Thursday, December 23, 2010

MORE Christmas Sugar Cookies!

I've been having such a good time decorating sugar cookies. Practice really does make a difference and each time I make a new batch, I think my skills improve a little. So with this is yet another Christmas batch, but this time there are new adorable characters in my X-mas crew. Once again, I refuse to buy specialized cookie cutters to be used once a year, and then, frankly, put away for safe keeping and never to be found again. I began by sketching out my ideas and figuring out how many steps of icing and drying needed to be done.

I began by piping outlines to my little polar bears and penguins with black. In the second step, I flooded with white once the black icing was dry. As I was doing this, I decided there should be a frosty backdrop of snow and snow falling. While the icing is still wet, you can drop a second color in for a smooth effect.

The owls and birds were done the same way: start with brown, allow to dry, and move on to the next color. It really helped to sketch these out first, especially with the sparrows, because the shapes are a bit odd without conceptualizing the finished image.

Details like leaves, beaks, eyes and feet were added at the end.

Yes, Christmas polar creatures accessorize.

And after a troop of holiday animals made, I just started doodling messages like "Happy New Year" and random filigree work. Sometimes you need to doodle.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Feelgood Vegan Brownies

After last weeks' over the top, more-is-more cake, I needed to come back to something simple, classic, and just down right feelgood - as in the adjective, like in "wow, that cashmere sweater's so feelgood".  No? Whatevs.

This recipe is rich and fudgie but not too dense. You don't think it can be both fudgie and light? That's ok, you don't need to believe me. Just make it. This brownie is so good, I had two while sitting here. And you know what? I might have some more. I'm not even going to feel bad about it. In fact, I didn't even want to prejudice you by spelling out that these treats are vegan and also kind of guilt free (unless you care about carbs, in which case you do not belong here. Off with your head!). If I haven't sold you into making these yet: it's a one bowl mix!

Feelgood Brownies

2 cups all purpose flour
1 3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp espresso powder dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water
1/2 cup soy milk (if you don't have this on hand, just double the water)
2/3 cup unsweetened apple sauce
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 350F

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa & chocolate, baking powder and salt. Add in milk and espresso and stir until well combined. Do not worry about over mixing, you want to develop the glutens. Set aside.

Prepare your baking pan, either a 9x13 or 11x11 will do. I lined the pan with parchment paper to simplify serving and clean-up but greasing and flouring the pan will work just as well.

Now mix in oil and apple sauce and stir until well combined. Mix in walnuts and spread evenly into pan.
Bake 25 to 30 minutes until toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Chocolate peanut butter banana time cake

What? Less isn't more. More is more. Especially when there's a birthday involved. Especially when it's my birthday. Yes, that's right, I made myself a birthday cake. Of course I'm allowed. I only turn 21 again once a year! I absolutely insisted on making this cake and in no way does it reflect on the attention and love given to me by my most wonderful friends in the whole world (Ahem, you can relax now. You know who you are). So grab a glass of milk, and try this cake: Chocolate cake, cream cheese peanut butter frosting, banana filling. Oh yes, and chocolate peanut butter ganache glaze. 

Many years ago I fell in love with a cake from a bakery called Plusko's. This bakery just kills me. It's too out of the way for me to frequent very often, and when I do, they're always sold out of this cake. Call ahead, you say? That would just be way too easy and I like to be challenged. There's this little old lady (she weighs 90 lbs soaking wet),  who sits behind a gigantic wooden desk, the size of a sports car, doing the books. Literally. She's writing with a number 2 pencil in immaculate cursive onto ledger books. Just the old-school factor alone makes this place pretty cool. The cake, however, the cake makes it awesome. It was a moist and airy chocolate cake with whipped cream frosting and fresh banana filling that I can just taste when I think of it.

This cake I made is a little reminiscent of that. The original recipe called for a softer chocolate cake with a cream cheese peanut butter frosting. Chocolate? Good. Cream cheese? Good. Peanut butter? Goood. Have you tried all three together?  Well let me learn you: it is VERY good.

I switched up the chocolate cake in the recipe for a stout chocolate cake recipe I've been obsessing over. The flavor definitely complemented the combination but the texture was slightly heavier than I would have liked.  If I were to make this cake again, I would stick to the original recipe (included below).

Of course, I made a few mini-cupcakes as testers. As a dutiful baker, you must always taste-test your cakes. And then try it with some frosting. And then with some bananas. And without bananas. And with bananas again.

I finally decided to throw in some bananas and I'm so glad I did. I only wish I had added more. It's a very prominent flavor, and even if you're not that into bananas, it really lightens up the cake and makes it so refreshing.

The cream cheese peanut butter frosting was insane. Just sweet, salty, tangy insanity. The consistency isn't very firm, however, so it's better to work with it chilled so you don't end up with a lop-sided, three-layer hot mess. Pour on some ganache just to really make sure your guests comprehend how serious this cake is.  I threw in a few chocolate leaf decorations on top because, well, the giant looming chocolate blob just wasn't enough for me.

Sour Cream-Chocolate Cake with Peanut Butter Frosting and Chocolate-Peanut Butter Glaze
Source: Smitten Kitchen

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, Dutch process
2 tspbaking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup neutral vegetable oil, such as canola, soybean or vegetable blend
1 cup sour cream
1 1/2 cups water
2 tbsp distilled white vinegar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease three 9" round cake pans. Line the bottoms of pans with a round of parchment or waxed paper and grease that too.
2. Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl. Whisk in the oil and sour cream until blended. Gradually beat in the water. Blend in the vinegar and vanilla. Whisk in the eggs and beat until well blended, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Divide among the 3 prepared cake pans.
3. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean. Let cool in the pans for about 20 minutes. Invert onto wire racks, carefully peel off the paper liners, and let cool completely. Allowing the cakes to firm up in the freezer for about 30 minutes will make them easier to work with.
4. To frost the cake, place one layer, flat side up, on your serving plate. Spread 2/3 cup cup of the Peanut Butter Frosting evenly over the top. Repeat with the next layer. Place the last layer on top and frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting. Chill the cake 2 hours to overnight to firm up the frosting.
5. To decorate with the Chocolate–Peanut Butter Glaze pour the glaze over the top of the cake, using an offset spatula to spread evenly to the edge so that the glaze runs down the sides. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to allow the glaze and frosting to set completely.

Peanut Butter Frosting
Makes about 5 cups
10 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
5 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2/3 cup smooth peanut butter

1. In a large bowl cream butter and cream cheese with an electric mixer. Gradually mix in confectioners’ sugar 1 cup at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Continue to beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes.
2. Add the peanut butter and beat until thoroughly blended.

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Glaze
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
8 ounces seims-weet chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 tbsp smooth peanut butter
2 tbsp light corn syrup
1/2 cup half-and-half

1. In a double boiler, combine the chocolate, peanut butter, and corn syrup. Cook, whisking often, until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.
2. Remove from the heat and whisk in the half-and-half, beating until smooth. Use while still warm.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christmas Sugar Cookies!

It's starting to look a lot like Christmaaaaaas! (I sang that last part like Oprah would. Try it. I promise it's fun) I think decorating sugar cookies will really get you in the mood for all the holidays. All the piping with multiple colors and piping bags can seem daunting, but this process is pretty forgiving (provided you have a steady hand).

First, you can usually freeze the dough if you don't have time to roll, cut and bake right away. Second, royal icing consistency is pretty easy to tweak. Third, you can spread out the decorating over a few days (it's actually better that you do). And the best part: you can make these ahead of time to gift because they'll stay good for a few weeks in an airtight container especially in the cool holiday weather.  Whats more, it's not a problem if you don't have a huge variety of little specialized cookie cutters, a simple round one will do.

The problem I usually have with cutout cookies is that they tend to puff up and spread out in the oven, losing their delicate shapes. I'm glad to report, there's a recipe that doesn't do that! I tried two recipes. The first was a traditional sugar cookie from Sweetopia with a truck load of butter in. Ohhh, the buttery goodness!  Sugar cookies are great for looks, but of the two recipes, this cookie actually tasted so good I wanted to keep eating them with my coffee. And after two weeks, they still tasted and smelled great.

They did puff up a bit though even with all the chilling I did both before and after making the cut-outs. In all fairness, Sweetopia is the queen of sugar cookies and I am but a humble admirer of her work, so maybe they don't puff when she makes them. Not a deal breaker though. These are the ones you wanna eat.

The second recipe is a spiced brown sugar cookie that held their shapes immaculately. They had a nice, subtle holiday spice flavor but did not require additional chilling. These are the ones you wanna admire.

I don't have a boat load of cookie cutters and I don't really miss them with this method of decorating.  I also think they're cuter this way.  As you can see, I've been lazy with mixing up the right consistency for piping versus flooding. The letters are more like blobs and the leaves are somewhat shapeless. I still have some more practicing to do, but not bad for my first owl, eh?

Sugar Cookies
Source: Sweetopia
2  1/2 cups (4 1/2 sticks!) butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
seeds from 1 vanilla bean (or 3 tsp vanilla)
5 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
  1. Cream the butter and sugar together in using an electric mixer on low to medium speed for about one minute, scraping down the sides to fully incorporate.  (Use the paddle attachment) Do not overmix.
  2. Add eggs slowly and mix.  Scrape down the bowl with your spatula at least once and mix again.
  3. Cut open your vanilla bean and scrape the seeds out.  Add to mixing bowl.  Alternatively, add liquid vanilla extract.  Stir briefly.
  4. Sift your dry ingredients together.  (Flour, baking powder and salt).
  5. Add the flour mixture to the bowl.  Mix on low speed for 30 seconds. When the dough clumps around the paddle attachment it’s ready.  Do not over mix.
  6. Roll the dough out between 2 large pieces of parchment paper and place on a baking sheet. Chill for at least 1 hour.
  7. Roll out the dough to the desired thickness and cut out cookie shapes.  Place on parchment paper-lined baking sheet. 
  8. Put cookie dough shapes back into the fridge for 10 minutes to 1 hour to chill again.
  9. Preheat your oven to 350°F or 176°C.
  10. Bake cookies for 8-12 minutes (depending on size and thickness of cookie) or until the edges become golden brown.
  11. Cool completely and decorate.
Spiced Brown Sugar Cut-Out Cookies
Source: Annie's Eats
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
1/8 tsp allspice
½ cup sugar
½ cup light brown sugar, packed
16 tbsp. (1/2 lb) unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
  1. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and spices in a medium bowl; whisk to blend.  
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the sugar, brown sugar and butter.  Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes.  
  3. Blend in the egg and vanilla.  
  4. With the mixer on low speed, mix in the dry ingredients just until incorporated.  
  5. Form the dough into a ball or disk and wrap tightly in plastic wrap.  Chill until firm, at least 30-60 minutes.
  6. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350˚ F.  Line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.  
  7. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to about ¼-inch thickness.  Use cookie cutters to form desired shapes and transfer to the prepared baking sheets.  
  8. Bake 10-12 minutes.  
  9. Cool completely and decorate.
Royal Icing
Source: Sweetopia
6 oz (3/4 cup) of warm water
5 Tbsp Meringue Powder
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 kg (2.25 lbs.) powdered icing sugar
  1. In mixer bowl, pour in the warm water and the meringue powder. Whisk until it is frothy and thickened (about 30 seconds).
  2. Add the cream of tartar and mix for 30 seconds more.
  3. Pour in all the powdered sugar at once and place the bowl on the mixer.
  4. Using the paddle attachment on the LOWEST speed, mix slowly for 10 minutes. Icing will get thick and creamy.
  5. Cover the bowl with a dampened tea-towel to prevent crusting and drying.
  6. Tint with food colourings or thin the icing with small amounts of warm water to reach the desired consistency.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

My Pumpkin Baby: Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Swiss Meringue Buttercream

I have a bun in the oven. Well, it's more like a cupcake.... OK! It's like half-a-freakin'-dozen pumpkin cupcakes! Don't judge me - it wasn't planned! At first, it was just the one. But then, there was another one.  And... well, I don't know what happened after that. Things got blurry, I lost count... and now I have a pumpkin baby. You would have done the same thing if you were there.

I was looking for a festive recipe for this Thanksgiving, and what's more apropos than Pumpkin Cupcakes? Even with all of the cake flour called for, I half expected these to be a little dense from past experience. Fortunately I was wrong. This cake was airy and light, and the frosting - well, let's just say it took all my will power not to intercept the frosting on its' way from the mixing bowl to the intended targets. This is a serious pumpkin pie experience in your mouth. I just might have had a transcendent experience (this seems to be a reoccurring theme).  I've been disenchanted by pumpkin pie in the past (think: mountain of mass produced pumkin pies at Costco) and hadn't had it in some time. It's just sooo "been there done that". However, this really took me back. This took me back to when my little sister was born, two days before Thanksgiving, over 20 years ago. It took me back to sitting on my mom's hospital bed in the Recovery wing of Labor & Delivery, when she was served her dinner with pumpkin pie. She let me eat her pie and it was really, really good. Maybe because I was a kid. Maybe because I just got a brand new baby sister.  

Pumpkin Cupcakes
Makes about 18 cupcakes

1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup firmly packed dark-brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk mixed with 1 teaspoon vanilla*
1 1/4 cups canned solid-pack pumpkin

Cream Cheese Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting*
Once (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup pure maple syrup

Making the cupcakes:
1. Preheat the oven to 350°  and Line a cupcake pan with 18 liners.
2. In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugars until fluffy. Meanwhile, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Set aside
3. Add the eggs 1 at a time to the mixer, scraping down the sides after the last addition. Add the milk mixture and mix until combined. Add the flour mixture and mix on slow speed until combined. Beat in the pumpkin until combined. Distribute the batter between the cupcake liners - they will be about 3/4 full (using a mechanical ice cream scooper helps). Drop the pans from about 2-3 inches in the air onto the counter to release air bubbles and even out batter. Bake about 23 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool completely before frosting.

*I never have buttermilk, so I substituted with 1/2 tbsp vinegar and milk brought to 1/2 cup.

Making the frosting:
(Also see: The One: Swiss Meringue Buttercream)
1. Mix sugar and egg whites in bowl of stand mixer over simmering water until sugar is dissolved (170° F)
2. Continue to beat on the stand mixer, medium to high, to stiff peaks and bottom of bowl is cool to touch. Add softened butter 2 tbsp at a time until combined.
3. Add cream cheese, 2 oz at a time, and beat until combined.
4. Add maple syrup and beat until combined.
5. Frost cupcakes as desired.

** For a lighter version (read: so you can eat more of it), whip up 1 1/4 cups heavy cream with 2tbsp sugar and 1/8 cup maple syrup.

Cupcake recipe (barely) adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Beer for Everyone! Chocolate Whiskey and Beer Cupcakes

If you're a friend of mine, you'll like this cupcake. Stout, whiskey and Baileys with your chocolate - what's not to like? I kick myself for not having made it sooner. I took a bite, and then I had to take a moment. This one deserves a moment because its' bold flavors make it so dangerous.

Most of the alcohol cooks out of the stout beer, but the flavor remains and even if you're not a avid beer drinker, which I'm not, you'll find that it makes one of the best chocolate cupcakes you'll ever have. And then there's the dark chocolate whiskey ganache filling. And also the Baileys swiss meringue buttercream.

Are you still there?

OK good. Just checking, because I had to hold onto something when I tried this. Um, I wasn't, like, strewn out on the floor in a chocolate coma with left over beer in one hand, Johnny Walker in the other and ganache smeared all over my maw, or anything...  

It is one boozy luscious cupcake and it's not for lightweights (not a problem here). These were actually made with love (and some mischief in mind) for a friends birthday and they were a huge hit. I have already gotten requests to make them again! So the lesson here is: Add beer to everything.

For the Guinness Chocolate Cupcakes
1 cup (oatmeal) stout beer
1 cup (2 sticks) (un)salted butter
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process) (I subbed 1/4 cup for Ghirardelli Sweet Chocolate and Cocoa powder)
2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2/3 cup (light) sour cream

Ganache Filling
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 to 2 teaspoons Irish whiskey (I used Johnny Walker Scotch whiskey)

Baileys Swiss meringue buttercream

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 24 cupcake cups with liners. Simmer the stout and butter in a  large saucepan over medium heat. Add cocoa powder and whisk until mixture is smooth. Cool slightly.

Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda, and 3/4 teaspoon salt in large bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat eggs and sour cream in another large bowl to blend. Add stout-chocolate mixture to egg mixture and beat just to combine. Add flour mixture and beat just to combine, then use a rubber spatula to fold batter until completely combined. Fill cupcake liners about 2/3 of the way. Bake cupcakes about 17 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool completely and then remove center using an apple corer.

Simmer the cream and pour over chocolate chips in a heat proof bowl and allow to sit for one minute. Whisk until smooth and then add the butter and whiskey and stir until combined. Allow to cool until thick and pipe into cupcake centers. Frost with Baileys SMBC!

Adapted from: