Friday, March 23, 2012

Cinnamon-cocoa meringues

Cinnamon-cocoa meringues

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And when life gives you not one but two lousy recipes for lemon curd (of which we shall never speak again -- maybe someday, I'll muster the enthusiasm to try making it again, but not soon), causing you to waste six egg yolks... well, at least you can make something good with the whites.

Finding this recipe was actually perfect timing, too, 'cause we'd only had a Penzeys open around here for one day before I was there, buying ridiculous amounts of stuff, including what ended up to be four different kinds of cinnamon. Good thing I like cinnamon, but I definitely need to come up with more uses for it now.

These came out pretty good, but I'm not sure if they're something I'd want to eat all the time. And I'd cut back further on the cinnamon next time -- I knew to use less than the recipe said, 'cause I'm using fresh, good-quality stuff, but I also used one of the hotter kinds (China Tung Hing), so it was still a bit much. Also, I had an awful time trying to figure out when these were done. I ultimately just went ahead and overbaked them, erring on the side of caution, 'cause they're on low heat anyway, so it's not like they'll burn soon, but you definitely want them nicely dry, not sticky in the centers.

Cinnamon-Cocoa Meringues
Adapted from Eating Well

3 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
3/4 c sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp cocoa
1 tbsp cinnamon (or much less if you're using high-quality stuff)

1. Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar on high until soft peaks form when you turn off the mixer and pick up the beaters. Beat in the sugar a bit at a time until combined, then continue to beat until stiff and glossy. Beat in the vanilla, then the cinnamon and cocoa.
2. Drop 1 1/2-inch-wide mounds a half-inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
3. Bake at 200 degrees (yes, that's not a typo) until dry and crisp, about an hour and a half (or longer if you made your meringues too big, like I probably did).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Out of the Kitchen: Albany Cupcake-Off

I think it's time to acknowledge that sometimes, interesting food-related stuff happens that's not directly tied to me baking something. And so, I've added a new entry tag: "Out of the Kitchen." And I can't think of a better way to start off my non-recipe entries (of which I assure you there won't be a whole lot -- this will still be primarily a baking blog) than with an event I was part of today: a blind tasting of area cupcakeries' offerings.

The competition has been pretty fierce around here between the four major cupcake bakeries. There's Coccadotts, best known as either the people who failed miserably on "Cupcake Wars" (and got a lot of flack afterwards for it) or the people who recently got a lot of publicity for making Buffalo wing cupcakes. There's Bettie's, which you can't miss, with their multiple outlets (at least three, last I knew) and two cupcake trucks and massive publicity everywhere you go. There's Sweet Temptations, now in two locations and with one truck. And there's Fluffalicious, which started out as a truck and only recently opened a shop of their own.

But while all of them have their fans and detractors, who really has the best cupcake? I was determined to find out, and after planting a bug in the ear of the Profussor, who has set up quite a few head-to-head food comparisons like this, we had our answer.

Many precautions were taken, because the cupcake business can be cutthroat around here. The orders were placed anonymously, just an order for a party or something, no mention given of our true intent. All participants were sworn to secrecy, not allowed to say anything about the event in public in case a bakery were to find out and somehow game the system, make sure that we had extra-good cupcakes just for us, when what we wanted was to find a fair answer: If you walked into one of these places off the street, right now, where would you get the best cupcake? And to remove our own biases, we tested them blind, with only a few organizers on the other end of the room knowing whose cakes went on plates labeled A, B, C and D.

At high noon, we gathered and prepared for the tasting, which included water and cold milk to wash down the cakes.

Milk and water

First up was the vanilla round: Yellow cupcakes with vanilla frosting.

Round 1, Vanilla/vanilla

Cupcake A stood out for being almost shortcake-like, with a whipped-cream-like, non-gritty frosting that had a pleasant vanilla flavor and a fairly good cake. Cupcake D's frosting wasn't so good, awfully greasy-tasting, but their cake was buttery and moist and delicious.

Meanwhile, Cupcake C's frosting tasted chemical-y and buttery in the bad way, like a stick of butter, while their cake tasted mostly like cake flour, like the chemicals used to give cake flour its texture. And Cupcake B was just wretched -- the frosting tasted like Crisco and chemicals, and the cake was about the same, artificial-tasting and just awful. Even the sprinkles were bad; for some odd reason, they tasted like black pepper. You could actually do a little better to buy a box of cheap cake mix and a jar of frosting at the grocery store than to eat this one. We also noticed that B was the smallest cupcake, but considering how bad it was, that might've been a blessing.

So much for "yay, we get to eat cupcakes!" Clearly, they were not all created equal. Onward to round two: Chocolate cakes with chocolate frosting.

Round 2, Chocolate/chocolate

Again, A stood out, this time for being the only one that tasted like chocolate: the frosting had a clear cocoa taste, while the cake also tasted like chocolate cake. D was so-so, not offensive but not chocolate-y, either. C's frosting had a hard crust on top, like it had been sitting around for a while, and its cake was even worse: it was beyond dry into full-on tough, actually hard for me to cut through with a knife, and it tasted about the same, dry and awful. But B was again the worst, tasting like chemicals and grease instead of like cake.

Round three was the specialty-flavor round, and we went with the most popular one across all four shops: Peanut butter cup.

Round 3, Peanut butter cup

A faltered a bit in this round -- it was pretty much the same as the chocolate/chocolate one in the previous round, except for a scant peanut butter filling (which I think was tasty, but I can't be sure 'cause there was so little of it). C actually redeemed itself a little bit here, 'cause while their cake was again very dry and lacking in flavor, the frosting was the best of the bunch, very peanut-y. D was slightly peanut-y in the frosting but sort of greasy and overall unimpressive. And B, well, by this point, I actually resented that I had to put this in my mouth, and when I got a taste of their frosting, I actually made a face -- again, it was all Crisco and chemicals, as was the cake.

You shouldn't actually dread eating a cupcake, but with bakery B's, I did. They were so bad, across the board, so chemical-y and artificial-tasting and lacking in any good flavor at all, that I was actually offended by them. How does bakery B get away with selling these? How do they have the nerve to charge people money for such wretchedly bad cupcakes? Don't they have any taste buds to know how much theirs suck? Do they have no shame?

After much eating and thinking, we turned in our score sheets, and then, we were told the identities of the bakeries we'd been eating from...

The cupcake carnage

Bakery A was Fluffalicious.
Bakery D, which I'd say was my second-favorite (and my favorite yellow cake), was Coccadotts.
Bakery C was Bettie's.
Bakery B was Sweet Temptations.

After the big reveal, the ratings of bakery C made sense to me, 'cause I have tried their cupcakes a couple of times and have always found them to be very dry and not very good in flavor (which is why I stopped eating theirs). I was open to them being the winner, because it was a blind test and I could've been surprised, but I wasn't -- all of the added locations and cute pink ads and double-decker buses in the world can't save a dry, lousy cupcake.

As for Sweet Temptations, I just don't understand how someone can run a shop specializing in cupcakes and make ones that are that horribly bad, then put their name on them and charge people money for them. They were just that bad. I mean, before they opened, didn't they ever eat a cupcake before, ever notice that they're not supposed to taste like grease and chemicals? How do they have the nerve to sell this crap? As for the second obvious question, why do people buy them, I'd guess it's simply because they have no basis for comparison at the time, because it's a cupcake, if not a good cupcake. For that matter, I've eaten one of their cakes before, and I don't remember it being so bad, but not good, either. I almost think it's one of those things where if you buy one of theirs and think, "gee, this isn't very good," you might second-guess yourself, "but they're cupcake bakers, this is what they do, they're professionals... maybe I'm just not appreciating the goodness of this cupcake, 'cause if they run a cupcake shop, they must make good cakes, right?"

(Further reading: The Profussor's recap with scoring breakdowns.)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Cream cheese brownies

Cream cheese brownies

This was supposed to be a crowd-pleasing St. Patrick's Day recipe.

See, I knew the scones wouldn't go over all that well, being as authentic (read: kinda bland) as they were. So when I came across this recipe, I figured the week before St. Patrick's Day would be a good time for some totally inauthentic baking, too. And who doesn't love Irish cream? Heck, who doesn't love boozy baked goods?

Except that the Baileys doesn't come across here, not that I can taste, and I can usually pick up liquor flavors very easily. All I taste is a cream cheese-swirled brownie, a pretty darn good one, I must say, so I'd totally recommend this recipe, but I didn't get any Irish out of these at all, just yummy chocolate and cheesecake flavors. Maybe it needs more Baileys -- that might be worth trying. Or you could just appreciate these for what they are, which isn't Irish but is still delicious.

Cream Cheese Brownies
Adapted from Wee Kitchen

1 c butter
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2 c sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 c flour
1/2 tsp salt

16 ounces cream cheese
1/3 c sugar
1 egg
3 tbsp Baileys Irish Cream

1. Melt the butter and chocolate together (I use the microwave, stopping to stir occasionally). Stir to combine and set aside.
2. Beat the sugar and eggs together until fluffy.
3. Whisk together the flour and salt, then beat a bit at a time into the sugar mixture. Fold in the chocolate mixture.
4. Beat together the cream cheese and sugar, then beat in the egg and Irish cream.
5. In a greased 9-by-13 pan, pour half of the brownie batter, then all of the cream cheese, spreading it out over the whole pan, then the rest of the brownie batter. Swirl together with a knife.
6. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Let cool before cutting.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Irish scones

Irish scones

With St. Patrick's Day approaching, I thought it was time to try something from an Irish cookbook I picked up some time ago. The book promises authentic Irish recipes, collected from cooks across Ireland. And for the most part, it delivered -- these taste how authentic scones have always been described -- not sweet, not salty like biscuits, actually rather bland in flavor, a peasant concoction that's best as a carrier for jam.

I might make these again, and they definitely get points for authenticity, but to my American palate, they really could've used some salt (there isn't any at all in the recipe). Next time, I might make a more common, biscuit-like recipe instead, 'cause like many foods from my heritage (see also black pudding/kishka, steak and kidney pie, haggis, etc.), just because it's what my ancestors ate doesn't mean that I've inherited a taste for it.

Irish Scones
Adapted slightly from "The Country Cooking of Ireland"

6 1/4 c flour
1/2 c sugar
2 tsp baking soda
1 c butter, cut into pieces, cold
3/4 c currants or raisins
1 3/4 c milk
1 egg

1. Mix the flour, sugar and baking soda together in a large bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the currants or raisins, then add the milk and stir just until the dough comes together. (This totally didn't work for me -- I ended up dumping it all out onto a floured counter and kneading it together, 'cause it just couldn't be mixed in a bowl.) Form into a rough ball.
2. Divide into 2 pieces and form each into a ball. Arrange on parchment-lined cookie sheets at least an inch apart.
3. Beat together the egg and a teaspoon of water and brush the tops of the dough balls.
4. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes, until golden brown. Remove to a rack to cool.