Spider Cupcakes for Halloween

spider Halloween cupcakeHalloween is a fun time for everyone, not just kids. It offers a chance to go crazy with baked items. But I got so preoccupied researching creative designs that I decided to make life easy and adapt my recipe for Chocolate Coffee Cupcakes. This post is about the designs.

The star of the show is the spider, but I had to make an entire batch of white frosting so I could make eyes. What was I to do with the rest of the frosting? Make a matching spiderweb. This was achieved by placing a flat layer of white frosting on the cupcake and then drawing three concentric circles with melted chocolate. A toothpick was then drawn through the circles to create the web. Cool, right?

To ensure that everything was vegan, I made the eyes myself. To save time you can buy candy eyes, but check the ingredients. Now, for the spider…

Spider Cupcakes with Chocolate Frosting
1 cup vanilla soy milk
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup organic sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup + 1 TBS all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
generous 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup shortening (I used Earth Balance Vegan Shortening)
1/4 cup vegan margarine (I used Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks)
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
2 1/2 cups organic powdered sugar, sifted
3 TBS soymilk
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
chocolate sprinkles
white buttercream frosting
mini chocolate chips
black licorice whips
For Cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350F and line a 12-cupcake pan with paper liners. Whisk together the milk and vinegar in a large bowl, and set aside for a few minutes to curdle. Add the sugar, oil, and vanilla extract to the milk mixture and beat until foamy.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add in two batches to wet ingredients and beat just until no large lumps remain. Pour evenly into the liners, filling three-quarters of the way. Bake 18-19 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely.
For Frosting: Beat the shortening and margarine together until well combined and fluffy. Add the cocoa powder and beat for 1 minute. Add the powdered sugar, alternating with milk, and beat until fluffy. Add the vanilla and beat until incorporated.
For Decorations: Place a flat layer of chocolate frosting on a cupcake. Put the chocolate sprinkles on a plate and dip the cupcake in sprinkles until fully covered. Add two small circles of white frosting. Place a small chocolate chip with the point side down in the center of each circle. Cut a licorice whip into eight pieces and insert each piece at spaced intervals.

Until next time, happy baking!

The Difference Between Baking Soda and Baking Powder

baking soda

Image courtesy of Rakka at flickr.com

Most baking recipes call for a leavener to give an item airiness and a tender crumb. There are two types: baking soda and baking powder. Why are there two? If I am out of one, can it be replaced with the other? Read further to solve these riddles.

Baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate—an alkaline powder (aka, a base). When dissolved in liquid and combined with an acid, it rapidly reacts, breaking down into sodium, water, and carbon dioxide (which) expands upon baking … For baking soda to work, a recipe needs to include a significant acidic ingredient.” So, if you are doing ingredient substitutions in a recipe that lists baking soda as the sole leavener, be sure to keep an acidic item in the ingredient list.

If you are not including an acidic item, then baking powder can work as the leavener. Baking powder is “composed of baking soda, a powdered acid, and a starch (in order to absorb moisture and prevent the acid or base from reacting prematurely) … In its dry state, it’s totally inert. But once you add a liquid, the powdered acid and base dissolve and react with each other, creating bubbles of carbon dioxide without the need for an external acid source.”

There are other actions that baking soda performs and need to be considered. It is also used to “neutralize or dampen acidic ingredients. For this reason it is sometimes used in recipes with a high proportion of ingredients such as lemon juice, buttermilk or other sour flavours. When replacing sugar with a large amount of an acidic sweetener, such as honey, molasses or barley malt syrup, 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda should be added the recipe to account for the increased acidity, even if baking powder is the principle leavener.” Thus, if you are using only baking powder in a recipe with highly acidic ingredients, then the flavor profile may be off due to the extra acid contained in baking powder. Those recipes need a little help from baking soda.

Another interesting baking soda fact is that it increases browning, a reaction that works best in an alkaline environment. Browning not only adds an appealing color to baked goods, but it also enhances the flavor. This is why baking soda is added to some cookie recipes that don’t require the rising action of a leavener.

Because baking soda is so important for many reasons, you may want to keep it on hand instead of baking powder. But, baking powder has its place in baking, too. To simplify things, you can use baking soda to make your own baking powder. “For every teaspoon of baking powder, use 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar, and 1/4 teaspoon of cornstarch.”

Now that we have demystified baking leaveners, you can make substitutions with confidence. It can also help you troubleshoot a quick bread that wasn’t quite perfect. Or maybe that was my recipe that needs some tinkering.

Chewy Vegan Brownies

chewy vegan browniesI have to say, I tried making brownies many times at 7000 feet and then at 5000 feet. From a mix. From scratch. Classic baking. Modern style. Still brownies always eluded me. I tried to veganize so many recipes but all I did was waste some quality chocolate. Then, I finally achieved success by using an already vegan recipe.

I decided, after about the fifth attempt, that altitude wasn’t my problem. Making a non-vegan recipe into a vegan one was the issue. Vegan butter substitute doesn’t act anything like milk butter. It’s made from oil and water and doesn’t hold a recipe together when melted as classic recipes dictated. My pan came out of the oven looking like it was filled with boiling toffee. So I tried unmelted vegan butter and still I failed.

The next problem, I reasoned, was using melted chocolate. My attempts were more like fudge than brownies. So I finally abandoned the classic brownie recipe I was trying to recreate. Instead I used a modern vegan version with cocoa powder instead of melted unsweetened chocolate. Success was mine.

So, what did I learn? You need eggs and butter to complete a brownie recipe that call for melting the chocolate and butter. And, sometimes it’s easier to adapt a vegan recipe to high altitude than it is to veganize an altitude-friendly recipe. Oh, and success tastes so good.

Chewy Vegan Brownies adapted from ChowHound.com
1 cup + 1 TBS all-purpose flour
3/4 cup vegan sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup + 1 tsp almond milk
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup vegan semisweet chocolate chips
Heat oven to 350°F. Line an 8-by-8-inch square baking dish with parchment paper.
Place flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Place applesauce, maple syrup, milk, oil, and vanilla in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Add wet mixture to dry and fold in with a rubber spatula until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips.
Scrape batter into the prepared baking dish. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, for 32-34 minutes. Place pan on a wire rack to cool before serving. Store any uneaten brownies at room temperature.

Until next time, happy baking!

Why does high altitude affect baking?


Image courtesy of Mathanki Kodavasal at flickr.com

You have read in my past baking tips posts my hints for high altitude baking. I mention the lower air pressure and low humidity levels, but I don’t dig into the explanations. For science nerds, I will delve a little deeper. For non-scientists, my explanations are short enough – grab a cookie; it will be over soon.

The lower atmospheric pressure makes a noticeable affect in baked goods. “Leavening agents such as yeast, baking powder or baking soda will have more rising power. That’s because the thinner air offers less resistance to the gases created by the leavening agent. Therefore, you should use less leavening (about 20 percent less at 5,000 feet) as your elevation increases.” If you use sea level amounts of leavening agents they will create more gasses, expanding and rising more quickly. It sounds good until you look in the oven and watch your gorgeous creation rise too fast and then fall, to ultimately suffer with the dreaded sinkhole.

Another consideration for high altitude bakers is that “above 2,500 feet, the atmosphere becomes much drier. The air has less oxygen. … Moisture quickly evaporates from everything.” The problem arises when moisture loss is not accounted for when baking at altitude, so liquids are added to recipes to counter this. Another thing to keep in mind is that all high altitude areas are not created equal. I baked in New Mexico, an area with extremely low moisture in the air. Moving to Colorado, where the air has a slightly higher moisture content, improved not only the texture of my skin but that of my baked goods, too.

A high altitude change that affects cooking more than baking is that water boils at a lower temperature. “As the altitude increases, the atmospheric pressure pushing down on water decreases, which allows the water to boil at lower temperatures. A lower boiling point means that food cooks at a lower temperature, despite the fact that the water is boiling.” When food cooks at a lower temperature in water it takes longer thus requiring lots of patience to boil potatoes. Bakers will feel it most when they are cooking above water, such as when melting delicate ingredients like chocolate.

Now that you have been armed with the scientific knowledge behind some high altitude baking alterations, you can see why changing recipes at altitude is so crucial. You can also gain insight as to why it can take six tries to perfect a high altitude recipe. At least you can enjoy eating the trial batches – we do!