Lemon Blueberry Cupcakes (gluten-free or regular)

Cupcakes have become a bit of an obsession for me lately. I absolutely love the joy I get from baking them, and the creativity that can be employed when making them makes it more fun than ordinary baking.  There are so many different flavors, fillings, and frostings, not to mention garnishes, baking cups, sprinkles......the possibilities never end!  

Recently I was asked to bake cupcakes for a luncheon that some friends and I were hosting.  We were honoring a friend who is about to move away to another town.  While it is a sad occasion to say goodbye, I am very excited for her and her family as they begin a new adventure.  When trying to decide what flavor cupcakes to make, there were a few things that came to mind.  
1)  I know that my friend likes fruity flavors, and since it is summertime that seemed like a natural fit.
2)  Since I was making two dozen cupcakes, I thought it would be nice to make two different flavors 
     for the guests to choose from.  
3)  I had these cute baking cups that I have been waiting for just the right occasion to use, so I wanted
     to choose a flavor that would look nice in them.
So, with all of that in mind, I decided to make Lemon Blueberry and Key Lime.  (I'll share the Key Lime recipe at a later time).  

These cupcakes were my inspiration.  Because I often bake gluten-free (I have celiac disease and so selfishly I want to be able to enjoy my goodies), I have gotten into the habit of doctoring a gluten-free cake mix.  Perhaps I need to experiment more, but I just haven't found a from scratch recipe that tastes as good as the doctored recipe I use.  I mixed up the cake as usual, adding pudding, eggs, oil, sour cream, milk and vanilla to a Pamela's gluten-free Classic Vanilla Cake Mix.  I love the texture and flavor of this cake.  When I finished mixing the cake, I added the zest from two lemons, then I mixed the blueberries called for in the recipe with about 2 teaspoons of gluten-free flour.  You could also hold out a little of the cake mix and toss the blueberries in that.  I gently folded the blueberries into the batter and scooped into my cute baking cups, filling about halfway.  

After baking and cooling, I cored out the center of the cupcake and filled with the lemon curd.  Then, since I didn't have the ingredients to make the icing called for in the inspiration recipe, I decided to make a traditional cream cheese frosting with lemon curd.  For a garnish I cut some mint leaves from my herb garden and then added a blueberry.  I thought they turned out lovely, just right for a ladies luncheon.  The baking cups make a dainty size that is a little smaller than a traditional cupcake, but still plenty of cake.  

So, how did they taste?  They got rave reviews from the guests at the luncheon, and I thought they were fantastic.  Also, my husband got home and tested them (he loves that job!) and gave them a thumbs up as well.  I definitely recommend this flavor combination! And I don't think anyone even realized they were gluten-free (except my friends who saw me enjoying one!). 

Lemon Blueberry Cupcakes

1 basic vanilla cake mix (gluten-free or regular)
1 small vanilla instant pudding mix
1 cup sour cream
1 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup milk
4 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract
Zest of two lemons
3/4 cup blueberries, tossed in two tsp. reserved cake mix or two tsp. gluten-free or regular flour

Combine the first seven ingredients in mixer bowl; mix on low speed until moistened, then mix on medium speed for two minutes.  Add the lemon zest, and mix briefly until combined.   With a rubber spatula, fold in the blueberries.  Be sure to coat them with cake mix or flour so they don't bleed in the cake.  

Fill cupcake liners.  Depending on the size of your cakes, bake 15-20 minutes or until pick inserted comes out clean.  DO NOT OVERBAKE!  Remove from oven and allow to cool.  

Lemon Curd:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup lemon juice
zest of two large lemons
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
pinch of salt
6 large egg yolks
Melt the butter in a medium sauce pan over medium-low heat.  Remove from heat and add the lemon juice and zest.
Mix together the sugar, salt and cornstarch and add it to the pan.  Whisk in the egg yolks until smooth and return to heat. Cook over medium-low heat for roughly 10 minutes until the mixture has thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Do not allow the mixture to boil.
Once thickened, strain the mixture though a fine mesh strainer into a large bowl. Allow to chill in the refrigerator completely before using.

Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting:
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
2/3 cup lemon curd (recipe above)
Zest of two lemons

To assemble, take cooled cupcakes and core a hole in the middle (you can use a vegetable peeler to make a small indention in the center of the cupcake).  Fill hole with lemon curd.  Use a decorating tip (Wilton 1M) on a pastry bag to pipe icing on the top, then garnish as desired.

Click here for printable recipe

I hope you enjoy these as much as me and my friends did! 


Tuscan Panzanella with Quinoa

That may seem like an ordinary blog title, but boy, it means so much more to me.  That title is a great descriptor of a fabulous birthday trip with my family.  I just celebrated a HUGE birthday (ahem....50), and we celebrated in an amazing place--Italy.  It has long been a dream of mine to go and after many years of sending children off on wonderful trips, it was finally our turn.

Being the foodies that we are, you can only imagine how excited we were to be going to a place so well known for eating, cooking, and fresh ingredients.  For those that know I follow a gluten-free diet due to having celiac disease, you may be thinking "poor thing, all that pizza and pasta and other Italian specialties she wasn't able to have!"  But no, Italians are much further along in their education gluten-free living than we in America are.  Everyone understood "senza glutine" (gluten-free in Italian) and I had tons of gluten-free pizzza, pasta, bruschetta, tiramisu, etc.  And it was all delicious!

One of the highlights of the trip was a cooking class in Florence that we greatly enjoyed.  We didn't know what to expect, and it was such a treat!  Chef Vary welcomed us into her wonderful kitchen and we made ricotta gnocchi with squash blossoms, guinea fowl with balsamic and homemade red pepper sauce, chickpea soup with pecorino cheese, limoncello tiramisu, and a very traditional Tuscan dish, panzanella, made with quinoa. It was a delightful evening. 

Panzanella is normally made with bread; it is somewhat like a "bread salad".  Since we needed to make it gluten-free, rather than simply substituting with gluten-free bread, Chef Vary decided to use quinoa instead.  This thrilled me since quinoa has quickly become a favorite dish of mine when cooking at home.
This panzanella was the first dish I replicated once we returned home and I got back in the kitchen.  I made it for a get together with some ladies from my church, and had several requests for the recipe, so I am happy to share!  Keep in mind that quinoa is a very versatile dish.  I have made this many different ways, and have never been disappointed.  You can add most anything you like!  Simply cook the quinoa first (according to package directions) and then add any combination of flavors.  Some of our favorites:  mixed blanched vegetables with this homemade mustard vinaigrette or black beans, tomatoes, onions, with a homemade vinaigrette and a little red cayenne pepper.  Experiment, and have fun!  I promise you won't be disappointed.  You can even use a bottled dressing if pressed for time, or just olive oil and spices.

 Chef Vary's Tuscan Panzanella with Quinoa
1 cup dry quinoa (about 3 cups cooked)
Water according to package directions (I use two cups)
Salt (to taste, but I use 2 teaspoons)

Cook quinoa according to directions on package.  The only difference for me is sometimes I use chicken or vegetable broth instead of water to add more flavor.  Also, be sure to add salt.  It is important to season in layers when cooking.  Allow to cool.

Two large tomatoes, finely diced
1/2 cucumber, peeled and finely diced
1/2 cup sweet Vidalia onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
FRESH basil, chopped (use a lot--probably 10 leaves or so)
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste
Freshly grated ginger to taste

Mix all the above ingredients.  I drizzled olive oil, and probably wound up with 1/4-1/2 cup added.  I added very little grated ginger.  As Chef Vary says, it is the secret ingredient.  Just enough to give it a fresh taste and leave you wondering what that flavor was.

Please comment and let me know if you make this, or one of the other versions I mentioned above, or if you create something of your own! 


A Very Special Giraffe Birthday Party

One of the big events in my family's life last year was welcoming our beautiful granddaughter into the world on May 22, 2011. She is such a sweetheart, and we are loving learning how to be grandparents.
When I look at these pictures of her right after birth, it's hard to remember that she was ever this tiny.  She has grown so much, and I know we need to hold on to these memories because before we know it she will be grown like our children (and I'll be an old lady!).

To celebrate her first birthday, my daughter-in-law Betsy and her friend Rikki planned a joint birthday party because Ada and Rikki's son Daniel were born five days apart.  They did a great job, and it was such a fun party.  They chose a giraffe theme, and the colors were orange and blue.

Aren't the outfits adorable? They were made by my friend Sally McCurry. Check out her Etsy shop Pigtails and Patches.  She does really great work!

The birthday girl and boy with their mommies (Betsy and Ada on the left, Rikki and Daniel on the right).

Most of the activities were outside. There were fun water activities for all the kids, and Ada had a fun afternoon. I had a good time creating the cakes and cookie favors for the event. It brought me great joy and I enjoyed reliving memories of helping my mother make and decorate cakes when I was growing up.

Inspiration from here
I love the tradition of smash cakes!

Inspiration from here
So thankful for the joy Ada has brought to our lives! 


White Chocolate Toffee Cookies

Okay, these are some pretty magnificent cookies.  One day I was in the mood to bake, but wanted to make something a little out of the ordinary.  Instead of the standard chocolate chip or monster cookies, I pulled some unusual ingredients out of the pantry.  After looking at recipes for a while, this is what I came up with:

I must say that these are some of the best cookies I've ever eaten.  The white chocolate, toffee and nuts are a great combination.  They are delicious, and a real crowd pleaser.  I have made them for friends a couple of times and everyone loved them!

 I made these with gluten free flour (this time I used Cup4Cup gluten free flour) and gluten free oats.  For those that don't follow a gluten free diet, feel free to use any all purpose flour and oats.  Also, I scooped these with my medium sized cookie scoop and made pretty large cookies.  I got 3 1/2 dozen from this recipe. 
Please make these.  I promise you won't be disappointed--and neither will those you share them with!  Happy baking!  And please, leave me a comment and let me know if you try them.  I love to hear from you.

White Chocolate Toffee Cookies

2 sticks butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 Tablespoons pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour
2 1/2 cups oatmeal (I put rolled oats in the food processor for a couple of seconds to chop a little)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups white chocolate chips
2 cups toffee bits
1 1/2 cups pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cut parchment paper to fit baking sheets (or use a silpat).

In a stand mixer beat the butter and sugars until light and fluffy.   Beat in eggs and vanilla until well combined.  Put flour, oatmeal, baking soda and salt in a large bowl and combine well with a whisk.  Add these dry ingredients to the butter/sugar mixture until just combined.  Stir in white chocolate, toffee bits and pecans.

Using a medium cookie scoop, scoop the dough onto the prepared baking sheets.  Bake for 9-12 minutes (depends on your oven--keep a close eye on them!) until just beginning to brown on the edges.  Let cool for 5 minutes, then remove the cookies to cooling racks to finish cooling.

Printable Recipe


Amazing Chocolate Layer Cake (Gluten Free or Regular)

Recently I saw an article in my local newspaper with a recipe for a 12-Layer Chocolate Cake. This has always been one of my very favorite cakes for my birthday, Thanksgiving, or any special occasion or holiday. Most of my children also love it. However, since going gluten free I have not been able to have this fantastic treat.

I don't typically get in the kitchen and create wonderful gluten free things because I am the only one in my family that has to eat gluten free, and I don't usually want to "make" them eat gluten free. Often my solution is to keep pre-made, store bought gluten free desserts in my freezer in individual servings so when we have a special dessert I can just pull it out and have something. Somehow it's never as satisfying as the wonderful creation that everyone else is having. So I decided to change that.

When I saw this, I got in the kitchen and made this fabulous cake, gluten free. The only change I made was using Jules Gluten Free All Purpose Flour (definitely one of my favorite gluten free flours!) in place of the flour called for in the recipe. I used a cup measure to scoop the batter into my pans, but there was only enough for 10 layers instead of the 12 that the recipe calls for--but I didn't miss the other two!

As the article states, this was time consuming because of baking the layers at separate times, but it wasn't hard. It was fun! And the results were DEFINITELY worth it.So, gluten free friends--go for it! Why not? Or pass this recipe on to your friends or family. Who knows--maybe you'll get lucky and get surprised on your birthday!And for all you regular gluten eaters out there, don't be afraid--bake this cake! Use any flour you like, but I always prefer White Lily.

Let me know if you make it. I bet you all have someone in your family that would be thrilled to have this as their birthday cake!


Brussels Sprouts Salad

Well, this was a new one for me. Before visiting Chicago in October, I researched restaurants online so we would have an idea of some that we might want to try. Since I must eat gluten-free (for those that don't know I have celiac disease), I try to always choose restaurants that offer good options for me while also offering dishes that will keep my husband with the adventurous palate satisfied. The menu at this particular restaurant didn't have tons of choices for me, but the one that caught my eye was a Brussels Sprouts Salad. I ordered it, and boy, was I happy I did. The rest of the food that we were served was just okay, but this salad was memorable.

I came home and immediately began to search for a similar recipe. I found it here, and I made it for our Thanksgiving dinner. It was good, but not as great as I remembered the one in the restaurant being. So I played with it some, and actually simplified it and to me it is once again over-the-top delicious.

Looks yummy, huh? Before I share the recipe for the salad, I want to tell you about the dressing. It is a mustard vinaigrette that is very versatile. I keep a jar of it in my refrigerator to use not only on this salad, but on quinoa (a recipe for this coming later), spinach salad, mixed green salad, etc. It is so easy to mix up a quick batch of this, and so much healthier and cheaper than buying bottled dressing. Mustard Vinaigrette
2 Tablespoons stone ground mustard
6 Tablespoons white wine vinegar (1/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons)
3 1/2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 1/2 Tablespoons apple juice concentrate
2 cups canola oil
1/4 cup water
In a small bowl, whisk together mustard, vinegar, sugar, garlic, salt, pepper and apple juice concentrate. Place this mixture in a food processor or blender; slowly add water and oil and mix until combined. Store in a jar in the refrigerator; shake well before using.
Printable Recipe

Now, for the salad recipe. Couldn't be easier. Play with it. Add different nuts, different dried fruits, different cheese. Even a different dressing! But keep the brussels sprouts. I promise--even if you're not a brussels sprouts lover--you will love them prepared this way!Brussels Sprouts Salad
16 oz. brussels sprouts
1/2 teaspoon - 1 teaspoon kosher salt (to your taste)
12 dried figs, chopped
1/2 cup almonds, toasted
1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
Dressing to taste

To prepare the brussels sprouts, trim the ends off (don't take much off, just the very end). Slice lengthwise into fourths, then chop into smaller pieces. Place in a colander and rinse very well (sometimes dirt can hide in the leaves, so I rinse several times), then put into a medium saucepan and cover with water and add salt. Cover, and heat just until they begin to boil. Remove from heat and pour back into a colander, then run cold water over them thoroughly. You do not want them to cook much at all. Allow to drain well (do this ahead of time if possible so they can drain for a while). After draining, spread several paper towels out on your countertop and place the brussels sprouts on them, then put more paper towels on top and press as much water out as possible. If you don't do this your salad will have a bland taste because of too much water left in the sprouts.
Place the drained and dried brussels sprouts into a large bowl, then add the figs and almonds. Pour the desired amount of dressing over this mixture and toss well. (I start with a minimal amount and add more if needed--doesn't take much!). Sprinkle the cheese on top.

The amounts recommended in this recipe are definitely suggestions--you can add more or less per your taste.
Printable Recipe
I can't wait for you to try this recipe! Please leave a comment and let me know if you enjoyed it--especially if you are converted from a brussels sprouts hater to a can't get enough, where have they been all my life brussels sprouts lover!


Pineapple Salsa

I have been in the kitchen a lot lately, and it has made me very happy! Baking, preparing meals, having get togethers with friends--and rather than feeling like a chore as a lot of cooking can often feel, my kitchen has been a place of happy days for me.

I have lost a good bit of weight over the last year, and cooking healthy, light meals is a priority for me. Before my diet, I very seldom ate fish. I didn't really care for it, and only ate it when absolutely necessary. Fast forward to today, and I eat fish an average of 3-4 times a week. "Fishy" fish is still something I avoid; mild, flaky fish is my top choice. Tilapia, grouper, red snapper and mahi mahi are my favorites.

Since I eat fish so often now, I am always trying to think of new ways to prepare it. Pineapple is so good right now, so I came up with this salsa to go on the tilapia we had this weekend. It is so delicious--it really tastes like something you would have in a restaurant. I encourage you to try it! This recipe, like most of the ones you see on this blog, is simple and fast--so easy to prepare! And this one is naturally gluten-free--always a plus.

Pineapple Salsa
1/2 cup finely diced pineapple
2 Tablespoons finely diced red pepper
1 scallion, sliced
2 Tablespoons pineapple preserves
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon juice from pineapple (if you have it; if not leave it out)
1 Tablespoon lemon juice

Combine all ingredients. Serve over fish, chicken, pork tenderloin, or anything!

(In case you're wondering, I seasoned tilapia with salt and pepper, lightly dusted it with gluten-free flour, and sauteed it in a pan lightly coated with 2 teaspoons of olive oil until done).

If you read my blog and enjoy it, please let me know by leaving a comment. I would love to hear if you try any of the recipes!

Also, I am adding a feature on each post that will allow you to print out the recipes. Just click on "Printable Recipe" and it will allow you to do just that.

Printable Recipe