Cupcakes Revisited

For years, I have had a serious beef with cupcakes. Especially cupcakes at weddings. What started out as a cute idea to make an economical replacement for a wedding cake quickly became a ridiculous fad that was equaly expensive as a tiered masterpiece.

As a bride on a serious budget, I understand why someone would want to go cheaper, especially if they never had any desire for a cake in the first place. But cupcakes? They can be even more labor intensive than an actual cake, and when you eat one, it’s all crust! I’ve always hated making cupcakes, for that reason. Still, I have to admit, they’re cute. Just not when they pretend to be a wedding cake and end up costing the bride more money.

This was my background going into this week’s cupcake experiment.

I decided to make mini stawberry cupcakes with fluffy vanilla buttercream, and actually enjoy making them. And, I’m happy to say that the trial run was a success! The secret? DO NOT use a knife.

I made a delicious vanilla buttercream replacing milk with whipping cream, and putting the icing into a ziploc freezer bag, cutting the corner, and piping it onto the cupcakes. Real simple. Real easy. Real Quick.

I think I’ll do it again once Lent is over. 🙂

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When in Rome… fry an artichoke?

As I was brushing up on my Italian recently, I was reminded of one of the most delicious appetizers I’ve ever had. When in Rome, I had the famous “carciofi alla giudia”, literally, “jewish artichokes”. If you’ve never been to Rome, I bet you’ve never seen this:

Carciofi alla giudia

from cucina.ilbloggatore.com

They say no one but a Roman can cut an artichoke this way.

Originating with the ancient Jewish population in the Ghetto of Rome, carciofi alla giudia (car-CHO-fee alla JOO-dee-aa, for my non-Italian speaking readers) is an artichoke that has been fanned out and deep-fried, creating a crispy-on-the-edges, soft-on-the-inside texture. It’s like a fan of potato chips that are a little chewy in the very center. I’ve never been a big veggie person, but I LOVED this when I had dinner in the Ghetto. I wonder if you can get these anywhere in America? I want to try to make these. I bet James would be afraid to try them, but he usually trusts me. I can’t wait to see what happens!

Olney’s Mexican Escape

Last night, my mom and I went to Sol Azteca in Olney, MD. While the restaurant is not new, the shopping center was newly renovated and we had never noticed the place before.

We were greeted with white table cloths and dim lighting, something that added a little feeling of formality that is not commonly found in Mexican restaurants. People don’t usually picture white table cloths when they’re in the mood for tacos, enchiladas, carne asada and guacamole. Still, it was nice.

The chips and salsa were perfect.  The salsa was fresh and simple, the best I’ve ever had in a restaurant. I could have eated ten more servings of it.

The menu was impressive. Not only did they have a wide selection of Mexican favorites (priced generally between $11-14), but also a list of “House Specialties” that were primarily Peruvian and Seafood selections ($15-20). There were so many options, I’ll have to go back to get a better idea of what to recommend to people.

We ordered chicken enchiladas, vegetable fajitas, and a cheese chile relleno. All were delicious. The chicken enchiladas were made with corn tortillas, which though not my favorite, are more authentic than the flour variety for enchiladas. My mom really enjoyed her vegetable fajitas, though she did say that the vegetables could have been cut a tad smaller to make it easier to eat. The cheese chile relleno was fabulous. In case you’ve never had one, “chile relleno” means “stuffed chile”. It’s a big green poblano pepper that has been stuffed (usually with cheese and meat), fried in a batter, and smothered in more cheese. Of course, any vehicle for cheese and ranchero sauce is welcome to me.

For dessert, we had the flan: perfectly smooth, creamy texture coupled with a sweet cinnamon flavor. It came to us decorated on a plate decorated with raspberry sauce squiggles, which added the perfect fruity tang to the mix. A+

For 2 entrées, an extra side (that was the size of a meal in itself), and dessert, we got out of there for $35. Pretty sweet in this part of Maryland. The portions were so huge we both had lunch for the next day as well.

Sol Azteca was a great Mexican escape after a long day at work, with an awesome selection of entrees with generous portions. While not the best Mexican I’ve ever had (El Azteca in Clarksville is my favorite), it was very enjoyable, and I’ll certainly be going back. A-

Sol Azteca on Urbanspoon

Spinach Stuffed Mushrooms

The first time I made these, my family fell in love. My mom in particular LOVES these. I’ve made them for parties, but they’re wonderful as a side at dinner too. The inspiration for these came from something I found on the food network, but having made them so long I changed a few things along the way. The amounts are a rough estimate, so don’t worry if you have to change things.

Ingredients:

20-30 Cremini (baby bella) mushrooms

bag of pre-washed baby spinach

2-3 tbsp cream cheese

1 bag (2 cups) shredded mozzarella

1/4 cup grated parmesan or romano

salt & pepper

1/4 tsp garlic powder

Directions:

Rinse and dry mushrooms. Remove stems. Set mushroom caps aside.

Finely chop the spinach. If you’d like to use the food processor, there’s nothing stopping you. I like chopping spinach, though, and I think it gives it a nice texture.

In a medium bowl, combine spinach, mozzarella, parmesan, salt & pepper, and garlic powder. The mix in cream cheese. I like to use a fork to mash it in there. Be persistent, it might take a little muscle, but when you’re done you should have a soft, creamy mixture. You might need to add more cream cheese. In fact last time I made this, I used almost 4 oz. It just depends on what type of consistency you’re looking for.

Line baking sheet with aluminum foil. Stuff each mushroom cap with some of the spinach mixture (I like it when they’re overflowing and you have to eat them with a fork and knife). Its ok if you crowd them a little to fit them on the sheet, since mushrooms shrink a little when cooked. Bake at 375°F for about 10-12 minutes. Really, it’s hard to over-cook a mushroom, and you want everything to be soft and melted.

Cute Italian Restaurant in Maryland

Friday night I had dinner with my mom at Pepino’s in Burtonsville, MD. It’s a cute little family owned Italian restaurant tucked away in the corner of a sleepy shopping center. We’ve been going here ever since we moved into the area in 2002, as it’s not too far from the high school my sister and I went to. I think it finally deserves a blog post.

The most impressive thing about Pepino’s is the atmosphere. They really treat you like family. While waiting for a table, we had a lovely conversation with the owner, a very nice lady named Margaret. Another couple of people were also waiting and had no place to sit, so right away she said “Here, sit here and talk to my dad,” and sat them right down with her father. It was so sweet!

The food at Pepino’s is Delicious. While you’re waiting, they’ll bring you warm Italian bread. Olive oil and cheese is already on the table: no stinginess there! Pastas are priced around $9-12, with most of the entrée’s at $11-16: pretty comfortable, especially considering the generous portions. My mom had the eggplant parmigiana, which she was raving about. I’m not a huge fan of eggplant, so I went and got the veal parmigiana. Delicious. Cooked perfectly. Smothered in the most delectable homemade sauce you’ll ever get at a restaurant. Slightly on the tangy side. Perfect with the cheese on the table.

We were too stuffed to order dessert. I actually had enough left over for lunch the next day, but sadly I forgot to grab my doggie bag. I almost cried when I realized I forgot it.

Like I said, I’ve been there a million times before, and I’ll go a million times again. Great food, great atmosphere. Actually, not a bad Valentine’s day idea…

Pepinos Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Smith Island Cake -A.K.A. Why I love Maryland

Not many people outside of Maryland have ever had it. In fact, with the exception of people on the Eastern Shore, not many Marylanders have had it. Smith Island Cake (also known, along with crabs, as God’s Gift to Maryland) looks like this:

Smith Island Cake, as pictured in National Geographic

8-15 layers of yellow cake, with fudgey chocolate icing in between. Seriously, this is the richest cake you’ll ever taste. It’s AMAZING!

They actually make it by cooking each layer separately in its own cake pan, like 8-10 round cake pans with a tablespoon or two of batter in them. Named in 2008 as the official dessert of the State of Maryland, It comes from Smith Island (go figure), a remote island in the Chesapeake Bay that is only accessible by boat. The remoteness and inaccessibility of the island have made the place somewhat of a time capsule. Discovered by John Smith in the 1600s, the people of Smith Island still retain a sort of Elizabethan dialect, as well as an accent that separates them from the rest of Maryland.

Surprisingly, right in the middle of Maryland where most Marylanders live (between DC and Baltimore), Smith Island Cake is almost impossible to find. Luckily for the rest of the world, you can order it online at www.smithislandbakingco.com and have it shipped to your door in 2 days or less. I think I know what I want for my birthday…

Copyright 2010

Lunch on a Greek Island

With Maryland being absolutely freezing today, I’m wishing I was back in Greece.

In August of 2010, I visited the Greek island of Aegina with some friends. For those of you unfamiliar with Aegina, it’s an island that’s about 45 minutes away from the port of Piraeus, the port of Athens. The island is rather large compared to its neighbors, but aside from a busy street of restaurants right near the dock, it’s a warm, sleepy paradise of pistacio trees and bright blue water. I can’t wait to go back!

Approaching Aegina

The day we were there, it was about 100°F. We had lunch in the shade of a big blue tent overlooking the marina, and it was DELICIOUS.

First, we had some really awesome tzaziki. You can get this stuff here, but it’s nothing like the creamy flavor you get in Greece.

We put our tzaziki on this bread, and it was fantastic:

Then I ordered Calamari. I always love calamari, but this was exceptional. Soft and buttery, like they just caught it that morning.

Best Calamari Ever

Lucky for me, there’s a fantastic Greek restaurant down the street from my house. I might have to go there tonight.