Bites of sunshine: Mini mango cupcakes

August 2, 2010 § 2 Comments

The Washington D.C. metro stations are located deep underground, requiring long escalators to transport you into the depths of the tunnels. For the eternity you are in the tunnels, packed in like sardines with the other commuters — and tourists depending on the time of day — all other life seems to stop beneath the fluorescent lighting. And then, you emerge on the other side, the sunlight hits your face from the top of the escalator, and for a moment, you stand there blinded until your eyes adjust to the new streets.

Ascending from the escalator of the Eastern Market Metro station was like arising into a different city; it projected me back to my hometown of San Francisco, where street vendors, farmers’ markets and flea markets are in full force on Saturday morning. Buckets of plump, juicy blackberries, soft enough to crush between your fingertips, and wooden crates overflowing with fuzzy peaches, both yellow and white lingered in the sun as we made our way past the first tables of the market. Our eyes were drawn to the glittering silver earrings, paintings of the city bursting with color and bright friendship bracelets in patterns I would never have attempted in 5th grade. One man sat behind a wide array of baking dished painted with bright blue and yellow flowers, inducing child-like delight in me.

On the corner, a photographer brought her lens up close to an old man strumming a guitar and a younger, slightly worn-down, man peddled the Street Sheet. We sat down for lunch at the Montmartre Bistro, where we ordered buckwheat crepes stuffed with prosciutto and cheese and fluffy omelets filled with spinach and fresh tomato. I finally saw crates of summer heirloom tomatoes, brilliant reds and oranges swirling together on their smooth skins. People sat on the sidewalks, eating grilled crab cake sandwiches and sipping lemonade, each poured over an entire lemon. We bought marbled soaps, made in a woman’s home kitchen, cut off of long slabs, in scents of African earth and pure peppermint.

When we finally descended back into the Metro tunnel, we were exhausted, stuffed and bearing several packages. It would only be fitting now to leave with a recipe made with fresh, seasonal fruit. These mango cupcakes are like tiny bursts of sunshine; the cake is studded with pieces of caramelized fruit and the frosting is a light buttercream, folded with mango purée. I actually preferred them without the frosting, when they are just barely sweet, much like those of the original author of the recipe. This is a special post, for the simple reason that the recipe is written in French. I am moving to Paris at the end of August and, over the next few weeks, I will be transitioning a lot of my baking to French to gain a fuller immersion experience. For this recipe, I used mango instead of apricots, for which the original recipe calls, though I am sure these cupcakes are equally good — or better — with apricots. Apricots bring to mind childhood summers spent in the south of France, though I am unsure of whether the apricots are real memories or ones I have sentimentally fabricated over the years.

Original recipe reprinted here, can also be found at Les Gourmandises d’Isa


Pour 8 personnes :
12 abricots
12 noyaux d’abricots
1/2 tasse ( 125 g ) de beurre fondu
2 cuillères à table de miel
3 oeufs
3/4 tasse ( 150 g ) de sucre
1 cuillère à thé d’extrait de vanille
1 et 1/2 tasses ( 180 g ) de farine
1 et 1/2 cuillères à thé de poudre à pâte ( levure chimique )
1/2 tasse ( 60 g ) d’amandes en poudre

Préchauffer le four à 400 F ( 200 C ).
Préparer un moule à muffins en les garnissant de 8 caissettes à cupcakes.

Dénoyauter les abricots en réservant les noyaux et coupez-les en petits dés.
Fondre 2 cuillères à table de beurre, prélevé sur la quantité initiale dans une poêle et faites-y revenir les abricots avec le miel durant 10 minutes, en remuant régulièrement pour qu’ils caramélisent de tous côtés.
Casser les noyaux d’abricots afin d’y récupérer les amandes. Plongez-les une minute dans de l’eau bouillante, puis enlever la peau qui les recouvre.
Hacher grossièrement les amandes et réserver.

Blanchir les oeufs avec le sucre, au batteur électrique puis ajouter la vanille.
Ajouter la farine et la poudre à pâte, puis le reste de beurre fondu, les amandes en poudre, les amandes d’abricots hachées et les abricots.

Séparer la préparation dans les moules préparés et enfourner pour 25 à 30 minutes ou jusqu’à ce que les petits gâteaux soient dorés et qu’un cure-dent inséré au centre, en ressorte propre.
Sortir du four, et laisser refroidir sur une grille.

My summer so far

July 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

I feel as though I have been absent for a very long time. Like the days have gotten ahead of me and it’s somehow 1 a.m. and I’m not home yet but it feels like I just left the house for work. The recipes have gotten ahead of me, the bookmarked ones have been adding up and the ones I have made have been disappearing before I have a chance to think about them. There were the molten chocolate cakes (baked in my new cake pans) that we made one night in about twenty minutes, which disappeared just as quickly. The blueberry crumb bars, of which I cut a small sliver to save — gone by the time I got home from work.

But despite these disappearances, I have been learning quite a bit about food. We made risotto, using the entire box of rice, quickly realizing just how much rice an entire box of rice is. We pan-fried risotto balls, stuffed with fresh mozzarella and breaded, the next night for dinner. Perhaps a better day of cooking was when we had tomato-mozzarella tart for dinner and plum clafoutis for dessert. The plum clafoutis was easy to pull together, the crepe-like batter is simply poured over cut plum slices, skins on and everything.

Plum Clafoutis
From Gourmet Magazine

1 lb black or red plums, pitted and cut into eighths
2 tablespoons Armagnac or other brandy
1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp sugar, divided
4 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon pure almond extract
Confectioners sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 400ºF with rack in middle. Butter a 2-qt shallow baking dish.
Toss plums with Armagnac and 1 Tbsp sugar in a bowl and let macerate 15 minutes. Transfer plums to baking dish with a slotted spoon and pour juices into a blender. Add eggs to blender with milk, butter, flour, salt, extracts, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar and blend just until combined. Pour over plums.
Bake until puffed and just set in center, about 35 minutes. Cool 15 minutes, then dust with confectioners sugar.

Another time…

…we excursioned to the fish market by the waterfront and bought live lobsters and soft-shell crabs…then looked up how to cook them. The lobsters sat on our kitchen floor for a bit while we boiled them one by one in the small pot and fried the battered crabs until brown and crispy. I made a honey cornbread to go along with the seafood and one of the boys grilled fresh clams in the backyard.

About two weeks later, I headed over to the Eastern Market after work (which I hear is better on weekends) and bought crushed-chili hummus, stuffed grape leaves and chocolate cream ravioli, which didn’t totally win my heart. Perhaps it was the disconcerting idea of chocolate pasta, but I ate it feeling like it was all a bit strange. We’ve spent Friday evenings at the jazz concerts in the Sculpture Garden on the mall, dining on crusty bread, hummus, guacamole and sangria. And late weekend nights at Five Guys.

Nectarine-custard tart

July 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Houses stacked on top of each other, walls touching, vines wrapped around balconies as if to protect the inhabitants from the streets, which are invariably delicately smudged with dirt and garbage and fallen fruits from the trees above. Buses are packed full of businessmen and women, middle-school children who giggle obnoxiously loudly and 30something men who casually sit in the back and make you distinctly uncomfortable with just one look. This, in my eyes, is a city. Here, I see people at three times of the day, 8:50 a.m., lunchtime, and 5 p.m. During those times, the pristine metro is packed, the streets bustle with people in a rush to get to their destination — which alternates between the office, the restaurants, and home — and for a brief moment, I am reminded of home. During the other times, I am shocked by the empty streets, surrounded by 6 story buildings with glass walls, housing cubicles, and, if you’re lucky, large personal offices. Washington D.C. seems to me a city made to be a city but not much else. Maybe I am just shocked by a city government that actually keeps the sidewalks clean and the streets drivable, but there is so much vapid, empty space here and it makes me uncomfortable.

Yesterday, I took the metro up to Friendship Heights after work. I wanted new baking pans from Williams Sonoma so that I could finally bake in shapes other than a 9-inch circle and a brownie pan. I picked up a long, rectangular tart pan, a couple mini tartlet molds and a set of four 5-inch spring-form cake pans, which are super adorable. Then I decided that since I was on Wisconsin Ave. anyway, I might as well walk home. I had no idea how far it was until I was halfway home (I checked on the metro maps at all the bus stops, yet somehow did not get on a bus) and I had already been walking for 40 minutes. When I finally got home, I decided a run was unnecessary and went right to breaking in one of the new pans.

I was really excited to use my new rectangular tart pan. At home, the Boulangerie Bay Bread makes all their tarts as rectangles and sells them by the slice. I used to love their thick slices of flan after school. Nothing other than a traditional tart would do to christen my new pan. I made a traditional flaky crust with just a smidgen of sugar, layered a bit of almond flour at the bottom, then topped it with a creamy vanilla custard. As soon as the custard was mostly set in the oven, I topped the tart with a layer of fresh nectarines, gently dusted with cinnamon sugar and turned the broiler on. The sweet custard, juicy, tart nectarines, and crackled, golden, sugar topping made this tart a true winner.

I wish I could post better pictures of the tart. Unfortunately, blogging from this house is becoming incredibly difficult. Often, I get home around 8 p.m., spend about an hour deliberating over what to make and crossing out recipes for which I don’t have half of the ingredients. When I finally get something out of the oven, it is too dark to get a reasonable picture. The biggest hurdle is getting through the night; there has been many a time when I wake up the next morning, intending to get a good picture in the daylight, only to find that whatever it was I left out on the counter has been devoured by my housemates. When there is a tiny sliver left to photograph, I run into camera problems. My own camera is still chilling somewhere next to the IRAs race course in Camden, NJ or (equally likely) being enjoyed by the clever person who managed to steal it at the regatta.

Flaky Tart Dough
Adapted from Tartine

1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup very cold water
3 cups + 2 tablespoons flour
1 cup + 5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

In a small bowl, add the salt to the water and keep in fridge until ready to use.
Add the flour to the work bowl. Cut butter into 1″ chunks and scatter across the top of the flour. Pulse briefly until you have large crumbs. (I don’t use a food processor and instead do this with my hands) Add the cold water/salt mixture and pulse until the dough begins to come together in a ball but is not completely smooth. You should still see chunks of butter (about pea size).
On a floured surface, divide the dough into two balls, shape into disks 1″ thick (work the dough as little as possible). Wrap well in plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours or overnight.

To make the custard:
3 eggs
3/4 cup white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups milk

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs, vanilla, sugar and salt until smooth and frothy. In a saucepan, warm the milk until just before boiling. Add the milk to the bowl and whisk until combined. Pour the custard mixture into the tart pan.

Assembling the tart:
Take the tart shell out of the refrigerator. Sprinkle a generous layer of almond meal over the inside bottom of the shell; this will help absorb the moisture from the custard and prevent a soggy crust. Pour the custard mixture into the shell and brush the side of the tart with an egg white. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the middle of the tart is set. Remove the tart from the oven, layer with thin slices of nectarine and sprinkle (sparingly) with cinnamon sugar. Put the tart back into the oven under the broiler on HI for a couple minutes or until the top is just starting to brown.

Strawberry cake with fresh whipped cream

June 29, 2010 § 2 Comments

It’s not even July yet and I already feel like I know what people are talking about when they complain about DC summers. Afternoons spent standing in buses, in business clothes, sweat dripping down you certainly aren’t my idea of fun. I have a distinct feeling that by the time August comes around, I’ll be changing my outfits at least three times a day in pursuit of the ever elusive fresh and clean feel. But afternoons in DC aren’t all bad. Come the weekend, our house is all about the afternoon BBQs — or as East Coasters call them, cookouts — on the backyard patio. And the grill is finally working again, so there’s no more smoky kitchens while the boys try to prepare meat.

A couple of days ago, one of my housemate’s families came to stay and they prepared dinner, which was really nice of them. We were put in charge of preparing dessert. This was a near disaster — when we came home from the grocery store with all the ingredients at 11 p.m., only to discover we were out of eggs, we tried a faulty egg substitution that turned our cakes into dense, flat, pancakes. Definitely not the pretty layer cake we were hoping for.

But nothing that couldn’t be saved with a little (or a lot of) whipped cream and fresh strawberries.

Strawberry Cake
The original recipe, from Martha Stewart, was for 34 cupcakes. We made two 8-inch cakes. Martha also suggested a strawberry buttercream frosting, which we nixed in favor of sweetened whipped cream.

3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 1/4 cups sugar
3 large eggs plus 1 large egg white
1 cup whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups finely chopped strawberries, plus small strawberries for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350º. Cream together the butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla mix until smooth and creamy. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Slowly add the dry mixture to the butter mixture, alternating with adding the milk. Finally, stir in the chopped strawberries. Top the cake with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. Bake until the top is golden brown and the knife comes out clean.

Happy Hour: Peach ginger muffins

June 17, 2010 § 1 Comment

You would think, just based on this blog, that I would have no troubles cooking meals on a daily basis. It is a rare occasion for me when something goes really, really wrong in the kitchen. Sure, I’ve seen not-so-knockout cupcakes and cookies that spread a bit too thin, but I really don’t share the aversion to cooking of many of my teenage friends. But the last week and half have proven that cooking is a lot harder than it looks.

I have no problem with baking. I can roll out of bed and start making cookies in a heartbeat — and have done so on many occasions — but when it comes to actually cooking dinner, I’m dragging my feet. I find myself making all the excuses I’ve heard so many times previously and laughed at: I don’t have any ingredients, cooking will take too long, there is this friend I really want to have dinner with, Lucky Bar is having 50cent taco Happy Hour, it’s Ladies Night at the Melting Pot fondue restaurant and, my favorite one after starting work, I’m just too tired. So we have been in Washington D.C. for about a week and a half (though it feels like so much longer) and we have only managed to cook dinner twice. To put that in perspective, I have also made a cake and two batches of cookies. This week, all we managed to cook up was prosciutto tortellini. Last week, it was this spinach quiche. And then there was that time the boys made fried chicken and the kitchen fogged up with smoke for the entire night. But we swear we are cooking tonight, so be on the lookout for a dinner update coming soon.

In the meantime, here is a little taste of home. My baking and my parents’ fully stocked kitchen, with all the ingredients already there and no need for a frantic, last minute grocery run. The recipe will follow soon, as it is currently in a brown box being shipped across the country.

It’s Moving Day: Blueberry golden cake

June 10, 2010 § 1 Comment

Well, we are good and settled into Washington D.C. We are subletting a cute townhouse with a red front and green trim, right next door to Saxby’s coffeeshop. A couple oddities about the house first: front door keys seem to be nonexistent, as does hand soap in the bathrooms, the backyard is more of a concrete pit and there are strange paper flowers as décor in the front room. But we’ve been slowly switching things up a bit. Hand soap came a few days ago courtesy of a CVS trip and the Phillies flag hanging over my bed was quickly replaced with a California state flag. Other than a few minor roadbumps, the house is great and the boys are sweethearts* (though one of them, deemed the Georgetown cuddler by the others, has yet to arrive).

While everyone else has started work this week, Caroline and I have been bumming around the house and exploring the neighborhood. We’ve discovered great vintage clothing stores, Georgetown Cupcake and plenty of frozen yogurt and gelato shops. We’ve gone on an ill-fated trip to the grocery store and still have yet to cook dinner, despite the fact that neither of us are absolute disasters in the kitchen. We went on a run and somehow found ourselves jogging through the Arlington Cemetery. Oh, and then we met Ralph Nader at a book signing in Dupont Circle.

I’ve also spent a bit of time in the kitchen, exploring the baking options. It’s a good thing I brought most of my baking pans from college as well as most of the ingredients that were left over at the end of the term. Unfortunately, in a last minute panic over how many bags I had to squeeze into the car, I decided to leave the flour and sugar behind. This posed quite a few problems when I decided to make a cake yesterday morning. I picked this recipe for a nectarine golden cake from Sassy Radish. Except instead of nectarines, I decided to use blueberries, which I picked up Buy one get one free at the supermarket. Then realizing I had no white flour, I used ¾ cup of whole wheat flour and ¼ of almond flour. And with no white sugar in the house, it was all brown sugar. Sure the cake didn’t come out anything like the original, but it was delicious all the same.

Blueberry Golden Cake
Adapted from Sassy Radish, which in turn was adapted from Gourmet, September 2009

3/4 whole wheat flour
1/4 almond meal
2 teaspoons baking powder
Rounded 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup plus 1/2 tablespoon brown sugar, divided
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups blueberries
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter a 9-inch pan. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Cream butter and 3/4 cup sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in vanilla. At low speed, mix in flour mixture until just combined. Spread batter evenly in pan, then scatter blueberries over top. Stir together cinnamon and remaining 1/2 Tbsp sugar and sprinkle over top. Bake until cake is golden-brown, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes. Remove side of pan and cool to warm.

Photo by Caroline Clark.

*Bill would like to make a correction that he is a thug and not a sweetheart.

Say goodbye to home: Whole grain breads

June 9, 2010 § 1 Comment

Awhile ago I mentioned that my family had started baking our own bread. While I was home we made a couple loaves a week, the first being a molasses rye bread and the second a honey whole-wheat walnut bread. I can now honestly say that I do not think I will ever be scared of yeast again. It’s like a baby. Set it in a bowl with a little warm water and a sugar to consume and it will grow, flourish, and make beautiful, tall loaves of bread. To be eaten right out of the oven, still warm and slathered in butter. Bread is one of those wonderful foods whose smell just radiates the feeling of being home. I think it will be the first thing I make in my new house in Washington D.C. (I just moved in two days ago!).

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