Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Engagement Limoncello

Back in April my parents called to drop some less than subtle hints that my sister would be getting engaged before the weekend was over. Naturally, I was too excited for her to contain my craftiness and immediately started racking my brain for the perfect engagement gift for a couple who have no space left in their tiny city apartment. Food and booze are always safe bets, and a recent article in the Real Simple had me craving limoncello. I did a little research and found that lots of bloggers have tried their hand at homemade limoncello, the most impressive of which was Limoncello Quest written by someone who has turned making limoncello into a science. I quickly learned that it would take a while, so I developed a plan to start it the day my future brother-in-law popped the question and give it to the happy couple at the imminent engagement party.
Since a big bag of lemons will barely set you back a dollar where I live, and grain alcohol isn’t exactly known for its price tag I didn’t hesitate to run out, get my supplies, and start zesting lemons like a woman on a mission. One 750ml bottle of grain alcohol and a few hours later the kitchen smelled wonderful and I had two half filled fishbowl sized jars of lemon zest and cheap booze. I locked the limoncello to-be in my garage so I wouldn’t think about it and even loaded it into the back seat of my car when I moved to my new place.
My intent for this to be a surprise quickly fell apart when I, after one too many beers, excitedly told my sister about my adventures in limoncello, but the ball was already rolling, so I just decided to continue on with the plan. The engagement party was still in its planning infancy and no dates had been set, so I rushed my limoncello along to be sure it would be ready in time for the celebration. Just over a month after I started the zest soaking I mixed up my simple syrup (5 cups water and 4 cups white sugar) on the stove, let it cool, and added it to my great big glass jugs. With an impatient sigh I tucked the now full jugs back under the sink (their new home after the move).
When I got back from my road trip with my mom in late July I pulled the limoncello out again. Using a tiny strainer and funnel (I tried the coffee filter like most blogs suggest and I just ended up with a sticky counter) I strained the zest out of the mixture and poured it into some very cool sealing glass bottles I found at IKEA for a couple of bucks a piece. This, I have to say, was the most rewarding part of the process. Suddenly I went from having big jugs of pulpy everclear under my skin to having swanky bottles of Italian liqueur. Without even tasting it (this took serious willpower) I put the bottles away for it to mellow. About 2 weeks prior to the party my sister and her finance settled on a monogram for the wedding, and to add a finishing touch to the gift I etched it on the side of each bottle.

When they popped the first bottles at the engagement party I was surprised by how sweet it had turned out. My brother and his girlfriend who have just returned home from a month in Italy said the limoncello there tasted a lot more like booze. Mixed with club soda it was refreshing (and a nice change from the delicious hoppy beer we had been drinking all afternoon). Luckily there wasn't a bottle of vodka out on the table to mix it with or I probably wouldn't remember the evening, but next time I have a get together the extra bottle still sitting under my sink might just turn into a mixer. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

And this is why we test recipes

When I told people that I was going to do more baking today, despite the 103 degree weather because I just wasn't sure that the cupcakes I had tried out for the engagement party were perfect I was met with mockery. Why would you need to test a recipe? It's cake, they'll taste fine. Well, scoff all you want, I test recipes, and here's why:
I have been eyeing a recipe for dulce de leche cupcakes for weeks now. It seemed like the perfect way to tie in a bit of Mexican flair to a gourmet cupcake, and I thought they might just be the right dessert for the our upcoming backyard engagement fiesta. A fellow messmaker, Amy, posted a recipe for  dulce de leche cupcakes and frosting on her blog Playing House that I thought might be just the ticket.

Dulce de Leche Cupcakes 
makes 12

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup milk

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a standard 12-cup muffin pan or insert paper liners.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the sugars and butter. Add the eggs and vanilla until combined. Alternate the flour mixture with the milk until you get a smooth batter. Spoon into the muffin pan wells equally, about 2/3 full.
4. Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until a testter comes out clean. Cool completely before frosting.

Downsized and adapted the frosting recipe as follows

Dulce de Leche Buttercream

1/2 cup butter
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup dulce de leche

Cream the butter and sugar. Incorporate vanilla and dulce de leche. Frost cooled cupcakes. 

The cupcakes came together as expected, but they have that distinctive corn-bread like taste that so many "scratch" cakes have. I have tried multiple times to feed cake made from scratch to the high schoolers I work with and they will have no part in it.
My future brother-in-law pointed out to me once that there was probably a time when people ate enough cake from scratch that they could differentiate between homemade cake, homemade corn bread, and homemade brownies, but now that we know what cake from a box tastes like, flour, sugar, and oil mixed together always tastes the same. It's really a shame.
I was disappointed in my cornbread cupcakes, but comforted myself with the idea that frosting would make all the difference! At first the frosting looked promising. It came together just right and the texture was perfect. But, by the time I got it into a pastry bag to pipe it the inevitable happened. The buttercream broke. What was once light fluffy golden frosting turned into a curdled mess and the dulce de leche started separating from the mixture. This could be due in part to the fact that my kitchen is a little like an oven this afternoon due the the oven heat and the sun pouring in. It is certainly over the 78 degrees at which buttercream gives up. So, I piped as quickly as I could, threw the cupcakes in the fridge and moved onto my next activity (cleaning up the brown sticky sauce that somehow coated a good portion of my kitchen during this process). Now I hadn't anticipated that the buttercream would magically go back together in the fridge (I learned last summer that is simply not the way that buttercream works), but I did not anticipate the mess I ended up with. The dulce de leche had continued to pour out of the broken frosting and the cupcakes looked like they had been slimed, not piped.

Luckily it's volleyball Monday, and after a few hours of volleyball and a few beers I'm sure I'll be able to pawn off these sticky little messes on someone. And on the bright side, I'm sure the dulce de leche will soak into the cupcakes and make them taste delicious! But, now I know that this is NOT a recipe to try again in front of a lot of new family on a hot August afternoon.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

August Cupcakes: Tasting the bubbly

With my sister’s engagement party rapidly approaching it is time to decide exactly what kind of cupcakes I’ll be baking to help commemorate the day. The theme is becoming increasingly fiesta-like as my mom lines up the menu with carnitas, salsas, and Don Julio so I feel obliged to make a Mexican-ish cupcake. But I already did that once this summer, and I wanted so badly to try something new to celebrate. 
All the ladies in my family love a good glass (or bottle) of champagne, and what better way to celebrate an engagement than with a little bubbly? With a little nudging from an fellow crafter I decided to test out one of the exciting recipes from The Boozy Baker, a wonderful cookbook that belongs on the bookshelf of any lush who likes dessert. We adapted the Champange Cake recipe a little to suit cupcakes and switched out the frosting because it is simply to hot to make a buttercream this time of year. All the whipping and folding proved to be a lot of work, but the results were well worth it (not to mention someone had to finish off that bottle of Cook’s…)

Champagne Cupcakes

10 tbsp butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup white flour
1 cup cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2/3 cup champagne
5 egg whites

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat butter and sugar together in an electric mixer for about 2 minutes or until butter is fluffy. Slowly add flour, baking powder, salt, and champagne. Mix well. Move batter to a clean large bowl and wash out the bowl for your mixer. Separate eggs into mixer bowl and beat on high speed until stiff peaks form. Gently fold egg whites into batter. Fill 24 lined cupcake tins about 2/3 of the way full. Bake 12-15 minutes. Cool completely on wire racks.

Strawberry Whipped Cream

1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tbsp white sugar
5 strawberries, cleaned and sliced

In a blender on high speed make strawberries into a puree. In a clean mixing bowl beat whipping cream until thick, adding sugar slowly. Add strawberry puree and whip just long enough to incorporate entirely.

I didn't have my piping bags with me because I was baking at a friend's house, so I tried my best to pipe the cupcakes with a ziploc bag. They didn't turn out perfect, but a slice of strawberry on top hid a lot of problems. All in all the cupcakes turned out tasting wonderful. They were light and spongy and had just a little unexpected tang to them. They aren't exactly the ideal food for a fiesta, but they're certainly a contender for next Saturday's dessert.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Wanna Manapua?

Last summer I went to Hawaii with some friends from college and was introduced to manapua. The minute I bit into this meat-filled steamed doughy masterpiece I knew I had to learn how to make them. But, school started and things got busy and I forgot all about my new favorite snack. When the thermometer hit 103 a few days ago I knew I couldn't run the oven but I had an inkling to make some bread. Obviously, it was manapua time. I did a little research online about how to make what is essentially Hawaiian style dim sum bao and decided, as usual, that the only way to learn was trial-by-fire. I didn't have any char-siu or any taro (my two favorite manapua fillings) so I decided to make do with what was in the fridge (canned pumpkin and a block of tofu) and this is what I came up with:

Manapua Dough
makes 24 smallish bao

1 packet dry active yeast
3 tbsp lukewarm water
2 cups lukewarm water
1 tbsp canola oil
.25 cup granulated sugar
.75 tsp salt
6 cups white flour

Sprinkle 3 tbsp water over the yeast and allow to soften. Add remaining water, sugar, oil, and salt.
Put all 6 cups of flour in a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment. With mixer on low speed slowly incorporate water mixture to flour. It will be wet. Leave the mixer to knead the dough for about 6 minutes or until the dough is soft.
Remove from bowl. Wash bowl and spray with non-stick spray. Place dough back in bowl and turn to cover with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and place somewhere warm for one hour (dough should double in size). At this point some dough recipes say you should put it in the fridge for another 3-6 hours for the flavor to develop. I skipped this step but I would HIGHLY recommend doing it. There is a certain "sourness" that is just missing from my dough, and I know exactly why.
While the dough is rising prepare your filling. One option is to run to the chinese take-out place on the corner and get char-siu. Another piece of prep work you'll want to do while your dough rises is cut your waxed paper squares. Most websites fail to mention this very important step and you will have a sticky mess on your hands if you don't do it! Cut 24 squares of parchment or waxed paper about 3 inches by 3 inches. If you're short on paper make the squares smaller, but the idea is for each boa to fit on the square without much hanging over the edge.
Punch down dough and separate into 24 evenly sized balls. Each ball will be about the size of a plum. Letting the balls rest at least 5 minutes before continuing will make the next step a lot less messy. 

Tofu "Char Siu"
makes filling for 12 smallish bao.

12 oz extra firm silken tofu
1 tbsp Kikkoman Lite Soy Sauce
1 tbsp Nakano Seasoned Rice Vinegar
1 tsp Hoisin Sauce
.5 tsp Madhava 100% Pure Agave Nectar Light
.5 tsp black pepper, black
.5 tsp ground ginger
.5 tsp garlic powder

Slice tofu into 2 inch strips and let sit between layers of paper towel for about 30 minutes to removed excess moisture.
Mix all other ingredients in a pie tin or marinating bag. Add tofu. Allow to marinate at least one hour.

Pumpkin Filling
makes filling for 12 small bao

1 can (15 oz) pumpkin
.25 cup powdered sugar

Mix pumpkin and sugar together over medium heat in a small saucepan. Cook for about 5 minutes or until pumpkin thickens.

Now it's time to fill the manapua. Pick up one ball of dough and flatten it into a 5 inch disk by pulling on the sides. Try to leave the center thick and spread the sides out because when you wrap and seal it you will want the dough on the top to still be as thick as the dough on the bottom.

Cupping the disk in your palm, place a spoonful (aim for about 2 tbsp) of filling in the center of the disk and wrap the dough around the filling to form a dumpling. Pinch the dough together to seal well.  Place the sealed side down on a square of waxed paper.

As you can see, this is going to take a while. If the kitchen is warm you'll want to pop about half of the balls into the fridge to while you fill the first half so that they don't rise out of control, but pull them out when you have a few left of the first batch, so they have few minutes to come back to room temperature before you start flattening them.
If you are making more than one type you'll want to mark them with food coloring to differentiate them once they're cooked. DO NOT put a whole drop of food coloring on each one, it will make a mess. Try putting a drop of food coloring on a piece of leftover plastic wrap and dabbing each manapua with the plastic. It doesn't make a perfect dot, but it's fast and easy. I used yellow for pumpkin and green for tofu.
Make sure the bao have rested for at least 20 minutes before you start steaming. If you work as slowly as I do that won't be a problem. If your kitchen is warm put the prepared boa in the fridge while you steam and only have as many as you can steam in one"batch" out at a time. This isn't essential, but it's a good idea. The 20 minutes of resting allows the dough to rise once more. They wont change a lot, but I decided to document the change just to prove something was actually happening.

Place a bamboo steamer in a large pot with a lid. Fill about 3/4 inch of water at the bottom of the pot and place over low heat. When the water begins to boil you can put in your first batch of manapua. The bao will expand a little more while they cook, so be mindful of how close together you are packing them. My steamer is just a little fellow, so I could only cook one in each level at a time.
Steam each batch for 10-15 minutes with the lid on the pot, being mindful to check and make sure there is still a little water left in bottom of the pot as you start each batch.
Since this recipe makes 24 bao, two at a time took all day and I would be eating them for a month. So, I waited for them to cool and wrapped each one in plastic wrap then froze them. To reheat just wrap the manapua in a damp paper towel and microwave for a minute (just like tamales).
 Here are a couple of the finished product. You can see that the bottom one (tofu) doesn't have the right amount of dough on the top and sides. That's what happens when you don't leave the center thick  and only spread the edges of your disk. On this one, it might be partly that the dough ball had risen too much before I made it into a disk, so it didn't have a chance to rise much more after it was filled.
I was curious about just what I was eating (I have to fit into my jeans again by fall, so I'm trying not to overdo it on the bread these days) so I calculated the nutrition content for these little guys. Not bad at all if I do say so myself:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In Germany only monkeys and children eat with their hands

A good friend of mine from school asked me to come talk to group of high-school aged German exchange students about American culture. He knows I have a soft-spot for exchange students and love an opportunity to be a ham. Given the option to talk to a captive audience about anything I wanted, as long as it was American I excitedly starting putting together a powerpoint about American food culture.
I've read enough of those books about what we should eat, watched enough Hell's Kitchen, and browsed enough cookbooks and foodblogs to know enough about food culture to talk for an hour without much trouble, but knowing that I was following a magician who came to talk the week before I felt obligated to do something to prove to these kids that I was cool too, and what better way to win over teenagers than with food.
My first hand experience with Germans taught me that while we do share a fondness for french fries, one thing Germans don't understand is the American tendency to make anything a finger food. How better to demonstrate that than with a cake they would have no choice but to eat with their hands? I asked a couple of friends what cupcake was most "American" and the response was clear: funfetti. After talking about how American food culture is centered around pre-prepared and pre-packaged foods I couldn't very well serve them cupcakes made from scratch, although I really wanted to scratch that "try something new" itch that comes around from time to time. And if I couldn't make cupcakes out of all real ingredients, I decided I may as well try something I'd heard about before but had never done. Cupcakes out of no real ingredients.
All of the "diet baking" sites online share one recipe in common: diet soda cake. The ingredients are simple:
1 box of cake mix
1 diet soda
Bake like the box tells you.  

Since I was using funfetti cake I used Diet 7up and was pleasantly surprised by the results. Although the cupcakes were a little sweeter than I would have liked, they were moist and came out of their wrappers easily. I decorated them in the most American manner I could think of, which was vanilla frosting and sprinkles on half and a patriotic red, white, and blue frost job on the other half. All in all the kids seemed to enjoy them, despite the fact that they had to handle their cakes to eat them.

The mess that took a month: 25 fair maidens

You probably though I had been goofing off for 2 months, not getting a thing done because it's summer. Well, you are only partially right. I did spend a few weeks on the road with my mom traveling to Mt. Rushmore, but about a month before I got on the road I got a phone call from my aunt that spiraled into what proved to be the biggest mess of the year (comparable to the wedding cake fiasco of 2009).
She directs plays for the Humboldt Light Opera Company and was trying to get the costumes together for this summers production of The Pirates of Penzance. All the girls in the chorus line needed two costumes, one for each act, and as one of the Companies few connections near the LA garment district I called in to make the Act II costumes for 25 maidens.

With samples in hand I headed off into the very dirty streets of the garment district to seek out fabric for the project. My poor Toyota Echo made the drive home with a bolt of fabric hanging out of each window and a trunk full of ribbon and lace. I adapted an old top pattern that I had made in clothing class back in the 11th grade to have lace and pintucks down the front, and hacked up a pajama pattern to make the bloomers, and pretty soon I was color coding a spreadsheet to make 25 pairs of bloomers and 25 tops for girls of every shape and size.
My little apartment looked like a sweat shop as I cut out 50 garments, all labeled with sizes and names for custom fit. There were needles and pins and white thread covering every surface that wasn't stacked high with piles labeled things like "size L for short girls, need lace, pintucks done."
With the help of my fantastic mother when it came down to the line, I managed to get all the machine work done before hitting the road for our camping trip. I was driving across the Salt Flats in Utah sewing bows on each pair of pants by hand. I mailed the huge box of underware from Casper, WY and hoped for the best.
Two weeks ago the show opened, and I was forced to Facebook stalk my cousin's friends to find a few photos of my handywork so I could prove that I have been doing something all this time. I have to say, I'm glad I didn't have to wear this in front of a crowd!