Archive for January, 2009

Top Chef: Battle of The Runners Up

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The Top Chef All Stars have nary a final contestant among them.

Before we start, I have to say that the only reason I was able to get this recap up is because Wonktheplank figured out how to restore our cable service after it went out during DC’s first snow store of the winter. Please thank him by checking out his latest post on “fungible assets” (haven’t a clue what that is).

Now, on to the show. We start off with the usual recap of last episode, where we learn that Hosea and Leah’s smooch fest was indeed alcohol fueled! I knew it! I knew it! The way this show purposely liquors up the chefs to film their drunken exploits must violate a international human rights treaty – maybe I should alert the UN.

Also of note in the mini recap is an opening shot of Whole Foods. Product Placement Number One already? Are they getting lazy or what?

Moving on, the Quickfire guest judge is Scott Conant, whose newly opened Scarpetta restaurant received a three star rating from The Times. So unlike some past guest judges, he really knows what he’s doing.

The Quickfire challenge is Superbowl-themed, which seems straightforward enough, but the way Padma (looking ravishing in purple, by the way) reveals the true nature of the challenge is convoluted. The chefs play a game of culinary “football squares” (am I the only one that has no idea what that is?) to pick a main food group they’ll be using in the challenge. But then Padma reveals that the chefs have to pair their main food group with oats. No, it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that can only mean one thing on Top Chef:

Product Placement Number two! That’s right: this is the Quaker Oat Quickfire Challenge! Wow! It almost rivals the stupidity and arbitrary nature of the Swanson Broth Quickfire Challenge. We see some nice pornographic shots of the Quaker Oats label as the chefs prepare their dishes, as though the oat boxes just “happened” to be there and weren’t strategically placed in front of the cameras.

Next: Not-So-All Stars and Padma in a Sexy Ref Outfit

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January Popover Experiment, Take Three: Wondra Flour v. Bread Flour

Popovers - Recipe Mistake 2

Nothing about these giant popovers went as planned.

Shirley O’Corriher frightens me. Her book, Bakewise is filled with such abundant detail, such specific instruction, and such extensive scientific knowledge that it fills me with a mixture of excitement and terror. In her extensively researched recipes, each ingredient is absolutely essential, chosen because of its specific chemical makeup.

This means that small substitutions that I’d usually make without batting an eyelash, like substituting two percent milk for whole milk, are out of the question. Don’t have bleached all-purpose flour on hand? Looks like I’m not making her apple cake. Is the store out of full-fat buttermilk? Then the pound cake recipe is out.

But during the January Popover experiment I went against my own better judgement and made a big substitution in Bakewise’s popover recipe. I had started making Saturday night dinner too late, and didn’t have an hour to let the batter sit. But I remembered that The Bread Bible’s Popover recipe uses Wondra flour—a highly processed, quick-mixing flour that allows the batter to be baked immediately. What if I made a teensy, tiny substitution?

O’Corriher’s original popover recipe calls for bread flour, which is the complete opposite  of Wondra flour. Bread flour is a high-protein flour, which makes it especially good at creating sheets of gluten that hold in steam, giving the popovers  a tremendous rise. Bread flour also absorbs more liquid than lower-protein flour, which helps the popovers stay crisp and light. Wondra flour is on the other end of the spectrum – it has a low protein content, creates less gluten than other flours, and absorbs much less liquid.

To top it all off, I was so frazzled in the kitchen that after I put the popovers in the oven to bake, I accidentally turned off the oven! It took me ten minutes to figure out my mistake. Considering that O’Corriher is adamant that the baker shouldn’t even open the oven during the baking process lest the temperature fall, I was convinced that my popovers were toast.

But the result was much stranger than that. The resulting popovers were huge – they rose to magificent heights over the top of my muffin pan. My personal non-scientific and therefore very dubious theory is that, with no gluten to tame the rise, the popover  shot up like a rocket. The popovers also had more of the springy, soft centers than my first two attempts, and the crust was very light and insubstantial.

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Popovers in the pan. They were huge! They expanded so much the tops touch each other.

Would I make this recipe again? Perhaps. But it’s best made by those who enjoy popover centers, more than the popover crust. Since I enjoy both, I’m still looking for my perfect popover recipe. Mostly, this should be inspiration for those cooks who are convinced that they’re not precise enough to bake. Even with my mistakes and risky substitutions, we still had a pretty great Saturday night dinner.

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You can see how much they rose over the side of the pan, despite the fact that I mistakenly turned off the oven when I put them in.

Mistaken Popovers (for reading only!)
Adapted from Bakewise
Note, I’m only putting in this recipe to illustrate my mishaps! For those of you looking for a real recipe, check out The Bread Bible or Joy of Cooking popover entries.

Ingredients
5 large eggs, in the shell
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 3/4 cups Wondra flour
1/3 cup heavy cream
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup melted butter

Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

Warm the eggs by placing them in a bowl of hot tap water. Drain and refill the bowl at least once with fresh hot water.

Heat milk in a saucepan or microwave until just warm to touch. Place flour in a large bowl and slowly add in milk, stirring with a fork or whisk and making sure there are no lumps.

Separate three of the eggs, keeping the whites and storing or discarding the yolks. Beat the eggs whites with the remaining two whole eggs. Beat in 1/2 cup of the flour mixture into the egg mixture to lighten. Then beat the egg mixture into the flour mixture.

Heat the cream in a saucepan (or microwave, but I find a saucepan leaves less of a chance of having the cream boil over) until almost boiling. Sprinkle salt over batter and whisk in hot cream.

While heating the cream, brush the popover or muffin pans with melted butter and heat in the oven until butter is hot and brown, but not burning, 3-5 minutes.

Remove the hot pan from oven. Pour batter into cups, until they are three quarters full. Place hot pan in the oven.

Mistakenly turn oven off for 10 minutes.

Discover this mistake. Scream and fuss a bunch. Then turn oven back on to 425 and bake for 12 minutes. Lower heat to 325 and bake for 25 minutes more.

Remove pan from oven. Be amazed when popovers are a little soft, but none the worse for wear. Accept Wonktheplank’s comforting that we learn the most from our mistakes, not our successes. Vow to properly make this recipe another time.

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A front view of a mistaken popover.

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DC Cupcake Odyssey: Red Velvet Cupcakery Keeps it Classic

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Red Velvet Cupcakery, DC's Newest Cupcake Joint.

As DC was readying itself for the Inauguration, Red Velvet Cupcakery in Penn Quarter was preparing for its grand opening on Thursday, January 15. The store, which shares a space in Penn Quarter with a new TangySweet gave away 500 free cupcakes for its grand opening. Even though I didn’t have a prayer of making it in time to nab a free cupcake, I was determined to extend my DC Cupcake Odyssey to DC’s newest cupcake shop. So a friend and I braved the bitter cold that Thursday night to see how DC’s newest cupcake shop stacked up.

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The inside of the store is minmalist, with a clean design.

Red Velvet Cupcakery’s space is small and pristine, with a minimalist feel. There’s a large blown-up photo of cupcakes against a white background that adorned one wall, and one bright red wall behind the counter with pricing information. A large display case showcasing the cupcakes, a cash register, and a small row of bright-red stools at a window counter complete the space.

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A large photo of cupcakes greets you as you enter the store.

When I heard that Red Velvet Cupcakery shared a space with TangySweet, I envisioned a food court configuration. But the side-by side storefronts are actually separate, at least for consumers; you have to walk outside to get from the TangySweet to Red Velvet. This was a good decision on the branding front, since cupcakes and fro-yo don’t exactly mix. But I was sad that we couldn’t take advantage of the ample seating space in TangySweet.

Instead, my friend and I took our cupcakes down to the Rocket Bar so we could sample our wares in the comparative peace. I tried three cupcake on my visit: the coffee-flavored Morning Call, the Red Velvet, and the Peanut Butter Cup. Each was $3.25/piece,, or $36 for a dozen.

The cupcakes were well made, with the exception of a small technical difficulty. All the cupcakes I sampled had a hard, slightly bitter, crust on their tops, as if they’d been left in the oven too long. But that problem is easily fixable, and may just have been opening day jitters.

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The Peanut Butter Cup, in the case.

My favorite cupcake, by far, was the Peanut Butter Cup – a chocolate cake topped with a slightly salty, rich peanut butter frosting. The cake was tender and had a deep chocolate flavor, but the frosting really stole the show. It had a fluffy texture, with a rich salty-sweet peanut butter flavor. I love the combination of chocolate and peanut butter together, and this cupcake was really to die for.

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Red Velvet cupcakes, in the case. The sprinkles are a cute touch.

The Red Velvet was also a strong contender – the cake was fluffy and tender, and had that deep red color of a proper red velvet cake. The cream cheese frosting was the right balance of tangy and sweet, with a smooth texture.

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The Morning Call - espresso cake with mocha buttercream.

The Morning Call, an espresso-chocolate cupcake with mocha buttercream, was my least favorite. I didn’t taste the espresso in the espresso-chocolate cake, although it had a rich chocolate flavor and tender crumb. The frosting tasted like a classic buttercream – it tasted strongly of butter, had an oily texture, and was overwhelmingly rich. To be fair, the mocha flavor was well balanced, and the richness and the texture are all things I’ve encountered in buttercreams before. But I’m not a huge fan of classic buttercreams, so my dislike of the Morning Call may be more a matter of personal taste than anything else.

I was pretty happy with Red Velvet Cupcakery – just writing this makes me want to make a b-line for the store so I can get that Peanut Butter Cup cupcake again. But I also think that Red Velvet has some room to grow.

Red Velvet’s flavor combinations are classic, but seemed a little boring and expected – as though they took a gourmet dessert menu and adapted it for cupcakes. This isn’t a bad thing, but Red Velvet Cupcakery is competing with stores that are passionate about cupcakes, and which offer daily rotating menus in addition to seasonal offerings. Doing classic flavors well just isn’t enough to compete.

In this ever-crowded field, a bakery’s individuality, creativity, and execution are what makes them stand out. Red Velvet has good execution, but I’d love to see them ramp up their menu offerings, start making some seasonal cupcakes, and offer more creative flavor combinations.

My advice to Red Velvet Cupcakery: have fun with it. Take your cue from DC’s other cupcake shops and start varying your menu. See if you can make a cute cupcake for Valentine’s Day that’s a little outside the box. Mix it up. And see what happens.

And yes, I’ll be visiting soon for another Peanut Butter Cup.

Red Velvet Cupcakery
675 E. St. NW
Washington DC 20004
Phone: (202) 347-7895
Fax: (202) 347-7894
order@redvelvetcupcakery.com
www.redvelvetcupcakery.com

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Domestic Snapshots: Amaryllis In Winter

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My amaryllis decided to bloom during DC's first winter snowstorm this year.

I’m not a green thumb, not by a long shot. But I’m happy to report that today, during the first real DC snowstorm of the year, my amaryllis plant is blooming for a second time.  The plant was a housewarming gift from Ferosha, and hasn’t bloomed for more than a year, probably because of my neglect. But lately I’ve been trying to pay more attention to my plants, and the daily watering has really paid off.

Of course, a DC “snowstorm” means you get four inches of snow, forcing schools to close, businesses to shut down, and Northeasterners like WonkthePlank and Midwesterners like Elpis and Justice to laugh their heads off. But even if the snow blanket is paltry, the English lit geek in me savors the poetic irony of my amaryllis blooming in the dead of winter.

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Who knew that all it needed was daily watering and moderate sunlight?

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Popovers, Take Two: Joy of Cooking’s Low-Tech Popovers

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This Joy of Cooking popover doesn't have an impressive rise, but does have an abundance of soft, eggy center.

As I shared with you two weeks ago, January’s baking challenge is popovers. I’m trying as many different recipes as my waistline can stomach in the quest for the perfect, or almost-perfect, popover recipe.

For my first attempt I used the high detailed and technical recipe from The Bread Bible to create popovers that were extremely high, deep brown, with an abundant brown crust. But the popovers were almost too successful; they were all crust, without enough springy, soft centers that I love so much in a good popover.

So for my next baking attempt I decided to go old school, using the popover recipe from the Joy of Cooking. I inherited my edition from my grandmother, which is from 1975, and the recipe is refreshingly simple. There’s no special flour to buy, no letting the batter sit for two hours, no notes about the virtues of using whole milk in the batter. Not that I don’t love the great detail and precision of Shirley O’Corriher or Rose Levy Beranbaum, but sometimes the Joy of Cooking’s simple, reassuring style is a nice change.

I did make a couple of changes to the recipe, upping the amount of salt from 1/4 teaspoon to 1/2 teaspoon, since I like my popovers salty. I also used Beranbaum’s technique for baking the popovers. Rather than pouring the batter into a cold buttered pan, which the original Joy of Cooking recipe calls for, I heated the buttered pan in the hot over for three minutes, before pouring in the batter. This helps create steam from the milk in the batter and helps the popovers rise.

The result? These popovers didn’t have the impressive towers of Beranbaum’s creations, but had the lovely soft, eggy centers, which I just adored. Even though these were much lower tech, I actually liked them more. Now if only I could make a popover that has the right proportion of brown crust to soft center, and I’d be in popover heaven.

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As you can see, there's a nice amount of soft center in this popover.

Low-Tech Popovers
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking

Ingredients
1 cup milk
1 tbs melted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 beaten egg
1 additional beaten egg

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature. If you must cheat, heat your milk until just cool to the touch in a microwave and heat your eggs by placing in a bowl of hot water, replacing the water once or twice if necessary.

Beat the milk, butter, flour, and salt together until just smooth. Add the beaten eggs one at a time, beating until just incorporated. Do not overbeat the batter.

Generously butter a muffin tin or popover pan and place in the oven to 3-5 minutes. Remember, you want the pan to heat up and the butter to brown, but not burn, so keep an eye on the pan. As I found out last time, burning the butter means cleaning the pan and starting over again, which is a pain!

Remove the pan from the oven and pour the batter into the buttered baking cups. Immediately place the pan back in the oven. After 15 minutes, lower temperature too 350 and bake 20 minutes longer. During the entire baking process do not open the oven, or your popovers will fall!

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Monday Roundup: Mimosa is the New Black

Mimosa close up, the Women's day flower in Italy.

Mimosa flowers and the Pantone color of 2009.

Image via pizzodisevo on flickr, under the Creative Commons license.

Happy Monday, ModernDomestic readers! Here’s some reading from the blogosphere to get your week started right.

  • Did you know the the color for 2009 is “mimosa?” The Washington Post has an article about the “it” color and why this bright yellow is actually appropriate for the new Obama administration and our troubling economic times.
  • If you’re not feeling the yellow, Apartment Therapy LA has a post full of inspiration photos using a black, gray and purple color scheme. Somehow this feels much more appropriate.
  • The Capitol Cooking Show is looking for viewers to submit cupcake recipes for an upcoming episode called “Crazy For Cupcakes.” Read all about it on Delleicious. Too bad my favorite cupcake recipe to date (pumpkin cupcakes) isn’t my own—it’s Martha Stewart’s!
  • It’s time to start making your reservations for DC’s Winter Restaurant Week (Feb. 16-22). Don’t know where to make your money count? Stumped on the best places to make a reservation? Captiol Spice has a map of all your Restaurant Week choices (If I had the money to spare, I’d be trying to get a seat at Art and Soul. Oh well, next time). Also check out DC Foodies guide to getting the most out of Restaurant Week.
  • The District Domestic is making homemade doughnuts, which sounds like a good idea for a winter weekend project, and a nice break from the cupcake craze. I only made doughnuts once and I burned the the crap out of them, but hers turned out much better.
  • Design*Sponge has photos of really beautiful lighting from British designer Hannah Nunn. Her pieces look like what I’ve tried (and failed) to make on my own. These  beautiful, delicate lamps may just inspire me to try again.

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Top Chef: Restaurant Wars, More Vital To The Country’s Future Than Barack Obama

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Fabio seeks to distract diners from the crappy food with his suit. It's working, Fabio. It's working.

It’s here. Restaurant wars is here. And Bravo wants you to think that it’s more important than the Inauguration of our first African American President. I am so sick of the Bravo ads, and I am dreading recapping another damn “super-sized” episode. The only “super-sized” thing about them is the commercials.

Anyway, the show begins with the recap of last week, which neither you nor I care about. Moving on, the guest judge for the Quickfire challenge is restaurateur Stephen Starr, of Starr Restaurant Organization. Padma, looking fetching as always, explains that Restaurant Wars is upon us. Like I didn’t already know.

The Quickfire challenge is to make a dish that expresses a restaurant concept, and which would impress a potential investor like Starr. The two winning chefs will get to be the team leaders for Restaurant Wars, and will have their concepts realized.

Maybe it’s the pressure, but the chefs are all over the map on this one. My Poor Boyfriend Fabio especially falters. His concept is Mediterranean lunch menu items (wuh wuh?), which doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Jamie puts together a good dish of Chilean sea bass and creamed corn with bacon and arugula, but doesn’t realize that Alice Waters already covered the “seasonal, local, sustainable” restaurant concept in, like, 1971. Jeff tries and fails to impress Starr with a piece of salmon that’s so pink I think it was dyed with beet juice.

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The only impressive thing about this salmon is how chemically altered it is.

The Hookup That Changes The Universe . . . Only It Doesn’t

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