Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Perfect Pink Cupcake

Remember several years ago when everyone was obsessed with Magnolia Bakery? You know the place, down in Greenwich Village? Or is it SoHo? Anyway, everyone was losing their minds over their cupcakes, and quite literally could not get enough of them. (They used to ration how many each customer could buy each day. Maybe they still do.) And that, in my opinion, is what started the whole cupcake obsession that is still going strong in this country.

So once the cookbook was published, I, along with everyone else who does not live anywhere near Bleeker Street, bought it and went to work. I made batch after batch of them — vanilla cupcakes with pink vanilla buttercream. It's true.

While roaming around Manhattan a handful of years ago, I convinced Michael that we should walk ourselves over to this fancy (and rather famous) little bakery and try a few things. We walked and we walked and we walked; it was about 80 blocks in all, because we had just left the Met. Finally, with grumpy dispositions and aching feet, we'd arrived. And do you know what? They were closed. That's right — the dirty bastards were closed, and it wasn't even a holiday. After all that! I didn't know whether to sit down and cry, or to start shouting profanity at the top of my lungs, aimed directly at their empty shop. Luckily for Michael, I did neither. Instead, I kept my chin up and got over it. And in the same moment, I got over Magnolia Bakery entirely. Because, to be perfectly honest, after all that hype, I don't think they are that grand. I have done loads of cupcake recipes since that completely outshine Magnolia. (However, I do like their peanut butter cookies and many of their muffin recipes.)

And then one day I nearly stopped making cupcakes altogether. That is because it is so much more fun to take Emilia to some lovely little shop and buy them. It becomes our exciting outing for the day, as it were.

As we were out and about yesterday, we decided to pop into Redmond Town Center for a quick trip to Pinkalicious Cupcakes. Cupcakes weren't sounding good to me in the least, but I had promised Emilia (as she was quick to remind me). I picked out two: chocolate and salted caramel buttercream, again, and dark chocolate with orange buttercream. And she picked out two: vanilla with chocolate buttercream and vanilla with pink vanilla buttercream.

We (and by we, I mean I) decided to share one 'tuptate' after dinner. (Michael won't eat them on account of his girlish figure, I expect.) She chose the pink one, and still not in the mood for a cupcake, I reluctantly agreed. And what can I say? It was, without a doubt, one of the best cupcakes I've ever had. How odd. There was no chocolate, no cream cheese, and none of my other ordinary (and essential) criteria. Instead, it was vanilla; and pink vanilla, at that!

This is why it was so good. The pink cupcake was simple; it was unfettered and perfect. You know you've struck upon something when you can do that. It's the ability to take something so simple and so basic and master it. That requires skill.

This is the cupcake that kids everywhere will love. This is the cupcake to serve at a child's birthday party. This is the cupcake to share with your daughter after a very long day. And this is the cupcake to enjoy while sitting on the curb in front of Magnolia, shouting random obscenities all the while, I'm sure. (I know I should be nice. Magnolia is, afterall, an institution in its own right.)

And I just want to say well done. What more is there?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Emperors of Bad Taste (and Decency)

As it turns out, I simply loathe our neighbors. I realize this is exceedingly rude to say, and that I am undoubtedly demonstrating my own level of bad taste, but there it is. Our neighbors drive me crazy. Shall I indulge you with a long list detailing their many offenses? Or, I shall I press forward? Alright, fine. I suppose a quick glossing over should suffice. But that's it, because it can really get me in a bad mood.

Basically it all boils down to this — privacy. They have, quite literally, turned their backyard into their living room. They are constantly out there; chain smoking and leering into our windows. And to be perfectly frank, I cannot tell you how many times they have seen me in my altogether. And it isn't because I prance about the house in the manner of a nudist all day, thank you very much.

Instead it is little things. For instance, I store my face cream in the refrigerator, as per manufacturer's suggestion, and I sometimes forget to put it in the bathroom before I hop in the shower. Or, after nearly severing my finger a year or so ago, I ran to the kitchen after my shower to take off my wet bandages. Standing there bleeding, I glanced out the window into our backyard and there you go — eyes locked right on me, casually smoking away. At least I wasn't totally starkers, I did have a towel wound round my head. And I suppose all my bandages counted for something. Right?**

I have since resorted to some rather impressive (and by impressive, I mean preposterous) Mission Impossible style moves, simply to walk about in my own house. And I know what you are thinking: 'Put up some blasted curtains already! Good grief!' But I can't keep the drapes closed all day; our house is dark enough as it is.

That being said, over the past week I have made lovely new drapes to go in the kitchen/dining room. (And not a moment too soon. Spring is right around the corner, which means that they will be out in full-force.) It seems the only time I use my sewing machine any more is to make curtains. (See, I told you we had some!) But if your sewing skills have gone a bit rusty, it is the perfect place to start. I actually made curtains for the same windows once already, but they looked absolutely awful (like 1970s pillowcases or something). Besides, I didn't order enough fabric, so I could only make 3 (out of the 4) necessary panels. By the time I got around to looking for more of the same fabric, it was long gone. This was actually a blessing in disguise, because they were really atrocious.

Now we have new lovely curtains(and by lovely, I mean we actually have 4 full panels) in the manner of Auntie Mame. And we have nice rods hanging up — not the tension rods that were impossible to maneuver. As for the fabric, I love it. Before I bought it, I asked my sister her opinion of it. She claimed it gave her a headache. Granted, she had been very sick and on some nasty painkillers at the time. With that in mind, I ignored her remark and went for Michael's instead. He said they were cheery. And I think he's right. They are cheery — and very colorful, to boot. And most important, they give us privacy. Which means I can now run about naked to my heart's content, if I feel so inclined.

If you are a bit leery ordering fabric on-line, I don't blame you. I have personally ended up with some real doozies. However, it does make life easier sometimes. Particularly when you are very happy with what comes in the mail. The site I've just discovered, and which I will definitely be ordering from again, is called Quilt Home. They even sent a lovely handwritten note.

**As a side note, other neighborly offenses/disturbances include (but are certainly not limited to): a visit to the emergency vet shortly after we moved into the neighborhood (costing several hundred dollars, which they did not help to pay). This occurred after they decided to let their lovely dog come over and meet Governor. Also, various requests for random tree/branch removal costing nearly a thousand dollars. In fact, it sounds like they have literally suckered someone else into it, because it is noisy as hell as I sit typing this. (I swear, if they wake Emilia up from her nap... again...)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dinner for Three — Penne with Mushrooms, Garlic, and Rosemary

Once upon a time, my husband and I liked to eat dinner every night around nine. And we did this for years and years. Then one day Miss Milia was born and everything changed. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. Everything did change, but we continued to eat dinner every night around nine.

Typically Michael gets home from work just after seven, and the idea has been to get Emilia in bed no later than eight. That doesn't leave much time for 'hello, how was your day?'/dinner/bath/bottle/books. And besides, it isn't exactly relaxing eating all together in the evening. I've much preferred unwinding with dinner once the munchkin is in bed.

However, this is something I am trying very hard to change. Emilia is nearly two and it is important to eat together as a family. That means I've been on the lookout for good dinners that don't take a week to make. Also, it is a bonus if Emilia will actually eat it. It warms my heart to no end hearing her say, 'Mmmm, dinner yummy!', or just to watch her sit quietly and enjoy her food. Admittedly, she was not the biggest fan of the mushrooms in this pasta. She ate around them, and would spit them out when I inadvertently got one into her mouth. But she ate everything else. (I figure if I keep trying, she will eventually acquire the taste. Maybe?) And she was in bed by 8:30.

As a side note, not only is this pasta delicious (despite the reaction from your 22-month-old) and easy to make, it is also inexpensive. The recipe calls for a pound of mushrooms, and I did a mix of white button (because, strangely, Whole Foods was out of Cremini), shitake, and oyster — costing just over ten dollars. That means when you add the pasta and what not, the main dish costs about fifteen bucks. Not bad. (It is also helpful if you have an enormous rosemary bush in your backyard, like we do, as fresh herbs don't come cheap.) And for us, anyway, it yielded enough leftovers to torture Emilia with the next day. Perfect.

Penne with Mushrooms, Garlic, and Rosemary
¼ cup olive oil
1 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 teaspoons very finely chopped rosemary
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound penne
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

In a skillet large enough to hold all the pasta, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the mushrooms, garlic, and rosemary. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms render their juices, about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring often until the mushrooms are lightly brown, about 5 minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add some salt and then the pasta. Stir well, and cook until al dente. Before draining, pull aside a little bit of the cooking water.

Drain the pasta and toss in the pan with the mushrooms, butter, and parsley. Add a little of the water if it seems dry. Serve immediately. (Recipe from: 1,000 Italian Recipes by Michele Scicolone. John Wiley Publishing, 2004.)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Pinkalicious Cupcakes

I was on the phone with my sister a week or so ago discussing sundry fascinating and particularly intellectual subjects, when she says to me, 'Have you been to Pinkalicious?' Having never heard of this so-called Pinkalicious place, I became rather indignant and demanded to know all the details. This is all she would divulge: 'Cupcakes — and they're better than Trophy.' 'Well, well, well', I thought, 'I'll just see about that!'

So after Miss Milia's music class a few days ago, we ran through pouring rain to Pinkalicious Cupcakes. This is what we found: a gorgeous little shop all bedecked in the ever-popular brown and pink motif; a dazzling glass case filled with beautiful cupcakes; a few curly-q tables and chairs, for one to rest and enjoy said cupcakes; and a prominently displayed copy of the children's book Pinkalicious, from whence their name undoubtedly came. How very lovely!

After much hemming and hawing (as they say) we made our selections: a dark chocolate cupcake with salted caramel buttercream (yes, it's true — someone's finally done it!), a spice cupcake with cream-cheese frosting, chocolate peanut butter (on their suggestion), and a Red Velvet cupcake, for good measure. Emilia was delighted, if not slightly confused. She kept saying 'diff'nt tuptates!', because clearly she knows where our loyalty lies. As they were packaging them up for us, I asked if it was possible to put them in a bag. 'It is so rainy, so if it comes down to dropping either the baby or the cupcakes while running to the car, I'll have to think about it.' And to be perfectly honest, I don't think the lady helping me really appreciated my humor — like I would ever drop a box of cupcakes! I mean, really! Do they think I'm some sort of uncivilized barbarian? Luckily for us, we all made it back to the car safe and sound — and perfectly intact, thank goodness!

And after dinner that night, Emilia got her cupcake; or half a cupcake really, as they are awfully big. (I should have inquired whether or not they make a more petite version for little hands.) I let her choose which one she wanted, and naturally the girl went for the dark chocolate with salted caramel. Oh, no, she couldn't go for the Spice or the Red Velvet. She had to go for the one her mama had been dreaming about for a week straight. (What can I say? She's got taste and obviously knows her cupcakes. She makes me proud.)

As for me? What did I do, you ask? Well, Michael was out of town for work, which meant I was on my own. So after I put Emilia down for bed, I did what any reasonable person would have done. I watched the whole of Gone With the Wind (seriously, how amazing is that movie, which is now in its 70th year?) and ate the rest of Emilia's cupcake. Oh, and two more for good measure. The only reason I didn't polish them all off is because I could not have faced my 22-month-old daughter the next day when she said, 'How 'bout tuptates? How 'bout little bit tuptates?'

As for the comparison made with Trophy? Well, it's tough. I certainly will not be so rash as to say they are better than Trophy. However, I will say this. Pinkalicious offers many lovely and unique flavors, and they do have a bigger variety. The cake itself is more moist, so I am assuming they must put some sort of oil in the batter. Usually all-butter cakes don't end up that moist — particularly the next day. I also noticed that they use more red food coloring and less chocolate for the Red Velvet. And they use plastic containers instead of paper boxes. That being said, I think they are quite amazing. However, we may have to make another trip tomorrow, just to be sure. You know how it is.

Oh, and for the record, the Spice Cupcake was actually my favorite. It was divine. Absolutely divine.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Everybody Bonjours!

A couple of weeks ago I was in the kitchen making dinner, when I noticed that Emilia was really quiet for a few minutes. (Whenever she is quiet, it typically means that she has her little hands in something that they clearly should not be in.) So I yelled, 'Emilia? Whatcha doing?' and she yelled back, 'Ee-bodie Boe-jours!' And sure enough, I walked to her room and there she was —sitting in her big green chair with the book Everybody Bonjours! on her little lap. It was a lovely site to see.

My friend Jane gave me a copy of this book when it was hot off the press, and I tucked it away until I knew that Emilia wasn't going to try to eat and/or tear out the pages. (She's always been pretty good with her books, though. Not like some kids I've seen.) Anyway, over the past couple of months she has developed a huge love for this book, and we read it together several times a day. It amazes me how long she will just sit and look at the pictures (in her green chair while mama cooks dinner.)

Everybody Bonjours! was written by Leslie Kimmelman and illustrated by Sarah McMenemy. It follows the idea of the This Is... series (you know, This is Paris, This is London, This is New York, and so on) but is done, in my humble opinion, so much nicer. The story is about a little girl who goes to Paris with her parents and her little brother. While there, they see all the sites and do all sorts of French things — bonjouring all the while, naturally. The book is filled with images of all things French — not just the Eiffel Tower. (Although, thanks to Everybody Bonjours!, Madeline, and The Secret Circus, Emilia now recognizes the Eiffel Tower everywhere. I was wearing a Villanova tee-shirt a week or so ago and Emilia pointed to an 'A' and said, 'Eiffel Tower!')

We've read the book so many times that Emilia nearly has it memorized (as do her parents). And she now gives a running commentary on each page. While in the shoe store: 'I like those shoes!'; while at the Louvre: 'Hi, Mona Lisa!'; while sitting down at a café: 'Old man going sooooo slooow!' And my personal favorite is when they get crêpes. It is simply a picture of the little girl and her family at a crêpe stand, and it says 'Batter-pouring.' To which Emilia chimes in, 'Batter pouring down rain!'

Everybody Bonjours! is one of the only books that I do not mind reading over and over and over again. In fact, it has been a very welcome break from Frosty the Snowman and The Wheels on the Bus — both of which require singing throughout. And as an added bonus, it fills her little head with images of a place that I'm dying to take her. Some day. But not today.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Night is Darkening Round Me

The night is darkening round me
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me
And I cannot, cannot go.

The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighted with snow,
And the storm is fast descending
And yet I cannot go.

Clouds upon clouds above me,
Wastes upon wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me;
I will not, cannot go.

— Emily Brontë

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Fran's Chocolates — To Help You Sleep (Perchance to Dream)

Oddly enough, I've been plagued with nightmares of a personal (and particularly distressful) nature for the past week or so.

The first was this: One of my lovely British friends became a famous swimsuit model, and she had these really incredible legs. Rather annoying, I say.

The second one was this: My brother-in-law told me that I was looking quite terrible and had clearly decided to 'let myself go'. So I spent the rest of the night searching for a discounted Chanel dress (it was $400, to be precise) and a bottle of red toenail polish.

The third dream was this: We were getting ready to go out somewhere and Michael says to me, 'Aren't you going to put on any makeup?' And I said 'fine' and put some on. Then he says, 'Uhhh, that doesn't really do much for you. Maybe you should put on some more.' And on it went.

Now really, I know they were dreams and all, but what a bunch of jerks, right? Not to mention how very rude of them. Don't they know I am a very busy lady, and so what if I've maybe let my appearance go a bit? Anyway, I've decided that I'm not going to speak to any of them for 3 maybe even 4 days. That'll show 'em. Although that may be slightly difficult as I happen to be married to one of the culprits.

Thank goodness I happen to have a house full of chocolate right now, because otherwise I don't know what I would do. (Although, I daresay all this chocolate won't help my appearance in the least, just ask the rude-group from my nightmares. I would, but I'm not currently on speaking terms with any of them.) Chocolate has a way of making things better. However, it must, on all accounts, be good chocolate. I personally cannot be bothered with the cheap crap from the grocery store. (Although, Whole Foods has a more than respectable selection — they even have some Fran's.)

My mom is the one to blame for my chocolate obsession. When we were growing up she would buy chocolate on a regular basis (my personal favorite was always from ZCMI). After procuring her sizable stash she would proceed to 'squirrel it away'. And by 'squirrel it away' I mean that she would hide it throughout the house — away from prying eyes, as it were, in places that she assumed were private. You know, like her underwear drawer, for instance (not private); under her bed (not private); under the couch (why on earth would this be private?). So if you were ever in a pinch for, let's say, non-pareils, apricot brandy cordials, english toffee, or (when desperate) mint truffles, one always knew exactly where to look.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Lovely Galette des Rois for Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is the Eve of Epiphany, which means that tomorrow is Epiphany, or the Feast of the Magi. It is the day for celebrating the Three Kings' (you know, good old Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) arrival in Bethlehem to witness the manifestation of Christ.

Epiphany is not really celebrated much in this country. In fact, the Catholic Church celebrates it the Sunday before the 6th of January. Typically if Americans acknowledge it at all, it is more as the official end of the Christmas season; so get that damn tree out of my living room, already! Or something like that anyway.

That is apparently why we all must move to Europe — because they actually celebrate it. In fact, many countries (Spain, for instance) even give gifts, with parades and festivities of all sorts.

In France it is traditional to serve Galette des Rois; although I daresay it is also traditional to buy it from some superb fancy-pants bakery rather than make it yourself. You are supposed to place a small porcelain figure in the cake before you bake it, and whosoever finds it will have much luck throughout the coming year. (Same principle as the Mardi Gras King Cake, really.) Since we have no such porcelain figure (I really should look into getting one), I typically use a coffee bean. However, this year I abandoned the whole idea of putting anything in it. Emilia's gag-reflex is astonishing, so it probably isn't wise to knowingly insert a choking hazard.

It is also traditional in France for the bakery to give a paper crown for the new king to wear. At least that is what Adam Gopnik claims in his book The King in the Window. The opening scene takes place on Twelfth Night with a Galette des Rois. It is my favorite scene in the book.

As for the cake itself, it is divine. Although, it probably is not something that your 22-month-old will readily eat (she much prefers her tuptates and/or Fran's Chocolates). And it is probably not what I would choose to have after a big dinner very late at night, but it is still yummy, nonetheless. I prefer to have it the next day with tea. Or, even better, have it for breakfast with a demi-tasse while wishing you were somewhere in the Latin Quarter. Or perhaps giving gifts somewhere in the Andalusia. But alas, tis not to be.

The cake is actually very simple to make, but you will definitely need a Cuisinart. Also, make sure you pay attention to the recipe. When it says to add one egg at the beginning and use the second one later as an egg wash, that does not actually mean you should chuck them both in at once. Not that I've personally done that or anything. Also, I have finally learned to buy two packages of puff pastry. The fancy stuff I use only has one sheet in the package, annoying since it is rather expensive. But if you are going to go through the bother of making the cake, you may as well make sure you have enough of one of the key ingredients.

After the cake comes out of the oven, let it cool thoroughly so the top can sink back down a bit. Otherwise you have a huge dome of puff pastry over what is really a gorgeous cake. Another handy tip is that the cake is absolutely superb the next day.