Friday, January 27, 2006

My Adventures in Cupcakes

Last year, during the first week of December, I had a dessert party. It was during the whole South Beach Diet craze, so I named it the North Beach Diet Party. I made seven different desserts. From scratch. By myself. In two days. It was awesome. Then I invited about 40 of my closest friends, and friends of friends over to eat everything. And they did. The reason I’m even mentioning this, is because my friend Sarah, her fiancé John, and Sarah’s mom Sally came over that night. By the time they left, Sally was stuffing cookies in her pockets to take home, despite my offer to give her a doggie bag. Then one thing led to another, and pretty soon I offered to bake Sarah and John’s wedding cake. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. They’re a super mellow couple, and the reception was small, so it was really fun to prepare for.

In the course of our discussions about what to make, I suggested different types of whole cakes, a croque en bouche, or a trio of cupcakes, two dozen of each flavor. In the end, the cupcakes won for two reasons. First, they’re cute. And second, three flavors are better than one. We tossed a whole bunch of flavor ideas around, until we settled on three good options: chocolate with coffee buttercream, vanilla with hazelnut buttercream, and ginger with lemon cream cheese frosting.

Like most women would, I started with chocolate. I researched on the web and consulted all my favorite cookbooks until I found a few recipes that sounded promising. I began with a Martha Stewart recipe after I found a blog post that said this particular recipe was the best she’d ever tasted. I figured that was high enough praise to make it worth trying. The recipe called for 3/4 cup of cocoa powder. That scored many points. It was easy too, earning it more points. The batter was thick and heavy with chocolate. I figured this would be the one and I would only make one test batch. The result was delicious, but they were too dense and dry. Almost the density of pound cake. Had they been pound cake, I think I would have liked them better, but as cupcakes, they weren’t right. I took them to work to make sure that my assessment was correct. Despite the fact that the cupcakes didn’t survive until lunch, my boss, who also likes to cook, confirmed my “too dry” verdict. I was validated, and went back to the drawing board.

I was really hoping that The Book of Great Desserts by Maida Heatter would have an amazing recipe, but sadly, she didn’t do much cupcake baking. Then I remembered a Cooks Illustrated issue I’d gotten a few months back that talked about the perfect dark chocolate cupcake. Could it be? A perfect chocolate cupcake? Realizing that the only downside to trying the “perfect” recipe would be a very delicious mistake, I went for it. And sure enough, they were exactly what I was looking for—light, moist, and oh so chocolately.

Once the cupcake recipe was decided upon, I needed a frosting recipe. I’d already tried a coffee buttercream recipe that took a long time and required so much butter I was afraid I’d have to buy my own cow, so I looked for a viable alternative. I remembered the sidebar on the Cooks Illustrated site had lots of frosting options for the chocolate cupcakes, so I took a peek and found an easy coffee buttercream option. It only called for half the butter of the other recipe, so I gave it a whirl. Not only was it super easy with half the butter, it was also twice as good. And so quick! One recipe, done. On to trial two.

The next two cupcake recipes were simple. A Google search for gingerbread cupcakes yielded a delicious and easy recipe from Martha, and I returned to Cooks Illustrated for the vanilla cupcake recipe after the success of the chocolate one. Both were excellent. Nigella Lawson had a fabulous recipe for cream cheese frosting that I paired with the gingerbread, and a dash of lemon oil added the yummy zing I was looking for. The only remaining frosting was the hazelnut flavor.

Since it had been a special request of the groom, I took my frosting task seriously. I went to supermarkets and specialty food stores in search of hazelnut flavoring. After some searching, my only option was at Surfas. They had the Lorann Gourmet brand of fake hazelnut flavoring. I don’t like anything that’s fake, and I’d read a bad review of the Lorann flavorings, but seeing as it was my only option at that point, I bought it anyway. The frosting I made with the scary concoction that came out of that bottle was so gross I’m amazed my friends ate it. I was heartbroken. Not wanting to give up on the hazelnut idea, I brainstormed.
Nutella? Hazelnut syrup like the stuff they put in coffee? What could I use? Then I remembered the hazelnut spread my aunt had raved about at Le Pain Quotidien. On my way home from work one day I slipped in just before closing and bought myself a jar of their hazelnut praline. In a moment of inspiration, it occurred to me to use it instead of peanut butter in a peanut butter frosting recipe. It was so decadent and rich, it tasted like truffle filling. It was perfect.

Over the course of a few weeks I baked so many cupcakes people started expecting them at work and were disappointed when there wasn’t a new batch to test. Thanks to all my practicing, by the time the wedding rolled around I was super efficient in the kitchen. Everything was perfect. I even built a cupcake tier to hold all the cakes. As cake toppers, I bought little mementos that each symbolized the bride and groom. John requested surfing as his theme, so he got a little wooden surfboard keychain. Sarah loves dogs, so I got a big red heart-shaped dog tag engraved with their names and the date of their wedding. On the third cupcake, their “one to grow on,” I put a chocolate coin to symbolize good fortune for their life together. My favorite moment from the wedding was watching Sarah’s dad and her two sisters stand in a circle passing the three different cupcake flavors around so they could taste them all.

And so as my first post in a very, very long time, I’d like to congratulate Sarah and John and wish them a very sweet life together. Thanks for the encouragement regarding my baking abilities, and the inspiration to try new things.

Since there are so many recipes, please email me if you'd like one.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Captain Julie, Requesting Fly-By...

It’s been ages. What on earth have I been doing?
Working out
Visiting my boyfriend
And a whole bunch of other stuff.
I’ve also been eating and cooking, but it’s just so hard to find time to write about it these days. It’s kind of sad. I think I lost a little bit of my blogging mojo. I’ve had blogging malaise. But here I am again, at the happy request of some of my favorite readers. Thanks so much for your comments and encouragement. It means the world to me.

I think I need to play a little catch up. You definitely need to hear about Elvis’s pound cake. And then there’s the cupcakes. Oh so many cupcakes. Four trials down, one to go. Hopefully only one more, we shall see. But I’ll get to that later.

Let us begin with Elvis. That grease loving monkey sure did grub with the best of them. A few months ago, in the September (gasp!) issue of Gourmet, they wrote about the intersection of music and food. As I flipped through the pages, looking for something delicious to make when I arrived on the East Coast to visit friends, I happened upon a recipe for Elvis Presley’s Favorite Pound Cake. Done. I love Elvis. I love pound cake. And I especially love recipes that begin: “This is the best pound cake we have ever tasted.” Could it live up to the hype?

Upon arrival, my friends were just as interested in trying the recipe as I was. So we got to work. Six ingredients, simple instructions, just add a little extra beating time to the batter. In the oven it went. And the result? It was good. Certainly not the best pound cake ever. It was too eggy for that. But it was soft, and light, and still rich with a dense crumb. It kind of had a bouncy texture to it, like it would make a comfortable bed. But it aged well. Instead of getting dry, it got richer, and smoother, and better. That was its greatest asset. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. But I am still in search of the best pound cake ever. I leave my hat off to Elvis. The man was decisive in his tastes. He ate rich food like there was no tomorrow. And then one day there wasn’t.

Elvis Presley’s Favorite Pound Cake

2 sticks (1cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus addition for buttering the pan
3 cups sifted cake flour (not self-rising; sift before measuring) plus additional for dusting
3/4 tsp salt
3 cups sugar
7 large eggs, at room temperature 30 minutes
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup heavy cream
10-inch tube pan, 4 1/2 inches deep, without removable bottom, or a 10-inch bundt pan, 3 1/4 inches deep, 3-qt capacity

Put oven rack in the middle position, but do not preheat oven.

Generously butter pan and dust with flour, knocking out excess flour.

Sift together sifted flour and salt into a bowl. Repeat sifting into another bowl. The flour will have been sifted 3 times total.

Beat together butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or 6 to 8 minutes with a handheld mixer. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Then beat in vanilla. Reduce speed to low and add half the flour, then all of the cream, then remaining flour, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then beat at medium-high speed 5 minutes. Batter will become creamier and satiny.

Spoon batter into pan and rap pan against work surface once or twice to eliminate air bubbles. Place pan in cold oven and turn oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake until golden and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in middle of cake comes out with a few crumbs adhering, 1 to 1 1/4 hours.

Cool cake in pan on a rack 30 minutes. Run a thin knife around inner and outer edges of cake, then invert rack over pan and invert cake onto rack to cool completely.

Note: Cake keeps, covered well with plastic wrap or in an airtight container, at room temperature 5 days.

Recipe courtesy of Gourmet magazine, September 2005.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


I love a good deal. I think it's in my genes. I also love delicious, fresh, unengineered produce. So when I was in Boston a few weeks ago and my friend told me about homegrown heirloom tomatoes for sale at a local home for only $0.15 apiece, I wanted to see it myself.

On a card table in front of a home in Acton, MA, a family of generous gardeners leaves their daily crop of gorgeous tomatoes, cucumbers, and other summer veggies for the locals to purchase—on the honor system. They just leave a little money box out there, open and unlocked, for us to pay them. At only $0.15 per tomato or basket of the tiny, sweet fruits, they don't net a huge sum of money. But the concept of trusting people to pay what they owe is a delightful throwback that I truly appreciate.

It's the end of the season, so they didn't have as many tomatoes as they had during peak season, but for just pennies a pop, the selection was great. We picked out two colorful baskets of cherry tomatoes and four fragrant, imperfectly perfect large tomatoes. Compared to the tomatoes they have in the grocery store, well, there is no comparison. My friend Judy would say that they taste like candy, and she'd be right. They burst on the tongue, sun-warmed and sweet, the perfect addition to any meal. And they smelled like summer. Sunny, sweaty, warm, wonderful summer.

Two nights ago, LA was surprised by a rainstorm. It just happened out of the blue, summer waved goodbye and autumn rocked us to sleep. It felt good to hear the rain outside as I curled up in bed. Given everything that the hurricanes have put the South through lately, I felt guilty enjoying the sound of rain. But if there's one thing I've learned in my life, it's that even if you feel other people's pain, you can't really do anything to take it away. So tonight, I donated a plane ticket on Southwest to the victims of hurricane Katrina. Maybe I can't eliminate their pain, but I can at least try to help them get home.

Hmmm, how to connect tomatoes with hurricane Katrina? I know. I'll spend another $1.20 on tomatoes so I can throw them at George Bush until he does something to help or speaks coherent English. Whichever comes first.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Cupcakes of the Caribbean

Last weekend, my friend invited me to his tropical themed BBQ. It was a casual get together, with a bunch of his old friends, and a few of his new friends, like me. He and his wife provided a bountiful spread of themed food, and I volunteered to bring dessert. After a bit of thought, I decided to make rum cupcakes with coconut frosting. I then embarked upon a search for rum cake recipes, which led me to a recipe for a Malibu Rum cake. But here's the catch. It was by that blasphemous semi-homemade fake, Sandra Lee. I debated for a couple of days whether I should use her "recipe," since I'm normally against cake mixes because they contain so many ingredients that have nothing to do with food, like the copious amount of preservatives. In the end, time won out, and I decided that it wasn't cheating to use the mix for the cupcakes, if I made homemade frosting.

As you might expect, the cake mix turned out very good cupcakes. Her alterations of the recipe, namely adding rum (instead of water) and a package of pudding, made for very moist, rum flavored cupcakes. I'm actually reading a book right now entitled Something from the Oven, by Laura Shapiro, about the rise of the packaged food industry after WWII. It has some fascinating things to say about cake mixes, and the reservations women had about using them. I highly recommend it. As many 50's housewives did before me, I repressed my guilt about making cheaters cupcakes, and delved into the frosting preparation.

I took my recipe for frosting from the Cook's Illustrated website. Their coconut layer cake sounded delish, and the frosting seemed easy enough. I've made buttercream frosting before, and it was fairly easy, so I figured this would be similar. I thought the hardest part was whisking the eggs whites and sugar over the simmering water. I was worried I would cook them or overdo it or something, but all was well. After they reached their correct temperature, I assume to remove any chance of getting salmonella, I put them in the mixer and whisked them up to sticky peaks. The would have been gorgeous and delicious just like that, but I figured it would be wise to finish the recipe. The only warning I will give is that in the middle of adding the butter when making buttercream, the mixture looks like it's curdling or breaking or something has gone terribly wrong. It hasn't, don't worry. Add the rest of the butter and it will all return to normal and create lovely, creamy, obscenely decadent frosting.

This frosting was light as air when it was done, and it easily piped out of my pastry bag to create satisfying ploofs of frosting. I used the big round tip, because I wanted the frosting to pipe up thick and tall on the cakes. After a little sprinkle of coconut, they were finished. A little army of tiny cakes ready for battle.

Happily, they were well-received. I was shocked at how similar the frosting tasted to the etherial store-bought cupcake frosting, the ones that come in the special plastic cupcake containers. It was a little disappointing, actually. But my tasters all seemed pleased with the cupcakes, and they were legitimately homemade, so I quickly forgot about it. It's amazing how popular bringing homemade treats to a party can make you. That was a good thing too, since I knew no one but the hosts of this party. But everyone there was incredibly friendly, so I had a very nice time. Maybe I'll try making a different treat for next year's shindig.

Malibu Rum Cupcakes

1 package (18.25-ounce) Duncan Hines Moist Deluxe classic yellow cake mix
1 cup Malibu Rum
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 package (3.4-ounce) Jell-O vanilla instant pudding and pie filling mix
4 eggs

Combine all ingredients in a mixer and mix until smooth. Pour into a cupcake pan lined with cupcake papers until cups are 3/4 full. Bake according to the directions on the cake mix box. Let cool completely before frosting.

Coconut Buttercream Frosting

4 large egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar
1 pinch table salt
1 pound unsalted butter (4 sticks), each stick cut into 6 pieces, softened, but still cool
1/4 cup cream of coconut (if you don't have that, use sweetened condensed milk + coconut extract to taste—this is what I used, and it worked great)
1 teaspoon coconut extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup, or more, sweetened shredded coconut

While cupcakes are cooling, spread shredded coconut on rimmed baking sheet; toast in oven until shreds are a mix of golden brown and white, about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring 2 or 3 times. Cool to room temperature. Be vigilant when toasting the coconut—it can go from golden to burnt very quickly.

For the Buttercream: Combine whites, sugar, and salt in bowl of standing mixer; set bowl over saucepan containing 1 1/2-inches of barely simmering water. Whisk constantly until mixture is opaque and warm to the touch and registers about 120 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 2 minutes.

Transfer bowl to mixer and beat whites on high speed with whisk attachment until barely warm (about 80 degrees) and whites are glossy and sticky, about 7 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-high and beat in butter 1 piece at a time. (Don't worry if it looks like the mixture is breaking or curdling, it will be fine.) Beat in cream of coconut/sweetened condensed milk and coconut and vanilla extracts. Stop mixer and scrape bottom and sides of bowl. Continue to beat at medium-high speed until well-combined, about 1 minute.

Put frosting in a pastry bag fitted with the tip of your choice, and decorate your cupcakes as you like. Or spread onto the cupcakes with a knife or frosting spatula.

Sprinkle the toasted and cooled coconut on the frosted cupcakes. Enjoy!

Recipes courtesy of Sandra Lee and Cook's Illustrated.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Wabi Sabi Yummy in my Tummy

Sushi. The great Californian obsession. Out here in the land of granola, we worship at the alter of raw fish, and the Japanese people know it. And boy do I love them for it.

My first experience with sushi was in Ohio. Really. I was in my last year of college and my friend Aleks convinced me to go to the local sushi place to try "sushi." I put it in quotes because I don't think what I ate qualifies as sushi. Even though I'd grown up in California, sushi was still foreign to me at that point, so I didn't really think things through when I agreed to eat there with her. Being far far away from the ocean, close only to a body of water that had caught fire from polution my freshman year, Ohio is not exactly the right place to try eating raw fish. So I suppose it's wise that she ordered a California Roll for my maiden sushi voyage, ironic for many reasons, not the least of which is it's the redheaded stepchild of the sushi world. Fake, cooked krabmeat and all. But I didn't know that, and I thought it was disgusting, which worried me immensely. What kind of foodie was I if I didn't like sushi? I swore that I would teach myself to like it. But I gave myself a break and decided to try again when I returned to California.

My first experiences were timid at best. I retried the California Roll, liking it only a tiny bit better now, but only when it was made with real crab. I liked most of the cooked sushi, unagi being my favorite. Mmmm, that teriyaki sauce is good. Then I started to branch out, tasting the different rolls, then different sushi, and ultimately progressing to sashimi. Now I am a fairly adventurous sushi eater, conservative by some standards, daring by others. But most importantly, I love sushi. I love sitting at the bar and watching the sushi chefs work their magic. I love ordering them beers and seeing what kind of special treats they'll bestow upon me. I love chopsticks. I love wasabi. I love the whole sushi experience.

Los Angeles is riddled with sushi restaurants. It's home to Matsuhisha, one of the most expensive sushi restaurants you can find, like at least $100 per person expensive. But cheap and sushi should not share space in the same sentence. Because cheap and sushi usually mean food and poisoning will follow. So I usually budget about $50 for my meal, knowing I'll eat well. Also knowing I can't eat out like that too often. So the other night, feeling like we deserved a treat, my boyfriend and I went to a place called Wabi Sabi and got our $50 worth. Plus some.

Wabi Sabi is a trendy little place on Abbot Kinney in Venice. Abbot Kinney is named for the man whose brilliant and crazy idea it was to replicate Venice, Italy in Los Angeles. Thanks to Mr. Kinney, we have beautiful canals decorating Venice, CA, now clean and scenic next to million dollar homes. Venice is an artist and hippie enclave. Abbot Kinney is the backbone of its unique vibe.

At night, the Abbot Kinney strip becomes one of the hipper places to be on the Westside. While we waited for a table at Wabi Sabi, I marveled at the outfits artfully gracing the lithe figures of the tragically hip people waiting alongside us. Sometimes I wonder how they have the time and energy to dress themselves so perfectly. Occasionally I wonder if they wear the same perfect outfit every night. But I digress. Once seated, I scanned the menu which featured both sushi and Asian bistro-type dishes from the kitchen. A dazzling array of options, both my eyes and my stomach wanted it all.

We started with the shrimp potstickers. (Pictured above with orange sauce.) They looked like raviolis to me, but they tasted like potstickers. The sauce was quite good, sweet and savory. I would have like a bit less sauce so I could taste the fresh shrimp whose flavor peeked through a bit, but it still tasted delicious. Then we began our array of specials for the night. The first was the halibut with citrus dressing. (See fish with yellow flower.) So delicious and light, it was tangy and lemony with a strong wasabi spanking at the end. Yum. Then we enjoyed the albacore sashimi (pictured above with pointy shaped fish) and the garlic tataki, (pictured above, kind of dark, sorry), and both were amazing and delicious. I felt like they could do no wrong. Every dish they brought us was better than the first. We wanted to try a few more of their specials, but it seems that other diners had the same idea and we were out of luck, so we chose a few other options. My boyfriend loves toro, so after dining on the best toro I've ever had, we selected a toro roll with green onions, (we'd already eaten the last toro sushi), and Japanese mackrel, since they were out of Spanish mackrel, one of my personal faves. Both were superior, leaving me sated and blissfully happy, especially since I'd grown incredibly hungry during our walk to the restaurant and subsequent wait for a table.

Normally at the end of a sushi meal, I'm not interested in dessert. But tonight we decided to take a peek at the dessert menu. I was surprised by the options, particularly because none featured green tea ice cream, the usual staple. After a bit of negotiating, we decided to try the chocolate fudge cake with hazelnut ice cream. And it was good. So good, I thought it was out of place at a sushi restaurant. But I just went with it, eating more than my share since the boy is a savory, not a sweet person. Dense, brownie-like, and oh so chocolatey, the cake was one of the better chocolate cakes a restaurant can offer. I know they're popular and reasonably easy to make, but it's shocking how often restaurants get it wrong. So it was that much more exciting that Wabi Sabi got it right.

In my haste to discuss the food, I've neglected to mention our unexpected dining partners, the couple sitting next to us at the bar. He was a macho, loud-talking, opinionated nutball, and his girlfriend was a prissy dieter who would only live in LA or Florida. At one point during the meal she told him that he had to stop dating other women, or he was going to lose her. Straight up now tell me is it gonna be you and me together, or are you just having fun. Paula Abdul style. His comment when she left for the bathroom after dropping that bomb was, "Do you ever know when you've really fucked something up big time?" They were fascinating.

To sum up, the food here is fantastic. Everything was uniformly great. Service was good. Present, but not overwhelming. Our placement at the counter left a little to be desired, since we were up against the wall and I didn't have good access to the sushi chefs, but the chefs were attentive regardless, and the food made up for it. There is a wait for a table if you don't have reservations, but it was only 30 minutes on a Saturday night, which isn't that bad, especially in Venice which seems to move in its own time zone. It was an expensive meal, over $100 for the two of us. But we ordered a lot of special sashimi, which was pricey and so worth it. Overall, I highly recommend Wabi Sabi. If you go, ask to sit at the counter, and hope you get some delightfully weird neighbors.

1637 Abbot Kinney Blvd
Venice, CA 90291