baking

Happee Birthdae Harry

When the Harry Potter books were initially released in the late 1990s, I more or less ignored them. They were clearly for kids (I mean, clearly), which I was not (I mean, clearly), and I found all the hubbub tiresome. Then the movies came out, and…I still didn’t care. Nope, not at all.

More than 20 years later, I decided it might be time to see what all the fuss was about, and picked up a paperback copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone last summer. I didn’t have high hopes, because the last two series I poked at to see what all the fuss was about were Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray, both of which were utterly terrible. And actually, pretty much the same books, give or take a little kink.

Maybe it was because my expectations were so low, but I devoured Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, and then got the complete boxed set of all seven books for Christmas. Talk about your revelations: “Oh, so this is what everyone was going on about!” My biggest surprise came when I realized Harry was older than I am. Prior to reading the books, my only knowledge of him came from seeing newsy bits about the movies, whose main trio were all decidedly younger than me. But no! According to the books, Harry was born July 31, 1980, meaning that the Boy Who Lived rings in the big 4-0 this year.

Naturally, I had to bake something to celebrate. I’ve seen a lot of recipes for Butterbeer cupcakes floating around the internet, most of which make my teeth hurt to look at them. Harry may be older than I am, but I get the feeling that my lack of a sweet tooth renders me pretty old, too.

Instead, of completely sugar-bombing my test audience, I made some really simple Cheater Butterbeer cupcakes instead. How simple, you ask?

Start with these:

I promise I’m not sponsored by either General Mills or Kraft Foods, but I wanted something foolproof. When you empty the dry cake mix into your bowl, add the pudding mix, and then proceed as directed on the cake mix box (oil, egg, water, mixing times). Be sure to only fill the cupcake liners half-full as indicated – the pudding mix does not add the volume to the batter one might expect, and you’ll be short if you try to fill them 2/3 full as you would for any other recipe.

I baked mine in Gryffindor red, naturally:

I opted for an ΓΌber-casual build-your-own-cupcake type of topping. Rather than make a stiff, pipeable frosting, I made homemade whipped cream. This was spooned on to the eater’s desired thickness – I thought that it would look more like the foam on top of a mug of beer that way. (And saved me dirtying a piping bag and tip – woo hoo!) A drizzle of caramel sauce sealed the deal.

Want to make this even simpler than it already is? Grab a tub of Cool Whip, or a can of it if you’re craving perfect peaks. Usually whenever I whip cream it’s got cream cheese in it to act as a stabilizer, and without that, it separates after about a day in the fridge and looks a little gross. I’m so glad I got perfect first-night shots here.

Also: although I chose to do mine up like this, some of my testers discovered that with leaving the cupcakes naked and adding the toppings later, they preferred cutting the cupcake in half and laying it flat-side down on the plate, to prevent tipping over later. This also allows more surface area for whipped cream and caramel, so win-win.

The addition of the pudding mix to the cake mix made the cupcakes slightly chewy, but wonderfully moist. The whipped cream was a marvelous balance against the sweetness of the cupcake and the sauce – although my testers also discovered that the cupcakes were good enough to be eaten with nothing on them, so you do you.

And with that bout of kitchen magic, I sit patiently to await my invitation to Hogwarts.

Thanks for looking! πŸ™‚

baking

Love from the great white (and red) north

I actually made this last year for Canada Day, too, and it a) got inhaled so quickly that I never got any “completed” pictures, and b) was such a hit that my mom stole my recipe for a get-together at her sister’s house a few weeks later. So when I wanted something vaguely patriotic to make, this felt like the obvious choice: Strawberry Shortcake Icebox Cake.

Because I’m working from home and get to skip the commute, I used what would normally be my on-the-road time to clean and chop the strawberries as prescribed.

Once they were ready to go, the rest of it came together really quickly and beautifully after work.

Two things I did differently from the recipe: I used 3 full cups of heavy cream (horrors!) rather than the 2 3/4 cups called for in the recipe; also, it was too ding-danged hot to turn the oven on and do the topping, so I settled for a sprinkling of graham crumbs instead.

If, however, you are making this on a day when it’s not 38 degrees with the humidity, or you have a naturally higher tolerance for the oven in summer, I highly recommend making the topping. It’s crunchy and wonderful against the creaminess of the whipped cream-strawberry mixture.

The first piece was a mess to get out of the pan, but look at the beautiful layers it revealed! The ladyfingers do tend to get quite soft after a couple of days, so best to enjoy this within the first day or two after making it.

Happy Canada Day! πŸ™‚

baking

Good Vanilla Hunting

Although I am not by any stretch of the imagination a professional baker, I’m a relatively experienced one. I understand how to not overmix, how to check for doneness, and how to fold in the cheese. And while I accept that there are some things I will likely never have the inclination to attempt (croquembouche, anyone?), my Moby Dick white whale continues to be vanilla cupcakes.

It should be such a simple thing, right? But nearly every recipe I’ve tried has left me underwhelmed: they’re either dense, or dry, or some combination of the two. Maybe it’s because my chocolate cupcakes are fail-proof and so moist-moist-moist that vanilla pales (and fails) by comparison, but it still drives me nuts. My go-to cookbook, Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, has a vanilla recipe that’s really similar to the chocolate, but with two tablespoons of cornstarch (and no cocoa, obviously). Was that what made it not-perfect? I’ve tried varieties that call for cake flour rather than all-purpose, to no avail. (I’ve also since read tips that recommend adding cornstarch to your A.P. if cake flour is unavailable, which really makes me think there’s a connection there somehow.)

Recently I came across this recipe, and was hopeful. Straight-up all-purpose flour, no separating of eggs (not that I inherently dislike separating eggs, but anything that calls for just the yolk or just the white invariably leads to wasting the unwanted part, unless you have an excellent recipe-stacking strategy to use up those leftover yolks or whites, which I do not), nothing funny.

And…they weren’t bad.

They came out a little browner around the edges than I would have liked, but all things considered…not bad. The batter was thicker than pretty much all of my other scratch recipes, and I think I overfilled them a bit because of this, which in turn necessitated baking them a minute or two longer than might otherwise be prudent. Whether because of bake time or simple batter composition, they were just a wee bit on the dry side, too. I could see making them again, but filling the cups less full – and mayyyybe adding an extra tablespoon of oil to the batter for moisture?

I topped them with a root beer buttercream icing, which paired so perfectly with the vanilla cake, like having a root beer float. Oh, and because you’ve probably noticed the liners by now…

Yep, those are absolutely Christmas liners. Everyone’s socially distancing – who was going to see these anyway? But look how pretty they are!

After my underwhelming success with vanilla, I went back to my old standby – chocolate – for a Father’s Day treat. There was pretty much no doubt in my mind that they had to be topped with peanut butter frosting.

To add a bit of texture and interest, I put a few Reese’s Pieces in a baggie and smashed them with a rolling pin before sprinkling the aftermath on top of the frosting.

This is the best combination…

They’re practically moist enough for themselves and the vanilla cupcakes, if cupcakes worked that way.

Light and moist and perfect, no crumbling at all.

Has anyone had tremendous success with light, moist vanilla cupcakes? Or am I better off box-mixing it?

Thanks for looking! πŸ™‚

baking

Cross my heart and hope to die, here’s the digits that make pi…

3.14159265358979323846…. (see here)

Happy Pi Day! (Pie Day?) Although I have made pie before, with reasonable success, it’s not my first choice of things to make. My pastry is okay (my mom’s is a million times better), and I honestly find it a bit fussy, with the cutting-in of butter/Tenderflake, the keeping it cold, the not overworking… Someone else can do the baking, thanks; I’m happy to just be a taste-tester.

I was inspired partly, I admit, by Lara Jean’s turnovers in To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You – yay for Netflix original movies! – but thought this seemed like a good time to find a way to slake those pie cravings without getting up to my elbows in flour. And if they were individually portioned, that would be great, too.

Did someone say hand pies?

Presenting…pie in less than an hour.

Start with your base ingredients:

This is it, plus an egg and some white sugar. That’s all. So far, so good, right?

Start with one of the two crusts in your box. They come round, to fit into a pie pan, so we squared out the corners as best we could. Hey, this was for home consumption, and appearance wasn’t going to count for too much. Score your dough into eights – a 4 x 2 arrangement. Half of these are going to be your bottom crusts, and the other half will be your top crusts. Try to pair the funny-shaped ones together. Heck, if your cutting is more precise than ours was, you should have mirror-image pieces for easy pairing.

Arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet. We used smaller sheets, so four felt like an adequate number to make at a time. We got four complete pies from each dough round, for a total of eight.

Spoon your filling into the centre of each bottom crust, and brush the edges with an egg wash (really just one beaten egg) so that the tops will stick. I hate to be the bearer of retroactive bad news, but that’s way too much filling you’re seeing. Use less than we did. It’s tempting to fill them to the gills, but don’t. You’ll want a nice wide border along the edge for your top to stick to, no matter how delicious you think cherries are.

Speaking of your tops: perforate them with a common dinner fork, and set each one on its corresponding bottom. Use your fork to press the edges together, crimping them as you go along. See that ooze along the sides? Like I said, use less filling. Learn from my mistakes. Oy. Once your edges are all crimped, brush them with some egg wash and sprinkle with a bit of white sugar, if desired. Coarse sugar would be an excellent substitute, if you like a little bit of extra crunch. We baked ours at 375Β° for 17 minutes, but time and temperature could vary depending on whether your oven runs hot or cool. We had set the timer for 20 minutes initially, but pulled them out early…

…and had these to show for it. The murder-scene cherry ooze would have bothered me if I were trying to impress a VIP, but for home consumption, it wasn’t an issue. (And anyway, once they cooled, any excess ooze stayed on the parchment.) The tops look a little thin and delicate, likely from the dough being rolled thinner than was prudent, but the taste wasn’t impacted.

These are kind of the culinary equivalent of rounding pi down to 3, but if you’re craving pi…er, pie…they’ll do the trick.

Thanks for looking! πŸ™‚

baking

Snicker, snicker…

I don’t bake quite as much as I used to; fifteen or twenty years ago, I was a regular Lara Jean Covey (minus the Korean heritage, tiny body, and jock boyfriend), and one of my signature recipes was snickerdoodles. I used to make them all the time, from a recipe plucked from Reader’s Digest of all places, and one of my dad’s coworkers was especially enamoured of them. I’d send a tin of cookies to work with my dad, and a couple of days later, it would come back, presumably to be refilled. Don’t tell me that’s not an ego-stroke.

My initial plan was to re-introduce them to my cookie-consuming public this holiday season, but Christmas kicked my callipygian backside, and like so many other things it just. Didn’t. Get. Done. But when we had a blustery, blizzardy weekend a few weeks back that precluded doing much of anything that involved leaving the house, I had my chance.

The recipe says to make your dough and then chill it for an hour or so, but the smartest thing I’ve done recently was making it the night before, then wrapping the whole shebang in waxed paper and sticking it in the fridge overnight. Sure, my cookie scoop was useless on it the next day, but it shaped into balls so nicely without coating my hands in dough residue.

Bonus: that extra chill time meant they didn’t spread hither, thither, and yon as soon as they hit the oven. I was a little nervous, because the recipe called for a 400-degree oven, and I never, ever bake cookies higher than 350. Much soul-searching – and shockingly, no Google-searching – prompted me to split the difference, and 375 turned out to be the perfect temperature. They were just started to turn golden on the bottom, and the outsides had crisped up nicely while the insides were chewy and lovely.

It was comforting to know that that old recipe withstood the test of time. I think I’ll be adding to my semi-regular rotation (mainly to use up the two bottles of cream of tartar in the spice cabinet, but still).

Thanks for looking! πŸ™‚

baking

The only kind of blackout you want in the winter

You guys! I’m so glad the holiday season is behind us, and I can get back to my somewhat regular baking schedule. Anything I made over the holidays felt like an obligation rather than something I wanted to do, and with so many store-bought options around (I’m still eating dominoes), it felt futile anyway.

I was itching to bust out my cupcake pans and bake something just for the heck of it, and finally got my chance a couple of weeks ago. Oh, it felt goooood!

A couple of years ago, I had made this Brooklyn Blackout Cake for my mom’s birthday, and although cakes make a lovely presentation for special occasions like birthdays, they’re a pain to store the rest of the time. And although the homemade pudding filling turned out most excellently that time, I didn’t feel like standing over the stove having chocolate splatter at me.

Instant gratification pudding to the rescue!

After baking and cooling a dozen chocolate cupcakes (made with a 2:1 ratio of regular to dark cocoa powder), I made two boxes of instant chocolate pudding, but used only half the milk called for. In other words, two cups for both boxes instead of two cups for each. That gave me an ultra-thick pudding that wouldn’t run all over the place.

I cored the cupcakes, setting the cores carefully aside instead of just eating them (for example). I loaded up a piping bag with my pudding and filled each cupcake, then spread a generous layer on top instead of frosting.

The finishing touch? I grabbed one of my cores and crumbled it on top of each cupcake for that crumb topping finish.

Crumbs on top of your frosting (or “frosting”) might sound weird and dry, but the cake is so moist that dryness isn’t an issue.

Look at that luscious chocolate filling!

On the whole, I’m extremely happy with how these turned out, and how much easier they were to make and store than their layer-cake counterpart. My taste-testers gave them two thumbs up, so it looks like we have a winner.

Thanks for looking! πŸ™‚

baking

How do you solve a problem like vanilla?

How do you stop the cake from being dry?*

*In my case, I used a schmancy boxed cupcake mix (schmancy in the sense that it cost nearly five bucks, and came with some prepackaged frosting that I ultimately threw away, while the usual Betty or Duncan extravaganza will set you back about $1.29 on sale and yields twice as many cupcakes) and kitbashed it into something much more party-worthy.

The birthday boy in question will always choose vanilla over chocolate, and although I don’t have issues with vanilla per se, I don’t have much luck baking it at home. Even the vanilla recipe from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, whose chocolate cupcakes have garnered rapturous eye-rolling, gives me a finished product that is dense and drier that just about anything else I’ve made. Vanilla might be my new red velvet: vegan or not, that perfect version eludes me. Even the Minion cupcakes I made using VCTOTW’s recipe a couple of years ago were…okay, but not that light, melt-in-your-mouth moist WOW that the chocolate ones are. With that in mind, I didn’t feel exceptionally guilty starting with a mix, and felt even better when Alton Brown said that it’s hard for home bakers to compete with the various commercial ingredients in the boxed mix. I decided this was going to be a gummi bear cake, after seeing one in a magazine and deciding I wanted to try it.

My local Bulk Barn doesn’t carry straight-up quins anymore that aren’t (when I was looking) Halloween or (right about now) Christmas-themed, so I picked up these pastel starts to Funfetti the heck out of the cake.

They do, however, carry the best gummi bears ever. Despite the zoom in the photo, these guys are mini, and come in 11 different flavours. I’m kind of a sucker for proper ordering of colours, so…

Instead of cupcakes, I poured my batter into two six-inch pans. During baking, these things developed a bit of a crazy-high dome, and while leveling your cake before assembling it is the traditional method of handling this kind of baking topography, mine didn’t rise terribly high when baking and completely eliminating the domes would have left me with ridiculously thin layers. I spread a thick layer of almond-flavoured buttercream on the bottom layer, and…

…built up the edge using gummi bears. You won’t find that trick at fine French baking schools, kids. I then set my second layer, dome-down, on top of it, frosted the whole shebang, and added rows upon rainbow-ordered rows of gummi bears.

I staggered the colours in each row, but make no mistake: the order never changes. It was a bit fiddly positioning them in four iterations of twenty-two reasonably even intervals, but that’s the kind of weirdo I am. My original plan was to tint part of my buttercream a different colour and write a message of birthday goodwill on top, but the teeny letters were too cute to pass up. (It doesn’t hurt that they match the aesthetic pretty much perfectly and made that part so much easier and faster.)

You can see a slight fault in the icing in what I’ve come to think of affectionately as the “dome crack”, but it held up really well and the gummi bears between the layers were a fun surprise.

The birthday boy loved his highly customized (*snerk*) dessert, and now I have almost another year to crack the secret to homemade.

Thanks for looking! πŸ™‚

baking

Cuban Lunch: The [insert scary-sounding gerund here]

This is a short one, because Halloween is imminent and I still have to do my nails, gather together the components of the two different costumes I’ll be wearing (yes, I’m insane), and finish planning a birthday party – the latter has nothing to do with Halloween, but still falls close enough to feel like it.

Remember my Cuban Lunch that I shared the recipe for last year? Two very exciting (or not) addenda to that. First, I’ve managed to find the commercially-manufactured resurrected version, which worded thusly sounds a bit Halloween-y in its own right.

It’s a beaut.

Second, I still think I prefer my homemade version, and so I made up a batch to hand out to a few lucky individuals at work as an early Halloween treat.

Because it’s already unseasonably cold around these parts, I was able to stash these in the garage for about 45 minutes to let them really firm up before packaging them for delivery.

Aren’t those bags cute? Each one contains a baggie holding four chocolates, sealed for freshness (if they last that long).

Thanks for looking – have a spook-tacular Halloween! πŸ™‚

baking

If you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain…

First off, can we all just agree that that song is not some romantic, carpe diem-type thing? They both tried to cheat, and caught each other in the act. That marriage has issues a pina colada or two won’t fix.

A while ago at work, our friendly neighbourhood social committee organized an island-themed potluck. I found myself lumped in with Team Hawaii, and although I didn’t wind up taking part in the end due to mitigating circumstances, I had started brainstorming dessert ideas. (Isn’t a dessert island far preferable to a desert island??) Faithful readers know that I’ve been having fun since January experimenting with mini cheesecakes, and they seemed like a great option. Bonus: no getting caught in the rain required.

I started with the blank-slate mini cheesecake recipe from Life Love & Sugar (with a graham-crumb base and not vanilla wafer crumbs, thank you very much), and added between one and one-and-a-half teaspoons of coconut extract and half a cup of shredded toasted coconut to the filling mixture.

Once they were baked and cooled, I combined one cup of crushed pineapple (in its own juice), a quarter-cup of sugar, one tablespoon of cornstarch, and about a half-teaspoon of vanilla in a small saucepan. Once the mixture came to a boil, I stirred for 30 seconds before turning the heat down to low and stirring for another minute – until it was nicely thickened – before removing it from the heat and dolloping it on my cooled cheesecakes.

A maraschino cherry in the centre of each cheesecake sealed the deal, and in my haste I completely forgot to sprinkle some additional shredded toasted coconut on the tops, which would have added some extra flavour and crunch, and I am absolutely doing that next time.

Although these didn’t make it as far as the office, my test audience loved them. My dad – who basically only eats cookies – described them as “really good” (which is kind of the equivalent of a Michelin star or two), and my baking buddy took a few in for his coworkers, who devoured them and then scraped their cupcake liners clean.

Thanks for looking! πŸ™‚

baking

He’s not a monster; he’s just misunderstood.

My dad’s got a bit of a thing for cookies. If you were to drop him into the middle of a bakery (or heck, even the kitchen at home), he will see past all the other treats and head straight for the cookies, irrespective of type. When I asked him back in June what type of dessert he wanted for Father’s Day, he asked for – and got – cookies. They were “fancy” ones, a chocolate cookie filled with a peanut butter fondant, but still.

A while ago, I had seen this post on Craftster…and then I went back and looked at it a few more times for good measure. It was a really neat looking cake, and I knew I had to try one like it. I normally prefer cupcakes to a cake for a birthday or other festive occasion since they’re less of a pain to store if you have leftovers, but I had already done Cookie Monster cupcakes once, and besides, the idea of the cake being his whole head was too good to pass up.

I didn’t want a giant cake, since I wasn’t really baking for a crowd, and I knew my 6″ pans would be perfect Bonus: one 12-cupcake recipe’s worth of batter divides perfectly between the two pans. Plus, the slightly smaller circumference/diameter meant the ping-pong balls I bought to use as eyes would be perfectly proportionate.

I ❀ perfectly proportionate ping-pong balls. “See” what I did there?

I started with my usual most famous dark-chocolate cake (because, um, have you met my family?) and made a small batch of peanut butter frosting to smear between the layers. For the crumb coat and fur, I made what was possibly the largest batch of blue-tinted vanilla buttercream ever, because this was not going to be one of those cakes whose frosting technique could change in the event of a blue-icing shortage. In all my remarkable foresight, I kept it just a little less stiff than I normally like my frosting – I didn’t want to have to force it through the grass tip like some sort of Play-Doh extrusion.

A quick image search for “Cookie Monster cake” shows a lot of cakes whose entire mouth area (that’s a very specific medical term) consists of cookies, like CM just couldn’t help himself. I didn’t want to do that because a) I don’t love the aesthetic of it, and b) unless you eat the cookies immediately upon serving, they’re going to get either soggy or stale, and that’s a waste of perfectly good cookies. I had toyed with the idea of tinting some of my frosting black to draw in a mouth, or even leaving the mouth as negative space (like I did here), since the cake is pretty dark. But! I’m so happy with the solution I hit on: after applying my crumb coat (ironic foreshadowing/nominative determinism alert!), I used a toothpick to trace a mouth shape and then filled it in with chocolate cookie crumbs. They kept the space from drying out and don’t have the ick factor of black frosting. And then…presto, pipe the fur around it like usual. Of course, I couldn’t leave him completely cookie-less…

I learned some valuable frosting tips, too. When piping at a 90Β° angle to cover the sides, start at the bottom and work up, and gravity will let the “fur” fall into place. And if your buttercream is on the soft side and prone to softening further just from holding the piping bag in your hot little hands, don’t overfill the bag – some of the frosting will commit hari-kari and throw itself onto the kitchen floor from the top of the bag, and you will, repeatedly and with increasing frustration, have to shoo away with your foot the cat, who will look at the overpriced and specially formulated food in his bowl like it’s poison but who will enthusiastically eat dust bunnies and flecks of dirt, and now unnaturally-blue frosting, from the floor. Who needs to explain that to the vet? You’ve been warned.

Cat-herding issues and all, I’m so happy with how this turned out:

The peanut butter centre was the perfect compliment to the dark chocolate cake, and not as sweet as more blue vanilla buttercream would have been.

As birthday cakes go, this was a pretty good one. He definitely didn’t see it coming, and that made it so much more fun. But, whoosh, I don’t know that I want to see blue frosting again for a while. πŸ˜‰

Thanks for looking! πŸ™‚