Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Go Bananas for Best Chocolate Frosting and Cupcakes

Recently, I was told by my boyfriend that his mom’s chocolate frosting was the best chocolate frosting he’d ever tasted in his entire life, wait, no, in the world (he might have held his arms outstretched demonstrating the magnitude of this concept: the world). That was quite a bold statement. Everyone thinks their mom’s such and such recipe is the best ever.  Even Supreme Court judges are biased when it comes to their mothers' cooking, I'm sure. I considered my own frosting repertoire and although I make ganache from time to time, I never really do chocolate buttercream. I guess I hadn't yet found the one. Suffice it to say, I was extremely intrigued and I’ve been a squeaky wheel about getting this recipe for a while.

I was taken aback to find out that it was an American (aka simple or confectioner’s sugar) buttercream, which I’ve been poo-pooing since I discovered meringue buttercreams. American buttercreams are usually over-the-top sweet and just one-dimensional. Alas, it seems that sometimes the most elegant solution is the simplest one. This gorgeous frosting was just right – light, not too sweet, with just the right sharpness from the chocolate. There is noticeably less butter in this recipe than other confectioner’s buttercreams making it much lighter in taste and texture. I added a touch of cornstarch so it would hold up to the summer heat a little better. I will definitely be making this again. What a find.

Chocolate and bananas are one of my favorite cake combinations. Banana cake is just simple and homey and satisfying. This Smitten Kitchen recipe was used for a monkey cake (cutest idea ever) and makes the moistest, most yummiest banana-ey cake ever (I'm allowed that - I was eighth-grade vocabulary bee champion). I cut the recipe by half, hoping to yield just a dozen cupcakes but ended up with 18. Somehow, they've almost all been eaten.

Banana Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
(Yields ~18 cupcakes or one 9” round cake)

1 ¾ C cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
¾ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
¼-½ tsp cinnamon
½ C unsalted butter, room temperature
½ C sugar
½ C packed golden brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 cups mashed very ripe bananas (2-3)
3 tbsp sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line cupcake pan with cupcake liners. Whisk together dry ingredients and set aside. Using electric mixer, cream butter and sugars in large bowl. Beat in eggs one at a time, and then bananas and the remaining ingredients. Beat in dry ingredients in two additions just until combined. Divide batter into cupcake pan evenly (about 2/3 full). Bake about 22-25 minutes until a toothpick comes out mostly clean with just a few crumbs on it. Allow to cool in pan 10 minutes before transferring to a rack.

Rich Chocolate Buttercream
Adapted from The Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook
(Yields about 2 cups for 14-18 cupcakes)

1 oz unsweetened chocolate
1 oz semisweet chocolate
½ C butter, softened
2 C sifted powdered sugar (I sifted this with the cocoa)
1/8 C cocoa
1/8 C milk (I used almond milk)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1-2 tbsp cornstarch (optional)

Melt chocolate on double boiler, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Beat butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Add chocolate and mix until combined.  Mix in powdered sugar and remaining ingredients and beat until smooth and fluffy. Optional: I added some cornstarch (let's be honest, I wasn't really measuring) to get a consistency that would hold up to piping and popped the batch in the fridge for a bit before actually frosting.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dog Bone Sugar Cookies for Humans

After last week’s success with the Owl Cupcakes, I’ve gotten requests for more treats from the same bunch at the office: doggy themed sugar cookies! This quirky fun group threw a little farewell party for the office Chihuahua, Chloe. Chloe is moving out of state and these cookies are in her honor. Except the cookies are not for Chloe, they are for the humans (I'm hoping Chloe got a nibble anyway!). I should mention that these people are entertainment industry folk.  And it's LA. Now it’s making sense, right?

Ok, so for these dogbone cookies – I went to Sur la table, the toy store to my inner child. They have a really great selection of all kinds of gadgets. I’m giddy right now just thinking about it. Really. Well, they had every cookie cutter I could have wanted – except for the one I wanted. When I probed an employee to see if he was hiding the one shape I was looking for in his apron pocket, the security guard dutifully chimed in that a group of hoodlums had hit the display the day before and shuffled all the shapes together. I just didn't get that - I was the OCD kid that was sorting the items by type, size, shape and color while my mom shopped. Well, Security-Man was also absolutely certain that there was exactly one dog bone cookie cutter somewhere in the pile. One. That much confidence is always inspiring and contagious, so the three of us were now crouching, reaching and squinting about this massive rotating cookie-cutter tower, up to our elbows in crimped aluminum. You should have seen it – quite the collective effort. The outcome did not look good, and just as I was about to throw in the towel, Security-Man shot a triumphant fist in the air with gleaming copper dogbone cookie cutter safely in his possession. The entire store broke out in sustained applause. Ok, not really, but I was quite grateful.

For this cookie, I used Bake at 350’s recipe with the addition of a vanilla bean. It’s awesome because the dough is quite manageable and easy to roll. It maintains it’s shape well after baking, without the requisite hour or two of refrigeration normally called for. For decorating and transporting, however, I found that it was not as sturdy as I would have liked. For eating – it was perfect. I think I would like to have baked these a couple minutes longer just so they would have been slightly crisper.

The royal icing was also from Bake at 350 and it was a pleasure to work with. The recipe calls for corn syrup, which I think adds to the drying time. While the icing was in the mixer, a friend popped by and totally distracted me in conversation. Of course I didn’t forget about it – please, I’m not an amateur – but I assumed it was like Sweetopia’s royal icing, where you could walk away for half an hour while the mixer was stirring away with no problem. Problem. The icing was fluffy and meringue-like and dreamy to pipe with, but I realized later that the extra air and fluffiness resulted in an icing that lacked the density to withstand the Throw Your Cookie Across the Room at Your Cat/Family Member/Neighbor’s Kid Test. I suppose you could probably get away with just holding and packaging your cookies very gently. The cat/family member/neighbor’s kid would probably prefer that too. But that's no fun.

Vanilla-Almond Sugar Cookies

3 C AP flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 C sugar (you can use sugar stored with vanilla beans in it)
2 sticks (salted) butter, cold
1 egg
¾ tsp pure vanilla extract
½ tsp pure almond extract

Preheat oven to 350. Combine the flour and baking powder, set aside. Cream the sugar and butter and then add the egg and extracts. Gradually add the flour mixture and beat just until combined, making sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Knead the dough just so the crumbly bits come together when taking it out of the bowl. Roll on a floured surface and cut into shapes. Place on parchment or silpat lined baking sheets and freeze for about 5 minutes before finally baking 10-12 minutes. Allow to set for a few minutes out of the oven before transferring to a cooling rack.

Royal Icing
Adjusted for yield from Bake at 350
(Enough to cover 4 dozen cookies)

6 tbsp meringue powder
¾ C water
1.5 lb. powdered sugar
1 tsp light corn syrup
A few drops clear extract (I used lemon)

With the paddle attachment your stand mixer, mix the meringue powder and water on low until foamy. Sift in the powdered sugar continue to mix until combined. Add in the corn syrup and extract and increase speed to med-high/high and beat for about 5 minutes and glossy stiff peaks form. The corn syrup is optional, really, and I think I’ll skip this next time as it added to the drying time. Divide and color using gel paste food colorings. Use this consistency for lettering and decorating. Use a portion of the divided and colored icing to dilute with water into flooding consistency (the streak of a butter knife swiped through should disappear completely in 10-12 seconds).

Au revoir, Chloe!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Guess Whoooo? It's a girl!

I can share something with you because we're so close, right? Meh, I don't care, I'm going to tell you anyway. I've always known I'd have a daughter someday; someone whom I would dress up and be besties with… and I'm really excited I finally get to celebrate! Yes, there is a baby girl on the way and so this cake story was a labor of love. And of course, it was always a given that my first girl would be special.

These creations will be taken to work for the office baby shower and I'm so excited to share them with everyone there. They are the best chocolate (cup)cakes with the most delicious strawberry-raspberry Swiss meringue buttercream. And who doesn't love owls. WHO? WHO? I can’t believe I stayed up all night making over 30 of these little buggers.

I haven't told many people about this but I guess I'm telling all 3 of my readers now - this was the first order I’ve received for a girl baby shower and it was so much fun! So, no, there are no actual baby showers in my honor.  I’m just crashing others' living vicariously for now. (Mom: You can exhale and release your death-grip on the chair arm-rests. No grandkids for you just yet.)  I also did a sky themed order for a baby boy named Skylar last year with piping marshmallow for clouds. Just redonkulously cute. I can't help but wonder what theme my own baby shower will have... A girl's gonna day dream, right?

I’ve used this Smitten chocolate butter cake recipe before for the Captain’s Cake and for cupcakes… I don’t remember the occasion. Cupcakes don't need an ocassion. They should be eaten just because. This cake is just so dang soft and chocolately and delicious that I always forget to write down that it does not make for a very pretty cupcake! The cake is so light that the paper liner kind of slumps off. Fiddlesticks! Whatevs, it’s still delish and I got mine.

The Swiss meringue buttercream was made in the usual manner with added berries and the frosting came together beautifully with no fuss at all (the stars must have aligned in my favor). Just think of the best strawberry ice cream you’ve ever had. This is it. Next time, however, I would pipe with an open star tip Atecco #828 rather than the closed star tip Wilton #2D because pieces of fruit purree kept stopping up the tip - but really, this might only become frustrating if you're sleep deprived, covered in cake batter and piping at 3am with 32 fondant owls still to make.

I’ve learned to make my own fondant since the fiasco of my first experience (you can re-live that here if you must). It’s time consuming, but so much tastier and cheaper. You can make it ahead and freeze it too according to Rose Levy-Berenbaum in The Cake Bible. And We do not question Rose. For this project, however, I am guilty of using the pre-made stuff. If you’ve ever played with play-doh, it’s pretty much that. No special tools. I don’t have a ton of experience with fondant but this was just what I needed to get back in my artsy groove. (Fondant's a total fad and buttercream will rise up and dominate once again.)

Chocolate Butter Cake
I adapted Smitten Kitchen's recipe to yield 2/3 of the batter and 48 cupcakes

Strawberry & Raspberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Enough for 36 cupcakes
6 sticks of butter (1.5 lbs)
1.5 cups plus 3 tablespoons sugar
8 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup raspberry puree
1/2 cup strawberry puree

Mmmm, so I eyeballed the amount of buttercream I needed for 4 dozen cupcakes and came up short by a whole dozen. Good thing I needed only three dozen! You can look at my post on Swiss meringue buttercream for the method. Make sure to use soft butter that's been out at room temperature for a while, and have to whisk attachment on your stand mixer set to medium-high. Add the fruit last, little by little, making sure the buttercream doesn't get too runny.

Monday, August 1, 2011

All of me. Why not take all of me?

Can't you see? I'm no good without you... Billy really did say it best - she totally got it.

I had no oven for an entire month. (Pause to appreciate the gravity of this situation) No. I'm not kidding you. And seeing as how I don't really know how to do much else in the kitchen aside from baking, I was lost. Last month I moved to a new apartment. It’s a very charming place, really, with loads of character and vintage details. At first, I was concerned that my half-sheets wouldn't fit in kitschy, made-for-TV oven. But they did. And even the overwhelming sunny-yellow 1950’s kitchen tile grew on me. So when just enough boxes were unpacked that I could get by (think toothbrush and clean underthings), I decided that the new Smitten recipe could wait no longer. I got to work with my dozen eggs and two pounds of sugar, buzzing with the excitement of turning out my first creation here. And of course, just before I poured the batter into the pan, I checked that the thermometer in the pre-heating oven read 350°F.

This would be the part of the movie where the music crescendos - right before the alien/evil-bad-guy/mutated-virus-infected zombie jumps out at you...


As in: No heat. As in: No fire – that thing whereby the ability of which to create it propelled Man into an era of progress and development. Wild-eyed and ear pressed against the oven to listen to the subtle changes of the gas flow, I  frantically cranked every knob, pushed every button and checked every pilot light.

Nothing. Nothing!

The next few hours were spent writhing on the kitchen floor - kicking, screaming and cursing the gods who laughed down on me, cruelly.

OK, not really. But I had to be somewhere and there was just no more time. No TIME, I say! I forced myself to shove the batter into the fridge – it was too painful to toss and too painful to look at. It would take three weeks for the repair guy to track down the antique spare parts needed to make my soul whole again. In that expanse of time, my stand mixer was left to sit quietly in the corner of my kitchen, watching me with sadness and resentment. A sign of onsetting psychosis, I'm sure.


Meanwhile, life went on. But everything I came across reminded me of the lost opportunities to bake. Like these gorgeous organic summer cherries that were on sale at Whole Foods.

And then these strawberries, that, as sweet and delicious as they were on their own, yearned for a coating of chocolate to make them all fussy and special.

The Dobos Torte was actually baked the next day after work. I had anxiously driven to my mom's with the batter cradled by ice packs in a cooler, white-knuckling the entire drive the way a mother might as she urgently and calmly drove a sick child to the doctor. The Torte was saved (and delicious) and my oven was eventually fixed. Good thing, because otherwise I might have gotten a bit overly dramatic. Maybe.