Chicken Chili Verde: A Summer-Fall Liaison

Before I say anything about chicken or chili, I'd like to announce that this is my 50th post! It's hard for me to grasp that I have actually opened up this page 50 times to ramble on about food. After all, I've only ever stuck to journals and diaries for a grand total of maybe 3 entries throughout my childhood, and even those were spread out over months at a time, a true testament to either my flightiness or, perhaps, lack of interest in the subject matter. I briefly considered choosing some monumental recipe for this ever-so-monumental occasion, but I decided that this recipe would be more appropriate: a recipe that I made months ago, but have only just now gotten around to posting about it - not unlike my previous forays into the journaling world, with my delayed method of sharing information.

In a way, though, I am glad that I saved this recipe for chicken chili until now. Up until I made this in the dead heat of July, I thought of chili as a stick-to-your-ribs meal for snowy and blistery days. That hunch was not completely wrong, as the heat from the stove top evaporated into the un-airconditioned atmosphere and drove me out of the kitchen faster than you can say sweat. So, perhaps chili is not the dish you make on the hottest day of the summer, as I so wisely chose to do, but on a reasonably hot day, it would taste wonderful. There are cultures that choose spicy, hot foods for days such as that one in July, believing that the heat helps to cleanse the body. This chili is a light dish that would be perfect to eat in that weather.

Then there is, of course, the traditional view of chili, made in a crock pot all day long in winter and warming your entire body as you scoop it up. It comforts you and relaxes you. I can picture myself eating this same chili in several months, when the first snow hits the ground and the drafty windows in my old apartment fail to keep me warm.

So, this chili is, in a way, a bridge between the heat and cold, just as fall is. As I sit here, experiencing a meteorological civil war being waged in my neighborhood, I find it fitting to tell you about the recipe that works just as well in either weather extreme. The temperatures oscillate between suffocating humidity and crisp, chilled air that perfectly embodies autumn, and so a recipe that can adapt well to its environment is important. You have to be ready for anything.

This chili is easy to make and tasty, and it passes my low-sodium criteria (which is not something I can say of most chilis and soups). I was able to make it in an unfamiliar kitchen with sparse tools during a vacation, and while I didn't but should have written down the details of my experience, it all turned out well in the end. I served it with some bread that should have been crustier, and L and I were both very satisfied. Plus, this is called by its creator a "quick and easy freezer meal," and who doesn't love those?

Chicken Chili Verde, courtesy of The Domestic Contessa
Yield: If memory serves correctly, I cut this in half and got 2 very hearty servings; I would imagine the full recipe makes enough for about 6 people.
The Ingredients
15 oz. pinto beans, drained and rinsed if canned

1 lb. boneless skinless chicken, cooked
4 oz. chopped green chilis
1 tsp. chopped dried onion
3/4 tsp. oregano
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
3 c. water
3 boullion cubes
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. salt (pretty sure I omitted this - you won't miss it, I promise)
1 C grated Jack cheese (we used some spicy pre-shredded kind)

The Method
1. Combine the chicken and the chilis, onion, oregano, and cayenne and refrigerate until needed. I did this the night before to really let it marinate.
2. Combine the beans, water, bouillon, garlic, and salt (if using) in a large pot and bring to a boil.
3. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the beans are soft, about 1 hour. Pay attention to the water level here - I remember returning to the kitchen to find a pot devoid of all liquid, having all evaporated again. Having slightly burned the bottom layer of beans, I added more water, and continued on - but avoid my mistake, and check on it fairly often. Every 10 minutes would not be too cautious.
4. Add the chicken to the beans and simmer for another 10 minutes.
5. If not using immediately, allow to cool to room temperature and then freeze.
6. When ready to serve (thaw it and heat it again if you've frozen it), and top with the cheese!

This is the first chili I've ever made, and so easy to put together that I will definitely be making it again. It's cleansing in the heat and, I would imagine, comforting in the cold. Enjoy it with a nice loaf of bread near by to sop up the extras, and keep water or milk at hand in case it's a little spicy for you. The little kick that a spicier cheese can enhance is refreshing, and gives it a flavor that puts the salt shaker to shame.

So, there you have it: chicken chili verde, the link between two opposing seasons, and my 50th post to prove that this is one journal(/blog/thing) that I'm not about to give up.

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The Houdini of Peanut Butter Cookies

I should have titled this post, "The Houdini of Floptimism," since I left you lingering last week with promises of a peanut butter cookie recipe that will change your life. This wasn't my intention, believe it or not. No, rather, I came back to my apartment last Sunday night and was greeted by another houdini: my internet. As it turns out, the cable that runs to the outside whatcha-ma-call-it has been silently collecting water since the turn of the century, and considering what we all know about technology and water, it becomes abundantly clear why my internet has been such a pest since I moved in. The cable line was just switched yesterday afternoon, which should mean that Internet Houdini has left the Floptimism blogosphere.

Now, back to those cookies. These guys earned the title of Houdini because they, too, disappear - much more quickly than you could anticipate. Then again, with 1 stick of butter and a full cup of full-fat peanut butter, can you really blame them (or, rather, us for devouring them with such expertise)?

I have to say that these cookies go against even my better judgment. The recipe emphasized non-natural peanut butter (which I don't eat), saying that the natural stuff makes cookies that crumble to pieces. Also, that much fat in a cookie is just a little alarming. Right? Yes? No? Maybe. Well, anyway, they were for L's birthday, who does not need to worry about such silly things as fat contents (yet), and certainly should not need to worry about crumbly cookies on his Special Day, so off I marched to the kitchen, RD license-revoking recipe in hand. If I had my RD license, anyway.

L is still talking about them. One of L's roommates, J, tried to eat the majority of them. Even I got off my high horse and tried one of these little calorie bombs and I have to say, they may just be worth it. They are certainly rich, but not to the point where your stomach will punish you for eating a few. They also look pretty darn cute, and held together well. I did only eat one of them - the whole peanut butter issue - so I probably should have asked L to do a guest post, giving you a more detailed account, but they are good. So make them, but only if you have people to share them with.

Peanut Butter Cookies, courtesy of Sweet and Savory Tooth
Yield: About 1 1/2 - 2 dozen
The Ingredients:
1 1/4 C all-purpose flour
1 Tbso baking powder
1/4 tsp salt (omitted)
1/2 C unsalted butter, melted (I used salted)
1/2 C granulated sugar
1/2 C packed brown sugar
1 C crunchy peanut butter
1 egg

The Method
1. Whisk the flour, baking power, and salt (if using) in a small bowl. Set aside.
2. In a separate bowl, beat together the butter, granulated and brown sugars, and peanut butter on medium speed, just until smooth. Add the egg, and once incorporated, the flour mixture. Mix until just incorporated, with the dough starting to come together.
3. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours. I was pressed for time, so although it recommends chilling overnight, I only did it for several hours, and had no problems at all. Allow time for it to come to room temperature before baking.
4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees, with racks positioned in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line at least 2 baking sheets (I needed to do mine in batches) with parchment paper or silicone mats, and set aside a small bowl of granulated sugar.
5. Pinch of pieces of the dough, rolling them into roughly 1-in. pieces. Coat them lightly in the sugar and place them 3in. apart on the baking sheets. Once a sheet is full, use the tines of a fork to press a cross-hatch pattern into each cookie.
6. Bake until the edges begin to brown but the centers still look slightly uncooked - trust the recipe, here. I was nervous, but they will firm up, and overcooking these guys isn't true. The recipe said this should take 9-10 minutes, but if I'm not mistaken, mine were in there for a good 12-14. Just keep an eye on them.
7. Once out of the oven, let cool on the baking sheets for just a little bit to firm up, and then transfer to a cooling rack to cool down completely.

At first taste, these didn't seem to be peanut-buttery enough, which is alarming due to the amount put into them. However, once they cooled down, I received no complaints - so you may want to be patient and let them cool before eating.

I will definitely try these with natural peanut butter to see if these cracking myths are true. The thought that my hydrogenated oil/trans fat ban will deny me of peanut butter cookies for all of eternity is a little tough to swallow, so I will stubbornly play with this recipe to see if I can make it work. I may also tackle all of that fat, but I cannot quite bring myself to mess with taste perfection. Some things are just worth the extra calories.

And now that I have spent weeks showering you with desserts, I suppose it's about time that I shed some light on the dinners I've been making - which is a shame, because there are just a few more after-dinner treats that I'm dying to share with you. However, Papa Floptimism recently asked me if I was eating well, and I suppose I can't blame him, since all he sees on here is cake after cookie after cake recipe.

I promise, Papa Floptimism, I'm eating very well. Just you wait and see.

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Drunken Apple Cake - the apples being the drunk ones, mind you

I may be well on my way to turning 21st birthdays everywhere into celebrations of alcoholic food. And by everywhere, I mean two birthdays in the very small sphere I call my life. First there were the margarita cupcakes, and now this: a moist, subtle cinnamon cake topped with some of the best rum-soaked baked apples ever.

As a side note, I have done it - I have baked a cake in a tiny kitchen, with naught but a measly hand mixer. I have left my family's beautiful kitchen aid behind, and I am here to tell you (what most of you probably already know): despite my doubts and little stomach butterflies about screwing up royally, it can be done.

This recipe is really a fusion of two recipes, tweaked to meld together more perfectly. I took a basic cinnamon cake (intended to be topped with caramel apples), doubled it, added a brown sugar middle between two layers, poured in some rum extract (why not?) and turned my attention to Famous Dave's (very large) Drunk Apples recipe. I don't know if you've heard of Famous Dave - I hadn't, really, but L had, and he very much approved of his intoxicated fruit. Luckily, Famous Dave is not miserly with his recipes, and he put them up on the World Wide Web for me to steal. I trimmed the recipe down (there was no yield, but it called for 24 apples, and I really can't imagine making that many Drunken Apples), and used it as the icing, so to speak, for the cinnamon cake.

Everyone devoured this cake. Granted, I cut them enormous slices, saying to them as I handed them a plate loaded down with dessert, "Here, have some cake!" in my best Jewish Grandmother practice voice. So, it isn't surprising that we went through as much of the cake as quickly as we did, but regardless, it got rave reviews. I have a few changes to make next time, but those mostly have to do with my shortcomings in the thinking ahead department, and my unfortunate lack of light-metal pans (for those of you who haven't discovered this through food classes or your own baking experiments, dark pans promote browning and a kind of crusty action going on around the edges - not always bad, but not always good, either; light pans, on the other hand, reflect the light and produce a softer baked good).

I'm giving you the recipe as I made it, because it worked the way it was, and I'm not about to send you off with a set of instructions that I haven't even tried. However, afterwards I'll talk about how I'm going to do things differently next time, because there's always room for change.

Drunken Apple Cake, courtesy of The Purple Foodie and Red Rocks Sunrise Publishing
Yield: 2 8-in. cakes, and lots of drunken apple topping
The Ingredients - The Cake
4 C flour
4 tsp. (or 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp) baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
2 C sugar
2 sticks butter
4 eggs
1 cup yoghurt
1/2 tsp. rum extract
For the middle layer:
1/3 C brown sugar
1 Tbsp. cinnamon

The Ingredients - The Apples
6 granny smith apples,* peeled, cored, and sliced
3/4 - 1 C sugar
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
2 Tbsp. rum**

The Method - The Cake
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (or, if you have a crazy oven like mine, try to remember to set it lower because it will inevitably rise up to 400 during the baking process and brown your cake before the insides are done) and grease two cake pans somehow - I used butter and then, because I was paranoid of the cake sticking, added some olive oil for good measure. Worked like a charm.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon. Set aside.
3. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs in one at a time, beating well after each addition (it says for about a minute per egg - I tried counting in my head and decided 1 minute was a very long time to beat an egg into butter and sugar).
4. Reduce the speed in order to alternate adding the flour and yogurt, starting and ending with the flour. Note that the batter is supposed to be very sticky. Once this is accomplished, divide the batter into the two pans, and use a spatula to smooth out the tops.
5. Bake for 25-30 minutes, meanwhile preparing the middle layer by mixing the cinnamon and the brown sugar together. I was worried that adding the layer right away would burn it, but if you know more about baking and say it'd work just fine right off the bat, do this step before placing in the oven at all. After 25-30 min., remove one cake from the oven and sprinkle generously with the brown sugar mixture. Place back in the oven and bake 25-30 min. more, or until the crumbs are golden and a toothpick comes out clean in the center. Be warned that my batter puffed up extraordinarily during baking, which ought to be expected with over a tablespoon of baking powder AND baking soda. It did not deflate, really, so just be careful when filling the pans up.
6. Now, here the recipe tells you to remove the cakes from the oven and immediately brush with some melted butter and roll in a mixture of cinnamon sugar. Referring back to my being paranoid of ruining this cake, images of cracked and crumbling cakes raced through my mind, and I let it sit in the pans for a few minutes, then I took them out and let them sit on cooling racks for a long time. Then, I brushed them with butter and rolled them in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar...but it didn't really work. It definitely did not ruin the cake, but I imagine that a little crunchy-sweet coating around the edges would have been enjoyable.
7. To assemble the cake, stack the layer without the brown sugar topping on top of the one with the brown sugar. They won't really adhere to each other, but I didn't find this to be a huge problem. More on that later. Once the apples are done, if you're planning to eat the whole cake in one sitting, spoon the apples on top. If, however, you want to be able to preserve the cake, save the apples for individual topping during actual serving.

The Method - The Apples
1. Mix together the cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg. Add the apples, and stir well to coat.
2. Pour in the rum - which, in my case, turned out to be 1 normal tablespoon and one ridiculously overflowing tablespoon (the more the merrier, right?).
3. Place the apples in a pot over medium heat until they start to get juicy and begin to boil. Maintain the boil for around 20 minutes. I think I let mine get a little bit too cooked, but that's more of an aesthetic thing than taste. I don't think anyone noticed.
4. If serving immediately, either place alongside or on top of cake. If not serving right away, let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate until use. When ready, place over the stove on medium heat once again, using the age-old stick-your-finger-in-the-pot method of determining when it's hot enough to serve.

The cake is simple but delicious, not overly sweet but far from bland. I didn't really pick up on the rum extract that I added, but then again, I've never tasted the original. And besides, I was hungry when I ate the cake, and it tasted good. I'm sure I missed tons of little nuances that any decent food critic would be describing in intimate detail now. I apologize. The apples added another dimension of flavor - again, not too sweet; I think here, the rum flavor really was detectable and offered a really nice contrast to all of that sugar and fructose boiling up together.

In the end, I would keep this as a one layer cake, and make the brown sugar layer more of a swirled middle. There weren't enough apples to adequately drown the cake as I had hoped, but rather than adding in the cost of buying even more apples, I think cutting back the cake works. I will definitely try using a lighter cake pan next time, if possible, and attempt to roll the cake in the cinnamon-sugar coating right away. Other than that, I really don't have too many changes. I'll just warn you that sitting in my cake carrier throughout the weekend, it dried out relatively quickly. By Sunday, it was not nearly the same cake (I baked it Thursday night). So, if you make it, force yourself (and your guests, of course) to eat it all right away. It's too good to let it sit there - another reason why sticking to the original one layer may be wise.

I've realized that amidst all of these birthdays, there has been a serious lag in savory dishes on here. That being said, I'm not planning to tell you about any dinners I've made recently. Yet. You see, I still have a batch of peanut butter cookies sitting at the top of my "to blog" list, and I can't leave you without this recipe for much longer. You're already missing out. 1 cup of peanut butter + 2 sticks of butter?

Yes, I can feel my dietitian heart clogging as we speak.

Yes, these cookies are absolutely amazing.

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Black Bean & Quinoa Stir Fry

Let me tell you a little secret: a good stir fry is a busy cook's best friend. Step 1: Saute some vegetables and meat in a pan while some sort of grain cooks on the back burner. Step 2: Add some seasonings. Step 3: Mix the grain and veggies/meat together. Step 4: Eat. Dinner can be on the table in no time at all, particularly if you have pre-cooked or leftover meat or beans in your freezer.

This past week was relentless, and left no time for "real" cooking. I was driving at least 40 minutes each day, hopping back and forth between home and school. Then, there was L's birthday and the ensuing cake adventure, and driving another few hours to see him. Needless to say, I did a lot of thawing, recreating, and reheating. I did, however, take advantage of some of the black beans I had frozen a week ago, and put together a nice little stir fry. It was a little rushed, and I was a little scatterbrained (re: I forgot to look at the "recipe" I had written down and instead just kind of did my own thing), so it didn't go exactly as I had planned. Still, it was tasty, and a very quick fix.

I got the idea originally from, who else, Smitten Kitchen. I had saved a recipe from there for Confetti Salad, and I meant to make mine a lot closer to her original than I wound up doing. I meant to add lime juice and corn kernels, but completely forgot. I also added spinach, mostly because I needed to use up a bag in the fridge that was on its last leg, and I stuck in some tomatoes for the same reason. I also mixed it together with quinoa to make it more of a meal. Really, it wound up being a largely different dish, and will more than likely wind up trying the original the way it was actually intended, before too long.

Black Bean & Quinoa Stir Fry, inspired by Smitten Kitchen
Yield: 1 serving
The Ingredients
1 section from a large bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1/4 small onion, coarsely chopped
1 tsp. olive oil
pinch minced garlic
1/4 C dry Quinoa
1/4 C black beans
1/3 - 1/4 tomato, chunked
fresh ground pepper
1 pinch each paprika, cumin
1/4 C spinach

The Method
1. Add the bell pepper, onions, garlic and olive oil to a pan and saute over medium to medium-high heat until the onions just begin to brown. Start the water for the quinoa to boil, and add the tomato and beans to the pan with the pepper and onion. Season the vegetables with ground pepper, paprika, and cumin.
2. Once the quinoa is finished cooking, add it to the pan with the vegetables and lower the heat to medium or medium-low. Adjust seasonings and mix around.
3. Remove pan from the heat and add the spinach to the pan. I ripped mine into smaller pieces, but that's really just a personal preference. Mix the spinach into the rest of the ingredients, allowing it to wilt slightly.

This might as well be a formula rather than a recipe. Think of it as a skeleton to which you can add any sort of ingredient: protein + grain + vegetable, and you have yourself a well-rounded, pretty healthy meal (depending upon, of course, which proteins, grains, and veggies you use). You can add a little bit of cheese, pile it up into a baked pepper or other vegetable, wrap a tortilla around get the picture. It's easily reduced to a single serving or expanded for a larger crowd, and because you can use frozen vegetables, it can be ridiculously inexpensive.

Should I get off of my stir fry soap box now? Yes? Alright, well for now, I'll just leave you with these words: rum-soaked apples, cinnamon cake, and peanut butter cookies. Interested? Stay tuned.

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Lemon Poppy Seed (or anything your heart desires) Slice & Bake Cookies

Now, as delicious as those Margarita Cupcakes were, you didn't really think that I would stop at one birthday dessert, did you? After all, only a fully sane person would stop at one - if any - self-made dishes on their Special Day. You see, I was all set to have a smorgasbord of alcoholic cupcakes for dessert: I'm talking margarita, Strawberry Daquiri, and - one that I was particularly intrigued by - Irish Car Bomb.

The first fly in the ointment was the price of alcohol. A huge reason why I bake for my own birthday (though not the main one) is that cakes are borderline astronomical these days, and just not worth my humble opinion. So, had I loaded up on three separate types of alcohol and used just a tablespoon or so of each per recipe, my birthday dessert would've gone from frugal to bank-breaking in a matter of seconds. The second fly in the ointment was the amount of time I had to create all of these desserts. The weekend before my birthday coincided wonderfully with the end of a beach vacation, meaning I would get home Saturday afternoon and have less than 24 hours, including sleep time, to make this all work. And the third and final fly was the fact that apparently, I am not the only one in this Whole Wide World or even my entire family who shies away from alcohol, and some people just might not appreciate having to choose between negligible amounts of intoxication in their desserts, or no dessert at all (totally unacceptable, I know).

Basically, I needed another option, and thought that a nice cookie would do the trick. In keeping with the citrus/summer theme and my love of all things Smitten Kitchen, I turned to one of SK's recipes: slice and bake cookies with a thousand-and-one mix-in options, including lemon poppyseed. This recipe not only gave me a simple, well-reviewed cookie (complete with enticing pictures), but it is also a dough that can be frozen. So, a week and a half before the Big Day, I was able to crunch these cookies out, roll them into logs, stick them in the freezer and be on my merry way. My mom was loving enough to slice and bake them for me while I was off getting a shorts tan on the beach, so I have to give credit to her, as well.

Lemon Poppyseed Slice & Bake Cookies, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen
Yield: Roughly 50 cookies, says Deb...I 100% forgot to count. I'd say, if anything, a little less.
The Ingredients
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature (or, salted butter and omit the salt later on)
2/3 C powdered sugar, sifted
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
*pinch of salt
1tsp. vanilla or almond extract (I used vanilla, but more on that later)
2 C all-purpose flour
Mix-Ins: the zest of 2 lemons, 1/4C poppy seeds to coat or mix* (I also added 1/2tsp. lemon extract)

The Method
Cream the butter on medium speed until smooth. Add the powdered sugar and continue beating until the mixture reaches a smooth and silky consistency again. Beat in the egg yolks, salt (if using), lemon zest, and poppy seeds (unless coating). Reduce the speed on the mixer to low and add the flour, mixing until it just disappears. If in doubt, it's better to under beat here, incorporating the remaining specks of flour with a spatula. Turn the dough onto a counter and form it into a ball. Divide the dough in half, wrapping each separately in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Once the dough has chilled, remove it from the refrigerator and form each ball into a log measuring about 1 to 1 1/4in. thick. Now, I found this to be much more troubling than it probably should have been, but maybe I'm too much of a perfectionist. Yes, I did pull out a ruler and measure, and yes, I did adjust the logs when I got a measurement of 1 1/3 or 1 1/2. I cannot tell you how necessary this is, though I get the impression that aside from altering the number of cookies you will wind up with and maybe the cooking time, it really doesn't matter. Anyway, once you have gotten your well-measured (or not) logs in order, wrap them in plastic and chill for two hours. At this point, you may freeze them for up to 1 month or refrigerate for up to 3 days, just make sure they go in an airtight container. I used plastic wrapped followed by a freezer bag, which was ultimately a poor decision because the logs were too long, and so I wound up with crooked logs (because you know I sat there until they "fit," anyway).

When you are ready to bake them (remember to thaw the dough a little if you opt for freezing first!), divide your oven into thirds using the oven racks and preheat it to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets (or as many as you need) with parchment paper.

Meanwhile, roll the cookies into the poppy seeds if you're coating them with it, and use a sharp and slender knife to portion them into roughly 1/3in. slices. If you make them any thicker, just be aware that the baking time will likely need to be increased. Place the cookies on the baking sheets with around 1/2in. space between each one.

Bake the cookies for 12-14 minutes, watching for them to set but not brown. Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack to cool to room temperature.

*Note: My first intention was to mix the poppy seeds in, but seeing that I only had a meager tablespoon or two of poppy seeds left in the container, I changed plans. I mixed in what I had, and decided I would add them to the shopping list and coat the logs with the remaining amount, so that there was a little of both. Plans changed again when the poppy seeds were accidentally left stranded in the grocery store, and so I just used the small amount that had been originally mixed in. I thought they came out fine, both aesthetically and in terms of taste, and probably would not mix the whole 1/4C in next time, even if I have it on hand.

These lemon poppy seed cookies were big hits in my family. I think L would have gladly eaten the entire batch himself, as would several other people. They're light and crumbly (in the good kind of way, not in the I-just-bit-into-this-cookie-and-now-more-than-half-of-it-is-in-my-lap kind of way) and the citrus flavor is strong but not overpowering. They're buttery and full of flavor, as they should be with two sticks of butter thrown into the mix. Also, they keep well. They didn't last more than a couple of days in my house so I can't give you any conclusive evidence, but I didn't notice a change in quality at all in that time frame. They were apparently easy to bake, and definitely easy to make, and more than that, this is a great base recipe to have in your pocket. You should go to Smitten Kitchen and look at all of the other options she has listed, and then sit down and think of some of your own. I plan to make these again, both in lemon poppy seed form and in countless other forms, too. Plus, who doesn't love having a frozen log of cookie dough on hand to pick at without cooking every time you open the freezer be able to whip up at a moment's notice?

And that brings an end to the birthday desserts, but have no fear, because L's birthday is in just a few days and I have all sorts of plans for that. Ushering in people's 21st birthdays with "alcoholic" food might just be my new specialty...

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Margarita Cupcakes (Searching for My Lost Shaker of Salt)

The question of how to celebrate a 21st birthday when you don't drink can be a little bit tricky, and a whole lot-a-bit anticlimactic. Around me, everyone is excited for their turn to legally hit the bars and otherwise keep doing what they've been doing for years. The hype surrounding turning 21, therefore, seems a little silly to me; but nonetheless, I wanted something at my family gathering that would acknowledge that I can now be turned loose on the alcohol scene, if I so chose. Immediately, I thought of these little gems - well, okay, not these exactly. I actually had my heart set on strawberry daquiri cupcakes but couldn't find a recipe that I was satisfied with. So, immediately after that realization, I thought of these little gems. These margarita cupcakes are from Annie's Eats, which I must have stumbled upon as a result of Food Buzz or some other happenstance search. I don't actually follow her blog, but judging by the beauty and flavor of these cupcakes, I should probably start!

I chose to miniaturize the cupcakes, simply because it was only a luncheon and we were already having fruit and cookies. As attached as I am to the idyllic, giant layer cake for my birthday, I found the individual cupcakes and cookies to be much more of a hit. Think about it: no one wants that big slab of cake, really. I mean, everyone wants it, but no one will take it in public. Everyone says to the cake cutter, "just give me a small piece. No, not even that big. A little smaller, a little smaller, a little...there! Thanks!" and they walk away with this little tiny sliver. At least, that's been my experience. So, baby cupcakes it was.

The other modification I made was in keeping with Annie's suggestion that the tequila flavor didn't come through too well. Now, ordinarily, this wouldn't faze me, since the more something tastes like alcohol, the less I like it, anyway. However, she makes the very good point that without that hint of tequila, there's nothing to make the cupcake special; it's just a lime cupcake - delicious, but certainly not margarita-inspired. So, I brushed the tops of the cupcakes liberally with tequila, and think that I could have been a little more generous in the icing, even.

I found these margarita cupcakes to be intensely flavorful, yet far from heavy. The lime came bursting through, the tequila shyly let you know it was there, and the cupcake remained moist even after refrigeration. I actually just finished up the last one last night (I know, almost two weeks old, gross), and I really wasn't disappointed. I certainly wouldn't serve anyone else two week old cupcakes, and the safety of consuming the meringue frosting may have been a little questionable - and I may not advise you to let these little suckers hang on for so long before they're devoured (mine only did because my family really doesn't eat homemade baked goods when they're sitting in the kitchen) - but the point is, they were not stale.

Margarita Cupcakes complete with Swiss Meringue Lime Buttercream, courtesy of Annie's Eats
Yield: 24 regular cupcakes (I halved the recipe to get 48 minis)
The Ingredients - The Cupcakes
3 C all purpose flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt (I use salted butter, so I omitted this)
1 C / 2 sticks butter, room temperature
2 C sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
3 limes, zested and juiced
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 C buttermilk (alternatively, 1 C milk & 1 Tbsp. lemon juice, allowed to sit on the counter for a bit)

The Ingredients - The Icing
*I halved this and still wound up with an extraordinary amount. I think I could have eighth-ed this and been fine.
2 C sugar
8 egg whites
pinch of fleur de sel (coarse salt)
1 1/2 C unsalted butter, at room temperature (I used salted, but didn't omit the salt mentioned above because I was worried it would have an effect on the chemical processes going on)
2 1/2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
2-4 Tbsp. tequila, plus extra for brushing the tops of the cupcakes

The Method - The Cupcakes
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and line or grease muffin tins.
2. Combine the flour, salt and baking powder in a medium-sized bowl and blend with a fork.
3. Separately, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high until light and fluffy, roughly 3-5 minutes.
4. One at a time, add the eggs, making sure to pause between each time for adequate blending.
5. Add the vanilla and lime zest and juice, then lower the mixer speed to low.
6. Working in additions, incorporate the flour and buttermilk alternately, beginning and ending with the flour. Be sure to allow everything to mix thoroughly before pouring the next addition.
7. Spoon or ladle the batter into the muffin tins, filling each one approximately 3/4 of the way full. I was hesitant with mine and don't think I filled them enough, resulting in some pretty small/short cupcakes - so don't be afraid! Fill 'em on up!
8. Bake regular cupcakes for 20-24 minutes or smaller ones for roughly 10-12 minutes, testing centers with a toothpick for doneness (it should come out pretty clean). Let the pan cool for 5-10 minutes before transferring the cupcakes to wire rack to complete cooling.
9. Optionally, brush the cooled cupcakes with a little tequila.

The Method - The Icing
1. Set a pot of water to simmering, being sure to keep the water level relatively low. While the water is heating, add the sugar, egg whites, and salt in a heatproof bowl, and place over the water once it's ready. Whisk the mixture frequently until it reaches 160 degrees and the sugar has dissolved.
2. Pour this mixture into a stand mixer (due to the length of time and power needed for this recipe, I would not recommend a hand mixer at all) and, with the whisk attachment, beat on medium-high until it forms stiff peaks and the mixture has cooled down, roughly 8 minutes.
3. Reduce the speed to medium, then add the butter - 2 tbsp. at a time - waiting, again, to add the next "block" until the previous one has had a chance to incorporate itself. At this point, the frosting may thin out and look a little soupy or curdled, which is normal. Continue to beat on medium-high until it thickens up again - a process that could take anywhere from five minutes all the way up to thirty. Patience is key.
4. Once the desired consistency has been reached again, stir in and fully incorporate the lime juice and tequila. I used the lower end of tequila, but might add an extra tablespoon next time.
5. If using the same day, the icing can be left at room temperature. Otherwise, place it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or the freezer for up to 1 month. Note that if not using that same day, you might have to re-beat the icing after refrigeration/freezing just to smooth it out again (this is quick, not the up-to-30-minute time frame of before).
6. Frost the cupcakes and garnish with lime slices and/or zest, if desired. I tried this, but the zest dried out overnight and honestly looked more like a certain illegal substance than lime zest, so I left them plain and simply scattered some mint leaves around the arrangement.

I have but one complaint with this recipe. That swiss meringue frosting that looks so stunning and pristine in Annie's pictures, was the absolute bane of my existence that night in the kitchen. I heated the eggs and I added them to the mixture and beat them into beautiful stiff peaks, and then I added the butter and journeyed on and I beat, and I beat, and I beat, and I beat that frosting for forty minutes, to no avail. Now, my birthday is in the dead of August, that part where humidity around here just comes in for the kill, and it has for two years now been merciless with my cakes. Excessive heat and humidity are not conducive to baking, and I blame the weather entirely for my failure.

So there I was, the night before my party, the day I got home from vacation and driving for hours on end, staring into the bottomless pit of deceivingly angelic-white, liquidy meringue. I stuck it in a bowl in the fridge overnight and prayed that it would all work out in the morning. Of course, the morning brought little more than a slightly-firmed-but-liable-to-melt-back-again frosting that could in no way be piped. So, I piped it anyway. Naturally. And it came out in a little blob in the center of the cupcake.

And you know what? They looked absolutely adorable! I love how they turned out, and although they look less impressive than they would have had I been able to pipe them with an actual tip, I'm very happy with the end result.

So, in the end, I urge you to try these cupcakes. They are perfect little morsels of citrus and summer contained in little cupcake wrappers. The frosting is a pain, and I firmly believe that no frosting is worth the time and aggravation that went into this recipe. That being said, it can take less time than what I experienced, so if you're ambitious and curious, or just downright stubborn, give it a shot. But next time I personally plan to modify a less tempestuous butter cream recipe to embody the margarita flavors instead of repeating this one, and see no shame in it.

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