Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Please Pass The Cupcakes

My memories of Thanksgiving don't match up with current reality. In my childhood, Thanksgiving was a wonderful time when we brought out the very best of everything. The linen, china, and candles made the dining table a glittering, shimmering tableau of beauty. The heavenly smells wafting from the kitchen had us all drooling with anticipation for the coming feast. My mother sternly warned us not to snack, but black olives were always pilfered from the cut glass bowl in which they resided. When the perfectly browned turkey was carried out and set on the table, and the plates were loaded up with slices of meat, great globs of mashed potatoes and stuffing, over which rivers of gravy were poured,  it was torturous to sit patiently through the grace. 

My current reality is that I spend 3 days baking and then collapse at the table while everyone eats. Is it just a lot more fun and special when someone else does all the work? In a word, yes. I know this to be true because this year we had two Thanksgiving dinners. (My, that does sound porky, doesn't it?)

The first dinner was an early Thanksgiving feast that we put on as a send-off for my son who's on his way to boot camp (he joined the Naval reserves). He and his wife came over to break bird with us and give thanks for our blessings. While I didn't go all out (no pies, to everyone's disappointment), it was still essentially a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. 

For our second dinner, we were invited to my daughter's house. She and her husband did all the work, cleaning, baking and prepping for two days ahead of time, then serving us a beautiful meal. All we brought was wine and gravy. That was much more like it! So, apparently, the key to a happy, relaxed meal is to have someone else fix it for you. 

The only downside to eating at someone else's house is the lack of leftovers when you get home. Normally I hate leftovers clogging up my refrigerator, but Thanksgiving leftovers are as much a part of Thanksgiving as the main meal is. How can you properly watch a football game without a turkey-cranberry sandwich or a plate of turkey and stuffing, with extra gravy? Can it be done? 

More importantly to me, what do you eat for breakfast the day after Thanksgiving if there is no leftover pumpkin pie? Pumpkin pie has squash, milk, and eggs, so what part of that doesn't say healthy breakfast to you? But if the leftover pie is languishing in someone else's kitchen, you either have to suck it up and have oatmeal, or bake your own pie. Or cupcakes.

Yes, I said cupcakes. These beauties are even healthier than pie because there's no crust. They're just delicious pumpkin pie taste in cupcake form. So there's no fussing to get straight edges when you cut a piece of pie (you pie nibblers out there know what I'm talking about!), just single-serving goodness, ready to go. Plus without having to make a crust (my pie downfall), they're a snap to make. I'd say, "easy as pie," but they're easier!

Pumpkin Pie Cupcakes
  - adapted from Baking Bites
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1 15-oz. can pumpkin pie puree
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract 
3/4 cup half and half or evaporated milk 
Whipped cream (for topping)

1 - Preheat the oven to 350F. Line the cups of a mini muffin tin with paper liners. (You can't skip the liners, or you won't be able to get the cupcakes out neatly.)
2- In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pumpkin pie spice.

3- In a large bowl, whisk together pumpkin puree, sugar, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla and half and half until well combined. Add in dry ingredients and whisk until no streaks of flour remain and batter is smooth.

4- Fill each muffin cup about 3/4 full. They won't really rise.

5- Bake for 11-14 minutes. Cool cupcakes in pan. They will sink as they cool.
Chill cupcakes before serving. Top with lightly sweetened whipped cream.

Makes 24, possibly a few more.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Chocolate Can't Fix Everything

Every relationship that you have changes you. Sometimes the changes are subtle, like emulating a friend's hairstyle, or the way in which they answer the phone, and sometimes they are drastic, like making a career choice or moving across the country, just to be with a friend. People brush up against your life and leave their fingerprints on it.

Sometimes that might be words of wisdom that come back to you at just the right time. Sometimes it's the memory of an extravagant act of selflessness that prods you to be a better friend. And sometimes it's pieces of pain, shared in quiet moments.

One of my friends once confided in me that her marriage was loveless. Not that either cheated on the other, just that there was no emotion, no passion. I had often wondered why she married this bland man, unremarkable in looks, personality, or finances and one day posed that question to her. She responded, "Because he asked. And I didn't think anyone else ever would." I cried inside, thinking of both of them living in a settle-for, I-can't-do-any-better-than-this marriage.

Another friend was in a truly unhappy marriage. Her husband was demanding, treating her as if she were a slave rather than a cherished gift from God. He was verbally abusive to her and I often found her in tears. I offered our home as a sanctuary for her daughter so that she could drop her off if the fighting got too ugly. More than one late night she came to visit.

One Sunday I sat behind my friend and her husband in church. From the set of her shoulders I knew that she was crying. She left the service early and when I went outside, she was sitting in her car, tears streaking down her cheeks. Though her face was saying, "just leave me alone," I motioned for her to roll down the window. I took her hand and kissed it, leaving an imprint of my lipstick on her hand, a kiss to take home. It made my heart ache that I couldn't do anything to fix it and make everything better.

And what could I say to my very dear friend who's husband of 20 years drained their bank account and left her and their 4 children for the woman he'd been having an affair with for 10 years? I offered to buy her a t-shirt that says, "It's better to have loved and lost than still be married to the crazy b-----d," but that wouldn't fix it all and heal the pain of loss and betrayal.

If only chocolate could fix everything. I'd make a batch of these bars and take them to every hurting woman in my life. But some days it seems like that would be a mountain of bars. I can't do it alone. So I have a challenge for you bakers out there. Make your favorite treat, then, rather than eating the whole batch and moaning about the size of your hips, wrap them up individually in cellophane and put a little ribbon around each one. Tuck some into your purse and see how many hurting people you can find that day to give them out to. And if you run out of hurting people to bless, try just brightening someone's day. There's nothing like the smile of someone who's been randomly given a cookie!

My Heart Breaks For You Bars
(aka Thousand Dollar Bars - adapted from King Arthur Flour)

shortbread layer:

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup confectioners' sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

caramel layer:

2 cups caramel, cut into small chunks
3 tablespoons heavy cream

chocolate layer:

3 cups chopped milk chocolate or dark chocolate, melted
1 tablespoon coconut oil (optional)
Crunchy sea salt for garnishing

1- Preheat oven to 300 Deg. F. Line a 9 x 13-inch pan with parchment paper, leaving enough to hang over the edges.

2- In a medium-sized bowl, beat together the butter, sugar and vanilla. Add the flour. At first the mixture may seem dry, but will come together as you continue to beat at medium speed.

3- Take the dough (it will be somewhat stiff) and press it evenly into the pan. Lightly flouring your fingertips will help with any sticking.

4- Prick the crust all over with a fork. The holes will allow steam to escape and the crust will bake evenly with fewer bubbles.

5- Bake the crust until it's lightly golden brown on top and the edges are deeper golden brown, about 35 to 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and set it aside to cool completely.

6- Once the crust is cooled, melt the caramel and cream over low heat in a small saucepan. Pour the caramel over the cooled crust and set in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to chill and firm up.

7- Melt the milk or dark chocolate slowly in a double boiler or over very low heat. If it seems very thick, add a tablespoon of shortening to thin it. Pour evenly over the chilled caramel layer and spread to cover all of the caramel. Sprinkle the sea salt over the chocolate layer. Return to the fridge until the chocolate is well set. Cut into 2" x 2" squares to serve. (The chocolate may shatter if you cut it straight from the fridge, so you might need to let it warm up just a tad before cutting.) It's best to store these bars in the refrigerator.

8- These bars can also be cut and dipped in milk chocolate to resemble Twix ® bars. After the caramel layer has chilled firm, cut down the length of the pan, splitting the bars into two long, narrow bars. Then cut each long strip into "fingers". Dip the chilled bars into melted chocolate, place on parchment paper to set, sprinkle with sea salt, and allow to set up for several hours.

(Note: It's waaaaay easier to spread the chocolate on top, rather than dipping them, but dipping gives a nice, all-over layer of chocolate that's wonderful. Either way, they're delicious. And don't forget the crunchy salt. Salt + chocolate + caramel + shortbread = fabulous. If cookies could fix problems, these would do the job!)