Archive for August, 2009

A Visit To Cupcake Royale

Cupcake Royale - Peppermint Cupcake

A perfect mint chocolate cupcake from Cupcake Royale, in Seattle.

It’s sad to say that I was a better cupcake consumer in the Northwest than I’ve been in DC. I still haven’t been to Baked and Wired or Buzz Bakery or Best Buns Company, but I managed to visit three cupcake shops on my West Coast jaunt. One of them, Tacoma’s “Hello, Cupcake,” was really delightful, and helped my coworkers and I muddle through the final days our convention. The second one, Cupcake Royale, was a must-do item on my Seattle to-do list. And the third . . . well, I won’t go there just yet.

Cupcake Royale - Sign

The sign outside the Capital Hill store.

I was very excited to visit Cupcake Royale during my two days in Seattle. Unlike many of the DC cupcake shops, which are recent transplants (Hello Cupcake just had its first birthday), Cupcake Royale opened before I left Seattle four years ago. It has four locations, including one in Ballard (the Nordic-inspired, trendy neighborhood that celebrates both vikings and boutiques), Madrona, West Seattle, and Capitol Hill (Seattle’s resident gay district – no relation to DC’s Capitol Hill). I visited the latter location, along with my friend Aiko, who unexpectedly had some time off from her teaching masters program.

Cupcake Royale - Interior 2

I heart the store's design.

First off, the store is delightful. The store opens with a large stained glass cupcake window, and has art pieces scattered throughout. The store’s clean white and pink color scheme and open floor plan makes the space feel both whimsical and modern – not an easy thing to accomplish. It’s also huge. There’s a large display case, counter, and huge seating area – theoretically, one could get a cupcake, a cup of coffee, and spend an hour reading a book or watching all the Capitol Hill types pass by the large windows. Try to do that in Georgetown Cupcake.

Cupcake Royale - Interior 1

I want that lamp! In another color . . .

Due to waistline considerations, I wasn’t able to sample all the cupcake flavors I wanted. So I tried to choose a representative sampling, and went with a chocolate cupcake with peppermint frosting, and a vanilla cupcake with lavender frosting. Both cupcakes were the generous “muffin top” style cupcakes – like the kind one gets at Cakelove, and both were covered in powdered-sugar based buttercream frosting.

Cupcake Royale - Case

The cupcake case . . . I wanted to try them all.

The peppermint cupcake was seriously perfect. I don’t think I could ask for anything more in a cupcake. The cake was really moist and fluffy, and had a melt in your mouth tender crumb. The frosting was very minty and incredibly smooth and soft and flavorful, without being too sweet. Really, this cupcake was spot -on in every way.

Of course, the lavender cupcake had a tough act to follow, and didn’t quite live up to its predecessor. The lavender frosting had the same great texture and sweetness, but I couldn’t help but think that it tasted a little soapy (this is the problem with lavender flavored desserts, I’ve found). The vanilla cake was lovely, however, with the same melting, fluffy texture as the chocolate cake.

Cupcake Royale - Lavender Cupcake

A lavender cupcake to go.

All in all, I left the experience vowing that I would figure out how the hell I could make that peppermint cupcake myself – and vowing to return to Cupcake Royale and Seattle before too long. But when I was proclaiming my cupcake Royale love at happy hour later that day at one of my old college haunts (Kai’s for anyone who’s interested), I found out that there was a cupcake controversy brewing in Seattle. One of my friends told me that the Cupcake Royale cupcakes out in the Ballard store are always dry, and that Trophy, an up-and-coming cupcake shop, made the best cupcake in the city.

Had I found this out before the night before my flight, I would have gone to investigate. But I think I’ll have to save Trophy for another trip. Seattle peeps, care to weigh in on this cupcake controversy? Is the Trophy vs. Cupcake Royale debate just a matter of personal taste, or does Cupcake Royale really have consistency problems? Now that I’m no longer a Seattleite, I can only speculate.


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Postcards From the Pacific Northwest

Northwest - Honey at Pike Place

A honey vendor in Pike Place market. Eastern Market has nothing on Pike Place, in my humble opinion.

It’s day five of my vacation in the Pacific Northwest – I flew to Portland yesterday after spending a couple days in Seattle, and am currently gearing up for a day of wine tasting with my parents. No time to write – I just wanted to share these photos with you from my trip. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back!

Northwest - Flowers at Pike Place

Flowers, flowers everywhere.

Yes, you’ve heard about the fish throwing vendors at Pike Place Market – but have you seen the flowers there? My friend Aiko and I saw bouquet after bouquet of beautiful flowers – many for as little at $5 a piece.

Northwest - Peppes at Pike Place

I really wanted to buy this wreath.

I loved these wreaths of peppers at Pike Place. I’d hang one in my kitchen window and bring a little cheer to my tiny kitchen.

Northwest - Vivace Latte

Man I miss these.

Another excellent Seattle latte – this time from Espresso Vivace. I love the foam art. You don’t get that at Starbucks.

Northwest - Hotel Monaco in Portland 2

I love the bold mix of styles at the Hotel Monaco.

I’m staying with my parents in the Hotel Monaco in Portland, and I’m absolutely in love with the bright, eclectic decor. I love the mix of Asian influences and classic styles.

Northwest - Hotel Monaco in Portland

A sette out of Alice in Wonderland.

Another vignette from the Monaco. I would never want this settee in my house, but it’s a perfect piece for a hotel.

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Why This Latte Is So Damn Good

Solstice - Latte 3

DC coffee shops, take note: lattes should taste like espresso, not milk.

Finally, a latte that actually tastes like a latte. I don’t think I’ve had a coffee drink like this since the last time I visited Seattle three years ago – DC coffee shops just don’t know how to make a decent latte. It wasn’t until that coffee infused milk hit my lips that I realized how much I missed it.

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of tasting a real latte, and only know the faint, watery version you get at Starbucks, a real latte actually tastes like espresso. A real latte has a rich, complex, deep coffee flavor, and this particular specimen was slightly sweet on the tip of my tongue, and slightly bitter on the back. The milk enhances the espresso flavor, and adds a thick, creamy, slightly viscous texture to the drink.

In other words, lattes shouldn’t taste like coffee-flavored milk.

This latte comes from Cafe Solstice, a hipster coffee shop located near the University of Washington campus on University Way (aka, “The Ave,” as the locals and students call it). I logged many hours in this coffee shop during my college years at UW, and it’s funny to see how little it’s changed. The shop still sells the same cookies and brownies, the servers are still incredibly rude, and all the chairs are still mismatched. And the lattes are still some of my very favorite in Seattle.

Solstice - Latte 2

Look at that foam. That lovely, lovely foam. Beat that, Starbucks.

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There Are Cupcakes In Tacoma Washington!

Hello, Cupcake - Interior

Hello, Cupcake, in Tacoma Washington.

There’s nothing more warming to the soul when you’re working twelve hours days at a convention and can’t stomach telling one more person where the lunch buffet is, than receiving a box of cupcakes. So imagine my joy when a box of cupcakes from Tacoma Washington’s Hello Cupcake (not affiliated with the DC version) appeared in our makeshift convention office this week – the gift of a very kind and thoughtful husband of one of our board members.

Hello, Cupacake - Vanilla Chocolate

The vanilla chocolate cupcake. I heart those pink flowers.

My coworkers and I loved the cupcakes so much that we stole away for half an hour on Saturday to get an even dozen. We had to protect them from wandering conference participants.

Hello, Cupcake - Warning

Stay out of our cupcakes!

Hello Cupcake is right on Pacific avenue, near the Tacoma Museum of Glass, the University of Washington Tacoma campus, and the Chihuly Bridge of Glass. The store itself was charming, with a clean, bright interior, and beautifully displayed stands of cupcakes. I always forget how much space there is on the West Coast – the store was probably twice the size of Georgetown Cupcake, and felt very spacious.

Hello, Cupcake - Cupcake Display

I love the clean, clear cupcake displays.

The cupcakes themselves were excellent. My favorite was the chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting and sprinkles. The cake was moist and chocolatey, but the frosting was really something special. It had the creamy texture and lightness of a buttercream, but the rich chocolate flavor of a ganache – exactly the kind of chocolate frosting that I want to make myself.

Hello, Cupcake 2

I want to figure out how to make the chocolate frosting on these cupcakes! It was perfect.

I was also a big fan of the coconut cupcake, which managed to taste of coconut and vanilla, without being too sweet. The carrot cake was also top notch – the cake was nicely spiced, and the cream cheese frosting had the creamy consistency and tang that I look for in a good cream cheese frosting.

Hello, Cupcake - Carrot Cake

A lovely carrot cake cupcake.

I also liked the rich coffee flavor of the coffee frosting on the mocha cupcake.

Hello, Cupcake - Mocha

The coffee frosting had a strong coffee flavor - appropriate in the Pacific Northwest.

I was not a fan of the vanilla cupcake. The vanilla cake with vanilla frosting was way too sweet – the only thing that I could taste was sugar.

Hello, Cupcake - Vanilla

Too sweet - it needs to actually taste like vanilla to qualify as a vanilla cupcake.

And I wasn’t a fan of the peanut butter chips in the cake portion of the peanut butter cupcake.

Hello, Cupcake - Peanut Butter

A good peanut butter cupcake doesn't need peanut butter chips in the cake - just a good peanut butter frosting.

Overall, I was very pleased with the cupcakes over at Hello, Cupcake, although it would have been nice to have a few more seasonal offerings. The store shows a real commitment to quality products – the cake was moist, the buttercream was creamy, and the flavors were (almost always) spot on. A visit to the store would be a perfect way to top off a visit to Tacoma’s excellent Museum of Glass, but it would also be worth a detour on your way to Seattle. And it was the perfect mid-convention pick-me-up.

Hello, Cupcake - Our Dozen, Minus a Few

Almost all of our dozen cupcakes. Just a few fell pray to wandering hands.

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Free Cupcakes at Hello Cupcake Next Tuesday, Aug. 25

The Peppermint Penny

Hello Cupcake is Turning One!

Greetings from the Pacific Northwest. It’s cold, wet, and after working 12 hour days for a week, I just want to crawl under a desk and go to sleep. Next week: vacation, food, Seattle, Portland, family, and friends. And food pictures – I swear!

I’m happy to be back in the land of rain and evergreens, but I’m sad that I’m missing Hello Cupcake’s first anniversary celebration of their opening next week. Stop by the store next Tuesday, August 25, for a free cupcake while supplies last. My favorites include the Peppermint Penny (chocolate with peppermint frosting), the Peanut Butter Blossom (chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting), and the 24 Carrot (self explanatory). Please have a free cupcake for me.

Maybe I’ll treat myself to a cupcake from Cupcake Royale on Tuesday and celebrate from afar.

Hello Cupcake
1351 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036

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Confused About Jam

Jam Making - Peach Jam

Jam. So mysterious.

I’m confused about jam.

I’m confused about how you cook it – if you’re supposed to let it come to a boil for a couple minutes, or if you’re supposed to cook it for longer.

I’m confused about how much the jam should jell before you let it cool.

I’m confused about whether or not it actually has to come to 220 degrees before it will jell.

I’m confused about the difference between freezer jam pectin and regular pectin.

Jam Making - Peach and Blackberry Jam

Jam. So curious.

I’m confused as to why I thought I could use freezer jam pectin for my cooked blackberry jam.

I’m confused about the sterilized jars – can you touch them with your bare hands after they’re sterilized, or if that will somehow make them un-sterile?

I’m confused about how boiling the jars creates a vacuum.

I’m confused about the boiling water – can you sterilize the canning jars in the same boiling water as you use to seal the jars, or do you need a fresh pot?

I’m confused about when the tops of the jars should pop.

I’m confused as to why this entire process had to take five hours for each batch.

I’m confused about why it took me two weeks before I finally cleaned all the sticky jam byproduct off my stove.

I’m confused about why my peach ginger jam doesn’t taste gingery enough.

The only thing I am sure about is that the jam tastes delicious. It tastes like real fruit.

Jam Making - Jam and Toast

Jam. So delicious.

But, given my confusion, I’m leaving you in better hands than my own:

For all things canning and jam-related:

To learn about canning, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
For an honest blueberry jam recipe, see The Arugula Files
For a freezer jam recipe, see The Bitten Word
For a delicious-looking stone fruit and ginger jam recipe, see The Kitchn.
For a blackberry bay-leaf jam recipe, see Martha Stewart.

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August Baking Project, Take Three: Cherry Hand Pies

Cherry Hand Pies 2

Cherry hand pies. They don't look it, but they are akin to home made Pop Tarts.

Part three of my August baking project (desserts with summer fruits) takes advantage of the abundance of sweet cherries that are flooding into markets this summer. I found out on NPR that there’s an oversupply of sweet cherries this season, due to a favorable growing season, so producers and grocery stores are trying to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

It may be bad news for cherry farmers, but it sounds like good news to me. Usually I think of cherries as a luxury, but Rainier Cherries been showing up at the Columbia Heights Giant for as little at $2 a pound.

My first impulse was to make a cherry pie but, as I wrote last week, the single studio life doesn’t exactly lend itself to pie baking. Pie, which doesn’t freeze well or keep well after a few days, requires a crowd. However, I saw that The Bitten Word had tried out a Martha Stewart recipe for tomato hand pies, and I wondered if I couldn’t adapt it for cherries.

The Bitten Word had a mixed experience with their hand pies. One of the problems was the crust to filling the ratio – the recipe calls for patting squares of the pastry dough into muffin tins and folding the corners over the top of the filling. It’s a nice decorative touch, but the pies ended up being all crust and no filling. The recipe also didn’t specify to butter the muffin tins, and the pies were almost impossible to dislodge.

Armed with this test case, I wondered if I couldn’t do better. First off, I buttered my muffing tins, and the pies slipped right out. I changed the execution slightly  – instead of folding crust over the filling, I went for a small fluted edge and a couple decorative pastry strips. I also tried to roll the crust fairly thinly, to help the crust to filling ratio. And I added a little bit of shortening to the dough to help it crisp – a trick I learned from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Finally, I halved the recipe – although if you want a full dozen feel free to double it. After all, not everyone already has a freezer full of peach tartlets.

The finished product was still a little crust-heavy compared to a regular pie, but it wasn’t overwhelming. In fact, I think I might even like these hand pies more than regular pie. I love a good, crisp, flaky pie crust – especially when it’s just out of the oven and you can hear the butter in the crust sizzling. Because I baked the pies in muffin tins, the crust were really crisp and perfectly browned, and the cherry filling was sweet, tart, and fresh. The crust to filling ratio wasn’t exactly like a regular pie, but it was akin to eating a Pop Tart. But a really good, sweet, crispy, fresh, Platonic Pop Tart.

Best of all, the pies reheated extremely well – ten minutes in a toaster oven and they were almost as good as fresh-baked. Now find me a regular pie recipe that can do that!

Cherry Hand Pies 1

Mmmm . . .

Recipe: Cherry Hand Pies

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