Thursday, July 22, 2010

"We're known for our Red Velvet cupcakes!"

Are you?  Really?

No fewer than half of the cupcake bakeries I have been to in LA have told me some variation of that sentence.  Now, the thing is, if they're all known for Red Velvet, aren't they all sort of not known for it?

What I mean is, if every bakery has spectacular Red Velvet, they what would bring a customer to one over another?  Nothing but loyalty or curiosity I suppose.  The thing is, as a newcomer to any given bakery, sometimes they fool me into thinking they really do have the best ones.  And then I try them and am inevitably disappointed.

The fact is, Red Velvet cupcakes just aren't all that good (with the exception being the ones at Famous Cupcakes in Beverly Hills, where I got a free sample of one and it really was that good).  They're extremely popular right now, but besides being freakishly red, they're not special.  I think what people like is the cream-cheese frosting (which, I might point out, could be put on any cupcake) and the fact that the things are called "Red Velvet."  Velvet sounds luxurious and sophisticated somehow.  But you know what, it's a cupcake, not fabric.  It is still loaded with [deliciously sweet] sugar and enough calories to count as dinner.  

Don't get me wrong, I've tried to make them a few times, but they always seem not to come out quite right.  Why do I bother?  So come on, cupcake bakeries of LA.  Put your efforts into another flavor, and PLEASE stop telling me you make the best Red Velvet cupcakes because you probably don't.  

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

New kitchen!

Alright, don't get me wrong, I absolutely love my new kitchen (photos to come after it's a bit...cleaner).  But I'm scared.  It has a gas stove.  I used one briefly in Italy (it was sort of primitive and required you to light it with a match, which I did not know how to say in Italian, so I just had to gesture idiotically to cashiers until they got it), but I'm still not used to it.  I keep thinking I'm going to leave the gas on (which I don't think is possible as you have to push in the knob to make gas come out) and blow up the building.

But I have so much new baking equipment to use!  My mother-in-law gave me her KitchenAid mixer, which I am super excited to use (if I can manage to lift it onto the counter without breaking my back).  Also, my grandparents picked up a bunch of used/new baking stuff at an auction.  Among it are:  4 non-stick cupcake pans, 2 bundt pans, 1 or 2 angel-food cake pans, 2 loaf pans (finally I can make batter breads!), and several round cake pans.  You may wonder why a person needs 2 bundt pans.  And I would tell you, most people don't, myself included.  But if the burning desire to make multiple bundt cakes strike me, I can.  Can you?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The cupcake heaven that is Los Angeles

Perhaps the title of this entry is misleading.  It makes it sound like I have found a heaven where cupcakes go after they’re eaten.  What I really mean is, Los Angeles is a heaven for one who loves cupcakes (one who loves cupcakes = me). 

I have been here less than one week (yes, I just moved from the east coast all the way to LA) and have already tried cupcakes from four different cupcake bakeries.  This is not my fault.  I did not seek them out.  Rather, I stumbled upon them because THEY ARE EVERYWHERE. 

Let me start from the beginning.  I was in Santa Monica with Nick, and we were on the way back to the car because the meter was about to run out.  When we passed Yummy Cupcakes, we (or rather, I) couldn't resist and had to have a cupcake.  I believe that by that point I was going through cupcake withdrawal after not having had one since a couple of days after the wedding.  

The place was magnificent.  I was just gaping at all of the cupcakes, and each flavor looked better than the last.  I went with a favorite of mine, coconut.  There may have been a little too much frosting, but other than that I have no complaints.  I also tried Nick's Junior Mint cupcake, and it was SPECTACULAR.  It really tasted exactly like a Junior mint and was so creamy.  In fact, it was better than the coconut one.  I have to admit, Yummy's mint frosting put mine to shame.  I have some work to do.  

The next stop was Dots in Pasadena.  I got a chocolate-hazelnut (just like mine, only a lot better) mini and...hmm.  I have no idea what the other flavor was.  Now that's not a knock on Dots, it's just have had so damned many cupcakes that I can't remember what flavors I've tried anymore.  Is that bad?  

Third came Polkatots, also in Pasadena.  Though I wouldn't call it my favorite cupcake bakery, they had one of the best flavors I've ever tasted. It was called dolcissimo:  dulce de leche cupcake with dulce de leche frosting.  Holy shit.  I got a mini of that, and also a lemonade. 

Finally, I went to Mrs. Beasley's, once again in Pasadena.  I had a mini red velvet and a mini peanut butter.  You know what?  They weren't very good.  Waaaay too much frosting, and not very much flavor in the cake itself (though that could have been because the frosting was so overpowering).  To be fair, I ate them when they were still cold (the lady told me to wait until they got to room temperature.  I am not capable of waiting to eat a cupcake.  Silly lady).  But really, with all of the other amazing cupcakes, I feel like Mrs. Beasley's has little hope of competing.  (Unfortunately, the only pictures I have are from here.  After three unexpected visits to bakeries, I decided it was time to bring my camera with me).      

Dots had my favorite cupcakes, no contest.  Besides tasting great, I thought they were frosted the best.  They were hand-frosted but looked so perfect you'd swear a machine did it.  Yummy Cupcakes is in second with Polkatots following at a close third.  And Mrs. Beasley's?  Fourth and probably shortly falling to fifth and then sixth (it's a new week with many new cupcake bakeries to visit.  On my list is:  Sprinkles, Crumbs, Jamaica's Cakes, and Vanilla Bake Shop.  I'll be broke soon).     

Also, I finally have a new apartment and, therefore, a NEW KITCHEN!!! This one is so much better than my last one, and I plan to bake many (hundreds? thousands??) of cupcakes in it.  

Friday, June 25, 2010

Chocolate overload

I may not end up at any cupcake bakeries during this road trip, but Nick and I did get to stop at a cute little candy store -- and gorge on lots of candy.

The store was called Main Street Sweets and was in Mason, OH.  There were classics like root beer barrels and licorice,  but what caught my attention was all of the chocolate-dipped stuff. Basically, the owner took whatever junk food you could think of and then dipped it in chocolate.  For example: Nutter Butters, Rice Crispy treats, pretzel rods, Oreos, Twinkies, and cookie-dough-on-a-stick.

I ended up buying the chocolate-dipped M&M-covered pretzel rod, the cookie dough (which I expected to be my favorite but, to be blunt, sucked), and the Rice Crispy treat (my surprise favorite). 

At first I thought this store was awesome,  a small-town shop with a local owner.  Then I realized anyone could melt some chocolate and dip store-bought cookies and cakes in them, and she was just taking the easy way out.  I would have prefer some unique, home-made chocolates.  But oh well, she didn't charge that much, and it tasted good enough (if you just want a sugar rush).

If I ever open a candy store, I vow to put some effort into it and create something new.  You can hold me to that.

P.S. - No, your eyes do not fool you.  In that last picture is a jar full of candy ducks.  Adorable.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

DIY wedding cupcakes

only 4 of 6 lbs used
The thing that led me to start this blog was preparing to make wedding cupcakes, and now I'm done!  In fact, I was done a week and a half ago.  I'm not sure what my next baking goal will be, but let me tell you a little about the wedding cupcake tower...

So the day before the wedding, my friend Kristine and I decorated all of the cupcakes we'd made the week before and frozen.  We ended up using about 6 lbs of powdered sugar and 1.5 lbs of butter to frost the 90+ cupcakes we made.  About half got simple vanilla buttercream (from the Domino sugar box) and half got chocolate butter frosting.

I piped the frosting onto each one, an then Kristine immediately (to make sure they'd stick on) dusted them with chunky white sugar sprinkles.  The vanilla-frosted ones also got little edible pearls, which she pressed in one by one (you have no idea how patient she is with things like that).

Let me tell you, frosting dozens of cupcakes is time consuming!  I thought it was absurd when I called bakeries in February to ask how much wedding cupcakes cost (the answers I got:  starting at $3.50-$4.00 per cupcake; stand and setup additional!).  But with two of us working on them, this took a good 6 hours, and the cupcakes were already baked!  I guess somebody more experienced would be faster than we were, but really, it's a lot of work.  If you are planning to make your own wedding cupcakes, make sure you have the time!

Despite my prior failure are cake-decorating, I decided to have a small cake on the top tiered of the stand.

I made two 6-inch chocolate cakes (okay I really made 3, but the first one totally fell apart when I tried to get it out of the pan, reminding me what am amateur I really am).

And then I coated it with a thin layer of frosting to seal in the crumbs.  (I wish I had known to do this intuitively or something, but really I just happened to watch a YouTube video a couple of months ago showing how to frost a cake.)

Then I covered the whole messy, frosted thing with fondant (which, admittedly, I bought and did not make.  I figured Wilton knew what to do better than I did) because I didn't think I could get frosting to look very smooth.  And, finally, I make a border around the top and bottom with some Ateco tips (I'd love to tell you which ones, but as I am in the midst of a cross-country move, they are packed away on the roof of the car and I don't have the desire or ability to dig them out.  Some day, if you keep reading, you will know which tips I used.  That day is not today).  And then the florist made a pretty cake topper. And there you have it:  a [sort of] professional[ish]-looking wedding cake!

Besides oodles of cupcakes. we also had Italian cookies and a frightening amount of candy for people to eat.

And after all that planning and practicing, it's over!  I'm not sure what I should work on next.  Continue with cupcakes?  Practice cake-decorating some more?  Branch out and try a different baked good?  I have time to decide though, because right now I'm on the move and have no kitchen.  I do, however, hope to find a couple of good cupcakes along the way.  

Friday, June 11, 2010

The time has come

Today is cupcake-decorating day!  Ahhhhh so much frosting to make.  And we've decided to do the small cake at the top of the stand, so let's hope I'm able to decorate it alright!  Stay tuned...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cupcakes have taken over the world (or just my life)

Word has spread among my family (and extended family) that I have a thing for cupcakes. And it's true, I really do. And I therefore now have and endless supply of cupcake paraphernalia, including (but not limited to):
  • A cupcake apron (see the photo of me on the side...)
  • A cupcake tray
  • A cupcake bath bomb
  • And there is a cupcake bench on the front porch of my grandparent's house for the wedding

So basically I could sit on the bench and serve you cupcakes from my cupcake tray while wearing my cupcake apron and...well I'm not sure how the bath bomb fits into this scenario.  Be creative.

I love absolutely every cupcake gift I have been given.  However, every time I look at one (which is pretty often considering how they have attacked from all sides and seem to be in every room I enter) I GET VERY HUNGRY. I mean really, look at that bath bomb; it looks real, right down to the little paper liner!  How could I not want to eat it?  And it smells like coconut (which you know I love).  Really people, you're killing me here. 

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Lots and lots and lots of cupcakes

Ugh, I haven't written in weeks! In my defense, in the past two weeks, I have: had my first of two bachelorette parties, packed up my entire apartment, graduated from college, had a bridal shower, and baked 96 cupcakes for my wedding.

All of those cupcakes were baked yesterday, and it wasn't actually that difficult or time consuming to do them all. I'll be honest -- we (Kristine and I) used Pillsbury cake mix. Hey, look, after all my baking over the past few months, I never found a chocolate or vanilla cake recipe I loved. And the box mixes were easier for how many we were making. Don't judge me.

Anyway, the wedding isn't for a week and two days, so we had to freeze the cupcakes and we'll frost them the day before. So to keep them safe and un-freezer-burned, we wrapped each in plastic wrap and then also put them in freezer bags (we attempted to suck the air out with a straw to make them vacuum sealed, but it seeped back in. We ended up lightheaded and with air-filled bags)

I've decided to stick with simple chocolate and vanilla cupcakes and frosting (in each combination). I figured almost everyone will like one of them, and if not, they will not be left out of the sugar indulgence...

...because we have a ridiculous amount of blue and yellow candy. I'm talking 5 pounds of gummy bears, hundreds of those candy sticks, and pounds of candy coated chocolate. We may have gone a little overboard. Maybe. But I think I'm becoming immune to sugar with all that I've been eating. At my first bachelorette party, I had amazing raspberry-blueberry-cheesy crepe things from a place called Duck & Bunny...

...followed by a red velvet cupcake for dessert.

After that I had probably a dozen mini pastries during graduation weekend, and then at my shower we had: chocolate fudge, Hawaiian cake (yellow cake topped with pudding, pineapple, whipped cream, coconut, and walnuts), carrot cheesecake, mini raspberry cheesecakes, and mini Oreo cheesecakes. I tried each and every one of those desserts. To be honest, I feel kind of sick. And there is lots of junk food yet to come...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The elephant in the room, aka the hair in the food

There are some people whose food I avoid because of the one consistent ingredient: hair.

Oh come on, you know someone like that. Every time they cook you have to politely decline, saying, "Oh, no, I just ate. Thanks though!" or, "Ooooh I wish I could, but I'm on a diet!" Or perhaps you avoid the person altogether when you notice they've brought in a delicious-looking tray of brownies -- that is, delicious if it weren't for the hair lurking inside.

Sometimes, though, you don't realize somebody is one of the hairy folk, and you eat their food. As you're chewing, you get that unmistakable feeling in your mouth. Oh god. A hair. You have several options at this point:
  1. Swallow (and don't let the disgust show on your face)
  2. Turn your head away as if to look for something and then subtly pull the hair from your mouth
  3. Pull it out very obviously right in front of the cook
Option 1 is just gross. So, moving on...

Usually I go with option 2, but then you may be forced to look at the hair and analyze what kind it is. Long silky head hair? Small bit of beard stubble? Dog hair (short or long)? I suppose it could also come from the cook's nether regions, but I don't even want to know how that would come about...

And anyway, let's be honest -- the cook probably knows exactly what you're doing. No matter how subtle you try to be, it's sort of obvious when you stick your fingers in you mouth, then pull them out and examine the saliva/food/hair mixture on them. Everybody knows what's going on, but you quickly wipe your hand on your pants and pretend nothing happened so as not to offend the cook. Why?

Option 3, I think, is greatly underused. Why should we spare the cook's feelings when she did not spare us from munching on her (or her dog's, or her husband's, or her 2-year-old son's) not-so-delectable hair? I say next time you just pull it out, look the cook right in the eyes, and say, "Gross. I just ate hair. Please cook under more sanitary conditions or do not offer me any more food. Thank you."

If only.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Red Velvet, take two

Martha Stewart knows how to create a damn good cupcake. I found this Red Velvet Cupcake recipe on her website, and they are soooo fluffy (I think because of the cake flour. Side question: should cake flour smell weird? I'd never used it before, and I googled it and found that it is chlorinated [sounds healthy, right?], so maybe that's why it smells weird? If it should smell neutral like good ol' all purpose flour, let me know so I can get rid of the stuff I have!)

Anyway, the cupcakes are moist and fluffy, but they are not red. But I don't think they're really supposed to be, because the ones pictured in the cookbook aren't either. From now on when I make red velvet anything, I'm leaving out the food dye. It never works anyway. Plus, I added a few drops of really strong Americolor dye to just a little bit of batter to see if I could actually get red cupcakes, and they tasted AWFUL. Very bitter (I always assumed food dye was flavorless. I was wrong). Here's a link to the recipe.

I didn't use her cream cheese frosting recipe though, because I don't like it with so much cream cheese. I used slightly different amounts than are typical to get a stiffer, sweeter frosting.

Less Cream-Cheesy Cream Cheese Frosting

4 oz. regular cream cheese
1 stick of unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into about 6 pieces
1 t. vanilla (imitation or pure)
2 1/2 c. powdered sugar
  1. Beat together cream cheese and butter until well-combined and fluffy
  2. Mix in vanilla
  3. Mix in powdered sugar in 2-3 batches (so as not to end up covered in powdered sugar by the end)
I just spread the frosting on, but it might have been thick enough to pipe, especially if I'd stuck it in the fridge for 5 or 10 minutes. I used more sugar and less cream cheese than other recipes, and I think the proportions work out better, though if you prefer it tangy add more cream cheese.

Here is my not-at-all-red batter

I used red liners, hoping they would give the illusion of red cake. Didn't really work, but still.

And here are the somewhat red and freakishly pointy experimental cupcakes from the end:

I really don't know why it looks like that. I'm so paranoid about food dye right now that I am blaming it. Apparently it served as a growth hormone for my cupcakes. Creepy.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The taste of summer

Alright, so I gave in.

But I made it longer than 24 hours without baking, so that's something, right? And I have [almost] one full paragraph of my paper (all I need is a thesis...).

I was slicing up a container of strawberries that I bought yesterday, and I got a serious craving for strawberry shortcake. We used to have it every father's day at my grandparent's house because my great-grandfather LOVED strawberry shortcake. As soon as I realized I had all the ingredients, that was the end of the baking ban.

So for the biscuits, I just using Bisquick. It has a recipe for strawberry shortcake right on the box, so you can find the amounts there if you want to make these. But basically, you just need Bisquick, milk, and sugar.

I didn't measure anything for the strawberry part. I sliced up strawberries earlier, so I just mashed up some with a fork until they were juicy but there were still identifiable pieces of strawberry. Add a spoonful of sugar, and they're all set.

Then it was time for the whipped cream. If you know anything about my past experience with whipped cream, you'll know I had little hope of it working this time.
Upside: It whipped enough that I actually got whipped cream from heavy cream
Downside: My arm feels like it might fall off

After my failed attempts with an electric mixer, I decided to do it the old-fashioned way and use a whisk and a little muscle. It worked, which tells me that I am more powerful than an electric mixer (or that there is something wrong with my mixer). However, I honestly believe that my arm will be sore tomorrow, which is quite sad and indicates to me that I need to lift weights more often (which should be easy considering that I never lift weights).

Strawberry shortcake is almost as good as I remember it, but there's something about it when my grandmother makes it that I just can't imitate. She has the magic touch I guess.

Now back to the paper =(

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Banned from baking

In an attempt to make myself write my English paper, I am forbidding myself to bake until it is submitted. I'm hoping this will motivate me.

You may wonder, "How will you enforce this Aubrey? What's to stop you from baking?"

And the answer is...well...absolutely nothing. There is nothing to stop me from baking, so I probably will. But this is a nice idea, isn't it?

(By the way, the picture in this post is from my unsuccessful root beer float cupcakes. Looks more like carrot cake, right? I didn't want you to get bored from not having pictures to look at =)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How to tell if pesto is moldy

The title of this post is misleading. You see, I am not really offering you advice on how to tell if pesto is moldy. Rather, I'd like you to tell me.

I made pesto like a month ago (that's right, I made something that I did not add massive quantities of sugar to), and shoved the leftovers into the back of the fridge. Now I've pulled it out to eat, but I can't really tell if it's moldy because pesto sort of looks like mold anyway. Hmm. If I'm sick tomorrow, that'll be why.

Still on the baking agenda:
  • Red[der] Velvet Cupcakes (believe it or not, the header of the blog is a picture of red velvet cupcakes. Clearly, they are not red. Oops.)
  • Chocolate cupcakes from scratch. I was planning to use a nice reliable boxed mix for the wedding, but then I felt like that would be lazy.
  • While I'm at it, I'd better find some decent from-scratch yellow cake
  • Chocolate frosting for the wedding cupcakes (I shouldn't just rely on the recipe for chocolate butter frosting that I always turn to)
  • Banana Nutella Cupcakes, which somebody in my fiction class brought last night. Holy shit.
I'm going to turn to my new Martha Stewart cupcake cookbook for many of these. Martha Stewart probably makes some awesome cupcakes (when she's not in jail, that is. I know, sorry, cheap joke).

Jesus, I'm going to have a eat a lot of cupcakes in the next month before the wedding (oh my god. It's in a month.).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Back to basics

I promised to bring cupcakes to my last fiction class (and last class ever I hope!), and got kind of worried about that promise after last week's chocolate-mint fiasco. Plus there was my attempt at root beer float cupcakes on Friday (I realize this is the first you've heard of these cupcakes. That's because I had such problems with them [such as not tasting like root beer in the slightest and not being frosted with the intended whipped cream, which once again failed to whip into more than a viscous liquid] that they weren't even worthy of being blogged about. Sad) that left me seriously doubting my baking abilities.

So for my class, I decided to take the easy way out and go with some nice standard yellow cupcakes with chocolate and vanilla frosting. Not only that, but I used a box of yellow cake mix instead of making them from scratch because I have yet to find a yellow cake recipe that I like (though now that I've bought vanilla extract I'll probably have a bit more luck. If you have a worthwhile recipe for yellow or white cake, email it to me please!).

I just made standard vanilla buttercream (butter + powdered sugar + vanilla + milk) and dyed it pink with the new food dye I bought. I got it at a cake-decorating store instead of the grocery store, so it worked really well with very little dye. The brand is AmeriColor (never heard of it before, but the lady who owned the store said it was the best, even better than Wilton, and she was very intense about cake-decorating so I'll take her word for it) and the color is fuchsia. I also got royal blue and egg yellow and had good luck with those on my cupcakes that did not resemble a root beer float in the slightest.

For the chocolate frosting, I used my favorite recipe (and by favorite I mean the only one I've ever used) from my 1969 Betty Crocker cookbook.

Chocolate Butter Frosting
fills and frosts two 8 or 9" layers
(or about a dozen cupcakes if piped on)

1/3 c. unsalted butter, room temperature
2 oz. melted unsweetened chocolate (cooled)
2 c. powdered sugar
1 1/2 t. vanilla
about 2 T. milk
  1. mix butter and cooled chocolate
  2. mix in powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla
  3. beat until fluffy

Really easy and really good. Make sure you use it as soon as you're done beating it because as the chocolate hardens the frosting gets dry and it's hard to spread (or breaks apart as you're piping it as it did for me).

I used the Ateco #829 for the chocolate frosting and the Wilton 1M for the vanilla. I've changed my mind now and I like the Wilton one better, so I'll definitely use that for my wedding cupcakes (to come in just over a month!).

I have two questions for all of you out there:
  1. If you have a good, flavorful yellow cake recipe, can you give it to me?
  2. How do I make whipped cream that actually gets stiff??? I tried not adding the powdered sugar and vanilla until I'd already beat it some. Didn't work.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My first (and probably not final) failed attempt at cake decorating

I learned several things today:
  1. Cupcakes are easier to decorate than cakes
  2. It is possible for a cake to look unappetizing
  3. When this is the case, it's best just to close your eyes and take a bite
  4. Cake-decorating classes might be worth the money
I set out to make a 2-layer 6-inch cake so I could practice decorating it. You see, the plan up until about 15 minutes ago was to put a small cake at the top of the wedding cupcake stand so Nick and I could do all that traditional cake cutting stuff. But after today, I'm thinking I'll stick with cupcakes.

Unlike most baking sessions, this one started off well and ended with...well, you've seen it. I began with the recipe for Wacky Cake. There was the perfect amount of batter for two 6" cakes, which I baked for somewhere from 28-31 minutes. Good so far.

Then came the frosting, and that was what killed it. The frosting always saves my cupcakes, which are often quite ugly underneath all the butter and powdered sugar. But this time, it just did not work. So the problems were:

  1. I made mint frosting, so I dyed it green. Ugly.
  2. I was planning to use one batch of frosting to frost and fill the whole thing and then use what was left for piping designs on. I wanted it thick so it would hold its shape when I was piping it, but it was too thick just for frosting and I could not get it smoothed out.
  3. I apparently do not have a steady hand with a pastry bag.

In case you can't tell from the picture at the beginning of the post, the top of the cake reads, "Sorry I'm Ugly." Yeah, that's right. It's so ugly it had to apologize. Thanks cake. Its one redeeming quality at this stage in its likely short life is that it looks like PacMan.

Fortunately I now have an entire cake to eat because it's too ugly to bring to anyone. Unfortunately, even I don't really want it.