October 26, 2014

Vanilla Cupcakes

It's almost Halloween again, and you know what that means. SUGAR! Preferably in the form of cupcakes. Last year, I showed you all how to make chocolate cupcakes that looked like brains and gingerbread cupcakes that looked like mummies. College dorms aren't exactly the best cupcake-decorating centers, BUT I do have an amazing recipe for old-fashioned vanilla cupcakes that you can use as a base for Halloween decorating fun (or any other occasion).

This is a pretty standard cupcake recipe. There's your dry ingredients: flour, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar. I use flour and cornstarch to mimic cake flour; if you have cake flour, just use 1 1/4 cups instead of the flour and the cornstarch. It makes a lighter, fluffier cupcake with a more delicate crumb, as my 9th grade biology experiment determined. As for the wet ingredients, I use eggs, oil, buttermilk, and vanilla. I'm convinced 99% of all good cupcakes have buttermilk, and this recipe is no exception. I just use plain vanilla extract, but a vanilla bean would give the cupcakes an extra punch of flavor. All you have to do is cut the bean in half from top to bottom, scrape out the seeds, and stir them into the batter. It tastes so much better, although I usually only use vanilla beans for special occasions since they can be a little pricey.

You can decorate these cupcakes however you want. You can use canned frosting or homemade buttercream, which is surprisingly easy to make but also uses an obscene amount of butter. Another one of my favorite ways to decorate cakes and cupcakes is modeling chocolate. It's like fondant but easier to make, and you can roll it and shape it however you want. Just melt some chocolate or those melting candies that mimic chocolate, mix it with some corn syrup, and knead it until it's doughy.

The pictures here are from when I made birthday cupcakes with the vanilla cupcake recipe and some modeling chocolate. I used plain white candy melts and dyed them various colors, then I used cookie cutters to cut them into flowers and other shapes. I've found that pasta rollers are perfect for rolling sheets of modeling chocolate to cover things with or to cut out shapes. For Halloween, you can roll orange balls of modeling chocolate into pumpkins, cut out ghosts, black cats, or other shapes, or make a witch hat out of a cone-shaped piece and a flat circle. Really, you can make just about anything for Halloween or anything else you feel like baking for.

1 Cup + 2 T Flour
2 T Cornstarch
1 1/4 tsp Baking Powder
1/2 tsp Baking Soda
1/4 tsp Salt
2 Eggs
3/4 Cup Sugar
2 tsp Vanilla
1/2 Cup Oil
1/2 Cup Buttermilk

Heat oven to 350F and line a muffin tin with paper cups.

Sift the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together.

Whisk the eggs and sugar together in a large bowl. Add the vanilla and the oil. Stir in a third of the flour, then whisk in half the buttermilk. Repeat, then whisk in the remaining flour.

Scoop the dough into the prepared cups and bake for 10-12 minutes or until cooked through.

Makes 14
Recipe Adapted from Natasha's Kitchen

Modeling Chocolate:
14 oz Chocolate or Candy Melts
1/3 Cup Corn Syrup

Heat the chocolate in a double boiler or microwave until melted, stirring occasionally. Add the corn syrup and knead until doughy, about 5 minutes. Dye with food coloring if desired (gel food coloring, not the droppers of liquid, work best) and shape.

October 20, 2014

Philly Cheesesteaks

To be honest, this is one of the recipes I miss most while in college. It's the perfect weeknight dinner: quick, easy, and satisfying. There's carbs, meat, and gooey cheese all in one bite, plus any vegetables you want (if you want any). It's easily adaptable to your general preferences, and it's even easier to customize individually. I know some people who like peppers, sauteed onions, mushrooms, or various combinations of the three. I also know people who like provolone cheese, white American cheese, or even no cheese. My personal favorite is white American with a pile of caramelized onions.

You can't have a Philly cheesesteak without the steak. Unless you want to go with a chicken Philly cheesesteak (just repeat this process with boneless, skinless chicken breast). Anyway, I've found that both flank steak and flatiron steak work equally well; a good guideline is about 1/3 lb per sandwich. To make an authentic sandwich with tender (not chewy) meat, you have to slice the steak as thin as possible. Freezing the meat (and then letting it sit on the counter for a few minutes to soften slightly) helps tremendously with this because you can almost shave off slices, as opposed to wrangling a soft, squishy steak. A mandoline would probably work even better for thin, uniform slices, but you should definitely freeze it if you go that route. Once your meat is sliced, let it defrost fully; this should only take a few minutes since the pieces are so thin.

While your meat is freezing, you can start prepping your other toppings. Sauteed peppers, onions, and/or mushrooms are usually the most common ones (just stick your sliced veggies in a hot skillet with some oil and cook until tender), but you can get creative with bacon (always delicious), various aiolis (glorified flavored mayonnaise), fried onions, pickles, or anything else you can think of.

I love caramelized onions, and they really aren't that difficult to make. They add a sweetness that balances the salty and savory notes in the rest of the sandwich. All you have to do is slice some sweet onions into thin half-moons, throw them in a skillet with some butter, salt, and a spoonful of brown sugar, and cook them on the lowest heat for a while until they are golden brown, sweet, and tender, usually about an hour or so. I find that adding a pinch or two of baking soda instantly deepens the color. The onions brown because of a process called Maillard reactions (which are also responsible for steak sears, bread crusts, and anything else browned and delicious). When the food is basic (has a high pH), the Maillard reactions are more efficient; adding even just a pinch of baking soda (a base) drastically increases the rate of caramelization. However, it doesn't make the onions much more tender, so I tend to do this after they have reached the desired texture.

The cheese part of the sandwiches is pretty easy since I usually just get slices from the deli counter of my supermarket. As I said, I prefer white American, but my sister loves provolone; really anything that melts well is fair game. It's easy to get just a few slices of each kind at a deli counter, so make a variety and see what you like best (or even make a topping bar with all sorts of options). If you're feeling particularly adventurous, you can go with the traditional choice of Cheese Whiz. That's right. That canned orange cheese-that's-not-really-cheese is the topping of choice for purists. That's not really my thing, so I'll just leave it up to you.

To actually cook and assemble the sandwiches, heat up a skillet or griddle and add a little bit of oil. Throw on the steak slices (you'll probably have to cook them in batches) and cook until just cooked through, stirring occasionally. Once they are done, pile them on your hoagie rolls and top with your cheese and toppings. If you are making these for a crowd, wrap them in foil and throw them in a 200-250F oven to keep warm while the rest of them cook. I really wish I could make some right now because I'm practically drooling just writing about them, but they are easy enough that I might just be able to make some in the ramshackle dorm kitchen downstairs.

6 Hoagie Rolls
12 Slices Cheese
2 lbs Flatiron or Flank Steak
Onions, Peppers, Mushrooms, etc.
1 T Season Salt
2 tsp Garlic Powder
2 tsp Onion Powder
1 tsp Sugar
1/2 tsp Pepper

Freeze the steak until firm, about 2 hours. Using a sharp knife or mandoline, slice as thin as possible. Set aside.

If sauteeing onions/peppers/mushrooms, heat some oil in a skillet, add the sliced vegetables, season with salt and pepper, and cook until tender. If making caramelized onions, cut some sweet onions pole to pole, remove the papery skins, and cut into thin half-moons. Heat some butter in a skillet, add the onions, and cook over low heat until golden brown and tender, seasoning with salt and a spoonful of brown sugar. Add a pinch or two of baking soda to brown even more.

Heat some oil in a skillet or on a griddle. Add the slices of beef (cooking in batches if necessary) and cook until just cooked through, seasoning with the season salt, garlic powder, onion powder, sugar, and pepper.

Transfer the meat to the hoagie rolls and top with cheese and desired toppings.

Makes 6

October 12, 2014

Pasta Arrabiata

One of my favorite restaurants in Madison has all these great pasta dishes, including one called Pasta Arrabiata. It's basically your choice of pasta in a spicy tomato sauce loaded with fresh herbs, but I took it a step further by adding lots of savory, spicy sausage. The tomato sauce isn't just my basic tomato sauce, either. I use onions, garlic, crushed tomatoes, seasoning, and diced fresh tomatoes. I think the fresh tomatoes make all the difference because they retain their texture and provide bursts of sweet, tart tomato flavor.

However, you don't just combine all the ingredients and let them simmer for a while. What makes this sauce taste so good is the layering of flavors. I start by cooking off the sausage; I take hot Italian sausage (you can use mild for a less spicy sauce) and brown it in a little oil, leaving the casing on so it stays in links. Once they are brown on all sides, I take them out, let them cool, and cut them into coins. You could remove the sausage from the casing and brown it that way, but it's harder to skim it out of the fat, and I just think the coins make a better presentation.

Whichever method you use to brown the sausage, you still want to make sure there's enough fat left in the pan to brown the onions and garlic in. It's a delicious alternative to oil, and it ensures all the sausage flavor makes its way into the dish. Once the onions are tender, I add the crushed tomatoes and herbs. I also throw in a bit of sugar and lemon juice for balance. After that all cooks together for a few minutes, I stir in the sausage and fresh tomatoes and cook it for 20-30 minutes, which is just enough time for the flavors to meld without overcooking the sausage or fresh tomatoes.

That's also a good point to start cooking the pasta. I like to use a ribbed penne because it sticks to the liquidy parts of the sauce but catches the chunkier parts. Really, any pasta is fine as long as you cook it properly. As always, though, don't throw away your pasta water because it's a great thickening agent for your sauce. The starches that cook out of the pasta and into the water help tighten your sauce and improve the consistency. I tend to scoop the pasta out of the water and transfer it directly into the big pot of sauce and then stir in a ladle or two of starchy water if necessary. It's a hearty, spicy dish perfect for the chilly Fall weather, and the best part is that it's ready in less than an hour!

1 lb Spicy Italian Sausage
1 Yellow Onion, Diced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 28 oz Can + 1 10.5 oz Can Crushed Tomatoes
2 T Olive Oil
2 T Lemon Juice
3 T Sugar
2 tsp Basil
2 tsp Oregano
2 tsp Thyme
1 T Garlic Powder
1 T Onion Powder
3 Plum Tomatoes, Diced
1 lb Pasta

Heat some oil in a large pot. Add the sausage and brown on all sides. Remove and slice when cool.

Cook the onions in the sausage fat for 3 minutes or until tender and fragrant. Season with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the crushed tomatoes, olive oil, lemon juice, sugar, basil, oregano, thyme, garlic powder, and onion powder. Cook for 2 minutes, then add the diced tomatoes and sausage. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for 20-30 minutes.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, then toss with the sauce.

Serves 4
Recipe Adapted from Food Fanatic