Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chocolate Bundt Cake

My family has quiet holidays that are usually just the four of us, so every Thanksgiving I have the opportunity to go to my boyfriend's for dessert. He has lots of family over, and to me it's exactly what holidays should be- loud, with tons of food, family, and friends. Plus, I look forward to it because it's an excuse to bake a cake!

This year, the dessert had to meet a few qualifications:
1. Able to be baked ahead of time(despite double ovens, getting in the kitchen when my mom's cooking a holiday meal is impossible!)
2. Chocolate (boyfriend's dad is a massive chocoholic)
3. Travel well (no four layer, buttercream smothered confections here).
I also wanted to avoid typical Thanksgiving desserts like pumpkin or apple pie, since I knew they'd have those already.

After a truly obscene amount of recipe searching and deliberation (especially for the piece of cake-pun intended- that I chose), I settled on the Too Much Chocolate Cake recipe from, since it had 5 stars from about 800 people. I figured if 800 people raved about it, chances are the family would too. It's a simple pudding-enhanced chocolate cake mix, which meant it was simple to bake and also moist and dense enough to allow me to bake it up the night before without drying out. I used a bundt pan, but you could use anything, and topped with a chocolate glaze from Carole Walter's Great Cakes.

Here is the recipe (a fattening one!) with my alterations:

Too Much Chocolate Cake
1 (18.25 ounce) package devil's food cake mix
1 package instant chocolate pudding mix (the recipe calls for a 5.9 oz but I used a normal 3.9 oz with no issues)
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup milk
4 eggs
1/2 cup warm water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
In a large bowl, mix together the cake and pudding mixes, sour cream, oil, beaten eggs, milk, and water. Pour batter into a well greased 12 cup bundt pan.

Bake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until top is springy to the touch and a wooden toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool cake thoroughly in pan at least an hour and a half before inverting onto a plate.

Quick Chocolate Glaze
1.5 oz unsweeted chocolate, coarsely chopped
1.5 oz semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup strained confectioners' sugar
3 tbsp boiling water (you may need an extra tbsp)
1 tbsp light corn syrup
3/4 tsp vanilla extract

Place the chocolates in a double boiler, stirring until melted and smooth. Off the heat, stir in the sugar and water alternately, beating well. Blend in corn syrup, then vanilla. The glaze should be glossy and pourable, so here is where you may need that extra bit of boiling water (I did).

The glaze was perfect for the cake- shiny and attractive, but not too sweet, since the cake was already over-the-top chocolately and sweet.

Simple, easy, and a big hit at Thanksgiving!

Difficulty Rating: 1

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Halloween Cupcakes

A few days before Halloween, a package arrived in the mail for me. I tore into it and realized my boyfriend had surprised me with Karen Tack's Hello Cupcake!, a book I'd been talking about for awhile and really wanted! I was so excited.
The ideas in the book are so cute and creative, allowing you to use every day pantry items to make really professional looking cupcakes. There's designs for occasions like Thanksgiving, Halloween, and birthdays, etc, and the tricks you learn are clever and useful (if a bit time consuming occasionally). My only issue with the book is that to make some of the more detailed cupcakes, you'll need a lot of ingredients (For example, I wanted to make the werewolf cupcakes for Halloween, but didn't have M&Ms, Fruit Roll Ups, Marshmallows, or Oreos- and that's a lot of crap to buy for one little batch of cupcakes!)

So I decided to go with the pumpkin cupcakes. Simple but appropriate, and they matched the Halloween cupcake liners that I had already purchased. Oh yeah, and it was 7 pm and I planned to bring them to work the next day.

I just used boxed yellow cake mix and Betty Crocker cream cheese frosting- I'll explain! As a baker I sometimes feel it's cheating or a copout to use boxed mix and icing. In a way, it is. But to me, mixes are exactly what I feel a classic cupcake should be- so why would I make my own, if someone else already did it perfectly? I've had the cupcakes from Billy's/Crumbs/Magnolia/[insert trendy NYC bakery here] and I'll be honest: I'll take cake mix over those any day. Plus, you have to know your audience. Mine was my office, not a team of expert bakers. And I knew they'd be more than satisfied with mix. I will say frosting is better homemade, but in the interest of time, I let Betty take care of it.
So the pumpkin decoration obviously uses orange food coloring. I wound up using half a bottle my red and yellow food colorings- next time I will just run out to Michael's for the Wilton paste coloring. It's much better quality.
To get the pumpkin look, you kind of have to mound the frosting- I spooned a huge clump on top and turned the cupcake clockwise against my offset spatula to cover the cupcake but concentrate most of the frosting at the top. I then rolled each cupcake in a plateful of orange sugar sprinkles, and came up with this:

Then, I used toothpicks to press five lines in the frosted cupcakes, from the top center on down. I scooped some frosting into a ziploc bag, cut a hole in the corner, and piped frosting over the lines. I topped with an upside down green gumdrop. Perfect little cupcakes! And when I ran out of orange frosting, I piped some chocolate on the rest of the cupcakes! They were a big hit!

Difficulty Rating: 1

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sugar Cookies

What epitomizes cookies more than one shaped with a cutter and decorated with icing? I try to make these for every holiday, as they are my boyfriend's favorites (and he is a VERY picky eater, so once I find a recipe he likes I stick to it!)

In my quest to find the best rolled sugar cookie, I've experimented with many different recipes. I have found the absolute best is Neil's Scalloped Sugar Cookies, from Carole Walter's Great Cookies. They're super easy, delicious, made from ingredients you always have on hand, and don't puff up at all in the oven and ruin the cutter shape.

The other benefit to these cookies that they freeze & travel really well, and they also last about 3 weeks (stored airtight)- another reason they're great to make for the boyfriend- he's at school in Michigan!

This particular batch is going in my Christmas cookie tins. Every year, I obsessively plan the most efficient way to decorate these. That involves limiting myself to a minimum of shapes and colors. This year, as you can see from the picture, I went with snowmen and stockings. I'm going to use white, red, and green as my main colors, with black as an accent on the snowman. But my completely anal decorating method will be posted when I decorate them. Right now, they're being frozen away and will be pulled out closer to Christmas.

So, if you plan on making some Christmas cookies soon I highly recommend these. The recipe as I use it is as follows:
Neil's Scalloped Sugar Cookies
1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 cup confectioner's sugar
2/3 cup (1 and 1/3 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed and very cold
3 large egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 or 2 tsp cold water as needed
Combine flour, sugar, butter in bowl of food processor, fitted with the steel blade. Pulse to combine, then process for approximately 10 seconds, until the mixture is the texture of fine meal (it will look crumbly and not much like dough).
Combine the yolks and vanilla in a bowl, and add to the processor's work bowl. Pulse to combine, and then process for about 10 seconds until a mass forms. If it looks very dry, add a tsp of water. Empty the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a disk. It will seem rather dry and crumbly. Don't worry.
Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour or up to 3 days.
To bake: Preheat oven to 350. Line cookie sheets with foil.
Working with 1/4 of the dough at a time, roll out on floured surface until about 1/4 or 1/8 inch thick. Using your cookie cutters, cut into your desired shapes.
Place on cookie sheet and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until edges are golden brown.
**If you don't plan to decorate these, you can brush with an egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. I've never done that though, I always decorate with royal icing!
Difficulty Rating: 1

Monday, November 10, 2008

Apple Pie Bars

My favorite farmer's market closed for the winter last week, so I decided to stock up on the last inexpensive apples I'd get this season. I bought a variety of different kinds, Granny Smiths, Golden Delicious, and Jonagolds, to experiment and see what I liked best for baking (it should come as no surprise that Golden Delicious won).

Apple desserts are my favorite kind- my tastebuds don't go for supersweet, frosting-laden cakes or chewy cookies (though I love to bake both!) I wanted to try something new, like an apple tart, but I succumbed to my number 1 favorite dessert, Apple Pie Bars. They have three delicious parts: a cookie-like layer, a layer of warm, cooked apples, and a crisp brown sugar/cinnamon streusel topping. The recipe comes from Carole Walter's Great Cookies (aka the best book ever!), and I make it with absolutely no changes- it's perfect as it is!

Although the recipe requires three separate steps, it's fairly straightforward and depending on how quickly you work, can be finished in a little over an hour. Here's the recipe:

For the apples:
6 Golden Delicious, peeled, cored, sliced 1/4in thick
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp honey (Maple syrup works equally well if you don't have honey)

For the crust:
2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly firm
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg

For the streusel topping:
1 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 stick butter, cubed
1 cup medium chopped toasted pecans (I omit these)

Cooking the apples:
Combine all ingredients in a pan, and cover for 2-3 minutes to let the apples release their juices. Then, uncover, and cook until the juices have evaporated and the apples are soft and golden brown. This will take approx 15 minutes (try not to eat half the apples like I always do!) When they're done, they'll look like this: (a bit blurry but you get the idea)

For the crust:
Preheat oven to 375.
Line a 9 x 13 x 2 baking dish with foil, and grease it with butter.
Strain together the flour, baking powder, and salt, and set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, mix the butter and brown sugar on medium speed until creamy, about 2 minutes.
Add the egg, and mix just until blended.
Add the dry ingredients in two additions, mixing just until incorporated.
The dough will be very soft. At this point, I take big spoonfuls of it and dump them strategically in all the corners and center of the pan, and then flatten them towards each other using my hands or the bottom of a glass.
Bake for 15-18 minutes, until just golden and coming away from the sides of the pan.
Turn the oven down to 350.
Make streusel while the crust bakes.

For the streusel:
Combine flour, sugars, cinnamon, and salt on low speed in mixer.
Add butter and mix until mixture is crumbly and barely holds together when squeezed.
Stir in pecans, if using.

Or, my lazy way: Mix it all with your hands! I only have one mixer and am too lazy to clean it again to make streusel. It's just as easy to do it by hand.

The mixture, when properly combined, will look like this:

When crust is done, immediately spoon apples over it, and sprinkle with streusel.
Reduce oven temp to 350 and bake for 20-25 minutes, until streusel topping is light brown and crisp.

The entire thing looks like this:

Unfortunately, my mom took the bars to work before I had a chance to snap a picture of them cut. But trust me, these are delicious! They are always a huge crowd pleaser, because they combine apple pie, coffee cake, and cookies. Yum!

Difficulty Rating: 1.

Friday, November 7, 2008


After making sugar cookies last week, I found myself with two leftover egg whites and no craving for an omelet. I'd never made meringues before, and knew this was a perfect time to try them out.

I chose a Peppermint Meringue recipe from, though I left out the peppermint as I'm not a huge fan of it. The recipe, with my adaptations, is as follows:

1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg whites

Preheat oven to 350.

Bring the egg whites to room temperature to ensure maximum volume when whipping. You can do this quickly by dipping the bowl of egg whites in another bowl of hot water (don't get water in the egg whites, obviously).

Whip until frothy, then mix in the salt and cream of tartar.

Whip until soft peaks form (you will see ridges in the egg whites, and when you remove the beater a peak will form and then wilt). Gradually add in the sugar. Take your time and add it in along the sides of the bowl, not directly into the egg whites, so as not to risk deflating them.

Whip until stiff peaks form.

Since I was doing this around the election, I split my meringues in half and used a few drops of blue food coloring in one, and a few drops of red in the other.

I used a #4 star tip to pipe out rosettes, but you could just drop spoonfuls onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet. Personally I like the rosette shape, I think it makes a plain item look a little fancy.

Put the meringues in the oven, and shut it off. Leave in overnight to dry out.

The result:
Perfectly cooked. Crisp but melt in your mouth. However, I found them to be a bit too sweet for me (I guess that's the nature of the beast!) Next time, I may fold in walnuts to add some texture and cut back on the sweetness...or maybe I'll just make that omelet.

Difficulty Rating: 1