Things I Ate

When I went to New York City last summer, it was a birthday present to myself. It’s one of my favorite places I’ve been, and was timed with getting my big fat stimulus check, which resulted in a nice bout of clothes shopping. This time I had a significantly smaller budget and the focus of the trip was FOOD. I went to check out the French Culinary Institute (and with any luck will be starting pastry classes as the end of the summer) and ate my way around the city. While the mostly-crappy weather and my stomach capacity didn’t allow me to eat at as many places as I would have liked, I made a point to take lots of pictures. Not of everything, but of all the prettiest things.

It looks upside down, but it was just a weird angle.

It looks upside down, but it was just a weird angle.

One of the first stops we made was to Jacques Torres’s shop in Brooklyn. As you can see, I got a little box of fancy chocolates. The empty spaces are where my best friend’s chocolates were. I’m good at sharing. I also bought a 2 pound bag of quarter-sized dark chocolate disks, but unfortunately left them at my friend’s apartment. She’s supposed to be coming up here soon, though, so my chocolatey treats and I should soon be reunited. The only ones I ate so far were one of the white chocolate chai pieces (intensely chai flavored and very good) and the dark chocolate wine one (filled with a chocolate-red wine ganache and totally yummy). The others are a dark chocolate passionfruit heart, a pistachio chocolate (I like to live dangerously) and, um…I forget what the green-swirled one is. I’ll fine out soon, though, I hope!

Totally truffular.

Totally truffular.

At the FCI (among many other things) I was given a list of places in the city owned by graduates of the school. While I didn’t get to visit most (this time!) I did make a point to go a few blocks away to Kee’s Chocolates, since they gave me a little card for one free chocolate. I bought a box of seven, in tiramisu, pignoli, creme brulee, coconut, green tea, lemon basil and lavender. Unfortunately, I found most of them to be a little lacking in their respective flavors, with the exception of the green tea and lemon basil. Most just had a plain-ish but still high-quality chocolate filling, but the lemon basil had an actual yellow, intensely lemony filling, and the green tea was white chocolate with a gooey, very matcha-flavored filling. I didn’t eat the pignoli one, though, because that belongs to my friend. It’s still in the fridge.

Hello, rosefriend.

Hello, rosefriend.

While debating flavors at Kee’s I happened to notice a little case with two macaron flavors to choose from. Yes please! The one pictured above was rosewater-lychee, and it was good. The rose flavor was strong but not overpowering and the lychee filling was buttery and delicious.

Lavender surprise!

Lavender surprise!

The other flavor offered was lavender, and I was surprised and thrilled to realize, upon biting into it, that the filling was lavender-chocolate, which is such a great combination. I really liked the macarons at Kee’s, and my only complaint would be that the shells were not quite crispy enough on the outside. I won’t fault them for that, though, as it was a miserable rainy day. I guess that means I’ll just have to go back and try them again on a sunnier day!

It was Matcha Day!

It was Matcha Day!

A trip to New York would not be complete for Z and I without a trip to Soho for cream puffs at Beard Papa’s. They rotate their cream flavors throughout the week and we were lucky enough to be there on a matcha day. I love their cream puffs so much, and I made a serious mess eating mine. A picture exists of me making that mess but I don’t have it.

Don't you just want to crawl in there?

Don't you just want to crawl in there?

After Beard Papa’s, we headed a couple blocks over to Pommes Frites, another New York necessity.

The lighting isn't so good, but the frites were epic.

The lighting isn't so good, but the frites were epic.

I couldn’t get a great picture but they were so damn tasty that I’m posting it anyway. We got pomegranate teriyaki, cheddar cheese and rosemary-garlic mayonnaise dipping sauces and they were all incredible. If you haven’t been there, it’s a shame. They fry roughly-cut frites fresh for each order, put them in paper cones and you have your choice of several unique and delicious sauces to dip or have pumped over the frites. It’s worth it to order a few and alternate between different types of greasy, yummy potato goodness. One of my favorite things about the place is sitting on the rough wooden benches in the back, with holes in the tables to set the cones of fries in. Behind the tables is the tiny stockroom, where you can see gigantic bags of huge potatoes. So many potatoes.

So green...

So green...

Eventually we made our way over to TAFU, a tiny little Japanese green tea place nestled into a Doubletree hotel. I had heard that the absolute best source for macarons in New York was a little lady named Mitzi, and that she sold her little treats exclusively at TAFU. Plus I love my tea.

We each got a little bowl of matcha, which was green as can be and totally delicious. Hot and energizing, just what we needed after walking in the cold, windy rain.

Squishy, cold and sweet.

Squishy, cold and sweet.

I noticed they had daifuku, which I hadn’t tried before, so I got one with matcha filling. It was really good, simultaneously light and rich at the same time, icy cold with a chewy rice exterior and creamy matcha interior. If I hadn’t had two people to offer bits to I couldn’t have finished it myself – it was intense!

What deliciousness lurks inside?

What deliciousness lurks inside?

Halfway through my matcha-licious snack I was presented with this fancy little box of goodies. My six precious macarons!

How does she make them so perfect? One of the great mysteries of the world.

How does she make them so perfect? One of the great mysteries of the world.

One of the hardest parts of the whole trip was deciding what flavor NOT to choose – there were seven flavors and only six spots in the box. I ended up leaving matcha, just because I was already consuming so much of it. And I’m pretty sure they always have the matcha ones, since it doesn’t appear to be a monthly flavor on Mitzi’s site. Also they specialize in matcha, so that would make sense.

Hello, friend!

Hello, friend!

That’s the black sesame macaron. It was slightly nutty, slightly seedy and probably Z’s favorite.

You were yummy, little sesame friend.

You were yummy, little sesame friend.

But, it was not my favorite.

Almost freakishly green. Not freakishly flavored.

Almost freakishly green. Not freakishly flavored.

That’s the mint macaron. That one was definitely one of my favorites. The filling was chocolate, but that’s not what was so interesting about the macaron.

I miss this macaron. It was so tasty.

I miss this macaron. It was so tasty.

Mitzi somehow gets her mint macarons to taste like mint LEAVES as opposed to mint extract. It’s incredible. I guess she just uses actual mint leaves, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are mint fairies who sprinkle magic mint dust on each one or something.

Dusted with cocoa powder...and magic.

Dusted with cocoa powder...and magic.

That was another of my favorites – the passion fruit chocolate. I really like passion fruit, I’ve recently discovered, but was not sure how well it would go with chocolate.

I wish passion fruit wasn't so expensive or I'd make all kinds of passion fruit-chocolate stuff.

I wish passion fruit wasn't so expensive or I'd make all kinds of passion fruit-chocolate stuff.

It turns out that passion fruit and chocolate are more than a perfect match. The two flavors melt seamlessly into one another. It’s almost enough to convert this straight fruit-loving girl into a chocolate dessert kind of girl. Almost.

Mmm, mango.

Mmm, mango.

That’s the mango macaron. It was really interesting, because you don’t taste mango immediately upon biting into it.

Makes me want to go eat the mango in the fridge.

Makes me want to go eat the mango in the fridge.

The mango flavor actually comes once you have chewed each bite and are about to swallow, creeping up from the back of your mouth. Sensational.

So innocent-looking.

So innocent-looking.

Ah, jasmine. Another of my favorites. It doesn’t look like much, but damn is it good.

I think I'm going to have to go make some jasmine tea now.

I think I'm going to have to go make some jasmine tea now.

The jasmine flavor is more of an aroma. You don’t really taste it with your tongue, the jasmine comes from your sinuses and the back of your throat. And it’s amazing.

Well hi there, Mr. Caramel.

Well hi there, Mr. Caramel.

That’s caramel-chocolate. It was pretty good.

I'm running out of macaron-related commentary...luckily this is the last picture.

I'm running out of macaron-related commentary...luckily this is the last picture.

No real complaints about it, but it couldn’t touch the mint, passion fruit or jasmine.

There were lots of other places we went but either I didn’t take pictures or the pictures just sucked. The first night we went to a little falafel place in Williamsburg, I don’t remember the name but it was on a corner at a bus stop and was tasty, with gigantic spicy, cumin-y falafel balls tucked into big floppy pitas with a creamy sauce and shredded red cabbage. I didn’t think I liked cabbage, but I think I just don’t like it cooked, as it provided a nice crunchiness that went well with the creamy sauce and chewy falafel.

We also went to Almondine Bakery, across the street from the Jacques Torres shop. I heard their madeleines were great so I got a couple, and noticed they had passion fruit and red currant macarons, so I got one of each of those as well. The madeleines were all right, but I didn’t have any tea to dip them in. The macarons were very sweet but good, with nice crisp shells and good flavor, especially the passion fruit. The red currant had a jelly filling, which was the first one I’ve had like that.

It’s not particularly foodish, but we did stop in at the Brooklyn Flea Market. I really liked some antique lithographs of fruits and vegetables, but they were, well, antique, and the prices reflected that. I did get an adorable little red enamel pot and lid, which I had to leave at my friend’s place.

We had dinner at the Brooklyn Red Bamboo one night, which was good but nothing too special. I just had rice and teriyaki mixed veggies with mango juice, which was just what I needed. Usually I find that when I go to New York I tend to mostly eat pastries and junk food, and by the end of the trip am feeling awful and just want some fiber and greens. By eating a big old pile of steamed vegetables and fragrant rice mid-trip, I was able to keep my enthusiasm for sugary items up and my energy high.

We were also treated to a free lunch at L’Ecole, the FCI’s restaurant. Unfortunately they don’t cater much to the vegetarian crowd, but the baguettes were delicious and the desserts were phenomenal.

We popped in to Evolution at one point, which I believe is basically the East Coast branch of LA’s The Bone Room. It’s essentially a museum where you can buy everything on display. Human child skull? Sure. Various animals’ penis bones? Yup. 10,000 year old cave bear skeleton, on sale for nearly as many dollars as it is old? You bet! Pretty hardcore and awesome. With an authentic embalmy smell. They had ancient fossils of sea critters and shiny crystals and stuff, too, but the cave bear skeleton was probably my favorite.

The final stop we made was to Dylan’s Candy Bar, which was all right. It was loud, overpriced and crowded – just the thing I don’t like about the more popular areas of Manhattan. But a place with bulk bins of jelly beans and gummy candies is a place with bulk bins of jelly beans and gummy candies. Plus they had really awesome candy-in-resin stairs leading to the other floors. And the smell of fresh cotton candy. Yum. Honestly, though, I’ve found better selections of both Jelly Belly flavors and other candies at little cheap hole-in-the-wall candy shops.

There were lots of places I would have loved to visit but the weather was terrible most days and the trip sort of sloppily planned. I missed out on the Fred Flare storefront (they closed earlier than I thought), Momofuku Milk Bar (we left the neighborhood it was in, thinking it was closer to our next destination and were too cold and tired to trek back), Rice Ball Cafe (cold, tired and still stuffed with frites), The Doughnut Plant (just didn’t get there), Chikalicious Dessert Bar (just didn’t have time and it was lower on the list)…

So there you go. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to visit again between now and when I plan to start classes, but either way there will be more review-y type entries whenever I get the chance to stuff myself silly on yummy junk food in The Big City. Unless you guys don’t like when I do that. Then there won’t be.

Lacy, Lovely and So Easy

Here’s another little lavender something I whipped up before my trip to bring to my best friend in New York.

Surprisingly healthy! Really!

Surprisingly healthy! Really!

While I don’t particularly like some forms of alternative baking (especially vegan…you want me to bake something with NO EGGS? HAHAHA…no) I do enjoy the challenge of baking for my best friend and mom, who both have an allergy to wheat, among other things. So I was excited when I came across a recipe for flourless oatmeal lace cookies in my copy of The Joy of Cooking during the four day power outage in February. I immediately made a note about them, adding “lavender?” onto the end.

Oatmeal makes them an acceptable part of a healthy breakfast!...Right?

Oatmeal makes them an acceptable part of a healthy breakfast!...Right?

In the baking-frenzied days leading up to my trip, I realized they would be perfect to bring along in a little tin, so I made them. And they were goooood. So good that when I offered Z one that wouldn’t fit in the tin, he asked if I could make him his own batch. I haven’t yet, but I will. Maybe once the macarons are gone. Though first I have to make chocolate chip cookies with some incredible chocolate disks I picked up.

Perfect with tea, but then, what isn't?

Perfect with tea, but then, what isn't?

These cookies would be perfect to pack in a lunchbox or on a picnic because they’re so small. Which also makes them adorable. Little tiny disks of oatmealy, lavender-scented goodness! What could be better?

Packed in like sardines. Actually, nothing like sardines.

Packed in like sardines. Actually, nothing like sardines.

And must I say that these are really easy to make? As in, one bowl (plus mortar & pestle) easy? Perfect for Inexperienced Bakers and Those Who Loathe Dishwashing alike. Or just anyone who wants a batch of tasty, crispy little springtime cookies.

Lavender Lace Cookies (adapted from the Joy of Cooking)

These guys escaped the tin. But not my mouth. Omnomnom.

These guys escaped the tin. But not my mouth. Omnomnom.

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 tsp dried lavender

1 egg

2 tsp melted butter

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp vanilla extract

1/3 cup unsweetened dessicated coconut

2/3 cup raw oats

Preheat the oven to 350. Grind together the sugar and lavender in a mortar & pestle until the lavender is finely crushed throughout the sugar. Set aside. In a medium mixing bowl, beat the egg. Add the lavender sugar and mix well. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a Silpat (I tried both and preferred the Silpat since it yields a more evenly golden, shiny bottom) and drop the dough by half-teaspoons about an inch apart. Bake for 10 minutes, or until the edges are lightly golden brown. Allow to cool fully before removing from sheet. Makes about 2-3 dozen.

There’s really no reason not to bake these up as soon as possible and take them on a nice little picnic. It’s lovely and sunny outside here. I recommend bringing along a thermos of tea and a couple of mismatched fancy china cups to pour into. Or, if it’s rainy and yucky where you are, enjoy them inside with tea – their springy flavor will remind you that rain doesn’t last forever and things will be just a little bit greener and more alive once it does stop.

My goodness, I’m optimistic today.

Just Because

I’ll be writing up my trip to New York in the coming days – I’ve got a lot of pictures to edit and a box of the most gorgeous macarons to eat. But in the meantime, here’s a little something sweet I put together before I left.

I don't see an end to this lavender obsession of mine. And I don't really care.

I don't see an end to this lavender obsession of mine. And I don't really care.

If the cookie looks a little familiar, it’s because they’re from the same batch as these, just in the shape of the Eiffel Tower as opposed to little bumpy rectangles. The Eiffel Towers were actually the “original” shape I made – the rectangles were just to use up some of the dough (and they were a LOT easier to cut out). I even still have a lump of dough in the freezer.

The Eiffel Tower cutters are part of a set of little world landmarks given to me by my best friend this past Christmas. Originally I just wanted to make cookies with each that reflected the flavors of that particular region, but I may (all right, probably will) end up going all out and making cookie-topped cupcakes for each one. We’ll see.

Ooh lala, you brought friends!

Ooh lala, you brought friends!

There was no reason behind these cupcakes really – it was just an idea I had. They were a bit of work considering the cookies, but were light, sunny and delicious. The two main flavors are lavender and meyer lemon, and the lemon really shines.

I considered using a richer frosting given the French appearance, but they ARE already topped with butter cookies. And it's springtime.

I considered using a richer frosting given the French appearance, but they ARE already topped with butter cookies. And it's springtime.

The lemon curd in the middle of each cupcake is by far the best curd I’ve tasted. It’s just incredibly flavorful  – so good I saved the leftovers in a jar. Which I’ve been dipping a spoon into every once in a while. What?

There is a bit of an unexpected flavor component in the cakes themselves. After making the spinach lasagna, I had some leftover fresh thyme from my mushroom ragu, and as thyme is sometimes used in French cooking (alongside lavender and other herbs in herbs de Provence, for example) I decided to finely chop some and add it to the cupcakes. As a result, the cupcakes are fragrant and subtly herbal, providing a great background for the meyer lemon flavor to really pop.

Paris in Springtime Cupcakes

Lavender everywhere!

Lavender everywhere!

First, Make the Meyer Lemon Curd (from Recipe Girl, which says you need like 4 lemons but mine were big so I only needed 2)

2 tsp meyer lemon zest

1/2 cup meyer lemon juice

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces

Whisk together the zest, juice, sugar and eggs in a metal bowl. Add the butter and set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Cook the curd for about 5 minutes, whisking constantly. Once it’s thick, strain it into a bowl. Press plastic wrap into the surface and poke a few holes for steam to be released. Refrigerate until chilled.

Then, Make the Lavender Thyme Cakes:

1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened and cut into Tbsp

3/4 cup sugar

1 cup cake flour

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup milk, plus a little extra (you’ll be heating it so you’ll lose some volume)

2 egg whites

1 Tbsp plus 1/2 tsp dried lavender

1/2 tsp fresh thyme

Place the milk and Tbsp of lavender in a small saucepan and heat until it just boils. Immediately strain and set aside to cool. Finely chop or crush the remaining lavender and thyme. Cream the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer and sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a separate bowl. Add the herbs to the dry mixture. With the mixer on low, alternately add the dry and wet ingredients in two or three additions until well-combined. Turn the speed up to medium-high and beat in the egg whites until the batter is light and fluffy. Pour into lined cupcake tins and bake in a preheated oven at 350 for about 10-12 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of a cupcake comes out clean. Allow to cool fully before filling.

Once the cupcakes are cool, fill them with curd using the cone method, trimming the cones themselves into thin disks. You could use an injector but I find I can get more filling into the cupcakes this way, and as long as they are well-frosted it doesn’t matter if there’s a little “man hole cover” on the top of the cakes. Once filled, set the cakes aside.

Now Make the Lemon Meringue Frosting:

4 egg whites

2/3 cup sugar

1 tsp meyer lemon juice

1 tsp meyer lemon zest

Pinch cream of tartar

Pinch fine sea salt

1/2 tsp or so yellow gel food coloring

Place everything but the food coloring into a double boiler over simmering water. Whisk constantly until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is hot. Transfer to a stand mixer (I just put my mixer bowl over the water) and whip on medium-high until it is cool and forms soft peaks. Beat in the food coloring. Put the frosting by fourths into a pastry bag fitted with the largest round tip you have and swirl it onto the cupcakes. Top with lavender-colored sprinkles and Eiffel Tower-Shaped Lavender Roll Out Cookies.

These cupcakes were well-received all around, and, more importantly, everyone was able to tell that the cookies were Eiffel Towers! Hooray!

Watch out for another lavender-iffic cookie recipe, a picture-filled write up or my trip, my second attempt at homemade ice cream and lots more. Plus, by the end of spring I hope to move from this crappy blog to my very own domain under a much better name. Wheee!

Lavender Obsessed

This will be a short entry, more of a teaser than anything else. I’ve been in the kitchen making sugary concoctions, but won’t be able to post about them for a few days. I’m leaving for New York tomorrow morning to see the culinary school I’m planning to go to and taking plenty of treats with me for friends there. And just because I love New York so much, we’re spending a couple extra days exploring and having food adventures. Not the best idea considering my money has no real way to replenish itself at the moment, but I don’t go out much anymore so it’ll be worth it.

Hello, cookies! Hello, spring!

Hello, cookies! Hello, spring!

The cookies in the pictures are actually made from extra dough. I’m putting the finishing touches on my first cookie-topped cupcakes this morning. The cookies that will go on top of the cupcakes are in a different (and much more tricky to cut out) shape, but are also cris-crossed with purple icing. These cookies aren’t really meant to be spectacular on their own, so don’t expect anything fabulous when you make them. I just love this basic cookie recipe.

The original recipe comes straight out of the Joy of Cooking. The lavender is my own addition – I wonder when I’ll get tired of putting lavender in everything? Maybe when it starts looking/feeling more like spring outside (the snow is gone and it’s not FREEZING anymore, but it’s not warm and flowery yet either).

Lavender Roll Out Cookies

These would make great sandwich cookies, perhaps with some lemon curd?

These would make great sandwich cookies, perhaps with some lemon curd?

1 cup butter, softened and cut into Tbsp

2/3 cup sugar

1 egg

1/4 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 tsp dried lavender, crushed with mortar & pestle

2 1/2 cups AP flour

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg, baking powder, salt, vanilla and lavender and beat until mixed well. Gradually beat in the flour. Turn our the dough and form it into a disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 3 hours. Preheat the oven to 350. Roll the dough out to 1/4″ thickness and cut with cookie cutters. Bake on a parchment- or Silpat-lined cookie sheet for about 10 minutes, or until just golden around the edges. Allow to cool fully before icing.

Lavender Royal Icing

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

1 egg white

1 Tbsp Monin lavender syrup

Juice from 1/2 meyer lemon

About 1/4 tsp each blue and red gel food coloring

Sift the sugar into a bowl. Whip the egg white until stiff but not dry, then gradually add the sugar and other ingredients. If the icing is very runny, add more powdered sugar. Pipe with piping bag or use a toothpick for fine lines and details on cooled cookies.

I’ve got another kind of lovely lavender cookies to share, as well as the final, assembled epic cupcakes. And some pate de fruits. And maybe some ice cream. But I have a feeling it will all have to wait until I get back – so Wednesday night or Thursday morning. By then maybe I’ll have some fun pictures and stories to share from New York – I always bring the camera and forget to take any pictures, but I’ll really try this time. At least to get pictures of some of the foods (ok, mostly pastries) I plan to eat.

Tropical Comfort Food

This was a first for me – I don’t have any childhood memories of eating bowls of comforting rice pudding. In a household where skim milk and frozen yogurt reign, you don’t get indulgences like that. Not that I didn’t have awesome desserts growing up, just nothing that contained full-fat cream.

Eat it on a rainy day and pretend you're in the rain forest!...Or not.

I wouldn’t have even attempted to make this, but I had about a cup of leftover rice and some mango and pineapple in the fridge, and after polling the masses, the idea of tropical rice pudding won me over.

Creamy, fruity, spicy...yummy.

Creamy, fruity, spicy...yummy.

The only problem I encountered along the way was that every recipe I found for any tropical rice pudding called for coconut milk, which I didn’t have. However, I do have a LOT of dessicated coconut, so I made my own “coconut milk” by simmering some of the milk with coconut. I could have strained it afterwards but chose not to, as the coconut adds an interesting textural contrast to the creamy rice and mango and slightly chewy pineapple.

Little spicy specks...

Little spicy specks...

Coincidentally, I had just bought some cardamom pods (my first ever) a few days before, and thought they would go nicely in this dish. I used three – I should have used two. When the rice pudding is hot, it tastes AWESOME, but once it cools the cardamom makes it a little bitter. The addition of some vanilla sugar helped mellow it out a bit (plus it helped to make up for the sweetness lost by not using actual coconut milk), but I much prefer it hot anyway.

Tropical Rice Pudding (adapted from Alton Brown‘s Indian Rice Pudding)

Now I want some. Yum.

Now I want some. Yum.

1 cup cooked white rice (I used jasmine)

1 cup milk + 3/4 cup

2-3 Tbsp unsweetened dessicated coconut

1/2 cup cream (I used whipping cream because it’s what I had on hand but heavy cream works too)

1/4 cup sugar

2-3 Tbsp vanilla sugar, to taste

Seeds from 2-3 cardamom pods, crushed finely

Pinch cayenne pepper

1 small ripe mango, diced small

1/4 fresh ripe pineapple, diced small

Simmer 3/4 cup milk with the coconut, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, Boil the rest of the milk with the rice, then decrease to low and simmer until thick, stirring frequently (much like making risotto) for about 5 minutes. Add the “coconut milk” to the rice and increase the heat to medium. Add the cream, sugars, cardamom and cayenne and cook until just thick, about 5-10 minutes. While cooking, whisk occasionally to keep the cardamom from clumping. Once it’s thick remove it from heat and stir in the mango and pineapple. Serve warm or chilled, depending on your taste.

I really wish I had some pistachios to add to this, it needs a crunchy element. Toasted sesame seeds might even be good. It reminds me of a fantastic coconut soup I once had at an Indian restaurant, which is probably why I prefer this hot.

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna: Daring Bakers March 2009

I was wondering what kind of challenge we’d be thrown this month for Daring Bakers. Last month was easy as they come, and I was cringing in anticipation of some ridiculously complicated, week-long project. Luckily it didn’t take me a week, just an afternoon/evening. It wasn’t particularly easy and it was a crazy day overall, but I was able to make it. And it was soooo delicious.

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

Oh lasagna, how I've missed you.

Oh lasagna, how I've missed you.

I’d been reading from the first few people to complete the challenge that this made quite a bit of food. I have memories of my mom making lasagnas (typical American style with noodles, marinara and mozzarella…maybe a little spinach if I remembered to ask in advance) and the gigantic pan of leftovers being kept in the garage during the winter so they’d keep. So what do you do when you know you’ll be making entirely too much food?

You can clearly see the layers...yeah, my noodles are a little thick.

You can clearly see the layers...yeah, my noodles are a little thick.

You throw a lasagna party!

All right, it wasn’t a huge party…just two other people…but it was still a lasagna-filled good time. Even if I was in the kitchen for 6-8 hours. Not counting the late-night cleaning bender I went on before bed.

Seriously, I could go on about lasagna FOREVER. I love this stuff.

Seriously, I could go on about lasagna FOREVER. I love this stuff.

I thought about tweaking the recipe more than I did. Ultimately, though, the only thing I ended up changing was the meat ragu called for. Not only do I not eat meat, but that recipe also required the use of several different kinds of meat…I can fry great bacon and sear the perfect steak no problem, but I’m not prepared to mess with things like veal. Not to mention the price of that much meat. I just don’t know meat.

I decided to substitute a mushroom ragu instead, and found a recipe by Mario Batali that worked perfectly. I don’t know much about Chef Batali, but I figured he has to know what he’s doing, at least when it comes to Italian-ish stuff. And, obviously, the sauce was awesome. Fresh thyme = sooooo good.

There's those layers again. Did I mention this lasagna undid a month's worth of working out? IN ONE NIGHT.

There's those layers again. Did I mention this lasagna undid a month's worth of working out? IN ONE NIGHT.

I also had some trouble with the noodles. No problem rolling – I have an old (like, vintage, my grandmother owned it) pastry rolling pin and I love rolling things out, as long as it can be done somewhat haphazardly. But I couldn’t initially get the dough to come together. At. All. I ended up adding three extra eggs. I know. But I was freaking out…our friends were coming soon, I was trying to throw together sauces, get a loaf of bread in the oven, and the dough wasn’t a dough!

Luckily, I have an awesome boyfriend who has a neat little hobby – sculpting. With Sculpey. Which involves a lot of kneading to get to the right consistency. So I got my nice little green ball of dough!

And yeah, I did basically end up with spinach-y egg noodles since I added the extra eggs. But egg noodles are good, and chewy, and hey, they help replace the protein missing from the meat exclusion. Right?

At least lasagna freezes perfectly and I can enjoy a gooey little piece of lasagna goodness anytime...until it's gone. :(

Lasagna freezes perfectly and now I can enjoy a gooey little piece of lasagna goodness anytime...until it's gone. 😦

A few tips:

Go easy on the bechamel when you’re putting the lasagna together. I noticed some other Bakers claimed to be short on the bechamel. Just remember that you’re also putting some cheese in all the layers, and dot it on as opposed to pouring or spreading it. I ended up with the perfect amount of everything. I also used a little tub of pre-grated parmesan. While I do have a wedge in the fridge for grating, I decided it would be worth the time and money saved on a tub of decent quality cheese.

Don’t panic if your noodles won’t roll out thin enough at first. Let them rest a few minutes and roll again. I was able to double the amount of noodles I had by doing this and they were still plenty thick.

Find someone who knows how to knead Sculpey or has made pasta before to bring your dough together. Seriously. I will totally make pasta again (recently found out my mom used to make it a lot but I was too young to remember; a request has been submitted for her to “teach me [her] noodly ways”) so I’ll learn it eventually but I was seriously freaking out. I guess I would have been more relaxed if I hadn’t invited people over.

Oh yeah, definitely invite people over. It’s great for sharing. Bake some bread for everyone to munch on while you finish up the lasagna. Cue up one of the greatest movies ever to watch while everyone eats. And make sure to save room for dessert.

The recipe below is what I did. It’s good – the noodles are chewier with the extra eggs but it went well with the overall flavor of the dish. The original recipe called for only two eggs in the noodles. If you can manage to squeeze the moisture needed to bring the noodles together from the spinach, don’t add all the eggs. Or add some water. Or do what I did anyway.

…This also assumes that you’ll be making this all at once. At the end I’ll provide notes for preparing things in advance.

Vegetarian Lasagna with Homemade Spinach Egg Noodles

Extra sauce is just for show. I didn't even eat this piece...well, not that day, anyway.

Extra sauce is just for show. I didn't even eat this piece...well, not that day, anyway.

First, Make the Dough:

2-5 eggs

10 oz. finely chopped fresh spinach

3 1/2 cups AP flour

Mount the flour in the center of a clean work surface. Make a well in the middle and add the (first two) eggs and spinach. Using a wooden spoon, beat the eggs and spinach together, then gradually incorporate the flour a little at a time, taking care to not let the “walls” of the flour mound collapse until you don’t have any liquid left that could potentially escape. If it’s too dry, add more eggs or some water. Knead it all together like clay until it forms a cohesive but shaggy dough. Knead until it’s elastic and sticky. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour. Remove any dry bits of dough from your work surface and continue to knead until the dough is satiny smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Form it into a ball, wrap in plastic and allow to rest anywhere between 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Now, Make the Sauces:

Mushroom Ragu

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Medium onion, cut in 1/4″ pieces

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

3 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme

1/2 finely grated medium carrot

28 oz. canned tomatoes

Pinch of coarse salt

In a 3 qt. saucepan or large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring often, until soft and golden brown, about 8-10 minutes, then add the thyme and carrot. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrot is soft, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes with their juice and crush them with your spoon. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until thickened (about 1o minutes). Season with salt. If you don’t like chunks in your sauce, allow to cool slightly, then run the whole thing through the blender for a bit until desired consistency is achieved. Set aside.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

12 oz. mushrooms, cleaned and finely chopped (I used half button, half baby bella)

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 cup tomato sauce, or more if desired

1 Tbsp butter

Salt & pepper, to taste

In a saucepan or large pot, heat the oil over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until light golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until the juices are released and evaporate, about 10 minutes. Add the wine, tomato sauce and butter, and season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium and cook another 5 minutes or so, or until somewhat thickened. Set aside.

Now Make the Bechamel:

4 Tbsp butter

4 Tbsp flour

2 2/3 cups milk

Salt, pepper & nutmeg to taste

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Sift in the flour and whisk until smooth. Continue stirring 3-4 minutes, then gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a slow simmer, stirring for 3-5 minutes until thick. Season to taste and set aside.

To Cook the Noodles:

Divide the dough into fourths and remove one piece, keeping the rest of the dough wrapped until ready to roll out. Lightly flour your work surface and shape the quarter of dough into a ball, then flatten it into a circle. Roll it out evenly, turning by fourths as you go. Once it’s thin, allow it to rest for a few minutes, then stretch the dough by rolling one edge onto your rolling pin and pulling gently. Alternate rolling and pulling the dough until translucent, then cut into approximately 4×8″ rectangles. If you’re going to be finishing the recipe at a later time, you can hang the noodles to dry them and store them in a sealed airtight container or bag. If you’re going to be continuing with the recipe immediately, continue to the next step.

Prepare a large pot of boiling salted water, an ice water bath, and a place to set the noodles after cooking (a large plate with paper towels on it to soak up excess water is fine). Boil 4 noodles at a time for 2 minutes. Immediately place into ice water bath to stop cooking and set aside. Repeat with the rest of the noodles until all are cooked.

Assembling the Lasagna:

Spinach Noodles

Mushroom Ragu

Bechamel

4.5 oz. shredded parmesan

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil or butter a 3 qt. baking dish. Reheat your sauces if they’ve gotten cold or have been made a while in advance – you want them warm, but not hot. Drizzle a thin layer of bechamel and spread it around a bit. Arrange a layer of noodles in the pan, then spread with thin layers of each sauce, plus a few extra dollops of bechamel and a sprinkling of parmesan. Add another layer of noodles and repeat until all the ingredients are used, finishing with a thick layer of parmesan on top. Cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes, then remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes. The cheese on top should be just golden but not browned. Turn off the oven, leaving the door ajar, and let the lasagna rest 10 minutes before serving.

If you’re going to be making the noodles a day or so ahead, hang them to dry after rolling them out. Store them in an airtight container or bag until ready to use. Boil for 4 minutes instead of 2. You can also assemble the lasagna beforehand and freeze it before baking. You’d need to bake it for a bit longer or just defrost it beforehand.

The original recipe also said that the lasagna would likely slide apart when cut, but I barely had any problems. It won’t taste any different but it will look nicer to have a neat, even square on the plate.

I was not expecting a savory challenge this month, but I really enjoyed it. I’ve been wanting to try making my own pasta for a while but just didn’t have a reason. This recipe was definitely worth the effort, though I don’t know if I’d do this exact recipe again unless I had a specific request. Lasagna just isn’t something I can eat more than once in a very long while. I’m excited to find out what next month will bring…and who I’ll be sharing it with!

Cantalicious

What do you do with an underripe cantaloupe, some overripe strawberries and a half-empty bottle of wine?

Mmm, I'm making another one tonight.

Mmm, I'm making another one tonight.

You make homemade wine coolers!

Originally I was just going to make a refresco con agua, which is a Costa Rican fruit smoothie (you can make it con agua or con leche – any melon is perfect for con agua; I prefer banana only con leche). But I was wondering what other fun things I could put in there that would go with the melon. I looked up melon on this super awesome flavor pairing site and noticed that one result was chardonnay. I definitely have chardonnay! Wine coolers ahoy!

I might try adding a bit of lavender to this later...or rose.

I might try adding a bit of lavender to this later...or rose.

I have been wanting to do more drink recipes, to sate my inner mixologist. Really thinking of maybe looking for a bartending job. At some point. Even though my certification has long since expired. And it’s super hard to get a job mixing drinks around here.

One thing I cannot replicate tonight is that strawberry garnish. Only one in the package had such a funky stem.

One thing I cannot replicate tonight is that strawberry garnish. Only one in the package had such a funky stem.

I guess you’d have to call this a fresco con vino. But what’s wrong with that?

Fresco con Vino de Melon con Fresas (Melon Wine Cooler with Strawberries)

If only every picture had come out this colorful. I think it's the different background.

If only every picture had come out this colorful. I think it's the different background.

About 1/3 of a slightly underripe canteloupe, cut into chunks

About 5 strawberries, washed and sliced in half, plus two whole ones for garnish

2 or 3 ice cubes

1/2 cup Chardonnay

1 tsp sugar

Place all ingredients into a blender. Pulse until there are no chunks of ice or fruit remaining. Pour into your nicest wine glasses and garnish each with a strawberry that’s been split up the bottom with a paring knife. Serves two (or one really big glass…I won’t judge).

I think I’ll be experimenting with other combinations of fruits and wines throughout the spring and summer. This is an awesome, interesting way to use up excess fruit, or that little bit of wine left in the bottle from that fancy dinner. The gears are already turning in my head as to what to do with a little Merlot I have sitting around…perhaps some blackberries and maybe even a little…chocolate? And the raspberry wine that sits sadly on the counter but is too sweet to drink straight…that would go well with some bright, zingy citrus. Perhaps some meyer lemon? We’ll see how much of that I have left over after my latest (not-for-competition! surprise!) cupcake endeavor.

Adding to the Confusion

I feel fairly confident in saying that every single person (at least in the US) who has ever made, eaten or even mentioned macarons has had to explain themselves. No, they are NOT macaroons. So stop looking at me like I sprouted a third eye when I go on about how delicate and finicky they are to make. I know you can make those little plops of sweetened coconut all by yourself and not have to worry about feet, domes, cracking, fillings, etc. No coconut is involved in the macaron.

Next time I'm making much more colorful ones, I promise!

Next time I'm making much more colorful ones, I promise!

…Well, USUALLY no coconut is involved. Can’t say that holds true when you have a coconut-loving boyfriend like I do.

These are purely for Z, and I wasn’t even going to post about them because I wasn’t impressed with them. They were the first macarons I baked on my Silpat as opposed to on parchment, and I think it may have affected the height on the feet. They’re there, but just barely. And I found it is nearly impossible to remove a macaron shell from a Silpat in one piece. Or maybe that’s just me.

I admit I DO like the sprinkling of coconut flakes on the shells.

I admit I DO like the sprinkling of coconut flakes on the shells.

I also found the color to be, well, not so colorful, and after posting an all-white macaron already, I didn’t want to seem monotonous. But last night, while Z was happily gorging on the goodies that have been accumulating in our fridge, he convinced me that I should probably post about these. Because he loves them that much.

Macarons are fun to stack!

Macarons are fun to stack!

I still have plenty of coconut on hand, so I will probably try these again. But I think I’ll be adding sesame and perhaps a little ginger to the mix, in tribute to one of Z’s favorite ice creams – after popping these in the oven, I realized that sesame seeds would have been a more interesting thing to sprinkle on the shells. But the coconut does work, and toasts up just a little bit in the oven.

At least my shells are round, domed and always come out the right texture, in spite of other flaws.

At least my shells are round, domed and always come out the right texture, in spite of other flaws.

My only other complaint about these is that I don’t care for the filling personally – it is a bit too buttery. Also, the only coconut extract I could find was imitation, meaning it smells like suntan lotion. It’s interesting how a fake extract like that is acceptable until you get it right up next to the real thing. I would encourage anyone wanting to try these to maybe cut back the butter a bit and use a natural flavoring. But if you have a butter-loving coconut fan to feed, you may not have to make any adjustments at all.

Coconut Macarons

They didn't all come out the same size, but they did all come out circular. Hooray!

They didn't all come out the same size, but they did all come out circular. Hooray!

First, Make the Shells:

1 cup powdered sugar

1 cup almond meal

3 egg whites, aged & room temperature (left out on the counter in a bowl under plastic wrap for a whole day is fine)

1/4 cup sugar

1-2 Tbsp unsweetened dessicated coconut, plus more for sprinkling

Prepare a baking sheet with either parchment or a Silpat. If using parchment, you can trace circles on the bottom as piping guides. Sift together the powdered sugar and almond meal, sprinkle with coconut and set aside. In a stand mixer, whip the egg whites to a foam and gradually add the suger until you obtain a glossy meringue. Fold the meringue into the dry ingredients, quickly at first and then more deliberately until there are no more streaks of dry ingredients visible (not more than about 50 strokes). Test a small amount of the batter by dropping it onto a plate or other flat surface – if the peak flattens slowly by itself, the batter is ready. If it’s stiff, give the batter a few more gentle folds and test again until it’s ready. If you’re using parchment, take a bit of the batter and apply it to the corners of the paper to help it lay flat on the sheet. Place the batter a third or so at a time into a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip and pipe the shells. Sprinkle each piped shell with some of the extra coconut and allow to sit for an hour to form a skin. Halfway through that time, preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Bake the shells for 10-13 minutes. If they seem a bit overly wet on the inside at the end of the cooking time, turn off the oven and prop it open, allowing the macarons to sit and dry out a little. Once the macarons are fully cooled, remove them carefully from the baking sheet with a sharp implement to help loosen them (if you try to just pull them off chances are you’ll decapitate the poor things). Set aside.

Now Make the Filling:

2 egg whites

1/2 cup sugar

3/4 cup butter, softened and cut into Tbsp

1 tsp coconut extract

Unsweetened dessicated coconut

Place the egg whites and sugar in a heatproof bowl (if using a stand mixer, the bowl from the mixer is fine). Bring a small pan of water to a simmer and place the bowl over the water to form a double boiler. Make sure to not let the bowl touch the surface of the water. Stir continuously until the sugar is dissolved, then remove from heat. With a stand or handheld mixer, whip the egg whites on high until stiff peaks form, then quickly mix in the coconut extract. Switch to the paddle if using a stand mixer, turn the mixer down to low and beat the butter in one piece at a time, making sure each piece is fully incorporated before adding the next. If it looks curdled at any point, keep beating it and wait for it to smooth itself out again. Spread or pipe between fully-cooled shells, sprinkling with dessicated coconut before sandwiching them together.

I’m enjoying playing with macarons – coming up with flavors and fillings for them is just as fun as coming up with elaborate cupcakes. I’ve got tons of ideas that I’d like to try over the next few months so you’ll be seeing a lot more macarons. Hooray!

Iron Cupcake Earth: Nuts & Seeds II

This is a recipe I’d like to tweak some more, but the ingredients are not terribly easy to come by. However, the flavor pairing I picked is one I really like.

Gooey, sticky and sweet.

Gooey, sticky and sweet.

When I learned the theme for this month was nuts and seeds, I had to be my weirdo self and google around for a while to find the most unusual nut I could. I ended up with chestnut – something I’d never eaten before. I had to get my hands on some…

Did you know chestnuts are crazy expensive? I sure do now!

It's what lies under that frosting that I like...

It's what lies under that frosting that I like...

I also had super ridiculous adventures trying to get some! It involved two trips, and two different health food stores and a grocery store. Also the discovery of a really cool candy store where I stocked up on jelly beans and old-timey candies!

Once I procured a (very expensive) jar of (happily non-moldy) chestnuts, I was able to taste them and determine that they were, well, weird. Out of nowhere a couple days later I realized what they needed – maple!

You know what also perked up this filling? MORE MAPLE.

You know what also perked up this filling? MORE MAPLE.

I experimentally boiled several of the pre-cooked chestnuts in maple syrup for a while and ended up with something that I’m so glad to have a little extra of: chestnut maple syrup, and is it ever awesome. Chestnut and maple go oh so well together. These cupcakes are almost perfect. Almost.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re pretty great. The cake itself is sooo good. Especially hot out of the oven. You could just drizzle the maple syrup on that. I did. The filling is good, too. I’m just not crazy about the frosting. I don’t really like powdered sugar frostings, I guess. I much prefer buttercreams and meringues to cloudy icings. Also it was my first try at making a browned butter frosting, and I think maybe I didn’t brown it enough, or brown it correctly. Who knows.

The chewy chestnut pieces on top are another issue for me. I like them and think they bring a little interesting extra texture contrast to the cupcakes, but are one of those things that make me self-conscious that maybe my stuff is a little too weird. Like they’d keep someone from wanting to try them. So if you are feeling extravagant enough to make these, you can skip that part if you’d like. I won’t be offended. But DO get some chestnuts to boil in the syrup. Really.

Chestnut Maple Cupcakes

Writing all of this has made me appreciate these cupcakes more.

Writing all of this has made me appreciate these cupcakes more, somehow. I was kind of mad at them earlier. I'm sorry, cupcakes.

First, Boil the Chestnuts:

At least 7 oz. pre-cooked jarred chestnuts

Maple syrup (at least 12 oz.)

Place the chestnuts in a medium saucepan. Cover with maple syrup and cook on medium heat for about half an hour, stirring gently every once in a while. Don’t let it bubble too much or scorch. Using tongs, remove the chestnuts to a cooling rack over parchment or wax paper. Let the syrup cool a bit, then pour it into a clean jar (mine fit perfectly in an 8 oz. jar) and seal tightly. Allow the chestnuts to sit until no longer sticky (they will still be tacky but not overly so); overnight is fine.

Then You Bake the Cakes:

1/2 cup butter, softened and cut into Tbsp

3/4 cup sugar

1 cup AP flour

1 cup chestnut flour

3 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup milk, plus 1-2 Tbsp, if necessary

1/2 cup chestnut maple syrup

4 egg whites

With a stand mixer on low, cream the butter until fluffy, then slowly add the sugar. Sift together the dry ingredients and alternately add wet and dry ingredients, minus the egg whites. If the batter is very thick and more like a dough, gradually add a bit more milk. Add the egg whites all at once and beat on medium until fluffy. Bake in an oven preheated to 350 for 15-20 minutes.

While They Cool, Make the Maple Cream Filling:

1 cup milk

2 egg yolks

1 egg

4 Tbsp chestnut maple syrup

2 tsp cornstarch

4 Tbsp butter, cut in fourths

In a small saucepan, bring the milk to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Meanwhile, combine the yolks, egg, syrup and cornstarch and whisk until smooth. Slowly add the hot milk in one continuous stream, whisking constantly. Return to the saucepan and simmer until thickened, whisking constantly. Once it’s thick, immediately strain it into a bowl and add the butter, stirring constantly. Place in an ice water bath to finish cooling if you’ll be assembling the cupcakes immediately. If you’re assembling the cupcakes in a few hours, cover the bowl with plastic wrap pressed down onto the surface. Cut a few holes to vent and refrigerate.

Now Make the Maple Brown Butter Frosting:

3 cups powdered sugar, sifted

1/2 cup butter

1/4 cup milk

1-2 Tbsp maple spread or maple syrup (I happen to have some spread, it’s just a more solid form of the syrup)

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Continue to cook until golden brown. Add the browned butter to the sugar and whisk in the milk and maple spread/syrup. Continue whisking until smooth.

To Assemble the Cupcakes:

Cupcakes

Maple Cream

Maple Brown Butter Frosting

Maple Syrup (you could also use the Chestnut Maple Syrup, I chose to use the rest of my plain syrup for extra maple flavor)

Maple Candied Chestnuts, chopped roughly (optional)

Fill the cupcakes with the maple cream using the cone method. For each one, trim the cone from the top so it’s flat on both sides and set aside briefly (this is so you can get the most filling in the cupcake without it oozing everywhere). Add a few drops of maple syrup onto the cream filling, then replace the tops. Frost each cupcake with a butter knife and press chestnut bits into the frosting, shiny side up.

Chestnut and maple maybe isn’t the first thing you think of eating when you’re trying to coax out spring via foodstuffs. But it’s a combination that I’ll use again. I’m totally using the rest of the chestnut flour for muffins – it’s really wholesome-tasting and naturally sweet.

Since this is an Official Iron Cupcake Entry, here’s the Prize Info:

Our March ETSY PRIZE-PACK is from artists:

Last and certainly not least, don’t forget our corporate prize providers: HEAD CHEFS by FIESTA PRODUCTS, http://www.fiestaproducts.com, HELLO CUPCAKE by Karen Tack and Alan Richardson, http://blog.hellocupcakebook.com, JESSIE STEELE APRONS http://www.jessiesteele.com; TASTE OF HOME books, http://www.tasteofhome.com; a t-shirt from UPWITHCUPCAKES.COM http://www.upwithcupcakes.com/. Iron Cupcake:Earth is sponsored in part by 1-800-Flowers, http://www.1800flowers.com . And as a special thank you, we would like to once again thank DIANAEVANS – http://www.etsy.com/shop.php?user_id=5599270 for her participation in the February challenge. An incorrect link was posted and we want to be sure that she gets the recognition she deserves. Thanks again Diana!

Iron Cupcake Earth: Nuts & Seeds I

A little sloppier than I'd like, but it was a crazy day in the kitchen.

A little sloppier than I'd like, but it was a crazy day in the kitchen.

I was definitely intrigued by the nuts and seeds theme this month. I thought of lots of potential ingredients…I do a lot of stuff with almond flour these days, oh but sunflower seeds are Z’s favorite…hmm, but what about poppyseed? No, poppyseed is good, but too obvious. And then I had a Very Original Idea, which morphed into an Even Better Idea, which I am going to attempt as my second entry once I have more butter. But there were compenents that got knocked out by the evolution of the idea, namely salted caramel, and I couldn’t abandon something as awesomely delicious as salted caramel. So I brought in my good friend Mr. Cashew. Mr. Cashew and salt are friends from way back, and the rich smoothness of caramel pairs wonderfully with the almost creamy texture of cashews. And what was going to tie them all together? An awesome rich chocolate ganache, that’s what!

I wonder what those giant crystals could possibly be?

I wonder what those giant crystals could possibly be?

These cupcakes are really, REALLY awesome, and I definitely would make them again. I found a recipe for peanut butter cake – no chocolate, just a cake recipe that had a cup of peanut butter in the batter. Then I tweaked it around and substituted cashew butter (which is not cheap but so much nicer than peanut butter – can you tell I don’t really like peanut butter?) and ended up with sturdy but still mysteriously light-as-air cupcakes. I think beating the cashew butter into the rest of the batter really lightened it up and made it fluffy, and the extra fat the cashew butter added makes the tender cake melt in your mouth.

Come on, by now you should know that those aren't sugar crystals on that cupcake...

Come on, by now you should know that those aren't sugar crystals on that cupcake...

I filled each cake with a generous dollop of caramel pastry cream. I added 1/2 tsp fine sea salt into the batch along with the vanilla and butter and it was soooo good. Seriously, it was hard to keep myself from just eating the warm salted caramel cream with a spoon before I got the plastic on it. After plugging up the little holes in the tops of the cupcakes, I spread a rich chocolate ganache on top of them – if I hadn’t gotten confused and made the ganache too soon, I would have tried dipping the cupcakes, but the spreading went relatively well even after the ganache stiffened more than I wanted it to.

And then I topped them with whole salted cashews and a sprinkling of crunchy, awesome coarse sea salt.

Delicious gooey surprise!

Delicious gooey surprise!

These cupcakes kind of capture everything I love about cashews – their smooth, fatty, almost creamy richness; the way they blend so perfectly with chocolate, caramel and salt alike; just a hint of crunch. Light and snacky, but also substantial and filling. Yummmm…

Salted Cashew Turtle Cupcakes

One cashew was not enough. They were lonely!

One cashew was not enough. They were lonely!

First, Make the Cakes:

3/4 cup butter

2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

2 cups AP flour

1 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup buttermilk

3/4 cup hot water

1 cup cashew butter

In a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar together. Add the eggs one at a time, making sure they are thoroughly blended, then add the vanilla. Sift together the dry ingredients and alternately add dry and wet to the batter. Once everything is well blended, add the cashew butter and beat on medium-high until completely mixed and light and fluffy. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 for 12-15 min.

Salted Caramel Cream (adapted from Lucy Vaserfirer’s recipe)

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

2 cups milk

2 1/2 Tbsp cornstarch

1 egg

2 egg yolks

1 Tbsp butter

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

Combine water and all but 2 Tbsp of the sugar in a heavy medium saucepan. Bring to a boil for 8-10 minutes, until dark and caramelized but not burned. While the syrup is boiling, prepare an ice water bath. Once the sugar is caramelized, dunk the bottom of the saucepan in the ice water to stop the cooking. Remove from the bath and slowly stir in the milk. Don’t freak out if your caramel totally seizes – the next step is to simmer over low heat until smooth, and it may take a while but all the hardened caramel will totally melt, I promise! Just stir gently until it’s smooth and darkened from the caramel. In the meantime, whisk together the cornstarch and 2 Tbsp sugar, then whisk in the egg and yolks. Increase the heat on the caramel mixture to medium and simmer, then pour into the egg mixture in one long, slow stream, whisking constantly. Return to the saucepan and cook over medium for a couple of minutes, whisking the whole time, until the mixture thickens and just begins to boil. Immediately strain it into a bowl and stir in the butter, salt and vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap pressed down onto the surface with a couple holes punched in it to vent the steam, like you would for a curd. Place in refrigerator and use once cooled.

Chocolate Ganache

8 oz. good quality dark or bittersweet chocolate chips (or a slab of finely chopped chocolate)

3/4 cup whipping cream

2 Tbsp sugar

2 Tbsp butter, room temperature

Combine the cream and sugar in a saucepan and barely bring to a boil. Immediately pour it over the chocolate and whisk until completely smooth. Stir in the butter. If you do this right before you want to frost the cupcakes, you can dip the tops of the cupcakes in. If it sets up a little bit, you can still spread it with a knife, or pipe it.

To Assemble:

Cashew Cupcakes

Salted Caramel Pastry Cream

Chocolate Ganache

Whole Salted Cashews

Coarse Sea Salt

Cut a cone out of each cupcake and fill the resulting hole with the pastry cream. Trim the cone and replace just the top. Frost with ganache and decorate each cupcake with whole cashews and a sprinkling of coarse salt.

Voting isn’t open until the end of the month, but once it is you can go vote for these here.

Here’s the requisite prize info:

Our March ETSY PRIZE-PACK is from artists:

Last and certainly not least, don’t forget our corporate prize providers: HEAD CHEFS by FIESTA PRODUCTS, http://www.fiestaproducts.com, HELLO CUPCAKE by Karen Tack and Alan Richardson, http://blog.hellocupcakebook.com, JESSIE STEELE APRONS http://www.jessiesteele.com; TASTE OF HOME books, http://www.tasteofhome.com; a t-shirt from UPWITHCUPCAKES.COM http://www.upwithcupcakes.com/. Iron Cupcake:Earth is sponsored in part by 1-800-Flowers, http://www.1800flowers.com . And as a special thank you, we would like to once again thank DIANAEVANS – http://www.etsy.com/shop.php?user_id=5599270 for her participation in the February challenge. An incorrect link was posted and we want to be sure that she gets the recognition she deserves. Thanks again Diana!