Cupcakes — Serious Whimsy

February 20, 2011

For me, the cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.
~Alfred Hitchcock

May seem decidedly banal to some, but these winsome morsels have gained a new found presence in the food chain.

An invention of the early 19th century, cupcakes evolved as a kitchen convenience—a quicker, dainty cake. The earliest written reference to the term “cupcake” was in Eliza Leslie’s 1828 cookbook Receipts. Two theories have emerged behind the word. One was that they were cakes simply cooked in cups, and the other referred to a cake where the ingredients were measured by cups. Before then, cake baking ingredients had traditionally been weighed.

In recent years, cupcakes have become much the culinary pop icon with bakeries, shops, stands, mobile vendors, cookbooks, blogs, and magazines devoted solely to these sweet delicacies. Classic chocolate and vanilla have given way to more hip, theatrical versions such as strawberry champagne, tiramisu with marscapone, meringue buttercream and pinot noir chocolate.

A more traditional, but far from timid, cupcake follows.


3 C all purpose flour
2 C granulated white sugar
3 t baking powder
1/2 t salt

1 C unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
2 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
2 t pure vanilla extract

1 C whole plain yogurt

Line two muffin tins (24 muffin cups) with paper liners. Preheat oven to 350 F

In the bowl of an electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat to combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter, egg, egg yolks, vanilla extract, and yogurt. Beat the wet and dry ingredients together at medium speed until the batter is smooth and satiny, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, assuring that he flour is fully incorporated.

Evenly fill the muffin cups with the batter and bake until pale gold, about 20-25 minutes, and a toothpick inserted into a cupcake comes out clean. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool. Once the cupcakes have completely cooled, frost with icing.

Chocolate Icing

8 ozs high quality unsweetened chocolate (70% cocoa), coarsely chopped
1 1/3 C unsalted butter, room temperature
2 2/3 C confectioners (powdered) sugar, sifted
1 t pure vanilla extract

Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the butter until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Add the sugar and beat until it is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in the vanilla extract. Add the chocolate and beat on low speed until incorporated. Increase the speed to medium high and beat until frosting is smooth and glossy, about 2 -3 minutes.

A Paean to Pudding

February 15, 2011

Another V-Day has bitten the dust to the tune of some $18+ billion in uxorious sales. Thank you again, beloved Hallmark.

On a more pagan note, in ancient Rome many celebrated the feast of Lupercalia from February 13 to 15. Drunken men sacrificed goats and dogs, skinned them, then whipped young women with their hides. For reasons earlier thought unknown, the ladies lined up for punishment. Actually, many believed this would render them fertile. Then, in a precursor to the proverbial bowlful of keys and, a lottery was held where young men would draw the names of mates from a jar—a coupling which would last for whatever the carnal duration. Are we one curious species?

The origin of this one day holiday for lovers is muddled. (1) Some claim that in the third century, Emperor Claudius II summarily and simultaneously executed two men named Valentine on this day of fertility and love. (2) Others assert that when Emperor Claudius determined that single men made more devoted soldiers than those with family, he outlawed marriage for young men to cull his crop of potential legionnaires. Sensing the injustice of the decree, a Roman priest named Valentine defiantly performed marriages for young lovers in secret. Once Valentine’s covert nuptials were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be promptly beheaded. (3) One more version contends that while imprisoned, Valentine may have even sent the first such greeting. Valentine was entranced by a young girl who may even have even been his jailor’s daughter. Blind and deaf, she visited him regularly during his confinement in an era when conjugal stays were likely permitted. Before his death, he wrote her a letter, which he signed “From your Valentine.” At any rate, not much is known of Valentine except his name, and that he was buried at the Via Flaminia north of Rome on February 14.

Enter the Catholic Church, whose occasionally miscreant priests canonized the love martyr(s) in order to “christianize” the earlier pagan rituals.


3 C whole milk
4 cardamom pods, cracked
2 cinnamon sticks
1 1/2 C short grain rice, such as arborio

Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1/3 C raw (turbinado) sugar
1/4 C golden raisins
1/4 C sliced almonds
Pinch of sea salt

2 eggs, beaten
1 t vanilla

In a large, heavy saucepan, add milk, cardamom, cinnamon sticks and rice. Bring to a simmer, cover and gently cook until rice is quite soft, about 40-50 minutes. Remove cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks and discard. Add lemon zest, sugar, raisins, almonds, and salt, stirring to dissolve. Then, add beaten eggs and vanilla, stirring until mixture is slightly thickened. Remove from heat. Allow to rest as the pudding will thicken further.

Serve warm or cold.

The man who doesn’t like oysters, the woman who cannot abide sardines. We know the type.
~Harold Nicolson

Just a basic indulgent dish.

Savory oyster sauce is traditionally made by condensing this exquisite shellfish’s extracts yielded from its white broth. This translucent to opaque stock, similar to clam juice, is then reduced until the proper viscosity is attained and the sauce has caramelized to a dark sienna hue. Due to cost constraints though, this old school version is rarely made commerically. Rather, oyster sauce in today’s markets is a syrupy dark brown condiment made from an olio of sugar, salt, water, thickened with cornstarch, and flavored with oyster extract. Even weakened some, it does not lack for umami.


12 oz beef sirloin
1 T soy sauce
1 1/2 T oyster sauce
1/2 T sesame oil
1 T fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 T honey
1/2 T baking powder

2 T peanut oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded, finely chopped
2 C broccoli florets
1 t Shaoxing rice wine (or pale dry sherry)
1 T dried chile flakes

3 1/2 oz oyster mushrooms
Dash black rice vinegar, to taste
Dash soy sauce, to taste

On a heavy cutting board, cover the beef in saran wrap and beat with a mallet until half as thin. Slice the beef into 1/2″ slices and place into a bowl. Add soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, ginger, honey and baking powder. Mix well and set aside.

Heat a wok over high heat with peanut oil until just smoking and add the garlic and jalapeño chile. Stir fry for a few seconds, then add the beef slices and toss for a few minutes, until just barely cooked. Place into a bowl or onto a large serving plate. Tent and set aside.

Place the wok back onto the heat and add the remaining oil, then add the broccoli and stir fry for 2-3 minutes, or until cooked to your liking, about 3 minutes. Pour in the Shaoxing rice wine and sprinkle over the dried chilli flakes.

Add the oyster mushrooms, season with black rice vinegar and soy sauce and then stir fry until just cooked, about 1-2 minutes. Add the beef back to the wok and heat.

Serve over rice.

You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.
~Phineas T. Barnum

Dear Groupon,

I felt compelled to write about your troubling Superbowl XLV ad which used the plight of Tibetans to convince consumers to buy Groupon certificates. In case you missed the airing, actor Timothy Hutton ended his somber monologue about how Tibet’s “very culture is in jeopardy.” He then suddenly chirped in that Tibetans “still whip up an amazing fish curry,” touting how his friends and he thankfully saved money at a Chicago Himalayan restaurant via Groupon. As you may know, Tibet has been threatened with societal extinction at the hands of an oppressive Chinese government. So, peddling your product at the expense of tyrranized victims of a revered culture seemed, at best, perversely odd.

Your multimillion dollar half minute was undeniably directed at furthering Groupon’s brand and generating Groupon profits and not aimed at altruism. An attempt to garner marketing attention and revenue from a beleaguered people’s struggle seems exploitative—a disrespectful quip demeaning the gravity of Tibetan misery.

I embrace humour noir, but this was over the line. Genocide is no joke.

While it appears that empathy rarely emanates from your Chicago Ave boardroom, it has seemed reasonable to expect some remorse. But, no genuine apologies are in the offing. The only words uttered were a feckless, fork-tongued defense (a/k/a publicity statement). And nowhere to be found is a solitary “I’m sorry” from corporate. Just self-justifying tripe focused on quelling Groupon losses.

No matter how and when spun, making light of cultural, religious and ethnic persecution for gain is both chilling and disgraceful. Equally deplorable were Groupon’s lame, hastily organized post airing efforts to contort this crass “show me the money” profiteering into donating to a mission-driven cause. You padded a hasty retreat driven solely by the palpable fear of losing customers. Nice try, Andrew.

On to the culinary content of the Tibetan fish curry ad which was likewise thoughtless. FYI, Tibetans do not eat fish for the most part. To many locals, eating fish is as abhorrent as pork is to Muslims and beef is to Hindus. Besides the obvious fact that Tibet is a mountainous, landlocked country, the absence of fish on tables there exists for several reasons. Some Tibetans practice water burial in lakes, and so eating fish is considered synonymous with dining on the dead. Fish are also regarded as the incarnation of the revered god of water and thus remain sacred. Tibetans detest gossip, and as fish do not have noticeable tongues, they cannot gossip. So, fish are rewarded for their silence by not becoming part of the Tibetan diet.

The disdain for Groupon’s brand name that resulted from your ads seems predictable. The negative online aftermath urging a mass “unsubscription” also comes as no surprise. Who knows how conscientious shop owners may respond.


A Lay Cook

P.S. Groupon’s after the fact public ploy to show social conscience through has already ceased. That non-profit “humanistic” site has already closed and now simply redirects to Groupon’s profit making center. A vital effort to save Groupon’s most precious natural resource: money.


3 T peanut oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced
1 T peeled and grated fresh ginger
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 1/2 T red curry paste
2 t ground coriander
Freshly ground black pepper

1 14-oz can coconut milk
1 1/2 C chicken broth
1 T light brown sugar
1 T fresh lime juice
Pinch of sea salt

2 lbs calamari, (bodies and tentacles), cleaned, bodies cut into 1″ slices

Freshly grated lime zest
Fresh mint leaves, chopped
Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

Heat peanut oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add jalapeño pepper, ginger, garlic, curry paste, coriander and pepper and cook over medium heat another 3-4 minutes. Then, add coconut milk, broth, brown sugar, lime juice, and salt. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes.

Add calamari to curry sauce, and cook over medium high heat until calamari is opaque, about 2 minutes. Plate and garnish with lime zest, mint and cilantro.

Without rice, even the cleverest housewife cannot cook.
~Chinese proverb

Another culinary history debate? Another being of undecided ancestry? Another grain in progenitor limbo?

Some claim rice was introduced to Mexico during Spanish colonization via the galleon trade route from Manila to Acapulco, known as the Nao de China. The story goes that over a millenium before, marauding North African Moors acquainted the Iberian peninsula with rice which ultimately led to this Mexican import centuries later. Others, however, fervently assert that the region’s earliest rice cultivars arrived in slave ships from West Africa. Is this yet another example of black history erased? There are ethnographic, historic and genetic markers supporting, fusing and refuting both theories which just cannot be fully fleshed out here. Common threads exist though: conquest, occupation, ships and food.

Polemics aside, rice is and has been extensively cultivated in Vera Cruz, Campeche and other flood plain regions in Mexico. The two basic varieties of rice grown in Mexico are Sinaloa (long grain) and Morelos (short grain), joined by a number of sub-versions.

Arroz a la Mexicana does differ from Spanish rice, although some use the names interchangeably. The Mexican version derives its reddish hue from tomatoes, while Spanish rice is tinted with saffron.

This is simple, almost requisite, table fare. A traditional rice sidled up to tomatoes, onion and garlic all blithely bathed in broth. This version adds a poblano chile and carrot—maybe even peas or giblets if the urge strikes.

The initial browning is essential and imparts a rich, nutty flavor to the rice.


3 C chicken broth

2 T canola or extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 C long grained rice
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

1 15 oz can high quality peeled tomatoes, drained and seeded
1 t cumin, toasted and ground
Pinch of sea salt

1 medium carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 large poblano chile, roasted, peeled and chopped
1/2 C chicken giblets, chopped (optional)

Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

Heat chicken broth to a gentle simmer.

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add rice and onion and cook, stirring, until both are just lightly browned, about 7-10 minutes. During the last minute, add the garlic.

Purée the tomatoes in a food processor or blender. Add the puréed tomatoes, cumin and salt to the browned rice mixture and cook for a minute, stirring. Add the warm broth, carrot, poblano chile and optional giblets. Stir, cover and reduce heat to medium low. Cook until the rice is tender, about 15 minutes. Resist the urge to peek, but the rice is done when small dimples appear on the surface, sometimes called “fish eyes.” Set aside off heat, still covered, to allow the rice to absorb the rest of the moisture in the steam and swell, about another 10-15 minutes.

Add cilantro to the rice, fluffing with a fork. Serve.

Rainbow Chard

February 2, 2011

the snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches
~e.e. cummings

A furious blizzard trekked across the midsection this week, paralyzing cities and towns, closing airports, interstates, schools, and businesses. The often blinding storm left behind frigid temperatures, ebullient students, “the sky is falling” forecasters and stark winterscapes. Some color seemed in order.

Our fortune lay quietly in the frig—the previous day the grocer was unloading tender, glossy leafed bunches of rainbow chard with crisp, vividly hued stems. As usual, I could not resist. Rainbow chard displays vibrant red, pink, white, and gold ribs that contrast with veined green leaves. A visual treat amid this cold, austere white.

A delicate side chocked with nutrients, chard may be steamed, sautéed, or braised.


1 large bunch rainbow chard, thick stems discarded and leaves cut into 2″ strips

3 T extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled, minced or very thinly sliced
1/4 C chicken or vegetable stock
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated or
Lemon zest, freshly grated

Add olive oil and garlic to a skillet over medium high heat. Sauté for 1-2 minutes, until garlic is fragrant but before it browns. Then add chard in handfuls and chicken stock, tossing. Season with salt and pepper and let cook until soft over medium high heat, stirring occassionally.

Remove, plate or toss in bowl and lightly sprinkle with parmigiano reggiano or lemon zest.


1 large bunch rainbow chard, thick stems discarded and leaves cut into 2″ strips

3 T extra virgin olive oil
1/3 C pine nuts
1/3 C currants
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a dry small skillet, toast the pine nuts until just lightly golden, stirring occasionally. Set aside.

Add olive oil to a large skillet and heat over medium high heat. Add chard in handfuls, season with salt and pepper and cook until it begins to wilt. Then, toss in the pine nuts and currants. Stir and continue to cook until chard is pleasantly softened.

Pourboire: Before cooking, chard needs to be thoroughly washed and dried since sand and other debris tend to nestle in the leaves. Instead of discarding, reserve the chard ribs for stocks and soups.