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!