Apple Molasses Spice Cupcakes

Rows of Apple Spice Muffins

“How often do you blog?” he asks.

“I try to post twice a week,” she unthinkingly replies, “Every Monday and Wednesday.”

Her answer was honest…albeit, incorrect. She USED to post twice a week, yet she hasn’t done so in a year. In December, Mardi Gras for most dessert bloggers, her fingers didn’t type a word. In 2019, her unique views didn’t surpass the previous year’s count, a first.

It’s not only about the statistics.

She compares her dull flat-lays to the avante-garde images in her head – a bowl of soup precariously teetering on a see-saw (quirky and unexpected), a slowly melting chocolate truffle on a tongue (sexy, gothic and moody) – and is chagrinned. Her intros are stilted and forced – telling, rather than showing. Her words only seem to flow when in the midst of upheaval – not a sustainable situation. Unsatisfied with her results, she wonders if she’s stuck in a pattern that doesn’t suit her anymore.

But who is she without her blog, her constant companion for the past 11 years? She considers her options and decides, before killing it off completely, to seek CPR – her first remedy – a writing course to revive words that have flat lined.


Apple Molasses Spice Cupcakes

  • Servings: 24 Cupcakes
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Moist cupcakes with the unexpected flavors of cardamom and 5-spice garnished with walnuts and rich cream cheese frosting, if desired.


Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¾ teaspoon cardamom
  • ½ teaspoon Chinese 5-spice
  • ¼ teaspoon clove
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup molasses
  • ½ cup brown sugar (packed)
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 Tablespoon grated fresh ginger
  • ½ cup boiling water
  • 2 apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2 ” pieces
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts (optional)
  • Cream cheese frosting (optional)

Directions

  1. Heat oven to 350⁰ F. Line cupcake tins with papers.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, soda, spices, and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together molasses, sugar, egg, oil, ginger and water. Add molasses mixture to flour mixture and whisk until just combined. Fold in apples.
  3. Pour batter into tins, sprinkle with chopped walnuts (if using) and bake until toothpick comes out clean, 20-25 minutes. Cool completely and decorate with cream cheese frosting.

Hermit Bars

Hermit Bars – a heavily spiced chewy cookie studded with golden raisins and walnuts.
Hermit Bars cooling on a wire rack
I’m currently re-reading back issues of Cook’s Illustrated. Staying true to its name, the back page of each month displays illustrated drawings of a specific variety of culinary ingredient or food category. The current issue in my hand is sporting an illustration of “Classic American Cookies.” I scan the line-up and check off the usual suspects– chocolate chip – yep, peanut butter – made them, oatmeal raisin – of course, snickerdoodles – baked my first batch at 12 . They took liberty with some. Outside of Oreos, is “chocolate sandwich” truly an American classic? Then one lumpy, Cliff-bar looking cookie catches my eye – Hermit Bars. Whaaaa??? What the hell is that? I’ve never heard of a hermit bar. Where could this hermit have been hiding all these years? A bit of cookie wiki and I soon learn they came from the New England area and, although ingredients differ, seem to be a chewy, heavily spiced cookie, similar to gingerbread – with any combination of raisins, currants, dates and walnuts.

What have I been missing? Well, a lot, it turns out.


Hermit Bars

  • Servings: 3 dozen cookies
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These cookies are a heavily spiced, chewy bar cookie studded with golden raisins and walnuts.


Ingredients

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon ginger
  • ½ teaspoon (scant) cloves
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3 cups All-purpose flour
  • ½ cup molasses
  • 1 cup golden raisins, softened in boiling water
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 3 Tablespoons turbinado sugar (such as Sugar in the Raw)
  • ½ cup confectioner’s sugar

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 13×9” pan.
  2. In a large bowl, beat together melted butter and sugar until combined and smooth. Beat in egg, spices, salt and baking soda. Gently stir in flour (batter will by dry) then add the molasses and beat just until fully incorporated. Stir in the raisins and walnuts.
  3. Pat dough evenly into prepared pan and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake for 20-25 minutes until just set. Do not over-bake. You want the final bars to be chewy. Cool completely before cutting. Combine confectioner’s sugar with enough water to make a glaze. Drizzle over cut bars.

Adapted from King Arthur Flour

Sticky Gingerbread Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting

A gingerbread cupcake drizzled with salted caramel

I’m a list keeper. I keep shopping lists, lists of books to read, lists of desserts I want to make, lists of writing topics, and my never-ending to-do list. Of all my lists, my favorite is one I’ve entitled “Things I Love” and it captures some of the things, from the silly to the sublime, that put a smile on my face. If you want to know what makes me happy, you can read my list here.

Looking back, I can’t recall why (or even when) I started this list. Remembering how crazed my work world used to be, I was likely attempting to bring a little contentment into my life. By reminding myself what truly brought me happiness, I could remember to appreciate these simple delights.

Christmas light displays didn’t make the list, but they’re a much-loved part of my holiday season. When I was little, my siblings and I would squeal from the station wagon’s back seat, “Pretty lights! Pretty lights!” whenever we’d drive by a festively lit house. As adults, we road trip to other neighborhoods – and other cities (Portland!?) in search of flamboyantly adorned holiday houses. If Jesus, Santa, Snoopy, AND a giant snow globe all make it into one tableau, our holiday is complete!

I’m thinking about Christmas light displays today because I’ve had a request to bake a few treats for a neighborhood holiday light stroll next month – a request I happily accepted. These sticky, spicy gingerbread cupcakes are my first contibution, adapted from Gramercy Tavern’s Gingerbread. My coworker, John, took a bite and said, “This is dangerous.” He then took a second bite and said, “This is really dangerous.” By his third bite, the cupcake was gone. Others agreed.


Sticky Gingerbread Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting

  • Servings: 24 cupcakes
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Dangerously sticky, spicy, not-too-sweet cupcakes topped with lashings of cream cheese frosting, salted caramel and candied walnuts.


Ingredients

    Gingerbread
  • 1 cup Guinness Stout
  • 1 cup dark molasses
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 Tablespoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ¾ cup vegetable oil
  • Salted Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting
  • 16 ounces cream cheese, chilled
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar
  • ⅓ cup good quality salted caramel, plus more for drizzling (It’s worth making your own!)
  • 24 candied walnuts

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 24 muffin tins. Bring stout and molasses to a boil in a large saucepan and remove from heat. Whisk in baking soda, and then cool to room temperature.
  2. Sift together flour, baking powder, and spices in a large bowl. Whisk together eggs and sugars. Whisk in oil, then molasses mixture. Add to flour mixture and whisk until just combined.
  3. Fill muffin tins ¾ full and rap pan sharply on counter to eliminate air bubbles. Bake in middle of oven until a tester comes out with just a few moist crumbs adhering, about 25 minutes. Cool completely.
  4. To make frosting: In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter together on medium-high speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the confectioners’ sugar and salted caramel. Beat on low speed for 30 seconds, then increase to high speed and beat for 3 minutes until creamy. If frosting is too soft, refrigerate for 15 minutes before piping.
  5. Frost cupcakes, drizzle with additional salted caramel, and garnish with a candied walnut.

Modern Black Forest Cake

A black forest cake with mirror glaze

It’s Friday and I tuck away my standard, never-ending to-do list and write out a new one for this weekend. It contains a mere three bullets:

  • Write
  • Bake
  • Hike

Simple. It’s all I want to do the next few days. It’s all I need to ensure my happiness. I’m eschewing friends, happy hours, brunches, laundry, and home repairs to focus on these three things. Of course, life can never be whittled down to three bullets. There’s six pieces of writing on my list, four for Tuesday’s creative writing class and two for the blog. There’s three separate recipes I want to test – the one below, the most ambitious, as well as gingerbread cupcakes and banana chocolate muffins. The hiking? I’m shooting for four miles each day.

It’s 9 p.m. on Sunday and I can’t legitimately cross any of these items above off my list – not completely. I finished half the writing and most of the recipes. The Modern Black Forest Cake is completed, tested, updated, and photographed. The gingerbread cupcakes are partially finished – a swirl of cream cheese frosting and drizzle of salted caramel and they’ll be ready for their close up. The banana muffins will need to wait for another day. The hiking? I hiked today – a little over four miles, but found myself trapped at home on Saturday waiting for an answer from an indecisive executive. Working on a weekend – sometimes I must. I didn’t hear back until 4 p.m. – too late to take to the trails.

Even though projects are left undone, I feel…satisfied. I completely turned, if only for 48 hours, towards endeavors significant to me. That accomplishment, by itself, delivers my contentment.

This cake, which has been banging around in my head for a while, is a modern reimagining of that 1970’s classic – and it’s striking enough to make an appearance on the holiday table, should you feel inspired. This was my first attempt at a mirror glaze and I’m pleased with the result.


Modern Black Forest Cake

  • Servings: 12-14 slices
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The darkest, richest Black Forest Cake you’ll ever find.


Ingredients

    Brandied Cherries (make the night before)
  • 1 ½ cups Morello cherries in light syrup, cut in half (I get mine from Trader Joe’s)
  • ⅓ cup sugar
  • ⅓ cup Kirsch
  • Chocolate Ganache Frosting
  • 10 ounces semisweet chocolate pieces
  • 1 Tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 Tablespoon Kirsch
  • Cake
  • 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon instant coffee granules
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups cold water
  • ⅔ cup canola oil
  • 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons white vinegar
  • Filling
  • 8 oz. container mascarpone cheese
  • ⅓ cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 Tablespoons powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Kirsch
  • Mirror Glaze (optional)
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • ½ cup heavy whipping cream
  • 4 Tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1 envelope gelatin (¼ ounce)

Directions

  1. Make brandied cherries: Combine cherries, sugar and kirsch in a small saucepan. Heat and stir until sugar dissolves, cover and let set overnight.
  2. Make the chocolate ganache frosting: Place chocolate in a bowl with corn syrup. Heat heavy whipping cream until just beginning to boil. Pour over chocolate, let stand one minute and then stir until smooth. Add Kirsch. Cool to room temperature. Before using, beat for 2-3 minutes to lighten and whip to spreading consistency.
  3. Make the cake: Preheat oven to 350⁰ F. Line three 8” cake pans with parchment paper and lightly butter paper.
  4. Sift together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Combine water, oil, vanilla extract and white vinegar. Slowly whisk wet ingredients into dry ingredients. The batter will be wet.
  5. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 20 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack to cool completely.
  6. Place the mascarpone cheese in a large bowl and beat until smooth. Gradually beat in the heavy whipping cream and powdered sugar to make a creamy, spreadable frosting. Beat in the kirsch.
  7. To assemble, place the first cake layer on a cake plate. Spread with half the mascarpone filling and cover with brandied cherries. Cover with second cake layer, remaining mascarpone filling and cherries. Finish with top cake layer. Frost the sides and top of the cake with the chocolate ganache and smooth well. Refrigerate.
  8. Make mirror glaze (if using): Place 1 tablespoon cold water in a small bowl. Sprinkle gelatin over top and let soften 5 minutes. In a saucepan, combine 1/2 cup water, sugar, heavy whipping cream and cocoa powder. Simmer for about 20 minutes until mixture slightly thickens. Remove chocolate mixture from the heat and whisk in gelatin until thoroughly combined. Set over an ice bath and whisk until the glaze thickens and reaches about 80 degrees. Pour over cake and smooth with an offset spatula quickly. Decorate.

A modern take on a clasic black forest cake

Coconut Cherry Breakfast Buns

A pile of Coconut Cherry Breakfast Buns sprinkled with toasted coconut
“Can you FEEL that?!” he asked – his breath in my ear. He wasn’t asking about the sex. Yes, I could feel the pleasure of him inside of me, but this was something…electric. I was astonished to discover he could feel it as well – a tingling running through both of us like an unbroken current of charged energy. We fit together in a way that transcended the physicality of the act. I wasn’t new to good sex, yet this was the first time I understood the power of true chemistry – a shared, tangible connection, separate and unique from emotions like love.

I’m older wiser now and understand there are a rare few whose chemistry mixes so profoundly with mine – men who, at the careless brush of their hand along my skin, cause my blood to shimmer. Unbelieving that I am the only one transfigured by this rush of sensation, I want to grab them, look them square in the face, and ask, “Can you FEEL that?!”

Moving outside my bedroom and into the safer confines of my kitchen now, my second favorite chemical reaction is the combining of yeast and sugar (or, in the recipe below, honey). Officially called enthanol fermentation, it’s the delicious result when yeast and sugar get their boogie on. I’m pretty sure, when it happens, yeast rubs up against sugar and asks, “Can you FEEL that?!” Their chemistry results in yeasty breads, rolls and buns – transforming a few simple ingredients into something transcendent, like these Coconut Cherry Breakfast Buns.


Coconut Cherry Breakfast Buns

Mildly sweet breakfast buns stuffed with toasted coconut, Morello cherries and spices.


Ingredients

  • ¾ cup whole milk
  • 1 Tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon cardamom
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup Morello cherries or other canned/jarred cherries, drained well and chopped
  • ½ cup toasted coconut, plus more for decorating
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon water

Directions

  1. In the microwave, heat the milk and honey until warm (105⁰ – 110⁰ F). Sprinkle the yeast over the milk and let rest for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, combine flour, salt, cinnamon and cardamom in a large bowl.
  2. Add the butter and vanilla to the milk mixture (it should be foamy by now) and then stir into the flour to create a shaggy dough. Cover and let dough rest for 15 minutes.
  3. Transfer the dough to your work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 12-15 minutes. Pat the dough into a disk, sprinkle with cherries and coconut and press into dough. Roll the dough up like a sausage encasing the fruit and then lightly knead to distribute the fruit well. Transfer the dough to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave to proof in a warm spot until doubled in size, about one hour.
  4. Divide the dough into 8 even pieces, roll into round balls, picking off any fruit on the outside that is exposed, and place each bun on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and proof again until risen, about 45 minutes.
  5. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bake for 17-22 minutes until buns are dark golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly. For glaze, combine sugar and water and microwave until sugar dissolves. Brush warm buns with glaze and sprinkle with toasted coconut. Buns are best served slightly warm.