February 28, 2010

Recipe: Mini Chocolate-Caramel Cupcakes, Orange Cupcakes

Cupcake creativity was inevitable after crafting cupcakes recipes into a slideshow at work for several days. Luckily, I had an excuse to bake to my heart's desire for an upcoming party. I like that you can eat more varieties of cakes with mini cupcakes, so that's what I made.

1. Caramel-Chocolate Cupcakes (the ones with the chocolate layer)
A more dense pound cupcake is topped with rich chocolate ganache (like a chocolate truffle) and then a caramel buttercream.

2. Orange Cupcakes (the ones without the dark layer)
A moist, fluffy cake is frosted with orange buttercream. The icing's flavor was reminiscent of Sister Shubert's Orange Rolls, which first made me fall in love with orange-flavored desserts.

Caramel-Chocolate Cupcakes

1/2 cup butter, softened

1/2 (8-oz.) package cream cheese, softened

1 1/4 cups sugar

3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 (8-oz.) container sour cream

8 ounces chopped semisweet chocolate

1/4 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons whipping cream

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Beat in sugars until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating until blended after each addition. Stir in vanilla.

2. Combine flour and next 3 ingredients. Gradually add to butter mixture alternately with sour cream, beating until blended. Spoon batter by rounded tablespoonfuls into lightly greased miniature muffin pans.

3. Bake at 350° for 13 to 15 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in centers comes out clean. Cool in pans on wire racks 5 minutes. Remove from pans to wire racks, and cool completely (about 30 minutes).

4. Microwave semisweet chocolate and 1/4 cup whipping cream in a microwave-safe bowl at HIGH 1 minute, stirring at 30-second intervals. Whisk in 2 Tbsp. whipping cream until smooth. Dip tops of cupcakes in chocolate mixture, and let stand until chocolate is set (about 30 minutes). Pipe or spread Caramel Buttercream onto cupcakes. Garnish with flake salt and caramels cut in quarters, if desired.

Yield: Makes 6 dozen miniature cupcakes

Note: To prepare regular-size cupcakes, spoon batter into 2 lightly greased 12-cup muffin pans, filling two-thirds full. Bake at 350ยบ for 22 to 24 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in centers comes out clean. Cool and decorate as desired. Makes 2 dozen.

Caramel Buttercream

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 (3-oz.) package cream cheese, softened

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 (16-oz.) package powdered sugar

3 tablespoons milk

15 caramels

1 tablespoon milk


1. Beat first 4 ingredients at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy.

2. Gradually add powdered sugar alternately with 3 Tbsp. milk, beating at low speed until blended and smooth after each addition.

3. Melt caramels with 1 Tbsp. milk in a small microwave-safe bowl at HIGH 1 minute or until smooth, stirring at 30-second intervals. Fold caramel mixture into buttercream, creating swirls. (Do not completely blend.)

Orange Cupcakes

1 3/4 cup cake flour

1 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoons salt

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

2 large eggs, separated and whites beaten until stiff

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup orange juice

1 stick of butter, softened

Combine butter, sugar, egg yolks, and vanilla in a mixing bowl. Cream these ingredients together thoroughly.

Mix flour, salt, and baking powder together in a separate mixing bowl. Add dry ingredients to creamed ingredients 1/3 at a time alternating with adding portions of the orange juice to the creamed mixture.

Fold in beaten egg whites. Spoon batter into cupcake liners until 1/2 full.

Bake in a 350 degree preheated oven for 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

For Orange Buttercream Frosting, prepare Buttercream Frosting and mix in an additional 2 tablespoons orange zest, or enough to achieve the amount of orange flavor you desire.

February 25, 2010

Dinner: Chicken Fajitas

While fajitas aren't anything fancy, making them with fresh ingredients results in one of those meals where I ended up saying, "This is so good!" aloud about seven times as I eat it. Part of that passion comes from my love of sauteed onions and peppers. And guacamole. And fresh, chunky salsa. And more onions. And really all things Mexican.
I did some prep work the night before fajitas were on the dinner menu, so it made night-of prep quick. (After all, my work has me writing about the glories of prepping ahead of time; gotta put it to practice.) Here's what I did.

Night before:
1. Used my kitchen shears (err, scissors that live in the kitchen) to cut chicken into small strips.
2. Chopped bell peppers into slices and white onion into chunks.
3. Mixed up a lime-filled marinade from Cooking Light and put half in a baggie with the chicken and half in a baggie with the peppers and onions. (Next time I might try a spice mix in the skillet to replace the marinade. The flavor wasn't that strong, maybe because I substituted chicken broth for beef. But that would add a night-of step, and the strong flavors of everything else covered up the chicken.)
4. Chopped tomatoes, red onion, and garlic; squeezed limes; mixed it all up with dried cilantro (yes, I cheated) and salt for a nice chunky salsa to marinate overnight.

Night of:
1. Sauteed meat and veggies.
2. Cooked a black bean and rice mix for a side.
3. Mashed up an avocado and mixed it with handy natural guac mix (even though just adding salt, lemon, salsa, and garlic takes like 2 minutes longer) for so-good guacamole.
4. Snacked on tortilla chips and guac as everything else was coming together.
5. Nuked tortillas.
6. Made an assembly line of the goods out of the skillet, tortillas, salsa, guacamole, and sour cream.

February 22, 2010

Recipe: Pecan Squares

These decadent bars are like pecan pie, but better. Here's why I find them superior (for full disclosure, you might like pie and bars an equal amount):

1. Thick crust. And not just any crust -- shortbread crust.
2. A cohesive top layer that mixes pecan pieces with just enough sweet, gooeyness. This replaces an overabundance of gooey junk that so stubbornly divides the layers of pecan pie.
3. Toffee flavor. That's right, you mix almond brickle bits, which are pretty much small toffee pieces, in the gooey layer, and it complements the pecan taste perfectly.
4. Straightforward bake time. 40 minutes and it's done. Generally no guesswork regarding if it's set is required.
5. Portability. Bars are just so easy to cut up, package in containers, travel, and pick up with your fingers. They might be a little bit sticky but not too much so.

These bars have made regular appearances at family gatherings since my dad got the recipe from a lady at his church several years ago, and the oos and ahs I got at the party where I last served them reminded me of just how tasty they are.

Pecan Squares

2 cups flour

½ cup powdered sugar

½ tsp. salt

2 sticks butter

14 oz. sweetened condensed milk

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla

7.5 oz. almond brickle chips

1 cup chopped pecans

Combine first 3 ingredients. Cut in butter until crumbly. Press mixture into a greased 9x13-inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Stir together remaining ingredients and pour over crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until golden. Cool and cut into squares. 

February 18, 2010

Recipe: Moroccan Carrot Salad

I have my friend Anna to thank for introducing me to the only dish that has made me like the taste of carrots (versus hide it in a butter-laden casserole or cake). This salad enhances the that ever-so distinct orange carrot taste by marinating thin shreds in lemon juice, honey, and a Moroccan spice combo (cumin, paprika, and cayenne/red pepper). Golden raisins and toasted pine nuts add more crunchy texture and a sweet and nutty, respectively, twist. If you think you don't like carrots, I challenge you try this.

I pulled the dressing recipe from Sandra Lee, who made it semi-homemade by using packaged shredded carrots. She is a smart lady, because shredding my own carrots took, like, way too long. My carrot, raisin, and pine nuts measurements are guesstimates.

Moroccan Carrot Salad

4 cups shredded carrots

3/4 cup golden raisins

3/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

1 lemon, juiced

1/2 cup, chopped cilantro leaves

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 pinch cayenne (I used red pepper.)

1 teaspoon honey

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

In a medium bowl, combine shredded carrots, pine nuts, and raisins. Set aside.

For the Dressing: In a small mixing bowl, combine lemon juice, cilantro, spices, and honey. Slowly whisk in extra-virgin olive oil.

Pour dressing over carrot salad and toss to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours to allow flavors to meld.

February 15, 2010

Recipe: Chocolate Cake IV

While I am not so much a fan of the commercialization heyday and restaurant crowding around the fourteenth of February, I am a fan of excuses to eat chocolate. And if I was going to eat with chocolate, I figured I might as well make the fancy layer cake recipe from the gallery of desserts that had been staring at me all week at work.

The creamy chocolate-coffee filling and chocolate ganache frosting were as tasty as they sounded without being over-the-top rich, but they took forever to prepare, cool, prepare more and assemble. The cake part was a definite winner and not terribly labor-intensive. With a hint of cinnamon and just enough melted bittersweet and semisweet chocolate bars, the flavor was definitely chocolate but not too chocolate-intense for the chocolate-is-okay parties that partook. Next time, I think I'll try the chocolate cake batter as cupcakes or with a simple chocolate icing. 

Chocolate Cake IV

Vegetable shortening

1/2  (4 ounce) semisweet chocolate baking bar, chopped

1/2  (4 ounce) bittersweet chocolate baking bar, chopped

1/2  cup  butter, softened

2  cups  firmly packed light brown sugar

3  large eggs

2  teaspoons  vanilla extract

2 1/4  cups  cake flour

2  teaspoons  baking soda

1/2  teaspoon  salt

1/4  teaspoon  ground cinnamon

1/2  cup  buttermilk

1  cup  boiling water

Coffee Liqueur Ganache Icing

Mocha-Chocolate Cream Filling

Garnish: chocolate curls

Coat 3 (8-inch) round cakepans with cooking spray. Line bottoms of pans with wax paper; grease wax paper with shortening, and set aside.

Melt chocolate in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring until smooth; set aside.

Beat butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Gradually add sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating just until yellow disappears after each addition. Stir in melted chocolate and vanilla.

Sift together flour and next 3 ingredients; add to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beating at low speed just until blended, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Stir in boiling water. Pour batter evenly into prepared pans.

Bake at 350° for 28 to 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans on wire racks 10 minutes; remove from pans, and cool completely on wire racks.

Place 1 cake layer on a serving plate; spread top with 4 tablespoons Coffee Liqueur Ganache Icing. Spread half of Mocha-Chocolate Cream Filling evenly over ganache on cake layer. Top with second cake layer; spread top with 4 tablespoons Coffee Liqueur Ganache Icing and remaining Mocha-Chocolate Cream Filling. Top with remaining cake layer. Spread remaining Coffee Liqueur Ganache Icing on top and sides of cake. Garnish, if desired.

February 6, 2010

Three Things: Simple Salad Ideas

Salad greens almost permanently live in the fridge at my house, and I like to play around with different ways to make them taste more exciting your average salad bar. Here are my latest favorite ways to dress up those greens, each with three ingredients or less.

1. Creamy Italian Dressing
Italian Dressing (or any vinaigrette) + Plain Yogurt
Yet again yogurt takes the traditional place of mayo to make something creamy and good for you. Just stir about half bottled dressing and half yogurt, and then toss the mixture with greens. I like to add feta and other veggies to the mix.
2. Insta-croutons
Bread + Olive Oil + Greek Seasonings
I don't care for store-bought croutons but have always loved eating them at the few restaurants that make them in-house. So I figured I could make them, too. I just tore up a piece of sandwich bread, sprayed it with olive oil, sprinkled it with my mostest favorite Greek seasonings from Zoe's  and baked it at 425 degrees until the pieces got brown and crunchy. (Photo is from before they were baked.)

3. Honey Balsamic Vinaigrette 
Olive Oil + Balsamic Vinegar + Honey
Oil and balsamic are a great combo on salad, but it's a bit too twangy for my taste. So I followed my [natural] sweet tooth and added honey to the mix. I mix about equal parts of each of the three ingredients with a whisk (which in reality is usually a fork). In the photo, I tossed the dressing on spinach with chopped pear, toasted walnuts and crumbled feta cheese to go with the pork and potatoes my college friends and I made at our most recent, most glorious reunion (a.k.a. food fest).