Monday, October 31, 2011

Peanut Butter and Jelly Cupcakes

Peanut butter jelly time, peanut butter jelly time, peanut butter, jelly, peanut butter, jelly, peanut butter, jelly... Family Guy anyone? Or at least I think that's from Family Guy. It's ok, I don't watch it either, but I've heard that somewhere before. First, let me start with the photos. A lovely friend of mine recently purchased for me a portable photo studio as an early birthday gift and these cupcakes were my first guinea pig in trying it out. I think they came out pretty well, especially since it came with no instructions. Practice will surely make perfect, right?

I should also apologize for being a day late with my post. You may or may not be aware of the massive snow storm that came through Connecticut this weekend. We were one of the fortunate ones to not lose power and to not have any significant damage to our home. However, some of our friends lost power and still don't have it back, so we've been taking people in so they have a warm place to sleep and hot water to shower. Needless to say things have been a little busy around the house and my office has been monopolized by house guests. Right now the house is currently empty, except for Rollins who's sleeping on the couch (gotta love a full day of doggy daycare) so I'm trying to make the most of my free time tonight before everyone comes back.

So, moving on to what's featured in my pictures... peanut butter and jelly cupcakes. These cupcakes are the last in the first section of the cookbook so I was excited to make them for many reasons. One, because I feel like I've reached a milestone in my project in the fact that I've completed the first section. Two, Bobby's favorite thing in the whole world is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Yes, he may be 30 years old, but he could eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (or pizza) everyday and be completely happy with that. So, I was excited to see how my peanut butter and jelly sandwich expert would like peanut butter and jelly cupcakes.

Before I started baking I remembered to leave out everything that had to be at room temperature before I started working. I also read through the entire recipe. My first order of business was chopping the peanuts, which is rather difficult considering that peanuts are pretty small (I also ended up using honey roasted because I can't read. But I will swear that when I put them in my shopping cart, the package said dry roasted). But, I did manage to successfully chop the peanuts without successfully chopping off any of my fingers. Hooray. After chopping the peanuts all the hard work was pretty much done.

Similar to these applesauce-spice cupcakes, the batter for these cupcakes was also quite thick so I wasn't able to use my pour-by-Pyrex method for the second week in a row. Very depressing. Again I used a tablespoon and spooned about 1 1/2 tablespoons into each cupcake liner. All the cupcakes came out pretty perfectly and I only yielded 2 less cupcakes than the recipe said I would. Both batches of cupcakes were baked for 22 minutes with a turn halfway through the baking time. They came out perfectly with this amount of baking time. Golden brown, and just the right size.

Time for the frosting, and a new one to make at that! Double win! These cupcakes called for creamy peanut butter frosting, doesn't that sound delicious and fattening? This frosting wasn't too difficult to make (and I got to use my stand mixer) but I did have a moment of panic when I was afraid the heavy cream wasn't going to turn into medium-firm peaks. It took a little longer than normal and I nervously stared at it every few minutes wondering if it was ever going to firm up, and what my back-up plan would be if it didn't. Luckily, my whisk and mixer started doing their thing and I had peaks! I folded the whipped cream into the peanut butter-cream cheese mixture to finish everything off. The frosting wasn't as thick as I thought it would be and it was actually quite spreadable. For the finishing touch each cupcake got a little dollop of strawberry preserves. I went with preserves instead of jelly because I like that preserves have little chunks of strawberry in them.

To be honest, from the start I didn't think I would like these cupcakes. Not because I'm not a fan of peanut butter and jelly, because I am, but because I had a feeling these would be pretty dense and pretty peanut buttery cupcakes... I was right. I think I would have liked them more if the frosting was a little sweeter. I kept tasting it as I was adding each ingredient while making it, waiting for the sweetness to emerge and I got nothing. I didn't try a completed cupcake until I took the pictures and I still had the same issue. I needed more sweetness. I had one bite and didn't eat any more. I hate to say I didn't like a cupcake, because it feels wrong. But, I didn't like these. Luckily for me and my taste buds, there are roughly 50 more cupcakes to make... yes, I counted.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Applesauce-Spice Cupcakes

Finally we have come to a recipe that I've made before. It only took 18 cupcakes to get here (tells you how much I have baked from this cookbook). The first time I made applesauce-spice cupcakes (Martha doesn't have them on her website, she really wants you to buy the cookbook) I didn't include the pecans because as I've mentioned numerous time I'm not a huge fan of nuts. But, as I've also previously mentioned I'm doing my best to follow these recipes to a T in the spirit of my self-assigned project.

There wasn't much prep involved in this recipe, which I knew, and I almost didn't read all the way through it because I had made it before, but I did. And I'm glad I did. Because, I saw that I was supposed to include toasted pecans. Since I hadn't included them the first time I made these cupcakes I forgot that they were supposed to be in the recipe. So, first order of business, toast the pecans. While the pecans were toasting I worked on the rest of the recipe, which was extremely easy. Although I did leave out the butter to get to room temperature, since the weather has started to cool off it was a little hard when I was ready to start the batter. I nuked it in the microwave for 10 seconds and it was good to go (I also remembered to leave the eggs out to get to room temperature, but they were still quite cool as well). Fall is here!

Since the batter was a little thick I didn't employ my pour-by-Pyrex method to fill the cupcake pan. I used a tablespoon instead (I really need to get one of those ice cream scoops that I see the people on Cupcake Wars use) using about 1 1/2 good-size spoonfuls to fill the liners. Not the most perfect method, but almost all the cupcakes turned out to be the same size so I was pretty happy with how they turned out.

Now for the brown sugar cream cheese frosting (no luck on Martha's website for this one either), whew, that's a mouthful. This is the first time I've made a true frosting in awhile. My most recent cupcakes have for the most part been frosted with whipped cream. Very unexciting. I like to get the practice of making different frostings. Yes, I had already made this frosting in the past to go with these cupcakes, but still, it was a nice walk down memory lane. It was a pleasant walk as well since this frosting is very easy to make. I just used a thin icing spatula (I don't even know if that's what they're called, but they look like this) to frost the cupcakes since that's what the cupcakes in the picture from the cookbook looked like they were frosted with. I tried to give the cupcakes a little height so they would make for more interesting pictures. Without using all my frosting for one cupcake I did my best.

As I sometimes do, I took these cupcakes to work with me to share and I received a really nice compliment. It's not uncommon for people to tell me they enjoyed the cupcakes, or they're delicious, things like that, and I of course appreciate everyone's kind words. But, on this particular day I was very flattered. After I had passed out the cupcakes to various coworkers I received an email with the subject line of Thanks. It's pretty rare that anyone emails me to thank me for a cupcake, especially someone I don't really know like this person. In all honesty, I introduced myself and then handed him a cupcake. I digress... within the email he had said that he enjoyed the cupcake. He went on to ask if I'd ever seen Cupcake Wars and that he had recently been a judge on the show that's going to air sometime in January. I am of course familiar with the show, duh, I blog about cupcakes. But he doesn't know that. So anyway, he continued to say that the cupcake I had given him was better than most of the ones he tried on the show. I know, I know, he didn't say it was better than all the cupcakes he tried, but I'll take being better than most. After all, I'm no professional. Part of me wanted to reply and ask him if he could point me in the direction of the Cupcake Wars people, but then I came to my senses and realized I have no business on that show. I would be blown out of the water. So instead, I simply replied thank you for the compliment, that's very nice of you to say, and forwarded the email to my home email address so I'll have it when I'm in the need of a pick-me-up. Dork? You bet.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

I Like to Eat Cupcakes... Not Look Like Them

Nope, this post isn't about cupcakes, or even baking (sorry). It's my second post about my, scratch that, mine and Bobby's upcoming wedding. Since I previously mentioned here that I was recently on vacation and while on that vacation I went wedding dress shopping with my mom, I thought it might be nice to share my tales on wedding dress shopping. And, if you don't think it's so nice, I promise there are many more cupcake adventures that will be coming your way. But right now, it's all about the dress.

Before we got to Florida my mom had arranged 3 appointments at bridal shops that I had chosen from a list she had sent me of shops in the area. Two in Jacksonville and one in St. Augustine where my parents now live in their (my) beach house. I hadn't tried on any wedding dresses before my appointments... except one. This one.
This is my mom's wedding dress from 1978. I know it's hard to believe since it looks so contemporary. My mom had told me I could have her dress if I wanted and asked if I'd like to try it on. I knew I wasn't going to get married in my mom's dress (sorry mom) but I was curious if it would actually fit. My mom is a small woman. I've probably got at least 3 inches on her and more than a couple pounds. She's a petite little thing whereas I am less petite and have a more athletic build. I truly didn't think the dress would zip up... but it did! Of course while I was basking in my glory and the fact that I fit in my mom's dress, she so nicely said that when she got married it was "hanging" off of her. Thanks mom.

But, I digress. I didn't really know what to expect with this whole experience, but I did do some research the day before by watching several episodes of "Say Yes to the Dress" and taking copious notes (not really) while my dad, brother and fiance made fun of me. Typical. In reality my preparation included looking online and printing out pictures of what I was thinking of, deciding how much I wanted to spend, and making sure I was wearing cute underwear since I would be running around in it for most of the day.

Before we proceed I want to make it clear that you're not going to see the dress that I ended up choosing. That little secret is saved for myself, my mom and Diana, the woman who helped me try on all the dresses at the store where I purchased mine and also got to see me run around in my underwear all day. She was a lovely woman. I've decided not to show anyone my dress because I want it to be a surprise for the wedding and I don't want anyone else's opinion about it. Everyone only has to wait about 11 more months. If I can handle the wait I think everyone else can too.

On to Shop 1 and the first dress I tried on. I covered my face, not because I don't want you to see what I look like, because you can see my face in other posts, or if you look to the right, but because the faces I'm making in most of these pictures is not cute. These pictures are about the dresses, not me.
This was the style of dress I thought I wanted because I really liked the back. While a woman who was sitting in the store waiting for a friend told me she was going to cry when I walked out really liked it, I wasn't completely sold. It was more coverage than I wanted (I didn't want my shoulders to be covered). But, as I was told countless times by every woman who helped me try on dresses, almost anything could be changed.

Now for the monster dress as I so affectionately called it.
This is the style of dress I never in a million years thought I would want. It was strapless (strike 1), it was huge (strike 2) and I don't have a strike 3 because I really liked it. I loved how it fit me and was surprised that it was so flattering on me. I'm really not a fan of strapless dresses for myself. I just don't like the potential for armpit-area chub. It's not cute and on my wedding day I want to look way better than cute. I did try on several other dresses from this shop but had I decided on a dress from this shop, this would have been the one. There would have been some major chopping off of the train, because it was just way too much dress for me, but I really did like it.

Shop number 2! This was the first dress I tried on at our second stop and I thought this might be the winner.
It had straps like I wanted and it was a v-neck which I think is flattering on me. I liked the back, and it had just enough sparkle but not so much that I would look like a disco ball. This dress was the frontrunner until I found Maggie. Her name isn't actually Maggie, it's something different that I'm not going to tell you, but we'll call her Maggie since she is a Maggie Sottero dress. And that is all the designer information you will be getting. I was pretty much sold on her as soon as I put her on. She was perfect. There wasn't a think I wanted to change. But, just because you think you've found the perfect dress doesn't mean you stop trying them on! You never know what you could be missing, so you might as well try on a couple more just to be sure, so... I carried on.

Of course, even though I didn't like the dress with the keyhole back that I had tried on at the first shop I wanted to try on another one of the same style to see how I would like it and I came across the same issue.
Please don't mind my bra strap. Minus my bra strap I LOVED the back of this dress, it was exactly what I had wanted, but again, the front was more coverage than I wanted. I struggled between this dress and Maggie but in the end I decided that this dress would need a good amount of alterations to really change the front of it to make it what I wanted. And, after the alterations I still might not have what I wanted and I would have already spent so much money on it. Unfortunately I'm not able to buy 5 dresses like some brides (yes, that actually happens, Diana my bridal dress helper told me so) so I wanted to make sure the dress I ended up getting wouldn't need to be severely overhauled in order for me to be 100 percent happy with it.

Although I was fairly certain that Maggie was my dress, we did have one more appointment left and I wanted to go just in case this shop had something I liked better. Leave no stone unturned, leave no dress untried. Plus, it was a lot of fun playing dress up for the day.

Shop number 3 didn't have many options and I truthfully didn't think I would even find any that I wanted to try on. I didn't want to be rude since the owner had come in especially for us. So, I grabbed a couple dresses that I thought might have potential and were different from one I had previously tried on and headed to the dressing room. This was the last dress I tried on.
Had I not settled on Maggie this one would have probably been one I seriously considered purchasing. I thought it was very flattering on me, I just wasn't sure about the straps. They were a little too thick. I also wasn't sold on the bug, yes bug, that seemed to come with it. Notice the small black dot inside the blue circle. That's a bug in between the layers of fabric of the dress. How that got in there, I couldn't tell you. Had I noticed it before the dress was on my body I would have seriously considered not putting it on (I'm not a complete whimp). But, it wasn't until I was out of the dressing room and getting clipped into the dress that the shop owner said, "Oh my God, that's a bug." Yes, yes it was. Best of all... it was still alive. Call me crazy, but there are just some things that shouldn't be in wedding dresses. I'm going to be so bold as to say that live bugs are one of those things.

After our last appointment I was 99% sure that Maggie was my dress and she was just waiting for me to come get her. To make sure I was 100% sure I looked at the pictures my mom had taken over and over and slept on it. When I woke up in the morning I was still super excited about Maggie so I called the shop and asked if I could come pick her up the next morning. Normally you would order your dress and pick it up after the weeks or months it would take for it to arrive. But Maggie is a discontinued design meaning she couldn't be ordered and she was the only one like her in the store so I had to take her with me. It's like she was meant to be my dress.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ginger and Molasses Cupcakes

I have baked with ginger before, but not fresh ginger. I've baked with the kind of ginger that's dry, comes from a small container and costs about $7 (why are spices so expensive?). Fresh ginger is not ground up and dry, it doesn't come from a small container and doesn't cost $7... unless you buy a lot of it. I will say that due to the amount of work fresh ginger requires I prefer the $7 container, but I was happy to finally try using fresh ginger in a recipe.

When shopping for this recipe fresh ginger was the only thing I needed to buy (hooray!). Though I'm a fresh ginger novice when it comes to baking or cooking with it, I know what it looks like and felt confident I could find it at Stop and Shop and not have to make a bunch of trips to various grocery stores. I was right. Yeah me. The recipe said to buy about 2 6-inch pieces of ginger to yield what I would need. I bought 1 large and 2 small pieces thinking it would equal what I needed. I probably could have weighed it to see if it was the number of ounces the recipe specified, but that would have been a smart decision. Smart decisions are things I don't always make.

When it came to prepping these ginger and molasses cupcakes I started with the ginger. First I peeled all the pieces and tried to remove the "nubs" to make it easier to peel. Then, I minced. I actually looked up the difference between mincing, chopping and dicing (love me some Google) so I would now exactly how small the pieces of ginger were supposed to be. I assumed mincing was the smallest because I didn't think having giant chunks of ginger in these cupcakes would be very good. I was right again. I am on a roll. And, in case you're curious in terms of size of the pieces of whatever you're working with, from smallest to largest it goes minced, chopped, diced. You're welcome. Back to mincing. It was fairly easy to do, some of the pieces of ginger were harder to chop than others, not sure why, but overall it was a pretty painless, though sticky process. In an exciting not normal turn of events my eyes proved to be great measuring cups this time around because I got the perfect amount of ginger that I needed for the recipe. Chances of that ever happening again... 1 in never.

The rest of the recipe was easy, except for one minor hiccup. Before going grocery shopping I checked my molasses supply to make sure I had the 2/3 cup that was necessary. I looked in the cupboard, and the jar looked to have enough molasses. Of course when it came to measuring out the molasses while preparing the batter it turned out that I didn't have enough. Using my perfect measuring-cup eyes I concluded I was a little less than 1/4 cup short. Crap. I was tired and now annoyed, I had already worked all day and I didn't feel like making a trip to the store for one thing. I did think about it for about a minute and then decided that being roughly 1/4 cup short of molasses was not a crisis and couldn't possibly make that much of a difference.

During the baking time I added 2 minutes to the total time since these weren't quite done after 20 minutes. When I poked them with the toothpick after 20 minutes I still had batter on the toothpick and the middles sunk in a little. After a little more time in the oven they were fine. When I tasted them I didn't notice anything missing due to the small amount of molasses that I didn't have. Then again, this was the first time I tasted them so I didn't really have anything to compare them to. Ignorance is bliss!

As many of the cupcakes so far in this project have been, these were topped with whipped cream. I made the whipped cream while the cupcakes were baking since it's so easy and put it in the fridge in a Ziplock bag until I was ready to frost the cupcakes. When it was frosting time I noticed that the whipped cream had become a little liquidy (may or may not be a real word) even though I left it in the fridge. I decided to re-whip it in my stand mixer to get it back to the consistency that I wanted. Worked like a charm and I was proud of my head's-up thinking. I did forget one thing. To garnish the cupcakes with the $7-container ginger before I served them and took their pictures. Next time I'll remember the garnish and I'll have the required amount of molasses... unless I forget.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Date-Nut Mini Cupcakes

Miss me last week? If you did, my deepest apologies. We were in Florida basking in the sun and sand (and also shopping for wedding dresses with mom... we have a winner!). But now we're back, and we're baking.

I don't know much about dates, but I do know they look like giant slugs. I discovered this when opening my recently purchased container of Sunsweet pitted dates. I was going to taste one since I've never had one before to see what they were like, but once I saw what they look like I couldn't make myself do it. To me they just looked like a giant slug or some other type of creepy crawly creature that I couldn't put in my mouth. Even after I chopped them up I couldn't make myself try one. All I could think about was how they looked in their original unchopped form. Not pretty.

I set my expectations low when making these date-nut mini cupcakes (recipe not available on Martha's website) because I didn't know how I felt about dates at the time I first read the recipe, and I'm not a big fan of walnuts. Since those 2 things were the main components of these cupcakes I didn't think they stood a chance. Truthfully I wanted to skip this recipe entirely and move on to the next one for that reason. And, because ground cardamom is $14 for a 2 oz. bottle which just seems utterly ridiculous. While I did briefly contemplate skipping the recipe, I'm not a quitter so I sucked it up, spent $21 on ground cardamom and walnuts and started getting to work.

As has become my practice I "prepped" everything before I started to really get to work. I chopped the slugs... make that dates, toasted the walnuts and turned on the tea kettle to start boiling water. My timing has become quite impeccable if I do say so myself. I have always loved mini cupcakes because they're cute, as are all mini things. But, filling mini cupcakes is not cute, not cute at all. There's no good way to do it. I didn't use my glass Pyrex measuring cup like I normally would because I knew that once I started pouring the batter into the liners I would almost have to immediately stop pouring since mini cupcakes are so small. Which meant that stopping the momentum of the batter would be difficult, the batter would probably overflow and make a mess. I wasn't willing to deal with all of that. So, I used a teaspoon and carried a small measuring cup underneath it to catch any batter that might fall. This wasn't the best method and I still made a mess, but it wasn't the worst method either.

These cupcakes were supposed to be baked for 15 minutes with a turn halfway through the total baking time. I started with 7 minutes, then turned the cupcakes and baked them for 7 more minutes. With the toothpick test I thought a little more baking time was needed so I added 2 more minutes and did that for the remaining 2 batches of cupcakes. In the end each batch was baked for 16 total minutes. The nice thing about making mini cupcakes is that I have 2 mini cupcake pans, so I could have a batch ready to go into the oven as soon as the batch before it was done. Eventually I will invest in a second regular-sized cupcake pan... eventually. Maybe I'll put one of the wedding registry!

For the first time in this project I didn't have to make a frosting/topping for the cupcakes. I almost didn't know what to do with myself. The recipe said to add creme fraiche to these cupcakes. Confession... I have no idea what creme fraiche is and I didn't Google it to find out. I assume it is French and in French it means fresh cream. I could be incorrect. As we learned earlier, I studied Spanish, not French in high school so my vocabulary is limited. Lo siento (I'm sorry in Spanish). I guessed that creme fraiche didn't mean whipped cream, otherwise Martha would have told me to make it. So from the picture in the book I took it to mean something along the lines of a Cool Whip. I'm sure Martha would gasp in disgust if she knew that's what I purchased (lo siento, Martha), but I didn't know what else to do. I taste tested the cupcakes without Cool Whip because I like a "naked" taste test to see how much the frosting/topping helps or hurts a cupcake. The cupcakes sans Cool Whip were good. Turns out slugs (dates) aren't too bad, and I didn't mind the walnuts that much. With a dollop of Cool Whip the cupcakes were slightly more delicious. Though Martha might disagree with me, I find absolutely nothing wrong with Cool Whip. It's delicious, and I could, and have eaten it by the teaspoonfuls. Judge me if your must.