Sunday, April 27, 2008

Courting Myself at Sweet Melissa

It’s been awhile since I’ve had a non-work related assignment to complete, and generally I’m quite grateful for that. Earlier this month, though, I was reading through one of my favorite blogs (Pink of Perfection) and the author, Sarah, had posted an enticing open project for completion.

The assignment at was to take yourself out on a date and then write about it in your blog. As projects go, I can safely say that this was among the more pleasant-sounding; after all, the idea, as Sarah wrote, is to court myself a bit. So, I decided to take her up on the challenge. And since I was taking myself out, I knew exactly where to go and what to do in order to make the date positively perfect.

Naturally, the date involved cupcakes.

It began, though, with a walk through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Just walking along the paths was an otherworldly experience, with lush plant life in bloom and all the forgotten scents of spring coming from every direction. Since one never knows how many “nice days” one will get in this city, I savored the stroll, alongside multitudes of joggers, bikers, and roller-bladers.

An ulterior motive of this scenic route was to build up my appetite for what I knew was awaiting me: Sweet Melissa. If you are not familiar with this Brooklyn-based patisserie, I’m very sorry for you, and I suggest that you make it a priority to visit one of the two locations (Park Slope and Cobble Hill) as soon as possible.

The menu features breakfast and lunch fare, as well as a large selection of baked goods, all of which is a testament to the culinary genius of executive chef and owner, Melissa Murphy. I try not to use a term like “culinary genius” too lightly, but I feel that it’s perfectly apt in this case.

I have yet to extensively sample the entire selection at Sweet Melissa, but I have become well-acquainted with the cupcakes. On my date, I was delighted to find that one of the cupcakes of the day was chocolate cake with white frosting (my absolute favorite combination). With a smile of anticipation, I took my cupcake to the stool by the window, and slowly took my first bite. Delicious, of course! The cake itself was springy and had a rich cocoa flavor and the frosting was mildly sweet —not the artificial saccharine explosion of cheap junk food. No, this was a genuine treat for chocolate-lovers, as has always been my cupcake experience with Sweet Melissa.

After the cupcake, it felt to me that the best part of the date was sadly over. As I try not to hold long one-sided conversations with myself in public (or in private, really), I didn’t have any dazzling banter to fall back on, as I might on an actual date. Riding on my delightful sugar high, the only thing left to do was to invite myself back to my place.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The sweetness of whole(some) foods

Today I took a ride on the little-frequented (by me) Q train, which has a stop relatively close to my apartment. The distance is short enough that I have no problem walking to and from the station, but far enough that I wouldn’t want the Q to be my every day commuter train (that honor goes to the lovely F train). So when I took the leisurely stroll from the Q station, I noticed something very striking on Cortelyou Road: the newly-opened Flatbush Co-op, taking up the space that was once an Associated Supermarket.

Of course, I was — and still am — torn between the “there goes the neighborhood” attitude, knowing that my environs are becoming much more gentrified and soon I may not even be able to afford the rent around here, and the absolute thrill of knowing that I can walk to a big, beautiful co-op full of wholesome and natural foodstuff, and I don’t even need to join in order to shop there!

As one would expect, at the moment the latter impulse won over, and I dashed across the street and through the automatic doors of the bright, conscious-consumer friendly haven of all things organic. I made mental notes of produce prices and I eyed the juice bar menu; I found my favorite teas lined up directly at my eye level and basked in the aisle of Newman’s Own cookies. When I found the baking goods, I was struck by the sheer variety of what I could buy all-naturally…there was the run-of-the mill whole-wheat flour, sure, but there were also bags of spelts and brans and unrefined sugars, many with variations that I had never even known existed. It was amongst these shelves that I spied a bag of wheat bran. Picking it up and routinely checking out the nutrition information, I was reminded of a recipe that I had found and put aside, in my “remember for future use” file: Wheat Bran Blueberry Muffins.

While I simply do not have the need to have a full batch of muffins at my disposal, this recipe is absurdly healthful, and quite tasty looking as well. And if I can make a full batch of red velvet cupcakes, then I really should have no qualms with making the muffins, a much more wholesome choice.

I paid for my wheat bran, helped myself to a membership brochure (no, there is no room in my budget for a food co-op membership, but for a fleeting few moments, I had liked to think there could be), and soon after, I was in my kitchen, baking muffins.

The final product turned out delicious: sweet enough without tasting like a dessert, but with a strong taste of bran. However, eating a muffin at 7:00 in the evening just didn’t feel right. Perhaps tomorrow morning, they’ll be even better. My muffins have a darker coloring to them because I used frozen blueberries, and as I measured the berries out, some of the juice was also added to the batter. Oops! This is best avoided, but I don’t think it had any horrible effects on the outcome of the muffins.

Wheat Bran Blueberry Muffins

Yield: About 2 dozen regular-sized muffins


1 1/2 cups wheat bran
1 cup nonfat milk
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 egg
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup blueberries


1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease muffin cups or use paper muffin liners. Mix together wheat bran and milk, and let stand for 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl, mix together applesauce, egg, brown sugar, and vanilla. Beat in bran mixture. Sift together all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Stir into bran mixture until just blended. Fold in blueberries. Scoop into muffin cups.
3. Bake in preheated oven for 16 to 20 minutes, or until tops spring back when lightly tapped.

Recipe courtesy of

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Brooklyn Flea and Red Velvet

Brooklyn Flea and red velvet cupcakes: these are my two favorite things of the weekend.

Firstly, Brooklyn Flea. This is an incredible artisan market in Fort Greene, and if you live in Brooklyn (or Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, …) then you really must put aside a Sunday afternoon in the near future to stop by. It’s part antiquing and part local shopping with a very strong Brooklyn flavor. Today was opening day, and the variety of merchandise was only eclipsed by the personalities I met there; talking with the various vendors was an experience in itself. And to prove that it’s not just for Brooklynites, I was joined by a good friend who lives in Queens. After today, she has already promised to come down and visit me again soon so that we can return to the flea market. Here’s the website:

My second favorite thing of the weekend (or maybe additional favorite thing…I’m not sure I can give one rank above the other) is the batch of red velvet cupcakes I made on Saturday. In the morning, I found myself at Bed, Bath and Beyond (how very opposite to the ideals of the Brooklyn Flea!) with a store credit and a craving for something sweet. I walked out with a mini-muffin pan, a cake decorating kit, and the resolve to spend my lazy Saturday baking red velvet cupcakes: a dessert that I have come across with such frequency in cafes, bakeries, and cookbooks, that I feared if I did not make it soon, by the time I did, this trendy cake would be passé.

The recipe below is from Magnolia’s More From Magnolia cookbook, and can also be found on a wonderful blog that I frequent, Nosh With Me at

They turned out quite good, except that I found them to be a bit too overbearingly sweet (a phrase I rarely say). A slight decrease in sugar should help that out. Otherwise, they were moist and not too dense, and absolutely adorable as mini-cupcakes (though very yummy as regular-sized ones, also – I made a mix of both sizes). And, presented on a platter, they look positively pleasing to the eye, which I’m sure my co-workers will appreciate tomorrow morning when they see these in the office.

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Yield: About three dozen regular-sized cupcakes


3 ⅓ cups cake flour (not self-rising)
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 ¼ cups sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
6 tablespoons red food coloring
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 ½ teaspoons cider vinegar
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a cupcake pan with paper liners, or grease and lightly flour.

To make the cake: In a small bowl, sift the cake flour and set aside. In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

In a small bowl, whisk together the red food coloring, cocoa, and vanilla. Add to the batter and beat well.

In a measuring cup, stir the salt into the buttermilk. Add to the batter in three parts, alternating with the flour. With each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated, but do not overheat.

In a small bowl, stir together the cider vinegar and baking soda. Add to the batter and mix well. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the bowl, making sure the ingredients are well blended and the batter is smooth.

Divide the batter among the prepared pans. Bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the cupcakes cool in the pans for 1 hour. Remove from the pans and cool completely on a wire rack.

When the cake has cooled, ice with cream cheese frosting.

1 pound (two 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, softened and cut into small pieces
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into small pieces
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
5 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar

In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat well. Gradually add the sugar, 1 cup at a time, beating continuously until smooth and creamy. Cover and refrigerate icing for 2 to 3 hours, but no longer, to thicken before using.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Deliciousness

To me, the term “comfort food” indeed invokes visions of rich chocolate cake, cheesy pizza, and thick slices of homemade bread slathered with jam. However, I’ve come to learn over the past few years that not everything that soothes my soul must eventually settle around my waist. It’s actually true: although a part of me lives for sugar-laden delicacies, I do try to eat as healthfully as possible, making nutritious choices with all my snacks and meals, and giving myself a bit of leeway when it comes to dessert. But still, the bombardment of information on wholesome eating has brainwashed me slightly, so that cookies that are too overbearingly buttery or treats like fried Snickers bars no longer have the appeal they might have once had.

It was with a mind full of nutrition propaganda that I created this recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies. The thing about these cookies is that, while I perhaps would not start consuming them as a breakfast item, they are made with a surprisingly nutritious array of ingredients. Perhaps even more shocking, is that whenever I’ve had a rough day, these cookies take on all of the qualities of comfort food (especially when eaten directly from the oven): they are satisfying and chewy, and neither too sweet nor too bland.

One day, when I open that cookie catering business of mine, I believe these will be a top seller.

Today has been particularly harrowing, and I’d been working hard to get out of my mindset of self-pity and self-flagellation. As of my return to my apartment, I had tried every trick to improve my mood, and I still was nowhere near 100 percent. So, I went into my kitchen, opened my cabinets, and about 30 minutes later, I was substantially closer to utter bliss. Now, some of you may start to blame the carbohydrates and the sugar, and get all science-y with words like “serotonin” and “neurotransmitters.” That’s all very well and good, but I prefer to just believe in the magic restorative powers of my oatmeal raisin cookies.

P.S. Comfort food can render the complete opposite of its intended effect when consumed in mass, binging quantities. That’s why I love how easily these cookies freeze, to be saved for another day when your outlook is cloudy.

Here’s what you do: roll the dough into small 1-inch balls and place in rows, in a single layer on waxed paper. Then place the paper inside a gallon-sized freezer bag, or another freezer-safe container. When you’re again ready for the cookies, take them out of the freezer and bake right away (no need to defrost) for a couple of minutes longer than the given time.

Since I did freeze most of the cookies today, I don't have any pretty pictures of my own. But, a visual aid is essential, in my opinion, for baking, and so here are some yummy looking oatmeal raisin cookies (sans chocolate).

Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Yield: About three dozen

1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp. Lighter Bake* or unsweetened applesauce
2 egg whites
2 tbsp. skim milk
1 cup milk chocolate chips
1 cup uncooked quick oats
3/4 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a small bowl.
Beat together Lighter Bake or applesauce, sugars, and vanilla. Beat in egg whites, one at a time. Add milk and beat well. Add flour mixture and beat. If the dough feels too dry and crumbly, add a small amount of milk. Stir in oats, raisins, and chocolate chips. Drop by rounded tablespoon on ungreased baking sheets. Bake 11-14 minutes.

*Lighter Bake is a brilliant butter/oil replacement made from pureed apples and plumes. It's available at most supermarkets and is all natural. And never fear, it does not generally leave a noticeable fruity track in your baked goods!