CHOCOLATE DOESN’T BELONG IN MUFFINS? TRY THESE BANANA CHOCO/CHIP DELIGHTS!

That would be me—the lady who says that chocolate has no business floating around in muffins (which I have mostly considered to be breakfast or coffee-break/teatime fare). If you’re a Baby Boomer like me, you might recall the old Bill Cosby routine wherein Cosby is making breakfast for his kids and they want chocolate cake, so that’s what he’s gonna give ’em! Our son Adrian loved that skit (might even have heard it live at the Proctor’s when we took him to see the comedian perform – can’t recall which routines included in the act!), What made it funny was the fact that, two or three decades ago, no one considered chocolate as appropriate on any kind of early morning menu. Who but a father who was not used to pulling together a real meal would even consider dishing it out to his kids? I tend to think chocolate started to sneak into the rise ‘n’ shine food group with the intro by Dunkin’ Donuts’ of their Boston Cream filled donuts. Even I wasn’t immune to those…

But getting back to my kitchen, where three bananas dangled from the “banana hook” on my kitchen counter, already more ripe than I prefer unless mixed into something bake-worthy. And I wanted to make just one more thing to bring to that chili/bake sale at Kristen’s workplace. So I scanned the dessert/baking cookbook shelves and wound up pulling down the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts by the Moosewood Collective (Clarkson Potter Publishers/Random House, 1997), probably because I have a special love for Moosewood, which I’ve written about on this blog. (I’m not the only Moosewood lover either. Check out a seven-page article, “40 Years of Moosewood!” by Jamie Stringfellow in the November/December 2012 issue of Spirituality & Health magazine, in which it is noted that Bon Appétit named the restaurant as “one of the 13 most influential restaurants of the 20th century.”)

In the long run, the muffins I created changed out or added something like six or seven new or slightly revised ingredients, so it’s not their recipe at all. It was the inspiration that I needed, however, and it worked. If you need a run-through of differences: butter instead of oil; added yogurt; split brown sugar between light and dark; reduced flour amount and added almond meal; added cinnamon; cut vanilla extract in half to add in almond extract; added mini-chocolate chips.

These were heavenly. Bill and I split one. One was packed into the thermal bag with Kristen’s chili & cornbread lunch & cookies (necessary because, otherwise, she is so busy with aspects of the sale/raffle, sometimes all the food is sold before she gets any lunch!). That left eight for the sale. Don’t know who bought them, but I’d be willing to bet they didn’t last long!

MARILYN’S BANANA CHOCO-CHIP MUFFINS
Yields 10 large Muffins

Ingredients

  • ½ cup butter, softened
  • 2½ tablespoons plain Greek yogurt (I used 2%)
  • 1 cup brown sugar (I used a combo of light & dark brown sugars)
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 large ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1½ cup unbleached all purpose flour
  • ¾ cup almond meal
  • 1 teaspoon Roasted Saigon cinnamon (plain ol’ cinnamon will work too)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt (table salt or fine-ground sea salt)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • ½ to ¾ cup mini semisweet chocolate chips

Process

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Grease jumbo muffin tin or insert paper liners.
  3. In a large bowl, beat butter, yogurt, sugar, eggs and bananas until well blended.
  4. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, almond meal, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt. (If tiniest bit of almond meal doesn’t go through sifter – we’re talking something like no more than “a pinch” – it’s okay to turn sifter over and dump into bowl.)
  5. Fold dry ingredients into wet, using quick strokes and being careful not to overmix.
  6. Gently stir in extracts.
  7. Fold in chocolate chips.
  8. Spoon batter into prepared muffin tin.
  9. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until cake tester or butter knife comes out clean when inserted into muffin.
  10. Turn muffins out of tin within first five minutes of removal from oven. Cool on a rack.
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EVERYBODY’S FAVORITE: RICH VANILLA CUPCAKES

Here’s the last cupcake recipe from the WomanWords 15 Year Birthday Reading. It’s taken a while to get everything related to that event posted (busy with so many other things, including my blog related to connections to the International Women’s Writing Guild and those SisterWriters. While one of my favorite truisms is, “So Many Books, So Little Time,” I could just edit that to say, “So Many Creative Possibilities, So Little Time!”

This recipe was derived from the “Traditional Vanilla Birthday Cake” in The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook: Old-Fashioned Recipes from New York’s Sweetest Bakery by Jennifer Appel and Allysa Torey (Simon & Schuster, 1999). It’s the same one I used to concoct the Gluten-Free Almond Cupcakes also offered at the Caffé reading.

Not surprisingly, these were the most popular of cupcakes that night. I guess everyone loves an old standard! (And by the way, have I ever mentioned that vanilla is considered to be a powerful love stimulant? Only the real stuff works, however, according to what I’ve read – but then nothing artificial is ever quite as good. American women, at one time, even dabbed it behind their ears to attract men! In this case, of course, we were stimulating a love of words… but then, who knows what was going on out in that audience?)

Without further ado, the recipe…

VANILLA CUPCAKES
Yields 24 cupcakes (or, as the Magnolia Bakery recipe suggests, 1 three-layer cake)

THE CAKES

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups granulated sugar (I’m now mostly buying “evaporated cane juice” organic sugar – BJ’s has started to carry it!)
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1½ cups self-rising flour
  • 1¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk (since I only stock 2%, I subbed a bit of heavy cream for some of the milk)
  • 1 teaspoon bakery emulsion (or you can use vanilla extract, as the original recipe lists)

Process

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place 24 paper cupcake fillers in cupcake tins, or grease and lightly flour each cakespace.
  3. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer at medium speed, cream the butter until smooth.
  4. Add sugar to butter gradually, then beat until fluffy (about 3 minutes).
  5. One at a time, add eggs. Beat well after each addition.
  6. Combine the flours in another bowl using a whisk.
  7. Add flour mixture in four parts, alternating with the milk and bakery emulsion (or extract if using that), beating well after each addition.
  8. Divide batter between the prepared cupcake tin spaces.
  9. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into a couple of the little cakes comes out clean.
  10. Remove tins to wire racks and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.
  11. Remove cakes from pans to wire racks to cool completely before frosting or freezing. (If freezing, individually wrap in plastic wrap as soon as cooled, eliminating all air. They should keep for at least up to two weeks or even a month. I had never frozen cupcakes before but, via the internet, learned that one should take the wrapping off before thawing – as soon as taken out of the freezer – or they will have a gluey top texture. Then frost. That worked out great!)

THE FROSTING

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very soft (if you run out of unsalted butter, salted is OK to use)
  • 3½ cups confectioners’ sugar (have extra available in case you need more)
  • ¼ cup milk (I used 2% milk but whole or 1% works just as well; can always add more if too stiff)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla powder (or vanilla extract, if preferred)
  • Food coloring, if desired
  • Decorative sprinkles or colored sugar, if desired

Process

  1. Place butter in large mixing bowl.
  2. Add 2 cups confectioners’ sugar, milk, and vanilla powder (or extract).
  3. Beat until smooth and creamy.
  4. Add remaining sugar, gradually, until icing is a good spreading consistency.
  5. Mix in food coloring, if using.
  6. Decorate cupcakes with icing (also with sprinkles or decorating sugar, if using).
  7. Frosting keeps best if eaten within 3 days (which works out well, since cupcakes also keep best for first 3 days).

WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR LEFTOVER MUFFINS & CUPCAKES

Got a couple muffins or cupcakes that are just a bit past their prime? Not likely anyone will opt to devour them in this condition? Here’s a terrific idea, gleaned from The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove by Cathy Erway (Gotham Books, 2010).

Erway’s book, inspired by her blog, tracks her journey through what she’d determined would be a year of NOT eating in restaurants in New York City – which, when done as often as most New Yorkers do, is expensive as well as not necessarily good for either the body or the environment. It’s an engrossing book that not only chronicles her cooking and baking endeavors (with recipes) but also her adventures while exploring underground supper clubs, local cook-offs and even a few experiences with “trash diving, freegans and frualistas.” Her recipe for “Almond Custard Tarts with Leftover Muffin Crust” inspired the recipe below, hurriedly drafted as I am in the middle of packing to attend the Women Writers and Artists Matrix (WWAM) Weekend in Saratoga Springs this weekend. I wanted to get another post onto KitchenCauldron before I take off!

These are incredibly easy to make. And it was the perfect use for the leftover gluten-free almond cupcakes I’d made for the WomanWords Reading at Caffè Lena. G-free baked goods are notoriously drier the next day (although mine were more moist than most), plus these had ground nuts in them. What more could I ask for in a tart crust? (Oh yeah, I was going to assume that readers would realize they’d not be using any frosting that was on a cupcake – but then we know why one shouldn’t ASSume, right? Such assumption would make of me what the first part of that word spells out!)

The few changes I made to Erway’s recipe are noted within the recipe. I also gave the option of simply using a “cook & serve” boxed pudding, if you’re really short on time or prefer not to do custard from scratch.

Bill loved these tarts, as did I. And they’re so simple to make, yet look so fancy-schmancy!

I know I have one more cupcake recipe to post from the WomanWords 15-Year Birthday Reading, but that will wait until next week. It’s for the most popular of the cupcakes that night too – a super-rich vanilla cupcake. And then there will be the Squash & Sweet Potato Soup that I’ll want to tell you about—there’s a potluck at the home of one of the WWAM founders tomorrow night, and I made it in the slowcooker! All I have to do is remember to bring the camera and to actually take a few snapshots of the evening’s feast!

May you all have as creative a weekend as I am expecting to enjoy!

ALMOND (OR VANILLA) CUSTARD TARTS FROM GOING-STALE MUFFINS/CUPCAKES
Yields 4 tarts

CRUST:

Ingredients

  • 1 or 2 leftover muffins or cupcakes (the “heavier” texture of muffins make them the best candidates for these tarts, but use the latter if crumbs are truly stale, especially if there are nuts in them!)
  • 1 tablespoon water (you could use melted butter instead, which I did, but not necessary)

Process

  1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. In a bowl, crumble your muffin or cupcake by hand.
  3. Add the water (or butter) and combine with a spatula. Mixture should be moist but you don’t want it to stick together in a ball.
  4. Press the mixture with your hands or a spatula firmly into the sides of four ramekins.
  5. Place the ramekins on a baking tray and bake for 10 to 15 minutes.
  6. Remove to a wire rack and cool completely before filling.

CUSTARD (two options):

Option #1 Ingredients

  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 cups whole milk (I don’t stock whole milk so I combined 1¼ cup 2% and ¾ cup heavy cream)
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Fresh berries for topping (optional) – I had only frozen strawberries, which don’t look as pretty but they sure tasted good!

Option #1 Process

  1. Whisk sugar, milk, extract and nutmeg together in a saucepan.
  2. Scald the mixture by bringing it to a boil. Then turn off the heat (if you have an electric stove, make sure you remove it from the burner or hot cooktop area!)
  3. In another bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks.
  4. While stirring, add a small amount (about a teaspoonful) of the heated milk mixture (this is called tempering, which should ensure the eggs don’t begin to cook when adding hot liquid).
  5. Gradually add a few more teaspoons of milk mix. Mixture should be smooth, not lumpy.
  6. When you’ve added about ½ cup of the milk mixture, pour the egg mix into the milk one.
  7. Cook over medium heat, stirring once in a while, until the custard has thickened to where it coats the back of a spoon dipped into it.
  8. Pour custard into the baked tart shells.
  9. Sprinkle with a little more nutmeg.
  10. Chill in refrigerator until set, about 3 to 4 hours.
  11. Serve with berries atop, if using.

Option #2 Ingredients

  • 1 box “cook & serve” vanilla pudding (strongly advised not to use “instant” pudding – it’s just terrible)
  • ½ teaspoon of almond extract (if you want to add a bit of almond flavor to vanilla)
  • Up to ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • Berries, as noted above in Option #1

Option #2 Process

  1. Cook pudding according to directions on the box, adding extract (if using) and nutmeg.
  2. Chill for amount of time directed on box.
  3. Serve with berries atop, if using.

GLUTEN-FREE ALMOND CUPCAKES: Taking on the Challenge of Gluten-Free Baking

ADDED NOTE TO THIS BLOGPOST (5/25/12): After one reader with a corn allergy added a comment to this post, I’ve now deleted the “No-Corn-Products” part of the above title – first doing a little research, of course. According to what I’ve found out, Namaste may be the only company which manufactures and sells a corn-free xanthan gum. Unfortunately, I was using Bob’s Red Mill, which is gluten-free but not corn-free. As for the almond extract, I e-mailed McCormick’s twice. The first time I got the usual stuff about its being g-free but then I wrote again saying I knew that already and that I needed to know if their choice of alcohol in the extract was produced without corn. Their Consumer Affairs Specialist replied that “The natural alcohol used in McCormick Extracts is derived from corn. Corn does not contain gluten, and is not on the US allergen list.” Luckily, my friend’s corn allergy is not life-threatening and I didn’t hear back about any severe stomach issues after the reading.


This is yet another lesson about what’s missing on product labels re ingredients. I have not edited the text below so be aware that, despite my efforts at the time, I wasn’t able to produce a corn-free cupcake for the reading. However, I suggest that it would likely work to use a vanilla powder instead of extract, plus substitute finely ground almonds for part of the flour. And now, here’s the original test & recipe…


*****


There’s nothing like a challenge to get the old noggin spiraling with possibilities. Tell me it can’t be done, or that it’s been done and results were usually so-so (or lousy), I’ll want to change that precedent – or at least try. Where there are friends involved, well, I like giving a bit of food-joy when possible. If those friends have allergies or sensitivities to various consumables, therein exists the challenge.


I wanted to ensure that at least one of the cupcakes I baked for the WomanWords 15-Year Birthday Reading at Caffè Lena was gluten-free since two of our readers couldn’t/can’t do gluten (and one WomanWorder who was planning to be in the audience can’t either). I knew another to be lactose-intolerant but she’s always assured me that she can take a pill to offset that condition, provided she doesn’t overdo it. And then there was the corn allergy challenge. Processed food products in this country are saturated with corn – corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated corn products and more “stuff” with names designed to hide the fact that there’s a corn product as our eyes scan the ingredients portion of the label. There’s even a documentary made about it by the guys who author a blog titled “Culinate.” (Go to the site and click on “King Corn” to view a trailer of the film.) I don’t doubt that the overabundance of “hidden corn” has produced many an allergy in unsuspecting Americans.


It turns out that confectioners’ sugar (when we were kids, Mom called it 10X Sugar), at least the brand I purchase, contains corn starch. It keeps it from clumping. I didn’t know weeks ago that I could create my own confectioners’ sugar by spinning granulated sugar through the blender (not, apparently, the food processor), and so I came up with a mascarpone-based frosting that relied on flavor not from sugar, but from soft sweet cheese and finely-ground almonds (plus a bit of bakery emulsion and cinnamon). It was excellent, tasty and corn-free!




I couldn’t concoct the same decadent almond cupcakes that I’m made for daughter Kristen’s birthday last fall. That delicious version called for self-rising flour, which I didn’t have in a g-free version. I had to come up with something sans a wheat flour.


I started with a basic Traditional Vanilla Birthday Cake recipe in the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook by Jennifer Appel and Allysa Torey (Simon & Schuster, 1999), which I would also use for the Vanilla cupcakes I’d bake for the Lena Reading. In order to try for the same sort of texture that the original recipe’s combo of self-rising and all-purpose flours would produce, but in a gluten-free rendition, I researched a bit and came up with a mixture of all-purpose flour, almond flour (some of which I substituted with finely ground almonds) and xanthan gum (pretty much essential for g-f baking).


Since the cakes I’d made for Kristen had called for baking powder (Magnolia’s did not), I thought I might add that too – and then I checked the ingredients on the container. First one was corn starch, so I pulled out my handy-dandy little paperback, Substituting Ingredients: The A to Z Kitchen Reference by Becky Sue Epstein (Sourcebooks, 1986, 2010). I love this book’s philosophy: “Don’t have an ingredient? Substitute. Don’t like something? Substitute. Can’t afford it? Substitute.” It also often works for “Body can’t handle an ingredient?” Substitute.) It offered four different substitutions, from which I opted for the baking-soda/cream-of-tartar one.


I got raves for these cupcakes, even from folks who don’t have to do gluten-free. People especially loved the frosting!



GLUTEN-FREE, CORN-FREE ALMOND CUPCAKES (with mascarpone and cream cheese almond frosting)
Yields 2 dozen cupcakes (original Vanilla Cake recipe makes a 3-layer cake)


THE CAKES


Ingredients



  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

  • 2 cups granulated sugar (I’m now mostly buying “evaporated cane juice organic sugar” – BJ’s has started to carry it!)

  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature

  • 2 cups gluten-free, all-purpose flour

  • ¾ cup almond flour (ok to sub part of this with finely ground almonds – which I toasted first!)

  • 1¼ teaspoon xanthun gum (remember to store unused portion of this in the freezer to avoid spoiling, unless you’re doing lots of gluten-free baking!)

  • 1 cup milk

  • 1 teaspoon almond extract

Process



  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

  2. Place 24 paper cupcake fillers in cupcake tins, or grease and lightly flour each cakespace.

  3. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer at medium speed, cream the butter until smooth.

  4. Add sugar to butter gradually, then beat until fluffy (about 3 minutes).

  5. One at a time, add eggs. Beat well after each addition.

  6. Combine the flours, ground almonds (if using), xanthan gum, cream of tartar and baking soda in another bowl with a whisk.

  7. Add flour mixture in four parts, alternating with the milk and almond extract, beating well after each addition.

  8. Divide batter between the prepared cupcake tin spaces.

  9. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into a couple of the little cakes comes out clean.

  10. Remove tins to wire racks and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.

  11. Remove cakes from tins to wire racks to cool completely before frosting or freezing. (If freezing, individually wrap in plastic wrap as soon as cooled, eliminating all air. They should keep for at least up to two weeks or even a month. I had never frozen cupcakes before but, via the internet, learned that one should take the wrapping off before thawing – as soon as taken out of the freezer – or they will have a gluey top texture. Then frost. It  worked out great!)

THE FROSTING


Ingredients



  • 8 oz. mascarpone cheese

  • 4 oz. cream cheese

  • 1 tablespoon butter, softened

  • 1¼ to 1½ cup finely ground toasted almonds (the finer, the better – although you might want some a little chunkier if you’d like a little texture in the cupcake)

  • 1 scant teaspoon bakery emulsion (or vanilla extract)

  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon (I use my favorite Roasted Saigon Cinnamon)

  • 2 tablespoons milk – I use 2% milk (possibly more milk, to get preferred consistency)

Process



  1. In a large bowl, beat together mascarpone and cream cheeses with butter until well-blended.

  2. Gradually add toasted ground almonds to cheese mixture, beating between additions.

  3. Add bakery emulsion, cinnamon and milk, beating until well-blended.

  4. Frost the cakes! (Cupcakes should be stored in the refrigerator since this frosting contains cheeses.)

My g-free gourmet friend, Leslie, gave them a major thumbs-up. And the cakes were just as yum-o the next day – which is, too often, not the case with gluten-free baking!

EGG ON MY FACE, POTATO IN MY SOUP, ICING ON THE (CUP)CAKE

There’s an expression here in the USA that might not be familiar to some of my blog followers in other countries. “Egg on My Face” could be a phrase translated to mean, “What was I thinking?” (as in, “Was I thinking at all?”); but more often it’s a big fat “OOPS!” (as in, “How could I do something so stupid?”). In the case of a blog, as in KitchenCauldron, it’s about somehow screwing up the post. Which usually isn’t so bad when it’s just a typo, or one edited-out phrase where the writer failed to take out a word or two (or took out one too many words) – these things mostly are “understood” by the reader and quietly revised when noticed by the blogger.

But in a recipe, the list of ingredients must include all of the ingredients. How else does the cook ensure s/he’s in possession of all necessities for re-creating the recipe?

A couple days ago, I decided I would re-create one of the soups posted on KC, but without the chicken. Basic Potato-Leek Soup (with carrot). Our Spiritual Alchemy group was meeting at Leslie’s again, and the other four of us decided we would be The Makers of the Feast rather than allow Leslie to once again exhaust herself to “make it nice.” (Of course, this didn’t stop her from putting out “just some things already in the fridge and pantry…” but our planning did manage to hold her in check somewhat. Who can blame her—she loves to entertain, especially for her writing/art sisters!)  I’d said I’d bring a soup and would also bake if there was time. Yesterday morning I realized I had to bake – it was imperative that I somehow incorporate four almost-overripe bananas (hanging on the “banana hook” atop our kitchen counter) into something, or they’d go to waste! Luckily, I was out of bed and functioning way-early, with plenty of time before our group met. And so it was that I toted Potato-Leek Soup and Gluten-Free Banana Muffins to Leslie’s.

Since the batch of Potato/Leek with Chicken Soup in my January 30th post turned out so great, I went back to my printed recipe (yes, I eventually print all my foodblog posts, put them in binders and easily refer to them when needed). Much to my surprise and chagrin I discovered that, while I’d included the potatoes in the “Process” part of the post (“Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 25 to 30 minutes – or until potato is tender.”), I’d failed to add potatoes to the “Ingredients” list! Major faux pas. Since then, I’ve corrected the recipe and mentally whipped myself several times for screwing up on proofreading! I have to assume that no one viewing that post has yet tried to make the soup (since there were no complaints or gentle references to something missing) but, just in case anyone printed the recipe, it will have to be re-printed for an accurate rendition (or note the changes by pen or pencil on the copy). I apologize for any convenience.

My minus-the-chicken version, by the way, was a big hit at Leslie’s (with Greek yogurt and gluten-free crouton toppings) – as were the muffins (recipe for latter to be posted at a later date).

Some of that “egg on my face” also comes from my recent, too-long unblogged space on KC. Or, to use an even more appropriate American idiom, turning it into a pun for the recipe in this post, it’s “the icing on the cake” (as in, “added to all the other stuff, this happened”; or, “I have to admit to this…”). Between the business of life lately and, I confess, getting caught up in reading a few books, I haven’t gotten back to the computer except for e-mail and a few Facebook comments. I’ve managed to post some pieces on the KC Food for Thought page, but making those additions are less time-consuming than including a posting with story and recipe.

In my April 6th post, I promised to provide the rest of the recipes from WomanWords’ 15-Year Birthday Reading soon. Honest – they’re all coming! And there are so many other recipes backed-up. And food-related books I want to blog about. I could huddle down, drafting and posting, in my little office/art/writing space and not surface for a couple weeks for anything but food, water and the bathroom – but then I expect the quality of my offerings would begin to deteriorate within a few days (and there’d be no time to cook!). I am a social creature, requiring interaction with friends and family, and a bit of fresh air as well (although I am far from an outdoorsy type!), and so I’ll just do the best I can with this blogging thing.

In the meantime, in the catching-up phase, I’m now providing the frosting recipe for those Heavenly Chocolate Cupcakes served at Caffè Lena during our celebration. It’s easy to make and would also be a great topping for your best white cake (I love white cake with chocolate frosting!).

A quick tip of the (witch’s) hat to the magical aspect of hazelnuts, a major ingredient in the Nutella used in this recipe: According to Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen (Llewellyn Publications, 2003), the hazelnut’s energies encompass wisdom, conscious mind and fertility. The tree itself, with its round nuts, “played important roles in European folklore and folk religion.” It was linked to sky deities and considered a guardian against lightning, bad storms and fire. While I’m not about to stand under any tree in a lightning storm, I found this interesting. (Hmm, when Hurricane Irene hit this area last August, maybe we could’ve used a few hazelnut trees…) On the other hand, I’m not averse to munching on a few of the delicious nuts on occasion – whether to enhance wisdom or purely for pleasure. And a little fertility where creativity’s concerned wouldn’t hurt either.

HEAVENLY NUTELLA FROSTING
(Yields enough for at least 2½ to 3 dozen cupcakes.)

Ingredients

  • 1½ sticks butter, softened to room temperature (12 tablespoons)
  • 3 cups confectioners’ sugar (more or less)
  • 4 to 6 tablespoons milk (I use 2% but any will do, from skim to full-fat)
  • 1 jar Nutella hazelnut spread (or other hazelnut spread), although you may not use entire jar
  • dash of cinnamon

Process

  1. In a large bowl, beat together all of the butter, about half of the sugar and half of the jar of Nutella. If the mixture is too stiff for beating, add a tablespoon or two  milk.
  2. Add remaining sugar, gradually, and continue to beat ingredients together until smooth, adding a bit more Nutella (1/4 cup?) as well – and, if needed, another tablespoon of milk.
  3. Sprinkle in cinnamon, to taste (you can go beyond the “dash” if you love the spice), and add however much additional Nutella and/or milk required to bring the mixture to a good spreading consistency, as “light” or as dense as you prefer.
  4. Spread on cupcakes. (An option which I did not take for this event would be to sprinkle chopped, toasted hazelnuts in the center of each frosted cupcake top – yummy!)

See—I told you it was easy!

Poetry, WriterFriends & Cupcakes – Celebrating WomanWords’ 15th Birthday at Caffè Lena

There’s been no time to add recipes to this blog since March 26th. I’ve been baking cupcakes and freezing them. Creating decorations to adorn them. Drawing up the “WomanWords program” for our Feature appearance at Caffè Lena’s open poetry mic (and printing it). Pulling together what items needed to accompany me to the event (tablecloth, printed lists of ingredients for all four kinds of cupcakes, napkins, etc.). Thawing the three sets of cupcakes that were frozen. Researching how I might transform a regular cupcake recipe into a gluten-free one; then making and baking the gluten-free cupcakes early in the morning of the reading. Making all the frostings/icing and then topping all the tasty cakes during that same morning.

Oh yeah – then I had to figure out what I might read too.

It all came together: Wednesday night, April 4th, was a wonderful evening of sharing words and enjoying cupcakes at the bargain price of $1.00 each – all proceeds going to Caffè Lena. I don’t know how much additional open mic income it brought them, but I made sure we wouldn’t run out of cupcakes during the evening. I planned for, and delivered, extra – keeping some home for us and expecting that any excess would travel home with our daughter Kristen (one of the readers), to take to her officemates next day. There were even two gluten-free options for those who can’t do gluten, since Leslie Neustadt baked g-free, semi-homemade, carrot cupcakes topped with dashes of sugar.

There’s something quite awesome about being on the same stage of a musical institution where people like Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Don McLean, Ani DiFranco and many other music icons once performed – especially when I don’t play a musical instrument and, although I can carry a tune most of the time, I certainly can’t aspire to a recording or music-writing career. Lena’s is the oldest, continuously-operating coffeehouse in the United States, and it’s a credit to all who work to keep it running that this historic site remains “a place to experience” in Saratoga Springs, NY. The Caffè Lena Open Mic, hosted monthly by poet Carol Graser, is just one of many cultural offerings that can be enjoyed at Lena’s nowadays. I was honored when, several months ago, Carol invited WomanWords to be the Feature at a future open mic, and so happy that she liked the idea of scheduling it in April to coincide with our 15th birthday (“birth” not anniversary, because women birth… including words and other forms of creativity!).

**********
For those who don’t know about the WomanWords Collective: here, in part, is what I wrote on our now-outdated website years ago (which AlbanyPoets so generously hosted):

Statement of Purpose:

  • To rekindle our Creative Fire
  • To tell our stories
  • To encourage others to tell their stories
  • To empower ourselves and each other

WomanWords—the History:

The WomanWords Collective began as WomanWords, a small writing group meeting in Colonie, NY (a suburb of Albany) at the Mandala Center for Creative Wellness in April 1997. WomanWords was a direct result of founder/facilitator Marilyn Zembo Day’s desire to duplicate the magical inspiration she’d experienced at two summer conferences of the International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG) on the Skidmore College campus in Saratoga, NY.

Leaving the Skidmore conference in 1995, Marilyn felt empowered, enthusiastic, inspired to write and create. By November or December of the same year, she wondered what had happened to all that spirit. Returning to the conference in 1996, she realized what she required to keep the energy flowing: a continuing network of supportive women such as she’d discovered at the IWWG event. As she departed Skidmore, she vowed to either find a writers’ group that met her needs or, if she wasn’t successful in her search, to create one.

During the winter of 1996-97, Marilyn contacted then-IWWG Director Hannelore Hahn to request a “zip code” list of IWWG members in the area for use as a one-time mailing list, and she also brought flyers around to local libraries and bookstores to solicit membership. A dozen women showed up for the first session, and WomanWords has been going strong ever since. Over the years, meeting schedules changed to accommodate the ebb and flow of both the numbers and schedules of participants, as well as Marilyn’s schedule. When Mandala Center closed in 2002, the meeting place also had to change. But always it was clear that the alchemy of a web of supportive, creative women was critical.

It wasn’t until WomanWords was asked to read as a “collective” at a local open mic in Albany in late Spring 2003 that Marilyn realized this was truly what WomanWords had become (thank you, Don Levy, for helping to better describe the entity into which WomanWords has grown!). No longer simply a small writing group, WomanWords has expanded to include a myriad of other activities, with [hundreds of women] having attended various events and many more receiving the e-newsletter, locally and across the country (and into other countries as well). [There have been workshops, retreats, writing weekends, readings, an open mic series, publications and more. Click here if you’d like to see photos of some activities on the old website.]

Today, we no longer meet monthly. I plan a few “special events” under the auspices of WomanWords each year, sometimes to benefit some place or organization like Still Point Interfaith Retreat Center (where most events are held), always with the goal of offering a safe, creative space for women who want to tell their stories, to write.

As for our most recent “event” – at Carol’s wonderful open mic – here’s that “story” in a few of the pictures:

Carol, our host

Marilyn

Leslie

Kelly

Mary

Kristen

Kittie

Lesley

Judith

The WW Readers at Caffe Lena - wish there was time for all my WomenWriter friends to have been readers!

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So we had something to celebrate. What better way than with words and cupcakes!?!

I wasn’t so much “into” cupcakes until Kristen began to make them for parties at her workplace. Then it turned out that both she and her brother, our son, Adrian, both “got into” cupcakes. So I baked a few… and later a few more… and now I love the idea that there are so many ways to vary them, to enrich – and other people love them too! There are even cupcake “wars” on Food Network. And it’s not so unusual any more for a bridal couple to opt for a huge display of wedding cupcakes rather than a many-tiered cake at their reception. Cupcakes are “in” (although now Kristen has gone on to creating “cakepops” – which tend to be too sweet for me when made with all the frosting that hold thems together in many of the recipes).

I’m not going to attempt to include recipes for all the Caffè Lena cupcakes in one posting. Right now I’ll provide the recipe for my favorite of the batch, Banana-Walnut Cupcakes. Let me herewith confess that, as I recuperated yesterday from the previous evening’s festivities (and the preceding preparations for it), I managed to indulge in three of those delicious delights (breakfast, lunch and dinner desserts – oh, all right, the breakfast one WAS breakfast in total, but then it’s kind of a muffin, only smaller, right?). Maybe I’m confessing but I’m not feeling guilty at all. Worth every calorie.

So here’s the recipe, including frosting/icing. It originated with 500 Cupcakes: The Only Cupcake Compendium You’ll Ever Need by Fergal Connolly (Sellers Publishing Inc., 2005), coming into its/my own with a few changes, including switching-out the margarine for butter, and adding an egg plus some cinnamon. Tomorrow (or very soon): I’ll fill you in on the frosting I whipped up for those Heavenly Cupcakes in my last post. After that, the other two.

 

BANANA-WALNUT CUPCAKES
Yields about 18 cupcakes

Ingredients

  • 1¾ cups mashed bananas
  • ¾ cup packed light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup honey (I used orange blossom honey)
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups self-rising flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon (I use Saigon Cinnamon)
  • Pinch of salt
  • ¾ cups roughly chopped walnuts

Process

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place paper baking cups into regular cupcake tins. If not using paper baking cups, lightly grease and flour each cupcake slot.
  3. In a large bowl, combine bananas, brown sugar, honey and butter. Beat with an electric mixer until well blended.
  4. Add the lightly-beaten egg to banana mixture. Beat well into mix.
  5. Slowly add flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. Mix well.
  6. Fold in chopped walnuts.
  7. Spoon batter into individual cups in the cupcake tin, to about 2/3 or ¾ full.
  8. Bake for 20-22 minutes or until a wooden toothpick stuck in the center comes out clean (tops will “bounce back” when touched gently).
  9. Remove pans from over and place on wire racks or trivets. Allow to cool for 5 minutes.
  10. Remove cupcakes from pans and place on racks.
  11. Allow to cool completely before frosting or freezing.

(If freezing, wrap each cupcake individually in plastic wrap, making sure to get out all air. When thawing later on (preferably no later than a month beyond baking date), remove plastic wrap as soon as taken out of freezer to avoid a gummy outer texture on tops – especially if you’re not going to frost them, or if simply sifting confectioners’ sugar on top.)

WALNUT FROSTING
for Banana-Walnut Cupcakes – more than enough for all of them!

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 2 to 3 cups confectioners’ sugar (start with 2 cups, add as needed to thicken)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla powder (can use extract, if preferred)
  • 1 cup ground walnuts (or more, if you prefer)
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons milk (I use 2%, and sometimes I need more than 4 tblsps of it!)
  • walnut halves for center-top of each frosting cupcake

Process

  1. Add cream cheese, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla to a large bowls, beating to a creamy consistency – ADDING a tablespoon or two of milk as needed, to make it creamier (but not liquid-like!). Or perhaps you’ll need more sugar – for a sturdier consistency.
  2. When the frosting has reached the consistency preferred for topping cupcakes, beat in the ground walnuts.
  3. Frost cupcakes.
  4. Center a walnut-half on top of the cookie (it helps identify the kind of cookie too, should you be offering a variety!)

A TRIP TO HEAVEN – CUPCAKES FOR CAFFÈ LENA

When we were kids and teens, Mom baked our birthday cakes – and an occasional holiday cake – from box mixes. It was the ’50s and ’60s and housewives were brainwashed into thinking this was the way to go. Easy. Convenient. Just as delicious (that’s what Americans were told anyway). To us they were delicious and, of course, fun. She’d decorate with her own buttercream frosting, some purchased tubes of gel-like icing, a few pre-manufactured (and stiff) sugar letters or shapes, and possibly an appropriate number of candles atop. Voilà! A cake any kid would love. Especially if it came with birthday presents.

On the other hand, we’d be invited to my cousin Rene’s kids’ parties sometimes, where we’d witness cakes seemingly carved to simulate whatever party theme their mom had selected for the day. For example, I’m recalling one such cake, a virtual locomotive constructed of cake, frosting and whatever auxiliary accessories Rene (pronounced Ree –nee) decided would work in the design. Maybe she whipped up her confections starting with a box too, but it didn’t matter. To a child, they were magic. Fun. Even if the child wasn’t the birthday boy or girl. And the cake, of course, satisfied any sweet tooth.

In Kathleen Flinn’s newest book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks (Viking, 2011), there’s a whole chapter entitled “What’s in the Box?,” wherein she relates a story about how her husband Mike one night decided to bake a cake. When he gets stressed out (and this time it was after watching a particularly aggravating defeat of his alma mater’s football team), he has to do something with his hands. So this time he went into the kitchen, searching for a cake mix to beat up. When he found there were no such mixes to be had, his wife said, “We have all the stuff for cake… just look up a recipe.”

“Really? Mike asked. “You mean you can make a cake without a mix?”

A few minutes later, after looking up a recipe, Mike called out, “So what’s in the box?”

“What are you talking about?”

He brought a printout of a recipe for yellow cake into the living room. “You’ve got to see this. So get this, it’s just flour, eggs, baking soda, milk, sugar, and butter. But with a box you already add eggs, milk, and oil, so what’s in the freakin’ box?” He was agitated. “Just flour, sugar, and baking soda?”

Good point, Mike. Great chapter, Kathleen, about just what we’re putting into our bodies. Oh—to end that little tale: Mike made the cake, using his mother’s prized 45-year old mixer (a permanent fixture in their kitchen), and another revelation came through.

…“So that’s it? This doesn’t take any longer than doing it from a mix.”

Perhaps that’s not always true. Pulling out the flour, sugar, baking soda and maybe a few more ingredients than Mike did (he was making a basic yellow cake), plus measuring, might add a few extra minutes – but not much. Certainly not enough to outweigh the fact that the answer to Mike’s question about what’s in the box is, in short, a bunch of chemicals designed to give the high-on-sugar, hydrogenated-and-high-fructose-corn-syrup-included product a longer shelf life. Food science at its finest: add sugar (and sugary substitutes), trigger the necessary neurotransmitters “to provide an artificially enhanced pleasure response,” and there you have it – another customer who will come back for more. Forget about what’s good for them.

And then there’s the flavor. Nothing like a great homemade cake.

Nowadays, it’s rare that you’d find a cake mix on my shelves. I suppose it helps that I’m retired and can more readily “fit” the baking of a scratch cake into my schedule, but retirement doesn’t necessarily mean you’re less busy. It merely allows one to have more personal control of one’s schedule. I do not have to be at a jobsite by a certain time, nor do I have to ask permission to leave for appointments with doctors, dentists, hairdressers and the like. I am my own boss. I can set up a meeting with writing friends or my annual health physical for 1 p.m. in order to allow time to bake a cake – or a batch of cupcakes – in the morning. Still, it was well before retirement that I began to pull away from box cakes. It’s been at least a couple decades since I’d snatch up several Duncan Hines cake mixes whenever they’d come on sale. They’re good. Tasty. Just not as good as homemade. Not as healthy. And the fun, it seems, is in the creating of baked goods from scratch – whole food ingredients, tweaking the spices my way, deciding what way to go with frosting…

So it was fun deciding what kinds of cupcakes to bring to Caffè Lena’s for next week’s open poetry mic. My writing collective, WomanWords, will be “The Feature” that evening, and I suggested – and promised – to bring cupcakes to celebrate our 15-year birthday. We began as a monthly writing group (now evolved into special-events-only, such as daylong workshops and retreats) in April 1997. Hard to believe it’s been that long –  that it’s all happened, including meeting some of my now-very-best friends through WW, because of the International Women’s Writing Guild. We’ll celebrate with decorated cupcakes, asking for a donation for each to benefit historic Caffè Lena. I made the first batch yesterday and froze them, to frost and adorn next Wednesday.

Marilyn with cousin Renee, 1991

Before I get to the recipe, I must relate one final family memory related to cakemaking, however indirectly. Cousin Rene was daughter to my Aunt Helen, Mom’s oldest sister, so she was closer to my mother’s age than to mine (five years younger than Dolly, actually). She was a whirlwind of activity all of her life, a creative lady. She also loved to travel, learn new things, attend exercise classes, garden and more. Despite giving up smoking at least a couple decades earlier, she was diagnosed with lung cancer in her 70s, which took her from us in the summer of 2007.

Mom attended Rene’s wake/funeral with us. Although we told her where we were going, that Rene had passed away, she didn’t quite “get it” until we walked into the large sitting room at the funeral home (her dementia or Alzheimer’s had progressed to where she could no longer live alone as well). She chose to sit with her sister Helen near the front, holding her hand almost the entire time. Bill and I found seats further back in the crowded room. Toward the end of the service, when attendees were asked to offer memories about Rene, I eventually stood up to comment. “No one has yet mentioned her creativity,” I said. “It came out in lots of ways but my first memory is about the cakes she made.” I went on to explain that she’d create amazing stuff, contrasting it with my mom’s delicious but simply-adorned cakes. From the front row, to my far left, a slightly indignant voice piped up with “Thanks a lot!” My mother, who by then couldn’t tell you what she had for breakfast an hour beforehand and sometimes still thought she should be at the job from which she’d retired at age 72, still had her spunk – and she’d apparently decided her cakes had been insulted! The whole room cracked up in laughter, a welcome break in the sorrow. (Sadly, Mom passed away two weeks after her niece and we were back in that same funeral home far too soon.)

Below is the recipe (with pictures) for the cupcakes thus far baked for the WomanWords 15th birthday at Caffe Lena, tweaked from the Chocolate Heaven Cake recipe in The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook (by Cheryl & Griffith Day, Artisan, 2012), mentioned in another recent post (for Brown Sugar Banana Bread). When these chocolate bits of heaven are frosted, there will be another recipe and more photos on KitchenCauldron. For now, I still haven’t decided on the icing type yet…

HEAVENLY CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES
Yield: My batter produced two (2) dozen regular-sized cupcakes, plus six (6) muffin-sized; original recipe was for one (1) 9-inch 3-layer cake

Ingredients

  • 3 cups cake flour (not self-rising, not all-purpose)
  • 4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 9 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped (I used Ghiradelli)
  • 2 cups hot freshly brewed hazelnut decaf coffee, made with Saigon cinnamon and fresh-ground nutmeg while brewing (original cake recipe used regular coffee; I just wanted extra flavor kick)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla powder
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup sour cream, at room temperature

Process

  1. Position rack in lower third of oven, and pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place cupcake liners in cupcake baking tins (or butter and dust with cocoa powder or flour, shaking out excess), enough for 3 dozen cupcakes or, as I did, 2 dozen regular-sized cupcakes plus a half-dozen muffin-sized.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl, using a portable mixer), combine flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Mix on low speed for two or three minutes to aerate the flour (something new for me – I’d have never thought of “aerating” without the Back in the Day cookbook).
  4. Place chocolate in a medium bowl and add hot coffee and vanilla. Let stand until melted (about 2 or 3 minutes); then stir to smooth consistency.
  5. In another medium bowl, whisk together eggs and oil until thick, satiny and light in color.
  6. Whisk sour cream into egg mixture. Do not overmix; leave some streaks of white.
  7. Pour egg/sour cream mixture into melted chocolate, slowly, stirring as you do so.
  8. Add the entire now-chocolatey mixture, one third at a time, to the flour mix in the large bowl, mixing on medium speed until well blended.
  9. Use a rubber spatula to incorporate any ingredients “hiding” at the bottom (remove the bowl from the mixer stand first, if using stand mixer). Be sure batter is completely mixed.
  10. Fill prepared cupcake-tin spaces (or liners in tins) ⅔ to ¾ full with batter (I did the latter and that worked fine). NOTE: Back in the Day suggests “tapping the (cake)pans firmly on the countertop to remove any air bubbles from the batter,” which I forgot to do – don’t worry if you forget too ’cuz they’re still scrumptious!
  11. Bake in oven for 20 to 22 minutes (25-28 for muffin-sized) or until a toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean (or centers spring back when touched). They’ll have slight cracks on them and come out a deep chocolate color. (If you opt to bake a cake with the batter, the cookbook says to bake for 40 to 50 minutes.)
  12. Let cool for 5 minutes in pans, then remove to wire racks to cool completely.
  13. Sprinkle cooled cupcakes with sifted confectioner sugar, or top with favorite icing/frosting, or freeze as soon as cooled (individually wrapped in plastic wrap, eliminating all air) for up to two weeks. (I’ve never frozen cupcakes before this batch but am told that, when thawing, take the wrap off before thawing or they will have a gluey top texture – then frost; I intend to make the frosting while they’re thawing and then ice the cakes immediately.)

Note: I didn’t freeze the muffin-sized ones. Bill and I had one each, with confectioner’s sugar sifted atop, for dinner the same night baked. Two are getting delivered to our daughter today. The last two are dessert for tonight, maybe with Cool Whip atop. I think they had to have “heaven” in their title because they are To Die For.

Post-Menopausal Orgasm Cake: Triple-Layered, Gluten-Free and Decadent – Celebrating Dolores’ Birthday

I like chocolate, but I am not a chocoholic (as my daughter and many of my friends might dub themselves). But this cake took me over the top. It is ecstasy personified. And those enjoying my first (successful) attempt at making it were all “women of a certain age” – thus, the above “that-time-of-life” naming.

The occasion: a two-in-oner. First, five of us (Leslie, Lesley, Judy, Dolores and myself) have been meeting fairly regularly to work through a book by Natalie Reid, a friend and member/workshop leader at International Women’s Writing Guild summer conferences that most of us have attended for several years. The book is The Spiritual Alchemist: Working with the Voice of Your Soul, and it offers writing and other exercises to help the reader along this path. Natalie defines a spiritual alchemist as “a person who seeks spiritual direction, spiritual connection, and spiritual growth by embarking on a fearless, joyful, and lifelong path to self-knowledge.” It seems that part of our group’s alchemy includes food for the soul as well, literally. There’s always a nice spread of mostly healthy, usually gluten-free snacks on hand (both Judy and Leslie can’t do gluten) to bolster the body along with whatever each of us might define as her “soul.”

Secondly, we decided to belatedly celebrate Dolores’ birthday with a cake, which I volunteered to bake since I’d recently been intrigued by several recipes in Gesine Bullock-Prado’s memoir, My Life from Scratch: A Sweet Journey of Starting Over, One Cake at a Time (Broadway Books, 2009). After graduating from law school, Bullock-Prado spent several years in Hollywood working for/with her sister (that would be Oscar-winning Sandra Bullock) as president of her company – reviewing contracts, sitting through creative meetings and lunches and all the rigamarole involved in ensuring that scripts get reviewed, films made and more. When her mind began to wander while performing these important tasks… and her mother passed away… she realized she needed to get away from the glitz and fakery of the entertainment capital and follow her own sweet path. She and her husband moved to Vermont, opened a bakery and, voilà, happiness! (Since then, she’s also published a couple cookbooks, one of which – Sugar Baby (Abrams, 2011) – now rests on a bookshelf in my kitchen.)

Bullock-Prado’s cake (encompassing both cake & icing) came down to her from her mother, who called it “the Orgasm Cake”. In the bakery, however, she didn’t call it by her mom’s label. When the it opened, word had gotten around that her sister would be helping out, so lines were out the door and down the block with folks waiting to get in. Therefore, when her aunt provided the recipe to the new owner, she sent along a note saying that she understood she might “not be able to call the pecan chocolate torte ‘the Orgasm Cake’ if you are selling at the store – you might end up with another line out the front door like at the opening!” So it was re-named Helga’s Cake, honoring Gesine’s/Sandra’s mother.

In the end, Leslie (at whose house we meet) and I opted for a full luncheon meal. My reminder e-mail about our gathering said, “Come hungry.” Leslie created a huge, amazing salad along with a fig-based dressing (I’m hoping she provides that recipe to me, perhaps as a “guest blogger” for inclusion as a post on KitchenCauldron), as well providing other sustenance. All in all, a wonderful afternoon – and we never did get around to the meditation and writing this time. We simply ate and talked and ate and laughed and ate. And Dolores blew out a single candle on her cake and opened a few gifts.

Biggest Laugh: Fuzzy dice & and a hula girl for Dolores' Mustang convertible, vehicle bought as retirement gift for herself!

I suggest that you might want to view the video on Gesine Bullock-Prado’s blogsite to see how she puts together her cake. Here’s how I concocted my version:

  • I made the cake pretty much as directed in the book, except I toasted the pecans first for deeper flavor. (Note: in the book, the author suggests using three cake pans, minimum 1½ inch depth, but in the video she uses “cake rings” – which I never would’ve imagined, so check it out!).
  • The frosting portion of the recipe is my own. Bullock-Prado’s buttercream recipe includes egg yolks that aren’t necessarily processed with enough heat to kill bad bacteria if the eggs contain any. I know this is generally not a problem since the incidence of such bacteria is rare nowadays, but I never take that chance with my concoctions.
  • I’d never made chocolate ganache before, although I’ve read plenty of recipes for it. I flicked through a few of them before starting on this cake and based my version pretty much on one in The Moosewood Book of Desserts by the Moosewood Collective (Clarkson Potter, 1997). How I deviated from the Moosewood ganache? I used two types of chocolate instead of one; I didn’t have as much heavy cream left as they required for their recipe, so I used less and added in the coffee; and I added vanilla powder.

As for the magic, why, chocolate is love. Certainly, there was plenty of love and friendship at our Spiritual Alchemy gathering yesterday. And lots of love of  cake.

That’s my story behind this luscious dessert, with thanks to Gesine Bullock-Prado for her creative inspiration. Make the cake! Buy her books, if so inclined. And here’s to the occasional decadent treat in this sweet life of ours…

Marilyn, holding on to decadence!

POST-MENOPAUSAL ORGASM CAKE
Yield: 8 to 12 servings, depending upon consumers’ appetites for decadence

Ingredients

for cake

  • 12 ounces pecans
  • 1 cup sugar, ½ cup at a time
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 whole eggs; plus 8 large eggs, separated
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

for frosting between layers

  • 16 oz. mascarpone cheese (it’s like cream cheese, only sweeter)
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  •  ⅔ cup cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla powder
  • 7 to 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • at least ¼ cup heavy cream (more might be needed)
  • up to 1 teaspoon Roasted Saigon Cinnamon (or regular cinnamon)

for ganache drizzled topping

  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 5 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
  • 1⅓ cup heavy cream
  • ⅛ cup strong hazelnut coffee (or regular coffee, if preferred)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla powder

Process

for cake
Note: I baked the layers the night before frosting, covering tops of cooled cakes on individual plates with a sheet of waxed paper, then putting plastic wrap loosely over each cake/plate (but covering everything). This meant I didn’t have to find room in my refrigerator for an entire 3-layer cake, which would be required since part of the filling includes mascarpone cheese.

  1. Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Lightly grease (I use butter) three 8-inch round cake pans (mine might’ve been 9-inch – I didn’t measure!). Line the bottoms with parchment paper and lightly grease the papers.
  3. Spread the pecans out in a large (preferably 12”- to allow as close to a single layer as possible) frying pan over a medium-hot heat, allowing to “toast” until they exude a “nutty” aroma. This should take very little time, no more than 3-4 minutes. You might want to stir them about at least one during the process, ensuring you do not burn them.
  4. In a food processor, grind toasted pecans with ½ cup of the sugar plus the salt, until they turn into a fine meal.
  5. Add the 8 egg yolks, the whole eggs, vanilla and baking powder. Blend until it becomes a smooth paste.
  6. Whip the egg whites on high in the bowl of an electric mixer using whisk attachment. Just as they begin to gain volume and look white and fluffy (not chunky), add remaining ½ cup sugar gradually (in a slow stream). Continue to whisk on high until whites are shiny and hold a stiff peak.
  7. Transfer pecan paste to a large mixing bowl and stir a heaping spoonful of egg whites to lighten batter.
  8. Gently fold remaining egg whites into mixture until well incorporated (try not to disturb integrity of the aerated eggs).
  9. Divide batter between the three pans.
  10. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, or until cake springs back when touched (I also used a toothpick to check it). Mine took only 30 or 35 minutes.
  11. Allow to cool completely on wire racks before you release from pan.

for frosting between layers

  1. In a large mixing bowl, beat together all ingredients – but adding heavy cream in small doses, to ensure you get desired consistency, which is a sort-of heavenly-almost-mousse-like quality.
  2. Frost between layers (not the top! that gets the ganache!), making sure to spread frosting all the way to edges.
  3. Set cake aside, awaiting ganache.

for ganache drizzled topping

  1. Place a metal or glass bowl over a pot of water that’s been brought to a boil then heat reduced to a steady simmer. Make sure there’s not so much water in the pot that it will touch a bowl that will be placed over it. (Note: if you have one, you can use a double boiler instead – I own a double boiler but actually prefer the bowl method.)
  2. Place a metal or glass bowl over the pot and put chocolate in the bowl. Allow it to melt, stirring often to prevent it from burning (nothing will take out a burnt flavor).
  3. Meanwhile, pour the heavy cream into a medium-size sauce pan and stir in the vanilla powder. Bring to a simmer. Do not allow it to boil.
  4. When the chocolate is completely melted, remove from the heat and stir into heavy cream. Keep stirring until completely incorporated.
  5. Remove from heat to a wire rack or trivet. Allow to cool to a consistency where it is still pourable but not super-hot (so that it will drizzle onto the cake but doesn’t permeate and make it soggy). If necessary, after it cools a little on the counter, place it in the refrigerator to quicken the process.
  6. Pour the ganache over the top layer, allowing it to drip along the sides. (It’s possible you might not need all of it. In that case, refrigerate remainings in a small container and you’ve got a slightly-soft, homemade candy bar next day; or re-heat it and add to milk as it heats up, for a rich cup of hot chocolate!)
  7. Refrigerate the cake until about half hour or an hour before serving (for best slicing), at which time you should expect groans of orgasmic delight as cake consumers indulge.

A Date with a Scone, A Scone with Dates… and Walnuts

Since adding the post titled “KitchenCauldron – Unplugged” (February 3, 2012) to this blog, in which I talk about the first time I tasted a scone, I’ve had scones on my mind. Maybe not obsessively, but with a clear intent to bake some soon. Turns out it’s very soon. Four days later. This morning.

I pulled out the little scone cookbook I mentioned in that blogpost (literally small, 5.6” x 5.5” with only 144 pages), Simply Scones: Quick and Easy Recipes for More than 70 Delicious Scones and Spreads by Leslie Weiner and Barbara Albright (St. Martin’s Press, 1988). Seeing the copyright date, I wondered if it was still in print. Turns out it is, and available on Amazon – for almost twice the price I paid for it way-back-when (now costs $9.95). Still, the plethora of only-scone recipes makes it worth it; it’s tiny but jam-packed (pun not intended on the fact that I like my scones warm, with butter and jam/preserves/fruit spread most of the time). Out of the many baking choices, the hyphenated word “date-nut” caught my eye and imagination. My revised version of the Weiner/Albright recipe follows but not, of course, without a slight digression or two.

Weiner/Albright decided to ask a few people, “since scones might not yet be a household word,” for their idea of what exactly a scone is. Some of the responses were quite funny, or just a vague notion (remember- it was 1988 and this country was clueless about lots of “foreign” cuisine, and people were not celebrity-chef-and-Food-Channel-crazy, as they can be now). I think my favorite answer that they heard was that they’re like “a puffy oatmeal cookie.” The authors did, fairly accurately as it turns out, predict that this confection would become more common in the U.S., although perhaps it hasn’t reached the height of “household word.” Stroll down the baking/spices aisle in most grocery chain stores, however, and you’re likely to find a boxed mix for scones, with a picture on the front (so folks nowadays might know at least what they look like). However, I doubt they’ll overcome muffins in popularity with breakfast or coffee klatch crowds, at least not any time soon.

Online at Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of this luscious cross between a muffin and quick bread (my definition) calls it, “a rich quick bread cut into usually triangular shapes and cooked on a griddle or baked on a sheet.” I guess that about covers it. I like that Simply Scones goes beyond Webster’s to tell readers that the word “scone” might come from one or some of many sources:

  • From the Dutch, schoonbrood: fine, white bread
  • From the Middle Dutch, schoon: bright, and broot: bread
  • From the Gaelic, sgonn: a shapeless mass or large mouthful
  • From the Middle Low German, schonbrot: fine bread
  • Or, the word may be based on the Scottish town of Scone.

I particularly like the “shapeless mass or large mouthful…” because it’s pretty shapeless when you’re handling that big blob of dough, before being molded into a circle.

Webster’s provides a link to the online Encyclopedia Britanica entry re scones, which informs that scones were, “[a] quick bread of British origin… made with leavened barley flour or oatmeal… rolled into a round shape and cut into quarters before baking on a griddle. The first scones were baked in cast iron pans hung in the kitchen fires of rural England and Wales. With the advent of Eastern trade, scones became an integral part of the fashionable ritual of “taking tea,” with which they are still served daily, hot and buttered, throughout Britain and many regions of its former empire.”

At the beginning of Simply Scones‘ recipe, the writers suggest topping the finished product with Citrus Curd or Citrus Butter (both recipes published in the book), but – hey – it was early in the morning and I wasn’t about to go for concocting one of them too! Instead, as the yummies approached their last five minutes in the oven, I asked Bill (who was awake by this time) which he preferred: apricot fruit spread or orange marmalade (we had both in the cabinet, as yet unopened). He opted for the marmalade, which turned out to be perfect (I enjoyed it too).

Here’s how I concocted my version of Date-Nut Scones, inspired by Weiner and Albright:

  • I replaced the all-purpose flour with white whole wheat.
  • Simply Scones lists ⅓ cup milk as an ingredient. I assumed they meant to use whole milk, which I don’t keep in our fridge, so I did a combo of 1% and Light Cream (which I did have), plus added a bit more cream because I was using vanilla powder rather than vanilla extract and didn’t want the scones to be overly dry for lack of that tiny bit of moisture.
  • I added a teaspoon of Roasted Saigon Cinnamon. Why not? I love it. It’s good for ya!
  • I assume the authors meant for bakers to use dried lemon peel,  but I zested a real lemon instead (reserving slices for later use in ice water, which is what I generally drink with meals since giving up Diet Decaf Coke).
  • I only had half of an 8-ounce bag of chopped pitted dates left (not the 8 oz. suggested) and that seemed plenty to me.
  • As for the walnuts, I used what I already had chopped from a previous recipe, which was a “scant” ½ cup rather than exactly that amount. Plenty.
  • I misread the recipe and sifted the flour mixture together, whereas the book said to stir the stuff. Oh well. I liked the result anyway, very much!
  • I would say that the egg/water wash, which was noted as “optional” in their recipe, would be pretty much required for me!

A witchy word (or two, or more) about cinnamon. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen (Llewellyn Publications, 2003) lists its “energies” as “love, psychic awareness, money.” These are not reasons why I use so much of this spice in my cooking, baking and even a few hot beverages; I just happen to love it. But I could always use lots of any or all of those three things (actually, I seem to have plenty of love but wouldn’t mind a bit more of the $$$!). Cunningham also notes that, “Most cinnamon sold in the United States, no matter how it’s labeled, is actually cassia. Cassia is a dark spice, usually reddish brown, while true cinnamon is actually tan-colored.” He assures his readers, however, that “there’s virtually no difference between the taste and magical effects of cinnamon and cassia.”

If none of the above “magical” revelations draws you toward adding more of the stuff into your diet, how about this: yesterday I caught the end of Dr. Oz’s show and heard him say (before hubby continued on with his channel-surfing) something about cinnamon and that it only takes a teaspoon a day to make a difference. I’ve since found a pertinent Oz quote online (note that he is not directing anyone to Cinnabon for their daily dose…):

Here’s a tantalizing observation: Cinnamon (with an ‘m’ not a ‘b’) seems to have an insulin-like effect that helps enhance the satiety center in your brain (and also reduces blood sugar levels as well as cholesterol levels). Just a ½ teaspoon a day can have some effect. Sprinkle it in cereal or toast, or add it to a smoothie.

In The Kitchen Witch Companion: Simple and Sublime Culinary Magic (Citadel Press, 2005), Patricia Telesco talks about the symbolic meanings of several spices; for cinnamon, she lists “sacredness.” She also includes a recipe headed with the title Perfect Love “Cakes,” with the following explanation:

This Scottish quick bread called a scone very likely takes its name from the Stone of Destiny (or Scone), the place where the Scottish kings were once crowned. The original triangular scone was made with oats and griddle-baked. Since this recipe includes cheese (a love food) make your scones round like the magic circle and serve them as “cakes” after any ritual gathering.

The Love Cakes recipe itself sounds like something I’d like to try, its buttermilk and cheese an enticement. Plus, I once took a feminist thealogy course (no, it’s not a spelling error, “heal” is meant to be in the middle of that word!) called Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. Its name comes from the Book of Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible, wherein God says to Jeremiah, “Do you not see what they do in the cities of Judah and in the Streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead the dough to make cakes to the Queen of Heaven and to pour out libations to other gods, in order to anger me!” (Jeremiah, 7:17-18)  The Queen of Heaven is the ancient goddess, the Feminine Divine, and the cakes were to honor her. [Come to think of it, I took Cakes twice, the first time in a co-ed class and Bill joined me at those sessions. The curriculum is designed for women but a number of guys at the Schenectady Unitarian Universalist church wanted to learn more about the topic too, so they set up a two-gender rendition. It was wonderful but years later, taking it with all women, an entirely different atmosphere reigned – one which I loved!]

Oh, and this is cool: To the left of the beginning of each set of directions within a recipe in The Kitchen Witch Companion, there’s a black cauldron symbol!

On to my scone recipe. Don’t be put off by what looks like a long process (lots of numbered steps) or lots of ingredients. I prefer, always, to split everything into separate steps, procedure-wise. I think it’s easier to keep track of where you are in the process (no matter how often you read the recipe beforehand!). In fact, the authors of Simply Scones managed to get their version onto one page plus six lines on the facing page – that’s how “simply” it can be presented!

DATE-NUT SCONES
Yield: 8 scones

Ingredients

  • 2 ¼ cups white whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon table salt (unless you have fine-ground sea salt)
  • ½ teaspoon Roasted Saigon Cinnamon (or regular Saigon Cinnamon, or regular Cinnamon)
  • ½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), chilled
  • ⅓ cup whole milk, or ¼ cup 1% milk with enough Light Cream added to bring measuring up to ⅓ cup total of “milk” (I did the latter, for reasons explained above), PLUS another tablespoon of Light Cream if you intend to use vanilla powder rather than vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla powder (can substitute vanilla extract, but see above re milk ingredient)
  • ¼ teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 cup (4 oz.) chopped pitted dates
  • scant ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 egg yolk mixed with ½ teaspoon water, for glaze

Process

  1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Lightly butter a 10-inch diameter circle in the center of a baking sheet (a pizza pan works great).
  3. In a large bowl, sift together flour, brown sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
  4. Cut butter into ½-inch cubes and distribute them over flour mixture.
  5. With a pastry blender or two knives used scissors-like (actually I use the pastry blender plus a butter knife), cut butter into the mix until the whole flour mixture looks like coarse crumbs.
  6. In a small bowl, stir milk, egg, vanilla and lemon zest, combining well.
  7. Add the milk mix to the flour mixture; stir to combine. Mixture will be a bit sticky so, for next step, you might want to “flour-up” your hands.
  8. Knead the dates and walnuts into the dough until they’re evenly distributed throughout.
  9. With still-floured hands, pat the dough into a 9-inch diameter circle in the center of your buttered baking sheet.
  10. Brush with the egg/water mixture.
  11. Cut into 8 wedges with a serrated knife (if you forget, don’t panic; I forgot to cut the triangles and did so when it first came out of the oven—no problem!).
  12. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes (mine took 25) until lightly browned and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.
  13. Remove from oven to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes. Recut into wedges, if necessary. At this point, you can move scones from sheet to a rack to cool completely, or serve.
  14. Serve with butter and preserves/jam/marmalade or however you please.
  15. Can be stored, after completely cooled, in an airtight container.

Incidentally, I was sated with one of these scrumptious “heavenly cakes” – but Bill managed to ingest two of them. The dates and walnuts made for a slight crunchiness, truly fit for a god(dess).

Awesome Almond Cupcakes

I’m into cupcakes. Not just because they’re cute little mini-cakes (reminiscent of those wider, flatter cakes baked in my Betty Crocker oven of childhood days), but also because they’re easy to serve. No messy slicing. No trying to figure out how many pieces can be cut from a single cake (will there be enough?). And they can be fun to decorate individually if you’re in a creative mood — which I was since it was daughter Kristen’s birthday celebration last night and I’d recently bought one of those cake decorator “kits” that makes stars and fancy shapes and edgings. Well, IT doesn’t make them for you. It takes a little practice for YOU to do it, which this occasion encouraged. Another incentive to use my new gadget was that it’s one of those pink items which, when purchased, benefits breast cancer research and/or those living with this type of cancer. If I bought it, might as well try it out.

For her birthday, Kris had specificallyrequested the almond cupcakes I’d first made last spring after coming across a recipe in my then-newest cookbook acquisition, 500 Cupcakes: The Only Cupcake Compendium You’ll Ever Need by Fergal Connolly (Sellers Publishing Inc., 2005). Both she and her brother Adrian thought they were “the best from-scratch cake” I’d ever baked. Since I happen to love almonds (and they’re good for you, although the sugar in rich buttercream frosting probably offsets a good deal of that rationalization for indulging!), I was more than happy to oblige her specific sweet-tooth desire.

Naturally, I made changes in the recipe. While mixing the ingredients last May, I didn’t like the consistency of the batter. It seemed too dry. It occurred to me that perhaps they’d left out some essential liquid for the recipe by mistake, which could be a publishing error (only moisture was coming from softened butter, eggs and a teaspoon of extract). Or perhaps they were going for more of a muffin texture. I decided to add a bit of heavy cream to my batter, first checking a couple resources to be sure I wouldn’t be screwing up the balance of ingredients. One of the things I’ve learned over years of baking is that it’s more of a science than even cooking can be (albeit both also can be viewed as an art and an essential survival skill). If the ratio between certain elements is off then the baked item will not be at its best (and could be pretty terrible!). Two of my favorite resources for these kinds of issues are BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking by Shirley O. Corriher (Scribner, 2008) and Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman (Scribner, 2009).

The recipe also called for 3 tablespoons of “chopped” almonds. I’d bought slivered almonds, which “slivered” through my little handheld chopper without much “chopping.” I wound up using the electric coffee bean grinder. We don’t use if for beans any more since, if Bill desires from-the-bean java, his coffeemaker can also do the grinding as a first step (I drink decaf and have my own 4-cup pot). I ground the almonds to finer texture so they’d mix into the batter almost as another flour, figuring not everyone likes noticeable nuts in their cake. The other thing I did was toast the almonds for a few minutes in a small, dry, stickproof pan, to bring out more flavor.

When I got to the frosting, I consulted a couple books as a starter for the buttercream. Not because I hadn’t made it before — it’s one of the only icings I use on cakes. It’s just that I expected to write this blog entry and I had only a mini-clue about how much confectioners’ sugar, milk, extract, etc. I toss into the bowl. This I got from my mother, whose cakes were always from mixes (preferably Duncan Hines in later years) but whose buttercream frosting was always “scratch.” I didn’t even know it was called buttercream until long after I was married; growing up, it never occurred to me that there was any other kind!

So I scanned my cookbooks and decided that The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook: Old-Fashioned Recipes from New York’s Sweetest Bakery (by Jenifer Appel and Allysa Torey, Simon & Schuster, 1999) was the best candidate for a starting point since their Traditional Vanilla Buttercream read like what Mom and I had been whipping up for years. I cut Magnolia’s recipe in half for my batch of cupcakes. Of course, in this case I was substituting almond extract for vanilla; and I was adding some of those ground almonds too, substituting it for some of the sugar.

As for decoration, I loved my new “star-maker,” although I think I might try making the frosting a bit stiffer next time. Still, it maintained its stars and swirls, making for a lovely batch of cupcakes to tote to Applebee’s Restaurant where we were meeting Kristen and a few of her friends. Early in the decoration process I realized that, if I wanted the frosting to spread on all dozen muffin-sized cupcakes, I’d better not be “starring” the whole cake – an illumination that resulted in a variety of frosted tops. I’d toasted some of the almonds to add to the icing; keeping some as whole slivers, some broken in half, some hand chopped. I thought the ones placed in a complete circle reminded me of Stonehenge and other stone circle at ancient British and Irish sites!

Placed in the cupcake carrier that Kris had given me as a Christmas gift, they made an artful design. In fact, when Bill went out to the car to bring them in for dessert, all of the waitstaff kept coming over to comment on how beautiful and delicious they looked. Our waitress, a cute little blonde who seemed a little shy, asked what flavor they were and replied that almond was her favorite. We gave her one, which she devoured before returning to our table with our coffees. She said it was delicious. It occurred to me that I could’ve replied, jokingly, that it was also her delicious tip too, but I didn’t want her to think I could be serious!

What I learned from this batch of cakes: I thought I’d have to bake them longer than the original batch I’d made last spring (which I’d baked as regular-sized cupcakes rather than muffin-size). In trying to be sure they were baked enough, I think I might’ve dried them out a tad bit. Flavor, however, wasn’t sacrificed. Next time I make them muffin-sized, I’ll only add about 2 or 3 minutes (instead of 5) to baking time before checking for doneness. On the other hand, I might just add a little canola oil to the mix, no more than a tablespoon, to see how that works out… it’s all an experiment for me, just like life!

This recipe makes about 18 cupcakes (fill each container about 2/3 full of batter) or 12 muffin-sized cakes (baking for a few more minutes to ensure doneness).

ALMOND CUPCAKES WITH ALMOND BUTTERCREAM FROSTING

The Cakes

• 1 cup (2 sticks) sweet (unsalted) butter, softened
• 1 cup superfine sugar (note: NOT confectioners’ or granulated sugar; there IS such a thing as superfine)
• 2 cups self-rising flour (NOT all-purpose flour)
• 1 tsp. baking powder
• 4 eggs (best when brought to room temperature)
• 1 tsp. almond extract
• ½ cup heavy cream (a little more would be ok if batter looks too thick)
• 3 tbsp. chopped almonds (or, as I used, ground almonds), previously toasted

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
2. Place 18 cupcake paper baking cups in cupcake tins (or 12 muffin-sized paper baking cups in muffin tins).
3. Place all ingredients in a medium bowl and beat with an electric mixer until smooth and pale, about 3 minutes.
4. Spoon mixture into the cups (⅔ full).
5. Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick or knife comes out clean when inserted into the cake.
6. Remove pans from oven and cool for 5 minutes.
7. Remove cupcakes from tins and cool completely on a rack.
8. When cool, frost; or store up to 3 days; or freeze (unfrosted) for up to 3 months.

The Frosting

• 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very soft (if you run out of unsalted butter, salted is OK to use)
• 3½ cups confectioners’ sugar (have extra available in case you need more)
• ½ cup ground almonds
• ¼ cup milk (I used 2% milk but whole or 1% works just as well; can always add more if too stiff)
• 1 tsp. almond extract
• Food coloring, if desired
• Toasted almonds for decoration- some slivered, some chopped (optional)

1. Place butter in large mixing bowl.
2. Add 2 cups sugar, milk, and extract.
3. Beat until smooth and creamy.
4. Add remaining sugar and ground almonds, gradually, until icing is a good spreading consistency.
5. Mix in food coloring, if using.
6. Decorate cupcakes with icing (also with almonds, if using). Frosting keeps best if eaten within 3 days (which works out well, since cupcakes also keep best for first 3 days).

For a “scratch” recipe, this is pretty easy to pull together. Try it. You’ll like it.