Cake walk

For me, one of the most memorable scenes in “Bridesmaids” was not the infamously disgusting bridal shop debacle, although that one is pretty hard to forget. It was the scene where Kristen Wiig, portraying a pastry chef, goes into her home kitchen and proceeds to bang out one of the most drop-dead gorgeous single-serving cupcakes I’ve ever seen.

I enjoy cupcakes and prefer them to ice cream if I’m going out for a sweet treat, but they’re not something I seek out on a regular basis. In fact, I have a great basic cupcake recipe that I like playing around with at home as the mood strikes me. However, my recent trip to Parcha Sweets, in conjunction with the past few episodes of Top Chef Just Desserts, has been a stark reminder me that I am indeed a mere amateur when it comes to cranking out culinary creations of the pastry variety.

Parcha Sweets exterior

When I saw Parcha Sweets open last fall in the old Domino’s Pizza building on 62nd Street just east of Broad Ripple, I thought… huh? Now, after finally making a visit nearly a year later, I get it. If you look close, you can figure out what the repainted building used to be without much trouble, but inside, you’d never guess high school hacks used to sling pies here. It’s really warm, cute and cozy. Parcha encourages customers to take a load off and relax by providing organic coffee, magazines, free Wifi, and even a small table and chairs for the kiddos, a smart move if you want to appeal to the mom crowd.

In case you’re wondering about the name, “parcha” means passion fruit in the chef’s Puerto Rican homeland. Here in Indy, she offers cookies, pies, bread pudding, old-fashioned coconut macaroons and other baked goods, but the cupcakes the real rock stars, displayed in a countertop cluster of glass cake stands. And they are gorgeous. There are about a dozen flavors to choose from daily. Some of the stands had already been depleted by the time I stopped by mid-afternoon; thankfully, there were still plenty of mouthwatering choices.

I used my book club meeting as an excuse to visit, looking for a dessert to contribute to the evening’s group. I’d read online somewhere that Parcha Sweets offered mini-cupcakes, which I thought would be a great way for us to sample several flavors each. Alas, the nice young gal who waited on me said they’d stopped making the minis because they were too difficult to package without falling over. Hmph. Well, no matter, I figured we’d just cut the full-size cupcakes into fourths. Additionally, one of the ladies in my book club has a son who’s dealing with a list of food allergies that would make your head spin. As a show of solidarity, she’s following the same restrictive diet he’s on. So with her in mind, I asked about gluten-free, vegan cupcakes (I’d also read in another online review that Parcha did these as well). Found out they’re not regularly available, either. Just for special orders, apparently.

I had trouble making selections when so many of the cupcakes looked so tempting and finally just asked the server to pick eight and box them up for me. Packaging is thoughtfully designed to preserve the integrity of the cupcakes – sturdy cardboard boxes with molded holders inside to keep those little beauties from sliding around if you take a sharp turn. And a little ribbon and sticker on the top. Pretty.

Parcha Sweets cupcakes to go

Let’s get on to the main event… here’s what we sampled and our impressions of each:

the Red Velvet

Red Velvet – the hands-down favorite of the bunch. Rich, luscious claret cake topped with a mountain of creamy cream cheese frosting. Delectable. Everyone who tasted this one loved it.

Lemon – ricotta lemon cake filled with a lemon cream and topped with lemon buttercream. Another crowd pleaser.

Peanut Salty Caramel – tasted sort of like a Snickers bar. Chocolate cake with a caramel filling, peanut butter frosting and a few chopped nuts on top for garnish. I could have eaten the peanut butter frosting with a spoon, but the cake was a little dry, and the caramel filling was a little too liquid.

Carrot – a big hit with the gals who like carrot cake. Moist and delicious with more of that yummy cream cheese frosting on top.

the Chocolate Passion

Chocolate Passion – chocolate cake with a big pile of chocolate ganache topping. Almost overkill on the chocolate, if there is such a thing. The ganache was firm on top, not soft like frosting, which kinda threw us a little bit. However, I’m positive my son would LOVE this.

Wedding Cake – got mixed reviews, but I really liked it. Creamy vanilla cake topped with what tasted like amaretto buttercream frosting. The sweet almond flavor really comes through.

the S’mores

S’mores – chocolate cake with chocolate ganache, marshmallow filling (toasted on top) and graham cracker crumbs. Good, but not great. It looked really intriguing, but we found the marshmallow a bit chewy.

Caribbean Coconut – one gal in the group really liked this one, the rest thought it was ok. The cake was a wee bit dry, but there was tons of good coconut flavor.

Parcha Sweets prices are a little steep – $2.99 for a beautiful cupcake of average size, which is a few cents higher than what you’d pay at Flying Cupcake and Holy Cow. Although you do get a 10 percent discount if you order more than six. Just make sure you don’t eat all six by yourself in one sitting. It could happen…

For more information:

http://www.parchasweets.com/

Parcha Sweets on Urbanspoon

A cheesy proposition

When hubby and I lived in Sonoma, California the year after we got married, one of our favorite things to do was to pick up a random bottle of vino from one of the local wineries and assemble a cheese board for supper. In fact, we enjoyed this whole ritual so much, we did it on a weekly basis. In California wine country, every restaurant, grocery store, corner deli and gas station (no joke) offered spectacular wine and cheese selections. Creating something incredibly delicious without even turning on the oven was a total no-brainer.

One of the more memorable cheese platters that comes to mind from that era in my life was something we enjoyed with another couple, kicking off a night out at the swanky Ledson Hotel restaurant on the Sonoma town square. I don’t recall specifics, but I have a fond fuzzy memory of fragrant, fruity red wine complemented by salty, robust blue cheese smeared on small squares of housemade walnut bread and topped with paper-thin slices of sweet, juicy pear. It was a thing of beauty. I have no idea where we went for dinner or what we ate the rest of the night, but the memory of that blue cheese and walnut bread is etched in my brain forever.

Sadly, our cheese board habit has gone the way of the dinosaurs since moving back to Indianapolis. Every now and then, we’ll get a hankering for it, but these times are few and far between. Out of sight, out of mind I suppose. I’m not even sure where to go here in town for great cheese. Valentine’s Day, we decided, marked a perfect occasion to bring our long-lost tradition back to life.

In the past, our cheese board dinners and party platter offerings have consisted of fairly standard ingredients. Two or three cheeses, water crackers or slices of baguette, nuts, olives, grapes, perhaps a sliced apple. Maybe some salumi if we’re feeling wild and crazy. That’s about it.

From what I’ve gleaned in my culinary research over the years, the general rule of thumb for cheese platters is as follows — one hard, one soft, one blue. Which breaks down into a cheddar/gouda/havarti, a brie/goat, and a gorgonzola/blue. No rocket science about it. It’s what you choose to accent the cheese that really makes the difference.

Presentation is key when it comes to cheese platters, as it is for any plate you want to appear impressive. The saying “you eat first with your eyes” is definitely true. A few extra minutes can make any item you serve so much more appealing. Stack things up in little piles. Slice your vegetables and fruits with care. Set out a couple of cute cheese slicers or cocktail spoons for serving. Include some fresh herbs for garnish. The little details count big here.

I clipped a gorgeous two-page spread from a magazine (I believe it was Bon Appetit) several months ago detailing creative cheese platter ideas, and secured it to the wall of my fridge with magnets for inspiration. It includes yummy stuff like pine nut brittle, spirals of dried citrus zest, pate and spicy red pepper jelly. In short, it looks absolutely beautiful and oh so sexy. Alas, I had serious doubts about locating many of those items in my shopping.

For tonight’s offering, here’s what I put together:  a brie (which I ended up having to toss because it smelled overwhelmingly of ammonia. Thanks for staying on top of things in the cheese section, Marsh…), a slender chunk of creamy Edam (delicious, rich and buttery), and a wedge of Maytag blue (quickly becoming a go-to for me). A bag of toasted Italian bread rounds (which screamed for some sort of flavor or seasoning), sweet-salty chunks of proscuitto-wrapped cantaloupe, smoked almonds, sliced pear, yellow pepper matchsticks and a ramekin of pickled grapes rounded out the spread.

Valentine's Day dinner cheese platter. Seriously - look how pretty it is!

The grapes are another Molly Wizenberg recipe I cribbed from her “A Homemade Life” memoir. This woman can do no wrong. The seedless grapes are basically just marinated in a vinegar and sugar concoction with some pickling spices. They were fab, almost like tangy chutney with hints of cinnamon and pepper.

pickled grapes

The wine? A friendly and knowledgeable woman at Cork and Cracker steered me toward a lovely French Fleurie red Beaujolais. I like that place more and more each time I go in; they really seem to know their stuff.

The nice thing about having a cheese board for dinner is you can eat and eat and eat without ever really feeling like you’re pigging out. It’s perfect and romantic for a date night. Finger food, feeding each other tastes of things… get the picture?? And because everything is fresh and usually heavy on fruit and fresh items, it all feels fairly healthy.

For dessert, I baked up a batch of red velvet cheesecake swirl brownies. Sadly, I have yet to master the swirl – my marbled effect usually ends up looking pretty uniform. In this case, pink. No matter. They were tasty, and I used a biscuit cutter to carve them into rounds instead of the usual squares for a little something different.

red velvet cheesecake brownie rounds

This Valentine’s Day, dear readers, I hope your lives are full of love, and your love is full of life.