Thursday, December 31, 2009

Case Study 42: "The Resolution"

I have a confession to make: I am not great at making resolutions.  I actually can't remember a single one.

Either I'm more of a Lent-keeping kind of girl, or I've simply always believed that every tomorrow promises a fresh start- to hit the gym, to not meals out of cookies and champagne, to read more, or to do whatever it is people typically promise to do.  Better yet, I've never looked back on any year, as wild, as imperfect, and as unpredictable as it could be, and shaken my head, thinking that I could have lived it differently.  2009 was a perfect example of that, and this New Years' Eve, I resolve to not live the next year any other way.  

It was a year that spanned the charts.  A year full of surprising and awe-inducing love, changes and sudden losses, and new life.  A year in which transitions of wandering and searching were trimmed with sojourns of reflection and closure, and I discovered inspiration in the most lovely and unusual places

"The Resolution" is an orange and vanilla creamsicle cupcake with champagne cream filling and vanilla bean buttercream on top.  It's sweet and fresh, and rings in the new year with metallic dust and glitter flakes.  Sparkling and golden, it shines in reflection of the past and is aflame with hope for what is to come.

I guess I've always viewed life less like a pie, and more like a french gâteau.  What I mean is that on this last good day of the year, I am filled with nothing but gratefulness for the experiences and people who have added layers to my mille-feuille of a life.  Seeing it from both sides now, my future will always grow stronger because of them. 

2009 was a perfectly imperfect year, and though you might never know it, I couldn't have done it without you.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Case Study 41: "The Marron di Natale"

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."

...And so begins my most beloved Christmas carol.  The dishes have been cleared, the fire softly burns to embers, and full bellies turn in, seeking golden slumber salvation after infinite courses of holiday celebration. But lit by the soft glow of the Christmas Eve light, and snuggled somewhere between grandma's struffoli and anisette biscotti, lies the true scent of an Italian Christmas, waiting for Christmas Day.

"The Marron di Natale" is a chocolate cupcake filled with fresh chestnut cream, and topped with a Frangelico buttercream.  It is then drizzled in a chocolate glaze and crowned by hazelnuts and gold dust.  It is rich and earthy, nutty and creamy, and most definitely fit for a king.

It's not about the gift-tag rush, the bows and paper, or what fills the the stockings that really makes this the season to be merry.  These flavors, the abundance, the familial celebration...well that is what Christmas will always mean to me.    

Wherever you find yourself this Christmas and holiday season, wishing the best to you and yours from the kitchen of the Cupcaketologist.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Case Study 40: "The Frozen Moon"

"It's dreamy weather we're on
You waved your crooked wand
Along an icy pond with a frozen moon
A murder of silhouette crows I saw
And the tears on my face
And the skates on the pond
They spell Alice."

-Tom Waits

They say a picture's worth a thousand words.  Memory is bland without a sense of smell. But for me, there is no sense stronger than sound.  

Sound spurs a mood, creates a moment, and inspires creativity.  I still own nearly every mixtape, cd, playlist I've ever made, and there must be hundreds.  Because these veritable life diaries hold a power, beyond sight or smell, to take me back somewhere.

"The Frozen Moon" is a vanilla cupcake with frosty blue vanilla buttercream. Simple at it's best, it is topped with traces of snow sprinkles and evokes the enchanting cold stillness of winter.

Senior year of High School. I'm ready to graduate, and it's more than evident by the miles I've put on my Jeep. December and an early college acceptance roll by, and I hit the back-roads, where the air is crisp and my car knows just where to go.  My cds all begin with the same dreamy song by Air, and have titles like "Driving Around with the Moonroof Open on a Cold Night." But there was one song that captured what I was searching for: "Alice" by Tom Waits.  

Sounds, subtle yet powerful, set the scene. A metronome of tick-tocking piano notes hold visions of lustful clock-watching. It's brooding, the horns are haunting, and his voice is full of smoke.  My destination is certainly not a place, but an emotion as lyrics speaks of icy ponds, dark silhouettes, and forbidden love.  So I drive on, up Route 57 and past the snow-filled fields and motionless tree skeletons that hang against a frozen moon.

Since words just won't do it justice, I'll let Tom tell the rest...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Case Study 39: "Untitled (The Nightmare Before Christmas)"

"The moon that hung over the new-fallen snow
Cast an eerie pall over the city below,
And Santa Claus's laughter now sounded like groans,
And the jingling bells like chattering bones..."

Every year, around this time, I go into production. My house becomes a veritable mess, filled with sugars, yarns, glitter and flannels, serving as a sort of secret fortress of kitsch in which I am driven bring the ideas that enter my mind to life.  Tim Burton once said "one person's craziness is another person's reality," a mere afterthought for a sort of mad scientist who makes doodled imagination-gone-wild come to life.  A daydreaming boy of tragic toys turned dissatisfied Disney animator, Burton took to the pen, the brush, and the camera to make his inspired and satirical views a reality.  Extramarital affairs with machines and crustaceans spawned Robot and Oyster boys; a Voodoo girl was fated for loneliness less each heartbreak puncture her core deeper.  And a forelorn skeleton, seeing the light on the other side, haphazardly tried to bring a little Christmas heart to spooks of Halloweentown.    

"Untitled (The Nightmare Before Christmas)" is a red velvet cupcake with cream cheese buttercream and twisted black buttercream swirls.  Dreamed up, sketched out, and Burtonesque at its best, it's jagged, imperfect, and topped with madness.

It's Christmas Eve, 1994. After hours of "seven fish"-feasting , fireside tumbling, and spritzer cookie sneaking, my cousins returned home to their own sleepy little Connecticut town.  We'd creep into our rooms and turn down our beds to reveal mysterious new flannel sheets.  Tucking in, the candles in our windows still sparkled behind the blinds, blinking a sort of morse code to the North Pole that this house was indeed a worthy stop. 

But sleeping never lasted long. I would spring awake, at 2 or 3 am, engulfed by darkness, to noises on the rooftop.  I was instantly scared, certain that amidst the snow drifts were Santa's reindeer parallel parking above my head, yet intrigued by a potential sighting of the man in red himself. But weary in my 10-year old bones, I faded back to sleep before giving it an afterthought.  

Though I'll never know who it really was caught in those icy swirls above, I can only trust that as the mysticism of Christmas whirled around me, my imagination around the holiday ran savage.  With craziness as my reality, the season will always inspire me to pull from my twisted dreams and create.  After all, a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fright...

To be inspired yourself, check out Tim Burton's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art until April 26, 2009 in New York City.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Case Study 38: "The Royal Tannenbaum"

"Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow."

-Robert Frost

For me, the Christmas season never kicked off with pre-Thanksgiving radio repeats or the mingling of Halloween candies with the candy canes in the drugstore aisles. No, for me it always began with a car trip.  We'd bundle up in flannels and down jackets, as Christmases were colder then, and stock the trunk with twine and bungees, an extra saw, and a pocketful of profanities.  After warming our hands by the barrel fires, we'd grab hot ciders for the journey, and set out to farm, with the most glorious un-Charlie Brown fir as our harvest's hope.

"The Royal Tannenbaum" is a light chocolate cupcake with peppermint buttercream branches and pines. Decked out with the finest silver dragées and fresh snowflakes all best trees deserve, it is crowned by a glorious sugar cookie star.

Running past those boring balsams, we'd dash further across the scotch pines, and after hundreds of thousands of kid-measured miles, in the deep heart of the seemingly abandoned woods, we'd find it.   Our royal tannenbaum.  We'd measure it against my brother's ever-changing height, lay down the blanket, and saw. And saw. And after slinging those reserved profanities, and sawing some more, with one glorious crack it would be ours.

Ours to drag back to the car as the sun started to fade into what I  was certain could be Aurora Borealis.  Ours to dig our fingers into, keeping safe grips on our precious catch, as the cold winter's air snuck in the open car window. And ours to bring the first sign of those lovely dark and deep winter Christmas woods into our home.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What's been cooking in Cupcaketology besides confections...

We interrupt this cupcakecast to report that life catches up with you sometimes.

A transatlantic trip, letting go of a loved one, a tennis tournament and a full-fledged arms-flailing launch into holiday season has had the Cupcaketologist running head first away from November.

Luckily, time passes, months end, and the most wonderful time of the year arrives. Just wanted to let you know that besides cupcakes, something sassy's been brewing in the Cupcaketologist's kitchen.

By demand, I set up a little shop on Etsy to feature the tartan knit stoles ("Tartan Hugs" as they've been deemed!) that I've been furiously whipping up in the past weeks.  In true swinging Betty Draper-style, the handmade stoles are reversible (knit on one side, plaid on the other), faux fur trimmed, custom made to order...  and oh so warm! 

We will resume normal cupcaking operations this weekend... 

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Case Study 37: "The David Bowie"

"Don't let me hear you say life's taking you nowhere, angel. Come get up my baby.  Look at that sky, life's begun, nights are warm and the days are young." - David Bowie

Ziggy Stardust BowieLabyrinth BowieFreaky dream Bowie.   Heteropoda DavidBowie. A man of innovation, sheer glamour, and reinvention, Bowie reminded us to dream, while never losing sight of who we really were.  
"The David Bowie" is a fun-kyfetti vanilla cupcake filled with jimmies and topped flaming red vanilla buttercream, glam rocks, stardust and a spider from Mars. Half imagination, half bizarre, it's a cake oddity of Bowie mysticism in a Weird and Gilly confection.

This Halloween, I'll don my best silver lame', Aladdin Sane face, and whip out air guitar windmill riffs.  Like a cat from Japan, I'll rebel rebel and find modern love.  And I'll do it like Bowie did best...with striking visuals and in search of my very own golden years.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Case Study 36: "The Impassioned Pistachio"

I'm finally going back to Italy.

Last week, I found a mixtape I made from four years ago, before I arrived at the airport, bound for a year on the boot. I popped it in, and got to thinking about the twenty year-old me.

Life in Italy brought isolation. Two weeks to find an apartment with two years of worthless classroom Italian made for quite the search. It also brought adventure. I rode through the cobbled streets in the backseat of Fiats faster that I ever imagined, and made eyes at the my local bar's handsome cameriere, prosecco in hand by candlelight and listening to Tolga Trio play Django Reinhardt's classics.  I was full of dreams more colorful than the frescoed ceilings in my Via Zamboni classrooms, and I swear I once reached nirvana on a warm black stone beach in the Aeolian Islands.  I threw myself into anything, just for the experience.  I learned from everything.

"The Impassioned Pistachio" is a pistachio cupcake with a vanilla bean buttercream, crumbled pistachios and a maraschino cherry on top.  Made with Delitia butter, it's full of that earthy terroir only made from the Parma and the Reggio Emilia cows, and a delicate nutty warmth.
As I approach my 25th birthday celebration in Bologna, the city where I lived, I think of how that year changed me.  I'm no longer the girl who came home after a month at college, arms flailing as I passionately tried to convince my parents that Gumboot dancing with the children in South Africa was my true life calling.  I'm also not the new college graduate, entering a different kind of "real world," full of wild hope and cocktail dreams. 

Someone once told me that your late twenties are a little more calm, a little less "rollercoaster ride."  Five years ago, that seemed ludicrous to me, and I snarkily replied, "where's the fun in that?"  But as I approach them, a few years of recklessness, a couple of heartaches and some spontaneous wandering behind me, I finally get what she meant.  Though I feel just like that wide-eyed twenty year old, ready to launch into flight back across the pond, somehow, I feel more grounded than ever.   

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Notes from the Field: Ethnographic Studies in Cupcaketology

While anthropology aims to look outward to understand what's inside, to truly grasp the essence of, well, our "humanness", sometimes we need to spend more time. Anthropologists use ethnography, a holistic experience-based study, to understand culture in this truest context.

Drumroll please...

The Cupcaketologist is launching an set of ethnographic and collaborative case reports - a true study in friendship, life history, and shared kitchen chaos,
freshly baked from the ovens of friends, families, and more.

Because who better to help us understand ourselves than the people that we share our lives with...

Photo: Margaret Mead, Samoa. (via)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Case Study 35: "The Enchanted Pumpkin"

Shakespeare famously warned, "'Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world." The autumn season holds more than just apple cider and falling leaves, for at its heart is the most frightful of holidays. Before candy corn began hitting stores in August, and every costume was a naughty one, I always found a sort of romantic and sad madness in the Halloween season. That rather than be about gore and fishnets, what lies within is truly about bewitchment and mystery. It's what is unseen and then assumed in the stolen glances and enchanting moments that brew the magic.

"The Enchanted Pumpkin" is a light pumpkin cupcake with a maple cream cheese buttercream encrusted in toasted pecans and topped with a cinnamon frosting.

It's the haunting face of the jack-o-lantern as the fire turns his flesh inside out. The silhouette of a black bird perched on a freshly bare branch against the crooked icy moon. It's the slightly unnerving feeling that for one night in the world someplace in time, things were not quite as they seemed.

Dusty Springfield - Spooky - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Case Study 34: "The Cookie Crumble"

"Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together."- Marilyn Monroe

Like most kids in the kitchen, I started out a cookie baker- I think it was just in my blood. A true Italian bambino, I teethed on unfrosted anginetti cookies and as I got older, I naturally dunked anise biscotti into coffee for breakfast. But I made my personal foray into baking with chocolate chip cookies. Perfecting my recipe meant altering it constantly, which seemed to happen naturally as I got older and life changed more frequently. The cookies were no longer basic. They contained four types of smashed chocolate, coconut, and occasionally "everything but the kitchen sink."

And then one day, I just lost it. My cookies stopped turning out as I wanted, and as it goes, I stopped turning them out.

"The Cookie Crumble" is a vanilla cupcake with a cookie dough center, brown sugar buttercream frosting and chocolate chip cookie star on top. Through all of its grandiose interpretations, its deconstruction, and its rebirth, the noveau chocolate chip cookie is merely a simple one again. Good butter, chocolate, and a little sea salt on top. Because like life itself, no matter how many changes it goes through- the loves, the losses, the successes, and the moves- what is most basic and natural comes out on top in the end.

And that's just how the cookie crumbles.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Case Study 33: "The Back to School Special"

Nostalgic. That's how I feel every year when September fades away. Unlike the warm embrace of the summer wind, one fall breeze whips in and my body remembers it- the way it feels as the earth moves closer to its farthest tilted axis on an eternal trip around the sun. And September's end always held the inevitable for me: the bonfires and football games, the earthy smell of a freshly sharpened Ticonderoga No. 2 and the frantic scramble to enjoy the dwindling sunlight hours before the New England grayness set in.

"The Back to School Special" is a scholastic-inspired trio of cupcakes that are dedicated to the first day of school jitters, the tire swing and monkey bar playgrounds, and the brown-bagged lunchroom antics.

The "PB&J" is a peanut butter cupcake filled with strawberry jam and topped with a strawberry jelly buttercream and toasted peanuts. Before the era of widespread peanut/gluten allergies and political correctness, the basic Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich was a staple in the diet every elementary school child, recording the lifelong marriage of "fruit and nut" in the Bible of Good American Eatin'.
"The S'more" is a chocolate cupcake atop a graham cracker crust with a Hershey's chocolate buttercream and toasted marshmallow on top. Whether you toasted "shmallows" on a backwood camping trip or melted your chocolate at a Homecoming bonfire, S'mores told us Americans that there's magic in good old processed cookies, candy, and fire. Combined or separate.
And lastly, "The Idyllic Apple" . Regardless of if you ate an "apple a day" or you were a "hot for teacher" apple-polisher, the apple has long been a reminder of brown-nosing scholarly excellence, and a true emblem for back-to-school memories.

They say that your sense of smell is the strongest in evoking memories, but with the change of seasons, I beg to differ. Though the first smell of musty rain can signal the start of spring, it's the feel that winter is creeping in and the tastes of my schoolgirl lunches that tell me it's not far off. Those days of playground flirtation and soccer games may be long gone, but that stubborn old autumn wind just brings me back every year...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Case Study 32: "The Turkish Fig"

"My name is Turkish. Funny name for an Englishman. I know." - Snatch

Wine, music, cupcakes.

For us, tunes, food, and wandering reigned supreme. Driving around aimlessly for hours, we had warded our teenage angst off by roving the woods for cliffs to jump off and watching the stars by the Redding reservoir. We stood in the 3 am moonlight of the tall grass field next to his once-childhood home and spent one Valentine's Day eating homemade chocolate cookies in a parking lot, windows down and Snatch soundtrack blaring The Stranglers. They say first loves are never really over.

"The Turkish Fig" is a fig cupcake with a walnut encrusted honey frosting and vanilla buttercream on top. It's drizzled in honey and sugar crystals. There's a natural sweetness brought by the earthiness of the fig, and warmed by the local honey, a reminder that best and most familiar things always come from places closest to our hearts. Some things are just better when baked by two.

Most of us fall young and hard for our firsts, promising a lifetime of longing, with those moments of uncertainty, discovery, and anguish playing like movies in our memories. Though this might be true for many, I'm lucky to know that I've gotten to keep mine for always as living reminder of my youth and a truly wonderful friend.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Case Study 31: "The Velvet Collection"

Fashion Week has arrived in New York, and it's inescapable. As the madness at the tents ensues, I sit here in quiet rainy Philadelphia, snuggled with magazines and blogs. I'm downright inspired by the classic fabulosity, the innovation, and the outrageousness that is fashion today. And so, the sartorial sophisticate Cupcaketologist brings you: "The Velvet Collection."

"The Orange Crush" is an orange velvet cupcake with lemon buttercream and yellow crystals. Preen and Vena Cava both showcased pops of orange this week so far for Spring, and St. Vincent opened Rachel Comey's show in a refreshing reminder that summer is not quite over.

"The Russian Doll" is a purple velvet cupcake topped with a black raspberry buttercream and encrusted in flaked sugar crystals. It's inspired by the rogue elegance of Freha's spread in September's Vogue UK and the decadence of autumnal jewel tones and velvet against the backdrop of brilliant stones and clutter.

"The Mademoiselle" is a pink velvet cupcake topped with a vanilla buttercream coiffe and pearls. It is reminiscent of
the black and white, and yes, pink of Chanel. Karl Lagerfield and Lara Stone have been making sweet music together lately, and to that marriage I raise my glass and say, Santé!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Case Study 30: "The Idyllic Apple"

For better or for worse, I had a painfully romantic childhood. My parents had met young and left home early, growing up together and creating the life they always imagined. Dreamers beget dreamers, of course, and when we settled on the tiny border of New England and Westchester, it was the perfect pastoral backdrop to host my wanderlust.
Summer reigned supreme for my aqueous adventures, but it was autumn that held my heart. Leaves turned slowly here, and the Housatonic and Hudson Valleys were glorious seas of golds, reds, and oranges for months. We were apple pickers, perfect pumpkin seekers, and fall vegetable roasters. And there were Friday nights when I'd rather sit near the fireplace and watch my parents dance eyes-closed to Elvis Costello's "Toledo" with wineglasses in hand than be anywhere else in the world.

The Idyllic Apple is an apple pecan cupcake with a vanilla-nutmeg cream cheese buttercream and cinnamon sugar sprinkled atop. It's reminiscent of the orchards we still travel to every year and the cider donuts that never make it past the car.

I have this memory of driving in our first Jeep years ago, top down in early October, my brother and I are in the back. Django Reinhardt is playing gypsy jazz and I am facing back as we drive through Westchester roads past churches converted into homes and pastures. We walked rows of a vineyard in wool sweaters, chased a surprised pheasant and watched as the sun squeaked the last golden light of the Indian Summer.

I always wonder if it ruined me, to look back so fondly on these years and question if I'll have it as good someday. And then I remember who I come from, and I already do.

The Idyllic Apple (Adapted from my mother's Och's Orchard Apple Cake, 1976), makes 1 dozen cupcakes

1 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. sugar
1/4 c. butter
1 egg
2-3 apples, minced
1 cup nuts (pecans or walnuts), chopped finely

1. Set the oven at 350
º and line a one-dozen cupcake pan, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt.
2. Cream the sugar and butter together in a bowl until combined and fluffy, roughly 3 minutes.
3. Add the egg and mix until combined.
4. Blend in the apples. Add the dry ingredients in 3 parts until combined and fold in the nuts.
5. Fill the cupcake pan and bake 20-22 minutes, cupcakes will be dark brown.

Vanilla Nutmeg Cream Cheese Buttercream

1 c. butter
1/2 c. cream cheese
1 tsp. vanilla
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
4-5 cups confectioner's sugar

1. Combine the butter and cream cheese with a mixer on a medium speed, 3 minutes.
2. Mix in the vanilla and nutmeg.
3. Gradually blend in the confectioner's sugar. If it becomes to dense, cut with 1-2 tsp. milk.
4. Frost cupcakes generously, and enjoy with fond thoughts of autumn.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Case Study 29: "The Wondercake"

College was a veritable mess of post teen wonder, and the start of another life journey - the kind where you don't even have to try to lose yourself in exchange for finding something. Six Augusts ago, I left my suburban Connecticut youth behind (already more mature than most, I was convinced), and was ready to attack the urban Ivy League life. But of course, this type of trip never runs as smoothly as anticipated. "The Wondercake" is a nutella-filled chocolate cupcake with vanilla bean buttercream encrusted in M&Ms and sprinkles. It's reminiscent of the long days in the libraries followed by late night dance parties and cookie pizzas. It's leaving the scheduled carpools behind for what we thought was independence and free thinking, but was really still coloring within the lines. It's sweet and colorful and a bit messy all at once, but isn't that life?

College was a whirlwind, and was it over too soon? I think 4 years of reckless wandering and hopeful deliberate soul-searching was just enough. They always said we'd come out on a path when we graduated, with heads straighter on our shoulders and a clear distinction of what and who we wanted to be as adults. But I think most of my peers and I came out a little more lost than when we started, and the real life journey started when we got our diplomas.

But it was there that we learned how to let go of our parents' hands and jump, to take steps and make choices more on our own. And we carry on, filled with memories, awe, and doubt in a world that seems even bigger and more gloriously unconquerable than before.

Recipe: "The Wondercake"

Chocolate Cupcake (Adapted from Dave Leibowitz's German Chocolate Cake)

Makes Approximately 2 dozen cupcakes:
3 ounces bittersweet and milk chocolate chopped and melted

8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 ¼ cup + ¼ cup sugar
4 large eggs, separated
1 and 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup dutch processed cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt 1 cup milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ vanilla bean, seeds scraped
1 cup Nutella

1. Preheat the oven to 350°, fill 2- 1 dozen cupcake pans with liners.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, or by hand, beat the butter and 1 ¼ cup of the sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in the melted chocolate, then the egg yolks, one at a time.

3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cocoa, baking soda, and salt.

4. Mix in half of the dry ingredients into the creamed butter mixture, then the milk and the vanilla extract, then the rest of the dry ingredients.

5. In a separate metal or glass bowl, beat the egg whites until they hold soft, droopy peaks. Beat in the ¼ cup of sugar until stiff. Fold about one-third of the egg whites into the cake batter to lighten it, then fold in the remaining egg whites just until there's no trace of egg white visible.

7. Divide the batter into the prepared cupcake pans and bake for about 18-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool cupcakes completely before filling and frosting.

9. Using the “cone method”, fill each cupcake with 1 teaspoon Nutella, and replace top.

Vanilla Bean Buttercream

2 sticks butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ vanilla bean, seeds scraped
¼ cup milk
4-6 cups confectioner's sugar
3 cups M&Ms, smashed

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, or by hand, beat the butter until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the vanilla and vanilla bean.

2. Add 1 cup confectioner’s sugar and mix until combined. Mix in ¼ cup milk.

4. Mix in remaining cups of confectioner’s sugar, and additional milk depending on consistency and preference.

5. Frost cupcakes as desired, and roll in M&M bits. Serve at room temperature, preferably with friends, and drinks.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Case Study 28: "The Root of Enlightenment"

Multi-faceted. That's how I'd describe the sources of my inspiration. People, print, and nature. Words, sounds, and images. Eyes open to the world, for better or for worse. But in an age when everything is tweeted and blogged, to then be retweeted, and reblogged, it's certain that someone has been just as inspired as I am by the very same thing.

"The Root of Englightenment" is a German chocolate cake with an earthy frosting atop: a buttercream steeped in vanilla bean, nutmeg, and ginger root. It is then topped with a chocolate buttercream and a walnut.

But the concept of being authentic, the act of creating something from nothing, well I'm certain it still exists. In an age of mass production, consumerism, and noise, we can still make art if it comes from within and awakens another's senses.
Because when you create something, and show someone else a new way of viewing the world, what it evokes in that person is something unique. It's a completely original moment, and that is inpirational in itself.

To also be inspired, check out
Art in the Age, maker of Philly's own liqueur ROOT.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Case Study 27: "The Peach Pit"

"Summer afternoon- summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language..."

As a child, I always imagined Henry James reclining in a pasture somewhere in the English countryside, hat by his side, journal across his lap and sweat upon his lip. And as a single cloud passes across the sky, suffering from a state of both heatstroke and awe, he slowly utters the two most beautiful words that I too ever knew, and realizes that he need say no more.

Regardless of its validity or not, I lived my childhood summers in search of the beauty I imagined he spoke of. I splashed through June and July in Connecticut's ponds and pools and adventured through the trees and backstreams of the deep woods far from the safety of recognizable houses. In my teenage years, I rowed throughout the Long Island sound and jumped off old steel bridges into Lake Lillinonah, and spent my nights chasing the summer moon, with Nick Drake bellowing from my Jeep and as I ran through tall grass fields under the stars.

But when August rolled around, things slowed down. The humidity crept in, and more and more we sought breeze and shade. I read books lying across a long-gone horizontal branch in my favorite tree, and lay sweating on top of my sheets at night in an un-air conditioned house. I caught the wind on my bike, and devoured the fruits of deep summer: berries, melons, and peaches.
"The Peach Pit" is a peach and vanilla bean cupcake with a fresh peach buttercream covered in cobbler crumbs. It's topped by maple-brown sugar buttercream and a little ripe peach slice.

Though I spend most of my days now in a flourescent lit cubicle, and my parents gave in years ago to central air, every once in awhile, I roll down my Jeep's windows on a hot day to feel the August air. Or I get lost on a Connecticut trail. And occasionally, I still sneak outside alone late at night to see my old love, the big summer moon. September may be fast approaching, but summer is not over yet...

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Notes from the Field: Out to sea.

A move to finish, words to write, an summer's end to find...

"All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came. "

John F. Kennedy, September 1962

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Case Study 26: "The Cocopassione"

I once heard somewhere that there are people who march through life to the end in a comfortable bliss, taking it and all of its challenges as they come. Of this group of beings I know one thing - I do not belong.

Last week, while playing court tennis, the pro pulled me aside and said, "Hey, will you just wait for the ball? You keep rushing at it, and each time you attack, you miss it completely." And that's exactly it. Full of passion and aching to taste it all, I also charge life like a wild bat out of hell.

"The Cocopassione" is a coconut cupcake with coconut frosting and shredded coconut on top. Rough around the edges, but exotic and delicate, it is crowned by a tart passionfruit buttercream.

My favorite poet (and another Cape Codder)Stanley Kunitz wrote about life like this often:

"Outdoors all afternoon

under a gunmetal sky

staking my garden down,

I kneeled to the crickets
underfoot as if about to
burst from their crusty shells;

and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear

and brave a music pour

from such a small machine.

What makes the engine go?

Desire, desire, desire.

The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life."

By living through the bad feelings, I think you can begin to see the good. And also learn to love intensely and find ridiculous beauty in the most remarkable and unexpected places.

I guess it's just that desire, desire, desire that keeps me going on, rather than comfortably numb. It's the passion to completely experience life, its ups, its downs, and to its fullest,
and to not miss a thing.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Notes from the Field: "I'd drink it"

One word: Brilliant.

Concept, packaging, and crisp summer white taste, by a winemaker from down under based in Cali...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Case Study 25: "The Beachcomber"

While scientists keep trying to discover whether or not life had aqueous beginnings, I'd like to propose a toast to the remarkable bond that we humans have with the beach in general. Every summer, people leave their week-lives behind and escape to the shores of the world. They pack up their cars and hit the road with one goal in mind: to reach water."The Beachcomber" is a vanilla bean sandy mess of cupcake with vanilla frosting, cookie crumble and a gummy critter atop. It's reminiscent of the sand pails we had as children, and the shark teeth we scoured the beaches for, only to find hours later that they were sold for half a dollar each at the town's general store. It's the warm skinned post-sun feeling of drinking a Dark and Stormy as the sun goes down. It's the fires on the beach, and the broadest display of stars that litter the sky overhead, with the Ursa Major begging to be identified in her clear glory.
So what is it inside us that so instinctively yearns for the roaring waves and the wild beach roses? Maybe it's the infinite awe of looking out and seeing nothing but sky and water that draws us in. Maybe it reminds us of where we came from, nine blissful months of floating before our feet hit the ground.

Or maybe we do come from the water somehow. By watching the tide ebb in and seep out, we can understand how truly spontaneous, how changeable and how fragile life really is... and how little we actually do know about it.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Notes from the Field: "Hot fun in the Summertime"

A successful summer sweet is not always easy to make. More often than not, dessert is passed up when it's too hot out. But no drink, meal, or party is truly complete without a little indulgence. Some observations on achieving warm weather perfection:

-Must be light, airy, and ultimately intend to refresh.

-Must travel easily.

-Must be relatively simple, to make and consume.

-Must be able to survive heat (to some extent...or in my opinion, until viewed in its glory by those devouring it at a later hour).
-Must pair well with beverage (bonus points for summer beer,
champagne or cocktail). Increased success rate if it appeals to party more after several said beverages.
-Must be consumed in good company: tunes, location, friends. No dessert fares well in summer if eaten alone.


-Must look good at sunset...well that shouldn't be hard.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Case Study 24: "The Blackwater Turtle"

I spent a mid-June week in Truro, MA, the second to last town on the Atlantic-reaching tip of Cape Cod. It's not an area for nightlife or shopping, but a place of reflection and appreciation.

Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, has lived among the ponds of Provincelands at this far point of the world for decades, and is an example of how the beautiful remoteness and nearly untouched natural state can truly inspire.
"The Blackwater Turtle" is a chocolate cupcake with a chocolate glaze and a ground pecan shell. It is then topped with sweet caramel buttercream and crowned by a chocolate dipped pecan.

Oliver's famous poem "In Blackwater Woods" describes the perspective being in this place can bring if you allow your senses to take over and just exist in the moment. She writes:

"To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

I found that type of clarity in Truro.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Case Study 23: "The Glittering Bee"

A package arrived at the beginning of the week with a card bearing something wonderful and moving from Marc Chagall. He said "If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing." Oh how this resonates, whether it be baking, in love, and in life.
"The Glittering Bee" is a burnt butter cupcake iced in brown sugar frosting and topped with a honey-orange blossom buttercream. It is crowned with a honeybee embossed fondant disk, and glitters as all that is good with sparkling crystal sugars.

Students of bee behavior know that each member of the hive has a role, and goes through their life as destined by the motions they were predisposed to go through, almost as if they live always as determined by fate.
As humans, our minds keep us in check, giving all sorts of rationale and weighing consequences. It pushes us to experience all sorts of emotions, but can also prevent us from experiencing them fully.

So what happens when life gets too... well.. "lifey"? Maybe in these cases we should to take cue from our destiny-loving arthropod friends and feel our way through it. We might just find that by doing so, everything works out somehow.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Case Study 22: "The Tender Heart"

For all philosophy surrounding the heart, it still remains the most powerful and confusing prophet of emotion... It beats fast when we are both wonderfully excited and when we are distraught; in the most extreme ecstasy and in the darkest fear.

"The Tender Heart" is a rich chocolate cupcake filled with a fresh raspberry buttercream heart exploding through a fondant top.

As author and social identity seeker Charles Chesnutt described it over century ago: "The workings of the human heart are the profoundest mystery of the universe. One moment they make us despair of our kind, and the next we see in them the reflection of the divine image."

100 years later yet, what a marvelous mystery it remains.