The Perfect Chocolate Cupcakes with Vanilla Icing

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As I sit writing this curled up on my couch, under my favorite blanket and wearing my fuzzy slippers, I can hardly contain my giddiness.  It is officially east coast fall weather in California and that just makes me beyond happy.

I made the move out west 7 years ago and I still find myself getting home sick for those cool, crisp, east coast fall days.  The days when you officially know it’s the end of skirt season and you obligingly cozy up in your favorite sweater, make a cup of hot chocolate and know it’s ok to spend the next couple of hours curled up on the couch with a blanket either reading your favorite book or watching your favorite movie.  Oh how I miss those days!  So when I get one out west I savor every single minute of it – even it means leaving my apartment window slightly open and refusing to turn on the heat so I get that little chill.

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Next week at this time I will back home on the east coast and can not wait for some real fall.  I also can not wait for Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, and to be spending it in my favorite place, cooking with my mom in the kitchen I grew up in.

While it has been a crazy year, there is so much I have to be thankful for, especially one person in particular, our nanny.  Being a mom is the probably the hardest job I have ever taken on, but being a working mom just adds to the complexity.  When we brought our nanny into the family exactly a year ago, as I decided to make the decision to head back to work, I don’t think any of us knew what to expect.  To say she is now a part of our family is an understatement.  She literally keeps our home afloat, our son happy and gives the hubby and I complete peace of mind when we head out the door every morning.  I do not know what we would do without her and I just feel so incredibly lucky every day that she chose us as her “west coast family.”

Last month was her birthday and, while she had her real family out from the east coast to celebrate, I wanted to make sure she felt as special as she truly is.  I looked high and low for the perfect chocolate cupcake recipe and spent the night before her birthday preparing these beyond delicious from scratch cupcakes.

I know I usually type up the recipe below and add in my adaptations but this recipe was literally, beyond perfect.  I also want to give a fellow blogger her due credit.  If you haven’t already please check out Sally’s Baking Addiction – I think it has become my new addiction.

Here is a link to her perfectly, delicious chocolate cupcake recipe.

If you are a novice home baker like me and do not have a pastry bag, you can use a ziploc bag with the tip cut off to pipe out the icing.

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Yellow Cake with Chocolate Icing

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This past weekend, the hubby and I spent hours chasing my son around a university campus I called home for two years.  A place grounded in traditions and full of so many memories for me, my sister and my two cousins who have all graduated (or will this spring) from there.  And now it is a town full of memories for my own son  – his first football game, his first ice cream pop and his first real word . . . blue.

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The hubby and I thought through a lot of things when we decided to start our family.  Do we move to the burbs or stay in the city? What kind of parents should we be? And the list goes on. But I don’t think either of us realized that we were really starting a family of our own, separate from the one’s we grew up with, and with our own traditions.  Some traditions we have stumbled on, like this past weekend, and others we have tried to force, unsuccessfully, like our staycation Christmas (never again!).

 

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When my son’s first birthday came around a few months ago, I initially was going to treat it like any other weekday. But as the day drew closer I knew that this day would never again be like any other day, nor should it be.  We had all survived our first year together and that was something to be celebrated, but more than that, it was something to remember and it got me thinking about traditions.

My birthday falls on a holiday weekend.  Growing up, we were rarely home, or if we were none of my friends were home to celebrate it with me.  I always felt special on my birthday but never really had any tradition tied to it.  My sister on the other hand always got a Carvel cake for her birthday with the chocolate crunchies and when I married my husband, my mother-in-law gifted me her recipe for his “birthday icing,” a recipe given to her from her mother-in-law. I loved this idea of a birthday tradition, probably secretly because I never had one of my own, and decided I was going to create one for my son.

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When his birthday finally arrived, I took the day off from work to spend with him, taking him to a children’s museum and for a ride in his new toy car, but I also took it off to bake him his first cake.  The pressure was on to find the perfect recipe and I think I got pretty close. My baking skills were beyond rusty, failing to read the recipe in full before I started, which resulted in starting over a few times.  The result, however, was as close to perfect as I was going to get.  He devoured the slice we gave him and even asked for more. That was all I needed to know that I had successfully created a birthday tradition, well until he insists for birthday icing like his dad.

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Fluffy Yellow Layer Cake with Chocolate Frosting 

Serves 4

For the Cake:

1/4 cup cake flour (you can make with 1 cup of flour, remove 2 tbsp and substitute 2 tbsp of cornstarch and sift several times)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

2 large egg yolks, at room temperature

1 large egg white, at room temperature

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

 

For the Icing:

7 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder

pinch of salt

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 ounces chocolate, melted and cooled slightly

 

Place rack in the middle position of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees

Grease and flour two 6-inch round cake pans, then line the bottoms with parchment paper.

Whisk the flour, 6 tablespoons of the granulated sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda together in a medium bowl and set aside.

Whisk the buttermilk, melted butter, egg yolks, oil and vanilla together in a small bowl.

In a medium bowl, whip the egg white with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until foamy, 30 to 60 seconds.  Gradually whip in the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and continue to whip until stiff peaks form 2 to 3  minutes, scraping down the bowl as needed. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer on low-speed, gradually combine the butter mixture with the flour mixture until almost incorporated (a few streaks of dry flour will remain), 15 to 30 seconds.  Increase the speed to medium-low and beat until smooth and fully incorporated, 10 to 15 seconds longer.

Using a rubber spatula, stir one-third of the whipped egg white in the batter to lighten, then gently fold in the remaining egg white until not white streaks remain.

Divide the batter between the prepared pan, smooth the tops and gently tap the pans to settle the batter.

Bake for 16 to 18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out with a few crumbs attached.  Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes.  Run a knife along the end, flip them out on a wire rack, remove the parchment paper and then flip right side up.  Let cool for at least an hour and a half before icing.

To make the icing, process the butter, confectioner’s sugar, cocoa and salt in a food processor until smooth, about 10 seconds.  Add the corn syrup and vanilla and process until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Scrape down the bowl, then add the chocolate and pulse until smooth and creamy, 5 to 10 seconds.

To assemble place one of the cakes on a cake platter and spread 1/4 cup of the icing over the cake, right to the edges. Place the remaining cake layer on top and press lightly to adhere.  Frost the cake with the remaining icing.

From America’s Test Kitchen Cooking for Two 2009

Baking 201: French Apple Cake & Other Fun Treats

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A few days ago someone asked me of my first memory of my mom from childhood and I had to take a pause. I honestly could not remember. I have so many memories of time spent with my mom as a little girl. How do you decipher which one was your first? So I decided to answer the question, not as it was asked but, instead, how I will always remember my child hood with my mom and, of course, it involved time spent in the kitchen.

I didn’t find out until recently that before my sister or I were born my mom spent a lot of her free time taking cooking classes. She learned how to cook different cuisines from all over the world and even cooked a full-on chinese banquet for friends with everything from home made dumplings (yes the dough was from scratch) to kung pao chicken. I always knew my mom was a good cook but didn’t realize she had some serious skills.

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As you get older it’s always fun to find out about your parents before you were born because, turns out, they did some pretty cool things. While I have never had the chance of experiencing my mom’s amazing chinese cooking skills, I will always remember the time I spent in the kitchen baking with her.

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Until recently I never really did much baking on my own, but a few months ago I got bitten by the baking bug and have since whipped up many a treat. Maybe it was because I wanted a new challenge or maybe it was because I am baking a fun little treat of my own . . . in July I become a mom. I have heard that nothing prepares you for becoming a parent and my husband and I are preparing ourselves to have our world rocked but we are equally excited for what promises to be one crazy ride.

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So I break my blogging silence for you today with one of the most favorite things I have baked in the past 6 plus months . . . a French Apple Cake. Cakes are definitely not my baking speciality and especially not ones that require a spring form pan but it sounded so delicious in my Cook’s Illustrated that I couldn’t resist. I know apple season is almost totally behind us but hopefully you can still find some granny smith apples in your grocery store to try this recipe out. It will not disappoint!

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French Apple Cake

(adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

Serves 8 to 10

1 1/2 lb Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, cut into 8 wedges, and sliced 1/8 in thick crosswise

1 tbsp Calvados (French apple brandy)

1 tsp lemon juice

1 cup plus 2 tbsp all-purpose flour

1 cup plus 1 tbsp granulated sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 large egg plus 2 large yolks

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup whole milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

Confectioner’s sugar

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325. Spray 9-inch springform pan with vegetable oil spray and place on an aluminum foil wrapped rimmed baking sheet.

Place apple slices into a microwave safe pie plate, cover with paper plate and microwave until apples are pliable and slightly translucent, about 3 minutes. Toss apples with Calvados and lemon juice and let cool for 15 minutes.

Whisk 1 cup of flour, 1 cup granulated sugar, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Whisk one egg, oil, milk, and vanilla together in a second bowl until smooth. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and whisk until just combined. Transfer 1 cup of batter to separate bowl and set aside.

Add egg yolks to remaining batter and whisk to combine. Using spatula, gently fold in cooled apples. Transfer batter to prepared pan; using offset spatula, spread batter evenly to pan edges, gently pressing on apples to create even, compact layer, and smooth surface.

Whisk remaining 2 tbsp of flour into reserved batter. Pour over batter in pan and spread batter evenly to pan edges and smooth surface. Sprinkle remaining 1 tbsp granulated sugar evenly over cake.

Bake until center of cake is set – a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean and the top is golden brown – 1 hour and 15 minutes. Transfer pan to wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes. Run a paring knife around side of pan and let cool completely, about 2 to 3 hours. Dust lightly with confectioners’ sugar and serve.

Farewell to Summer

The apples showed up in full force at the store last week and I knew. I knew that summer was fading and fading fast. And I was sad. Sad that my Frog Hollow fruit would soon disappear! If you have never had Frog Hollow fruit before it is a life changing experience. Yes it is that good!

 

So good that I actually shed tears last year when a former co-worker stole one of the last Frog Hollow peaches of summer from right under my nose.  I spent the winter dreaming of those peaches and when they showed up in the store the first week I swooned. And it wasn’t just for those peaches it was for their apricots, their plums, their cherries, their pluots, their nectarines and I even got suckered in last week for their asian pears.

I know its strange, who has ever heard of a name brand fruit? But there is something magical about their farms and their fruit. So much so that they convinced me to pay a premium for them every week and even ship them across the country so my sister and mom could share in their fruity, delicious love. I even went so far as to profess my love for their fruit to a farmer working their stand at the farmer’s market a few weeks ago. Yes I am that obsessed.

 

 

So with summer on its last few days I thought it only fitting to pay homage to my favorite thing about summer this year . . . Frog Hollow fruit and to my favorite dessert grilled Frog Hollow peaches with vanilla ice cream.

The hubby and I escaped the city several weeks ago and rented a little cabin up in Tahoe – we hiked, we swam and we BBQ-ed! In addition to making some delicious steaks and tasty kabobs we made my most favorite dessert! Honestly it tastes as good as a piece of freshly baked peach pie.

Grilled Peaches with Vanilla Ice Cream (a what I made for dinner original)

Serves 2

1 ripe peach, halved and pitted

2 scoops of vanilla ice cream (we love Strauss but if you don’t have that Hagen-Dazs is great)

Heat  a grill to low-medium heat.

Place the peach halves flesh side down on the grill and leave for about 5 to 7 minutes. You want the peach to soften up but you don’t want it too mushy.

Take off the heat and plate with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Yum!!

 

 

 

 

Personal Pear Crisp with Oat Topping

I know people who love to bake. They will spend hours in the kitchen kneading dough, watching souffles rise, and perfecting their pie crust recipes. I am jealous.

I am in love with the idea of baking but when it comes down to it I find it daunting. Plus what to do with an entire cake for just the two of us?  You can not just simply half a baking recipe like you do a chicken recipe.

So the hubby and I have succumb to store-bought cookies, pints of ice cream, and an occasional treat from the bakery down the street that has totally caught on to the new mini dessert trend.

A few Fridays ago (yes I am behind on blog posts) the hubby and I were just exhausted from our weeks. Rather than head out for date night we decided to stay in.

Comfy clothes + yummy cheese + delicious olives + good wine + perfectly cooked steaks + french fries = AMAZING

Some great company might also had something to do with it.

For the perfect end to our perfect date night I was dying to try this recipe for pear crisp in my Cooking For Two cookbook. A fortuitous trip to Cost Plus World Market earlier that day for work, not only taught me a thing or two about the wine retail market but also allowed me to find the allusive 12oz ramekin. I was so excited I bought 4!

As the hubby cleaned up dinner (I cook he cleans) I started pulling together our pear crisps. Not only was this recipe super easy but it also was amazingly delicious. Even better, I didn’t have to share my portion with my hubby. He is a good sharer but sometimes if something is soo good, like this was, he just devours it, leaving me to fight for my share.

Yes they were as delish as they look. If only the movie we got from Netflix to watch that night was as good as advertised.

Pear Crisp with Oat Topping (Cooking for Two 2009)

Serves 2

2 tbsp granulated sugar

1 tsp fresh lemon juice

1/4 tsp cornstarch

Salt

2 ripe, but firm Bartlett pears peeled, halved, cored, and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks

3 tbsp finely chopped pecans

1/4 c unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tbsp light brown sugar

1/8 tsp ground cinnamon

Pinch ground nutmeg

3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1/4 c old-fashioned oats

Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 425 degrees. Whisk 1 tbsp of granulated sugar, lemon juice, cornstarch, and a pinch of salt together in a medium bowl. Gently toss the pears with the sugar mixture and divide evenly between two 12-once ramekins.

Mix the nuts, flour, brown sugar, remaining 1 tbsp granulated sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a pinch of salt together in a medium bowl until combined. Drizzle the melted butter over the top, add the old-fashioned oats and combine until the mixture resembles crumbly wet sand. Pinch between your fingers into small pea-sized pieces (with some smaller loose bits).

Sprinkle the topping evenly over the pears, breaking up any large chunks. Place the crisps on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until the filling is bubbling around the edges and the topping is deep golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through baking. Let the crisps cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes before serving.

Apple Pie

I recently discovered how much I really love pie. I mean is there anything better than delicious fruit, baked with sugar, and all in flaky warm crust?  Well I guess yes, with a scoop of ice cream on top! But honestly I am a fruit dessert girl and pie is definitely a fav.

So what could better than making my favorite dessert with one of my favorite fruits, apple? Not much. Well I guess if it was my mom making it.

Feeling over-confident in my kitchen these days (thanks hubby for all the amazing words of encouragement), I decided to take on making dinner for 10+ people at our house last week. Rather than farming out dessert like I usually do I took it on myself with my very first apple pie!


Most of the dinner featured apples. If this was an episode of Iron Chef the secret ingredient would have most definitely been apple! More to come on those dishes later on this week.

Shockingly my mom does not have an apple pie recipe that she loves and there were none in my cookbooks! So to the internet I turned and found a recipe on allrecipes.com (not a usual place I turn) but the recipe I found had 5 stars almost 4,000 reviews and over 100,000 people had saved it. I figured this one HAD to be good.

The recipe did not include a recipe for the pie crust. The debate: buy prepared pie crust or find a recipe and make my own. I so desperately wanted to do the latter but after much persuasion by many friends (and family) to not go this route, including a pastry chef at Whole Foods, I figured I should just stick with the prepared crusts this time. Thank you everyone for the great advice.

There is definitely a reason why this recipe had almost 4,000 5 star reviews. (1) It happens to be one of the easiest pie recipes I have ever (helped) make; (2) It turned out absolutely delicious, although a little heavier than I would like; (3) does it need a third? (yes I feel weird not doing thing in 3’s).

The one interesting thing about this recipe is that you do not coat the apples with lemon juice and cinnamon like I am used to. Rather you assemble the pie and pour a butter and sugar mixture over the entire pie. This creates the most amazing, crispy, sugary crust. Yum!


Apple Pie Recipe by Grandma Ople (from allrecipes.com)

1 recipe pastry for a double 9 inch pie crust

1/2 cup unsalted butter

3 tbsp all-purpose flour

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup white sugar

1/2 cup packed brown sugar (I used light)

8 Granny Smith apples – peeled, cored, and sliced

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in flour to form a paste.  Add water, white sugar, and brown sugar. Bring to a boil and reduce temperature to let simmer.  (I didn’t leave it too long for fear that the mixture would burn, I yanked it when it turned a nice caramel color)

2. Place the bottom crust in your pan. Fill with apples, mounded slightly. (I found that I didn’t use all my apples) Cover with a lattice-work crust. Gently pour the butter/sugar liquid over the crust and be careful that it does not run off.

3. Bake 15 minutes in the preheated oven. Reduce heat to 350 and bake for another 35 to 45 minutes until the apples are soft (mine only took 35 minutes).

I would let the pie cool before serving it as it is pretty soupy when it first comes out of the oven but it firmed up pretty nicely after it cooled.  You could easily add some cinnamon and other spices to this recipe. I might even add some more flour next time to create more of a paste because the 1 tablespoon doesn’t fully cut it.

Enjoy!

Everything Cookies

Typical summer days returned to SF today. The fog dug in its claws and held on to the coast all day, keeping the sky gray, the air damp, and the temp cold. Out came the cashmere sweater, jeans and fleece. It was a typical East Coast fall day in the middle of summer. I am sure my fam on the East Coast would have given anything for a day like this considering the heat they have been dealt this summer. So rather than complain about it, I embraced my gray fall day in July, cozied up in my apartment, read through cookbooks, and baked cookies.

Not just any cookies. My new fav – Everything Cookies. I totally made up the name for the cookies but I think it describes them perfectly. Think of every cookie that you love and then think of the best way to combine them and this is exactly what this cookie is. So I can’t fully take credit for the recipe, my mom managed to negotiate the recipe from one of her students. Then we both tried it, adapted it, and bring on the Everything Cookie.


It is the perfect blend of the chocolate chip cookie, the oatmeal raisin cookie, and the peanut butter cookie, with a twist of course. It is also happens to be pretty easy to make and makes your apartment smell delicious.

First you the combine the peanut butter, butter, vanilla, egg, and white and brown sugar.

In a separate bowl mix the flour, oatmeal, baking soda, and salt.

Blend the two and then add in the chocolate chips and dried cranberries (sooo much better than raisins).

Using a tablespoon, make the dough into little rounds but do not flatten, and then bake.

I learned that they cook pretty quickly and deceptively do not look cooked on top but are definitely brown on the bottom.

 Yum!