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Just for the halibut

November 30, 2009

Mediterranean Halibut (Tilapia)

In the life of every (American) foodie, there comes a time when turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and sandwiches comprised of the same, lose their appeal. In fact, they collectively become personna non grata, as we collectively rebel against anything remotely resembling that holiday meal.

After travelling to Michigan for Thanksgiving (where there were too few vegetables and fruits present), we felt like we needed a good detox.  This is the meal I chose to prepare for us last night. I copied it from the May 2009 edition of Greenwich Magazine, and it was printed there courtesy of Ten Twenty Post Restaurant in Darien, Connecticut.

A note about recipes provided by restaurants and their chefs.  I am leery of them. Seriously. As the owner of a food-based business, I am skeptical of any food-related business that is willing to give away trade secrets. What I learned in the making of this recipe is that it does take some interpretation on the part of the cook (in this case, me).  While not my strong suit (I prefer recipes that are tried and true and reliable), it was fun to push myself a bit to think about how best to achieve the final dish that sounded so good on paper.  I have included my notes in the recipe, so that you might benefit from my trial and error. (Also, I halved this recipe, but my notes will apply to the full recipe as well)

Mediterranean Halibut

4 8-ounce halibut filets (We used tilapia. Turned out great, but a heartier fish would have been nice, too.)
3 T chopped fresh herbs (thyme, oregano, parsley) (Used fresh thyme and parsley from garden. No herbs? Not a deal breaker. Saute with just salt and pepper)
1 cup chopped red, yellow and orange peppers (See below that they call for julienned, actually, not chopped)
1/4 c sliced kalamata olives (More of these wouldn’t hurt)
1/4 c capers (More of these wouldn’t hurt, especially if you have a 2-year-old who mooches yours)
3 T olive oil (watch how you use this; more for the fish, less for sauteing the vegetables or they turn soggy)
4 ounces white wine
8 ounces softened butter (I couldn’t bring myself to use the full amount so I halved this)
4 capellini cakes

Press herbs into halibut and pan-sear until lightly browned on both sides; finish baking in a 375-degree oven (as needed). (My fish didn’t brown, but as soon as I saw it was cooked on each surface, I threw it on a plate into the hot oven. This yielded nicely cooked, moist fish.)

Saute julienned peppers, olives, capers, salt and pepper in olive oil. In a separate pan, reduce white wine and slowly mix in butter, season to taste. (Okay, first, use the olive oil sparingly for the sauteing, or you will find yourself with limp, oily veggies. Use a small amount on high heat to stir-fry, more than saute. Second, “reduce white wine” is maddeningly vague. I over-reduced–by more than half–and ended up with a slightly wine-flavored brown butter mixture. It wasn’t as succulent on the dish as I had hoped. Watch the wine.)

Place warmed capellini cake in center of plate, top with halibut and spoon caper-olive-pepper mix over fish. Finish the plate with spoonfuls of butter sauce.

Capellini Cakes

3 c capellini pasta, blanched (How does one measure capellini in a measuring cup? I broke mine into smaller pieces, but I’ll do you the favor of letting you know that I weighed the end result. I would say 8 oz of capellini here should be plenty.)
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 c heavy cream
1/2 c chopped blanched spinach
1/2 t chopped garlic (for the amount of capellini, this seemed light on garlic, so I probably came close to doubling it. Your call, depending upon your love of garlic.)
1 T olive oil (if you end up frying your cakes in batches, reserve half the oil for the second batch)Mix together in a bowl; blanched capellini, beaten eggs, heavy cream, spinach and garlic. (This also begged for the addition of salt, even though I salted the water for the capellini. Maybe just 1/2-1 teaspoon would do.)

 

Form into cakes (about 1 cup of mixture for each cake) and saute with olive oil in a hot pan four minutes or so each side. (Though this part is very simple, “forming cakes” is a bit of misnomer. I used tongs and grabbed a heap of mixture and formed it into a cake on the hot pan. My husband suggested that if you were looking for symetrical cakes, you could implement the old round cookie cutter/tuna can trick. Put the cutter/can–with both ends cut out–on the hot pan, add the capellini mixture inside. Remove cutter/can when you’re ready to flip and the cake should retain a nearly perfect roundness. I say, who can bother? I’m not catering, I’m feeding the masses here.)

Serves 4

Brussel Sprouts after Brownies? Updated November 2009

November 6, 2009

Yes, it’s true.  I’m going there.  Brussels.  Sprouts, that is.

Now, when I first met my husband, lo nearly twelve years ago, I knew that we shared an affinity for food.  He could cook.  I could cook.  And boy could we eat!  It made for a nice courtship.

I introduced my husband to homemade chocolate pasta with a delicate sauce made from wild dried mushroom.  He introduced me to unagi.  A fair trade, methinks.  I took him to my favorite Mexican restaurant in all the world (Tequila’s, Philadelphia) and he bought me a four pound lobster in Manhattan (Palm, Too).  I caused him to rethink olives.  He opened my eyes to brussel sprouts.

Romantic, I know.

Knowing his love for the tiny cabbage, I snagged a small brussel sprout seedling to plant in our first garden at our first (and current) house.  We watched all summer long, fascinated, unsure of where the actual sprouts would appear.  Of course, they ended up growing up along the stalks of the (eventually) great beast, and not long after, our local Whole Foods started carrying brussel sprouts still attached to the stem.  Still, there was innocent joy in our ignorance, watching and waiting.

But then, what to do with the prized bulbs, once freed from their stalks?  What follows is his tried, true and ultimately tailorable recipe for brussel sprouts on the grill.

First, clean the sprouts.  Trim the cut ends back without interferring with the leaves, and peel any withered leaves off the bulb.  Score the bottoms (one cut will suffice, as you can see below).

score no more than halfway through

score no more than halfway through

Then place the sprouts in boiling, salted water for no more than five minutes.  NO MORE!  (That was my husband.)  Drain and toss in a bowl with:

a drizzle of oil (vegetable or olive oil)
1/2–1 teaspoon of each: kosher salt, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, celery salt

When the sprouts are nice and coated, place on a hot grill (but keep the bowl handy), turning every four minutes for a total of twelve minutes.  Remove from the grill back to the seasoning bowl and toss to coat with any remaining seasoning.

firm and flavorful

firm and flavorful

The brussel sprouts are now done. And so are you.

Unless…you would like to doctor them a bit.  In our house this ranges from lemon zest to parmesan cheese to bacon, to all of the above. 

See?  Tailorable.  And you thought that wasn’t a word!

 

I am reposting this lovely recipe after the good folks at Food52 have selected it as a finalist in the “Brussels Sprouts Recipe” contest.  Please, if you haven’t already, visit my recipe on their site and VOTE for my lovely little friends (the Brussels Sprouts, that is!).  Thank you.

Hob-knobbing with goblins

October 29, 2009
rice krispy goblin buddies picnik

Ghost booooo-ddies

I love all of the fun and spooky food creations I see around the web these days.  I have not done a whole lot, other than the sugar cookies from my previous post, and even those have not all been eaten.  However, today was my daughter’s Halloween party at school, and I volunteered to bring the sweet snack.  Usually I would head straight for my cupcake liners, but while leafing through a parenting magazine, this idea popped out at me. Rice Krispy Treat Ghosts.

I know, I know…the cereal lacks a whole lot in the way of nutrition, and actually breaks one of my cardinal rules by containing high fructose corn syrup.  I don’t buy it often…only for making Rice Krispie Treats, and in the past year that means twice.  When I have more time, I will research an alternative, most likely a house brand at Whole Foods.  For now, I settled.  To offset the awful that is Rice Krispies, I used kitchen witch homemade Vanilla Marshmallows, which contain no high fructose corn syrup or blue dye.  There is a world of difference in the taste and texture of Rice Krispie Treats made with homemade, fresh marshmallows.  You really need to try them. (Be warned, however, that it is hard to stop eating them.)  You can buy kitchen witch Vanilla Marshmallows at my Etsy shop or at RegionalBest.com. I make them fresh for every order.

Rice Krispie Treats, in the form of ghosts

3 T unsalted butter
10 oz marshmallows
6 cups Rice Krispie cereal
a handful of mini and regular size chocolate chips. The only mini-size all natural chips I know of are sold at Whole Foods under the name Enjoy Life, I believe.

Thoroughly spray cookie sheet (preferably with non-stick liner) with cooking spray.  I used BJ’s brand spray canola oil. Set aside.

Melt butter and marshmallows together. When completely melted, add cereal and stir well to coat.

Once thoroughly mixed, use a cookie scoop to portion out 1/4 cup sized balls of mixture on a the prepared tray. Should make about 24 “blobs.”

Spray hands with cooking spray to work “blobs” into shapes resembling ghosts. If you are really dedicated you can even make bumps at the sides that look like arms.  I’ll let you judge for yourselves if I achieved that look with my goblins.  And yes, this is where it gets tricky and requires a modicum of artistic skillz. Keep using spray if things start to get sticky.

As ghosts are cooling, use dots of this “Easy Powdered Sugar Icing” where you want to place eyes and mouth. Press in mini chocolate chips for eyes, and an inverted regular size chocolate chip for the mouth. This is where I let my daughter help.  We used toothpicks to dot on the icing, and she had a ball decorating with the chocolate chips.

Voila! Rice Krispy Treats that impress everyone, but which really take no time at all.

No small feat

October 27, 2009
stacked macs close up picnik

Maple sugar macarons with cream cheese buttercream filling

If you know anything about macarons (macaroons?) you know that the title to this post is something of a red herring. Or a pun. Or something in between.

A macaron is a delicacy that comes about from whipping egg whites until firm and folding that into ground almonds and confectioners sugar. Akin to a meringue, I suppose. Sounds simple enough, or so I thought when confronted with this month’s Daring Bakers challenge. (The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S of Baking Without Fear.  She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.)

Having spent a fair amount of time on the internet scouring blogs and food photography, it is hard not to notice the omnipresence of the macaron and the collective trepidation over making these treats. Apparently it all has to do with the feet. You see, correctly made, macarons bubble up along their bottoms (where they come in contact with the sheet pan) in a darling fashion that is called “having feet.”

However, my first foray into making macarons was woefully inept. You can see in this photo that they never grew feet and never puffed up.  I couldn’t have told you why until I did a little digging.

Sad little almond pecan cookies. Tasty, yet ultimately a fail

Sad little almond pecan cookies. Tasty, yet ultimately a fail

And here is the product of my second attempt, which was a rousing success.  The bubbly parts in the middle are the feet of two macarons which have been sandwiched together.

close up macaron

what beautiful feet you have!

What was the difference? While I can’t pretend to know which one factor might have turned the culinary tides in my favor, I can tell you what I did differently from first attempt to second, and hopefully these tips will help you.

Ingredients

A) The first time I tried macarons, my parents were in town, and I was planning for the Malvern Fall Festival, where I was to have a cookie booth.  I can’t imagine my thought process when I tried to make these on a Friday afternoon, as a lark, thinking “how hard can it be?” I ground my own almonds and pecans (a ratio of about 5 to 4, in favor of almonds), because I don’t love the flavor of almonds as much as pecans. Plus, I am drawn to the idea of making any recipe from absolute scratch. That’s just how kitchen witch rolls.

However, when you grind your own nuts, there are lots of pieces that aren’t ground into a powdery-fine texture. These largers bits (a little larger than sand, I’d say) were a puzzle to me. Should I throw them out? How would that affect the final product? Not knowing, I left them in.

Difference: In my second attempt, I purchased ground almonds from Trader Joe’s ($3.99 for a pound, I believe). I did not use any pecans this time.  Following the recipe at Life’s a Feast (see link below), I sifted the weighed almond meal with the weighed confectioners sugar. When I couldn’t press anymore almond meal through my sieve (and I worked on it), I weighed the little bits that were left and replaced them with the same weight in new almond meal. I did not bother to sift this, as it was only about a teaspoon. 

B) Another ingredient mishap came by way of my eggs. The recipe provided by the Daring Bakers site lists all of the ingredients by both volume and weight except for the egg whites, which are only listed by quantity and size of egg. Now, I can’t say why this is. I understand from my research that the ratio of wet to dry ingredients is crucial, so to leave that part of it to chance doesn’t make sense to me. However, what I also realized after the fact is that I used the egg whites obtained from extra-large eggs, whereas the recipe calls for large eggs. This would absolutely make a difference and alone would ruin the outcome.

Difference: For my second attempt, the recipe I found at Life’s a Feast included the weight of the egg whites as well. I went so far as to weigh mine and scoop out a little egg white with the shell when I had surplus, ending up with 91 grams to the recipe’s suggested 90 grams.  I measured them cold, as I ended up breaking a room-temprature egg while trying to separate it. (Quick tip: to quickly bring egg whites up to room temperature, place them in a metal–not glass–bowl and place that bowl in a larger bowl of warm to hot water. Replace water as it cools until eggs reach the temperature you desire. I do this all the time when whipping egg whites because I usually forget to leave them out. It seems to have worked fine this time.)

Technique

A) In my first attempt, I was feeling very smug to have my stick blender, with its extra fancy whip attachment.  Why, whipping egg whites is a breeze with this thing. It’s handy and portable and doesn’t require the heavy stand mixer to come out from hiding.  Plus, testing the eggs for firmness is as easy as lifting the blender out and seeing what peaks form.

Difference: What I learned about whipping egg whites for macarons is that the speed of the whipping matters. First you should start the whip on a low speed for about 30 seconds, at which point you increase to a high speed. When your eggs reach soft peak stage you add some granulated sugar (in my case, mixed with some maple sugar) and continue to beat until firm peaks form. One suggestion for testing the firmness of the whites was to turn the mixing bowl upside down. If the whites stay put, you’ve got the right firmness.  Granted, this is a pain with a KitchenAid stand mixer, but it yields correctly whipped whites. The stick blender may have been easy, but it created air bubbles in the whipped whites that were simply too large (due to lack of slow mixing at the outset).

B) Folding was another area were my technique faltered. Following the Daring Bakers recommendations, I was very gentle when folding my egg whites into my dry mix. I didn’t pay attention to how many strokes it took, but I did make sure to handle with care.

Difference: Turns out that for the first 6 strokes of the folding phase, I needed to be a little rougher with the ingredients.  That causes the air bubbles to break down a bit, which helps the macarons down the road. After six strokes I eased up into the gentle fold mentioned above. And I counted. Somewhere between 30 and 60 strokes the mixture should come together. It did for me, and had the appearance of “lava” or a thick ribbon of batter when I let it drop from the spatula.

Baking

A) Here is where my eagerness (or my laziness…or my rushing to get this done) also did me in. I did not take the time to draw circles to guide my piping efforts on my nonstick liners. I just winged it. Granted, I was probably pretty close, but because my batter was too wet, the circles spread and ran into each other while baking.  I also only used one baking sheet under my nonstick liner, believing my oven to be even enough in its heating to suffice.

Difference: In my second attempt, I used parchment paper, with traced circles underneath to guide my piping. I found in the end that smaller was probably better, as when I free-formed it and made larger macarons, they just didn’t have the height that the smaller ones did.  I also doubled up the trays underneath, which helped tremendously.  Plus, the recipe I followed the second time directed me to cook them at a lower temperature (280 degrees F) which I believe aids in allowing them to rise and puff without the feet spreading and getting overcooked.

I also made the executive decision to dry my macarons on the counter for an hour before baking them, rather than using the oven at a low temperature to do this for me.  This was fun to witness, as my macarons gained the thick skin that was predicted in the recipe.  Then the baking on a double thickness of trays, at a consistent low temperature, turning the trays to compensate for an inconsistent oven helped create beautiful macarons.  I undercooked the first successful batch as I was so excited that they actually grew feet. I have learned that a nice golden color for these is preferable to a lighter color…helps later for getting them off the pan.

And when my first tray of successes stuck to the parchment paper, I just popped them back in the oven for 5-10 minutes to dry them out. This did the trick, but when cooked correctly the sticking issue disappeared completely.

mac 2 success autocorrected

a great line up

I hope some of my mistakes can inspire you to try these wonderful treats. I know I will be making them again and soon, as I noticed that they taste even better and improve with texture as the days go by. It was all I could do to stop myself from eating them before I had a chance to take some photographs!  Thanks Daring Bakers. This was a great learning experience for me.

In the end, it was this recipe and post from Jamie at Life’s a Feast that saved me. It is essentially the same recipe as the Daring Bakers, but halved, and with some all important pointers along the way.  Most importantly, all ingredients are listed by weight. This is so very important in all of baking, but perhaps never more so than when making macarons. After all, these are an item which can be affected by the humidity on the day you are making them (rain, rain, go away!). Always go by weight to make macarons, and you’re on the right track.

Short cut sugar cookies

October 26, 2009

Halloween may offer more opportunity to create magical dishes out of everyday recipes than any other holiday.  Perusing the web lately, I’ve seen witch finger cookies, devil’s eyeballs and worm covered rotten apple bars.  Even over at my other site, I’m hoping to devote the entire day of Halloween to recipes and posts from bloggers around the world.

 However, for those of us pressed for time, or simply uninterested in grossing ourselves out with our thematic creations, I suggest to you: sugar cookies.

 

holiday sugar cookies

holiday sugar cookies

Yes, sugar cookies may be a bit pedestrian. They lack the blood and guts of, say, a jelly-filled mummy cupcake, and they aren’t quite as ghoulish as a hairy spider layer cake, but they are tasty and offer an opportunity to ease yourself into the Halloween spirit, if brains in a punch bowl just aren’t your thing!

friendly ghosts

friendly ghosts

And here is my tip for you. This idea comes from Nancy Baggett in her wonderful book, The All-American Cookie Book.  First, begin with a sugar cookie recipe that you would normally roll out and cut into shapes. Assemble the dough, and place it in a ball in the fridge, covered, for about thirty minutes.  After it has firmed up a bit, take it out and place in manageable portions between sheets of waxed paper.  “Manageable portions” means about 1/2 pound or so.  Flatten the dough a bit with your hands if necessary, then start rolling out, using a rolling pin.  Keep the wax paper between your pin and dough, and you’ll go a long way toward keeping extra flour out of the mix.  If the paper starts to wrinkle, gently peel it away from the dough and replace, smoothing out the wrinkles.  Roll until the dough is even and about 1/4-1/2 inch thick (your preference).

Place the rolled out dough (still between waxed paper) on a cookie sheet or flat surface and into the fridge if you are going to cut out cookies within a few days. (Place in a bag and seal if you are concerned about the dough picking up “off” flavors from the contents of your fridge. You can also bag and freeze for use further down the road.)

When the dough is chilled and quite firm (at least 30 minutes, or until it stands stiff like a plank!), have your oven preheated and take one sheet of dough (with paper) out of the fridge. Place on flat surface, with a little flour handy for your cutters. (You may find that you don’t even need the extra flour. My dough usually comes out in the cutter, making it handy to transfer right to the baking tray. Because the dough is so stiff, it simply pops out of the cutter when gently coaxed.) Peel back the top layer of waxed paper. (I leave the bottom layer there for easy clean-up. Just work gently.)  Start cutting out shapes from your already-rolled dough, place on baking sheet and repeat until the you have no more usable dough.

Place cookies in oven for recommended cooking time given in recipe, and return to cookie dough scraps. Simple pile/push together and repeat rolling out between wax paper.  While that firms up in the fridge, pull out another sheet of already rolled and chilled dough and repeat (or wait until the first batch comes out of the oven.)

Halloween sugar cookies

Halloween sugar cookies

 

The key is to keep your dough rolled out, then chilled until firm, before beginning to cut. It will make your experience with cutting cookies much, much easier.  So easy, in fact, that you will welcome help from your children because the hard and boring part (the rolling out) is already done, so they can enjoy the fun part (cutting the cookies, eating the scraps).

One final word of caution: last year I tried to roll my mother’s sugar cookie dough out in this fashion.  It is a dough that she has been making for years, but she has altered the recipe to work with a cookie shooter.  Hence, the dough is quite soft and no amount of time in the fridge helped it firm up adequately. So, we resorted to freezing the dough in rolled-out batches and struggled through, but it wasn’t pretty. Make sure the recipe you use for sugar cookies is one that you would normally roll out and cut.

You can purchase kitchen witch sugar cookie dough and pecan brown sugar cookie dough at RegionalBest.com. Thanks!

Pick a pic

October 19, 2009

I need your help.

Over the past two weeks I have been working to capture the perfect photo of my slice-and-bake sugar cookies to include on the RegionalBest.com website.  For this task I rolled out the dough (rather than simply slicing and baking) and cut it into Halloween-themed shapes. Once cooled, I frosted the cookies with either chocolate or white icing, depending upon the shape, and decorated accordingly.

As the kitchen witch, I strive to make beautiful cookies using only all-natural ingredients, which means no artificial color.  I haven’t invested in many all-natural food colorings, other than what I can make myself (from beet juice or raspberry puree).  I did happen to have naturally colored orange sprinkles in my bag of tricks, so those served well for the pumpkins.  However, most of the cookies are simply white or chocolate.

Along the way, this became a journey of actually trying to take a nice photograph of my products.  Despite my claim to settle for mediocre in most of my endeavors, this was different because these photos will represent me to potential customers.  Here are a few of my attempts, during what turned out to be a stretch of rainy, gray weather (which never helps an amateur photographer).

a mix of holiday cookies

A) a mix of holiday cookies

 

Halloween themed cookies

B) Halloween themed cookies

 

ghost cookie

C) ghost cookie

 

After putting a call for help out on Twitter, I attempted some photos during a sunny afternoon.

ghosts in a cup

D) ghosts in a cup

pumpkin and black cat cookies

E) pumpkin and black cat cookies

 

In the end, it seems that baking and decorating (oh, and eating) sugar cookies is infinitely easier and more enjoyable for me than photographing them.  In fact, I’m still not sure after the hours of decorating and composing shots and taking  pictures that I have something I like.

Here’s where you come in. I would like to hear from you about these here photos. Which one is the most appealing? (Granted, they may provide for slim pickings, but which is the lesser of all evils and all that.)  Which stands the greatest chance of being accepted at say, TasteSpotting or FoodGawker? (If none, I can live with that, too.  But I’m still going to submit them because, hey, what doesn’t make it goes over to TasteStopping anyway! So help me narrow it down.)

In the comments, please leave me your honest feedback. I know that they are lacking in many ways, so feel free to elaborate for me. Then tell me whether you like A, B, C, D, or E best.

And keep an eye out for the Great Halloween Tweet, which you will notice over on the sidebar.  Lots of spooktacular (couldn’t resist…how often to you get the chance to use that word in a sentence?) blogs to visit.

Thanks for your help. In return, enjoy this easy to make, easy to use “Easy Powdered-Sugar Icing” from The All-American Cookie Book by Nancy Baggett.  It’s what you see on the ghosts and pumpkins above, and it is truly easy to work with. Easier than my Canon PowerShot, anyway.

Easy Powdered-Sugar Icing

(makes enough icing to completely cover, then add piping to, about 50 (3-inch) cookies)

1 16-ounce box powdered sugar, sifted, if lumpy, plus more if needed
2 t light corn syrup
1/8 t vanilla, almond or lemon extract (optional)
liquid food coloring (optional)

In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on low speed, beat together the powdered sugar, 3 Tablespoons warm water, the corn syrup, and the extract (if using). Increase the speed to medium and beat until well blended and smooth. (Alternatively, in a medium bowl, stir together the powdered sugar, water, corn syrup and extract until well blended and smooth.) I tried the latter and it worked just fine. No need for an electric mixer on this.

Adjust the icing consistency as needed by adding a bit more water to thin it or more powdered sugar to stiffen it.  A fairly fluid consistency is needed to spread the icing easily and form a perfectly smooth, glossy surface; a stiff consistency is needed to pipe and form lines that hold their shape. If desired, divide the icing among separate small bowls and tint…blah, blah, blah.  If you honestly don’t know how to tint icing with food coloring, you need more than this recipe.  I won’t bore you with the rest of the directions.  Suffice it to say that you should let icing set in between piping and flooding, so as not to cause the colors to run. At least six hours, preferably longer ought to do it (and also allow to set 6 or more hours before storing cookies.)  Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days (I’ve been known to hold mine for weeks this way, allowing to come to room temp and adding some warm water to create the consistency I need).

P.O.W.

October 14, 2009

If you are even moderately familiar with the jargon of the day–or the fall line-up of television sitcoms–you have probably heard of the term “cougar.”  I’m not sure if I can sum it up here, other than to say this is a term that has been coined to describe a woman of a certain age and marital status, who is on the prowl for a man, preferrably a younger man, with whom she can put to use her yoga-toned and botox-honed body. I cannot, legally, be considered a cougar because I am married.  Because of that, I am not on the prowl for a man, other than the one who stands between me and that feline moniker.  My husband, that is.  And, P.S., I love him for that, and so much more.

Moving on, though, a new phrase has come into my awareness, via a friend with two small children and one on the way.  After the first several weeks at their pricey preschool, she noticed a lot of the mothers who, but for the presence of a husband, looked and maybe even acted a little like this mythical cougar.  However, these moms were not on the prowl for men, so much as the bottom of the next glass of wine over a nice plate of gossip while sneaking a smoke on the patio during naptime.  Moms with babysitters who could drive themselves home, allowing mommy to stay out until the wee hours with her gal pals at the trendy tapas bar in the next borough.

And so, my friend and her friends did what every good American does, they created a stereotype for this worn-out yet put-together, designer labeled, puffy-eyed, sleek-haired mom. The P.O.W.

Partied Out…(ahem, the last word rhymes with “more” and starts with “W” of course)

I neither judge nor condone this kind of labelling.  I just laugh my head off when I hear it. Oh, and post it for all the Internets to read.

Now, the month of September is a busy one in the kitchen witch household.  In our family of four, it marks the celebration of one wedding anniversary and three birthdays.  The adults in this house (also known as parents) don’t do much to acknowledge their own birthdays (my gift this year: a bag of Pop Chips, a RitterSport chocolate hazelnut bar and a Diet Coke–which I just found out came from our own garage fridge. I don’t really drink Diet Coke, but the others “gifts” were spot on. The point is, not a whole lot of planning and hoopla went into this gift.) The real reason my birthday was noticed at all was due to the presence of the “under seven” set.  My two daughters love birthdays, any birthday (strange little girls that they are), so my husband bought those items for the girls to hand to me with giant smiles and goodwill all around. And that was that.

However, you’ll notice that I said September marks three birthdays in our family.  If two of them are allotted to adults (they are) that leaves one a child’s birthday. My oldest daughter turned six in September and I kid you not, what my husband and I omitted in our birthday celebrations, the eldest received in spades.  Exhibit A: she had four days of parties.

The first, on Thursday, was her kindergarten class celebration.  As the kitchen witch, I will always send my kids to school parties with homemade treats, as I can control what goes into them.  Plus I love, love, love making cupcakes (which are also perfect for classroom birthday parties).  The theme of her official birthday party (planned for Saturday…just hang in there) was “Wizards of Waverly Place” (My husband thought it up and then headed for the hills once she agreed.  He didn’t learn so much as one magic trick, the stinker.)  So in keeping with the Wizards theme (for the official party), these are the minicupcakes that I made for the 17-something children/teachers in her kindergarten class on Thursday.

mini vanilla cupcakes with handmade chocolate witch hats

mini vanilla cupcakes with handmade chocolate witch hats

This is where things get confusing.  Before my husband came up with the Wizards of Waverly Place theme, he mentioned casually (yet, in front of the birthday girl) that he had seen a demonstration on tv on how to make Dora cupcakes.  My baker’s heart went pitter-pat and before my brain could pull the emergency brake, my mouth was saying, “We could do that!”  (also in front of my daughter). Which prompted her to demand a Dora-themed birthday party.  And though probably more age-appropriate than the eventually agreed-upon WofWP, I could not bear the thought of a Dora-themed party.  What would the games be? Would the other girls turn their noses up at a Dora party? Wasn’t she too old for Dora?  To avert big disappointment, I suggested that I would make Dora cupcakes for her to bring to school on Thursday.  While this compromise rendered the intended effect (distracting my daughter from the need for a Dora-themed home party), it also presented some logistical problems.  How to make 17+ Dora customized cupcakes in less than a week when I’d never made them before. 

My husband demanded a face-to-face, wherein he shook me by the shoulders until I agreed to rethink this offer.  In an unexpected gesture of goodwill from the school district, on Friday of my daughter’s birthday week, the school had a half-day, leaving all of the neighborhood kids free for a little lunch party at our house (still not the “official” birthday party, mind you).  So, I bargained with her: Thursday you can take in witch hat cupcakes (see above) and Friday we’ll make Dora cupcakes, as it only entailed six customized cupcakes.

This is a photographic journey of the making of those cupcakes:

Create outline with dark chocolate, fill in with milk chocolate.  Do not let children help! It is frustrating and messy.

Create outline with dark chocolate, fill in with milk chocolate. Do not let children help! It is frustrating and messy.

First attempt at decorating Dora.

First attempt at decorating Dora.

 

A gaggle of Doras

A gaggle of Doras

Now we're starting to get somewhere.  Can you spot the differences? (Hint: white behind the chocolate chips for eyes.)

Now we're starting to get somewhere. Can you spot the differences? (Hint: white behind the chocolate chips for eyes.)

Before her mouth was outlined. Can't decide which I like better!

Before her mouth was outlined. Can't decide which I like better!

If you visit NickJr.com you can find the template for the hair, as well as instructions on how to decorate Dora the rest of the way.  As the instructions call for artificial food coloring and fruit roll-ups, I used some trickery to achieve my Dora cupcakes while maintaining their all-natural state. 

First, I pulled out some frozen raspberry puree, and attempted to reduce it on the stove.  This happened more quickly than I expected, so if you try it at home, keep an eye on it.  I actually had to add a splash of water to the pan to release the raspberry juice that had adhered.  I put this into some vanilla buttercream for the mouth.  Then, I added some raspberry puree and cocoa powder to some vanilla buttercream to make the skin-tone frosting.  The hair is melted and piped milk and dark chocolate.  The eyes are vanilla buttercream triangles, with a regular size chocolate chip pushed into the triangle (tip down).  Then I added some milk chocolate and buttercream details to the eyes.  The nose is a small swish of milk chocolate, but that was difficult to get right, as was the milk chocolate outline of the mouth.

All in all these cupcakes were fun to make, and I gather even more fun to eat.  But they are a little messy and hard to make look perfect.

But wait!  The birthday week wasn’t finished there!  On Saturday, we hosted the “official” party, which ended up being very small due to the barfing disease running through one of the families invited.  Their absence meant three less girls at the party.  Along with Wizards activities (wand-making, black nail-polish manicures, running around the yard like crazies), each attendee decorated her own cupcake to look like a witch.  (In all honesty, I had desperately wanted to make an all-natural green-tinted buttercream for the witches’ faces, but lost my gung-ho for the whole thing on Saturday morning.  I just couldn’t decide whether pureed basil or mint would do the trick.  Weighing the chances of it tasting odd against the chances that the girls would even care that their witch cupcakes had plain old buttercream faces, the scales tipped in favor of plain old buttercream faces.)

Here are two of the youngest girls’ efforts (which in reality are two of my efforts):

candy corn pointing in.

candy corn pointing in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

          

candy corn pointing out.

candy corn pointing out.

So, the “official” party was a great success, mostly because I happened to plan just enough activities for 1 1/2 hours, leaving room for cupcake eating, present opening and general mayhem to round out the day.

On Saturday, when my daughter found out three of her friends (the barfers) weren’t coming to her official party, she said, “Why are we having another party?”  So you can see that even she was feeling the drain of three days in a row of cupcakes, buttercream and adrenaline.  By this point, we were facing Sunday, which was my daughter’s actual birthday. Guess what?  More cake, in sheet form, with Ina’s fudge frosting on half and vanilla buttercream on the other half, to mollify the folks at church who would be eating it.  This was a first for me, sheet cake and its preparation. I used the yellow butter cake recipe from this post, baked it in a half sheet pan and froze the baked, cooled cake until the night before I needed it.  The cake suffered not at all for the freezing.  Which is nice to know.

I will admit, I never tire of cake and frosting.  It is the food of the gods.  Okay, maybe not.  But I love it, and I love making it.  However, this particular stretch of cupcakes, chocolate decorations, buttercream and candycorn has left me feeling a little…fatigued.  Partied out, one might even say. 

Which causes me to hang my head with the realization that at the end of September, I joined the ranks of the P.O.W.’s who have gone before me.  There just wasn’t any booze or tapas involved.  This time.

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