The Great Cupcake Extravaganza, Part Frosting

27 06 2010

This post is going to a bit of a tease, I’m afraid.*  You see, in the last minutes before the tasters arrived, I was frantically trying to get everything in place – juggling three different flavors of buttercream, a ganache, and a cream cheese icing disaster with the fact that I have only one star tip and was trying not to use up my entire stash of mini disposable pastry bags.  It didn’t leave a lot of time or clean hands for picture-taking.  That said, you do get to see the insane amounts of butter that go into these things.  If you’d rather not know, I suggest you stop reading now.

Still there?  Good.  I guess I should back up a little, and explain that there are, in fact, more than two flavors of cake, but the butter cake and devil’s food cake recipes are old standbys of mine and presented very little in the way of problems or testing issues.  (It turns out my arm is as good as a stand mixer – but more on that later.)

The buttercream is another old standby of mine, but it requires a Significant Amount of whipping of egg whites.

mise en place for Swiss buttercream

I make a Swiss buttercream, which is based on a Swiss meringue.  (Italian buttercream is based on Italian meringue, but French buttercream is not based on French meringue – it’s based on pâte à bombe, made with egg yolks, and is ridiculously rich.)  Swiss meringue is the one where you heat the egg whites and sugar (2 parts sugar to 1 part whites)together until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture feels hot to the touch.  Then you take it off the heat and whip the hell out of it until it is fluffed up and glossy.  (By hand, this took two or three Killers songs and I worked up a sweat.)  If you’re just making meringue, you stop there.  If you’re continuing on to make buttercream, you then whip in softened butter (4 parts, or twice the amount of sugar) in several stages.  I also add vanilla and salt at this point, to make sure they’re evenly distributed.

I once read an absolutely terrifying recipe for béchamel sauce.  It insisted you had to whisk over a bain marie until your arm fell off.  This is not the case.  It made me angry, because it was such an off-putting recipe that anyone who read it would probably swear off the idea of ever making it, thus depriving themselves of the joy of one of the most useful sauces out there.  I mention it now because I don’t want to make buttercream sound scary or intimidating.  It’s only difficult if you’re trying to do it by hand – a stand mixer makes it a breeze.  You can obviously do it by hand, but it is not for the weak of will or tricep.  You have to take a bit of care that the meringue isn’t too hot when you whip in the butter, which must not be too cold.  Generally, when you’re making the stuff, there comes a moment where it looks like it’s going to fall apart into a soupy mess.  Don’t panic.  Just keep going – the whipping action will smooth it out in the end, I promise.

Of the flavors I concocted for the buttercream, the only one that took any advance prep work was the pralinéPraliné is the French word for caramelized almonds and hazelnuts, usually crushed to a powder or ground to a paste.

Whole Praliné, Crushing Praliné, Praliné Powder
1. Praliné, 2. Smashy Smashy, 3. Praliné Powder

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Just Call Me Little Miss Masala

25 06 2010

Much like the breadbaking question, one might wonder why, living within walking distance of Paris’ most Indian-centric neighborhood, I would feel compelled to cook up an Indian feast of my own.  Well, one reason is that the more esoteric ingredients are much easier to come by.  Another is that you can’t go out every night, and besides, isn’t it nice to have a fridge full of amazing, somehow still-improving leftovers?

The internet seems to be full of little synchronicities.  In this case, my friend Ann also got the craving for home-cooked Indian food, and wrote up her adventures in spice hunting.  Fueling the fire, she also happened to have a giveaway for a new book called Miss Masala: Real Indian Cooking for Busy Living by Mallika Basu. 

Real Indian Cooking for Busy Living

Basu also writes a blog, called Quick Indian Cooking, which I am looking forward to exploring in depth.  The book is thoroughly enjoyable, and after I won Ann’s giveaway, I felt even more inspired to go on my own spice-shopping spree and get cooking.

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The Great Cupcake Extravaganza, Part Financier

20 06 2010

Fortunately, it turns out that the easiest cake in the French repertoire is also one of the tastiest.  I mean it.  In terms of the effort-to-reward ratio, this is absolutely one of the best recipes I know.  We make a version of this at work, for use as the base of a more complicated entremet, and had I known before just how little effort this involved, I would have started making it at home a long time ago.

Sifting the powdered sugar and cocoa powder

Financier is a classic French bakery treat, traditionally baked in little rectangular molds that are supposed to represent bars of gold.  The name means “banker,” which is either a reference to said shape, or the supposedly expensive ingredients that go into it.  I’m more inclined to believe the former explanation, because when have egg whites ever been considered a luxury item?  Usually it is made with almond meal, brown butter, powdered sugar, and the aforementioned egg whites.  This one has cocoa powder sifted in with the sugar, and since I really like the robust flavor of hazelnuts with chocolate, I switched out the almond meal for hazelnut.  Besides, I love the symmetry of using noisettes (hazelnuts) with beurre noisette (brown butter).  It just makes sense.

Just until foamy

The main reason I had to test this recipe was to see if it would work in cupcake form.  The one we do at work is baked in a thin sheet, so I didn’t know if it would puff up into an attractive cupcake shape or if it would bake through before the top burned.  One test confirmed that it worked beautifully.

a rainbow of cupcake liners

If you read my other blog, you’ve already seen the results of this first test.  I also tested them for next-day-edibilty (still bangin’), and even a more traditional version, with almond meal and a bit of fresh fruit (in this case, cherries) baked in.  Those, in fact, I whipped up at midnight on a Saturday, after a long day of exploring Paris by foot with some friends.  We all enjoyed our dessert, and my friends still caught the last Métro home.  If that’s not quick and easy, I don’t know what is.

cherry-almond financiers

What I’ve learned from all of this testing (apart from the fact that they disappear as quickly as they bake) is that as long as you repect the 1:1:1:1 ratio of butter, egg whites, nut meal, and powdered sugar, with 10% of one part  (by weight, bien sûr) something dry like cocoa powder or cake flour, this cake is almost infinitely adaptable.  So try this one.  Make it suit your tastes or your mood.  I guarantee you’ll want to make them again and again.

Chocolate-Hazelnut Financier Cupcakes

When I realized how easy this classic French cake was to make, I couldn’t help but tinker with the recipe a bit to see if it would work as a cupcake.  And as long as we’re changing things, why not switch out the almond meal for hazelnut?  If you can’t find hazelnut meal, grind the same weight of nuts with the powdered sugar in a food processor. And if you want to go cocoa-less, substitute 20 grams of cake flour for the cocoa powder.

200 g / 7 oz. powdered sugar
20 g / ¾ oz. cocoa powder
200 g / 7 oz. hazelnut meal (Or any other nut meal.  Peanut would probably be awesome.)
200 g / 7 oz. egg whites
200 g / 7 oz. butter, browned with ¼ of a vanilla bean (vanilla bean optional, but worth it)
Pinch of sea salt

  1. Preheat oven to 200 C / 395 F.  Grease a muffin tin or line it with paper liners.
  2. Sift the powdered sugar and the cocoa powder together.  Whisk in the hazelnut meal.
  3. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites with the salt just until frothy.  Whisk in the sifted sugar, then the browned butter.
  4. Fill the prepared muffin cups about ¾ full.  Bake 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a few crumbs clinging to it.
  5. Cool about 10 minutes, then remove from the baking pan.  Continue cooling, or devour the cupcakes warm.  They will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days, but they’ve never lasted that long in my house.

Makes 10 cupcakes.

On this day in 2008: Apricots and Ginger and Butter, Oh My!

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

The Great Cupcake Extravaganza, Part Banana

15 06 2010

Or, “Goldilocks” and the Three Banana Cakes

In addition to Battling the Big Bad Internet Provider, I’ve been keeping myself busy lately with cupcakes.  I know, I know, cupcakes are SO 2005.  All the same, some dear friends of mine have asked me to bake the cake for their wedding this summer, and given that I will be working in a home kitchen, a lavish, multi-tiered, fondant-covered showpiece isn’t really in the cards.  Besides, these friends care much more about how their cake tastes than how it looks (which is one of many reasons we’re friends).  I sent them a list of about ten flavor combinations, which I asked them to whittle down to six or so for a tasting.  After much debate (so I’m told), they sent me their final choices, and I got to work testing recipes.

Mise en place for banana cake

First up, banana cake.  I started with this one because while I have a number of great recipes for banana bread, I didn’t necessarily have one in my repertoire for banana cake.  I found three different recipes I wanted to try, which used three very different methods.  I was geekily excited to see how varying the mixing method would change the final product, especially when the ingredient lists were remarkably similar.

I chose the simplest of the recipes to get going, because it was Saturday morning and banana cake sounded like an excellent breakfast.  Also because if it worked, then yay!  The recipe had serendipitously fallen into my Google Reader a few days prior, and I was seduced by its promise of speed and deliciousness.  My only reservation was that seeing as this cake employed the Muffin Method, I feared it would be more muffin than cake, especially when baked in cupcake form.

Banana "cake?"

And they were.  Moist, tender, and a scrumptious breakfast, but not what I was looking for.  Too Heavy.

So Goldilocks (or Brunettelocks, as the case may be) moved on to the next recipe…

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In Which I Link to Nifty Things and Answer Some Burning Questions

6 06 2010

Burning question #1: What’s with the radio silence?

Answer: Due to the extreme incompetence of my phone/internet/tv provider, I have been without internet service and tv for the last week.  (I’ve also been without phone service since the day I moved, which you may or may not recall was SIX WEEKS AGO.  Ahem.  Anyway.  Now I am at Nick’s work, on Sunday evening, just to use the internet.)

I’ll answer some more burning questions later, but first I want to tell you all about a spiffy new website called Paris By Mouth.  I attended the launch party last Monday, and it was a blast.  Dozens of Paris-based Anglophone bloggers, podcasters, authors, foodies and wine enthusiasts gathered at Spring Boutique to celebrate.  Daniel Rose, Josh Adler, and the rest of the Spring team saw to it that no one’s glass went dry, and no one’s palate went unsatisfied.  I had a great time catching up with Ann, chatting with Heather, David, and Lily, and meeting Katia, Catherine, and many more interesting, enthusiastic people.  The soirée was organized by Meg Zimbeck, the editor of Paris By Mouth, and her assistant editor, Barbra Austin, both of whom I really enjoyed getting to know a bit better.  You can see more pictures of the event (including one of yours truly helping herself to bread and cheese) at the website.  Speaking of the website, I think it’s going to be huge.  Meg has assembled an all-star team of contributing editors, among them some of my local favorites: Alec Lobrano, Dorie Greenspan, and Clotilde Dusoulier (for whom I was mistaken at one point in the evening – when I got a chance to tell her about it later, it was concluded by the nearby group that she could hire me to be her stunt double, so Clotilde?  If you ever need anyone to go to Japan in your place, I’m your woman!).  With so much talent and passion behind it, there’s no way that Paris By Mouth won’t succeed.  So far, my favorite features are the restaurant database – searchable by neighborhood, price range, or day of the week – and the Five Great which highlights top spots to find baguettes, steak frites, and other Parisian goodies.

* * * * *

In other news, I have recently been graced with not one, but two awards from Hannah of Wayfaring Chocolate.  I am proud to be the recipient of the Kreativ Blogger Award and the Beautiful Blogger Award.  These things generally come with rules, but I’m choosing to interpret them “Kreatively.”  Instead of simply telling you seven little-known things about myself, I’m going to answer six (There’s one at the beginning of the post, remember?) of the questions I am most frequently asked, both in person and as judged from some of my most popular search engine terms.  So back to the burning questions:

Q: What are shallots?
A: Shallots are a member of the onion family.  They are small, brown- or purple-skinned, elongated onions with a mild flavor.  They are commonly used in vinaigrettes and pan sauces.

Q: What is a scallop?/What does a scallop look like?
A: Despite their orthographic similarities, a scallop is nothing like a shallot.  (Although I do find it interesting that these are two of my most popular searches.)  A scallop is a sea creature, a bivalve to be specific, which means that it has two shells, joined with a hinge, as opposed to say, a conch, which has only one shell.  Between the two shells is a large muscle (the part you eat) and a mess of other organs (which some people eat, notably the roe, if the scallop has it).  They are delicious, but it is very important not to overcook them, as they become rubbery and unappetizing.  I like them best seared, with the centers just warmed through, maybe served with some combination of bacon and vanilla.

Q: How do you work as a pastry chef and stay so thin?/If I had your job, I would weigh 300 pounds.
A: This one’s multiple choice.*
a) It’s a very physically demanding job – I’m on my feet all day, and those 20-kilo boxes of chocolate don’t exactly lift themselves.
b) My job is making pastries, not eating them.
c) Honestly, I have no idea.  I’ve always been thin, and part of me is terrified that I’m going to wake up one day and my metabolism will have decided to quit and I will, in fact, weigh 300 pounds.  And have diabetes.  So while I rather dislike this question, I will be very sad when people stop asking me.  It’s a fine line.
d) I try to eat lots of vegetables at home.
e) All of the above.

Q: Your job must be so FUN!/I’ve always thought that if the research/teaching/law/medicine/whatever doesn’t work out, I’d go into pastry.
A: More of a comment than a question, but I get this an awful lot.  Frankly, I find it to be a demeaning and insulting thing to say to somebody.  I’m tempted to reply with something like “Yeah, I always thought that if the baking doesn’t work out, I’d go into research/teaching/law/medicine/whatever,” but I usually just smile, nod, and move on.  Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy my job.  It just isn’t super fun happy prancing around in a frilly apron shoving cookie dough in my mouth all the time.  It’s hard work and it takes a lot of dedication and training.

Q: Are chicken pot pie or macaroni and cheese French?
A: No, but both use classic French techniques, such as the crust for the pie or the cheese sauce for the macaroni.

Q: Do you have a good recipe for a French fruit tart?
A: As a matter of fact, I do.

*The answer is (e), but the one you’re most likely to hear if you ask me is person is (a).

On this day in 2008: No-Knead Bread Update

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