Friday, August 27, 2010

Cupcake Mayhem: Mexican Vanilla Cupcakes

Last weekend, I volunteered for Cupcake Smackdown 2.0 organized by Jennie, social media maven/blogger extraordinaire/dog trainer/doctoral student. As might be expected from someone who can manage to keep that many balls in the air, she totally rocked it - we’re talking cupcake cannons, marauding zombies, a Guinness World Record set for most persons simultaneously icing a cupcake, and monies raised for worthy causes such as Lights, Camera, Help, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, and Keep Austin Dog Friendly. It was a fun-filled day for cupcake lovers, kiddos, families, and Austin food bloggers, who were out in force to document the mayhem. Even Dave Chapelle showed up (seriously, the real Dave Chapelle). Everyone love a cupcake!

Especially me and Lord knows I’ve eaten a plenty over the last month or two. Every time Jennie would tweet or send an email about Cupcake Smackdown, I would have a Pavlovian response and start to crave a cupcake. Due to poor impulse control, I had already sampled goods from most of the vendors well before the big day. While all were pretty tasty, my personal favorite was a Mexican Vanilla cupcake. Since (in addition to bodily labor) I had volunteered to bake cupcakes for the cannons, I thought I’d re-create my favorite cupcake for the event. Most of the cupcakes made it to the smackdown to be loaded in the cannons but I saved a few to enjoy at home. 
Mexican Vanilla Cupcakes

These are go-to recipes that I often use when making cupcakes but I adapted the recipes by doubling the specified quantity of vanilla and subbing Mexican vanilla for the Madagascar Bourbon vanilla extract I typically use. Billy’s Vanilla Vanilla cupcake recipe produces a cake with a great crumb and a delicate florally vanilla aroma which the Mexican vanilla really enhanced. Magnolia Bakery’s vanilla buttercream icing is a faux buttercream but is the perfect consistency and texture for icing cupcakes. And since a cupcake isn’t a cupcake without sprinkles, I liberally doused these with sparkling sugar.

1 3/4 c cake flour
1 1/4 c unbleached all-purpose flour
2 c sugar
1 T baking powder
3/4 t salt
1 c (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 large eggs
1 c whole milk
2 t Mexican vanilla extract

1 c (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
4 t Mexican vanilla extract
6-8 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
1/2 c milk 

Sparkling sugar topping

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Line cupcake pans with paper liners and set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt and mix on low speed until combined. Add butter and mix until just coated with flour.
2. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, and vanilla. Set the mixer on medium speed and add the wet ingredients in 3 additions, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl between additions. Beat until ingredients are incorporated being careful not to overbeat.
3. Divide the batter evenly among liners and fill until 2/3 full. Bake until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, approximately 17 to 20 minutes. To ensure even baking, rotate the pans at 8 – 10 minutes.
4. Transfer the cupcakes to a wire rack to cool completely.
5. While the cupcakes are cooling, make the buttercream icing: in a large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter (or use a whisk to cream by hand). Add in vanilla. Gradually add the sugar, one cup at a time, beating well on medium speed (or whisking well). With each addition, scrape down the bowl sides and bottom. When all sugar has been mixed in, add the milk and beat at medium speed until light and fluffy. Keep the bowl covered with a damp cloth until ready to use.
6. Once cupcakes have cooled, use a small offset spatula or a pastry bag fitted with a tip to frost each cupcake. Decorate with sprinkles, if desired. Serve at room temperature.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Lavender and Olive Oil Macarons

The Austin Food Bloggers held another meet up last weekend, hosted by Carla at Austin Urban Gardens, to celebrate the impending arrival of (founding member) Addie Broyles next bundle of joy. Her first bundle of joy, Julian, was on hand to celebrate with us. Eric and I always really enjoy the meet ups since we get to swap food and related stories with a cool group of like-minded people. I was happy to see bloggers I’d met previously- shout outs to Michelle at Foodie is the New Forty and Jennie at Miso Hungry - and those I’ve been reading for awhile but had yet to meet. I met Lisa from Lisa is Cooking and devoured the homemade bagels she brought. From the beautiful pictures on her blog, everything she makes looks so delicious and now I can totally vouch that it is! She had some good references for tips on bread making. I also met the lovely ladies Neysa from Dissertation to Dirt and Mariam at Creative Test Kitchen. I’d already been reading about Neysa and her husband’s journey into sustainable, organic farming and I’ve now added Mariam’s site to my Google Reader as well.

To contribute to the meet up, I decided to expand my macaron repertoire and venture into non-nut flavors. I still had some cooking grade lavender from my trip to the Hill County Lavender Farm so I decided to experiment with one of my favorite flavors. With a bunch of food bloggers to serve as tasters, I had the perfect crowd on which to test some lavender macarons. I'm always my own worst critic and I thought the lavender flavor was a little too strong and the cookies too chewy but the other bloggers were sweetly complimentary. Teddy at Fun with Your Food even said she usually thinks that lavender tastes like soap but the macarons may have changed her mind. That was sweet of her but I'm sure she wouldn't have told me even if they did taste like soap! 

In addition to the great camaraderie, everyone's food was delicious and I'm pretty sure I sampled just about everything there. Now I just need to get a cute pair of fat pants to wear to the meet ups. I swear, Eric practically had to roll me out the door!
Lavender and Olive Oil Macarons
adapted from Aran at Canelle et Vanille

 I decided to juice up Aran’s recipe a bit and add ground up lavender flowers to the almond meal. I added 5 grams of lavender flowers and reduced the almond meal called for by the same amount. As I said before, I really like lavender. To give you an idea of how much I put in the macarons, 5 grams equates to about 4-5 tablespoons of lavender buds. Not surprisingly, the first batch came out of the oven with a faint gray hue. Gray is not such an appetizing color for macarons so while I don’t typically add food coloring, I ran out and purchased a small vial of purple gel food coloring to color correct the next batch. (I might have gotten a bit heavy handed with it - check out that meringue below in all its purple haze glory.)
As can be expected when making macarons, the first round of cookies went on the discard pile. They came out of the oven a little too browned so I shortened the baking time on the next batch. The trick (one of many) with macarons is to not leave them in the oven so long that they brown but to still ensure that they cook all the way through or you’ll wind up with blotchy, grease spotted- looking cookies. Further complicating matters, this macaron batter was way thicker than any other flavor I’ve ever worked with- to the point that it was almost like a paste. I’m not sure if that can be attributed to the addition of lavender or the food coloring (I used a gel). Or it could be due to the fact that I tried to dry out the meringue a bit by whipping it longer since I didn’t have time to age the egg whites as long as needed.

Rounds 2 and 3 went relatively well. The last was a bust, again as usual, because by the time you get to the last batch, the meringue in the batter has been deflated by squeezing the bag to pipe out cookies. In all, I salvaged enough to make a couple dozen macarons. Not a bad take from a hard day’s work of macaron making. The puppies and I enjoyed munching on the rejects.

Since I was using a typically savory ingredient for the macaron flavor, I wanted to make a buttercream filling in the same vein. I decided Texas Olive Ranch olive oil would make a tasty olive oil buttercream to pair with the lavender cookies. This idea didn’t turn out quite as well as I hoped since the addition of oil thinned the buttercream to the point that it spread too much when sandwiching the macarons. I had hoped that whipping softened butter with the oil to combine them and then chilling in the fridge to allow it to set up before using in the buttercream would help with the consistency. No such luck… but it did taste lovely. I made up a batch of lemon buttercream to ice the remaining cookies as I didn’t want to serve slip-n-slide macarons to my fellow bloggers. I’m not giving up on the idea of an olive oil buttercream just yet so I guess its back to the lab again.

176 grams almond flour
5 grams chopped or pulverized lavender flower buds
243 grams powdered sugar
138 grams egg whites, aged 2-3 days
3 grams egg white powder
2 grams of finely ground sea salt
81 grams granulated sugar
5 drops of food coloring
candied lavender flowers for topping

 Olive Oil Buttercream
50 grams of egg whites
100 grams of granulated sugar
150 grams of room temperature unsalted butter
1- 2 T olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit and line 3 to 4 sheet pans with silpats or parchment paper. Use a small coffee bean grinder to finely chop the lavender flowers or you can pulverize with a mortar and pestle.
2. In a large bowl, sift together the lavender, almond flour, powdered sugar and salt and set aside. To make the meringue, add the egg whites and egg white powder to the bowl of an electric mixer. Whip on medium speed until the egg whites start to increase in volume and then continue until the whites are almost fully whipped and very fluffy. Slowly add the sugar. After all the sugar is incorporated, whip on high speed until stiff peaks form. If using, add the food coloring at this point.
3. Add half the dry ingredients to the meringue and with a spatula, fold the meringue into the dry ingredients until combined and then fold in the remaining half of the dry ingredients. Don’t over fold the batter – just mix until it appears shiny and has a ribbon like consistency when dropped from the spatula. The batter should spread a little when piped out onto the prepared pan but not too much. If you over mix the batter, the cookies will be flat and you won’t get the desired “feet.”

4. Load the batter into a pastry bag or one gallon Ziploc. I always use a zip lock with a corner snipped off to pipe the cookies as it works perfectly well and is easy to dispose of when done. Pipe out small rounds onto the prepared pans. Sprinkle the wet macarons with the candied lavender flowers, if using.
5. Let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes to 1 hour until a skin forms and the macarons are dry to the touch and do not stick to your finger. The skin will help prevent the macaron shells from cracking while baking.
6. Bake one sheet pan at a time on the middle rack of your oven. Bake for about 8 minutes and then rotate the pan to ensure even baking for the remainder of the time. The baking time will be dependant upon your oven but I baked these for approximately 13 minutes. I tried Aran’s recommended 14 minutes on the first pan but they browned lightly. When removed from the oven, allow the cookies to cool on a rack.
7. Whip softened butter with the olive oil to combine and then put the mix in the fridge to set up before using it to make the buttercream. When set up, pull out of the fridge and allow to soften a bit before starting.
8. To make the buttercream, lightly whisk together the egg whites and sugar in the mixing bowl of an electric mixer. Add water to a pot of a size on which the mixing bowl can securely sit. Only add enough water to the pot to generate steam but not enough that it will lap at the bottom of the mixing bowl. Allow the water to come to a boil and then turn down to a simmer. Place the mixing bowl over the water bath and continue to whisk until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is warm to the touch. Bring the bowl back to the electric mixer and whip until stiff peaks form. Add the olive oil-butter mixture, a tablespoon at a time, and continue to whip until the buttercream comes together.
9. Sort through the cookie halves and match up according to size and shape. Pipe a teaspoon of buttercream on a macaron and sandwich with another. If you can stand to wait, macarons taste best if you allow them to rest in the refrigerator for a couple of days before eating so that the flavors really gel.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Michellen's YumYum Chinese Needles in a Haystack cookies

I got a craving for a crunchy, sweet and salty cookie the other day. The cookie I had in mind was one I haven’t had since childhood – a tantalizingly flavorful blend of butterscotch chips, peanut butter, and chow mien noodles. I know- sounds gross, huh? And yes, they don't look much better than they sound. But stay with me…

The butterscotch chips and peanut butter are combined and melted to create a coating in which the noodles are dipped. The nutty richness of the peanut butter allays the "sets your teeth on edge" sweetness of the butterscotch chips and the chow mien noodles bring just the right hint of salt to play up the creamy flavor of the coating. The noodles also add the crunchy texture that sets this cookie apart.

Since these cookies are of the haystack variety, protruding chow mien noodles can make it hard to get your mouth around them so you sort of have to munch about the edges. Also, the cookie tends to crumble in your hand after the first bite. You’ll most assuredly have little crumbs of butterscotch/peanut butter coating and chow mien noodle pieces in your lap after devouring one. (But who can eat just one?) Trust me, you will be fishing in your lap to nibble on every last remaining crumb.

By now, you must be wondering what these scrumptious morsels of goodness are called. Well, so was I because I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember.

Since the name escaped me, I described the cookie when I called Mom to inquire about the recipe. Thankfully, chow mien noodles as a cookie ingredient are pretty distinctive so she knew exactly what I was referring to. She called them peanut butter cookies. To me, that name just didn’t seem to fit a cookie in which peanut butter is the most nominal ingredient. So for my inaugural batch of these cookies, I decided I should bestow a new name upon them.

As I was kicking around ideas, Eric stopped by the kitchen to see what I was up to and asked, “What are these coral reef looking cookies?” Although his contribution to the naming of the cookie was an off the cuff reaction to the shape and color, I did consider coral reef cookies for a time but decided that title wasn’t snappy enough. However, I was pleased to hear that we were somewhat on the same page as I had been contemplating names involving sea life too. My first thought was that the cookies looked like some variety of nigiri sushi. The chocolate squiggles reminded me of the sweetened soy sauce reduction that is sometimes drizzled over sushi. For inspiration, I arranged a few cookies in a leftover sushi takeout tray but it was to no avail. The name nigiri sushi cookies wasn’t working for me (nor would it “work” for anyone else, I suspect).
Now the cookies are gone (Eric took to these cookies like a fish to water), and without their sugary goodness to fuel my brain, I’m all tapped out on naming ideas. So, dear readers, I’m turning to you. If you have an idea for a name, please feel free to let me know.  I’ll update the title of this post with your chosen moniker attributed to you by name, of course. Help me out folks!

???? Cookies

I have no idea of the actual provenance of these cookies but Mom thinks she got the recipe from my Aunt Dixie. Who knows where Dixie got it? If you know who originally hit upon this winning combination, please thank them heartily for me. They have greatly enriched my life and I’m forever indebted to them. Also, if you know the original name for these cookies, I'd love to know.

2 c chow mien noodles
6 oz butterscotch chips
½ c peanut butter
1-2 oz dark or milk chocolate

1. Line a sheet pan with wax paper and set aside.
2. In a large skillet over medium-low heat, melt the butterscotch chips and peanut butter. Stir with a spatula occasionally to prevent burning and to smooth the mixture. When fully melted, stir in the chow mien noodles. Drop large spoonfuls onto the wax paper lined sheet pan and place in fridge to set up.
3. Melt a small quantity of chocolate and pour into a Ziploc bag. Use scissors to snip just the very tip of a corner off to use the bag for drizzling chocolate over the cookies once the coating has set up.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Easy as Pie: Cherry Clafoutis

Clafoutis aux cerises is a classic French dessert- it’s as French as tart tatin. (Bad play on “as American as apple pie” - my apologies.) 
I’ve wanted to make a clafoutis ever since I came back from Paris so when cherry season rolled around this year, I went looking for a recipe. I settled on Elisabeth Pruitt’s cherry clafoutis recipe from the Tartine cookbook. When I first read through the recipe, it looked so easy-peasy, I was a little skeptical. Because it couldn’t really be that simple, now could it? My doubt stemmed from conflicting reports I’d heard on clafoutis making- some said it was a bit tricky while others raved it was utterly effortless. I tend to heed warnings as I’ve been taken in by a few deceptively simple recipes in the past. In fact, even as I was pulling ingredients out to start on the clafoutis, I was listening to a Splendid Table archived episode in which a caller dialed in to ask a question on why the flour in his clafoutis was lumping. I wasn’t sure whether to take the coincidence as a good omen or bad.

I’ve learned that baking failures are almost always the result of error(s) in execution, or less often, a poorly written recipe. Only very rarely is a failure the result of forces outside of the baker’s control - i.e. altitude or a problematic ingredient. Meaning, I knew the blame was on me if my clafoutis was a flop as Tartine's recipes are very well written.

So with a flop sweat dampened brow, I got to work. Since I decided not to pit the cherries, there wasn’t much prep work involved other than measuring quantities. Clafoutis is classically made with unpitted cherries as the seeds release an almond-like flavor when baked. Many people find biting into a cherry pit in the middle of dessert a little disconcerting so most recipes you see now will call for pitting the cherries. As a fan of more flavor and less work, I opted to skip the pitting party (seemed like a no brainer to me). 
I prepared the custard exactly according to the instructions but I was a bit nervous about the thin consistency when I poured it into the baking dish. I had expected it to be thicker, thinking that the hot milk would “cook” the eggs/flour mixture when combining. Also, when I went to add the cherries, I discovered I had snacked (nervous eater) on a few more than I should have while making the custard so my clafoutis wasn’t as chock full of cherries as I would have liked.
Despite all the fretting, my worry was for naught as the clafoutis baked up just fine. Turns out, making a clafoutis is as easy as cherry pie. In fact, easier!

Cherry Clafoutis
adapted from Tartine

I love Elisabeth Pruitt’s recipes because, while drawn from the classic French tradition, she updates them in a modern, appealing manner. I’ve picked up some good tips from her cookbook and I like that her recipes allow me to practice techniques I learned at Le Cordon Bleu without having to make some fussy, outdated confection. That said, she isn’t one for shortcuts and her recipes aren’t always the easiest way to make a desired pastry, but if her instructions are followed properly, the end product is fabulous. I usually check Tartine first for a recipe, but admittedly, there have been times when I’ve gone with another baker’s version just because their method is simpler. Her’s is not the cookbook to pull out when you’re feeling lazy; however, this recipe is a delightful exception to the rule. This is a great recipe for when you’re short on time as it can easily be made at the last minute. Any stone fruit or berry would work well. I think next time I’ll skip the caramelized sugar topping and just sprinkle on a bit of powdered sugar. It's so pretty strait out of the oven that I hate to cover it up.
2 c whole milk
¾ c sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped or ½ t pure vanilla extract
pinch salt
3 large eggs
1/3 c + 1 T all purpose flour
2 c cherries
1/4 c sugar, for caramelized sugar topping
powdered sugar, for topping

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit and butter a 10 inch ceramic quiche mold or pie dish.
2. In a small saucepan, combine milk, sugar, vanilla seeds or extract, and salt. Heat on medium and stir to dissolve the sugar. Bring to just under a boil.
3. While the milk mixture is heating, place one egg in a bowl and add flour. Whisk until smooth and then add remaining two eggs and continue to whisk until smooth.
4. Remove saucepan from the heat and slowly ladle the hot milk into the egg mixture while whisking constantly. If frothed from whisking, use a spatula to stir the custard mixture until smooth and then pour into the prepared mold. Add cherries and distribute evenly.
5. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until just set in the center and slightly puffed and browned around the outside edge. Remove the custard from the oven and sprinkle the additional 1/4 cup of sugar evenly over the top. Either use a brulee torch to caramelize the sugar or turn the oven temperature up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. To caramelize the sugar topping in the oven, put the clafoutis back in for 5-10 minutes until the sugar has darkened. It darkens quickly once it gets going so keep an eye out. (If you have one, I think using a brulee torch is best as putting the already hot clafoutis back in a 500 degree oven caused the cherries to bubble over and ruined the pretty look I loved when I first took it from the oven).
6. Let cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes. Sprinkle a little powdered sugar over the carmelized crust before slicing. Serve warm or at room temperature. This dessert is best polished off the day it’s made.