Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chocolate Cupcakes

One of my favorite books to read to William is A Baby Sister for Frances. Frances is a cute little badger who makes up the most adorable songs, and that’s one of the reasons I like to read it to William, but I am glad this is a blog and I am not telling you about this in person, because there is no risk of your hearing my renditions of them. In this story, Frances astutely observes that since the baby joined their family, “Things are not very good around here anymore. No clothes to wear. No raisins for the oatmeal.” (Sounds like my house…maybe that is the reason I like the book so much.) Frances decides to run away to under the dining room table, and her parents display great wisdom in handling the situation. I covet their wisdom, and I covet the peacefulness of their household, and I covet the way Frances’ mother simply “whips up” a chocolate cake at the end of the story. Seriously, who just whips up a chocolate cake from scratch on a weeknight while the baby sleeps and the toddler looks on contentedly? Not me.

Ok, I lied. I found this great recipe for chocolate cake that I actually made one afternoon with William while Titus napped. It helps that it takes only one bowl, can be whisked by hand, and bakes up in about 30 minutes. Plus, the eggs go in last, which is nice because then I am not so worried about the kiddo snitching batter, which is what the majority of his “helping” consists of. Oh, he also put the cupcake liners in the pan, and I think he was rightfully pretty proud of himself.

This cake is rather delicate, so not ideal for cupcakes actually, but I might try to ignore that fact and make this my go-to chocolate cake recipe anyway. I like cupcakes better than layer cakes, but not just because they’re cute! Come on, you have to give cupcakes a little more credit than that. They’re actually very practical. You can bake a batch, eat some of them, and freeze the rest for another time, which is what I did. They’re also good for sharing. I could say they’re better for portion control, but that may or may not be true, because when you bake a full-size cake, if you eat a slice, it’s pretty obvious, but with cupcakes, you can eat one, just to taste test of course, and nobody really notices. And then you think, well, they are so small and cute, I can have one more. So maybe that’s not really a pro. But I do think they’re easier to frost. I highly recommend a simple decorating set like this; it took me mere minutes to frost the whole batch of cupcakes.  And the high cute to effort ratio meant I could experiment with different frostings, because I couldn’t make up my mind between espresso or peanut butter. Which, of course meant I had to test each flavor, plus eat several to see if which piping technique tasted the best. But again, that may not be a point in  cupcakes' favor from my hips’ point of view.

I’m providing you with both frosting recipes, so you can try them out and let me know which one you liked the best. Sam liked the espresso, I preferred the peanut butter, and I think William thoroughly enjoyed licking the funnel I used to get the chocolate sauce into a bottle for drizzling. While he ate it, he made up this song:

Nummy nummy
Nummy nummy stuff
Nummy nummy stuff

Sour Cream Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes by Alisa Hunstman and Peter Wynne, via Smitten Kitchen

Makes an 8-inch triple-layer cake, or about 3 dozen cupcakes 
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons white or cider vinegar (I used the latter)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the bottoms and sides of three 8-inch round cakepans. Line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment or waxed paper and butter the paper. Alternately, place cupcake liners in a muffin tin. 
  2. Use a whisk to combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Add the oil and sour cream and whisk to blend. (This was very thick for me, but for some reason I was too dumb to switch out my whisk for a wooden spoon for this step. Don’t be like me, unless you like making things harder than they need to be.)
  3. Beat in the water, carefully, as it kind of wants to slosh out of the bowl. Blend in the vinegar and vanilla. Whisk in the eggs and beat until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and be sure the batter is well mixed. 
  4. Divide the batter among the three prepared cake pans or muffin tins. I used a standard cookie scoop to help portion my batter and found that roughly two scoops turned out to be just right. You want the batter to be about half an inch from the tops of your cupcake liners.
  5. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes for layer cakes, 15 minuted for cupcakes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean.
  6. For layer cakes, let them cool in the pans for about 20 minutes. Invert onto wire racks, carefully peel off the paper liners, and let cool completely. Cupcakes are less fussy, but you do need to let them cool completely before frosting.
I must direct you to Smitten Kitchen for detailed directions on how to frost the layer cakes if that’s what you opted for. She also has some valuable tips on freezing to avoid the pitfalls of working with a very delicate layer cake. I didn’t find the cupcakes too soft to work with, but froze them anyway for longer storage. More on that in a moment. To decorate, I used the smaller star tip in my set and just followed the directions included with it. I used a little squirt bottle I bought at Hobby Lobby for the chocolate drizzle on the peanut butter cupcakes, and tapped a small mesh strainer filled with cocoa powder over the espresso ones.

To freeze cupcakes, let them cool completely, then arrange in a gallon-size freezer bag and seal, with as little air in the bag as possible. It’s best to take them out of the bag before you thaw them, so the tops don’t get gummy, but I didn’t, and it was just fine. I figure gummy tops are not a big deal since you’re going to frost them anyway.

Espresso Frosting
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman 
  • 12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 pound powdered sugar
  • 4 tablespoons instant espresso
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 5 tablespoons heavy cream or half-and-half
Beat butter until light and fluffy. Add confectioners’ sugar and salt and mix thoroughly, scraping down the bowl as needed. Continue to beat until light and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes. (I didn’t do this, but taking a cue from the peanut butter frosting, I’m suggesting it now.)

In a small bowl, mix cream and instant espresso until coffee crystals are dissolved. Add to butter/sugar mixture and beat until thoroughly blended.

Peanut Butter Frosting
Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes by Alisa Hunstman and Peter Wynne, via Smitten Kitchen

Makes about 5 cups 
  • 10 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 5 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 1 1/3 cup smooth peanut butter, preferably a commercial brand (because the oil doesn't separate out)
In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. Gradually add the confectioners’ sugar about 1 cup at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl often. Continue to beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the peanut butter and beat until thoroughly blended.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Drizzle
Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes by Alisa Hunstman and Peter Wynne, via Smitten Kitchen

Makes about ¾ cup

Note: In the original recipe this is a glaze that drapes beautifully over the finished cake, but I halved it for my purposes and adapted it quite a bit. I recommend clicking over to Smitten Kitchen for the original recipe if you are making the layer cake, as it is a more fundamental part of the finished cake than my version. Still, it is deliciously more than just decoration and not to be missed. 
  • 4 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1-2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
  • 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream or half-and-half
In the microwave, melt the chocolate, peanut butter, corn syrup, and cream. Heat for no more than 30 seconds at a time, whisking often, until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.

Use while still warm, but it helps if your base frosting is chilled.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Baked Potato Pizza

If that last recipe was the picture of health, then this one is its polar opposite. It's...I hesitate to type it...Baked Potato Pizza. Is it horrible that we had these two meals back to back in two nights? Now that I think of it, had I been on top of things, this would have been great to serve at a Super Bowl party. Inspired by a pizza we had at the wonderful Fong’s Pizza, it’s basically pizza crust + sour cream + cheese + potatoes + more cheese + butter + bacon, which = more calories than I'm willing to count. But we devoured it. The addition of a tomato and green onions is hardly redeeming, is it? And that whole wheat pizza crust? It’s there less for its health benefits than it is as a way to get all those delicious things into your mouth. To be honest, I think it could have used more tomato, but what I'm going to share with you is not a recipe, but more of a general idea of toppings with suggestions based on what I did, because I think we all know how to make pizza. I think that's how I'll go about it when it comes to pizza recipes, of which I have at least a few more in mind to share with you at some point. They're like this one, what Sam likes to call, "unique pizzas,” that is, they involve things like butternut squash, or arugula, or grapes, or cilantro, things you wouldn't normally find on top of a pizza crust. Sooner or later, you’ll probably figure out that I sometimes use pizza to get healthy things into my family that they wouldn't eat otherwise. But sometimes, I use it as an excuse to eat more bacon. This is obviously the latter.

Baked Potato Pizza

Serves 4-6

  • Pizza crust (I used a loaf of frozen bread dough—whole wheat [like it makes any difference], thawed, risen, and then pressed into an oiled cookie sheet—this makes a pretty big, thick-crust pan pizza, which is great for the hefty toppings. If you use a ready-made crust like Boboli, the amounts for the rest of the ingredients would probably make two pizzas.)
  • 8 oz. (1 cup) sour cream (I used Ranch & Dill, but Chive would also be good)
  • 8 oz. (about 2 cups) shredded cheddar cheese
  • 8 oz. (about 2 cups) shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 4-5 Small Russet potatoes, baked (I baked mine in the microwave—washed but not pricked, placed on a plate, HIGH for 3 minutes at a time, turning them over until tender all the way through)
  • Roma tomato, seeded if you like, and chopped (I used one, recommend 2 or more)
  • Garlic butter (I almost forgot, I used a container of Papa John’s garlic sauce we had leftover. It doesn’t really make sense to order a pizza just to get an ingredient to make a pizza, so you’ll probably have to make your own garlic butter by melting some butter and adding garlic powder/minced garlic and salt to taste.)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Bacon
  • Green onions or chives, chopped

Prepare whatever crust you’re using, spread it with sour cream, then sprinkle on about half the cheese. Slice the potatoes onto the pizza; don’t worry if they crumble, just get a pretty even layer of carb-y goodness. Add the tomato, then the rest of the cheese (yes, that’s two whole bags of shredded cheese total…it’s Baked Potato Pizza, you were expecting restraint?), and drizzle with garlic butter. Sprinkle with a little salt and plenty of black pepper. Into the oven it goes; while it bakes you can make the bacon. I don’t remember how much bacon I used, but I venture to say that if you make a whole package, it will not go uneaten. When I make homemade bacon bits, I like to chop up the bacon before I cook it. It’s so much simpler than fussing with individual strips you’re just going to crumble anyway. Just be sure to have a paper towel-lined plate ready, as the little pieces can go from perfectly crisp to burned in a moment if you’re not quick with the slotted spoon. When the pizza comes out of the oven, sprinkle it with the bacon and some chopped green onions or chives, and don’t skimp on either of them. Slice and serve!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Kale, Bean, and Noodle Soup

How interesting it is to read over a blog you started over four years ago. How embarrassing to note that your last post was a long, drawn-out announcement that you had returned to the blog, right before it was abandoned nearly three years ago. More shameful still is it to go searching on your computer for the post you wrote when you thought you might take this blogging thing back up, to ask your husband what became of it, and to receive the response, "I think I deleted it...that was more than a year ago!" This does not sound very promising at all, does it? Why am I even sitting here writing this at all, and why are you reading it? I won't make any conjectures, just like I won't make any more promises, I'll just get on with it and tell you about the one thing I would like to make again: Kale, Bean, and Noodle Soup. It's what we ate for dinner last night. It was easy, healthy, and tasty. I consider it a success if a meal falls into at least one of those categories, and that's three. That's pretty good. Oh, it was colorful too; that's a bonus. It's food like this that I can't keep to myself, and that, I suppose, I why I'm here.

But I'm getting into a realm I already covered in the "Welcome Back to the New and Improved Blog!" post I wrote about a year ago and never posted (we did find it after all, languishing away in an old folder in the Dropbox), in which I tell you all about what I envision for this little corner of the internet, and re-introduce myself, and announce the pending arrival of our (now-five-month-old!) baby boy, Titus, among other things. I reluctantly put that post up now, because it seems a pity to waste it, I guess. I've already made so many empty promises and set up plenty of sure-to-be-failed expectations, so what's a few more, right? Go read it for a proper introduction, if you want, but for now, on to the soup!

It’s only fitting that I should again start blogging, something I intended to do ages ago, with a recipe I bookmarked in a magazine ages ago. This recipe is from Fine Cooking, circa December 2009. The particular section of the magazine where I found it says, “Make It Tonight: Just 30 minutes to dinner, start to finish.” I don’t know exactly how long this took me, start to finish. I started around 2pm, and we ate at 5:30 or 6pm. But it should be said that in between that time I also fed a baby; put him down for a nap; prepped the kale, carrots, onions and broke the pasta with a toddler (and had I read the recipe more thoroughly, would have mixed up my Better Than Bouillon chicken broth and rinsed and drained my beans in advance too); changed a couple diapers; fed the baby some more; bundled up the baby, toddler, and myself into coats, mittens, and hats; drove to the grocery store and bought next week’s groceries (in record time); came home and unbundled; did another round of diapers; delegated the carrying in and putting away of the groceries, starting of the soup, and entertaining of the toddler to my amazing husband while I once again fed the baby and put him down for a nap; finished the soup; and cleaned up the cooking mess and set the table while it finished simmering. It seemed like such an achievement to sit down to this wonderful soup after all of that—though most days, I have to be honest, do not go as smoothly as today did, let me assure you. And I know that most of you reading this can actually accomplish much more than I did in four hours’ time. I have never been much good at time management. I would love any tips or recipes you have to share that could help me with that. (That’s an ulterior motive of mine in returning to blogging: to get advice from my more seasoned readers!)

But even if you’re an old pro at accomplishing more than one significant thing during the day and also getting dinner on the table, I hope you try out this recipe. It’s a bit different than anything I’ve tried before, but it’s not as unusual as one would expect with the combination of unordinary ingredients. Kale is a newfound love of ours; if you have not tried it, you should! It looks as if it would have a strong flavor, but it’s not overpowering. It adds a nice hearty substance to this soup, along with the beans, which are a fine source of protein. I think the brand of beans we bought was Mrs. Grimes, which I recommend. They were saltier and had a firmer texture than others I’ve tried in the past, and that equals good, in my opinion at least. They were labeled as “white kidney beans,” which are the same thing as cannellini beans, but that’s not as fun to say. Neither is “angel hair pasta,” but I looked it up, and I’m pretty sure that is the same thing as capellini pasta. The original recipe says you can also try fideo noodles in place of the capellini, but as far as I can tell, that’s just the Spanish word for the same thing. We used whole wheat pasta, which just amplifies the warm, nutty flavor you get from toasting the noodles. The lime juice sounded a bit strange to me, but don’t skip it. It doesn’t stand out at all, and gives the broth just the right amount of brightness to complement the savory broth. And the original recipe called for ¼ cup coarsely chopped cilantro added at the end, but I have a big bag of whole coriander seeds I bought at Penzey’s Spices, so I crushed those up instead and added them earlier on, letting them simmer and infuse the soup with their delicious flavor. Coriander seed, if you didn’t know, grows into cilantro, and the flavor is similar, but more subtle. Feel free to use more if you like, or stick with the cilantro. The only other change I made was to use a regular white onion where the original recipe called for a red onion. I assume the red onion is mostly for appearance, but this is one soup that doesn’t need help in the looks department. I didn't get the greatest picture, but in person, this soup is beautiful. Easy, healthy, tasty, and colorful—this soup has a lot going for it!

Kale, Bean, and Noodle Soup

Adapted from Liz Pearson, Fine Cooking, December 2009/January 2010

Serves 6-8

  • 2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 cup broken (2- to 3-inch pieces) dried capellini pasta (I used whole wheat angel hair. I took about half a one-pound package, broke small bundles at a time into quarters, and found that to be just about right.)
  • 2 quarts (8 cups) low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 small bunch kale, ribs removed, leaves roughly torn into bite-size pieces (about 6 cups)
  • 1 15-oz. can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
  • 3 Tbs fresh lime juice (from 1-2 limes); more to taste (they will be easier to juice at room temperature)
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • About 1 tsp. whole coriander seed, crushed with a mortar and pestle

  1. Heat 1 Tbs of the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the carrots and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and just golden brown, about 10 minutes. Scrape the vegetables into a medium bowl (I used the same one I used to hold them as I chopped and prepped—actually, I used a dinner plate, which takes up less room in my dishwasher) and set aside.
  2. Heat the remaining 1 Tbs. oil in the pot over medium-high heat. Add the pasta and cook, stirring often, until dark golden brown, 3-4 minutes. Add the broth and stir, scraping the bottom of the pot to release any stuck-on pasta. Add the carrots and onions, kale, beans, lime juice, ½ tsp. salt, ¼ tsp. pepper, and ground coriander and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the kale, carrots, and pasta are tender, 8-10 minutes.
  3. Remove the pot from the heat and season to taste with lime juice, salt, and pepper. (Here is where you would add the chopped cilantro if you were using it.) Serve immediately.

Welcome Back to the New and Improved Blog! (Ha.)

Welcome to the third attempt of this fickle girl to become a regular blogger. I won’t offer a big apology for my long absence, or a promise to do better that is sure to be broken. You can read that post here, written way back on October 3, 2008. It’s embarrassing, really, a post about all the things we meant to write about and then naught but a lone picture of us looking dorky in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. But I decided to keep that along with all the old posts on here, even though I’d like to think of this as a new blog. I read a handful of blogs myself, and I know it’s hard to get excited about one without a good chunk of content to pull you in. Not that the content you’ll find here is very promising on that account, but I still thought only one post would be really boring and even more embarrassing than a bunch of old ramblings, so that is what you’ll find if you go poking around in the archives. That and a few new ramblings, equally frivolous, which I wrote just to see if I could keep at this for the long haul, and not just on a quiet Sunday night after a bowl of inspiringly tasty granola. Yes, granola. That is what this blog has been reduced to, a showcase for various recipes like Chocolate Chip Granola. After all, the header at the top of the blog says “of music, photography, travel, food, and life,” but until now it has been a little heavy on the photography and travel, so I figure it’s time to add to the content involving food, maybe a little music, and of course, life. Who knows what kind of interesting subject matter that will throw our way? But don’t be disappointed if it mostly consists of granola. And roasted chicken. And things like that. Because that is the kind of thing we do now; we cook and/or eat, and it’s not exactly the fine dining of some luxurious restaurant in Europe. It’s recipes that try to strike a balance between tasty, easy, and healthy, and all on a student’s budget. Because you see, a lot has changed since this blog was abandoned. We’re no longer living in Germany, we’re back in our home state of Iowa now. Sam is going to college, and I stay home and take care of our son, William. Come August, our family of three will become a family of four. Yes, we’re expecting! So that is another thing that you might look forward to seeing here in the future: if not a bit of commentary on the new little one, then at least a few pictures here and there, I hope. It’s my desire that at some point we will have a variety of things to write about, each on a particular day of the week perhaps, but that is getting too far into the realm of promises made to be broken, which as I said was covered on October 3, 2008, and anyway, if you’re reading this now, you’re probably my mom and you’ll read anything I write with undue adoration no matter what day of the week it is.

You really should go back and read that post from October 3, 2008. I know I said it was embarrassing, and it is, but there are three links to be found within, and I urge you to skim over my drivel to find, follow, and read them. Because there is one thing that has not changed in the two plus years since that post was written. We’re still learning to be content, to live with joy, which is in some ways harder and in some ways easier than it was then. We’re learning what Paul meant when he said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation,” (Philippians 4:12). He also said, “Rejoice in the Lord always,” and “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Phillippians 4:4 and 8). We hope that this will be a blog filled with such things, and that you’ll find it minutely worthwhile to read our ramblings about them. That is, if we don’t forget to write for years at a time.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


If this works, you should see a picture of us in Rome, Italy.

Friday, October 3, 2008

An Explanation and Existentialism

It's more of an excuse, really, for the dearth of posts around here for so long. It's a poor excuse, I'll admit. But it's something to read at least, to change the look of this page that has undoubtedly become annoyingly familiar to you faithful few, if in fact you even still exist. And it comes with hope. You see, we had a busy summer; we turned around and realized that suddenly it was October. We'd been so busy visiting Iowa, playing music, going to festivals, trying to grow an herb garden, visiting a wine town on the Rhine, camping, hiking, climbing mountains, touring beautiful churches, shopping in Heidelberg, strolling along the river in Wiesbaden, going to a medieval festival, and planning a trip to Italy that, well, blogging about it was neglected. But enough of the excuse.

I said I'd offer hope, and I will. We hope to post pictures and some brief accounts of the things that have kept us from this blog. However, we're off to Italy in less than a week, and we foresee having a camera full of pictures and plenty of stories to tell you when we get back. So we may never truly get caught up. We can only offer to do our best. Our apologies if we come to disappoint you.

And one more thing: though I said we were busy, I didn't say it wasn't any fun. It should be clear by now that this blog is used primarily to document all the fun we're blessed with so abundantly. That's not to say, lest you be jealous, that we have loads of fun all the time, but who would want to read about the boring things? We do work and sleep and do a great number of dull but necessary things. We're learning there is virtue in being content in those things as well as the fun ones, which is hard to do at times when there is so much earthly pleasure to be had. It is a dream come true for both of us to be living in Europe right now, and we're behooved to heed the advice to enjoy it as much as we can while we can. But we find that we can't enjoy anything at all if we lack one vital thing. One man calls it Christian hedonism, others call it the chief end of man, and I refer to it simply as joy. Whatever it is called, I believe it can only be found in God, and oh what frustration comes when we forget this! Do remember this if ever it seems that we're trying too hard to impress with all the fun outings and adventures we document here. Too often it's true that we are being boastful at heart, until that unavoidable (yet wonderful) truth about joy comes along.

I said to the LORD, "You are my Lord;
apart from you I have no good thing."
Psalm 16:2

Monday, May 5, 2008

A Spontaneous Adventure

You know what they say about road trips: getting there is half the fun. That's especially true on short trips to Heidelberg, when you pass an impressive-looking castle atop a hill and decide to stop and explore it. You follow the signs that point you toward Schloss Auerbach, driving through a quaint little town before following a narrow road that curves around and up the hill. There are hikers and bikers (on cycles and scooters) and big black beetles, but the wooded path you take on foot is peaceful. Birds chirp and a tiny stream trickles by. At the top of the hill stands the mighty fortress. In the 13th century it was built, and in 1674 it was invaded by Scottish Highlanders by way of an underground tunnel. Today it serves as a giant playground of sorts, where the imagination can soar far above the hills and trees and modern civilization that bustles below. It's hard to confirm which view is the most impressive: the perspective from the ground looking up at the massive, rustic stone walls; the vantage point from the tops of the two towers; or the frightening drop of an ancient well (or is it the tunnel entrance?), deep and dark. After plenty of exploration, you return to your car and continue on your way to the original destination. There you take a bathroom break and buy a stuffed elephant, and then it's time to return home. Yes, getting there is definitely half the fun.