Blueberry Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting

I have a 2 year old! Saturday’s weather was sunny and warm, perfect for Levi’s birthday BBQ at the park. He ran around, he played with sticks in the dirt, he colored on butcher paper with crayons, he blew bubbles, and he devoured chips and salsa, a grilled sausage (bockwurst is his personal favorite) on a sesame challah roll with arugula and sweet mustard, baked beans (his Uncle Lars’s contribution to the party – thank you!), potato salad with spring vegetables and mustard vinaigrette, and of course, his special birthday cupcake. Like most 2 year olds I know, Levi can really power through the blueberries; they are his favorite snack, so I knew that blueberry cupcakes were in order for his birthday celebration.

I came across a recipe on Smitten Kitchen for peach cupcakes with a brown sugar-cream cheese frosting. I simply swapped the peaches for blueberries and had the blueberry cupcake I was envisioning. The brown sugar in the frosting really sets it apart from regular cream cheese frosting. I know that Levi approved when I saw the look on his face when he licked the beater :)

I topped the cupcakes with a mint leaf (our plant in the backyard is flourishing!) and, of course, a blueberry. Then I packed them into  my handy new 36-cupcake carrier, where they arrived at the park in perfect shape, ready to be devoured and washed down (by the adults) with some Pale Ale and Amber Ale from Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing.

See that ice in the bottom tray of my cupcake carrier? When I read that the mercury was going to hit the 80s on the day of Levi’s party (what a relief, since last year the cake time at his 1st birthday party was cut short due to drizzle!), I filled some of the cups in the bottom tray with water and stuck it in the freezer (a tip that I read in one of the Amazon reviews). It seemed to help because despite the heat, the frosting didn’t melt! Of course, I kept the carrier in the shade as well.

He was one happy birthday boy. Happy birthday, dear Levi, happy birthday to you! And let’s hope Mommy and Daddy survive the terrible 2s!

Blueberry Cupcakes

(Slightly adapted from the peach cupcakes with brown sugar cream cheese frosting on Smitten Kitchen; makes 24 cupcakes)

3 cups cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch of nutmeg
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks or 6 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup dark or light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) buttermilk, sour cream or full-fat yogurt
3 4.4-ounce containers of organic blueberries, washed and dried (set aside 24 blueberries for decorating the tops of the cupcakes)
24 fresh mint leaves

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 24 muffin cups with paper liners.
  • Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg and set aside.
  • Cream the butter and sugars together, beating until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl between each addition, and then add the vanilla. Gently mix in the buttermilk, sour cream or yogurt. Stir in the dry ingredients and fold in the blueberries.
  • Divide the batter evenly among the prepared cupcake liners. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center of cupcakes comes out clean. Cool the cupcakes for five minutes in the tin, then turn them out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting

1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (4 ounces or 8 tablespoons) butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • In a small bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, cornstarch and powdered sugar.
  • In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter until fluffy. Add the sugar-cornstarch mixture and vanilla, beat until frosting is smooth and light. Chill the bowl in the refrigerator until it thickens back up a bit, about 30 minutes, then spread or dollop on cooled cupcakes. Decorate with a mint leaf and a blueberry, if desired.

Chewy Chocolate Chunk Cookies

I grew up eating a crisp oatmeal chocolate chip cookie that I still turn to when I’m having a cookie craving, but I do love a soft, bakery-style cookie once in a while and have been meaning to try a recipe at home with my little assistant, who (at almost 2 years old!) is now old enough to “help” me. On a rainy Wednesday, Levi and I made a batch of these together – him perched on a kitchen stool; me on my own two feet.

He got really excited when I retrieved the hand-mixer from the baking drawer, and imitated the sound while doing his own little mixer charade. He also does a perfect imitation of the sound of an egg cracking on the counter. When I spooned the flour into a measuring cup, he helped me level it off with a knife then dump it into the bowl. What a good helper. After much measuring, mixing and scooping, the cookies were in the oven and there was flour everywhere, even on the tip of Levi’s little nose. We both peered through the little oven window and exchanged looks of anticipation and delight.

My little assistant, wearing my apron (which he insisted upon). He was so excited, he couldn’t keep his face still, hence the blur!

These cookies were just what I was craving – sweet with a hint of salt for balance, slightly crisp on the exterior with a chewy inside, and a gooey dark chocolate chunk in every bite. I found the recipe on Kelsey’s blog Apple a Day – thanks for a recipe that I’ll surely return to again and again. My only adaptations were using 3 tablespoons of olive oil because I was short 3 tablespoons of butter (which I wasn’t sure about but you couldn’t even tell in the end!), using salted butter and reducing the amount of salt in the recipe to just over a 1/4 tsp., and using chopped semisweet dark chocolate in place of chocolate chips.

Chewy Chocolate Chunk Cookies

(Just slightly adapted from Apple a Day; originally from Food Network Canada)

3/4 cup salted butter, softened 
3/4 cup brown sugar 
1/4 cup granulated sugar 
1 egg 
2 tsp. vanilla extract 
2 cups all-purpose flour 
2 tsp. cornstarch 
1 tsp. baking soda 
1/4 tsp. salt 
1 cup chopped good-quality semisweet dark chocolate, such as Scharffenberger
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • In a large bowl, using a hand-mixer, cream together butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and mix until blended. Add flour, cornstarch, baking soda and salt and mix until flour is incorporated. Stir in chocolate chunks.
  • Drop tablespoons of dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Bake for 8-10 minutes, until barely golden brown around the edges.  (It actually took my cookies/oven about 11 minutes to achieve that ‘barely golden brown’ – also note, the tops will not brown so don’t overcook them!)
  • Let cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack for five minutes.  Remove cookies from baking sheet and let cool completely.  Makes approximately 3 dozen, which may sound like a lot, but trust me – they’ll go fast!

Butterscotch Pie, and saying goodbye

The first week of February has come and gone, and I’ve left all of my readers hanging since the 9th of January? How unfortunate, for both of us. A couple weeks ago we had to say goodbye to Mikki, Dustin’s grandma, an extraordinary woman whose kindness left a huge imprint on all of our lives. She always treated me like an honorary granddaughter, and I was especially blessed to witness her interaction with her great-grandson, from the first time she met him at 5 days old, to last month when we visited her and he displayed the art of tantruming in her living room, to which she calmly and sweetly responded, “Brianna, I’ll definitely be thinking of you during this phase.” That meant a lot, coming from an experienced mother of two, especially in light of Levi’s new habit of screaming at the top of his lungs at me and then waving “bye” (translation: mom, I’m done with you) when he can’t do what he wants. Levi had his sweet moments as well during our great-grandma visit. After he was over whatever trivial thing set him off, he gave her a kiss, and she offered him a couple bites of the egg she was eating for breakfast. It was one of those moments you wished you could have frozen in time.

I know that Mikki loved reading this blog. As she tasted the baked mac and cheese that we made for her (per her request) while we were in town for that last visit, she looked up at me and said that she loved our recipes and that I write beautifully. I don’t think I’m worthy of that comment, but it obviously stuck with me and I find myself drawing strength from it. Anyway, Mikki wouldn’t have wanted me dwelling on how sad we feel that she’s gone. She’d want me to get straight to the point; the food. In this case, a butterscotch pie, and one that her family loved.

This is a recipe from The Purity Cookbook.  It is a Canadian cookbook that Mikki’s family has used for decades. It was also Dustin’s Grandpa’s favorite pie and he made it often as well. Mikki loved a crust made with lard and now we know why. Thanks to El Salchichero, our local butcher shop, it was easy to find, and it produced a texture and a flavor that I’d never experienced before in a pie. It’s definitely the way to go.

When my mom asked what dessert she should make Dustin for his 29th birthday dinner last weekend (I’m working on another blog post about that dinner … stay tuned!), I suggested this recipe, which my mother-in-law had emailed me a couple months ago, but I hadn’t had a chance yet to make. It was a little piece of nostalgia for Dustin, and it made me happy to see him happy. Happy Birthday, Dustin. You had an amazing grandmother. I celebrate both of you.

Butterscotch Pie

(From The Purity Cookbook)

4  TBS. butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/3 cup hot milk
5 1/3 TBS flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2/3 cup cold milk
2 eggs
Pie shell (use lard for best results; my mom used the recipe from Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant)

  • It is suggested that you use a double boiler for this recipe.
  • Cook butter and brown sugar for 3 – 4 minutes, stirring constantly.  Add hot milk (it is important that the milk be hot but not quite scalded), and simmer until sugar dissolves.  Mix salt, flour, and cold milk; add gradually to hot mixture*.  Cook for 15 minutes or until thickened, stirring constantly ( if you are not using a double boiler, this will not take as long).  Beat eggs and pour into hot mixture, stirring briskly as you add the eggs.  Cook 2 – 3 minutes on low heat.  When thickened, pour into cooked pie shell.  Top with whipped cream. Levi recommends licking the beaters :)

* This is a very old fashioned recipe in that it uses flour instead of cornstarch for thickening. If you find that the flour produces lumps, strain the mixture before adding the eggs.

Yellow Cupcakes with Chocolate-Sour Cream Frosting

I blinked and my newborn became a 1-year-old. He walks, he points at things, he babbles, and he eats everything with gusto, especially cake, as we now know. I picked my favorite cake/frosting combination for Levi’s birthday cupcakes – yellow cake with chocolate, because I know he’s not picky and I’d be the one licking the beaters. I used the best birthday cake recipe on Smitten Kitchen – yellow cake with chocolate sour cream frosting – but made cupcakes instead of a layer cake and topped them with festive sprinkles. The recipe made 36 cupcakes, and I even had enough batter to make a little personal cake for Levi to eat on his actual birthday. So yes, we were eating cupcakes for days, and they were delicious. This recipe was exactly what I had hoped it would be. The cake was nice and moist with a little tang from buttermilk, and the frosting was nice and chocolate-y, but not too sweet. I decided to omit the espresso powder this time, since Levi was going to be eating a good amount of frosting, but I can definitely see how adding it would have brought out the flavor of the chocolate even more, and next time I will!

At the end of a 1st birthday party, there’s that rite of passage when you stick a slice of cake or a cupcake in front of the birthday child and stand around and stare at them to see what they’ll do. At first they hesitate; they might curiously poke at it, as Levi did, but soon they discover that what has been placed in front of them is actually edible. After a while it gets pretty messy, and the only people who think that the baby with frosting all over his face is cute is the parents. Yep, I was that proud mom. I’m also proud to share these cupcakes with you (which are actually the first I’ve ever made from scratch!) They were made and decorated with love for our little boy. Happy Birthday, Levi! And many more.

Yellow Cupcakes with Chocolate Sour-Cream Frosting

(From Smitten Kitchen)

For the Cupcakes:

4 cups plus 2 TBS. cake flour (not self-rising)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two 12-cup muffin tins with the festive cupcake liners of your choice.
  • Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.
  • In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition.
  • At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (it’s ok if the mixture looks curdled). Add the flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.
  • Spoon the batter into the muffin tins so that they are 2/3 full. Bake for 17-20 minutes or until the tops are golden and a toothpick entered into the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then carefully remove from the muffin tins, using a knife to loosen them if some of the cake is sticking to the edges of the muffin cups. When completely cool, frost cupcakes (recipe below) and decorate with sprinkles!

For the Chocolate-Sour Cream Frosting (makes 5 cups):

15 oz. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 1/4 cups sour cream, at room temperature
1/4 to 1/2 cup light corn syrup
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract

  • Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, stirring until it melts. Remove from heat and allow to cool until tepid. You want your chocolate and your sour cream to be around the same temperature so that the chocolate doesn’t seize when you add the sour cream.
  • Whisk together the sour cream, 1/4 cup of the corn syrup and vanilla extract until combined. Add the tepid chocolate slowly, whisking quickly until the frosting mixture is uniform. Taste for sweetness, and if needed, add additional corn syrup in 1 TBS. increments until desired level of sweetness is achieved.
  • Let cool in the refrigerator until the frosting is a spreadable consistency. This took only 10 minutes for us. If it becomes too hard, leave out at room temperature until it softens again.

The Birthday Boy!

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

On Halloween my family comes over and we sit around a fire pit on our front deck and eat chili out of mugs. Then after we’ve handed out candy to the sparse trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood (leaving a huge bowl of candy that will tempt us for the coming weeks), we indulge in THE best bread pudding ever. Ever since my mom discovered this recipe in Gourmet a few years ago, it’s been the Halloween dessert stand-by. Everyone has a can of Libby’s in their pantry these days, so give it a try. Buttery bread cubes combined with rich, pumpkin-y custard and baked until crispy on the edges and moist in the middle. Mmm … Oh, and how can I not share our little pumpkin!

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

(From the October 2007 issue of Gourmet, as seen on Epicurious)

1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs plus 1 yolk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
Pinch of ground cloves
5 cups cubed (1-inch) day-old baguette or crusty bread
3/4 stick butter, melted

  • Preheat oven to 350°F and place rack in the middle.
  • Whisk together cream, pumpkin, milk, sugar, eggs, yolk, salt, and spices in a bowl.
  • Toss bread cubes with butter in another bowl, then add pumpkin mixture and toss to coat. Transfer to an ungreased 8-inch square baking dish and bake until custard is set, 25 to 30 minutes. Serves 6.

Olive Oil Bundt Cake with Blueberries in Red Wine Syrup

Ott’s Berry Farm in Modesto produces the biggest, juiciest, tastiest blueberries. After thankfully receiving several containers of them last week from our friend Chris at the Farmer’s Market, we wanted to highlight them in a simple dessert. This flavorful (dairy-free!) olive oil cake was delicious topped with blueberries that had been warmed in a simple red wine syrup infused with lemon verbena.

Olive Oil Bundt Cake

(Slightly Adapted from the Feb. 2010 issue of Food & Wine )

5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon finely minced lemon verbena*
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups cake flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt

*Original recipe calls for finely grated orange zest

  • Preheat the oven to 325° and butter and flour a 10-cup bundt pan.
  • In a bowl, using a hand-held electric mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar and lemon verbena at medium-high speed until smooth.
  • Gradually beat in the olive oil until creamy, about 2 minutes.
  • In a small bowl, whisk the cake flour with the baking powder and salt.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating on medium speed between additions.
  • Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the center of the oven for about 1 hour, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
  • Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then invert onto a rack. Let the cake cool completely before cutting into slices and serving.

Blueberries in Red Wine Syrup

  • Combine equal parts red wine and sugar in a saucepan (about 3/4 cup each was a good amount for this cake)
  • Add a branch of lemon verbena. If you don’t have any lemon verbena, try a sprig of rosemary, lavender, or some fresh mint!
  • Simmer the mixture for about 15 minutes or until it boils down. Cool and remove the herb.
  • Warm several big handfuls of blueberries in the syrup before serving. Spoon on top of slices of olive oil cake.

Simple Vanilla Pudding with Sliced Bananas

This basic vanilla pudding is made on the stove top, thickened with cornstarch, and much tastier than store-bought pudding cups. To make it chocolate pudding, add 2 ounces of unsweetened or semisweet chocolate when you heat the milk, and stir until melted.

But before I share dessert, I have to share our Valentine’s Day dinner, which I was quite proud of (if I may say so myself).

Here is Arius, trying to blend in with the table setting. He does a pretty good job.

We ate Shrimp Pil Pil (shrimp sautéed in garlicky, spicy olive oil), polenta hearts (hand-cut by me :)), and sautéed red chard. The salad (which didn’t get photographed) contained mixed greens, juicy blood orange segments, and crunchy jicama.

Now for dessert, which was Dustin’s special request!

Simple Vanilla Pudding (Blancmange) with Sliced Bananas

(From The Fannie Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham)

3 TBS. cornstarch
4 TBS. sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
2 cups milk
1 tsp. vanilla
sliced banana

  • In a heavy-bottomed pan, combine the cornstarch, sugar, salt, and a 1/4 cup of the milk.
  • In a smaller sauce pan, heat the remaining milk, then slowly add it to the cornstarch mixture, whisking constantly.
  • Cook over moderately low heat, whisking constantly until thickened. Continue to cook for another 15 minutes to get rid of the raw cornstarch taste. Let cool slightly, then add the vanilla. Cover and chill. When ready to serve, spoon into individual bowls and top with sliced banana. Serves 5.