Saturday, April 22, 2006

Un-easy dark chocolate cupcakes

When I was putting together the lasagna for my St. Patrick’s Day shindig, I realized I needed something sweet to round out the meal. I searched through my copies of Cook’s Illustrated and found a few earmarked, yet untested recipes and settled on making cupcakes, something I thought would be pretty simple and easy to make—plus, who doesn’t like cupcakes? I knew I already had most of the ingredients for both the cupcake recipe and the vanilla bean frosting. I figured I could find the few other items pretty readily.

One of the ingredients I did not have was Dutch-processed cocoa. I knew from reading a number of articles that the alkali in the Dutch-processing neutralizes the acids in natural cocoa powder, creating a delicate flavor when used in baked goods. When recipes call for Dutch-processed cocoa it is best, therefore, to stick with it because natural cocoa powder can impart bitterness from the acids. I just didn’t realize how hard it would be to find Dutch-processed cocoa in New York City. I spent a great deal of time searching all the nearby supermarkets, specialty and gourmet shops. When I could not find anything besides natural cocoa, I made a trip to several uptown places and only after my 5th or 6th store did I finally find a box of Droste Cocoa.

With my precious box of powder I trekked back down to my apartment to get to work on both the lasagna and the cupcakes. Since the baking time for the cupcakes was a lot less than the lasagna’s hour, I decide to make them first. I was surprised at how labor intensive this recipe turned out to be because the author implied that it relatively quick and easy.

Heating the chocolate in a bowl over a simmering saucepan was actually a bit of a balancing act. Maybe it was due to the fact I didn’t really have the best equipment at hand, but I was constantly having to make sure that I didn’t overheat the chocolate/butter/cocoa mixture—that takes quite a bit of concentration and maneuvering. The several step process of adding and mixing the different sets of ingredients together is slightly complicated and really counters the notion that this is an easy recipe you can just “dump and stir” like they declare on the front cover. I’m a big fan of Cook’s Illustrated because they often simplify complicated ethnic recipes that are delicious and user friendly, but in this case suggesting this was an 'easy' recipe was quite a stretch.

This all being said, the final products were deliciously rich, moist and chocolatey—the essential elements of a perfect cupcake. If you have the time and energy and are looking for to make a scrumptious cupcake, I highly recommend this recipe, but it is not for those who are looking to produce a 'quick' dessert.

P.S. Thanks to J.F. for supplying the green decorating gel which we all had fun using to make the silly patterns and designs on the cupcakes.

Dark Chocolate Cupcakes (Adapted from Cook's Illustrated March & April 2005)

Makes 12 cupcakes

According to the author, the recipe doesn’t double very well, so make two batches separately.

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
½ cup (1 ½ ounces) Dutch-processed cocoa
¾ cup (3 ¾ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon baking powder
2 large eggs
¾ cup (5 ¼ ounces) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon table salt
½ cup (4 ounces) sour cream

1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard-sized muffin pans (cups have ½ cup capacity) with baking-cup liners.

2. Combine butter, chocolate, and cocoa in medium heatproof bowl. Set bowl over saucepan containing barely simmering water; heat mixture until butter and chocolate are melted and whisk until smooth and fully combined. Set aside to cool until just warm to touch.

3. Whisk flour, baking soda, and baking powder in small bowl to combine.

4. Whisk eggs in second medium bowl to combine; add sugar, vanilla, and salt and whisk until fully incorporated. Add cooled chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Sift about one-third of flour mixture over chocolate mixture and whisk until combined; whisk in sour cream until combined, then sift remaining flour mixture over and whisk until batter is homogenous and thick.

5. Divide batter evenly among muffin pan cups. Bake until skewer inserted into center of cupcakes comes out clean. 18 to 20 minutes.

6. Cool cupcakes in muffin pan on wire rack until cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes. Carefully lift each cupcake from muffin pan and set on wire rack. Cool to room temperature before icing, about 30 minutes.

Easy Vanilla Bean Buttercream (Adapted from Cook's Illustrated March & April 2005)

Makes about 1 ½ cups, enough to frost 12 cupcakes

The frosting can be made ahead and refrigerated, but it must stand at room temperature to soften before use. Mixing times are increased by 50% if you use a handheld mixer.

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
½ vanilla bean, halved lengthwise [I used a whole bean and the flavor was much more intense]
1 ¼ cup (5 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
Pinch table salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon heavy cream

In standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat butter at medium-high speed until smooth, about 20 seconds. Using paring knife, scrape seeds from vanilla bean onto butter and beat mixture at medium-high speed to combine, about 15 seconds. Add confectioners’ sugar and salt; beat at medium-low speed until most of sugar is moistened, about 45 seconds. Scrape down bowl and beat at medium speed until mixture is fully combined, about 15 seconds; scrape bowl and add vanilla extract and heavy cream, and beat at medium speed until incorporated, about 10 seconds, then increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down bowl once or twice.

It's been a while since I last participated in Weekend Cat or Dog Blogging, so here's my latest entry that covers both.

It seems that K has gotten out of the sink and into G's arms.

For more adorable pics of pups and kits, check out the weekly cuties at Eatstuff and Sweetnicks.

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Lasagna, Lasagna, Lasagna!

Oh boy.

Today I realize it’s been about 3 weeks since my last post. Again, I apologize. Life, as you all know, can get real busy and things get ignored. Better said, this blog got ignored (by me).

I teased and tempted everyone with a mouth-watering pic and then didn’t follow up. Again, my apologies because I know some of my friends have been waiting patiently to see the photos and read about the recipe.

The lasagna, as you can tell, was delicious and it vanished by the end of my party. I also made some wonderfully moist chocolate cupcakes from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe (March & April 2005) that I’ll write up in a separate post.

As a recap, back in March I was seriously frustrated with the ridiculous price of marinara (pasta) sauce at the supermarket and asked other food bloggers if they had any favorite recipes. Alysha from The Savory Notebook shared her version, which has even been featured in Cooking Light magazine.

At the same time I remembered I had wanted to try a ricotta cheese recipe published by Sam of Becks & Posh and figured the two cooking projects would come together brilliantly as lasagna.

First, I’d like to state that making ricotta cheese was one of the easiest foods I’ve ever attempted to make by myself. I was astonished at how quick I produced a huge blob of the freshest ricotta I’d ever tasted. I highly recommend making your own ricotta cheese if you want to make lasagna.

Making the marinara sauce was a lot more complicated, but it was very satisfying. I would probably cut down the amount of crushed red pepper flakes next time as I personally found it a tad too spicy, but I think that’s an individual decision. The red wine is an essential part of this recipe as it flushes out the other flavors in the sauce.

For a lasagna recipe, I decided to go with a vegetable version in The All New Good Housekeeping Cook Book. Although I sometimes find it cumbersome, this cookbook has some great ‘staple’ recipes that make it a great reference in the kitchen. Since I didn’t know if there would be any vegetarians at the meal, I decided to play it safe and go meatless. I was a bit worried that the lack of meat would equal a lack of flavor, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it both flavorful and full of texture. I think pre-baking the zucchini slices really rounds out the flavor and the parsley intensifies the spinach-ricotta mixture.

I also tweaked aspects of the recipe to my own preferences. I added more garlic than the recipe called for, just a tad less crushed red pepper and much more mozzarella. After cooking this twice (I cooked it once more as a thank you for friend who got me incredible seats to a Rangers game), I've figured out that the amount of zucchini the recipe calls for is not enough (maybe add one more to make it 3) either.

Vegetable Lasagna (Adapted from The All New Good Housekeeping Cook Book)

Prep: 1 hour Bake: 40 minutes

3 ½ cups marinara sauce
12 lasagna noodles (10 ounces)
2 medium zucchini (8 ounces each), cut into ¼ inch slices
2 tablespoons olive oil
¾ tablespoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2/3 cup milk, warmed
2 packages (10 ounces each) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
2 tablespoons plus ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 container (15 ounces) part-skim ricotta cheese
[my homemade version was not part-skim]
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
4 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded (1 cup)

1. In large saucepot, cook lasagna noodles as label directs. Drain and rinse with cold running water. Return noodles to saucepot with enough cold water to cover.

2. Preheat oven to 450ºF. In large bowl, toss zucchini with 1 tablespoon oil, ¼ teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon black pepper. Arrange zucchini slices on large cookie sheet and bake, turning once, until tender, about 12 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, in nonstick 12-ince skillet, heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add garlic and crushed red pepper; cook until garlic is golden. Stir in flour until blended. With wire whisk, gradually whisk in warm milk. Cook, stirring constantly, until sauce has thickened and boils, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in spinach, 2 tablespoons Parmesan, and ¼ teaspoon salt.

4. In medium bowl, stir ricotta, parsley, remaining ¼ cup Parmesan, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, and remaining 1/8 teaspoon black pepper until combined.

5. Turn oven control to 350ºF. Drain lasagna noodles on clean kitchen towels.

6. in 13” by 9” baking dish, spread about 1 cup marinara sauce. Arrange 4 lasagna noodles over sauce, overlapping to fit. Spread ricotta mixture on top of noodles. Arrange 4 more noodles over ricotta and top with all of zucchini, overlapping slices to fit. Spread with 1 cup sauce and sprinkle with half of mozzarella; top with all of spinach mixture. Arrange remaining 4 noodles on top and spread with remaining marinara sauce. Sprinkle with remaining mozzarella.

7. Cover lasagna with foil and bake 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake until cheese is lightly golden, about 10 minute longer. Let stand 15 minutes for easier serving. Makes 10 main-dish servings.

Each serving: About 219 calories, 13g protein, 14g carbohydrate, 13g total fat (5g saturated), 27 mg cholesterol, 687mg sodium.

Another picture to keep your mouth watering...

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