soul satisfying shrimp risotto

Stirring. Surveying.
Slow.
Starch. Stock. Shrimp.
Self Restraint.
Supper.
Soul Satisfying.

Risotto, that sublime Italian rice dish with a reputation for being incredibly time consuming and fussy. In reality it’s really pretty simple to pull together. Hot broth in one pot, toasted arborio rice in another. A wooden spoon, a bit of butter and cheese. A smidgen of patience and buon appetito!… Risotto like you thought you could only get in a restaurant. Yes the spoon has to be wooden (so as to not damage the grains of rice). Yes the broth has to be warm (it’s more easily absorbed than cold stock). Yes you need to stir the rice almost constantly and it needs to be served IMMEDIATELY or it becomes dense and gluey. But that’s a small price to pay for a creamy, rich and luxurious dish of perfect risotto.

In the words of chef Jamie Oliver “Risotto… It takes a bit of time and a bit of love. In life, you can’t have everything in one basket.”

Simple Shrimp Risotto
You can get fancy and add asparagus or sweet peas to this risotto, but it’s perfectly perfect without it as well. Abbondanza!

3 cups shrimp* or chicken stock
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1/8 tsp. salt
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
1 lb. small shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 tbsp. salted butter
1/4 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
2 tbsp. heavy cream

  1. Place the stock in a tall sided pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling reduce to a low simmer to keep warm.
  2. In a large high sided pan with a heavy bottom, heat oil and sauté onions until nearly translucent, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt, add the rice, stir to coat with oil and sauté with onions to toast each grain, another 5-6 minutes (stirring frequently).
  3. Once toasted slowly add the white wine, stirring gently with a wooden spoon. Once the rice has absorbed the wine, add 1 cup of warm stock and stir. Allow to cook until stock has been absorbed.
  4. Add a second cup of stock to the pan, stir gently and allow the rice to absorb the liquid and the pan to once agin become dry. Continue to stir frequently and add the third and final cup of stock to the pan, cook once more until dry.
  5. Roughly chop half of the shrimp. Add all of the shrimp to the risotto, stirring gently and cook until they are just pink, this will only take a few minutes.
  6. Remove the pan from the heat, add the butter, cheese and heavy cream. Gently stir to melt the butter and combine ingredients and serve immediately.

*To create shrimp stock I simply placed the shrimp shells and some water in a small saucepan and allow it to for for an hour or so. Strain the liquid and voilà— shrimp stock.

**adapted from the reluctant gourmet

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meet me in purgatory strawberry buttercreams

It’s finally Spring, can you believe it? Yeah me neither. So long cold, dark and please don’t make me get out from under these nice warm covers days of Winter. Hello sunny, bright and full of possibility days of Spring. 

The past six months have been a whirlwind. I’ve been so busy with work, life and family that I haven’t been able to properly focus on blogging or even cooking for that matter, and that’s been a real disappointment to me. The older I get the more clearly I’ve come to realize that life is far too short to live in a state of disappointment. So… I‘ve decide to embrace the renewal, rebirth and revitalized spirit of Spring and to find time for the little things that bring me the greatest satisfaction. To get up a bit early just to have some quiet time to drink coffee on the deck, to putter around in the garden rather than spend the time straightening up the house and to cook (and blog) far more often. It won’t be easy but in my experience anything worth doing often requires a bit of extra effort. I’m approaching this venture determined to just stop and slow down. As I was making this personal declaration a friend happened to post this tweet: “People who insist on making homemade Easter candy will never be welcome in the kingdom of heaven.” After I finished laughing I decided to take this as a sign that the universe wanted me to make a little Easter candy. And so I did.

In my mind Easter is synonymous with chocolate. Not jelly beans, marshmallow chicks or cream eggs. Nope, for me its all about chocolate. In the past I’ve made peanut butter cups and chocolate almond bark. I’ve dipped fresh cherries and tangerine segments in dark chocolate and I’ve made simple chocolate lollipops. This time around I wanted to make something a bit more extravagant. This time I wanted to make something that tasted fresh like the season. This time I wanted candy so good it would redeem me from my months of lack luster cooking. So this time I made chocolates filled with homemade strawberry buttercream. And they were delicious— Kingdom of heaven be damned.

Strawberry Buttercream Chocolates
I used Trader Joe’s freeze-dried strawberries for this recipe. They also sell freeze-dried blueberries and raspberries, which would no doubt also make a delicious filling.

strawberry creams

1  1.2 oz package freeze-dried strawberries
1 cup powered sugar
pinch salt
4 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
2 tbsp. heavy cream
3 4 oz. bars bittersweet or dark chocolate
special equipment: silicone candy mold

  1. Place the candy mold in the refrigerator to chill. Pour the strawberries into the bowl of a food processor (being sure to remove the silica packet) and process to a fine powder. Add the powdered sugar and pulse a few times before adding the salt, butter and cream. Turn the food processor on and allow to process until the mixture gathers into a loose ball, this takes a little time so be patient.
  2. Wrap the ball of filling in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to chill while you melt the chocolate.
  3. Break up the chocolate and use a double-boiler (or a glass bowl placed over a pot of simmering water) to melt the chocolate, stirring frequently. When the chocolate is totally melted and smooth remove from heat.
  4. Remove the chilled mold from the refrigerator and fill each opening halfway with chocolate (I used a little paint brush to spread the chocolate up the sides.) Place the filled mold back in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to set.
  5. Remove the chocolate mold and the wrapped filling from the refrigerator. Pinch off a 1/2 teaspoon sized piece of filling, roll it into a ball and carefully press it into each of the set chocolates. Cover the filling with additional chocolate (you may need to warm it again) filling each mold to the top. Place the filled mold back in the fridge to chill until firm, about 1 hour.
  6. Carefully pop finished chocolates out of mold and enjoy!

a beacon in the night chowda’

This is recipe makes me think about a cold rainy Summer day in Cape Cod. Let me set the scene; It was the 80’s and my family had decided to go to the Cape for our annual vacation. I had a ‘totally mint’ new pair of flashy red sunglasses, Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise” was playing nonstop on the radio that Summer (and I sorta new all the words) and my favorite partner in crime would be joining us on the trip. Good times were clearly on the horizon! And then the bottom fell out…

First I discovered that we’d be camping on the Cape— I hate camping. Secondly my cousin who had planned to come along got sick and bailed, so it was just pre-teen me and my parents. Ugh. And then it rained.

Rain is never fun on vacation. Rain when you’re camping on the Cape is even less fun, take my word for it. Rest assured we made the best of it and continued to sightsee and explore just as we would if the sun had been shining. (“What can I tell you? Let’s just make the best of it.” was such a frequently used phrase in our house I should have had it printed on a t-shirt.) However those damp Summer days actually did hold two bright spots for me; The first was finding an old-fashioned penny candy store where a couple of dollars could still buy you a boat load of sugary goodness and the other was a truly no-nonsense lunch we stumbled into one afternoon.

We had clearly spent the morning out in the elements ‘making the best of the situation’ because I remember being cold, wet and unhappy in a sulky pre-teen kinda way. We then piled back into the truck, destination unknown, when my father abruptly decided to steer the car down to the end of one of the docks, just to see what’s there. That’s when we found a tiny dockside shack that made and sold steamy cups of soup. New England, Manhattan and whatever the fisherman had caught that day Fish Chowda’. The rain drizzled down and seagulls swooped from piling to piling while we ordered and quickly took it back to the truck to stay dry. And then suddenly the clouds lifted, the sun shone through and like a beacon in the night or manna from heaven the soup instantly warmed us and lifted our spirits! (Okay so it wasn’t actually that dramatic. It in fact continued to rain and I was sandwiched between my parents eating soup out of a styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon. But… the soup was seriously delicious and it did warm my chilled body and make the remainder of my soggy day more tolerable. And frankly, that says something.)

So the moral of this story could be something like: It never hurts to try and make the best of a situation; don’t be afraid to suddenly take a new road or it is possible to find simple, delicious, perfection in a little styrofoam cup!

Fish Chowder with Bacon and Butternut Squash
This reminds me of summer at the Cape and works perfectly well with either haddock or cod.

cod chowder

5 slices thick cut bacon, diced
1 medium onion, diced small
4 stalks celery, sliced thin
1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 2 lb. butternut squash, peeled and diced
1 tbsp. flour
1/4 cup cream sherry
3 cups fish or chicken stock
1 cup bottled clam juice
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
1 1/2 lbs. skinless haddock or cod fillets
1/2 cup heavy cream
cayenne pepper, for garnish

  1. Dice the bacon, add to a large stock pot and cook until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the diced onion, celery and thyme to the bacon fat and cook until the vegetables begin to soften.
  2. Add the flour to the pot and allow to cook until golden brown. Then add the sherry to deglaze the pan, being sure to scrape up any stuck on bit from the bottom.
  3. Stir in the stock, clam juice and butternut squash and allow to come to a boil. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer until the squash is just tender 10-12 minutes.
  4. Cut the fish fillets into large bite sized pieces. Stir in the salt, pepper and smoked paprika. When the squash is tender add the fish to the pot, cover and simmer until it flakes apart easily, about 4-5 minutes. Stir in the cream and allow to cook for 2 more minutes.
  5. Serve with a hearty sprinkle of cayenne pepper.

*inspired by epicurious

cucumber à la julia child

This week would have been the 102nd birthday of everyone’s favorite food maven and former spy Julia Child. Julia was a firm believer in following your heart, stepping outside of your comfort zone and embracing life regardless of the obstacles placed in front of you. In honor of her and all she has given to a world of home cooks and great chefs alike, I have decided to reblog my post about Julia from last August and my (her) recipe for Cold Cucumber & Potato Soup.

Until next post I’ll leave you with these wise words from the beloved Julia Child:

“The measure of achievement 
is not winning awards.
It’s doing something that you appreciate,
something you believe is worthwhile.”

Well said Julia, I couldn’t agree more…

Around this time each summer two things happen in my garden. The squirrels destroy my corn stalks (evil no-good rodents) and my tomato and cucumber plants explode with fruit. An over abundance of tomatoes is never a problem, I use them in salsa and salads of all kinds and for my Sweet Summer Sauce, but cucumbers are a bit more tricky. I’ve attempted to make pickles, only to end up with a soggy vinegary mess. I’ve given some away, but believe it or not a lot of people don’t like cucumbers (I know, can you imagine?!?) and I’ve eaten them simply sliced and in salads, but there are only so many cucumber salads that even this girl can eat! So I set out on a mission to find another use for all these cukes.

My initial thought was that I could try to bake with them like you would grated zucchini, they really are almost the same vegetable after all. In fact I’m sure they would be the perfect zucchini substitute in these Pineapple-Zucchini Muffins and with back-to-school only a few weeks away I think that’s exactly what I’ll do (don’t tell my son). But muffins weren’t what I felt like making amidst this August heat, so I continued to wade through my cookbook cabinet in search of inspiration. And there it was, in the NY Times food section that I had saved from last August. August 15, 2012 had been Julia Child’s 100th birthday and the food world had celebrated it in great fashion. Julia Child— the cooking and culinary legend and inspiration to generations of home cooks. She was “absolutly fabulous”. And here I stood, just days away from Julia’s 101st birthday and in need of cucumber inspiration. “Hmm, what would Julia make?” I thought to myself. That’s when I heard a warbly voice say “Potages aux Concombres!” Okay I didn’t actually hear Julia’s voice from the great beyond, but I did discover an old recipe of hers for cold cucumber soup which sounded perfect but for one exception; to thicken the soup she had used farina— that’s where she lost me. I would rather use a thickener that would add flavor to the soup as well as substance (sorry Julia). A bit more research and I found a vichyssoise recipe that seemed to have some of the elements Julia’s recipe had been missing, namely potato and buttermilk. It was at that moment, in my little New Jersey kitchen that a Julia Child/Cooking Light cold cucumber and potato soup was born.

Bon appétit and happy birthday Julia, thank you for being you!

Cold Cucumber & Potato Soup
This soup may not be for everyone, including my children and husband. But that doesn’t mean it’s not delicious and wouldn’t be the perfect first course on a hot summer day.

cucumber soup3

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 leek, halved and sliced thin
2 stalks celery, sliced thin
3 garlic cloves, sliced thin
1 cup sweet onion, chopped
6 1/2 cups cucumber (about 4), peeled, seeded and chopped
3 cups baking potato, peeled and cubed (about 2)
3 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
1 cup light buttermilk
1/4 cup heavy cream (as an homage to Julia)
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
snipped fresh chives, for garnish
Greek yogurt, for garnish

  1. In a large dutch oven over a medium-low flame heat the oil. Add the onion, leek, celery and garlic and cook 6-8 minutes or until onion is transparent, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add to the pot the chopped cucumber, potato, and broth; cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until potato is very tender, stirring occasionally.
  3. Using an immersion blender (or food processor) blend the cucumber/potato mixture until it is perfectly smooth. Allow to cool on the stovetop for at least one hour.
  4. Once cool add the buttermilk, heavy cream, salt, and pepper and stir well. Cover and chill for several hours before serving. Garnish with snipped fresh chives and a dollop of Greek yogurt.

homemade “nutella”

The baking countdown is on! Each Christmas I make scores of homemade goodies, some to share with family and friends and some just to enjoy here at home. In the past I’ve made pounds of Fudge, gallons of Chocolate Sauce, mountains of Crack and oodles of Chocolate + Nutella Shortbread cookies. And when time has allowed I’ve also been known to whip up a batch of biscotti or simple sugar cookies that the kids help decorate. Now that I’m a working girl it’s going to be a bit tricky to pull-off this amount of goodies, but I still plan to try. I intend to make a few batches of crack (it wouldn’t be Christmas in our house without it), I’ve decided to give a Swedish spice cookie a whirl and just to take this years chocolate shortbread sandwich cookies a smidge over the top—I’ve decided to make them with homemade Nutella.

Nutella is one of those foods that people either just don’t get or love to the point of obsession. I have a girlfriend who keeps a jar in her office desk drawer, for when the need strikes. I on the other hand am not particularly a fan. Don’t get me wrong, I love the flavors of dark chocolate and hazelnut together but there’s something about the viscosity of the jarred stuff that bothers me, it reminds me of silly putty. Anyway it turns out that homemade Nutella is pretty easy to make and the results are truly outstanding. It’s not as smooth and gloppy as the Nutella you’re familiar with (which is fine by me) and not surprisingly, it’s way tastier than the other stuff. Delish on toast. Fantastic sandwiched between cookies. Outrageous right off the spoon.

So far and with complete confidence we can say that homemade Nutella is absolutely here to stay.

Homemade “Nutella”
Enjoy this spread just as you would the jarred stuff, which would include right off the spoon.

nutella cookies

1 1/2 cups skinned hazelnuts
1/4 tsp. granulated sugar
8 oz. quality semi-sweet chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 tbsp. salted butter, cut into pieces
1/4 tsp. real vanilla extract

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Spread the hazelnuts out in a single layer in an ovenproof skillet and toast them until they are a golden brown, stirring frequently. Pour them into the bowl of a food processor and allow to cool. Once cool, add the sugar and process to a smooth, buttery paste.
  2. Melt the chocolate over medium-low heat in a medium bowl set over a pot of simmering water, stirring often. Remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the cream, butter and vanilla then add in the hazelnut paste and stir until fully blended.
  3. Pour your nutella into a glass jar (it will thicken as it cools). Refrigerate and bring to room temperature before using.

*adapted from canal house cooks

Chocolate + Nutella Shortbread Sandwich Cookies
These cookies are amazing on their own, but add some homemade Nutella and you’ve got one decadent cookie!

2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark cocoa powder
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 small jar homemade Nutella (or store-bought)

  1. In stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, mix confectioners’ sugar, butter, granulated sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla, and salt on medium low speed until creamy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the flour one cup at a time. Continue to mix on low until the flour is completely integrated.
  2. Form the dough into a ball (it will be a bit dry) and divide in half. Wrap each half in plastic wrap, flatten into a disc and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.
  3. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
  4. Take the dough out and sandwich it between two sheets of plastic wrap. Use a rolling pin to roll it to 1/4-inch thick. Use cookie cutters to cut into desired shapes and place on baking sheets. Bake 8 minutes, or until firm.
  5. Repeat with remaining dough but cut the centers out of the second batch, making sure you have equal numbers of tops and bottoms. (If dough becomes too soft pop it back in fridge for a few minutes to firm up.) Let the baked cookies cool for 5 minutes on the cookie sheet before transferring to a cooling rack.
  6. Once cookies have fully cooled spread a thin layer of Nutella onto each of the cookie bottoms. Sandwich together with the top cookies and serve or chill for a later date.

*adapted from serious eats

Simple Sugar Cookies
This is standard sugar cookie recipe, perfect for decorating with icing or using as a vehicle for your homemade nutella.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
2 tbsp. milk
2 tsp. vanilla
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

  1. Cream together the butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs, milk and vanilla; beat well. Stir together flour, baking powder and salt in small bowl; gradually add to sugar mixture. Knead the dough into a ball and flatten into a disc. Wrap with saran wrap and chill for an hour.
  2. Preheat oven to 375°F and line two cookie sheets with parchment. Cut the dough in half and on well floured surface, roll the dough into a circle roughly 1/4-inch thick. Use cookie cutters to cut into desired shapes. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until lightly browned at edges. Allow to fully cool before decorating.

*adapted from domino sugar

cucumber à la julia child

Around this time each summer two things happen in my garden. The squirrels destroy my corn stalks (evil no-good rodents) and my tomato and cucumber plants explode with fruit. An over abundance of tomatoes is never a problem, I use them in salsa and salads of all kinds and for my Sweet Summer Sauce, but cucumbers are a bit more tricky. I’ve attempted to make pickles, only to end up with a soggy vinegary mess. I’ve given some away, but believe it or not a lot of people don’t like cucumbers (I know, can you imagine?!?) and I’ve eaten them simply sliced and in salads, but there are only so many cucumber salads that even this girl can eat! So I set out on a mission to find another use for all these cukes.

My initial thought was that I could try to bake with them like you would grated zucchini, they really are almost the same vegetable after all. In fact I’m sure they would be the perfect zucchini substitute in these Pineapple-Zucchini Muffins and with back-to-school only a few weeks away I think that’s exactly what I’ll do (don’t tell my son). But muffins weren’t what I felt like making amidst this August heat, so I continued to wade through my cookbook cabinet in search of inspiration. And there it was, in the NY Times food section that I had saved from last August. August 15, 2012 had been Julia Child’s 100th birthday and the food world had celebrated it in great fashion. Julia Child— the cooking and culinary legend and inspiration to generations of home cooks. She was “absolutly fabulous”. And here I stood, just days away from Julia’s 101st birthday and in need of cucumber inspiration. “Hmm, what would Julia make?” I thought to myself. That’s when I heard a warbly voice say “Potages aux Concombres!” Okay I didn’t actually hear Julia’s voice from the great beyond, but I did discover an old recipe of hers for cold cucumber soup which sounded perfect but for one exception; to thicken the soup she had used farina— that’s where she lost me. I would rather use a thickener that would add flavor to the soup as well as substance (sorry Julia). A bit more research and I found a vichyssoise recipe that seemed to have some of the elements Julia’s recipe had been missing, namely potato and buttermilk. It was at that moment, in my little New Jersey kitchen that a Julia Child/Cooking Light cold cucumber and potato soup was born.

Bon appétit and happy birthday Julia!

Cold Cucumber & Potato Soup
This soup may not be for everyone, including my children and husband. But that doesn’t mean it’s not delicious and wouldn’t be the perfect first course on a hot summer day.

cucumber soup3

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 leek, halved and sliced thin
2 stalks celery, sliced thin
3 garlic cloves, sliced thin
1 cup sweet onion, chopped
6 1/2 cups cucumber (about 4), peeled, seeded and chopped
3 cups baking potato, peeled and cubed (about 2)
3 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
1 cup light buttermilk
1/4 cup heavy cream (as an homage to Julia)
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
snipped fresh chives, for garnish
Greek yogurt, for garnish

  1. In a large dutch oven over a medium-low flame heat the oil. Add the onion, leek, celery and garlic and cook 6-8 minutes or until onion is transparent, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add to the pot the chopped cucumber, potato, and broth; cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until potato is very tender, stirring occasionally.
  3. Using an immersion blender (or food processor) blend the cucumber/potato mixture until it is perfectly smooth. Allow to cool on the stovetop for at least one hour.
  4. Once cool add the buttermilk, heavy cream, salt, and pepper and stir well. Cover and chill for several hours before serving. Garnish with snipped fresh chives and a dollop of Greek yogurt.

color me naturally

Tomorrow is my littlest loves birthday. We started celebrating a week ago with a party just for her school friends, followed by cupcakes and yours truly reading stories to her class on Thursday and culminating with a family party tomorrow. Yeah I agree, that’s an awful lot of partying for any little girl, but you do only turn 4 once!

I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that I didn’t go to the bakery for any of her birthday goodies, by now you know that’s just not how I roll. Actually littlest love requested cupcakes for the friend party (chocolate with yellow frosting) as well as the school party (chocolate with pink frosting), which made me happy since they would be way easier to make and transport than a cake. The family party on the other hand is going to have a full-blown labor-intensive-just-might-send-me-over-the-edge Imagination Movers guitar cake. (Yeah, wish me luck!)

First things first, I believe in boxed cake mix—there I said it. Sure you can make your cake from scratch and it will no doubt be fantastic, but the people at Betty Crocker make a pretty fine chocolate cake mix so why not save yourself a few steps. However (and if you know me you already saw this tweak coming), when I make chocolate cake I always add a cup of mini chocolate chips to the batter. It takes perfectly acceptable boxed mix and bumps it up to something just a bit richer, tastier and more like homemade. Okay, so that takes care of the cake, now for the frosting.

I like buttercream frosting, but while buttercream seems like a no-brainer it’s actually a bit tricky. It can easily go from fluffy and light to too sweet, too greasy or too gritty. After much trial and error I finally found a vanilla buttercream recipe that seems near perfect; sweet but not overly so and light, creamy and easy to spread. Now to just make it a lovely color… As a rule I do not use food coloring. It’s pure chemicals, it increases hyperactivity in children and it’s considered carcinogenic. “In the early 1990s, FDA and Canadian scientists found that Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, the three most widely used dyes, were contaminated with likely human carcinogens. And while many foods, such as M&M’s and Kellogg’s Hot Fudge Sundae Pop Tarts, include as many as five different dyes, even today the carcinogenic potential of such combinations has not been tested.” Pretty frightening right? And M&M’s are one of my “have to eat ’em till I’m sick” vices (same goes for potato chips, but that’s a story for another day!) The fact is artificial dyes are truly unhealthy, so much so that in Europe food with artificial colors must carry warning labels! So thanks for the easy solution, but no thanks. Instead I always try to use natural dyes for my frosting. I’ve had success in the past with puréed strawberries and raspberries to create pink frosting, dark chocolate cocoa powder for black frosting (think Darth Vader cake) and I just used turmeric powder to make littlest loves requested yellow frosting. I was a little worried about the turmeric flavor coming through but everyone (kids included) seemed to love it and couldn’t believe when I came clean about the secret ingredient.

So there you have it, the world is a colorful place and now you don’t need to rely on Red 40 and Blue 1 to make it even more so! And in case you’re really interested; I’ve read you can use puréed spinach for green frosting, carrot juice for orange and cooked red cabbage for purple. I haven’t given any of those combos a try yet but I just may, so be prepared the next time I offer you green cupcakes…

Pale Pink Buttercream Frosting
Using berries to color frosting gives it a lovely flavor as well as pale pink color. If you want a deeper shade of pink double the strawberries, but add the additional berries slowly. Too much moisture and your buttercream will be a watery mush.

natural color cupcakes

1 cup diced strawberries
2 sticks of unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups powdered sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
2 tbsp. heavy cream

  1. Finely dice the strawberries. Place them in a small saucepan and cook over a low flame for 25 minutes until all the berries have broken down and released juices. (Stir and smoosh berries with spoon every few minutes to speed up the process.)
  2. Pour the berry slurry into a mesh strainer, press out as much of the juice and pulp as possible and let cool. (Be sure to save what’s leftover in the strainer for spreading on toast or adding to your yogurt the next morning.)
  3. In a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, cream the butter 3 minutes on high until fluffy. Add the sugar one cup at a time and mix on low-speed until well blended. When all the sugar has been added increase the speed to medium-high and beat for another 4-5 minutes.
  4. Scrape down the bowl and add the vanilla and cream, continue to beat on medium speed for 1 minute more. Slowly add the puréed strawberries until frosting is ideal spreading consistency and shade of pink, continue beating on high until frosting is light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes more.

*All of these recipes make enough frosting for roughly 30 cupcakes or one medium cake.

Dark Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
This is the richest most decadent chocolate buttercream you’ll ever taste. It’s serious stuff, not for the faint of heart.

2 sticks of unsalted butter, room temperature
2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup dark chocolate cocoa powder
2 tsp. vanilla
3 tbsp. heavy cream

  1. In a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, cream the butter 3 minutes on high until fluffy. Add the sugar and the cocoa one cup at a time and mix on low-speed until well blended. When all the sugar/cocoa has been added increase the speed to medium and beat for another 4-5 minutes.
  2. Scrape down the bowl and add the vanilla and cream, continue to beat on high until frosting is light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes more.

Yellow Buttercream Frosting
I could detect the subtle taste of turmeric when I tried the frosting alone, but once it’s on the cake it just tastes like good ‘ol buttercream.

2 sticks of unsalted butter, room temperature
3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
3 tbsp. heavy cream
1/2-1 tsp. turmeric powder

  1. In a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, cream the butter 3 minutes on high until fluffy. Add the sugar one cup at a time and mix on low-speed until well blended. When all the sugar has been added increase the speed to medium and beat for another 4-5 minutes.
  2. Scrape down the bowl and add the vanilla and cream, continue to beat on medium speed for 1 minute more. Slowly add the turmeric powder until you achieve the ideal shade of yellow and continue beating on high until frosting is light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes more.

*adapted from food network

And the winner is…

I bake all the time, almost weekly in fact. Usually it’s cookies for my “should never be empty” cookie jar or some crazy homemade goldfish crackers or pretzel bite recipe I found on Pintrest. And sometimes it’s lush seasonal fruit muffins, either mini or full size. What I like most about muffins is they’re quick to whip up, easy to make nutritious, and ideal to have on hand for a quick breakfast or afternoon snack. So when I decided to enter a local “Summer Berry Bake-Off” contest the first thing that came to mind was… muffins.

I happen to have a knock ’em dead Fresh Cranberry and Orange Muffin recipe that would without question have been a winner. I’ve been making this recipe for years and I have yet to have anyone not like them— children included. (Oh yeah, they’re really that good.) But… unlike a lot of other produce available year round, cranberries are only grown in the Northern United States and Canada and they’re only in season (and available) October through December. So in other words, I would not be making my cranberry-orange muffins in July! Okay, onto Plan B.

Since the combination of cranberry and orange is such a winner then how about another berry and citrus match up? How about blueberry and lemon? Hmmm, a recipe slowly formed in my brain. I still had some homemade limoncello in the refrigerator, that might be a great way to make my muffins stand out against the competition. So there it was, my bake-off entry would be (drum roll please) Blueberry-Limoncello Muffins with a Crumb Topping.

I worked like a mad woman to perfect this recipe. If you were at my house last week or went to camp with my kids then odds are you tasted one of my variations of this muffin. Naturally witness to this baking frenzy were my son and daughter, who were more than happy to partake in the repeated taste testing. In fact my son was so taken with the bake-off idea that he decided he wanted to enter something in the 10 yrs. and under division. Another eager baker in the Greco house? Fantastic! Let’s do a little recipe research my boy and come up with a plan. And so we did.

We looked at recipes that contained a limited amount of ingredients, would be easy for him to execute with only a little help from me, could possibly be made ahead of time and would of course be award winningly delicious. Not such easy criteria to meet, right? But meet it we did. The recipe we ended up picking was a Summer Strawberry and Cream Scone. These scones were loaded with fresh juicy strawberries, easy to put together and could be made and frozen a day ahead and baked fresh the morning if the contest. It was the perfect combination!

Fast forward to the day of the bake-off; we both proudly carried in our entries and were met with numerous oohs and aahs from the registration committee. Would this mother-son team sweep the contest? Would our grinning faces be plastered on the front page of the paper? Would the name Greco instill fear and dread in local baking circles? We added our entries to the others on the table and walked away, it was now all in the hands of the judges.

While we waited for the judging to take place we talked about how great it would be to win. But we agreed that winning wasn’t the most important thing, it was just fun to do this together. That is until my sweet boy, my first-born, my one and only son— rocked his division and won first place! He hooted and hollered, spun around in the air and hi-fived a competitor before they could even tell him what he had won. My daughter rushed the stage, arms raised high, yelling “I won!, I won!”, (which of course if you know her then you know she has to do everything her big brother does.) It was an exciting, entertaining and truly proud moment for our family and the entire bake-off crowd.

He’s already been talking about what he’d like to enter for next years competition and was eager to start making dishes out of the kids cookbook that was one of his prizes. I’d like to think that one day we’ll look back at this bake-off as the beginning of all his culinary adventures.

Oh and you may be wondering how my muffins went over. Well, let’s just say there’s always next year…

Summer Strawberry & Cream Scones
These are delicious on their own but according to my blue ribbon winner, even better with a little strawberry jam or vanilla ice cream on the side!

scones2

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
6 tbsp. unsalted butter, frozen
1 cup chopped fresh strawberries
1 cup heavy cream
1 beaten egg, for wash
1 tbsp. heavy cream, for wash
demerara sugar, for topping

  1. Preheat oven to 400°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Add the butter by grateing it on the large holes of a box grater. Stir the butter into the flour mixture with a fork until the mixture looks crumbly. With a wide spatula, gently mix in the strawberries and then fold in heavy cream. When you’ve given it a good mix,  knead it once or twice in the bowl to create one large lump of dough. (Don’t worry about getting the dough evenly mixed. It’s far more important that the dough is not overworked.)
  3. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead a few times to incorporate dry ingredients. Sprinkle top of dough with additional flour and press/pat it into a 3/4 inch thick circle. Cut the circle into thirds and then into wedges. Transfer wedges to the cookie sheet, leaving at least 1/2 inch of space between them.*
  4. Whisk together the egg and 1 tbsp. of heavy cream. Brush the top of each scone with the egg wash and sprinkle with demerara sugar. Bake 8 minutes, spin the cookie sheet around and bake for an additional 3-5 minutes or until the tops are beginning to brown. Let cool on the cookie sheet for a few minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature with jam, clotted cream or vanilla ice cream.

*To make ahead and freeze: Make the scones as instructed above. Place them on a parchment lined cookie sheet, cover with plastic wrap and slide the cookie sheet into the freezer. When you’re ready to bake them brush the still frozen scones with the egg wash, sprinkle them with sugar and pop them into a preheated oven, adding 2 to 3 minutes to your baking time.

*adapted from smitten kitchen