Thursday, April 19, 2012


I don’t remember the birthdays of my childhood very clearly, which leads me to believe that they were not all that memorable. I do remember having a Sweet Sixteen party, during which I almost choked to death on a piece of steak, but that’s not the kind of memorable I am referring to. I’m talking about fun, happiness, giggling--adoring friends and family gathering around and making you feel like the star of the day. I just can’t remember days like that from the archives. So perhaps because of my earlier birthday celebrations, or lack thereof, I was determined to make the birthdays in my own home have a bit more pomp and circumstance. And they did. 

The morning of, the birthday boy (or girl) would walk down a crepe paper-wrapped staircase to an even more crepe paper-decorated kitchen where time allowing, a special breakfast (usually chocolate chip pancakes) would be had.  Birthday party venues ranged from the Petting Zoo and gymnastic studio when the kids were very young, to Laser Tag and Paintball when they were older. One year we had a Halloween-in-July party, complete with ghosts and ghouls. That was the year of the Ghost Cake. You cannot have a respectable birthday party without having cake. The year of the Ninja Turtle party, the cake looked like a pizza, and many years down the road, the toppers were musical symbols and a chocolate-shaped saxophone. 

There was always a separate family night to celebrate the birthday, and that very often took place at a restaurant that was chosen after a detailed search of online “Best Restaurant” lists. Sometimes the winner was chosen from a newspaper or magazine clipping that was tacked to the bulletin board in our laundry room, put there just for that purpose. These celebrations and expressions of love were so much fun that to me, the gifts seemed almost secondary. Of course little boys love games and toys, and my boys were no different, but as they grew older they could never even figure out what they wanted. And lately they say, “Nothing right now” when asked. But the pomp and circumstance are still expected. (And don't get me wrong, we still exchange gifts.)
Rocky Road
My son Will’s birthday is Friday, and he will be twenty. Since he is away at school and won’t be walking down the kitschy staircase that morning, I wanted him to at least have a little something from home for his day. Whenever I attend a child’s birthday party I think of Will and remember my yellow-haired little boy sitting all by himself at so many parties after the others had already run off to play. He knew a good thing when he saw it, and he was not getting up until every last bit of cake was gone from his plate. So I sent him a party in a box--some cupcakes, frosting, spreaders, sprinkles, candles, and some Rocky Road to share with his fraternity brothers. It’s just a little expression of love, because after all, that, and cake, are what birthdays are all about.
The cupcakes came from Joanne Chang’s “Flour” cookbook. The recipe is simple--it’s her take on a "dump cake," where virtually all the ingredients get dumped into the bowl together. I added some chocolate chips to the batter, but that’s optional. The cupcakes are moist and chocolaty, and I think they will travel across the miles very well. I did not frost these cupcakes; a dusting of powdered sugar will do. ( I am embarrassed to say I sent along a can of store-bought frosting for numerous reasons, a few of which had to do with shipping.) But if I had, I would have used Joanne’s recipe as well. I have included it and hope you make it, as taking that extra step to do so makes a world of difference. 
Chocolate Cupcakes with Crispy Magic Frosting
adapted from Joanne Chang's “Flour” cookbook
(makes 12 to 14)
Cupcake Ingredients
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1/4 c. Dutch processed cocoa powder
1 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. unsalted butter
1/3 c. water
1/2 c. milk
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. kosher salt
3/4c. mini chocolate chips (opt.)
Crispy Magic Frosting Ingredients
2/3 c. granulated sugar
2 egg whites
1 c. unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 2/3 c. confectioners sugar
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
2 T. milk
1 T. vanilla extract
Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a standard 12-cup muffin tin or line with paper liners.
In a small heatproof bowl, combine the chocolate and cocoa powder. In a small saucepan, heat the granulated sugar, butter, and water over medium-high heat, whisking occasionally, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved. Pour the hot butter-sugar mixture over the chocolate-cocoa mixture and whisk until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is homogeneous.
Whisk the milk, egg, egg yolk, and vanilla into the chocolate mixture until thoroughly combined.
In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until well mixed. Dump the flour mixture on top of the chocolate mixture. Whisk until the dry ingredients are totally mixed into the chocolate mixture. Gently fold the mini chocolate chips (if using) into the batter. Let the batter sit for at least 1 hour at room temperature, or transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. (This allows the liquid to be totally absorbed into the batter, so the batter thickens up a bit and isn’t so soupy.)
Using a rubber spatula, gently stir the batter to reincorporate the chips. Spoon it into prepared muffin cups, dividing evenly and filling the cups to the rim. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the tops spring back when pressed with a fingertip. Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.
To make the frosting: While the cupcakes are cooling, in a small heatproof bowl, whisk together the granulated sugar and egg whites to make thick slurry. Place the bowl over (not touching) simmering water in a saucepan and heat, whisking occasionally, for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the mixture is hot to the touch. It will thin out a bit as the sugar melts.
Remove from the heat and scrape the mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whip attachment. Whip on medium-high speed for 6-8 minutes, or until the mixture becomes a light, white meringue and is cool to the touch. Turn down the speed to medium, add the butter a few chunks at a time and beat for 3-4 minutes, or until the butter is thoroughly incorporated. Add the confectioner’s sugar, salt, milk, and vanilla and continue to beat on medium speed until the mixture is smooth and satiny. You should have about 3 ½ cups. (Use immediately, or transfer to an airtight container and store at room temperature for up to 3 days, then beat with the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for a few minutes until smooth before using. Or, store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, then bring to room temperature and paddle for a few minutes until smooth before using. )
Remove the cupcakes from the muffin tin and spread or pipe (using a pastry bag) the frosting onto the cupcakes.

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