Friday, March 28, 2008

S'mores cupcakes

Too much of a good thing is never enough. The Cupcake Hero challenge for March got my brain ticking over but good, and I wound up with a whole host of cupcake ideas I wanted to try out. The Hot Cocoa cupcakes turned out pretty darn well, but I couldn't stop there - there was too much possibility for playing with marshmallow.

I got to thinking about what marshmallows are normally used with, and the obvious conclusion (after hot cocoa, of course) was s'mores. There's not much better to do with marshmallows than melt them alongside chocolate between some graham crackers, unless it's to make a fluffernutter - and believe me, I contemplated the fluffernutter cupcake. I eventually decided to go with the one I had all the ingredients for, though, and thus the s'mores cupcake was born.

This recipe would probably work quite well with whole-wheat flour in place of the AP, and it'd be fabulous if you had actual graham flour around. Both would create a heavier cupcake, rather than a light and tender one, but I think that texture change might work well here, since it's already a "toothier" cake.

Instead of repeating the disastrous results of last time's homemade marshmallow cream frosting experiment, I decided to go the lazy route (ninjas always prefer the path of least resistance) and top this batch with premade marshmallow fluff. If you do this, make sure you either serve the cupcakes right away or get them into the fridge ASAP - the marshmallow fluff slumps a bit at room temperature, then starts dripping down the cupcake. It's delicious, but it can quickly become a sticky mess and makes peeling the cupcake paper off something of a challenge.

In the future, I'm going to play with a version of this that involves a layered ganache-and-marshmallow filling, but for now, the simple "buried chips and marshmallows" technique works nicely.

S'mores Cupcakes
makes 12-15 cupcakes

1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 cup AP flour
1 cup crushed* graham crackers (about 8 whole - not squares/sticks - graham crackers)
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
Chocolate chips
Mini marshmallows
Marshmallow cream (homemade or store-bought) for frosting


1. Preheat oven to 350F; prepare a cupcake/muffin pan with paper or silicone liners.
2. Whisk together oil, eggs, sugar, and milk until smooth. Beat in flour and crushed graham crackers.
3. Fill cupcake liners no more than 2/3 full. Pop into the oven.
4. After 5 minutes, pull the pan out of the oven. Drop 3-5 mini marshmallows onto the top of each cupcake and push them down slightly into the batter. Then drop 3-5 chocolate chips on top of the marshmallows and push THOSE down, using either your fingers (if you have ninja hands of asbestos) or the back of a spoon. Make sure the chocolate goes on top of the marshmallows - it'll help keep the marshmallows from floating back up to the surface of the cupcakes.
5. Return the pan to the oven and bake for another 15-20min, or until a tester comes out clean.
6. Cool and frost with marshmallow cream. Top with chocolate chips and any leftover graham crumbs you might have.

*Ninja's Note: You can blitz the graham crackers in a food processor to crush them, but I find it's much more satisfying to put them in a plastic bag and whack the bejeezus out of them with a rolling pin. You tend to get a more even crumb that way, too, although some larger pieces in the batter make the texture interesting and really drive home the "s'mores" point.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hot Cocoa Cupcakes

The Kitchen Ninja, always being open to a challenge, has decided to take up Cupcake Hero's call and create some delightful marshmallow-themed confections.

The first up on the list was inspired by the original proposed theme for March, milk chocolate. After all, chocolate and marshmallow are a natural pairing, especially in liquidous form - who doesn't love hot cocoa with a nice marshmallow or fifty in it?

I do love a good chocolate cupcake, but I like brownies better - I'm all about the rich, dense batters and superconcentrated chocolate flavour you get from a brownie, as opposed to the naturally cakier cupcakes. So for this challenge, I decided to try melding a favourite brownie recipe with a standard sour cream cupcake to see what would happen.

What happened was delicious.

The only real problem with this recipe was the marshmallow cream frosting. The Kitchen Ninja is not big on anal-retentive measuring techniques (which begs the question, "how on earth does she not fail more often at baking?!") and, therefore, does not actually own a candy thermometer. Seeing as every recipe for marshmallow frosting on the face of the earth requires actual candymaking, this was a bit of a hurdle.

I did my best to estimate temperatures (ahh, "softball stage," how I love you), but still failed fairly miserably in creating mounds of fluffy white marshmallowy cream for the cupcakes. Instead, I got luscious, gooey marshmallow icing that dripped down the milk-chocolate-and-marshmallow cupcakes. I almost think it was better than the original plan...

Hot Cocoa Cupcakes
makes 12-15 cupcakes

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened baking cocoa
1 packet milk chocolate hot cocoa mix
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 cup sour cream
4 tablespoons butter
3oz good-quality milk chocolate, broken into pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla
Mini marshmallows
Marshmallow cream frosting (recipe follows)


1. Preheat the oven to 350F
2. Prep a cupcake pan using either paper or silicone liners
3. Put the butter and milk chocolate together in a microwave-safe bowl and zap on high for 30 seconds. Stir gently and zap for another 30 seconds, or until they melt together into a smooth paste when stirred.
4. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl.
5. Add the wet ingredients to the dry all at once and beat until you think your arm is going to fall off (or your mixer is going to break - this is a thick, rich batter, people!)
6. Scoop around a tablespoon of batter into each prepared cupcake liner. Drop 3-5 mini marshmallows on the batter, then cover with more batter, filling each cup around 2/3 full.
7. Pop into the 350F oven for 15min. The cupcakes should be not quite set at this point, and the marshmallows should be almost gooey and caramelised, almost like a creme brulee topping. Pull the pan out of the oven and press another 3-5 mini marshmallows into the top of each cupcake, then return to the oven.
8. Bake another 5-10min (20-25min total baking time), until a toothpick comes out clean. When in doubt, underbake - these are dense little suckers and they're best slightly undercooked/gooey inside, especially with the marshmallow.
9. Let cupcakes cool. Frost with marshmallow cream and dust with cocoa powder or cinnamon. Enjoy!

Marshmallow Cream Frosting
Recipe from Cooking Live

6 tablespoons water
1 1/4 cups light corn syrup
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
4 large egg whites
Pinch salt
Pinch cream of tartar
2 tablespoons vanilla extract


1. In a small saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer, bring the water, corn syrup and 3/4 cup sugar to 246 degrees.
2. In the meantime, in a completely clean, dry mixing bowl, with an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar until creamy and foamy, about 2 minutes. Still whisking, sprinkle in the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar and continue to whisk until the whites hold very soft peaks, about 2 minutes. While mixing on slow speed, carefully drizzle in the hot syrup. Turn the mixer to high and whisk until thick, fluffy and just warm, about 7 minutes. Turn the mixer to low and whisk in the vanilla.

Ninja's Notes: I attempted to follow this recipe without a candy thermometer and, well, it didn't work so well. 246F is smack in the middle of the firm ball stage, and rather lower than the typical hardball consistency required for marshmallow-making. I managed to hit firm ball stage and drizzled the syrup into the soft-peaked egg whites, but I must've gotten things too hot between checking candy stages and trying to whisk up the egg whites, because I was never able to get "thick and fluffy" from my mixture. Best I could do was "thick and gooey," which I figured was good enough for a marshmallow-themed cupcake.

I spooned my gooey, drippy marshmallow icing over the cupcakes after they cooled and let it drip down the sides. Honestly, I think it might've been tastier than a fluffy frosting - more concentrated sugar! - and fit the idea of a hot cocoa cupcake much better (after all, marshmallows melt in your cocoa, no?)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Soda Bread

One of my favourite spring memories is soda bread.

Every year, my mom made Irish soda bread for St. Patrick's Day. Again, Mom is not Irish. Not a drop of Irish - or any Island Mutt - blood in her. But man can she make a St. Patrick's Day feast. I always looked forward to coming home from school to the delicious smells of our kitchen, but certain days were always better than others - and coming home to the scent of freshly baked soda bread, heavy with raisins and caraway? That was the BEST.

I don't have mom's soda bread recipe, which is a lapse that sorely needs to be corrected. So every year, I try to ninja up a version that comes close to replicating the delicious smell of the kitchen of my youth on March 17. This year, I think I came pretty close. The crumb isn't as dense and fine as Mom's, and the bread isn't quite as sweet, but it's a pretty darn good, flavourful, crumbly soda bread, and it was easy as pie to make.

Irish Soda Bread
Serves 4 or so

1 cup raisins
1/2 cup beer (I used more of the Mysterious 40 from the New England Boiled Dinner)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups AP flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
3/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon white vinegar


1. Dump the raisins in a bowl or cup and cover with the beer. Let soak overnight. If you don't have time for that, 30 minutes will do, but overnight is much better.
2. Heat the oven to 375F
3. Add the vinegar to the milk and stir vigorously. Let it sit while you continue on.
4. Mix together the dry ingredients except for the caraway in a large bowl. Cut in the butter (this is easiest if you cut up the butter into chunks first) with either a pastry cutter, two forks, or your fingers. You're done cutting in the butter when the mixture looks like large crumbs.
5. Drain the raisins. Stir the drained raisins, the caraway seeds, and the milk and vinegar mixture (this will look awful and curdled most of the time. Don't worry about it) into the dry ingredients just until everything comes together into a sticky dough.
6. Shape the dough into a round loaf and place on a greased (or parchment-lined. Or silicone-lined) sheet pan. Slash the top of the dough in an X pattern.
7. Bake for 30 minutes or until a wooden toothpick comes out clean and the bread is golden. Cool for 30 minutes before slicing in - if you can resist the delicious smell that long.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bee Buzz

I'm going to go in search of Haagen-Dazs' new Vanilla Honey Bee ice cream, based on this new policy.

Can you imagine a world without bees? Without delicious, delicious honey or tasty fruit? I certainly can't - and I know my beekeeper friends are quite freaked out by colony collapse disorder. If buying a pint of tasty ice cream will get a little money donated, well, that's a sacrifice the Kitchen Ninja is willing to make.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Irish stomachs are smiling

St. Patrick's Day doesn't particularly show up on the Kitchen Ninja's radar. It's not that I'm going to turn up my nose at an excuse to drink some Guinness, but getting sloppy drunk on dyed-green beer and listening to Bostonians brawl has never been high on the priority list.

That said, St. Patrick's Day definitely has some culinary marks in its favour. The most important of those, of course, is the corned beef and cabbage.

As many before me have noted, this is absolutely not an Irish dish; if I wanted to go authentic for the holiday, I'd make a lamb stew or colcannon. I'll probably make colcannon yet this week anyway. But in terms of deliciousness, you really can't beat a classic New England boiled dinner - which is precisely what "corned beef and cabbage" really is. It's one-pot brisket for Puritans.

Ask anyone - the Kitchen Ninja is as big a fan of corned beef as anyone. Maybe bigger. Growing up, I firmly believed that a good, salty, cured-and-braised cut of beef had miraculous healing properties. This might be because I always craved salt when I was sick - go figure - and once demanded corned beef when I was down with the flu while on vacation in Las Vegas (something that promptly entered into Ninja Family lore).

Or it might be because my mother makes the best corned beef in history. Don't ask me how someone who's approximately as Irish as I am a rabbit manages to pull this off - I don't have a clue. But it's true - my mum makes a corned beef worth killing for. Mine isn't half so good, but it still holds its own in the pantheon of New England boiled dinners.

This time around, it was just me for St. Patrick's Day - which didn't stop me from cooking up a whole point-cut corned beef, a couple potatoes, half a head of cabbage, and a couple carrots. I figured it would be enough to take care of the corned beef craving and still provide fodder for a few sandwiches and, of course, corned beef hash down the line. And, after all, isn't corned beef hash half - or more - of the reason to cook a boiled dinner in the first place?

More on that later. Now, on to the main dish!

New England Boiled Dinner
serves 4

One corned beef, either point- or flat-cut, around 3.5lb (adjust to fit the number of people)
3 Yukon gold potatoes cut into chunks or 8-10 new/red potatoes
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into medallions
Half a head of cabbage, cut into wedges
Bay leaf
Spice pack from corned beef
1c water
3c beer (the cheap stuff is acceptable here - the Kitchen Ninja made use of a Mystery 40 in the back of the fridge)


  1. Trim some of the excess fat from the corned beef; you need to leave some fat on there for flavour, but leaving too much will just mean you have to skim-and-trim later.
  2. Put the corned beef into a slow-cooker vessel and arrange the potatoes around it.
  3. Cover with water and beer. Sprinkle with spice pack seasoning and a quarter-teaspoon or so of whole peppercorns, and add the bay leaf.
  4. Put the lid on the slow cooker and turn the thing to Low. Cook on Low for 4-5 hours.
  5. Arrange cabbage wedges in the vessel and add carrots. If any part of the beef is sticking out of the cooking liquid, flip the beef over.
  6. Cook on Low for another 1-2 hours, or until vegetables are tender and corned beef is cooked through.
  7. Remove meat and veggies to a tray and let the meat cool slightly before slicing.
  8. Devour, accompanied by spicy brown mustard and/or horseradish. Make sure to save some for later - cold corned beef sandwiches and corned beef hash are even better than the main show, so it's worth fighting the urge to down every last succulent morsel now.
Later: Irish soda bread and corned beef hash.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Shopping Ninja

Being a Kitchen Ninja is, in large part, about being able to make something delicious out of nothing much at all.

Sometimes, though, it's also about being able to get something delicious for not much money at all.

In the last two days, I've spent what seems to me to be an exorbitant amount of money on groceries. However, looking over the receipts, I'm forced to realise that it's really not very much at all, considering what I've bought. Yes, I've spent around $90 on food in two days, when I can usually go an entire month on perhaps $50. But what food!

Four pounds or a bit more of shrimp
Three pounds of tilapia
Six or so pounds of prime beef
A pound of tuna
A pound of salmon
Two gallons of pomegranate juice
Fifteen pounds of potatoes
Two pounds of kumquats
A pound of red seedless grapes

Not to mention the diet soda, coffee, tonic water, chocolate soda, seltzer, and giant bottle of plonk (so sue me, I like it).

Not a bad haul for $90, even if I'm still out of peppers. It's really quite amazing what you can do with a good shopping list, a buy-one-get-two sale, and some nearly expired beef. Thursdays really are the best days to go shopping for meat, as the truck usually comes in on Friday, so the previous week's packs are about to go out of date and the stores reduce the hell out of them to avoid tossing 'em out.

That, of course, doesn't really matter when you're planning to take the stuff home, split it into 1lb portions, and freeze it anyway.

Tonight will be a night of much freezer-bagging and shelf-shuffling. This weekend will likely involve some serious culinary experimentation, as I have to come up with something to do with all those kumquats, and all that pomegranate juice.

You know, other than have an antioxidant party.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Note to Self

Note to Self: When retrieving a pan from a 400F oven, use the hand with the glove on it. This will save you much pain and anguish, although it'll prevent you from exercising both your ninja reflexes and your impressive vocabulary of obscenities.

Apparently all that ninja training did the trick, though, in terms of both reflexes and physical durability, as there are no blisters and only a bit of shiny, tight skin to show where, precisely, I latched on to that hot pan.

Still, Asbestos Hands are not a party trick this particular ninja is interested in showing off again anytime soon.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Merlot mania

As a followup to my experiments with that horrible, horrible bottle of "merlot" (I still can't figure out what to call it - hooch is too refined for this crap, and it's not quite a wine cooler yet. Fauxlot, maybe?), I have made cupcakes.

Why cupcakes? Well, why not? Cupcakes need no rationale; they simply need to exist. Preferably briefly, before winding up in my belly. I've made cocktail-based cupcakes before - black Russians are a particular favourite - and I have friends experimenting in this vein regularly, so a blackberry fauxlot cupcake didn't seem like too much of a stretch.

And, pleasingly, it wasn't! I used one of my standard baking bases, a sort of spongey, lightish cake base that I figured would work well with the slight carbonation in the fauxlot. The resulting cake turned out a little on the sticky, dense side, but with a big open crumb and generally pleasing texture. The wine flavour wasn't too pronounced - I bet it'd be a lot better with a big, assertive red table wine with some acid to it.

To bolster that wine flavour, I made a quick cream cheese frosting and dumped a good bit of the fauxlot into it. Better - tangy and rich, with just a hint of acid/berry/grape flavour to it. A couple dashes of food colouring to turn it purple helped on the eye-appeal front.

Verdict? I'll try again with REAL wine sometime and see what happens.

Blackberry Fauxlot Cupcakes

1 1/4 cups AP flour
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup blackberry fauxlot (you could probably reduce to 1/2c with a good red wine)

  1. Preheat oven to 350F; line muffin pan with cupcake liners (I like the silicone ones)
  2. Whisk together egg, sugar, and oil (or cream with mixer if you're less lazy than I)
  3. Whisk in vanilla and fauxlot; you'll have to stir REALLY vigorously if you're using a carbonated alcohol here, because it won't want to incorporate without some persuasion of the physical kind. Get medieval on it.
  4. Stir in dry ingredients (flour, BP, salt) until mixed through.
  5. Pour into prepared cupcake pan
  6. Bake for 20-30 min or until golden, with a slight sheen and crust to the top of the cakes, or until a wooden toothpick comes out clean.
  7. Frost (recipe follows)
Fauxlot Cream Cheese Frosting

4oz cream cheese (half a block)
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup powdered sugar, give or take
3 tablespoons fauxlot or red wine
3 drops blue food colouring
3 drops red food colouring

  1. Beat together softened butter and softened cream cheese until well blended
  2. Beat in powdered sugar little by little, until the frosting has increased dramatically in volume and is the desired amount of sweetness. I usually use a cup to a cup and a half of powdered sugar, but I'll go up to two cups if the cakes I'm frosting aren't very sweet or I need more frosting.
  3. Beat in food colouring
  4. Crank up the mixer and really go to town on the frosting. The more you beat it, the lighter and fluffier it'll be, and the nicer the finished product
  5. Stick the bowl in the fridge for 15-20min before frosting. This'll firm up the frosting's texture and let you get nice dollops of frosting on each cupcake, making those pretty little swirls you see on the commercial ones. It's a lot easier to do with a knife and chilled frosting than with runny frosting ... although if you REALLY want to get fancy, you'll need to dirty yourself up a piping bag. Alas, the Kitchen Ninja is too lazy for all that.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Wining about windfalls

When life gives you lemons, you're supposed to make lemonade.

But what the hell do you do when life gives you a nigh-undrinkable bottle of "wine"? In the case of the Kitchen Ninja, you start experimenting. With mixed results.

Experiment the first: Blackberry Merlot Custard

Blackberry Merlot Custard
adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe
serves 4

1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch 3 large eggs 2/3 cup half-and-half 6 tablespoons blackberry merlot wine-cooler-thingie (1/4 cup plus 2T)*

Optional: triple-berry or blackberry jam

*This would probably be much tastier with a very strong, tannic red wine, like a proper merlot. I'll have to try sometime.

  1. Preheat oven to 400F
  2. Whisk together eggs, sugar, and cornstarch until fully blended, lightened, and fluffy
  3. Whisk in half-and-half and wine. Whisk REALLY WELL - the wine, especially the fizzy Arbor Mist crap I had to work with - doesn't want to incorporate very well
  4. If you're using jam, put ~1 tablespoon into the bottom of each ramekin
  5. Pour custard base into ramekins set into a baking/lasagna pan
  6. Pour boiling water into the pan, coming a little over halfway up the sides of the ramekins
  7. Bake for 20min or until puffy and set, and a toothpick inserted in the center of one ramekin comes out clean but still moist
  8. As the custards cool, they'll fall; serve warm and in the cups for a souffle-like dessert, or cool, run a knife around the edge of the ramekin, and invert onto dishes for a more custardy/flan-like dessert
This actually turned out reasonably well; there's some things I'd tweak, but all in all, it was a good first effort. The custard came out more like a very simple souffle (very puffed-up straight out of the oven) than a proper baked custard, but after being allowed to cool, it settled and got denser and richer.

I'm not sure how to fix the texture on this one - I think doing some egg separation would make the final product better. The question is, do I want to add more whites and turn it into a souffle-cake-thing, or do I want to add more yolks and turn it into a denser, smoother, proper custard?

I cheated a bit in making this because I wasn't in the most patient of moods - rather than strain the custard or use the whisk attachment on my hand mixer, I just whisked everything together by hand and poured it into the ramekins. So there were one or two little chunks of unbeaten egg floating around that screwed the texture up a bit. I'll fix that next time.

The overall flavour was very subtle straight out of the oven, but the merlot character gets more pronounced when this is cool (odd, seeing as cold dulls flavour perception). I had one of these custards for breakfast this morning and, well, it was pretty darn tasty.

Adding triple-berry jam to the bottom of the ramekin makes a nice little self-serving sauce, but it's not necessary. I actually think a wine reduction would be a better sauce, and add more character to the final dessert.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Atkins Advantage

There are some slight advantages to having your mother and aunt buy into the Atkins craze.

Oh, sure, it means it's completely impossible to offer to cook anything for them now - it used to be so easy to offer to bring a loaf of bread, say, when you come for dinner, or to make some cookies to help out after a hectic week. No more. Not thanks to ol' Dr. Atkins. Unless you have some sort of mad desire to make a meat cake - which, by the way, would work much better than the absolutely abysmal soy-flour cookies I tried over the holidays - you're kinda restricted to bringing a six-pack of diet soda and a smile.

However, the flow of food seems to magically reverse when relatives go on Atkins. All of a sudden, there's all this food around that they can't eat any more ... and if your relatives are anything like mine, they can't just throw it out.

That means giving it away to avoid temptation. And that, my friends, means a bounty of pasta for the Kitchen Ninja.

When I say a bounty, I mean it. My shelves are literally overflowing with lasagne noodles, spaghetti, rigatoni, penne, and every shape in between. I've got bronze-cut semolina pasta, regular supermarket pasta, whole wheat, the works. I have a whole damn lot of pasta around.

Naturally, that means I've gotta use the pasta. And the discovery of a slowly mummifying lemon, along with a suspiciously elderly looking cubanelle pepper, presented that most favoured of the Kitchen Ninja's challenges: figuring out what to do with the stuff that the kitchen elves have left behind.

The result? A creamy red pepper and mushroom penne, with pepper and lemon. Just the right kind of quick comfort food for a windy February night.

Creamy Red Pepper and Mushroom Penne
serves 1 hungry ninja

1 cup penne
1 cubanelle or red bell pepper, sliced
5 button/white mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon sour cream
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
lemon zest (around half a lemon's worth, or around 1/2t)
pinch of nutmeg

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add penne and cook ~8 min, or until al dente. Scoop out around 1 cup of pasta water and reserve, then drain and rinse under cold water.
  2. While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat and add the mushrooms and peppers. Saute until the mushrooms start turning golden and the peppers soften and take some colour.
  3. Add the garlic and continue to saute for another 1-2 minutes, or until the mushrooms and peppers are tender.
  4. Add the black pepper, lemon zest, and nutmeg. Stir to combine.
  5. Add the ricotta and sour cream, stirring well as you add them. Use the pasta water to thin out the sauce until it's a nice, creamy consistency.
  6. Add the pasta to the pan and stir to coat in the sauce.
  7. Plate and enjoy!
I think next time I'm going to use half pasta water and half white wine to thin out the sauce - it could use a little extra something. Not bad for an improv, though!