Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas Party

I used to have an annual Christmas cocktail party every December 22nd (actually the first year it was the 23rd, but the hangover on Christmas Eve proved to be something I did not want to repeat year after year). Last year, for various reasons, I didn't end up having the party. This year, I wanted to reincarnate the party in a much smaller, tamer version.

Mini vanilla cupcakes

Even though the party was smaller, that does not mean that I held back on the desserts or food. As I was setting up the table with cookies and cupcakes before any guests had arrived, I realized I had made enough food for 4 times the amount of guests I was expecting.

Chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter

I had prepared my cookie doughs the week before and stored them in the fridge. Whenever I had time in the week leading up to the party, I would throw a couple batches of cookies in the oven and store them in Tupperware.

Sugar cookies

This year I made a few of my favorite "classic" Christmas cookies: chocolate chip (perfected over many, many tested recipes), oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, and the sugar cookies I wrote about in the last post. I also made mini vanilla cupcakes in festive liners from left over batter I had from an order last week.

It wouldn't be a party with just desserts (ok...maybe it would be) so I also made a Christmas punch (a blend of pomegranate juice, cranberry juice, pineapple vodka, and seltzer) and some assorted hors d'oeurves. The biggest hit seemed to be cocktail hotdogs wrapped in bacon and baked in dark brown sugar. It sounds weird, but it was really, really good.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Finally - a Cookie Success!

The first time I attempted to make iced sugar cookies, it was a total disaster. I quickly got frustrated and abandoned the whole project. I've been admiring these beautiful sugar cookies on blogs like My Sweet and Saucy and A Dozen Eggs, and mine looked like a preschool arts & crafts project.

Bit of a flooding issue

That was over the summer. Cookies have always been a challenge for me, and with this holiday season, I've been determined to produce beautiful and great tasting cookies. After trying countless chocolate chip cookie recipes (and forcing the results on my coworkers), I've finally found a recipe that produces my idea of the perfect chocolate chip cookie - soft, chewy and thick.

Christmas Trees

After I worked out that battle, the next challenge was to revisit the sugar cookies. I decided to go into it with a plan, drawing out each of the 3 cookie designs I wanted to make, and accepted that it was going to be a very time-consuming project that required a lot of patience. Overall, it went pretty smoothly. Except when on my first batch, the gingerbread people, the brown royal icing flooded out of the top of my pastry bag, all over my counter and floor. Two gingerbread men were lost in the process...

Pretty snowflake

Aside from that initial hiccup, the rest, although really time-consuming, came out really nice. I plan on serving these cookies for my holiday party I'm hosting on Friday, and I think I'm going to make a second batch when I go home for Christmas.

I took these pictures with my iPhone, so while the quality is great for a phone camera, overall it is a bit lacking. Have I mentioned how much I love my new phone my brother gave me for my birthday? I downloaded the Epicurious app and browse recipes on the bus ride home from work - it's really perfect.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bridal Shower Cupcakes

Last weekend, I was asked to make the cupcakes for my friend Lauren's cousin's bridal shower. Melissa, the bride-to-be, is also the one who ordered the space-themed cupcakes the other week for her fiance.

I made three dozen cupcakes in chocolate, vanilla, and red velvet. All of the cupcakes were frosted in vanilla buttercream. The colors on the shower invitation were sage green and cream. For the chocolate and vanilla, I dyed the frosting sage green, but I didn't think the green looked good on the red cupcakes so I kept it cream-colored.

For the top of each cupcake, I made gold blossom flowers and gold hearts that had the monogram 'M' inside them. I thought the overall look was understated, yet elegant - perfect for a bridal shower.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Thanksgiving - A Bit Delayed

It now feels like we're close to Christmas and Thanksgiving is well in the past, but I had some pictures from the desserts I made that I wanted to share. The dessert menu started off even more ambitious, but when I realized we were only having nine people for dinner, I scaled it back so that everyone didn't have to eat two whole pies each.

The whiskey apple pie

On the menu was apple pie (my favorite recipe from the Baked cookbook), salted caramel ice cream, and pumpkin cupcakes. Apple pie is my favorite type of pie (and apparently my father's least favorite). This was the very first time I made my own pie crust, and I'm not sure why I haven't tried it sooner. As long as you have a food processor, it's so easy. The Baked pie recipe calls for a tablespoon of whiskey, so on the morning of Thanksgiving, I had the bottle of Scotch out on the counter. Every single person who came down the stairs felt the need to question me whether that was what I was drinking for breakfast.

Salted caramel with salted caramel ice cream

I almost tossed the ice cream after I cooked the custard on the stove. It seemed lumpy and like it was not going to turn into a good finished product. My mom convinced me to just strain it one more time and put it in
the ice cream machine (one of my favorite impulse purchases we've ever made). Moms are so smart. After coming out of the machine, it was a really beautiful texture - very smooth and rich. I made it with a salted caramel I had made the day before (also from the Baked cookbook). There was extra caramel sauce left, and everyone ended up pouring it over all of the desserts.

Pumpkin cupcakes

The pumpkin cupcakes were as delicious a
s they always are. I had really wanted to make all the desserts for Thanksgiving. At one point, I was even talking about making the chocolates that we serve with fruit course, but that plan had to be scrapped when I realized there was just not enough time to do everything, especially since I was going out to the bars Wednesday night. My dad apparently didn't know the plan was for me to make everything, and he ordered a cheesecake from someone who was selling them at his work. All throughout the dinner, I talked trash about the cheesecake. By the time dessert came, no one would touch it, I think out of fear that I would throw a fit at the table. I ended up feeling bad that the only person who ate a slice was my dad, but fortunately my mom was able to reserve it a couple nights later at a holiday gathering she had. Sorry, Dad! For Christmas don't be ordering any outsider cakes!!

My sister with a cupcake - Meliss, you finally made the blog!
(Eric, hold your comments)

Monday, November 30, 2009

My 25th Birthday Party

Mini pumpkin cupcakes

On November 17, I turned the age that when I was much younger I considered to be officially "old" - twenty-five. I was not psyched to be passing this age milestone, so I decided to deal with it in my favorite way - plan a big party. With the party to look forward to, I happily started planning all of the details of the party - most notably the desserts.

Center of the top cake tier

I decided I really wanted a birthday cake - like a big birthday cake. I've been really wanting a Wall-E shaped cake, but decided it didn't really fit with the theme I was going for. The color scheme was purple - my favorite color, and I decided to go all out.

Top chocolate cake tier

From the outer space order I did, I used the remaining pumpkin spice batter to make two dozen mini cupcakes in bright purple liners. Once I topped them with cream cheese frosting, I sprinkled them with purple sugar.

Cakes chilling in the refrigerator with the party beverages

The next piece of this was the cake. I baked a 6 inch chocolate cake that I filled with chocolate frosting and chopped Reese's. I then covered it with more chocolate frosting. The 9 inch cake was vanilla bean, frosted and filled with vanilla frosting. After refrigerating both cakes, I covered them in a lavender fondant. The cakes were then refrigerated again. I stacked them using wooden dowels as support in the 9 inch cake. Then I painted the cakes with an edible sparkly paint and wrapped a darker purple ribbon around the bottoms of both cakes.

Sugar cookies set up on the table

I also made some sugar cookies cut into circles. These were iced with royal icing and covered in purple sugar. Everything came out really well and looked really nice set up. The party was as much of a success as the desserts were.

Side view of the table

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

These Cupcakes Were Out of This World

White chocolate spaceships

Really terrible subject line, I know, but the second order I had last week was for five dozen assorted flavors for a surprise 30th birthday party. The birthday boy is apparently a big fan of all things outerspace related, so I brainstormed with his fiance to come up with cupcakes to reflect this. She was able to find a chocolate mold online of tiny spaceships, and I used this to make white chocolate rockets.
Box of space cupcakes
The flavors of the cupcakes were red velvet, cookie dough, chocolate Oreo, vanilla, and pumpkin spice. On the pumpkin and vanilla, I piped a swirl of dark blue frosting and sprinkled some edible gold glitter and silver dragees over top before putting on the spaceships. I thought these looked pretty cool, although again I had the same issue with the edible glitter migrating all over my face when I accidentally touched it. I looked like Edward stepping into the sun (geeky Twilight reference there...).

Close up of the space cupcakes

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Crazy Week & My First Wedding Order

Last week was absolutely insane. My birthday was Tuesday, and in addition to being incredibly busy in my real job, I had two orders to bake, one of my favorite coworker's going away party, and my own birthday party on Saturday. Over the course of Wednesday through Friday, I baked almost 250 cupcakes, a two tier cake, and 2 dozen sugar cookies. My to-do list was 3 pages long, but somehow I got it all done.

Close up of the cupcakes

The first order I had was for a wedding - the first wedding I've baked for aside from my aunt's. It was 150 cupcakes to be given as the favor. Half were red velvet with white cream cheese frosting and the other half were vanilla with chocolate frosting dyed black. Silver, white, and black dragees were sprinkled over all of cupcakes.

My apartment was overrun with cupcakes

These didn't take me nearly as long to bake as I expected. The most time-consuming aspect was individually boxing each cupcake. Each needed to be "glued" to the bottom of the clear plastic box and then tied with a ribbon and the favor tag. Fortunately, I had an all-star help team consisting of the bride's sister Linda, who I had done the fiesta order for back in May, and her cousin Andrea. They were such a huge help, and I can't even imagine if I had to tie all those boxes without their help.

Individual cupcake favor

I can't wait to see the pictures from the set up at the wedding and will hopefully be posting them here if I get them.

Monday, November 16, 2009

White Chocolate Mocha Cupcakes

Last weekend I was home for the weekend with both of my siblings, and when I couldn't come up with a new type of cupcake to make, my sister Melissa suggested one based off her favorite Starbuck's drink - a white chocolate mocha. It was the best suggestion I had, so I went with that.

The frosting started out looking more like batter before I changed strategy

I didn't bother looking up a recipe for it; I've started to really enjoy coming up with my own recipes. Most cake recipes stem from the same base - 3 cups of flour, 2 cups of sugar and a cup of butter. It makes it easy to remember. To this base, I added several teaspoons of instant espresso powder and a couple tablespoons of cocoa powder. I also brewed some coffee (using my parents Tassimo that I want to steal) and used half coffee half milk as the liquid ingredient. I kept sniffing the batter to see if the coffee scent was strong enough. Which led me to keep adding more espresso powder. Next time I'd cut back on the espresso powder by a couple teaspoons - one of these cupcakes could have you up for days.

Wish I had red wrappers for these to mimic the Starbuck's red cups I love
during winter!

For the frosting, I wanted to use the frosting I made for the Whiteout Cupcakes. I don't know what happened to the recipe (I think it had something to do with the fact that apparently half and half is not half milk/half heavy cream), but it did not come out right initially. I ended up adapting it into a typical buttercream frosting and added melted white chocolate. The final touch was a sprinkling of cinnamon (credit for that idea goes to Melissa - I've never ordered the drink at Starbuck's, but apparently that's how the drink is served).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cookies are Hard

Started out so promising

I don't know what it is about cookies. No matter what recipe I use, they almost always turn out poorly. I just want to make cookies that look like they're from a magazine or cookbook. Instead they turn out looking super flat and sad.

Less than stellar results

I was on a cookie kick the other week. I don't know what it was. I make great-looking cupcakes, and I just don't understand why I can't do cookies. Determined to make the perfect chocolate chip M&M cookies, I started with a recipe that I found on Martha Stewart. The recipe called for all butter, no shortening. I did exactly what the recipe said - mixed everything together correctly, chilled the dough for the right amount of time, and baked for exactly how long the recipe told me to. It was looking promising...until I looked into the oven and saw my beautifully formed cookies and turned into a cookie pancake.

Better results round 2

Determined to overcome my cookie inabilities, I picked the highest ranked chocolate chip cookie recipe on Epicurious and decided to make those. This recipe had half butter and half shortening. I guess it made a big difference because these cookies did not flatten out. I still wasn't 100% satisfied with these cookies. I would have liked if they had a more buttery flavor. I think I still need to tinker with the shortening to butter ratio.

Another surprise cookie package

Monday, November 2, 2009

Another Perfect Fall Cupcake: Caramel Apple

Apples are one of the reasons I love fall so much. I know they're available all year round, but autumn has things like apple cider and caramel apples. Last year I had made caramel apple cupcakes, but I wasn't 100% happy with it. While looking for apple cake recipes this year, I kept coming across ones that essentially used an applesauce as the source of apple in the cake. I finally found one that sounded interesting that had you grate the apples and then caramelize them in a saucepan with butter and brown sugar. I made note that it was the recipe I wanted to use and exited the page. A couple days later when I was trying to figure out where the recipe was that I found, I could not remember what website it was on for the life of me. I still have been unable to find it, and I'm not entirely sure that I didn't dream this recipe.

Butter & brown sugar in the skillet

Working off that, I went about caramelizing the grated apples (I used Gala apples). I used my pumpkin spice recipe to work off. First I melted the butter in the pan and mixed in the brown sugar. I should have let the mixture caramelize a bit more, but it came out pretty well. The texture of the cake was really moist and less muffin-like than the one I made last year.

Grated apple after cooking it on the stove

For the frosting, I first made my own caramel and let it cool, I used it to make caramel frosting. I used the remaining caramel to swirl on top of the frosting. The caramel frosting complimented the apple cake really nicely. I'm hoping I have an excuse to make these again this autumn.

Finished cupcakes

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween Cookie Packages

One of the things I love the most is receiving surprises in the mail. Whether it's a card, something I purchased and forgot about, or a new magazine, it really brightens my day. When I was in college, I would make my mom send me boxes of surprises several times a semester. I really loved opening up the box and finding usually a mix of things I needed and asked her to send plus some unexpected items. Unfortunately, it feels like all I ever get is bills and junk mail, and I'm sure this is the case for most people.

I forgot to take pictures of the actual cookies, but this is a packaged bundle of cookies

The other week, I mixed up a batch of monster cookies from the Baked cookbook. Monster cookies are sort of a hybrid of oatmeal, peanut butter, M&M, and chocolate chip cookies. It's an everything but the kitchen sink cookie. I know I've mentioned how complicated and tricky the Baked recipes can be, and this was another one that was just truly baffling. When I was looking over the ingredient list, it seemed like a large quantity of ingredients (5 cups of oatmeal!), but the recipe said that it made 36 cookies. So I went ahead and made the full batch, and ended up with almost more dough than could fit in my mixer bowl. I immediately took half and froze it - that's still in my freezer in case I need a spontaneous batch of cookies one day. The other half needed to chill in the freezer for 5 hours, so I planned on keeping it there overnight and baking the cookies the next day. Then I got the flu and my plan was put off until I was noncontagious. Flu cookies are not the type of surprise people like to receive in the mail.

Melissa & Joe's package

Once I was successfully over the flu (regular, not swine), I pulled the cookie dough out of the refrigerator and began baking. These cookies turned out really beautifully. Me and cookies have major issues usually. As easy as cupcakes are to me, cookies are the polar opposite. That's the thing about the Baked cookbook - the recipes are truly difficult, but if done correctly, they make beautiful things (if done incorrectly, you end up with a ganache flecked with large visible chunks of butter). Once these baked and cooled, I wrapped them in plastic wrap and then tissue paper and packaged them to go out. One box went to my sister and her boyfriend (who will never be receiving anything from me again because he complained they weren't cupcakes!), another to my friend Vica, and a third to my brother's girlfriend Meghann. I would have sent one to my brother, but I knew he wouldn't have eaten anything in the box. In addition to the cookies, I threw some other Halloween-related items in there, including glow bracelets, which have to be one of my favorite things in the world.

Meghann's box

While these cookies came out great, later on that week I wasn't as lucky. I'll be posting the pictures soon of my failed M&M cookies.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

7th Birthday Cupcakes

When I was a kid, one of my favorite people in the whole world was my cousin Laura. She and my Aunt Jeanne Marie (whose wedding cake I just did last month) always let me hang out with them, even though I was 13 years younger than them.

A few weeks ago, Laura contacted me to see if I could make cupcakes for her daughter's 7th birthday. I can't believe she has a 7 year old already!!! I feel like I was just 7, hanging out with her and my aunt.

For her birthday, she wanted chocolate cake with frosting and "girly" decorations in her favorite colors - purple, green and blue. When I went to get started on the fondant decorations, I realized that all of my flower cutters were at my parent's house. Fortunately, I had just bought a set of butterfly cutters that I had at my apartment. I cut out butterflies from the purple fondant I rolled and also hand cut 7's. To add a little extra shine, I painted them with a purple luster dust paint (luster dust mixed with
lemon extract).

I dyed the vanilla buttercream green and blue and piped it into a swirl on the cupcakes. I sprinkled on
some tiny silver dragees and placed the butterflies and 7's on them. Considering I had almost no tools to work with, I was really pleased with the way these turned out.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cupcake Travels: Philadelphia

I love eating cupcakes that were not baked by me. Don't get me wrong; I think my cupcakes are absolutely the best, but sometimes it's nice just to go to a counter, order a cupcake, and be able to eat it immediately rather than the time and effort it takes to make my own.

If you read my posts about my trip to Australia, you know that whenever I travel somewhere, I research every bakery in the area I could possibly visit. Now, my friends have grown accustomed to this and preempt my search by sending me any bakery
news they come across. A few days before my trip to Philly in early October, my friend Vica (also my travel partner when in Australia) forwarded me a Daily Candy email about a new bakery that just opened, Flying Monkey Deuce. The bakery's online menu was amazing - there were so many flavors and I couldn't wait to try them all (or at least most of them).

Loved the tiny adornments - look at the flower on the raspberry!

On the Sunday of my visit, Vica and I took the long trek from my brother's apartment to Flying Monkey Deuce. We were a bit disappointed that there was a very limited selection of cupcakes left. It was about 2:00 in the afternoon, so I guess a morning rush had wiped out most of the available cupcakes. There were still a few to choose from and we selected vanilla/vanilla, chocolate/vanilla, chocolate/strawberry, and vanilla/raspberry.

Cupcakes cut up and ready to be sampled

The actual bakery itself was adorable. It was very retro and homey feeling. Not to mention they had this great connecting garden to the bakery where you could enjoy your cupcakes. As for the cupcakes themselves, I was a big fan of the vanilla cake. It was really moist and vanilla-y. I find vanilla cake to be the trickiest for bakeries to get right, and this was one of the best I've had. The strawberry buttercream (all their frostings were either an Italian or Swiss Meringue buttercream) was my favorite. I wasn't a huge fan of the chocolate cake; it was a bit dry. This is a bakery I would definitely recommend to my friends in Philadelphia, and I'm looking forward to visiting again (and hopefully getting to sample more flavors)!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

I Love Fall (And Apparently Pumpkin)

I know I've been negligent with my blogging lately; things have been very busy for me and hopefully within the next few weeks, I'll have a very exciting announcement to make which will explain partially what I've been up to.

My baking rack is set up for Halloween - I love those cake plates Kate gave me

With that out of the way, last week I made pumpkin spice cupcakes. Having never had pumpkin anything before, I was fairly confidant that I wouldn't like pumpkin, so I decided to make these to bring to work. With such frequent baking, it's hard to avoid gaining weight and I'm trying to do the best I can. Thus, I figured it would be best to make something I wouldn't be tempted to eat 10 of. This plan clearly backfired because pumpkin is apparently delicious. I know I've said this before, but I really think these were the best cupcakes I've ever made.

In the cupcake carrier

The cupcakes were a pumpkin spice cake I adapted from this Martha recipe. I paired it with a simple cream cheese frosting. While these were in the oven, my entire kitchen smelled like fall, which is my favorite season. The cake was incredibly moist, which probably has something to do with the pumpkin. It was a really wet batter, which I was initially concerned about, but it baked beautifully. You can bet these will be on my table for Thanksgiving this year.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My Aunt's Wedding Party - Part 2

When I woke up the Saturday morning (at the crack of dawn because the kids were running around), I discovered my aunt had left the window open in the kitchen, and the freezing cold night/morning air had dried out the cupcakes a bit (initially I thought they might be frozen). This was a little disappointing, but they weren't too bad. I mixed some cream cheese frosting, covered the cake in it, and then rolled out white fondant to cover the cake with. The fondant amused my cousins to no end; I gave them each a small piece to play with. I think I may have inspired some future bakers. I really need practice when it comes to covering cakes in fondant. There was a pretty large crease in the back of the cake. Given that this was only my 3rd attempt at a fondant-covered cake though, I'd say it wasn't too bad.

After the cake was covered, I set it aside and piped the frosting onto the cupcakes. On each cupcake, I placed one of the flowers I had made the night before. Then, I painted the cake with sparkly white luster dust and "glued" on the flowers and S with royal icing. Overall, the cake did not come out looking too bad. As long as you were looking at it from the right angle (the back was sort of a mess).

One thing I would do over would be to pipe a ring of buttercream around the edge of the cake layers before filling it with the mousse, which was way too soft and got squeezed out of the cake with each additional layer that was put on top. I should have thought to do this in the first place. I also can't wait to take a class to improve my fondant capabilities. I'd love to do more cakes in addition to cupcakes.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Aunt's Wedding Party - Part 1

This past weekend, my aunt threw a party to celebrate her recent marriage. She and her husband had a tiny ceremony in North Carolina with just the two of them and my aunt's two kids, so she wanted to have a larger party to celebrate with her friends and family. I immediately offered to bake the cake and cupcakes. After work on Friday, I made the very long, traffic-ridden journey out to Effort, PA where she lives. If you've never been there, it's really quite an experience. When she asked where I was en route, my response was "Well I just passed a fireworks store and an ammo supply shop."

My painting workstation

My aunt is not a baker and her kitchen is virtually devoid of any baking equipment or ingredients. Earlier in the week, I had given her a grocery list of things I would need, and I brought a few things of my own like a mixer and fondant. Unfortunately, shortly after I began baking, my mixer spazzed out and broke. I was pleasantly surprised when my aunt pulled out her own hand mixer. I don't know what I would have done if she didn't have one. Mix things by hand? How did people bake before the introduction of motors for mixers?

Close-up of the flowers

The first thing to go into the oven was a 6 inch round vanilla cake. I set aside the leftover vanilla batter, mixed some chocolate, and prepared the marble cupcakes. Once the cake was cooling and the marble cupcakes were in the oven, I began mixing one of my favorites - red velvet. I've talked here before about my love of red velvet; to me it's such a classic, awesome flavor. In the event that I one day get married myself, I want a red velvet cake or cupcakes (baked by me of course). My younger cousins were shocked to see the bright red batter though. After declaring it looked like something off a horror movie set, I don't think I would have been able to bribe them to eat it.

Unfrosted cake - the filling spilling out

After everything was baked and set aside, I rolled out some fondant and cut the flowers that would adorn the cake and cupcakes. To expedite the process, my aunt painted them with a sapphire-colored luster dust while I "glued" on the edible pearl centers. Her new last name begins with 'S' (as did her former last name), and she requested a monogram on the cake. I formed the S out of a rolled snake of fondant, set it aside to dry, and painted that with the luster dust as well. After filling the cake with chocolate mousse I had prepared earlier and fresh raspberries, I covered it with plastic wrap and stored it for the night in the refrigerator.

This post is pretty long, so I'm going to split it into two and post the rest tomorrow. To be continued...

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