Elsie’s Rhubarb Cornmeal Cake

Blogs have birthdays.  Who would have imagined, a mere decade ago, that the little space we write in daily, or weekly, or monthly, or whenever we can, would become so important in our lives that we would want to celebrate its anniversary?

Food Blog June 2013-1512As I look back, it turns out that I started writing in my own little space almost five years ago.  But I haven’t celebrated its bloggy birthday, nor will I when I do roll over the half-decade mark, because my schedule of blogging was, at least near the beginning, so sporadic.  It doesn’t seem like I’ve really been writing here for five years when for three of those five, you were lucky to get a post a month.  The nice thing about WordPress, though (which I’ve been using quite happily for all of those almost-five-years), is that it tells you how many posts you’ve actually made.  And this, friends, against all belief, is number 200.  Two hundred!  That, to me, calls for a bit of celebration.  Let’s have cake!

Food Blog June 2013-1506Food Blog June 2013-1509This cake needs to be about the edging warmth of late spring, and freshness.  It needs to be something I could never have imagined making 200, or 150, or even 100 posts ago.  It needs to be original and tart-sweet and humble but delicious.  It’s not a show-off cake, but it stands up for itself.  It’s simple and tasty and equally good as afternoon snack, as dessert, and as a bit of a naughty breakfast.  It also, as it turns out, needs to be dairy-free.  Let me explain.

A few months ago, my aunt asked me to make something sweet.  But her granddaughter, Miss Elsie, can’t have dairy products.  No milk, no cheese, no butter.  No whipped cream.  No gelato!  I’ve met Elsie once.  We went on a glorious, sunshiney, beachy, too-much-food-and-certainly-too-much-wine family reunion trip.  The twelve of us – sisters, cousins, uncles, husbands, nieces – shouted and guffawed and flip-flopped our way up and down the three stories of a pool-bearing beach house in North Carolina for the better part of a week, and in the middle of this trip, Elsie tasted her first ice cream.  It was dark chocolate, made entirely with coconut milk, and her first taste, once the chill evaporated, was the purest expression of joy I’ve ever seen.  The kid was hooked.  The shirt she was wearing – white and pink with docile little flowers – was never the same.

Would I come up with something sweet, my aunt asked, that she could make for Elsie?  You got it.  This is an easy little cake, with just a bit of cornmeal for texture.  Butter and milk are replaced by applesauce for moisture and olive oil for deep, rich flavor.

But it couldn’t be just a cake.  If it was already going to be about family, I decided, I needed to go whole hog.  Our reunion trip was, in part, a joyous memorial for my grandparents, who used to vacation in North Carolina many, many years ago.  Transported by this connection, I was pulled back into their old backyard, and I could see Nana’s rhubarb bush at the back corner of the house.

Food Blog June 2013-1458Food Blog June 2013-1461I don’t know whether Elsie likes rhubarb, but from that moment on, rhubarb was it.  I chopped and simmered down a heap of the strange, red stalks, with some quartered strawberries for a different kind of sweetness, and a shower of sugar until it collapsed into a thick, stringy jam.  Think rhubarb floss, but in the most delicious possible way.

Food Blog June 2013-1462Food Blog June 2013-1474Once cooled slightly, a respectable layer of the strawberry rhubarb compote gets smoothed over the top of the bright golden cake, and then baked.

Food Blog June 2013-1483Food Blog June 2013-1489In the oven, the cake puffs and firms, but the rhubarb layer keeps it moist.  The fruit itself, exposed fully to the heat, gets sticky and slightly caramelized, and the edges turn almost molasses-dark.  This is a great, easy cake for a simple dinner party, in part because it is gorgeous – the dark pink top layer looks glossy and impressive – but just as importantly because this cake actually tastes better on the second day.  The compote cools and mellows, and the hit of vanilla in the cake is so right against the rhubarb.

Food Blog June 2013-1494I know rhubarb season is ending, but if you find some in your grocery store and can’t decide what to do with it, make this cake.  It’s easy and pretty and delicious, and it looks as at home, I think, on a simple plate as it does on a cake platter.  And if you miss the rhubarb, try straight simmered strawberries, or slices of plum, or maybe even peach jam, and take this cake directly from spring to summer.

Here’s to 200 more.  I hope you come along for the ride.

Food Blog June 2013-1501Elsie’s Rhubarb Cornmeal Cake

Makes one 9” cake

Strawberry rhubarb compote
5 cups rhubarb chunks from 1-2 lbs rhubarb
1 pint strawberries, washed, hulled, and quartered
½ cup sugar
  • Tumble the fruit into a medium pot, shower on the sugar, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the fruit collapses into a stringy, jammy puddle.  This should take 20-30 minutes, depending on the size and depth of your pot.
  • Set the compote aside to cool while you mix up the cake batter.
Cornmeal Cake
1 ½ cups flour
½ cup cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 eggs
½ cup sugar
½ cup smooth applesauce
½ cup olive oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Preheat your oven to 350F and grease the bottom and sides of a springform pan with olive oil or nonstick spray.
  • Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.
  • In a large bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), beat the eggs and sugar until the eggs become pale yellow and increase in volume; about 2 minutes.  This extra volume – air you’ve beaten into the eggs – contributes to the structure of the cake.
  • Add the olive oil, applesauce, and vanilla, and mix to combine.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture in thirds, beating just to combine after each addition.  This helps hydrate the batter more evenly, and it gives you a fighting chance of emerging from this baking session without getting flour all over yourself, your countertop, your floor… Not that this sort of thing ever happens to me…
  • Scrape-pour the thick, gloppy batter into your prepared springform pan and use a spatula to smooth it into an even layer.
  • Strew about 1 ½ cups of your now-cooled compote over the top of the cake, creating a thin but complete layer across the batter.  You will have plenty of leftover compote, which is a wonderful thing because it is delicious on top of toast, or bagels, or ice cream, or straight off of a spoon.
  • Carefully place your now-loaded springform pan in the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out with just a few gummy crumbs clinging to it.  Transfer to a wire rack and pop the spring to let the cake release from the sides of the pan.
  • Cool completely, then refrigerate – this cake is best the day after baking.  Bring it to room temperature before serving.

*Word of warning: it is easy to overbake this cake, because the semi-liquid layer of rhubarb means the top of the cake will not brown.  Thus, it will seem like it’s still underdone.  Remember, though, this cake is better after it has spent the night in the fridge.  As it sits on your counter, cooling off for its sleepover, it will continue cooking for a while.  So even if your toothpick seems to be telling you that all is awry, chances are things are going to be okay.  Try a cautious prod closer to the edges if you need some reassurance.

Blackberry Bourbon Bread (#Twelve Loaves April)

I’m a sucker for alliteration.  Call it having been an English major for so many years.  So when I read on April’s Twelve Loaves challenge that the objective was berry bread, I may have freaked out a little.  And when the idea of blackberries and bourbon zinged into my brain – dark, sultry, tartly perfumed – I may have freaked out a little more.  Food Blog April 2013-1083

Blackberries, bourbon, yogurt, and crumbly pebbly streusel all done up in a quickbread that we’ll pretend isn’t really an excuse for cake.  How could you want anything more?  Well, maybe a warming breath of cinnamon.  Granted.  And maybe some browned butter. Food Blog April 2013-1138

Just as this is barely a bread, it’s also barely a dough.  It only fits into my dough challenge by virtue of its attachment to the idea of bread, which, as I’ve noted, isn’t a very strong attachment at all.  Aren’t “quickbreads” really just desserts that we like to eat at non-dessert hours of the day?  But it is delicious, and warm, and comforting, and I think we could all do with a bit of that after this week.

Food Blog April 2013-1110Yogurt, browned butter, blackberries, bourbon, streusel, and cinnamon all in the same bread sounds a bit overwhelming, but really, all of the components played very well together.  Blackberries and yogurt scream breakfast, and mixed in a thick batter with plenty of melted butter they produce a moist, slightly dense loaf splotched with purple pockets of jammy tartness.  But the addition of bourbon makes this a naughty thing to consider having a slice of too early in the morning (unless you are still up from the night before, I suppose).  When I tasted the batter, I was concerned about how assertively the alcohol came through, but after baking what lingers is a lovely floral aroma – all the peaty, throat-searing headiness fades (and honestly, it left me wondering whether another tablespoon or two of bourbon might be welcome in the recipe).  Really, this is a loaf perfect for that most wonderful of British institutions we are sadly lacking in the U.S: afternoon tea.  And if you slathered a thick slice with clotted cream, I don’t think anyone would complain. Food Blog April 2013-1115

Blackberry Bourbon Bread

Makes 1 large 9×5 loaf

For the bread:
1 ½ sticks butter (12 TB, or ¾ of a cup)
2 eggs
1 ½ cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla
¼ cup bourbon (I like Knob Creek)
½ cup Greek yogurt, though likely any plain, unsweetened yogurt would do
2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
12 oz. blackberries, rinsed and air-dried (I realize this is an odd quantity, but that’s how much was in the container I found.  The advantage here is that it means you can start with two pints [16 oz.], and the inevitable handful you end up eating by sneaking “just one more” at a time will leave you with just the right amount!)
Food Blog April 2013-1123For the streusel:
½ cup flour
½ cup powdered sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
4 TB (½ a stick) cold butterFood Blog April 2013-1124
  • First, you’ll need to brown the butter for the bread.  In a small saucepan, preferably not black (it’s harder to see the browning against a dark background), melt the butter over medium heat.  Continue cooking, occasionally swirling gently, as it foams up.  That’s the water separating and steaming away.  After a few minutes, the solids will start to collect on the bottom of the pot, and begin to darken to gold and then coppery brown.  When that happens, turn off the heat.  It’s amazing how quickly those cooking solids go from perfectly brown to burned.  Set the pot aside to cool while you work with the other ingredients (I stuck mine in the freezer on top of a pot holder to chill down quickly).
  • While your butter cools, preheat the oven to 350F and prepare a 9×5” loaf pan by rubbing the bottom and sides with butter or spraying with a non-stick spray.
  • In a large bowl (or the bowl of your stand mixer), beat the eggs until slightly foamy.  With the mixer running (you could do this by hand with a whisk, I suppose, but an electric mixer of any kind will make it much easier), add the sugar ½ a cup at a time, integrating it completely before the next addition.  When all of the sugar is added, continue mixing for another 2 minutes, or until the mixture has become quite pale in color and increased in volume.
  • Add the vanilla, bourbon, yogurt, and cooled butter, and mix until well combined.  The yogurt may break up a bit and make things look curdled, but don’t worry.  Once you add the dry ingredients everything will be fine.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.  Add 1/3 of the dry mix to the wet ingredients, mixing on low speed just until the flour is integrated.  Add another 1/3 of the dry mix and combine again.
  • When you have just 1/3 of the dry mixture left, toss the blackberries in it gently.  This will help keep them evenly distributed in the batter as it bakes, rather than all sinking to the bottom.  Add this final portion of flour, with the berries, to the batter and fold it in gently with a spatula.  This is harder to do evenly, but will keep the berries intact better than using a mixer blade.  The resulting batter will be quite thick.
  • Scrape-pour the batter into your prepared loaf pan.  Mine got tremendously full, and to prevent any chance of overflow during baking, I relocated some of the batter to a 6-inch cake pan instead.  If you are concerned about overflow, I suggest filling the loaf pan only about 2/3 full, and make muffins or tiny cakes out of the rest of the batter. Food Blog April 2013-1116
  • For the streusel, which I insist you use because it adds such a nice textural contrast, combine the flour, sugar, and cinnamon in a small bowl.  Using a fork to whisk them together works nicely.
  • Rub in the butter with your fingers or a pastry blender until it is very well integrated.  Ordinarily I use a pastry blender for this sort of thing, but here I think your fingers really do work best, since you can squash and smoosh the butter more efficiently.  You want tiny pebbles – the biggest should be smaller than peas and the smallest like grains of couscous.
  • Sprinkle the streusel over the surface of your bread in an even, thick layer.  You will probably have a bit extra, but I think that’s hardly a bad thing. Food Blog April 2013-1117
  • Deposit your loaf in the oven and bake for 80 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the middle comes out with only a few moist crumbs clinging to it.  Since ovens are all different, I recommend you first test for doneness at 60 minutes, just to be safe.
  • Remove and cool in the pan on a wire rack until you can’t stand it any longer.  Then slice and enjoy with tea, with cream, with a dollop of yogurt, or just all on its own. Food Blog April 2013-1160

Milestones. And Cake. And Salad.

This September has been a big one for me.  New home (okay, so we technically moved in July), new job (okay, so school started in August), and new decade!  I’ve finally hit my 30s, and I like what I see so far (though admittedly I’ve only been stationed in this new world for two weeks).

Given my fanciful proclivities for putting food in my mouth, then, N. knows that my birthday must involve a restaurant in some form.  Since we are only just beginning to explore our new culinary surroundings, this was a perfect opportunity to embark on our adventures.  I started with Culver City which, delightfully, has a whole webpage devoted to its downtown restaurants, including (in most cases) links to each restaurant’s website.  This was almost too much.  I spent the better part of an evening cruising through online menus, imagining what kind of mood I might be in on the big day and what I might want to order and what, if the restaurant I ultimately chose should happen to be out of my top choice, I would order instead.

Based on menus and Yelp reviews, I decided on Fords Filling Station (FFS), whose upscale comfort food and wide range of offerings sounded promising.  I tend to like mid-range restaurants: not too fancy, where a prix fixe menu or outstandingly high prices make me feel like a grubby graduate student out of place (I know, I’m not anymore.  But it’s a hard habit to break in this new world of adulthood and employment), but not too casual either, where the food is sub-par or inconsistent and the wait staff makes no pretense of caring about our presence.  A gastropub – a self-proclaimed innovative collection of food, decor, and atmosphere – seemed like the right fit.

FFS is a fun spot.  It’s centrally located downtown, and the dining room is a big open space with a bar to one side, traditional tables, and long narrow two-tops where the couple sits on a bench next to one another looking out at the other diners, rather than across from each other.  N. and I were seated at one of these bench seats, and it was fun to sit side by side for a change in a restaurant setting.  Brick walls, big barrels, and warm colors make it inviting and, I thought, pretty unpretentious.

Our server, who was the perfect balance of informative and attentive, sold me on one of the night’s cocktail specials: citrus vodka, house made lemonade, and a little float of chambord.  It was nice – punchy and bright and sweet-tart, but oddly similar to a Rennie’s Lemonade from our erstwhile happy hour hangout in Eugene, and therefore it felt drastically overpriced at $12. 

We opted to share entrees so we could order a few things, and got a Cuban flatbread with smoked pork pieces, cilantro, mozzarella, and some kicky little red chilis; grilled asparagus blanketed in shaved parmesan,; and a flattened half chicken with amazing garlic mashed potatoes and succotash.

N. was most attracted to the chicken (as is often the case when we dine out), and here he was clearly right to be.  Flattened, the bones were gone, the meat was compressed, flavorful, and intensely juicy, and the skin was crunchy and buttery and tender and perfectly unctuous.  Because he is fonder of white meat, it was also a perfect dish for us to share, because N. left me the thigh, with its dark, meatiness pleasantly encased in a crisp layer of fatty crunch.  Beside the chicken, the mashed potatoes swam in a sauce of garlic confit, which was rich and intense: the best gravy I’ve had in a long time.

The flatbread, which would have been just delightful on its own, paled a bit in comparison to this chicken.  The crust was cracker-like in texture, and the pork pieces paired nicely with the pepper and cilantro, but together the dish was a little bit dry.  It needed – perhaps – some herb oil drizzled over the top, or maybe 45 seconds less in the oven.  Tasty, but not the star of the show by any means.

The asparagus was excellent: nicely flavorful and light, well cooked and, aside from the piece I dropped on myself (grace embodied, truly), a nice vegetal accompaniment to our meal.

Since I didn’t get any dessert that night (I was full but not overstuffed, and didn’t want to tempt myself by even glancing at a dessert menu), I was still longing for birthday cake a few days later.  Fortunately for me A., who blogs from the other side of the world at Over and Under, had told me about Porto’s – a Cuban bakery in Burbank that turns out to be right on my route to and from work.  I had to drive up to the school for a Friday meeting, and as I headed toward the freeway to come home, I decided to stop in and treat myself.

Inspired by the flatbread we’d shared at FFS, and because I thought it would be a good benchmark for a Cuban bakery, I got the Cubano.  Then, because it was still my birthweek (I’m big on extending the celebration as long as seems rationally possible), I picked out two tiny cakes to share with N.: flourless chocolate, and tres leches.

The sandwich was good.  Ham and pork packed tightly onto a fresh bakery roll with cheese, sharp mustard, and a pickle.  A simple sandwich, but a delicious one.

My dessert selections, though, were fantastic.  The tres leches was rich and light at once, not overly sweet but dripping with cream, like a well soaked angelfood cake topped with toasted marshmallow cream.  The flourless chocolate selection was less cake than a giant chocolate truffle: impossibly rich solidified ganache inside a thin shell of cake-like crumb.  N. was only able to eat two or three bites before declaring it too rich for his tummy.  I had no such trouble, but did talk myself into enjoying only half at that sitting, and saving the other half for another night when chocolate felt mandatory.

Indulgent?  Certainly.  But (at least in the case of the desserts) at $2-3 each, a reasonable indulgence.  Still, when one is a responsible adult (as I suppose some might now imagine me), one must temper such indulgences.  In this case, that means salad.

80. Trim and coarsely chop chard (rainbow makes for a gorgeous salad) and combine with white beans and chopped scallions. Dressing is minced ginger, a suspicion of garlic, olive oil and cider vinegar. 

I collected:

½ huge bunch red chard, thick stems removed

1 15 oz. can white kidney beans

5 green onions, finely sliced

1/2 inch knob of ginger

2 garlic cloves

1/4 tsp coarse salt

1/4 cup each cider vinegar and olive oil

1 TB honey

I tossed together the chard, beans, and green onions and set them aside in a big salad bowl.  To make sure the ginger and garlic were fine enough, I minced them by hand, then sprinkled them with coarse salt and dragged the flat of my knife across them until they turned into a thick, aromatic paste.  I scraped the paste into a glass measuring cup and whisked it up with cider vinegar and olive oil.  A taste of this was a cheek puckering revelation, so I added a healthy squeeze of honey to make it less astringent.

Aside from spinach, raw bitter greens are not always N.’s cup of tea.  Because I feared this might be the case with this combination, I decided to treat this more like a slaw than a salad.  I combined the main ingredients early and doused them in dressing a good fifteen minutes before dinnertime.  This would, I hoped, give the acidic dressing time to wilt the chard a bit, much like the vinegar in coleslaw dressing does for the cabbage.

It worked well.  By the time we ate (grilled chicken breasts sauced with equal parts whole grain mustard and apricot jam), the chard had lost just a bit of its aggressive bite but its freshness was not compromised.  The beans, sometimes bland customers, had soaked up a bit of flavor from the tangy bright dressing, and so while they were a steady, creamy counterpoint to the earthy-fresh chard, they weren’t at all boring.  We were both surprised by how well we liked this simple little salad.

Success, then, and balance: excitement and indulgence followed and tempered by stability.  If this is what the 30s are like, I’m ready.  Bring it on.  I’ll just be 30 forever.

The Buttercream Project: Wedding day, part two

Saturday morning – Wedding day! – was beautiful and bright and promising.  Our now-from-Seattle friends had arrived the night before, we’d all slept, the cakes had chilled, and now after a brief wedding day breakfast with the bride and groom’s families and out of town guests, I’d be on to decorating.  When I settled in to the buttercream production this time, I had an epiphany.  At Mom’s house, I had used an electric hand mixer instead of a stand mixer, and the buttercream had been fluffy and smooth and glorious.  What if, instead of using the paddle attachment on my stand mixer, I used the whisk?

This was, finally, the right thing to do.  I wish fervently I had thought of it the first day.  The frosting came together faster, and whipped up a bit smoother.  It was, I perhaps imagined, brighter ivory than the previous batches, and there were no chunks of butter to cause me piping distress.  If only, if only, the day before… but that is immaterial (and perhaps inaccurate too, since there were other factors, other differences, like the temperature of the butter, the temperature of the cheese, the amount of time spent whipping, the quantity of lime juice, etc) .

I piped.  I piped and I piped.  And things started to look better.  A lot better.  Most of the worst imperfections were hidden under the ivory and then delicate blue swirls and scrolls I snaked onto the cakes.  They actually started to look nice.  This might not be a disaster after all.  When I added a ring of round, pearl-like blobs to the bottom border of each, I started to feel happy with my project.

With the cakes done, all that remained were 92 miniature cupcakes.  All.  Right.  I had half a bowl of perfectly blue frosting.  Against my own better judgment (hey, it had worked out okay the day before with the gelatin in the filling), instead of starting over with a brand new batch, I decided to add more butter and more powdered sugar to the bowl, and try to tint it to match what I had already done as I went.  It worked.  I wanted a slightly thicker consistency of frosting for the flowers I planned to pipe so this mixture had to be more butter than mascarpone.  That worked out well, really, because I was out of mascarpone again anyway.

With time ticking, I filled up another piping bag with one of the new rose petal tips H. had bought me and went to work, remembering what I’d learned months ago about which way to swivel the cupcake as I frosted.  It took me a handful to get into a groove, remembering when to apply pressure and when to release, but once I got going I was making beautiful little horseshoe movements that resulted in sugary flower petals!  To perfect the color (not baby blue, but not dark blue either), I’d mixed a tiny bit of black gel dye in with the blue.  This resulted in a lovely periwinkle with just a hint of gray, matching almost exactly the blue on the couple’s save-the-date cards.  The exact blue of the wedding.  Boom.

N. would probably like me to add here that as I finished each handful of minis, he deliberately drizzled on a small quantity of silver-gray sprinkles.  My dear friend M., who arrived in mid-afternoon to coo over the product and do my hair for the event, would probably also like me to add that she took over sprinkling duties for the last dozen or so.  In fact, it was M. and S. who saw me through the last sheet tray of minis as, hand aching from the constant pressure and odd angle, I suddenly realized I was going to finish.

The winery where the wedding took place was a half hour drive from town on winding and sometimes roughly surfaced roads.  Though we positioned the cakes and cupcakes carefully in the back of our Subaru, I still got a little white-knuckled every time N. drove around the bend.  What if, after all that work, we got going a little too fast and one of the cakes slid into the side of the car?  What if, despite the air conditioning running at full blast, it was too hot in the car and the frosting started to slump off?  What if we did get there safely, but I dropped a cake on the way from the parking lot into the building?  I had packed flats as well as a bag of white frosting and a bag of blue in case of an emergency, but I’m not sure I was emotionally prepared to fix any problems that might happen on the way.  Not in a busy winery with the bride and groom’s families darting around setting things up.

Fortunately I didn’t have to.  Three or four of the minis fell over during our ride, but because I’d stuck them in the freezer for a few minutes while I got dressed, their frosting remained hard enough that it didn’t crumple much.

Setup was easy and disaster free.  Some of the wedding party helped carry the precious cargo in from the car, and when every last cupcake was situated on the table, I have to say it looked pretty fantastic.  I made a wedding cake.  And people liked it.

Final thoughts on this massive saga: I will not be going into the wedding cake business.  I would happily make another cake or three for friends who requested it, but I think I’d want to go to at least one cake decorating class first.  I will also not use American buttercream again, except for petal work like I did on the minis.  It’s just too sweet.  I loved the taste of the cakes I made, and the filling was a wonderful, bright tartness (the color contrast was great too), but the buttercream was just achingly sweet, even with the addition of lime juice to the mix.  For my sophomore performance, if I ever have such an opportunity, I would try an Italian or Swiss buttercream instead, relying on cooked egg whites for structure rather than powdered sugar.  As a thank you, J. and H. let me keep all the baking and decorating equipment they bought for the project (thanks again, you two!), so I’m set for all kinds of future practice.

I have to say, though, despite all my moaning and complaining and anxiety, I was really happy with how the cakes looked, and delighted with the reactions I received.  The bride and groom took home the leftovers and ate them the next day, and the one after that.  They were still good.  N. and I ate the trimmings and cupcake guts smothered in leftover filling, and they were delicious.  It was, regardless of the exhaustion and concern during the journey, a monumental success.  I can only thank J. and H. for letting me be such a big part of their day, and wish them all the joy in the world – joy like clouds of powdered sugar, perhaps – for the rest of their lives together.  N. and I love you both.

The Buttercream Project part 5

It’s funny, the things we feel we have to do to catch up with life.  Thursday was a big day: I successfully defended my dissertation, the last step on the way toward becoming a PhD in English literature.  So I guess I’m a doctor now, of a sort.  And now that the defense is over, and summer is (supposedly) on its way, I’m trying to find footing in the landslide of other responsibilities I’ve let slide: getting back in touch with friends, grading student work, cleaning up an office I’ll have to vacate in a month or so, and remembering (much to my dismay) an unwritten conference paper I have to present at the end of July.  And yet, rather than doing any of those things, the most important obligation I feel I must fulfill is this one: sharing how my most recent efforts on the cupcake front – now almost a month old – came out. 

The answer is spectacular.  I think, barring any further requests or complaints from the bride and groom, I have hit on THE mixture we’ll be using for the wedding.  And of course, as always, I’ve learned some things too.

Last time I made a floaty, creamy filling that coated the tongue and whispered with sweetness.  This time, I wanted something tart – almost aggressive – to to cut through the sometimes overwhelming clouds of frosting.  I combined 1 bag each frozen raspberries and frozen peach chunks, 1-2 cups champagne, and about ¼ cup of sugar in a small pot, and simmered them together for 20-30 minutes.  I was hoping for a thickened, jam-like compote, but I think there was too much champagne for that, and the mixture stayed fairly loose.  The flavor was great, though – with such a small quantity of sugar, the tartness of the fruit and champagne made the mixture bright and assertive.

When the cupcakes were baked, and both they and this ruby mixture were completely cool, I cut the middles out of the full sized cupcakes and deposited a teaspoon or two of filling into each.  To my relief, despite being thin, the juice of the filling did not bleed through and stain the exterior of the cakes.  Bright red splotches on otherwise pristine ivory-white wedding cupcakes would be disastrous.

When I mixed up the frosting this time, my butter and mascarpone cheese were not as terrifically soft as they were in my last attempt.  Therefore, they creamed together without the fearful separation I wrote about previously.  The edges and ripples of the swirls were still not as rigid and fluted as they are on bakery cakes, but they were still okay.  And when I went to frost the mini cupcakes, I finally figured out what was going on.

I ran low on frosting as I approached the minis, and because I was now out of mascarpone cheese I plopped a half-softened half-stick of butter into my mixer and let it rip.  Immediately, even though I hadn’t upped the ratio of sugar in the mix, this frosting was different.  The flowers, which I’ll say more about in a minute, actually had fluted edges, and the frosting required more pressure to liberate from my piping bag.  Mascarpone cheese, even when it’s cold, is already softer than butter.  It is never going to result in the same consistency as pure buttercream because it is such a soft cheese.  So while it is fine for simple swirls or covering a cake, it is not great for detail work that requires sharp edges or fine points.

As you can see, these are the best flowers I’ve made so far, thanks mostly to the higher ratio of butter to mascarpone in the frosting.  I still wondered why mine did not seem to ripple out of the petal tip I was using the same way they do in the instructional video I’m using, until I remembered – what an epiphany – that I’m left handed.  If you turn a cupcake to the left while you hold the piping bag in your right hand, you probably need to turn the cupcake to the right if you’re going to hold the piping bag in your left hand.  I realized this minutes too late to apply it this time around, but now I know.  That way the icing will emerge from the piping bag in the same pattern as it would for a right handed person. 

Survey said these were the best version I’d attempted yet by leaps and bounds.  The filling was perfect because it provided the right counterpoint to the achingly sweet frosting and the delicately sugary cake.  The flowers looked like flowers, and the blue sugar I found for the full size cupcakes is a deep enough blue to look sophisticated and adult (previous, lighter versions would bit better on sweets for a baby shower than on wedding cupcakes).

Next month, the challenge is piping.  I’ve purchased some beautiful ivory and gray cupcake wrappers that we’ll be using for the wedding, and I’d like to be able to imitate – if not copy – the leafy designs on them as the piped décor on one of the full sized cakes.  This will give me at least one more trial run with buttercream before the big day, and allow me to prove my theory about the mini cupcake flowers.  It will also, assuming Oregon’s weather gets its act together and remembers it’s Memorial Day weekend, give me a chance to see how the frosting behaves in warmer temperatures.

Fingers metaphorically crossed (it’s too hard to type otherwise)!