Monday, March 10, 2008

Mixing Bowls

When my mother died, someone asked me about the most valuable advice she had given me. Without hesitation I said, "moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!" OK, that was NOT the most valuable advice she bestowed upon me - but it was great advice. Kitchenwise, mom said, "You can never have too many bowls!" I have to agree. From my collection of four-ounce stainless prep bowls to my 13-quart stainless "granola" bowl (great for mixing large granola concoctions), I rely on all of them. I recently eyeballed a 20-quart stainless steel bowl at Bridge Kitchenware and found it nearly irresistible. It's big enough to bathe an infant (assuming it would be reserved for just that purpose) but in the kitchen it might serve to brine a turkey.

For the most part, I prefer stainless steel or Pyrex® bowls because they are sturdy, nonreactive, dishwasher-safe and unlike plastic, they don't transfer funky flavors to food. Stainless insulated bowls are great for keeping ice cream custards cold (yes, on occasion I make homemade ice cream, the last batch being "Pomegranate Pistachio"). My melamine bowls with pouring spouts and handles have dozens of uses and are especially handy for pancake and cupcake batter. Some of my bowls have plastic covers with snap tight lids, others have non-skid bottoms that keep them from skittering across the countertop and I have several that have measurements clearly etched directly on their surfaces.

Those of you who saw the film "Ratatouille" may remember the term "Mise en place". Literally, it means "set in place". Practically, it means "everything in place". When you get ready to bake a cake, for instance, you read through the recipe, make sure you have the necessary ingredients, and then go about organizing your equipment, preheating the oven (which can take as long as 20 minutes) and putting many of the ingredients in individual bowls. For a cake, this may mean baking soda, baking powder, salt, spices and extracts. I like to line my little filled prep bowls on the counter. It assures that I have what I need, eliminates the stop and start which wastes time, and guards against cross-contamination (reaching for the vanilla with raw egg on my hands, for example). I also think these little bowls are damn cute.

Aside from food preparation and storage, I have quite a few serving bowls - from fruit and cereal bowls to soup bowls, chili bowls, and the usual vegetable recepticles. I have Bosco-Ware soup bowls in an array of cheerful colors that keep soup hot and onion-soup bowls that can be run under the broiler. Two of my favorite bowls are cobalt-blue glass. I like to fill them with lemons and set them on the counter. If you're not ready to replace your countertops just yet, a transparent blue bowl piled with lemons can really spruce up your kitchen.

One of my favorite memories of my mother is of her sifting flour into a cream colored ceramic bowl with a blue stripe. That bowl saw a lot of action. Mom also had a deep-fryer. There was a little chef on the side whose eyes would light up when the oil had reached the right temperature - very cool! When garage sale time comes around, go ahead and get rid of that waffle maker you haven't used for 20 years and that bright orange enamel fondue pot from 1972, but hang on to those bowls! On second thought, you might keep that fondue pot, too. Fondue is back and retro is fashionable.

Cupcake Love

Cupcakes, it would seem, are all the rage. From New York City's celebrated Magnolia Bakery (famous for their Red Velvet Cupcakes) to San Francisco's imaginative Citizen Cake (and now Citizen Cupcake!), cupcakes have captured our hearts. Dozens of cupcake instruction manuals line the baking sections of bookstores such as Dede Wilson's "A Baker's Field Guide to Cupcakes" and "Cupcakes" by Elinor Klivans. There's even a website called "Cool Cupcakes" for all your cupcake decorating needs (see links).

In the past, cupcakes seemed to be reserved for children's parties and casual family gatherings. Now you see them at black-tie events and weddings (I don't know what happens with the traditional "cutting of the cake" but the presentations I have seen are gorgeous and it certainly makes serving effortless). Not only are cupcakes chic, they are often the pièce de résistance of the dessert cart - edging out Crème Brûlée and Flourless Chocolate Cake in popularity.

Baking equipment and supplies designed specifically for cupcakes are selling like ... well, cupcakes. Wilton Industries offers a little kit called "Cupcake Heaven", a 12-piece cupcake decorating set that sells at Target and other stores for under $10. Several manufacturers sell covered cupcake pans, some with extra high tops to protect more elaborate frostings, making portability a snap. Cupcake "tiers" make a dynamite presentation and they can be had for only a few dollars. Cupcake liners are available with every possible decor geared to holidays and special events. In addition to the three pan sizes for conventional cupcakes (mini, regular, and jumbo), Wilton, King Arthur Flour, and other outlets also sell a giant cupcake pan with a 10-cup capacity. This isn't really a cupcake, however, but might be a whimsical alternative to a conventional birthday cake. There are silicone pans and cupcake liners, too - but there's something about those little paper liners that makes cupcakes unique and I prefer conventional pans for baking anyway.

You don't really need a cookbook devoted to cupcakes to make these divine confections (although these volumes offer many decorating ideas). Virtually any recipe for a layer or 13"x9" cake will work for cupcakes (just be sure that the capacity of the pans is the same as that of the recipe and don't fill the individual cups more than 2/3 full). Angel Food and Chiffon Cake recipes work just fine, too. Chiffon cakes work especially well for whipped cream injected cakes, as they have to be refrigerated and Chiffon Cakes, being oil-based, don't get hard in the refrigerator. The flavor possibilities for cupcakes are nearly endless and embellishments can be as easy as a sprinkling of powdered sugar or as elaborate as candied violets and edible gold leaf.

My favorite cupcake? Almond-flavored White Cake injected with a bit of raspberry jam and frosted with white buttercream. Or is it Coconut Cupcakes with tart lemon filling and showered with flaked coconut, or ... I'm reminded of my father when asked what his favorite opera might be - "The last one I heard", he would reply. My favorite cupcake? Probably the last one I ate. What makes a cupcake special is that everyone has their own little cake, and frankly, a freshly baked cupcake just lifts one's spirits