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Today is the second annual gathering of cupcake lovers and bakers known as Cupcake Camp Boston. I went last year and it was amazing – the venue seemed to be overflowing with cupcakes of every size and description. Professional bakeries brought boxes and boxes of their fancy, elegant cupcakes and amateur bakers like myself brought their homemade creations and everyone shares. It was so much fun and James and I got to taste so many delicious cakes! So I was very excited when I heard that Cupcake Camp was happening again.

This year, I decided to make chocolate salted caramel cupcakes. I’m a huge fan of Trader Joe’s box of sea salt caramels that comes out at Christmastime. Those candies are incredibly addicting, the way the salt accents the sweetness of the caramel while exploding the flavor. I knew that those candies in cupcake form would knock my socks off.

But making homemade caramel was a bit intimidating – I never made any sort of homemade candy before. I was afraid of ruining the caramel, and on the first couple of tries, I did. First, I made a Martha Stewart salted caramel recipe from her Cupcakes book and it turned out grainy. It was the texture of the insides of Sugar Babies, if you remember those. And I even though I followed the recipe exactly, the caramel was very pale and didn’t have much of a caramel flavor – I under-cooked it.  Martha’s recipe took three cups of sugar, and I was pretty discouraged to try that recipe again because that is an awful lot of sugar to waste!

Then I tried this caramel recipe from Kate at Grin and Bake It, which uses only a quarter cup of sugar per batch and is therefore much better suited for trial and error, and my first batch of that burned. Making caramel involves a lot of standing around and watching sugar and water boil, and it’s only at the very end that the color goes from clear to pale yellow to darker and darker amber. I let it go to far – once it starts turning amber, it goes very quickly – and it burned. Blech. But then I made it again, and – success! Perfect, flavorful, rich caramel. And now I’ve made several batches without failures. I think it’s like riding a bike – tricky at first, but once you figure it out, you’ve got it.

Here’s how I do it:

First, I stir together sugar and water in a saucepan over medium-high heat. I stir it for maybe 20-30 seconds, until all of the sugar is dissolved and the solution is pretty clear – but it will still appear cloudy. Then, set the time and let it boil away without stirring.

As it boils, the bubbles will go from big and loose to smaller and more densely packed as the solution gets thick and syrupy. It will still be all white/clear.

Finally, as you’re approaching the end of your cooking time, it will almost imperceptibly start turning yellow at the edges. Watch carefully now, because once this starts, it’ll go from pale yellow to dark reddish-brown-burnt in under a minute.

Almost there…

Once the sugar is dark amber, even slightly reddish right at the edges, it’s done. (But I think once it gets very red, it’s burned.) It may smoke a bit and that’s okay. Take it off the heat and slowly stir in the cream.

Start with just a splash of the cream. It will foam up like crazy but just keep stirring, and slowly pour in the rest of the cream. I found that if I dumped the cream in too quickly, if formed a crazy lump of caramel in the middle of the liquid. But I frantically kept stirring and eventually it resolved into a smooth sauce again.

It will keep boiling up until you finish adding all of the cream, just keep stirring and eventually it’ll calm down.

And then you’ll have caramel! At this point, I add some sea salt, but if you wanted plain caramel, you can just leave it as-is.

Now, back to the cupcakes! These babies are amazing. The chocolate cake is dense and rich and tender. The addition of hot coffee in the batter really deepens the chocolate flavor. The frosting is deliciously caramel-y without being overwhelming. The bit of pure salted caramel in the middle is gooey and luscious and packs a big caramel flavor punch. These may be the most delicious cupcakes I’ve ever made!

Chocolate Salted Caramel Cupcakes

From Grin and Bake It

Makes approx. 2 dozen cupcake

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups sugar

3/4 cups cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup buttermilk, shaken (I use powdered)

1/2 cup vegetable oil (I use canola)

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract

3/4 cup freshly brewed caramel-flavored hot coffee

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place cupcake liners in tin. Combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla in mixer and mix until combined .
  2. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, and baking soda together. Whisk in the salt. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients to the wet.
  3. Add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Batter will be very runny. Pour the batter into cupcake liners, fill a little less than 2/3 full.
  4. Bake for 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of a cupcake comes out clean.

Salted Caramel

Adapted from Grin and Bake It

1/4 cup sugar

2 Tablespoons water

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel (or more or less, to your taste)

Briefly stir together sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  Set timer for 5 minutes. Allow mixture to boil without stirring until it turns dark amber in color. It may take up to 6 or 7 minutes to get to the right color, but I had a batch burn because I was waiting for 6 minutes exactly. Don’t wait for the timer – pull it off the heat when it is dark yellow and the edges are just started to look reddish.

Slowly add the cream, starting with just a splash, stirring with a wooden spoon until completely smooth. Stir in the fleur de sel and set aside until cool.

This recipe easily doubles. Make one double batch for the buttercream, and one single batch for filling the cupcakes.

Salted Caramel Buttercream

Adapted from Grin and Bake It

The original recipe from Grin and Bake It calls for salted butter and does not use fleur de sel in the caramel. I’m sure that’s good too, but I wanted to be able to adjust the saltiness to my liking, and have salted caramel for filling the cupcakes. That’s why I used fleur de sel in the caramel and then use unsalted butter in the frosting.

3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

3 cups powdered sugar

2 batches of the salted caramel

Beat the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until light in color and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed and add powdered sugar. Mix until well combined. Turn off the mixer, and slowly add caramel. Beat frosting on low to combine, and then increase to mediium-high and beat until airy and thoroughly mixed, about 2 minutes.

Refrigerate if not using immediately. If you refrigerate the frosting, be sure to whip it up with your mixer before spreading. To frost cupcakes with the swirl (Wilton 1M tip), double the recipe.

To assemble:

Carefully cut a small cone out of the middle of each cupcake. Fill with about a half teaspoon of the salted caramel. Sprinkle with a bit of fleur de sel before replacing the cap. (You may have to remove the bottom of the cone to get the cap to fit.)

Frost with the salted caramel buttercream. Sprinkle with a bit more fleur de sel, if desired, or chocolate jimmies, or drizzle with a bit of extra salted caramel.

Enjoy!!

We’ve been on a bit of a Mexican kick around here, first with those amazing fish tacos and now with these incredible beef tacos. Oh! And there was also some pork tostadas that I’ll have to blog about soon – all wonderfully delicious, authentic Mexican meals.

I’m sad these tacos are all gone now! They were so, so tasty. And the recipe made a ton so we were basically eating them all week. They are just packed with flavor – the beef is cooked with chipotle chiles in adobo so it is smoky and complex without being too spicy, and all of the toppings combine to add crunch and sweetness and spiciness and creaminess. There’s a corn and tomato salsa, a cilantro-lime crema, and an avocado-red onion relish (which I didn’t make but I’m sure would be awesome).The biggest hit of the toppings was the spicy pineapple salad – it definitely took the tacos to a whole new level. I’d never had pineapple in a taco before, and it was surprisingly amazing. The combination of the smoky meat and the bright, sweet fruit was out of this world.

The recipes, which comes from Everyday Food magazine, also includes instructions for cumin rice and beans, which was a tasty dish to have alongside the tacos. All in all, it was a fabulous and fun meal – something about all those tasty toppings made it seem really festive. This would be a great meal for a dinner party.

This recipe does take a lot of time – almost 3 hours from start to finish, so you have to take that into consideration. However, once you get the beef in the oven, it’s hands off for 2 1/2 hours so you can do other things – like prepare the toppings. The meal can seem to be pretty involved with all of the toppings, but they do come together rather quickly. All of the toppings except maybe the avocado relish can be made in advance and stored in the fridge.

Smoky Beef Tacos

From Everyday Food, March 2009

Serves 8

Prep time: 15 minutes

Total time: 2 3/4 hours

2 -3 tablespoons chopped canned chipotle chiles in adobo*

1/2 cup ketchup

8 garlic cloves, chopped

2 teaspoons dried oregano

coarse salt and ground pepper

1 boneless beef chuck roast (about 3 pounds), trimmed of excess fat

16 corn tortillas (6-inch), lightly toasted

toppings (recipes follow)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid, stir together chiles, ketchup, 1 cup water, garlic, oregano, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper.

Cut beef into 4 equal pieces. Add to pot and turn to coat. Cover and bring to a boil; transfer pot to oven. Bake, covered, until beef is fork-tender, about 2 1/2 hours.

Transfer beef to a bowl. With a large spoon, skim off and discard fat from the cooking liquid. Shred beef with two forks; moisten with cooking liquid as needed. Season with salt and pepper. Lightly toast the tortillas over a low gas flame using tongs or in a dry skillet on medium heat. Serve beef with tortillas and desired toppings.

*I nervously used 2 tablespoons (chipotles are powerful!) and was pleasantly surprised that the beef came out flavorful but not too spicy. If you want your meat to pack a definite punch, go for 3 tablespoons.

Spicy pineapple salad

Serves 8

Prep time: 15 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 pineapple – peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2 inch chunks

2 jalapeno chiles, ribs and seeds removed, thinly sliced crosswise

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

coarse salt and ground pepper

In a large skillet, heat oil over high. Working in 2 batches, cook pineapple and jalapenos until lightly browned, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and toss with vinegar and salt and pepper.

Avocado-Red Onion Relish

Combine 2 diced avocados and 1 finely chopped medium red onion with 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice. Season with salt and pepper. Makes 3 cups.

Corn and Tomato Salsa

Combine 10 ounces thawed frozen corn with 1 cup quartered grape or cherry tomatoes, 2 teaspoons vegetable oil and 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Makes 3 cups.

Cilantro-Lime Crema

Stir together 16 ounces reduced-fat sour cream, 1/4 cup fresh lime juice, and 1/2 cup chopped cilantro. Season with salt and pepper. Makes 2 cups.

Cumin Rice and Beans

Cook 1 cup of rice, either white or brown, according to package directions, but add 1/2 teaspoon of cumin to the cooking water. I used brown rice, so: bring rice and 2 cups of water , a pinch of coarse salt and the cumin to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook, covered, for about 50 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 1 can of drained and rinsed kidney beans. Cover and let stand for 1 minute.

I hated French onion soup from high school until only a couple years ago, probably because my only experience with it was the high school cafeteria version of it – overly salty, with a slight tinny tang from the soup cans, and a sad island of soggy bread floating on top. Gross.

So I never tried it again until my husband told me that he loved French onion soup and that he’d like me to make it sometime. I was skeptical, but I turned to the good folks at America’s Test Kitchen because if anyone can do French onion soup well, they can. My America’s Test Kitchen Family Cook Book and Family Baking Book have become my go-to resources for  solving any culinary trickiness. Overwhelmed at the prospect of making chicken cordon bleu? Their recipe is killer. Want a no-fail recipe for amazing buttermilk drop biscuits? Their recipe is perfection. So I whipped up the America’s Test Kitchen recipe for French onion soup and of course, it is awesome.

This is amazing soup. It is savory and bursting with flavor from the sweet red onions that are cooked down to mellow deliciousness, from the fresh thyme, and from the surprise (to me at least) ingredient of balsamic vinegar, which adds a wonderful richness and complexity to the dish. The geniuses at America’s Test Kitchen noted that many French onion soup recipes have a tinny flavor from the beef broth, and their solution works wonderfully: the recipe calls mostly for chicken broth, with just enough beef broth for flavor without giving the soup a strange aftertaste. (I use Swanson Natural Goodness chicken broth, which is lower in salt and has no MSG. For the beef broth, I used Rachel Ray’s brand, because that is the only kind I could find in the store that does not use MSG.) The results are French onion soup perfection – savory and deeply flavorful and satisfying. This is ultimate comfort food.

So if you’ve been haunted by memories of bad, bad French onion soup, don’t let that stop you from making this. French onion soup, it turns out, is actually amazingly delicious – as long as you have the right recipe!

French Onion Soup

From America’s Test Kitchen Family Cook Book

Serves 8

Prep time: 15 minutes Total Time: 1 hour 10 minutes

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

5 medium red onions (about 3 pounds), halved and sliced thin

2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried

Salt

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

6 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 3/4 cups low-sodium beef broth

2 bay leaves

Pepper

1 baguette, sliced 1/2 inch thick

8 ounces Swiss cheese, shredded (2 cups)

  1. Melt the butter in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions, thyme, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, dark and sticky, about 30 minutes.
  2. Stir in the vinegar and deglaze the pan, scraping all the delicious browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Stir in the chicken broth, beef broth, and bay leaves. Bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and discard the bay leaves.
  3. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 450 degrees. Arrange oven-safe soup bowls on a rimmed baking sheet and ladle the soup into them. Top each bowl with 2 baguette slices and sprinkle each with 1/4 cup of the cheese. Bake until the cheese has melted, about 5 minutes.

To make ahead: This soup can be prepared through step 2, cooled, covered, and refrigerated for up to 2 days or frozen up to 1 month. Reheat over low heat and proceed with step 3. (We ate it over a period of about 5 days and it tasted delicious every time.)

Snickerdoodles are one of those types of cookies that are very simple, but very very difficult to get right. Maybe I’m just too particular about them, but seems that there are a lot of mediocre snickerdoodles out there – crumbly, dry, hard little nuggets of bland cookie redeemed only slightly by their cinnamon-sugar coating. Just because a cookie is simple doesn’t mean it has to be boring or forgettable.

Snickerdoodles, if done properly, can be divine. I’ve tried different recipes to find my perfect snickerdoodle, and this is it. Tender, soft and chewy with crisp edges and a buttery, sweet-and-spicy flavor. I found this recipe in Martha Stewart’s Cookies book and to that I say: of course. Leave it to Martha to figure out snickerdoodle nirvana.

I donated these cookies, along with a batch of sugar cookies, to the Boston Bakesale for Japan, which was raising money for the relief effort following last month’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. Here they are, all packaged up and ready to go to the bake sale:

I just got an email today saying that the bake sale raised over $1,600 for Japan. It feels really great to have been a part of that. Congratulations to everyone who participated, and a huge thank you to Tara for organizing the event!

Snickerdoodles

From Martha Stewart’s Cookies

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 coarse salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Put butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Mix in eggs. Reduce speed to low; gradually mix in flour mixture.
  2. Stir together cinnamon and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in a  small bowl. Shape dough into twenty 1 3/4-inch balls*; roll in cinnamon sugar. Space 3 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper or a Silpat.
  3. Bake cookies, rotating sheets halfway through**, until edges are golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool on sheets for a minute or two, and then remove to wire racks to finish cooling. Cookies can be stored between layers of parchment in airtight containers at room temperature put to 3 days.

* I used a Martha Stewart 1 1/2-inch cookie scoop and they cooked to perfection in 12 minutes.

**I neglected to do this and they turned out fine.

I like to have healthy, interesting things for lunch – I find the same old peanut butter and jelly or meat and cheese sandwiches every day tend to get tired. I really like to mix things up with whole grain salads that are really self-contained, perfect little meals: protein, whole grain, and vegetable. I like it – and I don’t do it nearly enough. Hardly at all, if we’re being completely honest: sandwiches are just so stinkin’ easy.

However. If you’re willing to put in a wee bit more effort than slathering a slice of bread with peanut butter, you can have a tasty, flavorful, interesting meal that is both delicious and healthy. You’ll walk away from your lunch thinking, “Wow, I just did something really good for myself.” And maybe your good lunchtime behavior will inspire you to skip that 3pm trip to the vending machine, who knows.

The point is: this is a delicious meal, easy to prepare the night before and toss in your bag or briefcase and really, I should make it more often. And so should you.

Quinoa Salad with Butternut Squash and Cranberries

adapted from Erin’s Food Files

Makes about 5 Servings

1 medium butternut squash (or other hard winter squash), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 cup uncooked quinoa

2 cups water

1 onion, diced

4-5 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

Zest of one orange*

1/2 teaspoon coriander

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon salt

1 can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 cup dried cranberries**

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss squash and onion with a bit of olive oil and spread on a baking sheet. Roast vegetables, stirring occasionally, until tender – about 30 minutes. Allow to cool before combining with other ingredients.
  2. Place the quinoa and 2 cups of water in a medium pot  and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until all the water is absorbed, 10-15 minutes.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, zest (if using), spices, and 1 teaspoon salt. In a large bowl, combine squash and onions, quinoa, garbanzo, and dried fruit. Pour on the dressing and stir to combine. Taste to check seasoning. This salad can be served room temperature or cold.

*I skipped this because I didn’t have an orange, and it was fine without it.

** My grocery store was all out of dried cranberries, so I used something called “antioxidant blend,” which was a mix of dried plums, blueberries, cherries and cranberries. It worked well.

Suzi

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