In the scone zone

I have a couple go-to recipes that I, uh, go to when it comes to baked goods. Through a long process of trial and error, I am proud to say I have pretty much perfected three treats – chocolate chip cookies, mini-cupcakes and scones.

My secret to great chocolate chip cookies is the use of brown sugar instead of white and the addition of a box of instant pudding mix to the batter. That and not overbaking them. I like my cookies soft, not crunchy, and these three things seem to do the trick. Plus, you can experiment with different pudding flavors for interesting combinations. Banana flavored pudding with the chocolate chips and some pecans thrown in makes for an especially tasty cookie.

For the cupcakes, I rely on Ina Garten. Any recipe of hers that I’ve made has been fabulous, primarily because she is not at all shy about butter. I was introduced to her delicious coconut cupcake recipe four or five years ago, the first time I assisted my chef friend Jennifer. She made them as part of a dessert buffet for a wedding dinner she was catering, and they were a relevation. The mini-versions were adorable, tasty and looked perfectly bridal with their little white caps of shredded coconut. I’ve been using the basic buttermilk-batter cake recipe ever since and tweaked it with all different kinds of additions – vanilla bean and coffee, crushed oreo cookies, peanut butter and mini chocolate chips to name just a few. It’s never let me down. I always make the mini versions because at parties and on buffets, a full-size cupcake can be something of a commitment. Plus, you can eat three or four of the mini-cupcakes without feeling guilty.

Thinking back, I’m not sure when I first became acquainted with scones. They’re still not always an immediately recognizable¬†item here in Indiana, I find. Many people have only come across them in the glass counter at Starbucks. Having had real-deal scones in England, I can tell you that the versions you get here in America aren’t quite the same, as is usually the case. (My husband would argue that the European version is better, of course, but that’s a whole other blog…)

Basically, scones are like a triangular sweet biscuit. My default scone recipe comes courtesy of Semi-Homemade by Sandra Lee. Not one of my favorite Food Network shows or personalities, but I happened to spot her making these years ago, downloaded the recipe and have been using it to great success ever since. I don’t think I can post the recipe here due to copyright reasons, but you can find it under “Mocha Chip Scones” on the Food Network web site if you’re so inclined to look it up.

Sandra’s scones are pretty easy to make, as you’d imagine according to the name of the show. You use Bisquick baking mix to simplify things for yourself. Not that it’s exactly strenuous to measure out flour, baking soda and salt, but whatever. You simple create the dough, pat it out by hand into a large disk on a floured board, cut it into wedges and bake. You can brush the scones with egg wash and sprinkle them with sanding sugar to make them really pretty, if you’re so inclined. If you’re feeling lazy, you could probably just drop the dough by large spoonfuls onto the baking sheet. Either way, they turn out yummy and are perfect for dunking into a cup of coffee.

Again, once you get the basic recipe down pat, it’s super easy to tweak it according to your own tastes and preferences. Sometimes, I’ll leave out the coffee and throw in orange zest instead. Or drizzle them with sugar glaze or ganache. I once tasted a chocolate chip and rosemary scone at Tulip Noir that was fabulous. You can also make savory versions with cheese, herbs and spices for a great alternative to boring old garlic bread.

Here’s my latest scone effort – chocolate chunk and cranberry. Ever the purist, hubby turned up his nose at the cranberries and picked them out, but I thought they were great and very Christmasy.

Chocolate chip cranberry scones

Speaking of Christmas, still trying to decide what to make for dinner tomorrow… guess I’d better get to work scouring the cookbooks. Ta!

Tiptoe, through the Tulip…

For several weeks now, my friend Alison has been raving about and recommending I try this new cafe called Tulip Noir on 86th Street. When another friend said she’d been there this week and it was great, I decided I’d waited long enough. Hubby and I finally made it up for lunch the other day and I’m pleased to report it IS all that.

The cafe is located in an old My Favorite Muffin joint, but it bears no resemblance to anything so pedestrian or cookie-cutter now. The place has been gutted and is now dressed in shades of calming blues and greens. It’s so clean, it almost feels sterile. Not that this is a bad thing when you’re in a dining establishment. It’s more clean and pristine in a Japanese Zen kind of way – not exactly cozy, but still very soothing and comfortable at the same time.

Tulip Noir is only open for breakfast and lunch. There’s not a ton of seating, so I figured it might be hard to get a table after a rave review published in the current issue of Indianapolis Monthly, but we got there around 1 p.m. and were led to a table immediately, no waiting. They were also very gracious about accommodating us with a high chair, as we had baby in tow.

The first thing my husband noticed was that he was the only man in the place. There definitely is a feminine vibe here; it’s a perfect place for ladies who lunch, especially rich, Carmelite ladies judging from the looks of the clientele. (I predict this place will be packed to the gills on Mother’s Day…)

The owner of Tulip Noir, a former interior designer, has obviously put a lot of thought and creativity into her cafe, and the menu choices reflect her careful attention to detail as much as the decor does. The menu changes seasonally, and all items are organic with a health-conscious spin. This is not to say there is any skimpage on flavor. Au contraire, mon frere. Think Omega-3 egg omelets with spinach, tomato, salsa and cumin; rosemary pepper bacon strips; mini whole-wheat “pan-cakeys” with almonds, bananas, powdered sugar and honey; and a breakfast salad with greens, strawberries and pecans in a citrus vinaigrette. And that’s just the breakfast menu. For lunch, you can choose from soups and salads (every last bite made in-house right down to the fresh dressings); grilled paninis, salads and a whole-wheat veggie quesadilla with avocado sauce.

I was tempted to try to the asparagus mushroom crepe with goat cheese, and the broccoli cauliflower fritters with gorgonzola creme fraiche also caught my eye, but I couldn’t resist ordering the grilled peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat with apple slices and crystallized ginger. It arrived all melty and gooey, as any good grilled sandwich should, with peanut butter oozing out the sides at every bite. It was good, but it could have used a little heavier hand with the apple and ginger. Most bites, all I could taste was P.B. I also got a little bit of mixed green salad alongside my sandwich. I thought fruit might have gone better with the peanut butter, but I wasn’t unhappy with the greens – they were very fresh and the slightly sweet acidic vinaigrette actually cut through the heaviness of the peanut butter quite nicely.

Hubby ordered the lemon garlic chicken ciabatta sandwich with dill, provolone cheese, tomato and avocado sauce; and a side of the same salad that I got. He pronounced it all very tasty.

To drink, we ordered off the fairly extensive tea menu, which breaks down options by caffeine content. There’s also a small selection of coffees, along with spritzers, smoothies and lemonade. I chose a Relaxation Blend tisane, a caffeine-free mix of chamomile and mint leaves that’s steeped just like a tea. In a terribly anti-Irish move, hubby ordered the Old Black Magic coffee, but I promise not to tell his family back home.

Again, no detail is forgotten here. We each received a small taste of the tea of the day – the tropical fruity “I Dream of Maui” – in tiny ceramic cups. When the tea and coffee were delivered to the table, each still brewing in its own small pot and French press respectively, the server also dropped off a ticking electronic egg timer so we’d know exactly when our quaffs had reached the optimal degree of flavor before pouring. Nice. Very nice.

There’s also a really cool tea bar (not a coffee bar, a TEA bar) that looks like something out of Star Trek – a funky modern halfmoon of seats where diners can be fussed over as they watch the mystical concoctions being prepared before their very eyes.

Throughout the meal, our server struck just the right chord – friendly and welcoming without being oversolicitous or insincere.

I wished we’d saved room for dessert. Next time. And there definitely will be a next time.

Tulip Noir, http://www.tulipnoircafe.com