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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Cupcakes

I don't really like cupcakes all that much. Really, I don't. (And for someone with a sweets obsession, that's saying something).

I've moved to New York twice in my life: once at age nine (Cathedral School of St. John the Divine! Holla!) and once at age 22. Neither time was a conspicuous success (read: conspicuous non-success. Conspicuous!).

But both experiences left a few indelible imprints. And at age 22, it was the Magnolia bakery, which made me fall in love with their cupcakes. Which I am fully aware is a cliché at this point, but I don't care, as I am not very cool.

I went to the Magnolia bakery with my friend Serena, who has an unearthly ability to find both cute British teashops and awesome bakeries in any place she lives, from the Midwest to the Northeast to the Southeast. We went and dutifully stood in line (this was 2004, pre the SNL digital short paean to the Magnolia bakery but after the Sex and the City mention). I got a box of cupcakes and followed Serena, zombie-like, to a little park in the West Village (I was not functioning at the tip-top of my mental capacities at the time. See: conspicuous non-success). And, oh man. Those cupcakes. So amazing. With none of the cloying sweetness of supermarket cupcakes. Delicate and amazing. I munched on a few and felt that maybe life was worth living after all.

"Hey Laura," said Serena. "Is Liv Tyler pregnant?"

"Yes," I answered.

I was at the time reading gossip magazines on the regular, as I'd buy them to read on the subway. Serena was aware of this.

"Then I think that's Liv Tyler," she said. And I turned around and, indeed, there was Liv Tyler.

It's a very random memory and full of every New York cliché groaner (cupcakes! celebrity sightings!) but it was a nice memory in the midst of a very bleak time, and I feel correspondingly affectionate about it. It was gentle moment: things were what they were supposed to be. The cupcakes that were so famous were actually good. Think that's Liz Tyler? It IS Liz Tyler. Life is simple!

And since then, I've made the Magnolia cupcakes whenever I can. I don't really like cupcakes. I like these cupcakes.

Here's the recipe, which I ganked from the Magnolia cookbook (which I gave to Serena at one point) and which is available online.

If you follow that link, you'll see that several comments complain bitterly that this is not the actual Magnolia bakery recipe (the texture is slightly off, etc.). To which I say: duh. Obviously. Also, you know that Santa Claus person your parents told you about when you were a kid? That was them. Why would the bakery make their secret public property?

But what's available is still a great recipe, and I recommend it. The texture in the icing is a bit off, a little grainy and little too sweet, but I think the recipe for the base is amazing and the icing is still good, it just may not look as pretty.

I made cupcakes for Fourth of July (making this another installment of Really Old Pictures of Food). I find that red food coloring never works out, however. Blue and white was fine, but the red just looked like sludgy pink, no matter how much red coloring I put in, so I minimized the red I used. My attempts to make designs in blue and white didn't go over very, well either, though, and the cupcakes ended up looking diseased:
The next day, I found that the red icing had settled and looked more actually red; going with a simpler concept produced cupcakes that looked more "fourth of July":

Then, I made another large batch of cupcakes. Feeling ambitious, I decided to make the chocolate version and ALSO the vanilla cream version that the Magnolia bakery lady explains online.

Making three different kinds of icing was probably a little ambitious. I ended up essentially destroying the entire kitchen. I will say, however, that the results were edifying. I recommend the youtube vanilla cream version; the milk and flour base produces a creamy texture closer to the ideal texture of your dreams (a lot of the comments online were flipping out about the lack of confectioner's sugar, which also concerned me. I'll say that you don't strictly need it in this version, but also that it doesn't hurt to add up some when the frosting is done. I'd recommend it, actually).

I made A LOT of cupcakes this round. Some were decorated:

What's the theme of the decorations, you ask? Why all the crosses? Well...the each cupcakes is actually inspired by Spenser's The Faerie Queen. Yes, the poem. The epic poem. It's a long story. Yes, I'm a nerd. We know this. Why ask?

The chocolate icing looks aesthetically the best, I feel. In all the Magnolia bakery cupcake pictures, the icing has this lovely, smooth, swoopy texture. I can't quite seem to emulate it in my cupcakes, no matter how much I try. I've gotten better, in some fairly common-sense ways: using a knife is better than a spoon; put the icing in the fridge, but not for too long, etc. But...it's still not as pretty as I'd like.

I had leftovers after my Faerie Queen batch; I made some Big Cupcakes, to threaten their smaller brothers:
Here's wot I've learned from the cupcakes-baking. Some details do matter:
1) Sifting flour. It's easily done and it's making a difference. You don't need a special flour-sifter. Any strainer will do.
2) Make sure your butter and eggs are room temperature. You can cheat by running the eggs under water. But it makes a difference.
3) Beating the butter for the recommended three minutes matters, too. It releases the lipids or whatever. I swear, it matters. Beat all the ingredients a lot, actually, and scrape the bowl a lot.
4) Don't fret about the cupcakes not being done. The recommended time in the recipe is fine. Don't give into temptation because a few of the cupcakes look like they have a bubbly center. They'll be fine.

Even if you fuck up all of this, it won't matter. Even if your cupcakes look sludgy pink and runny, people will still ask for more, even if they claim they don't like cupcakes. Because this recipe fucking rocks. You seriously can't lose. No, it's not the same as going to the Magnolia bakery and seeing Liv Tyler. But it's close.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Non-Covert Rage

How much do I hate Covert Affairs? So much.

And let me just say that I have been watching entirely too much USA recently. Like, a problematic amount. Like, my two favorite shows currently, without question, are Burn Notice and White Collar. So much so that in a recent ad for a marathon in which they did a split-screen between Michael Weston and Neal Caffrey, as if the characters were talking on the phone, which obviously they weren't, my little fangirl heart went pitter-pat at the idea of a crossover. I go hard for USA right now.

So much so, that I set Covert Affairs to record automatically. And despite being lukewarm on the pilot and following episodes, I kept watching. Maybe it would get good! And I believe in giving a show with good credentials five-to-seven episodes before I give up on it.

Yes, I hear you, that's quite a lot, but I extend the same courtesy (not in terms of episodes, but in shot-giving) to novels and movies, so television can get it, too. Some amazing shows take a few episodes to get on their feet. Some amazing novels take a few chapters to get going. And Covert Affairs has Piper Perabo, of so-bad-it's-good Coyote Ugly and Imagine Me and You, a lovely romantic comedy with lesbian protagonists and Matthew Goode, which is all I could ask of a movie. Plus, she is so pretty that when she walks past pretty flowers, the pretty flowers start fretting that maybe they are getting old and maybe they need to work out more.

But, I officially hate Covert Affairs. And why? Well, let me count the ways.

1) Piper Perabo is new to the CIA. And of course, she's great at everything -- all the lame tasks she gets assigned to result in amazing missions! She's assigned to talk to the crazies who call into the CIA -- one of them is the real deal. Of course. Oh, and the real deal is an IRA cell. Yeah, cause the IRA is still totally a threat, complete with double-agents, double-crosses, and sophisticated communications. If this was a decade ago...yeah, that still wouldn't work.

2) She's assigned to go on the mission that no one can get! Ha ha, it's a joke, she'll never convince this bitter ex-CIA guy to come back in. But wait! She does! He pretends he's all mean, with mean dogs and a gun, but really he's nice. Just give his mean dogs some snacks (no one's ever thought of that) and tell him about his Long Lost Love, who coincidentally was killed by the guy on your current mission, and BOOM! You got the ungettable get!

At least with shows like Burn Notice and White Collar, the characters are experienced and dope at the beginning of the show. So you accept the fact that they're ridiciously good at everything, and it doesn't bother you. The tension of the shows comes from these ridicously pretty and talented people being put in increasingly improbable and challenging situations. Other people on the show doubt that they can be amazing and dope, and then it's like, "Oh yeah? Don't think Michael Weston can break out of a maximum security prison with just a hand towel? Well, BURN ON YOU!"

But ridiculously pretty and boring Piper Perabo accidentally being awesome at everything? Ugh.

3) Plus, 90% of any success she has that isn't accidental comes from her blinking pretty at the men around her. Sure, she's a woman in a man's world, but can't she be dope on her own terms? Whenever she needs help, some guy is around to think she's pretty and charming and help out. She even has an ex-boyfriend that FOLLOWS HER AROUND KILLING PEOPLE THAT THREATEN HER. That's not a joke or metaphor. That's a real thing in the show. Things getting sticky? Hey, ex-boyfriend is across the street with a sniper rifle!

This is worse than Weeds. I mean, I loved Weeds for three seasons, but I got pretty sick of the "anytime Nancy gets in way over her head (which is all the time) some hot guy that is usually non-white -- which is frankly a little racist if you really think about it -- thinks she's hot too and saves her as long as she has sex with him" all-purpose plot device.

4) Ugh, and speaking of which, Auggie. I hate this character with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. He's a Nice Guy, capital N. He's nice to Piper Perabo and helps her out whenever she sucks at anything, without asking. Okay, not so bad. But...he's smarmy. And oh so passive-aggressive.

To wit: He disses anyone she might possibly be interested in but doesn't actually make a move himself. He makes little passive-aggressive comments about anything that smacks of her treating him less than #1 (omg! she didn't bring him his coffee FIRST!) but doesn't come and ask her out himself. He's sort of flirty with her and is always complimenting himself indirectly ("You haven't laughed at any of my clever comments for ten minutes, something must be wrong") but he never comes out and asks her out himself.

We're supposed to automatically feel sorry for him and assume he's a nice guy because he's blind. But, here's an equal-opportunity memo: blind guys can be uninteresting jerks, too. And Auggie seems to want to go out of his way to prove that. In the very first episode, he tells her that "Girls love blind guys. They assume we don't care about looks." When she inquires, well, do you care about looks? He says, "All you have to do to figure out if a girl is hot is listen to how other guys talk to her." Of course, a guy comes up to Piper Perabo at that moment and says, like, "Hi, there!" and Auggie smirks his smirky-ass smile and is like "See?"

Wow. You just came right out and said that all you care about is that status of having a hot girl (how other guys talk to her). It's not anything that's actually attractive about her -- it's just pulling one over on another guy.

Bleck.

In another episode, Auggie is saying that Piper Perabo will be great on a mission because "she looks like a cheerleader."

Another CIA person says, "How do you know [blind guy] that she looks like a cheerleader?"

Answer: Creepy Auggie smirk.

Again: all Auggie gives a shit about is the status of Piper Perabo being "hot" (he gets off on the fact that she's clearly "high status" hot, the cheerleader being the stereotypical example. Also, he assumes her success will be due to the fact that she's hot and non-threatening in appearance).

He doesn't seem to like anything specific about her, other than 1) She's vulnerable (new to the CIA) and 2) she's "high status" hot. He's that creepy guy that always sidles up to the new girl, who hasn't been warned off him yet, and plays on her sympathy and vulnerable position to get her to feel indebted to him, disses any potential threats, and makes her feel guilty over any hint of abandonment. We've all met that guy and frankly he's more likely to shoot up a gym then be the adorable love interest.

5) Ugh. This actress. One of my favorite sites, Go Fug Yourself, just ran a thing about how she pops up in everything and she is so great and is "too good" for Covert Affairs. Are you kidding me? Yes, she pops up in everything. And she always grates on me. This one, I don't even have a good reason for. I just hate her, and it's totally irrational. I hated her on Mad Men. She popped up for two seconds on Bones, and I hated her. On this show, she plays Piper Perabo's sister, and they're supposed to be superclose. You're supposed to love her, even though her character says things like "I thought you'd hit off with this guy. You both have really boring jobs!" "I mean, when did you last have a real relationship?" "You're the worst liar. You're be, like, the worst spy ever!" (To be fair, that stuff is supposed to be bitchy, but you're supposed to take it in a "oh, big sister" kind of way--you know, the episode ends with them hugging).

But there's just something about that actress -- she's just seems like the kind of person who really would make those kind of sweeping, unintentionally judgmental comments about her sister's life and completely miss the fact that her sister is freakin' Piper Perabo and is not only supernaturally beautiful but also totally kick-ass and speaks like six languages and actually is a spy.

And it's really bitchy to tell someone that their job is boring--it's actually not adorable at all.

I know this is the character, but that kind of smariness just oozes out of that actress's pores. You know how some actors simply seem nice or seem noble or seem whatever? She just seems like a smarmy bitch, and I stand by that. And if the show gave me leave to hate her, I'd be all over that. But, no, we're supposed to think it's so sweet that they're so close, and Piper Perabo lives in her guesthouse, when if that was my sister, I'd live far, far away. A mission to Afghanistan? Yes, please. Anything to get me away from Auggie and my horrible sister.

6) Finally, the show just sucks. The writing is terrible. Here is a random example (I'd muted the show while writing this and randomly unmuted it. This is what played, approximately):

Piper Perabo: This wasn't the idea!

Bitter Ex-Cia: Yeah, what was your idea?

Piper Perabo: My idea was for justice!

Bitter-Ex-Cia: Oh yeah? Justice for who?

Piper Perabo: PRETTY FROWN!*

Then I got distracted again. When I tuned in again, Piper Perabo was defending Hot Guy on the show, and Augie was needling her for not thinking Hot Guy was a complete jerk. Sigh.

Covert Affairs, you are deleted from DVR. Even USA misses sometimes.

*Guess what solves this moral dilemma? Yep: ex-boyfriend with a sniper rifle!
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