Monday, August 31, 2009

Hummingbird Cake

Some things that you'll quickly learn about me through this blog:
(1) I love to bake layer cakes -- the higher, the better!
(2) I am a *very* improvisational baker -- I know baking is a science, but I still like to play around
(3) I usually screw up something in a recipe...but it usually works out for the best

My roommate of 3 years, Amanda, moved back home this weekend (sad!) so we had a big good-bye brunch to send her off. And any big celebration calls for a big big layer cake! Linda found this amazing-looking recipe and we knew that we had to make it ASAP. It was perfect for this brunch - cream cheese frosting, fruity and nutty...mmm SO GOOD.

True to my form, I made some adjustments to the recipe:
-I used plantains instead of bananas. I saw them at the store and just HAD to get them. I never see ripe plantains at my local grocery, and I happened to go to a different store for this trip, so I went with it.
-I used walnuts instead of pecans... why? Because the pecans I bought disappeared!! And I am impatient, so I reached for the walnuts that I had on hand.
-I added coconut extract to make the cake a little more tropical.
-I used way less sugar in the frosting. The two pounds in the original recipe was excessive. I like frosting to be less sweet, to balance the cake.
-I used half cream cheese, half Neufchâtel. I messed up at the store and didn't look at what I was grabbing off the shelf. Yep, I told you that I usually screw up something in a recipe...

But even with all of these adjustments, intentional and not, the cake was DELICIOUS! It disappeared so quickly! This cake definitely turned out to be as yummy as it looks, and it was very very easy! Especially without any complicated filling, the cream cheese was so good between each layer, keeping the cake moist.

Hummingbird Cake
As adapted from CakeSpy

  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp coconut extract
  • 4 oz crushed pineapple, well drained
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped pecans (or walnuts!)
  • 2 cups very ripe bananas (or plantains!)

  • 16 ounces cream cheese, softened (or half Neufchâtel)
  • 1 cup butter, room temperature
  • 8-10 oz powdered sugar, to taste
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla

For the Cake: Preheat oven to 350°. Combine flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and cinnamon together into mixing bowl. Add eggs and oil to the dry ingredients. Stir with a wooden spoon until ingredients are moistened. Stir in vanilla, pineapple and the nuts. Stir in the bananas/plantains. Spoon the batter into 3 well-greased 9-inch round cake pans. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes (mine took a lot longer, more like 40 minutes), or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then turn onto cooling rack. Cool completely before frosting.

For the Frosting: Combine cream cheese and butter; cream until smooth. Add powdered sugar a little at a time until desired sweetness, beating with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla.

Frost the tops of all 3 layers, stack and then frost sides. Garnish with nuts, strawberries, whipped cream...whatever you like!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

red velvet cupcakes, charlie wilson's war

Hello friends, I have made some red velvet cupcakes.

This has been on my to do list for a long, long time (maybe almost a year?) and I can finally check it off. It was surprisingly easy, fun and satisfying. The red batter was exhilarating, and at the same time, a nightmare. I guess I'm usually pretty messy anyways when I bake, but it's much much more noticeable when your splatters are bright red. I had a hell of a time keeping up with the little droplets; I was licking them off my hands, my elbows...I had to draw the line at the counter.

A lot of red velvet recipes recommend not having children around when you make them, because the batter will stain. Well...sure I don't have kids around, but I'm there. And of course, I splattered some onto the carpet. Of my new apartment. Actually after this happened, I resigned myself to the stain. Then Penny called, and I told her about the stain, and she asked why I didn't put some toothpaste on it. And so I did. And it worked. People, Penny is in medical school. So yeah, she's smart. :)

I read a lot of recipes for red velvet cake, and most use cake flour, buttermilk, and vinegar. I went with a recipe from cupcake bakeshop, because they are usually great. I didn't have buttermilk so I added some vinegar to whole milk and let it curdle (this is so useful!). I also took chockylit's advice and upped the amount of cocoa by a lot. I figured you can't go wrong with some extra cocoa flavor. I was worried about the color, so I overdid it with the red food coloring. I think it turned out ok.

The recipe below is adapted from cupcake bakeshop. I used a combination of baking powder and baking soda, and it worked like a charm...see the perfect domes above. I would increase the sugar amount below to something like 1 cup or maybe even 1 1/4 cups, if you prefer sweeter. I think these cupcakes weren't very sweet, but I compensated with the cream cheese frosting. Cream cheese frosting has been ubiquitous like air around my apartment lately.

Red Velvet Cupcakes
makes 1 dozen
350 degree oven

1 1/4 cups cake flour
3 1/2 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoons baking powder or 1/2 teaspoon cream of tarter
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cups buttermilk (or 1/2 milk + 1 tsp vinegar, curdled ten minutes)
1 teaspoons vinegar
1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3 tablespoons red food coloring
3/4 cups sugar
1/4 cups butter
1 egg

1. Whisk buttermilk, vinegar, red food coloring and vanilla in a small bowl to blend.
2. Sift flour, cocoa, baking soda and power, and salt together. (I did this twice.)
3. Beat butter until fluffy, about 1 minute. Add sugar, continue beating 2 minutes. Add egg, beat 1 minute more.
4. Mix in dry ingredients and buttermilk mixture, alternating between the two in about three or four additions. Begin and end with dry ingredients.
5. Scoop into cupcake pans and bake 20 minutes.

Cream Cheese Frosting
makes enough to generously frost 12 cupcakes

1 8oz. package of cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup powdered sugar (or more to taste)
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract

1. Beat cream cheese alone until fluffy. Add butter and continue beating.
2. Add brown sugar and beat to incorporate. Add powdered sugar slowly, tasting for desired sweetness. Beat in vanilla to combine.


Wait for cupcakes to cool. Pipe a swirl of frosting on each. Top with ....well anything you like. I used whiskey soaked cherries here, because that's what I had on hand.

So, Charlie Wilson's war. Great movie. What does it have to do with this cupcake? I guess for one, the whiskey cherries. For another, it made me think of that quote at the end of the movie...blah blah we did a really awesome job in Afghanistan but then 'we fucked up the end game.' That's what happened here...on a smaller scale of international importance.

I was still reeling from the coffee cupcake bake time fiasco, so as the recommended bake time of twenty minutes came and went, I stood frozen before the oven, unable to remove the cupcakes. 21 minutes passed. Then 22. The anxiety was palpable. Finally I took them out, and they were overdone. (If you look at the photo above, you'll see a slight dry layer at the bottom that should have been avoided.)

Last time I messed up by underbaking, but I should have realized that the two experiences were unrelated. Last time I was trying something new. This time, I was following a recipe I should have trusted. I'm all about learning from past experiences, but I think (and I've noticed this more as we get older) that as there are more and more entries in the 'past experiences' category, it becomes less full of useful lessons that inform future relevant choices, but more just irrational, immobilizing fear. Um, I guess in cooking this means, failure in one recipe should not translate into fear of another. Or even the original, in that case.

Anyways, whatever, they were yummy.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

monday dinner a la mom, and the elusive chinese-amatuerfoodie complex

Never mind!
The cupcakes are good! My mother says so. You know you people always say, 'I'm so special, my mother tells me all the time'? The opposite if true for Chinese mothers. Compli
ments are a novelty saved for dean’s list announcements and usually couched in some subtle version of ‘you could have done better (and you know, the neighbor’s daughter did)’. But not this time! I think it’s because none of her neighbors’ daughters bake, and because the cupcakes were only mildly sweet, which she prefers. So I guess if you have a Chinese mother who likes her baked goods not-so-sweet, email me for a recipe. Actually in all seriousness, I also had one of the underbaked cakes for dessert, and it was surprisingly satisfying…kind of gooey in the middle.

Back to this post.
Monday, I succeeded in convincing my mother to go Chinatown shopping with me, and then cook me dinner at my apartment. Huge win for me, obviously. If you are a single girl living alone downtown, I’m not sure what could constitute a better Monday night.

in Chinatown is always fun, and I don’t do it enough. This trip was spurred by a dire shortage of Chinkiang vinegar (Chinese version of balsamic). But I also stocked up on some Asian veggies, tofu and rice. Cliché, cliché, cliché. Yes.

hen we got home, my mom made two simple home-style dishes, shrimp stir-fry with bok-choy, and leeks with egg and tofu, all the while complaining of my woefully under-stocked kitchen. I don’t blame her; we cook very differently, and it’s always hard cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen. Fortunately for me, the end result was delicious. Served with rice, of course.

m, recipes? Maybe now is a good time to give some preface, aka explain my Chinese-foodie complex.

When people find out I like to cook, they always say ‘I bet you make really awesome Chinese food!’ OK. I’ll accept that without comment. But oddly, I’ve never gotten ‘I bet you make a kick ass seafood risotto!’ which, … big deal, but, I do.

hinese cooking is like my ugly girlfriend. You know, we’ve been dating a really long time, she has a great personality, and I love spending time with her Monday through Thursday, but I don’t bring her up in front of company on the weekend. If I’m walking home from work, teetering on the brink of starvation, I’m probably going to whip up some egg plant stir fry with sesame oil and vinegar, throw it on left over rice and call it a day. If a friend is coming over, I’ll make chicken piccata with wild rice walnut pilaf.

y Chinese cooking repertoire consists of variations on a small subset of my mother’s vastly larger one. Its development seems stunted at the level it was at when I moved out at sixteen; since then, I’ve stuck to the same dishes I always ate at home. Maybe it’s a comfort thing. Despite my love of food and cooking, whenever I’m at my mom’s house I never try to help in the kitchen. It seems purely my mother’s domain, and I revert back to my childhood mentality….showing up only to eat. I do the dishes.

hy don’t I learn more Chinese dishes? I’ve tried. One way is for my mom to actively teach me something. Her recipes usually go like this…mix the stuff with some of that stuff, you know, that stuff on the middle shelf, um oh yeah and some of that other sauce, cook it, maybe add some … get the idea. Then there are cookbooks. The problem is, and yes I am embarrassed, I can’t read Chinese. I think of myself as Chinese through and through, I just can’t read it. And yet, I’m certainly Chinese enough to have an innate distrust of Chinese cookbooks in English. I’ve seen them at the bookstore, bearing some name like Tracy Chen, titled Authentic Chinese Cooking, with a photo of either some stylized minimalist noodle dish or a middle aged Chinese woman in designer clothes wearing too much makeup leaning into the camera. Oh, I’m a hypocrite. I drool over the food photos in Gourmet and Fine Cooking, but stylized Chinese food under soft box lighting? It’s too fake! I can’t do it. And come on, middle aged Chinese women don’t wear makeup! Nor are they named Tracy. Really, now.

Ok, ok, with that being said, I'm going to stop whining and shape up my Chinese cooking skills. In any case, I did learn to cook first from my mom, and the techniques she taught me are applicable to every kind of cooking. Next time, I'll summarize a few and add a recipe. Stay tuned!

Also Erin's creme brulee is making me so hungry! I can't wait to try it, and it will be the oven broiler version...I'll let you know how it turns out.

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