cupcake redux

Those who love to play in the kitchen–whether cooking or baking–are usually fairly flexible. If we run into snags (and maybe it’s just me, but I run into plenty), we either toss out what we’ve done and begin again OR take a different path and see where it goes. I’m almost always in the second camp as I hate tossing something I’ve already spent time on.

Take a recent project: frosting my oldest daughter’s birthday cupcakes. Her party is this weekend and I’ve been making and freezing cupcakes for weeks. Now that the party is days away, it’s time to think about frosting. My original plan was to make three: white, chocolate, and caramel. I found fun recipes (check out Baked Explorations–lots of crazy-good recipes, all very do-able) and the chocolate frosting went off without a hitch. The caramel came next and involved stirring homemade caramel sauce into a white buttercream. I made the mistake of stepping away from the caramel (oops) and returned just in time (so I thought) to take the pan off the heat. But the temp had crept just past 300°F and my “caramel” crystallized as I stirred in the cream and butter. I tried to melt it down over low heat, but you can’t change the laws of chemistry. No go.

Not willing to give up, I knew the buttery cream that wasn’t melding with the overheated sugar mixture would add great richness to any frosting; I stirred some into the whipped butter base that was waiting for the caramel sauce. I added extra powdered sugar for thickness and chopped the hardened caramel (almost brittle, really) into very small pieces and mixed those into the final frosting for crunch. It took a few more tweaks with brown sugar, vanilla, and salt, but I got to a place I liked. After all the extra ingredients, I had plenty of caramel frosting. No need to make a third flavor. I was done.

With a cup or so of chocolate frosting and maybe three times as much of the light-brown caramel, I started thinking kitty cats. The birthday girl had included our orange tabby’s picture on her party invites. Why not turn these cupcakes into cat faces? I’m not much for putzy cake decor, so wanted to keep it simple and use what we already had. A few mini m&ms and candy corns later, I had a cute–if slightly demented–kitty cat staring back at me.

Believe it or not, these are the same cupcakes from bacon birthday cupcake post. Not as pretty, but better suited for a 10-year-old’s birthday party.

I get that this cupcake looks terribly homespun. I have no future as a Cupcake Wars contestant for sure. My “cat” looks childishly simple, sad, and slightly devil-ish. But our party guests will get that these cupcakes are supposed to look like cats. And these guests will absolutely enjoy the cupcakes’ tender crumb and knock-out chocolate flavor (complete with a Hershey’s kiss dropped into the batter of each). Most important, my daughter will know I personalized her birthday cake. The cupcake’s appearance isn’t even a little bit spectacular (though again, the flavor is!), but as with all of the “playing” I do in the kitchen, things don’t always go as planned. And in the end, my baking (and cooking) projects come from the heart and are great fun.

kitchen toys part 2–adventures in cotton candy

For nearly 10 years, the Minnesota Pork Producers have asked me to edit and format 15 or so chef recipes for publication in their annual Taste of Elegance cookbook. Part of the MPP’s annual meeting, the Taste of Elegance brings local high-end chefs together to show off their talents in creatively cooking with pork.

The book is distributed at the Taste of Elegance event, where each chef serves up samples of his or her contest entry to everyone who happens by. A lot of pork is eaten that night. Each chef has a booth and each year the chefs get more creative with their set up. My favorite so far is Chef Peter Christensen’s booth at this year’s event. Chef at Woolley’s Restaurant in nearby Bloomington, he tripped his booth out county fair-style, complete with cotton candy. I enjoyed his bourbon-cured pork loin and amazing smoked peach ice cream. But the runaway hit for me was his bacon cotton candy.

The concept seemed simple and even cheeky, but I was absolutely enamored. This was brilliance. Cotton candy is pure sugar and can be sweet enough to make your teeth ache. Bacon is salty and rich–the perfect balance for sweet. Combining the two made for an amazing taste experience. Chef Peter was kind enough to send a bag home with me and I enjoyed it throughout the next couple of days whenever I needed a hit of sublime. (As amazing as I found bacon cotton candy, I could only eat a bit at a time as it was extremely rich.)

Knowing I needed more, I committed to making cotton candy at home. The Internet made this a real possibility; I did a bit of online research and ordered what looked to be a good, affordable home model. (I stayed away from the brand whose reviews mentioned that it “spontaneously combusted.”)

My oldest daughter had a slumber party soon after the machine’s arrival and making cotton candy was on our agenda that night. What a blast. Something about the swirling sugar floss just seems so ethereal and magical. Fun. Like you can’t stop smiling fun. The home models make much smaller servings than the machines you find at fairs, so a cone or two won’t blow anyone’s healthy-eating intentions. (Did I mention that it’s just plain fun to make?)

Chef Peter was a prince to share his bacon cotton candy recipe with me, though I have yet to make it. His advice to “use an area that you can easily clean (garage or open area)” makes me think I need a bigger stretch of time for the project than I have available right now. But making bacon cotton candy is absolutely on my list.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to whip out the cotton candy maker for birthday parties, sleepovers, rainy days, and whenever else smiling is encouraged.

spinning a cotton candy web

homemade cotton candy!

the ice cream photos and a cotton candy teaser

We threw my daughter a 6th birthday party last Saturday, complete with cupcakes, cotton candy, and homemade ice cream. The weather cooperated, which meant the 16 guests (had a few last-minute invites) had the run of the backyard. The kids wiped us out of dollar-store prizes playing carnival games; they also ate heartily. I had high hopes that the baby carrots and red grapes would be popular, but they were merely nibbled on. When the cupcakes, ice cream, and cotton candy finally made their appearance, they were quickly gobbled.

I promised photos of the ice cream (which was indeed amazing), so here are two.

ice cream gets a kick

homemade vanilla ice cream on a dipped and sprinkled sugar cone--divine

We also made cotton candy for the kids, which was a huge hit. I love my cotton candy maker and was thrilled to have it on hand for this party. It makes reasonable-size cones, using only 1 tablespoon sugar (yes, cotton candy really is pure sugar) for each. But it’s still the light, fluffy cotton candy floss you find at carnivals, fairs, etc. I’ll leave a teaser photo here, then share my cotton candy maker story next post. (It involves bacon, so please come back for it!)

cotton candy magic

getting ready to party

Tomorrow we celebrate my youngest’s birthday with her friends. Ten 6-and-unders in our backyard (if it rains, we’re toast) playing circus. We’ll do games, cotton candy, cupcakes, and homemade ice cream. (Will also set out bowls of carrots and grapes to satisfy the Nutrition Police in me.)

My cotton candy maker gets mention in a previous post. I’ll put another kitchen toy to good use at the party: our “soccer ball” ice-cream maker. Anyone who has tried homemade ice cream knows how amazingly creamy and sweet and rich it is. There’s no comparing it to store-bought.

My parents introduced me to homemade ice cream early on. Back in the day, we’d take turns turning the handle on our hand-crank churner to make a batch of ultra creamy, pale yellow (used egg yolks freely in the pre-salmonella days), and heavenly vanilla ice cream. Fast forward to 2012 and it’s easy to find affordable electric ice-cream makers; they make amazing ice cream in under an hour with very little effort from the “cook.”

Why, then, do I make ice cream by running around kicking a ball for nearly 30 minutes? A lot of work, yes, but it’s a fun party activity for kids–they seem to have endless energy. It’s a good way for grown-up kids to make ice cream, too, as you work off some of the calories you’ll be inhaling when the ice cream is done.

Here’s how it works: Ice cream ingredients go in one end of the ball; ice and rock salt in the other. The lids are sealed, then the ball is kicked, tossed, and rolled for 10 minutes or so. Next, it’s break-time as the frozen cream mixture is stirred to mix and fresh ice and salt are added on the other end. The lids are resealed and it’s another 10 to 15 minutes of shaking, etc. before the ice cream is ready to enjoy.

Tonight I have ingredients, equipment, and a recipe, but the final product has yet to be made. I’ll post pictures of the ice cream and cotton candy in the near future. But now, I need to get some sleep. I’ll need to be well-rested when the circus-goers take over my backyard.

ice cream waiting to be made

Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream

No eggs in this recipe. Think of the fun you could have with stir-ins: cinnamon, mini chocolate chips, colored sprinkles, crumbled candy bars, crushed cookies, fresh fruit.

  • 2 cups heavy cream*
  • 1  cup whole milk
  • 1 cup 2% milk
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar

In bowl, combine all ingredients until blended. Transfer to ice-cream maker. Continue according to ice-cream maker instructions.

*The original recipe called for 1 quart cream, but this ice cream was way too rich. I played around with types and ratios of dairy and this is what I like best. Half-and-half (even fat-free) can also stand in for the whole milk.