Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Good Friends and a Good Laugh

I'm lagging behind a little on the posting, but I'm trying to clear the backlog. You don't mind much, do you? 
A few weeks ago, I got an email from my mother's neighbor. (As my mother lives in the same neighborhood as Hubband and I do,  I suppose one could argue he is my neighbor as well.) Anyway, it was his wife's birthday, and he was inviting me to a nice little birthday lunch at our neighborhood cafe. I, of course, accepted, as these neighbors are good friends of ours, and immediately asked if there was any way I could help. Like, say, baking a cake for example. He accepted my offer and told me to have fun with it, which was music to my ears. I had an idea that I thought would be tons of fun, but requires a bit of explanation. 
These neighbors, we'll call them T. and P., enjoy going for bike rides around the town. When they go on these rides, P., the birthday girl, usually takes along a camera and documents any Florida wildlife they encounter along the way. She has a particular knack for keeping track of the resident alligators and documenting their increasing size. (I think knowing where they all are makes her a wee bit more comfortable with their presence.) 
In the spirit of her wildlife quest, I made this: 
The idea is from a book that is getting alot of press in the food-blog-iverse recently, Hello Cupcake! by Karen Tack and Alan Richardson. It's a cute book, with some interesting ideas for cakes of all different occasions, and really ingenious uses for common ingredients and candies. The instructions are pretty clear and straight-forward, although some techniques could be intimidating to new bakers at first, and make sure you block out enough time for all the details. It took me about two hours to decorate this, from first putting buttercream ingredients in the mixer to adding jelly bean nostrils to finish the design. If I made it a second time, I'm sure it would go a little faster. The book suggested vanilla cupcakes and canned frosting, but suspecting a preference for chocolate, I went with homemade dark chocolate cupcakes and vanilla buttercream. The decor theme requires 24 cupcakes, and I made a triple batch of buttercream to be sure I had enough. (I find it nearly impossible to color match one batch of frosting exactly to another.) The cupcakes together proved to be so long that no platter I had would contain them, so I ended up jimmy-rigging one with cutting boards and duct tape, then wrapping it in festive paper. 
P. loved her cake, T. told me that it made the day, and I was thoroughly thrilled with the smiles and laughter it brought to the party. 

Dark Chocolate Cupcakes
adapted from Cooks' Illustrated

This recipe doesn't double very well, but it goes together quickly. I was able to whip up my second batch of batter and have it in the tins before the timer rang on the first dozen.

8 Tb unsalted butter
2 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped (go for quality, it counts!)
1/2 C (1.5 oz) Dutch-processed cocoa powder
3/4 C (3.75 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder 
1/2 tsp instant coffee granules
2 large eggs
3/4 C sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp table salt
1/2 C sour cream

Place oven rack in lower middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place paper liners in a standard muffin pan. Cut butter into 4 pieces. Chop chocolate. Combine butter, chocolate, and cocoa powder in a heatproof bowl and set it over a pot of simmering water. Heat until butter and chocolate begin to melt, then whisk until smooth and incorporated. Set aside and cool until the mixture feels barely warm, just a few minutes. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda and baking powder. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs just to break down the yolks, then add in the coffee granules, sugar, vanilla, and table salt. Whisk to incorporate. Add cooled chocolate mixture and combine. Sift about 1/3rd of the flour mix over the bowl of chocolate mix, then fold in. Add sour cream to batter and combine, then sift the remainder of the dry mix over and fold in. The batter should be thick and uniformly dark. Divide evenly among the lined muffin cups, and bake 18-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool in pan until comfortable to handle, about 15 minutes, and then carefully remove from the tin and finish cooling on a wire rack before frosting. 

Easy Vanilla Buttercream
Adapted from Cooks' Illustrated

Makes enough for 12 cupcakes, but if I'm going to be piping the frosting on, I always make extra just in case. Piping designs tend to use a little more than just smoothing on a layer with a palette knife. I tripled this recipe for the Alligator Cake. This can be made ahead and refrigerated, but bring it back to room temperature before trying to spread it. 

10 Tb unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 oz (1 1/4 C) confectioners' sugar
Pinch of table salt 
1 1/2 tsp vanilla paste, or 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract ( I MUCH prefer the Neilsen-Massey Vanilla Paste in this)
1 Tb heavy cream

In a standing mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the butter until smooth, about 15 seconds, and then scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add vanilla paste and whisk to combine, then scrape down again. Add confectioners's sugar and salt, and beat at medium speed until the sugar is moistened, about 45 seconds, then scrape down a third time. Beat 15 more seconds, then add the cream and beat until incorporated. Scrape down the bowl, being sure to scrape around at the bottom to prevent a chunk of butter from sticking down there, and then beat at medium-high until the frosting is light and fluffy. 


Anonymous said...

The CTI girls are drooling...you are killin' us!!! We get so hungry after reading your posts :)
Lauren & Jill

Rachel said...

Why thank you ladies! Shall I send Tim in with some baked goods every so often?

P said...

OMG!! This cake was so awesome. In my history of "60" cakes, this one "takes the cake"! Thank you so much Rachel, Love you, P