The Cupcake Super Bowl

by Caroline

The other day when I picked Eli up from school, he grabbed my hand and started to pull me back inside to the lunchroom.

“C’mon, Mama! We need to get a recipe from Chef Ric!”
“What recipe?”
“Wacky cake!”
“Wacky cake? Is that like our crazy cake?”
“I don’t know. I just know it’s a good chocolate cake.”

So we found Chef Ric and we compared notes. Indeed, his wacky cake is just like our crazy cake (or your cockeyed cake, or 6-minute cake), except he uses apple cider vinegar and I use raspberry. I’ve always imagined that the raspberry vinegar gives the cake a little fruit note in the background, perhaps deepens the chocolate flavor a bit, but suddenly talking to our school chef I wasn’t so sure. Does it really make a difference, or is it all in my head? Tonight, with no particular investment in football’s Super Bowl, Eli and I decided to test the theory by making three different crazy cake batters: one with plain white vinegar, one with apple cider vinegar, and the last with raspberry vinegar.

we labelled the batters according to each type of vinegar

I gave Tony and the boys coded servings of each cake

they took careful tasting notes

we tallied the results; the sheet with the red dots is the key to my code

Tony then served me my own coded cupcakes and the results from our limited sample are pretty decisive: the vinegar doesn’t matter. The kids and I each identified only one vinegar correctly and Tony didn’t even get one. The vinegar Eli and I got right (apple cider) was also our least favorite, so we won’t use that again. But given that white vinegar is less than a quarter of the price of raspberry vinegar, from now on, I’ll save it for salad dressings and other places I can really taste it.

Now, I’m really not a Cooks Illustrated, recipe-testing kind of cook. I am fairly imprecise in my baking, I measure casually, and I am always tinkering with recipes. But I do love a cooking project inspired by my children, and I love it when the cooking includes a bit of science. It was a nice change to be more careful baking these cakes so that each one would differ only in its vinegar, and fun to think about how best to keep track of which was which. But Eli definitely summed up the experiment best: “The thing I like about it is you get three cupcakes.” No argument here.

Edited to add: we shared some sample cupcakes with Chef Ric and his kitchen staff and (drumroll) we are impressed — but not surprised — to report he identified the three vinegars correctly!

Maple Roasted Nuts

by Caroline

Lots of people make some version of a sweet or spicy roasted nut during the holidays; this is what Tony makes every year. We give bags to all our teachers and then snack on them all season long.

1 pound nuts
¼ cup maple syrup
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350.

In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients except for the nuts. Add the nuts and toss until well coated. Pour into a large roasting pan and spread into a single layer. Bake for 8-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are golden and filling the kitchen with a delicious maple scent. Let cool in the pan, so that the glaze hardens into a crispy shell on the nuts, before serving or storing.

St. Lucia Buns

by Lisa

I’ll bet you didn’t know that today is St. Lucy’s Day.  And that it is also my daughter’s half-birthday. And that her still-beloved American Girl doll, Kirsten, hails from Sweden, where St. Lucy is pretty much the only saint honored. If you’ve read my book, you also might know that we nearly named Ella “Lucy”, after my paternal grandmother.

For a few years, Ella has been lobbying to celebrate her half-birthday/Swedish saint day in a traditional way: with St. Lucia buns, brought by the eldest daughter, at the crack of dawn, to the other members of the household. Usually, this daughter wears a crown of candles.  Historically, December 13 would have been the winter solstice, the darkest night of the year, and thus the tradition of the eldest daughter bringing light and sweets.

Last night at dinner, Ella reminded me about St. Lucy’s Day and told me exactly where to find the recipe, and at 6:30 pm, I agreed and set to work making St. Lucia Buns for the morning. I didn’t have saffron or raisins, which means ours were not exactly authentic, but they were good enough.  They’re a sweet, yeast bread and easy to make.

This morning, at about 6:45 am, it was still dark, and Finn came into our room, announcing, “Stay in bed!” Not long after that, Ella arrived (sans scary candle crown) with a breakfast tray bearing two cups of coffee and 4 St. Lucia buns, plated and garnished with candied walnuts, which she’d added in place of the missing raisins.

It was lovely to have a break from the regular routine, to forget about making lunches and emptying the dishwasher and making beds.  We all piled onto our bed, and had a calm, sweet breakfast as the sun came up.

St. Lucia Buns

from Kirsten’s Cookbook

  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup lukewarm water
  • 1 package yest
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon saffron
  • 2 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 T cooking oil
  • 1 egg + 1 T water
  • 24 raisins
  1. Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water. Set aside for 5 minutes until  bubbly and smooth.
  2. Warm the milk and butter over low heat until butter is just melted.
  3. Add the milk and butter to the yeast.
  4. Stir in sugar, egg, salt, and saffron.
  5. Add 1 1/2 cups flour and stir until smooth.
  6. Add enough of the remaining flour so that you can shape the dough into a ball.
  7. Put dough on floured cutting board & knead, adding flour as dough becomes sticky.
  8. When dough is smooth and  springy (about 5-10 minutes) cover with a towel and wash & dry mixing bowl.
  9. Measure cooking oil into bowl, add dough, turn to coat, cover with a towel and set in warm place to rise, 45 minutes, or until doubled in size.
  10. Punch down the dough, then divide into 6 sections.  Take one section and divide in half. Roll each half into and 8-inch rope. Cross the 2 ropes in the middle then coil the ends into tight circles. Repeat w/remaining 5 buns.
  11. Place buns on greased cookie sheet, 2 inches apart. Let rise until doubled, 30-45 minutes.
  12. While buns are rising, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  13. Beat egg and water and brush lightly over the top of each bun before baking. Decorate with raisins.
  14. Bake buns 15-20 minutes, until golden brown.
  15. Cool on cooling rack.

Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake

by Caroline

I spent all week at home with a feverish kid, and while it was sweet to slow down, to lie on the couch reading picture books and drifting into short naps, after a while the confinement began to wear on me. When he finally got better, I was out-of-proportion grateful, and excited to resume our regular life which included, this weekend, an invitation to a potluck. I knew exactly what to make for my week’s first trip out of the house: a coconut cake from Emily Dickinson.

I’d first read about the recipe this fall, in contributor Jeff Gordinier’s piece for The New York Times. A recent exhibit of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts, letters, and other papers from her daily life, included, perhaps surprisingly, her recipe for coconut cake. As Gordinier writes, “Somehow it’s hard to envision her even eating a meal, let alone taking delectable pleasure from it.” And yet, here is the recipe, in her beautiful, slant handwriting, and I knew I had to make it. The fact that it’s just a list of ingredients didn’t put me off; it read like pound cake to me, and so that’s how I approached it. I took it to Saturday’s potluck, where it was a hit. It’s not too sweet and just subtly coconut-y; it’d be a great vehicle for a fruit compote or a drizzle of chocolate sauce, but I like it best just plain.

Here’s how I did it:
Preheat the oven to 350. Line a standard loaf pan with parchment.

Whisk together in a medium bowl:
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar

In a large bowl, beat together
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter

Continue beating until light. Add, one at a time and beating after each addition:
2 eggs

Now add:
1/2 cup milk

Stir the flour mixture into the butter and then add
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut

Spoon the batter into the loaf pan and bake until golden brown and a tester comes out clean, 50-60 minutes. Remove the cake from the pan and let cool on a rack.

Applesauce Cake with Caramel Glaze

by Caroline

Glaze. Glaze is one of those words that makes me try a recipe, and the combination here of “caramel” + “glaze” got me, even though it is really just one small component of that recipe. But this glaze is so good I might just start making it to spread on things other than cake.

This recipe is from Merrill Stubbs, at the fabulous Food52, and I didn’t change a thing.

Applesauce Cake
Serves 10

For the cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups unsweetened (preferably homemade) applesauce
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla

For the caramel glaze:
4 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 to 1 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour a 12-cup Bundt pan. Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, pepper and spices and set aside. In a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the eggs with both sugars until light. Mix in the applesauce, oil and vanilla until smooth.

Using a spatula, fold in the dry ingredients, being careful not to over-mix. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 45 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake for 10 minutes in the pan on a rack before turning it out and cooling completely on the rack — make sure the cake is not at all warm before you make the glaze.

TheRunawaySpoon wisely advises that you put a piece of foil or paper under the cooling rack to catch any drips before you start the glaze. Put the butter in a medium saucepan with the brown sugar, cream and salt and set over medium heat. Bring to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly. Boil for one minute exactly, and then pull it off the heat.

Leave the pan to cool for a couple of minutes, and then gradually whisk in the powdered sugar until you have a thick, but pourable consistency (you may not need all the sugar). If the mixture seems too thick, just add a splash of cream to thin it out a little. Immediately pour the glaze over the cake, moving slowly and evenly to cover as much surface area as possible. Let the glaze set before serving the cake.