Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday's Five Favorites: Secret Ingredients

I realized something recently that I already innately knew, but it bears repeating. It took reading a post from Will Write For Food followed by a note from my friend Jaime K: You don't always have to post a recipe.

Of course not. (Slaps forehead with palm of hand.)

I have been on a recipe treadmill over here, because I want to master things. So what I have decided to do is start a regular feature on Fridays where I share with you five of my favorite things. They may be things that help me make kitchen magic. They may be five favorite people, places, or things that I love that are food-centric. We're making this up as we go, people. The sky's the limit.

Let's talk about ingredients, because those make a big difference. I learned something about myself as a cook/baker years ago. I almost always up the spice/herb/citrus zest quotient when I look at a recipe. Most of the time you can do this with pepper, but not always. (You cannot, however, do this with salt in baking. But most people undersalt their food. That's another story.)  Nowadays, I just add these elements without much measuring, but based on tasting, tasting, tasting, as I go along. (Yes, I even do this with cake batter. Who says baking and cooking are such terribly different animals? You think I'm crazy? I wash my hands, don't worry.) I honestly don't see the point in eating something that has a weak flavor. It's gotta be assertive, stand up and announce itself. "Hi. I'm lemon. Nice to meet the tastebuds on the sides of your tongue." You get the idea. Otherwise, what's the point?

So when I bake, I layer the flavors at different stages of the game, which is not too different from cooking. Here are some of my favorite secret ingredients. 

1. Powdered lemon peel. You can certainly use this instead of zest or juice or extract or oil. I get mine from the fine folks at Penzeys. But why not use it in conjunction with those items, like in lemon cupcakes (wish I had a URL to insert here)? It's all the outer peel, so you get no bitter pith. Add it to the dry ingredients, when whisking or sifting, and you have an instant citrus hit. I usually use about 1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. per cup of dry ingredients. Or more if I'm feeling sassy or making a large batch of something.

2. Black cocoa powder. This one is a new addition to the team. The instructions on the package are not to be disregarded. The smart people at King Arthur Flour (I promise I'm no shill for them; they just make stellar stuff) warn you to use this sparingly. This is one of those cases where I pay attention, because they know what they're doing when it comes to baking. It makes things darker and more intensely chocolatey. You may find that when you add in a tablespoon or so at a time, substituting for regular cocoa powder, you may need to add a little more sugar (a tablespoon or so at a time), to balance it out. This is what I did with the Black and White Overdrive cupcakes.

3. Boyajian lime oil. These things are concentrated, and you only need a little bit; 1/2 tsp. per cup of dry measuring and 1/4 tsp. per cup of liquid measuring I usually add this to almost everything I make in the spring and summer that contains citrus, but especially margarita cupcakes. Boyajian sells lemon, orange, and tangerine oils, too. They last quite a while provided you take care of them by keeping them refrigerated.

4. Espresso powder. You can get this online pretty easily. I add it, automatically, to anything that's strictly chocolate-based. It also rocks in Joy the Baker's Cappuccino Cookies with Espresso and White Chocolate. Add 1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. per cup of flour, depending on how pronounced you want the flavor to be. I also add it to my whoopie pie recipe, which I don't believe I've yet published here. Must. Get. Bizzay!

5. Vanilla soy milk instead of regular milk. In general, this a pretty safe swap in any case that calls for milk. I do this in frosting pretty regularly, because it adds a little sweetness without the cloying sweetness that you sometimes get from confectioner's sugar. Or go crazy and use chocolate soy milk in a chocolate cake instead of regular milk. You can experiment in baking. Don't let those savory people tell you otherwise.

What are some of your favorite secret ingredients in cooking and baking? Inquiring minds wanna know! 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Black and White Overdrive: Cookies and Cream Cupcakes

I can't believe it's been so long. People, I am so sorry. This month has been a whirlwind of writing and baking and planning and scheming and, oh.  I don't even know where to start. There are so many projects swirling around, all of them replete with promise and good intentions and ideas and excitements. We are so switched on around here, we don't have much "off" time. I've been just about keeping up.

I have been baking all along, of course, but here's one I can share with you. It's an adapted recipe from Bakerella. It involves submerging an Oreo cookie (or its ilk) in the actual cupcake batter, which is really liquidy, or breaking up a cookie so it becomes more of a chunky cupcake kind of experience: you decide which you prefer, but I just plum submerged the cookie itself, intact. You then top said cupcake with frosting, naturally, and another cookie. In my case, I was down to only six cookies, so I had to break them and half to make them go twice as far. So they became little half moons. And I didn't use Oreos, because the film they leave in my mouth is so gross. So I bought the Newmans O's which don't have partially hydrogenated anything. I know it's still a processed cookie; bugger off. This is hard work, people. Heh-heh.

Ms. Bakerella says you should get at least 12 cupcakes, but any recipe with 1 1/2 cups flour and then another 1/2 cup of cocoa is pushing way past a dozen. but I got way more than 12 cupcakes. I got more like almost two dozen. I suppose that means I got about 20.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. Hershey's Special Dark cocoa powder
2 Tbsp. black cocoa powder (Note: If you don't have it, don't sweat it. But damn, this stuff is intense and really amps up the flavor.)
1 1/3 cup sugar
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. espresso powder
2 eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. coffee extract
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup hot water
18 Oreos (or 24 if you have a fresh, unopened package, which I clearly did not.)

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
4 Tbsp. shortening
1 tsp. vanilla
3-4 cups sifted confectioner's sugar
3-4 Tbsp. milk
2 tsp. or more of Oreo cookie crumbs
Note: You know how to make crumbs, right? In my case, I used almost an entire jar of Duff Cookies and Cream Sprinkles, because I spotted them at Michaels the week before and nabbed them, knowing this project was in my future.)

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and line one and a half muffin trays with cupcake liners. Alternately, you can always coat it with a baking spray or hit it with some good old-fashioned butter smeared into pan.
2. Either break apart about 12 cookies and place the crumbs in each cup, or place one entire cookie on the bottom of each cup. (The whole cookie will likely float to the top during baking. Wish I'd taken a photo of that but these cupcakes went too quickly for that.)
3. Combine the dry ingredients--the flour through espresso powder--in a medium-sized bowl.
4. Combine the eggs, oil, vanilla, coffee extract, and milk in a separate bowl and whisk together for a few seconds.
5. Dump eggy-oil mix into the dry ingredients. Combine.
Note: I like to start off cakes and cupcakes that come together this way by folding in the dry ingredients, but then finish it up with a small whisk to make sure all the lumps are gone, gone, gone.
6. Add the hot water and mix well until thoroughly incorporated.
7. You can then do one of two things. If you're lucky, you've got mixing bowls with little spouts on them like I do, and you can slowly pour this pretty aqueous batter into the cupcake pan, filling it about 3/4 full. Or you can transfer it to one of those large Pyrex glass measuring cups, and pour along that way. I normally recommend using a 1/4 cup cookie/ ice cream scoop, but that got messy. Halfway through I switched back to the bowl itself and just made sure my hand was steady. I still spilled.
8. Keep going until you have no more batter. You'll likely get 1 1/2 dozen cupcakes.
9. Bake for about 18 minutes until the tops spring back lightly when you touch them or a cake tester comes out fairly clean (you don't want any goop.)
10. Take them out of the oven, put them on a cooling rack and wait ten minutes. Then, transfer them out of the pan to the rack to cool completely. (If you forget this step you may get gummy cupcakes.)

The frosting is pretty straightforward. The original recipe called for all shortening (gulp), but I don't really care for an all-shortening frosting because of the desire to create a white, white base against which the crumbs could be contrasted. To me, no matter what you flavor you put with it, you can always taste shortening in shortening-based frostings; there's this greasy mouthfeel you get. (I know, it goes back to that icky film-in-the-mouth-thing again, doesn't it?)  Even when I do vegan baking, I always use a combination of shortening and Earth Balance. It just tastes better. Trust me on this.

Frosting directions

1. Cream together the butter and shortening in the bowl of a stand mixer.
2. Add your vanilla. Combine.
3. Add the powdered sugar in several increments. I usually do this in 4-5 increments because that stuff makes an unholy mess all over the kitchen if you add too much at once.
4. Add tablespoons of milk as necessary, when things start getting too thick and gunky.
5. If you're adding cookie crumbs, now's your chance. Turn off the mixer and mix in by hand. (I just like doing this kind of stuff by hand.)
6. Frosting! There are a number of ways you can apply the frosting. You can mess around with tips and pastry bags if you want something all sweet and fluffy. I planned to roll the tops in the cookie bits so I didn't see any point in making the frosting a work of art. I used a palette knife and made it as smooth a surface as possible. And then I rolled the Duff crumbs. (That sounds weird.)
7. If you're using an entire cookie, you can carefully ensconce it among the fluffy waves of frosting. Or if like me you have limited resources, you carefully slice them in half with a chef's knife and marvel at how cleanly they break, and put the cut side on top of the cupcake. And then eat one.

These will keep for days. I kept them covered in a cake dome. They were good even 4-5 days later.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Cracker Jack Cupcakes: Take Me Out to the Ball Game

It's that time, people.


I have been brainstorming a special cupcake to herald the onset of baseball season. It's serious business in our house and pretty much the only thing on television between now and November, with brief interruptions of Curious George. It means also, though, that the season for Iron Pigs widowhood has kicked in, but no worries. I have plans for that. This cupcake came out of a conversation with John about baseball, loosely, in which he said the words "Cracker Jacks." I can't remember the context, but it does not matter. I then said, "Cracker Jack cupcakes."

I brainstormed this recipe for a while, thinking of a peanut butter base versus a caramel base, and toyed briefly with the idea of adding cornmeal but then decided against it. Yesterday, I finally decided on a browned butter dulce de leche base with a salted peanut buttercream frosting. The whole thing's topped, of course, with real live Cracker Jacks, which sadly seem to come with fewer peanuts these days. So I ameliorated what was there with chopped roasted, unsalted ones. I doubled this recipe because half were for sale and I could not go through all this work and then be banned from tasting the result. No, that would not be right. And that would mean no sharing, either, which totally isn't cool. So this recipe yields 24 cupcakes, but it can easily be halved.

My palette is also indebted to Jason Hook, whose peanut butter miso ice cream loosely informed this cupcake's genesis.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup of butter, divided (you'll cream one stick and turn the other into browned butter!)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1 14-ounce can dulce de leche, or 1 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk (more on that in a minute).
4 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup whole milk
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract (please use the real stuff)
1 box of Cracker Jacks
1/2 cup roasted, chopped peanuts

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup peanut butter, or more to taste
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt or coarse sea salt (Do NOT use regular table salt because it will be too salty; you won't have the random delicious taste of salt crystals in the frosting.)
2-3 cups sifted confectioner's sugar (or more, to taste.)
2-3 Tbsp. milk

For the dulce de leche:
1. Set your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit
2. Pour the contents of a can of sweetened condensed milk into a pie plate. Set that pie plate into a shallow, larger pan which you will then fill with hot water. Cover the plate with aluminum foil.
3. Bake (is that even the right word here? Cook?) the milk for about an hour until it's thickened and darkened in color.
4. Remove from the oven to cool. You can put this in the fridge after it's cooled and do this step a day ahead if you like, which is what I did. You'll need to mix it with the whisk attachment of your stand mixer (or the whisk attachment on your immersion blender, which is what I did), to break up any clumps.

Notes: You can also do the same thing in the microwave, but the instructions are more fussy and require you to pay more attention to it. You can also reputedly put an entire unopened can of the milk into a pot of simmering water, making sure that the water covers the can at all times. Simmer for a couple of hours and then let the can cool. When you open it up, voila. Dulce de leche. I did not do this, though. I wanted a hands-off approach, and the oven came to the rescue.

For the browned butter, or beurre noisette:
This couldn't be easier. If you want more information about this and why it's lovely to do in cooking and baking, see Michael Ruhlman.
1. Take the stick of butter and melt it in a small saucepan over medium-high heat.
2. Let it cook until it starts to turn brown; you'll know this is happening because the kitchen will smell like nutty, caramel-y butter and there will be a fine, bitty layer of sediment on the bottom of your pan.
3. Turn it off the heat immediately; the butter will continue to cook even if it's off, so you may want to transfer the butter to a separate bowl to cool completely. 

For the cupcakes:
1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Cream the sugars and 1/2 cup of butter in the bowl of your stand mixer for 3-4 minutes until light and fluffy.
3. Add the browned butter, now cooled to room temperature. You may see streaky bits. Don't panic.
4. Add the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla, beating well to combine for about five minutes.
5. Add the flour, salt and baking powder, alternating with the milk, starting and ending with the flour. Mix only until no streaks of flour remain.
6. Scoop out by 1/4 cup into lined cupcake pans (whoops, sorry to miss that step, but you knew what to do, right?) and bake for 18-20 minutes.
7. Remove to cool in the pans for a few minutes, and then transfer to cool completely on wire racks.

For the frosting:
1. Cream the butter on medium speed in your stand mixer, fitted with the paddle.
2. Add the peanut butter and continue to mix.
3. When it's incorporated, start adding the sugar, slowly. When you see it getting too thick and clumpy (peanut butter and butter do this, thanks to the fat), add milk. Repeat process as necessary until the sugar is gone.

For the assembly:
1. Once the cupcakes have cooled, cut a small hole in the top of each cupcake. I used the smallest of my biscuit cutters. Don't press it all the way through; you only want to score the top of it.
2. Take a small serrated knife and pop off each top of the cupcake and set aside.
3. Fill each hole with about 1 Tbsp. of dulce de leche. Put the top back on each cupcake. Don't worry if it's bumpy. Frosting hides a multitude of sins.
4. Frost each cupcake, giving yourself a relatively smooth workspace.
5. Place about a teaspoon worth of peanuts on top of each cupcake.
6. Place 4-5 Cracker Jacks among the peanuts.
7. Eat them!

Monday, April 2, 2012


I have been a slacker!

Things have been busy and/or difficult in the past couple of weeks. I have been baking and writing a lot but just there have not been enough hours in the day.

Also, I am working on a lot of projects--most of them in my mind and/or in the discussion phase, so that's occupying a lot of my energy.

I'm writing to tell you, mostly, that a new recipe will be posted soon. And I promise it will be worth the wait. And I also promise it will be in honor of baseball season starting. That's all I'll say.

Stay tuned!

In the meantime, here's some brioche I made this morning.....