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Sunday
Dec092007

Batter Chatter: Interview with Elizabeth Gordon of Betsy & Claude


Sure, you've heard of cookies that are gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, nut-free, dairy-free...but all of the above, and all at once? When we heard that the new, NYC-based company Betsy & Claude was making just such confections, we simply had to find out more. Turns out, like so many great things, these cookies were borne out of need--owner Elizabeth Gordon was diagnosed with a wheat and egg allergy in 2003--and further developed to suit the dietary needs and restrictions of friends and family, while always striving to make products that actually taste good. We were recently able to chat with Elizabeth in what turned out to be a very informative interview; here's what we learned about living and baking on a restricted diet, just who this mysterious "Claude" is, and whether or not gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, nut-free, dairy-free cookies truly are delicious:

Cakespy Note: Of course, if you're like us, the first and foremost in your mind is "well, what IS in them?". Per the Betsy & Claude website, here's the ingredient list: our signature blend of organic, unhydrogenated palm fruit oil, organic, raw sugar, molasses, agar agar, flaxseed meal, vanilla, our signature flour blend (garbanzo, fava, sorghum, arrowroot and potato starch), leavening, xanthan gum, pear puree, apple puree, uniodized salt. Specific cookie flavors may contain gluten-free, soy-free and dairy-free chocolate chips, peppermint extract, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and/ or raisins.

Cakespy: Your company is called Betsy & Claude. We know that you're the "Betsy"--so who is Claude?
Elizabeth Gordon: As you said, despite the fact that I go by Elizabeth now, I grew up as "Betsy". I know that it is corny, but Claude was my imaginary friend when I was a little girl. We spent a lot of time together in my play kitchen cooking up all kinds of concoctions, so I thought that he deserved to be included in the name of my new, online bakery.

CS: Can you tell us a bit about how you got started making gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, nut-free, dairy free cookies?
EG: After the birth of my first child in 2003, I was diagnosed with a wheat and egg allergy, and I felt like my life was over. I couldn't imagine not being able to eat another cookie or piece of cake, and it felt like everything contained wheat or eggs. When I dropped out of a PhD program in 2005 to pursue a life-long dream of working in the culinary arts, I started to play around with alternative flours to see what they could do. Faced with a lot of time and no formal research to conduct since I was no longer in school, I launched my own "research" project. I dabbled at first and then became nearly obsessed with making the "perfect cookie". The research culminated last year in hours and hours in the kitchen and a huge variety of wasted flours. My husband thought I'd lost my mind, but I wasn't willing to stop until I developed something that I wouldn't be embarrassed to serve to other people.

CS: Egg-free, nut-free, soy-free and dairy-free are pretty self explanatory. However, can you tell us what it means for something to be gluten-free?
EG: Gluten-free denotes an item being made completely free of any grains containing gluten (ie: wheat, spelt, barley, oats, kamut, triticale, rye, most commercial blends of buckwheat, malt and modified food starch (because it is usually made from wheat unless it specifically states "modified corn starch") ). There is controversy where oats are concerned. Some people feel that they are tolerable, but since the jury is still out, I do not use them in my baking. Actually, nut-free is not as straightforward as I used to think. Recently, the FDA reclassified coconuts as tree nuts. I just want to assure people that I do not use it in my recipes.

CS: Are you formally trained in baking? If not, how did you learn how to bake?
EG: Yes and no. I studied cake design under Toba Garrett at the Institute for Culinary Education in NYC and did an internship for Elisa Strauss at Confetti Cakes. I also trained with Scott Clark Woolley and learned how to make a mean sugar flower. However, I do not have a formal pastry degree. Most of my ability was cultivated in my mother's kitchen as I was growing up. She is a fabulous and prolific baker, especially at this time of the year.

CS: Do you ever miss the taste of cookies made with butter and eggs?
EG: Not really, but I do miss omelets. A lot.

CS: Do dairy, gluten, soy, egg and nut-free cookies really taste good?
EG: Well, as I discovered when I first found out about my allergies, not all of them do. However, Betsy & Claude cookies are just like the homemade cookies that I ate as a little girl, which is why they took so long to develop. They are baked in small batches and sent fresh, and that goes a long way in terms of taste. While I am biased, one of the moms at my daughter's school exclaimed today: "Those Gingersnaps are [and this was her own word] YUMMILICIOUS! You'd never know they aren't the real thing".

CS: How often do you eat your own cookies?
EG: I'm too embarrassed to admit that. You'd be shocked. :)

CS: What is your most popular flavor?
EG: A pattern has not yet emerged. My vote would be for gingersnap, though. They are nice and spicy and a great substitute for a gingerbread man at this time of the year.

CS: These cookies are your initial product offering. Do you think you'll add any other baked goods to the mix?
EG: I would love to add more as I grow. Right now I'm a one-woman-show, and I'd like to keep it simple so that my level of quality doesn't dip. I want to do this and do it well before I branch out in other directions. However, I'd love to develop a few more flavor offerings sometime in the next few months.

CS: Your cookies cost $21 per pound. About how many cookies is that?
EG: Approximately 16. However, the weight of the cookies seems to be affected by the weather. At this time of the year, the air is very dry, so the cookies are a little lighter. On a humid day, they might be a little heavier. Weird, I know.

CS: Your site says that you'll do custom flavors. Have you ever done any strange or exotic custom orders?
EG: Yes, I will do custom flavors if I think that I can create something that works, and if I'm not too busy. Right now, I've gotten some amazing press coverage, so I won't be able to do custom orders until after the holidays. The craziest one I've gotten so far was for S'mores, which isn't so much exotic as it is a good idea.

CS: What is the hardest part about doing your type of baking (ie, restricted and free of all of those ingredients)?
EG: I would have to say that the hardest thing about this kind of baking is not being able to accommodate every single allergy or dietary concern. Many people have asked about sugar-free cookies, and I would love to be able to make them. However, as I've repeatedly said, producing something that looks and tastes like a real cookie is of the utmost importance to me. That means that I haven't been able to eliminate sugar from the cookies, because when I have, they taste terrible and look like puddles of unappetizing yuckiness. I hate hanging up the phone or having to email someone back and say that I simply cannot provide their sugar-free flavor request. I really wish that I could come up with an alternative solution to that one, but I haven't yet.

CS: If a dairy eater were to try one of your cookies, can you tell us what they might expect in terms of taste difference between your cookies and the typical made-with-dairy cookie?
EG: I can honestly say that he or she probably wouldn't notice a difference in terms of flavor or texture. My chocolate chip cookies are intentionally crunchy, but that really has nothing to do with the alternative ingredients.

CS: Are there any bakers, cookbooks or websites that inspire you in particular?
EG: Well, at the risk of sounding trite, of course, my mother is an inspiration. Martha Stewart's cooking and baking talent as well as her branding genius are something to strive for. Elisa Strauss at Confetti Cakes has played an enormous role in my decision to do this professionally, and I was recently at Pure Food and Wine, and I have to say that what they can do without heating their ingredients is absolute magic. That meal definitely challenged me and made me want to start playing around in my kitchen laboratory again. Have you tasted that ice cream?! It's amazing.

CS: We heard that you give a portion of your profits to Autism research foundations. Is that true?
EG: Yes, it is. I was a social worker before all of this, and I feel like it's very important to give to others whenever we can. The cookies lend themselves to the Autistic population, since a common method of treatment is a gluten and dairy (casein)-free diet, so I thought that an Autism charity would be the appropriate venue for my charitable donations. I wish that I could give a lot more, but as I start making a little more money, I will.

CS: What is next for Betsy & Claude?
EG: That's a great question! I really want to take things one step at a time. Right now, I just want to focus on building a solid base of new and returning customers who are really satisfied with our products and customer service. Of course, ultimately, I'd love to combine my research background with my baking and do a cookbook.

Betsy & Claude is located in New York City, but can ship anywhere in the US. To order cookies online or for more information, please visit betsyandclaude.com.

Thank you to Betsy & Claude for letting us use their imagery.

Thursday
Dec062007

What a Fruitcake: The Story of a Holiday Icon

 

Fruitcake 2

Fruitcakes are kind of like Yoda: tiny, full of substance, and totally heavy.

 

However, unlike Yoda, the poor fruitcake is a much lauded rather than beloved icon of pop culture. But why? After all, it has the ingredients for greatness: sugar, fruit, sugar, nuts, sugar. So what gives? Lucky for you, we've taken the time to not only find out more about this holiday treat, but to taste it and give our educated opinion as well.

As it turns out, fruitcakes have a rather-er, rich history, the earliest ones dating back to Roman times, when a dense mixture of nuts, barley mash and various preserved fruits served as long-term sustenance that did not spoil quickly--perfect for crusaders and hunters out on long voyages. When the dried fruits of the Mediterranean traveled to other parts of Europe, the cake evolved into a tradition during nut harvests: each year, a fruitcake would be made with
the nuts of the harvest, which would be then saved and eaten the following year, to kick of the next harvest. Unfortunately the popularity dwindled a bit when fruitcakes were deemed "sinfully rich" by the government in the early 18th century in Europe, and they were relegated to a special-occasion only cake (this is how it became associated with holidays); luckily, these laws became a little more lax later on in the century, and it became a staple of high tea in England.

While it's pretty clear that the fruitcake is rich in tradition, we did not fail to notice that there weren't many stories of it being beloved for its actual taste. In fact there is even evidence to the contrary: Queen Victoria is said to have waited a year to eat a fruitcake she received for her birthday because she felt it showed restraint, moderation and good taste. (Source: What's Cooking America). Hmm, or perhaps it just wasn't yummy?

Although we didn't trace a single incident that brought the cake to America (although we think that it probably had something to do with how well it traveled), we were able to cement the moment it secured its place in culture: in 1913, fruitcake became available for mail order in the USA. And really, it's the ideal type of cake to send: it keeps well, is impervious to most jostling, and stays fresh. In fact, the only drawback would be its weight. The most famous joke about fruitcakes is attributed to Johnny Carson, who joked that there was really only one fruitcake in the world, which was passed from family to family. Although clearly fruitcakes were a lauded item before this point, this seems to be the moment that cemented its status as a ridiculed dessert. 

But really, is that all? The Cakespy crew felt unsatisfied; had we really discovered the secret of the fruitcake? Not yet. So to complete our mission, we invested in one ($12) by Trappist Abbey, a monastery that has been making fruitcakes in Oregon (hey, they say fact is stranger than fiction) for years. The tiny box (approx. The size of a large grapefuit) weighed a pound, and listed its contents as containing 16 servings; this was an incredibly dense little morsel.

As for the taste? Not bad. Head Spy Jessie had never actually tried fruitcake before (!) and so found it to be dense, but pleasing. Mr. Cakespy Danny found it to be amongst the better fruitcakes he'd tried. Both plates were cleaned.

But then something funny happened. No, the cake hadn't been bad. But unlike when there might be say, a chocolate layer cake in the house, there were no idle nibblings at the fruitcake. In fact, even when the house was devoid of all other sugary snacks, the fruitcake sat alone, uneaten.  Even a full week later, not another crumb has been touched; and somehow, we feel that it won't be.

So then...what is it about the fruitcake? Is it too dense? Is it the fact that it is just too sweet...while at the same time as tasting vaguely healthy? Or is it just that in modern times, crusades aside, gingerbread men and yule logs are just too good to pass up in lieu of this traditional, overlooked little fruit-studded gem of history?

We may have to wait longer to find out the secret of the fruitcake; luckily, we think they'll last through it.

Interested in the Trappist Abbey Fruitcake? Check them out online at trappistabbey.org.

This post would not have been possible without the reference of What's Cooking America, Wikipedia, and Hungry Monster.


Bonus: Fruitcake Trivia!

In the early 18th century, fruitcake (called plum cakes) was outlawed entirely throughout Continental Europe. These cakes were considered as "sinfully rich." By the end of the 18th century there were laws restricting the use of plum cake. Source: What's Cooking America.

It was the custom in England for unmarried wedding guests to put a slice of cake, traditionally a dark fruitcake, under their pillow at night so they will dream of the person they will marry. Source: What's Cooking America.

Some well-known American bakers of fruitcake include the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, and the Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Georgia. Both Collin Street and Claxton are southern companies with access to cheap nuts, for which the expression "nutty as a fruitcake" was derived in 1935. Commercial fruitcakes are often sold from catalogs by charities as a fundraiser. Source: Wikipedia.

Wednesday
Dec052007

Batter Chatter: Interview with Jess of All Things Cupcake


Not sure if you've gathered it yet--but we are really into cupcakes. (Insert brief pause with intense expression). Like, really into cupcakes. So it certainly gives us pause when we meet someone who is possibly even more into cupcakes than us. Nonetheless, we know when we've met our match, as is the case with All Things Cupcake, a Tennessee-based blog dedicated to...well, you know. Bursting with recipes, photos and all the cupcake products and services you could ever dream of, this blog has already snagged a place in Martha Stewart's Circle, not to mention our hearts. We recently had a chance to learn more about Jess (aka Tattooed Mama), the Head Cupcake herself, in an email interview; here's what we learned about the dessert scene in the south, cupcake tattoos, and ideal frosting-to-cake ratios:

Cakespy: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself i.e., name, geographical location, occupation)?
Tattooed Mama: I have the ever so popular name, Jessica. Most call me Jess or The Tattooed Mama. I'm a California girl, born and raised. I moved to Tennessee in 2005 and had quite the culture shock. I am a stay at home mama who enjoys blogging, baking, and obsessing over cupcakes. Quite the life, I must say.

CS: What made you decide to start All Things Cupcake?
TM: After contributing many items to Cupcakes Take The Cake, I decided to quit annoying them with all the products I've come across. I then started a blog where I can let others know where to find any and all things cupcake and keep everyone up to date on all the latest cupcake trends. I have six contributors who also love to bake, share their recipes, and who also love to share their obsession for cupcakes with the world.

CS: You live in Tennessee... is there a big cupcake bakery scene there?
TM: Sad to say, there is not. The closest cupcake bakery that I am aware of is in Atlanta, Georgia. I need to change this, don't I?

CS: What other types of desserts are popular in your area?
TM: Pies, pies, pies. They seem to be the ticket around here. I, however, am not a big fan of pie.

CS: Some people say that "Pie is the new cake". What do you think of this?
TM: Gosh, I hope not...I usually eat the filling, or the topping. I never really enjoyed the crust that much.

CS: What is your favorite type of cupcake?
TM: I love Asian inspired cupcakes. I recently made Green Tea Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting and a Tapioca Filling. Delicious.

CS: You have a baby girl! Has she had her first cupcake yet? If not, what will be the first special one you'll make her?
TM: She has not had her first cupcake yet, but she did get her first taste of peas today. I am thinking about taking the recipe for "baby's first cake" and making a cupcake for her. It's a sugar-free form of Carrot Cake, basically.

CS: You're married to a tattoo artist (!). Do you have any cupcake tattoos?
TM: Why yes I do! After not being able to get any tattoos for a year, one of the first tattoos I got after the baby was born, was my cupcake tattoo. I have posted about it on All Things Cupcake of course.

CS: What is your favorite non-cupcake dessert?
TM: I would have to say, Green Tea Ice Cream or Fried Bananas. (Sure, I am a sucker for Green Tea). You can't find it around here, so I have resorted to making it myself.

CS: You bake an awful lot--what is one of your favorite things to bake?
TM: Peppermint Brownies with Cream Cheese Frosting and a Candy Cane Topping. Holiday Treat. I will be making these later today!

CS: In your opinion, when is the best time of day to eat cupcakes?
TM: Is there really a wrong time of day to eat a cupcake? I can remember having a cupcake for breakfast, lunch, and a midnight snack. I am not ashamed!

CS: At Cakespy, Head Spy Jessie likes to cut her cupcakes in quarters before eating them (weird but true). Do you ever engage in (or have you ever witnessed) any strange cupcake eating behavior?
TM: I have witnessed my little nephew licking off the frosting first. I try to take a big enough bite to include the frosting and the cupcake. It's pretty hard.. and can be messy. I usually get frustrated and grab a fork. Eating a cupcake with a fork is so classy, don't you think?

CS: In your opinion, is there an "ideal" cake-to-frosting ratio for cupcakes? If so, what is it?
TM: It all depends. If the frosting is really rich, I'd say the less frosting the better. However, if it's a white chocolate frosting.. I would easily go for a 60% frosting, 40% cake. Yum!!

CS: What (if anything) makes a "bad" cupcake?
TM: I remember eating a cupcake when I was younger, and the frosting left that nasty chalky taste in your mouth. I didn't like that.

CS: What are some of your favorite baked good or foodie blogs?
TM: I love Cakespy of course. Oh, the artwork! I also love recipes from cupcakerecipes.com. I have also used and tweaked the green tea cupcake recipe from Cupcake Bakeshop by Chockylit.

Cakespy Note: We did not pay, bribe, or offer free cupcakes to Jess for this mention, although we can't argue her good taste.

CS: What is next for All things Cupcake?
TM: Recently, ATC has been accepted into Martha's Circle. (The Martha Stewart Network). This is exciting news. There are loads of new items that we will be writing about, as well as featuring the highly requested cupcake tattoo photos from other viewers. I am also currently working on getting an interview together with Johnny Cupcakes. Should be lots of fun.

All Things Cupcake can be found online at allthingscupcake.blogspot.com.

Tuesday
Dec042007

House of Sweetness: Modern Gingerbread Houses at Red Envelope

At Cakespy, we’re suckers for sweet things designed to look like other things. Chocolate confections designed to look like tree stumps? Gummi cheeseburgers? Ice cream cone truffles? We’re sold.

And now that it’s December, we’ve officially entered the season of the ultimate shape shifting dessert: the Gingerbread House. Of course, gingerbread houses are inherently cute, what with their gumdrops and snowy frosting details; however, we recently spied one that put us over the edge: the Modern Gingerbread House available on Red Envelope. Designed in a retro-futuristic style, it's the epitome of cuteness with a slanted roof, built-in garage and mini rock garden. And if all this hasn't charmed you, certainly the customizable entryway will; who could resist having a family name or a personalized message written out in sweet frosting? The house ($88 customized, $78 un-customized) is delivered fully assembled; while it is listed as edible, we don’t think it bodes well for the taste when they say it will last up to a year (although they do specify that it should be consumed within 30 days of unwrapping). But then again, when was the last time you heard someone say “wow, that gingerbread house was really delicious?”.

But we digress; delicious or not, we think the holidays just got sweeter.

Available online at red envelope

Monday
Dec032007

Up, Up and Away!: Upcakes by Dixie Picnic

What goes up, must come down. True, but not always pretty: ruined pancakes, botched face lifts and Britney Spears' careers come to mind.

However, at Cakespy we've spied something that's just as sweet on the flipside: Upcakes by Dixie Picnic, a Southern NJ-based bakery. What exactly is an Upcake? Well, according to their website, it was an invention prompted when a young family member would only eat the frosting off of cupcakes and then discard the rest; such a waste! The solution? Frosting the sides in addition to the top, duh. A win-win situation; no cake wasted, and no more poor cake-to-frosting ratio. As might be expected, they have become a bit of a legend in the area.

And now, with thanks to a custom-designed shipping box, they are able to ship these frosting-laden treats (in flavors like lemon buttercream, red velvet or pistachio in addition to the requisite chocolate and vanilla) anywhere in the inland US! Overnight shipping is the only option for most places, but within the Mid-Atlantic region and parts of the Northeast, they'll ship via ground.

We'd say that everything's coming up cake.

Dixie Picnic is located at 819 8th St., Ocean City, NJ; orders can be placed via telephone (609) 399-1999 or online at dixiepicnic.com.

Cakespy Note: It was rather difficult to resist the temptation to call this post "Up Yours, Cupcakes!", but as you can see we took the high road.

Sunday
Dec022007

Cakewalk in NW Portland

Portland is an up and coming city, with burgeoning music, design, culinary and literary scenes. It also happens to be the home of some of our favorite visual artists: Amy Ruppel, Evan B. Harris and Trish Grantham. And frankly, it's got to have something going on if Michelle Williams is up and moving there; one might even say that Portland is enjoying the darling-city status that Seattle had in the 90's. But are hip boutiques, cool art and nice city planning enough? No way: take us to the bakeries. Cakespy recently took a trip to the NW districts of Portland; here's what we found:

City Market: We can't resist a good-looking market, and we were rewarded by a lovely bakery section, which had an impressive array of baked goods from local bakeries. But what we found most exciting was getting a sneak peek at the wares of Pix Patisserie (which itself is located in the SE part of the city), a beautiful collection of tarts, gateaux and other French-style pastries which made us very eager to do a Cakewalk in SE Portland. 735 NW 21st Ave., (503) 221-3007.


Cupcake Jones: Unlike the retro-trendy cupcakes that are abounding right now, Cupcake Jones' wares leaned more toward a European style of cake, with cream fillings and rich, ganache-y frostings. The cupcakes are good, but in our opinion, not quite as good as those up the street at Saint Cupcake. However, this is just our opinion; if you do prefer the more rich and dense type of frosting, this might be your place. 307 NW 10th Ave., (503) 222-4404; online at cupcakejones.net.

Ken's Artisan Bakery: Beautiful artisinal treats presented in a large, high-ceilinged and lovely space, with rows and rows of European-style bakery cases that were like boulangerie meets patisserie, with a dose of American Comfort food. The leafy, buttery puff pastry was to die for; the hazelnut cake was rich, moist and crave-inducing. Cakespy Note: the Ken's camp also recently opened Ken's Artisan Pizza; even we know that sometimes you need to eat something savory to work up your appetite for dessert. 338 NW 21st Ave., (503) 248-2202; online at kensartisan.com.

Papa Haydn: This is the type of place that always gets awarded "best dessert"...and it's fully deserved. It's a sit-down cafe and a little bit pricey, but worth it: the cakes are made with precision, impeccably decorated yet still extremely inviting, and portions are extremely generous. The Baked Alaska was wonderful; dare we say it was "the bombe"? (sorry, just a little pastry humor). 701 NW 23rd Ave., (503) 228-7317; online at papahaydn.com.


Pearl Bakery: Their t-shirts say "Eat Bread", and we like that carbohydrate-friendly attitude. Their shortbread cookies crumbled just right, and their cakes are of the more muffin-y sort, a buttery delight. The large streetside windows are ideal for people-watching in the fashionable Pearl district; we couldn't imagine a nicer place to while away a chilly northwest afternoon. 102 NW 9th Ave., (503) 827-0910; online at pearlbakery.com.


Powell's City of Books: Sure, it's the Mecca for book lovers, but we were pleased to see that they didn't skimp on the baked goods in their cafe. Their pastries come from several local bakeries, and included several good-lookin' vegan options. Plus, there are always magazines and books to browse through. 1005 W Burnside St., (503) 228-4651; online at powells.com.

Saint Cupcake: It was love at first bite here once we were able to choose a flavor from the festive rows of sweetly decorated cupcakes . The taste was vaguely reminiscent of the cupcakes from elementary school class parties...but a major step up in quality. As a bonus, there's a cute legend of the patron Saint Cupcake on the wall to give you a little story to go with your cake. Cakespy Note: They also carry a nice selection of vegan and gluten-free cupcakes. 407 NW 17th Ave. (with another location in SE Portland), (503) 473-8760; online at saintcupcake.com.

St. Honore Boulangerie: This place was hella crowded when we walked in around lunch time, and it's not hard to see why. A beautiful selection of French breads greets you as you walk in the door, but we resisted the urge, instead going for the gorgeous namesake St. Honore pastries, the rows of glistening eclairs and a ridiculously perfect apple chiboust. 2335 N.W. Thurman St., (503) 445-4342; online at sainthonorebakery.com.

 

Sweet Masterpiece: Upon heading back to the Amtrak station to return to Seattle, this cute chocolate cafe was well-lit and inviting; we figured, one last stop couldn't hurt. And we were rewarded, with tiny but exceedingly flavorful little truffles that tasted so much bigger than their tiny presence would let on (and made us understand why they were so pricey per piece!). We hear their hot chocolate is excellent as well. 922 NW Davis St., (503) 221-0055

Whole Foods: A veritable best-of, Whole foods in the Pearl District features beautiful offerings from the Pearl Bakery, St. Honore Boulangerie, and many other local bakeries. But they also have a fine selection of their own made in-house pastries which are exceedingly good: cookie sandwiches with a maple frosting filling; creamy and adorably decorated cupcakes, and scones of all sorts. 1210 NW Couch St., (503) 525-4343; online at wholefoodsmarket.com.

Thursday
Nov292007

Pop-Quiz: The Lore (and Lure) of the Pop-Tart

Pop Tarts. Whether you love or hate them, you really can't deny their presence: from those memorable toaster strudel commercials of yore to their ubiquity in office vending machines, they're nothing if not constant in our everyday lives.

But how did these little toaster treats worm their way into our lives? For those of you have ever wondered (surely there must be some of you), Cakespy has done some serious sleuthing on the story of the Pop-Tart. We would have been sunk without wonderful reference guides such as Whole Pop Magazine's "True History of Pop-Tarts", Dave Barry's informative article "Tarts Afire", and James Prichard's article on the treats in the Detroit News from 2003.

Pop-tarts were invented in the post-World War II era, when Post (not Kellogg!) was developing new products. There was an emphasis at this time on foods that were convenient and had a long shelf life, and the now-familiar foil packaging was originally used as a way of preserving a type of moist dog food; they altered it slightly to accommodate a new people-food addition meant to supplement their cereal offerings, which they called "Country Squares". Unfortunately, loose-lipped employees revealed the nature of the product in development before it was released, thus giving arch rival Kellogg a chance to come up with a competitor product--and obviously to think of a better name. The fate of Country Squares? Well, all we can say is, when is the last time you saw one at your local grocery store? Pop-Tarts, on the other hand, were a runaway success.

The original Pop-Tarts were unfrosted; some fool thought that the frosting might melt and cause problems in the toaster. Happily they worked on the issue, developing a frosted and toaster-safe version in 1967. Since then, it's been a movie montage-esque development of new flavors and variations, from the most excellent S'more Pop-Tart to the bad-decision neon-colored Wild! Berry. Of course, Pop-Tarts haven't been without their fair share of controversy; but even in spite of the infamous UK toaster cloggings of the early 90's (turns out their toasters are different from ours) and the 1992 toaster fire debacle and even the ill-fated addition of "Go-Tarts" (slender Pop-Tart sticks meant for on-the-go consumption; we say, just eat a Pop-Tart), they've remained a beloved part of not only our lives but our culture.

And happily, Cake Gumshoe Kristin recently came across a wonderful recipe in a Martha Stewart holiday baking guide by Flour Bakery's owner / head baker Joanne Chang, which is reminiscent of the classic toaster treats, but made with more refined tastes in mind...kind of like Pop-Tarts, all growed up.

Tasty Toaster Tarts Recipe by Joanne Chang, owner of Flour Bakery

Pastry

2 cups flour (they recommend King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp salt
1 cup, 8 oz unsalted butter, cut into pats

Filling: 3/4 cup raspberry jam
1 tbsp cornstarch, mixed with 1tbsp cold water
1 egg, to brush on dough

Topping

1 cup, 4 oz confectioner's sugar
3 to 4 tbsp water

----------

To make dough: Whisk together flour, sugar and salt. Work in butter until mixture holds together when you squeeze it, with pecan-sized lumps of butter still visible. Mix egg and milk, and add it to the dough, mixing just until everything is cohesive.

Divide dough in half, and shape each half into a rough 3x5 inch rectangle, smoothing edges. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour or up to 2 days.

To make filling: in a small saucepan, mix jam with cornstarch and water mix. Bring mixture to a boil, and simmer, stirring, for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

To assemble tarts: remove dough from the refrigerator, and if it's been chilling for longer than 1 hour, allow it to soften and become workable, about 15 to 30 minutes. Place one pice on a lightly floured work surface,
and roll it into a rectangle about 1/8 inch thick, large enough so that you can trim it to an even 9x12 inches. Set aside. Roll a second piece of dough as you did the first. Press the edge of a ruler into the dough you've
rolled, to gently score it in thirds lenghtwise and widthewise; you'll see nine 3x4 inch rectangles.

Beat egg, and brush it over entire surface of dough. Place a heaping tablespoon of jam into center of each marked rectangle. Place second sheet of dough atop first, using your fingertips to press firmly around each
pocket of jam, sealing the dough well on all sides. Cut dough evenly in between jam pockets to make nine tarts. Gently place tarts on a lightly greased or parchment lined baking sheet, and refrigerate, covered, for 30
minutes, to relax and chill the dough.

Prick the top of each tart several times with ha fork. Bake tarts in a preheatd 350 degree oven for 35-40 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from oven, and allow to cool on pan.

For the topping: Combine confectioners sugar with 3 tablespoons of water, adding more if necessary to make a pourable glaze. Pour and spread glaze over cooled tarts. Yield: 9 toaster tarts.

Bonus Pop-Tart Trivia: For the 35th anniversary of the toaster pastry, Kellogg made the biggest Pop-Tart ever recorded: In total, it took more than 545 pounds of flour, 495 pounds of fruit filling, 800 pounds of icing and 150 pounds of colored sprinkles to create the giant-sized toaster pastry. The oversized snack was unveiled at a press conference in front of the famed Madison Square Garden in New York City, where morning commuters were treated to tasting this record-breaking creation.

For more information on Pop-Tarts, visit poptarts.com.

 

Wednesday
Nov282007

Batter Chatter: Interview with Trilly Nguyen of whiskie bits Bakeshop

They say that while cooking is an art, baking is a science. Well, we don't know who "they" are but obviously they've never tried anything by whiskie bits Bakeshop. This Oakland-based special-order bakery's (no retail storefront at this point) menu has possibly the most avant-garde yet dazzling menu we've ever seen, with cupcakes available in flavors like Horchata (horchata cake, almonds with horchata cream cheese frosting) and Curry Carrot (carrot cake, curry spice, pistachios, almonds with cardamom-curry cream cheese frosting); cookies come in flavors like Wasabi and Black Sesame with White Chocolate and Thai-basil Lemon. They even have a series of "intoxicating" cupcakes, a naughty collection of adults-only boozy treats; all in all, we'd call it an artistic and delicious array. Cakespy was able to catch up recently with the eclectic, fearless head baker Trilly Nguyen; here's what we found out about creative baking, keeping your cakes seasonal, and why pie just might be the new cake:

Cakespy: Are you formally trained as a baker?
Trilly Nguyen: No, my experiences come from my mother (a former pastry chef who specialized in wedding cakes), working professionally in the industry, and spending most of my free time baking and experimenting.

CS: You don't have a storefront...other than by special order, can individual customers buy your baked goods at any stores or coffee shops?
TN: Right now, unfortunately no. But within the next year, whiskie bits products can be found at some local specialty retail stores and shops in the Bay Area.

CS: You have such unusual flavors...have you ever had a combination or recipe that just didn't work out?
TN: Yes, of course. Not all of my ideas and recipes work out perfectly. I am always testing out flavor combinations and using friends and families as my tasting guinea pigs.

Cakespy Note: We'd be her guinea pigs any day.

CS: What is your personal favorite cake flavor from your offerings?
TN: It depends on my mood and the weather. Sounds slightly odd, but if the weather is too warm, I like to eat a flavor that is light in texture, and vice-versa. That is why I offer seasonal flavors. So, during the summer time, I love the Hong Corn (a combination of fresh corn with coconut and salted peanuts). It reminds me of childhood and is a tribute to my mom, who would make one of my very favorite Vietnamese tapioca desserts with fresh corn and coconut. Right now, since it's fall, I am loving the Persimmon Penuche and the Bourbon Oat.

CS: You offer "intoxicating" alcohol-laced cupcakes. Will they give customers a buzz?
TN: Depends on the flavor. But overall, yes. You will get a slightly sweet buzz from all of the intoxicating flavors.

CS: Some people say that pie is going to be the next cupcake-type baking trend. What do you think?
TN: Sure, why not? I love pie as well, and I could see the endless possibilities in flavor combinations...

CS: What is the most important aspect in making a good cupcake?
TN: Quality ingredients and good technique. Baking is never worth it if you do not have the best quality ingredients. To me, baking is so time-consuming that it is only worth it if you start out with the finest ingredients. That's half the battle. The other half is learning good basic baking techniques.

CS: What is the best time of day to eat cake or cookies?
TN: Any time, of course. But instinctively, I would say breakfast time and late at night (right before bed time). What's better than waking up in the morning and ending the day with a sweet treat.

CS: What's next for whiskie bits?
TN: More new and unusual yummy flavor combinations.

CS: Any TTA (Trilly's trusted advice) for budding bakers?
TN: Read my answers for making a good cupcake (above). Also, trust your instincts and judgment. Sometimes things work and sometimes, they don't. Just accept that and move on. In the end, things always have a way of working out.

For more information on whiskie bits Bakeshop, visit whiskiebits.com. If you're in the Bay Area and would like to place an order, give them a call at (510) 658-8284.

Tuesday
Nov272007

Bend it Like Bequet: Chipotle Caramels by Bequet Confections (Via Cakespy Seattle)

Bend it like Bequet

When it comes to caramel, there are natural pairs that come to your mind. Caramel and apple. Caramel and chocolate. But caramel and chipotle? Big taste, or big mistake?

Intrigued by the idea we bought a small bag of the treats, which are made by Montana-based Béquet Confections. Robin Béquet started the company in 2001, after over 20 years in the tech world. After an industry crash, she turned inwardly, asking herself "what should I do now?". The answer: start making artisan caramels, naturally.

And we're glad she did. Caramels are, of course, inherently good: Cream, sugar, a little salt. But in the chipotle caramels, the unexpected flavoring added something special to the taste. While the chipotle wasn't necessarily spicy in a "hot" way, it did add a certain robustness to the overall flavor. The taste of chipotle wasn't immediately evident, instead developing as more of an aftertaste, rounding out the sweetness of the caramel with a satisfying savoriness.

Sweet, but slightly unexpected, and very addictive.

Béquet Confections' full product line, including caramels in the chipotle flavor as well as espresso, vanilla, celtic sea salt and chocolate, is available online at bequetconfections.com.

Monday
Nov262007

Cakespy's Holiday Gift Guide Part 2: The Edible Edition

Twelve days of Christmas? Why not round it out to a Baker's Dozen? Keep things sweet (literally) with Cakespy's Edible Holiday Gift Guide, featuring thirteen exceptionally delicious--and ship-able-- gift ideas for dessert lovers. The list goes in ascending price range, from the mere morsel to the upper crust. This is the second of two gift guides; for the non-edible gift guide, click here!

Cakespy Note: We have in most cases not listed shipping fees here, which can be substantial; after all, these are perishable items, and for the most part preservative-free. Consider the care and speed with which the pastries must be packed to guarantee freshness; with this in mind, shut up and hand over that credit card.

On the first day, make them dream of a white Christmas with Shoebox Oven's White Chocolate Crunch: white chocolate topped with lightly toasted almonds and sea salt, which pairs equally well with wine or fruit, or just on its own. $11.95 for 11 oz.; available online at shoeboxoven.com.

Cupcakes? Truffles? Cupcake truffles? Give 'em all of the above on the second day, with the adorable Cupcake Truffles by Moonstruck Chocolate. The box includes four cupcake-shaped truffles: German Chocolate, Peanut Butter, Sour Cream Fudge and Strawberry Cheesecake. $12 ea.; available online at moonstruckchocolate.com.

On the third day, it's hip to be square when they're Clairesquares. Derived from classic Irish recipes, these little squares start out with a shortbread crust topped with a thick layer of rich caramel and top it off with a smooth coating of Belgian chocolate. Need we say more? $12.99 for a 5-pack; available online at clairesquares.com.

On the fourth day, give them an A-list moment with Cupcake Mix from Sprinkles, bakers to the rich and famous in LA. They surprised us with how good they tasted; plus, it travels better than trying to ship cupcakes. But the real bonus is the cute little confectioners' "dots" that are known as Sprinkles' signature. $14 ea.; available online at williams-sonoma.com.

On the fifth day, keep those pinkies out with Moelleux by Chicago's Vanille Patisserie, which pair perfectly with coffee or cognac, and come in chocolate-orange, pistachio-cherry, almond-apricot...or, we suggest getting the sampler which mixes an assortment of all three. $17 for a 15-pc. box; available online at vanillepatisserie.com.

On the sixth day, stick it to them with Petrossian's Hot Chocolate on a Stick, with which they'll stir skewered cubes of the finest Belgian chocolate into a cup of milk or cream for a toe-curlingly good hot chocolate experience. $18 for a gift box of 6 cubes; available online at petrossian.com. (Illustration by Cakespy)

On the seventh day, butter them up with Sugar Cookies from Granatus, a company that specializes in sugar cookies made in the traditional Armenian style (it reminds us of Mexican Wedding Cakes or Russian Tea Cakes): powdery, buttery and an overall delight, available in holiday flavors like Eggnog or Gingerbread, or ethnic flavors like the classic Armenian or Indian (the latter contains cardamom, cinnamon and rosewater). $20 per tin; available online at granatus.com.
Nothing says love like carbohydrates; on the eighth day, say it with the Coffee Cake in a Tin from New York's famous gourmet food store Zabar's, which is dense and full of butter, sour cream, cinnamon and walnuts. They say the cake is so rich and delicious it makes cheating on your diet worthwhile; we say "what diet"? Don't bypass the black and white cookies or the famous babka either. $21.98 ea.; available online at zabars.com.

On the ninth day, make them work for it with a Cookie Tree Kit by Little Laura's Sweets. The kit comes with everything you'll need to make a delicious centerpiece: iced vanilla bean star cookies, gumdrops, a tree topper and icing mix, all of which will form a 14" tree. $22.50 ea.; available online at littlelaurasweets.com.

Keep things cosmopolitan on the tenth day with Lemon Pannetone by Albertengo's. Where traditional panettones are usually studded with raisins and candied citrus, this one is made with candied Sorrento lemons, which give it a wonderful smell and taste. Buttery, soft and lemony, this one won't last long; ideal with espresso. $22.50 ea.; available online at chefshop.com.

On the eleventh day, give them Cookies from Eleni's, which blur the line between cookie and fashion. You could go for classic Christmas or Hanukkah styles, but we favor the full-of-personality "Best in Show" fancy poodles, NYC motifs or jungle animals. $45.50 for 9 cookies; available online at elenis.com.
On the twelfth day, defy Oprah and buy your cupcakes somewhere else: we suggest Teacake Bakeshop's "Winter Wonderland" Cupcakes (three each of Madagascar bourbon vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream, chocolate sour cream cake with chocolate buttercream, and ginger cake with cream cheese frosting). It will run you about $70 after shipping costs, but then again you're defying logic and gravity by shipping cupcakes; we guess that warrants a higher cost. 9 cupcakes for $45 (before shipping); available online at teacakebakeshop.com.

And as a holiday bonus to round out the Baker's Dozen? Give them the lasting gift of dessert with Vegan Honey's Vegan Dessert of the Month Club. They'll get a vegan care package each month for three months, brimming with 4-6 servings each of goodies like "Fauxstess" Twinkies or cupcakes, cookies and assorted pastries as seen on their website. The purchaser will receive a jpeg "certificate" which they can send on to the happy recipient. And as we have previously reported, whether you're vegan or not, Vegan Honey's treats are the real deal. $50 for three months of bliss (includes shipping fees); available online at veganhoney.etsy.com.

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