Interview with Cupcakes in Rome founder Alexandra (International baked goods on a small scale.)

If you didn’t already know by now I’m a bit of a Twitter addict. It’s become a great venue to meet like-minded people like myself and frankly tweets are all the rage these days. A few months ago I did a post on baking blogs I enjoyed and admired and it was around this time that I was made aware of Cupcakes in Rome (CiR), a new independent baking venture started by Alexandra. Who is also a fabulous photographer. As an up-and-coming baker I was intrigued about what got Alexandra started as she begins to put Cupcakes in Rome on the map. She was super excited about doing an interview and since launching Cupcakes in Rome has made great progress connecting with bakers and bloggers and baking bloggers on the worldwide web. Her cupcakes use no preservatives and natural ingredients a plus these days and she said she rarely makes the same thing twice.

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JBH: Cupcakes in Rome is a small business. What was the moment that made you realize you wanted to start this business? Was it something you had been considering for awhile or did you just wake up one day and realize you wanted to follow your passion in baking?

CiR: I’ve always enjoyed being creative and keeping busy. In addition to this, I’ve always loved baking and cupcakes for me have been the perfect way to mix both these activities.

The idea of starting a business, even if it’s home-based and still very small, sort of happened by chance mainly on the suggestion of family and friends who at every occasion I’d bake some cupcakes, would tell me they were so good, I should sell them!

I guess after hearing this for so long, I just took them up on it! It’s really been more of a personal challenge than an actual business choice, really!

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JBH: On your website you mention having traveled a lot from a young age. Where did you travel and what types of sweets and other cuisines did you try that you particularly enjoyed?

CiR: I’ve been very fortunate because I travelled a lot thanks to my dad’s job. We’ve lived in 4 countries, including Indonesia (in Asia) and this has given me the opportunity to see, smell and taste all the wonderful things these places have to offer, from tropical fruits to different kinds of desserts.

I must say though that, having grown in an Italian household, REAL Italian remains my fave, but I do also love Asian-style cuisine (so long as it’s not too spicy!). As for desserts, American and English are my faves! I guess they remind me of treats during school friends’ parties or other occasions.

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JBH: Why the fascination with American cupcakes? What is it about our type of cake that intrigues you? Is it the texture? Layers? Variety of flavors? How does it differ from ones you’ve tried in Europe and other locations?

CiR: There’s something about these tiny cakes that just makes me smile! I love the variety of decorations I have discovered. I love how one tiny bite-sized cake can often become a work of art… like a canvas waiting to be brought to life! I love how, depending on the flavour and decoration, they can be great for any occasion!

Personally, I have not experimented with too many “cake” flavours, though I plan to slowly expand the variety we offer. Italians have a much less “sweet” tooth than the Americans or English… so I have somewhat adapted the selection of what I offer.

I think that the best cupcakes I’ve had were definitely in New York!

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JBH: You also have a blog that you’ve recently created. The tagline says that you aim to have a loving relationship with food and share that on your blog. By delving into your loving relationship with food do you aim to mainly post recipes that you’ve created and comparisons with baked goods native to you versus those native to America?

CiR: The aim with my blog was and is, to offer simple yet interesting recipes any working girl like me can whip up without too much trouble. I’d say I mainly prefer sharing Italian recipes that not many foreign readers may be aware of or know how to prepare.

On the contrary to my cupcake site, the blog is only in English, because my intention was to share these easy (mainly) Italian recipes and tips with English speaking readers.

The fact that I don’t update it too often, is another story!

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JBH: Beyond cupcakesinrome.com and your blog are there other ways that people can connect with you online?

CiR: I am very passionate about photography, though I’ve somewhat neglected my first love, ever since I got involved in “Cupcakes in Rome.”

My photography has always been just a hobby, but it’s something that I care about and that is another way to flaunt the creative side of my character!

Cupcakes in Rome is on Facebook and Twitter.

Websites where you can see some of my work:

http://alextakesphotos.carbonmade.com

http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexandra_n

Thanks, Alexandra for sharing your inspiration for baking and these lovely photos of your creations. Wishing Cupcakes in Rome the utmost success!

Baking Bloggers Unite! Some fave baking blogs

Now that my new website design is up showing off my loves of writing and baking thought I'd do a post showcasing some of the baking blogs I enjoy. Feel free to provide me links/mentions to your faves.

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Gluten-Free Baking Month!

Gluten-free baking month, a self-imposed title, is gone. And I'm kind of bummed about it to be honest. Gluten-free baking is something that is not as hard as you might think. The month of July encompassed me making five (the goal was six, fail) desserts that were gluten-free. Gluten-free cooking/baking is nothing new, but like most things has received wider attention because of access to the worldwide web and the information available from the medical side. Those who suffer from severe reaction to gluten in terms of digestion and absorption of nutrients have celiac disease. A friend of mine informed me she was diagnosed with it late last year. And it completely changes your way of living/eating. There are many distractors and gluten, like dairy, is everywhere!

At Book Expo this past May one of the cookbooks I scored was Gluten-Free Cookies by Luane Kohnke. And what type of Baker would I be if I didn't indulge in all types of baking? A bad one? Indeed.

I haven't had many, if any, gluten-free items outside of flourless chocolate cake or other. But here was my chance to indulge and I have to say the results were pretty darn good. Anyone who may hesitate at the thought of gluten-free should think again. Of course, anything can be bad. Gluten-filled, gluten-free, vegan or other. But it takes skill, period, to make something taste good no-matter-what. So I have to say that Ms. Kohnke did a great job with her recipes because I enjoyed them all for the most part. And once I got beyond texture it was golden!

Now, the basis for most of Luane's recipes that contain wheat flour substitute(s) are as follows: brown rice flour, tapioca flour, potato starch, xantham gum, and almond flour (often added at the end of sifting the first four ingredients). Now these aren't the only flour(s) you can use but these were the ones referenced most in her recipes so I stuck to the book. As Luane lists in the frontmatter of her book you can also get gluten-free flour, cornmeal, guar gum, hazelnut flour. She provides flour blend measurements in the front which is quite helpful to get a sense of balance.

Note: The one downside to gluten-free baking with these specific flour mixtures was pricing. I spent about $30+ on flour alone. A half pound of xantham gum cost more than $10 and one of the flour substitutes was equally pricey. The others like brown rice flour came in around $4+ at 2 lbs. So when doing gluten-free baking on a budget definitely do your research to see if you can easily switch out an item or two or have to really restructure a whole recipe. There are many ready-made gluten-free mixes but it's nice to make stuff from scratch every so often so you know exactly what's in your food.

I am in awe of the time and care bakers put into creating specialized cookbooks while making sure the end result tastes good.  Good job, Luane!

First up, Jam Thumbprints (actually jelly because I didn't feel like buying jam just for this recipe).

Well these are just magical cookies! Magic, I say! They are buttery (1.5 sticks to be exact) and chewy yet crispy if that's even possible.

Note: Something I noticed about gluten-free baking, at least with these recipes, is that the transport of said cookies meant you were carrying precious cargo. They were brittle, not always to the touch but not able to take shuffling, even the lightest bit, and when biting into them would crumble.

I believe the almond flour/meal I got was the element that added a granular texture to the cookies I made. And it was most apparent in these because it was my first recipe (a) and because of the fact that the cookie was butter, basically plain (b). But  none of this took away from the taste!

Next on the list, Macadamia Nut Blondies. These blondies also had white chocolate bits (gluten-free!). I had to say that the texture was quite dense. But all I tasted was sugar. And for me even that was a bit much. It was like a shot of sugar, though my co-workers did not complain. Not bad, just too sweet for my taste and that is saying something. 

Note: When baking with flour for cookies I found that I had to pre-make the dough and then chill it for at least an hour or overnight. This resulted in me searching for some quick recipes and the blondies were one of them.

Onward to Sweet Cinnamon Snickerdoodles! Again, the transport factor weighed heavily on these cause I had to transport them to Brooklyn and gave some to a friend. After stuffing said cookies in her purse (in ziplock) they became dust. Tasty dust as I was told.

For me the cinnamon permeated in these cookies. More so than in the snickerdoodles I've made using the Sweet Melissa recipe (a fave of friends). Not bad, just too cinnamony for me. But enough butter inside and tastiness that I'd make again and that guests went through the cookies in minutes. Minutes! 

And then we have Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies. I wanted to make sure to do at least one flourless recipe and ended up making these since I love peanut butter. The issue in the baking is knowing when these are done enough so that they're not too chewy but don't get burnt and firm up too much. I found a balance after the first batch and even if a recipe says wait until edges are brown that isn't necessarily par for the course. It depends on your oven and your methods. But these came out tasty. I added chocolate chips (gluten-free!) also because I just love the taste of both. The peanut butter was overwhelming in these, not a bad thing. When I make peanut butter cookies with flour there's a slight dilution of the peanut butter because of gluten and plus you don't need as much. But when they are flourless the peanut butter takes center stage and you have a mouthful of it. I barely taste the chocolate chips I put in because peanut butter had to be a diva.

And lastly we have Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups. These were the pièce de résistance. Chocolate cookies with a dollop of peanut butter mixture in the middle. Much like a Reese's peanut butter cup. Everyone loved these. Chocolate and peanut butter can do no wrong. Ever! 

Two stages to this one since you pre-make and chill the dough and then right before putting the cookies in the oven you make the peanut butter mixture to put inside it. Leftover peanut butter mixture makes a nice, light flourless peanut butter cookie that I liked a bit better than the Flourless Peanut Butter Cookie recipe I used because it was not as heavy on the peanut butter and had egg whites in it which helped with density.

The chocolate powder in the cookie mix isn't too overwhelming with the chocolate and neither is the light peanut butter mixture so it's a perfect balance I think. And they come in a petite size (or were supposed to as I'm heavy handed) and are a nice treat to pop in your mouth. Good times.

Even though Gluten-Free Baking Month is over in my household I still have many of the flours left over to make more items. I'm think I may try her Chocolate Cookie Cake next.

So that was Gluten-Free Baking Month. Delicious desserts with no loss in flavor at all! I'd highly suggest using and/or testing Luane's recipes for yourself. But as noted earlier in this post if you're going to invest you might as well go full on and do so for your own Gluten-Free Baking Month! I still have leftover xantham gum if you need any.

There are many resources you can find for gluten-free baking such as Gluten Free Baking, Lauren McMillan's website, Gluten Free Baking 101, Luane's website, and a host of other sites you can find via any search engine and also on sites such as Epicurious and Food Network.

Happy Baking!

How to have a successful cookie (and bar) competition!

Happy New Year Reader(s)! Now that we've been through the worst of the snowfall this winter let's look on to happier times. Late last year I got to thinking... what with the worsening recession and the rise of unemployment I was wondering how, in times of financial constraints, one can have a fun and successful party where no one will think about the dire straits of our country? Something that has united me and those around me has always been the effect of good food, particularly yummy baked goods. So, it only made sense to have a cookie (and bar) competition to celebrate my birthday, the beginning of a new year, hopefully the end of the recession, and above all sugar-infused treats!

I have to tip my hat to Jason Lam, the man behind MeSoHungry, who hosts an annual cookie competition before the Christmas holiday. And hearing how successful his parties had been I thought "Hot damn it's solidified!" I'd have a cookie (and bar) competition and hope my friends would be kind enough to participate. The bars came into play when a friend of mine mentioned a preference for making them. Plus, I didn't want to be prejudice against bars because they're so damn delicious.

Once the plan was set I got to thinking how this could all work out...

Step 1) The Contestants! Luckily I have many baking inclined friends or those who are just into trying new things. Some are into cooking/baking to wow the masses, like my husband, while others were happy to do me a solid and get some accolades in the process.  If you're throwing a competition and don't have enough entries then there may be trouble afoot and you may have  lie and say Paula Deen is going to be there and give out heaping amounts of deep-fried goods to all who attend. I won't say I didn't politely urge some people into baking, especially if I knew they could bring it and bring it hard.  There were about a dozen or so contestants resulting in a might fine spread. And all were more than happy to partake.

Why let the cookies have all the fun in the competition?

Step 2) Location, Location: I've had my birthday party at Stone Creek Bar & Lounge for the past few years because the service is phenomenal and the back room is spacey. I reserve ahead of time and usually get the room on the date I request. With no time constraints, a private room and bar the party can go all night long! You should look into where you can have said competition ahead of time and hope it can hold all the aspiring bakers and empty bellies. Also try to negotiate pricing or learn of fees beforehand.

And do I spy some brownies in the back?

Step 3) Advertise! I made sure to contact people ahead of time and let them know this was a "COOKIE PARTY." Of course this doesn't stop people from looking at you with raised eyebrows wondering how they'll get "real food." I couldn't help but stare at some people as I emphasized the words "Baking party!" as they headed out to try and find protein and vegetables or whatever leaving perfectly good sugary goods behind.

If you're really nice have some finger foods available for consumption before everyone digs into the sugary pile. (I'd also recommend asking or strongly urging people who don't enter the competition to make donations to help pay for healthy spreads like crudite, chicken fingers, or cheese and crackers for people to nosh on before the competition begins or even to help cover costs for the room/space if there's a set fee.)

One of the winners and a low-cal brownie treat!

Step 4) Prizes! What good is a competition if you just get glory "in name"? Yes, we compete for the accolades but dang it if I weren't also in it for prizes. The Olympians of yester-year used to get a simple olive branch wreath. Now they get medals that they can show off and pimp themselves regularly for endorsements of various foods and athletic apparel. Prizes are the way to go so try to find some that will make your guests happy or at least smile. In my case I offered different tiers of movie passes for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, which really made people excited about entering. Even those that didn't rank for the top prizes got a cute lil' button proclaiming their badassness in the kitchen. Or as my friend BLee says "official cookie aficionado, JBH approved." Heck yeah!

Gimme some sugar, lemon sugar cookies that is. Te he.

Step 5) Democracy! This is America dammit (the U. S. of A.) and as such the competition was a democracy. Just because it was my birthday party doesn't mean I was fit to judge. My husband entered for crying out loud how am I expected to be impartial? So I made ballots AND labels so people could be voted on appropriately. We wouldn't want any Indecision 2000 stuff going on at a cookie party as things could get dangerous with a few dozen people on a sugar high.

And those are my steps to having an awesome and democratic cookie/bar competition. Follow said steps, allow the masses to enjoy the spread, stand back and watch the good times roll, then repeat as necessary.

As you can see from the pictures the entries were vast and awfully tasty. There were vegan options and none, many bar entries, and things I'd never think would taste good in a cookie like cardamom. Who knew?

The winners of my inaugural 2010 competition were as follows and you can get the recipes for these tasty treats online by clicking on their respective links:

1st place: Key Lime Coconut Bars made by the lovely mistress behind Dessert Landscape!

2nd place: Orange Citrus Bars made by my hubby!

3rd place: Vegan Mint Chocolate Chip Cookies made by my co-worker KP!

Other entries included Amaretto Bars, Good ole Chocolate Chip Cookies, Vegan Peanut Butter Oatmeal "amazingness" Cookies, Vegan Cardamom Pistachio Cookies, Lemon Bars, Sugar Lemon Cookies, Cream Cheese Swirl Brownies, Banana Tart, Cookie Concoction (a colored sugar cookie with a spice-laden surprise), and so on and so forth.  Some were family recipes others were open to the public but all and I mean all were good.

Sorta reminds you of The Last Supper, no?

Thanks again to everyone who participated and came out for a successful birthday celebration and competition! See you next year!

Wrap up! My year in baking...(Pt. 2)

And here are my remaining baking efforts for the year. The second half of the year brought a lot of use of my oven. Thankfully, it can take it. August:

The Dish: If it isn't already evident that I'm a lemon nut then here's more proof. My baked good for August was: Lemon Poppyseed Cake. Hell, I had left over lemons and, as mentioned, a whole lot of poppyseeds. Why not make bread?

Tarter than your average "cake"

End result: Also from Sweet Melissa's Cookbook, but I was not a fan of this one. Too tart and not sugary enough for me. Plus, I believe I left one loaf in a bit longer than necessary so it was a bit too crisp on the bottom. But, I brought it to work and people enjoyed it. I was told that the fact it was more lemony than sugary made it taste more like a traditional bread rather than cake. Go fig.

September:

The Dish: The previous month I had gone to Vermont for a Writer's Conference. My roomie at the conference went to a Maple shop and I implored her to get me maple sugar if she could find it. She did! (Thanks, Iris!) And so I made it a point to find something to use this decadent sugar for. And so I found a simple recipe, because I like simple, for Mapledoodles.

Not my favorite recipe of the year, so I'll keep on the look out...

End result: For me, I think these cookies tasted better cool rather than warm. I got a metallic like taste from either the maple extract or the maple sugar. And lastly, too much maple! This recipe called for maple extract and maple sugar in the cookie along with maple sugar outside of the cookie and an (optional) maple glaze! I had to hold off from doing maple outside of the cookie because the taste was too darn strong! Decent enough cookies, but I've seen alternate mapledoodle recipes I'll try.

The Dish: In addition to the, somewhat disappointing, mapledoodles I made a classic fave: pumpkin chocolate chip cookies! My same friend who is a gifted baker introduced me to pumpkin chocolate chip bars, which are amazing! This is a take on that.

A personal fave!

End result: These have a cakey texture rather than your normal cookie texture. And to eat these warm is amazing! The moist cakey-ness along with melty chocolate chips makes these to die for. It's filled with the same spices you'd use to make pumpkin pie as well as pumpkin filling and is amazing!

You'll fall in love with these and the recipe I use makes five dozen or more which is never enough! People in the office loved them and I found the adult mentors liked them too. Kids and teenagers may be a bit sketched out by pumpkin cookies, but once they try them they'll be reformed. I'm drooling just thinking about them.

October:

The Dish: Of course one would think that I'd save the pumpkin treats for October, but in all honest they're good any time! But this month I actually delved into a treat I've eaten a lot, but never had the cajones to make: pound cake!

Turns out it's super-easy!

Basically butter cake, but an old time fave...

End result: Main difference is that it is made with light brown sugar rather than regular granulated as per the recipe on the back of the Domino's sugar box. So it looks a bit darker as well. Tasted really good and familiar, almost like my grandma's!

Made it for my drinking group (hey ladies!) and they enjoyed it. Moistness keeps if sealed well for a couple of days, but definitely tastes best right out of the oven and with some accoutrements such as cream or berries.

The Dish: I also did a pumpkin recipe for Halloween! Last year I had an awful pumpkin bar recipe. The bars were incredibly dense and not sweet at all. Not happy. So I went with a Paula Deen recipe this year because, quite frankly, you can trust her butter-filled delicacies. And I wasn't disappointed!

Just between you and me, this is pumpkin cake...

End result: I just couldn't be bothered with icing and didn't want to deter from the pumpkin taste, so there you go. I have to say that this was more of a cake then a bar. It was mighty fluffy and could've used icing. It tasted fabulous and I'll make again instead calling it Ms. Deen's pumpkin cake!

November:

The Dish: And as the year comes full circle so does this month's dessert which was, well, lemon of course! This time lemon cupcakes with lemony cream on top. I made it for my department's first ever Dessert Hour before Thanksgiving and these cupcakes were a hit! If you're not a big dessert person lemon is excellent because it's not too strong and complements the sweet just right.

The lemony cream is the best part!

End result: These cupcakes are somewhat of a semi-homemade approach and you just do your own thing after using the cake mix. Lemon curd is the secret ingredient for these minicakes and it's really good. I have to say my main delight was in the lemony cream (heavy whipping cream, lemon curd, and confectioner's sugar that you beat the hell out of). I've made it again since I had left over ingredients and it was well received with some brown sugar bundt cake on Christmas. Also, used the lemony cream on a pumpkin tart with friends for Thanksgiving and everyone loved it! So it just goes to show that again...lemon shows its versatility!

The Dish: And lastly for the year of the pumpkin (and lemon) was pumpkin chocolate chip muffins from the same book I got the lemon cupcake recipe Cupcakes from the Cake (mix) Doctor by Anne Byrn It was hard for my husband to find a chocolate chip muffin mix, but when he did I went buck wild with left over pumpkin filling and enjoyed the results merrily.

Notice a trend?

End result: Pumpkin and chocolate is basically the best combination...ever. Just don't argue with me on this one. These muffins kept, when well sealed, and I brought some in for co-workers who are also pumpkin fanatics. Needless to say they loved them also.

December:

Well, another marathon baking month for moi this month.

The Dishes:

First up, Almond toffee crunch cookies from Cookies to Die for. Another hunt for me, but I found toffee bits! You put almond extract, chopped almonds (which I left out so my husband could eat the cookies), toffee bits, and your basic cookie ingredients to make this decadent type cookie.

The toffee's the best part, I think.

End result: Well, the recipe said you could make five dozen and I stayed up making about eight or nine dozen. Almond extract has quite a particular taste so if you're a fan of that (or say almond croissants and such) then you'll enjoy these cookies immensely. They're soft and slightly crispy. The toffee sticks to your teeth, but that's the best part about toffee! I'll probably try these again and use vanilla extract instead of almond and see how much more you can taste the toffee.

Next up, peanut butter cookies (from scratch!) from the Sweet Melissa book. Another super easy recipe, hoorah! I added chocolate chips because I think most things with chocolate are awesome so I just keep adding. I made these for a friend's holiday cookie party when my original cookie dough went up in smoke or crumbles I should say.

Peanut butter and chocolate? Pure genius!

End result: The recipe calls these chewy peanut butter cookies, but if you cook them a bit longer they become crunchy, which isn't a bad thing really. I've gotten them in the middle for the past two times I've made them. Very enjoyable and I have the ingredients at home so I'll make these again and again.

And then there were maple chocolate chip cookies! This was the basic chocolate chip cookie recipe (courtesy of Hershey's) and instead of brown sugar I added in maple sugar and a smidge of maple extract.

Maple sugar can make all the difference.

End result: Again, better the next day. I dunno if it's the maple extract or sugar but right out of the oven there's a bit of a metallic taste. However, the next day when cool (and super chewy) these cookies tasted awesome with a hint of maple. Co-workers loved this holiday treat!

And for me that's it for the year in baking. I look forward to the new year and new recipes and experiments in the kitchen.

Happy Holidays and Happy Baking!