Archive for January, 2009

Traveling With Cake

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Chocolate Cake on the Metro.

I don’t have a good baked good transportation system. Our Tupperware collection is small, and I lack a container large enough to transport a dozen cupcakes, let alone a layer cake. Wonktheplank and I have had some harrowing experiences transporting dozens of cupcakes on public transportation that threatened to slip off their plates.

But in spite of these perils, I always enjoy transporting my creations because they get such good compliments and appreciative stares of my fellow Metro passengers. I also force Wonktheplank to be my cake-bearer, so I usually don’t have to carry the stuff myself.

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My cake-bearer, Wonktheplank.

This weekend we had an especially fun time traveling with a chocolate cake that was destined for a post-concert party. I didn’t cover the cake with anything, after I messed up some of my Hanukkah cupcakes when I covered them in plastic wrap. The cake itself wasn’t exactly a success (too much oil in the cake, too much sour cream in the chocolate frosting), but the excited Inauguration tourists sure seemed to like it.

One tourist said that he couldn’t believe we were taking the uncovered cake on the Metro, as though cake transportation were a daring feat. Another couple in the Capitol South station did a double take at the cake and called out to Wontheplank, “Did you make that?” “She did,” Wonk replied, gesturing to me. Other passengers just stared, hungrily, at the appealing chocolate color and my rather messy decorating job.

Considering the response, I wonder what would have happened if I had brought Obama cupcakes on the Metro? I think I’m going to have to try that in 2013.

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The Lincoln memorial on Inaguration day. In 2013 maybe I'll bring some Obama cupcakes down to the Mall for the swearing in.

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Top Chef: Betting the Farm

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"We take our farming seriously, which is why we're standing here like a bunch of Mafia Dons."

This week’s Top Chef opens with the usual shots of New York and Chez Top Chef. Let’s just note that Hosea is wearing an “I heart Padma” shirt that I absolutely must buy for WonkthePlank, and move on.

As we well know from this week’s Top Chef commercials, season three winner Hung is the Quickfire judge. After Padma and Hung talk up the importance of using fresh ingredients in fine dining, they explain that the challenge is to make something from all-canned, all-processed, all non-fresh ingredients. Oh, snap! And in honor of Hung’s lightening speed chicken-butchering session in season three, the chefs will only have fifteen minutes for the challenge.

Hey, it could be worse – one of the companies that makes those pre-packaged ingredients could have sponsored this challenge. But you know that none of them did because you can’t see any of the labels on the ingredients; the bottles and cans are either shot from behind, or the labels are artfully obscured. But even without a blatant product placement, this is the kind of challenge Ted Allen would have a problem with. The chefs aren’t cooking, they’re “assembling” stale crap.

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Ariane really served this open-faced turkey spam sandwich with gravy. And yes, it looks that disgusting.

Because of the ingredients, these dishes look pretty disgusting, and the differentiation between the “top” and “bottom” chefs is based more on laziness than cooking. Hung, who must be aware there’s no way to make this stuff taste great, judges the chefs on effort and strategy, not cooking skills. Leah is on the bottom because her pre-packaged waffles are “too-crunchy.” Jamie is on the bottom for slacking – she didn’t really cook anything for her brushetta. Rhadika is also on the bottom for slacking; her “dip” is just a bunch of canned crap that she put in a blender.

If you think the bottom dishes sound uninspiring, the top dishes are just gross. I don’t want to eat Hosea’s canned sweet pea soup with fried spam, or Jeff’s deep fried-canned baby conk. And I really, really don’t want to eat Stefan’s baked bean soup and Velveeta grilled cheese, even if he does win the challenge.

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Stefan's "winning" dish. This looks like college dorm food.

After this unsavory and un-sponsored little episode, the Elimination challenge sounds much more appetizing: to create a fresh, seasonal menu. Anyone think this sounds too easy? There has to be a twist. However, all the chefs don’t seem to see the obvious, and, after they divide into teams, plan their menus.

The chefs are divided into teams based on their main protein: Jamie, Stefan and Carla are Team Chicken; Leah, Ariane and Hosea are Team Lamb, and My Boyfriend Fabio, Jeff and Rhadika are team Pork. Not everyone is happy with their team. Ariane is annoyed that she’s been put with the “love birds” Hosea and Leah (who both are in relationships! And yet continue to madly flirt on national TV). Jamie is pissed that she’s been put with Stefan, who seems to delight in getting her angry and having her yell at him.

As I suspected, all that menu planning comes to naught. Their shopping trip, which features some prominent shots of Toyota Sequoias (Product Placement Number One), won’t take them to whole foods. Instead, the chefs are driven to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a farm, restaurant, and education center. Chef Dan Barber heads the farm, and explains that the challenge will be to cook dinner for the Center’s farmers, using fresh ingredients from the farm. Barber will be the guest judge.

So let’s take a step back here. Getting all your ingredients directly from the farm is supposedly a chefs dream, right? So I’m surprised at how poorly the chefs will manage this challenge. For now, we get to see some really cute shots of the chefs cavorting with pigs, chickens, and sheep, as they figure out how to alter their menus.

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"Since Jamie won't sleep with me, let me just fondle this chicken."

Once the chefs start their meal prep, there are some signs that Team Lamb is in trouble. Ariane, who’s been put in charge of the lamb, doesn’t seem to know how to butcher or tie her lamb roasts. Tom is concerned that Team Chicken is doing a soup, even though it’s 85 degrees out and the farmers and judges will be dining in the hot sun.

But when serving time comes, Team Chicken is actually the most together of the three. Team Chicken serves chicken cutlets, lemon herb roasted chicken, heirloom tomato salad, and chicken consomme with chicken ravioli. Padma doesn’t see the point of eating soup in the heat (agreed), but Toby is a fan of the cutlets. Team Chicken’s dessert, a nectarine and strawberry tart that features Carla’s famous pastry crust, is a hit with the judges. It doesn’t sound like high praise, but this turns out to be the star showing of the evening.

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Team Chicken's meal. Not wonderful, but the best of the bunch.

Team Pork serves a grilled corn salad with green beans and bacon, fried green tomatoes, sausage ravioli, and a wrapped pork loin. Right away, Tom questions their choices. Why did the chefs roast the pork loin off the bone, when leaving it on the bone improves the flavor and juiciness of the meat? Why is there so much pesto on the ravioli? Toby, desperately trying to be funny, says that the pesto was the “big bad wolf that blew this meal down.” Um, Toby? Stop trying so hard. The dessert also doesn’t go over very well; the judges think the lavender creme brulee is too sweet. Padma says that the fried green tomatoes are the team’s saving grace.

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Team Pork. There sure is a hell of a lot of pesto on that ravioli.

Team Lamb also has a weak showing, serving roasted baby lamb, roasted potatoes, and tomato salad. Like the Pork team, the Lamb team decides to roast the baby lamb off the bone, making it drier and less flavorful. And it doesn’t even look pretty – Dan Barber thinks that the lamb butchering is a mess. As for their dessert, Toby says the pound cake trifle with pastry cream and berries is “unappetizing.” Oh dear.

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Team Lamb does the impossible - makes baby lamb tough.

At the judges table, the panel is appalled that the chefs screwed up such excellent ingredients.Team Chicken (Carla, Jamie and Stefan) are the top three, showing that feint praise can get you far on Top Chef. All three of the chefs win the challenge, although they don’t get a prize or anything (falling low on the sponsors, Top Chef?).

Team Pork and Team Lamb are in the bottom, and the judges call in all six chefs for a tongue lashing. Toby doesn’t understand why Team Pork removed the fat from the pork loin. Dan Barber points out that the chefs removed one of the “more delicious parts of the animal.” Toby adds that he wants to have “full-blown, unprotected sex” with a nice piece of meat, but their dish was “bloodless and anemic.” Well well well. If I wasn’t hungry before, I’m really not hungry now.

The judges have similar criticisms for Team Lamb.
Tom doesn’t understand why they cooked the lamb off the bone, and Dan Barber doesn’t understand why they tenderized the lamb meat. “Baby lamb is, by definition, tender,” Barber says. Tom also points out that Ariane shouldn’t have butchered the lamb, since she didn’t know what she was doing. Hosea, who admits that he has butchering experience, left Ariane floundering with a task that was out of her league and compromised the entire meal.

I think this was the first real elimination of the show.
We’re finally down to good chefs, who know what they’re doing, and have real skills–no more Melissas, or Genes, or Gay-Boy culinary students. So I’m actually surprised when Ariane goes home, but not blown away. This makes me believe that her strong showing throughout the competition has been more a matter of producer manipulation than culinary skill. If she was really that good and that strong a contender, would she have been kicked off in episode eight? I don’t think so.

Next week: Restaurant Wars!

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DC Restaurant Scene in the News

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How will DC restaurants fare under the new Administration?

Photo courtesy of Daquella Manera, via flickr under the Creative Commons license.

The New York Times has an interesting write-up on the DC Dining scene in Wednesday’s Food section. In a refreshing turn of events, the Times didn’t focus on the swanky restaurants that most of my peers can’t afford to visit, but the restaurant revival in neighborhoods like Petworth, U Street, Columbia Heights, and H Street. It’s a thoughtful piece that reflects a type of DC’s food world that can fly under the radar of DC’s big-name celebrity-chef restaurants.

The Times also has a piece that speculates on how the Obama Administration will change the DC restaurant scene (right now, it looks promising for Cork and Hook).

And if you think that getting to the Inauguration will be crazy, it’s nothing compared with what restaurants will be dealing with as they try to serve massive amounts of customers this weekend. According to this Washington Post piece, Clyde’s of Gallery Place will be open 18 hours a day this weekend. And the Penn Quarter Teaism is planning on blowing up air mattresses to house their staff overnight, in case the pedestrian lockdown will prevent staff from getting to work on time. Just reading about this makes me want to spend the day in front of my TV, far from the crowds.

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Free Cupcakes Today!

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Just a reminder to those of you who live in Penn Quarter—Red Velvet Cupcakery is having its grand opening today, and will be giving away free cupcakes to the first 500 vistors! For those of us who will be heading down after work, cupcakes are $3.25 a pop. Red Velvet Cupcakery, which shares space with a new TangySweet, is located at 675 E St NW, one block from the Verizon Center.

Check out their menu, or read the original post for more details.

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DC Cupcake Odyssey: Georgetown Cupcake Lives Up to the Hype

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Georgetown Cupcake's Red Velvet Cupcake. As pretty as it is good.

Last month I took a break from the holiday baking craziness and visited Georgetown Cupcake with my coworker. This was a belated stop on my DC cupcake odyssey, which started with my review of Hello Cupcake soon after its opening, and continued with my CakeLove review back in October.

I had my doubts about Georgetown Cupcake, because all I’ve heard is how great they are (after all, isn’t that the biggest criticism of Cake Love? That it’s all hype and no cake?). And I was annoyed that The Washington Post didn’t really “review” so much as “drool over” their cupcakes during the Cupcake Wars.

For those of you who don’t know the story, Georgetown Cupcake is DC’s first cupcake shop, and was founded by sister baking team Katherine Kallinis and Sophie LaMontagne. Considering that the DC area now has three cupcake-only establishments (Hello Cupcake, Georgetown Cupcake, Lavender Moon Cupcakery) and recently added a fourth (Red Velvet Cupcakery), it’s pretty shocking that DC’s oldest cupcakery opened back in February 2008, less than a year ago.

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A busy night at Georgetown Cupcake.

My coworker and I went to Georgetown Cupcake on a Friday night in December. Georgetown’s streets were less crowded than usual due to the upcoming holidays, but there was almost a line out Georgetown Cupcake’s door. The store at 1209 Potomac St. N,  just off M street, isn’t much bigger than a cupcake box, with just one table that served as a bag-dropping station while customers placed their orders. If you’re looking for a place to have your cupcake and eat it too, then head across the street to Dean and Deluca.

The cupcakes were beautifully displayed on different cake stands, adding to the fairy-tale charm of the store. I had planned to only buy two cupcakes, but the spirit overtook me and I ordered up a whole half dozen: the Red Velvet, Chocolate2, Chocolate3, Vanilla, Vanilla and Chocolate, and Carrot Cake.

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Georgetown Cupcake's Display.

I was pretty much won over the moment I saw the beautiful presentation—the cakes were small, just peeking over the edge of their wrappers, with nary a muffin top in site. The frosting was perfectly piped in appealing swirls, and the fondant decorations were perfectly centered. From the presentation alone I could tell that this sister baking team cares deeply about its craft. And according to The Washington Post, the sisters pipe the frosting onto every cupcake themselves, which may be why they looked so pretty.

And as for the cupcakes themselves? I was absolutely blown away. First off, the cake is exactly what I’m looking for in a cupcake—it’s extremely light and tender, with the moistness of an oil cake, but the full flavor of a butter cake. The flavors were rich and deep—the vanilla cupcake tasted like it was infused with vanilla beans, and the chocolate cupcake tasted like the cake version of a chocolate bar.

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A plate of Georgetown Cupcakes, a little battered after a rough trip home the night before.

But my favorite part was the frosting, which I liked even more than the cake, and has taken hold in my mind as a Platonic, ideal version of frosting. It was extremely light and fluffy, and free of that teeth-shocking sweetness that frostings often have. The flavors were intense and balanced. The vanilla frosting really tasted like vanilla beans, and the cream cheese frosting was the perfect balance of sweet and tang, lightness and flavor.

The chocolate frosting had a deep, rich chocolate flavor that rivaled that of a ganache, but without being as heavy. I’ll admit that the chocolate frosting was so intensely chocolatey that it completely overwhelmed the vanilla cake in the Vanilla-Chocolate cupcake, but is that such a horrible thing? My favorites were the Vanilla Squared (vanilla cake with vanilla frosting, simple but extremely well done) and the Chocolate Squared (chocolate cake with Chocolate ganache).

Can you tell that the cupakes completely won me over? It’s no wonder, with this really fabulous product, that Georgetown Cupcake has become a DC media darling. Not only did they win the Washington Post Cupcake Wars, (and, by the way, they even gave out the recipe for the Chocolate Ganache Cupcakes), but they’ve appeared on the Martha Stewart Show and have been favorable reviewed in the New York Times.

The only thing that could have improved my experience was the customer service. It’s possible that it was an off night when I was there, but the cashiers seemed much more interested in gossiping than getting the huge line of customers taken care of. Considering that Georgetown Cupcake’s branding promises a chic, professional, and “couture” product, the service didn’t quite fit with their carefully crafted brand.

Still, I’m now a big fan of Georgetown Cupcake and I can’t wait to go back. You heard it here, folks—this is no CakeLove. Some things really can live up to the hype.

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The January Popover Experiment, Take One

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Popovers, take one.

One of the problems with being an amateur baker who, unfortunately, must work to make a living, is that it’s incredibly easy to fall into baking ruts. As much as I want to try new recipes, I never know if they’re going to work, and I hate wasting my precious time and energy on a failed project. This fear drives me back to the tried-and true crowd-pleasing recipes that I know will come out perfect every time, which is why I’ve made more batches of America’s Test Kitchen Molasses Spice cookies than I can count.

But in 2009, I want to stretch my baking chops. So I decided to do an experiment. Every month I want to choose a new baked good to focus on—pie, pound cake, devil’s food cake, etc.—and try a bunch of different recipes for that item. Hopefully, this project will hone my baking skills, force me to bake things I’d never bake on my own, and, of course, have something to chronicle for my domestically obsessed readership. Plus I now have several excellent cookbooks on hand, and this is a perfect excuse to try them out.

After a little culinary soul-searching, I decided that January was going to be popovers month. Why? Well, for one thing, they’re fast and easy to make. I can serve them with dinner for two nights in a row without inciting protest from WonkthePlank, who loves them. When done right, they taste delicious, with a salty, buttery and crisp brown crust, and soft, springy middle. And there’s a certain magic in a good popover—the liquid batter looks like it’s too soupy to bake into anything at all, but the mystical force of the oven transforms it into towering brown puffs of dough. That kind of magic is why I love baking.

My first popover attempt was based on Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipe from the The Bread Bible, which is hands-down my all-time favorite cookbook. In the book, Beranbaum explains that popovers are a type of batter bread, meaning that the dough contains a double amount of water than a basic bread dough recipe. Basic popover recipes call for mixture of flour, eggs, and milk, but Beranbaum adds melted butter, salt and sugar as well. Despite their towering height, popovers do not use yeast or any other leavener. Instead, when placed in a hot oven, the milk in the batter creates steam, creating that magnificent rise.

Beanbaum’s recipe also calls for Wondra flour, which is a low-protein, highly-processed, granular flour that dissolves instantly in liquid. General Mills calls it “quick mixing” flour that can be used for gravy or sauces, but many bakers have found that it works well in certain breads and cakes. Wondra flour is perfect for popovers because the flour absorbs the liquid instantly, so the batter can be baked immediately. Many traditional popover recipes call for the batter to sit for several hours before baking, during which the flour becomes fully hydrated.

In my admittedly small amount of research on popovers, I’ve found that there’s variation in the way that popovers are baked. Some recipes call for popover batter to be poured into a buttered muffin or popover tin and then placed in a hot oven. However, the Beranbaum recipe calls for the buttered tins to be heated for a couple of minutes in a hot oven before the batter is added. This is the traditional way that Yorkshire puddings are made—although, in that case, they are cooked in beef drippings, rather than hot butter.

The recipe below is an adaptation of Beranbaum’s Bread Bible recipe, which I made last Friday night. While the popovers did, indeed, rise to stupendous heights, I think they almost rose too much. One of my favorite parts of a popover is the spongy, soft middle that clings to the crisp, brown crust. When I made these, there was an abundance of brown crust and not enough spongy middle. Still, if you like a crusty, buttery popover, then this recipe is for you.

The Popover Recipe

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Monday Roundup: Inauguration Tizzy

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Obama cupcakes are a hot item in the blogosphere.

Happy Monday, ModernDomestic readers.

To start your week off right, here’s some good news and reading from the domestic blog-o-sphere.

  • DC Foodies talks about what to drink in a recession, and apparently, it’s Montepulciano. Also, thank you for saying that Italian wine is “a bitch to get a handle on.” I’ve always thought that and have been too intimidated to say anything
  • And for all of you who have already broken some of your New Year’s resolutions, there’s a good post over at The Kitchn about failure, and why it’s an important component of any self-improvement plan, culinary or otherwise.

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