Birthday cupcakes for the office

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I keep a list of my cowokers’ birthdays and favorite desserts in the top drawer of my desk. It gives me an excuse to bake, and sometimes their listed favorites are something I’ve never made before—like the plum cake my boss requested last year—so it presents a challenge. I love the challenges.

One of my coworkers had a birthday a week ago and said cupcakes were his favorite dessert. I generally avoid making cakes and cupcakes due to the amount of decorating they require, so I wanted to find something that was easy enough to put together on a weeknight after work. Another challenge I was presented with was coming up with frosting that would hold through to the afternoon without becoming runny or dried out if it sat on a table all day. That requirement instantly threw out 7-minute frosting—my favorite. I thought about the birthday cupcakes my mom made for my brother and me when we were little and started to look through my cookbooks for a good yellow cake recipe with chocolate frosting—which was always my brother’s favorite. I found my winning recipe in the Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook, a book my brother got me for Christmas a few years ago. As you know by now, I love Cook’s Illustrated. They do such a solid job of explaining why certain recipes and techniques work. There’s always a lot that can be learned from them.

This recipe for Yellow Cupcakes with Chocolate Ganache Frosting was terrific. These aren’t your light, airy, made-from-a-box cupcakes. These are more dense and more flavorful. Because I was worried about lighter frostings, I didn’t whip the ganache as the recipe directed. I left it cool and spread a layer of it onto the cupcakes, so there was no concern of it sliding off or becoming too soft at room temperature. It was a great combination, and this will definitely be my go-to recipe for a really good yellow cake. I topped them off with blue sprinkles, both because birthday cupcakes should always have sprinkles and because my coworker is a fan of the Seahawks, who will hopefully win today’s Super Bowl. Am I a football fan? Not really. But I’ve got to root for the home team, right?

Yellowganachecupcakes020115Ingredients
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream
1 large egg plus 2 large yolks, room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper or foil liners.

Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together in the bowl of a stand mixer. Fit stand mixer with paddle and beat flour mixture, butter, sour cream, egg, egg yolks, and vanilla together on medium speed until smooth and satiny, about 30 seconds. Scrape down bowl, then mix by hand using rubber spatula until smooth and no flour pockets remain.

Using ice cream scoop or larger spoon, divide batter evenly among prepared muffins cups. Bake cupcakes until tops are pale gold and toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean, 20-24 minutes. Life each cupcake from tin and transfer to wire rack. Let cupcakes cool completely, about 45 minutes, before frosting.

Frosting
1 cup heavy cream
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

Place chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl. Bring cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Pour boiling cream over chocolate, and let sit, covered, for five minutes. Whisk mixture until smooth, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cool and slightly firm, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Using a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, whip cooled chocolate mixture on medium speed until fluffy and mousse-like and soft peaks form, about 2 minutes.

Spread 2-3 tablespoons of frosting over each cooled cupcake and serve.

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Whiskey cake a divine treat for a dinner party

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My friend threw a Prohibition-themed dinner party on Friday. I figured it would be too obvious to bring a bottle of booze, so I started looking for recipes that included alcohol. Since baking is my thing and the main course was pretty much decided, I decided to look in the dessert section of Bon Appetit, which is where I found this whiskey cake. Whiskey is my preferred spirit and thus one of few I always have on hand, so I decided this cake was the winner.

When I looked at the list of ingredients, I saw that it contained some key ingredients — espresso and vanilla — which are known for enhancing the flavor of chocolate in baked goods. The low amount of flour it called for also meant it would be a very rich, dense cake. The finished product was only about an inch thick, but the intense flavor more than compensated for the lack of volume.

Though the original recipe called for an 8-inch springform pan, mine is 9 inches so I had to make do. It only took 30 minutes for mine to bake completely. I followed the cooling instructions and frosted it the next day. While sometimes you can put the frosting on while the cake is still slightly warm, this is not one of these cases. This frosting isn’t like your traditional buttercream. No powdered sugar is involved, so it has less to keep it sturdy.

In the end, this small-but-mighty cake was a nice treat, and a sweet ending to a fun dinner.

Ingredients
1/2 cup plus Irish whiskey
6 ounces bittersweet (70 percent cocoa) chocolate (such as Scharffen Berger or Lindt), chopped
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder dissolved in 6 tablespoons hot water
1/3 cup blanched almonds (about 2 ounces), lightly toasted
6 tablespoons all purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
7 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs, separated
Pinch of fine sea salt

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter and flour 8-inch-diameter springform pan.

Dissolve espresso powder in water. Set aside.

Boil 1/2 cup whiskey in small saucepan until reduced to 1/4 cup, about 2 minutes. Combine bittersweet chocolate, espresso powder mixture, and 1/4 cup boiled whiskey in small metal bowl. Place bowl over saucepan of simmering water; stir until mixture is smooth. Remove bowl from over water. Finely grind almonds with 2 tablespoons flour in processor.

Using electric mixer, beat 1/2 cup butter and 6 tablespoons vanilla sugar in medium bowl until fluffy. Beat in egg yolks 1 at a time, then sea salt. Fold in chocolate mixture, then ground almond mixture. Using clean dry beaters, beat egg whites in another bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add 1 tablespoon vanilla sugar, beating until stiff peaks form. Fold whites into batter alternately with remaining 4 tablespoons flour in 3 additions. Transfer batter to prepared pan.

Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Cool in pan on rack 30 minutes. Remove pan sides and cool cake completely.

Frosting
2 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons whiskey
1/4 cup butter, room temperature

Combine semisweet chocolate and remaining whiskey in small metal bowl. Place bowl over saucepan of simmering water and stir until smooth. Remove bowl from over water. Add butter to chocolate mixture, 1 small piece at a time, whisking until each piece is melted before adding next. Place bowl over larger bowl of ice water. Using electric mixer, beat icing until thickened to spreadable consistency, about 1 minute. Spread icing over top and sides of cake. This can be made 8 hours ahead. Cover with cake dome and let stand at room temperature.

Countdown cupcakes suited for a celebration

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Some kind of cake tends to be present at most celebrations. One of my college friends’ families can attest to that. There is always cake to be had when something good happens in their household.

One of my friends had her engagement party yesterday and, as usual, I wanted to bake something for the occasion.

I have struggled with making cakes at high altitude so, instead of taking a chance on a regular recipe and trying to make it work, I turned to the few high-altitude cake recipes that the Joy of Cooking had to offer. I settled on the 1234 cake, which got its name because its formula at sea level calls for 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour and 4 eggs. I call them countdown cupcakes because I always remember the recipe in the reverse order. The recipe below notes the changes for the cake at 7,000 feet.

I’ve previously said that I dislike decorating baked goods, and I hold to that, but I do believe there’s a time and place for it. This was one of those instances. I came up with the frosting I wanted, but wanted to do something appropriate for the celebration. I wanted to work hearts into the decoration, so I used a box cutter to cut a heart out of a piece of parchment paper. I placed the cut-out on each cupcake and used a sieve to sprinkle powdered sugar over it. I was really pleased with the way it turned out. For the mini cupcakes, I cut a smaller heart out of a piece of parchment paper and put the larger piece of paper on each cupcake so it served as a sort of stencil. They were adorable. My friend loved them.

This recipe made 16 full-size cupcakes and 24 mini cupcakes, but could easily be turned into all regular-size cupcakes or all mini cupcakes. For mini cupcakes, bake 8-10 minutes.

With Valentine’s Day less than a week away, I hope you find something delightful to make for your loved ones.

21234cupcakes020914Cupcakes
3 cups plus 1 tablespoon sifted all-purpose flour (add two more tablespoons at 7,000 feet)
2 teaspoons baking powder (1 1/2 at 7,000 feet)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups minus 1 tablespoon sugar (subtract 2 tablespoons at 7,000 feet)
2 teaspoons vanilla
5 large eggs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk or heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (350 degrees F between 6,000 and 7,000 feet altitude). Line a muffin tin with paper liners. If at high altitude, spray the liners with a nonstick spray such as Pam.

Whisk flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

Combine butter, sugar and vanilla in a large bowl and beat until well blended. Scrape down the bowl and beat for 1 minute. Add three eggs and beat again, scraping down the bowl afterward. Add remaining two eggs and combine until well blended.

Add flour mixture to butter mixture in two parts, alternating with buttermilk. Beat on high speed for about 1 minute, or until batter is smooth and creamy.

Fill each cupcake in the pan three-quarters full of batter. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Frosting
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon sour cream
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon orange extract
1 teaspoon salt

Beat butter until creamy. Add powdered sugar, cocoa powder and sour cream and beat until combined. Add extract and salt and frost cupcakes.

Sandwich cookies suited to a more sophisticated palate

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Cookies are great, but not all adults want the same over-sugared treats that might be made for children. What about adults looking for something sweet and a little more grown-up than your average sugar cookie?

I’m a firm believer that there needs to be something for everyone on the holiday tray, which is why I was thrilled when I found this recipe for Hazelnut-Mocha Sandwiches in the Holiday 2010 edition of America’s Test Kitchen Holiday Cookies magazine.

The chief flavors in these cookies are provided by hazelnuts, espresso and chocolate. There’s no frosting to be found and no decorating to be done. The flavor reminds me of hazelnut biscotti, just in a different form. I’ve made these twice and received rave reviews both times from adults, particularly those who also love coffee.

I hope you enjoy this third cookie in my Christmas countdown.

Ingredients
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted and finely ground
1 cup superfine sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces and softened
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons cream cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
12 ounces milk chocolate, chopped

Adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. With electric mixer on low speed, combine flour, nuts, sugar, salt and butter and mix until crumbly and slightly wet, about 2 minutes. Add vanilla and cream cheese and mix until dough just begins to form. Finish kneading dough by hand to form large, cohesive mass. Divide dough in half, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 30 minutes.

Roll each dough half to 1/8-inch thickness and rechill until firm, 10 minutes. Using 2-inch round cookie cutter, cut out cookies and place 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake until edges are light golden-brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack and cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough, gathering and rerolling scraps once.

In saucepan over medium-low heat, whisk together heavy cream and espresso powder. Add chocolate and stir until melted and smooth; cool 30 minutes. Spread heaping teaspoon filling over bottoms of half of cookies; top with remaining cookies. Let sit until firm, about 1 hour.

A recipe to ‘wow’ your guests

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Red Pen Recipes turned 1 year old on Friday. This time last year I was nervous about whether I’d have enough time to try new recipes often enough to write a new post each week. I’m happy to say this blog has kept me doing what I hoped it would: writing for pleasure and keeping me trying new things in the kitchen.

Of the 52 recipes I wrote about in the past year, the Rum Raisin Rice Pudding was one of my favorite new discoveries, and homemade applesauce was a close second. They’re both Barefoot Contessa recipes I hadn’t tried before.

To celebrate the one-year mark, I decided to reformat my blog. I chose this format for its cleaner look and to showcase the photos a little more. I hope you enjoy the new look.

While Friday marked the first anniversary of Red Pen Recipes, it also marked the final day for one of my staff members. One of my reporters accepted a new job in Santa Fe, N.M., so I wanted to bake something special for her before she left. I flipped through some of my cookbooks and considered a few different items before I remembered the Red Velvet Cheesecake Brownies recipe a friend gave me a few years ago.

This recipe is something I save for special occasions, when I really want to “wow” someone. It combines three desserts a lot of people enjoy, and has yet to disappoint. Cheesecake, red velvet cake and brownies can each require a rather involved process, but this three-in-one treat is pretty simple to make — you just have to use three bowls to combine different ingredients before putting them together.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to bringing you more recipes in the coming year.

Ingredients
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 ounces dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoon red food coloring (or six drops red food gel)
2/3 cup all purpose flour (use 1 cup at high altitude)
1/4 teaspoon salt (use 1/2 at high altitude)
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (use 1 teaspoon at high altitude)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 8-inch square baking pan. Put a long piece of parchment paper in the bottom of the pan, letting the parchment extend up two sides of the pan and overhang slightly on both ends. (This will make it easy to remove the bars from the pan after they have baked.) Butter the parchment.


In a small, heatproof bowl, melt butter and chocolate together in the microwave. Put it in 3 seconds at a time until soft enough to stir. Stir until combined and very smooth. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.


In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, vanilla extract and red food coloring. Add chocolate mixture and stir until smooth. Add flour and salt and stir until just combined and no streaks of dry ingredients remain. Pour into prepared pan and spread into an even layer.


To prepare cheesecake mixture, beat cream cheese, sugar, egg and vanilla extract in a medium bowl until smooth. Distribute the cheesecake mixture in eight dollops over batter in the pan. Swirl in with a knife or spatula.


Bake for 35-40 minutes (it could take up between 45 and 50 minutes at high altitude), until brownies and cheesecake are set. A knife inserted into the cheesecake mixture should come out clean and the edges will be lightly browned.


Let cool completely in pan on a cooling rack before lifting out the parchment paper to remove the brownies.