Thursday, December 29, 2011

Case Study 104: "The Champagne Year Cupcake"

"I thought I'd learned my lesson
But I secretly expected
A choir at the shore
And confetti through the fall night air

It's not a perfect plan

But it's the one we've got
 I tell ya, it's gonna be a champagne year"
- St. Vincent
This was a year.  A year to take a different direction and to stumble along the way.  A year of tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes.  A year of learning to be at peace just living in the middle place, wherever that middle place was at any given time. 
It was a year of travel- in cars, on trains and in helicopters.  A year to live in hotel rooms, sleep in childhood beds and curl up in the wee hours of the morning on beach town couches.  

It was a year of connection.  Disconnection, re-connections and utterly wonderful new connections.  A year to build a new support system, the kind to really depend on in times of romantic crises and style consultation, straight talk and life intervention, and everything in between.  
And it was a year of champagne. For celebration, in memorial and absolutely no damn reason at all.  
"The Champagne Year Cupcake" is a vanilla cupcake topped with a Chambord Champagne buttercream and little stars.  It's light and sweet with a little boozy kick. 
The nice thing about a year like this is that when it ends, we can take the stumbles, the travels, the connections, and yes, all of those champagne cocktails, and wrap them all up into a cohesive experience.  One where everything- good, bad, right and wrong- is a lesson, and absolutely nothing warrants reason for regret. 
I've promised myself that Twenty-Twelve will be my year.  Everything is in place and all signs are pointing towards awesomeness. Besides, if nothing else, there will be adventures, misadventures and copious amounts champagne.  I'll toast to that.  

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays from The Cupcaketologist...

 "Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, 
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...

 The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, 
in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there."

 I'll be celebrating Christmas in Connecticut with warm gingerbread cupcakes topped with orange peel-vanilla bean mascarpone buttercream, homemade fondant holly...
and fifteen of my wonderful family members.

  From my table to yours, 
here's wishing you a very Merry Christmas 
and a healthy and happy holiday season.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Notes from the Field: A Cozy Christmas

"And miles to go before I sleep, 
And miles to go before I sleep...."

My favorite part of Christmas is undoubtedly the feelings of nostaglia for home, for holidays past, and for the inevitable desire to be all nuzzled up someplace warm with my favorite people.

And so, I often find the most heavenly bits of the season are not really the fanciful or decadent, but rather what is cozy and just damn good.  Nothing emphasizes this more than the fact that one of my most beloved Christmases ever was celebrated powerless and completely snowed in deep in the Connecticut woods.  Brothers and sisters, cousins and grandparents, we made do all night, singing carols at the piano, doing somersaults by a roaring fire and hand-whipping heavy cream for dessert.  

I present to you the fixings for gettin' cozy.  After all, tis' the season. 

A Cozy Christmas 

Cupcake:  Gingerbread cupcakes topped with cream cheese buttercream and a ginger snap.  The cake is warm and earthy and the cream cheese buttercream is made tart with a pinch of lemon zest. 

Cocktail: Mulled wine.  While the best mulled wine I ever had was in Vienna in 2006, the best "at home" recipe combines a bottle of red wine (such as Cabernet Sauvignon) with 2 cinnamon sticks, the juice and zest of one orange, 3 whole cloves, 3 star anise, 1/2 cup of sugar, and six whole peppercorns.  Add all ingredients to a pot, simmer at medium heat for 2 minutes, then reduce to low heat for 30 minutes.  Serve in mugs and garnish with cinnamon sticks. 

Sound: The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole.  As a child, we used to put on Nat's classic Christmas album on the record player every year.  This is my favorite.  Always has been, always will be.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Notes from the Field: A Sparkling Solstice

Last night, a full moon hung low over my little elm tree-lined Connecticut town.  Outside the air was cold.  Tree skeletons stood frozen and illuminated.  Inside the light through the blinds of my childhood room cast stripes across the wall. I love this season.  

This was the sort of dreaminess that followed me through my winter years growing up here.  Light and shadows across snow packed fields; a brief glimpse of a lunar flashlight as we sped through windy back roads.  As I moved to the city, the cold winter nights turned into a hustle from street to fireside bar, where warm drinks and hands awaited to gather us in.  

I love summer, and I love fall, but there a still and quiet loveliness about a cold winter's night that holds its own.   A season like this deserves an endless celebration.

My recipe for all holiday festivities is simple enough: good music, cocktail and cupcakes.  And so in my first edition of several posts on holiday cupcake pairings, I present to you the makings to warm up your cold winter's night.

 A Sparkling Solstice

Cupcake: Vanilla bean cake topped with whipped vanilla buttercream and sugared fruits.  
The cake is light and fluffy and the sugar dusting off sets the tartness of the fruit, and sparkles by candlelight.  

Cocktail: Champagne Cocktail
In a champagne flute or saucer, soak a sugar cube in Angostura bitters.  Swipe a lemon peel across the glass and fill it with good champagne.  

Sound:  I Do Not Care for the Winter Sun - Beach House

Combine all three elements, and serve chilled for a sparkling solstice eve.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Case Study 103: "The December Delight"

December is here and it seems the weather is finally cooperating.  There will be cold breathe clouds, necessary champagne toasts and mile long scarves to get wrapped up in.  There will be bundled up strolls through the twinkle lit streets, because nothing says romance to me like New York City at night during this holiday season. 

"The December Delight" is a chocolate cupcake topped with a peppermint buttercream, chocolate ganache drizzle and smashed up peppermints.

So here's to a month of merriment, brightness and all that jazz.  However you celebrate, it's simply a reminder to love the ones your with and spread a little bit more joy.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Case 102: "The Bourbon Hot Chocolate"

When I was twenty-one, on the eve of Mozart's two-hundred-fiftieth birthday, I went to Vienna for twenty euros.

Wait.  Let me rephrase that. 

If you've ever lived abroad as a twenty-one year old, you would know that to go to Vienna for a price so nice you would actually have to take a train to a bus to a tiny airport an hour from the fashion capital of Italy.  And you'd arrive on the other end not in Austria, per se, but in a little Slovakian town called Bratislava, where paper dry pastries cost less than a euro and the sky is always gray.  

And so, in weather colder than a witch's tit, after another bus and an U-Bahn trip west, we finally arrived at the tiny hostel on Grangasse.

The experiences we had on this trip were not unlike that of most young travelers in Vienna.  There was the room with bunk beds and starched sheets; there was the hostel bar with English backpackers and spiked hair. We cruised to the apartment past the Prater and laid on our backs on the soft wood floor while the shaggy haired boy from norther Connecticut played Beatles songs on guitar. We took glowing shots in the pulsating lights and danced at the disco along the Danube before stumbling out into the streets in search of hot dogs at three AM.  

We drank gluhwein at the Naschmarkt and let butterflies land on our noses at the Schmetterlinghaus. We ate schnitzel in Stephanplatz, and Do-Re-Mi skipped under snow-filled trellises in Salzburg. We ogled over Klimt at the Belvedere, and I took home a copy of "Judith I" for my apartment wall back in Italy. We navigated the black and white floors of Hundertwasser's house, and at dusk we watched the light turn silver from the top of a hill over Schonnbrun Palace. 

"The Bourbon Hot Chocolate" is a chocolate cupcake with a creamy bourbon buttercream.  It's reminiscent of the cafe we huddled in with the painted tiles on the ceiling and endless saucers of this sweet and spike libation that brought us back to life.   

We had descended into a tavern one night, filled with wooden walls and empty tables, and sipped homemade strawberry wine until the cuckoo struck eight and we realized we were late.  I remember running through the cold cobbled streets to the wooden door in a courtyard waving tickets in our hands.  Somehow, we were just in time, and entered the tiny room of twenty-five people and fresco walls.  And there, in his practice room, on the very anniversary of his birthday, we took in Mozart's Quartett in C Major KV.157.  Half-drunk, with many musical years behind me, I remember crying.

There are two times that I remember this trip the most: when I miss my Austrian grandpa and when winter rolls around.  The mild mannered people and the unseasonal markets, the shape of the light around trees and the sound of a string quartet in the crisp air.  During that week, I mostly remember feeling that so many of my life's experiences up until that point finally made sense.  But when I think about it now, there really is something about Austria in the winter that's just right.  And that bourbon hot chocolate?  It still gets me every damn time.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Case Study 101: "The Maple Whiskey Pumpkin Cupcake"

 "Time stands still best in moments 
that look suspiciously like ordinary life."
- Brian Andreas

On the night of November 17th, fall finally arrived in New York City.  It was a crisp evening that finally smelled like dying leaves.  This morning the chill remained, and the early golden light matched what little color is left on the trees.

Of course this happens every year.  But even two months late, I just can't help but find little magic in it when it finally does.

In a late New York fall, the cold streets and the warm packed bars cause windows to glow and fog.  There's a romance and a sadness in the fact that daylight is replaced by Christmas lights, and only on that off-night do you see a sole man still braving an outside lone table on Mulberry Street. People start to move slower and it's easier to see that in Manhattan every situation is a possibility and every face is a story.  I love this.

I made these pumpkin cupcakes topped with maple whiskey cream cheese buttercream for a weekend away with pre-Thanksgiving festivities, a gala and a hell of a lot of catching up with old friends.  So here's to the ordinary fall weekends.  Before you know it, winter will set in.  Drink it up. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Case Study 100: "The Castagne"

Pilgrims and Indians.

I remember pulling on white tights and black Mary Janes in the kitchen.  I remember a floral table cloth and an ironing board, but my eyes gazed towards the television where Tom Turkey floated across Herald Square.  I was more than four and less than seven years old.

She took us to the church that was dark and quiet still, and we were alone with the early light that came across stained glass windows to the faces of the saints.  She wanted to be a nun, but grew up and took care of the priests there instead, and as a result, we were able to run the course of the pews like maps in our minds.  

Those were the same pews that would be filled with dozens of those very priests too few years later when she met God again. The same pews that we would walk quietly through twelve years after that- out the door and down the stairs- as priests in Gregorian chant took her husband to his resting place on a gray morning on the 12th of November. 

 These were my grandparents.

For the first years of my life, my cousins and I donned bonnets and feathers over our holiday best as we re-enacted the first Thanksgiving meeting at a morning mass on Staten island before 9 AM. When you grow up as an Italian-American with a big New York family, you know that this is just something that you do. 

You also know that just as quickly as you play card games or whiffle ball around the Virgin Mary statue in the backyard, you play Communion, giving each other cookie "Bodies of Christ." You know that at any given time someone would be throwing rocks and someone would be yelling, and there would be more than two nuns at the kitchen table telling you about your Roman nose. Someone would be doing penance on the stairs for the rock-throwing, and our grandpa, the King of Hearts, the always constant in this wonderful chaos, would be mixing the Ambrosia. He was the one bit of non-Italianess in the family that gave everyone their height and calmed their Sicilian tempers.

When this is your family, you understand that a salty antipasto or stuffed artichokes precedes any turkey dinner, and trays of dessert precede even that. I can vividly see my baby uncle's fingers sneaking under the cellophane wrapping of Renato's cookies before 5pm. I can see my godmother following suit.  My mother would be after that and in no time, I could see many cheeky smiles around the table, as if every year they were fake surprised to find that we always eat dessert first. 

"The Castagne" are vanilla cupcakes stuffed with a chocolate chestnut cream and topped with a vanilla bean buttercream.  The chestnut, which drops from the tree in the fall, has long been a symbol of abundance, of bounty, of rejoicing in what we have. 

And so, when I think of this, I think of my family.  The pictures of the children at Thanksgiving that have grown over the years.  The grand-babies have been replaced with great-grand-babies, who wave tiny fingers in the air at their angels: our two grandparents who grew this abundant family and now protect it from above.

Last week I went to church, on a Wednesday at lunch. It was a new parish, one I'd never been before, but the way the light hit the walls, it was familiar.  You see, familiarity to me is not the likeness of something to my memory, but the closeness of how much I can relate the experience to my family and find peace in that.

Those walls are everywhere.  In a cathedral off 68th street, in the church of seven churches in Italy, in my uncle's hall in New Jersey where we gather in memorial of it all in honor of my grandfather each year.

This is my family.  I take comfort in knowing that with them, no matter who I am or where I am, I am never alone.  I could find them in a song or in the movement of light, and when it comes down to it, that's what familiarity is all about: it's familial...and it means that there will always be dessert.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Case Study 99: The Day is Mine

"When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world."
- Mary Oliver

As I finish my twenty-seventh trip around the sun, I find myself here: settled.  Not settling- never settling- but landed, in a way, in a place that I've always dreamed of. 

It might be fleeting, but I'll try to remember how this kind of wholeness feels.  I will think about it next week, next month and next year.  And I will hold it close, because by getting here I haven't been given anything but the key to open a brand new door to life.

Tonight I want for nothing but to be with my people.  To be in my place.  To surround myself with music, faces and glittering light. 
Tomorrow is my twenty-seventh birthday.


So here's to today, my own new year's eve, and to twenty-seven plus twenty-seven plus twenty-seven more years of awe and wonderment after this.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Case Study 98: Prizewinning Pumpkin Cupcakes

On Saturday, I had the honor of competing as a finalist in my little Connecticut town's Fall Festival Pumpkin Recipe Contest.  

Selected by judges the prior week, my recipe for "Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes in a Ginger Graham Cracker Crust with a Maple Cream Cheese Buttercream and Candied Pepita on top" competed against other pumpkin recipes in both sweet and savory categories.  The competition was judged in a "Throwdown" fashion with scoring by local food celebrities and "People's Choice" alike.  And the result was...

 I won!

Prizes and glory aside, it was a priceless experience in my little hometown.  The weather was perfectly autumnal, and absolutely nothing beats the look on people's faces when they eat something that you are really proud of.  

I will include the "award-winning" recipe after it is published in the local newspaper, so check back soon!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Case Study 97: "The Ginger Snap Pumpkin Cupcake"

Today was one of those Fridays.  

You know, the kind that ends one of those weeks.  The kind where you find yourself in the afternoon, halfway between gazing longingly at the clock and forgetting exactly where you are.  And so, I was hanging out in that middle place around three o'clock eastern standard time when I looked at the calendar and realized that there was not one but two countdowns beginning on this day. 

In less than one month, I will make a swift escape from my mid-twenties.

Long days and tough weeks require quiet nights, and so tonight I opted out of a wild night of traipsing through the city and instead hopped a train out of the city to my in-between space.  I poured a glass of a fifteen year old bottle of Chianti, turned on my new AM/FM and decided to let this whole aging thought bake for a bit...along with a third go of a recipe test for the perfect pumpkin cupcake.  

In many ways, age to me really isn't anything but a number.  You see, I've surrounded myself with people of all numbers my entire life.   I am the daughter of parents who defy any kind of years.  And I really don't feel any older as the months fly by. But over the past year, I have in fact aged.  I've refined my tastes and my choices.  I've pared down my necessities in favor of simplification, quality and what just feels right.  And I have entered a bit of a spiritual revolution, of which I am slowly, but surely, finding my way out.  

How does this bring me to the pumpkin cupcake?  Well, my first recipe in this series of tests was all wrong, and to be honest, the second wasn't much better.  My ideas were jumbled.  There were opinions and suggestions and quite a lot of noise.  The tastes were interesting, but the cake was flat, the texture off and the crowing adornment less than elegant.  Most of all, these cakes just weren't me

And so, I landed here: a light and fluffy pumpkin cupcake, nestled in a ginger graham cracker crust and topped with a maple cream cheese buttercream and a little pepita.   It's simpler than I anticipated.  It's clean and light, but underneath it's swirling with spice, creaminess and flavor.  It's just right.   

Luckily, with cakes, as with life, time is of the essence.  Time allows for trial.  It permits frustration and denial, and then it gives the opportunity to take the thought out of it and let what's natural fall into place.

Madness, like youth, can be a great catalyst for creativity and ideas. But time, time begets a sort of enlightenment that is different.  The kind that can bring peace and grace.  And the kind that can lead to finally finding the absolutely right cake.  

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Notes from the Field: Oh snap...

I was absolutely delighted to see a little cheeky cupcake throw-down in this week's New Yorker magazine.   

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Case Study 96: "The Sweet Bourbon Pecan Spud"

Tomorrow is the first day of autumn.

The temperature has already dropped.  Women are wearing tights.  And that post-work promise of a few bright hours of sun, for lazy strolls and long runs, is quickly turning into a rushed dash home to grasp anything that resembles daylight. It's getting hard to keep up the summer fight...

So here is my promise to the new season.

For the rest of September, we will throw on boots, and crunch through the golden grass, as we remember the salvation of a fall weekend in childhood spent in an orchard, a pumpkin patch or a pile of leaves.  Clear blue Saturdays will be savored.  We will brush our fingers through the flannel in our drawers and take notice of the speckled corn husks in the markets. We'll accept it. 
When October rolls around, we'll miss the smell of barbecues at dusk, but smile anyways, because somewhere down the street a fireplace is burning midday. We'll get crazy at a Halloween soul shakedown in the woods, and make pies from the dozens of apples picked on a cool weekend.  The hot cider will get spiked with whiskey and cold fingers will get tucked into someone's jean pockets. 

By November, we'll celebrate. There will be big a raucous group of people and a birthday party, in an orchard, or a vineyard or a bar.  Rainy days will be the hardest days to wake up for, and so we'll complain and grumble, but carry on anyway with endless cups of tea, warm bowls of soup and a hot toddy to tuck us in before bed. We'll finally pack away those summer dresses for good, and wear wool over our tights.  

We'll make plans, and start counting back the days on the calendar, thinking about what we did, what we're going to do, and how to make sure we got it all in before the last good day of the year. 

"The Sweet Bourbon Pecan Spud" is a sweet potato cupcake topped with a bourbon pecan buttercream and a maple glaze pecan on top.  The cake is light and fluffy and surprisingly, not overmoist.  The buttercream is nutty, with a touch of vanilla bean and a boozy kick.   Tis' the season for gourds, for roots and for nuts, and in my kitchen, I say the more the merrier. 
Autumn to me will be for driving around the windy roads of Westchester County, top down and heat up, as the criss-crossing tree branches above bear new gold on their fingertips.  It will be for pulling wool socks over cold knees, an Aran sweater over the fading tan and lined leather gloves kept close enough in reach for the hands that holds the chill a little longer everyday. And it will be for the dusty records of Neil Young, crackling alongside the candles on the deck that no longer keep the bugs away, but rather shed a little warmth as the moon rises over the lawn.  

Although summer is over, I think I'm finally ready to make the most of fall.  Like I said, it's all about acceptance and promises.   

So, how will you celebrate the season? 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Notes from the Field: Cupcakes to go...


Lately this has been my favorite way to transport little treats.  It's mess free, reusable and even cheaper than an individual cake box.  Not to mention infinitely more charming.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Case Study 95: "The Big Apple"

"Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. Eh uh, no, make that he, he romanticized it all out of proportion. Better. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin. Uh, no, let me start this over..."
-Woody Allen 

In two short weeks, I will celebrate one little circle around the sun here in New York City.

The Manhattan that I grew up with, the one I dreamed about as a child, was Woody Allen's paradise.  It was based on my parents' stories from the 70s and my own uptown dreams of romance on the steps of a museum at dusk.  Fueled by music and lighting, I imagined what I knew: ballets at Lincoln Center and family dinners before The Met.  New York was knishes at delis, bocce ball courts in restaurants and foie gras at Payard's.  I savored the painted walls of Bemelman's, the front pews at St. Patrick's, and the glamour of Fifth Avenue stone architecture lit by the evening sun through the trees of Central Park.   

As I grew older, of course, this all changed. I spent college summers catching the last train home to suburbia after spending long days trekking through labs uptown and monkey colonies downtown doing neuroscience research.  The classics turned old, and the grandeur lost its hold.  There were concerts at Rumsey Playfield, secret restaurants and movies in parks. I found art in modern galleries and photography.  I drank sangria in garden bars and martinis on rooftops, and on one hot night, I got piggy-backed through the streets in a miniskirt to see Pearl Jam.

When we change our lives, we jump into the unknown, and this time the depth of my abyss was three-fold.   The city I dreamed of, the city I knew, and the city that I realistically live in are very different things.  And so, the past year has been filled with experiences that, even with all of my expectations, I could have never imagined.   

On my first day of work, I accidentally drove through the Battery Tunnel and got lost in Brooklyn.  I continuously missed turns, subway stops and ran for trains in heels at the end the day.  When something in my life didn't feel right, I walked out the door and headed straight for the Brooklyn Bridge.  There I took in a light breeze and the understanding that if you stand right in the middle of something for just long enough, you can see all sides clearly.  
  I took myself to concerts and movies and cafes alone.  On my birthday, I sat for nearly an hour on the Bighorn Sheep bench in the Museum of Natural History at eleven o'clock in the morning.   I took the time to see my city in the eyes of a traveler, and when I started working again, those of cynic.  

I cursed at the subway and the deathly smells lingering over ten blocks on Broadway in midtown.  I danced in a graffiti-filled sweat den in the Village with a twenty-three year old filmmaker until three in the morning.  I was romanced by an academic with a vintage copy of Salinger on a grassy knoll in a Staten Island park.  I threw dinner parties in my apartment, on my rooftop and by the water.  I ran along the Hudson daily. I baked, I relaxed and I snuck into bed early more nights than I thought I would. 

"The Big Apple" is an apple and walnut cupcake topped with a brown sugar cream cheese buttercream.  It is sweet and earthy, crispy at the edges, and sturdy and strong. Just like good old New York City. 

I have met so many wonderful people in this city so far, who, whether they're still with me or not, have changed my life forever.

But the truth is, I'm still finding my place.  With my next move comes a new space, a new neighborhood and a new year to explore.  Everything is uncertain and opportunities are endless, because in New York City every turn could stop you short, or push you forward or leave you on your way.  My chapter one might be wrapping up, but our story has really just begun.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Notes from the Field: Sweet Sunny September Friday.

 No needs for words today.  

But the rain has finally stopped and the sun is out.  

I've been listening to Friday songs and dreamy tunes. I've been watching the afternoon light through the trees and feeling pretty elated about the fact that summer has decided not to go, yet.  An anniversary approaches, and I love New York City more than ever.  

This all, and a pending weekend on the beach away with friends, makes for one very happy cupcake.  

Banana cake with peanut butter buttercream, a chocolate dip, and sweet little flags that wave in the slight September breeze. 

For a birthday girl that I love real hard.