Saturday, April 17, 2010

Hootin' for Cupcakes (and late for Cupcake Hero)

Oreo Cookies

Oh's less than 24 hours until I have to get on a plane to China and I have yet to start packing. You might say I like to do things last minute ;p. With that in mind, you shouldn't be surprised when I tell you next that I'm tardy for this month's Cupcake Hero challenge, which asked us to take our baking inspiration from either of 2 wonderfully creative cupcake decorating books by Karen Tack and Alan Richardson, Hello, Cupcake! or What's New, Cupcake?.

The design for my halloween pumpkin cupcakes last fall came from Hello, Cupcake!, so I already knew this as a treasure trove of unique ideas. After then eying (har har ^_^) their owl cupcakes for months, it took but an instant for me to decide on them for this challenge. I did put my own spin on their recipe and re-tooled the directions, so be sure to read on if you want my version.

Since I already had to buy Oreo cookies for the owl "eyes," I figured I might as well step it up another notch by adding them to the batter. On the other hand, I saw no need to pipe frosting on these already-darling ears, so I (gladly, since it was 2 a.m. by that point) dropped that part with no ill effect that I can tell.

My friend Kelly, upon discovering what the cupcake fairy had left in her office, even exclaimed this was "seriously the cutest thing" she'd ever seen and that she enjoyed its adorable stare. Cupcake.Win XD. To balance out tootin' my own horn hehe and because they're truly charming and creative, I recommend you check out this round-up I found of other owl cupcakes.

Oreo Cookies & Cream Owl Cupcakes
Cookies N' Cream Owl Cupcakes [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from VCTOTW via CHOW and Hello, Cupcake! via Duncan Hines
Makes 15-17 cupcakes

XIAOLU'S NOTES: The number of cookies listed below for decoration is if you split and cut the cookies perfectly every time. It's tougher than it looks, but gets easier the more you do it. Even so, I'd have more on hand just in case. An entire regular-sized package of Oreo cookies was enough for me for the batter AND decorations. Splitting the cookies is the most time-consuming part of the recipe but is most important to the final appearance. Since the ganache frosting can set fairly quickly, I recommend having all the toppings ready when you begin frosting, then decorating each cupcake right after frosting rather than going back once you've frosted the batch.

Cookies N' Cream Cupcakes (Recipe below)
Chocolate Ganache Frosting (Recipe below)
30-34 Oreo, Newman-O, or other chocolate cream-filled cookies
30-34 chocolate-covered mints (Junior Mints)
15-17 candy-coated chocolates (M&Ms)

Split the sandwich cookies in half crosswise, keeping the cream side hole (microwaving 5 cookies at a time for 3-5 seconds helps to keep the cream side solid). [I found my frosting spatula split the cookies most cleanly.] Use the dull side of a paring knife to remove any excess crumbs from cream filling and to smooth the sides of filling that has shifted during splitting.

Collect the remaining sides of the cookies without cream to use for the ears. Make 2 parallel cuts with a serrated knife in these cookies 1/2 inch from each rounded side, discarding the 1/2 inch strip that remains from the center of the cookie.

Pair up the cream sided cookie halves so that those with similar amounts of cream are together. Gently push Junior Mints into the cream of each, but don't push too hard or you'll squish the mint. [Play around with different positions to give each "owl" its own expression and personality :).]

Use a small spoon or spatula to smooth chocolate ganache frosting onto the tops of the cooled cupcakes. Place the cream sided cookies, cream side up, on the middle of the cupcakes, making sure that the eyes are oriented the way you want. Push gently to make sure they've adhered to the frosting.

To make the ears, attach the cut cream-less cookies to the cupcakes above the "eyes", textured side facing up and round edges inward. These should hang over the edge of the cupcakes, but be sure to press them into the frosting where possible to make sure they adhere well.

Lastly, press M&M candies [standing them up on their sides] between and slightly below the cookie "eyes" as beaks. Show them off to everyone XD!

Cookies N' Cream Cupcakes
1 cup soy milk [or regular milk]
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract, or more vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder, Dutch-processed or regular
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped Oreo, Newman-O, or other chocolate cream-filled cookies
(about 8-10 cookies)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line 2 muffin pans (or use 1 pan plus as many free-standing paper souffle cups as needed) with baking liners.

Whisk together the soy milk and vinegar in a large bowl, and set aside for a few minutes to curdle. Add the sugar, oil, vanilla extract, and almond extract, if using, to the soy milk mixture and beat until foamy. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add in two batches to wet ingredients and beat until no large lumps remain (a few tiny lumps are OK). Gently fold in chopped cookies.

Fill liners 3/4 full with batter. Bake 18 to 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool completely.

Chocolate Ganache Frosting
1/2 cup heavy cream
5 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
[or use a combination of semisweet and bittersweet]
1-2 tablespoons corn syrup

Combine the chocolate and cream in a medium, microwave-safe bowl. Try to submerge the chocolate as much as possible, but it's okay to have some above the cream. Microwave the mixture on medium for 1 minute. Stir and heat again in 15-second increments, stirring thoroughly each time, until fully melted. Stir in corn syrup. Let this cool and thicken (in the fridge if needed) before using. If it cools too much, reheat in the microwave at 5-second intervals until it softens to the consistency you want.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lemon Sponge Pie and GIVEAWAY!

Lemon for Lemon Sponge Pie

Certain desserts feel so old-timey they remind me of a childhood spent chasing apron strings in grandma's kitchen, even if it is an imagined memory 8). The fact is that my grandmother survived the Cultural Revolution and raised 6 strong daughters, my mom included. But what she wasn't was an enthusiastic cook, and no baker at all. To this day, you see, it's rare for Chinese homes to have ovens. I hear it's something to do with the expense of heating and that bakeries offer such cheap, fresh, and tasty fare that home baking doesn't seem worth the effort to most (hard to imagine).

To get back on topic, this lemon sponge pie is one of those treats that just seems to turn back the clock. Yet, apart from its vintage charm, its taste makes it truly deserving of being rediscovered and appreciated today. It consists of a luscious, tart sponge pudding sandwiched between flaky pastry and a toasted meringue-like topping. Mine was uber oozy and would've sliced up better with 5 more minutes of baking. But one bite was all it took to wipe away all thoughts but wonderment at such a sublime blend of textures and sweet tart flavors. We're "working hard" to revive this treat -- there's hardly a slice left since it came out of the oven a day ago O=). Join our cause...or tell us of other heirloom desserts that should come back into fashion!

Lemon Sponge Pie

Speaking of my grandmother, I'm actually leaving this Sunday for China to visit her and the rest of my extended family for 2 weeks. I honestly can't wait to see them and catch up on the last 4 years since I was last there. But of course I'll miss P, my friends, and all of you! So when Sean of CSN Stores asked me to host a giveaway on my site, I jumped at the chance to show appreciation to all my lovely readers.

CSN Stores has a lot of sites with fabulous selection, the main ones being,,, and Plus they have over 200 other sites. Between all of them, I bet you could get nearly anything you'd want for your kitchen, apartment, or house. I even found some cute bunk beds that look perfect for my 2 much younger sisters in the kids beds section.
Okay, now's the time to let your eyes on the prize. CSN Stores has agreed to give this Set of 4 Kaiser Noblesse Mini Springform Pans to one lucky reader. These are so fun and versatile, I had to pick them, and while it's not a requirement ;p, I'd love to see what adorable treats the winner makes with them. Here's how to enter this giveaway:

1. You must reside in the US or Canada (sorry to my overseas readers!)
2. Leave a comment with your e-mail address.
3. For a second entry, become a follower of OR subscriber to this blog (but only if you really are interested in the content ^_^), and leave a comment telling me you became or already were one.
4. For a third entry, link to this giveaway on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog, then leave a comment letting me know.
5. Visit one of these great CSN Stores websites:,,, and

Easy, right? Just be sure to enter before 12:00 pm on April 20th, which is when I'll randomly select the winner. Good luck!

Lemon Sponge Pie Sliced - slightly less processing

Lemon Sponge Pie [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from from Betty Crocker Baking Classics (out of print) via The Food Librarian

XIAOLU'S NOTE: As I've done before, to bring out the citrus flavor even more, I used a technique from Dorie Greenspan. I rubbed all the zest into the sugar until it was fragrant with orange. I added this where the original recipe says to add sugar.

Your favorite single crust pie crust [I used this one]
3 large eggs, separated
2 T grated lemon peel [I used a microplane to zest the lemons]
2/3 cup regular or Meyer lemon juice [I used regular]
1 cup milk
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups sugar, depending on how tart you like things
1/3 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Roll out crust and line pie pan with crust. Leave unbaked and chill in fridge while you prepare the filling.

Beat egg yolks; beat in lemon peel, lemon juice and milk. Add sugar, flour and salt; beat until smooth.

In a separate large bowl, beat egg whites with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Add 1/3 of the egg whites to the lemon mixture and beat them together thoroughly.

Fold the lightened lemon mixture into the remaining egg whites, stopping when there are no white streaks remaining. Pour into pastry-lined pie plate. Bake until golden brown, 45 to 50 minutes. (A layer of lemon will settle to the bottom and a soft meringue-like topping to float to the top.) Serve with sweetened whipped cream if desired.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Brownies for Steve

Ingredients for Brownies

Steve is an assistant at my law firm who sits across the hall from me. Since I was friendly with the previous secretary there and had always left my baking on her ledge, I continued to put out my food when he took over. This delighted him, and he never failed to compliment whatever I brought (or express sadness if I didn't produce anything for the week ^_^).

Being one of those people just bursting with life, Steve was always greeting me cheerfully in the hall and ready to chat about politics, our desperate need for vacations, or whatever else. Thus, his sudden absence starting a few months ago was noticed, even while I was deep in the fog of war my trial (which, by the way, we won!!).

I assumed he'd left for a vacation I'd been too busy to remember. But it was only weeks later that a mutual friend let on that he'd been seriously ill. Fortunately, good news of his successful surgery and speedy recovery came in that same talk. Well, Steve started working again recently and, I'm happy to report, is as spirited as ever! In fact he's even back to bugging me to bake more 8). Of course, I was more than happy to bake something to celebrate his return to good health and the office.

Knowing his love for all things "brownie-like," I made this highly-recommended recipe with an interesting technique of baking at a high temperature for a brief time followed by an ice bath for a rapid cool-down. All this to produce crispy tops and bottoms surrounding fudgy, but NOT undercooked, innards (yes, I love that word). As expected, these were quite tasty. Just somebody please remind me that my metal pan is 9 and NOT 8 inches across (a 17 square inch difference), so my bars stop coming out so thin ;p.


New Classic Brownies [Printable Recipe]
From Alice Medrich via Scharffen Berger
Makes 16 2-inch square bars (8-inch square pan)

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I know the recipe says this below, but please do NOT use a glass pan or it will BREAK during the rapid cooling ice bath step. Shattered glass is no fun, trust me 8). If you have to use a 9-inch square pan, I'd recommend increasing the ingredients by half or at least including nuts or other add-ins so your brownies are thicker.

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour
2/3 cup chopped, toasted walnuts or pecans (optional)
[I wasn't sure if Steve liked nuts so I omitted]
2 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Prepare an 8-inch square metal baking pan. It is important in this recipe to only use metal. Line the pan with either aluminum foil or parchment paper so that it comes up all four sides.

Melt the butter together with the chocolate in the top of a double boiler or in a bowl placed above simmering (not boiling) water. Stir to smoothly integrated.

With a wooden spoon or heavy spatula, mix in the sugar, vanilla and salt. Add the eggs one at a time. Mix in the flour. Stir the mixture for at least a minute until the batter is smooth and begins to come away from the sides of the bowl.

If you choose to add nuts, we think a light toasting makes a big flavor difference. Mix in the nuts as the last step before putting the batter in the pan.

Bake the brownies at 400 degrees F for 20 minutes or until the batter begins to come away from the sides of the pan.

While the brownies are baking, prepare an ice bath for cooling. Using a roaster pan or a larger baking pan, fill it with cold water and ice cubes. When you remove the brownies from the oven, cool the pan completely in the ice bath. Be careful to not get water on the brownies. (If you had used a pyrex pan, the glass would break at this point and your brownies would be ruined.)

Cut the brownies into 16 squares.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Orange Hazelnut Biscotti (From My Sweet Vegan)

Ingredients for Orange Hazelnut Biscotti

Boy do I love food blogging / photography, but it tends to make me too hard on myself when food doesn't turn out as pretty as the original book / magazine / blog photo. (I bet I'm not the only one this happens to 8p.) So I'm lucky my boyfriend P was around to remind me how much these orange hazelnut biscotto from this weekend rocked the flavor department (and without any eggs or dairy!), despite my accidentally baking them too hot (oops!).

In the words of the boy himself "the deliciousness outweighs the burniness." (um yea...he makes up words pretty often) These cookies were indeed fabulously infused with citrus flavor due to a whole orange's worth of zest. Plus with buttery hazelnuts and a melted chocolate coating, an already good thing became damned addictive. After gobbling up 3 in quick succession, P even asked me to set a limit for him. I took this to mean I had to eat the rest so that he wouldn't ; agree?

This delightful (and resilient ^-^) recipe comes from the fabulous dessert cookbook, My Sweet Vegan, by Hannah Kaminsky, who is a prolific young baker and fellow blogger. She's kindly allowing me to share this recipe from her book. I hope you enjoy this yummy biscotti (avoid my missteps and yours will definitely look AND taste great), and watch for my cookbook review to come your way soon.

P.S. - It's P's birthday today. He's the calm to my frenzy, the root to my tree. Love you lots and hope you enjoyed the day, Sher!

Orange Hazelnut Biscotti

Orange Hazelnut Biscotti (Vegan) [Printable Recipe]
From My Sweet Vegan
Makes 12 to 15 biscotti cookies

XIAOLU'S NOTE: To bring out the citrus flavor even more, I used a technique that if I recall correctly came to me from a Dorie Greenspan recipe. I rubbed all the zest into the sugar until everything smelled wonderfully of orange. I added this where the original recipe says to add sugar and skipped the step to add zest later.

1/2 cup margarine
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon flax seeds [I used 1 1/2 tablespoons pre-ground flax seeds]
2 tablespoons water
Juice (about 1/4 cup) and [finely grated] zest of 1 orange
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts
4 1/2 ounces dark chocolate

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees Celsius) and line a baking sheet with a silpat [silicone liner] or parchment paper.

Cream the margarine in your mixer until light and fluffy in texture [but don't let it sit out too long like I did]. Add in the sugar, beating until fully incorporated. Grind the flax seeds into a powder with a spice grinder, and whiz them together with water to form a paste. Add the flax seed mixture to your mixer, stirring well. Toss in the zest from your orange and mix again. Sift in the flour, baking powder, and salt, mixing lightly until relatively combined. Continuing with the mixer on a slow speed, dump in the hazelnuts, and slowly juice your orange into the mixer until it just comes together [I pre-juiced it cause I tend to be clumsy on the fly]. It may take more or less juice, depending on the variety of orange you use and how well you can squeeze your fruit! If the dough is still crumbly, grab another orange and extract just enough juice so that everything comes together.

Shape the resulting dough into a long, skinny rectangle about 1 inch tall by 2 inches wide by however long that ends up, and place it onto your prepared baking sheet. Slide the baking sheet into the oven for 35 to 40 minutes. The top of the biscotti loaf should be lightly browned, but don't panic if it seems a little bit soft and bread-like on the inside. Cool the biscotti for at least 5 minutes, and slice horizontally into cookies that are about 1/2 inch thick. Lay the slices down flat on one of their cut sides on the baking sheet, and return the biscotti to the oven for another 10 minutes. Allow the biscotti to cool completely.

Place the chocolate in a relatively shallow, microwave-safe dish that can accomodate the full length of your biscotti. In the microwave, melt your chocolate in 30-second intervals until it is completely smooth, stirring well after each interval. Dip one cookie into the chocolate and place it back on a silpat or parchment paper. Repeat this process with each cookie. Allow the biscotti to dry completely before moving them again.