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Halloween Vampire Bat Cake

When my boys were young they were Cub Scouts. Their Cub Scout Pack was quite large and there were always a variety of activities they were involved in. My husband was a den leader and took care of most of the Cub Scout support functions but once in a while they called on me to help.

More often than not my help involved something in the kitchen. I sometimes prepared snacks for their weekly meeting at our house. I also made a dish for the annual Blue and Gold dinner. And sometimes there were other events that called for a special treat from the kitchen, like a cake for the October cake auction.

No problem. I have always loved making cakes. When I was a little girl I would watch my mother make fabulous birthday cakes that looked so good I could hardly stand to wait for the party to eat them. I remember her making cakes shaped and decorated like a dog and a lamb and, one time, even Humpty Dumpty.

When I was a little older I made cakes with my Aunt. She was always trying recipes and baking something. She decided to try cake decorating and ordered a cake decorating set from Wilton. After that we enjoyed looking through the Wilton catalog and dreaming of the cakes we might make.

I have such fond memories of those cakes that I continued to get the “Wilton Yearbook of Cake Decorating” for years. When my son told me that he needed a cake for a cake auction I immediately pulled out some old catalogs and started looking for ideas of what I could make. In the 1988 Wilton Yearbook I found just the thing on page 80, a cake decorated to look like a cute Vampire Bat. It didn’t require anything too fancy, just an 8 inch round chocolate cake layer and a custard cup sized cupcake, some icing, a decorating bag and a couple of decorating tips. I thought I could pull it off.

I made the cake and it turned out to be a great experience all around. I sent it off to the auction with the guys and they came home happy. The Cub Scout Pack made some money on the cake when it was put in the live auction and sold for a good amount. What's more, I felt appreciated and learned that a cake doesn’t have to be really complicated to be really cute. If you’d like to try making one of your own here’s how you do it…

Vampire Bat Cake

Prepare the batter as directed for Less-Mess Chocolate Cake mixing it in an 8 inch round pan.

Following step 4, when the batter is mixed but before you put it in the oven, scoop enough batter into a custard cup to fill it about half way. (I used somewhere between 1/3 and ½ cup of batter to fill the custard cup I used.)

Place both the 8 inch round pan and the custard cup filled with batter in the oven on the center rack. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. The cupcake will take approximately 20 minutes while the 8 inch cake will take approximately 35 minutes. Remove each from the oven when done.

Let both cakes cool on a wire rack for about 30 minutes. Remove from pans and let rest on the wire rack until cool.

Meanwhile prepare a cake board. Cut a sturdy piece of cardboard to approximately a 16.5 x 8 inch rectangle. Tear a strip of foil longer than the cardboard. Cover the cardboard with the foil turning the edges onto the back and taping them in place.

When the cake is cool cut the 8 inch round cake in half. Position the two halves side by side with the rounded edges together at their ends to form the bats wingspan. The cupcake will sit on top of the cake where the wings come together to form the bat’s head.

Prepare the frosting. While any frosting that is suitable for piping will work I chose to use Mexican Hot Chocolate Frosting to give the bat a little taste of fire. I adapted the recipe to better work for what I needed to decorate the cake as follows:

Modified Mexican Hot Chocolate Frosting
adapted from this recipe at the Food Network

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup (1 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder (or a mixture of ground chipotle and ancho chile powders)
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons espresso powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

Beat cream cheese and butter together with an electric mixer until soft and fluffy.

Add the vanilla and mix well.

Add the confectioners' sugar, a little at a time, mixing until thoroughly incorporated. Continue mixing until the frosting is fluffy and spreadable.

Remove 1 ½ cups of frosting and tint it orange, if desired.

In a medium bowl combine the chile powder, cinnamon, espresso powder, salt, vanilla and cocoa powder. Add this mixture to the remaining frosting and continue mixing until incorporated. Add a little milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, if needed, until the frosting is a consistency suitable for piping.

Use the orange frosting (or white or whatever color you choose) to frost the sides of the bat cake and at least the lower half, along the straight edge, of the wings.

Note: This cake can be very crumby. For that reason I first iced my cake with a thin layer of frosting.

The crumbs were caught in the first layer and a second layer of orange icing on top of the first looked more even and showed only a few dark crumbs.

Mark the scallops in the bat's wings by using a 3 - 3.5 inch diameter drinking glass or teacup turned upside down and gently pressed into the icing evenly along the straight edge of the bat’s wings.

Fit a decorating bag with a round tip, I used a #6, and fill the bag with the chocolate frosting. Pipe an outline over the scalloped markings and around the rounded side of the wings to outline the edges.

Use the same tip to pipe a dotted border at the bottom edge of the cake, if desired.

Change to a star tip, with a size #17 or larger opening, and fill in the area of the wings.

Position the Bat’s Head cupcake on top of the cake, where the wings come together. Using the grass or hair decorating tip, #233, cover the cupcake with frosting.

With a separate pastry bag filled with a small amount of orange or white frosting and fitted with a round tip (or Ziploc baggie filled with a few tablespoons of frosting and with the lower ¼ inch of the corner trimmed away) pipe ears and fangs as in the picture.

For eyes, place orange M&Ms or Reeses’ Pieces on the bat’s head and dot with chocolate icing for pupils. Or, if you prefer, make edible googly eyes like I did by following Stef's directions at Cupcake Project. I made mine with cacao nibs for the loose bit and a little piece of an Ooz'n Eyeballz Cherry Candy Ooze bloodshot marshmallow eyeball from my Halloween Candy Cauldron for the backing.

Happy Halloween!

The Easiest Chocolate Cake Ever

When you think of baking a cake from scratch what comes to mind? Do you think of a long list of ingredients, several bowls and cups and measuring spoons you will need to use and, once they are used, will then pile up beside the kitchen sink waiting to be cleaned and put away?

I used to. I love to make cakes and to decorate them but it does take time. If I wanted to make a cake for any occasion I would weigh the time available and make sure I could fit it in comfortably. I would think of collecting ingredients and the mess I would have to clean up. What’s more I would think of how there would be so many leftovers if I made a cake for my small family.

Then, when my daughter was in her early teens, she discovered a wonderful recipe that she wanted to try. It was called Less-Mess Cake and was featured in an American Girl Library cookbook she had been given. She showed it to me and asked if she could make it.

I looked it over. The recipe called for nine simple ingredients most people have stocked in their pantries. The recipe used only one round cake pan, a fork and a few measuring cups and spoons. It sounded easy and relatively mess free. Still, though I was a little skeptical, I wanted to encourage her to explore and to practice her kitchen skills. I told her to go ahead and give it a try. Before long she had made a gorgeous chocolate cake that was full of flavor and just the right size for our family of five. What’s more, clean up was a breeze.

I was thrilled with my daughter’s discovery. This wonderful recipe is definitely a keeper and not only is it great for those who are just learning to cook but it makes a delicious cake anyone could be proud to serve. Give it a try and see if you don’t agree!

Less-Mess Chocolate Cake
From "Great Girl Food"

1 ½ cups flour
1 cup sugar
3 heaping Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cold water

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. In an 8 or 9 inch round cake pan mix the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt with a fork until thoroughly combined.

3. Make three wells in the dry mixture. Pour the oil into one, the vinegar into another and the vanilla into the third.

4. Pour the cold water over all and carefully mix with the fork until thoroughly combined being extra careful to mix at the bottom and around the edges.

5. Place the cake pan in middle of the oven, on the center rack. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.

6. Remove the cake from the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool.

7. After 35 minutes run a knife between the outer edge of the cake and the pan. Turn the pan upside down on a serving plate and tap on the bottom of the pan to remove the cake. (This can take a bit of effort but with patience it does come out intact with some yummy chocolate crumbs stuck to the bottom of the pan for tasting.)

Let the cake rest until it has cooled completely.

8. Ice the cake with Mexican Hot Chocolate Frosting, and/or mix this easy frosting suggested in the same cookbook:

Squish and Squeeze Frosting

1 cup confectioners’ sugar
4 ½ teaspoons milk
¼ teaspoon vanilla

Place ingredients in a quart sized Ziploc bag and seal it.

Squeeze the bag until the ingredients are well mixed, about 2 minutes.

Trim ¼ inch from a lower corner of the bag and pipe the icing onto the cake in whatever pattern you desire.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Iced Brownies

When summer arrived this year I celebrated by making an ice cream cupcake to enter in the Ice Cream Cupcake Roundup hosted by Cupcake Project and Scoopalicious. It was a wonderful cupcake. It was composed of a base layer of rich chocolate brownie laced with cinnamon and chile powder, a layer of PJ Madison's Organic Kashmir Cinnamon gelato style ice cream and a layer of Vanilla Cream Cheese frosting. It was a welcome treat on a hot summer’s day.

Now that fall is here I am less eager to indulge in frozen confections. Instead I crave warmer tastes and temperatures. Despite my shift of focus I still find myself thinking about how much I liked the Chile Variado Brownie base of those frozen cupcakes. With flavors so warm and bold, I started thinking how just a few minor adjustments might adapt that spicy brownie base into a delicious fall dessert. I decided to give my theory some room to run.

First I baked a pan of Chile Variado Brownies. I made them as directed in my Ice Cream Cupcake post except that I baked them in an 8” x 8” pan for approximately 30 -35 minutes instead of in cupcake liners.

I still wanted to frost them but I wanted the frosting to have more of a punch than the Vanilla Cream Cheese frosting I used in May. Remembering another entry in the ice cream cupcake roundup, a cupcake with a spicy chocolate cream cheese frosting made by Beantown Baker, I decided to make the flavor even bolder by carrying the spiciness through the frosting as well as the cake. The recipe called for chile powder as well as cinnamon and vanilla and seemed perfect for my brownies.

Still this dessert needed another element to add a note of contrast to the flavor and texture as well a hint of visual interest. Where my cupcake had a delicious layer of cinnamon ice cream to add a counterpoint to the spicy chocolate flavor of the brownie I needed something smooth and full of flavor to complete my thought. Looking around the kitchen I spied a bottle of Kahlúa and splashed a couple of tablespoons of this Mexican liqueur on a dessert plate. Then I drizzled the plate with Hershey’s syrup and placed a square of the iced brownie on top.

I have to say it was delicious. It was also quite easy. So give it a try, and if you don’t mind the cold, go ahead and add a scoop of PJ Madison's Cinnamon ice cream to make Iced Chile Variado Brownies a la mode.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Frosting
adapted from this recipe at Food Network

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder (or a mixture of ground chipotle and ancho chiles)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons espresso powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 - 4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted

Beat cream cheese and butter together with an electric mixer until soft and fluffy.

Add the melted chocolate and vanilla. Mix well.

In a medium bowl combine the chile powder, cinnamon, espresso powder, salt, vanilla and confectioners' sugar.

Add the dry mixture, a little at a time, until it is a spreadable consistency.

Spread frosting on cooled Chile Variado Brownies.

Roasted Moroccan Carrots

I have always liked carrots. When I was a girl I ate them raw for a crunchy snack. When I was a teen I discovered that they were packed with nutrition and low in calories and I liked them even more. Even now I keep a package of baby carrots in the refrigerator to munch on in the afternoon for a quick and healthy snack.

Unfortunately the rest of my family does not share my fondness for this bright and attractive vegetable. Most of the time they will eat them but without enthusiasm. At other times when carrots are on the dinner menu they will voice their objections. Still, I persist in serving them.

Perhaps the problem is that since I love carrots raw and unadorned I don't usually give much thought to dressing them up. Most of the time I simply steam them, saute them gently in butter and brown sugar or throw them into a stir fry. I don't often notice new recipes featuring carrots and maybe I never really looked for them either.

But recently I have begun to discover how delicious roasted vegetables can be. When roasted a vegetable sometimes reveals a flavor you wouldn't otherwise anticipate. Roasted red peppers take on a deep rich sweetness and cauliflower exerts a wonderful nutty flavor when roasted. I wondered if carrots might reveal some special attributes when roasted too.

So I searched for a recipe and found one that sounded interesting at The Spice House. It mixed a little sugar and lemon with the full spicy flavors of cumin, red pepper and hot sweet cinnamon. It sounded amazing.

I decided to give the recipe a try. The only changes I made were to lower the amount of oil in the original recipe and to use crushed fresh garlic instead of garlic powder. The result was delightful! While the carrots were roasting the fragrant spices filled the kitchen with their warm inviting scent. By the time the carrots were done everyone who had been through the kitchen was eager to try them. And the reviews were good. The surprisingly bright yet spicy flavor combination enhanced the earthy simplicity of this nutritious root vegetable while adding some sparkle. Still the recipe remained relatively low in sugar and fat, and what's more, it was easy to prepare. I will definitely make this again, and I think my family will be glad!

Moraccan Spiced Carrots
(Slightly modified from a recipe at www.thespicehouse.com)

1 lb. carrots cut in 1/4 to 1/2 inch slices on the diagonal
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/4 teaspoon ground
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 Tablespoon lemon juice

Place carrot slices in a 1 gallon Ziploc bag.

Place remaining ingredients in a small bowl, whisking until well combined.

Pour the spice mixture over the carrots in the Ziploc bag. Seal the bag and shake vigorously until the carrot slices are evenly coated.

Spread the carrots evenly on a roasting pan. Roast at 450 degrees, turning often, until tender, approximately 20 minutes.

Note: These can be cooked for a longer time at a lower oven temperature if desired. Turn the carrots periodically and remove from the oven when tender.

Meatloaf with Mushroom Sauce

I love fall. When the leaves begin to turn luminous shades of sunlit gold and the air brushes your cheek with that fall kissed crispness that suggests fires in the fireplace and cozy evenings with candlelight, I feel invigorated. Swirling leaves, tossed on the sidewalk, drifting at curbside, adding crunch and texture as I walk is somehow always exciting. School is beginning and work is getting done. I think of too many classes I want to take, too many new things I want to try. My mind races.

And not just new things but old things seem more special too. Fall weather reminds me of comfort foods, those great home cooked dishes that made the menu week after week when I was a child and that I continued making for my own family over the years.

Meatloaf is one of those comfort foods. It has seen some changes over time but it has also endured. I remember my mom making meatloaf when I was a child. Hers was a light meatloaf, extended with bread crumbs, flecked with green pepper and onion and topped with a red stripe of catsup or Campbell's tomato soup.

When I started to make meatloaf on my own I tried several new recipes, mixed different kinds of ground meat to reduce fat or cut back on red meats, sometimes shaped them or rolled them in a bread crust, and omitted the tomato based topping.

This fall I am eager to see if I can improve the flavor of this old standby. I have gone back to red meat but decided to use lean ground buffalo instead of beef. I also added some mushrooms as a topping. Before long I had another version of this classic comfort food to offer as the centerpiece of a hearty home cooked meal.

Meatloaf with Mushroom Sauce
(adapted from "Betty Crocker's Cookbook")

1 1/2 pounds ground buffalo (or other ground meat)
1 cup dry bread crumbs
1 cup milk
1 egg
1 small red onion, chopped
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon greshly ground pepper
1 Tablespoon fresh sage, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed

8 ozs. fresh mushroooms, thickly sliced
1/2 - 1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2- 3 Tablespoons dark beer (I used Black Butte Porter)

Place ground meat, bread crumbs, milk, egg, onion, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, salt, pepper, sage and crushed garlic in a large bowl. Mix throughly. ( I use my hands here, freshly washed, rings off.)

Spread mixture in an ungreased meatloaf pan or, if you don't have one, use a plain 9x5x3 inch loaf pan.

Bake at 350 degrees until a thermometer inserted into the middle of the loaf reads 165 degrees, approximately 1 hour. Remove from oven. Let stand five to ten minutes before serving.

To make the Mushroom Sauce:

Heat olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. When hot add garlic and mushrooms. Saute until garlic softens, approximately 3 minutes.

Add Worcestershire sauce and beer to the skillet and cook, stirring frequently until mushrooms are tender.

Transfer mushrooms to a small dish. Continue cooking the liquid until thickened and reduced. Pour over the mushrooms. Spoon over meatloaf slices and serve.

Leftovers? If you are lucky enough to have some there's no better way to eat them than on a Meatloaf Sandwich. Even better, try a Meatloaf Sandwich with some of those mushrooms.

I know. I know! You can put yours on whatever kind of bread you like but, for me, you can't beat a Meatloaf Sandwich, or a Leftover Thanksgiving Turkey Sandwich for that matter, on plain soft white bread. Yum!

Four Pepper Pasta

In October I often think of my garden in Dallas. Beside our house there, my husband built a well planned series of raised beds. There was an open area to the other side and the conditions were good for growing herbs and vegetables. I had another herb garden just outside the kitchen door, a peach tree in the back yard and grapes were planted along the fence. My basil plants grew profusely, cantaloupe and squash were abundant and peppers, started from tiny plants we bought at the nursery, grew into great bushes by mid October. I struggled to keep up with the quatity of peppers those bushes produced. I was always looking for new recipes that used a maximum number of peppers.

One year, when the first frost threatened right before Halloween, I remember bringing in at least two grocery sacks full of peppers that remained on the plants. Some of the recipes I used them in have gotten away from me over the years but there is one I found in the newspaper during those years in Dallas that I still treasure. It uses several sweet bell peppers, of different colors if you have them, and pairs them with onion, picante sauce, balsamic vinegar and parmesan cheese to make a delicious topping for pasta. It makes a hearty vegetarian entrée that is bright with rich fall colors and flavor.

Four-Pepper Pasta

8 ounces bow tie or other pasta
1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
1 large green pepper, cut into short, thin strips
1 large red pepper, cut into short, thin strips
1 large yellow pepper, cut into short, thin strips
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon dried basil leaves
½ teaspoon dried oregano leaves
2/3 cup picante sauce
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. ( I use one tablespoon or less of oil in a non-stick skillet. Adjust according to the pan you use and your preference.)

Add onion, peppers and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, about 4 minutes.

Sprinkle basil and oregano over the vegetables. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, until vegetables are tender, about 6 to 7 minutes.

Add picante sauce and vinegar. Stir in and continue cooking for 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Spoon pepper mixture over the pasta. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Birthday Season

We are just wrapping up a season of birthdays at my house. My family all takes a turn, within a couple of months, claiming the spotlight and choosing a cake to celebrate their special day.

This year we enjoyed a fantastic variety of cakes. From store bought to elaborately home made, from huge layer cake to single serving cupcake, from simple old fashioned favorite to a new and unusual recipe. I felt like we covered a wide range of delicious possibilities as we celebrated this year.

Chocolate Favorites

Still one thing stood out among this variety of cakes - most of them included chocolate in the recipe and several were chocolate through and through.

I have shared a couple of the cakes already. An Oreo Cookies and Cream Cheesecake is a great way to celebrate a birthday with a crowd. It consists of a creamy vanilla flavored center in a chocolate crumb crust layered with chocolaty Oreo cookies and topped with a rich chocolate ganache glaze. In my experience almost everyone likes cheesecake. Add to that the nostalgic appeal of Oreo cookies and an intense chocolate topping and this cake is a gem for many special occasions. It is not too complicated and makes an impressive presentation.

Nigella’s Honey Chocolate Cake is another fantastic choice for a crowd. It is also festive, fun and delicious. I love the vibrant flavor of the honey and the way it complements the rich chocolate. And then, of course, there are the cute little bees on top.

A Cake from Rose's

For my daughter’s birthday, she chose a fabulously decked out French Chocolate Cake from the dessert case at Rose’s Restaurant and Bakery. This was the perfect cake for a last minute gathering when everything came together to celebrate my daughter’s birthday with out of town relatives. The cake looked so deliciously tempting that my five year old niece could not keep her fingers out of it long enough to get the candles lit!

My only regret was that we didn't invite a few more friends to celebrate. This cake was such a monster that with twelve of us present, and house guests staying the following week, we still couldn't finish it all.

Another Chocolate Sensation

I made still another chocolate cake for a group celebration during the season. This time I settled on Chocolate Stout Cake, a recipe I had tried once before. It was cut from the food section of "The Oregonian" some years ago. It sounded moist and delicious and called for a chocolate ganache frosting rather than a layer of frothy buttercream. To add contrast I added another layer of the cream cheese glaze from Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Guiness Cake recipe and drizzled it on top. With the addition of some cute H-A-P-P-Y B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y candles it made a bright and festive birthday statement. Even better, the cake tasted every bit as good as I hoped it would.

Chocolate Stout Cake
(from "The Oregonian")
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ tablespoons instant coffee powder
¾ cup vegetable oil
1 1/3 cups stout ( I used Rogue Brewery's Chocolate Stout)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease and flour a Bundt pan or two 9-inch round cake pans.

In a medium sized bowl thoroughly combine flour, cocoa, baking soda and baking powder. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat together eggs, sugar, vanilla and coffee powder at high speed until light and fluffy. Reduce speed to low and beat in the flour mixture, oil and stout in 4 parts, alternating between the flour, oil and beer.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake the Bundt cake for 40 to 50 minutes or the round layers for 30 to 35 minutes, until the cake springs back when touched lightly in the center.

Remove cake from oven and cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes.

Remove cake from pan and cool completely before frosting.

Chocolate Ganache Frosting

8 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup whipping cream

Place the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl. Bring the cream just to a boil over medium-high heat.

Pour cream over chocolate and stir until melted.

Set bowl in the refrigerator for 10 minutes or until the consistency of maple syrup.

Pour or drizzle frosting over cooled cake to coat.

Nigella's Cream Cheese Topping
(from Nigella Lawson's "Feast")

8 ounces cream cheese
1 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream

Beat cream cheese until smooth.

Add confectioners' sugar gradually and continue beating until incorporated.

Add the cream and beat until fluffy. Add more cream as needed to reach desired consistency for drizzling.

Place frosting in a ziplock bag and seal. Snip 1/4 to 1/2 inch from a lower corner of the bag and pipe in a back and forth motion over the chocolate glazed cake.