Friday, May 29, 2009

Cupcake Mania Sets In

Since my trip to Georgetown Cupcakes, I've had cupcakes on the mind. I've tried a few recipes and read a lot more, but so many of them seem to be overly complicated. While I was out shopping today, I found a nice Wilton cupcake pan on sale for half price.

I was actually quite happy to find it since I was overdue for a new cupcake pan. I hadn't planned on buying one, but it occurred to me while I was in the store that we often put off replacing kitchen equipment even though our lives would be so much simpler if we had the right equipment.

I included the top photo because I'm amazed by how much larger the new pan is. The cupcake wells are a hair larger, and when I baked cupcakes, I realized that the cupcake liners weren't folding in on themselves anymore. Cupcakes got larger when I wasn't looking. But I also wonder if they won't bake more evenly because there's more space between the cupcakes. My first batch was a delicious success, so it appears that a new pan was indeed a good idea.

What do you need to replace?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Impatiens

When spring arrives and I make my annual visits to local nurseries, I suffer from gotta-have-it-syndrome. After many years of killing plants, I've learned there are some I'd better avoid. But not impatiens. Every year I plant a long row of these against a wall and they're always gorgeous. I just put these in yesterday, so they're tiny. But by mid-summer, that mulch will barely be visible. They'll grow together and will be covered with pink blooms.

Impatiens are annuals, so they're killed by frost. But they're such rewarding plants, that they're worth planting each year. I don't do much more than pop them into the ground. They usually come in packages of four to six, but buy them small, because they'll grow in no time.

There are two keys to growing impatiens. They need water. Plan to water them. The other very important thing is that they love shade. Impatiens can stand some sun, so morning sun is fine, but don't plant them where they'll get constant sun. Half a day of sun is about all they can take. That doesn't mean you should plant them in a dark forest, either -- they need some sun!

New Guinea impatiens tend to cost more and have different requirements, so stick with simple impatiens. They come in an Elfin variety that grows in a more mound-like fashion. The Elfins, as the name implies, don't grow as tall. I planted the regular kind this year. The one on the right is an extra plant that was left over. I pooped it into a pot, and I think it doubled in size overnight!

Easy to grow impatiens get five cupcakes!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Elusive Perfect Burger

So you made burgers on Memorial Day weekend, right? Me, too. How did yours turn out? It's pretty amazing that we constantly cook hamburgers, but they're so often dry and tough.

About ten years ago, there was a big scare about eating undercooked meat. At the time, some states required restaurants to cook hamburger meat through. The problem is that overcooked hamburger is the main reason it's often less than wonderful.

I happened to catch some Bobby Flay this weekend. And he said something that blew me away. 7 minutes. 3 minutes on one side and 4 minutes on the other. So I tested his 7 minute plan. Unfortunately, it was raining, so I made my test on a pan, not on the grill. If you try this, shape your burgers first, so they're all ready to go. Salt and pepper both sides if you like.

I poured a little olive oil into a pan and heated it over fairly high heat. On my stove, that means just past medium. Don't try this on high! Let the oil in the pan heat. You'll notice a change in the oil -- the edges will pucker first, then the inner part. (If it smokes, toss it and start over.) Place the burgers in the pan and watch the timer. 3 minutes. Do not flip them. You can give them a scoot to loosen them if you like, but mostly leave them alone. After 3 minutes, flip all the burgers and watch the timer again -- 4 minutes. The second you hit 4 minutes, remove them from the pan. Let them rest a couple of minutes. Voila! Perfect medium rare hamburgers. Delish! Thanks, Bobby!

Five cupcakes for Bobby Flay and 7 minute burgers!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Izze

Hot days are already upon us. There are times when I'm out and about and I wish I had a refreshing drink. Izze fits the bill. Made of fruit juices and sparkling water, Izze has a light, refreshing taste. Like a soda, but Izze is remarkable for what it does not contain. No refined sugars, no caffeine, and no preservatives. It's 70% juice and the rest is sparkling water.

Even better, they claim one bottle contains the equivalent of two servings of fruit under the USDA's 2005 Dietary Guidelines. You don't even have to feel guilty if your munchkins drink it! A mere 130 calories per bottle.

Izze comes in an assortment of flavors, including pomegranite, blackberry, lime, clementine, and peach. Something for everyone. It's available at Kroger, Safeway, Whole Foods, Starbucks, and Scooter's Coffeehouses. For other locations (and there are many) visit http://www.izze.com/find-izze/.

Five cupcakes for an all natural drink!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Boursin Update

A rare weekend update! My local Kroger has Boursin on sale for $3.50. Nearly half off -- a great price if you want try it out or stock up.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Everything Old Is New Again -- Part Two

Boursin cheese brings back so many memories for me. We loved it in the 70's, and the marvelous mixture of fresh cheese blended with garlic and herbs is still a delicious treat. Boursin is a soft cheese, easily spread on crackers for an informal snack. And it's a fabulous alternative to traditional cheeses on hamburgers.

Boursin is ridiculously high in fat -- 12 grams in 2 tablespoons, but then, what cheese isn't high in fat? It runs between $6.50 and $7.50 depending on where you buy it. Be sure to take it out of the refrigerator about an hour before serving to fully appreciate the flavor. And trick someone with this little bit of trivia. The box says it's "Gournay Cheese." That's not a typo. It's named after a small town in France.


Five cupcakes for memories and Boursin.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Solar String Lights

I love outdoor lights. Especially solar ones. In my dreams, we'll all be using solar lights to decorate for Christmas someday. Unfortunately, most solar strands of lights are fairly expensive. I've seen them in catalogs at Christmas for $70.00 a strand. Yikes!

So when I saw these cute stars at Target for $20.00, I couldn't resist trying them. They're called Solar String Lights. Each light is in the shape of a star. The strand is 12 feet long and holds 30 lights. There's another 8.5 feet of cord that goes to the solar panel.

I took the easy route and planted the solar panel in a flower pot. It worked almost immediately, even though it hadn't had enough sun to fully charge. It's supposed to hold a full charge for six hours.

And here's what they look like. Honestly, the star shape is totally lost, even to the naked eye. The photo isn't poor or blurry -- this is how they look. In the dark of night, they are kind of cute, but just because they're lights, not because they're stars. I have a feeling they might look better wrapped on something, like an arbor. If I get any creative ideas, I'll let you know.

They definitely don't have the brightness of electric lights. On the other hand, they're not running up the electric bill, either.

Three cupcakes.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

But Do They Taste Like Oreos?

Three Dog Bakery makes cookies that look just like Oreos. So much so that it would be easy to confuse Lick 'n Crunch with Oreos. They're made with carob and have a peanut butter filling that smells delicious. No added salt, artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. In fact, Three Dog Bakery makes it a point to use wholesome, all natural ingredients.

Check them out and find a store near you at http://threedog.com.



Five cupcakes from the delighted canine tasters at my house.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bloomin' Weather


We just passed our no freeze date where I live, which means we can safely plant our annuals. The local nurseries look like there was a run on plants -- totally wiped out. And now there are freeze warnings. I don't believe them.

I've been busy planting and had to pick up more plant food today. Osmocote is little yellowish balls that you mix into the soil before you add the plant. The great thing about it is that you can forget about feeding. No more mixing the messy green stuff all summer long. Feed once and forget about it.

The bottle says the food time releases for four months. To be perfectly honest, I sometimes give them a little food boost after three months, but it still beats having to feed all the plants on a frequent basis.

Here's to happy planting and no freezes!

Five cupcakes for Osmocote.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Everything Old Is New Again

I've noticed recently that we're coming back to some things that used to be popular. Clothes, for instance. Though I, for one, can't wait until the horrible baby-doll clothes make way for something that doesn't cause everyone to look like a pregnant teenager.

On the plus side, though, I've rediscovered Perrier. Somehow, it got lost in the vast array of waters on the market. Fancy names, bubbles and no bubbles, flavors, sweeteners -- so many choices. But Perrier is still there, in a neat little four pack in the grocery store, just as good and refreshing as ever. And in these days when we're all re-thinking water that comes in plastic bottles, these sweet little bottles are made of glass! No kidding. I never thought I'd be thrilled to find water in a breakable bottle, but I am. No dreadful plastic chemicals to leach into the water.

A pack of four small bottles sells for just under $3.00, or if you're lucky, two packs for $5.00. In the water section of your grocery store.

Five cupcakes for good old Perrier in glass bottles.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Pass the Harvest Course Ground


I've been playing around with a recipe for The Diva Paints the Town Red (coming February 2010). It calls for mustard, but since there are strong competing flavors, it seemed a course mustard might have more punch. I found this new Grey Poupon today and it seemed to fit my needs.

Harvest Course Ground isn't an overpowering mustard. In fact, I'd say that it almost edges toward mild. It's quite pleasant and doesn't have a bite. The texture is perhaps the most fun thing about Harvest Course Ground. Sometimes a bite bursts a whole mustard seed, again, quite mild, but a fun spark of flavor.

I'm making submarine sandwiches for a picnic soon, and I have a feeling that Harvest Course Ground will be just the right mustard. Can't wait to try it with ham and melted cheese!

Five cupcakes.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Too Cute for the Fridge


I found these cute little butterflies at Pier One. About two inches wide, they have just enough bling on their wings to bring a bit of sparkle to anything metallic. Why metallic? Because they have a magnet on their stomachs. They're very sweet. Adorable on gift packages and way too cute to use on the refrigerator. They come six to a box in a variety of colors. I don't see them on the Pier One website, but I bought them less than a month ago, so they should still have them in the stores.



Five cupcakes for very cute magnets.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Memorial Day Blueberry Pie

Yes, that's a Halloween blueberry pie! Right concept, wrong season. I didn't have time to bake a blueberry pie for the blog today. So I'm using a photo of one I made at Halloween (proving how versatile blueberry pie can be if you have a blueberry lover in the house).

Some things are best left in their simplest form. I think blueberry and cherry pies fall into that category. If Natasha were baking a blueberry pie, she would undoubtedly mix in rhubarb or add a meringue. You will find a host of alternate recipes, but in my opinion, you can't beat a basic blueberry pie.

Shopping List:
4 cups blueberries
tapioca
sugar
1 lemon
cinnamon
flour
butter
Vanilla Ice Cream

Ingredients for two 9-inch pie crusts. Use your favorite recipe. If you're pressed for time, use pre-made pie crusts. Natural and organic ones are available in natural food stores.


Recipe

4 cups blueberries
1/4 cup tapioca
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon flour
1 1/2 tablespoons of butter


Mix the blueberries, tapioca, sugar, lemon juice, and cinnamon in a large bowl and turn with a spoon a few times. Let rest twenty minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roll out your pie crusts and lay one in a 9-inch pie plate. Dust the bottom pie crust with the flour to prevent it from becoming soggy. Using a fork, pierce the bottom crust several times. When you roll out the top, use a small star-shaped Christmas cookie cutter to cut stars out of the dough in a decorative manner. The blueberries will peek through the stars as they do in the scary face above. Set aside the stars you cut out.

Stir the blueberry mixture and pour into the pie shell. Cut the butter into small pieces and lay them on top of the blueberry filling. Cover with the top crust. Use a tiny bit of water as glue on the back of the stars you set aside and add them to the top in a decorative pattern.

Place on a baking sheet in case the filling bubbles over. Bake for 20 minutes, then check to be sure the edges aren't getting too dark. You might want to loosely fold little strips of aluminum foil over the edges to prevent them from burning. Bake another 25 - 30 minutes. The blueberry filling should bubble a little bit.

Remove from oven and let cool. Bake ahead of time so it will have time to cool and set up. Serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

All American Blueberry

Photo: Blueberries. Link to photo information
Prices are falling on fresh blueberries because they're coming into season. In Virginia, our blueberry bushes still only have small white fruit on them, but they're already ripe farther south. It has become pretty clear that berries of any kind are tremendously healthy for us. Blueberries are packed with antioxidants , so much so that they're at the top of the antioxidant list. Recent research suggests they may be helpful to the brain as well, and might even assist in preventing Alzheimers. The best thing about these little fruits is that they're sweet and delicious and it's not hard to convince anyone, even picky children, to eat them.

I love to throw them into pancake batter. There's something about that sweet little burst of flavor when you bite into one. Or toss some into a salad. Or put out a bowl of them on the counter, like nuts -- you'll be surprised how fast they disappear.

It's easy to stock up on them too. The odd key to freezing them (and raspberries as well) is to *not* wash them! Simply pour a basket of berries into a freezer bag, seal and freeze. You'll have the fresh flavor and health benefits all winter.

Memorial Day is around the corner, and I can't think of many things that are more American than homemade blueberry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. What a way to usher in the summer. The easy recipe -- coming tomorrow.

Five cupcakes for blueberries!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Balsamic Vinegar

You've probably walked by it in your grocery store. If you haven't tried it, you owe yourself a taste treat. Balsamic vinegar is sweet, with a rich, distinctive taste. I add it to sauteed mushrooms and use it in vinaigrettes. One of my favorite summer indulgences is homegrown tomatoes, chopped into bite-size cubes, with a balsamic vinegar vinaigrette. The juices from the tomatoes mingle with the sweet balsamic vinegar. Yum!

Balsamic vinegar comes from the Modena and Reggio regions in Italy. Although it's commonly thought of as a wine vinegar, the grapes involved are cooked first, and reduced to obtain that lovely sweet flavor. Traditional balsamic vinegar then goes through a long aging process in wood barrels. It seems though, that such traditional balsamic vinegar runs $80 a bottle. Sort of like sourdough starter, a bit was often passed along to children when they married, so they could start their own.

The balsamic vinegar we lowly peasants buy in the grocery store is a lesser version, but still very tasty. Read the label, though, to be sure the sweetness is from the grapes and hasn't been enhanced by brown sugar.

Five cupcakes!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Grape Juice

When I was a kid, I loved grape juice. What wasn't to like? It was sweet and purple. But I can still hear my dad saying, "it's full of added colors and sugar" and that was the end of that.

It turns out that grapes and grape juice are really good for us. Loaded with antioxidants, it seems that lowly grape juice also contains the heart healthy benefits of red wine. (Yes, I hear the wine version can be more fun!)

The trick, of course, is finding grape juice that meets dad's strict requirements. No color or sugar added. And no juice blends. Read the labels. Some grape juices list apple juice as the first ingredient.

Enter Santa Cruz Organic Concord Grape Juice. Made of 100% concord grape concentrate, it's nothing but grapes and it's organic, too. It sells for around $3.50 for a 32 ounce bottle, and is generally found in the health food juice section of grocery stores.

But would it pass the taste test? Would it be sweet enough without apple juice or additional sugar? Yes! Not only is it sweet, I think it will even pass the munchkin test.

Five cupcakes!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Spatula or Spoon?

It's a spoonula or a spoontula! Who knew they had a name? Whatever you want to call it, I've read about people searching for the perfect one. Seems the handles are too long, or too flimsy, or the head isn't firm enough.

Even though they really are just a slight variation on a spatula, I love these things. They're the perfect way to get every last bit of batter out of the mixing bowl. They fit into most cans, perfect for scraping the sides. Plus, they're curved just enough to hold a bit of sauce. I've had these two for years. They're top dishwasher rack safe, and even though they've been washed in the dishwasher too many times to count, they look almost new.

The handles are the right length. Made of a firm plastic, they hold up to pressure when scraping a bowl. And the spoon-like heads are my number one favorite for getting that last bit in a pan or bowl. Made of silicone, a set of two runs a mere $9.95 at Solutions. http://www.solutions.com/jump.jsp?itemID=4615&itemType=PRODUCT&path=1%2C2%2C4%2C112%2C114%2C10545&iProductID=4615

Five cupcakes!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Silicone Spatulas

These three silicone spatulas are from Williams-Sonoma. The latest versions have rounder handles but the basics are still the same.

The great thing about them is that they stand up to heat. The silicone heads can take heat up to 800 degrees. They slide off the wooden handles to go in the dishwasher. I've had mine for years. They've received some heavy use and have been in the top rack of the dishwasher countless times. Unlike cheap versions, they don't bend back under the slightest pressure. They're not stiff either, though, they have just the right strength to stand up to the job.

You can see a black spot on the smallest one, where the silicone has cracked. Supposedly, they don't crack or chip. Overall, considering how much I've used them, they're in remarkably good shape.

The set of three sells for $22.50 at www.williams-sonoma.com. Or, for an extra five bucks, you can have a monogram or message imprinted on the handles. A clever idea for a cook you love.

Four cupcakes.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Electric Kettle

This practical tea kettle is made of glass with a metallic heating unit in the bottom. It sits on a base that plugs into the wall, and is turned on easily by pushing a lever in the back. I bought it because I needed to be able to boil water for a function away from home. It isn't the best traveler because it's glass, but I plop it into a box and take it with me anyway. So far, so good.

Water boils in minutes and it holds a generous 1.8 quarts of water. It comes with a tea infuser that can hang from the top, infusing the tea while it cooks. I am a tea drinker, but I find the infuser part to be a bit clumsy to use. Otherwise, I love this kettle. It's easy to clean and turns itself off when the water is ready. About $40 at Target and other kitchen appliance stores.

Four cupcakes.

Monday, May 4, 2009

We Love Cupcakes

Apparently, the US is experiencing a cupcake revival. A cupcake craze, in fact. Cupcakeries are popping up all over the place and devotees in every town can tell you where the best cupcakes are.

I'm late posting this morning, because I just returned from Washington, DC. where I needed cupcakes. I researched before I left, and while there are some who would disagree (aren't there always?), the general consensus is that Georgetown Cupcakes bakes the best cupcakes in town. (I added the ribbons and bags in the photo.) I can't say that I tried their competitors' cupcakes, but Georgetown Cupcakes are very, very good. The cake part is nicely cakey, not too dry or too moist. And the icing on top is just enough to provide that delicious burst of sweetness without overwhelming the cake portion. They come in all sorts of interesting flavors, but the big tests are always white cake with white icing and chocolate cake with chocolate icing. I suffered for the sake of this blog and tried both, and I can say they passed my taste test with flying colors.

If you find yourself in Georgetown in need of a sweet fix, walk down to Dean and Deluca. Standing in front of the store, cross the street and walk a little less than halfway up the block. Georgetown Cupcakes is on the right side. You'll recognize it by the line of people on the steps and out on the sidewalk. Don't be deterred, though -- it moves very fast. Their website also has one of the cutest graphics I've seen. Very clever. http://georgetowncupcakes.com

Five cupcakes for Georgetown Cupcakes.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Boar's Head


For some time now, my favorite grocery store has carried Boar's Head deli products. I was pleased to find some selections of ham and turkey without added preservatives.

But Boar's Head has taken it a step further. They now offer turkey, ham, and roast beef that are all natural, without any preservatives. And from vegetarian fed animals, raised without use of hormones or antibiotics.

What's more, they're terrific. Excellent quality and flavor. Boar's Head offers a huge selection of deli products, but take a minute to find the all natural versions - they're definitely worth five cupcakes!

 
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