Drunken Fig and Honeyed Walnut Sundae

As I type this, I am sitting in my parents’ backyard, at a table in what I’ve been calling their “redwood grove,” sipping a glass of prosecco and thinking about vacation. I think there are a few different levels of vacation, and with them come differing levels of indulgence. The good old “staycation,” a concept that has been around for decades but which only became an official word in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010, seems to call for something humble – homey – perhaps a slice of pound cake with some berries or a smear of jam and not much else. A heavy-duty vacation – the kind that requires airline travel or a passport – requires something more indulgent. On a voyage up and down the East Coast that N. and I took a number of years ago, we unexpectedly ended up in a first class train cabin on a leg from Boston to New York City, and as we sat back and wondered at our luck, an attendant suddenly, unexpectedly, dropped off two gleaming glasses of lush, impossibly light chocolate mousse. That’s a big vacation dessert. Indulgent. Rich. Not the first thing you’d choose from a cookbook. Big vacations are opera cakes and crème brûlée and napoleons.

But there are also in between vacations: those that require only a day trip, or when you lie around in your rented beach-house-for-the-weekend with no agenda besides thinking all day about what will be for dinner, and then scrapping all your plans and going to get tacos instead. There are the ones that consist of living with friends for a week because you only get to see them once a year, or dropping by the family’s house for a few warm evenings to shake off the spent semester, or grabbing a hotel room unexpectedly because the glory of the afternoon wore on so long you can’t bear the idea of the drive home, and besides, you’re on vacation.

This dessert is for one of those in between kinds of vacations. The idea came from Judy Rodgers’ red wine figs in her Zuni Café Cookbook, a thick tome spilling with interesting combinations that I’m still working my way through, and a garam masala laced bowl of walnuts I whipped up for a last minute happy hour a month or two ago. The result is a glorious trifecta of textures and temperatures: ice cream, chewy figs steeped in warm, orange-spiked red wine, and toasted walnuts tossed in spiced honey. It’s a very adult sort of sundae – no sprinkles, no bright berries, no whipped cream or chocolate of any sort. Yet it’s also indulgent – wine-drenched figs intense enough you’ll only want a few, and warm walnuts dripping with honey, so reminiscent of baklava, slowly melting the rich, cold, sweet ice cream underneath. And if you are lucky enough to choose an ice cream that is studded with dozens of tiny, crunchy seeds scraped from that precious pod, well, all the better.

And now that you have this on a Monday, you’ve got something to dream about (and get going: the figs need a few days to steep and soak up that wine) until you get to your weekend, and whatever kind of vacation it holds.

Drunken Fig and Honeyed Walnut Sundaes
Makes 4 sundaes
About 40 minutes active time, plus at least 2 days for figs to steep
For Drunken Figs:
1½ cups red wine
2 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier
2 bay leaves
1 strip of orange zest, about half an inch wide, taken from stem end to navel end of orange
8 ounces dried black mission figs
1-2 teaspoons honey
For Honeyed Walnuts:
1 cup walnut halves or pieces, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons honey
¼ – ½ teaspoon salt (we found ½ teaspoon was right on the edge of being too much)
½ teaspoon garam masala
To serve:
Vanilla bean ice cream, about two scoops per person

 

  • To make the drunken figs, heat the wine and orange liqueur in a small saucepan with the bay leaves and boil until it has reduced to ½ cup. This will take around 20 minutes.
  • While the wine reduces, stem and halve the figs (cut from stem end to belly end to expose all of the seeds) and place them in a 2 – 4 cup vessel with a tight fitting lid. Add the strip of orange zest.
  • When the wine has reduced, stir in the honey, then pour over the figs and zest. Cover and shake, “leave to swell for a few days,” shaking periodically (for me, this ended up being 2 days), then refrigerate until ready to use. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.
  • To make the honeyed walnuts, preheat the oven to 300F and scatter the walnuts on a baking tray. Bake until lightly browned and fragrant; 10-15 minutes. While they toast, combine the honey, salt, and garam masala in a small bowl with a whisk. When the walnuts come out of the oven, immediately scrape and pour the honey over them and toss to coat. The hot walnuts will heat and thin the honey, making it easier to combine.
  • To serve, place two scoops of ice cream into a dish of your choice. Scoop and drizzle about ¼ cup of the walnuts over the top, then add 5-6 fig halves plus a little remaining liquid, if there is any. Eat immediately.

Save

Advertisements

Apple Bourbon Caramel Topping

If you’re following along on Instagram, you’ll have seen that N. and I have been up to big things. Huge things! House shaped things! According to the bank, and the escrow office, and our realtor, and the seller, we are now home-owners! We can’t quite believe it ourselves, but enough independent sources verify it that we’re coming to think it must be true. Between the searching, and the paperwork, and the other paperwork, and the packing, and the paperwork, and the fact that the semester is still in, if not full, at least substantial swing, there hasn’t been a great deal of time for blogging.

But still, home ownership achieved on a house that was, quite frankly, nicer than what we’d expected we would be able to find, feels like cause for celebration. So quickly, on a day during which I need to take care of so many things, I want to give you something with which to pause, and to celebrate.

The nice thing about May is that even though it’s spring, there are still the occasional chilly days during which something warm and sweet is everything you need, and on the others, you can just pile that something warm and sweet over something cold and thick. It’s a can’t-go-wrong topping. Think apples. Think bourbon. Think deeply melted and gooey and caramel-y brown sugar, and the right spice of cinnamon, and a swirl of butter, all melted gloriously together, ready to crown anything from waffles (as we did) to pancakes to bread pudding to french toast to ice cream.

My serving suggestion: make yourself a batch of waffles. I like these, as they allow me to use up some sourdough starter from baking days when I’ve gotten a little too enthusiastic, and unlike many sourdough waffle recipes, don’t require an overnight rise. Layer a waffle, a generous spoonful of caramel, then repeat, and add a heaping dome of greek yogurt right on top. The caramel is decadent and the apples provide excellent texture and fall perfectly into the holes of the waffle, and the yogurt is all tang and creaminess and acidic balance for the sweetness of the caramel. It’s breakfast, it’s brunch, it’s a sweet breakfast-for-dinner, and it’s an unquestionably good late-night-when-you-may-have-already-had-some-bourbon snack.

Enjoy. I hope you have something lovely on your plate to celebrate.

 

Apple Bourbon Caramel Topping
20-30 minutes
Makes ¾ – 1 cup (enough for 3-4 servings of waffles)
4 tablespoons butter
2 apples, quartered, cored, and diced into ¼ inch chunks (I leave the peel on because I like the texture. If you don’t like it, you can peel the apples first)
½ cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2-4 tablespoons bourbon
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons heavy cream

 

  • In a skillet or saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When it is fully melted and foaming, add the apple chunks. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they are tender: 5-10 minutes. If they seem to be browning aggressively, give them a good stir and turn down the heat a bit.
  • Once the apple pieces are tender, add the brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, and vanilla. Turn down the heat to medium-low, if you haven’t already. Cook down until the brown sugar is fully dissolved and the mixture is bubbly and thick: 2-3 minutes.
  • Off the heat, add the bourbon and the lemon juice, then stir to combine and simmer slowly for about 10 minutes. At the last minute, stir in the heavy cream.
  • Serve warm over waffles, pancakes, French toast, ice cream, or (almost) anything else you can imagine.

Brown Butter Apple Pound Cake

I’ve tried to start this post three or four times now. The first time I tried to skirt the events of the last week entirely, but that felt like lying. The second time I was overtly political, explaining exactly how I felt and why. That felt more honest, but it didn’t feel like the right move. The third time I tried to be conciliatory, citing concerns on both sides.

2016-food-blog-november-0385In the face of change, particularly because it is not the sort of change I agree with or was hoping for, I retreated to comfort. I know this is not particularly useful. I know I am reasonably safe for a number of reasons, and closing the blinds and wallowing is not helping the people who are – or soon may be – not so safe, but I did it anyway. Finally, I decided I need more time to process what I want to say, so I’ll offer this instead, as unhelpful and uninspiring as it might be: this week was rough. Let’s have cake.

2016-food-blog-november-03382016-food-blog-november-0329For me, the deepest and firmest food comfort is baking. It makes me think of being a child, it makes me think of warmth and sweetness; it makes me feel sound. In his examination of sugar and its coming to and impacts on Europe, particularly England, Sidney W. Mintz suggests that perhaps the reason we are so attracted to sugar, especially when we are young, is because human breast milk is sweet. So it makes sense that when we are troubled, or we feel that we need safety and security, we turn to sweet foods.

2016-food-blog-november2016-food-blog-november-0356The original inspiration for this cake came from Starbucks. A few years ago as part of their fall line-up of baked goods, Starbucks rolled out a brown butter pound cake spiked with Washington apples, and after sampling the dense crumb and the wet, almost too sweet apple chunks, I wanted to do my own version. For the base recipe, I went with that great baking bible Baking Illustrated, by the same cooks and recipe testers as Cooks Illustrated. Their pound cake uses cake flour for a tight but tender crumb, plenty of butter, and the richness and color and emulsifying power of extra egg yolks, rather than all whole eggs. Mine adds the extra step of browning the butter first (which then necessitates refrigerating it back into solidity before creaming it with the sugar), and a generous two cups of apple cubes – granny smith, for the tartness and minimal juice expelled during baking.

2016-food-blog-november-03462016-food-blog-november-0352Most pound cakes have a soft top that splits as it bakes, and this one did offer that classic cleaving in the center, but the rest of the top – the browned exterior on either side of that tender split, was crisp and delicate and almost wafer-like – think of the top shiny, flaky layer of an excellent pan of brownies – perhaps because I was so enthusiastic in creaming the butter and sugar and then beating in the eggs. My batter looked like a good fluffy buttercream in its initial stages.

2016-food-blog-november-0363I usually bring my baked offerings to work with me, leaving only a serving or two to enjoy at home, and this was no exception, but we were sorry about that. Especially as the week wore on, we wanted more of this comforting, moist-but sturdy, not-too-sweet confection, preferably in thick slices. But alas, it lasted only a few hours in our mailroom.

2016-food-blog-november-0368It’s funny in that uncomfortable way, but the last time I made a pound cake was also a heavy time. It’s an uncomfortable metaphor – perhaps I should start perfecting an angel-food cake recipe instead – but hindsight is what it is, and here we are. Cake.

2016-food-blog-november-0371Maybe the best way I can conclude today is with Kurt Vonnegut. In his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, one character offers the following as a baptismal statement to a pair of brand new twins: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

2016-food-blog-november-0386

Brown Butter Apple Pound Cake
Makes 1 9x5x3 inch loaf
About 90 min
16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1⅓ cups sugar
3 large eggs + 3 large egg yolks, all at room temperature
1½ teaspoons vanilla
1½ teaspoons water
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups cake flour
2 cups ½-inch cubes of granny smith apple; 1 large apple or 2 small

  • First, brown the butter. In a small saucepan, preferably with a light colored bottom so you can see what is happening, melt the butter over medium heat. As it melts, it will foam up. Keep swirling and checking the color underneath that foam; it will gradually darken from yellow to golden, and the foam will recede a bit. Watch very closely at this point, occasionally tipping the pot to see the bottom – little white solids will have collected. When these begin to turn brown, the butter will smell toasted and nutty. Take it off the stove and stow it in the refrigerator until it has solidified but is not too hard – your thumb should still press in easily.
  • While the butter cools down again, preheat the oven to 375F and prepare a loaf pan by spraying with non-stick spray and lining with parchment paper. Prep the apple by peeling it, quartering and coring it, and then slicing and cubing into ½ inch pieces.
  • In a mixing bowl (Baking Illustrated recommends using a stand mixer, but I used a glass bowl and my regular electric mixer and it was fine), combine the re-solidified butter and all of the sugar. Mix at medium speed until very light and fluffy, at least 3-4 minutes. Really. That long. It will take on a texture much like a slightly grainy buttercream frosting.
  • Beat the eggs with the egg yolks, the water, and the vanilla and, with the mixer still running, dribble in this egg mixture until all is well combined. At this point the batter will be very thick and glossy and still a bit reminiscent of frosting.
  • Now, sift in ½ cup of the flour with the salt right over the top of the batter. Once it is all snow-drifted on top there, use a rubber spatula to fold it in. Once fully combined, repeat the sifting and folding with the second ½ cup of flour.
  • Sprinkle the apple cubes over the batter, then dust with the remaining ½ cup flour. Giving the apple chunks a little flour coating helps them stay suspended in the batter during baking, rather than sinking to the bottom. Repeat the folding process one final time, being sure the flour is fully incorporated and there are no dry pockets.
  • With your rubber spatula, pour and scrape the batter carefully into the prepared loaf pan. Smooth off the top if you like, then stow in the preheated oven for 45-55 minutes, or until a toothpick insertted comes out with just a few damp crumbs.
  • Let the loaf cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then use a second wire rack placed over the top of the pan to invert. The loaf will plop right out, upside down, onto this second rack. Carefully remove the pan from the loaf and flip the loaf back over top-side-up to cool completely. Peel off the parchment paper, transfer to a cutting board, and slice up thickly to eat.

Save

Save

Save

Hiatus

Friends, things just got real. I counted it up yesterday, and this week I have to get through at least forty student papers AND head to a literature conference out of town. There’s just no way to jam a worthy post in here, and there likely won’t be next Monday either.

In my absence, then, may I suggest a look back to something worthily springy? Rhubarb, that old-fashioned, sour pink stalk, one of my favorite spring vegetables, doesn’t get nearly as much publicity as it should. Let’s give it its day in the sun with this simple, slightly sweet, cornmeal based cake.

Food Blog June 2013-1509

Apple Cranberry Hand Pies

2016 Food Blog January-0251When my sister was a kid, she somehow acquired a cooking toy the internet tells me was called “McDonald’s Happy Meal Magic: Pie Maker.” Released in 1993 (feeling old yet?), it allowed the user – with parental guidance, to be sure – to create a small pocket snack that, at least in inspiration, vaguely approximated the fast food giant’s classic dessert. The “pies” this toy made can’t have been very good; from what I recall, they consisted of a piece of store-bought bread, crusts removed, that you rolled out thin and topped with a small hill of fruit filling (I remember applesauce; my sister recalls jam). You then folded the bread over the filling, placed it in a little box-like contraption and, upon forceful application of the lid, squashed and crimped it into submission. You could then sprinkle on some cinnamon sugar, and eat it immediately.

2016 Food Blog January-02192016 Food Blog January-0221The problem with this, aside from the fact that it doesn’t sound very appetizing anymore, was that after going to all the trouble of removing crusts, rolling out, squashing and crimping, my mom would only let us eat one or two at a time. And I can’t imagine they would keep well.

2016 Food Blog January-0222Regardless of practicality or flavor, though, I remember this being a lot of fun. There was a satisfaction to assembly-line production of “dessert” items that, though not as prolific as Lucy and Ethel’s experience, meant we had the ability (if not the permission) to create high volumes of sweets.

2016 Food Blog January-0224This was my introduction, though I didn’t realize it, to hand pies. A sweet rejoinder to pasties, flaky dough encases a fruity filling in a single serving that, true to its name, can be picked up (once it has cooled enough, of course) and eaten straight out of hand. It can also, of course, be topped with a scoop of ice cream, or drizzled with caramel, or a dozen other plate-and-fork applications, but the glory of being able to lift one straight off of a baking sheet and walk away utensil-free is worth noting.

2016 Food Blog January-0225A mid-winter pie should be sweet, yes, but it should also be tart and bright to wake up your sluggish, post-holiday self. I decided on apple and cranberry. I always buy a few extra bags of cranberries when they are on sale in November and December, and stow them in the freezer in case I get early spring cravings for cranberry sauce.

2016 Food Blog January-0233The dough for hand pies needs to be easy to manipulate, since you’ll be rolling and cutting and folding and crimping, so I went with the cream cheese dough I’ve been dabbling with lately – it is a moist dough, so it doesn’t tear as easily as some, and the cream cheese as well as butter keeps it fairly tender even when you work it a bit.

2016 Food Blog January-0237The filling is lightly adapted from Joy the Baker’s Apple Cranberry Crumble pie.  In addition to the classic procedure – toss the apples with sugar, cinnamon, lemon juice – Joy includes two extra steps: let the apples macerate for thirty minutes or so, to create a puddle of sweet, spiced juices. Rather than just dump this into a pie shell, in a stroke of genius, you bubble the juices down with some butter to create a thick, syrupy caramel, which you promptly stir back into the fruit before filling your crust. You end up with a slightly less wet filling, which is a fine thing on the mess front, and a deeper, more developed flavor. I took the liberty, and I think Joy would approve, of adding a few tablespoons of bourbon to my juice mixture before I boiled it down into a syrup.

2016 Food Blog January-0242These are lovely little pockets of sweet tartness. In the time it takes the crust to go pale gold and fluff up into pockets of flakiness, the small chunks of apples and coarsely chopped cranberries swimming in syrupy cinnamon caramel have time to cook through, but not turn to mush. Your only enemies here are time and heat – as with all butter-based pie crusts, if the butter in the dough warms up too much before it goes in the oven, the crust will not puff and flake, as the butter will melt right out of the dough before it has a chance to create layers of pastry. But you can surmount this by carefully moving back and forth between prep with the crust and the filling, making use of your fridge in between, and still put forth a dessert in about two hours. I brought one to N. to sample, and he returned ten minutes later with an empty plate and said “that was really, really good. Now I just want four more.” I didn’t tell him I’d already eaten two and was contemplating another.

2016 Food Blog January-0259I call that a win.

2016 Food Blog January-0275These will keep wrapped in aluminum foil for 2-3 days before the pastry starts to get a bit soggy. Good news, though: they reheat perfectly in a 300F toaster oven.

2016 Food Blog January-0250

Apple Cranberry hand pies
Makes 16 5-inch pies
Time: about 2 hours
For Crust:
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces cold full fat cream cheese
8 ounces cold unsalted butter (2 sticks), cut into thin slices
3-4 tablespoons very cold water
For Filling:
3 large granny smith or other tart apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ¼-½ inch chunks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons bourbon (optional)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
For assembly:
Flour, for dusting
Coarse sugar, to sprinkle

 

  • To make the crust, pulse the flour, salt, and sugar in the belly of a food processor until evenly distributed (consider doing this in halves – my food processor could barely handle the whole quantity). Add the cream cheese and let the mixer run until the mixture is homogeneous – it will be the texture of barely moistened sand and stay together only a moment when pressed between thumb and fingertip, as in the photo above.
  • Dump in the slices of butter and pulse in 1 second intervals until most of the butter is broken up and, when tested, the mixture stays together when pressed between thumb and fingertip.
  • Drizzle in 3 tablespoons of the cold water and pulse again briefly once or twice. We are looking for the mixture to just start to come together into a rumbling ball in the belly of the machine. If the mixture seems too dry, add the last tablespoon of water and pulse again briefly to bring together.
  • Stretch out a piece of plastic wrap on your countertop and dump the contents of the food processor onto it. Remove the blade and use the plastic wrap to help you shape the dough into a disc about 6 inches in diameter. Try to handle it as little as possible to keep it tender. Wrap it up and stow it in the fridge for at least an hour.
  • While the crust chills, make the filling. Combine the apple chunks, lemon juice, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, and ¼ teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Toss with a spatula or your fingers to evenly distribute the spicy, sugary coating. Gently maneuver the apples and their sugar and spice mixture into a fine mesh sieve and position this over the large bowl you were using, then set aside for at least 30 minutes (Joy says up to three hours, though I didn’t leave mine this long). The objective here is to catch the drippings.
  • While the apples drip, preheat the oven to 400F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove the pie crust disc from the fridge. Lightly flour a large board and a rolling pin, then unwrap the disc, divide it in half, and set half on the floured board. Pop the other half back into the fridge until you are ready for it. Using firm and deliberate strokes, roll out the first half of the dough into a rough circle about ¼ inch thick. Every few rolls, shift the dough circle around, flipping it and adjusting it on the board – this will minimize sticking. You can also add more flour if needed.
  • With an even ¼ inch layer of dough, use a floured cutter or lip of a glass to cut the dough into circles. I went with 5 inches in diameter. To avoid extra stickiness or tearing the dough, press straight down without twisting. Once you have cut all the way through the dough, then you can twist the cutter a bit to loosen the round from the board.
  • Once you have made all the circles you can, gather together your scraps and re-roll them – you want to do this as quickly as you can to prevent the butter from softening too much. Roll out and cut again, then repeat with the other half of the dough. Position your dough circles on the prepared baking sheets (it’s okay if they overlap – they won’t stick), and put them into the fridge to chill out again.
  • Now turn back to the filling. When you have at least ½ cup of liquid from the apples, pour it into a small saucepan along with the 2 tablespoons butter and the bourbon, if using, and cook over medium-low heat until it becomes thick and syrupy, and only about ⅓ cup remains.
  • While the apple drippings cook down, plop the apples back into the original large bowl. Using the same food processor you used for the crust (you can wash it out if you want – I usually just scrape out any big lingering bits), pulse up the cranberries until they are coarsely chopped. You can do this by hand if you want, but it is fairly messy.
  • Add the cranberry pieces to the apple chunks in the large bowl, and toss them with the cornstarch until the cornstarch is no longer visible.
  • When the apple drippings are reduced to a thick, syrupy caramel, pour it back over the fruit and toss gently to combine.
  • Now, pull the prepared dough rounds out of the fridge (I’d do one baking sheet at a time), and add 1½-2 tablespoons filling to each 5-inch round of dough. You will be tempted to add more. Don’t do it! 1½, or a scant 2, tablespoons is all that can safely fit. If your rounds are smaller, you will, of course, need less filling. When all rounds are filled, you’ll likely have a tablespoon or 2 of filling left over.
  • As you place each tiny pile of filling in the middle of the dough round, fold it in half and press the edges together with your forefinger and thumb. To seal each little half-moon package, set it down on the floured board or on your baking sheet and press down on the edges all the way around with the back of the tines of a fork.
  • Settle each crescent evenly spaced on your baking sheet – you should be able to fit 8 per sheet without them touching each other. Slash the top of each one lightly with a knife to give an escape valve for steam, and if desired, sprinkle on a pinch or two of coarse sugar before levering them into the oven.
  • Bake at 400F for 25-30 minutes, until the crusts are puffed and golden brown, and possibly a bit of gooey syrup escapes from the less-carefully-crimped edges.
  • Cool for at least 10 minutes before digging in. They are perfect on their own, but I suspect a scoop of vanilla ice cream wouldn’t hurt matters…

Pumpkin Chocolate Cupcakes with Spiced Cream Cheese Frosting

2015 Blog November-0577The beauty of having a perfect chocolate cake recipe, as I do, is that it’s always there in the back of your memory, ready for any holiday, any event, any Wednesday evening you really need a piece of cake. It’s always tender, it’s always moist, it tastes refreshingly of cocoa but is not overly sweet. It is easy to make – 45 minutes from empty bowl to tins hot out of the oven if you’re organized, and its recipe is easily halved and quartered for when you want a single layer, and when you just need a 6-inch cake for you and somebody you’re willing to go halfsies with right out of the cake tin.

2015 Blog November-05572015 Blog November-0560Because this recipe is so dependable, because it is so easy and so well loved I’ve learned the measurements by heart, I’ve basically come to the conclusion that it is magic. It’s delicious, it’s quick, it’s vegan (until you drape it in whipped cream), which also means it’s cheap. But most magically, it is easily modified in dozens of ways, and every time it seems to come out right. I’ve made it gluten-free, I’ve soaked it in liqueur, I’ve added coffee, I’ve used olive oil instead of vegetable oil, I’ve switched out the type of vinegar, I’ve turned it into cupcakes; somehow, it just always works.

2015 Blog November-05622015 Blog November-0563Here, in the ultimate experiment, I added an entire cup of pumpkin puree without adjusting any of the other ingredient values, and it STILL WORKED. That shouldn’t be possible. Pumpkin is so wet that dumping in such a healthy portion of it should require some tweaking. But because this cake is magic, it produced more than two dozen deeply dark, tender, moist cupcakes within an hour and a half.

2015 Blog November-05642015 Blog November-05662015 Blog November-0569Though I usually fill and slather this cake in an unapologetically thick layer of whipped cream, for cupcakes, I wanted to play with the subtle pumpkin flavor by spiking the frosting with the spices of pumpkin pie. Cream cheese frosting is a perennial favorite of mine, though for some reason I always forget about it when I’m not addressing a carrot cake. Here, though, it works perfectly: the tang of the cream cheese prevents the frosting from getting too sweet too fast, and it can hold up to the strong flavors of the spices that get whipped in.

2015 Blog November-0573Plus, bonus, cream cheese frosting is easy to pipe because it remains nice and stiff, which means you end up with professional looking cupcakes you can impress your coworkers or your Thanksgiving guests with. You know, if you feel like sharing.

2015 Blog November-0575

Pumpkin Chocolate Cupcakes with Spiced Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes 28
60-90 minutes (plus at least 30 minutes cooling time for cupcakes)
For cake:
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
⅔ cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup unsweetened pumpkin puree (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
2 cups cold water
For frosting:
16 ounces (2 packages) plain, full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
4 ounces (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla
2-3 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cardamom
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ginger
  • Preheat the oven to 350F and spray or line a 12-cup muffin tin with cupcake wrappers. Set aside.
  • In a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder. It turns a lovely pale pinkish color when the cocoa is fully integrated.
  • In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, measure out the vegetable oil and stir in the vinegar and the vanilla. Carefully add the pumpkin puree and whisk together. Add to the dry ingredients and use the stand mixer or an electric handheld mixer to combine – it will form a wet, clumpy mess.
  • With the mixer running on low, slowly add the 2 cups of cold water. As the batter loosens you’ll want to add no faster than a trickle lest the now suddenly deep, deep cocoa-brown batter splatters.
  • Once all the water is added, continue mixing until well combined – at least a minute. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl with a spatula to ensure no hidden pockets of dry ingredients.
  • When the batter is fully mixed, scoop ⅓ cup into each cavity of your prepared muffin tin. I use an ice cream scoop that holds ⅓ cup and has one of those trigger pieces that sweeps across and cleans out the scoop – I highly recommend this. It’s very convenient.
  • Bake for 18 minutes or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted comes out with only a moist crumb or two. Cool in muffin tin for 5-10 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining batter until all cupcakes are baked and cooled.
  • To make the frosting, drop the cream cheese into a large bowl and beat well with an electric handheld mixer or the whisk attachment on a stand mixer. When the cream cheese is looking fluffy, scrape down the sides, add the room temperature butter, and beat again until mixture is thick and fluffy. Scrape down the sides, add the vanilla, and beat once more.
  • Now, sift in the powdered sugar ½ cup at a time, beating well in between each addition. You will want to start with slow speed each time to avoid a powdered sugar cloud. Once you’ve hit the 2 cup mark, let the mixer run for 2-3 minutes until the frosting becomes very thick. Give it a taste to check for sweetness and texture. If it seems thick enough for your purposes, add the spices, beat to integrate fully, and you’re done (I found 2 cups was perfect in flavor and texture). If the frosting is not thick enough, add the remaining powdered sugar ½ cup at a time, beating well, for additional stiffness. Then add the spices, beat to integrate fully, and prepare to frost the cupcakes.
  • If you have a piping bag, fit it with a star shaped tip and use a rubber spatula to fill it halfway with frosting. If you don’t have a piping bag, cut the bottom corner off a gallon sized zip-top freezer bag and slide in a star shaped tip (or just leave it open for a less defined swirl of frosting). Half fill with frosting. Use your fingers to gently smoosh the frosting toward the bottom of the bag. Twist the top (empty) half of the bag around two or three times.
  • To frost the cupcakes, hold the filled half of the bag in your dominant hand and a cupcake in your other hand. Without touching the icing tip to the surface of the cupcake, squeeze the bag gently and move your hand in a clockwise circle, letting the frosting ooze out and create a curlicue of frosting on top of the cupcake. Repeat until all cupcakes are frosting, refilling the bag when needed. You’ll likely have some extra, which seems to me like a terribly good thing, and which apparently freezes quite well.
  • Refrigerate cupcakes until ready to serve – they keep just fine overnight (and, in fact, were still moist and tender into day three).