Every kitchen has its strong, silent staples. I’ve certainly got my stockpile of oils and vinegars, condiments, rice, pasta, beans, butter, eggs, milk, flours, salts, and sugars, some dusty, some fusty, and all standing as ready proof of my fine Depression-era homemaker instincts. But if tomorrow brings a shortage in my stock of champagne vinegar or vermicelli, my kitchen won’t suffer. I can feel plenty satisfied without, say, Dijon mustard or basmati rice. The same cannot be said, however, for another subset of pantry regulars—the standbys that aren’t really staples, but rather steadies, those with whom I set a daily date. Without my cheese and chocolate, I’d be facing a Great Depression indeed.
As of this writing, my refrigerator contains a block of Grafton two-year cheddar, a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, another of Sini Fulvi Pecorino, the dregs of a piece of five-year Gouda, a half-eaten wedge of Point Reyes Original Blue, and a small tub of fresh, hand-dipped ricotta. You won’t find me eating them all at once—greediness is very unbecoming, or so I’m told—but I find that a sliver, or two, or three, is necessary for proper functioning. I was converted to the ways of cheese by a stern but well-meaning French host mother, and you know the word on the street: French women don’t get fat,* and by god, dear reader, I too will have my daily cheese. By the same token, my cupboard’s current chocolate lineup includes Chocolove 77% “extra strong” dark, Dolfin 88% dark, Dolfin milk chocolate with “hot masala,”** a blocky bar of Valrhona for baking, and Vosges Haut-Chocolat’s Creole and Barcelona bars,*** the sexiest of my steady sweets. We end every day together, chocolate and I, and though I harbor no illusions, I think this relationship is really headed somewhere.
But where the magic really happens is in the unlikely meeting of my two pet pantry items. While I can’t recommend a joint mouthful, chocolate and blue cheeses, for example, could be united by a shared affinity for port, and I’d venture to guess that, given the right setting, a chunk of caramelly aged Gouda might welcome a chaser of dark chocolate. And certainly, cream cheese and chocolate are no strangers. But the holy union I’m really after, dear patient reader, is a double chocolate cupcake with ricotta, bourbon, and orange zest.
Deep brown with cocoa, rich and tender, each fist-sized cake holds a well of creamy ricotta sexed up with bourbon and bitter orange, with a few chocolate chips for good measure. Swirled together, the ricotta and chocolate each make the other something better: the soft dairy richness of the fresh cheese gains depth from dark chocolate, and the chocolate’s sincere, not-too-sweetness borrows intrigue from the boozy ricotta.
With a dozen of these on the counter, the kitchen fills with a complex, almost spicy warmth, enough to make the most well-endowed cabinet of rice and pasta look downright sad. Every kitchen needs its strong, silent staples, yes, but things are so much more interesting when you’re going steady.
Double Chocolate Cupcakes with Ricotta, Bourbon, and Orange Zest
Adapted from Gourmet
In addition to the chocolate and ricotta, it doesn’t hurt that this recipe features a hit of booze, which—judging by the contents of this blog—seems to be a staple on its way to steadydom. And with chilly weather settling over the land, the orange zest is a nod to winter’s promised citrus. These cupcakes are at their melty, moist, aromatic best when still slightly warm from the oven, although they are more than passable up to three days after baking, sealed in an airtight container or heavy plastic bag. I took a half-dozen day-old cupcakes to work one day, and they had all disappeared by 10 am, with plenty of swoony gratitude from my coworkers.
For ricotta mixture:
1 cup fresh whole-milk ricotta
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg white
1 Tbs good-quality bourbon
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
½ cup good-quality semisweet chocolate chips
A pinch of salt
For cupcake batter:
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup canola oil
½ cup milk (any fat content is fine)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 Tbs distilled white vinegar
1 Tbs pure vanilla extract
¼ tsp orange-flower water
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 12-well muffin tin with paper liners.
In a medium bowl, whisk together all ricotta mixture ingredients. Place the mixture in the refrigerator to chill.
Place a good-sized sieve over a large bowl, and put the flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt, and sugar into the sieve. Shake the sieve to filter the dry ingredients through into the bowl. Whisk to combine them thoroughly.
In a separate small bowl, whisk together the oil, milk, egg, vinegar, vanilla, and orange-flower water; then add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients in the large bowl, stirring to just combine. Do not overmix.
Spoon a generous heaping tablespoon of the chocolate batter into each muffin cup. Top the chocolate batter with a rounded tablespoon of the ricotta mixture, followed by another rounded tablespoon of the chocolate batter. You should have just enough chocolate batter for 12 cupcakes, although you will likely have leftover ricotta. [Sorry about that.] Holding a paring knife point-down, swirl the tip of the knife through the batter in each cup in a figure-eight pattern to marble the batter.
Bake the cupcakes in the middle of the oven until a toothpick or thin knife inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean, about 30-35 minutes. Cool them in the pan on a rack; then gently unmold and serve.
Yield: 12 cupcakes