Monday, January 4, 2010

resolute, with cranberry cupcakes

Welcome to the new year! Heck, it’s a new decade. But honestly, I’ll spare you much musing on the significance of this new year/ new decade, because so many blogs out there have done it better, and in a more timely fashion. Like, say, on the actual first of the year.

Erin and I talked a little about resolutions this morning. Erin is not for them. My resolution this year? I’ve resolved to make 2010 the year I go to medical school. Like Eric Bana says in the end of the Star Trek trailer, “The wait is ovahh.” (Technically, seven more months to go, but let’s not get detailed.) Maybe you, like Erin, are not one for big, life-changing changes. But as this is a food blog, we can all make some food goals for 2010. Perhaps there’s a recipe, or ten, you’d like to master this year. Or just a long list of yummy foods you’d like to EAT this year. Or yummy foods you’d like to see here on Pacific Thyme. Let us know.

Actually, last year, I made a simultaneously life-changing and food-related goal: I decided to go veg. While vacationing in December of 2008, I randomly picked up a book about the wanton wastefulness of the omnivorous lifestyle. Before any republicans in the audience gets all up in a huff- here’s my disclaimer. Yes, meat is yummy. Yes, I’ve seen that picture about carnivores not needing a wimpy support group. Yes, I think that joke “PETA: People Eating Tasty Animals” is clever. And honestly, I think human beings are meant to be omnivorous, what with the hunting and the gathering. It is simply the amount that the average person consumes in the US today that is so unnatural and appalling. Omnivorous doesn’t mean meat needs to be part of every meal, or that a dinner should consist of a sixteen ounce steak (although I’ve been happily guilty of that before). (This month, Harper’s Index printed the statistic that US greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 185 million tons if we reduced the obesity rate to 3%. Obesity is currently ten times that for adults 20 and older in the US.)

But I digress. The point is while I don’t think everyone should be vegetarian, it seemed reasonable to do a little extra in hopes of tipping the heavily sagging “cosmic scale.” So a year ago, I decided to cut out meat and dairy products, but kept eggs, because eggs are yummy and it was my gig, so I just decided it was so. I turned a blind eye to dairy incorporated in baked goods, but I switched to soy milk and soy ice cream. Now, those who know me know that I can be…enthusiastic, but my enthusiasm can be short lived. That is to say, my attention span rivals that of a small kitten. No one really expected me to last a week on this crazy diet, let alone a year, the typical length of a new year’s resolution. I’m a realist. I told myself if I made it even six months, I would feel plenty accomplished.

I’m not sure what turned out to be more surprising – that I actually did last more than six months and or how easy it turned out to be. Given that it is now, ahem, 2010, it seems there is quite an amply stocked market for the vegetably inclined. And many of the products are really very tasty, including some easy frozen “meatball” varieties and many soy ice cream options. And what’s more, you don’t even need to get dressed up and go to a fancy-pants John Mackey joint to find these products-most are common enough to be in your local Safeway, or Kroger, or what have you.

Despite this bout of waxing nostalgic, I did indeed quit the veg gig around August, coinciding with the launch of this blog. Cooking meat can be wonderful and fun, and I like to serve to my friends, none of whom are vegetarian. Still, I think my eight month stint taught me some valuable lessons in creativity and I definitely can get by with less meat now, if not no meat.

Back to regular programming. I needed to bake something for a new year’s eve party, and I wanted to do some kind of wint'ry cupcake flavor. Erin, in her beauty and brilliance, suggested cranberry, which I loved. I decided to do a basic vanilla cupcake with a cranberry swiss meringue buttercream. (It turned out decently well, although as I was in a rush to bring them to the party, my photography session was quite lacking.) Since I started making swiss meringue buttercream in the summer, it’s been great trying out different flavors it will take, and the possibilities of this frosting, like those of the new decade, seem endless.

There, how lovely a sentiment is that?

Basic Vanilla Cupcakes
makes 12 regular cupcakes or 48 (!) mini cupcakes

My own go-to recipe for a vanilla cupcake is usually either the martha stewart version of a cupcake bakeshop version, but I decided to try one from crispy waffle. These turned out fluffy and moist, and very very buttery, but they didn't give me the lovely domes martha usually does.

1-1/2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cups sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream
1 large egg, room temperature
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees with the oven rack in the middle position. Grease and flour a 12-cup muffin tin.
  2. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.
  3. Cream together the butter and sugar until light colored and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
  4. Add the egg, egg yolks and vanilla and beat at medium speed until thoroughly incorporated.
  5. Add the sour cream and beat until incorporated.
  6. Add the flour mixture and beat until just incorporated.
  7. Spoon the mixture into the muffin cups and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean, about 20 minutes.
  8. Remove and cool to room temperature on a rack, about 45 minutes. In the meantime, prepare the frosting of your choice.

Cranberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream
makes enough to frost 12 cupcakes

1 cup cranberry sauce
4 egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 sticks of butter, at room temperature (I actually use salted butter)
  1. Combine the sugar, egg whites, cream of tartar and water in the stainless steel bowl of an electric mixer (i.e. your KitchenAid bowl). Bring a large pan of water to simmer, making sure that the water is a the same height as the egg whites in your stainless bowl. Set the bowl in the pan of simmering water and whisk constantly until the mixture reaches 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Be really careful not to curdle the egg whites-- simply remove the bowl from the heat for a bit if it feels like that's happening. Also, you'll know when it's getting close to 160 degrees; the mixture will be getting ultra foamy, like the top of a latte. (A really good latte that is-- one of those kinds where it has a leaf-pattern on top, you know what I'm talking about.)
  2. Remove the bowl to your stand mixer and beat on high speed for 3-5 minutes, until the mixture holds glossy, marshmallowy peaks. Remove the meringue to another bowl.
  3. In the standing mixer, beat half the butter and one-third of the meringue until well combined. Continue to add the remaining two-thirds of the meringue a dollop at a time. The mixture may look scarily curdled at this point; adding the remaining butter a tablespoon at a time will smooth things out. (Basically, just keep adding a bit of butter at a time until the curdling corrects itself.)
  4. With the mixer on low, add the cranberry sauce and mix until well-combined.
  5. Frost the cupcakes using an offset spatula.

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