Monday, December 31, 2012

Notes from the Field: The countdown is on...

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
- T.S. Eliot

As 2011 came to a close, I made a promise to myself that 2012 would be better. It was going to be my "Champagne Year," twelve months marked by growth, success and love to outdo the tough ones I had just been through. 2012 delivered.

It was a year of travel, on helicopters, in cars and on every train-line in the Northeast. It was a year of romance. New love and lost love, friend love, baby love and dozens of great Manhattan date stories. It was a year of joy. A year of wild Tuesday nights, 2AM skinny dipping, far too much champagne and a lot of best/worst decisions made. And most of all, it was a year of hope. A year of seeing hope in even the bleakest situations, finding hope in the simplest wonders of humanity and acknowledging how having even the littlest amount of faith can change the chemical reaction between your body and the world.

Sitting here on the last day of this year, I can't help but reflect on how just the smallest moments, like meeting a person or changing your view of a situation, can change your life forever. I'm amazed at how virtues like patience and acceptance can completely change the impact of experience in your life. And most of all, I marvel at how allowing yourself to explore people and places for the sake of exploring - with nothing to lose, except maybe yourself for a bit if you're lucky - can bring you back to what you knew all along about yourself.

Tonight I'll celebrate with a few of my dearest, a lot of bubbles and good vanilla cupcakes with gold painted champagne buttercream. 2012 may be coming to a close, but as we know, every end is in fact another good opportunity to begin. And so I raise a toast to the beauty and good fortune that this year has brought me, and look forward to much much more champagne in 2013.   

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Case Study 123: "The Winter Wonderland Cupcake"


"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.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep." 

 - Robert Frost 

Robert Frost was popular in our household growing up, and having a New England childhood, this poem was a favorite of mine. There was just something about the imagery of those dark woods, the never-ending snowfall and a quiet journey. I'll always fondly remember the cozy and romantic feeling it gave me this time of year. 

The winter solstice falls on Friday, and I have to say is, dear God, let there be snow this year. And if there is not, at least let there be vanilla cupcakes with vanilla buttercream and flaked glitter, coconut and gold painted woodland creatures on top. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Case Study 122: "The White Christmas Tree"

I have to be honest took me a bit longer than usual this year to get into the Christmas spirit. 

This had me concerned because normally, Christmas is my jam. See, I'm nostalgic almost to the point of fault. I find joy in the smell of roasted nuts in the night air on New York City streets. I relish in falling asleep early in my childhood bed, with that safe feeling that my parents are still awake in the living room. And there is no greater sound than the whirring of our aging cookie shooter gun that, after thirty Christmas seasons, still churns out the best damn butter cookies in all of the land.

Now this year, Thanksgiving came early. I've been on the road, heading north to south and back again, all in a week's worth of time. And last week the weather in Manhattan hit sixty-three degrees. 

Whatever the reason, last week I finally decided something had to be done. I strung garland around the antlers on my wall. I trimmed our family tree. I baked Christmas cookies by candlelight. Yet, still the feeling held out. 

Until about nearly four o'clock on Tuesday afternoon. 

It was a cold day in Massachusetts, and from my desk, tiny lights twinkled around a little tree as the sky turned dark from gray to blue. I had no meetings, just work to do, and so I plugged in and pressed play. I passed the kitschy eighties holiday tracks. I even made it through the Vince Guaraldi Trio just fine. And then I hit Sinatra, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and I was a goner. 

The thing about Christmas is that it defies time and space. It reminds me of years past, when nobody was tethered to anything but each other. When we sat by the fire, the kids rolling around like puppies on the floor and the adults telling stories on the couch. It makes me think of driving through cold streets, bundled up in the backseat as we checked out Christmas lights and slowly crept through snow-dusted Connecticut roads. And it reminds me that no matter how hard I try to bring back those feelings again, the world will never be exactly the same as it was those days. People grow up, time moves on and though we can never go back home to that place, the way we hold onto it is what sets the foundation for what we make our Christmases today. 

I literally cannot wait for next week. I can't wait to bake more holiday cupcakes, like these gingerbread cupcakes topped with vanilla and orange peel buttercream trees and edible glitter. I can't wait to finish work and snuggle in for a few quiet weeks. I can't wait for my dad to keep the fire going all day long. And I really can't wait to see my nephew in footie reindeer pajamas and his little round face on Christmas morning. But that's the thing about Christmas. The spirit, the memories and that real Christmas feeling? It's timeless.  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Case Study 121: "The Bourbon Salted Caramel Pumpkin Cupcake"

Are you feeling what I'm feeling? 

It's the end of November, the early frost is setting in and we've all reached the same point: pumpkin fatigue.

And from reading the title above, I know what you guys are thinking. Holy bananas,this chick isn't going to whip up another pumpkin cupcake, is she?  

Well, I am. 

But wait, here's the thing. This is the end... the very very end(until 2013). I promise. There will be no more pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, or gold-flecked caramel figs. You see, by the time we reach Friday, when we're all full from that big day where we eat all of the things, we'll have already started to be served new stuff like peppermint, Christmas carols and dreams of potato latkes with wings(personal dreams, you were).

So let's think of this as "one last hurrah." One last fling before the ringing Hershey Kiss commercials hit TV and that baby polar bear slides down a glacier and somehow finds a bottle of Coca-Cola.

I think pumpkin cupcakes topped with bourbon salted caramel buttercream and spiced shortbread leaves will do the trick, don't you?

Good. So here's what we're going to do. First we'll whip up the fluffiest pumpkin cupcakes in all of the lands. I'm going to suggest you get all crazy and use "organic" pumpkin if going the canned route here because the consistency is perfect for creating said fluff. 

Then, while the cupcakes cool, get down and dirty with some caramel sauce. This isn't your mother's best friend from high school's mom's caramel sauce. No, this one has salt. And bourbon. I used this recipe. Now tread lightly here. If you put a spoon from the cooking bourbon salted caramel into your mouth, you will get burned

When the caramel has cooled COMPLETELY, make your frosting using a basic vanilla frosting recipe. But instead of using milk and vanilla, use the bourbon salted caramel. See where I'm going here? Use your eyes and watch the consistency.

We've reached the grand finale. Time to frost those cupcakes! Are you ready? Let's go. 

Pipe or schmear your bourbon salted caramel buttercream onto your cupcakes and top with something festive. It's Thanksgiving, which stands for abundance and overload and thankfulness of things, so this could be sprinkles, some form of cornucopia tchotchke or my choice, spiced shortbread leaves (recipe here).

We're done! One last hurrah of Pumpkin Cupcakes. See, that was easy. 

Now go forth and eat! 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Notes from the Field: The Classic Birthday Cupcake

It's no surprise that I love me a good birthday celebration.

I'm all about the birthday signs, the party hats and the crazy nights out. But I reserve a special kind of celebration for my nearest and dearest people. 

It seems like the older I get, the more I value my truest friends. And if the past weeks of chaos in the northeast have taught us anything, it's that these kinds of connections are to be held very dear. 

I'm talking about the kind of friends that don't play games. They are honest, true and direct. They are without expectations and are full of respect. When you meet people like this, you know that you're kindred spirits. Whether introduced by fate, friends or virtual connection. The ones that know your secrets, your passions and your values just by being in your life. And so, these are the people that you look forward to celebrating most.

I think vanilla bean cupcakes with double vanilla buttercream and rainbow sprinkles do it best.

Now, it's not typical that I share my recipes, but I do believe that every baker should have a good classic birthday cake recipe on hand for celebrations such as these. So after the jump, you can find mine.

And so, happy, happy birthday to my sweet and true friend, Silvie. Here's wishing you a new year filled with happiness, love, fortune, wild adventures and much much more. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Notes from the Field: On turning 28...

Tuesday is my twenty-eighth birthday.   


I was going to whip up a nice long post commemorating the end of my twenty-seventh year. It would have been a chronicle of love. It would have talked about going all in, seeing things through and watching hard work pay off. It would have drawn a picture of four seasons in Central Park, helicopter rides to work and getting windblown on the northern California coast. It would have thrown in jokes about crying on New York City subways, a slew of hilarious dates and a one-toothed dog named Ferdinand. It would have told the story of new life, a wild summer and one thousand champagne cocktails. 


But instead, I'll tell you about Saturday night, when we gathered around a long harvest table in a tiny uptown pub bathed in candlelight and laughter. Thanks to the storm, it was intimate. There were a few hurricane refugees and the ones who could make the trek uptown. There was flowing champagne, sparkler fires and tiny crown fascinators atop our heads. There was a bar takeover, and we played musical chairs, had a soul shakedown and convinced complete stranger friends to join us for a birthday limbo. It was perfect. 


And then there were these: pumpkin cupcakes topped with vanilla buttercream, fresh figs and a gold-flecked caramel drizzle. They were shared with family, friends, random bystanders and a few of our favorite British pub boys in the world. They were divine.

When I think of what really makes a year, I am reminded that it's what we learn from the ups and downs, the experiences, the trials and those moments that we find completeness. Saturday night was a reminder that I so have what I need and more. I'm overwhelmed at what twenty-seven brought. It was everything I could have never even dreamed of, and one hell of a trip around the sun. I can't wait to see how my new year unfolds.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Case Study 120: "The Ginger Pear Cupcake"

Today is for reunions and it looks like the weather is going to play along.

Days like this always remind me of fall in Bologna. The gray sky, the smell of the coming November rain and the first sights of marzipan in the pasticerria windows.

It reminds me of how we roused late and brewed caffe in our tiny perk before indulging in biscuits and Nutella from the jar. How the light would peek around the corners of the narrow streets, and in the early morning the grates would go up at the Mercato delle Erbe as the statue of Ugo Bassi pointed ahead.  

It makes me remember our homemade haircuts and long lasagna lunches. Parties at the house, marked by Nina Simone and hash cigarettes. The long walks up the six hundred and sixty-six portici that led to the sanctuary on the hill. And most of all, it brings memories of long afternoons at Il Cortile Cafe, where the day faded to night and we started every evening with prosecco by candlelight and listening to Django Reinhardt covers played live.

And so it's nothing but fitting that on a gray late October day, I'll reunite with my best Bologna people right here in New York. 

Back then we ate. And we ate. And we ate. For fun, for sustenance and really for no reason at all. We always went back for seconds, we never did it with shame. All of our senses and our gastronomical dreams were awakened and brought to life. And so, there's no way in hell that I would welcome friends to America empty-handed without the best that fall could offer. 

Fresh ginger and molasses cupcakes with vanilla-pear buttercream and dark chocolate candied ginger shavings on top. Yes, I think that will do. 

Today we'll stroll arm and arm like we used to. We'll take in an early aperitivi in a dim light cafe before the rest of the working world joins in. We'll drink prosecco, chats about boys and share memories about the dear old days of our adventures abroad nearly eight years ago. And as true friendship always goes, nothing, nothing, will have changed at all.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Notes from the Field: An anniversary.


Four years ago, I started a blog. 

I'm not quite sure what drove me to this madness. Perhaps it was because I was twenty-three, over the top and running with a pack of international Philadelphia foodies that were 8-15 years older than myself. Or maybe it was because I needed a place to diary my travels as a young anthropology major working in the insurance industry and trying to make sense of it all. Journals were never my strong suit, so maybe this could work. Regardless of the reason, "The Cupcaketologist" came to existence in October of 2008. 

It started fast, and I had plenty of tasters. My first posts were lofty. I baked chocolate salted caramel cupcakes, inspired by some odd Marcello Mastroianni dreams. My chef friend approved, but advised that next time I should use Maldon

Next came one of my signature and most beloved cupcakes ever made: honey and fig cake topped with goat cheese buttercream and a carmelized fig.  

Now I had everyone's attention. I even created a logo (by hand,using old recipe books that I folded, glued, scanned, and inserted into the blog).

I did bacon before bacon was cool.

I concocted disastrous malted egg cupcakes after a rough day of work and made the epitome of my confectionary dreams come true: the foie gras cupcakes that had me dancing around my kitchen like a fool.


I featured pets.

I chronicled my travel diaries through cupcakes. From Newport to Austria, England, France and to Italy more than anyone could even count.

I baked my way through birthdays, breakups, and more than one career change.

I made a lot of cupcakes inspired by New York. From Woody Allen's New York...

To the architecture of New York (I was reaching here)...

To a recent spin around Central Park in the fall.

My cupcakes won awards, raised money, and were commissioned for parties, companies and gifts. 

It's funny to think of blogging today and what it was back then. Now people do it for money. They do it for fame. They publish books from their blogs and they travel around the world as marketers for brands. 

I'm not sure that this will ever be like that for me. My blog has introduced me to a lifetime of experiences, and I think those are things more valuable than anything easy to spend. It's opened doors to friends, to conversations and to a whole side of myself that sees baking as a therapy, a passion and an art. A side that bakes to soothe, to make sense of my crazy imagination, to feed my friends and to translate experiences from my past and present into something tangible and good. I also did it for the writing.

This blog has followed me from a tiny Naudain Street galley to my Wall St. apartment with a dishwasher (!!). From kitchens in France and the South Coast of England to nearly every Philadelphia oven I could find. These are the moments, the times and the places that in some wild, whimsical and very strange ways have helped define life in my 20s.

Thank you for being part of my journey so far. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Case Study 119: "The Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookie Cupcake"

Good God, it's lovely out there. There's something about autumn in New York that makes it more wonderful than the smell of roasted nuts, burning leaves and cold hayrides together. It's the light. 

Put on your headphones and head to Central Park. Dave Brubeck should come first:"Take Five." There are young women walking arm and arm down Park Avenue in capes and brogues. The church bells at St. Ignatius Cathedral toll 6pm and there are tourists huddling on the stairs of The Met. The street musician dressed like Michael Jackson drops his horn to play their hasty photographer. Head north and a bespectacled gentleman in a navy blazer strolls past Guggenheim, trailing cigar smoke behind him. A Westie in a plaid coat trots leash-less at his side.   

Cross the Rhododendron Mile and take a lap around the Reservoir. Now your song is Duke Elligton's "Take the A Train," but you're still on foot. The sun begins to set and the light on the water is illuminated a sort of yellow tinge under the watchful eyes of The Eldorado's twin peaks. Golden indeed. Head back across the Eighty-Six Street Traverse to the Great Lawn and weave down to the Lake. Put on the Armstrong and Fitzgerald version of "Autumn in New York." Stop to see the way the Weeping Willows cast monster shadows across the water past the Boathouse.  

Take off your headphones as you climb the steps at Bethesda Terrace. A lone trumpeter stands where the shade meets the sun through the arching elms on The Mall, and he wails a dirty wah-wah version of "Summertime." In memorium, you think, but you carry on. Under statues of literary greats, an accordionist plays Edith Piaf's standard "Autumn Leaves." Your heart aches a little every time you hear it, but it's in the way that only fall can cause an ache, by juxtaposing warm sentimental feelings with a time of year when everything dies. Turn on Coltrane's "Central Park West" and make your way back uptown. 

Back in my kitchen, I can't help but keep things cozy. Candles are lit, windows are cracked open, and I throw on wool socks and flannel while my oven heats up. I bake and I bake and I end up with these deliciously airy pumpkin cupcakes topped with coffee and vanilla bean buttercream and a pumpkin chocolate chip cookie on top. I eat them for breakfast, I deliver them to friends and on my way back home, I head back to the park.

This is how I dreamed it up. As a child, I imagined New York as a sort of love affair, and it always took place in the fall. We'd hide away in the dark of Bemelman's while the sun set gold outside, secretly wishing and praying that on any other day but Monday, Woody Allen would stroll right into The Carlyle and fill the air with a clarinet sound even moodier than the clinking of ice cubes in Scotch and the quick swishing of white-coat waiters.

I'd smooth out my skirt and he'd straighten his tie. We'd throw on our trenches and slip outside - skipping first across Fifth to the Ramble, where we'd make a dash for the steps of the Museum of Natural History. We'd ascend, step by step by step, until he stopped. And time would slow, nothing else would exist and the chilling city would whirl at a million light years' speed around us, just as is does on every other day of any other year.

If you come to the city and open your eyes and ears, you'll find it. There's romance all around, and there is no season and no city that reminds you of that quite like autumn in New York.