Friday, August 22, 2008

At work, I normally avoid all the sweets that people bring in. Partly, it's because I don't like to eat sugar, and then crash, at work; partly it's because many of the things people offer aren't homemade and don't appeal to me. But this week a coworker brought in chocolate cupcakes made with Guinness--yes, beer--and topped with espresso cream frosting. They are the best cupcakes I've ever had. I ate two of them.

The recipe has a lengthy lineage. My coworker found it on a blog called A Mingling of Tastes, which adapted the recipe from The Detroit Free Press newspaper via another blog (devoted to cupcakes) called Cupcakes Take the Cake, and from a recipe by the Food Network's Dave Lieberman from Dave’s Dinners cookbook(Hyperion, 2006). The frosting is adapted from The Betty Crocker Cookbook (I can't verify which edition). I've adapted it additionally for my own methods and tastes, and the photo credit goes to A Mingling of Tastes.

Guinness Cupcakes with Espresso Cream Frosting

For cupcakes or cake:
1 stick unsalted butter (premium butters are great for baking)
12 oz. Guinness
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
¾ cup cocoa powder (use a high-quality powder such as Penzey's)
1 teaspoon salt
1-¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup sour cream
3 eggs

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fill two 12-count muffin pans with paper baking cups or grease a 9 x 13 cake pan for a single layer cake.

2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the butter, Guinness and vanilla. Stir occasionally until butter is melted. Pour into a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool for at least 10 minutes.

3. In another large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, salt and baking soda. Gradually combine with the Guinness mixture. Beat in the sour cream, then beat in the eggs one at a time.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared muffin pans (or cake pan), filling each cup about three-quarters full. Bake cupcakes for about 25 minutes (30 minutes for the cake) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Leave cupcakes in the pan to cool for 5 minutes, then finish cooling on a wire rack. Frost cupcakes or cake when cooled completely.

*Makes 24 cupcakes or one 9 x 13 layer cake.

For frosting:
3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup butter (at room temperature)
3 tablespoons espresso (make your own or use instant powder)

In a large bowl, combine the sugar and butter. Pour in the espresso mixture and beat until frosting is smooth and creamy.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Just about every summer, SJG and I spend a week in a cabin on a lake in the North Woods. Over the years, we've developed a daily routine of morning walks, afternoon swims and sunning on the dock, and yoga and reading in the early evening. We bring our entire kitchen battery with us to cook. For dinners this year, we made a broccoli-artichoke-pepper pizza, pesto with garden tomatoes and green beans, burgers and roasted potatoes, and a Shore Lunch (fried walleye, mashed potatoes, and cooked carrots).

Part of the pleasure of our North Woods trip is picking wild blueberries along a rocky outcropping just a few miles down the road from our cabin. We generally pick about a quart of blueberries every visit, but this year we brought home two gallons. A huge forest fire last year, followed by a cool, wet spring, produced a bumper crop of blueberries this year. They're big and fat and everywhere. Even SJG, who loses patience after about five minutes of harvesting, was gleeful--and grasping. When she spotted a party of pickers emerging from their foray loaded down with ten-gallon buckets, she said, "Knock 'em over the head, grab the buckets, and run!"

Naturally, our breakfasts have been on the blueberry theme: blueberry waffles, blueberry oatmeal, and blueberry scones. Back in the city this morning, SJG made a triple batch of blueberry bran muffins, and I'm drying off three big cookie sheets of blueberries in preparation for freezing the remainder. It's blueberry heaven around here!

Below is my recipe for blueberry scones, adapted from a recipe my sister found years ago in an English recipe booklet.

Blueberry Scones
1 cup white flour
1/2 cup finely cut oats
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons butter, room temperature or slightly colder
1 egg + buttermilk to make 1/2 cup total

3-4 tablespoons fresh blueberries
milk + sugar for coating the top

1. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut in the butter to make a nice mealy mixture.
2. Beat the egg and the buttermilk lightly, until blended. Stir into the flour mixture.
3. Gently stir in the blueberries.
4. On a floured surface, gently pat out the dough into a circular shape until about 1/2-inch thick. (Don't overwork the dough.) Use a pastry brush to spread a little milk over the top of the dough, then sprinkle about 3 tablespoons of sugar over the top for a crispy, sugary finish.
5. Cut the dough in half down the center and then in half again for four triangular scones. Place on a greased cookie sheet and bake in a hot oven (450 degrees) for 11-12 minutes. Serve straight out of the oven.
*Serves two to four people.

Friday, August 08, 2008

I'm not a chocoholic the way SJG is, but I do recognize chocolate heaven when I come across it. Last weekend, our good friend Jeff paid a visit on his way home from seeing his parents. He and his boyfriend are our best foodie friends, and we go back a long way. Jeff's also just been appointed chair of his university department, so to welcome him and to celebrate his august duties and responsibilities, I made a chocolate torte of equal grandeur. Below is the recipe. (The recipe has several steps. If you have the right ingredients and equipment, you'll find that it's an easy easy recipe. And you'll wow your convives with the results!)

Chocolate Mousse Torte
(adapted from Fine Cooking magazine/March 2008)
1 recipe ganache (below)
2 tablespoons espresso coffee (optional)
6 eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
butter for the springform cake pan
confectioner's sugar to decorate the cake


12 ounces high-quality semisweet chocolate (at least 55-60% cacao), chopped coarsely
1 cup heavy cream

1. Grind the chocolate in a food processor for 30 seconds. It'll look sort of like cornmeal.
2. Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Add to the chocolate in the food processor and blend about 10 seconds, until smooth. Add the espresso coffee and blend again briefly. Transfer the ganache into a large mixing bowl and set aside while you make the torte.

To Make the Torte:
1. Use about one tablespoon of softened butter to generously butter the inside of a
9- or 10-inch springform pan.
2. Wrap the outside of the springform pan with a sheet or two of heavy-duty tin foil. Set the wrapped pan in a roasting pan. (Don't skip this tin-foil step, otherwise you'll end up with a soggy torte.)
3. Bring a full kettle of water to the boil. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
4. In a large bowl, whip the eggs, sugar, flour, and cinnamon with an electric mixer until doubled (or even tripled) in volume. This takes 6 minutes (use a timer).

5. Add about one-third of the egg mixture (above) to the ganache and mix gently with a rubber spatula until combined. Add the rest of the egg mixture to the ganache and fold in until well blended and no signs of egg remain.
6. Pour the batter into the springform pan (which you've already set in the roasting pan). Add 1 to 1-1/2 inches of boiling water to the roasting pan.
7. Bake the torte until a dry crust forms on the top and the edges are set but the center of the torte is still wobbly when you jiggle the pan. This takes about 20 minutes for a 9-inch pan, and about 23-25 minutes for a 10-inch pan.
8. When the torte is done, remove it from the roasting pan and take off the foil. Cool the torte (still in the springform pan) on a wire rack to room temperature. Refrigerate the torte (still in the springform pan) until completely set (at least 3 hours, or overnight).

To Unmold and Serve the Torte:
1. To unmold the torte, remove the springform ring. Put a piece of plastic wrap over the top of the torte and invert the torte onto a cookie sheet.
2. Using a long, thin-bladed knife or metal icing spatula, carefully remove the bottom of the pan. Invert the torte again onto a large serving plate and remove the plastic wrap.
3. To decorate the torte, place about 1/4 cup of confectioner's sugar in a small sieve and dust the top of the cake. Or you can use a stencil (I chose a crown pattern, above) to dust a confectioner's sugar design onto the top of the torte.
4. To slice the torte, run a thin-bladed knife under hot water, wipe dry, and slice a piece of the torte. Repeat for each slice. Serve plain or with a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream. Wow!

Friday, August 01, 2008

Ice cream! When my sister and her friend Bink went to Sicily last spring, they came back raving about the basil ice cream. My sister begged me to make it, and I kept putting it off, thinking it sounded....odd. This year, I've noticed that local shops and restaurants are offering basil ice cream on their menus. So I decided to bow to my sister's wisdom when my father was in town a couple weekends ago (see "Movie Memories" post below). Served with a light drizzle of crushed strawberries in their own juice or with a scoop of chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla ice cream, basil ice cream is absolutely heavenly. Here's the recipe:

Basil Ice Cream
(adapted from Gourmet, as posted on

2 cups milk (I usually mix whole milk and 2 percent; the higher the fat content, the more quickly the milk will churn and the creamier the final texture will be)
3 generous tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup sugar, divided in two
pinch of salt
4 large eggs, separated (you won't need the whites)
1 cup chilled whipping cream, whipped until barely stiff just before churning

1) In a medium-sized saucepan, bring milk, chopped basil, 1/4 cup sugar, and a pinch of salt to a boil very slowly. (Doing it too quickly can lead to curdling.)
2) Remove from heat and let the mixture steep for 30 minutes.
3) Transfer to a blender (not a food processor, which won't get the blend smooth enough) and blend until basil is finely ground and the mixture is totally smooth (about 1 minute).
4) In a large bowl, beat together the yegg yolks and the remaining 1/4 cup sugar with an electric mixer until thick and pale (about 1 minute). Slowly add the milk-basil mixture, beating until combined well.
5) Transfer to a saucepan and cook slowly over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture reaches 175 degrees F. Do not allow mixture to boil.(I use an old-fashioned meat thermometer to register the temperature, but a digital thermometer is more precise and easier to read.) This heating step ensures the safety of the eggs, but be sure to heat slowly since rapid heating and/or boiling leads to curdling.
6) When the temperature is at 175 degrees, remove from heat right away and strain the mixture through a sieve a couple times (the finer the mesh the better) into a metal bowl. Allow mixture to cool to room temperature (about 10-15 minutes) and then cover and put in the refrigerator to chill (at least 2 hours or overnight).
7) Just before you're ready to churn the ice cream, beat the whipping cream until it's barely stiff and stir it into the chilled dairy-basil mixture. Follow the directions of your ice-cream maker to churn and/or freeze the ice cream.

*Basil ice cream is surprisingly mild in flavor, so I like to serve it plain or with a very light drizzle of crushed fresh strawberries. For visual effect, you can also serve it with contrasting ice cream(s), such as vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate. Serves about four people.

Tip A: Although it's tempting, don't skip any of the cooling and chilling steps. The colder the dairy mixture, the more quickly it will churn and/or freeze and harden.

Tip B: Making ice cream is easy, but it can be time consuming. I often divide the process into two stages over two days. On day 1, I prepare the dairy mixture up through step 6 (overnight refrigeration). The next day, when I'm ready to churn the ice cream, I beat the whipping cream and carry on with step 7.