Saturday, September 26, 2009

Case Study 33: "The Back to School Special"

Nostalgic. That's how I feel every year when September fades away. Unlike the warm embrace of the summer wind, one fall breeze whips in and my body remembers it- the way it feels as the earth moves closer to its farthest tilted axis on an eternal trip around the sun. And September's end always held the inevitable for me: the bonfires and football games, the earthy smell of a freshly sharpened Ticonderoga No. 2 and the frantic scramble to enjoy the dwindling sunlight hours before the New England grayness set in.

"The Back to School Special" is a scholastic-inspired trio of cupcakes that are dedicated to the first day of school jitters, the tire swing and monkey bar playgrounds, and the brown-bagged lunchroom antics.

The "PB&J" is a peanut butter cupcake filled with strawberry jam and topped with a strawberry jelly buttercream and toasted peanuts. Before the era of widespread peanut/gluten allergies and political correctness, the basic Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich was a staple in the diet every elementary school child, recording the lifelong marriage of "fruit and nut" in the Bible of Good American Eatin'.
"The S'more" is a chocolate cupcake atop a graham cracker crust with a Hershey's chocolate buttercream and toasted marshmallow on top. Whether you toasted "shmallows" on a backwood camping trip or melted your chocolate at a Homecoming bonfire, S'mores told us Americans that there's magic in good old processed cookies, candy, and fire. Combined or separate.
And lastly, "The Idyllic Apple" . Regardless of if you ate an "apple a day" or you were a "hot for teacher" apple-polisher, the apple has long been a reminder of brown-nosing scholarly excellence, and a true emblem for back-to-school memories.

They say that your sense of smell is the strongest in evoking memories, but with the change of seasons, I beg to differ. Though the first smell of musty rain can signal the start of spring, it's the feel that winter is creeping in and the tastes of my schoolgirl lunches that tell me it's not far off. Those days of playground flirtation and soccer games may be long gone, but that stubborn old autumn wind just brings me back every year...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Case Study 32: "The Turkish Fig"

"My name is Turkish. Funny name for an Englishman. I know." - Snatch

Wine, music, cupcakes.

For us, tunes, food, and wandering reigned supreme. Driving around aimlessly for hours, we had warded our teenage angst off by roving the woods for cliffs to jump off and watching the stars by the Redding reservoir. We stood in the 3 am moonlight of the tall grass field next to his once-childhood home and spent one Valentine's Day eating homemade chocolate cookies in a parking lot, windows down and Snatch soundtrack blaring The Stranglers. They say first loves are never really over.

"The Turkish Fig" is a fig cupcake with a walnut encrusted honey frosting and vanilla buttercream on top. It's drizzled in honey and sugar crystals. There's a natural sweetness brought by the earthiness of the fig, and warmed by the local honey, a reminder that best and most familiar things always come from places closest to our hearts. Some things are just better when baked by two.

Most of us fall young and hard for our firsts, promising a lifetime of longing, with those moments of uncertainty, discovery, and anguish playing like movies in our memories. Though this might be true for many, I'm lucky to know that I've gotten to keep mine for always as living reminder of my youth and a truly wonderful friend.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Case Study 31: "The Velvet Collection"

Fashion Week has arrived in New York, and it's inescapable. As the madness at the tents ensues, I sit here in quiet rainy Philadelphia, snuggled with magazines and blogs. I'm downright inspired by the classic fabulosity, the innovation, and the outrageousness that is fashion today. And so, the sartorial sophisticate Cupcaketologist brings you: "The Velvet Collection."

"The Orange Crush" is an orange velvet cupcake with lemon buttercream and yellow crystals. Preen and Vena Cava both showcased pops of orange this week so far for Spring, and St. Vincent opened Rachel Comey's show in a refreshing reminder that summer is not quite over.

"The Russian Doll" is a purple velvet cupcake topped with a black raspberry buttercream and encrusted in flaked sugar crystals. It's inspired by the rogue elegance of Freha's spread in September's Vogue UK and the decadence of autumnal jewel tones and velvet against the backdrop of brilliant stones and clutter.

"The Mademoiselle" is a pink velvet cupcake topped with a vanilla buttercream coiffe and pearls. It is reminiscent of
the black and white, and yes, pink of Chanel. Karl Lagerfield and Lara Stone have been making sweet music together lately, and to that marriage I raise my glass and say, Santé!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Case Study 30: "The Idyllic Apple"

For better or for worse, I had a painfully romantic childhood. My parents had met young and left home early, growing up together and creating the life they always imagined. Dreamers beget dreamers, of course, and when we settled on the tiny border of New England and Westchester, it was the perfect pastoral backdrop to host my wanderlust.
Summer reigned supreme for my aqueous adventures, but it was autumn that held my heart. Leaves turned slowly here, and the Housatonic and Hudson Valleys were glorious seas of golds, reds, and oranges for months. We were apple pickers, perfect pumpkin seekers, and fall vegetable roasters. And there were Friday nights when I'd rather sit near the fireplace and watch my parents dance eyes-closed to Elvis Costello's "Toledo" with wineglasses in hand than be anywhere else in the world.

The Idyllic Apple is an apple pecan cupcake with a vanilla-nutmeg cream cheese buttercream and cinnamon sugar sprinkled atop. It's reminiscent of the orchards we still travel to every year and the cider donuts that never make it past the car.

I have this memory of driving in our first Jeep years ago, top down in early October, my brother and I are in the back. Django Reinhardt is playing gypsy jazz and I am facing back as we drive through Westchester roads past churches converted into homes and pastures. We walked rows of a vineyard in wool sweaters, chased a surprised pheasant and watched as the sun squeaked the last golden light of the Indian Summer.

I always wonder if it ruined me, to look back so fondly on these years and question if I'll have it as good someday. And then I remember who I come from, and I already do.

The Idyllic Apple (Adapted from my mother's Och's Orchard Apple Cake, 1976), makes 1 dozen cupcakes

1 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. sugar
1/4 c. butter
1 egg
2-3 apples, minced
1 cup nuts (pecans or walnuts), chopped finely

1. Set the oven at 350
º and line a one-dozen cupcake pan, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt.
2. Cream the sugar and butter together in a bowl until combined and fluffy, roughly 3 minutes.
3. Add the egg and mix until combined.
4. Blend in the apples. Add the dry ingredients in 3 parts until combined and fold in the nuts.
5. Fill the cupcake pan and bake 20-22 minutes, cupcakes will be dark brown.

Vanilla Nutmeg Cream Cheese Buttercream

1 c. butter
1/2 c. cream cheese
1 tsp. vanilla
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
4-5 cups confectioner's sugar

1. Combine the butter and cream cheese with a mixer on a medium speed, 3 minutes.
2. Mix in the vanilla and nutmeg.
3. Gradually blend in the confectioner's sugar. If it becomes to dense, cut with 1-2 tsp. milk.
4. Frost cupcakes generously, and enjoy with fond thoughts of autumn.