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Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Quilt for Ella

Ella is my niece.  The first of my parents' grandchildren.  The eldest child of my eldest brother.  A pioneer of her generation in my family.  Upon her arrival, I became Aunt Mary for the first time.  And her baby quilt was the first one my mother and I collaborated to make.  

Since then my mother and I have made three more baby quilts.  Our process is always the same.  While I get to design the quilt and piece it together, my mother does the hard labor portion, the actual hand-quilting.  My mother, however, would describe the partnership a little differently.  She might say while I have to do the drudge-work of collecting all the fabrics, cutting them, and sewing them all together, she gets to add the essential finishing touch, the loving hand-quilting. Either way, it works out pretty nicely, and we've come up with some beauties. 

Ella is currently three years old, and a thoroughly interesting little girl.  She is and always has been a little wisp of thing; blonde, blue-eyed and skinny.  She's always exploring her world, flitting about like a fairy or a sprite, constantly finding new things to laugh at, play on, or ask "why" about.  Her explorations of the backyard have led her to discover an imaginary "mean beast" that she delights in running away from.  She has coined a new color: "um" which is the color of grass.  Her creative naming extends to her stuffed animals, which include a bunny named Ah-peet, a bear named Wineglass (we're still scratching our heads at that one, but it has an interesting ring to it, don't you think? Kinda rolls off the tongue), and a giant pink hippo named Hoppy.  She has two little dolls, both named Debbie.  To differentiate, she uses the hair color to tell them apart--they're sometimes referred to as Red Debbie and Yellow Debbie.  She loves learning new things and listens all too closely to anything new we might be discussing.      

As soon as we heard the announcement that this little bundle of joy was on the way, I knew I had to make a baby quilt for my niece or nephew. (Since my brother and sister-in-law were leaving the gender of the baby a surprise, I had to design a gender neutral quilt.)  I felt the best way to celebrate this new addition to our family was with a brightly-colored Muppet quilt!  Sis-in-law loves the Muppets and so do I!  

The Muppet characters came from a vintage flat sheet I got on Ebay.  After a good washing and ironing, I realized this vintage sheet was a little threadbare, so I fused a stiffener to back of each of those squares.  The other colors I carefully placed so that no two same colors were touching one another.  

I actually had a machine quilting place do a little of the quilting (about 30 percent of it is machine quilted, which also meant I didn't have to baste the quilt-yay!) while Mom did the rest, including the Muppet characters.  The fill is very thick, and although I'm sure it'll be cozy, I've decided I like thinner quilts for the little ones.

This quilt's bright happiness perfectly suits Ella.  I hope she'll use it and have it for years to come.   


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dark/White Chocolate Cupcakes and an Engagement!

My friends Heather and Shawn are in love.  It's so sweet!   (And so are these delicious cupcakes I made for them!)  They left for a Maine vacation as boyfriend and girlfriend and came back as bride- and groom-to-be!  What better way to celebrate their engagement than hanging out with our gaggle of friends to talk, laugh, and admire Heather's beautiful ring?  And what better addition to this gathering than some delicious cupcakes?

When I bake, I make a colossal mess.  And oddly enough, if I make two batches of cupcakes I get more than twice the mess!  The kitchen looked like either a major disaster had struck or a super-villain whose evil power involves inflicting epic disorder upon people's homes had just paid me a visit.  Anyone walking in on this mess would probably be seriously concerned for my safety.  By now, the mess is under control, though.  No need for alarm.

For Heather and Shawn, I made the strawberry cupcakes mentioned in my first
post (Heather wanted to try them!) and dark chocolate cupcakes with white chocolate frosting.

I am still in search of a fool-proof, perfect chocolate cupcake recipe.  I already have one I like, which always comes out tasty, but I am looking for the moistest, chocolatey-est, bestest chocolate cupcake recipe ever.  I had hopes that the Hershey recipe would be my new fool-proof favorite, but apparently, this fool is able to mess it up.  I actually ended up making more than one batch of chocolate cupcakes because of a baking problem that occurred in the first batch.  I took them out of the oven at the correct time and they looked marvelous, but five minutes later, they had sunk, looking sadly shriveled and old.  Maybe it was because I halved the recipe?  Maybe I mixed the ingredients wrong?  I don't like taking the blame, so I'll blame it on the oven.  That crazy oven!  Anyway, the oven tried to mess up the second batch, but I out-witted it and they came out fine.  Still on the look out for the perfect chocolate cupcake recipe.  Maybe I will try Cook's Illustrated next.  Or maybe a chocolate cupcake bake-off is in order?   Hmm....Something to think about.

The white chocolate frosting was a first time experience and after a little hunting on the internet, I put together a recipe and a method that worked out nicely.

Here it is:

White Chocolate Frosting:

cup buttersoftened 
cups confectionary 
6 ounces white chocolate baking bar, chopped, melted and cooled
tablespoons heavy cream 

Melt chocolate in a heat proof bowl over a pot of simmering water.  Stir until completely melted and smooth, and let cool to room temperature (it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours).  Make sure it is completely cool or it will melt the butter.

Cream butter.  Add heavy cream and beat until smooth.  Add melted white chocolate and vanilla and beat until velvety smooth. Add confectionary sugar and beat until desired fluffiness.

The little chocolate double hearts I made for the toppers to these cupcakes were another first.  After a lesson learned about what size tip to use to create these (pinhole size is too small), I am confident I could do this again with success.  I used those Melt and Mold candies you find in the grocery store or at Michael's in the cake and candy decorating department.  I melted the candies over a double boiler and put the melted chocolate in a decorating bag with a small tip to create the double hearts.  

My cupcakes were one of a number of desserts at our little gathering, and all of them were tasty!  But the best part of the evening was celebrating Heather and Shawn's engagement!  

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Good Old American Chocolate Chip Cookies!

There are a few dishes I consider to be distinctly American.   They are a hamburger, the traditional turkey dinner, apple pie, and chocolate chip cookies.   I have not mastered the hamburger, which I have tried, or the turkey dinner, which I have not even dreamt of attempting...yet.

Desserts are more my thing.  Sadly, however, I have never made an apple pie on my own.  It's on my list of things to bake, but for some reason I have always been hesitant when it comes to pies.  Maybe it's the crust that intimidates me or the fact that there are so many  wonderful pie bakers in my family, my grandma being the best of them all.  Grandma made the best apple pies I ever tasted, and there was always a pie of some kind in her refrigerator.  She would bake a pie at the drop of hat, with the same easy confidence a normal person would bring to the task of making toast.  As a dutiful American and respectful granddaughter, I should eventually attempt the apple pie.  But that will be a post for another time. 
I can, however, bake a mean chocolate chip cookie.  It is one the things I do best.  Here is my latest attempt:

Don't they look scrumptious?  I would have taken a picture of the soft, chewy inside of a cookie broken in half, but it was gone too fast.  So let me try to make you acquainted with the experience:  The chocolate chips were slightly melty.  The cookie was a soft, tender melody of sugary, buttery, chocolatey heaven, and it all came together in chocolate chip cookie perfection.  Sounds tempting, right?

I have in my possession the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe.  It is truly the tastiest concoction of sugar, flour, butter and chocolate known to man, or woman!  I have never been tempted to try any other.  Even with all the hype about the Alton Brown or the America's Tested Kitchen recipes, which I'm sure are great, I am still in perfect confidence that my recipe has them beat.  I have, however, been inspired by these other recipes to try an alternate method of preparation, by using melted butter instead of softened butter as originally instructed.  I had never used this method before and wasn't sure how the sugar and butter should look, but it came out great!! 

I can't honestly say if the melted butter method is any better than the softened butter method.  They are both delicious!  I believe repeated chocolate chip cookie taste tests are definitely in order!  Both methods taste amazing, but if you're interested in trying one, I would recommend trying the softened butter method first.  (It really is amazing!  Try it!)

The only problem with baking these amazing cookies is that it is all too easy to eat them!  Of course, I always taste the batter/dough/cookies at every stage just to make sure everything is going smoothly.  And I always leave out a small handful of chocolate chips (Hershey's Special Dark..yum!) for sticking into cookies that look a little light on chips and especially for snacking!  As soon as I was done baking and tasting these, I felt the guilty need to go for a 3 or 4 mile run and try to work off the calories and fat.  Why is life so cruel that way?  I mean, I can put away 1000 calories worth of dough and cookies in less than two minutes.  While on the other hand it will take me two hour-long, crazy hard workouts to work off those calories.  It's just not fair.  

This perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe came to me when I was working at a newspaper in Philadelphia.  Our food editor, a wonderful cook named Alexandra Stafford (check out her blog--you will not be disappointed), brought in some cookies to work, and I was so blown away I requested the recipe and have used it dozens of times since then! 

I will reproduce her recipe exactly as it was given to me in 2007 and then repost it as I baked them this time.  Both are wonderful!  You'll have to decide for yourself whether the melted butter or softened butter method is the better one.

Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies, from Alexandra's Kitchen (this recipe is posted twice on her site, here and here)

1 1/3 cups unsalted butter      
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
12 oz. semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375°.  Cream butter and sugars together in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, until light and fluffy. Scrape the bowl, beat again on high for one minute.  Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until well blended, about another minute on medium-high speed.  Whisk flour, salt and baking soda together in separate bowl.  Add to butter mixture and combine with a spatula or wooden spoon until just blended.  Add the chocolate chips and stir until combined.  The dough will be stiff.  Place heaping tablespoons of the dough onto an ungreased jelly-roll pan.  Bake only six cookies at a time.   Bake 10-11 minutes. Keep a close watch. The cookies will still look uncooked when you remove them from the oven. (You will think you are removing them too early, but the cookies will continue cooking as they sit on the tray out of the oven - this will guarantee a moist and chewy cookie.) Let sit for 10 minutes on tray before removing to a cooling rack. Let cool completely.

Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies, from Alexandra's Kitchen, adapted by Mary

1 1/3 cups unsalted butter  (make sure it's unsalted--it makes a difference)      
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour  (I use 2 cups whole wheat flour, and 1 3/4 cups white flour)
1 1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
12 oz. semisweet chocolate chips (I use Hershey's Special Dark!)

Preheat oven to 375°.  In a medium saucepan, melt butter and let cool until slightly warm.  Combine flour, salt and baking soda together in separate bowl, and set aside.  

Beat melted butter and sugars together in a large bowl for 1 to 2 minutes until smooth.  

Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until well blended, about another minute on medium-high speed.   

Add flour mixture to butter mixture  in three parts, using mixer to combine first part and a spatula or wooden spoon to mix the second and third parts until.  Mix until just blended.  The dough will be stiff.  Add the chocolate chips and stir until combined.  I usually taste the dough at this point to make sure it's as heavenly as always.   

Place heaping tablespoons of the dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet.  Bake 9-11 minutes, keeping a close watch. The cookies will still look uncooked when you remove them from the oven.  You will think you are removing them too early, but the cookies will continue cooking as they sit on the tray out of the oven - this will guarantee a moist and chewy cookie.  Let sit for 10 minutes on tray before removing to a cooling rack. Let cool completely and enjoy! 

This is Oink.  He needed to make an appearance on the blog!