Saturday, April 9, 2016

Buttermilk Cupcakes

I'm going to exercise all of my patience, good nature and positivity today.  It's imperative.  Because if I give in to the "dark side" of my mood things can go very bad, very quickly.  (Can you tell I just watched the newest Star Wars?)

There are some big wheels turning right now that determine the future of my family and they are just turning WAY TOO SLOW for my liking.  It's time for the next big move thanks to the Navy and we know where we are going but the when, how and how frustrated we will be along the way is still up in the air.  The simple act of moving is difficult as it is but throw in three kids, an international move, moving our furnishings into storage, passports, visas and a month in the States in between and you can see how I might be just the tiniest bit stressed.

So instead over obsessing over things that are completely out of my control, I'm making cupcakes.  Simple, light, vanilla scented ones.  I've made these a few times recently and I'm happy to say that they always turn out just right and are easy to play with if you want to go beyond basic.  The first time I baked them I made these sweet little butterfly cupcakes like my Nana used to make.  You just cut a cone-shaped piece of cake from the top, fill the hole with something delicious (I used jam and lemon curd this time, but Nana used to use pastry cream), slice the cake cone in half and nestle it in the filling to look like butterfly wings.  My kids loved them and I was reminded of hanging out in Nana's kitchen as a little girl.  If anything was going to make me forget a mountain of stress, that was it. 

Thanks, Nana.

Buttermilk Cupcakes
Makes 1 dozen standard cupcakes.  Adapted from this recipe by Martha Stewart.
For the printable recipe, click here

This is a simple, basic cupcake that you can do in one bowl by hand without having to pull out (or clean!) a big mixer if you don't want to.  It just takes a little elbow grease to whisk the eggs and sugar but it's totally do-able.  That kinda makes it perfect in my book.  The other bonus with this cupcake is that you really can leave it simple or jazz it up any way you want.  I've made them with mini chocolate chips for a birthday topped with buttercream and left them plain for a quick treat.  Add some lemon zest and blueberries, warm spices like cinnamon or cardamom or even bits of toffee or nuts to make them completely special and different.  What you do with the cupcakes is up to you but they are bound to become one of those recipes you keep coming back to time and again.

2 large eggs, room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/3 cup buttermilk
4 tbs butter
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Line the cups of a standard cupcake tin with cupcake liners.  Set aside.

Place the eggs and sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer.  Whisk on medium high until the mixture has thickened, lightened in color and forms ribbons on the surface that hold for a few seconds before disappearing. (Alternately, you can do this by hand with a whisk and a large bowl).  Reduce the speed to low and slowly add in the flour and baking powder.  Mix just until incorporated.

In a small saucepan, warm the buttermilk and butter just until the butter melts.  With the mixer on low, slowly add the buttermilk/butter mixture to the batter until it is smooth.  Add in the vanilla and mix until just incorporated (if you want to add anything to the batter such as chocolate chips or berries, add them now).

Divide the batter evenly among the prepared cupcake cups.  Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the cupcakes are lightly golden on top and the tops spring back when pressed gently and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Let the cupcakes cool in the tin on a wire rack for about 10 minutes.  Remove from the tin and cool completely on the rack.  Cupcakes can be stored in an airtight container for up to three days at room temperature.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Saint Joseph's Cakes {Nana's Recipe}

A few years ago my mom sent my sister and I a message asking us what recipes we'd really love to have from when we were kids that she and our grandmother had made for us.  We sent back a whole list of recipes, things that we rarely make ourselves and some that have become staples, that were the day to day must haves from our childhoods.  There were pasta and bread recipe requests as well as the cakes and cookies that were the highlights of family meals and celebrations.  Clearly, Mom had a plan to do something with this list of favorites.  But I think life got in the way and she was never able to do what she had hoped to.

Fast forward a year and I was growing weary of asking Mom for the same recipes over and over again (Why did I not write that down?  Where did that one go in the latest move?).  Plus, I was pregnant with my third baby and eager to get family recipes all in one place so that I could pass them on to my children.  So I made a determined effort to get all of the important baking recipes from my Mom and she and I collaborated in putting together a collection of recipes and stories in one book.  When we made our list of recipes to include, there were some that were absolutely non-negotiable.  Mostly these were the recipes from my Nana that came from Italy and would be completely lost of we didn't make the effort to write them down now.  This "cake" was one of them.

Nana made these cakes every year for St. Joseph's Day, a holiday that is celebrated in her Italian home region on March 19 every year.  They were one of my absolute favorites growing up- a sort of doughnut/French cruller stuffed full with sweet ricotta and chocolate chips.  It was one of the first that I made on my own for my college roommates and even for my students every year when I was teaching.  Now my own children love them and ask for them from time to time.  There was no way that I was going to leave this treat out of our collection.  I did a bit of streamlining of the ricotta filling recipe, but other than that this recipe is all Nana.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

Saint Joseph's Cakes
Makes at least one dozen 3 inch cakes.
For the printable recipe, click here.

These pretty little cakes are very much like a fried cream puff.  Keeping that in mind, they don't do too well after about a day.  So plan to eat them or share them all the day they are made.  Don't fill them until you are ready to serve or they will become too soggy.  The filling is the same as you would use to fill a cannoli so any leftover can be used to fill bought cannoli shells or even baked cream puffs (or if you are like me, straight off the spoon standing in front of the fridge).

½ cup neutral-flavored oil                                   
1 cup water                     
1 cup pastry (or all-purpose) flour
1 tbs sugar    
4 large eggs                                           
½ tsp each grated lemon and orange rind

Also: Neutral-flavored oil for frying
Chocolate Chip Ricotta Cream (recipe follows)
Powdered sugar for dusting the tops

 Cut several squares of parchment paper into 4 inch squares.

Combine oil, salt, and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Add flour all at once and mix well with a wooden spoon until the dough leaves the side of pan. Remove from the stove and let it cool off a little.  Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add sugar, grated peels and mix well again.

Heat oil in a large pan that’s about 4 or 5 inches deep.  Fill a large pastry bag fitted with a large star tip with the mixture. On each square of parchment paper, pipe out a 3” circle of dough. When the oil starts to shimmer on the surface drop the parchment with the dough circles into the oil. The paper will come off in a few seconds and you can remove it. Fry until golden brown, flip, and fry until the other side is golden. Let cool completely.

Slice in half and fill with chocolate chip ricotta cream.  Dust with powdered sugar.

Chocolate Chip Ricotta Cream
2 3/4 cup ricotta
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup mini chocolate chips
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
1/2 tsp fresh orange juice

Line a fine mesh sieve with a layer of cheesecloth and place over a bowl.  Put the ricotta into the sieve and place the whole thing into the refrigerator to drain overnight (covered with plastic wrap).

In a large bowl, whip the drained ricotta and powdered sugar with a wooden spoon or spatula until fluffy.  Beat in the chocolate chips, vanilla, orange zest and juice.  Refrigerate, covered, at least one hour or until ready to use.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Orange Olive Oil Polenta Cake

I'm trying to shake off the gloomy mood around here.  Reading back over my posts as of late, I feel like I've been in a kind of funk and it shows.  So I'm purposefully taking on a decidedly more positive tone today.  Let's see how it fits, shall we?

I reconnected with an old high school friend not too long ago.  She's been through some rough stuff in her life, including some very devastating losses.  But she's the most positive person and I'm always looking forward to reading the things she posts on Facebook and scrolling past the inspirational quotes she finds on Instagram.  Yup, she's one of THOSE people.  Perpetually happy and trying to make the world a better place, one inspirational quote at a time.  We all know someone like that, don't we?  On our worst days we roll our eyes and scroll quickly past.  On our best we think, "Yes!  That's exactly how I feel!". 

A few days ago my friend posted this little gem,

"'It's impossible,' said pride.
'It's risky,' said experience.
'It's pointless,' said reason.
'Give it a try,' whispered the heart."

It's the kind of thing that's layered on top of a photo of a mountain climber or amazing landscape that I usually don't even bother looking at.  But that day I did.  I suppose I was feeling optimistic and it struck a chord with me.  You see, I had done just the thing about a week earlier.  I had put myself out there to be scrutinized and (hopefully) accepted in a role that would take my work to another level.  It was a move very far outside my comfort zone and had required an almost "close your eyes and go for it without thinking too much" sort of move to make it happen.

The same day that quote rolled across my screen I got the email saying that although they had enjoyed working with me in the past, there was no room at the moment for me to contribute.  Included in the email was an offer for me to do a bit of behind the scenes work in lieu of the position I was hoping for.  Which is sweet and I'm happy to do anything that will get my foot in the door, but at it's heart it was still what I had dreaded most- rejection.  It's the greatest leap of faith in yourself and your abilities to risk rejection in that way.  My leap, it seems, fell just that short of making it to the other side.

The funny thing is, I'm okay with that.  It was risky, but not impossible or pointless.  I listened to the whispers of my heart and tried.  I think that's win.  Maybe not the win that I was hoping for, but better than giving in to fear and not having tried at all.  It's what I try to teach my kids and what I aimed to instill in my students when I was still in the classroom- getting something wrong or failing is not the worst thing that can happen.  In fact, those moments teach us the best lessons about ourselves and about how to improve for the next time.  Because there will be a next time, you can be sure of it.  So this time, my aim was off a bit.  Next time? Who knows?

Orange Olive Oil Polenta Cake
Makes one 9 x 5 inch loaf.  Adapted from smitten kitchen.
For the printable recipe, click here.

I love this sort of one bowl, quick and easy cake to have around for an afternoon snack or if a friend drops by.  Wrap a sheet of parchment and pretty ribbon around one and you've got a wonderful hostess gift.  The orange (I used sweet cara cara oranges, but blood oranges or valencias would be just as at home here) gives a bright, citrus-y sweetness, the olive oil a bit of depth and the polenta adds just a hint of crunch to the bite that I find irresistible.  The polenta or corn meal that you choose will change the texture depending on how finely ground it is.  The one that I used is a nice happy medium and it suits this cake just fine.  This is a chance to break out that good olive oil you've been saving- with as much as is in the cake you will taste the difference.

1 cup (200g) cane sugar 
3 oranges
1/3 cup buttermilk or plain yogurt 
3 large eggs 
2/3 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil 
1 cup all purpose flour 
3/4 cup ground polenta or corn meal 
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda 
1/2 tsp fine sea salt

Butter a 9x5 inch loaf pan and set aside.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 

Place the sugar in a large bowl.  Zest one of the oranges over the bowl directly into the sugar (the orange flavor in this cake is subtle, if you'd like to make it more pronounced grate the zest of a second orange into the bowl).  Rub the zest into the sugar with your fingertips to release the oils.

Remove the peel and pith of one orange (supreme the orange) by cutting off the top and bottom to reveal the fruit inside.  Then, run your knife along the curve of the orange to remove the remaining skin and pith.  Holding the orange in your hand, cut away the wedges of orange between the membranes.  Drop the orange pieces into the bowl with the sugar and zest.  Break up the segments into 1/4 inch pieces with your fingers.

Juice the remaining two oranges into a small bowl or liquid measuring cup. You should have about 1/2 cup of juice.  Stir the buttermilk into the juice then pour it into the bowl with the sugar mixture.  Stir the mixture together with a whisk.  Add the eggs and olive oil to the bowl and whisk until fully combined. 

Carefully whisk in the flour, polenta, baking powder, baking soda and salt into the wet ingredients just until incorporated.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and place in the oven. 

Bake for 50-55 minutes.  The cake will be golden and a knife or toothpick inserted in the center will come out clean.  Cool the cake on a wire rack for 5 minutes.  Run a palette or butter knife around the edge of the pan and invert the cake onto the rack.  Cool completely (right side up).  Wrapped airtight the cake will keep for three days.