Foodie Tuesday: Madame X’s Birthday Cake

Photo: Birthday Cupcakes for Madame XJust a little treat for a friend on the anniversary of her birth. And, since she shares her natal day with my dear brother-in-law, separated at birth by mere decades, I send a virtual cake to him, too, despite the separation of mere thousands of miles. Happy birthday to both!

Malted Buttermilk Cakes with Strawberry-Peach Buttercream
Servings: 24 cupcakes, or [as I made] a dozen + a small sheet cake. Preheat your oven to 350°F/177°C.

The Cakes

Dry goods: Whisk together in a big mixing bowl: 2-3/4 cups all-purpose [optional: GF] flour, 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda, 1-2 teaspoons cardamom, and 2 cups sugar (I used about 1 1/2 cups cane sugar plus 1/2 cup coconut sugar, to deepen the flavor).

Mix 2-3 Tablespoons of malted milk powder into a cup of buttermilk. And if there’s really such a thing as “low fat” buttermilk, please tell me how it can parade around under the first name of Butter. Just get the real deal and cinch up your waistband a little if you have to, okay?

Now, in a fresh mixing bowl or your trusty 1-gallon plastic measuring pitcher, mix the wet ingredients: a good slug of quality vanilla extract, and a splash of butter emulsion if you like, the cup of malted buttermilk you mixed earlier, and four large eggs. When those have been well whisked together, pour them into the dry ingredients, along with 2 sticks (1/2 pound) of your best butter, softened—don’t forget that I’m a believer in well-salted sweets, so I use salted butter (sorry, baking purists. But not really sorry). Whisk just until it’s smooth. This makes a thick batter, but not so thick that it’s the least bit difficult to whisk entirely by hand.

Bake the batter in muffin tins or cake tins that have been well greased (coconut oil is nice) and, if you like a little crunch for added pizzazz, dusted with either almond meal or cornmeal, for about 20-25 minutes. Cool for another 15 minutes or so, gently remove the cakes from their pans (unless, as I am, you’re going to take the cake tin right along to your friend’s house), and let it finish cooling before getting all frosty on ’em.Photo: Tutti-frutti Icing

The Icing on this here Cake:

Pop a batch of freeze-dried peach (about 2 oz) and strawberry slices (about 1 oz), along with a cup or so of granulated or icing sugar, a tiny pinch of salt, and a teaspoon of cardamom into your food processor. If you don’t have such a beast in your kitchen, you can crush these little fruity beauties with a rolling pin or bottle, a full tin of beans, a rock, or your hands, depending on your mood and tool availability, but boy howdy, the processor makes quick and thorough work of it! I don’t recommend inhaling deeply as you open the processor or bag you pulverize this mixture in, or you’ll be sneezing fruit for a week, and that can put a damper on your next brunch with the queen. No, I didn’t realize I could buy freeze-dried fruit already powdered. Once the dust has settled sufficiently, however, home crushed works fine; blend this gloriousness into another half pound of butter, along with about a quarter cup of whole-milk plain yogurt. The ingredients of the frosting are all very much to-taste and adjustable in quantity in order to reach the creamy texture and proportions of deep sweetness and fruitiness you prefer. This is best spread or piped at room temperature or slightly cooled onto equally cool cake surfaces.

Whether you choose to refrigerate and serve the finished cakes cold or serve them at room temperature is up to you. Me, I’ll just see if I can wait long enough for either to happen. I went so far as to snip the corner of the plastic zipper bag I’d put the frosting into, making a wildly erratic star tip, but waiting for or fussing over anything fancier is not my strong suit, as you all know.

Photo: The Rest of the Cake

I sprinkled black sesame seeds on the sheet cake before I remembered I had Dutch chocolate sprinkles for my birthday girl’s cupcakes. If my spouse and I want, we can always add sprinkles on top of the sesame seeds, no? The touch of crunch was what mattered, anyhow.

Foodie Tuesday: Breakfast of Champers

There’s an American breakfast cereal whose manufacturer advertises it as the Breakfast of Champions, inspiring many a skinny little kid over the decades to eat monstrous quantities of it in hopes of becoming an impressive physical specimen. The slogan also inspired things as diverse as a Kurt Vonnegut novel by that name and a wide range of decidedly non-healthful sounding food and drink combinations that mock the very idea, not least of all the hilariously infamous day-starter of Little Chocolate Donuts ‘advertised’ by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live many years ago.Photo: Arabic Choco-PuffsGiven how often and how utterly our concept of what constitutes perfect nutrition, health and fitness practices changes over time, it seems incumbent on any of us who care about our own well-being to figure out what suits our own bodies’ needs and wants and not slavishly follow anyone else’s regimen, no matter how magically ideal it purports to be. At the same time, you know me well enough to guess that I think every so-called prescription in the dietary realm—barring allergies or other potentially life-threatening pains—deserves to be broken on occasion. At the start of a day seems to me the perfect occasion for such hijinks, particularly if the breaking of the fast leads to mood-enhancement and a general tendency toward having a sunnier day. There were excellent reasons for the invention of Bloody Marys and Bellinis and Mimosas. Break out the champers for breakfast!

Photo: Holy Toast!Or, if you feel it necessary to legitimize your breakfast playtime further than you can by acknowledging the fruit and vegetable content of the aforementioned drinks (not least of all, the venerable fermented grape), I’m sure you’re as able as I am to find the good in any dish that cries out to you at the break of day. Little Chocolate Donuts? Why, not only do they contain the marvelous seed of the Theobroma cacao, and if you can’t argue for the food of the gods for breakfast, then I think you need more help than a mere menu tweak can give you, but they also contain sugar, a sure source of [however short-lived] energy. If you take things a step further, choosing a raised donut, you can argue that the live culture of yeast that begins raising its inflatable goodness to a frying-ready state is also bound to be fine feed for your inner biome and all its happy bacterial citizens.

Photo: Raised & Glazed

Cake? Lest we forget, it very often has the proteins and vitamins of eggs, enriched flours, perhaps some buttermilk for further culture. Why restrict it to after-dinner eating, when we have less of the day in which to burn off its calories and possibly, less appreciation for its magnificence when we’re already full from the main meal? Throw in some nuts or dried fruits, some coconut meat, some cinnamon (who knows how true are the speculations on cinnamon’s superfood status)—and you could practically be breakfasting on medicine and having spa treatment before you even leave the house in the morning. There are plenty of people who have busily experimented their way to cakes and quick breads and donuts and all sorts of treats hiding, in their deceptively yummy midst, many clandestine vegetable and other supplemental ingredients to make them Better for You. That’s swell, really it is. But you know, being contented and happy is good for you, too.Photo: Bear Claws

So I’m going to keep eating chocolate at any and all hours of the day and night, cake with and without secret good-for-me ingredients, raised donuts and cake donuts, sugary cold cereals, popsicles, custards, ice cream, smoothies disguised as Protein Shakes, and any pretend-breakfast cocktails I can get my hands on whenever I feel the need. Whatever gets us through the day, no?Photo: Let Me Eat Cake

Foodie Tuesday: Suh-weeeeeet!

I love fat. I love salt. I love food, period. And as you know pretty well by now, I love sweet tidbits and treats. Dessert may as well not be a real word in my universe. Why limit my sweet tooth to being happy only at the end of a meal, I ask you! Yea verily, I might just possibly have confessed to y’all before that I adore sweet + salty foods and, of course, the marvels of the Five Tastes worshiped by so many is hardly foreign to my palate either.

Like all of my foodly affections, however, the one for sweet eats is nearly as changeable as the weather, so it takes lots of different delicacies to satisfy my cravings for sugary goods.

One day, what I have handy drives what I desire to fix: I’m looking at a basket of about a half-dozen mandarin oranges and four mid-sized lemons and thinking thoughts of citrus sweets, so I zest and juice them all together as soon as I’ve washed them. And I’m wafting on a cloud of gorgeous citrus oils and juices and hankering more for juicy joy with every minute. Thinly peeled slices of zest are too fresh and fruity to kill with over-treating. So rather than fuss with the supposed need to do repeated soaking and simmering, I decide to give the already pith-free shavings a lovely swim in the spa of sweetness, about a cup of pure maple syrup plus a hearty splash of brandy, gently bubbling it until the peels become a bit translucent; when they get strained out of the syrup, they take a roll on a sandy beach of cane sugar to keep them from staying too sticky and at the same time, give them a little hint of sparkle. Sweets enough at the end of it, between the fresh candied peels and the preserved citrus-infused maple syrup resulting, to keep the candy-monster at bay. The final bonus was that, though the syrup was pleasant enough to simply drizzle on some plain yogurt, it fed the Monster even better when it cooled completely and turned into citrus-infused pralines. Ooh, yeah.photosSometimes my hunger for sweets drives me to be overzealous in production. Even my crazy lust for candy can’t always keep up with the quantity of Noms I’ve made on many an occasion, and if we’re not having company or visiting someone I think might share my fondness for the treat of the moment, I hate to see it go to waste. So I’ll often find the way to renew the food with a little tweak or ten. For example, since we went out of town shortly after I’d made them, the recently-baked Texican Brownies left a few fellows behind until they were getting a hint too dry to be delicious as-is anymore. Quick-change artist to the rescue! I crumbled up the remaining brownies as finely as I could, softened the remaining strawberry frosting I’d set aside for them, blended the frosting with about a cup of whole milk yogurt (that I hadn’t eaten up with the syrup), added the tangerine and lemon juice I’d squeezed while making candied peel, and mixed all that creamy, thick stuff with the brownie ‘flour’ until it melded into what was a very yummy, thick, spiced, gooey mousse.photoI do realize I can’t eat all of this stuff all of the time, at least not if I have plans to, you know, live very long. But I know from experience that if I don’t please the candy dragon from time to time I get cranky and whiny. Even more than my usual. And I rather enjoy living a really multifaceted life and don’t plan to get all monk-like and deprivation-happy anytime soon either. So it cheers me up a little bit when I see that others take a pretty forgiving attitude toward sugar, salt and fat too. I might croak a leetle bit younger, but if it’s happier too, it’s probably worth it. ‘Course, I’d rather find out that sugar and fat and salt are all extreme health foods after all. I have my preferences.photo

Foodie Tuesday: There’s No Substitute for a Smart Substitution

Nearly every time I get in the mood to bake something I’m missing one or more of the necessary ingredients. This happens often enough when I’m making non-baked goods, but it’s almost a given with baking, because I simply don’t bake all that often: too much wheat flour and sugar makes this sweets-addict too likely to get tummy aches or just plain to overindulge. And the fact that I don’t bake terribly often means that, in that most scientific of culinary skills, I’m the least a genius about getting the fussy proportions and timings and temperatures correct. But I still do like to bake once in a while.

Though I feel pretty safe making all sorts of substitutions in cooked and raw dishes, simply finding analogous items–ingredients that have plenty of similar qualities and can therefore be expected to fill similar roles in the combination–I know less about what the ingredients used in baking are supposed to do, unless you’re talking about spices and flavorings, and so have always been more timid about fooling around with the recipes for baked goods. But lately, I’ve come to be more of a believer that life’s too short not to have a little kitchen adventure more often, and that if I’m not using outrageously expensive ingredients the worst that can happen is that a batch of something goes so far awry that it’s just plain a failed experiment. That’s what trash bins are made for, no? I’ll bet few scientists ever made their paradigm-shifting discoveries without a few boneheaded false starts and cock-ups and misdirections and outright failures along the way either, and, well, brownies are not exactly rocket science.

So I give you:photo

Texican Brownies

Ingredients: Plain ‘classic’ brownies call for the following ingredients and proportions:

4 squares (4 ounces/113 grams) Baker’s Unsweetened Chocolate–I substituted semisweet baking chocolate. It’s what I had in the cupboard.

3/4 cup  butter–while baking recipes almost always specify unsalted butter, I almost always use salted butter anyway unless there’s a lot of additional salt in the recipe; salt heightens sweetness and intensifies other flavors as well. And I love salt.

2 cups sugar–I substituted dark brown sugar for a deeper flavor.
3   eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour–I substituted instant masa flour (a fine corn flour usually used for tortilla- and tamale-making)

Then I added a few ingredients of my own to make a darker-chocolate brownie and give it a slight Mexican twist:

1/2 tsp baking soda–since the masa flour wouldn’t have gluten like the wheat flour to make the brownies rise a little, I figured they should have a boost in leavening. Look at me, being all fake-scientist-like!

1/2 tsp salt plus 1/8-1/4 tsp ground black pepper–again, wanting to intensify the spicy chocolate of the brownies–plus 1 large tablespoon Dutch processed cocoa–yet more chocolate boosting–plus 1 tablespoon cinnamon

Directions:

Heat your oven to 350°F–mine runs hot, so I heated it to 325°.

Line a 13×9-inch pan with an oversized piece of baking parchment, folding it at the corners to fit and cover the sides as well as the bottom. One piece, no leaks.

Microwave the chocolate and butter together in a large microwaveable bowl on high until the butter is melted. Stir until the chocolate is melted and completely combined with the butter. Blend in the eggs and vanilla. In another bowl, mix all of the dry ingredients. Add them gradually to the wet mix, stirring until everything melds, and pour the batter into the prepared pan, pushing it into the folded parchment corners to fill them.

Bake 30 – 35 minutes (again, with my super-hot oven, I baked mine for more like 20-23 minutes) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs. Better to under-bake these than the opposite–fudgy, chewy brownies are good; dry, not.

The parchment will let you easily pop the whole sheet of brownies right out of the pan.

Makes 24 brownies. Mine were still a little too baked, thanks to the hot-hot oven, so I quite happily compensated for the slight dryness by frosting the ones that weren’t immediately devoured. (A number of them were. Clearly, the over-baking didn’t destroy them so badly that the members of this household wouldn’t cheerfully destroy them in another way.)

Thus, we have:photoRustic Red Frosting

No, I’m no fussy decorator. But I loves me some tasty frosting. And I wanted something that was earthy and yet juicy, something that would stand up to the depth of the spiced brownies and still have a little homey heartfelt quality to it, even if it wasn’t very frilly. I chose strawberry frosting; after all, las fresas are a fantastic favorite fruit treat in some of the Latin-American cuisine I’ve had the pleasure of inhaling eating. And this is just an easy take on buttercream icing.

Grind about one cup of freeze-dried strawberries to a coarse powder. I did mine in the blender, but if they’re dry enough you could even crush them with a wooden spoon in a heavy bowl–leaving some bits rough gives a little burst of berry flavor in the finished frosting and reminds us there are real berries involved. Add to the berry powder about a cup of powdered (confectioner’s) sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla, a cup of soft butter, and a tablespoon or two of heavy cream. Blend them together well, adding more sugar and/or cream as needed for flavor and texture. Apply liberally to the brownies, cake, cookies, tongue, etc, as needed for improved state of bliss.

I sprinkled them with some edible glitter just for good measure. A little extra pizzazz never really hurt anything. But you could just sprinkle yours with the stardust of your affection and it’d be just as glamorous and grand.

This whole brownie-baking urge of mine was motivated in large part because I felt like making a sort of Valentine’s Day treat; since we’ll be in the car on a work-related jaunt much of the actual Valentine’s Day, I figured today was a reasonable substitution for the occasion. Since both my husband and I love chocolate and baked treats but do better with less wheat flour, I figured substituting corn flour could be a decent and respectable enough Tex-Mex way of dealing with that part of the equation. And since neither of us is a stickler for celebrating only on the official or ‘correct’ dates for anything, we’re both quite willing to celebrate the American holiday of love-and-romance any old time we can. Because for love, there really is no acceptable substitute.

photo

XOXOXO!