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Friday, September 21, 2012

Muffins and a Good Friend

I woke up one Thursday morning with the happy prospect of four days off and a weekend trip to an amusement park with one of my best friends.  My bags were packed and the car was all gassed up for the trip ahead.  After having realized that my friend's plane was taking off at 11:55am instead of landing at 11:55am, I suddenly found myself with an unexpected hour to kill.  Would I do laundry, get some work done, put my office area in order, or any of the other multitude of chores that could and should get done?  Nope!  I pulled my recipe book off the shelf and open it up to my new favorite muffin recipe, Sarah's Do-It-Your-Way Muffins from the Healthy Oven Baking Book.

I love these muffins because all of the ingredients are things I generally have on hand and the add-in can be changed to suit whatever is handy or in season.  I used some of the blueberries I had in the fridge.  This recipe makes the moistest, tastiest, easiest muffins you'll ever make.  Definitely a keeper. 

In my world, no matter how much they may look like cupcakes, muffins are a health food.  And so, the only change I made to the recipe was to use whole wheat flour instead of all-purpose flour, boosting the health factor.

Pretty soon, my muffins were baked, (mostly) cooled and sitting in a ziplock container in the back seat and I was on my way to the airport to pick up my friend, Gina.  After waiting at a Denny's near the airport for the delayed flight to land (it was delayed, I later found out, because they said the windshield was too hot to take off!), her "just landed" text came through and I jumped in the car, giddy with anticipation.  We greeted each other with a hug that melted the distance and time our friendship endures and very soon were in the car laughing at anything and everything.

Friends are food for the soul and I always feel blessed after having spent some time with a good friend.  But good friends don't come along every day, so when a kindred spirit comes into your life, do whatever you need to to keep them in your life.  Gina lives over 300 miles away and we don't see each other very often.  We don't get to have those pizza-and-a-movie nights on a moment's notice.  We don't get to grab lunch at the latest burger joint.  We don't get to get a drink and talk after a hard day.  We see each other a couple times at year best, but the strength of that connection is so powerful that when we do get together, it's like we were never apart.

We spent two of the hottest summer days on record walking around an amusement park, battling heat, sun, headaches, and roller coaster motion sickness.  We watched the park emergency golf carts zoom around rescuing heat stroke victims.  We waited in line for a popular ride despite the fact that every indication pointed to the fact that it would be a painful one. (It was.)  By the end the of second day, the kiddie car ride was all we could handle, and that night we laughed over our adventures.

I enjoyed every hot, headachy, motion sick moment of that trip.  Thank you, dear friend, for being you.  Thank you for coming to see me.  Thank you for your friendship.  Thank you for your efforts to keep in touch.

And to all my dear friends, thank you, thank you, thank you!

Sarah's Do-It-Your-Way Muffins

Non-Stick canola oil

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour (I used whole wheat flour)
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk
3/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup raisins (I substituted fresh blueberries)

1.  Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350.  Lightly spray twelve nonstick muffin cups with oil.
2.  In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt until well combined.  Set aside.
3.  In another medium bowl, using a handheld electric mixer set a high speed, beat the buttermilk, applesauce, brown sugar, egg, oil and vanilla until frothy, about 2 minutes.  Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the buttermilk mixture.  using a spoon, mix just until moistened (there should be a few traces of flour remaining).  Gently fold in the raisins until the flour is incorporated.  Do not overmix.
4.  Divide the batter equally among the prepared muffin cups.  Bake until the tops spring back when pressed gently in the center, about 20 minutes.  Do not overbake.  Cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes before removing from the cups.  Serve warm or cool completely on wire rack.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Vanilla Cupcake Taste Test

The vanilla cupcake.  Blah.  Who would eat vanilla when other flavors like chocolate are available?  This is the thinking that drove me to find the perfect vanilla cupcake recipe.  The perfect vanilla cupcake would have to have a terrific, but not overpowering, vanilla taste and be moist and fluffy.  And so I chose four cupcake recipes to do a vanilla cupcake taste test.  Here is the story of that taste test:

I baked my chosen four recipes in mini-cupcake tins in four different colored wrappers.  The day they came out of the oven, unfrosted, a couple of taste-testers and I tried each one.  We compared the vanilla taste, the moistness, and the texture of the cupcakes, probably over-analyzing each aspect.  The blue wrapper was my personal favorite.  The green wrapper had an interesting bite to it.  The purple wrapper was fluffy and pleasant.  The pink wrapper was... well, just okay.

Then I frosted them with Kathy's Buttercream Frosting and took them to work, expecting everyone to rave about the blue wrapper cupcakes.  I left a voting sheet out for all to have their say and waited.  Then, the most extraordinary thing happened.  My favorites in the blue wrapper didn't get a single vote!  (In fact, someone even mentioned this fact on the voting sheet.) And the cupcakes in the pink wrapper, the ones I thought most likely to be forgotten, won!  The purple wrapper came in second.  The green wrapper, even though it came in third, must be given a nudge for having the most enthusiastic votes (lots of exclamation points).  I was shocked.  What could have caused this upset?  Could the pink wrapper cupcakes truly be the Cinderella story here?
The voting sheet
The winner
Lots of exclamation points!
Har har

I had to make the pink wrapper recipe one more time, to see if I could officially judge them as the winner. And to my delight and amazement, they came out wonderfully. They were moist. They were fluffy. They were flavorful. How could I have missed this the first time around? How could they have not made a great first impression on me? Was it the mini-cupcake size? Was it the fact that I was tasting four different cupcakes at one time? If I made my favorite blue wrapper recipe again, would I find them not as good as I thought?

These are questions to which I have no answers.  All I know is, this recipe is very, very good.  I even surprised myself by eating two of them and was deeply desirous of a third.  This recipe has redefined my idea of vanilla cupcakes.  This is the taste of happy.  Even for a staunch chocolate lover like me, this was a satisfying cupcake.  Everyone who tried it agreed it was a fantastic cupcake.  Pair it with Kathy's Buttercream Frosting and you've got a cupcake that will be remembered.  Even though, I foresee more experimenting in my future, I happily give this recipe it's due praise and declare it the winner.

Congratulations, cupcake!  

And since you've all been wondering what the winning recipe is....I am proud to say.... the winner is....(drum roll, please)...Glorious Treats Perfect Vanilla Cupcakes!  And the interesting part about this recipe is that it came about as a result of testing and retesting in a cupcake recipe quest --read about it here.  The others, which were all good and worthy of trying were Vanilla Bean Cupcakes from Annie's Eats, Billy's Vanilla Cupcakes, and the Ultimate Vanilla Cupcake from the Cupcake Project.  They were all worthy contenders and worth a taste. 

Perfect Vanilla Cupcakes
from Glorious Treats
Yields- 15-16 cupcakes

1 1/4 cups cake flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup oil (vegetable, canola or extra light olive oil)
1/2 cup buttermilk
(or 1/2 cup milk plus 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar or lemon juice- add acid to the milk then set aside for 5 minutes before using)

Preheat oven to 350*F.

In a medium bowl, add cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir together with whisk, and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, add eggs and beat 10-20 seconds. Add sugar and continue to beat on medium speed about 30 seconds. Add vanilla and oil, beat.

Reduce mixer speed to low and slowly add about half of the flour mixture. Add half of the milk, then the rest of the flour and the rest of the milk. Beat until just combined. Scrap down the side of the bowl.

The batter will be thin. Pour batter into a muffin pan prepared with paper liners. Fill liners about 2/3 full.

Bake cupcakes in pre-heated oven for 12-14 minutes.

Cool in pan 1-2 minutes, then remove cupcakes from pan (carefully) and finish cooling on a wire rack.

Frost as desired when fully cool.

Notes from Glorious Treats
* Feel free to use this recipe for a cake as well.  The recipe above will work for a 6" cake.  Double the recipe for an 8" or 9" cake.
* A note about Cake Flour-  Cake Flour has a lower protein content than traditional all-purpose flour, which results in a more tender, delicate crumb in the finished product.  If you can not find or access cake flour, feel free to substitute as necessary, but your results will vary from the original recipe. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Best Buttercream Frosting and Childhood

There are a few things that only exist in the wonderful world of childhood that just don't make it into adulthood.  For me, here are my top three:

1.  Running and loving it.  I loved having my cousins over to play, and our favorite destination was my big backyard.  To me, my backyard was so huge, it seemed like it spanned several universes.  (We divided up my backyard into the "back," the "way back," and the "way, way back.")  I remember being so excited as soon as they would arrive, we would shoot out the back door like gunshots, and just run around until we got tired.  There was a big hill in the "way, way back" of my back yard, and one of our favorite games was to run down it as fast as we could.  It felt like flying.  I loved it.  Nowadays, I still run (gotta try to keep up with all the calories); but I don't enjoy it, and it never feels like flying.

2. Playing pretend.  I was master at pretend.  Imaginary worlds sprung up before my eyes without even trying.  In the course of my childhood I spent a lot of time very successfully experiencing life as a fairy, Wonder Woman (complete with a crayoned costume I would tape to my clothes), a successful hotel chain co-owner (you're heard of the world famous Balloons Hotel, right?), a saloon keeper in the Old West, a bird, a spy, and a jazz singer.  Nowadays, I don't really play pretend anymore, but the idea of it still holds appeal.  

3.  Eating large amounts of sugar without any negative effects.  I could eat a whole bowl of Betty Crocker fudge brownie batter, raw, and feel great afterwards.  I could eat an entire ice cream Sundae and several candy bars and still be hungry for dinner (as long as it wasn't tuna noodle casserole).  I could eat all of my Halloween candy in 24 hours.  I could eat several bowls of sugar cereal and call it a well-balanced breakfast.  I could eat frosting by the spoonful.  I never gained unsightly pounds after these childish binges.  I never felt guilty.  I never had any regrets. Nowadays, I still love sweets as much as I did as a child, but it comes along with lots of extra inches, pounds, and guilt.  As much as I want to (and sometimes try to), I can no long eat sugar the way I used to.

It's fortunate that I had such a big backyard to run in and playmates who enjoyed pretending as much as I did, but I sure do wish I had this fantastic buttercream frosting as a child, because I would have eaten it by the bucketful.

My sister-in-law, Kathy, aside from providing me with two of the most precious nieces an aunt could have, has also provided me with a winning frosting recipe from Wilton.  Kathy is the type of woman who can sew, cook, bake, and decorate all amazingly well.  She's also super-smart and an athlete.  Most of the time, when I ask her for a recipe, she can't really give me one, because she doesn't generally use them.  She can throw together a bunch of ingredients without measuring and have it come out perfect.  The first time I tasted this frosting, I definitely needed the recipe and was delighted when I found out how easy it was.

This is truly the best buttercream frosting recipe you'll ever have.  I guarantee the next time you use this recipe for a party, you'll get more than one compliment on it.  It is the perfect sweet, fluffy frosting for any kind of cake or cupcake.  It can decorate well, and tastes all too good directly out of the bowl.  Even though I didn't have this buttercream frosting in my childhood, it makes the child in me happy to know that my sweet nieces will enjoy it on their birthday cakes and always get to lick the bowl.  

This cake used at least a recipe and a half of frosting.

Kathy's Buttercream Frosting
adapted from Wilton

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, slightly softened
1/2 cup shortening
2 teaspoons clear vanilla extract
1 pound (about 4 cups) confectioner's sugar
2-3 tablespoons milk

Cream together butter and shortening.  Add vanilla.  Beat in confectioner's sugar one cup at a time.   Add milk, beating until light and fluffy.  For a stiffer frosting, use less milk.  For a creamier frosting, use more milk.

(Mary's note: Even though Wilton's and Kathy's directions call for adding the milk after all the sugar has been added, I usually add a little milk after about half of the sugar has been beaten in and then alternate from there, adding all the sugar and enough of the milk to give the desired constistency.)

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Poem for Grandma

In memory of Regina

Death came last week.
His visit wasn't sudden.
He didn't come unannounced.
He gave his name at the door,
And waited patiently for his charge,
So patiently
I'd almost forgotten he was there.
He knocked loudly before entering.
He knocked loudly and long.
We knew what would happen.
Then he took her
And was gone.

I'd never met Death before.
We only saw each other from afar. 
But now I have seen him.
I felt him brush past my sleeve 
As he whisked her away.
He did not say it was to relieve her suffering.
He did not say it was to take her to a better place.
No, Death did not speak.
Death did not reassure me.
With quiet, morbid confidence
Death did his job
And went upon his way.

Loss came afterward.
He barged in 
And made himself at home.
He rummaged through my heart,
Playing sorrowful music
On the precious memories stored there.
He turned a hot spotlight
Upon the empty space she left behind.
He kept whispering her name,
Long into the lonely hours.

I could watch Death come
And I could bear it,
If it wasn't followed
By that awful Loss.

The fabulous Regina 1920-2012
Wife, Mother, Grandmother, Sister, Polka-dancer

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Grandmother's Pound Cake

There is a recipe in mother's recipe book, called Grandmother's Pound Cake, that she's had ever since I can remember.  My mother's recipe book is a three-ring binder filled to bursting with hand-written recipes, pages from magazines, and recipes cut out from food packages; and this recipe is one of the most used.  Having recently lost my grandma, I was moved to look to the simple things that give me comfort.  This pound cake recipe is one of them, and the idea that it is a family recipe makes it all the more special.  The ingredient list is simple, and the taste is heavenly.  But I can't help but wonder who developed this magical, wonderful pound cake.  Which of my mother's grandmothers could be the one for which this recipe is named?

It could be Martha's.  Martha was my mother's mother's mother, and she was reportedly a vivacious and generous woman.  I only remember one picture of her that was always hanging in my grandma's house--the warmth of Martha's face was striking and will always stay with me.  She and my great-grandfather were quite lively and would act in local theatrical shows.  Unfortunately, she died young, leaving behind her husband and three little girls. 

The recipe could be Irene's.  Irene was Martha's cousin.  As Martha lay dying, her death wish (back then, my Polish ancestors believed very strongly that a wish made on the deathbed had to be fulfilled) was that her cousin Irene move to America, marry my great-grandfather, and raise their three girls as her own.  Moving to a new country is a daunting task.  Marrying a stranger and becoming an instant mother would have to be unthinkably difficult.  To do them both would have to be difficult beyond my wildest imagination.  But Irene did it without complaint.  She came to America, married my great-grandfather, became a mother to his three girls, and eventually had two more boys of her own.  She was a strong and determined woman. 

The recipe could be Amelia's, my mother's father's mother.  My grandfather's family was apparently an interesting group (my great uncle Ted even joined the circus for a while), and Amelia was loved by all who knew her.  When my mother took a summer job at the same thermometer factory where Amelia had worked, she was treated like a superstar simply because she was Amelia's granddaughter.

I like to imagine one of these woman wearing a home-sewn apron pulling a loaf of her special pound cake out of the oven to a chorus of family "ooh"s and "ah"s.  I imagine it like something out of a Hallmark movie.  In a quaint kitchen with old-fashioned lace curtains, a loving family eagerly awaits warm slices of delicious pound cake.  They're all smiling and laughing, taking their pound cake with coffee, tea or milk, not even realizing that this recipe would be beloved for generations.

Grandmother's Pound Cake is one of those recipes where simplicity is key.  There is no lemon flavor, no chocolate chips, and no sugar glaze.  It is perfectly wonderful just the way it is.  Even though we sometimes serve it with fruit and whipped cream, making it a delightful dessert, there is nothing like this pound cake without any adornment.  I love how the crust becomes golden brown and slightly crispy while the inside is so moist it melts in your mouth.  Whenever I have it I think of all those times in my childhood when my mother would have a pound cake wrapped in wax paper on the counter.  I would spot it as soon as I got home from school and help myself to a large uneven slice.  I remember sitting at the table at night before bed, having pound cake for dessert.  After having inhaled my slice, I would sit with my mom while she daintily ate hers with a cup of tea. It was pure happiness.  It still is.

Upon asking my mother a day ago exactly which of my great-grandmothers is to thank for this recipe, she told me she got it from her friend, Nancy.  So, as it turns out, none of my great-grandmothers had anything to do with this recipe.  Grandmother's Pound Cake was a creation of someone else's grandmother.

Nevertheless, this wonderful pound cake certainly is a family recipe now.  My mother passed it down to me and, hopefully, when I pass it along to my kids, someday, it will be Grammy Suz's Pound Cake.  Even though it wasn't Martha's, Irene's or Amelia's, it is definitely worthy of them, and I'm sure they would have loved it.  Some recipes are too good to be kept a family secret, and so I give to you one of my most cherished recipes, and I hope you pass it along as well. 

Grandmother's Pound Cake

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 2/3 cups sugar
5 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups cake flour (In the past, I've used all-purpose flour in a pinch and it works out fine.)
1/2 teaspoon salt

Grease and flour one 9 x 5 or two smaller loaf pans.  Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy.  Beat in the eggs one at a time.  Beat in vanilla.  Fold in cake flour and salt.

Bake at 300 degrees for 1 1/2 hours for large pan and 1 1/4 hours for small pans.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Coconut Cake for Mom

My mother's taste in sweets is quite different from mine.  While I love to try as many new-fangled recipes that I can, my mother sticks with the well-worn, butter-stained recipes from her cookbook.  While my idea of heaven would be some sort of cookie-dough, Oreo, ultra-chocolately brownie delight with a dangerous dark chocolate frosting, my mother's idea of heaven is a simple slice of Grandmother's Pound Cake--no lemon flavoring, no frosting, no chocolate chips.  (Actually, her idea of heaven is a perfect pear or a sweet orange, but where's the fun in that?) Even our ideas of the perfect portion size are different.  I go for a huge slice of cake and can usually polish it off in five seconds or less.  (And later on, when no one's paying attention, I'll sneak a second slice!)  But Mom always asks for a sliver of cake.  (And it kills me when she occassionally doesn't even finish that!)  And so, baking for Mom is both gratifying (I have to admit that Grandmother's Pound Cake is pretty wonderful) and frustrating (how could anybody not like Oreo cookie dough brownies?).  But after months of baking, I have finally found an item sure to please Mom's tastes, this adorable 6-inch coconut cake.

I love making cakes and have piles of recipes desperate to be tried, but waiting for an opportunity to make an entire cake is not easy.  And making a whole cake just to test a recipe seems like a waste. And then it appeared.  The 6-inch cake pan.  And I fell in love.  Yes!  Now I can a make a half recipe of cake for a 6-inch double layer cake.  It's sweet.  It's petite.  It's the 6-inch cake!  I knew my mom would love this.  She did, and the 6-inch cake has become something of a rock star.

But what do you make for a woman who already has her favorite recipes?  The answer came when we were having lunch at a bakery and Mom spotted a slice of coconut cake that looked yummy.  I immediately announced I would make a coconut cake for her.  My first attempt was a vanilla cake and vanilla frosting topped with shredded coconut.  We all liked it, but it was not coconutty enough.  My second attempt was a yellow cake recipe from Shirley Corriher with one of our family favorite frosting recipes, Brides Frosting, which I altered by adding imitation coconut extract and mixing in some shredded coconut, in addition to the shredded coconut sprinkled on top.  Mom loved it, but I wanted an even lighter frosting.  And so, Shirley's yellow cake recipe with Seven Minute Coconut Frosting fit the bill perfectly.

I am going to post the recipe for a full-size cake, with the half recipe measurements that I used for Mom's 6-inch cake at the bottom.  My half recipes contain seemingly impossible measurements, such as one and a half eggs. You may be thinking, "She nuts.  How do you split an egg?"  The answer is easy.  I lightly beat one egg into a small bowl and eyeball half.  It's not scientific, but it works for me.  Or you could use a smallish-looking egg.  But even if you just round up to the nearest egg and use normal size eggs, it'll probably come out fine.  

And so, for you coconut fans out there.  Here it is: Coconut Cake ala Mary.

Shirley Corriher's Magnificent Moist Golden Cake

Adapted from Bakewise by Shirley Corriher

(Mary's note:  In Bakewise, Shirley gives three different methods of making this cake.  The one I am using is the Two-Stage Method.)

Makes 2 9-inch cake layers or two dozen cupcakes

2 large eggs, at room temperature
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/3 cup buttermilk, divided
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups cake flour, spooned and leveled
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup canola oil
1/2 cup heavy cream

1. Preheat oven to 350F.  Place a mixing bowl in the freezer.

2.  Spray 2 9-inch round cake pans with non-stick cooking spray and line bottoms with parchment circles.

3.  Stir the eggs, yolks, and about half of the buttermilk and the vanilla together in a medium bowl.

4.  Mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl.  Add the butter, oil and the remaining buttermilk.  Mix on low to moisten the dry ingredients, then increase to medium speed and beat 1 1/2 minutes.  Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl.  Add one-third of the egg mixture and beat for 20 seconds.  Repeat, adding thirds until all the egg mixture is incorporated.  Scrape down the sides with each addition.

5.  In the cold bowl from the freezer, whip the cream until soft peaks form when the beater is lifted.  Beat just a little beyond this soft peak stage.  Stir about one-quarter of the whipped cream into the batter to lighten it.  Then fold the rest of of the whipped cream into the batter.

6.  Pour the batter into the prepared pans.  Drop the pans onto the counter from a height of 4 inches to knock out the bubbles.  Place the cake in the oven and bake until the center springs back when touched or a toothpick inserts in the center comes out clean but moist, about 40 minutes.  Ideally the cake should not pull away from the sides until it has just come out of the oven.  The center should be about 209F if you check by inserting an instant-read thermometer.  (I don't have one of these.  The touch-test works for me.)

7.  Place cake on the pan on a rack to cool, about 10 minutes, then loosen the cake before inverting onto the rack to finish cooling.  Peel off the parchment.  Cool completely before icing.

7-Minute Coconut Frosting
(Mary's note: I know this frosting actually takes about 11 minutes, but Seven-Minute Frosting is a widely used type of frosting, and I guess some cooks can get it done in 7 minutes. But take your time; it's not a race.) 

3 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp coconut extract
2 - 4 cups shredded coconut

In the bowl of an electric mixer, using a handheld whisk, beat together the egg whites, sugar, water and cream of tartar just until combined, about 30 seconds. Place the bowl over but not touching simmering water in a saucepan and whisk until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is hot, 3 to 4 minutes.  (Mary's note:  To check if sugar is fully dissolved rub a little of the mixture between your thumb and forefinger.  If it feels grainy, then the sugar is not dissolved.  It it feels smooth, the sugar is dissolved--this also means that the eggs have reached the temperature required to kill any bacteria, so they are safe to eat.)

Set the bowl on the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat on medium speed for 3 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat until the outside of the bowl is cool and stiff peaks form 5 to 7 minutes more. Using a rubber spatula, fold in anywhere from 1 to 2 cups of shredded coconut (based on your preference) until just incorporated.

After frosting cake, sprinkle top and sides of cake with remaining shredded coconut.

Mary's half-recipe measurements for 2 6-inch layers:

Magnificent Moist Golden Cake Half Recipe:

1 large egg
1 1/2 large egg yolks (I know, half a egg yolk is weird.  See my non-scientific method of splitting an egg above.)   
2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons of cake flour 3/4 cup sugar
3/4 + 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons canola oil
1/4 cup heavy cream

Follow directions as written above.  Start checking for doneness when you can smell the cake in the oven, about 20 minutes.

7 Minute Coconut Frosting Half Recipe

1 1/2 large egg whites
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon coconut extract
1 - 2 cups shredded coconut

Follow directions above, folding in 1/2 to 1 cup of shredded coconut into the frosting.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Millet Muffins and Church

What do millet muffins and church have in common?  They are both, in some way, nourishing.  A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in need of nourishment.  After making far too many overly sweet baked goods and after missing a few Sundays of church, I felt the need to infuse my life with some nourishment.  So after I made a much-needed return to church, I made these delicious millet muffins.

I am not here to preach the virtues of going to church, but for me, it is nourishing.  It is quiet and contemplative.  You must stand at the correct times and kneel at the correct times and sing at the correct times.  It is a ritual I know well and find soothing.  It's comforting to know that this ritual is shared by many, past and present.  My grandmother, who is the most faithful person I have ever known, went through the same Sunday ritual for most of her life.  People much greater than I, as well as friends and family I try to emulate all participate in the same ritual.  In a way, that makes going to church a meaningful thing to do.  Church holds many more layers of meaning for me than simply the ritual it encompasses, but even when I am at a loss and in need of answers, church can simply be a time and space for me to experience a little quiet and peace.  Even though I may not get there every week due to work or my only morning to sleep in or some other excuse, I know church is there.  It will be waiting for me when I make the time.  And it will always be nourishing for me. 

The same is true for my baked goods.  Even though I simply adore making decadent cakes and addictive cookies, these types of desserts are not always the most nourishing.  And so, after I returned from church that Sunday, instead of whipping up a batch of my favorite cookies or a pan of seriously chocoately brownies, I made these millet muffins from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day.  They are definitely nourishing and one of the tastiest muffin recipes I have ever come across.  I am not going to even try to find another recipe for millet muffins because this one is perfect.  When I need something more substantial than cake or slightly more healthy than a cookie, I make these muffins. 

It was a good Sunday.  I got the nourishment I needed.   And I hope you take advantage of whatever is nourishing to you. 

Millet Muffins
Adapted from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day

2 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/3 cup raw millet
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt (I used table salt)
1 cup plain yogurt
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
1/2 cup barely melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup honey
Grated zest and 2 Tablespoons juice from 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 400F.  Butter a standard 12-cup muffin pan or line with paper liners.

Whisk together the flour, millet, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl.  In another bowl, whisk together the yogurt, eggs, butter, honey and lemon zest and juice until smooth.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir together until just incorporated.  Divine the batter among the muffin cups, spooning a heaping 1/4 cup into each one, filling it a bit below the rim.

Bake for about 15 minutes, until the muffin tops are browned and just barely beginning to crack.  Let cool for 5 minutes in pan, then turn the muffins out of the pan to cool completely on a wire rack.

Makes 12 muffins.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Irish Soda Bread and Being Polish

I am Polish. I am not from Poland.  Neither are my parents.  And neither were their parents. I don't speak Polish, unfortunately, and neither do my parents.  But I am proud to say that my heritage is all Polish.  My great-grandparents were the ones who came across the ocean from Poland.  I have a complicated Polish last name.  And I know how to pronounce the word "pierogi" correctly.  So I guess I am an American of Polish descent.  We Poles aren't known for much in popular culture.  We don't have popular foods, like the Italians do.  We don't have a day, like St. Patrick's day.  Our ancient history isn't fascinating, like that of Egypt.  We don't have a reputation for being especially funny or romantic or thrifty, like other ethnicities have.  We have the Polka, but it's not really very popular.  I mean, I don't even think they do it on Dancing With The Stars.  And so, while perusing Polish recipes to try out for Easter, I decided to try Irish Soda Bread.

I have seen my parents make golabki, I've joined my sister-in-law in her yearly pierogi-making, and I've helped my grandma make chrusciki.  And these dishes, like most Polish dishes I know of, all have two things in common.  They taste great, and they are a pain to make.  It's a long, multi-stepped process for each.  Some can take hours to make.  I honestly don't know any Polish foods I can just whip together.  Those Poles really devoted a lot of time to their cooking.

Being Polish isn't easy.  The language looks like it should be impossible to pronounce. Usually people can't get past the first three letters of my last name, and there's a lot more than three letters in it.  There is no time of year or popular food or tourist hotspot that we can point to and say, "Yup, that's ours!"  The one thing I can say that the Poles know for sure is difficulty.  Our history is racked with invasions, one heart-breaking occupation after another.  During the entire 19th century, there was no independent Polish state. But even though every revolution and uprising was crushed, they survived, with their faith and their language and their culture.  My grandma, like so many Poles before her, had an unshakable faith.  And the fact that Poles have overcome so many challenges and hard times for so long is source of pride.  This is where I come from.

Being Polish isn't easy.  You want to speak Polish?  The pronunciation alone is a challenge. Good luck.  You want to make Polish food?  You better know what you're doing and have a whole day to spare.  You want to dance the Polka?  Go ahead, but I'll warn you, it's not all that cool.  You want to learn about Polish history?  You better be ready to read heart-breaking books like Forgotten Holocaust and Poland Betrayed.

In my attempt to reconnect with my Polish roots, I looked up some babka recipes to try out and was struck by how difficult they are.  Difficulty is our heritage.  The simplicity and ease of Irish Soda Bread looked a lot more promising.  So, I made that instead, and it was absolutely delicious.  I got the recipe from All Recipes and made a few changes of my own.  I substituted half the flour for whole wheat pastry flour.  I didn't have enough raisins (the recipe calls for three cups of raisins), so I used one cup of raisins and one cup of dried cranberries, which turned out very tasty.  The recipe called for a cup of sour cream, but I substituted Greek yogurt.  The recipe also calls for caraway seeds, which I didn't use.  (I don't even know what caraway seeds are.)  The directions require you to knead the dough a little, but I don't think that is necessary--the dough is really sticky and you'll end up making kind of a mess.  All in all, a simple recipe resulted in a delicious sweet bread which I recommend eating warm with a smear of butter.  Mmmm.  So good.

So, here you go. Irish Soda Bread. Happy St. Patty's Day! (Hang in there, Polish babka. Your turn will come.)

Irish Soda Bread
From All Recipes

1/2 cup white sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour (I used 2 cups all-purpose flour and 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour) 
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups raisins (I used 1 cup raisins and 1 cup dried cranberries)
1 tablespoon caraway seeds (I did not use these)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1 cup sour cream (I used 1 cup Greek yogurt)

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 9 inch round cast iron skillet or a 9 inch round baking or cake pan.

In a mixing bowl, combine flour (reserving 1 tablespoon), sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, raisins and caraway seeds. In a small bowl, blend eggs, buttermilk and sour cream. Stir the liquid mixture into flour mixture just until flour is moistened. Knead dough in bowl about 10 to 12 strokes. Dough will be sticky. Place the dough in the prepared skillet or pan and pat down. Cut two 3/4-inch deep slits in the top of the bread in a cross. Dust with reserved flour.

Bake 65 to 75 minutes. (Mine was done after only 55 minutes.) Let cool and turn bread onto a wire rack.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Best Chocolate Chocolate Cupcakes and Failure

For a while now, I have been hesitating to post my chocolate cupcake recipe because it wasn't absolutely perfect.  When it comes to chocolate cupcakes, my standards are pretty high. 

Mary's Requirements for Chocolate Cupcakes:

1. They must have a winning chocolate taste.  As a chocoholic, taste is the first and most important requirement. All ingredients must bow to the chocolatey taste as their primary goal.

2. They must be super moist.  No dry, crumbly chocolate cupcakes for me. 

3. They must be fluffy without being too light.  As far the texture is concerned, as Goldilocks would say, they have to be "just right." 

4. They must dome up, having a slightly rounded tops.  Flat top cupcakes are unattractive, and cupcakes that dome up too much are just trying too hard.  This requirement has no bearing on the taste.  This is an issue of aesthetics.  I know a cute little frosting swirl will cover the flat top, but a perfect chocolate cupcake needs the cute domed top.

I found a recipe that fulfilled the first three requirements beautifully, but try as I might, the fourth requirement was a hit or miss.  Sometimes, no matter how much they would puff up in the oven, as soon as I would take them out, they would flatten out.  I tweaked and I adjusted but still couldn't pull off a fool-proof dome.  I've tried filling the cupcake tins halfway, two-thirds, three-fourths, and (as I did this time) almost completely full, but the perfect shape continues to be elusive.  And so, I considered it unworthy of blogging.  But, the fact of the matter is that even though they aren't perfect, this is the best chocolate cupcake recipe I have.

My mother often says, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing wrong," meaning if there is something you need to do, don't worry about getting it perfect, just get it done.  But I worry about getting things perfect.  I worry that my efforts aren't going be the best.  Maybe someone will taste my best chocolate chip cookies and think "Eh, I've eaten better."  Maybe someone will hear me sing one of my favorite jazz tunes and think "She sings this too slow."  Maybe I need to wait until my efforts are without question the most perfect I can put forth.  I am afraid of failing, and so sometimes I don't try.

My mother is right.  Maybe my cupcakes, my cookies, my songs, or my apologies aren't perfect, but fail or not, these things are important, and so they are worth doing, even if they are done poorly.  Instead of being afraid of failure, I should learn to embrace it.  Keep trying, keep failing, but keep going.  It's a hard lesson to remember, but an important one.

And so here they are.  My best chocolate cupcakes topped with a dark chocolate frosting recipe I found on Beantown Baker.  They may not  keep their cute little rounded tops after you take them out of the oven.  But in my humble opinion, the taste is absolutely unbeatable.  And Beantown Baker's dark chocolate frosting truly is an amazing addition.  You will love these chocolately babies as much as I do.  

Mary's Dark Chocolate Cupcakes 
(a.k.a., Hershey's Especially Dark Chocolate Cake, tweaked and adapted by me)

2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Hershey's Special Dark Cocoa
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water


1. Heat oven to 350.  Prepare cupcake tins with liners.

2.  Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl.  Add eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer for 2 minutes.  Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin).  Pour batter into prepared cupcake tins.

3.  Bake 22 to 26 minutes or until tops spring back at touch.  Cool 5 minutes in pan; remove from pans to wire racks.  Cool completely.

Dark Chocolate Frosting
Adapted from Beantown Baker, who adapted it from My Baking Heart
(The original recipe wasn't enough, so I expanded it a bit)

8 Tbsp butter

2 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup dark cocoa powder
½ cup milk

Cream butter and vanilla.   In a separate bowl, combine powdered sugar and cocoa powder. Add dry ingredients to creamed mixture. Slowly add milk until frosting reaches desired consistency, then beat another 5 minutes until creamy.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My first Apple Pie and a Tribute to Grandma

My grandma made wonderful apple pies.  She often had a pie in her refridge, usually either apple, lemon, or chocolate.  To her, making a pie was easy as...well, pie.  My mother makes equally good pies--only, her approach always involves a little drama over if there will be enough pie dough to cover the pie (there always is) or whether the crust will come out okay (it always does).  And then there's me.  A little wary of attempting the same recipes my mother and grandma made with so much success, I steered clear of baking pies.  But it's high time for pie time, and in honor of the AMAZING women in my family, a few months ago, I attempted my very own apple pie.

My Grandma is the type of person who keeps going and never looks back.  Before she became severely ill with Alzheimer's disease, no matter how difficult her life got, she never felt sorry for herself.  When times got tough, she got tougher.  She loved to dance and never missed a polka dance at her church.  She always listened to the Saturday morning polka program on the radio and danced in her little living room.  She loved dressing up at Halloween, and frequently told us about the time she went to her church Halloween party as "Apple Annie" complete with wig and mask, and nobody knew who she was.  Her house on Christmas Eve was just about as close to heaven as I've ever experienced.

Grandma had a lot of sayings and advice, both famous and infamous in our family.  Here are a few "Grandma-isms":

     On love, a job, or pretty much anything: "Say a novena."

     On men:  "Kick him in the pants!"

     On marriage, to her daughters: "Never let a man know you can do anything, or you'll be doing it the rest of your life."

     On politics:  "That darn Constitution!"

     On the top health/beauty cure-all:  "Bag balm."

     On general frustration with the rest of the family: "You people."

     On good apple pie: "Use 20 Ounce apples."

And so a few months ago, my Grandma in mind, I opened up my mother's recipe book and took a look at the hand written recipe.  The recipe contains minimal instructions for the pie and none for the crust.  Nevertheless, I forged ahead.

I decided to deviate from the recipe a little and used half whole wheat pastry flour for crust (I consider fruity desserts a "health food" and usually try to boost the health factor by using whole wheat flour.)

The pie came out wonderfully, and I can honestly say I have conquered my pie fears.  I don't think my pie was as good as Grandma's, but I don't mind that.  Grandma can hold the title for Best Apple Pie Baker forever, as long as I am concerned.

Apple Pie

Pie Crust for Double Pie

2 cups flour (I used half whole wheat pastry flour)
1 tsp salt 
3/4 cup Crisco
1/4 cup cold water

Mix the salt and flour together in a large bowl, and then cut the Crisco in with a pastry fork.  Sprinkle in the water.  Form two balls of dough to roll out.  Lay one half of the dough in a pie pan, and use the other half to cover pie.

Pie Filling

4 large 20 Ounce apples (I used 5)
3/4 cup sugar 
1/8 tsp salt
2 tbsp flour
1 tsp cinnamon
If apples are ripe, add a little lemon juice.
1 tbsp butter

Mix sugar, salt, cinnamon, and flour in a small bowl and set aside.  Peel and slice apples into a large bowl, then stir in sugar mixture.  Add lemon juice if necessary.  Pour apple mixture into prepared pie pan.  Dot butter over apples, and cover with other pie crust, folding the edges.   Brush top crust with egg yolk, if desired.  (I didn't do that, but I'll try it next time.)  Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, then 350 for 45 minutes or until golden brown.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mini Peanut Butter Cup Blossoms

These cookies are evil.  You must make them today.

Reason #1 why these cookies are evil:  They are deliciously irresistible.  They are like a drug.  Once you're hooked, you won't be able to stop eating them.  I blame the perfect ratio of chocolate to peanut butter. The taste of these sweet little treasures will haunt you long after they're gone.  I found a few more of them in a baggie in the back of a drawer after I thought they were all gone and snarfed them down like an addict.  It was sad. Excuse me while I go check that drawer again...

Reason #2 why these cookies are evil:  They are adorably bite-size.  No one will be able to resist their cuteness.  You will keep popping them into your mouth as if they were M&Ms or popcorn.  No matter how many you have eaten, you will feel compelled to eat a dozen more. It's a sickness.

ason #3 why these cookies are evil: 
They are a pain to make.  It's a process that lasts an entire afternoon.  Rolling all those little balls of dough will feel like an endless task.  And after pulling them out of the oven, you have to press a mini peanut butter cup into each tiny ball and then IMMEDIATELY remove it to the cooling rack or the candy will melt and not be cute anymore.  It's really a two-person process--one person presses the candies into the cooked dough balls while the other one scoops them off the tray and onto the cooling rack.  Despite the tediousness of making these cookies, despite the fact that you will probably declare "I'm never making these again!" before the process is completed, you will make them again.  Why? See reasons numbers one and two.

I saw the recipe on Cookies and Cups, and of course, who could resist them?  Even though I vowed never to make these tedious cookies ever again while I was making them, I fell completely in love with the finished product.  I will be making them again, folks.  They were adorable and oh, so yummy! 

I adapted the Cookies and Cups recipe slightly.  I used Hershey's Mini Peanut Butter Cups, which I think were slightly bigger than the Trader Joe's mini peanut butter cups that Cookies and Cups used, so mine came out a tad larger.  Also, I halved her recipe because if I didn't, I'd probably still be rolling tiny dough balls. 

All in all, despite the fact that these cookies are evil, they are delicious and you will love them.

Mini Peanut Butter Cup Blossoms
Adapted from Cookie and Cups

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg
3/4 cup peanut butter
1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
mini peanut butter cups
extra granulated sugar for rolling

Cream butter and sugars together on medium.  Add peanut butter and mix.  Add eggs and vanilla, and mix until combined.  Slowly add dry ingredients, and stir until just combined.

Chill dough for at least 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 350.  When dough is chilled, remove from fridge and roll into tiny balls about the size of a marble.  Roll each ball in reserved granulated sugar.

Place each rolled dough ball on a baking sheet.  Bake 5-6 minutes or until bottoms get slightly golden and tops just start to crack.  As soon as they come out of the oven, press peanut butter cups into cookie and immediately remove from tray onto cooling rack.  Let cool for 20-30 minutes, then store in airtight container for up to 3 days (if they last that long).