Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cupcakes are so, like, last week

I recently heard on a radio program that cupcake shops are, in one person's opinion, so ubiquitous as to render them oversaturated on our streets and therefore, she concluded, passe.

Huh.

She's right in one sense; They have been sprouting up all over, especially peppering the streets of hip, urban areas. But since when does something so good as to encourage replication mean it becomes so last week? Hello? People this is America, where sushi bars, pizza joints and burger shacks litter the streets like so much fast food flotsam and jetsam. If something stands the test of time, such as a pastrami sandwich, a good or at least hot cup of joe, a New York hot dog, a greasy piece of pizza, or a (be still my beating heart) perfect, powdered donut, then it has earned squatter's rights on our culinary landscape. And some respect. Don't you think?

A good cupcake is nothing short of a miracle. And by miracle I mean that so many, so often, are so terribly dry. To find a flavorful, moist, beautiful cupcake that is creative and not too heavy on the frosting, thank you, moves me to start humming God Bless America. When I get to sample some entrepreneurial go getter's latest muffin tin-lined cake concoction, it feels like my most patriotic moment. Now why would this radio parade-rainer try to take that away from me?

The nerve.


I make dark chocolate cupcakes in those adorable, yet deceptive, little muffin cups, thereby giving myself permission to eat eight (y). Awhile ago I posted a gluten-free version of these, which involves embellishing a gluten-free mix. This is my "regular" recipe, inspired by the chocolate cake my grandmother used to make me as a kid. She always put mini-chocolate chips right into the batter. They'd ooze out in all the right places when you cut into a slice. My grandmother turns 100 this week and I'm stuck in the Sea-Tac airport writing this, headed to New York to help her celebrate. I'm bringing her a cupcake from my favorite place in Seattle. That's right: Trophy Cupcakes. One triple chocolate for her, one red velvet for me.


When you just don't feel like making your own


or when you do...

Dark chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting and cacoa nib dust


Ingredients

½ cup Butter, Unsalted -- softened
¾ cup Sugar
2 Eggs -- at room temperature
¾ cup Flour, All-purpose
½ cup Cocoa, unsweetened -- best quality
1 tsp Baking Powder
½ tsp Salt
½ cup Milk
¼ cup Applesauce or apple butter
2 tsp Vanilla Extract
¼ cup Bittersweet Chocolate -- chopped into small pieces -best quality, around 60% cacoa

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl over medium-high speed cream butter for a few minutes, then add sugar, stopping a few times to scrape down the bowl. When butter and sugar are light and fluffy, about 5 minutes later, set the speed on low and add the eggs, one at a time, until incorporated.

Sift the dry ingredients and add 1/3 to the mix over low speed until fully incorporated. Mix the milk, applesauce and vanilla together. Add 1/2 of the wet ingredients to the mixer, combine and then add another 1/3 of the dry ingredients. Add the rest of the wet and then finish with the remaining dry ingredients. Gently stir in the chocolate pieces.

Scrape batter into a pastry bag and pipe into lined or greased muffin tins. Bake for about 15-18 minutes until a knife comes out clean. Let cool completely before frosting.

Frosting
¼ cup Butter, unsalted or non-dairy margarine -- room temperature
2 ½ cups Powdered sugar
4 tbsp Milk (cow, soy, rice or nut) -- even coconut milk would work if you wanted the flavor
½ cup Cocoa powder -- scant

While the cupcakes cook, you can make the frosting by beating the butter in a mixer over medium-high speed until nice and light. Lower the speed (or risk sudden aging by powdered sugar) and carefully add the powdered sugar. Add the milk and then the cocoa. You may need to adjust the consistency by adding more powdered sugar or more milk. You want a nice spreadable consistency. You can firm the icing up in the fridge for 15 minutes before spreading if necessary. Or make ahead and bring to room temperature before spreading). Make sure the cupcakes are fully cooled and mix the icing well to ensure that it is creamy. Garnish the cupcakes with dark chocolate curls (made by slowly dragging a peeler over a thick bar of chocolate).

Garnish further with some cacoa nib powder. Make by grinding 3 tablespoons of cacoa nibs with 3 tablespoons of sugar in a spice grinder. Sift or sprinkle cacoa nib dust over the top of the cupcakes.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Play date.

Quail eggs with toasted cumin seed and parsley gelee.
In the background watermelon "shot glasses" filled with olive oil

Monday was my day off. I had a packed weekend of work with a private dinner/class Friday night, a PCC class with April (Northwest Wine and Dine) on Saturday and a nettle-foraging trip to Vashon with cooking class on Sunday (phew!) You'd think I'd sit on the couch and do nothing all day but no, that would have been wise.

There is a time for wisdom and now's not it, not when Opportunity, big O, presents itself. Monday's incarnation of opportunity looked like this:

"Let's say we tool around the International District," said my chef buddy Ashlyn (recently back from cheffing at an eco-resort in Spain and now working at the must-try Tilikum Place Cafe). She continues, "we'll eat lunch at Tamarind Tree and I'll bring this book that we can use to figure out how to bone out a quail leaving it intact so we can stuff it later. Then, yeah... then, we'll go shopping and buy random shit and figure out how to cook it. Oh, and I'll show you that thing I did with quail eggs and gelee and you can show me how you rig up your wok as a smoker and we can smoke our own salt and (deep breath) then we'll cook it all for when April gets home from work."

And then I say "yeah, awesome! and I'm not so happy with my poached eggs these days... they aren't as perfect-looking as I want, can you show me your technique?" And then she says "sure, cool, and you can make a nettle sauce since you're all nettle-y these days."

So it goes.


Quail stuffed with bacon-oyster dressing, stinging nettle sauce, fried potatoes

My day off is spent with my head in a cookbook, eating great food, shopping, cooking, and doing tons of dishes and though it may look no different than a day of work, it's totally different.

There's work and then there's PLAY.

From the outside it may have looked the same, but in the course of a work day I would never put together some of these foods. The ingredients weren't local (save for the nettles), some were totally out of season. That's okay on my day off. I walk the talk most every day - sometimes I need a break, to play with food with no constraints. Even if in the act of playing I re-discover how crappy out of season food tastes.

We didn't make a cohesive menu, we made a bunch of crazy random shit and I loved every moment of it. There are no real recipes, or at least none yet. There were no time constraints and no clients or customers to please. There was the free flowing exchange of information. We were two chefs with very different but complementary styles.


Cross-section of a banana flower

Oh and there were failures. Case in point: our unsuccessful attempt to make this banana blossom palatable. It was bitter and no amount of curry spices, fresh coconut cream and herbs could salvage it. But ain't it pretty inside?



There was the nettle sauce which is great with fish but not a good pairing with the quail. We wanted to make it and well, we didn't have anything else for it to go with and we were PLAYING, remember, as in - not working.



Salt, smoking.

Playing also involves using new equipment like a fancy blowtorch I got at a True Value. I think it looks rather studly, though I fear that when I eventually burn my condo down someday, the helpful guy at the hardware store will be my undoing. "Sure," he'll say, "I remember when she came in, all wide-eyed and bushy tailed, talkin' bout smoking things in her condo, and I'm not talkin' bout that mary-joo-ana."

We used a large crystal sea salt. I started an apple wood fire in the bottom of my wok with my blow torch. WOO-wee, that thing is powerful! Yes, we did this in my condo. Yes, I think this is probably a terrible idea. But I do it all the time, making me either really cool or terribly dumb (the jury is out). I blast the hood fan, open all the windows and turn my wok into a jury-rigged home smoker. I use these highly fancy skewers to hold a little salt-box above the smoking pile of soaked wood chips. We cover the wok and let the salt smoke for just 2-3 minutes. We determine that it is best to have a very thin layer of salt so that the smoke can get to it. It colors lightly and we declare it slightly smoky and a successful first attempt.

April got an old bottle of wine that may or may not have been "beyond" and I don't mean that in the positive way, as in, "oh, darling, that pastrami on rye was beyond!"

We decide it is a perfect pairing: a questionable wine with a questionable assortment of foods.

A lovely meal, just right for a day off.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

G and G cookies

Look closely in the upper left of this pic. Even my dog is very, very tempted.

Sometimes our ability to think freely is limited by knowing too much.

I've probably made over a hundred batches of chocolate chip cookies, but not once have I ever thought of adding freshly grated ginger to the mix. I had a nice-sized box of E. Guittard chocolate wafers that the wine goddess and I had been rewarding ourselves with every 3 minutes or so. She felt inspired to bake some cookies (she bakes about oh, once a month and her limited repertoire includes cookies and banana bread). You may remember April has no fear of adding, uh, interesting flavor combinations to food. Sometimes they really work, sometimes they really don't. But her choices are nearly limitless because in many ways, she's not at all boxed in by what she already knows.

The same is true for me with wine knowledge.

I know just enough to get by but probably 1/100th of what April knows, if not 1/1000th. I took the ISG course with her so that I could at least speak the same language. When we were blind tested on some classic wines for one of our exams, I got nearly all of them right. Now this may sound like I'm bragging and I'm really not. My point is that I only knew so much. The red wine was thin and earthy... uh, Pinot Noir? Almost all the sommeliers in the room got that wine wrong because they had so much information in their heads that they completely over-thought the problem. I knew so little, it seemed straight-forward.

Why had I never thought of grating fresh ginger into chocolate chip cookies? I don't know, perhaps because it's right there, in front of my face and thoughts of earl gray cookies, or bay laurel shortbread or chocolate hazelnut cookies with a caramel swirl are floating around between my ears.

I love the perspective a fresh set of eyes can bring to something familiar and worn and comfortable.


G and G (Guittard and Ginger) Chocolate Chip Cookies
April adapted this recipe slightly from The Best Recipe, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 cup light or dark brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon water
2 cups semisweet or bittersweet E. Guittard wafers (range of about 60-70% cocoa) or substitute your favorite chocolate

Adjust oven racks to upper and lower positions and heat to 375 degrees. Whisk flour, salt and baking soda together in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Cream together the butter and sugars until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes with mixer set at medium speed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add eggs, ginger, vanilla and water. Beat until combined, about 40 seconds. Scrape sides of bowl.

Add dry ingredients and beat at low speed until just combined. Add chocolate pieces and stir until combined.

You can scoop the dough out with a small ice cream scooper onto ungreased cookie sheets, leaving about 1 inch in between cookies. Bake, reversing position of cookie sheets halfway through baking (from top to bottom and front to back), until cookies are light golden brown and outer edges begin to crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool cookies on sheets for 1 to 2 minutes before transferring to cooling racks. Leave on cooling racks for as long as physically possible. In our house, this runs about 2 minutes.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Why I love Seattle

I love Seattle because people here actually give a crap about our world, are smart enough to come up with creative ideas to make it better, and have the technological know-how to make these concepts accessible to the rest of us.

The idea is so painfully simple one wonders why we've never seen this before. Think Match.com for gardening. Person A has yard space that, for whatever reason, they don't cultivate. Person B has no yard space and they want to dig their hands in the dirt and grow things. They put their profiles up, find out they live not so far from each other, meet, agree on terms (I provide water, you share some of your harvest, etc...) and it's love, garden-style.

It's simple, it's brilliant and just wait, I predict, coming to every city soon. Ideas like this are why I freakin' love this city.

Urban Garden Share (when you just can't wait for a goddamn p-patch to open up).

Monday, March 2, 2009

94111

The Ferry Building

San Francisco, California.

We all have those places that evoke distinct emotional responses. Just typing “San Francisco” on my keyboard pulls at my memories, inspiring waves of nostalgia. I lived in Berkeley in 1992 for 3 short months. I had packed up all my personal belongings, threw them in the trunk of my lemon of a hand me down from my Dad and took off from upstate New York headed to the West. I had a vague notion of what I might find out there - progressive circles, literary salons, urban homesteaders, aged hippies and druggies, sexual identity politics. But really what I was looking for was anything different from where I came. It seemed a romantic notion. Get your college diploma, jump in your car and take the road trip of your life. I cast my line as far as I could, and when I felt it land in the Pacific, I sensed that I was now an adult.

As it turned out, I ended up getting disappointingly lonely. I sniffled on the phone to my father and decided to pack up my car and drive back East, to be reunited with my family and friends. But before I left, I ate at Chez Panisse, drank my morning coffee at Pete’s and enjoyed big, warm hunks of bread with local cheese at the Cheese Board Collective. I had breathed in the air, looked out at the mountains, and taken in that most majestic of structures, the Golden Gate Bridge. I had walked like an Amazon, towering over everyone in Chinatown, eaten bowls of pasta in Little Italy, and been blown away by the farmer’s market tables, spilling over with tomatoes, artichokes, figs, grapes. In short, nothing was lost on me and I filed it all away to be pulled out later.

Those three months were formative; I knew I’d be back to the West Coast, someday. Something about the people, the food, the mountains spoke to me in a way that New Jersey never could. When I think about my career I always point to those three months as the time when something in my brain clicked. Even if I wouldn’t change careers from the health field to the culinary field for another 5 years, the seed was planted.

After our trip to L.A. this week, we headed up the 101, San-Francisco bound. Once there, we drove straight to the Mission District to meet up with April’s friend Emily, a master sommelier (one of only 15 women, and the second woman to pass on the first try) who runs the wine program at the Fifth Floor, in the Palomar Hotel.

Continuing where I left off in L.A., I would cook a meal tonight based on what I gathered on our adventures in the city. Our first destination was the Ferry Building where we’d be hunting and gathering for dinner provisions. In my ideal dinner planning world-order, first come the ingredients, then the menu, then the wines.

The wine goddess patiently waits while I shop. and shop. and shop some more.

First stop was Boccalone for samples. Our favorites were the lardo (cured pork fat back) and lonzo (salt-cured pork, thinly sliced). The lardo I would lightly melt on some crostini with some fruit, perhaps. I spotted a pluot. Ah, I’d roast that and curl the lardo over the caramelized pluots and drizzle some vincotto that Emily had over the top with a little olive oil. The residual warmth from the fruit would lightly melt the fat.

Gotta love their tagline.

Next stop was Far West Fungi to pick up some wild mushrooms that I’d saute with brown butter, wilted arugula, a splash of wine, thinly sliced lonzo, some romano cheese and shallot and combine with some strozzapreti, a pasta name that means "priest-strangler".

Be still my beating heart.

Tiny purple baby artichokes would get trimmed up, flattened with my palm and tossed with flour. I’d fry them until crisp and brown, with tender hearts, in the Roman Jewish ghetto style. I dusted the fried artichokes with a fennel salt, and served them with an arugula salad, caramelized lemon slices and a saffron aioli.

Third course.

Emily poured a Louis Jadot Pommard (Pinot Noir) with the pasta and the wine goddess contributed a Lioco Carignan/Petite Syrah blend. April and Emily discussed wine late into the night and I kept up - I did - until we started sampling the differences between Fernet Branca and Underberg (Italian and German bitters). I couldn't help it, my head gently eased itself onto the hallway floor for just a moment. I’ll close my eyes for just a moment, I thought.

Just a moment.

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