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The Girl Scouts are coming!

10 nine year olds want to visit a place called Sugarland? Shocking, I know, but Sugarland played hostess to Girl Scout troop number 1714 yesterday afternoon and, amazingly, ten nine year olds surrounded by all that sugar at 4:00 in the afternoon did not create the sugar-high induced frenzy you might imagine. Many thanks to organizers and chaperones Nancy Graves, Shari Fischer, Susan Prytherch, Laura Conner and Kerry Zellmer who arranged the visit in order to support these girls and encourage them to explore multiple career options. The girls learned more about becoming pastry chef by visiting the Sugarland kitchen and chatting with Owner and Executive Chef Katrina!

A captive audience waiting for some sugar!

The visit started with introductions by name and favorite cupcake or ice cream flavor.  Surprisingly to this lifelong cake devotee, we had a lot of mint chocolate chip ice cream fans! Following our round of introductions, Katrina explained the difference between gelato and American ice cream (check out our previous post on the subject for a detailed explanation yourself!), as well as the history of Italian gelato making (did you know the first gelato started with Italian Alpine snow? Neither did I.).

Katrina explains the difference between Italian gelato and American ice cream

Next we moved to the hub of Sugarland, the kitchen, where the girls learned about fondant and got their own chunk to mold and taste as they saw fit. For the record, I think fondant tastes like the inside of an Oreo and our fondant might taste a little better than the last fondant you peeled off a piece of wedding cake. Ours is rolled much more thinly than fondant often is and imported to boot, because Europeans make everything taste better.

Playing with fondant

Our visit concluded in the back of Sugarland kitchen where the girls got to take a look at our Sugarland-sized mixers, ovens, sinks, and cookie sheets.

Q & A time with Katrina

Afterwards, the girls enjoyed their very own gelato mini cones as a sweet conclusion to a sweet visit and a complimentary Sugardough for their next, because you can never try too many cupcakes or gelato flavors!

Why Sugarland treats taste best at Sugarland!

The problem with every attempt to recreate your favorite bakery treats at home lies in that magical middle ground in baking, where eggs, sugar, butter and fat  combine in myriad ways with countless small variations in quantity and technique to produce treats that are either tender or firm, chewy or crisp, unctuous (one of my favorite food words to describe food!) or…actually, I don’t know what the opposite of unctuous is, but you get the idea.  Tiny tweaks in not only ingredients but also technique can produce vastly varying results.  That’s part of the reason why you probably never will make biscuits that taste just like Grandma’s-how can you write down how much pressure Grandma used when patting out the dough or exactly how much flour she used when making biscuits for company as opposed to just the family?

Sugarland recently was asked to contribute a recipe to the Carolina edition of the “Signature Tastes” cookbook series, which compiles recipes from the most loved restaurants and eateries across the nation for use by home bakers.You may have seen the Charlotte edition on bookstore shelves after its early September release, keep your eyes and ears open to catch the release of the Carolina edition!

We decided to submit our best Southern-lady dessert, Sugarland Caramel Pecan Bars. You’ve probably seen them in the case. Perhaps you’ve overlooked them and opted for a cup of gelato or a cupcake instead.  Understandable. Next time you get a hankering for something just pure and simple and delicious, however, I can’t think of a better fix than our pecan bars.

Converting Sugarland’s recipe for a bakery-sized sheet pan full of pecan bars down to a 9×9 pan for the appropriate number of servings for you and three or four of your closest friends is a task easier said than done, as I soon learned. The Caramel Pecan Bars are basically a French caramel on top of a browned butter shortbread crust packed full of pecans. I absolutely love how crisp the crust stays against the firm (not gooey) caramel and the chunks of salty, crunchy pecans throughout. I eagerly volunteered to recipe test, not yet envisioning the pounds of butter and gobs of caramel awaiting me.

The Sugarland “bible,” steel-bound to protect it from batter splatters and packed with Sugarland-developed and Sugarland-tested recipes, shown in its natural environment.

First came the Herculean task of scaling down the recipe from a bakery-sized full sheet pan to a wee 9×9, converting ounces and grams to cups and teaspoons in the process.  While I consider myself fairly adept with numbers I was an English major for a reason. Fortunately, after observing Katrina deftly slicing quantities in half and half again, converting ounces to teaspoons in her head before I could blink, I firmly believe she truly could convert recipes in her sleep.  After a few swift calculations I left with the raw script I needed to try and recreate the work of Sugarland’s kitchen in my own tiny rental kitchen.

It’s a technically simple recipe and one well suited to home bakers, but that didn’t stop me from taking three solid tries to produce bars which came close to the ones we sell at the store.  Owing more to the pound-plus of butter in the recipe than to my culinary abilities, my first attempt turned out reasonably tasty bars but with a disappointingly soggy crust, therefore losing more than half of the appeal of the bars for me. I attributed this first failure to the difference between Sugarland’s beautifully calibrated convection ovens (an oven fitted with a fan which ensures that the heat circulates evenly throughout and the entire oven stays at the same temperature) and my electrical unit circa 1985.

Oh, you beautiful Blodgett, you, if I could have just one of you in my kitchen I would be so happy….

I took them to a Labor Day cookout and they were gobbled up and raved about but I definitely played the part of the perfectionist chef when I insisted that they “didn’t turn out quite right.” On my second attempt I cranked the oven up and baked the bars dangerously longer than the just-a-hint-of-golden-brown at which I usually take shortbread out of the oven, turned out a crisp crust all right but I also managed to turn the caramel in the bars themselves into a slab of cement.

Even the caramel itself is a simple stovetop caramel which therefore doesn’t need to be baked until it looks like a fully cooked pecan pie, thus the cement.  My third attempt, you’ll be happy to know, turned out a reasonable approximation of our pecan caramel bars: smooth, unctuous filling (there it is!), perfectly crisp crust, and crispy crunchy pecans galore.  They definitely aren’t quite as good as ours, but until I move into the Sugarland kitchen and hire one of our bakers as my personal chef, I think it’s as close as I’m going to get.

House wedding not your style? Think again.

You obviously haven’t seen some of the houses in the Triangle. Not private McMansions, mind you, but beautifully restored, one of a kind homes available to rent.  One of the fun perks of my job (besides ginger fig cupcakes and Chai lattes at 3 in the afternoon) is visiting wedding venues in the Triangle area and imagining all the wedding possibilities in the wide array of spaces. An eligible young lady like myself just can’t help it sometimes.  Recently I have had the opportunity of visiting several houses-turned-wedding venues which offer something a little bit like home for out of town guests and their hosts alike.

Rock Quarry Farm is one such space, definitely a hidden gem located on that long lonely portion of Hwy 54W stretching all the way to Greensboro.

When I lived in Carrboro I loved ambling down that stretch of road because in twenty minutes of driving I could feel like I was hours away in Everetts or Alligator or Lizard Lick (it’s true! Google map it!). Those are just a few of the towns I passed on my way to the Outer Banks this past weekend which I had never heard of before and I can’t imagine I would hear anytime in the near future. Don’t let Rock Quarry farm’s bare-bones website or lone exterior shot fool you: the unassuming exterior belies a beautifully-apportioned interior that looks like a cross between a Country Living and a Better Homes and Gardens photo shoot.  With a good selection of outdoor space in addition to the bed and breakfast portion of the house, Rock Quarry Farm offers a mix of space for your event which may prove ideal for some brides’ visions.

The Rigmor House is another beautiful and seldom-visited location, a situation which its owners and staff are working hard to remedy.

Also located right on that stretch of Hwy 54 (street address 5501 Hwy 54), the Rigmor House is beautifully appointed for retreats and weddings alike, with 5 bedrooms and an extremely well-apportioned kitchen for you and your guests’ convenience. Their fall Open House is October 26th from 12 pm until 7 pm.  Come join the staff there all day for a peek into the house and grounds! If you use a GPS, it may send you about 500 ft past the entrance, so just watch for the street address when you get close.

Het Landhuis celebrated their first wedding this past weekend, and after visiting during the middle of the week I only wish I could have joined them!  Het Landhuis is a Dutch phrase and pays homage, even by name, to the owner and her husbands’ Dutch heritage.   It’s almost impossible to show a picture of the estate because of the sheer size of this venue, with multiple buildings, outbuildings, and outdoor space making up the estate. Their website does an excellent job of documenting the various buildings, however, and the owners are charming people who have graciously opened up their family home, a labor of love and a massive 15 year restoration project, to the public as a wedding venue.  If you’ve ever been to the bluegrass festival at Shakori Hills you’ve been approximately to where Het Landhuis is located, but I would definitely scope out directions before you go or take your trusty GPS (the stress level of my life has significantly decreased since I bought mine). Photos don’t do the estate justice, you’ll have to visit the website (or better yet, the estate itself!) to get an accurate sense of its grandeur.

Who knew a house could provide such a beautiful space for your wedding or event?  If a hotel is not for you keep these options in mind.

Know your cupcake is fresh.

So, it’s the American Dream. Throw off the mantle of the work-a-day world and start your own business. And if you look at the New York Times , everyone, it seems, wants to   open a bakery, or if you will, “cupcakery”. Yikes, Mrs. Wilson, my 8th grade English teacher is somewhere, getting heartburn.

The Triangle is no exception. Hardly a week goes by when we don’t hear of some caker-come-lately entering the market.  In a boon to would be bakers, North Carolina allows for just about anyone to sell baked goods made in their home. Even most commercial bakeries operate without any of the type of inspection or regulation that most restaurants endure.

I bring this up because I was at Trader Joe’s the other day, and the adorable little girl who checked me out asked if we’d ever considered having fewer types of cupcakes and serving them “warm”. I had to explain to her that because we use real dairy and fresh fruit our cupcakes need to be kept in a cooler. North Carolina health code requires it.  She asked why, then, she sees other bakeries that don’t refrigerate their cupcakes.  Here’s the scoop. A bakery that operates without health department supervision can sell ” low moisture, shelf stable baked goods”. That sounds pretty delicious, doesn’t it?  It means if your ingredients need to be refrigerated to keep from going bad, you can’t sell them without health department supervision.

What does that mean for your cupcake? It means that if you see a cupcake that isn’t in a cooler-type case, you either have a cake made with no butter, sour cream, cream cheese or  fresh fruit OR you have a baker that is breaking the law and subjecting their customers to all sorts of possible food borne illness. Neither is a great option.

We all want to support local businesses, and it feels great to be a part of someone ” living their dream”, but  it’s important to know what you’re eating, and what you’re feeding your friends and family.  For what it’s worth, almost all breads and cookies are safe at room temperature and an awesome treat to pick up at your local farmer’s market etc.

Baking for a living is serious business, and Sugarland is the only bakery in the Triangle to have an “A” grade from the health department. So, please, enjoy your cupcakes in peace knowing that they have been not only lovingly prepared but also safely prepared in a kitchen where you really could eat off of the floor, although we do recommend a plate.