut candy wrappers. Other than that you're on your own :)

Fleur de Sel Caramels
1 cup butter
1 16-oz pkg packed light brown sugar
1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk (or 2 cups light cream)
1 cup light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla
Fleur de sel

1. Line an 8x8x2" or 9x9x2" baking pan with foil, extending foil over edges of pan.  Butter or spray the foil.  Set aside.

2.  In a heavy saucepan with high sides melt butter over low heat.  Add the brown sugar, sweetened condensed milk (or cream, if using) and corn syrup; mix well.  Cook and stir over medium-high heat until mixture boils.  Insert a candy thermometer.  Reduce heat to medium; continue boiling at a moderate, steady rate, stirring frequently, until the thermometer registers 248°F, firm ball stage.  Adjust heat as necessary to maintain a steady boil.

3.  Remove pan from heat; remove thermometer.  Stir in vanilla.  Quickly pour mixture into prepared pan.  When firm, use foil to lift out of pan.  Cut into 1" squares and press each piece lightly onto a small plate of fleur de sel, wrap as desired.  Store up to two weeks.  Makes 2 lbs, or about 64 pieces.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Minty Fresh

My oven runs hot. I know this. And yet I still manage to overbake my cookies. Every. Single. Time.  And, of course, this time was no exception. Though I suppose there's something to be said for consistency, I always seem to forget that cookies will continue to bake ever so slightly once removed from the oven.  Though not burnt, mine lost that delicious, right-out-of-the-oven-chewiness as they cooled in favor of a tougher, are-you-trying-to-make-biscotti-here-or-what?? texture.  So, even if you think your cookies might look like they may need to bake ever so slightly longer...DON'T.  Don't be like me, and pop them back into the oven for another two minutes even though you know your oven overcooks.  Sigh. 

These cookies are also an example of what happens when you have a driving urge to bake something but no real inspiration for ingredients or flavors combos--so you just make the recipe from the back of the Nestle Toll House chocolate chip package.  But not just any chocolate chips mind you, limited edition dark chocolate and mint chips.  Ooooohhh.  I couldn't help myself when I saw the holiday-themed bag in the store, and grabbed a pack before really thinking ahead to what I would do with this delicious find.  Luckily, Nestle is one step ahead and gives this recipe for Mint Chocolate Delights as well as another recipe for your standard chocolate chip cookie substituting the holiday morsels.

A couple of notes:  This dough is sticky like woah, so you may be better off to stir by hand rather than with electric beaters if you don't have a stand mixer. 

Mint Chocolate Delights
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup baking cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 2/3 cups (10-oz. pkg.) Nestle Toll House Dark Chocolate & Mint Morsels

1. Preheat oven to 325° F.

2. Combine flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels. Drop by well-rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

3. Bake for 11 to 13 minutes or until cookies are puffed and centers are set. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes about 3 dozen

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review: Crumbs Bakeshop

So it's finally here.  After much hype and controversy, New York's Crumbs Bakeshop opened its first area location last week in Penn Quarter.

Why the hype? Well, in addition to the local population still collapsing into conniptions at the mention of cupcakes, Crumbs was giving away a whopping 1,000 free cupcakes for their opening on the 19th, and they also bring a novelty yet to be seen at any other local cupcake shop: sizes.  Not just mini vs. standard, but 4 different sizes ranging from mini to "colossal," meant to be shared by up to 4 people. Or just yourself. I won't judge.

So, why the controversy? Because, up to now, our DC-area cupcakeries on the whole are single shop start-ups, run by area residents.  Hence the controversy of a large, well-established chain of outsiders plunking down their bakery in the middle of the DC cupcake scene after allowing it to become established and flourish through the hard work of DMV bakers and entrepreneurs.  However, I was prepared to love Crumbs. Despite myself, and my feelings about local businesses, I had heard that Crumbs specialized in somewhat exotic flavors--my siren song when it comes to cupcakes.
I should have known better.

My fellow cupcake taster and I arrived on November 20th, a day after the 1000-cupcake-giveaway-opening-day-bonanza, and what I thought would be a safe day to avoid the madness. Wrong.  Apparently a portion of those 1000 cupcakes had come out of their next day's supply because, when we arrived, there were only a few flavors left in the case, and all of them were in the "Signature"/grapefruit size or larger.  Minutes after we arrived, a line of at least 10 or more formed quickly behind us and out the door.  Though there were two employees behind the counter, they both proceeded to spend the next 10 minutes making ONE latte while everyone in line became very confused about where/how to order. After needing to shout our order from the crowd once we were finally helped, my friend and I chose a pre-packed selection of 12 minis, rather than trying to gorge ourselves on the few seemingly steroid-enhanced cakes left in the case.  This pack cost $18.  That's right.  1. 8. $.


As for the cupcakes themselves, I can really only recommend what we called "the ding-dong looking one."  It was delicious, with an excellent chocolate ganache.  Also, the jam-filled raspberry swirl was unique, as well as the chocolate chip and oreo cookie versions.  Other than that, the rest of these cakes were rather dry, with the same vanilla frosting used on every cake (even the red velvet, and "mint" chocolate).  I can also say that the vanilla filled with chocolate cream cheese earns the infamous title of the only cupcake I have never been able to finish.

There's a reason I point all of this out. Because, normally, I am extremely forgiving of new restaurants at opening, because it takes time to work out the kinks. But, if you have been in business for 7 years and feel superior enough to plunk your popsicle stand down in the middle of someone else's game--you had better have your shite together. And Crumbs does not.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cupcakes For a Cause

I think I managed to make it to the ripe old age of about 24 before I broke down and sampled sweet potato casserole.  Something about the combination of vegetables and marshmallows just always made me wary.  Probably for the same reason that I won't drink that V8 Splash "fruit" juice.  They may have the kids fooled, but I know there's carrots in there.  Eventually I realized that sweet potato casserole is just a dessert masquerading as a side dish, and now it's a staple that I always look forward to this time of year.

When fellow blogger Thrifty DC Cook asked me to donate cupcakes for a bake sale benefiting the DC State Fair, I was more than happy to oblige.  This year's inaugural fair was an excellent event, and the idea of the bake sale was a focus on local ingredients with a fall theme.  While I couldn't manage to find any locally-grown marshmallows (that's a joke, people), I was inspired by another DC food blogger--Department Of Plate--to incorporate my new found love of sweet potato into cupcake form for the fall theme.  The bake sale is going on now at the 14th & U Farmer's Market, so DMVers act NOW NOW NOW and these cupcakes can be yours!  Come out between 9am-1pm to support the DC State Fair, meet some of the most awesome bloggers ever, and sample all of the excellent local vendors.

A couple of notes:  this recipe is adapted from Martha Stewart's cupcake tome--I halved it, as the original makes an astounding 28 cupcakes.  Also, I used a marshmallow frosting for this, but feel free to just use mini-marshmallows in honor of the original casserole.  And, if you don't have a kitchen torch, you can always just toast your topping of choice by popping them under the broiler for a few seconds, being careful not to catch your cupcake wrappers on fire, of course. Safety first.

Candied Sweet Potato Cupcakes
2 pounds (about 3 medium) sweet potatoes, scrubbed
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp coarse salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 cups miniature marshmallows (or marshmallow frosting, below)
Candied pecan pieces (optional, below)

1. Preheat oven to 400°. Pierce sweet potatoes with a fork and place on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. Bake until completely soft and juices begin to seep from the potatoes and caramelize, about 1 hour. Reduce oven to 325°.

2. When cool enough to handle, slice potatoes in half lengthwise and use a fork to scrape the flesh from the skin into a bowl, discarding skins. Mash potato with fork until smooth. (You should have about 2 cups.)

3. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners. Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream butter and both sugars until pale and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Beat in mashed sweet potatoes and vanilla. Reduce speed to low. Add the flour mixture in three batches, beating until completely incorporated after each.

4. Divide batter evenly among lined cups, filling each three-quarters full. Bake, rotating tins halfway through, about 28 minutes. Transfer tins to wire racks to cool completely before removing cupcakes.
5. Make topping: Dividing evenly into 4 mounds, place marshmallows on a large baking sheet or nonstick baking mat. Using a small kitchen torch, brown marshmallows all over (or heat under the broiler). With an offset spatula, transfer mounds to cupcakes, and top with candied pecans.

Marshmallow Frosting
8 eggs whites
2 cups sugar
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1. Place egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar in the heatproof bowl of an electric mixer. Set over a saucepan with simmering water. Whisk constantly until sugar is dissolved and whites are warm to the touch, 3 to 4 minutes.

2. Transfer bowl to electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and beat, starting on low speed, gradually increasing to high, until stiff, glossy peaks form, 5 to 7 minutes. Add vanilla, and mix until combined. Makes enough to frost 2 dozen cupcakes.

Candied Pecans
1/2 cup pecan pieces
4 Tbs water
4 Tbs sugar

1. Place pecans, water and sugar in a small saucepan.  Stir to dissolve the sugar, and bring to a simmer. Simmer 7-10 minutes, until golden and coated.  Remove pecans to parchment and allow to cool.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Apple-Cranberry Streusel Pie

I'm a big fan of pie. Homey and unpretentious, pie is difficult to mess up and always comforting. In terms of flavor choices and individual servability, I'd even be willing to give it my vote as the next "it" dessert. Local pie rebel Dangerously Delicious is clearly ahead of the curve on this one.

I made this pie a few weeks ago, on Columbus Day, when I happened to find myself with a blissful 4-day weekend and unseasonably warm temps. After the requisite three days of sitting around doing nothing, I finally managed to motivate not only to make this pie, but to actually drive out to Stribling Orchard in Markham, Virginia and pick the apples myself. How quaint.

Blue Ridge views from Stribling Orchard

There is definitely something rewarding about using local produce, and I may have even gone a little local-overboard by buying about 2 pounds of Stribling's homemade honey. Oops. In other words...stay tuned for honey-based recipes :)

I also made pie crust from scratch for this one, but it honestly wasn't that great (I found it too tough, though that can be a plus for juicy fruit pies) so I won't include the recipe here, but feel free to substitute your own favorite or store-bought crust. The streusel topping, however, was easy and amazing. If you don't have a pastry cutter for this step, you can just use two knives to cut the butter into the flour--not as effective, but much more ninja-like.
Ninja Pie

Apple-Cranberry Pie

FILLING
Juice of 1 orange
Zest of 1 orange
5 cups of peeled, sliced apples (approximately 5 medium apples)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh or frozen cranberries, chopped (if frozen, do not thaw)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon

TOPPING
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons oats
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1. Make or purchase one recipe of your favorite pie crust.  Preheat oven to 400. Roll pie dough out into a 12-inch circle on a lightly floured surface. Place dough in the pie pan and refrigerate while you make the filling and topping.

2. To make filling, mix all ingredients together in a medium bowl. To make topping, mix all ingredients together in a small bowl. The topping mixture should clump when pressed together.

3. Add filling to cold pie crust and scatter topping all over the filling. Bake at 400 degrees until the juice in the center of the pie is bubbling, about 1 hour. If the crust or topping becomes too dark, cover the pie loosely with foil.

4. Transfer to a wire rack; cool completely before serving.

Easy as pie!!

Monday, November 8, 2010

I Left My Blog in San Francisco

Ok, not really. But I definitely could have left my heart there after this past weekend's trip to the city by the bay for the second annual Foodbuzz Blogger Festival.

While I will be the first to admit that I use travel as an escape (not always...but often), the Foodbuzz Fest was an excellent chance not only to indulge in the escapism of jetting cross-country for the weekend and to leave east coast worries behind, but also to meet up with hundreds of other foodies just like me. 

It was refreshing to be able to crouch underneath a table in order to take ridiculously close-in shots of a meal without wondering what other people would think of you...because there was actually line forming of others who wanted that exact angle for their photos too.  Or to overhear a conversation beginning with "Well, let me tell you about the different tiers of lettuce..." and actually be intrigued.  The Foodbuzz Fest was three days of unrepentant foodie bliss, and I highly recommend it to any other food bloggers, epicureans, gastronomes or armchair chefs out there that want to get more involved in food and the culture of the way we eat. 

Unfortunately the weekend was somewhat marred by a Sunday rain delay at the San Francisco airport which resulted in my spending the next 24 hours (aka 2 cab rides, 1 plane trip, 1 train trip and 5 hours of driving) attempting to get home.  But, let me tell you, there is nothing like freezing your @$$ off in the middle of November while passing the hours of 1am-5am at Philadelphia's 30th St. train station--abandoned but for the motley cast of homeless crazies and a similarly appointed McDonald's--to give you the time to get some perspective on your life.  So, I'd say a net gain overall :)

And now, for the pics:
A floor full of foodies surrounded by amazing samples. Heaven.
And we're not talking cocktail weenies, but stuff like this.  Um, yes, please.

Absolutely the most amazing sandwich I have ever eaten. Porchetta sandwich from Roli Roti...fatty, tender pork with a crisp, salty/sweet crust. *drool*  DC: GET ON THIS!

Cool chili/bay leaf display at the vegetarian gumbo stand

Like me, he was just happy to be there.  Until next year!!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes aka When Blogs Collide

Writing a baking blog, I always get a thrill when friends regale me with tales of their baking exploits, which usually start out more often than not with something along the lines of, "I followed the recipe exactly! I don't know what happened!" I know baking can be intimidating, so I always encourage novice bakers to just take the plunge, and was more than excited when a friend and fellow blogger asked for my help tackling Hummingbird Bakery's pumpkin spice cupcakes and cream cheese frosting.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid I might not have been much help on this one.  Between needing to find a converted recipe from the original metric instructions, attempting to double it, realizing halfway through that one of the directions had clearly been omitted in the cookbook, and mangling a hand mixer beyond repair...well, as I've said before, let's just say that sometimes you really can be a lot less exact in your baking and still end up with a delicious end product.  Because these cupcakes were GREAT! Super moist and delicious, these cakes were definitely a hit.

Check out the recipe, more on Hummingbird, and Tanya's take on the international flavor of Halloween here at Parisian Spring.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Oh Fudge

In a similar vein as whoopie pies, fudge may not be the most glamorous of desserts, but it's definitely one of those homespun standards that always manages to make it onto the dessert side of the table at family potlucks and always manages to disappear--piece by addictive piece. 

While this recipe for Spiced Pumpkin Fudge from Libby's is not exactly difficult, it IS time consuming.  The first step requires you to heat sugar to soft-ball stage (234-240 degrees, you will need a candy thermometer or the good old bowl-of-water test) while constantly stirring...and stirring...and stirring.  If your arm is cramping up and you're starting to sweat from the heat of a pot of boiling sugar, you're on the right track...keep stirring.  Before you get started you may want to crank up some tunes and crack open a bottle of pumpkin ale to help pass the time.  That's what helped me at least :) 

I do have a sneaking suspicion that the refusal of the sugar to reach soft-ball stage in a reasonable amount of time may have something to due with the fact that I had to use dark brown sugar instead of light brown sugar.  Oops.  But I'd love to hear about your experience it if anyone else gives this recipe a try!  The fudge was still delicious even though I finally threw in the towel (the spoon?) while the sugar was still only at 220 degrees.  Shh, don't tell.

Spiced Pumpkin Fudge
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter or margarine
2/3 cup (5 fl.-oz. can) evaporated milk
1/2 cup pumpkin
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
2 cups (12-oz. pkg.) white chocolate morsels
1 jar (7 oz.) marshmallow crème
1 cup chopped pecans
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Line a 13 x 9-inch baking pan with foil. 
2. Combine sugar, brown sugar, evaporated milk, pumpkin, butter and spice in a medium, heavy-duty saucepan. Bring to a full rolling boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Boil, stirring constantly, for 10 to 12 minutes or until candy thermometer reaches 234° to 240º F (soft-ball stage).

3. Quickly stir in morsels, marshmallow crème, nuts and vanilla extract. Stir vigorously for 1 minute or until morsels are melted. Immediately pour into prepared pan. Let stand on wire rack for 2 hours or until completely cooled. Refrigerate tightly covered. To cut, lift from pan; remove foil. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Makes about 3 pounds.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Making Whoopie

Forgive the title; I couldn't help myself. 

With pumpkin spice season fully upon us, I couldn't wait to try out Martha Stewart's mini chocolate and pumpkin whoopie pies for a festive fall pumpkin carving party.  At first I thought it might be a little sadistic to bring pumpkin snacks to a pumpkin carving...but I got over it.

Although whoopie pies seem to be enjoying a surge in popularity recently--some even suggesting they are "the new cupcake"--I was shocked to discover how many of my friends had actually never even heard of whoopie pies.  "You're making pumpkin WHAT?" was the typical response.

If you are a whoopie novice, probably the best way to describe them is similar in concept to an oatmeal cream pie, but with cake instead of oatmeal cookies.  Some may try to tell you that a whoopie pie is a Moon Pie. They are NOT Moon Pies.  If you're getting technical, Moon Pies are commercial sandwiches of graham cookie and marshmallow creme dipped in chocolate whereas the whoopie is all cake and frosting.  I'd like to say that these whoopie pies were a total hit at the party, but there may have been an unfortunate forgetting-them-in-the-fridge incident.  Oops.  But *I* can tell you that they were delicious...I had about 6 of them.  Oops. 

For residents of the DMV, whoopies have officially invaded the area--get your fix from B. Hall, an area baker specializing exclusively in whoopie pies or also from pop-up baker Whoops! Bakeshop currently hawking pies at Mid City Caffe until hopefully opening a storefront next year.

A couple of notes: 1)  if you're using a dark metal pan you may want to reduce your oven temp. 2) Try to flatten your batter rounds a little bit as they tend to bake up rather than out. 3) These are MINI whoopie pies, people, so portion control on the batter.  Believe me, I know it's hard.  Or you could just get this whoopie pie pan from Williams-Sonoma.

Mini Pumpkin Whoopie Pies
  makes about 20 sandwiches

Cookies:
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed dark-brown sugar
1 large egg
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Filling:
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup canned solid pack pumpkin
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
1. Prepare cookies: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl; set aside.

2. Place butter, shortening, and sugars into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on high speed until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add egg; mix until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in half the flour mixture, then the milk and vanilla. Mix in remaining flour mixture.

3. Drop about 2 teaspoons dough onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper, spacing 2 inches apart. Bake until cookies spring back when lightly touched, 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer baking sheets to wire racks and let cool 10 minutes. Remove cookies from baking sheets and transfer to wire racks using a spatula; let cool completely.

4. Prepare filling: In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip together cream cheese, butter and confectioners' sugar on medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg; whip until smooth, scraping down the bowl as necessary.

5. Pipe or spoon about 2 teaspoons filling on the flat sides of half the cookies. Sandwich with remaining cookies, keeping the flat sides down.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Tour of Tiramisu

Next on my culinary tour of Italia, I couldn't wait to try out my go-to dessert, tiramisu, in its natural habitat.

While the origins of this trifle-like dessert are a bit cloudy (some even attributing its creation to a brothel where it was used to boost the energy of the clientel--the names does mean "pick me up" afterall...) the ingredients throughout the decades have remained the same: ladyfingers, eggs, marscarpone, coffee and liquor. Yes, please. 

My first taste was in Venice at the Ristorante al Teatro, adjacent to the Fenice Theater.  The food here was decent but I definitely recommend it on show nights for the added bonus of people-watching.  From their patio you have an excellent view of the local Venetians dolled up in their Italian finest for a night at the Fenice.  The first thing I noticed about the tiramisu (tiramisi?) in Italy was that it was typically served premade in individual dishes, rather than served in slab-like squares as if cut from a sheetcake a la the American style.  I found this particular version far too heavy on the coffee, leaving the bottom cake layers cold and soggy.  Otherwise I found the flavors to be well-balanced, if a little light on the liquor (No, I don't have a problem).

Unfortunately I don't have a photo, but my next tiramisu experience was in Florence, and was almost the exact opposite of my Venetian dessert.  I truly wish I had a picture, because the marscarpone filling was so heavy on egg yolks that it was in fact yellow.  Also served in an individual dish, this dessert came topped with about 1/2" of cocoa powder on top and, if you've ever had the unpleasant experience of eating plain cocoa powder, well, you can imagine the unplesant aftertaste.  Though I do remember that the cake wasn't soggy, I honestly can't remember tasting any hint of coffee or liquor as the eggy flavor was so overwhelming.  If you're a fan of custards, then this Florentine style tiramisu is definitely for you. 

While I'm glad I got to sample a taste of true Italian tiramisu, I think I'll be sticking to my own recipe for now.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gelato Joy

Howdy, strangers!  I know, I know. I've been completely MIA for the last several weeks while getting my Stateside and globe-trotting life back in order.  I know, I know. This post is still not the Brandied Dried Fig and Vanilla Souffle I promised you before discovering what is apparently the Great Ramekin Shortage of 2010. (Don't worry, the souffle is coming!)  Though I may have been missing for a few weeks, it was with the best of intentions as I can now bring you tales of gelato, tiramisu and panna cotta straight from the source--Italia.  During my recent time in Venice, Florence and Rome I made it my mission to sample all of these Italian specialties and report back.  Tough job, I know.  In this first installment I bring you a taste of the endless joys of gelato.

I will be the first to tell you that ice cream is my favorite food.  Specifically, Graeter's Mocha Chip. Though when it comes to flavors, I think the reason I'm partial to ice cream is one of the same reasons I love cupcakes--the endless possibilities of flavor infusions.  So, though I've enjoyed quite a few cones in my day, admittedly I would have been at a loss to tell you the difference between ice cream and its exotic Italian cousin, gelato. Most of what I could relate came secondhand from friends who had been to Italy and would recite without fail that gelato found in the States was "never the same" as the local stuff.  With this in mind, I set out on my first Italian sojourn determined to try gelatos from North to South, from the reputed "best" to those sold in the heart of tourist town.

As you can imagine, it was a tough job.

My first taste of gelato was at the most renowned shop in Venice, Gelateria Nico.  Located in Dosoduro near the Accademia and Peggy Guggenheim collections, this is a convenient stop after a long morning of museum hopping.  I tried the Tiramisu and, in addition to being put off that you have to order something other than gelato if you want to sit at a table, I found the consistency to be less creamy than most and more similar to the style of ice cream we find in the States.  Consistency is one of the main differences you'll find between ice cream and gelato due to several factors including a lower butterfat and sugar content in gelato (fewer calories!!) and a mixing process that doesn't incorporate air the way ice cream does, producing a gelato that is much more dense.

In Florence I have to admit that my favorite gelato came from an essentially no-name stand located off one of the more touristy piazzas.  Luckily when traveling I stick to my premise of getting off the beaten track and not sticking too heavily to tour guides.  Particularly with something as subjective as cuisine, more often than not I've found guidebook restaurant suggestions to be overrated, and that food does not taste better just because it's famous. (Your thoughts?)  At this stand I picked up a generous scoop of Coconut and was surprised to find flakes of toasted coconut throughout the scoop and not just sprinkled on top, the flavor was rich and the texture perfectly balanced.

In an unfortunate instance of trying out the "best" gelato in Florence, I sought out Il Vivoli.  Don't.  Not only is the gelato so forgettable that I can't even remember what flavor I had, but this was also my only experience with poor customer service throughout 2 weeks in Italy.  Not only was I blatantly ignored by the woman at the counter despite being the only customer, another woman at the cash register proceeded to look past me and make phone calls while I tried to pay.  Um, hello? Am I back in France?

Another high point on my gelateria tour was Grom.  Not only does Grom have a New York location--bonus!--but they pride themselves on an artisanal style of gelato production, sourcing the best ingredients from around the world and taking many from their own 20-acre organic farm in Northern Italy.  I had the Fig semifreddo (kind of like sorbet) and it was To Die. Amahzing.

Finally, I have to give a shout out to Giolitti--another "best of" in Rome.  In this case, the stop was totally worth it, if nothing else for the massive number of flavor choices and the servers in white button-down coats. It's like stepping into an old-timey ice cream parlor.  I got a double scoop of my favorite Amarena (black cherry) and banana, and it was amahzing (until I spilled half of it trying to unlock the dungeon-like door to my 15th century apartment building...).  This is one you'll definitely want to hit in off hours though to avoid the crowds. 

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Voting Day

In preparation for my imminent return to the States, I'm already overwhelmed with options of what to bake in order to celebrate my triumphant return.  So, I thought I would leave it up to you, dear readers!  After receiving a copy of Kate Zuckerman's The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle for my birthday, there are tons of desserts that I'm dying to try, and I'm counting on you to help me decide which of these amazing dishes to attempt first.  You have one week to place your vote and let me know which of these you'd like to see on the next edition of The Cupcake Avenger!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Grocer-To-Go

In my last post I mentioned that I have spent probably an embarrassing amount of time surfing the web in search of baking ingredients to order online.  While my mother has been diligent in sending me ingredients like cocoa powder and vanilla extract at a surprising 7-10 day turnaround time, there are just some ingredients (ie powdered egg substitute, agave nectar, etc) that are simply hard to come by no matter where you call home.

While services like PeaPod that deliver groceries from your local supermarket right to your doorstep are commonplace these days, I think they might have a little trouble getting baking soda from Harris Teeter to my doorstep over 6,000 miles away.  Enter the glory of NetGrocer.  Before coming to Afghanistan, I'd never heard of this site so popular with the military and diplomatic corps.  Delivering to all APO and FPO boxes, and with an intimate familiarity with the items that can and cannot be shipped via government mail, the site allows you to order (or send) all your favorites from back home.

But don't think that NetGrocer is only for your long-distance ordering needs--they also ship to all 50 States and are a great source for lots of ingredients that may simply be hard to come by at your local grocer.  For example, just a quick search for "flour" returns nearly 90 results.  I don't know about you, but I can't remember ever seeing garbanzo bean flour at my grocery store.  NetGrocer has it.  Wondering about refrigerated items?  NetGrocer supplies those too, but only to a handful of states (DMV included!)  Additionally, while services like PeaPod require you to be home during a preselected timeframe, NetGrocer simply delivers like any other package.

Has anyone else used a similar service for hard to come by ingredients or as a time saver?  I'm sold.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Combat Cupcake

"You don't know what you got til it's gone." Joni Mitchell
"If you like it then you should have put a ring on it." Beyoncé

Words of wisdom :)  And I am guilty.  Looking over my posts and reviews about cupcakes and cupcakeries alike you'll see entries full of superlatives: "the sweetest cake," "the creamiest frosting," "the most unique flavors"...When was the last time I enjoyed a cupcake without judging or comparing, but simply for the pure joy of it?

Since coming to Afghanistan in February I have dreamt that I was eating cupcakes no fewer than three times.  I have perused online grocery stores, debating the merits of ordering flour, sugar and leaveners from across the world in the vague hope of being able to cobble together a dozen cakes in our meager kitchen.  I have Googled temperature conversions to operate our Celsius oven.  I have scoured vegan baking sites in search of the perfect egg-milk-butter-substitutions, as I have access to none of these.  All in search of the "perfect cupcake" given my circumstances.

So imagine my surprise when, on a particularly lonely and homesick night, I happened to come across tiny frosted cakes during a late night run to the dining hall.  Holding a styrofoam to-go box filled with barbecued beans and franks, I did a double take.  I looked around surreptitiously to see if anyone else had spotted what could not possibly be true.  I inched closer to the tiny card above the tray that read simply, "Cupcake"

Sure, it's baked in a Dixie cup. And the crumb texture could probably double as an exfoliator.   And the frosting is obviously powdered egg meringue.  I would not pay $0.75 for this in the States.  But so what?  Being so far from home, friends, family and everything I hold dear--particularly as I celebrated my birthday last Sunday with a thoughtfully shrink-wrapped bundt cake courtesy of my mother--has really reminded me not to take for granted even those smallest things that bring me joy.  Thanks to everyone who has helped to remind me of the truly important things in life, and next time you take a bite of that cupcake--be it superb or simply so-so--just think of me.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Nannerpuss

Believe it or not, right now you're actually looking at the world's worst banana pudding.  As you know, whenever I have tons of leftover bananas I'm always on the lookout for unique banana recipes (aka anything other than the standard banana bread).  in this case I'd actually been craving homemade banana pudding and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to try it out for myself.

But have you ever tried to look up a banana pudding recipe?

Just try it. Humor me with a quick little Google search.  How many ACTUAL banana pudding recipes did you find, and how many vanilla-pudding-with-sliced-bananas-on-top recipes did you find?  So, you see my dilemma.

As the next best thing I thought about trying to crank out a chewy banana cookie and came across this awesome recipe from cupcake/cooking/cheese/restaurant/all-things-food blog Vanilla Garlic.  this recipe is actually his Grandma's and you may also remember it from my submission to the Washington City Paper's Young&Hungry back during the dark days of Snowpocalypse.

So, if you're also experiencing a banana pudding fail, try out these soft, moist cookies that are full of banana flavor and are awesome with chocolate chips.

Vanilla Garlic's Grandma Capune's Banana Cookies
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg, room temperature
1 cup mashed bananas
1 tsp baking soda
2 cups flour
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp EACH cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves
optional 1 cup walnuts and/or chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and continue to beat until well mixed.

2. Mix the mashed bananas and baking soda in a bowl and let sit for 2 minutes to froth a bit, this will give the cookies their rise.

3. Mix the banana mixture into the butter mixture. Combine the flour, salt, and spices and mix into the butter and banana mixture until just combined.

4. Fold in the pecans and/or chocolate chips if using. Drop into dollops onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake 11-13 minutes, or until nicely browned.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Chocolate--STAT!

Believe it or not, although I'll be the first to own up to my own sweets obsession, I've never really been one of those girls (or guys) with the chocolate obsession.  Don't get me wrong, I love chocolate, but thankfully I've never suffered from the chocolate cravings that afflict so many others.  Except once.  And now I can completely commiserate.  It hit me hard and out of the blue, and I knew that one of the chocolate Dove squares my mother swears by just wasn't going to cut it.  I needed CHOCOLATE--warm, ooey, gooey, fudgey, chocolate.  And as usual, my old standby the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook did not disappoint.  It is so good in fact that it has been a favorite since the January 1944 issue of BH&G magazine.

This chocolate brownie pudding was everything I was looking for: comfortingly warm, deliciously rich and, most importantly, fast!  Honestly, the hardest part of this recipe was waiting for the finished product to cool on the countertop for a little bit so that the devilishly dark fudge sauce can come together.  That's right, this dessert even makes its own sauce.  Chocolate Heaven.

Feel free to add any of your favorite sundae toppings--walnuts, whipped topping or vanilla ice cream would all be great.  but for purists and chocoholics out there that need chocolate NOW, this chocolate brownie pudding is also just perfect as is in its unadultered chocolate glory.


Brownie Pudding
1 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup milk
2 Tbs cooking oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, optional
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups boiling water

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8x8x2-inch baking pan; set aside. In a medium bowl stir together the flour, granulated sugar, 2 Tbs cocoa powder, baking powder and salt. Stir in the milk, oil and vanilla. Stir in the walnuts, if using.

2. Pour batter into prepared pan. In a small bowl stir together the brown sugar and the 1/4 cup cocoa powder; stir in the boiling water. Slowly pour the mixture over the batter.

3. Bake for 40 minutes, cool on a wire rack for 45-60 minutes, serve warm. Top with vanilla ice cream, if desired.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Pudding Parade


I'd like to apologize for the plethora of pudding recipes lately--most of these past few dishes I whipped up during the Second Snowpocalypse back in February and I guess I didn't realize at the time how much I consider puddings to be a comfort food. Not surprising I guess, most of these recipes have the warm, down-home feeling that can't help but comfort you--like when you're tucked cozily inside while surrounded by 4 feet of snow in a city that can't even manage to function when it rains, for example.

Like rice pudding, bread pudding is another dessert that I've come to embrace. Admittedly, even the name is off-putting. But, as a young college student starving after a long restaurant shift, the leftover bread pudding from the buffet once proved more than I could resist. Maybe because I was so hungry and my expectations so low did leftover buffet bread pudding doused in crème anglaise seem such a revelation. Or maybe just because anything doused in crème anglaise becomes instantly irresistible.

Also similarly to rice pudding, bread pudding recipes come in a range of consistencies from wet and custardy to dry and cakelike. I like mine somewhere in the middle. I don't usually make bread pudding (or my own breadcrumbs for that matter) because I never have that fabled staple on hand--"day-old bread." What is day-old bread? In the modern era of pre-sliced, packaged loaves, I think it's increasingly rare that any of us regularly have a nice, crusty loaf of freshly baked bread that we can let dry on the counter overnight for perfect bread pudding cubes. Actually, I'm sure there are plenty of you out there that frequent bakeries regularly and don't find this strange at all--don't judge me.

Luckily, after a recent visit from my parents, I actually had a perfectly crusty Italian loaf on hand but, if you don't or don't have time to wait around on stale bread, just toast your cubes in the oven for 10 minutes first and they'll be pudding-perfect.

Bread Pudding
4 eggs, beaten
2 1/4 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbs vanilla
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
4 cups dry bread cubes
1/3 cup raisins
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl beat together eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon. In an ungreased 2-quart baking dish, toss together bread cubes and raisins. Pour egg mixture over bread mixture, press lightly with the back of a large spoon to moisten all bread cubes.

2. Bake uncovered for 40-45 minutes or until puffed and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool slightly, serve with caramel sauce, bourbon sauce or crème anglaise if desired.

Serves 8, only 4 grams of fat per serving! (minus the crème anglaise of course...)

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Twice As Rice

For a food blogger, I am a ridiculously picky eater. I don't think I dislike more foods than other people do, just that the ones I can't stand are probably some of the most common in American cuisine. Give me a warm plate of foie gras with fig compote and brioche toast points and I will relish it--actual relish however? Ugh, I hate pickles. And mustard. And I cannot describe the absolute loathing disgust I feel towards tomatoes. As you can imagine, my cheeseburgers are pretty boring.


You probably also remember that I may have possibly said at one point that I hate rice pudding. Cold, mushy, bland and with a texture that's just...eeww. I mean, what's to like? I remember going to a school sleep away camp in junior high where the dessert at dinnertime was rice pudding every night. Even ravenous teenagers that had been drug through the woods for three days would not eat this stuff.

So why the change? I have no idea. I simply woke up one morning in February craving the stuff. And not just any old stovetop or refrigerator rice pudding but warm, thick, delicious rice pudding spiked with--you guessed it--cardamom. At the Washington Cooking & Entertaining Show way back in November, I happened to try an eensy, weensy, safely tiny portion of rice pudding offered by a Thai food stand and remember being intrigued by their use of coconut milk. Maybe this was the subconscious beginning of my rice pudding craze.

I say craze because I have a feeling this is only the first of many rice pudding attempts. Even though I was pretty content with this batch, I know I could do better. While I liked the custardy feeling of the baked pudding, I think I might actually prefer more of the creaminess you can get from a stovetop pudding. Also, this time I was timid with the coconut milk, afraid to go overboard with the modern twists on this traditional dish. But next time I'm hoping to do the basmati rice justice with a healthy dose of coconut milk and maybe even some chopped mangoes.
Of course, you can always make this dish with regular milk and short-grain rice, so don't feel like you have to get too fancy. Or, like me, if you're just easing into a dish you previously detested with the passion of a thousand suns, you may want to take it slow. Who knows, maybe this time next year I'll be singing the praises of Caprese salad. But I wouldn't count on it.
Anyone out there have any similar experiences with a food they used to hate?

Baked Spiced Rice Pudding
3 beaten eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup cooked rice
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 tsp each cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a bowl combine eggs, milk, coconut milk, sugar, vanilla and spices. Beat until combined but not foamy. Stir in rice and raisins. Pour egg mixture into a 1 1/2 quart casserole dish.

2. Place casserole dish in a 2 quart square baking dish or pan on an oven rack. Pour boiling water into baking dish around casserole to a depth of 1 inch.

3. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, stirring after 30 minutes. Serve warm or cold.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Cardamom Panna Cotta

I have only recently come to realize how completely in love with cardamom I am. If you're not already intimately familiar with this sweet, permeating, Indian spice, it may sound intimidating, but a small dash of this amazing powder will put your cinnamon to shame.

I still remember my first encounter with cardamom during a spectacular Restaurant Week lunch at Rasika: the meal closed with a tiny gulab jamen--sort of like an Indian donut soaked in honey and spiked with--you guessed it--cardamom. New to the whole Indian spice game, I walked away from the meal determined to discover what had made the dish so distinctive. Cardamom is a member of the ginger family and comes in black and green varieties. And don't worry if you only have cardamom pods on hand, you can grind or crush them yourself, with 10 pods equalling about 1 1/2 teaspoons of ground cardamom--just remember to strain out the pods after infusing into whatever dish you're making.

Ever since my Rasika experience (an absolute MUST try for Washingtonians also for their one-of-a-kind palak chaat if not for their exquisite use of cardamom), I've been on the lookout for cardamom-centered dishes to put my newly acquired jar to good use (I've said it a million times people--Spices. World Market. $2.99. Do it.) I've also been on a panna cotta kick lately (conveniently, so it seems, are most DC restaurants) so after some searching I sort of fused Alice Medrich and David Lebovitz's recipes for panna cotta for this delicious cardamom version. Also feel free to add orange or rose essence or top with chopped pistachios.

Cardamom Panna Cotta
3 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 tsp ground cardamom or 5 cardamom pods
1 cup whole milk
2 1/2 tsp unflavored gelatin

1. In a small saucepan, heat the cream, sugar and salt until steaming, stirring from time to time. Remove pan from the heat and add cardamom. Cover and allow to steep for 25 minutes (or less if using ground cardamom).

2. Meanwhile, pour the milk into a small bowl and sprinkle with gelatin. Set aside, without stirring, for 5-10 minutes to allow the gelatin to soften.

3. Add the milk and gelatin mixture to the cream and reheat to steaming, stirring well to dissolve the gelatin. If using cardamom pods, strain the mixture and discard the pods.

4. Pour the panna cotta into custard cups or serving dishes. Refrigerate for 4-12 hours, unmold and serve topped with ground cinnamon, orange zest or chopped pistachios, if desired.