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Archive for June, 2012

The Humble Muffin

The cupcake shop, a recent trend in the food world, has taken over the District.

From Georgetown Cupcake to Hello Cupcake in Dupont, cupcakes are everywhere. On weekends, I’ve even seen lines outside of Baked and Wired in Georgetown, a bakery that sells cupcakes and other treats. 

Cupcakes certainly can be delicious, but are they really worth the wait?

My question to every cupcake fanatic in this city is this – how about the muffin? Yes, the muffin – the cupcake’s less sugary, often more savory cousin. Amidst all of the cupcake madness, have we forgotten about the poor muffin? While there are plenty of bakeries and coffee shops that sell muffins in D.C., there is not a single place that makes them the star of the show.

A  few months ago, my boyfriend Paul gave me a book called The Ultimate Muffin Book. I was instantly intrigued – in the same line as the cupcake crazies in this city, I simply could not think of the last time I had given thought to the muffin.  Previously, I assumed that the muffin was just a boring breakfast item. It was this surprisingly fascinating book, however, that proved to me the endless possibilities for the muffin.

The first chapter, Making Muffins, covers nearly every aspect of baking muffins. In the section, Tips for successful muffins, I learned that factors such as weather, the temperature of butter and eggs and the amount you fill the paper muffin cups with batter can all affect the outcome of your muffins. I also learned how to properly wash a muffin tin,  and the proper techniques for freezing and unfreezing muffins. And finally, I discovered that I should fill any empty spots in my muffin tin with water when baking my muffins to ensure they cook evenly. Seems a bit excessive, doesn’t it?

I would love to meet the authors of this book – their attention to detail is impressive. This is for sure the most passion I have ever seen anyone show for the muffin.

The recipes are endless. For almost every fruit or vegetable you could imagine, there is a muffin recipe for it. Not only are there apple muffins, there are also applesauce muffins. There are olive oil muffins, Parmesan muffins, pina colada muffins, potato muffins, Quiche Lorraine muffins and peanut butter muffins. There are even cheesy beer muffins and pizza muffins. I love it – these guys are out of their minds!

I decided to give one of the recipes a shot – chocolate chip cappuccino muffins. Here is the recipe below, adapted from the book.

Cappuccino Chocolate Chip Muffins (Makes 12 muffins)

From The Ultimate Muffin Book by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarborough

Scalded milk lends that same creamy texture to these muffins as it does to a luxurious cup of cappuccino. Instant espresso powder makes it easy to get that deep, dark coffee taste, but regular or even decaffeinated instant coffee can be used for a lighter take on these decadent muffins. To keep instant espresso powder fresh, store it, tightly covered, in the freezer.

  • Nonstick spray or paper muffin cups
  • 1 cup milk (whole, low-fat, or nonfat)
  • 2 tablespoons instant espresso powder; or 2 tablespoons regular or  decaffeinated instant coffee, finely ground in a spice grinder or a coffee grinder
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

1.  Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F. To prepare the muffin tins, spray the indentations and the rims around them with nonstick spray, or line the indentations with paper muffin cups. If using silicon muffin tins, spray as directed, then place them on a baking sheet.

2. Scald the milk in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Once bubbles appear around the pan’s rim, remove the milk from the heat and stir in the espresso powder until dissolved. Cool for 5 minutes.

3.   Meanwhile, whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl until uniform. Add ¾ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips and Set aside.

4.   In a large bowl, lightly whisk the egg, then whisk in the melted butter and vanilla continue whisking until completely blended. Using a wooden spoon, quickly stir in the flour mixture until moistened.

5.   Fill the prepared tins three-quarters full. Use additional greased tins or small, ovensafe, greased ramekins for any leftover batter, or reserve the batter for a second baking. Sprinkle the cinnamon evenly over the muffins, about 1/8  teaspoon over each muffin. Bake for 18 minutes, or until the tops are slightly cracked and golden brown. A toothpick inserted in the center of one muffin should come out clean.

6.   Set the pan on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Gently rock each muffin back and forth to release it. Remove the muffins from the pan and cool them for 5 minutes more on the rack before serving. If storing or freezing the muffins, cool them completely before sealing in an airtight container or in freezer-safe plastic bags. The muffins will stay fresh for up to 24 hours at room temperature or up to 1 month in the freezer.

My muffins turned out great, and I can’t wait to try another recipe in the book. Watch out, Georgetown Cupcake – the muffin is coming for you (See for yourself, below)!

Click on the photo to see the muffin walk!

I often wonder if the muffin shop is a concept that could even work in the District. Could you ever imagine buying half a dozen pizza and cheesy beer muffins? It just doesn’t sound right, I know. With the way food trends pop up (who ever thought fro-yo shops and food trucks would be big?), who knows what will happen next. There is hope for the humble muffin, I’m sure of that.

(Thanks to http://architectonista.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/the-architecture-of-cupcakes/ and http://ckanart.windless.org/2009/07/16/walking-muffin-lord/ for the photos)

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It’s funny how something as simple as a piece of grilled salmon, if done right, can be so memorable.

Chef Patrice Olivon, one of my instructors from L’Academie de Cuisine, believes this mantra should be every fine-dining restaurant’s recipe to success – never serve the customer more than they can eat. The diner should not leave hungry, rather, they should leave wanting to have the same dish all over again. Finishing a dish and thinking, I really want a few more bites of that is much more satisfying than thinking, someone put me out of my misery!

A few weeks ago, I visited Palena Café (pictured, right) in Cleveland Park for the first time. The café offers an a la carte menu, instead of the main dining room’s pre-fixe menu. The cafe menu offers a selection of pastas, wood-fired oven and grill entrees.

I ordered the grill frittes Wild Alaskan King Salmon, cooked medium rare. The salmon came with a salad to start, and was accompanied by shoestring frites and a balsamic anchovy vinaigrette.

I have never in the past ordered my salmon medium rare, mostly because I was unaware I had the option of doing so. However, working at Cashion’s has shown me when dealing with high-quality cuts of wild salmon, there is no better way to enjoy it. A slightly translucent center helps to keep the fish moist and flavorful.

When my food arrived, I was immediately offset by the fist-sized portion of salmon on my plate. My only thought – this better be perfect.

The medium rare center, the grill char on top of the fish and its vibrant, fresh flavor all pointed to perfection. I took my time, making sure to savor each and every bite. I especially liked the balsamic anchovy vinaigrette that was drizzled
around the plate. It gave the dish a hint of acidity that contrasted nicely with the flavor of the salmon.

Although I strongly believe in Chef Patrice’s words, I admit that I don’t always abide by them. Occasionally when I go out to eat, I go out to eat. That’s why stuff-your-face establishments such as Fogo de Chao and The Cheesecake Factory exist. Call me a hypocrite, but sometimes I just want an unnecessarily gigantic plate of food.

So. Much. Meat.

Restaurants such as Fogo de Chao and The Cheesecake Factory will probably never be respected as fine dining establishments, but I guess they do fulfill a certain, if not primal, need – the need to feed (Nice rhyme, right?). Sometimes this is great, but other times, this can go horribly wrong. Every time I pass a Fogo de Chao, I remember the only time I have ever been, and the hours I spent in the fetal position afterwards, so full from all of that damned meat they dump onto your plate.

Even so, the example of Palena shows the validity of Chef Patrice’s words– I was full enough when I finished my salmon, but I still wished I could experience its flavors all over again. I have thought about this piece of fish often since I ate it, wanting to return to Palena to order it again. Or, if I could somehow install a restaurant-quality grill inside my tiny apartment, to recreate that char-grilled flavor myself.

Photos: http://www.localeats.com/Restaurant_Detail/Washington/Palena-and-Palena-Cafe/3944/ and http://thehoofbeat.com/?p=276

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A few weeks ago, I was greeted by something pink and squishy on my station one night at Cashion’s. Chef had planned a new appetizer for me – deep-fried goat brains. I inspected them beforehand, mostly intrigued (being squeamish won’t get you far in this business). Judging by the size of them, I concluded that goats were obviously not the most intelligent animals. The brains were dipped in seasoned eggs, battered with panko, and then deep-fried until golden brown. On the side, we served a curry-infused mayo. Prepared in this way, the goat brains taste surprisingly a lot like fried oysters. Crunchy on the outside with a smooth, creamy interior, you could even think of the goat brain as a savory chocolate truffle. Okay, maybe that’s a bit off-setting, so think about it this way – if you like oysters, then give goat brains a try.

Cashion’s often orders whole animals, such as goat, and tries to use as much of the animal as possible to minimize waste. A few weeks after the brains, Chef assigned duck livers to my station. Instead of egg and panko, the livers were dipped in tempura batter first and then deep-fried. The livers cook very quickly and will turn a slightly darker color when ready.

Cashion’s also serves a goat liver wrapped in caul fat with herbs and seasoning, then grilled. Caul fat, if you are unfamiliar with it, is fatty membrane that protects internal organs. Pork and veal caul fat are the most common, and are used in cooking to help keep meat moist and flavorful. The spider web-like appearance of caul fat (pictured, right) is only temporary – the fat melts into the meat when cooked. Liver has a very strong flavor (a little goes a long way!), whether it is deep-fried or grilled. I prefer the former, because let’s be honest, what isn’t good deep-fried?

Veal sweetbreads, or the thymus gland, have also been on the menu at Cashion’s. The sweetbreads are seasoned with salt and pepper, patted with flour and then sautéed with spinach. Out of all of the internal and organ meats the restaurant has served, these are probably my favorite. The flavor and creamy texture is similar to brain, but a little milder. Interestingly, sweetbreads must always be from young animals such as veal or lamb (try not to wince at the photo!). As the animal matures, the thymus gland, which helps protect from disease, is less needed and gradually disappears.

Sweetbreads are quickly gaining popularity, as more and more restaurants in the D.C. area are preparing them in a multitude of ways. For example, Restaurant Eve in Alexandria is currently offering veal sweetbreads with brocoli puree, kolhrabi  (a vegetable from the cabbage family), and duck-glazed turnips. Estadio on 14th Street offers veal sweetbreads with filet beans (similar to haricot verts), tomatoes and bacon. Palena in Cleveland Park even has a “Head to Toe” feast, where for a minimum party of six adventurous diners, an entire cow can be enjoyed. I’ve heard that brains, heart and more make an appearance on this menu. To me, this sounds awesome.

Organ meats are not often found on menus, since they can be difficult to sell. I can understand why, as many customers would be taken aback by seeing the word “brain” in a restaurant. However, it’s a rare chance to try something new – if livers, thymus glands and brains were dangerous or inedible, then they wouldn’t be offered in the first place. So be adventurous, and trust the chef if you encounter organ meat on a menu.

(Thanks to http://adventurefoodie.blogspot.com/2011/06/bheja-fry-goat-brain-fritters.html for the goat brain photo, http://www.slowtrav.com/blog/pomodori_e_vino/2011/06/amarcord_from_the_tuesday_pomo_1.html for the lovely photo of caul fat, and http://www.cheftalk.com/cooking_articles/Cooking_Techniques/124-How_to_Cook_Sweetbreads_-_the_Supreme_Offal.html for the sweetbreads.)

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