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Monday, May 6, 2013

Like a Virgin!

I consider myself a relatively good cook, with an emphasis on cook, because as P will tell you I really cannot bake to save my life….or so I thought.

There have been several rather harrowing baking experiences over the years, they have shaken my confidence, bruised my ego, and left a bad taste in more than a few mouths. P shudders at the mention of the apple/sausage/blue cheese Galette I attempted a few months ago; imagine a stinky (putrid really), tooth-chippingly hard pastry that more closely resembled an infected boil than anything edible. I think the issue stems from my aversion to measuring, or following a recipe at all, two things that are essentially make-or-break when it comes to baking. So, in general, I tend avoid this realm of the culinary world at all costs.

Now P always impresses with his endeavors as a baker, every Autumn he makes the most delightful Pumpkin Bran muffins I’ve ever had, he just seems to really have a knack for it. I defer to him, or a retail outlet, anytime we need to serve a dessert or crave baked goods...that is until this past weekend.

Saturday, we were slated to attend the birthday celebration of one of our closest friends in DC. P was working all weekend, leaving Harry and I to our own devices. I had run out of household chores and grown weary of my half-hearted attempts at in-home exercise, so I figured why not try to make something for our dear friend’s birthday? I didn’t want to scare P with visions of the ‘galette that shall not be named’ so I didn’t share my plans with him. Nor did I want to get anyone’s hopes up considering I might easily be arriving with semi-sweet briquettes, something offensive to the eyes, or nothing at all. So as a self-anointed Virgin Baker, my 1st tip for anyone making their first attempt or considering a return after failure or trauma; Keep it a secret, at least until you know you’re going to deliver something edible.

My virginal trepidation in check, I threw caution to the wind, intent on baking with abandon. Harry watched warily from the sofa, he’s all too familiar with the smoke-filled panic that ensues when I pull out the flour and start up the oven. A quick check in the pantry and a run to Whole Foods, and I was off!

Throughout the process I consulted countless websites, but disclosed my secret to just two souls - my sister, a pastry chef herself, and Erin, our best friend and cookie guru - in order to get late stage advice on batter texture and frosting technique. 2nd  baking tip; leverage your resources, do your research, and get informed, the recipe and measurements actually matter. From my research I gathered what I thought would be the right ratio of dry and wet ingredients, and started thinking about my flavor profile.

P’s favorite cake combo is yellow cake with chocolate frosting. We also share a penchant for salted caramel ANYTHING. I love subtle spice notes in dessert, specifically cardamom. With those preferences in mind, I decided to make Vanilla Cardamom Cupcakes with Chocolate-Salted Caramel frosting.

The batter came together rather easily, despite mixing by hand, I had something cohesive and was only partially covered in flour in only but a few minutes. I will say that butter takes an awful long time to soften after it’s been in the fridge so my 3rd tip; take the butter out early (and avoid using the microwave). I know that seems silly, but it’s crucial for texture and to avoid lag time.

The wet and dry ingredients combined, I was faced with the textural conundrum, is my moisture level correct? My 4th tip, by way of my sister’s advice; judge your finished batter texture based on your recipe’s language. In other words, if the recipe says “pour” into the pan, then make sure your batter is liquid enough to pour. If it says “scoop” into the forms, then make sure it can be scooped. Problem was, I had been consulting recipes that said both. I had no choice, I went with what I had, and decided to bake in two batches, I would add whatever liquid content I might need based on the outcome of the first batch.
With my first set in the oven, I started off with the frosting. My caramel came together with such ease that we have a potentially dangerous coronary situation on our hands in my ability to make large quantities on a whim….whups! The chocolate frosting was another story. I had heard that cocoa powder was the key to the chocolate flavor in frosting. Turns out, the powder I chose lent no discernable chocolate notes, and made the texture grainy. Faced with the possibility of failure, I called in my problem solving skills. Using 2 tablespoons melted butter, and 2 table spoons Glarus “Trinken Schokolade (dark cocoa drinking chocolate mix), and a touch of warm cream, I made an extremely potent and smooth addition to my existing lack luster frosting. The color and flavor were perfect, and I just needed some time in the fridge to counter the additional oil and moisture content and get the texture just right.

Frosting crisis averted, I returned to the oven, to find my first batch rising beautifully in their forms. I was over the moon! There was always the chance that they weren’t going to taste right or the texture was completely off, but at least they looked good.

A few minutes later, the knife came out clean and I took my first bite. SUCCESS! Sweet, spiced, moist, airy, wonderful SUCCESS! I really couldn’t believe it, I nearly group texted my entire family. The top was light and chewy and the body was perfectly cakey, a mid point between angel food and pound cake, PERFECT!

While the second batch baked and the frosting set, I pondered instagramming my process and expressing my joy at success, but I really didn’t want to gloat (a lie) and decided to keep the cupcakes as a surprise for P and eventually our friends in DC.

I timed it perfectly, I was putting the finishing touches on the last cupcake when P walked in the door from work. After the initial panic seeing me standing there, kitchen covered in flour, he made his way cautiously to my side. No sooner had he taken his first finger-tip taste of the frosting, than he was elbow deep in the sink scraping every last bit from the mixing bowl. Assured of my overall success, and on the verge of a diabetic episode, he was happy to wait for the evening to taste the finished product.

Needless to say, the cupcakes were a hit. The only gripe anyone had was that I didn’t bring more (maybe that was the cocktails talking). This leads me to my 5th and final tip for bakers; Take a chance! You will never taste sweet vanilla cardamom salted caramel success without first taking the risk of failure.

Tips for Virgin Baker:

  1. Keep it a secret, do not disclose your baking plans, at least until you know you’re going to deliver something edible.
  2. Leverage your resources, do your research, and get informed, the recipe and measurements actually matter.
  3. Take the butter out early
  4. Judge your finished batter texture based on your recipe’s language (pour vs. scoop).
  5. Take a chance! You can’t taste sweet success without risking failure.

The recipes:

Vanilla Cardamom Cupcakes

  • 3 cups cake flour sifted
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground cardamom (+ more to taste)
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup butter or margarine
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup milk
Makes: About 12 standard cupcakes.
·         Preheat oven to 350°F.
·         Line muffin tray with parchment liner
·         Sift together flour, baking powder, cardamom and salt; set aside.
·         Cream sugar and butter together until light.
·         Add eggs and vanilla to creamed mixture and beat until thoroughly mixed.
·         Add flour mixture to creamed mixture alternately with milk, beating well after each addition. Continue beating one minute.
·         Scoop into prepared tray
·         Bake 25-30 minutes or until knife inserted comes out clean.
·         Cool 10 minutes in tray; remove and cool completely before decorating.

Chocolate Salted Caramel Frosting

  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons dark cocao (+more to taste)
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature (+ 2 table spoons melted and warm)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • Sea Salt for garnish

  • Briefly stir together granulated sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue cooking, without stirring, until mixture turns dark amber in color, about 6 to 7 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and add in cream and vanilla gradually, stirring with a rubber heat resistant spoon until smooth. Set aside until cool to the touch
  • Combine room temp butter and salt in a mixing bowl and beat until fluffy
  •  Add powdered sugar, and mix until completely incorporated.
  • Combine cocoa with warm melted butter, and mix until smooth (you can add warm cream if needed)
  • Add cocoa mixture to butter/sugar bowl and mix until smooth
  • Refrigerate until it reaches desired spreadable texture.
  • Frost cupcakes and top with Sea Salt


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