rice crispy treats

rice crispy treat 1

a few years ago, I studied abroad in beijing. I had heard about the air quality and imagined that it would look something like los angeles, but the reality, a greyish-yellow fog that often obscured buildings across the street, was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. within days, I had developed a hacking cough that made it nearly impossible to speak in full sentences, a condition that ex-pats termed the “beijing cough”. 

a few weeks later, my cough had finally disappeared and my abroad program held a food preparation contest judged by our chinese professors. my friend and I, both huge dessert fiends, wanted to do something sweet, but in the hot and humid beijing climate, we did not want to use too much heat. we settled on rice krispie treats, trekking to a large carrefour to find marshmallows and rice krispie cereal, then melting it all together in a giant pot we borrowed from a chinese student. we actually ended up winning the contest because our chinese professors had never seen rice krispie treats before and thought they were really exotic and creative!

the contest took place on one of the few sunny days of that summer. the sky was a clear cloudless blue. the night before, a thunderstorm had hit with raindrops so huge, they hurt when they hit my bare skin. we half-joked that the government could control the weather, could create a rainstorm so ferocious that it washed away all the pollution. whether it was true or not, the day after  a thunderstorm in beijing was always clear and blue.

I cannot even remember what my friend and I won – it was probably some coupons to a local bubble tea store. but I do remember eating warm watermelon in the sweltering heat, happy to be able to see across the street for the first time in weeks and feeling like I could breathe again.

in the wake of dangerously high levels of air pollution that have made the city almost unlivable, beijing has issued its first red alert for the first time. and for the first time, the chinese government has put environmental concerns before its emphasis on rapid economic growth through industrialization and signed on to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

and here in the northeast, global warming has now made it possible to frolic on a beach in december, then head into the city for some outdoor ice skating (because apparently we still are willing to waste energy for “winter traditions”). so save some energy and add these (super-legitimate chinese teacher’s) award-winning, no-bake rice crispy treats into your holiday sweets repertoire. 

rice crispie

makes one 8•8in pan

1/4 lb (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 tbsp vanilla paste
1 10-oz bag marshmallows
heaping 1/4 tsp kosher salt
6 cups rice krispie cereal

deb perelman. salted brown butter crispy treats. smitten kitchen. 2 nov 2011. accessed 22 dec 2015.

1 grease an 8×8-in square pan.
2 in a large pot, melt butter over medium-low heat. using a silicone spatula, stir frequently until it turns brown and begins to smell nutty. immediately turn off the heat and mix in the vanilla paste.
3 stir in the marshmallows until smooth. if they are not completely melted, stir over low heat until completely smooth. add salt and stir until well-combined.
4 remove pot from stove and stir in rice krispie cereal. using spatula, quickly press into prepared pan.
5 let cool completely (~1 hr), cut into squares, and serve.
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chocolate marshmallow cupcakes

chocolate marshmallow cupcake

I recently found out that that one of my old college haunts, kickass cupcakes in somerville, ma, closed quite suddenly, leaving behind a quickly vacated storefront littered with empty boxes and shreds of paper.

though I loved kickass, I have to say, their cupcakes were quite hit-or-miss. one time I bought some kind of margarita cupcake from them, and they literally injected it with tequila. it was soggy and tasted of cheap tequila and not much else. and it cost me $4. though their experiments could be disastrous, I always found them endearing because they reflected a staff unafraid to take risks.

but then they went bankrupt.

when I heard they had closed, I chalked it up as another victory for the risk-averse – to try and build a business on a food fad almost always results in failure. but then I remembered their monthly cupcake testing “happy hour”, when they served samples of new flavors for free. for an hour, kickass cupcakes became a neighborhood hangout, bringing together college students, young moms, professors, and the elderly folk of somerville. kickass truly loved cupcakes and remained committed to pushing the boundaries, and that in itself is a victory.

as my love for baking grew, cupcakes fell to the wayside. when it comes to dessert, I much prefer making large statement cakes or pies adorned by billowing swirls of cream. in comparison, cupcakes seemed plain, limited in potential, and frankly, boring. but this cupcake recipe kind of nails it. it’s a little controversial (some people didn’t love the sticky-sweet meringue coupled with the bittersweet chocolate cupcake) and it’s no kickass cupcake – I’m not that crazy, or imaginative – but it reminded me that cupcakes can be more than pretty icing atop a sweet bite of cake.

chocolate marshmallow cupcake 3

makes 18-20 cupcakes

CHOCOLATE CUPCAKE
1 3/4 cup (250g) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cup (300g) sugar
3/4 cup (60g) cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup (240mL) strong black coffee (or 1 heaping tbsp instant coffee powder dissolved in (slightly less than) 1 cup warm water)
1 cup (240mL) buttermilk
1/2 cup (120mL) vegetable oil
1 tbsp vanilla extract
CHOCOLATE GANACHE
4 oz (113g) semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
4 tbsp (56g) butter
1 tsp light corn syrup
MARSHMALLOW MERINGUE
4 egg whites
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar

kristin rosenau. s’mores cupcakes. pastry affair. 9 april 2012. accessed 25 feb 2015.

CUPCAKE|1 preheat oven to 350ºF (conventional NOT convection setting). line cupcake pan with baking cups.
2 using a stand mixer with whisk attachment, mix flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt. with mixer on low, add eggs, coffee, buttermilk, vegetable oil, and vanilla extract, then beat on medium speed to mix. batter will be thin and watery.
3 ladle batter into baking cups, filling them 2/3 of the way for flatter cupcakes or 3/4 of the way for domed cupcakes. bake for 18-20 minutes, until toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean with a few crumbs. cool cupcakes to room temperature (~1 hour) before decorating.
GANACHE|1 while cake layers bake, combine chocolate, butter, and corn syrup in a saucepan over medium heat. remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature (~30 minutes) until it reaches a spreadable consistency, stirring occasionally.
MERINGUE|1 boil water in a large pot. in the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together eggs and sugar, then place over large pot of water. continue whisking until sugar is completely dissolved and egg whites are warm to touch, about 3-4 minutes.
2 remove mixture from heat. using a stand mixer, beat egg whites on medium speed until they form stiff, shiny peaks, 5-8 minutes.
ASSEMBLY|1 using a knife or offset spatula, spread thick layer of ganache on top of cupcake, extending chocolate to the edge of the cupcake. let set for a few minutes.
2 fill pastry bag with marshmallow meringue and pipe meringue on top of cupcake. turn oven on broil and place cupcakes on cookie sheet so the tops of the cupcakes are ~1 inch away from the broiler. broil for 30 seconds-1 minute, until a lightly toasted brown.