Friday, May 21, 2010

Old Fashioned Blueberry Cake

I'm always suspicious of bakeries endorsed as "the best" by celebrities or the general media, and I'm even more suspicious of the subsequent cookbooks published to capitalize on that new-found fame. Case in point: the cupcakes I sampled at Magnolia Bakery, featured in Sex In The City, were some of the driest, blandest cupcakes I've ever eaten, yet everybody raved about them and probably purchased scores of Magnolia Bakery Cookbooks, exacerbating the dry cake epidemic that plagues many bakeries. Thank goodness Sprinkles set the cupcake trend back on track with their moist and fluffy works of cakelet perfection... mmm must try the new salty caramel flavor...

Anyways, when I received the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, with a quote from Gwyneth Paltrow on the front touting their cupcakes as "legendary" and claiming her special occasions are "always chock full of Hummingbird goodies," I was immediately skeptical. How do I know Gwyneth Paltrow is a bona fide foodie with trustworthy taste in cupcakes? And how can Hummingbird's cupcakes be "legendary" when the bakery's owner admits that "cupcakes seem to be unknown in London" (Hummingbird opened in London in '04)? Fishy! Or maybe I'm just hyper-logical... law school will do that to you.

No offense to the Brits out there, but as far as I know, the UK isn't exactly renowned for its culinary prowess. If you want a sticky or steamed pudding, sure, but can a British bakery turn out a moist cake without covering it with custard, dousing it with sugar-syrup, or baking it in a steam bath? Why, yes, in fact it can.

Despite my misgivings, I was seduced by the mouth-watering photographs in the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, and embarked on the Blueberry Cake, pictured with frosting but claiming to be "moist enough to be served without the frosting, if you prefer." I do not prefer frostingless cake, but I demand moist cake! And so I commenced baking. The recipe proceeded a bit oddly, and I've altered the steps for a smoother baking process, but nonethless my cake baked up beautifully- heavy, fragrant, and practically oozing moisture. The frosting recipe likewise proceeded in a strange and backwards manner (Oh those Brits!), but produced a cream cheese frosting so light and fluffy that people proclaimed that it must be made of marshmallows! Not so! The towering, blueberry-bespeckled confection was a sight to behold... But I was unprepared for the first bite...

Perhaps in the UK, people don't consume pounds of sugar every day, and so are accustomed to mild cake. Still slightly warm from the oven, with a crumbly yet moist crumb, the cake at first seemed like a success. As I forked it into my mouth, however, I couldn't help but furrow my brow... it was...somewhat bland, and had an odd baking-powder bitterness like an undercooked pancake. The frosting was spectacular, but I was horrified to serve bland cake. I held my breath and hoped the clouds of frosting would woo my guests into overlooking the cake's pancakish tastelessness. No one complained, but I took the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook and banished it to the back of my bookshelf with a disgruntled shove. But the story doesn't end there...

Although I had vowed not to eat another bite of the disappointing dessert, I succumbed to the sight if its silky frosting and toothsome interior the next morning... and was amazed!!! Overnight, the baking-soda bitterness had dissipated, the cake had softened, and its mild, muffiny flavor paired perfectly with the oh-so-sweet frosting. It was like the cake-fairy had come in the night and magically transformed the ugly cakling into the graceful swan of sweets! I've devoured about half of the cake on my own since that moment, and I'm already planning my next baking adventure from the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook.

While I definitely warmed up to this recipe, I must note that you should be prepared for its unusually mild, almost elegant, not-so-sweet flavor. It's reminiscent of cakes I imagine someone's grandmother might have baked (hence the "old-fashioned" moniker). I recommend baking it the night before you plan to serve it, because the flavor undeniably improved overnight.

Cake Ingredients
3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 3/4 c. sugar
6 eggs
1t. vanilla
3 1/2 c. flour
2T plus 2t. baking powder (make sure it hasn't expired!)
1c. sour cream
3T. whole milk
2 pints fresh blueberries (some will be used for decorating)

Frosting Ingredients
4 2/3 c. powdered sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
8oz cold cream cheese

Prepare the cake:

Preheat the oven to 325. Butter a 10-in ring mold (or angel-food cake pan if you don't have a ring-mold... who has a ring mold??) and lightly dust it with flour. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. Beat in the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the sour cream (starting and ending with the flour mixture). Stir in 1 1/2 pints of blueberries (reserving the other half-pint for decoration). Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake until golden brown. The recipe claimed this would take 40 minutes, but my brand-new, perfectly calibrated oven took an hour to bake this puppy up. Check the cake after 40 minutes, but if it's barely browning, and a knife inserted comes out gooey, put it back in and check every 10 minutes until the knife comes out clean and the cake is golden. Once you're satisfied with the cake's doneness, allow it to cool in the pan for about 15 minutes before turning it out to finish cooling completely on your wire rack, or cake stand. When you're nearly ready to frost the cooled cake, make the frosting.

Note: I edited both the cake and frosting steps for a smoother baking process.

Beat the softened butter and cold cream cheese until fluffy and well-mixed. With the mixer on low, beat in the powder sugar in four additions (you could add it all at once, but a billowing cloud of powdered sugar will surely coat you and your kitchen in a fine layer of sugar-dust). When all of the ingredients have been incorporated, turn the mixer to medium-high and continue beating the frosting until fluffified, at least five minutes (this is where having a stand-mixer comes in handy). According to the book, you should not overbeat the frosting or it will begin to weep, but it should be fine if you stick to the five-minute rule.

Slather the big 'ole cake with gobs of frosting, covering the top, sides, and center with as many thick, rich layers as it can hold. Dot the top with the remaining half-pint of blueberries, and to really gild the lily, garnish the cake with a final sprinkle of powdered sugar. SERVE THE NEXT DAY for maximum deliciousness! Unless you don't mind the flavor of baking powder...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Poppyseed Lemonade Cupcakes

Raise your hand if you suffered through a very long, very painful, calorie-busting hour of "Skinny Jeans" and then promptly donned sweatpants and consumed twice as many calories in cupcake batter and cream cheese frosting as you burned doing squats to Poker Face.  Proof that exercise actually causes weight gain!  Luckily, I think the hedonistic pleasure of stuffing these scrumptious cupcakes into my cheeks more than compensated for my wasted workout.

I normally consider baking from a box to be a form of cheating, but I like to bend the rules when it comes to cake mixes because they make damn good cakes.  And if I doctor the mix, it basically counts as a scratch cake!

These cupcakes were especially satisfying because I made them entirely out of ingredients I had on hand.  An old bag of poppy seeds, the sad little half-package of cream cheese in the fridge, and a redolent lemon that had tumbled into the grass from its perch on the lemon bush combined with pantry staples and a cake mix to make a batch of fluffy, citrusy, springtime treats.  These would be really cute if you topped them with sugared lavender or rose petals, but even I'm not crazy enough to have those on hand! Although, I do have roses in my garden, and the recipe for sugared blossoms committed to memory... but I wanted instant, workout-negating, my-ass-will-hurt-for-the-next-three-days-so-I-deserve-it, gratification.  That's why I love cake mixes!  So easy, so yummy, so EVIL...

Cupcake Ingredients
1 butter recipe golden cake mix (butter recipe is always better because butter is always better)
The things the cake mix tells you to use (probably a stick of butter and two or three eggs - check the box)
1 LARGE lemon (mine was the size of a softball, no joke)
2t. poppy seeds, plus extra for decorating

Frosting Ingredients
4oz cream cheese
1 stick of butter, softened
3c. powdered sugar
1t. vanilla

To make the cupcakes, follow the cake mix directions for preheating the oven, and prepare your muffin tins by either lightly buttering each muffin-well, or filling the tins with cupcake wrappers.  Obviously in my lazy state I went with the latter.  Zest and juice the lemon.  Check to see how much water your cake mix requires.  Pour the lemon juice into a liquid measuring cup, and then add water until you have the amount of liquid specified by the cake mix directions.  In a medium bowl, combine the lemon-water with the cake mix, the other ingredients called for by the mix (e.g., butter and eggs), and the zest of the lemon.  Add the poppy seeds and beat on low speed until thoroughly mixed.  Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for the time specified on the cake mix box (aaah this recipe is such a cop-out... but it's goooood).  The cake is done cooking when a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean.

While the cupcakes bake, make the frosting.  Beat the cream cheese and butter together until light and fluffy.  Add the powdered sugar half a cup at a time (adding it little by little will prevent a cloud of powdered sugar dust from erupting over your kitchen), mixing slowly and thoroughly after each addition.  Mix in the vanilla.

When the cupcakes have cooled completely, frost with the cream cheese frosting, and sprinkle with poppy seeds (or sugar encrusted rose petals...).  Eat cupcakes as needed with a glass of milk to mitigate muscle pain caused by Skinny Jeans workouts.  Doctor's orders.

Not much of a sweet tooth?  Check out Evil Batch's new savory-sister blog, Wicked Lickens, jointly edited by me and my beau.  First up, bacon-salmon sandwiches!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Strawberry Ice Cream

As of late, my poor ice cream maker has languished amongst my random and rarely-used kitchen appliances (fondue pot, pressure cooker, cannoli tubes, giant cast iron dutch oven...).  This was mostly due to the fact that my freezer was stuffed to the brim with God-knows-what (the freezer was full when I moved into my last apartment, but the roommates denied ownership of most the contents... maybe we had our very own freezer time capsule memorializing the diets of the previous owners!).  No freezer space means no space for the absurdly large and heavy ice cream drum that needs to freeze overnight prior to ice-creaming.  So, summers have come and gone over the past three years, sans home-made ice cream.  But I will be ice-creamless no more!

After moving into my spanking-new cottage a few days ago (complete with a big, sparkling clean, EMPTY refrigerator and freezer!!!), homemade ice cream was at the top of my priority list (seriously, as in right after unpacking my ice cream maker, and before unpacking all of my clothing).

I normally opt for non-fruit desserts (mmmmm chocolate....), but now that it's spring (and the strawberries and peaches aren't being shipped from Venezuela or wherever) it's pretty hard to resist the shiny, fat apples, fragrant, fuzzy peaches, and giant jewel strawberries in the produce section.  Hence the strawberry ice cream!  This custard-style recipe contains a lot of fat, which promotes aeration and produces a luscious, creamy (almost fluffy!) ice cream.  The strawberries are finely chopped rather than pureed to lend a pale pink hue and light strawberry flavor to the finished treat, with every mouthful punctuated by vibrant, tangy bits of fruit.

As a bonus, the cooked custard that forms the ice cream base (minus the strawberries) can double as a wonderful creme anglaise - just halve the ingredient quantities, omit the lemon and replace it with 1t. vanilla (or use a the seeds of a vanilla bean if you want to get fancy... and expensive...), and proceed as directed.  Once the creme anglaise has cooled, add chocolate cake!

But I digress... (thoughts of chocolate tend to do that) back to the ice cream!

1 pint fresh strawberries
1T. fresh lemon juice
2 large eggs
1c. sugar
1c. whole milk
2c. heavy whipping cream

If you are using an ice cream maker with a drum that must be frozen in advance, make sure it's frozen!

In a large saucepan, combine the cream, milk, lemon juice, and 1/2c. sugar.  Heat on low until scalded (little bubbles will start to form at the edges, but do NOT let it boil!).  While the cream mixture heats, beat the eggs with 1/4c. sugar until well combined.

When the cream mixture reaches scalding temp., temper the egg mixture.  The eggs must be tempered, i.e., slowly brought up to the temperature of the cream, before they are added or the cold eggs will scramble when they hit the hot cream, and I'm pretty sure scrambled-egg ice cream won't be as delicious as strawberry.  To temper the eggs, whisk them continuously while slowly drizzling in a thin stream of hot cream.  I usually whisk with one hand, and ladle with the other, but you can also enlist a helper to either whisk or ladle.  Keep whisking and ladling until you've added about half the cream mixture to the eggs, and they are hot to the touch.  At this point, you can safely add everything back into the sauce pan, but you're not out of the woods yet!!!  The mixture still needs to be heated until it reaches that velvety, custard consistency.  Keep the heat on low, and stir constantly until the mixture thickens slightly (supposedly this happens around 170, but I only had a meat thermometer and it probably wasn't very accurate in custard so I stopped cooking mine when the thermometer said 160).

It is very, very important to stir constantly, and not leave the custard unattended even for five seconds while you search for your candy/meat thermometer.  It will curdle (i.e. the eggs will scramble).  Don't feel bad if your eggs scramble, but don't bother trying to resuscitate curdled custard.  I promise you it will be disgusting.  Just bite the bullet, and throw the lumpy mess out.  Yes, I did curdle my eggs (thanks to my five-second thermometer hunt), and yes I threw the entire thing down the drain and started over (it might be a good idea to have some extra ingredients on hand if you're a custard newbie).  The second time went smoothly though! (literally, haha). When your custard thickens, remove it from the heat and pour it into a metal bowl.  Cool completely, either by refrigerating, or by placing the metal bowl in a bigger bowl filled with ice and stirring the custard to chill it (this speeds up the cooling process, which otherwise takes about 2 hours).

While the custard chills, remove the stems from the strawberries, and chop finely.  Combine the chopped/crushed berries with the remaining 1/4c. sugar in a small bowl, and refrigerate until the custard is cooled.

When your custard is cold, stir in the berry mixture, and pour the entire mixture into your ice cream maker.  Let the directions for the ice cream maker take you from here! (usually it freezes for about 30 minutes in the ice cream maker, and the resulting ice cream is very soft.  I like to pack it in tupperware, and freeze it again overnight for the familiar, solid texture).

Serve with chocolate sauce (what else? ha.)