Sunday, December 30, 2007

In search of perfect cupcake recipes

I'm considering a cupcake tower for my wedding this summer. I know -- it's so 2005, but I still like the idea. No one has to cut the cake, and you can theoretically have as many different flavors as guests. I'm thinking about making the up to 200 cupcakes (and the stand) myself. You say crazy cheapskate; I say DIY bride. Tomayto, tomahto. Let's call the whole thing off. Please.

Just kidding. The prospect of cheating the Marital Industrial Complex while learning to make new things (paper, cupcakes, lanterns) is what finally made me enjoy this wedding planning dealie.

I'm especially enjoying trying out sometimes two new cupcake recipes a week. (Did I mention I wouldn't mind losing fifty pounds before the wedding?) The main drawback is that I don't want to waste them, so a batch of cupcakes may be all I eat for two days. I wish there were at least more nutritional value in the yummiest-looking recipes. The groom-to-be, usually delighted by the prospect of any food at all, already seems to inwardly groan at the mention of cupcakes.

Nonetheless, I soldiered on, discovering three absolutely foolproof recipes for delicious, beautiful cupcakes: Bubbly Pear Cupcakes, Filled Rich Chocolate Cupcakes, and Red Velvet Cupcakes.

Three Perfect (And Foolproof) Cupcake Recipes
Bubbly Pear Cupcakes

I love that the ingredients in these cupcakes are all simple. No cake flour. No prune mush. Nothing you have to go to a specialty store to acquire, like amaretto.

As I mixed the various ingredients, I thought to myself that at least if I managed to screw up the baking, the batter had tasted good at every stage.

And I didn't screw up the baking, despite the wonderful smell luring an otherwise-mum housemate into a long conversation right as I needed to check them every thirty seconds.

These cupcakes were perfect: they look great, the buttery taste is oh-so-subtly complemented by both pear and champagne, and the texture is moist but not gooey. Everyone who ate one ate at least two. The only flaw was lumps in the frosting, which are a result of the fact that I'm too cheap to buy a $15 hand-mixer.

Filled Rich Chocolate Cupcakes

These cupcakes taste delicious, the filling is just right, they look great, and you don't have to hassle with frosting. They held up well overnight. The only flaw is a little stickiness wrapper-wise.

Red Velvet Cupcakes

I love the shocking red color, and the chocolate flavor added a much-needed extra something to usually plain velvet cupcakes.

Non-Perfect (Or Non-Foolproof) Cupcake Recipes
The other cupcake recipes I tried probably would be fine under exactly the right conditions. But the way I cook (hellooo substitutions), the other recipes were all edible, but nothing to impress guests who've traveled hundreds of miles to eat them. Here are those recipes, in the order I'd try making them again.

Velvet Cupcakes

My grandma contributed this recipe to a book compiled from families in the Okanogan Highlands, where my mom grew up with her fifteen brothers and sisters. I'd made these as a kid and messed them up -- despite my mother's warnings, I occasionally still confused baking soda and baking powder. And my, what a lot of baking powder! Making these as an adult, I noticed the 3 Tablespoons of baking powder, and I realized why I'd grown up thinking hamburger patties should have oatmeal in them. Sixteen is a lot of kids to feed!

This time around, grandma's giant velvet cupcake recipe turned out moist and delicious, for what they are. But what velvet cupcakes are is a little plain, and green food coloring gave me a psychosomatic sense that I was eating something mint-flavored that wasn't doing a very good job being mint-flavored. My mom volunteered to contribute some of these to the cupcake tower, which was great, except that some catastrophe or other (I was too pre-wedding frazzled to absorb the details) led to the arrival of a bowl o' cupcake crumbs. This is not a foolproof recipe by any means, but it's really quite good if you want something simple and you get it right.

Purple Hazelnut Cupcakes With Coconut

These cupcakes are fun-looking and got lots of compliments from everyone who tried them. My housemate even suggested after this batch that I should sell cupcakes. I don't think I'm ready to take on Saint Cupcake any time soon. After the cupcakes sat overnight (an absolute requirement for this project), the coconut was crusty and it had a sort of cardboard flavor. Probably completely my fault and completely solvable, but by the time I tried these, I was running out of troubleshooting time.

Blueberry Hill Cupcakes

I'd been hoping for a recipe with at least marginally healthy ingredients, the Groom likes fruity more than chocolate-y desserts (apostasy, I know), and I ended up with blueberries. These blueberry cupcakes were delicious... muffins, and they looked lovely. But it just didn't feel right to frost a muffin. (That's what she said.)

Pineapple Upside-Down Cupcakes
These cupcakes tasted great. In fact, this photo is so bad because I had to snap it fast before the last cupcake vanished off the plate within hours of their availability. But the cupcakes were sort of stubby and had a sort of crispy taste (I used regular flour instead of cake flour). They don't really look right for a fancy-ish festive occasion, but if I wanted pineapple-upside down cake again, I'd look for a recipe similar to this one (hopefully with regular flour).

Chocolate Cupcakes with Cheese Frosting

These cupcakes were good, but nothing thrilling. My fiance didn't like the frosting, which, of course, I loved. The tartness of the cream cheese surprised him, he said. They held up well overnight. They look acceptable, but I'm gonna keep looking for a simple frosted cupcake.

Black-Bottomed Cupcakes
In the online photo, these look very similar to the best recipe, but in my hands, they didn't look pretty, and the filling stuck to they cupcake wrapper quite a bit when you opened them up.

Fudge Filled Cupcakes

These cupcakes were very similar to the Filled Rich Cupcakes, with only a few variations. The main difference, I think, is using a whole egg rather than egg whites in the filling. This gave the filling a less appealing orange-y color.

Carrot Cake
I was excited to make cupcakes with so many healthy ingredients in them: carrots, pineapple, walnuts and coconuts -- at least there's more nutritional value than flour and sugar. The fiance also likes carrot cake quite a bit.

Unfortunately, the cake had a wrong taste to it, though my housemate says he and his sister both liked it. The possible culprit was the walnuts, which I'd had in the freezer for at least a year. But the wrong taste was cake-wide, not just in walnut-containing bites. Another possibility is that using a cake pan instead of cupcake liners (I was out) made a difference. Seems unlikely. I also thought the frosting was boring, but the Groom liked the frosting the best.

Update: I made two five-tier cupcake towers for about 100 cupcakes, using these directions. We had a party to decorate cupcakes and hang out with our guests the night before the wedding.

Here are the finished cupcake towers:

Stylewest Photography

In the end, a DIY cupcake tower was tons of work, but I enjoyed doing it, and people really loved the Bubbly Pear and Filled Rich cupcakes here, as well as the carrot cake cupcakes my mom contributed.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

My favorite ten albums of 2007

First non-jet-lagged day back from Puerto Rico, I recalled that 'tis the season to make best-of lists. Here are my favorite ten CDs of the year.

1. Bridging the Distance, Various Artists
[Buy Album]
Blitzen Trapper - Crazy On You
Viva Voce - Eye in the Sky [Buy mp3!!!]
Britt Daniel - Bring It On Home To Me [Buy mp3!!!]

2. Neon Bible, Arcade Fire [Buy Album]
Arcade Fire - Black Mirror
Arcade Fire - Neon Bible []
Arcade Fire - Intervention 9 []
Arcade Fire - Keep the Car Running []
Arcade Fire - The Well And The Lighthouse [Lyrics]

3. The Light Divides, Winterpills [Buy Album]
Winterpills - Broken Arm []
Winterpills - Handkerchiefs []

4. Friend and Foe, Menomena [Buy Album]
Menomena - Wet And Rusting [YouTube]
Menomena - Rotten Hell []
Menomena - Air Aid []

5. Hair Guitar, Copy [Buy Album]
Copy - Zipper Problems [Buy mp3!!!]
Copy - Closet Face [Buy mp3!!!]

6. Spiderman Of The Rings, Dan Deacon [Buy Album]
Dan Deacon - Snake Mistakes
Dan Deacon - The Crystal Cat
Dan Deacon - Pink Batman

7. These Friends Of Mine, Rosie Thomas [Buy Album]
Rosie Thomas - Say Hello
Rosie Thomas - The One I Love
Rosie Thomas - If This City Never Sleeps []

8. In Our Bedroom After The War, Stars [Buy Album]
Stars - Today Will Be Better, I Swear!
Stars The Night Starts Here
Stars - Take Me To The Riot []

9. Whats The Time Mr Wolf, Noisettes [Buy Album]
Noisettes - Don't Give Up

10. Ash Wednesday, Elvis Perkins
Elvis Perkins - While You Were Sleeping
Elvis Perkins - All The Night Without Love
Elvis Perkins - May Day

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Why I hate Republicans, part two

If you follow the bouncing ball, the insane anti-Clinton jihad by Republicans led directly to the rape and murder of two women.

That is: Republicans, including Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, were so filled with their insane hatred of Bill Clinton that they became rabid supporters of Wayne DuMond, convicted of raping Clinton's distant cousin. Arkansas Republicans decided that DuMond was railroaded by the eeeevil Clintons. Huckabee pressured a parole board to release convicted rapist DuMond, DuMond was released, and DuMond raped and murdered two more women.

Before I got to the Clinton angle, I wondered why Huckabee pushed so hard for DuMond's release. Then I saw the Clinton angle and it all made sense.

Republicans hated Bill Clinton so much that two women died.

Hat tips: HuffPo, Digby, Atrios.

(Here was Part One of what looks to be a long and ugly series.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Portland pubs

Lucky Lab
Lucky Lab bike rack
photo by vj_pdx
The Lucky Lab is my favorite restaurant in Portland. Their three-cheese meltdown is the thing in Portland that has consistently made me hungry for the near-decade I've known about it. It's basically a cheese sandwich, but it has mushrooms, great salsa and pepperoncini, which remind me of the much-missed sandwich shop I worked at in college. Another thing that has more to do with ambience than food is super-relaxed outdoor seating that almost always has enough space, even on the nicest day in Portland. And it's almost never too crowded indoors, either, making it comfortable to have a table all to yourself, or to invite your eight closest friends. I attended a gathering there of the Lewis and Clark Law School Democrats with my fiance, and we were joined semi-accidentally by some gals who'd come for Drinking Liberally at the overcrowded next table. Finally, Lucky Lab hosts the yearly Worst Day Of The Year bike ride, often the first time my bike spends much time on the pavement after a rainy winter has successfully crushed my spirit and put me on the bus.

Lucky Lab's beer suffers slightly by comparison to the Deschutes and Bridgeport that flow like rivers through the streets of Portland. But it's not too far behind in sheer delectability. Their dark beers are suitably thick and tasty, and their pear cider is absolutely dreamy.

The theme is Labrador dogs (not a fortunate science lab), so dogs are encouraged on the back patio. Sometimes the back patio smells like dogs and/or cigarettes (ew), but that's easily escaped inside.

BridgePort Brewing
I haven't gone out looking for new microbrews for five years or so, but I still suspect BridgePort has the best beer in Portland. The Black Strap Stout puts Guinness to shame. Their IPA rakes in awards.

As for the food and ambience, there are two locations, not at all alike. The downtown(ish) location is roomy and comfy, but the food is stale slices of pizza that probably wasn't great to begin with. The Hawthorne location, on the other hand, offers plate-licking-good ravioli and salmon prepared in many to-die-for configurations. But it's a little fancy-schmancy. You couldn't bring kids here, and I always feel a little frousy among the recently-dyed black-clad yuppie-to-the-max patrons.

The Hedge House [Yelp]
The Hedge House has a frequently-changed menu of delicious beer. A good bet is always the Proletariat Red, but their special selections have never let me down. The food is also fantastic. They have Reuben sandwiches that are repeat orders in both their Gardenburger and corned beef forms. Their pulled pork and portobello burger are also popular with the fiance and me.

Horse Brass [Yelp]
Lucky Lab bike rack
photo by devlyn
This photo almost perfectly captures the essence of Horse Brass. Dark dark dark with disgusting English food. If there were three shiny darts and the beer was glowing deliciously, it would be nailed. I recommend it because I enjoy darts and great beer and this place has both. Meat eaters also seem impressed by the Scotch egg, which is a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage and deep-fried, I think. Gah.

Barley Mill
The Barley Mill is a really comfy place to hang out. It's never crowded, so you can hang out as long as you like, playing some Scrabble or cards. It's strange that this is my favorite of the McMenamin's restaurants, given that it is Grateful Dead-themed and two consecutive jobs spent working with people who only listened to Jerry Garcia killed the Dead for me forever. The food is slightly above average, unlike at other McMenami, where it's slightly below. McMenamin's beer is better than 99% of what you can buy in the rest of the country, but in Portland it almost doesn't measure up. Like the food, it seems a bit watered-down. The beer has devoted fans, though, and if you ever work in Portland, you will go to McMenami for work functions at some point.

Shanghai Tunnel
The Shanghai tunnels were used to kidnap drunk or drugged people to work on ships. Apparently, this restaurant has one such tunnel. I wouldn't know, as I missed the point by staying outside the whole time the only time I went to this pub. And then I got so drunk that I left my bike overnight. And it got stolen. So I haven't been back. But I guess I was made a victim of my own vice at the Shanghai Tunnel, so perhaps I didn't miss the experience entirely. (I've also taken the Shanghai tunnel tour on another occasion, which is interesting, but mostly consists of wandering around in dark, dirty underground rooms.)

Holman's Restaurant [Yelp]
Holman's has a great garden Reuben and a good jukebox. Well drinks are cheap, and the french fries are popular. That said, it's grimy enough that I feel a little funny recommending it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Portland hotels

Here are some hotel recommendations for Portland visitors.

Where I'd like to stay if I were visiting
Bluebird Guesthouse, $55-$85, 5/5 stars
This is in walking distance to my house, which is in a great neighborhood. The rooms look great, and they're inexpensive.
3517 SE Division St.
Portland, OR 97202
12 people

McMenamin's Edgefield, $55, 4/5 stars
portland's rock and roll hotel

photo by dvanhorn
I stayed in a different McMenamin's hotel about an hour west of Portland once and really enjoyed it. The bathrooms were shared, and the wall above the bed was painted with a dark mural of an old Mason lady reminiscent of something a grade-schooler would paint. But the old converted buildings of the McMenami have lots of charm, as well as plenty of activities on the premises. The Edgefield has a theater pub, a regular pub, and a wine tasting room, among other things.
2126 SW Halsey
Troutdale, OR 97060

Jupiter Hotel (link plays an annoying "Groove"), $104, 3/5 stars
portland's rock and roll hotel

photo by kandyjaxx
I'm intrigued by this place in spite of reviews suggesting they're charging double what they should for IKEA furniture, bad service, and lots of noise (it's on the premises of one of the cool music venues in Portland, the Doug Fir). I like the location and the style from the outside. But a lot of online reviewers hate it. Not recommended for guests over forty or under sixteen.
800 E. Burnside
Portland, OR 97214

McMenamin's Kennedy School, $114, 4.5/5 stars

photo by KeelyE
I stayed in a different McMenamin's hotel about an hour west of Portland once and really enjoyed it. The bathrooms were shared, and the wall above the bed was painted with a dark mural of an old Mason lady reminiscent of something a grade-schooler would paint. But the old converted buildings of the McMenami have lots of charm, as well as plenty of activities on the premises. The Kennedy School has a lovely theater pub, a lot of other pubs, and a soaking pool (the highlight of the McMenamin's I stayed at).
5736 NE 33rd Avenue
Portland, OR 97211

Portland's White House B&B, $125-$225, 4.5/5 stars
1914 NE 22nd Avenue
Portland, OR 97212

Lion and the Rose Victorian B&B, $134-$224
The Lion and the Rose - 1
photo by misternaxal
1810 NE 15th Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97212

The Heathman Hotel, $135-$469, 4.5/5 stars
1001 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97205

Benson Hotel, $204, 3.5/5 stars
Benson Hotel
photo by rainboweyes
309 Southwest Broadway
Portland Oregon 97205

Hotel Monaco, $219-$375, 4.5/5 stars
506 S.W. Washington
Portland, Oregon 97204

Hotel deLuxe, If you have to ask, you can't afford it? 4.5/5 stars
729 SW 15th Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97205

Other options close-in
Banfield Value Inn, $65
1525 NE 37th Avenue
Portland, OR 97232

Motel 6, $66
3104 SE Powell Blvd
Portland, OR 97202

Thriftlodge, $73, 4/5 stars
949 E Burnside Street
Portland, OR 97214

Red Lion Hotel - Convention Center, $130, 3/5 stars
Hotel deLuxe
photo by ahockley
1021 NE Grand Ave
Portland, OR 97232
(503) 235-2100

Doubletree Hotel, $144-$590, 3/5
1000 NE Multnomah St
Portland, OR 97232
(503) 281-6111

Residence Inn - Downtown/Lloyd Center, $169, 4/5 stars
I've been in the room of someone who's been a repeat customer here, and it looks comfortable.
1710 NE Multnomah Street
Portland, OR 97232
(503) 288-1400

Inexpensive options further away
Econo Lodge Expo Center, $45-$48
405 NE Columbia Blvd.
Portland, OR, 97211-1421

Quality Inn Portland Airport, $55-$70
8247 N.E. Sandy Blvd.
Portland, OR, US, 97220

Econo Lodge, $55-$85
18323 SE Stark St
Portland, OR, US, 97233

Friday, November 9, 2007

Stars of Track and Field at Doug Fir

Stars of Track and Field will play tonight at 9:30 at Doug Fir, 830 East Burnside. Tickets are $13. Doug Fir describes Stars of Track and Field as "epic dreamcore." Me, I call them hot guys singing love songs that also rock. Perhaps that's why Doug Fir makes the big bucks loving music, and I lose money that way.
photo by hummanna
Here are links to get some mp3's:
Stars of Track and Field - With You [YouTube]
Stars of Track and Field - Fantastic

And here's an interview with lead singer Kevin Calaba.

Jeff Klein will open the show. I'm a sucker for a Guns of Brixton cover, and his is a good one.
Jeff Klein - Guns of Brixton

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Jens Lekman and Throw Me The Statue

Jens Lekman and Throw Me the Statue will play Wednesday, November 7 at Portland's Someday Lounge, 125 NW 5th Avenue.

Jens Lekman - Washing Machine
Jens Lekman - Black Cab [YouTube][Buy mp3!!!]
Jens Lekman - Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death
Jens Lekman - Julie (Remixed) [Buy mp3!!!]
Jens Lekman - You Are The Light [YouTube][Buy mp3!!!]
Jens Lekman - Opposite of Hallelujah [Buy mp3!!!]
Jens Lekman - Friday Night At The Drive-In Bingo [Buy mp3!!!]
Jens Lekman - Maple Leaves [Buy mp3!!!]
Jens Lekman - A Sweet Summer's Night On Hammer Hill [Buy mp3!!!]
Jens Lekman - Your Arms Around Me [YouTube][Buy mp3!!!]
Jens Lekman - A Postcard To Nina [Buy mp3!!!]

Throw Me The Statue - Lolita
Throw Me the Statue - Yucatan Gold
Throw Me the Statue - Young Sensualists
Throw Me the Statue - Conquering Kids
Throw Me the Statue - About To Walk