Baking the ties that dined
What first got you into cooking?
Each time I hear this question it catches me a little off guard. I don’t know why someone would find my fascination with food um, fascinating? Or maybe it’s because asking me why I’m so passionate about food and cooking is like asking me why I breathe. It’s become almost a reflex now. I’m never not thinking about food or planning a meal—even if it’s only in the back of my mind. Even when I’m sweating it out my Bikram yoga class, at some point, in some posture, my brain will wander and I’ll start thinking about cakes, turkeys or even peanut butter sandwiches. But what started this obsession and why is it only a hobby for me?
Most people are passionate about food. It’s not always healthy food or “restaurant” food—it can be something as simple as a serious yen for Orange Soda. **TRIVIA TIME: Who loves orange soda? Answer that question and be entered to win a box of treats from ME! Be an honest cookie and don’t cheat with google. All correct answers will be collected at the end of the week and a winner drawn at random. Leave a comment below and be sure to use a valid email if you want to win something.** Okay and back to blogging. Point is: food is kind of an essential part of being human so most of us have at least a passing interest in it.
My mom was always super focused on healthy food and her parents were very into organic nutrition and some pretty kooky food fads. As a result I probably grew up with more of a fostered interest into what actually goes into the things I eat. It baffles me as an adult to find people who don’t know that things like American Cheese is literally not actually cheese, who don’t know why fluoride is in our toothpaste, why salt is sold “iodized” or know which ingredients are artificial sweeteners in diet foods. I grew up thinking this stuff was common to learn about and I suppose sometimes I can come across as a bit of an…elitist? Know-it-all? Busy-Body? Okay basically a Hermione about food and nutrition.
On top of a very nutrition focused household, we were Jewish. Judaism may be a cultural affiliation and not a race, but I’m telling you a love for food is genetic. It’s such a huge part of Jewish life. So my family and how I was raised plays a big part. Another thing I think I noticed because food is so important in Judaism was this: food makes people happy. Food has a power to take people back to some of their happiest memories. I rarely hear someone recall a bad memory that is linked to a meal…except maybe food poisoning but let’s overlook that. Plenty of gifts can bring people joy but food is unique because it’s a total sensory experience. There are smells, textures, colors, taste and even sounds, like the sizzle of a skillet for example. There are plenty of good memories we all have but it’s those memories with sensory triggers that stay with us longest and evoke the most emotion. Food hits all 5 of our senses so memories revolving around the dinner table can be the most vivid and most emotional. Our brains can recreate all of those senses—we can actually salivate at a memory of food.
Take for example some of the best memories I have of my father. I had a difficult childhood, my biological father wasn’t around for a pretty big chunk of my life, but some of the best times from when I was young all come back to food. My father taught me how to cook the first things I ever learned to make: omelets and grilled cheese sandwiches. Those two things will forever be associated in my mind to some of the simplest but best times I spent with my father. Even the classic PB&J reminds me of family—when I was three my dad used to cut up each sandwich into pieces and then steal some as a way of encouraging me to count. I’d “catch” him by figuring out how many were missing.
But it wasn’t just my Dad who brought cooking into my heart. I’ll always associate scrambled eggs, ice cream sandwiches, olives and snickers bars with my maternal grandmother. When I was little I would eat the oddest things when visiting my grandparents. Whenever I’m browning ground beef on the stove I’m taken back to my grandmother, cooking up organic beef, browning onions in the fat, mixing in a little ketchup and voila! Dinner. I made this for dinner in my dorm freshman year and it was so simple but so enticing…I just remember several boys on the floor following their noses to the end of the hallway. They were amazed that I was eating THAT for dinner but comfort food is what it is right? And of course there’s my mom. All of the comfort foods I love most are things that remind me of my mom. They also happen to be the things I’d eat most often when I was sick—which I was for literally 30% of my childhood—and it was Mom who took care of me. Matzo ball soup, runny eggs (her eggs were an acquired taste but that’s another story) with buttered toast, peanut butter chocolate ice cream, shellfish and of course, the food that I love above all others: popcorn.
My first foray into the culinary world was for my mom’s birthday. I was 11 or 12—not sure. At that time we were pretty strapped for money…it was the years of discount offbrand spaghettios for dinner most nights that I still have foodie nightmares about. It was just me, my mom and my brother and I don’t remember why, but I was obsessed with doing something for her birthday that would be a real surprise. I pulled a Betty Crocker cookbook off the shelf and looked up recipes I thought she’d liked and decided to make them. I even deliberately picked things I knew she liked that I didn’t usually to show her just how much I cared. The menu was roast lamb chops, glazed carrots and stuffed mushroom caps. A family friend helped me with my plot and took me to the grocery store to foot the bill. Shockingly I remember the food turning out good—I even discovered I liked mushrooms and lamb after all. The best part though was the pure shock for my mom and how much it meant to her that I put effort into making something. So if you really want to know what the biggest motivation behind my cooking and love for it is, I guess it’s this: I like that I’m capable of bringing joy to someone with something I made that triggers memories for years that follow. Looking at it like this though I suppose it’s somewhat of a selfish gift giving experience isn’t it? Or is what we tell little kids about making an effort really meaningful? What do you think?
Anyway I guess that’s why I love to cook and why one of my favorite things to do is cook for friends. It is why I’ll turn any situation into an excuse to celebake! Birthdays are a pretty traditionally easy way to do this. I do my best to catalogue people’s favorite things in my brain so that when birthdays roll around I make something really meaningful. Recently one of my favorite new friends had his birthday roll around and he said if strawberry chocolate cakes were a thing that would be a thing he would like. Well then CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.
Chocolate Strawberry Cupcakes filled with Chocolate Strawberry Jam
Recipe modified from Dorie Greenspan’s Double Chocolate Cupcakes
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup cocoa powder
- ¼ tsp baking soda
- ¼ tsp baking powder
- 8 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled but still slightly warm (i.e. not solid)
- 3 ounces milk chocolate
- 2 Tbsp heavy cream
- ¼ cup strawberry preserves
Getting ready: Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Fit the 12 molds of a muffin tin with paper muffin cups. Place on a baking sheet and set aside.
Make the cupcakes: Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. Working with a stand mixer or a hand mixer and a large bowl, beat the butter at medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugar and beat for two minutes, until it is blended into the butter. Add the egg, then the yolk, beating for 1 minute between each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Beat in the vanilla, then reduce the mixer speed to low and add half the dry ingredients, mixing only until they disappear. Scrape down the bowl and add the buttermilk, mixing until incorporated, then mix in the remaining dry ingredients. Scrape down the bowl, add the melted chocolate, and mix it in by hand with a rubber spatula. Divide the batter evenly into the prepared molds. Bake for 22 – 25 minutes, or until the tops of the cakes are springy and a tester inserted in the centers comes out clean. Transfer the muffin pan to a cooling rack and allow the cakes to cool for 5 minutes before unmolding them. Cool to room temperature before glazing.
Heat the 2 ounces of milk chocolate with the heavy cream just until melted. Stir in the strawberry preserves. Using an elongated tip for filling cakes/pastries, fill the cupcakes with the strawberry chocolate ganache. You don’t want to make them explode, just a little bit will do to give the center and extra surprise!
- 4 ounces cream cheese
- 2 Tbsp butter, room temperature
- 3 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
- 12 ounces strawberries, pureed
- 1 tsp strawberry extract (optional, I didn’t have any so I used some syrup from the preserves)
In a stand mixer or bowl beat together the cream cheese and butter until smooth. Slowly add in the strawberry puree and extract if using.
Reduce the speed to low and slowly add in the confectioners’ sugar—make sure to sift in to avoid clumps. Adjust amount based on desired thickness of the frosting. Mine was still fairly thin, but I hate adding TONS of sugar, and I was out of cream cheese so I just popped it into the fridge instead to help it firm up faster before frosting the cupcakes.