Friday, August 13, 2010

Shameless Plug for Cupcakes

I love chocolate. There, I said it. I am proud of it. I am proud that I could eat chocolate cake every day for the rest of my life and never grow tired of it. Better yet, chocolate cupcakes. I love cupcakes. I know they are very trendy right now, but they should be. They are little bits of heaven in a simple paper cup, and they deserve all the attention they are getting.
In July, I went to Atlanta to see my parents (we were celebrating Christmas in July, since I had not been able to get home during the holidays). As a present, I took my mom and sister on a cupcake tour around Atlanta. There are 6 highly recommended cupcake bakeries, and we made it to 3 of them over 2 days. (We tried a 4th one twice, but it was closed both times, and the other 2 were just too far away.) But, of the 3 we tried, we tasted a total of 12 cupcakes, from traditional red velvet, to salted caramel, Mexican chocolate, Oreo and coconut. It was such fun, and there are so many great combinations.
I also have an ongoing debate with some good friends about the best cupcakes to be found. I maintain that the Hummingbird Bakery in London has the best cupcakes ever. But, my friends are tireless in their quest to bring me new and ever improving cupcakes. I admire them for that! Most recently, they brought me a vegan version from Ms. Cupcake, at Greenwich Market, which I was very dubious about. How can you make a decent cake without eggs and butter? However, Ms. Cupcake managed it; they were quite delicious, and all the more impressive because they had no dairy. And, the flavors ... Cherry, chocolate mint, triple chocolate, key lime.
So, by now you are thinking words like obsessed and fanatic. Well, that's fine. I am obsessed with a good cupcake, and the truth is, I am a bit fanatical about a delicious moist cake, topped with an equal amount of thick, sweet frosting. Lucky for me, Hummingbird Bakery has made their recipes available to all in their cookbook of the same name. They share three fool-proof recipes for frosting (vanilla, chocolate and cream cheese), as well as myriad recipes for different cupcakes. And, if you need something more, there are also pies, cakes and other sweets.
I was surprised to see some less-than-positive reviews on Amazon for the book, and I must say, in my opinion, the reviewers could not be more wrong. The recipes are simple, with common ingredients and excellent outcomes. The techniques are a bit different from traditional cake methods, but I find the resulting cake to be perfect.
Check out the book, and take an afternoon to bake a few types of cupcakes; you won't be sorry! And, if you have suggestions of where to get good cupcakes, let me know. I'll go almost anywhere for a little taste of heaven!

Some suggested cupcake resources:
Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook: Available with American measures at and with British/EU measures at ref=sib_dp_pt.jpg

And to dress up your cupcakes, check out Bella Cupcake Couture, for cute wrappers in trendy patterns.

Bon appétit!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Marshmallows and Hot Chocolate

Aaron and I were supposed to be in sunny Spain this weekend, our last trip of 2009. But, the weather, or easyJet (or both) foiled our plans, and after 5 hours at the airport with nothing to show for it, we came home and spent a quiet weekend in cold, snowy Geneva. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, both for our fatigue and for our bellies!

With nothing planned, I chose to spend yesterday cooking: homemade chai to ward off the cold, iced sugar cookies, brie mac and cheese, and Aaron's favorite: homemade marshmallows.

I make marshmallows every year, and each time, I am amazed at their beauty and simplicity! I grew up on the packaged marshmallows of America, making s'mores over the camp fire as a girl scout. But, I discovered a recipe for homemade marshmallows many years ago from Martha Stewart, and now, I'll never go back to the plastic bag! (Which is probably good, since I don't think they are easily found in Switzerland.)

There seem to be many different recipes involving many different ingredients (including potato starch?), but I find my original recipe to be the best and the easiest.

The result: a beautiful, white slab of pure, soft marshmallows that, when cut into large squares, makes a cup of hot chocolate (ou chocolat chaud) even more lovely. You really have to try these. They are easy, a bit sticky, and a delicious antidote to the freezing temperatures that have arrived! Comfort food at its best.

Homemade marshmallows

2 packs of gelatin (approximately 2 tablespoons)
1.5 cups sugar (336 grams)
2/3 cup light corn syrup (168 grams) (This may be hard to find in Europe; I am not sure the equivalent, so I buy it from the American store, where they charge quite a premium! But, it lasts a long time, so you can make marshmallows for days!)
Dash of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
Cooking spray

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and spray with cooking oil.
Pour 1/3 cup water (70 grams) water into mixing bowl. Sprinkle gelatin over the water and let it soften for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, place sugar, corn syrup and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower to medium heat and cook until it reaches 238 degrees F on a candy thermometer. This takes about 5-7 minutes.
Using a mixer, start whisking the gelatin, and slowly pour the sugar mixture into the gelatin in a steady stream. Increase the speed of the mixer, and beat until the mixture is thick, white, and almost tripled in volume. This takes about 10 minutes, so a stand mixer works best if you have one. Add vanilla and beat another 30 seconds to combine.
Pour the mixture onto the prepared baking tray, spread it out into a smooth layer (spray the spatula or spoon with cooking spray, because the marshmallows are sticky and every thing will stick to them!).
Let them stand at room temperature for 3 hours, or overnight. When ready to cut, sprinkle powdered sugar over the top and onto the knife. Cut into squares (or other shapes), and dip all cut sides into powdered sugar to cover the stickiness. You can use cocoa too for coating, to make some chocolate marshmallows. I've even seen people dip them into melted chocolate, which is quite fancy, although not necessary, in my humble opinion!

Now, all that is left is to make a cup of hot chocolate for the marshmallows, and you have the perfect cup of comfort! Enjoy!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

An Easy Start, A Decadent Finish

This past week, I found myself alone, as Aaron had gone to the US for our niece's wedding. To entertain myself (and my friends), I invited a few girls for dinner on Friday night and made a 3-course meal, including a dijon pork recipe that is easy and always delicious (I'll share this recipe another time). At the last minute, feeling that I was missing something to start the meal, I made three types of bruschetta, and in the end, they were the best part of the meal!

Simple toasted bread (a nice soft baguette) covered with a variety of toppings, and I was quite popular with my friends. We spent 15 minutes comparing the different types and voting for the best. Below are the two recipes that won. They'll take you very little time to make, with only a few ingredients, but people will be talking for days. (Recipe below)

On another note, for that same meal, I made a variation on the apple crumble I posted a few weeks ago: An Apple and Mascarpone Tart. It too was delicious, and made even more so with scoop of Mövenpick Crème Brûlée ice cream on the side! It was fairly easy and quite good. With apple season coming to a close, give this one a try and see what you think. A beautiful presentation and delicious too!

It was a great weekend (despite being a bit lonely without Aaron), and I ended up making 6 dishes in addition to the Friday night dinner. And all but one were a resounding success, giving a nice boost to my ratio of successes. Watch for some of the other successes to be added in the coming weeks.

Bon appetit!

An Easy Start ...
Bruschetta Deux Fois

Leeks and Cheese

1 baguette or loaf of quality bread, cut into slices
Olive oil
2 cups leeks, sliced in thin rings
.75 cup grated cheese (I used gruyere, but you can use many kinds: emmental, cheddar, mozzarella, etc.)

Arrange the slices of bread on a baking sheet in a single layer and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in an oven at 180 degrees Celsius/350 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately 6-8 minutes, until crisp. Remove from the oven.
While the toasts are baking, heat a small amount of olive oil in a skillet. When hot, add the sliced leeks and saute until browned and crisp, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Place a scoop of leeks on each bread slice, top with grated cheese and place back in the oven for about 4 minutes, until the cheese is melted. Serve immediately.

Figs and Cheese

1 baguette or loaf of quality bread, cut into slices
Olive oil
4 figs, washed, and tops and bottoms cut off, figs cut into thin slices
Manchego or Comte cheese (or some other hard, sharp cheese, preferably sheep's milk cheese)
Balsamic vinegar

Follow the same steps as above for the toasts. Once toasted, remove from the oven. Top each toast with one or two slices of fig, then, using a vegetable peeler, cut thin shards of the cheese and place on top of the figs. Place back in the oven for 3-4 minutes, until cheese is slightly softened. Remove, add a few drops of balsamic vinegar to each slice, and serve.

A Decadent Finish ...
Apple and Marscapone Tart

Pie crust (purchased, or see recipe below)
3 tart apples (Granny Smith, Gala, or example)
Lemon juice
1 cup mascarpone cheese (a soft, sweet cheese, found in the dairy or cheese section at the market)
.5 cup of almond flour
8 oz. butter, melted
Vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Peel the apples and slice in thin, uniform slices. Set them in a owl with a little lemon juice, coating each slide to prevent browning.
Make the pie crust, or with a store-bought cust, press it into a tart pan with removable bottom. (I used a long rectangular pan, but a round pan also works well.)
Spread the mascarpone cheese on the bottom of the crust in an even layer, covering the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle the cinnamon over the mascarpone.
Arrange the apple slices over the mascarpone, in overlapping layers. Alternatively, you can pile the apples into the crust for a faster tart, but the look is not as neat or appealing. *But, it is rustic and also perfectly lovely!)
In a separate bowl, mix the butter, almond powder and vanilla extract. Pour the mixture over the apples, spreading it over the apples (carefully, so as not to mess up the apple arrangement).
Bake in the oven at 180 degrees Celsius/350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes, until crust is brown and crisp and apples are soft and cooked through.
Let cool, and serve with a scoop o ice cream or a dollop of marscapone cheese on top.

Note: You can also add nuts (pecans, walnuts or hazelnuts, chopped) to the butter/almond flour mixture.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

An Apple A Day

Fall is here! I love this season, the time when it starts to get cold, you crave warm comfort food, the boots and sweaters can come out from the back of the closet, and apples are everywhere. (Not to mention roasted chestnuts, pumpkins, butternut squash ... I love fall food!)

Germany and Austria, as you may know, are known for amazing apfelstrudel. Aaron and I were in Berlin in September for a four-day weekend. What an amazing city, filled with history and great food. We stopped at an outdoor
cafe one afternoon so I could enjoy an apfelstrudel (Aaron has never been a fan of apples, so he just had an espresso). When my dessert arrived, it consisted of a beautiful pale phyllo pastry, filled with apples, cinnamon, raisins, nuts and butter. The best part: a creme anglaise sauce to pour over the top of the strudel. And the cafe was not stingy with the sauce; there was more than enough for the strudel.

The only problem: it looked so good that Aaron needed to try it and suddenly discovered that apples are really good when cooked in pastry and covered with a rich, smooth vanilla sauce (but then, what isn't?). He was lovely enough to only take a few bites of mine, showing great self-restraint. But, he thought about it for the rest of the day, and the next day, when we were riding bikes all the way across town, he suddenly decided that he couldn't wait any longer. So we made a beeline for another apfelstrudel. And now, my husband is a convert to the delicious apple.

Now that the apples are filling the markets, I made my own apple dessert for friends last night. I based it on an apple crumble recipe I found, but changed it quite a bit. It was delicious, served with a dollop of creme fraiche on top. Simple to make, and a delicious end to a good meal. Give it a try and let me know what you think. I'll be making it again tomorrow (but with more of the crumble, as requested by Aaron.)

Bon appetit!

Pommes avec Deux Sucres

6 apples, peeled, cored and cut into large chunks (you can also use whole cored apples, with the filling stuffed into the center cavity)
I used gala apples, but any tart, firm apple will work
50 grams regular, white sugar
50 grams cane sugar (or sugar in the raw)
100 grams butter, melted
120 grams almond flour
Optional 30 grams crushed nuts (almonds, walnuts or pecans are great) and/or raisins or dried cranberries

In a medium bowl, mix the two sugars into the melted butter. Add the almond flour, and mix well. The mixture will be crumbly and moist.

Spread the apple pieces in an oiled baking pan with 1-inch sides (to keep the butter in the pan). Pour the butter mixture over the apples and mix well, ensuring all apple pieces are coated with butter and some of the crumble.

Bake in the oven at 200 degrees celsius/390 degrees fahrenheit until soft and slightly gooey, approximately 35-40 minutes. Stir the apples and re-distribute the butter and crumble as needed every 10-15 minutes to ensure they don't burn or dry out.

Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche or sour cream. (I'll work on a creme anglaise recipe for another day!)


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Something New

Last weekend, I tried something I've never tried before. Three things, actually, all at the same time ...

1. I made homemade macarons (a French cookie or biscuit with a ganache filling; made famous by Laudree in Paris),
2. Following a recipe all in French,
3. And using the metric system for the entire recipe. (The metric system was probably the hardest part, as I am mathematically challenged, and conversions from the US system are incredibly difficult ... more on that another time).

The macarons were not bad for my first try, but I learned a lot. The taste was quite good (as evidenced by my husband, Aaron, eating them straight from the tray as quickly as I assembled them), but they were not quite as pretty or as uniform as the ones from Laudree. Of course, they are a complex creation, so the fact that I managed something even remotely resembling a macaron is a good start.

My passion for macarons all began when our friends John and Jillyanne brought des macarons vanilles to our house a few weeks ago. As we sat on our terrace savoring the delicate meringue cookies with a vanilla ganache filling, it truly felt like what heaven must be like.

For those of you who may not know me well, I love baking really complex desserts. There is nothing more relaxing than spending all afternoon dirtying up every mixing bowl, wooden spoon and baking pan to make some decadent creation that requires many hours, multiple steps and massive numbers of hard-to-find ingredients, but which brings great pleasure to those who will eat it. But let's be honest: I meet the challenge successfully only about half the time. The other 50%, I burn it, break it, drop it on the floor while taking it out of the oven (yes, I've done that!), or completely ruin it during assembly. But, the ones that do succeed make it all worth it!

The macaron meets my desire for complexity. I dirtied every mixing bowl that I own, and at the end of the day, my apron was covered in pastry cream, meringue, butter, batter ... you name it! What a satisfying feeling when you toss a very messy apron into the laundry, knowing that it served you well!

To make the macarons, you whip egg whites to a stiff consistency while adding sugar, almond powder, and food coloring. Here is where I made my first mistake. In translating the ingredients from French, there were two names used for sugar, but both translated into powdered sugar. I used this type for both stages, only later realizing that the first addition of sugar, to the egg whites, would have been more properly translated as regular sugar, or table sugar. The result was a more fragile cookie that cracked in the oven or under the weight and moisture of the ganache when assembled.

My next mistake was to compensate for my tendency to burn things, which I am very good at doing! I undercooked the meringues and didn't realize it until I removed them from the pan and they were not hard enough on the outside. An ideal macaron will be hard or crisp on the outside and slightly soft and chewy inside.

In the end, as long as Aaron ate them as soon as I assembled them, the macarons were quite good. But, when they sat for some time, they disintegrated, barely holding together.

So, the two options for future macaron making: ensure Aaron is hungry and ready to do his part, eating about 50 cookies at one time; or try again with the right sugar and cooking times! (Aaron votes for option 1).

I won't share the recipe until I practice a bit more and can make a lovely and delicious macaron. But, I will share a simple and delicious recipe for fig confiture, which I used as a filling, and which is also delicious on toast (with a little cream cheese if you are feeling decadent) or as a sandwich condiment.

And if you are feeling the need for a little taste of heaven, try and find a Laudree near you, and sample their macarons. I highly recommend the vanilla, but any of them are truly an experience not to be missed!

Bon degustation!

Fig Confiture

600 grams black figs (approximately 10 figs)
50 grams honey
Splash of vanilla extract (you can also add other spices, like cinnamon or nutmeg, to taste)

Wash and chop the figs into course pieces, removing the stems. Combine the figs with the honey and vanilla (and any other spices you choose) in a saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir frequently, to keep the figs from sticking to the pan. The figs will release their juices as they cook. Once the mixture is soft and liquid, lower the heat and continue cooking, stirring often, until the moisture is evaporated and the confiture is thick (about 30 minutes). Store covered in the refrigerator. Enjoy on toast, as a sandwich condiment (chicken salad, or brie and ham, perhaps).