Monday, January 18, 2010

A Cupcake Menagerie

     I suppose we can talk about the cupcakes, now that I've had enough time to recover from the trauma that is a failed first attempt at an Italian Meringue Buttercream. It was god awful, pretty much like spreading way too much butter on top of a cupcake and eating it, which doesn't sound like such a bad idea, but I assure you it is. The really sad part is that the cupcakes themselves were delightful, and sparkly and pretty to boot thanks to my mom's tackle box of sanding sugar. The green one is a vanilla cupcake with vanilla frosting, the orange one is an orange blossom water cupcake with orange blossom water icing. The pink ones are both rosewater cupcakes with (you guessed it) rosewater icing, but the one in the front has blueberries (clearly), and the one in the back does not.
     It was a little nerve-wracking adding these exotic water concoctions to the batters, but it actually turned out pretty cool (but google it I did not (this time, anyway)). The cupcake batter base was just a standard genoise batter, and I read somewhere recently and randomly that genoise is typically kind of dry, and that soaking them post-bake with either a flavored syrup or a liquer can really help them out. I didn't read this until after I had baked them, of course, so I didn't have this little nugget of info beforehand, but the cupcakes with the waters in them were significantly moister than the plain ones anyway. I was super excited about it, but I think I'll try it the other way next time, because maybe the flavor will be more intense.
      The blueberry-rosewater cupcakes were the definite standoutof the day, the flavor combo was a win, although only Joel and I know this because no one else got to try them. I got the idea from a blog I occasionally (obsessively) read, Bake and Destroy. Her recipe is a bit different, I'm still playing with ratios and just adding shit, and I am positive whatever delightful confection she put on top of hers was way better than mine. I also experimented with the plain cupcakes a bit, and just crammed leftover pieces of fruit (from my awesome fruit salad) into the cupcakes after I had poured the batter. The blackberry-crammed cupcakes were particularly good, so I'm going to have to play with that more later.
    Big thanks to my lovely kitchen assistant Rachel, who very helpfully held the mixer while I googled italian meringue buttercream (DAMN YOU, google), decorated the orange blossom water cupcakes, sat in the kitchen and entertained me while drawing a picture of an ear, acted as food and flower photographer, and gave me some awesome nudie artwork. Thanks also to Joel and Michael for eating the cupcakes, and thanks to all three for eating my roasted potatoes and parsnips.
       I also bought another cookbook (GAH!), but to make myself feel better, we're not going to call it a cookbook (or a comeback), just like the author doesn't. It's a cooking "project" book. I like projects. Not like THE projects, but just projects. It's by Karen Solomon of San Francisco fame (yeah, I have no idea what that means, either) and it's called Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It: And Other Cooking Projects. So basically it's awesome and I'm going to be making: jam, lemon curd, butter, queso blanco, ricotta salata, crackers, ketchup, marmalade, and graham crackers. Yeah. Get excited.

Blueberry Rosewater Cupcakes
You will need:
2 Large Eggs plus one Yolk
4 oz Sugar (I did indeed invest in a small digital kitchen scale. Worth it.)
.5 Tsp Salt   
.5 Tsp Vanilla Extract
1 Tbsp Lemon Juice
4 oz flour- cake flour is best, but AP is fine
1 Tsp Baking Powder
4 oz Butter, melted and then cooled
Some rosewater, to taste
One pint of fresh blueberries, rinsed (and dredged in flour if you're feeling fancy, it keeps them suspended in the batter better)

With which you will:
1. Preheat oven*. Combine eggs, sugar, vanilla, salt, and lemon juice. You can put these in a metal bowl over some simmering water for a bit until the sugar starts to melt and the eggs are just above body temperature, but if your ingredients are at room temp it should be fine. The little bit of heat at the beginning just makes it easier for you to get the eggs nice and fluffy.
2. Beat the crap out of this mixture until it's at least tripled, if not quadrupled in volume. Show no mercy.
3. Gently fold in the flour and the baking powder until you just can't see it any more.
4. Gently fold in the butter. But not too gently or you'll end up with a puddle of butter at the bottom of your bowl and that does not end up well. I read somewhere that if you mix a bit of the batter into the butter first and then fold THAT mixture into the rest of the batter, it helps. But I have not tried this yet.
5. Add rosewater to your desired intensity. Add blueberries. Pour into cupcake tin (lined, por favor) and bake until they spring back when you touch them.
6. Frost with something better than butter.

*350F is standard for regular sized cupcakes, but I've been baking mini lately, and I think 325F is better.

     Did anyone notice a pattern in the ingredient list? It's pretty much a 1:1:1:1 ratio of sugar, flour, fat (butter), and eggs. One large egg is about two ounces, usually a little less (which is where that decadent extra yolk comes in. One time, I tried to bake a black forest cake for a birthday without any kind of mixer. That chocolate sucker called for a chicken's worth of eggs. I ended up with chocolaty, eggy hockey pucks. They were not good. I learned my lesson. Get dem eggs fluffy.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Egg Salad, Quick Pickles, and Macerated Fruit, or Tessa's Ridiculous Day of Making Summer Foods in the Middle of January

     It's amazing the things I can accomplish on a day off when I don't want to search for a new job. After a mini-medical adventure with my mom this morning (she has a hernia! more surgery! could that be more annoying?), I arrived home to find TWO packages on my front porch. I mean getting mail is always fun, getting mail that isn't a bill or a solicitation is even better, but getting PACKAGES is almost as good as getting the awesome greeting cards my mom sends me. Package the first was a pair of blue pointy-toed flats that I'd been waiting for since, oh, December 26th. Package the second was my first, and very likely not the last, purchase from, containing a bottle each of Rosewater and Orange Blossom Water. Oh the possibilities.
     The first thing I did was try the shoes on. I mean they're bad ass, pointy blue shoes. I do have priorities. The second thing I did was have my mom smell our living room to see if she smelled cat pee (we don't have a cat). Luckily, with the aid of a small candle, the problem seems to have taken care of itself. But THEN the kitchen deconstruction began. First on the chopping block: the pile of fruit purchased with wonderful intentions of eating more fresh produce. Into a big bowl went: a chopped apple of a variety with which I was not familiar (but looked really pretty, and therefore must be delicious, right? Who's gonna make a delicious apple pun? Joel?), halved and pitted cherries, halved red grapes, a banana, a Cara Cara orange, and a blood orange. I gave the mix a squirt with a Meyer lemon (if you haven't smelled a Meyer lemon, do it, it is so cool), a few pinches of sugar, and a few dashes of the orange blossom water. SO GOOD. I learned later (after googling, I really can't kick the "must google after making something to make sure I did it right" habit) that oranges and rosewater go really well together, so maybe I should have squirted some of that in there instead, but at that point I couldn't get the damn bottle open, so next time. I have lots of leftover fruit.

     Spending a half an hour cutting up fruit wasn't enough, though. I had to do MORE. I had to make pickles. Not crazy, jar-sterilizing, farm pickles (which will likely happen some day), but quick pickles. I'll concede, the result is very much like a cucumber salad. But the veggies are crisper, and there's more of that je ne sais quoi-- pickle flavor. It was super simple (though would have been easier and less back breaking if I had a mandolin slicer mybirthdayisMarch2ndjustsaying)-

1 Cucumber
Half a Red Pepper
Tbsp Salt
1.5 Cups Water
.5 Cup Cider Vinegar
1 Cup Sugar
1 Bay Leaf
A few Mustard Seeds

With which you will:
1. Slice the cuke and the pepper as thinly as you can. Coat them in the salt and let them sit in a colander on paper towels for 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, bring the remaining ingredients to a boil, then remove from heat and let cool.
3. Rinse veggies well, then get as dry as possible (methinks a salad spinner would have been awesome here).
4. Pour brine over veggies, and stick `em in the fridge for at least 3 hours before munching!

     You may be thinking I was done after that. You would be thinking wrong. I needed to make egg salad. Michael has been asking for egg salad. Well, ask and you shall receive. So I go and get the stuff I need together....eggs, mustard, sweet relish......SHIT! My beloved jar of Duke's mayo expired a month ago! I guess that shows how frequently I eat sandwiches. Well, no problem. I'll go Julia freaking Child on this shit and MAKE mayonnaise (let us not forget there is a Food Lion less then a mile from my front door (that is how much I hate driving)).
                  Mayonnaise made from scratch is glorious.
     It's also not all that difficult to make. I just used one egg yolk, because the egg salad didn't call for too much mayo. Just beat the yolk for a few minutes til it's thick and sticky, add a little vinegar and mustard and then slooooooowly beat in about 3/4 cup of oil. I used the plain ol canola stuff, didn't want to use the good olive oil since there was the potential for me to severely botch the whole thing. Seasoned with a little lemon juice and white pepper (my new favorite thing), the stuff is amazing. It's slighty more yellow in color, but just as glossy as the commercial stuff, and tastes way fresher. So if you ever wanna try it, go for it, cuz it's worth it. I was going to post a picture of the stuff, but really. Who wants to look at a bowl of mayo?
     Did I mention that my latest Martha Stewart mag arrived via Postmommy? What a good day.Oh yeah, and I also baked some mini-cupcakes, but having not frosted nor tasted them, I'll talk about them later.
For now- Seacreast out.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cheddar Garlic Biscuits and The Puddle of Butter.

     And here I am, in this twenty-third year of my existence, wanting nothing more out of life than to be able to bake the cupcake to end all cupcakes. The cupcake that is so perfect, that other cupcakes lust after it and try hard to be it's friend, though a cupcake that good does not need friends. It needs pretty piped buttercream and adorable sprinkles. I don't just want to be able to do it once- I want to be able to do it over and over again, easily, and I'd like to be able to do it from memory, to know instinctively that this batter needs more flour- or that one didn't have eggs that were beaten to their potential.
     Much time has been spent in my kitchen beating various parts of an egg into submission, for cakes, a hollandaise, or even just scrambled eggs- so beating eggs isn't really the issue. It's the constant need to look things up in recipe books, or googling tips and problem solving techniques mid-panic attack because my sauce looks like cottage cheese. I want to kick the cookbook habit and be FREE from dried egg whites on my keyboard!
     My first tiny baby step into a dark, strange, and scary world of cooking without guidelines was to ask for a book for Christmas. A book. Of guidelines. I know, I sound like a crazy. BUT WAIT. It's the last book I'll ever need! I promise! It's called Ratio and it's written by a guy (Michael Ruhlman) with a lot more baking chops (ha) than I have, but the same goal! It contains 5 delightful sections of how to use a set of tweakable ratios to make most anything you'd want to- dough, batter, stocks, sausage, custard, sauce, etc. Genius. And I gotta say- so far, so good.
     I used his biscuit ratio (3 parts flour, 2 parts liquid, 1 part fat) last night and made some pretty darn good cheddar garlic biscuits. I just diced up some cold ass butter, pinched it into some flour, mixed in some milk, and then added as much garlic and cheddar cheese as I wanted to. And then added more milk, because they were drop biscuits and Mr. Ruhlman said to add more milk for those. How much more, you ask? Until it looks like biscuit dough! SO awesome!

     This does not change the fact that while I was adding cheese and garlic, I was still freaking out and DYING to google a cheddar garlic biscuit recipe to see if I was adding too much/little cheese/garlic and generally ruining everyone's biscuit-eating lives. But I resisted. And the darn things were great. So I'll trust the guy. I'm pretty sure I'm going to end up cutting the wheel image off the book's dust cover, frame it, and hang it in my kitchen for easy reference until I can spit out ratios like a pro.
     Side note- I tried his sponge cake ratio. The batter was delicious, but due to an operator error involving folding (I am so bad at folding!), and discovering a puddle of melted butter at the bottom of the bowl (after portioning out a good dozen mini-cupcakes), I ended up with half a batch of dry mini-cupcakes, and half a batch of mini-cupcakes with chunks of re-solidified butter in them.I mean they still tasted good. And who says no to a cute, pathetic mini-cupcake?