Birthday cupcakes for the office


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?

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.

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.

Fudgy brownies for a friend’s birthday


When it comes to brownies, most people have a preference: cakey or fudgy. My co-worker, whose birthday is today, prefers the latter. Lucky for her, I have a great recipe for people who like fudgy brownies. I found it in the Spring 2008 edition of Cook’s Illustrated Light Recipes and have used it ever since. It’s also a great recipe to use when you want to experiment with flavors in brownies — whether that means adding mint flavoring, caramel streaks, or using it for a base layer of a more decadent bar.

The article that ran with this low-fat recipe said that the fudgy texture can be attributed to the sour cream used in the recipe — which, unlike many brownie recipes, doesn’t use much butter. In a couple instances where I didn’t have sour cream, I substituted Greek yogurt, which added a slight tang to the finished product. But, it will do in a pinch.

These decadent brownies really hit the spot when you’re particular about the consistency. You can also easily add nuts or chocolate chips. I hope you enjoy them as much as the birthday girl did.

Nonstick cooking spray
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon table salt
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons low-fat sour cream
1 tablespoon chocolate syrup (or light corn syrup)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg plus 1 large egg white
1 cup sugar

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Fold two 12-inch pieces of foil lengthwise so that each measures 7 inches wide. Fit one sheet into an 8-inch-square baking dish, pushing foil into corners and up sides of pan (overhang will help in removal of brownies). Repeat with second sheet, placing in pan perpendicular to first sheet. Coat foil with nonstick cooking spray.

Whisk flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl. Melt chocolate and butter together in bowl set oven pan of simmering water or in microwave set to medium power. Cool 2 to 3 minutes, then whisk in sour cream, chocolate syrup, vanilla, egg, egg white, and sugar. Using rubber spatula, fold dry ingredients into chocolate mixture until combined.

Pour batter into pan, spread into corners, and level surface with spatula. Bake until slightly puffed and toothpick inserted in center comes out with sticky crumbs attached, about 25 minutes. Cool brownies completely in pan on wire rack, at least one hour. Remove brownies from pan using foil handles. Cut into 2-inch squares and serve.To keep brownies moist, do not cut until ready to serve.

Turn broccoli and cheese into a healthy soup


After all those holiday sweets, I’ve been craving vegetable-loaded meals that are good for me. Broccoli is one of my go-to vegetables, but I usually just roast it or steam it. This time around, I was craving soup and decided to try my hand at broccoli-and-cheese soup.

One of my friends recommended the broccoli-and-cheese soup recipe from Cook’s Illustrated. I trust that publication, so I searched for the recipe and found the recipe from the March/April 2011 edition on another blogger’s site.

The baking soda in this recipe might seem unusual, but it speeds up the release of the broccoli’s sulfurous compounds, according to America’s Test Kitchen. Adding the cheese a bit at a time keeps it from becoming a gloppy mass in the soup. The spinach brightens the green color of the soup, too.

Overall, this recipe only took about 40 minutes from start to finish. It was a vegetable soup, but with a bit of saltiness and a slightly cheesy flavor. It was like an adult version of broccoli with cheese sauce that my mom used to serve. It was delicious.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds broccoli, florets roughly chopped into 1-inch pieces; stems trimmed, peeled, and cut into 1/4-in thick slices
1 medium onion, rough chopped (about 1 cup)
2 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard powder
pinch cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
3-4 cups water
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups baby spinach
3/4 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
3/4 Parmesan cheese, finely grated
Ground black pepper

Heat butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When foaming subsides, add broccoli, onion, garlic, dry mustard, cayenne, and 1 tsp. salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 6 minutes.

Add 1 cup water and baking soda. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until broccoli is very soft, about 20 minutes, stirring once during cooking.

Add broth and 2 cups water; increase heat to medium-high. When mixture begins to simmer, stir in spinach and cook until wilted, about 1 minute (the spinach will give the soup a bright green color).

Add cheese a handful at a time, allowing each handful to melt before adding more.

Using an immersion blender, process the soup until smooth. If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can also process in a food processor or a blender.

Return soup to Dutch oven, place over medium heat, and bring to a simmer. Adjust consistency of soup with up to 1 cup water. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Coffee’s sidekick made easy at home


Biscotti might seem intimidating at first, but it’s really just a twice-baked, sweet, quick bread. Once you make it at home, you’ll no longer feel the need to buy it with your morning coffee.

This is the second time I’ve made biscotti in the past few years. The first recipe I used called for about 10 eggs, but this time I used the Orange Almond biscotti recipe from Cook’s Illustrated cookbook, which only called for two eggs. There was no noticeable difference in the texture of the finished biscotti.

Biscotti is a lot like a cookie in the way that, once you have a good base recipe, you can put whatever you want in it. The first time I made biscotti I put pistachios in it. This time around, I opted to add dried cranberries. You can also dip it in tempered chocolate for a special treat. Have fun making your own flavor combinations.

The most important thing to remember when making biscotti is to keep the slices a half-inch thick or less. Any thicker and the biscotti becomes hard to bite into when it’s done.


2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder (use 1/2 teaspoon if at high altitude)
1/4 teaspoon salt (use 1/2 teaspoon if at high altitude
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sliced almonds
1/3 cup dried cranberries
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (use 1 teaspoon if at high altitude)
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt together in small bowl.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar together at medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Reduce speed to low and add eggs one at a time, then add almonds, cranberries, orange zest, vanilla and almond extracts until combined, about 30 seconds, scraping down bowl as needed. Stir in flour mixture until just combined.

Halve dough and turn each portion onto prepared baking sheet. Using floured hands, quickly stretch each portion of dough into rough 12-inch-by-2-inch loaf, placing them about 3 inches apart. Pat each loaf to smooth it. Bake until loaves are golden and just beginning to crack on top, about 35 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking.

Let loaves cool for 10 minutes; reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Using a serrated knife, cut each loaf diagonally into 1/2-inch slices. Lay slices cut side up about 1/2 inch apart on baking sheet and return them to the oven. Bake until lightly golden on both sides, about 15 minutes, turning over each piece halfway through baking. Immediately transfer biscotti from baking sheet to wire rack and let cool completely.

Smashing expectations with simple scones


I have never met a scone I liked. Every scone I’ve ever had has been dry, plain and crumbly. They were all like eating a stale biscuit. So, for the majority of my life, I’ve avoided them. Last week I decided I make them at home to see whether I would like them better. I did.scones2

The recipe I used was the Simple Cream Scones recipe from The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. I figure it’s always best to start with something simple. I added a vanilla bean to the recipe and the flavor of the scones was great. They didn’t crumble all over the place when I bit into them like ones I’d purchased from coffee shops did. They were soft and a bit moist inside instead of dry through and through. They were enjoyable, instead of being overly sweet. They were perfect for breakfast.

As with most recipes, I made a mistake on the first try. I left the oven rack in the upper third of the oven and didn’t rotate the scones halfway through the cooking process as instructed. I left them in a little longer than I should have, but they were still good. In fact, the next weekend I made them and added about a half cup of chopped strawberries to the mix and I liked them even more than the vanilla bean scones.

I’m glad I decided to make them at home because now I know that not all scones are dry and crumbly. Not all scones are bad biscuits. Not all scones are worth writing off.

2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder (use 3/4 tablespoon if at high altitude)
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces and chilled
1 vanilla bean
1 cup heavy cream

Adjust oven rock to middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment on, stir flour, sugar, baking powder and salt until combined. Add butter and stir until mixture resembles coarse meal with some slightly larger pieces of butter.

Cut both ends off the vanilla bean and cut the bean in half lengthwise. Using the back of a knife, scrape the seeds from inside and add them to the mixture. Stir until just combined. Stir in cream until dough begins to form.

Turn dough and any floury bits onto a floured counter and knead until a slightly sticky ball forms. Pat dough into a 9-inch round and use a knife or pizza cutter to cut into eight wedges.

Place wedges on prepared baking sheet and bake until tops of scones are lightly golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes (10 to 12 minutes if at high altitude), rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack and let cool for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.