Serena Food and Stories: Feeding Friends Every Hour of the Day, by Serena Bass (Stewart Tabori & Chang, 2004)

2004_11_food_serena.JPGIt often happens when Gothamist gets a "celebrity cookbook" that the book seems like more of a vanity piece for the celebrity chef and offers very little in the way of real recipes that we can actually use. Sometimes these cookbooks are not even readable, for all the wacky and artistic design tricks thrown in, or it is impossible to find the recipes for all the self-serving dialogue. We are happy to report that Serena Bass's cookbook breaks the mold. Her recipes are fun, inventive, and approachable, and the anecdotes from Serena's life as a caterer to the stars (and namesake behind Serena in the Chelsea Hotel) that are peppered throughout the book are actually funny and interesting--like the time Serena made aioli for her idol, Julia Child, or the time she made a lemon cake and the dog ate it. Of course, the recipes that go with the stories are included, and the directions are so detailed that even someone with no kitchen experience could probably make most of them.

image courtesy Chris @ Uffish.comIt appears that Serena wants her readers to be able to make dinner for their first dinner party the same way she did-reading directly from a cookbook. Her tone throughout the book is that of both a coach and a cheerleader--"You can do it!" and "Here's how." Finally, Gothamist likes this cookbook because it covers all the meals we like: English breakfast, brunch, tea, cocktail parties, buffets, and dinner parties--not a boring meal among them-and all the food looks delicious, from the bacon-wrapped meatloaf to the cocktails.

Of course, here at Gothamist our weakness is cupcakes, so we chose this super easy recipe which can be made anytime-we only had to go out for buttermilk and cream. We took them to a Halloween party and people asked us where we bought them! It took us two hours, start to finish, to bake, frost, decorate, and box them. The bittersweet chocolate frosting and the lightness of the cake make these a fairly sophisticated cupcake; if you're making them for kids you might want to use a more sugary frosting.

Cheating Chocolate Cake
(recipe adapted for cupcakes-makes 24)

If you time it right, you can get a good batch of cupcakes done in about two hours. Just make the ganache while the second tray of cupcakes bakes-then it will be the right temperature at the same time as the first tray of cupcakes is.

Dry Ingredients
3/4 cup cocoa
2c granulated sugar
1 3/4 Heckers or King Arthur all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp kosher salt

Wet Ingredients
1 c. buttermilk
2 extra-large eggs
1/2 c. vegetable oil
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c. boiling water

Preheat oven to 350. Prepare your cupcake pans.

Sift the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Add all wet ingredients except boiling water and stir together. Add the boiling water & whisk to incorporate well. Pour the batter into the cupcake pans-about 2/3 full. Bake about 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes, then remove & cool on a wire rack. Cool completely (about an hour) before frosting with the ganache. It is fine to make these the day before you need them. We frosted them the night before as well; not sure if it would work as well the next day.

Ganache Frosting
(makes 2 cups-really only need 1 cup for 24 cupcakes)1 c. heavy cream
10 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped fine

Heat the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat until little bubbles appear around the edges. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate immediately. Shake the pan to submerge the chocolate and leave to melt for a few minutes. Using a small whisk, stir gently to mix the chocolate to a smooth cream. Don't beat it or you'll get bubbles. Set aside for 20-30 minutes to thicken, stirring occasionally so that it stays smooth. Use a spatula or knife to scoop up about 1 tablespoon of ganache for each cupcake, pushing it into small waves. Garnish with candy of your choice.

Note on chocolate: Serena recommends Valrhona, Tobler, or Ghirardelli for this; of course the better chocolate you use the better this will be, but Gothamist used Nestle's semisweet morsels and this still turned out amazing.

Note on transport-we got our boxes at a nearby bakery for $0.25 each.