Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cutest Cupcakes for the Cutest Birthday Boy

Simon is three! Can you believe it? What an old geezer. Because he is supremely loved/spoiled, he had to have a whole bunch of birthday parties, including one with his grandparents, aunts and aunts/uncles/cousins once removed. It was a sublime excuse for his grandma to buy lots of farm animal-themed crap, as this was a farm animal-themed birthday party. And it was an equally sublime excuse for his aunt Sarah to make him the adorable animal cupcakes from Martha Stewart!

After much agonizing, Simon went with the pig

These cupcakes are really pretty straightforward; just make sure you set aside a lot of time to make them, as they are time-consuming to decorate. Since I was only making a couple of each kind of cupcake, I used pink jelly beans instead of Bubble Tape for the pigs' ears, and I used buttercream instead of fondant for the monkey. Amazingly, I had never made Swiss buttercream before! If, like me, you are a novice, I would advise that you not worry too much about the buttercream coming together. I thought mine was really lumpy but I let the mixer work on it for a while longer and soon it was nice and smooth. Timesucking aside, these were a lot of fun to make; I think the mouse was my favorite!

For some reason, the pig recipe is not on the Web site, but luckily it's the simplest one to duplicate. Just make some dark pink frosting and some light pink frosting; spread on the dark pink frosting, pipe a large circle of light pink for the snout, then add two dollops of dark pink on top of that for the nostrils. Add brown mini M and Ms for the eyes and either pink jelly beans or triangular pieces of bubble gum for the ears. Voila! An adorable pig. (Funny side story: my dad asked if it was okay for me to make a pig cupcake, as pigs are not kosher. I pointed out to him that they are no less kosher than lions, mice and monkeys, and in any case it doesn't matter because they're all cupcakes. Silly.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Adventures with the Ice Cream Maker: Faraway Journeys and a Return to Our Roots

Ni hao! I just got back from a very fun, broadening and delicious trip to Taiwan with my friend Emily! Here's what you need to know if you go to Taiwan:
1) If you're using the public restroom, bring your own toilet paper. But don't throw it in the bowl, it won't dissolve. Throw it in the trash can instead.
2) Paleness is considered very attractive. Everyone was appalled at the way Emily and I dressed - not because of modesty concerns, but because we were exposing so much of our skin to the sun. There are lots of ads for skin-whitening cream, like in apartheid South Africa. The women there all carry umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun, and they cover up even in extreme heat and humidity, sometimes even wearing kerchiefs over their faces! I don't understand this practice. What's the point of being pale if no one can see you?
3) No one cares about their teeth. We were watching the Golden Melody Awards (the Taiwanese Grammys), and even the biggest stars in Taiwanese music have worse-looking teeth than your average pre-braces suburban teenager.
4) The vendors are super super nice. Imagine the nicest, most accommodating salespeople you know, the ones who will give you endless free samples or will give you a free makeover on Fridays or whatever. That's just about every salesperson in Taiwan. For instance, we went to all these tea tastings where they would do an elaborate ceremony to make and serve us cup after cup of tea, but there's no significant pressure to buy.
5) The food is AWESOME! The sweets and baked goods were especially yummy. They aren't that different from Euro-American treats in their fundamentals - butter, sugar, flour, etc - but they favor fruit flavors, and chocolate is used pretty minimally. A popular flavor that I quite liked was taro, a fruity-tasting root that imparts a purple coloring. Here are some photos I took in Taiwanese bakeries:

Good stuff. My favorite sweet was the suncake, a round, flaky pastry with a sugary filling. I brought some home for my parents and had one for breakfast today. (Unfortunately, breakfast was at 2:30 a.m. since I am jetlagged all to hell.) Here's a picture:

I came home to discover that, in my absence, my dad had intensified his love affair with the ice cream maker. During the ten days I was gone he had made three different types of ice cream, and that was on top of the ice cream we had made before I left. I guess it makes sense that he would have a strong affiliation for ice cream. His father, my grandfather, owned an ice cream shop called Ralph's Dairy Bar in Butler, PA, and he used to work there over the summers growing up. But I think it's been a long time since he had homemade ice cream, since after we spooned the churned Dorie's peach honey ice cream into its container, the two of us licked the freezer bowl clean as if we had never tasted ice cream before. It was so good! Very summery and flavorful but not too sweet, although I did think the honey flavor was stronger than the peach flavor. (I pureed all the peaches instead of putting in chunks, which was actually an error but one I'm glad I made.) And it was a very nice catharsis for me. This was the first recipe I ever made in the ice cream maker, back when the heat wave was melting the freezer bowl and I didn't really know how to make ice cream. Like all the ice cream I made at that time, it didn't churn properly, so it tasted good but the texture was all wrong. Therefore, it was a treat to actually be able to make it and have it taste like ice cream, and it was an equal delight to share the experience with my dad. I loved teaching him how to make ice cream, and he has obviously become quite the expert himself!

Honey-Peach Ice Cream
From Baking from my Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan

4 large ripe peaches (about 2 pounds), peeled and pitted
1/4 cup honey
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
3 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Coarsely chop half the peaches into 1/2-inch chunks and toss them into a small saucepan. Add the honey and bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the pan and cook, stirring occasionally until the peaches are soft but not mushy, about 10 minutes. Scrape the mixture into a blender or food processor and whir to puree. (Alternatively use a hand blender.) Set the peach puree aside while you make the custard.
Bring the milk and cream to a boil in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan.
Meanwhile in a medium bowl, whisk the yolks and sugar together until very well blended and just slightly thickened. Still whisking, drizzle in about one third of the hot liquid - this will temper, or warm, the eggs so they don't curdle. Whisking all the while, slowly pour in the remaining liquid. Pour the custard back into the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring without stopping, until the custard thickens slightly and coats the back of the spoon; if you run your finger down the bowl of the spoon the custard should not run into the track. The custard should reach at least 170 degrees F, but no more than 180 degrees F, on an instant read thermometer. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and pour the custard into a 2-quart glass measuring cup or clean heatproof bowl. Stir in the vanilla and the peach puree.
Refrigerate the custard until chilled before churning it into ice cream.
Scrape the chilled custard into the bowl of an ice cream maker and churn according to manufacturer's instructions. While the ice cream is churning, finely dice the remaining 2 peaches, then, just before the ice cream is thickened and ready, add the peaches and churn to bland. Pack the ice cream into a container and freeze it for at least 2 hours, until it is firm enough to scoop.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Happy Belated Birthday Blog and Beth

As I think I mentioned before, I work with a group of fabulous women.  One of the most fabulous is Beth, who happens to be our preschool director.  Although the women in my office are not great about consuming baked goods on a regular basis, they really go all out on someone's birthday.  Everyone always gets a cake or a treat tailored specifically to them and we love celebrating together (and having an excuse to eat cake).  Beth loves chocolate, so I wanted to find something delicious and festive to make for her birthday.  She works so hard and is such a great person, so I really wanted to make her feel special and celebrated.

I have had my eye on this cake for a while, since I saw it on Tracey's Culinary Adventure about a year ago.  Everything Tracey makes usually looks delicious, so I knew this was one I had to try.  I did not use strawberries in between the layers as she suggests, because Beth does not like fruit with her chocolate, but I think that would have been delicious too.

This cake was fantastic.  It was very moist with a strong chocolate flavor and the icing was incredible.  You could not really taste the white chocolate, but it make it richer and sweeter than your typical cream cheese frosting, which complimented the cake well.  I finished it off with rainbow sugar, which added a tiny bit of crunch and a festive look.  I would highly recommend this cake for a great celebration in your life.  Here is the recipe.  

The other thing this cake celebrated was the second anniversary of our blog!  It is somewhat hard to beleive that we have kept this thing going through living in four different cities and two countries over the past two years, but we did.  I feel like we have all come a long way as bakers and I am looking forward to many more delicious treats in our future!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

BAKED Sunday Mornings (afternoon?): Rosemary Apricot Squares

Sorry these were so late.  We have been doing a lot of traveling and I lost track of the schedule.  However, when I saw both dried apricots and pecans in the farmer's market this morning, I knew I had to whip them up this afternoon.

These delicious bars were one of the first things I was interested in making when I picked up Baked Explorations.  Something about the combination of apricot and rosemary sounded both intriguing and delicious.  And I am always looking for non-chocolate desserts that I think my husband will like.  Well it is too bad he is away, because he would have loved these.  The flavor combination is really original and they have a great combination of a little sweet, a little tart and a little savory.  The rosemary is not overpowering in any way, and it contributes more to the smell of the bars than the taste.

I am glad that I didn't read the whole recipe before I made these, because I might have been scared off by all the steps.  Although there are a lot of dirty dishes in my sink at the moment, it was worth it.  There are a lot of steps, so you have to give yourself some time (read the recipe first!) but you can walk away and do something else while the filling is simmering and while the crust is chilling and baking, so it is not so bad.  If you are looking for something a little different to serve for dessert (or breakfast) look no further than these bars! 

You can find the recipe here, along with all the other bakers of Baked Sunday Mornings.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fudging It

As a baking sister, one of my jobs is frequently bringing dessert to my friends' birthday celebrations. This week, it was my friend Marci's turn, and when I asked her what she liked, she said, "Chocolate. And peanut butter, but really chocolate." So chocolate it was.

Marci had planned a picnic in the park, so a cake didn't seem realistic, and there were going to be a lot of people there, so I wasn't sure cupcakes would work. Therefore, I turned my attention to bars, which I find are often versatile and used for large numbers of people fairly easily. I ended up making two things. One was peanut butter rice krispie treats, which you have read about previously, replacing the semisweet chocolate with milk chocolate. Just let me say, awesome.

However, I decided it was also time to try something new, and a series of events lead me to a recipe for rocky road fudge.

This dessert is intense-- a layer of graham cracker, marshmallow and pecans, topped with chocolate. The picture shows them both upside down and right side up to give you a sense of the affect. I recommend cutting the pieces pretty small, because it's hard to eat more than a little at a time. But eaten they were, first at the picnic and then at my office, and so we say: success! You can find the recipe here.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Baking Sisters: Graduation Edition

One week ago today, I graduated college. Such things happen, and when they do, you should commemorate them with cupcakes. Still, I'd advise anyone still in college to stay there as long as possible, because cupcakes aside, graduating blows. It is almost as awful as making the tiny diploma-shaped cookies on top of these cupcakes, except that at the end of that process, you get a cookie, whereas at the end of graduation, you get a useless degree and legions of adults saying, "I know I shouldn't ask you this, but..." Happy fucking graduation, Class of 2011.

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