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.

Gingerbread that works

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The fourth item in my countdown isn’t a cookie. It’s a gingerbread cupcake.

Gingerbread has never been a seasonal flavor I get excited about. The flavor always tends to be either too harsh or not quite right — at least in cookie form.

A few years ago, I saw this recipe for Gingerbread Cupcakes with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting. I went into it expecting to be disappointed, but was surprised at how much I enjoyed them. Putting the gingerbread flavor into a cupcake resulted in a lighter version of the flavor, one that wasn’t overwhelming. The frosting was really good, too. Together, they made a wonderful pair. If cookies aren’t your thing, I recommend this cupcake recipe for the holidays.

On another note, for those of you looking for gifts for the cooks in your family, check out my Pinterest board. It contains many of my favorite kitchen items, and contains items for any price range. I hope it helps you find the perfect gift.

Cupcakes
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter (3 sticks), room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons unsulphured molasses
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 350 degrees F. Line muffin pan with baking cup liners.

In a large bowl, sift together flour and spices; set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light, about 3 minutes. Beat in the molasses until incorporated. Beat in eggs one at a time. Beat in vanilla. Add flour and mix on low speed until just combined.

Fill the cupcake papers three-quarters full, making sure that the batter is divided evenly. Bake cupcakes until a toothpick inserted in the center of them comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Let cupcakes cool on a wire rack 10 minutes, then transfer cupcakes to a wire rack to cool completely.

Frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons cinnamon

To make the cinnamon cream frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the cream cheese and powdered sugar until smooth. Add cinnamon and vanilla extract and beat until combined.

Place frosting into a large decorating bag fitted with a decorating tip and approximately 1/4-inch above cupcake top at a 90° angle to cupcake surface, pipe a spiral of icing, beginning at the outer edge and working inward.

Seasonal cake worth celebrating

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It’s time to jump on the pumpkin bandwagon. Pinterest is exploding with fall recipes and Starbucks has its Pumpkin Spice Latte back in stores. Two occasions at the end of October provided a good reason to bust out my cans of pumpkin puree. The first was my sports editor’s last day. The second is my dad’s birthday, which falls on Halloween.

My sports editor loves pumpkin-flavored things, so the week before she left I started brainstorming about what to make for her. I came across this recipe for pumpkin-spice cake and knew it would fit the bill. The problem was that I hadn’t yet successfully made cupcakes at high altitude. Every time I previously tried, the tops sank in or didn’t rise, or I had to cook them longer to see if they would get there, and then the outside would be overcooked. But, it was about time to give it another go, so I put on my apron and got to it.

I only wanted to make a dozen cupcakes, so I cut the original recipe in half. I made all the alterations based on the adjustments that I’ve learned work at high altitude. I used a bit more flour, less of the leaveners and more salt. It worked. The cupcakes had a beautiful crumb and rose exactly as they should. They are, by far, the best cupcakes I’ve made at high altitude, and definitely make the top five of all time.

Since the cupcakes were such a hit with my staff on my sports editor’s last day on the job, I decided to also use the recipe to make my dad’s birthday cake. A while ago, I saw an idea on Pinterest for a pumpkin cake. Upon closer examination, I realized they used a pumpkin pan, but I decided to play off that creation by making two smaller bundt cakes and turning one on top of the other. It is one of the best cakes I’ve ever made — though, to give credit where it’s due, my best friend came up with the idea on how to create the pumpkin-like ridges in the frosting, and he drew the leaves. Decorating is not my thing, but it can be fun to learn a trick or two.

This dessert has a double dose of pumpkin, as both the cake and frosting contain it. But it isn’t overwhelming, and neither are the spices in the cake. The flavor is balanced, which is why I enjoyed them so much.

I’ve provided the cupcake recipe at high altitude and the cake recipe at regular altitude. However, if you want to make a cake at high altitude, double the cupcake recipe below. If you want to make one dozen cupcakes at regular altitude, cut the cake recipe in half. Or, if you want to make two dozen, leave it as is.

Happy Halloween, everyone. Happy birthday, dad!

2pumpkincake102713One dozen cupcakes (at high altitude)
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus more as needed
2 large eggs
1/2 of a (15-ounce) can pumpkin purée

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F and arrange a rack in the middle. Line a 12-muffin pan with paper liners and coat the liners with vegetable oil or cooking spray; set aside.

Place the sugar and measured oil in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until the sugar is incorporated, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle with a rubber spatula.

Return the mixer to medium speed and add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, about 1 1/2 minutes total mixing time. Reduce the speed to medium low, add the pumpkin, and beat until just combined, about 30 seconds. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle with a rubber spatula.

Add the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg and salt and beat slowly until almost completely incorporated, about 1 minute. Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in any unincorporated flour at the edges with a rubber spatula, making sure to scrape to the bottom of the bowl.

Fill the muffin wells three-quarters of the way (about a heaping 1/4 cup per well). Bake for 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in a cupcake comes out clean.

Meanwhile, make a half batch of frosting (recipe below).

Place the pan on a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from the pans and cool completely on the racks. Frost.

3pumpkincake102713Cake (at regular altitude)
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
2 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable oil, plus more as needed
4 large eggs
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin purée (not pie filling; about 1 3/4 cups)

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F and arrange a rack in the middle. Grease and flour one regular-size bundt pan — or two, if you have them.

Place the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl and whisk to aerate and break up any lumps; set aside.

Place the sugar and measured oil in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until the sugar is incorporated, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle with a rubber spatula.

Return the mixer to medium speed and add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, about 1 1/2 minutes total mixing time. Reduce the speed to medium low, add the pumpkin, and beat until just combined, about 30 seconds. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle with a rubber spatula.

Turn the mixer to low speed, slowly add the flour mixture, and beat until almost completely incorporated, about 1 minute. Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in any unincorporated flour at the edges with a rubber spatula, making sure to scrape to the bottom of the bowl.

Put half of the batter into the bundt pan. Bake the cake for 40-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Let the cake cool for 5-10 minutes, or until you are able to remove the cake from the pan cleanly. Let cake cool on a plate or wire rack. Leave the oven on and let pan sit for another 5 minutes, then grease and flour pan again and put remaining half of batter in it. Bake the cake for 40-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Meanwhile, make frosting (recipe below).

Once cakes have cooled, turn so the part of the cake that was facing up when it was baked is once again facing up. Using a bread knife, cut convex part off, so top becomes flat. Set cake scraps aside. Repeat on other bundt.

Put frosting on the flat side of one bundt. Top by turning over the other bundt and placing it on top. Fill the hole in the middle with the scraps. Spread frosting all over cake. To achieve effect shown in photo, drag the back of a spoon from the bottom to the top of the cake. Repeat around entire cake. To create leaves, add about 10 drops of green food coloring to remaining frosting. Use a knife to make leaves. Use a piping bag or plastic bag filled with frosting to draw tendrils.

Pumpkin-and-Cream-Cheese Frosting
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature
1/3 cup pumpkin purée (not pie filling)

Place the sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a medium bowl and whisk to combine; set aside.

Place the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat on medium speed until fully combined and smooth, about 1 minute.

Reduce the speed to low, slowly add the powdered sugar mixture, and beat until fully incorporated and smooth, about 3 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape down the paddle and sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

Turn the mixer to medium speed, add the pumpkin, and mix until fully incorporated and smooth, about 1 minute. Use immediately.