Baking Days: Super Bowl Cupcakes and Pumpkin Muffins

Strangely enough I did not bake during our snow day yesterday. My mom threw together brownies and my stepfather made odd-tasting sweet and sour meatballs, but I had no burning desire to make my own contribution. Whenever there’s leftover treats on the kitchen counter, like the brownies, I tend to hold off.

I also baked twice over the past few days. My best friend’s family throws a Super Bowl party every year, so I wanted to make cupcakes for the occasion. I’d like to clarify that I barely understand football – baseball and basketball, sure, but football remains a mysterious combination of “downs” and tackles. I go for the company and the traditional pizza during halftime. It’s a small party by their standards, more like a dozen of us sitting around my friend’s attic, but we have fun. After showing up for party after party over the years I’m more like the cousin who’s always around.

Anyway, this counts as the first time I’ve made cupcakes for an occasion. I wasn’t too nervous since these people are like family, but I still wanted them to be good. I also wanted to use peanut butter.

Now, my mom and her twin sister have a serious peanut butter aversion. They’re not even allergic but neither of them can stand the taste or the smell. This has come up often, because who can hate peanut butter? It’s like how my Italian aunt and cousin can’t stand garlic in their food. My cousin’s been known to tell restaurants she’s allergic just to make sure they don’t put it in.

Since my mom is typically one of four people eating the stuff I make, I’ve steered clear of peanut butter as an ingredient. But these cupcakes were going out of the house. Let the peanut butter fest begin!

I chose Peanut Butter Cupcakes from the cupcake book I got for Christmas. They turned out…okay. Of course my friends said they were delicious but I have my doubts.

img_0855

I added an extra quarter-cup of peanut butter just to make sure you got the flavor. The book said to decrease the amount of butter and add peanut butter to their standard yellow cake recipe. Logically, I decreased the butter a little more to make up for my twist. The cupcakes tasted a little dry to me but were okay with store-bought chocolate frosting. Peanut butter is drying on its own, right?  I also think I overmixed them since I’m still adjusting to my grandmother’s stand mixer.

So at the Super Bowl party, my friend brought over a bunch of extra non-perishables she had. She gave me some organic pumpkin since she figured I could bake with it. One of the containers was a box that had a recipe for Pumpkin Muffins on the back. My mom saw this and commissioned me to make them using the spice cake mix she had in a cabinet. All it required was the pumpkin, a package of spice cake mix, an egg, and a cup of chocolate chips.

img_0856

Same thing, they were okay. I’m not a fan of spice cake. Still we liked them enough to have them for breakfast or a snack. My mom and I brought some to her aunt and uncle’s house when we went over for tea during the week. I recommend using mini-chocolate chips since the muffins are so small.

Better luck next time! I’ll probably bake more than once next week since my knee surgery is Friday the 17th. After that I won’t be able to get around as much for at least a month. I was nervous as hell last time – which you can read about in my old posts – but now I’m just eager to get it over with already. I know exactly what to expect, and my quad muscles are stronger, so recovery should be much shorter.

Baking Days: Disappearing Cupcakes and the Recipe Jackpot

I did resolve to update my blog once a week, right? It’s technically the next week after my last post so this counts.

It feels like forever ago, but last Thursday I made another recipe from my cupcake book – Chocolate Candy Cupcakes. I picked them because again, Mom wanted me to use up what we had left in the fridge. This time we had buttermilk. (My stepfather needed it for some crazy sandwich recipe he wanted to try…to paraphrase Alton Brown of “Good Eats” fame, that’s another blog post.) We also had leftover chocolate from the holidays.

This marked my first venture into cupcake filling. It consisted of cream cheese and chocolate bars, which I broke up with my trusty meat mallet given my non-existent knife skills. I never realized how useful meat mallets are in baking.

Anyway, these turned out…delicious. I dare say they’re the tastiest cupcakes I’ve made so far. My mom even said so without any prompting. They disappeared literally overnight – all eighteen were gone by Friday. This recipe also marks the first time my sister asked, “Can I bring some over my friend’s house?” Given how picky teenagers can be, I was extremely flattered.

img_0829

The only thing I would change is the amount of candy bars in the filling. I used less than the recipe called for due to a moment of confusion, so I think using the right amount would cut down the (subtle) tang from the cream cheese and buttermilk.

On Friday I baked again, this time whipping up another Cream Cake to bring with me to my aunt and cousin’s house. So far it’s the most relaxed and confident I’ve been when making anything. The recipe really is so simple, plus it’s one of few times I’ve made a recipe more than once. My relatives loved it. At my other aunt’s house for Sunday dinner, we asked again about my grandmother’s elusive Orange Chiffon Cake recipe.

That’s when my aunt brought out her recipe boxes. Dozens of ancient index cards and newspaper clippings, separated into categories with frayed rubber bands. My cousin and I spent an hour going through each one. Not only did I find the cake, I also found the Italian anisette cookies we used to make for Christmas. I pulled some more that looked interesting and took pictures with my phone.

At first I wanted to make them right away, but I might save some of these for special occasions. I’ll probably leave the Italian Cookies for the holidays. Then again my cousin wants me to make the Orange Chiffon for her birthday in July, so maybe I should start practicing now.

Baking Days: In Honor of My Italian Grandmother

The last time I stayed with my relatives, I went through my aunt’s recipe folder. Among the newspaper and magazine clippings were her own handwritten recipes, or those from other family members. Two in particular caught my eye: Cream Cake and Italian Cheesecake, both in my grandmother’s faded handwriting. They had to be from the ’40s or ’50s. The Italian Cheesecake even called for “pot cheese,” an old term for ricotta.

My father’s mother passed away in 2011. I’ve never tasted any of the famous cakes she made for special occasions, since she stopped making them before I was born. My mother still waxes nostalgic about Grandma Millie’s Orange Chiffon Cake. I wanted to start with that because my mom loves it so much, but since my aunt hasn’t found the recipe for it yet, I decided to try the Cream Cake first.

Fair warning, I’m not including my grandmother’s recipes here. I doubt they’re secret, and it’s not like my blog is so popular, but I feel funny sharing them in the hopes of getting a few clicks. I’ll just say that the ingredient list for Cream Cake is surprisingly simple: eggs, sugar, salt, flour, baking powder, heavy cream and vanilla.

I worried so much about making this cake. Aside from sentimental value, it’s traditionally baked in a Bundt pan. We all know the horror stories about Bundt pans, right? Cakes sticking, refusing to emerge until you finally have to chip it into pieces and make a trifle or something. I’d received one in my Christmas bag of goodies but viewed it as my baking final exam, something to put off until I’d tackled everything else.

But I wanted to make this Cream Cake. I reasoned I wasn’t making this for anyone else, just an everyday treat for my immediate family, so it didn’t matter if I messed up.

I still greased and floured the hell out of that Bundt pan. I think I used a whole tablespoon of butter.

One unique element about this cake is what I call the “Ugly Duckling” batter. At first I worried I messed up, because the eggs and sugar mixture looked like it separated as soon as I stopped mixing. Even when I added the flour it seemed odd. But when I folded in the whipped cream everything came together. The batter took on this gorgeous smooth, fluffy texture and golden brown color. I should’ve taken a picture but I was so relieved I just poured it into the pan.

After a good amount of fretting while the cake baked in the oven, I took it out and flipped it onto a cooling rack. The moment of truth:

img_0825

And it’s good! It even tasted good! The crunchy top, mushy underside and fluffy cake all work together. The recipe’s classic and retro but also delicious. I might start making it for birthdays just like my grandma did.

While we’re on the subject of Italian recipes, here’s the tiramisu I made with my mom since we had Mascarpone cheese. For this we just used the recipe on the package of ladyfingers. We agreed that it needs more flavor (I didn’t want to flambe the rum, another cooking technique I’d rather put off) and the bottom layer had too much coffee. It’s tasty with fresh whipped cream though. We’ll  make some adjustments whenever we try again.

img_0827

 

 

Baking Days: Oreo Crumb Cookies and Sour Cream Cupcakes

Happy belated New Year everyone! Once again I spent the holidays with my relatives in Staten Island. And once again, I stayed a few days longer than planned. Seriously, my older cousin never wants me to leave. We have a running joke that I can move into their third floor loft any time I want.

Maybe it’s not a joke. We’ll see what the future brings.

Anyway, I’ve been telling everyone about my new hobby. I received a couple of dessert recipe books for Christmas, plus a bag of baking stuff from my mom – cupcake carriers, NEW measuring cups, etc. My aunt gave me the piping bag set I picked out. Let’s not forget my wonderful grandmother who wants me to relieve her of her stand mixer because it’s taking up too much space in her condo’s kitchen. Santa Claus was very good to me this year and I couldn’t wait to get started.

While staying at my aunt’s house, I whipped up these “Cookies and Cream Cookies” from my new copy of The Cookies & Cups Cookbook. I didn’t even realize it was a companion to a blog, I saw it at Barnes & Noble and thought the recipes looked fun. Making these cookies at someone else’s house freaked me out a bit because my aunt and cousin hung out with me while I mixed up ingredients. I’m very close with them, but you still don’t want to make a mess in someone else’s dining room. When I’m home I bake and clean up after myself before my mom gets home from work.

Putting on my own little cooking show caused nerves, which I guess caused my cousin to ask how much I’ve actually baked. At least the cookies came out delicious so I didn’t have to hear about that. Plus we all had a good laugh when my aunt (who has Parkinson’s, meaning she has no strength in her hands anymore) crushed the Oreos with a gigantic meat mallet that had to weigh a couple pounds. This was after she stubbornly refused our suggestion that she use a rolling pin instead.

…I’ve learned if you don’t laugh at some situations, you just end up crying way too often.

Here’s the end result. They looked like blobs but they were addictive. My cousin even mentioned that you could probably throw anything into this batter and it would turn out delicious.

img_0814

When I finally got home I made “Chocolate-Sour Cream Cupcakes” from The Big Book of Cupcakes, which my other cousin gave me. Light, fluffy, also addictive – the lightest cupcakes I’ve made so far. After a couple days they’re even gooier and remind me of your typical Hostess snack cake. They’d probably be amazing with a little marshmallow cream in the center.

img_0820

Now Posting Some Content on Medium.com

My writerly self has been all over the place for a long while. I don’t know if I want to work on fan fiction, original work, even personal essays. Plus The Holidays are distracting so when I’m not with family I’m watching Christmas movies on Netflix or Youtube. Maybe it’s time I read an actual book again rather than online articles about how much the Gilmore Girls revival sucked.

Anyway, while rambling on tumblr about how much I can’t stand Rory Gilmore, I remembered a website I bookmarked a while back. Medium.com is basically a social network for the types of posts I like to write, aka, long-winded editorials that make the author sound smart when we’re really just ranting about the world. Any posts related to media and pop culture – mostly TV shows – will be posted here. I might move my baking posts there depending on how it goes.

Thanks for reading! Happy Holidays everyone!

“Relax, It’s Just a TV Show”

I’m not the kind of person who can watch a TV show without thinking about it. My mind zeroes in on dialogue, continuity, story line originality. Sometimes I voice these thoughts out loud in an effort to start a conversation about the show. You know what I get more often than not?

“Relax, it’s just a TV show. Don’t be so critical.”

I guess that’s why so many analytical fans flock to blogs and online message boards. Most of our friends and family members don’t want to hear it.

What they don’t understand is, I’m not being negative for the sake of bashing the show. I’m hoping to connect with other fans on an intellectual level. To me, TV watching is like snacking – we take it in because we want to enjoy it, then digest it into little pieces. Digesting makes us feel even better. If it upsets our stomach afterward, we know to snack on something else next time.

The same happens when I read. Doesn’t matter if it’s a romance novel no one takes seriously. I still notice if a particular author reuses character types or story lines. My point is, I enjoy analyzing almost as much as watching the show or reading the book. I don’t understand how people can switch their brains off and sit there for an hour. Television is a medium trying to send us a message, so what’s wrong with deciphering it? Analyzing the media we consume is a bonus distraction from “real life” problems.

I swear I’m not being negative. I just like to digest.

 

Holiday Baking Fest 2016: Pumpkin Pie Angel Food, Gluten-Free Pudding Cookies, Eggnog Cupcakes and Nutella Frosting!

I keep baking things and not updating here, so I’m combining everything together in one dessert-filled post! It works this time since there’s not as much to say. While I’ve tried to bake “from scratch” so far, I confess to using box mix for two of the treats in the post title. In my defense it wasn’t my idea!

My family has been very supportive of my new hobby. My mom in particular will pick up ingredients from the store and make suggestions for future baking endeavors. One week she put two box mixes sitting on the kitchen counter since both were about to expire. First there was the “Gluten-Free Sugar Cookie Mix.” I guess she bought it with the intention of giving it to my grandmother or aunt, who have different levels of Celiac/wheat sensitivity. Then my other aunt got in on it and “donated” a box of angel food cake mix she had for years.

I knew I had to doctor these up. The gluten-free cookies would undoubtedly have that “gritty” texture when baked. As for the angel food cake, it was so old I worried it wouldn’t taste right. I even Google’d it to make sure it was safe to eat.

We also had canned pumpkin, so I tried this super-easy Pumpkin Pie Angel Food Cake. Literally all you do is mix together canned pumpkin, pumpkin pie spice and the mix. I wasn’t sure how it would work since the canned pumpkin isn’t really “liquid,” but the batter still got this weird meringue type of consistency (which I suppose is typical for angel food). After baking from scratch this seemed almost too fast and easy – I wanted to bake more!

The cake came out awesome. The box mix still tasted great and none of the pumpkin flavors overpowered. Highly recommend for an easy Thanksgiving dessert.

img_0783

I improvised a bit for the “Gluten-Free Pudding Cookies.” My mom also wanted me to use instant vanilla pudding, so I combined it with the gluten-free sugar cookie mix. (I really don’t mind suggestions. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m in the mood to make.) I figured the pudding would add moisture since gluten-free baked goods can be dry. A search for pudding cookies gave me this simple Perfect Plain Cookie recipe. Not as simple as the cake, but all you do is add both mixes, two eggs and melted butter.

img_0786

They are very plain, and I did taste the gluten-free texture, but they’re still delicious. The pudding made them light and fluffy. My sister got the idea to break out the Nutella to go with them. Only advice here is to make the cookies the exact size you want when placing on the tray since they don’t expand. If I do try these again with different box mixes, I’d add sprinkles or maybe a chocolate chip in the middle for some more flavor.

Speaking of Nutella…I finally made frosting! And it tasted delicious! Sinful would be a better descriptor though, because the Nutella made it super rich. I didn’t have quite enough powdered sugar but it came out fine anyway. You’ll want to eat it by the spoonful.

I made cupcakes to go with it anyway. Again I turned to leftovers since we had eggnog from my sister’s “friendsgiving” party. Making these Eggnog Cupcakes with almost a dozen ingredients satisfied my desire for a more involved recipe. I’ve also wanted to bake with alcohol so I was happy to see it used rum (or bourbon, but I picked rum). Plus the recipe calls for oil so I didn’t have to worry about leaving the butter out long enough.

These and the frosting have been my most successful baking attempt so far. You actually taste the eggnog and they’re not too dense. The Nutella frosting might be a little strong for them, so I’ll go with vanilla the next time I make them. I’m thinking they’ll be perfect for Christmas Eve at my aunt’s house.

A normal person would post a beauty shot of perfect cupcakes with amazing frosting designs. I haven’t attempted this yet so the best I can do is post the cupcakes and frosting separately. On the topis a boring post-oven shot of the cupcakes, on the bottom, the frosting left in the bowl:

eggnog2

 

img_07932

Piping bags and tips are officially on my Christmas list. I considered asking for a stand mixer, but I might just borrow my grandmother’s KitchenAid when necessary.

When All the Simplistic Writing Advice Makes Sense

I hate those catchphrases for writers. You know the ones I’m talking about – “write every day,” “show don’t tell,” etc. No one ever explains how to apply them. What if they don’t work for me? Am I a bad person if I can’t write every day? Which part of the story is “showing,” and which is “telling”?

Over time these pieces of advice make more and more sense. I’ve experienced “eureka!” moments, when a nugget of wisdom finally clicks into place. The onset of NaNoWriMo got me thinking about my writing practice and how I’ve come to understand these common phrases. (I’m not doing it this year but support those who are.) Hopefully my interpretations save you years of frustration.

“Write Every Day”

Writing every day is not realistic for most people. They have jobs and social lives (so I’m told), or they just don’t feel up to putting words on the page that day. Here’s a secret:

It’s fine. You’re not a bad person.

I believe this advice refers to keeping up a regular writing practice. You’re only a bad person if it’s been six months and you haven’t even opened a text document. It’s happened to me before. After a week or even two, I’ll feel antsy about neglecting my writing. Either I need to fix my Work-In-Progress, start a new one, or pick out a book to read. Speaking of which…

“Read”

I talked about this in another post, so I’ll just tack on an addition. Read bad books along with good ones. I don’t mean you should seek out a book and hope it’s bad. All I’m saying is, if you start a book and roll your eyes at the writing style, don’t put it down right away. Ask yourself why you’re rolling your eyes. Why does this story turn you off? Is it the passive voice, the slow plot? Are the characters one-dimensional? I’ve read a lot of bad books this summer and have no regrets about sticking with them. Noticing writing “don’ts” in someone else’s novel teaches me what to avoid in my own. This leads me to…

“Show, Don’t Tell”

I’ve always despised this “advice” in particular. What the hell does it mean? For the love of God, what’s “show” and what’s “tell”? Aren’t you “telling” the reader the whole freaking story? Can’t a character’s stream of consciousness “show” the readers more of their personality?

Reading bad books helped me see the light. “Telling” instead of “showing” doesn’t ruin the book completely, but the story becomes a chore to slog through. Make sure the character’s internal reactions add to the reader’s understanding of recent actions, and that’s it. I’m also not a fan of the main character making judgments like “he’s so sweet” or “he annoyed me.” It’s okay once or twice, but you need actions to back up the character’s assessments. The last book I read drove me up a wall by repeating the same exact thought every other paragraph.

It makes me think of TV shows. Doesn’t it bug you when the writers say one thing in dialogue and show another through a character’s actions?

Fix this by adding consequences or new actions that support/replace what you wanted to “tell.” I’ve always been a character-and-dialogue person myself so I understand how difficult it can be to build up a plot line.

“Use Action Verbs/Active Voice”

I confess to this crime too. Sometimes you can’t avoid “was” or “had” no matter how you rework a sentence. Sometimes a sentence makes more sense when you use passive verbs. I never liked this advice either, because using active voice all the time feels daunting when you’re not used to it.

I’ve accepted this as a bad habit we all need to break. Too many instances of “was” or “had” grates on the nerves, there’s no way around it.

“Write What You Know”

This one confused me for the longest time. “So I’m only supposed to write about experiences I’ve had? I’m not that interesting!” Now I get it. The expression refers to writing about topics that appeal to you on a personal level. Don’t choose your novel idea based on a trend. If you can’t do what your characters do in your story, at least you’ll have enough interest to research the hell out of it.

Also, whenever possible, base your characters’ actions/choices on what you’ve done or seen others do. Characters should be relatable whether they’re dealing with school drama or using their magical powers to save the world.

Okay, all that’s out of my system. I feel better now.

Baking Day 6: Ever Microwave a Bowl of Cereal? (Honey Nut Cheerio Cupcakes)

I realize now why people call baking a science. Sure, recipes can be flexible, and you can play with a limitless variety of flavors. As for the basics, they don’t change. Certain ingredients and techniques are like the elements of an equation. Messing with them drastically alters the results. Ignoring one little step can be the difference between a light or dense cake. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since my last two selections were chocolate, I went with a vanilla cupcake this time. I didn’t want to make plain vanilla though because I’ve already done that. While surfing a recipe app (anyone use Yummly?) I stumbled across cereal flavors, like these Honey Nut Cheerio Cupcakes. There’s always a box of Honey Nut Cheerios in our cabinet so I thought everyone would enjoy it. Other than the cereal, which I knew we had, all the other ingredients were basics. (Note this is not a paid advertisement for Honey Nut Cheerios.)

The recipe was simple, though microwaving the cereal in milk was weird. In case anyone wants to know what that looks like:

img_0778

The recipe says to remove the cereal from milk “using a fork or your clean fingers.” I preferred a slotted spoon, but hey, to each their own. It also involved mixing honey and vanilla extract, which is now my new favorite scent. Though Warm Vanilla Sugar was always my favorite from Bath and Body Works.

Here’s the results:

img_0779

img_0780

As you can tell by the frosting can on the counter, I didn’t make my own. In my defense I wanted to use up what was in the fridge and my mom always asks me to leave some without frosting. Good call on her part because we’ve been having these for breakfast as well as dessert – appropriate for cereal cupcakes. The honey flavor really comes through, but again, I wouldn’t be able to tell they were specifically “Honey Nut Cheerio” cupcakes. Which I suppose is a good thing for people turned off by the idea of cereal as an ingredient.

While I loved the honey, the cake itself was dense again. Still enjoyable but very, very dense. This is getting frustrating. When I Googled the problem I came across “cold ingredients” or “overmixing” as the most common culprits. This makes sense because I never leave the butter out long enough, and apparently I overmix the hell out of the batter. Next time, I’m leaving the butter out at least an hour and stopping the second ingredients are mixed.

Halloweentown’s History Lesson

Watching Disney Channel during the Zoog era taught our tweenage selves some important lessons. We went to the moon in 1969. Lizzie and Gordo were destined. Blogs, even ones about Weird stuff, can help you find validation. The future will be filled with expressions like “zetus lapetus” and “lunarious.”

Most of us barely noticed the real lessons underneath the fun stories and brightly-colored wardrobes. Families matter, friends are important, believe in yourself, reach for the stars.

Halloweentown featured a happy world of friendly creatures, but all four movies carried the theme of acceptance. (Yes there were four – I know people like to forget about the last two.) Witches Marnie Piper and grandmother Aggie Cromwell often speak about uniting the worlds after centuries of judgment on both sides. The unexpected topic deepened a light holiday movie and pushed it into “Legendary DCOM” status.

It also reinforced the lesson that you should never replace the main character, one we previously learned in season three of So Weird. But anyway.

I never realized until recently that Halloweentown most likely paid tribute to the true origins of Halloween. The basic story: A thousand years ago, the  Celtic people created Samhain to celebrate the harvest. They also believed that spirits could mingle with the living as fall turned into winter. Christians arrived and, instead of outlawing Samhain, converted it into All Saints Day/All Hallows. Celtic people still celebrated the night before, aka, All Hallows Eve. Certain traditions carried over or were added by Christian influence.

It sounded familiar. Then I remembered.

halloweentown1

“The people who started your Halloween just imitated our traditions.”

Aggie told almost the same story in Halloweentown: A long time ago, the “Dark Times,” humans and creatures lived together. She says “humans feared us and wanted to destroy us,” so creatures were terrible to humans in return. Eventually creatures formed their own dimension where they could live in peace.

(Does it bother anyone else that Aggie tells this story in such an upbeat manner? She relates her town’s tormented history without expressing any emotion.)

Halloweentown events match up to the real story. The period where humans and creatures lived together could refer to Samhain, then when Christians outlawed the supernatural, they fled. Both the first and second movie stress that humans imitate creatures on Halloween, which is how trick-or-treating started. Those who celebrated placed food out for the spirits, then later on, people dressed like the spirits to “trick-or-treat.” Traditional costumes such as ghosts and witches are still popular to this day. In the series, creatures interpret this as humans mocking them. The timeline even fits because in the fourth movie it’s stated that Halloweentown will be a thousand years old.

halloweentown2

“Mortal see, mortal do.”

I love that a movie called “Halloweentown” acknowledged the real origins of Halloween. Thinking about it now, I wonder if that’s why Halloweentown 4 comes across as a pale imitation of the first three. (Aside from recasting Marnie.) While there’s mention of witches having power over other creatures, the movie lacks the real theme of uniting the two worlds. It doesn’t seem right that “New Marnie” is so quick to ditch her home world after working so hard to find acceptance there.

But that’s irrelevant ten years after the fourth movie (hurts, doesn’t it?). Despite how the series ended, Halloweentown continues to represent the holiday spirit every year.