Cactus and Succulent Cupcakes

Pittsburgh is in the full blaze of summer. It’s 90 degrees today, expected to be in the 90s for the next week, without a drop of rain in sight. I appreciate all of our seasons, but truth be told I prefer cold to heat – I’m more of a winter gal than a summer gal. I’d never survive in a desert climate. Well, not without air conditioning, anyway.

I’ve wanted to make succulent cupcakes for a while now, and today’s heat seemed like the perfect excuse. A few of my plants didn’t turn out quite as I’d hoped, as I think my buttercream wasn’t as firm as it should have been, but it’s not bad for my first attempt. The color palette is exactly what I’d hoped it would be, and all in all, they turned out really well. They’re also delicious; the buttercream has a bit of lemon extract in it for a nice hint of citrus. Next time, I’ll make some of the buttercream a bit more firm (or I’ll chill it for a few minutes) to make more impressive spikes. For a great tutorial on how to make buttercream succulents, I recommend this video from Wilton.

Ingredients

For the cupcakes

  • 1 1/4 cups cake flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
  • 2 teaspoons almond extract
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk

For the frosting

  • 1 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon almond extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon extract

To decorate

  • Brown, moss green, black, copper, and red food coloring
  • Wilton tips 199, 104, 352, 16, and 3
  • Flower nail
  • Disposable piping bags (or reusable, if you prefer)

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake tins with paper liners; this recipe yields 14 cupcakes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

Place eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat on medium speed for 30 seconds. Add sugar and continue to beat for another 30 seconds.

Add vanilla bean paste, almond extract, and canola oil and beat on medium speed for 1 minute.

Add flour mixture and buttermilk alternatively in three batches, beginning and ending with the flour, scraping the sides of the bowl frequently. Batter will be very thin.

Using a quarter-cup measuring cup, scoop batter into prepared cupcake liners, filling half full.

Bake for 13-15 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack before frosting.

To make the frosting, beat butter on medium speed for 2 minutes. Add powdered sugar and beat on low speed until all the sugar is incorporated into the butter, then beat on medium for 1-2 minutes. Add vanilla, almond, and lemon extracts and beat to combine.

To decorate: divide your frosting into small portions. Leave one portion white and tint the others light brown, green, and pink. To make my pink shade, I used a small amount of copper and a few drops of red for a more dusty shade.

Frost the tops of the cupcakes with light brown buttercream for the “sand.” I chose to do barrel cacti, rose succulents, and some things that sort of look like aloe using the following techniques:

For the barrel cacti: fit a piping bag with a Wilton 99 open star tip and add green frosting; pipe the body of the cactus. Fit a piping bag with a Wilton 3 small round tip and add white frosting; pipe spines up the sides of the barrel. Fit a piping bag with a Wilton 16 small closed star tip and add pink frosting; pipe a blossom on the top.

For the rose succulents: fit a piping bag with a Wilton 104 petal tip. Add a small amount of pink frosting up one side, then add green frosting; pipe out a small amount to ensure you have both colors showing. Pipe petals, similar to how you would a rose; if you’re making smaller rose succulents, you can use a flower nail and let the smaller ones chill in the freezer for a few minutes. You can also do plain green rose succulents.

For the aloe-like succulents: fit a piping bag with a Wilton 352 leaf tip and pipe stalks in a circle. Add as many layers as you like; mine had three layers of stalks. For a deeper shade of green, tint your green frosting with a bit of black for a deeper color. Use your leaf tip or small star tip to make stalks.

If you’re making smaller succulents and using your flower nail, you’ll want to take a bit of frosting and use it as glue to stick your chilled succulents onto your cupcakes.

Store cupcakes in a cool place in an airtight container for 2-3 days.

 

 

Cinnamon Pumpkin Cupcakes

Who wants pumpkin treats in the middle of June? I do. While I love to bake with seasonal ingredients, canned pumpkin is an evergreen in my pantry, something I keep on hand no matter the weather. Earlier this week I had a not-so-successful run at some pumpkin oat muffins (they tasted fine, but the bottoms stuck in their wrappers) and had about a cup of pumpkin left over, the perfect amount for these cinnamon pumpkin cupcakes.

Many frosting flavors pair well with pumpkin, like maple and various spices. I chose a simple cinnamon buttercream to echo the cinnamon in the cupcakes themselves, and it turned out really well. Mike’s coworkers demolished them yesterday, proving that I’m not the only person who appreciates a good pumpkin treat in the summertime.

Ingredients

For the cupcakes

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the frosting

  • 12 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, to taste

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake tins with paper liners; my recipe yielded 19 cupcakes.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

In a large glass measuring cup, combine pumpkin puree, vegetable oil, eggs, sugar, and vanilla extract. Mix well, then add all at once to the flour mixture. Stir until well-combined and smooth.

Using a two-inch cookie scoop, fill cupcake wells about half full.

Bake for 17-20 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven; immediately remove from tins and place on a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.

To make frosting, beat butter on medium speed for 1-2 minutes, then add powdered sugar all at once and beat on low until all the sugar is incorporated into the butter. Add vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and beat well; taste and add more cinnamon if you like.

Fit a piping bag with a large star tip and pipe swirls of frosting onto each cupcake. Store at a cool room temperature for 1-2 days; these cupcakes are very tender and will get a bit sticky if they’re left out much longer.

Buttercream Rose Cake

Things I learned to do during Baking in the Time of Coronavirus: Make buttercream roses. My decorating skills are limited at best; I can tint frosting and make some pretty basic designs, but until this cake I hadn’t used a flower nail before. I watched this tutorial from Wilton before I got started, and while my roses are much flatter than the ones in the video, they turned out pretty well.

I used buttercream frosting with a medium consistency, and I’d recommend going with a thicker consistency next time for flowers that aren’t quite as flat. This cake is for my mom’s belated birthday celebration – she turned 74 this past week – and we’re having her over for dinner this evening. She won’t likely eat the buttercream flowers (Genny is a woman who prefers cake to frosting), but this was great practice.

Ingredients

For the cake

  • 8 ounces (1 cup) butter, at room temperature, plus more for pans
  • 8 ounces superfine sugar*
  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 8 ounces self-rising flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

For the frosting

  • 1 1/4 cups butter, at room temperature
  • 4 – 4 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3 teaspoons almond extract
  • Yellow, red, pink, and green food coloring

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans with butter, then line each with a circle of parchment.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until combined; add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Mix in flour and baking powder.

Divide batter evenly between the two cake pans, leveling the tops with a spatula. Bake for 18-20 minutes, then check to see if cakes are done; they will be light golden brown on top, have pulled away from the sides of the pan, and will spring back when pressed lightly.

Remove from oven and allow to cool in pans for 5 minutes; run a butter knife around the edge of each cake and turn onto a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.

To make the frosting, beat butter with your paddle attachment for 2-3 minutes, until fluffy. Add 3 cups powdered sugar and beat on low until the sugar is fully incorporated into the butter. Add vanilla and almond extracts and beat to combine, then add another cup of powdered sugar; you’ll want a medium buttercream consistency that isn’t too stiff, but will hold its shape when you pipe the flowers.

Frost the top and sides of the cake with white, then divide your remaining frosting into two portions, with one portion much smaller than the other for your leaves. Tint the remaining white frosting yellow; I tinted my frosting using the same base color of yellow for the peach and salmon-colored flowers.

Fit a piping bag with a coupler and a plain tip; affix a parchment square to your flower nail with just a bit of frosting. Pipe a cone shape into the center of the nail, then switch tips to your Wilton 104 petal tip. You want the broader end of the tip to be toward the bottom as you pipe; pipe petals, turning your flower nail as necessary. When you’ve reached your desired size, slide the parchment off the nail and place it on a baking sheet. Once all of your flowers are piped, chill them until they’re firm.

To tint my frosting, I used the following color ratios:

Pale yellow – 2 drops yellow liquid food coloring

Peach – 1 drop red and 3 drops yellow liquid food coloring into the existing yellow

Salmon – 1 drop pink gel food coloring into the existing peach

Once the flowers are firm, place them on the cake in your desired arrangement; I also used a bit of buttercream to stick them to the surface of the cake. Tint the remainder of your frosting green; using the Wilton 352 leaf tip, pipe leaves next to your flowers.

Store at room temperature in an airtight cake caddy or cake stand for 2-3 days.

Makes about 10 servings.

Orange Crush Cupcakes

Now and then my Facebook feed lights up with recipes people want me to bake. This week my dear friend Stefanie tagged me in a post for orange creamsicle cupcakes with Orange Crush buttercream; Mike jumped on the bandwagon, and there I was yesterday, whipping up said cupcakes in my kitchen.

Granted, my recipe is different than the one in the post that Stef shared, which used a box mix and orange Jell-O for the cupcakes. I adapted a tried-and-true cupcake recipe to include fiori di Sicilia, a wonderful extract that tastes like vanilla and citrus, then whipped up a buttercream using – you guessed it – Orange Crush pop. The end result is a delicious orange cream cupcake, more intense in flavor than the orange cream cupcakes I’ve made in the past. Thanks for the idea, Stef!

Ingredients

For the cupcakes

  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour
  • 1/2 plus 1/8 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon fiori di Sicilia, to taste (this is powerful extract!)
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk

For the frosting

  • 8 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 tablespoons Orange Crush
  • 1/4 teaspoon fiori di Sicilia
  • 1/4 teaspoon orange extract
  • Orange food coloring

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a cupcake tin with paper liners; my recipe made 7 cupcakes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

Place egg in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat on medium speed for 30 seconds. Add sugar and continue to beat for another 30 seconds. Add vanilla and canola oil and beat on medium speed for 1 minute.

Add flour mixture and buttermilk alternatively in three batches, beginning and ending with the flour, scraping the sides of the bowl frequently. Batter will be very thin.

Using a quarter-cup measuring cup, scoop batter into prepared regular-sized cupcake liners, filling half full.

Bake for 13-16 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack before frosting.

To make the frosting, in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter on medium speed for 1 minute. Add powdered sugar all at once and beat on low speed until all the sugar is incorporated into the butter. Add Orange Crush, fiori di Sicilia, and orange extract and beat for 2-3 minutes, until frosting is very light and fluffy. Add enough orange food coloring to reach your desired shade.

Fit a piping bag with a large star tip and pipe generous swirls of frosting onto each cupcake.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days.

Makes 7.

Peanut Butter Caramel Cupcakes

Mike works as a patient advocate at the VA hospital here in Pittsburgh. You’d expect him to have a social work background, but you’d be mistaken – he actually worked in public affairs for most of his career and handled a lot of congressional inquiries in his first few years there before transitioning into advocacy. Right now, he’s on the front lines of the corona virus, screening each employee and patient who comes through the VA’s doors.

One of Mike’s good friends at work is the VA’s director of infection prevention, Dr. Brooke Decker. The world really needs her right now, so I figured she could use some cupcakes. These peanut butter caramel treats incorporate two of her favorite flavors, and I’m happy to say she loved them. I’m really grateful to her, to Mike, and to all of the health care professionals who are working through this unprecedented and surreal experience. Stay safe, everyone.

Ingredients

For the cupcakes

  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
  • 1 egg, at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk

For the frosting

  • 8 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup peanut butter, to taste
  • 5 vanilla caramels, unwrapped, slightly flattened, and cut in half diagonally

Preparation

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line cupcake tin with paper liners; this recipe yields 10 cupcakes.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

In a mixing bowl, cream together butter and brown sugar until very light and fluffy. Add egg and beat to combine, scraping down your bowl, then add vanilla and beat to combine.

Add flour mixture and buttermilk in alternate batches, starting and ending with the flour and scraping the sides of the bowl frequently. Batter will be kind of fluffy.

Using a 2-inch cookie scoop, scoop batter into prepared pans, filling about half-full.

Bake for 16-20 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. My cupcakes were done around 17 minutes.

Remove from oven and remove cupcakes from tin; cool on a wire rack completely before frosting.

To make the frosting, place butter in a mixing bowl and beat with the paddle attachment for 1-2 minutes. Add powdered sugar all at once and beat on low speed until all the sugar is incorporated into the butter; this takes a few minutes. Add vanilla and 1 tablespoon heavy cream and beat well to combine. Add 1/2 cup of peanut butter and beat to fully combine; taste and add additional peanut butter if you’d like; my recipe had about 3/4 cup in it because I wanted a really peanut buttery flavor.

Fit a large piping bag with a large star tip (like the Wilton M1) and pipe generous blobs of frosting onto the top of each cupcake; rather than swirling my piping bag, I just held it above each cupcake and piped a generous portion in the middle of the cupcake, allowing it to fill out nearly to the edges. Place a caramel wedge in the center.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for a few days; caramels will start to soften and get sticky, but that’s okay.

Makes 10.

 

Irish Coffee Cupcakes

St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner, and what better way to celebrate than with some Irish coffee cupcakes? These treats are an easy adaptation of my mocha cupcakes and feature Bailey’s Irish Cream in both the cupcake and frosting. The recipe conveniently uses three tablespoons of Bailey’s total – the exact amount in a miniature bottle that you can find at your local state store.

What’s a state store, you non-residents of Pennsylvania may ask? Here in the commonwealth all liquor stores are state-run, and therefore called state stores. Beer, however, comes from a different shop known as a beer distributor, where you can buy six packs or cases. Some restaurants and grocery stores can sell six packs to go, too. What can I say? Apparently Pennsylvanians took Prohibition pretty seriously, and we’ve never quite caught up with the rest of the country…not that you’d be able to tell that on St. Patrick’s Day. Happy (and safe) celebrating!

Ingredients

For the cupcakes

  • 1/2 cup coffee, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons espresso powder
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon Bailey’s Irish Cream
  • 1 1/3 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 egg, at room temperature

For the frosting

  • 1 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons espresso powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons Bailey’s Irish Cream

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two 12-cup muffin tins with paper liners; my recipe yielded 20 cupcakes.

In a medium-sized glass measuring cup, whisk together coffee and espresso powder until the powder is completely dissolved. Add milk, vanilla, and Bailey’s and stir to combine, then set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugars until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add egg and mix to combine, scraping down your bowl at least once. Add flour mixture and coffee/milk mixture in alternate batches, starting and ending with the flour and mixing just to combine between each. Stir with a spatula to ensure that all the flour mixture is incorporated.

Using a two-inch cookie scoop, drop scoops of batter into the cupcake wells, filling each about two-thirds full. Bake for 17-20 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven, then remove cupcakes from tin and cool completely on a wire rack.

To make the frosting, combine espresso powder, vanilla extract, and Bailey’s in a small bowl and stir to completely dissolve the espresso powder. Beat butter on medium speed for about 2 minutes, then add powdered sugar all at once and beat until the sugar is fully incorporated into the butter. Add espresso mixture and beat 2-3 minutes until completely combined; you’ll want to scrape your bowl a few times in the process.

Fit a large piping bag with a Wilton M1 tip and pipe swirls of frosting on each cupcake. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days.

Makes 20.

Poppy Seed Cake

I love retro things, and this poppy seed cake could not look more retro. Perched under the dome of my glass cake stand, it reminds me of something you’d see on the counter of a diner where waitresses dress in aqua-colored uniforms, coffee is fifty cents a cup, and regulars know each other by name.

Adapted from a recipe I found at Taste of Home, which apparently won grand champion at the North Dakota state fair, this cake has amazing texture and absolutely delicious flavor. It’s almost like a moist pound cake, but not as heavy as a pound cake, and flavor-wise the combination of vanilla, almond, and butter extracts is one I’ve never used before but definitely will again. And because it uses oil instead of butter, this cake is incredibly easy to make, requiring only that you mix the ingredients together with a whisk and spoon. It’s one I’ll make many more times in the future.

Ingredients

For the cake

  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
  • 1 teaspoon butter extract
  • 1 tablespoon poppy seeds

For the icing

  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon butter extract
  • 3-4 teaspoons orange juice

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt tin.

In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In another large bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, vegetable oil, and extracts. Stir in flour in three batches, mixing to combine completely, then stir in poppy seeds.

Pour batter into prepared tin and bake for 50-60 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in tin for about 15 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the icing, combine powdered sugar, vanilla extract, almond extract, butter extract, and 2 teaspoons orange juice; add enough additional juice to make a thick but pourable icing. Pour over cake and allow to drip down the sides. Allow icing to set before serving.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for several days; this cake stays moist much longer than I expected.

Double Citrus Cupcakes with Italian Meringue Buttercream

How many types of buttercream are there? Several, as it turns out. American buttercream, with which I have the most experience, is a blend of butter, powdered sugar, and flavorings that yields a smooth and sweet frosting. But there are a few other types out there, and most of them involve meringue. Today, I tried Italian meringue buttercream for the first time, as I had some leftover egg whites from another recipe this week, and I wanted a challenge.

Italian meringue buttercream is frosting that requires you to pour hot syrup down the side of the mixing bowl while whisking egg whites, then whisk the mixture until it’s cool. After that, you switch from the whisk to the paddle attachment and beat in butter one chunk at a time, then continue beating for a while until all the butter is incorporated and you have a silky and yet also fluffy frosting. I read a few blog articles and watched a video at Preppy Kitchen before making mine, and it turned out really well. I’d recommend doing the same; there are some pitfalls with this frosting, and it’s really helpful to know how to navigate them. My recipe below is based on Preppy Kitchen’s recipe, but includes citrus extracts. It’s a mellow frosting that isn’t too sweet, and has a lovely smooth texture.

Ingredients

For the cupcakes

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup shortening
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Zest of 1 lime
  • 3/4 cup milk

For the Italian meringue buttercream

  • 4 egg whites, at room temperature
  • About 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar*
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar, divided
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1-tablespoon chunks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons lemon extract
  • 2 teaspoons lime extract
  • 1-2 drops of yellow and green food coloring

*I followed the Preppy Kitchen blogger John’s recommendation of using three shakes of cream of tartar into my egg whites. Just open your container of cream of tartar and give it three quick shakes over the whites. 

Preparation

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line two cupcake tins with paper liners; this recipe yields 17 cupcakes.

In a small bowl, combine flour and baking powder; set aside. In a mixing bowl, cream together sugar, shortening, and salt until fluffy. Add egg, vanilla, and citrus zest; beat until combined. Add flour mixture and milk in alternating batches, starting and ending with the flour and beating until just combined.

Using a 2-inch cookie scoop, drop scoops of batter into the cupcake wells, filling them about half-full. Bake for 15-18 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven and remove from tins; allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

To make the Italian meringue buttercream, begin by ensuring that your mixing bowl is clean and fat-residue-free; some people rub a lemon on the surface of the bowl then wipe it out with a paper towel, but I just washed mine well after making the cupcake batter. I also placed my mixer next to my stove for this recipe so I could keep an eye on my egg whites and my syrup at the same time.

Place eggs, cream of tartar, and salt in a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and mix on low, then medium speed; slowly drizzle in 1/3 cup sugar while whisking. Be careful, as you only need to get your egg whites to soft peaks for the next step – I started my syrup when my egg whites still looked foamy.

While the eggs whisk, place remaining 1 cup sugar and 1/3 cup water in a medium saucepan. Place over medium heat and stir until the sugar dissolves and turns clear; once this happens, stop stirring. Carefully clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and bring the mixture to a boil without stirring, heating to 235 degrees (also known as soft-ball stage).

Meanwhile, keep an eye on your egg whites and stop whisking when they’ve reached soft peaks. You can turn off your mixer while you want for the syrup to reach 235 degrees.

Once the syrup is ready, turn your mixer on to low speed and carefully and slowly pour the syrup into your egg whites down the side of the bowl; just aim for the space between the side and the whisk, rather than directly into the whisk itself, so you don’t splash dangerously hot syrup onto yourself.

Once all syrup is added, continue whisking on medium speed until the mixture cools to room temperature; just keep the mixer going and feel the side of the bowl with your hands. Cooling the meringue takes about 15 minutes, depending on how warm your kitchen is. Some people use ice or bags of frozen veggies to help their meringue along, but I just let mine whisk until it was cool.

Once the meringue is cool it will be very smooth, silky, and shiny; remove the whisk attachment and replace with the paddle. Beating on medium speed, slowly add one chunk of butter at a time until the entire pound of butter is incorporated, scraping the sides of your bowl after each stick of butter is added. Your mixture may get runny at first, then start to look curdled, but that’s okay – just keep mixing. Just after you’ve added your last chunk of butter, add extracts and continue to beat for a few minutes more, then add your food coloring and beat to combine for a pale green shade.

The end result of your frosting will look both fluffy at the edges of your bowl, but silky as you run your spatula through it. This sounds really strange, but it’s the best I can do to explain – trust me, you’ll know when it’s done.

Fit a piping bag with a large star tip and fill with frosting; pipe generous swirls onto each cupcake. Store leftover Italian meringue buttercream in a zip-top bag in the freezer for up to 2 months.

Makes 17 cupcakes and enough frosting for at least 2 1/2 dozen cupcakes. Store frosted cupcakes in an airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days. Chilling Italian meringue will cause the butter to start to appear clumpy in the finished frosting, so I don’t recommend chilling these cupcakes.

King Cake

Every year around Mardi Gras, I plan to bake a king cake. Then I decide not to because they’re essentially bread, and I’m a bread amateur. But this year I bit the bullet and gave it a try, using a recipe from King Arthur Flour that I adapted only to use colored icing, rather than sprinkles, for my yellow, green, and purple decorations. And oh boy, what an experience it was.

Bread amateurs probably either under-work or over-work their dough, and I definitely over-worked mine. Then I baked it for a few minutes too long, so while it smells and tastes delicious, the texture is just all wrong. It’s far too dry, even with a slathering of icing on top. Alas, this can happen when you’re a bread amateur. But the only way to improve one’s bread-making skills is to try again, and so I shall. Just not any time soon!

Note: in addition to reading the recipe, I also read this very useful blog article on King Cake, but only after I’d over-worked my dough. Ah well. 

Ingredients

For the dough

  • 8 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 3/4 cup lukewarm milk (between 98 and 105 degrees)
  • 2 eggs and 1 egg yolk (reserve the white for later), at room temperature
  • 3 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup Baker’s Special Dry Milk
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon fiori di Sicilia

For the filling

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 egg, at room temperature, lightly beaten
  • 1/8 teaspoon fiori di Sicilia

For the icing

  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 5-6 tablespoons milk
  • Yellow, green, and purple food coloring

Preparation

Place the dough ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed to combine. Once the dough starts to come together, switch to your dough hook and mix on low for 4-5 minutes. Dough will be very soft and sticky.

Transfer to a lightly greased bowl and let rise for about 1 hour. It won’t grow much in size, but should look kind of puffy. Turn dough onto a lightly oiled work surface and stretch and pat it into a 6 x 24 rectangle. Let rest while you prepare the filling.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine cream cheese, sugar, and flour and beat until smooth. Add egg and fiori di Sicilia and beat to combine completely.

Spread filling on the dough, leaving about a 1/2 inch border around the edge. Roll up like you would cinnamon rolls, from the long edge, pinching the seam to seal it. Gently shape your log into a ring and transfer it to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Full disclosure: I had a few holes in my dough, but according to the blog above, this is okay. Cover with lightly greased plastic wrap and allow to rise for about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove plastic wrap; combine egg white with 1 tablespoon water and brush over the top and sides of the cake. Bake for 20 minutes, then tent with foil and bake another 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool for about 30-40 minutes before icing.

To making icing, combine powdered sugar, vanilla, and 4 tablespoons water in a medium bowl; add enough additional water to make a thick drizzling icing. Divide in half and pour one half over the cake, allowing it to drip down the sides. Divide the remaining icing into three portions and tint yellow, green, and purple, then drizzle over the cake. Allow icing to set before serving.

Note: I stored my cake in the refrigerator because of the cream cheese filling, but I’m honestly not sure if this is necessary or not. I figured that baked cream cheese was still dairy, and likely needed to be kept in the fridge, but I’m actually going to write to the folks at King Arthur Flour to find out for sure. 

Bourbon Chocolate Bundt Cake

Sometimes I wonder how certain etiquette standards began. Like when someone passes away, family, friends, and neighbors bring food to the bereaved. Perhaps people wanted to support their loved ones and make the days following a loss easier, and not having to cook – or worry about refreshments to serve to visitors paying respects – was a kind way of doing that. And here we are, so many years later in human history, still doing that very same thing.

This cake is en route to Maryland with Mike today, as he travels to Annapolis to celebrate the life of his Uncle Haysie, who passed away earlier this week. Haysie was married for 45 years to Mike’s very dear Aunt Wendy, one of my absolute favorite in-laws. They were a wonderful couple, and I’m hoping this bourbon chocolate cake with make her smile.

Ingredients

For the cake

  • 3 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped
  • 2 ounces sweetened baking chocolate, chopped
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup instant coffee crystals
  • 2 tablespoons boiling water
  • About 1 1/2 cups cold water
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons bourbon, divided

For the glaze

  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 3 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • 2-3 tablespoons warm water
  • 1/2 tablespoon bourbon

Preparation

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Thoroughly butter a 10-inch Bundt pan and dust with cocoa powder, tapping out the excess.

In a microwave-safe bowl, combine chopped unsweetened and sweet baking chocolate. Microwave, uncovered, for 1 minute, then stir; continue microwaving in 15-30 second intervals and stirring until chocolate is completely melted. Set aside to cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating and scraping down the sides of the bowl between each addition. Beat in melted chocolate and vanilla extract.

In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, combine coffee crystals and boiling water; add enough cold water to bring the total liquid to 1 1/2 cups, then stir in the 1/2 cup bourbon.

Add flour mixture and coffee mixture to chocolate mixture in alternate batches, beginning and ending with the flour, and beating until just combined after each addition. You’ll want to scrape down your bowl a few times during the process.

Pour batter into prepared Bundt pan and bake for 55-60 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean; I covered my cake around 45 minutes of baking to prevent over-browning. Remove from oven and allow to cool in the pan for about 15 minutes.

Turn cake out onto a wire rack and brush the top and sides with 2 tablespoons bourbon. Allow to cool completely before glazing.

To make the glaze, combine melted butter, cocoa powder, powdered sugar, and 2 tablespoons water in a bowl and stir until smooth; add bourbon and stir completely to combine. If your glaze is too thick, you can add one more tablespoon of water; I wanted a thicker glaze so I just used 2. Using a spoon, drizzle glaze over the cake; allow to set.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.