recipe writing

Birthday babycakes

The birthday babycakes with kick
I love birthday surprises! One of the best is a box full of baked fun - cake, cup cakes or cookies.  But if your birthday boy or girl lives far from you, shipping becomes a problem.

For instance, I recently wanted to make a birthday cake for a friend, but I had to mail the gift so I decided to make cupcakes with a cream filling rather than an icing - less mess, neater to ship.

My friend is a wonderful person (or he wouldn't be my friend, right) and he deserves a birthday treat which reflects his special self. His favorite cake is chocolate, a solid choice, but he is not a predictable man.  He's solid yet mysterious, so his chocolate cake had to be just as complex and intriguing. 

The recipe I wanted to use was for a Mexican Chocolate Cake because it already is a chocolate cake with a rich, spicy difference.  But, it needed an extra special something - a more complex flavor. The natural choice was chili because it has just the right, unexpected zip, and a bit of savory  to balance the sweet.

adapted from

Chocolate Chili Birthday BabycakesGood and gooey batter


1 stick butter 
1/2 cup oil
4 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 cup 70% bittersweet chocolate chips
1 cup water
3 cups unsifted flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup sour milk (buttermilk)
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla 
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine butter, oil, cocoa, chocolate chips and water in sauce pan. Heat until  all are melted and smooth. 

2. Combine flour, baking soda, sugar, milk, eggs, cinnamon, vanilla, cayenne pepper and salt in a large bowl, mixing well, then combine with first mixture until batter is smooth.  Do not over mix.

3. Pour batter into either a greased and floured cupcake pan or one that is lined with festive  paper cups. Bake 15 to 18 minutes, adjusting time according to your oven.

4. Five minutes before the cake is done, prepare a butter cream icing. Let cake cool before you pipe the icing into the center of each cupcake. This is done by inserting the start tip of your butter cream-filled pastry bag into the center of the cake and forcing the icing into the cake's center while slowly removing the tip.

The recipe called for margarine, but like the original author, I prefer the depth and richness of butter. I also wanted to add a bit of a kick to my cake, so I added 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne. 

Pretty little babycakes all in a row Additionally, I didn't think the cocoa powder would give the cake the deep, dark chocolate flavor I was looking for so I added a half cup of melted 70% bittersweet chocolate. The extra liquid meant I had to compensate by adding an extra cup of flour. The recipe didn't call for salt, but I added 1/4 teaspoon for balance. Since I was baking in a cupcake pan, I reduced cooking time to 18 minutes.

To finish my cupcakes, I piped butter cream into the centers after the cake had cooled. Finally, I frosted my cake by brushing the tops with melted butter and dipping them in a mixture of sugar and salt (a 3:1 ratio).
To package my birthday babycakes, I put them in a square airtight plastic container, stuffing the pockets with little poufs of plastic wrap to restrict movement. Ready for overnight mail, they should arrive looking great and put a big smile on the birthday boy's face

Flop Cake: testing an adapted recipe

It's not pretty, but it tastes good

Someone gave me some pears from their overburdened fruit trees and I decided to try out a skillet cake similar to an Old-Fashioned Pineapple Upside Down Cake. 

I love the richness of the fruit caramelized with brown sugar and butter and the moist texture of the yellow cake, but I often want fruit other than pineapple. I used my pears and added some sweet dried plums (prunes, yes)

I decided to take a short cut and use a packaged cake mix (which I rarely do) since I was in a bit of a hurry since I was making some homemade soup at the same time.  I added ricotta cheese to the box mix to enrich the flavor and texture - a good move - but didn't adjust for baking time - a big mistake. I also added a little lemon extract to brighten the flavor.

The cake came out underdone, but undaunted I managed to get it back in the skillet and into the oven without too much of a disaster.  The cake, as you can see, is not going to win any prizes for looks, but it tastes pretty fantastic. 

That means I'm going to have to bake it again because this cake will be a keeper once the recipe is perfected. The reasons I like the idea of this cake is its ease of preparation as well as its rustic simplicity. Plus, you could glam it up a bit with garnishes of a raspberry coulis or creme anglaise.

The basics of crafting and testing recipes


The dreaded cauliflower

The other night I was faced with a cauliflower, a vegetable I'm deadlocked with in a love-hate relationship. 

When my love affair with this rather bland kin to the cabbage began, we enjoyed an extended honeymoon phase when I was also learning to make curries, for which the cauliflower is well suited.  But once I'd mastered curry, I was bored to tears by cauliflower. 

But since I'm not the only palate to be pleased in my house, a cauliflower pops up in the shopping basket every so often.

Deciding what to do with ingredients on hand is a challenge for both chefs and home cooks.  We don't always get what we want, but we have to make do with what we have.

Invention is a good thing at times like these and if luck (and skill) are with you, then a great dish makes it to the table.

But who among us never fails in the kitchen?  That's how we learn and that's how we become better cooks.

The same is true for crafting and testing a recipe. 

To cook the dreaded cauliflower, I decided to keep the flavor of a curry but add the texture of a gratin.  And it almost worked. 

I got the gratin down perfectly, but I missed the mark on the curry because I didn't have a key ingredient - coconut milk.  I also would have been better off pureeing the vegetable for a silkier, smoother finished dish.

Everyone in my immediate family, but me, enjoyed the curried cauliflower gratin. I was too busy critiquing the lack of flavor and texture. I could take this as a success and move on, but the truth is I'd never serve this curried cauliflower gratin at a party or take it to a potluck as is.

I had to make it work to feel satisfied.

In my beginning writing classes, I usually teach students the technique of process by asking them to write a paper which details the steps of how to do something. Invariably, a few students will choose to write a paper based on a recipe.

It's a good thing we don't actually try to make and eat these recipes! 

My beginning writers leave out key ingredients or steps, assuming their readers know what to do. There is a natural assumption that people have a basic level of understanding when it comes to cooking. However, we shouldn't assume too much because we don't know who will be recreating our recipe.

Anyone who cooks or bakes knows the disasters that can result with a poorly written recipe.

Writing a recipe is craft. Testing a recipe is essential. 

The basics

  • Always give estimated times for preparation and cooking.
  • Always give temperatures necessary for baking, broiling, frying, etc.
  • Provide a range of cooking times where appropriate, ie., Bake for 25-30 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean..
  • Ingredients should be listed in order of use. All listed ingredients should be used.
  • Ingredient amounts, types and preparation, ie. minced, grated, etc., should be specific.
  • Don't abbreviate  measurements.
  • Technique should be written in concise, detailed steps in the proper order for preparation.
  • Use common cook's measurements such as 1 cup, etc., and give exact pan sizes.
  • Don't assume readers understand all cooking terms. Define terms like dredge or reduce.
  • if you adapt a recipe from a cookbook or magazine, give credit to your source.
Once a recipe is written, you need to execute the recipe, making note of the overall process as well as the finished result in order to fine tune or revise the original recipe. 

Depending on the complexity of your recipe, this process may take several executions before a final version is achieved. While this step may seem time-consuming, it is crucial to the process.