Woodland Creature Cupcakes

woodlandcupcakesI’m a year-round hiker, taking to the woods in all seasons. This past week Mike, Tucker, and I logged more than 10 miles on the trails at our local park. Today’s baking was inspired by the woodland creatures I love, but have never come upon while out on the trails. Granted, meeting a fox or hedgehog would be quite different than meeting a bear, but it’s still something I hope to experience someday.

Flavor-wise, these cupcakes are an orange-cinnamon combination based on my honey cupcake recipe, which originally calls for lemon zest instead of orange. I wanted a bright flavor profile for these treats, and that’s exactly what I got – a nice kick of citrus against the warmth of cinnamon, all in an adorable little cupcake.

Ingredients

For the cupcakes

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • zest of 1 medium orange
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1/3 cup milk

For the frosting and decoration

  • 1 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Brown and orange food coloring
  • Mini and regular-sized chocolate chips
  • Candy eyes

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pans with paper liners; my batch yielded 16 cupcakes when cups were filled about half to three-quarters full.

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

In a mixing bowl, cream butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, vanilla extract, orange zest, and beat until well combined, then add honey and beat until well combined.

With the mixer running on its lowest speed, gradually add flour until the mixture is just combined, then add milk and mix until just combined. Scrape sides of the bowl frequently to fully incorporate all ingredients.

Using a two-inch cookie scoop, scoop batter into cupcake pans, filling about half to three-quarters full. Bake for at least 17 minutes, then check cupcakes for doneness; if cupcakes are not done, continue baking for 1-2 minutes and checking after each interval to be sure they don’t burn. My cupcakes baked for about 20 minutes.

Remove from oven and cool for just a moment in the pans, then cool completely on wire racks.

When cupcakes are cool, prepare the frosting: beat butter in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for about 1 minute, then add all the powdered sugar and beat on low until the sugar is fully incorporated into the butter. Add vanilla extract and cinnamon and beat to combine.

Divide your frosting into three portions: leave one natural, then tint the other two brown and orange. To make my fox color, I combined some of the brown frosting with orange food coloring for an earthier tone.

Frost half of your cupcakes with a thin layer of the natural-colored frosting; these will be your hedgehogs and foxes.

To make hedgehogs, fit a piping bag with a Wilton 233 tip (the grass/fur tip) and pipe fur, leaving a heart-shaped area of the cupcake plain. Add two mini chocolate chips for eyes and one for the nose.

To make foxes, fit a piping bag with a small star tip (I used Wilton 13) and pipe fur, leaving two patches of the cupcake plain for the fox’s cheeks. Switch to a leaf tip (I used Wilton 352) and pipe on ears. Add two mini chocolate chips for eyes and one for the nose.

To make bears, take a small portion of the natural frosting and combine it with the brown frosting to make a lighter brown shade. Place it in a small piping bag and snip the end; reserve for the bear’s muzzles. Cover the entire cupcake with brown frosting, then pipe on the muzzle; add candy eyes, a chocolate chip for the nose, and chocolate chips for the bear’s ears. Use a sharp knife, pulling upward, to create the bear’s fur.

Frost the remaining cupcakes however you like, or just use the remaining natural frosting and leave them plain (which is what I did). Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days. Makes 16.

Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies

bananachocolatechipcookieMike and I had some sketchy-looking bananas on our countertop a few weeks ago, and I’m just getting around to blogging what I made with them. Behold, banana chocolate chip cookies! Yes, those leopard-like bananas can be made into much more than bread. Not that there’s anything wrong with banana bread, of course. It’s a classic, easily adapted to include walnuts, chocolate chips, or whatever else you may like. 

I found this recipe over at Mom in Time Out and adapted it to include just chocolate chips, rather than the original chocolate and peanut butter chip combination, at Mike’s request. He loved them, and now I have a new go-to recipe when our bananas go south. If you’re looking to add some crunch, I’d suggest stirring in a half-cup of chopped walnuts or pecans to your batter. 

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 2 medium ripe bananas
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups milk chocolate chips 

Preparation

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

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, bananas, and sugars until combined, then add vanilla extract and mix to combine. Stir in flour mixture, then chocolate chips. Cover and refrigerate the dough for about 15-20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using a two-inch cookie scoop, drop scoops of dough on prepared baking sheets, about 2 inches apart.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, until very light golden brown. Remove from oven and cool on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for about 3 days. Makes about 2 dozen. 

Lemon Poppy Seed Bars

lemon poppy barsA while back I found a great recipe called Scandinavian blondies in my King Arthur Baking cookie companion, a great combination of lemon and almond flavors (or just almond, if you prefer). I’ve adapted that recipe multiple times to adjust the flavors, most recently using a classic lemon poppy seed combination. They turned out really well, and I’ll definitely make them again.

My first attempt at these used just one tablespoon of poppy seeds in the bars, which wasn’t enough. While it might sound like a lot, you definitely need two tablespoons to get a good poppy flavor against the lemon.

Ingredients

For the bars

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • zest of 1 medium lemon
  • 8 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons poppy seeds

For the glaze

  • 1 3/4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
  • 3 – 4 teaspoons water

Preparation

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease an 8 x 8 square baking pan.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat eggs until light colored and thick. Add sugar and salt, continuing to beat until shiny and pale yellow.

Add extract, zest, melted butter, and 1/2 cup of the flour, folding in gently. Fold in remaining 1/2 cup of flour and poppy seeds.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes, until the edges begin to pull away from the sides of the pan and are a very light golden color.

Remove from oven and cool completely before icing. To make icing, combine powdered sugar and poppy seeds; add water, 1 teaspoon at a time, to make a pourable glaze. Pour over bars and spread evenly with an offset spatula; allow to set before cutting. Makes 16.

Fudgy Coffee Brownies

fudgy coffee browniesChocolate and coffee are great flavor friends, and I’ve made many a mocha treat on this blog. A few weeks ago I wanted to bake something simple and easy, so I went with a classic coffee brownie using espresso powder and a simple espresso glaze icing. The end result was a fudgy (yet not too gooey) creation that proved to be very popular in Mike’s office.

If you don’t have espresso powder, I’d recommend using a coffee extract or even just coffee itself in your glaze. You can also add a tablespoon of coffee to your brownie batter as an alternative if you like. Espresso powder is usually available in the baking aisle at grocery stores near the chocolate. 

Ingredients

For the brownies

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups Dutch process cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon espresso powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups flour

For the icing

  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons espresso powder 
  • 2 tablespoons hot water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 – 2 teaspoons additional water 

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9 x 13 baking tin and sprinkle the bottom with sugar; this is my tip for a slightly crunchy bottom crust that adds a nice texture to otherwise soft treats like brownies.

In a large pot, melt butter over low heat. Stir in sugar and continue heating for another minute while stirring, until the mixture is just hot. Remove from heat and stir in cocoa powder, salt, baking powder, and espresso powder, then whisk in eggs and vanilla extract. Stir in flour, then spread evenly in prepared pan.

Bake for 28-30 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely before icing.

To make icing, place powdered sugar in a medium bowl; set aside. Mix espresso powder and hot water in a small bowl, then add to powdered sugar and stir. Add vanilla extract and additional water, 1/2 teaspoon at a time, to make a thick pourable glaze. Glaze brownies and use an offset spatula to smooth; allow to set before cutting into squares. Makes 24.

Rustic Apple Tart

rusticappletartMy mom Genny, an occasional subject on this blog, is coming from dinner this evening. She requested something simple – “just hamburgers, or whatever” – and instructed me not to go to any trouble. Well, I can’t have my mom over for Mother’s Day dinner without preparing some kind of dessert.

This rustic apple tart, originally found in my Better Homes & Gardens Baking book as a peach tart, was my first foray into free-form pastry baking and I think it turned out fairly well. The apples in the center look a bit dry to me, so I’m stocked with vanilla ice cream (both of the dairy and non-dairy variety, as Genny lives a low-dairy life) just in case. I actually suspect that I should have glazed the apples with apple or apricot jam after the tart baked to make them shiny. Eh, maybe next time.

Ingredients

For the crust

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • About 5 tablespoons cold water
  • Milk, for glazing
  • Sugar, for sprinkling

For the filling

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 4 teaspoons flour
  • 1 teaspoon apple pie spice
  • 3 cups peeled, sliced apples (I used Granny Smith and McIntosh)

Preparation

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. To make the crust, in a medium bowl, stir together flour and salt. Cut in shortening using a pastry blender or fork, then sprinkle in 1 tablespoon cold water at a time, tossing it in the dough to combine so it sticks together. You’ll still have some dry bits of flour in the bowl – that’s okay.

Place a large sheet of parchment on your countertop and pour the crust mixture onto it. Use the parchment to bring the dough together, pressing it into a rough rectangle. For an amazing look at how to do this, check out this video from King Arthur Baking. Set the dough aside in the fridge while you make your filling.

To make the filling, stir together sugar, flour, and apple pie spice. Add apples and toss to coat.

Remove crust from the fridge; place a second sheet of parchment on top of it and roll it out to about a 13-inch circle. I flipped my crust over at this point so my original piece of parchment could get discarded.

Place the crust on a rimmed baking sheet and add apples into the center, leaving about a 2-inch border around the sides. Fold the sides in to create the pleating; brush crust with milk and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake for 50-55 minutes, until crust is golden brown. Around 30 minutes, cover the exposed filling with a circle of foil to prevent burning.

Cool on a wire rack; store in an airtight container at room temperature for 1 day or in the fridge for 2 days. Makes 8 servings.

Vanilla Scones

vanillasconesThis past Christmas I got a lovely baker’s spice set from my cousin Barb and her family that included vanilla sugar. I’d first heard of vanilla sugar in the wonderful book Miriam’s Kitchen: A Memoir by Elizabeth Ehrlich, a writer who blended tales of her Jewish grandmothers, mother, and mother-in-law with her own foray into kosher living. One of Miriam’s recipes included vanilla sugar, which she bought in packets from her local grocery shop in the Bronx.

My vanilla sugar came in a bottle from Penzys, and together with some vanilla bean paste, made a delightfully tender scone. This makes a small batch, just eight wedges about 3 inches long, but it would be easy to double. If you don’t have vanilla bean paste, you can just substitute vanilla extract. I actually adapted a chocolate chip scone recipe I published 10 years ago for this, and though it turned out a bit dry, it has wonderful flavor. Nothing a bit of clotted cream or jam wouldn’t fix.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla sugar
  • 8 tablespoons cold butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 egg
  • 2 1/4 tablespoons milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste

Preparation

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, whisk together egg, milk, and vanilla bean paste; set aside. In a medium bowl, combine flour, salt, baking powder, and vanilla sugar. Add butter to the flour mixture, and using your hands, rub in the butter until the mixture looks like cake crumbs. Add egg mixture and stir with a fork until the dough comes together – it will be slightly sticky.

With floured hands, gather dough into a ball. Turn onto the parchment-lined baking sheet and flatten into a disc of about one-inch thickness. Cut into eight wedges and, using a small offset spatula, pull the wedges apart so they are not touching.

Bake for 15-18 minutes, until tops are golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool on the baking sheet for 1-2 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. You can also serve scones warm, but do let them cool down for just a few minutes so they’re safe to handle. Store leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for 1-2 days.

Little French Loaf

frenchloafI’m not much of a bread baker, and as I work to build my skills, I have many challenges. One of those challenges is that a lot of bread recipes make one or two loaves, and Mike and I simply aren’t going to eat that much bread. Enter One Dish Kitchen, a collection of small-batch recipes perfect for two. I found this recipe for a small loaf of French bread there, and am very pleased with how it turned out.

Flavor-wise it was perfect, but texture-wise it was denser than I’d have liked. I’m not sure if I kneaded it too much or too little, didn’t give it enough time to rise, or some other mysterious bread-related factor that I’ve yet to learn…but I am determined to learn. Small loaves are perfect for practice, so I intend to make this one again many times until I’ve mastered it. And as a woman who spent literal years perfecting her buttercream, I’m up to the challenge.

Ingredients

  • 2 1/4 cups (10 ounces) bread flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 6 ounces warm water (between 105 and 115 degrees)
  • 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast

Preparation

In a mixing bowl, combine flour, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, honey, and water. Sprinkle yeast over water and allow it to dissolve, then mix with your paddle attachment on medium speed until the dough comes together. You can either knead your dough using the dough hook on your mixer, or by hand – I kneaded by hand for the practice.

Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place back in your mixing bowl, cover the top with plastic wrap, and allow the dough to rise for about 1 hour or until nearly doubled in size.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead it 4-5 times to deflate it slightly. Cover it with a kitchen towel and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes. Shape the dough as desired – I went with a general oval loaf shape – place it on a baking sheet, and cover it with a kitchen towel. Allow the dough to rise a second time for about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Using a very sharp knife, make slashes in the top of your dough, then brush the whole loaf with remaining olive oil. Sprinkle with remaining kosher salt; bake for 18-20 minutes.

Remove loaf from oven and allow it to cool on your baking sheet for about 5 minutes, then place it on a wire rack and allow it to cool completely before serving. Makes about 8 slices, depending on how generously you cut each slice. Store in a large zip-top bag at room temperature for 2-3 days.

Easter Blossom Cake

orangecake1It’s Easter Sunday, but it’s 35 degrees in Pittsburgh this morning. Spring is an unpredictable season here in western Pennsylvania – it could be 75 and beautiful or 28 and snowing, all in the span of a few days. Mother Nature will do what she likes, and we all have to just go with it.

I like to think Mother Nature would enjoy this cake, not only for its buttercream blossoms but also its flavors. The cake itself is orange, with vanilla buttercream and a mixed berry filling. I didn’t feel like making my filling from scratch, so I heated up about 1/2 cup mixed berry preserves, then combined about 1/2 tablespoon of cornstarch with a few teaspoons of water to make a slurry. I stirred the slurry into the preserves and simmered it for about 8-10 minutes to thicken it, then cooled it in the fridge before using it.

Ingredients

For the cake

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • dash of salt
  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • zest of 1 Cara Cara orange
  • 6 tablespoons milk

For the frosting, filling, and decoration

  • 1 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup Bonne Maman mixed berry preserves, thickened*
  • Pink, yellow, fuchsia, and green gel food coloring

*To use preserves as a cake filling, place 1/2 cup preserves in a small saucepan over medium heat. In a small bowl, combine about 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch and 2 teaspoons water to make a slurry, then stir into the preserves. Simmer until thickened – the mixture will reduce as it cooks. 

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 6-inch round cake pans, line each with a parchment circle, and lightly grease the parchment.

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

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until very well-blended. Add eggs, vanilla extract, and orange zest and beat well to combine, scraping the sides of your bowl a few times.

Add flour and milk alternatively in two batches, beginning and ending with the flour and beating until completely combined.

Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 18-22 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow cakes to cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, then carefully turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the frosting: in a mixing bowl, beat butter on medium speed for 1-2 minutes. Add powdered sugar and beat on low, then medium speed, until the sugar is fully incorporated into the butter. Add vanilla extract and beat on medium speed for another 1-2 minutes. You want a spreadable consistency, but not so soft that your flower petals won’t hold their shape.

Place bottom layer of cake on your cake stand or plate and pipe a border just inside the edge of your cake; fill with thickened preserves. Top with the other cake and frost top and sides, covering with an even layer of frosting. Reserve a small portion of white frosting for flower details and another small portion for leaves; tint the remainder of your frosting to your desired shades and pipe flowers to create your design; I used roses, rosebuds, and five-petal flowers, then chilled them until they set before placing them on the cake. I then used two different sizes of closed-star tips to fill in the gaps with the other blooms and added leaves.

Store cake in an airtight container in the fridge; bring to room temperature before serving. Makes about 4-6 servings, depending on your slice size.

Here’s an overhead view of the cake, for a complete view of the flowers:

orangecake2

Pumpkin Pupcakes

pumpkinpupcakeOur dog Tucker turned two this week. He’s a very sweet boy who loves going for walks (especially hiking at the park), playing with various squeaky toys, and snuggling up to us for quiet time. Tucker  came to us from a rescue in Ohio and he didn’t have the easiest start in life, but he’s settled in with us very well. Despite having tons of energy, he can chill out like a pro. He’s napping as I write this.

These pupcakes – dog-safe cupcakes – were incredibly easy to make. I found the recipe at A Saucy Kitchen, then adapted it to use pumpkin instead of apple, and my batch made three adorable pupcakes. I chose to use baking powder, which is listed in the original recipe as optional, and I’m glad I did. These baked beautifully and have a lovely texture, kind of spongy and light. Tucker loved them.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup pumpkin puree
  • 3 tablespoons peanut butter*
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

*Don’t use peanut butter with artificial sweeteners like xylitol, which can be toxic and even deadly for dogs. I used Jif creamy peanut butter, because Tucker and I are Jif loyalists.

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a muffin tin with three paper liners.

In a small bowl, stir together pumpkin puree, peanut butter, egg, and baking powder until smooth. Spoon into muffin tin, dividing batter evenly.

Bake for 18-20 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven and remove pupcakes to a wire rack to cool completely before serving. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 3-4 days. Makes 3.

Lamb Cupcakes

lambcupcakeWhile searching for spring cupcake ideas, I came across these adorable lambs on Eats Amazing, a food blog out of England with incredibly creative treat ideas. The original recipe called for a chocolate/coconut combination, using shredded coconut to make the fleece, but I decided to just go with frosting. They’re probably the most adorable cupcakes I’ve ever made.

My frosting is a basic vanilla almond buttercream, but you could experiment with other flavors if you like to complement the chocolate – using chocolate frosting would make adorable brown sheep, so I might do that next time. You could also just frost these cupcakes by hand and make little swirls with your spatula for a wooly look instead of piping, but I really like how these turned out with the star tip.

Ingredients

For the cupcakes

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 3 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 cup water

For the frosting

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pans with paper liners; my batch made 15.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Mix until well-blended, then make three wells for the wet ingredients.

Place vinegar, vanilla and almond extracts, and vegetable oil into the separate wells; add water and mix until the batter is smooth. The mixture will bubble up slightly when you add the water, so just keep mixing until you get a smooth consistency in the batter, which will be fairly thin.

Using a 1/4 cup dry measuring cup, fill cupcake wells with batter – you want them to be about 2/3 full. Bake for 15-18 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven and remove cupcakes from the pan immediately, cooling completely on a wire rack before frosting.

For frosting, in a mixing bowl, beat butter for about 1 minute. Add powdered sugar and beat on low speed until all of the sugar is fully incorporated into the butter; this will take a few minutes. Add vanilla extract and almond extract, beating well to combine.

Fit a large piping bag with a large open star tip; I used the Wilton 6B. Pipe frosting on the top of each cupcake to make fleece. Place one chocolate wafer, flat side up, on each cupcake. Using a smaller piping bag fitted with a plain tip (or just snipped to allow for a small amount of frosting to come out), pipe dots on each wafer to hold the candy eyes, then add candy eyes. Cut remaining chocolate wafers into quarters and place two quarters on each cupcake for the lamb ears.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days. Makes 16.