What is Skyr, Anyway?

Nope. Skyr is not yogurt. Nope. Skyr is not cheese. But what is it? Let's explore.

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Not so long ago I was contacted by a company called Icelandic Provisions. They wanted to send me samples of something called Skyr. Since I love free stuff, my first response was "sure". But then a quick and rapid second response in my own head followed: "What the heck is skyr?".

Turns out that skyr has been #trending for a few years with foodies, but like with most trends (for instance, I only discovered Seinfeld a few years ago) I am late to the party. 

I briefly forgot about this question until I received a packet of coupons (good time for a little disclosure: Yes, I was given skyr-for-free coupons, though I was not paid for this post) for free skyr. So I went on over to the grocery store and picked some up.

One might be tempted to think that skyr is yogurt. From a little distance, skyr looks like yogurt. The packaging looks like yogurt. You find it in the grocery store in the yogurt section.

But, to recall an SNL skit from the 90s...

The short answer is: that's not yogurt. 

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But what is it? 

OK, I am really tempted to go down a "not yogurt" response loop with you but I am resisting the urge because I too was curious. 

In this Cook's Science article (which is actually far better and more comprehensive than anything I am going to write on the subject), it begins with an intriguing lead-in: 

"In America, skyr is found in the yogurt aisle and is labeled as yogurt. However, if you are lucky enough to visit Iceland, people there will tell you that skyr is not a yogurt at all, but rather a cheese."

As the article goes on to say, 

"The traditional recipe for skyr involves taking milk (skim or low-fat) and heating it with a bit of old skyr from a previous batch, which is added as a starter, Jónsson explained. Rennet may also be added, and after curds form, the whey is drained slowly for many hours to create a thick, sour product...Rennet? That sounds a lot like cheese."

The article goes on to explore whether skyr is yogurt or cheese on a number of different levels. On the one hand, it's strained. That's pretty cheese-like, right? But then wait, greek yogurt is strained too, so now we've opened up another big question: is greek yogurt actually cheese? 

Then, there's a fascinating review of a blind taste test where people tried various yogurts and skyr. Few were able to identify it as skyr, but at the same time, they knew it wasn't greek yogurt. One of the most common comments was that they found it "cheesy". 

 I made these rolls with skyr instead of the sour cream called for in the recipe.

I made these rolls with skyr instead of the sour cream called for in the recipe.

Baking and cooking with skyr

Regardless of where you fall on the "is it yogurt or is it cheese" debate, let's talk about where and when you can use skyr. Personally, I have found that skyr works in any recipe where one might use greek yogurt or sour cream. For instance, I recently made some rolls which called for sour cream and used plain skyr instead. Worked great! One caveat is that in general, since there are less skyr options in the store than yogurt, it can be find to locate plain skyr: I was only able to find vanilla in most stores, so in terms of baking and cooking, that can limit where you might use it. 

So...what is skyr? 

Personally, I think that we can just nip the entire argument in the bud and call skyr, well...skyr. It's not yogurt and it's not cheese. It is its own thing entirely. 

But I recognize that you might not be willing to take my word for it quite that easily. SO, I'll tell you how skyr is made and you can decide for yourself.

The basic process of making skyr

To make skyr, you start with milk and a skyr starter. In Iceland, apparently there are skyr starters that are centuries-old; if you wanted to make skyr in the USA, you could simply start by using a tablespoon of skyr from a package you purchased. 

Then, you'll heat and cool the milk and skyr mixture, carefully monitoring the temperatures. You'll then let it cool. As it thickens, it will curdle and separate. 

Once separated, you'll go ahead and strain the skyr; you can drink the wet whey as a probiotic type of drink or toss it, and save the skyr in the refrigerator. 

If you want a full recipe, you can check out this website

My final thoughts 

Not to repeat myself (here I go repeating myself) but ultimately, I think that skyr has characteristics of both cheese and yogurt; in looking at the recipe, it's very similar to both recipes for making homemade yogurt and cheese. 

So when it comes down to it, what differentiates skyr is the bacteria: a skyr starter is not yogurt nor is it cheese. 

Which brings me back to my initial point: skyr is, well, skyr.

Have you ever tried skyr? 

In Praise of the Dive Bakery

Man oh man, do I love a good dive bakery.

 Yup, there's shortening in that buttercream.

Yup, there's shortening in that buttercream.

Wait. Pray tell: what is a dive bakery? 

"Dive bakery" is a term which to the best of my knowledge I've made up (haven't googled it so I am not sure if this is true or not; often when I have a great idea like this I purposefully avoid googling it so that my idea isn't changed or altered by what has come before). 

Basically, it's the dive bar equivalent of a bakery. 

Put it this way. If you go to a dive bar, you're not going to be ordering a Cosmopolitan. You're being served by a bartender, not a mixologist. There is going to be pretty much zero talk about house-made bitters or liqueurs, and please, for the love of god, don't utter the word "shrub" unless you're talking about plants that live outside. 

At a dive bar, you're most likely going to be ordering beer (and none of those fancy ones) and you're probably going to feel like you need a shower after using the bathroom. 

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A dive bakery is definitely a different experience overall, but it's similar in its no-fuss, no-frills simplicity. 

When you walk into a dive bakery, it's not because it's a hip new spot you saw on Instagram. A dive bakery has probably been in the same spot seemingly forever, whether that in fact is since 1981 or since 1934. It's got that "lived-in" sort of feel. Often, the employees seem ageless too. 

In a dive bakery, you're probably not going to see the words "locally sourced" listed in any product descriptions, even if they are. In fact, product descriptions have been made using a label maker, or even printed on little cards, possibly in comic sans. Dive bakeries might seem in some ways hipster-ironic, but they are not. 

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Price-wise, you're not going to spend $40 at a dive bakery unless you really try, or are buying a wedding cake or something. There are no $4.95 cookies or brownies at a dive bakery. You may --not even kidding--even see some goodies for under a dollar. 

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At a dive bakery, the buttercreme is probably made with at least part shortening. But they're not apologizing for or hiding this fact. 

The coffee pretty reliably sucks at dive bakeries. And no, they do not have soy or almond milk. 

The lighting in a dive bakery always kind of feels like you're walking onto the set of a David Lynch movie. And where on earth did they get those retro bakery cases? 

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Dive bakeries are generally a place where you can be free of talk about glycemic index and paleo diets and (shudder) Stevia. 

Dive bakeries can be good, or they can be not very good. But there is something satisfying and honest about them. 

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Dive bakeries are nostalgic. After-school treats, innocence. The simple desire for a sweet treat without food being fraught with meaning. 

For me, a dive bakery is kind of my happy place. Even if the pastries and cookies and cakes aren't technically very good, there's something on a soul level that is so nourishing about the experience of them. 

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One of my favorite dive bakeries in the world, Freedman's Bakery in Belmar, NJ, closed a few years ago. I cried when they closed. They hadn't actually been good for years, but I freaking loved this place. I had been going there since childhood, and even the diminishing quality of their sweets when ownership changed didn't make me turn away. There was something that I loved so deeply about the place. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm also all about those $4.95 locally sourced cupcakes and the single-origin chocolate and all that. But sometimes, a good dive bakery is all that you need in the world. 

Is there a dive bakery in your life that you can tell me about? 

January 3: National Chocolate Covered Cherry Day

Think today is an ordinary day? Think again: it's National Chocolate Covered Cherry Day today.

  Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Flickr member  Shannon O'Saurus

Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Flickr member Shannon O'Saurus

Today is a great day to enjoy a chocolate covered cherry--the most popular variety of which, in the United States, are cherry cordials. Cherry cordials are an interesting treat: a cherry sealed in a sort of sugary-boozy syrup and sealed into a chocolate shell. 

I don't know about you, but my relationship with cherry cordials has always been...complex. As a child, I coveted the shiny red box of cherry cordials that my mom said "weren't for kids" and hid from us. Well, mom wasn't just being mean: the first time I tried one, I was so disappointed by the taste. I associated cherries as a cupcake topping, so in my mind I thought the cherries might have the the taste of a rich pink buttercream-topped cake served with a maraschino cherry on top, and all covered in chocolate. The Queen Anne Cordials my mom had? Definitely not that. 

From childhood into adulthood, I mainly regarded chocolate covered cherries with a sort of detachment. 

While I wouldn't say it was a huge moment of epiphany, I do remember at some point in adulthood trying a chocolate covered cherry (not a cordial, just the fruit) from Chukar Cherries in the Pike Place Market in Seattle. It was a pleasant surprise; "this is nice," I thought to myself, enjoying the contrast of tart cherry, and sweet, dark chocolate. 

While I would not consider myself a great follower of the chocolate covered cherry even today, I want to make it clear to you that I appreciate them. I appreciate their visual appeal, I appreciate their elegance, I appreciate their contrasting textures and flavors. 

And since I've been looking them up a bit for this post, I can say that I find them very interesting. 

Turns out, chocolate covered cherries are no new phenomenon. As this article on Candy Favorites reports, the road to the cherry cordial was largely a matter of timing.

In the 1700s in Europe, cordials were gaining popularity as a kind of cure-all, used to settle stomachs, improve health, and even act as aphrodisiacs. Concurrently, a candied cherry-and-chocolate confection known as griottes was gaining popularity. Somewhere along the way, some brilliant mind decided to make a delicious mash-up of these culinary trends, and cherry cordial chocolates took off. 

By the 1800s, they were officially in production in the United States; one major brand, Cella's, has been cordially offering up the classic treats since 1864 (it is now part of the Tootsie Roll Family); Queen Anne Cordials have been in production since 1948 (the company has been around since 1921).

January 3 has been designated (and is recognized by the National Confectioners' Association) as National Chocolate Covered Cherry Day.

  Photo licensed via Creative Commons by  Wikipedia

Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Wikipedia


Want to know more? Here's some interesting info. 

As I learned on Candy Favorites, the cherries are made one one of three ways:

1. Shell molding: chocolate is poured into a mold but left hollow on the sides and without a seal of chocolate. It is then filled with liquid and the cherry, and more chocolate is melted and used to create a seal; that last bit will become the bottom of the candy when unmolded. 

2. Enrobing: The cherries are placed in trays with the sugar syrup, which after a time will set, not totally firm, but firm enough to be covered with chocolate, which will seal it into place. 

3. The crazy science method which incorporates enrobing and liquid, both: according to the site, "an enzyme called invertase is added which acts on solid sugar centers and reverts them to liquid. Adding invertase can be done after the center has been covered in chocolate, simplifying the whole process." Weird, right?!?

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Five ways to celebrate chocolate covered cherries today:

Chocolate covered cherry stuffed cupcakes recipe. Pictured above. (CakeSpy)

Learn more about how the Brock Candy Company of Tennessee got into the chocolate covered cherry game. (Appalachian History)

Simple chocolate covered cherries recipe (non-alcoholic). (Taste of Home)

Cherry cordials with booze. (Saveur)

Read a taste-test review of the primary purveyors of chocolate covered cherries. (Sugar Pressure)

Do you like cherry cordials?

Batter Chatter: Judith Fertig, author of The Cake Therapist + Giveaway!

Are you one of those jerks who just wants to enter the giveaway and doesn't want to read the awesome interview? Shame on you...scroll down to the bottom of the post for the giveaway.

OMG. Dudes. Dudettes. I am so excited to say that I got to interview Judith Fertig about her new book The Cake Therapist.

My first contact with Judith's work was in the cookbook All-American Desserts: 400 Star Spangled, Razzle-Dazzle Recipes for America's Best-Loved Desserts. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it was one of those comprehensive books that has all sorts of recipes spanning all sorts of styles, from humble puddings to fancier fare like layer cakes and a killer brownie recipe. Every recipe I tried was absolutely solid, but it wasn't recipes that made the book a treasure to me. It was the headnotes. 

Somehow, even in a huge book like this, the headnotes each included interesting anecdotes, historical tidbits, and informative recipe notes. I realized, in reading them, that I liked the author, just from her writing. It was almost like receiving a huge file of recipes from a friend with handwritten, witty notes to accompany each one. 

Since coming across that first book, I've followed Judith's recipe books, which are impressively wide-ranging: she's written about everything, from BBQ to plank cooking to even, yes, an entire book about cinnamon rolls. 

And now, she's branched out into foodie fiction. The Cake Therapist is an absolutely engaging story about a woman starting over in her hometown after a stint as a fancy pastry chef in NYC. But what unfolds as she opens a bakery in a sleepy Ohio town goes much deeper than just a fresh start. It's a story that spans generations, includes plenty of delicious food descriptions, and will leave you feeling as comforted as if you just ate a huge slice of your favorite layer cake.

OK, so DO buy the book. But before that, enjoy this interview: 


You are well known as a cookbook writer...was it an odd leap in any way to dive into fiction after writing so many non-fiction cookbooks? I was an English major before I got into the culinary arts, so it was like writing a headnote for a recipe that turned out to be 62,00 words! Sort of. . . .

I felt like I learned so many cool baking tips from the book. What did you learn while writing this book?  That the strawberry cake in The Cake Therapist (and on the cover of Bake Happy) really does take me back to my childhood. Something about the combination of strawberry and rosewater. My mother never made strawberrycake, but this one has the simple, summery flavor that just makes me want to go play outside. I learned that flavor--especially in desserts--really can resonate with us just like a favorite song or the smell of suntan lotion or the feel of cool sheets on a hot night.

The lead character, Claire (Neely) O'neill, says that she makes sense of the world by flavor and taste. Is this something that you identify with? Can you expand on that? I think we've all had times in our lives when we're hungry for something, but don't know what. So we sample this, sample that, until we hit on just the right thing. It's emotional eating. What we're craving is the feeling that that flavor or texture will hopefully induce--like all is well, we're safe, we're loved, we're gonna be all right. Food and flavor can be the vehicles to self-enlightenment. We finally taste the right thing and voila, "So that's what's going on with me!"

I love the fact that the lead character is an unofficial "cake therapist". What therapeutic benefits do you believe cake and baking can offer people? Unlike cooking, which can be spur-of-the-moment, baking is more methodical, more meditative, more repetitive. It give us a chance to just chill out, be in the moment. Baking is also transformative. You take butter, sugar, flour, and eggs, put them together in the right way, and end up with cake! Small-batch baking, like Neely does in her bakery, has the true flavor of homemade, of honest ingredients. Flavor is telling, sort of like a test to determine if you have a diamond or cubic zirconia. 

What kind of research went into the historical parts of the novel? When writers say they can get carried away by research, I can relate. You Google something and all of a sudden, you're down the rabbit hole and find out so many more things that are related. And then other things just turn up. Ethel Parsons Paullin really did visit Stearns & Foster in Lakeland Ohio, with Ben Nash. She went on to paint religious art as well as commercial. Ireene Wicker, the Singing Lady, also had a long career. I just happened on a little cereal box with a Singing Lady story on the back at an antique mall.

Tell me more about your inspiration for Rainbow Cake bakery. My first job in high school was at a mom-and-pop bakery that made all of our family's celebration cakes for birthdays, graduations, and so on. I remember walking in and smelling that wonderful bakery scent. I also saved a story from the late, great Country Home Magazine with an inspiration bakery that I put up on a vision board I made for The Cake Therapist. I also visit bakeries or macaron shops when I'm in a new city--or an old one, like Paris.

Writerly question: where, and when, do you prefer to write? What is your working style? I write when I have big blocks of time, any time of the day. When I think I just don't have "it" that day, I do other things like order books from the library or research or bake.

What is your favorite type of cake or dessert? I love a tender yellow cake with a secret filling and a fluffy coconut frosting; I'm also a sucker for a really moist, fudgy chocolate cake.

I'm intrigued by the idea of different flavors having different significance. Is that fictional, based on fact, or anecdotal? Like there can be a language of flowers (a 19th century conceit written about by Vanessa Diffenbaugh in her novel The Language of Flowers), I think there's also a language of flavor. Some of that language is in the scent, taste, and mouthfeel of a flavor. Sometimes it's the chemical properties in the spice or the fruit. A rich, luscious, homemade caramel says "luxury" better than a designer handbag. Cinnamon actually contains properties that help lower blood sugar, so it does sort of hold your hand as you get started in the morning or want to calm down when your flight is delayed at the airport--the power of cinnamon rolls! 

In the book, it is mentioned that people who crave salty desserts have secrets. Um, if I like to sprinkle salt on top of my dessert, does that mean I have secrets?? Yes, you have secrets. That makes you very interesting!

What's next for you? I'm finishing the second novel in the series, The Memory of Lemon. It starts out with a "hillbilly" bride who wants pie, not cake and clashes with her high society mother, Neely's growing relationship with Ben, and her homeless father's struggle with PTSD. Two flavors--citrus and spice--and the stories that emanate from them turn out to have a surprising connection to Neely. Maybe families have signature flavors, too.


About the Author:
Cookbook author Judith Fertig grew up in the Midwest, went to La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris and The Iowa Writers' Workshop, and now lives in Kansas City. Described by Saveur Magazine as a "heartland cookbook icon," Fertig writes cookbooks that reflect her love of bread, baking, barbecue, and the fabulous foods of the Heartland. Fertig's food and lifestyle writing has appeared in more than a dozen publications, including Bon Appetit, Saveur and The New York Times. The Cake Therapist (June 2, 2015; Berkley), is her fiction debut.

Connect with Judith Fertig online:
Website: http://www.judithfertig.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JudithFertigAuthor
Twitter: https://twitter.com/judithfertig
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/judithfertig/

BUY THE BOOK: The Cake Therapist

GIVEAWAY:

To enter to win a copy of both The Cake Therapist and Bake Happy, all you have to do is this. Leave a comment on this post answering this question:

How is baking therapeutic to you? 
 

I'll choose a winner one week from today (July 28) at 5pm MST. Due to high shipping costs, I am going to limit this giveaway to US entrants only this time - thank you for understanding!

What is Cornstarch and What Does it Do?

I'll just get right into it: what is cornstarch and what does it do?

This question came up when I was chatting with a gluten-free friend who said she'd recently made a GF brownie mix that called for 1/2 cup of added cornstarch in the event of high altitude baking. Well, that's odd, I thought. I wonder why? That seemed like a lot of cornstarch to me. Maybe there are some things I don't know about cornstarch?

And so I figured, for my reference and yours, I'd come up with a roundup of what cornstarch is, what it does, and how to use it in your baking. Ready? Set? Let's go.

Cornstarch: what is it? 

The short version? Cornstarch is derived from the endosperm (tee hee) of corn kernels, which is ground into a find powder. It's used primarily as a thickener and binder both in savory and sweet cooking and baking.

Cornstarch: how is it made?

The long version? It's sort of confusing, but here's what I gleaned from the International Starch (really) page. First, corn is steeped in hot water for up to 48 hours. The germ is then separated from the endosperm, and still steeping, they are both, respectively, ground. Starch is separated from the steeping liquid, the remaining cereal germ, and corn gluten--mainly in centrifuges and hydrocyclones (a cyclone-shaped device). The starch is then modified by applying different reaction conditions - temperature, pH, additives. This process creates the corn starch with unique and reliable properties we use for our culinary projects. 

Key roles cornstarch plays in baking

Lemon meringue pie

Cornstarch as a thickening agent

Cornstarch can be added as a thickener to a variety of mixtures, from gravy to pie fillings to custards or cake fillings. It has more power, ounce for ounce, than flour, which is also used for this purpose; increasingly, the fact that it is also gluten-free is attractive to bakers, enabling them to make gluten-free pie fillings and custards. 

Here's what happens when cornstarch is added to the mix: heat causes the starch to bind with molecules of water, and the starch begins to swell as it absorb the liquid. When the mixture comes to 203 degrees F, the starch will have expanded to about 10 times its size while still in powder form. However, this expanding is finite. You can bring cornstarch-enriched sauces or mixtures close to a boil, but don't let them fully boil and don't stir too vigorously. The starch will start to deflate, erasing the entire purpose of adding it to your mixture. 

The cornstarch will not only become thicker in heat, but as it cools, it will set, so it's a great way to further solidify desserts tending toward gooey such as the filling of Lemon meringue pie, without the cloudy color that flour might impart.

There are considerations for using cornstarch as a thickener. According to this website,

  • If you add cornstarch directly to a liquid, it can get clumpy, especially if added to a hot mixture. First, make a slurry of equal parts cornstarch and a cold liquid. Add this liquid paste to the mixture you want to thicken for better results. 
  • Cornstarch doesn't react well with acidic ingredients. Tapioca starch or arrowroot will work better for thickening acidic mixtures.
  • Cornstarch imparts a glossy, translucent sheen to the mixtures it thickens, so it tends to be used more in sweets rather than savory sauces. 

Cornstarch in cookies and cakes

Peanut Butter Alfajores

Cornstarch not only thicken sauces and mixtures, but it can be used in baked goods such as cookies or cakes, too. It is said that cornstarch used in combination with flour can "soften" the harsh proteins of flour, making a more tender baked good. Anecdotally, I can tell you this is true. A recipe such as shortbread which employs part flour and part cornstarch yields a cookie with the perfect crumb: crumbly, but not fall-apart. Tender and delicate, but in a way that the cookie still holds its shape.

As I learned on a King Arthur Flour forum, it is also one of the secrets of cake flour.

Cake flour has been treated with chlorine gas which acts not only as a whitening agent, but also has a maturing effect on the flour. It damages the proteins that form gluten so that these will not form the long stiff chains and networks that make good bread, but also breaks down starches so that these will absorb more water. These hydrated starches then "gel" during baking to provide an alternate structure (alternate to gluten formation) which is desirable for cakes; tight, even crumb, moist, very tender.

You can make your own cake flour substitute, by the way. All you have to do is add two tablespoons of cornstarch per cup of all-purpose flour for a recipe. While it won't yield exactly the same results, it will certainly yield a more delicate baked good than all purpose flour alone. 

Cornstarch as an anti-caking agent

The difference between confectioners' sugar and granulated sugar? Primarily texture--confectioners' sugar has been finely ground (and you can make your own, at home, btw!)--but it's also the fact that confectioners' sugar is mixed with a small amount of cornstarch. The starch acts as an anti-caking agent by keeping moisture and condensation from forming the sugar granules into lumps.

Cornstarch isn't just used to discourage moisture from ruining your sugar. If you buy shredded cheese in the supermarket, chances are it has cornstarch in the mix--this keeps the moisture and condensation from making your cheese slimy. However, with cheese, there is a caution involved. The starch can turn brown quicker than the cheese in heat, so it can give a false indication of doneness. 

Frequently asked questions

Still curious about cornstarch? Here are some answers to commonly asked questions.

Why is cornstarch used so often in gluten-free baking?

Probably first and foremost because it's naturally gluten-free. Both cornstarch and flour are considered "cereal starches"--but the main difference is the aforementioned gluten. Flour has it; cornstarch does not.  But, you know, it also adds structure to baked goods, and this can be helpful when they lack the "glue" of gluten. 

Is it possible I know this stuff by a different name?

I've seen it as "corn starch" and "cornstarch"--I prefer the one-word variation. You'll see it referred to as such in US and Canada; in other countries, it may be called "cornflour"--not to be confused with cornmeal. 

My cornstarch got all clumpy in my pie filling. What's up? 

Nobody likes clumps and lumps in what should be a smooth pie filling. To avoid lumps, make a slurry (equal parts cold liquid and cornstarch) before incorporating the starch into the pie filling mixture. 

I'm sure I did everything right, but the starch didn't thicken my mixture.

Check the expiration date. Cornstarch does not last forever, and an advanced age can very much affect its thickening abilities.

Other possible causes: the mixture got too hot and the starch broke down; you overstirred and the starch broke down.

Help! My pie filling began "weeping". Is the cornstarch to blame?

Cornstarch can thin as it stands. The technical term is "syneresis", and it is characterized by a liquid "weeping" from the filling. It tends to happen more with mixtures including eggs or a lot of sugar. One of the culprits can be overstirring--this can break up the starch and make it thin out. Be sure to follow the instructions on your recipe to ensure that you are following the specified guidelines for how to treat the cornstarch mixture.

Don't have cornstarch?

Here is a list of some substitutes you can use in baking.  

Can I use cornstarch instead of flour?

Go ahead and give it a try. Cornstarch has twice the "thickening" power of flour, so you won't need as much. This helpful table will assist in substitution amounts. 

Recipes with cornstarch

Marquesote

What's your favorite recipe containing cornstarch?

What is Allspice?

Have you ever wondered what, exactly, allspice is? Well, I found myself wondering recently, and I thought I would pass on my newfound wisdom on the ways of allspice. Enjoy!

What is Allspice?

Photo: Pixabay

Botanically speaking, this spice is known as Pimenta officinalis, and it comes from the Jamaican Pepper Tree. While it is said to be native to south and central America, it was most famously shared with the world after its discovery in Jamaica in the West Indies: this is where Columbus discovered the stuff. Per the Farmers Almanac, a physician on the ship declared the tree had the "finest smell of cloves" he had ever encountered.

Allspice comes from the dried berry of the pimento tree, a tropical tree which can range in size from 20-40 feet, which is related to the myrtle and features thick, elliptical-shaped leaves. In the spring and summer, the tree produces white blooms, which are followed by the pea-sized berries in the fall. These berries are dried and ground to produce the allspice we know. 

What about the name? 

As I discovered on About Food,

Allspice comes by its name for a very good reason. The berries have a combined flavor of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves with a hint of juniper and peppercorn. Some enterprising spice companies sell a mixture of spices as allspice, so be sure and check the ingredients on the label to be sure you are getting the real thing. Allspice is often called pimento, not to be confused with the capsicum pepper pimiento, which is a vegetable, not a spice.

How to use it

  • Since it tastes like a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, it is a frequent component of baked goods, especially in the fall. It is notably part of pumpkin pie spice. 
  • It can be used in Jamaican (savory) cookery. Known as Jamaican pepper, it is part of jerk spice mixes. 
  • In Polish cooking, it is called kubaba and adds a certain je ne sais quoi to pot roasts and stuffings. 

8 tasty recipes featuring allspice

I think these ones sound like winners, don't you?

Substituting allspice in recipes

If you don't have allspice on hand, this spice substitution guide suggests cinnamon; cassia; dash of nutmeg or mace; or dash of cloves. Or, follow the example of The Humbled Homemaker and mix equal parts cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

Interesting facts

  • Once upon a time, flowers were given as symbolic gestures. Bright yellow allspice buds were seen as a symbol of compassion. (find more flower symbolism here)
  • Allspice is a curative, and is considered a remedy for health issues as wide ranging as muscle aches, indigestion, and fever. 
  • Allspice was named due to its scent, which is a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Pimento was given its name by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, who thought the dried berries looked like peppercorns, and called them “pimenta”, or pepper. (source)

How do you use allspice in your baking or cooking?

What is Pumpkin Pie Spice? Recipe, Lore, and More.

With the season of fall baking upon us, I have one big question before I break out the stand mixer:

What is pumpin pie spice, anyway?

You've definitely tasted it, and you've more than likely seen it listed in the myriad of fall themed recipes that abound at this time of year. Pumpkin pie spice is a melange of spices that instantly evokes the taste of fall: it's the flavor equivalent of driving along a stretch of fiery fall foliage, apple picking at an orchard, the crisp air as you pull a fuzzy sweater over your head. 

In a technical sense, it is a mixture of warming spices, typically composed of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice. 

The history of using spices to fancy up pumpkin is nothing new. It dates back to the times of the pilgrim. Pumpkin was a staple crop in the new world, and they were pretty much forced to develop a taste for it. Early on, pumpkin preparation often involved the whole gourd, stuffed with apples, spices, and sugar, and then baked whole. While the shell was eventually discarded, the spices remained a constant, giving a distinct flavor to an otherwise somewhat bland food.

So...why these particular spices? Well, spices were a big deal in the colonies: spice trading was a huge part of commerce in the middle ages and right on through colonial days. Spices were used not only as a taste enhancer, but as a preservative and for food safety--many spices have antimicrobial properties. Here's a brief review of the spices in question, created with much help from this list:

Allspice

Remember columbus's discovery of America, kind of by accident? That was a spice journey, and among the finds in the new world was Allspice. It kind of tastes like a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Nutmeg

Nutmeg was long prized for its healthful qualities. It was also the subject of trickery--at seaports, peddlers would sell small wood carvings made to look like nutmeg pods for a dishonest profit. This is said to be why Connecticut is known as the "Nutmeg State".

Ginger

Hailing from Jamaica, ginger would have been known to settlers: it had come to Europe as early as 1585, and had long been used as part of gingerbread, and renowned for its curative and preservative properties. 

Cloves

Cloves were an early West Indies discovery: their smell is so intense they can be detected from a distance. They not only added a delicious scent to food, but could also be used as a natural moth repellent.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon was a valuable spice to colonists: not only did it enhance flavor and add a warming quality to food, but it had a variety of curative properties. Used as a digestive aid, anappetite stimulant, and even a cure for colds, cinnamon was a prized spice

How it came together

I have not been able to find specific mention of who first had the idea to put these spices together and call it "pumpkin pie spice". But if I may surmise...

It seems in my research that all of these spices were basically in the right place at the right time. They were all being used actively in baking by the time the first spice mill in the US was founded in Boston in 1821. Through this, pre-packaged spices (including mixes) were available as one of the first "convenience foods". (source

It seems to me that once the spices were being mass produced, the natural next step would be sales and marketing--and I have a hunch that this is where the "pumpkin pie spice" angle might have come into play. The first mention I was able to find of "pumpkin pie spice" listed in print was in this 1916 edition of Baker's Review, a trade publication.

Please, do correct me if I'm wrong here or if you're able to find anything more concrete!

Interestingly, while the components of pumpkin pie spice can be used for a number of other baking projects--spice cookies, cakes, sprinkled atop cappuccinos, or even sifted through a stencil for a cake or cookie decoration, its most famous use, very largely owing to the name, is in pumpkin pie.

With the classic flavor of pumpkin pie (thanks to the spice, of course) in mind, I'll finish with this poem, and then a recipe for pumpkin pie spice that you can make at home. 

What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

- John Greenleaf Whittier

And OK, here's the recipe.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Pumpkin Spice Recipe 

  • 1/3 cup ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice

Mix the above together until completely combined, and place in an airtight jar. Use as garnish, as part of recipes calling for pumpkin pie spice, or to sprinkle atop lattes. 

Batter Versus Dough: What's the Difference?

Batter. Dough. Both are stages in the baking process, and both tend to yield tasty treats. But what exactly is the difference between batter and dough?

Anecdotally, most people tend to refer to more liquid concoctions as "batter" and more solid mixtures as "dough". We tend to refer to each for certain dishes: cookies and pie crust are made from dough, whereas cakes are made from batter. But when does batter become dough, exactly? Is there a rule which governs baking mixtures?

Could a cookie ever be made from batter, or could cake ever be made from a dough?

As it turns out, a bit of internet research and delving into baking reference books reveals that yes, batter and dough are different. And as you might suspect, it has to do with moisture content. 

If you're a professional baker, you might already be aware that there are official ratios. This document I found online detailed them:

See? It's a ratio thing. According to this, the more flour that is added, the more firmly planted a recipe is in "dough" territory. 1 part liquid to one part flour is definitely batter; 1 part liquid to 2 parts flour is a firmer batter, but definitely still batter; once you start adding more flour, it transcends the barrier into dough territory.

Well, that answers that--there are rules! 

The misfits

Meringues by Jess

Still, this document doesn't answer every batter versus dough question. Can we assume that the "flour" here can be translated as "dry ingredient" for other, harder to classify recipes? For instance, coconut macaroons (some types are made with coconut, condensed milk, and eggs, no flour in sight)...or what about homemade candy corn (confectioners' sugar gives it a sturdy, dry texture that I refer to as "dough" in my recipe).

And what of recipes for confections such as meringues? Is that just a "mixture", or would it be ok to call it a "batter"? 

Also, here's one final one for thought: though bread is definitely made with dough, what about the brief phase when you're adding wet ingredients...is it, for a few minutes, batter? 

I don't have the answers to the above, but welcome your comments, my sweet readers!

Can batter and dough ever be combined?

Well, duh. Of course. Stuff your cupcakes with cookie dough and you'll find out how wonderful the combination can be! I helpfully have a recipe right here for you (what can I say, I live to give). If you like the idea of that recipe, I should say that I also have a recipe for cinnamon rolls (dough) stuffed with cookie dough. That's a double dose of dough, but it's good for what ails you. 

Which do you like working with more: batter or dough?

Crumb Cake: An Extremely Opinionated Education

NYC crumb cake

Before we even get into the issue of "what is crumb cake, anyway?" I'd like to address why, exactly, I ought to be considered an authority on the subject. In my opinion, of course.

First off, I was born and raised by the Jersey shore.

This is part of what you could consider the "crumb cake belt", extending into New York state to the North and down as far as the mid-Atlantic to the south. To the best of my knowledge, though, the New York metro area and about an hour outside of it is really where crumb cake is a prime time food.

I have experienced a lot of crumb cake in my time.

From the time I was able to eat solids, it was a favorite of mine as I grew up by the Jersey shore; the square box of Entenmann's crumb cake was a constant in our house, and whenever I had the opportunity to get a treat at the bakery or a deli, crumb cake was always my pick. For me, crumb cake has always been one of those foods, that like pizza, "even when it's bad, it's still good." 

I've tried it all: artisan versions, commercially produced versions, bakery versions, homemade ones. And with nearly 33 years of crumb cake eating under my belt, I'd like to offer some opinions and thoughts on the stuff.

Crumb cake in America

If I were to make an educated guess on the history of crumb cake, it would be this.

What we know today as crumb cake is most likely the adaptation of coffee cake recipes by German bakers who came to America. The cake does bear a passing resemblance to many of the streusel topped kuchen recipes, a popular coffee-friendly cake from Germany. 

To further my conjecture, I would guess that stateside bakers responded to the fact that everyone loves crumb by adding more to theirs, thus making everyone come back for more. As we all know, a lot of the NYC deli treats (black and white cookies are a good example) are often impressive in scale; if some is good, more is better. Today, many crumb cakes boast as much as a 50-50 ratio of crumb to cake. We live in a blessed time.

A regional treat

Curiously, while crumb cake is delicious regardless of your geography, it seems to be available primarily on the east coast, with a particular concentration in the New York metro area. In general, from New York city out to commuter areas is going to be the epicenter. 

As a result of the regional aspect, many people further away have no idea what crumb cake actually is or should be. I remember in Seattle, people would think that a coffee cake with a streusel topping was a crumb cake. Sometimes, bakeries would even label it as such, adding to the confusion. 

So here, let me show you in pictures a review of what crumb cake is and is not.

What crumb cake is

In a world full of cakes that have crumbs, defining true crumb cake can sometimes be difficult.  So let me illustrate some examples of what crumb cake is.

NYC crumb cake

This is crumb cake. Note the lightly yellow-hued cake. It is not to be confused with yellow cake, which is sponge-like and airy. There should be a certain fluffiness to the cake, but it needs to be sturdy enough to be weight bearing, because as you may have noticed, there is a rather top-heavy coating of fat brown sugar crumbs. However, it is not as firm as pound cake; it has a little give.

As for the crumb, this is important: it is not a solid layer of brown sugar, but a collection of fat brown sugar clusters. 

crumb cake

In contemporary times, it is my belief that crumb cake should be at the very least 1/3 crumb, preferably 1/2 crumb to cake. But less than 1/3 and it's not crumb cake, it's cake with a crumb topping.

Crumb cake

If you are worried about adding too much crumb, don't be. As you can see from the above, even a 9/10 crumb to 1/10 cake ratio is just fine.

Crumb Cake!

Crumb cake can be purchased in a few places: prominently at delicatessens, where it may be individually wrapped in plastic. It can also be found at bakeries and bagel joints. It is not necessarily a fancy food, so you should be wary of fancy establishments who try to take a unique spin on crumb cake.

What crumb cake is definitely not

I want to say from the get-go that it's very possible for non-crumb cakes to be delicious. However, tastiness aside, none of the below cakes are crumb cake, and should not be referred to as such. If I asked for a slice of crumb cake and one of these were delivered, I would definitely have words with the baker about their terminology.

Photo via wikipedia commons

Cake with a streusel topping. I can see how you're confused. But NO. Streusel is a topping, not an ingegral half of the cake. Not crumb cake.
Photo via pixabay

Things called "coffee cake" with crumbs on top. Still not crumb cake. 

Macadamia caramel chocolate crumb bar, Seattle

Crumb topped bar cookies. Tasty, but not crumb cake. They have a cookie base, not cake, and a more dense, cookie-like crumb. Not crumb cake. Bar cookies. Got it?

Apple Crisp From Eat Local, Seattle

Desserts with crumbs on top. Even if they are fat crumbs, like on this apple crisp, they are not crumb cake.

Almost but not quite crumb cake (in CakeSpy's opinion)

This is a coffee cake, not a proper crumb cake. The brown sugar swirl hidden inside is delightful, but it doesn't fully detract from the fact that there is 9/10 cake and 1/10 crumb going on here. The crumbs are too small; they aren't tightly packed or large enough. No.

Crumb cake

Here is a fine example of a cake that almost, but not quite, classifies as crumb cake. While the ingredients are right, the ratio is off: it's more about the cake than the crumb. And speaking of the crumb, that's a problem, too: it's more like a thin layer of brown sugar topping rather than an assemblage of crumbs. This particular one tasted great, but lacked the satisfaction of crumbs the size of walnuts which you could pick off and enjoy.

Variations can be all right

Crumb cake is allowed to come in different variations and flavors. In New York delis, you'll see raspberry crumb cake (a thin layer of raspberry lives between the crumb and the cake), chocolate (the cake is marbled or two-tone and there is a chocolate ribbon on top), and a handful of other flavors. It is OK to add flavors to crumb cake. What is not ok, however, is to alter the architecture of the crumb top.

The crumb-heavy top is a constant, and must remain consistent.

As for the confectioners' sugar, I'm not a stickler. If they put a drizzle of glaze on top instead, I am fine with that.

Crumb cake, Cameo Cakes, Brielle NJ

What makes a good crumb cake

Here's a quick guide to the characteristics of a fine crumb cake:

  • Ratio. Lots of crumb. No more than 2/3 cake.
  • The perfect cake. Fluffy, but not spongey. Rich, but not pound cake.
  • Salt. You have to have salt added to the crumbs. It makes them irresistible.
  • Fat crumbs, presence of. The crumbs can be varied in size, but each slice should have at least one or two very fat crumbs. 
  • Coffee. Not as in you have to drink coffee with the cake (although that's quite nice) but as an indicator of the time of day best for eating crumb cake. It's the morning. Coffee time, and a cake that is not coffee cake, but crumb cake. If you have this cake for breakfast, it means you can still have dessert later!

Hey, if you love crumb cake, you may be interested in these recipes of mine:

Behemoth crumb cake, featured in CakeSpy Presents Sweet Treats for a Sugar-Filled Life

Classic NYC Crumb cake adapted from Arthur Schwartz

Do you have any thoughts to add on crumb cake? Leave a comment!

Friday I'm In Love...With Cake For Lunch

Cake for lunch!

When was the last time you consciously and lovingly treated yourself to a cake date? 

I did last Friday at lunchtime, like I do every Friday. It's one of my favorite moments of the week: I call it Cake For Lunch Day. I used to refer to it as my "naughty lunch day", but a beautiful reader comment on my facebook page reminded me that no dessert should really be considered naughty. Well, to be completely honest, I don't mind a little naughty in my life--it keeps things interesting. But I can understand how it might be playing into an unhealthy trend to classify dessert as "naughty", so to make it an accessible day for anyone, Cake For Lunch Day it is.

Important note: Friday is not the only day I eat cake or sweets. It's just the official day I have designated for this ritual. I eat something sweet every day!

Cake for lunch is a political act

Frequently, dessert is strongly associated with guilt. All too often, the presentation of a beautiful cake or pie is greeted with a chorus of responses:

"I couldn't", "I shouldn't", "I wouldn't want to spoil my diet!"

So when do we deserve cake? When we reach our "goal" weight? When it's our birthday? When we get the new  job?

Why do we have to wait for "someday"? While it's true that we shouldn't be eating cake all day every day, there is a part of these responses that smacks of sad exclusion: I can't eat cake because I don't deserve it. 

Having suffered from a potpourri of eating disorders in the past, I used to be scared of cake. I still am, sometimes. But this fantastic ritual has given me something sweet that I would like to share. It is a pleasure to eat cake for lunch. But it is also a statement: I deserve pleasure.

The unofficial rules of Cake For Lunch Day

Cake for lunch!

On Friday morning, I eat breakfast as usual. Whatevs. Then I go about my duties for the day.

And then when it's lunch time, I go out on a spying mission for cake. It can be any type of cake I feel like; the only real "rule" is that it has to be made by someone else. Not because I can't bake, but because it's a real treat of a whole different level when someone else makes it. I generally like it to be a nice, fat slice of cake. 

I then come home with my cake, pour a glass of milk, and eat it for lunch. Sometimes I will eat the whole slice, sometimes half and then eat the rest after dinner. Sometmes I will eat 3/4 of it, take a short break, then finish it off with another mini-glass of milk. Usually, I will accompany my cake for lunch with either a beach-type novel or a fresh issue of In Touch Weekly. Is it still a guilty pleasure if I am proudly announcing it?

The positive effects of Cake For Lunch

Cake for lunch!

Some people might be tempted to start in with the naysaying, with statements like "eating cake for lunch isn't healthy!" or "you should really watch carbs during midday" or "is the cake at least gluten-free?". Probably, I am making some nutritionist somewhere scrunch up their nose. Heck, even my formerly anorexic-leaning self wants to start calculating how many calories were in that slice of cake and how little I can eat for the next week to "make up for it".

But I resist all of these voices. Because here's the thing: when the cake is gone, I always have a feeling of supreme happiness. Look at this wonderful thing I just did for myself! Even though the cake is eaten in less than 20 minutes, the experience has ripple effects of happiness that last all day long. These happy ripples make the following happen:

  • I am nicer to people and even to my pug.
  • I don't feel like it's a hassle to hold a door open for someone or let someone into my lane of traffic.
  • I feel calmer, which makes me feel better if I encounter a long line at the post office or see someone pull out a checkbook in the grocery store line.
  • I have just enough of a sugar high that makes me want to turn the radio up and do a little dance.

You can't tell me that these things don't contribute to making the world just a little nicer. 

The best thing about Cake For Lunch Day (aside from the cake)

The best part of Cake For Lunch Day isn't the cake itself. It is the fact that I took the time and energy to be sweet to myself. To give myself something that is in the scheme of things unnecessary, and a thing that sometimes society can deem downright devilish. 

But I am not anorexic or bulimic anymore. I don't have to just dream about cake, or deprive myself then binge on it in such a dissociated way that I don't even stop to taste or enjoy.

Breaking free of an eating disorder means that I am free to treat myself to, eat, and enjoy cake. On the one hand that might seem a a gift I've always had the ability to give myself...but now, I'm willing to receive and enjoy it. Maybe you could, too.

Make your own Cake For Lunch Day

Cake for lunch!

I urge you to make room for a dessert date in your life. If you want, it can be Cake For Lunch Day on Friday, just like me--it's a day good enough to share, and I like the thought of virtually being a lady who lunches with you.

It doesn't have to be a slice of cake--it can be a brownie, or a cookie sandwich, or even a slice of pie. What it does have to be, however, is something that gives you pleasure.

So go ahead, I dare you--no, I invite you--make a date with yourself to enjoy cake. Because we all deserve to enjoy something sweet.

How do you treat yourself (cake-related or otherwise)?

Of Eating Disorders and Food Blogs

 

ED Blog post illustrations

Today, I'd like to discuss eating disorders. Yup, you heard me. True, this is a topic which is not often discussed on food blogs, it's a subject about which I am extremely passionate.

It's not a secret that I have suffered from various eating disorders in the past. I'm not alone.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, in the United States, 30 million women and men have suffered from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life. That's reported cases: it's estimated that only 1 in 10 eating disorders is ever reported or treated. 

And this doesn't include eating struggles that don't technically classify as eating disorders. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that in the US, as many as one in every five women struggle with eating or have a clinical eating disorder. 

ED Blog post illustrations

But I am CakeSpy. 

My case is interesting and unlikely in that today, I happen to run, and be best-known for, a blog dedicated to dessert. A history of disordered eating may seem at distinct odds with the fact that I write about, draw, and pretty much live dessert and sweet treats. 

But with a little more explanation, it might not seem all that crazy.

We all deserve dessert.

Whenever I am part of Q+A sessions, at book readings or panels, the most frequently asked question does not involve my work much at all. It is this:

"How do you stay so thin?". Oh, there are variations: they may say "how are you not 300 pounds?" or "you can't eat MUCH of what you bake..." et cetera. 

At moments like this, part of me cringes, thinking of how my website and writing present an all dessert all the time image. With a history of disordered eating, does this mean I've been living a lie? 

Nope. I do enjoy sweets. I adore sweets. I eat something sweet every single day. Sometimes it is something small like a chocolate truffle, sometimes it is something big and fat, like a slice of behemoth crumb cake (one of my all time favorite recipes).

The difference between me and a non disordered person is that after I eat a fat slice of cake, there is a voice that wants to tell me IN ITS OUTDOOR VOICE that I am absolutely not permitted eat for the rest of the day, and maybe tomorrow too, just to be safe. An eating disorder tries to tell me that I don't "deserve" things that other people do.

Following years of personal work and therapy, I have learned to make a concerted effort to supercede these voices with a healthier one that tells me that I am OK, that I deserve to enjoy delicious things.

I strongly believe that the perceived "negative" or "unhealthy" aspect of desserts is far outweighed (pardon the pun) by the benefits they offer to your very soul.

As a result, it has also become part of my goal to ensure readers that they are ok, too. I suffered a lot with eating disorders; I want to do whatever I can to ensure that others do not.

So when I say that you deserve to eat a nice, creamy slice of cake or fat wedge of pie, I mean it--for you and me both. We deserve to enjoy things purely because they are delicious and make us happy. Let me put it like this: you could live without cake. But what kind of joyless life is that?

So when people ask me how I "stay so thin", I am honest. I tell them that I eat a balanced diet, that I do yoga every day and walk almost everywhere (nobody likes these answers, btw, hoping instead that I will tell them I have a medical condition or at least gave up gluten). But I also tell them that I refuse to deny myself sweets. Believe it or not, giving yourself permission to enjoy sweets makes it far less likely that you'll over or under-indulge. Pretty revolutionary, huh?

So when you've made a dessert like cadbury creme eggs benedict or cookie cake pie, it is in no way a good idea to eat the entire thing. But will a small serving kill you? No. In fact, it might just make your day a little sweeter.

ED Blog post illustrations

Why speak up about eating disorders now?

Disordered eating has been on my mind a lot recently, for a few reasons.

One: I have been working on writing what I hope one day could be a memoir of my story--from eating disorder to dessert queen. I'd buy the book, but then I'm biased, am I not?

Two: Recently, I shared on my personal Facebook page that I had done a phone interview about my eating disordered past. This was the update.

The reaction to it stunned me. Not only in terms of "likes" and comments, but also with the behind-the-scenes reactions. I have been contacted by numerous women and men privately, who have shared their own tales, and sympathized with me.

Very importantly: more than one of these private responders was somehow connected to the food industry.

This fact was equal parts heartening ("I'm not the only one!") and horrifying ("we've all been alone together!").

All of the aforementioned things have made me realize that now more than ever, it is important to be open about my story. Why? Eating disorders have a huge shame factor. If I can shed some light on the subject, perhaps it can help erase some of the stigma so that others can begin to emerge from the darkness. 

ED Blog post illustrations

My story, Readers' Digest form.

Some say that people with eating disorders are like loaded guns: they have all of the genes in place to pre-dispose them to disordered eating, but some event needs to "pull the trigger."

For many, including me, this thing is dieting. I started my first diet at age 12, following a comment before my 8th grade dance that I had "thick ankles". Here I am on the day of that dance:

Mardi gras magic

(Thankfully, the offensively thick ankles are out of the shot)

What I heard, of course, was not that my ankles were thick but that my ankles were fat, which quickly grew in my mind to "you are fat".

I can see now that I was a normal girl, not thin and not chubby--just kind of average build. But even an offhand comment during this sensitive time can set off a girl with a predisposition to disordered eating.

ED Blog post illustrations

From fat ankles to eating disorder in five easy steps

  • I began exercising, ostensibly to slim down those fat ankles, and decided to speed things along by dieting. I received many compliments about my new and improved physique.
  • Surprise: I was hungry all the time. I couldn't keep it up. One day I gave in to my hunger and ate more than I ever thought I could in one sitting. 
  • Frightened by how I felt mentally and physically after what I now know was an eating binge, I went on an even stricter diet to compensate for what I was sure was a stand-alone incident.
  • Surprise, again: that started a cycle that graduated to an unhealthy cycle of starving followed by an inevitable binge. I began to make myself vomit, too, a terrible habit which stayed with me for more than ten years.
  • Gradually, I was able to cease the bingeing and purging, but took it too far, into anorexic territory. My weight plummeted, but I still only saw myself as chubby. 

ED Blog post

And then came CakeSpy

When I started CakeSpy, I fell into the category of "sub clinical" or what many adorably call "almost anorexic". This means that I didn't classify clinically, but I still harbored a lot of the disordered thoughts. 

Even before I started the blog, I baked; there's a joke that "nobody bakes like an anorexic". In my experience, this is true. Anorexics love to see others indulge in what they feel they cannot. But I never lost a love of dessert. Even at my lowest weight, I always reserved a few of the calories I did allot myself for sweets. 

One day, finding myself yearning for a life beyond my refrigerator magnet company job, I had a sit-down with myself that went something like this: "well, in an ideal world what would you want to do?". 

There was no hesitation. In my ideal life, I would do something that involved writing, illustration, and baked goods. 

After further self consultation to figure out the perfect name, CakeSpy was born. Since I didn't know exactly how to get something rolling that would include writing, illustration, and baked goods, I decided to start a blog while I figured it all out.

On the day I started my blog, I weighed about the same as your average 11 year old girl. Little did I know, this blog would actually save my life. 

ED Blog post

Healing, with cake

Someone wiser than me once said "keep your friends close, but your enemies closer". I never thought of my blog in that way, but it really was.

At first in my blogging days, I would get scared frequently. Trays of brownies had the potential to panic me, I felt I had to revolve an entire day's meal plan around indulging in a slice of cake. In the beginning, it was only on a very strong day that I was able to eat and enjoy one of my own baked goods without giving myself a major guilt trip afterward. But I kept on doing it.

The more I worked with food, the less scary it became. It would take time to trust food; in the beginning, I was content to at least fear it less.

Food is both the enemy and the savior with an eating disorder. Often, your dealings with it are furtive, secretive.

For me, it it was cathartic to work with food so openly, intimately, and in such a tactile way: to touch it, smell it, be in its presence. To inhale the aroma of butter creaming with sugar. To see cakes rise in the oven. To roll pie dough. To knead bread. Understanding the process of how things were made gave me an appreciation, and little by little, trust grew. 

Of course, it didn't hurt that I was also receiving a lot of professional therapy, too.

I began to experiment with food beyond simply baking at home. I would challenge myself to take part in experiences baking or eating with other people. Sometimes I would feel panicked, but more often than not I would be rewarded by the experience. I found myself capable of doing things like judging baking contests (even if I took the most minute bites you could possibly imagine) and not only sampling, but allowing myself to enjoy, my own baked goods. I found myself capable of doing it with abandon. If other people could do it, I figured, I could too.  

I have gained weight since I started CakeSpy. Not just because I've eaten more sweets (which I have) but because I've learned that I actually need food, not only to live but so that I can be good to the people I love and do the things I want to do: write, do crazy yoga poses, walk for miles while talking with friends, travel, experience, love, and create. 

Speaking of creating, that is the other way in which CakeSpy has helped me heal. It may sound funny to say this, but one of the ways in which the blog helped heal my eating disorder had nothing to do with the food: it had to do with my sense of purpose and accomplishment. It is something I have built by myself, featuring my art: my writing, my illustrations, my creations. I cannot understate the positive effect it has had on my life to know that my work has had an impact on others.

Yes, an eating disorder has to do with food. But for me, recovery isn't merely about trusting food: it's about trusting yourself, and life. 

 

ED Blog post

Am I cured?

Let me say this: I do believe in full recovery for eating disorders. But for me, recovery remains a moving target. Why so?

Because at one point, when I was bulimic, I would have said "cured" was no longer bingeing and purging. Well, I reached that goal, but then I plummeted to an alarmingly low weight and suffered a slew of related health consequences. So, no, that was not really cured. 

At this point, I have not shown clinical signs of eating disordered behavior in years. I can eat a slice of cake like nobody's business. However, I am hesitant to say without a doubt "I am cured!".

Because I still have weak moments. I can still feel panic when someone shoves a cookie in my face and says "try this!" or berate myself for eating too much. I don't always like eating in front of others. I can observe that in times of crisis (real or perceived), I turn to food obsession as a way to set structure in what seems like a crazy, out of control world. 

So with that in mind, instead of stating absolutes such as "cured" or "diseased", I will designate myself as a "work in progress".

ED Blog post

 

THE MORAL:

CakeSpy has helped me in recovering from disordered eating, as backwards as it may seem. It has helped me pave my own way in the world, to believe in myself and my ablities, and to keep growing in a postive way. If I had to share a big takeaway, it would be this:

Your story does not need to be open and shut, black or white. It doesn't have to follow the same story arc as a movie.

Basically, it boils down to this: you have the power to change your story, and I chose to make mine delicious.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, or you suspect that eating may have become a problem in your life, I urge you to seek help. Both professional and from your family and friends. Do not make disordered eating your own private island. 

Comments? Questions? I welcome them. Leave a comment here (moderation is enabled, so if it doesn't pop up right away please forgive me), or email me: jessieoleson@gmail.com

Six Fascinating Facts About Easter Candy

Happy Easter, my sweet friends! I thought you might like to take a break from all the family time to learn some interesting candy facts. Here are 6 fascinating facts about Easter candy!

  • Americans have strong opinions on the order in which chocolate bunnies ought to be eaten. According to one study, 76 percent of Americans think the ears should be eaten first, 5 percent say feet first. Does that mean the remaining 19 percent will bite off any part that isn’t hopping away?
  • When Marshmallow Peeps made their debut in 1953, it took 27 hours to create each Peep (including moments of stopping while they dried, etc). Today, they are made in 6 seconds, and produced out at a rate of 4 million per day.
  • Peeps are the most popular non-chocolate Easter candy: Americans buy more than 700 million per season.
  • Cadbury Creme eggs are smaller in the US than they are in the UK! They are distributed by different companies in both nations. In England, the eggs weigh 40 grams. In the USA, they’re 34 grams.
  • Each year, about 16 billion jelly beans are produced for Easter. In case you’re wondering...that’s about enough to circle the world three times over.
  • Easter is the #2 candy-eating holiday of the year, with an estimated consumption of 71 million pounds worldwide. Halloween takes the cake, though, with 90 million pounds of candy.

Hoppy--er, happy--Easter, sweeties!

Why I Have a Dessert Website

Header

Hi, my name is Jessie, and I'm a blogger. Only, I really despise the words "blog" and "blogger", possibly owing to their similarity to words that don't have the most pleasant connotations, such as "booger" or "blob". So if I say "I have a food website" or "I have a dessert website", it's not trying to make the site something it's not, but more of an aversion to the b-word itself.

I get asked frequently how I got into this world, and it gives me pause, because what started me out isn't necessarily what keeps me going. 

Do what you love = love what you do

I started this website in 2007. At the time, I was working at a greeting card company in Seattle, where (I still love this) I managed and art directed the refrigerator magnet division. I called myself the Magnet Magnate. I loved my job--how could you not be tickled each and every day to go to an office with that as your title?--but I still yearned for something more--something my own. 

Cuppie at the Olympic Sculpture Park

So, while taking part of the day off for a personal errand, I decided to take advantage of the moment and sit in the lovely Olympic Sculpture park for several moments to think about life. I had also been reading Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Seth Godin, a though provoking volume that anyone who thinks "what should I do with my life?" should be reading, and re-reading once they think they figure it out. 

Not to skip around, but it seems very poetically suiting that for the re-issue of the book, I was actually mentioned:

Me in the Purple Cow book

But anyway.

So, I figured I'd make a list of the things I loved best, and try to figure out how to make a business out of it. 

Coming up with the things I loved best wasn't hard: writing, illustrating, and baked goods. Those were definitely the things I loved best. But what the hell could I do with those?

It being 2007, rather than figure it out, I thought, "I'll start a blog." I figured blogging would be a good platform to figure out how all three fit together. At that time there was no guide that I knew of for starting a blog; now there are many articles on blogging and how to start an online business.

Be engaged = engaging

Having been a freelance writer for DailyCandy at the time, I thought that I would follow a somewhat similar format, but focus completely on sweets, and puncutate daily finds with my illustrations.

But quickly, the focus began to expand. I started doing interviews with bakers, which I always found fascinating. I did bakery roundups in cities I visited. I wrote about the history of desserts. I did funny baking experiments. I engaged myself with things I found fascinating, and was rewarded to find that others were engaged by what I did. 

I decided I wanted to get a book deal in 2009, two years into the website. I thought I was definitely famous and accomplished enough.

Well. publishers disagreed, and my proposal was rejected by every single person I sent it to. I let it ruin my day, but just one day. The next day, I got back to blogging and said "whatever" to publishing.

Think local, act global

Back wall at CakeSpy Shop

Did I ever tell you I used to own a store?

I had an opportunity to take over a retail gallery in 2010. I took the chance, even though it hadn't been something I'd actively been pursuing. In March 2010, CakeSpy Shop opened.

If I am completely honest, I will tell you that I had some issues with shop ownership from the get-go. I mostly consider myself a behind the scenes person. I'm happy emerging from behind the scenes every now and again to host an event or attend the Pillsbury Bake-Off, or contribute to a book, but being "on" as I needed to be in a retail setting was trying. So was the fact that I wasn't able to up and go on a trip, as I so love to do. 

Nonetheless, I loved my store. It was my baby. It even did so well that I could afford an employee. An employee!

People who know me know that the store closed in fall of 2012. While it was partially financially motivated, it wasn't because the store was failing--more because it was making people involved wilt with all of the time and energy required. We wanted to live our lives. Plus, I didn't want to live in Seattle forever. It was time to move on. 

If you build it, they will come

My book is going to be on the TODAY Show!

But let's back up a bit. With how busy I was with the store, I stopped caring so much about getting a book deal. Of course, that is when I got a book deal.

In December 2010, Sasquatch Books (one of the publishers who had rejected me!) came back and gave me a book deal. It had taken a while, but finally, I was going to be published. 

And I was, in October of 2011. CakeSpy Presents Sweet Treats for a Sugar-Filled Life. I had a book party at my store, and my parents came from NJ. It was one of the proudest moments of my life to see a line out the door. The book (not me) was featured on the TODAY show.

Book launch party

Change your perspective

In early 2012, I moved from Seattle to Philadelphia. Suddenly, I went from being a minor celebrity in town to nobody knowing who I was. In a way, this was a good thing. It gave me some time to question who I was, and what I was doing--and did it really please me? 

The answer, I was surprised to find, was no. What had once been so easy, so exciting, had turned into a grind for me. I know you have trouble believing that this can happen when you write about, draw pictures of, and bake sweets, but it is true. It wasn't necessarily time to change everything, but time to evolve. After all, I had evolved as a person. Why couldn't my little blog evolve, too?

So, I decided to buckle down and write my second book, The Secret Lives of Baked Goods: Sweet Stories & Recipes for America's Favorite Desserts, and to figure out how I wanted to continue growing. 

I am not my blog

During and after the time the store closed, I went through a series of trying times, personally.

It was a big realization for me: I am not my blog, although my blog is me. 

I moved around a little bit more. I've been so many places this year: Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Columbus, Washington, DC, Pie Town, NM...and so many more!

At this moment, I am writing to you from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I came to a powerful realization: there's something to that saying "get back to your roots". 

As it turned out, the answer has been right in front of me the whole time: go back to what got you started. Focus on the fact that by doing what you love, by being engaged, you will inspire others to love and be engaged. 

My recipe in an upcoming book!

That doesn't, I think, mean that I have to go back to blogging (writing a website, that is) the same way I did in 2007, but more, it means that a return to what makes me happy is necessary.

So I suppose that in 2014, my resolution or goal is to be myself, focus on what I love, and therefore, love what I do. Because if you are engaged, you are engaging. Does this mean I might incorporate even more of my loves and passions into the site--fashion, yoga, teaching baking and artwork to children, travel? Who knows how that all might work in a delightful world of baked goods?

If following my heart (and a ton of hard work, too) has gotten me this far, then I suppose I will keep on doing what I am doing, with room to grow and evolve, of course. 

What's your resolution in 2014? Foodie or otherwise? 

Fat and Sweet: Roly Polies Recipe

Making Pie crust with Spymom

Growing up, when SpyMom brought out the pie plate and the rolling pin, the entire family got very excited. 

You may assume that it was because it was pie time.

I know what time it is.

But, well, you'd be wrong. Because although we weren't going to turn away one of SpyMom's pies, what we really craved were the precious bits created with the leftover scraps of dough, which she'd polka-dot with butter then sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar and then roll into spirals, baking them in the residual heat of the oven and presenting them to her hungry masses under the name Roly Poly. 

I have no idea why SpyMom called them Roly Polies--she said that she had started making them because that's how she'd been taught to use the leftover pie dough from a neighbor, when she was a girl. It's likely owing to their short and squat nature. After all, when I just now looked up the definition of "roly-poly" in the dictionary (it was there!), it said "A short plump person or thing."

Making Pie crust with Spymom

I don't know how to scientifically explain how such a simple thing as coating pie crust with butter, cinnamon, and sugar creates a treat with an almost crack-like addictive quality. But just take a bite. You'll lose yourself in the gooey midsection of this pie crust cookie-treat, which is soft, but lightly salty, and gooey. You'll want more. I guarantee it.

And to prove it, I will present evidence of how beloved these treats have become in my family. No longer are they the way to use up leftover pie crust: my mom will actually make up an extra batch just to make roly polies.

Making Pie crust with Spymom

Me, I'm just as happy cutting simple strips. You can see for yourself the next time you've got some extra pie crust rolling around--but be warned, you may be setting yourself up for a lifetime of craving.

Roly Polies

Ingredients

  • Leftover pie crust
  • Butter
  • Cinnamon
  • Light or dark brown, or granulated sugar

Is your oven already heated? If not, preheat it to 400 degrees F.

Making Pie crust with Spymom

Dot the crust all over with butter. Making Pie crust with Spymom

Now, coat it with cinnamon. If you want, give it a sprinkle of sugar, too. Making Pie crust with Spymom

Now, slice it into strips.

Making Pie crust with Spymom

And then roll them up.

Making Pie crust with Spymom

Place them on a greased baking sheet. Making Pie crust with Spymom

Bake for 5-10 minutes, or until golden.

Enjoy! Did you have any treats like this in your house while you were growing up?

Happiness is a Dairy Queen Sundae

Dairy Queen

It's a funny thing about road trips. It's like by getting in a car and traveling a distance, your senses go through an awakening of sorts. All of a sudden you're a stranger in a strange land, and your senses are honed in this new world. Rather than drifting through your day in usual habits, you're practically pelted with new experiences, places, sights, and things. It's a fantastic opportunity to regain a certain curiosity about the world. 

Of course, there's also the subject of food.

Sometimes, road trips can introduce you to spectacular foods, be it a regional specialty or a blue plate special or a particularly excellent roadside burger. Nobody knows this better than Jane and Michael Stern, pioneers on the subject.

Sometimes, though, the food where you happen to stop during the hours you stop there totally sucks--that unique burger joint is closed for the day and all you've got at your disposal is gas station grub. 

It's times like these--and I am speaking for myself, but perhaps you agree?--that my perception about what is a "good" food and what is just ho-hum shifts. 

Starbucks, for instance. I like Starbucks, but living in a city, they're hardly destination-worthy--they're just around when you need them. But when you've just driven like 600 miles in one of the Dakotas and seen beautiful scenery but not much else for hours, if you see a sign for a Starbucks coming up, it's almost like a divine ray of sun shining right on you. 

Likewise with Dunkin Donuts, Baskin Robbins, and Dairy Queen. 

Now, as you'll know if you are a regular reader of this site...I'm not necessarily a sweets elitist. While I love me a fancy kouign amann or Opera cake or a delicately constructed battenberg cake, there's never been a point at which I feel I'm too good for Pop-tarts, Oreos, or the delectable Vanilla Kreme variety at Dunkin' Donuts. So I should say that I'm not opposed to eating mass produced ice cream--although I often consider it far more interesting to try regional joints with interesting flavors.

But I've got to tell you, that last week, when I was road tripping from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, when I stopped at the first eatery I'd seen for miles and miles, somewhere in either New Mexico or Arizona, and the single only eatery in town was a Dairy Queen, I could have wept for joy.

And those tears could have turned to straight-out sobs when I was served a peanut butter sundae.

Now, to the uninitiated, a "sundae" at DQ is really just ice cream with a sauce on top. If you want what I consider a sundae (whipped cream and a cherry in addition to the topping), there's an extra charge.

But sometimes, ice cream with sauce is all you need in the world. And they have quite a few different toppings to choose from at Dairy Queen, including but not limited to toffee, chocolate, peanut butter, strawberry, et cetera. After consulting with the cashier for what was probably an awkwardly long time about their different toppings (I was shown the industrial sized tubs from which they are ladled on to the soft serve ice cream), I decided on the peanut butter.  

The employee got a cup and pulled a lever, and into the cup cascaded a hypnotic stream of extruded soft serve ice cream. A perfect little tail-loop on top. 

Then, she reached for the industrial sized container of peanut butter sauce--it was called "Liquid Peanut Butter". It had a pump, and she squeezed a generous three or four pumps on to my soft serve. I could tell she liked me! 

Photo via PostneoThen, it was delivered to my hot little hand. It was roughly $3 for the small size.

Now. In my non-road trip life, I would rarely have indulged in a moment like this. I would have been seeking out the really good stuff--the Salt and Straw, the Cupcake Royale, the Hoffman's, the ultimate Maple Creemee in Vermont.

But at this particular moment, outside of that Dairy Queen somewhere in New Mexico or Arizona, sitting outside under an umbrella, listening to the whizz of cars whooshing by on the nearby freeway, I stopped to savor. I paused. I watched the workers across the street at an auto body shop. I enjoyed every bit of my ice cream, one little spoonful at a time, industrial topping and all.

And I'll tell you, the experience was absolutely perfect. 

What's your favorite guilty pleasure food while road tripping? 

Sweet Story: Strawberry Sour Cream Sundae from Molly Moon's

CakeSpy Note: You know that I'm a sucker for a sweet story, especially when it pertains to the secret life of something sweet! So when I received this sweet story behind the Strawberry Sour Cream Sundae at Seattle's famous Molly Moon's Ice Cream, I had to share! 

When Molly was a kid in Idaho, her Grandma Angie introduced her to a delicious summer treat: dipping strawberries in sour cream and brown sugar. Grandma Angie holds a special place in Molly's heart partly because of her passion for politics. Molly remembers her grandmother as an energetic leader who was often working in political offices or on campaigns. When campaign volunteers were working late into the night, Grandma Angie would run out for strawberries, sour cream and brown sugar so her hardworking crew could have a special treat.

In honor of Grandma Angie, and the awesomeness of Washington strawberries, we’ve created a new sundae that is at once crunchy, creamy and cool.

We had a lot of fun making this sundae. We started with a scoop of our strawberry sour cream ice cream – a  simple combination of Remlinger Farms strawberries and sour cream - to make a richer, creamier flavor with just the tiniest bit of zing. Then we added some fresh, organic strawberries, a lightly sweetened sour cream and crunchy, golden Demerara sugar. A sundae isn't a sundae without whipped cream and a cherry on top, so we went ahead and added those too! The result is pretty to look at (all red, white, pink and sparkly) and a treat to eat.

We like to think Grandma Angie would approve.

Sorry! I don't have a recipe to share, but you can buy one of these sweet treats at all Molly Moon's locations in Seattle!

Why Cupcakes Are Nutritious

Custom request, food pyramid in color

Cupcakes are totally nutritious! I say this, of course, as someone who makes a living writing about and drawing pictures of cake, so please take that into account if you're listening to me. Oh, and I should probably tell you that in no way, should I or could I be confused for a dietitian. Actually, perhaps I should re-title this post "Why I'll Never, Ever, Ever Be a Dietician"? Because what I'm going to do now is spend the next several inches of your internet telling you exactly why eating cupcakes is a great idea for your health. 

You know you love it. Let's go!

Custom order

You Burn Calories Eating Cupcakes! did you know that you burn 102 calories per hour while you're eating? That's right: eating is exercise! That means that if you manage to eat 10,000 calories of cupcake in one hour sitting, really, you didn't break the 10k mark because you burned 102 just simply by eating. And that doesn't include the calories you burned taking the wrapper off! Whew, I feel like I've exercised merely by thinking about it. Go get me a cupcake! 

My kind of egg!

Eggs are a low-cost, high-quality protein. They also have high amounts of something called choline, which is important as an anti-inflammatory, an assistant in maintaining membranes...and, most importantly, maintaining the brain's health. Over 90% of americans are deficient in choline. Clearly, we need to be eating more of it. Cupcakes have eggs. Eggs have choline. Eat more cupcakes!

Sugar gives you energy. Candy makes you feel dandy. That's because it's made of sugar! This is an ingredient that also figures prominently into cake and frosting, the main components of a cupcake. Sugar sends glucose straight to the blood, causing insulin levels to increase while you experience a quick burst of energy. PARTY TIME! 

Flour Power

Flour gives you energy, too. It recently came to my attention that eating white flour gives you blood-sugar spikes, just like white sugar. Well, I don't know about you, but when I eat sugar I feel invincible. So it would stand that if I eat flour AND sugar, at once, I'll be double-invincible! Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to jump from the window and see if I can fly. Gluten, yeah!

DSC03421

Butter: The world's most reliable source, Men's Health, wisely tells me, "Fat, like that in butter, is necessary in order to help your body absorb many of the healthy nutrients found in vegetables. For instance, without fat, your body can't absorb carotenoids—powerful disease-fighting antioxidants found in colorful vegetables—or fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. So go ahead, eat butter, and do it without guilt." How is cake going to be healthy without butter!? 

Vanilla: As I learned here, It can reduce stress, help with nasusea, and assist in regulating menstruation. You heard it here: cupcakes as a cure for morning sickness or PMS! What's not to love about this potent vanilla mixture? 

Wow! I'm feeling healthier already, aren't you? Although I'm starting to feel the weirdest energy low after spending the last hour eating cupcakes (you know, for excersise). But Although I feel healthier already, I'm also beginning to feel a slight blood sugar downtick. I know exactly how to cure that...another cupcake! 

Here's to your cupcake-eating, absolutely delicious health! 

The Curious Case of the St. Patrick's Day Frog Cupcake

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

It's a funny thing about regional baked goods. Sometimes, you don't realize they're regional until you move away from an area. And for me, one such baked good is the St. Patrick's Day Frog Cupcake.

I grew up in a magical part of the world known as the Jersey Shore. And every year around the first of March through St. Patrick's day, local bakeries such as Freedman's Bakery would bake up a very interesting confection: the frog cupcake.

Let me explain a bit further, though. A frog cupcake is NOT simply a cupcake decorated with a frog face. Its construction is like so:

Frogs chart

When assembled, it looks like this:

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

Now, chances are, if you aren't a local in the NY metro area, you may never have seen this glorious confection. For me, it wasn't until I relocated to Seattle for a time that I realized that this wasn't an everywhere treat. So what gives?

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

Well, I have to say, this is a moment where I want to say "Bless the Internet", because, as it turns out, there's an entire website dedicated to the subject  (and preservation of) these delightful frogs. It's called Follow Your Frog. It even has a page dedicated to the evolution of the frog. The research isn't scientific, but references that the frog pheneomenon could date back to the 1920s, in Australia:

A place called Balfours, which evidently still has them today. These Froggies are quite different than their American cousins (well, OK, we haven’t tasted met them yet, but from what we've read). These are tea cakes, originally just green, then also pink and chocolate coated (yes, chocolate!). Were these the frogs that came to America and were supersized? Or are the Frogs that settled in the New York metro area instead from Europe? Frog historians (ok, there really is no such thing...crazy people obsessed with Frogs) are attempting to trace their path…

But then the page goes on to say

Next sighting - bakeries in the NY Metro area in the 1960s-70s. These are the frogs of our childhood, and all the local bakeries (Coquelle’s, New Garden) in the Newark NJ area had them for St. Patrick’s Day (and ONLY then).

Newark area bakeries disappear over time, with Coquelle’s ending in the 90s, and we thought they were extinct. Uncontrollable sobbing continued every St. Patty’s Day. Until…

Frogs found in Central Jersey! In fact they were there all along, probably as long as the Northern NJ frogs – we just didn’t know. Vaccaro’s in Clark NJ saves St. Patty’s Day!

Frogs go mainstream with the Wegmans supermarket variety – although for the last 2 years in NJ they were MIA… so hopefully they have not gone the way of the dinosaur…

An internet search leads to the discovery of La Delice in NYC – another older bakery which has had them for a long time. And these frogs don’t hibernate – they proudly show their googly eyes every day of the year.

The fantastic creators of the Follow Your Frog site have even started something called FrogFest, which pits frog cupcake makers from NY, NJ, and PA against one another to see whose frogs are the finest. My goodness, why haven't I been to one of these?

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

As the site notes, and as I can attest, the frog is a dying breed. When I visited Freedman's in Belmar recently, which is under new ownership since my childhood, the employee had no idea what I was talking about when I inquired about frog cupcakes. A longtime employee's face, however, lit up as she said "Oh my god! I remember the frogs. They were like sugar bombs! So good!". 

However, in nearby Spring Lake Heights, the frogs are available at a bakery called What's For Dessert. Their specimen is a fine one, with a decadent edge owing to a butter cookie leprechaun hat (adhered with a birthday candle!). And by a "fine" specimen I mean a true and complete sugar bomb of a delight. It's not fancy eating but it sure is fun. Here is my nephew about to dig into one:

Dylan and his frog

It is humane to remove the eyes before eating, but that's not to say you can't have a little torturous fun with your frog. Sensitive readers may want to skip the next few photos.

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

OK, OK. I hope I've expanded your sweet horizons by offering you the fable of the Jersey Shore frog today. If you're curious, I highly suggest visiting the Follow Your Frog website, where you can find frogs and report sightings!

It may not be easy being green for these frogs, but life is certainly sweet for the eaters of these treats. 

A Historical Look at the Mexican Wedding Cake Cookie

Mexican wedding cakes

Ah, Mexican Wedding Cakes: one of my favorite cakes that is not a cake at all, but a cookie!

And oh, what a cookie. These rich cookies rolled in confectioners' sugar to resemble sweet little snowballs crumble in your mouth in the most delightful way: basically butter and (usually) finely chopped nuts held together by flour and sugar, they begin to shatter and disintegrate the moment they hit your tongue. You may know them as Mexican Wedding Cakes. Or you might know them, with slight variations, under another name: Snowballs, Moldy Mice, Bullets, Russian Teacakes, Melting Moments, Mandulás kifli, Polvorones, Sand Tarts, Sandies, Butterballs, Almond Crescents, Finska kakor, Napoleon Hats (whew!). Mexican wedding cakes

These cookies hail from as many countries as they have names: talk about a universal cookie.

Mexican wedding cakes

Considering the many variations, is it possible to connect the cookie to a particular place? Well, you might first look back to sugar-rich medieval Arab cuisine. Sweetmeats, candies, and confections containing nuts (usually almonds) and spices were served at special occasions. Next, you spread it to Europe, a sweet tradition quickly adopted by Moors and taken to Spain. From then on it’s like playing Telephone: the concept of the cookie traveled far and wide, with each region taking on their own variations based on ingredients available at the time. This sweet cookie concept was then introduced to the New World by early explorers. Fast forward, and you've got a cookie tradition that has persisted due to the cookie's relative ease in preparation and simple but ultimately satisfying tastiness. 

Mexican wedding cakes In the 1950s, they started to appear in American cookbooks as Mexican Wedding Cakes, but it seems that it's really just a new name for an old cookie. They're nearly identical to Russian Teacakes, which were a popular dish at noble Russian tea ceremonies in the 1800s. A popular book in Russia from this era, entitled A Gift to Young Housewives, contains several morsels that are constructed similarly; it’s not hard to see how these treats came to be called Russian teacakes. So what's with the name's cultural makeover? I'm wondering if perhaps the name change was a Freedom Fries-esque name change in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Soviet Union and the United States were at odds with one another? It does seem to have coincided with a period during which TexMex cuisine made its entry into American culture in a big way.

But no matter what you'd like to call them, one thing remains true across cultures: these simple cookies are easy to make, and absolutely delightful to eat. Mexican wedding cakes

Mexican Wedding Cakes (Printable version here!)

Makes about 2 dozen 1-inch cookies

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans 
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Confectioners' sugar, for rolling

 Procedure

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
  3. Add the flour gradually, beating well after each addition; pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
  4. Add the nuts and vanilla; beat just until evenly mixed in.
  5. Shape the dough into balls about 1 inch in diameter and place on the cookie sheets.
  6. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the position of the pans halfway through baking; the cookies are finished when they are lightly browned on the bottom and have a dull finish on top.
  7. Let the cookies cool on the pan for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack. While the cookies are still warm, gently roll them in a bowl of confectioners' sugar. Tap off the excess, and allow them to cool completely. When cool, roll them in the confectioners' sugar a second time before serving; the first coat tends to slightly melt into the cookie, and the second coat will ensure a pretty, snowy appearance.
  8. Store in a single layer in an airtight container for up to four days.

Teatime Tastiness: Lady Baltimore Cake Story and Recipe

Lady Baltimore cake

Here’s a cake that was built for genteel tea parties: a large layer cake filled with chopped nuts and dried fruits and topped with a dramatic (but ever ladylike) billow of boiled frosting. But while one might suppose that this distinguished cake was named after Lady Baltimore, that's not quite how the story went. Like many cakes, its origins are disputed--but like any teatime gossip, this makes the story so much more fun to delve into. A very helpful resource in my delving was The Old Foodie, by the way. Oh, and if you like tales like this, you should probably pre-order my new book, The Secret Lives of Baked Goods: Sweet Stories & Recipes for America's Favorite Desserts.

Lady Baltimore Cake

Let's start with the tales that are likely false. First: the Lady Baltimore connection. Highly unlikely that the cake dates back to her day: the Lady, whose Irish husband inherited Maryland in the mid-seventeenth century, never even lived in America, and in any case baking powder leavening agents were not invented until well into the nineteenth century – making a cake of this sort not very likely to have been invented as a casual teatime treat during her day. The Big Fella of American Cookery, James Beard, says of Lady Baltimore that it is “said to have originated in Maryland, this one one of the first fine-textured cakes mentioned in old cookery books. It required a delicate touch in mixing and exact measurements--this, in the days of no standard measuring cups, teaspoons, or tablespoons.” Second: the Dolley Madison connection. Some say that the cake rose in popularity due to the fact that it was similar to a cake enjoyed by Dolley Madison, the fourth First Lady but this story fails to explain why it is not then called Dolly Madison cake. Also, she's already got an ice cream named after her—isn't that enough?

And now, the favored explanations for the cake—likely, the true story is a combination of the two. First: It originated in Charleston at the end of the nineteenth century, at “The Lady Baltimore Tearooms”, and was a variation of another popular cake.

Lady Baltimore Cake

Second: novelist Owen Wister is the one who made this cake famous--while writing his 1906 romance, Lady Baltimore, set in a fictional city based on Charleston, he was extremely taken with the city and a cake he ate there. In fictional form, it is described as being not unlike a wedding cake, and the suggestive passage is as follows:

"I should like a slice, if you please, of Lady Baltimore," I said with extreme formality. I thought she was going to burst; but after an interesting second she replied, "Certainly," in her fit Regular Exchange tone; only, I thought it trembled a little.

I returned to the table and she brought me the cake, and I had my first felicitous meeting with Lady Baltimore. Oh, my goodness! Did you ever taste it? It's all soft, and it's in layers, and it has nuts--but I can't write any more about it; my mouth waters too much.

Upon reacting in a strongly favorable way, the narrator realizes that the girl he’d been speaking to was the cake-maker. He finds that it has broken the ice, and their sweet flirtation continues. Some say that it is an instance of art imitating life: could it be possible that Wister had been served some delicious cake by an appealing Southern belle, and was inspired to immortalize the experience?

Supporting this is the fact that there seems to be no mention anywhere of a cake called “Lady Baltimore” until the first known publication of the recipe in 1906. Suddenly there was a flood of newspaper articles mentioning the cake; one writer in 1907 only agreeing to part with the recipe ‘with the sanction of Owen Wister’. Most likely? The cake preceded Wister's novel, but was renamed toute-suite after the novel's popularity became evident. Perhaps some entrepreneurial cake-shop owner took note after reading the book and tweaked the recipe to live up to the novel. Perhaps it was even the ladies at the Lady Baltimore Tea Rooms in Charleston.

Lady Baltimore, in cake form, has a male companion: the Lord Baltimore Cake. This yellow cake variation was created as a clever way to use up all of the egg yolks discarded while making the Lady version of the cake, yielding a rich, decadent counterpart.

Lady Baltimore Cake

Delicate and fine-crumbed, this cake is nicely paired with the rich fillings and toppings which keep it from being too light and angel food-like. Precision with the cake is necessary to get the “lift” from the egg whites, but it's worth the effort: it makes for sweet, easy eating, and the cake's history will make for some fascinating conversation.

Lady Baltimore Cake (printable recipe here!)
16 servings

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup milk
  • 7 large egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Boiled frosting (recipe follows)

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease and flour the bottoms and sides of three 8-or 9-inch round cake pans; line with rounds of parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3-5 minutes on medium speed. Stir in the vanilla.
  4. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in 2-3 additions, alternately with the milk, and stir the batter until it is just combined.
  5. In another large bowl, beat the egg whites, cream of tartar, pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks.
  6. Stir a portion of the egg whites into the batter to lighten the mixture; follow by gently folding in the remaining whites.
  7. Divide the batter evenly among the prepared pans. Use a spatula to smooth the top of the batter in the pans.
  8. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.
  9. Let the cake layers cool in the pans on racks for 10 minutes, turn them out onto the racks, and let them cool completely. If the cakes have formed a dome on top, slice using a serrated knife to level. 

Boiled frosting

  • 6 large egg whites
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped dried figs plus sliced dried figs for garnish
  • 1 cup pecans, toasted lightly and chopped fine, plus pecan halves for garnish
  • 1/2 cup raisins, chopped
  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Set aside.
  2. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the sugar and the water, stirring occasionally. Once it comes to a boil, continue stirring, more frequently, until the sugar is dissolved; boil the syrup until it registers 248 degrees F on a candy thermometer.
  3. With the mixer running add the hot syrup to the egg whites, in a slow, steady stream.
  4. Add the vanilla, beating the icing until it is smooth and cool.
  5. Transfer two cups of the frosting to a bowl. With the remaining portion of frosting, fold in the chopped figs, pecans, and raisins.
  6. Place the first cake layer on a serving plate, flat (un-cut) side up. Spread it with half of the fruit and nut-filled frosting, keeping a ½ inch margin around the edges—the weight of the next layer will spread the filling to the edges. Place another cake layer on top of the frosting, once again so that the flat side faces up. Spread the remaining fruit and nut-filled frosting on top of this layer, once again leaving a margin. Place the third cake layer on top, flat side up. Use the reserved plain frosting to frost the top and sides of the cake. Garnish with any remaining fruit or nuts.