Sweet Kentucky Bourbon

458430_640x360May’s flowers are finally here, and they were heralded by one of our country’s most beloved (and slightly ridiculous) traditions: the Kentucky Derby. Every year, the first Saturday in May brings a slew of over-sized hats and equestrian fanatics together for a nearly 140-year-old sporting event. This year’s race was won by a horse named California Chrome (pictured above*). For those of us who celebrate the race with food and drinks, there’s one vital ingredient: bourbon. We’re not talking just any old whiskey – Derby parties call for the barrel-aged, Kentucky-bred, high-proof real deal.
DSC_0089One thing I’ve learned about bourbon is that dessert recipes (especially chocolate) are made WAY better when you add the stuff. Bourbon adds a smoky and almost vanilla flavor that’s unlike any other sweets you’ve tried before. So for this year’s Derby, I made THREE treats with a bourbon kick: Kentucky Bourbon Balls, Browned Butter Bourbon Blondies, and (wait for it…) Bourbon Chocolate Cupcakes with Bourbon Ganache and Cinnamon Buttercream (!!!!)
Bourbon BallsLet’s start with the smallest of the three – these treats are both simple and addictive. You know you’ve got a winner when the main ingredients are cookies, nuts, and chocolate. I’ve made a similar recipe using spiced rum (see HERE) but the bourbon variety is by far my favorite. There are actually two ways to make bourbon balls: the first is the method I used, while the second omits the cookies entirely and relies on a powdered sugar and bourbon filling. It’s fairly sweet, with a more pronounced bourbon taste (the cookies help round it out, for obvious reasons).
DSC_0161You’ll need a few hours to pull these together, and a bit of patience – the filling prep and rolling aren’t an issue, but dipping the pieces into chocolate can be a bit messy.  Melted chocolate is an ingredient that manages to get onto everything, so I have the setup ready to go before even melting the chocolate. The key is to keep the the bourbon balls cold for as long as possible. I froze all the pieces, and then dipped 1/3 into the chocolate while the others remained chilled.
Bourbon Balls 2Since it’s a no-bake recipe, use a bourbon that you would actually want to drink – these treats will only be as good as the alcohol you use. I used Jim Beam for all three recipes. That being said, I’m admittedly a bit of a bourbon snob and would never drink the stuff unless absolutely necessary – I can thank my friend Beth for that! The resulting bites were perfectly delicious, and there were hardly leftovers by the end of the party. Click HERE to see the recipe for these chocolate-covered treats!
Bourbon Blondies 2The second recipe was a twist on a classic dessert that I’ve been making for years. Blondies are basically brownies, but with brown sugar replacing the chocolate. Like brownies, you can fill ’em with nuts, chocolate chips, candies, and more. These blondies take it to a whole new level with browned butter AND bourbon. The first ingredient is a recent discovery of mine (see here), and is honestly a game-changer in the world of baking.
Bourbon Blondies 1The resulting bar was nutty and moist, with a hint of bourbon that rounded out the sweetness. They store beautifully, making them the perfect treat for picnics and parties. You can use dark or white chocolate, or even crushed walnuts. That’s the best thing about bars – you can make them your own, and they’ll still be just as delicious no matter what. One bite of this blondie and you’ll never go back – browned butter and bourbon will be your kitchen standbys. Click HERE to see the recipe for these golden beauties.
DSC_0212This last dessert was an experiment – I had found a GREAT recipe for bourbon chocolate cupcakes, but didn’t have nearly enough time to prepare the remaining components. I was left with a base recipe and no idea on what to do for frosting or filling. I ended up making a bourbon ganache, and it was a winner. This was a fairly basic ganache, with a splash of bourbon and touch of vanilla. Any extra ganache will keep in the refrigerator for a week (boozy ice cream sundaes, anyone?) For those who aren’t as keen on the bourbon taste, coffee or even milk make wonderful substitutes. As is, these are definitely cupcakes for adults.
Bourbon Choc Cupcakes 3I wanted a frosting to complement the bourbon spice, and whipped up a cinnamon buttercream. Again, a fairly basic recipe with a small twist – it was the perfect complement to an already stunning set of flavors. I was hoping to find a decorative Derby garnish (like this), but ended up crushing cinnamon sticks and arranging the pieces atop the frosting. The result was an intensely flavorful cupcake, all of which were demolished before the night’s end. Click HERE to see the recipe for these devilish cakes.
Bourbon Choc Cupcakes 1I grew up loving horses – they are magnificent animals, and have been a vital part of our culture for centuries. The Kentucky Derby showcases the best of the best: thoroughbreds whose pedigree and training have made them amongst the most valuable animals in the world. The average speed of a thoroughbred is about 36 mph, and can go up to nearly 40 mph. Like I said, they are truly remarkable creatures. For the musical pairing, I chose a classic “horse-themed” work: Franz von Suppé’s Overture to the Operetta Leichte Kavallerie (Light Cavalry). Premiered in 1866, the operetta itself is fairly esoteric and is rarely (if ever) performed. The overture, however, has stood the test of time and has become to most well-known composition of Suppé’s legacy. The operatta’s story doesn’t contain any actual horses or riders – it concerns the love affair of a Baron and a Hungarian countess. Nevertheless, the overture’s thematic material has come to be closely associated with horse-racing and actual cavalries. It’s a classic, and a perfect pairing for an event as time-honored and exciting as the Kentucky Derby. The below recording comes from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Years Concert, with conductor Franz Welser-Möst – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
“Leichte Kavallerie,” Wikipedia.com
*California Chrome Photo – courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

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A New Year of Cookies!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! At some point, remind me to share with all of you how crazy/wonderful/beautiful 2013 was – but for now, I’d like to kick off 2014 with something we all know and love: NUTELLA.
NutellaThe chocolatey hazelnut spread has become a worldwide phenomenon, and this is not an exaggeration. Every 2.5 seconds, a jar of Nutella is sold to a chocoholic in the world. To put this into context: the total number of jars sold in a single year can cover the Great Wall of China 8 times, and can be spread over more than 1,000 football fields! If that’s not enough to convince you, there is an annual World Nutella Day – on February 5th, fans across the globe post drool-worthy foodie pics and share what they love most about the sweet spread. Needless to say, Nutella is pretty amazing and (for some) worth more than its weight in gold. With that in mind, let me introduce you to these two “drool-worthy” cookie recipes: Vanilla Bean Macarons with Nutella Buttercream and Nutella-Stuffed Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies. (Word of warning – these do NOT adhere to any New Year’s Resolution efforts).
Nutella Macarons 6French macarons are a project I’ve been meaning to try for quite some time – each cookie consists of two almond-meringue shells with a filling of choice (ex: buttercream, jam, ganache). It’s often confused with “macaroon” –  a similar cookie that lacks a filling and is popularly made with coconut (scroll to the end of this post!) The French macaron has a more distinct shape: its top is smooth and round, with a ruffled edge (called the pied) and a flat base. Flavors and colors are easy to customize, hence my choice of vanilla bean and nutella. Every baker has his or her own opinion about how to make the perfect macaron, but it really comes down to preference and experience – if the “macaron” shoe fits, stick with it.
Nutella Macarons 5While some people have the ability to pipe perfectly-sized macarons, I don’t trust my own skills just yet. To make a visual guide, I traced small circles on to a piece of parchment paper and then flipped the paper ink-side down. Aside from this, there are two other tricks for getting the right shape and look. The first is rapping the pan against the counter – not so hard that the cookies goes flying, but with enough force to loosen any air bubbles trapped inside. The second is to allow the batter to sit for 15 to 30 minutes: this creates a shell (the batter should not be “tacky” before going into the oven) and allows the coveted pied to form while baking.
DSC_0288The filling is perhaps the easiest part – you can go plain Jane by choosing your favorite jam, or you can whip up a flavored buttercream or chocolate ganache. As you already know, I made a Nutella buttercream for my macarons…which I proceeded to lick out of the bowl once the cookies were done (no shame). It took me a while to give macarons at try, but they are really quite simple once you get the feel for it – click HERE to see the recipe, which also includes some helpful tips.
Nutella Chip Cookies 2These.Were.Ridiculous – browned butter, Nutella, chocolate chips, GAH! These cookies are so intense that the recipe takes two days – you will be chomping at the bit by the time they’re ready to eat, but the wait is worth it. Browned butter sets these apart from your typical chocolate chip cookies. It’s similar to creating a caramel or dry-toasting nuts and spices – you’re basically “toasting” the butter, which in turn gives the cookies a nutty, buttery finish. I plan to give this chocolate chip cookie recipe a try on its own, but the Nutella filling is what makes this an A+ cookie…
Browned ButterOne thing I absolutely recommend is freezing the Nutella, and then eating it directly out of the freezer. The original recipe calls for chilling the spread in your fridge, then using a teaspoon measure to scoop it out. Our building’s heat is kept at tropical highs during the winter (thanks to a disengaged management company) so I needed a better solution. I froze teaspoon-sized dollops of Nutella the night before baking, which resulted in a much friendlier process. The Nutella “coins” could easily be wrapped with the cookie dough, mess-free.
Nutella Chip Cookies 1These cookies with bursting with a nutty, chocolatey aroma when pulled out of the oven. Once cooled, I wrapped as many as possible into candy bags for gifting…because I would have eaten all of them, and needed to save myself from a “Garfield sees lasagna” moment. Carrying them into work was comical, considering people on the train were visibly intrigued by the smell of chocolatey goodness. This is not your average chocolate chip cookie, but it will quickly become one of your favorites – click HERE to learn how to make these devilish treats!
Coconut Macaroons 2New Year’s bonus cookie! I also made some Coconut Macaroons drizzled with Nutella.  I had several parties to attend on New Year’s Eve so…the more the merrier! This is one of my favorite cookie recipes – they are a cinch to make, with only 5 ingredients (minus the chocolate). What better way to treat your friends than with a platter of macarons AND macaroons?? Click HERE to see the recipe for these delightful cookies! 
Coconut Macaroons 1January 1st brings with it a fresh start – unknown adventures and new opportunities await. It is a cause for celebration that’s echoed across the globe. New Year’s Eve is filled with excited anticipation, and the day itself seems somewhat brighter and clearer (even if it’s painfully cold…like it is today in Boston). The festive ambiance is contagious, as cities and entire nations join together to welcome a new start. One neujahrskonzert_wien_new_years_concert_Vienna_wiener_philharmoniker_musikverein_golden_hallcelebration that’s worth noting is the New Year’s Concert with the Vienna Philharmonic – a tradition that dates all the way back to 1939. Today, the performance is broadcast to an audience of nearly 50 million people! On the morning of New Year’s day, the Vienna Phil gives a concert that showcases a number of classics by Austrian composers. Most of the program includes pieces by the Strauss family. In fact, the 1939 performance contained works by only Johann Strauss. This brings me to my musical pairing: Johann Strauss’ Overture to the operetta Die Fledermaus. This piece – which was on the original 1939 New Year’s program – is the perfect example of “light music.” It contains some wonderful gems, and gives you a taste what’s in store for the operetta itself. That being said, the technical aspects and musicality of the overture are quite demanding on the musicians – what better orchestra to meet the challenge than the Vienna Phil! The below recording is from the New Year’s Concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2010. Both exciting and cheerful, this overture is a lovely way to ring in the New Year!

Sources Cited:
“8 Things You May Not Know About Nutella,” MentalFloss.com
“Vienna New Year’s Concert,” Wikipedia
Photo courtesy of the Vienna Philharmonic

The Treats of Travel

After what has felt like nonstop traveling, I am BACK in Boston 😀 It was an awesome three months do doubt, though it’s nice to finally have a moment to relax and enjoy my own apartment. I feel like I haven’t blogged in forever! Of course, the traveling has meant little to no chance for foodie adventures and photography…thankfully, I had photographed some sugary treats a while back that had yet to be featured on this blog!
Truffles1Chocolate Truffles are perhaps one of the most luxurious sweets, and yet they are so easy to make! My recommendation: use THE best chocolate that money can buy – Ghirardelli, Godiva, Scharffen Berger, Green & Black’s, etc. It’s the main ingredient, and will make all the difference in the world (especially if you don’t plan on using any added flavors). Adding a flavor is where the fun really begins – peppermint, pecans, bourbon, cinnamon, Grand Marnier, espresso (I could go on…). Just be sure to stick with ingredients that won’t entirely overwhelm the taste of the chocolate (after all, these are chocolate truffles).
Truffles2From there, you can roll them in any coating (that’s edible) – we went for a combination of sprinkles, chopped nuts, powdered sugar, and even coconut! Some other ideas might be crushed cereal, decorative sugar, pretzels (but don’t get crazy!) The result was is quite stunning, and so rich! They can be a little messy, but I was recently given a trick: coat your hands in cocoa powder, then roll them into balls – so simple! Have several bowls set out with your desired coatings, and I would quickly washing your hands in between coatings, unless you want a truffle that is covered in every one…which is OK! Click HERE to read more about these bite-sized treats.
CinnamonRollCookiedThese Cinnamon Bun Cookies were such beautiful cookies! At first I was skeptical, and not really convinced that they would work. It can be a little tricky slicing the rounds, so be sure to use a good, sharp knife. I rolled the dough as tightly as I could, then placed it in the freezer overnight. The next morning, I carefully sliced the logs using a chef’s knife. I also would recommend making a touch more of filling than you need (just in case!)
CinnamonRollCookies2The original recipe calls for icing, yet I felt these already have the perfect balance of sugar and spice. For fans of a sweeter cookie, then you would love the icing – and it would also bring these even closer to their pastry inspiration. If you are bringing these to a party and want to box them up, I would recommend icing the cookies once you arrive. Just make sure your guests don’t steal any while you’re working – I can guarantee they will be tempted to try. Click HERE to read more about these beautiful cookies.
PBThumbprintsAll I can say about these Peanut Butter & Fudge Oatmeal Cookies is that they are dangerous – once you’ve had one, you’ll want at least 3 (or 12) more. They are actually gluten-free, which is a great option if you or a friend is sensitive to gluten products. Everything else about them is pure indulgence: peanut butter, chocolate fudge…they are just really good. I could talk more about them, but wouldn’t want you to accidentally drool on your keyboard – click HERE to read more about these chocolatey bites.
PBThumbprints2Since this large chunk of  tours that was practically taking me across the country, I felt like a bit of storyteller with friends and colleagues by sharing “tales of distant places” (heck, even the middle of nowhere Ohio can feel like a fairy tale…) Needless to say, this thought inspired my musical pairing for this blog – Aleksandr Glazunov’s Chant du ménestrel, Op. 71 pour Violoncelle et Orchestre. This is a piece I only recently heard performed, and have ultimately fallen in love with. A minstrel was a medieval bard whose songs of faraway lands and heroic feats were highly sought by Europe’s high society. The minstrel tradition was eventually replaced by court composers and musicians, which led many of these bards to travel for work – hence the “wandering minstrels”. The picture of a traveling performer is a romantic ideal (and, in a small way, define my own work in the arts world!) A number of artists have drawn inspiration from this ideal, including poets…

O for the gentleness of old Romance, the simple planning of a minstrel’s song! (John Keats) 

playwrights…

Consort! what, dost thou make us minstrels? an
thou make minstrels of us, look to hear nothing but
discords: here’s my fiddlestick; here’s that shall
make you dance. ‘Zounds, consort!
(Romeo and Juliet: Act 3, Scene 1 – Shakespeare)

And painters…(to name a few!)

Supper-With-The-Minstrel-And-His-Lute-large

So where is the connection to these cookies? Cookies in and of themselves are edible stories – each has its own history, whether it be your mother’s beloved chocolate chip recipe or from a holiday cookie swap at your office that was a lot fun. The original below recording is with cellist Yuli Turovsky and the chamber orchestra I Musici de Montréal – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
“Minstrel,” Wikipedia.com
“John Keats quotes”, Thinkexist.com
“Romeo and Juliet” Shakespeare.mit.edu
“Supper With The Minstrel And His Lute,” Gerrit Van Honthorst: The Complete Works

Victory Never Tasted So Sweet

Superbowl Cupcakes 1Superbowl – a word that, for sports fans, is synonymous with “event of the year”. It’s the one time that you can actually get away with having nothing more than nachos and beer for dinner…with a side of buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks and guacamole and…well, you get the picture. I always take advantage of these occasions to make something fun and delicious – so for Super Bowl, I made adorable Touchdown Cupcakes!
SuperbowlCupcakes4I have always wondered what the “grass” piping tip would produce – I personally am reminded of silly string…but maybe that’s just me. It’s actual “spout” resembles a shower head. I would recommend using a standard buttercream recipe, but you might be able to try it with cream cheese. The piping tip has very small holes, so a stiffer frosting will be difficult – adding some milk or cream can help loosen the consistency. You start to get the hang of the piping pattern after a while, though it is time-consuming.
SuperbowlCupcakes3At first I thought the piped frosting would look silly, but it actually made a very convincing “grass.” As for the cupcakes, I used my go-to chocolate cake recipe – it’s a quick recipe, and makes a cake that is all things you love about chocolate 🙂 What’s even better about these cupcakes is that they freeze beautifully – I always have a few in my freezer for unexpected guests (or chocolate cravings…). You can easily sub out the buttermilk for plain milk, and use plain boiled water if you prefer to not have coffee (my good friend Tim, for example, is allergic – I use this alternative whenever making this cake for him!)
SuperbowlCupcakes5For the footballs, I had some leftover dough in my freezer for rollout chocolate cookies (remember these beauties!?) These were arguably the most difficult part – I don’t have a football-shaped cutter…so I buckled down and used a paring knife to carefully carve out 2 dozen small football shapes. They baked in less than 8 minutes, and made perfect little toppers! Overall, these cupcakes are quite simple – the assembly and decorating are (obviously) the best part 🙂 Here are the basic components you will need:
Chocolate Cupcakes
Basic Buttercream Frosting (like this one) + green dye (enough to get your preferred hue) and a touch of lemon (to help cloak the dye’s flavor)
Cookie Toppers (omit the peppermint filling)
Frosting Tools: Grass piping tip, Round piping tip, disposable pastry bags OR ziploc bags (with corner snipped), paring knife
SuperbowlCupcakes2The promise of victory and ecstatic crowds are cogent factors to what defines the Superbowl. Thousands upon thousands cram into a stadium in hopes of experiencing the ultimate sport fan’s dream, and each and every player on that field is dedicated to triumph. The energy is both electric (no pun intended…considering the power went out at this year’s Superbowl!) and contagious. This helped lead to my musical pairing : Bizet’s “Toreador Song,” from the opera Carmen. Much as this event is the highlight of the football season, this aria is perhaps one of the most famous in all of the opera repertoire. It describes the “gory glory” of the bullfight, citing the rush of excitement and ultimate triumph. To give you an idea, here is a translated excerpt from the aria:

The crowd goes mad, edgy from waiting,
Breaking into noisy arguments all around!
People shout, people yell and holler
With a din that tears the place apart!
They’re celebrating men of valor!
Celebrating the brave of heart!
Let’s go! On guard! Let’s go! Ah!

Why this aria for cupcakes? A toreador (also known as a “torero” or “matador”) is a theatrical profession, and the act of bullfighting is considered to be more of a performance art than a sport. The fighter wears elaborate garb decorated with gold or silver embellishments, and enters the bullring in hopes of achieving a higher status in society; much as I hoped these cupcakes (a mixture of recipes that are essentially “back-of-the-box” basics) could be more appreciated once decorated. I should probably add that I arrived (late) at a Superbowl party, just following the power outage – I was surrounded by Ravens fans (with one die-hard 49ers fan), and we were all on the edge of our seats up to the final minute. As the Ravens’ win became imminent, we all felt that “victory had never tasted so sweet.”

My roommate Synthia Pullum (a ridiculously talented soprano…and Anime enthusiast!) recommended the following recording with baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
“Toreador Song,”Wikipedia.com
“Torero,” Wikipedia.com

The Sweetness of True Love

So folks, I did it again – word got out that I know how to bake, and I’ve become the “cupcake guru” with friends and loved ones. To be perfectly honest, I really enjoy it – there’s something almost therapeutic (for me) in baking, decorating, and delivering a batch of treats…in fact, it has few parallels. It’s a finished product, and one that you can receive direct feedback on. So in this instance, two very close friends of mine recently said “I do” – Robert Myers and Brandon Martinez. It was perhaps one of the most beautiful services I’ve ever seen (I cry in the movie Bambi, so of course I was a basket case). Like the last wedding I baked for, I had three varieties of cupcakes – the comedy and stress of making 150 cupcakes and getting them to the wedding (pictured above), once again, totally worth it.
This first variety was perhaps the most difficult. Robert and Brandon had a Fall-themed Wedding – hues of orange and cocoa created a warm, hunting lodge-esque ambiance (and the outfits of the bridal party and happy couple were stunning). So this first cupcake was a complement to that Autumnal feel: Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes with Caramel and Cream Cheese Frosting. It’s important to note that Brandon also requested caramel, and this was the perfect fix 😉
The hardest part of these cupcakes was the garnish : candied orange peel. I got a serious burn from these puppies (but that’s what I get for attempting an “Iron Chef” adroitness with boiled sugar…never again). They are a beautiful topping, but be warned – boiled sugar is a dangerous ingredient. Caramels, nut brittles – the secret lies in the risk. What’s funny about the caramel for these cupcakes is that it never reached the thickness I had planned for…and the result was a thin sauce that soaked into the cakes. While that may sound odd, trust me when I say that there were no complaints. Click HERE to see the recipe for these elegant cupcakes! 
The second cupcake was a Robert request – he is huge fan of all things tiramisu and chocolate, so I immediately came up with the idea to create Chocolate Cupcakes with Kahlua Ganache and Mascarpone Frosting. They were just as delicious as they sound. I used my go-to chocolate cake recipe, which always promises an extremely tender cake with a deep flavor. The best part about this recipe? It can all be made in one bowl, saving time and energy (a big plus when you have to make 50…)
Kahlua + chocolate = gold medal. The edge of espresso really deepens the “chocolatey” nature of the ganache, and kahlua is sort of awesome all on it’s own; a win-win situation. And for those of you who are curious, the alcohol is NOT cooked out of the ganache (though a single tablespoon will have little if any effect, I can guarantee it). Topped with a mascarpone frosting, these were absolutely decadent. I topped each one with a chocolate music note, to honor the happy couple’s musical lifestyles 🙂 Click HERE to see the secret to making these indulgent cupcakes! 
The third cupcake was the most playful of the three: Snickerdoodle Cupcakes with Fluff Frosting. I loved making these, mostly because I love saying “Snickerdoodle” (you can’t help but smile every time you hear it). These were surprisingly reminiscent of the beloved cookie. They had just the right amount of spice, were beautifully sweet and yet perfectly light. You’ll find yourself looking back on those childhood days, sitting close the oven while awaiting these sugary sweets…
When thinking about what to frost these with, I looked to a baker’s best friend: Marshmallow Fluff. I know what you’re thinking, but when it comes to cupcakes it is truly a godsend – it’s fun, sweet, and will make a frosting with the ideal piping consistency. Of course, topping these with an actual Snickerdoodle cookie was just too good to resist. Click HERE to see the recipe for these fun little cakes! 
For the wedding procession, Robert and Brandon chose one of my favorite opera excerpts: the “Final Trio” of Der Rosenkavelier (Knight of the Rose). To say this is a beautiful moment hardly does it justice – it’s breathtaking and a real tear-jerker (you guessed it, this was another “Bambi” moment for me). Given it’s a trio, I started to look at how the characters of this scene could relate to the three cupcake varieties. The trio has the following three characters:

Princess Marie Therese von Werdenberg (The Marschallin) – an older woman who laments her early marriage to a Field Marshal.
Octavian – the Maschallin’s young lover, who she elects to be the Knight of the Rose for her cousin Baron Ochs’ marriage announcement.
Sophie – Sophie von Faninal, the fiancée of Baron Ochs who falls in love with Octavian.

The trio is the moment where the three come together, knowing that Octavian must choose whether he continues to be The Marschallin’s lover or leaves to be with Sophie. It’s a beautiful scene that speaks to the undeniable power of love, and was the perfect start to a gorgeous ceremony. In terms of these cupcakes, each one can be paired to this trio of dynamic characters. The Pumpkin Cupcakes suit The Marschallin quite beautifully – not only are they elegant, but they are far more complex than meets the eye. Octavian has to be the Chocolate Cupcakes with Kahlua Ganache – he is “filled” with an irresistible passion for life, and a capacity for love that is unstoppable. That leaves the Snickerdoodle Cupcakes for Sophie – a young woman whose heart and character are the definition of youth. The clip below is my personal favorite, with Anne Sophie von Otter (Octavian), Barbara Bonney (Sophie), and Felicity Lott (the Marschallin).

(credit Adam Workman)

To Robert and Brandon –  I wish you all the happiness in the world, for I don’t know a couple who deserves it more than you. There is no doubt that the two of you are meant to be together, and I feel truly blessed for having had the opportunity to experience such a beautiful union – all my best.

Sources Cited:
“Der Rosenkavalier,” Wikipedia.com

An Unexpected Masterpiece

You might recall my insane task of baking 120 cupcakes for a wedding a few weeks back, but the result was awesome and totally worth it…yet it’s worth mentioning that I had also volunteered to bake cakes for the office’s birthday celebration three days later! Oops…I of course forgot about it, and had to resort to a crazy brainstorm session: ‘how about cookies? No, those won’t work…I can bring in cookies any old time…but wait, why not cookies…in cake form!” Following a mad dash of altering cookie recipes and finding a ridiculous amount of butter I was able to create two last-minute beauties: Chocolate Chip Cookie Cake with Peanut Butter Frosting and Chocolate Brownie Cake with Coconut-Almond Frosting.
This cake is proof that freezers are necessary to our survival. You completely forget you are having friends over (or in my case, bringing in treats to the office)…yet suddenly remember that cookie batter you froze a few weeks back! It will need to thaw, but luckily I placed the dough into my fridge (to make space for ALL of those cupcakes). It’s one of the BEST chocolate chip cookie doughs I have found to date, and the peanut butter frosting was a no-brainer. Anyone who doesn’t love a chocolate and peanut butter pairing should not be trusted (unless they are allergic to peanuts…they can still be trusted) Click HERE to see the secret behind this amazing cake!
This next recipe was inspired by an “I-need-to-use-very-soon” bag of shredded coconut sitting in my pantry. I wanted something similar to an Almond Joy, mostly because I was secretly craving the actually candy…and somehow I decided on a brownie cake. I modified the recipe that I just featured on this blog, trusting the result would be delicious. The topping is what makes this a winner, hands-down – it’s a spin on the frosting for German Chocolate Cake, only with almonds in place of pecans. The finished cake definitely reached my candy-craving standards. Get your Almond Joy fix by clicking HERE.
I loved the idea of pairing these cakes with a work that was similarly “last-minute” in origin. As a flutist, I immediately thought of the perfect piece – Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 2 in D Major. A bit of history: flutist Ferdinand De Jean had commissioned Mozart to compose four flute quartets and three concerti…yet Mozart was the living representation of procrastination. So it was no surprise that only three quartets and two concerti were presented to De Jean for the commission. Yet like these cakes, Mozart pulled a work from his own “stock” of repertoire to complete it: the Oboe Concerto in C Major. He reworked the piece to fit the flute more appropriately, but basically transcribed the whole thing to D Major and handed it over to De Jean as a “flute concerto.” De Jean wasn’t fooled, and never paid for it. That being said, it has become vital to the flute repertoire and is undeniably beautiful. Sometimes, last-minute creations can be far greater than anything you could have planned (yet while this often worked for Mozart, I wouldn’t recommend it as a life practice…) The recording below is of the first movement with flutist James Galway – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
“Oboe Concerto (Mozart),” Wikipedia.com

True Love Waits

We all grew up with the notion that our lives will lead to the iconic “happily ever after” – Disney can take ALL of the credit when it comes to my own history. Yet having seen that life doesn’t always brings you castles in the sky or a plethora of critters willing to  clean your apartment, reality eventually kicks in and brings us to what our childhood equivalents had deemed the “real world”. Yet watching Elizabeth DeVore’s and Christopher Patrick Maguire’s wedding was about the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a fairtytale. They just married this past August in Promise City, Iowa (a fitting name) after two wonderful years together. For their Boston celebration, they asked if I could cater the dessert course with cupcakes. While I still can’t believe that I actually baked that many cupcakes, I was even more surprised at how well they went over – yet for Elizabeth and Chris, it was totally worth it.
So there were two factors that had me somewhat anxious about this task : a) I had never baked more than 40 cupcakes at once and b) where in the world was I going to find space for 120 cupcakes?! I quickly established a game plan: bake 40 cupcakes a night, make creative use of freezer space for the multitude of containers filled with the cakes, prepare garnishes whenever possible, cream the frostings the night before, decorate the morning-of…I don’t know how much sleep I actually got that week, but it all turned out beautifully (and thankfully there is no evidence of the frosting process…I was all but covered in butter and sugar by the end of it!)
Let’s start on the Chocolate Stout Cupcakes with Guinness Buttercream: Elizabeth and I have been friends for nearly two years now, and I’ve come to learn that she’s always down for a good beer. This was actually the first cupcake I thought of when she had asked me to bake. The original makes a ridiculous amount of batter: I managed to get 40 cupcakes PLUS one 9-inch cake out of the batch…so for the sake and sanity of my readers, I’ve halved the recipe (but feel free to go for the full batch if you’re willing!)
You don’t have to worry about taking a bite and instantly think “college frat party” – these aren’t like that at all. The chocolate’s flavor is beautifully enhanced by the stout, while the carbonation adds an effervescent quality to the batter. Yet don’t be fooled: like Guinness, these are hearty cupcakes, rich and dense – sure to satisfy anyone who loves chocolate. If you prefer to cloak the taste of stout, omit the Guinness from the frosting and replace it with milk or cream: click HERE to see the recipe for these rich, dark treats!
Red Velvet Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting are a classic at any wedding – the scarlet cakes are dessert’s most popular exemplification of “true love.” What’s tricky about red velvet batter, though, is achieving that dark hue…you would be surprised at the amount of red food coloring it takes. I kept adding more thinking, ‘this just can’t be right…I must be going overboard!’ Yet the result was exactly what I had hoped for.
Funny story about these: I made chocolate hearts for garnish by melting chocolate and piping it onto parchment sheets. When transporting them to the actual event, silly me forgot to put them into a refrigerator upon arrival…so I suddenly had a mangled mess of what used to look like perfect little hearts. Though I managed to salvage most, I was at least 10 garnishes short. I ran (in heels, of course) to the nearby corner store, bought 4 bars of Hershey’s special dark, ran back and quickly made additional garnishes. How this worked I will never know, but the fact that the bride didn’t find out until later that evening proves it was a complete success 🙂 Click HERE to see the recipe for these loving sweets!
So I saved the best for last, and I say “best” because of the number of recipe requests and compliments for these Lemon Buttermilk Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting. I actually thought these would be the “leftover” flavor, but there were hardly any to be seen by the end of the reception. The cake is perfect – just the right amount of lemon with a beautifully tender crumb, with a cream cheese frosting to round it all out.
Their true beauty was thanks to the garnish: a pineapple flower. When I saw this adorable idea (a Martha Stewart creation, no less), I knew it would be perfect for the occasion. I didn’t realize that it would also be quite messy and time-consuming (though not as much as the frosting undertaking, ahem)…but the result was absolutely perfect! Aside from their visual appeal, they were also quite delicious (I’ve always against non-edible garnishes…) So all-in-all, these took the trophy for “best cupcake of the day” – click HERE to see how to make these show-stopping beauties!
The musical pairing for this was a no-brainer – as you read from the beginning of this post, Elizabeth and Chris have a love that is truly remarkable. They have both been through some really tough times, and yet their devotion has never waned. The wedding was, in a word, “magical” – both the bride and the groom were glowing, from the start of the ceremony to the end of the party. I don’t think I saw a single moment where they weren’t simply beaming. For the service itself, they asked Christopher O’Riley (host of From the Top, and a close friend) to perform. During the Sand Ceremony, he played his arrangement of Radiohead’s True Love Waits…this song is too perfect, and I couldn’t think of anything that would be better suited for this post. While I still can’t say that I believe in fairytales, Elizabeth and Chris have certainly proved that dreams can come true – enjoy!

A Stress-Free Indulgence

Make-ahead: a term that ANY host loves to see in a recipe. No stress, no mess – just the simple task of cutting or baking, and you’re done. Desserts, thankfully, often fall within this category (an exception would include bananas foster, but those are sooo worth the added effort). Avoiding the use of an oven at a party is alway a great idea – you don’t want a bunch of sweaty, hungry guests…trust me, it’s not a pretty picture. So when I discovered these Lime Meltaways and Supernatural Brownies, I all but jumped at the opportunity to make them…and trust me when I say that my friends all but jumped onto the plates these were served upon.
Let’s talk chocolate for a moment – there are few things more beautiful than a 9×11 block of dense, fudgy brownies. This recipe is a true winner – two types of sugar create a moist texture, while melted bittersweet chocolate permeates the batter with a rich and palpable taste. The recipe for these had gone “blog viral” – in other words, a number of baking blogs and recipe platforms had showcased these, with endless praises; I decided to take the hint and give these a shot.
The baked result has a delicate crust, beneath which is the gorgeously tender brownie. Surprisingly, they don’t have the typical dark hue common to brownies – they are somewhat lighter, but trust me when I say the flavor has just as much depth. While these do take a while to bake, it is absolutely crucial to NOT overbake these – nothing is worst than a chalky brownie :-/ Click HERE to see the recipe for these showstopping treats!
If I had to list my favorite type of cookie, it would have to be shortbread: not too sweet, with a buttery crunch that never fails to make you “melt.” These cookies were just that – lime + sugar = awesome. The best thing about this cookie is that once you roll the dough into a “log,” it can refrigerated up to a week or frozen for up to three months! This gives a major boost to the convenience and flavor of these cookies. You can find the recipe for these zesty treat HERE.
For the musical pairing, I thought it would be nice to showcase a minimalist work (given the simplicity of prep work). Yet their flavors and overall complexities demanded something more, and that led me to John Adams. He is defined as a minimalist composer, yet he is constantly exploring the limits to which he can take the genre, leading some to go so far as calling his music “maximalist”. The piece I chose is his work for piano called Phyrigan Gates – the title refers to the fact that the piece is composed in the Phyrigan mode, with the “gates” alluding to the constant shifts from Lydian to Phrygian (while moving in line with the circle of fifths). The below image illustrates the Phyrgian mode on C:

At the same time, I felt the music to be aesthetically appropriate – the modal shifts present a wealth of flavors, yet it’s complexity is never overbearing. It is one of those pieces you can imagine listening to on rainy day with your eyes closed, savoring each moment as though it were a delicious treat. The following video is with Gloria Cheng-Cochran (it has been separated into three separate videos by YouTube, so this is only part of the work – I have included links for the second and third installments below the embedded video.) Enjoy!

Part II
Part III

Sources Cited:
“Phrygian Gates,” Wikipedia.com

For All the Moms

So I am definitely behind on this post, but I place the blame on my incessant touring as an excuse for not having the chance to devote a post to moms for Mother’s Day. Many of us cherish those memories (complete with blurry edges a la Hollywood) where we ran inside from a day of play or school to the smell of freshly baked cookies. They say smell is the strongest catalyst of memory, with the majority of those connections being formed in our childhood. This is due to the connection of the olfactory bulb (the part of our brain that processes odor) to the ever-powerful amygdala…I should probably stop while I’m ahead and talk about this irresistible pair of cookie recipes: Chocolate Chunk Cookies and Chocolate Mocha Cookies with Nutella.
I’m often asked why I don’t eat all the desserts I make. For starters, I would basically be eating cookies and cakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner if I actually ate everything I made. But my secret indulgence? Once whatever it is I’m making is done and in the oven, guess who gets to clean the beaters 😉 And cookie dough is probably one of the most addictive things on the planet…and this dough was uhhhhhh-mazing! If you are one of the proclaimed few who can’t resist eating cookie dough, enlist help from a friend to make sure these cookies actually make it to the oven.
That being said, the finished cookies were fabulous! Loaded with melty chunks and chips of dark chocolate, they are pure heaven. The cookie itself has a buttery crunch, with a tender crumb that makes your heart melt. It goes without saying, but chocolate chunk cookies are best straight out of the oven (as they always have been) – click HERE to see the recipe for these golden, chewy delights!
So now that I have you thinking about chocolate, how about taking it a step further with melted chocolate, cocoa powder, AND nutella…how can anyone resist? These cookies are more brownie than cookie, with a rich center and a crumbly edge. They also have a touch of espresso, which is only “topped” by the the nutella swirl to finish – the ultimate cookie. It may not be quite like the cookies (or brownies) we enjoyed as kids, but a cookie always has a way to make us reminisce over our childhood days – click HERE to see the recipe for this glorious sweet.
I looked at my own childhood as inspiration for this musical pairing. Growing up, I was extremely fortunate to have not one, but two moms – one was a pro with baking amazing chocolate chip cookies (the foolproof Toll House version!) and the other a master of baking brownies (Betty Crocker double fudge…). Seeing how both of my cookies took inspiration from those two classics, I wanted to honor that legacy with Dvorák’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” Part of his cycle Gypsy Songs, the truly nostalgic work has notes of grief and hopefulness. The lyrics, by German poet Adolf Heyduk, translate as follows:

Songs my mother taught me,
In the days long vanished;
Seldom from her eyelids
Were the teardrops banished.
Now I teach my children,
Each melodious measure.
Oft the tears are flowing,
Oft they flow from my memory’s treasure.

Though short, the music is filled with color and life that other songs don’t quite achieve – a perfect way to describe two cookies whose size don’t quite speak to their ultimate potential. I’ve included a recording with soprano Anna Netrebko – enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAOy1waBdpI&feature=related

Sources Cited:
“Songs My Mother Taught Me Lyrics and Text Translation,” About.com