Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cupcake Dilemma

Next weekend in upstate New York, a very good friend of mine is getting married. She found this wonderful guy after a long and storied single life and she's so happy. She asked me a few weeks ago whether friendships with your girlfriends change when you get married (in this case, to a man). I said that the friendships don't change, but for me at least, the time that I spend with my girlfriends is less than I used to. You have to work at it; but also, if they're true friends, you won't lose them. I had already been thinking about what to do for her because she didn't want any gifts for the wedding, and because I feel kind of sad that I didn't have a "bridal shower" kind of thing before I got married. All of my bridal party were from out of town--very good old friends who I wanted to make sure came to the wedding from places as distant as Ramallah. So I took the opportunity of that conversation to ask her if I could host a party for her with her closest women-friends. I thought she would say no, but she was touched, and after some coaxing, sent me email addresses for her friends--none of whom, surprisingly, I knew.

I co-hosted the evening with another friend of hers, and she suggested coordinating the food to make sure we had enough of everything. I decided I would make cupcakes--partly because I love using the cupcake tree my mother gave me a few years ago for Christmas. I also think people like having their own mini-cakes. As the evening drew nearer, I realized I didn't have a clue about what kind of desserts my friend likes. I know she likes margaritas. I know she likes Mexican and Middle Eastern food, but I had no idea about sweets. So I turned to her friends, and to her fiance. I came up with a list of cupcakes that I've wanted to make for a long time from a book Cupcakes I got for my own wedding. From that list, her fiance chose a rosewater raspberry cupcake, but her friends almost unanimously wrote back and said that my friend loves chocolate. What to do?

Last weekend, D and I went to the country to visit with two couples we love spending time with. After a few bottles of wine, I posed the dilemma: do I make the cupcake chosen by my friend's chosen life partner? A man she's known for a sliver of time compared to the girlfriends--some of whom she's known for more than 25 years? The question served as a platform for a lively discussion among the six of us, all men but for me. They debated back and forth about what the schism meant, and finally one of them suggested that her chosen life partner may know things about her that she doesn't even know yet herself. He may represent a new direction--one that she didn't even know she wanted to take. The argument for the rosewater raspberry was gaining support. But then someone said that I should stay safe with a cupcake that everyone knows she will like--it's her party after all. I decided to compromise and make them both, and see what happens.

It was the right decision. The cupcakes were pretty and yummy. Our guests liked them both, but the chocolate cupcakes that I chose to make were a real hit. At some point in the evening, my friend came over to me and told me how much she loved the chocolate cupcakes. I asked her if she'd tried the rosewater. She wrinkled her nose a little bit and said no, she had to keep it to one because she had a wedding dress to look good in next weekend. So I told her the story. She agreed to try the rosewater cupcakes and the smile on her face after she took a bite was priceless. She said: "I love tart things. [my fiance] knows that." She herself would never have chosen the rosewater, but she liked it a lot.

Finding the ingredients for these two cupcake recipes was a bit of a challenge. Despite thousands--maybe millions--of Mexican bodegas and supermercados in NYC, I couldn't find Mexican chocolate. So I substituted a Dagoba hot chocolate cocoa called Xocolatl and reduced the sugar in the recipe. The rosewater called for sugared rose petals as a decoration, and I thought I'd be too busy this week to make them on my own, so I found them at Kalustyan's in Kip's Bay. Unfortunately, they weren't as pretty as ones I would have made on my own, and next time I won't shy away from the task.

Mexican Chocolate Cupcakes

1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup xocolatl (Mexican drinking chocolate--see above)
3/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup lukewarm water
1/3 cup canola oil
3/4 tsp white vinegar
1/2 cup finely grated semi-sweet chocolate, plus a little extra for garnish
Buttercream frosting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners. Sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, 1 1/2 tsp of cinnamon, and the salt into a bowl. Add the water, oil, and vinegar to the flour mixture, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat until combined. Add the 1/2 cup of chocolate and beat until well combined.

Divide the batter evenly into the paper liners filling to about 3/4 full. Bake until a toothpick is inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean, 24-28 minutes. Let the cupcakes cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to let cool completely before frosting--about one hour.

Frost with buttercream (I used a chocolate buttercream using the xocolatl again) and garnish with grated chocolate.

Rosewater & Raspberry Cupcakes

1 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 confectioner's sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temp
1 tbsp rosewater
2 large eggs, at room temp
1/2 cup milk
Rosewater glaze
12 raspberries
Sugared rose petals

Preheat oven to 350 degrees; line a muffin tin with paper liners.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl, with an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the confectioner's sugar and butter together until light and fluffy--about 2-3 minutes. Add the rosewater and the eggs, one at a time, beating on low speed until combined after each addition. Add the flour in three additions, alternating with the milk in two. Beat on low speed until well combined.

Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups, filling each to about 3/4 full. Bake until lightly golden and a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean, 15-18 minutes. Let the cupcakes cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely for about an hour.

When cooled, spoon a small amount of glaze on each cupcake and garnish with sugared rose petals. Depending on what colors you get with each, you may want to add a raspberry on top. My rose petals were too dark and wouldn't have looked good with the raspberries, so I baked my raspberries into the center of each cupcake. (I did this by filling the muffin cups 1/2 full, pressing a raspberry in the center, and then covering with another dollop of batter).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Favorite. Ice Cream. Ever.

When my close friend and roommate left me eight years ago to move in with his wonderful boyfriend just down the street, he left me a lot of things. His boyfriend was a well-provisioned adult, and I was barely scraping by, so the hand-me-downs were welcome. One of the things he left was an ice cream maker. Every once in a while, I would contemplate the idea of making ice cream but I never did.

Eight years went by and the ice cream maker collected dust. Last year, my husband and I pulled it out and considered selling it at the yard sale my friend and his boyfriend were holding down the street--they were moving to a smaller apartment two neighborhoods away. We didn't sell it; instead, we dusted it off and put it in a new storage place. We vowed to use it soon. We didn't.

Another year went by, but I recently took it out. I experimented first with a simple vanilla ice cream, using some vanilla beans that I foraged in a Mexican market a few years ago. It turned out alright--though a little too fatty for my taste. It was kind of buttery. I served it over a fresh peach pie. My second experiment was with peach ice cream. D had bought a basket of peaches at a roadside green market in Pennsylvania and we couldn't possibly eat them all. This second batch was a little less buttery, but still a bit too creamy for me.

This week I decided to throw myself into the ring all the way and make my favorite ice cream of all time: mint chip. A colleague from work turned me on to a blog by David Lebovitz who writes, among other things, about making ice cream. I printed out the recipe for mint chip and headed to the market. I had no idea how many bunches of mint would make two cups, so I overbought. Then for good measure, I threw a bottle of mint extract in the cart. Instead of heavy cream, I bought light. And instead of whole milk, I bought two percent. In addition to those two ingredient changes, I also added my chopped chips in half-way through the mixing process directly to the ice cream base. I didn't heat it and drizzle as the recipe advised. And, I didn't have to worry about the mint extract, because after the two cups of mint leaves (less than two bunches, it turns out!) had steeped in the milk, I could tell that the flavor would be strong enough. And using light cream and 2% mile made it light and icy, just like I like it.

What is so sublime about this homemade mint chip, though, is the mint flavor. I've never tasted anything like it. To say that it tastes natural is an understatement. I mean, it IS natural. But it actually tastes like being in a garden. Long ago, I forswore mint chip ice cream that had that strange bright green color and only ate Breyer's mint chip. Then Haagen Daaz became the standard. But now? Now I think I'm just going to have to get used to plucking mint leaves to make my own.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Farewell Cookies

Our office is losing a terrific and well-liked attorney on Friday and I baked these cookies as a fond send-off because I can't make it for the traditional send-off drinks on Friday night. I adapted this recipe from one I found on Epicurious. I hope he likes them.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup light wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
10 oz semisweet chocolate chips (or to taste)
3/4 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 375°F. Lightly grease cookie pan. Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl. Beat together butter and sugars in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until pale and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Lightly beat 1 egg with a fork in a small bowl and add 1 3/4 tablespoons of it plus 2 remaining whole eggs to butter mixture, beating with mixer until creamy, about 1 minute. Beat in vanilla. Reduce speed to low and mix in flour mixture until just blended, then stir in chips. Scoop heaping tablespoon of batter for each cookie, arranging mounds an inch or so apart, on 2 baking sheets. Flatten mounds using moistened palm of your hand. Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until golden for 13 to 15 minutes. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool and continue making cookies in same manner using cooled baking sheets.

Monday, September 5, 2011

End of the Line

When he was a kid, D's dad used to bring home 20 porgies at a time after fishing off the party boats in Canarsie. It was a good way for his dad to hang out with his buddies away from the wives and bring home food for his family. Who knows if you can even bring home 20 porgies at a time anymore? We've been eating less and less fish these days because of sustainability and toxicity concerns. We've also been searching for good information about what to eat and what not to eat, like this terrific NPR story that we heard by chance a few months ago about a book called Four Fishes. Tonight, we watched the movie The End of the Line, a documentary about overfishing featuring scientists predicting the extinction of many of the tastiest species. Porgies aren't one of those endangered fish, yet, but all of the experts advise eating less fish and trying to find sources that are committed to sustainable fishing methods.

Local is usually better. With that in mind, D and I trekked to Chelsea Market to get some fish at The Lobster Place after a day at the Highline Park, a park built on an old elevated former freight line (definitely worth a visit). At $4.50 a pound, the porgy--known for its tasty & firm white meat, locally fished, and not on the "Do Not Eat" list--was the fish to pick. We had 2 porgies filleted, and D prepared them for dinner. We garnished the fish with this black salt that we picked up at Williams Sonoma.

Seared Porgy with Corn & Olive Relish

1.5 lb fresh porgy, filleted
salt, pepper, olive oil
6 olives, chopped
one ear of corn, removed from the cob
small red pepper, diced
2 scallions, chopped
2 limes
1/4 stick of butter
splash of white wine

Saute in a cast iron pan the olives, corn, red pepper, and scallions in 1/4 stick of butter. Season with salt and pepper; finish with a splash of white wine and the juice of 2 limes. Season the porgy with salt and pepper and sear, skin side first, then flip to sear the other side. Pop it in the oven to finish. Serve on a bed of relish with some greens on the side (we used broccoli rabe). Enjoy!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Toasting Summer's End

The swift kick we delivered to summer's ass last night was well-deserved: this summer was, weather-wise, the most miserable one from my perspective in memory. Our second annual Kicking Summer to the Curb party featured a new house specialty: watermelon mojitos. Last weekend, D and I went to a wedding reception where the bride's signature drink was watermelon mojitos and we instantly knew that this drink would be the perfect companion to pernil as a toast to the end of summer. Easy to make, these drinks were a delight and they didn't last long.

Watermelon Mojitos

One ripe, good sized watermelon
1 healthy, fresh bunch of mint
10 limes
1 bottle of selzer water
1 big bottle of rum
crushed ice
lively straws

Blend half the watermelon into a liquidy pulp. Smoosh chunks of the other half of the watermelon into the pulp. Mottle together the lime and the mint and add to the watermelon mixture. Add about 1 tbsp of honey and mix thoroughly. Refrigerate to let the flavors marinate a bit. Serve by filling 1/2 of a 9 oz glass with crushed ice. Pour 1/2 to 1 shot of rum onto the ice (depending on how strong you like your drink), fill to within selter's reach of the cup with the watermelon mixture, top with seltzer water for fizz, and stir. If you want to get all fancy about it, garnish with a sprig of mint, a lime, and a slice of watermelon. Enjoy!