Not-So-Sweet Cupcakes.

As I’m writing this it’s sunny and warm and pretty much dazzling outside, and I think the only proper way to celebrate is with cupcakes, ideally these.

Some people think the whole cupcake craze is over and that its heyday is a thing of the past, but I honestly don’t care.  Do I prefer a full-blown cake?  Certainly.  Does  that mean I won’t ever make cupcakes?  Of course not.  I mean, what’s there to hate?  They’re perfect single-serving desserts that you can eat with your hands.  In my mind, that’s pretty ideal.  Give me the chance to forgo silverware and I’m all over it — in spite of the fact that I highly value table manners and etiquette in general.  There’s a time and a place for everything, and sometimes it’s fun (and appropriate) to get a little barbaric.  For example, you’d never see me cut up a piece of pizza with my fork and knife; it’s hands-on food, and I say the same for the perhaps-overexposed cupcake.

What’s tricky about the cupcake, apart from putting aside propriety and cutlery, is avoiding both dryness and superfluous sweetness…  which is why this recipe is so great.  Yes, it calls for one and a half cups of sugar, but that’s spread out over twenty-four cupcakes.  And sure, you have to be on alert during the baking process so you don’t overbake the cakes, but you’d want to do that anyway, right?

For me, the hardest part is the topping — I have yet to perfect my frosting-smoothing technique, not to mention that so many frosting recipes out there are too damn sweet and oftentimes also too damn rich.  You might not think that a glutton like me would be into moderation, but when it comes to desserts I most definitely am.  I have no problem with foie, with Hollandaise, with cheese on everything in sight; desserts are another matter.  I want them to be full of flavor, but light.  I want them to end the meal on a sweet note, but one that’s not too sweet.  And, ideally, I want there to be chocolate.

This cupcake fits the bill, especially if you drizzle a white chocolate glaze over the top.  Keep in mind that this is extremely messy to do.  The white chocolate gets everywhere, so if you have a raised rack to place atop a baking sheet, I highly recommend setting your cooled cupcakes on that during the glazing process.  Otherwise you will end up like me and have white chocolate fingers and cupcake liners* bathed in white chocolate.  Which might not be a bad thing.  Just like these cupcakes.

Chocolate Cupcakes, adapted by Suzanne Lenzer for Bitten from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts

Makes twenty-four cupcakes

for the cupcakes
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch process
5 1/3 ounces sweet butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 cup milk

  1. Heat the oven to 350° and line 2 6-cup muffin tins with cupcake liners. Sift together the flour, soda, salt, and cocoa powder and set aside. Use a standing mixer or hand-mixer to cream the butter. Add the sugar and vanilla and mix to combine. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each one until smooth.
    On the lowest speed, alternately add the dry ingredients in three additions and the milk in two. Beat only until smooth and fully combined, you don’t want to overwork the batter.
  2. Scoop the batter into the prepared pans filling each about two-thirds full (don’t bother to smooth the tops — the batter will level itself as it cooks). Bake the cupcakes for about 25 minutes, or until the tops are puffed and spring back when lightly pressed. Be careful not to overbake the cakes, but know that if you take them out too early they may sink a bit. Cool the cakes in the muffin tins for about 5 minutes and then remove them to a rack and let cool completely.  The cakes can be made a day in advance and refrigerated (they actually get better) or frozen in an airtight container.

White Chocolate Glaze
Makes more than enough for twenty-four cupcakes

8 ounces white chocolate, cut into small pieces
¼ cup light cream

Place white chocolate pieces in medium heat-proof bowl. Heat cream in a small saucepan over medium heat to a gentle boil. Pour cream over white chocolate and whisk slowly until incorporated and smooth.  Use immediately.

* You can’t tell by this picture, but I used skull-patterned cupcake liners, a Christmas present from my friend Darlington, who knows of and appreciates my love of skulls.

A Rainy Day Dinner.

It’s been raining a lot lately here in Massachusetts, and I hate it.  You would think that instead of bemoaning the torrential and nonstop downpour, I’d at least be celebrating the fact that most of this winter’s precipitation has come in the form of rain rather than snow — sorry, DC — but we know the truth: I’d be grumpy with snow, too.

I am just not a cold weather person.  Then again, I’m not a warm weather person either.  I hate humidity and perspiring and feeling sticky with sweat.  Ugh, I’m getting irritable just thinking about it.  If it were possible, I’d live somewhere with only spring and fall so I could have both new leaves budding above my head in the trees and old leaves crumpling under my feet in the street.

Since that’s not possible anywhere but in my dreams, I’ll begrudgingly accept winter.  We’ll never be friends or anything; I’ll firmly shut the door in her face whenever she comes around, and if she somehow still manages to get into the apartment, I’ll chase her right back out again with a dinner such as this — and maybe a degree or two increase on the thermostat.

The key to this dish is the idea of the do-ahead.  If you’re one of those well-organized, put-together people who apparently really do exist in this world, then you’ll make the soup one day and the dumplings the next (or vice versa).  Don’t get me wrong — this is an easy meal to make.  It’s just a bit messy and uses a lot of pots and pans and skillets, and I personally try to avoid dealing with a whole boatload of things to clean after preparing a meal.  I like to clean as much as I can as I go; this recipe, unfortunately, won’t really let you do that, particularly if you do what I did and make the dumplings while the mushrooms browned and the leeks gave up their opacity.

No matter what route you take, the do-ahead or the do-while, the results will be the same: delicious.  And they might just make you forget about the weather.  Maybe.

Mushroom + Leek Soup with Parsley Dumplings, from Bon Appétit
Makes six to eight portions

for the soup
2 cups water
¾ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
3 ½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
Fine sea salt
3 tablespoons dry Sherry
1 ½ cups chopped onion
3 cups thinly sliced leeks, white and pale green parts only, from about 2 large leeks
8 cups vegetable broth (I used chicken stock)
Pinch of cayenne pepper

for the dumplings
¾ scant cup low-fat cottage cheese
6 tablespoons butter, room temperature, divided
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup all purpose flour, divided
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
Pinch of ground nutmeg
¼ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
¾ cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley

for the soup

  1. Bring 2 cups water and porcini mushrooms to boil in small saucepan. Remove from heat, cover, and soak 20 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer mushrooms to work surface; slice thinly. Reserve cooking liquid.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic; stir 30 seconds. Add crimini mushrooms and thyme; sprinkle with sea salt and sauté until mushrooms are browned, stirring often, about 12 minutes. Add Sherry; stir until liquid is absorbed, about 1 minute. Set mushroom mixture aside.
  3. Heat 1 ½ tablespoons oil in another heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; cook until translucent and beginning to brown, stirring often, about 6 minutes. Add leeks; reduce heat to medium, sprinkle with sea salt, and sauté until vegetables are soft and golden, stirring often, about 15 minutes.
  4. Bring broth to simmer in large pot over medium-high heat. Pour in reserved mushroom cooking liquid, leaving sediment behind. Add all mushrooms, onion mixture, and cayenne. Simmer 1 minute to heat through. Season to taste with salt. (Do ahead: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool, cover, and chill.)

for the dumplings

  1. Purée cottage cheese in mini processor until smooth. Using electric mixer, beat 3 tablespoons butter and eggs in medium bowl. Add cottage cheese, ½ cup flour, 1 teaspoon sea salt, and nutmeg; beat on low speed just to blend. Stir in ½ cup flour, cheese, and parsley.
  2. Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Using teaspoon, scoop piece of dough about size of cherry. Holding spoon just above boiling water, use second spoon to push dough into water. Working quickly, repeat about 10 more times. When dumplings rise to surface, simmer until cooked through, 2 ½ to 3 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer dumplings to large plate. Repeat with remaining dough. (Do ahead: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
  3. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in large skillet over medium heat. Working in 2 batches, add dumplings to skillet. Cook until brown in spots, 2 to 3 minutes per side.
  4. Bring soup to simmer. Divide dumplings among wide shallow bowls. Divide soup among bowls and serve.

SSSSD, or Seven Short Shorts in Seven Days.

About four or five years ago, my friend Marcella and I had a shared blog where we wrote about — well, we wrote about pretty much whatever we wanted.  One of the brilliant ideas we had, if I do say so myself, was something we called SSSSD — Seven Short Shorts in Seven Days.  For one week we posted a writing exercise on our blog; we invited our friends to participate and share their responses, which were all about five hundred words or less.  Basically, it was a way to force us to write creatively and with purpose for a solid week, with the hopes of jumpstarting a daily writing habit.

Unfortunately, I had a hard time beginning a writing regimen after SSSSD was over, but that didn’t stop Marcella and me from repeating the experiment a year later.  And it’s not stopping me from trying again now; in fact, my friend Beth requested an SSSSD revival, so I’m kicking it off on Facebook.  Each morning starting Sunday, April fourth, I’ll put up a new exercise designed to get writers thinking creatively.  I’m inviting participants to post their work each day, but the goal is to write — sharing is optional.

Want in?  Message me on Facebook and we’ll get you signed up.  No excuses though; are you really so busy that you can’t write a small piece of microfiction (or micrononfiction, as the case may be) every day for a week?   After all, it’s just five hundred itty bitty words or less.  So get writing with me.  It’s just for seven days!  Oh, and don’t forget to invite your friends — as they say, the more the merrier.

Update: Fluffernutters are Evil.

Just wanted to let you all know I’m typing this after upending the Fluff jar over the garbage.  All I’ve been able to think about this whole week are Fluffernutter sandwiches, and now the craziness must stop.  I didn’t trust myself to either put the jar in the cabinet or to simply toss it out, because I would’ve known it was there and apparently I’m not above picking food out of the trash; scooping out the jar’s contents was key.  So was filling it up with hot soapy water afterwards, but that may or may not have been for recycling purposes.  I’ll never tell.

(Almost) Five Days in New Orleans.

No matter where I am, home or away, I’m always looking ahead to my next trip.  I can’t help it.  There’s so much in the world that I haven’t seen, and I can’t understand why we spend so much time standing still.  I mean, sure — I’m cozy on my sofa right now listening to Sparklehorse‘s It’s a Wonderful Life and I’m considering another Fluffernutter, but I’m also thinking about Saigon, I’m also thinking about Singapore, I’m also thinking about Cebu.

I’m also, as it turns out, thinking about the time Keith and I spend in New Orleans last week.  I had visited the city with a friend nine years before and had really loved the it, so I was eager to see what Keith thought.

Monday*
Got on the plan in warmer-than-usual-but-still-incredibly-cold Boston and got off in wet, windy and chilly New Orleans.  I swear to you — temperatures in New Orleans were lower than they were at home.  Hopped a cab to the W on Poydras and, once we got to our room, immediately crawled under the covers.  After a nap, debated which within-walking-distance restaurant to check out for dinner and settled on the Cajun cuisine at Cochon.  Walked the half mile in absolutely torrential rain that soaked us through our raincoats in spite of our overworked umbrellas.  Tried to dry off while sharing small plates of fried rabbit livers with pepper jelly on toast ($9.00) and caramelized onion and grits casserole ($9.00).  Neither Keith nor I could decide on entrées so we opted to be That Couple and also split our main courses.  Ordered the eponymous cochon with turnips, cabbage and cracklins ($22.00) as well as the oyster and bacon sandwich ($14.00), thus beginning my week of fried-oyster-eatin’.  Of course, by dinner’s end the rain had stopped so we slogged our waterlogged selves by to the hotel for a warm bath and bed.

Tuesday
Woke up to a dry city… that was utterly freezing.  Pulled on as many layers as possible and wished I had packed a pair of gloves, especially as we walked to the French Quarter.  In spite of the cold, wandered around before popping into Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley, where Keith picked up a really nice Flannery O’Connor anthology. Lunch at Mr. B’s Bistro.  Made a little meal out of appetizers — creamy mushroom soup and (more) fried oysters — while Keith drank a $1.50 vodka lemonade while eating gumbo and barbecued shrimp.  Got couple-y again and shared bread pudding for dessert.  Headed to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas to hang out with the penguins, stingrays and sea otters, followed by a Sazerac and  a not-as-gingery-as-expected ginger mojito at The Living Room.  Finished reading M. F. K. Fisher‘s Long Ago In France: The Years In Dijon while Keith took a pre-dinner nap.  Dinner at Brigtsen’s: an oyster and artichokes gratin ($10.00) and the signature seafood platter ($32.00), which was comprised of drum fish with a crawfish and pistachio lime sauce, shrimp cornbread with jalapeño smoked corn, a baked oyster smothered in shrimp and crabmeat, a baked oyster Bienville, shrimp with jalapeño coleslaw and a panéed scallop with asparagus coulis.  Continued the twosome streak by divvying up a piece of pecan pie drizzled with caramel sauce ($6.00).   Drinks at The Swizzle Stick Bar, then bed.

Wednesday
Finally, a warm and sunny day!  Grabbed coffee, chai and a croissant before catching the St. Charles Avenue streetcar to the Garden District, where we took a walking tour led by someone who must be the most informative, interesting guide working for Historic New Orleans Tours.  Couldn’t resist having lunch at Commander’s Palace, what with its famous —  and famously strong — 25¢ martinis, so ordered one with extra olives and the special of turtle soup and citrus-glazed gulf fish ($16.00).  Turned out Keith and I were on a roll with the dessert-sharing since we split the bread pudding soufflé ($8.50).   Walked down Magazine Street to the amazing National World War II Museum before riding the streetcar back to the hotel for a second pre-dinner nap.  More fried oysters, this time on a po’boy from Mother’s Restaurant.  A French 75 at the French 75 Bar, where bartender Chris Hannah suggested we check out the Sazerac Bar and its cocktails; we headed over and I drank something called a “French Quarter” — pear vodka, pear nectar, brandy and sugar — before calling it a night.

Thursday
Slept in and got off to a late start, but that’s what vacations  are for!  Lunch at Stanley, whose owners also run Stella — get it? — but was on oyster overload so got crazy and ordered  the “world famous burger” ($8.75), which was  more fine than famous.  Sampled fragrances at Hové Parfumeur before selecting Rue Royal and Verveine as my favorites.  Midday cocktails at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone; since Chris Hannah had told us to order milk punch and the Ramos Gin Fizz, we did and loved them.  Hailed a cab to take us to the Audubon Zoo, where peacocks and pelicans roam free.  Streetcar back to the hotel for — you guessed it! — a nap, though I was too busy reading  Marcelo In The Real World by Francisco X. Stork to sleep.  Dinner at Lüke.  I loved my  rabbit and duck liver pâté ($8.00) and was satisfied with my crabmeat-stuffed ravioli and its Meyer lemon sauce ($19.00) but was appalled by the sloppy service.  Drinks at Napoleon House before ending up yet again at the Sazerac Bar  with another Ramos Gin Fizz since Bar Uncommon was hosting an event.  Tipsily walked back to the hotel.

Friday
Wanted to sleep in but didn’t have that much time left in Louisiana so hauled ourselves out of bed to make the mandatory pit stop at Café du Monde.  Took one look at the dining-in line and politely elbowed over to the take-out queue; although also long, it was less than half the length of its rival.  Sat on a nearby  bench with our bags of beignets and my cup of chicory café au lait, taking care not to sprinkle myself — and my dark clothing — with the excess powdered sugar.  Dodged shoppers at the French Market, which wasn’t nearly as produce-heavy as I would have liked and instead seemed to focus on  kitschy souvenirs.  Picked out Mardi Gras beads and a matching mask for our niece, as well as pralines from Aunt Sally’s before stopping by Central Grocery to buy a muffuletta to eat on the plane.  Got a ride to the airport the nicest taxi driver of all time.  Disembarked in Boston, where  the temperature raised itself to welcome us home.

* This picture is from a not-rainy day.

On Fluffernutters.

I’m back from New Orleans, but before I get into the whats and wheres of that trip I need to share something with you: Keith is a genius.

As I type this, he’s playing a video game and singing “Build Me Up Buttercup” to himself, neither of which is the reason why he’s a genius.  The reason is this: he made me a sandwich.

Maybe that doesn’t appear to be much to you, but to a sandwich-lovin’ girl like myself, it’s everything — particularly when the sandwich in question is a Fluffernutter, something I had never eaten before.  To all of you who’ve read that last part in disbelief remember, my parents are foreigners who would most likely balk at the thought of Fluff, let alone abide by its presence in their house.  To all of you who have no idea what a Fluffernutter is, hold on a second and I’ll explain.

One of the books I brought with me on our trip was The Best Food Writing 2009, which reprinted a Gastronimica article by Katie Liesener entitled “Marshmallow Fluff.”  Aside from detailing the history of Fluff (originally developed in my old Somerville neighborhood), Liesener’s piece describes the powerful devotion Massachusetts residents have towards Fluff and the Fluffernutter.  As a New York transplant — and daughter of the aforementioned foreigners — I never have experienced this Fluff fervor personally, and as I turned the pages I found the ardor Liesener captures surprisingly intense.  This passage, for example, I read to Keith over the hum of the airplane’s engines last night:

Consider, for example, lifelong fluff [sic] eater Emmett Rauch… Except for a few days’ hospitalization with prostate cancer, Rauch has eaten a fluffernutter [sic] on white bread every morning for breakfast since the day he returned home from World War II.

“‘He was unsatisfied with army food,’ explains his daughter, Ellen Rauch.  ‘He was determined when he got back he would eat what he wanted.'”

After reading that, how could I not go out today on my normal food run and not pick up a jar of Fluff, not bring it home, not toss it to Keith and not say “make me a sandwich“?

Keith, born and bred Massachusetts man that he is, gallantly smeared peanut butter on one piece of bread and Fluff on the other; when he licked the knife clean — at my urging — he said, “This is my Ratatouille moment.”*  Then, he handed me the sandwich on a plate, cautioning, “You’re not going to like it.”

Friends, I don’t like to rub it in when someone is wrong and I am right; it’s déclassé.  That said, Keith was so wrong.

The Fluffernutter is amazing.  It reminded me for some reason of Nutella, which I also happened to coincidentally purchase today, in the sense that both the hazelnut spread and the peanut butter/Fluff combo are incredibly smooth, creamy and dreamy, and the marshmallowy vanillaness of the Fluff adds a deeper richness to the already-rich peanut butter.

To put it simply, it’s damn good.  And yes, I think I’ll have another, if Keith is willing to make it for me.

* Which is another reason why I love him so much.