It’s honestly the main feature I’m looking for in an eggnog. Mediocre flavor I can excuse, but if it doesn’t have that thick, creamy texture a glass of milk could never achieve, what is the point of anything?
So I was disappointed when I followed a recipe to make eggnog myself for the first time and found that… it was thin. It was lacking. It may as well have been water. I swore off making eggnog and stuck to buying my brand of choice, Southern Comfort.
But one day last year, I was feeling a little experimental. If cooking the egg and milk mixture to 160 degrees F as the recipe instructed didn’t thicken it to my liking, why not just… cook it for longer?
I discarded the thermometer and cooked it for a few minutes longer until it seemed like it had thickened some. And the result, after it had cooled and I’d beaten in the whipped egg whites, was something magical. It had the thickness of a milkshake, and yet the beaten egg whites added a frothy lightness that kept the mixture from being too heavy. It was perfect. Except… I had no idea what temperature I’d cooked the eggnog mixture to.
I mean that. I’ve been duped by recipes before. Baked “donuts” made in donut pans don’t taste like donuts; they taste like muffins. Donut-shaped muffins. I once followed a recipe for a chickpea dip that’s supposed to taste like chocolate chip cookie dough. And it tasted like… sugary chickpeas. Some recipes are just lies. I’ve learned to be skeptical.
But this recipe came from Alton Brown, whom I generally trust. And I was right to. You seriously cannot taste the tofu here. Tofu takes on the flavor of whatever you put in it. In this case it’s chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate.
So when Matt told me he wanted chocolate cake for his birthday, my first thought was the recipe that’s been my go-to for years. But then I wondered… how does that recipe compare to other recipes? How can I say my usual chocolate cake recipe is great if I have no means of comparison?
And thus another experiment began.
I took a similar approach to my vanilla cupcake experiment: four different recipes, one battle arena, one winner.
Usually to get there I first have to bake a series of imperfect things–often over the course of years as I try different recipes and hope this next one is the one. Then, once I find it, we’re very happy together. Chocolate chip cookies and I have been together for several years now. It was love at first sight with cinnamon rolls. I just found brownies last year (post forthcoming), which is a small miracle.
I haven’t yet found vanilla cupcakes.
I’ve made decent vanilla cupcakes, but nothing that seemed… perfect. The cupcake recipe I’ve been using lately tastes good but is slightly dense, while cupcakes I’ve had at bakeries are light and springy. How does that happen? What makes a springy cupcake?
So, one Thursday evening after work I decided I wanted to bake four different cupcake recipes to pit them against one another in a fight to the death.
The thing about chess pie is that I don’t understand it.
I hadn’t even heard of it until a couple of years ago. In my defense I’m from San Diego and this pie, apparently, hails from the South.
From what I’ve learned, it’s a sweet custard-y pie–though the stick of butter and ton of sugar put it in a new category entirely. Another element I found unique is the tablespoon of vinegar to cut the sweetness (more on that later) and the cornmeal that’s mixed in with the pie filling, which floats to the top during the baking process to create a crispy top layer. And because the pie’s ingredients are simple, the vanilla really shines through.
These muffins are a fun twist on the usual pumpkin fare. As much as I love baking with pumpkin when fall rolls around, I get a little tired of the usual standbys–pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie, while delicious, are also everywhere. They’ve been done, many times over. These muffins are like a cross between pumpkin muffins and pecan pie. I haven’t had them before and I haven’t made them before. There’s something refreshing about that.
This recipe comes from the Belvedere Plantation. My boyfriend and I went there in November for their Fall Finale Festival, primarily for their corn maze, but it turned out they had much more to offer. Rope swings in the aptly named fun barn. A giant slide. An oversized trampoline called a jumping pillow. And recipes. I left the plantation with straw in my shoes and a free paper booklet of pumpkin recipes in my hand. What more does anyone need?
The next morning I flipped through the recipes, and I stopped when I got to this one. Normally I need visuals to get excited about a recipe, and a cute little stapled-together booklet of recipes printed on festively orange half-sheets of paper contains zero visuals, understandably. But the recipe alone did it for me this time. I saw the ingredients, read the directions, and got where they were going. Pumpkin muffins with a pecan pie-like topping? Yes. Yes. This is a thing I want to make happen. Now. Yes.
But this caramel popcorn is just really, really good.
There are some things where the storebought version just doesn’t compare, and caramel popcorn is one of them. In every kind of storebought caramel popcorn I’ve had, the glaze is thin, sugary, and flavorless. In a word, it’s weak. Even when the popcorn is fully coated in glaze, the flavor is still lacking. It’s a bland coating of chemicals and no wants that.
And then, one summer day in 2008 while visiting Kate in Maryland, I had caramel popcorn from Dolle’s in Ocean City. The flavor was intensely delicious–buttery and brown sugary, smothering each piece in caramel goodness. That led to an obsession, with Dolle’s caramel popcorn specifically. For years that was the gold standard, the one caramel popcorn that wasn’t disappointing. And then it occurred to me to make some myself.
In sixth grade I wrote an essay about these cookies.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time perusing my mother’s Australian Women’s Weekly cookbooks. She kept a stack of them in her walk-in closet, and I would take out a few at a time and flip through the pages, looking for ideas on what to bake next. If I was feeling particularly civilized I would read the cookbooks to my room, or on the living room couch. But sometimes I would just sit on the floor of the closet and read the cookbooks right then and there. Baking waits for no one.
That’s how I learned about honey jumbles. They had a cute name, they looked simple to make, and I loved anything with ginger in it, and that was all the convincing eleven-year-old me needed to try my hand at baking them.
You know a muffin is good when you can’t stop eating the batter.
Cookie dough is obviously delicious in raw form, but muffin batters and cake batters usually taste a little off. Their goopy texture combined with the sharp, chemical taste of raw baking powder always makes me think twice about licking the mixing spoon. (I mean, I do it anyway, but I usually regret it.)
I wish I could say a child were involved in the making of this. It would be better for my ego.
But no, this one was all me.
As I’ve said before, I don’t decorate. I aim to make things that taste good, not look good. So why would I make a cake whose execution depends entirely on decoration? Why would I let this happen?
Nostalgia might be the best explanation. Kate and I got to talking about the PBS kids’ show Zoom, which we used to watch when we were children. We both recalled one episode in which Caroline made a rainbow cake, which Kate had always wanted to make, and which my eleven-year-old self actually did end up making not long after seeing the episode.
And then, just like that, we wanted a rainbow cake.