Shameless Plugs and a Recovery Update

I know I haven’t been posting again. This is what happens when I have too many writer-ly things going on at once. There’s freelancing, my novel, plus I’ve recovered enough to start having a life again. However I did find time to churn out this ranty piece about a Hallmark movie I regretfully watched with my mom. I’m the first person to enjoy Hallmark movies for what they are, but this one succeeded in creating an emotional reaction from the audience – it pissed me off.

The Worst Male Lead in a Hallmark Movie I’ve Ever Seen

FYI, I’m really starting to miss baking too. I’ve followed a ton of food accounts on Instagram and Snapchat (add me on both @jgiarletta), so whenever there’s a particularly yummy post I want to make the recipe. As stated above I’m getting around much better now, which means I should be able to bake soon. Of course now it’s boiling in my kitchen since the weather decided to skip spring and go right ahead to summer. Maybe I’ll try no-bake desserts.

Full Update on Knee Surgery Recovery: The physical therapist worked a miracle when she taught me how to walk the right way. Soon enough I barely needed my walker. When I saw the surgeon for a follow-up on Thursday, she was thrilled (yes, female surgeon who’s an expert on the surgery I got). She – thank the Lord – switched me from the big knee brace to the smaller brace. That was a pleasant enough shock because I did not expect that to happen yet. Then she said I didn’t have to go to regular physical therapy yet either. This is also amazing because I won’t have to pay freaking fifty-dollar copays yet. I’m hoping that, when I see the physical therapist again in a month, she’ll tell me I won’t have to go at all. At this rate I’ll be walking normally again – with the brace on – by the time I see her.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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:

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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:

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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.

Baking Days 4 & 5: Chocolate and Coffee, Two of My Favorite Things

So far I’ve stuck to cupcakes that don’t include chocolate  – pumpkin, maple, plain vanilla. After making non-chocolate cupcakes a few weeks in a row, I finally changed up my recipe selection. I also decided on brownies. Since I still wanted to include coffee after my failed Pumpkin Spice Latte attempt, this recipe looked perfect. This time I was determined to taste coffee in every bite.

My process has become less interesting now that I’m more used to the act of baking. Good for me, bad for blog content. These days I can mostly mix up the correct ingredients and follow instructions without incident. Of course I still get flour all over the counter, but I don’t see that changing in the near future.

The result:

brownie1 FYI – the recipe said to line the pan with foil. I’d never done this for brownies before but why not?

I should call these “Hollywood celebrity” brownies because they were very thin and very rich. Also delicious, do not forget delicious. I don’t know what I expected coffee to taste like in a baked good. Did I think they’d embody my usual caramel latte from McDonald’s? (What? They’re cheaper than Starbucks and still good.) The coffee made the chocolate extremely rich while toning down the sweetness factor.

So far I’ve avoided icing, but this time I made the corresponding mocha glaze. Mixes together in five minutes. Extremely worth the effort, both for taste and presentation:

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They lasted about two days in my house.

The Nutella cupcakes I selected for my next baking day, coincidentally, also required coffee. I was excited to make a cupcake with actual Nutella in the batter. I mean…Nutella. Cupcake. How could this turn out bad? I imagined a gooey, super-chocolatey cake. The directions called for a stand mixer, but whatever, like anyone really needs a stand mixer. (Relax, it’s just a defense mechanism to make myself feel better about not having one.) As expected I wound up with Nutella on my arm and flour on the toaster. At least the cupcakes looked good:

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I thought they looked more like “normal cupcakes” than my last few attempts, which resembled muffins. I even got creative and added the glaze from the brownies. My mom suggested the candy corn since we had some. It went with the cute Halloween liners I found in the cabinet.

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Great presentation, but unfortunately these were a disappointment. They tasted chocolatey but also way too dry and crumbly. (Even though my mom and sister swear they liked the cupcakes.) The glaze didn’t add much moisture. It must have been something I did. I’m thinking a) I overmixed the batter, and b) I’m underestimating the importance of frosting.  It might be time for me to venture into the great wide world of confectioner’s sugar.

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Baking Day 3: Easy as Pumpkin Pie

I made these cupcakes last Thursday, but since I’m an expert procrastinator, I’m only getting around to this post now. Tomorrow’s “Baking Day #4” so I’d better write up #3 first.

This Pumpkin Spice Latte Cupcake recipe won me over last week. I’m picky about selecting recipes since I’m well aware of my beginner status. First I make sure there aren’t too many ingredients, and that they’re all “normal” versions (like all-purpose flour instead of cake flour). Then I scan the directions so I know they’re quick/easy and don’t require equipment I don’t have (like a stand mixer). Given these requirements and my own taste preferences, it can take a while before I stumble across a winner. I went with this particular Pumpkin Spice Latte Cupcake recipe because there’s only eight ingredients, and all I had to do was dump everything in a bowl.

I also chose the recipe because it’s fall and I wanted baked goods with pumpkin in them. Pumpkin Spice Latte flavoring was a natural leap from there. (Oddly enough, while I love both pumpkin and coffee, I am not a fan of the average PSL.)

Everything went smooth for the most part, though as usual, I can never follow all directions. The recipe says to brush the coffee on the cupcakes after they’ve cooled. This didn’t fit one of my aforementioned requirements because I don’t have a pastry brush. I made an exception though and added the coffee into the batter. I figured it’s better that way since if I did try to brush the coffee on, some cupcakes would be overflowing and some wouldn’t have any.

Here’s how they turned out. I loved the batter’s orange color:

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(Yes, courtesy of Instagram’s layout app. Formatting images on WordPress is annoying.)

These weren’t so successful. They tasted good as pumpkin cupcakes, and actually reminded me of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Loaf. The other two “spice” and “latte” flavors didn’t quite make it through. There was some spice, but I couldn’t detect any coffee at all. I blame myself for this since I strayed from the recipe on both counts. For one, the leftover pumpkin pie spice container in my cabinet didn’t have exactly what the recipe called for. And I’m sure the coffee flavor would be more prominent if I’d brushed the tops with it as instructed. Maybe next time I’ll add 2/3 cup of coffee to the batter instead.

They’re darn good pumpkin cupcakes though.

Continuing my coffee theme, I’m making mocha brownies tomorrow. To be continued!

Baking Day 2: The Return of Homemade Cupcakes

Now that summer’s over, I get very bored during the week. I’m steadier on my feet (again) so I’m trying to walk around the house more. Occasionally, when the mood strikes me, I cook or bake. I explained about this hobby in my previous Baking Day post. At the very least it forces me to move about the kitchen.

Not only did I want to make more cupcakes, I also wanted to prove a point. My mom prefers box mixes. To her, homemade attempts are always too “dense” and “dry” in comparison. Don’t take this the wrong way, because my family does bake during the winter holidays, and I’ll reiterate that my cousin is a pastry assistant. But for birthdays and smaller holidays through the year, Pillsbury Funfetti cake works just fine.

I like the boxed stuff too once in a while. I also believe in making things from scratch when you have the time and inclination for it. Since I did have the inclination for it this week, I set out to prove that homemade cupcakes can be light and fluffy.

Google results produced this recipe for “Perfect Moist and Fluffy Vanilla Cupcakes.” This sounded promising, and it calls for sour cream. How could it be dry?

So, I start to gather all ingredients, and as usual I’m missing one. Did you know you can substitute baking soda with triple the amount of baking powder? I do now. Learn something new every day.

I also separated egg whites for the first time. This was..interesting. Fortunately we only had four eggs so I couldn’t waste a whole carton. The first egg was a complete bust, entire yolk went in the bowl (I always crack eggs into separate bowls before adding them to the recipe). After putting that aside and getting a new bowl, I managed to get by with the last three. I realized it is very important to crack the egg in the middle so you have equal halves when shifting the yolk back and forth. Some yolk still ended up in the the bowl but again, I didn’t have anymore.

The spillage wasn’t too bad…

After saving the one egg white and four yolks for scrambled eggs, I followed the rest of the recipe. Fifteen cupcakes went in the oven and I crossed my fingers. Would there be too much baking powder? Would that troublesome yolk make a difference?

I wound up with this:

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I know, they look a little light, but I kept them in for twenty minutes and they passed the toothpick test. I worried extra baking time would take out some of the moisture.

After they cooled, I tried one…you know, quality control…

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Incredibly moist. Still a little more dense than box mix, but I don’t care. They’re sweet and delicious. If anything maybe next time I’ll  leave them in the oven a minute longer to brown the tops.

My mom’s verdict? “Did you save the recipe?” (Win!) I told her they were called “Perfect Moist and Fluffy Cupcakes,” and she said something to the effect of “they are that.” We agreed they didn’t need icing, but powdered sugar was a nice touch. When served like this they remind us of pound cake.

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Another successful Baking Day! Next week I’m thinking Pumpkin Spice Latte cupcakes, because who isn’t thinking of pumpkin?