Saturday, November 22, 2008

Warm and fuzzy.

Autumn is my favorite season of the year. I like Springtime, too. But there is something about the fall, when the air is crisp and the leaves change colors. I made a trip to the Boston/New England area a couple of years back in October, that was simply breathtaking (I felt like I had stepped into Little Women). Where I live now is nothing like it, but in contrast to where I grew up (the cosmopolitan, concrete-laden Los Angeles), watching the trees--real leafy trees, not palm trees--around my neighborhood turn red, orange and yellow is still beautiful to me. Autumn also means the holidays are nearing! Maybe they are too commercial (after all, one of the most anticipated events right after Thanksgiving is Black Friday), but there's something to be said about time set aside to spend with the people you love (even if some of them may drive you crazy at times, as family often does) if for no other reason than to share a meal and to try to remember that we still have much to be thankful for (because it is so amazingly easy to forget).

When I think about food for the holidays, I think about foods that make me feel warm and cheerful. That usually includes things like pumpkin pie (love the pumpkin pie), sweet potatoes, gingerbread, chocolate anything and my mom’s cooking (she is an incredible cook). While not a conventional Thanksgiving dessert—no pumpkin involved—carrot cupcakes have risen to that level for me. I’m referring specifically to the carrot cake recipe from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking (another birthday gift!), which uses brown butter to give it a complex nutty flavor. I first attempted this recipe about two months ago, and cannot stop making them (I just made a batch using carrots and coconut the other day after work to put in the freezer so I could have them whenever I want). The brown butter gives the carrot cake a sort of vitality that holds its own even if additional traditional "fillers" (e.g. walnuts, raisins) aren't on hand. Carrot cupcakes may not be a traditional Thanksgiving dessert, but it's always an American favorite according to Sherry Yard, and I think they could still be a nice way to finish off a turkey dinner. I've adapted the original recipe here for cupcakes and to make the recipe a little less complicated. (Side note on Sherry Yard's book: my favorite pastry cookbook I’ve come across so far; she goes into the chemistry of baking to help you understand techniques and their purposes, and it's organized in such a way for you to mix and match recipes to spur your creativity—very educational).

First, on browning butter: melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly, until it turns light brown (kind of obvious, I know). During the process, the butter will foam and bubble, and the fat solids will start to turn colors so you'll have darkened bits of butter in the pan. Be careful, though, it quickly goes from brown to black (this happened to me the first time I tried it--I stepped away for less than a minute and the next thing I knew, all the bits were black. Black butter is more bitter and may have different uses, but we're not going for that here). For the carrot cupcake recipe below, let the brown butter cool to about room temperature--don't refrigerate it so it'll remain in a liquid state.

Carrot Cupcakes
(adapted from "Carrot Cake" in
The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard)
Makes approximately 18 cupcakes

1/2 cup all purpose flour (sifted)*
1/2 cup whole wheat flour (sifted)*
1/2 cup almond flour
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup regular granulated white sugar
3 large eggs at room temperature
1 T. vanilla extract
1/2 pound (or 2 sticks) unsalted butter*, browned (still liquid and including bits that may be stuck to the pan)
2 cups grated carrots
Optional additional ingredients: walnuts, coconut, raisins (or anything else you’d like; about 1 cup of each, if using)

- Preheat the oven to 350F degrees, and line the cupcake pan.
- Sift the all purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, almond flour, baking powder and baking soda into a mixing bowl. Use a whisk to combine.
- In another bowl, whisk the eggs. Add the brown sugar, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla, and whisk together by hand.
- On low speed, using the paddle attachment if you have a stand mixer, add the egg and sugar mixture to the flour mixture. Once incorporated, mix on medium for about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- Returning the speed to low, gently pour in the brown butter. Once the butter has been incorporated, scrape down the sides of the bowl, then turn the mixer to high for about 2 to 3 minutes (mixing on high will help incorporate more air into the batter).
- Gently fold in the carrots and any additional ingredients by hand, using a wire whisk or with a spatula.
- Pour the batter into the cupcake pan, filling each well almost full but not up to the rim, about 3/4 of the way.
- Bake the cupcakes for about 20 to 25 minutes, and use a toothpick to check for readiness. Cupcakes are ready when the toothpick comes out clean. Cool the cupcakes in the pan for a couple of minutes, then transfer them to a rack to cool completely.

*Recipe notes:
- The original recipe called for 1 cup of all-purpose flour, but I try to make some of my baked goods a little healthier so I use 1/2 cup of wheat flour--which also adds to the nutty flavor, in my opinion.
- You can substitute applesauce for butter to reduce the fat content, but at most, use 1/2 cup of applesauce and 1 1/2 cups of butter (to total the 2 cups called for). Also, if using applesauce, incorporate the applesauce before adding the brown butter; and I recommend refrigerating the batter for about an hour before baking--the cupcakes bake up more rounded and won't spread as much.

You can use an icing or cream cheese frosting to top the carrot cupcakes off. After trying both, I prefer the cream cheese frosting for both taste and presentation.

Cream Cheese Frosting

When it comes to making frosting, I almost never do the same thing twice because I add ingredients as I make it to get to the consistency I like, which is usually on the softer side. As you can see from the picture, I made the frosting too soft this time. This is an approximation of what I do for cream cheese frostings:

5 T. butter at room temperature
2 8 oz. packages of cream cheese
2 t. vanilla
1 T. grated orange zest (optional)
2 to 3 cups powdered sugar (depending on desired consistency)
(If the frosting is too thick, sometimes I’ll add orange juice, one teaspoon at a time, as necessary)

Cream the butter on medium speed, scrape down the bowl, then add the rest of the ingredients and whip on medium until fluffy. This should be enough to frost more than 18 cupcakes generously.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The beginning.

I am probably one of the most unlikely people to ever start a blog. My exposure to posting anything on-line has been limited to writing on someone's wall on Facebook, which I've only recently gotten used to, and rarely do I read other people's blogs. But I've always loved writing, and once contemplated writing a novel, only to find that my lack of creativity was an insurmountable roadblock. But there is one thing I can probably write about: food, mainly baked goods and making them.

My foray into baking as a pastime really began only about two years ago (I'm not counting making cake from a box mix), when a good friend gave me a cookbook--a cupcake cookbook--for my birthday. Most of my time spent in the kitchen had been to fry eggs for dinner (!) or to heat up leftovers in a microwave. I might try making a dish or dessert here and there, but I never fully appreciated the comfort that creating a pastry has
to offer. That was until I tried making my first cupcake.

I have to admit, I only first became a fan of cupcakes because, well, they were popular in New York City—and if you know me, I love all things New York. On a trip to New York City, I tried a cupcake from a famous bakery which I will refrain from naming, and was just a little disappointed and disenchanted. They were good but not great. Maybe I had high expectations, and I wanted to love cupcakes. As the cupcake fever finally began hitting the West Coast, some of my friends made them for my birthday--a really nice treat! I thought I'd try my own hand at making them, especially since I now had this cookbook, and following my first attempt, I became a true believer—not in cupcakes alone, but the thought that maybe I could really do this. It was rewarding to be able to create something that others could enjoy, almost therapeutic, and it didn’t hurt that cupcakes were so cute. Ever since, I've been baking (not always cupcakes) for fun and for friends.

As you can tell, I’m hardly a seasoned professional or even an experienced homemaker, but I love to experiment and hope you’ll come with me for the ride as I try out new things.

My first cupcake recipe was the chocolate cupcake from Dede Wilson's A Bakers’ Field Guide to Cupcakes. I made them for an Easter brunch, and they turned out to be such a crowd-pleaser (I was pretty proud of myself, too), I've been asked to make these again for birthdays and showers. I believe what made them so good had much to do with the type of cocoa I used. I bought a canister of Italian cocoa from Williams Sonoma on a whim, and the cupcakes had a very rich, deep, unique—almost sharp, chocolate flavor. Sadly, I think Williams Sonoma no longer carries it (I went there today to check again, but it was nowhere to be found). I have used Droste, which you can find at Whole Foods and some supermarkets—the results were still very good, but just not the same.

Here is my adaptation of the recipe that started it all:

Chocolate Cupcakes

Makes about 18 regular-sized cupcakes

- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened (butter should be a little cold and slightly firm, but not soft like a spread)
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 t. vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup good quality Dutch-processed cocoa powder
- 1 t. baking soda

- 1 cup 2% lowfat milk, at room temperature (using lower fat milk—but not nonfat—produces results almost indistinguishable from full-fat milk)

Preheat the oven to 350F degrees, and line cupcake pans with cupcake liners.

1. Mix together the dry ingredients except sugar (i.e. flour, cocoa, baking soda) with a whisk in a bowl.
2. Cream the butter in a mixing bowl using an electric mixer on medium speed for a couple of minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add sugar, and cream the sugar and butter until "fluffy" (the butter should look a little more voluminous). Beating the butter on high may make the butter too soft, which renders it unable to incorporate enough air. I check on readiness based on visual cues, but this step usually takes another few minutes.
3. Beat one egg in at a time on low until just combined, scraping down the bowl after each egg. Add the vanilla extract.
4. Beat in the flour mixture and milk on low, alternating between the flour mixture and milk, but always starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Mix until just combined each time the flour mixture or milk is added and try not to over beat (over beating the batter results in a dense texture), and scrape down the sides along the way.
5. Fill the cupcake pan with the finished batter; each well should be about 3/4 full. (I used to use a regular spoon to do this, but discovered that an ice cream scoop really sped things up.)
6. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for about 20-25 minutes. They're done when the cake has risen into a slight dome, and an inserted toothpick comes out mostly clean with slightly moist crumbs. Remove cupcake pans from the oven to cool on cooling racks. Wait until the cupcakes have cooled a little before taking them out of the pan so you don't burn your fingers (I can be kind of overeager and forget to wait for the cupcakes to cool a little!).

Cupcakes should be frosted after they’ve completely cooled—melted frosting on a cupcake is a little messy and unsightly. My favorite frosting on these is a chocolate ganache, which adds the right amount of richness. I like to keep things simple, so to make the ganache, I use the following:

Chocolate Ganache

- 3/4 of a 12 oz. bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips (Trader Joe's chocolate chips are a great economical option)
- 1/2 cup heavy cream (you can vary this depending on the consistency you desire)

1. Pour chocolate chips into a heatproof bowl.
2. Heat the heavy cream in small pot until boiling.
3. Upon reaching boiling, pour the heavy cream over the chocolate chips and stir until the chocolate is melted.
4. At this point, you can take a cupcake and turn it upside down to dip the top into the ganache. I've also spooned the ganache on to the cupcake and used the back of the spoon to spread the dollop of ganache over the cupcake top. Once the ganache cools, I pipe a little pink-tinted whipped cream on top just for fun.