Good morning! Today we’re taking Ali Does It west as we travel home to spend the holiday season with our families. We’ll be in Ottawa for a WHOLE MONTH. During this time, Gren will have his second birthday (hopefully he’ll be able to celebrate it with his sister, Bakhita, who also lives in Ottawa). And Cait and I will be starting on a new category of blog posts for you: Mad Science. Because who doesn’t love science? I know I do. Especially when it involves things that fizz or glow. So stay tuned for a wide variety of madcap experiments in the coming months.
And not to fret! I will continue to blog while I’m home with the family — in fact, I will probably make them help out, so we should have uninterrupted posts all the way into the new year!
Before we go, though, I have a quick cleaning tip for you. I hate leaving a dirty house. I just can’t stand coming home to a mess, dirty laundry and expired food and stale whatever. I’m not in the mood. So the Pie and I tend to do a whole-house clean before we go, just making sure the surfaces are clean, things are dusted, the laundry and dishes are done, and the fridge is empty of anything that might expire in our absence. It just makes for a better homecoming, especially when the first thing we do upon our (usually late night) reentry is open our suitcases in the middle of the living room and make a big mess.
Now, there’s a lot of work to do in the days leading up to our travel — usually the Pie is writing exams and I am packing and getting Gren ready for the airplane. So anything that saves me time and effort is number one in my books. So here’s a handy tip for quickly and lazily cleaning your microwave — while you do something else. And this even works on super gross, super crusty microwaves. Trust me. I own one of those kind. I’m a terrible housekeeper. And I’m freaking LAZY.
Take a small bowl and fill it with about a cup of water, maybe a cup and a half. Whatever floats your boat. Then add in a few tablespoons lemon juice (you don’t have to be all elitist and use fresh lemons for this — bottled lemon will do just fine).
Pop that bad boy into the microwave in the middle and nuke it for 3 minutes. Then leave it in there, without opening the door, for another 5 minutes. While cool and awesome science is going on behind that door, you can work on cleaning something else. Or check Facebook. Or play with your dog. That is up to you. What is happening is the steam from the boiling water is loosening baked on goo, and the acid in the lemon is breaking up all the grease.
Then take your handy dandy scrubby sponge and simply wipe away all that grease and grime. That’s all it takes, is a little wipe. I kid you not. It’s that simple.
Even gets the stuff on the ceiling of the microwave. Easy peasy. And even if you forget about the microwave, all that lovely condensation will have done its job, even if you come back an hour later.
And once the lemon water in the bowl has cooled, you can dip your sponge in it and use it to sanitize your counter tops and cutting boards. BLAMO KABLAM.
The Pie and I were married on 22 August 2009. We wanted to do our wedding on the cheap, because we are stone broke, and we also wanted to give our guests a little taste of our personality. With that in mind, we turned down my parents’ repeated offers to make fruitcakes (‘but it’s a traditional Scottish wedding cake’) and decided to make cupcakes instead of buying a tiered and costly confection.
Which flavours were we to pick? The choices were almost endless and we didn’t know where to begin. My mother gave me Cupcake Heaven by Susannah Blake as a Christmas present, and we decided to start there. With one exception, all the recipes we tried are from there.
I chose a panel of a dozen people at work to help us to test our cupcakes, and every one of them looked forward to Cupcake Friday. By the time I was finished the experiment (which ran from the beginning of March to the end of June 2009), my panel had doubled in size and I was a very popular lady at work.
A crucial piece of machinery without which I would have gone MAD is the Kitchenaid stand mixer. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone who does a lot of baking. Also my camera, of course. I took a lot of pictures during this period. You can see the rest of them on my Flickr site here.
#1 Apple Cinnamon Sour Cream
These were extremely tasty but not particularly attractive, texture-wise. Aesthetically they weren’t much to go on either. The icing was also quite runny and very sticky, but also very good. The sour cream mixed with the lemon and the icing sugar made a tangy topping. The Committee thought it would make a good brunch baked good.
One thing to note about these is that I had to re-cup the cupcakes after they were baked, because the bottoms had burned a bit in my antiquated oven and I wanted to hide that. Fun fact: if you re-cup a cupcake, the cupcake will not stick to the paper cup anymore, as you can see in the photograph.
#2 Carrot Cardamom
I really like the word ‘cardamom.’ These ones turned out exactly like the picture in the book, which was gratifying, and they had a much smoother texture than the Apple Cinnamon, which was reassuring.
I’m not a huge fan of walnuts, however; they have a bitter after taste that I am not fond of – I much prefer pecans. The mascarpone icing, however, was incredible and there was an enormous amount of it. If these cupcake experiments taught me anything (and to quote one of the Committee members), ‘there is no such thing as too much icing.’
#3 Cherry and Marzipan Cupcakes
These little boogers were a spectacular failure on my part. The recipe involved putting half the batter into the cup, then sprinkling it with grated marzipan, then putting the other half of the dough on top. Silly me, I did all the bottom halves first, then all the marzipan, and by the time I got around to the tops, I had run out of batter.
In addition, I had to deal with runny icing and artificial cherries, and that’s never a good combination. Let us not forget as well that I had to face the inevitable comments at work that these strongly resembled boobs. So much for professionalism.
Overall, they were too sweet, and too much of a pain to make. Vetoed.
… then something magic happened …
… my oven exploded!
I’m totally serious. The Pie was making dinner one night and I heard this loud thrumming noise coming from the kitchen, accompanied by a yell that I should probably get in there. I ran in and saw bright white light coming from the oven window – element was arcing and sending off sparks. It was making the thrumming noise. We turned off the oven and got the hell out of there. Two days later my landlord bought us a new oven. It’s so low tech that it has no interior light and you have to shine a flashlight in to see if your stuff is done, but it works really well, I will give it that.
#4 Creamy Coconut Lime
It was from this new oven that a new generation of cupcake was born. I could now actually follow the recipe when it came to temperature and cooking time. Nothing burned, or exploded. It was inspiring, actually. The first experiment to come out of the new oven, or ‘tailgate special’ as I like to refer to it, was this perfect confection. It was unanimously voted by the Committee as the perfect cupcake for a wedding. Nothing I made after this counted for much in their opinions. I was, however, undaunted, and continued on with my experiments. I couldn’t stop now – things were just getting good.
#5 Orange Poppyseed with Mascarpone Icing
In these, I substituted canned mandarin slices for regular orange segments. Other than the fact that I am truly lazy and did not want to segment several oranges, the canned pieces meant that my cupcakes would be uniform and also that the quality of the fruit would be good. Living in Newfoundland, especially during the winter, means that produce quality is always a guessing game.
These cakes were popular with those who liked poppyseeds. I liked them, but the Pie was not a huge fan.
As you can see, I was really getting into my groove here. My photographic cupcake record had turned more artistic now that my appliances were cooperating.
#6 Blueberry and Lemon with Cornmeal
These little beauties contained fresh Newfoundland blueberries stuck right into the batter, and were made with cornmeal, which made the batter a sunshiny yellow but which created a texture many were not expecting.
I thought they were great but most people were unconvinced. In any case, I had a lot of fun with my new zester, creating and photographing my confections.
Martha Stewart eat your heart out:
#7 Maple and Pecan
I had a lot of fun making these – and burned myself severely in the process. They were one of my favourite cupcakes, taste-wise, but many people found the hard caramelized sugar too sharp or tough to bite into, the Pie included, so they were eventually scrapped.
Playing with melted sugar is a lot of fun. If I ever made these again, however, I would let the sugar cool a bit more before pouring it, to keep the fluid from spreading too much – I think that was my major failing here.
#8 Bittersweet Chocolate Wedding Cupcakes
I ended up renaming these bad beauties Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse, because that’s pretty much what they tasted like, and that’s pretty much all the ‘icing’ really was: hot whipping cream poured over dark and bittersweet chocolate and then whipped into a light foam. They are truly divine. The batter itself was a little bland, however, so I thought I could improve somewhat.
You can see at this time that spring was coming, and my seedlings were on the sprout. But spring comes late to Newfoundland, and we had a while yet to wait.
#9 Gingerbread Cupcakes with Lemon Icing
I can pretty much guarantee that I will never make these again. I have never been so disappointed with myself. I didn’t want to serve them to the Committee, and some Committee members refused to even finish them. They were dry and tasteless and the crystallized ginger on top was too strong. It was supposed to be stem ginger in syrup but this being Newfoundland I couldn’t find any.
I had to redeem myself.
#10 Marble Cupcakes
When these were finished they looked nothing like the photograph but boy were they tasty. Inside was a chocolate-vanilla swirl cake that really wasn’t visible unless there was no icing but which was nice and moist and light.
The icing was cream cheese mixed with cream and icing sugar. You can’t really top that, but of course that would mean leaving out the caramel.
I used Smucker’s caramel ice cream topping, but had I been thinking I would have used real dulce de leche, because it would have held its shape better and not oozed everywhere. These cupcakes certainly entailed sticky fingers.
#11 Coffee and Walnut Cupcakes with Ricotta Icing
The Pie and I wanted to experiment with a few lower-fat options, and this was one of them, containing no butter at all, and of course using ricotta cheese instead of cream cheese for icing.
They turned out really well but weren’t quite what we were looking for.
#12 Chocolate Fireworks
These were meant to be served with lit sparklers in them, but I wasn’t sure how I would get them into the office.
I settled for the little silver balls instead. Did you know they are called ‘dragees’?
The icing was rather unimaginative and runny, but the batter had some orange in it that kept in moist and gave it a nice tart tang.
#13 Raspberry Trifle
Unlucky number 13. We were drawing to the close of our experiment here, with only three more recipes to try, and I was pretty tired of making cupcakes at this time. It seemed every week I was adding someone new to the Cupcake Committee email distribution list.
I made these while watching Detroit lose to Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I was cheering for the Red Wings (my beloved Senators didn’t even make the post-season) because I hate Crosby, but alas, I was out of luck.
This cake was really good, though, because it was chock-full of raspberries. I thought the custardy topping could have had more flavour, but that might have had something to do with me failing at making custard.
#14 Strawberry Vanilla Cheesecake
I left the picture of this one small because it’s blurry. It was late, I was tired, and these were such a hassle that I forgot to take a picture until super late at night.
The recipe called for slicing off the top of the cupcake so the cream cheese topping would set, smooth and flat, like a real cheesecake. I cut off the tops, which was a pain, considering I then had to re-cup the cakes, and then topped them. And discovered that the topping wasn’t going to lie smooth and flat anyway.
There was some swearing.
In the end, these were one of my favourites: a fine vanilla cake with vanilla cream-cheesy ‘icing’ and sliced strawberries on top. The fanning of the berry was my idea, as the berries I got weren’t of the quality that they would stand up on their own, like they were in the book.
#15 Gluten-Free Chocolate Cheesecake
Another cheesecake-y recipe that didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. The Pie’s grandmother is a celiac, as is one of my former coworkers, and both of them were coming to the wedding. I didn’t want them to feel excluded from the cake part of the festivities, so I experimented with a gluten-free recipe.
It was an all right cupcake, but it wasn’t light or fluffy, the potato flour I used made the texture a little grainy, and, all in all, it was rather bland.
#16 Coconut Cream
This was my final cupcake, and it wasn’t really an experiment.
One of the people in the Cupcake Committee had been talking about the Barefoot Contessa’s Coconut and Cream cupcakes for a while so as a final treat I decided to make them. You can get the recipe from the Food Network here.
The cupcakes were huge, and I knew I wasn’t going to make them for the wedding – they were pretty time-consuming. But everyone on the Committee had been talking about that other coconut recipe for ages, so I thought I would end it with an echo of the earlier recipe.
They were fabulous and if you ate more than one you felt ill. We had wayyy too many leftovers and I think we ate them for three weeks straight. Or at least it felt like that. They were good though. I recommend giving them a shot.
And that’s it. Sixteen cupcakes in seventeen weeks.
Which ones did we eventually choose: Strawberry Vanilla Cheesecake, Fireworks (but with the icing from the Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse), and the Raspberry Trifle (but with a lemon cream cheese icing instead of the custard. They were a hit.