Years ago I noticed that many of my tried and true dessert recipes came from articles written by a baker named Joanne Chang for Fine Cooking magazine. Since that time I have made a point of following her work whenever it appears in print. With the release of Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery + Café, written with Christie Matheson, Chang delivers her collected wisdom in one impressive volume.
Chang was raised in a traditional Chinese household where desserts were scarce. Growing up she developed a fascination with the standard kid-friendly sweets she tasted at friends' homes. This passion never waned, even as she earned a degree in applied mathematics from Harvard. After much soul-searching, she eventually traded in her slide rule for a whisk.
I get very cranky when bakers tweak a perfectly decent, classic recipe simply to make it their own. The change is often gratuitous and rarely an improvement on the original. Chang, however, has the innate ability to elevate the familiar to the sublime.
With the eye of a scientist and the heart of a baker, the author deftly mixes in numerous tips for success, including advance prep and storage. Chang's charming recipe headnotes also share fascinating stories, like how she learned the secrets to making her best-selling Vanilla Cream-Filled Doughnuts from a French pastry chef at Payard.
Once you've tasted Flour's Lemon Marshmallow Meringue Pie, Old-Fashioned Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, or Double-Chocolate Cookies, you'll probably decide to forgo your mom's trusted back-of-the-box recipes forever. Oreo's, Pop-Tarts, crispy rice treats, and yes, even iconic s'mores undergo mini-makeovers in Chang's kitchen. There's also a recipe for Homemade Dog Biscuits guaranteed to elicit drools from your favorite pooch.
Although this baking pro excels at homestyle desserts, she readily lends her sensibilities to a goodly number of more complex ones like Lemon-Raspberry Cake with Lemon Buttercream, Hazelnut-Almond Dacquoise, Brioche au Chocolat, and Sticky Sticky Buns—a recipe that triumphed over Bobby Flay's efforts in a spirited episode of Throwdown on the Food Network.
As many of us nibble our way through a Spartan diet this New Year, I suggest a special dispensation for Valentine's Day. I further recommend you celebrate this 24-hour moratorium on sensible eating by baking as many recipes as possible from this delightful book. It will be worth every single calorie.
Chocolate Cupcakes with Crispy Magic Frosting
Recipe from Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe by Joanne Chang (Chronicle Books, 2010)Makes 12 cupcakes
In Amanda Hesser's lovely book Cooking for Mr. Latte, she shares an appealing recipe for chocolate cake that she calls Dump Cake. Okay, maybe the name isn't so appealing, but after years of making cakes that involve folding two-thirds of this into one-eighth of that and timing the mixer for one minute and fourteen seconds, I was taken with the idea of making a cake that simply requires dumping this into that and you're done. I've started with her recipe, added some cocoa, and removed some egg and liquid. The result is a wonderfully chocolaty, moist cupcake that is one of the most popular items at the bakery. Do what we do to best enjoy the cupcake: Pop off the top half of the cupcake, put the bottom half on top of the frosted top, and voilà! You have a cupcake sandwich that gives you cupcake and frosting in each bite. The Crispy Magic Frosting forms a delicate sugary crust as it rests and it's so easy, it's magic!
- 2 ounces (56 grams) unsweetened chocolate, chopped
- 1/4 cup (30 grams) Dutch-processed cocoa powder
- 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup (1 stick/114 grams) unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup (80 grams) water
- 1/2 cup (120 grams) milk
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup (140 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Crispy Magic Frosting
- 2/3 cup (140 grams) granulated sugar
- 2 egg whites (60 grams)
- 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks/342 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 2-inch chunks
- 1 2/3 cups (230 grams) confectioners' sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a standard 12-cup muffin tin, or line with paper liners.
In a small heatproof bowl, combine the chocolate and cocoa powder. In a small saucepan, heat the granulated sugar, butter, and water over medium-high heat, whisking occasionally, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved. Pour the hot butter-sugar mixture over the chocolate-cocoa mixture and whisk until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is homogeneous.
Whisk the milk, egg, egg yolk, and vanilla into the chocolate mixture until thoroughly combined.
In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until well mixed. Dump the flour mixture on top of the chocolate mixture. Whisk until the dry ingredients are totally mixed into the chocolate mixture. Let the batter sit for at least 1 hour at room temperature, or transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. (This allows the liquid to be totally absorbed into the batter, so the batter thickens up a bit and isn't so soupy.)
Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups, dividing it evenly and filling the cups to the rim. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the tops spring back when pressed with a fingertip. Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.
To make the frosting: While the cupcakes are cooling, in a small heatproof bowl, whisk together the granulated sugar and egg whites to make a thick slurry. Place the bowl over (not touching) simmering water in a saucepan and heat, whisking occasionally, for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the mixture is hot to the touch. It will thin out a bit as the sugar melts.
Remove from the heat and scrape the mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whip attachment (or use a handheld mixer). Whip on medium-high speed for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the mixture becomes a light, white meringue and is cool to the touch. Turn down the speed to medium, add the butter, a few chunks at a time, and beat for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the butter is thoroughly incorporated. Add the confectioners' sugar, salt, milk, and vanilla and continue to beat on medium speed until the mixture is smooth and satiny. You should have about 3 1/2 cups. (Use immediately, or transfer to an airtight container and store at room temperature for up to 3 days, then beat with the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for a few minutes until smooth before using. Or, store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, then bring to room temperature and paddle for a few minutes until smooth before using.)
Remove the cupcakes from the muffin tin. Fit a pastry bag with a small round or star tip and fill the bag with the frosting, then pipe the frosting onto cupcakes. Or, spread the frosting on the cupcakes with an icing spatula.
The cupcakes taste best on the day they are baked, but they can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.
Disclosure: Review copies of books discussed in this post may have been provided to Project Foodie by publicists and/or publishers.