About three years ago, I was in Pensacola, Florida with my husband visiting his beloved Granddaddy. Although my description of him could never be sufficient, it’s safe to say that Granddaddy is a rural Southern man through and through, charming and storied, a soft accent but always strong words. The kind that can, even at 93 years old, discipline small children just by looking at them and fry a chicken in a single bound. And that’s just the beginning. Anyway, Granddaddy is a fantastic cook. And everyone, I mean EVERYONE in the family (and other people’s families) go bonkers for his hush puppies.
These are not to be confused with the leaden, medium-brown fried hunks of corn bread that so many of us think of when the dish is mentioned. No, these are the anti-hush pups, a light, pillowy, slightly onion-y center encased in a crisp golden shell, more flour than corn meal, no seasoning required. You can eat a dozen in a sitting, easy. They melt in your mouth, giving the illusion that you haven’t eaten that many. Southern fried crack. Magic.
I went there with a mission–I was going to learn how to make his famous hush puppies. I had heard the stories of other family members that had tried to learn how to make them and failed, and it remained a mystery as to whether they just didn’t “get it”, or if Granddaddy had maybe “accidentally” left out a tip or two so that their hush puppies would never turn out quite like his. For my attempt, I fully intended to just stand by the stove and take mental notes while he made a batch, never expecting that he would actually teach me, a Midwestern girl who had rarely traveled south of Atlanta and a relative by marriage, no less, how to make the golden fried orbs that had become a thing of legend. You see, my own grandfather was Memphis-raised and a phenomenal home cook himself, so I respect a Southern cook’s secrets in regards to their specialties.
Now, it may have been because I was like a puppy, practically jumping up on the counter, asking questions, questions, questions. Maybe he was flattered to have some youthful energy in the place treating his secret recipe like a treasure map. Or maybe he was bored and just wanted something to do after watching his morning television programs. But Granddaddy actually agreed to teach me, step-by-step, in great detail, how to make his famous hush puppies. Or in as great of detail as he could given the fact that he has made them so many times over the years that there is no measuring, he just knows when it’s right–when the proportion of flour to corn meal is just so, how much buttermilk to add, when the oil is ready, etc. I learned to stop asking “how” and “why” as we hovered over the stove–the answer to these questions from a cook with a legendary recipe is always “you just know”.
It became clear very early on that I was going to need serious practice to master the intangibles of this process. It became a joint mission of sorts, for me to get it right. Loosely measuring, chopping, eyeballing the mixture, the oil, the perfect moment to flip the pups. We must have made at least half a dozen batches of hush puppies over three days. I was nervous at first, the significance of these lessons not lost on me for a second. The secrets to an edible family heirloom could very well be in my hands. The more comfortable I got with the process, say, three batches in, I began to relax, needing less and less coaching as he watched over my shoulder, and Granddaddy’s insistent “Don’t mess with ‘em too much, now” gave way to “You’ve got it, that’s right”.
After several batches he was proudly proclaiming that I “had the eye” and that no one before me had really listened to how to get them just right. For someone like me who takes pride in really nailing recipes, I could have died happy right then. But oh, the story gets better.
On the night before my husband and I were set to leave Pensacola, there was a big family dinner. An uncle was added, some aunts and cousins. There was fried chicken, shrimp ready to be peeled and eaten, salad and a pile of hush puppies made by yours truly. We all sat around the table, filling our plates and talking. My husband’s uncle Kevin took a bite of a hot, crispy hush puppy and immediately gave a narrow-eyed nod and a smile of approval as he chewed, nudging Granddaddy as if to say, “you’ve done it once again.”
Granddaddy immediately shook his head and pointed across the table at me.
There was a pause as everyone turned to look at me, then back at Kevin before he shouted in his deep Florida Panhandle accent,“The YANKEE?!”
Who wouldn’t love a muffin that tastes like a doughnut? Who doesn’t love dessert masquerading as breakfast? Communists, that’s who.
The Nutmeg Doughnut Muffin, after it’s done blowing your mind, will become one of those great recipes to have on hand whenever you find yourself having to provide something breakfast-y, but you really don’t want to be the loser serving a store-bought coffee cake or somesuch (brunch, wedding/baby shower, tea party–hey, why don’t people have more of those, anyway??). Fresh nutmeg, snowy powdered sugar (or a mixture of granulated sugar and cinnamon) and a tender but significant crumb give these muffins their shockingly doughnut-like flavor without being fried.
This is the kind of thing that makes people think you are fantastically genius and innovative in the kitchen. And then they all try and rip you off by asking for the recipe. The Nutmeg Doughnut Muffin is a double-edged sword that way, and in other ways, too. In addition, it tastes like a muffin–AND A DOUGHNUT. And if we’re getting nerdily specific, well….it’s not technically a muffin. It’s really a cupcake.
By culinary definition, the difference between a muffin and a cupcake is all in the mixing method. Muffins are made by stirring together–usually by hand–sifted dry ingredients (flour, baking powder/soda, salt, dry spices) and the combined liquid ingredients (eggs, oil/melted butter, sugar–yes sugar counts as a liquid with the Muffin Method) in one step. Cakes of the “cup” variety are often made with the Creaming Method, where the recipe preparation begins by creaming butter and sugar together–such is the case with this alleged Nutmeg Doughnut “Muffin”. But whatever–bottom line, it just feels so much better to tell yourself you’re eating a “muffin” at 10:00 a.m. . I am quite the enabler, aren’t I? Bwahahaha.
Nutmeg Doughnut “Muffins”
Adapted from Orangette and Kathleen Stewart
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg (if you’re using, um, not freshly grated, just add a smidge more)
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon whole milk
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 ½ sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 large eggs
For the big finish:
4 – 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 ½ – 2 cups powdered sugar OR 1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a standard-size muffin tin with non-stick cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg, no need to sift. Whisk thoroughly and set aside.
Combine the milk and the buttermilk in a measuring cup, and set this aside, too.
Start by creaming the butter in a standing mixer at medium speed with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with an electric mixer, until soft and creamy. Add the sugar in a steady stream and continue beating, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, until the mixture increases in volume and gets pale, like frosting. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until they are just combined.
With a wooden spoon, mix ¼ of the flour mixture into the butter mixture. Add 1/3 of the milk mixture. Continue to add the dry and wet ingredients alternately, ending with the dry ingredients. Mix until the batter is smooth and well combined, but don’t overmix. Divide the batter between the cups of the muffin tin. A standard ice cream scoop is genius for this task. Bake until they are just turning golden, are firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 25-32 minutes.
When the alleged “muffins” are cool enough to handle, Get the melted butter ready, and pour the powdered sugar into a big food storage bag (less mess than using a bowl). Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the entire outside of each with melted butter, and then immediately roll it in the powdered sugar.
Like most baked goods, these are best on the day that they’re made, but thanks to their protective sugar coating, they are still really good on the second day. If you want to make them ahead, this batter keeps well–covered and chilled, of course, for up to three days.
I am a vanillaholic. And when it comes to cupcakes and what I think the classic cupcake ought to be, it’s vanilla all the way. Like I mentioned in my last post, there’s all these cupcake shops popping up everywhere, and the way I judge which ones I would revisit is by the quality of their vanilla cupcake with vanilla frosting. I guess it’s because I feel like a place can cover a lot of mistakes (cheap ingredients, “meh” textures, grainy buttercream) with bolder flavors like chocolate or fruit or whatever. When you’re dealing with vanilla as the flavor, everything needs to be on point, you know?
So this is why I am forever experimenting with vanilla cupcakes and vanilla buttercream. And this time I really think I’ve arrived at my best results yet. Ironically, after all this vanilla grandstanding, I should tell you that a few chocolate frosted cupcakes made their way into the mix, but I’ll get to that in a second.
For this cupcake experiment, I decided to use the recipe loved by baking bloggers everywhere–Billy’s Vanilla Vanilla Cupcakes. It’s a good, basic recipe for both the cakes and the frosting:
Billy’s Vanilla Vanilla Cupcakes
Makes about 30 cupcakes
- 1 3/4 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
- 1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 4 large eggs
- 1 cup whole milk (I only had skim on hand, so I added 2 teaspoons of melted butter to it–genius!)
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 325 F. Line a muffin pan with paper liners.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt, and mix on low until combined. Add butter, mixing until just coated with flour.
- In a large measuring cup, whisk together the eggs, milk and vanilla. With the mixer on medium, add liquid ingredients in three parts, scraping down sides of bowl before each addition. Beat until ingredients are incorporated, but do not overbeat.
- Divide batter evenly among the muffin cups, filling them about two-thirds full. Bake, rotating pan halfway through, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 17 to 20 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool. When cool to the touch, remove the cupcakes from the pan and return them to the rack to cool completely before frosting. Repeat process with remaining batter.
Billy’s Vanilla Frosting
Makes enough to frost 30 cupcakes, and then some, in my opinion.
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 6 to 8 cups confectioners’ sugar
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter until smooth, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- With mixer on low, add 6 cups of the sugar, milk, and vanilla. Mix until light and fluffy. If necessary, gradually add remaining sugar to reach desired consistency.
As I am wont to do, I’ve been playing around with the ingredients of this recipe to see if I could get a lighter, more delicate cake out of it. I got great results this time by sifting all the dry ingredients for the cakes, and throwing the sugar into my clean coffee grinder to make it nice and fine. It’s always important to have room temperature butter for baking, but with this recipe it’s even more crucial because you are using a two-stage method (butter right into all the dry ingredients first, followed by all the liquids together) rather than the creaming method (butter and sugar creamed together first, followed by eggs, then alternating flour and liquids). If your butter isn’t nice and malleable when you add it, you’ll end up with tiny pockets of butter in your cakes and an uneven, rough texture. Blech. But look how lovely and fine textured these turned out:
As for the frosting, I sifted the powdered sugar and used half and half instead of milk. I could definitely taste the difference. I always like to add half the sugar first, then the vanilla and milk, whip it for a while, then add the rest of the sugar. Never underestimate the amount of time you should whip buttercream, taking the extra time makes a big difference in making it smooth and light. Next time I might add a bit of shortening to make the finished buttercream a little more stable and pillowy-looking. I used some of the plain vanilla frosting to fill the cakes, colored some of it pink, and added a few tablespoons of Valhrona cocoa to some to make chocolate frosting. I know, I know, I am a total hypocrite…but the husband loves chocolate frosting, and just look at the lovely resulting cupcake tableau:
I have been on a bit of a cupcake bender as of late. How can one blame me? Cupcakeries are popping up every freakin’ place around here! There are two good ones (Vanilla Bake Shop and Yummy Cupcakes) within a block of each other and minutes from my Santa Monica apartment. The presence of both have inspired me to perfect my own cupcake recipes at home when I’m not stuffing my piehole (cupcakehole?) with specimens from both bakeries. Luckily my other favorite thing to do this year has been spinning class.
Anyway, I have been been doing a lot of cupcake experiments with buttercream frostings or ganache or somesuch. I have become used to the feeling of moving onto the icing step of cupcakes while the cakes themselves are baking. However, it’s nice to have a recipe that’s just sort of, more, oh, self-contained than the cake plus frosting concept. Easy and simplified, less work, but no less of a delicious and delightful final product.
Enter the Black Bottom Cupcake. Deep chocolate cake with a cream cheese and chocolate chip filling. So great with a strong cup of coffee or an ice-cold glass of milk. Chocolatey without feeling like you’re lost in a sea of just one flavor. You dig?
Makes 24 cupcakes
Cream Cheese Filling:
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips
Chocolate Cake Part:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup white sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tins with paper liners or use foil liners and lightly spray them with non-stick cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, make the filling: Beat the cream cheese, egg, 1/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1/8 teaspoon salt until light and fluffy. Stir in the chocolate chips and set aside.
In a large bowl, make the cake batter: mix the flour, 1 cup sugar, cocoa, baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Make a well in the center and add the water, oil, vinegar and vanilla. Stir together until well blended. Fill muffin tins 1/3 full with the batter and top with a dollop of the cream cheese mixture.
Bake in preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes.
I mean, can you stand it?!? It’s like an invisible number of steps! I think the most important thing to take note of in this recipe is filling the cups with batter no more than 1/3 of the way full. It almost looks like a sad amount of batter in the cup at first, but then you add in the dollop of filling (my “dollop” is about a heaping tablespoon, by the way). Plus the recipe has a good amount of baking soda and the addition of cider vinegar, the combination of which really give the cakes a nice lift. If you fill the cups too full of batter, the cakes won’t have as much room to rise and the filling sinks and THAT is truly sad looking. So follow the 1/3 full rule and you’ll get this bliss:
Who needs frosting, anyway?? YEAH!
Since becoming a lot more serious about my baking passion as of late, I decided it was time to really start reading up on baking, not just checking out cookbooks, but seeking out information about the science of it. One thing that I love about baking is that it really is just simple chemistry, and if you can learn the hows and whys of different ingredients and mixing techniques, it demystifies the whole process and lets you troubleshoot your own baking issues as you try new recipes or work on old favorites. In fact, just last night I spent a good portion of a party conversation with a stranger explaining to her why her various baking “failures” probably happened, and she really seemed to be fascinated, nay, EMPOWERED by it all. And I really don’t think she was just pretending. Really, I don’t. But that is neither here nor there.
There are two books that are in my rotation right now that are so blowing my mind. More like baking textbooks rather than cookbooks, though both have great recipes as well. The first is by Alton Brown, with whom I am falling more in love everyday (seriously, did anyone see him in the Iron Chef episode of “The Next Food Network Star”? He was all scruffy looking and in a suit and…I want to insert something here about how I need to get out more, but I just won’t, okay? I love him in all his nerdy culinary hotness. The end.). The book is called I’m Just Here for More Food, and honestly, if food chemistry could have been explained to me in this delightful and easy to understand manner in high school, well, let’s just say a lot of things would have been different.
The other book I’m loving is Baking Illustrated by the chefs of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and America’s Test Kitchen (one of the best PBS cooking shows EVER, by the way, The Frugal Gourmet notwithstanding). It’s like the Bible of baking, totally genius. Before every recipe in the book, they give you the detailed story of how they arrived at that particular recipe, outlining all the failures along the way. Each recipe is what they have deemed the “perfect” formula of a given baked good and what makes it so, kind of like a “we already made all the mistakes so you don’t have to” kind of thing. And surprisingly, the writing is actually kind of funny and really entertaining to read. Get thee to Amazon, that’s all I’m saying.
So while on a flight from Miami to L.A., I dug into the July issue of Food & Wine magazine with the “Best New Chefs” cover story. Awesome, inspirational read by the by. Anyway, I came across this other great article about canning and making preserves. And here our story begins.
One of the best things about living in Los Angeles is access to all the Farmers’ Markets. There’s literally one every day of the week around these parts. After finding a recipe for Strawberry Preserves in the aforementioned F&W mag while on that airplane, I decided that I would, upon landing, walk myself directly off that jetway and to my favorite Farmers’ Market to stockpile fresh Joo-lah strawberries and get to jam-makin’. Welllll…it took two weeks to get to the market and stops at four different stores with my poor husband in tow to find proper jars (thank you, Sur La Table, when will I ever learn to just go straight to you first??), but the berries were still very much in season and said husband was so bored of my endeavor at that point that he left for the driving range and I got the whole place to myself and my jam making–yippee!
Now, I’m a kitchen gadget kind of lady, so I have pretty much everything I actually need when I feel like getting into cahoots with a recipe or culinary idea. There is much justification going on when I spot something new and kitchen-y I really want. So you can imagine how excited I was when jam making came along and there was all this new stuff that I needed to buy to pursue this new passion! Clearly, one cannot make jam without new stuff! And the stuff needed for jam making and/or canning of anything goes like this:
- A huge pot
- A big, deep skillet
- Wooden spoon
- Sturdy tongs (for grabbing the jars out of boiling water)
- Pastry brush
- Candy thermometer (so many uses, it’s not even funny)
- Metal rack that fits your huge pot (to keep the jars up off the bottom of it)
- Proper jars (You can use the kind with lids and rings; I got the pretty, patterned Leifheit ones that are one-piece lids because they reminded me of the ones my Grampa had in his kitchen and that was a nice feeling–I say call in your guardian angels for any endeavor involving boiling sugar.)
There are a few things you should know before making preserves or canning, and here is a great overview of Canning 101.
After I wrapped my brain around the process, here’s the recipe I used. You’ll notice there’s no fruit pectin in this recipe, which is commonly used to ensure that the jam sets. Because there’s no pectin, you’ve gotta make sure that the jam hits the temperature indicated in the recipe before you pull it off the heat or it will be no bueno when it cools. You can test the hot jam for “doneness” by putting a few drops on a freezing cold plate. If it sets, it’s ready to put it in the prepared jars.
All in all, a very successful first attempt at making strawberry jam, I would say. It set up perfectly (thank you, candy thermometer) and has gotten rave reviews from taste-testers. You will note that in the recipe above I have screamed at you to skim the foam off of your jam before spooning it into the jars. I may or may not have forgotten to do that since the recipe I used may or may not have FORGOTTEN TO TELL ME TO DO THAT. Jam foam isn’t untasty or anything, it’s just unattractive on an otherwise perfect jar of jam.
Also, next time, I will definitely make this recipe with less sugar. I was a little afraid to mess with the fruit to sugar ratio even though I thought the recipe called for too much sugar for my taste–I feared it wouldn’t set properly or something. But after doing some research, I found out that you can absolutely reduce the sugar without sacrificing the consistency, though I might add some fruit pectin when I make a low-sugar version, just in case. The jars I bought were so cute, and fun to give as gifts. And by fun I mean seeing the shock on people’s faces upon learning that city folk can indeed make jam.
Courtesy of Chef Linton Hopkins and Food and Wine Magazine:
Makes 3 Pints
Juice of 2 lemons, strained
4 1/2 cups of sugar
2 pounds small to medium strawberries, hulled
In a large, deep skillet, pour the lemon juice around the sugar. Leave it alone and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes or until most of the sugar is melted. At this point, you can stir it gently with a wooden spoon until all the the sugar is melted, all the while brushing the sides of the pan with a damp pastry brush to keep sugar crystals from forming (because really, who wants crunchy jam?).
Add the strawberries to the melted sugar and kick the heat up to medium high, mashing the berries gently with a good old potato masher until the temperature reaches 220 degrees (or 8 degrees above boiling, depending on altitude). This should take about 10 minutes, but I had to increase the heat at that point for about three additional minutes to get it up to temperature. Once you hit 220, continue to boil until the preserves are thick, about four more minutes. You can test the jam on a plate at this point if you want to.
SKIM ANY FOAM OFF OF THE JAM AT THIS POINT! Then spoon the preserves into three hot one-pint jars (a MacGyvered funnel made of aluminum foil saved me here) leaving 1/4 inch of space at the top and close with the lids and rings. I used six, one-cup self-sealing jars instead.
To process the jars, boil them for 15 minutes in your huge pot with a metal rack set in the bottom (I actually forgot to buy a rack and again MacGyvered my jar processing by placing a heat-proof plate upside-down in the pot instead. A little extra rattling ensued, but all was well.)
Remove the jars with the tongs (this is scary-stuff–be careful!!) and set them aside to cool at room temperature. Serve after two days or store them in a cool, dark place for up to one year if they’re around that long (yeah, right, I buckled after 36 hours and opened the first jar–still awesome, though). Refrigerate after opening.
So I’m sure you would’ve loved some photos taken during the jam making process, and I’m sorry for not taking any–I decided it was a little dangerous balancing scalding hot, liquidy fruit and a digital camera, you understand, right? But here is the delicious finished product:
Here’s the thing: I’ve always thought of myself as a thin, crispy cookie kind of person. The kind that go really well with a nice cup of coffee in the afternoon. Ladylike cookies, wedding shower cookies, you get my drift. But lately, I’ve really been in the mood for chewier cookies, the kind that totally deserve an ice-cold glass of milk if you’re really going to do it right. And because I’ve been doing a lot of baking-related research as of late (a post dedicated my my current reads coming very soon), I wanted to apply some of the things I’ve learned about how certain ingredients and the handling of them create different baked results. So enter the following recipe for Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies.
I’m sure most everyone reading this blog is familiar with the classic Toll House Cookie recipe. If you’re using that recipe as a frame of reference for how these cookies turn out, you’ll notice a couple of things. First, this recipe calls for melted butter rather than just creaming softened butter with the sugars. Melted butter is one of the things that give this cookie it’s moist, chewy quality. Because, doncha know, when you melt butter, the water and fat in the butter separate, and the water binds with the flour to produce more gluten, which is stretchy and, ta-da…chewy!
The other thing is the high ratio of brown sugar to white sugar. Brown sugar is higher in moisture than white sugar and it contains molasses, which keep it from becoming hard and brittle when it cools, also equaling a chewy cookie. And the feather in the proverbial chewy cap in this recipe is an extra egg yolk, which means a little more fat, a little more moisture, and a rich and yummy texture, not to mention a pretty, more golden color. Chew-wheee!
I have recently become a total baking geek and have started weighing my prebaked portions so the cookies will be uniform without having to handle the dough too much. For this recipe, I made the portion around 50 grams for the husband to take to a work party, but when I made a batch to send to my very pregnant sister and my awesome brother-in-law, I made them awesomely sized at about 75-80 grams. She is, after all, growing a person.
Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Alton Brown
Makes 18 to 24 Cookies
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup butter, melted and cooled
- 1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cups chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt.
In a large bowl, whisk together butter and sugars. Beat in the egg, egg yolk and vanilla.
Stir in flour mixture, followed by chocolate chips.
Drop by scant 1/4 cups onto the baking sheet and pat lightly so the cookies are an even thickness. They’ll spread when they bake (so I only do about six cookies per sheet), and this makes them an even thickness at the end.
Bake for 15-17 minutes until just turning light brown all over. The edges should be only very slightly light brown, if at all, from the rest of the cookie. Allow cookies to cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer to a cooling rack.