Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Guinness Stout Ginger Cupcakes: Sweet success?

"I totally failed."

It was my three-word personal mantra during my school years. Every test, every essay, every presentation I gave, I was terrified to prematurely proclaim that I might have actually done well. I far preferred responding to queries with the worst possible scenario, envisioning a paper or report card littered with red marks and a giant unhappy face at the top.

Yet even in the moments when I was fairly certain I'd done better than average, or at least better than what my personal mantra seemed to indicate, I was always a bit stunned to find out that I had, in fact, received an "A." It felt a bit like trickery, "a fluke," if not for the tiny insignificant detail that I, the perfectionist of perfectionists, almost always received an "A."

In my mind, however, the "A" didn't come naturally. It was hard fought. Just like when I broke five minutes in the mile. Just like when I got into Northwestern. Just like when I somehow ended up doing pretty well there too.

Success, in spite of myself.

I'm still terrified of presuming such a thing. As much as I strive for greatness and believe myself fully capable of it, I shudder away from uttering the word out loud, as though daring to articulate the notion of success might jinx its likelihood of happening. I feel much more comfortable quietly working hard, cloaking myself in an aura of modesty, whilst I keep my eyes firmly fixated on my end goal.

My innate propensity to undersell is no less apparent in the kitchen. While I've reached a point in my life where I'd describe myself as a good cook (and better baker) and fearlessly tackle everything from homemade pop tarts to Queen Nancy's Butterscotch Budino, I don't dare pontificate on the matter until the deed is done. I hide behind squeaky voiced exclamations of, "I hope it turns out!" or "It's just something I threw together!" until I'm confident that it actually did, in fact, turn out.

And then I photograph the heck out of it to prove it happened.


In spite of myself.

So when I endeavored to make these cupcakes for a co-worker's birthday, applying the recipe for Gramercy Tavern's Guinness Stout Ginger Cake as inspired by Anjali of "Eat Your Greens," I found myself once again swinging precariously on the pendulum between success and failure.

The scene in my kitchen was not that of the merry Stepford Wife with nary a hair out of place as she glides, smiling, from the oven to the center island with pristine cupcakes in hand. It was an abomination to all things good and true and Martha Stewart. A battlefield of sugar and butter. Flour scattered over the countertops like the first frost of the season, gooey patches of Stout and molasses crusting the stove where the pot had boiled over, and lumpy batter, likely the result of my haste to combine the still hot Stout-molasses goop into my carefully whisked eggs.

In other words, a disaster area the likes of which is supposed to remain unseen, unaired, and certainly not broadcasted over a food blog where it's expected to be all success all the time. At least in the eyes of those who don't subscribe to Martha's train of thought.

And yet, somehow, even with the proposition of failure lingering in the air and on my countertops, the pockmarked cupcakes didn't taste terrible.

At all.

They tasted of fall. Of crimson scarfs tucked around the necks of rosy-cheeked children. Of fireplaces filled with crackling logs, and of steaming mugs of hot apple cider.  The image on the screen that is never exactly true to life for more than a brief second.

And topped with a few dollops of strategically placed brown sugar cream cheese frosting, the cupcakes miraculously became a success. Became the image on the screen for a fleeting moment. A story to tell. A recipe to share.

In spite of myself.

Guinness Stout Ginger Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from "The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern" via Epicurious
Yield: Approximately 21 cupcakes

Notes: There are two versions of this recipe online - one that contains double the sugar, a third of the baking soda, and no fresh ginger, and the one that you'll find below. Thrown by the differing quantities of baking soda, I elected to use 1 teaspoon as a compromise between the two varying recipes and suffered no ill fate as a result. Praise be to God.

Now a word on the frosting. Anjali, who bequeathed this recipe onto me alongside the inspiration to turn it into cupcakes, used a lemon cream cheese frosting in lieu of the brown sugar version you see here. While seemingly inherently opposed to the nature of gingerbready sorts of things, the lemon cream cheese was a surprisingly delightful foil to the dark and moody cupcakes, and when I endeavor these again, I fully intend to play around with citrus flavoring, as well. For the purposes of this birthday celebration, however, I selected something slightly more mainstream, and in my mind's eye, no less compelling.

1 cup Guinness stout
1 cup molasses
1 teaspoon baking soda (original calls for 1/2 tablespoon)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil (grapeseed oil also accepted here)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons ground ginger (not a typo)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom (not a travesty if omitted)
1 tablespoon grated, peeled fresh gingerroot
Frosting of choice (brown sugar cream cheese frosting below!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line two 12-cup muffin tins with paper liners.

In a large saucepan with plenty of room for boiling action (important!), combine the Guinness and molasses. Bring to a slow boil, watching closely to ensure it doesn't boil over onto the stove and possibly onto the floor. Turn off the heat immediately, and stir in the baking soda. Allow to sit until the foam dissipates and the mixture cools down enough that it won't curdle the eggs in the batter.

Meanwhile, while the Guinness/molasses/baking soda mixture is cooling, set about preparing your other ingredients.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs with both sugars, followed by the oil.

In another large bowl (we are dirtying lots of things today!), use a fresh whisk to combine the flour, ground ginger, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom if you can find it/afford to spend $11 on a ground spice you only need 1/8 teaspoon of in a recipe.

Now, with all the ingredients prepped and the Guinness/molasses/baking soda mix cooled down to a state that won't scald your appendages, combine it with the egg/sugar/oil mixture. Whisk half of this wet mixture in with the flour mix, followed by the other half. Stir in the fresh ginger until just combined.

Pour the batter into the lined muffin tins, about 3/4 of the way to the top. You'll likely get around 21 cupcakes - 22 if you stretch it some.

Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out perfectly clean. Cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then remove and cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.

Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting
From Smitten Kitchen

1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 8-ounce packages of cream cheese (at room temperature)
1/2 cup unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small bowl, whisk together the two sugars and cornstarch, taking care to whisk out any brown sugar lumps. Lumps are not frosting's friend. (Particularly when you're using frosting to hide lumps on cupcakes).

In a separate large bowl, beat the softened cream cheese and butter together until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla (adding before other ingredients allows it to better penetrate the butter as per a pastry chef I trust implicitly), and then follow with the sugar-cornstarch mixture. Continue beating until the frosting is completely smooth and light. Chill the bowl in the refrigerator until it firms up enough that it won't slip and slide on your cupcake. Dollop, spread or use a pastry bag to form perfectesque peaks of frosting on each cake.

Take pictures. Because - success!  You did it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Six Categories of Blog Commenters, and a Categorically Delicious White Bean Quinoa Salad

I have a weird fascination with the comments that people leave on blogs.

Other blogs, naturally - the ones with audiences so large and devoted they could colonize an entire country. The Republic of Smitten Kitchen. The United States of Cupcakes & Cashmere. The Land of Orangette. (Which I imagine is filled with banana bread, bottomless jars of granola and cheese.)

While I gravitate to these sites and others of their ilk for the content - the vivid pictures, the engaging prose, the recipes that I want to make and eat every day of my life - more times than not, I also find myself compulsively reading the comments that follow, feeling oddly like I did back in the days when I used to sneak into my brothers' rooms to read what their classmates wrote in their high school yearbooks. Which is, you know, a totally normal thing to do when you're thirteen and your brothers don't tell you about the secret girlfriend they took to the prom.

The difference, of course, being that the comments on these blogs are public, which makes their content all the more fascinating, particularly when patterns begin emerging. While there are the outliers who post sincere, personalized notes, those that lie between often seem to fall into the same categories. Categories that I immediately feel compelled to pinpoint, as though I'm playing some sort of digital iteration of Guess Who? with myself.

There's "The Justin Bieber Fan" - the person who comments (first) on every single post, always declaring how much they love and adore the writer. Exclamation point, exclamation point.
Oh my gosh, this is so amazing!! You're so amazing!! I love glittery pens too!! I just ordered one in every color with a case too which I'm going to monogram with your initials!! You're the best!! P.S. I'm sharing this on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, Instagram, and my refrigerator door right now!!

There's "The Grammar Nazi" - the person who fastidiously reads every single word of prose, searching for the one time the author accidentally writes "your" instead of "you're," or leaves the "e" of the fourth "the" in the seventh paragraph.
I think you meant to say, 'My mouth was figuratively on fire.' If it was 'literally' on fire, you'd probably be dead right now. Judging by the published state of this post, I'd surmise that you are not, indeed, dead.

Which brings us to "The Misanthrope," or the troll who reads blogs for the sole purpose of leaving scathing, inflammatory commentary about how stupid, ugly, gross, and terrible the author, post or subject matter is.
You have the fashion sense of an amoeba. That outfit is repulsive - I wouldn't wear it if I was living in a cardboard box in 10 degree weather, and it was the only thing I had to shield myself against the elements aside from a garbage bag. I'd rather freeze to death. Also, you have a unibrow.

On the other side of the spectrum is "The Self-Promoter" - the person who only leaves a comment so the site's author will visit their blog in return.
Love this! So cute! I have a blog too!  Here's a link to the sweater I knitted out of rubber bands, and here's a link to the diamond-encrusted pot-holders that I made my mother-in-law for Christmas last year. What do you think? Leave me a comment! Here's the link again, in case you missed it!

The lesser of these two evils is "The Skimmer" - the person who clearly didn't read a single word of the piece, but for whatever reason wants to pretend that they did by leaving a nonsequitor or one line declaration of approval.
Yum - definitely making this one! (In response to a post about a dish that the blogger admits was actually terrible.)

Finally, we arrive at my personal favorite - "Sally Substituter," found exclusively on recipe blogs where he or she will ask, in rapid succession, if they can completely change the recipe and still achieve the same outcome.

This looks great!  Question - can I substitute the sour cream for Greek yogurt? Gotta watch the waistline - have my high school reunion next month! Also, my astrology forecast told me that I should avoid gluten this month (hello, IBS!), so do you think I can use almond meal instead of flour?  Oh and I really don't like apples or walnuts, so I'm thinking of using mango and the leftover peanuts I have in the back of my fridge - will that work?  Do you know how long peanuts are good for?  Wondering now if maybe they've gone bad… let me know!  Can't wait to make this recipe!!

The different variations that people come up with never cease to amuse me - particularly when it reaches a point where the recipe turns into a completely different dish. A peanut shell of its former self.

While I laugh in the moment, chuckling at the absurdity of leaving the chocolate out of a chocolate cake, I'd be lying if I were to say that I'm not guilty of the same. Not begging permission to make a pizza without the crust, but making minor tweaks here and there when tackling a new recipe - adding quinoa, replacing one ingredient with another that I just happen to have idling in the pantry, altering the preparation as I deem appropriate, and then suddenly wondering whether I've reached the point where the original recipe ceases to exist.

Most recently, I found myself considering as much with this dish - a bean salad that originally came to me via the aforementioned Republic of Smitten Kitchen. Or, more accurately, her cookbook, the roadmap to that country of supreme deliciousness. What began as one thing, a fresh cranberry bean salad, simply adorned with celery, red onion, feta, walnuts, and a vinaigrette, ultimately became the inspiration for something entirely different. A white bean and quinoa salad, punctuated with radishes in addition to the celery and red onion, avocado in place of the feta, and a vinaigrette composed of walnut oil and sherry vinegar in lieu of Deb's perfectly wonderful-as-written red wine vinegar and olive oil dressing.

So, literally not the same thing at all.

But still the the best thing to happen EVER since glittery pens. Exclamation point. Exclamation point.

White Bean and Quinoa Salad

Inspired by the Cranberry Bean Salad in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
Serve 3-4

1 1/2 cups cooked white beans (preferably prepared from scratch - it makes a difference, I pinky swear!)
3/4 cup quinoa
4-5 radishes, sliced into thin pieces, then chopped into little nubs
1 stalk celery, minced
1/4 red onion, minced
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon walnut oil
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Salt, pepper
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped and toasted
1/2 avocado, sliced and cut into small chunks

Thoroughly rinse the quinoa. Heat a large, nonstick pan over medium heat. Add the quinoa, and toast, shaking the pan frequently, until lightly brown, but not burned.

Bring just shy of 1 1/2 cups of salted water to boil in a medium-sized sauce pan. Add the toasted quinoa, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes, or until the water has been absorbed. Fluff quinoa with a fork and let cool to room temperature.

While quinoa is cooking, soak minced red onion in bowl of cool water for at least 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Whisk together the walnut oil and sherry vinegar.

In a large bowl, combine quinoa, white beans, radish, celery, parsley, salt and pepper. Toss with sherry-walnut vinaigrette.  Top with walnuts and avocado just before serving.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Essential Non-Essentials

I don't really have a point to this post today. Tonight. More just an impulse to write about something and nothing at all without a rhyme, reason or recipe to tie it all up neatly in a bow.

Have you ever noticed that everything always seems to run out at the same time?  Usually when it's one of those weeks, when you're pretending to be "on a budget," and then suddenly need to buy cinnamon and tissues and walnuts and red wine because life is so much better with walnuts and red wine.

And, well, tissues.

Usually I try to hold out till the weekend to purchase these essential non-essential life ingredients, but it was also one of those weeks where I thought I might die if I didn't have cinnamon for my oatmeal. And by "cinnamon," I, of course, mean "red wine."

For my mouth.

There was also coffee this week. Coffee whipped with full fat milk and capped off with a heart. Because coffee is so much better when made with heart.

Especially when accompanied by giant crackly-edged peanut butter cookies the size and girth of a small baby's head. As, opposed to, say, a large baby's head.

 Stumptown Coffee Latte + Farmshop Peanut Butter Cookie at Alfred Coffee & Kitchen

I feel like I may have learned something important in the midst of all the weirdness of these past five days, but I'm not entirely sure what that is as of this moment, sprawled out on my couch bearing thick socks and a seaweed mask, the physical manifestations of my Friday night lameness.

But I do know that I feel okay. With the lameness, with the knowledge that there's currently a belt in my purse because sometimes when you've eaten too many crackly-edged peanut butter cookies the size and girth of a small baby's head, you need to take off your belt during dinner, and with all the weirdness that will soon be forgotten. Or at the very least replaced by new weirdness.

Like taking off your belt in the middle of dinner so you can eat an extra slice of pizza.

This weekend will be good. I'm going fake hiking with two of my dearest friends, which means we're going to wear makeup and try not to break an actual sweat, and then replenish our depleted reserves with champagne. You know, essential non-essential life ingredients.

The cinnamon in oatmeal. The hearts on coffee. And that extra slice of pizza.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Zoe Nathan's Cornmeal Cake with Macerated Strawberries: Summer in October

I've been in a fog since I left New York. Partly because of the predictable post-vacation inertia, my body's obstinate desire to stay firmly at rest. Sleeping in, ignoring emails, eating doughnuts and cappuccinos for breakfast… and chocolate chip cookies for lunch.

But there's been something else, beyond my aching sweet tooth, that's been present too. Lurking at the back of my mind like the sinister burglars I always thought were hiding outside my bedroom window when I was growing up. To, you know, burglar me and my Barbie dolls. 

Once again, New York has cast its spell on me. Just like I knew it would when I purchased the plane ticket, my brain nearly exploding with giddiness because I was finally going back. And finally going somewhere other than my parents' house in the OC.

In the two weeks since I've returned, I've seen New York everywhere. Not because it's suddenly been more present and taunting in my world as part of some grander sign that I'm supposed to move there, but more because I've been looking for it. Lusting for it. Nearly choking myself on NYC guidebooks at Anthropologie, snorting along with Buzzfeed's 35 Things Most New Yorkers Do like I can totally relate (I can't relate), and drowning my earbuds with "Empire State of Mind" when it so happens to come on the radio.

In the interim, I've been desperately trying to fall back into the routine of my life here in LA, hammering the square peg back into the round hole with as much enthusiasm as a kid eating broccoli. Telling myself that New York isn't that great. That it would be different if I actually lived there. That I'd be poor and cold and living in Brooklyn with a roommate that smelled like curry and B.O.

And yet, somehow even that seems glorious and exotic just for the inherent differentness of it all. Aside from, well, the poor part. And the B.O.

So in the midst of the lust, the imaginings of starting over, of wiping the slate clean and scribbling over it with a new path toward perceived greatness (and a killer winter wardrobe), I've been searching for the reasons why I love LA.

My Melrose Place Farmers' Market that I walk to every Sunday morning for kale and farm fresh eggs with yolks as vibrant as sunflowers.

The proximity of my family and nieces who I can't corrupt from 3,000 miles away.

The friends who make me laugh and drink too much wine.

Running on the Santa Monica Bike Path.

The dining community that makes me feel more a part of something than I ever have in my entire life.

And the ability to make cornmeal cake with macerated strawberries in October.

It'll do for now. At least until big apples come into season.

Zoe Nathan's Cornmeal Cake with Macerated Strawberries
Adapted from Noelle Carter's Culinary S.O.S. in the LA Times, and KCRW's Good Food Blog
Serves at least 12, though likely more if you offer more restrained slices

Notes: My obsession with Zoe Nathan's pastries began with the salted caramel at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe, another reason that I love LA. While it's hard for me to stray beyond the illicitly buttery, salty square that beckons me whenever I'm in the near vicinity of the beloved Santa Monica brunch hub, whenever I do, my sweet tooth is more than rewarded -- with muffins so delicate they crumble at the mere hint of an ocean breeze, with mini chocolate cupcakes that eradicate the notion that chocolate cake could possible be dry, with bread pudding that could be the reason bread was even invented at all.

One of the desserts that Zoe has become most known for in the LA dining circuit is her cornmeal cake, sometimes served with sweet corn ice cream, sometimes hidden beneath an indecent smattering of macerated strawberries and a sloppy tuft of whipped cream, and always more delicious than something made with cornmeal has any right being. Most recently, I got a taste of it at LA Loves Alex's Lemonade, a charity event and food festival featuring bites from the brightest talent both in LA and the country, and I was once again reminded of why Zoe is one of our city's greatest culinary treasures.

With temperatures toeing their way into the 90's in Southern California this weekend, it seemed only proper to bid summer one final farewell with a take on her cake, cobbled together from an older recipe for a cranberry orange version of Zoe's cornmeal cake via the LA Times' Test Kitchen Director Noelle Carter (another culinary treasure!), and a recipe that was featured last year on KCRW's Good Food Blog. Needless to say, I omitted the cranberries and orange zest from the Times' version, trading in lemon zest which I thought might partner better with the macerated strawberry topping, and I also used plain yogurt in place of part of the ricotta as dictated by the KCRW version. The end result was exactly what I had hoped it would be - a final breath of summer in cake form that encompasses all that there is to love about LA and, well, life in general. Cake really does make everything seem brighter, don't you think?

One final note - while the cake is delightful as plotted out here, the caramelized sugar top giving way to an interior that straddles the space between cake and pudding, I think I might consider trying it in a tube pan the next time for more caramelized sugar surface area. If I do so, I'll be sure to return and indicate as much here. In the meantime, go forth - make cornmeal cake, and remember the reasons why your life is already wonderful, exactly as it is.


Cornmeal cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
3 eggs
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons salt (this isn't a typo - this cake can take it!)
Zest of 1 lemon
1 1/2 cups sugar + 2 tablespoons for dusting
1 cup whole fat ricotta cheese
1 cup plain yogurt (whole preferred)

Macerated strawberries
1-lb strawberries, quartered or halved depending on size
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice (Meyer lemon juice is brilliant here if you can find 'em!)

Whipped cream
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan with parchment paper, then liberally grease the bottom and sides, all the way up to the top.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking soda, and baking powder with a wire whisk. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, vanilla, maple syrup, and vegetable oil, also using a wire whisk until well-incorporated (this recipe is not shy with using bowls).

Finally, in a whole other large bowl (or in the bowl of a stand mixer - preferable), use the paddle attachment on your mixer or an electric handheld mixer on medium-high speed, to cream the softened butter with the salt, lemon zest, and 1 1/2 cups of sugar. You'll want to mix it until everything comes together properly, but not so much that it's completely creamy as the phrasing "cream together" would suggest. With the mixer still running over low, gradually add in the egg-maple-oil-vanilla mixture until just integrated. Add half of the flour-cornmeal mix, give it a 5-10 second whir in the mixer, and then add the rest of the flour, along with the ricotta and plain yogurt till, again, just combined. (Overmixing is the death of all good things aka cake.)

Pour the thick, fluffy mass of batter into the pan, admiring your work as it goes, then fanatically smooth the top using a flat knife so it's level. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in an even layer over the top.

Bake for 55 minutes to 65 minutes, checking after 55 minutes by inserting a cake tester into the center of the cake, but also giving it a good glance over for other telltale signs of doneness - a golden top, edges that pull away from the tin every so slightly, some crackly edges around the corners. The tricky thing with this cake is that the tester may come out clean when it isn't actually there, so better to gauge by the visual clues. Once you are convinced that it is in fact done, cool on a wire rack.

For the macerated strawberries:
While the cake is baking, toss the strawberries with the sugar and lemon juice. Let sit in the refrigerate to "macerate" (the technical term for what happens when those strawberries start to break down and release their juices into a puddle of strawberry au jus) for at least two hours.

For the whipped cream:
Just before you are ready to serve, combine the cream, sugar and vanilla in a large bowl. Use an electric mixer (or whisk if you want to be all proper about it) and whip ingredients until medium, yet somewhat fluid, peaks form.

For serving:
Slice cake into pieces. Top each with a couple spoonfuls of macerated strawberries and a heady dollop of whipped cream.