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.

My Kitchen in Malden.


Where do you live?
Malden, Massachusetts.


How often do you cook or bake?
It’s funny because I never really used to be into baking; cooking was always much more interesting to me, and frankly, baking always seemed so girly.  That said, I’ve recently taken up baking, though I don’t do it that often.  I definitely cook more, probably four to five times a week, depending on the leftovers situation.  I’ll bake when the mood strikes me, or when I’ve got a craving, which is something like twice a month.  I definitely bake more around the holidays — everyone gets cookies.  I also bake for Keith more than I bake for me.  I’m nice that way.


What is your favorite kitchen utensil?
I’m easy, man.  It’s my wooden spoon.  I wish I had a few more of them.  I use it to mix just about anything, and I love the way it feels in my hand.  Actually, now that I’m thinking about it a bit, I think I would say my chef’s knife instead.  I’ve used some awful knives in my day, the kinds that coerce an onion apart as opposed to chop it, and having a good solid knife makes all the difference.  In fact, if you’ve got one good knife — one really good one — you don’t need any more.


Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?
Having lived in many an apartment without one, I’ve got to say my dishwasher.  You know, I used to buy glasses based solely on whether or not I could fit my hand and a sponge down its mouth?  Now I can purchase any style that catches my eye, and that feels great.  I like glasses.

I also like the area that I call “the in-between” or “the pass-through.”  It connects the kitchen to the dining room, and we have it cabinet-ed out.  The bottom portion functions as a snack pantry of sorts, as well as storage for platters and my massive stand mixer.  Half of the upper cabinetry is devoted to storing Keith’s whisky collection; the other half holds my cooking magazines and cookbooks.


Come to think of it, this is a tricky question for me to answer; we renovated the kitchen to best suit our needs and our aesthetic (on a budget).  There are so many aspects of this room that I love, like the countertops that look like oxidized metal, the unusual color of our cabinets, the soffits, the ceiling fan, my knife strip…  It would be the equivalent of asking me to pick my favorite dog, if I had lots of dogs.  Or any dogs.  Or a dog.


What was your biggest kitchen accomplishment?
I would have to say it was the dinner I made for something like sixteen people last spring; at that point, the largest crowd I had ever cooked for was closer to eight, including Keith and myself, so doubling the amount of diners was a vaguely terrifying Big Deal.  I had invited my parents not only to the meal but also for the weekend; they drove in with the dog from New York a day early to spend some more time with us.  My mother and Keith volunteered to help me chop, sauté, mix, etc.  Whenever I asked him to do something, Keith would shout, “Yes, chef!”  It caused a lot of giggly delays.  Even funnier was when my mother — very polite, proper and petite woman that she is — wasn’t able to open something (what was it?  I don’t remember) and so, said very seriously to the object in her hand, “I think you must be retarded.”

In the end, we served the following:

Hors d’œuvres

  • bocconcini that I had marinated in herbs and olive oil few days prior
  • a selection of cured meats that Keith had picked out at Formaggio Kitchen




The leftovers lasted for days.

A Mussel Dinner.

Don’t tell Keith, but the mussel and I have been having an affair for years.  Do you blame me?  Is it possible to resist their briny flavor and luminescent shells?  (Not for me.  I’m like a bird — if it’s shiny or sparkly, I must touch it.)  I remember my very first mussel, served to me by my mother when I was in grade school.  Retrieving its melon-colored innards from within its dark casing was both fun and rewarding, and the taste was spectacular — faintly sweet and scented of the ocean.

You would think that since I’m obviously so very enamored with the mussel that I would indulge in it with as much frequency as I do cheese — that is to say, daily.  Sadly, that’s not the case.  In fact, I had never even had a mussel cross the threshold of my home, believe it or not, until recently.  Cooking a bunch was one of the many things that I simply hadn’t gotten around to, even though for ages I’d been reading about how quick and easy it is to steam them.  Not only that, I keep on encountering literature indicating that these little guys are an incredibly cheap meal to make, and one that has impressive results.  In today’s economy, I can’t think of a better reason not to make something so high-impact for so few dollars.

Since I wasn’t able to get over to the fishmonger, I ended up purchasing my mussels at Whole Foods, where I picked up two two-pound bags for just over six bucks.  Later I realized that four pounds of mussels seem like a lot more than they actually are; after each tender little treasure is removed from its shell, you’re left with considerably less weight.

I was the most nervous about prepping my mussels, as the last thing I wanted to do was spend my after-dinner hours hovering over a barf bin or groaning in the emergency room.  Mark Bittman‘s advice was the most helpful:

“Discard any mussels with broken shells, or those that don’t close when tapped lightly against a hard surface (the counter or sink, another mussel, or a spoon); they’re dead.”

I separated my mussels into “reject” and “accept” piles, rapping the suspect shellfish against the ridge of a cast-iron pot.  It was flat-out fascinating, watching their little lips close in super slow-motion.  It’s a handy trick.

mussels-on-the-plateHere’s a few tips more that I picked up:

  • Cleaning and priming are the most time-consuming part of mussel cookery, and a step that positively must not be skipped or rushed.  Take the time to scrub each little shell uner cold water with a brush, removing any hairy beards and tough little barnacles you encounter.
  • Soaking is not necessary. In fact, it’s a big no-no.  If you do soak your shells, you’ll kill the mussels before you have a chance to steam them.
  • Buy a baguette, taking care to pick an extra crunchy one.  You’re going to want to sop up all those juices after you’ve emptied each shell.

Fennel-Steamed Mussels Provençal, from Bitten by Mark Bittman
Makes four portions

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
½ cup Pernod or Ricard, or 4 whole star anise
1 cup chopped tomatoes, if desired (canned are fine, drained first)
1 sprig fresh tarragon, if desired
At least 4 pounds large mussels, well washed

  1. Place the oil in a large pot and turn the heat to medium; one minute later, add the garlic, fennel, fennel seeds, liqueur, and tomatoes and tarragon if you’re using them. Bring to a boil, cook for about one minute. Add the mussels, cover the pot, and turn the heat to high.
  2. Cook, shaking the pot occasionally, until the mussels open, five to ten minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the mussels and fennel to a serving bowl, then strain any liquid over them and serve.

Coming Soon…

Early in September I emailed a handful of friends with questions about their kitchens.  “Something I’ve had on my mind lately,” I wrote, “are the spaces in which we prepare our food.”

I won’t deny the fact that I’ve ogled glass-fronted refrigerators even though I’ve got a perfectly fine unit in the corner, that I think about garbage disposals and that I’ve made list of what I could possibly make with the right attachments for my KitchenAid.  The truth of the matter is, I don’t need any of those things.  After all, the vendors in Boston’s late and great Chinatown Eatery produced countless dishes with little more than ladles, woks and flames for over twenty years — a skill I could only dream of.  Knowing this, I asked via email anyone was interested in opening their doors and answering a few questions about the food they eat and where they make it.  What’s funny is that I intended to post their replies and the photos they took in November, but November turned into December, and now I’ve just read Mark Bittman‘s short piece in the New York Times exclaiming that all that is needed in the kitchen are “a stove, a sink, a refrigerator, some pots and pans, a knife and some serving spoons.”

I do happen to have a favorite knife, but that’s another story.  My point is, I’ll be soon posting pictures of some of my friends’ kitchens, and their answers to questions like “How often do you cook or bake?” and “Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?”  I think it will be interesting to see what we are able to turn out, and from where.


I’ve been embarrassingly absent these past few days and I have no good excuse aside from a mild case of ennui and an unabashed sense of anxiety about tomorrow. I promise to write much much more as soon as possible, perhaps starting even tonight. I’m far too worked up to do anything that involves wearing shoes.

Please allow this deliciousness to make up for my ineptitude.