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Fake and bake

They're not fancy, but microwaved mug cakes are speedy solution to dessert cravings

Posted: 11/6/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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They’re not fancy, but microwaved mug cakes are speedy solution to dessert cravings.

JASON HALSTEAD / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

They’re not fancy, but microwaved mug cakes are speedy solution to dessert cravings. Photo Store

I remember when the microwave hit the North American home kitchen. There was a brief burst of culinary optimism in which some food writers suggested we could microwave anything and everything. There was a feeling that we had discovered a new, modern Jetsons-style cooking method, that we were on our way to whipping up instant roast beef dinners in these shiny new magic machines.

Of course, we soon discovered that most foods cooked in the microwave were flaccid and pale and weird. After a while, this onetime wonder appliance dutifully settled into much more mundane chores, like heating up mid-morning coffee and melting chocolate chips.

Lately, however, the maligned microwave has been having a minor resurgence, thanks to the craze for mug cakes, little confections that can be mixed in a mug and cooked in the microwave in under two minutes. This is a typical Internet food thing, driven by enthusiastic YouTube videos and the insatiable carb cravings of young people living in dorms or rooms without conventional ovens.

There has been some debate over whether the mug cake is a menace or marvel, a tragic byproduct of our impatient, on-demand culture or a smart, pragmatic way to approach cooking. Online comments range from rave reviews to sad pictures of mugs covered in overflowing goop.

Enter Leslie Bilderback, a California-based food writer and veteran pastry chef, who gives some cookbook credibility to the small, speedy dessert with Mug Cakes: 100 Speedy Microwave Treats to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth (St. Martin's Griffin, $26.50).

First of all, Bilderback just comes right out and admits that "the idea of baking a cake in the microwave will be pooh-poohed by the professionals."

But, as she points out, "if there's anything on earth that can bring smile faster than a piece of cake, it's a cake you can make in five minutes."

Bilderback celebrates the mug cake as an emergency cake, a momentary-whim cake, a spur-of-the-moment cake, an end-of-a-long-day cake. A mug cake can be whipped up easily and quickly with minimal equipment and little mess and fuss. Bilderback doesn't make extravagant claims for the microwave results -- there can be no delicate, crisp browning or lovely, light crumb. But she makes an unpretentious case for the mug cake as a reliable comfort food. Mug cakes also make perfect sense if you're cooking for one or two.

The cookbook is approachable and easygoing, with Bilderback emphasizing the importance of just getting into the kitchen and doing something. Anything!

"What have you got to lose?" she writes. At least mug cake mistakes don't have the grand-opera quality of a disastrous three-layer with Swiss meringue buttercream production.

One skeptical food blogger who figured mug cakes were the dessert equivalent of "swilling hooch from the bottle" finds Bilderback's versions are surprisingly respectable, even classy.

There is a chapter for old-school standards (banana, carrot, a plain yellow cake), for "fancy-schmancy" variations (green tea, caramel with fleur de sel, lemon-thyme). There are grown-up offerings (espresso, orange-Grand Marnier) and kids' favourites (moon pie, PB&J). There is also a chapter for mug cakes geared to special diets (gluten-free, vegan, dairy-free, no-sugar).

Most importantly, Bilderback has tested and retested her recipes, and she sets out some fundamentals for getting the best results from the mug cake.

Because the amounts of leavening and salt in any given mug cake are small and thus easy to mess up, Bilderback advocates using self-rising flour. You can buy self-rising flour or make up a small batch of it and work from that. She also makes all her recipes for two small mug cakes, following a "one egg equals two cakes" rule. Bilderback feels that one egg can be too much for a little mug cake, but splitting an egg in half to make a single cake is almost impossible.

For baking, Bilderback uses a range of receptacles -- coffee mugs, some tea cups (avoiding anything with metallic paint), small microwave-safe glasses, even paper cups. This makes for great variety, but also points to a potential problem: There is no standard mug size, and mug size has a lot to do with the cooking process. A good rule is to fill only halfway to avoid spillage. (A lot of Internet mug cake fails stem from overfill problems.)

Each mug is different, and so are microwaves. While speed of cooking is one of the mug cake's charms, it can also be dangerous, as overbaking can be a matter of a few seconds. Bilderback suggests starting with the minimum time and then adding short bursts, maybe 10 to 15 seconds, until you figure out what works for your machine.

You also need to reconcile yourself to the fact that mug cakes won't brown. Never mind: Bilderback offers lots of topping options, from sifted icing sugar to chocolate curls to whipped cream to caramelized fruit. She also includes recipes for adorably small quantities of frostings and glazes.

I experimented with a classic red velvet, a Nutella and chopped hazelnut version and a cake made with lime and white chocolate. And yes, I screwed up a bit, but it wasn't the end of the world. And when everything worked, I had a homemade cake in under five minutes and no messy mixing bowls to clean.

I can see why the mug cake is catching on.

 

Hazelnut-Nutella Mug Cakes

Starting with the crazy richness of Nutella spread, this mug cake combines a mild chocolate flavour with the crunch of nuts.

30 ml (2 tbsp) unsalted butter
60 ml (1/4 cup) Nutella
1 large egg
30 ml (2 tbsp) whole milk
5 ml (1 tsp) pure vanilla extract
45 ml (3 tbsp) granulated sugar
90 ml (6 tbsp) self-rising flour (see page C4)
Pinch of kosher salt
60 ml (1/4 cup) finely chopped hazelnuts, preferably toasted (optional)

In a large mug, combine the butter and Nutella. Microwave for 20 to 30 seconds until melted. Whisk in the egg with a fork. Stir in the milk, vanilla, and sugar. Add the flour and salt. Beat the batter until smooth. Fold in the hazelnuts.

Divide the batter between two mugs. Microwave separately for 1 to 2 minutes each until risen and firm.

Topping ideas: Whipped cream, Nutella, Marshmallow Fluff, milk chocolate ganache, caramel sauce, icing sugar, chopped hazelnuts or fresh raspberries. (From Mug Cakes, by Leslie Bilderback)

Tester's notes: I baked this recipe in small, heavy glasses, which made for good-looking cakes. I struggled with cooking times, though, and ended with one cake that was dry in the middle. Another lesson learned: the difference between baking and over-baking can be seconds.

 

Red Velvet Mug Cakes

The red velvet cake was born in the American South, though here in Canada we tend to associate it with Eaton's restaurants. Bilderback insists on red food colouring, adding that you need "to use the cheap stuff! Fancy food colouring pastes and gels don't work nearly as well."

1 large egg
45 ml (3 tbsp) vegetable oil
5 ml (1 tsp) liquid red food colouring
45 ml (3 tbsp) buttermilk
10 ml (2 tsp) pure vanilla extract
60 ml (1/4 cup) granulated sugar
30 ml (2 tbsp) unsweetened cocoa powder
60 ml (1/4 cup) self-rising flour (see below)
Pinch of kosher salt
1 ml (1/4 tsp) cider, white, white wine, or rice vinegar

In a large mug, whisk together the egg and oil with a fork. Stir in the food colouring, buttermilk, vanilla and sugar. Add the cocoa, flour, salt and vinegar. Beat the batter until smooth. Divide the batter between two mugs. Microwave separately for 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 minutes each until risen and firm.

Topping ideas: Cream cheese frosting, marshmallow fluff, whipped cream, fresh berries, red sugar sprinkles, candied pecans, or chocolate shavings. (From Mug Cakes by Leslie Bilderback.)

Tester's notes: The taste and texture were good on my first red velvet, though the presentation was way off. What seemed to me to be a regular coffee mug turned out to be oversized by the standards of the recipe, so I didn't get anything near two cakes. I did learn the value of tinkering a bit.

 

Key Lime and White Chocolate Mug Cake

1 large egg
22 ml (1 1/2 tbsp) vegetable oil
15 ml (1 tbsp) sour cream
Finely grated zest of 2 key limes or 1 regular lime
30 ml (2 tbsp) key lime or regular lime juice
60 ml (1/4 cup) granulated sugar
60 ml (1/4 cup) self-rising flour (see below)
Pinch kosher salt
60 ml (1/4 cup) white chocolate chips

Key limes, which are small and yellow and tart, can be used here, but Bilderback isn't doctrinaire. You can also substitute fresh-squeezed regular limes or even bottled lime juice.

In a large mug, whisk together the egg and oil with a fork. Stir in the sour cream, lime zest, lime juice and sugar. Add the flour and salt. Beat the batter until smooth. Divide the batter between two mugs. Microwave separately for 30 seconds each. Top each mug with half the chips, then continue to cook each mug for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes more until risen and firm.

Topping ideas: Lime glaze, lime curd, creme fraiche, shredded coconut, chopped macadamia nuts, candied lime zest or a wedge of lime. (From Mug Cakes by Leslie Bilderback.)

Tester's notes: These cakes had a good texture and a nice tart taste.

 

Self-Rising Flour

250 ml (1 cup) all-purpose flour
3 ml (3/4 tsp) baking powder
Pinch kosher salt

Whisk the ingredients together with a fork, and store in a dry, airtight container. Measure out from the batch as needed for individual mug cakes.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 6, 2013 C1

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