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July 3rd, 2009:

Hello, Cupcake! The birthday party

chocolate cupcakes, cream cheese frosting, chocolate frosting, Black and White Party
Now that's a stylish spread
Since I was starting the 107 Cookbooks project close to my birthday, I kicked it off with my most recent acquisition, Hello, Cupcake! I found the softcover baking guide in the discount section at Barnes & Noble, and could not resist. It’s full of clever cupcake decorating ideas: cupcakes made to look like TV dinners and popcorn kernels, cupcakes assembled to depict an alligator, cupcakes colored to represent billiard balls. I chose a relatively simple project, the Black and White Party: chocolate cupcakes in white wrappers, coated with a base layer of either white frosting (I chose cream cheese) or chocolate frosting tinted black with food coloring, and embellished away.MeltingChocolate

There’s a cake decorating supply store three blocks from my apartment, where I found a lot of the things I needed. White wrappers, a smaller frosting spatula suited to cupcakes, black and white sanding sugars, black food coloring, cans of black and white decorating frosting. I needed more, though, and after racking my brain I remembered that Dylan’s Candy Bar on Third Avenue at 60th offers a broad selection of single colors of candy. There I found black and white M&Ms, black and white candy-coated sunflower seeds, and black licorice in thin ropes.

I felt that to really do the project right I had to use the cookbook’s recipes for cupcakes and frosting rather than making my usual versions (it offers a wide variety, including both mix and scratch preparations for the cake; of course I chose scratch).Cocoa and flour for batter I had some trepidation about the cake; I’m a huge fan of the devil’s food cake recipe in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, and I just didn’t think another recipe could measure up. But I was pleasantly surprised: Hello, Cupcake’s recipe is a little easier to prepare, and by using both melted unsweetened chocolate and cocoa powder it provides a satisfying depth of chocolate flavor. The baked cake was tender and delicious. I still love Bittman’s recipe, but for cupcakes I will definitely consider adding this one to my rotation, and may try their other cake recipes as well.

I was less satisfied with the consistency of the frostings. But this is probably not the fault of the frostings themselves; it was a warm day and I’d already heated up the kitchen quite a bit with the other food prep, so by the time I’d made both frostings and had them ready to use the butter in them was far too soft and melty. You should have smelled it--mmm.I had to add quite a few drops of food coloring to the chocolate frosting to get it really black, and I felt that affected the consistency as well. They both tasted terrific, though, and all the guests were very impressed by the visual effect, so I was probably just being overparticular. I’ll have to try them again when the weather is more temperate before I make a final assessment.

I had one of my friends come over before the other guests so we could decorate the cupcakes. We both had a blast; it was really fun to play with the contrasts. Cupcakes fresh from the ovenThe canned decorating frostings were too soft—I should probably have put them in the fridge for most of the day, but I just didn’t consider that they would get warm along with the entire rest of the apartment.

Verdict: Success. Good flavor, good consistency of cake, good appearance; the decorations were fun and impressed the hell out of the party guests. The recipes were clear and easy to follow. I will definitely use this cookbook again.Decorations included M&Ms, candy-coated sunflower seeds, licorice, frosting, and sanding sugar

Announcing the 107 Cookbooks Project

Books are a weakness of mine. I’m a book learner by nature; if asked to master a new topic I make a beeline for print rather than looking for classes, lectures, podcasts or demos. And in few subjects is this more evident than with cookbooks. I seek them, I love them, and I hoard them.

In a moment of weakness some years back I joined a membership cookbook club; you know the type, offering a monthly selection that automatically ships out unless you tell them not to send it. Every so often I forget to send in my refusal, and a handsome, hefty, beautifully photographed cookbook shows up at my doorstep, and I somehow don’t get around to returning it. That mac and cheese recipe looked good; and haven’t I been wanting to try a different coffee cake? So onto the shelf it goes.

Or I‚Äôll be in a bookstore, because if there is a bookstore nearby I will be in it, and a new offering will catch my eye. Maybe it‚Äôs a book I‚Äôve seen mentioned online, or a cook I admire. Maybe it offers a cuisine I‚Äôve been meaning to try. Maybe it‚Äôs a reprint of a historical volume in which the author, a bestseller in her time and known only to scholars now, instructs readers to mix in a lump of butter the size of a duck‚Äôs egg or to judge the oven temperature by holding her fist in the hot space and counting; if she reaches five just before she has to snatch her hand out again, the oven is ready. Or maybe the book is simply absurd, requiring the user to mix Cheez-Its into a souffl?© or pour a fruit sauce over Twinkies, and I eagerly seize it as source material for Recipes of the Damned. All the better if it‚Äôs on sale.

One day recently I was wedging another of these ill-thought-out acquisitions into the bookcase and wondered, how many cookbooks do I have, and how many have I not yet cooked from? The answers were downright embarrassing. The cookbook tally reached 107; and believe it or not, I actually have even more recipe collections and sources, but not everything reached the minimum threshold I set for calling something a cookbook as opposed to a flyer, and I didn’t count the numerous standard-run back issues of cooking magazines. More surprising was the use tally: Of the serious cookbooks on hand (totaling 71), I had never used 31, and I had my doubts about another 7. And I had certainly never cooked from the additional 36 cookbooks I’d picked up for the Recipes of the Damned. Of the collection of volumes overloading the tall dining room bookcase, I had used fewer than one-third.

That’s going to change. The 107 Cookbooks project is a year-long challenge. By the end of June 2010, I will have cooked at least one recipe from each of the books in my collection. Including the Recipes of the Damned books. (To be fair, a lot of those are perfectly reasonable books that just happen to have one or two objectionable recipes. But there is Jell-O in my future, and I quiver in fear.)

I’ve set up a schedule for the year, to ensure that I keep up a manageable pace and that I don’t get stuck cooking Christmas dishes in May, and will be posting updates as I work my way through. A typical month will see me trying nine new recipes.

The Rules
I’ve established a few rules for the project.

1. A cookbook is defined as a stand-alone book containing at least 10 recipes, published in multiple copies, and intended primarily as a cookbook or set of cooking instructions. By this definition:
o    The hand-written notebook that our dear friends assembled for us back in 1993 is not a cookbook. (But it is a treasure.)
o    The single-page pamphlet with 8 recipes involving Kraft cheese spreads is not a cookbook.
o    The several three-ring binders filled with recipes I’ve clipped from various magazines and newspapers, or printed from the Web, are not cookbooks.
o    The foodie’s memoir that happens to include some recipes he or she tried along the way is not a cookbook.
I had to draw the line somewhere.

2. I have to cook at least one recipe from each cookbook in the course of the project. I am allowed to cook more than one from the same book (for some in which recipes are presented in menus, such as Three Bowl Cookbook, I kind of have to). However, cooking more than one recipe from a single cookbook, or cooking a project recipe again at a later date, will not change the fact that I still have to cook from all the other books in the collection. In other words, 107 is the bare minimum.

3. Each recipe that I cook for the project must be something I have not cooked before. This means that if I turn to Joie Warner’s No-Cook Pasta Sauces and make Black Bean, Tomato and Feta Sauce, which I have made so often I don’t even consult the book any more, this does not count toward the project.

4. I must try my best to follow the recipe as sincerely and faithfully as possible, with the full intention of eating and enjoying the results. This is going to be difficult with books such as The Twinkies Cookbook and The Joys of Jell-O, but if nothing else it will be a learning experience.