March 3, 2015

Hummingbird High's Kitchen Remodel, Pt. III: After

This is the final part of my three-part renovation diary for my kitchen remodel that happened last summer. In this post, I give a tour of my kitchen AFTER the remodel. To see the kitchen before the remodel, check out Part I: Before. To hear more about my kitchen design plans, check out Part II: Inspiration. Thanks for following along!

After half a year, I'm finally revealing my kitchen! A big thanks to my incredibly talented photographer friend Celeste for taking these beautiful photos of my kitchen. For the last few months, I've been sharing bits and pieces on Instagram. But now it's finally time for the official tour! Here we gooooo:


So remember this hot mess? Complete with a sink leaking into the wall of the house, 18-inch depth countertops, a window that I couldn't open since it was painted shut and no dishwasher resulting in a setup of two space-consuming dish racks perpetually full of drying pots and pans?

Well, now it's THIS:

Although I did lose some of the old house charm (in particular, I'm sorry to see the black tile border and the ventilated cabinets under the sink go), the sink area is much more timeless and functional with the white subway tile and neutral rectangular cabinetry.

Can we just take a second to acknowledge the dishwasher next to the sink? Prior to the remodel, I hadn't had a dishwasher in years. And let me tell you something, guys — Erlend and I get in to so many less fights now that we have a dishwasher. It's crazy how many of our fights were related to washing and leaving dirty dishes in the sink.

In the end, despite some initial reservations, I went with the double bowl farmer's sink from Ikea that some of my blogger friends had warned against. It was just too cheap, huge and pretty not to buy. Although I sometimes panic when I wash off things with particularly colorful ingredients like turmeric or beets, staining hasn't been a problem yet — everything can be cleaned off with citrusy soap, salt and elbow grease. Also that faucet deserves some praise: it reaches all corners of the huge sink, and its spraying capacity is out of this world. Washing sheet pans and giant woks has never been easier.

My neighbors used to grow bamboo in their garden, turning their house into some sort of mini bamboo farm in the 70s and 80s. My own house benefits from this funky bit of Southeast Portland history — even though a new set of owners lives there now, they left a lot of the old bamboo farm's greenery and a huge, verdant, blooming wall made of bamboo and other trees divides my house from my neighbor's house. This is what the window looks out onto; the view is nothing but green, green and more green. Also since the window faces west, it lets in a lot of great light in the late afternoon. Considering I live in the heart of the city, this is really the best view I could ask for.

Seen above:

This is where I used to cook. A dimly lit side of the kitchen with no hood, excessive and oddly sized storage that wasn't actually all that useful leading to tons of clutter:

And this is where I cook now:

Functional storage, perfect with long and tall cabinets perfect for sheet pans, baking trays and bottles containing cooking oils and vinegars. Not to mention multiple drawers perfect for storing cooking utensils. All within an arm's reach from the range and oven, minus any of the ugly clutter from before.

And you guys — I have a double oven. I know what a crazy luxury it is, but again, it's prevented so many fights between me and Erlend. No more accusing each other of hogging the oven! The ability to cook dinner AND dessert at the same time! What a freakin' dream.

Seen above:

Remember how I used to have a friggin' HUGE-ass fridge in the middle of my kitchen?!

Well, I turned the area into something glorious. Something I hardly believe I have myself. Something that causes me to pinch myself everyday to make sure that it's real.

I turned it into a baking station:



This counter area is specifically designated for my KitchenAid stand mixer. This is the counter where I roll out all my doughs, pastries and pie crusts, where I measure out all my cake and cookie ingredients. The drawers and cupboards below are filled to the brim with measuring utensils, spatulas, cake pans and pie plates. And right above the counter is a glass cabinet full of nothing but baking ingredients: 

Now if you look closely, you can see how nerdy I really am — not only have I used a freakin' professional label maker to label all my jars, I've also included the weight and volume measurements per ingredient. For instance, my giant jar of flour has two stickers: a label declaring it as all-purpose flour and a sticker reminding me that "1 CUP = 5 OUNCES".


On the wall adjacent to the baking station, I've created a gallery of prints of some of my favorite pictures from recipes on the blog. Featured are the following: a rustic blackberry lime galettesalted chocolate, raspberry and pistachio pots de creme; rhubarb and white chocolate blondies; brownies and cream sandwich cookies; mini lemon sour cream pound cakes with beet glaze; yellow birthday cake and mini strawberry Eton messes.

Seen above:

Now, this is probably my favorite part of the remodel. Although the old kitchen also had a nook, it was oddly sealed off from the rest of the kitchen because of a decorative arch. Unfortunately, the arch blocked off all the wonderful light from the two windows inside the nook:

During the remodel, I made it a financial priority to knock down this arch and expand one of the windows to try and bring in as much natural light into the kitchen as possible.

This is the result:

With the arch gone, I was able to expand the counters along the sink, giving me more counter and cabinet space than before. It made a world of a difference, really opening up the kitchen and streaming in more natural light than before.

Another goal I had for my remodel was to be able to turn the kitchen into a place where we would actually enjoy lingering. I think this nook does that — the windows let in lots of lovely light, which makes it the perfect place to enjoy breakfast and lunch. Even at dinnertime, one of us is usually hanging out in the nook while the other person is cooking or cleaning in the kitchen.

Another favorite detail of mine are the built-in benches. Having built-in benches saved us a ton of space, especially when compared to having a table and four separate chairs. I made sure that the benches had extra storage space underneath — the end of each bench has a cabinet door that opens to reveal storage space the depth of each bench. Pretty nifty, huh?

Seen above:

And there you have it!

Before I head out, however, I wanted to take some time to reflect. Back in January, Food52 ran an Instagram contest asking folks to share their tidy kitchens. Mine was one of the kitchens regrammed. While most of the comments were overwhelmingly positive, I noticed a handful on my picture and others regrammed that accused Food52 of only picking high-end kitchens that only rich people could afford. Some Instagrammers even left comments that the kitchens looked unlived in, and that many were purely for form and show.

Here's the truth: yes, the remodel was crazy expensive — I'm embarrassed to say that it cost more than half of my annual salary, even despite consciously choosing several lower-end options (stock cabinetry and lots of Ikea, for instance). And here's how I was able to afford it. It's not sexy, but here's my formula:

Lots of saving, sacrifice and help.

What does that mean? Saving high-paying bonuses from stressful, soul-sucking jobs that were so awful that I cried of relief and exhaustion every time I left the office. Living with too many immature and careless roommates who I absolutely hated and treated me disrespectfully for way too long. Guiltily borrowing a little bit of cash from my incredibly generous parents. But these are the sort of things that you don't see on the blog, and it's far too easy to sit back and judge. And even despite it all, I still know how incredibly lucky and privileged I am in the first place to have had all those opportunities, even the ones that left me feeling miserable and racked with guilt.

As for the claims that my kitchen looked unlived in and unused, I actually laughed out loud. Of course my kitchen doesn't look like the picture you saw on Instagram!!! Hell, my kitchen doesn't even really look like the pictures you see above! In reality, there's a large unphotogenic drying rack by the sink, the double oven range is always splattered with grease and, on the counter, there's a massive clear jar of fermenting rice that looks remarkably like vomit that Erlend's studiously trying to coax into wine. There's almost definitely a stack of dirty dishes in the sink and weird sticky puddles on every surface of the kitchen. But who wants to see that?

People come to Blog Land because we like the glimpses into other people's lives; it allows us to quit our jobs and vicariously live in beautifully restored barnhouses in provincial France, wear designer clothing that we can't afford and eat exotic food from far-reaching corners of the world without gaining a single pound. Bloggers are more than happy to provide that escape, but it's important to remember that these are exaggerated moments and that what you're seeing is everything at its best/shiniest/happiest/most Pinterest-worthy. It's a rotten game to start comparing yourself to such unrealistic standards, and it's one that is ultimately impossible to win. Because outside the frame of every shiny, sparkling picture, all of us have dirty dishes, shabby furniture and ugly rooms too.

Hummingbird High's Kitchen Remodel, Pt. II: Inspiration

This is Part II of my three-part renovation diary for my kitchen remodel last summer. I wrote this post while the kitchen was being demo-ed, but never got around to publishing it until now. Oops. In this post, I talk about planning the new kitchen and discuss design ideas. To see pictures of my kitchen before the remodel, check out Part I: Before the Remodel

When I first started thinking about the aesthetic for my new kitchen, I knew that I wanted a design that wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb when compared with the rest of the century-old house (the house was built in 1912). But that was it. Since this was my first house and my first major renovation, I was trying to stay as open-minded and flexible as I could be.

Naturally, I turned to Pinterest and started a board to keep track of the styles I was drawn towards. Pretty soon it became apparent that I was leaning towards a particular look — white cabinets and subway tile, paired with butcher block countertops:

(image source: A Cup of Jo)

My current kitchen, which was last renovated in the 1950s, has tile countertops. The tile is stone-hard and especially awful on our plateware — over the last year, I've had more plates, cups, and glasses broken because of it. I was drawn to butcher block since wood promised to be softer than the tile, and I loved the fact that it could potentially be used as a cutting board. Plus, I could pretend I lived the kind of hipster/prairie farm/matte life that they lived in Kinfolk! Yessss.

However, the more I researched butcher block countertops, the more I realized they were pretty high maintenance for an everyday kitchen. Remodelista warned that butcher block countertops required oiling at least twice a year, while The Kitchn warned of mold problems and water damage. Since both Erlend and I are quite messy in the kitchen, I realized that butcher block would require too much upkeep, one that I would most likely be too lazy or absent-minded to maintain. I sighed and accepted that my dreams of living the Kinfolk life wouldn't be happening with this remodel.

Looking through my Pinterest board, I noticed that the second style I was drawn towards was that of all white everything (cabinets, subway tile, beadboard and walls) paired with marble countertops:

(image source: Apartment Therapy)

Unfortunately, marble countertops are even more high maintenance than butcher block countertops! Marble is notorious for being incredibly porous and absorbing basically anything that spills on it — water, oil, wine, you name it — leading to stains on your countertop. Yikes! It's also not very temperature friendly and has a tendency to crack if a hot pan is placed on it. Sigh.

When I showed my kitchen designer the image above, however, he shrugged. "Why don't you check out quartz? They make some great quartz countertops that look like marble, minus all the fuss." Indeed, the Kitchn confirmed: quartz was environmentally friendly, non-porous, and stain-and-crack resistant. I was sold. He showed me some options for a quartz countertop that would emulate the marble that I admired so much: Caesarstone's Frosty Carrina and London Gray. While the Frosty Carrina was a warm white, London Gray was a cooler, very pale gray.

I couldn't decide between the two colors, my designer suggested that I make the decision based on my cabinet colors. At this point, I was 100% sure that I wanted white cabinets, no matter what. My only hesitation was that I was very drawn to some of the two tone cabinet look that I'd been seeing on Pinterest, where the bottom half of the kitchen is one color, and the upper cabinets are another. I just love, love, love the contrast between the bottom dark cabinets and the lighter upper cabinets:

(image sources: ChatelaineDesire to Inspire)

My big concern, however, was that my kitchen doesn't really get a whole lot of natural light. It's this weird L-shape where the main area with the range and fridge only has one window. Although the window is admittedly large (and thankfully, placed above the kitchen sink), it just does not let enough natural light in. With dark cabinets and a dark doug fir wood floor, I worried that the kitchen was in danger of being a dark cave.

My kitchen designer, however, suggested a great alternative — go lighter. "Two tone cabinets don't necessarily have to be just black and white," he said, placing some light gray paint chips in front of me. "Why don't we consider white cabinets up top with a dove gray at the bottom? The light gray will look great with the London Grey countertops."

Instantly, I fell in love with this idea.  I even found a picture on Pinterest that matched the look he suggested:

(image source: Planete Deco)

Of course, my kitchen is nowhere near as big and airy as that picture, but at the very least, I was going to have that color scheme. SQUEEEEE.

To go with the dove gray and marble look-alike countertops, I decided I wanted a classic white subway tile backsplash and a matching white farmer's sink. Because as I was putting together my Pinterest inspiration board, it quickly became apparent that I was drawn to this sort of look again and again:

(image source: Damernas)

Consciously, I always knew that I also wanted a design that would be timeless enough where, if I sold the house ten years down the road, the prospective buyers wouldn't wrinkle their noses and go, "Ohmagawd, this kitchen is soooo 2014!" As far as backsplashes go, subway tile is pretty timeless and probably one of the least offensive choices I could make.

The farmer's sink, however, is slightly more divisive — it's certainly one of the hippest and hottest kitchen accessories at the moment. More worrisome is that I heard mixed reviews about it from two of my trusted blogger friends. Molly warned me that the pretty white needed a LOT of cleanup since it has a tendency showed every stain and crumb, while Steph emailed that the porcelain material was particularly hard on her plateware. I was heartbroken! I'd lusted after this double bowl farmer's sink from Ikea for so long, that I wasn't sure what to do next. It's still something I'm currently figuring out.

And finally, one of the things I hoped to do with the kitchen remodel was to open it up a little bit. As I mentioned earlier, the kitchen is a bit of an awkward L-shape, with two windows in the nook and one window in the main area. Unfortunately, there's a weird archway between the two, preventing a lot of natural light from coming into the kitchen area. One of my priorities was to knock this wall down and open up the kitchen as much as I could. I would then build a built-in breakfast nook, and the whole kitchen would look something to the effect of this:

(image source: Design Sponge)

I'm especially excited about the nook because it'll create space in the kitchen specifically for lingering and enjoying oneself. Although I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, I usually zip out of there as fast as possible after I've finished my cooking and cleaning because, currently, there isn't really much space to do anything but chores. But the new nook will be perfect for relaxing and just hanging out in the kitchen, which I'm really excited about, especially since I spend so much time there in the first place.

Thanks for listen to me ramble. Next post, I'll be doing THE BIG REVEAL, complete with before/after photos! Stay tuned.

March 2, 2015

Hummingbird High's Kitchen Remodel, Pt. I: Before

So... I remodeled my kitchen last summer and never got around to publishing these posts that I wrote during the remodel back in September. Although the remodel finished around October, I only got around to taking pictures of the end result this past January with my friend Celeste. I'm finally publishing these for you guys to enjoy... welcome to my much delayed renovation diary!

A few months ago, I was at a local Portland bloggers' meetup. One of the attendees came up to me and struck a conversation about my blog. "I love your stuff," she said. "I'd love to see what your kitchen is like. Maybe you could do a tour for your blog or something? I bet you it's beautiful."

It took all my self-restraint not to just spit out my drink and just laugh in her face. Because the fact of the matter is, my kitchen is a nightmare. Cramped, lacking in natural light, work surfaces,and modern amenities (like a hood, as seen above). Not to mention constantly greasy and messy from me and my housemates' never ending kitchen-related projects. Even the storage space is nothing to write home about — if you check out the picture above, you'll notice that many cupboards are either too small to fit anything substantial (hence the pot and microwave rack to the left of the range), and the other cupboards to tall and inaccessible for everyday use (I am only 5"3 after all).

When I purchased the house last summer, I didn't realize just how bad the kitchen actually was. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted a dishwasher, and figured that it would be easy to install enough. So I made that my priority first thing, before even moving into the house. The contractor gave me bad news: a dishwasher installation would be pricey as hell, because I had neither the electrical or plumbing setup to do so. Not to mention that my counters were only 18 inches deep, whereas almost every single standard dishwasher has a depth of 24 inches. To install one, I'd basically need to rip out the side of my kitchen pictured above. So yep, a year later, I've equipped the kitchen with two drying racks that are constantly overflowing. For every recipe you see on this blog, there's probably an hour's worth of cleanup (the majority of it being dishwashing). It's exhausting and, truth be told, sometimes discourages me from cooking and baking.

Now let's talk about space. Although my kitchen is configured to the classic kitchen work triangle (where the sink, fridge and range are in a triangular shape from one another), the fridge literally just SITS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE KITCHEN, eating up a crazy amount of space:

The configuration really doesn't allow for more than one person at a time in the kitchen, since it's so freaking cramped. Luckily, the kitchen has a weird little nook to the right of the fridge that's used as a secondary space for food preparation:

Although I love the nook and the extra space it proves, I wish it were more integrated with the kitchen. Currently, it's just some weird other space that happens to be nearby. The other downside is that the archway, while cute, blocks a lot of natural light coming into the work space of the kitchen. The nook has two windows, one west-facing and the other south-facing, and all that beautiful light is just trapped in there. Ugh!

So, what am I thinking for my kitchen? First, function over form. I'm prioritizing modern amenities like a hood, a dishwasher and a disposal. Second, I want to open it up — knock down that weird archway to bring more light and find a place for the fridge to reclaim more space for counters and cabinetry. Tune in next post to see inspiration ideas for my remodel!

February 25, 2015

Maple Lime Custard Celebration Pie with a Pecan Biscotti Crust

A few weeks ago, I instagrammed a picture of this pie with some exciting news: my boyfriend Erlend had just been accepted to one of his first choices for graduate school!

I'm not sure what this acceptance means yet (that is, will we be moving to New York?), but I will say that I'm incredibly proud of him. Since we graduated, Erlend's been struggling to find a job and career track that he's enthusiastic and passionate about. Over the last year or so, I've seen him become more and more excited about his chosen field of study, talking my ear off with crazy facts about the human body learned from books, classes and his internship at the hospital. I now know far too much about how the different muscles in different parts of your body work, believe me.

To celebrate, we went out to dinner at Kachka, Portland's hip restaurant du jour, stuffing ourselves full of incredibly cheesy khachapuri and bowls of beef, pork, veal and onion dumplings. And even though Erlend's never had the world's biggest sweet tooth, I whipped him up this maple lime custard pie because it is my strong opinion that no celebration is complete without a decadent dessert:

Maple syrup is one of the few sweets that Erlend can actually out-eat me at (although he argues that he can out-eat me when it comes to chocolate... but yeah, no). I remember feeling a mixture of surprise, disgust and ultimately, admiration the first time I watched him pour almost an entire half of a bottle over a stack of crepes on our first brunch together. And of course, having spent most of his childhood summers and winters in Vermont, Erlend is a bit of a maple syrup snob — it's Grade B or bust. Lucky for me, his parents had just sent us a parcel containing a massive jug of Vermont maple syrup from their last winter trip there. This pie would not have been possible without it!

As for the actual recipe itself, the pie comes from the Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, a cookbook full of recipes from the famed Brooklyn pie shop. According to the cookbook, the maple and lime combination was actually inspired by a salad dressing (of all things!). I must admit that, although Erlend was incredibly enthusiastic about the flavor, I was skeptical at first. Maple and lime? Really? It seemed a little too out there for me, and this was coming from somebody who's previously used beets, rosemary and saffron in various cakes.

Upon first bite, however, I was convinced. A maple custard on its own would have been far too sweet — the lime gave the custard a citrusy, tangy bite that balanced out the cloying sweetness and intensity of the Vermont maple syrup.

And with regards to the rest of the pie, I basically made no alterations to the cookbook's recipe. The pecan biscotti pie crust is the bakery's take on a traditional graham cracker crust, just with crushed ladyfingers and spruced up with some pecans. The only change I made was adding an extra layer of crème fraîche whipped cream on top of the custard, which I did only because Erlend has a fondness for especially tart desserts.

Congratulations again, Erlend!!!

Some baker's notes:
  • As I briefly mentioned above, maple syrup in the United States comes in two grades: A and B. Grade A maple syrup is thinner and has a lighter flavor. Grade B is thicker with a richer and bolder flavor. Use Grade B maple syrup if you can! It makes a big difference.

  • In a pinch, you can substitute the crème fraîche in this recipe with sour cream. The end result might be a little bit tarter though, so feel free to add in an additional teaspoon of granulated sugar.

  • You can make the crust a few days in advance — simply wrap the crust in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it. That actually might be the best way to do it, since it's easier to fill the crust when it's cold.

February 18, 2015

Triple Chocolate, Double Graham S'mores Cupcakes

According to Wikipedia, the first recipe for s'mores was found in Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts of 1927. The original recipe was simple and lists s'mores as we know it today:

Place a square of milk chocolate on a graham cracker. Toast a marshmallow and put on top of the chocolate, then a second graham cracker on top of the toasted marshmallow and squeeze and you will want "s'more".

Pretty cute, right?

Since then, s'mores have taken on different shapes and sizes. Just googling around, there are a TON of recipes for different s'mores desserts: browniesice cream cakes, cookie bars, pie and even macarons!

My favorite s'mores variation, however, have always been cupcakes. After spotting such pretty versions from Linda and Kristin, I decided to recreate them for myself. My cupcakes are a little bit more, um... shall we say unrestrained? Especially since my version has three types of chocolate and two types of graham flavors:

Okay, wait, hold the phone. Three types of chocolate and two types of graham flavor??? What on earth does that even mean?!

Well, lemme break it down for you.

Let's start from the top. Each individual cupcake has its own buttery, crunchy graham cracker crust as a base:

And then on top of the crust is a double chocolate graham cake base. Double chocolate since the cake gets its chocolate flavor from both cocoa powder and melted dark chocolate. Are you keeping count? That's 2/3 chocolate types I claim in this recipe.

As for the graham, I also used a generous amount of graham flour in the batter to give the cake a hearty crumb. What is graham flour? I've written about its history in this recipe for whole grain chocolate muffins, but a quick recap is this: graham flour is a type of high-fiber, vitamin-dense whole wheat flour that was used in the original graham cracker recipe back in the mid 1800s. Unfortunately, graham crackers back then were chalky, tasteless and generally terrible since they consisted of only graham flour and water. Graham crackers today are much, much better, especially since, you know, they now have butter and sugar.

But why would I add such a weirdly healthy and kind of hippie ingredient to chocolate cake? Because together with chocolate, graham flour works magic. I swear to god it adds a flavor that's reminiscent of toasted nuts that, in this particular cupcake recipe, is further enhanced by the graham cracker crumb base. It's all sorts of amazing and wonderful.

(PS — if you're keeping count, that's TWO types of graham right there. That's what puts the DOUBLE in this recipe for Double Graham S'Mores. BOOMCHICKABOOM.)

Now let's move on to the next levels of the cupcake, shall we? Because on top of the chocolate graham cake sits a melty chocolate butter frosting reminiscent of the classic Hershey bar chocolate from all our childhoods (BOOM!!! Third type of chocolate, putting the Triple in the Triple Chocolate S'mores — I'm a lady of my word) BUT NOT GROSS AND WAXY (am I the only person who feels this way about Hershey's chocolate? Is that an unpopular opinion?). And on top of the chocolate frosting sits a beautiful light-as-a-feather toasted marshmallow meringue icing:

So contrary to what you see in this picture above, the marshmallow meringue icing isn't made from the weird, super-processed, jet-puffed marshmallows you get in the supermarket made from all sorts of terrible chemicals and extra animal parts. Instead, this icing comes from a homemade candy syrup whipped up with egg whites to create marshmallow meringue — meaning that it is 100% vegetarian. Seriously, so many of my tree-hugging Portland friends at my rock climbing gym cried tears of joy when I told them that they could eat these marshmallow topped cupcakes.

And there you have it! My s'mores cupcake breakdown shakedown! Enjoy — this recipe's definitely going in the Classics (a.k.a. best recipes eveerrr) section of my Recipe Index. It's one of my favorites of the year so far, and maybe even on the blog as a whole. It's that good. Promise.

Some baker's notes:
  • Graham flour is available online or in specialty health food stores. One of my favorite things about graham flour is that it lasts longer than other whole grain flours, so you can buy in bulk and use throughout the year. It especially works well in chocolate baked goods, and you can substitute graham flour for up to half of all-purpose flour in lighter baked goods. However, I wouldn't use it in white cakes or angel food cakes since it tends to be heavier.

  • This chocolate graham cake is adapted from a recipe for double chocolate cake from Miette, one of my favorite cookbooks from an adorable bakery in San Francisco. Their chocolate cake recipe is one of my favorites to make and play around with — the cake isn't that sweet, and instead has a rich, complex and bittersweet chocolate flavor. In addition to its flavor, the cake is crazy moist and has a wonderfully delicate and light crumb that's achieved by a rather weird method: straining the batter through a fine mesh sieve to get rid of any lumps, as opposed to trying to stir them into the batter. I know that it's kind of fussy but straining the batter prevents the overmixing that leads to dense, heavy cake. It's worth it to strain, I promise.

  • Similarly, the marshmallow meringue icing comes from Miette as well. Unfortunately, the icing tends to deflate overnight, so it's best to make and consume the icing on the same day. 

  • I used a chef's torch to lightly toast the marshmallow meringue and give it that pretty, toasted look. If you don't have a chef's torch, you can use your oven broiler. Place the cupcakes on a cookie sheet in the top shelf of the oven and broil for a minute to get a nice toasty marshmallow look — but watch the cupcakes carefully, since the meringue turns to brown and burn fast. There's no saving them once they're burned.

February 11, 2015

Valentine's Day Red Velvet Cake with Marzipan and Ermine Frosting

When I was in the seventh grade, I wrote an impassioned essay about my hatred of Valentine's Day. "Valentine's Day," I read out to the class. "Is my least favorite day of the year. Anybody who likes Valentine's Day is an idiot. It's just a made-up holiday that big nameless corporations invented so that the mindless masses go out and spend money unnecessarily."

Pretty sure that my essay received crickets. Not to mention that, what seemed anti-establishment and rebellious at age 12 actually seems pretty, uh, trite now. To say the least.

I'm sorry to say that, now that I'm older, I kind of... like Valentine's Day? Although Erlend and I aren't really the type of couple to dress up and pay an arm and a leg for a special Valentine's prix fixe dinner (in fact, it's quite the opposite — we are likely spending this Saturday evening in sweatpants and ordering a double order of Papa John's), I think the holiday is kind of cute. The way my friends and I exchange silly gifts and funny cards, the special candies that appear in the supermarket and of course, Valentine's Day themed baked goods in general. Because really — heart-shaped baked goods are pretty goshdarnadorbs! no matter what, which is why I've decorated this cake with a constellation of marzipan hearts (inspired by the many wonderfully marzipan decorated cakes of my incredibly talented blogger friend Molly, of course):

As for the cake itself, I figured I'd attempt another try at recreating the perfect red velvet cake recipe I had a few years ago in New York City (because red velvet = red = love = Valentine's Day...? Or something). But anyway, this recipe is the closest yet that I've come to recreating that memorable red velvet cake yet: a cake with a dense and moist crumb, with a deep velvety and almost chocolatey flavor accompanied by a bold, dark red color.

However, the cake does have one weak spot: its frosting. Although red velvet cake is traditionally served with cream cheese frosting these days, the perfect cake I had in New York was served with some sort of incredibly light and creamy orange-scented buttercream frosting. I haven't had a buttercream frosting yet that's come close to it. BUT I did find through my research (ehem, Google and reading New York Times cooking articles) that the original red velvet cake from the 1940s was served with something called ermine frosting, or boiled milk frosting. The frosting instructed you to make a pudding from milk and flour, before whipping it up with butter and sugar to create an incredibly light and fluffy frosting. And by light and fluffy, I mean light and fluffy — think of the soapiest bubble bath you've ever taken and imagine that those foamy soap suds are actually edible. That's the texture of ermine frosting. While it was cool to serve the cake with a historically significant recipe, I still think the cake would have been better balanced out with a tangy, citrusy cream cheese frosting. Oh well. For next time!

P.S. My incredibly talented photographer friend Celeste took some behind-the-scenes photos of me cutting, styling and playing around with this cake — check it out on her blog!

Some baker's notes:
  • Although I made this recipe in four 6-inch cake pans, you can turn it into a three layer cake instead by using three 9-inch cake pans. Shorten the baking time by 10 minutes to 25-30 minutes.

  • Because this cake uses a lot of red food coloring, I suggest using a red food coloring gel as opposed to plain old red food coloring dye. In my experience, gels tend to disperse color more evenly throughout the batter and you end up with a more vividly colored baked good. I also think that gels taste less artificial than dyes, but that one might just be in my head.

  • I used these cookie cutters for the larger hearts and a cutter from this mini cookie cutter set for the smaller hearts.