Saturday, March 13, 2010

The first known mosaics were Sumerian, although there is some evidence that mosaic was used in abstract ways before that. Sumer was one of the first recorded human civilizations, beginning before 800 BCE, so it's safe to say mosaics have been around a long time. As soon as people began to make pottery, they had broken pottery, and humans have always had the drive to create art. Sumerians would push broken pottery point-first into wet clay or mortar to create their designs. Later this century, they and the Turks would develop techniques for using colored pebbles to create designs in paved roads.

Across the globe and a few centuries later, the Greeks would take pebble mosaic to the next level with their intricately patterned pavements of geometric designs and people and animals. The Greeks continued to evolve the art form from pebbles to tiles, broken glass and pottery, and by 200 BCE, began to manufacture their own tesserare for the sole purpose of mosaic art. This allowed true creativity and variety to emerge, and some of the most beautiful mosaics existing today are from this Greek era. Some beautiful examples are found at Thessaloniki, Greece, and there are stunning examples by Greek artists preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy. One of the most famous mosaics comes from this era, and is at the Piazza Armerina, Sicily. It's a beautifully detailed mosaic showing a scene of bikini-clad girls playing sports, and is proof that some things never go out of style.

The Roman Empire expanded all over the globe, and mosaic went with it, spreading as far as England's shores. The last capital of the Roman Empire was Ravenna, Italy, and it's known as the “City of Mosaics”. It became the center for Roman mosaic art. Many buildings and churches in the city are adorned with complex and beautiful Christian mosaics. In the 5th century, the Byzantine Empire conquered most of the area, including Ravenna, and so mosaics began to have a Byzantine style. Included in this mostly religious style are the introduction of smalti mosaics, and a trend to decorate the ceilings and walls instead of the floors as the Romans had done. This was a practical necessity, as smalti tiles are glass, and glass is not suitable for floor mosaics. The Byzantine style spread all over the world, and can be found in many parts of Europe and even influenced the art of the middle East, and was popular even through the middle ages.

Another style that came about in the 14th century in Persia was the use of geometric mosaic, after the Byzantine mosaic went out of style.. It can be seen in Islamic mosques of the time, and continued in some form throughout history, although most of Europe abandoned large-scale mosaics for less labor-intensive frescoes during the Dark Middle Ages.

Mosaic had a revival in the popular art-deco movement of the 1920's. Today, mosaic is an art form all to itself, as varied and beautiful as any other medium. It fits into any d├ęcor, can be installed to create permanent accents in homes, and is widely available and accessible to everyone.

Friday, September 11, 2009


It has come to my attention that Sprinkles Cupcakes doesn't really like anyone to mention them. At all. In fact, the mere suggestion of the word "sprinkle" makes them run for their lawyers. And before you ask, no, I didn't get a notice or anything scary or legal. I just saw a few too many news stories about their legal battles with other bakeries who dared utter the word "sprinkle" on their menus
So I figured since the blog is so new, I would just move and rename it now, before I had invested too much time.
I am still going to be creating my own recipes. I still have some points of inspiration and some definite ideas to be hammered out. I have a lot to say about cupcakes, I have finally been bitten by the bug. You can look forward to a lot of posts over at Not Another Cupcake Blog--my newest location. I will not be posting here again, and it will probably be deleted before too long. Just being cautious...I checked my email today and suddenly, I'm being followed by Sprinkles. Literally. They're following me on Twitter. So...we're packing up! It was never my intention to ride their fame, anyway.
You should be redirected within 10 seconds; if not, click the link above.
See you!!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Chocolate Cupcakes with Cafe au Lait Buttercream

Progress has been made in regards to chocolate. I made morechocolate cupcakes, adapting a pretty basic King Arthur Flour recipe, in my quest for the Best Chocolate Cake recipe, ever. I was pretty pleased with my results--not pleased enough to offer you the recipe, not just yet--and I thought they were a good starting point. I still have some more experimenting to do before I'm quite done. I chose to use a variation of the "ribbon" or "genoise" method for this cake. If you're not familiar with it, it's very simple--the eggs and sugar are whipped together, instead of butter and sugar. When they become volumious and light. Separately, cocoa, oil, vanilla, and hot water are mixed to make the liquids in the cake. Mixing cocoa with hot water or another liquid or fat will bring out its flavor much better than mixing it into dry ingedients. Then, the dry and wet are mixed in alternately. As a final step, I whipped half a cup of cream ( a trick picked up from Shirley O.) and folded that in.
I knew they were going to be tasty, but the texture was the thing that surprised me the most. They had an incredibly fine crumb! Very tight and uniform, almost like a pound cake. The texture was incredibly tender and light, delicate really. Here, take a look:

So I was pleased, but not quite sure it was what I wanted for the cupcake. I wanted sort of that old-fashioned feel--and this cake was almost too refined. It would be fantastic for a fancy torte, and I made an extra small 5" round cake. The layers split beautifully. But again...not really what I wanted. I want a bit coarser crumb. Not a tough texture, but something more...well, more like the muffins I made, if that makes any sense. I just realized that as I sit typing. The texture of the Pear and Walnut Cream Muffins I made over on Baked By Anna is exactly what I am looking for. Something so soft and light you are tempted to just shove the whole thing in your mouth. Perhaps I should go back to the dump and stir method for chocolate cakes., and treat them like muffins. They defy all the rules of the Cake Formulas, anyway, so I have a difficult time figuring out what is going on in there. I'll be changing the mixing method, but I'll also be tinkering with the recipe just a bit. (If you click that, and it's not a link yet, I am working on it right now.)

I also tried out a new buttercream recipe. I couldn't make up my mind about what to frost them with. The baby was fussy and I didn't want to commit a pound of butter to a Swiss Buttercream I wasn't sure I'd be able to pipe. I considered chocolate glaze, but I really didn't have a chance to make these as pretty as I'd like. And chocolate gets everywhere.
There was an interesting new recipe in Bakewise I'd had my eye on. I have never in my life heard of a creme anglaise buttercream before, and didn't see how it was even possible. Also, it was coffee flavored, which my regular readers will know I am not crazy about. But I know the rest of the world likes coffee and chocolate together, and I keep telling myself I should try to develop an appreciation for the flavor.
The buttercream goes like this: step one, make a creme anglaise. A creme anglaise is a thin custard, and is really the same thing as an ice cream base. Basic custard technique is used here. Four egg yolks were whipped a bit with 3/4 cup of sugar. A little less than a cup of milk (207 ml) is heated to boiling, then 1/4 cup of crushed coffee beans are steeped in this for about ten minutes. The milk is strained, brought to a boil with another 1/4 cup of sugar, and the eggs are tempered and returned to the pan briefly. Another trip through the strainer, into a bowl with an ice bath underneath, and the flavorings are added--I chose vanilla and Frangelico, my favorite liqueur.
Now, you have a fantastic creme anglaise sauce. This can be used to serve with desserts--wonderful with angel food cake--or chilled and churned to make ice cream. But to make this into a buttercream, you need butter. 3 sticks (1 1/2 cups/339g) to be exact. Cool butter, whipped until fluffy. Add the custard slowly, and beat until it looks like frosting.
This is the most buttery buttercream I have ever, ever had. It's nothing like the Swiss Meringue Buttercream, which is my favorite--this is dense, rich, silky, and totally indulgent. When you eat SMBC you can almost forget that there's a pound of butter in there. With this, it's impossible. You taste the butter, and then get this wonderfully subtle, creamy background flavor of coffee, along with vanilla and hazelnut. It has converted me, the one who hates coffee. I seriously considered making it into ice cream and making a different frosting. I kept sneaking little tastes of the custard before I whipped it.
The downside? It's basically whipped butter! You have to work fast, because too cold, you can't spread it or pipe it. Too hot, and it begins to melt. You just have a window of a few degrees to make it, then get it onto your baked good of choice. And when you serve it, it must be brought out beforehand, but not too much. As delicious as it was, I'd only make it again if I needed it for a breakfast buffet, or as a topping for bagels or scones. It would be insanely good at a tea., perhaps with a bit less sugar. As a frosting? Kind of tricky. But do make the anglaise--oh, that technique of crushing coffee beans and infusing milk will definitely be making another appearance here, perhaps as a yummy custard filling.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

On Chocolate

Cute, huh? Yep...they were adorable, taken to my son's preschool class for his 4th birthday this last week. Teeny little chocolate cupcakes, adorned with a pillowy meringue frosting and sprinkles. The chocolate cupcake underneath was an experiment, the first of my attempts to create a recipe for my own personal best chocolate cupcake. Unfortunately, this wasn't the one. Here's the dirty little secret inside of the cupcake:

Oh, they tasted yummy. Moist, kind of a soft and springy texture...not exactly what I was hoping for, though. I used the other half to make a cake layer for ice cream cake, and found that to be a better fit for the cake's unique texture.
Most chocolate cake recipes leave me wanting more. I have a couple I like, one being King Arthur's Sourdough version--but it's a tricky process that requires advance planning if you don't always have starter out. Also high up on my list, and the one I use most often, Cook's Illustrated's Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake, but it's also fussy and easy to screw up.
There are sour cream chocolate cakes, and buttermilk. Cakes that use real chocolate, and those with just cocoa. Dutched and natural cocoas (I prefer Dutched to natural a thousand times over for flavor.) There are Chiffon cakes, angel cakes, creamed cakes, reverse-creamed cakes a la Beranbaum, and brownie-method cakes. Fudgy, or light, flourless, and eggless. It seems an infinite number of ingredients, methods, and variations.
Of course, to start to narrow it down you have to consider your end result. What do you want in a chocolate cupcake? Dense and brownie-like? Light and fluffy? A mouthful of fudge?
I think, for a chocolate cupcake, it should be classic. I want a cupcake like those of my youth--moist enough to squish on the end of a fork, like those old Duncan Hines commercials. (I have made many a boxed cake mix, as a kid.) Totally intense chocolate flavor, whether it's a milk or dark style. Light, but fudgy. (Is that possible?)
Cook's Illustrated had the same cake in mind, which is why I usually use their recipe, but it has its flaws. I think a chocolate cupcake should also be somewhat simple and idiot-proof--because that's part of the joy of a cupcake. Who wants a fussy, difficult process every time you need to whip up a batch for a bake sale? I almost cringe every time I want to make a chocolate cake, because I will always make the best one I know how to--even if it's a pain in the ass.
I am sitting here tonight wondering if I should make the Chocolate Butter cake from the Cake Bible, just to compare. Or Shirley Corriher's Deep Dark Chocolate Cake. Not to use as my own, no--that's not what this blog's about. This is a process for me, trial and error, as I create my own recipes, not just copy someone else's. It's intended to teach me and anyone who's listening about how to create a cake/cupcake recipe that's exactly what you want, and how it works. Not every post here will have a recipe, because it's just as much about the experiments as it is the end result. It's a Project. So I continue working on chocolate...stay tuned.

Or if I should just take a break from chocolate and move on to something different, like Pumpkin, considering the season. But then, isn't it always chocolate season? At least here it is. I have some Dutch Cocoa on its way here, so I need to make up my mind.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Perfectly Strawberry Cupcakes

Welcome to the new blog!
I'm Anna, and hopefully you got here via my original baking blog, Life's Too Short For Mediocre Chocolate ,or my new blog, Baked By Anna. I am continuing to post as regularly as I can on my regular blog, but I finally decided that I had so many cupcake recipes taking up space in my head, I needed a place for them to go. So, a cupcake-dedicated blog. Because I need another project, don't you think?

I was inspired by the concept of Sprinkles, the original cupcake bakery in LA. I live only an hour away, but haven't had the chance to eat there yet. (Soon!) As a starting point, I plan on drawing from their original menu of about 22 flavors, and creating 22 completely original cupcake and/or frosting recipes. From scratch, of course!
My goal is not to copy Sprinkles, and this blog is in no way connected to them. I just do much better if I start a project with boundaries and goals, rather than wandering around, with no end in sight. What can I say, I need structure.
So while that is the plan for now (and I already have a few recipes down), I don't plan on leaving out flavors and recipes that they don't have--if inspiration strikes and the recipe is a success, then it will be posted as well.
With as crazy as my life is with two little ones in school and a brand-new baby, this blog will be a long-term project. I look forward to seeing it through, hopefully with a few readers along the way!
The first cupcake is near and dear to my heart--Strawberry. One of my favorite flavors, and I happen to have been born and raised in the strawberry growing capital of California. There are always berries here, picked that morning in a field ten feet away.
The secret to a cupcake that tastes like a burst of fresh strawberry while retaining a wonderfully light and uniform texture (with no soggy lumps of berry) is to use freeze-dried berries that have been chopped up in a food processor. They add the perfect amount of flavor, no extra moisture like a fresh berry, and don't affect the structural integrity of the cupcake.

Fresh Strawberry Cupcakes with Strawberry Cream Cheese Buttercream
Baked By Anna

284g (2 1/2 cups) cake flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tub or package (1- 1 1/2 oz, about 35-42 grams) freeze-dried strawberries
6 oz (1 1/2 sticks) butter, 65-70 degrees
2 cups (400g) granulated sugar
3 eggs
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup whipping cream

Preheat oven to 375. Prepare two 12-cup muffin tins with liners.
In a food processor, pulverize berries until finely chopped, about pea size pieces.
Mix together all dry ingredients in a medium bowl for a full minute, including crushed berries.
Mix togther yogurt and vanilla.
In a mixer bowl, cream butter and sugar together until very light and fluffy and almost white in color, at least 5 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, and scrape bowl well. Reduce mixer speed to low, and add 1/2 of flour mixture, beating til just blended. Add half of the yogurt mixture, then half of the remaining flour, then the rest of the yogurt. Mix til just blended, then remove and scrape well with a spatula until all ingredients are incorporated.
In a medium bowl, whip cream until soft peaks form. Fold gently into cake batter. Portion into muffin tins, and bake 20-22 minutes, til toothpick inserted comes out clean. Let rest in tins 5-10 minutes, then remove to wire rack to cool completely.

Strawberry Cream Cheese Buttercream (American style)
1 stick (4 oz) butter, soft
1 package (8oz) cream cheese, soft
1 box powdered sugar
pinch salt
1 basket fresh strawberries, washed, hulled, pureed, and strained of seeds

Whip together butter and cream cheese til smooth. Add powdered sugar, and add strawberry puree by the tablespoon (up to 1/4 cup) til frosting reaches a good consistency. Chill until firm enough to spread or pipe, 1-2 hours. You will have leftover puree.
Garnish with leftover berries, if desired.

** Notes about next time.
The freeze dried berries absorb moisture quickly, so use an unopened package and process it right away.
These cupcakes are incredibly tender, with almost no gluten. Don't fill liners more than half-full, or they'll flatten out over the tins unattractively. I may try to strengthen them a wee bit in future tests--in the meantime, don't hesitate to stir the flour in vigorously.
If you'd like a softer, more delicate frosting, add a few extra teaspoons of puree and apply with a spatula. You can also use a Swiss Meringue Buttercream flavored with the puree.
As with all cupcakes and cakes with a cream cheese frosting, refrigerate to store, but bring up to room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.
For an extra dimension of flavor and zip, add a little bit of lemon zest to the cupcake. Just a little!