Taking on the controversies: Chocolate or Vanilla

Vanilla with choclate frostingIt is the ultimate culinary showdown, the battle of all battles, the controversies of all controversies. Which would win: chocolate or vanilla?
Oddly enough, chocolate and vanilla were introduced to the modern world at the same time. Hernán Cortés in 1520 brought the chocolate and vanilla spices back from the Aztecs to Spain, almost spontaneously the controversy started. Well, not quite.
Before discovered by Cortés, Aztecs used coco beans as a form of currency, 100 beans could buy a good sized turkey. The Aztecs even believed that coco beans had divine properties, similar to many women’s feelings about chocolate once a month. When good ‘ol Cortés first tried chocolate he described it as “a bitter drink for pigs”, but after it was mixed with cane sugar it spread like wildfire across Spain.
While chocolate blossomed and spread over Spain, vanilla remained centralized in Central America. Why you may ask? Because that was the only place it could be successfully grown. When vanilla grows it produces a flower and only if that flower is pollinated by a certain type of bee will it produce beans. It wasn’t until 1841, when a French slave girl discovered that vanilla could be hand pollinated, therefore produced globally and used in abundance. Today we have vanilla everything: vanilla cupcake, vanilla ice cream, vanilla candles, vanilla body spray, vanilla soaps.
In a way, vanilla won. Vanilla has psychological effects that can calm you down and can prevent you from getting over anxious, it is the number one ice cream flavor in the world, and it is my mom’s favorite cupcake flavor.

My half-birthday presents! Wisk, Bowl scraper and heat resistant mat. Thanks Mom!

My half-birthday presents! Wisk, Bowl scraper and heat resistant mat. Thanks Mom!

Today I decided to test out a few things. My half birthday was April 18, and my mom sent me some cool baking supplies that she found. I got a rubber coated whisk, a bowl scraper and a heat resistant mat, all in pink, my favorite color. Also on my half birthday, my homemade vanilla extract was done sitting!!! After two months of waiting what a better way to try out some vanilla cupcakes than use homemade vanilla!!!
Making homemade vanilla extract is pretty simple, and can be cost effective. Vanilla extract is two beans per every 4 ounces of vodka, that’s it, nothing fancy just beans and vodka. Vanilla beans in quantities greater than 2 can be found online at Amazon. Twenty-four beans can set you back as little as sixteen dollars, and 4 ounce jars can also be found online for as little as nine dollars for a 12 count. Cheap vodka can be used for this, the cheaper the better! McCormick vanilla extract can cost up to ten dollars for a 3 ounces bottle. When made at home each bottle comes to costing around four dollars per 4 ounce bottle.
To make your vanilla extract take two vanilla beans and split them long ways, and then cut them in half. Next submerge the four pieces of vanilla beans into vodka in a four ounce glass container. Place your vodka and bean mixture in a dark cool place for about 2 months. Once a week shake the containers for a few seconds and then put them back. That’s it, in two months you did it! You created your very own homemade vanilla.

Homemade Vanilla

Homemade Vanilla

Anyways back to the cupcakes. These cupcakes are basic beginner style cupcakes, nothing fancy, anyone can do it. I decided to pair them with a chocolate frosting so the whole chocolate vs. vanilla controversy could come to life in my cupcake.
This chocolate frosting was probably the best tasting chocolate frosting ever, but one problem, its heavy. It was extremely hard to pipe this frosting out. I would use this frosting again, but I would use it for a cupcake filling, not a frosting. If anyone has a fabulous light chocolate frosting and they are willing to share, please, I am accepting donations.

IMG_1652
This vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting is the reason that there is a controversy over which flavor is better. The cupcake itself is air. The vanilla flavoring comes through very well, it is sweet but not candy land gone suicidal sweet, with undertones of the cake my mom made for my eight birthday party. The frosting on the other hand, it might as well be chocolate fudge. This is a chocolate lovers dream! With just cocoa powder, confectioners’ sugar and butter, the chocolate comes to life. It is sweet, rich and smooth. I was going to drizzle the cupcake with white chocolate but an incident with a plastic bag and the microwave said that milk chocolate would have to suffice.
For a beginners vanilla cupcake, or a cupcake to show off your homemade vanilla skills I highly recommend using this fool proof vanilla cupcake recipe.

Cooling Cupcakes

Cooling Cupcakes

-Cheers!

Recipie:
Fool proof Vanilla Cupcakes: Makes 12
Ingredients:
1/2 Cup softened butter
1 Cup sugar
2 Eggs
2 Teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ½ Cups all-purpose flour
1/2 Teaspoon baking powder
1/4 Teaspoon salt
2/3 Cup cold milk
Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 350 *F
2. Cream together butter and sugar.
3. Add in eggs one at a time, mixing after each addition.
4. Mix in vanilla.
5. In a separate bowl, stir together all dry ingredients.
6. Mix wet ingredients to dry.
7. Add butter and milk, Mix until combined.
8. Bake 18-20 minutes or until the tops are slightly golden.
Chocolate Frosting: NOTE comes out heavy, see warning in paragraphs above
Ingredients:
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
4 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Directions:
1. Sift sugar and cocoa together in larger bowl
2. In another bowl mix together 4 tablespoons heavy cream, vanilla and butter, beating till smooth.
3. Add sugar and cocoa mixture 1 cup at a time until all combined.

IMG_1666

Red.

2 cupcakes

I hate it. I hate how teachers circle wrong answers in red. I hate how red grabs attention. I hate how it is the color of the store I used to work at. I hate how it was the color of my high school’s mascot. I hate how it is the color of the one cupcake that haunts my dreams. Red velvet, everything about the name is so suggestive. It just screams love, lust and desire, but to me it taunts me with an F marked in red pen.

Red velvet cupcakes and I have a past. They are my one culinary failure, the one cupcake I could not serve, the one thing I have ever been ashamed of. The first time I attempted them nothing worked out right, the red was wrong, the batter was too soupy and the cupcake wrappers were wrong. Yes, I have a thing about cupcake wrappers, and the only ones I had left at the time did not match the cupcakes, it drove me crazy.IMG_1216

I was sitting at work on Monday and was thinking it was time for redemption. A girl I work with is obsessed with red velvet cake, and I asked her what she liked about it so much. “The color, duh.” I asked a girl who wants to be a kindergarten teacher, I should have known better.  The one thing I can’t stand, is the one thing she likes the most.  She went on to explain it was the icing that made it, the perfect contrast of a light chocolate cake and super sweet cream cheese.red batter

I went for it, took an idea and dove in. I took the recipe I had and threw it out the window (quite literally in fact). I started from scratch with a wonderful cream cheese frosting recipe my mom had and went from there. The results shocked and surprised me. After I made the batter I tasted it, my friend once said that a good tasting batter leads to a good tasting product, it also gives her an excuse to eat my unbaked goods, but the batter was good. I knew these cupcakes were going to be the best red velvet anything I ever made.IMG_1308

And they were, everyone agrees.

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Makes about 2 dozen cupcakes

Ingredients:

For the cupcakes:

2 ¼ Cups of flour

1/2 Cup unsweetened coco powder

1 Teaspoon baking soda

1/2 Teaspoon salt

1 Cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temp.

2 Cups sugar

4 Eggs

1 Cup sour cream

1/2 Cup milk

1 Bottle (1 ounce) red food color

2 Teaspoon vanilla extract

For vanilla cream cheese frosting           

1 Package (8 ounces) cream cheese, at room temp.

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temp.

2 Tablespoons sour cream

2 Teaspoons vanilla extract

16 ounces (3 ¼ cups) confectioners sugar

 

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350*F. Mix flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt in medium bowl and set aside.
  2. Beat Butter and sugar with electric mixer on medium until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Mix in sour cream, milk food color and vanilla. Gradually beat in flour mixture on low, until blended
  3. Spoon batter into cupcake liners, about 3/4 full. Bake 20 minutes. Cool in pans on wire rack for 5 minutes, remove from pans and cool completely before frosting.

Frosting:

  1. Beat cream cheese, 1/4 cup butter, 2 tablespoon, sour cream and 2 tablespoons vanilla extract until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in 16 ounces confectioner sugar.

The Cookies that Changed My Life

Life of a cookie

The games tied 1-1 and the Red Sox are up to bat. It’s the bottom of the 9th and only this inning can tell if the game goes to extra innings. The first batter is up to plate, hits a single to center. The second batter comes up; he hits a sacrifice fly to right field, and the runner on first advances. Third batter hits another single down the third base line. With runners in scoring position the teams lead homerun hitter comes up to bat. Could the Red Sox win it all? “Lauren come in here and help me with dinner!” screamed my mom from the kitchen.

“But mom! The game!” I stammer out.

“Lauren get your butt in here you can watch TV after dinner.”

I hated cooking. I hated the kitchen, always calling me away from the best TV shows a girl could ask for. Without fail my mother could be cooking for hours and she would ask for my help right when something started to get good, or right before the killer was discovered. I think she did it on purpose.

I think I got my dislike of cooking from observing my father. My father is the type of man who will work from nine to five, spend the rest of the day (or till the sun goes down) making acquaintances with worms in his garden. Soon after he will come inside, eat the raw pick of the day and be content with life. He always enjoys his food in the purest of forms, straight from the garden with a little dirt still on it. While sitting on the couch drinking a beer and watching sports, of course. There was no time for this “cooking shit” that my mother is so proud of. But after my mother cooked, my father would eat her hot meal without a complaint or hesitation.

Sugars, butter, vanilla and egg
Sugars, butter, vanilla and egg

Never would my father lift a finger to help my mother cook dinner. “Cooking dinner is a women’s thing” he would say to me. I always wondered if it had something to do with the chaos he caused when he walked in the kitchen. He always thought the food needed something extra and he would shove countless “secret ingredients” in my mother’s face. This inevitably would result in a shouting match over who is the true cooker of dinner.

Mother on the other hand, she always tried to force a wooden spoon in my hand. Stir this, watch that, cut this, sauté that. When I was seven she tried to teach me how to cut up veggies for soup. I did not want any of that, so I cut my finger instead (in reality I was just very bad at cutting things with knives).

My mother reminds me of spinach. When spinach is fresh, it is a great addition to salad; it is sweet, crisp and fresh. But once you cook spinach, or you get my mother mad, it is sour, pungent and it resembles something that should have just remained in the garden. My extreme dislike of helping my mother in the kitchen, made her like cooked spinach.

“You need to learn how to cook!” my mother would shout, “How are you ever going to survive on your own!”

“Mom, I’m nine! I don’t care!” I would scream back. This was a good enough excuse until I was sixteen.

For my sixteenth birthday I asked for the top of the line field hockey stick, an acoustic guitar, and a kitten. Why do I remember this you may ask? For my sixteenth birthday my mother got me sixteen cookbooks, just what my mother wanted when she turned sixteen. This made me even more upset, “MOM I DON’T CARE ABOUT COOKING, JUST BECAUSE YOU DO DOESN’T MEAN I DO!” I screamed. I yelled. I cursed. I hated the heavy hard covered doorstoppers that my mother forced upon me.

“You’ll regret it when I’m gone.” She would argue back, for some reason she always thought I would care more if she threatened me with her own death. I never understood that.

Months into my sixteenth year I avoided the kitchen like the plague, always sneaking around it, making excuses to exit the front door instead of the garage door, which was located in the kitchen. Then one day while my mother was at work, I wanted something chocolaty, like a cookie. I went into the unoccupied kitchen, checking the time diligently to make sure my mother would not be home within the next four hours where she might catch me lingering in the kitchen looking for a snack. There was nothing to eat anywhere! Okay that might be a slight exaggeration. There was food everywhere, but not what I wanted. Bored, I sat down at the table and started thumbing through a dessert book my Mom had on the counter. That’s when my life changed forever.  There on page 136 this lady, Betty Crocker, outlined what she called “Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies.” That was exactly what I was looking for! My existence in this world was justified. I was put on earth to make these cookies. With no prior baking background or experience I decided right then and there that these cookies would be my first culinary masterpiece.

dough

I scrounged the kitchen looking for the ingredients. Three-fourths cup dark brown sugar and granulated sugar, what was this dark brown sugar? I could only find light brown sugar. To be on the safe side I used one cup of granulated sugar. Butter at room temperature? I did not have time for that! I melted it in the microwave instead. Baking soda? I didn’t like soda, I used powder instead. In the end the mixed glob that sat in the bowl before me, which contained one bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips and one bag of M&M’s dumped in it, was the best thing I ever created. I scooped the slop onto a greased cookie sheet (even though the recipe clearly stated ungreased) and let it sit for the suggested amount of time. Or ten minutes more.

Lil' Dough Ball
Lil’ Dough Ball

When the smoke detectors finally alerted me that the cookies were done, I pulled the pan from the oven to see that my creation faintly resembled chocolate chip cookies. I let them cool for about twenty seconds before shoving a three-hundred and seventy five degree cookie into my mouth, and losing all the skin in my mouth due to third degree mouth burns. Although they were burnt to a crisp I could taste it, the sweet taste of success (in retrospect it could have been some of the blood from my mouth burns too, but mostly success). This is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life! I wanted to put masterpieces together using my hands, I wanted to be better than those people who bought their cookies in packages, and I wanted to change the world. I wanted to make sweets!

Hours passed as I waited with baited breath for my mother to come home so I could show her my culinary masterpiece. What I forgot about, was the fact that my mother is the kind of person who keeps her closets in alphabetical order, whereas I am the person who takes everything out and lays it on the kitchen counter and leaves it there. In laymen’s terms, the kitchen was the aftermath of a category five hurricane in a trailer park. When my mother walked through the doors she had a small heart attack and immediately started screaming that we’ve been robbed. When I finally managed to calm her down and tell her that I have been baking she almost had another heart attack. I showed her my creation, and with utter disgust she managed to crinkle her nose and attempted to hide her disgust and to applaud my creation. I could tell that she was still in distress from seeing her kitchen a mess, and couldn’t take in the beauty and wonder of my creation.

Over the next weeks, months and years to come, my mother would encourage my baking. She explained to me that unlike cooking, baking had to be precise and the recipe had to be followed exactly or you ended up with “globbly-gook” like my first attempt at cookies. She still tries to force me into helping her cook dinner, but after another incident with a knife she came to the conclusion that maybe I was more of a baker, and let me stick strictly to that.  She took my sixteen cookbooks and turned them in to twenty-two recipe books strictly on desserts and sweets.

Today the smoke alarm no longer alerts me when my cookies are done; I take them out all by myself, well, with help from the kitchen timer. I no longer discard baking soda from recipes because of my dislike of soda, and I no longer make up my own amounts of sugar. My baking caused my family to change as well, my mother no longer nags me to get up off the couch when the game is on to help her with dinner. And my father no longer reaches for a dirt covered vegetable; he insists that a cookie or cupcake is way better than the crunch of gravel between your teeth, and I couldn’t agree more.

Baked COokies

Life Changing Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted from Betty Crocker’s “Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies”

These cookies are the basic introduction to baking that even the person with the smallest kitchen experience can manage; just make sure to follow the measurements and the time exactly.

Ingredients:

3/4 Cup granulated sugar

3/4 Cup packed brown sugar

1 Cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature

1 Teaspoon vanilla

1 egg

2 1/4 Cups all-purpose flour

1/2 Teaspoon salt

1 Teaspoon baking powder

1 Package (12 ounces or 2 cups) semisweet chocolate chips

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Wisk sugars (brown and granulated), butter, vanilla and egg in a large bowl until mixed together and creamy
  3. Mix in with a wooden spoon flour, baking soda and salt, and mix. The dough will be stiff, mix until combined.
  4. Stir in the chocolate chips
  5. By rounded tablespoons drop cookie dough on an ungreased or parchment lined cookie sheet about 2 inches apart
  6. Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool slightly, remove from cookie sheet and move to wire rack to cool completely

Cup O’ Cake with a Side O’ Science

Chemical compounds (or actually chemistry in general) were never my strong point. I never understood why certain things could not go together, what made elements positive or negative or why it was frowned upon to spell things from the periodic table of elements. Science and I are not cut out for each other.

Baking and I however, we go hand in hand. In a way baking is like science: specific measurements, following directions to a T, and adding things in a specific order so you don’t cause an explosion because apparently that (while amusing) is frowned upon also.

Science at work

Science at work

My first revelation that science and baking are similar was when I was in third grade, the stereotypical volcano experiment. Red food coloring + vinegar + Baking soda = one pretty sweet volcano. Even at the cute little age of nine I realized that baking soda and vinegar were two ingredients that we cook with on a pretty regular basis, and I was convinced that I would blow up if I ever ate the two together.  When I was teaching this experiment to my younger cousin a few years ago I was trying to explain what ingredients we had to use, but he had a different idea.  Instead of the standard vinegar and baking soda we used Mentos and Coke; it had the same (yet stickier) result.

Today I am going to teach you a miracle of science: Chocolate Peanut Butter Mug Cake. It is the perfect treat for when you are banging your head against the table trying to remember those annoying chemical formulas and you wish you could just make up your own.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Mug Cake

MMMMMMM.

MMMMMMM.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons flour

½ teaspoon of sugar

2 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

¼ teaspoon baking powder

Pinch of salt

2 tablespoons milk

1 tablespoon oil

Some chocolate chips

1 tablespoon of peanut butter

Directions:

Mix together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt until mixed and all the clumps are out. Stir in the milk and oil until smooth. Throw in the chocolate chips and mix them around a bit. Finally put the peanut butter in but make sure you get it under some of the wet mixture.  Put it in the microwave for about a minute, let cool for a few seconds and eat as fast as possible.

Science is pretty cool isn’t it? You can turn a list of several ingredients into a masterpiece of edible art. Now if only my professors would accept my homework in the form of mug cakes.

Look at that melted peanut butter.

Look at that melted peanut butter.