Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A shrine of sinful goodness: The Museum of Chocolate in Barcelona

During my spring vacation in March, I spent four scrumptious days in the enchanting atmosphere of bustling, bohemian Barcelona. The seaside beauty boasts the world-famous masterpieces of architect Antoni Gaudí, fine modern art, several stunning parks, sultry nightlife and, of course, delicious local and international cuisine.

My first couple of days were spent rambling around the touristy places, but the third had me eventually straying away from the path of inedible culture into the welcoming warmth of the Museum of Chocolate, cozily nestled off a busy street near the Park of the Citadel in Barcelona. My pleasant anticipation went through the roof as, after paying for my (presumably paper) ticket, I was handed a minibar of 72% fine dark chocolate! This was surely a promising start.

The museum, owned by the city's pastry-makers guild Gremi de Pastisseria de Barcelona, contains an impressive exhibition of printed materials, utensils and informational panels tracing the history of chocolate from the Mayan cultivation of cocoa to the present. The pleasant ambience was complete by the various chocolate replicas of famous buildings and figures from popular culture, placed along the exhibit windows.

It was a lot of fun to read the short, yet informative panels about chocolate. Would you be surprised to hear, for example, that the Swiss lead the world rankings in average annual chocolate consumption per capita - 10 kilograms! Great Britain and Germany follow with 7kg, and only then comes the US with a "modest" 5kg. And how would you react on hearing that in ancient times, when cocoa beans were used as currency, a slave cost 100 beans, and some quality time with a prostitute - only 10 beans, the same as the price of a rabbit! Now, if that isn't sexist, I don't know what is...

The museum also has touch-screen computers where visitors can browse interesting cooking traditions from around the world. I decided to check out the list of traditional cakes from Catalonia - the autonomous Spanish community whose capital is Barcelona.

For example, have you ever heard of Mona de Pascua? It is one of the best-known Catalonian cakes - a circle of brioche dough, decorated with whole hard-boiled eggs. Godparents gave the cake to their godchildren every Easter, adding one more egg each year to match the age of the child until he or she reached the age of 13. At that point, the child was considered an adult and went to Church to receive their first Communion.

On a slightly weirder note, did you know that Catalonians indulge in crackling tarts? This happens on Jeudi Gras, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. Originally, that was the last day when people could gorge on delicacies as much as they wanted before the start of Lent. Foods traditionally eaten on this day were omelettes and pork, which led to the invention of the crackling tart as an afternoon snack. It is made from puff pastry or brioche dough, covered with carved cracklings and pine nuts and slowly baked until crispy.

Or how about a scissors cake? Confectioners bake sponge cakes shaped like scissors and filled with cream to celebrate the day of Santa Llúcia, the patron saint of seamstresses. On this day, all seamstresses put on their best clothes and proudly walk along the streets, wishing everybody “God keep your eyesight!”

And how would you like a piece of "traditionally modern" steering wheel cake? People prepare it on the day of Saint Christopher, once the patron saint of mariners, but since the invention of the car - the patron saint of drivers as well. The cake is circular in shape, with a small porcelain figure of a car baked inside, which brings good luck to the one who finds it.

In short - do visit if you happen to be around! The Museum of Chocolate is open Monday to Saturday 10am-3pm, Sunday 10am-7pm, and closed on Tuesdays. And it looks like this:

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Vegan Cupcakes are Real Cupcakes

Vegan baked goods are one of those things that when you think about making them, you get a little scared. How will these cookies be able to stay together if I don't put egg in them? Will my icing be buttery and smooth without butter? Would these just be fake cupcakes, looking like a cupcake, but not tasting like one?
Or at least I got scared when I decided to try my hand at vegan cupcakes. I tried out two recipes from the book Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, the basic chocolate and the low fat vanilla cupcakes. The ingredients list for the vanilla cupcakes scared me immediately, as it asked for vanilla soy yogurt... and I had no idea one could make soy into yogurt, and I also didn't know where to find it (it turns out Whole Foods is your best bet). The chocolate cupcakes are slightly more familiar when looking at the ingredients list, just substitute wet ingredients for soy milk and canola oil.

I made a butter cream frosting for both of these cupcakes, but for the first round of cupcakes (the vanilla), I used another recipe I found online, which called for margarine shortening and granulated sugar. I should have stopped there and said, "Hold on a minute. That can't be right, you can't mix granulated sugar into shortening and make smooth icing!" But I didn't because I was so worried about messing up by not following the recipe... and so I made frosting that had the consistency of wet sand.

The vanilla cupcakes came out a little dense, probably because of the apple sauce and the yogurt. I thought they tasted a little like banana bread... despite not having bananas in them. I had others try them, and no one else thought they tasted like bananas, so it was just me. But they were still good. Not a cupcake I would want to eat every day, but good. The icing was indescribably weird, so I'm going to let you use your imagination with what the "sand icing" might have tasted like... or felt like on your tongue.

These cupcakes were not billed as low fat, and used canola oil and soy milk. And I will say right off the bat, these were some of the best cupcakes I have ever made. They were fluffy and moist, not overly sweet. Whenever I have made chocolate cupcakes in the past, they were always a little dense, and so this will be my go to chocolate cupcake recipe in the future.
For these cupcakes I made the butter cream icing from Vegan Cupcakes, which was also very good, but still what I would call, a sub par substitute for real butter cream frosting. If I were going to make these again for non-vegans, I would just put real buttercream on them. For the vegan crowd I would go for a simple confectioners sugar icing, rather than the fake buttercream.

That issue, of needing to find an adequate substitute for many things is one of the reasons I am skeptical of veganism. At some point you have to wonder if it is worth it, if you have chosen not to consume animal products, to go to such lengths to recreate the textures and tastes of, for example, butter. With that small criticism out of the way, I have to say, I am won over by vegan cupcakes at least, they are not fake food... but real food. There has got to be a better way to say that?

Photo credit: from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World

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