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Archive for January, 2007

a cuppa joe

if necessity is the mother of invention, then it goes without saying that laziness is the mother of shortcuts. i was invited to a housewarming party on sunday, and i had promised early on to bring a batch of cupcakes. by friday, i still hadn’t decided what kind i would make. then saturday rolled around, but i was out in the snow all day. by the time i got home, i was too pooped to do anything. on the other hand, i was stressing myself out trying to think of what i could whip up this time, without having to go to the store. stressing, you see, because people now have high expectations. “a-ha! i’ll make coffee cupcakes!” i had everything i needed at home. great, time for bed. the next day, a couple of hours before the party, i started gathering all my ingredients together: instant coffee, flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk…OH NO, i have NO milk left in the fridge! should i make a run to the grocery store? as i began to fret over the thought of making a trip to the store just for milk, i remembered that i had some left-over packets of dried milk that i bought for making hot chocolate mix. i can already hear you say, “eww…powdered milk?? that nasty stuff that doesn’t even taste like the real thing and has that weird sweet smell of warmed milk?” hey, when i’m in a pinch, i’m all about the shortcuts. besides, it was an excuse for me to conduct a dried milk experiment!

to make the dried milk creamier, i decided to use half the volume of water required for reconstitution. this was for both the cake and the frosting. for the cake, i chose to make a marble of chocolate/coffee and white cake, to get the look that coffee gets when hot, steamed milk is added to it. i included chocolate in the cake solely for its coloring, but if i were to do this again, i would add more to the batter so that the flavors really stand out. since the taste of coffee in the cake was ever so subtle, i would also consider adding more coffee.

these cupcakes came complete with a noticeable sugar and caffeine high, a bonus for seattleites, who consume coffee as if it were water (seriously, at least for some of the people i know).

and now, for the Cupcake Quote of the Day: “the espresso beans…they crunch like pop rocks in your molars.”

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Cuppa Joe Cupcakes
24 regular cupcakes / 350 degree oven

chocolate/coffee:
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
*1-1/2 cups concentrated dried milk (i used 1/2 the volume of water), plus a heaping tbsp of folgers instant coffee mixed in (can anyone tell me if “instant espresso powder” is just a euphemism for “instant coffee”?
1/2 cup (2 sticks) butter
2 tsp vanilla
2 eggs

1. Measure out everything but the eggs directly into your mixer bowl.
2. Mix on low speed just until incorporated.
3. Beat on high speed for 2 minutes.
4. Add eggs, beat on high speed again for 2 minutes.

white:
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
*1-1/2 cups concentrated dried milk (i used 1/2 the volume of water)
1/2 cup (2 sticks) butter
2 tsp vanilla
2 eggs

1. Measure out everything but the eggs directly into your mixer bowl.
2. Mix on low speed just until incorporated.
3. Beat on high speed for 2 minutes.
4. Add eggs, beat on high speed again for 2 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the two batters and create swirls by mixing lightly.

Fill lined cupcake tins 3/4 full. Bake for about 15-20 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool slightly in the pan then transfer to a rack to cool completely before frosting.

Coffee Buttercream

3 sticks butter, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
3-1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
*1/4 cup milk, plus 2 heaping tbsp instant coffee mixed in — i think the powdered milk altered the consistency of the buttercream a bit, possibly due to the emulsifiers in it.

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter, vanilla and salt until light, about 2 minutes. Add confectioners’ sugar alternately with coffee/milk mixture until the mixture is creamy and smooth, beating well after each addition.

*I would still recommend using real milk if you have it.

Assembly

Using a large closed star tip, pipe buttercream onto cupcakes. Top each cupcake with a couple of espresso beans.

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maybe i was inspired by seattle’s recent weather. this past week, snowfall hit the majority of western washington, leaving it covered in a white blanket of snow. even though the sun has been out, below freezing temperatures have kept the snow from melting completely, resulting in treacherous road conditions…i’ve slipped and fallen. twice!

my fingers nearly froze off as i carried these lemon coconut cupcakes into lab yesterday. but it was worth it just to see my labmates bite into the cupcakes, savoring them mouthful by mouthful. one labmate in particular is always extremely effusive in his compliments. it was so funny listening to him this time, because he also had his eyes closed and head thrown back, like he was in a trance or something. he gave me his review of the cupcakes: “i love how it’s tumbled in frosting and coconut…and there’s a generous amount of frosting but it’s not too much, because it’s light. the tanginess of the frosting also contrasts well its sweetness, and the crunch of the coconut adds a great touch.” i told him he sounded so much like a professional food critic that i had to quote him on that.

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[this last experience of cupcake baking and picture-taking has also left me in want of a better camera — a digital SLR, to be more specific. i’ve gotten so annoyed with the limitations of a point-and-shoot. with the point-and-shoot, there’s bracketing for exposure time, but i can’t manually focus on a chosen area or adjust the aperture to create more depth in my photos. i want a camera that’s capable of taking high quality pictures, but i just can’t justify buying myself another camera; my parents bought me a manual SLR for my birthday only a few years ago. (i insisted then that i would never be in need of a digital SLR, and that i would have much more fun processing prints on my own.) i’m still debating…but if and when i do get a new camera, i’ll keep it a secret at first. then you can tell me whether or not you see a difference. i’m certain that it will make a huge difference.]

Lemon Cupcakes
24 regular cupcakes / 350 degree oven

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 large lemon)
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1. Beat butter on high until soft, about 30 seconds.
2. Add sugar. Beat on medium-high until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
3. Add eggs one at a time, beat for 30 seconds between each.
4. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a bowl.
5. Measure out milk, buttermilk and juice/zest together.
6. Add about a fourth of the flour to the butter/sugar mixture and beat to combine.
7. Add about one third the milk/lemon juice mixture and beat until combined.
8. Repeat above, alternating flour and milk and ending with the flour mixture.
9. Scoop into cupcake papers about three-quarters full.
10. Bake for 22-25 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean.

Lemon Buttercream

1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
3-1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup milk
remaining juice from lemon

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter, vanilla and salt until light, about 2 minutes. Add confectioners’ sugar alternately with milk until the mixture is creamy and smooth, beating well after each addition. Beat in the lemon juice and add a drop of yellow gel food coloring.

Assembly

Spread frosting onto tops of each cupcake. Holding them upside-down, top each frosted cupcake with coconut by gently rolling them in a plate of shredded coconut. Gently, because the the frosting is delicate and you don’t want it deformed.

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cacao beans (lifted from scharffenberger.com)

i may not be a chocolate expert, nor do i obsess over chocolate as some people do, but i do enjoy eating it — mostly in the form of chocolate chip cookies (which i often crave), cakes, hot cocoa, ice cream, and candy bars (especially the ones that contain caramel).

visiting the Scharffen Berger chocolate factory over christmas break, however, further developed my appreciation for chocolate. karen, gene and i made the ten minute trek across the bay to berkeley (courtesy of gene’s driving) and met up with my sister at the factory. the tour itself was mostly educational. we literally sat in a classroom-like room, listening to the tour guide talk about the history of chocolate, the history of Scharffen Berger, and some specifics on the fine art of chocolate-making, while we sampled pieces of 70% cacao bittersweet, 62% cacao semisweet, and 41% cacao milk chocolate. after our crash course on chocolate, we donned shower caps and noise-reducing headsets and took a quick walk through the factory, past the various machinery. i won’t even try to elaborate on what each piece of equipment does. you can find all the details on the scharffen berger website. and of course, the free tour ended with a stop at their store, where you can find everything from gift boxes of truffles to baking chocolate with 99% cacao.

although the chocolate factory was nothing close to what Roald Dahl dreamed up for Willy Wonka, there was one unexpected element of delight…and it wasn’t even part of the tour! prior to the tour, i felt the need to relieve my bladder and was directed to use the restroom adjacent to the Scharffen Berger cafe. as i stepped into the bathroom, a chocolate aroma immediately rushed into my nostrils…pretty soon i was breathing chocolate. not a bad way to have your senses overwhelmed. not bad at all, especially in a place where smells are usually less than um…friendly. how very strategic.

and now, a few interesting tidbits i gathered from the visit:
– the current Scharffen Berger factory was formerly a Heinz factory
– as some of you may know, Scharffen Berger was acquired by Hershey’s about a year and a half ago, but was pretty much left untouched so that it can continue producing gourmet chocolate its own way
– last year, Hershey’s also acquired Dagoba, an Oregon company that produces organic chocolate
– cacao beans are actually the seeds of the cacao fruit. the “beans” are allowed to ferment with the flesh of the fruit, which adds complexity to their flavor
– chocolates with different percentages of cacao, say, 70% versus 62%, do not differ only in the amount of cacao solids they contain, but also differ by their distinct blends of cacao beans (for example, Scharffen Berger’s 70% chocolate happens to have a citrus note to it).

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speaking of chocolate, i was reminded of an italian cafe that i went to during christmas break. my grandma, sister, cousin and i were on a “girls’ day out,” and we were walking around the Marina district. it was a perfect sunshine-y afternoon, but it would get chilly every time the breeze picked up, so we decided to warm ourselves up at this cafe on Chestnut street. my grandma had a cappuccino, i had a latte (soy, to be specific – lactose does a number on me), and my sister and cousin both ordered hot chocolate. “why do we have to sit down to expensive coffee?” my grandma asked. “i’ve got the instant stuff at home.” “grandma, this is the real stuff. it’s better! just enjoy it.” “oh, this doesn’t taste that much better,” she sniffed. but secretly, i think she enjoyed it. i love my grandma. :) i can see myself being the same way at her age.
oh yes, i wanted to get to the hot chocolate. the waiter offered the choice of ordering it with a shot of espresso so that you could make your own mocha, which was what leslie and jodi did. it turned out to be more of a dessert rather than a drink. you don’t sip it. you eat it slowly, with a spoon. i tasted a spoonful and discovered that it was literally “hot chocolate,” which was already beginning to thicken as it cooled. leslie and jodi furiously worked their way through their glasses, bit by bit. and as if that weren’t enough, we made the afternoon even more indulgent by picking out little desserts from the cafe’s dessert case. we couldn’t help ourselves…they were just too tempting, and their miniature size offered us an excuse to “sample” a variety of sweets. our favorite turned out to be a pear-shaped mini cake that was fried and soaked in rum. and i mean SOAKED. so good, so good.

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