Monday, April 25, 2011

Notes from the field: Cupcake Secrets

(Ferraro Rocher Cupcakes, March 2011

Baking I think in many ways is a personal journey.  I was born into a family that bakes, and it's really been part of who I am for my entire life.  I could wax poetic for days about this, but what I'd really like to do is answer a few questions that have come in from you over the past few weeks, mostly surrounding being a new baker, tips and tricks, and recipes.

While I'm definitely not an expert, I have accumulated a few bits for new cupcake makers and bakers alike.  So let's start at the very beginning...
  • Perfect the basics. Find good vanilla and chocolate recipes. Make them well with consistency.  Memorize them.  Many of your other recipes will either branch off from or contain one of these bases, so getting them down pat is a very good place to start. 
  • Learn to read your batter and frosting. Does this sound nutty?  Perhaps.  But this is the school of thought that I come from.  Baking is, indeed, very much science. Unlike cooking, if your measurements are off, the end result is not necessarily salvageable.  That being said, the Italian in me knows that a cup of flour is about the size of my fist, and a pinch of salt is more or less a quarter teaspoon.  I've gotten to the point where I rarely measure ingredients for my buttercreams.  I know when the consistency is off, when I need more milk and when it's sturdy enough to hold a chocolate dip or get piped into ruffles.  This also takes me to the next two points.
  • Cream the butter and sugar.  No, really. Whip it good.  And do it for at least three minutes. This process of incorporating sugar and butter exists because it brings air to your base, which helps cakes rise to a light texture once in the oven.  If you don't eat rocks, don't bake rocks.
  • Overbeating is the enemy. Just as crucial as creaming in the beginning is not overbeating during the flour incorporation at the end of most general cupcake recipes.  Overbeating is like the un-athletic kid who gets picked last in gym class dodgeball.  It's great that he's is so enthusiastic, but he always gets hit first. Buzzkill. Just say no to overbeating by sifting your flour prior and never underestimating a proper fold-in technique.  I prefer to mix a little and finish by gently folding the last of the flour in with a spatula or wooden spoon at the end.
  • Recipes are everywhere.  Ok, well, kind of.  Clearly the best place to find basic recipes is the internet.  Food Network and Martha Stewart are great places for novice and seasoned bakers alike.  Many cupcakeries have cookbooks or publish their recipes too.  But what I mean by recipes being everywhere is that the better you can learn how to make a basic cupcake, the more likely you are to be able to modify it into your own recipe. 
  • Know thy oven. I've learned through the power vested in me by moving every year since college that no two ovens are the same.  What might rise well in a brand new convection might fall flat in a one pan oven from the fifties. So the sooner you learn to understand your oven, the more readily you will be able to alter your own recipes and find success with what the oven demands of you.    
  • Art is art is art.  Have you seen the video where no New Yorker identifies "art" in the same three words?  This is how I feel about baking.  To me, it's art, and it's personal.  It is art when I have an idea and turn it into something.  It is art when I find myself covered in flour and frustrated mid-process ("ah!" I think, "this is what a pissed off Picasso must have felt like!" Riiiighhhhht.) And it is definitely art when juxtaposed with the fact that I spend my days reading the minds of the people running financial institutions in New York. So above all, and I stress this, own your creativity.  If your purple frosting actually looks brown, then add some more vanilla because that's brown too!  If you ate a really good ice cream sundae and want to recreate it, then get the whip cream and sprinkles ready (and add a cone).  AND if you want to put bacon and eggs on a pancake cupcake, then do it, dammit.     
  • Go forth and bake!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Notes from the Field: Little Bunny Foo Foo

I'd like to think that when I get in the kitchen, I have the best intentions.  But to be honest, every time the oven turns on, the motive is different.  On the best days, I bake to bring the brush to canvas, to see what happens when the flavors, the colors and the stories that have been brewing go from head to hands to reality.  At other times I bake to order, which, is a lovely routine that requires little thought and a lot of heart, because tell me, who sends cupcakes out the door without heart?  

But quite frequently, there is another reason I do it.  I bake to forget the hours before the apron was tied on, the candle was lit and the music was turned low.  This kind of baking typically yields one of two results: that which is completely brilliant and that which turns totally disastrous. 

Tonight I met that second result.  Things started off well enough, as many adventures with Easter candy generally do.  There was vanilla and there was food coloring.  The butter was beat just right and the piping was lovelyBut then, well then things ended not so wonderfully, as, ironically, many adventures with Easter candy also tend to do.

There was a chocolate dip, there was a hammer (!), and there was a whirlwind that looked like Little Bunny Foo Foo went on a straight up bippity-bopping bender all over the damn forest, trashing cupcakes, hotel rooms and more.  And the Good Fairy was nowhere to be seen.

Luckily in every disaster there is, of course, a lesson.

In Italy, there is a cookie called Brutti ma Buoni.  The "ugly but goods."   This name has always made sense to me for many reasons, not excluding the fact that those biscotti and a cup of coffee just so happen to be holy matrimony in a breakfast-in-bed treat.  

I think that what you learn traveling through the creative process is that, just like in life, the key to growth is to stop taking the disasters so seriously.  Or to look at them not as failures but as beautiful messes that took you from point A to point B...even if point B finds you sitting on the kitchen floor with a half-spilled glass of wine, laughing through tears as some horribly moody old John Lee Hooker song plays in the living room and you are faced with the ugliest cupcakes you have ever seen.  

Which is where I was tonight, when my thoughts and imagination exploded into something not-so-pretty, but hell, deliriously delicious and worthwhile in its own right.  

Monday, April 11, 2011

Notes from the Field: A Return, of sorts...

Just a little hello! and how are you? as the cupcake hiatus is going along swimmingly. Spring has arrived in New York City, and there has been more time than ever to re-focus, then focus again and really settle in.  Here are a few shots from when I waded back into the baking pool this past sunny weekend.  

Plain old fashioned double vanilla bean cupcakes.
Seems I kept my floaties on when it came to creativity this round.  But you know, I'm quite alright with that. Sometimes it's the simplest route that just keeps you afloat.