Jul 23, 2007

The Best Black-Bottom Cupcakes

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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?

Black-Bottom Cupcakes

Makes 24 cupcakes

Cream Cheese Filling:
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 egg
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!

Jul 22, 2007

Good Reads

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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.

Jul 20, 2007

Homemade Strawberry Jam

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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
  • Ladle
  • 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.

    Strawberry Preserves

    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:


Jul 19, 2007

Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies

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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!

Things I love about this recipe: since it has melted butter, you can do this whole recipe by hand, no mixer required. However, since I very recently FINALLY got a KitchenAid mixer, into the mixer this recipe went. Something else I love is that it is a classic, but with the best texture ever, which makes it seem a little more special than other chocolate chip cookies. They are great for everyday or for parties, depending on the size you make them.

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.

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