Oct 012012

I wasn’t always a cupcake fan. Don’t get me wrong, I looooove cake. But cupcakes are easy to over-bake and usually come out too dry. Three dollars a pop for buttercream icing atop a bit of crumbly dry cake? No thanks.

And then came Vera. Oh boy, does that kid love cupcakes. And cupcakes are pretty great, if you think about it from a kid’s perspective — a tiny cake that’s all yours!

Vera doesn’t just obsess over eating cupcakes, she loves to watch cupcake-related videos on YouTube. We have watched so many YouTube cupcake videos, so many times, that by now we’re YouTube cupcake video experts. Thought I’d share our favorites for anyone hoping to improve your cupcake game in the future:

The Recipe: Vanilla cupcakes with raspberry buttercream icing, via Laura in the Kitchen. Laura Vitale is completely, perkily adorable and her recipes are easy and approachable. Seriously, if you enjoy cooking (or want to learn to enjoy it), you should check out her site. She makes these cupcakes look so yummy that we had to give them a try. The verdict: thumbs up! The cake was moist, the frosting delicious, and the decorative raspberries a fresh/sour contrast to the sweet buttercream. We modified by cutting the sugar so they wouldn’t be too sweet, using no-sugar-added jam (ditto), and adding a dash of almond extract to both cake and icing. They came out better than the wares at several of our local cupcake shops — not bad for a first attempt from a rusty baker and a 3-year-old!

The Decorations: Vera is particularly obsessed with cake decorating, thanks to a series of videos from Liv Hansen of Betty Crocker Kitchens. Vera loves Liv Hansen so much, she briefly renamed our dog. For a week or two, our house was full of bizarre declarations like, “Mom, tell Liv Hansen of Betty Crocker Kitchens to stop begging for my french fries!”

Anyway. If our girl is going to obsess over something, she could do worse. Liv Hansen is an artist of cake. She comes up with show-stopping kids’ cakes and explains the decorating process so well, you could actually reproduce them at home. She has a bunch of videos on Howdini (Vera loves the castle, the mermaid, and the wild animals) and several well-reviewed “Whimsical Bakehouse” books. If you think fancy kids’ cakes are too difficult to try, checking out her videos might change your mind.

The Runners-Up: Vera’s also a fan of these cake pops, these rainbow cupcakes, and this princess cake tutorial (and I enjoy the funny choice of song). Both seem to hold up well from an adult-who-might-someday-follow-the-instructions standpoint.

Have you gotten into the world of cooking and baking videos? Any favorites?

Feb 192010

When I lived in Israel, one of my favorite restaurant drinks was a tall mug of hot milk with a pool of instant coffee resting atop the foam.  Stir the powder into the milk, and you had an instant cafe au lait.  The (English side of the) menus never offered a name other than “instant coffee and hot milk,” so I took to calling the drink “Israeli coffee.”

Many years later, I spied instant espresso powder at a grocery store and grew excited about recreating my Israeli coffee memories.  It’s a great way to whip up a coffeehouse-type drink if you’re stuck at home or don’t want to shell out coffeehouse prices.  All you need is a mug of milk, a microwave, some instant espresso powder, and sugar, cocoa, or other flavoring if desired.  Something about it is comfort in a cup — I’ve gotten my mother hooked as well, and we got through so much that we buy jars by the 6-pack!

Just don’t run out of milk — it’s a sad, sad drink when added to water.  However, it does make an extremely tasty addition to chocolate-based baking.  The espresso doesn’t add a strong “coffee” flavor, just somehow deepens and enriches the chocolate.  Cook’s Illustrated baked with espresso powders for this month’s issue, and recommends the brands Cafe Bustelo or Caffe de Vita.  My personal favorite, Medaglia D’Oro, came in third.

Image sources one and two.  A favorite recipe for chewy Chocolate Espresso Cookies (even better with orange or peppermint flavoring, yum!).  And you can read all you ever wanted to know about coffee in Israel right here.