Carrot Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Frosting

A plate of carrot cupcakes with carrot decorations and a cup of tea

Today’s Musings:
During my online dating years, I’d roll my eyes at the triteness of profiles that claimed, “I’m as comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt as I am in a suit and tie,” as if that sentence proclaims, “I’m a tangle of contradictions.”   All that tells me is you’re not a stuffy elitist or backwater hillbilly.

 In my relationships, I often feel the other person doesn’t see me as I truly am, but rather they narrowly define me as they want me to be.  But, then again, why should they – I am a kaleidoscope of contradictions, turn me one way and see one thing, turn me another and other colors and patterns emerge.  I am a human Rorschach test – what do you see? 

Staring at my fingertips, I delight in my dirt manicures from Sunday gardening as much as my freshly painted digits on Monday.  I deftly tick off each item on my long to-do list in the morning and lie, sloth-like, on the couch binge-watching Better Call Saul in the evening.  After a recent camping trip with Mr. M, friends and siblings said, “you must really like him,” as if I’m only comfortable enrobed in the luxe of a Ritz Carlton. I’m horrified that I can walk through the streets of my neighborhood noticing the details – the scent of orange blossoms, the buzz of a hummingbird, the fluffy tail of a squirrel and simultaneously walk blindly past the homeless woman sitting on the curb.  My irreverent words can end long-held friendships, my posts ignite family controversy, yet I yearn to be proper and not ruffle a feather.  I sign up for every Meetup, my social calendar bulging at the seams, while an afternoon of quiet solitude at home with my phone switched to silent mode restores me. The suburbs have never fulfilled me, yet I’ve spent more than half my life with green lawns and welcome mats.  I desire acreage, a forest filled with birdsong, a nearby stream where I can dip my feet, with a Michelin-starred chef around the corner, a music venue that books the newest bands, and a museum showing the Egon Schiele retrospective, an impossible amalgamation. I’m blissfully happy driving the winding roads of an unfamiliar country and just as content steering through the curves of a good bit of fiction, ensconced at home, my two cats curled up and sleeping contently beside me.  I am level headed and calm and I am emotional and irrational.  I can be as competent as I am unsure and clueless. I am both intrepid warrior and fair maiden in equal measure.

I am an inkblot of contradictions.

Today’s Recipe:
When I worked at the steakhouse, chef nixed my suggestion to offer carrot cake on our dessert menu. He claimed carrot cake was too divisive – carrot cake lovers have strong beliefs when it comes to the proper ingredients…nuts or no nuts, raisins or no raisins, and, if raisins are allowed, black or golden raisins.  The carrot cake debate, in his mind, was as impassioned as “does pineapple belong on pizza?”

If given the chance, I would have served the recipe below, which, for this baker who usually gilds the lily, is surprisingly straightforward.  No nuts, no raisins, – and just a bit of pineapple for flair.  I like pineapple on my pizza – and in my carrot cake, too.  Served with cream cheese frosting, it ticks all the boxes.


My Favorite Carrot Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Frosting

  • Servings: One Dozen Cupcakes
  • Print

This is my go-to carrot cupcake recipe – the secret ingredient in this moist version is a bit of pineapple.


Ingredients

    Cupcakes
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ¾ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon (generous) cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon (generous) ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon (generous) allspice
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¾ cup vegetable oil
  • 2 Large eggs
  • 1 ½ cups grated peeled carrots
  • ¼ cup drained crushed pineapple
  • Frosting
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, well chilled
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • ½ vanilla bean, scraped

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Line 12 muffin tins with paper baking cups.
  2. Sift first 7 ingredients into a medium bowl. Beat together sugar, oil, and eggs in a large bowl for about 2 minutes. Add dry ingredients to egg mixture in two additions, beating until just blended after each addition. Stir in carrots and pineapple.
  3. Spoon batter into muffin cups. Bake about 25 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool.
  4. To make frosting, beat chilled cream cheese and softened butter 2 minutes. Add confectioner’s sugar and vanilla bean. Beat on low 30 seconds until fully combined. Continue beating on high for 3 minutes until light and fluffy.

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Mexican Coffee (Café de Olla)

two mugs of Mexican Coffee

Today’s Musings:
I’m tired of fighting the good fight for a bad man.

I’m sick of men who use their hands, their fists – on walls, on me. Did my father hit?  No, or at least I have no recollection.  He threatened.

“I’m gonna knock your teeth down your throat.”

He was four times larger and ten times older…and I believed him.  A 5-year old child doesn’t understand hyperbole.  I’m tired of these hot-blooded men who loom and intimidate and, conversely, men who shut down and pout, childlike, when boundaries are set. I’m over guys who are incapable of verbalizing their emotions and equally fed up with those who lack feelings to emote. I have no room for strutting narcissists or men with fragile egos, which, on the balance, are two branches of the same tree anyway. I’ve paid my dues tip-toeing on my share of eggshell roadways to nowhere. 

I refuse to spend another minute with someone who lies. I’m done with men who willingly cheat on their partners in exchange for a moment with me and I’m equally tired of boyfriends who unhesitatingly cheat on me for another’s piece of ass, another notch on the bedpost. I won’t waste another minute on available men who flirt but are petrified to make a move, looking towards me to orchestrate each assignation. I don’t have time for men who sacrifice nothing while expecting me to forfeit my dignity, my work, my security, my happy life, in the name of ersatz Love.

What use have I for a man who doesn’t even attempt to appreciate my hobbies or interests or a partner who entertains no passions or interests outside of me?

I’m fed up with men who tacitly insist they own my body, refusing to accept “no” means no, pushing their seed in anyway, and enact laws that steal options for dealing with the aftermath, men who believe women are incapable of informed choice, convinced they must “help” us decide.  I refuse to play nicely in this patriarchal sandbox any longer.

– Dedicated to my own Good Man.

Today’s Recipe:
Raised in Southern California, I grew up steeped in a brew of Mexican flavors, so I was surprised to learn about a traditional Mexican drink I’d never experienced – Café de Olla, a.k.a. Mexican coffee.

When you are served “Mexican” coffee here in the states, it’s a simple combination of regular coffee flavored with a bit of cinnamon.  On my recent stay in Baja, however, I was introduced to traditional Café de Olla.  Traditional Mexican coffee is made in an earthenware pot (an Olla de Barro – hence the name) and is a sexy and complex alchemy of coffee, citrus, and spices. Each morning of my two-week stay, you could find me at 7:00 a.m.  laptop open and a steaming jarrito (a traditional clay mug) of this elixir within arm’s reach.  The hotel even made a “Julie Recommends Mexican Coffee” sign at our daily breakfast and a few coworkers and customers were asking me where I could get a cup (eschewing the ubiquitous Starbucks on property for this exotic blend).

Traditionally, this spiced drink is served very sweet and very black, but I usually drink my morning cuppa unsweetened with just a bit of cream so, in the version below, I’ve dialed the poloncillo way back to allow the coffee and spices to shine.  This recipe may seem like a lot of futzing in this age of pod-coffee; it’s worth the added few minutes – especially on a chilly and rainy weekend morning like this one. 


Mexican Coffee (Café de Olla)

Rich, spice-ladened coffee lightly sweetened with caramelly piloncillo – this updated recipe uses much less sugar than traditional Café de Olla.


Ingredients

  • 4 cups water, divided
  • ¼ cup piloncillo (or dark brown sugar)
  • 4 3” strips orange zest
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick, slightly crushed
  • 1 star anise pod
  • ⅛ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 4 rounded tablespoons ground coffee (Mexican origin preferred)
  • milk or cream (optional)

Directions

  1. In a small saucepan, combine 1 cup water, piloncillo, orange zest, cloves, cinnamon, and star anise. Bring to boil and stir until piloncillo is fully melted. Remove from heat and let steep for 10 minutes.
  2. Bring remaining 3 cups water to boil. Spoon coffee into a French press and add vanilla. Strain spice syrup over coffee, add boiling water, let steep 3-4 minutes and then press down filter. Pour into mugs, lighten with milk or cream, if using, and serve with a cinnamon stick.

Among the Moon, Stars, and Dreams

White billow clouds above the Santa Fe desert
The Backyard

Today’s Musings:
I’m sitting in a plastic airport chair surrounded by the bustle of LAX, headed for Santa Fe.  The man next to me is mumbling to himself about going to see “The Clan.” It’s 6:00 a.m. on Sunday and I’d rather be sound asleep in my bed, miles from this madness.

This is the second turn-around trip in as many weeks. It’s what you do when trying to buy your dream home out of state.

How many houses have we looked at online (hundreds); how many in person (dozens)? And always we’re comparing them to “the one that got away.” Quirky, but almost 3,000 square feet, in the forest, on nine acres, with a guesthouse, artist’s studio, workshop, and chicken coop. I could imagine playing in that kitchen, walking among those pines, feeding those chickens.  We hesitated (I hesitated) and then the owner pulled it from the market – issues with permits and well rights, supposedly.

The house is called “Ranchito de los Suenos” (The Little Ranch of Dreams), but we call it “Smiling Moon” – the street name. I wanted to name the guesthouse “Casita Estrella” (Star Cottage). A perfect place to begin a new chapter – among the moon, stars, and dreams.

This morning I’m traveling to see a different house in the woods; this one with an unworkable kitchen, and even whackier floorplan, to see if we can somehow make it into a home – and another, almost five acres in the lowlands with the scrub and pinon typical of Santa Fe. The kitchen needs finishing, a blank canvas waiting for me to build my dream playground, but this abode lacks the saltillo tiles and viga ceilings with tongue and groove that scream “Santa Fe.”

This is a new chapter for me, a new slate, and the setting must be the perfect spot for a baker and a writer – as well as an artist and mountain biker, all wrapped up in a bit of Santa Fe.

Post Script: We fell in love with the second home in the lowlands and immediately made an offer followed by an impassioned “love letter” to the owner.  We were out-bid by an all-cash offer. Who are these “all-cash” buyers who can so easily rob the rest of us of our dreams?  Today,  I am heartbroken.

Today’s Recipe:
No recipe today since I spent the entire Juneteenth weekend on planes, buses, and automobiles without an hour to myself in the kitchen.  If I were to post a recipe,  it would be a comforting soup made from my salty tears. 😉

Gourmet No-Bake Banana Split Cake

A slice of banana split cake on a white plate with the entire cake in the background

PINEAPPLE CONFESSIONS:
Never have I ever dissected a whole pineapple.  Me – the woman who whips up her own marshmallows, won’t buy jarred caramel sauce when homemade tastes so much better, who measures out and combines 16 ingredients over 2 days to concoct her own vermouth  recipe – can’t be bothered to dismember an innocuous pineapple.  In the produce section, faced with the choice of intact pineapple or flayed and filleted cylinder,  I’ve always chosen the latter,  gladly plonking down a few extra quid for the convenience.  During my childhood, we often enjoyed fresh pineapple in our home on Nutwood street.  I remember mom deftly slicing off crown and bottom,  paring off the skin, gouging out the brown eyes, carving the pineapple carcass into equal disks, removing the core,  and then ultimately chopping the remaining succulent flesh into chunks to be devoured after dinner.  My mouth would water at the sweet, tart, tropical scent wafting from the kitchen.  To assuage my longing to savor a hunk of the golden flesh,  mom would hand me scraps of the core to suck and gnaw on while she worked.  A poor surrogate for the fleshy real McCoy, these woody nobs with mere hints of juicy tartness managed to sate my desire until after I had cleaned my dinner plate.  Perhaps watching mom wrestle with this bromeliad beast turned me off from the dismemberment process.   It’s always seemed like too much work and  too much waste compared to the juicy payoff.  I was faced with this pineapple dilemma when purchasing ingredients for the following recipe.  Convenience won out again. 

TODAY’S RECIPE:
With another nod to edible nostalgia,  I’ve whipped up one more sweet treat from my childhood.  The actual name of this dessert is “Banana Split Cake,”  but, growing up, it was known around our house as “Happy Easter Cake,” because mom would often serve this dessert after Easter dinner, spelling out “Happy Easter” with garishly bright red maraschino cherries on the top.  My favorite part of this cake was the decadent second layer, which I believed to be pure butter and confectioners’ sugar – should I be relieved to know now that it also contained cream cheese to, um, cut the richness?  Always one to gild the lily,  I’ve spiffed up mom’s recipe substituting fresh pineapple for the original canned, freshly whipped cream for Cool Whip®, luxurious Luxardo maraschino cherries for the grocery store variety, and I toasted the raw pecans. 


Gourmet No-Bake Banana Split Cake

Close your eyes and take a bite. You’ll be reminded of a banana split when the ice cream begins to melt and the flavors meld. For a twist, my mom added a layer of tart, homemade raspberry jam between the banana and pineapple layer for an added jolt of color and flavor. I've kept it out of this version.


Ingredients

    Crust
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 2 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 15 full sheets of crackers)
  • pinch salt
  • Filling
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup (8 oz.) cream cheese
  • 2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 2 ½ cups finely chopped fresh pineapple, well drained
  • 4 ripe bananas, sliced
  • 1 ½ cups whipping cream
  • 2 Tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
  • 16 Luxardo maraschino cherries, drained and patted dry
  • 1 cup chopped pecans, toasted and cooled

Directions

  1. Melt ½ cup (1 stick) butter and combine with graham cracker crumbs and salt. Press firmly into the bottom of a 9×13” pan.
  2. Beat together remaining ½ cup (1 stick) butter with cream cheese, confectioners’ sugar, and salt 3-4 minutes until fluffy. Spread evenly over graham cracker crust. Layer with chopped pineapple then bananas.
  3. Whip whipping cream with 2 Tablespoons confectioners’ sugar. Cover bananas with whipped cream and garnish with Luxardo maraschino cherries and chopped pecan.
  4. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours.

Frango Semifreddo

A small frango Semifreddo with a pink plate holding more on the side.

TODAY’S MUSINGS:
Oh, my goodness.  I’m seated at my desk astonished that it has been four months since I’ve practiced my writing exercises,  over three months since I’ve posted on this blog, and well over a month since I’ve attempted writing anything at all.  How has this lag happened?  If only I could blame it on a busy life and blossoming relationship, but those are pathetic excuses.  If I have time to watch Netflix,  I have time to write.  And, full disclosure,  I have plenty of time for Netflix.  So,  what’s the impediment?  Writing for me, alas,  is a lot like my efforts at a consistent gym schedule. It’s good for me; it’s something I need to do, I’m frequently satisfied with the long-term results, but I’m not wholly convinced I actually enjoy the process.  “Write” is on my daily to-do list,  yet the climb from contemplation to commencement is a monumental crag to ascend, necessitating further tenacity when the words on the page fail to satisfy me.  After a hiatus, after putting my pen down for far too long,  the first few visits to my writer’s retreat are a trudge…a snail’s pace on a treadmill while staring at a blank wall.  I want these efforts to be fruitful, expecting to see the contours of my writer’s muscles reflected on the page immediately, yet I often gaze upon flabby dreck even following an entire afternoon’s hard labor.  It takes consistent, focused determination to settle myself and put words on the page without expectation of an inspired outcome.  It takes a few sessions before I’m once again caught in a rhythm of writing and re-writing,  before it becomes part of my day and begins to feel natural, as if I was meant to do this.  If I practice, I will, eventually, produce results.  I will write and write and, in due course, dare to label myself “writer” once more, until, a distraction throws me off  yet again – a vacation, a need to work late, a new interest – and then, before I realize what has happened,  it’s four months later,  the season has changed,  and my writer’s muscles have atrophied again. After yet another hiatus, I will sit astounded in front of the recriminating blank page, admonishing myself for veering so widely from my decided path yet again.

One of my many barriers to writing consistently is the obvious fact that my writing is at its best when I am indignant over some personal affront. When I am passionately righteous in my position,  the words flow from my fingers to the page as if the tap of a deep, dark, underground well has been cranked wide open.  Yet,  I cannot live in a world of perpetual righteous indignation for the sake of writing.  The tap runs dry, the wound scars over,  the damage, if not repaired, is razed for rebuilding.  My obsession over others’ wrongs slowly fades away into “who cares?” and with this diminishing ire, my muse also dissipates. It’s difficult to write when my life is on track. Of course, I can always tap into that faintly festering swamp of ancient hurts and childhood traumas, but it’s not pleasant spending one’s down time perpetually slogging through the mire. 

Writing,  for me, never comes easy. Never.  Even when the words flow,  there is rewriting to be done and, even when the writing is good and I complete a piece, splaying myself on the page,  I hobble from this desk, sore and a bit delirious with stiff joints and cloudy brain, not prepared to reemerge into the world outside my writer’s retreat.  The process is never straightforward for me, and yet it beckons.  So,  after four months away,  I am hunched over my laptop again,  rusty in my attempt to make these words sing, tinkering with each sentence in hopes you can relate to what I’m trying to say.  I’ve renewed my membership, returning to my writer’s gym, gently, tentatively stretching these muscles once again. 

TODAY’S RECIPE:
When choosing desserts,  mint chip is a flavor both Mr. M and I agree on,  so when I decided to whip up a quick dessert a few weeks ago,  I recalled my mom’s iconic recipe for “Frozen Chocolate Frangos.”  These “special occasion” velvety chocolate and mint semi-frozen treats were so decadently rich, wee little Julie couldn’t finish one by herself.  I dug out my mom’s  old recipe and zhuzhed it up just a bit for an adult palate. These semifreddos are the result. NOTE: Semifreddos are made with uncooked eggs.  If this is a concern for you, substitute pasteurized eggs.


Frango Semifreddo

For those who love the combination of refreshing mint and smooth chocolate, these rich, not-too-sweet semi-frozen treats will delight your taste buds. Named after Frango mints, these melt-in-your-mouth treats are a perfect after-dinner dessert.


Ingredients

    Crust and Topping
  • 14 Chocolate wafer cookies (or Oreo cookies)
  • ⅓ cup toasted walnuts
  • 1 Tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
  • Filling
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, very soft
  • 1 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ¼ teaspoon peppermint extract
  • 1 cup whipping cream, Slightly sweetened and whipped
  • Mint sprigs for garnish (optional)

Directions

  1. In a food processor, blitz cookies and toasted walnuts until finely ground. Add melted butter and blitz until crumbs begin to stick together. Reserve 2 Tablespoons of crumbs. Evenly distribute remaining crumbs between 8 lined muffin tins and lightly press into bottom of each liner. I use the bottom of a ¼ cup to help pack the crumbs into the liners.
  2. Using an electric mixer, beat together butter, sifted confectioner’s sugar, and salt until smooth and fluffy. Add melted chocolate and beat until combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla and peppermint extract. Beat for 5-7 minutes, scraping down the sides as needed, until filling is very light and fluffy.
  3. Pipe filling into each muffin tin until full. Sprinkle reserved crumbs over top and freeze until firm, about one hour.
  4. To serve, remove frangos from freezer and let set at room temperature for 10 minutes. Pipe with whipped cream and garnish with mint sprigs if using.