Peanut Butter & Chocolate Cupcakes

Some days, brushing your teeth or getting to the office on time feels like you’re climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. You know those days?

Those are the days that you pray you have some left-overs in your freezer and that there’s something good on TV that night.

I’ve been having quite a few of “those days” lately. By the time I get both ponytails dropped off at daycare and make my way downtown on the subway (which never seems to be running on time), I’ve feel like I need to grab a stiff drink instead of just a coffee. I’m even more tired at the end of the day, so I’ve been sticking to the meals that I know are fast and easy– and I haven’t been trying many new dishes.

I did manage to find the energy to make Peanut Butter and Chocolate Cupcakes for my husband’s birthday. Peanut butter cups are his favourite and I’ve been looking for ways to incorporate them into my desserts (like the Moose Tracks Ice Cream Pie). This recipe was fun to make with the girls because they could peel the peanut butter cups from the wrappers and drop them into the batter at the right time. I think they were worth the effort. Isn’t is always worth the effort to make things for your family?

I also made my own frosting this time and I was glad that I gave this a try. I must tell you that I never have the meringue powder usually required to make buttercream frosting and I don’t like to use egg whites when kids will be eating them. That’s why I’ve always just used icing from a tin. So, when I found a buttercream recipe that didn’t require either ingredient, I just had to try it. You can make this without the peanut butter for an all around buttercream frosting.

Chocolate Cupcakes With PB Cups

(Makes 18) Adapted from allrecipes; by Ladan

  • 1 bag peanut butter cups miniatures (320 grams/12 oz)
  • 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup canola oil
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup milk
  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Line a muffin pan with paper liners. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa and salt.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together the oil and sugar until well incorporated. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition; add the vanilla. Alternate adding the flour mixture milk; beat well.
  3. Add one scoop of batter to each paper liner, then add one peanut butter cup and top with one more scoop of batter. Liner should be just under ¾ full. Repeat until batter all used.
  4. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes in the preheated oven, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Peanut Butter Buttercream Frosting

Adapted from Brown Eyed Baker’s Easy Vanilla Bean Buttercream

  • 2½ sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 2½ – 3 ½ cups icing sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 Tablespoons heavy cream
  • 6 tbsp peanut butter

In a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter at medium-high speed until smooth, about a minute. Add 2½ cups icing sugar and salt; beat at medium-low speed until most of the sugar is moistened, about 1 minute. Scrape down the bowl and beat at medium speed until mixture is fully incorporated, about 30 seconds; scrape bowl, add vanilla and heavy cream, and beat at medium speed until incorporated, about 20 seconds. Add remaining one cup of icing sugar (if using) and beat until incorporated.  Then increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down bowl once or twice. Add peanut butter and beat on medium-high for one minute until well incorporated.

Frost the cupcakes when cool.

Top each cupcake with a piece of pb cup (Cut each pb cup in half; cut each half in thirds)

NOTES:

  • I used an Atecco 843 decorating tip (closed star). I bought it at Placewares in St. Lawrence Market.
  • I found that this buttercream frosting recipe was just enough for 18 cupcakes when piping the icing. It would make more than enough for icing by hand.
  • Be sure to peel the paper liners off the cupcakes carefully, as the pb cup may stick to the bottom on the odd cupcake if you don’t peel carefully.
  • Given that there are so many nut allergies out there, I wouldn’t recommend making these cupcakes with peanut butter for a kids party. However, you could easily omit the peanut butter cups in the cupcakes and the peanut butter in the frosting.
  • I like the consistency of the buttercream with the extra cup of icing sugar added (35 cups in total).
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Tapas: More Than Just Appies

Empanadas, White Bean Vinaigrette, Aged Manchego,
Olives with Orange & Lemon, Meatballs in Almond Sauce and Romesco Sauce

There’s nothing quite like a tapas-filled evening. Some people think that tapas are just appies—but they are in fact so much more than that. I read one definition of tapas that stated they could be any type of food, as long as the dish is small and served with a drink. Now there’s a definition I can really get behind—a type of food that requires a drink in order to be legitimate. No wonder I consider tapas to be the perfect food.

Based on their definition, you’d think an evening of tapas would go something like this:

Small plates + Small portions = Eat Less (and drink more?). Sounds right, doesn’t it?

Not quite, in my case. It goes more like this:

Small plates + small portions; repeat again and again = Caloric count in the stratosphere (including drinks)

But that’s what a tapas feast is all about, in my opinion. Lots of drinks (to legitimize the tapas) and lots of refills for those small plates.

Eva's Delicious Italian (Easter) Cheese Bread

Last night Eva (of KitchenInspirations) and her husband JT joined us for a tapas night that certainly lived up to its name—as each tapas was in fact served with a drink! It was loads of fun and our dinner went late into the evening. We had the appies and second course with the ponytails (as I made sure there were some kid-friendly items), and then finished course #3 (and dessert) after the girls went to bed. Eva brought several different dishes (see below) and they were all amazing.

Even if a tapas night isn’t up your alley, you could make most of these versatile dishes as appies, sides or mains. They are a great way to add some zip to a favourite go-to meal–at whatever stage you decide to add them.

Here’s our tapas menu:Appies:

Course #2

Course #3

Paprika-Spiced Almonds

  • 1-1/2 tbsp coarse sea salt
  • ½ tsp smoked sweet Spanish paprika (or hot paprika, according to taste)
  • 1 lb blanched almonds; approx 3 cups (I used unblanched)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

Preheat oven to 400°. Place the sea salt and paprika in a mortar and grind with the pestle to a fine powder. Alternatively, use a coffee grinder (designated for spices). Place the almonds on a baking sheet and toast for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden and fragrant. Watch after 7 minutes because they can burn quickly. Pour into a heatproof bowl. Drizzle over olive oil and stir to ensure all the nuts are lightly and evenly coated. Add extra oil, if necessary. Sprinkle with the salt and paprika mixture and stir again. Transfer to a small bowl and serve at room temperature. (NOTE: I halved this recipe and it was the perfect quantity.)

Olives with Orange and Lemon

  • 2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1-1/4 cups black olives (225 g/8 oz)
  • 1-1/4 cups green olives (225g/8 oz)
  • 2 tsp grated orange rind
  • 2 tsp grated lemon rind
  • 3 shallots, finely chopped
  • Pinch of ground cinnamon
  • 4 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 5 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp orange juice
  • 1 tbsp each chopped fresh mint and parsley

Place the olives, orange and lemon rind, shallots, cinnamon and seeds in a bowl. Whisk the vinegar, olive oil, orange juice, mint and parsley together in a bowl and pour over the lives. Toss well, then cover and let chill for 1 to 2 days before serving. (NOTE: I didn’t add the shallots, as I was stretched for time; still tasted great.)

White Bean Vinaigrette

  • 19 oz can navy beans
  • 3 celery stalks, chopped
  • 2 small gherkin, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 4 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • Pinch sugar
  • Salt and pepper
  • Snipped fresh chives to garnish

Drain the beans and rinse well with cold water, then drain again. Place the beans, celery and gherkin in a bowl.Whisk the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, mustard, parsley and sugar together win a bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour the vinaigrette over the bean mixture and toss well. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with the chives. Serve at room temperature. (NOTE: I’ll definitely make this again as a side for sandwiches and burgers this summer.)

Roasted Asparagus with Serrano Ham

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 6 slices serrano ham
  • 12 asaragus spears
  • pepper

Preheat oven to 400°. Place half the olive oil in a roasting pan that will hold the asparagus spears in a single layer and swirl it around to cover the base. Half each slice of serrano ham in half lengthwise. Trim and discard the coarse woody ends of each asparagus spear, then wrap a slice of ha around the stem end of each spear. Place in the prepared roasting pan and lightly brush with the remaining oil. Roast the spears in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus. They should still be firm so that you can pick them up with your fingers. (NOTE: This would make a a super easy and tasty side dish for countless dishes.)

Source: Recipes above (some adapted) from Perfect Tapas by Parragon.

Romesco Sauce

NOTE: Next time I will definitely halve this recipe when using for tapas–even though it would be great with chicken.

Empanadas

NOTE:

  • I adjusted the spices in this recipe (reduced the chili powder), omitted the egg and mixed in the olives to the meat mixture.
  • I also tried to make some with only mozzarella cheese (to be kid-friendly), but all of the cheese spilled onto the pan and the empanadas were empty! I definitely need to improve my fork crimping technique!!!
  • You could use puff pastry as a time-saver!

Tex-Mex Taco Bake

If it is Tuesday, chances are pretty good that I’m going to be making tacos. They’re easy, they’re fast and they’re a vessel for lots and lots of cheese. What’s not to love?

Even when you love something a lot, you can get a little tired of it. Sometimes you just need a change.

That’s how I was feeling when I set out to shake up Taco Tuesdays. I wanted something a little different that would still be a hit with the girls. I found a lot of taco casseroles online, but they all used taco seasoning packages. I came up with this Tex-Mex Taco Bake that uses spices you’re likely to have on hand. It takes a little longer to prepare than standard tacos, but it’s a nice change of pace. The tacos lose most of their crunch in the process, but you still get a little bit of crunch along the edges.

But you don’t have to wait until a Tuesday to make this—it is a great meal any day of the week.

As you can see by this photo, breaking up the shells is a great job to delegate—especially to princesses!

Tex-Mex Taco Bake

  • 2 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp dried cilantro (optional)
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • ½ tsp onion powder
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • 1/8 tsp ground pepper
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 lb extra lean ground beef
  • 1 cup Mexican small red beans (or black beans)
  • 1.5 cups mild salsa
  • 2 tbsp roasted red peppers, diced (jarred)
  • 12 taco shells, broken (156 g box)
  • ½ cup light sour cream
  • 2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese

Directions:

  1. Spray a 9” square pan with cooking spray and preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Line bottom of pan with half of the broken taco shells.
  3. Saute onions in a large skillet three minutes until soft; add ground beef and sauté for 10-12 minutes until browned.
  4. Combine spices in small bowl (chili powder, paprika, salt, cilantro, garlic powder, onion powder, pepper, cumin and cayenne) and add to beef. Saute one more minute. Stir in Mexican small red beans, roasted red peppers and salsa until combined well.
  5. Layer half of the meat mixture on top of the broken taco shells.
  6. Spread the sour cream over the meat.
  7. Sprinkle one cup of cheese over the sour cream.
  8. Layer the remaining half of taco shells.
  9. Add remaining half of meat mixture over shells.
  10. Sprinkle last cup of cheese on top of casserole.
  11. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until dish is brown and bubbling hot.
  12. Serve with your favourite taco toppings such as sour cream, green onions, jalapenos and salsa.

TIPS:

  • To lighten this dish, you can use ground turkey in place of ground beef.
  • Given that fresh cilantro has such a distinctive flavour, you may want to avoid substituting fresh cilantro for the dried cilantro if preparing this for kids. The dried cilantro is widely available in supermarkets.
  • I have used mild salsa because this is for kids. Feel free to spice up the recipe to suit your tastes!

Salmon That’s Like Candy

When I lived in British Columbia, one of my favourite things to do was have a picnic lunch with a variety of breads, cheeses, pâté and some incomparable Indian Candy Salmon. If you’ve never tried Indian Candy Salmon, you really must, if you get the chance. It is brined salmon that has been cold-smoked for up to two weeks and the end result is a type of sweet, salmon jerky.

But the hard part is that I’ve never found it outside B.C. and I don’t have the patience (or equipment) to make this myself by smoking the salmon. However, the good news is that the salmon recipe I’m going to share with you today is the closest thing I’ve found, in flavour, to Indian Candy Salmon—although it is not a precise match because it is no where near Indian Candy in terms of the “jerky” texture.

I’ve made this a number of times for guests over the past two years and it is always met with rave reviews from adults and kids alike. In fact, seven year-old Robert, a friend of the family, started calling me “Salmon Barb” after I made this on New Year’s Eve a couple years ago. I now make it for him most times we stay with his family at their cottage in Wasaga Beach because he likes it so much.

You can buy planks at gourmet food and kitchen shops, supermarkets and home improvement centres. I buy my cedar planks in packages of six at Costco, which is where I also buy my salmon. The planks are approximately 7″ x 16″ (you will need one at least this size for a 4-5 lb salmon.) There are also quite a wide range of cedar planks available on amazon.com. The label on the planks should say untreated and “food grade.”

Worst case scenario, you can wrap the salmon in foil and cook it on the barbeque. I do this with the small pieces that I cut off (so that the salmon fits on the plank) and they still taste great.

The K.C. Baron’s Cedar-Planked Salmon With Brown-Sugar Cure

Adapted slightly from Rockin’ Ronnie Shewchuck’s Barbeque Secrets Deluxe!

  • 1 large cedar plan, soaked in water for at least one hour (the original recipe calls for hickory planks)
  • 4 to 5 lb (2.2 kg) fillet of salmon (with or without skin), pin bones removed

Rub

  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp Old Bay seasoning or Seafood Seasoning (recipe below)
  • 2 tbsp kosher salt
  • 2 tsp coursely ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp granulated garlic

½ cup Dijon mustard

1 cup dark brown sugar

Directions

  1. Mix rub ingredients well in a medium-sized bowl.
  2. Place the salmon on a baking pan or in large casserole dish. Sprinkle both sides of the fillet with half of the rub. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge. Let it marinate or cure for 2 hours.
  3. When ready to cook salmon, remove it from the fridge.
  4. Using a pastry brush (or spoon), paint the top side of the fillet with mustard and then sprinkle on the brown sugar to coat.
  5. Preheat grill on medium-high for 5 to 10 minutes. Rinse the soaked plank and place it on the cooking grate. Cover the grill and heat the plank for 5 minutes (or until it starts to throw off a bit of smoke and crackles lightly). This step is optional – I often omit it although die-hard plankers would probably cringe at my technique.
  6. Place the salmon on the plank and cook on preheated gas grill for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the fish has an internal temperature of 135° (57°C).

Seafood Seasoning (if required)

  • 1 tbsp ground bay leaves
  • 2-½ celery salt
  • 1-½ tsp dry mustard
  • 1-½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ¾ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ½ tsp ground cloves
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp paprika
  • ½ tsp cayenne

Mix all ingredients in a medium bowl and store in an airtight container.

TIPS/NOTES:

  • I buy the salmon for this from Costco because it is great quality at a good price. It comes without the skin and still works well, although the original recipe calls a salmon fillet with skin. If your fillet does have skin, you can apply the rub to the skin in step 2 above.
  • To make a portion of this “kid-friendly” I omit the dijon mustard on a small section of the salmon and either replace it with yellow mustard or omit the mustard completely and just sprinkle on the sugar. Some kids find the dijon a bit spicy. I also reduce the black pepper in the rub to 1 tsp when serving to kids.
  • The original recipe calls for Morton Tender, which I’ve never been able to find. If available, you could replace the 2 tbsp salt with 1 tbsp Morton Tender and 2 tsp kosher salt.
  • I highly recommend Ron’s book Barbeque Secrets Deluxe! It is chock-full of tasty barbeque recipes, and Ron provides thorough details on how to barbeque like a pro.

Kahlua Sunrise

View from the Mayan Ruins, Tulum

My family and I landed at the Toronto airport late last night in our sandals, sundresses and shorts—and instantly missed the warm Mexican sun as we raced to our parked car.We just spent a wonderful week at a resort called Dreams Riviera Cancun located in Puerto Morelos, just outside of Cancun. It was everything I could have hoped for in a vacation—relaxing and luxurious with lots of great food and drinks.

I never really adjusted to the two-hour time difference, and woke up around 5 a.m. most mornings. This turned out to be a great advantage, as the best lounge chairs at the pool and beach were already claimed (with a towel or personal item) by 5:30 a.m. I couldn’t believe it actually—but it helped to remind me of something I’d forgotten…

Sunrise in Mexico

How inspirational it can be to watch the sun come up.

I was also inspired by the many tropical flavour combinations that I enjoyed over the week—lime, cilantro and chili (ceviche); watermelon and mint (mojitos); cucumber and mint (granita); and coconut (ice cream) and Kahlua.

One day soon I’ll recreate the shrimp ceviche that I had almost every day for lunch, but in the meantime, I’ve recreated the dish—coconut ice cream and kahlua—that was introduced to me by one of the waiters at Oceana, my favourite restaurant at the resort. It is so simple, but the flavour combination is a keeper. It explains why I had this almost every day too!

Hopefully the effects of my vacation will last longer than a day or two. I know I’ll be thinking longingly of those magical sunrises as I get ready for work each morning. But I’m curious—what’s the most spectacular sunrise or sunset you’ve experienced in your travels?

Coconut Ice Cream Balls With Kahlua

  • ½ cup (approximately) good quality vanilla ice cream
  • 2 tbsp sweetened shredded coconut (medium)
  • 1-1/2 to 2 tbsp Kahlua (according to taste)

Directions

  1. Using a small ice cream scoop, make three ice cream balls approximately 1-1/2 inches wide.
  2. Place the coconut on a small plate and roll each of the three balls around in the coconut.
  3. Place ice cream balls in a bowl or glass.
  4. Drizzle with the Kahlua.
  5. Enjoy!

UPDATE/NOTE:

  • I’ve updated the recipe to note that I suggest using medium shredded coconut, as this is what I used and it worked well. It is a finer coconut and the texture works for this recipe. I’m guessing you could also use another type of cocount and chop it finer (I will test this out shortly).