Archive for September, 2008

Washington Post’s Cupcake Wars: Economic Crisis Edition

Lavender Moon Cupcakes

Lavender Moon Cupcakes Try To Give You A Heart Attack.

In the midst of the economic crisis, it’s good to know that we can still count on The Washington Posts’ Cupcake Wars to distract us from the tanking economy.

For those of you haven’t been following the C-Wars obsessively, the Post is in the midst of a series of taste-tests of cupcakes from DC-area bakeries. I was especially excited for this round of reviews, because I had actually tried the cupcakes from one of the bakeries: the new Lavender Moon Bakery out in Alexandria (a coworker brought some in for us a couple of weeks ago, which was very sweet of her). The other cupcakes the Post taste-tested were from Baked and Wired, in Georgetown.

The Post tasters thought Lavender Moon’s cupcakes were simply “too much”—too rich, too heavy on the frosting, and too difficult to eat. Post testers were not impressed with the cupcake’s flavors, comparing the flavor of the coconut cupcake to “suntan lotion.” Testers liked the chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting the best. Sadly, this week’s reviews also didn’t contain “overall” ratings for the bakeries, so I have no idea how Lavender Moon stacked up to the other bakers ratings-wise.

I thought their review was pretty spot on. The cupcakes I had were very, very heavy—the cupcakes were difficult to finish because they were so rich and heavy. The chocolate frosting tasted more like fudge than frosting, which really overwhelmed the cake. It’s like the pastry chef wanted to make a rich and decadent desert, but didn’t consider how the overall package tasted. I think this could have been partially remedied with just a little less frosting (seriously people—frosting is one of those areas where less is often more) and a slightly lighter cake.

In a first for the Cupcake Wars, Post testers gave rave reviews to Baked and Wired, praising the “mostly moist” cake and the “not-too-sweet” frosting. Their favorite was the peanut butter cupcake, likening it to a Snickers bar (the testers meant that in the best way possible). Given that these testers have been pretty tough on DC’s cupcakes, it made me want to go down to Georgetown and check them out.

And I bet I’m not alone in my desire to slink off into various bakeries and sample cupcake after cupcake this week. Given everything that’s been happening in the economy lately, I wonder if the timing of the Cupcake Wars isn’t especially serendipitous. After all that’s happened this week, I bet the Congress could really use some cupcake-fueled comfort. Or, at the very least, cupcakes could keep them awake through their late-night bailout negotiating sessions.

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Can You Really Make Ice Cream In A Plastic Bag?

Ice Cream Custard

Can a mere plastic bag transform this custard into ice cream?

I must not have been the only person who was struck by this New York Times article on how to make your own ice cream using nothing more than the power of salt water (yes, you heard that right, salt water) and the technology of plastic bags. I was less impressed by the chemistry behind how the low freezing temperature of salt water can be used to freeze custard, and much more excited about the prospect of making my own ice cream, sans an expensive and space-stealing ice cream maker.

To me having your own ice cream maker is the height of appliance extravagance. You can justify a Kitchen Aid Mixer (No really, you can. I can make my own bread—and bread is the staff of life!). You can justify a Cuisinart (I can grind my own hamburger, instantly grate cheese, and chop herbs!). But ice cream? It’s not exactly a life-sustaining food.

Still, the thought of being able to whip up a batch anytime I want, perhaps to show off the flavors of seasonal produce or to fill a batch of profiteroles, is appealing. And, I’ll be honest—serving up a batch of my own homemade ice cream at my next dinner party appeals to my deep desire to show off.

But does it work?

Why my salt water bath didn’t quite turned out as planned

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Top Design Episode Four: Can Eddie Get the Ladies To Drop Their Panties Through The Sheer Power of Decoupage?

This week on Top Design: grab your febreeze and your heavy-duty laundry detergent, the Top Designers are designing for bachelors!

So this week’s episode, “Bachelor Pads,” had a whole lot more drama than last week, due single-handedly to Shazia’s whining (astronauts could hear her whining from space). Sensing that the sharks were circling in the water (she was in the bottom two on the last few episodes) Shazia tried to have the design “reflect” more of her style this week. Unfortunately, this meant complaining a lot and bugging the hell out of her teammates, Preston and Nathan, and choosing to do projects for no other reason than that she suggested it. Excuse me, but when cornice boards are supposed to be your “design statement,” I think there’s a problem.

Of course, I felt a little bad for Shaz, I really did. Because she was in the bottom, it was obvious that no one wanted to work with her, and no one wanted to listen to her ideas for fear that she may pull a Wisit. I’ve been in that situation and it really, really sucks. Unfortunately, once you’ve lost your credibility with a group of people you can’t really restore it in the course of one 48 hour project. And whining, swearing, and stamping your foot a lot won’t help.

The project split the designers up into teams of three, each of which had to design a room for a bachelor. Natalie, Eddie and Ondine designed for a 23-year-old law student who looked like he had just left the womb of a frat house; Andrea, Teresa and Wisit designed for a very cute producer who looked like, with minimal effort, he could land his own Bravo dating show; and Preston, Nathan and Shazia designed for a cool-as-a-cucumber investment banker.

The funniest thing about the whole episode was that even though all the bachelors were pretty different, their apartments were in the same state of disaray. At best, they maybe owned couple of chairs, a sectional, and a huge flat-screen TV. My favorite part was the investment banker, who had a huge shoe rack dominating his living room. I’m sure the smell was just lovely.

Even though the designers had two days, $10,000, a team of painters, wallpaperers, seamstresses and carpenters for this challenge, a lot of the rooms still looked “meh” to me. Perhaps this was because we didn’t really get to see the rooms that much? I think the camera crew needs to watch a whole bunch of HGTV to really get a sense of how the “reveal” works. All they’d need is to do is watch, oh, like 12 hours of the channel, and they would have seen all the “reveals” they’d ever need. Hell, I feel like I could film a “reveal” after watching a couple episodes of Designed to Sell, and I’ve never picked up a camera.

Andrea, Wisit and Ondine’s design for the producer bachelor won the episode, but I didn’t think it was so much better than the other team’s rooms to merit all the praise it received. I will say that their design felt the most pulled-together of the three teams. I like the use of the LeCorbusier chairs and the dark table in the living room; the piece’s dark colors complemented the warm brown tones in the couch and the walls. But it also felt like a hotel room. In fact, all of the rooms on this episode felt like hotel rooms.

More winning and losing designs.

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September Test Product: Seventh Generation Automatic Dishwashing Gel and The Great Liquid Dishwashing Soap Theory

Seventh Generation Automatic Dishwashing Gel

Can it really stand up to my crappy dishwasher?

Usually I try to choose my test products after consulting with friends, family, and perusing product reviews. But I chose this month’s test product in a fit of selfishness, after a bout of extreme frustration with a recalcitrant appliance.

Namely, I had had enough of our absolutely awful dishwasher and I felt that there just had to be a better solution out there.

Our kitchen is an older one, and the dishwasher we have is challenging, to say the least. Small and noisy, it’s really good at baking food onto dishes, but absolutely horrible at washing the food off. In fact, lately I feel that whenever I empty the dishwasher, I have to hand wash about half the dishes because there’s layers of grime, baked-on crap, and food particles left over them (that a certain someone does not believe in rinsing dishes before he puts them in the dishwasher only adds to my ire).

I can’t really say what all is wrong with the dishwasher (poor water pressure and inadequate washing mechanism comes to mind). But the biggest problem that I could identify (without an in-depth knowledge of product design) is the soap dispenser. Contrary to its name, it doesn’t actually “dispense” the soap on a regular basis. Instead, after doing a load of dishes, I’d find a big chunk of calcified powdered dishwashing soap sitting in the little dispenser. It looked like the dispenser was opening most of the time, but the soap powder stubbornly refused to, well, dispense.

So last week, fed up with yet another load of washed-but-not-actually-washed dishes, I decided to try a new tactic. I wondered if I could ameliorate the problem with a new product: liquid automatic dishwasher soap. Theoretically, the liquid soap could just ooze out of the little compartment, bypassing the inadequate dispenser. It was so simple, and yet, so brilliant.

But does the great liquid dishwashing soap theory hold water?

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“Oregon Heritage Moment:” Proud Day For Slug Queen Supporters Everywhere

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The Journal Article. Eugene is famous!

Forgive me for taking a little detour from baking and other domestic adventures, but today I have to stand up for my proud, pasty, liberal-leaning, Birkenstock-wearing, Pacific Northwest Heritage.

I absolutely could not ignore the front-page below-the-fold article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about my hometown’s yearly beauty pageant: where women (and sometimes men) come together to compete for the glorious title of Slug Queen (i.e., the Queen of the “Society for the Legitimization of the Ubiquitous Gastropod“).

Yes, that’s right, the Slug Queen — that goodwill ambassador that just about perfectly sums up the off-beat Northwest charm of my beloved hometown, Eugene Oregon — was actually featured in Journal. I bet Eugenians everywhere are gagging at the thought of their quirky Queen appearing in the same pages as the uber-conservative musings Karl Rove, but I personally think this is a great day for Eugenians everywhere!

I can’t remember the first time I saw the Slug Queen, probably because I was too young to remember. But she was always the highlight of the yearly Eugene Celebration Parade, usually sporting a slug-colored green gown that would be right at home in a Renaissance festival and/or 1980s Madonna video.

Slug Queen style usually walked the line between elegant foppery and ugly-yet-strangely-attractive-librarian; I seem to remember lots of frills, furbelows, and rhinestone studded cat-eyed glasses appearing in the mix. The year that my sewing teacher, Liz Deck, was crowned Queen Zinnia, was an especially proud year for me, and I watched with glee as she paraded down Eugene’s downtown streets, attended by the Slug Court.

The Slug Queen and accompanying giant slug float always trail lots of iridescent green paper “slime” during the parade. So thank goodness for Eugene’s Rep. Peter Defazio, who always follows the Slugs pushing a big wheelbarrow and shoveling up the “slime.” The Journal has a great photo of Defazio on “slime scooper” duty.

Of course, when I was in high school I was “too cool” for the Celebration’s Parade, and thought that The Slug Queen was, horror of horrors, “really dumb.” But now I miss it. The Slug Queen sums up everything that’s great (and, okay, sometimes a bit aggravating) about the Pacific Northwest—the odd, fabricated yet cherished rituals; the abundant creativity; the “we really don’t care if other people think it’s cool, because we like it” attitude.

Check out the photos in the Journal slideshow. Pure Eugene, pure Pacific Northwest, pure oddness.

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The Washington Post: Already Strapped for Content In Six-Week Cupcake Quest?

The Washington Post published part two of Cupcakes Wars last week, the latest installment in its six-week quest to sample and rate all the cupcakes the DC-area has to offer. This week the publication featured cupcakes from two NOVA establishments that, in all honestly, I had never heard of: Buzz and Pastries by Randolph.

Now, I’m not obsessed with the DC dining scene, but I do read the Posts’ food section pretty regularly. So I was surprised that I had no idea that these two bakeries existed. It made me wonder if the Post was stretching for content (after all, six weeks is a lot of space to fill with, um, cupcake reviews).

Sadly, I cannot compare the ratings for this weeks’ pastries to last week’s because The Post failed to provide the average rating per cupcake. This may be because the offerings were so all over the map from each bakery—but I really couldn’t tell.

The Post liked Buzz’s vanilla cupcake with vanilla frosting, giving it a 5.5 out of ten rating. They praised the tender cake and fluffy but not overly sweet frosting. Post testers singled out the Bumble Bee cupcake as one that they particularly didn’t like because of its “muddled flavors,” but they didn’t elaborate on what the flavors were, or what about them was so muddled. Details, people! I want details! Now I feel the need to high-tail it out to Alexandria and figure out what happened.

The Post was not at all impressed by the offerings from Pastries by Randolph, an Arlington establishment, calling the cupcakes “grade-school cafeteria” fare. Testers especially disliked the artificial flavors, and described the lemon flavor in one cupcake as “Pledge”-like. The least objectionable of the bunch was the Red Velvet cupcake.

So there you go, folks, another week of cupcake reviews. Since I’m guessing that they’re saving the “hot” DC cupcake establishments for later in the series, we can only guess where they’ll go next for cupcakes. Does Firehook make cupcakes? Maybe they’ll go to Starbucks?

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Top Design, Episode Three: Everybody Go “Meh.”

I had high hopes for the “Window Display” episode of Top Design this week—after all, it had all the elements of what makes Bravo such fulfilling trashy TV: design, fashion, and Project Runway. The challenge was to design window displays for the “boutiques” of former Project Runway contestants. Given the personalities involved (Santino! Andrae! The Other Daniel Who Isn’t Daniel Vosovic!) I thought it was going to be completely awesome.

But not even Santino couldn’t breathe life into this episode. In the end, many of the designs looked like teenage bedrooms (broken mirrors! Fuschia and black!), rather than fashionable window displays. And many of the designers—Eddie and Teresa, Kerry and Wisit, Nathan and Shazia—just didn’t realize that the whole point of a window display is to display clothes—rather than just make overly-neon design statements.

Oh sure, there were a couple of choice moments. When the Other Daniel dreamily recited a poem about his window display (it involved branches, golden sand, and floating), which would have been creepy were he not a reality show celebrity. When Eddie wouldn’t stop talking to Santino in their initial meeting, all but begging with puppy dog eyes to be named team leader. When Wisit mentioned kept on talking about “Rococo” this and “Rococo” that, even though his client (Jeffrey) had specifically told him that he didn’t like the Rococo idea at all.

Still, these moments couldn’t make up for the “meh” designs. I understand that the show’s producers want the designers to work under tight time constraints to rev up the drama factor, but I think that the time limits are ultimately hurting the design and the show. The end products the contestants come up with are entirely underwhelming. And who wants to tune in for “meh” design?

rate_203_daniel

I loved the contrasting yellow and gray here.

Even though they didn’t win, I liked Preston and Andrea’s design the best. Granted, their client (Daniel) spoon-fed them the concept, and they had the best dress to work with, but still—the lemon-yellow dress contrasted against the gray background was fabulously dreamy.
Next: The Losing Design, and Why Eddie Should Stick With Preppy Rooms

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