Devil's Food cupcakes with a chocolate-apricot surprise

It's no doubt that the seasons, as well as the holidays that come and go with them, have a big impact on my cravings.  So it's probably no coincidence that I found myself craving Devil's Food cake in the past few weeks.  Although, to be quite honest, I crave chocolate all the time!  If I'm not having some type of chocolate dessert at the end of the day, I will eat a couple squares of chocolate at some point during the day, almost every single day.  It's like an unwritten rule.  I find that I'm a much happier person when I have some chocolate in me.  
Instead of a cake, I thought I'd make a few cupcakes and put some of my Halloween-theme cupcake decorations to use!  These devilishly dark chocolate cupcakes are my kind of Halloween treat.

For fun and a little variety, I stuffed the cupcakes with a chocolate apricot filling before baking.  I stirred melted chocolate together with a little apricot preserve and butter, let the mixture cool and stiffen enough to roll into balls, and then chilled them until time to bake.  I was a little too generous with my chocolate-apricot surprises (in my greediness, I made the chocolate rounds larger than I should have).  The heavy filling mostly sank to the bottom but if you'll do as I say, not as I do, and go a little lighter on the filling, you should have more success.  Regardless though, the extra chocolate from the filling melds into everything while adding moisture and the apricot flavor, while not very distinct, provides a little note of fruitiness in the background that's quite nice.  The cupcakes themselves are so moist and just heavenly for any fellow chocoholics out there.
Inspiration really is everywhere.  In this case, the inspiration for the filling came specifically from a recipe, which originally involved red velvet cupcakes, that I found in a book - a cozy, culinary-themed mystery book to be exact.  You probably know the type of book I'm talking about - the kind that often have corny titles and silly covers. They may seem silly at first glance but I have to admit I'm a fan of many of them and judging by the proliferation of these types of mystery books, I'd say there are many people who enjoy them like I do.  Life is serious enough as it is and, sometimes, I just don't want anything too "heavy" and I totally welcome a reprieve in the form of some light, entertaining, good reads.

The other thing I was also channeling with these cupcakes is America's Test Kitchen's ultimate chocolate cupcake recipe, which is a full-on chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting that includes a round of chocolate ganache placed in the cupcake batter right before baking.  It sounds like chocolate heaven and I wonder why I've yet to make that exact recipe!  And lastly...these cupcakes had me thinking of Italian tri-color (or rainbow) cookies - something we love dearly at my house - which have apricot and chocolate elements to them.  
I hope you have a fun and safe Halloween!  Remember to devour some devilishly good treats, all the better if it involves some good dark chocolate.


Vanilla bean macarons with ganche filling

One of the benefits of starting this little blog 3 years ago is learning to make many things I'd otherwise buy. I've discovered lots of great recipes and I'm constantly craving something I've made before and itching to get in the kitchen to make it again.
Learning to make macarons has been one of the more memorable challenges.   It's not necessarily hard but a little unpredictable.  The learning process was a drawn-out one of trial and error (with a change in oven thrown in the midst) and to this day, I never know how a batch will turn out.  But, ironically enough, doing this blog has loosened me up a lot in the last few years.  I don't stress about things turning out perfectly (because they don't and you need to do things for the joy of it) though I'm obviously hopeful for a tasty outcome.  And with macarons, every time we spend $2.50-$3.00 buying one of them, I think to myself: I've got to make a batch so I don't get rusty! 
I won't be so silly as to compare my homemade macarons with the ones at the pastry shop but boy, you save so much money making them yourself - and a girl has to be practical sometimes!  Honestly, they taste great even if they don't turn out with perfect feet or in one uniform size.  

At home, I stick with the basics (chocolatecoffeepistachioetc.) and this time, I decided to make "plain" vanilla bean macarons with my default filling, chocolate ganache.  I attempted to fill some with strawberry preserves (and really, the almond-vanilla macaron shells are great to fill with just about any flavors you like) but I found it too thin as a macaron filling.  It's curious because I've often seen fruit jams as an option for macaron filling but I'm starting to think you'd need to reduce/thicken it a bit first, or stir it into some white chocolate ganache.  My mind always reverts to chocolate.
Macarons always make me think of Ladurée, the Parisian house where it all started. About 2 years ago, a Ladurée boutique opened in midtown Manhattan and earlier this year, another opened in Soho.  This location in Soho is not only a boutique but also a tea salon/restaurant.  Needless to say, I've been wanting to go and my fellas and I finally had a lovely breakfast there recently.
Living in New Jersey, we try to hop into Manhattan some weekends to do a little exploring and eating.  On this recent weekend morning, I had to be in the city for another appointment and having a quiet, early breakfast at Ladurée sounded like a great option since that rather-rambunctious 9-year old of ours would be in attendance.  We had tea, hot chocolate, croissants, breads, and dessert!  We had a lot to cover on my first sit-down visit.  And my, I had a lovely time - a better time than I expected, actually. Ladurée is a place that is somehow at once both whimsical and sophisticated.  I loved the ambiance and their signature color palette of pastels.  If I could convince someone to sell me those plates and cups, I would be in heaven.  

The visit to Ladurée definitely encouraged me to go home and "whip up" a batch macarons for myself.  



Beef Bourguignon

I recently channeled my inner Julia Child and made beef bourguignon.  Sometimes a girl has to take a break from her stir-fries and break out something different for dinner.  And it's fun to try something new, make something special on the weekends when there's more time to prep and cook meals and we can all sit down together to savor it. 
Ever since the temperature started dipping, I noticed an immediate change in my cravings.  I'm hungry more often and craving heartier food.  There's no lack of inspiration everywhere since most people share my sentiments.  In particular, this recipe for beef bourguignon that I saw in the recent October issue of Rachael Ray magazine called out to me.  Not only did it look good but it sounded extremely do-able.  Knowing my own limits, do-able is key!  Plus, I've had some very good experiences with Rachael's recipes to encourage me to try this one, and I'm sure glad I did!
I made this with my husband in mind.  He loves a good slow-cooked meat dish and if you feel the same way, you hardly need me to sell you on beef bourguignon.  The red wine, beef stock, tomato paste (but definitely the red wine) are just some of the components that turn the meat and vegetables in the pot into something magical in a few mere hours. 

This makes me think about the first time I ever had beef bourguignon...I'd actually taken part in making it.  It was back in High School and I was taking a French cooking class where we made the dish.  I remember the teacher telling us she was "sneaking in" some red wine for us to cook with and we were all very impressed with her and ourselves.  At the end of each of our cooking projects, we would set the table very properly with linen napkins and all, then sit down to enjoy the meal we prepared.  And I remember sitting down at the table after cooking our beef bourguignon and getting to taste what we made.  We didn't have wine on the side but we did have some warm French bread and good butter.  It was delicious and that is a happy memory for me.
It sure took me long enough to make beef bourguignon again but better late than never.  This particular recipe is really relatively simple, do-able to the point of not needing to be a special occasion meal to cook; there's no bouquet garni or any pearl onions involved but what you do put in the pot creates an extremely flavorful stew that puts you in awe of whoever first created it.  I think I'll have to make it a point to make this at least once every fall or winter going forward.



Breaking in the baby bundts

I'm not big on shopping when it comes to clothes and things but I could shop for hours when it comes to housewares, kitchen, and food related items.  Leave me at Sur la Table and I could go missing for an hour or two easy.  I actually live minutes away from a mall - no Sur la Table there, unfortunately (or maybe it's fortunate), but I often find myself nipping into Williams-Sonoma or to Crate & Barrel and Anthropologie to check out the home section.
A mini spongy honey bundt cake
Inevitably, I often walk away with a little something - a plate, a mug, some kitchen tool I just realized I should have.  I do try to control myself because I feel like I have all the essentials I need nowadays (and, as importantly, no place to store much else!), but as you know, need and want are two separate things.  And about a week ago, I succumbed to the temptation of the bundt pan.  It's one of the things I don't have and probably don't really need but have always wanted.
Four cakes with toasted walnuts and two (on righthand column) have mini chocolate chips
Well, hey...Williams-Sonoma was running a sale and I was being practical here.  I bought a mini bundt pan - the smaller capacity works better for my small family and with the holidays coming around, I just know I'll have plenty of use for them by being able to make gifts of pretty little cakes.  Right?  Right!

So when you think Fall desserts, maybe you think bundt cakes like I do.  Why is that? I think it might have something to do with the rich, dense pound cake-like texture I often associate with bundt cakes.  They're great spiced with all the flavors of Fall and they conjure up hearty and homey, the kind of things you want when the weather turns cool and the leaves start drifting down.  Well, I know that sounds terrific but I went on a slightly different tangent with my inaugural batch of baby bundts.  
These little cakes are on the lighter side.  They are spongy honey cakes, with toasted walnuts.  I adapted a recipe I saw for Russian Honey Cake on Food52.  I messed with the recipe by scaling it down to make just enough batter for my 6 mini bundts.  That made it easy to then make the batter by hand.  Rather than sour cream, I used whole milk Greek yogurt instead.  I also added some vanilla extract for a little extra flavor. And I couldn't resist switching up the mix-in and making a couple of the little cakes with mini chocolate chips instead of walnuts (plus, I went with a more generous dose of them).  Using two kinds of mix-ins confuses the process a bit but I just couldn't resist.
Spongy honey cake with toasted walnuts
These sponge cakes are lightened by whipping egg whites separately from the yolks. Besides the Greek yogurt and eggs, there's no oil or butter added to them.  Don't expect cakes that are dense and rich like a pound cake though.  What we have here is moist as in spongy, practically bouncy, little cakes that have a sweetness in part from honey.  It was a good place to put the raw honey that I stock up at the farmer's market to good use. 
Spongy honey cake with mini chocolate chips
If you pick the cake with walnuts, you get a punch of nutty flavor from pre-toasting them (a must).  If you go with chocolate chip, well...you pretty much can't go wrong. My son was a big fan of those and they were reserved for him.
To be totally honest here, as dainty as these little cakes look, they're more like snack cakes, the 'pick up with your hands and eat with your fingers' kind of casual cakes.  If I was into sweets for breakfast, these are the types of cakes I'd reach for.



Roasting eggplant...with soy sauce

I recently discovered something so utterly simple yet just a little bit genius.  I had to share it.
Eggplant, oven-roasted with oil and soy sauce in place of salt
The subject is eggplant.  As a kid, I was not a fan of eggplant.  I always thought cooked eggplant was rather slimy and just generally questionable.  It's always been one of my mother's favorite vegetables and growing up, it would show up on our dinner table stuffed with fish paste and pan-fried (like this); she would order the same thing at dim sum restaurants.  I always passed on it and went for the straight-up filling instead that she would likewise pan-fry.

Now, you know how the story goes.  I grew up, I got more open-minded and I now enjoy eggplant almost as much as my mother (okay, maybe not quite).  But the one thing I still dislike about eggplant is how much oil it absorbs.  I figured roasting was the best answer and in a quest to eat more eggplant, I stumbled upon a recipe from this America's Test Kitchen magazine for "soba noodles with roasted eggplant". It was the way the eggplant was roasted in this recipe that intrigued me.  It's quite simple: you roast cubed eggplant with some oil and instead sprinkling some salt over them as you would naturally think to do, use soy sauce instead!
Soy sauce adds a jolt of flavor and increases the meatiness of the eggplants
And here's what happens - the eggplant soaks up that soy sauce, which gives it such a great boost of flavor (you can really taste it).  The meatiness of the eggplant works so well with the almost-beefy flavor of the soy sauce itself.  It makes me think I really don't need meat in my life.  It is totally delicious!  I've made a few batches already in the last few weeks and my husband and I are loving it.  It's so good as a side dish; we have it alongside stir-fries and noodles or rice, and it'd clearly be good with soba as the original recipe outlined.    

This is so simple but such a neat little trick for anyone who likes eggplant and is looking for an easy way to prepare it.


Mini monsters

Maybe it's the Halloween season or, more likely, just my constant craving for cookies and peanut butter that had me wanting to make some monster cookies.  I had the notion for a while to make some "mini monsters", a diminutive version of the typically gigantic-sized monster cookies.  I was totally thinking of my son, who is my very own little "monster" (just a corny little joke - haha).  So who better to present you with our mini monster cookies than the little man himself (I told him I would write all this so he's in on the joke).   
My resident little "monster" holding a handful of our mini monster cookies
These are based on the same monster cookie recipe I've made before from Baked, the one that made me realize I'd been missing out by never having had them before!  It also made me realize that m&m's in cookies are a very good thing.  This recipe is so very tasty, chock full of oats, loaded with peanut butter, and all the better with chocolate chips and those m&m's.  The change I made here was to use white whole wheat flour - though, believe me, you hardly notice since there is minimal flour in this recipe. I also used miniature chocolate chips and mini m&m's for the obvious reason.  
Miniature things are always fun.  And an excuse to make (and eat) a favorite cookie recipe and give it a fun little twist is a cool thing in my book.  In seriousness, the texture of these cookies - the soft chewiness of them throughout - make them a good candidate for baking in miniature.  The little cookies are great little bites and perfect for sharing. The only problem is having the patience to actually execute it...
...because even a half batch of the recipe makes a ton so I won't lie to you and I'll tell you that I made not only mini monsters but also medium monsters and even a few traditional big monsters.  All were devoured and we had fun picking out the sizes we wanted and joking around about them.
Pick your monster (size)!
But the most important thing comes down to taste.  If you love peanut butter, super chewy cookies with oats, with chocolate thrown in (or mix in whatever else you like), these are so satisfying!


Beef lo mein

In an earlier post and on the general topic of quick Asian dishes, I alluded to how much I rely on oyster sauce for everyday stir-fries.  I would be a little lost without it because I use it for flavoring and as a base for mixing up a quick sauce for a variety of dishes.  
If you're into Chinese cooking, oyster sauce is definitely something to keep on hand. It's a thick, dark-colored sauce with deep, savory flavor (it reminds me of Japanese miso in some ways) that's more complex than soy sauce since it's made with oyster extractives (oyster, water, and salt).  Generally, a little goes a long way. "Authentic" Chinese cuisine leans on the savory side so oyster sauce is far more common and likely to be tossed into the frying pan than hoisin sauce, which is sweet and tends to be used more as a dipping sauce (though there's a time and place for everything). I grew up eating oyster sauce drizzled over sautéed greens and tossed in a wok with meat and whatever else is cooking to add an instant concentrated savoriness to the food.  

Given all the talk I've been doing about stir-fries, Asian pantry ingredients, and simple cooking, I wanted to post this easy beef lo mein recipe that I often make at home. It's special to me because it's one of my son's favorite dishes that I make.  He's actually pretty selective when it comes to pasta/noodles but this is one he slurps right up.
To make this, I buy noodles in the refrigerated aisle at the Asian market, which makes it even easier to get the dish on the dining room table since you don't need to boil water and cook the noodles first.  If I haven't planned ahead, I substitute the noodles with regular spaghetti and it works quite well.

You can obviously make lo mein with all kinds of add-ins but my family prefers beef.  I marinate thinly sliced flank steak and like to incorporate some scallions and onions but you could obviously load it up with all kinds of vegetables (I like to use Chinese chives sometimes) and meat.  To flavor and add a quick "sauce" to heat up the noodles and give the dish some moisture, all I do is stir about a tablespoon of oyster sauce into some beef broth.  If you're not making lo mein with beef or don't have broth, you could just use water (I used to all the time), in which case up the amount of oyster sauce a bit.

It's really easy and, for me, it a surefire hit for dinner with minimal effort.



Hot milk sponge cake with (attempted) caramelized almond topping

Do the words "hot milk sponge cake" make you want to yawn and move on or does it sound like a throwback that you just want to get up and make?  For me, it's the latter since I love simple everyday cakes.  I can again thank browsing through magazines for how I learned about this one.  
Hot milk sponge cake, in which I attempted to place a caramelized almond topping (with moderate success)
Hot milk sponge cake falls in the category of foam cakes - the kind where the cake's lift comes predominately from whipping eggs until they're, well...foamy.  In some cases of sponge cakes, egg whites and yolks are separately whipped and no additional fat is added; in other instances, like with a genoise, you have whole eggs and additional yolks that are whipped together to a foamy texture before some butter or oil gets incorporated.  In comparison to chiffon cakes, sponge cakes are less rich, with less fat, and their spongy texture make them great candidates for soaking up syrups for things like layer cakes or for rolling into a roulade.  That's how I understand it anyway...the lines between the variety of sponge cakes and recipes can be blurry.  All I know for sure if that basic sponge cakes always appeal to me.

So about hot milk sponge cake.  I'd never heard of it before stumbling upon it in a magazine recently. It's made here with whole eggs as well as a few additional yolks.  Given my love of eggs and egg-rich cakes, that works for me!  A little baking powder ensures lift and a mixture of hot milk and a little melted butter folded into the batter at the final step creates a light and springy cake that's also rich in flavor and sturdy enough to handle.
This recipe from Alice Medrich I found offered three ways to turn this base hot milk sponge cake into various desserts with fillings.  Sponge cakes are a great blank canvas for that but the options didn't appeal to me because I generally like to keep sponge cakes at their most basic as a simple at-home snack cake. But I started thinking (uh-oh)...and got the notion of putting a caramelized almond topping on the cake like the topping on this (very delicious) almond semolina cake.

Well...as I was placing the topping on the cake, it dawned on me that the topping might very well sink into the batter as the cake rises in the oven.  I would have allowed the cake to bake a bit before adding the topping but since the cake is done in about 20 minutes, I didn't think there was time for that.  In the end, I crossed my fingers and I'd say the outcome was moderately successful.
It wasn't quite how I had envisioned it, and as you can see, there were a few pockets of heavier almond clusters that did sink into the cake.  However, all was not lost.  The almonds added flavor and a little extra sweetness (since they were coated with some egg whites and brown sugar), and definitely made the cake more interesting and flavorful without any other adornments.  That's good enough for me and I'll count that as another experiment, another lesson in the kitchen!


P.S. - My little blog got a mini makeover!  I hope you like it as much as I do.



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