In which I have that first day feeling…

What did you do on your summer vacation?

To paraphrase Billy Madison “Back to work, back to work, to show my dad that I’m not a jerk…*” Retirement was F-U-N, but it’s time to get back to life. And a paycheck. I ironed my outfit, and set my alarm for 5:30 (5:30? Yeah, you heard me) and made my lunch, and cleaned most of my apartment, and I was as ready as I was ever gonna be. But I am not going to lie. I think this going back to work thing is taking a toll on me. My feet are a mess, totally not used to real shoes. They like flip flops, and in re: the four-inch heels I picked out for today that perfectly match my necklace and my toe nail polish? Pissed. Additionally, I had a dream last night that I got a $36.56 ticket for skinny dipping. Did you know they give out tickets in the amount of $36.56 for that? I was in a pond with a large group that included Zachary Levi, the actor that stars in Chuck, who also received a $36.56 ticket for skinny dipping. The others received no such ticket, as they were clothed appropriately for public swimming. Lastly, some crazy lady in striped socks and a Hawaiian shirt was staring maniacally at me this morning as we were all walking to work. Lady, it is 8 am, keep your eyes to yourself. Also, you are about to walk into something.

*Don’t be alarmed. My dad would never think I was a jerk. He is incapable of doing so, even when I am a jerk. Rent Billy Madison, then you’ll understand.

Going back to work is  not for the faint of heart. But luckily, I have this to help me through the day.

oh man oh man oh man oh man oh man...

That was my first day of work lunch. It is also my second day of work lunch. It is ratatouille, and it is a delight.

Ratatouille is perfect for this time of year because it is a stew of sorts with eggplant, summer squash, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onions and herbs, and even thought it is cooked, you want to use the best and the freshest. You can roast everything, or saute everything, and the big debate is whether all the ingredients should be cooked together, or cooked separately and combined. I had a recipe all picked out, I was going to saute, and then I was reading Salon.com and an article by Francis Lam just happened to pop out at me. He has a recipe for ratatouille that he calls “weapons-grade” and it looked intriguing. I couldn’t resist, and I am so glad I didn’t, because this is the most delicious thing I have made in a long time. I am planning on stopping at the farmers’ market again tomorrow to pick up more vegetables because it is that good and I want to make gallons of it so I can stuff it into my freezer that is already so full it throws stuff at me every time I open the door. Anybody want some frozen cupcakes?

This ratatouille is a commitment. It took some time, but I did not have to be singularly devoted to it. I was able to do other things while I was making it, like cleaning, filing, watching a classic General Hospital marathon (Brenda’s back!) and planning my outfits for the week, but I would say total cook time for this is close to 3 hours. WORTH IT. It is really delicious. And even thought it has a fair amount of oil in it, it feels really healthy, which is good for the new me. The one that is going to celebrate the new job with a new workout routine. The adipose cells that have found me are getting a little too comfortable…

With ricotta and toast...lunch perfection.

Ratatouille (makes a lot – for my first attempt I halved this recipe.)

adapted from Salon.com

1 head garlic, minced

3 shallots, minced

1 large onion (about 12 ounces), minced

3/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

2 large red peppers, stemmed, seeded, roughly chopped and puréed in the food processor

4 pounds of very good tomatoes, cored and puréed in the food processor

2½ pounds of summer squash and zucchini, ½-inch dice

1½ pounds of eggplant, diced into ½-inch cubes

Thyme and basil to taste

Start by cooking the garlic, shallot and onion in ½ cup of the olive oil over medium-low to low heat in a heavy pot so that they soften and give up their liquid. Stir and try not to let them brown. (This takes awhile.) Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Once they became pale golden and look sticky, add the puréed red pepper and stir to combine. Season lightly with salt and pepper. The pepper should have a ton of water, so let it cook down, stirring every few minutes to make sure nothing gets too caramelized and burned, you’ll have a rich, rusty jam.

Add the puréed tomatoes. Bring it to a boil, and turn it way down to cook off all its liquid. Season lightly with salt and pepper. This already tastes awesome, but you are going to continue cooking for a long time. Around this time, heat your oven to 450. Continue to stir the tomatoes occasionally, just so they don’t burn at the bottom.

Meanwhile, toss the zucchini with salt, pepper and half of the rest of the olive oil. Spread in one layer on a baking sheet (roast in batches if you have to.) Roast until the sizzling starts to slow down and the squash is browning underneath. Take it out and let it cool a bit before putting it in a big bowl. Then do the same with the eggplant, putting it in the same bowl.

When the tomato mixture has cooked down a ton, looks really thick and drier and  tastes even more delightful (you’ll know it’s ready when it gives the oil back up, and sounds squishy when you stir it) chop up some thyme and basil, as much as you like, and stir the herbs into the tomato base. Carefully combine the tomato with the rest of the vegetables so that you don’t mash up your zucchini and eggplant. Serve. It’s even better the next day. Can also be frozen.

In which I am so behind the times and there will be some changes around here…

don't actually eat your cupcakes with a fork...

Cupcakes are the new black. Or maybe they were the new black, and now they’re the old black. Or perhaps they are still the current black. I am not sure, but I know they are quite the food trend, what with the cupcake shops popping up all the over the place. I like cupcakes, there’s not much to dislike, really, they are cute, and often gorgeous to look at, and oh so portable, but to be honest, mostly I find them, much like my as yet unrequited love for Seth Meyers, enjoyable, but ultimately unsatisfying. Either the cupcake is too dry, or the frosting is too cloyingly sweet, or it’s just not right.

So all this to say I am behind in the cupcake love, but I have found myself thinking quite a bit about them of late, as B&G is making two wedding cakes this fall, one of which will actually be a small cake and lots of cupcakes. I did a cake tasting for these lovely folks, and had to come up with all sorts of interesting combinations, so it was cupcakes all over the place for a couple of days. They had two specific requests: that one of the cupcakes be red velvet with cream cheese frosting, and that one have some sort of caramel frosting involved. I had never been much for red velvet cupcakes. I didn’t really understand the point. They aren’t yellow cake, they aren’t chocolate, but they don’t really have any other discernible flavor, plus they’re so red. But I soldiered on, and as it turns out, I love this recipe. I am not exactly sure how to describe it, but I really really enjoyed it. The frosting? Not so much. It was fine, and passable, and cream-cheesy, but I think I will keep working on it. I know there is fantastic potential for cream cheese frosting, and I will find it.

As for the chocolate and caramel combo, I have found my new love.

come to mama

I still have not found the perfect chocolate cupcake, I am working on that, but the caramel buttercream, based on a recipe from Martha, is sweet manna from heaven. I never want to be without it for all the rest of my days. There is no way to describe it other than perfection. Truly. Make this. Put it on stuff. Thank me. Repeat. But you don’t have to thank me every time. That’d be excessive.

And now for the big changes. Perhaps you have picked up on the subtle clues: the extended stay in Florida in February and March, the week on the Cape, all the gorgeous day time natural light photos, and determined that there has been a dearth of regular 9-5 employment around here. And you would have been correct. I am not going to lie, it has been a pretty fantastic couple of months, but it’s time to get back to the grind. I am back to office employment in about 10 days, and I have so many things to cram in to that time. First on my list is beach time. I went today. Tip: monitor your application of spray-on sunscreen closely, just because you spray in the vicinity of the back of your legs, you are not guaranteed a burn free afternoon at the beach. Keep it in mind. Also in the next 10 days, I have some sewing projects to attend to, a refrigerator to clean, and some exciting things to cook, a new language to learn, a couch to steam clean, a business plan to write, a shower to scrub, a half marathon to train for, and several books to read. Imma be busy. I best get some rest.

And so I leave you with these: Two great halves of some delightful cupcakes.

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Adapted from Pinchmysalt.com

2 1/2 cups cake flour

2 tbl cocoa powder (unsweetened)

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup buttermilk, divided, at room temperature

2 oz. red food coloring liquid, or 1 oz. food color gels

2 eggs, at room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp white vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 and line two twelve cup cupcake tins with paper liners.

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda into the bowl of a standing mixer. Mix on low speed with the whisk attachment for 30 seconds or so until the dry ingredients are well combined. In a measuring cup or small bowl, mix together 3/4 cup of the buttermilk with the food coloring. With the mixer still on low, add the buttermilk mixture, and then the butter, mix on slow to combine and then turn the mixer up to medium high speed and beat until light and fluffy.

In a small bowl or measuring cup whisk together the remaining 1/4 cup of buttermilk, the eggs, the vanilla and the vinegar, then add to the batter in three additions, folding in until just combined each time.

Pour the batter in to the prepared cupcake tins and bake for 20-22 minutes until a tester inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean. Let cool completely, and top with your favorite frosting, cream cheese or otherwise, and enjoy!

Caramel Buttercream (makes 4-5 cups)

Adapted from marthastewart.com

1 1/2 plus 2 tbl sugar, divided

1/4 cup heavy cream

4 egg whites

3 sticks plus 2 tbl unsalted butter, softened

1 tsp vanilla extract

In a heavy bottom saucepan, stir 1/2 cup plus 2 tbl of sugar with 1/4 cup of water just to combine. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, without stirring, brushing down the sides of the pan with a clean wet pastry brush to avoid crystallization. Cook until the sugar is a deep amber color. Remove from heat and stir in the heavy cream. Set the caramel aside until cool.

Whisk together the egg whites and the remaining cup of sugar in a mixing bowl, preferably of a standing mixer, and rest it over a pan of simmering water. Heat for a couple of minutes, whisking occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Whip the egg whites and sugar together on high speed until the mixture forms medium-firm peaks. Add the vanilla and the butter one at a time and whip like crazy until the buttercream comes together. This may take some time, do not fear, just let the mixer do its work until the frosting is the texture of mayonnaise. Change to the paddle attachment on the standing mixer, and add the caramel to the buttercream. Mix until the frosting and the caramel come together, and use to frost your favorite cake or cupcakes.