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Saturday
May232009

Seeking Sweetness in South Africa: A Basic Primer

koeksister photo from flickr user Chameleongreen


One of the most interesting aspects of discovering a culture is discovering how--and what--they eat. What flavors are commonly used? What are their native ingredients? What are the regional specialties? And most importantly, what's for dessert?

 

On a recent batch of emails with South African CakeSpy reader Sophie, she not only gave a tip on a shops to pick up cute cupcake pincushions (Delagoa African Arts and Crafts), but also paused to discuss what kind of sweets they like to eat there. Cupcakes, it turns out, haven't hit in the same way they have in the US (yet), but sounds like they've got plenty of other delicious sweets to keep them busy--thanks again to Sophie, who gave the 411 on the dessert scene in South Africa:

With our 11 official languages (and those are just for indigenous languages) and a myriad of other cultures (Chinese, Portuguese, Bulgarian, German and other African nationalities) it is difficult to pin-point what desserts South African as a whole enjoys. So I’m sure you’ll understand if I can only tell you what my own South African culture (Afrikaans) enjoys!

The Afrikaans culture has its roots in the Netherlands and France, as most of our ancestors came from there during the late 1600’s early 1700’s. So many of our desserts show (I think!) similarities to those countries.


But firm favourites are:

 

· Melktert (loosely translated to Milk tart) is especially nice and creamy and it’s a firm favourite on Sundays or at parties; here is a recipe. I have a recipe from my great-grandmother that I’m dying to try still and most Afrikaans families will have recipes for this that go back many generations.

· Malva pudding is a unique South African dessert (it’s to die for!) and it almost tastes like a brandy pudding, but just much, much better. Here is a recipe.

· Koeksisters are a very, very sweet but extremely popular syrupy-coated doughnut in a braided shape and I usually can’t have more than 2 (or 3, or definitely no more than 4!). Read more about them here--also, check out the "Koeksister Monument" here!

· Melkkos (which loosely translates to Milk Food and does not sound all that appetizing) is lovely as a dessert or as a meal, especially on a cold winters’ night. It’s quick and easy and you only need 4 ingredients: milk, flour, butter and cinnamon.

What about cakes, you ask? Well, reports Sophie:


On the cake side I’m actually not to sure what would be “typical Afrikaner” cakes ... I know we love Black forest cake, carrot cake and chocolate cakes but I’ve actually never really thought about what would be the uniquely South African cakes. Now I’ll never rest until I know!

 

Thursday
May212009

Pity The Fool...and the Grunt, Buckle, Slump and Cobbler: An Examination of Fruit Desserts

Jumping into fruit desserts 

Betty, Buckle, Slump, Grunt, Fool. Sounds kind of like a string of words that might describe the before-and-after of a bar fight  or seedy rendez-vous, but really, it's a suite of sweet fruit desserts. But what exactly are they?
For those of you who have ever woken up in a cold sweat, plagued by the mystery of what's up with these desserts and their funny names (it's not just me, right?), here's a little primer on some of the different types including defining characteristics and a recipe link:

Betty (or Brown Betty)
What is it? It all starts with buttered bread crumbs, which are then topped with a fruit-and-spice mixture and baked, often with a brown sugar crumb topping. While apple is probably the most popular fruit filling, it can be made with berries, peaches, or really just about any fruit that you'd like. Choice recipe: Epicurious has an interesting take on this sweet dessert with their Apple Betty Squares.
What's with the name? Alas, as much as I looked, I could not discover the history of its name. I did, however, learn that it's got the best cultural reference of all of the desserts, having been mentioned (if not in a flattering light) in The Catcher in the Rye.
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Birds' Nest Pudding
What is it? Per What's Cooking America, this one is "A pudding containing apples whose cores have been replaced by sugar. The apples placed in a bowl and a crust/batter is poured around it and then baked. It is also called Crow's Nest Pudding." Choice recipe: Why not party like it's 1894 with this recipe?
What's with the name? It's the look of it: the apples are like little eggs to the crust's bird-nest. Sweet.
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Buckle
What is it? According to this article on about.com,
Buckles are baked and are usually made in one or two ways. The first way is that bottom layer is cake-like with the berries mixed in. Then the top layer is crumb-like. The second way is where the cake layer is on the bottom of the pan, the berries are the next layer and the top is the crumble mixture. 
The writeup also mentions that the most popular version of the buckle is blueberry. Choice recipe: Rachel of Coconut  & Lime has never led me astray, so why not try her Blueberry Buckle?
What's with the name? I wasn't able to discover the true meaning, but I like to think it might have something to do with the cakelike bottom buckling under the weight of all the sweet, ripe fruit.
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Charlotte
What is it? The Charlotte seems to be similar to the Betty, but Frenchier: according to Encyclopedia Britannica,
For a fruit charlotte the mold is lined with well-buttered bread, filled with a thick puree of apples, apricots, or other fruit, topped with additional slices of bread, and baked. It is served warm, often with a sauce.
Of course, this is not to be mixed up with Cold Charlotte or Charlotte Malakoff, which you can read about here. Choice recipe: Go to the NY Times for an Apricot and Apple version of the Charlotte.
What's with the name? Some say it takes its name for Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
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Clafouti

What is it? According to Wikipedia, it is
a custard-like baked French dessert that is typically made by baking fresh fruit (traditionally cherries) and a batter, somewhat similar to pancake batter, in a baking dish.
Of course, the article does go on to say that 
When other kinds of fruit, such as plums, prunes, apples, cranberries or blackberries are used instead of cherries, the dish is called a "flognarde" (sometimes spelled "flaugnarde").  
Choice Recipe: Joy of Baking always does a great job--here's their cherry clafouti recipe.
What's with the name? Originally from Limousin, the dish's name comes from Occitan clafotís, from the verb clafir, meaning "to fill up" (implied: "the batter with cherries"). Clafoutis apparently spread throughout France during the 19th century.
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Cobbler
What is it? This one is a dessert for biscuit lovers: a thick, biscuity crust, topped with fruit and then another biscuit layer on top--often these top bits are dropped onto the fruit so that they bake in a "cobbled" sort of way. Choice recipe: Paula Deen's peach cobbler, which will probably make you fat.
What's with the name? The definition says it all: those top bits of biscuits form a cobbled little top on the finished dessert, from which it takes its name.
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Crisp

What is it? By most accounts, it seems that the crisp is the same dish as a crumble, separated only by language; though some say that the crumble is more likely to have oats on the topping. See Crumble, below. Choice Recipe: Gosh, this one--with mixed berries and almonds-- looks good.
What's with the name? "Crisp" refers to the lightly crunchy topping once it has been taken out of the oven.
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Crumble

What is it? According to Cookthink, A crumble is a fruit-based dessert with a crumbly topping called a streusel that's a mixture of flour, butter and sugar -- plus optional flavorings like cinnamon, vanilla extract, lemon zest or nuts -- that is baked until crisp. The flour, butter and sugar are combined until they form crumbs; some people like to add oats or nuts to the mixture. Choice Recipe: See above, under Crisp.

What's with the name? "Crumble" refers to the topping on so many levels: it's a crumbly streusel which is then crumbled on top to form perfect crumbles. Crumbly deliciousness.
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Fool
What is it? Per the Epicurious food dictionary, England is the home of this old-fashioned but delicious dessert made of cooked, pureed fruit that is strained, chilled and folded into whipped cream. The fruit mixture may be sweetened or not. Fool is traditionally made from gooseberries, though today any fruit may be substituted. Choice recipe: Papaya lime fool gives an old time-y dessert a modern twist.
What's with the name? Per Wikipedia, it is said to be derived from the French verb fouler meaning “to crush” or “to press” (in the context of pressing grapes for wine), though there is some argument about whether this is true or not.

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Grunt
What is it? Similar to a cobbler or slump, the grunt "piles biscuit dough atop stewed fruit"--it is defined by the fact that it is steamed rather than baked. Choice Recipe: A nectarine-cherry grunt sounds awfully good.
What's with the name? Though the fish of the same name is called such because of the grunting sound it makes, no information was to be easily had on the sweet treat's name. Perhaps it's so delicious that piggie-like grunting takes over before it is served? Sounds good to me.
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Pandowdy
What is it? With a pandowdy, the fruit is topped with a rolled piecrust, which is then broken up a bit and this allows the juices from the fruit to bubble through. Choice Recipe: This rhubarb version sounds tantalizing.
What's with the name? As learned in Nancy Rommelmann's wonderful book Everything You Pretend to Know About Food And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask, the process of breaking up the pie crust to let the fruit bubble through is called "dowdying"; bet you can guess where the rest of the name comes from.
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Pavlova

 

What is it? Per What's Cooking America, The Pavlova consists a base made of a meringue crust topped with whipped cream and fresh fruits such as kiwis, strawberries, etc. It is considered a fresh fruit pie with a meringue crust. Choice Recipe: This one looks beautiful and delicious.
What's with the name? This light dessert is named after Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova was considered the greatest ballerina of her time--and of whom it was said "She does not dance; she soars as though on wings." Oh, and now this dessert is also immortalized on stamps!
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Slump

What is it? Though very similar in composition to a grunt, the difference is that a slump is sometimes baked (often upside-down), though steamed variations are out there too. It is sometimes made with pie crust, sometimes biscuit dough. Choice Recipe: How 'bout a blackberry slump?
What's with the name? It seems to refer to the homely look of the dessert; it even gets a nice little pop-culture shout-out, as it seems that Louisa May Alcott lovingly referred to her house as "Apple Slump".
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Sonker
CakeSpy Note: I found this one on What's Cooking America and though it seems little-known, I couldn't resist including it! Here's the WCA Definition:
A sonker is a deep-dish pie or cobbler served in many flavors including strawberry, peach, sweet potato, and cherry. I’ve also read this same dish is called zonker (or sonker) in Surry County, North Carolina. It seems to be a dish unique to North Carolina. The community of Lowgap at the Edwards-Franklin House, hold an annual Sonker Festival. Choice Recipe: Find it on Hallmark's website, along with a more in-depth explanation of this charming dessert.

 

Wednesday
May202009

Sweet Art: Contagious for Illustration Friday

Cupcakes and Bacon with Cocktails
Food trends are a funny thing. From pesto to wrap sandwiches to tiramisu, sometimes a certain dish will capture people's fancy until it is just about beaten into the ground.

For this week's Illustration Friday theme of Contagious, I have chosen to illustrate two of the trendiest foods around: cupcakes and bacon. Sure, some foodie types will argue that they've jumped the shark, but these sweet (and salty) pleasures, which have captured the nation's (and, it seems, world's) attention, still seem to be spreading like wildfire, which leads one to believe that the fever for these foods is still contagious.

Saturday
May162009

Getting Canned: An Exploration of the Tomato Soup Cake

Andy Warhol Cupcake

From Soup to nuts? Pshaw. We're talking soup to cake, baby.

 

With Seattle's brand new Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co. offering an attention-grabbing Tomato Soup cake, it seemed appropriate to talk a little bit about the background of this unusual confection.

How long has it been around? foodtimeline.org, Tomato Soup Cake, which is also known as "Mystery Cake" or "Tomato Soup Spice Cake", was perhaps first mentioned in 1928 in a Los Angeles Times snippet about cooking classes--however, in 1932 the same paper had a more official mention of the cake, including a recipe.
Tomato Soup Cupcake, The Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co., Seattle

Why did it gain popularity? Consider these factors. It made its debut on the cake scene right around the Great Depression, when times were lean. Certainly there was bound to be a place for a cake that required limited ingredients (some early recipes include no eggs, no butter, and little sugar) but still tasted good, and that kept well too. Additionally, it's been proven that soup consumption holds steady during times of depression, so Tomato Soup was probably something that would commonly be found in a pantry. Further to this point, this was around the time that manufacturers were getting savvy to the concept of using back-of-the-box style recipes to promote their products. 
What does it taste like? Well, the reason it's referred to as "mystery cake" is that if you didn't know the secret ingredient, it's not likely you'd guess it to be tomato soup. The cake is generously spiced, and the flavors of cloves and nutmeg tend to hit you first. Some say they can distinctly taste the tomato, but it would be interesting to see how many of them already knew it was an ingredient. 
Is it delicious? Some love it, some loathe it. M.F.K. Fisher was a fan, citing that "This is a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people while you are cooking other things, which is always sensible and makes you feel rather noble, in itself a small but valuable pleasure". Personally I find it to be a pleasant, if not especially memorable, spice cake. Original recipes don't always call for topping, but I think it needs a healthy dollop of cream cheese frosting.

How do I make Tomato Soup Cake? Here's a recipe from the venerable foodie M.F.K. Fisher, from her classic How to Cook a Wolf:

 

 

  • 3 tablespoons butter or shortening
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon soda
  • 1 can tomato soup
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg, ginger, cloves mixed
  • 1 1/2 cups raisins, nuts, chopped figs, what you will
Cream butter, add the sugar, and blend thoroughly. Add the soda to the soup, stirring well, and add this alternately to the first mixture with the flour and spices sifted together. Stir well, and bake in a pan or loaf-tin at 325 degrees F.
(CakeSpy Note: At this point, upon cooling, topping it with a generous amount of cream cheese frosting would be appropriate).

 

 

 

Saturday
May162009

Cake Poll: The Winner!

Cuppie at Trophy Cupcakes, Seattle
When it comes to eating cupcakes, the methods of eating them are as eclectic as the creative flavors that can be found at the nation's wonderful cupcakeries. But regardless of the method--from inverting and eating sandwich-style to carefully nibbling so as to ensure a bite of cake and frosting in every bite--it's clear that CakeSpy readers take the art of cake eating seriously. 

But honestly, you already knew that. So who won the awesome suite of sweet prizes? 
The winner, chosen at random, is...Tiffany from Everett, WA! Tiffany admits that she will "eat cupcakes any way" -- however, if given the choice, her m.o. is "to break off the bottom and put it on top to make a cupcake sandwich". Delicious!
Congratulations Tiffany, and til next time...stay sweet!

 

Friday
May152009

Sweet Treats: Cake Bites from Frosting Bake Shop

Cake Bites from Frosting Bake Shop
Just for the record, the entire CakeSpy crew would be totally easy to kidnap. All you'd have to say is "hey little Cake Gumshoes...I've got a puppy and some cake in the back of my van!" and we'd be there in a flash.

So naturally, when Karen of Frosting Bake Shop in Mill Valley wanted to send us a sample of her new Cake Bites, we were more than happy to accept the sweet stuff. We love cake truffles--though they have been around for a long time, they've received a new life and lift recently which we credit to Bakerella, and we've been more than happy to embrace the trend.
The cake bites mark Frosting Bake Shop's first foray into the world of shipping baked goods, as a good gift item that keeps a bit better (and is easier to ship) than cupcakes.
The truffles are pretty to look at--little orbs with a tiny "foot" at the bottom--and happily, they are quite delicious too. They're very dense, and as a small-bite dessert goes, they pack a nice punch. Texturewise, the cake inside is very moist as a result from being mixed with buttercream; the chocolate coating seals in this moisture and adds a decadent touch. 
Our parcel included a full sampler of the 12 flavors currently on offer, as well as some new flavors under development. Our favorites were the "Juliana Banana" (velvety-soft cake made with real bananas and mixed with a classic cream cheese frosting, finished with milk chocolate) and the Red Velvet (rich red velvet cake with a hint of Callebaut chocolate blended with vanilla cream cheese frosting, finished in a milk chocolate) from their current list, as well as the soon-to-be-added Snickerdoodle. Overall we tended to like the contrast-y flavors better than the ones that relied on one main flavor for the coating and filling. Some tasters felt that the white chocolate coated ones were "too sweet"--and they were awfully sweet, but nonetheless, none were left at the end of our tasting.  
These bites are a sweet addition indeed--vive the cake truffle revolution!
Cake Bites are available at Frosting Bake Shop, 7 E. Blithedale Avenue, Mill Valley CA.

 

Friday
May152009

CakeSpy Undercover: Yellow Leaf Cupcake Company, Seattle

Tomato Soup Cupcake, The Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co., Seattle
After having conversed and emailed with Yellow Leaf Cupcake Company's co-owner Mike Hein for the DailyCandy article I wrote, I naturally had to hit them up on their opening day. I arrived at a little after 8 a.m., and was informed that I was their sixth customer--ever. Sweet!

Yellow Leaf has a sweet story--owners Mike Hein and Tony Portugal both quit their office jobs and set to visiting cupcake shops all across America before opening their own shop in Belltown. The shop itself is sweet, with warm yellow walls. Their menu is homey but still eclectic-- standout flavors include their signature, the Tomato Soup Cupcake with cocoa Italian buttercream.

I picked up three flavors: the Tomato Soup (natch), the Black Forest and (upon Mike's suggestion) the coconut. The cupcakes are a little spendy--$9.69 including tax for three--and are not overwhelmingly large, but have a satisfying weight. They package them in clear plastic containers, which may not be as pretty as a pink box, but they do keep the cupcakes safe.

So how were they? Here are my comments:
The Tomato Soup Cupcake (shown top) was a pleasant spice cake-y confection--if you didn't know it was made with tomato soup, you probably wouldn't know the source of its je ne sais quoi. The cake was pleasingly moist. I have to admit I think I would have preferred more of a flavor contrast with perhaps a cream cheese frosting (and I will note that Mike did mention on our first conversation that it may be served this way in the future).

Coconut, The Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co., Seattle
The Coconut was actually surprisingly light for what can sometimes be a very rich and heavy flavor--and the slightly crunch coconut gave a satisfying texture against the soft cake and buttercream. This was my favorite.

Black Forest Cupcake, The Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co., Seattle
The Black Forest The cake itself was gorgeous, exceedingly decadent and almost truffle-like. I did wish that the toppings had a little bit more muscle though--they were on the lighter side, and the flavor and textures weren't completely harmonious with the dense chocolate cake.
Now, I've only tried a small sampling of their products, but overall, it seemed to me that their flavors all had merits, and that it was a pretty impressive first-day showing. I think that Yellow Leaf shows potential, and I'm eager to see (and taste) more. 
Read more about them on my DailyCandy writeup!
Yellow Leaf Cupcake Company, online at theyellowleafcupcake.com.

 

Thursday
May142009

Sweet Fancy: Pinkies-Out Desserts at the Four Seasons

Totally sweet!
Truth: I don't often eat fancy food. It's true--perhaps it comes from a lack of culture (I am from New Jersey, after all), but usually I'd rather have a really good brownie or chocolate chip cookie instead of an ile flottante or a dessert served with a reduction of anything.

But I must say that after a recent visit to the Four Seasons in Seattle for a special event, I was most impressed by the fancy--but delicious--desserts by pastry chef Ryan Witcher. He's worked at some pretty fancy places and his skill is apparent, but he is completely friendly and accessible. His personality shows through in the desserts, which are pinkies-out fancy but with tongue in cheek touches like a Parisian-style macaron flavored like a snickers bar, or truffle "pops" fancied up with strawberry and basil. But enough talk--let's get to the sweetness:

Yum

Here are the Strawberry Basil Truffle Pops and homemade Rocher;

 

Desserts at Four Seasons
In the foreground here, you see the "Snickers" macarons, then Apple Almond Tarts, then 
Strawberry-Rhubarb Bubble Tea with Basil Tapioca (kind of a take on bubble tea);

Sweet!
Strawberry-Fennel Panna Cotta (which, like, levitated! OMG!);

Macaroons and mini tarts

Coconut macaroons and Passion Fruit-Raspberry Tarts;

Yum
and finally, Florentines with Eastern Washington Sage Honey. 
Moreover, mos' def the stuff of sweet dreams.


Though these items were made for a special event and might not be on the menu daily, you can sample pastry chef Ryan Witcher's creations at ART Restaurant, 99 Union Street, Seattle; online at artrestaurantseattle.com.

 

Thursday
May142009

Holey Cake: When Doughnuts and Cupcakes Collide

Doughnut Cupcakes c/o JustJenn
Photo c/o Justjennrants.blogspot.com

It seems that after the recent list of doughnut links, some additional commentary is necessary on the subject of the doughnut-cupcake combination.

When doughnut muffins reached the mainstream, it was only a matter of time before a slightly more awesome counterpart, the doughnut cupcake, entered the scene.

 

And they've entered in a big way, with all sorts of delicious variations. Here are just a few:

 

I do think pastry on pastry is a bit over the top - I feel like I've just made the turducken of desserts.
Of course, there is no mention of anyone declining a bite of these sweet treats.
  • On the lovely and amazing Bake & Destroy, Natalie made probably the best use ever of the new Starbucks VIA instant coffee by mixing it into the cupcakes and buttercream, and then topping it all off with a powdered sugar doughnut for a dizzying rush of sugar and a satisfying mixture of textures and tastes.
  • Of course, if you like the doughnut muffin style, on Elle's New England Kitchen, the doughnut muffin gets a sweet makeover with the addition of frosting and sprinkles--um, Elle, we think that means it's a doughnut cupcake now. And oh, so deliciously so.
  • In that vein, at Retro Bakery in Las Vegas, they they have not one, not two...but three doughnut cupcake varieties on their menu: the "Glazed Donut" (Vanilla cake drenched in donut glaze), the "Sprinkled Donut" (Vanilla cake dipped in chocolate fudge ganache and rainbow jimmies) and "Coffee and Donuts" (Vanilla cake covered in donut glaze and topped with a dollop of coffee buttercream). Oh yes.

 

Thursday
May142009

Baker's Dozen: A Batch of Sweet Links!

Top Pot Doughnuts
This week's links are brought to you by the letter D, as in Donut. Or Doughnut, whichever you prefer.

Looking for a vegan donut fix in Baltimore? Discover Emily's Desserts (they ship too!).

Coolest catering company ever? In Florida, Donut Divas specializes in donuts, fair food and carnival games.
Glazed Donuts is a Chicago-based special-order donut maker which will "satisfy your sustainable sweet tooth".
Don't eat plain cookies like some kind of jerk--make these super awesome Homer Simpson-inspired Doughnut Cookies.
The Donut Database was created by Natalie of Bake & Destroy, and is a resource that every donut lover should bookmark. Now.
At ART Restaurant at The Four Seasons in Seattle, pastry chef Ryan Witcher's vanilla sugar-dusted doughnuts served with  fromageblanc and seasonal fruit compote are completely enthralling.
Upscale doughnuts, demystified: here's an interesting essay on the subject.
Let's all swoon one more time over the donut-inspired soft-serve ice cream at Momofuku.
Bee Sting Donuts? Yes please: My Baking Adventures tries out the recipe from the Sweet Melissa Patisserie cookbook.
What exactly does "Time to make the doughnuts" mean? Find out the story here.
Donut vs. doughnut: which is correct? Just in case you needed a refresher.

 

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