Simple Birthday Bliss: Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting

yellow butter cake chocolate frosting

When I sat down on the bus this morning with this cake in my lap, two young girls behind me (around 9 or 10 years old) whispered to each other, “That’s a yummy-looking cake!” I smiled, turned around, and said, “I made it for my friend’s birthday! It’s a yellow cake with chocolate frosting!” They grinned at me and started chattering away. One of the girls, a cutie with chin-length brown hair and a smattering of freckles, told me about the desserts she’s made with her mom: a yellow cake, a chocolate cake, and chocolate chip cookies with strawberries (um, what?!). I told her I had never added strawberries to my cookies before, but that I would give it a try, and she lit up at that idea. She then offered, “You wanna know the secret to the best cakes and cookies no matter what?” She leaned closer to me conspiratorially and announced, “Lemon and vanilla! You just add lemon and vanilla to everything, even if it doesn’t call for it. That’s the way you get the best cakes!” I asked her a few more questions about this surprising secret, then turned to her friend who had been mostly silent up until now. This adorable girl, with curly blonde hair and petite glasses framing her big eyes, excitedly shared that her mom was “a CHEF!!” and could make “everything – cakes, pastries, cookies, pies, and lots of other things!” We chatted about her mom’s talents for a bit, and then another girl of about 16 or 17 years (I believe she was working the summer camp that these two were part of) chimed in that she had “made a chocolate cake with beets, and you couldn’t even taste the beets, it was just really moist and dense and awesome!” And just like that, the four of us were having a conversation – on a bus – about everything. The summer camp they were a part of, the languages they spoke, how I’m an engineer for work and baker by hobby, the best desserts we’ve ever had… My favorite part of all of this was how obvious it was that the preparation and eating of food had formed bonds, inspired admiration, and caused excitement in these girls’ lives. How happy they were, and how comfortable it was, to have a conversation with a stranger on the bus, all because of a cake!

And the thing is, this isn’t even the first time I’ve had people comment on my desserts. It’s nearly impossible to make the trek from apartment to work without having at least one random person comment on or joke about whatever I’m carrying. “Is that for me?” “How thoughtful – you knew it was my birthday!” “What kind of cake is that?” “Oh wow, that looks delicious!” “You’re going to share with me, right?” “What’s that for?” “Did you make that?” “I should probably taste test that for you…” “I’m so jealous of whoever gets that!” Clearly, there’s something about desserts that allows people to let down their guard and interact. Something that tips them off that it’s okay to talk, that no one’s going to look at them strangely or brush them off or turn away if they strike up a conversation. This is the power of cake. It makes strangers into friends, if only for the duration of a morning commute. And I love it.

 yellow white cake chocolate frosting

This cake is a very simple, traditional yellow cake with chocolate frosting per request for Anthony’s birthday. Well, actually, he originally requested a “life-size castle cake” that he “could walk into,” but alas, that was not to be. Maybe when he graduates… Can you even imagine how much flour, sugar, butter, eggs, etc. you’d go through to make that?! Not to mention all the structural issues inherent in making walls and roofing out of cake. There would have to be lots of reinforcement (boards? wood? poles??) and “glue” (some super strong frosting?). I’m not quite up for that challenge, yet! Simple and classic it had to be.

I found recipes on both Smitten Kitchen and Annie’s Eats that looked promising, and ended up going with Annie’s mostly because I had all the ingredients on hand. Just a few slight adjustments to try and make it extra moist, and I ended up with a nice medium-density: not too fluffy but definitely not heavy. The frosting was chocolatey, airy, and practically melting off the sides – I decorated this morning, so I never refrigerated it. Luckily, this “rustic” style of decorating (large swirly swoops of frosting) lent itself well for touching up melting sides. If you make this, keep it out of the sun and/or refrigerate it (although in the comments on Annie’s page, people mentioned issues where the frosting hardened too much in the refrigerator and wouldn’t soften even after it had been out for a while). As for the taste, it’s good but not great: it’s a classic yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Hard to mess up, hard to fall in love with. At least in my, make-it-as-rich-as-possible mindset. Still, for what it is, it’s pretty delicious.

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YELLOW CAKE

Recipe slightly adapted from Annie’s Eats, originally from Baking Illustrated.

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pans

1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pans

2 cups cake flour

1 tbsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

2 cups granulated white sugar

4 large eggs

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 cup plain Greek yogurt or sour cream

1 cup milk

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CHOCOLATE FROSTING

Recipe slightly adapted from Annie’s Eats, originally from Baking Illustrated.

1 lb. semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

6 tbsp. Dutch-process cocoa powder

6 tbsp. boiling water

3 sticks (1½ cups) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup powdered sugar

Pinch of salt

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Make the cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Line the bottoms of two 9-inch round cake pans with parchment paper. Butter and flour the edges of the pans, tapping out the excess; set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, cake flour, baking powder, and salt; whisk together and set aside.

3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar. Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down the bowl as needed. Mix in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Blend in the vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, add in the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the milk. Beat each addition just until incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl frequently.

4. Divide the batter between the prepared baking pans. Bake, rotating the pans halfway through baking, until the cakes are golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean, 35-40 minutes. Transfer the pans to a wire rack and let cool ~20 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pans to help remove the cakes. Invert the cakes onto the rack and peel off the parchment. Let the cakes cool completely before frosting.

Make the frosting:

1. Place the chocolate in a plastic, microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 1 1/2 minutes. Stir well until the chocolate has melted and is smooth; you may need to microwave for additional 10-15 second bursts, stirring each time. Set aside and let cool to room temperature, about 25-30 minutes. In a small bowl, combine the cocoa powder and boiling water; stir until the cocoa is dissolved and then set aside.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter, powdered sugar and salt on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add the room-temperature melted chocolate; beat on low speed until combined, 1-2 minutes. Beat in the cocoa mixture until well blended. You may need to let it cool longer before using it to frost if it’s too runny at this point.

Assemble the cake:

1. Place one of the cake layers on a serving platter. Top with 1 cup of the chocolate frosting and smooth over the top of the cake.

2. Top with the second cake layer. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting as desired (I had some left over). And of course, decorate with sprinkles if you like happiness!

This is best if served the same day, but you can also keep it refrigerated, covered, for up to 3 days. Let the cake come to room temperature at least 30 minutes before serving.

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chocolate frosting sprinkles cake decorating

Black & White Cake

Before I recently moved to my new apartment, I had no idea how I was going to get everything over. Being in the middle of end-of-semester stress, I didn’t have time or energy to think about logistics. I kind of just hoped it would work out somehow. Because that’s how responsible people operate, right? Just fail to plan and keep your fingers crossed that something will come along. It’s exhilarating! (←lies)

Lo and behold, I have some pretty darn amazing people in my life. Alex and her family helped me load and transport my larger pieces using the U-Haul they had rented. They were literally heaven-sent! I couldn’t have made it without them. Furniture moved, I now had to bring over all the “things” I left behind. I didn’t have my bike yet, so I thought briefly about walking stuff over. I estimated I could finish within a week, if I never slept or took any breaks. The appeal factor for this plan was dismal. Luckily, Tommy (ZipCar member) and Dave came to my rescue. I packed up my stuff in bags and boxes, and we transported it to the new apartment… only to find that the elevator was broken.

And of course my new place is on the top floor.

Much laughter ensued as we carried everything up all four flights of stairs. And by “we” I mean “the boys,” because while I was carrying things like lamps and pillows, they were competing to see who could carry the most weight – and I’m pretty good at packing things to be obnoxiously heavy (hey! I wasn’t thinking that the elevator would break!).

In addition to a much-deserved dinner and drinks, I promised the boys a cake for all their assistance. Plus, it’d be perfect because Tommy could come back (with Erika!) and see the place once it was all set up and pretty. I got the requests (Tommy likes chocolate; Erika likes white cake; Dave was down for anything) and put them together to create this:

Black and white cake

Lest you think I simply frosted this cake to be half buttercream and half chocolate frosting, please observe the complete division of flavors:

black and white cut

Yes, this is a cake that is literally half chocolate and half plain white. Yes, I did eat two pieces. Naturally. Who wouldn’t?! You have to try both sides! This cake was a solid winner, although we could barely get through the slices. You see, Erika works in a fancy bakery and is therefore extraordinarily talented at cutting slices. Not just any slices, but thick, decadent works of art. Evidence:

WhiteCakeSlice

Can I please never be in charge of cutting my own cakes ever again? Erika, you are officially hired! Pay will consist of cake slices, and you’ll have to cut them yourself, but hot damn look at how pretty that is…

We mostly all agreed that, while both halves were delicious, the chocolate cake wins because it’s so over-the-top rich and moist. In fact, I’m tempted to make an entire cake of the chocolate side, because the “frosting” is more like a rich fudge ganache that blends seamlessly together with the cake to provide a death-by-chocolate sort of experience. That is not to say the white cake side wasn’t good; it was soft and delicate as white cakes are, and the buttercream tastes like sugary goodness. But I accidentally overcooked the cake (still adjusting to the new oven and I’m convinced it runs too hot), so it bordered on being too dry. Watch your baking times carefully, and you’ll be sure to impress with a cake that pleases both sides of the chocolate vs. plain cake war!

Finally, before I get to the recipe, some notes about orchestrating the creation of this masterpiece without taking all day:

  • I recommend making the chocolate cake first; while it’s in the oven, make the chocolate frosting. This goes in the fridge to harden up.
  • When your chocolate cakes come out of the oven, let them cool for at least 10 minutes before inverting them onto a cooling rack. Wash up your cake pans (if you don’t have four; if you have four pans, you can make the white cake while the chocolate one is in the oven) and get them ready for your white cakes.
  • Make the white cakes and pop them in the oven. While they are cooking, put the chocolate cakes in the freezer and give the chocolate frosting a stir to make sure it’s cooling evenly. This is good time to tidy up the kitchen, because it probably looks like a science experiment gone wrong at this point in the process.
  • When the white cakes come out, let them cool for about 10 minutes and then move them to wire rack and put them in the fridge to cool off a bit (they’re studier than the chocolate cake, so they don’t need to be placed in the freezer). Prepare your cake stand (put down strips of wax paper in a circle that you can remove after decorating – this prevents frosting and crumbs from getting all over your stand).
  • Make the buttercream frosting. Remove the white cakes and cut them in half. Stack these, alternating cake layers with buttercream frosting. When the cake is fully stacked, slather the flat, cut side with a thick wall of buttercream (if the buttercream has “dried” a bit by this point, blend in some extra butter (softened) or milk to make it “sticky” again).
  • Remove the chocolate cake and frosting. Stack these, pushing them against the wall of buttercream as you go. Alternate cake layers with chocolate frosting. You’ll have to cut the last half-circle so that it’s even with the white cake side (you don’t want your cake to be too lopsided!).
  • Put the cake (now with the white and chocolate cake halves stuck together, but no frosting on the outside) in the fridge for 10 minutes.
  • Remove the cake. Frost the chocolate side with the chocolate frosting, then frost the white side with the buttercream frosting (the buttercream is easier to work with and is thicker than the chocolate frosting, so it should go on second).
  • Finish off with any decorations! I used white and brown sprinkles on opposite sides of the cake to tie it together, but feel free to get creative!

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BLACK AND WHITE CAKE

For the chocolate cake: 

From Smitten Kitchen, originally from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/2 cups sugar

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup sour cream

1 1/2 cups water

2 tbsp. distilled white vinegar

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 large eggs

For the chocolate frosting (but really more like fudge ganache):

12 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

3 tbsp. light corn syrup

4 1/2 tbsp. unsalted butter

1 1/2 cup heavy cream

For the white cake:

Adapted slightly from Group Recipes

1 cup + 1 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened

2 cups granulated sugar

6 large eggs

2 tsp. vanilla extract

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking powder

2 tbsp. milk

For the buttercream frosting:

1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, softened

1-2 tsp. vanilla extract

1-2 tbsp. heavy cream

3-5 cups powdered sugar

(Sorry I don’t have better estimates on these, I basically just combine things until I like the taste and consistency!)

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Make the chocolate cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease the bottoms and sides of two 9-inch round cake pans. Cut out a circle of parchment or waxed paper and line the bottom of each pan; grease the paper. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the oil and sour cream; whisk to blend. Gradually beat in the water. Blend in the vinegar and vanilla. Whisk in the eggs and beat until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and be sure the batter is well-mixed. Pour into the prepared cake pans, dividing evenly.

3. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean. Let cool in the pans for 10-20 minutes. Invert onto wire racks, carefully peel off the paper liners, and let cool completely. Like Deb notes, these cakes are incredibly delicate. Put them in the freezer for half an hour to make your life infinitely easier. In fact, it’s going to be essentially impossible for you to make a layer cake out of these cakes if you don’t firm them up in the freezer. They’ll defrost once assembled, don’t worry.

Make the chocolate frosting/ganache:

Place the chopped chocolate in a bowl with the corn syrup and butter. Heat the cream just until it begins to boil.  Remove from the heat and pour over the chocolate.  Let stand for 1 minute, then stir until smooth. Chill thoroughly in the refrigerator or freezer until firm enough for decorating. (Mine took about 2+ hours to thicken up satisfactorily.)

Make the white cake:

1. Your oven should already be at 350 degrees F, but if you are doing this at a later time, preheat it now. Grease the bottoms and sides of two 9-inch round cake pans. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, two at a time, and then stir in the vanilla.

3. Combine the flour and baking powder in a separate bowl and then gradually add to the creamed mixture until well-mixed. Blend in the milk.

4. Pour into the prepared cake pans, dividing evenly. Bake for 30-40 minutes (the recipe calls for 40-45; mine were done at 30 – it just depends on your oven, and I’m still adjusting to our new one), or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out just barely clean. Let cool in the pans for 10-20 minutes. Invert onto wire racks and let cool completely. Put them in the fridge to cool even faster.

Make the buttercream frosting:

In a stand mixer, beat together 1 cup of the sugar and softened butter. Mix on low speed until well blended, gradually adding the rest of the sugar. Increase speed to medium and beat for another 3 minutes. Add vanilla extract and cream; continue to beat on medium for 1 minute more, adding extra cream or powdered sugar to reach a spreading consistency. (I used a hand mixer this time because I moved to a new place and won’t have a stand mixer until I can ship mine over from California; it worked just fine, but the frosting was a bit thicker and less fluffy than I would prefer. That’s the magic that only a stand mixer can bring!)

Assemble everything:

1. Starting with the white cakes, cut them in half so you have four half circles. Stack them, alternating cake layers with buttercream frosting. When the cake is fully stacked, slather the flat, cut side with a thick wall of buttercream (if the buttercream has dried a bit by this point, blend in some extra butter (softened) or milk to make it “sticky” again).

2. Next, work with the chocolate cake. Cut them into half circles, and stack them, alternating cake with frosting. This time, though, push each layer against the wall of buttercream as you go. You’ll have to cut the last half-circle so that it’s even with the white cake side (you don’t want your cake to be too lopsided!).

3. Put the cake (now with the white and chocolate cake halves stuck together, but no frosting on the outside) in the fridge for at least 10 minutes. Remove and frost the chocolate side with the chocolate frosting, then the white side with the buttercream frosting (the buttercream is easier to work with and is thicker than the chocolate frosting, so it should go on second). Finish off with any decorations you like. I used white and brown sprinkles on opposite sides of the cake to tie it together, but feel free to get creative!

black and white top view

Sprinkles-Coated Chocolate Cake

sprinkles cake side

 

Well, hello there! So good to see you again.

A few updates, since I’ve been gone so long:

1) The past few months were utter insanity. I didn’t have time to bake, or when I did, it was simple chocolate chip cookies so I didn’t bother sharing with y’all. It was rough: I was so stressed, I couldn’t spare any time to bake. But because I wasn’t baking, I didn’t have a way to properly relax and release stress, so the stress just compounded. Not a fun cycle.

2) I moved! This new place? There are no words to describe its perfection. Huge and spacious, 2 bedroom/2 bathroom (I HAVE MY OWN BATHROOM!!), a private patio deck facing west with killer sweeping sunset views (and coincidentally, looking toward California – lest I forget my return plan!), floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room, beautiful wood floors, a ginormous closet (I could sleep in there comfortably), and a kitchen that is drool-worthy. I’ll post a picture sometime so you can see how glorious it is!

3) We bought a plant for our apartment and named him Martin. He’s an umbrella plant from the tropics and brings some greatly appreciated life to the living room:

martin

4) I finally got a bike! It’s yellow and vintage perfection (3-speed from 1972). I named her Susie. (I’ve been on a naming kick lately. Don’t worry about it. I think it’s a stress-coping mechanism…?)

yellowbike

Summary: I’m sorry I’ve been MIA! I’m sure you did just fine in my absence, but I do apologize. I’m so thankful for summer’s arrival and some time to finally get back into baking and posting again. Although the humidity has me cursing my decision to move here. What happened to weather perfection?! Oh, right. That’s California. *sigh* 4-5 more years…

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Enough of that. Let’s talk cake. Specifically, let’s talk sprinkles on cake. Like this:

sprinkles cake

Drooling yet? I am. But then again, I have a full-blown addiction to sprinkles. So when I noticed a giant jar of sprinkles on the “free” table in the kitchen, I snatched them immediately and began dreaming up this cake. What resulted is a beautiful, deceptively simple, and delicious cake: my favorite chocolate cake + buttercream frosting + chocolate ganache + loads of colorful sprinkles? Yes. I’ll have a huge slice, thankyouverymuch.

By the time I remembered to take a "slice" photo, there was barely any cake left. THAT is how tasty this cake is!

By the time I remembered to take a “slice” photo, there was barely any cake left. THAT is how tasty this cake is!

I’m not going to wax poetic here. This cake needs no justification. Either you adore sprinkles (like me) and will make this purely because LOOK AT IT, or you don’t care for sprinkles and you’ll simply click away from this recipe. Either response is fine.

(Except if you don’t like sprinkles, there’s something wrong with you and you should probably see someone about that.)

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SPRINKLES-COATED CHOCOLATE CAKE

For the cake:

From Smitten Kitchen, originally from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/2 cups sugar

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch process

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup sour cream

1 1/2 cups water

2 tbsp. distilled white vinegar

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 large eggs

For the buttercream frosting:

From Gale Gand, on the Food Network

3-4 cups powdered sugar

1 cup salted butter, softened

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1-2 tbsp. whipping cream

For the chocolate ganache:

From Smitten Kitchen

10 oz semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (or a bag of chocolate chips – I won’t tell)

2 tbsp. light corn syrup

1/2 cup half-and-half

Finally, the most important ingredient and the star of this show:

SPRINKLES!! (about 1/2 to 1 cup)

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Make the cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease the bottoms and sides of three 8 or 9-inch round cakepans. Cut out a circle of parchment or waxed paper and line the bottom of each pan; grease the paper. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the oil and sour cream; whisk to blend. Gradually beat in the water. Blend in the vinegar and vanilla. Whisk in the eggs and beat until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and be sure the batter is well-mixed. Pour into the prepared cake pans, dividing evenly among all three.

3. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean. Let cool in the pans for about 20 minutes. Invert onto wire racks, carefully peel off the paper liners, and let cool completely. Like Deb notes, these cakes are incredibly delicate. Put them in the freezer for half an hour to make your life infinitely easier. In fact, it’s going to be essentially impossible for you to make a layer cake out of these cakes if you don’t firm them up in the freezer. They’ll defrost once assembled, don’t worry.

Make the frosting:

In a stand mixer, beat together 1 cup of the sugar and softened butter. Mix on low speed until well blended, gradually adding the rest of the sugar. Increase speed to medium and beat for another 3 minutes. Add vanilla extract and cream; continue to beat on medium for 1 minute more, adding extra cream or powdered sugar to reach a spreading consistency.

Make the chocolate ganache:

NOTE: Do not make this until you are ready to pour it on top. You’ll want to pour this while it’s still warm, so wait until you’re ready for it.

In the top of a double boiler or in a bowl set over simmering water, combine the chocolate and corn syrup. Cook, whisking often, until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove from the heat and whisk in the half-and-half, beating until smooth. (Cheater’s shortcut: microwave in short, 15-30 second intervals for a maximum of 1-1.5 minutes and stir until smooth.)

Assemble everything:

1. Place one round of cake on your cake tray or stand (set it on top of wax paper strips so you can remove these at the end and have a clean stand!). Spread frosting on top, pushing it all the way to the edges. Repeat with the other two rounds. Coat the entire cake in a thin layer of frosting (aka a crumb coat) and put the cake in the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes. When the crumb coat has hardened a bit, pull the cake back out and generously coat it with the remaining frosting.

2. Pour a bunch of sprinkles in your hand, and then gently press them all over the sides of the cake (not on top – that’s going to be covered with chocolate ganache). I used an upward sweeping motion, starting at the bottom with just the edge of my hand and slowly moving my hand up the cake, tipping more sprinkles against the cake as I moved up. Wash your hands as needed to keep them from getting covered with frosting.

3. When the cake sides are covered with sprinkles, make the ganache. Let it cool a little; while it’s still warm, carefully pour it over the top of your frosted cake. Gently push small sections of the chocolate off the top so it drips down the sides in long lines. Take any remaining sprinkles you have and decorate the top with them (as you can see in the photo above, I made a circle).

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And that’s it! You now have a very festive, fun cake perfect for birthdays (what this one was used for) or graduation or anything else you want. You could even vary the cake or sprinkles to fit the mood (perhaps red, white, and blue for the upcoming Fourth of July?). Let me know if you find a creative way to dress up this cake! Enjoy!! 

 

Homemade Marshmallow Peeps

A fellow grad student in my department asked if I could make my own peeps for Easter.

Challenge? Accepted.

peeps1

I used this simple marshmallow recipe from Smitten Kitchen, originally from Gourmet 1998, and added a bit of red food coloring to make them pink. I also divided the marshmallows between the pan size she calls for and a smaller (about 5×7-inch) pan because I didn’t want the marshmallows to be too thick.

To make sure I got the look just right, James made a special bunny cookie cutter for me. This is the same guy who made the heart cookie cutter for Valentine’s Day; crazy talented, right?! If you don’t have an equally remarkable labmate with impressive machine shop skills, I’m really sorry. You’re missing out. You’ll have to find a bunny cookie cutter somewhere or use a different shape. Hearts for Valentine’s Day? Clovers for St. Patrick’s Day (green food coloring, of course)? Red and blue and white stars for Fourth of July? Orange pumpkins for Halloween? The possibilities are endlessly intriguing. Conversely, we could see if James is interested in a side business selling custom cookie cutters… That is, assuming I’m willing to share my cookie cutter-making virtuoso. Big assumption.

bunny

Look at that seam… I have no idea how he does it, but I’m not going to question the wizardry so long as it keeps producing this sort of magic!

After punching out each bunny, I rolled the edges in pink and purple sugar sprinkles. Oh, and make sure you lightly grease the cookie cutter before you try cutting out marshmallows! (I may have learned that one the hard way…)

Finally, dip a toothpick in melted chocolate to dab on eyes and a nose. Cute, cute, cute!

peeps3

It’s so easy, I’m not going to give you the recipe – follow the Smitten Kitchen link to make the marshmallows and then come back here for directions on how to do the rest. Soft, fluffy, and sugary homemade marshmallow peeps? That completely blow regular, plastic-y peeps out of the water? Done and done. No more store-bought peeps for moi!

I hope you all had a lovely Easter. And please let me know if you try a different holiday or celebration version of these!

Sugar Cookie Heart Sandwiches (Chocolate-Dipped and Red Velvet Cake-Filled)

heart sandwich cookies

Happy Valentine’s Day, my dear friends!! I hope you feel loved and appreciated today. Even the snow was bitten by the love bug:

snow heart

Many people will try to tell you how Valentine’s Day is pointless, worthless, or silly. But I ask you: if we didn’t have Valentine’s Day, how could I get away with packing this much pink, white, & red and this many hearts & sprinkles into one sweet treat?!

heart sandwich cookies 4

People would think I was crazy or love-obsessed on any typical day for handing these out. But today it is perfectly acceptable to be a bit over-the-top. So I say, embrace the excuse to be ridiculous! Celebrate Valentine’s Day! Make these treats! Though you’ll want to thank me for this recipe, there is no need – I am sharing it with you because (1) it is Valentine’s Day and (2) this is my way of putting just a bit more love out into the world. Because these treats? These are love.

The basic layout: sugar cookie + red velvet cake with cream cheese filling + sugar cookie, edge-dipped in chocolate and topped with sprinkles. Each sandwich has one sugar cookie that’s white with a pink heart and one that’s pink with a white heart, so the sides are reverse mirror-images of each other, sort of like a sugar cookie ying yang metaphor for love. Yup.

A few people declared this their favorite treat that I’ve brought to lab so far. Which is mighty high praise indeed! If you haven’t been convinced up to this point, now I’ve got you: you should really want to make these. And they’re not too difficult! Promise. There are a lot of steps, yes, but it’s quite fun and the payoff is worth it in both appearance and taste. How could you go wrong with sugar cookies, cake, chocolate, and sprinkles? (You can’t.)

I pretty closely followed this Valentine’s Day Cookie Cake Pop recipe from Bakingdom. My changes came in the details: instead of stamping pictures and words on the cookies, I swapped heart cutouts. Instead of lining the edges with candy melts, I dipped the sides in chocolate so you can still see the red velvet filling (and to save time). Finally, I decided to make them little sandwiches instead of putting them on cake pop sticks. Just a few variations, but the general theme of love remains and the genius of combining cookies, cake, and candy belongs to Bakingdom. :)

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SUGAR COOKIES (from: Bakingdom)

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 cups granulated sugar

4 eggs

2 tsp. vanilla

5 cups flour

2 tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. salt

red gel food coloring

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RED VELVET CAKE FILLING

1 box red velvet cake mix

required ingredients to make the cake (eggs, vegetable oil, water, etc.)

1 can (16 oz) cream cheese frosting

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TOPPINGS

2 bags (~12 oz each) chocolate chips (I used 1 white and 1 semi-sweet)

2 tsp. shortening (for white chocolate only)

Valentine’s-themed sprinkles!

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IMPORTANT SUPPLIES

1 large heart-shaped cookie cutter

1 mini heart-shaped cookie cutter

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Preparation (aka my Day 1):

1. Make cake according to instructions.

2. While the cake is in the oven, make the sugar cookie dough. In a medium bowl, whisk/stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large bowl + hand mixer), cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating until well-combined after each egg, and then beat in the vanilla. Gradually add the dry mixture until everything is well-mixed; scrape the sides of the bowl regularly.

3. Remove half the dough and press into a fat, round disk. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or overnight.

4. To the remaining dough, beat in red gel food coloring until you are satisfied with the color (keep it mind it will lighten slightly during baking). Press into a fat, round disk, cover with plastic wrap, and chill with the other dough.

4. When the cake is done, let it cool completely. If you are waiting overnight, cover with plastic wrap until you’re ready to use it.

Baking the cookies (aka my Day 2):

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease a cookie sheet with baking spray.

2. Roll each chilled dough disk out on a floured surface to a thickness of slightly less than 1/2-centimeter.

3. Using the large heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut out as many hearts as you can from both the pink and white dough, pressing the dough scraps together until you can’t make any more cookies.

4. Using the mini heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut out small hearts from every cookie. The small hearts should be offset inside the big hearts, on either the right or left side. Make an even number of right- and left-side cutouts for both the pink and white doughs. Swap hearts with the opposite colored dough and gently press the mini heart and the large heart together.

5. Gently transfer cookies to the lightly greased cookie sheet (use a spatula or they’ll fall apart!). Bake for 8-10 minutes, until you start to see any edges turn slightly brown. (Watch these like a hawk: they’ll turn crispy really, really fast. Ideally, you want to catch them right before they brown.)

6. Cool on the cookie sheet for a few minutes and then transfer to a cooling rack.

Assembly (aka my Day 2 continued; could be a Day 3):

1. Match up cookies of opposite color so that when they’re back-to-back, the mini hearts are touching. Do your best to pair up similarly shaped cookies.

2. In a large bowl, crumble the cake and stir in the frosting until very well-mixed.

3. For each cookie pair, place 1.5-2 tablespoons of the cake mixture onto the bottom side of one of the cookies. Gently press the dough until it fills the whole cookie evenly, then top with the other cookie and gently sandwich together.

4. Chill the sandwiches in the refrigerator for half an hour or freezer for 15 minutes.

5. Pour 1 bag of chocolate chips into a bowl and microwave for 1.5 minutes. Stir together until all the chips are melted. (For white chocolate chips, add 2 teaspoons of shortening immediately after microwaving to thin it out.)

6. Dip in chocolate the side of the sandwiches that does not have the mini heart cutout. Using a spoon or the side of the bowl, gently scrape off excess chocolate. Make some sandwiches with the pink side face-up and others with the white side face-up. Set on wax paper to harden and decorate with Valentine’s Day sprinkles.

7. When half of the sandwiches have been dipped, repeat steps 5 & 6 with the other bag of chocolate chips.

8. Do not store or stack until the chocolate has set; you may have to let them harden overnight.

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I recognize that this recipe has a LOT of steps, but it’s really not too difficult. You can do it! And they’re so, so good. Seriously: make these. You won’t regret it!

heart sandwich cookies 3

Also, did you notice how gorgeous these photos are? Robin and Ruby (two amazing people in my department) both told me that my photos had a lot of room for improvement (apparently iPhone photos aren’t good enough for them…). To help me step up my game, they both volunteered to share photography duty. So today, Robin conducted a mini modeling session complete with fancy lighting and a studio box and everything. My little babies, all grown up and turned into supermodels! Expect better photos from now on, folks: I’ve made it to the big leagues. I’ve got PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHERS!!

heart sandwich cookies 2

Heart-Filled Cupcakes

heart cupcakesValentine’s Day is almost here! It should come as no surprise that I am quite fond of this holiday. Not the processed, packaged, generic, store-sold Valentine’s Day stuff… well, except for those cards that kids pass out. I have a weak spot for those. They’re just so cute and silly, and remind me of being a kid. And some of them have stickers or holograms! So, so cool. But aside from those, I don’t like the Valentine’s Day that stores try to push on you. What I do absolutely adore is everyone dressed in pinks, reds, and whites. I’m smitten with all the hearts, hugs, smiles, songs, and handmade cards. And I truly treasure the celebration of friendship, appreciation, and love. What’s not to love about all of that?! Add the chance to make super cute, heart-themed treats and this becomes a holiday worth celebrating!

Ever since Katie sent me Megan Seling’s book, Bake it in a Cupcake, for my birthday, I’ve been obsessed with the heart-filled cupcakes that grace the cover. I’ve waited three months now for Valentine’s Day to come just so I could make these, and I’m so glad I did – they are adorable! You have to cut into them just right in order to see the heart, but the wonderful surprise of seeing a heart inside your cupcake never gets old and makes it 100% worth the effort.

You’ll need a small heart-shaped cookie cutter for this recipe. For me, this proved to be surprisingly difficult to find. After visiting numerous stores without luck, I finally ended up asking one of my labmates to help me make a cookie cutter in the lab’s machine shop. He is really talented and has made all sorts of utensils and whatnot, so I figured he would be up for the challenge. I wasn’t wrong! Check out this awesome, handmade cookie cutter he made for me:

cookie cutter

Impressive, right?! He said he’s going to make an octopus next, so keep an eye out for some crazy cookies… ha!

The one downside to these cupcakes is that despite all their visual bravado, they are a bit on the bland side. I think the strawberry frosting included in the recipe would remedy this, but since I strongly dislike artificial strawberry flavoring and I am the baker, I decided to go with a buttercream frosting (which could also easily be tinted pink). I think next time I would make the hearts white and bake them into a red velvet cupcake, or keep the hearts pink/red and bake them into a chocolate cupcake. Don’t get me wrong – these are still very good, and their cuteness quota is off the charts, but I’m a chocolate loyalist at heart. Try whatever sounds best to you!

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Megan has posted the recipe on her blog so follow this link to make the cupcakes: Pink Heart-Filled Cupcakes. Because I dislike artificial strawberry flavor, I topped them with this fluffy frosting recipe from Cooking Classy.

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A few hints:

1.Vanilla beans are great but expensive; 1.5-2 tsp. vanilla extract can be used as a substitute.

2. When you’re cooking the small pink/red cake for the hearts, put the rest of the batter in the refrigerator. Do not leave it on the counter! I made two batches, and the first batch I didn’t refrigerate the batter (it doesn’t say to in the recipe) and half of the hearts floated to the top of the cupcakes during baking. Oops. The second time around, I refrigerated the batter and didn’t have any issues getting the hearts to stay upright in the batter. Much better. Learn from my mistake and you’ll save yourself the heartache of a bunch of cupcakes with rotated hearts!

3. On that note, once the small pink/red cake is done baking, pop it in the refrigerator/freezer for a few minutes to cool it down asap. The longer you wait, the “flatter” your batter in the refrigerator is going to get and the denser your final cupcakes will be.

4. These cupcakes won’t rise too much, but if you fill up the cupcake liners more than 4/5-ths full or so, the batter will run over the edges and cement the liner to the cupcake tray. I lost a cupcake that way: trying to pry it loose from tray, I ripped the cupcake in half. You win some, you learn some. On the upside, I got to do some quality assurance, so I can’t complain too much!

5. She provides a single baking time (20 for the small cake, 24 for the cupcakes) but you should start testing your treats earlier. Mine were done at 19 and 22 minutes; if you don’t know how your oven behaves, then just keep an eye on your cupcakes to make sure you don’t over-bake them.

6. For the buttercream frosting, use gel food coloring to dye it pink/red. Gel food coloring doesn’t affect the consistency like liquid food coloring does, and it gives the frosting a nice vibrant color. Since I made 24 cupcakes (2 batches), I frosted 8 with plain white frosting. Then I added some red food coloring to the remaining frosting and beat it until the frosting was light pink, and used that to decorate 8 more cupcakes. For the remaining cupcakes, I adding additional food coloring to the frosting and brought it to a darker pink color. The three shades of frosting looked quite cute sitting together on the cupcake tray!

heart cropped

Joyeuse Saint-Valentin! I hope you spread and receive lots of love this week!

Chocolate Mint Hearts

chocolate mint hearts

In case you don’t have a bunch of friends posting pictures of the recent blizzard that attacked New England, let me bring you up to speed: Nemo found us. He left piles and piles and piles of snow EVERYWHERE. It’s a winter wonderland out there! It’s gorgeous and fairytale-like, perfect for playing and exploring and gawking at the whiteness that covers absolutely everything. That said, something about bundled up people treading slowly down the center of car-less streets (the cars are all completely covered in snow, not to mention there was a travel ban) with huge mountains of snow everywhere lends a bit of an eerie, post-apocalytpic vibe to the wonder. It’s a strange world, my friends, and a bit disconcerting in all its magnificence. What better way to bring back some normalcy than with homemade treats?

I knew I wanted to use powdered sugar in honor of the blizzard. With Valentine’s Day coming up, the heart sprinkles were a natural choice. My labmate is a wizard in the machine shop and helped me make a small heart-shaped cookie cutter last week. (Translation: he made it, I hovered around taking up space. More on that later, since the cookie cutter is actually for an upcoming project you’ll hear about soon!) Finally, I had a box of Junior Mints from Christmas that were begging to be used in some way. Some searching later, I found this Food.com recipe that looked perfect for adapting. Thus, meet these darling treats! These would be oh so cute in little cellophane bags tied up with cute pink, red, and white ribbons to give away to friends for Valentine’s Day. These hearts are somewhere between a cookie and a brownie, come in a sweet bite-sized heart shape, pack a delicious minty chocolate punch, and, according to my friend, “could put Girl Scout Thin Mints out of business.” I don’t know if I’d go that far (don’t kill me, Thin Mint fanatics!), but these are very addicting. And the best part is how easy they are to make!

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CHOCOLATE MINT HEARTS

2 cups all-purpose flour

¾ cup cocoa

1 tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

1 tbsp. vegetable oil

2 cups granulated sugar

2 eggs

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 package (~4oz) Junior Mints

Heart sprinkles

~1/2 cup powdered sugar

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1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a baking tray that has edges/walls (about 12×15×1-inch) with parchment paper, so that the parchment paper goes up over the edges. Do not a use flat sheet; if you don’t have a walled baking tray, use a pan or something else with walls (you might have to divide the batter between pans).

2. Stir/whisk the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt together well. Set aside.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter, vegetable oil, and sugar together until soft and fluffy.

4. Add the eggs individually, beating well after each one. Beat in the vanilla extract.

5. Gradually add the dry mixture to the wet one, beating in small scoops at a time. The mixture will be fairly thick.

6. Add the Junior Mints and beat a few times so the mixer crushes up the mints and mixes them throughout the batter.

7. Spread onto the baking tray. Press the dough into a flat rectangle, leaving about a 1-inch clearance to the edges of the tray. Spread heart-shaped sprinkles all over the top and press them gently into the batter so they stick. Bake for about 16 minutes, then remove and cool on the tray.

8. When the dough is cooled, use a small heart-shaped cookie cutter to cut out as many cookies as you can. (Oh darn, look at all those leftover pieces… You know what to do. Grab a glass of milk and you’re good to go!) Lightly dust with powdered sugar. Voilà! So cute!

NOTE: If you don’t have a small heart-shaped cookie cutter, or if you want to make something else, any cookie cutter shape would work. You could even cut them up into squares to save time. Similarly, you could use any kind of sprinkles, so these could be decorated for different holidays or just everyday fun. Have fun playing around with these!

Frosted Soft Sugar Cookies

sugar cookies

I made this recipe a while back, but it’s worth sharing because I know there are people out there who are addicted to those awful, cardboard-y sugar cookies they sell at the chain grocery stores. You know, the ones that come in the plastic trays and are there for every season and holiday, in different colors with different sprinkles? I hate those things! They’re so powdery and nasty. But these… These I can get on board with. These are soft, sugary, and oh-so-tasty. If you like those grocery store cookies, make these. If you despise those grocery store cookies but like the idea of soft sugar cookies, make these. Hostess with the Mostess hit a home run here. She’s been making them since she was in sixth grade and even goes so far as to say these are the best sugar cookies in the world, so think about that when you’re deciding whether to make these. (Hint: you should make them!)

Directions, as I made them, are provided here for ease, but check out the original link for some adorable pictures!

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FROSTED SOFT SUGAR COOKIES

1 cup butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tbsp. vanilla
3 cups flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

FROSTING

1/3 cup butter, melted
1 tbsp. vanilla
3 tbsp. milk
5-6 cups powdered sugar (thicken to desired consistency)
food coloring
sprinkles

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1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a cookies sheet with parchment paper.

2. Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium-sized bowl.

3. In a large bowl, combine butter and sugar; beat until soft and fluffy (at least 2 minutes). Beat in the eggs and vanilla until well-mixed. Add the dry ingredients in slowly and mix until just incorporated. Cover and put in the refrigerator for at least an hour to stiffen the dough. Form dough balls (1/4 cup or less) and flatten into 1/2-inch-tall circles with your hands (you can also roll the dough out with a rolling pin and cut shapes with cookie cutters, if you want fun shapes).

4. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until just the edges of the cookies start to turn a very light golden brown. Don’t over-bake! These cookies taste much better when they are soft and just done. For an extra-doughy consistency, remove the cookies before the edges start to brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool before decorating.

5. To make the frosting, whisk together the butter, vanilla, and milk. Slowly mix in powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time, until the frosting reaches your desired consistency (you want to be able to spread it on the cookies, but you also want it to hold it’s shape and not drip off the cookies). As you are decorating the cookies, the frosting with slowly harden. Simply add small amounts of milk (<1 tsp. at a time) to bring it back to a spreadable consistency. And of course, decorate with sprinkles as you go. So cute!

Gingerbread Cookies

Run, run as fast as you can... Because I'm going to eat you, and I'm going to have so much fun doing so!
This was my last chance to bake with Christmas flavors and sprinkles at school for the year. Now that it’s January, I have to switch back to more season-neutral treats. But as I’m posting old recipes, you get these wonderful treats! I made some classic gingerbread cookies to celebrate surviving my first semester of grad school, the approaching holidays, and the amazing people I’ve met here. That final reason is one of my favorite parts of baking: in return for passing out cookies, I received two hours of great conversations. Worth every second of baking for sure! And one shamelessly proud moment: my professor emailed me over break to request this recipe for his family baking. Are you tempted to make them yet?!

Okay, enough babbling: what you really want is this recipe. These cookies are great. Flavorful, crunchy on the edges, and soft in the middle – classic goodness. I combined two different recipes with my own ideas and this was the result. If you want to make gingerbread cookies (and don’t have a family recipe that you could never bear to abandon), then definitely try these!

I drew from two of my favorite blogs:
Annie’s Eats – Gingerbread Cookies
Smitten Kitchen – Spicy Gingerbread Cookies

Follow the instructions on Annie’s Eats, but use these ingredients (I changed/added a few things):

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GINGERBREAD COOKIES

5 cups flour
1 ¼ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
3 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. ground cloves
2 tsp. ground ginger
1 ½ tsp. ground nutmeg
½ tsp. black pepper (seriously – weird, I know, but it’s good!)
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature (I used ½ cup unsalted butter + ½ cup butter flavored shortening because I ran out of butter)
1 cup dark brown sugar (you could also use white, but brown sugar will make it more flavorful and chewy)
1 cup molasses
1 large egg
1 tsp. orange juice (water if you don’t have OJ)*

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*Orange juice is the secret to making really awesome gingerbread. If you have a different recipe that you insist on using instead of mine, I won’t mind – but please trust me and substitute orange juice if your recipe calls for water! Or, do what I do: add the orange juice to the recipe and bump up the flour & spices to make up for the additional liquid. Orange juice brings out the flavors and will make your gingerbread extra awesome. I promise.

The instructions are very clear on Annie’s website, so I won’t replicate them here. I’ll just give you my tips:

1. Divide the dough into thirds, wrap with cling wrap, and then refrigerate for an hour before rolling the dough out.

2. Refrigerate the cookies again for 5 minutes (or more) before baking them. Then you won’t need to leave 2 inches between each cookie when you bake them, because they will retain their shape better.

3. If you don’t have parchment paper (darn you, Shaws, for running out!), coat your pans with baking spray and your cookies will be fine (just a bit darker on the bottom).

4. 10 minutes is key! Don’t bake them any longer! 9 minutes might even be enough. Or 8. Find out how your oven cooks and be careful not to overcook these or they’ll be crunchy all the way through.

5. If you’re impatient like me, you don’t have to let them cool on the baking sheets for 10 minutes. They’ll be fine being transferred immediately to the cooling racks (they’re just soft, so be careful – they’ll harden up later).

6. Decorate with frosting! A very simple recipe that I used = 1 cup powdered sugar for every 1 tablespoon water (I ended up using about 5 cups of powdered sugar to decorate them all). Add water as needed, in very small amounts, to keep it smooth enough to spread. Too runny, though, and it will not stay on your cookies! Find that sweet spot that allows you to spread it with a knife (like on the gingerbread men) or pipe it out with a frosting bag (like on the snowflakes).

7. Use the crystalized sugar sprinkles instead of crunchy/harder sprinkles. The crunchy ones will distract from the gingerbread’s texture. Put the sprinkles on immediately after you frost each cookie, or else it’ll harden and the sprinkles won’t stick.

8. Let the frosting harden overnight. Store the cookies with wax paper between each layer. The less stacking you have to do, the better, because they’ll get a bit smashed if you stack them too high.

Chocolate Oreo Buttercream Cups

Diabetes, anyone?
These are basically candy. Sugary, delicious candy. Like a chocolate bar. With Oreos and buttercream frosting. Yum. I made about 40 cups and went through four bags of chocolate chips. FOUR. Seriously! The original recipe is only designed to make four individual cups, which is great if you just want to make a few for yourself. But if you’re trying to feed a large group, get the following:

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1 pack of Oreo cookies (this will make 30; if you want more, get 2 packs)
3/4 cups (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter
2 tbsp. milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
~6 cups of powdered sugar
3 bags semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips
Sprinkles!

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Scaled up from: Picky Palate

Prepare according to instructions in the link. I used vanilla extract instead of the vanilla bean seeds because, while I do have a vanilla bean, it was expensive and I’m saving it for something special. I also don’t have those cute little short cups she uses, so I made them in regular muffin cups spread out on a baking sheet. Which made them a lot bulkier with a lot more sugar… hence the label as “candy” far more than “baked good” (there also wasn’t any baking, so there’s that!).

A few things:
~I would use less chocolate next time. As they are in the picture, these basically are pure sugar. Go easy on the chocolate!
~Be generous with the buttercream frosting. It’s fantastic.
~Personalize this! For the holidays, use red/green Oreos. Also, dye the buttercream frosting red or green (I meant to do this but forgot; add ~5 drops of coloring when you’re creaming the butter and keep in mind that the color will dilute as you add the powdered sugar). Since the green Oreos are mint flavored, I’d put crushed candy canes on top instead of sprinkles!