Monday, August 16, 2010

In Which I Say Naked A Lot

Recipe below: Grilled Corn Chowder

Well, fellow eaters, I am still on my exercise kick, so skip down past the next picture if you don’t want to read my latest soliloquy because either way, you are going to want to hear about this soup. The problem with discussing exercise is keeping it short, as there’s just so much to say! But I’ll attempt to rein myself in by keeping to one very specific topic. Equipment.

In my opinion there is only one piece of exercise equipment you absolutely need - a heart monitor. Whether you do swimming, running, walking, biking, cardio kick-boxing, or even weight lifting, the point of exercise is to get your heart rate up. That’s how you increase your fitness level. A higher heart rate means your heart is working harder to pump that blood through your system, making it stronger, and burning oodles of calories in the process. Monitoring my heart rate means I can ensure I am not over-doing or under-doing my workout (and it is so easy to do both!).

The way it works is a heart monitor comes with 2 pieces - a transmitter and a receiver. As I’ve seen them, the transmitter is a band that goes around your chest, just under the she-boob or he-boob, as the case may be (or as close to your heart as possible). It has these nifty sensors that can measure your heart rate pretty darn accurately when placed against your skin. The receiver is a wrist watch that displays your heart rate, and depending on the product you get, generally has a ton of other features. Mine has settings for my age, height, weight, and target heart rate, and uses this information in conjunction with my heart rate to display how many calories I’ve burned. And obviously, most can double as a real watch as well.

What should your target heart rate be? If you take a look at the cardio equipment at the gym, some machines will display a small graph with a descending line, comparing heart rate with age. That’s the really high level answer. The most basic formula is to subtract your age from the number 220 to give you your maximum heart rate. So as I’m 28, my maximum heart rate is 192. That means if I let my heart rate get that high, I am a moron who probably will seriously hurt myself. But don’t worry; I would probably pass out before it got that high anyway. Your target heart rate is all about the percentage of your maximum heart rate. And the percent you choose is based on how hard of a workout you’re looking for. 50-60% is a good place for beginners, and people looking for serious cardio health generally shoot for 70% or higher. I found this article to be a good, short summary of this information, and that website can be a great resource for more fitness information. Though it can be a bit intimidating, since it’s geared more to serious athletes that make me look like a lazy bum.

I’ve become so dependent on my heart monitor, I feel absolutely naked working out without it! But you might decide they’re not for you, and that’s okay too. There are other, far less accurate, but perfectly acceptable methods to give you an idea of how hard your heart is working. There’s the conversation method for one (or “talk test”). Do you ever come across a pair of women who are briskly walking and carrying on a full conversation? They are most likely not exercising in the aerobic zone. When your heart rate is in the aerobic zone, generally you can carry on light conversation, so short answers, not full sentences, and not easily. If your heart rate is too high, it’s uncomfortable to say more than one word before taking a breath. And, again, if you can carry on a full conversation without any trouble, your heart rate isn’t high enough.  And of course, that's not to say that going for a light walk with some pals isn't a perfectly acceptable form of exercise.  Something is always better than nothing.  But don't go eat a big burger and fries for dinner right after, thinking you've "earned it."  Be reasonable!  Another method is the perceived effort test, which I don't fully understand.  Basically, you figure, on a scale from 1-10 (or whatever scale you want), if 1 is no exertion and 10 is I'm gonna die if I don't stop, how hard do you perceive your current effort to be?  I think it sounds weird and subjective, but hey, it's all about what works for you.

If you’re interested in reading more than you ever wanted to know about how heart rates are calculated, check out this article. That website is another great resource for people looking to learn more about fitness and general health.

I’ll wrap it up by quickly mentioning that heart rate monitors completely vary both in price and features. You can get fancy ones that compile data from all your workouts that you can upload to your computer and make big nerdy graphs with, or you can get basic ones that do little more than display your current heart rate and the time. Unfortunately, even the basic monitors are on the pricey side. While the higher end models will easily cost you hundreds of dollars, there are several good options out there in the $60-$100 range. So they’re doable. I use my heart monitor every time I exercise, so I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth! The one I use is a few years old now, but it’s pretty similar to this model from Polar.

Have you ever used a heart monitor and did you find it useful? Do you tend to over-work or under-work your love organ when you work out?

I meant your heart, what were you thinking of?

My greatest blog supporter sent me a message yesterday with a link to this article and mentioned it would be a good idea to make reference to some of the health benefits of the delicious, whole foods I’m always yapping on about. What a concept! You’ve probably seen the term “superfood” listed in hundreds of health articles. It’s quite the buzzword at the moment. But it’s a good buzzword! Eating a diet rich in whole foods instead of processed foods means you’re not just eating less calories and cutting out things your body doesn’t need, like preservatives, it also means you’re getting all the vitamins, minerals, and other compounds found in whole foods that are destroyed during processing. The general idea I would take from this list is that it’s important to eat a healthy variety of nuts, beans, lean proteins, and as many colorful fruits and vegetables as you can stomach. Hit up all the food groups, and don’t forget that herbs and spices come from Mother Earth too! Your well-harnessed radicals will thank you.

I will say it was a very timely message, since allllll the way at the bottom of that list is corn. And corn just so happens to be what I’m touting today! It apparently protects against UV damage. As someone as pale as a ghost and susceptible to sunburns faster than Husband can inhale a blueberry muffin, the antioxidants found in corn are for me! 

[And thank you, friend, for providing me a somewhat more graceful segue into today's recipe.  Trying to get from heart monitors to corn was really throwing me for a loop!]

So, it’s corn season! A fact that in past years wouldn’t have excited me in the least. I was just never a corn person. Then one day on a hot July afternoon, Husband grilled some corn, and it’s been a love affair I’ve been relishing ever since. Amazing how that grill, to borrow a phrase, makes my skirt fly up, it’nd it?

Now I’m sure most people have had grilled corn. Go to any place they’re grilling meat, and you’ll see naked ears thrown down and slathered in a ton of butter. That’s not the grilled corn I’m talking about. Oh-ho no. This grilled corn is fat-free. No joke! See, I leave the husks on. When I buy corn at the store I always see a gaggle of people standing around the corn bin, husking their corn and shoving the naked ears into plastic bags. It’s tragic! Corn deserves some dignity, people! By grilling the corn in the husk, the husk dries out over the open flame and gives off this amazing corn aroma that infuses into the kernel. Also, the corn can fully cook without burning because it cooks most of the way through in the husk, where the open flame can’t get it. Then I remove the husks and let the naked corn do its delicious caramelization thing, and voila! Perfectly cooked, sweet corn, plumped and browned kernels, and all with a totally punched up flavor.

You’ll never husk your corn at the store again. Admit it.

Since this amazing discovery - which I hate to admit is, once again, all Husband’s own genius. Darn him. - I have been grilling corn left and right. Grilled corn and edamame miso salad. Grilled corn pesto (this one is in the posting queue as well...*droooool*). And this here grilled corn chowder. I had been ogling corn chowders all summer, and with all the ingredients needed conveniently located in my kitchen, how could I say no?

This chowder was silky. It was sweet, it was spicy enough to make it interesting without making it hot, and it was creamy without being heavy. In a summer chowder it is imperative to be creamy but not heavy. Not only are soups leaden with cream, cheese, and butter generally pretty unhealthy, but they are just about the most unappetizing thing to eat on a hot summer day. So here’s my trick for getting a silky texture in a pureed soup sans dairy - roasted cauliflower. It lends a delicate sweetness that blends seamlessly with any soup, and has a thick, creamy texture that can rival cream without weighing it down. It is my secret weapon! That said, this recipe does actually have a small about of cream and milk. Quite honestly, I added them because I had tiny amounts of each in the fridge and just wanted somewhere to dump them before they spoiled. I think I would keep the milk in, but next time I would nix the cream. It was seriously not needed, and even a little too heavy for my taste. I left them in the recipe, though, because I know most people probably like creamier soups than I do. I’ve been off heavy foods for so long, I’m just uber-sensitive. Heck, you could even add more. Isn’t cooking to your liking, after all, what makes home cooking great?

I’ll also add that I used sherry in this recipe over white wine only because I was too lazy to go open a new bottle of wine when I had an open bottle of sherry sitting right next to me on the counter. All decisions are not taste inspired. I admit it openly! I also added the celery salt because I had just bought it on super clearance at the store and I wanted to try it. Yep, I’ll just air all my dirty laundry here today. But really, I think they both worked in the recipe. If you don’t have celery salt and an open bottle of white wine...well I think you know what to do. As for the rest of the herbs and spices that made this soup what it is...I used the Julie method - pull out the spice drawer in the pantry and just grab what sounds good! They did exactly what I wanted them to, which is add a complexity to the dish without overpowering the star - the corn. So many chowders just rely on the fat from the cream and the sugar from the corn to provide all the flavor. That’s boring! Punching up flavor without adding calories is what good healthy cooking is all about. 

The best thing about this soup was, of course, the corn!  And it was everywhere in this soup because I used every bit of it!  Once I had removed the cooked kernels from the cob, I simmered the empty cobs in the broth.  That's right, no weak corn flavor here!  This way I was able to keep the corn kernels whole and still get the rest of the soup infused with corn flavor.  This soup was sweet but not sugary, rich but not heavy, and rustic but not unsophisticated.  Definitely a permanent addition to my summer soup repertoire!  Take this recipe and make it your own.  Just make sure you grill the corn, you won't regret it!

Grilled Corn Chowder

makes about 8 servings

4 ears of corn (in their husks!)
2 TB olive oil, divided
1 tsp salt, divided
1 large onion, chopped
2 medium shallots, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 jalapenos, seeded and minced
1 large russet potato, diced
1 small head cauliflower, roughly chopped
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp celery salt (optional)
1/4 tsp cayenne (or more to taste)
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried tarragon
1/2 tsp cumin
2 cups dry sherry (or white wine)
4-5 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped

To grill the corn:
  1. Over medium heat, place the corn (in their husks!) on the grill, directly over the heat. Turn the corn every 2-3 minutes, when the husks begin to blacken. The silk or ends of the husks might catch fire as they dry out. I think this adds an amazing smoky flavor to the corn, but if you’re scared (chicken!), just make sure to trim those bits off before you put them on the grill. [Practice proper safety! Always use long tongs when handling the corn, and keep your digits away from the flame.] 
  2. When the husks are good and charred and the kernels are mostly cooked, remove the corn from the grill and place it in a pan or bowl you have standing by until it cools down a bit. Carefully peel back and remove the husks, watching out for any trapped hot steam. Place the naked ears (teehee!) back on the grill and turn every 1-2 minutes, or until as many kernels as possible have browned and caramelized. Brown = sweet flavor! 
  3. Remove the corn from the grill, and when it is cool enough to handle, cut the kernels from the cob. Scrape the back of your knife along the cob to really get all the creamy corn bits out of there. Set the kernels aside, and reserve the empty cobs as well (don’t throw them away!). 
To make the soup:
  1. In a dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat, sauté the onion and shallots in 1 TB of olive oil and 1 tsp of salt until they are soft and starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and jalapeno and cook another 3 minutes, until softened. Add the potato and cook until starting to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining tsp of the salt, pepper, paprika, coriander, celery salt, cayenne, oregano, tarragon, and cumin, stir to coat the vegetables, and let it cook for about a minute, until the spices release their fragrant oils. 
  2. Increase the heat to high and deglaze the pot with the sherry, making sure to scrape up any flavor bits from the bottom. Bring the sherry to a simmer and let it reduce by half, about 1 cup of liquid. Add the chicken broth, and when it has come to a boil add the reserved empty corn ears. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and simmer for at least 30 minutes. The longer you let it simmer, the more flavor the soup will have. I would shoot for an hour if you have the time.
  3. While the soup is simmering, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Spread the chopped cauliflower in a single layer in a roasting pan, and toss with the remaining TB of olive oil. Roast in the oven for about 20-25 minutes, or until the cauliflower is soft and starting to brown around the edges.  Check on it about 10 minutes in and give it a good stir so it browns evenly.
  4. When the soup is simmered to your satisfaction, remove the pot from the heat and let it cool down a little. Remove and discard the ears of corn, and stir in the roasted cauliflower. When it is cool enough, puree the soup using an immersion blender, blender, or food processor. 
  5. Place the soup back over medium-low heat. Add the reserved corn kernels, cream, and milk. Bring the soup to a bare simmer and let it cook for 10 minutes or so, just to let all the flavors come together. 
  6. Stir in the chopped cilantro at the very end and serve. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Spiced Up Frozen Treat, and a Winner!

Recipe below: Cardamom Peach Buttermilk Sherbet

Let’s get right to it, shall we?  We have a winner!  Congratulations lmurley2000, you are the lucky winner of a $40 gift certificate, courtesy of CSN Stores!  A big thanks to everyone who entered!  It was fun and informative for me to read what recipes have connected most with you.


Sad you didn’t win?  Don’t be!  I've got something to cheer you up.  Erm. Well actually, this will only cheer you up if you own an ice cream maker...or if you know someone who has one you can steal borrow....or if you live in San Diego and don't mind stopping by my house.  Otherwise, you're totally out of luck.  Bummer!  And also, if you've got the funds, buy one!  You will not be sorry.  Trust me.  My freezer hasn't been without some form of frozen treat since I got mine.

If you are the lucky owner of your very own shiny ice cream maker (or have the means to acquire one), do I ever have a treat for you - in the form of sherbet!


What?  Sherbet doesn’t get your heart pumping?  Right.  Because you haven’t had this sherbet.  One bite, and I guarantee the mere mention of this frozen treat will set your heart aflutter from now on.  And what the heck is sherbet anyway?  And what’s the difference between the names of all those mixtures you churn in an ice cream maker and enjoy frozen?  Well, being far too lazy to look it up speaking from my rear end vast culinary knowledge, I can tell you that ice cream is cream based (and if you consider frozen custard also ice cream (which I do (because who responds “I do! I do!” to the question “Who wants frozen custard?!” (but frozen custard is by far the superior product, calories aside (can you still read this? (let’s see if I can properly unparenthesize myself here…)))))yaaaay), frozen yogurt is yogurt based, sherbet is milk based, and sorbet is the kind of “everything else” category but that I most associate with juice. Do I have that right?

So, if you were able to navigate that bit of mental fun, you know that sherbet is just a milk based ice cream like dessert.  I know. That’s not titillating you yet.  But this doesn’t just use any old milk…it uses buttermilk.  Squeee! 

Squee…? Really?  Still nothing?  Ok, maybe I’m alone in my complete obsession with all  things buttermilk – it’s tangy in a good way and tenderizes like nobodies business – but trust me, it definitely brings something special to the sherbet party. 

Originally this started out as just a good ol’ peach buttermilk sherbet.  With peaches at their absolute peak right now in San Diego, this recipe practically jumped off the screen at me.  I had the mixture fully processed and ready for its chill when I had an idea.  The flavor was good of course – you can’t go wrong with peaches and buttermilk – but it could use a little kicking up.  I need spice in my life wherever I can get it!  And there’s a certain spice that I’ve found pairs beautifully with peaches – cardamom

Yes, cardamom.  That scary spice I was touting when I made zucchini bread.  I said then that having this spice in your pantry would pay off, and here’s where!  If you’ve never tried peaches and cardamom together, I would highly recommend you make it your life’s mission.  Starting now.  Peaches have this light and delicate flavor that is almost floral, and cardamom has the amazing ability to really stand out as an identifiable flavor without overpowering the more delicate flavors of, say, a peach!  Move over cookies and milk, get a room peanut butter and jelly, peaches and cardamom are here!

So now when I say cardamom peach buttermilk sherbet, does that beeping heart rate monitoring machine thingy they use in tv hospital dramas start beeping a little faster?  Phew!  Finally!  Because let me tell you, this sherbet is awesome.  It's super creamy and the flavor is out of this world.  The buttermilk adds a nice compliment to the peach, again, without overpowering its delicate flavor, and adds a little complexity that keeps it from being boring.  I added a little cinnamon with the cardamom because I thought it rounded out the flavor nicely and didn't make the cardamom so much of a shock to the palette.  And since this uses milk instead of cream, you get the bonus of a healthier dessert!  Adding a little alcohol helps keep the texture soft and creamy because it doesn't freeze (at freezer temps anyway).  I chose a spot of rum because that's what got my taste buds dancing at the time, but you could always swap it out for a tablespoon or two of vodka for the same effect without the flavor. 

So did I do it?  Did I cheer you up?

Cardamom Peach Buttermilk Sherbet
Adapted from Martha Stewart

Makes about 1 quart

4 large ripe peaches, pitted and cut to bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
2 TB light corn syrup
3 TB fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup light rum

  1. In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the peaches, sugar, and honey to a gentle simmer. Turn the heat down to low, cover and cook until peaches are soft, about 20 minutes. Remove the saucepan from heat and let cool 10 minutes. Once cooled, puree the peach mixture in a food processor.  You can strain the mixture at this point through a fine mesh strainer if you would like, but I wanted the solids.
  2. Transfer the peach mixture to a medium bowl and whisk in the corn syrup, lemon juice, vanilla, salt, cardamom, and cinnamon.  Add the buttermilk, milk, and rum. Cover, and refrigerate for about 4 hours (or until it is chilled under 40 degrees).
  3. Slowly pour the sherbet mixture into your ice cream maker and churn until thickened and delicious.  Transfer to an airtight container and store in your freezer.
Note: Make sure to chill the mixture to the proper temperature, or it won't churn up nice and creamy, but will instead freeze up icy.  Just be patient!  I actually over-churned this (as in, it churned too long and then melted back to a liquid) on my first attempt and I had to refreeze my ice cream bowl and try the whole thing again the next day!  Good thing it was worth the wait!

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Goofball, a Gift, and a Giveaway!

Recipe below: Wasabi Ginger Soy Pulled Pork Ribs

If you read food blogs with any regularity, you’ve probably heard of CSN stores. They’re kind of like another popular online shopping website (you know, the one that started as a bookseller?) in that they sell everything...dinnerware, cookware, appliances, even fitness equipment! And one of their genius methods of marketing is sponsoring blog giveaways...can you guess where I’m going with this?

Welcome to Bananas for Bourbon’s very first giveaway! One lucky winner will be awarded a one-time-use $40 gift certificate, good at any of CSN’s 200+ online stores. Lucky ducky! I’ve entered many a giveaway for one of these puppies, but was never fortunate enough to win. So good luck!

To enter: leave a comment on this post telling me your favorite Bananas for Bourbon recipe so far. Make sure you provide an email address if there isn’t one linked to your profile.

For additional entries, do one or all of the following, then come back and leave a separate comment for each, letting me know the deed is done.
  1. Become a fan of (“Like”) Bananas for Bourbon on Facebook, and if you already are, just say so! 
  2. Subscribe to my blog via an RSS feed (just click that “Follow” button in the toolbar on the right), and if you already do, just say so! 
  3. Post a link to this giveaway on your blog, and let me know about it. 
The rules: open to US and Canada residents only, as that is where CSN store's products ship. The giveaway closes on Tuesday, August 10th at 11:59pm PST. The winner will be selected by a random number generator and announced (and contacted!) sometime on Wednesday.

I was actually glad to have the opportunity to facilitate this giveaway because I feel like I won my own giveaway this week. Imagine my surprise when, completely out of the blue, I received a package on my doorstep containing this:

OMG! Whatever could be the cause of this wonderfulness? I'm not worthy!  Thankfully, there was a helpful note. Turns out my most awesome friend and former college roommate could relate to my predicament of being low on funds while trying to expand my culinary horizons, and she instructed me to consider it an investment in my future food blogging adventures. I almost cried, I was so happy. If there is one thing this unemployment experience has taught me, it’s that people can be truly beautiful during times of discord.  I'm not worthy!  I am definitely taking this seriously, and plan to post a recipe (eventually!) for each and every time shown.  If you can't read the labels, there are 4 sauces (honey barbecue, wasabi ginger, vidalia onion fig, and maple chipotle garlic) and 4 pestos (sun-dried tomato, basil, black olive, and artichoke).  

Now let's take a minute to drool and make noises...

Ok, back.  I've seen some Stonewall Kitchen products around a few random spots, like in winery shops and that kind of thing, and I have always drooled quite a bit over the vidalia onion fig sauce.  I can't wait to try that one, and I already have something in mind...  If any of these goodies sound especially delicious to you, leave me a comment with what you would would make!

I’m far from an expert when it comes to cuts of meat, seeing as how I’m still fairly new to eating meat, so I had to put on my thinking cap when I saw pork shoulder country style ribs on super sale at the store. They were large chunks of meat on the bone, obviously not like a baby back. Since pork shoulder meat always does so well in the slow cooker, I figured I would try braising them in the wasabi ginger sauce. Bones = flavor, after all!  I ended up cooking them low and slow in the oven with just a portion of the sauce along with some soy sauce and other delicious flavorings. Then when the pork was falling off the bone and delicious, I shredded it up and tossed it with the rest of the wasabi ginger sauce.  And since the sauce was a gift and the pork was on sale, it cost me less than $10.  Take that, Melissa D'Arabian!  Except not, because the sauce was a gift and the pork was on sale...  But whatever!

How good was this pork? Well, Husband came home and had an entire bowl for dinner. Then he got up and attempted to refill the bowl for a second helping. I had to beat him away with a stick words of reason in a very scolding tone! If that’s any indication. The pork was tender and succulent, and since it cooked on the bone, it had the rich pork flavor. Yum! I was glad I waited until after the pork was cooked to toss it with the sauce, or I think it would have gotten lost during the braise. The sauce itself is pretty sweet.  There are like 3 different kinds of sugar (sugar, brown sugar, and honey) listed in, I think, the first 5 or 6 ingredients, and it's not at all spicy, like I would expect something with wasabi in the name to be, but that said, it's a tasty sauce!  And I am, admittedly, very sensitive to sweet things since I've been weaned from processed foods and the like.  The application for the sauce, in my most humble opinion, was right on!  If you felt a little acid was necessary, you could always throw in a splash if lime juice or vinegar, but I think it was balanced enough as it was.

Overall, I would call this dish a success! Next time I see those ribs on sale, they’re getting snatched up quick! Next time I want to try adding a little wasabi powder or Sriracha hot sauce to the braising liquid, just to infuse a little heat while it cooks.

The only problem with this recipe is that it results in this:

Goodbye wasabi ginger sauce!  I hardly knew you!  And yet, you will fill my belly with deliciousness for days to come!

So thanks, friend! Thanks for so fantastically cheering me up.  I needed it. Thanks for believing in my cooking and food blogging. I'm touched.  And thanks for being a good person and a great friend. You are inspiring. I hope my first recipe didn't disappoint!

Wasabi Ginger Soy Pulled Pork Ribs

Makes about 8 servings

~4 pounds pork shoulder country style ribs
1 TB ginger, minced
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 TB mirin
1 TB rice wine vinegar
1 11 fl.oz bottle Stonewall Kitchen Wasabi Ginger Sauce, divided
8oz button mushrooms, sliced (optional)
  1. Preheat your oven to 275 degrees. 
  2. Place the ribs in an even layer in a dutch oven or other covered oven-safe vessel. Add the ginger, garlic, soy sauce, mirin, rice wine vinegar, and 1/4 cup of the wasabi ginger sauce, then toss until the ribs are coasted. Add the mushrooms, if using. 
  3. Cover and cook for 4-5 hours, or until the pork is tender and falling off the bone. 
  4. Transfer the mushrooms and pork to a bowl, leaving the bones behind, and shred it with a fork. Toss it with the remaining wasabi ginger sauce, and serve. 

Serving suggestions: over a bed of wilted spinach or steamed bok choy, in lettuce cups, beside an Asian slaw, in soft tortillas topped with cabbage, as a slider, or whatever tickles your fancy! 

What are you still doing here?  Go make pulled pork!  Oh, right. You want to know where the goofball mentioned in the post title comes in, eh?  Well, how about this guy:

What can I say?  I'm a sucker for alliteration and things in threes. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Life is Liiiiike a Batch of Cupcakes

Recipe below: Strawberry Margarita Surprise Cupcakes

A healthy diet is all about balance. I’m a firm believer in working all the things you love into your life. Let’s be realistic. If you deny yourself something you truly love, how long are you going to be able to do it? And how happy are you going to be? And if you’re unhappy, what’s the point? Better to just figure out a way to work it in and be done with it. We’re not looking for temporary crash dieting here!

If we lived in a perfect world and could eat whatever we wanted with no repercussions, what foods would you ecstatically chow down on that you wouldn’t in this cruel, real world we live in? Me? It’s dessert! Ok technically, that’s not so much a food as a course, but how can you narrow down dessert? It’s one thing to justify high calorie foods that are also high in nutrients, but as much as I love them, desserts tend to be empty calories of processed flour and sugar. But I don’t care! I love to bake, and I love sweets after dinner. So I just find a way to work it in.

A friend asked me, after I told her about these cupcakes I’m about to drone on and on about, how I’m able to eat such things and stay so skinny. I told her I exercise a lot. And I do. But don’t just dismiss it! Getting fit really does just boil down to calories in and calories out. That’s boring, I know, but it’s true. Does that mean you have to meticulously count each calorie you eat and painstakingly track each calorie you burn everyday? Heck no! I mean, you can...but, ick! It’s all about finding what works for you. What’s really important is having a general understanding of what’s going in, and what’s coming out burning off. Some people like keeping a food journal. As much as I love documenting what I eat (via this here bloggy blog), I hate keeping a food journal. Go figure! There are websites to track and calculate exact calories in your meals, but that’s another post. The main idea is to have an idea of how many calories you’re consuming each day. I’m just talking in the general sense, here. Like, you ate a 1/2lb hamburger topped with a hot link and a side of fries vs. you ate a salad with grilled chicken on top.  But all that is another post because today I want to talk about exercise.

Anyone still here? Oh, I think I see someone in the back! You’ll be so glad you stayed.

A lot of us, including myself until very recently, have forgotten how important it is to move around! With everything at our fingertips, we’re lifeless blobs! Convenience is on its way to being a sin, and I’ve already embraced gluttony, so it’s off the table because I think we're only allowed one. Of course, one woman’s sin is another woman’s motivation! See, I love to eat. I don’t just love food (and oh do I ever love food...), I love the act of eating. I chew ridiculous amounts of gum between meals, just to keep my mouth busy...

[insert dirty joke here]

And since I love to eat ever so much, if I want to keep my trim figure up, I’ve got to run, run, run! The hardest part about starting an exercise routine is that starting part. The key here is routine, as in something you do more than once, regularly even! It's easy to try something once or twice, but really sticking with a regular exercise program is by far the hardest part about getting in shape, I think. The good news is, once you commit and keep it up, it becomes a part of your life, and thus, it becomes easier.  There is a light at the end of the tunnel!  It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you’re moving around. Though it does make sense to pick an activity you actually enjoy. Now don’t cop out on me people! I will maintain that anyone can find some activity they can do regularly they don’t completely hate. If you belong to a gym you never go to, chances are the gym maybe isn’t your thing. Try saving some money and finding other modes of movement! I didn’t know until I tried that I actually just preferred walking (and eventually running) around my neighborhood. Have a Wii? Try one of the many fitness games they have (and email me if you want some reviews). Try hiking somewhere scenic in your area, or a lake or forest or the beach! There’s always sports like tennis, basketball, or soccer, but since they require a friend, it’s best to find a lone activity for the everyday. The point is, move around, and do it several times a week. You don’t have to devote hours and hours to every workout. My motto is something is better than nothing. I know everybody’s daily lives are hectic and...well...packed!  It’s hard to imagine working more into your day, but trust me, it's all about baby steps. Once you work in 10 minutes, before you know it, you’ll find yourself extending it to 15. That’s how I started and look at me now! I learned to make exercising a priority in my routine and just...worked it in!  A little bit at a time.

And just one more quick rant: don't cop out on yourself!  Don't be one of those people that tries exercising once, doesn't see results, and then gives up.  It takes time, and you know it.  Don't be one of those people that chooses an activity that doesn't raise their heart rate above what it would take to get off the couch and go to the bathroom.  Exercising burns calories because your heart rate is raised.  Higher heart rate = more calories burned.  And this isn't really wrong, I just think it's silly: don't drive the two blocks to the gym (a ten minute walk, tops), and then walk on a treadmill once you get there!  There are a thousand and one excuses to not work out, and all they do is help you justify skipping something you aren't excited to do.  In the end, it's just a cop out.  Save the excuses.  You're in charge of yourself, and it's far better to just be honest with yourself.  If you don't want to exercise, then don't!  But no cake for you!

Ok, enough about exercise. Let’s talk dessert! I know they’re disgustingly trendy right now, but I’m kind of into cupcakes lately. They’re just so pleasantly pre-proportioned! And cake is so fluffy and sweet! And frosting! I love frosting. I could eat it by the spoonful. And when I say "could", I of course mean I totally have.  When I fill a pastry bag with frosting, I’m tempted to just squeeze it right into my gullet. Just tempted, haven't actually done that one...yet.  And by pastry bag, I mean a ziplock with the bottom corner cut off.  We're fancy at Chez Julie.

And now that my latest deep, dark secrets are out in the open, let’s talk about these cupcakes! They were awesome! The cake was light and fluffy, moist and delicious. It’s the buttermilk. Buttermilk does magical things with baked goods. And full of fruit! You’ll notice from the picture below that my strawberries sank to the bottom, which doesn’t so much matter to the overall flavor, but doesn’t make for such a pretty pic. It’s all about presentation! But fear not, I have a trick! By tossing the strawberries with a little flour, the theory is they stay properly suspended. I had to guess at how much flour to use, since obviously I'm coming up with it after the fact, so more flour might be necessary.  I've heard about this trick many times in the past, but I've never tried it, so you'll be like my guinea pigs!  Naw, it'll work.  If you're worried, you could always puree the strawberries first and just fold them into the batter, but I liked the burst of fresh berry goodness.

Mere cupcakes with frosting are not enough to fully excite me. Oh no. Not anymore.  I need to fill them. Because really, these are margarita cupcakes. Sure, there’s lime in the cupcakes, and lime in the frosting, but it’s just a hint. My cupcakes need that sour bite!  My lime needs to shine! By filling the center with lime curd, it gives the cupcakes a bright burst of citrus flavor. Delicious flavor! I love filling cupcakes. It’s a great way to sneak in another layer of flavor, and you never see it coming!  It's a surprise inside every cupcake.  They should change the saying to "Life is liiiiike a batch of cupcakes..."  See, those crazy post titles explain themselves eventually.

And who doesn’t love lime curd? Ok, probably plenty of people...but they don't exist to me.  Ever made your own citrus curd? It sounds intimidating, doesn't it? It’s actually super easy to make, as long as you keep one thing in mind: don’t leave the stove! It’s easy, but it’s also kind of a pain, unless you want scrambled eggs. But it’s only for a little while, and it only requires you to stir. Buck up and push through!

[Full disclosure: tequila doesn't come through very strong in baked goods.  In future batches, I'm still going to use it, and I still liked it in there.  Just don't expect a punch in the face like you can get with a stronger alcohol, like bourbon.  And if you're really in need of booze with only a little tequila left in the pantry, maybe just leave it out and drink a shot instead.]

This was my first time attempting swiss meringue buttercream, and not only was it a resounding success, it made a believer out of me. It’s light as a cloud and oh so delicate! The strawberry jam adds a refreshing flavor, and it’s nice and light to go with the texture. And delicate.  Just note these cupcakes don’t keep quite as well as a regular buttercream because the meringue hardens a bit in the fridge. But they still stay tasty!  And delicate!  And light!  It's like the strawberry frosting flavor is delivered to your mouth and you just have no idea how it got there.

These cupcakes really came together beautifully. The overall lightness of textures went really great with the more delicate and bright flavors of the fruit. Since it won’t weigh you down, it’s a great sweet treat on a hot summer day! This is a cupcake I will always make room for in my daily calorie bank!

Strawberry Margarita Surprise Cupcakes
(aka: strawberry lime tequila cupcakes with lime curd filling and a strawberry lime tequila swiss meringue that?)
cupcakes adapted from Annie’s Eats
buttercream adapted from Martha Stewart

Makes about 18 cupcakes

For the cupcakes:
2 1/2 cups cake flour
1 tsp baking soda
generous 1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1/3 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 TB tequila
1 TB lime zest
2 cups fresh strawberries, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup AP flour

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line the muffin tins with paper cupcake liners.
  2. In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time until incorporated, then add the buttermilk, oil, vanilla, and tequila and mix until fully combined.
  3. Sift the cake flour, baking soda, and salt together and stir into the batter until just combined.
  4. In a separate bowl, toss the strawberries with the AP flour and lime zest. Add more flour if it’s not enough to coat the whole batch. Gently fold the strawberries into the batter.
  5. Fill the cupcake liners with the batter, leaving about a 1/2 inch from the top. Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until a cake tester (i.e. toothpick) comes out clean. Cool completely.

For the lime curd:
3 large egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
4 TB unsalted butter, melted

In a small saucepan whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, lime juice, and butter and cook over moderately low heat. Taste the mixture (if you’re comfortable with the raw egg, which I know many people smarter than I are not) and add more sugar if it’s not sweet enough (I don't like it too sweet). Stir constantly until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 5 to 7 minutes (that means when you run your finger along the coating on the back of the spoon, it should leave a line rather than running back together). Be sure not to let it boil or sit long enough to curdle. Strain curd through a fine mesh strainer and set aside to cool.

For the buttercream:
1 pound fresh strawberries, finely chopped
1 cup sugar, divided
1/4 cup tequila
1/4 tsp salt
1 TB lime juice
1 tsp lime zest
2 large egg whites
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

(makes about 2 cups)

  1. Set a small pot over medium heat. Add the strawberries, 1/2 cup of sugar, tequila, salt, lime juice, and lime zest and simmer gently until a thickened syrup forms, about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool completely.  Once cooled, you can either puree the mixture or leave it in chunks.  I left mine chunky.
  2. Set a bowl over a pot of gently simmering water. Add the egg whites and the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and whisk constantly over the heat until the sugar is fully dissolved and the mixture is warm when you stick your finger in it (about 160 degrees).
  3. Pour the egg mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer and using the whisk attachment, beat on high speed until stiff peaks form (not too dry though). Test this by removing the whisk attachment, swirling it around the mixture, and pulling it straight up and turning it rightside-up to face you. If they are properly whipped up, a small droopy peak should stick up on the very tip of the whisk.
  4. Switch to the paddle attachment on the stand mixer, and beat the butter into the egg mixture on a medium-low speed, a few tablespoons at a time. Make sure the butter is fully incorporated before adding the next batch. If mixture separates after all the butter is mixed in, beat at a medium-high speed for a few minutes until it comes back together. Add the vanilla, beating it at medium-low speed, then turn the speed all the way down to low and mix for a couple of minutes to remove any extra air.
  5. Gently fold in the strawberry jam mixture with a rubber spatula and stir until the buttercream is smooth.

Note: Feel free to use store-bought strawberry jam instead of basically making your own, and just cook it on the stove with the other ingredients for a few minutes until it comes together.

To assemble the cupcakes:

  1. Using a pairing knife inserted at an angle, cut out a small cone-shaped chunk, about a 1 inch circle from the top of each cupcake. Fill the hole with the lime curd, about 1 teaspoon worth. You can either replace the chunk you removed, or eat it! leave it off.
  2. Fill a pastry bag (or ziplock with the bottom corner cut off) with the frosting and go to town on your cupcakes. Or, you know, just use a spatula.