Chocolate and Spices

It’s been a whirlwind of a month and a half. I spent the holidays at home (oh NYC, how I’ve missed you!), spent the two weeks I was back in the office preparing for and teaching an Interterm class on fossils and bones, took a mini vacation to visit friends in the Bay Area, bookended that trip with brief stops in NYC, and then spent Chinese New Year weekend in NYC after a scant few days back at Amherst (busily kicking off the semester). Feel out of breath reading that? I feel like I’m only just catching my breath after settling back into the rhythm of Amherst, work, and having no immediate travel plans on the horizon. Phew.

Despite all my jetsetting during the January break, it’s typically a pretty quiet time at the Reader to Reader office. When most of our mentors aren’t around and the mentoring program is on break, there’s not as much on our plates that demand immediate attention. Needless to say, when the mentors return, it’s always exciting and energizing. Update our mentor list to reflect returning and departing study abroaders? Check. Figure out what needs to be re-assigned? Check. Get new students and mentors set up to go on the forum? Check. And it goes on…. Unfortunately my baking brain, sluggish thing that it was, didn’t quite catch up at the same rate. With tea time fast approaching, I found my mind uncharacteristically blank. The idea of a mentor gathering, kitchen fun, laughter and all was certainly appealing. But I had no idea what I was in the mood for….

I have a few new cookbooks that I haven’t had a chance to dive too deeply into yet, so this baking rut was the perfect time to flip through them for inspiration. I wanted something simple and not too fussy to make, but also with a subtle, sophisticated twist. As I flipped through a variety of recipes and drool-worthy photos, it became apparent that the chilly weather that has been a norm as of late was gravitating me towards chocolate. Chocolate is an infinitely fun medium to experiment with. Decadent and deliciously satisfying on its own, chocolate becomes an entirely different experience when infused with another flavor. Some of my favorites: orange, Earl Grey, lavender, and pear. When done right, these flavors add a layer of complexity, complement the chocolate itself, and take the edge off the sweetness. If I’m baking with chocolate, there’s almost always another flavor in play. So of course, when I came across the intriguingly named, gorgeously photographed Dragon Devil’s Food Cupcakes in The Sweet Spot (authored by Pichet Ong and Genevieve Ko), I paused. So named to capture the Asian inspiration behind them, these are chocolate cupcakes jazzed up with a serious spice kick.

Perusing the ingredients, I noticed several things immediately: (1) the use of buttermilk for the cupcake batter, which scores major points in earning my seal of approval. I love the moist, fluffy crumbs that the addition of buttermilk results in, and let’s face it–no one likes a dry cake. (2) A bit of cinnamon in the cupcake batter lends the cupcakes an element of the unusual, but the real star of this recipe is the frosting. Lapsang souchong, star anise, and bourbon promised to transform what would otherwise be a simple chocolate frosting into something much more. Lapsang souchong, a tea of Chinese origin, is incredibly smoky and every time I’ve used it in the kitchen, it’s added a distinctive depth to the flavor profile of whatever I’m making. Star anise–oh where to start?–is one of my very favorite spices. Fragrant and potent when used in its whole form, star anise adds depth and aroma to sweet and savory dishes. It’s hard to describe what it tastes like; more often than not, I pair it with other flavors to bring them out. Soy sauce, oolong, and chocolate are pairings I’ve experimented with and liked. Of this trio of ingredients, bourbon is the one that I have admittedly the least experience in the kitchen with. But imagining warm and spicy paired with chocolate sounded like the perfect winter treat to me!

We made a quadruple batch of these cupcakes and things started off well enough. Unfortunately, so caught up was I in delegating kitchen tasks and the baking itself that I forgot to take many pictures so this will be a photo-light post…. (I did say my baking brain isn’t quite caught up yet!) The batter was easy to pull together. Just the standard creaming sugar and butter and then alternately adding buttermilk and the dry ingredients.


The mentors practically begged to eat these straight out of the oven!

The frosting is where things got interesting. Frosting and I don’t appear to be friends…. It feels like whenever I set out to make frosting, it’s as likely to fail as to succeed. How is it that I can bake and spend so much time in the kitchen, but fail in making frosting?? In any case, you can probably guess that this frosting attempt ended… interestingly. Ironically, many of the mentors insisted that we didn’t need the frosting and that they don’t generally like frosting anyway. Now I would usually be inclined to agree, but the whole point of these cupcakes were the oomph added by the frosting so this was one of those rare instances in which I was very, very excited about frosting.

This particular frosting called for whipping together the star anise-tea-bourbon mixture with melted chocolate ganache and then blending that with softened butter and confectioners’ sugar. The resulting texture was supposed to be creamy and rich. We let the mixer run for awhile but when it became apparent it wasn’t thickening, we decided to let it chill in the freezer for a bit. Afterwards, we ran the mixer again–at least a good 10-15 minutes I’m sure! It definitely thickened considerably, but it never reached the creamy state and looked more like somewhat curdled whipped cream. I’m not really sure what went wrong. Our butter was probably too chilled as it accidentally ended up back in the fridge instead of remaining at room temp. Perhaps the alcohol played some sort of role too… It was still delicious at least, but very susceptible to melting at the slightest hint of heat. The bourbon came across pretty surely and garnered mixed reactions. I think that had the texture been thicker and creamier, it would have melded a bit more smoothly with the chocolate flavor. As was, it was a good mix of flavors but definitely came on very strong. Oh well, better luck in frosting next time!

– Sylvia


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