Vanilla Bean-Coconut Cupcakes with Coconut Frosting

After several years of wanting one, Jess and I finally got ourselves a stand mixer.  Our birthdays are only about two weeks apart, so we figured instead of each of us getting the other something small, we’d get something we’ve both really wanted for quite some time.  It’s nothing fancy, just a basic Kitchen-Aid model, but it’s a good feeling to know that the next time we come across a recipe that advises us to use our paddle or whisk attachment – well, we’ve got that covered.  After it came in, our only problem was figuring out just what exactly we wanted to make with it first.  We knew we wanted to make cupcakes (and judging by our most popular posts, you all want to READ about cupcakes), but we weren’t really sure what flavor we were in the mood for.  After poking around our cookbooks and the internet for awhile, Jess came across this recipe for Vanilla Bean-Coconut Cupcakes with Coconut Frosting on the Bon Appetit website, and we both knew we had found the perfect recipe – and if everything we use our new mixer for turns out this well, it’ll be a great investment indeed!

Vanilla Bean-Coconut Cupcakes with Coconut Frosting
(from Abigail Johnson Dodge at Bon Appetit magazine)

  • 2 – 13 to 14 ounce cans of coconut milk, reduced to 1.5 cups
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2.25 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 sticks unsalted butter (room temperature)
  • 1 and 1/3 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • Seeds scraped from one vanilla bean or 1.5 teaspoons vanilla extract.  We splurged and went for the vanilla beans because we wanted that speckled look (and the flavor was great).  After you’ve scraped the seeds, you can pack the empty seed pods with white sugar in a glass jar to make a delicious vanilla sugar.

Ahead of time, reduce your two cans of coconut milk in a saucepan until you have somewhere between 1.5 and 2 cups.  Bring the milk to a boil and reduce heat, stirring occasionally.  This should take around half an hour, but perhaps longer.  Don’t be scared when the coconut milk begins to separate – you’ll be able to stir it all back in together before you use it. You’ll want this to be chilled before you use it.

Preheat your oven to 350 and line your cupcake pan with your liners. beat butter in large bowl until smooth. Add sugar; beat on medium-high speed until well blended, about 2 minutes. Add 2 eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition and occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. Beat in seeds from vanilla bean and remaining egg. Add half of flour mixture; mix on low speed just until blended. Add 1 cup reduced coconut milk; mix just until blended. Add remaining flour mixture; mix on low speed just until blended. Divide batter among muffin cups.

Bake your cupcakes until a toothpick comes out clean; about 20 minutes. Place on a cooling rack.

Coconut Frosting

  • 2 sticks unsalted butter (room temperature)
  • 2.5 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/3 cup of the reduced coconut milk
  • Seeds scraped from one vanilla bean or 1.5 teaspoons extract
  • 1.5 cups shredded coconut, toasted and used for garnish

Beat butter in large bowl until smooth. Add sugar, 1/3 cup reduced coconut milk, seeds from vanilla bean, and salt. Beat on medium-low speed until blended, scraping down sides of bowl. Increase to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy.  Pipe your frosting onto the completely cooled cupcakes (or just smear the stuff right on) and top with the toasted coconut.  We’re trying to learn how to use frosting bags to make all those nifty icing designs, and it’s certainly harder than it looks!

These cupcakes were a lot of fun to make (especially with the new hardware) and the flavor was outstanding.  The reduced coconut milk really adds a lot of richness and flavor to both the cake and the frosting, and using vanilla beans gives everything that nice speckled look like you get with good French vanilla ice cream.  Enjoy!

Review: Cheers in the Heights

Cheers in the Heights has been around for almost as long as I have, but my first experience with their food was during last year’s Cheese Dip Championship.  The offering from Cheers was the very first dip we tried that day, and it was easily one of our favorites, so we were sure to get some when we ate there recently.  The evening was warm but not unpleasantly so, perfect for taking advantage of the covered patio outside – because what’s better than a warm June evening on the porch with a cold glass of iced tea?  Our small order of chips and cheese dip came out before we barely had time to take our first sip, and I was surprised at how large this “small” order was: a full basket of colorful corn chips and a huge cup brimming over with the dark, rich dip.  And oh, that dip!  It was just as good as I remembered, velvety smooth with a deep, intense flavor of sharp cheese that gave way to just the right amount of heat and spice on the back of the tongue.  The chips were a bit on the thick side, but I admit that’s more a matter of my preference instead of their shortcoming.  The cheese dip is worth going for alone.

But of course we hadn’t come for just cheese dip, and Jess decided to try the Grilled Turkey Sandwich.  We’ve been on a bit of a grilled cheese kick lately, so this sandwich seemed a good way to fulfill that craving: smoked turkey, lettuce, and tomato with mayo on perfectly toasted bread, and served with some of the tastiest kettle-cooked chips I’ve ever had.  I don’t know if the folks at Cheers are cooking their own potato chips, but these seemed to have a very natural golden brown color to them so it wouldn’t surprise me.  Anybody who knows Jess very well knows that she is a turkey sandwich fiend, so when she pronounced this one “delicious,” I knew we had a hit on our hands.

For my entrée, I chose the Hamburger Steak Platter, and I’ve got two words for anybody who wants to order this: come hungry.  This plate came piled with a huge cooked-to-order hamburger steak, delicately seasoned and smothered in sweet grilled onions, two tender asparagus spears, grilled toast, and some of the best roasted fingerling potatoes I’ve ever eaten.  Oh, and a dinner salad (which was awesome, see below right).  And how much did I pay for this huge plate of food? The whole thing was $8.95 – which is less than a hamburger steak will run you at a swill-shop like Dixie Cafe.  This plate was so tasty that I really consider it one of the best deals on dinner I’ve gotten in awhile.

I’ve read other reviews that say that Cheers has some of the best seafood in Little Rock, and the folks at the table behind us certainly seemed to be enjoying their crab claw special.  I can’t wait to make it back and try the Fried Oysters Remoulade and maybe a Po’ Boy.  Service was friendly and efficient, and I felt like the quality of the food was extremely high, especially considering how reasonable the cost of everything was.  Cheers in the Heights is located at 2010 N. Van Buren (just down from Terry’s Finer Foods off Kavanaugh) and they’re open for lunch and supper Monday-Saturday.  Enjoy!

Cheers in the Heights on Urbanspoon

Grilled Cheese for Grownups

Grilled cheese sandwiches are kid’s food – everybody knows that.  And the recipe is simple: take two slices of white bread (most likely Wonder Bread), one slice of cheese (the individually wrapped kind), and cook in a skillet with margarine until the bread is toasted and the cheese is melty.  Oh sure, you might make yourself one from time to time, perhaps on a cold day with a mug of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup, but it’s really the warm comfort of nostalgia that keeps us coming back for more.  But there aren’t very many things as tasty as melted cheese on toasted bread, and since we enjoyed talking about grilled cheese a few days ago, we thought we might give you all a few other ideas for making a version that appeals to both your adult tastes and the kid inside.

Our first two versions utilize a really excellent combination of ingredients: tomato, mozzarella, and fresh basil.  This is the exact same combo you’ll find on a margherita pizza, or in a Caprese salad.  For our first sandwich, we’re using a freshly sliced tomato – Fresh Market in Little Rock just got in a shipment of heirlooms (Cherokee Purples) from Warren, Arkansas, and they were some really good tomatoes, deep purplish-red with a fragrance and flavor that is impossible to find in most supermarket tomatoes.  For our second sandwich, we made a puree of oven-dried tomatoes and olive oil.  Both sandwiches got a topping of fresh mozzarella and some thin-sliced basil leaves.  For our bread, we picked a rather crusty sourdough, but as long as you’ve got a bread stout enough to handle all these ingredients, the choice is yours.  To toast the sandwiches, we spread a thin layer of Kewpie mayonnaise on each slice of bread and then browned them over medium heat in a cast iron skillet.  The goal is to get the cheese melted and the bread browned – but not to burn the sandwich.  The results were great: the fresh tomato sandwich was light and clean tasting, the balance of sweet and tart from the tomato shining through the rich cheese and sweet basil.  The tomato puree sandwich was the opposite: deep and intense tomato flavor that settled under the creamy cheese with just a hint of bite from the olive oil.

The idea for our next sandwich came from Chef Peter Brave, who has a similar sandwich on his lunch menu at Brave New Restaurant that we thought was delightful.  Chef Brave’s sandwich has shrimp and bacon along with tomato, fontina and baby swiss – and it might be one of my favorite things I’ve ever eaten.  This sandwich is an homage to that one: grilled shrimp, more of our excellent heirloom tomatoes, a creamy gouda, and just a sprinkle of sharp cheddar cheese.  Once again, we toasted our bread with a little smear of Kewpie.  I marinated the shrimp for about ten minutes in lime juice, red pepper, sea salt, and a dash of olive oil, and they had just the perfect bite to stand out against all that melted cheese.  Of course, if shrimp isn’t your thing, you could try pancetta, prosciutto, dried salami, or vegetables like grilled asparagus and zucchini.  The idea of melted cheese on toasted bread is a wonderful framework on which to build all kinds of delicious sandwiches – and we hope you won’t relegate your grilled cheese to just Kraft singles on light bread ever again.  Enjoy!

Grandma’s Blueberry Muffins

My grandma is one of my favorite people in the world.  Some of my best memories from when I was a kid were spending a week with her in the summer doing crafts, going to the library – and eating good food.  My mom recently gave me my grandmother’s recipe for blueberry muffins, and these things are just so delicious that I had to share them with all of you.  I was pretty surprised that they were as simple to make as they are – but that’s my favorite kind of recipe.  These muffins have a great taste and texture, and they’re perfect for breakfast – or as an afternoon snack.  They’re seriously addictive.

Blueberry Muffins (from my grandmother, Peggy Roberts)

  • 1 cup fresh blueberries
  • 2 cups self-rising flour
  • 1.5 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup milk

Preheat oven to 375.  Wash and drain the blueberries and set them aside.  In a mixing bowl, combine the flour and sugar.  Add the eggs, vanilla, oil and milk; mix thoroughly so there aren’t any undissolved lumps of flour.  Add in the blueberries, stirring gently until they are mixed into the batter.  Spray your muffin tin with cooking spray, or use cupcake liners and pour your batter, filling the cups to about 2/3 full. Bake for 20-25 minutes.  Enjoy!

Gazpacho with Melon and Grilled Cheese

There’s nothing better for a summertime meal than a bowl of cool, refreshing gazpacho.  The Spanish classic combines a lot of good tastes – rich olive oil, acidic tomatoes and vinegar, sharp onion and garlic, and the simple, fresh taste of cucumber.  For this version, we’ve also added some fresh melon to the mix, and the result is a soup that can cool you down on even the hottest of days.  And of course, since a grilled cheese sandwich is the best pairing for tomato soup that we can think of, we’ve whipped of a version with muenster cheese and fresh-sliced tomatoes on toasted sourdough bread.  This soup recipe makes a lot, but this is one of those dishes that gets better with a little time spent in the refrigerator.  This is also a recipe that lends itself well to tinkering – both in ingredients and with the texture of the final product.  Here’s what you’ll need:

Gazpacho with Melon (adapted from Stockton Briggle)

  • 8 cloves garlic
  • Coarse sea salt or kosher salt
  • 3.5 pounds red, ripe tomatoes, halved and seeded
  • 1 small green bell pepper, diced
  • 1 small red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, and sliced
  • 2 bunches scallions, chopped
  • 1 small Crenshaw melon, halved, seeded, and cut up.  You can also use cantaloupe for this recipe, but we prefer the flavor of the Crenshaws – they’re also pretty tasty served cold with a splash of lime juice (see right).
  • 2/3 cup olive oil
  • 3 cups stale bread, cubed.  We used sourdough because we are sourdough bread fiends, but you can use whatever bread you have at hand.
  • Sherry, red wine, or balsamic vinegar to taste
  • pinch of sugar
  • finishing salt to taste

Peel the garlic and crush it with 2 teaspoons of coarse salt in a mortar.  Place in a large bowl and add the tomatoes, green and red bell peppers, cucumber, scallions, melon, olive oil, and bread.  Stir, cover tightly, and allow to macerate in the refrigerator at least six hours or overnight if possible.

Puree the ingredients in a blender in batches, adding a total of five cups of chilled water as you go.  Stir in your vinegar and sugar, and add salt as needed.  Allow to sit for about an hour in the fridge (although longer makes it better) and serve in small bowls or cups.

For our grilled cheese, take two slices of sourdough bread and layer two slices of tomato between four pieces of muenster cheese.  Instead of butter, spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on the outside of the bread – this will create a very crisp, flavorful outside to your sandwich.  We’re fond of Kewpie mayonnaise, a Japanese brand, because it’s a bit saltier than American mayo, but your favorite brand is fine.  Mayo is mostly oil, so it isn’t as strange as one might think to use it to crisp up bread – and it doesn’t burn as easily as butter.  Serve your sandwiches hot and melty and your soup cold with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar – and enjoy!

Oven Dried Tomatoes

A fresh tomato is juicy and succulent, full of fresh taste and good flavor – and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.  But a lot of our favorite methods of preparing tomatoes seek to concentrate and intensify that flavor, turning a regular tomato into something deeper and richer.  The sun-dried tomatoes you can find in the store are an example of this, but for the most part they are inferior products, chewy and sour without much character at all.  With just a little investment in time, however, you can make your own dried tomatoes in the oven at home, turning even the most timid of tomatoes into something fundamentally different and definitely delicious.

To make our oven-dried tomatoes, cut each tomato in half vertically (through the stem).  Place the tomato halves seed side up on a baking sheet and sprinkle them lightly with kosher salt or coarse sea salt.  Drizzle the tomato halves with olive oil and place into a 200 degree oven for at least twelve hours.  The great thing about drying these yourself is that you have the ability to judge how soft you want your resulting tomatoes to be – we ran our most recent batch for right at twelve hours, and the results were still moist enough to blend together with a bit of olive oil (see right) for a thick, rich sauce perfect for dipping bread or for use as a base for a sauce.  Leaving them in longer will result in tomatoes that are more the consistency of the sun-dried tomatoes you find at the store, but the flavor is superior in every way.  These things will last for a week or two in the fridge – and virtually forever in the freezer.  One of our favorite uses for them is to make the puree seen above, spread it on toast, top with cheese and broil just until the cheese gets browned – it’s one of the richest versions of bruschetta you’ll ever taste.  Enjoy!

Stuffed Tomatoes

If there’s one thing that the Southeast portion of Arkansas is known for, it’s tomatoes – there’s even a festival celebrating them in Bradley County.  When our favorite local produce place advertised the first Arkansas tomatoes of the year for sale, we knew we had to pick up a box.  The tomato is one of the most versatile fruits around, and so we decided to have our own personal tomato festival here on Arkansas Foodies and share with you all some of our favorite ways to prepare them.  Of course, one of our favorite ways to eat a tomato is just sliced with a sprinkle of sea salt – but there are plenty of simple things that you can do with them that are a little more involved than that.  Tonight we made stuffed tomatoes, a dish that combines the rich flavor of cooked tomato with bacon, creamed spinach, and Parmesan cheese.  The resulting dish is pretty delicious.

Stuffed Tomatoes (for 4 tomatoes)

  • 4 medium-large tomatoes, tops cut off and insides scooped out (see right)
  • 8 slices cooked bacon, crumbled
  • 1 package fresh spinach leaves. Spinach shrinks a great deal when you cook it, so what looks like a lot at first won’t by the end.
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan Cheese with extra for topping
  • 1 medium shallot, diced

Prepare your bacon and retain two tablespoons of the grease.  In a cast iron skillet, heat the bacon grease to medium heat and add your shallots, cooking them to unlock their flavor without browning them – about five minutes, adjusting your heat as necessary.  Coarsely chop the spinach leaves and add them to the skillet, tossing lightly to coat with the bacon fat; increase your heat slightly.

Cook the spinach until it has wilted and started releasing its moisture.  Add the crumbled bacon to the pan and stir to mix everything, cooking only until the bacon is heated through.  Remove from the heat and pour your spinach mixture into a mixing bowl.  Add the sour cream and Parmesan cheese and mix thoroughly.  You can prepare this stuffing a few hours ahead of time if you like, just be sure to cover tightly with plastic wrap, pushing the wrap down into the surface of the stuffing so that no part of it is exposed to air.

When you are ready, spoon the mixture into the tomato cups.  Top with more Parmesan cheese – or, alternatively, you can use shredded Swiss, Gruyère, or Mozzarella – and bake for 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven.  Cooking the tomato will change and and concentrate its flavor, and the mixture of creamy spinach, nutty Parmesan and smoky bacon is an excellent flavor flavor combination that compliments the tomato flavor without overpowering it.  We’ve served these as a side dish for chicken or steak – but they can also make a good main course with roasted or steamed vegetables.  The recipe is very easy to prepare, and the tomatoes are a very fresh and surprising treat.  Stick around for more tomato recipes this week – and enjoy!