Friday, March 20, 2009

Cupcakes - Vegan and Delicious (not an oxymoron)

Despite eating every day, I think many of us hardly think twice about our relationship with food. So much goes into every bite we take. From seed to plant to produce, from source to table, from ingredients to heaping dishes, from nourishment to comfort - our relationship with food is anything but simple. I've found that how you feel about and deal with food says a lot about where you are - and who you are.

Is food just about filling a void? Cramming something down your gullet because it's time to eat- you're running late and just need something to get you to lunchtime? Or is food about nourishment - not only nutritional, but emotional as well? The truth, realistically for most of us is something in between. We are busy people. We are on budgets. We have precious little time as it is, and frequently even less energy to do much with it.

When I think about the meals of my childhood, I don't think about the protein to complex carbohydrates ratio, or the proportion of my plate covered in vege, but I remember time spent with my family. Those precious few moments in an otherwise chaotic blur of sports practice, homework, school, friends, rehearsals and girl scouts - my family always made time to sit down and eat a meal together. Be it 20 minutes of morning oatmeal or 30 minutes of spaghetti, I remember those times because they filled me with something more than just food. They filled me with a special kind of nourishment, body and soul, that did more to get me through the days than old-fashioned oats ever could on their own.

I had the great pleasure of attending Molly Wizenburg of orangette's book signing when she was in DC this week. One of the things she said that I found profound despite seemingly obvious, is that food has a story. I've been trying more and more to really think about the stories around the food I make and eat. Giving full justice to the full experience of food - source to belly and beyond.

Appreciating our imperfect relationship with food - perfection never makes for great stories, now does it? - I turn to this particularly scrumptious, yet relatively healthy and animal-product free chocolate cake. I made it as cupcakes and couldn't get enough of them. Best, of course, when shared with those you love whenever your chaos-filled life allows ;)

Chocolate Cake with Chocolate 'Butter Cream'
from npr

Makes 12 cupcakes or one 9-inch cake

For the cake:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (can use a mix of wheat and white flours)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
1 cup water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease one 9-inch cake pan or line a cupcake tin with cupcake liners. Sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Add the oil, vanilla, vinegar and water. Whisk together until smooth.

Pour into prepared pan and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until a tester inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to cool before frosting.

For the butter cream:

4 ounces unsweetened (or bittersweet) chocolate, chopped
3 cups confectioners' sugar
8 Tbs shortening (I use non-hydrogenated), room temperature
2 to 3 tablespoons almond milk, plus more, if needed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt

Heat chocolate in a double boiler until melted. Let cool to room temperature. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the flat beater, combine the confectioners' sugar, margarine, milk, vanilla and salt, and beat on low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 2 minutes, then reduce the speed to low. Add the chocolate and beat until combined, then increase the speed to medium and beat for 1 minute more.

If the frosting is dry, add more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, until it is creamy but still holds peaks.

Mom's Irish Soda Bread

My mother brought this to our St. Patrick's day feast and I haven't been able to get enough of it. Breakfast, lunch, dinner... I have no qualms about savoring the deliciousness all day long. My brown bread was not nearly so spectacular, but it never stood a chance next to the sweet, savory, well-crumbed soda bread.

Mom's Irish soda bread

2 cups of flour
1/3 cup sugar
½ tsp salt
½ tsp soda
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¾ cup currants
1 tsp of caraway seeds
1 Tablespoon butter
1 egg
2/3-1 cup of buttermilk

Sift dry ingredients. Add currants and seeds. Beat egg lightly, add 2/3 cup buttermilk and butter. Stir in dry ingredients. Add more buttermilk if needed. Make a stiff dough, but kneadable. Knead 8-10 times shape in a ball and cut ½’ deep cross on top. Cook at 350-375 for 40-50 minutes. Cool slightly and serve warm.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Taste of the Irish

I love to celebrate St. Patrick's day because my mom loves to celebrate St. Patrick's day. I have particularly fond memories of waking up in the room I shared with my sister to discover a Kermit-the-frog piggy bank my mother had placed on our pillows one March 17th morning. I love celebrating St. Patrick's day because it makes me think of my mother's mother, a woman I never really knew, but who's life-story I've pieced together from my mother's tales, aged family photos and my grandfather's fond remembrances.

The story begins with a "fiery Irish girl" named Mary Rose who lived in the same apartment complex as my grandfather. The only girl in her class at Sacred Heart's all-girls graduating class NOT invited to join the sisterhood, our cousin O'Donnell confessed as we came across a curling snapshot of my grandmother at age 16. She was one of 7 siblings but an orphan most of her life, never quite reached 5', had dark hair and bright blue eyes. Eyes that she passed on to my mother and sister, and held a touch of mischievousness even as she sat for her formal bridal portrait. She had a best friend named 'Mugsy', somehow made her way to Los Angeles and despite the Great Depression, managed to find love with an ornery engineer from Texas who lived in the aforementioned apartment complex.

I love celebrating St. Patrick's day because it gives me a sense of connection, a sense of roots and culture and of belonging - not just to a particularly green island in the north Atlantic, or pipes, flutes and fiddles, Guinness or Jameson's, but to family. Family I didn't necessarily know, but is a part of me and who I am - not just where I come from.

I also love celebrating St. Patrick's day with the tastes of my family history. Though I sadly don't have any recipes passed down from my grandmother for the occasion, I've been working on a few of my own. So far they include tasty Irish-inspired food and time with the family I'm lucky enough to have around. Last night was quite the feast, roasted lamb, shepherd's pie, mashed potatoes, red cabbage salad, brown bread and my mother's contribution of delicious soda bread and my dad's contribution of a few rounds of rummy. The ending was particularly sweet, though. A decadently moist and rich Guinness chocolate cake and David Liebovitz's milk chocolate Guinness ice cream. To really up the ante, next time I think I'll replace a tablespoon or two of the cream with Irish cream. And yes, you only frost the top so the cake resembles a pint of Guinness.

Chocolate Guinness Cake
from the New York Times

For the cake:
Butter for pan
1 cup Guinness stout
10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
3/8 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 cups superfine sugar
3/8 cup sour cream
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

For the topping:
1 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar
8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
1/2 cup heavy cream.

1. For the cake: heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch spring form pan and line with parchment paper. In a large saucepan, combine Guinness and butter. Place over medium-low heat until butter melts, then remove from heat. Add cocoa and superfine sugar, and whisk to blend.

2. In a small bowl, combine sour cream, eggs and vanilla; mix well. Add to Guinness mixture. Add flour and baking soda, and whisk again until smooth. Pour into buttered pan, and bake until risen and firm, 45 minutes to one hour. Place pan on a wire rack and cool completely in pan.

3. For the topping: Using a food processor or by hand, mix confectioners' sugar to break up lumps. Add cream cheese and blend until smooth. Add heavy cream, and mix until smooth and spreadable.

4. Remove cake from pan and place on a platter or cake stand. Ice top of cake only, so that it resembles a frothy pint of Guinness.

Yield: One 9-inch cake (12 servings).