Posts Tagged New York Times

The Whoopie Pie Revolution

Whoopie Pies 3

Whoopie pies, despite their name, are awesome.

There’s a whoopie pie revolution taking over my kitchen.

But before I tell you why, I have to get this out of the way: “whoopie pie” sounds way too much like “whoopie cushion.” It’s unfortunate, because who wants to think about whoopie cushions when they’re eating dessert? The associations — bodily functions best left unnamed, dumb practical jokes — are gross enough to take away any well meaning appetite.

And I believe it is this unfortunate association that is the true reason I never tasted a whoopie pie before two weeks ago, when I served them at a party for our church choir.

It was this New York Times article on whoopie pies that made me realize the truth: made right, a whoopie pie is a cake and frosting sandwich. Before that article, I didn’t know that whoopie pies could be anything other than a gross, smushed, sticky, sweaty pastry wrapped in plastic wrap and sold at the convenience stores of my youth. After that article, I knew that making whoopie pies was my destiny, at least for my next dinner party.

Whoopie Pies with Mint Frosting

Chocolate whoopie pies with mint buttercream frosting.

I doubled The Times’ recipe for the cakes, since the original recipe only made six pies. In retrospect, I should have realized that this meant that the pies were going to be huge — my finished product was a good five inches across. The cake was easy to mix up, but the baking process was time consuming. Because the each cake needs a good six inches of “spread” room, I could only fit six or seven on a pan, meaning I had to bake them in four batches.

I also didn’t use the Times buttercream recipe, opting instead for Chockylit’s mint buttercream frosting. This buttercream frosting was a revelation, because it was the first time I actually sifted my powdered sugar. The result was frosting ambrosia. Smooth and creamy, this frosting didn’t have that stick-to-your-teeth feeling of many powdered sugar frostings. I also upped the amount of mint extract to a full teaspoon, since I didn’t feel like the 1/8 of a teaspoon was minty enough.

And the final result? I loved them. My guests loved them. The whoopie pies were a huge hit. I’ve made cupcakes for parties before that have sat uneaten on trays, but I only had two whoopie pies left over after my party – and I only had those because they didn’t fit on the serving platter! I cut each pie in half to serve — if I made them again I’d make each pie half the size. That being said, I still ate two whole pies at the party. And then, after everyone left, I had one more.

I liked these pies so much because, as I suspected, the frosting/cake ratio was a much better fit to my tastes. If you are the type of person who is always scraping half the frosting off your cupcake, then this a welcome change. Because the frosting is sandwiched between two pieces of cake, the frosting acts as a compliment to the cake, but doesn’t overwhelm it.

Maybe this means I was wrong – maybe whoopie pies really are the next cupcake. At the very least, I have a strong inclination to make them my go-to party dessert.

Viva la revolution!

Recipe: Chocolate Mint Revolutionary Whoopie Pies


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Why Whoopie Pies Are Not the Next Cupcake

Cafe Blue Hills Tasty Treats

Are whoopie pies the next cupcake? I don't think so.

Photo by georgie_grd via flickr, under the Creative Commons license.

The New York Times is hinting that whoopie pies might be the next new big nostalgic baking trend, possibly displacing the cupcake trend. I had to give this one some thought, considering that the pioneering chockylit featured whoopie pies on her short-lived dessert blog, before disappearing  into the Internets. But Jezebel isn’t so convinced, and neither am I.

I’ve never had a whoopie pie, so I can’t judge them from a culinary perspective. They actually sound pretty tempting: two small chocolate cakes, sandwiched together with a cream filling of some kind – a precursor to the Oreo cakester.

And, although this sounds blasphemous, whoopie pies have some advantages over cupcakes. First of all, while I love frosting, too many cupcake shops pile on too much frosting for a dramatic visual effect, overwhelming the cake in the process. But because the whoopie pie is made from two pieces of cake sandwiched together with frosting, there’s a better cake-to-frosting ratio. It would also be harder to over-frost a whoopie because there’s really only so much filling one can stuff between two pieces of cake before the entire operation becomes unstable.

That being said, the idea that whoopie pies are the new cupcakes is going too far. Even if cupcakes are “trendy” now, they also occupy a large space in our collective nostalgic comfort food psyche that goes much deeper than mere trend. I would bet that every child in America—from San Franscico, to Kansas City, to Tampa—grew up eating cupcakes at birthday celebrations. We’ve all drooled at the packaged cupcakes in the pastry aisle of our local supermarkets. We’ve all seen, and probably at some time tasted, a Hostess cupcake. Cupcakes have been woven into our early childhood memories.

But whoopie pies are a regional treat, at best. According to the New York Times article, they were originally an Amish creation, and became a popular New England dessert, especially in Pennsylvania and Maine. But they aren’t ubiquitous – they are not the classic, standard childhood treat that is the cupcake.

And while the whoopie pies featured in the Times article are cute, they just aren’t as pretty as cupcakes—and it’s the cupcake’s immense artistic possibilities that are a large part of its charm. Just looking at the beautiful photos on Cupcakes Takes the Cake makes you realize that the cupcake is essentially a blank canvas which, with the aid of frosting, fondant, and sugar, can become anything imaginable. You can have cupcakes artfully decorated with shamrocks, you can make cupcakes shaped like roses, you can decorate cupcakes to look like the blood smattered smiley face pins in The Watchman. But whoopie pies, because the filling is sandwiched between two layers of cake, don’t have the same artistic possibilities. Sure, you can make them in different colors and flavors, but can you decorate them to look like Elmo? I think not.

No, the cupcake craze, if it’s going to end, isn’t over yet – and I don’t see whoopie pies posing any kind of a threat. Still, since I’ve never had them before, I believe they’ll be making an appearance at our next party. Now I just have to choose between this Epicurious recipe, or the one in the New York Times. Buttercream filling, or marshmallow fluff? Decisions, decisions.

What do you think? Is the cupcake craze at an end? Is the whoopie pie a serious contender to replace cupcakes? Have you ever made a whoopie pie?

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The New York Times: $300(ish) Home Makeovers for the Unemployed

Living Room

Our living room. The green collage on the left, brown pillows on the couch, and throw pillow were all unemployment projects.

When I was out of work a couple of years ago, I threw myself into decorating our apartment – with nothing to do, it was the perfect time to finally paint the lamps I had sitting around, sew new throw pillows for the living room, and figure out the perfect floor plan in the bedroom. But it wasn’t just the extra time I had – I was sick of staring at our disordered apartment and it was starting to drive me crazy.

Today, The New York Times addresses that little-discussed side effect of unemployment: the “cabin fever” that comes with staring at the same four walls all day. The Times found five out-of-work professionals and had designers redecorate their apartment for under $300. Or, at least, that was the plan – all but one of the designers strayed above their budget, although all stayed below the $500 mark.

Whether you’re out of work or not, the article has great decorating tips for those of us, like myself, who are on a tight budget. Granted, I’ve seen a lot of these tips on “Decorating Cents” before, but I think they bear repeating. Also, unlike HGTV decorating shows where the room transformations are always overly dramatic (and sometimes really tacky), the before and after pics in the Times showed how small, subtle changes can dramatically improve a space.

Some of my favorite take-aways from the article were:

1. Make a floor plan. It’s free, and can dramatically transform your space (check out this before and after photo. Amazing!).

2. In rooms without decorative molding, use paint to define the space. This Brooklyn apartment goes from messy to modern, all with the help of blue paint. This Williamsburg apartment also uses paint to liven up the space, to great effect.

3. When you don’t know what to do in a room, start collecting pictures from catalogs or magazines of pieces and rooms you love. For this apartment in Murray Hill, the resident collected design tear sheets and discovered that she was drawn to clean lines, bright colors, and upholstered pieces.

4. A little pattern can go a long way. Just look at how some green patterned curtains brighten up this apartment in the West Village. For a more dramatic look, check out this stenciling job in a Long Island house.

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DC Restaurant Scene in the News

Sushi Taro

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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Can Mark Bittman Clean Out My Cabinets?

12-07 pantry 3

Photo Courtesy of la fatina on flickr, under the Creative Commons license.

As I said on Monday, one of my Domestic Resolutions for 2009 is to clean out and organize our unruly kitchen cabinets. So imagine my fortune to see that Mark Bittman wrote a whole article on this very subject yesterday!

Bittman has a number of suggestions for cleaning out your cabinets. But how realistic are they for a time-strapped blogger? Let’s see, shall we?

Suggestion: Throw out Packaged bread crumbs or croutons and make your own.

I really don’t use breadcrumbs regularly, so I don’t see the point of making my own. I will make my own fresh bread crumbs, but I make those on an as-needed basis.

Suggestion: Throw out your canned stock and bouillon cubes, and make your own stock instead.

Um, so I’ve tried to do the whole “make your own stock and freeze it” thing, and I’ve done it once or twice. But when I make stock it means I can’t leave the house all day because I don’t want to leave the stove on unattended, and it takes forever (forever!) to defrost the stock when Ineed it. A nice suggestion, but I think I’ll still use boxes of stock from the grocery store (Kitchen Basics is my preferred brand).

Suggestion: Throw out your spray oil. Use regular olive oil instead.

I don’t have spray oil.

Bottled Vinegar, Canned Peas, and More

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The Secrets of Baking With Butter


Martha Washington's Shrewsbury Cakes are an old-fashioned butter cookie.

For all of you home bakers out there who soften your butter in the microwave (a sin which I am completely guilty of) take warning: your butter will never be the same! This New York Times article, which came out today, is all about butter. Not only did the Times staff taste-test butters, but reporter Julia Moskin gives you the scoop about how mistreating your butter can affect your baked goods.

After reading this article, I totally want to go back and re-bake all my baked goods that didn’t turn out so well (like the last time I made chocolate cupcakes, which came out too dry), and make them again with properly softened butter. Apparently you want your butter to be at 65 degrees, which is warm enough to spread, but not warm enough to melt. Also, you’ll have better results if you keep your butter-based dough extremely cold before baking.

If you’re in the mood for some additional Christmas baking, the recipies in the article look rather tempting. If I hadn’t just baked so many gingerbread ornaments this weekend (which hopefully I’ll update you on tomorrow), I would probably be baking these Orange Butter Cookies tonight.

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HGTV’s Top Three Worst Design Trends

If you too are tired of hearing how drapes “soften” a room, or hearing your coworkers go on and on about their design “inspiration objects,” then I suggest you check out this New York Times essay on how  TV-decorating mania has spawned an overabundance of home decor terms.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m interested in decorating as much as the next homemaking-minded gal, and I’m generally a fan of HGTV. Even if I too find the constant talk of “focal points” wearying, I like that HGTV encourages us to use our imaginations and really pay attention to our living spaces. (Side note: I also think HGTV fueled problems in the housing market by encouraging people to view their houses as investments rather than homes, but that’s a subject for a whole other post).

Still, this article reminded me that the world would be better off without some decorating concepts embedded in HGTV dogma.

The Top Three Worst HGTV Decorating Trends

1. Water Features. I’ve never understood HGTV’s obsession with water features. According to HGTV, water features belong in every room of the house. But why would I want a fountain in my bedroom where it will get the rug wet? Or in the living room where guests could knock it over? I’m not against a tasteful fountain in the backyard, and I have very fond memories of my grandmother’s goldfish pond, but I swear to God every HGTV room has some kind of cheap fountain that looks like it would be a pain to keep clean. I’m sorry, but I don’t want an ugly fountain taking up space in my home, especially if it serves no discernible purpose.

2. Outdoor Rooms. Perhaps it’s because I’m originally from the Pacific Northwest, where it rains nine months out of the year, but I find the whole idea of creating an elaborate “outdoor room,” complete with furniture, drapes, and nick-knacks, ridiculous. In the real world, I don’t want to leave a bunch of fabric-covered items sitting outside through summer thunderstorms. And even if I live in a dry climate, outdoor furnishings are still going to gather dust, dirt, bugs, and God knows what else. Plus, where are you supposed to store all the furniture in your “outdoor room” come winter time? I think it’s fine to get some nice lawn furniture if you think you’ll use it, but creating an entire outdoor space is just excessive to me.

3. Anything Can Be Art. Now, I’m not against making your own art; in fact, I absolutely love doing amateur art projects, and many of my creations are hanging in our living room. But I dislike that the designers on so many HGTV shows grab random objects (coasters, tea cozies, trivets), nail them to painted boards, and call them “art.” I know that those shows are under huge time and budget constraints, but for real people, it’s better to wait and collect (or create) pieces that you really like. If you get a bunch of random crap and throw it up on the wall because you have space to fill, you’ll be sick of it in two months. For those of you interested in learning more about affordable art, check out this Apartment Therapy post on affordable art. I’m also a big fan of the indie band posters over at The Small Stakes, which run about $25 and are hauntingly lovely.

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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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Will Cupcakes Go The Way of Krispy Kreme?

Cupcake Display

The cupcake display at Hello Cupcake, one of three new DC cupcakes stores to open in the last year.

Last Thursday, the New York Times Cityroom Blog asked, “Will cupcakes be the next Krispy Kreme?”

It’s an intriguing question, especially for those of us who have watched with delight at the cupcake businesses springing up in our neighborhoods, or who have dreams of starting a cupcake businesses ourselves (or already have one).

Here in DC, we’ve definitely seen a cupcake boom in the last year. The DC area had two cupcake establishments open in the last month—Hello Cupcake in Dupont Circle, and Lavender Moon Cupcake in Alexandria. Plus, Georgetown Cupcake just opened back in February. Only time will tell if DC has the market to support the burgeoning cupcake businesses, especially if the public loses interest in the cupcakes as their sweet, sinful treat of choice.

However, I think there’s a big flaw in the Times’ comparison between the Krispy Kreme craze and the cupcake craze. Krispy Kreme is a single, nation-wide business and brand. The business suffered because it expanded too rapidly and went from being an exclusive, sought-after commodity, to an ubiquitous item you could pick up in any grocery store. Because Krispy Kreme’s management made poor strategic decisions, the donut craze faltered as a whole

But the cupcake craze isn’t fueled by any one brand or business—the stores in DC are small, independent bakeries that don’t look like they’ll be going national anytime soon. In DC the closest thing we have in to Krispy Kreme is CakeLove, which now has seven locations in the area — not exactly a national business. And CakeLove has built its brand on a lot more than just their cupcakes (I mean, just look at their name). If the cupcake portion of their business diminished, they’d still have their cakes, cafe, and other baked goods to shore them up.

Even the cupcake stores that the article mentions (the Magnolia Bakery, Cupcake Café) are all boutique businesses. If one of those stores fails because of mismanagement, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the other cupcake businesses are going to fail. The Times only mentions one store that is rapidly expanding — Crumbs, which plans to expand to 40 stores in the next year and 150 in the next five years. And Crumbs doesn’t just sell cupcakes—as you can see on their Web site, they bill themselves as a “bake shop,” even if cupcakes are a featured product.

In my mind, this bodes well for the cupcake business, especially those businesses that sell more than just cupcakes and, theoretically, could pull through a cupcake decline on the strength of their other products.

Also, perhaps this is wishful thinking, but the renewed interest in local businesses and locally produced food could mean that these small, boutique cupcake bakeries will have a better shot at survival. In this new consumer paradigm where “small is good,” local business that become coveted “local treasures” could have a better shot than big, ubiquitous chain stores.

Well, maybe wonktheplank would disagree with me there, but I have to keep the faith that a new bakery day is dawning.

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