27 October 2009

Another One Bites the Dust: A Daring Bakers' Disaster...uh, Challenge

I live directly above one of the best-known bakeries in the 17th. Often when I tell someone what street I live on, they’ll ask “oh do you live near ze famous boulangerie?” (Well, I’m not going to mention it by name so then the entire world will know exactly where I live!)

When my husband and I first visited it, one of the first things we noticed was the scent of fresh-baking bread that permeated what is now our apartment. The owner explained he had just baked a batch of brioche. On our subsequent visits, he told the same story and went so far as to show me his open cookbook in the kitchen. Though never the brioche. But my husband and I weren’t fooled. In the course of our dealings with him, we learned that he was going through a divorce and trying to get rid of the apartment fast. He’d had a few offers fall through. He wanted to unload the place (without revealing the true sales price to his soon-to-be ex-wife) and for whatever reason feared the constant scent of fresh-baked goods would be a deal-breaker.

To be honest, I’ve never been bothered by the barrage of odors that come wafting up through the vents from the bakery down below. Well, with the exception of a few weeks where they were trying out new and different curry recipes for one of their lunch items. Several of my friends have commented on it – saying they’d be unable to ignore the scents and would spend half their lives wolfing down whatever was on sale downstairs after smelling it. Personally, I actually like waking up to the smell of fresh baking bread, or croissant, or brioche, or...macarons.

Yes, macarons - the challenge recipe for this month’s Daring Bakers. Not only does the baker downstairs make fantastic macarons, but if he is closed, I have about 2 dozen other bakeries within a 5 block radius where I can get them. And if that wasn't enough, it’s only a short 7-minute walk over to the Champs Elysees where I can take my pick from either La Durée (arguably the best known macaron maker in the world ) or Pierre Hermé at the Drugstore (arguably the best macarons in the world). So frankly it never really crossed my mind to make them myself.

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe. When I learned of this month’s challenge, I was quite excited. To live in Paris and never bake macarons is a lot like living in the US and never baking cupcakes. I read up on macarons, researched various ways of making them and whenever I met a French person who told me they baked, I asked them how they made their macarons. By the time I got around to making my macarons, I was fairly confident I had the best advice on how to achieve the perfect macaron - a smooth, shiny, shell; the right rise or lift; the coveted feet on the bottom of the shell, etc. And you know what? I experienced an epic fail!

Yes, my first time baking macarons was an absolute disaster. But as Lis told me once Daring Bakers is just as much about learning from your mistakes as it is sharing your accomplishments so I’ll post here what I experienced. Maybe some of you macaron experts out there would be kind enough to tell me where I went wrong. :(

I could tell from the get go that I hadn’t ground my almond powder finely enough. As I carefully mixed my firm egg whites (which I had let sit out for 2 days before beating) into the dry mixture, the texture was grainy and rough. Undeterred, I piped the macaron shells on to my baking sheet and let them sit for about 40 minutes before popping them in the oven. As I watched, they started to puff up nicely and grow perfect little feet. As time went on, they kept growing and the feet became granulous puddles around the shiny shell. My macarons melded together and then flattened out as I took them from the oven. After I had let them cool and removed them from the baking sheet, I discovered the shiny shells were baked but hollow. The batter had in essence run out from underneath and baked around the shell. I have no idea why this happened. Could it be that they didn’t have enough solids to hold them together since the almond powder wasn’t fine enough? Or the fact that it was a rainy, humid evening here in Paris? I was discouraged.

It’s the school holiday now and I knew that I wouldn’t have a chance to make these again before the reveal date. I grudgingly sandwiched several together with 2 fillings I had lovingly mixed up - a chocolate ganache and a mint buttercream - and left them in the fridge overnight. The verdict: my macarons sure were ugly and didn’t look anything like they should. But my husband said they actually didn’t taste half bad and thought it was a pretty good turnout for my first try. I had to agree about the taste though they were a bit chewier than any macarons I've ever sampled. I can say for certain I won’t be serving these to company anytime soon. I have the baker downstairs for that.

**UPDATE** Okay, now that the reveal date is here, I've been reading some of the other DB's experiences with this recipe and it seems that many (many of whom are experienced macaron bakers) criticize this recipe -- too wet being the common complaint -- and mention that it definitely is not a good choice for a first-time macaron baker. In fact, seems many of my fellow DBs made multiple batches of this recipe attempting in vain to correct it and then gave it all up in favor of other, more successful recipes such as that by Syrup & Tang or fellow DB, Tartelette. Starting to feel slightly better about my outcome but still.....

23 October 2009

Trick or Treat & Sugary Sweet

8 days til Halloween! I'm reminded every day of the number of remaining days til Halloween by my 6 year-old. He is a Halloween fanatic, which I am sure many of your kids are too. The ironic thing with my kid though is that since he has lived in France since he was 10 months old, he has never celebrated a traditional Halloween with Trick-or-Treating. Maybe it's the dress up, maybe it's the pumpkin, maybe it's the idea of ghouls and goblins lurking about, but this kid just loves Halloween (like me!) and so every year, I try to find things to do that capture the same spirit as the classic Halloweens I spent as a child.

Since he is still too young for one of my favorite spooky Halloween movies (just thinking about the theme song gives me the creeps! Checking over my shoulder now to make sure there is no one standing there....seriously!), we try to keep in the spirit by carving a jack-o-lantern that glows in our window (sadly we're usually the only people on the block to have one) and getting together with other anglophones to celebrate on the big day. This year, we are thinking of attending a party being planned at the Champs de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower. A far cry from the Halloweens of my youth!

I've been baking up lots of Halloween cupcakes this week and having a great time doing it. Some of my favorites accompany this post.

On a slightly different topic, the October challenge of Iron Cupcake Earth: Music wraps up tomorrow so I need to tell you about the final cupcake I baked up for the occasion....

Before I had kids, I used to wake up at 6AM maybe 4-5 times per week to hit the gym for a few hours before heading to the office. Oh I still get up often at 6AM but it’s usually to bake or ‘cause one of the kids is up early. And I still do a lot of running … to my son’s school, to my kitchen, to my daughter’s singing classes, to playdates, to jujitsu, to the parc, etc….unfortunately not very much of it is for pleasure as it used to be but more like frantic, out-of-breath, perpetually late and missing a doudou, water bottle, blankie, insert other valued item here type of physical activity. I do try to run once a week as exercise for my sanity, and to give me the illusion of staying in shape, but let’s face it, a once a week run doesn’t do much to combat the endless sampling of cupcakes and buttercream I do on a daily basis!

Turn on my iPod and you’ll find my running playlist reads like a Who’s Who of bands from the ‘80’s with a little Missy Eliott, Justin Timberlake and Eminem thrown in. I got Run-D.M.C. and Loverboy, Cheap Trick and Madonna, Michael Jackson, Tom Petty, And I got the Def Leppard. I can’t help but love these guys. Pour Some Sugar on Me has been one of my favorite running tunes for many years now. There is something about the edgey opening guitar riff, the pounding of the drums and Joe Elliot's suggestive crooning that gets me going - it's an epic rock anthem. And the song title makes such a logical choice for this month’s IC:E Music challenge, gosh darnit! So here is my final entry – a vanilla cream soda cupcake, stuffed with a peach champagne cream and topped with a brown sugar buttercream. I'm sure you recognize the decorations on top:

C'mon, take a bottle, shake it up
Break the bubble, break it up
Pour some sugar on me
Ooh, in the name of love
Pour some sugar on me

Voting for Iron Cupcake will begin no later than Friday, October 30th at 8 p.m. at NO ONE PUTS CUPCAKE IN A CORNER and will be open through Thursday, November 5 at 12 noon. So make sure you get on over there and vote for me! Here's a reminder of what I am competing for.

Happy Haunting to all of you out there. Lastly, don't forget to get in on the action in the final days as I count down to my 1 year blogiversary. Visit my Facebook page and join as a fan; I'll selecting 3 winners at random on Halloween to win 1 dozen cupcakes each. Winners to be announced on November 1.

18 October 2009

That's the Fact, Jack!

My weekend has been all about Jack. First there was the new printing company I wanted to try for edible images on cupcakes. I was so happy to find a place in France that did this versus waiting out the deliveries from the UK. I didn't have a particular client for these so I decided to order some Halloween-related images. Luckily when inspiration struck, I came across this post and adorable carved pirate pumpkin picture.

The blog authors were very, very kind to give me the okay to use their image for my little experiment. I tried two types of edible sheets - one in sugar and one in something called azyme which is a communion wafer consistency (so says the hubby). My daughter devoured the sugar image in no time flat which I took as a good sign. Is it so bad I use my 2 year-old as my taste tester? She hasn't let me down yet!

I made 3 batches of cupcakes with these sheets: 1 dozen Mademoiselle Orangette (orange spice with a chocolate ganache frosting) and 1 dozen vanilla cupcakes with cotton candy buttercream (a new recipe I am tinkering with) were donated to the bake stand at the MESSAGE Bring & Buy today. The last dozen was gobbled up by some of my son's friends at a playdate yesterday. These were made as my last entry to this month's Iron Cupcake Earth : Music with the intent of getting on the Ellen Show. This batch was pumpkin spice with a choco-chestnut buttercream. They are inspired by the old Ray Charles' classic - Hit the Road, Jack. You can read about what I am competing for here and the recipe is below.

In other Jack news, I had an order today for a Jack Russel terrier owner/lover's birthday cupcakes. Her daughter requested Jack Russel Terrier heads on some of the cupcakes. Who am I to argue? I hope Gen and her Jack (Russel that is) enjoyed these special treats.

Hit the Road, Jack Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes with Choco-Chestnut Frosting:
Makes about 18

For the cupcakes:
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I like McCormick's Saigon Cinnamon)
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup butter, room temp
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 cup pureed fresh-cooked or canned pumpkin
3/4 cup buttermilk

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy; beat in eggs one at a time. Mix in pumpkin

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg into a bowl.

Add half the sifted dry ingredients and mix. Add buttermilk and mix until well combined. Add in second half of dry ingredients and mix until smooth and well-combined.

Fill greased or lined cupcake tins 2/3 full and cook at 375° for 20-25 minutes until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from tins and allow to cool on grill.

Choco-Chestnut Frosting
(I don't know if you can get this in the US, but you easily find a sweetened puree of chestnuts in cans here in France. It is devilishly good when combined with chocolate). For the frosting, I used:
about 1/2 jar of Marc Dutheil bio crème de marrons (about 100 grams)
1 bar chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream

Break up chocolate and place in a heatproof bowl. In a small casserole, heat cream until just about boiling. Add creme de marrons, stir and remove from heat. Pour over the chocolate. Let sit for 1 minute then whisk with an electric beater until creamy and smooth. Frost cupcakes. Enjoy!

16 October 2009

Pleased to Meet You!

A big thank you to everyone who stopped by Shopping & Bubbles last night. It's always a pleasure to talk cupcakes with other fans! And it was very cool to meet up with some of you I chat with on twitter in the flesh!

I left behind two boxes of cupcakes for those who pass by today. Clearly not enough for everyone so hurry on over to Tan Square Center! The flavors -- Chocolat Chaud: chocolate cupcake, chocolate buttercream infused with a touch of cayenne pepper and cinnamon, White Russian: coffe cupcake drizzled with Bailey's Irish Cream and topped with a Bailey's buttercream, Choco-Raspberry Berry Berry Good: chocolate cupcake, raspberry buttercream, Caramel Dolce: vanilla cupcake, caramel buttercream, and Chocobutter: chocolate cupcake, peanut butter-cream cheese frosting.

Of course you'll also find comfy "doudounes" by GERTRUDE which are just perfect for this weather, very very cool jewelry by ALICE HUBERT (I've got my eye on one of her lips necklaces) and a gorgeous selection of clothes from ZOE.

A la prochaine!

13 October 2009

From Russia With Love

About 2 weeks ago, I attended an "international mom's dinner" at the home of one of my son's classmates. I do find it ironic that my being American, and therefore part of a minority, deems me as "exotic" in certain circles here.

In total, we were about 15 mothers with representation from Germany, the UK, Italy, Africa, Japan, France and Lebanon. Each mom was asked to bring a dish from her native country and being me, well, it had to be cupcakes!

We had a veritable feast laid out for us starting with a multi-layered "cake" made from goat's cheese and marinated peppers. This was followed by mozzarella sandwiched between two fig halves, pickled radishes, salmon marinated in rice vinegar, chicken with garlic sauce, fried and boiled plantains and other assorted vegetables. I have never eaten so much and so well. The dessert was sensational with cupcakes, sliced mango and pineapple salad, and an authentic, home-made tiramisu from one of the Italian mammas (which incidentally was the highlight of my evening!).

The pics here show my offering of Vanilla Lovers, Raspberry Berry Berry Good, Cointreauversial (chocolate cupcake, drizzled with Cointreau glaze and topped with a chocolate-Cointreau ganache frosting) and White Russian (coffee cupcake with Bailey's Irish Cream buttercream) cupcakes. The White Russians were a new creation for me and I was quite pleased with the results. I'll be bringing them over to Shopping & Bubbles on Thursday night in mini format so if you happen to be in the neighborhood, do stop by....Budem zdorovy!

07 October 2009

Free Cupcakes x 2

Free cupcakes and shopping at the same time? Isn't this what every Samantha, Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte dream of? It's true...mark your calendars for the 6th installment of Shopping & Bubbles organized by the fabulous MARIEluvPINK. Join us for APEROpping 15 October at Tan Square Center starting at 18H. Little Miss Cupcake will have several flavors of minis on-hand for the hungry shoppers to sample.

But wait there's more...yes, that's right...even more chances to indulge in some delicious Little Miss Cupcake cupcakes without emptying your wallet. To celebrate Little Miss Cupcake's upcoming one-year blogiversary, from now through midnight (that's Paris time) on October 31, become a "fan" on the Little Miss Cupcake Facebook page and you'll be entered in our grand cupcake giveawy. 3 lucky winners will win 12 cupcakes each in the drawing on November 1. The winners will need to collect the cupcakes in the 17th (that's Paris, France) and will have their choice of 2 flavors off the Black & Whites or Old School menus for their 1 dozen cupcakes. Who ever said there's no such thing as a free lunch...er, cupcake?

05 October 2009

It Feels Like Sumthins Heatin' Up

Iron Cupcake Earth is back for year 2 and the first challenge brought to us by the Milwaukee Cupcake Queen is Music! The goal is to get the contest featured on the Ellen Degeneres show, and well, those of you like me who watch Ellen know how much she likes to shake her boot-ay!

I had several ideas as soon as I heard this challenge (including submitting my entire blog as I am so frequently inspired while cupcaking by that personal soundtrack in my head!). This year though, Iron Cupcakers are limited to only 3 entries per challenge so I'm baking up the monster hits I think are destined to ride up the charts!

My first cupcake this month is the Senorita cupcake. I know Ellen is a FOJT (Friend of Justin Timberlake) and I can so easily imagine the two of them shakin' it up and down the aisles of her audience as he serenades everyone with this sweet song about a brown-eyed senorita who deals with things she shouldn't have to. Justin thinks she deserves a crown (and someone like him who will love her right).

My Senorita cupcake is a Mexican chocolate cupcake spiced up with cinnamon and just a hint of cayenne pepper. It's topped with a Mexican chocolate ganache (made from a Vosges Red Fire exotic chocolate bar a friend brought me that I have been saving for something special!). Gold dusted "fan," rose and the proverbial crown complete the look.

You can make your own fire at home with the Senorita Cupcake recipe that follows. Gentlemen Goodnite, Ladies Good Morning.

Senorita Cupcakes (makes about 20)
(adapted from Martha Stewart's One Bowl Chocolate Cupcake recipe)
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (if you make a simple chocolate ganache, feel free to add in up to 1 teaspoon cinnamon in the batter to make it extra spicy. I scaled mine back since I paired this with a spicy ganache. In general, I like Saigon Cinnamon for this recipe as it is rather strong and gives you an extra kick).
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
3/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners; set aside. Sift together cocoa powder, flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and cayenne pepper and salt into a large bowl. Add eggs, warm water, sour cream, milk, oil, and vanilla, and mix until smooth, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of bowl to assure batter is well mixed.

Divide batter evenly among muffin cups, filling each 2/3 full. Bake until tops spring back when touched, about 20 minutes, rotating pan once if needed. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely.

Spicy Chocolate Ganache Frosting
4.5 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used a Vosges Red Fire chocolate bar)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp butter, room temperature
2-3 cups powdered sugar

Break up chocolate and place in a heatproof bowl. In a small casserole, heat cream until just about boiling. Remove from heat and pour over the chocolate. Let sit for 1 minute then stir until combined. Next add the butter and stir until combined. If you want to make it spicy, add 1/2 - 1 teaspoon cinnamon.

Let cool for 10 minutes. Using a whisk or electric hand-beater, sift in powdered sugar one cup at a time beating after each addition. Continue adding sugar and beating until mixture is of good spreading consistency.

PS I am competing to win the following prizes from our generous IronCupcake:Earth Prize Providers:
The Demy™ by Key Ingredient
Hello, Cupcake by Karen Tack & Alan Richardson
Bella Cupcake Couture
Cupcake Stackers by Gourmac
The Cake Mix Doctor Returns! by Anne Byrne

Houston, We Have a Problem

My grandfather passed away one summer about 30 years ago when I was just a little girl. My recollections of him are quite fuzzy, though there are 2 things that are inextricably linked to him in my mind. One is the smell of a pipe. He loved his pipe and when I get a hit of that sweet, acrid pipe smoke even today, I immediately think of him.

The second was his love for Star Trek - the original series mind you. He must have had a bad back, or maybe the TV was just installed too low in the family room of my grandparents' apartment (tricked out in 60's style built-ins), because I can distinctly remember the way he always lay flat on his back on the floor, with a pillow under his head, watching TV. I used to get down there with him and we'd watch the continuing voyages of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Bones, Scottie and the others as they boldly went where no man had gone before. I still have a fondness for the series and whenever I happen upon an episode when I home in the US, I am reminded of those early evenings shared with my Papa, as we lay there together on the floor.

These space cupcakes were made for Joseph, who like my son, is a bit of a space fanatic. His current favorite is the Apollo 11 mission when the US put a man on the moon. For those of you who follow my blog, you'll note my special connection with this infamous event. The Apollo 11 was launched into space by a Saturn V rocket (thus the significance of the Sturn cupcakes) but apparently Joseph has a slight preference for the Gemini craft which was the precursor to the Apollo project and that is what you see in small-scale (the decoration that looks like a white crayola crayon!).

One of the local Science museums has a special exhibition on the Apollo 11 mission going on right now. Joseph's mom safely transported these over for the party there so they could enjoy their cupcakes while checking that out. Glad they could be a part of this final frontier space mission!