An NYC Food Post: Two Little Red Hens

Paris = macaron. New York = cupcake.

I seriously considered doing a cupcake taste test like I did for macarons during my Paris trip, but I was just too overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task. There were just too many bakeries (and too many subway rides to get to all of them) and too many flavors. Plus, while I can wolf down four macarons straight (the petit ones, of course), the same obviously can’t be said about cupcakes. I didn’t want to leave NYC 20lbs heavier, nor did I want to just throw out half-eaten cupcakes. So no cupcake taste test for me.

But I still had to have some cupcakes. It would be a shame to not try at least a few in the city that started the trend in the first place. So I marked a few of the best bakeries on my map and the plan was to drop by any one of them if I happened to be close by and up for a sugar rush (which is probably always).

And so I ended up at Two Little Red Hens in the UES after an afternoon at the Guggenheim.

I was so glad they offered mini-cupcakes as that meant I could try multiple flavors. With the help of the girls behind the counter and my previous research, I settled on the following flavors (clockwise from the top): Brooklyn Blackout, which was the Village Voice’s #1 cupcake in NYC; Red Velvet; Peanut Butter and Chocolate and Yellow Cake and Fudge.

Untitled

By a long shot, the standout among these four flavors for me was the Chocolate and Peanut Butter cupcake. While the Brooklyn Blackout and the fudge icing on the yellow cake needed a deeper, intenser chocolate flavor for me, the chocolate on this one was on point. The darker chocolate contrasted perfectly with the salty-sweet peanut butter in the frosting AND in the peanut butter mousse in the center. THIS was my favorite cupcake from Two Little Red Hens.

That all changed, though, as I was about to leave. I was desperate to try the Key Lime Pie cupcake, but they only had full-sized ones when I arrived. Naturally, when I saw a full tray of the mini versions come out of the kitchen as I was about to exit the store, I did a full 180.

Untitled

And it’s a good thing I did, because this was perfection. The subtly-flavored frosting was a hint of things to come. The sponge cake was light and airy (almost angel food-like). But what takes this cupcake to a whole new level is the lime custard (curd?) center. Oozy, creamy and wonderfully tart and lime-y, it was eyes-rolling-to-the-back-of-my-head good. It was full-on lime flavor (no watered down, sugared-up lemonade-like flavor here), and I loved it.

And writing this post makes me want one, NOW. Too bad I haven’t found anything locally that even comes close to this bright burst of citrus. Suggestions, anyone? Or do I have no choice but to make my own?

The ugliest delicious things I have ever made

Not to worry, there will be no photos of my first attempt at David Lebovitz’s Black Bottom cupcakes, lest I cause someone to lose their lunch at one look at them. I will, however, make you privy to how my family reacted to them. My sister said they looked like age spots while my dear mother said that they looked like they were moldy already.

Yeaaaaaaaaah….

While I do think my mom was a bit harsh on my cupcakes, I do concede that they were not the most appetizing-looking things I’ve ever made. Ok, fine, they were ugly. I didn’t push in the cream cheese mixture into the bottom of the cupcake enough, as I assumed that it would sink on its own. I was wrong and the cream cheese mixture that I left on the top of the cupcakes stayed there instead of forming a deep cream cheese pocket in the middle of the chocolate batter. The end result was not unlike Smitten Kitchen‘s first attempt at it.

While I was disappointed at how they turned out aesthetically, the real test should and always be the way something tastes, right? And since this recipe had chocolate, cream cheese AND was by David Lebovitz, I need not have worried.

Silly, shallow me. Who cares if they looked like living organisms have started to grow on them (or that they are growing on a living organism, for that matter) if they are delicious? The chocolate base was moist and chocolate-y and provided the perfect contrast to the creamy and slightly tangy cream cheese filling. And the solid chocolate bits in the filling just added that additional layer of texture, and was a great surprise in the mouth against the moist, mushiness of the cupcake.

I got them tasting perfect, but I was determined to get them looking perfect. Not just because I’m stubborn like that, but also because if I do serve these to people outside my family, I wouldn’t like them to think that I’m serving them mold-infested food.

The commenters on the Smitten Kitchen post suggested chilling the cream cheese mixture in the fridge first so that it’s less runny when you spoon it into the chocolate batter. Deb also suggested using a piping bag, but I was too lazy to get mine out. I made the cream cheese mixture first and stuck it in the fridge while I was making the rest of the cupcake. It probably needed a little more time than that, since it was nowhere near the melon-baller-friendly consistency they commenters referred to. But I already had the oven going and didn’t want my batter to sit around in the heat so I went ahead anyway. I tried to keep the mixture as compact, vertical and in the middle as possible using my measuring spoon (1tbsp) and a butter knife and  this was how my second batched turned out:

Untitled

I got them perfect looking from the top but I was also concerned about how they looked inside, since I think that black and white cross-section is part of the charm of these little babies. It’s a little sad how happy I was when I sliced into one saw this:

Untitled

Wheeeeeeeeeee! So pretty, no? No one would compare these to those things you see in anti-aging cream commercials now! And apart from just being prettier, I do think that having the cream cheese sink into the center and not just pool on the top makes for a better cupcake. You don’t have two distinct layers of flavors. Instead, you get bites that are more chocolate than cream cheese or vice versa, or all cream cheese or all chocolate.

Don’t worry, though, if you do try these out, and they don’t turn out looking like the photo the first time (duh, even Deb from Smitten Kitchen messed hers up the first time, so we’re in good company) or EVER, even. The important thing is that they are delicious and make you go “Mmmmmmmm…” after just one bite. As hackneyed as it sounds, don’t judge the book by it cover. Or, in this case, don’t judge the cupcake by its moldy-looking top layer.

Putting the “Ultimate Vanilla Cupcake” to the test

I think it is my duty as someone who loves making (and eating!) cupcakes to find a go-to recipe for the following flavors: chocolate and vanilla. In my mind, once you’ve found the best version of these cupcake bases, you’re set. You can tweak them, fill them in the middle with all sorts of deliciousness and top them with the classic or crazy frostings, and it’s unlikely you’ll go wrong.

So this is my search for that vanilla cupcake recipe.

Vanilla beans

I’ve always wanted to do this, use an actual vanilla bean in whatever I was making. It just seems so… fancy. And professional-looking. Like the person who made whatever vanilla seed-speckled confection REALLY knows what they’re doing in the kitchen. Yes, I’m a nerd.

So when I started on this whole crazy baking adventure, one of the first things I bought was vanilla beans. I didn’t have a recipe to use them with yet, I just wanted to have them on hand to feel fancy. Plus, I was so excited that they were even readily available in Manila, that I snapped up a pack of three.

I finally found a recipe to use them for, one  so boldly named “The Ultimate Vanilla Cupcake”. I’m a sucker for anything called “the best ever” so this recipe caught my attention. Stef from the Cupcake Project put in a lot of work into coming up with the recipe, testing it and tweaking it so it struck me that she wasn’t kidding around with the word “ultimate”.  The recipe was also tested by more than 50 bakers and commenters on the blog who gave it raving reviews, so I was convinced.

Stef recommended her Vanilla Bean Buttercream Frosting to go with the cupcake for the full vanilla experience. And, what the heck. I might as well go big or go home, right? (also, I was loathe to leave two vanilla beans in an open package and risk them drying out)

And, well, here’s how they turned out:

.

I mean. How pretty is that frosting? Just for the prettiness factor, going through the trouble of using vanilla beans makes it worth it, no? The sight of those tiny, tiny seeds just make me so happy, and that was even before I bit into the cupcake.

So was the cupcake the “ultimate” cupcake? Did I make the right decision on going vanilla on vanilla?

YES. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

The cupcake (the bread) itself is wonderful. It was moist, with a tender, soft, black seed-speckled crumb. I haven’t had a vanilla cupcake that was texturally better. I was worried that it would be too sweet, since the recipe called for both vanilla been AND extract, but that wasn’t the case. There was just enough vanilla flavor to make this cupcake a distinctly vanilla one (versus just being a regular, yellow cake one) but not too much that it was sickly sweet.

And that frosting? I love the balance of flavors in this frosting. For one thing, it doesn’t use as much confectioner’s sugar as other frosting recipes I’ve seen. The star of this frosting is undisputably the vanilla: subtly sweet, smooth and light. Both the Stef and my sister say that it tastes like melted vanilla ice cream, I would agree but would say that the frosting tastes lighter, I suppose because it doesn’t have the richness of custard.

.

Things called the “best ever” or the “ultimate” don’t always meet the lofty expectations their names raise, but, thankfully, the Ultimate Vanilla Cupcake lives up to its name. The cupcake with the vanilla bean buttercream really is the perfect showcase for the subtle and surprisingly interesting flavors of vanilla. Whoever said vanilla was boring obviously never had this cupcake and this frosting.

Note: The frosting recipe calls for vanilla bean paste, which I don’t have, so I used two vanilla beans instead.  The Vanilla Company’s Tahitian (which I used for this recipe) and Bourbon Vanilla beans are available at Gourdo’s and Cook’s Exchange in packs of one or three.

I may have a problem

They say the first step to solving your problem is admitting you have one. So here I am, admitting that I may have an addiction.

To food. To cooking. To baking.

I suppose it started with this harmless post. From wanting to cook a few dishes every month I now think about food and recipes every free minute (and even during moments that weren’t technically free) of my time. And that really is not an exaggeration. I think of food ALL. THE. TIME. And, not just food in general, but food I want to make.

I partly blame Nigella Lawson, Ina Garten, Chrissy Teigen and my friends J and Janice for this. Nigella’s, Ina’s and Chrissy’s influence on my life have been previously documented here. As for J and Janice, between the three of us, we have exchanged over two hundred (yup!) emails, Facbeook posts and links for recipes, Instagram food photos, cooking appliances and utensils in a span of two months. Yes, my friends are as crazy as I am.

Like, how crazy?

Well, apart from my head (and J’s and Janice’s too!) buzzing with recipes and cooking/baking things I want to buy (cupcake liners, spoonulas, covered cake stands, etc.), it also spills over to my Twitter feed, my Facebook wall, my Instagram and my Pinterest boards. I also live in fear of running out of butter, flour and vanilla just in case I get the sudden impulse to whip up a batch of cupcakes. So there’s always a minimum of four sticks of butter in our fridge. I’ve also been actively looking for occasions, ANY occasion to bake for. My cousin had her birthday last week and I made her birthday cake. Unfortunately, hers is the last birthday for TWO whole months, and I am now desperate for any reason to bake a cake (I have two recipes I want to try). I actually asked my mom, “Are you sure no one’s having a birthday soon?” in an accusatory tone when I realized the next family birthday was in April.

And this week, I baked not one, not two, but FOUR batches of cupcakes. I made Red Velvet cupcakes on Monday, Friday and today and a batch of chocolate cupcakes yesterday.

IMG_2323

This is the best ever Red Velvet cupcake I’ve ever had, by the way.

When I find a recipe, or finally get my hands on a hard to find ingredient (buttermilk), I actually need to make the recipe as soon as humanly possible. And it doesn’t help that the results are delicious (I’m not saying this to take any credit, the recipes are genius) and that I can’t stop eating what I make. When I ate the last cupcake from my first batch of Red Velvet, I wanted to whip up a new batch right after. I didn’t, though, but only because it was too late to start baking.

This makes me SO happy.

And, no, I can’t explain this mania, this sudden passion to find the best recipes out there, make them and of course, EAT them. Not that I really need an explanation, but it does take me aback sometimes when I think about how much of my time (and thighs) is now taken up by food and how SUDDEN this all was. From cooking once a week around the time of that “I want to cook!” post, I am now in the kitchen 5 out of nights of the week, researching recipes when I’m at work when I’m not actually cooking them.

A friend of mind thinks that I found my calling and my passion. She thinks that I should start thinking about making it my living. I brush and laugh her comments off because, duh, I’ve just been doing this for a couple of months. Not to mention that actually thinking about that, considering devoting my time to food full time, while exciting, scares the sh*t out of me. So I’d rather not think about that for now until I’m sure this is not just a crazy phase.

Plus, I have no time to think about that now. I’ve got room temperature butter and cream cheese waiting to be whipped into frosting.

PS: Click here for the recipe for those wonderfully red, moist and tasty red velvet cupcakes, and here for the cream cheese frosting. I only use between 1.5-2 cups of the icing sugar instead of the four (!!!) the recipe calls for. If you need it to be stiffer for piping, then add the icing sugar gradually until you get to your desired consistency. But taste is the priority for me over pipe-ability.