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Sunday
Jun152008

Cakewalk Special: A Few More Sweet Spots by the Jersey Shore

Cannoli, Juanitos
Ah, the Jersey Shore. What's not to love? Bruce Springsteen. Kevin Smith. The rides and the boardwalk. Saltwater Taffy. And baked goods. Lots and lots of baked goods. Now, you may remember our Cakewalk in Bruce Springsteen Country from a while back. While that collection includes a bevy of baked good bliss in New Jersey, on our recent visit back we added a few new favorites to our roster; so without further ado, here are some more New Jersey bakeries to add to your to-do list next time you're in the Garden State:

Cakes, Caputo'sSwanlike Pastries, Caputo's, NJ
Caputo Italian Pastry Shop: Though it's been around for a long time, this venerable institution of sweet is relatively new to the Cakespy crew. Perched in an unlikely spot in a strip mall, they craft delicate Italian specialties like Sfogllatella (or "lobster tail"), American standards like crisp chocolate chip cookies and chocolate and vanilla cupcakes, as well as some of the most whimsical little pastries we've ever seen--as illustrated by their swanlike cream puffs, pictured above. 444 Ocean Boulevard North Long Branch, NJ 07740, (732) 222-3838.

Cupcakes from Sweet Cravings, Allenhurst'
Cravings Gourmet Desserts: Our own Cake Gumshoe Kelly recently moved to Allenhurst, and we're so glad that she did, because in getting to know her new neighborhood we also got to know Cravings, a cheerful sweetshop boasting some of the most delicious, dense, fudgy brownies we've come across in a long time, as well as some extremely gorgeous-lookin' cakes--cannoli cream cake topped with a glossy chocolate veneer, anyone? 310 Main St, Allenhurst, NJ 07711(732) 531-7122.

JuanitosCookies, Juanitos
Juanito's: Owner Juanito Torres came from Mexico to the states in the 80's, and his heritage shows in offerings like mantecado and mexican wedding cakes--but clearly New Jersey culture has made an impact, because sweet treats popular in NJ bakeries like cannoli (pictured at top) and cheesecake also make an appearance. And where Juanito's is concerned, when cultures cross paths, deliciousness is sure to follow. 159 Monmouth Street, Red Bank, NJ 07704 

Piece O CakeIt was a farce! There was no cake inside!
Piece O'Cake: Unfortunately for us, it was more like Piece O'Heartbreak. When we see a pink house on the side of the road with a big sign that says "Piece O'Cake" with an arrow pointing to come hither, the Cakespies will go a-knockin'. Walking in, the most amazing sugary aroma enveloped the air--alas, this is a special-order bakery only, with no sweet treats for the mere walk-in, forethought-lacking mortals. Le sigh.

Pastries, Sickles Market, NJCupcakes, Sickles Market, NJ
Sickles Market: An eclectic market in a style somewhat similar to Delicious Orchards; while their selection of baked goods was not enormous, it was solid, including a mix of items from outside vendors and items baked on site, including cupcakes, cookies, cream puffs and eclairs. However, when it comes to cider donuts, our hearts still belong to Delicious Orchards. Harrison Avenue, Little Silver NJ 07739(732) 741-9563; online at sicklesmarket.com 


 

Wednesday
Jun112008

Pie Story: An Epic Journey to find the Nesselrode Pie in Canarsie, Brooklyn

Teena's Cake Fair Pies
Cakespy note: this picture is not Nesselrode Pie. More on that later.

It all began innocently enough: with a book. This time, it was in Barnes & Noble, where amongst the "Northwest" section of cookbooks, there was, inexplicably, a cookbook of classic New York City foods. Curious about the anomaly, we picked it up and looked through the table of contents for the desserts. The usual suspects were present--rice pudding, crumb cake...and nesselrode pie.

We'd never heard of Nesselrode Pie.

According to the author, Arthur Schwartz, this pie is extinct, though it still lives on in the memories of older New Yorkers. And it seems so--as an excellent New York Times article by Bernard Gwertzman confirmed in 2004, "Like baked Alaska and Charlotte Russe, it seemed to have gone to the equivalent of food heaven." In fact, at the time of the article, the pie was only available at one New York City bakery--Teena's Cake Fair of Canarsie, Brooklyn.

So what is this Nesselrode pie? Going back to our guy Schwartz,

 

Nesselrode is named after one Count Nesselrode, as are a number of dishes that
are made with chestnuts or chestnut puree.


The pie...however, was popularized by Hortense Spier, who started her business not as a pie bakery but as a brownstone restaurant on 94th St. between Columbus Ave. and Central Park West. The restaurant closed before World War II and Mrs. Spier baked her specialty pies for other restaurants after that. Besides the nesselrode, there was a lemon meringue, a banana cream, and a coconut custard. By the mid 1950s, these were, indeed, the standard pies served in New York's seafood restaurants and steakhouses. When Mrs. Spierr died, her daughter, Ruth, and daughter-in-law, Mildred, continued the business.

Nesselrode pie is really a classic Bavarian cream -- in a pie shell, of course -- which is to say a custard base into which gelatin is blended for stability and egg whites are folded for added volume and lightness. The flavoring ought to be candied chestnuts and rum, but chestnuts haven't been a major part of the pie for a long time. The following recipe uses a product called Raffetto's "Nesselro" fruits, which does indeed contain a trace of chestnut, though the first ingredient listed is, of all things, cauliflower, which apparently has a similar texture to chestnuts when candied. The remaining ingredients are candied fruits. You can use a mix of candied fruit -- tutti
fruiti -- if you cannot find the Raffetto product.

For those who are intrigued, or just cauliflower enthusiasts, if interested in buying your own "Nesselro", it is manufactured and marketed by Romanoff International, Inc., the same people who market the caviar found in suparmarkets. It is distributed through Haddon House.

 

Teena's Cake FairJessie 040
But really, we're just telling you this to explain why, at 6 a.m. this morning, our Head Spy Jessie emerged from the JFK terminal after a red-eye flight to head not to a hotel, not to a friend's home, but to Canarsie, Brooklyn, in search of the coveted Nesselrode Pie. After two train transfers, a bus ride, and a 1.5 mile walk with luggage in hand, she found herself on the stoop of Teena's Cake Fair, shortly after they opened for the day, eager to see this mythic baked good.

But like many epic tales, the story's ending was to be bittersweet. "We don't regularly carry that pie in the summer," the employee explained, "too hot. We usually just have it for the holidays". Of course, this makes sense. While yes, it's true, a request could have been put in ahead of time and saved our spy a trip, we really just wanted the satisfaction of seeing it in the bakery case; alas, that joy was not to be found this time. And so, our heroine Spy humbly ordered a black and white cookie, which at 7 a.m. was still warm and freshly frosted--and upon the first perfect bite (half chocolate, half vanilla frosting), reflected that maybe it's just as well that there was no Nesselrode pie--for isn't the journey half the fun?

Teena's Cake Fair is located at 1568 Ralph Ave., Canarsie, Brooklyn, (718) 763-9100; the closest Subway stop is the end of the line on the L Train. Nesselrode Pie is only available around the holidays.
 
For those interested in making a Nesselrode Pie, the recipe can be found at Arthur Schwartz's website, thefoodmaven.com; there is also a link to buy his book on the site!

 

 

Sunday
Jun082008

Blonde on Blondies: Ballad for the Brownie's Albino Cousin

Bad News Brownies
When we recently polled Cakespy readers on which iconic bar they preferred, the blondie or the brownie, we found the results staggering: out of our respondents, 174 vs 49 preferred the brownie.

Now, we understand why brownies ought to be loved. They're soft. They're gooey. They take to a variety of fillings. But are they really so superior to the blondie? Surely, we figure, once people get to know the honey-hued confection they'll show a little more love--so, we took some time to get to know the blondie better, and share it here, so that our readers can see that while it may not be the same as a brownie, it sure ought to be loved:

Brownies and BlondiesBut first things first. What is a blondie? Generally, a blondie is accepted as a type of brownie--but not so much a brownie flavor, more like an identical cousin. An identical, albino cousin. Generally, it uses vanilla or butterscotch base instead of chocolate, and thus has a lighter hue which gives it its name. In our opinion, the finest blondies will have a texture (though not taste) halfway between a cakey and a fudgy brownie: that is to say, delightfully chewy, rich, and dense.

But whatever you may call a blondie, don't call it a brownie wannabe. For as we discovered on foodtimeline.org:

According to old cookbooks, blonde brownies (also known as "Blondies") predated chocolate brownies, though under different names. The primary ingredients of blondies (brown sugar/molasses and butter) compose butterscotch, a candy that was popular in America in the mid-19th century. Some 19th century American cookbooks contain recipes that combined traditional butterscotch ingredients with flour and a leavening agent (baking powder or soda). Presumably, these recipes would have produced something similar to the blonde brownies we enjoy today.
Bullies!Furthermore, aforementioned recipes are thought to be descendants of gingerbread cakes which dated back to Renaissance times, which eventually evolved to cakes which were baked in shallow pans and included nuts and brown sugar.
Blame the blondie's status as second-class citizen on the genius branding and extreme popularity of brownies when they started to pick up steam as a favored American baked good starting in the early 1900's (learn more about the brownie's history here); for as we also learned from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America,
By the 1950s, butterscotch or vanilla brownies were described as "blonde brownies," underscoring the primacy of chocolate.
Aren't you starting to feel a little bit for the dear blondie now?
Of course, as much as history talks, here are some of our own observations on the finer points of blondies:

 

Blondies, the taste of chocolate chips in: Because of the lack of chocolate in the base, it is our opinion that the addition of chocolate chips is better appreciated in the blondie--while we certainly wouldn't say they detract from a brownie's taste (oh, not at all), the contrasting flavor that they add to the blondie's mellow butterscotch taste is beyond compare, each little chocolatey morsel a pleasant surprise and miniature treasure for the tastebuds.

Oh no!Blondies, lack of frosting atop: With brownies, it seems as though there are two primary types--dense, fudgy, moist brownies, which usually remain unfrosted--and more cakey, slightly fluffier versions, which sometimes have frosting. As much as we love frosting, we have to admit that some frosted brownies make us just a little bit suspicious--like they've got something to hide perhaps? However, we have never before seen a frosted blondie. Naturally, the only conclusion to be drawn is that our dear blondies have nothing to hide. (Cakespy Note: Naturally, when we make some bold statement soon about how everything benefits from the addition of frosting, we expect to be called hypocrites).


Blondies, the color of: Now, don't get us wrong, we love brownies. But regardless of deliciousness, they're not always the cutest-looking treats: dark, lumpy and not very exciting in palette. Not that this stops any of us from enjoying brownies, but we're just saying, the warm golden hue of the humble blondie is definitely more welcoming, and far cuter.
Want to make some awesome blondies? Well, here are some recipes that we love.
If you, like Thursday Night Smackdown, believe that blondies, "should be a brownie counterpart, which means a brownie equal - rich, moist, chewy, flavorful bars, not cookie-like or overly fluffy...the fudgy texture of a brownie sans actual fudge"--then you should check out their great recipe here.
Or perhaps you'd like to explore adding coconut to your blondies? Check out the delicious variation at ReTorte.

MudhenIf it sounds good to you to have blondies that are "denser than chocolate chip cookies, more complex than brownies and in the classic Minimalist style" that you can "customize anywhere from a cranberry almond coconut bar to...gunky atery-cloggers"...then it sounds like you'd better check out this one by Smitten Kitchen.
(Photo Left) If you feel adventurous and want to try a blondie derivation, why not acquaint yourself with the mudhen bar, a sweet which is Southern in origin, a meringue-topped blondie-esque confection that we've recently fallen in love with? 

 

As for our final word? Well, we realize that we may not have turned you into blondie devotees. Certainly brownies are packing in more ways than one: they're classic, they're iconic, they're nostalgic--and, most importantly, they're delicious.
However, we do hope that having learned more about the dear blondie and its plight, you'll give it another chance--because if nothing else, just like it's not easy being green, it can't be easy to be the brownie's albino cousin.


 

Wednesday
Jun042008

Batter Chatter: Interview with Nancy Bea Miller, Painter of Baked Goods

Artwork by Nancy Bea Miller

When it comes to painting still lives, cakes and baked goods are really the ideal subject matter: they won't talk back, they'll always look good, and their frosting and textures lend themselves to beautiful interpretation with a palette knife or even a whimsical line. Thiebaud knew it. Warhol knew it. And now we've discovered some gorgeous new cake artwork to obsess over: that of Nancy Bea Miller. Miller's work, which is realistic and vibrant in color, shows a true sensitivity to her subject matter: the viewer sees not only a cake, or a baked good, but is led to wonder about the story behind it--where did these sweets come from? Where are they going? 
Recently, we got to chat with Pennsylvania-based Nancy about her painting, upcoming shows, and how she came to be "the foremost doughnut painter in Philadelphia"; here's what we discovered: 

Cakespy: First off, you currently have a show coming up. Can you tell us a bit more about it and what type of paintings you'll have in it?
Nancy Bea Miller: The show is called Still Moments and it is all still-life paintings and landscapes. Mostly still-life. Many of the still-life paintings feature baked goods and candy: items that attract me visually and also symbolize many things to me: pleasure, indulgence and the sweetness of life.The common denominator in all the paintings is the capturing of a quiet moment, a pause, even an overt invitation for contemplation. I asked friends and families for show title suggestions and one of my sister-in-laws and one of my best friends each independently came up with Still Moments, which I thought was brilliant: descriptive but economical.

 

CS: We know where you went to school, etc, but we're curious on a more personal level: why are you a painter? Or what drew you to painting?
NBM: Wow, what a good question! In general as I understand it Sigmund Freud believed that the creative impulse is a form of mental illness , a sort of internal imbalance that creative people feel the need to correct through artistic output. This may or may not be true, who knows? But in my own case, I simply grew up in an artistic family. My parents met while taking night classes at the Art Student's league in New York. My father and both my brothers are professional artists, and I have several other extended family members who are artists, photographers or writers. Perhaps we all share the gene for that internal imbalance Freud talks about.

I always painted and drew, from my earliest memories. As soon as I started school I was designated The Artist of any class I was in, which felt as natural and proper to me as breathing. I grew up in Manhattan, with art supplies lying around the house at all moments, and we lived practically next door to the Cloisters (the Metropolitan Museum of medieval art) which my family visited as regularly and as casually as we visited the local playground! (I think you can still see more than a tinge of medieval influence in my work, if you know what to look for.) Other kids would talk about going to see a big baseball game with their families, in my family a big exciting event would be going to the Whitney to see a new painting exhibition! We'd pore over my Dad's collections of art books in the evening , and I thought everybody did the same, for the longest time! I remember realizing this was not the case when I about 10, and visited a friend's home and as we passed by her living room saw a big new book about Edward Hopper (back then, just starting his fame cycle) and rushing over to it enthusiastically saying "Ooh! I haven't seen this one yet!" Then I realized my friend was still standing there across the room looking at me askance. She said "That's just one of my Mom's coffee table books. It's not really for reading!" Ulp! Ok, real world lesson number one! ;-)

CS: What is your primary medium when painting?
NBM: Oil paint. I have tried acrylics and watercolors but like oil paint the best. I'm attracted to gouache, but haven't yet tried it in a serious way.

CS: You mention that you often have an intimate connection with the subjects of your paintings. Is this true of your still life / baked good work as well as with your human figures?
NBM: Well, I have painted some pieces of cakes that I've made, but in general, bakery produced baked goods have a lot more visual oomph. More loft, and richer colored icings. I love to bake, my Dad started me out with an EZ-Bake oven when I was in kindergarten and I never looked back, but I am more concerned with taste than decoration. (Although cake decor would be a fun artistic medium to try out someday!) So while the people in my figurative pieces are almost all close friends and family members, and the objects in my still-lifes may be long-cherished possessions, and the vegetables and flowers are probably home-grown, the doughnuts and pastries are almost entirely from local bakeries (I am lucky enough to be within walking distance of a real french patisserie! But I'm no snob, I also go to the nearby Dunkin' Donuts.)

CS: What is it that attracts you to baked goods in particular as your subject matter?
NBM: Sweets and pastries are visually very appealing, real eye-candy and unashamedly designed to be so. To me they are also physical manifestations of the idea of the sweetness of life, and luxury, and plenty (you don't get Boston Kreme doughnuts in a society that is struggling with famine, do you?).

The candies, especially the red and white striped peppermints (also called Starlite Mints) are a reminder to me of my mother's parents. They'd keep little dishes of mints in their apartment and we grandkids would be allowed, even urged, to indulge! What a treat, especially as my mother was into health food and didn't allow much sugar in our own home. So I like to put the mints in, as reference and homage to my grandparents, like little symbols of unconditional love strewn around the universe.

CS: When you sit down to do a painting, is it something that you'll work on start to finish in one shot? Or, is it something that might take weeks of work?
NBM: I rarely do a painting in one shot, or alla prima, except when I am out in the field, doing plein air landscape paintings. Those are small, for portability sake, and are made mostly for study, so I am not concerned with their ultimate presentation, although sometimes by chance they are complete enough to be called finished pieces! That's always fun.

In the studio I work on lots of different paintings, at the same time. I have five different tables of varying heights arranged with one or two different still-life set-ups each. I also do some figurative work, portrait commissions etc, and that is mostly done from photos. I'll work on one piece for a while, set it aside to dry, work on another etc. I like to work in layers, rather than wet-into-wet, so it takes time to complete a painting because I have to let the pieces dry between sessions. Drying time varies depending on the thickness of the paint I've applied, and the colors, too (whites and reds being the slowest drying, earth colors the fastest drying.) I am sometimes slowly working my way through a dozen different paintings, all at different stages of completion! Although this might seem confusing to others, it isn't to me. I prefer it to concentrating only on one piece till it is finished. For one thing, working on a variety of things at the same time keeps my interest fresh in each of them!


CS: I feel like many painters have a natural size that they tend to work (literally, like canvas size)--big, small, etc. Do you find this is true? What size do you generally work?
NBM: I work in a variety of sizes, the Still Moments show has pieces starting from 4 x 6 inches, up to 28 x 44 inches. I'd say my average size is about 16 x 20, or 20 x 24. I actually love painting bigger than this, too. In my last year of art school I was lucky enough to be assigned a very large private studio and I gradually started to work on canvases taller than myself (I am close to 6 feet tall) I loved the energy and physicality required! Unfortunately, another thing that is required is space. My current studio, a room in my house, is small, with a fairly low ceiling. In this space, a 28 x 44 inch canvas feels like a boat, and requires careful maneuvering so I don't knock down my still life set-ups or bash into the other paintings lining the walls, awaiting their turns at the easel. I also have time constraints...I am a Mom of three boys in elementary and midddle school, and a large canvas requires large amounts of time to complete. This has also dictated my working on smaller sized canvases. Not that I am complaining! It's just interesting to see how environment has such a direct impact on one's aesthetic choices.

CS: Do you eat the cakes or candy after painting them?
NBM: Hah! No, they are usually almost petrified by the time I have applied my last brushstroke. Baked goods hold up amazingly well over time, especially those with lots of chemicals and preservatives. Sometimes a slice of cake or a doughnut has stayed so fresh looking, despite being weeks old, that I'll set it aside for future use!

I do have to keep my studio door locked to keep out my children. One of my sons has autism and severe mental retardation and is unstoppable in his constant quest for sweets. If he gets into my studio he will start chomping down on old gluey candies and ancient doughnuts which shatter as he bites into them! Not that that stops him...sugar is sugar as far as he is concerned! 

CS: What is your favorite baked good to paint?
NBM: I'd have to say doughnuts. There is something so comical and approachable about a doughnut. And I love the way the shiny icing drips down the sides. A local art writer mentioned my work in some article and called me "the foremost doughnut painter in Philadelphia." I think he really meant it as a kind of back-handed compliment but it thrilled me to the very marrow!

CS: What is your favorite baked good to eat?
NBM: What a question! So many answers. My favorite cake for someone to make for me is a homemade white cake with (almost dark) chocolate buttercream frosting. And if there are violets pressed into the icing as decoration, so much the better! From the local french bakery, I particularly like a pastry called an opera (in fact, I did a painting of one in this show!) But to be completely honest...my favorite baked good is bread. Bread of almost any kind. Fresh or toasted. With butter. To me this is heaven. I was just reading some French food writer who, commenting wonderingly on the current low-carb craze that still gripping the US, said "Life without bread is cruel." I completely agree!

CS: Do you have a favorite bakery in your area?
NBM: Yes, it is a small patisserie called Le Petit Mitron (the small baker's boy), run by a french couple from the Versailles area. Incredibly high quality. I was just in France recently, and although the food there was wonderful, I did not taste a pastry or croissant that seemed in any way superior to those in my local french bakery. Incroyable!

But I also frequent our local Dunkin' Donuts when shopping for subject matter! There's something almost lascivious about picking out the ones I want to paint...I'm sure the counter folks think I am a little insane. "No, not that one, the one on the far left with the big dollop of icing running down...yeah, that one! Thanks!"


CS: Going away from baked goods for a moment, you also have a very interesting and meaningful project going on right now, the Genre of Inclusion. Can you tell us a bit about that?
NBM: The Genre of Inclusion is an ongoing, long-term project. As a mother of a child with special needs, and an artist, i became aware of how rarely people with special needs are included in a natural way in contemporary paintings. If you see them at all, they are usually the focus of the painting, and often their disability that is the real focus of the painting, not them as a person. I found this condescending and annoying, and decided to do something about it through my own art. I created the concept of the genre of inclusion from the terms genre painting, meaning paintings of people in ordinary life, and inclusion, which in special education means to include people with special needs in regular classrooms (with appropriate supports.) So, the paintings are just of people doing ordinary everyday things and some of the people have special needs and some of them don't, and maybe you can tell and maybe you can't.

This project has been very successful in terms of grants and fellowships and magazine articles, but is of no interest to the commercial galleries that represent me. So I'm finding venues for it like local art centers and schools. So far I have had two exhibitions of the ever-changing body of work (Only Human and Only Human ll) and I have another show scheduled for the spring of 2009.

CS: If interested, where can your work be purchased?
NBM: Through one of the galleries that represents me. In New York that is Sherry French Gallery; in Philadelphia that is Artists' House Gallery; in Portland, Maine that is Susan Maasch Fine Art. If anyone is interested in the Genre of Inclusion project, either wishing to commission a painting or inquire about having the work exhibited, please contact me directly: info@nancybeamiller.com

CS: What is next for you and your painting?
NBM: I'm planning to paint a brioche: all puffy and mahogany brown and shiny! ;-> Of course, the biggest thing on my horizon currently is the opening reception for Still Moments this Saturday in New York. Please come if you are in the Chelsea area! After that, I will have relatively quiet summer, working towards a small show in Philadelphia in September at Artists' House Gallery. And I am very excited about this next chance to exhibit the Genre of Inclusion project, in the spring, and I'll be working on several new pieces for that. That show will be held in Devon, PA. Please e-mail me if you'd like to be on my mailing list (occasional postcards and/or infrequent email updates) You can also always check out the news site on my website.

Are you in NYC? Well, lucky you, you can check out the upcoming show (and reception!) for Nancy's newest show; details below. But even if not in NYC, you can enjoy Nancy's work online at nancybeamiller.com.

 

Still Moments
Representational Still Life and Landscape Paintings by Nancy Bea Miller
May 28th – June 21st, 2008
Opening Reception for the artist: Saturday, June 7th from 1 to 4 pm
at SHERRY FRENCH GALLERY, INC.
601 WEST 26TH STREET
NEW YORK, NY 10001-1101
212-647-8867 fax 212-647-8899
sherryfrench@earthlink.net
sherryfrenchgallery.com

 

Sunday
Jun012008

Cupcakes Vs. Muffins: An Epic Battle and Some Big Questions

 

Faceoff time
Muffins versus cupcakes. It's a heavy--nearly epic--subject to tackle, but we've bravely wandered into this storm to better understand this mighty battle of the baked goods: who are they? How are they different? And ultimately, which is more lovable?

Cupcake, Magnolia Bakery, DowntownMuffin
Part 1: The Difference between Cupcakes and Muffins

First off--is there a difference between the cupped treats? There are certainly different schools of thought, as we found out:
According to our dictionary, a cupcake is defined as "a small cake, the size of an individual portion, baked in a cup-shaped mold," whereas the muffin is defined as "a small, cup-shaped quick bread, often sweetened." Strangely, the definitions don't touch on the subject of frosting, which to many seems to be a defining characteristic of a cupcake. However, they do touch on the subject of sweetness, citing that muffins are "often" sweetened, thus leaving it open to interpretation that they are often but not always sweet, and it does touch on their texture by defining them as a quick bread, which is often more dense than cake (think of the difference between say, a dense banana bread and the oft-lighter Hummingbird cake).
Or, as a commenter in an internet forum says, "If you threw a cupcake against the wall, you would hear something of a 'poof!' If you threw a muffin, you would hear a 'thud!'"

 

EATS Market CupcakesChocolate Cream Cheese Muffins, Metropolitan Market

While the above seems to lean toward differences in texture and sweetness, these days the line can be even further blurred with the addition of products such as carrot walnut muffins with a cream cheese glaze or black-bottom cream cheese and chocolate muffins (which kind of sound like cupcakes to us). To that point-- In a recent New York Times article, when one of our favorite food writers Melissa Clark asks a pastry chef friend what the difference is while devouring one of his particularly sweet and buttery muffins, his opinion on the difference between cupcakes and muffins is as follows:
'Nothing,' he said, explaining that when it comes to breakfast, Americans have a Puritanical inhibition. 'Muffins are just an excuse to eat cake for breakfast'

Vanilla Buttercream Cupcakes at Saint CupcakeMuch Ado about Muffin

And as a bit of curiosity: We also noticed that there's a difference between the words when used in slang. While both words are used as a term of affection (say, to refer to a child or loved one), "muffin" also has a negative connotation--the term "muffin top" rather indelicately refers to "the phenomenon of overhanging flesh when it spills over the waistline of trousers or skirt in a manner that resembles the top of a muffin spilling over its paper casing." Owch.


Cupcakes. And Muffins.
Part 2: We put it to the test
After having researched the above, we were left unsatisfied--so we decided to do a little experiment. What did we do? Well. We baked one batch of muffins, and one batch of cupcakes, with recipes found online--both for batches of 20 in a similar flavor, apple spice. They're both pictured above. Can you tell the difference?
Now, we realize that there are all sorts of recipes out there, so we're not saying this is going to be true in every case, but with our two recipes, the major differences were as follows:
  • Oven temperature and baking time: the cupcakes were baked at 350 for 30 minutes, and the muffins were baked at 375 for 25 minutes.
  • Mixing: With the muffins, our recipe said to mix until the dry ingredients were mixed with the wet, but not until smooth; with the cupcakes, we creamed the butter and mixed longer, until there were no lumps.
  • Flour: There was significantly more flour in the muffin recipe.
  • Sugar: No difference! Both recipes called for the same exact amount of sugar for a batch of 20.
Not a Cupcake.This is a Cupcake.
We then did two taste tests: on the first, we served one from each batch frosted: a frosted muffin (left) and a frosted cupcake (right). And you know what? Nobody could tell which one was the muffin. *Although to clarify, our tasters could tell that each item was different, they couldn't say with confidence which was the muffin and which was the proper cupcake.
On the second taste test, we served both varieties unfrosted. This time, all of our tasters could tell the difference instantly--without that sweet mask of frosting, the difference between texture quickly betrayed the muffin as the more dense and bread-like cupped treat.


Part 3: Our Conclusion


We do believe that there are differences between cupcakes and muffins--to our way of thinking, cupcakes will always be the finer-crumbed, delicate and sweet treat, whereas the muffin is the more dense and hearty option, more likely to have savory flavors or "healthy" stuff added. However, we also believe that the line between the two is blurry in our current age, with more and more sugar and sweet toppings creeping into muffin recipes.
And our preference? Well, duh. Ultimately, it's the cupcake that is first and foremost in our hearts--because for us, cupcakes are always frosted, and that's simply the icing on the cake.

 

 

 

 

Friday
May302008

Cake Byte: Sweet News from Cakespy

That's a cool t-shirt!
As proven by the below news, June's gonna be, like, the sweetest month ever! Here's some of the hottest news in Cakespy land.

New tees! Our head spy Jessie just collaborated with very cool company, Mailbox Tees--it's a tee shirt subscription service, which we think is far cooler than say, a fruit basket of the month club-- to make a series of two tee shirts for them. One is pictured above! We also have a limited supply of our own which will be for sale soon on Etsy!

 

Thank you Bakerella xoxoFun stuff! Did you ever see the awesome video Bakerella made, featuring our own mascot L'il Cuppie? Just in case you didn't, here's a link--go watch it now, because it's the best thing ever. Well, we did a counter-attack of cuteness and made her this Barbarella-inspired piece of art. Thanks again Bakerella!

Cadbury Cream Dream: Our friends at Brambleberry were so moved by the recent Cadbury Creme Egg interview that they made us a very special gift: Cadbury Creme soap and lotion! It's a mix of products available on their website: Dark Rich Chocolate, Caramel Lip Butter Flavor and Vanilla Select (links included in case you want to make your own!). Check out their post on it here, it's pretty cool!

So Cool! When recently attending an event at cool Seattle store Velocity, our Head Spy Jessie was able to meet the wonderful Megan of Not Martha. If you haven't visited her site, you've been missing out--it's chock full of wonderful ideas that will make your life a whole lot cooler.

So awesomeYou know you've made it big when...people make stuff inspired by you! Carrie from Fields of Cake recently made these cuppie-inspired cupcakes which look super-delicious (yup--we'd eat them); also, a Cakespy reader made the ultimate leap and got a cuppie tattoo!

Seeking Cuteness in Seattle? If so, come on by this Sunday, June 1 to buy Cakespy art, buttons and cards at I Heart Rummage, an awesome urban craft fair at Chop Suey. in Capitol Hill. Entry is free, and it's on between 12 and 4 p.m. You'll find something cool, guaranteed!
But even if you can't make it on Sunday, don't despair--Cakespy art is also now available at the incredibly cool Bluebottle Art Gallery on Pine Street in Capitol Hill!

For those a little further south of Seattle, a new shipment of artwork just went out to Hello, Cupcake in Tacoma. So, not only can you enjoy extremely delicious cupcakes, but you can also choose from a great new assortment of artwork, including originals from the Cakespy fine art series and some mini originals!

Diorama with penny to show scale

Or perhaps you're in NYC? Well, lucky you! Head Spy Jessie will be heading over to NYC for the Renegade Craft Fair on June 14 and 15 in the über-hip McCarren Park Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where she'll be selling Cakespy art, aforementioned tee shirts, and even a new series of dioramas (pictured left)! Find out more at renegadecraft.com.

 

Stay Sweet!

 

Wednesday
May282008

L'Operation: Learning to Love (and Make) the Opera Cake

L'Opera
L'Opéra (Opera Cake), like its namesake, is a pinkies-out affair: deeply layered, intricate--and a huge time commitment. With multiple alternating layers of ganache, buttercream and sponge cake, it's certainly not a light dessert, but when done well, it is indeed a delicious one. And this month, it was the Daring Bakers Challenge (a challenge dedicated to Winos & Foodies). Though it was specified that the cake ought to be light in flavor, we felt that in our case this would be a cheat--aren't you supposed to learn the rules before you break them? While the original thought was to make the classic Opera Cake and then another variation afterward, perhaps we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into in terms of time and effort--and well, let's just say only one cake was made, and in perhaps reverse Cakespy behavior, our classic Opera Cake is decidedly non-mischievous, and in doing so we actually ended up breaking the rules. Oh, the shame! (Though, to see some beautifully creative entries that did follow the rules, visit here). 


L'OperaBut happily for us spies, all of those between-step moments gave us time to reflect on L'Opéra and its grandeur, as well as recall some of the slices we've known and loved in the past--because although making an opera cake is a major feat and ultimately tastes crazy-delicious, one thing that we've learned from the arduous process of making it is that sometimes it's just better to have it already made for you--simply so you don't have to wait.
Here's what we learned in those in-between moments:
First off, what is an opera cake?
We think we couldn't possibly say it better than pastry diva Dorie Greenspan:
The classic Opera Cake is a work in six acts. There are three thin layers of almond cake, each soaked in a potent coffee syrup; a layer of espresso-flavored buttercream; one layer of bittersweet chocolate ganache; and a topping of chocolate glaze. Traditionally, the cake is decorated with its name written in glaze across the top and finished with a piece of shimmering gold leaf.

L'OperaOpera Cake's Origins:

"L'Opera" is said to have made its grand debut in the early 1900s in Paris at the Exposition Culinaire. It was introduced by Louis Clichy, which is why the cake may be referred to as Gâteau Clichy. It wasn't until many years later, when Parisian pâtisserie Dalloyau reintroduced the cake as "L'Opera," (after the Paris Grand Opera), that it became immortal. And really, as the Balduccis description says, "The name makes sense, as the cake is comprised of several layers, similar to 'acts' in an operatic presentation."
A note on the presentation: We feel as if we heard somewhere that only cakes that meet certain standards of preparation are marked as "Opera" on the top, however this might just be a daydream. Any thoughts?

 

Some Great Opera Cakes (made by other people):

We'll defer once more to Dorie Greenspan, who says, "The greatest Opera Cake is made at Dalloyau. There, executive pastry chef Pascal Niau makes a cake as sleek and smooth as an opera stage and as gloriously delicious as La Boheme is affectingly beautiful."

Sign, La BergamoteThough--alas--we haven't had the pleasure of tasting aforementioned Opera Cake, we do recall where we first were acquainted with the sweet. It was in Paris, at a pâtisserie in the the Saxe-Breteuil Market with a red awning, although we we cannot recall the name of this spot of sweet awakening.

Since then, we have sampled the opera cake at a few places stateside; here are a few that made an impression:

 

In New York, we were delighted by L'Opéra at Tisserie (857 Broadway; online at tisserie.com) which was rich, smooth, and layered in rich flavor, but we absolutely swooned over the version at La Bergamote (169 9th Ave b/t 19th St & 20th Sts; 212- 627-9010).

Opera Cakes at Ken's Artisan Bakery, Portland ORIn Portland, OR, one of our spies fell en amour with the Opera Cake at Ken's Artisan Bakery: it was somehow rich but not heavy, silky-smooth, and we loved the handwriting on top (hey, details matter!) -- (338 NW 21st St.; online at kensartisan.com).

In Seattle, our hearts belong to Belle Epicurean; their "Opera Slice" is made with almond Jaconde sponge cake, layered with espresso buttercream and Frangelico ganache--which is to say, it's nutty, rich, and completely decadent (1206 4th Ave.; online at belleepicurean.com).

In San Francisco, our spies have been wowed by the Opera Cake at Tartine. It's true, everyone loves this place, and with with good reason: their opera cake is chocolate-y, rich, and gorgeously smooth (600 Guerrero St. at 18th Street; online at tartinebakery.com).

Some Great Variations: If you love the idea of L'Opera but want to get creative, check out Opera Macarons here, and if you want to really drool, read about a Green Tea Opera Cake here, and try one out here!

 

 

Monday
May262008

You Say Nanaimo: Words, Praise and Lore on the Heavenly Nanaimo Bar

Nanaimo Bar

If you've been following our cake gumshoeing for a while, you may remember that a while back, some of our spies took a Nanaimo bar adventure in Victoria, BC. However, since then, we've spent more than a little time thinking about this unusual little treat, which is beloved in Canada but still relatively unknown in the States. We consider this an import worth getting to know better--so, without further ado, here are a few interesting tidbits we've picked up on Nanaimo's pride and joy.
First off, for those of you who have never tried a Nanaimo bar, let us briefly try to explain its wonder and deliciousness.

The top layer is a solid chocolatey layer, which is firm but not hard.
The middle layer is a buttery, frosting-y, creamy, custard-y stuff that is so much the opposite of low-fat that it makes you want to weep with pleasure.
The bottom layer is a sturdy, tightly packed layer of chocolate, graham cracker and coconut, bound together with melted butter.
That is to say--super yum.

And now, we'll move on to more of the Nanaimo bar's lore:
Mysterious Origins:
By many accounts, the bar came into existence when a Nanaimo housewife entered her no-bake squares into a magazine contest. Though we see several sources citing that it was "about 35 years ago", though we were not able to locate the name of the entrant or the magazine in which it was published. However, the legend goes on to say that when the recipe was published, it put both the bar and the town on the map.
Then again, according to Wikipedia,
the earliest confirmed printed copy of the recipe "Nanaimo Bars" appears in a publication entitled His/Hers Favorite Recipes, Compiled by the Women's Association of the Brechin United Church, with the recipe submitted by Joy Wilgress (p.52); this publication is not dated, but is circa 1950s.

And still others argue that the Nanaimo bar was actually invented long before in NYC, where it is referred to as the "New York Slice". However, none of our spies who have lived or currently live in the NYC area can recall ever having seen a confection by said name (though please feel free to correct us if we simply missed it). However, we do have fond memories of a wonderful three-layer chocolate, caramel and shortbread bar from a bakery which is now closed but used to have a few locations in Manhattan called Taylor's (pictured left--and though it's a bit of a tangent, for those who miss the dear, dear Taylor's can order a similar item of equal tastiness online from clairesquares.com).
However, we elect that regardless of where it comes from, the bar came into its own in Nanaimo, and therefore credit is due to Nanaimo for the heavenly bar.
Nanaimo Bars, Zoka CoffeeFinding Delicious Nanaimo Bars:
One thing that few will argue is the bar's deliciousness. As our friend ReTorte says, "Nanaimo Bars are very popular. And why not? Chocolate and custard - are you kidding me? The reality is, though, that they're usually cheaper to buy from a wholesaler, so frequently they are not made on site. This doesn't mean that the bars are bad, however; my favourite Nanaimo Bars are still the ones sold on BC ferries, and they bring them in from a wholesaler and are awesome".
And it's true--gauche as it may be to say, we've found that our favorite Nanaimo bars have been purchased not in fancy bakeries or restaurants but in significantly less "gourmet" spots--supermarkets, ferries, or delis. However, perhaps there's a strange logic behind this. Through trial and error we've found that the bars often taste better one or two days after they're made--so perhaps the absolute freshness that most bakeries or restaurants strive for is a detriment in the case of the Nanaimo bar, whereas in the aforementioned settings, where the bars will have a longer "shelf" time, they are allowed to improve with age. Hey, just a theory!

Extended Family: If you think the Nanaimo bar resembles some other sweets (at least physically), you're right. Starting with a list of related confections on Barry Popik's site, we hunted down some sweets that resemble the Nanaimo bar (if not in taste, at least in construction) and sought out a few of our own. Aside from the "London Smog" bar though, few of them seem to be derived from the actual Nanaimo bar recipe, though they are delicious.
When making your own Nanaimo bars, the sky's the limit. While the official City of Nanaimo recipe (determined during a 1980s contest for the "ultimate" Nanaimo bar recipe, which was won by Joyce Hardcastle) is found below, there are some great variations which can be found here and here.

 

 


OFFICIAL NANAIMO BAR RECIPE

 

Bottom Layer

  • ½ cup unsalted butter (European style cultured)
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 5 tbsp. cocoa
  • 1 egg beaten
  • 1 ¼ cups graham wafer crumbs
  • ½ c. finely chopped almonds
  • 1 cup coconut
  • Melt first 3 ingredients in top of double boiler. Add egg and stir to cook and thicken. Remove from heat. Stir in crumbs, coconut, and nuts. Press firmly into an ungreased 8" x 8" pan.
Middle Layer
  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbsp. and 2 Tsp. cream
  • 2 Tbsp. vanilla custard powder (Cake Gumshoe Kate adds that if you don't have or can't find custard powder, instant vanilla pudding works in a pinch)
  • 2 cups icing sugar
  • Cream butter, cream, custard powder, and icing sugar together well. Beat until light. Spread over bottom layer.
Top Layer
  • 4 squares semi-sweet chocolate (1 oz. each)
  • 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
  • Melt chocolate and butter over low heat. Cool. Once cool, but still liquid, pour over second layer and chill in refrigerator.

 

 

Monday
May262008

Cake Byte: The Results of our Regional Specialties Giveaway!

Well, the long weekend has chipped away, and now it has come to a close--as has our May Giveaway! And we have a winner...(drumroll please)...

Marla, from Hawaii! 
A big congratulations to Marla, whose name was chosen at random, for winning our super May Giveaway, which includes a wonderful Dorie Greenspan book (c/o our friends at Yummr) as well as a Cakespy Magnet and buttons (!). 
But even more so a big thanks to Marla, who alerted us to the following Hawaii specialties which cannot be missed:


Malasadas from Leonard’s Bakery, which she describes as "a pastry dough that is deep fried until lusciously crispy on the outside. It’s a pseudo donut minus the hole, sprinkled in sugar…with variations like cinnamon sugar coated or FILLED (drippingly divine) with standard cremes and more local versions."
Ensemadas, which are described as "an egg bread spiral roll with a fluffy butter spread on top dusted with confection sugar."
Coco puffs (famous at Liliha Bakery), a "gem" that " starts with a basic crème puff, but oozes with a chocolate pudding type filling and it’s topped with Chantilly. These are addictive!"

Congratulations again to Marla, and we think we know what we'll be eating when we go to Hawaii!

 

Friday
May232008

Cake Poll: Regional Specialties and a Giveaway!

May Giveaway!
What's sweeter than a long weekend? How about Cakespy's Monthly Cake Poll and Giveaway?

This month, you're in for a treat: the kind folks at Yummr have donated a great book for our giveaway, Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours (c/o Houghton-Mifflin Books). This tome of sweetness has recipes ranging from pinkies-out desserts like Coconut- Roasted Pineapple Dacquoise to simpler but no less delicious Brownie Buttons or mouthwatering pecan biscuits. Can we say delicious?


But wait, there's more: the lucky winner will also win a 2-pack of Cakespy Buttons and a jumbo magnet featuring the sweetest scene, like, in the world--a robot giving a cupcake a flower! 

*Also, readers who don't win the cookbook also have other chances to win by visiting Yummr's "Cookbook a Day in the Month of May" Giveaway.
Of course, if you're bummed that you missed out on the buttons, they're for sale at
jessieoleson.etsy.com!

How can you put your name in the running? It's easy! All you need to do is this:

  • To satisfy our nosy tendencies (we are spies, after all), fill out the below Cake Poll! You can leave your responses in the comment section, or send your responses via email to jessieoleson@gmail.com.
  • At 5pm PST on Monday, May 26, the Cake Poll will be closed. The winner will be chosen at random, not based on their responses. The prize(s) will then be shipped to the lucky winner within 48 hours, via the most economical method.
  • As for our fine print: The results of this poll will be used for entertainment and Cake Gumshoeing purposes only; we may summarize the results of this poll in upcoming posts. Your private information will not be shared with any outside parties. Also, we've elected to leave the cake poll open to all US Territories, Canada and abroad--so even overseas cake enthusiasts can take part! 
Cake Poll: Preferences and Regional Specialties!
  1. Where are you originally from? 
  2. Where do you live now?
  3. *If* the Cakespy crew were taking a road trip across the nation, what baked goods or bakeries would be a must-try in your area (either the area you live now, or the area you're originally from)?
  4. What was your favorite baked good or dessert item when you were little?
  5. What is your favorite baked good or dessert item now?
  6. What was the last dessert item or baked good that really "wowed" you?
  7. Are there any desserts or baked goods that you just can't stand?

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