Friends and family know me as the friendly baker. I bring cupcakes to graduation parties, bake miniature cakes for birthdays, and send cookies across the country for Christmas every year. But the people at the Collingswood Farmer’s Market know me as someone else: a highly competitive baker, a woman who has a stash of first, second and third place ribbons in her kitchen work table drawer.
Last October, at the annual Apple Pie Baking Contest, I had a market coordinator come up to me after I set my caramel apple pecan praline pie, topped with a handcut squirrel top crust, on the judging table.
“I hear you’re the baker to beat.”
Yes, I bake cupcakes. Lots of them.
Until a few years ago, this wasn’t a controversial hobby. I’ve been a baker for as long as I can remember, graduating from watching my Grandma Betty make chocolate chip cookies in her sunny upstate New York kitchen to writing my own cake recipes and starting a baking blog.
Before becoming the dessert to hunt after — or sneer at, depending on your tastes — cupcakes were the kind of thing your mom threw together the night before you needed to bring a treat to share at kindergarten. A box of mix, a plastic tub of frosting, and maybe even some rainbow sprinkles. Cupcakes were made for church bake sales and baby showers, or really any event where it makes life easier when you can simply hand someone their portion in a tidy wrapper.
But my, how times have changed. Ever since Sprinkles Cupcakes opened in Beverly Hills in 2005, and we all watched Carrie lovingly bite into a Magnolia cupcake on Sex in the City, cupcakes have watched their star rise high. And for many, it has risen too high.
The first time I picked sour cherries, my husband and I encountered an older gentleman just past the bucket stand. Sitting back on his perch, he kept an eye on pickers as they entered the orchard, calling out “Sweet cherries! Sweets that way!” and pointing to the right. Instead, we turned left, making a beeline for the sour cherries. Leave the sweet cherries for those who plan to eat them out on the back porch while fireflies flit around — I had pies and jams and cakes to make.
The man watched as we turned left down the row toward the sour cherries and called after us, “No! No! Wrong way! The sweets are this way.” We smiled and told him, no, we wanted sour cherries, thanks.
“No sweets?” he seemed perplexed. Why in the world would we want something sour?
And that, in fact, is how many people react to sour cherries — they get tripped up on the word “sour”. Even during the 2014 picking season, I had a man come up to me as I was elbow-deep into the branches of a heavily fruit-laden tree and ask me what kind of cherries I was picking. When I answered, “Sour!” he made a strange little sound in the back of his throat and high-tailed it in the opposite direction. Oh well, more for me.
As a child, the turning of the calendar page to June meant that a visit to see my grandmother and aunt in LaFayette, NY would be around the corner. My mother and I would pack a suitcase, wave to my father and German Shepherd Sasha as we pulled out of our driveway in southeastern Virginia, and began what seemed like the longest car ride ever up north, peppered with Phil Collins cassette tapes and quick fast food meals eaten in the car.
The reward at the end of the 9-hour drive, thankfully, would be my grandmother’s strawberry shortcake. She would pick the berries in the morning while we were driving up and bake the subtly sweet biscuits in the afternoon. We would arrive shortly before dinnertime, and after having a light meal, she would step away to make fresh whipped cream. Then the shortcakes would be served.
Everyone has a pet peeve. Some people are sticklers for grammar, while others can’t bear their food touching. These minor aggravations seem silly, but we all know how infuriating a pet peeve can be. I, too, have a pet peeve, but mine is serious. I’m confronted by it so often — almost on a daily basis — that I’m close to my breaking point. From my neighborhood coffee shop to the supermarket, I can’t escape it: the muffcake. Like when someone uses the wrong “there” or slurps their soup, my blood boils when I see a cupcake being advertised as a muffin.
Allow me to fill you in on a little secret: the muffin at your coffee spot is probably a cupcake. The dozen you can buy at the grocery store? Yeah, those are cupcakes, too. In my opinion, there are probably few muffins in this world that aren’t actually cupcakes.
Gluten-Free on a Shoestring Bakes Bread lays out author Nicole Hunn’s tried-and-true methods for serious gluten-free bread, from sourdough to bagels to pumpernickel. In this excerpt, you’ll find sandwich breads, hoagie rolls, and a foolproof flour mixture. The book is available now on Amazon and at your local bookstore.
Gluten-free bread dough of yore (and by “yore,” I mean just yesterday) was always heavy and slick with moisture, and almost always enriched with some combination of eggs, fats, sugars, butter, and yogurt. There really wasn’t any sort of gluten-free bread that rightly could be described as “lean,” meaning bread without most of those enrichments. The extra moisture was required because many of the gluten-free flours absorbed extra moisture, and the ever-present enrichments added structure, mouthfeel, taste, and, in some cases, more moisture. If you have ever heard gluten-free bread dough described as being similar to cookie dough, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Can I get an Amen?
I usually love apple season — stockpiles in the grocery store and at the farmers’ markets, Facebook feeds full of apple-picking adventures and apple-you-name-it recipes all over. But I must admit, this year, I’d had my fill after about a week. I fell into my usual routine, turning baskets of overflowing apples into apple pies, apple strudels, and applesauces, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I grew bored of the traditional dishes I was so used to making, becoming mechanical and thoughtless in the process. I wanted more sophisticated desserts. I wanted a challenge.
Feeling determined, I set out to find new and inspiring apple recipes. Nothing says challenge to me like classic French cuisine, so I began thumbing through my own culinary bible, Mastering the Art of French Cooking by the late Julia Child. I checked the index for its list of apple recipes and flipped through the subsequent pages hoping to find an interesting recipe. Apple gastrique, braised apples, apple-stuffed pork — they all sounded delicious, but weren’t quite what I was looking for. Finally, I flipped to a page with a striking drawing depicting perfectly layered apple slices circling the center of a tart. I had found my inspiration: apple tarts. MORE
Over the years, my mother has taken a lot of criticism from me, both in my writing and private conversations, over her cooking—or lack thereof. She wasn’t much for family meals cooked from scratch. “But I always loved baking,” she reminded me recently.
And it’s true. Not only does she like to bake, she’s very good at it. Baking, of course, is mostly about attention to detail, weighing and measuring with precision, and being willing to faithfully follow instructions. My mom, a teacher, really excels in these departments.
As a kid, I never wondered where the treats or their recipes came from. I just knew I loved her repertoire of cookies and cakes, especially her chocolate cake. A sweet, densely cocoa-y two layer number whose soft crumb and dark-chocolate edge paired perfectly with someone’s birthday and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was my very favorite and I requested it often. For years, it had no identity beyond my mother’s chocolate cake. MORE
The first morning of a recent business trip to British Columbia, I walked into a bakery for coffee and walked out with coffee and a fascinating treat called a Nanaimo bar. I took a bite. I was a goner. Along with the butter tart, the Nanaimo (pronounced Nuh-NIME-oh) bar is one of the great Canadian sweets, a 3-layer chocolate-and-vanilla cream confection that puts the drab brownie to shame. The genius of the bar lies in its contrasting flavors and textures. A nubby cocoa crust is iced with cool, smooth vanilla cream which is in turn capped with a thin layer of melted chocolate. The recipe first appeared in a 1952 hospital auxiliary cookbook under the name “chocolate square” and while no one is sure who invented it, or where, the town of Nanaimo takes the credit. I spent the next four days of my trip sampling Nanaimo bars everywhere I went, which was easy because they are ubiquitous, the chocolate chip cookie of British Columbia. For the record, if you’re ever in Victoria, Bond Bond’s bakery made the best Nanaimo bar I tasted, although the Nanaimo bar at a Vancouver Starbucks was pretty terrific. MORE
Why are there no classic grapefruit desserts? We love orange souffle, Key lime pie, and lemon bars (and cookies, cake, tart, curd, pudding, ice cream), but the only grapefruit dessert that springs to mind is grapefruit sorbet. Which doesn’t count. Sorbet is extremely cold juice, and however delicious, it is not really dessert.
Is the dearth of grapefruit desserts because people associate the fruit with misery and dieting, not pleasure and indulgence? Or is there something in the nature of a grapefruit that doesn’t lend itself to dessert?
I decided to try grapefruit in different dessert formats. Here with the results:
Cookies. By substituting grapefruit (zest and juice) for lemon in a basic Martha Stewart recipe, I ended up with a tasty cookie that made peoples’ mouths tingle and tasted like Fresca. In a good way! But while all the cookies were eaten, no one begged me to bake them again. MORE
The Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook by Christina Tosi is the most frustrating and ridiculous book I have ever tried to bake from. It is also one of the most brilliant. I pulled it off the shelf for the first time 10 days ago to attempt Tosi’s famous crack pie, which is supposedly so sugary that people start trembling after a few bites and so delicious that they keep right on eating. (The pie, a souped-up version of the classic Southern chess pie, retails for $44 at the Milk Bar bakery in New York City.)
I soon discovered that a key ingredient – freeze-dried corn – had to be mail-ordered. As I waited for that to arrive (I’m waiting still), I also discovered that once you’ve opened this book, it is hard to close. Milk Bar isn’t just another pretty collection of cobbler and cookie recipes. Tosi’s garishly colored confections range from the unusual to the demented, and they marry premium ingredients, like Plugra butter, to American junk food, like Cap’n Crunch. This is the only baking book on the planet that will show you how to make a Fruity Pebbles marshmallow cookie and a Saltine panna cotta. MORE
A few years ago, the New York Times ran a story about ladies in southeastern Alabama who bake fantastic multi-layer cakes to give away every December. A transfixing photograph illustrated the piece, a portrait of a grandmotherly Southerner and her so-called “little layer cake,” a towering confection of 14 yellow discs sandwiched with what appeared to be solid, glossy fudge.
As a native Californian, I find recipes from elderly Southern women far more mysterious and alluring than recipes from, say, Alice Waters. The cake went onto the list of things I want to bake someday, a list I consult every few days as I do not want to die before I make Sussex pond pudding, apple stack cake, or syllabub. MORE