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.
I like to think that most grandmothers spend their free time playing bingo or Mah Jong with their friends, but not mine. My grandmother’s idea of a good time was meeting her girlfriends at the local blueberry farm to sit and pick berries while chatting under the summer sun. After a few good hours of blueberry-picking, my grandmother would swing by our house to drop off some extra pounds of blueberries she managed to pick while getting lost in conversation. Her donations, combined with our own family trips to the blueberry farm and my father’s all-day hiking trips through our wooded backyard to pick wild berries eventually led to a blueberry overload summer after summer.
Come mid-summer, both fridge and freezer would be bursting at the seams with blueberries, though no one ever complained. July was always an uncomfortably hot month, but its saving grace was that it ushered in blueberry season. I would get excited after Independence Day rolled by, knowing that, soon, the house would be littered with the small indigo berries. In no time, our blueberry stockpile would grow, and then the rest of the summer was marked by us trying to find ways to eat them all. We would dump them into our morning cereal, make smoothies, pies, muffins, turnovers, or just eat them plain — fresh or frozen (which to me, tastes almost as good as ice cream). Our kitchen has gone through its fair share of blue-stained wooden spoons, and the freezer always had a ready-to-bake pie tucked in the back for a special occasion later in the year.
Seventh-day Adventists are historically known for their interesting — if not always tasty — food experiments. Thus it was Seventh-day Adventists who brought us the Choplet Burger, a canned fake meat product; it was Seventh-day Adventists who created Postum, a grain-based beverage intended to replace coffee (and the related evils of caffeine); and it was two Seventh-day Adventist brothers who, in 1894, rolled stale wheat and discovered that instead of breaking apart, it created flakes. One of those brothers, W.K. Kellogg, continued experimenting and learned how to flake corn as well. In 1906, he went into production, and Kellogg’s became the first company to market that all-American convenience food: cold cereal.
Kellogg’s is also known for another food first: in 1984, it became the first company to include a health claim on its packaging. At the time, the practice was forbidden by the FDA. But instead of telling Kellogg’s to remove the claim — which suggested that eating All-Bran could possibly reduce the occurrence of some cancers — the Regan Administration’s FDA reconsidered their stance. In 1986, Marian Burros wrote about the change in The New York Times: MORE
I’ve willfully never jumped on the kale bandwagon. I haven’t added the leafy green to my morning smoothies. I’ve yet to bake my own kale chips and I don’t find it an attractive green for salads. Yes, I know, it’s one of the most fashionable vegetables of the last 50 years and touts even trendier health benefits. But the closest kale has ever gotten to my heart was after I sautéed it in enough bacon fat to strip it of all its superfood qualities.
So I was happy when a study revealed last month that kale was actually nowhere near being the most nutrient-dense food. Not even close. In fact, it ranked number 15, far behind its nemesis, spinach, and less-popular greens like beet, collard, chard, and chicory. To everyone’s surprise, another vegetable came out on top: watercress.
A close relative to mustard greens and arugula, watercress is a delicate but feisty green. As its name implies, it grows partially submerged in water. According to researchers, watercress is the ultimate superfood — full of essential vitamins and minerals, with a higher percentage of nutrients than any other vegetable. It’s long been known for its copious amounts of calcium and iron, and it’s just as good for you in its raw state as it is cooked. MORE
Growing up in a household that grilled most summer nights, there’s nothing that says “it’s summer” to me like perfectly charred food coming off the grill. But you won’t find me manning the barbecue. I have an accident-filled past with grills, so I happily stick to making the side dishes. However, the sides I’ve been making — like mayonnaise-y macaroni salads or brown-sugary baked beans — haven’t changed much in the years that I have kept my distance from the grill.
That’s not to say that these classic side dishes aren’t delicious. In fact, they might be a little too delicious — and addictive – for me. I tend to find myself gorging on sides as I’m waiting for the main course to be brought off the grill.
My problem with the usual assortment of macaroni salads, potato salads, cornbreads, potato chips, coleslaws, or baked beans is that they are all just too heavy. Coated in mayo, laced with sugar, or just plain greasy, these side dishes tend to fill me up before I can make a decent dent in my steak or chicken. Loading up on these rich and filling sides along with whatever was actually made on the grill always leads to the post-barbecue bloat. And dealing with a stomach full of grease and sugar while baking in the summer sun is really unpleasant, to say the least.
Hot dogs. Although questionable in wholesomeness, they are sold everywhere, whether on the kid’s menu of a “fancy” restaurant, or simply from a street vendor. You can’t go three blocks in a city without finding a place to buy a hot dog! But these dogs were not always so artificial, and have roots all the way back in Germany, 1313 B.C.E.
The year 1313 B.C.E was one of the first times people found evidence of wurst, better known as sausages, being eaten. Since then, the wurst has become a common street food throughout Germany, but it can be found in other countries as well. In fact, the sausage’s origins lie in Austria, and the word “wiener” actually means “of Vienna.” In both countries, it can be found slathered in spicy curry sauce, have cheese right at the center, and many other ways. These wursts are mainly not eaten as meals, but as a quick snack.
One of the many variations of how the wurst is served is the currywurst. This is a sausage that is cut up into pieces, and then is slathered with a curry sauce made from tomatoes, onions and curry powder. For a final touch, curry powder is then sprinkled on top. The curry powder gives it a little extra spice, and also makes it look better. MORE
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.
Let me preface this by saying: I love remembering Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Super Mario Brothers Super Show, and Lady Lovely Locks.
See? I can be nostalgic.
But too much nostalgia is a dangerous thing. How many comedians have you seen, listicles have you read, or TV shows have you watched that don’t make jokes or have a point, but just reference things from your childhood? People use nostalgia as a shortcut to good feelings, a little lever we experimental-rat humans can push to get fed pellets of pleasant memories.
That’s why, when I heard that the Northeast-concentrated chain Dunkin‘ Donuts was coming to Southern California,* my response was a simple “meh.”
See, I grew up in northern New Hampshire, in a small town where Dunkin‘ defined donuts for me – in a good way. I fondly remember the tactical challenge of eating a jelly donut, trying to keep the messy explosion of powdered sugar and jelly from going anywhere other than my mouth. And Munchkins! Those wonderful little boxes of donut holes that, because they were small, allowed you to eat several different flavors of donuts without feeling like you were going to ralph.
But my current home, Los Angeles, is arguably the best place in America to eat donuts, which is why it makes me cringe every time my northeast brethren say they’re so excited Dunkin‘ is comin‘ to town. Because guys, I gotta tell you, I’ve eaten donuts as an adult, and Dunkin’s donuts taste weird. My boyfriend encouraged me to say that Dunkin’s offerings have a “signature flavor.” Well, their signature flavor would best described as “kinda off,” and they also have a signature mouthfeel – a weird coating feeling similar to what you get when you eat McDonald’s fries.
“Uh… Dori? I think something went bad in here.” My friend Alex stood with the refrigerator door at arms length, scrunching up his nose.
I walked over to give it a whiff, and smiled as I took in the familiar stink of the washed-rind Adrahan I had gleefully purchased earlier that day.
“Nope, that’s just the cheese.”
Alex looked at me skeptically, most likely second-guessing his decision to be my rind co-taster for the afternoon.
When trying out new cheeses, we sometimes come across a fuzzy wedge of Brie, or a veiny Blue with skin that’s a bit too moldy for comfort, or a heavily washed rind that elicits a reaction much like the one Alex had when he found himself upwind of my open refrigerator. When that happens, even the boldest among us question whether or not we are truly fearless when it comes to cheese.
When it comes to eggs, it seems that white is becoming the new black. Possibly in response to the obesity-epidemic or as a result of required calorie-counts on menus, many fast-food chains are now serving “lighter option” egg white products. McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, Jack-in-the-box, Starbucks, and Sonic have all started supplying their stores with egg white menu items. Even the frozen food section is now showcasing frozen egg white breakfast sandwiches from major producers like Hillshire Farm and Kelloggs.
With all these big name food companies using egg whites it should be no surprise that we have hit an egg white crisis. Since 2013, egg white prices have soared to record-breaking highs of over $8 per lb. Dried egg white stocks have also been reported to be at startling lows, which leaves farmers and egg suppliers to “force molt” chickens in order to keep up with the demand.
But as a health conscious cook, I’m at a stand-still. It’s nice to see these healthier options available, but even I’m starting to grow tired of the high protein/low carb trend. Like a second coming of the Atkins diet, protein is becoming the macronutrient of choice for most dieters once again. Although it is true that egg whites are high in protein and contain zero fat and cholesterol, I’m a yolk kind of girl. Cholesterol-raising irrationalities aside, egg yolks are extremely nutritious – in my opinion, more so than egg whites. Egg yolks do contain fat, but it is vitamin-packed fat. Protein in no way, shape, or form is lacking from the American diet, but many fat-soluble vitamins, essential fatty acids, and other vital micronutrients are. Not to mention egg yolks taste way better.
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.
“And here’s the kitchen!” said my British flatmate. “It has everything you would have in the US: sink, oven, microwave, refrigerator, pots and pans, coddler – the basics.” She pointed to every item as she said its name. “Well,” she said, “that’s the kitchen. Pretty standard. I’ll let you look around.”
“What in the world is a coddler??” I asked myself. Not wanting to seem like a rube in front of my new flatmate, I just smiled and nodded. But really, what is a coddler? It’s bad enough that in my four months in London I had to look up the conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit every time I used the oven (or stepped outside, for that matter).
The summer of 1982, when I was 12, I did not do “quite as many things as I did the last” according to the annual report my parents made me write before school started again. But “I did a lot of fun small things.” One of those fun small things, I noted, was bake a cake with my grandmother. I recall it as the first real cake I ever made — no box of mix or mom measuring the flour while I stirred.
My grandmother lived in Pennsylvania, far across the country from us in California. We rarely saw her, or any extended family for that matter, and I always liked it when she visited. On this occasion, she was babysitting while my parents traveled to Northern Italy, Budapest, and Vienna (according to my handy summer report, which I found recently in a filing cabinet in my parents’ house).
The idea to bake the cake was certainly hers. She’d probably planned to make it herself, as something nice to serve my parents after their long flight home. But, perhaps tiring of me reading romance novels and floating in the swimming pool every day, she gave me the task. Grandma was hard-working and restless, and she couldn’t appreciate reading novels and sunbathing.
I’ve never been much of a summer girl. I like going to the beach, wearing flip flops, and the smell of sunscreen, but the heat always gets me (plus, growing up in New England, I’m a sucker for fall). As a home cook, I’m torn when it comes to summer cooking. The season is bursting with fresh, readily available ingredients, but trying to cook a feast indoors in the midst of the summer heat is dreadful — not to mention wanting to spend time outside in the beautiful weather instead of stuck in my kitchen. And ever since a traumatic barbecue incident which ended with my father having to hose down the grill (shrimp and asparagus included), my outlets for summer cooking are limited. That’s why I turn to one of my most trusted kitchen tools when the summer heat blazes: my slow cooker.
Yes, the appliance you might think is only good for pot roasts or hearty cold-weather stews is a lifesaver during the summer. Tucked away in the corner of my kitchen counter, it cooks for hours on its own without me having to hover over a burning flame or open a hot oven. It also keeps me safely away from the grill and allows me the freedom to enjoy the sunshine without having to be tied to my kitchen.