Holiday horrors

It was a frightening day for me as I made my first plunge into the holiday-bedecked edition of Target. It’s no use to rail about Christmas decorations going up alongside the Thanksgiving turkey stuffing – that sleigh has sailed.  But the Christmas CD display that blurted out carols every time someone strolled by – I don’t know why employees don’t smash that thing with a yule log by the end of the day.

Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a useless, counter-space-sucking small appliance, and I saw three today . One was a cupcake baker. Shaped like a cupcake and colored shiny pink, it can hold six cupcakes, which it purports to bake in 10 minutes. I believe I own a thing called an “oven” that bakes many more cupcakes in the same amount of time. If you wanted to waste your time making cupcakes, that is. The cupcake baker does not frost them for you, unfortunately.

Because every baked good requires its own dedicated machine, right next to it was a doughnut baker. But what I fear is a sign that the deliciousness that is pie is being co-opted by The Man sat next to it: the Pie Magic pie maker. It looks like a George Foreman grill from the outside; inside are spaces for four small pies – tarts, really, I’d say. The description says the contraption has a “unique edge crimper.” So do I. It’s called a fork.

Weakened by these sights, I beseeched The Hub to meet me for lunch. I needed an hour in his peaceful presence, and to consume leafy greens with feta cheese. But the worst vision was still to come.

I gazed up to the restaurant’s TV and saw Paula Deen, holding a Barbie doll version of herself. (Yes, I could tell the difference; Paula was taller.)

What fresh horrors will the season hold?

Confessions of a cupcake curmudgeon

cuckoo coconut cupcake

After the column detailing my issues with cupcakes, I received an email from Sherril Koroluk with the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill. She asked me to judge its annual cupcake contest.

A confirmed cupcake curmudgeon judging a cupcake contest? Did she not read the column?

She wanted a discriminating judge. Well, that’s what she’d be getting. I decided to do it because I still harbored hope that there might be out there, somewhere, a cupcake I could love. I don’t enjoy being anti-cupcake, and I do take abuse for my stance.

There were 30 entries. Add all those little cakes together, and that’s a lot of cake. My fellow judges and I decided to divide them up between us. We’d each taste 10, pick two or three we liked, then all taste those. Poet Ruth Moose – no relation that we’re willing to admit, although we call each other “Cuz” – zipped through hers. Emily Pierce from Chapel Hill’s Sugarland bakery and I were a little slower.

The first few of my 10 did not leave me hopeful of a change of heart. One baker tried to color the frosting Carolina Blue and ended up with a dull purple. I’m not sure what color a baker was going for on the frosting for another, but it was gray. People eat with their eyes, folks.

One cupcake had an aftertaste so yukky that I had to spit the bite into a trash can. Emily and Ruth tried to figure out what it was, too. Black pepper? Cayenne? Rusty nails?

One promising cakelet was ruined by an overdose of canned cherry pie filling. Another had good chocolate flavor and a pretty appearance, but the combination of an icing and glaze made the cake too soft. Some had the common problem of overly sweet icing. At least none of them committed my most despised cupcake offense, a mountain of icing. I didn’t have to shave any cupcakes before tasting them.

Judging the contest was starting to feel like giving a boring guy a second date – a nice gesture, but a really bad idea.

Then, I saw it. Glowing and lovely. The cupcake was in Ruth’s group, and I found out why she had finished so fast. It was called Cuckoo Coconut Cupcake. Why “cuckoo” we don’t know, unless that’s what it makes you when you eat it. It was so simple: A moist, finely textured cake with a creamy topping sprinkled with coconut. It was our clear winner. The baker was 11-year-old Paulina Garcia Hernandez, who received $100.

Second place went to a chocolate-caramel cupcake from JP’s Cupcakery. Third place was an orange-flavored cake, creatively baked in an orange half, from Anna Mae and Natasha Arbalagan.

The experience has caused my feelings about cupcakes to shift only slightly. Among cupcakes, there are still a lot of frogs out there and few princes – but you may find one.

Food news roundup

Andrea Weigl’s column in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) explores the fact that the Community Supported Fisheries delivery she signed up for has not been exactly upfront about some of its offerings not coming from North Carolina waters.  Read more here. Weigl believes the misinformation wasn’t intentional. But it raises an issue that has been in the back of my mind. Now that “eat local” has become so popular, some people may begin to view it as a profitable marketing tool. At the moment, consumers must trust restaurants, stores, etc., that the items touted as locally caught or grown actually were. Eaters should continue to ask questions, educate themselves about what is in season and when in North Carolina, and get to know farmers, chefs and producers.

The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer examines how Target’s touted low grocery prices really stack up. Grab your cart and head here.

If it’s not hot enough for you right now, fire up some Hot and Sour Soup from Cary’s Super Wok. The recipe is in the Independent Weekly (Durham. N.C.) here.

NestMeg begins exploring German food after producing a truckload of cupcakes.

For generations in North Carolina, ramps were something you ate because you were desperate for something green after the cold winter, and it was an excuse for a festival that drew political candidates and moonshine. Now, ramps are haute. They were all over Manhattan menus when I was there a few weeks ago. Now, LeitesCulinaria urges us to pickle them. In ‘shine, perhaps?

A video of two top New Orleans chefs making crab and corn bisque is a hoot. It’s at the Times-Picayune, here.

And this has nothing to do with food, but y’all should read it. It’s the blog by Scott Huler, North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate, here. This one is about little league baseball, but the blog is usually on just about anything. See it here.


Food Blogger Bake Sale time

I can’t decide which baked good to offer for the Food Blogger Bake Sale, so I’ll let you hungry people vote. Johanna Kramer (DurhamFoodie) and Matt Lardie (GreenEats) have organized the Food Blogger Bake Sale in Durham, N.C. as part of the Great American Bake Sale, a nationwide effort to raise money for Share Our Strength. Share Our Strength’s simple, yet massive, goal: End childhood hunger in America. Nearly one out of every four children face hunger daily in this country. Simply unacceptable.

Area food bloggers – including moi – plan to participate. The event will be May 14, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Art Market at Vega Metals, 214 Hunt St., Durham, N.C. Tickets are $3 each or four for $10, and each ticket gets your choice of one item. And we bloggers will be watching to see whose goodies sell out first, for bragging rights. It’s not too late to participate – contact Lardie.

Oh, your choices. Should I make my Spicy Pumpkin Muffins (pumpkin with a ton of cinnamon, mace and cloves) or Bananaville Bread (banana bread made with coconut, pineapple and rum)?

Food news roundup

There’s some great stuff in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) and Charlotte (N.C.) Observer today – making ice cream without a pricey, counter top-eating ice cream machine, to name one. But a more interesting item is in N&O food writer Andrea Weigl’s blog. The Raleigh Downtown Farmers market is struggling. It’s a great market, great farmers, local seafood, you name it. The problem, in my opinion, is it’s in the middle of the workday. Where are downtown workers supposed to keep veg and fish if the office has no refrigerator? I think an end-of-the-workday market would draw more shoppers (say, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.).

Community gardens are not new. But a huge garden (1,000 sweet potato plants, for starters) in Winston-Salem, N.C. is being grown by volunteers, with the entire crop going to Second Harvest Food Bank. Read more in the Winston-Salem Journal, here.

Cupcakes? They’re so ’09. The hip baked good now is the macarone, declares the Kansas City Star here. No they’re not shaggy macaroons. Macarones are puffy, light, colorful cookies in unusual flavors.

Water your whiskey? Ice cube in your wine? Not so crazy, writes food scientist Harold McGee in the New York Times. Water can actually be a useful flavor enhancer. Read more here.

Food news roundup

A gallery of cupcakes brightens the morning on The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) food page. Someone had the extremely difficult job of tasting and evaluating local ones. I learned the name of my fave: Slow Burn. Grab a fork and head here.

A fish camp is where guppies make seaweed sleeping bags and sing rousing songs (“99 cans of fish food on the wall, 99 cans of fish food…”). Wrong. Find out the real history in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, here.

A coffee cup sculpture will stand at the entrance to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, N.C., which is set to open Feb. 1 near the site of the famous lunch counter sit-ins. Read about it in the Greensboro News & Record, here.

Louisiana farmers are donating rice to Haiti. Read that, along with King Cake information, in the New Orleans Times Picayune, here.

Upscale Dallas restaurants are going down-home by offering haute versions of biscuits and sausage gravy. The Dallas Morning News has the scoop here.

Who cares about the human genome when chocolate is involved? Florida scientists are attempting to crack the code of cacao and the differences in flavor among different varieties. Read about it in the Miami Herald, here.

That’s some cupcake, cupcake

Cupcake by Crumb in RaleighI have to confess, the cupcake craze has not swept me along. I find that most have the wrong percentage of cake to frosting – about twice as much frosting as cake. Now, I have nothing against good frosting, but I want a bite of both each time. And cupcakes I’ve sampled from bakeries, until now, have seemed like just miniature cakes, not exploring the possibilities of the cupcake’s petite form.

Then, just before Christmas, a friend lured me to an unlikely cupcake locale: a corner of Designbox Gallery at 323 W. Martin Street in downtown Raleigh that was holding an annual holiday crafts sale. There, Shotbox offered coffee from Ty Beddingfield, the original owner of Third Place, and Rich Futrell of Durham’s Counter Culture Coffee. But the stars were cupcakes from Crumb, with bakers Carrie Gephart, formerly of the stellar Hayes Barton Dessertery (yes, the place behind the pharmacy at Five Points) and David Menestries.

I ordered a chocolate cupcake with chocolate mousse filling, and buttercream icing flavored with jalapeno and cilantro. This was a cupcake revelation. Just enough icing to enhance the cake without drowning it, with the cilantro adding a green-mint like flavor. The jalapeno provided a subtle jolt in the back of the throat. The cake was not too sweet (another beef I have with most cupcakes).

The blog at the Crumb website implies that the take-out operation may be back this month. Let’s all hope so. I hate that I missed the one with candied habanero buttercream and Patron tequila. If you want all the cupcakes to yourself, you can place orders through the website.