Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I am just bursting with self-congratulation. I used to think I just couldn’t make great cake, but this recipe has proven me wrong. When I saw it at the Smitten Kitchen, it sounded so simple and so good that I had to try making it for my friends’ shared birthday celebration a couple of weeks ago. Since I was planning to bake them on a Wednesday night and tote them around with me the whole next day before meeting the birthday girls for dinner, the fact that I didn’t have to make frosting and then worry about said frosting getting smeared all over the place during the transport process was majorly appealing.

The cake recipe sounded a little odd—brown sugar? vinegar? The vinegar had only given me mild pause initially, but when I was driving home from work on my planned cupcake-baking evening, I happened to hear this story on NPR, in which the interviewer simply could not get over the fact that the “wacky cake” recipe called for vinegar. “Vinegar?” she kept repeating. “Really? Vinegar?!” I started to get nervous. Now, with the levelheaded benefit of hindsight, I realize the interviewer just didn’t know what she was talking about. Both the wacky cake and the black-bottom cake recipes don’t call for milk, butter, or eggs, which means they’re probably rooted in either the Great Depression or World War II. Any elementary-school science student knows that baking soda + vinegar = fizz, so I’m guessing the vinegar helps to leaven the cake in the absence of eggs. Ah, chemistry!

The cupcakes were extremely easy to make. I used Scharffen Berger for both the chopped chocolate and the cocoa (I can’t believe that since embarking on this recent baking spree, I’ve become the sort of person who keeps both Dutch-process [Droste] and non-Dutch-process [Scharffen Berger] cocoa around the house, in deference to the varying preferences of different recipe writers). I used my KitchenAid to beat the cream-cheese filling and then, because Deb had complained that her cupcakes didn’t look as perfect as the originals, and because it was a hot day in Pasadena, I chilled the bowl of filling in the refrigerator while I made the cake batter, in the hopes that the filling would stay neatly in the centers of the cupcakes. I was a bit tense when filling the muffin cups—the cake batter seemed to fill them up almost completely, so I went easy on the filling to avoid overflowing them (also, I was worried the cupcakes would end up too cheesy-tasting, but after trying them I decided the filling was so good, I shouldn’t have held back). I ended up with leftover batter and filling, and my cupcakes still puffed up way above the top of the muffin cups during baking. Maybe I should have made a thirteenth cupcake? The overflowing didn’t do much harm, aside from making the cupcake tops a little hard to peel away from the pans, and making my cupcakes generally resemble toadstools. Chilling the filling did make it easier to work with, but it didn’t make my cupcakes look any better. They were definitely homestyle, maybe a little homely, but I didn’t mind—in fact, it was cool the way each of them turned out uniquely, with different patterns of black and white swirls on top. I do wish my chocolate chunks hadn't all sunk to the bottom, though; maybe I needed to chop them finer?

Anyway, the taste was the important thing: Absolutely delectable, I'm pleased to report. I tried one fresh out of the oven, just to make sure I hadn’t mismeasured, overmixed, overcooked, or otherwise ruined them, and it tasted good, but I was amazed at how much more flavorful they tasted when I ate one straight out of the refrigerator the next day. It was actually better chilled. No one who tried them could specifically taste the vinegar until they were told it was there, but everyone agreed they liked the little tang it added to the cake—it kept it from being too sweet and balanced out the unctuousness of the cream-cheese filling. Best of all, the cupcakes were utterly moist and tender, something I’ve never achieved in a cake before. Even three days later, they tasted fresh. This is definitely my go-to cupcake recipe from now on.

8 ounces cream cheese, regular or reduced-fat, at room temperature
⅓ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
5 tablespoons natural unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process)
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup water
⅓ cup canola oil
1 tablespoon white or cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. To make the filling, beat together the cream cheese, granulated sugar, and egg until smooth. Stir in the chopped chocolate pieces. Set aside. (If you like, chill the filling in the refrigerator while you make the cupcakes—this will make it easier to work with and will help you create a more uniform cream-cheese center.)

2. Adjust the rack to the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter a 12-cup muffin tin, or line the tin with paper muffin cups.

3. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, brown sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl, mix together the water, oil, vinegar, and vanilla.

4. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and stir in the wet ingredients until the batter is just smooth. (Do not overmix, or you will end up with less-than-tender cupcakes.)

5. Divide the batter among the muffin cups. Spoon a few tablespoons of the filling into the center of each cupcake, dividing the filling evenly. This will fill the cups almost completely, which is fine.

6. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the tops are slightly golden brown and the cupcakes feel springy when gently pressed.

Yield: 1 dozen
Time: 45 minutes

Friday, August 24, 2007


Now is the time of year when people begin to feel oppressed by zucchini. (According to Garrison Keillor, the people of Lake Wobegon lock their car doors in August so their neighbors don’t sneak zucchini into them; there’s a great passage in Lake Wobegon Days about being overwhelmed by vegetable bounty, but unfortunately the only line I remember is “At night they checked the bed for kohlrabi.”) (Also, check out Crazy Aunt Purl's hilarious photo essay about her own zucchini infestation.) I don’t have a vegetable garden, nor do I know anyone who does, so I’m not feeling the pain. I tried this recipe not out of desperation, but just because I love both zucchini and muffins. Somehow it had never occurred to me that zucchini bread—something, like all sweet quick breads, I can pretty much take or leave—could be turned into muffins, which are so much more tempting—easier to keep fresh, more portable, handily personal-sized, and eminently cuter than the loaf form. So when I saw this recipe at the Smitten Kitchen, I sat up and said, “Boy howdy!”

I hippied up the recipe a bit by substituting unsweetened applesauce for half of the oil, because I always have applesauce on hand for making granola, and just the thought of an entire cup of oil (the original amount the recipe called for) made me feel a bit queasy; also, apples and zucchini seem like a nice pairing. I didn’t use nuts, but you can. Aside from the fact that one panful managed to get a little too dark on the bottom, the muffins were plenty moist and tender, well spiced and vanillaish, and—though I’m no zucchini-bread connoisseur, mind you—darn tasty. Overall, they were a snap to make, maintained at least the illusion of healthiness (they have vegetables in them, after all), and were easy to stash in the freezer and take to work as a mid-morning snack. If this is how it’s going to be, I, for one, welcome our zucchini overlords.

3 eggs
½ cup olive or vegetable oil
½ cup unsweetened applesauce
1¾ cups sugar
2 cups grated zucchini (about 2 medium zucchini)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Line 24 muffin cups with paper liners, or grease them well.

3. In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk. Mix in oil, applesauce, and sugar, then zucchini and vanilla.

4. In another large bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and nuts (if using).

5. Stir the flour mixture into the egg mixture. Divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake for 20–25 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Yield: 2 dozen
Time: 40 minutes

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


It may require half an hour of hot oven usage, but this is nonetheless a great summer meal—insanely easy to assemble, and you can leave the kitchen to go lay under the air-conditioner while your food cooks. And the taste: chicken with sweet, rich, roasty tomatoes, plus garlic and red pepper flakes, two of my very favorite flavors? Why didn’t I think of this? I made a half-recipe, using cherry tomatoes on the vine fresh from the farmers' market, and wished I'd made the full four servings so I could enjoy the leftovers the next day. The only thing I want to tinker with is the herb. The original recipe, from Barbara Fairchild in the LA Times, called for fresh marjoram, not my favorite. The Wednesday Chef, from whence I found the recipe, used dried rosemary instead, and so did I, but it didn’t do much for me; I found myself wanting a greener, more assertive herb to match the sweetness of the tomatoes and the spiciness of the red pepper. Fresh rosemary, maybe? Thyme? Or maybe I should try the marjoram after all? I’ll keep you posted, but in the meantime, whatever herb you use: make this, stat.

(Update, September 2009: Fresh rosemary is perfect.)

24 ounces whole cherry tomatoes (about 4 cups), stemmed
¼ cup olive oil
5 garlic cloves, minced
1¼ teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram or rosemary
4 bone-in chicken breasts (10 to 12 ounces each)
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. Toss the tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and marjoram or rosemary in a large bowl to combine.

3. Place the chicken on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour the tomato mixture over the chicken, arranging the tomatoes in a single layer on the baking sheet around the chicken. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast until the chicken is cooked through and the tomatoes are blistered, about 35 minutes.

4. Serve the chicken with tomatoes and cooking juices spooned over it.

Serves: 4
Time: 45 minutes

Thursday, August 09, 2007


No recipes for you! Oh, the shame. Here I’ve been merrily cooking up a storm and utterly failing to document it. If it’s any consolation, I’ve barely even tried anything new over the last month. When hot weather strikes, all my culinary adventurousness goes right out the window and all I want is easy, familiar, reliable fare. Nothing that requires me to use the oven for longer than 20 minutes or stand over a glowing stove, or break into a hot sweat of panic about whether the recipe will lead me astray. If I could make pizza and BLTs and corn on the cob and hummus every week, I would—oh wait, I practically do.

I have been craving vegetables like you wouldn’t believe, and every week when I go to the farmers’ market I come back loaded down with more and more produce. I’ve had to start bringing a second canvas bag to tote all my purchases, and last week I even had to make an extra emergency stop at my car so I could drop off the heavy corn, potatoes, onions, zucchini, and peppers I was carrying and then go back to the market and get all the other things I needed. I just can’t help myself; it’s that magical time of the summer when everything seems to be in season at once—the summery things like strawberries and watermelon and tomatoes and peaches, but also the fallish things like bell peppers and squash. In particular, I’m utterly addicted to heirloom tomatoes. They come in such an array of pretty colors and charmingly deformed shapes, and with their meatiness and flavor they put all the “normal” tomatoes to shame. For some reason, our farmers’ market is deficient what I think of as good regular tomatoes, those big meaty red beefsteaks I grew up on in Minnesota; even during the height of tomato season, the non-heirloom tomatoes persist in resembling grocery-store tomatoes: suspiciously small and round and regular, hard, practically hollow once seeded, and anemically average in flavor. Is this a California thing? Like the fact that everyone sells the bland white corn on the cob instead of the candy-sweet yellow (there’s only one stand in the entire farmers’ market that has the tasty yellow-and-white “peaches and cream” corn that’s everywhere in Minnesota)?. I don’t get it.

It’s not really a recipe, but I did invent a delicious new creation inspired by the divine heirlooms and Trader Joe’s endlessly useful premade pizza dough. I whipped up some pesto in the blender, spread it over the rolled-out dough, covered it in sliced yellow and red tomatoes, baked it until the crust was browned and crisp and the tomatoes were roasty, and then topped it with slices of fresh mozzarella and baked it until the cheese melted. Heaven! But did I remember to photograph it? No, I did not. I’m still struggling to get pictures of my food before it’s scarfed up or turned into unphotogenic leftovers. I have, however, at least managed to add photos to two of my archived recipes:

Potato Casserole With Tomatoes and Mozzarella
Baked Penne and Tomatoes (which is even awesomer with mixed heirloom tomatoes, I’m happy to report)

The other thing I’m obsessed with is, inexplicably, baking cookies. It may be 95 degrees in Pasadena, yet I’m craving sweet melty baked goods fresh from the oven, fiendishly plotting which recipe to try next. In the past few months since acquiring my KitchenAid mixer (and better baking sheets and now silicon baking mats), I’ve baked a whopping 7 kinds of cookies. I’m too lazy to post all the recipes, but here are some capsule reviews.

From Carole Walter’s Great Cookies:
Chock Full o’ Crispies (coconut, oatmeal, nuts, Rice Krispies, all of which I love; I’d definitely make them again, especially when I need a break from chocolate)
Chocolate Coconut Devils (my current gold standard for best cookie ever)
Chocolate Sugar Snaps (bakery-quality great, not something I’ll need to make again and again, but perfect when you want straight-up chocolate)

From Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours:
Chocolate Malted Whopper Drops (unique, and certainly tasty, but too sweet for everyday eating and not as malty as I’d hoped)
Chunky Peanut Butter and Oatmeal Chocolate Chipsters (a good taste combo, but not a recipe I’ll repeat when there are so many others to try)

From Abigail Johnson Dodge’s The Weekend Baker:
Soft Chocolate-Almond Oatmeal Cookies (unique, soft and almost cake-like, with a gentler chocolate presence and nice almond flavor; they were certainly worth trying, but I quickly tired of eating them and still have a dozen or so sitting abandoned in my freezer)

From Nestle Toll House:
Chocolate-Chip Cookies (by request, for Carpool J’s birthday; they didn’t turn out exactly the way I like them, but they did remind me that plain old chocolate-chip may still be one of the best cookies ever)

Luckily, I’ve found that I like giving cookies away to friends nearly as much as I like baking them and eating them myself, so A and I haven’t been consuming all of this output singlehandedly. In fact, I think I’ve been downright restrained. I won’t lie—I love having a supply of cookies around the house (I’ll either eat them straight out of the freezer after dinner or slip one in my lunchbag to gradually defrost as a workday pick-me-up). But my appetite is more for the experimentation than for the sheer quantity of cookies. I want to try making as many different recipes as possible, just for the fun of making them and tasting the various combinations of flavors. (You may have noticed there are a few keywords that will lure me in to a cookies recipe every time, including almond, coconut, and oatmeal. Maybe I’m searching for that perfect recipe that will combine all my favorite flavors into one perfect whole.) Anyway, I’ve got a big stack of delicious-sounding cookie recipes still to try, so stay tuned….