Black Magic Cupcakes

Lauren made these last night as a peace offering for her coworkers. We're leaving Saturday morning for Charleston SC. We'll be gone for a week and from what I gather her vacation might hamstring a few people at work. Our agenda on vacation should provide for several food related post when we return:

Saturday (Aug 1) - Drive to Clemson, visit Lauren's sister

Sunday - Drive to Anderson, have lunch with Grandma. Drive to Orangeburg, have second lunch
with Granny. Drive to Charleston to Lauren's parents' house.

Monday - Go crabbing. I'm not sure how this works, but I will probably be acting like a dork, imitating things I see on Deadliest Catch, even though I'm fairly certain we'll be in maybe 10 ft of warm harbor water.

Tuesday - Drive to Savannah, GA (2 hours). Do stuff, hang out with more of Lauren's relatives. Stay at Savannah's oldest hotel, The Marshall House.

Wednesday - Wake up and try to get lunch reservations at Lady & Sons, Paula Deen's restaurant. Do stuff in Savannah, then drive home.

Thursday - TBA?

Friday - Wine Tasting/Agro Tourism?

Saturday - TBA

Sunday (Aug 9) - Drive Home

We'll almost certainly need a vacation from our vacation. By the way, here is the recipe for those cupcakes:

1 3/4 c. flour
2 c. sugar
3/4 c. powdered cocoa (unsweetened)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs
1 c. strong coffee
1 c. buttermilk/sour milk or 2% milk
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1 tsp. vanilla

Mix the dry, mix the wet ingredients separately and then combine. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes in greased and floured pans (or cupcake skirts). When cool frost with Buttercream Frosting.

Macaroni & Cheese Bake

I haven't had macaroni and cheese in a while, so I decided to make some last night. I wanted to take another run at a baked mac and cheese because our previous attempt turned into an egg souffle. I'll never understand what Delia was thinking in the Mac & Cheese throwdown. 12 eggs? Ridiculous.

The recipe we used came from Alton Brown and Good Eats. Its pretty straight forward, but we made some changes so that it was more of an adult entree:
  • 1/2 pound elbow macaroni
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 tablespoon powdered mustard
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup yellow onion, finely diced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 large egg
  • 12 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Fresh black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
  • 1/2 cup corn
  • 1/2 cup peas

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large pot of boiling, salted water cook the pasta to al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, in a separate pot, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour and mustard and keep it moving for about five minutes. Make sure it's free of lumps. Stir in the milk, onion, bay leaf, and paprika. Simmer for ten minutes and remove the bay leaf.

Temper in the egg. Stir in 3/4 of the cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Fold the macaroni into the mix and pour into a 2-quart casserole dish. Top with remaining cheese.

Melt the butter in a saute pan and toss the bread crumbs to coat. Top the macaroni with the bread crumbs. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and rest for five minutes before serving.

Remember to save leftovers for fried Macaroni and Cheese.

We added the additional vegetables when we folded the pasta in the cheese sauce. The recipe is pretty simple. My advice would be once you've gotten past the simmer stage and you're preparing to mix in your cheese, turn the stove off. It will give you a little more leeway with how quickly you need to finish the last few steps. It will also prevent the cheese from getting grainy.

If you're not sure how to temper the egg, you beat an egg in a bowl, then mix in the hot cheese sauce into the bowl 1 tbsp at a time until the egg mixture reaches a temperature close to the temperature of the cheese sauce. If you just beat the egg and toss it in without tempering, the egg will cook immediately and nothing will bind.

Overall this dish was pretty mediocre. The texture was great and I wouldn't change much about any of the preparation, I just felt like the flavor was little bit bland. Maybe adding the extra vegetables necessitated adding more seasoning, which I didn't do, but it wasn't quite as flavorful as I expected. If you follow the instructions I'd recommend you find a spot to mix in some salt.

Grilled Chicken Wings

Friday night I drew some food inspiration from and a food blog linked to the profile of person on a message board. I wanted something quick and simple, with little or no mess which usually means grilled something or other. The first recipe was Bobby Flay's Grilled Chicken Wings. I'm not going to bother pasting the recipe here because in reality I only followed the cooking instructions. I'm sure the sauces were amazing, but I didn't want to end up with 2 pints of greek yogurt blue cheese dipping sauce in the refrigerator.

So going back to my previous Chicken Wings post you'll need to butcher your wings in the appropriate spots, and then thats it.

No steaming or refrigerating. Get your grill up to 400-500 degrees, take all of your wings put them in a large mixing bowl and toss them with 2-3 tbsp olive oil, some salt, pepper and any other chicken friendly spices you enjoy.

Grill the wings 4-5 minutes per side, then toss them in your favorite sauce (1/2 cup per dozen), plate and serve.
Nearly as good as the oven roasted preparation and light years quicker. The main difference is that when you steam some of the fat out of the wings in the oven method the skin shrinks up and loses much of its elasticity and gains some crispiness. In this grilled method it is just the opposite. Ideally I'd say the best method for homemade wings is to steam them, rest them in the refrigerator, then toss them in olive oil and cook them on the grill.

Wine Tasting In Northern Michigan

Last Saturday (July 4th) while we were staying in Northport, Lauren and I drove around to some of the local wineries. Leelanau Peninsula is very proud of their wine and a few of the wineries like to point out that they're located along the 45th parallel (north), which is the same parallel as some of the finest wine producing regions of Italy and France. Presumably that implies that they have the ability to grow the same grapes as those regions and thus produce comparable wines. I think there is more to it than that but its not like I would know the differene one way or another.

Our first stop was Leelanau Wine Cellars in Omena. The picture above is not from our trip (I didn't think to take any pictures of any place we stopped) but it is the room we were in. The balding sommelier in the foreground is the same one that guided us through our tasting. Much to our surprise Leelanau Cellars didn't charge for a tasting and didn't have a set number of wines that were available for tasting. We were presented with a split list of wines, one side being wines available in retail stores throughout the state and the other being premium wines available only in Leelanau Cellars tasting rooms/gift shops. I think we tried at least 10-12 wines. It was very fun and with each winery we visit we being to participate in discussions with the sommeliers about what we like or dislike about the wine we're tasting.

But I'll admit that I still don't know if I am supposed to smell the wine before I drink it or if I'm supposed to drink it in two sips or one. So about half the time I probably look like a mix between a polite drunk and a trained monkey counting the seconds until I can push my glass forward for more wine. However thats not because I don't care or that I'm pretending to care for the sake of free alcohol. I just get awkward very easily and knowing how inexperienced I am with wine (I have probably drunk less than a dozen glasses of wine in the last year) I don't feel comfortable voicing my opinion about how this wine "finishes" or that wine "has oaky characteristics". I'd just as well leave it as "I liked that" and "I didn't like that" rather than attempt some profound observation, only to find out that my palate prefers Salisbury steak to New York Strip.

Of the wineries we visited I think Leelanau Cellars benefited the most. Their wines have always been around at local wine/liquor stores and Meijer. If I am remembering correctly our sommelier told us that Leelanau Cellars is the largest winery (in terms of sales) in Michigan. However Lauren and I have always been really unimpressed with their labels. I understand that is probably the worst way to judge a wine, but if you don't know exactly what you're doing with wine the most reassuring decision is to choose the wine that looks most professional. Many of their retail wines look similar to their Winter White label, which in its defense is hugely popular wine that sells at a great price $8-$11 per bottle. So as a result Leelanau Cellars has always been a ways down our list of local wines options.

We ended up leaving with two bottles of a Baco Noir Rose (I think). More importantly I didn't want to make the same mistake we did a year ago, when we bought 2-3 bottles of good wine at our first stop and then went to a great winery and regretted only having enough wine budget left to buy 2-3 more.

Our second stop was Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, which was a huge vineyard/farm/estate just off the main road. They describe it as "an agricultural destination" which I would agree is pretty accurate. They do weddings, events and weekend room reservations.

Again the photo is the room we were in, but definitely not the day we were there. When we went there were decidedly fewer retirees than in this photo. The "tasting club" cost $3 per person at Black Star, which got you a branded tasting glass and five complimentary tastings. The Black Star Farms Arcturos Late Harvest Riesling is one of our favorite white wines. So we elected to skip that one and try more reds. I don't recall everything we had but I think it was two Cabernet Francs, a Pinot Noir, a fruit wine, a Pinot Gris and the semi-dry riesling. Our sommelier was very good at making recommendations and pouring different wines in each of our glasses so that our five tastings stretched much closer to ten. I don't remember what we walked away with from Black Star but I think it was a Pinot Noir and the latest Riesling which has been bottled but will not ship to stores for a few more months.
The last stop we made for the day was at 45 North Winery in Lake Leelanau. I believe this winery is relatively new (less than 10 years old), but they are certainly on their way to becoming an outfit like Black Star Farms. They are in the process of building a tasting room, but for now have things set up on the floor of a bottling building. We tried another 8-10 wines here, but were rushed because of a large crowd and a small bar. In the end we bought three bottles from this winery, but I don't know what they were. It was here that we discovered northern Michigan wineries seem to buy into the idea that corked wine bottles have outlived their usefulness. Everything was a screw top cap. We found that to be very disappointing. I understand the technological argument that says screw caps work as well or better, but it still feels cheap and childish. When we got back in the car we checked out earlier purchases and noticed that all but one or two were also screw tops. Oh well. By the way, 45 North has won awards at some pretty impressive sounding wine competitions, but at the moment they aren't in stores outside of northern Michigan. One of the employees gave me information about how to get in touch with their distributors that have Grand Rapids area connections, but it didn't sound like the type of thing you would go through to get just one bottle or two.

All in all it was a good time. We picked up seven more bottles to go with the four or five we have from wine tasting last summer and we've still got 17 of Leelanau Peninsula's 20 wineries left to visit on any future trips up north.

Vacation Recap In Photos

When you spend 3 hours a day at the beach, you run out of things to do. But this makes a good cover for this photo album/blog entry, so I'm leaving it in.

We took my parents' minivan this weekend because we really didn't feel like playing tetris in the trunk and backseat with all the stuff we needed to bring. The cottage where we were staying hadn't been opened for the season yet, so it was a bit unclear what we needed in the way of napkins, plates, cups, pots, pans, etc. So we decided to err on the side of caution and bring many of those things with us. That area also runs off of well water, which tastes funky so we brought bottled water and a cooler.

Anyhow, none of that is important. My point is that now that you know why we had a van you'll have a better appreciation for what happens when we drive the van. On the way to any place, if Joss isn't hovering over my shoulder trying to figure out where we're going, then she is down on the floor in between the front seats sniffing the air conditioning vents. It is so weird. It goes on in roughly 15 minutes intervals, in this case for the bulk of a 3.5 hour drive.

These were our accomodations for the weekend, aka The Bat House. From what I remember it is called that because one of the first times my Aunt & Uncle stayed there after they bought it, they encountered a bat. It freaked them out, my aunt didn't want to sleep there for a while and then it became a running joke. It was literally the only time they had a ever seen a bat at that house. As you can see its a pretty densely wooded area. At night you can't see 50 feet into the area surrounding the cottage, which is really nerve wracking when you're with a dog who will stare into the darkness for no particular reason. As you can tell this dense foliage greatly hampered my ability to be friends with Mario Batali. He could have had a 15,000 sq ft mansion on the adjacent lot and we wouldn't have ever known. In addition to that, the road that circles the area that he reportedly lives in was described by my uncle as "drive down that road by invitation only".

The front room of the cottage, just inside the front door.

The kitchen and front door. There is a refrigerator, its a little dorm-sized wood patterned fridge, just in front of the cooler. Not pictured are the back room which is a bedroom with two twin beds and the bathroom.

I didn't take a whole lot of photos while we were out. I'm not sure why, but it just didn't occur to me to take photos of anything we saw while we were out wine tasting except for this. This was in Suttons Bay, outside an art gallery. I don't believe this was for sale, but a similarly constructed pig about 1/6th of the size cost $725.

I'll leave the wine tour to a separate post, but it was a really great time. We only hit three of a possible 9-12 wineries in the area, but I am pretty sure they were three of the best. Although I don't know anything about wine, couldn't tell you which are my favorite styles or why and that I get buyer's remorse every time we leave a winery, wine tasting is still one of my favorite things to do.

The remainder of the weekend was spent with this wet rat on the shores of Lake Michigan. Nothing can satisfy her urge to go swimming. She swam so much that at the end of the first day Lauren threw a ball out, Joss went to get and I though I was going to have to swim out and get her before she went under. She was so tired that she fell asleep standing up on the 5 minute car ride from the beach back to the cottage.

Every day was pretty much 2-3 hours of this:

But it was a great weekend. We also went strawberry picking on the way up, where I also did not take any pictures. Strawberries seem slightly less delicious after seeing the way that they're grown. I always pictured them hanging high off the ground from a majestic bush, not directly on the ground inside of a plant that looks like a lawn weed.