Archive | July, 2009

I figured out the cupcake debacle!

16 Jul

Thanks to the fabulous tips at Baking Bites, I figured out what I must have done to my awful July 4th cupcakes

http://bakingbites.com/2009/07/can-you-over-soften-butter/

It was an awfully hot day in my kitchen, and I let the butter sit out for 45 minutes or so…  And for the chocolate layer (since it was a re-do), I ended up using the microwave to soften it…

Mystery solved!

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Red, White, and Blue… And A Baking Oopsie

6 Jul

This weekend I had volunteered to make the cupcakes for my parents’ 4th of July party.  I got a great idea to make red, white, and blue cupcakes, and got to work early on Saturday morning.  I used the standard yellow cake recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook; it’s been an excellent choice both on Hubby’s birthday back in February (cupcakes at Disneyland) and on both Mother’s and Father’s Days.  Fluffy and tender, it has taken my additions – lemon and almond, respectively – very well.

I started off by pureeing some ripe strawberries in one bowl.  In another, I added some cocoa powder.  Because what’s the use in having three colors in a cupcake if they’re not three flavors?  The third bowl had a little almond flavoring in it, and I added flour, salt, and baking powder in equal amounts.  I was so pleased with myself for taking an already-halved recipe (the original made 30 cupcakes!  for 7 people, that was sort of excessive) and splitting it into thirds.  I creamed the butter and sugar in the mixing bowl of my stand mixer, added vanilla (because even a chocolate cake needs vanilla) and eggs, and then split that into thirds into each of the waiting bowls.

Now, here’s where it gets messy.  I already had the red and the white – strawberry and almond – and I wanted the chocolate to be blue.  I’d seen a blue velvet cake online, but of course I didn’t use that recipe…  I decided I wanted a little more oomph to my chocolate cake and added some melted baker’s chocolate.  The flavor was dark and intense.  Unfortunately, so was the color.  So much so that when I added 30 or 40 drops of blue food coloring, instead of turning a beautiful shade of teal, it only made the chocolate cake batter a greenish-grey shade similar to… well, let’s just say it was truly disgusting.  I tried to salvage it by adding a little more flour, a little more milk…  It only got greyer and more totally unappetizing.  Later on, I baked it – and while the flavor was gorgeous, the texture was truly spongy (too much filler, not enough structure from the eggs and butter and sugar).

So I started over.  I should have just made extra at this point, but I thought I could be cool and only make a sixth of the recipe.  I am convinced that I must have measured and/or mixed wrong – a half of an egg isn’t exactly the easiest thing to “measure” and creaming only a few tablespoons of butter is difficult no matter how small your mixer is.  At any rate, this time I only used a bit of cocoa and, once I added the blue food coloring, came up with something kind of pretty and blueish.

So…  It was time to layer.  I used the cupcake cups I’d picked up for $1 in the Target clearance bins.  I started with the strawberry layer.  Those strawberries turned the batter a gorgeous dark pink, and with a few drops of food coloring it deepened into a light red.

Red layer

Red layer

Then it was time for the white layer.  I tried to seal the edges as best I could so there wouldn’t be seepage between the layers.

White layer

White layer

Last was the blue layer.  I made sure to seal off the edges on this one too.

I know it looks more green here but really it was a pretty nice blue for chocolate

I know it looks more green here but really it was a pretty nice blue for chocolate

Then into the oven…  When they came out, there were strange little bits of white all over the blue layer!  I’m still not sure why…  Maybe the blue layer was too heavy and the white layer was trying to get out?  I figured they’d be covered over in icing anyway, so it was no big deal…  But I was SO pleased at how beautifully the layers turned out in the cupcake cup!

Weird little bits of white traveled up through the blue layer, but look how PRETTY the layers look in the cupcake cup!

Weird little bits of white traveled up through the blue layer, but look how PRETTY the layers look in the cupcake cup!

Next was the frosting.  Now, I’ve been making the buttercream frosting from the back of the C&H sugar packet for basically my entire life.  I could do it with my eyes closed.  In large or small quantities.  It has never, ever failed me.  Until Saturday.  One minute I was mixing together a smooth buttery frosting, the next, it had all separated into oily bits and creamy bits.  While it still tasted killer (‘coss, really, who doesn’t like sugar and butter and vanilla?), it looked pretty gnarly.  Honestly, I think it was just too warm in the kitchen.  I was so sad, too, because I was itching to try out the piping bag I’d gotten as a gift.  I did pipe the stuff (I probably should have just started over, but I didn’t actually have enough butter!), but it still was runny and sort of nasty-looking, like cottage cheese.

Frosted cupcakes

Frosted cupcakes

Even so, I continued on.  I packed the cupcakes up in my handy-dandy cupcake carrier (yay for wedding gifts) and took them to my parents’ house.

And that, you see, is where our pretty little illustrated story ends.  I forgot my camera at home, sadly.  Which means I also didn’t get any awesome fireworks shots, even though Melissa sent me a tutorial last week!  I also didn’t take any cupcakes back home with me.  For the simple reason that they were just not good.

Oh, they tasted great.  And if you separated the almond and strawberry layers, you could see the potential in them.  They tried to be fluffy and cake-like.  But they were under the super dense and heavy chocolate layer.  And so they didn’t have a chance to shine.  Darn.  All that work for “um, this tastes okay, at least…”

I did some research on it and I think it really was the fault of a) undermixing the butter and sugar, b) trying to half an egg, and c) overmixing once everything was put together.  I want to try again, but not for at least a month or two…  The whole process was SO time-consuming, and the result was underwhelming (although it looked stunning – if you could get past the chunky frosting).  However, I think it’s definitely something fun to do again…  Anyone want multicolored cupcakes? 😉

A Yummy Summertime Salad

1 Jul

Even though I didn’t end up auditioning for American Idol, I did take the day off work Monday.  I had a really nice day of shopping with my sister, who leaves for a monthlong archaeological study trip in Peru on Friday.  She had a couple of things to still buy for her trip, so we went thrift store shopping to get her some clothes that she wouldn’t mind getting dirty!

By the time I was headed home, it was after 5 and hot.  My husband hadn’t really thought about dinner (just like a man) and I was in no mood to slave over a hot stove.  So I decided to run to Henry’s and pick up the fixings for a quick pasta salad.

I never have been a fan of pasta salads – they’re usually slathered in mayonnaise (and it’s only over the last six or seven years that I even eat tuna salad with a little mayonnaise) and devoid of flavor, texture, and color.  The classic American pasta salad is a yellow-tinged white mess with little bits of pickle…  And the very thought is making me want to hurl as I type.

But if you get a nice, fresh, veggie-filled salad with a light oil-based dressing, pasta salad takes on a whole new life.  It’s cool and crisp, just perfect for a summer dinner.  My friend Katie made an excellent pasta salad a few weeks back, full of veggies and chicken, that used Italian dressing and was delectable.  So I knew it could be done. 

With Katie as inspiration, I walked through Henry’s, picking up any veggie that we enjoyed eating raw.  Yellow sweet peppers went in the cart, as well as organic tomatoes (the “regular” ones just didn’t smell right) and cucumbers and green beans.  In went carrots (although I thought better of it later on; I think they’d have overtaken the pesto sauce) and jicama.  I grabbed a bunch of shrimp at the meat counter (which, by the way, were some of the best shrimp we’d ever had) and then contemplated dressing.  It didn’t take long to decide on getting a couple of bunches of giant basil leaves; pesto would be the perfect compliment.  Rounding out the meal with a package of bowtie pasta, I was ready to assemble at home.

I did end up using the stove a couple of times – to boil the pasta, of course, and to melt some onions.  I used the same skillet to cook up the shrimp with a little garlic, and while everything cooled, I cut up all the other veggies (half a cucumber, half a small jicama, a whole pepper, three small tomatoes, and a bunch of green beans) in bite-sized pieces.  The basil went into the food processor with a generous handful of grated cheese and some olive oil (neither of us is a particular fan of the flavor of pine nuts in our pesto, so we leave them out).

Then it was just a question of finding a bowl big enough for everything – and I had to grab a large mixing bowl from the cupboard to do it! – and dumping it all in and mixing.  We ended up only making shrimp enough for that evening, so we waited until the salad was on our plates before mixing it in.   The result was extremely flavorful and visually stunning – and a meal that was both healthy and very satisfying.  Of course, you can use store-bought pesto and pre-cooked shrimp (or rotisserie chicken or canned tuna, which worked really well mixed into the leftovers) and any shape pasta and any veggies that you like.  But this summer we’ll definitely be having quite a few more pasta salads like this!

Pesto Pasta Salad with Shrimp

Pesto Pasta Salad with Shrimp

Mmmm…  I’m so hungry!

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