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
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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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Bergziegenkeks (Mountain Goat Cookies)

A white plate of Mountain Goat cookies with a sprig of lavender

Today’s Musings:
What do you do when you find yourself with an extra 20 minutes to spare?  Work out?  Go for a walk?  Scroll Facebook?  For me,  the obsessive baker, an extra 20 minutes usually results in throwing together the ingredients for a small batch of cookies, devoured that same day, regrettably often in one sitting.  The kitchen is my nirvana.  Sometimes I wonder why 75% of my home exists.  Nestle my bed next to the stove and I could happily reside in my kitchen (it would save on heating bills, too).  These simple cookie recipes are usually quick experiments inspired by whatever ingredients I happen to have on hand; nothing serious, nothing special, nothing blog-worthy, just a quick baked-good fix for my ever-present sweet tooth.

The other night,  while waiting for Mr. M to arrive for dinner,  I found myself with just such a pocket of time.  With no dessert planned, and spying a bag of almond meal on the counter, I quickly whipped up these cookies, rationalizing that these humble treats would be better than nothing, even if they weren’t up to my usual baking standards.  I was astonished when Mr. M said they were practically  “the perfect cookie” – not too sweet, loaded with spices, not overly rich, crispy on the outside with a tender interior.  He even claimed they were a contender to my sister’s buttery, crumbly, oatmeal flips,  my all-time favorite cookie.  High praise, indeed. 

An added bonus – the ingredients, on the whole, aren’t overly decadent…no butter, milk, yolk, or flour.  In honor of Mr. M,  I’m sharing this throw-together recipe that ended up being my first hit of 2022.

Today’s Recipe:


Bergziegenkeks (Mountain Goat Cookies)

  • Servings: A dozen cookies
  • Print

These spicy cookies are not overly sweet, crispy on the outside with a tender interior, and come together in a jiffy.


Ingredients

  • 1 cup almond meal or almond flour*
  • ⅓ cup sugar
  • 1 large egg white
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ⅛ teaspoon allspice
  • Generous pinch white pepper
  • Pinch salt
  • Powdered sugar (optional)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients and stir well until fully combined. Measure and roll into 12 equal balls (about 15-16 grams each). Place on a sheet pan lined with parchment or a silicon baking sheet. Slightly flatten each cookie with your fingers.
  2. Bake for about 1 7 minutes or until tops are firm and a few cookies are just barely browning around the edges. Remove from oven and let cool slightly on the baking sheet. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar (if using).

*Typically, almond meal is made from unblanched almonds while almond flour is made from blanched almonds. Either will work in this recipe.  If you use almond flour, expect a lighter colored, more delicate looking cookie. 

Vegan Lasagna

A pan of vegan lasagna with a pice taken out

Today’s Musings:
At first glance, 2021 appeared to be a 7” version of 2020, the single (kudos to anyone who is old enough to understand that reference). And that distills down to a tale of opposition – heated, angry, fractious opposition…fact/science/proof/experts vs. anecdotal evidence/conspiracy theories/personal (internet) research. When I think of a personification of America today, an image of “Bison Guy” from the Capitol mob attack, rather than Uncle Sam, springs to mind. Our collective New Year’s Eve was again spent in isolation (thanks Delta), anti-vaxxers still refuse to get vaxxed, Global warming continues its march as glaciers melt, fires burn and wildlife suffers – starving, homeless, and unable to escape inevitable extinction. In Texas and other states, old white men still insist on regulating my body. Black men continue to get killed for minor or non-existent infractions of the law.

And yet, for me, 2021 provided me with a clearer focus of who I am and where I’m striving to go. A major shift, 2021 was about GROWTH. I started the year by finding my voice – my loud, outdoor, “I matter” voice – as I recounted my uncensored personal struggle to survive the aftermath of a toxic relationship. I felt ill as I hit the “publish” button each day, afraid of the repercussions, emotional and potentially physical, yet forged ahead irrespective of my fear, buoyed by friends, fellow victims and a therapist. I burned a few bridges in the process, telling my truth – what happened to me and my subsequent healing. If others were incensed by my brash decision to speak out, that’s their burden.  Overall, however, the response was overwhelmingly positive – counselors, educators, and victims thanked me for sharing my experience and assured me my words matter.  

That farce of a relationship compelled me to take a stark look at my own culpability. I chose to pursue him,  to not ask questions, to ignore the red flags which, in hindsight, waved furiously in front of my eyes throughout my time with him. Life doesn’t allow do-overs. I couldn’t return to the time before, start over, make better choices, but I could sure as hell ensure it never happened again. So, using this specific tragic coupling along with other previous disastrous relationships as guides, I created a list of eight must-have, line-in-the-sand characteristics the next man would possess. No longer would I be blinded and distracted by charm, superficialities, or the dark, damaged men I inexplicably find so appealing. I created a roadmap for the type of love I deserve.

In addition to romantic love, 2021 offered fertile ground for nascent buds of new female friendships to bloom and grow as well. A few years ago, I developed an inkling that my inner-circle, my sounding-boards, my confidants, didn’t always have my best interests in mind or, when they did, didn’t fully understand my perspective. Taking the quote, “You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you,” to heart, I began developing friendships with an expanded circle of women who shared my lifestyle, goals and perspective; women who built each other up instead of competing; women who were smart and funny and lived full lives. I’ve enjoyed connecting with this new pussy-posse, building friendships, and supporting them as much, I hope, as they’ve supported me. Two of these fabulous women, in fact, encouraged me to write the cookbook I began in March, a humongous exercise in personal growth.

The recipe below is an additional testament to my 2021 evolution. This time last year, I was baking up Gourmet S’mores and Rocky Road Pie, while my kitchen staples amounted to whole milk, whipping cream, butter blocks, eggs, and cheese wedges. Then, in July, I met Mr. M. – a vegan (gasp!). Food avoidance is ordinarily a deal-breaker in my book, and vegans…well, vegans, no matter their laudable motives, are culinary self-flagellators and should be avoided. Yet, before I closed the door on us permanently, I perused my new “must have, line-in-the-sand” list referenced above and also pinned prominently on my bulletin board. I scanned the list for mention of dietary restrictions and found none. This culinary quirk was obviously not as important as I thought. So, I gave us a chance, with happy results. Shortly after we became a couple, my annual blood test showed alarmingly high cholesterol levels (see previous list of kitchen  staples – is  it any wonder?!) prompting a choice – statins or a diet overhaul. I chose the latter – while not vegan or even vegetarian, the beginning of 2022 finds me with a refrigerator full of vegetables, “plant based” bacon, creamer, mozzarella, pepperoni, and butter – and a 13 x 9 inch pan filled with the remnants of our New Year’s Eve dinner – my version of vegan lasagna. Growth, indeed.

Happy New Year!

 Today’s Recipe:


Vegan Lasagna

Layers of vegetables and plant-based ricotta result in surprisingly satisfying Italian comfort food – you won’t miss the meat. It tastes even better the next day, after the flavors have had time to meld.


Ingredients

    Lasagna
  • ½ onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced
  • 10 oz. package sliced cremini mushrooms
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 oz. package baby spinach
  • 12 oz. jar marinated artichoke hearts, chopped
  • 24 oz. jar tomato basil marinara sauce
  • 12 sheets no-boil lasagna noodles
  • 16 oz. vegan ricotta, divided in half
  • 4 oz. vegan parmesan, divided in thirds
  • Bechamel
  • 2 Tablespoons vegan butter
  • 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup oat milk
  • pinch nutmeg

Directions

  1. Make Lasagna: In a large pan, sauté onion and red bell pepper in olive oil until beginning to soften. Add cremini mushrooms and sauté until mushrooms have released their juices and onions are beginning to brown. Add garlic and baby spinach and sauté until spinach is wilted. Remove from heat, stir in artichoke hearts and approximately ½ cup marinara sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Cover bottom of a 13” x 9” pan with about ¼ cup marinara sauce. Dip lasagna noodles in additional sauce and cover bottom of pan with one layer of noodles. Spread ½ of vegetable filling over noodles. Cover noodles with half the ricotta and a third of the parmesan. Continue with another layer of marinara dipped noodles, vegetable filling, ricotta and parmesan. Cover parmesan with one more layer of marinara dipped noodles – you should have 3 layers of noodles, and two layers of vegetables and ricotta.
  3. Make Bechamel: Melt butter in a small sauce pan. Add flour and whisk until thoroughly combined. Continue whisking for another minute, but do not let the “roux” brown. Add milk and bring to a simmer. Cook bechamel until it resembles a thin pancake batter. Remove from heat and season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Pour bechamel over lasagna and sprinkle with remaining parmesan. Cover with foil and let lasagna rest at room temperature for 30 minutes to allow noodles to soften.
  4. Preheat oven to 375° F. Bake lasagna, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 15 minutes or until lasagna is bubbly and edges are beginning to crisp. Remove from oven and let rest for 20 minutes to ensure it slices cleanly when cut.

Italian Hot Chocolate – Cioccolata Calda

A mug of Italian hot chocolate with freshly whipped cream

TODAY’S MUSINGS:
Yes,  I know, it’s been ages since you’ve heard from me, but I have a legitimate reason for the silence and, no, my “reason” isn’t that I’ve been lazy.  If you are reading this post for illumination on where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing these past three months,  I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’m saving that story for another day.  Stay tuned.

Today,  you’ll find me sitting at a dining room table, swaddled in a bright orange down comforter in a chilly, yet cozy cabin just off the main road in Angels Camp, CA.  Outside my window, sun-spattered rolling golden hills dotted with majestic live oaks belie the chilly temperatures outside my door.  Yesterday, an unexpected “bomb cyclone” made for a grey, cold and wet day  – and fevered conversations about hot chocolate steaming away on the camp stove.

Let’s face it,  American hot chocolate is insipid at best – lackluster, brown-colored Swiss Miss® water at its worst.  We are not celebrated for our chocolate beverage prowess in the States.  The Spanish, with their thick chocolate and churros, are world-renowned for their rich, dark, dippable rather than drinkable, chocolate and they stand proudly at the apex of the hot chocolate pyramid of deliciousness.  Not far behind them are the French and their “chocolat chaud,” The rich beverage available for sipping on chilly Parisian streets.  Christmas mornings, my sister combines copious quantities of Ghirardelli Double Chocolate cocoa powder,  a smidge of sugar, and an equal ratio of whole milk to heavy whipping cream in an effort to recall her memories of the decadent beverage sipped in the City of Lights. Her final result?  Satisfying, but not quite mind-blowing.  I must admit, however, until last night,  I was entirely in the dark when it came to Cioccolata Calda, Italy’s version of the drink.  I’ve been fortunate to visit Italy and, during my travels, study, as well as indulge in, its cuisine.  Accordingly,  I’m familiar with Italian espresso, various wines and their regions, amaro, limoncello, nocino, grappa, and the early evening Aperol spritz, leaving nary any room for something as seemingly innocuous as hot chocolate.  Oh, what have I been missing?!

Last night, with my first (scalding) sip,  my hot chocolate world expanded. I could use poetic words like “decadent,” “rich,” “silky,” and “fudgy” to describe this ganache in a mug,  but today I’ve decided to be straightforward – the Italians can call their hot chocolate what they like, but it is, in essence, a mug of warm chocolate pudding before it has been allowed to set – milk, cream, cornstarch and dark chocolate…the makings of a most excellent creamy dessert – and damn indulgent hot chocolate.  It would be made only more satisfying with crisp biscotti for dunking.  This Christmas,  I’ll be taking the reins on the morning beverage; step aside, Sis.

TODAY’S RECIPE:
Forgive the less than professional photo – and the inartfully dolloped cream.  As mentioned above,  my inaugural recipe was created over a camp stove; the cream “whipped” in a vigorously shaken plastic container.  Nevertheless,  the results did not disappoint, possibly even made more delicious by our rustic surroundings. The Spanish may have Chocolate and Churros; we had Patagonia and Cioccolata Calda.

Tip:  You don’t want the hot chocolate to boil (212° F), but you need to heat it to a temperature of 203° F for the cornstarch’s thickening properties to activate.  Don’t rush the process by turning up the heat – be patient, heat it slowly, and stir often.


Italian Hot Chocolate

This ultra-thick, rich and not overly sweet elixir will change the way you think about hot chocolate. This recipe should make two servings, but I find it so decadent (even for me!) that it can easily stretch to 4 servings. With the addition of coffee, this belly warmer also makes a five-star mocha.


Ingredients

  • 1 cup whole milk, divided
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch
  • 4 ½ oz. dark chocolate, finely chopped
  • Tiny pinch salt (optional)
  • Lightly sweetened, freshly whipped cream

Directions

  1. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, whisk together ¾ cup whole milk, heavy whipping cream and sugar until small bubbles begin to form around the edges (don’t boil).
  2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together the remaining ¼ cup milk and cornstarch. Set aside.
  3. Once the milk is heated, add the cornstarch mixture and whisk for 30 seconds to combine. Add dark chocolate and salt and continue whisking for about 7 minutes until the chocolate has fully melted and the mixture thickly coats the back of a spoon (similar to a thin chocolate sauce). Pour into 2 coffee mugs (or 4 demitasse cups if you want to show restraint). Top with a dollop of freshly whipped cream. Careful – since this hot chocolate is so thick, it holds heat better than your regular brew; sip carefully.

Simple Old-Fashioned Rice Pudding

Two servings of rice pudding with stawberries

Today’s Musings:
My friend, Frenchy, asked me to show him photos of recent desserts that made me proud, because, “you know, you’re never happy with the outcome. You think it doesn’t taste good or the texture is off, or there’s some other issue.” Frenchy’s correct…partially. He’s a musician and should understand the creative process. I challenge him to write a song,  from beginning to end, without adjustments, without tinkering until he is pleased with it; not a piece that is “good enough” for his audience, but a work that makes him proud.  A recipe rarely comes out perfect the first time and, if it does,  it often cannot be duplicated with the same results the second or third.  Tinkering is needed.   It’s part of the process. 

Yet, I won’t deny that I’m also my worst critic.  Self-doubt and I have done battled in the ring since childhood.  Regardless of what others may think,  and I’ve heard my share of snarky comments,  this is not feigned modesty constructed in an effort to appear meek and humble or garner compliments.  Confidence has been a lifelong struggle.  I remember a fellow student in culinary school,  Michelle,  who always seemed self-assured, even when she screwed up,  even when she undercooked her shrimp or used a recipe from Epicurious and called it her own.  And,  the thing was,  Chef bought it.  Chef loved her, thought she was the best,  because she was self-confident.  I, on the other hand, have often felt I’m one step away from being found out as a fraud.  Although,  confidence does not necessarily translate into competence. 

Over these last few years over the last year,  if I’m really honest my self-confidence has improved…in my baking, in my writing, in my photography, partially due to the feedback and encouragement of my friends and readers,  but also because I’m beginning to silence that incessant critic inside me.  I may not have Michelle’s hubris yet,  but I’m trying.  I recently found the following, illustrating just how far I’ve come: 

With clammy hands tightly gripping the steering wheel, I gulp pranayama breaths of air, desperately trying to calm down. A cake box filled with my future slides around on the passenger side floor. I am running late.

I’m taking my tarts to the owner of the Steakhouse for final judgment. My worst critic, me, appraises the final products harshly. A week before, I was a proud cock, crowing about my tarts – the best key lime ever! Today, as I test and decorate them, my confidence crumbles. The key lime is too sweet and its crust is gummy. I re-bake it. The coconut cream is dry, flat, and lacking coconut flavor. I re-bake it. The lemon tart is cloudy on the surface and a little undercooked. If I had more filling, I would re-bake this one as well. I attempt to cover up its flaws with powdered sugar and whipped cream. The apricot-almond seems overcooked and lacking flavor, I also re-bake it. The hours tick by; my kitchen is a war zone with sheet-pans and counters scattered with the bodies of discarded tarts.

Can’t I call him and cancel, start over, and wait until I produce something I deem remarkable?

I can’t endure criticism and my fear of it has only grown with each new culinary plan, scheme, and pursuit. Negative comments sear my skin and positive ones bounce off the scars, unable to sink in. It’s a throwback from my youth, I am sure. In our house, crushing another’s confidence was how you buoyed your own worth and superiority. Now, the effects paralyze me.

I drive the tarts to him and gather courage in the parking lot. He gives me bottles of wine as payment for my work and we chat. He doesn’t fear failure and I admire him for that. We talk about how difficult it is to tell a vendor their product isn’t any good, like breaking up with someone – “It’s not you, it’s me!”

I can’t do it. I can’t watch as my work is judged. I ask him to taste them after I leave, share them with the staff, and call me with his feedback. I cannot endure a breakup, not from him, not now. I wait. My phone is silent and I am deflated.

– Written 2014

He finally did call.  He loved the key lime, coconut and apricot-almond. You are probably expecting one of these recipes to be listed below.  Nope, not today. 

Today’s Recipe:


Simple Old-Fashioned Rice Pudding

  • Servings: About 4 half-cup servings
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Many rice pudding recipes call for raw rice and 45 minutes or more of simmering. With this recipe, you can have comforting rice pudding in less than 10 minutes.


Ingredients

  • 1 Tablespoon corn starch
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • ⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup cooked rice, cooled
  • ¼ t. vanilla extract or 2 teaspoons brandy

Directions

  1. In a medium saucepan, whisk together corn starch, sugar, salt and cinnamon. Whisk in egg, then milk, and finally cooked rice.
  2. Place saucepan on medium heat and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly. Simmer for 4-5 minutes until pudding is thickened and the texture of oatmeal. Take off heat and whisk in vanilla extract or brandy. I enjoy eating rice pudding warm from the stovetop. If you prefer chilled rice pudding, place in a dish and cover with plastic wrap, ensuring the plastic wrap makes contact with the pudding surface to avoid a skin.