Saturday, July 31, 2010

Owl Cupcakes

My cupcakes made the Foodbuzz Top 9!

A few weeks ago was my middle sister's 21st birthday! One of the ways I helped her celebrate was to surprise her with homemade cookies & cream cupcakes in the shape of her favorite animal, the owl.

I stuffed them full of as many organic cream cookies as I could - on the bottom of the cupcake, in the batter, in the icing, and of course cookies for eyes. They were a big hit! The cupcake was dense, but not overly sweet and the icing was also not too sugary. We lounged around the pool while eating these cute treats without a care in the world.

The cupcake recipe is from Annie's Eats, but I used all organic ingredients and 2 boxes of Newman's organic cream cookies. And the frosting recipe is from The Pioneer Woman, also all organic ingredients, and I just added 6 tablespoons of crushed cookie from the leftover halves of the cookies that I crushed in my spice grinder. I bought a new 11-wire whisk for my Kitchenaid mixer and used it for the first time to make the frosting, but it immediately made butter. Oops. I was so shocked at the immediate transformation that I forgot to take photos of the frosting, but these cupcakes were easy and didn't take long to make. At least I found a faster way to make butter! I put the leftover frosting in a plastic bag with a piping tip attached and piped on the little feathers and eyes. The beak is a piece of saltless mini-pretzels. These cupcakes are a great treat, even without the extra steps to turn them into cute little owls.

Happy 21st Birthday, Kate!

Update: Visit my Flickr album to get step-by-step photos of making the cupcakes!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Foodbuzz 24x24: Gulf Seafood Beachside

As seen on MSNBC News.

When Foodbuzz announced this month's 24x24 event was going to be a special contribution to the Gulf oil spill relief, I knew I had to get involved as a Florida Panhandle resident. Foodbuzz selected 24 Featured Publishers to focus on Gulf seafood and is donating $250 per blogger to the Greater New Orleans Foundation for relief efforts which will directly support fishermen and their families affected by the spill. I am thrilled Foodbuzz selected me as a Gulf Ambassador for this special event and chose my submission to cook a five course Gulf seafood meal on the beach in Cape San Blas, FL! 

I chose Cape San Blas, FL, for several reasons. Not only was it named the best beach in America in 2002, but it is one of the few beaches in the United States that still allows campfires, and dogs to play off leash in the beautiful white sand and rolling waves. Cape San Blas is one of the few locations in Florida where you can hunt for a delicious and rare shellfish, the scallop, in the green grassy waters of St. Joseph's Bay. Scalloping is not open to commercial fisheries, so Florida residents and visitors are able to go snorkeling in clean waters to collect scallops for their lunch or dinner. The Cape is also a beach famous for nesting sea turtles which creep onto the beach at night to lay their eggs. It is not uncommon to see dolphins splashing about just offshore, or families walk down to the water to catch some fresh seafood for dinner. Plus, just yards away opposite the Gulf, a plethora of fresh water wildlife is thriving. Alligators wade among the shores and in the depths of the rivers, as well as rare fish and birds. Kayaking in the Florida Panhandle's rivers and lakes will allow ample opportunity to see how wildlife mixes at the brink where the rivers meet the sea. The Cape is a rare place where an entire ecosystem can be witnessed in such a small, beautiful area.

However, it is currently at the cusp of the oil spill according to the most recent NOAA map.

Thankfully, it remains untouched at this time from the oil spill. Yet, how long this will last remains unknown. It's possible future current movements could spread the oil, or a hurricane could wash more oil into unaffected areas. The length of time cleanup takes makes these possibilities likely, and vast amounts of wildlife and towns will be greatly harmed for long periods of time.

To get a better perspective on how fishermen are coping with the oil spill, I asked the Tallahassee region's best seafood shop, Southern Seafood Market, how their suppliers are coping with the oil spill. The Vice President of the company, Matt McCreless, took some time out of his hectic schedule to answer a few questions and give perspective on this crisis.

The Southern Seafood Market has been serving the greater Tallahassee since the autumn of 1991, and still has an original owner. Each week the market provides between 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of fresh Gulf seafood to nearly 1,000 customers! 

The seafood arrives daily and is stocked based on customer need, so the market maintains a wide variety of seafood from Gulf grouper and snapper, to Gulf oysters and scallops, and even to a broader availability of popular items from other areas, such as Maine lobster. 

The fishermen are usually in parties of two to six people, which have individual contracts of supplying seafood to local markets. They may have their own commercial vessel or contract another party's seafood boat. Luckily, for this part of the Panhandle, Matt says their fishermen have not yet been affected. Their suppliers fish from Carrabelle, FL eastward, which has remained outside of the oil spill area. The government has only closed 24% of the Gulf which is fishable, while the rest remains untainted at this time.

I asked if the fishermen in this area had ever seen a crisis like this, and Matt said no. The Ixtoc I oil spill of 1979, while still very lethal to the Gulf ecosystem, was not as catastrophic as Deepwater Horizon. Matt said a hurricane season may wipe out a population of fish or other sea life and cause a bad year for fishermen and seafood markets, but those are natural disasters and sea life almost always repairs itself by the next fishing season. Fishermen have always been at the mercy of the weather to determine the catch of the day, but no alternative exists if oil reaches the rest of the Gulf. It's not just the oil, Matt stated, that would devastate this area, but the chemicals and other harmful practices that are performed in an attempt to clean up the spill. Many fishermen who have already lost their livelihoods due to the oil spill have decided to help clean up, which ironically leaves less of an opportunity to finish gathering up the seafood that remains unaffected at this time.

From a personal perspective, the best thing you can do is to continue to buy local seafood and support local business that purchase Gulf seafood. At the Southern Seafood Market, prices have not gone up as a result of the oil spill. The Southern Seafood Market are experts in seafood and sell high quality products. They take the time to answer any questions a customer may have and are confident in the quality of their Gulf seafood. They are held to high standards and maintain strict documentation under official guidelines, and were even chosen as one of Florida's seafood markets to have a live streaming webcam installed so consumers could see that Florida is still producing safe, quality seafood. 

From sea life that are natural filters to the fish and larger mammals that call the Gulf home - all will be affected by this unprecedented human catastrophe. The question remains how far it will spread and what will be the results.

When I approached Matt about this Foodbuzz 24x24 event, he generously agreed to donate the seafood needed for the meal. I have been a customer of theirs for years now (like for my Chilean Sea Bass post), and they never cease to amaze me with their expertise, quality seafood, and kindness. My experiences at the market have always been pleasant and they have never been less than gentlemen. I encourage you to shop for fresh Gulf seafood at the Southern Seafood Market if you are ever in the area. Thank you to Matt and the guys at the market for your hospitality and tasty seafood.

Before collecting seafood for this event, I asked Matt what his favorite Gulf seafood dish is, which he replied without hesitating as grilled red snapper. He added that it's actually a fried grouper sandwich, but that's an indulgence on rare occasions. Matt helped influence my meal by consulting on which items from the Gulf are famous for their quality and unique taste. First, he provided fresh Gulf oysters, which live in one of the best area in the world to thrive and develop a beautiful flavor, as well as some delicious clams. Next, I asked for alligator tail, which is a firm, white meat with a smooth, earthy flavor. While alligators are fresh water mammals, they are directly connected in Florida's ecosystem to the Gulf and demonstrate how delicate nature's balance can be. Then came the Gulf Scamp Grouper - one of the finest pieces of fish from the Gulf! And last, but not least, were Gulf shrimp, which are some of the best around. My finalized meal for cooking seafood on a Gulf beach became: Steamed Gulf Oysters and Clams, Grilled Alligator Tail, Broiled Scamp Grouper over Gumbo with Rice, Southern Shrimp & Grits, and S'mores for dessert.

As I made my way home with the seafood, I confirmed my plans for the next day with my friends who would be helping me - Hilary, Jenn, and Pam. I knew I wouldn't have enough time to prepare such a large feast without help, plus I wanted to share this experience and delicious seafood with my friends. Hilary and I would head out to The Cape first to start the fire and begin cooking, then Jenn & Pam would arrive shortly after to help finish cooking and enjoy the feast with us. I decided to prepare the vegetables at home the night before to save time and keep our food safe since we would have a limited work surface - just enough for the seafood to be prepared on site. The girls packed up their supplies needed to keep the fire going and provide a little comfort for us to enjoy the view. 

However, a storm was brewing - literally - which seemed to threaten our plans for this event called Tropical Storm Bonnie. Now, as a Floridian, tropical storms are usually no different than a hard rain, so these events are usually overlooked. However, campfires on the beach are not possible whether it's a little rain or a lot, so I was concerned about the path of this storm getting in the way. I couldn't change locations since I was bringing my dog and I wanted to see how The Cape was doing so close to the closed federal boundary of the oil spill (not literally on the edge of the spill though since the boundaries are generously drawn for safety reasons). The storm didn't appear to be gaining force and the rains might pass through The Cape quickly, so I had a feeling we'd be ok. I met Hilary south of Tallahassee at noon the next day and we set off for the beach.

The Cape is a two hour drive, so we soon came to US 319/98 which is set just yards away from the Gulf. It's a beautiful drive between cypress and palm trees, looking out over the vast blue-green sea. The slower pace and old world vibe brings about a calm feeling so you can just take it easy for a while. Things were going as planned until we were 45 minutes from The Cape. We had run into Bonnie and she was feistier than expected. Hilary had the foresight to stop and put the wood inside the truck so it wasn't soaked when we got to the beach. However, about 15 minutes more of driving, barely able to see the road ahead, began to make her nervous. She was ::thisclose:: to turning around, convinced we wouldn't be able to pull it off, but I somehow talked her into continuing. I just had a good feeling The Cape would be storm free (and looking at the weather map on my phone helped a little, too).

As we forged ahead, the weather began to give way to clearer skies just 10 minutes from The Cape. The area had already received its hard rain, so it was blue skies, white sand, and calm waves for the rest of the day. Hilary looked relieved and immediately started building our campfire, while I unpacked all our supplies.

This was my dog Aurora's first trip to the beach and she just didn't know what to do with herself. All that open sand to run around on and waves to catch was just too much fun. With other people on the beach and the possibility of a car driving past, she stayed on her leash for most of the day and kept busy digging a hole to stay cool, while watching everything going on around her. I was thinking how sad it would be if we lived further west where taking her to the beach isn't possible at the moment, but I tried to put it out of my mind and focus on the task at hand. 

I did notice one ship out at sea, but I wasn't sure if it was a fishing vessel or not. It was the only one out this day. 

We had untreated wood and natural charcoal pieces, so they caught fire rapidly. The sweet, smokey flames began to mix with the salt sea air - a natural, wild smell I hadn't enjoyed in quite some time. My excitement for the day's event began to build. 

I decided to go ahead and throw the oysters onto the grill so we could start snacking, plus I just couldn't wait any longer to sink my teeth into them. While they were steaming, I skewered the alligator tail that had been marinating all day in a spice mix to give them a livelier flavor. The oysters began dropping their juices into the flames, popping and hissing, so we knew it was time to dig in. 

We grabbed the tongs and pulled them off of the grill, and with our handy screwdriver tool, we dabbed on a little butter and slide them into our mouths. The smooth, juicy oysters are just unlike any other shellfish, with their hints of mellow salty sea. Deliciousness. 

I set the alligator tail on the grill as my appetite was beginning to grow. 

As I was pulling the cooked gator off the grill, Jenn and Pam arrived. They were all suited up for the beach, but had arrived just in time for the main cooking event.

We steamed the clams before forging on to the larger dishes. I took a "break" to clean the shrimp and enjoy just being in the sun at the beach.

I made myself as comfortable as I could by the campfire to do most of the cooking, while my friends handed me ingredients, called out recipes, and finished some of the dishes. Hilary and I had started the rice and grits earlier, but they actually cooked more swiftly than we had anticipated. They pulled them off the fire and finished adding ingredients to the grits while I got the gumbo going. I quickly ran out of room in my pot, so we grabbed the larger one the rice had been in to allow the vegetables to cook down for a bit. Next, I cooked the shrimp and the sauce for the grits in separate pans. The air was beginning to fill with a variety of amazing smells from our seafood feast. Finally, I placed the grouper on the grill to cook while we began plating and setting the table. At last our Gulf seafood feast was ready for us to indulge.


We sat down to enjoy the gorgeous view and delicious seafood feast. We were lucky to have a beautiful day, a variety of Gulf seafood, and friends to share it with. Our appetites had been whet by the juicy Gulf oysters and clams earlier in the day that were dripping with a taste of the sea, and the alligator tail was a beautiful, mild piece of flesh that melted in our mouths; the spices added were a true taste of a Southern delicacy. Our main entrées were heavenly. The Southern shrimp & grits with a roux sauce were some of the best I'd ever had, which is pleasantly surprising considering the simplicity of the campfire infused a smokey aroma into the cheese grits. The shrimp were perfectly cooked a bright pink and helped melt our troubles away. The grouper was amazing over the rice and gumbo, which balanced out the seafood flavors. This meal was simply astounding. We barely remembered to save room for dessert and slowly gathered around the fire to begin roasting our marshmallows. 

The sunset began to create a beautiful evening mood.

As everyone slowly headed home after a busy day, my dog and I stayed behind to watch the sun go down. It was a peaceful time with no one else around and gave me time to reflect on what we had accomplished and what the future holds for the Gulf, its wildlife, and the people who rely on it for their livelihood. I understand some items we all rely on may require oil, but we have moved past the need for it to fuel the majority of our machines and the like. The devastation caused by drilling, operating, and extracting the oil from the earth, as well as its damage to the environment during its use, is not necessary. The people who rely on their livelihood in those areas could use their expertise in "modern" fuel sources, such as solar and wind energy, which I have personally seen used successfully. These methods can replace some items we currently use oil for, and not only are they equally powerful, but they are often more so, not to mention cleaner for us and our ecosystems. 

I would like to say thank you to Foodbuzz for not only making this event possible, but for their support of the Greater New Orleans Foundation and families affected by the oil spill. Thank you to Matt at the Southern Seafood Market for donating the delicious seafood we enjoyed for this event. And last, but certainly not least, I just wanted to say a special thank you to Hilary, Jenn, and Pam for helping make my Foodbuzz 24x24 event flawless with their tireless efforts. 

I hope you have enjoyed sharing this event with me. I encourage you to continue to enjoy the seafood from the Gulf since mature sea life in unaffected areas are still safe to eat. Continue to support your local fishermen and seafood markets, as well as the restaurants that prepare their catches. I hope I've inspired you to try some new seafood dishes, as well as some classics. Bon appétit!


Grilled Alligator Tail
2 tbsp paprika
2 tbsp Italian seasonings
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp pepper
4 ounces alligator tail

In a small bowl, mix all the seasonings, then add the alligator tail and mix well to coat. Skewer the alligator tail and cook for 5-7 min over high heat, or cook in a shallow pan with a little butter or oil until cooked.

Gumbo & Rice

Printable Recipe
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 all-purpose flour
1 large yellow onion, diced
4 large celery stalks, roughly chopped
2 large green bell peppers, roughly chopped
salt & pepper
1 tbsp minced garlic
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp Italian seasoning
3 cups tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 lb okra, sliced
3 bay leaves
3 green onions, diced
2 cups chicken broth
Four cups of steamed white rice

In a large pot over medium-high heat, warm the oil, then add the flour and stir constantly until the roux turns a light brown. 

Add the onions through garlic and cook until the onions turn translucent. 

Next, add the cayenne pepper through green onions and cook for 7 min. Then add the chicken stock and scrap the bottom of the pan to remove any browned ingredients. Allow to simmer for 30 min. Taste the gumbo and adjust the level of seasonings if desired. Spoon the cooked rice into a bowl and top with gumbo.

Shrimp & Grits

2 cups chicken broth
2 tbsp butter
1 cup grits
1 tbsp tomato paste
3/4 cup heavy cream
3 1/2 ounces smoked Gouda


2 tbsp butter
1 1/2 lbs Gulf shrimp
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
pepper to taste


2 tbsp butter
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp garlic, minced
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

Prepare the grits by bringing the chicken broth and butter to a boil, then add the grits and lower the heat to medium. Allow the grits to cook for 30 min, then stir in the remaining ingredients.

Once the grits are prepared, place a shallow pan over the burner and add the butter for the shrimp. Once melted, add the shrimp through pepper and cook for 5 min until the shrimp are cooked.

While the shrimp are cooling, prepare the sauce in the same shallow pan over medium heat. Add the butter and flour to create a light brown roux, then add the remaining ingredients and cook until the sauce begins to coat the back of a spoon.

To plate, add the grits, sauce, then shrimp and serve.

~Adapted from Joe Barnett's recipe on the Food Network.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Foodie Fights 2010: Battle 11 - Sweet Potato & Coffee: Sweet Potato Coffee Cake

Foodie Fights! I've been waiting to do battle for months and finally got a chance to sign up and was chosen for Battle 11 - Sweet Potato and Coffee. My recipe is up against 5 other food bloggers to see who will be declared the winner! This is like an online version of 'Chopped'. Make sure to visit the Foodie Fights website and vote for my creation!

I love using sweet potatoes since they are one of Guy's favorite ingredients. He's had all kinds of sweet potato creations so I'm constantly looking for new ways to use them. Since coffee was the second required ingredient, I immediately thought of coffee cake. We have not paired those two together before, and it sounded delicious!

I had so much fun making this coffee cake from scratch. I had to start with two large sweet potatoes and prepare them for mashing. I cut them up into little pieces to make boiling go faster, plus it was going to get mashed up anyway! Boil the sweet potatoes on high for 30 min, drain off the water, then mash with a slotted spoon or fork.

The next important step is to drain the excess water from the sweet potatoes so the coffee cake isn't soupy.

Place a towel on the counter, then several paper towels and scoop the mashed sweet potatoes on top. Next add another layer of paper towels and a second hand towel on top. Press down gently to spread the sweet potatoes thinly and drain the water.

The next step was the grind the coffee to use in the center layer of the cake. I chose an organic coffee named "Danish Pastry" since it was a mild roast with a sweet aroma.

The house was starting to smell really good! Now it was time to start assembling the layers for the coffee cake...

Sweet Potato Coffee Cake
Printable Recipe


3/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tbsp ground coffee (Danish Pastry)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp vanilla

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and set aside.


1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup turbinado
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/3 cup butter, melted

Mix all the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Melt the butter in a small pan, then pour over the dry ingredients and mix well. Set aside.


3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup or 1 stick of butter
1 cup turbinado
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup mashed sweet potatoes

Preheat the oven to 375*F, making sure a rack is in the center of the oven, and butter a 9" baking pan.

In a medium bowl, mix together the dry ingredients of flour through salt and set aside. In a mixer, blend together the butter and turbinado. Next add the eggs one at a time, and then mix in the milk, oil, vanilla, and sour cream. Then add the sweet potatoes.

Next, slowly add the dry ingredients until just incorporated.

Pour half the batter into the greased pan, then spread all the filling evenly over the batter.

Then pour the remaining batter into the pan and spread evenly. Add all the streusel on top and spread to cover the entire cake.

Place in the oven and bake for 90 min.

Allow coffee cake to cool before cutting.

Mmmm, sweet potato coffee cake. The house filled with such a divine smell, our mouths were watering and the cake couldn't cool off fast enough for us to dig in.

The title may not be flashy, but the taste sure is. You can smell the cardamom and nutmeg melding with the coffee and milder sweet potato before you even take a bite. The coffee and sweet potato are not lost in the cake and are able to create a marriage of flavor with each other and the spices. The streusel and filling satisfy your craving for something crunchy, hitting those bits of coffee, while your teeth sink slowly through the smooth sweet potato cake. Oh, it's heavenly!

The center filling left a beautiful, fragrant swirl through the middle of the sweet, dense cake.

Wanna bite?

Thank you for viewing my entry for Battle 11 - Sweet Potato & Coffee. Please visit the Foodie Fights website and vote for me!