Sunday, January 31, 2010

Celebrating Another Birthday

Unlike we adults who often dread the anniversary of our birth, all of that dread and fear is quickly cast aside when watching your beautiful daughter celebrate her 3rd birthday. She's excited and she knows it's something to celebrate.

We started last weekend with her birthday party where the children feasted on grocery store cake with shortening-laced buttercream frosting. In contrast, the parents celebrated with grownup cupcakes doused with swiss meringue buttercream.

And today we made double chocolate cupcakes with white chocolate buttercream to celebrate with her classmates tomorrow at preschool. A triumph!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Grown Up Cupcakes: Pound Cakes with Swiss Meringue Buttercream

Martha Stewart's Cupcakes
Chapter 8: Celebrations
Fresh Flower-Topped Pound Cakes, page 270
Swiss Meringue Buttercream, page 304

Deep within the pages of Martha Stewart's Cupcakes are what, I believe, are some of the best cupcake recipes in existence. Throughout my many years of consuming cupcakes (and adding girth to what should be my small frame) I've come to one conclusion. I, personally, believe a pound cake makes the best cupcake. They're firm, dense and moist, and can withstand a plethora of frostings and toppings.

In preparation for my daughter's 3rd birthday party, I completed a dry run on the "Wish Upon a Starfish" mini cakes last weekend. After making the star cakes on Saturday, I tried 3 separate icing techniques - fondant, candy melts and petit fours icing. I didn't particularly like any one technique, so I axed the idea of mini cakes. Instead, I turned to the local bakery of our grocery store with my tail gently tucked between my legs. Although the lovely lady who helped me didn't seem keen to my personal failure, I was disappointed. But, alas, 3-year olds couldn't care less where the cake came from as long as there's cake.

I also planned to make the Brown Sugar Pound Cakes for the parents but, as usual, changed my mind.

Rather, I chose a simple pound cake recipe and a Swiss Meringue Buttercream. Mind you, I've never made Swiss Meringue Buttercream before and as with most attempts, I put an almost immeasurable amount of pressure on myself to make a perfect recipe. But, really, what makes a perfect recipe?

The pound cakes turned out perfect, with one small concern. The recipe noted a yield of 36 cupcakes but I wound up with 26; quite a difference.

And I learned a really important lesson in making the Swiss Meringue Buttercream. No matter how much you believe you can make substitutions, you really can't. Especially when it comes to the egg whites. I've done this once before and feel certain I won't make the same mistake again. There's a culinary certainty that is no within my memory, and that it is when a recipe calls for egg whites, forget being "easy on yourself" and use REAL egg whites. Your time and patience will thank you later.

And after 2 attempts the Swiss Meringue Buttercream was sublime. Not too sweet but very rich and buttery.

Laced with luscious vanilla bean.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Follow Up to Slow Cooker Week: The Judgment

I've been too busy eating this week to follow up with one important tidbit to Slow Cooker Week. I have, thankfully, spent some time on the eliptical machine actually exerting energy and producing a glistening southern gal glow in an effort to burn off some of the calories. But thankfully only one of the Slow Cooker Week recipes required exertion to burn off the calories. And that was the Macaroni & Cheese.

The Macaroni & Cheese was evil, sinful, rich and luscious all at the same time. Which brings me to this. Remember my premonition that the small elbow-shaped pasta might turn to mush? Thankfully the corkscrew shape I chose didn't get mushy. But, when attempting to re-heat, the Mac & Cheese was likened to wallpaper paste. It wasn't good stuff. Yuck.

This weekend is also a dry run for the mini starfish cakes. After baking 18 cakes, I think we might be safe for the birthday party next weekend. Tomorrow will be the coating dry run. I'm hopeful we all survive.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Slow Cooker Week: The Judgment

Thankfully the frigid temperatures are slowly becoming less frigid and my Crock Pot has done virtually ALL of the cooking this week. I have exerted little to no effort to get dinner on the table all week long. What I'm doing now is trying to figure out exactly how I can repeat this next week without the rest of the household catching on to my lazy cooking habits.

So after testing / trying 4 recipes from the Year of Slow Cooking blog, here's the judgment:

Baked Potato Soup: Lord have mercy.

Get in your car.

Drive your car to the market.

Buy all of the ingredients (if you don't already have them).

Make this immediately.

This was, hands down, some of the best Baked Potato Soup I've ever tasted. In fact, it rivals the Baked Potato Soup at Houston's. While living in Atlanta, I made it a mission to get to Houston's every Wednesday for the Baked Potato Soup and a Grilled Chicken Salad.

I did make a few simple modifications. First, I halved the recipe to not wind up with 18 gallons of Baked Potato Soup (but I might be regretting it now). I replaced the chicken stock with water and chicken bouillon; replaced about 1/2 cup of the water with fat-free half & half. Before gently mashing the potatoes (keeping some texture) I removed about 12 ounces of the cooking liquid. Then added low-fat cream cheese, a heavy splash of fat-free half & half and a little of the cooking liquid.

Taco Soup: Almost too easy, but it was good - not great, but good. (Considering the resident princess ate almost an entire bowl, I think it's safe to say it was good.)

Macaroni & Cheese: Everyone loves macaroni and cheese, right? If you don't, this might change your mind. Of course the resident princess dove right in with both hands. I have to admit, when I threw everything in the Crock Pot I was a little skeptical. Anticipating a slight disaster due to the cooking time, I used a larger shaped pasta (corkscrews) so the pasta wouldn't turn to mush. I think the strategy paid off. I think. Maybe. Regardless, it was mmm-mmm-good.

And last, but not least...

Brown Sugar Chicken: All I have to say, is don't waste your time, electricity, or the chicken. Edible but not all that.

All in all an interesting week of meals. Julia Child would be terribly ashamed of me. I used less than 3 Tablespoons of butter this week. I'm so ashamed.

Next project: Planning the "Wish Upon a Starfish" mini cakes (complete with Ariel or "fish" theme) I'm making next weekend. The resident princess has a birthday party and I'm disappointed to not have found an over-the-top, extraordinary cake. And no cupcakes this year. All kids get a decorated mini cake and the parents get Brown Sugar Pound Cakes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Antithesis of MtAoFC

Perhaps it's the frigid temperatures and the fact that we've had snow on the ground for more than 72 hours, but I'm feeling lazy and just shy of wanting to hibernate for the next 3 months. Since that's not a possibility and I still need to feed my family, I thought I'd let someone else do the cooking. My Crock Pot.

Poor Julia could, in fact, be shouting in the heavens to hear that anyone would ever use such a cooking appliance. But, for me - the working wife and mother - it's something that lightens the time-consuming pressure of getting a healthy meal on the table before midnight. I'll be sure to pay the proper homage to Julia by using mass quantities of butter.

So this week we're trying 4 slow cooker recipes found from the Year of Slow Cooking blog (now in the printed form of a cookbook):

Baked Potato Soup (reducing the calories by using low-fat cream cheese and 2% milk, along with a heavy, heavy splash of fat-free half & half)
Taco Soup
Macaroni & Cheese
Brown Sugar Chicken (creative way to get chicken / protein into a toddler)

Tonight we kicked off the "Week of the Crock Pot" with the Macaroni & Cheese. It was ooey, gooey and creamy. Approved by all, this will defintely find it's way back into our Crock Pot soon.

And then there was the vegetable - Braised Cucumbers. (Yes, the same braised cucumbers mentioned in "Julie & Julia".) I just couldn't help myself in wanting to try braising a cucumber. In short, the texture of the cucmber becomes slightly more firm, along with the richness of the butter, and takes on almost an artichoke heart texture. I used an English cucumber (also known as a Hot House cucumber) since the skin is thinner and there are less seeds. The entire family loved the cucumbers.

And speaking of braising, there are two whole artichokes in my fridge who will be gently and carefully braised this week and soon after, meet a velvety Hollandaise sauce. What a pair!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Simple Cinnamon Rolls

Tradition is important in the Tyson house and Saturday mornings are especially important. The resident princess enjoys cinnamon rolls [of the Pillsbury variety] every Saturday morning. It's part of her routine - her ritual - and she knows when it's Saturday. And she expects her cinnamon rolls.

So what happens when you've had sub-zero (seemingly) temperatures for several days and a very limited, virtually non-existent ability to get down your driveway to the grocery store for cinnamon rolls? I'll tell you what happens... panic, anxiety and fear that Saturday will be dreadful and painful once the resident princess learns that there are no cinnamon rolls in the house.

But then it hits you. Ah ha! There are crescent rolls in the fridge. So after a few minutes of consideration, I, along with the resident princess, made our way to the kitchen to make cinnamon rolls with crescent roll dough.

It was simple. We mixed together some cinnamon and sugar. I separated the crescent roll dough into a total of 2 pieces (4 triangles each). We lightly rolled the dough to seal all of the seams making one piece of dough. Next we sprinkled a generous amount of the cinnamon sugar over the dough, rolled it up, and cut into 6 pieces. We repeated the same process with the 2nd piece of dough. We ended up with 12 cinnamon rolls that were cute and petite. We mixed up a simple icing of confectioners sugar, milk and a splash of vanilla extract.

Princess approved and devoured.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Chocolate Croissants

If you think I've gone to all the trouble of spending 12 hours of mixing and kneading and resting and rising and shaping to make Julia's croissants (and add some sinful chocolate), well, you would be wrong. While I'm still planning to someday soon tackle the challenge, today just wasn't that day. Today was busy with other exciting events.

The last few days have been filled with cold weather and snow; something we don't normally get here in the south. When the temperatures dip below 30ish degrees, our heaters can't adequately heat our homes (because they're heat pumps). Perhaps that's why there's such good whiskey made here in the south, like Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve (Tyson house favorites), Maker's Mark and Jim Beam. (Come to think of it, maybe that's why those mountain folk make moonshine - to stay warm.) Did you also know there's such a thing as the American Whiskey Trail, a Kentucky Bourbon Festival (held every September) and the United States Congress officially recognizes bourbon as a "distinctive product of the United States"? Here endeth the lesson for the day.

These chocolate croissants were simple to make. One package of crescent roll dough and 80 (yes, exactly 80) semi-sweet chocolate chips.

A warm and sweet treat on an otherwise very cold evening.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Brown Sugar Pound Cupcakes with Brown-Butter Icing

Martha Stewart's Cupcakes
Chapter 2: Dipped and Glazed
Brown Sugar Pound Cakes, page 60
Brown-Butter Icing, page 314

One of the great Christmas gifts I received was Martha Stewart's Cupcakes, from my dear mother.

The same mother who taught me a fond and genuine appreciation of cooking. She was always patient, supportive and humble in teaching me to cook. If it weren't for her, I would have never acquired the foundation of knowing how to cook. From the simple to complex, she taught me.

I read Cupcakes cover to cover over the course of a few hours on Christmas morning. One particular cupcake immediately jumped off the pages into my brain - Brown Sugar Pound Cakes with Brown-Butter Icing.

Made exclusively with brown sugar and buttermilk (a triumph when it comes to cupcakes), these are slightly dense, like a pound cake. And although Martha's recipe indicated a yield of 28 cupcakes, I came out with 24. (It's possible I filled the cupcake liners with a scant more than the 3/4 full called for in the recipe.)

And while the cupcakes were baking, I learned another valuable life lesson. The kind of life lesson you learn the first time your heart is broken; you never forget. I have 2 cupcake / muffin pans - one non-stick; one not non-stick. This creates uneven cooking temperatures and cooking times. So, I'll need to remedy this before the next batch. But they turned out beautifully (unless you look hard and see what was the bubbled up goo of a few cupcakes in the not non-stick pan).

And then there was the icing, which is what, to me, cupcakes are all about. Well, sort of. It begins with butter, which instantly means it's going to be fabulous. You can never go wrong with butter. Butter makes everything better. Butter is the life blood of cooking and the life blood of my soul. I love butter. And did you know, I really - I mean, REALLY - love butter. I'm still waiting for someone to tell me to rub it on my thighs and they'll magically shrink into supermodel size. Yes, I'm still waiting.

The Brown-Butter icing is heavenly and just enough to elevate the sweetness without making the cupcake too sweet. The cupcake itself has a caramel essence brought by the brown sugar and is slightly heavy like a pound cake should be. And the nuttiness of the Brown-Butter icing is yet another element of flavor. Delicious!

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Morning After

Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Chapter Three: Eggs
Poached Eggs

How to poach eggs, page 117

Thankfully, we rang in the New Year in relative peace and quiet. That is, if you don't count the belly-aching laughter that filled our family room during an impromptu karaoke duet challenge with friends.

I can now say the very first thing I made on New Year's Day is poached eggs (if you don't count doing a quick soak on the black eyed peas). Over the last few days I've found myself constantly trying to find a way to make something within the pages of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and poached eggs seemed only fitting for breakfast. Although I was the only one who partook, that made the job less work and troublesome. You see, I was terrified of what would happen once the egg met the pan of simmering water.

But in following directions, I prepared everything as instructed - a pan of simmering water with a Tablespoon of vinegar per quart of water; a wooden spoon; a strainer / skimmer (I used a fish spatula); a bowl of cold water; and a paper towel.

Turns out, poaching an egg is very simple. But with all considered, failure could easily be met. And with this exercise, I discovered a few things. One, "simmering" is a relative term; it's all in how you interpret "simmering". Is it a very low, slow boil, or is it simply a heavy steam? Two, I learned that after poaching one egg, the second egg cooked far quicker than the first. I also found myself leaning over the saucepan like a hovering mother.

What resulted was delicious, creamy poached eggs.

The first egg was a good result.

But the second was better.

Poaching eggs made me think of making crepes. The first one is usually the dud.