Food quote of note

"The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience"…Eleanor Roosevelt

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Big Job

Don't ask me how I get myself into these things...but somehow I agreed to make 1,000 cupcakes for my neighbor Greg...yes, you read that number right, 1,000 - three zeroes -- that's ONE THOUSAND CUPCAKES. 

It all started so innocently...

My neighbor Greg is a real estate agent and wanted to give his clients a "home baked holiday treat" this year - in October he asked if I might be interested in baking these for him...for PAY!!  A real baking job...what a great opportunity, I, of course I said yes.  The rub, however, was that he had almost 100 folks on his list - so, that would be alot of baking in my small kitchen.  Nevertheless - I put together a proposal for a "holiday assortment of hand-crafted cupcakes, packaged and ready for pick-up" - and he accepted my proposal!  I was in the baking business - I was doing my first real baking job - and it was The Big Job!

One of the reasons I agreed to do this crazy project was that I thought it would be great experience - and I was right - I learned so much!  A big part of the learning came before I ever picked up a measuring spoon or cupcake liner.  I spent several hours pouring over my cookbooks to select the right recipes - ones that were both reliable and yummy! The process of costing out the project, both ingredients and baking time/labor, was a very detailed exercise and critical to the overall project success - if I didn't get this part right I wouldn't make any money!  I shopped at several different places to get the best costs, I did lots of conversions (for example, there are ~ 12 cups of sugar in a 5 lb bag) and constructed a very detailed spreadsheet so I could figure out exactly how much my ingredients would cost for each of the three recipes I had selected (chocolate with chocolate buttercream frosting, coconut with white chocolate frosting and red velvet with cream cheese frosting). I  also identified on-line sources for buying cupcake boxes, inserts and liners in bulk (of course, all of these costs went into the spreadsheet).  I was finally ready to bake!

I pulled from some of my favorite sources to get my cupcake recipes.   Chocolate cupcakes from Martha Stewart, chocolate buttercream frosting from Magnolia Bakery, coconut cupcakes from the Barefoot Contessa and Red Velvet from George Geary - I got by with a little help from my friends!

Quite frankly, cupcakes aren't that hard to make - it wasn't the baking that was the challenge - it was the logistics - how was I going to bake 1000 cupcakes in my very average-sized home kitchen  - 1 small fridge, normal counter space, 1 oven?  This job was just as much a test of my organization skills as it was my baking skills – the only way I was going to make this happen without killing myself (or getting divorced) was to make sure I had it all organized, prepped and scheduled so I  could make 15-20 dozen cupcakes a day.  I had costed the job to complete in 5 days - but, my goal was to do the baking in only 4 days, so I could have the 5th day to clean and "de-cupcake" my house.  My approach was to mix up 3-4 batches of a single flavor at a time and then bake them off (my oven would only hold 2 dozed at a time) - and, while these were baking, I could wash dishes, mix up the next set of batches and get things organized for frosting and packaging.  In general, this approach worked very well - although there were some long and messy days, I was able to get all 1,000 cupcakes baked in 4 days.  

For one week, cupcakes took over my home!  My makeshift pantry - 5 gallon buckets
filled with flour, sugar and confectioner's sugar, large storage boxes
filled with all sorts of yummy ingredients.

Lots of bowls!! I actually borrowed bowls and muffin tins from
 friends so I would have enough to prep multiple batches at a time.

Mise en place - a French term that means "everything in place".  Getting everything measured, set up and in order was critical to keeping on schedule.  Overall, it served me well and kept me on schedule.  There was only one casualty - one batch of red velvet cupcakes that ended up looking like small, dense red hockey pucks - despite my best attempts at organization, I  had forgotten to add the baking soda/vinegar mix that acts as the leavening for this recipe.

Mmmm...chocolate cupcakes in the making!

Billows of chocolate goodness - the chocolate buttercream frosting from the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook was just as tasty to eat as it was lovely to look at.

It took alot of frosting to cover 1000 cupcakes!
One of the biggest challenges was space – 1000 cupcakes takes up a lot of real estate!  By the evening, every flat space in our house was covered with cupcakes in some stage of the process – waiting to be frosted, covered with swirls of frosting or packaged and ready to go.  

In addition to baking, I had to package up the cupcakes –boxed, with a ribbon, a card with Greg’s holiday greeting and a sticker advertising my baking services. It was usually the wee hours of the morning by the time I finished up the last of the packaging, ending the night with rows of lovely packages of cupcakes all boxed and ready to go... – and a few hours later Greg knocked on my door in the morning to pick them up and hand deliver them. And then, it started all over again…

Each night my dining room table (and kitchen island, and coffee table, etc) ended up
covered with boxes of cupcakes....

...and each morning we loaded them into Greg's car for delivery.

So, even though right now I feel like I never want to see a cupcake again, I’m glad I did this project.  First of all, the client was very happy – Greg really liked the cupcakes and got rave reviews from his customers and friends who received them as holiday packages.  Secondly, it was a great learning experience as it relates to costing, organizing and planning a large baking job, and, finally, it definitely built my confidence on my ability to do “baking for hire”. 

While all three of these cupcakes were very tasty, the true star was the chocolate/chocolate - this cupcake is a DREAM to make and a dream to eat.  This recipe was amazingly reliable and repeatable - pan after pan turned out perfectly formed and perfectly cooked!  This is definitely my new "go-to" chocolate cupcake.  This little brown cake was turned into a superstar when I topped it with the Chocolate Buttercream frosting from the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook - this was a match made in cupcake heaven (if I do say so myself!).  Both of these recipes are actually quite easy to make - the key to both of them is to make sure you follow the directions exactly (i.e., mix the frosting for exactly the time it states).  When you get a chance, make a batch - you'll love them!

Chocolate Cupcakes
adapted from Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes

Note: to melt the chocolate, place in a double boiler over simmering water on low heat for 5-10 minutes; stir occasionally until the chocolate is completely smooth and no pieces remain; remove from heat and let cool 5-15 minutes or until lukewarm.
  • In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter using an electric mixer on MEDIUM speed for about 3 minutes or until creamy.
  • Add the milk carefully and beat until smooth.
  • Add the melted chocolate and beat well for 2 minutes.
  • Add the vanilla and beat for 3 minutes.
  • Gradually add in the sugar and beat on LOW speed until creamy and of desired consistency.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Taking a bite out of the Big Apple

Thanksgiving is all about three things - family, friends and food - and for us, two out of three ain't bad!  We didn't get to see our families this Thanksgiving (we will make the trek to the Great White North for Christmas, never fear), but we were lucky enough to spend Thanksgiving week in New York City with our dear friends the McClishs - what a blast.  It was a great week - filled with sights, laughter, crowds, shopping and, of course, lots of great food. 

Matt, Jennifer and their great kids (Madeline, Ian and Aidan) are some of our best friends and favorite folks to vacation with - and this trip was no exception.  The kids had never been to the Big Apple before, so we of course tried to squeeze in as many of the "must do sights" as possible - Times Square, The Rockettes, Broadway, Empire State Building, Central Park, museums - we packed it all in!  And, of course, we were treated to some of the best food around.  Here's just a glimpse of all we enjoyed!

We got to NYC on Sunday, and it didn't take us long to hit the streets in search of food!  Dinner our first night was in a crowded, loud and wonderfully delicious Italian restaurant in Hell's Kitchen.  What a great way to kick off our trip!

Dinner for 7

Breakfast of champions - I started each morning with a nonfat latte and Pain au Chocolate (chocolate croissant) at a coffee shop across from our hotel.  The perfect fortification for days full of sightseeing!

We managed to squeeze in multiple museums on this trip - the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the Natural History Musuem.  
Monet's Water Lilies at MoMa

The New York Public Library was a must-see for my husband, the Librarian,
and the McClish children, all voracious readers.  The building is very interesting
and beautifully decorated for Christmas.
Of course, we had to have some of the traditional Big Apple specialties....
Madeline enjoying lunch at a NYC deli

Ian has a piece of NYC cheesecake at Pershing Square Cafe

Aidan devours pizza in Rockerfeller Center
Chestnuts from a cart in Central Park
Our hotel was very close to Bryant Park - and we spent quite a bit of time there shopping at the Holiday Market, watching skaters on the ice rink and sampling the myriad of food offerings. 

One of the chocolate shops there sold chocolate preloaded into syringes for
decorating cupcakes, cookies, etc...what a great idea!  I'm totally trying that!

It was hard to pick from all of the interesting and tasty lunch offerings - but, when we saw these Gozleme, we knew we had to try them.  Gozleme are Turkish pastries - rolled flat then filled with a variety of savory treats such as cheese, potatoes, spinach, etc.  Since Guy and I had seen these being made on our trip to Turkey and tasted them, we chose this for our lunch.

NYC Gozleme with chicken, mushroom and dill - just as tasty as
what we had in Turkey!
Of course, we had to make a stop at the Magnolia Bakery for cupcakes - you just have to, if you are in NYC! 

Magnolia Bakery Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
While there is certainly some great shopping on 5th Avenue, I have to admit that my favorite shopping is strolling through the food markets - cases of beautiful and interesting foods, all artfully displayed and tempting...Foodie Nirvana!

Our hotel was very close to Grand Central Terminal, a great location for sightseeing...and also home to a very interesting Food Market.

After a busy morning of shopping at FAO Schwartz, we stopped in at the Food Hall at the Plaza Hotel...a very high-end and beautiful market.

And, of course, it wouldn't be Thanksgiving in The Big Apple without The Parade.  Yes, we got up early and braved the crowds so we could experience this holiday tradition...and yes, it was worth it! 

After a fun-filled morning at the parade, we enjoyed a warm and wonderful Thanksgiving dinner at Back Forty, a casual farm-to-table restaurant in the East Village.  The food was truly delicious  - large platters of turkey, stuffing and interesting sides served to our table family-style - followed by scrumptious desserts.  It was a great meal and a great way to spend Thanksgiving in NYC.

After almost a week of exploring The Big Apple, we found ourselves at the end of our trip...we opted to skip Black Friday shopping on Friday and instead take a long stroll through Central Park and make a stop at the Natural History Museum.  It was a lovely, sunny day and an amazing time to be in the Park - a great end to a great visit  -- once again reminding me of all I have to be thankful for - not just in this trip, but in so many aspects of my life. 

Bench in NYC Central Park - how fitting for our trip!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Betsy Farnsworth's Autumn Apple Cake

I love traditions and rituals...I love having "special things" we do each year at the same time, especially when these traditions involve food and friends.  Each year brings anticipation of things to come mixed with sweet memories of years passed, when you've shared this same activity with special friends.  For some reason, fall seems to be full of traditions and rituals - with it's change of seasons and holidays - what a truly special time.

One of my favorite fall traditions is heading to the mountains to see the leaves and get apples.  Since well before we were married, Guy and I have made a pilgrimage each fall to nearby mountains to enjoy the beautiful autumn colors and fill our trunk with crisp, ripe apples.  Our companions for this years' apple ritual were our friends Jennifer, Madeline and Ian McClish - we loaded into Jennifer's minivan and headed to North Georgia -- what a great way to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon in late October.

My pictures just can't do it justice - the North Georgia mountainside filled with trees
of orange and yellow - a beautiful backdrop for our annual apple tradition.
We headed north toward Ellijay, one of Georgia's prime apple towns.  After a winding, but enjoyable drive through the mountains, we ended up at Hillcrest Orchards, one of Ellijay's major apple establishments, complete with apple orchards, apple market, bakery, hayrides, cornmaze and petting zoo.  We headed straight into the apple market to collect our loot - a big bunch of apples to take home for eating and cooking. 

Ian, Madeline and Jennifer loading up on Pink Lady Apples

Apples of all shapes, sizes, colors and flavors - Hillcrest had them all -- Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Winesap, Rome, MacIntosh, Pink Lady, and more.

As you can see from the very large bag of apples my husband is holding, we couldn't choose just one type...good thing Jennifer brought the minivan.

Of course, no trip to the apple orchards is complete without a sample of some of the homemade apple treats - we couldn't pass up this deep-fried delight - a warm apple fritter loaded up with vanilla ice cream.  This fritter was clearly big enough to share....

Obviously that crisp mountain air made us hungry!
Again,  this year was no exception - a beautiful day in the mountains, colorful scenery, good friends, lots of laughs and crisp, delicious apples -- the perfect recipe for a fall tradition.  So, now I have a very large bag of apples that I need to do something with - perfect timing for October's cake -- Betsy Farnsworth's Autumn Apple Cake. 

I can't spend the day in the mountains without being flooded with fond memories of some of our dearest friends...Jim and Betsy Farnsworth.  The Farnsworth's are a lovely, tradional, and large  Southern Family - full of grace, eccentricities, history, colorful stories and laughter. Mr Farnsworth (who has now passed on) was larger than life while Mrs Farnsworth is the quintessential southern lady - a giving but firm mother of 6 sons who was very involved in her community and her church - and, of course, a great cook.  My husband went to work for the Farnsworth's as a freshman in college and quickly became a part of their family - and, when I  came into Guy's life, they graciously welcomed me with open arms.  We held our wedding rehearsal dinner in their large, lovely home in Greenville, South Carolina...we spent part of our honeymoon in their North Carolina mountain house -- like I said, many, many fond memories. 

Jim and Betsy Farnsworth -- dear friends for years and special guests at our wedding. 
So, whenever I am in the mountains I am reminded of spending crisp, cool days at the Farnsworth Mountain House -- relaxing on the big, wrap-around porch, listening to the sounds of nature and enjoying the autumn colors surrounding us.  Often, on these visits, we'd enjoy one of Mrs. Farnsworth's homemade treats, like her Autumn Apple Cake.  This is the perfect cake for fall - moist and dense from the apples, crunchy with nuts, slightly spicy and fragrant from the cinnamon, covered with a warm brown sugar-and-butter glaze...enjoy!   

There is something so special about using a recipe that is hand-written by a dear
friend - every time I pull this recipe out of the recipe box I see Mrs Farnsworth's 
writing and am instantly reminded of her.

Chunks of apples and nuts mixed into a hearty, moist batter.  This cake is relatively easy to make - but, be prepared, it takes some strength to stir this batter!

You glaze this cake when both elements (cake and glaze) are warm, so the
glaze soaks into the cake.  Tip - using wax paper or parchment helps keep your
cake plate and counter clean and neat.

October's cake - Betsy Farnsworth's Autumn Apple Cake

Like I said, I love traditions - making new memories and savoring memories of past years - and this year's fall trip to the mountains to get apples did indeed prove to be a very sweet and special time.   Hopefully you have your own traditions and are enjoying the fall!

Betsy Farnsworth's Autumn Apple Cake

1 1/2 cup cooking oil
2 cup sugar
3 eggs
3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp vanilla
3 large or 4 small apples, finely chopped (any kind of apple will do, but I especially like Winesap or Granny Smith in this recipe)
1 cup nuts, toasted and roughly chopped (either pecans or walnuts will work well)

1 stick butter
2 Tbsp heavy cream (or milk)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350 and prepare tube pan or Bundt pan (butter and dust with flour).

Combine oil, sugar and eggs in bowl of mixer and beat on medium speed for 3 minutes. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, salt, soda and cinnamon - then add to oil mixture. Mix well, then add vanilla - note, mixture will be very thick. Fold apples and nuts into mixture and stir by hand to combine.

Bake for 1 hour 15minutes or until toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean (begin checking after 50 minutes). Cool cake in pan on a cooling rack for 15-20 minutes.

While cake is cooling, prepare glaze. Place all ingredients in medium saucepan and bring to a boil, then cook for 2 minutes. Remove cake from pan and pour hot glaze over cake while it is still warm. Glaze will be thin and soak into cake