Confetti Cake

I’ve never been a sprinkles person – at least, not since I was very young. I don’t choose something to eat solely based on decoration or appearance, not since I was 5 or 6 and chose the Pink Bubble Gum ice cream from Baskin Robbins based on its color and the little pink bits strewn throughout it. I didn’t want to eat it all. I think I didn’t care for the little pieces of gum. It was particularly disappointing because we rarely went out for treats, and I chose something I didn’t like. The experience sticks with me 30 years later.

As a result, I generally eschew sprinkles on cupcake and donuts, because they don’t add anything delicious for me. They’re distraction. (The exception was when I made Confetti Cookies earlier this year, because Smitten Kitchen had once again made a recipe that I couldn’t resist trying. Those were definitely worth making.)

Despite my apparent disdain for pretty things, every now and then I’m tempted to buy a funfetti cake mix at the grocery store. It looks so festive, and really, the sprinkles bake into it, so there’s no distracting textures in the cake. But you know I usually don’t buy cake mixes.

So I was particularly excited when I saw Smitten Kitchen’s recent recipe for a Confetti Cake. It just looked so darned festive. I had no reason to make it. I waited a month to find a reason. Then I rationalized that baking is simply what I do. I shouldn’t, and don’t, need a reason for festive food. None of us should.

Besides, Amelia was very excited when I bought sprinkles, and wanted to pull them out of the cabinet to open them. If she’s going to open them for me, I might as well use them.

The cake was an easy (and not very large, thankfully) white cake to assemble. I decided to leave it in the pan for easy storage. The frosting was easy and only took a few minutes to make; it makes a little more than you need, unless you like to have tons of frosting on your cake.

The cake basically tasted like a sweet and vanillay sugar cookie. The cake is dense if you don’t whip the batter long enough, so the second time I made the cake I was sure to whip the butter and sugar for a full 3 minutes, and the egg whites a bit longer as well. I also increased the baking powder (per Deb’s suggestion on her website) to give the cake a bit more height. The second time, it was perfect – moist, soft, and fluffy.

This is a very easy and festive cake to make. Give it a try, and you won’t be disappointed.

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Homemade Chocolate Marshmallows

I’ve made three batches of marshmallows this year – vanilla, chocolate, and chocolate swirl with chocolate chips. I have the ingredients to make a fourth batch, but… I’m stopping for now. How many marshmallows does a person need?

Making marshmallows is very easy. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it! You have to spend time in the kitchen monitoring the stove and stand mixer, but honestly, I haven’t messed up a batch yet. I practically have the recipe memorized. The chocolate swirl are my favorite. The chocolate chips melt but don’t fully incorporate, so they have layers and bits of chocolate in them!

Chocolate Swirl Marshmallows
Chocolate Swirl Marshmallows
Homemade Marshmallows
Homemade Marshmallows

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How to Make Vanilla Extract

I make a lot of desserts. In fact, no fewer than 78 of my recipes have been desserts. And that doesn’t necessarily count the 15 posts I’ve tagged “brownies” or the 41 posts I’ve tagged “cookies.”

Thus, I use a lot of vanilla extract. Real vanilla extract is expensive in the grocery store. Sometimes you’re lucky and you find a sale on it; the best sale I’ve ever found has been a dollar for a 1 ounce bottle. If you’re a baker, you buy about 5 bottles to stock up.

I don’t know exactly how I came across the how-to on making vanilla extract. I don’t even remember what gave me the idea, but once I learned that I could make vanilla extract at home, I had to.

I first started making my own vanilla extract two and a half years ago (May 2009, to be exact). I got the tutorial from Vanilla Review, which doesn’t seem to be updated very much anymore. It’s a nice walk-through that I’ve linked to, with lots of great pictures. I ordered my vanilla beans (both then and now) from a store on eBay, but you could get yours from or other places.

Regular vanilla beans that you buy in the grocery store are usually for baking or cooking. For extract, you actually want extract grade beans, which have less water content and aren’t as plump or nice-looking – and they should be cheaper. You could make vanilla with regular vanilla beans, but it would kind of be a waste unless that’s all you could get your hands on.

So, you know what vanilla beans are. What makes them extract? Basically, you steep vanilla beans in alcohol of some kind (usually vodka, sometimes rum or another clear liquor). The extract you buy in the grocery store usually has a little sugar or corn syrup added to it as well, but it’s really not necessary.

Doesn’t that sound simple? Yes, it is actually that easy.

Vanilla extract, after about 3 months. This is minus some extract decanted into 1oz bottles, but plus some extra vodka

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Christmas Wreaths

Tonight we are taking down our tree. Three days into 2012, I’m ready for all vestiges of Christmas decorations to be gone so that I can focus on all that I can accomplish in the new year.

One thing I can accomplish? Telling you more about what I cooked for Christmas, mostly as gifts.

We still have a couple of Christmas Wreaths left, so we’ll have to make them disappear soon, too. I thought these cookies looked incredibly fun when I saw them. They’ll be perfect gifts! Since I ship my edible gifts, I am constantly on the lookout for recipes that travel well, and these seemed to fit the bill.

Christmas Wreaths

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Hearst Castle Shortbread Cookies

After dinner last night, I wanted shortbread cookies. Part of this may have been the fact that my husband and I are celebrating Valentine’s Day today and I wanted to have something heart-shaped.

For the longest time, I didn’t understand the appeal of shortbread cookies. This changed once I actually had delicious shortbread (as well as other cookies I made last year with shortbread crusts). Good shortbread is crisp, crumbly, and tender, and not tough. You shouldn’t need anything else, like sprinkles or frosting, to go with good shortbread, although you can certainly add complimentary flavors like citrus or spices.

It didn’t matter that I was going to make chocolate mousse this weekend, and that I’d just made almond rice pudding – I wanted vanilla shortbread, and nothing else would do.

I did a quick search and ultimately decided to make the Hearst Castle Shortbread Cookies because I wanted to use my heart-shaped cookie cutter. I was a bit taken back by the pound of butter that the recipe called for, so I decided halve the recipe. That’s 2 sticks of butter and still just as much butter per cookie as if I’d made a full batch, but that’s actually all the real butter I had anyway. I used a little less salt than the recipe said to, and omitted the vanilla bean. I didn’t mix together the dry ingredients before I added them to the sugar-butter.

Always use an electric mixer when you mix shortbread. This is the single most important thing you can do to make your shortbread-making experience easy and hassle-free. The mixer incorporates all the sugar and flour into the butter thoroughly, and much more easily than you ever can manually. I’ve mixed shortbread together with spoons and the like, and even kneaded it together with my hands to try to work everything together. I used to prefer mixing things by hand, without appliances, but trust me – your mixer is your best friend here. You can even work your way through unsoftened butter if you need to, although it takes a little longer.

I patted the dough into a circle to refrigerate it. After 30 minutes, I rolled it out on plastic wrap. This worked very well with this dough, and meant I didn’t add any more flour or sugar to the cookies. I’d already patted it out pretty thin, so I didn’t need to do much more rolling to get the dough to 1/2 inch thickness. I used my heart-shaped cookie cutter to cut out cookies. I mashed all the scraps back together, patted them out, and cut out more, and repeated until there was no more dough left.

My cookies were pretty thick, so I ended up baking them a total of 12 minutes on Silpat sheets.

Hearst Castle Shortbread Cookies (minus one I had to eat)

These were delicious. The cookies were soft and tender, buttery and sweet. They were not crisp because I took them out of the oven before the bottoms began to brown. You can crowd shortbread cookies on a baking sheet because they have next-to-no leavening, but the baking powder in these did make the cookies expand a little bit. I think this contributed to the cookies’ tenderness. The next time I want cute little shortbread cookies, this is the recipe I’ll turn to.

Vanilla Bean Pudding

While I baked the aforementioned Grapefruit Yogurt Cake, I decided that I had to make the Vanilla Bean Pudding that I came across on the same website. I’d been thinking about it for a whole week, and I had a full gallon of milk in the fridge beckoning for me to use it.

There’s lots of things that used to make me nervous about making homemade pudding. I would be afraid that I’ll make a mess by pouring heated milk from a pan to bowl (since I don’t have a saucepan with a spout); I might cook the eggs by not adding hot milk gradually enough; or I wouldn’t stir the pudding enough on the stove as it thickens and end up with lumpy pudding. I’m still a little afraid that I’m going to scorch the milk. And, sometimes things spill. All in all, though, these are avoidable problems.

I know that I’ve just told you all the problems you might have when you make pudding, but homemade pudding really isn’t that hard to make. The process does take a little getting used to.

I’ve made homemade pudding before, and this was a pretty simple pudding to make. There are some notable things that I really like about it. While you heat the majority of your milk (and I tossed a vanilla bean in it), you combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt (and vanilla seeds) in a bowl. You whisk the remaining milk (that you’re not heating) into the sugar mixture, and whisk your egg into that. Once the milk is hot enough, you gradually add it to the mixture in the bowl. This process worked amazingly well for me, and I can see myself doing that often.

You return the mixture to the saucepan to thoroughly cook the egg and thicken the pudding. I had to clean my saucepan before finishing the pudding because I got some excessive browning on the bottom and sides as I tried to get the milk to boil; I probably wouldn’t heat it as much next time. I had to scrape the bottom of the pot with the wooden spoon as I finished cooking the pudding; that’s where all the cornstarch thickens, so you don’t want to let it set on bottom or you’ll get lumps. I poured the pudding into 2 glass dishes and an additional cup (to take to a coworker). I doubled the vanilla and just used the whole vanilla bean since mine has a gentle flavor.

This was a great pudding. It turned out well using 1% milk. It had a wonderfully creamy texture and was sweet without being overly sweet. It wasn’t too rich. I loved seeing the flecks of vanilla in it, although it would certainly be fine if you used extract instead of a vanilla bean. I think that adding the vanilla bean pod to the milk as it heated helped enhance the vanilla flavor in this. Eating this pudding makes me want to make more pudding. I may never try a different vanilla pudding recipe again.

347: Vanilla Roasted Pears

I was enchanted with the idea of Vanilla Roasted Pears the first time I saw the recipe. I like pears, and for some reason I find the thought of roasted pears very sophisticated. I always want to make poached pears (generally in white wine), but Alex isn’t too keen on them (mostly because of the white wine). I love vanilla, though, and so I was 95% certain that I was going to love this recipe, and didn’t care if Alex wasn’t interested in it.

The whole vanilla beans that I have are actually a milder, more fragrant kind of vanilla bean, so I wasn’t sure it would be strong enough for this application. I had some vanilla sugar that I’d already made, so I used the vanilla bean in conjunction with that. I had 1.5 pounds of Bosc pears for this, which ended up being about 6 halves (if my memory serves me right). I halved them and scooped out the seeds, but didn’t bother to peel them. I nestled them in a 7×11 inch glass pan, drizzled lemon juice over them, sprinkled them with vanilla sugar, and dotted them with butter. I included the vanilla bean in the pan on the pears. I poured water into the bottom of the pan and roasted them for 30 minutes. I turned them over and roasted them another 25 – they were already more-or-less done, but I wasn’t ready to eat them yet and decided it probably wouldn’t hurt them at all to sit in the oven longer. I brushed the pears periodically with the juices in the bottom of the pan.

Vanilla-Roasted Pears

These were really pretty good. I loved the flavor. They were sweet without being too sweet – sweet enough for a light dessert, but light enough for a snack -and they felt wholesome to eat. The juices in the pan didn’t caramelize, likely because I used a smaller baking dish than originally suggested since I had fewer actual pears. The juices were a delicious addition stirred into morning oatmeal. It was a few weeks ago that I made these and so I can’t adequately describe how good they were – I can only tell you that they were everything I’d thought they would be. I had leftovers as snacks at work during the week, and they held up wonderfully. These pears would be a great accompaniment to a (sweet) breakfast or brunch. I’ll make these again.

Bonus Recipe: Vanilla Pudding

I love chocolate, but I also love vanilla. Last summer I came into some vanilla beans, and since I hadn’t ever actually used vanilla beans, I wanted a recipe that would allow me to just taste the vanilla without anything else getting in the way.

Sometimes I want something sweet, simple, and light. This is generally what I think of.

Simple Vanilla Pudding

I like this vanilla pudding recipe because it uses no eggs. Eggs add richness, it’s true, but I don’t really care for the hassle of cooking the milk, mixing part of the mixture into the eggs so that the eggs don’t just cook, and then having to mix it all back together in the pot to finish thickening the pudding. This recipe is an incredibly simple, one-shot pudding recipe – you mix it all together in the pot, and add a little vanilla extract (or a split vanilla bean) at the end. I use 1% milk, which makes for a pretty light pudding. The last few times I’ve made this I’ve cooked it a little longer than perhaps I should have, which has meant that I’ve had to mix the pudding when I eat it to make it creamier, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. This is just the thing to have when you just want simple and sweet.