Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pumpkin Apple Streusel Muffins

It's always fun when one of my kiddos has to take a snack to their Wed. night church classes.  I like to try out new recipes.....kid-friendly sweets, typically, that we can share with others.  Recipes like Homemade Oreos or Melting Snowman Cookies.

Last week I decided to (gasp!) go with something a little more healthy. 
Brimming with pumpkin, apple, and raisins and made with whole wheat flour, maybe we can overlook the sugar factor and consider these a nutritious snack. 
At any rate, they were immensely popular with the first grade girls, as well as their teacher.  She made a point of finding me to rave about them, so I know they must have been enjoyed.

They're very moist, nicely spiced, and have that sweet and cinnamony streusel on top....which can be a little crumbly and messy if you're not careful, just a word from the wise there.

Recipe: adapted from Circle B Kitchen
Yield: 15-16 muffins

For topping:
2 Tbs all-purpose flour
8 Tbs sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 Tbs unsalted butter,

For muffins:
1-1/2  cups all-purpose flour (I used white whole wheat flour)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
(I used regular ground nutmeg)1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp ground allspice
1-1/4 cups of canned solid-pack pumpkin
3 oz vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs,
lightly beaten
1 apple (I used Gala), peeled, cored, and chopped into small-ish pieces (1 cup)
1 cup raisins

Prepare topping first.
Blend together flour, sugar, cinnamon, and butter in a small bowl with a fork until mixture resembles coarse meal.
Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease muffin pan with cooking spray.
Sift together flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice into a medium bowl.
Whisk together pumpkin, oil, sugar, and eggs in a large bowl. Add flour mixture, stirring until well combined. Fold in apples and the raisins.
Fill muffin tins with batter and sprinkle with topping mix.
Bake until a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center of muffin comes out clean, about 18-20 minutes.

Linked to Crazy Sweet Tuesday

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Oreo Cupcakes with Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting

These tasted even better than they look.

For real. (and since I think they look pretty fabulous, they tasted outstanding!)

And just so you  know, there's an oreo inside the cupcake as well.  For some reason I neglected to get a photo of that.  

This was my first experience making and even tasting Swiss meringue buttercream frosting (SMBF) be honest, I was a little nervous about it.  

I love American buttercream.  
I don't think it's too sweet (as some people do), and I love it plain or flavored with chocolate or raspberry or almond or strawberry and I love it on just about any flavor of cake.  
And I love the versions of it with cream cheese too.  
My loyalty to American buttercream will never be replaced. 

Swiss meringue buttercream has just over one cup of sugar and two cups of butter (and some egg whites).
Did you catch that?  
With regular buttercream, I use eight cups of sugar to two cups of butter.  
How in the world could a frosting with only one cup of sugar possibly be sweet enough or even taste like anything but just a slab of butter?  

That being said, I had read several recipes in various places and seen people raving that different variations of SMBF were their favorite frostings in the whole wide despite my apprehension that it would be a complete flop, my curiousity got the best of me and I had to know why all these people thought this frosting was so good.  

So I made this recipe for our small group.  And I must say, they were a tremendous hit.  Everyone loved them, and I even got comments on the frosting being "dreamy" and "so smooth" and "light and perfect".  

It truly was.  Overly sweet it was not, but it was definitely a great complement to a sweet cupcake, and the little oreo crumbs in it added a great flavor balance.  

Now, I will say that if you serve the cupcakes just out of the refrigerator, the frosting will taste more like just slightly sweet butter - not terrible, but not great.  But if you have the self-control to let them sit out on the counter for about 20 minutes before eating them, (and believe me, that's easier said than done), it's really worth it.  The frosting softens and lightens up and is so incredibly smooth and satiny and....well, delicious.  

If you've never made SMBF before, I highly recommend this tutorial by Sweetapolita - she breaks it down with beautiful photos and explains the process perfectly.

It is certainly more involved than standard buttercream, much more time consuming, but I recommend that you try it at least once.  You just have to know for yourself whether it's the perfect frosting for you!

Note: I used my favorite cupcake recipe because it makes a large batch and because I love it - turns out it might not have been the best choice because it's a thin batter and the Oreos placed in the bottom of the cupcake liners were supposed to stay at the bottom of the cupcake, but they all floated to the top of the cake batter.  They still tasted amazing....but I think if you use a thicker cake batter (like from a cake mix or maybe another scratch recipe), the cookies will stay on the bottom.  It's up to you.

Also, this cupcake recipe yields 36 cupcakes.  I didn't have enough oreos in one package to get one in the bottom of all the cupcakes and still have enough for the garnishes - so a few cupcakes didn't have the cookies.  

Recipe: inspired by A Cup Full of Cake, frosting adapted from Martha Stewart

3 oz semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1-1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
3 cups sugar
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
2 t. baking soda
3/4 t. baking powder
1-1/4 t. salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup oil (canola)
1-1/2 cups buttermilk
3/4 t. vanilla extract
Chocolate sandwich cookies, tops twisted off and reserved

To make the cupcakes, preheat oven to 350°.  Line cupcake pans with paper liners.  Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl; add the hot coffee and let stand a minute or two, then whisk until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.  
In a large mixing bowl, combine the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the eggs on medium-high speed until slightly thickened and pale yellow.  Slowly add the oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to the eggs, mixing until well blended.  Add the dry ingredients and beat on medium-low speed  just until incorporated.  
Place an Oreo half (cream side up) in the bottom of each cupcake liner. (If they float to the top, don't worry - they'll still be wonderful!
Divide the batter evenly, filling each about 3/4 of the way full.  Bake 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Allow to cool in the pan 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting: (Read this tutorial.  It made all the difference in my success.)
5 large egg whites
1 cup plus 2 T. sugar
Pinch of salt
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into Tablespoons, room temperature
1-1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
15-20 reserved cookie tops, crushed in blender or a bag
Chocolate sandwich cookies, cut in half for garnish (optional)

Combine egg whites, sugar, and salt in the heat proof bowl of a standing mixer set over a pan of simmering water.  Whisk constantly by hand until the mixture is warm to the touch and sugar has dissolved (the mixture should feel completely smooth when rubbed between your fingertips)

Attach the bowl to the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.  Starting on low and gradually increasing to medium-high speed, beat until stiff (but not dry) peaks form.  Continue mixing until the mixture is fluffy and glossy, and completely cool (test by touching the bottom of the bowl), about 10 minutes.

With the mixer on medium-low speed, add the butter 2 Tablespoons at a time, mixing well after each addition.  Once all butter has been added, whisk in vanilla.  Switch to the paddle attachment, and continue beating on low speed until all air bubbles are eliminated, about two minutes.  Scrape down the sides of bowl with a spatula and continue beating until the frosting is completely smooth.  Add crushed cookie tops and fold in well.

Pipe onto cooled cupcakes with a large open star tip.  Garnish with a half cookie, if desired.  Keep at room temperature if serving soon - refrigerate leftovers overnight and bring back to room temp. before serving. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

White Chocolate Popcorn

This is such a fun recipe.

It's quick to throw together, has that irresistible combination of sweet and salty, with the occasional bit of chocolate thrown in for good measure.  How can you go wrong with that?

Now, I will admit that I prefer the Cinnabon Popcorn for overall taste, but this is a great variation that is perfect for barbecues, movie nights, or for packaging up in little cellophane bags to give to friends, as shown here.

Corban and Marissa handed them out to all of their teachers at our home school co-op on the last day, with short hand-written notes attached.  A nice yet affordable token of we had 12 teachers total to thank!  (I doubled this recipe to make sure we had enough.....we definitely did!)

Recipe: (adapted slightly from Alaska from Scratch)

2/3 cup popcorn kernels
1 cup pretzel sticks, broken
1 cup M&Ms
1 bag (12 oz) white chocolate chips
1 T. shortening
Sprinkles, if desired

Pop corn kernels as you normally do - either in the microwave in a brown paper bag (if you use this method, you'll need to do it in two batches), on the stove top, or with an air popper (our method).

Put the popped corn in a huge bowl.  Add the pretzel sticks.

In a microwave-safe bowl, heat the chocolate chips with the shortening for a minute, then stir.  If not completely melted, heat again for 15 second intervals, stirring after each one.  When completely smooth, drizzle over the popcorn, stirring to coat evenly.  I drizzle a bit, stir, drizzle some more, stir, and so forth to evenly distribute the chocolate.

Add in the M&Ms and sprinkles if desired and stir some more.

Spread on wax-paper lined cookie sheets to dry.
Store in airtight containers.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Mini-Vacation Continues.....on to Crabtree Falls

Since we were planning on staying the night around the Staunton area, we wanted something fun and different to do on the way home on Friday.  Knowing that we would be traveling in the Blue Ridge Mountain area, we thought some hiking would be fun.

We had already booked a hotel in Staunton when we found out about Crabtree Falls and decided that would be our destination. 
 Crabtree Falls features a series of five major cascades and a number of smaller ones that fall a total distance of 1,200 feet. It's the highest vertical-drop cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi. 

We thought that sounded pretty awesome. 

So then I found some cabins for rent just down the road from the trailhead.....and we were able to book one and cancel our hotel.  I mean, who wouldn't rather stay in a place like this? 

I can't even describe how excited the kids were about this cabin.  They wanted to stay for a week.  And quite frankly, if we had the time, Grant and I would have loved that as well.

This is the kind of camping I'll do at this stage of life. 
Yes, I'm fully aware this is not camping.
And I'm perfectly fine with that. 

Cute girl.  See the big mess on her right leg?  That's where she knelt down to look at the broilers at Polyface Farm when I wasn't looking and when she got up, I saw she had been kneeling in a pile of cow manure.   Nice.

The furniture on the deck was so comfortable - and the swing was very popular with the girls.

The loft had no double bed at that end.....

And a double futon at this end.  Along with a free standing toilet and sink.  I didn't discover the nice little screens they had for some privacy (hidden under the bed) until we were doing our last sweep of the cabin to make sure we hadn't forgotten anything. 
The ladder/staircase was pretty steep.....the kids thought it was great fun. 
(Do you see the spots on Marissa's pants?  Cow manure also. Just thought you'd like to know.)

We had a nice little kitchen, living room, and dining area - and the door at the back leads to the bedroom and bathroom. 

We spend most of our time outside, though.  The weather was perfect camping weather and we had this awesome fire we ate outside, built the fire, and had some read-aloud time (The Last Battle, Chronicles of Narnia) before it got too dark and then we ate s'mores. 

My studly man......sharpening some sticks to use for roasting marshmallows. 

The flash he used to take this photo was so stinkin' bright! 

Friday morning - we're on our way to hike!

This humongous tree was outside our cabin. 

Us.  ♥

The girls thought the waterfall was a little loud.  So silly. 

Corban was a great hiker - I don't think he even got tired. 

There were several spots to stop on the hike to see the different parts of the Falls. 

At one look-out deck we spotted this little guy.....non-venomous, but we kept our distance anyways.

Another area.....this is looking down.

We made it to the top - 1.7 miles of strenuous climbing.  Grant carried Ellia nearly the entire way (much to her chagrin). 
Funny story:
At one point, after Grant had explained carefully to Ellia (age 2) why she wasn't allowed to walk on the trail because it was so slippery, steep, and difficult and she could never keep up.....and that in a year or two, when she's older, she'll be allowed to walk more on such hikes - she turned to him and seriously remarked,

"Daddy, I three now.  I had my birthday last night."

I think she really thought she would convince him to let her walk after such a statement. 

You couldn't see much of the Falls from the top, but you could see this...... 
(it was hard to believe how high we had climbed!) 

And this.

How 'bout a close up of that pretty flower?  

Another stop-off point to look at more of the Falls. 

On our way down....which was harder in a way because we were all tired, hungry, and more susceptible to slipping on muddy spots and the rocky terrain.  We made much faster time, though. 

This was a little cave area that you could walk though.....the kids really thought it was cool.

The bridge over the river next to the parking lot.

Another shot of the bridge.

And on the side of the parking lot, there stood this lone telephone booth. 
We thought it was so funny.  You don't see many pay phones anymore.  We figured we'd better take a picture next to it so the kids could remember that they've seen one. 
Actually, it is probably used out there, as there is no cell phone service due to the mountains. 
But we still thought it was funny.
Maybe we were just tired.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Visit to Polyface Farms

Have you watched the documentary, Food Inc?  (if not, the description on Amazon says that it "lifts the veil on our nation's food industry, exposing how our nation's food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment. Food, Inc. reveals surprising - and often shocking truths - about what we eat, how it's produced and who we have become as a nation. You'll never look at dinner the same way again.")

Powerful film.  Watch it. 

Anyways, the farm featured on the film that does things the right way is Polyface Farms. It's a family-owned, multi-genenerational, pasture based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. 

We went for a tour last week.  (Being home schoolers is so great - this was an amazing field trip for the whole family.)

It was fantastic!!

The tour included about 100 people and was led by Joel Salatin, the farm owner.  We rode hay wagons out to the far pastures of the property so we could see the hens and cows.

A few of the laying hens - out to pasture.

The hens weren't bothered by people at all....Annika was pretty thrilled to check them out. 

This is the farm dog/security system, Michael.  He's gigantic!  Very friendly dog, so sweet and gentle, just laid on the ground soaking up attention from the kiddos when we first got to the farm (we arrived early for the tour and ate our picnic lunch there) - then we came to find out that he roams the farm at night keeping away predators from the free-roaming hens, including packs of coyotes and other varmints, and apparently eats at least a couple of skunks a month (they only know about those because of his scent) who knows what else.  I can't remember the cross of breeds that he is.....but you can tell that his back is just about as high as Ellia's head, so he's a big guy.  

The hens eat maggots in the cow manure - sounds gross, but is really beneficial for both the land and the chickens.  Did you know that the seven enzymes necessary for chickens' digestion are all found in cow manure?  
Yeah, I didn't either.

We only got a peek at a few of the cows - they were in a wooded area that day (the cattle and hens are all moved from pasture to pasture every day, the hens following behind the cows) and they wandered off where we couldn't see them much.

Michael met a tiny dog that another lady on the tour brought with her.  I thought their interaction was so cute!

Miranda started out in the Ergo with me but got really mad about it and so Grant took her, and she fell asleep.  So I was left wearing the Ergo with no baby and Grant had to carry her asleep.  He didn't mind so much.

More of the hens gathered around their "Egg mobile", the portable henhouse that gets moved from pasture to pasture every day. 
I had no idea chickens were so loud.  We had to strain to hear Joel speaking sometimes over the din of the clucking, squawking, and chattering. 
Marissa's favorite part of the tour.  She talked the nice lady into letting her hold the puppy, and that was the end of it for her. 

Ellia and me on the hayride.

Grant with Marissa, Annika, and still sleeping Miranda on the hayride.

This is the scenery we saw on the hayride.  Isn't it incredible?  The eight mile drive out of town (Staunton, VA) to the farm was just scenery like this.   

Corban and Ellia hanging out on the wagon.

Marissa and Annika liked the pigs. The pigs are free-roaming, rotating paddocks in the pastures most of the time.

Somebody's awake now....just barely.

Okay, she's perking up a little now.

These are the portable broiler houses - they get moved around the pasture every day so the chickens get new areas to eat.  They're very secure but have plenty of space to enjoy a natural life -  until they're processed.   The design of the little pens was so simple, yet really great. 
Miranda and me at the end of the tour.  Look at that face!

We really loved the farm and the people and everything about it.  It gives us dreams......wild, crazy, hair-brained dreams for city folk like us......

Stay tuned for where we went next on our trip.......hopefully I'll get it up soon!
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