Monthly Archives: March 2008

Ode to Joy

Still being a relatively new blogger on the block, I look to other sites for inspiration. One site I visit regularly is Joy the Baker, the blog of a fantastic California baker. Not only are her recipes fantastic (I’ve made several of her creations with delicious results), her photographs are mouth watering. And to top it off, she frequently posts about my favorite dessert: Red Velvet cupcakes. In the South, Red Velvet isn’t just a cake, it’s a religion. And since moving to DC, I’ve had a hard time finding a cake worthy of being called Red Velvet. A few weeks ago, Joy posted the recipe for Red Velvet Whopper Cupcakes and I was a goner. From the first look at Joy’s pictures, I knew I had to make them.

I would never think to fiddle with the recipe of a daring baker, but Joy’s recipe didn’t include the one thing most Southern red velvet cupcakes require: shaved bittersweet chocolate. Tossed into the batter along with the flour mixture, four ounces of chocolate shavings make a huge difference in red velvet cakes. I like to think the shavings melt during the baking, giving the batter that extra bit of moistness. Either way, all you need to do is grate 4 ounces of a bittersweet chocolate bar and add it to the batter along with the flour mixture (see Joy’s recipe, linked above).

And as you may notice, I didn’t use the traditional cream cheese frosting for my cupcakes. My little twist: chocolate cream cheese frosting. To make, simply cream together 8 ounces of cream cheese and one stick of unsalted butter (both at room temperature) with a stand mixer. Then add a 1/2 cup of cocoa powder, a teaspoon of vanilla extract and four cups of sifted powdered sugar. Be careful to add the sugar slowly, especially if you have a lower powered stand mixer. Since the frosting recipe is easy to make, don’t start it until the cupcakes are cool and ready to be frosted.

Although I may have tweaked Joy’s original recipe, I did so only with the utmost of respect. And if I do say so myself, the results were unbelievably delicious! In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “Mmmmmm….cupcakes”.

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We’ve Come a Long Way Baby….Right?

A friend of mine sent me an article from 1943 entitled Eleven Tips on Getting More Efficiency Out of Women Employees a few weeks ago. The article was allegedly published in Transportation Magazine to help male supervisors deal with the sudden influx of female employees during World War II. Given the year it was published, I didn’t take offense to it as I read it (although the comment that “Husky girls – those who are just a little on the heavy side – are more even tempered and efficient than their underweight sisters” really stuck in my craw). Some of the other gems in the article:

“Retain a physician to give each woman you hire a special physical examination – one covering female conditions…[the physical] reveals whether the employee-to-be has any female weaknesses which would make her mentally or physically unfit for the job”. I laughed hysterically when I read this…partly because I have used the whole “female problems” excuse before to get a day off work after a late night out.

Other gems:

“Give the female employee a definite day-log schedule of duties so that they’ll keep busy without bothering the management for instructions ever few minutes”. Apparently our pretty little heads can only hold so much information before we get confused and wander around aimlessly in search of a big, strong man to explain it all to us (preferably with pretty pictures).

“Give every girl an adequate number of rest periods during the day…a girl has more confidence and is more efficient if she can keep her hair tidied, apply fresh lipstick and wash her hands several times a day”. I hate to admit it, but I’m less productive when I’m having a bad hair day. But with a mirror and hand sanitizer at my desk, I’m good.

“…Let the inside employee change from one job to another at some time during the day. Women are inclined to be less nervous and happier with change”. Ignoring the “inside employee” bit (that’s one step away from the house and field slave labels used in the fun ol’ South), this sounds like good dating advice. If I switch up the guys I date more often, I’m less likely to get bored…and according to the article, I’m much happier with change, right?

And last but not least:

“Pick young married women. They usually have more of a sense of responsibility than their unmarried sisters, they’re less likely to be flirtatious, they need the work or they wouldn’t be doing it, they still have the pep and interest to work hard and to deal with the public efficiency”. So single women are vapid whores who are only at the workplace to slut around? If that’s the case, I’m totally in the wrong office…

I can’t help but laugh at the old mindset towards women employees. But when you really think about it, how far have women come in the workplace? I have female friends who tell me horror stories about their male supervisor’s male chauvinistic attitudes. But get this: the older women in their offices tend to be just as backward in their thinking on females in the workplace. One friend told me an older woman in her office suggested she was a woman of “loose morals” (not my words) because my friend chose not to wear stockings…in summer…in South Georgia! And then there is the paradox of being aggressive in the workplace. If a man goes after what he wants, he’s considered a “go-getter”. If a woman does the exact same thing, she’s a bitch. Some of the most successful women I know have basically sacrificed their social life in order to achieve her career goals.

Finding that balance between career and social life is hard for all of us, but particularly so for women. Yes, we’ve made some serious strides as a gender in the workplace, but articles like these make me wonder just how far we’ve really come…

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Carbo Loading…

As I mentioned previously, I am running the Scope It Out 5k on Sunday. Since this is my very first race, I asked some more experienced runners for tips. The two things I heard over and over again: rest the night before and eat a good amount of carbs. The tip on carbs resonated in my head as I did my weekly grocery shopping at Whole Foods. I had planned on trekking all the way to Trader Joe’s to get one of their spelt grain products for my dinner. But I was ever mindful of the “rest the night before” advice I had received (read: I was too damn lazy), so I looked around Whole Foods for a good substitute.

While trying to navigate the crowded aisles (and let me just point out here, I saw a kid attached to what could only be described as a leash…yeah, now we have to leash the future leaders of America), my eyes caught a package of orzo. Not wanting to do an excessive amount of searching, I grabbed the package and left before I hurt anyone. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with the orzo…I just knew I had to get out of Whole Foods before I went postal on the myriad of tourists aimlessly wandering the aisles (wow, I haven’t even been here a year and I’m already complaining about tourists).

When I got home, I pulled out some chorizo I had bought the night before, along with a red onion from my CSA, some sun dried tomatoes, garlic and Parmesan cheese. I cut up half of the onion and minced about three cloves of garlic, setting both aside. Next, I started boiling the water for the orzo, which only requires about 8 to 10 minutes of cooking time once the pasta is thrown in the (preferably salted) water. I then squeezed the chorizo out of its casing and into a heavy skillet, using a spatula to break apart the chunks of sausage. I tossed in the onion and the garlic, along with some dried basil I got last week from my CSA, and cooked it until the chorizo was done. I drained the orzo and then tossed everything together in a mixing bowl. When I was ready to eat, I sprinkled a bit of freshly chopped basil and parmesan cheese on top. As a side dish, I blanched some red swiss chard and then tossed it lightly with a red wine vinaigrette I made the previous night. It was a quick and easy meal that (hopefully) will help me prepare for my morning race. I’ll be sure to let my dear readers know if I made it across the finish line (or passed out at the first water station).

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Adventures in…Lighting

I think I’ve become hooked on photography (which is better than say, being hooked on crystal meth) and I’m completely fine with it. Unfortunately, when it comes to food photography, I have one major problem: I live in a basement apartment. The lack of windows means I do not get good natural light, so I’m forced to rely on the lighting in my house. And as those who shoot food know, household lighting does not provide quality shots (see the picture of the salad to the left and the cheesecake below).

I knew I needed some sort of photographic lighting, but wasn’t willing to spend hundreds of dollars on an effective set. So when I learned about the more affordable Lowel Ego Fluorescent Lights, I was intrigued. The Steamy Kitchen blog waxed poetically about the effectiveness of these simple lights, but I was skeptical. How good could a lighting system that was basically a lamp shade and two fluorescent bulbs truly be? Tack on how cheap they were ($88 each) and my inner cynic reared its ugly head. But since my birthday is coming up (oh yeah, I have no shame…I tell the homeless guy on the corner my birthday’s coming up as I buy a copy of Street Sense), and the lights were so inexpensive, I decided to roll the dice and buy one.

You can purchase either one light or a kit that includes two light sets, a bounce card, a plastic sweep system and an assortment of colored paper to use as backgrounds. Because I was still unsure of the quality of the lights, I opted to purchase just the one light set (which also comes with a bounce card). When it arrived, I pulled out the various parts and immediately thought I’d made a mistake. The light box seemed to be made of a material that really was tantamount to a lamp shade and didn’t seem sturdy. But on the plus side, the assembly instructions were easy to follow and it only took about ten minutes to put the light set together. Once it was assembled, I set up the light, a salad and the bounce card and turned out all the other lights in my apartment.
From the beginning, I got a bad feeling; the images on the LCD screen had a slightly bluish-green tint to them. I had no f%#!ckin’ clue why the lights were giving off such an odd hue and I was getting frustrated. Okay, I was getting pissed. Yeah I didn’t spend a lot of money on the lights, but I was still looking so forward to getting some quality lighting and it seemed my satisfaction was to be delayed. Out of desperation, I started playing around with the settings on my camera and ran across a fluorescent manual setting. I switched to it, put the camera on my tripod and looked at the salad through my LCD display again. And I was BLOWN away! The difference was phenomenal! Not only was the bluish-green tint gone from the pictures, they were crisper and clearer than the other pictures I had taken. I still need to play around with the level of exposure in my shots, but I am definitely on the right track! Over the next few weeks, I will be learning more about exposure and camera settings in order to get even more out of my shoots (this includes pumping all of my photographer friends for tips…). I highly recommend these little wonders for anyone who wants to add another dimension to their food photography…and did I mention they were cheap? I see another visit from the UPS man coming up soon…

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Hope Springs Eternal

I have been unbelievably busy the last few weeks, leaving me with little time to cook, let alone write. So I must first apologize for the lack of adventure chronicling. During my time away from the computer, I have taken my beloved Canon with me to capture the awakening of DC from its winter slumber. With the Cherry Blossom Festival right around the corner, I spent a day last weekend out with friends enjoying the unexpectedly beautiful weather. This is hands down my favorite time of year (outside of Christmas of course), when nature shakes off the doldrums of winter and brings forth a bounty of flowers, fruits and vegetables. It doesn’t hurt that my birthday falls in April! But most of all, I love the feeling of hope that comes with spring…and right now I need some hope.

To me, DC is one of the best places for a single woman to live because there isn’t any pressure associated with being single. In fact, the most interesting and fulfilled women I know are single by choice. I had embraced this philosophy to its fullest this year. Because of this, I discovered great new friends and found a few new passions. By chance, while running from classes to work to dinner with friends, I fell into dating a man who shared my love of food. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and I was left feeling a little lost. Not because I was so invested in the guy, but because it was the first time in a while that I allowed myself to even contemplate a relationship. I was already a bit guarded (okay jaded) about dating to begin with, so this recent fling may have put the death nail in my inner romantic’s coffin.

But like with the flowers blooming in spring, my faith was restored in love when I went over to a friend’s house for dinner. Seeing him and his wife’s relationship was refreshing. It isn’t one of those sickly sweet, bad romantic comedy sort of relationships. They make fun of each other, but never in a demeaning way…they laugh with each other. But they are also very genuine people who are comfortable enough in their relationship not to make those around them feel like a third wheel. I may not be in the midst of a sweeping love affair now, but seeing this relationship gave me hope that there are nice guys out there (who aren’t gay, mind you) and stable, loving relationships aren’t just the stuff of poorly written Studio Canal productions.

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A Good Strong Lead

I have been taking tango lessons for almost two months now and can honestly say I’m hooked. The dance of tango is an intimate, spontaneous act that requires absolute trust in your partner’s abilities. And as I have mentioned before, I have issues allowing the guy to lead. But two weekends ago, I took an intensive beginner’s workshop through the Washington DC Argentine Tango Marathon festival, which was highlighted by the amazing instruction of Josh Rigley. Throughout the entire workshop, something became more and more evident: a good, strong lead is paramount. Because tango is an improvisational dance, the only way the follower (usually the woman) knows which steps to take next is through physical cues given by the man. If he wants her to move her left foot, he must signal this through gentle pressure on her left side via his chest. If his signals are not clear, the woman has no way of knowing what step to take next.

This same lesson can easily be applied to my dating life. Without the right signals from a guy, I have no clue what to do next. I can understand if a guy is too shy to make the first move, but once that hurdle is passed (and the woman has expressed interest), the guy should be more clear about his interests. Truth be told, I tend to be a bit impatient (that’s the Aries in me…something I’m working on…really, I’m totally working on it). I freely admit one of my biggest dating problems is my fickle nature and short attention span. So if I’m not getting any clear signals from a guy, even if I’m completely into him, I will eventually move on. While I agree it is important to take it slow and maybe keep your feelings close to the chest while getting to know someone, there should also be some signs to let the other person know you like them. Because if the man doesn’t give his partner a good, strong lead, she just may walk off the dance floor (and away from him) for good.


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Peanut Butter & Chocolate Swirl Cheesecake

My favorite candy, hands down, is Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. When I was little, if I was really good (which wasn’t often), my mother would let me get a package of them. I would slowly savor each bit of the cups…mostly because I knew it would be a while before I was well behaved enough to get another. For a time, I even took to hoarding them under my bed…until the trail of ants pointed my mother straight to my hidden stash. So when I saw that the Cookthink: Root Source Challenge ingredient was peanut butter, my thoughts immediately went to ways to recreate my beloved peanut butter cups. Since I’m an old hand at making cheesecakes, I decided to add that into the mix to come up with a Peanut Butter and Chocolate Swirl Cheesecake.

Crust Ingredients:

15-20 Keebler Peanut Butter Cup Cookies (enough to make 2 cups of crumbs)
4 Tablespoons Butter, melted

Cheesecake Ingredients:

4-8 Ounce Packages Cream Cheese, softened
1 Cup Sugar
1/4 Cup Cornstarch
1 Tablespoon Vanilla Extract
2 Large Eggs
1/2 Cup Heavy Whipping Cream
1/2 Cup Chocolate Ganache (recipe below)
3/4 Cup Creamy Peanut Butter

Chocolate Ganache Ingredients:

5 Ounces Bittersweet Chocolate
1/2 Cup Heavy Whipping Cream

Topping Ingredients:

Remaining Chocolate Ganache
Mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

Preheat oven to 350

For the crust, pulverize the cookies in a food processor. Pour the cookie crumbs in a bowl and add the melted butter. Stir until all the crumbs are moistened. In a greased, 9 inch springform pan, press the crumb mixture into the bottom of the pan, covering it completely. Place the pan in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes. You want the crust to be a bit firm, however, watch the crust closely to ensure it doesn’t burn. Remove the crust from the oven and allow to cool completely.

Next, make the ganache. Place the heavy cream and chocolate into a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly until the chocolate is melted. Remove from heat and set aside.

For the filling, place the cream cheese and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cream until well blended and then slowly add the corn starch and vanilla. Continue beating, adding one egg at a time. Add the heavy whipping cream and peanut butter, mixing until the peanut butter is evenly incorporated.

Pour half the batter into the crust and then pour 1/4 of the ganache onto the top of the batter. With a butter knife, make chocolate swirl patterns in the cheesecake batter. Pour the remaining batter into the pan and then pour another 1/4 of the ganache onto the top of the batter, making swirl patterns again.

Place the pan in the oven, baking the cake for 70 to 75 minutes or until the center is firm. Remove the cheesecake from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature. Then refrigerate the cake for at least 4 hours.

Right before serving a slice, drizzle it with ganache and decorate with mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. From the first bite, I tasted my beloved Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups…and I didn’t have to be good to get it!

As a side note, the lawyer-like presence in my life suggested I credit photographs not taken by yours truly. So thanks must be given to my private photographer Food Guy for capturing my beloved stand mixer in action!


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The "Clean Out My Refrigerator" Recipe

The wonderful bounty from my CSA was starting to clog up my refrigerator. I started pulling out brown bags (our farmer uses brown bags in lieu of plastic bags to package our produce), trying to figure out what to do with the things I had left. I hate to admit it, but I tend to be a slave to recipes. It’s rare for me to come up with something completely out of the blue. But my recent foray into food blogging has given me a sense of culinary bravery that I didn’t have before. So I looked at everything I had and came up with a sort of potato hash. And the results were a delicious accident!

4 Potatoes (I had two gold and two purple ones)
White Mushrooms (I had about six), sliced
1/2 Red Onion, sliced to preserve the ring shape
Large Parsnip
4 Ounces Sharp Cheddar Cheese, grated
Several Pats of Butter
Salt and Pepper

Preheat oven to 350

After peeling the potatoes and parsnip, grate all of them into a bowl. If you have a multi-surface grater like mine, use the side with the largest grating holes (I don’t know the technical term, but you get the drift). Slice up the onion, placing half in the bowl with the shredded potatoes and parsnip. Toss in the sliced mushrooms and a majority of the grated cheese (reserve some for the top of the dish). Salt and pepper to taste and place the mixture into a casserole dish (I used a square Pyrex dish). Top with the remaining onions and cheese, dotting with several pats of butter. Place in the oven for about 25-30 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

I made this fairly quickly…and while talking to my landlord. I had no clue if it would even taste good, but even my landlord agreed it smelled amazing. So I scooped out a bit and gave it to him…yeah, he was my tester! And he loved it! When I finally was brave enough to try it, I was very pleasantly surprised…the sharpness of the cheddar was a fantastic compliment to the red onions (which had carmelized thanks to the butter). This would make a great side dish or you could add some shredded ham to make it a main dish. I was pleased as punch that something I made on the fly tasted so good (my landlord even scraped the Pyrex dish to get every last bit). So yeah, I’m giving myself a little high five…now for some gelato and pound cake!


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Baking Heaven…Part 2

Saturday morning I indulged in a simple, but amazingly delicious buttered pecan oatmeal. When I woke up on Sunday, my first thought was how to top my great breakfast from the day before. And since I needed a consolation prize for losing an hour of sleep, I decided to make blueberry muffins. As I was pulling out the ingredients for the muffins, I realized I had some leftover cream cheese from the pound cake. I grabbed that too, thinking if the cream cheese can make the pound cake moist, it will really give the muffins an added richness!

1 Cup Fresh or Frozen Wild Blueberries
4 Ounces Cream Cheese, Softened
2 Cups Flour
3/4 Cup Sugar
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1 1/2 Teaspoon Baking Powder
2 Teaspoons Lemon Juice
3 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract
1/4 Cup Melted Butter
1/2 Cup Milk
2 Eggs
Smidgen of Salt
A Good Handful of Walnuts

Preheat oven to 400.

In a small bowl, toss 1/2 cup of the flour and the blueberries together. Set this aside. Blend together the cream cheese, vanilla and lemon juice in a mixer. While this is mixing, sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda and baking powder. Put this mixture aside and add the eggs to the cream cheese mixture. Continue mixing until the eggs are blended into the cream cheese mixture.

Put the mixer on the lowest setting and slowly add the flour mixture. Be careful because the mixture will thicken quickly! Once all of the flour is in, add the butter and milk and increase the speed by one setting. Once this is all well blended, remove the bowl from the stand mixer. Fold in the blueberries and walnuts (the amount of nuts you add is a personal preference…I love a lot of nuts in my muffins, so I added quite a bit). Place about 3/4 cup of batter in paper lined muffin tins. The batter is enough to make about 12 nice sized muffins. Bake for 15-20 minutes and eat as soon as they come out (well, let them cool a bit so as to avoid burning the roof of your mouth…I learned this the hard way). The muffins were quite delicious, especially with a cup of tea and the Sunday morning political shows (I already mentioned I was a geek, so that last part shouldn’t surprise you).

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Baking Heaven…Part 1

For the last few days, my hip has really bothered me…blame the tango or the running (or both for that matter). But this weekend, the baking and cooking bug really hit me. So I improvised and sat on a barstool while doing most of my prep and cooking. Surprisingly, it worked out really well and I was able to make some fabulous treats (much to my housemates delight).

Since moving up to DC, I have had a hard time finding a really good, dense, flavorful pound cake. In the South, pound cake is almost a religion. Families pass down their pound cake recipes from one generation to the other and they are guarded more fiercely than the president. As I was going through my favorite blog, I found a pound cake recipe that I knew would satisfy my Southern palette. How did I know this you may ask? Because one of the main ingredients was cream cheese…delectable, full fat cream cheese. A great pound cake requires a lot of fat, so any recipe with cream cheese was fine in my book. Although the recipe I was following had a blueberry topping, I opted to instead make a vanilla bean gelato to top the pound cake. For the pound cake recipe, see the link above (the mise en place is pictured here). The gelato, however, was mostly something I created from a base gelato recipe.

10 Egg Yolks
1 Cup Sugar
1 Quart Milk
Vanilla Pod

As always, I am a strong believer in having all of your ingredients measured out before starting the actual cooking. So make sure to separate out your eggs and measure your sugar and milk. Cut the vanilla pod lengthwise and scoop out the beans.

From the quart of milk, measure out 1/2 cup and set aside. Place the remaining milk in a saucepan, along with the two halves of the vanilla pod and the beans. Add a dash of salt and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring frequently to try to avoid a skin forming on the top of the milk. Remove the mixture from the heat and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until combined. Add the reserved 1/2 cup of cold milk to the egg mixture, whisking until blended. Pour the warm milk and vanilla into the egg mixture, continuing to whisk slowly to keep the mixture from spilling out of the bowl. Once combined, pour the mixture into a large saucepan and place it on low heat for about 15 minutes. Again, make sure to stir frequently to avoid that icky milk skin.

Pour the mixture through a sieve and allow to completely cool before placing in an ice cream maker. Follow your ice cream maker’s instructions to get the mixture to a good gelato consistency. For my model , I poured the mixture into the frozen mixing bowl and churned it for 25 minutes.

Once I made the gelato and pound cake, I decided to make it a bit of a sundae with walnuts. I cut a slice of the pound cake, halved it and placed it in a bowl. I scooped out some gelato and decorated the dish with walnuts. If I had whip cream, I would have added that as well! I finally had some REAL pound cake, making this Southern girl happy as a peach!

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