Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Joys Of "Research"

Sigh. It's a tough job... but someone has to do it, right?

So this time next week Natasha Oakley and I are packing our bags and suffering for our craft by tramping across Europe on a 'research trip' to Rome. I see an Italian hero in my editor's future in the next year or so...

It's a trip we've threatened to take for several years now, but for one varying reason or another we've never quite got round to it. Ain't that always the way? But before Christmas we took the plunge (read as: there was an offer on cheap flights) so we went ahead and took the plunge and booked our seats. And as we're both too tight to pay for something and not follow it through, we're actually going! Any second now we hope to have a hotel to stay in too ;)

Since I started travelling in earnest a couple of years back - something that's been a dream of mine for decades - I've discovered that it really is muse fuel. It's one thing reading about places or watching DVD's of them or seeing pics, but it's another being there and seeing the things for yourself; eating the food and breathing in the air and paying attention to all the little details. So we're both hoping that there'll be plenty there to fire our imaginations. From what we've Googled so far there's certainly plenty to see and do, even in what is technically considered off-season. But more than that, it's been a year since we last spent any face-to-face time catching up, so it's an opportunity to chat for hours over a nice glass of red wine and huge plates of pasta. Bliss!

So, usual question for my blog friends and virtual travel companions... what would you go see if you were going to Rome? Anything I should look out for? Take extra pics of?


Anyone out there a better baker than I am? If so, and if you're reading my EHarlequin online read, Manhattan Cinderella, (we're up to chapter five now) then here are some of the recipes for the cupcakes featured in the latest chapter…

Let me know how they turn out! And remember... if there's a fire in your kitchen while making them - it's not MY FAULT... this time...

Chocolate with Cabernet Cupcakes

It looks like an ordinary chocolate cupcake until you bite into it, and then - my oh my, what an adult-rated surprise it is - super-rich chocolate with the taste of cherries and the slightest hint of red wine.

Chocolate with Cabernet Cupcakes

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 eggs

3/4 cup cabernet sauvignon

1/2 cup dried cherries, chopped

Assembly Materials

18 Chocolate with Cabernet Cupcakes

2 cups lightly sweetened whipped cream

1/4 cup dried cherries, chopped

1 tablespoon cinnamon or cocoa powder, as garnish

Bake the cupcakes
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and prepare muffin pans with white paper baking cups.
2. Into the large bowl of an electric mixer, sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and cocoa powder.
3. Add the oil, vanilla, eggs and wine.
4. Beat with the electric mixer at low speed for 30 seconds. Turn the mixer speed to high and continue beating for three minutes, scraping the sides occasionally.
5. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the dried cherries. Pour the batter into the prepared muffin pans. Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Assembly Instructions
1. Spoon a dollop of whipped cream on the center of the completely cooled cupcakes.
2. Add five to six bits of dried fruit and a dusting of cinnamon or cocoa powder.

Mocha Cupcakes

The ultimate grown-up cupcake.

Serving: 16
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes


1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teasoons coffee powder (use espresso powder if you are a coffee fan)
1/2 cup hot water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup whole milk, plain yogurt, or sour cream
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg

Coffee Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting:
(Makes enough to frost 16 cupcakes)

3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 egg whites
1/8 tsp salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temp
1 tbsp hot water
1 1/2 tsp instant coffee


1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line 18 muffin cups with paper baking cups.

2. Place the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a bowl and mix to combine.

3. Place the coffee powder and water in a small bowl and mix until the coffee has dissolved. Add the vanilla and milk and mix until well combined.

4. Place the butter and sugar in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle and beat until light, fluffy, and light lemon colored, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the egg and beat well. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, and half of the flour mixture, and beat well. Add the coffee mixture and then the remaining flour mixture.

5. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and fill the prepared muffin tins two-thirds full. Transfer to the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Put sugar, egg whites and salt into the top of a double boiler over a pan of simmering water. Whisking constantly, cook until sugar has dissolved and mixture is warm (about 160 degrees). Pour heated egg whites into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat egg white mixture on high speed until it forms stiff (but not dry) peaks. Continue beating until fluffy and cooled, about 7 minutes total. Switch to the paddle attachment. With mixer on medium-low, add butter two tablespoons at a time, beating well after each addition. Increase speed to medium-high; continue beating until frosting appears thick, about 3 minutes. Meanwhile, stir 1 1/2 tsp instant coffee into 1 tbsp hot water until dissolved, then put it in the refrigerator or freezer until it comes down to room temperature. Reduce mixer speed to low and add coffee mixture. Continue beating 1 minute to reduce air bubbles.

Chocolate Ganache Cupcakes

Chocolate cake, chocolate ganache, chocolate spikes - chocolate, chocolate! What's not to love?

Chocolate Buttermilk Cupcakes

1 2/3 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa

1 cup sugar

1 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Dark Chocolate Ganache

4 ounces good quality bittersweet dark chocolate

4 ounces heavy cream

Milk Chocolate Ganache

4 ounces good quality milk chocolate

4 ounces heavy cream

Chocolate Spikes

2 ounces good quality chocolate

Assembly Materials

12 Chocolate Buttermilk Cupcakes

Dark Chocolate Ganache

Milk Chocolate Ganache

Chocolate Spikes

Special Tools

Muffin pan with square cups (optional)

Pizza wheel (optional)

Double boiler

Make the cupcakes
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and prepare the muffin pans with nonstick spray and flour or paper cups.
2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and salt. Add the cocoa and sugar and mix until thoroughly blended.
3. Add the buttermilk, oil and vanilla and beat until smooth.
4. Pour or spoon the batter into the pans, filling at least halfway. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the cakes test done.
5. Remove the pans and turn out the cupcakes onto a wire rack to cool.

Prepare the ganache
1. Chop the chocolate fine and place it in a small bowl.
2. Bring the cream in a small pot to a simmer.
3. Pour the simmering cream over the chopped chocolate and stir until smooth.
4. Cool to room temperature.

Make the chocolate spikes
1. Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler.
2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and pour the melted chocolate on it. Spread the chocolate evenly, then let it set.
3. Use a pizza wheel or sharp knife to cut slices of chocolate.
4. Refrigerate until just before serving.

1. If you want the distinctly different square shape, you have two options. Use a silicone muffin pan with square cups, or do the old-fashioned thing, and, when the cakes are cool, use a sharp knife to slice the tops and sides square.
2. Place the cooled cupcakes on a wire rack with a baking sheet underneath.
3. Use a ladle to pour the Dark Chocolate Ganache over the cupcakes to cover all the edges. Let it set about 10 minutes on each cake.
4. Using a fork, drizzle the Milk Chocolate Ganache over each cupcake in one direction. Turn the cupcake the opposite direction and drizzle again. Refrigerate the cakes until serving time.
5. When it's time to serve the cakes, place the spikes on top as desired.



Nicola Marsh said...

You are tooooo lucky!
I adore Rome :)

I enjoyed just strolling the backstreets, savouring a delicious gelati, people watching (and with those hot Italian guys in gorgeous suits, there's a lot to watch!)

Will be living vicariously through you two for every fabulous moment...sigh...

Biddy said...

Ooo Rome! Lovely!! But I would warn you that you have to go through the WHOLE Vatican Museum before you get to The Sistine Chapel. I ended up suffering from Museum rage...

Aideen said...

Good morning Trish,

Ah yes, Rome. I've been lucky enough to get there a couple of times and each time was better than I remembered. Obvioulsy the Trevi, the Colosseum, the Vatican are all must see attractions. But like Nicola, wandering aimlessly around the backstreets, sampling real coffee and admiring the every day scenery is what kept me enthralled for hours on end.
I mean seriously, men dressed in Valentino posing as the police? Ok, so they ARE the police but I always found that hard to believe as I ogled them because they surely belonged on the covers of romance novels across the globe.

Yummy. Almost as mouthwatering as your recipes. Almost.


Michelle Styles said...


Get to the Vatican museum early and take time to look at the Rapheal rooms, everyone heads towards the Sistine chapel but the Rapheal rooms are great.
Do NOT climb to the top of St Peters unless you want sore thighs.
The inside of the Colessium is like any other sporting arena. If you want have been to one, you can give it a miss. But do go to St Clemente which is just down from the Colessium as it is the best place to see the layers of Rome. There used to be a great resturant just a little ways down from there. Isadore?
Caffe Grecco near the Spanish steps has great hot chocolate. Goethe and Byron used to go there.
Do throw coins into the Trevi fountain so you can return. Go early and there will not be the hordes.
Rome is a place you can spend days in.

Nina in Ohio said...

Trish - I am sooo jealous! I love Italian men so just enjoy ALL the sights and take plenty of pictures! And have a glass of chianti next to a beautiful fountain for me! Have a great time with Natasha ;-)

Brigitte said...

Rome, it's such a lovely city! We've been twice already and going again next month. Be sure to be at Saint Peters' quite early in the morning, say eight-ish (I know, I know...it IS early...take a taxi)but at least you'll beat the crowds and have it all to yourself; It's quite an experience. You'll feel the silence and the holyness of it all; Afterwards it just gets dreadful with the busloads of tourists dumped out front. People chatting and making noise. Last time we went that early in the morning there was gregorian chants by a group of priests in the circular space underneath, where the popes are all buried; THAT was quite something; You feel like a little mouse assisting a private religious ceremony.
You'll have to visit the Vatican Museum with the Sistine Chapel. Best to get the tickets before you leave via the net. Also visit La Galeria Borghese. They have the most amazing sculptures there, especially one (I don't remember its name) where you can see the imprint, the dent, of a finger in a thigh...and that's all made of marble! I have never seen anything as beautifully crafted. You must get the ticket before you leave, otherwise you won't get in; As the museum used to be a private home they will only allow just over 250 visitors at any time on the premises. It's easily done over the net as well. Go on a sunday, it's cheaper. Only 3 euros per person.
Saint Jean de Latran (I don't know the English name of that church, sorry) which actually is the cathedral of Rome and The Holy Steps (Scala Sancta) which are just across are also worth a visit. There is so much to see, but I would recommend those sights mentioned above.
Above all just go where the wind will take you and...enjoy.

Marcy said...

Hi Trish,
A trip to Rome...how exciting! Indulge for me too, kay?

I've just got caught up on your eHarl read and I am loving it! More please!!!


Liz Fielding said...

The Pantheon. Lucky, lucky things.