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The Blogger Beat: ModernDomestic

Hold on to your sweet tooth—this week’s interview with Jenna Huntsberger is chock-full of recipes and tips for how to make some seriously tasty desserts.

Jenna Huntsberger showing off her latest culinary creation. Photograph by Chris Leaman

“I started blogging with the lofty goal of being a Martha Stewart-type for the young urbanite,” says Jenna Huntsberger. Her blog, ModernDomestic, which launched in July 2008, originally encompassed Martha’s core tenets—food, decorating, homemaking, and housekeeping—but she soon honed in on her favorite topic: baking. She’s stuck with that theme ever since.

A Eugene, Oregon, transplant, Huntsberger moved to Washington three years ago for work. “At first I wasn’t very sure about DC. The culture is so much more aggressive and career-oriented than the West Coast,” she says. “I’ve really come to love it.” The 27-year-old works in the communications office at the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, an organization for doctors who practice wellness-based natural medicine. The office, says Huntsberger, is very health conscious: “I try not to bring my baked goods there.” Her more common taste-testers: fellow choir members at All Souls Unitarian Church in DC’s Columbia Heights.

We caught up with Huntsberger to get her best recipes and baking tips. And just for kicks, she told us about the worst recipe she’s ever tried and her biggest kitchen disaster.

Number of cookbooks you own and your favorite:
“Twenty. I’ve also saved about two years’ worth of Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines, and I currently have four cookbooks checked out from the library. Incidentally, nine of my cookbooks focus exclusively on baking or pastry. My favorite cookbook is The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. She’s very good at explaining the science behind each of her recipes—an entire section outlines the protein contents in different types of flour and how that affects the final baked good. But she also has a passion for baking that comes through in the precision and thought behind each recipe. Plus, every recipe I’ve tried from the book has been phenomenal; her recipes for pizza dough, basic white sandwich bread, and hearth bread are ones that I come back to again and again.”

Best and worst recipes you’ve ever tried:

“Martha Stewart’s One-Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes. The recipe calls for buttermilk and oil instead of butter, and the cupcakes turn out light, chocolatey, and moist. These cupcakes are what a Hostess cupcake wants to be in its soul. I made these for the blogger bake sale this Halloween, and everyone loved them. I was really flattered. You rarely go wrong with Martha Stewart. One of the worst recipes I’ve ever tried was a Tex-Mex casserole from Parade. The recipe had you mix a bunch of uncooked ingredients (black beans, chopped onions, frozen corn) and then you only baked it for 30 minutes—it was nowhere near done. You have to pre-cook all ingredients before putting them in a casserole, which is why casseroles are such a pain to make (unless you’re using canned soup, which I refuse to do). Who wants to eat a bunch of crunchy, undercooked black beans? Ugh.”

Best recipe you’ve ever invented:
“Definitely my chocolate Guinness ‘Oreos’ that I made this October. I made chocolate-Guinness frosting and sandwiched it between chocolate shortbread cookies. The combination of the smoky, sweet, and chocolate flavors in the frosting was unusual but delicious, and my readers got excited about the beer tie-in. Sometimes I think I should start a side blog that’s just about baking with beer.”

Biggest kitchen disaster:
“I’ve had so many it’s hard to choose—if you cook and bake a lot, kitchen disasters are commonplace. Most recently, I spent many hours over two days making a double chocolate mint tart for a party, and then I tripped carrying it on my way to the Metro. Most of my carefully constructed tart ended on the top of the Tupperware container. I ended up serving it, scooping the filling back into the tart pan, but it wasn’t the same.”

Advice for newbies in the kitchen:
“Read through the whole recipe before you make it. I don’t always do this, and then halfway through a recipe I’m like ‘Oh, wait. I have to chill this for two hours? But it’s midnight and I need to go to bed.’ It’s a good rule of thumb I wish I followed more often. Also, don’t be afraid to try things you’ve never done before. Even if a recipe is beyond your comfort level, you’ll never learn unless you try and aren’t afraid to fail.”

Embarrassingly simple recipe that always impresses guests:
“Five words: mint chocolate ice box cake. You layer chocolate wafer cookies (I recommend Nabisco’s Famous Chocolate Wafers) with whipped cream flavored with peppermint extract and powdered sugar. Let it sit in the fridge overnight. The whipped cream softens the cookies and the resulting cake is like a giant mint Oreo (my idea of heaven). It’s a crowd-pleaser, but only takes about 20 minutes to assemble. For a holiday twist, I’d layer gingerbread wafers with layers of whipped cream flavored with powdered sugar, a little cinnamon, vanilla, and rum. Vanilla wafers and lemon cream would be nice, too.”

Baked good that makes for a good holiday gift:
“Cookies. If you want to do something simple, you can’t go wrong with chocolate-chip cookies—everyone loves them. If you’re more ambitious, you could do a sandwich cookie; spice cookies filled with cream cheese frosting would be lovely. For those of you with good icing piping skills, you could give out plates of gingerbread cookies piped with details in white royal icing. I think I’d go for something simple yet classic, like shortbread hazelnut rounds covered in powdered sugar. Pop them in a tin, add a card, and you’re good to go.”

Pantry item you can’t cook without:
“Parchment paper. It’s such a useful item if you’re into baking. I always use it to line my cookie sheets, cake pans, and loaf pans. If I’m making a free-form loaf, then I do the final rise on parchment paper; it makes it really easy to transfer the dough to a baking stone. And once, when I was making mini cupcakes and didn’t have any mini-cupcake liners, I had my friends cut out dozens of tiny circles of parchment paper to line the bottoms of my mini-cupcake pans. Be warned: If I invite you over to my house, I may use you for slave cupcake labor.”

Pantry item you most frequently run out of:
“Cake flour. They sell it in those tiny two-pound boxes, and I always run out. I wish they sold it in bigger sizes because I can only get a couple of cakes or cupcake
batches out of one box. Plus, it’s a pain to scoop the flour into my measuring cup from that tiny box. I really need to put all my cake flour in a Tupperware container, but I’m too lazy.”

Pain-in-the-ass dessert that’s worth the hassle:
Whoopie pies. I love them when they’re done, but they’re such a pain to bake. You have to scoop or pipe each individual round of batter onto a cookiesheet. I’m horrible at judging sizes, so all my little cakes end up being all different sizes. And because you have to make two cake rounds for each finished pie, it takes forever to bake them—48 little cake rounds only makes two dozen pies. But people love them. Whoopie pies are delicious and nostalgic, but they’re not cupcakes, so they’re different. I also like the cake-to-frosting ratio in a whoopie pie; the frosting serves as a compliment to the cake without overwhelming it.”

Favorite cake from a box:
“I’m a purist; I never use box mixes, and I actively advocate against using them. Besides, if you still have to add eggs and oil to a box mix, why not just make the whole thing from scratch? It’s not that hard to whisk together some flour, salt, and baking powder, and that’s the only step a box mix eliminates.”

Chocolate or vanilla?
“I love chocolate, don’t get me wrong, but real vanilla is amazing. I made panna cotta using Tahitian vanilla beans, and the flavor was incredible. Vanilla is such a subtle, nuanced, complex flavor—when you taste real vanilla you realize just how good it is.”

Cake or ice cream?
“Ice cream, hands down. I love ice cream. I can’t have it in the house, otherwise I’ll eat it all. Ice cream is a such a great vehicle for flavors, more so than cake. You can make cherry ice cream or a sorbet that tastes like the fruit; you can’t do the same with with a cherry cake. I’m big on texture in desserts, and ice cream is great for playing with texture, such as mixing cookies or toffee or other crunchy things into it. And you can play with temperature too, like topping your ice cream with hot fudge. My parents recently gave me an ice-cream maker that used to belong to my grandmother, and I’ve had so much fun playing around with it. I made a bunch of beer ice creams during my Desserts with Beer month, and my chocolate stout and pumpkin-beer ice creams were both hits.”

Pie or tart?
“Tart. It’s much more versatile than a pie—you can make them with a pastry crust, a cookie crust, or a crumb crust. You can use a creme filling, cooked-fruit filling, fresh-fruit filling, mousse filling, or a combination of fillings. It’s also much easier to make a tart look pretty.”

What you’d eat for your last meal:
“My mother has to cook my last meal. She’s a wonderful cook and baker, and I still crave her food. I’d have my mother’s roast leg of lamb with garlic and rosemary, garlic mashed potatoes, and roasted brussel sprouts. And I’d finish it off with an ice cream sundae with chocolate ice cream from Prince Puckler’s (an ice cream shop in Eugene), milk chocolate fudge sauce, and whipped cream. No nuts.”

Where you go when you want a night off from the kitchen:
“I’m on a budget, so I’m a big fan of happy hours. My favorite happy hour in the city is at Heritage India in Dupont Circle. Their bar menu has great Indian street food, and it’s all half off. They also have good wine and cocktail specials. I’ll go there with friends, get some great small plates with a glass of wine, and spend less than $20. If I want to splurge, my favorite DC restaurant is the Tabard Inn—the food is excellent but not ostentatious, the atmosphere is comfortable, and the service is excellent.”

Favorite local food blog, besides your own:
“I read way too many local food blogs to choose just one! I always read Lemmonex. Her mix of sometimes snarky, always heartfelt confessional blogging and food writing is so much fun to read. I love the writing and photos at the Arugula Files, too. Her food always looks delicious. And for DC food news I always check out Metrocurean and the Washington City Paper’s Young and Hungry blog.”

Next week, we get winter fashion tips from street-style blogger DeVon from Curator of DC Style. Check back on Wednesday for the interview!

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