revisiting an old favorite

My youngest, C., turned 15 this month and asked for the Cook’s Illustrated Devil’s Food Layer Cake with Whipped Cream Frosting for his birthday cake. I’ve made it a number of times before (posted here and here), but had forgotten about it. His memory was jarred when he looked through my old posts.  WNYC was kind enough to post the recipe on their Leonard Lopate Show site (it’s at the bottom of the page), so you can look at it there. I used Kate’s Real Buttermilk, rather than plain yogurt, and Dutch-processed cocoa (it’s all I had) rather than the natural cocoa powder. Also be advised that the cake layers bake up fairly thin, regardless of what the recipe notes say; I’ve baked it many times and I’ve found this to be true every time.

The cake was, in a word, amazing. It might be the best-tasting cake I’ve ever baked. In my whole life. Try it, I implore you.

waste not, want not chocolate cupcakes

Remember how I said I needed to use up the leftover icing in my last post? Voila! Chocolate cupcakes iced with the leftover Chocolate Buttercream and decorated with leftover Vanilla Buttercream.  The cupcake recipe is from Martha Stewart’s site, though I substituted plain lowfat Greek-style yogurt for the sour cream. The cake was moist and dense and not overly sweet — the perfect foil for the icing. Sooooo good.

many, many mini cupcakes!

I was asked to make mini cupcakes for a celebration at church last weekend. They were expecting about 175 guests, but left the specifics (varieties and number of cupcakes) up to me. After much gnashing of teeth and sketching out possible combinations in my notepad, I decided to make 3 different batters and 3 different icings, resulting in 5 different combos: yellow cupcakes with vanilla buttercream, yellow cupcakes with chocolate buttercream, dark chocolate cupcakes with vanilla buttercream, dark chocolate cupcakes with chocolate buttercream, and carrot cupcakes with cream cheese icing. I thought this would provide the best selection for everyone’s different tastes while not creating an overwhelming amount of work for me.

The whole process went about as smoothly as I could have hoped, thanks to careful planning on my part. I knew I would have a limited amount of time to bake on the day of the gathering, so I made the icings the day before and refrigerated them. Before I used them the next day, I brought them to room temperature, gave each a quick whip in the mixer and I was good to go.  I also “mis-d” my cupcake ingredients the day before, with the plan that I would get up at 5am and have a solid 3 – 4 hours of baking before I had to leave for the morning, then return at lunchtime to ice the cupcakes, and have them delivered to the event by 2:30pm.  Everything really went according to plan aside from my anxious brain waking up at 3am and refusing to settle back down again.  At 4:30am, I called it quits on the night’s sleep and got to work.

All the cupcake batter recipes were from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book.  Each recipe makes 24 full-sized cupcakes according to the book; when I made them, I portioned them with a #40 (3/4-oz.) scoop which worked out to between 65 – 70 mini cupcakes per batch.

The icings were from a couple of different sources.  The vanilla and chocolate buttercreams were from Brown Eyed Baker (vanilla here, and chocolate here). Both were scrumptious! The cream cheese icing recipe was the original Philadelphia Cream Cheese Frosting recipe from Kraft’s site.  I’ve tried a number of other cream cheese icing recipes and this one remains the most consistent.  I also added a tablespoon of Wilton Meringue Powder to each batch to stabilize the icing, since all were mostly butter (and cream cheese — notoriously hard to work with in warm temps). Note that the carrots on the carrot cupcakes were vanilla buttercream and not cream cheese icing. One more thing: a single batch of each icing was enough to ice all the cupcakes, with icing to spare.

The cupcakes were well-received and I was really pleased with the results.  There were a few minor snafus (AKA learning moments) that I have made note of — mostly having to do with juggling the fiddly little mini cupcake trays in the oven when rotating them and issues with air circulation in the oven, but nothing anyone else would probably notice.  Now on to planning my next batch of cupcakes… need to use up that leftover icing!

mexican chocolate cupcakes with dulce de leche frosting

I decided that this summer I would try my hand at making some less pedestrian cupcakes. For my birthday, I selected these goodies that I pinned a few months back on my “Things to Bake/Make” board on Pinterest. I also attempted (and succeeded) making Dulce de Leche from “scratch” (i.e. from a can of condensed milk) for the first time. When I originally selected the recipe, I thought I was going to be able to find already-prepared (canned) Dulce de Leche quite readily at my local supermarket, but no such luck. In spite of the extra step, they were undoubtedly the better for my having made my own Dulce de Leche.

I did a fair amount of research before making my own Dulce de Leche. The standard way is to make it by submerging a sealed can of sweetened condensed milk in a simmering pot of water for a couple hours or so, but apparently that technique comes with a fair amount of risk, of the can exploding.  That really didn’t sound appealing to me.  There are other techniques as well, including baking the contents of the can over a water bath (as David Leibovitz describes here) for an hour, or the method I employed: slowly microwaving the sweetened condensed milk at 30% – 50% power and whisking at regular intervals.  I felt the most comfortable with this technique because (a) it seemed to be the least time consuming, (b) it was a warm day and would heat up my kitchen the least, and (c) I felt I had the most control over the process this way.  I didn’t want to burn it or heat it to the point of turning the milk into rock hard candy. Since I would be taking the Dulce de Leche out of the microwave every couple minutes and whisking it, I would have a better handle at its state at any given point. I was really happy with this method and definitely would make it this way again. One tip — place the milk in the biggest bowl that will fit in your microwave. 14 ounces of sweetened condensed milk doesn’t look like that much, but when it starts to boil in the microwave, it really bubbles up. There were times when I was intoning “stop, stop, stop” as the milk rose to the top of the bowl. Fortunately, the microwave power always seemed to cycle off before it could boil over.

Here are directions I used, from Carnation’s site.  They seemed to use the most conservative time and power settings of the different microwaving instructions I’ve read. I cooked mine an additional 2 minutes at 30% power, for a total of 14 minutes at 30%. Note also that after the Dulce de Leche has cooled, you may have to warm it slightly over a warm water bath to make it pliable enough to beat with the cream cheese for the icing.

Pour 1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk into a large microwave-safe bowl. Cook on medium (50%) power for 4 minutes, stirring halfway through heating time. Reduce power to medium-low (30%) power; cook for 8 to 12 minutes, stirring with wire whisk every few minutes, until thick and light caramel-colored. 

Note: Microwave ovens may vary; adjust timing accordingly. 

The cupcake and icing recipe is from Jennifer’s Bake or Break blog. The addition of cinnamon to the chocolate batter is what gives them a Mexican chocolate flavor. I used Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder (a mixture of Dutch-processed and unsweetened cocoa powders) for a darker, richer and mellower chocolate flavor, rather than using the straight unsweetened cocoa powder called for.

I also converted the volume measurements in the cupcake recipe into weights, as I am a compulsive scaler.  Here are my conversions:

  • 8.5 oz. all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt (I used a slightly heaping 1/2 tsp. of coarse sea salt)
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1.5 oz. mixture of Dutch-processed and unsweetened cocoa powder (such as Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder)
  • 8 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • 10.5 oz. granulated sugar
  • 4 oz. light brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tbs. vanilla extract
  • 8 oz. milk
You can read the rest of the cupcake recipe and the frosting recipe on the Bake or Break site.
To ice the cupcakes, I piped the icing on in a swirl (I don’t really like how it looks when I spread it on with a spatula), using a Wilton #12 round tip.  I had just enough to ice all 24 cupcakes with no icing left over, so ration carefully (and sample sparingly!). To finish, I garnished each cupcake with a piece of chewy caramel candy, cut into quarters. 
The cupcakes were phenomenal.  The cake itself was moist and rich and the icing’s cream cheese-Dulce de Leche combo was a great compliment to the cake — not too sweet and just a hint of caramel-y goodness. My husband took a few into work and they were very well-received. Thanks to Jennifer for a fabulous pair of recipes!

it’s apple season!

I made these cute cupcakes a few weeks ago, in celebration of the boys’ return to school. The cake itself was from a mix (Wilton-approved Duncan Hines Dark Chocolate Fudge) that I happened to have on hand. The icing was the Chocolate Frosting recipe from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book. I don’t know what the problem was with my icing recipes this summer — maybe it was just the increased warmth — but they typically did not turn out well at all. I remember it being a fairly cool day, inside and out, and still the icing turned out soupy, about the consistency of warm pudding, even after refrigerating the icing for several hours before piping. It was such a disappointment. You can see that the icing in the photo doesn’t look very sharp; I took this picture after chilling the iced cupcakes overnight. After about 15 minutes out of the fridge, the piped icing lost much of its definition.

For the toppers, I tinted some fondant with Americolor soft gel pastes — Super Red for the apples, and Leaf Green for the leaves. I really love this product — the colors turn out bright without using a ton of gel paste; I much prefer them to Wilton icing gel colors. I also painted on a little straight gel paste for some highlighting on the apples so they wouldn’t look quite so flat. I love how they turned out!

summer birthday cake #3: america’s test kitchen’s devil’s food cake with cream cheese frosting

C. requested a chocolate cake with cream cheese icing for his birthday. I selected the Devil’s Food Layer Cake and Cream Cheese Frosting from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book. I have to say I no longer hang on to ATK’s every word when it comes to baking, as I’ve had a few of their recipes not turn out well (including one which caused Team Awesome to blow our grade on the Baking For Health and Wellness practical).  No issues with the Devil’s Food Cake but the Cream Cheese Frosting was really disappointing. It was too soft to work with in spite of being well-chilled. I know it’s a cardinal sin in the cake business to even attempt using cream cheese icing in the summer, so I was already asking for trouble, but I believe this recipe was a bit wonky to begin with.  This morning I conducted a postmortem and compared the ratios with the cream cheese frosting recipe I ordinarily use (from the Philadelphia Cream Cheese folks). ATK’s uses a quarter of the amount of confectioner’s sugar that Philly’s does, slightly more butter and includes a small amount of sour cream (which the Philadelphia Cream Cheese recipe does not have).  I really should’ve compared the recipes before making the icing and recognized that there might be a problem with the ATK recipe.  Baking is a science, so call this a failed experiment.
Icing failure or not, it was an adorable cake.  I enlisted the birthday boy, AKA fondant modeler extraordinaire, to create the figures for his cake.  My original idea was to model little schnauzers but he has more experience than I do with making dogs so I asked him if he might like to give it a go.  He suggested making something else entirely.  Recently he’s been on a Pikmin kick so he created different figures from the game. He mixed the colors and modeled everything himself. Clearly he’s the real artistic talent in our family. (Happy 14th birthday, C!)
The Wollywog squashing a blue Pikmin.
Different pellets, and a purple Pikmin carrying a marble.
Dwarf Red Bulborb

summer birthday cake #2: flour’s yellow birthday cake with fluffy chocolate ganache frosting

My darling and very easy-going husband requested a yellow cake with chocolate icing for his birthday this year so I decided to try a recipe I’d been eying for awhile: Yellow Birthday Cake with Fluffy Chocolate Ganache Frosting from Flour by Joanne Chang.  The photo in the book looks delectable — thick layers of yellow cake, filled and iced with light brown (thanks to the incorporation of lots and lots of air), super fluffy icing. As you might be able to deduce from the artfully-lit photo above, mine didn’t exactly turn out that way.  The cake was fine — a little dense, but moist enough for a scratch cake and not excessively greasy the way many scratch yellow cakes seem to turn out (not greasy = dry; moist = greasy). I followed the icing recipe to the letter, but it came out soupy. It was the consistency of cake batter — imagine trying to ice a cake with that.  I can’t quite decide what went wrong. Basically, you melt the chocolate with heavy cream over a double-boiler and let cool completely.  Then you whip the butter and cream that with confectioner’s sugar, salt and flavoring. Finally you add the chocolate-cream mixture and whip ’til it lightens and thickens.  Easy-peasy, right? No. The most obvious culprit might be excessive warmth, but my kitchen wasn’t particularly hot that day. I even went so far as to see if there were any corrections to the recipe posted on Flour’s website, but nadda.

In the end, it was yummy, if very frustrating. It was impossible to ice and smooth, and very difficult to decorate. Chilling the icing before piping just made it go straight from wet to rock hard, so I gave up on that. I attempted to pipe buttercream flowers on the top, but they just sank under the soupy icing. Piping on a border was out of the question. Yuck. The peeps were very understanding and appreciative nevertheless and proclaimed it delicious. I have the sweetest family!

summer birthday cake #1: henri’s chocolate cake by zoe bakes

People tease me when they hear that I bake my own birthday cake.  They think I have to bake my own cake, rather than want to bake my own cake.  But I spend so much time baking what others want, it’s a treat to bake something of my choosing.

This year, I baked Henri’s Chocolate B-day Cake (it’s a Devil’s Food Cake) topped with Dorie Greenspan’s Chocolate Malt Buttercream from Zoe Bakes. The cake itself is a recipe that I’ve turned to on a number of occasions, including here and here. Instead of baking it in a single 3-inch tall, 8-inch round pan and torting the cake, as Zoe recommends, I baked two layers in 2-inch tall, 8-inch round pans. The biggest reason for this was that I don’t own a 3-inch tall 8-inch pan. Also, I didn’t feel like torting the cake. But mostly the first thing. Instead of prepping the pans in the conventional manner (grease, flour and parchment), I brushed on the handy-dandy pan grease that’s never ever failed me in the past few hundred times I’ve used it. Maybe this recipe has less fat or is too soft, or I just don’t know why, but the corners stuck like a, well, like a really bad compound word. Next time, I’ll be lining the bottom with parchment in addition to using the pan grease.

Broken cake aside (13-year-old C. thought the stuck parts made a fabulous breakfast, by the way), I spackled the missing bits with the Chocolate Malt Buttercream and moved on.  I was inspired by Zoe’s decorating job on her site, but somehow my big dots looked like something less appetizing.  I think it’s the brown icing that pushed the resemblance over the edge.  Luckily, it’s a very scrumptious cake — the cake is moist and tender and the icing is rich and chocolatey.  It’s one of the rare cakes where no one leaves a glob of excess icing on the plate.  It’s soooo good — I love, love, LOVE this cake!

That’s one cake down, and three more to go in our house this summer!

happy bday, pj!

My first post post-school year! This was a little something that I baked for my darling husband’s 45th birthday a week ago. The cake was Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake with Philadelphia Cream Cheese Frosting. The icing job came out looking a little rough but it was sweltering that day and I had to chill the cake for 15 minutes for every 2 minutes of work I got done because otherwise the icing was turning to soup. By now, I’ve had plenty of experience working in hot kitchens, but since it was for just us, I didn’t sweat it too much. I would’ve liked to make the sides a bit smoother before combing them though.

Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake

About 10-12 servings.
2 cups sugar
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup Hershey’s Cocoa, sifted

1-1/2 tsp. baking powder

1-1/2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

2 eggs

1 cup milk

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 cup boiling water

Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans.

Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes. Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin). Pour batter into prepared pans.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks.

Philadelphia Cream Cheese Frosting
Kraft says this is enough to ice two 8- or 9-inch layers; I made 1 1/2 times the recipe to be safe and it was barely enough.

1 8-oz. pkg. Philadelphia Cream Cheese, softened
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 16-oz. pkg. powdered sugar (about 4 cups), sifted

Beat cream cheese, butter and vanilla in large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until well blended. Add sugar gradually, beating until well blended after each addition.


I’m currently in the midst of Chocolates and Confections class at school. The class is really more like part chocolates – part really hard science class (at least for me). At any rate, above is a picture of some of what I made yesterday. On the top are peanut butter pralines (with rice krispies for crunch), painstakingly hand-dipped in lovingly table tempered milk chocolate. Arranged on the bottom of the sheet pan are mocha ganache-filled pralines, dipped in milk chocolate and garnished with cocoa nibs. We also made a raspberry ganache that we will cut and dip next Sunday. By the end of the (very long) day, we were all chocolate-covered! Thank goodness for Oxyclean.