Look, after you’ve done the great vanilla cupcake experiment, you kind of start questioning all your favorite recipes.
So when Matt told me he wanted chocolate cake for his birthday, my first thought was the recipe that’s been my go-to for years. But then I wondered… how does that recipe compare to other recipes? How can I say my usual chocolate cake recipe is great if I have no means of comparison?
And thus another experiment began.
I took a similar approach to my vanilla cupcake experiment: four different recipes, one battle arena, one winner.
I like baking perfect things.
Usually to get there I first have to bake a series of imperfect things–often over the course of years as I try different recipes and hope this next one is the one. Then, once I find it, we’re very happy together. Chocolate chip cookies and I have been together for several years now. It was love at first sight with cinnamon rolls. I just found brownies last year (post forthcoming), which is a small miracle.
I haven’t yet found vanilla cupcakes.
I’ve made decent vanilla cupcakes, but nothing that seemed… perfect. The cupcake recipe I’ve been using lately tastes good but is slightly dense, while cupcakes I’ve had at bakeries are light and springy. How does that happen? What makes a springy cupcake?
So, one Thursday evening after work I decided I wanted to bake four different cupcake recipes to pit them against one another in a fight to the death.
The thing about chess pie is that I don’t understand it.
I hadn’t even heard of it until a couple of years ago. In my defense I’m from San Diego and this pie, apparently, hails from the South.
From what I’ve learned, it’s a sweet custard-y pie–though the stick of butter and ton of sugar put it in a new category entirely. Another element I found unique is the tablespoon of vinegar to cut the sweetness (more on that later) and the cornmeal that’s mixed in with the pie filling, which floats to the top during the baking process to create a crispy top layer. And because the pie’s ingredients are simple, the vanilla really shines through.
But, uh, the sweetness.
It’s a little much.
These muffins are a fun twist on the usual pumpkin fare. As much as I love baking with pumpkin when fall rolls around, I get a little tired of the usual standbys–pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie, while delicious, are also everywhere. They’ve been done, many times over. These muffins are like a cross between pumpkin muffins and pecan pie. I haven’t had them before and I haven’t made them before. There’s something refreshing about that.
This recipe comes from the Belvedere Plantation. My boyfriend and I went there in November for their Fall Finale Festival, primarily for their corn maze, but it turned out they had much more to offer. Rope swings in the aptly named fun barn. A giant slide. An oversized trampoline called a jumping pillow. And recipes. I left the plantation with straw in my shoes and a free paper booklet of pumpkin recipes in my hand. What more does anyone need?
The next morning I flipped through the recipes, and I stopped when I got to this one. Normally I need visuals to get excited about a recipe, and a cute little stapled-together booklet of recipes printed on festively orange half-sheets of paper contains zero visuals, understandably. But the recipe alone did it for me this time. I saw the ingredients, read the directions, and got where they were going. Pumpkin muffins with a pecan pie-like topping? Yes. Yes. This is a thing I want to make happen. Now. Yes.
The thing is… I don’t even like caramel.
But this caramel popcorn is just really, really good.
There are some things where the storebought version just doesn’t compare, and caramel popcorn is one of them. In every kind of storebought caramel popcorn I’ve had, the glaze is thin, sugary, and flavorless. In a word, it’s weak. Even when the popcorn is fully coated in glaze, the flavor is still lacking. It’s a bland coating of chemicals and no wants that.
And then, one summer day in 2008 while visiting Kate in Maryland, I had caramel popcorn from Dolle’s in Ocean City. The flavor was intensely delicious–buttery and brown sugary, smothering each piece in caramel goodness. That led to an obsession, with Dolle’s caramel popcorn specifically. For years that was the gold standard, the one caramel popcorn that wasn’t disappointing. And then it occurred to me to make some myself.
Oh, these cookies.
I love these cookies.
In sixth grade I wrote an essay about these cookies.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time perusing my mother’s Australian Women’s Weekly cookbooks. She kept a stack of them in her walk-in closet, and I would take out a few at a time and flip through the pages, looking for ideas on what to bake next. If I was feeling particularly civilized I would read the cookbooks to my room, or on the living room couch. But sometimes I would just sit on the floor of the closet and read the cookbooks right then and there. Baking waits for no one.
That’s how I learned about honey jumbles. They had a cute name, they looked simple to make, and I loved anything with ginger in it, and that was all the convincing eleven-year-old me needed to try my hand at baking them.
You know a muffin is good when you can’t stop eating the batter.
Cookie dough is obviously delicious in raw form, but muffin batters and cake batters usually taste a little off. Their goopy texture combined with the sharp, chemical taste of raw baking powder always makes me think twice about licking the mixing spoon. (I mean, I do it anyway, but I usually regret it.)
I wish I could say a child were involved in the making of this. It would be better for my ego.
But no, this one was all me.
As I’ve said before, I don’t decorate. I aim to make things that taste good, not look good. So why would I make a cake whose execution depends entirely on decoration? Why would I let this happen?
Nostalgia might be the best explanation. Kate and I got to talking about the PBS kids’ show Zoom, which we used to watch when we were children. We both recalled one episode in which Caroline made a rainbow cake, which Kate had always wanted to make, and which my eleven-year-old self actually did end up making not long after seeing the episode.
And then, just like that, we wanted a rainbow cake.
This is the perfect quiche for anyone who…
- hates mushrooms
- doesn’t eat bacon
- wants a quiche that’s healthy but still has a crust (get out of here with that crustless quiche talk)
I’ve made this quiche three times this year alone and it’s always perfect. It’s great with a glass of orange juice if you’re feeling breakfasty, or next to a simple pile of salad greens tossed in lemon juice and olive oil if you’re having lunch. It’s great warm from the oven or cold from the fridge. It’s even great when you’re sick, I’ve recently learned. I was sick all last week, and while I didn’t have much of an appetite, I still had room for a slice of this every day for lunch. It’s carby enough to be comfort food and flavorful enough to keep me wanting more.
I love this quiche is what I’m saying.
I am so excited about this.
These came out tasting almost exactly like Walkers Shortbread, which is an obsession of mine. It’s deliciously buttery and rich, and one is never enough. It’s hard to imagine how something made with just four ingredients–flour, sugar, salt, and butter–can be so tantalizing, but then again, when you think about how much butter goes into these, it’s pretty self-explanatory.
I didn’t understand the magic of Walkers shortbread until I was about eight years old. Being a night owl, I’d stayed up late watching Family Matters reruns one night while everyone else in my family went to bed. During a commercial break I spotted the shortbread in a kitchen cupboard. I’d never been interested in it before–the shortbread basically looked like sticks of butter; try harder, Walkers–but somehow they were tempting that night. That or Steve Urkel was having a weird effect on me, I don’t know.