Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Strawberry Pink Lemonade Cupcakes and Ta-tas

These aren't just any strawberry lemonade cupcakes, they're Easter-dinner-at-the-Wealers' cupcakes. That means they came with an Easter egg hunt, magical cheesy potatoes and a makeshift pawn shop for swapping candy and trinkets. And I'm not just referring to any ta-tas. I'm talking about those belonging to Jenny W. That means they come with perseverance, bravery, magical mom skills and some serious sass.

I've mentioned Jenny before as part of our "Michigan Family." She beat breast cancer in 2008, which involved a double mastectomy. In celebration, she walked 60 miles as a survivor in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure. Then the cancer came back. And in her words, she walked again in 2009 in anger because she was going through it all again. But she crushed cancer a second time (though these few sentences hardly do justice to the countless doctors' visits and surgeries and tears that she went through over the years). 

Cancer aside, Jenny gets more done than most women I know in perfect health. She is raising three wonderful kids (with a military husband who is not deployed, but sometimes on tour for weeks at a time). She runs a business from home. She always finds time to send out cards and messages for birthdays and holidays (I got a birthday greeting one year from the hospital!). She writes a funny blog, I Am A Pink Warrior. And although she jokes about not being able to bake some of the things on this blog, I've seen her turn birthday cakes into castles and horse ranches.

Most of all though, she would give you the shirt off her back if you needed it. Just this weekend, one of the women at Easter dinner mentioned that she had to leave town for something and was worried about finding someone to watch her four(!) children (her husband is also military and is away for training). Without hesitation, Jenny offered to have all four children stay with them for the weekend. Like, no prob, what's four more? She would make it work.

Jenny is now walking 60 miles for a fourth time, this year in Dallas, TX. She's walking because she beat cancer and so that others will too. And for the first time, her husband is able to join her (as you can imagine, with three kids it takes some coordination for both parents to participate). As a family, they have pledged to raise at least $4600 ($2300 each). When I think about how much someone like Jenny has given in blood, sweat, tears and dollars, it's hard not to want to give. So if you've got any money burning a hole in your pocket, stop on over and donate to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. They are accepting donations in cash and 10-gallon hats. 
As for the cuppies, it's no secret that sometimes I make them from a box. But that doesn't mean I don't have baking knowledge to impart on the subject. Because here's something I learned this weekend...not all boxed cake mix is created equal. Since I was making "lemonade" cupcakes, I figured I would start with a box of lemon cake mix. Newsflash: boxed lemon cake mix is gross. It tastes like someone swapped the eggs for Lysol. Blech. Also, when I added the fresh strawberries, I didn't take the proper precautions to keep the cake from getting soggy. Once the cupcakes cooled, they separated from the liners and started to get all cake-sweaty. Round 1 was a bust.

For Round 2, I went straight to my go-to cake-mix, Betty Crocker's Supermoist French Vanilla. I doctored it up with lemon juice, lemon pulp and lemon extract, plus the fresh strawberry chunks. Round 2: success!

Strawberry Pink Lemonade Cupcakes

Makes 18-20 cupcakes

1 box vanilla cake mix (my fave is Betty Crocker French Vanilla), 2 tbs. reserved
eggs and oil as directed on box
juice and pulp from two lemons + water to make 1 cup of liquid
1-1/2 tsp. lemon extract
10 large strawberries, diced

(Note: I used two-thirds box of mix and got 13 cupcakes. For instructions on dividing boxed mix, see the note at the end of this post. If doing this, use one lemon, 1 tsp. extract and 6-7 strawberries.)

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened to room temperature
6 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temperature
3 tbs. strawberry puree
1 tbs. lemon juice
1-1/2 tsp. lemon extract
1/4 tsp. salt
5 cups powdered sugar


First, to prepare the strawberries, wash and dice into small pieces, discarding the hulls (the tops and flavorless white bits on the inside). Place diced berries on a paper towel and cover with another paper towel, pressing down gently to remove as much excess liquid as possible. Repeat. Set aside. Reserve three tablespoons of dry cake mix to sprinkle on berries.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Next, cut lemons in half and loosely squeeze excess juice into a bowl (don't squish, just squeeze out enough so that you can work with the lemons). Using a sharp knife, slice around the perimeter of the lemon pulp on each half and lengthwise a few times until you can work the pulp out of the lemons and into the bowl, avoiding the stringy membrane where possible (see photo above).  Squeeze any excess juice into the bowl and fish out seeds. If you have a mini-chopper, food processor or blender, mix the pulp for a few seconds. If you don't, or if you just don't feel like getting out a whole appliance for 5 seconds of work, cut/mash up the lemon as best you can using a knife and spoon. Small chunks are fine.

Add water to the lemon pulp/juice mix until you have 1 cup of liquid. Prepare boxed mix as directed, using the lemon juice in place of the water (note that this is less than the 1-1/4 cups of water called for). Mix in lemon extract.

Fill the cups of a greased or lined muffin tin halfway full of batter. Toss diced strawberries with reserved cake mix. Place a small spoonful of berries evenly into each muffin cup (stick to a single layer of berries). Cover berries with another spoonful of cake batter so that cups are 2/3 to 3/4 of the way full.

Bake for 20 minutes. Let cool before frosting.


To make strawberry puree, blend 4-5 strawberries in a blender or mini-chopper. Or macerate berries with the back of a fork. 

Using an electric mixer, blend softened butter and cream cheese together. Mix in strawberry puree, lemon juice, lemon extract and salt. Then slowly add powdered sugar, mixing well. Spread or pipe onto cupcakes.

Serving suggestions: Garnish each cupcake with a strawberry slice. Share with friends while donating money to help fight breast cancer.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Siehndel Family Cinnamon Rolls

I'm pretty far removed from the name Siehndel. I was born Kathryn Carey Walsh and I took Siehndel from my husband, Travis. But Travis wasn't born a Siehndel either. He took the name when his mom got remarried to Ray Siehndel, who adopted Travis and his sister. And unfortunately, I never got to meet Ray - he died the year before Travis and I met.  

I absolutely respect women who keep their names after marriage and I know of many good reasons to do so. A name is your identity. And for me, it was really difficult to give up Walsh. But I did it. Because when I was little, I liked being a part of the Walsh Family. I liked being identified with both of my parents. We were a team. Families come in all shapes and sizes. They might have one last name or five last names. And I know full-well that it's not the label on your social security card that makes you a team. But for me, in this instance, it was something I wanted to do. 

Sure, it's hard to pronounce (say it with me, sin-DELL), and even harder to spell, but it's mine now. And I'll tell you what: I. AM. OWNING IT. I'm flashing it all over town like I'm Kate Middleton and just got crowned princess. As far as a I can tell, I'm the only Kathryn Siehndel in all of America, and maybe the world (including all variations of Kathryn and Katie). Go ahead, Google it. Blog entries? Me. Lawyering? Me. Racing? Me. Articles about aviation and insurance? All me. 
The Siehndel matriarch, Stella, comes in at just over 5 feet tall and 94 years of age. I have no doubt that you will someday see her smiling face on a Smucker's jar. She lives independently, is in great health and still gambles when she finds the time. And she makes a mean, mean cinnamon roll. Her rolls will have you scraping your plate for every last crumb of cinnamon-y goodness (and if you're alone, don't be surprised if you find yourself licking the plate - it's ok, I do it too). 

This past Christmas, Stella gave me her recipe for cinnamon rolls. She took the time to write out the lengthy recipe on a little folded index card and I was really touched that she shared it with me (a third-hand Siehndel!). Cuz you know, some folks like to keep those things close to the vest. But not Stella, no, she wants spread the love. (And Travis' mom, also a Siehndel, gave me this green gingham apron that said " sharedbites" - how sweet is she?!)
Without fanfare, I will say that these cinnamon rolls are the best things I've ever baked. They are better than any store-bought cinnamon bun and will literally melt in your mouth. From this day forward, if I ever describe another dish as the "best thing I ever baked," just know that I am lying. These cannot be topped. Patience is required, as the whole process takes half a day (including rising time), but it is so worth your time. And then some. Maybe your first born.
Note: If the middles of your rolls pop up during baking (like in the picture), just push them back with a butter knife or spatula.

Stella Siehndel's Cinnamon Rolls

1/4 cup warm water
1 tbs. sugar
1 package active dry yeast
1 cup milk
4 tbs. (1/2 stick) butter (softened to room temperature)
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 egg
3-1/4 cups flour, sifted (plus extra for rolling)

4 tbs. (1/2 stick) butter (softened)
1/2 cup sugar (use raw sugar if you have it - turbinado or demerara)
1 tbs. cinnamon

Icing (adapted from this caramel frosting):
2 tbs. butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 tbs. warm milk
3 tbs. butter (softened)
2 oz. cream cheese (softened)
1-1/3 cups powdered sugar
pinch salt
dash of vanilla (1/8 tsp.)

For rolls:

Stir tablespoon of sugar into warm water in a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast on the surface of water and set aside for at least 15 minutes. Yeast should foam like this.

Mix milk, butter, sugar, salt and egg with an electric mixer. Pour in yeast mixture and mix together. Slowly add flour until a dough forms. The dough will be sticky and soft (mine wasn't smooth). Place ball of dough in a greased or oiled bowl. Cover and leave in a warm place for 2 to 3 hours or until double in size. I covered the exposed part of the dough in saran wrap, draped a dishtowel over top of the bowl and stored in the microwave.

Remove dough from bowl, punch down and roll out into a 12" x 16" rectangle, using plenty of flour to keep from sticking. Spread softened butter (4 tbs.) onto dough. Mix raw sugar (1/2 cup) with cinnamon (using raw sugar gives an amazing crunch to the tops of the rolls - you can taste it through the icing). Sprinkle cinnamon sugar evenly over buttered dough. Roll lengthwise like a jellyroll (so that you have a 16" roll). Cut into 12-14 slices and place evenly in a greased pan. I used a 9" x 13" cake pan and fit 13 rolls. Another option is to use two pie pans, with 7 rolls each. Sprinkle any lost sugar over top of rolls.

Cover pan(s) and let rolls rise for another 30 to 45 minutes. 

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 20-22 minutes or until the outer rolls are just barely browned. 

For icing:

While the rolls bake, melt butter (2 tbs.) and brown sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring throughout. Bring brown sugar mix to a boil and then remove from heat. Add warm milk to the sugar mix and whisk to incorporate. Set aside to cool. To warm the milk, microwave for 20 seconds.

Using an electric mixer, mix softened cream cheese, butter (3 tbs.), salt, vanilla, powdered sugar and cooled brown sugar mix. (Refrigerate if making in advance.) Spread over warm rolls and serve.

Refrigerate leftovers and reheat in the microwave for 30 seconds. Rolls were still delicious after two days in the fridge.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Salted Choco Choco Chip Cookies and a New Addition to the Fam

These days, if your cookie doesn't have salt on it, you're a total square. When I was a kid, nobody wanted a salty cookie. That would be like asking for pie with motor oil on top. But now, salting desserts is all the rage: cookies, mini-cakes, ice cream, chocolate bars. Sugar has decided that salt is the Romeo to her Juliet, and she can no longer function alone. 

Despite being a serious dessert lover, and being well-aware of the popularity of salted sweet treats in recent years, I've never had a salted cookie. And I certainly hadn't made my own before now. Every time I thought about it, it seemed like an unnecessarily risky move for a batch of cookies that I knew would be delish on their own. Not this time, boys and girls - full salt ahead.
I decided that a salty topcoat would be most delicious on a dark chocolate cookie (I decided correctly). This batch was a chocolate cookie base with white chocolate chunks. I used vegan buttery spread because that's what I had on hand that day, but butter can be swapped in no problem. Or, in the alternative, you could replace the egg and white chocolate chips to make vegan cookies. For the sprinkling of salt, I found that two pinches of sea salt per cookie was just the right amount. Your gut will tell you to stop after one pinch, but ignore it. Go for two pinches. And make sure you're using large grain sea salt. Tiny grains of table salt won't have the same flavor effect.

The result? Real good cookies. The problem? Salty cookies, much like pretzels or chips or any other salty snack make you want to keep eating them. Mmmmm, that salty cookie was so yummy and salty, I'm thirsty for another. Ooooooh, those two cookies make me want a third even more! And let's not talk about the compulsion I felt for a fourth. Needless to say, they're dangerous. Just make sure you're in a portion-control state of mind when you bake these suckers. Or bring them to a big party where they're sure to go quickly.

And another thing, unlike any other cookie I've ever encountered, these guys are best after they are completely cooled. When you eat them warm out of the oven, the salt doesn't mesh as well with the cookie flavor - it's as if you were eating a regular cookie with some salt sprinkled on ex post bake-o. But once they have a chance to cool, the salt magically becomes one with the cookie and you have a perfect, sweet cookie with the faintest savory bite.

And in other news...

We got a new dog! I usually like to tie the concepts of a post together, but I'm not even going to attempt that here. Dogs don't go with chocolate cookies. Period.
This is our new baby! How cute is that face?!! Her shelter name was Mocha, which we both wanted to change, but nothing else stuck, so Mocha it is. She is 9 months old and we got her from the Washington Humane Society on Georgia Ave. The staff was great, especially the adoption manager. 

If you're looking to add a four-legged member to your family, I urge you to check out your local shelters and rescues before going to a breeder. So many wonderful doggies and kitties already exist and are just waiting for someone to love. If you live in the DC metro area, check out any of the following organizations that help to place pets with the right owners: 
There are a surprising number of breed-specific rescues if you're looking for a certain kind of dog and almost every county has an SPCA or Humane Society - just google what you're looking for. I don't know about all of the shelters, but I know that Lucky Dog has adoption events where they bring their dogs to a neighborhood in DC, MD and VA on weekends so that people can see who's available for adoption. Check the websites to see when they're making a visit to your area. And if you're not looking to adopt a pet but wouldn't mind some temporary furry company, shelters are always looking for foster homes.

In the meantime, you can enjoy looking at our new pride and joy. Aaaaah, I love her!!

Salted Choco Choco Chip Cookies
adapted from FoodNetwork.com

Makes 20-22 cookies

1-1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda 
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa 
1 stick Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Spread (or butter) 
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar 
1 egg, beaten

1 tsp. vanilla 
3/4 cups white chocolate chips

sea salt for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Sift flour, salt, baking soda and cocoa together. Cream Earth Balance with sugars, egg and vanilla. Slowly add dry ingredients to wet, mixing with an electric mixer. Fold in white chocolate chips.

Using a tablespoon or cookie scoop, drop cookies onto a cookie sheet and lightly press each one down using your fingers. Sprinkle each cookie with two pinches of sea salt.

Bake for 10 minutes at 375 degrees. Let cool. Do not feed to pets, no matter how cute they are.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Cherry Bars and Cherry Blossoms

This just in: while cherry blossoms may have been in season for the last two weeks, cherries were not. I had the brilliant (but probably not so novel) idea to do a cherry dessert in the spirit of the Cherry Blossom Festival that has been going on here in DC. I was so excited about this plan that I stopped at Capitol Hill's local gourmet kitchen shop, Hill's Kitchen, straight off the metro after work to buy a cherry pitter. Shortly thereafter I arrived at the grocery store to discover that my only cherry options were frozen ones. Fresh cherries won't be around these parts until June. And thus my food education continues.
Oh well, the cherry show must go on. I decided to bake some cherry bars for my friends Allison and Mike (you may recall Allison as the MacGyver of baking), and their new little munchkin, Lucas (because you know my motto, babies call for bars). I first met Baby Lucas in the hospital before he was even a day old (my first time seeing a baby so new!). Since he was fresh out the oven, he kept his little arms and legs all curled up to his body as though he was still confined to a belly. I've loved him to bits ever since.

Lucky for me, mom emails out a single photo of her little cutie every few days so I can see him grow even when I can't fit in a visit. Nothing fancy, just a pic that she takes with her phone. I think the single photo every few days method is GREAT. Honestly, I might not always have time to peruse a lengthy album right away (though they are still appreciated!). But I always have time to open an email and have a smiling baby face looking back at me.
And now, drumroll please.... Here he is! He was actually awake and smiley for a lot of the visit, but I was too busy playing with him to get any photos. So you'll just have to enjoy him in this equally cute snoozing shot. Mom, dad, baby and I took a stroll around town (we may or may not have stopped for delicious cupcakes at Baked & Wired). Two stranger-ladies were so enamored by Lucas that they conspicuously pointed and started talking about him (is that what happens when you carry around a baby?). Allison graciously gave them a good look at babes and then we shuffled along. She's a good sport. (Sidebar: I've heard that stranger-ladies will go as far as to touch pregnant bellies. NOT OK, ladies. If I ever have a pregnant belly and I don't know you, hands off or you might get smacked.)

And for good measure, here are some photos of the blossoms:

Cherry Bars

Makes 16 bars

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup white sugar

1/3 cup brown sugar
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
zest of one lemon

10 tbs. (1 stick + 2 tbs.) cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks 
1 egg
1-1/2 to 2 lbs. frozen cherries (sour if you can find them)

2 tbs. lemon juice
1/4 cup white sugar (for mixing with cherries)
1 tbs. cornstarch

Thaw the cherries completely and lightly press into a strainer to drain, getting out as much excess liquid as possible. Roughly chop the cherries so that they are halved. If lots of liquid is coming out, drain again. Set cherries aside.

While cherries are thawing, cut butter into chunks and place back in the fridge.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Stir flour, sugars, baking powder,  salt and lemon zest together. Mix the egg and butter into the dry ingredients using a pastry cutter or your hands until the butter is incorporated and the dough forms pea-sized bits. A pastry cutter is ideal because you want the butter to stay cold. Using your hands warms the butter up, but, honestly, your hands are the only tool that will work besides a pastry cutter. Dough will be crumbly.

Pour half of the dough in a 9" x 9" square baking pan and pat down evenly.

Again, making sure all excess liquid is out of the cherries, stir cherries together with lemon juice, sugar and cornstarch. Pour cherry mix into pan (if there is a lot of liquid, spoon cherries into the pan using a slotted spoon). Spread remaining dough over top of cherries. I like my top crumb to be a little smaller than the bottom crust, so I had a bit of dough left over. 

Bake at 375 degrees for 40-45 minutes or until top is golden-brown. Pack up and bring for a picnic under your favorite blossoms.
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