Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Photo A Day - 365 Project

I'm only a day late at discovering Positively Positive's A Photo A Day Project. Since I'm all about following routines the idea of taking a photograph every day for an entire year, no matter what's going on in my life, appeals to me. I'm also a fan of documenting my life so it'll be fun to look back a year from now to see what I was up to today. I'll get 365 chances to work on improving my photography and photo editing skills so I'm game.

I just so happened to snap a few pictures of myself yesterday so I'm going to post both days 1 and 2 so I'll be on the same time line as Positively Positive. This week's theme is "the many faces of me" so expect to see a lot of close up photos of my (weird) face taken from weird angles.

Day 1

Day 2

If this is something you think you'd enjoy too, visit Positively Positive and join in the fun.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Summertime Cupcake Challenge Wrap Up

Whew! I don't think I've ever baked that many cupcakes in such short span of time! Hoosier Homemade's Summertime Cupcake Challenge has been a real challenge for me not just because of the sheer quantity of cupcakes involved but also because some of the weekly themes took me way out of my comfort zone. It's been a fun ride and a great way to let me relive the fun of my summer just as it's coming to a close.

Things I learned about myself over the course of this competition:
  • I am weird. Not really news to me but this is a new level of weirdness I discovered. My idea of "summertime fun" isn't exactly like everyone else's. Heck, one of my entries involved vampires not of the Twilight variety. Everyone else seems to do normal things like go out to the beach or hit the theater to see a movie with the kids. I suspect I'm part vampire, which is why sunlight and I don't get along, hence no trips to the beach for me. I don't have kids and even if I did I'm not sure I'd go to the theater more often than the three times a year I currently go because I'm so old and curmudgeonly at the age of 28 that I can't stand the other patrons. They ruin the movie-watching experience too much for me. Instead, many of my summertime memories involve being holed up at home in front of the TV or in the seclusion of my backyard garden. Some may call it a sad, solitary life. I call it the freedom to do whatever the heck I want whenever I want while wearing my pajamas because no one's there to see.

  • To me it's the little things that make me happy and add up to memories I enjoy looking back on. Something as simple as treating myself to a root beer float once a year on a hot summer day sticks with me as a fond memory. I hope this doesn't make me seem boring to those of you out there with exciting lives filling your summers with action-packed adventures.

  • There is apparently one (and only one) way to get me to stop eating cupcakes: infect me with the plague. I caught a nasty cold smack dab in the middle of the contest, which threw my baking schedule out of whack and also left me unable to appreciate the cupcakes when I finally got the energy to bake. :( Most of the cupcakes went straight into the freezer because I didn't want to miss out on sampling the goodies I toiled over for hours. Not as good as freshly baked but better than letting my husband eat them all.

  • I'm extremely opinionated about something as silly as cupcakes. The challenge forced me to use an evil cake mix and make frou frouy decorations for my cupcakes, which are things I'd never ordinarily do and duly ranted about in my posts. Who knew I cared so much and had such a philosophy built up about what constitutes a "proper" cupcake? Actually, I have a live and let live about most things that people do and cupcake baking is no exception. This challenge just further cemented my ideas about what works for me in my kitchen.

To recap my fabulous entries (click on the photos for the individual posts):

Week One (Flavor) - Fresh peach cupcakes with mint-infused ricotta white chocolate filling topped with whipped white chocolate ganache and a drizzle of peach simple syrup, all adorned with candied mint leaves

My homage to my flourishing garden and fresh summertime produce. I doubt this challenge would have been half as much fun at any other time of the year if only because of all of the delicious fresh fruit I had to play around with.

Week One Continued - Orange Tea Creamsicle Cupcakes

Ever the overachiever, once I discovered I could enter more than one cupcake I linked these up as well. One of my favorite childhood summertime treats with a grown up flair.

Week Two (Event/Activities) - Eton Mess Cupcakes: Yellow cake filled with fresh macerated strawberries topped with dollops of whipped cream and homemade crisp meringue

An ode to Wimbledon, which captures my imagination and all of my free time for two wondrous weeks in June/July. Incidentally, those also happen to be weeks when the temps start to shoot up so I'm happy camping out in front of the telly taking advantage of the lovely air conditioning.

Week Two Continued - Vampire Cupcakes: Chili-spiced cake with white chocolate chips, a "bloody" cherry pie filling, and cinnamon whipped white chocolate ganache on top

Entry #2 depicting a fun activity I did this summer. Weirdly enough, I'm counting donating blood as fun. This is not only because I felt good doing something to help others but also because the employees at the blood bank were fun to hang out with for the 45 minutes my husband and I were there. Plus I got a free pint of ice cream in exchange for my pint of blood! Yum! (The ice cream, not the blood.)

Week Three (The Dreaded Cake Mix) - Root Beer Float Cupcakes: Spiced root beer cake topped with a rich fudge root beer frosting and a pint-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream

Alright, alright, you twisted my arm and made me use a cake mix for the first time in years. And you know what? It actually turned out well. The spice cake mix combined with the root beer and sassafras flavor created a lovely symphony of flavors and it was all cooled off with that scoop of ice cream. One of my favorite summertime treats in cupcake form.

Week Four (Candy Decorations) - Princess Cake Cupcakes: Sponge cake layered with whipped cream, jam, and pastry cream all topped with a layer of rolled marzipan and adorned with pink marzipan roses

A recreation of the cake I look forward to eating every year for my grandmother's birthday in June. I'd been wanting to make these cupcakes for some time so I'm grateful to this challenge for pushing me to finally do it.

Thanks to Hoosier Homemade for hosting such a fun and challenging challenge!

Vampire Cupcakes

I don't know what it says about me that the first thing I think of when I see a blood bank is vampires. Fortunately I also have an altruistic bone conveniently located right next to my morbid bone so my next thought is usually, "I should go and donate blood."

It's been a while since I last donated blood, which is something I feel guilty about since I think it's an important and easy thing to do for others. Who knows when I or one of my loved ones will need blood? It will only be available if others are generous and donate theirs. When I saw that a local ice cream shop was hosting a mobile blood bank last Sunday with the offer of "a pint for a pint" I knew I had to go. And not just for the free ice cream, although that was a lovely bonus. Surely I could spare an hour of my time and a few days of recovery to help out others.

You may be wondering what a post about donating blood has to do with Hoosier Homemade's theme of "summertime fun." Maybe I don't get out of the house often enough or maybe that pint of raspberry truffle ice cream went straight to my head, but I actually had fun there. The folks working the blood drive were great, they were fun to hang out with, and they made the process easy and relatively painless. I went home feeling good about myself and with a free pint of ice cream to boot. Ice cream and bloodletting - is there a better summertime combination?

I found some fun ad campaigns online from the Red Cross featuring vampires, so I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who makes that connection. My "blood"-filled cupcakes are a tribute to anyone who shares my morbid sense of humor and I've included little printouts of some of those ad posters to help get the word out about donating blood. The chocolate vampire bats are made from chili chocolate melted and piped into bat shapes.

The cupcakes themselves are a chili-spiced cake with white chocolate chips, a "bloody" cherry pie filling, and cinnamon whipped white chocolate ganache on top.

White Chocolate Chili Cupcakes
Recipe adapted from 125 Best Cupcake Recipes by Julie Hasson

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle chili pepper powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 egg
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup white chocolate chips

1) Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 12 cupcake wells with paper liners.
2) In a small bowl, mix together flour, chili powder, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt.
3) In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, melted butter, and egg until smooth.
4) Alternately whisk flour mixture and buttermilk into the sugar mixture, making three additions of flour mixture and two of buttermilk, beating until smooth. Mix in chocolate chips.
5) Scoop into prepared pan and bake for 22 to 27 minutes or until tops of cupcakes spring back when lightly touched. Cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool completely on rack.

Whipped White Chocolate Ganache
Recipe adapted from Vanilla Garlic

12 ounces white chocolate (good quality)
3/4 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-3 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt

1) Chop chocolate and transfer to a heat proof bowl.
2) Heat cream until bubbles form around the edge of the pan. Pour cream over the chocolate.
3) Let sit for 1 minute then stir until combined.
4) Add butter and vanilla to the chocolate and stir until combined.
5) Whisk together sugar, cinnamon, and salt in another bowl until combined.
6) Pour the sugar mixture onto the chocolate mixture, then stir until combined and smooth.
7) Let sit at room temperature until thickened, about 2 hours.
8) Beat with an electric mixer until fluffy.

Note: Keep close watch as this can suddenly separate.

To Assemble

3/4 cup cherry pie filling

1) In a blender, pulse cherry pie filling a few seconds until large cherries are broken up.
2) Using the cone method, cut out cones and fill cavity with cherry pie filling. Replace top of cone and pipe on white chocolate ganache.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Car Trash Bag From One Yard Wonders

This is my car:

It is my dream car, one I coveted for nearly ten years before I finally saved up enough money to buy one for myself. As you can see, it is the spiffiest car in the world and needs no improvement.

Well, except for that pesky issue of the interior. You know, the place where you'll find empty Tic Tac boxes, gas receipts, and three-week-old JoAnn Fabrics sale papers strewn about the place. Oh, and these guys:

(That was thrown in there to make you think I'm super cool.)

Evidence of my enduring love for Doctor Who aside, the interior of my car clearly needs some help. Enter One Yard Wonders' Not Ugly Car Trash Bag. Just what I need to help keep my mess in check while not sullying my beautiful car with some sort of unattractive trash receptacle. I've had this project in the works for months with the fabric all picked out and ready to go, but it wasn't until Finny Knits chose it as July/August's sew along project that I finally got my butt in gear. Even then you may notice that I waited until the very last week of the two months allotted. My trash bag and I are just arriving fashionably late.

The pattern's one of those simple ones that makes you say, "why didn't I think of that myself?" To be honest, you probably don't even need the book for this one but if you like following instructions as much as I do you'll be happy to not have to wing it. I really don't have any special tips on this one as the pattern and instructions say it all. If you want to recreate the magic yourself, the cupcake fabric can be found at Jo-Ann Fabrics.

I only made three small and utterly unnecessary changes:
  • Mine is a tad bit longer than the pattern called for because I didn't want to waste the 2" strip of fabric that would have been left after cutting and figured I could use the extra space for trash instead.

  • I made the straps out of the same fabric as the binding both because I think it looks nice and because I didn't want to use up more of my pricey cupcake fabric.

  • I substituted a cheaper type of clasp for the parachute buckle. The price difference wasn't astronomical but I'm a cheap German who will pinch pennies whenever possible. I'd made one of these in the past for my husband with the cheaper option and have had no problems. It's not as if we're weighing the darn thing down with dead bodies or some such. I think the cheaper clasp can handle a few magazines and receipts.

So it's another success story brought to you by One Yard Wonders. Now I have yet another reason to smile when I see my car in the mornings. Yes, I actually do that. My car makes me happy in ways you can't even imagine if you've never owned a Mini.

Princess Cake Cupcakes

Even though it's fairly obvious who's going to win Hoosier Homemade's Summertime Cupcake Challenge I figured I might as well see it through to the bitter end. More like a sweet end because cupcakes are involved but you know what I mean. The final week's theme was to use candy to decorate some summer-themed cupcakes.

Faithful readers of my blog may have noticed that I tend to focus more on the flavor of my cupcakes than on how they look. While I do put some effort into making them look appealing, I rarely take the time to do anything more elaborate than a little garnish or sprinkles. I guess my cupcake philosophy is that I'd rather my cupcakes taste good than look exquisite. I hardly see the point in laboring over intricate decorations that will be admired for a second and then cast aside so the cupcake eater can get to the actual cupcake. If it's going to distract from the taste of my cupcake I don't want it on there. So for this leg of the competition I wanted my candy decoration to not only tie into and enhance the flavor of the cupcake but also to be as edible and enjoyable as the cupcake itself.

For the past few years, every June I and most of my extended family have converged upon the Monterey/Carmel area of California to celebrate my grandmother's latest birthday. We all know we're lucky to still have her around and so healthy at the age of 97 (and counting) so it's a real cause for celebration and a great occasion to get everyone together. While the family time is an important part of the trip, another part I look forward to is our visit to a local bakery there that specializes in Princess Cakes. If you've never had a Princess Cake you are truly missing out. Sponge cake layered with pastry cream, whipped cream, and jam all topped with one of my favorite foods: marzipan. Doesn't get any better than that!

These cupcakes attempt to recreate the goodness of a Princess Cake in cupcake form. It's traditional to top the cake with pastel green marzipan, adorn it with pink marzipan flowers, and wrap a beautiful ribbon around the base of the cake. Marzipan is one of my favorite candies so I was all too happy to garnish my cupcakes with mini marzipan roses. I looked forward to eating the garnish just as much as I looked forward to eating the cupcakes.

Following Bakerella's tutorial for rolled roses I tinted a portion of my marzipan pink and shaped strips into cute little roses. I may have sampled one or two along the way merely as part of the testing process.

I'm lucky/spoiled enough to have Princess Cake flavoring (sold by King Arthur Flour) so I replaced the vanilla called for in 125 Best Cupcake Recipes' "Princess Cupcakes" recipe with that for a hint of almond, vanilla, and citrus flavors. To create mini Princess Cakes I lopped off the top of each cupcake and flipped it over so each cake would have a wide base with a tapered top.

Then I sliced each cupcake in half and applied large dollops of whipped cream and jam.

After reassembling and topping each cupcake with a generous spoonful of pastry cream they were ready to be coated in marzipan. The marzipan was tinted green to resemble a traditional Princess Cake, rolled out, and draped over each cupcake. It was my first time working with a fondant-like covering so I did have a little trouble smoothing it all out but I eventually whipped it into shape. Any fussy spots could also be covered by the ribbon, which serves the dual purpose of looking pretty and hiding all manner of ills.

The roses were attached by making a small indentation in the top of each cupcake filled with a drop of whipped cream to help keep the rose in place. Until you're ready to devour yours, of course, because this is one decoration you won't want to set aside!

Princess Cupcakes
Recipe adapted from 125 Best Cupcake Recipes by Julie Hasson

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
6 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 egg whites
1 tsp Princess Cake Flavor OR 1 tsp vanilla plus 1/4 tsp almond extract
1 cup buttermilk

1) Preheat oven to 350 F and line 12 cupcake wells with paper liners.
2) In a small bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
3) In a bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together sugar and butter until well combined. Add egg whites, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. Alternately beat in flour mixture and buttermilk, making three additions of flour mixture and two additions of buttermilk. Beat until combined.
4) Scoop batter into prepared pan. Bake 22 to 27 minutes or until tops of cupcakes spring back when lightly touched. Let cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and cool completely on rack.

Cream Filling
Recipe adapted from Food Network

1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup heavy cream
Granulated sugar

1) Bring the milk and vanilla bean to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Remove from heat and let sit for 10 minute.
2) Whisk the eggs, cornstarch, sugar, and salt in a bowl until smooth. Add half of the milk into the bowl containing the eggs, whisking constantly, then return the mixture to the saucepan containing the remaining milk, whisking over moderate heat.
3) Continue whisking until the mixture thickens. Continue to cook, whisking constantly, for an additional 2 minutes. Transfer into another bowl, cover surface with plastic wrap, and allow to cool completely.
4) Whip heavy cream and sugar (to taste). Fold into the cooled pastry cream and refrigerate, covered, until chilled (approximately one hour).

To Assemble

1/2 cup heavy cream
Granulated sugar
1 1/2 pounds marzipan*
1/4 cup jam (apricot or raspberry is traditional but any type will work)
Red/pink food coloring
Green food coloring

1) Whip heavy cream and sugar (to taste).
2) Remove the paper liners from cupcakes, cut the top off of each cupcake, and flip over. Cut each in half horizontally and spread a small spoonful of whipped cream and jam onto each bottom layer. Replace top and spoon a scant tablespoon of pastry cream on top of each.
3) Tint approx. four ounces of marzipan pink and shape into roses.
4) Tint the remaining marzipan green, divide and roll out into a thin layer (1/10"). You may need to use confectioners' sugar on your rolling surface and rolling pin. Drape over the cupcake, smoothing wrinkles by hand, and trim excess marzipan off around the base. Wrap a length of ribbon around the base and secure with tape. With your finger, make a small indentation in the top of the cupcake, add a dab of whipped cream, and press a pink rose into place. Pipe additional whipped cream as decoration if desired.

* As this will be ridiculously expensive, a cheaper but less pretty option would be to cut a cone out of the cooled cupcakes, fill with pastry cream and jam, then replace cone and top with whipped cream and a disc of marzipan.