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: 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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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?

Baking Day: Maple Syrup Cupcakes

When I was a kid, before I started writing, I wanted to be a chef. I even watched Food Network back in its infancy (remember Ready, Set, Cook?). To this day I still watch a lot of Food Network and Cooking Channel – Chopped, Cutthroat Kitchen, Unique Eats/Sweets, etc. Unfortunately though, since I never had a kitchen of my own, I didn’t really carry over that hobby into adulthood outside of my television viewing. I can make a mean grilled cheese or egg breakfast, but I was always “too busy to cook.” It was easier to let my mom make her twenty- or thirty-minute meals for dinner since that’s what we were used to eating. Perfectly tasty, don’t get me wrong, but she rarely goes outside her repertoire.

So now that she’s had jury duty for three weeks, I’ve been cooking her usual meals. Bolognese using jar sauce, linguine and clam sauce (from a soup can), breading chicken cutlets and throwing them into the oven – all simple stuff even I couldn’t mess up. It’s gone over pretty well so far since no one has any expectations of my cooking ability. Naturally, whenever I get the slightest bit of confidence in any department, I decide to get a little creative. Why not bake cupcakes from scratch for Mom’s birthday? We’re typically a “box mix” family (immediate family at least – my cousin is an actual pastry assistant), but how hard can it be to throw together a simple vanilla cupcake?

*sigh*

A simple recipe gets much more complicated when you don’t have all the ingredients. Much like a game of Chopped, I spent a good amount of time reviewing what ingredients I had and figuring out what to do with them.

Here’s how my experience went.

Step 1: Pick this vanilla cupcake recipe from FoodNetwork.com.

Step 2: Do we have baking powder? Mom has to have baking powder somewhere, right?

Step 3: Spend half hour looking for baking powder. Find all the way in the back of last cabinet I could have checked.

Step 4: Gather other ingredients. Holy crap, we’re almost out of sugar. How can we be out of sugar? That’s a staple! Well, there’s some in here, maybe I have 2/3 cup…almost…close but no cigar. How bad would it be if I threw in some confectioners sugar to make up the difference? Probably bad. Do we have sugar packets?

Step 5: Round up every sugar packet I can find. Still short of 2/3 cup. Thanks to all my food TV viewing, I think about using a substitute to use with the sugar. Honey? For once we don’t have any, of course. Wait, maple syrup! That could be good!

Step 6: Google for another recipe that uses maple syrup and less than 2/3 cup of sugar. Success! I don’t have “imitation maple flavoring,” but what the hell, I’ll improvise.

Step 7: Hesitantly prepare all my ingredients. Wet ingredients look good, mix together flour and baking powder (leaving out salt because we have salted butter – thought of that thanks to a comment on the Food Network recipe).

Step 8: Hit next obstacle. Recipe did not clarify at first to mix milk and syrup in third bowl, so I put them both in with the dry ingredients. Oops. It looks like the beginning of a cookie dough. Well, I’m not wasting the flour, so this goop is going in the wet mixture whether it likes it or not. I’ll just go to town with the electric mixer and hope for the best.

Step 9: Brute force works. The batter is smooth. Cupcake liners go into tins, batter into liners (with a good amount of spillage that I clean up after), trays into the preheated oven. Yay! Set the timer and clear out of the kitchen before I’m cooked along with the cupcakes. Maybe I’ll wait until the fall before I try this again.

Step 10: Remove trays from oven, test with a toothpick. They look presentable!

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Step 11: Taste test. Moment of truth time.

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And it’s good! Not bad at all, I can definitely taste the maple syrup. Since it’s still very hot in my house I decide not to frost them until later. We have Cool Whip so instead of frosting I mix it with some vanilla extract after dinner.

The End! I might try some new recipes next week, so if those turns out to be anything like this, I’ll make some more culinary-themed posts.