Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Applesauce Cupcakes...or Muffins?

I could never figure out the difference between cupcakes and muffins. Is it just the frosting that distinguishes one from the other? The time of day the sweet cake is consumed? The amount of sugar called for in the recipe? Or maybe the funny muffin top cap? Let's consult Merriam-Webster, shall we...


a quick bread made of batter containing egg and baked in a pan having cuplike molds


a small cake baked in a cuplike mold

Well, that didn't really help (it reminds me of high school math, where I learned squares are rectangles but rectangles are not squares) since most cupcakes contain eggs.

Even if the dictionary definitions look quite similar, I think the cupcake recipe books that claim they have "over x amount of cupcake recipes" are a little bogus. Their use of muffin recipes to reach their number just doesn't seem quite right.

But I digress.

My sister had purchased The Artful Cupcake book for me as part of my Christmas present last year, and I was excited to try some of the recipes. So for a colleague's birthday, I made "Applesauce Cupcakes" (or Applesauce Muffins, you decide).

As you read in my previous post, I have had slim luck with most cupcake recipes I have tried. But these cupcakes turned out fairly moist (probably due to the applesauce) and not too sweet, which I liked.

The apple crisps were more of a challenge, beginning with the process of slicing. Some apple slices came out too thick. Some were so thin it broke at the touch. Still others did not have the pretty star shape in the middle that I was going for. Good thing I bought twice as many needed apples!

When they were finally all sliced, my husband soaked the slices in sugar water, spread them on a silicone mat (silpat)-lined baking sheet and stuck them in the oven. The problem was, they didn't crisp up nor turn golden brown by the time they were to be taken out. As usual of my nature, I was on the brink of freaking out but my husband calmly stuck them back in the oven and let them bake until they had a light golden hue. Even then they still weren't crispy, but after letting it cool they eventually achieved the desired crisp texture.

The next question was: How should we store them? My husband insisted on packing them away in an airtight container but I was dubious. Still, since he is more scientifically-inclined than I am, I decided to trust him. As an experiment we left an apple crisp out to see what would happen to it.

The next morning the lovely apple slices in the container had indeed stayed crispy (and the single apple crisp became a limp sugary slice).

I then cut a slit into each of the cupcakes (about a half inch deep) and very gently inserted an apple crisp into each slit. The result was both unique and impressive (delicious, too).

Applesauce Cupcakes (from The Artful Cupcake by Marcianne Miller)

1 ¾ C cake flour

1 t baking soda

1 t cinnamon

½ t ground cloves

½ t salt

1 C brown sugar

4 oz unsalted butter, room temperature

1 egg

1 C apple sauce

1 C cherries, diced small (I left these out)

1 C raisins (I left these out)

1) 1) Preheat the oven to 350 and prepare a muffin pan with nonstick spray. (I did not use paper cups since I felt that would ruin the look)

2) 2) Sift together 1 ½ cups of the flour and the baking soda, cinnamon, cloves and salt.

3) 3) In a large bowl, cream the sugar with the butter until light.

4) 4) Add the egg to the butter mixture and mix until blended.

5) 5) Add the sifted dry ingredients and mix until blended.

6) 6) Add the applesauce and mix until blended.

7) 7) Sprinkle the remaining flour over the cherries and raisins to coat, then add to the batter.

8) 8) Pour the batter into the muffin pan, filling each cup at least halfway. Bake 10-15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

9) 9) Remove the pan and turn out the cupcakes onto a wire rack to cool.

Apple Crisps (from The Artful Cupcake by Marcianne Miller)

2 Granny Smith apples (I bought 4 in case of mistakes!)

1 C water

1 C sugar

1) 1) Preheat oven to 250 F. Cut the apples into very thin slices horizontally, making sure you have one slice for each cupcake. (Cutting across the width of the apple instead of vertically captures the design in the center left by the seeds, which will pop out as you cut.)

2) 2) In a saucepan, bring the water and sugar to a boil. Place the apple slices into the simple syrup. Let stand for one minute.

3) 3) Remove the slices from the syrup and place them onto a silicone mat set on a baking pan. Cover them with another silicone mat.

4) 4) Place the apples in the oven to dry for 30-40 minutes. They’ll come out a lovely translucent brown. (Not for me…I ended up uncovering the apple slices and leaving them in the oven for another half hour)

5) 5) Let them cool, then store in an airtight container until ready to use.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Cupcake Triumph (Oh so light lemon cupcakes!)

On my first day of cake-decorating class, I remember one of the things my instructor said to me:

"Never EVER use cake-box mix. And if you do, don't tell me."

I gulped, as if I had been caught red-handed. Is it really so terrible? Sometimes I just don't have the time to sift flour. And most of the time, cake-box mix has a better texture than what I can make from scratch. I like fluffy, light cupcakes and the ones I make from scratch often end up as doughy heavyweights. I will admit though, that cupcakes from the box usually lack a bit of flavor.

Looking to use the last of my Meyer lemons, and inspired by the lemon cupcakes on Cupcake Bakeshop I decided once again to make my own. I pretty much used Chockylit's recipe with a few modifications:

Lemon Cupcakes
~20 cupcakes / 350 degree oven

1-1/2 cups cake flour (yes, there IS a difference from all-purpose flour!)
3/4 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup grape seed oil or vegetable oil
4 egg yolks (approximately 3 ounces) (I recommend weighing it out if you can)
1/4 cup lemon juice (I prefer meyer so it's less tart)
1 teaspoon lemon extract, all natural (I left this out since I didn't have any)
grated rind from 1 lemon
1 teaspoon bitters (I left this out since I didn't have any)
5 egg whites (approximately 5 ounces) (again, weigh whenever you can!)
1/4 teaspoon cream of tarter
1/4 cup sugar
1. Sift flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder into the bowl of a standing mixer.
2. In a medium bowl, combine oil, egg yolks, lemon juice, lemon extract, lemon rind, and bitters. Stir to combine.
3. On a low setting, start to beat the dry mixture and slowly add the wet. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until incorporated.
4. Transfer mixture to another bowl. Wash and dry mixer bowl.
5. Whip egg whites with whip attachment on medium-high speed until foamy. With the mixer on medium speed, add cream of tarter and slowly add sugar. Beat on high speed until stiff peaks form.
6. Scoop a cupful of the stiff egg whites into the batter and stir to combine. This should lighten up the batter.
7. Transfer the batter to the egg whites and gently fold until there are no more streaks of egg white.
8. Scoop into cupcake cups about 2/3s full and bake at 350 F for 22-25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Oh, how cozy the cupcakes look in their little snug tins! I have absolutely no desire to have kids (yet) but watching these little cupcakes bake kicks in the maternal instinct in me.

Meringue Frosting
1/2 cup sugar
3 egg whites
Sorrel simple syrup
Splash of Bitters (instead of simple syrup or bitters, I used a substitute liqueur...Grand Marnier works well)

Creme Brulee torch

1. Whisk the egg whites and sugar over a water bath in the standing mixer bowl until it reaches a temperature of 110 degrees Fahrenheit. This only takes only a few of minutes.
2. Transfer to standing mixer and whisk using whisk attachment at high speed until soft peaks form.
3. With the mixer on medium speed, drizzle sorrel syrup into the mixer. Splash in a bit of bitters. Beat on high until stiff peaks form.

I used a pastry bag to swirl the meringue onto the cupcakes. If you don't have a pastry bag, you can also take a plastic sandwich bag, cut off one of the corners, and squeeze the meringue through the hole that way (if you haven't used this method before, I would recommend practicing on a baking sheet first).

If you have a creme brulee torch, slowly torch the cupcakes in a circular motion. It might take a couple of cupcakes to get it right, but whoever complained about eating delicious mistakes?

I was happy. I mean, really happy! The cake part was light and airy (similar to angel food cake) and the meringue tasted like toasted marshmallow. I had some extra lemon curd on hand so I spread some on each cupcake before I decorated them with meringue. I was so excited at the results I called my husband right then and there, and exclaimed that I had finally broken out of my cupcake hole and discovered the light.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Vino 101: The Essence of Wine

I always have the best of intentions. Really, I do. So when it comes to wine, every fiber of my being really wants to believe that the particular Cabernet Sauvignon I'm tasting has essences of oak, plum, black currant and green bell pepper.

But the only essence I smell is my nail polish remover.

I use my poor nose as an excuse. I can't smell, I protest. After all, it is often my husband who comes rushing in the midst of my cooking, "I smell something burning!" and I have no idea what he's talking about (usually it's some piece of food stuck in the stove burner).

So alas, when I found out my coworker's dad was not only the wine professor at the CCA for two decades, but one of the two wine reviewers for the much respected Connoisseurs' Guide, I knew that if one person could show me the light, it would be him.

The first lesson was on whites. A line of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay stood before me, and I sniffed the first one (short sniffs, I learned, were more beneficial to the olfactory sensory neurons than a long inhale).

Lime, Steve (as he prefers to be called) said, do you smell it?

I sniffed some more. I sniffed with my eyes closed. I sniffed like a dog. And still I could not for the life of me smell lime. I pictured a piece of lime in my mind, hoping that would help. But alas, I shook my head.

I was a failure, and we had barely started.

Tell me what you smell in the next one, said Steve.

I sniffed. PEACH! my mind screamed. A juicy peach in its peak during summer. Yes, that was it. Perhaps I could smell after all.

Of course, I was back to smelling nail polish remover with the Chardonnay. I guess I can't win in everything.

The lesson progressed, smelling/tasting first a group of reds (Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) and then a group of Zinfandel. Not that anyone is being competitive here, but it's frustrating when your husband "gets it" faster than you can on a consistent basis. He smelled skunk in one of the glasses, and Steve beamed. I, on the other hand, continued to smell nail polish remover. No, I do not cook my food in acetone, I swear.

I did have one more breakthrough though, when I tasted plum skin in the Pinot Noir. Still, I am convinced I need to smell more. So this weekend as Jason replanted one of our house plants, I proclaimed we needed to smell the dirt (we did). And at the grocery store the next day, we stuck our nose in blackberry and raspberry cartons.

Hey, I need to build my olfactory library somehow...

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Celebratory Wedding Cake (aka "My first fondant cake without class instruction")

On Friday, I found out one of my coworkers didn't show up to work because he was getting hitched at City Hall. What's with all the couples getting married on Leap Day? The joke is that he only wants to celebrate his anniversary once every four years...

Anyway, I figured I'd make him a cake. It would be my first fondant cake without any class instruction and I was a little nervous, but hey, I needed to start somewhere.

I also used this as an excuse to finally try a recipe from The Cake Bible, given to me by a friend on my birthday. To be honest, I wasn't sure what to think when I first flipped through the inside. I'm a very visual person, so I normally get cookbooks with beautiful pictures (and a 4+ star rating from Amazon of course). But this particular friend of mine (the gifter) makes beautiful (and delicious) cakes, and if she swears by this book then who was I to judge a book by its lackluster print?

After reading a few, I selected the Golden Genoise cake with Berry-Grand Marnier mousseline buttercream.

Challenge #1: I had no idea what genoise cake was really supposed to look or taste like. It's like asking a sculptor to make a statue of your mother with no picture.
Challenge #2: Buttercream. The last time I made it, I failed miserably. And that was with an easier recipe from Martha Stewart. Would this prove to be a big flop as well?

This time, I was determined to give myself plenty of time to bake. I would bake the cakes on Saturday, make the buttercream on Sunday and put it all together Sunday night. Except things never turn out the way it's planned and I was occupied with random errands and events on Saturday.

Then I told myself I would bake the cakes Sunday morning before church. Yeah, right. All I really got done was measuring the ingredients, laying out all the kitchen tools, and clarifying the butter. By the time church was over, I was already stressing that this grand idea would never come together. Plus I realized I forgot to buy some essentials like a cake box and pearl dust!

Not good.

Thankfully, my husband offered to help and while I rushed off to Michael's, he helped me make the beautifully golden cake layer (thanks, honey). The smell hit me when I came home and opened the door. It smelled like madeleines, and I am already plotting on using this recipe to make a dozen of the seashell treasures next time.

As I prepped the ingredients for the buttercream and read through the recipe one last time, I read with a sinking feeling the footnote warning: "Make sure the softened butter for the buttercream is not too warm or it will curdle. It should still be cool to the touch, about 65 degrees" Oh, crap. I had left the butter out too long (about four hours) and it was definitely in its 70's and very warm at that point. So I had to take out fresh sticks of butter and wait for it to soften a bit.

Once I started working through the buttercream recipe though, I felt confident. The egg whites were peaking, the butter was creamy, and the sugar syrup was at its precise temperature. No problem. Then I got to putting in the last part of butter and it started curdling.

Oh, crap again. I was about to admit defeat when my husband the hero comes in, takes a look, whips up the cream at a higher speed and miraculously saves it (maybe it wasn't so miraculous, but it seemed like it). The buttercream was severely alcoholic with 1/3 cup of Grand Marnier, but hey, a lot of a good thing can be a good thing.

When the two layers of cake were cool, I stacked them with buttercream in between and then stuck it in the fridge for a few minutes while I prepped the fondant. I'm too lazy to make my own fondant, so I purchase them by the pound directly from my instructor, who sells them at a really great price (almost cheaper than making my own). I still had to make the fondant soft and malleable enough for my use though.

As I rolled out the fondant, I tried to make it thin. (Thin is in, as my instructor always says). Unfortunately I was leaning on the anorexic side because as I covered my cake, one side of the fondant cracked. I could have dissipated into tears, but one of the beauties of fondant is that you can always cover it with more fondant. So that I did. I decided to cut out some fondant flowers, brush them with pearl dust, and "glue" them (with sugar water) over the unsightly crack. Then I went ahead and decorated the whole cake with that pattern.

For a finishing touch, I encircled the cake with a brown silk ribbon, and topped them with Unazukin wedding cake toppers I originally was going to use for my own wedding reception in SoCal, except that these babies didn't arrive from Japan in time. Oh well, now they would be put to good use! I also printed out a picture of City Hall and stuck it in the back to make it entirely relevant to my coworker's nuptials.

Here's the picture of the cake:

Oh, and in case you're not familiar with Unazukins, they are little Japanese toys that nod or shake their heads to your question. So one of my coworkers (a man) asked loudly, "Will you marry me?"

The little groom nodded his head twice, while the little bride shook her head no.

Happy wedding to all you leap-year newlyweds!