Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Baked (Vanilla) Beans

Have you ever seen vanilla beans, up close and personal? They're basically little flat, shriveled-up black sticks with stems, sort of forlorn looking, like they're had the life sucked out of them--the raisin of the spice world.

In spite of their lack of aesthetic appeal, though, the suckers are high dollar. I actually paid $8 for a tiny glass jar containly exactly two. And then I used both of them to make exactly one dozen vanilla cupcakes. (Goodbye, $8.)

No, Kroger didn't rip me off. According to Wikipedia, "vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron." I know you were dying to know that. It has something to do with how expensive it is to grow the seed pods. (Yes, I did plug "vanilla" into Wikipedia. Tell me you haven't researched stranger.)


The point of this whole expenditure was to make a knockoff of those vanilla bean cupcakes at Starbucks. You know, those ruggedly appealing, ridiculously expensive (I guess we know why now) ones? Exhibit A:

I have to say, this was a success.

AND to celebrate, I'm going to give you my vanilla bean buttercream recipe. Just cuz I love you.

Worth-the-Extra-$8 Vanilla Bean Buttercream

¼ cup Crisco
¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
heavy whipping cream
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped

Beat Crisco and butter until smooth and creamy. Add confectioner’s sugar and vanilla, along with 2 tablespoons cream. Beat well, adding more cream (by the teaspoon) as needed to reach desired consistency. Add scraped vanilla bean seeds and mix until seeds are evenly distributed.

Makes about 3 cups

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ah, memories (and cake)

I had a nostalgic moment the other day.

Yes, I'm actually having those at the ripe old age of 25, and I think it might mean I've crossed an important threshhold, age-wise. I find myself saying things like, "When I was a kid..." and "Oh, I remember when..." and even "Back in the day..." And I've even contemplated the need to start writing down some of those memories so that when my kids (the hypothetical kids I don't have yet, that is) say, "Mommy, tell me a story about when you were a little girl," I'll have plenty to pull from. (I remember asking MY mom that when I was a kid and absolutely loving to hear those stories, no matter how mundane they might have seemed to her.)

Anyway, the particular nostalgic moment I'm talking about happened last weekend. (Yeah, I'm just now getting around to posting the pictures. Sorry.) I had an order for a couple of birthday cakes, for a joint birthday party for two kids. One was supposed to be baseball themed, the other dance themed.


This totally catapulted me back to my childhood. First, baseball.

I remember all those summer days spent hanging out at the baseball field during Adam's games and practices. It was always blazing hot (think Texas summers and shorts on metal bleachers; ouch!). A lot of times my friend Monica (her little sister was on the same team as Adam) and I would go buy candy from the concession stand and then go amuse ourselves until time to go home. Good times.

And then cake #2: dance.

There were years of dance mania on my part. I loved dance. (And by "loved," I mean was utterly obsessed with.) I ate, slept, BREATHED dance. Dance class, dance team, competitions, performances, costumes, shoes, music, makeup...something like 12 or 13 years of it. (And yet I ended up an editor. Huh.)

Anyway, here are both cakes together:

And then boxed up and ready to go:

What can I say? Good times, good memories.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How To Eat a Reese's Cup

Today, I'd like to talk about the following:

Yes, that's right. Reese's cups. We're going to talk about them. Actually, I'm going to tell you a story about them, and about Junior High Me.

When I was in seventh grade, Reese's cups were a standard item of fare at lunch time. The school cafeteria sold candy, and every day I or one of my friends would fork out the 50 cents to buy a pack. Then the purchaser would painstakingly unwrap and divide the candy into halves or even quarters (which is really a skill/art) and then dole them out--meaning that a pack of two peanut butter cups served as dessert for up to eight preteen girls. (No wonder we were skinny.)

Now, every once in a blue moon I'd get an entire Reese's cup to myself. And let me tell you, I savored the experience. Here was my standard MO and "how to" guide for getting the most out of a Reese's cup: (1) working in a circular motion, carefully push down along the inside rim of the cup, about 1/8 inch from the edge, being careful not to push in the center; (2) continue working in this manner until the "core" of the cup comes out in one disk-shaped piece (being VERY careful not to break the core and ruin the whole thing); (3) separate the two parts--the coveted peanut-butter core, and the hollowed-out rim; (4) set the core aside; (5) nibble on the rim for an inordinate amount of time (no kidding; I bet I'd work for five minutes on it); and (5) finally, as the piece de resistance (and the point of the whole endeavor, to be quite honest), revel in the gooey, peanut-buttery center.

There you have it. If that's not golden advice (and potentially frightening insight into my childhood), I don't know what is.

It's been quite some time since junior high, and my appreciation for this candy has expanded into some new territory. And so, without further ado, I give you my NEW "how to maximize the Reese's Cup": the Reese's Cup Peanut Butter Cheesecake.

Oh, yeah, and I had extra batter, so I made a "mini me" version for Adam. Yes, yes; that IS the heart-shaped mini springform making another appearance. What can I say? I embrace the cutesy-ness of it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

News So Great I Can't Even Think up a Clever Enough Title for the Post about It

Disclaimer: this is going to be an entirely non-food post. A little out of sync, I know. But it sort of has to be; there's no way I'm going to try to combine this kind of stellar content with (comparatively) mundane rambling about birthday cakes or cheesecake.

I have awesome news: my dear friend (and ex...uh, I mean former...roommate) Julia is getting married in August! (You can't see it, but I'm doing a little "woo hoo!" dance. I do it, at least internally, every time I think about it.)

This is dance/grins/celebration worthy for a lot of reasons. Besides it being "ohmygoshJulia'sgettingmarried" excitement, this also is (1) an excuse to fly out to L.A. and see all my friends, (2) the opportunity to be a part of the bridal party (seriously an honor and privilege), and (3) a reason to buy a cute new black dress (GOOD choice with the bridal party garb, Jules).

And there's something else, too--something much, much more important; this engagement, besides all of the above, is an incredible example and reminder of God's goodness and sovereign guidance.

It's simply astounding (in a good, good way) to see two people who love Jesus Christ with all their hearts prepare to join their lives together. No doubt their marriage will be a vivid illustration of His sacrificial love for His church...and no doubt Jules and Tim (the fiance) will only love Him and serve Him better through being together.

Have I mentioned how excited I am? Oh, right...yep, time to do the "woo hoo!" dance again...and then maybe think about writing that post about cheesecake or whatever. ;)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Have you seen that TV commercial (for Papa John's or something) with the Italian guy tossing pizza dough? It's pretty impressive. He manhandles that dough like nobody's business--throws it up in the air, whirls it in circles, even rolls it over his shoulders (no kidding!). All to some really upbeat music.

When I make pizza, I don't really get so Cirque du Soleil about the process. Not because I wouldn't like to, mind you. But I don't have the patience...or the skill. (Me trying to toss dough = dough plopped into a gooey mess on the kitchen floor.)

Anyway, dough-tossing abilities aside, I like pizza. I like the pizza-whirling guy. I like eating pizza. And I like making pizza.

Exhibit A:
Now, that was a Canadian bacon/pineapple pizza. Honestly, not my favorite. I like just plain old tomato, onion, and basil. And my family is big on BBQ chicken pizza. Still, I thought I'd post these pictures because...well, because they're the only ones I have at the moment.

Here are a few more:

Wanting pizza now? (Yeah, me too.) Well, don't worry...and don't call Papa John's. Because I love you, I'm also posting my pizza crust recipe. Enjoy!

Favorite Pizza Crust
1 cup warm water (105–115°)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons white sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 package active dry yeast
3 cups all-purpose flour (sometimes I use half whole-wheat)
olive oil
Italian seasoning
garlic salt

1. Combine first four ingredients in large bowl; sprinkle yeast on top and whisk until dissolved.

2. Add 2 cups flour; stir until smooth. Gradually add remaining cup flour, mixing until soft, sticky dough forms and begins to pull away from sides of bowl.

3. Turn onto lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, 6–8 minutes. Shape into a ball and place in greased bowl, turning once to coat. Cover bowl and place in warm, draft-free place to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

4. Heat oven to 450°, with pizza stone inside. Punch dough down; divide in half. On lightly floured surface, stretch/toss/roll each piece into a large circle. (Do not let dough rise!)

5. Slide dough onto pizza stone sprinkled with cornmeal. Lightly drizzle with olive oil (or spray
with cooking spray) and sprinkle with Italian seasoning and garlic salt. Puncture with fork. Bake 5–10 minutes, depending on crispiness desired.

6. Remove crust (still on stone) from oven (or just slide the oven rack out), and top as desired.

7. Bake about 10 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbly.

Makes two 12–14-inch crusts

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Tale of Two Springforms

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...."

It was time...to make cheesecake?

Okay, so it's sort of hard to make a cream cheese/French Revolution parallel. But, man, I love that novel. And, hey, I bet Chuck Dickens liked cheesecake. I bet he would've liked these cheesecakes.

I mean, there is simply something to be said for cute li'l heart-shaped cheesecakes. (They're even PINK, for crying out loud.) And this is one of my favorite recipes: Neapolitan Cheesecake. (Hmm...maybe we could shuffle a few letters and re-dub it "Napoleonic Cheesecake" to make it more Tale of Two Cities-ish?)

I posted a pic of a large one of these guys a while back. These are the same thing, but mini versions. Mom and Dad asked me to make up something special for one of our neighbors. He's been kind enough to keep our lawn mowed since our lawnmower gave up the ghost a few weeks ago, and they wanted to give him a little thank-you. Nothing says thanks like cheesecake, right?

Here are the pics.

First, the aforementioned, oh-so-cute mini springforms. (Everyone, now: Awww...)

Here they are wrapped in their foil swimming trunks, getting ready for a water bath/spa experience.

Chocolate cookie crumbs + melted butter = really yummy crust.

Here they are going into the oven, luxuriating in that steaming hot water bath I was talking about.

Out of the oven, cooling...and cooling...and cooling. (They take forever.)

Closeup, minus the foil "trunks."

Finally, after cooling completely, they get released from their springforms.

After chilling several hours, they get topped with chocolate and drizzled in white chocolate, then chilled some more. Then they're boxed and ready to go!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sweet Safari

I have a confession: I miss Play-Doh. There are days when I wish I still had a couple of cans of that salty goodness (oh, come on, like you never tasted it) to roll into snakes and snowmen.
Somehow, though, this doesn't exactly fly as a "grown up" hobby like reading or jogging or gardening or whatever. And that makes me pretty sad. At least, it did until I discovered something:


It's ADULT PLAY-DOH! (And it's actually meant to be eaten, which is a bonus.)

I've used fondant before, but only for relatively easy things like bows and cutouts. I've never tried to free-style, so to speak. But when I found out I was doing a baby shower cake, and that the mom-to-be was decorating her nursery in a jungle theme, I figured I'd branch out a little.

Let me tell you, trying to hand-cut intricate little jungle animals out of fondant takes a lot of time and patience. (And that's after the time spent coloring the fondant.) Gluing the pieces together with royal frosting is a bit of a royal pain. But it's still so much fun.

I wasn't entirely happy with this cake (and would do several things differently in the future), but I did enjoy the Play-D...um, the fondant.