After a whirlwind, but rejuvenating trip up north for the holidays, I am home and diving back into the swing of things. We are one week out from our first promo event, and two weeks away from the show, which means every spare moment is beginning to fill up with costume-making and set-painting and the countless other tasks, big and small, that must be done by the performance deadline. I feel like I’m constantly adding to one of the half dozen To-Do lists I carry with me: start programs, make microphones, fix splashes (radio plays…live sound effects are fun to watch, but a gargantuan effort to create…). I intended to be pleasantly productive (more blog posts!) while we were in Massachusetts, but it didn’t quite happen. I caught up with cousins, some of whom I haven’t seen in 3+ years, and the rest of my family. I haven’t been to either of my family’s homes in almost two years, and I seem to have forgotten how restorative it can be to visit those old, unchanging homes that carry the ease of familiarity. There is a certain abandon, I think, in the company of cousins and those people you have known for all of your life. Laughter is a little bit less restrained, old jokes and memories are rehashed, arguments are entered into with knowledge that all the same points have been debated before. I got a head start on some Christmas gifts, which with definitely make an appearance on here (as vaguely as possible, in case their recipients wander over onto this blog) since I am trying to have a–mostly–handmade Christmas. What do you think: Kaity Crafts On: Christmas Edition?
And, between the family, the crafts, the parade, and the food, I read. As a child, I powered through a book or more a day, discovering new worlds and stories, and returning to the welcome comfort of reread tales. I read the first three Harry Potter books more than thirty times before the Goblet of Fire was released, until my well-worn copy of the Prisoner of Azkaban fell apart in my hands. Books were my security and my love through high school. With college, homework and rehearsals were soon elbowing out the time for pleasure reading, but I would find myself binging on my breaks. When I graduated, one of my intents was to bring back pleasure reading as a more constant part of my life. I have done well-enough in that aspect–slowly and steadily making my way through a list of talked-about books as well as more random, free nook books that have crossed my path. For a long time, Veronica Roth and her Divergent series have been acclaimed and praised, and the series sat on my “To Read” list for some time. The books sat in my nook library for several months, always pushed off for one reason or another. But on Black Friday, I began Divergent…and plummeted into a book binge that I have not experienced for years. E had finally gotten around to reading the Hunger Games (after I purchased them for her two Christmases ago), so I count myself lucky that my family is quite used to our reading habits and was not offended that the both of us spent the rest of the vacation with our noses in books. Divergent is captivating and incredible (I’m still working my way through Allegiant whenever I have a free moment–no spoilers!), a series that I could praise for a long, long time. But I won’t say any more, beyond advising you to read the series immediately. I’m rather proud that one of my friends immediately picked up the books due to my slightly-rabid social media postings on the topic.
But I didn’t come here to write about books today. I wanted to share brownies with you. The most unassuming of desserts, a good fudgy brownie is one of the best reminders that simple can still be incredible. I know that with the pumpkin explosion in October, we have added pumpkin to everything under the sun, but (a) I like pumpkin and (b) I really like these brownies (and (c) I might have bought the triple pack of pureed pumpkin from Costco). Needless to say, I am not done with pumpkin–and you don’t have to be either! The chocolate flavor still comes through the most in these brownies. The pumpkin-cream-cheese swirl gives a pleasant tang and a wonderful boost in fudge goodness. They are also exceptionally easy to pull together, and can be mixed and in the oven in 10 to 15 minutes. I store them in the fridge due the the dairy content, and they are equally delicious cold or warmed slightly.
Pumpkin Swirl Brownies
Adapted from Gluten Free Girl
Serves: 24 | Prep: 15 minutes | Cook: 40 minutes
For the brownie base
- 2/3 c. + 3 Tbsp. teff flour
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 2 Tbsp. cocoa powder
- 1/2 c. (1 stick) butter
- 1/3 c. bittersweet chocolate chips + 1/2 c. bittersweet chocolate chips, divided
- 1 c. sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 2 eggs
For the Pumpkin Swirl
- 1/2 c. pumpkin puree
- 1/3 c. cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1 egg
- 2 Tbsp. sugar
- 3 Tbsp. teff flour
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- Dash each, cinnamon and nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 350 degree F. Line a 9×13″ pan with parchment paper, leaving edges to run up the sides. Grease pan and paper well.
Mix dry ingredients for the brownie base. Thoroughly combine teff flour, salt, and cocoa powder in small bowl. Melt 1/3 cup of chocolate chips with butter for 30-second intervals in large bowl in the microwave. Stir well in between microwaving, until the chips are melted. Allow to chocolate-butter mixture to cool. Stir in sugar, vanilla extract, and eggs, mixing thoroughly after each ingredient. Add dry ingredients and stir well.
In small bowl, combine pumpkin puree, softened cream cheese, egg, and lemon juice. Mix well. Add in teff flour, spices, and sugar and mix until combined.
Pour about 1/2-3/4 of the brownie base mixture into prepared pan. Spread evenly. Drop spoonfuls of pumpkin mixture in equal intervals over top. Spoon remaining brownie base mix into intervals between pumpkin mixture. Run a clean butter knife in diagonal swirls from one corner of the pan to the opposite corner. Repeat with other corners to create a diagonal, cross-hatched pattern. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out mostly clean.
Things have settled down since we returned from our abruptly-shortened cruise (on a side note, M wrote about his Grandeur experience on Reddit–check it out if you want a different, but highly similar account of the events, haha). I was going to talk about all of the food onboard, but I figured that–except for restating that it was absolutely delicious and we all certainly gained a couple of pounds in our brief time onboard–it is probably best to wait. It is looking more and more likely that we will be using our cruise certificate to return to the Grandeur in January! I figure that it would be better to wait (and reinforce the habit of photographing what we are eating, so I do not miss as many shots of meals) until January to give you the full scope of a week of cruising. I do see an inspired panacotta recipe in my near future–that dish was too good to wait months in order to eat it again. But now, we are all now back to work, in spite of the general apathy that M and I admit feeling. While I perfectly understand why we came back early, and even though we took it easy for the rest of the week, it is a little disheartening to have missed the remainder of our vacation. As much as you try to relax and forget work, it is hard to be completely disconnected while at home. Even if I didn’t have to go into work, there was still laundry and cleaning and other unavoidable tasks to be done. We have been back for a whole week, and both of our jobs are gearing up for summer. This will surely bring me out of my funk. Summer camp is one of my absolute favorite times of the year.
Working with children is always interesting. The same uninhibited manners and frank curiosity that gives adults the funny stories and the memorable quotes (usually) starts to get manipulated, if not stifled as they grow. My classes are mini-studies in culture and society. Especially at camp, where I work with a group of our older students. It can be saddening and inspiring in turns, to watch a group of teenagers traversing the social landscape. There are many times that I just want to tell a student “Just wait, college will be better.” “Your geekiness is celebrated by your teachers–and when you get out of highschool, most people will realize that Doctor Who is awesome.” “Your peer group doesn’t understand you. They think you are ‘weird’, but you are confident and quirky and so much more well-equipped for real life than the rest of them.” There are nearly as many times that I want to hug them and celebrate them and thank them for including the ‘weird’ kid, for telling off their peer for making an ignorant joke, for taking a bigger risk in their performance than I would have during college. I have seen students shrug off differences and behaviors that adults are struggling to make sense of. Most importantly, I have seen students grow. Grow and grow and be perplexed by my awe. I have seen the student who cried through every class stand on stage and speak out his lines in confidence. I have seen the ‘lightbulb’ turn on as a student suddenly understands the subtext of her line. I have seen the pride when a student makes a bold character choice.
I think I spend at least half of my time teaching in quiet awe of these children. Another good portion is barely-concealed curiosity. The rest of that time might be actually teaching them acting. Haha. In all seriousness, try as I might (especially in summer), I can’t help comparing my students to myself in my high school years. Hindsight is 20/20. While I certainly wasn’t misbehaving (and neither are they), I can only imagine how highschool would have gone if I had half of the confidence, drive, and openness that my students seem to constantly portray. I have long-since moved past high school, and can readily admit that I stifled myself as much, if not more, as my peers did. I had some great times and some horrible times, as I am sure most people do. When I graduated and prepared for college, I also prepared to make myself open and to put myself out there. Quiet, shy, overthinking, awkward girl could stay in her corner–I was going to meet people and participate, and do my best to stop rehashing conversations or embarrassing moments. It took a little while, but I m so grateful that I had the self-awareness (even as I lacked in self-confidence) to change myself and my interactions. College was one of the best times of my life. While there were many moments of self-doubt and many times in my freshman year that I wanted to simply give up and shrink back to a wallflower, soon enough, I found myself with a wide array of friends, many of whom I cherish to this day; doing things I never thought I would be capable of doing. I served on students boards, I organized events, helped to start an honor fraternity chapter, and found out that what I most enjoyed was stage managing–you know, that job in theater that organizes everyone’s ideas and communications, that runs rehearsals, and takes the lead during performances. I never would have imagined myself doing these things in highschool. It is still surprising to stop and think about it now.
Luckily, so many of my students will not have to make that conscious choice that I did. So many are above and beyond my high-school self in confidence, maturity, leadership, and social interactions. For that I am grateful. Perhaps I am biased, by I firmly believe that our company shapes great individuals. I believe that children who come through our camp are bettered for their time there, and it is my privilege to watch and to help them grow. And I am so excited for a new season of inspiration and astonishment.
Now that I’ve summed up my unexpectedly emotional tangent on why I am excited for summer, even after losing half of my vacation…I do have a recipe for you. To those of you who read five sentences and skipped down to the recipe, you are in luck! As I mentioned in my post for my Berry-Lemon Syrup, I made Pots de Creme for the first time, on a whim, for Mother’s Day. I was
happily lamenting that I hadn’t taken any pictures, so I would have to make them again before I could share them with you. The next day, I found two delightful little Pots de Creme stashed in the back of my fridge. I did say the next day–don’t worry, these pictures have been sitting in my Photos folder far longer than those Pots de Creme lasted at my house. I’ve only just gotten around to sharing the recipe now.
I’ve seen variations on this recipe around the web–many of them are incomplete (the directions do not actually use all of the ingredients or vice versa) or rely on the hot coffee to cook all of the eggs, all while melting the chocolate. That makes me a bit leery. Many used blenders or food processors, which, aside from my trusty Magic Bullet Blender, I do not own. Sadly, the MBB was not big enough for this recipe. So, I’ve tinkered a bit with the ingredients, adapted a lot of the directions, and made this a mixer-and-bowl-friendly recipe. I wanted the chocolate to shine through, so I’ve cut back the sugar and added just a touch of cinnamon to support the coffee and chocolate flavors.
Chocolate-Coffee (Mocha) Pots de Creme
Adapted from Ree Drummond
Serves: 8 | Prep time: 15 minutes | Cook time: 30 minutes
- 12 oz quality semi-sweet/dark chocolate
- 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1 c. hot, strong coffee
- 1 c. whole milk/half & half/heavy cream
- 4 eggs, at room temperature
- 1 Tbsp. sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1/8 tsp. salt
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
Place coarsely chopped/chip chocolate into a large bowl. Add cinnamon. Slowly whisk in hot coffee. The chocolate pieces should melt within 5 minutes of stirring. If not, heat the cream–be careful not to scald it! Add cream and mix well. In a small bowl, beat eggs. Temper* with 1/4 – 1/2 cup of chocolate mixture, before adding egg mixture to chocolate mixture. Add vanilla extract, sugar, and salt and mix well. Pour mixture into ramekins or pots. Place pots in large pan. Fill the pan with hot water to make a water bath, until the water is one inch from the edge of the ramekins. Cover pan with aluminum foil and bake Pots de Creme for 25-30 minutes. Remove from oven and water bath. Cool completely before moving to the fridge. Serve chilled with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
*Tempering is adding a small amount of hot batter/mixture to beaten eggs while stirring, to slowly warm the eggs up to temperature. This keeps the eggs from scrambling when added back into the hot mixture. Keep stirring through the entire tempering process.
This dessert was so delicious and simple, I was surprised. I’m already dreaming up different flavors–white chocolate and chai tea, anyone?
When I was in the prime of my childhood (i.e. grades K-7 when it was still fun to play outside all day, every day), there were 37 children living in our cul-de-sac. Not the block, not the sprawling network of a ‘neighborhood’, but the 19-house stub of a street. It tumbled out 37 bodies under the age of 15 every Saturday morning. Nowadays, with my–ahem–broader view of the world and especially of the area where I live, I realize how lucky we were to have our house on that street. We were two turns away from the busiest street to the north, with a generous network of neighborhood to the south. A similar cul-de-sac was across the street, and, of course, our ended in a wide circle that we were never tempted to stray from. Parents in the neighborhood drew a line: “Don’t go past the corner”. And 99% of the time, we didn’t. My mother got a large, old copper whistle to call us home for dinner. The shrill notes stretched just long enough to reach our ears at the top of the street.
There was more than enough to do on our little street. Summer evenings turned our circular end of the street into a milling sea of bicycles, without a care for traffic. One lucky summer, an ice cream truck came every other night for two weeks straight. We climbed trees, built forts, collected seed pods. Endless hours were spent on our trampoline, in the neighbor’s clubhouse, and playing some sort of jumping game most akin to reverse limbo with more dangerous results. Whoever jumps over the stick held at the highest place, wins. The losers are those who catch the stick with an ankle and careen face-first into the ground.
We thought it was fun.
While the children of the cul-de-sac whiled away our hours in constant contact, the adults were friendly, but didn’t push the neighborly relationship much beyond sidewalk conversations as they collected their progeny, and the occasional stroll-and-chat through a neighbor’s yard sale. (It does make me laugh, as the new generation on the street have young, 10-and-under children, and the parents seem much more social than our parents ever did.) Once, we decided to try to change that. I must have been on the older end of the spectrum, and all of the kids decided that we wanted a barbecue. We made flyers and stuck them in everyone’s mailboxes after pleading with our parents. Feeling especially kind, we even put flyers in those houses of families without children (in our tiny world, I doubt we’d ever met some of those households). And then we got to planning, pre-facebook. We took polls as to who would bring what kind of food, who could drag their grill down into the street.
And there, in our family’s own search for picnic food, we found a recipe on the back of a Carnation sweetened, condensed milk can. Or perhaps a box of cake mix. All the same, the title was alluring (Better Than Anything Cake) and the ingredient list was even more so (anything containing toffee with always get my vote). This was pre-gluten-free, and the height of my childhood meant the hieght of my mother’s quick-fix dishes. The recipe was simple enough.
Mix up a batch of chocolate cake (preferably Devil’s Food) according to package directions.
Bake the cake in a sheet pan (I chose cupcakes for portability).
Poke holes throughout the top of the cake with the handle of a spoon (or a fork, for cupcakes).
Pour one can of sweetened, condensed milk and one bottle of caramel sauce all over the top.
Let sit overnight so the sauces can be fully absorbed into the cake.
Spread top with one tub of Cool Whip and sprinkle with one bag of Heath toffee bits.
The ultimate 90’s recipe. Quick, easy, all prepackaged, no measuring required. And let me tell you, it was delicious. This was serve-with-a-spoon cake. It couldn’t stand up to being sliced, so soaked with caramel, but that wasn’t too much of a problem. Needless to say, we took home a pan and some crumbs at the end of the night. I’m positive that someone at the barbecue let my mother in on the other name for this cake: Better Than Sex Cake. Either way, years later as I began to stumble through the world of online recipes, when I encountered “Better Than Sex Cake”, I knew what it was. I’ve seen it with a variety of names (Better Than Sex Cake, Almost Better Than Sex Cake, Better Than Almost Anything Cake…), take your pick. The ingredient list and the assembly have always been the same.
Recently, when a friend and I planned dinner while compiling a lesson plan, I was charged with dessert. It had to be easy to make the morning off, be transportable, and delicious for those eating gluten-free or not. And, I had a bag of Gluten-Free chocolate cake mix wallowing in my pantry. Cupcakes. Cupcakes were a must. The dessert would have to survive coming to work with me, a stint in the work fridge, and the drive to my friends. Cupcakes offered the portion-ability and portability that would be perfect. I didn’t quite prep well for this recipe. At the grocery store, I grabbed some cream cheese, heavy cream, and whipped cream, deciding to figure out frosting later. I grabbed the toffee, we had the caramel and condensed milk at home. I forgot cupcake liners.
By lucky chance, M’s mum had huge cupcake liners at home. It worried me since they fit strangely in our muffin tin, but this turned into a stroke of pure luck. With these cupcakes, the taller the liner, the better. I scaled back the condensed milk and the caramel (only used about 6 Tablespoons of each), since I didn’t have the time for these to soak up the sauce overnight. If you are able to give these cupcakes the time to rest, I highly recommend it.
I also did not want to take a chance with pure whipping cream as frosting. Inevitably, in our long journey, it would melt. Ultimately, I ended up compromising with a whipped cream cheese frosting I’ve seen on a few sites that is phenomenal and entirely stable. In my cream-cheese-loving-opinion, this frosting only makes these cupcakes better, but for you BTSCake purists, perhaps investigate whipping cream stabilizers? I’ve never used them before. Either way, with very little effort, you can have delicious cupcakes that people will be talking about all week (my co-workers can attest to that!) You don’t even have to share our little secret about the cake mix…
Better Than ____________ Cupcakes
For the Cupcakes
- 1 package gluten free chocolate cake mix + ingredients listed on package for making cupcakes (or use your favorite homemade chocolate cake recipe, prepared to batter stage)
- 1/2 cup miniature chocolate chips
- 1 Tbsp brown sugar, packed
- 6-8 Tbsp (or more) sweetened condensed milk (low-fat/non-fat is fine)
- 6-8 Tbsp (or more) prepared caramel syrup/sauce
- 1 cup Heath toffee bits
For the Whipped Cream Cheese Frosting
- 8 oz (1 package) cream cream (low-fat is fine, non-fat is not)
- 1 cup white granulated sugar
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
- Pinch of salt
Prepare your cake batter as directed on the package, or according to your usual recipe, adding the tablespoon of brown sugar with the dry ingredients or with the other sugars in recipe. Once the batter is thoroughly mixed, stir in chocolate chips by hand. Spoon into cupcake liners and bake according to directions for cupcakes.
Remove cupcakes from oven and allow to cool. Meanwhile, mix caramel syrup and sweetened, condensed milk. Poke a dozen or so holes into the top of cooled cupcakes with a fork or a toothpick. Drizzle a spoonful or so over each cupcake (more of the syrup mixture can be added depending on how much time you can allow the cupcakes to set. Up to a tablespoon per cake if they can sit overnight). Allow cupcakes to set as long as possible: at least one hour and up to overnight in the refrigerator.
Make your frosting: in medium bowl, whip heavy cream until stiff peaks form (watch carefully at end to see that you do not over-whip the cream. If you see it starting to separate, stop! The next stage after stiff peaks is butter!). In large bowl, combine softened cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and salt. Beat until smooth. Fold in whipped cream. Remove cupcakes from fridge, sprinkle with toffee bits. Spoon frosting into piping bag, or a Ziploc bag with the corner snipped off and pipe onto cooled, set cupcakes (or simply spread with a knife). Top with additional toffee bits.