Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Raising my glass to the End of an Era, with Pink Champagne Cupcakes

Pink champagne reminds me of New Years 2004, when I was still living in China.  A few friends and I bought a bottle of the fizzy pink champagne, popped the cork in the middle of downtown at midnight, and passed it around until it was gone.  And then we danced and laughed and ran all over the city, doing all the crazy, silly and stupid things that we somehow got away with in our early twenties.

That year marked the end of an amazing time in my life, and when it was over, I thought nothing in my life would ever be as good as all those memories that I kept on a pedestal for years afterwards.

As time passed, the memories faded a little, although becoming no less important, just less painful to remember.  I didn't yearn to have those days back like I had for so long.  And with change comes new experiences and new people; taking that step forward and moving back to the U.S. is what led me to a life in Colorado, meeting Jamie, and finding a place in a wonderful new group of friends.

Now it's the end of another era...  my last day at a company I've been with for ten years.  And so, I'm raising my glass, so to speak, with these Pink Champagne Cupcakes, in a toast to the friends I've made over the years and the many things I've learned.

I was also happy to employ some of my newly learned skills from my cake decorating class this month, and each cupcake got its own pretty rose.

A little fancy with delicately piped buttercream roses, these are celebration cupcakes, and I'm celebrating my future and embracing the unknown.

It's exciting, the not knowing, although also a little scary, but I'm hopeful that the right door will open for me.

And that it will be even better than I could imagine, just like before...

Pink Champagne Cupcakes
printable recipe

  • 1 box white cake mix (I used Betty Crocker)
  • 1 cup pink champagne
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 cup pink champagne reduction (from 1 cup champagne - see below)
  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Bake the Cupcakes:
Preheat the oven to 350.  Line muffin pans with 24 cupcake liners.

In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix all the cake ingredients on low to combine, then for two minutes on medium speed, scraping the bowl down once.  Fill the cupcake liners 2/3 full.

Bake for 15-18 minutes, until pale golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.  Set the cupcakes on wire racks to cool completely.

Make the Champagne Reduction:
Pour 1 cup pink champagne into a small saucepan.  Simmer over medium low until reduced to a concentrated syrup, about 1/4 cup.  Transfer to a container and cool completely in the refrigerator.

Make the Buttercream:
In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter for 30 seconds.  Add powdered sugar, one cup at a time, then the vanilla and the champagne reduction.  Increase speed to medium high and whip for 4-5 minutes until very light and fluffy.

Frost the Cupcakes:
To keep it simple, just pipe the buttercream onto each cupcake and sprinkle with sanding sugar.

If topping with roses, spread a thin layer of buttercream over each cupcake.  Use the remainder of the buttercream to pipe roses, using the Wilton 104 rose tip.  You may need to make the buttercream stiffer with a little more powdered sugar if piping roses.

Yields 24 cupcakes.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Monday, July 30, 2012

S'mores Ice Cream

I don't think there's a more quintessential, iconic summer treat than S'mores...  No backyard campfire is complete without melty chocolate and sticky, gooey marshmallows between two graham crackers.

The way a person toasts a marshmallow says something about them, although what it says exactly, I'm not sure.  But it probably does, right?  Toast it too fast and intense and you get a burned marshmallow with an uncooked center.  Take too long, though, and it'll slide right off the stick.

For instance, I'm the patient type.  I will sit for as long as necessary, holding a marshmallow over the hot coals at just the right distance so that it gets a perfectly golden, toasted crust and a perfectly gooey center.

My sister, on the other hand, likes instant marshmallow gratification, and she'll stick hers directly in the flame so it lights on fire and chars it beyond recognition.  She also likes her steak well done (which is absolute murder of a good steak, by the way...), so I suppose the marshmallow thing makes sense.

Jamie doesn't even like marshmallows, although he'll eat a S'more or two.  The irresistible chocolate, marshmallow, graham cracker combination seems to trump his dislike of marshmallows on their own.

Since making S'mores cupcakes for a party a few weeks ago, I had leftovers of everything, but an unfortunate lack of a campfire, since we live three floors up.  Not to mention, those mini marshmallows would be awfully hard to toast on a stick.  I've toasted marshmallows over the burners on my stove before, but for the mini ones a couple minutes under the broiler in the oven did the trick.  It was a pretty sweet way to make a S'more without a campfire or the ability to skewer the marshmallows.

And then there's ice cream.  S'mores in ice cream.

The chocolate custard ice cream base is smooth and creamy, a little more salty than you might expect, but when you eat it, you don't think of it as being salty, you just taste so much flavor.  Salt brings out the flavor of sweet food, and the salt enhances the flavor of the chocolate and graham crackers beautifully.

And I didn't just stir in un-toasted marshmallows.  After all, would you put an un-toasted marshmallow on your S'more?  Um, no.  Toasted until golden and gooey, they stick together so that every few bites of ice cream, you get a sticky marshmallowy mouthful.

The only thing I might wish for in this ice cream is for the chocolate to be melted, maybe in the form of a chocolate syrup or ganache, ribboned throughout.  How amazing does ribbons of chocolate sound?  Another time, though...

S'mores (under the broiler)
  • graham crackers
  • chocolate
  • mini marshmallows

There's no science to this recipe - you know the S'mores drill...

Place graham crackers on a foil-lined baking sheet.  Then chocolate.  Then mini marshmallows.

Turn the broiler in your oven on low.  Set the pan under the broiler for about 3 minutes, until the marshmallows are puffed and golden brown.  Enjoy the gooey deliciousness.

S'mores Ice Cream
printable recipe
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 cup bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, chopped or chips, divided
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups mini marshmallows, toasted
  • 1 sleeve graham crackers, crumbled into pieces

Cook and chill the ice cream base:
In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, milk and salt.  Gently warm over medium-low heat until hot to the touch but not boiling.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and cocoa - mixture will be very thick.  When the cream mixture is hot, slowly drizzle about a cup of the hot cream into the egg mixture, whisking to temper the eggs.  Then pour all of the warmed egg mixture back into the saucepan.

Whisk constantly while continuing to cook the custard over medium-low heat, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon.  Remove from the heat.

Add 1/2 cup of the chopped chocolate and the vanilla.  Whisk until the chocolate melts and the custard is smooth.  Place a mesh strainer over a bowl and pour the custard through the strainer to remove any bits of cooked egg.  Cover the custard with plastic and refrigerate overnight, or until very well chilled.

Finish the ice cream:
When the custard is chilled, get all your add-ins ready.

First, place the marshmallows in a single layer on a baking sheet.  Place under the broiler on low and toast just until golden brown, about 3 minutes, watching them carefully so they don't burn.  Set aside to cool completely.  Don't worry if they get all stick together when you scrape them off to add them to the ice cream - they're supposed to be sticky.  Just try to add pieces of them to the ice cream so they're evenly distributed.

Crumble the graham crackers and set aside.

Place the remaining 1/2 cup of chopped chocolate or chocolate chips in a bowl and set aside.

Pour the chilled custard into your ice cream maker and churn according to the manufacturer's instructions.  Spoon into a large bowl and quickly fold in the toasted marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate.  Transfer to a container and freeze until firm, about 4-6 hours.

Yields almost 2 quarts.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Blueberry Cheesecake Ice Cream Pie

We came home from our trip to the orchards and vineyards in western Colorado happy, hot and exhausted.  I found myself wishing there was something cold and creamy in the freezer, so the next day I decided to make ice cream that didn't require any baking or cooking of custard over the hot stove.

With blueberries and cream cheese in the fridge, a blueberry cheesecake ice cream started to develop in my mind, but when I found a half-empty box of graham crackers, the thought of a cheesecake ice cream pie took over...

Ice cream that tastes like cheesecake, in the form of a pie, with a salty graham cracker crust, and juicy blueberry topping?  Yes, please!

I suppose I was lying when I said this was a totally no-bake dessert, because you do, of course, have to bake the crust.  But I think 10 minutes of oven time is manageable.  Unless you're feeling lazy and you buy one of those pre-made crusts.

Besides the crumbly crust, the homemade blueberry topping is what takes this ice cream beyond just a tasty ice cream to a dessert that is utterly amazing.

With a salty buttery crust, cold tangy ice cream, crisp blueberries, sweet blueberry sauce... what more could you want in a summer dessert?

Blueberry Cheesecake Ice Cream Pie
printable recipe

  • 1 1/2 sleeves graham crackers, finely crushed
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
ice cream:
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream, cold
  • 8 ounces reduced fat cream cheese, room temperature
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups blueberries
  • 2 cups blueberries
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Prepare the crust:
Preheat the oven to 350.  Spray a deep-dish pie pan with non-stick spray.

In a bowl, combine the crushed graham crackers, sugar and salt.  Drizzle with the melted butter and toss with a fork to combine.  Press crumbs evenly inside the pie pan.

Bake for 10 minutes until golden brown.  Cool on the counter for 10 minutes, then place in the freezer to chill while you make the ice cream.

Make the ice cream:
Pour the cream into a bowl.  Whip with an electric mixer until soft peaks form.  In a separate bowl, whip the cream cheese, lemon zest and juice, powdered sugar, and vanilla until smooth and creamy.  Gently fold the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture.  Chill for 1 hour.

Churn mixture in your ice cream maker following the manufacturer's instructions.  Fold in the blueberries.

Spoon ice cream into the chilled crust and smooth out the top.  Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until firm, about 4-6 hours, or overnight.

Cook's Note: This can be made without an ice cream maker, but the mixture will develop ice crystals, rather than being smooth and creamy.  To avoid this, the step of churning in an ice cream maker is needed, but if the ice crystals don't bother you, then you can skip that step.

Make the sauce:
In a medium saucepan, combine the blueberries, sugar, water, cornstarch, lemon zest and juice, and cinnamon.  Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat.  Once the berries start to burst and the mixture bubbles, stir constantly until thickened like pie filling.  Stir in the vanilla.  If you over-thicken it, just thin it out with a little more water.

Transfer to a container and refrigerate until well chilled.

Serving Tips:
  1. Take the pie out of the freezer and let sit at room temperature for 10 minutes.
  2. Run a sharp knife under hot water to make cutting the pie easier.
  3. Serve the chilled blueberry sauce on the side to spoon over each slice.

Yields 8-10 servings.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Peach season in Palisade and our weekend of fruit and wine...

It's peach season in Palisade, and last weekend I was thrilled to find myself surrounded by peach orchards and vineyards.  Friday morning we packed up the car and headed west - I still didn't know where we were going - but a weekend trip to Colorado's western slopes was Jamie's birthday surprise for me.

By that afternoon, we were in the middle of wine country, vineyards and orchards in every direction we looked.  Farms with roadside stores were everywhere, a tempting bounty of peaches, plums, apricots, sweet cherries and tomatoes for sale, along with hundreds of varieties of homemade jams and preserves, pickles, salsas and sauces.

I was so excited and wanted to try a sample of everything, but the cooler we brought with us ended up being a bit too small for all the fresh fruit, and we still had the whole weekend ahead of us, so I tried to restrain myself.  Peaches were in such abundance, that when I bought just tomatoes from one farm, the lady handed us each a peach to eat while we were browsing, plus a full bag of peaches to take with us for free.

The western slopes of Colorado are oh-so-very-hot.  The region is dry and desert-like, with the fruit and grapes thriving from the hot days and cooler nights.  Near Palisade is the city of Grand Junction, where we stayed for two nights at the Los Altos B&B, situated at the top of a hill, with a panoramic view of the city below and the Colorado National Monument.  At night, a cool breeze floating across the desert provided relief from our sweltering day in the sun.

After dinner, we enjoyed a glass of wine on the balcony of our room while watching a lightning storm on the National Monument, and then Jamie taught me how to play chess.  I have a long ways to go in learning that game - he beat me pretty quickly.

Saturday morning after breakfast, we headed to the National Monument, an impressive landscape of red rock formations and canyons.  Trails branched off of Rim Rock Road in every direction, luring adventurous hikers and rock climbers, and cyclists pedaled their way up and down the twisting road.  I didn't envy them that ride in the blistering heat; every time we got out to explore and take photos, we had the welcoming chill of the car's air conditioner to look forward to.

The owner of the B&B had advised us that if we wanted to escape the heat of the valley, we should drive up the Grand Mesa, which, at about 11,000 feet, is the world's largest flat-top mountain and rises about 5,000 feet above the surrounding valley.  And within the half-hour it took to drive up, the temperature miraculously dropped from 99 degrees to 70 degrees.  It was amazing.

First we drove through the town of Mesa, a beautiful area full of aspen and spruce groves and horse pastures;  even the horses seemed happier up there.  I'm sure it's so beautiful in the fall.  Then we reached Island Lake, one of over 200 clear blue lakes on the mountain, where people were camping, fishing and boating.  We didn't see much wildlife, though, other than the occasional chipmunk scampering across the road.

When we left the mountain top, we were assaulted once more by the heat wave greeting us in the valley, but we didn't let that stop us from visiting a few of the wineries in Palisade.  We ate dinner that evening at The Winery Restaurant in Grand Junction, which is known for its beef and lamb.  The lamb chops didn't disappoint at all, and we finished dinner by sharing their signature chocolate dessert, layers of chocolate mousse with a raspberry sauce, called "The Palisade".

Sunday morning, we ate breakfast at the B&B with another couple staying there, and had the chance to visit with the owners for a while, too.  It's so interesting to me to hear the stories of the people you chance to meet on these types of trips.  I find that people will share details of their lives over a relaxing meal together, and you leave feeling like you've made a friend.  The owner met his wife in Korea while he was serving in the military, and after he returned to the U.S., they wrote letters.  Eventually, she was able to join him in the States and now they've been married for 40-some years.  The romantic in me wonders how they fell in love, what their lives were like before they met each other, what cultural differences they overcame to be with each other...  She does all the cooking at the B&B, and after raving about the apricot scones she'd baked that morning, spread with some of her homemade sweet cherry preserves, I was happy to find out that she has a few of her recipes available on their website.

After breakfast, we decided to take a detour through Paonia, another wine-country region not too far from Palisade.  We'd stayed in Paonia for a weekend last summer, and were excited to get to re-visit a few of our favorite wineries.  Although near in proximity, the outdoor views and culture of Palisade and Paonia are distinctly different, although both inviting in their own way.  Paonia is certainly more scenic, with views of snow-capped mountains in the distance, and a few wineries that boast of being the highest operating wineries in the Northern hemisphere.

I love the name of Paonia, a variation of the Latin version of peony, Paeonia mascula.  Samuel Wade, one of the settlers of the area in 1880, named the town for his favorite flower; the town was officially incorporated in 1902.

Azura Cellars and Gallery, owned by a couple who also sells their art pieces from the art gallery in their tasting room, is beautifully built with a stone courtyard and shaded patio where visitors are invited to linger over a glass of wine, relaxing in the shade while gazing at the beautiful view of the valley.

Next we stopped at Stone Cottage Cellars, and the owner was more than generous with information about grape growing and wine making.  She explained that the grape-growing season in Colorado is much shorter than that of California, which is why Colorado vineyards are unable to produce deeper wines such as Cabernets.  She also invited us to stroll through the vineyards, where we saw how small and green the grapes still are, although the red grapes will turn from green to red before harvest-time.  She really seemed to love her life there with her husband, and I have to admit, listening to her talk made the life of a vineyard owner sound incredibly appealing.

Our last stop was Terror Creek Winery, which was in the Guiness Book of World Records as being the highest-altitude vineyard, until one in Chile beat the record.  Terror Creek Winery, named for a snow-fed stream running alongside the property, has a beautiful view of Paonia and the mountains beyond.

A sunny apricot tree loaded with ripe fruit graced the lawn, with piles of fallen fruit scattered over the grass.  The owner said she was hardly able to keep up with harvesting, and when she handed me a paper bag and asked me if I wanted to pick some apricots to take with me, I was only too happy to agree.

And then it was time to head home.  We arrived back in Denver late Sunday night, with a small mountain of fruit, bottles of wine, specialty balsamic vinegars and a jar or two of salsa, piled on the kitchen counter.

The first thing I wanted to bake with some of the fruit was a mixed fruit crumble.  I consider this a very healthy dessert, because I added almost no extra sugar or butter to it, but the issue of "healthy fruit" is a point where Jamie and I disagree.  Sugar is sugar, he says.  However, while I'm not saying it's the equivalent to a piece of baked chicken, I do think that for a dessert option it is a healthier choice than ice cream, cake or pie, which contains a lot more sugar, butter and flour.

This mixed fruit crumble is essentially just fruit and spices, with a simple oat topping.  Since I think crumbles are best enjoyed warm from the oven, I portioned it out into individual serving dishes, freezing the unbaked portions, to be baked and enjoyed later.

Next I decided I should try making a gazpacho, since it's summer after all.  I roasted tomatoes, peaches, nectarines and apricots with olive oil and rosemary, then pureed and strained the fruit, stirring in a touch of honey and balsamic vinegar.

The soup is delicious hot, and refreshing chilled, full of flavor from the roasted fruits, and with limitless possibilities, a few of which I listed in the recipe below...

I still have a few peaches and a bag full of apricots left, and tomorrow, I plan to make apricot peach preserves.  When the cool weather comes this fall, I can't think of a better way to remember our summer trip to the peach orchards than with a buttery jam tart and a glass of wine that tastes of hot sunny days in the orchards of Palisade and Paonia...

Mixed Summer Fruit Crumble
printable recipe

fruit filling:
  • 4 peaches, pitted and sliced
  • 4 apricots, pitted and sliced
  • 1 cup strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 1 cup sweet cherries, pitted
  • (other fruit, such as nectarines, blueberries and plums would be fantastic in this crumble as well)
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
crumble topping:
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350.  Spray a 9x13 baking dish (or 8 individual ramekins) with non-stick spray.  If using individual ramekins, place these on top of a cookie sheet lined with foil.

Combine all of the filling ingredients in a large bowl; let sit for 10 minutes until juicy.  Spoon into baking dish/es.

In a separate bowl, combine all of the topping ingredients; use a fork or your fingers to mash the butter in until the topping is moist and crumbly.  Sprinkle over the fruit.

Bake at 350 until the topping is golden brown and the fruit juices are bubbling (about 25-30 minutes for individual ramekins and 35-40 minutes for a 9x13 pan).  Let cool for 30 minutes, then serve warm.

Cook's Note:
The crumble can be assembled in advance and frozen (unbaked), wrapped tightly in plastic for about 6 months.  Individual portions can then be thawed in the refrigerator overnight and baked fresh.

Yields 8 servings.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Roasted Summer Fruit Gazpacho
printable recipe

  • 6 tomatoes
  • 4 peaches
  • 4 nectarines
  • 10 small apricots (5-6 medium)
  • (strawberries, cherries and plums would be a delicious addition also...)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary (fresh sprigs would be better!)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • optional garnishes: sweet clover sprouts, sliced fruit, chopped basil, mint leaves, feta cheese, sour cream, yogurt, seasoned croutons, sliced toasted bread, etc...

Preheat the oven to 400.  Line a baking sheet with foil.  Place all of the fruit on the baking sheet.  Drizzle with the olive oil, and season with rosemary, salt and pepper.  Roast for about 15-20 minutes, until the fruit is very soft and the skins have split.  Let cool for about 30 minutes, until cool enough to handle.

Slide the skins off the fruit and remove the pits; don't worry about getting all the skin off since you'll be straining the soup anyway.

Place all of the fruit in a blender (work in batches if you need to), and add the water to help blend it into a smooth puree.  Pour through a mesh strainer and discard any pulp left behind.

Stir the balsamic vinegar, honey and cinnamon into the soup.

Possible uses for the gazpacho:
  1. The soup can be eaten right away, warmed if desired, topped with any of the above garnishes.
  2. Chill the soup completely for a refreshing snack or starter to a meal.
  3. Blend with ice for a slushy drink.
  4. Freeze portions to use later, added to tomato-based soups, or even a pot of chili in the fall, for a fruity flavor enhancement.
  5. Add to loaf breads and muffins instead of butter or oil, the same as you might substitute applesauce.

Yields 8-10 servings

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen