Monday 30 April 2012

Bonus Monday Post: Flower Pot Cupcakes!

So, many of you have already seen the Flower Pot Cake I made last week. Well, after that, I had a bit of terracotta coloured fondant left. And some purple, and pink, and green.

What to do with all this leftover fondant?

Why, make mini versions of the same cake, of course!

Want to hear the easiest cake recipe ever? This is black midnight cake, straight out of that old Betty Crocker cookbook we inherited from my Great Grandma. The instructions, I swear to goodness, are pile all the ingredients into a bowl, and mix it. Seriously, that is about it.

Mix it for 30 seconds on low, then 3 minutes on high. Then you're ready to put it in your pans and bake up. Easiest. Thing. Ever. About as easy as using a mix! These cupcakes do come out a little crumbly, and they don't dome prettily like some recipes, but they taste so good and come together so easily that you won't even mind.

EDIT: I learned something cool! If you use pastry/cake flour instead of just all-purpose flour in these, they DO dome up prettily. Give it a try!

I portioned the batter into two cupcake pans, one with liners and the other greased, and baked each for 20 minutes.

Now, I didn't take pictures of what I'm about to describe, because I was simply too full of rage. So full of rage. The cupcakes that were in the greased pan didn't want to leave the pan. I swear, that can of generic brand pan spray is going right in the garbage.

Yes, I know greasing and flouring is always better than spraying. I know that, but also I am lazy. And greasing and flouring takes longer. So, yeah, had some trouble with those ones. In any case, we did get a few out of the pan intact enough for my decorating plan.

 I took the leftover terracotta fondant, rolled it out a little thicker than I wanted it, and used a large glass to get a rough circle. You see, I didn't have my 8,000 circular cookie/biscuit cutters with me because the decorating portion of this adventure took place at my Mom's place.

Hubby works nights, you see, so when I want to bake not-at-2-in-the-morning, I sometimes commandeer my mother's kitchen. Anyway, back to the fondant thing.

So cut the circle out of the fondant and then roll it out a little bigger and thinner until it's enough to cover the bottom and sides of your cupcake, like so:

The fondant's being held on by a thin, thin layer of chocolate buttercream. Just smooth it on with your clean, dry hands (this does take a bit of practise, on my first attempt the top edge tore!) then trim away the excess, and you'll have something that looks like this:

Now, spread a generous layer of chocolate frosting over the top, and cover that baby with Oreo crumbs.

Awwwwww yeeeeeeahhhhh. Just roll the frosted top about in your cookie crumb of choice until well coated. Hold the fondant sides very gently so as not to dent the smooth finish.

Once you have your cookie layer secured, take a small strip of fondant and use just a bit of water as glue to adhere it around the top of your cupcake, sticking fondant to fondant.

Remember the flowers we made for the cake? One fits perfectly in this little pot.

You can tell I was at my Mom's place, because that right there? That's actual daylight. I don't get that in my little basement apartment. It was such a gorgeous, bright day, I just had to take some shots out on the deck.

Oh, also, the cupcake looks really cute. I guess that's important, too.



Oh no. Oh, jeez! Who dropped a flower pot?

Aw, and that was one of the flowers Mom made, too! Maaaaaaaaaaaan.

Of course, this is actually a purposeful disaster. I was unwilling to simply give up on some of the broken cupcakes that had stuck in the pan, so I trimmed up the bottom of one such cupcake to sit level, and turned it into a 'broken' flower pot cupcake. I covered the up-facing side with terracotta fondant, and then added cracks in it (see the chip out of the top?) and broken shards around.

I used the bit of cupcake I trimmed off and some frosting and Oreo crumbs for the spilled soil, and stuck the flower on with a bit more frosting, sliding halfway out of the broken pot, of course.

This guy was actually my favourite out of all the cupcakes my Mom and I decorated today.

Just look at that. Looks just like a busted flower pot. Not... not that I've broken a lot of them or anything. That was totally my little brother who broke the plant. Or, uh, the cat. Not me.

We also decorated a bunch of the cupcakes more traditionally, with swirls of frosting and royal icing flowers and such, but I really had to showcase the little flower pots. Who said leftovers can't be fun?

I found out today that decorating cupcakes is extra fun when you have someone to do it with. I wonder if you can tell which cupcakes I did and which my Mom helped with? (I'm not telling. Except, uh, the one covered in flower centers? Yeah, that wasn't me. Those are for the centers of flowers, Mom!!)

It was a super fun to have a little cupcake decorating party though... maybe someday soon I'll have a friend over to my place to help out with another project. Any volunteers?

In the meantime, if you want to try these yourself, here's the recipes:

Black Midnight Cake
From ancient Betty Crocker Cookbook, which I hopefully won't get sued for sharing?

2 1/4 cups flour
1 2/3 cups sugar
2/3 cups cocoa powder
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 1/4 cup water
3/4 cup shortening
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla

Pile all ingredients into large mixer bowl. Use hand mixer on low for 30 seconds, scraping down the sides with a spatula as you go, then mix 3 minutes on high speed, scraping down the sides occasionally.

Portion equally among 2 cupcake pans, makes a total of 24 cupcakes. Bake at 350 degrees for 18-20 minutes.

That's it! Told you it was easy.

Almost as easy as the frosting:

Easy Chocolate Buttercream Frosting

1/2 cup butter (use salted, it's way too sweet if you use unsalted. Seriously.)
1/3 cup cocoa powder
2 cups icing sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
3 + tbsp milk

With an electric mixer, combine room-temperature butter and cocoa powder until smooth. Start slow so you don't coat your kitchen in cocoa. Slowly add the 2 cups of icing sugar. Add the vanilla and milk.

From here you have to add a bit more milk, a little at a time, until you get your desired consistency. This will vary a bit depending on humidity and such, so just test it after each addition of milk until it's spreadable but not runny. Then you're good to go!


Until next time!

Thursday 26 April 2012

Flower Pot Chocolate Cake

Recently, my Mom turned the big five-oh. I'm not sure how happy she is that I'm telling the entire internet that, but the fact stands!

In any case, I wanted to make her a super incredible cake, because hey, you only get one 50th birthday! So I asked what kind of cake she wanted.

"Oh, you know. Something chocolate, chocolate frosting... and oh, make it purple and pink!"

I was awful happy to hear this, you see, because I'd been just itching to try my hand at a cake like this!

Now, if you have a look at the cake sold through Williams Sonoma you will notice some key differences between the inspiration and my final product. Many of these differences are due to the fact that their cake serves 4, mine serves 12 to 16.

Want to make your own? Check it out:

First, bake up 3 6-inch layers of your favourite chocolate cake. (You want to avoid anything very crumbly or soft for this, firmer cake is better when you're stacking multiple layers.)

Cool 'em, frost 'em & stack 'em, and get a thin chocolate buttercream crumb coat all around your little cake tower.

If you want your cake even taller, try splitting and filling each layer cake as you go. The bonus if you go that route, of course, is that you get a lot more frosting on this baby. I was happy with the height though, so I left it as is.

Next, you'll need to apply your fondant. I started with an ivory-coloured, store-bought fondant and used a combination of red, yellow and brown gel colours to get a terracotta shade.

For the love of goodness, be sure to add your colours bit by bit until you reach your desired shade. Yes, your arms will ache from kneading it over and over. Yes, the fondant will grow sticky and you'll need to dust it frequently with icing sugar to keep it workable. Yes, the frosting on your cake will set while you're doing this, but that's okay, just add another thin coat before you put the fondant on.

Trust me though, it is well worth the trouble to take your time on the colour, rather than to use far too much of the dye and ruin 2 pounds of fondant. This stuff ain't cheap!

And yes, I know 'ain't' ain't a word. I like to get colloquial up in here sometimes. So sue me. Side note: isn't it kind of funny how the word 'colloquial' is so formal-sounding? Oh, yes, I know you came to a baking blog for grammatical irony humor today, don't deny it.

Oh, wait, we were making a cake, weren't we?

I used a couple of actual terracotta pots to compare until I got a close enough colour. This was as dark as I could get it before my poor arms began to give up on kneading, and I still had much to do, so I had to call it close enough.

I rolled the fondant out to about an eighth of an inch thick, and wrapped a big rectangle around the cake. I used a paring knife to cut away all the excess. This technique did leave a seam on one side of the cake, but it also used less fondant than simply draping the whole cake, and I didn't want the top covered anyway.

I also cut a long, skinny rectangular strip of fondant and, after dampening the top inch or so of the side of the cake with a damp paper towel, stuck the extra strip on to make the lip of the pot. Somehow, I completely neglected to get any pictures of that process.

Next up, creating the flowers. These. Are. SO. Easy! Use a cutter (or candy thermometer protective cover, as I did, since I didn't have a cookie/fondant cutter small enough) a bit smaller than the size you want your petals, and cut circles out of coloured fondant about an 1/8 of an inch thick.

Then, work the circles with your fingers, flattening and stretching them a but until they resemble rounded flower petals.

I'm sorry this pic is so blurry - it was right around this time that I ran out of memory on the camera and had to change the SD card... and forgot to get a better shot of this. I swear, I ought to just hire a photographer to take care of this part!

So, once you have your 5 round petal shapes, arrange them into a flower shape, carefully having one petal overlap the next slightly. When you've arranged the petals to your liking, use a tiny, tiiiiny bit of water to 'glue' the petals together where they overlap. Repeat until you have enough flowers to cover the top of your cake.

If you want your flowers to curve upwards, place them into a lightly icing-sugar-dusted flower form. Or, if, like me, you can't clutter up your kitchen with a billion specialty flower forms, simply put them in tiny little bowls, or make little concave nests out of aluminum foil. Whatever works!

In any case, let your flowers sit in your mold of choice for at least 1-2 hours until the fondant firms up enough to hold its shape.

In the meantime, make your leaves:

Pretty straight forward here. Green fondant, rolled out 1/8 inch thick, cut into leaf shapes with a paring knife. Ideally, you can add the veining with an actual veining tool but again, I don't quite have every cake decorating gadget, so I simply used the wrong side of my paring knife blade to make the leaf details. It worked out quite well! If you want to give your leaves dimension, let them set on curved surfaces, or draped over a spoon handle. I did a bit of each for variety.

Now here is why I didn't want to cover the whole top of the cake with fondant - it would get between the cake and more frosting! Slather on a generous amount of chocolate frosting, being careful not to smear it over the outer fondant lip.

Then - and this is my favourite part! - cover every inch of the frosting with Oreo cookie crumbs. You won't get that at Williams Sonoma!

Oops, did I just type that? Guess I did. Well, no going back now.

Once your cake top is deliciously coated with Oreo crumbs (remove the Oreo filling before crushing them up, by the way. I know, it seems a waste of good icing guck, but this is for the greater good!) add dollops of your chocolate butter cream and press your fondant flowers on them one by one.

I made the centers of these flowers ahead of time - they're simply daubs of royal icing sprinkled with a bit of sugar and left to harden overnight. Once they're set, they'll last practically forever until you're ready to use them. Whenever I have leftover royal icing, I make flower centers of all kinds. You never know when you'll have a serious, five-alarm, cake decorating emergency, so be prepared.

Once you've arranged all your blooms and leaves, you'll have something that looks like this. Now, it's tough to see in the pictures, but as an extra detail, I took a pastry brush and some powdered sugar, and made sugar brushstrokes horizontally around the cake. I was trying to replicate the look of the terracotta pots, and though it is hard to see in the pics here, I assure you it was a lovely, subtle detail! 

Sliced and served, this cake had everyone in the room - most importantly of all, the birthday girl - in smiles. The cake was so tall we split each slice into a top and bottom. There may have been minor riots over who got the Oreo-crumbiest pieces. Perhaps in future I will create a middle Oreo crumb layer to prevent such senseless cake-induced violence. (Okay, there was no violence, I'm just being dramatic again. People did argue for the top pieces though.)

So as you can see, it's not all that hard to make your very own fancy flower pot cake! It is, however, quite time-consuming. I'd say I spent a minimum of four hours on this baby, all things accounted for, so don't start baking the night before you need it! I spread the work out over 2 days, plus the morning of the party, when I attached the flowers. Of course, if you use a cake mix or buy frosting from the store, you would save a lot of time.

I hope you're inspired to try something new yourself! Putting this cute little cake together gave me such a confidence boost, I felt like I could do anything. Maybe even bake a pie! With a home-made crust! From scratch!

But, no, that's madness. Pie crust and I... we have a dark history. Dark, and tough. And a bit chewy. But that's really for another post! I've rambled on long enough for now.

Until next time!

Thursday 19 April 2012

Midnight Muffin Mania

One night, just around midnight, I was very suddenly craving muffins. Delicious, moist, chocolaty muffins with butter melting over their still-hot-from-the-oven fluffy interiors.

But I had no muffin mix. Now, I am generally a proponent of making things from scratch, because it's generally more fun and often has better results. One of a few exceptions to this 'rule' is muffins. I had never actually made muffins from scratch, unless you count my banana ones, which I don't, since they're actually only my banana bread baked in muffin-size which doesn't really count.

So anyway. I was struck by the urge to make muffins.

So I pulled out Great Grandma's ancient, crumbling, may-have-been-Betty-Crocker-but-who-knows-we-lost-the-cover cookbook and looked up muffins. There were two options: Popular Muffins or Sweet Muffins, and a list of add-ins and varieties. Fun!

I thought Popular Muffins sounded good, and dove right into making them.

Mixed up my wet ingredients - egg, oil, milk.

Piled on the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and chocolate chips.

Oh-so-carefully folded everything together until it just, just was combined because if there's one thing that's been drilled into my head about muffins, it's that you'd better not ever over-mix them.

I dished the dough out into a greased 12-muffin pan, and baked according to the directions.

They puffed up tall and pretty and delicious-looking! They tasted... like biscuits. The suggestions in the book made it sound like these would make great berry or fruit muffins, but honestly? They'd work much better with flavors like cheese, or corn.

They aren't inherently bad, really, but they were definitely not what I was looking for. I mean, they were edible. Hubby and I certainly ate them, no use letting decent food go to waste, but they weren't what I wanted a muffin to be.

I guess what constitutes 'popular muffins' has changed somewhat in the last 40-50 years. Huh.

So when I got another muffin craving a few weeks later, this time with guests over for breakfast, I knew the sweet muffins were the way to go.

They started off much the same, with slightly different amounts of oil and milk added to the egg.

And slightly different amounts of flour, baking powder, sugar and salt tossed on top. I still kept the same amount of chocolate chips though.

Folded it all together extra carefully...

Greased my pans and filled them up, and followed the baking directions exactly. Certainly, this time I would have delicious, perfect muffins to serve my guests.

As the timer went off, I gleefully donned my oven mitts, pranced to the oven and threw open the door to reveal -

... Dry, slightly burnt, crunchy, vaguely muffin-like bulgy disc things.

Let me reiterate that I followed the baking directions exactly. Heck, I even timed them for the lowest suggested time just to be on the safe side. Burnt crunchy muffin discs.

I think on that particular day back in the Betty Crocker test kitchens, someone forgot to record how this muffin variation should actually be baked. Just to be clear, the directions they printed were not the correct way.

These poor little muffins tried so hard to be tasty, and you know, with a little butter on there, they almost made it. I only hurt my teeth a bit on the outside. Luckily, I did have a pack of bran muffin mix on hand, so breakfast for my guests was not a complete loss. Phew.

At this point, I was well and truly ready to just swear off muffins from scratch. Far too much trouble, really. Too finicky an item, surely I'd never have it right.

But then the other night, it happened. My tummy had the grumblies, and as I glanced around my humble abode, there were scarce snacks to be found. I knew I had all the makings for muffins, but dare I be so bold as to attempt them again, after such crushing defeat?

Suddenly, I was filled with a steely resolve. This would be the night. This would be the one. The batch of muffins that worked. There were gonna be some changes around here.

I kept the mix the same but changed everything about the directions. 12 muffins? Pfft. This is making 8, tops. Forget carefully-measured dollops filling the cups 2/3 of the way. We're piling all the batter in there we've got.

Next, the original directions called for baking 20-25 minutes at 400 degrees. I should have known from the start that this was insane but, filled with muffin-baking enthusiasm as I was, I had failed to see the signs. Now, older, wiser and more jaded, I knew better.

Just about 19-20 minutes, and only at 350.

I peeked into the oven with some slight trepidation. Despite my initial confidence and bravado (as I baked muffins at 2 AM in my pyjamas) I feared that this, too, would fail, and I would be forever condemned to muffin-less misery.

But what's this? Beautifully rounded little muffins with perfectly golden sides and bottoms? Could it be?

And... the insides are moist and fluffy? The whole thing is sweet and tasty and overall pleasing to the palette?

By Jove, I think we've got it!

Third-Time's-The-Charm Muffins
(Adapted from an old Betty Crocker Cookbook)
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk (I used 1%, but whatever's in your fridge should be fine)
1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chocolate chips (or blueberries, or add-in of your choice)

Whisk together egg, milk and oil. Pile on remaining ingredients, and fold/stir gently until very nearly combined. A slightly chunky batter with a touch of visible flour is much better than a tough muffin.

Divide evenly among 8 greased muffin cups. Bake in 350 degree oven for 19-20 minutes. Remove from pan ASAP to prevent over-browning and allow to cool for a few minutes.


These muffins were so, so good, and part of why I'm so excited about them is now that I've got a basic, simple muffin recipe under my belt, I can start playing and tinkering with it and maybe come up with something new and exciting! I'm thinking apple streusel muffins, lemon cranberry muffins, berry blast muffins - but I better save those for another post.

Definitely give these a go, friends. I know I'll be making them again.

A side note (because I haven't blabbered on nearly enough yet) I went on a small shopping spree at Home Outfitter's today, because a very thoughtful someone gave me a gift card! Well, they gave it to me and my husband, so I could only spend half of it on new baking pans and accessories... But the point is I am super full of ideas for new treats to make and I can't wait to share it all with you guys! You can expect about 1 post per week for the coming month. Next time: probably a birthday cake for a very special lady.

Until then!

- Tamara

Saturday 14 April 2012

Super Duper Double Peanut Butter Cookies

Want to know something that may shock you?

My husband doesn't really like baked goods. He's just not really much of a fan. I had no idea of this when we were first dating... So when I tried to win him over with my cookies that everyone told me were incredible, I expected he'd have a bite, and his eyes would roll up into his head a moment, and that he'd sort of shudder in ecstasy then immediately ask me to marry him.

If I remember correctly, the first time he tried one of my chocolate chip cookies, waaaay back in high school, his reaction was something along the lines of:

"Hm. That's pretty good," and that was it. He... he didn't even ask for a second one. I was stunned. So! My mom and I conspired to have him over for dinner. Mom slaved for hours over an amazing beef stew. Jon sat down, and proceeded to sift through his portion until he had removed every last bit of onion. Then he sort of grudgingly ate what was on his plate.

He wasn't impressed with my cookies and he didn't like my mother's best stew. I was sure it was over. But, somehow, 12 years later, here we are, still together and going strong.

And I finally found a cookie that makes his eyes roll back in his head. So let's get to that!

My microwave is just in the background there, like, 'Hey, how you doing? I'm just so glad to be a part of the blog today. Okay, you can ignore me now. Thanks.'

Start with 1/4 cup each of butter and shortening and a half cup of your favorite peanut butter, and get 'em all friendly-like in your mixing bowl.

Yeah, that looks real friendly.

Chuck in a half cup each of white sugar and brown sugar (I used golden brown sugar here, but this recipe would be amazing with dark brown sugar, I bet! I'll have to try that next time.)

Once your sugars are all creamed in, throw in one large egg, mix it all up.

Pile your flour on top with some baking soda, baking powder and salt, and once that's mixed up you're almost done...

Except we haven't made it 'double' yet. Throw in a half package of Chipits Reese peanut butter chips. Heck, throw in as much as you like, I'm not going to judge.

Now this dough has to hang out in your fridge for at least an hour, because at this stage it is simply way too soft to work with. I know, it's hard, but you can do this.

Once the dough is chilled and firmed up a bit, scoop it out onto your baking pan (use a teaspoon if you're not insane enough to spend $12 on a stainless steel spring-loaded 1-inch scoop, of course.)

Gently press down on the tops of the cookies to flatten them just a smidge before baking. When making PB cookies without chips, I usually use a fork for this to make a pretty pattern, but the chips kind of obliterate the pattern anyway, I've found, so might as well use your nice clean digits instead.

These babies are ready to bake. Chuck 'em in the oven at 375 for about 10 minutes. Ovens vary of course, so keep an eye on them. As soon as they start to go golden-brown a bit around the edges they are done. They'll still be soft and marvelously chewy in the middle, and that is exactly what you want, believe me.

What's this? There was a tiny bit of semi-sweet chocolate chips leftover in the cupboard from a previous baking project? Aw, heck, throw those into the last of the dough, it's a party.

Oh man, look at these babies.

You really, really want to make someone's head explode with peanut buttery pleasure? Spread some peanut butter frosting on the back of one of these and press it to another to make the most astounding pirate cookie in the universe.

Oh my gosh what did I do to the lighting in this picture? I am not good with cameras.

For me, these ones with the peanut butter and chocolate chips in them were my favorite, because I'm a bit of a chocolate freak. And in my books, nothing goes better that peanut butter and chocolate. I didn't get to eat too many of the other kind, my husband kind of found them.

If you want to tempt your own loved ones, here's the recipe, adapted from one of my Great Grandma's ancient cookbooks:

Super-Duper Double Peanut Butter Cookies

1/4 cup shortening
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 large egg
1 1/4 cups flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt (half that if using salted butter)
1 cup peanut butter chips

Combine fats and peanut butter, add sugars and egg, beat with wooden spoon until well combined. Add dry ingredients and mix until soft dough forms. Add peanut butter chips (and any other add-ins that sound good. Peanuts would be great, come to think of it.) 

Chill dough for at least one hour, covered, in the fridge. Place 1-inch balls of dough on baking sheet, flatten a little with fork or fingers, and bake for around 10 minutes or until golden brown around the edges. Cool.

Ingest. Roll eyes in ecstasy.

Until next time!