Thursday, November 27, 2014

Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

As a woman of science, I've always found it fascinating how powerful the connection between our senses and our memories is.  How the smell of a cigar triggers old memories of my grandfather.  How the sound of a once favorite song brings me back to certain time and place, forever dedicated to the friend whom it reminds me of in the first place.  How just the sight of my hometown brings back sporadic memories and feelings from my childhood. 

I guess it's no surprise then that food, which enlivens all of the senses, can also carry strong memory associations.  It's the way that apples remind you of Fall and peppermint reminds you of the winter holidays.  To my own senses, these pumpkin cupcakes remind me of my first Fall in NYC, around the time I started this blog.  I was living in a shoe-box of an apartment, still having to think an extra second when getting on the subway to convince myself I wasn't going the wrong direction, making friends in a city where I knew no one from my past, and picking up the pieces of a broken and failed relationship.  These cupcakes and the little pumpkins on top became a foodie craft project of mine to focus on in the midst of all of the challenges of a new life and the adjustments to it.


Fast forward 2.5 years, I have a (somewhat) spacious apartment in Brooklyn where the hipster in me can run wild, and I know my way around the city, including which end of the train I need to be on for the most efficient commute possible.  I have many friends in the city both new and old (it seems that I started a trend within my friends of moving to NYC - at least I like to think I did), and I'm stronger and very (maybe sometimes too) independent. These pumpkin noms have turned into an annual tradition, not only because they remind me of where I started in NYC, but also because they're so darn tasty and adorable!

I found these cupcakes and decorations to be super easy to make (parents - these would be a great DIY project with your kids), and I also love the fact that the recipe is conveniently divisible (to spare your coworkers too many more sweets after the Thanksgiving holiday).  As for the flavor, the spices bring a strong punch, which means the flavor of the frosting doesn't hide the pumpkin goodness underneath it.

So, that said, forgive my nostalgia, start your own pumpkin craft project, and let your senses spark new memory associations over this Thanksgiving holiday!  Who doesn't love a little more pumpkin in their life?

(Adapted from Sweetopia)
Makes 10-12 cupcakes or ~36 mini cupcakes

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp groung nutmeg
2 large eggs
1 cup canned pure pumpkin puree
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 cup vegetable oil

4 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
2-3 Tbsp real maple sugar
1 1/2 - 2 cups confectioners sugar
Sweetened coconut, toasted (optional)

Pumpkin/Leaf Decorations:
Fondant icing
Food coloring gel, orange
Almonds, whole
Bay leaf or thyme

Minimalist Décor: Making your own pumpkins can be more time than you're willing to spend.  Place a candy corn pumpkin on top and call it a day.
Shrink 'Em: Mini cupcakes are just the cutest little things.  Make 'em mini for a party or for portion control (even though we all know that never works).  This recipe also halves easily.
Add a Layer:  Add a layer of butter pecan or cinnamon spread/icing or jam in between the cake and the frosting.

*HINT: Use a trigger ice cream scoop, like this one, to fill your cupcake liners perfectly!

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line muffin tin with paper cupcake liners.
  2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg, into a medium bowl.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, pumpkin puree, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vegetable oil.  Add the flour mixture and stir until combined.
  4. Fill the cupcake liners 2/3-3/4 full, but evenly across all.  Bake for 18-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  5. Set pumpkin cupcakes aside to cool completely.
  1. Cream the cream cheese and butter together either with a hand mixer or in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.  Add maple syrup.  Slowly add the confectioners sugar and beat until smooth.
  2. Once your cupcakes are cool, ice them with a butter knife or large piping bag and tip of your choice.
  3. Sprinkle toasted coconut on top and any decorations you made.
Pumpkin/Leaf Decorations:
  1. For the pumpkins, add a small drop of gel food coloring to a about a 1/2 Tbsp. of fondant icing and mix until the coloring is even.  Use your hands to roll the icing into a ball, and use a toothpick to make indents from top to bottom (like a beach ball).
  2. Chop an almond lengthwise to make the stem and break up a bay leaf for the pumpkin leaf.  Insert the stem and leaf into a small hole at the top of the pumpkin created by the toothpick.
  3. For the leaves, mix the fondant with the food coloring gel as with the pumpkins.  Press the colored icing into a chocolate or candy mold of your choice.  Use a knife to cut off the excess and carefully take the icing out of the mold.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fromage Blanc Ice Cream w/ Blackberry Jam Swirl + #IceCreamForOXO

When I go to a restaurant, I often wonder where the chef got the idea for the meal I'm eating.  What was it that inspired him/her to use that compound of ingredients that make every bite so outrageously divine?  I wonder what experience they had that triggered the chain of thoughts and motivation to create it.  Unfortunately, it's impossible that we will have the same experiences as others, but the good news is that it is guaranteed that our interpretations of the same or similar experiences will always create unique outcomes.  Not to mention the inspiration domino effect that will come from that meal I just shared with several others in the restaurant that night. 

On a recent visit to Shake Shack, one of the city's best burger joints, a friend and I felt the New York summer heat collide hard with our love of cold summer desserts.  The Wednesday ice cream special (yes, you can literally go back every day for different flavor - dangerous...?) was a fromage blanc ice cream with raspberry swirl, and needless to say our curiosity got the best of us.  As we finished our burgers and quickly dived into the already melting ice cream, we pondered over what fromage blanc actually was - "white cheese?", "cream cheese?", "yogurt?".  I'm sure the group of French men at an adjacent table were probably rolling their eyes at us, although as it turns out we weren't too far off.  It most closely resembled a cheesecake flavor -  tangy, slightly cheesy, and a silky smooth texture.  With the taste still on my tongue and a little encouragement from my friend, though it didn't warrant much, I left with the gears in my head turning and off I was, ingredient shopping.

Commericial break...

For this blog post I was given the opportunity, nay, inspiration(!) to participate in one of OXO's blogger campaigns, #IceCreamForOXO.  I was sent a box full of handy OXO kitchen products to help me create my new ice cream recipe. 
  • The Small Silicone Spatula helped me almost every step of the way, from stirring to pot scraping, and I found it to be just the right size for scooping every bit out of small corners.  
  • The 2-Cup Angled Measuring Cup was already a favorite of mine, because of how easy it is to measure liquid while looking from above, not to mention it has a great pour spout.  
  • The Mini Chopper saved me a lot of prep time and created the bite-sized pieces of mint chocolate for the ice cream topping.    
  • I stored my ice cream in the LockTop Container.  As opposed to the pints I normally use, this container provided the artist in me a canvas for mixing in the jam swirl.  
  • My unexpected favorite product of the group was the Solid Stainless Steel Ice Cream Scoop (since I have 3 other ice cream scoops at home - clearly I don't joke around when it comes to ice cream).  It worked surprisingly well with its pointed shape that can plunge right into that ice cream, no problem.  I've used it on other, harder ice creams and it doesn't disappoint.
Disclosure: I am employed by OXO and received these products for free. The views and opinions expressed on this site are my own alone and do not represent the views of OXO and/or its affiliates.

Now back to the ice cream...

What is fromage blanc?
Simply put, it's a low-fat, or in many cases fat-free soft cheese, which looks most similar to a yogurt, sour cream, or creme fraiche.  It has only a faint hint of tanginess and is much less dense than cream cheese, yielding a lighter texture and making it a good substitute for your regular or greek yogurt fixes. When it's combined with the mascarpone cheese in this recipe, the tanginess really comes through and that's where the ice cream begins to taste "cheesy" and rich like a piece of cheesecake.

Where to find fromage blanc?
I found the one I used at Whole Foods, conveniently located next to the mascarpone cheese I needed for this recipe as well.  They also sold more specialty flavored versions, which may be something I will try in the future.
Others: Amazon, local cheese shops, or if you're ambitious enough you can make your own!

Had it not been for burger night and a little push from my sweet tooth, I probably never would have tried fromage blanc, let alone thought to put it in an ice cream.  For the base of this recipe, I worked with one of the few fromage blanc ice cream recipes I could find, and used the fruit in my refrigerator to decide the jam swirl flavor. 

So...have you been inspired yet?

(Adapted from FEAST)
Makes: 3-4 cups  

1/2 vanilla bean or 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (*see note in instructions)
3/4 cup + 1 Tbsp. sugar
1/3 cup whole milk
2/3 cup heavy cream
3 large eggs, preferably brown
1 8oz. package (3/4 cup) fromage blanc, such as Vermont Creamery
3 Tbsp. mascarpone cheese
1/3 cup blackberry (or any other berry) jam or preserves
Mint chocolate such as Lindt's for topping, chopped (optional)
If making jam:
1 cup blackberries (I actually used a mixture of blackberries and black raspberries for this version)
1/2 cup sugar

Flavor of the Week - Change up the flavor of jam that you swirl in or the flavor of fromage blanc if you can find it.
Substitutions - Substitute a low-fat plain yogurt for the fromage blanc.
Beware - Fromage frais and fromage blanc are not the same!

Blackberry Jam (makes approximately 2/3 cup)
  1. Combine berries and sugar in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil over MED heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
  2. Continue to boil the mixture for 8-10 minutes.
  3. Cool slightly and push the mixture through a fine mesh strainer, using a spatula, to remove the seeds.
  4. Place the jam in a container and cool in the refrigerator until needed for the ice cream.
Fromage Blanc Ice Cream
  1. Add sugar to medium bowl.  Cut vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape the contents into the bowl with the sugar (*skip this step if using vanilla extract).  Use your fingers to break up any clumps of vanilla and mix together with sugar.
  2. Add the egg yolks to the sugar mixture and whisk until combined.
  3. In a medium saucepan, heat milk and cream, and scraped vanilla bean pod just until it begins to simmer, stirring occasionally to break up the film of the cream.
  4. Slowly add 1-2 Tbsp. of the warmed milk mixture to the sugar mixture, whisking to combine.  Continue to add the remainder of the milk mixture, slowly in a steady stream, whisking constantly to avoid cooking the egg.
  5. Rinse saucepan and pour mixture back into it.
  6. Heat on MED-LOW to MED, stirring frequently, until the custard thickens, about 10-15 minutes.  Strain into a mixing bowl and cool completely in the refrigerator.
  7. After the custard base has cooled, add the fromage blanc and mascarpone, mixing until combined completely.  A whisk works best for this.
  8. Freeze in ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.
  1. After the ice cream has been made, scoop half into a shallow container, such as this OXO one, in an even layer.  Add several scoops of blackberry jam in lines across your canvas, then repeat with the second half of the ice cream to create two layers.  The ice cream will have the swirled look when it is scooped and served.
  2. Place in freezer for several hours to allow ice cream to harden.
*I recommend adding some dark mint chocolate bits as a final touch, but this ice cream is delicious as is too.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Life changes are inevitable, and in my opinion very healthy experiences and something you can grow and learn from.  No, it's never an easy thing, and some people are better at it than others, but in the end it mostly seems to be worth the stress and struggle.  All you can do sometimes is just sit back and enjoy the ride, and keep the positive juices flowing.


There are lots of changes happening around me this month.  For one, the weather is hinting that spring is coming...finally.  But the biggest change is that in a couple of weeks, one of my best friends will no longer also be my roommate.  After almost a year and a half in the same apartment, Rachel is moving out and moving on, taking the next big step and moving in with her boyfriend.  I of course have bittersweet feelings since I will no longer be seeing her every day, but I couldn't be happier for her new life.  She has taught me so much about cooking, introduced me to so many new foods (and cheeses!), and has been my partner in crime for exploring all of the amazing food my neighborhood has to offer.  And don't worry, we will continue to share recipes and have foodie get-togethers as usual and as often as possible.  I will however miss our spontaneous weekend brunches the most, and so, Rachel, I toast this brunch to you.

Stay tuned for the next chapter of food creations.  Another close friend of mine is moving in, which I am very much looking forward to, and I have no doubt we will find just as many food adventures.  Like they say, when one door closes, another one opens.


It was Rachel, in fact, who introduced me to this recipe and the cookbook it comes from, and I am so grateful for it.  For those who haven't had the chance to try this cookbook, it's full of recipes created by the cultural influences of two men who grew up in Jerusalem, one from the Arab side, the other from the Jewish side.  Every recipe has a unique and creative flair, and interesting ingredients and combinations.  Not to mention the pictures are GOR-geous. I highly recommend this cookbook as a staple in your kitchen.  Everything I've made from it has tasted so, so good, and this shakshuka recipe is no exception.

Though shakshuka could realistically be served for any meal, I love serving it to brunch guests at "Shelley's Café" the most.  It's a guaranteed hit every time, as people are always impressed with the dish.  Even better, it's relatively easy to make and can be modified based on what seasonal vegetables you have.  Sounds like a perfect change to the menu, doesn't it?


Serves: 2 to 4
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. harissa (*see recipe notes)
2 tsp. tomato paste
2 large red bell peppers, diced into 1/4-inch cubes
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp. ground cumin
5 large, very ripe tomatoes, chopped (5 cups in total); canned are also fine
4 large free-range eggs, plus 4 egg yolks (or 8 full eggs total)
1/2 cup greek yogurt
2-8 slices white bread, olive bread, or pita, for dipping
Eat seasonal - Try substituting eggplant or potatoes instead of tomatoes (although I think this version is the best)

*NOTE: The original recipe calls for 2 Tbsp. of harissa, but beware of how spicy your harissa paste is.  I suggest starting with less, and adding more if you can handle the heat.  You can find tubes of harissa near the tomato sauce and paste in the grocery store, or order it online.
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat and add the harissa, tomato paste, peppers, garlic, cumin, and 3/4 tsp. salt.  Stir and cook over medium heat for about 8 minutes to allow the peppers to soften.
  2. Add the tomatoes, bring to a gentle simmer, and cook for a further 10 minutes until you have quite a thick sauce.  Taste for seasoning.
  3. Make 8 little dips in the sauce.  Gently break the eggs and carefully pour each into its own dip.  Do the same with the yolks.  Use a fork to swirl the egg whites a little bit with the sauce, taking care not to break the yolks. 
  4. Simmer gently for 8 to 10 minutes, until the egg whites are set but the yolks are still runny (you can cover the pan with a lid if you wish to hasten the process). 
  5. Remove from the heat, leave for a couple of minutes to settle, then spoon into individual plates and serve the yogurt and bread.