For the Love of Cupcakes

I have long had a love for cupcakes. I mean, how could you not? Delicious cake and frosting-y goodness all wrapped up in the perfect, individual size. Yum!

I don’t often post sweets on the blog. Not because I don’t love them (oh, trust me, I do), but because I find baking to be much more difficult than cooking. Everything has to be so precise. If your butter is too soft or too hard, forget about it. There is so much that could go wrong. The first time I tried to make cupcakes from scratch, I had to throw away the entire first batch. It was a complete and miserable failure.  My butter was still too hard and it didn’t combine with the batter correctly. Therefore, they did not bake correctly. I wish I had a picture to show you the horror of these crappy cupcakes.

Fortunately, since then, I’ve learned some tricks. OK, so maybe they’re not tricks. Maybe this is just common baking knowledge, but, if you are new to baking there are some things you should know. Your butter and your eggs should be at room temperature, which requires a few hours of sitting on the counter. If you did not plan ahead, don’t worry. Check out this great blog post at My Baking Addiction for tips on how to speed up the process.

So, what is the yummy cupcake pictured above, you might ask? Well, it actually started out as something completely different. I had planned to attempt this recipe from Annie’s Eats (key word being “attempt”). Looks incredible, right? Well, turns out, it’s not so easy to make. The cake part is easy. Done and done. But homemade caramel? A nightmare. If you can make successful caramel on your first try, you deserve an award. I think caramel is one of those things that you have to have a lot of practice at, and I also hear a candy thermometer comes in handy. I had neither practice nor thermometers on hand, so my attempts at caramel burnt. Twice. On each try, it actually never even got close to turning the golden-brown caramel color. I just had a clear, gooey substance for a long time, and then it burnt and got all chunky and crystallized. Luckily, the mess cleans up easily with hot water, since it only consists of sugar and water.

Caramel nightmare behind me, I decided to scrap this lovely caramel swiss meringue buttercream idea, and just do plain old buttercream frosting. Forging ahead — that’s what mediocre bakers like myself must do in times of trial. I tossed the caramel pot in the sink, and moved on to buttercream.

In the end, I wound up with a delicious cupcake. The cake part is from Annie’s original recipe. I got the buttercream frosting recipe here, and added a couple ingredients of my own.

Dark Chocolate Cupcakes (makes about 32 cupcakes)
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
2¼ cups sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons dark, unsweetened cocoa powder
2¼ tsp. baking soda
1½ tsp. baking powder
1½ tsp. salt
6 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 cup plus 2 tbsp. buttermilk
1 cup plus 2 tbsp. brewed coffee*
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tbsp. vanilla extract

Buttercream Frosting
1 cup of salted butter (at room temp)
3 teaspoons of vanilla
4 cups of confectioners sugar
Cinnamon & Nutmeg (optional)**
Finely chopped dark chocolate for garnish

*If you don’t love the taste of coffee, don’t worry. Your cake won’t taste like coffee. It just adds a richer flavor.

**I did not measure the cinnamon and nutmeg… I just wanted to add some flavor, so I sprinkled some in, and sprinkled some more until I was satisfied with the taste.

Start with your cake first. Preheat the oven to 350°F, get out a couple cupcake pans, and put your cupcake liners in place. Using an electric mixer, combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Mix on low until blended. Add the vegetable oil, buttermilk, coffee, eggs, and vanilla to the bowl and mix on low speed until everything is completely blended together.

Pour batter into cupcake liners so they are just a smidge over halfway full. Bake for about 18-20 minutes. You’ll know they are done if you lightly touch the middle of a cupcake and it bounces back. If it feel squishy and the batter hasn’t risen much, give it a couple more minutes.

While your cupcakes are baking, you can make your frosting. Once you’ve cleaned out your mixing bowl, add the butter. Mix on medium-low until the butter is all whipped up. Add confectioners sugar a little bit at at time. When the sugar is all mixed in, add cream and then vanilla. Then, you can sprinkle in some cinnamon and nutmeg.

When your cupcakes are cooled, frost away! I don’t have a frosting kit, so I use a ziploc bag. Just cut the tip of one bottom corner of the bag, put the frosting in, and get to frosting.

The frosting is so rich and sweet and delicious with the incredibly dark chocolate cake.

I will let you in on a little secret: the best way to eat a cupcake. When I was younger, I noticed my mom eating cupcakes this way, and I’ve followed her example ever since. Peel off the cupcake liner (duh), and split the cupcake in half by pulling the bottom part of the cupcake off. Take the part you just pulled off, and stick it on top of the frosting, making a cupcake sandwich.

Ta-da!

By sandwiching it, you get equal parts of frosting and cake in each bite. In my mind, there is no other way to eat a cupcake. Enjoy!

Black Bean, Tomato, and Feta Pasta Salad

Yeahhh… so, this is kind of a summer recipe.

Turns out, it’s not summer. But I wouldn’t know that judging by the weather the last couple of weeks. Last week was beautiful — in the 80s and sunny almost every day. Only now has the temperature gone back to normal spring temperatures. Boo. I was getting used to the no coat thing.

Well, last week being what it was, I was feeling a little inspired to make some summery-feeling recipes. We didn’t get to this one ’til tonight, when, alas, the hot weather is long gone. But it still tasted delish. I got this recipe from a friend a few years ago, and it has proven to be a summertime favorite. The beans and tomato combined with the spices, citrus, and heat of the tabasco sauce give this salad a kick.

This is such a simple recipe. The only annoying part is seeding and dicing all the tomatoes. But once you get through that, there’s really not much prep work at all.

Black Bean, Tomato, and Feta Pasta Salad
1/3 cup olive oil
2-4 large garlic cloves, minced (the more, the merrier… or garlicky-er)
2 cans black beans, drained and rinsed well
2 lbs. fresh tomatoes, seeded and diced (I prefer roma tomatoes)
Grated zest of 2 limes (Or a splash of lemon or lime juice)
2-3 teaspoons tabasco sauce
1 tsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. salt, or to taste
——————————
16 oz. bowtie or wagon wheel pasta
8 oz. crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Combine all of the ingredients above the dotted line in a large bowl and set aside to warm to room temperature.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain pasta and combine with other ingredients in the bowl. Add cilantro and feta cheese, mixing well so everything is evenly coated.

I suggest pairing this with a margarita, or some other fun, summery drink. You can pretend it’s summer, while the springtime weather catches up with you. Slowly but surely. Hopefully we’ll get some more warm weather again soon. Enjoy!

Mashed Potatoes with a Twist

There’s almost no better comfort food than mashed potatoes (except maybe gnocchi mac ‘n cheese!). Creamy, buttery, delicious, YUM.

Seriously, who doesn’t love mashed potatoes?

Horrifying flashback to my childhood — I used to make and eat instant mashed potatoes all the time. Sure, it was easier, but it definitely doesn’t taste as good as the real deal. Plus, after the potatoes have been through so much processing, they lose some of their nutritional value. Potatoes have nutritional value, right?

OK, so maybe potatoes aren’t that great for you, but I still love ’em. I assembled this easy little recipe one night with random ingredients found in my fridge.

Exhibit A: Random ingredients that really need to be used up.

Exhibit B: my growling stomach. Sorry, don’t have a picture of that.

Sadly, I was without milk, so I thought I would just use a little bit of veggie broth for a little flavor and that creamy texture. I figured the broth mixed with some cream cheese would make a good enough consistency.

I only had two potatoes on hand, but you can make this with as many taters as you wish. I apologize for the lack of precise measurements. Mashed potatoes is just one of those things where you add a little bit of this, taste, and add a little bit of that. Go with your gut. And your growling stomach.

Rosemary, Leek, and Cream Cheese Mashed Potatoes (2 servings)
2 large potatoes, scrubbed clean (and peeled, if you prefer) and cut into 1 inch pieces
1-2 Tbsp. cream cheese
1-2 Tbsp. veggie broth
1 Tbsp. Earth Balance butter substitute. (Feel free to use real butter.)
1 Tbsp. fresh rosemary, chopped
1 leek, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper to taste

Chop up your leeks and rosemary. Be sure to put the leeks in a colander and rinse thoroughly after chopping — dirt could be stuck between the layers.

Dice up your potatoes and stick them in a saucepan. Add cold water until potatoes are completely covered. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, 15-20 minutes or until done. Done = you can easily stick a fork through the potatoes.

While your potatoes are cooking, get a sauté pan and add a little bit of olive oil, or whatever oil you’ve got laying around. Turn heat to medium and add leeks and rosemary. Sauté, stirring frequently, until leeks are soft (just a few minutes). Remove from heat.

When your potatoes are done, drain the water from your pan and transfer potatoes to a large mixing bowl. Add 1 Tbsp. each of the broth, cream cheese, and butter, and mix with a hand mixer or mash with a potato masher — whatever floats your boat. I like to use the mixer because I’m lazy like that. Possibly the reason why Michelle Obama-like arms are always out of my reach. Sorry — tangent. Seriously, though, I would kill for those arms!

Anyway, back to the potatoes.

Once you’ve mixed everything, taste to see if it is creamy enough and flavorful enough. Feel free to add more of the cream cheese, broth, or butter — whatever it needs. Season with freshly ground salt and pepper.

Once you are satisfied with the taste and consistency, add your leeks and rosemary, and mix in with a fork.

Serve piping hot, and enjoy this satisfying dose of comfort food.