Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Key Lime Pie Cupcakes

Tuck in, kiddies! I’m going to talk about cupcakes, and there’s just no way to accurately describe these babies and still be brief. So pull up a chair, it’s story time.

It all started with my sister sending me a link to a baking contest. Bravo and product placement company blah, blah, blah (the contest can be found here) - basically the contest is to make a dessert inspired by the flavors of key lime pie, strawberry shortcake, or mint chocolate chip. After voicing my disappointment that limes and strawberries were nowhere near in season anymore, I totally copped out and said I didn’t already have a good recipe to use and I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything decent in time. If I haven’t properly conveyed how completely awesome my sister is before, let me do so now. See, she knows me, so she was having none of my nonsense. She suggested something easy enough - take my strawberry margarita cupcake recipe and modify it to make a key lime cupcake instead. “You could even do a graham cracker crust on the bottom like those Martha Stewart ‘smores cupcakes I made that were awesome.” And it was like a light went off in my head - I was suddenly inspired! A lime-infused vanilla cupcake with a lime curd filling and lime-flavored meringue buttercream would be not only do-able, but delicious, and the graham cracker bottom might just nudge it into awesome territory.

My sister, ladies and gentlemen!

Unfortunately, this means that once again credit for the genius of the recipe must be given entirely elsewhere. And this is why fellow food lovers are integral to the home cook’s creative process. Sometimes they have all the good ideas and let you steal them. Plus, I’ll always have Husband’s birthday cake recipe. That one was all me.

So, per my sister’s most excellent suggestion, I made (and submitted!) these key lime pie cupcakes, or key lime vanilla cupcakes with a graham cracker crust bottom, key lime curd filling, and key lime Swiss meringue buttercream. And sprinklings of other fun touches here and there. These cupcakes were not nudged anywhere. They took a superman leap over awesome and landed somewhere in oh-my-goodness-what-are-these!?. Let’s go into it, shall we? Don’t worry, I’ll take it slow.

So this cupcake starts with the graham cracker crust. I added some key lime zest for good measure. I wanted to make sure the lime flavor really came through, and even though I added it everywhere, I’d say it stayed a subtle background flavor, in a good way. I blind baked the crust, like you do with a real key lime pie, and then added some white chocolate shavings before pouring in the cupcake batter. Martha Stewart’s ‘smores cupcakes recipe used chocolate shavings, and I thought it was probably needed to act as a binder between the crust and the cupcake. And either way, the richness from a little white chocolate would only make it tastier. I sprinkled the extra graham cracker/white chocolate mixture over the tops of the cupcakes before I put them in the oven to bake, so they had a slight crumb on top as well as the crust underneath. The cupcakes themselves were just a simple vanilla cupcake, infused with some key lime zest and juice. But what’s a key lime pie inspired cupcake without key lime curd? I holed out the tops of the cupcakes after they had cooled and poured in a dollop of curd, then topped them with the light as air frosting, reminiscent of the meringue that sometimes comes on key lime pies. And finally, I rubbed some graham cracker crumbs with a little key lime zest and dusted a pinch over each cupcake for garnish. Look at me, I’m fancy.

I have to say, this was my first time making a cupcake with a crust on the bottom, and it is flipping fantastic! Why don’t all cupcakes have one? It’s delicious - like a cupcake and pie had a love child. The sprinkling of the crumb/chocolate mixture on the top of the cupcake definitely united all the flavors. Unless you have a mouth the size of a grapefruit, it’s cumbersome to try and bite both the top and bottom of a cupcake at the same time. Usually you go in at an angle, right? Well having the crust flavor on top of the cupcake meant that each bite had some of that graham cracker flavor, so each bite kept the connection to its inspiration - key lime pie. Husband thinks this detail is key to the success of the cupcake, so don’t skip it!

Also crucial? The key lime curd. Sure, it’s just a small dollop in the middle of the cupcake, but it’s also where you get the burst of key lime flavor. I loved all the subtle hints of lime throughout the cupcake, but it wouldn’t have tasted like a key lime pie without the curd. Plus, it was so tart, and sweet and creamy, that a smidgen is all that was needed to capture the bright flavor without getting hit in the face with it.

The cupcake was so complete without the frosting that anything like a traditional buttercream or cream cheese frosting would have detracted and distracted from it. Thrown it off the balance. So the Swiss meringue buttercream was perfect. It was light as a cloud; just a delicate, sweet touch. And look how glossy it is!  Gorgeous.  A friend of mine gave a cupcake to her son, and his feedback was that at first bite he didn’t like the frosting because he was expecting a traditional buttercream. The texture of it, so light and airy, threw him off. But on the second and subsequent bites, after he knew what to expect, he loved it. Great feedback, huh?

The cupcake itself was very light and tender. I went with a simple vanilla cupcake as the base because there were so many other flavors and elements. The cake itself was not the star, but it was still a delightful, delectable bite that helped highlight the other flavors. All the elements of the cupcake really came together in a great way. I couldn’t believe how much it brought to mind a key lime pie! These may just be the best cupcakes I’ve ever made. Ok, the Irish car bomb cupcakes I made for St. Patrick’s Day this year were pretty great, but they didn’t have a graham cracker crust, so they just don’t measure up anymore.

Delicious as they are, these cupcakes are no picnic to make. They’re not difficult, per se. Far from it. But they are labor intensive; lots of steps. Zesting and juicing one pound of key limes to start was a bit of a pain. Then you make the graham cracker crust mixture, bake it, make the batter, bake that, make the key lime curd and buttercream, and finally wait for everything to cool so you can finish putting it all together. It’s not an all day undertaking by any means, but don’t leave these until an hour before your party starts or you’ll be the unwitting host of a baking demonstration.  Also, the recipe makes a ton of cupcakes.  It was supposed to make 2 dozen, but with the graham cracker bottom and the airy cupcake batter, it made more like 2 and a half.  Thankfully, I have friends willing to eat my baking experiments!

These cupcakes may be a special occasion only treat, but boy are they ever special! Let’s hope the good folks at Bravo agree because I sure could use a $5,000 kitchen makeover.

Key Lime Pie Cupcakes

makes about 28 cupcakes

cupcakes partially adapted from Annie’s Eats and Martha Stewart

[Note: You’ll need 1lb bag of key limes, zested and juiced. Don’t have key limes? Regular limes will work fine too.)

For the graham cracker crust:
2 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup sugar
2 TB lime zest
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
7 ounces white chocolate, finely chopped

For the cupcakes:
3 cups cake flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
16 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1¼ cups buttermilk, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 TB key lime juice
1 tsp key lime zest
  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Prepare 2 muffin tins with cupcake liners and set aside. 
  2. In a small bowl, combine the ingredients for the graham cracker crust, minus the white chocolate. Place 1 TB of the mixture into the bottom of each prepared muffin cup, and use the bottom of a small glass to pack the crumbs, then sprinkle about 1 1/2 tsp of the white chocolate over the graham cracker crust. Add the remaining chocolate to the reserved graham cracker mixture and set aside. 
  3. Bake the graham cracker crusts for about 5 minutes, or until the edges of the graham cracker mixture is golden. 
  4. Add the butter and sugar to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until incorporated. Make sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl after each addition. 
  5. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, combine the buttermilk, vanilla extract, lime juice, and lime zest in a bowl. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in 3 batches, alternating with the buttermilk mixture, ending with flour, beating until each addition is just combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix for 15 seconds longer. 
  6. Pour the batter into the cupcake liners, filling each cup to about a quarter inch from the top. Sprinkle the remaining graham cracker/white chocolate mixture over each cup, concentrating around the edges (since you'll be cutting out the center for the filling). Bake the cupcakes, rotating pans halfway through, until the tops are firm and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer the tins to a wire rack and let the cupcakes cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove them and let cool completely. 
For the lime curd:
3 large egg yolks
1 egg
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh key lime juice
4 TB unsalted butter, melted
pinch of salt

(makes about 1 1/2 cups)
  1. In a small saucepan whisk together the egg yolks, egg, sugar, lime juice, and butter and cook over moderately low heat. Stir constantly until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 7-10 minutes, making sure not to let it boil or sit long enough to curdle. Strain the curd through a fine mesh strainer and set aside to cool. 
  2. Once cooled, 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 leave it off. 
For the lime Swiss meringue buttercream:
4 large egg whites
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
2 TB key lime juice

(makes about 4 cups)

For the garnish:
1 tsp key lime zest
1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
  1. In the bowl for your electric mixer (or a medium heatproof bowl if you’re using a hand mixer), combine the egg whites and sugar, and place the bowl over a small pot of gently simmering water. Whisk the mixture constantly until the sugar has fully dissolved, about 2-3 minutes. Rub a little between your fingers, and if there is no hint of a grainy texture, it’s done (or when it reaches 160 degrees in temperature). 
  2. Place the bowl in your mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and at high speed, beat the egg mixture until stiff peaks form. Continue beating until the eggs are fluffy and the mixture has cooled, about 5-6 minutes. Make sure the stiff peaks don’t become dry, you want them to stay glossy. 
  3. Switch to the paddle attachment and with the mixer on medium-low speed, add the butter 2 TB at a time, waiting until it is fully incorporated into the mixture before adding the next addition. If the buttercream begins in separate, turn the mixer up to medium-high speed and beat for a few minutes, until it is smooth again. Add the vanilla, salt, and lime juice, and beat until incorporated. Again, if the mixture separates or thins out too much, beat on medium-high speed until it is light and fluffy again. Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat for 2 minutes to eliminate any air bubbles. 
  4. Using a pastry bag or a Ziploc with the corner cut off, frost each cupcake. In a small bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs and lime zest, and lightly dust each cupcake with just a pinch of the mixture. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Help me go to bootcamp!

Recipe below: Earl Grey Plum Preserves Crumb Bars

Pacific Natural Foods is hosting an exciting food challenge...ok, the challenge isn't that exciting, but the prize is! An all-expenses paid two day trip to Napa to attend the Culinary Institute of America's culinary bootcamp program. Let me break down all the awesomeness I just smooshed into one sentence. Napa. A weekend in Napa. Cooking. Learning to cook. From a real culinary school! An awesome culinary school. It's the chance of a lifetime. Since money is the only thing stopping me from enrolling in culinary school tomorrow, it would be a great sneak peak into what it would be like and if it's really for me. Not to mention a weekend with a bunch of people who love food almost as much as I do.

With a prize like that, entering immediately was a no-brainer. All I had to do was post a recipe using Pacific chicken, beef, mushroom, or vegetable broth. Simple! Oh yeah, and include mushrooms in the recipe. Easy. The timing? Well that was problematic. Did I have time to run to the store, buy mushrooms and broth and other savory things and make something killer? Well no. So I did the next best thing, perused my Bananas for Bourbon recipes, and found the perfect recipe. Remember my favorite grilled mashed potatoes? Think they’re culinary bootcamp worthy? I think so!

Here's where you all come and in to help. Just go to my grilled mashed potatoes recipe on the challenge website, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and click to button to vote for my recipe. It's that easy! And you can do it everyday! Tell all your friends, and maybe a few random strangers while you're at it. Think of all the stories and recipes I'd bring home to share with you all. Everyone wins!

And in return for supporting me...dessert! Beautiful, ruby red plums have been prominently displayed at the store for weeks and weeks, and I finally decided to use some in more than just my morning cereal. These earl grey plum preserves are fantastic on their own, spread on some fresh bread or spooned over greek yogurt. Baked into these buttery, crumbly bars, they are even better. The preserves thicken into a sweet, almost candy-like in texture syrup, and the citrus and tea notes keep it fresh and interesting.  A beautiful pairing.

Earl Grey Plum Preserve Crumb Bars

crumb bars adapted from Smitten Kitchen
plum preserves adapted from The Kitchn

Makes 36 1 1/2”squares

For the preserves
1 1/4 lbs black or red plums*
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
2 TB lemon juice
1 tsp orange zest
2 TB Grand Marnier (optional)
1 cup boiling water
2 TB Earl Grey tea leaves

For the bars
3 cups AP flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp orange zest
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes and very cold
1 egg
1 TB cold water, optional

To make the preserves:
  1. Cut the plums into bite-sized pieces. I cut each plum into eighths and quartered each piece, but whatever works for you. Transfer the plums to a medium saucepan, along with the sugar, honey, lemon juice, orange zest, and Grand Marnier. Toss until the plum pieces are coated, then set it aside.
  2. Combine the boiling water and tea leaves in a small bowl and steep the mixture for 15 minutes. Strain the leaves out through a fine mesh strainer. Place the brewed tea in a small saucepan, bring it to a boil, and let it simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced by half (~1/2 cup).
  3. Pour the concentrated tea into the saucepan with the plums. Bring the mixture to a boil, and let it simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 25-30 minutes, or until the plums have broken down and the mixture has thickened. Let the preserves cool for about 30 minutes, then move them to the refrigerator for another 30 minutes to fully cool and thicken. 
Note: You want the preserves a little on the thin side, or what you would consider thin if you were going to spread some on a slice of bread. Remember they’ll thicken up more when you bake them into the bars.

To make the bars:
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and spray a 9x9” baking dish with baking spray.
  2. In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the lemon and orange zests. Using a pastry blender, a fork, or your finger tips, cut the cold butter into the flour until the butter and flour are worked into pea-sized crumbs. Stir in the egg to get a crumbly dough. If the dough feels a little too dry and isn’t forming very large crumbs, add the water. I didn’t do this and I wish I had.
  3. Press 1/2 to 2/3 of the dough into your prepared baking pan, depending on the bar-base to crumbly-top ratio you prefer. I used almost 2/3 because I wanted a more substantial shortbread base. Pour the chilled preserves over the dough, using a spatula to gently spread them to an even layer. Crumble the remaining dough over the preserves and very gently press them into the preserves.
  4. Bake the bars for 45 minutes, or until the crumbs are golden brown. Let it cool completely in the pan so everything sets up properly, about an hour. When cooled, cut the bars, using a sharp knife, into 1 1/2” squares.

*Don’t worry about buying exactly 1 1/4 lbs of plums, just make sure it’s on the heavy side of 1 lb. The pits take up a bit of the weight and I wanted a hair more plum when I bought just 1 lb.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Vidalia Onion Fig Broccoli Slaw

We have a winner, folks. I’m very happy to report the winner of the CSN Stores giveaway is none other than......drum roll please.......


Congrats, Geri! No one deserves it more. A more committed and caring doggy mama you will never meet. Of course, it was still all chance. See?


A big thanks to everyone who participated!

Well no surprise here, you all are ready for fall. Fragrant pumpkin breads, hearty squash soups, slow oven-braised meats, and the like. I've just got a few more end of summer recipes to share with you first. How lame am I? Torturing you with such deliciousness, it’s unconscionable, I know. But you know what? Sure, we’re all in a big rush to eat the fruits of fall, but San Diego is just not ready to let summer go. While enduring triple-freaking-digit temperatures this week, I was glad to have a nice cooling slaw in the fridge. Right next to my even coolingier beer. Naturally. So you East Coasters who are dealing with torrential downpours and beautiful foliage, well, you’ll just have to wait.

This broccoli slaw is pretty straight forward. It was actually one of those happy accidents. You know, when you buy broccoli at the store because it’s on sale and you love it in just about everything, and when you go to make something with it, you just kind of throw something together, whatever sounds good? Yeah, one of those happy accidents. I had some of that lovely vidalia onion fig sauce leftover from my awesomely delicious glazed pork, and turned it into a vinaigrette for the slaw. Good and gussied up with dried cranberries and toasted pecans, this slaw turned out better than anything I imagined when I first brought home that broccoli from the store. Don’t you love it when that happens?

I’m sure it will come as a shock to no one who reads this blog with regularity that I usually opt for a vinegar/oil-based dressing for slaws rather than drowning them in gobs of the devil’s condiment. Who needs fat when you've got flavor?  And this one had some great flavor. The fig sauce really came through when mixed with the oil, vinegar, and lemon juice to make a nice, cohesive dressing. The sauce added all the complexity needed.  No garlic, shallots, or any other finicky vegetable cutting or obscure spice procurement necessary! I’m very dressing-shy and will under-dress a salad or slaw to a fault, so feel free to double the recipe if you think you need more. Just remember you can’t remove it once you add it! Alternately, my slaws tend to be quite large in volume, so you could also cut that recipe in half very easily too. But then you won’t have as many leftovers.  And trust me, you're going to want leftovers.

Vidalia Onion Fig Broccoli Slaw

Makes about 6 cups, or about 12 servings

1 1/2 lbs broccoli
5 medium carrots
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup toasted pecans, chopped

For the dressing:
2 TB fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
2 TB sherry vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
pinch of salt
pinch of ground black pepper
1/4 cup Stonewall Kitchens Vidalia Onion Fig Sauce
1/2 cup olive oil

  1. Using a food processor fitted with the grater blade, shred the broccoli and carrots. [If you don’t have a food processor (you poor thing!), a box grater will work, though is a bit more labor intensive.] Combine the shredded broccoli and carrots with the cranberries and pecans in a large bowl.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, vinegar, salt, pepper, vidalia onion fig sauce, and olive oil. Whisk vigorously until the ingredients are emulsified (i.e. the oil and vinegar are combined into a cohesive liquid). Pour the dressing over the slaw and toss until everything is well-coated.