Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Here is a simple, but delicious St. Patrick’s Day cupcakes recipe to help you celebrate this greenest of holidays. You can watch me bake and decorate these St. Patrick’s Day cupcakes in my Instagram videos. You’ll also see me save a buttercream from ruin and bring it back to fluffy perfection. The art of pastry is being able to fix what goes wrong. And there is a blow torch involved, so that’s fun. Read More
This mocha buttercream may be the most delicious buttercream I’ve ever made. I wish I could take all of the credit for it, but it is from Carol Bloom’s The Essential Baker. As many of you know I have been baking through the book for the past month or so. On Memorial Day I went to a party and offered to bring dessert. As you can imagine I rarely go anywhere without bringing desserts and/or bread. It is what I love to do and people rarely complain. I decided to make something chocolaty and my husband begged me to make the carrot cake again.
One of my dreams is to travel to Chinon, France and stay at the Hotel Diderot, where the proprietor makes homemade marmalade. It’s owner is one of my favorite food bloggers, Jamie Schler, who is an amazing baker, cook and the writer I want to be. Basically, she has crafted my ideal life. I first “met” her online while we were baking from each other’s websites. Her recipes always work, they are always delicious and they always have a story that make eating them all the more enjoyable. This cake is from her new cookbook, Orange Appeal and is no different. It’s outrageously chocolatey with a hint of orange, which just gives it a depth and balance of flavor. It also comes with a delightful story. This recipe was passed to Jamie by her father, who worked at NASA. Let me unpack that last sentence for you. Her dad bakes cakes, which is the sweetest, coolest thing for a dad to do and pretty unusual for a man of his generation. My father, who has many, many talents, has never baked a cake in all of my days. I’m not sure he’d even make it through a box of Duncan Hines? And, her dad worked as an engineer at NASA, how cool is that? It pretty much makes him a rock star in my mind. His original recipe, which you can find on Jamie’s blog, was equally chocolatey, but used coffee to add the essential acidity to the recipe. Jamie has swapped the coffee with orange zest and juice. Both versions are brilliant!
My story with sugar is long (my whole life long) and a bit convoluted. I was raised by hippies in the the 1960s. We lived on communes, as one did. Until I was about 7 it was really the only life I knew, so never struck me as unusual. It wasn’t until I started to attend school that I understood that my life in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont wasn’t the way the whole world lived. It was sugar that was the first and most profound indication. I’d grown up thinking (being lead to believe) that raisins and other dried fruits were candy. I was perfectly happy with this, until I went to kindergarten and someone produced a Twinkie from their Mickey Mouse lunch box. WTH is that? I was mesmerized and completely distracted by this sweet smelling cylinder of cake. I must have convinced that kid to give me a bite and there began my obsession. It became my life’s work to get more of it. This was no easy chore, considering all I had to trade were peanut butter and honey sandwiches. And when I say peanut butter, I mean the kind we ground ourselves and honey from our bee hives, on bread my Aunt Melissa made from wheat we milled. Today that sandwich sounds like heaven, but wasn’t so popular with those kids eating Ho Ho’s and Twinkies. Every once in a blue moon I’d score something sweet and be amazed.
Eventually in college I went through a naturally sweetened phase. I couldn’t exactly admit that my parents had been right to deny me all the sugary snacks, but I found myself pushing them aside for honey and maple syrup. This was right around the time I started to bake and was really curious about how to make baked goods that were delicious and had a wonderful texture, without sugar. There weren’t a lot of people doing this, not in a graceful way, and I didn’t have the skills to make the recipes up. I eventually went to culinary school to figure out the food science behind baking, with a notion that I’d retool pastry with natural sweeteners. But, their pantry was stocked with sugar and I was too impressionable to resist. I loved what the sugar could do. I was fascinated not only by it’s ability to transform flavor, but it’s ability to take on structure. When heated to just the right temperature I could make candies, both hard and soft, or spin it into gossamer threads. I didn’t really look back to honey and maple, except as a flavor, until I had my boys.
You guessed it. I didn’t let them eat sugar until they discovered it on their own. Yep, I did exactly what my parents had done, and I was a pastry chef. They were little and just didn’t need the sugar, then they got bigger and had a similar discovery that I went through. I wasn’t as hard core about denying them sugar and how could I be, since I worked with it all day. I think I struck a healthy balance and my boys ate their fair share of sweets, but all homemade and I think they didn’t have a Twinkie until they could pay for it themselves and they weren’t as impressed as I had been.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love sugar and all that it can do. I also love playing with honey, maple, agave and other natural sweeteners. They have some nutritional value, true enough, but more importantly they are amazingly delicious. Back in the day, when I was going to culinary school, everyone there looked at me crosseyed when I wanted to make meringue without sugar. Now there are many books on the subject and I am creating all kinds of gorgeous treats that even my folks would have allowed me to eat in my commune days.
These Tea Cup Rose Cakes have no sugar. NO SUGAR! They are also gluten-free (not an issue for me, but is for many of my friends and readers), Dairy-free (if made as the recipe was written, but I did use butter). And, they are delicious and so beautiful, no one will ever know they’re remotely healthy.
Up until very recently my father has been a beekeeper. He had bee hives at our home in Vermont and then drove them, full of bees to Minnesota. Due to a city ordinance he was not allowed to keep bees in his Edina yard and had to set them up at a friend’s house farther out of the city. My dad would drive out on the weekends to tend to them. His love for bees was made more complicated by the fact that he is very allergic to their sting. He swells up like a balloon when stung, but this never deterred him, even though it seemed to happen with some regularity. As a result of his love for bees I have always had a fondness for them and the delicious nectar they produce. Growing up we ate the precious honey he collected on everything from homemade granola to freshly baked bread. In fact, I never knew any sweetener other than honey and maple syrup before I was about 6. Sugar, in any form, didn’t exist in our house.
This beehive cake is a tribute to both the elegance and ingenuity of honeybees, which are in terrifying danger of disappearing. Hopefully more folks like my dad will step up and continue the tradition. The shape of this cake is based on an ancient beehive called a skep, which was made of a coiled basket. My dad’s bees were kept in a box hive, but that isn’t nearly as romantic. Under the hovering marzipan bees are layers of brown-butter banana cake, walnuts and honey scented buttercream.
Pistachio is my absolute favorite flavor of ice cream. When I traveled with my family to Italy, we did a whole lot of “research” on gelato. It was an informal, albeit thorough, study consisting of my sons trying every single flavor made in the country, while I stuck to a scoop of pistachio and one of espresso. Side by side, they are the perfect combination. I should know, because I ate it daily during our two weeks in Italy. This pistachio cake is based on that perfect marriage.