Monday, April 10, 2017

Baked Raspberry Lemonade

I had the opportunity to make cupcakes for a friend's birthday recently and decided to experiment a little with a cupcake creation. It turned out amazing, and as far as I know (I confess I haven't scoured the web to see if an identical recipe exists), this is an original recipe. I modified my favorite yellow cake recipe into lemon cupcakes, with a fresh raspberry filling and a lemon buttercream frosting.
These are a little bit of work, but they are really delicious and anything but dry and boring. They taste like a little bit of summer in your dessert!
One of the things I hate most on recipe blogs is having to scroll WAY down to the bottom to find the recipe, so let's just dive right in! (Photos at the bottom.)

Raspberry Lemonade Cupcakes - makes 12
Preheat oven to 350*
1/2 c coconut oil (melted)
1 c sugar
1 t vanilla
2 eggs (separated)
zest of one large lemon
juice of half lemon
1/4 t salt
3/4 t baking powder
1-1/2 c flour
1/2 c buttermilk

1. In a stand mixer, cream coconut oil and sugar until well combined and a little fluffy.
2. Add vanilla, both egg yolks, zest of lemon, juice of lemon and mix to combine.
3. Add salt, baking powder, half of flour, and mix until just combined.
4. Add half of milk, mix until just combine.
5. Add second half of flour, mix until just combined.
6. Add second half of milk, mix until just combined.
7. Add egg whites and gently fold until just combined.
8. Scoop into 12 muffin tins with liners - spread batter evenly between cups, should be filled a little past half-way point.
9. Bake for 15-20 minutes until cupcake comes out clean. I like to really baby them those last couple of minutes in the oven to make sure they don't get dry.
10. Let cool on wire rack while making filling and frosting.

Raspberry filling:
1 6oz package of fresh raspberries, cleaned
juice of half lemon
1/4-1/2 c sugar, depending on how sweet you want it - I like it more tart
1/4 c cold water
1 T corn starch
1/4 c heavy whipping cream


1. In a small saucepan on the stove, add raspberries, lemon juice, sugar. Bring to a gentle boil and stir occasionally until the raspberries have dissolved and the mixture begins to thicken a bit.
2. Pour mixture through a strainer to remove most of the seeds (I like a few seeds in the final mix, because it feels more authentically raspberry, but I add back in maybe a teaspoon full). Place mixture back into saucepan and back on stove, back onto about medium heat.
3. Mix cold water with corn starch. Add mixture to saucepan and whisk until thoroughly combined - this might take some vigorous mixing to make sure the cornstarch doesn't clump. Boil until mixture becomes thick, remove from heat. Cool until about room temperature.
4. Add heavy cream to mixture, and beat using an immersion blender to whip the cream a bit, until well combined and a little thicker.

2 c powdered sugar
1/2 c unsalted butter
zest of one lemon (If you don't want really lemony frosting, omit the zest for a more delicate flavor)
juice of half lemon
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 c heavy whipping cream
Remaining raspberry filling (I had about a teaspoon left after filling cupcakes)

1. In stand mixer with whisk attachment, combine remaining raspberry filling, powdered sugar, butter. (The little bit of raspberry filling will give the frosting a nice, delicate pale pink color to the frosting.)
2. Add zest, lemon juice, vanilla, combine again.
3. Add heavy cream and whip on high until frosting gets nice and fluffy. (If it appears to curdle slightly, just whip it a little longer. Chances are pretty good it will actually be pretty smooth when spread with a knife or spatula.)

1. Cut a cone-shaped chunk out of the top of each cupcake (see photo below), then gently cut the point off.
2. Scoop raspberry filling into hole, filling almost to the top, and replace the top of the cupcake (again, as shown). You don't want the filling to ooze out of the top.
3. Pipe frosting however you desire. Top with fresh raspberry! (I was testing out a new tip and I definitely need more practice with it.)

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Beautiful Auction Art

As I mentioned in the previous post, our elementary school raises most of its PTA money through a big auction. One of the elements of the auction are individual class projects. These seem to go for quite a bit of money, so there's a little bit of pressure when creating them. I had a fun time doing one of them last year for my son's kindergarten class. This year, I decided to help my other son's third grade teacher with their project. She really wanted to the auction project to be relevant to their current curriculum, so they could possibly use parts of the art project for other assignments in class. After doing a bunch of research looking for ideas, I got my inspiration. We would do a sort of mosaic of drawings and turn it into a poster.
1. I created a square in photoshop and then had a bunch printed out, so each child in the class could make two or three drawings. (Feel free to click on it and download it.)

2. The teacher decided on a theme: in this case, we went botanical, and the kids drew plants, flowers, and berries from a specific region they were studying in class. I could see lots of other potential ideas: animals, elements of the local city, fish, patterns, self-portraits, etc.
3. Each child drew two or three plants, colored them with colored pencil, then outlined the drawings with a fine sharpie.
4. I scanned all of the pictures and brought them into photoshop.
5. I created the big grid in photoshop - the full-size poster with empty squares laid out the way I wanted it.
6. I brought in each picture and placed them in the empty grid, making sure to mix up the drawings because there were duplicates.
7. I brought the grid layer to the top, and switched it to the multiply layer setting so that the drawings would be visible underneath it.
8. I cleaned up any stray colored pencil lines, and erased any drawing parts that fell outside the grid lines.
9. I added the description text at the bottom.
10. I had it printed through

One thing I like about doing auction projects digitally is that they can be reproduced. If an auction project is popular, the PTA can decide to sell a second or third copy for the same price as the first was bid on and double their money. These projects also make excellent end-of-year teacher gifts, or they have the possibility of being permanently displayed somewhere in the school.
The teacher was able to use the scanned drawings for relevant reports the kids were working on, as well as to make some cute thank you notes for a guest visitor to their classroom.

Big Auction Dessert

Our elementary school raises most of its yearly PTA funds through a big auction. We live in a fairly high-rent district (we are the poor people here - LOL), so we can't actually afford to attend the auction, but I can definitely help create the stuff that raises the money. This year, I helped with a class auction project, and then I created a special dessert for the Dessert Dash.
I love an excuse to experiment with cakes - especially when I don't have to eat them (calorie-free experimentation!). This time, I decided to combine two of my favorites: chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cake. Let me start by warning that this is a many-hours process.
Here's how I did it:
1. I made a chocolate cake from scratch in two 9" cake pans, cooled them and froze them overnight. Before freezing them, I made sure to cut them down a bit so they were both as flat as possible. I used THIS recipe (mostly because I had only cocoa powder, no baking chocolate).
2. I baked a full batch of my favorite chocolate chip cookies, making sure to bake a couple of giant ones (more than one in case one came out funky), and the rest fairly small (like a couple inches in diameter). I baked them a little more than I normally would because I wanted the crunch. Alton Brown's chocolate chip cookies are my favorite, recipe HERE.
3. In the morning, I made a 1-1/2 batch of a really fluffy vanilla buttercream frosting. I used THIS one.
4. Place one of the cakes on the plate with a little frosting underneath to cement it down. Cover the top of that cake with a layer of frosting. Chop up a few smaller chocolate chip cookies and arrange them on top of the frosting in a single flat layer. Top that with another layer of frosting.
5. Place the second cake on top of the frosting, and ice the entire cake with most of the rest of the frosting (if there's a little left, put it in an icing bag).
6. While the frosting is setting on the cake (which is nice and easy since the cake is still kind of frozen), make a batch of ganache. Let it cool a bit so it won't melt the frosting. HERE is a recipe for basic ganache.
7. Place ganache in some kind of squeeze bottle (I use the cheap dollar store plastic ketchup/mustard containers). run a line or two of ganache around the very outside edge of the cake so that the ganache runs down the sides. Embellish a little bit by squeezing dots at the edge of the cake where you want more drip. Then cover the entire top of the cake with a layer of ganache. You will have leftover ganache. Do find some other way to enjoy it.
8. Arrange big cookie in the center of the top of the cake, and then embellish as you like with the smaller ones around it. If you had extra frosting like I did, I added some decorative frosting to the top.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Birthday Zombies

The final birthday cake request of the year came from my middle son. He wanted a Plants vs. Zombies cake. Again, I didn't find a lot of (amateur) PvsZ cakes on Pinterest, so I had to go my own route. This one is actually really easy to make as long as you own a set of THESE - no, I didn't make fondant creatures because who has time for that???
So, here are the mechanics of the cake:
1. I made my cake of choice (he wanted lemon with a lemon curd filling) in two standard-sized square cake pans.
2. I frosted the cake with regular ol' white buttercream frosting.
3. I scored a 6x6 checkerboard pattern into the top of the cake lightly with a butter knife.
4. Using two different shades of green frosting, and a leaf/grass frosting tip, I filled in each square in different directions to create the "game board."
5. I took the left-over green frosting and created grass blades on the sides of the cake, just to give it a little extra flair.
6. I placed the figurines in a somewhat believable manner.
Voila! PvsZ cake that took very little time.
Here it is with its thrilled recipient!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Buttercream Creeper Cake

My now NINE-year-old requested a Minecraft Creeper cake this year for his birthday. Since I love making these cakes for my kids, I agreed. I spent some time googling and looking on pinterest for ideas and was really surprised to only find about two Creeper cakes out there, so I was pretty much on my own after looking at how to get the initial shape (I am not into fondant for lots of reasons for these kid-cakes and that was pretty much what I saw).
So, here is what I did:
1. I made my favorite chocolate cake recipe and baked it in two 7x11 Pyrex baking dishes.
2. I turned them out to cool and then on a cutting board, sliced longitudinally about 1" off all the way down both sides of one cake to create the body - removing the rounded edges.
3. With the other cake, I created the head to be a little bit wider than the body, and square. With the rest of that cake, I made two feet, also square.
4. I placed the cakes on a foil-covered cookie sheet and then iced the entire cake with green buttercream frosting (and it was really good buttercream frosting).
5. Using green sugar-sheet, an exacto knife, and a metal ruler (I'm an architect, remember, always at home with a ruler and an exacto knife), I created a whole bunch of 1.25" squares.
If you've never used sugar sheet, it's awesome! You can cut it with an exacto knife or scissors just like paper, then you peel off the plastic backing and stick it right on the cake. It is edible (though not terribly tasty). A great way to accomplish these sorts of designs without using fondant or going nuts with detailed frosting.
6. I placed the squares throughout the body and feet in a somewhat random geometric grid pattern.
7. Using black sugar-sheet, I created three more 1.25" squares for the eyes and part of the mouth. Then I cut a fourth square, cut it in half vertically, and used it to create the sides of the mouth.
8. To clean up the edges of the cake a little bit, I piped a line of frosting around the base of the cake, and a narrower line to outline the different sections of the top of the creeper.
9. I finished it off with a happy birthday message and green candles.
This was actually a pretty easy cake to make compared to that dinosaur I made back in June. And it was a hit!

For my third son's birthday, I hear I am going to be creating a Plants vs. Zombies yard. Wish me luck! Be back in September.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Birthday Dinosaur

We celebrated my youngest's third birthday this weekend. More than anything, he wanted a blue stegosaurus cake. I enjoy a cake challenge (I really do), so I spent a good couple of weeks thinking about it and was really anxious to make it a reality.
I didn't take any photos of the process, mostly because I had food coloring and frosting all over my fingers, but I can describe the process for anyone who might want to recreate it.
Here goes...
The body:
~I started with three round 9" cakes and one 8" square.
~I cut off about 1/3 of each of two round cakes for the body, and stuck them together with a lot of frosting.
~The third round cake I cut out the tail (sort of a J shape, that I then had to tweak when I put the whole thing together).
~Out of the left-overs of that third round, I cut the head - sort of half an oval that was two cake-widths wide.
~I cut the 8" square into 4 equal pieces and then cut one leg out of each quarter.
~There were some left-over chunks, and so I used those to add shape to the head and a couple of triangles to connect the flat tail piece to the hump of the body.
~Then after I put the whole thing together, I frosted the heck out of it.

The spikes:
~I created the shape of one of the spine on a piece of paper. Then I laid it under a large piece of wax paper on the counter.
~I purchased a bag of candy melts at the craft store (in a dark blue color).
~I melted them in a pyrex bowl in the microwave and then poured the contents into a squeeze bottle.
~I traced the shape of the spines and then also filled them in with the melted candy. Moved the paper and traced over again. Repeated a bunch of times. Then I made a few smaller spines.
~I stuck two toothpicks in each of the big spines lollipop-style, so I could easily connect them to the cake later.
~I was having so much fun making stuff with the melted candy in a squeeze bottle that I made a bunch of embellishments that I wasn't sure what I was going to do with.
~After everything dried, I took a knife and trimmed all the spines so they were nice and sharp.

After I frosted the cake, I added all of the spikes and threw on some embellishments. Then, because where the cake meets the plate/cookie sheet/whatever always looks messy, I added some "grass" and "dirt" with the leftover frosting.
This might be my favorite kid-cake that I've ever made. I was really sad when we cut into it. Here is my masterpiece!

The birthday boy loved his cake!
We also had stegosaurus fruit salad. It was a fun party theme!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Big Bad Rash

My middle son came down with a strange rash in mid-January and as of a week ago, we were STILL trying to figure it out. It was the kind of thing that started out small, concentrated to one area (on his rear end, unfortunately), and then spread like crazy. It became infected, and then it just spread and spread until he covered his whole body. It was itchy and painful, and I have no idea how he handled it with as much grace as he did. We went to the doctor SEVEN times over the evolution of the rash. SEVEN. The curious thing was that as it ran its course, the most stubborn part was (so embarrassing) in the shape of a toilet seat on his backside. It just wouldn't go away and it was blisters on top of blisters.

Finally, last week, the dermatologist (by the way, did you know it's almost impossible to get a kid in to see a dermatologist???) decided we should do patch testing to see if he had any skin allergies. Over the weekend, he had to wear this series of little patches (all stuck to medical tape) on his back, then after 48 hours, we could remove them and see if he had any reactions. It turned out, he had a pretty big reaction to something called methylisothiazolinone (abbreviated MI). It is an anti-microbial chemical found in SO MANY THINGS. SO MANY THINGS. After three days, he still has a red square on his back where that patch was. (Incidentally, the doctor ruled the Q15 reaction an "irritant" and not an allergy - probably should avoid that too, and it goes by literally 12 different names in products.)
What seems to have happened is that when he got the rash, I was worried it might be contagious, so I started furiously cleaning all bathroom surfaces frequently to keep the other kids from getting it. The Clorox (well, Kirkland) wipes I was using had this allergen in them and it was actually intensifying the problem. I ended up having to replace the kid-toilet-seat-topper (the one we had was kind of a spongey material that was potentially porous -ick) with a hard-plastic one and change my cleaning routine. The rash began to retreat almost immediately. This allergy also explained why he had had such horrible rashes as a baby when we used ordinary diapers and wipes. We had to move him to very organic stuff early on in life. Only a few brands didn't irritate him. Turns out those brands didn't contain MI. Through the years we have inadvertently shielded him from MI in most things just due to thinking he had sensitive skin and the desire to use organic/natural baby skin products on all of our children - mostly to avoid phthalates, actually. And I also went through and eliminated all triclosan-containing products from our house a few years ago too (scary stuff, it's even in toothpaste).
After the test results, and confirmation of the allergy by the doctor, my research and label-reading began. I thought I would post what I learned here in case there are others out there who learn of an MI allergy. Obviously, it is probably healthiest to make as many cleaners at home from known ingredients like vinegar and peroxide, but I just don't have time for a lot of that right now - life is particularly stressful at the moment, so I needed to be able to purchase things quickly to get us by for awhile.
Here are a few quick things to start with:
1) MI is found in all sorts of soaps, detergents, and skin products mostly.
2) MI is found in a lot of "natural" products, and there isn't a certain brand that I could find that is exclusively free of them - you have to pick and choose and read a lot of labels. Honest Co., for example, is currently being sued for being less than honest about what is in some of its products. I did find, though, that a lot of their stuff is MI-free - in fact, the only dish soap I could find at Target that was MI-free (include Seventh Generation, and Method) was Honest Co.
I spent quite awhile reading labels at Target this morning in the "natural" section and most of this stuff contains MI! So sad!

3) As far as detergents go, powders tend to less-frequently contain MI than liquids.
4) "Sensitive skin" and "fragrance free" products are less likely to contain MI, but not always a guarantee.
5) Sprays tend to be MI-free while lotions tend to contain it.
6) I learned that a lot of cleaning products are very vague as to what is actually in them. They are not required to list their ingredients on labels, so a lot of them don't, or they only list "active" ingredients. Greenworks is a particularly bad offender at false-advertisement. They do list ingredients, but in vague ways that don't actually let you know what chemicals their products contain.
7) Just because it says "plant-based" doesn't mean it is totally safe. My beloved Aveda products (I am so addicted to their smell) have MI in them, I sadly discovered.
I also discovered that quite a few - perhaps MOST - Mrs. Meyers products contain MI. I was surprised and disappointed to see that.
I also spent 20 minutes at Whole Foods reading the labels of all their cleaning products and most of them contain MI, sadly. I think this one makes me the most angry. Look at the claims this container of wet wipes makes, but it still contains MI!

Here are a bunch of products I either purchased today, or had hanging around our house that do NOT contain MI. Note that I am not suggesting that all of these are pure and natural (though a lot are), just that these do not contain this one allergen that bothers my son and many other people out there. This is a pretty broad range of products that are not too expensive and get most of the job of cleaning self and house done.
 L to R: Aveeno Baby Lotion (unscented), BabyGanics unscented bubble bath, Trader Joe's handsoap, Honest Co. dishsoap, Seventh Generation disinfecting wipes, Neutrogena Naturals face soaps, Method glass cleaner (in a refreshing mint scent), Method surface cleaner (but note that other Method products like hand soap and dish soap do contain MI), Aquaphor, Trader Joe's plant-based laundry detergent (only has three ingredients!), Dr. Baronne's Castille soap (the lavender stuff smells amazing - I am totally into lavender in the shower right now), Everyone Soap for Every Kid (LOVE the wonderful orangey smell of this stuff), Curel unscented lotion (note that only unscented doesn't contain MI).
L to R: Coppertone Pure & Simple sunscreen, Aveeno face sunscreen (though I don't like this stuff because of some other chemicals it contains), Target's Up & Up baby wash, Babies R Us vapor bath (great stuff for head colds), Johnson's baby shampoo, Kandoo sensitive skin flushable wipes (only the unscented kind), Biokleen bac-out carpet cleaner (Folex and Resolve do not list ingredients), Fizzy Tub color tabs (hey, what can I say, we went through a phase where that was the only way one of my kids would set foot in a tub without a tantrum), Cetaphil cleanser (awesome stuff anyway, even better that it has no MI).
And here's to many years ahead of obsessive label-reading!