Thursday, September 27, 2012

Homemade Apple Pie Spice Blend

Don't you just love apples this time of year?

As much as they define one of the flavors of this season, there is another possibly more characteristic component to Fall baking. It is none other than the spices used to bake them. Nowhere is spice more indicative of a time or season, that in Autumn. Wafting aromas from an opened bottle of apple pie spice hit me with a heady, cozy image of Fall, cooler temperatures, big, warm sweaters, trick-or-treating, streets lined with red, yellow, and brown leaves that crinkle underfoot, and of course, Thanksgiving. Mmmm, delicious.

So, in this post, I am going to teach you how to make one spice blend that is essential to Fall baking - apple pie spice. And no, it is not only great for apple pie. It is fabulous in cookies, cakes, cheesecakes, pancakes and muffins, breads, and any other dessert you want to label "spiced" or "Autumnal" which to me, is entirely synonymous with comfort.

You can use pre-ground spices for the below recipe and end up with a really nice result. Some spices, such as nutmeg and cloves, I like to buy in whole form and grate when I need them. It lends a distinctively fresher flavor. Making your own spice blends is quite an economical way to go. Plus you will have many more spices in your pantry to play around with. And remember to do just that - play around with your spice blends to come up with your favorite flavors. There are so many variations on spice blends that the possibilities are endless. Good luck and have fun!

Apple Pie Spice
(Created by Leelabean)

Yield: a little under 1/2 cup

1/4 c ground cinnamon
2 T ground nutmeg
1 T allspice
1 t ginger (optional)
1 t ground cardamon (optional)

Blend all spices and store in an airtight container for up to 18 months. Experiment by varying the amounts or throwing in some ground cloves (make sure to use very little as clove is a very potent spice) for a slightly different variation on this apple pie spice blend.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Tutorial: Chrysanthemum Cupcakes

Ahh Fall! Can you hear it knocking on your door? It's coming and I'm so excited, as I am each year to welcome my favorite season. Wearing jackets, boots, and scarves to stay warm with the refreshing, clean and crisp nip in the air... The excitement of the kids starting school again - new teachers, new notepads and backpacks, wondering what lies ahead for them, a year older and wiser..
The familiar smells of fall always do me in - pumpkin, apple and tons of warm spices warm my heart as well. Soups and casseroles and piping-hot straight-from-the-oven meals prepare us for cooler weather and shorter days. Chrysanthemums line the front yards of the houses - such colorful little packages of the season.
Speaking of chrysanthemums...

If you have been devoting a little bit of your time regularly to my blog over the past year, you may remember that last summer, my daughter took home first place for a cake decorating contest held at our local fair. She was the youngest competitor by far at only 7 years old and her creativity and poise under pressure brought her the winning big blue ribbon!

At this year's fair, the contest was a bit different. In fact there were two - one for the younger kids and one for the older. My daughter (though aging seemingly at the speed of light!) qualified for the younger children's contest. These contestants had to decorate at least 6 cupcakes rather than a cake, which was left for the older children's decorating contest.

After doing her research and deciding upon flower cupcakes, namely chrysanthemums, I baked up some cupcakes for her to practice on. The decorating technique we chose was inspired by the book What's Up Cupcake. This technique, however simple, exhibited such a wow factor at the fair that we'll be showing you how it's done with a few modifications in this, the first tutorial post of my blog.
These cupcakes are a wonderful rainy-day project to do with your children or would even be beautiful on display at your next party. Decorated over a pumpkin cupcake using cream cheese icing would be the perfect autumnal dessert idea!
Incidentally, my own sweet chrysanthemum received 2nd place at the fair this year for these cupcakes! Congrats, to my budding baker! :-) I can't wait to see what you do next year.

Tutorial: Chrysanthemum Cupcakes

What You Will Need:
cupcakes, unfrosted, any flavor
white or off-white frosting
about 25 mini marshmallows
colored sugar crystals (choose colors you would like your petals to be)
mini chocolate chips or chocolate-covered sunflower seeds or other larger sprinkles
a pair of food-safe scissors
a small spatula or knife
ziploc bags
a small bowl

Before You Start: Mise en Place
Clear a decent sized workspace on a table or counter and put out all of the items you need for this project. This is a great habit to get into. It seems like an extra step, but actually will subtract tons of time from your preparation. Place about 1/4 cup of the sugar crystals in a ziploc bag. Do this for each color you have. *Tip - you can combine colors for a neat effect.

Step 1: Prep Your Marshmallows
Using the food-safe scissors, cut each mini marshmallow along the diagonal as pictured below. Resulting will be two halfs that are triangular in shape with a large oval area (the inside of the marshmallow) that is now exposed and sticky (this is the part that the sugar adheres to).
Step 2: Color the Petals
Drop all the cut marshmallows into the bag of colored sugar, zip the top closed, and gently shake around, making sure all the sticky parts of the marshmallows are all covered in sugar. Alternately you may hand dip the marshmallows into sugar which has been placed in a shallow bowl.
Step 3: Prep Your Cupcakes
Using a small spatula, spread about a 1/4" layer of frosting on the tops of the cupcakes. Make sure there are no lumps or bumps and that it is as smooth as you can make it. You want the petals to sit evenly atop the cupcakes.
Step 4: Start to Apply the Petals
Starting at the outer edge of the cupcakes, take a sugar-colored marshmallow half from the bag of sugar crystals and press it gently, sugar side up with about 2/3 f the marshmallow protruding over the edge. Continue with another marshmallow, adjacent to the first one, making sure the marshmallows touch, in the same fashion. Keep going until you have placed a ring of petals all around the outer rim of your cupcake without any spaces.
Step 5: Complete the Petals
Start the next row of petals slightly inward, overlapping the petals by just under 1/2 of the marshmallow. Complete this row as you did the first row, make sure to overlap each row of marshmallows equally. Continue this process until you have nearly reached the center. There should be a dime-sized circle (or slightly smaller) of frosting remaining.

Step 6: Complete the Center of the Flower
Take a few of your large sprinkles (mini chocolate chips, chocolate covered sunflower seeds, etc) and drop them in the dime-sized center of the cupcakes where the frosting is still peeking through. Make sure to cover all the white frosting. In the Step 6 picture above, I've shown how much space is left after filling in all the petals. The picture below shows the completed cupcakes.

Voila! You have completed your chrysanthemum cupcakes! Aren't they just gorgeous? As you can see, you are only limited by your creativity. Try alternating petal colors or mixing any variety of colors of sugars for a look that is customized to your liking. These are perfect for a party, a fun kids' craft, or anytime of year you want to do something fun and creative that looks amazing with little effort.
Note: To recreate the sunflower look, line the outer ring of the cupcake with only one round of marshmallows. Then fill in the entire rest of the top of the cupcake with black or dark brown large sprinkles or chips.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Cupcake Medallions

I recently made a batch of cupcakes for a friend who's sister-in-law was having her first child, a girl. It was a sweet idea to present them to friends and family as they visited the baby for the very first time.

There were three flavors in all - vanilla, chocolate, and carrot cupcakes - all frosted in a basic swirl pattern to accommodate the design they selected - personalized medallions.

They wanted cupcakes that were sophisticated and elegant and not the usual pink- or blue-pastel hued designs.

I pulled together this very simple and more formal look with small round fondant-gumpaste medallions that were personalized with the first letter of the baby's name, R.

These cupcakes are proof that simplicity is often the most beautiful way to go. Congrats to the family on your very new addition!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Kid Bites: Healthy Morning Muffins

In our household, cereal is not the usual breakfast option for us. We have a box waiting for those hurried mornings, but generally we like to have something a bit more substantial to start out our days.

Muffins are just the thing. They are quick and easy to throw together and can be customized to suit anyone's tastes rather effortlessly. When I make muffins for the kids (hubbie included), I like to healthify it as best I can while still making them appealing to all. Substitutions such as whole wheat flour are key in this process as well as reducing sugar quantities. They key is to tantalize taste buds with an abundance of textures and flavors. This involves sprinkling a dash of demerara sugar on the tops of the muffins for an added crunch or adding nuts and a handful of chocolate chunks, raisins, or other dried fruit.

A lot of sniffing is involved when cooking with kids...

Additionally, the muffins I make involve no mixer or other kitchen appliance except, of course, the oven, so my children are free to lend a helping hand. This muffin recipe is so easy, my son did all the prep himself with the exception of chopping the chocolate. Throwing in a handful of chocolate chips would have been a suitable task for him, but I generally use a higher quality chocolate that is not available in chocolate chip form.

Children tend to get a bit whisk-happy which may lead to a tougher muffin, so make sure to keep an eye out for overmixing. My son has learned to fold batter like a pro, so this was not a problem and the resulting muffins were tender and fluffy on the inside with a slight crunch from the sugar on the top. We kept the add-ins to just 1/4 cup of chocolate chunks.

When baking with kids, waiting for the oven to work its magic can be tough for children anticipating their delicious treats. This recipe was fantastic in that it only took 18 minutes in the oven. These were for standard-sized muffins. If you bake up a batch of one-bite, poppable mini muffins, it will take even less time!

Waiting for fresh-from-the-oven muffins can be hard for a little munchkin...
I think he handled it well...!
With school starting this week, I'm sure finding one of these in their lunchbox to munch on as a healthy dessert component to their lunches would put a smile on almost any child's face!

I think they liked them... I only have two kids and a hubby and these are the wrappers they left behind!
My sweet pup's "I love you PLUS I'm utterly adorable.. may I please have a nibble?" face.. It's hard to say no.

Healthy Morning Muffins
By: Leelabean

Makes 12 standard muffins


3/4 c all-purpose flour
3/4 c whole wheat flour
2 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 to 3/4 c sugar (1/2 c was sufficient for our family)
1 large egg
1 c buttermilk
1/3 c canola oil
2 t vanilla extract
3 T milk
1/4 to 1/2 c chocolate chunks, nuts or dried fruit chunks
demarara sugar, to top the muffins

Set your oven to 400F and place an oven rack in the center position of the oven. Spray a muffin tin with non-stick cooking spray or line it with wrappers.
In one bowl, whisk the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon together. In another bowl, whisk the sugar, egg, buttermilk, oil, vanilla extract, and milk together until uniform in consistency.
Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients and fold them together being careful not to overmix the batter. Then fold in your add-ins. You can toss your add-ins in a little flour to coat before adding them to the batter, so that they stay suspended in your muffins during baking and do not all end up at the bottom of the muffins.
Fill the muffin tins 2/3 full with batter. Top the batter with a sprinkling of demerara sugar and bake them for 16-19 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the muffin comes out clean. Let them cool for about 10 minutes and then enjoy. Store at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 3 days.