baking

“Zing!” went the strings of my heart

It all started when my friend had a birthday recently.

Wait, scratch that.  It started a few weeks before that, when one of the ladies at work (who knows I’m a baker and has previously been my sprinkle patron) asked me if I baked bars very often.

I wrinkled my nose.  “Not really,” I replied, and economically at that, for those two words were meant to convey the following:

I.  Don’t.  Get.  Bars.  They never seem to bake properly and become inedibly overbaked around the edges before the rest of it is done, and although they’re supposed to be easier than cookies, say, they seem like a lot more work, somehow.  Why do cookbook authors coyly list them with the cookies (e.g. “Bar Cookies”) when they are clearly not cookies?  They’re usually sticky or filled, and you sure as heck can’t eat them with your fingers like a cookie.  But they’re not cake, either.  And how are you supposed to portion/eat them?  With a (sliced) cake or a cupcake, the portioning is self-evident.  With cookies, you can go back and keep grabbing until you’re satisfied.  But bars?  Unless you’re at an outpost of a ubiquitous Seattle-based coffee chain, they’re generally cut into these teeny-tiny squares that look like something from a tea party, and which are not at all satisfying.  Yet because of their often-rich nature, too big a piece is just going to make your teeth and stomach hurt.  Just…why, bars, whyyyy?

I clearly need to work on my non-verbal communication skills, because she pressed on and explained that she had been tasked with baking for a church fundraiser, and thought I might have some ideas.  At that moment, I had a sudden flash of remembered inspiration, and told her all about the Cranberry Lemon Oat Zing Bars from The 100 Best Vegan Baking Recipes by Kris Holechek: they’re delicious, beloved by pretty much anyone who tries one; they’re quick and easy to make (and can be made not-vegan, if that’s how you roll); and they give you something besides just chocolate.  Sometimes there’s just too much chocolate, and these are a welcome antidote.

When I related this exchange to the Birthday Boy, he perked up and said that if I wanted to make a batch to show her what they were like, he would gladly help with the leftovers.  He wasn’t just being nice – I have honestly seen him lick out a container after being brought a sample.  When he mentioned them again, unprompted, a week or so later, I knew I had his birthday cake figured out.

And you know what?  I forgot just how easy these are to make!

Dry ingredients in one bowl:

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I always triple the cinnamon called for in the recipe because we like cinnamon around these parts. 😉

Wet ingredients in another:

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All together, with cranberries stirred in:

The batter was quite thick, and I had to use my fingers to spread/press it into place in the foil-lined, greased pan to get an even layer.  Always line those pans with foil, kids!

And now, we get to the fun part…

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My initial misgivings weren’t entirely incorrect – they did get a little darker around the edges, although not to the point of burning or otherwise ruining them.

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A lemon-cream cheese frosting seals the deal and hides the toasty edges.

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We managed to not set off the smoke detector or get wax on the cake bars, so I’d call that a win-win.

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Look at that: they cut beautifully, have just that little extra browning at the bottom edge, but stayed moist inside.  We played by ubiquitous coffee chain rules and made the pieces cake-sized, but because these aren’t overly sweet (the lemon zest and cranberries provide the right amount of tartness and tang), no one batted an eye.

The Birthday Boy was delighted by his “cake”, and even more so when I sent half of what was left home with him.

I’m still not sold on bars-as-a-culinary-subgenre, but these definitely have a place in my repertoire.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

For when your blood type is pretty much “pumpkin spice”…

It’s one of those terribly “basic” things to admit, but my heart beats a little faster when pumpkin spice latte season rolls around (it must be all that extra caffeine).  In my defense, my infatuation is strictly with the latte, and not the hundreds of other pumpkin spice-inspired items available.  I’ve carefully researched the coffee options, so you don’t have to.  From worst to best:

4. McDonald’s Caramel Pumpkin Spice Latte.  Their pumpkin spice latte used to be good, but the current iteration is far too sweet.  Add to that the general chaos and lousy service, and this is a hard pass.

3. Starbucks.  I think this might have been the original one, but it’s also really sweet and something else – I almost want to use the word “sludgy”, which is something your coffee should never, ever be.

2. Tim Horton’s.  This is saying something.  I’m not a fan of Tim’s overall, but their allegedly handcrafted latte is not wretched.  It doesn’t have a terribly strong pumpkin or spicy flavour, but it’s not gag-inducingly sweet, either.  If you want something warm, creamy, and soothing, this will take the chill off.  (Bonus: The Pumpkin Spice Iced Capp is surprisingly decent, if you can get past the idea of a cold pumpkin drink.  Just stay away from the whipped topping; that stuff could probably survive a nuclear bomb.)

1. Second Cup.  The ne plus ultra of pumpkin spice lattes.  I only wish there were more locations so that I didn’t have to brave the mall every time I want a fix.  These are flavourful and not too sweet, and if you haven’t tried one, you must.  You’ll never drink Starbucks again.

Ahem.  Given that kind of attention to these drinks, it’s probably not surprising that the recipe for Pumpkin Spice Latte Cupcakes from the Brown Eyed Baker called to me.  I cheated just a little bit and used my pumpkin cupcake recipe from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World as the base, only with the coffee and spices recommended by the BEB.

I used instant coffee instead of instant espresso powder because that’s what I had on hand.  I also used a bit more than the 4 1/2 teaspoons called for, because it’s not as strong as the espresso.  And although you certainly can dissolve 7 or so teaspoons of instant coffee in 1/4 cup of milk, you certainly should not taste it unless you want to never touch coffee again.  Bleh.  Luckily, by the time it’s mixed in with all the other ingredients, it just lends a nice coffee-ish flavour to the cupcakes without overpowering them.

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I topped them with the cream cheese whipped cream as suggested in the recipe, and oh: you can’t go wrong with that stuff.  It’s light and fluffy, but doesn’t deflate if it’s out of the fridge for longer than a few minutes.  I’ve probably mentioned this before, but if you have leftover whipped cream, it’s also excellent on toast or gingerbread, or eaten straight out of the container with a spoon.  I don’t judge.  Some caramel sauce and Saigon cinnamon sprinkled on top sealed the deal.

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They also release really nicely from their liners and stay moist.  Dry cupcakes are the worst!

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I made these over Thanksgiving weekend, and although I associate with a band of cookie fans, I have never seen a batch of cupcakes disappear so quickly.  This is one recipe that stays in the roster for next year – or, you know, next weekend. 🙂

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

Is there such a thing as too much chocolate and peanut butter? Maybe…

It’s been well-documented in my years of blogging (and even more years baking and not putting it out there on the interweb) that chocolate and peanut butter is a flavour combination that rates very highly with my test audience.  Frankly, I think that the very best cookies contain lots of peanut butter and little to no chocolate, but hey, give the people what they want, right?

I grabbed my Baking Buddy and told him we were going to try the Buckeye Brownies as published on the Brown Eyed Baker.  Even though I don’t typically like having someone else around when I’m baking (seriously, this towel has my name all over it), it was actually a really ingenious if kind of Marxist solution: by splitting the cost of ingredients, each person is only out half the cash, and each person gets half a pan to eat rather then try to work through an entire 9 x 13 pan alone.  Plus, it’s a fairly inexpensive way to spend an afternoon, and feels productive.  That’s what, win-win-win-win?  I can’t argue with that kind of logic.

Although I’ve got a totally kickin’, never-fail brownie recipe of my own, I took a leap of faith and followed the recipe to the letter.  My devil-may-care attitude was rewarded; those brownies – a.k.a. the ultra-important foundation of this entire endeavour – turned out perfectly.

Buckeye Brownies 1

A lovely, slightly cracked top – what a sight to behold!  Baking Buddy’s mind was blown when I demanded the aluminum foil to line the pan: he had never done that before, and marveled at the ridiculously easy clean-up that followed (eventually).  Waiting the recommended time for these to cool enough to add the next layer was the longest part of the entire process, so if you’re going to try these, make sure you can find some way to amuse yourself for a while.

Buckeyes require peanut butter, right?

Buckeye Brownies 2

Action shot!  (And clearly, we don’t believe in putting our groceries away during brownie-cooling downtime; sorry.)

This part was a lot like the peanut butter frosting I use on cupcakes, only…more.  Lots more.

Buckeye Brownies 3

Only here did I deviate from the recipe.  The recipe called for milk chocolate chips in the ganache/glaze, a thought which immediately made my teeth hurt.  Don’t get me wrong, I love milk chocolate, particularly if it’s got peanuts, caramel, or nougat in it.  But the thought of it smeared on top of a thick sweet layer of peanut butter?  Shudder.  I used semi-sweet instead, a twist heartily supported by Baking Buddy.

Buckeye Brownies 4

As we cut them, my first, stomach-dropping thought was, “They look like Nanaimo bars!”  (Something I would likely never make because they’re far too sweet and rich.)  “Hey, they kinda look like Nanaimo bars,” remarked Baking Buddy cheerfully.  It’s all about agreeing on the important things, folks.

These brownies are lovely, and the layers showed perfectly, and…holy crow, are they ever rich!  I can’t begin to imagine what milk chocolate chips would have brought to the party.  If you’re going to make ’em and eat ’em like this, a cup of coffee or glass of milk (depending on your preference) is strongly recommended…but during the postmortem, we discussed ways to make them better.  Halving the peanut butter mixture?  Halving the peanut butter mixture and omitting the chocolate glaze?  The top two layers almost ruin a wonderfully chewy brownie that stands up well on its own – but on the bright side, I now have a second basic brownie recipe in my arsenal.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

The Hunt for Red Velvet

I know that red velvet cake is generally considered to be a southern dessert.  That’s “southern” as in “below the Mason-Dixon line”, and not “Windsor” – being within spitting distance of the Ambassador Bridge doesn’t count, but I really, really wanted some sort of red velvet cupcake for Canada Day.  It’s red cake!  With white icing!

Silly me: if I wanted a patriotic dessert, I should have stuck with something simple like Nanaimo bars or butter tarts (again).

See, I’ve got issues with red velvet cake.  The Crimson Velveteen cupcakes from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World are moist and delicious, but, well, darkish.  (The authors fully own this colour issue, arguing that their dessert is much classier than some of the day-glo red versions you see.  Very well, but what if I want bright red?)

Last year I tried the recipe on the Brown Eyed Baker.  Those puppies were nothing short of fire-engine in the picture on her site, but were just as dark as my original recipe and much less flavourful once baked.  Talk about your bait-and-switch!

When I happened upon the red velvet recipe on Sally’s Baking Addiction, I thought I had died and gone to baker’s heaven.  Sally is a full-on baking geek who understands the chemistry and technique involved in making a truly spectacular dessert.  I followed her recipe to the letter, and was rewarded with lovely, brighter-red cupcakes.  (The secret is using about half the cocoa called for in other recipes I’ve seen.)

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They’re red and gorgeous and perfect!  They look exactly like the ones on the blog (piping techniques notwithstanding).  They rose, and formed these perfectly rounded tops upon which to pipe scads of icing

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And they’re just as beautiful under the wrappers, too.

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This is as striptease-y as it gets.

I so appreciated the methodology of the recipe: there’s butter for flavour; oil for moisture; buttermilk to make them tender; and two eggs, the whites of which were whipped and folded into the batter separately to keep things light and fluffy.

There was just one problem…they were kind of dry.  Okay, really dry.

My test audience was split about 50/50 as to whether or not this was a dry cake.  One conceded that “they were fine at first” and only got dry after a few days.  On the other hand, whenever I ate one, I felt like I was playing that old party game wherein one tries to whistle while eating crackers.  And I’ve made hundreds of moist cupcakes, so believe me, I know a dry cupcake when I taste one.  So disappointing!  The only thing I can figure is that the cornstarch in the batter dries them out – there’s cornstarch in the vanilla cupcakes from VCTOtW, and they’re nowhere near as moist as the other varieties.

It’s back to the drawing board for a red velvet recipe that’s at once moist and red; in the meantime, I think I’ll have to order a piece from Sals when the craving hits:

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(Now that’s a red velvet cake!)

Update: After this fiasco, I tried the Betty Crocker red velvet cupcake mix-in-a-box, and once I got past the shame of using a mix, was forced to admit that they’re pretty darned good.  Darker in colour than my scratch-baked cupcakes, above, they’re moist and light.  And I still made my own icing from scratch, so that makes them practically homemade.

Happy Canada Day! 🙂

 

baking

I found my thrill on blueberry hill…

or: What a Drag It Is Getting Old

Hey, guys?  This whole maturity thing is a buzzkill.  (Side question: do the Who still sing about hoping they die before they get old?)  Gone are the days of drinking-as-a-competitive sport, all-nighters, and greasy food whenever you darned well felt like it.

Okay, so I exaggerate somewhat – I was never much of a drinker – but this is my pity party, and I’ll embellish if I want to.

Last week, I made margarita cupcakes, and did I pile them high with swirls of tequila-lime-salt icing?  I did not.  I made a ridiculously small batch of icing, and demurely spread an even layer on each cupcake.  They still tasted fine, but didn’t feel as fun.

The weekend before that debacle, I saw a commercial for Robin’s Donuts new summer blended drink: a s’mores mocha.  My inner five year-old shrieked joyously, and the next day, I managed to con my friend into making a detour while we were out.  They had signs for it posted in the windows, and those marshmallows looked good enough to eat (obviously), and then I saw the nutritional information right beside the picture: “starts at 560 calories”.  I hate when people misuse the word “literally”, so when I say I literally froze, I mean it.  I wanted that chocolate-marshmallow-graham concoction so badly, and (with apologies to V.N.) what d’ye know, folks – I just could not make myself do it.  Cringing, I ordered a black coffee (and a Ghostbuster; I’m just old, not dead).

In light of these involuntary displays of maturity, I was intrigued by the recipe for Blueberry Oatmeal Muffins on Sally’s Baking Addiction.  I like oatmeal.  I like blueberries.  And no refined sugar?  Sign me up!

Sure, they’re sweetened with honey, and sure, a surfeit of sugar isn’t great for you no matter how natural the source, but honey is a lower GI sweetener, so I figure, it’s a trade-off.

Blueberry Muffins 1

The batter turned out super-thick thanks to letting the oats soak in the milk for the prescribed time.  This recipe makes great use of time: in the 20 minutes of soaking time, I had everything else pulled together, ready to add the oats and milk.  How efficient!

Blueberry Muffins 2

Blueberry Muffins 3

They baked up so nice and tall.  The whole house smelled like blueberry-oat-cinnamon magic (I did increase the cinnamon to about 1 tsp), and it was divine!

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I really think these are no-fail.  I followed the recipe to a “T” (cinnamon notwithstanding), and they baked up perfectly, no overbrowning or mushy middles.

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Just wholesome, blueberry-studded goodness.

My test audience couldn’t keep their paws off these.  I’m told they’re wonderful with just a little smear of butter on each half, but are excellent naked, too.  If you haven’t already preheated your oven, do it now!

I’m sure my self-imposed health martyrdom – if you can really call less-frosted cupcakes healthy – will come to an end soon enough, but I’ve got this recipe in my back pocket the next time I need a healthy snack or dessert.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

 

baking

It’s light…it’s lovely…it’s lemon

I should preface this by saying that I had a whole post planned out: “A Tale of Two Cupcakes, or: It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Blurst of Times.”  However, cupcakes the second were more or less inhaled in record time, and may not have photographed as impressively (this is what I tell myself), and instead I was left with a bunch of pictures of cupcakes the first.

Well, then.

I had had some inklings of these cupcakes bouncing around my brain for a while, now, but I was inspired by the lemon-mascarpone cake on Life, Love, and Sugar.  It looked really good, but I didn’t want to fuss with making my own lemon curd from scratch, and unless you’re feeding a crowd (I’m usually not), whole layer cakes are an annoyance to store.

I started out with the golden vanilla cupcakes from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, and added some lemon zest and juice, plus just a hint of lemon extract in addition to the vanilla.  Oh, and maybe just a drop or two of yellow food colouring.  Once they had cooled, I used my trusty corer and filled the insides with jarred lemon spread.

(Quick aside: I had a childhood friend who would eat peanut butter and lemon spread sandwiches for lunch.  Shocking, I know!  Schools used to allow peanut products on their property.  We were made of tougher stuff then.)

While the thought of peanut butter and lemon spread together still makes me want to retch, lemon spread on its own is tangy and delicious, and did not make the cupcakes soggy – most important!

Instead of a mascarpone icing, I made one of my new favourites: the whipped cream-cream cheese icing from Brown Eyed Baker.  It’s just fluffy and perfect, not too sweet, and if you have some left over and can manage not to eat it by the spoonful on its own, it goes great on fruit, toast, you name it.

What’s that?  Quit waxing nostalgic about peanut-permissive schools and get to the pictures?

Lemon Cupcakes 1

 

Cue the striptease music…

Lemon Cupcakes 2

Lemon Cupcakes 3

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The cupcakes were moist on their own, but the lemon filling helped keep them moist over the next couple of days.  And after sitting, fully assembled, for 24 hours, the flavours melded and the filling was just a bit less tangy and became almost an extension of the cake (flavour-wise, not texture-wise).  I’m not sure about the best of times, but these were pretty darned good!

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

You win some, you lose some…

Let me start by saying I’m not a big fan of social media.  I don’t care what your lunch looks like, what 144-character brain dropping has just emerged unbidden from your cranial cavity, or what pages you “like” if not actually like.

I realize, too, the irony of posting that on WordPress, which I believe is technically billed as a social media platform of sorts.  And yes, it’s tremendously flattering when someone likes (or at least “likes”) one of my posts – but I do this more for my own amusement than any third-party corroboration, so while a “like” is a nice bonus, it’s not my primary goal.

One of my complaints about social media, especially Instagram, is how carefully curated it can be and what a false sense of reality it provides.  After all, when’s the last time you saw an #ootd featuring sweatpants with defunct elastic and a fine coating of cat hair?  I’ve come to realize, though, that I’m guilty of the same thing.  I don’t post sunken cakes on here, or scorched cupcakes, or curdled frosting.  But we’ve all had recipes that just didn’t quite work out, right?

A little more than a month ago, I was perusing baking blogs before work – as in, at the office, but not on the clock, when a voice behind me asked what I was making to bring in for everyone.  So I showed my coworker this recipe for strawberry cookies, but voiced my doubts: those nonpareils could be murder on the teeth, and anyway, wouldn’t the cookies taste kind of artificial?  The conversation quickly turned to not being able to find more esoteric extracts at a small-town grocery store with new owners, and what ever happened to the guy who used to bag groceries there, anyway?  Construction!  Really?  And then, the clock magically turned over and I turned my attention to work, putting the whole concept of strawberry cookies behind me.

I was therefore surprised when this same coworker caught me on my way to the break room a few days later and handed me these:

Strawberry Cookies 1-2

I had honestly had no intention of making the cookies, but I had a patron of my art for the first time ever, which was terribly flattering and made it hard to say no.  How bad could the cookies be?

Strawberry Cookies 2-2

They’re pretty, aren’t they?  They’d be great for a little kid’s princess party because kids generally aren’t discerning, but they’re going firmly on my “Do Not Bake” list.  Probably.

I don’t mean to sound completely negative.  They had some bright points.  For example, the cookies themselves were nice and soft and chewy, and not at all greasy.  My parchment paper looked seriously pristine when I was done.  They’d likely be tasty using simple almond or vanilla extract.  The nonpareils really weren’t as tooth-shattering as I expected.  From a technical standpoint, the recipe worked out well.

But oh, that optimistic little instruction to stir in the gel colour?  Nothing stirs into dough that stiff – I had to knead it in with my hands.  The strawberry extract made them extremely fake-tasting, and when I put them in a container and tried to burp out the air as I put the lid on, I was caught with a blast of what smelled like a strawberry fart.  I brought in a baggie of eight to the coworker who had so kindly provided the sprinkles, and although she and her daughter apparently liked them, nobody that I usually bake for did.  After The People Who Will Eat Any Kind Of Cookie politely choked down one or two, these strawberry farts were quickly relegated to the kitchen garbage.

This isn’t meant as a general indictment of that particular website (quite frankly, her mini cheesecakes look delish, and I’ve got them on my to-try list), nor am I saying I’m a bumbling fool in the kitchen.  But as Osgood Fielding III said, “Nobody’s perfect.”, despite what filtered Instagram posts would have us believe.

Thanks for looking! 🙂