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! 🙂

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! 🙂

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! 🙂

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! 🙂

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! 🙂

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 90° 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. 😉

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

The cake is a lie. (And so were the cookies, cupcakes, etc.)

A confession: for years, I thought that all recipes everywhere were part of a giant conspiracy theory to prevent others from replicating the originator’s success. Who were these weirdos baking cookies at 375 for 10 minutes? The only thing that was a recipe for was failure, and burned cookies galore. Now, admittedly, I knew for years that my oven ran hot, thanks to an oven thermometer (the best six bucks I ever spent!) as recommended by Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. If I wanted 350, I set it for 325. I also adjusted baking times downward, because the times called for in recipes were generally far too long, and although you can certainly add to baking time once something’s in the oven, you cannot take it away. It was a system that served me well for oh, ages and ages.

Sometime in January or February, I gradually came to the realization that all was not well with the oven. The 25-degree window I had come to know and tolerate was failing me. If the dial was set for 325, I was seeing 375; if I cranked it down to 300, I got 315 or so. What I didn’t quite twig to for a while was that I now had the kitchen-appliance equivalent of a traditional Greek song: it would start at a manageable tempo (or temperature) before stepping on the metaphorical gas to the point where your feet can’t keep up or putting frozen “chicken” strips in for longer than ten minutes required one person to fan the smoke alarm to keep it from going off and one to hold the back door of the house open to clear out the resulting haze.

New stove? Oh, yes, new stove. Only now, recipes looked like a foreign language to me. Is that really 350, or just “bake in a moderate oven”, like old-time recipe books like to say? When I finally screwed up my courage to take the plunge and try baking something, it made sense to try a recipe I’ve baked dozens of times before, right? Instead, I tried my hand at a new-to-me variety of mini cheesecakes. The chocolate-peanut butter people in my life won this round.

I compared making cheesecake to a baking trust fall before, but I’m honestly not sure which time was more stressful: when the oven was running even hotter than I realized and I didn’t know what I was doing, or when I was worried that somehow the new oven wouldn’t run hot enough.

I shouldn’t have worried, because these came out beautifully. In fact, I suspect the ones I made for my mom’s birthday got just a tiny bit overdone – this batch was smooth, creamy, and not the least bit dense.

Rather than make the chocolate whipped cream called for in the recipe, I used my remaining 4 oz. of cream cheese to make a half-batch of the cream cheese-whipped cream frosting from the pumpkin spice latte cupcakes I made last fall, sifting in 1/4 cup of cocoa before beating the cream cheese. It generated the perfect amount to pipe generous-but-not-mountainous swirls on top of each cheesecake, with enough left over for my taste testers to lick out the bowl and not fight over it. I couldn’t be happier with the results, and I think I have the perfect Father’s Day dessert figured out.

Thanks for looking – and remember, always use your oven thermometer! 🙂