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Friday
Mar122010

Baker's Dozen: A Batch of Sweet Chocolate Facts for American Chocolate Week

Guess what? March 14 marks the start of American Chocolate Week. Like you needed a reason to eat chocolate, right? So, inspired by a list sent to me by Ask.com featuring 10 facts about chocolate, I've added to the list so that you've got a baker's dozen of sweet factoids about the dark and dreamy stuff:

Who invented chocolate? While Nestle and Johnny Depp would lobby for Willy Wonka, history awards the honors to the ancient Aztecs and Mayans of Mexico and Central America.

What is the bestselling chocolate bar? Snickers!

How is chocolate made? Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which are roasted and then ground into a powder. The cocoa powder is then mixed with variations of sugar, milk and cream to make different types of chocolate.

What was CakeSpy's first word? If you believe my mom, the first word I ever uttered, aside from "ma" and "pa" was "chocolate".

Why can’t dogs eat chocolate? The long answer above has something to do with methylxanthines. The short answer involves diarrhea and your new shag carpet.

How can I melt chocolate evenly? Size does matter. Chop the chocolate into uniform pieces to ensure that all the pieces melt at the same speed in a glass bowl over boiling water (double boiler).

Why is fair trade chocolate good for the environment? Fair trade practices can vary in their environment benefits, but it does empower farmers and farm workers to lift themselves out of poverty by developing the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace.

How do I make chocolate mousse? Pretty easily actually - all you need is finely chopped bittersweet chocolate, unsalted butter, coffee, heavy cream, eggs and sugar.

Why is dark chocolate good for you? It is packed with flavoniods that keep cholesterol from gathering in blood vessels, reduce the risk of blood clots and slow down the immune responses that lead to clogged arteries. 

Should you eat chocolate after working out? Per Wikipedia, A study from James Madison University, presented at the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting, showed that post-exercise consumption of lowfat chocolate milk provides equal or possibly superior muscle recovery compared to a high-carbohydrate recovery beverage with the same amount of calories. 

Which came first, the cookie or the chocolate chip? Chocolate chip cookies were invented before the morsels. The cookies were invented in 1933 when Ruth Graves Wakefield of the Toll House Inn in the town of Whitman, Massachusetts added cut-up chunks of a semi-sweet Nestlé chocolate bar to a cookie recipe. The cookies were a huge success, and Wakefield reached an agreement with Nestlé to add her recipe to the chocolate bar's packaging in exchange for a lifetime supply of chocolate. Initially, Nestlé included a small chopping tool with the chocolate bars, but in 1939 they started selling the chocolate in chip (or "morsel") form. 

Who doesn't like chocolate? Jesse Breytenbach, who did a graphic novel on the subject. But we'll forgive her, because she's awfully clever.

Chocolate is deadly: In that famous shower scene in Psycho, it's not blood running down the drain--but chocolate syrup. Guess that was easier to get away with when filming in black and white!

Tuesday
Mar092010

Mac Attack: Sweet French Lessons for Beginners at Versailles

Let's face it: nobody wants to be the American in Paris who can't even take a stab at bonjour. But I know it can be hard to get motivated to learn a new language, so I've put together a sweet lesson of useful phrases, all taught by the sweetest of fluent speaking teachers--French macarons--in the sweetest of classrooms: the opulent Palace of Versailles.

Commençons! 

What to say when those freedom-loving French ladies bare all? You tell them to reign it in. Translation: "Be Modest!"

Even though you're in a foreign country, you should never feel like you can't speak your mind. Translation: "My apartment is nicer."

If you're enjoying yourself, by all means, let it be known! Translation: "I'm the king of the world!"

Because you never know when you'll brush shoulders with greatness...Translation: "Hello Descartes. What's up?"

Now, little macaron, that's just rude! This is a family site.

Be polite, but do let your desires be known. Translation: "I'm hungry!" and response "Where's the beef?"

Of course, you should be aware that sometimes different cultures have customs which we might not understand. Translation: "The horror!"

...and of course, because we are at Versailles, let's give a little shout-out to Marie Antoinette's famous declaration. Roughly translates to "Let them eat cake!"

See? You're practically fluent already. Learning French was never so much fun--or so délicieux.

Tuesday
Mar092010

Sweet Art: Brave for Illustration Friday

Be brave, little Cuppies! Really, he's just a big softie.

For Illustration Friday's theme this week: Brave.

Tuesday
Mar092010

Big Funfetti: Funfetti Cake Mix Cookie Sandwiches for Serious Eats 

Cookie sandwiches involve so much awesome. In one single unit, you to get two cookies and delicious filling, and you get to eat them all at once.

But there's always room for more awesome at the cookie sandwich party, as I learned when I prepared a batch of sweet sandwiches using Betty Crocker's Cooky Book and the finest of cake mixes—the kind with a built-in rainbow. What better pick-me-up for dull winter days than a double dose of dense, moist, lightly tangy, cakey cookies sandwiched with rich, sweet, buttery frosting?

Here's the recipe, but you can also find it (and more) over at Serious Eats!

Funfetti Cake Mix Cookies

Ingredients

For the cake mix cookies

  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 package funfetti or rainbow chip cake mix

For for the filling (optional):

  • 1 1/2 sticks of butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 to 4 cups confectioners' sugar, depending on your desired consistency

Procedure

 

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Note: the original cookie recipe called for 8 to 10 minutes at 375°F, but I found that baking slightly longer at 350°F worked better for my cookies.
  2. Cream the butter and cream cheese. Blend in egg and vanilla.
  3. Add cake mix in two parts, mixing well (it will be a super thick batter—if it is too stiff, add a small quantity of heavy cream to the batter and mix well).
  4. Using a small cookie scoop, drop balls of cookie dough on an ungreased baking sheet. Leave about 2 inches between the cookies.
  5. Bake for 8 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool cookies for at least 15 minutes on the cookie sheet before transferring to a wire cooling rack; the cookies are very delicate when they first come out of the oven and they will break if you try to transfer them too soon.
  6. Once completely cool, add a generous dollop of frosting to the bottom of half the cookies, and then sandwich the rest of the cookies on top to form something that vaguely resembles a whoopie pie, but tastes like something else entirely.
  7. If you want the filling, go ahead and prepare it by mixing the butter until fluffy in your electric mixer; add the vanilla and then the confectioners' sugar, bit by bit, until it has reached your desired consistency. Thin with cream or milk if desired, and adding a few drops of pink food coloring never hurts.

 

Monday
Mar082010

Gimme More: Pisco-Infused Alfajores Recipe

C is for Cookie, but A is for Alfajor.

Say what?

If you've never heard of them, alfajores are definitely one to add to your alphabet of sweets: a delectable type of crumbly cookie commonly sandwiched with indulgent dulce de leche.

Though most commonly associated with South American countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile, Perú and the South of Brazil, these cookies actually take their roots in the Arab World: per Wikipedia, "the name alfajor is derived from Arabic الفاخر, which means "fancy" or "great" sweets. The archetypal alfajor entered Iberia during the period of al-Andalus."

Though this sweet treat has a long history, I took a more modern approach by making a Pisco-infused batch (with thanks to Gran Sierpe, who kindly donated some Pisco, a Peruvian brandy, with which to test out some recipes). The brandy adds a slightly sophisticated bite to the sweet cookies, compelling you to take bite after bite to try to figure out the source of the je ne sais quoi.

Want to make your own? Here's the recipe I used.

Alfajores

Adapted from About.com's South American Food

Ingredients

  • 1 cup cornstarch
  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt 1 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Pisco (I used Gran Sierpe)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup dulce de leche, OR 1 cup vanilla buttercream, for filling
  • 1/2 cup toasted coconut, finely chopped (optional)

 

Procedure

 

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Place the cornstarch, flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl and mix briefly.
  3. Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the flour mixture, blending with your fingers until the mixture is smooth.
  4. Add the powdered sugar, vanilla, and Pisco, and mix with your hands until the dough is homogeneous and smooth. Let the dough rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
  5. For this step, either follow the original recipe by rolling out dough to 3/8" thickness, and cutting into 2 inch circles--OR, do as I did and roll the dough into a log and then slice cookies to your desired thickness (I liked fat ones, maybe 1/4 inch thick).  Place cookies on baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
  6. Bake cookies for 10-15 minutes, until they are barely golden brown. Let cookies cook 5 minutes, then carefully transfer to rack to cool completely (they are quite fragile until they cool).
  7. To fill the cookies, spread one cookie with dulce de leche and top with second cookie (note: as I found out, buttercream works beautifully too--picture below). If desired, roll the edges in the coconut. Store in an airtight container.

Monday
Mar082010

Cake Byte: Sweet Avenue Bake Shop Offers Custom Cupcakes to Ship Nationwide

A frequent question posed chez CakeSpy is "how can I ship cupcakes?". Well, there is the option of shipping them in mason jars, but other than that I'd probably be better at advising you on how not to ship cupcakes.

Happily, NJ's Sweet Avenue Bake Shop is now offering some sweet shipping options for their award-winning vegan cupcakes. They do small quantities so it won't break the bank, and you have the option of a DIY cupcake kit wherein it comes with all of the necessary bits and bobs and you decorate your own; or, they also have a fun customized option, so that you can upload a picture for custom cakes and send them to someone you love (how 'bout sending a big picture of your face to mom?). Here's the 411 from Sweet Avenue Bake Shop:

DIY Cupcake Kit: $25 (shipping included)

The Decorate It Yourself Cupcake kit includes your choice of three cupcakes, three frostings, and your choice of 3 sprinkles. Do you want all chocolate? Red velvet and cream cheese? Peanut butter frosting with rainbow sprinkles? It's all fair game. We'll even include some frosting wands to get you started. These kits are great for kids, as a gift for a friend, or just as a way to try out our cupcakes if you can't make it to our New Jersey bake shop.

Image Printed Cupcakes$45 (shipping included)

Custom image printed cupcakes are now available! Send Sweet Avenue your favorite image and enjoy six personalize and delectable treats.
 
Don’t want your own image? Select from our assortment of pop culture edibles such as the popular Twilight Cupcakes featured on People.com! To inquire about image cupcakes, email info@sweetavenuebakeshop.com.
 
For more information or to order, visit sweetavenuebakeshop.com.

Monday
Mar082010

Peppermint Sweet: Homemade Thin Mints a la Baking Bites for Serious Eats

Smug, smug little Girl Scouts. Those sweet little sugar pushers can be found all over around this time of year, lurking outside of drugstores and markets with their addictive little missives of sweet cookies.

Oh, they seem so friendly and accommodating now. But what happens in a month or so, when they're gone and you've got a serious jonesing for some Samoas or Thin Mints?

You make your own, that's what you do.

Armed with a recipe from Baking Bites, I tested out a batch of my favorite, Thin Mints. While I wouldn't say that they're a clone version of the boxed kind (the texture is a little different, and the taste a little...fancier), they will indeed give you that much needed fix. Now if only I could figure out how to make a little plastic sleeve for them to fit in...

For the full writeup and recipe, visit Serious Eats!

Monday
Mar082010

Ultra Violet: The Blackcurrant Violet Religieuse from Laduree, Paris

Walking into Laduree in Paris is a bit like walking into Tiffany or Cartier: it is one of those supremely luxurious places that has the ability to make you feel fancy by simply walking through the door.

Laduree's Champs-Elysees Location, complete with Ladureemobiles!Of course, while both are luxury brands, buying a few of the delights spun from sugar at Laduree is far more reasonable to the typical shopper than shelling out cash for something silver (or gold, or platinum, or diamond-studded) from Tiffany.

Not only is it a delightful place to visit, but it's an important landmark in the world of pastry: founded in 1862, the cafe pioneered the concept of the salon de thé. Per the Laduree site:

Under the Second Empire, cafes developed and became more and more luxurious. They attracted Parisian high society. Along with the chic restaurants around the Madeleine, they became the showcases of the capital.

The beginning of this century found Paris wrapped up in a frenzy of distraction and going out in public. Parisians flocked to the Universal Exposition. Women were also changing. They wanted to make new acquaintances. Literary salons and literature circles were outmoded.

Ernest Ladurée’s wife, Jeanne Souchard, daughter of a well-known hotelier in Rouen, had the idea of mixing styles: the Parisian café and pastry shop gave birth to one of the first tea salons in town. The “salon de thé” had a definite advantage over the cafés: they permitted ladies to gather in freedom. Jeanne Souchard succeeded in combining the turn-of-the-century trend to modernism with knowledge of the merits of a craft transmitted by her family.

So you can probably see why visiting Laduree is one of those pivotal pastry experiences that every sweet tooth should experience at least once (even if the company which now owns it, Holder, is responsible for putting macarons in French McDonalds too).

While they are perhaps best known for their macarons, on this visit, I had my eye not on the little sweetburgers but on their iconic and infinitely lovely religieuse.

A religieuse is a pastry which is said to take its name from its resemblance to a nun's habit--but being composed of choux pastry filled with thick custard and topped with delicate and pretty icing with buttercream piping on the sides, some harcore pastry lovers might argue that the name stems from its taste, which approaches an absolutely religieuse experience.

And at Laduree, they have a few different flavors; we chose the intriguing Blackcurrant-Violet, which is described as "Choux pastry, blackcurrant & violet flavoured confectioner’s custard."

As a general rule, I am not a huge fan of lavender or rose-infused pastries, which I feel often can err toward tasting a bit perfumey. However, if there is one that could turn me around, this would probably be it: while assertively flavored, the violet flavor is beautifully done: buttery and floral and full. But like I said, it's powerful--I don't think I could polish one of these off in the same way that I might attack, say, a chocolate variety, but it sure was a delight to share and savor with others (we shared it among a group of four).

But as always, it was a delight to visit Laduree. Next on my list to try there, though? The Marie-Antoinette, an exquisitely appointed little cake...or maybe the mont blanc? 

Laduree has various locations in Paris and beyond; for locations and more information, visit laduree.fr. And as a P.S., if you want to try making your own religieuse pastries, why not check out this excellent post on Not Quite Nigella?

Saturday
Mar062010

Cake Poll: Totally Sweet Jessie Steele Apron Giveaway!

My only regret with this giveaway is that I myself cannot enter--I'm told that this is what they call a "conflict of interest".

Too bad, cos it's a totally sweet prize: a duo of mother-and-daughter aprons by Jessie Steele!

Yup, that's right: one lucky winner (US and Canada entrants only, please) will win not one but two Jessie Steele aprons (a prize worth over $50 USD!) in their popular "Audrey" design--aka, the one with the cute cupcakes! One is sized for adults, and one is sized for children. Undoubtedly even if you don't have children of your own, you won't find it hard to give this pint-sized apron a happy home.

How do you put yourself in the running? It's easy. Just leave a comment below with your response to this pressing cake question:

If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one dessert with you, what would it be?

The fine print: Simply post your response in the comments section and you will automatically be entered! The cake poll will close at 12pm PST on Tuesday, March 16, and the winner will be announced shortly thereafter. Of course, if you find that you can't wait and simply must purchase these aprons, click here to buy. Good luck!

 

UPDATE: THE WINNER! We have a winner, chosen at random from about 450 entrants: Elizabeth from Jacksonville, FL! What is she gonna make in her Jessie Steele apron? Maybe her "desert island" dessert: "Smores made from my homemade marshmallows and graham crackers to go with my bonfire by the sea". Congratulations to Elizabeth, and come back soon for a new giveaway!

Saturday
Mar062010

Sweet Find: Profile on Baltimore Cake and Wedding Cottage in Maryland

Image courtesy Bmoresweet

CakeSpy Note: This is a post from Cake Gumshoe Megan, who's always on the lookout for her next sweet experience!

Tucked away in a nondescript strip mall off busy Belair Road, the Baltimore Cake and Wedding Cottage is a gem of a cake decorating supply store.

Family owned since 1977, the store is divided in half, splitting square footage between accessories a bride needs for her big day and tools and accessories her baker needs as well. The store’s website devotes itself to the wedding side of the business, but a visit to the bricks and mortar retail store reveals a different story.

The store entrance is situated at the split between the merchandise, and you’ll want to veer to the left, toward the cake supplies, though the store does seem to have fine invitations, bridal veils and really cute wedding cake toppers. 

Cake pans of all shapes and sizes line one side of a 30 foot-long free-standing shelf, and cupcake toppers and picks and other character cake toppers and decorations fill the other. On my last visit there, spring and Easter cookie cutters, cupcake liners, and enough colorful sprinkles to drag you out of your winter doldrums made up the featured items section at the front of the store.

Displays of cookie cutters for all seasons and occasions as well as more sprinkles, quins and colored sanding sugars give way to a sizeable selection of candy molds for new babies, weddings, graduations and many other holidays and occasions – these molds make individual shaped candies, candy lollipops and candies on pretzels.

The store also stocks flavorings for candy fillings and a rainbow of candy coating colors. Looking for lavender? Check. Going for mint green? Sure. Searching for sky blue? Absolutely.

You will, of course, need to box and/or display all of the yumminess you’re going to make once you leave the store with all your new goodies. The Cake Cottage offers a wide variety of plain and decorated candy boxes and bags as well as basic and covered cake boards for your sugared masterpieces.

Once you get to the checkout, you’ll how you’ve missed that the counter display ringing the register is chock full of sugar and gum paste flowers, babies, dogs, ducks, chicks, rattles, bibs, cats, and almost any other edible garnish you can think of.

If you are at a loss as to what to do with all your new supplies, check out the calendar of classes offered at the Cake Cottage. All levels of cake decorating are offered as well as individual workshops on piping borders and flowers. Adults and children alike can learn the art of candy-making, and all class participants get 10 percent off in the store for the duration of the class.

But perhaps my favorite part of the store is the women who work there. They know the inventory inside and out, have wonderful tips for using their products and they have great memories for faces too. I don’t get there very much due to living 800 miles away, but the staff remembers me every time.

Baltimore Cake and Wedding Cottage, 8716 Belair Rd., Nottingham, MD 21236; P (410) 529-0200
Open seven days a week: Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 a.m. Online at 
cakeandweddingcottage.com

 

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