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

lean, mean + super green

I believe in eating real, delicious and satisfying food. If you’re going to eat chocolate; eat the best you can find. If you’re going to buy bread; buy something that will do more than keep your sandwich ingredients out of your lap. And if you’re going to try to lose a few pounds; do it with healthy for you food. Not frozen, processed, microwaved, artificial everything substitutes. Blech!

In the quickly approaching year since my last birthday I’ve noticed that my pants are not as loose as they once were, and that my energy levels are not exactly olympic. I honestly don’t care about growing older (gracefully, not kicking and screaming is my plan) but I do care about feeling older. Right about the same time as I was deciding how exactly to handle this tight pants predicament of mine, my college friend and fellow blogger Lynda Layng Tama (www.healthyhobokengirl.com) posted a recipe for a Banana Almond Smoothie. Smoothies— I had a light bulb moment— smoothies could be the answer!

Her recipe was both easy and delicious. But, you know how I love to tinker with perfectly good recipes… I googled, researched and talked about smoothies with my health conscience friends. I tried multiple recipes, swapping and tweaking ingredients as I went until I found a combination that had enough protein in it to keep me from feeling hungry and enough good fruits and veggies to keep me feeling healthy. During my recipe research I discovered something called Spirulina powder. Spirulina is a simple blue-green algae that is apparently the ultimate superfood! It is reported to be: “a complete protein source; to contain 26 times more calcium than milk, to increase your immunity and metabolism; it is a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, is loaded with vitamins and minerals; rich in essential fatty acids and claims to aid in the healing of allergies, ADD, hypoglycemia, diabetes, high cholesterol, fatigue, anemia and digestive disorders.” Even the ancient Aztecs used Spirulina and called it the ‘sacred power plant’. They believed it contained the energy of the sun and had amazing rejuvenating and vitalizing properties. Wow, that’s quite a resume! And who am I after all to question the Aztecs!?! So even if only half of it’s reported benefits are true, it seemed like a worthwhile addition to my smoothie.

Since I can’t start my day without some serious coffee, I decided to have my smoothie in place of lunch. (Lunch for me is usually a hurried affair anyhow so why not drink my smoothie while continuing to get stuff done?!?) Yes the spinach and Spirulina make this a frightening shade of green, even a green lover like me will admit that, but it’s really pretty tasty. Don’t get me wrong, my children have agreed to taste it but will never request a glass of their own, my husband calls it toxic waste and can barely stand to watch me drink it and it will never take the place of a lovely Niçoise salad, but it’s not so terrible either.

It’s still too soon for me to claim I’m down a pants size or that I’m able to run marathons because of my “Super Green Smoothie”. However I do feel both mentally and physically better prepared to handle whatever gets thrown my way, and for that I’m delighted.

Super Green Smoothie
You could use any type of berry in this or even some fresh mango, whatever fruit you like most. What I wouldn’t do is omit the banana (even if you’re not a banana lover) because it really helps to give it a little “non-green” flavor.

smoothieALT

1/2 cup plain almond-coconut milk
1/4 cup plain whole grain rolled oats
1/2 cup sliced strawberries (about 4 large)
1/2 ripe banana, frozen
1/2 cup non fat Greek yogurt
1/2 tsp. Spirulina powder*
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
3 ice cubes
1 tbsp. almond butter
2-3 tsp. honey
1 handful fresh kale, spinach or dandelion greens

  1. Throw all the ingredients in the blender and give it a whirl.
  2. Sip, enjoy and feel like an Aztec warrior!

*You can purchase Spirulina powder at any health food store but before you do, I encourage you to do a little research of your own and discover what a superfood it claims to be.