Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tennis Cupcakes

First of all, a big congratulations to my youngest (but not so little anymore) brother, Colin, for turning into such a great tennis player, making it to states, and for a whole list of other senior year festivities that could take up this whole post. I'm so proud! Tonight's the high school tennis banquet, and my mom asked if I could make a dessert for her to take. Of course I pitched this huge fit about how I hate to bake and I've got absolutely no free time...HA. Enjoy.

I made these darling little tennis themed cupcakes in Trenton High School colors with my favorite chocolate cake recipe and a thick buttercream frosting.


Although I don't make chocolate cake very often, in this case I thought it would look nice with the other colors I was planning to use and would also be a good flavor for a dish to pass. Whenever I do make chocolate cake, I swear by this recipe:

Ingredients:
2 2/3 cup flour
1 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk (I rarely have buttermilk on hand, but luckily it's got a very simple substitute. Just add one tablespoon of vinegar to just under a cup of regular milk--we usually have skim--and stir. Let it sit for about ten minutes and poof! Buttermilk substitute.)
1 1/4 cup of brewed coffee, cooled
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 sticks of butter (I almost always use salted butter, but if you know me at all you know that things rarely taste too salty for me. That being said, no one has ever complained about it altering the taste of my cake too much either, but you could definitely use unsalted or skip the table salt.)
2 1/2 cups of sugar
1 tsp vanila extract
2 eggs

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350. in a large bowl, add the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Sift to combined. Add the buttermilk, coffee, oil, and butter and mix until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and sugar and cream until well combined, then add the eggs one at a time. Line cupcake tin as usual, and fill standard cupcake papers 2/3 of the way full. Bake until tops spring back when touched, about 20-25 minutes.

*Note: I considered doubling this recipe, forgetting that it makes so. many. cupcakes. I got 32 full-sized cupcakes out of this recipe, and I didn't skimp on the last few.


For the frosting, I made a thick buttercream that I sort of made up as I went along today, but it looked something like this:

2 sticks softened butter (again, I used salted)
2-3 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
2-3 tbsp milk

Cream together till it's light and fluffy and the consistency you prefer.


The tennis balls were super easy--I just bought green melting chocolate discs from the cake store I'm head over heels for. Then I left some of my frosting food coloring-less and painted on the tiny lines. So cute.

Did I mention how awesome Colin is? Good luck giving your speech, bud. :)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Crumb Cake

I've been away from New Jersey for less than three days and already I'm bringing bits of it here. Ask either of my brothers or my parents what the one food is that we associate with Grandma McGauley's house and it's not going to be eggs (funny story), Chinese food, or lamb (another funny story): it's most definitely crumb cake. We get it from B&W Bakery in Hackensack, and while it is pretty tasty, to me the best part is that it just tastes like Grandma's house.


When my uncle and I came out for the ND v. MSU game, we brought a couple of cakes with us for my family for breakfast, and my dad was pretty excited. I decided since I haven't made it to Hackensack recently, I'd try to see if I could come up with a similar homemade version for him this time. I'd found a recipe here that looked almost right, but my uncle and I agreed that it didn't have nearly enough crumb (I know, right. Look at that picture and you'll start to understand how crumbly and delicious B&W does it). In my verison, I skipped the almond extract (only because I didn't have it, but I don't feel like it's missing anything) and doubled the crumb. That's right.

Oh, the crumbly delicious goodness of this cake. It's a little more moist than B&W's, and the crumbs are a little less firm, but overall I think it was a pretty delicious substitute for when we just can't make the nine hour drive to NJ (and can't convince Uncle Tommy to ship us one. Hey, it's been done).

It'll never be quite the same as breakfast at Grandma's, but it tastes like home.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thanks, Gracias, Merci, Danke...

Sometimes (okay, often) when people do huge favors for me (like driving out of their way early in the morning to come pick me up), I repay them in cupcakes, by request of course. These are those cupcakes, and they double as farewell and thank you cupcakes for my NJ family's generosity in letting me stay with them for so long. They should also function as a virtual thanks to all those other people who have helped me in the past couple of months by giving me a place to stay, food, a hot shower, or transportation to and from train stations and bus stops.

I use recipes from all over the place--those I find on the internet mainly, but also from a variety of cookbooks or friends and family. This time, though, when I set out to make these red velvet cupcakes, Bakerella was the first blog to pop into my mind, and I went with that recipe. These cupcakes were incredible.




I realized at the last minute that I was out of eggs, but I substituted a quarter of a cup of applesauce for each egg. I've substituted applesauce for oil many times in the past, but never eggs, and I was a little nervous. But as you can see, these little darlings still rose up beautifully and had a great texture.


This rich, delicious cream cheese frosting was the perfect literal icing on the cake of an already amazing recipe. It's a pretty standard recipe, but this time I used fat free cream cheese (risky, I know), and I don't know, somehow it turned out just incredible.





Thank you for reading, if for nothing else :)

Chickpea Cookies

Just wanted to follow up that the delicious "cookie dough" can also function as real cookie dough with a few minor changes. These gooey, messy bars were almost as addicting as the big bowl of dough.

Again, I found this recipe here. Mine were perhaps just a tiny bit gooier because the blender I used was not the best, so I added just a touch of milk to get it moving.

Friday, October 14, 2011

#fridayreads

In case I haven't made this well enough known in the past, here are a few of my favorite things to find in a YA novel:

• Realistic, relatable characters. For me, this require a sort of depth that turns underdeveloped characters on a page to a those that feel more like real people who just happened to find their way into an exciting story of some sort. Where I can imagine running into them in the park or in a restaurant and where I can anticipate their actions.
• This feeling of knowing the characters like they are old friends means that, in some ways, the author can’t get away with just anything. He or she has to make me believe that each plot point fits with things these characters would “really” do or ways they would “really” act. I know my little brother wouldn’t be caught dead wearing ballet shoes and performing on stage (unless it’s the result of some crazy dare) just as well as I know that Hermione would never abandon Harry just because she got sick of risking her life or something silly like that. Once you give me realistic characters, you’ve only won half the battle.
• That being said, I want my characters overcoming real obstacles. They don’t have to be things I’ve been up against. I’ve been incredibly blessed with parents who are not abusive, friends who are relatively emotionally stable, and in a whole slew of other wonderful ways in while many of my most beloved YA characters haven’t been nearly so lucky. But I love that YA authors take on controversial issues, because it gave (okay, gives) me and other kids stories that we can either relate to or learn from, or both. Stories that we know are happening but we don’t know how to talk about. So we read about them, and hopefully become that much more comfortable with discussing them.
• Real dialogue. See “real characters” point above. Don’t you dare try to get away with:
“Oh dear,” Maria sighed. “It has begun to rain. I suppose we shall have to play indoors now.”
Really? Was Maria quite that proper? I doubt it. If you’re going to write a YA novel, dig deep people. Get in touch with how you conversed as a kid. That being said, probably none of this either:
“Yo ma,” I said, pushing off my sweet new kicks. “Imma chill with Pat later, aight?”
Really. No need to urbandictionary every last line, I promise. We’ll give you a little leeway because we know you’re not actually seventeen anymore.

And many more. But if you can cover those, that's a great start.

On Tuesday, Andrew Smith's new YA novel Stick came out, and I was lucky enough to be given a copy. Never fear, Andrew, you've survived the above checklist.


Stark "Stick" McClellan, the thirteen-year-old narrator of this bold novel, tells his coming of age tale boldly with all the confidence and charm that he constantly feels he is lacking in his physical demeanor. Covering standard issues of puberty from body issues to sex and more "controversial" YA topics like child abuse, rape, and homosexuality, Andrew Smith shies away from nothing. I found myself identifying with Stick much more than I expected for a kid with whom (on the surface at least) I have very little in common, and I found the plot not only thrilling but also surprisingly believable given its dramatic content. Check and check--way to go, Stick!

My only irritation with this novel was something that I imagine many might consider to be its biggest strength. Stick was born with one ear (he learns at the end of the novel that he has a condition called anotia), rendering him ever-so-slightly hard of hearing. To reflect this, the author formats the text differently, especially surrounding dialogue
so that at times                  rather than appearing normally,
                  the text appears this way on the page.
I certainly                  see the reasoning for this within the novel.
It reminds the reader                  constantly of Stick's                  condition,
so that                  like him, we are unable to forget that he is different.
It also occasionally allows us
to see the way                   Stick compartmentalizes his many,
                  sometimes conflicting thoughts.
Most obviously, though, the format attempts to mimik the way Stick would hear, which is where my frustration comes in. First, this format of text is obviously somewhat distracting to read (although with such a redeeming plot and developed characters, this certainly didn't ruin the book for me). My problem is that, just as I have done above, the author does not delete any words; instead, he simply adds spaces. While I see the problem with deleting words, as it would add immense confusion to the reader, I found it really distracting; I felt like because the words were all completely maintained, this was not a true representation of how Stick would hear. What I might have preferred was if the text had been made smaller to reflect the sort of ins and outs of sounds that I imagine Stick would hear. Nonetheless, I should say that I appreciated the author's intent to reflecting Stick's unique sense of sound. I highly recommend those of any age to pick up this novel for a unique read. Although in the past, Andrew Smith has written mostly fantasy, I hope to see more of this variety from him in the future.

I was also given this adorable book by Taye Diggs, Chocolate Me, a precious story about a young boy struggling to feel comfortable with himself among his peers.


With big, cute, and colorful illustrations and a simple but meaningful plot, I thoroughly enjoyed flipping through this picture book.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Healthy Treats

Today I went on another baking spree of some of the recipes I've had saved up for a while. Unlike last time, though, this one was much less sinful (and still tasted really delicious!).

First on the list was this chocolate chip "cookie dough." Here's a disclaimer, before I begin: I love chocolate chip cookie dough, and if given the opportunity I will eat it until my stomach hurts. This, my friends, is a delicious alternative, but it can't fool me. Now I suggest you read further, nevertheless, but I wanted to make clear what we're talking about here.

This giant bowl of goodness is actually made from chickpeas, perfect for vegetarian me, always looking for delicious ways to get a little extra boost of protein. It has so few ingredients that the only thing you might not have lying around the house is the chickpeas. It was great with a spoon, my preferred method of eating regular cookie dough, but it was to die for spread across a honey graham cracker. I'd definitely make this again, and you'll hear no complaints from me that I went ahead and made a double batch which is now sitting happily in the fridge, waiting for my next sweet tooth to strike.


When my cousins came home from school today wanting a snack, I had them try this without disclosing my healthy secret ingredient. The result: ignorantly blissful children eating "cookie dough" on graham crackers.

This next recipe is incredible for its calorie count alone--50 calories a slice! (Another disclaimer here: that's a relatively small slice. But for 50 calories, you could eat four and still beat one slice of the Starbucks pumpkin loaf. Plus, their's doesn't have an amazing cream cheese filling.)


Any excuse to borrow my family's Kitchen Aid mixer, I whipped it out and set to work on this recipe. Part of the secret of this very low calorie loaf is a cup-for-cup artificial sweetener, which I don't usually bake with. Today, I decided to give it a shot, and substituted Ideal no calorie sweetener for every ounce of sugar in this recipe (including in the cream cheese portion). I was a little nervous, but I don't taste a noticeable difference.


I will definitely be making this bread again. It satisfies my craving for a fall food without making me feel like I'm gaining six hundred pounds, and it's sweet enough to be a nice dessert in the evening with a cup of coffee or tea. In fact, I might make a few more loaves tomorrow to throw in the freezer for the rest of the season.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Le Cirque des Rêves

This book has been getting conflicting reviews on Amazon, GoodReads, and other places where reader reviews are featured. It seems to be a love it or hate it kind of book, the kind of book where one side can't understand the other's stand on it. I begin with that because this is where I take a stand for the "five star" review side of the story. Even as I write this, I am acutely aware that I am not doing this magical book any sort of justice, nor can I. But I felt that I owed The Night Circus something.


From the first page, I knew this book was something special, and now I know it will stick with me. Yesterday, I had a conversation about A Wrinkle in Time, a classic that celebrates its 50th Anniversary in 2012. The person I spoke with suggested that so many list Madeline L'Engle's tale as a childhood favorite for lack of other titles coming to mind. I argue that perhaps L'Engle simply created a world that sticks with us. Like Narnia or Hogwarts, that world is not easily forgotten because we felt transported as we turned the pages, so much so that upon closing the book that world became a memory somehow separate from the memory of the reading experience. We feel as if we lived within it. That is the world Erin Morgenstern has created in his Le Cirque des Rêves. A beautiful world of black and white, of snow and rain and piles of books, and a world fit for any person--child or adult--who dares to imagine that reality does not always look realistic.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Curiouser and Curiouser


Admittedly, I'd never read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in its entirety before yesterday. I'm a good English major: I've read excerpts of it many times, I've written a poem based on it, I've seen the animated film and the new, trippy Tim Burton version. As I knew I would, I loved the novel when I finally entered Lewis Carroll's amazing dreamworld. There's not much more I can say about a classic like this, without doing some sort of in-depth analysis (and there's no time for that right now, I've got a Notre Dame game to watch). But I will post a few of my favorite quotes, because it's Alice in Wonderland, and there are just so many good ones.

"For, you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible."



“It was much pleasanter at home," thought poor Alice, "when one wasn't always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn't gone down the rabbit-hole--and yet--and yet--...”



"Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after‑time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child‑life, and the happy summer days."

Friday, October 7, 2011

[It's Finally] Fall Recipes

Today was an epic day of fall running, fall reading, fall baking and experimenting. It was fun, and it was delicious.

For some reason, yesterday I decided that I really wanted to try to make almond butter, so I decided to start with that this morning. I've had a bag of almonds in my room that I've been slowly eating away at, but it was about time do do something else with the raw ones. I looked up a recipe and found out that it was supposed to be incredibly easy--just add a pinch of salt and food process the hell out of those nuts. It went pretty well for a while.


But eventually, I couldn't get past that nutty, grainy texture. The oils that were supposed to be coming from the almonds to make it more of a paste just weren't working for me. I had read that the heat of the food processor was part of what helped the oils emerge, so I put the nutty mixture on the stove for a couple of minutes. Annnnd that didn't help. So I added just a little water and threw the mixture in the blender. That worked pretty well. When it got down to a texture I was more comfortable with, I added a few more flavors: some cocoa powder, a packet of Splenda, and about a teaspoon of vanilla extract. I won't be swapping my peanut butter for this spread any time soon, but I'll definitely be trying again soon as well to achieve a version closer to what I was hoping for.


The next thing I made turned out a little better. Actually, the adjective I should probably use to describe these cookies is "heavenly." These were what I found when I was browsing for the "best pumpkin cookie recipe" online yesterday. I am not even that much of a cookie person, but my oh my did these deliver. Wowow. Try this very easy recipe, and you will not be disappointed.


This brown sugar glaze went really nicely with the cookies. While a lot of times powdered sugar based glazes get much too sweet for me, the brown sugar really came through in this one, leaving a really nice caramel flavor that went perfectly with the pumpkin cookies.


Some of the reviewers on the recipe that I used for this commented that the glaze made the cookies too sweet. My cookies were slightly salty, almost a pumpkin pie taste, so I loved the way the sweet glaze complemented them.


The thing I might love most about baking with pumpkin is that I rarely use the whole can. For some reason, it comes in these huge cans, but don't get me wrong--I'm not complaining. Now, even after this good sized batch of cookies, I've still got half of the pumpkin left in the fridge, just daring me to come up with something more delicious to make this weekend. Perhaps something to go with this amazing caramel I experimented with (although I doubt this batch will last that long).


I found this idea on Pinterest, one of my newest obsessions. Turns out, all you have to do is put a can of condensed milk in a pan and cover it with water. Boil it for three to four hours (making sure that the water remains three or four inches above the can), and when you take it out and let it cool...yum.


This was absolutely delicious with the sliced apples, but I'd be shocked if that was the best idea I came up with on how to use this caramel.

Happy fall!

Crafting Realistic Characters

It's been a while since I've updated. I've been on a few informational interviews in the city, and I took a lovely weekend mini-vacation to Philadelphia to see two loves of my life: Katie Corr and Matt Nathanson. Oh, and Champ.

Before taking off on those adventures, though, I read a new YA novel from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's and author Han Nolan, Pregnant Pause. Broke and knowing that whichever YA novel I chose would likely not be free of cost on my Kindle, I was careful in my choice. Pregnant Pause appealed to me because reviewers raved about the very realistic qualities of the characters and the plot. Although we've seen this story a number of times--Elly gets pregnant at 16 and has to figure out how to handle it--Nolan did capture it in a slightly more realistic way.

Another interesting spin of this novel was the pregnancy period it covered. While many plots revolving around teen pregnancy begin with conception, Elly is pregnant from the first page of the novel. Furthermore, many shy away from details of the pregnancy itself, skipping to the birth or the moments after. 90% or so of Nolan's novel focused on the pregnancy itself, how Elly handles herself and her emotions, and her decision-making process.

For the most part, I agree with other reviewers of the novel in the realism it presents in relation to other YA novels on the subject. This was not your average "girl gets pregnant at 16, but everything is okay because her family finally comes around and helps her" story, or even a "girl gets pregnant at 16, but everything is okay because a nice family adopts the baby and said girl can now attend the college of her dreams" story. That being said, I struggled a little bit with certain emotions that seemed to be Nolan's "teenager go-tos" and seemed slightly insincere. The ending also gave me pause (no pun intended, I promise. baha. bahaha).


When I finished Pregnant Pause, I was finally ready to go back to Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone after my week-long hiatus. Finally it seems that I can appreciate heavy subject matter again (in non-YA form)! In a word--YAY!

During several of my long commutes last week as well as train rides to and from Philly, I was honored to have Cutting for Stone to keep me company. What was, at times, a very slow-moving plot heavy with detailed medical procedures and long military descriptions turned out to be a beautiful story full of characters for whom I became incredibly sympathetic.

Now, bear with me for a moment while I compare characters from a "courageous" YA novel to an epic work of literary fiction:

While reading Pregnant Pause, I was on the lookout for real characters. That's what I do while I read any YA novel. I want to make sure that whatever character I'm reading, whatever problem they might be dealing with or mental state they might be in, is real. I truly believe that what young adults are looking for in their reading material is something they can relate to in some way, whether it be as a mirror for something they are already dealing with in their own lives, as a cautionary tale, or as a learning tool for those things they might not feel comfortable discussing aloud. No matter their reason for reading, if the characters aren't real, if they don't act the way a young adult really, truly might if he or she were a thinking, breathing, feeling young human...well, that entire illusion and all the lessons that go along with it are completely shattered. In Pregnant Pause, Nolan kept it pretty real, with a few exceptions (and I always keep in mind that being past the actual YA age, I may just be too critical). But now (forgive me for my YA mini-rant), for my point: Verghase's characters were effortlessly real. Not a single one of the characters in Cutting for Stone, were enough like me for me to really relate at first. Their situations, whether in the medical world, in Ethiopia, or even in New York, were far removed from my own. But these characters were so real, so sympathetic, and so full of life and emotion that I cried with them at their every loss. Their story sat with me for days after I finished the last page. These are the characters I'm looking for in every piece of fiction I read. For that matter, this is the kind of depth of character that some non-fiction pieces I've read have had trouble achieving. I suppose my point here is how important that depth is to me as a reader. But furthermore, as important as I find that truth of character in all fiction, I find it perhaps harder to achieve in YA fiction--and sadly perhaps more important.


Thanks for sticking with me for a longer-than-usual literature musing on this lovely fall morning. Check back later for some delicious fall treats.