Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Magnolia Bakery

Alright alright alright. I am back! After two weeks of pure relaxation in the paradise called Costa Rica I am now ready to continue dedicating my free time to serious dessert-eating. And I have to say that it hurts to see my blog so neglected. August entries: 1. There is not much time left to rectify this situation. Especially since I am starting an internship on Thursday that promises to be a lot of fun and a lot of work. Yes, it involves food, and yes, I am eager to share my experiences very soon. But for now, let me start with something that was delivered to my door step a few hours ago.

My first day of vacation was also my birthday, and one of my dear friends from Abu Dhabi surprised me with what he knows I live for: Sweet things! Lucky for me, I was able to delay the delivery a little until I got back, and so I woke up to the sound of the FedEx guy knocking on my door this morning. He carried a box of six Magnolia Bakery cupcakes from New York.

I can hardly believe it myself, but I had many chances to try the Magnolia Bakery goods throughout the past few years and never took advantage: When I lived in the United Arab Emirates, I passed by the colorful window in Dubai Mall on many occasions, watching cheerful women frosting cupcakes. And then I saw their store in Chicago when I visited my boyfriend in November - but didn't enter. Finally, I even went into one of their New York stores shortly after - without buying anything. So, just recently, I had a look at their website. And I was very close to ordering some treats, when I noticed that the delivery cost is higher than the price of the product I was ordering. No thank you.

It obviously didn't throw off my friend, and I thank him for that. Because now I realized why shipping is so crazy expensive: These six cupcakes came frozen inside a box, which was packaged between two styrofoam plates, inside a large funky looking silver-blue isolating bag, surrounded by several cold "pockets" (for lack of a better word), and all inside a huge box with the Magnolia Bakery logo stuck on. I am actually going to try and re-use these "pockets". They might become life savers, considering the next headache is just around the corner.

After a rather long wait of four hours  (as recommended by the small leaflet that came inside the box, since the cupcakes needed to de-freeze) I had a lunch consisting of cake, buttercream, and lots of sugar. I only managed to eat two cupcakes, which is a problem because the leaflet also states that Magnolia Bakery cupcakes should NEVER (!) be stored in the fridge and should ideally be consumed right away. Do people usually order these to share? I wouldn't want share my $50 cupcakes! Unless you are a competitive eater I doubt you could follow the bakery's instructions. 

Cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery are made in small batches and delivered overnight to ensure freshness. I got the classic assortment, which usually consists of two chocolate cupcakes with vanilla buttercream, two vanilla cupcakes with chocolate buttercream, one vanilla cupcake with vanilla buttercream, and one chocolate cupcake with chocolate buttercream. As you can tell from the pictures, I missed the latter and found three of the vanilla-cake-and-chocolate-frosting type in my box instead. No problem, chocolate and chocolate seems like too much of a good thing anyways. 

The classic flavors sound boring at first, but they usually reveal a lot about the quality of a bakery's products in general. And this one has such a long history. The vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting was divine. I loved the buttercream, which tasted somewhat lighter than dark chocolate but stronger than milk chocolate. In combination with the vanilla cake it reminded me of how good simple flavors can be. Yes I love weird new creations, and I am usually the first to pick one of those. But if you do this basic combination right, there is no need for sprinkles and fillings and seasonal fruit and cookie dough. Magnolia Bakery clearly knows what it's doing and I am happy I got two more of those.

I was less impressed by the chocolate cupcake with vanilla frosting. In both cases, the cake had a great consistency, - fluffy and just moist enough. This chocolate cake tasted like my favorite red velvet cake, just that it lacked the color. What ruined it in my eyes was the vanilla buttercream, which tasted like nothing but sugar. I ended up eating the cake without the frosting because I generally don't mind calories, but if they don't give me pleasure I'd rather do without them.

Overall, I liked the presentation. Simple but elegant. For transportation purposes, the cupcakes had sticks poking out from the center, which held up a plastic cover and prevented it from smashing the frosting. Unfortunately, these sticks left rather big holes once removed. Since I have never had cupcakes shipped to me before, I can't judge if there are better ways of doing this. 

I'd definitely purchase cupcakes in one of the Magnolia Cupcake stores, but would discourage anyone from ordering them by mail, considering all of the above. I am sure there are great cupcake places in your surroundings, so you can avoid spending lots of money on shipping, choose as many as you want/ are able to eat at the time, and enjoy them immediately. Magnolia Bakery has locations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dubai, Doha, Kuwait, and Beirut. In its store, cupcakes are sold for $3.50 each ($3.25 for the classics), - which is not cheap but reasonable given their brand name. The bakery is also famous for its banana pudding. 

Click here to go to the Magnolia Bakery website.

Brownie Points for the vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting: 3 out of 3
Brownie Points for the chocolate cupcake with vanilla frosting: 2 out of 3

Magnolia Bakery on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Recipe: Cinnamon Roll Mug Cake

Wow! Time flies and I will barely meet my two-posts-per-week standard with all the studying I have been doing. For some reason this summer "semester" was smooth sailing all the way through, and now these professors are trying to suffocate me under piles of flashcards, books and take-home exams. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is a plane waiting to take me to beautiful Costa Rica, and I intend to get there looking rested and energetic and carefree!

What do I do to motivate and energize myself between intense study sessions? Have dessert, of course. But since I haven't left the apartment unless absolutely necessary for a class, I haven't even been able to gather material for a new review. And the last time I wanted to do some proper baking, I only managed to start at midnight, which of course meant that I had to wait until the next morning to try the result (at least according to what my Mama has been telling me all my life: "Don't eat late at night!"). So I returned to my good old friend, the easy breezy quick mug cake. 

This fluffy cinnamon cake with gooey cream cheese icing can be made in only a few minutes with the help of a microwave. I got the recipe from a blog called Cooking Classy, which made it look a lot fancier than my version, but I am sure the taste was exactly the same: Delicious!

Get your ingredients:

- 1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 2 1/2 tbsp packed brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp baking powder
- 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp apple sauce
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp buttermilk (I used half and half)
-  1/4 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 dash nutmeg (optional)

For the cream cheese icing:
- 1 tbsp cream cheese, softened
- 2 tbsp powdered sugar
- 1 tbsp milk

Prepare the cream cheese icing first by mixing all ingredients together, and set aside. You want it to be ready when the cake comes out hot and fresh. 

The cake is just as easy to prepare. Simply take a big mug, combine all ingredients, stir well, and pop it into the microwave. Bake on high for 1 minute. If it looks like it's not done yet, bake a little longer and check back in 15-second intervals. The length of this step depends on your microwave and the size/shape of the mug you are using. 

I used a bowl instead of a mug, which gave me a bigger surface to spread the rich icing on. It also gave my old microwave a better chance at a satisfying result.

And satisfying it was. Serve warm and make sure to clear your mind of all worries before you dig in!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Bakeshop on Fillmore Street

Last Sunday might have been the most productive day of my entire summer so far. I not only managed to complete my homework for next week's classes, but also spent several hours browsing the shelves at Barnes & Noble with a nice hot cup of coffee in hand. That falls into the "productive" category why exactly? Because it means that I now don't have to spend whole evenings searching for new baking books on amazon anymore. Holding a book in your hands, flipping through it, and looking at the glossy photographs just has a different quality to it than clicking the search button on your laptop screen. 

But the reason why my super duper productivity is even mentioned on here is that I walked from Barnes & Noble to the Clarendon metro station and remembered that I had heard about a place called Bakeshop. I needed a late breakfast and didn't want to go home to start my work just yet...

So this little stroll ended with me having an ice cream sandwich for breakfast. A snickerdoodlewich to be precise. The only wholesome part about this was probably the cinnamon in the cookie, and the milk and/or cream in the generous portion of vanilla ice cream. But it gave me energy for the rest of the day, and that's the whole purpose of a breakfast, right? 

The welcoming atmosphere at Bakeshop is created by a huge window front and lots of daylight; walls painted in bright yellow; colorful wooden furniture that reminded me of a primary school class room; and an open kitchen that customers can peek into as they stand in front of a long counter full of so so many different kinds of treats. It already takes a few minutes to simply identify your options. And then you need to examine everything a second time in order to be able to take your pick.

I knew I had to try one of the so-called chipwiches, but also ordered two cupcakes to go. At $2.50 per piece these were inexpensive, and I wanted to know what the 7 Up cupcake was all about. The girl behind the counter recommended the red velvet, and since that is one of my favorite flavors I trusted her judgment.

So, first things first. The snickerdoodlewich (love the name!) was delicious. The ice cream was good but I have yet to find a vanilla ice cream in this country that really tastes like vanilla. Most just taste cold and creamy and a little sweet. So did this one. What made this sandwich great were the cookies. Sugar and cinnamon is always a great combination, and the size and texture of these were spot on. Definitely homemade, chewy, with just the right bite. The whole thing comes double wrapped, so it can also easily be transported if the weather allows and/or you have a cooler bag. Other flavors available were the classic chocolate chip cookies, gingersnaps, or dark chocolate cookies with different kinds of ice creams, such as mint chip or PB&J. The Snickerdoodle version only came with vanilla. 

 While eating I noticed that Bakeshop seems to have a very loyal customer base consisting of young couples and families. Not only was there a steady flow of people coming in and leaving with bags full of sweet treats, there were also dozens of hand-written letters, drawings and photos pasted to the walls. This bakery clearly has character, and young customers love its employees almost as much as the desserts, as evidenced by many of the drawings. Isn't it a relief to know that there are still such down-to-earth, friendly neighborhood bakeries to get your cupcakes and brownies and macarons from? Not everything has to be stylish, hip or fancy. 

And Bakeshop's cupcakes are just as good as those of the DC competition. In terms of size and texture they might as well have been made by Georgetown Cupcake. I wouldn't have said "no" to a bit more frosting, but because the cake was so truly moist and fluffy (when I poked my fork at it, it literally fells into crumbs) I didn't feel that it was needed. The red velvet was definitely a winner. The 7 Up cupcake however just didn't do it for me... Children probably love it because the softdrink flavor is unmistakeable, but I found the taste just a little too artificial.

Bakeshop is an interesting find. For some reason I feel that artisan breads would make its offer  complete, but for now it is purely sweet and has everything you could possibly desire for dessert: Apart from the cupcakes and ice cream sandwiches, there are cookies, macarons, pies, oreos in a blanket (oreos baked into chocolate chip cookies... ooooohhhh yes), banana pudding, doggie treats, layer cakes... you get it. Everything.

Here's a link to Bakeshop's website. - Make sure you visit next time you are in Clarendon.

Brownie Points for the snickerdoodlewich: 3 out of 3
Brownie Points for the red velvet cupcake: 2 out of 3
Brownie Points for the 7 Up cupcake: 1 out of 3

Bakeshop on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats

The name itself already makes me want to jump with joy: I want goodies! And treats! And frozen custard! Today, after many months of twitter and facebook stalking, I finally managed to catch this 1950s-style food truck on the streets of DC. And since I had already done my homework (read: informed myself about all the menu options and what the truck is known for) the experience was all I could have hoped for. 

The owners lovingly call their baby-blue vehicle "Gigi". It is, in fact, a 1952 Metro van, which perfectly aligns with Goodies' retro concept. The music blasting from its speakers, the vintage ice cream parlor uniforms (complete with bow ties and hats), and the menu consisting of frozen and baked old-school comfort food work beautifully together. Waiting in line - and it was quite a long line - I felt like a time traveler.

I particular liked that one of the guys was standing outside to interact with the customers, instead of taking orders through a window as is the case with most other food trucks. That made it more personal, and was a reminder of the basic idea of hospitality. 

Goodies specializes in sundaes, shakes and root beer floats prepared with fresh frozen custard. Yes, apparently the custard is made from scratch every morning. In a world where I usually see frozen treats come out of factory-style machines, or sold in supermarkets where they have been sitting in the fridge for days, this truly makes an impression. Apart from frozen desserts, the truck offers daily specials that include bundt cakes, banana pudding, cookies and doughnuts. As for the prices, I believe that most of the items will set you back $6-$8. 

One of their signature items is the red velvet doughnut sandwich. I have been drooling over pictures of this sandwich ever since I discovered that Gigi even existed, and knew that I had to order it should I be so lucky to find the truck on a day when it's on the menu. And... today it was. I certainly took the other treats into consideration - for maybe a second - but couldn't resist the dream of frozen custard between two doughnut halves and the sugary, chocolatey taste of red velvet.

Ok. Let's face it. What could have possibly been wrong with this dessert? Nothing. It was rich, creamy, and yet refreshing. And even though it looked huge and came in a takeout box, it didn't weigh me down. The texture of the custard was unexpectedly smooth. You could, I guess, compare it to softened ice cream. That worked well together with the doughnut, but I really do prefer the Shake Shack density. And the doughnut... Oh! the doughnut. The top half was sugar glazed, which added a little crunch, and everything about it - taste, bite, size - was just right. A drizzle of chocolate sauce added that extra bit of flavor. That is what lunch on cloud 9 must taste like.

Unfortunately, this dessert is not very photogenic. When I received it the doughnut was not even visible, nestled inside the takeout box, covered with lots and lots of custard. Still, I caught almost everyone's attention as I walked past the line. A group of women even stopped me to inspect it up close and find out what it was. I tried my best to take a few pictures but apologize if they are not the most appetizing.

Just yesterday, the popular local blog DCist published a list of the 14 best food trucks in the city, and Goodies was crowned one of them. That is especially remarkable since only two dessert trucks made it on the list. I am a big fan of Captain Cookie & The Milkman, and I know that there are several other sweets-treats-on-wheels roaming around, so I was surprised but very happy for Gigi's team.

Due to the truck's busy schedule and the fact that it often makes several stops per day, Gigi is not easy to track down. Following Goodies on twitter will help though, and the "stalker activity" is absolutely worth it.

Brownie Points for the red velvet doughnut sandwich: 3 out of 3

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Le Pain Quotidien

When Ms Froyo insisted on taking me to Le Pain Quotidien for brunch after a long night of wine and girl talk, I didn’t really expect to get a new blog post out of it. After all, it’s a chain, every store looks somewhat the same, I have already had quite a few business lunches there back when I lived in Abu Dhabi (yes, the Emiratis are big fans of all things European), and the food and beverage offer is neither highly original nor does it include many dessert items. In other words, I would have preferred to spend my money elsewhere. But I learned my lesson: Letting my friends take over the culinary steering wheel from time to time is a good idea. A great one in fact.

First of all, the atmosphere at Le Pain Quotidien (French for “The Daily Bread”) might be carefully designed by corporate sharks who are out for your money, but they did an excellent job. As soon as I took a seat at one of the wooden tables, I felt like I was transported someplace else. Someplace closer to my actual home; a calm, rustic bakery café where I could sit all day long with a magazine, listen to French chansons and order one coffee after the other. You wouldn’t want to bring your work here, though. The combination of fresh-bread-fragrance, background chatter and the preppy clientele doesn’t lend itself to tired eyes and worried thoughts.

The food was a pleasant surprise.  Even the savory breakfast dishes sounded so tempting that I forgot all about the sweet options for a moment. And when I did order something sweet, it was tiny but packed an enormous taste. Which could be considered both good and bad, since a small portion translates to fewer calories, but I was left yearning for more. The Belgian waffle with fresh berries was prepared in true European fashion with a very crisp, sugary exterior. And Ms Froyo’s recommendation of adding some of LPQ's own hazelnut spread elevated it to whole different level. This spread is to-die-for and should never find its way into my kitchen as I would be eating it by the spoonful.

To satisfy my inner fat child, I had the waffle as a main course, hot chocolate as a drink, and shared a piece of carrot cake with my friend for dessert.  In my defense, Le Pain Quotidien serves a healthy version of carrot cake that comes without frosting and has a a very rich, spicy aroma. I loved the presentation of the small, round cake on a large white porcelain board. It was a lovely finish to our brunch and easily satisfied both of us since all we were looking for was a sweet snack.
Last but not least, the hot chocolate deserves a mention. Steamed milk is served in a round cup and you get to add the dark, liquid chocolate all by yourself.  That means you can choose how chocolate-y you really want it, and enjoy watching the milk change its color. Oh, the simple pleasures in life…

Le Pain Quotidien originated in Belgium and has 10 locations in the DMV, including Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Clarendon, Bethesda and Alexandria. It specializes in artisan breads and pantry items such as jams and chocolate spreads, as well as European open-faced sandwiches and pastries, all made from organic ingredients. Its communal table concept invites patrons to share a meal and start conversations with strangers.
Brownie Points for the Belgian waffle: 3 out of 3
Brownie Points for the carrrot cake: 2 out of 3
Brownie Points for the hot chocolate: 2 out of 3

Le Pain Quotidien on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Recipe: Banana Pudding

As I am becoming a little more familiar with my kitchen utensils, different kinds of ingredients, and all these wonderful food blogs out there, I am starting to make a lot of things from scratch that I wouldn't have attempted only a few months ago. 

When I first posted a recipe on here (even my parents now love the hot chocolate mug cake) I mentioned how I had never felt comfortable in the kitchen. Who would have thought that I'd now have late night baking sessions in my tiny studio-apartment to reward myself for finishing school work? I seriously spend hours mixing cake batter, kneading dough, shaping cookies and pie crust, watching bread rise, decorating the end product and sharing it with friends. And I love it!

This banana pudding is one of my absolute favorites. It is the dessert I have gotten most praise for, and also the only one I have made repeatedly because it's just so addictive. I like to compare it to a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream: Perfect for savoring as you watch a girly TV show; cold and creamy and with big fat chunks in it. With the small difference that you know exactly what ingredients were used. It's been made with love on your own stovetop!

First: Please please please go and watch the video for this recipe on youtube. The guy who walks you through the steps is hilarious and entertaining, and you will have fun watching him do his thing even if you're not actually going to make the pudding. I, however, followed his instructions meticulously (apart from using a little less sugar and omitting the whipped cream on top) and ended up with a dessert I would have liked to bathe in. In Germany we say that we could "sit" in something if it's really amazing. I hope you know what I mean...

If you are not exactly planning to go overboard or cook for a large family, you will only need half the ingredients mentioned in the video. The following measurements are for 3-4 portions:

- 1/2 stick butter
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 6 oz evaporated milk
- 1 tbsp flour, dissolved in 1/2 cup water
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3-4 ripe bananas
- vanilla wafers
- whipped cream (optional)

Start by melting the butter in a large pan over medium heat. 
Once melted, add sugar and stir until combined. Lower the heat and slowly stir in the evaporated milk. 
Add the flour and water mixture. The pudding will start to thicken. When that happens, add your vanilla extract.
Temper the egg yolks in a small bowl by mixing in a few spoons of the hot pudding mixture. They can then go into the pan. 
I now turn the heat as low as possible and continue to stir occasionally. - Watch that pudding if you don't want an ugly skin to form!

Slice the bananas. 
Prepare a casserole dish or big bowl: Start with a layer of vanilla wafers at the bottom, followed by a layer of banana slices, followed by another layer of vanilla wafers and so on and so forth.
Then, take the pudding off the heat and pour it into the dish or bowl, making sure it covers all of your wafers and banana slices. Let it seep through the layers and into the holes and corners.

You can choose to either top it with whipped cream for that extra calorie-kick (and I guess it would also look a little nicer), or put it in the fridge as it is. I usually cover the dish with some plastic wrap and leave it in there for at least 2 hours, as the pudding becomes even thicker and gooey-er in the meantime. 

I promise: This will make your day, if not even your entire week. Enjoy.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Buzz Bakery

Let me introduce you to a person I have never met, someone I know almost nothing about, but nevertheless someone I have taken to my heart for one simple reason: She creates heavenly desserts.

Pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac's name pops up on my computer screen all the time, not only because I "follow" her (I am fairly new to Twitter and still find the expression "to follow someone" mildly disturbing), but also because she plays a significant role in the Washington DC culinary scene, and is therefore often mentioned in magazine articles, best-of-lists and reviews of the restaurants she creates desserts for. This is the mastermind behind Birch and Barley's sticky buns and chicken and waffles (soon to be sampled), GBD's gourmet donuts, and Buzz Bakery's visually stunning cupcakes. How could you not love her!

The pictures MacIsaac posts on Twitter make my mouth water, and they very quickly catapulted Buzz Bakery and Birch and Barley to the top of my list of must-visit dessert spots. Considering that the former is more economically accessible, a trip to Ballston was a natural first move.

Buzz Bakery Ballston has a little something for everyone: A fountain out front for children to play in; an evening wine and beer menu for social gatherings; plenty of indoor and outdoor seating for students and professionals to sit back and get some work done; songs from the Dawson's Creek and Gilmore Girls soundtracks playing in the background, taking twenty-somethings like me back to their teenage years; MadCap coffee making it the first choice for snobby caffeine drinkers to stop by before work; whole pies and cakes for last minute celebration emergencies; a location right next to Rustico, which belongs to the same group of restaurants and tempts diners to walk right over for a sweet treat after dinner; and, last but not least, a display of very pretty cupcakes for girls of all ages to swoon over.

Can you tell I like this place? But I am also a little biased... The reason I only made it there now was fear. Fear that I was going to love it too much. Neither the Ballston nor the Alexandria locations are really convenient for me, so falling in love with Buzz Bakery was going to cause trouble.

The first time I went, I tried two of their cupcakes. It was a Monday night after 8 pm and they offered six cupcakes for only $9, which is a steal, but I knew I was just going to end up eating all of them in the shortest amount of time and didn't want to risk it. So I opted for the cookie monster (a signature item) and the blueberry pie. That is one attractive cupcake!

The focus at Buzz Bakery is on high quality, fresh ingredients. That being said, I have to confess that I was not so impressed with the taste of these cupcakes. Neither the frosting nor the actual cake won me over. They were not bad, not at all, but then they were not great either. The unique selling point here are the cupcake designs, which are almost artsy and definite to make a lasting impression if you are looking for a gift.

The blueberry pie cupcake consisted of yellow cake with a blueberry preserves filling and a vanilla butter cream frosting.  Great concept, great look. The cookie monster had small chocolate pieces baked into the cake, which is a nice touch and very fitting. The small cookie on top was my favorite part; chewy and with raisins in it. And what a great idea to put cookie dough in the middle! The frosting for both cupcakes, however, was almost sugar-shock-sweet, definitely too much for my taste. 

Because I was so taken with the cozy atmosphere - it's a proper café, not just a store with a few stools that were put there for the sake of it -, I came back for breakfast the next day. Having problems getting out of bed too early in the morning (I am a student after all) I arrived at 11 am, and there were not a lot of breakfast items left. I ordered a cappuccino and a waffle with banana pecan topping, sat down at a large, wooden table at the back of the room and started preparing for my afternoon class. It's a great way to start your day both productively and relaxed. Buzz Bakery offers free wi-fi, you just need to ask for the password at the counter. I also like that they provide proper cutlery and plates, not just napkins and plastic forks like most other bakeries. 

The waffle was tasty and crisp, and had the perfect amount of sweetness. It was served with butter and extra syrup on the side for those who like theirs a little heavier, but I'd say that is really not necessary. Definitely filling. Maybe not that good for you. But it instantly brightens your mood. I can also now confirm that a MadCap cappuccino really is better than what you get at Starbucks or the next best coffee place around the corner. 

The overall verdict? Great ambiance, great food and drink selection, great pastry chef who knows how to make something sweet look even sweeter. The cupcakes look beautiful but are not my favorites in terms of flavor. I'll be back for breakfast!

Brownie Points for the cookie monster cupcake: 1 out of 3 for taste, 2 out of 3 for looks (yes, I just decided to change my rating system this one time)
Brownie Points for the blueberry pie cupcake: 1 out of 3 for taste, 3 out of 3 for looks
Brownie Points for the banana pecan waffle: 3 out of 3

Buzz Bakery and Coffee Lounge on Urbanspoon