banana cream pie cupcakes

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This is the first of his birthdays since I met Dave over eleven years ago that I haven’t made a banana cream pie. This is okay with me; for one thing, it isn’t one of my favorite things to make; I don’t get to use the mixer and there’s no batter to eat, where’s the fun in that? For another, I’ve pretty much expended the banana cream pie category, making versions with regular and graham cracker crusts, richer and lighter pastry creams, traditional and tweaked whipped cream toppings, even additional layers of chocolate and caramel. There’s not much for me left to explore in the banana cream pie realm.

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Except turning it into cake. Dave actually requested green tea crème brûlée for his birthday dessert this year instead of pie, but I also offered to make cupcakes to bring to work. This would hopefully head off our standard office procedure of a coworker making an emergency trip to the grocery store to pick up a cake for an afternoon birthday celebration. (It sort of worked; instead, someone made an emergency trip to the store for cheese and crackers and fruit for the afternoon birthday celebration.)

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These are not so different than all the various banana cream pies I’ve made over the years. There are still sliced bananas, pastry cream, whipped cream, and a buttery mixture of sugar and flour. The difference is that the butter and flour is baked into cupcakes instead of rolled into a pie crust. Dave is generally a bigger fan of pie than cake, but he enjoyed these, and our coworkers raved. And by my standards, they’re a heck of a lot more fun to bake than a pie, so everybody wins.

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One year ago: Asian Lettuce Wraps
Two years ago: Feta and Shrimp Macaroni and Cheese
Three years ago: Maple Oatmeal Scones
Four years ago: Savory Corn and Pepper Muffins
Five years ago: Lasagna Bolognese

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Banana Cream Pie Cupcakes (from Annie’s Eats and Cooks Illustrated’s Yellow Cake recipe)

Makes 24 cupcakes

For 23 cupcakes, I fitted a slice of banana into the bottom of the carved out center before spooning on pastry cream and topping with a portion of the removed cone. For the last cupcake, I decided to try adding the pastry cream first and then topping with a banana and discarding the entire cone. This was much more successful because you can fit in more pastry cream and the banana makes a stable surface for the whipped cream topping.

Filling:
1 cup half-and-half
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar, divided
Pinch of salt
3 large egg yolks
1½ tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
bananas, peeled and sliced

Cake:
2½ cups (10 ounces) cake flour, plus extra for dusting pans
1¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon table salt
1¾ cups (12.25 ounces) sugar
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 large egg yolks plus 3 large egg whites, at room temperature

Topping:
1½ cups heavy cream
½ cup (1 ounce) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ bananas, peeled and sliced

1. To make the filling, heat the half-and-half, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, and the salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat until simmering, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Meanwhile, combine the egg yolks and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in a medium bowl and whisk until the sugar has begun to dissolve and the mixture is creamy, about 15 seconds. Whisk in the cornstarch until combined and the mixture is pale yellow and thick, about 30 seconds. When the half-and-half mixture has reached a simmer, slowly add it to the egg yolk mixture to temper, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the saucepan, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula. Return the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly, until a few bubbles burst on the surface and the mixture is thickened and glossy, about 30 seconds. Off the heat, whisk in the butter and vanilla. Strain the pastry cream through a fine mesh sieve set over a medium bowl. Press plastic wrap directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming and refrigerate until cold and set, at least 3 hours and up to 2 days.

2. To make the cupcakes, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 24 cupcake wells with paper liners. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and 1½ cups (10.5 ounces) sugar together in a large bowl. In a 4-cup liquid measuring cup or medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter, buttermilk, oil, vanilla, and yolks.

3. In the clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites at medium-high speed until foamy, about 30 seconds. With the machine running, gradually add the remaining ¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar; continue to beat until stiff peaks just form, 30 to 60 seconds (whites should hold peak but mixture should appear moist). Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

4. Add the flour mixture to the now-empty mixing bowl fitted with the whisk attachment. With the mixer running at low speed, gradually pour in the butter mixture and mix until almost incorporated (a few streaks of dry flour will remain), about 15 seconds. Stop the mixer and scrape the whisk and sides of the bowl. Return the mixer to medium-low speed and beat until smooth and fully incorporated, 10 to 15 seconds.

5. Using a rubber spatula, stir ⅓ of the whites into the batter to lighten the mixture, then add the remaining whites and gently fold into the batter until no white streaks remain. Divide the batter evenly between the cupcake liners. Lightly tap the pans against the counter 2 or 3 times to dislodge any large air bubbles.

6. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean, 18-20 minutes. Cool the cupcakes in the pans on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then remove them from the wells and cool completely on a wire rack.

7. Use a paring knife to remove a 1½ inch-diameter cone from the center of each cupcake; discard the cones. Spoon 2 teaspoons of pastry cream into the well of each cupcake, then top with a slice of banana.

8. To make the topping, beat the heavy cream on medium-high speed in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment until frothy. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks, scraping the bowl as necessary.

9. Pipe the whipped cream onto the cupcakes. Top with a slice of banana.

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eggnog cupcakes

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Eggnog is sort of ridiculously bad for you. I think of it as a Christmasy milkshake. I enjoy it, but moderation is key. Dave, on the other hand, learned a hard lesson about moderation recently, as he poured himself a big glass of the nog and topped it off with a generous pour of Bailey’s Irish Cream. Declaring it delicious, he went ahead and poured himself another big glass, while I attempted to point out without being too terribly annoying that that there is a whole lot of eggnog. An hour later, lying on the floor clutching his stomach, he agreed.

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Perhaps iced tea glasses are not the best way to enjoy eggnog, and cupcakes, instead, are. The ingredients are similar anyway – eggs, sugar, dairy – and because eggnog is so thick, you can add a decent amount to cake batter without hurting the texture of the cake. I started with this recipe, but it’s clearly based on a vegan source, with its lack of eggs and butter. That’s fine, but I like the structure eggs give to batters, and I thought butter would be a good match with the dairy-flavored cake. I’ve always had good results with this vanilla bean cupcake recipe, which is a pretty standard cake batter, so I combined the two. For the frosting, I used an easy American-style buttercream, with just a couple ounces of cream cheese added to enhance the pudding flavor of the eggnog.

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The batter, with just 2 tablespoons of bourbon, was like a sweet cocktail, with alcohol fumes dominating the flavor. Of course most of that burns off in the oven, resulting in tender, moist cupcakes with just a hint of bourbon. The frosting was particularly dangerous, and I had to be careful that I didn’t eat so much that I had to join Dave in stomach-clutching. Powdered sugar-based American buttercream can be one-dimensionally sweet, but the cream cheese, eggnog, and bourbon give this one plenty of extra flavor. A generous grating of nutmeg brings home the Christmasy overtones. This is definitely the right way to enjoy eggnog, although I wouldn’t be opposed to a small glass of the stuff with a shot of Bailey’s either. I’m not sure Dave is recovered enough to join me.

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One year ago: Spelt Crackers
Two years ago: Bolognese Sauce (comparison of 3 recipes)
Three years ago: Thai-Style Chicken Soup (Tom Kha Gai)
Four years ago: Cranberry Orange Muffins

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Eggnog Cupcakes (adapted from Annie’s Eats and these Vanilla Bean Cupcakes)

Makes about 15 cupcakes

I included butter for flavor and a couple tablespoons of oil because it does a better job making cakes tender and moist than butter does.

1¼ cups (5 ounces) cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ cup eggnog, at room temperature
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons bourbon or dark rum
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup (5.75 ounces) sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature

For the frosting:
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
Pinch of salt
2½ cups (10 ounces) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons eggnog
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons bourbon

1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Line two cupcake pans with paper liners. In a medium bowl, combine the cake flour and baking powder. In a 2-cup measuring cup, whisk together the eggnog, oil, vanilla, and bourbon.

2. Place the butter and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high speed for 3 minutes, until light and creamy in color. Gradually add the sugar to the butter mixture. Mix in the eggs one at a time, until incorporated. With the mixer on low speed, add one-third of the flour mixture, followed immediately by half of the eggnog mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Repeat with another third of the flour and the rest of the eggnog, then the last of the flour. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix for 15 seconds longer.

3. Divide the batter between the prepared paper liners, filling each about ⅔ of the way full. Bake for 18-22 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pans for 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.

4. To make the frosting: Place the butter, cream cheese, and a pinch of salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until creamy, about 1 minute. Gradually add the powdered sugar and nutmeg, and mix on medium-high speed until smooth, about 2 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the eggnog and whip on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 4 minutes. With the mixer on medium-low speed, blend in the bourbon and vanilla. Frost the cupcakes as desired.

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apple cake

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When I saw this beautiful apple walnut cake, with those perfectly arranged apple slices on top, I wanted to make it as soon as possible. I bought the walnuts and apples, I printed out the recipe, and then I…I made a different cake.

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I just couldn’t get past the step that required slicing apples fussily thin and fussily arranging the slices in the pan. I want to be the type of person who spends the time to precisely arrange fruit for the prettiest possible dessert, but I am just not.

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But I have no regrets. The cake I made instead is more rustic than the one that had initially caught my eye, but no less delicious for it. In this case, instead of paper thin apples painstakingly arranged in a pretty pattern, the apples are unceremoniously spread in two layers, one in the middle of the cake and one on top. You still have to peel and core the apples, but the coarse cut takes a fraction of the time as getting out the mandoline to make even slices.

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In its own tall, straight-sided way, this cake is just as impressive as the other. It’s also rich and moist and just sweet enough, filled with baked apples that taste just like fall. I still want to try the apple walnut cake, but it’s going to require magical amounts of free time and patience, especially now that I have an easier recipe in my back pocket.

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One year ago: Notes on planning a Thanksgiving feast
Two years ago: Cranberry Shortbread Cake
Three years ago: Buffalo Chicken Pizza
Four years ago: Breakfast Tacos

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Apple Cake (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Apples:
3 pounds apples (about 6 medium), peeled, cored, chopped into ¼- to ½-inch pieces
1 tablespoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons sugar

Cake:
2¾ cups (13.2 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup vegetable oil
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted
2 cups (14 ounces) sugar
¼ cup orange juice
1 tablespoon vanilla
4 eggs

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a tube pan, preferably with removable sides, with nonstick spray.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the apples, cinnamon, and 5 tablespoons sugar.

3. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, then add the oil, butter, orange juice, sugar, and vanilla. Add the flour mixture to the bowl with the oil mixture and stir to incorporate.

4. Pour half of the batter into the prepared pan. Spread half of apples over it. Pour the remaining batter over the apples, then arrange the remaining apples on top. Bake for 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.

5. Transfer the cake to a cooling rack. After 15 minutes, remove the cake from the pan. Cool at least an hour before serving. The cake will keep, covered tightly, for up to 2 days.

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candy corn cheesecake

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I don’t know what it is about candy corn that makes some people eat it until they’re sick, but for the people who love it, they can’t seem to resist.  My sister is one of those people.  She also considers cheesecake one of her favorite desserts, so obviously a cheesecake baked to look like candy corn was the perfect dessert for her.

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It’s just a regular cheesecake with colored batter poured into divided rings. The dividers are carefully removed before baking. However, I refused to buy a special cake batter divider tool, so I looked around my kitchen for alternatives. A 6-inch springform pan would work for the outer ring, and I went really low-tech for the inner ring – a Dixie cup with the bottom cut off. There was some leakage of each color below the dividers, but I think that would be hard to avoid with nearly any set up.

candy corn cheesecake collage

As for which cheesecake recipe to use, that was easy. It was a cake for my sister, so I made her favorite. It worked perfectly – the batter was thin enough that it didn’t stick to the dividers when I removed them, but thick enough not to mix once the dividers were removed.  My sister loved it just as much as I knew she would – and she even managed to restrain herself from eating it until she felt sick.

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One year ago: Butternut Squash Risotto
Two years ago: Pomegranate-Glazed Salmon
Three years ago: Sun-Dried Tomato Jam
Four years ago: Sushi Bowls

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Candy Corn Cheesecake (adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Tall and Creamy Cheesecake)

Makes 16 servings

I didn’t want the cheesecake to be too tall, because I wanted slices to have the approximate dimensions of one piece of candy corn, so I cut the recipe down by a fourth, but I think it was too short then. I’ve increased the ingredient amounts back to those in the original recipe, so your cheesecake will be taller than mine.

For the crust:
4 ounces graham crackers (about 8 full crackers)
2 tablespoons sugar
⅛ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the cheesecake:
4 (8-ounce packages) cream cheese, at room temperature
1⅓ cup (9.33 ounces) sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1⅓ cups sour cream

1. For the crust: Grease a 9-inch springform pan and wrap the bottom of the pan in aluminum foil. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. In the food processor, process the graham crackers until finely ground; add the sugar and salt and pulse to combine. Pour the melted butter over the crumbs; pulse until evenly coated. Press the mixture evenly onto the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake until fragrant and beginning to brown around the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack while preparing the filling. Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F.

3. For the cheesecake: Working in a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the cream cheese at medium speed until it is soft and creamy, about 4 minutes. With the mixer running, add the sugar and salt and continue to beat another 2 minutes, until the cream cheese is light. Beat in the vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until each is thoroughly combined. Reduce the mixer speed to low and stir in the sour cream.

4. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Place the foil-wrapped springform pan in a larger baking dish.

5. Arrange molds of 2-inch diameter and 6-inch diameter in the springform pan. Pour uncolored batter into the smallest mold in the middle, to a height about 1-inch below the top of the pan. Color the remaining batter yellow and fill the outermost ring. Use a small amount of red food coloring to color the remaining batter orange and pour the rest of the batter into the second ring. Carefully remove the molds by lifting them straight up out of the batter.

6. Pour the boiling water into the baking dish around the springform pan. Transfer to the oven and bake for 1 hour and 30 minutes, until the center jiggles like jello when lightly shook and a thermometer inserted into the center of the cheesecake reads 150 degrees. Turn the oven off, prop open the oven door, and leave the cheesecake in the oven for another hour.

7. Remove the cheesecake from the oven and the water bath. Cool on a wire rack until it reaches room temperature, then transfer to the refrigerator and chill for at least 4 hours or up to a week.

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raspberry-swirled cheesecake cupcakes

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I did a lot of things I’m proud of this weekend. I didn’t have to work Friday, so I kicked off the three-day weekend with the second-longest run I’ve ever done, and the longest run that wasn’t part of a big race. Then I made Dave give me hourly high-fives for the rest of the day.

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The next day, I had my first-ever paid baking order. A coworker hired me to make a dozen each of two different types of cupcakes for her daughter’s wedding. Two dozen isn’t a lot of cupcakes, but I wanted to get them just right, with great taste and beautiful garnishes.

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Less than an hour after I dropped those off, we had a bunch of people over to watch football – the first time Dave and I have entertained more than a couple friends at a time since we’ve been married. By keeping things casual (or at least, my version of casual), enlisting a lot of help from Dave, and being creative with what I already had around, I managed to entertain the way I like to – with a lot of food, of course – but without a lot of stress.

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One of the ways I made the most of what I had available was to make extras of these cupcakes. The wedding’s colors were black, ivory, and red, so the bride chose these raspberry-swirled cheesecake cupcakes drizzled with chocolate and topped with raspberry truffles, as well as chocolate cupcakes with champagne frosting topped with chocolate-covered strawberries. While I was at it, I went ahead and made extra chocolate-covered strawberries and raspberry truffles for my friends too.

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Both sets of cupcakes turned out every bit as good as I’d hoped, and that never happens! The swirls on the cheesecake were pretty and not sloppy, the drizzle didn’t cover up as much as the swirls as I was worried about, the fresh raspberries fit nicely onto the tops. The chocolate cupcakes rose into a perfect mound, and the swirls of frosting didn’t look too amateurish. My first time making chocolate-covered strawberries went just fine, even the stressful part that involved melting white chocolate. I dropped the cupcakes off and then entertained guests all evening, only spitting half-chewed chips on someone once! This is about as successful as my life gets.

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One year ago: Croissants (Tartine Bread)
Two years ago: Coffee Break Muffins
Three years ago: Green Chile Huevos Rancheros
Four years ago: Pan-Seared Steak with Red Wine Pan Sauce

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Raspberry-Swirled Cheesecake Cupcakes (adapted from Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes via Annie’s Eats)

Makes 32 cupcakes

The truffles and drizzle make for a nice presentation, but the swirled cupcakes are plenty tasty and pretty on their own.
For the crust:
1½ cups (about 8 full crackers) graham cracker crumbs
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons sugar

For the raspberry swirl:
6 ounces (¾ cup) frozen or fresh raspberries
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch

For the filling:
4 (8-ounce) cream cheese, at room temperature
1½ cups (10.5 ounces) sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line 32 muffin wells with paper liners.

2. For the crust: In a food processor, process the graham crackers and sugar until evenly ground. Add the butter and pulse to combine, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Press 1 tablespoon of the crumb mixture onto the bottom of each liner. Bake until fragrant, about 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack, maintaining the oven temperature.

3. For the raspberry swirl: Combine the raspberries, sugar, and cornstarch in a blender or food processor. Process until smooth, then pour through a fine mesh sieve to remove the seeds. (Or press the raspberries through a food mill, stirring the cornstarch and sugar into the puree.)

4. For the filling: Beat the cream cheese on medium speed in the bowl of an electric mixer until smooth. Gradually add the sugar and salt, then the vanilla. Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.

5. To assemble, spoon 3 tablespoons of the cheesecake batter over the crust in each cupcake liner. Dot ½ teaspoon of the raspberry puree in a few dots over the cheesecake filling. Use a toothpick or a wooden skewer to lightly swirl the puree.

6. Bake until the filling is set, about 30 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking. Transfer to a wire cooling rack and let cool to room temperature. Transfer to the refrigerator and let chill for at least 2 hours before serving.

Raspberry Truffles (seen on Annie’s Eats, but I didn’t use the same recipe)

6 ounces fresh raspberries
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2½ tablespoons heavy cream

1. Gently wash and dry the raspberries.

2. In a small heavy saucepan, bring the cream to a simmer over medium-high heat. (Do not rapidly boil.) Pour the cream over the chocolate. With a fork, gently stir, starting in the center and working toward the edge, until the ganache is smooth.

3. Let the mixture stand at room temperature until it’s thick enough to hold a shape, about 45 minutes, then, using a pastry bag with a small opening, pipe into the stemmed opening on the raspberries.

Chocolate Drizzle (adapted from Tartine’s Chocolate Friands)

I didn’t make this separately, I just stirred in more cream to the ganache leftover from the raspberry truffles. I’m offering it here separately as a good chocolate drizzle recipe.

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
⅓ cup heavy cream

In a small heavy saucepan, bring the cream to a simmer over medium-high heat. (Do not rapidly boil.) Pour the cream over the chocolate. With a fork, gently stir, starting in the center and working toward the edge, until the ganache is smooth.

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For the chocolate cupcakes, I used this recipe for the cupcake portion; this champagne buttercream for the frosting; and this method for the chocolate-covered strawberries.

key lime cheesecake

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This was the last of my three birthday cakes. That’s right, I got three birthday cakes. The first was the blackberry oreo cake while on vacation with my family, and then I brought funfetti cupcakes to work, and then I made this one for myself to enjoy over my birthday weekend. Making three birthday cakes really takes the pressure off of making the perfect choice. You can have the dramatic, the fun, and the rich. (Okay, I confess that they’re all rich.)

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Although cheesecake might not seem like a traditional celebration cake, this one, with its four separate layers, is certainly involved enough to qualify. The graham cracker crust and zest-infused cream cheese might be expected, but it’s the layer of curd under the cream cheese that delivers most of the lime pucker. I had some reservations about the sour cream topping, but the sweet-tart coating complimented and balanced the lime and sugar in the other layers.

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It probably isn’t right to choose favorites, is it? Something went wrong with the funfetti cupcakes, so they don’t stand a chance anyway.  The blackberry oreo cake was tall and colorful and had dark chocolate and bright berries, so there’s no complaints there. But…cheesecake always wins.  If I’m ever confronted with a one-cake birthday again, remind me: cheesecake.

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One year ago: Spice-Rubbed Picnic Chicken
Two years ago: Whole Wheat Challah
Three years ago: Vegetable Curry
Four years ago: Fruit Bruschetta

Key Lime Cheesecake
Key Lime Cheesecake (from Bon Appétit via epicurious)

I used Key limes, but you can certainly use regular (Persian) limes instead.

The recipe calls for an 8- or 8½-inch round springform pan, but if you only have the more common 9-inch springform pan, you can certainly use that. I made a half recipe, split between a 5-inch round pan and a 3.5-inch round pan.

Crust:
12 whole graham crackers
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Lime custard:
6 large egg yolks
¾ cup (5.25 ounces) sugar
6 tablespoons fresh Key lime juice
1 teaspoon grated Key lime zest

Filling:
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature
⅔ cup (4.67 ounces) sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
2 large eggs, room temperature
3 tablespoons fresh Key lime juice
1 tablespoon grated Key lime zest

Topping:
1 (16-ounce container) sour cream
3 tablespoons sugar

1. For the crust: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8- to 8½-inch springform pan with nonstick spray. Wrap a layer of foil around the outside of the pan. Place the springform pan in a large baking pan with at least 2-inch sides. Bring 6 cups of water to a simmer; cover to keep warm.

2. In a food processor, process the graham crackers, sugar, and salt until evenly ground. Add the butter and pulse to combine, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Press the crumb mixture onto the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake until fragrant and browning slightly around the edges, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool, maintaining the oven temperature.

3. For the lime custard: In the top of a double boiler or a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, lime juice and zest. Cook, whisking frequently, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 8 minutes.

4. For the filling: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a medium mixing bowl with a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the sugar, salt, and lime zest; beat until light, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating just until each addition is incorporated. Add the lime juice, blending well.

5. Scrape the lime custard over the crust, spreading it into an even layer. Spoon the cream cheese filling over the custard. Add enough of the hot water to the larger baking pan to come 1 inch up the sides of the cheesecake pan. Bake until the middle of the cheesecake is almost set, but not puffed and center moves slightly when pan is gently shaken, about 45 minutes.

6. For the topping: Stir the sour cream and remaining 3 tablespoons sugar in a medium bowl to blend.

7. Remove the hot cheesecake from the oven, leaving it in the baking pan. Carefully spoon the sour cream mixture over the hot cheesecake; let it set a few seconds to soften, then smooth it into an even layer. Bake the cheesecake for 10 more minutes. Transfer it to a wire rack to cool completely, then cover and refrigerate overnight. (Can be made 2 days ahead.) Release the pan sides from cheesecake; serve.

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strawberry champagne cupcakes

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I loved how these cupcakes came out, but still, I’m not so sure about this idea of baking with champagne. On the one hand, it certainly sounds fun and fancy, doesn’t it? On the other, it’s awfully hard to get the flavor of alcohol to come through after a dessert is baked, so adding something as pricey as champagne to cupcake batter is quite a splurge.

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Sure enough, I couldn’t taste the splash of champagne that I added to the cupcake batter. On the other hand, the full cup of champagne that I reduced to just 2 tablespoons and then added to the frosting, that flavor was very evident. It made the powdered sugar-based icing, which can often seem overwhelmingly sweet, tangy.

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Between the champagne cake, the champagne frosting, and the glass of champagne I drank to finish the bottle, my favorite was the pure bubbly liquid, but I couldn’t bring that to work for a coworker’s bridal shower. In that setting, the only way to include champagne is in dessert, which makes strawberry champagne cupcakes the perfect festive, not to mention delicious, way to celebrate, even if it is a splurge.

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One year ago: Tapioca Pudding (comparison of 3 recipes)
Two years ago: Stuffed Squash Flowers
Three years ago: Brioche Plum Tart
Four years ago: Pain a l’ancienne

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Strawberry Champagne Cupcakes (adapted from Sky High’s strawberry cake and Cook’s Illustrated’s white cake recipes)

Makes about 36 mini cupcakes or 12 regular cupcakes

2 egg whites, at room temperature 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup (3 ounces by weight) strawberries, pureed
3 tablespoons champagne
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 drop red food coloring
1 cup + 2 tablespoons (4.5 ounces) cake flour
¾ cup (5.25 ounces) granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon table salt

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin wells with paper cups. In a large measuring cup, beat the egg whites, strawberry puree, champagne, vanilla, and food coloring.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large mixing bowl if using a handheld mixer), whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter; beat at slow speed until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. With the mixer running, pour in the strawberry mixture and continue to beat on medium speed (or high speed if using a handheld mixer) for 2 minutes, stopping to scrape the bowl once or twice.

3. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared muffin cups.  Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out dry, 11-14 minutes for mini cupcakes or 18-24 minutes for regular cupcakes.  Transfer the pan(s) to a wire rack to cool for about 5 minutes, then remove the cupcakes from the pan.  Let cool completely before frosting.

Champagne Buttercream (slightly adapted from Love and Olive Oil)

Makes enough to frost about 36 mini cupcakes or 12 regular cupcakes

A few comments on the original recipe note that their champagne reduction came out bitter, which seemed to be a result of using dry (brut) champagne. Stick to a sweeter champagne like demi-sec to avoid this.

1 cup demi-sec champagne
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
pinch salt
2½ to 3 cups (10-12 ounces) confectioners’ sugar

1. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the champagne to a simmer.  Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the champagne is reduced to 2 tablespoons, 15-20 minutes.  Set aside to cool to room temperature.

2. In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or a large bowl if using a handheld mixer), beat the butter and salt on medium speed until smooth.  Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add the sugar, then increase the mixer speed to high and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Reduce the mixer speed to medium and slowly add the reduced champagne, mixing just until combined.

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tiramisu

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I got confused when my coworker told me, while studiously avoiding eye contact, that the only thing they needed to figure out for another coworker’s rehearsal dinner was the dessert. I started trying to evaluate our previous history of eye contact. Was the lack of eye contact normal between us, or was that a hint? I was willing to help her out, but I was going to feel awfully silly if I jumped in to bake for thirty people I’d never met if it wasn’t necessary.

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Well, I did volunteer, of course, because it was an opportunity to make desserts without eating them all myself! The dinner had an Italian theme, with big pans of lasagna, loaves of garlic bread, and pots of Italian wedding soup, so tiramisu was a natural choice. It didn’t hurt that I’d made this recipe once, years ago, and had wanted a reason to make it again ever since.

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It’s the perfect balance of sweet and bitter and tinged with alcohol. The ladyfingers soak up just enough of the coffee and rum to turn soft and cakey, but not enough to get mushy. The creamy mascarpone layer is like a rich custard filling between layers of cake. The cocoa and grated chocolate (optional, but I added it) provide a welcome hint of chocolate, but it doesn’t dominate.

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I made a double batch for the party (and was lucky enough to have a friend come over to dip and arrange nearly a hundred ladyfingers in the pan) and kept a tiny taster serving for myself. It was a smart move, because there wasn’t one bit leftover from the rehearsal dinner. Savoring my tiramisu at home that night, I didn’t regret volunteering to bake this dessert one bit.

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One year ago: Lemon Ricotta Strawberry Muffins
Two years ago: Slaw Tartare
Three years ago: Chocolate Amaretti Torte
Four years ago: Breakfast Strata with Sausage, Mushrooms, and Monterey Jack

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Tiramisù (from Cook’s Illustrated)

Cook’s Illustrated’s notes: Brandy and even whiskey can stand in for the dark rum. Cook’s Illustrated prefers a tiramisù with a pronounced rum flavor; for a less potent rum flavor, halve the amount of rum added to the coffee mixture in step 1. Do not allow the mascarpone to warm to room temperature before using it; it has a tendency to break if allowed to do so. Be certain to use hard, not soft ladyfingers.

2½ cups strong black coffee, room temperature
1½ tablespoons instant espresso powder
9 tablespoons dark rum
6 large egg yolks
⅔ cup (4.67 ounces) sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
1½ pounds mascarpone cheese
¾ cup heavy cream (cold)
14 ounces ladyfingers (42 to 60, depending on size)
3½ tablespoons cocoa, preferably Dutch-processed
¼ cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, grated (optional)

1. Stir coffee, espresso, and 5 tablespoons of the rum in a wide bowl or baking dish until the espresso dissolves; set aside.

2. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the yolks at low speed until just combined. Add the sugar and salt and beat at medium-high speed until pale yellow, 1½ to 2 minutes, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula once or twice. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons rum and beat at medium speed until just combined, 20 to 30 seconds; scrape the bowl. Add the mascarpone and beat at medium speed until no lumps remain, 30 to 45 seconds, scraping down the bowl once or twice. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and set aside.

3. In the now-empty mixer bowl (there’s no need to clean the bowl), beat the cream at medium speed until frothy, 1 to 1½ minutes. Increase the speed to high and continue to beat until the cream holds stiff peaks, 1 to 1½ minutes longer. Using a rubber spatula, fold one-third of the whipped cream into the mascarpone mixture to lighten, then gently fold in the remaining whipped cream until no white streaks remain. Set the mascarpone mixture aside.

4. Working with one at a time, drop half of the ladyfingers into the coffee mixture, roll, remove, and transfer to 13 by 9-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. (Do not submerge the ladyfingers in the coffee mixture; the entire process should take no longer than 2 to 3 seconds for each cookie.) Arrange the soaked cookies in a single layer in the baking dish, breaking or trimming the ladyfingers as needed to fit neatly into the dish.

5. Spread half of the mascarpone mixture over the ladyfingers; use a rubber spatula to spread the mixture to the sides and into the corners of the dish and smooth the surface. Place 2 tablespoons of the cocoa in a fine-mesh strainer and dust the cocoa over the mascarpone.

6. Repeat the dipping and arrangement of ladyfingers; spread the remaining mascarpone mixture over the ladyfingers and dust with the remaining 1½ tablespoons cocoa. Wipe the edges of the dish with a dry paper towel. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6 to 24 hours. Sprinkle with the grated chocolate, if using; cut into pieces and serve chilled.

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lemon pound cake

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Lemons have been added to the list of ingredients I like to buy in the Big City (which isn’t that big compared to a lot of other cities but is definitely big compared to the town I live in), along with coffee, chocolate, parmesan cheese, and cheap wine from Trader Joe’s. This is because organic lemons aren’t available in my town, and while I have nothing against lemon juice, my favorite part of the lemon by far is the zest. The problem is that lemons have a more limited shelf life than my other Big City buys and the fruit tends to get hard (or worse, soft) after a few weeks in the crisper drawer.

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Around this time is when I start going into lemon mania mode, and a lemon cake soaked with lemon syrup and drizzled with lemon glaze is a fine way to use up some of the lemon excess. In fact, I was so focused on my primary goals of using up lemons and having fun in the kitchen that I pushed another priority aside, that of making the best possible recipe. When combining loads of butter with loads of sugar, I knew it couldn’t end up too bad.

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And so, for no other reason than I think the stand mixer is more fun to use and easier to clean up, I used that instead of the food processor the original recipe calls for, but when the top of my cake came out a little flat, I started thinking that maybe I should have just followed directions. I took the cake to work without tasting it, saving myself a piece for the end of the workday. It was good I set some aside for myself, because this cake disappeared in less than half the time as some of the other treats I’ve brought in. Savoring my much-anticipated slice at the end of the day, I decided that mixer or food processor, it didn’t matter; this cake would be a success either way.

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One year ago: Chocolate Chunk Oatmeal Cookies with Dried Cherries and Pecans
Two years ago: Vodka Gimlet
Three years ago: Cook’s Illustrated’s Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
Four years ago: Cinnamon Rolls

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Lemon Pound Cake (adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking via the now defunct Dinner and Dessert)

Makes one loaf

I made this with a stand mixer instead of a food process like the original recipe instructs for no reason other than I think the mixer is more fun to use and easier to clean up.

For the cake:
¾ cup (3 ounces) cake flour
¾ cup (3.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
⅛ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup sour cream, at room temperature
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup + 2 tablespoons (7.9 ounces) sugar
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest (from about 2 lemons)
4 large eggs, at room temperature

For the syrup:
2½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2½ tablespoons sugar

For the glaze:
1 cup (4 ounces) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray the sides and bottom of a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom with parchment paper and spray the paper. Sift both flours, baking powder, and baking soda together in a medium bowl. In a small measuring cup, whisk together the sour cream, lemon juice, and vanilla.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large mixing bowl with a hand-held mixer), beat the sugar and zest together until fragrant. Add the butter and salt; beat on medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. With the mixer running, add the eggs one a time. Once the eggs are in, stop and scrape the sides of the bowl, then continue beating for another 2-3 minutes. Reduce the mixture speed to low, add one-third of the flour mixture, then half of the sour cream mixture. Continue alternating additions of dry and wet ingredients, ending with the dry ingredients. Scrape the bowl and mix for another 20-30 seconds, until the flour is thoroughly incorporated.

3. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, smoothing the top. Bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes, rotate the pans, reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees, and bake for another 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean. Let cool in the pans for 15 minutes.

4. In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the lemon juice and sugar until the sugar is completely dissolved. Once dissolved, continue to cook for 3 more minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

5. Inver the cake onto a cooling rack set over a rimmed pan. Use a toothpick to poke holes in the top and sides of the loaf. Brush the top and sides of the loaves with the lemon syrup. Let the syrup soak into the cake and brush again. Let the cake cool completely, at least 30 minutes. (The soaked but unglazed loaf will keep, wrapped in two layers of plastic wrap and frozen, for up to 6 weeks.)

6. In a small bowl, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar and the lemon juice. Pour the lemon glaze over the top of the loaf and let it drip down the sides. Let the lemon glaze harden, about 15 minutes, before serving. (The glazed loaves will keep for up to 3 days, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, at room temperature.)

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guinness chocolate cupcakes with irish cream buttercream

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Despite my penchant for baking, I’ve only very rarely baked by request. So when a coworker asked me to help plan for another coworker’s bridal shower, mentioning while studiously avoiding eye contact that one thing they needed someone to do was prepare dessert, I jumped at the excuse to bake, but then I got nervous.

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It’s one thing to bring extra crumbly rice krispy treats to set out in the office kitchen, where nearly anything sweet is appreciated during a long work day, but the standards are significantly higher for someone’s bridal shower. Complicating matters was the timing, because the party was scheduled for after work on a Thursday, so I would need to do everything during weekday evenings. (I know you can freeze cupcakes, but I haven’t tried it myself and wasn’t ready to experiment.)

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Neither the bride nor the host had any suggestions, so I decided that cocktail-inspired cupcakes would be fun for a bridal shower. I wanted a chocolate option and a fruit option and settled on Guinness cupcakes with whiskey ganache and Bailey’s buttercream (based on the controversially titled Irish Car Bomb drink, in which a shot of whiskey and Bailey’s is added to Guinness, and the whole mess has to be chugged before it curdles) and margarita cupcakes – lime cupcakes brushed with tequila and triple sec and topped with tequila lime swiss meringue buttercream.

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A couple days in advance, I mixed up the Bailey’s buttercream and attempted the whiskey ganache. Unfortunately, I learned that if the cream is too hot when you mix it with the finely chopped chocolate to make ganache, the mixture will curdle. I went home at lunch the next day to try to save my curdled ganache, but it remained curdled. (It’s in my freezer now. Does anyone have any suggestions on what I can do with broken ganache? Some sort of cake with chocolate and cream maybe?) Wednesday evening, I still needed to bake both batches of cupcakes, make the swiss meringue buttercream, remake the ganache, brush the margarita cupcakes with alcohol, fill the chocolate cupcakes, and frost both. Thursday I would go home at lunch and apply garnishes.

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One problem I consistently have with cupcakes is the wrappers pulling away from the cake, and I’ve finally figured out that this is a result of moisture building up, probably in large part from the frosting, while the cupcakes are stored tightly overnight. I only loosely covered these overnight, because loose wrappers would not do for the party, and only a few wrappers separated just slightly.

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Surprisingly, everything went off without a hitch, and I wasn’t even up all night on Wednesday. Even the hardest part of preparing cupcakes, getting them to your destination without mussing them, went smoothly. My first attempt at baking for an event was a definite success that gave me more confidence to do it again – which is good, because I had agreed to make dessert for the rehearsal dinner just a week later.

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One year ago: Baked Reuben Dip
Two years ago: Masa Pancakes with Chipotle Salsa and Poached Eggs
Three years ago: Spinach Bread
Four years ago: Almost No-Knead Bread

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Guinness Chocolate Cupcakes with Bailey’s Buttercream (slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes 24

For the cupcakes:
1 cup stout (such as Guinness)
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1½ teaspoons baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
⅓ cup sour cream

For the filling:
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
⅓ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 to 2 teaspoons Irish whiskey (optional)

For the frosting:
4 cups (16 ounces) confections sugar
8 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 to 8 tablespoons Irish cream (or milk or heavy cream)

1. Make the cupcakes: Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350°F. Line 24 muffin wells with liners. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring 1 cup stout and 16 tablespoons of butter to a simmer. Add the cocoa powder; whisk until the mixture is smooth. Cool slightly.

2. Whisk the flour, sugar, baking soda, and ¾ teaspoon salt in a large bowl. With a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer), beat the eggs and sour cream to blend. Add the stout mixture to the egg mixture and beat just to combine. Add the flour mixture and beat briefly on slow speed. Using a rubber spatula, fold the batter until completely combined.

3. Divide the batter among the cupcake liners, filling them about ⅔ full. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean, rotating the pan once front to back if your oven bakes unevenly, 18-22 minutes. Cool cupcakes on a rack completely.

4. Make the filling: Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Heat the cream until just simmering and pour it over the chocolate. Let it sit for one minute and then stir until smooth. (If this has not sufficiently melted the chocolate, you can return it to a double-boiler to gently melt what remains. 20 seconds in the microwave, watching carefully, will also work.) Add the butter and whiskey (if using) and stir until combined.

5. Fill the cupcakes: Let the ganache cool until thick but still soft enough to be piped, about an hour. Meanwhile, using a 1-inch round cookie cutter, an apple corer, or a paring knife, cut the centers out of the cooled cupcakes about ⅔ to the bottom. Fill the holes with the ganache, using either a piping bag or a spoon.

6. Make the frosting: With a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer), whip the butter very light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and gradually add the powdered sugar, then the Irish cream. Frost the cupcakes with the Bailey’s buttercream; serve.

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