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Thursday
Feb072008

Cakewalk in Penn Station, NYC

 

Au Bon Pain, Penn Station

New York City's Pennsylvania Station is lovingly referred to as "the home of the dashing commuter", and anyone who's had the pleasure of visiting during rush hour will know this to be a very apt description. It's certainly not for the feint of heart--slow down here and you're likely to get knocked over by suit-and-sneaker clad commuters barreling on by to the 5:23 to Ronkonkoma. Luckily, we know exactly what will give you the strength to deal with the jostling crowds--sweet, sugary pastries. While you won't find Payard here, there are a lot of ways to obtain a good old-fashioned (and at moments, a little bit trashy) sugar jolt at Penn Station; here are our favorite ways to do so:

Cakespy Note: Pennsylvania Station (and thus, all of the below purveyors of sweets listed below) is located on 34th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues in Manhattan; there are two main levels, the "Upper" level housing New Jersey Transit, and the Lower Level housing the Long Island Railroad. Locations are noted in the below Cakewalk as being on the Upper or Lower level.
Au Bon Pain: Yes, they are a chain, with locations around the country, but we have never been disappointed by their crunchy shortbread cookies or crumb cake, which has just the right degree of buttery saltiness to satisfy the palate. Just don't look at the nutrition information which they insist on posting visibly in the cafe--you don't need to do that to yourself. Just enjoy your sweets. On our most recent visit, the Creme de Fleur pastries (title photo) were divine. Lower level, LIRR; online at aubonpain.com.

Auntie Anne's Pretzels: There's a sign by this little pretzel kiosk that says "Snack like you mean it" and this isn't hard when you have cinnamon-sugar dusted pretzels or pretzel bites to keep you company on your long (or short, we're not particular) train ride. Also, we can't help but feel a nostalgia when we go here--it reminds us of being sixteen and getting pretzels and lemonade at the mall in New Jersey. Upper Level, NJ Transit; online at auntieannes.com.

Don Pepi Deli: Although we think their pizza across the hall is better than their deli sandwiches, they do have yogurt muffins and cookies that will make your commute a whole lot happier at this location. What we like about the yogurt muffins is that they seem to maintain a nice moisture and freshness, while not being as heavy as some of their counterparts; the cookies are of that big, crunchy deli variety that never fail to bring us a smile. Upper Level, NJ Transit.

Dunkin' Donuts: Clearly the commuters need caffeine to keep on dashing, and Dunkin Donuts is available for that need--there are several locations and kiosks throughout Penn Station on both levels. As we've mentioned before, they don't have the best quality donuts we've ever tasted...but there's just something so perfect about them anyway. Various locations on both the Upper and Lower Levels; online at dunkindonuts.com.


EuroPan Cafe: We'd never tried this spot before, but found their sweets to be a pleasant surprise, with a nice array of carbohydrate-laden treats. Most of the pastries are from various wholesalers, but they do have our favorite type of deli crumb cake, and a nice array of cookies, cakes, cupcakes and several more Frenchie-type pastries. Lower Level, LIRR.

 

Hot & Crusty: It always smells and looks good in here, but if we are to be completely honest, we've found that a lot of their pastries look better than they taste--the Black and White cookies in particular. However, they do have a very decent crumb cake, and other cookies (sprinkle-topped and M&M varieties) are quite good. Lower Level, LIRR; online at hotandcrusty.com.

Krispy Kreme: In all honesty we'd choose Dunkin' Donuts every time over Krispy Kreme, but we're taking this one for the team because we know there are Krispy Kreme die-hards out there (although if you're one of them, can you please explain what the attraction is?). We will admit that the holiday special donuts they bring out (Heart-shaped Valentine's Day donuts were on display when we went) are awfully cute. Upper Level, NJ Transit; online at krispykreme.com.

Le Bon Cafe: Mostly average sweets of the caliber that you'd get at a typical NYC deli--rich and satisfying, but not necessarily subtle or unique. Nonetheless, they fulfill that need that you sometimes have for something sweet and familiar. However, they do get bonus points for having a novelty we have not seen before: Black and White Rice Krispie Treats--a very nice variation on two classics! Lower Level, LIRR.


Sedutto Cafe: Sedutto is a good spot to pick up some Jersey-shore style soft-serve before your commute. What we love best here though is the cones, which are chocolate-dipped and coated with various types of sprinkles and nuts, which add a nice texture to the cone, and lend a certain "happy" factor to the overall experience. Various locations on both Upper and Lower Levels; online at seduttosicecream.com.

 

 

Zaro's Bread Basket: Zaro's Bread Basket may have a monopoly over the train station business (they have multiple locations in both Penn and Grand Central Stations) but all things considered, they do a pretty good job: solid black and white cookies, cakes, and unique cone shaped cupcakes have kept us going through many a ride down to the Jersey Shore on the train. We don't love their "regular" cupcakes as much as their cakes, but of course we welcome you to choose your own adventure. They're our top pick in terms of good-looking bakery cases, with colorful and ogle-worthy displays. Various locations on both Upper and Lower Levels; online at zaro.com. 
Penn Station Signage Penn Station Departures
Have we missed your favorite commuter sweet spot? Let us know!

 

Tuesday
Feb052008

West Side Story: A Tale of Two Magnolias

Cupcakes, Magnolia Downtown
Magnolia Bakery, a landmark in NYC’s West Village, is the veritable shot that started the cupcake revolution. And now, they’ve opened a second location on NYC’s Upper West Side.Though in actuality these two locations are only about three miles away, in many ways they are worlds apart; the culture, clientele and location are distinctly different. But what does this all mean for those famous cupcakes? We did a side by side comparision to find out who really does take the cake. For ease of reading, we will refer to them as "Magnolia Downtown" for the original Bleecker Street location and "Magnolia Uptown" for the new Upper West Side location.

A little background...

Location: Both bakeries are in Manhattan; Magnolia Downtown is located at the corner of West 11th Street and Bleecker Street in the West Village; Magnolia Uptown is located on 69th Street at Columbus Avenue, on the Upper West Side.

Culture: While both are neighborhoods of privilege (in our humble eyes, neighborhoods where apartments regularly rent for upwards of $3,000 a month would classify as neighborhoods of privilege), they both have a distinctly different feel; whereas Greenwich Village has a more eclectic feel, with cozy brownstones, zigzagging streets and quaint boutiques and boasts celebrity residents like Julianne Moore and Sarah Jessica Parker, the Upper West Side boasts the grand old apartment buildings of yesteryear, and you just might find yourself brushing elbows with with residents like Bono and Mia Farrow.

Some details about our visits and impressions...

Crowd: We went to the locations one after the other to get the truest read. When we went to Magnolia downtown at 11.30 am, there were about 5 people in line; Uptown 30 minutes later, there were about 16 people in line. However, we feel it would be unfair to say this means that Uptown is more popular; it's newer, so part of this is probably novelty; also, we do understand that as lunchtime draws closer, sometimes you need a little sweetness, so perhaps that 30 minute window does make a difference.

Employees and Crowd, Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker
Service: (photo above: the crowd at Magnolia Downtown) To us, Magnolia Downtown has never been about the attentive service; the staff is largely made up of bored-looking hipsters (albeit, bored-looking hipsters who always give you great ideas for new haircuts). Nonetheless, there is sort of a charm to this type of service, and it seemed no different at the new location--same cool haircuts, same slightly-bored attitude. We'd call this one a draw.

Interior: They’ve done the new location with similarly checkered floors and retro décor; so although it is not a different look per se, we are going to give this point to Magnolia Uptown, which seems more spacious, airy and less cramped than its downtown cousin.

Maybe we're shallow but we think about these things...

Magic Cookie Bars at Magnolia DowntownMagic Cookie Bar, Magnolia Uptown
Presentation: (photos above, Magic Bars at the Downtown and Uptown locations, respectively) While both locations had similar elements of presentation: glass cases and cake plates, cupcakes on cute doilies, etc., Magnolia Uptown emerges slightly ahead in this category due to (in our opinion) their better choice of typestyle for the store signage; the simple typeface allows the baked goods themselves to shine, whereas Magnolia Downtown's more whimsical typestyle is ultimately distracting and hard to read.

Cupcakes, Magnolia DowntownCupcakes at the New Uptown Magnolia Bakery
Cuteness: (photos above, cupcakes at the Downtown and Uptown locations, respectively) While cuteness can be an open-ended category, it cannot be ignored. In evaluating the baked goods at both locations, the cuteness factor was high all around; however, if pressed we would have to say that the Downtown location's cupcakes seemed to have a jauntiness to their swirl that the Uptown location simply couldn't match.

Places to eat your cupcake: Magnolia Downtown has only one tiny table; however, there is a park directly across the street which, weather permitting, is a good place to eat your cupcake and full of great people-watching. While they are working on an added seating room Uptown, it was not yet ready at the time of our visit, leaving noplace to sit in the uptown location. Though Central Park is a short walk away, who’s going to make it that far with their cupcake? Ours was gone by the time we were halfway down the block. So while things may change when the seating area is available, in this case, Downtown wins.

But most importantly, the sweets themselves:

Cakes, Magnolia Uptown

Selection: The selection was nearly identical at both locations, with some variations in frosting choices and layer cakes available that day, but mostly the same; overall a tie.

Freshness / Quality: Everything we tasted at both locations tasted extremely fresh, which provides a happy tie (yay for fresh pastries!).

Banana PuddingBanana Pudding, Upper West Side Magnolia Bakery

The Baked Goods Themselves: (above: photos of banana pudding Downtown and Uptown, respectively) Each bakery has its own kitchen, so we wanted to see for ourselves how the tastes stacked up. In evaluating the cupcakes, we noticed that the frosting was a bit heavier-handed downtown (this is not necessarily a bad thing!); on the banana pudding, the Uptown version was a little more "whipped" than the slightly creamier version Downtown. The "Magic bars" (quite similar to the Bakedbar we featured a while back) looked slightly crisper on the bottom downtown. But really, all of this is subject to the day and baker who made them, and are natural variations; small differences aside, the taste was very similar between both locations. And yes, we liked what we tasted.

So, if you were halfway between locations and had to choose one or the other, which one would Cakespy suggest?

Well, certainly the new location has a few things going for it. For one, it's bigger; with more space, perhaps they won't even need a cupcake bouncer. But have they won us over with better typestyle choices and more seating? While on the one hand they seem to have answered a need, there was something that we realized while standing on the line Uptown to pay; we sort of...well, missed that Cupcake Bouncer and cramped space that we've cursed so many times Downtown. So while we're excited to see the Uptown addition and to monitor its growth, our hearts are still in that cramped, inefficient, sweet little spot on Bleecker Street.

Magnolia Bakery, two locations; Downtown, 401 Bleecker Street (at W. 11th St); Uptown, 200 Columbus Avenue (b/t W. 69th & W. 70th Sts); online at magnoliabakery.com.

 


Magnolia Bakery in New York

 

Sunday
Feb032008

Cake Byte: Sweet News from Cakespy


They say that while the cat's away, the mice will play. While we're not completely sure what this means, we at Cakespy have been having a wonderful time in NYC, seeking out the sweetest new developments in baking and bakery culture.

While we continue our travels and apologize for not being able to respond to all of your comments until we're back in Seattle, there is some news which simply has to be shared in the meantime:

First, we would like to report that Natalie of Bake+Destroy! is an absolute genius. Not news? OK. But did you know that she recently immortalized Cakespy artwork in a series of brilliantly propped and photographed cupcakes that she made (above)? Check out more at the Bake+Destroy Blog.

Next on the agenda: perhaps you've found yourself alone and unaccessorized in the cold, cruel month that gives us Valentine's Day? Avoid heartbreak with some good old fashioned retail therapy: Jessie Steele (whose wonderful booth we were able to visit at the NY Gift Show) is debuting hot new cupcake aprons which are available to ship on February 15th this year. Guaranteed to give you a warm and fuzzy feeling! Available at jessiesteele.com; will also be available soon at wishingfish.com.

 

Finally, are you so over the "best commercial" conversations about the super bowl? How about cutest cupcake? This year our pick goes to Sweet Avenue Bakeshop in NJ, who has made some cupcakes that made us feel happy in a Giant way. Check them out at their web site or even better, if you're in Rutherford NJ, go buy some. Even if you're not in Rutherford NJ, why not take a road trip? They're also having an Oscar Party / Vegan Ice Cream tasting tasting later this month, so clearly the Super Bowl isn't the only Giant of New Jersey.

Til we return to our regularly scheduled posting later this week: Stay Sweet!

Thursday
Jan312008

Brownies Behaving Badly: Cakespy Challenges a Classic Treat

 

DSC03676

Brownies are an impressively versatile treat; they take well to a variety of different fillings, but never lose their brownie identity. So why is it that the choices are always so...underwhelming at bakeries? Sure, you'll see the standards: fudge brownies, brownies with walnuts, and the occasional peanut butter, or perhaps mint "novelty" brownies, but nothing that really excites the palate. Luckily, we've got your back at Cakespy: recently we put brownies to the test by trying out a variety of very unexpected fillings, ranging from sweet to savory, from bitter to the completely shocking, to see what might work, what might not, and what might perhaps spawn a Brownie Great Awakening. Here are the details of our experiment:

 

Who tasted them?: Me and members of Seattle rock band Speaker Speaker.
What were the flavors?: We elected to make them in a variety of unexpected tastes and textures, and so finally settled on the following: bacon (in our case we used Morningstar farms veggie bacon), Monterey Jack Cheese, Saltines, salted peanuts, Jaffas, mint malt balls, Starburst, and Sour Patch Kids.
How did we make 'em? The recipe was a basic brownie recipe from the Betty Crocker Cookbook. They were made using a mini scone pan from Williams-Sonoma to yield little triangles; the dividers formed a nice barrier between the different types of brownies, thus making it possible to mix in the different fillings by brownie within the same batch. While we worried that perhaps the stronger flavors or smells might infuse the others another while baking, once we began tasting, this did not seem to be a problem.

And as for our expert thoughts?

First, the savories:

 

Bacon(Veggie) Bacon Brownie

(Veggie) Bacon Brownies (above): There have been a lot of bacon-and-sweets recipes going around, and while curious, we suspected that perhaps the recent popularity was largely based on shock value rather than intense tastiness. And while there is no denying that bacon in pastries provides a certain "Omigod" factor, the flavor was surprisingly good; smoky, salty, sweet, and savory, all at the same time. As taster Danny said, "It's like brownie...and then a wave of bacon". Overall, a sweet and salty success!

 

 

Monterey Jack CheeseDSC03682
Monterey Jack Cheese (above): Remnicient of a cream cheese brownie or a chocolate cheesecake but with a spicy, savory undertone, these felt and tasted very rich and satisfying. Think chocolate cheesecake, but a bit more savory. We would definitely make these ones again!

 

Saltines insteadSaltine Brownie

Saltines (above): These ones elicited the largest amount of taste associations, reminding us alternately of chocolate covered pretzels, Nestle crunch bars, and various other chocolate-with-a-crunch sweets. Overall, these went over well, probably the most "normal" tasting of the unusual flavors.

 

 

NutsDSC03683

Salted Peanuts (above): You'll see peanut butter brownies, or walnut brownies...but very rarely whole peanuts. The peanuts provided the familiar flavor of peanut butter, but with a satisfying crunch. The saltiness was rich and gave a very pleasing mouthfeel; a nice variation on an "expected" flavor.

 

And now, moving on to the sweet styles:

 

DSC03657DSC03691

Jaffas (above): They're all the rage in New Zealand (a soft-chocolate covered orange lolly candy), but we'd never heard of them until we interviewed City Down, the Cupcake Queen of New Zealand. Now we're addicted, and they're a very pleasant addition to brownies, a slightly unexpected variation on the now-ubiquitous orange and chocolate pairing.

 

 

StarburstDSC03700

Starburst (above): We placed a Starburst candy jauntily on top of the batter on this one, and guess what: It burned a hole through the brownie! You'd think we might be warned by this unholy-seeming sign but no: we ate that sucker. Our reactions were mixed: some thought they tasted very wrong, but to others, they tasted so right. Go figure.

 

 

Mint MaltballsDSC03694

Mint Malt Balls (above): We tried this to put a new spin on the chocolate-mint thing; while they were pleasant, they weren't really that different than your basic mint brownie, the malt being broken up and covered with batter to the point of having lost its crunch.

 

 

Sour Patch KidsDSC03688

Sour Patch Kids (above): What a surprise these were. None of us expected them to be delicious, but overall the sourness seemed to mix nicely with the brownies, perhaps lending a tartness that cut through the richness a little bit. A little went a long way with this flavor, but it was certainly a worthwhile experiment. Plus, baking them made the coating melt off, so that the candies resembled little jewels, making these the "prettiest" ones by far.

 

So, to sum it up? Brownies are delicious, no doubt about it. But as a treat with such an incredible range, why should we become content with so few choices? As we found in our tasting, some of the most unexpected flavors were very rewarding and surprisingly delicious. So don't be afraid to "mix it up" in your own kitchen; you might just stumble upon a happy accident!

Have you tried out something unexpected with your brownies that turned out well? Let us know!

Cakespy Note: Our apologies for not responding to your comments right away this week; we are out spying in NYC til February 7!

 

DSC03630Business Time

 

 

 

 

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Wednesday
Jan302008

Batter Chatter: Interview with Lindsey Walsworth of La Dolce Lulu

In recent years, there has been something of a great awakening in the world of "restricted" baking. Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World gave us vegan cupcakes that are not only hip but delicious; books like Veganomicon and My Sweet Vegan have offered recipes that are completely inspiring to the vegan and non-vegan alike. At the same time, authors like Shauna James Ahern are raising awareness about celiac disease and living the gluten-free life in style. It seems natural that as awareness rises, the niche will widen, and more and more excellent vegan baking businesses are having a chance at success these days, and we can all enjoy the benefits! We recently got a chance to catch up with one such business, La Dolce Lulu, an Atlanta, GA environs-based custom order bakery specializing in vegan and wheat-free goods. Here's what we learned from proprietress Lindsey Walsworth about life, cake and the pursuit of the perfect "veganized" recipe:

Cakespy: Do you have a retail location, or do you just work by special order?
Lindsey Walsworth: Currently I am special order only. I am being licensed to sell wholesale, and have had a lot of interest from the West coast--so you may be seeing La Dolce Lulu goodies in coffee shops and organic grocery stores all over! I do plan to have a retail location in the near future, but am having difficulty finding that perfect place.

CS: You specialize in vegan baking. Are you vegan yourself?
LW: I aspire to pure veganism, and have been flirting with the idea for a couple of years now. I am vegetarian, and dairy products gross me out so I guess I'm cheater vegan. My grandfather is a beekeeper, and honey has always been a staple of my diet. I'm trying to kick the habit. For now, I'm vegan in my own house and more flexible when I eat out or when friends and family cook for me.

CS: What is the difference between vegan and gluten-free?
LW: Veganism is the strictest form of vegetarianism where no animal products of any kind are consumed. That means no eggs, no dairy, no honey, and of course no meat or fish. Gluten-free diets are those that avoid a grain protein called gluten. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, u.s. grown oats, kamut, spelt, and a few other grains. Gluten free diets are critical to those with gluten intolerance and Celiac disease. Gluten is what gives conventional flour the elasticity to rise and and stay together when baked, so substituting it can be difficult. Gluten free recipes generally consist of combinations of rice, soy, corn, tapioca, potato, and quinoa flours that produce a more delicate, but still tasty pastry.

CS: Have there ever been baked goods that you have found impossible to "veganize" ?
LW: So I didn't coin the term "veganize"--darn, I thought I was so creative. Anyway....I have one recipe that for the life of me I cannot veganize. It's killing me because it is the simplest recipe in the world when it's non-vegan. I have veganized some pretty tricky recipes in the past, but this simple 4 ingredient confection is stumping me. For now the impossible recipe is a secret (sorry), but when I crack it I'll be sure to let you know!

CS: Do vegan pastries taste as good as dairy ones?
LW: Better! In addition to baking, I am a nanny. I test all my recipes on unsuspecting football-watching dads whom I do not tell the goodies are vegan. Every single test has passed with flying colors, and I've even been asked to make two of their birthday cakes! Ha! Plus, each pastry comes with the peace of mind that no animals were hurt to make it--by avoiding commonly used animal products, my yummies are cholesterol free! Trans fat free! Contain no refined sugars! And are kinder to your body and the earth (it takes 10 times as much water to keep a pasture of dairy cows as it does to keep a field of beans to make my soy milk).

CS: What is the most popular item on your menu?
LW: Mayan chocolate spice cake--OMG, it's delicious. Although recently, the blueberry crumble has been giving the cake a run for its money. I could eat my body weight in both.
CS: You live in the Atlanta area. What type of desserts are popular there?
LW: Decadent southern desserts like bread pudding (which i am trying to veganize), pecan pie (which i detest and have not tried yet), and any fruit pie that a sweet grandmother might make for a holiday or family reunion--apple, cherry, blueberry.

CS: What is the most important aspect in making a good cake?
LW: Making it taste so good people don't think about anything else. If it tastes good enough, people forget to think about calories, forget that they have to send exactly 412 emails before they can go to bed, forget to worry about anything--even if for just a moment. My grandmother, who taught me to bake and was by far the best cook I have ever met, made the ugliest cakes in the world. They fell apart if you looked at them too hard, the icing was patchy and took most of the cake with it as you spread it, in fact most of the cakes looked a little like the dog had gotten to them before you did. But every single one of them was the most delicious cake in the world. The second you ate them it no longer mattered that they looked so bad, in fact nothing really mattered except getting more of that cake on your fork and in your mouth. Now, my cakes look a little better than hers, maybe a lot better... but that's not what I take pride in. I am proud that I can make a cake that tastes as good as hers did, because I think that is most important.

CS: What is the best time of day to eat cake in your opinion?
LW: Oh, anytime really....I never wait until after a meal because tastebuds get wasted on all that savory food. I say the best time to eat cake is whenever the mood strikes and cake is attainable--the stars wouldn't align for you like that if it weren't meant to be.

CS: What are some of the challenges of vegan and gluten-free baking?
LW: How much time you have? The challenges are many. For vegan baking: I was first stumped by how to substitute eggs. They can be used as leaveners, binders, or both--so I had to learn to read non-vegan recipes and figure out what role the egg was playing. Once I figured that out, I had to learn which egg substitutes worked best in which recipes. For instance, ground flaxseed in soy, almond, or coconut milk may work in a brownie recipe and fail miserably in a very similar blondie recipe. Yikes! After the egg problem, came quality problems. A lot of vegan alternatives, particularly for dairy products, contain hydrogenated oils which I am strictly opposed to using. I would rather leave an item off my menu than use a fat so dangerous for the human body. It's taken some sleuthing and some serious online shopping, but I now have all the vegan alternatives I need--and none of them contain hydrogenated oils! For now, my vegan hurdles are pretty much jumped (aside from that secret, un-veganizeable recipe). For gluten-free baking: first, a note: "gluten-free" is a government awarded term for a food item that has been tested by a government agency and qualifies with 2 parts per billion or less gluten per serving. My food has not yet been tested (it's really expensive), so my options are currently termed "no gluten ingredients" for legal reasons. When I have a spare few thousand dollars, my food will be tested. Gluten-free baking is tougher than conventional baking because the flour options-- rice, soy, corn, tapioca, potato, and quinoa--do not have the elasticity of their glutenous cousins. This makes for pastries that don't rise quite as much and can be a little heavy. Mostly, it takes tinkering with flour ratios. I have a super secret ratio that works like magic for pancakes and waffles, but is not so hot for cakes and vice versa. Vegan gluten-free baking is even more ridiculously difficult because non vegan gluten-free recipes can rely on eggs as a binder, so the toughest part has been concocting not only flours that will work, but egg substitutes that work as well.

CS: Are there any bakers, bakeries or cookbooks in particular that inspire you?
LW: Oh yeah. Isa Chandra Moskowitz of "Vegan with a Vengeance" and "Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World" introduced me to vegan cooking. I was throwing a little dinner party at my house and a friend was bringing her new girlfriend to meet us all. And oh no! She was a vegan! What ever will I cook?, I wondered. So I bought Isa's book (VWAV) and got started. The recipes were a great launching point to learn the basics and add my own style. Also, Jennifer McCann who writes the Vegan Lunchbox blog and wrote a book by the same name--her ideas are wonderful, and crazy popular with the kids. Now that i think about it....pretty much every woman in the culinary industry inspires me. It's not a place that women have always been welcome, so I'm glad to see women chefs out there making their marks and being successful.

CS: What is next for La Dolce Lulu?
LW: You tell me and we'll both know! But seriously... I have a lot of dreams in my head and only a small amount of money in my bank account. I've been pretty punk about it all until now--buying equipment when i had some spare cash, designing my logo 5 minutes before it was due at the printer, photographing all my food myself with my Canon SD1000 (thanks, Mom!), and kind of rejecting the typical business model. It worked for a while, and would continue to work if I weren't interested in expansion, but I am. I want everyone, no matter their dietary restrictions, to have good food. Whether you are allergic to eggs, have celiac disease, choose to be vegan, or just want the occasional healthier pastry, I think you should have delicious, high quality options. So, I guess what's next for Lulu is full commitment to the dream. I'm going to do what I need to to make it happen.

Want to find out more? Visit ladolcelulu.com. Want more drool-worthy pictures? Check out her Flickr Page. Or perhaps you're ready to make an order? Take that plunge by emailing Lindsey at

ladolcelulu@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

Monday
Jan282008

Boo-Meringue: An FAQ and a Daring Bakers Challenge

 

Lemon with Meringue, with a little help from a friend ;-)

Meringues: light-as air confections; a marriage made in heaven with lemon pies. But on a deeper level (and at this point we pause to look the slightly-browned puff soulfully in the eye), who are you, little meringue? We had these questions on our mind when taking on our first Daring Bakers Challenge; so, we took some time to do some research on this sweet treat. Here's Cakespy's response to some Frequently Asked Questions about the mighty meringue and its relationship with that famous pie, as well as our offering to the Daring Baker's Challenge!

 

Q: What is a meringue?
A: Most simply put, it's a confection made from whipped egg whites and fine (caster) sugar. The way it helps us to think of it is, kind of like whipped cream, but instead of cream, egg whites (for what it's worth).

Q: What is the difference between meringue cookies and meringue on top of a pie?
A: There are different ways to make meringues. The "soft" meringue that you will see on top of pies has only a small amount of sugar to egg white; the "hard" meringues which may be bagged or sold in boxes, are crumbly but quite solid; this is a result of a higher sugar-to-egg white ratio.

Q: Where does its funny name come from?
A: Depends on who you ask. Some insist that it got its name from the Swiss town of Meiringen where some claim the confection was invented by a pastry chef in 1720. However, the word "meringue" appeared in a French cookbook from 1692; so, there is some debate over where the name really comes from. The Dictionary of etymology cites "unknown origin". Quel mysterieuse!

Q: Why do I never see Lemon pies without meringue?
A: Good question, and while you may see a tarte citron, you'll rarely see a lemon pie sans meringue. Although we couldn't find a definitive answer, here's what we think: lemons are sour. Their taste alone doesn't really make a good sweet, so frequently they will have a sweet accompaniment; think of the lemon bar's shortbread crust, even that tarte citron's sweet pastry shell. Since the pie crust will frequently not be sweet, we think that perhaps the addition of the sugary meringue is to add a much-needed sweet complement to the sour lemony filling.

Q: Are meringues delicious?
A: Meringues are, on their own...very sweet. So, it depends on the taster. Marie-Antoinette, that queen of sugar she was, is said to have adored them; to the Cakespy crew, in general they're not entirely compelling all their lonesome. To us, the true goodness of the meringue is brought out by other flavors which accompany and complement that sweetness.

Q: What does it mean when a meringue "weeps"?
A: On a Lemon Meringue pie, a magical place exists where meringue ends and filling begins. Not so magical when a syrup forms in that layer and seeps out while you're cutting the pie in front of guests. Usually, this is because the filling is undercooked on the bottom, and moisture is held suspended. How do you keep your meringue from weeping? Act quickly upon taking your pie from the oven: meringues should always be set on piping hot pie filling to adhere properly. More suggestions can be found here.

Q: What is a marshmallow meringue?
A: A marshmallow meringue is pretty much a meringue, but with marshmallow cream added (think fluff), and is a wonderful accompaniment to sweet potato pie or sweet potato cupcakes (photo left, Marshmallow meringue topped cupcake from Trophy Cupcakes). We like this recipe for its tiny addition of salt, which seems to make the taste come alive.

 

Q: Is Divinity a meringue?
A: While they are similar, we'd say that they're more like cousins than immediate relatives; the ingredients and methods differ. While meringues consist of egg whites and super-fine sugar, divinity calls for a mixture of white sugar, corn syrup and vanilla; also, the method of making divinity is more consistent with candymaking techniques, calling for a syrup to be made and heated before the beaten egg whites are added. For a recipe, check out this link.

Q: Can you teach me to meringue like in Dirty Dancing?
A: Silly rabbit, you're mistaking the meringue with the merengue, which is a type of Latin dance. While doing the merengue is an excellent way to work up an appetite for meringues, they are completely different things.

Interested in finding out more? We found the following resources very helpful: whatscookingamerica.net and joyofbaking.com.

And as for the Daring Bakers Challenge?

 

Lemon Tart
Well, we cheated a little bit to go for the extra tartlet challenge (we got some help from a talented baker who *ahem* does it for a living--wouldn't have looked like this if made by Mrs. Cakespy alone), but ours did come out quite nicely, guess it makes a difference when you have all those tools and gadgets of a commercial kitchen. It was really fun--Head Spy Jessie had never "done" meringues before, so it was a very interesting experience. Oh, the power that a mini torch makes you feel in the kitchen.

 

 

 

 

Thursday
Jan242008

Batter Chatter: Interview with Elisa Strauss of NYC's Confetti Cakes

 

Cakespy Note: Yes, all of the photos in this feature are cakes, believe it or not!


To call Elisa Strauss a baker of cakes, though accurate, would be a vast understatement. For if cake making is an art (and we believe it is) then certainly she's a master of the medium, creating meticulously rendered and painstakingly detailed fondant trompe-l'œil confections which have won her the attentions of the likes of the Food Network, Martha Stewart and Paula Deen (photo left, disco ball cake made for "Paula's Party"), to name just a few. Between making cakes, TV appearance and a great new book (which we own and love!), it's a wonder that she even had time to chat with us, but we're oh so glad she did. Here's what we learned about the glamorous world of baking on-screen, what Martha's really like, and whether these cakes really taste good (hint: no, the cheesesteak cake is not flavored like its namesake)...

 

Cakespy: You studied fine art, but then took a little bit of a different turn and got a degree in Pastry Arts. Do you think your fine art background makes you approach Pastry arts differently? How so?
Elisa Strauss: My art background is a tremendous help when it comes to the cakes. It helps me with both color and design. Even though we make everything from scratch in the bakery, and consider taste the most important aspect of our cakes, I still look at each cake as a work of art too!

CS: When did you decide to take on cake-making as your livelihood?
ES: I had graduated pastry school and was back working in fashion full time (just making cakes on the side…very late at night) when about a year later I couldn’t keep the juggling act going anymore. I had to make a decision if I was going to go for it or not…so I went for it and opened a commercial space, bought equipment, hired employees and took it from there!

CS: You work primarily in fondant icing. Do you ever work in other frosting or icing types?
ES:We make all our fillings and frostings from scratch so we have a wide variety of flavors. From buttercreams to ganaches, citrus curds to fresh fruit, etc. We use a lot of different fillings in our cakes then frost them with a layer of buttercream that sits under the rolled fondant. The fondant gives the most elegant and professional look. You cannot achieve the detail we do with a solely buttercream frosted cake.

CS: Do specialty cakes like yours really taste good?
ES: YES!!! Absolutely. One of the most frequent compliments we receive is how AMAZING our cakes taste. People never think it is possible because our cakes look like realistic objects but they taste great. Again, we make all our cake and fillings from scratch with the highest quality and freshest ingredients we can find….we do not skimp on anything related to taste! Ever! (Photo left, Sushi Cake, credit Alexandra Rowley).

CS: You used to do cookies, petits fours and cupcakes, but have now pared down to just custom cakes. What made you decide to cut down on the other services?
ES: I LOVE doing the smaller items, i.e., cupcakes, mini cakes, cookies, etc…but as a business model it just didn’t work. I could spend all day designing one cookie I could sell for $10 instead of working on one specialty cake for $800….you see what I mean? It just didn’t make sense for the business anymore.

CS: Can you tell us a little bit more about how it feels to work in a commercial space versus, say, a cramped NYC kitchen?
ES: After working in my TINY, TINY apt kitchen for a few years I thank my lucky stars I have a commercial space…I could never go back…especially with my 20 quart Hobart mixer!

About baking on TV...

CS: Do you get nervous about baking on-screen?
Yes! I definitely get nervous….especially with LIVE television anything can happen. The last time I went on the Today Show a light fixture crashed ten seconds before we went on the air…Ann Curry saved Al Roker and my cakes form getting hit by catching the light…and then all of a sudden three seconds and we were on LIVE National TV. I would say it is more of a “butterflies in my stomach” feeling of nervousness then scared! I love doing television!

CS: What was it like to meet Martha Stewart?
ES: Wow, amazing! It is so incredible to meet people who you see all the time…but on TV. She is such an incredible business woman!

CS: About that famous Flaming Sock Monkey Cake. Did it get eaten afterward?
ES: The last challenge on the Food Network: Extreme Cakes…was amazing! Not just because we won but the entire experience was incredible…SO much time and energy went into the planning and making of that show! Unfortunately by the time we finished it was close to MIDNIGHT and after all the photos were take it was thrown out because the studio had to get set up for the next day!

CS: All of your cakes are unusual and unexpected--but have there been any that have really stood out, or been special, for you?
Well, each cake is like a child to me…I usually don’t forget any that I have EVER done! So it is hard to pick favorites…but I will say I am especially proud of a few cakes that stand out: a Victorian Mansion cake (photo left) we did for a couple’s wedding last summer. They got married at the House, and we even matched the paint chips for color! I also loved being on Paula Deen’s show, Paula’s Party (see photo above, by intro paragraph)…where we made her a disco ball cake for her disco themed party! [Also] I do love replicating food…so many of our sushi or Philly’s cheese steak cakes are fun! OK, there are a lot...but I will not go on!

CS: How often do you eat cake?
ES: Quality control is tough but someone has to do it…hee, hee! Not everyday but probably more then I should!

CS: What are some of your favorite desserts?
ES: I would definitely NOT put cake up there…..I am much more of a cookies and ice cream girl! Bread is my real downfall….but I love a good Buckeye ball or Key Lime Pie too!

CS: Have you noticed any trends, or movements, in cakes and cake making in recent years (popular flavors, themes, or anything you've seen emerging)?
ES: I love the fact that most of my clients have moved away from just a traditional cake….even in flavors. We do a ton of Red Velvet, Banana or even Coconut flavored cakes!

CS: Which part of writing your book was hardest--making the cake "patterns" or finalizing the recipes?
ES: By far the hardest things were: making all the cakes, cookies and cupcakes for one week of a photo shoot (we had to shut down doing other people’s cakes for months so we could just focus on making the projects for the books)….and then writing out STEP by STEP directions for EVERY aspect of each project! I really, really want people to be able to make everything at home so we labored over every detail, measurement, weight and direction!

CS: To you, what is the most important aspect in making a great cake?
ES: It should look and taste equally great! It also doesn’t hurt when people don’t know that our cakes are actual cakes!

CS: What makes a "bad" cake?
ES: One that doesn’t taste great.

CS: If you could go back in time and give yourself any advice while just starting your cake business, what would you say?
ES: “Don’t do it”…JUST KIDDING! Honestly, I do not know…I kind of just jumped right in, worked CONSTANTLY and I am still figuring it all out!


Want to find out more? To make an appointment in their NYC studio (they will deliver throughout the tri-state area), or find out more about Elisa and her cakes, visit confetticakes.com.

Want to buy the book? You won't regret it; it's like a cookbook and beautiful craft book all in one! The photos alone are worth the investment; it's available online here.

 

 

Tuesday
Jan222008

Dessert Oasis: Fantastical Desserts and Recipes from Michael's Kitchen

 

Deep Dish Rice Krispie "Pizza"

Photo credit Michael’s Kitchen Newport Beachside Hotel & Resort

Ever felt like dessert menus are becoming a bit...predictable? A chocolate cake of some sort, a fruit-based pastry, cheesecake or tiramisu, a pudding or flan, and an ice cream or sorbet. Yawn.

 

Fortunately, we recently came across a restauranteur who has not forgotten the childlike joy and simple pleasure that dessert can bring: chef Michael Blum, who recently opened Michael's Kitchen in Miami. He's bringing a bit of pomp and circumstance--as well as a needed dose of fun--back to the institution of dessert, serving up fanciful sweets like desserts like N'awlins style Bananas Foster, Twinkie Tiramisu, Over-the-Top Baked Alaska and the Milky Way Chocolate Malt, and our favorite, the Deep Dish Rice Krispie Dessert Pizza (what can we say, we're in a cereal state of mind lately!).

And while you're probably intrigued by these dessert offerings, perhaps you are wondering: why would Cakespy be so cruel as to spotlight a place so far away? Well, for those of you whose travel plans don't include a Florida getaway anytime soon, we're happy to report that after having written a gushing love note to the management, they were kind enough to donate not one but two recipes for their coveted desserts--Deep Dish Rice Krispie Pizza and Twinkie Tiramisu, which are both listed below. Sweet!
Finally, dessert's fun again; this is a trend we hope will catch on!
If you live in or have plans to visit the Miami Area, Michael's Kitchen is obviously a must-visit; they're located at 16701 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach. 

RECIPE 1: White Chocolate Raspberry or Strawberry Rice Krispie Deep Dish Pizza

 

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons margarine or butter
  • 1 (10 oz.) package regular marshmallows

- Or -

  • 4 cups mini marshmallows
  • 6 cups Rice Krispies®
  • White Chocolate Shavings to taste for garnish
  • Your choice of jam or preserves, to taste (we like a thicker layer, but this recipe calls for a thinner one)


Directions

 

1. Melt margarine in large saucepan over low heat. Add marshmallows and stir until completely melted. Remove from heat.

2. Add RICE KRISPIES cereal. Stir until well coated.

3. Using buttered spatula or waxed paper, press mixture evenly into 9 x 2-inch deep dish round pan coated with cooking spray.

4. When cool remove from pan by using a hot water bath. Put pan into water for about 30 seconds.

5. To decorate: Spread a thin layer of raspberry or strawberry jam into the center of the circle of the pizza, leaving the “crust” of the pizza bare. Then add white chocolate shavings for the cheese look and sliced strawberries as pepperoni and raspberries as other toppings. NOTE: feel free to use any kind of toppings that your heart desires, there a no limits to this dessert…. Be creative!!!! Best if served the same day.

Serving Size one 9 inch round

RECIPE 2: Twinkie Tiramisu

At Michael’s Kitchen we serve these as individual desserts in 2 inch by 2 inch square glass containers.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup heavy cream (40% milk fat)
  • 5 oz granulated Sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons Espresso (plus a little bit more for dipping the lady fingers)
  • 1.5 pounds of Mascarpone cheese
  • 8 yolks
  • Lady Fingers (at least 36 cookies)
  • 1 box Twinkies

Directions:

 

1. Use an electric mixer with Wisk attachment and a cold bowl. Place heavy cream and 2 ozs of sugar in bowl and beat until stiff peaks, making whipped cream. This process takes about 3-4 minutes depending on strength of mixer.

2. Remove whipped cream from mixer and place it into the freezer while mixing the other ingredients.

3. Separate the yolks from the whites and place the yolks into a new cold bowl. Beat yolks and the remaining 3 ozs of sugar together. This process takes about 4 minutes. The mixture should look a pale yellow and about 4 times what the mixture started out as.

4. Add the mascarpone cheese until well incorporated and than add 3 Tablespoons of the espresso. Mix for about 20 seconds longer.

5. Remove this mixture from mixer and fold the cream into it. These two mixtures should be combined into one mixture leaving few streaks.

To Assemble:

1. Prepare espresso into a cup of coffee. Taking two ladyfingers break them in half and dip them into the warm espresso.

2. Place ladyfingers into the bottom of the ramekins.

3. Add the tiramisu cream to the top of the ramekin and take a knife across the top of it to clean off the edge.

4. Repeat this process until all cream is gone.

5. Cut the Twinkies in half on a bias and place one half on each tiramisu.

Note: best if refrigerated for a couple of hours but also can be served right after made.
Michael's Kitchen at Newport Beachside Hotel & Resort in Sunny Isles Beach

 

 

 

Sunday
Jan202008

Pie in the Sky: Demystifying Sweet Pies (With Help from the Mini Pie Revolution)

 

Someone had to be the first

What is pie, really? According to the dictionary, "a baked food having a filling of fruit, meat, pudding, etc., prepared in a pastry-lined pan or dish and often topped with a pastry crust." Well, to put it simply, it's a very open-ended food; one of those unique and versatile dishes that can go sweet as easily as it does savory. But even focusing on just the sweet pies, there's still an overwhelming amount of variety as to what a pie can be; from lemon meringue to Chess Pie to classic apple a la mode, it's enough to make one's head spin. Recently, we got a little help from Ann and Karyn, some of the masterminds behind the Mini Pie Revolution (take that, cupcakes!) in decoding the pie family genus. Here's how Karyn explained the differences between the primary types of sweet pies (sorted alphabetically):


Cream Pies: Where eggs are used with heavy cream to make a silky, thick base. These are a subset of custard pies, and the boundaries between them often blur. If you're going to throw a pie at someone, cream pies are the obvious choice. I
think cream pies are a bit more, should I say democratic?, than fruit pies. You can make many using nothing more than pantry staples. '50s housewives loved them. Photo left: Banana Cream pie from Billy's Bakery, NYC.

Custard Pies:
Any pie where eggs are used to set a liquid. Pumpkin pie's a good example. I would suggest that lemon and lime pies fall into this category as well, along with pudding pies and most chocolate pies. Cakespy Note: another one which has fascinated us in the past is the Hoosier Pie, a kind of sugar-custard pie which seems to be big in the American mid-west. Photo left: Pumpkin pie from the North Hill Bakery, Seattle. 
Fruit Pies: I would suggest that the fruit pie family includes any pie where whole fruit or chopped fruit combines with a thickener to create a filling. I confess, I love fruit pies, especially those combination-berry pies that balance sweet and tart flavors. I love them too because they can be so intensely regional and seasonal. In the summer, I love blackberry and blueberry pie topped with vanilla ice cream. In New England, apple pies with cheddar cheese are the norm, while the best cherry pies (in my experience) hail from Michigan. Strawberry-rhubarb pies for the spring fling, pumpkin pies for Turkey Day. Fruit pies are cultural pies, family pies; traditional pies. There's not much new-fangled about them (though there always could be) and I think people like that. 

Mousse Pies and Chiffon Pies: Egg whites are the major player here, though many recipes call for gelatin as well.

 

Nut Pies: I lump all pies requiring nuts set with corn syrup in this category (including peanut pie, though peanuts are legumes, not nuts); Walnut pie, Kentucky Derby pie, Pecan pie . . . while some of the recipes contain eggs, the eggs don't set a liquid, which is what I think separates nut pies from custard and cream pies. I might lump in sweet bean-based pies, too, since the beans were used when people didn't have nuts.

Whew! Glad we got all that figured out. Of course, we won't even get into the poetry and lore of pie crust; however, may we suggest this great post on Smitten Kitchen? Also, if you haven't already read it, there is a wonderful essay on the quest for the perfect crust in Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything.

 

But now, to answer the pressing pie questions:


What is the difference between a tart and a pie?
No, tarts aren't just pretentious pies. A tart is always uncovered, and generally made in special, delicately shaped tins. So by this logic a tart is a pie, while a pie is not necessarily a tart. However, the general connotation is that a pie is more rustic, peasant fare, where a tart is more refined. Also, pastry chef Chris Jarchow (who, incidentally, made the tart pictured to the left) points out that tarts are generally defined further by the use of Pâte Sucrée (sweetened crust) as opposed to Pâte Brisée (unsweetened crust), which is what you'd see on say, an apple pie.
Are pies an aphrodisiac?: Yes--according to a study in which (we want to be paid to do studies like this), men's "vital statistics" were measured based on certain smells, pumpkin pie elicited the biggest response. When approached for fact-checking, a cute male couldn't say that pumpkin pie would be his first choice though.
Why do they call it a pizza "pie"? Well, "pizza" literally translates to "pie" or "torte" (thus really rendering "pizza pie" a bit redundant). While pizza does share general traits with a savory pie, the major difference is usually that its crust contains yeast (more bread-y), and so is not quite a  pastry crust. According to the dictionary this makes it technically not a pie--but really, we'd just as soon eat some rather than argue over the details.

Is Boston Cream Pie really a pie? Tasty as it is, this sponge cake, chocolate and custard confection is technically this is not a pie--check out this article for the explanation of why "pie" may have gotten into its name. Other tasty treats that are not actually pies include the
Moon Pie and the Whoopie Pie. Some versions of the Mississippi Mud Pie are really more like cakes, although some do have a decidedly pie-like cookie crust.
Is pie the new cake? Well, some may say so, but the choice--pie, cake, other--is really up to you. However, we must say that at Cakespy, we think these adorable mini pie - cupcake hybrids cropping up recently are awfully cute.
Cakespy Note: Thank you to our sources for this writeup, including Ann and Karyn of the Mini Pie Revolution, Pastry chef Chris Jarchow, the following books: Everything You Pretend to Know about Food (And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask) by Nancy Rommelmann, James McNair's Pie Book, and Joy of Cooking's All About Pies and Tarts; online we got some help from American Heritage, What's Cooking America and Joy of Baking.

 

 

 

Thursday
Jan172008

Cake Byte: Sweet News From Cakespy

 

Crafty Tote Bag

New tees and totes and features aplenty--oh my! Here's the big news at Cakespy this week:

Thank you to two very special people (MCQ and NBM) for suggesting that we add classic Cakespy designs to products at Cafepress! While you can still buy original art, buttons and more at Head Spy Jessie's Etsy store, we now have more options, including tote bags, t-shirts and stickers available at cafepress.com/cakespy. Sweet!
Cakespy loves Serious Eats, Not Martha and Tastespotting (thanks to Oh Mindy); they all gave us a sweet mention this week! Thank you!
Finally, check out the artwork we did for the awesome Milwaukee Cupcake Queen and for cool cupcake blog KimberleyC Baking! 

 

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