24 August 2012

Napalm in My Mouth

As part of a tradition started a few years ago with one of my best girlfriends; Lauren and I now choose words for birthdays and Christmas. You give the other person a word and she buys gifts that correlate with said word. Past words have included: twisted, peacock, vintage, posh...my word for this birthday was 'spicy'.

Caramels! I loooove caramels.
Lauren did a really great job with 'spicy'. In addition to a book about all the different kinds of peppers found in the world and used for cooking; she also got me the Sriracha Cookbook...and I'm having a Sriracha-themed dinner party next week so look for a post about that soon!

Such interesting flavor combinations. Also...BACON!
The last gift to arrive was a package from Fusion Sweets with a selection of spiced caramels. Awesome. I love caramel, I love spices, I love weird flavors together; this was perfect. In my selection she sent: Coconut Thai Chile, Pumpkin Pie, Masala Chai Spiced Butter, Star Anise Saffron, and Bacon Habanero Sea Salt.

I maintain that messy foods often taste the best
I was super excited and dived right in. I love me some bacon with chocolate so I was curious to see how it went with caramel. When I unwrapped it, I found the candy to be really gooey and sticky. And yes I could see the bacon clearly in the caramel, but I couldn't really taste it. I tasted the habaneros though. A lot.

I did have a few reservations upon smelling the bacon habanero
 After I recovered I went for the star anise saffron. I am not a fan of anise, which you might find odd if you look in my liquor cabinet and see the three bottles of absinthe, but it's never really been a flavor I liked. However I do like saffron, a lot. The anise flavor was pretty strong but the saffron still came through, and even though I don't like anise, I didn't dislike the the caramel.

Here we go!
Moving on! Masala chai spiced butter. I was really looking forward to this because I love Indian spices, I love chai, and I make some of the best darn chai you'll ever drink outside of India. This was lovely. The flavor was far more subtle than I was expecting but quite nice. I only took one-two small bites of each of the caramels since this was an official, scientific tasting, but I can guarantee that I will be unwrapping it again and finishing this one.

Pumpkin pie! Who doesn't love pumpkin pie? It's the only Thanksgiving food (other than Lauren's sweet potato souffle) that I like.I was all prepared to devour this one. But I didn't. Let me tell you why. Because it tasted like pumpkin.

No. Just, no.
I know you're making puzzled face and thinking, But of course! What else would pumpkin pie flavored caramel taste like?! Well...pie! There was a very strong, not unpleasant pumpkin flavor. But nothing of that which makes pumpkin a pie. I couldn't taste any cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, none of that. I'll definitely give it another try but, especially as I'd just had the chai caramel which would have had similar spices, I guess I was just expecting more.

The pumpkin and masala caramels had a firmer texture
And last, but in no way least, Coconut Thai Chile. This was exciting on so many levels. Coconut is one of my absolutely favorite flavors and one of my top three favorite fruits. I love coconut water, coconut milk, young coconut meat, mature coconut meat, coconut flavoring, coconut flavored alcohol, sweet flaked coconut, coconut ice cream, macaroons, I can go on. And on.

Coconut! Thai! Chili! Oh the excitement.
Also I love Thai food and generally I order the spicier dishes. I cannot resist drunken noodles with beef. And we've already discussed how I bow at the alter of Sriracha. So I was really really excited about this. Saved the best for last and all.

Hmm, yes I taste the coconut? Where's the chili?
The scent was heavenly. Mmmmm. Coconut. I sank my teeth into the candy and savored the first bite, knowing that this caramel, this one only, would I eat in its entirety. I rolled the smooth caramel, made a little rough by the wealth of shredded coconut inside, around my mouth to make the luscious coconutty flavor linger as long as possible.

Oh there it is.
Just as I was starting to wonder about the Thai Chili part...I found it. Or rather, it found me. In a big way. If I thought the bacon habanero was hot, I was knocked over by this one. For a milisecond the world seemed suspended and I couldn't breathe, then my face turned bright red, I teared up, and started panting like a dog in an effort to cool off my tongue.

Was it just the surprised punch of the chili that caused such a strong reaction? I was really enjoying it before that spice kicked in. I will try it again and hope that, being forewarned, I will be able to enjoy the entire experience of this particular treat.

Make it stop! *sob* Please just make it stop!
The caramels came with a freebie; a small packet of vanilla sugar. I figured, especially after that Thai chili, that I should definitely have a small taste of the vanilla sugar. I also have to taste this again because I think that all of my taste buds had melted off my tongue.

Vanilla sugar...so...sweetened sugar?
After this would I recommend Fusion Sweets? Actually YES! The flavors are unique and I did really like the masala chai. As much as I love spicy foods I am kind of a spice light weight so who knows what you might think? Order some and find out!

Yeah nothing. My my mouth has been napalmed
Plus I very much want to try some of the berlingots, especially the: basil vanilla lemon, coconut lemongrass, coconut masala (!), spicy strawberry, mango raspberry, guava lemongrass, passionfruit cardamom lime(!)...ok so maybe that was like 90% of the flavors. If anyone wants to send me a belated birthday present in the form of some of the berlingots I won't turn them down!

I also might borrow a few of these flavor combinations for future sorbet and ice cream recipes. There's still plenty of summer left to make those!

23 August 2012

A New Adventure Awaits!

photo credit: www.thecoolist.com
One of my favorite saints, Augustine of Hippo, is credited with the words, "The world is a great book, of which they that never stir from home read only a page." I have been drawn to these words from the first time that I heard them, believing them without a doubt to be true. Though I originally had other plans for the remainder of this year, sometimes we must adapt to changes that exist beyond our control. My term in Iraq is now over, and the day after tomorrow, the next stage of my journey will begin in Egypt. 

When I was a kid, my dad used to sit down with me and a giant National Geographic photo book of pictures of the pyramids and great monuments of Egypt. I absolutely blame credit him for establishing this need within me to see, smell, taste, and experience the world firsthand, even if my parents don't exactly have this same need themselves. For at least the next month, I will continue my study of Arabic in Cairo, Egypt. I may extend for another period after that, I may return for work in Iraq, I may return home, or I may spend the rest of the year (and my savings) couch surfing and fotoing. In the meantime, I am going to enjoy the adventure, and the chance to see a place I only dreamed about for as long as I can remember.

Honestly, I don't know what to expect. Am I nervous? Definitely. What many people don't realize, is that a big part of that nervous-scared feeling that we experience before going to a new place is absolutely natural, and is a big piece of feeling excited too. Without some jitters and nervousness about a new experience, the excitement really isn't all that exciting. So I will open both my mind and my heart to some amazing new experiences in a new place. I will to allow myself to be further changed by a new environment, which rounds off the sharp edges. Where a new culture sweeps you away and scrubs you clean to emerge as a better version of yourself. 

I will, of course, be posting as regularly as I can from the land of the Pharaohs.  I can't wait to post my own pictures from the Giza Necropolis, the Valley of the Kings, Abu Simbel, and Luxor. 

Until we meet again, Lauren
 “Remember what Bilbo used to say: It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”  - J.R.R. Tolkien

22 August 2012

High School Reunion and Cupcakes-They Go Together

Last week I was in Michigan for my high school reunion, which just happened to coincide with my birthday! Since I have a summer birthday I was never able to bring a treat to school and do the little party with my classmates thing. To make up for that I decided to bake cupcakes for the reunion. A little on the dorky side I know; but it was still fun.

Because I would be working in my mom's kitchen, and I knew I had a fair few cupcakes to make, I ended up packing a lot of my baking things including a cupcake pan, pastry bag, apron, and some other random things (including 10 pounds of candy melts I didn't end up using). I also forgot how delightful it was to work in a kitchen that not only has a generous amount of counter space, but that has high counters. When my parents redid the kitchen when I was in college they deliberately built extra high counters.

Looking for Plan B

My reunion was on Saturday so I devoted most of Friday to baking. My class was getting two kinds of cupcakes: roasted strawberry basil with balsamic vinegar frosting, and salted caramel. My first batch of salted caramel cupcakes was a flop. Quite literally really. I followed the Martha Stewart recipe which, I'm sure works just fine for cake as the recipe intends, but doesn't work so well for cupcakes. The caramel all sank to the bottom and stuck to the cupcake liners and the cake was too light to make it as a cupcake. At least half the batch caved in themselves.

After baking with Mexican vanilla I just cannot go back to extract

On to plan b! Which means call little brother and ask him to pretty please stop at the store on the way home from work and buy me a bunch of stuff. I decided to go back to my standard chocolate cake recipe; it never fails me. I also ditched the idea of using real caramel in the cupcakes and decided to just go with a salted caramel butter cream frosting, which was a problem in and of itself. The recipe I used was basically just a butter cream with home made caramel and salt added, but I just couldn't taste anything other than vanilla. And since I was pretty sick of making caramel, that would be batch four of the day (batch 1 went into the disaster cupcakes, 2 had to be thrown out,and 3 was in the frosting), I decided to cheat. My mom had some Smuckers caramel sauce in the refrigerator so I squeezed just about the entire bottle into the frosting.

I missed having my ulu for chopping the chocolate

Then there were the roasted strawberry basil cupcakes. The recipe I followed instructed me to roast the berries with some butter and brown sugar for 2.5-3 hours. I really cannot say that doing that added any flavor whatsoever to the cupcake. So I won't be doing that again. I also quadrupled the amount of basil...and possibly could still have used more.

Look at all the counter space!!

And my mom is a genius. She keeps several sizes of ice cream scoops specifically for cupcakes and cookies. It was so much more efficient than using a spoon or a measuring cup; especially as the larger ice cream scoop was just about perfect to fill the liners. I need to go to Target now and get one.

Pure genius

I have to say though that otherwise the recipe was great. The batter was really nice to work with and the cakes were dense and tasty. The frosting was a bit tricky to make. Again a basic butter cream with balsamic vinegar which I added tiny amount by tiny amount. After a while I wasn't sure what I was tasting anymore and tried to use my brother as a guinea pig but he hates vinegar. So his feedback wasn't too promising. In the end I stopped adding the balsamic as soon as I detected a hint of the vinegar tang.

Speaking of my brother; I had a personal photographer while I was baking! He's expanded his photography repertoire to include portraits and I realized that there were hardly any pictures of me on the blog...so two birds. Check out the link to his website, especially in you're in Michigan and need a family portrait or senior pictures. Or you have incredibly good taste and realize you need to hang one of his landscapes in your house.

There might have been some tasting going on

Overall I was pretty pleased with the cupcakes. Never having done mass production I was pleasantly surprised how quickly I was able to crank out over 100 of them; even with the major fail of batch number one.

Happy face!

I had a good time serving them as well. I really enjoyed my reunion which surprised me because high school was like the most painful years of my life; well really the entire time I was at the horrible school was pretty bad but high school was definitely not fun. I had a great time catching up with people and found things in common with a few people I'm not sure I even spoke 10 words to during the entire time we were in school together. Funny how people grow up and move beyond that high school mess, isn't it? :)

Strawberry basil with balsamic frosting

Roasted Strawberry Basil Cupcakes (from the Young Idealistic Baker)

Makes 12-13 cupcakes

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup roasted strawberry puree
  • 2-3 tablespoons basil, finely chopped (I used a lot more basil than this...a lot)
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line muffin pan with cupcake liners
  • In a large bowl, beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes
  • Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until incorporated
  • In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt
  • Alternate between adding flour mixture and milk to batter, mixing until just incorporated
  • Add extracts
  • Stir in strawberry puree and chopped basil
  • Distribute batter evenly in cupcake cups and bake for 20-22 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean
  • Allow to cool completely before frosting
Balsamic Frosting:
Makes about 2 cups

  • 3 cups confectioner's sugar
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1-2 tablespoons whipping cream(optional)
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Cream together sugar and butter until smooth
  • Add vanilla and whipping cream
  • Beat in vinegar one scant tablespoon at a time until you like the flavor
Chocolate salted caramel

Salted Caramel Frosting:
Makes about 2 cups
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), at room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • Briefly stir together granulated sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue cooking, without stirring, until mixture turns dark amber in color, about 6 to 7 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and slowly add in cream and vanilla, stirring with a wooden spoon until completely smooth. Set aside until cool to the touch, about 25 minutes.
  • Combine butter and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium-high speed until light in color and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low, add powdered sugar, and mix until completely incorporated.
  • Turn mixer off and scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add caramel. Beat frosting on medium-high speed until airy and thoroughly mixed, about 2 minutes. 

19 August 2012

Circus, Circus!: A co-authored post

Andrea's not the biggest fan of circuses...she dislikes the treatment of the animals and clowns are just freaking scary. And you know what? I totally agree. But when I said that I was coming back to DC in July for some RnR and LivingSocial had a Circus Adventure at the DC-based Trapeze School New York, well we jumped on the chance to spend a day dreaming of becoming a couple of First o'Mays (that's circus talk for non-circus folk who try to run away with the circus) and joining the circus! This LivingSocial adventure was just perfect because we got to try a little of everything that the school offers, including: flying trapeze, silks, (partner) acrobatics, juggling, and making balloon animals!

Oh the innocence-this is the 'before'
Lauren: I was pretty excited that our group was selected to take on the (indoor) trapeze first.
As you can see, I was stoked.
Lauren: After they strapped those awful safety belts on us, we got a lesson on how to stand on the platform, how to reach for the bar, and most importantly, how to follow the commands both from the awesome guy on the platform, and from the coach on the ground. Basically, there are two commands: "ready," which means, well, ready. At that point, you should steady yourself, and bend at the knees. When the coach sees that you're ready, he'll say, "hep!" When you hear that, jump! But first, you have to get to the platform.

Andrea: For me, the scariest darn part of the entire thing was climbing the ladder. I've never been a fan of ladders but this one, 23 feet high, flimsy aluminium, and secured only at the bottom and top...it shivered and shook and bucked the entire climb. I sweat through the chalk I'd put on my hands by the time I got up there!

Taking a relieved breath after the climb!

Lauren: I won't lie, that ladder climb really was scary. Even though you're strapped to a rope with an auto-catch in case you fall, it's really best if you don't fall. Once you get to the top, I felt keenly aware that we were literally suspended in mid-air. I was hell bent on following instructions. to. the. letter. I'm sure this was out of absolute terror, and I didn't move a muscle without the mohawk guy telling me so. He grabbed the bar, and I took it in one hand, and then two. After that, things moved VERY quickly. I heard the ready signal, and bent my knees, and then hep! and I jumped! 

Holy crap I jumped!
Lauren: Now, you want to be able to get gravity to work in your favor so that your legs don't become dead weights. I figured because, I engage in fairly intense exercise on a regular basis that I would be decent at this, but this is MUCH harder than it looks. Apparently, having left gymnastics behind 20 years ago, means that I will never be a very good trapeze artist.

Lauren: After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at trying to swing my legs up and hook my feet, I got the command to let go. Again, ready, and hep! For me, this was another really scary part!

You know...maybe not so much.
Andrea: The platform is only 23 feet up which seems like a lot, but after plunging off a 25 foot waterfall into water of questionable depth, 23 feet didn't seem so bad. Especially since there was a net about 5.5 feet off the ground.
Hmm...fly, or climb back down? Rock meet hard place.
Andrea: Grabbing that bar was a surprise. It's really heavy and I was neither expecting nor prepared for that. Although frankly I cannot say I was prepared for anything this day.

Still not sure but let's go.
Andrea: I do have to admit though that it took me a couple more minutes to finally get off the platform. I really was trying to jump but my feet were glued to the platform. I got off eventually and one of the other adventurers that day took this super cool composite picture of me.

Lauren: Next, we moved on to silks. I thought that this was going to be pretty easy, and fun. This was neither easy, nor very much fun for me. I could barely get my foot onto the knot to pull myself up!
Yeah...I'm still not sure this is going to work.

A little help...still didn't help.

Look at meeee! I'm 3 inches off the ground!

Andrea: This was actually what I was most excited to learn-I've loved the silks since I first saw a Cirque du Soliel performance and have always wanted to learn. It is so much harder than it looks! And it doesn't look easy!

I started out so excited

Love this...almost makes it look like I climbed higher than I did

Woot! Success!
Andrea: I couldn't believe how painful it was to stand on that knot of fabric!
Lauren: Seriously, right?!
See that face? That's the 'no I don't like this' face
Lauren: Andrea was much better at this than I was, though I'm pretty sure that neither of us have a Cirque debut in our future.
Andrea: Next up...partner balancing. I think Lauren and I both went into this a little trepedaciously but then she volunteered us to go first!

Lauren: I was nervous about this, but still kind of excited. The instructors made everything look so easy!

Lauren before she really knew what was coming

And prep...
Lauren: This is where Andrea death-gripped my ribs, and I could neither move nor breathe. Who really needs to breathe, anyway when you're in the circus!
Ta Da!
Andrea: It was actually easier than it looked.
Lauren: but yay! We did it!

Don't worry Andrea, we can do this!


Ta Da!

Lauren: next up was the juggling. I've never juggled before, other than tossing balls up and not usually catching them. I managed to catch on to this pretty quickly, and found myself juggling three balls at once!

Lauren: The weather turned bad, so we partially missed our second opportunity to trapeze outside, and also rock climb, because there was a lot of lightning. So, they brought us in for indoor recess, and that meant balloon animal making! For whatever reason, I was not that into this, mostly because I think I'm afraid that the balloon is going to pop in my face and blind me.
see? still not convinced.

Turning is...trepidatiously.
Ta Da!