Sunday, December 22, 2013

Cookie Tealight Stands

I made these saffron cookie tealight stands for Diwali earlier this year, and I'd promised a post on how to make them, so here goes.

The idea for these cookies comes from a book called Decorating Cookies by Joanna Farrow. You can use the rolled cookie recipe of your choice to make these stands. For this project, I've used a gingerbread cookie recipe as I'll be using these stands during Christmas.

One important point that I'll highlight in the beginning, and that isn't mentioned in the book, is to get simple glass tealight holders. You put the tealights in the glass holders and place the holders on the cookie base. This way, the cookie doesn't get direct heat from the tealight and stays fresh longer.

What you need:
Cookie dough (recipe of your choice, I'll link to some suggestions at the end)
Small glass tealight holders (check your dollar stores or Ikea)
Cutters - sharp knives / steel piping tips / straws
Template of your design (optional)
Decorations - cachous / dragees / sprinkles
Royal Icing - stiff consistency (piping consistency for decorating, optional)

You begin by rolling out your cookie dough and cutting out shapes for the front and the base of the stand. For the front, I've simply cut rectangle shapes, but you can use any shape you like. Just make sure it's big enough to cover the glass tealight holder. Cut circles, or squares for the base, and again, ensure it corresponds to the size of the front piece and is big enough for the tealight holder.

Note: If using fancy shapes for the front piece, you have to cut a straight line across the bottom of the cookie so that it'll rest evenly on the base. For the saffron cookies in the first picture, I used a round fluted cutter for the front cookie, and I had to trim the end off so that it would sit straight on the base.

Cut out your design on the front. I've just used a piping tip to cut circles out in the shape of a Christmas tree. A piece of drinking straw will also work well to cut out circles. If you have a more elaborate design, make a paper template. Place the template onto the cookie and cut out the design with a sharp knife.

If you want to use sprinkles, I feel it's easier to put them on before baking. I've used silver dragees / cachous here. Be gentle when you put these on; don't push them through the cookie.

Then bake the cookies as per recipe instructions. I bake mine a tad longer as I like my cookies crisper.

Once the cookies are cooled, you can decorate the front pieces with royal icing if you like, and let it dry for a few hours. I'm not sure how the warmth of the tealights would affect a cookie that's fully covered with royal icing, so both times I've made these tealight stands, I've kept the royal icing to a minimum and it's been perfectly fine.

Assembling the Tealight Stands:

1. Put the stiff consistency royal icing into a piping bag or ziploc bag with the end snipped off. Pipe a couple of thick lines onto the base cookie, about 1 cm away from the edge.

2. Place the front piece onto the thick icing, making sure it's standing straight, and then push down very gently.

Ensure that the front cookie isn't tilting forwards or backwards. If it starts to tilt, take it off and pipe more icing onto the base and place it again.

3. Once the front is securely standing on the base, fill in any gaps between the two cookies with more icing. You can see in the third picture how thin the icing looks on the left once the front cookie is placed on the base. So for more support, pipe one more line of icing on the back of the cookie. The book says you can prop up the front cookie with a small glass if need be. Let them dry for a few hours, and your edible tealight stands are ready to use!

You can store these cookies in a container deep enough to hold them, or if you don't have one, the book says you can leave them on a board or baking tray and wrap around loosely with cling film.

This is a fun project, and I hope you try it out and that it lights up your celebrations as well. Have a blessed Christmas and New Year!

Links to rolled cookie recipes:
Rolled Sugar Cookies - Glorious Treats
Chocolate Sugar Cookies - Glorious Treats
Eggless Saffron Cookies - Divine Taste
Gingerbread Cookies (recipe used for this project) - Craftsy

Monday, December 09, 2013

DIY Crepe Rose Wreath

There is a section on this blog I grandly titled 'Food & Craft', with some food-related posts and zero craft-related ones. I am pleased to say that I am finally able to notch one for craft, with this my debut crafty post.

Having a craft-loving daughter, we're pretty much cutting / gluing all year through. But for me personally, this is the one time in the year that I go into craft overdrive. I absolutely love decorating for Christmas, and while I love buying knick-knacks for my home, it gives me far greater pleasure when I look around and see things that we've made ourselves. 

Like this wreath, for example. The idea for this sparked at my daughter's playgroup a couple of months ago, when the craft activity organized by one of the mums involved simple crepe streamers. As I supervised my daughter, I was idly twisting a piece of crepe round and round, and I thought, well that makes a really pretty rose. Voila!

If you've ever made a ribbon rose, this is the same thing. But I was so charmed by this, I got all fired up and made a, ahem, tutorial, so here goes. Pardon the photography :).

What you'll need:

1. A frame (I used a cane one, about 8" wide, but you could use a thermocol one, or wire etc.)
2. Crepe streamers / ribbons in the colours of your choice.
3. Green garland (or shiny tinsel) 2 metres long, to luxuriously cover a frame this size.
4. Floral wire (not pictured).
5. Any additional decorations (like the glittery bow I used).

Crepe Rose How-to:

1. Cut a strip of the crepe, about 20" long (less for a smaller rose, more for a bigger one). Fold the top left corner down; it makes for a neater center.

2. Take the bottom left corner and start rolling it inwards, towards the top.

3. Once the center is formed, hold the flower steady and begin draping the strip around it, pleating it occasionally (I've got a picture to illustrate this in the next set, bear with me :)).

4. Make sure you scrunch the bottom half of the rose tightly, this helps the 'petals' poof out more.

5. When you reach the end, fold the top corner of the strip down and bring it down round the base.

6. Secure the rose together by twisting floral wire around the base. I've used extra wire so that it can be inserted through and tied to the wreath frame.

Two-Colour Rose:

Being Christmas, I used white as my second colour. Place the inner crepe strip slightly lower than the outer one, to show off both colours. Make the rose as above. I find that, as you're draping the strip, slightly pleating it backwards every now and then gives the rose a more ruffled look, which I feel makes the rose prettier.

Assembling the Wreath:

1. Insert the rose's wire through the frame and secure it lightly. Don't get fussy about this, as the roses will be firmly fixed when you loop the garland on.

2. Finish attaching all your roses.

3. Pick a spot and start looping the garland around the frame, making sure you cover the starting point once. Pull the garland tight around the roses to hold them in place.

4. For a wreath of these dimensions, I looped the garland thrice between each of the roses for a nice, healthy wreath. Tuck the end point neatly away; I assume this garland must also have some floral wire in it as it stays in place, and doesn't need anything else to secure it.

You can finish the wreath with bows, or other decorations of your choice. This baby now graces our front door :) If you can't get a hold of a wreath frame, the roses also work beautifully on Christmas trees, like so:

I hope this inspires you to get crafting this Christmas too!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Saffron Cookies with Rose Icing

Have you ever had one of those experiences where you encounter something so potent it immediately transports you elsewhere, makes you forget where you are? Before you get any ideas, I'm not referring to anything illegal :), but the exotically fragrant combination of saffron, cardamom and ghee, like in these cookies.

I first made a batch of these cookies a year ago. The sensory experience began as soon as I opened containers and the ingredients exuded their individual fragrances. But the magical moment was when those scents combined. Instantly, I was back in India, memories of countless mithai shops and festival celebrations swamping my mind. I actually stopped working and just stood there, eyes closed, till that wave of nostalgia receded.

Since then, I've made these cookies quite a few times. I was initially drawn to try this recipe as it is eggless, and I thought it'd be handy to have a good eggless rolled cookie recipe. But I go back to it every now and then because it is such a powerful, not to mention delicious, reminder of some of the best things of home.

The original recipe comes from Divine Taste, a beautiful blog run by the sister of a dear friend, and can be found here. I've stayed true to it, except for the pistachios. Though I like munching on pistachios by themselves, I've never cared for them strewn across any sweet. The cookies still taste gorgeous plain, but my decorating instinct insisted on some adornment, so the next time, I drizzled a simple icing sugar glaze over them.

Even then I wasn't fully satisfied. Something kept nagging me and I knew there was potential to enhance this cookie still further. I started thinking of flavours that would complement the saffron, and the answer struck almost instantly - rose water.

Rose Icing
1 cup sifted icing sugar
2-3 tbsp rose water

Add the rose water gradually to the icing sugar, just till you get the consistency of honey. Put the icing in a piping bag or a ziploc bag with one corner snipped off a bit. Alternatively, you can just drizzle the icing from a spoon, only the drizzles wouldn't be as uniform.

The only downside of this icing is that it doesn't dry hard; so you can either ice the cookies right before serving, or then store them in a way that the icing doesn't touch anything else. If you would like to package these cookies as gifts, I'd recommend using royal icing as it sets hard. Rose water blends beautifully with royal icing, and when you use this icing you have the added advantage of being able to pipe on any design you fancy. So you can add rose water gradually to the royal icing till you get drizzling consistency, or just add a few drops till you get piping consistency.


The last time I made these cookies was this Diwali. Since it was the festival of lights, I used these cookies to try out an idea I'd come across recently - cookie tealight holders!

I decorated these with some gold cachous and rose royal icing. I'm pleased to say my edible tealight stands lasted brilliantly through all the nights of Diwali. I'd really wanted to get into a how-to over here, but then felt this post would seem unending. So I promise I'll be back with a post on making these tealight stands.

In the meanwhile, please try out the cookie recipe. Whether you choose to leave them plain, garnish with pistachios or decorate with rosy icing, I can guarantee you a truly memorable, definitively desi cookie!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Pink-guins and a Beautiful Chocolate Cake!

My daughter turned four recently. Her birthday is the single point in the year when I don my party planner's hat. To decide on a theme I started thinking of all the things she liked at the time. Thanks to Happy Feet and Madagascar, she liked penguins then, so I thought it'd be cute to make some sweet lil penguins - in the form of cake toppers, cake pops and cookies.

Straightaway, I knew I wasn't going to stay true to nature and make my penguins black. Though it's one of my favourite colours, I wanted a more childlike, cutesy colour scheme. Pink and purple popped into mind instantly. I know it's a cliched combination, but the more I considered it, the more I liked the idea of making pink-guins!

I'd planned to do a plain white cake with pink-guins, and pink and purple polka dots, but when I visualised it, I felt that it might need a third colour to liven it up. I was leaning toward silver, but I wasn't fully convinced it was a good choice. For inspiration, I visited one of my favourite craft stores hoping to pick up some ribbon for the goodie bags.

What I found was this:

It's a roll of masking tape, or washi tape, that is mostly used in paper crafts. Pink and purple dots, along with brown and that beautiful, vibrant, perfect golden yellow. Jackpot!

I used the tape for two things. Firstly for the goodie bags.

And then on the packaging for the cookies that went into the goodie bags.

Now about the cake itself. I gave the choice of flavour to the birthday girl, and the reply was immediate: chocolate! How much I loved her in that moment! Then it changed to chocolate and strawberry, then one layer of chocolate and one of strawberry, strawberry layer on top, chocolate down and ..... I didn't like which direction this was headed in, so I said two layers of chocolate with strawberry buttercream in the middle, which met with reluctant approval. Here's how it ended up looking.

The igloo was a simple vanilla cake baked in this bowl-shaped cake pan I bought because it was ridiculously cute. But the credit for the igloo concept goes to my sister. The idea struck her the moment she saw the the pan. And the credit for the flowers goes to my daughter. I'd wanted to do polka dots, but a birthday cake without flowers is taboo apparently. But kudos to her because I think the flowers worked out beautifully, better than the dots would've.

The only part of this whole penguin parade that didn't turn out as I'd hoped were the cake pops. 

They look ok enough, but problems with getting the texture of the chocolate coating right combined with a lack of time and energy had me go through the dipping stage hastily, without much finesse. Anyway, despite their less-than-perfect appearance, they were delicious and the kids loved them, which is what matters in the end.

And now finally, as mentioned in the title of this post - the beautiful chocolate cake! I'd been trying out various chocolate cake recipes off the Internet lately but not really liking any. Then I found this gem in a book I borrowed from the library. Let me tell you why I love this cake: it's quick to put together, it's moist and delicious without being overly rich, it keeps wonderfully. Best of all, even after being stashed in the freezer for a month, once it was thawed, it tasted as beautiful as on the day it was baked.

The birthday cake above is two of these cakes sandwiched with strawberry buttercream. Apologies for not having any pics of the inside of the cake.

Devil's Food Cake (from Good Housekeeping Great Cakes)

100g (3 1/2 oz) unsalted butter, softened
225 ml (8 fl oz) milk
1tbsp lemon juice
225g (8 oz) plain flour
1 tsp bicarb of soda
50g (2oz) cocoa powder
250g (9oz) golden caster sugar
3 medium eggs, beaten

1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees (160 fan oven), gas mark 4. Grease two 20.5 cm (8 inch) sandwich tins and baseline with greaseproof paper. Alternatively use one 9x13 inch pan for one rectangle layer.
2. Pour the milk into a jug, then add lemon juice or vinegar and leave for 5 min. Sift the flour, bicarb of soda and cocoa powder together.
3. In a large bowl, cream the butter with half the sugar until light. Gradually beat in the eggs, then mix in the rest of the sugar. Add the reserved soured milk alternately with the flour mixture - around a couple of tbsps at a time.
4. Divide the mixture between the prepared tins and level the tops. Bake for 30 min. Leave in the tins for 10 min, then turn out onto wire rack to cool. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Easy Royal Icing Easter Eggs

I had so much fun with the swirled icing effect in my last decorating project, that I decided to try it again for these cuties. Very simple, and I had the best time making them! First of all, you need some royal icing. Traditionally, royal icing is made with raw egg white whipped with icing sugar. But as I've never been comfortable using raw whites, I use either meringue powder or egg white powder instead.

When I first came to Sydney and started searching for meringue powder, I found that Wilton (which is perhaps the most popular brand) was quite expensive here, and also not widely available. A bit of Googling put me onto a local Aussie product called Pavlova Magic, which is about a third of the cost of Wilton's meringue powder and easily available at every supermarket. So that's what I've been using, and the icing turns out quite well.

If you search the Net, there are several different recipes for royal icing, most of which yield huge quantities. I adapted my recipe from this delightful site, and toned it down to produce about one to one and half cups of icing. You can scale this up, as per your requirements.

Royal Icing Recipe

2 tsp meringue powder
3 tbsp water
Pinch of cream of tartar (optional)
1 1/2 - 2 cups sifted icing sugar
Few drops clear vanilla extract* (or other flavour of your choice)

Firstly, all your equipment must be scrupulously clean; traces of grease or any other impurity spells doom for this icing.

If using handheld electric beaters, lightly whisk the meringue powder and water together. Then whisk the cream of tartar, if using (this acts as a stabilizer; some folks use it, some don't ... I do, because it's available, but don't worry if you can't get it). Then add the sugar a cup at a time, and the extract.

If using a stand mixer, you can mix everything together straight away. Either way, you need to beat it on low speed till the mixture forms stiff peaks.

This makes your basic icing, which can then be thinned down with more water to different consistencies. To store, transfer icing to an airtight container, preferably a glass one, and keep in the fridge. It will last you a couple of weeks, at least. The sugar and water tend to separate over time, so you'll need to re-whip the icing before using.

* If you want pure white icing, use clear extracts. Regular vanilla extract will still get you white icing, but it'll be an off-white.

To make these Easter eggs, you'll need piping consistency icing (like toothpaste), which is best kept in a piping bag with a small round tip (like Wilton #2), and flood icing (like honey) in plain white, and in the colours of your choice. For the flood icing, I didn't bother with piping bags. I spoon the base icing in, and I keep a bunch of these tiny plastic containers handy for when I need different colours in small quantities (and where details aren't really important). You also need some toothpicks, one per colour, and some extras for swirling, and a damp paper towel to clean them. Lastly, your work surface: you need a template of egg shapes, which you can either draw or print; put the template on a baking tray, place a sheet of parchment paper over the template and you're good to go.

1. Outline the egg with the piping icing. Fill in with the flood icing. Get a blob of coloured icing on the blunt edge of a toothpick and drag across the white icing. Add the colours in any order.

2. Using a separate toothpick, start at the bottom and drag the pointed edge up and around the inside of the egg, ending at the middle. Clean off the tip.

3. You can go from the outside inwards, or start at the middle and work your way outwards, till you've swirled your way through and distorted the original lines.

4. On this egg, I used horizontal lines again, but instead of swirling them up and down, I moved the toothpick sideways for a different effect. Feel free to experiment here.

Once you've made as many eggs as you want, leave them on the parchment paper on the tray to dry out overnight, or at least 8-10 hours. Once they're fully dry, gently peel the paper away from one corner and you'll be able to lift the eggs clean off. You can store these eggs (or any royal icing shape for that matter) in an airtight container pretty much indefinitely. They last for ages and won't spoil.

Use them to add an Easter touch to cakes & cupcakes.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Keep Calm & Carry On Cookies

A few days ago, I gave my driving test. The evening before the test, I was desperately thinking of ways to soothe my jittery nerves when it came to me: Keep Calm & Carry On. I'd been seeing this everywhere of late, online, on t-shirts, on trays & mugs too. I repeated it a few times, and found that it worked: I started feeling calmer. To carry the positivity forward, I began thinking of what I'd bake to celebrate passing the test. After racking my brains, I thought, why don't I just cookie up my new mantra (with the emphasis on 'car', because well, that's how my sense of humour works!)

At that time though, I'd no idea how important this quote would turn out to be. The test was a harrowing experience, more so because it was my second attempt and to top it off, I messed up bigtime straight out of the gate. I think it was just the grace of God and this mantra that helped me hold it together for the rest of the test.

After I got back home (and got over the shock of actually passing!), I threw myself into baking; the other project to follow here shortly. These are regular chocolate sugar cookies, recipe from Glorious Treats. To decorate these, I used royal icing and two methods. I filled the red ones and left them to dry overnight before piping the text and white outline.

For the others, I used a technique that's called 'wet-on-wet' icing, which is as the name suggests: you pipe one colour over the base colour while the latter is still wet so that it blends in with the base instead of being raised above. With wet-on-wet icing, you can do one of my favourite things, which is to swirl the icing around with a toothpick.

1. Outline the cookie as desired (you can leave out the inner lines, if you wish; I was just trying out a different pattern).
2. Fill in one section (or entire cookie), and immediately pipe lines over.
3. Take a clean toothpick and drag it down through the icing from top to bottom.
4. Wipe off any icing on the toothpick and now drag across the icing in the opposite direction.

Keep going this way till you've finished that section (or the entire cookie). Remember to clean the toothpick on a damp paper towel after every swipe.

For a different effect, try piping one circle, or two concentric circles, and then dragging in and out with a toothpick. That's what I did for the flower cookies on this platter.

Even though you have to work quickly here to finish swiping before the icing starts hardening, I still find this a relaxing style of decoration. I'm always awed by how just a few simple strokes with a humble toothpick can create such lovely, swirly magic. Especially after coming through a stressful experience, decorating these cookies was the perfect way to unwind.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Chocolate Flowerpots: Chocolate Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Grass & Flower Cookie Pops

Sometimes, ideas spark when you get a new toy and want to play with it. In this case, the 'toy' in question was the Wilton tip # 233, which is most commonly used for piping grass (or hair). So when we'd planned to invite a bunch of guests for an informal meal, I thought a platter of flowerpots would be great for dessert.

All the recipes used here for the cupcakes, cookies and frosting are from Glorious Treats. The only major change is that I decided to make mini-cupcakes instead of regulars. Now, I don't remember exactly how many minis this recipe yields as I did snack on a couple as soon as they were ready (who wouldn't!), but it was more than 40.

For the flowers, you could just plop some sugar ones over once you've piped the grass, but I decided to try my hand at cookie pops. Apparently the sticks used for cookie pops are different from those used for cake pops. Since I didn't have any of the former, and also since I had mini cupcakes, I thought using toothpicks would be better. I painted them green with some diluted food colouring (and a paintbrush reserved only for decorating purposes!), and let them dry before using.

When making pops, it's safer if the cookies are a little thicker than usual, so they don't break during the popping process. I used my smallest flower cutter here. Once the shapes are cut, hold the cookie in one hand and with the other insert the toothpick. Think screwdriver here; you need to slowly rotate the toothpick applying gentle pressure till it's in about 1 cm. Check the back of the cookie and gently smooth over any breaks. Also, you must be sure to put the blunt side of the toothpicks into the cookies, to avoid any nasty pokes when biting into them.

Once all the cookie pops are ready, bake as usual depending on the size. I was quite apprehensive about how they would turn out as they seemed very fragile when I'd placed them on the tray, but surprisingly (and happily!) they're quite sturdy when they're baked. I had also made slightly bigger flower cookies (no pops), and leaf cookies just to strew about in the platter.

To decorate, I used royal icing in several colours. Just on a whim though, I decided to try decorating these cookies without any specialist equipment. I used a teaspoon to pour flood consistency icing on the cookies, spreading it out with a toothpick. Let this dry fully for a few hours. Then, for the petals, I blobbed icing with the blunt edge of a toothpick and then pulled it into shape with the sharp end.

I think they turned out alright for the most part, barring a few unsightly blobs here and there. So you definitely need piping bags and a selection of tips for consistent, professional work and to achieve various effects (like the grass and this basketweave). But even if you don't have this equipment for whatever reason, don't let that stop you from decorating sweets. It is still possible to make cuties like these with common kitchen items and imagination!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Eggplant Parmigiana

As a child, I was a painfully fussy eater, especially when it came to vegetables. Things like okra, karela (bitter gourd) and broccoli I don't eat to this day. Eggplants were on this list of no-nos too, till my mother introduced me to grilled eggplant slices in pita wraps. For whatever reason, that preparation helped me overcome my aubergine aversion. Now, eggplants are a regular feature in my kitchen, cooked in several different ways. My absolute favourite way to have eggplant, however, is alla parmigiana.

What it is, is simply layers of three key components: eggplant slices, tomato sauce and cheese, baked together. If you scour the Net, you'll find that there is no one definitive recipe; people put their own spin on the three basic ingredients, so you can confidently adapt this to your taste and the available ingredients, and be assured of success.

I'm starting off with the recipe for the tomato sauce. I make this basic sauce almost every week, to go over pasta, or even to dip pita bread or chapati in. I play around with the herb & spice combinations all the time, as the same flavours too often gets boring. So again, flavour it the way you like. I've used pepper and chilli here to give the dish some zing; leave it out entirely or up the quantities if you want real heat. This sauce can be made ahead of time and will keep in the fridge for a week.

Basic Tomato Sauce
2 x 400g cans chopped tomato (which I then roughly pureed)
1 medium onion, chopped
3 large garlic cloves, finely minced (works out to 2 tsp)
1 tsp ground pepper
1 tbsp dried oregano (or basil)
1/2 tsp chilli flakes (optional)
Salt, to taste
Olive oil, for cooking

1. Put a heavy-bottomed saucepan on low heat, pour about 3-4 tbsp olive oil and immediately add the minced garlic. I got this tip from Nigella: you want the garlic to heat gently along with the oil and release its flavours without it going brown and bitter.
2. Once the garlic starts sizzling lightly, add the pepper and chilli flakes.
3. Add the chopped onion and raise the heat to medium; saute till the onions are translucent.
4. Add the tomatoes, then the salt and oregano and stir.
5. Turn the heat back down to low and simmer covered for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure it doesn't catch.
6. Turn off the heat, and let it cool uncovered. Check the seasoning, and add more if required.

Note: To make the sauce more nutritious, you can add chopped carrot and celery after adding the onions and saute till they're softened; then add the tomato. If you want a completely smooth sauce, puree the whole thing after it's cooked .... fussy kids wouldn't even realise they were eating carrot & celery!

Eggplant Parmigiana
2 eggplants
1 tsp chilli powder (optional)
The tomato sauce (described above)
100g grated parmesan (or cheddar; use more or less as per your preference) 
Olive oil, for cooking
Salt, to taste

1. Wash, dry and trim the stalk and base of the eggplants; then cut into 1 cm thick slices.
2. Mix the salt and chilli powder together and sprinkle over the eggplant slices.
3. Heat about 3-4 tbsp olive oil in a skillet, and when it's good and hot, start frying the eggplant slices on both sides till golden brown. Set aside on a plate.
4. Once all the slices have been fried, you can begin layering. In an oven-safe dish, start with a layer of tomato sauce, topped with eggplant slices and then a sprinkling of the cheese, followed by more sauce, eggplant and so on. You should end with the tomato sauce topped with a generous layer of cheese. With this quantity and the dish I used (a glass baking dish, roughly 6 1/2" x 10"), I got 3 layers.
5. Pop the dish into a preheated oven and bake at 190C for 30 minutes, till the cheese is golden.

Note: To cut down on calories, you can omit the cheese in the inner layers, reserving it only for the top.  

Eggplant Parmigiana can be served hot or cold, as a side to a meaty main, or as the main itself, with pasta or salad. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Chocolate Lovers' Cupcake

Before I get on with this post I must take a moment to bow down in gratitude .... just for being alive, for the universe aligning itself to get me this recipe, and for being able to prepare and savour these magnificent cupcakes. A tad over-the-top? Make it, and then decide.

Knowing my love for baking, a friend lent me this book: The Crabapple Bakery Cupcake Cookbook by Jennifer Graham. They're a Melbourne-based business, and currently supply to cafes and markets in that city. (Guess what's on my to-do list if ever I make it to Melbourne?) I'm so glad I got my hands on this book, because every single recipe I've tried from it has been fabulous, and this gorgeous chocolate cupcake tops them all. In fact, I'll even go so far as to say that it's the best cupcake I've ever had.

Flourless Chocolate Cupcakes
(Makes 12 regular cupcakes)
175 g butter
225 g dark cooking chocolate, chopped
1 1/4 cups caster sugar
3/4 cup almond meal
1 cup cocoa
5 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 140C. Line muffin tray with cupcake cases.
2. Combine butter, chocolate and caster sugar in a heavy-based saucepan over low heat. Mix continuously with a flat-bottomed wooden spoon until melted and smooth. Let cool slightly.
3. Sift the almond meal and cocoa into a bowl. Add the chocolate mixture and beat for 1 minute on low speed till thoroughly combined.
4. The original recipe in the book was for 24 cupcakes which I've halved. It said to add the eggs two at a time, beating after each addition till just combined. I added the eggs in three additions of 2, 2 and then the last egg and vanilla extract together. Over-beating will make the cupcakes crack during baking.
5. Divide the batter between the cupcake cases. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or till a skewer inserted comes out clean*. Remove cupcakes from the tray and let cool fully on a wire rack before frosting.

* In the book, the cupcakes were baked in foil cases with a baking time of 30 minutes; it said that with paper cases, it'd take longer. In my oven, with paper cases, these took the entire 45 minutes. So please check on the cupcakes according to the cases you use.

Buttercream Frosting 
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
4 cups icing sugar, approx
1 tsp vanilla extract (or flavouring of choice)
2-3 tbsp milk or heavy cream

1. With electric beaters (or in a stand mixer), cream butter to get it smooth. Add sifted icing sugar a cup at a time, and work in gently before turning beaters on. Beat till all the sugar is incorporated.
2. Add vanilla extract and milk a little at a time just till you get the frosting to a soft peak consistency, so that it'll hold its shape for piping swirls. But don't worry even if you happen to add too much milk; you can always thicken the frosting back with more sugar.   
3. Place the frosting in a piping bag fitted with a large star or round nozzle and pipe the frosting on to the cupcakes. Top with sprinkles or flowers of your choice. 


Now I tried to be as careful as I could to not over-beat the cupcakes. The tops still ended up cracking. Not the end of the world. At first bite, they still tasted like heaven, and that was just without the buttercream. With it, it ascended to a whole new level. It really was an emotional moment for me, to have finally found the perfect chocolate cupcake.

I'm also a big believer in make-it-ahead-of-time food, that gives you plenty of breathing room to get dishes ready without rushing like crazy. This way, you enjoy the process as much as the result. That's why I was delighted to read that this cupcake keeps for 1 week, unfrosted. One more reason to love this recipe!

I have to say though, that if you like your cupcakes light and fluffy, this is not the cupcake for you. I cut one in half to illustrate:

This is at the other end of the spectrum from light and fluffy. Look how gorgeously gooey, how decadently dense it is! Pure bliss if you're as choco-crazy as I am. Again, I am so immensely glad I found this recipe. Definitely not your everyday thing, this is truly worthy of any special occasion.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Basket of Roses: Mini-Sponge Cake with Buttercream

Do you know how sometimes things you've seen as a child can leave a lasting impression on your mind? For me, some of those things are the pictures from my mother's cake decorating books. My mother is an avid baker. She baked and decorated most of the birthday and special occasion cakes in our house. She didn't have the benefit of classes; what she did have were these gorgeous books my father would get, and she learned from those.

As a child, I would pore over those books, the pictures of one stunning cake after another holding me in thrall. One of the images that has gripped my imagination all through the years is that of a basket cake with chocolates on top. Attempting something similar was on my to-do list for a long time. And I finally got the opportunity for our anniversary a few days ago.

The cake itself is a simple sponge cake. I prefer using this type of light, fat-free cake, especially when it's going to be smothered in luscious buttercream, so that it's not too rich overall. I cut out two rectangles from a regular 9" cake for my 'mini-cake'. (If you're a smart one like my sister, you might wonder why I didn't just bake a rectangular cake; answer: I don't own a rectangle pan!) And why a 'mini' cake? Simply because this was the first time I was trying basketweave piping; I've learned the hard way, to start small when you try something new.

Sponge Cake (adapted from Taste.Com)

25g cornflour
25g plain flour
25g self-raising flour
2 large eggs, at room temperature
75g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence

1. Preheat oven to 180C. Grease and line a 9" round cake tin with parchment paper. Sift the flours together three times (the original recipe includes a pinch of salt, which I omitted; add if you prefer).
2. Using electric beaters, beat eggs and sugar on medium-high for 6 minutes, or till pale and tripled in volume.
3. Sift flour mixture over egg mixture in small batches, and carefully fold with a metal spoon. Be gentle with the sifting and folding, so that the air that has been incorporated in step 2 is not knocked out. Fold in till the flour is just combined.
4. Pour the batter carefully into the tin. A great tip from was to spin the tin gently to level the batter. Bake for 20 minutes, or till the cake is beginning to pull away from the sides and springs back when gently touched. It's really important with sponges to know your oven, as over-baking can result in a dry cake, instead of a light, fluffy one. My oven is hotter, so I took the cake out at about 18 minutes.
5. Turn the cake onto a wire rack, and peel away the parchment paper. Leave to cool.

Buttercream Frosting / Filling (adapted from Wilton)

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
4 cups icing sugar, approx
1 tsp vanilla extract (or flavouring of choice)
2-3 tbsp milk or heavy cream

1. With electric beaters (or in a stand mixer), cream butter to get it smooth. Add icing sugar a cup at a time, and work in gently before turning beaters on so that you don't get a snowstorm of sugar in your face.

2. Add milk and extract and beat to combine. The amount of milk you add depends on what the buttercream is for. If it is to cover a cake, you might need more than 3 tbsp to get a spreading consistency. If it is for piping, different types of consistencies are needed for different patterns. I make a sort of master batch of stiff buttercream (like you need to pipe roses), and then take out smaller amounts and add enough milk to get thinner consistencies. I find it easier to add milk to thin down buttercream, than to add sugar to thicken it, but that's me. Store the buttercream in an airtight container in the fridge.


I actually made the cake a few days before I needed it, cut out my rectangles and wrapped each first in parchment paper and then in cling film, and stuck them in the freezer. I haven't worked with thawed cakes, and wanted to see how they turned out. Pretty well, in fact. I just took them out of the freezer, unwrapped and left them to reach room temperature before decorating.

Once at room temperature, sandwich the two layers with buttercream. Then apply a crumb coat - which is simply a thin layer of buttercream all over the cake to seal in the crumbs, so that they don't get into your final icing. Refrigerate the cake till the buttercream has set. Then transfer to your serving platter before beginning the basketweave.

For the basketweave effect, Wilton's instructions are pretty straightforward; I followed it exactly. And once I got into the rhythm of it, it turned out to be quite easy. The only hitch in the process is that as you pipe, the warmth of your hands warms up the buttercream, making it droop instead of holding its shape; so you'll need to periodically chill the piping bag. Ideally, two bags would be best, so that you can work with the other while the first is cooling down and so on.

For the top, I just dolloped some green buttercream and spread it over. I had wanted to pipe leaves as well, but a bad back got in the way.

For the roses, while I did use the Wilton method, the written instructions left me hesitant. Youtube was more helpful. Of all the rose-making videos I watched, I found this one to be the most complete.  You can make buttercream roses and place them on the cake immediately. I made mine out of royal icing; once they've air-dried for a couple of days, store them in an airtight container and they last almost indefinitely. I prefer doing this as you can have the flowers ready weeks in advance.

I loved this because most of the elements - the flowers, the cake and the frosting - can be made well ahead of time. Even the crumb-coated cake will sit well in the fridge for a day. That leaves you with only the piping work for the day before you need the cake. This would be a lovely cake to gift someone special .... just imagine, a basket of roses that's entirely edible!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Easy Chocolate Chip Mini-muffins

Post the festive season baking / decorating frenzy, I had thought to take a break for a few days. But sure enough, once a 'few days' had passed, I felt the urge to get the oven up and running again. Since we'd just come through the richness of all the Christmas sweets, I had to pick something that would appease my conscience as well as satisfy my tastebuds. When that's the case, I find that muffins are usually the answer.

I love muffins for their effortlessness. Just a few simple steps get you warm yumminess in minutes, perfect when you really want some baked goodies but can't be bothered to go to a lot of trouble. After searching the net for recipes, I chose to tweak a Nestle regular muffin recipe to get the mini-muffins. The added attraction for this particular recipe was that it had the lowest amount of fat, just two tablespoons - that's the conscience appeased!

These are also great picnic snacks, very easy to carry and munch when you're out, about and on the move. I ended up taking a boxful of these mini-muffins to a play date at a nearby park, where they were enjoyed by the kids and us bigger kids in disguise.

Easy Chocolate Chip Mini-Muffins

(Makes 36)

1 1/4 cup self-raising flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp melted butter (I substituted canola oil here)
3/4 cup milk
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 - 3/4 cup chocolate chips (depending on how chocolatey you want them)


1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Prepare mini-muffin trays by greasing, or lining with cases. I always use the cases.
2. Sift the flour into a bowl; add the sugar and chocolate chips.
3. Mix the wet ingredients in another bowl; you don't need beaters, just use a whisk, or even a fork.
4. Add the wet ingredients to the flour, mix gently till just combined.
5. Spoon the batter into the cases to about 1/2 cm from the top, to leave room for the muffins to rise.
6. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or till a skewer inserted comes out clean.

Turn the muffins out onto wire racks to cool. Once fully cooled, store in an airtight container. These are best consumed in day or two.