Monday, July 30, 2012

Cassata Cupcakes

Difficulty level: Medium
Time consuming: Yeah.

 Have you ever heard of a cassata cake?  Most people think of the typical, Italian styled cake, which is usually a dense cake (like pound cake) layered with strawberries and ricotta cheese.  If you have had a Cleveland-style cassata cake, you are lucky.  In Cleveland, the cassata cake is a heavenly combination of white cake, macerated strawberries, custard, and whipped cream, usually in a layered form.

The first time I made this recipe, I had been craving cassata cake for awhile.  I wanted to share this with the Special Ed team at school but couldn't find any cassata cupcake recipes out there, so I had to forge my own way.  The positive feedback about the finished product was overwhelming - they were a huge hit!

I started by searching for a yellow cake with real strawberry pieces in it.  There are a lot of strawberry cakes out there, but not so much for a cake with strawberries.  I found this recipe from Annie's Eats and it was exactly what I had hoped for.

This was a two day baking project for me.  On the first day, I baked the cupcake and prepared the custard.  Doing these ahead of time are smart because the cupcakes can cool completely and the pastry cream can set overnight.  The second day I made the frosting and assembled the cupcakes.

The first time I made this, I made some substitutions from Annie's original recipe since I did not have cake flour or buttermilk on hand.  I also did not go with her frosting since I was working from my own inspirations.  This is the cake I made when I learned that using a 12-cup muffin pan does not cook the middle two cupcakes in my oven.  The cakes baked okay and the strawberries stayed suspended in the batter, but the tops definitely went concave on me (a problem I fixed the second time I made these, which is the recipe I'm sharing below)

After they cooled, I scooped out the middles using a paring knife.  I have since then bought an apple corer and use that to core the middles of my cupcakes, it's way easier, and also cheaper than a cupcake plunger.

I adapted my grandma's custard recipe (which I think was from Betty Crocker...) and let that set overnight.  The next day I filled the cupcakes* (I would not recommend doing this more than a day before serving, but day of is better if you've got the time - you don't want them getting soggy!) and frosted them.

My plan was to pipe whip cream on top instead of frosting, but what I learned the hard way is that whip cream melts if it's at room temperature for more than 5 minutes.  After a quick call to my mom and some googling, I found a stabilized whip cream frosting recipe that I tinkered with and piped beautifully with no signs of melting.

Garnished with a sliced strawberry and some red jimmies and they were fantastic.  The special ed team gobbled them up.  I will definitely make these again.

*I had a decent amount of extra custard so I whipped up some puff pastry (just the basic recipe that comes with the Wilton cookie gun/press) and ganache and made eclairs.  The special ed team also got to enjoy these treats as well.  And I couldn't let a meeting go by without bringing something with chocolate, right?

Yield: about 18-20 regular sized cupcakes or 60-70 mini cupcakes


Custard (halve this recipe if you do not want extra custard)
 1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 t salt
3 T cornstarch or 6 T of flour
12 oz evaporated milk (preferably not low or fat free)
4 oz of milk (whatever's in the fridge - skim, 2%...) (If you halve the recipe, just use 8 oz evaporated milk and omit this milk)
4 egg yolks
2 t vanilla
5 T room temperature butter, cubed

2 ½ cups cake flour or 2 cups and 2T all purpose flour (I recommend cake flour if you've got it as it yields a finer textured crumb)
3/4 tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), room temperature
1 ½ cups sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup buttermilk (if you don't have buttermilk, mix and let sit for 5 minutes 1/4 c milk and 1/4T lemon juice or white vinegar - the mixture will look curdled)
1 1/2  oz veggie/canola/etc oil
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups chopped strawberries (I diced mine into approx 1/4" cubes, and set on a paper towel to blot out some of the moisture before I added to my batter; - you can use frozen berries, but it's super important to blot them)

Frosting (*depending on how generous you are with frosting, you can halve this recipe)
2 eight ounce tubs whipped topping (like cool whip)
1 eight ounce package cream cheese
3-5 T powdered sugar
2 t vanilla extract


1.  Prepare custard:  In a small sauce pan, mix/whisk together sugar, salt, cornstarch.  Stir in milks.

2. In a small bowl, mix egg yolks together.  Set aside.

3. Cook milk mixture over medium low heat, stirring until it boils.  Boil for 1 minute, then remove from heat.

4. Temper the eggs with a small amount of milk mixture.  Once eggs are tempered, add to saucepan and bring to a boil, let boil approx 1 minute.

5.  Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and butter.

6.  Cover surface with saran wrap to prevent a skin from forming, and refrigerate.

7.  Prepare the cupcakes: Preheat the oven to 350°. Line cupcake pans with paper liners. Sift flour, salt and baking soda into a medium bowl. Set aside.

8.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time until just combined. Add buttermilk, oil and vanilla; beat until combined. Add half the flour mixture, stir until incorporated, then add the remaining flour mixture and stir until just combined. Fold in chopped strawberries.

9. Fill cupcake wells 1/2 to 2/3 full with batter.
  • Bake regular sized cupcakes for 20 minutes, rotating pans halfway through cooking, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Baking can take up to 30 minutes, depending on your oven.
  • Bake mini cupcakes for 13-14 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  • **Darker pans will bake faster, so keep an eye on your cupcakes.
10. Cool completely on a wire rack. (This is a good time to make the frosting - recipe below!)

11.  Prepare frosting: In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat cream cheese until smooth, then add whipped topping.  Mix until contents seem well mixed.

12.  Add powdered sugar (sifted) until frosting becomes stiff.  This may take several minutes.  Add vanilla and mix to incorporate.

13.  Back to the cupcakes: Using a paring knife, apple corer, or cupcake plunger, create the hole to fill your cupcake - do not go all the way down to the paper liner.  Place prepared custard into a piping bag and fill the cupcakes.

14. Prepare frosting.  Fill a piping bag or gallon sized ziplock bag (either cut off the corner or fit with a large piping tip) with frosting.  Pipe on top of cupcakes.

15.  Garnish with a slice of strawberry and a light sprinkling of red jimmies.

These are a lot of work but they are 100% worth the effort.

**Because these cupcakes turn out soooo moist, some may separate from the paper liners.  If you prefer not to serve less than pretty cupcakes (like me), you can crumble the ugly cakes and mix with extra frosting and make pretty strawberry shortcake cake pops.  Yum!!

Cake recipe adapted from Annie's Eats.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sweet & Salty Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel Bars

Time consuming: Nope
Difficulty level: Not at all

On Friday, my husband's rugby club had their annual "skip" day. Since we're both teachers, we didn't have anything to skip but we still got to have to an awesome day with some fun people. We started the day with golf, which went much better for me than I expected.  I am terrible at golf - I only counted half my strokes and still only made par for the front nine, I guess I better stick to things I'm good at, like baking. After we played the front 9 holes, we came home, relaxed, and I prepared these babies:

After the rest of the group played the back nine, a few people came over for some drinks before we headed out for a Reds game.  The game was exciting, the Reds won, and the night ended with fireworks set to music! All in all, a great skip day!

These bars tasted great, but they were kinda hard to eat in this Ohio heat as both the top and bottom layers can get pretty melty. Next time, I might try to make a pretzel crust similar to how you'd make a graham cracker crust and then add a layer of pb and pretzels then the layer of chocolate. My favorite thing about this recipe was that it was no-bake, so I didn't have to heat up my kitchen using the oven!!

Sorry for the lack of photos, I was a little rushed because I snuck a nap in after golf and forget to snap pics as I went.

First, line an 8x8" baking pan with foil and spray with nonstick spray. Next, crush up pretzles in a food proccessor until you have fine crumbs. Some big chunks are ok, though. My mini food processor made a half cup of crumbs when I filled it with mini pretzles.

In a microwave safe bowl, melt butter. Add to pretzle crumbs, powedered sugar, and peanut butter. Mix until thoroughly combined then pat into the foil lined pan. Pop into the fridge so it can firm up a bit while you prep the chocolate.

In a microwave safe bowl (the one you melted butter in is fine), mix chocolate chips and peanut butter. Microwave in 30 second increments at half power, stirring in between, until the chocolate mixture is melted and smooth. Pour this over peanut butter layer and smooth over so that it is evenly distrubuted. Pop into the fridge or freezer until the chocolate has set. Cut, serve, and enjoy!

The recipe:
Sweet and Salty, Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel No-Bake Bars 

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup peanut butter
1 1/2 cups pretzel crumbs, fine
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 tablespoons peanut butter

 1. Line 8×8 pan with foil. Spray with baking spray.

2. In a medium microwave-safe bowl, melt  butter in microwave (about 30 seconds on HIGH). Combine with pretzel crumbs, peanut butter & confectioners sugar. Spread evenly into prepared pan and refrigerate at least 10 minutes.

3. Combine semi-sweet chips and peanut butter and microwave in 30 second intervals at half power, stirring frequently until melted and smooth. Spread evenly over the peanut butter/pretzel layer and refrigerate at least one hour. Remove from pan and cut into squares.

4. Sprinkle with fine grain sea salt for an extra punch of salt to really compliment the chocolate on top. Or not. They're great either way.

This recipe is slightly adapted from Baker Lady who slightly adapted it from the Craving Chronicles.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Caramel Flan (Creme Caramel)

Difficulty level: medium
Time consuming: not actively, but bake time can take as long as 75 minutes, plus it will need to refrigerate overnight before you can eat it.
Flan, also known as creme caramel, is a Latin American style custard that has a creamy, velvety texture with a layer of soft caramel on top (unlike a creme brulee which is a custard with a layer of cruncy caramel on top). There are several varieties, but I think my Aunt Lili's recipe is the best. And I have been craving it for MONTHS!

 I finally made it when my husband and I were visiting my parents last week. This flan is amazingly good and super easy to make. I try to only make it when theres a crowd (or at least more than me and the hubs) or else I will eat it all. My aunt is Cuban, and in my opinion this makes her an expert on Latin American dessert, and therefore her recipe is superior to all others :)

Put sugar in a 9x9" baking dish. Put this dish on the burner of a stove on medium heat. As soon as the sugar begins to brown and bubble, stir continoulsy until all the sugar has dissolved. Continue to cook until the sugar has a dark amber color and is completely liquid. If it begins to smoke, STOP! Set the pan aside to cool.

In a blender, combine a can of sweetened condensed milk, a can of evaporated milk, regular milk (any percentage, I use skim), eggs, sugar, and vanilla. My blender was filled to the brim. Put on the lid, hold tight, and blend to combine the ingredients. You can taste the mixture and add more sugar if you'd like it sweeter, but I find that it's not necessary. Pour through a fine wire mesh sieve into the pan with the caramelized sugar. Cover tightly with foil.

Place a larger pan (like a roasting pan) in the oven, then place the foil covered 9x9 pan into the larger. Create a hot water bath by running the hottest tap water possible (but not boiling) and filling the roasting pan until the water reaches about half to two-thirds up the 9x9 dish. Bake for 50-70 minutes (mine took 75 minutes). You'll know it's done when you take it out of the oven, peel back the foil, and jiggle the pan - the outside edges should be set and the middle should wiggle just a little, like Jell-O. DO NOT OVERBAKE THE FLAN!! It will have a tougher texture with bubbles in it when you finally get to slice into it to enjoy (it will still taste fab, though). Let it sit out at room temperature for a bit, then refrigerate overnight.

Now it gets complicated. First (and most importantly), run a knife around the edge of your pan. Using another (larger) baking pan or sheet pan (with edges), flip the flan by putting the sheet pan on top, holding tight, and flipping 180 degrees. Don't hesitate when you do this, one quick, smooth movement is best. There is tons of delicious caramel sauce that will run out and if you flip too slowly it will make quite the mess. Mine flipped pretty sloppily and the flan broke, but if you flip better than me your custard will look beautiful.  Remember that sugar you caramelized in step one? It cooked into the flan and created the caramel sauce. (*Note, the caramel sauce will not be thick). Cut and serve with caramel sauce spooned over top.

 Look! My flan had no bubbles and the most delicate and silky texture. This makes a great dessert. Or breakfast. Or snack. And the nice thing about this recipe is that it's pretty forgiving. You can use low fat ingredients or whole-fat ingredients without drastic changes to taste. You can use 5 eggs instead of 6 if after you've already started and you look in the fridge and find only 5 eggs. You can also bake in an 8x8 pan if you don't have a 9x9" one (or if after you've started you realized you grabbed the wrong pan), just make sure the hot water bath goes a little higher (but NOT into the flan) or you risk overbaking the edges of the flan - this also flips nicely into a 9x9" pan preserving all that delicious caramel sauce.


1 cup white sugar and 3/8 cup white sugar
1 can (12 oz) evaporated milk
1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
14 oz milk (whole, low fat, whatevs)
6 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a 9x9" baking pan, caramelize 1 cup of sugar (melt the sugar until it is liquid and brown). Set the pan asize and let it cool. Be careful!
3. In a blender (or large bowl using a hand mixer), combine all 3 milks, eggs, 3/8 cup sugar, and vanilla, then blend. Take a small taste and add more sugar if desired.
4. Pour through a fine wire mesh sieve over the hardened caramelized sugar in the baking pan. Cover with aluminum foil.
5. Put the 9x9" pan inside a larger rectangular pan (like a roasting pan). Add the hottest tap water to the larger pan so that it comes halfway (or so) up the sides of the 9" pan (this is the hot water bath).
6. Carefully place the pan in the oven and bake 50-70 minutes, until the edges are set and the middle only jiggles a little.
7. Remove the 9x9" pan from the oven and let cool for 20-30 minutes. Refrigerate at least 2 hours, but preferably over night. (Wait for the roasting pan to cool, then remove from the oven to avoid accidently spilling hot water on yourself)
8. When ready to seve, invert the baking pan onto a serving platter with sides. Let the liquified caramel sugar run down onto the flan. Enjoy!