The problem with mediocrity

I can only plead ignorance. No one told me carrot cake was this good. True, I knew it included some of my favorite things–spices, nuts, and cream cheese frosting–but somehow every time I’ve encountered it, it’s just tasted of mass produced bleh that didn’t even seem worth trying to redeem. And so I didn’t.

Cooling

I was wrong. So, so wrong.

My few run-ins with carrot cake usually went like this: a half-eaten, generic, leftover grocery store cake appears by the communal coffee pot at work and I, who should know better by now, help myself to a slice. It doesn’t taste anything like carrot, only vaguely of spices, and the frosting (which tastes nothing like cream cheese and inevitably includes tiny frosted carrots, because how else would you know what flavor this cake is supposed to be?) peels off like putty. If there are nuts at all, they are sad little crumb-sized pieces not worthy of the warning label “This product may contain nuts.”

The cake isn’t offensive, I still eat my slice, but I won’t even remember it ten minutes later, the only evidence a wadded up paper napkin and a few rouge crumbs on my desk.

A good place to startDry ingredients

And this is why mediocre food is really terrible; it’s not that the cake actually tastes bad, it’s that it’s uninspiring. It’s easy for great food to be inspirational, and bad food at least inspires me to never ever combine those ingredients again. But mediocre food? It just makes me think I wasted calories eating it. And I really hate thinking about calories.

I’m not saying all food should be drop-your-fork-and-drop-to-your-knees amazing. Shoot, for every post here I probably made a dozen average dishes or meals that weren’t worth the effort to type up, but if I’m going to eat cake, it had better be some damn good cake.

Adding carrotsAdd-ins

Back to the carrot cake. Last weekend I tried a sample of grocery store carrot cake mix, which was just good enough for me to say “Oh. Hey. I could make this.” (Sometimes I feel bad for grocery stores and their samples. I’m sure it’s not their intention that I taste and forgo the box in favor of making it from scratch.)

Ready to bakePerfectly domed

Flipping through a few cookbooks and combining bits and pieces of recipes from two of my baking bibles, I think I came up with something that is definitely better than mediocre. I may have, in fact, taken a bite of slightly warm, gooey-frosted muffin/cupcake hybrids and actually mumbled through a mouthful of delicious, “Why didn’t anyone tell me carrot cake was this good?”

This carrot cake is packed with everything I think it should be. Carrot, of course, makes its presence known in no uncertain terms; crunchy chunks of walnut will not be ignored (sorry Alton Brown, you were wrong on this count);   raisins plump up to better, juicier versions of themselves. And the spices? Let me put it this way: these cupcakes were under a heavy glass cake dome and I could still smell them every time I walked past.

And last but not least, though these are delicious without any frosting at all (dare I suggest they’re almost breakfast-worthy?), I would actually suggest doubling the frosting recipe to make sure you get a good ratio of frosting to cake–this coming from someone who generally scrapes off frosting like a picky six-year-old.

Frosted

Now, of course, this discovery makes me question what other mediocre dishes I’ve eaten that could be spectacular. I think I have some more tasting to do.

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Soup season, take two

And so begins the Week of All Food, Thanksgiving week. The only holiday dedicated solely to cooking and eating (and appreciating the people you cook and eat with) is on Thursday and, as you would expect, I’m super excited and have all sorts of capital-P Plans. But since I know the latter half of this week will be overflowing with treats in all forms, savory and sweet, better to start the week with something light.

Carrot-Ginger-Miso Soup

I’ve already mentioned that soup is one of my favorite dishes this time of year, and this particular one is just so good for so many occasions. Feeling like you’ve over-indulged in all that fall and winter have to offer (or know you’re about to)? This is substantial enough to satisfy, but won’t make you feel like taking a four hour nap after one bowl. Coming down with a bug and not in the mood for chicken soup? Copious amounts of ginger, garlic, and carrot are all fantastic for fighting whatever ails you. Or simply feeling especially virtuous? You will feel like a saint when you pull this out of your bag for lunch.

Carrot-Ginger-Miso Soup and dumplingsCarrot-Ginger-Miso Soup

And now, a bit of a diversion–I was lucky enough to meet Deb Perelman who writes the Smitten Kitchen food blog (the source for this particular recipe) on Sunday, and it was amazing. Rare, perfect mid-November weather in Chicago, one of my favorite neighborhoods, awesome indie bookstore, and great company with the friend who introduced me to the Smitten Kitchen blog (thank you again Katherine!). Could it get much better? Turns out, yes!

Deb was, as expected, incredibly kind and generous to the huge crowd of people anxious to meet her, taking a few minutes to talk to everyone. And personally, when I mentioned that she inspired me to set up shop in this little corner of the internet and told her the name of the blog, she asked if I commented on her site because the name sounded familiar. Oh yes. This blog sounded familiar to Deb Perelman. Shut the doors, turn off the lights, we’re done here because it can’t get better than that.

2012-11-18 16.29.52 Continue reading