Birthday Cupcakes!

Fellow bakers, I have a delicious bit of advise for you.  If you don’t already, find a special person in your life with similar tastes in sweets and a birthday very close to yours.  Then you have the perfect excuse to make the kind of birthday cake you like best, without feeling like a loser for baking your own birthday cake!

No really.

Stop looking at me like that.  It’s perfectly sound logic.

So Boy’s birthday is four days before mine, and he is just as big a chocolate fiend as I am.  Being the loving (and otherwise gift-less) girlfriend that I am, I naturally had to bake not one but two types of chocolate cupcakes for – ahem – his birthday.

I started with the known hit.  Last year I baked a devil’s food recipe I found somewhere on www.foodnetwork.com.  Naturally, I have long since lost track of which one – I just wrote down the critical things and “Food Network” in my recipe notebook and then cried a little when I searched the site for devil’s food again and came up with a few dozen results.

I topped said devil’s food cake with the chocolate frosting recipe off the back of the Hershey’s cocoa powder container.  I did something wrong with the frosting such that it came out super-fudgy, very tasty, and not at all easy to spread.  I wound up stuffing part of the cake with the fudge then thinning the rest until I had nearly double the intended quantity.  This year I knew to start with half the ingredients and then be sparing with the sugar and generous with the milk.

Just to add a little more variety – and to finally satiate my curiosity – I took advantage of the opportunity to test drive another recipe I’d been wanting to try for well over a year.

I’d heard some of the buzz around Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious when it first came out a few years ago.  For those not already familiar, this is a cookbook aimed directly at moms who can’t get their little ones to eat healthy things.  All the recipes are for pretty standard comfort and snack foods, but with secret ingredients like sweet potato, cauliflower, or spinach.

Being a relatively health-conscious non-mother, I was intrigued by the concept, but not quite enough to run out and buy the book.  Then a friend with the world’s pickiest two-year-old showed up with a copy and started raving about the chocolate cupcakes made with avocado puree.  Madness, I thought, but as I continued my search for the perfect chocolate cake recipe, I vowed I would try it one day.

As it happened, the stars aligned and that day was… three days ago.  Roommie’s mother happened to have the cookbook and loaned it to me a few months back, and I decided the birthday baking bash would be the ideal time to try these mysterious cupcakes.

Let me first say that trying to puree straight avocado in a blender is ridiculously difficult, bordering on just plain stupid.  Let me follow that by saying that pureeing avocado with the 1 cup of milk called for in the recipe anyway is kinda fun.  (heheheh whoosh!)  There is something more than a little creepy about dumping bright green sludge into what otherwise looks like perfectly good chocolate cake batter, but sure enough, it blended in without a trace and produced cake batter so tasty it almost didn’t make it into the cupcake tins.  The recipe notes that the avocado taste is still detectable while the cupcakes are warm (and it is – barely), but then it disappears into the chocolate-y goodness of some of the densest and most delicious cupcakes I have ever encountered.

Suffice it to say that Boy has a new favorite cake.

Sadly, I was unable to procure cauliflower in appropriate quantities for the accompanying cream cheese frosting recipe, but my old standard unhealthy recipe served just fine…

…at least up to the point where Boy suggested that the obvious improvement was simply to cover that chocolate cake with more chocolate.

This is what trial and error is all about – next year we will have the perfect chocolate-covered-chocolate-avocado birthday cakes!

Behold!  The very tasty chocolate fruits of my labor!  The normal-looking cupcakes are the devil’s food recipe.  The lumpy ones are the avocado recipe.  Yeah, they look funny.  Yes, you can see the occasional green fleck of a not-quite pureed chunk of avocado.  Yes, they weigh at least three times as much as the other cupcakes, but that just means they’re extra dense and tasty!

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We interrupt your “Is it Friday yet?” doldrums to bring you…

…our very, very stupid special puppy.

Dear Roommie was not in any mood for Jacob’s foolishness last night, but I could not possibly let an opportunity pass to get photographic evidence of his latest brilliance.

Allow me to set the scene for you.  I half-listen from the kitchen to the tiny metallic tinkling of his tags that tells me that he is poking around somewhere other than under my feet.  Then the sound is joined by a decidedly panicked thump-skitter-skitter-thump, and Roommie says something to him that I can’t quite make out, except for a sharp, “No.

I wander ’round the corner to investigate:




You know that scene in The Fifth Element where Leeloo has just dropped into Korben’s cab, and she’s trying to ask for help, but it comes out as, “HAAAAAALP?”

Yeah, that’s pretty much how I translate the sad little whimper that goes with that last picture.

The good news (for him, anyway) is that he does eventually make it out of the tub when properly motivated.  He was out of the bathroom and back in the kitchen by dinner time.

Lasagna makes everything better!

It’s not too often I have a less-than-successful project to post about, but I feel like tonight’s venture is worth mention.  The final results may not have been optimal, but like any good scientific experiment, I learned more from my failure than I would have from a success.  In the spirit of scientific discovery, I’ll give this a (moderately) proper scientific method treatment.

QUESTION:  Can I make a lasagna that is both healthy and delicious?

HYPOTHESIS:  A lasagna made with healthier-than-average materials will taste as good as or better than a standard lasagna.

EXPERIMENT:
Materials:

  • oven-ready lasagna noodles

Sauce ingredients:

  • 56 oz petite diced tomatoes
  • 12 oz tomato paste
  • 1 zucchini, finely grated (yes, grated, as in get out your cheese grater and use the side with the smallest holes – the mushier the better)
  • generous dash (each) of dried onion, paprika, roasted garlic and red pepper blend, marjoram, oregano, basil, whatever the hell other Italian herbs strike your fancy, pepper (red, white and black if you got ’em!)
  • splash (each) of Marsala cooking wine and Worcestershire sauce
  • as much garlic as you can stand

Stuffing ingredients:

  • 1-2 oz fresh baby spinach, diced
  • 15 oz part skim ricotta cheese
  • ~5 oz grated mozzarella cheese
  • ~2 oz grated parmesan cheese
  • ~1 oz grated ricotta
  • 1 lb ground turkey
  • splash of beef broth (to make the turkey taste like beef… riiiiight)
  • another splash (each) of Marsala cookign wine and Worcestershire sauce
  • dash of caraway seed
  • more peppers (again, red, white, and black)
  • garlic
  • more garlic

Topping:

  • ~1 oz grated mozzarella cheese
  • ~1 oz grated parmesan cheese

Hardware:

  • 1 giant sauce pot
  • 1 giant skillet
  • 1 medium-sized mixing bowl
  • 1 oven-safe baking dish (whatever you have that’s roughly rectangular and at least 2 inches deep)
  • lots of heat-resistant spatulas/turners/things with which you can shove meat and/or stir sauce
  • 1 basting brush

Procedure:

  1. In giant sauce pot, mix all sauce ingredients except dry herbs and simmer over low heat for no less than 1 hour.  Add dry herbs at the last possible minute.
  2. In skillet, brown ground turkey then simmer in garlic, peppers, caraway seed, beef broth, Worcestershire, and Marsala until all the liquid has boiled off.
  3. In mixing bowl, combine Ricotta with the other cheeses and garlic.
  4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees (F).
  5. Using basting brush, spread just enough sauce in the baking dish to cover the bottom.  Lay out noodles so they cover the bottom but don’t overlap.
  6. Again using basting brush, spread just enough sauce to cover the noodles.
  7. Dot a layer of cheese mixture to cover the saucy noodles.
  8. Sprinkle spinach over cheese.
  9. Sprinkle meat over spinach.
  10. Brush sauce over meat.
  11. Lay out noodles perpendicular to the previous layer of noodles, again covering everything, but not overlapping.
  12. Repeat the sauce-cheese-spinach-meat-noodle layering business until the dish is full.
  13. Spread more sauce over the top layer of noodles.
  14. Sprinkle topping mozzarella and parmesan cheeses to cover everything.
  15. Put baking dish in some other oven-safe container (cookie sheet with edges, another baking dish) to catch the inevitable overflow (you just filled a baking dish to maximum capacity, dum-dum!).
  16. Bake until the topping cheeses are thoroughly browned but not burned.
  17. Let cool for 10-20 minutes.
  18. Cut into reasonably-sized cubes.
  19. Eat.

DATA:

Noodles:  Bottom and middle layers of noodles were adequately done.  Top layer was chewy but edible.

Tomato-zucchini sauce:  Sauce was delicious.

Cheese:  Cheese was good but overpowered by turkey.

Spinach:  Spinach neither enhanced nor diminished flavor or texture of the lasagna.

Meat:  Turkey did not taste like beef.  Turkey was also not greasy like beef.

CONCLUSIONS:

The oven-ready noodles that were adequately buried in sauce cooked through before the cheese burned.  In future testing, top layer of noodles should be more thoroughly covered.

Tomato sauce tasted great, especially with the shredded zucchini, which acts as an extra seasoning in addition to being the kind of healthy green vegetable my mother toiled all those many years to convince me to eat.  In other words, I still pwn tomato sauces.  Thanks and Gig ‘Em.

The spinach served its purpose perfectly.  I did not have to suffer the slimy texture of cooked spinach, and the flavor was not strong enough to overpower anything else.  Because it was fresh to start with, it stayed relatively crisp through the baking process and should even have retained most of its nutritional value.

The cheese-to-meat ratio was not optimal.  Especially given the distinctive turkey flavor, I probably needed double the cheese and maybe even half the meat to achieve the overwhelming cheesiness that I have come to expect from ricotta-based pasta dishes.

Though the turkey-for-beef substitution did not result in a perfect taste match, I considered the trade off worthwhile to avoid the thick layer of grease that inevitably appears when cooking with beef.  Any meat-and-pasta dish is significantly more enjoyable when the fat is not visibly pooling on top.

Overall, the lack of cheesy flavor put a damper on the eating experience (and also probably put a damper on the fat content, but really… priorities!).  However, I am satisfied, feeling full but not fat, and knowing that I managed to sneak not one but two green vegetables into the dish.

You can teach a young dog new tricks, but you can’t make him stop looking for water

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

I would so like to tell you that we have not, in fact, spent the last week laughing heartily at our tiny friend’s inability to exit such a slippery enclosure with his tiny legs, but… well… it’s his own damned fault that he is incapable of passing up any opportunity to find water.  He’s like a four-legged dowsing rod.

Also, the skitter-skitter-thump-whimper from the other room is really pretty entertaining.

A man walks down the street in that hat, people know he’s not afraid of anything.

I would say that I’ve created a monster, but I don’t think I can rightfully claim credit for the Knitting Monster that has grown up in the place where Dear Roommie used to reside.  For starters, she’s knitting and showing no signs of stopping to pick up a crochet hook for anything more sophisticated than tassels.

Then again, I started out knitting and terrified of crochet, too…

Oh dear, what I have done?

Anyway!  So I made the squid for this Secret Santa thing for her.  She has not yet made it to a post office to ship said squid to said Secret Santa person, so she decided that as penance for her postal tardiness, she should make a little something extra to go along with the late gift.  Naturally, she decided that the time had come in her knitting adventures to make… a Jayne hat.

For those of you uninitiated in the Ways of the Brown Coats, Jayne is a particularly ridiculous fictional mercenary type in a 2002 science fiction series called Firefly, created by Joss “I Like It When Fox Eats My Babies” “The Man Who Made Buffy” Whedon.  In one of the last episodes, he receives a care package from home that includes a hand-knit hat from his mother.  As you can see, the hat is so ugly it’s cute, and since the episode’s first airing, the head- and heart-warming monstrosity has inspired many a knitting nerd to create their own, because it is, indeed, the sweetest hat ever.

Now that I have the explanation out of the way, words cannot express the pride I feel today as I bring you the world debut of Knitting Monster’s very first Jayne Hat.

I mean, the craftsmanship alone puts the original to shame (which really is the point, I think), but then it’s hilariously over-sized, and she had a complete runaway with herself making the pom pom on top.

Secret Santa Dude, I hope you appreciate the love and nerdity that went into your scandalously late gifts.