Monday, July 30, 2012

Lavender Harvest

So while I was up in northern Michigan, escaping the DC heat and enjoying some beach time with family, I managed to stumble upon one of the most wonderful sort of places.

Isn't it gorgeous?  Lavender Hills Farm, just outside of Boyne City, Michigan, is absolutely stunning.  And not only is it beautiful and smells like heaven, but they let you pick your own lavender.  Naturally, one visit was not enough.

During the time I was there three different varieties were reading for cutting.  One was grosso, a variety that has a nice strong scent and is mainly used in sachets and as decorative lavender.  The other two, munstead and hidcote, are culinary varieties.  They differ from the other varieties like grosso in that they do not contain camphor, a chemical which adds a bitterness to the taste.

I picked some of each variety, but kept each separate.  Once they are cut, the lavender stalks will start to dry and some of the buds will begin to drop.  You want to save all of those buds, and I didn't want to mix up my culinary and non-culinary varieties!

Once picking is done, you need to lay them out to dry.  They will dry regardless of how they are stored, but for best results you should lay them out in a cool, dry place.  I put mine on two camping mats in my grandma's garage.

After a few days, depending on the weather, the lavender should be dried and the buds ready to harvest.  When the lavender stalks have started dropping a good number of buds and the others easily come off, they are ready for the next step.  To remove the buds from the stems, grab a small bunch of lavender and roll the section with the buds between your hands.  Keep rolling until most of the buds are released.  A few of the last ones you may have to pluck off the stem by hand.

You can use the lavender at this stage, but I definitely recommend doing the last portion, which is screening and sorting the lavender.  The lavender that comes off the stalks has bits of dried stem and leaves mixed in with the buds, so the next step removes those bits which detract from the flavor if you want to bake or cook with your lavender.

I took a bit of screen material and stretched it over the top of a box to make my screen apparatus.  Then, take a bit of your unsorted lavender and place it on one side of your screen.  Use your fingers to gently slide the buds forward, pushing the leaves and stems to the side.  This does take a bit of time, but it is well worth it.  In the picture below, of my hidcote lavender, the left bag has not been sorted and the right bag has been.  See the difference?  Definitely worth a bit of time.  Once you have your lovely sorted lavender, it's ready for baking!  There are tons of lavender recipes, and I'll be putting a couple up shortly!

Happy Lavender Harvesting!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bakery Review: Simply Cupcakes

In the summer we all travel to get away from regular, daily life.  I guess one thing I will never be able to (or want to!) get away from is cupcakes.  So even in Northern Michigan it seems I can locate a cupcake shop.

Simply Cupcakes, a cute little place in Traverse City, MI, was actually spotted by my mom who suggested going in to grab a cupcake (or six).  We ended up getting a half dozen to split with the family.  We picked creamsicle, peanut butter, caramel pecan, blueberry, sweet and salty, and caramel toffee.

These are BIG cupcakes.  Not quite Crumbs cupcake size, but they are more muffin-sized than the dainty little standard cupcakes.  They are also piled high with frosting.  These two factors combined make them rather hard to eat!  Most of my family reverted to a fork.

I'm going to continue to compare these cupcakes to Crumbs cupcakes for several reasons.  They all had prominent flavors between the dense cake and the light swiss meringue buttercream, and many of them were filled.  However, I found the lighter colored cakes a bit dry and dense for my preference.  The clear winner of the flavors was the sweet and salty- the chocolate cake was extremely moist and the density complemented the flavor very well.  The light buttercream was the perfect complement with just a bit of crunch from the pretzels on top.  Unfortunately the dense cake didn't work as well with the lighter caramel cupcake or the peanut butter one.

However, these were not by any means bad cupcakes, I would just stick to their chocolatier flavors.  Plus, their swiss meringue buttercream is absolutely fantastic.  I never have the patience for swiss meringue, but it is really wonderful on a dark cupcake!


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Raspberry Angel Cupcakes

This was my first attempt at angel food cake, and I was really pleased with the results.  I have always enjoyed angel food cake but never had the courage to try it out.  I was looking for a really light cake a few days ago, and decided to just go for it.

I found this recipe from How Sweet It Is and followed it exactly.  I even sifted the flour AND powdered sugar (which I am usually too lazy to do).  I divided the recipe by 3, since I wasn't making these for any special event and there weren't too many friends around to pawn them off on, and it turned out to make 9.

The cupcakes turned out beautifully, and I frosted them with a standard cream cheese-buttercream with a dash of raspberry and lemon extract.  Essentially I whipped half a stick of butter, two ounces of cream cheese, two cups of powdered sugar, a dash of each extract, and a dash of half-and-half.

And voila! beautiful, light, raspberry angel cakes!  These would have also been good with a dollop of raspberry jam filled in the center of the baked cakes.  Oh well, next time!


Monday, July 16, 2012

Lemon Poppyseed Mini Muffins

What happens when the blueberry muffins that you baked a few days ago run out?  Lemon poppyseed muffins happen.  At least they did yesterday afternoon.  I love having a freshly baked pastry for breakfast everyday, and as long as you freeze them, muffins generally stay nice and fresh.

Lemon poppyseed is probably my favorite flavor of muffin ever.  Actually though, I have a hard time choosing any other option when lemon poppyseed is available.  However, I rarely make them.  Not sure why.  So when I discovered that we had poppyseed AND lemon in the house I couldn't resist giving these a go.

I adapted Joy the Baker's recipe by changing the size to mini muffins and the baking time to 9 minutes. I also used vanilla yogurt instead of buttermilk/sour cream.  I'm not sure if it was the flavor of the yogurt, but I kind of lost the lemon in these muffins.  Next time I would double the juice and zest.  Or maybe my lemon was just too wimpy.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bakery Review: Red Velvet

I love baking my own cupcakes, but sometimes it is fun to visit local bakeries and try out their offerings.  It is a great chance to compare my own recipes to what is on the market and discover some new ideas.  This morning I was in downtown DC and found myself right in front of one of DC's acclaimed cupcake bakeries- Red Velvet.  Of course I had to pop in for a cupcake.

Red Velvet is located near the corner of 7th St and E St in NW DC.  Cupcakes are $3.25 each or $36/dozen.  This is a bit more than some of the other cupcakeries charge for, but not unheard of.  The bakery offers a wide variety of flavors (10 were available when I was there), but there is no seating area.  You can take your cupcakes next door to the frozen yogurt shop if you want to sit.  However, although the bakery is small it has a simplistic but charming decor and the cupcakes are the main attraction.

As the name of the bakery suggests, Red Velvet is included in the array of flavors.  On a previous occasion I tried the red velvet, or "Southern Belle" as it is referred to on the label, on a previous occasion, so this time I opted for another flavor.

I went with one of their new recipes- Hazelnut Cafe.  Their website describes this cupcake as "A delicious new wake-up call for coffee lovers-- a rich and moist hazelnut cake topped with a sexy espresso buttercream and completed with just a pinch of espresso."

The description definitely reflects this cupcake quite accurately.  The cake was rather rustic- instead of a light and fluffy hazelnut-flavored cake, the cake was a bit denser and moist with shavings of hazelnut baked inside.  The espresso buttercream was well flavored and a very soft (almost melty) texture, although I attribute some of this to the heat outside today.  The cupcake to frosting ratio was excellent and the two flavors complemented themselves well.

Overall, I enjoyed my Red Velvet Cupcakery cupcake.  The rich, denser cupcake is not the kind that I often opt to make since I prefer the lighter fluffy cake, but with this flavor combination it worked quite well.  It would definitely be worth visiting again when I am in the area, but I wouldn't necessarily make it a destination, mostly because I have several other fantastic bakeries very close to me!


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Pizza Night

Pizza is one of those special meals that I have never in my life disliked.  As a kid I was a very picky eater, but pizza night never began with any complaints.  Pizza night became even more special when we started making our own pizzas rather than ordering them out.

After going through a few pizza stones, we recently settled on a cast iron pan on the grill as our preferred pizza cooking method.  It makes incredibly crispy crusts- much better than the standard pizza pan for the oven.

My pizza of choice is the classic Margherita- tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and basil.  I also add a bit of garlic and olive oil before the sauce goes on and finish with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese.

Pepperonis and prosciutto also go nicely with the original Margherita and add a bit extra flavor.

Pizza on the patio on a warm summer evening is one of my quintessential summer meals- and I have two more months of pizza nights to look forward to this summer.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

British Tea Cupcakes

It has been quite awhile since I have baked cupcakes.  It has also been quite awhile since I have had non-mint tea (the Moroccans love their sweet mint tea).  So when I stumbled upon this recipe the other day, I knew that these cupcakes were for me.

The recipe calls for warm milk to be steeped with black tea leaves to give the cupcakes their namesake flavor.  I chose my sister's favorite blend- straight from Fortnum and Mason in London.

The cupcakes are light and fluffy (thanks to a great recipe which uses cake flour rather than regular flour), and the frosting is a perfect combination of sweet and tart, which complements the cupcake rather well.

 I may even have to try this recipe with some other types of tea- flavored tea with a complementary frosting such as raspberry green tea cupcakes with a raspberry lemon buttercream sounds stupendous!

Happy Baking,

Monday, July 9, 2012

Summer Blueberries

Blueberries are one of my favorite summer fruits.  They are best in the middle of summer in just about any baked good- pies, cupcakes, and of course muffins!  After returning from my long trip to Morocco I was dying to bake some good summer treats, and this recipe looked irresistible.

I love adding lemon to blueberry muffins, but this recipe called for lavender as well.  I couldn't resist trying it out.  The recipe uses lavender buds, but I substituted them for a half teaspoon of lavender extract.  Next time I may add just a splash more for a little more lavender flavor.

Even so, they came out fantastically.  Bake them on convect at 350° for the first 8 minutes or so to give them a nice crisp top.

These muffin make a fantastic summer breakfast treat or snack, and the lavender adds just a bit more depth to the flavor- absolutely lovely!