Saturday, March 30, 2013

Super-Easy Birthday Cake Ideas

You don't have to be a cake decorator to put together a cute theme cake or cupcake display! Go to party stores and look for non-edible party items that could be fun cake toppers. Look for creative ways to use crackers, cookies and candies from the grocery store. Here are some easy ideas that anyone can do:

These Minnie Mouse Cupcakes are so simple - use miniature oreos for the ears and cut bits of pink fondant for the bows.

Printable paper toppers are available online for any theme. Tape them to lollipop sticks and stick in the cupcakes or cake. You can buy plastic molds for these seashells (or just about any theme) at craft stores or online. Melt white chocolate (or meltable candy pieces) and pour into the molds. They set up quickly in the fridge. Garnish the plate with something that fits the theme (in this case cracker crumb sand).

 Cut a sheet cake into the shape of an ice-cream cone and frost it like this

 Look for toys in the theme you want (in this case a little monkey) and make simple edible accents to go with it. These palm trees are pretzel rods with Royal Icing leaves. Just make some royal icing, pipe in a rough leaf shape and let dry. Attach to the top of the pretzel rods with more royal icing and let dry (you will need to put the pretzel rods in a glass or something to hold them upright). Stick them in the cake and add some brown M&Ms as coconuts.

 These CandyLand cupcakes were topped with lollipops, candy canes, and giant gumdrops. Using brightly-colored cupcake wrappers and display plates helps make them even more colorful.

 These dinosaur cupcakes are another example of using molds and meltable candy chips 
to create a simple edible toppers.

For a more adult cake, cover the cake in rich chocolate frosting, chocolate covered strawberries, and shaved chocolate. For the strawberries: chop some good quality chocolate into pieces, melt it in a double boiler, dip in the strawberries and dry on waxed paper. Shaved Chocolate: Use a vegetable peeler to shave pieces from a bar of chocolate (use a good quality chocolate for this).
These lovely cameos are actually very simple to make. You can buy a cameo mold at cake supply stores or online. Use melted white chocolate in the mold and then dust with lustre dust to highlight it. The pearls are edible candies (also from the cake supply store) and a pretty satin ribbon is an easy way to make a cake have a finished, tailored look.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Toasted Coconut Cupcakes

If you love coconut like I do, this will be one of your favorite cakes. You could also use this recipe to make a coconut layer cake. If you prefer, you can leave the coconut untoasted, but I love the slightly nutty crunch on top of the sweet frosting.

Coconut Milk is usually found canned in the imported food aisle of your grocery store, often with the Asian foods. Do not use Coconut water (which is a beverage) or Cream of Coconut (a sweetened coconut paste used to make tropical drinks).

For the Cake:
3 cups sifted cake flour
1 1/2 Cups sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt (if using salted butter, omit salt)
3/4 Cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
4 large egg whites
1 cup Coconut Milk (save what is left over for the frosting)
1 teaspoon Coconut extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin cups with paper liners. (This recipe should make 24+ cupcakes, depending on how much you fill each muffin cup.)

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add in the butter and about 1/4 cup of the coconut milk. Turn the mixer on low and beat just until moistened. Then turn the mixer up to medium and beat for one minute to aerate the batter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

In a small bowl, combine the egg whites, the rest of the coconut milk and the coconut extract. Mix with a fork until well-blended.

Add the egg mixture into the batter in three batches, mixing for just 15-20 seconds each time until incorporated. Give the bowl a final scrape down by hand, just to make sure any remaining clumps of flour get mixed in.

Fill muffin cups no more than half full. I like to use a standard ice cream scooper levelled off to measure and dispense the batter.

Bake about 20 minutes until the tops spring back when you gently press on them with a finger.

Cool before frosting.

For the Frosting:
3 Cups Confectioner's Sugar
1/2 Cup (1 stick) softened butter
2-3 Tablespoons Coconut Milk (you should have some left over in the can)
1 teaspoon coconut extract

Place all ingredients into the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the whisk attachment, beat all of the ingredients together on low until everything is moistened. Then turn the mixer up to med-high and beat for about 5 minutes until nice and fluffy. The amount of coconut milk you use depends on how soft or stiff you like your frosting.

Place one cup of flaked coconut on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven at 350 for about 6 minutes, stirring it halfway through. Watch very carefully the last two minutes so it doesn't get overly browned. Coconut can burn quickly. Cool.

Frost the cupcakes, then sprinkle the toasted coconut on top.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why I can't seem to bake "healthy"

I've been trying to bake healthier lately. I could say it's because of the growing awareness about rising obesity rates, but mostly it's about me. I'm in my late thirties with two kids, and let's face it: my metabolism just isn't what it used to be. The problem is that I LOVE to bake. I mean, I REALLY love baking, almost to the point of obsession. The whole reason I started this blog was just so I could ramble on about baking techniques and recipes, topics my husband finds rather boring.

Since I bake more often than my waistline can handle, I give away a lot of goodies. I figure my family doesn't need a whole cake, a dozen cupcakes, or an entire pie every other day. But my friends and neighbors are surely getting tired of being my tasters all the time. They joke that I am trying to make them fat.

So lately I've been trying to expand my recipes to include healthier fare. I'm generally pretty health-conscious in my cooking, so I figured it couldn't be that hard to make my desserts healthier too. Some things I tried were: Cutting white flour with wheat or other flours, incorporating oats into recipes, cutting down on the refined sugar or using alternative sweeteners like honey. Substituting applesauce for oil, and mashed bananas for eggs are also ideas that I have tried with some success in the past. 

Some of these things worked fine, but others not so much. For example, I like wheat bread (especially homemade wheat bread) but I hate whole wheat pie crusts, and cookies. I can cut down on the sugar, but cut it too much and it just isn't a dessert anymore. And any time you substitute something else for eggs, the texture changes. Not that that is a bad thing, necessarily, but it just won't be the same.

I started getting frustrated in my experiment with healthier baking. I had some pretty major failures. And then I realized that an old bit of wisdom about life applies to food writing too: Stick to what you know and don't try to be something else. I had a "duh"moment when it occurred to me that there are a lot of fantastic healthy eating blogs out there, so why should I try to be like them? I am all about old-fashioned, homey, all-American desserts made from scratch with quality ingredients. I am not fancy French pastries, I am not mind-blowing cake decoration, and I am not "ten different ways to use quinoa."   

So I won't be trying to corner the market on desserts that "taste good AND are good for you!" But you know what? I do believe that baking from scratch is automatically healthier than store-bought goodies. Baking from scratch means that YOU control the ingredients, without the preservatives and chemicals found in most commercially-processed baked goods. YOU control whether or not you use artificial colors and flavors. YOU control the quality of the ingredients you use. I am proud to say that I use top-quality local butter, and I get my milk and eggs from a local farm.

And lastly, even though I bake all the time, I realize that people who are reading my blog do not. They are probably looking for a great cake recipe once in a while, or filing away an idea for a homemade pie they might make next Fourth-of-July. The point is, they aren't eating this stuff all the time, and it wasn't meant to be eaten all the time. You know what they say, "Everything in moderation."

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Carrot Cake Cupcakes with Maple Icing

I made these cupcakes using my Grandmother's Carrot Cake recipe. I like a maple icing with carrot cake, but you can substitute a standard cream cheese frosting if you prefer that instead. This fluffy maple icing is a variation on Seven Minute Icing, in this case using real maple syrup instead of making a syrup from sugar and water. I give you two icing options here, the fluffy maple icing and a maple buttercream.

For the Cake, use this recipe: Grandma Minnie's Carrot Cake
(I halved the recipe to make one dozen cupcakes)

For Maple Frostings, you can choose Fluffy Maple Icing or one of these Maple Buttercreams.

Fluffy Maple Icing

This Fluffy Maple Icing is a variation on Seven-Minute Icing, which is light and billowy and tastes a bit like whipped marshmallows. The one caveat with any Seven-minute icing (and especially this maple variation) is that you must make it fresh. I recommend making the icing right before you frost your cake/cupcakes, and serving the cake immediately or not more than an hour later. After that, the icing deflates a bit and becomes a little chewy. If you want a maple frosting that does not need to be made right before serving, I would recommend my Maple Buttercream instead.

Fluffy Maple Icing:
3/4 Cup Real Maple Syrup
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 Egg Whites

Put the maple syrup and the cream of tartar in a small saucepan and, over low heat, simmer gently for one minute, stirring often. Take off heat.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the egg whites on medium until the mixture can form soft peaks.

Keeping the mixer on medium high speed, very slowly pour the hot maple syrup into the egg whites in a thin stream (this adds the hot syrup gradually so as not to cook the eggs). You want to pour the syrup down the side of the bowl so it goes into the egg whites, not directly onto the beaters.

When the mixture is blended, turn the mixer up to high and beat for five minutes. The icing will be very fluffy, stiffer and look a little less glossy.

Frost and serve as soon as possible.

Maple Buttercreams

Here are two recipes for Maple Buttercream. The first one is the Maple Frosting I use for my Maple Spice cake (pictured). It is super-easy to make, based on old-fashioned butter frosting (a.k.a. American Buttercream). The second is a Maple Swiss Meringue Buttercream.

Christa's Maple Buttercream:
1/2 cup (1 Stick) Unsalted Butter, softened
2 Cups Confectioner's Sugar
2-3 Tablespoons Real Maple Syrup, Grade B if possible
(you can use 1/2 tsp maple extract to get a stronger flavor, but I prefer just the syrup)

Put all ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on medium speed for about five minutes, until soft and fluffy.

Another great maple frosting is a Maple Swiss Meringue Buttercream. If you aren't familiar with Swiss Meringue Buttercream, it is a frosting that tastes rich and buttery and less heavy than other frostings. Being less sweet than American-style buttercream, it doesn't appeal to everyone (namely my kids). Swiss Meringue Buttercream is somewhat tempermental to make, so if you need a step-by-step guide, here is a fantastic tutorial:Swiss Meringue Buttercream tutorial from Beyond Buttercream

Maple Swiss Meringue Buttercream
(Adapted from Beyond Buttercream)

6.25 oz egg whites (about 5 large Egg whites, but weigh if you can because it is more accurate)
1 Cup Sugar
pinch of Salt
1 pound butter, cut into pieces and warmed to room temp (ideally 72 degrees or warmer)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon Maple extract (depending on your taste)

Combine egg whites, sugar and salt in the top of a double boiler. Whisking constantly, heat mixture until the sugar has dissolved COMPLETELY. If you have a candy thermometer, you can test the temp. It is ready at 160 degrees.

Transfer the egg mixture into the bowl of an electric mixer, using the whisk attachment. Start at low speed and gradually increase to medium high, beating until stiff peaks form and the mixture is cool, about 10 minutes. If you are using a stand mixer such as a KitchenAid, you can set the timer and go do something else.

When the mixture has cooled and the egg whites are at stiff peak stage, turn the mixer off. Switch to the paddle attachment, and add the butter a few chunks at a time on the lowest speed. Then add maple extract and keep mixing on low. After a few minutes, the mixture will look soupy, then curdled, but don't give up! It can take as much as 15 minutes on low to come together, but don't rush it. If you crank up the mixer, it may still turn out, but you will get less volume and it may not be as silky smooth. Be Patient!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Irish Soda Breads

Irish Soda breads are delicious and a great thing to make when you need a bread that is quick and easy. Soda bread gets its name from Baking Soda, which provides the leavener, making them much quicker than yeast breads.

From "Irish soda bread, as we know it today, surfaces in the mid-19th century, when bicarbonate of soda was first used as a leavening agent. Prior to this time, similar breads and raised cakes were made with sourdough and barm brack, yeast created by fermenting ale."

Irish Soda Bread comes in three varieties: White, Brown, and with raisins or currants. Originally, soda bread was just a simple mix of flour (probably wheat flour originally) baking soda, a touch of salt, and Buttermilk. Because most Irish were poor at that time, this bread originally did not contain "luxury" ingredients like sugar and raisins. Those were added later.

There are many different recipes for Irish Soda Bread, and depending on which part of Ireland your family hails from, ingredients will vary. My family's recipe for Irish Bread (which is now lost to the ages) did not contain carraway seeds, but my husband's old family recipe does. Whether you add sugar or raisins, at its core soda bread is still four basic ingredients: Flour, Baking Soda, Salt and Buttermilk.

Brown Soda Bread (Americans often call it "Irish Brown Bread") is not sweet and is made with wheat flour (usually a mix of white and wheat flours). It is a delicious hearty bread to eat with soup, or just serve it warm with butter. One great easy recipe comes from Darina Allen and can be found on the KerryGold website: Darina Allen's Brown Soda Bread (Special thanks to my Irish friend Claire for passing that along!)

Raisin Soda Bread, or what my family just calls "Irish Bread" is slightly sweet, moist and dense, with a smattering of dark and golden raisins. My in-laws make this for every holiday dinner, and learning how to make it is a rite of passage in his family. Our recipe has a small amount of carraway seeds, but you can omit them if you'd like. Granny Mahoneys Irish Bread

Monday, March 11, 2013

St. Patrick's Day

This weekend is St. Patrick's Day, and in the Boston area you can bet it is a party! My area is more than 30% Irish, but the Irish-Americans celebrate even more than the real Irish do. Everybody whips out their favorite Shepherd's Pie recipes and compares the virtues of the different types of corned beef (Corned beef and cabbage, aka "New England Boiled Dinner" is another Irish American thing apparently. My Irish friends tell me that they have Irish Bacon instead of Corned Beef.)

Anyway, this blog is supposed to be about Baking, so I shouldn't go off on too much of a tangent here. I have two great baked items for St. Patrick's Day, one is a real old-time Irish recipe and the other is an American homage to Guinness, that deliciously dark brew. So here are the links if you want to get your Irish on:

Guinness Cake

Granny Mahoney's Irish Bread

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Maple Bread Pudding

I created this recipe for my husband, who loves bread pudding. I had never really cared for it myself, not really liking any of the various "soggy bread" type desserts. But I decided that if I used a good crusty bread to minimize the sog factor and added real maple syrup, I might just like it. Sure enough, I really enjoyed this bread pudding. My caution is that if you like a very "wet" bread pudding, this one may not be the one for you. Use a good hearty bread like Sourdough or crusty white bread. Wimpy sandwich bread just won't cut it for this recipe.

2 Cups Milk
1/3 Cup Real Maple Syrup
1 Tablespoon Sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Vanilla
7 Eggs
3 Cups cubed bread (Use good hearty bread that is a little stale, no wimpy Wonder bread for this!)
dash of Nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8x8 casserole dish. You will also need a larger (9x13) pan for this recipe (to do a water bath).

In a small saucepan, heat the milk to the point where it is just beginning to simmer. Remove from heat. Stir in the syrup, sugar, salt, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs lightly. Gradually add the milk mixture to the eggs, adding just a little liquid at a time while continuously stirring it into the eggs (this tempers the eggs so the hot liquid does not cook them).
Add vanilla, and give the egg/milk mixture one last good beating to mix.

Pour the egg/milk mixture over the cubed bread and stir well. Let the mixture sit for five minutes before pouring it into a greased 8x8 casserole dish. Dust the top with nutmeg. Place the dish in a larger pan and add 1-2 inches of water into the larger pan (pouring carefully so you don't get water into the bread pudding.) Bake 40-45 minutes, or until it no longer jiggles in the middle when you give it a shake. Cool a bit before cutting (I like to serve it warm, but not hot). This makes 9 regular squares or 12 little squares. Drizzle real maple syrup over the top of each piece when serving. This bread pudding is not overly sweet, so don't skip the extra maple syrup on top - it really makes it just right!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Easy Scratch Cakes

What holds most people back from making a cake from scratch is the time and the extra steps required in many cake recipes. I'll admit that I have several cakes on this blog which are "high maintenance" recipes - Cakes that require special ingredients, or ask you to take extra steps like beating egg whites until stiff then gently folding them into the batter. But have no fear! There are cakes out there (and on this blog) which are TRULY EASY to make! No special ingredients, no extra steps, you don't even have to use an electric mixer if you don't have one. So there is really no reason to use a box mix when you can make a homemade cake quickly and easily. See the links below:

(Substitute Coffee or Water for the Guinness if you want to)

And some Others:

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Banana Cake with Sour Cream Frosting

What could be better than the flavor of Banana Bread with the lighter texture of a cake? Sour Cream frosting provides a slightly tangy flavor, which makes a nice contrast to the sweetness of the banana cake. The cake is adapted from a recipe I found on Epicurious a few years ago. The sour cream frosting is something I created to replace the cream cheese frosting the original recipe called for (I am not a big fan of cream cheese frosting).
I recommend making this as a sheet cake in a 9x13 pan. I have tried it as a layer cake, but it is dense and sweet, and just seems too heavy with two layers.
For the Cake:
1 1/3 Cups Sugar
1 Cup Mashed Ripe Bananas (about 3 small bananas)
1/2 Cup Vegetable or Canola oil
2 large eggs
1/4 Cup Buttermilk
1 teaspoon Vanilla extract
2 Cups All-purpose Flour
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 teaspoon Salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and dust with flour a 9x13 pan (or line with parchment paper).
In a bowl, combine the sugar, mashed banana, oil, eggs, buttermilk and vanilla. Beat by hand (or with an electric mixer on low) until mixture is well-blended.
In a seperate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda and salt. Add these dry ingredients into the banana mixture, again beating by hand (or on low) just until well-blended.
Bake at 350 for 22-25 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool to room temperature before frosting.
For the Frosting:
1/4 Cup Butter, softened
3 Tablespoons Sour Cream
2 Cups Confectioner's Sugar

Beat the butter, sour cream and confectioner's sugar together with an electric mixer on medium for 2-3 minutes. If you want a softer consistency, add another tablespoon of Sour Cream.