2.25.2010

KC and her Magical Vegan Cupcakes

The wedding is saved! Its savior? What else? Vegan cupcakes.

Remember all those issues I was having with trying to get someone to bake me a vegan wedding cake? I had practically resolved myself to baking my own when I got an email from a vegan-network-friend of mine who lives on the Northshore (New Orleans speak for the north side of Lake Pontchartrain). One of her friends opened up a bakery in Mandeville a few months ago, she wrote, and baked vegan cupcakes pretty regularly.

To which I said, YES PLEASE THANK YOU.

My parents are not so into the idea of a cupcake tower for the wedding, but they'll suck it up. I admit, I did have my heart set on a "real" cake for a while, but a delicious, gorgeous, vegan presentation is what it comes down to.

And after my meeting with KC of KC's Babycakes, I am absolutely convinced that it's exactly what I'll have. She came highly recommended from a trusted source, which is always good. But you just never know, particularly with vegan baked goods I think, until you sit down and sink your teeth in. This is precisely what I did last Monday. KC spent two full hours with me, and as those of you who know me are well aware, that is a LONG time to spend with me when I'm really excited about something. I sampled six (count them, six) different flavors of her vegan cupcakes. Somehow, each was more extraordinary than the last. You want to hear about them, don't you?

Cookies n cream: a crazy moist rich chocolate cupcake with just a hint of almond, topped with an intensely sweet vanilla buttercream speckled with crumbled oreo-style cookies, crowned with a whole cookie nestled in the middle for good measure. This is an excellent showcase for just how good a simple (but extremely well-baked) chocolate cupcake can be.

Coconut and Coffee: a subtly flavored caramel brown coconut cupcake, slathered in rich coffee buttercream then rimmed with a ring of toasted coconut shavings. Gourmet, doubtless; this cupcake is somehow simultaneously exotic and extravagant while also being comforting and homey. It may be KC's favorite of her vegan creations; me, I am having a very difficult time choosing a favorite.

Vanilla Chocolate Swirl: a basic made fancy, two moist and delicious cakes marbled in the cup and topped with a generous helping of vanilla buttercream, finished with miniature chocolate chips. It's hard to describe how decadent this cakelet is as it sounds so simple, so you'll just have to believe me.

Lemon Macadamia: a lightly lemon cupcake punctuated with chunks of real macadamia nuts, topped with a pungent, bright frosting made with real fresh lemon juice, and finally rimmed with colored sugar for a look that is both sophisticated and fun. (This one happens to be modeling the cupcake wrapper I've chosen - "Aloha" from Paper Orchid. Many thanks to KC for cluing me in on this new cupcake trend!)

Banana Split: here's where we really start getting crazy! A cupcake with a banana bread like consistency - because it's made with real banana, making it ultra dense and moist with true banana flavor - but sweeter and with mini chocolate chips in it. Then topped in a lush twirl of delicately banana flavored buttercream frosting. The cupcakes I tasted were sprinkled with pecans and then topped with a cherry, which was a great finish. However, to be more friendly to my nut-allergic guest(s), for the wedding they'll be drizzled in chocolate ganache before being cherried. Too divine!

Wedding Cake: a flavor that I *believe* was developed just for me! In case you don't know, in New Orleans there is a flavor actually known as "wedding cake flavor" - you can order it at any good snowball stand. It's generally a creamy almond flavor, and it's been a tradition at Nola nuptials since anyone can remember. This cupcake did not disappoint. A perfectly dense, moist, rich, creamy lightly almond and vanilla white cupcake, topped with wonderfully rich almond buttercream, and finished with the most darling candy pearls you'd ever wish to see. Simple and elegant, this is the flavor that really made the set for me. We'll also have a 6" cake atop the tower that will be baked from this batter. I really couldn't be more pleased with how this one came out.

I'll stop killing you with cupcake descriptions now - except to say that we actually haven't decided between doing the cookies n cream described above, or a classic red velvet. I didn't get to sample KC's red velvet, but based on what I've seen and tasted, I have zero doubt that it is exquisite. And I can't help thinking of some kind of chocolate-and-strawberry concoction... Maybe a small groom's cake? What can I say? Life is full of so many difficult decisions.

Some day soon I'll tell you what happens when you take a dozen of the fabulous cupcakes described above over to the only vegetarian restaurant in town (Cafe Bamboo), have a couple of Abitas, and start getting generous. But that, loves, is a story for another day.

2.15.2010

Lundi, Mardi, Mercredi... Confessions of a Zulu Coconut.

Now it’s time for my ugly confession.

I spent my first several-to-many years in New Orleans just hating the hell out of some Mardi Gras.

I know, I know! I am a big fat stinking joykill. I am an uptight loser. I don’t know what’s good. In sum, I suck.

I have just never been one for crowds, or noise, or drinking in uncontrolled environments. And if you had to roll up the event in a little nutshell, well… yeah. I am also a sore loser and a pout, which combines poorly with the fact that I am a bead repeller. On the rare occasion that I *would* venture to a parade and get into the “throw me somethin’ mister” spirit, everyone in my proximity would be pelted with beads and medallions and moon pies, and I’d leave with one little pitiful broken strand of something ugly.

(Incidentally, it’s great to go to a parade with me if you’re really into catching throws. And who isn’t?! When you’re standing next to me fate guarantees that you will catch about twice as much as anyone else in the crowd. Zulu coconut? Yours, all yours.)

OK, but none of that is an excuse for being a griping lameass, right? And of course as time went on I realized that much of the problem sprung from my neuroses. Sure, Nola is crazy during the season. But flipping out about it doesn’t actually help in the slightest. It in fact makes things significantly worse, and also makes people inch slowly away from you in coffee shops. Like most other inevitable things, it is far better to simply accept it on its own terms, and then try to have some fun with it if you can.

Now, given what I’ve told you you’ll enjoy this: one year for Mardi Gras I was living in the Lower Garden District, half a block off of Prytania. And indeed, I went and saw some of the Uptown parades that year. It was either that or not leave my apartment at all that day, and even I am not that much of a curmudgeon. I definitely went to Zulu... the person standing next to me got a coconut.

For the last few years that I lived in the city I lived in Lakeview, and thus Endymion became my favorite parade. I discovered that I could actually have fun going to the starting point up by the park, where I could wander around and get a good look at the floats. The Orleans Avenue events just have something special to them. You know what I’m talking about.

OK. Fastforward. I’ve been up in NYC for a bit over four years. In 2008, when Endymion returned to the Midtown route, I cried – literally, at work, I sat there with tears of joy and nostalgia and hope and I don’t even know what all else streaming down my face. Last year it didn’t faze me so much; I think I was caught up in work and didn’t even know what else was going on.

And then we get up to this week. What am I doing? Junking out on Nola.com’s ParadeCam, planning on trying to bake a vegan king cake as soon as I can get rid of this godforsaken headache, and wishing like hell that I had flown down this Friday instead of going next Friday like I’m going to. I want to be there! I want to have cheap beer spilled on me by the pudgy thirty-something dad with the four-year-old on his shoulders who’s kicked me a few times! I want to only catch three strands of crappy beads! I want to see the guy next to me get a coconut!!

And oh sweet jesus, I just remembered about the cups. I WANT ME SOME DAMN PLASTIC CUPS.

Instead, I have a handpainted purple, green and gold cat mask from Italy. Hey, at least it’s something. Ten years ago I would have decried it as tacky and awful. Today I say: it’s tacky and awful, and I love it so.

Happy Lundi Gras everyone. If you’re in New Orleans, I hope you’re having a ball.

2.11.2010

Fake French: it's not just for Le Tigre.

Geaux Saints! 31-17 + Lombardi Gras = the Saints ain’t the Aint’s neaux meaux! Yeah you right.

No one is more surprised than me that, given my lifetime of avoiding sports of all kinds, I’m really enjoying all of this Saints-win-the-Superbowl stuff. Hell, even my parents are excited – my parents, who gave me my aversion to all things athletic in the first place.

There’s just such a purity about this particular celebration. There’s no “in your face” or smack talking about whatever the hell team it is that we beat. It’s all just, “We love the Saints, we love Drew Brees, we love New Orleans!” (How amazing was that photograph of Brees and his son?) For a people who not even five years ago were brought to the lowest they’ve ever been, I can’t tell you the good it does my heart to see shot after shot of crowds of New Orleanians exuding true joy. One of my friends was in Miami for the fateful event, and of course was back in town for the parade, and has been tweeting about it regularly. His posts are hilarious. “To the rest of the country: sorry about the snow. It’s a side effect of hell freezing over.”

New Orleans has always been a place with such a great appreciation for its own culture, its own greatness. Not in a boastful way. Just in a “New Orleans: Proud to call it home” way. Or “proud to crawl home” way. Or even “proud to swim home” way. These people have a fierce love for their town that is utterly unrivaled. It’s kinda beautiful.

2.09.2010

New Orleans, the place where I wasn't born. (An introduction.)

Actually, I was born during a blizzard in Akron, Ohio. Go figure. Meanwhile, every single other member of my family including my sister and the vast majority of my cousins (first once removed, second, third, second once removed – what have you) was born within the bounds of Orleans Parish. My family has always used the anomaly of my erroneous birthplace to account for my dislike of spicy foods, olives, raw oysters, hot weather, and many other things that are supposed to be in my blood. At least I’ve warmed up to olive oil and onions.

I also didn’t grow up in New Orleans. After a dizzying succession of moves that I can’t quite list, we settled on the Gulf Coast of Florida for a while. There I developed a proper appreciation for large trees and larger bodies of water. But in an attempt at full-on culture shock, when I was eleven we moved to the D.C. Metro area – Silver Spring, Maryland to be specific. My laid back, laissez-faire southern parents were not ready for the East Coast. It made them miserable, and they spent the next seven years spreading it around.

And then, finally, in 1996 we moved “back home.” Whose home? I kept asking. Not mine, for sure – I’d never lived there. At 18, I did not take well to being uprooted once again, and was of a temperament that didn’t take well to much of anything at all. But of course New Orleans was familiar enough. My whole extended family was there, and I’d been visiting the town at least twice a year for my entire life. Indeed, my Grandpa’s house on Oaklawn Drive was the single most stable location of my childhood, the only place I’d spent time as a baby where I could still spend time – and, in fact, where I spend time now. Still, it took time to adjust.

Like six years.

But at some point, well, I just stopped being such a twat and realized that I shouldn’t be fighting the city, trying to make it something it isn’t, trying to make it work in ways that it never will. It’s true of anywhere really: learn how to live in the city as it is, don’t decide how you want it to be and then try to force it to behave that way. It would behoove many people to learn this. Ahem.

Given this roundabout way of finding a home in New Orleans, I’ve ended up with a unique perspective on it. I’m both an insider and an outsider. I lived there for nine years (and left rather unexpectedly in 2005 – want to guess why?), and I may live there again someday. I’ve been visiting there since… I’ve never not visited there. My parents were born and raised, as were some of my closest friends. And yet I, of course, wasn’t. I do feel like I missed out on some experiences – when people ask me where I went to high school, what to say? Well, my mom went to Ursulines…

But then there’s so many things I have done. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade with my aunt and uncle at their house on Severn. Coffee and beignets at Morning Call. Dinner at Mandina’s, Liuzza’s, Liuzza’s by the Track, Cassamento’s, Tujague’s, Jaques-Imo’s. 3am french fry po boys from Verti Marte. Late night breakfast at Camellia Grill. Way too much liquor at Turtle Bay and Molly’s. Way too much coffee (and far, far too many hours) at Kaldi’s, and then PJ’s, and then Rue. Brass bands at the Maple Leaf. My Grandpa’s dixieland jazz band playing at Jazz Fest. Endymion. Zulu. The New Year’s Eve Christmas Tree Bonfire, before it got ruined. Crazy thunderstorms on the lake. Hell, I went to University of New Orleans for eight years – that’s about as New Orleans as it gets. :P

I do believe that being able to be on the outside looking in lets me appreciate the city in different ways. Maybe even more than that, being away these past four years has strengthened my love and enhanced my understanding of the place. So I do, in fact, know what it means to miss New Orleans.

Some day I hope to come back to the city, to do it right – be on the inside looking in again. To have full time vegan New Orleans adventures! Until then I’ll visit, and I’ll write about it. And I’ll cook.