March 30, 2012

German Chocolate Cupcakes

Sshhhhhhh ... don't tell my husband ... I think I have a new love. 

Well, it's just a chocolate love, so maybe he'll be fine with it.

When a friend of mine made German Chocolate Cupcakes for a Cupcake Bar our teacher-team hosted a couple of weeks back, I immediately fell in love.  I love, love, love German chocolate cake ... especially the ooey-gooey coconutty topping ... but I never thought of making it in cupcake form.  Why not?  What is wrong with me??  I'm happy to say that this lapse in thinking has been corrected.

To make these, my friend first just bakes up chocolate cupcakes.  You can use any ol' chocolate cupcake recipe you'd like, or whip 'em up from a cake mix.  Whatever fits your fancy.  I used my favorite chocolate cupcake recipe from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, which I've included below.

Then she tops the chocolate cupcakes with that ever-classic German chocolate cake coconut topping.  But wait!!!!  Before that, she frosts the cupcakes with chocolate frosting!  So, you get a delicious mixture of chocolate cake, creamy chocolate frosting, and ooey-gooey coconut topping in each bite.  G-E-N-I-U-S!!!  Oh.  My.  Gosh.  It's soooooo good.

Here again, you can use any chocolate frosting so if you've got a favorite, go with it.  I don't have a favorite ... I'm still on the search.  For the coconut topping, you can buy that pre-made.  Personally, I think it tastes soooo much better to make it homemade ... and it's pretty easy.  So, if you've never made it homemade, I strongly encourage you to give it a whirl.  I used my Mom's recipe, which I've included below.

Now, I even went so far as to sprinkle some chocolate sprinkles between the chocolate frosting and coconut topping layers.  Ya know, just because I could.  Don't you think they look cute peaking out from under the gooey topping?

Hmmmmm.  So, to tell or not to tell my husband about my new love?  That is the question.
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German Chocolate Cupcakes
Source: Chocolate cupcakes adapted from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook; Coconut topping from my Mom
Chocolate Cupcakes:
3/4 c. + 2 T. all-purpose flour
3 T. cocoa powder
A scant 3/4 c. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
Pinch of salt
3 T. butter, at room temperature
1/2 c. whole milk (I also tried it with 2% milk, and it worked fine)
1 egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Chocolate frosting
Chocolate sprinkles (optional)

Coconut Topping:
3 egg yolks
1 c. evaporated milk
8 T. (1 stick) butter
1 c. sugar
1 1/4 c. sweetened shredded coconut
1 tsp. vanilla extract
pinch of salt
1 c. chopped pecans
Pecan halves for tops of cupcakes (optional)

Prepare the Chocolate Cupcakes:
1.  Put the flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking powder, salt, and butter in mixing bowl. Beat on slow speed until everything is combined and you have a crumb mixture with a sandy consistency.

2.  Whisk together the milk, egg, and vanilla.  Slowly pour about the milk mixture into the flour mixture.  Beat on low speed to combine.  Turn the mixer up to high speed and beat for just a few seconds to remove any lumps.

3.  With the mixer back on low speed, pour in the remaining milk mixture.  Beat until all ingredients are just incorporated. Beat for about another 30 seconds to one minute until the batter is smooth. Do not over mix.

4.  Spoon batter into muffin pan cups lined with paper cupcake liners, filling cups 1/2 full. Bake at 325 degrees for 20 - 25 minutes, or until the cake springs back when lightly touched. Cool slightly in the pan before removing cupcakes to a wire rack. Cool completely before frosting.

5.  Frost with chocolate frosting and, if using, sprinkle with chocolate sprinkles.

Prepare the Coconut Topping:

6.  Combine all coconut topping ingredients, EXCEPT pecans, in a medium saucepan.

7.  Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until thick, about 5 to 7 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in chopped nuts.  Let cool to lukewarm.

8.  Top each frosted cupcake with a bit of coconut topping.  Place a pecan half on top (optional).

(NOTE: This recipe makes 12 cupcakes. And it really does make 12! Fill your cups only 1/2 full, as this batter rises quite a bit. When I divided the batter between only 10 muffin cups, I had several that rose over the sides of the cups way too much. If you're like me, you'll feel like there's not enough batter to stretch to 12 cupcakes ... but there really is.  Also, I know the mixing method seems a bit unconventional ... but trust me, it really works and creates a wonderful cupcake!  I talk about the mixing method in my The BEST Vanilla Cupcakes post.)


March 28, 2012

Many-Bean Salad

Easy marinated Many Bean Salad ~ great for the family or for serving a crowd!

This Many-Bean Salad is one of those classic been-around-forever, perfect-for-a-potluck easy recipes.  Well, hey ... been-around-forever recipes have been around forever for a reason, right?  Because they're GOOD!  I love this stuff.

Since this salad is made mainly with canned goods, if you can maneuver a can opener and boil water, you can make this salad.  Seriously, who would think a bunch of canned vegetables tossed together would be so tasty?  But marinate them for a few hours in a vinegar and sugar-based marinade, and you get a delicious many-bean salad treat.

The bean combination is pretty flexible, so if there's a bean in the list you don't like - no problem!  Just leave it out.  Want to add in a favorite?  Sure, go right ahead!  Other perks of this recipe? 
1.  It makes a huge batch, so it's great for serving a crowd.
2.  It can be made ahead of time ... it'll stay just fine in the refrigerator for several days.
3.  It's easy.
4.  People love it.
5.  Oh, and did I mention it's easy?

Now, I've got a little personal story to share related to this bean salad.  This is one of my husband's absolute favorite foods.  Well, at least it used to be.  See, he's prone to kidney stones.  The other night, shortly after eating a huge bowl of Many-Bean Salad (and I do mean huge ... my husband, though he's a skinny guy, eats a lot), we headed out to the emergency room because he was in severe pain.  Sure enough, he was passing a kidney stone.  The bean salad had absolutely nothing to do with the kidney stone, but the salad and the pain are now forever associated in his mind.  He won't be eating this again any time soon.  Oh, and don't even mention stuffed green peppers to him.  Let's hope not many more foods get added to his 'list!'

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Many-Bean Salad
Source:  Adapted from my Mother-in-Law
(Printable recipe)
Bean Mixture:
(Note - all cans are the 14 oz. to 16 oz. size)
1 can cut green beans
1 can white or cannelini beans
1 can dark red kidney beans
1 can garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
1 can small young green peas
1 can shoepeg white corn
2 to 3 stalks celery, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped

1 3/4 c. sugar (I have sometimes substituted all or part Splenda)
1 1/4 c. white vinegar
1/4 c. canola oil
2 T. water
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

1.  Drain all canned items.  Rinse white beans, kidney beans, and garbanzo beans.  Combine all bean mixture ingredients in a large bowl.

2.  Combine all marinade ingredients in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil, stirring frequently.  Immediately pour over bean mixture.  Stir to coat all beans.

3.  Refrigerate for several hours or overnight before serving.


March 24, 2012

Spring Cupcake Bar

Spring has sprung!  And what better way to celebrate than with a cupcake bar?

At our school, we have an after school teacher get-together every couple of months or so called 'Downtime.'  It's a time for us teachers to just chill out a little bit and enjoy a time of fellowship together.  You'd be surprised how little we actually get to talk to one another!  Our attention during the school day ... as it should ... goes to our students - not to one another!

Well, this time around the 1st grade team (of which I'm a part) and 4th grade team were our Downtime hosts.  And our Downtime day just so happened to fall on the first day of Spring.  In honor of the first day of Spring, we chose to host a Spring cupcake bar as our Downtime treat.  And what a fabulous treat it was!

I can take absolutely zero credit for the idea ... the kudos for that go to my friends and teammates Dana and Shelley.  They and some others did all the work on the cute decoration stuff and set up of the event.  I did what I do best ... baked cupcakes!  I whipped up a batch of Coconut Cupcakes (click to see the recipe post) and Neapolitan Cupcakes (not yet posted - I'm still tweaking the frosting ... it's just not quite right yet).

Now, here's the crazy thing that happened with me on the day of the event ... I almost didn't make it to attend the cupcake bar!  I came squealing in with my cupcakes and serving dishes literally 15 minutes before the event started.  Why?  Well, because I had spent that night in the emergency room with my husband who was passing a kidney stone.  After a *bit* of pain and patience, he's now totally fine ... but it was a looooonng night.  We got home and got him settled just in time for me (and my cupcakes!) to make it to the event.

In the midst of the craziness of the day, I ran out of the house without my camera.  So, the following photos from the event itself are taken with my friend Shelley's phone camera.  I then brought some of the cute stuff home with me and took more pictures with my regular camera.

So just check out this adorable Spring cupcake bar!  It was set up in the library of our school.  The cupcake bar itself was on top of one of the bookshelves, and we used the library tables for seating.  So ... this idea can work about anywhere!

Here's the cupcake bar itself ...

My friend Andrea wrote the names of each cupcake, in her beautiful handwriting, just on the tablecloth paper itself.  Those are my coconut cupcakes, and German chocolate cupcakes made by my friend Pat.  I'll be making those soon ... they were delicious.

We decorated with lots of Peeps and other Easter candies.  Isn't the Peep peeping out of the dish of robin eggs cute?  And take a look at the pineapple upside-down cupcakes my friend Andrea made!  She's giving me that recipe soon ...

The tables were decorated with Peeps, jelly bean daffodils, and butterflies.

And just look at these Spring-decorated water bottles!  So cute.

Now here are some photos I took once I got back home so I could share more details with you.  The decorations were so cute! 

First up - the butterflies.  Shelley simply cut butterfly shapes from decorative scrapbook papers and then slipped them onto a plastic fork so they'd have some 'height' and a little 'look of flight.'

You just position the fork so that two tines are on the back of the paper butterfly ...

... and two tines are on the front.  Easy sneezy!

Next up - the jelly bean daffodils.  Again, Shelley cut daffodil shapes from decorative paper.  Then she glued a mini cupcake liner in the center ...

... and filled it with jelly beans.  These were just so adorable on the tables!

And finally - the water bottles.  The water bottles were decorated with strips of pastel paper cut with decorative scissors.  Then, Spring embellishments were attached with glue pop dots.  So sweet!

Such a fun event!  I can't wait to make Pat's German chocolate cupcakes and Andrea's pineapple upside-down cupcakes.  I'll definitely be adding those two recipes to my line-up.

Happy Spring everyone!

Decorations Pinspired by:
Jelly bean daffodils - Martha Stewart's Daffodil Candy Cups
Decorated water bottles - The Creative Party Place

March 20, 2012

Spicy Tomato Bacon Spaghetti

I love spaghetti!  So, when this month's Crazy Cooking Challenge came around with the challenge of spaghetti with red sauce, I was stoked.  (Yes, I did grow up during the 80's, in case you were wondering ... ya know, with my cool use of the word stoked and all.)  So many spaghetti possibilities!!!  In my search for my challenge entry, I found way more than one spaghetti dish of interest.  For the challenge, I went with Pizza Spaghetti Bake, but that wasn't the only spaghetti dish whipped up in my kitchen during my challenge preparations.  Nope.  I also fell in love with this Tomato Bacon Pasta from Just One Cookbook.  Delicious.

With a generous dose of crushed red pepper simmered in the sauce, this dish is in line with the flavors of a spicy Pasta Amatriciana served at one of my favorite local Italian restaurants.  I'm excited to now know how to prepare this at home!  But with the addition of bacon, I think this version may even kick the restaurant dish's pa-tooty!

I cooked up some applewood smoked bacon and combined it with lots of chopped onion, some garlic, diced tomatoes, and crushed red pepper ...

... and let that simmer together to become a beautiful bacon-y red sauce.

Then I added cooked spaghetti and lots of fresh parsley, tossed it all together ...

... and topped it off with freshly grated Parmesan and more parsley.  The result?  A dish that's both delicious and beautiful.  As we say at our house, it's a keeper!  Most definitely.

Spicy Tomato Bacon Spaghetti
1/2 of a 13 or 14 oz. package spaghetti  (I used whole wheat)
8 slices applewood smoked bacon, chopped  (you could use regular bacon just fine)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 tsp. red chili pepper flakes
2 (14.5 oz.) cans diced tomatoes, undrained
1/2 c. reserved cooking water from cooking the pasta
1/2 c. chopped fresh parsley
Sea salt & freshly grated black pepper, to taste
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Additional chopped fresh parsley

1.  Cook spaghetti in a large pot of salted boiling water according to package directions.  When spaghetti is cooked, reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water.  Drain spaghetti and set aside.

2.  Meanwhile, cook bacon in a large skillet until just browned, about 5 minutes; drain.  Add onion and garlic to the drained bacon; cook until onion is translucent, about 4 to 5 minutes.  Add red chili pepper flakes, diced tomatoes with juice, and reserved pasta water.  Stir to combine.

3.  Bring to a simmer and then cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste. 

4.  Add the pasta and 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley; toss to coat.  Top individual servings with grated Parmesan and additional chopped parsley.


March 15, 2012

Shrimp and Grits Casserole

Shrimp and grits.  It's totally a southern-tradition dish with which I was absolutely unfamiliar until I moved to North Carolina.  I'll admit, I was afraid to try it at first. And now?  It's one of my favorites!

I have posted this recipe before ... way back when The Kitchen is My Playground was a wee 2 months old.  And I was using a point-and-shoot camera.  The pictures I took of Shrimp and Grits casserole with the point-and-shoot were especially terrible.  I've been itching to repost this with a better photo.  I can't say these pictures are totally wonderful (this casserole is really difficult to photograph!! ... at least for me), but they're at least a little better.

Now, a lot of shrimp and grits dishes are spicy - this one certainly is not. It's a very mild-flavored, cheesy, shrimpy grits casserole-style dish, without the typical spice.  The original recipe is from Cooking Light magazine, but I think I've tweaked it to put back in most of the bad things they worked so hard to take out. Oh well.

Start by cooking up your grits. I've learned from my southern friends, who've grown up cooking grits, that the secret to good grits is to add the grits to the liquid mixture very slowly. Whisk them constantly while you're adding the grits, and cook them until they're very thick.

When you're just starting they'll look like this: ...

... and will look nice and thick like this when they're done:

Once your grits are cooked, stir in some Parmesan, cream cheese, chives, parsley, shrimp, and other good stuff.

Bake it up ...

... and serve up a big ol' plate full.  Then dig in to this creamy comfort food.  I like mine with a side of lima beans or sauteed cabbage.  Yuuuuuuuum. 
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Shrimp and Grits Casserole
Adapted from Cooking Light magazine
(Printable recipe)
2 c. milk (I use whole milk, but any 'slimmer' variety is fine too)
3/4 c. chicken broth
1 c. quick-cooking grits
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. shredded Parmesan cheese
2 T. butter
4 oz. cream cheese (less fat Neufchatel-type is fine)
1 or 2 T. chopped fresh chives (you can also use dried)
3 T. fresh parsley or 1 T. dried parsley
1 T. lemon juice
1 egg
1 lb. peeled shrimp, roughly chopped

1.  Bring milk and chicken broth to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Gradually add grits and salt to pan, stirring constantly with a whisk. Cook 5 minutes or until thick, stirring constantly.

2.  Remove grits from heat. Stir in Parmesan, butter, and cream cheese until melted; then stir in remaining ingredients.

3.  Spoon grits mixture into a 11x7" baking dish generously coated with cooking spray. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes, or until set and the top is just starting to get some golden brown areas.


March 9, 2012

No-Bake Chocolate Eclair Dessert

This classic No-Bake Chocolate Eclair Dessert is creamy, delicious, and comforting.  And it's ALWAYS a big hit!

 I've actually posted this deliciously creamy, comforting No-Bake Chocolate Eclair Dessert before.  Back in the first couple of months of the blog.  When I had like 2 followers.  And I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.  (Not that I really know what I'm doing now, either ... but I have learned at least a little bit in the past year!)   So since this is one of my all-time favorites, I decided it was worthy of posting again. 

And since it is one of my all-time favorites, I decided it was the perfect thing to post in conjunction with letting you know that I've updated my 'About Me' page.  Yup, I figured it was time.  After having the blog up and going for a year now, I think it's time I share a little bit more about myself with you.  So please click on over to the new-and-improved 'About Me' page to check me out!  Not literally, of course ... just to check out a little bit more about me.

And now back to our No-Bake Chocolate Eclair Dessert.

I mean seriously, can you say comfort food? And super easy? And super yummy? And chocolate-y?? Well, all those things are wrapped up together in this one creamy dessert. This is one of those been-around-forever recipes.  Somehow, though, I didn't learn about it until just a couple of years ago.  I was introduced to it by my mother-in-law, and after just one bite, I knew exactly why it's been around forever. Because it tastes so good!

Just look at those gorgeous, creamy layers.  And a chocolate topping sure doesn't hurt.

Now, I love to bake, and I certainly don't shy away from complex dessert recipes. But sometimes I want something tasty that just so happens to be easy, too. How 'bout you?

For this No-Bake Chocolate Eclair Dessert, you start with graham crackers, instant vanilla pudding, and Cool Whip . Mix the pudding and Cool Whip together - then resist the urge to dive in with a spoon and eat it all up at this point ... wait for the final product ... it's worth it, I promise.  Then layer this fluffy pudding mixture with the graham crackers. You just lay the whole graham cracker sheets in the pan and spread them with the pudding. How easy is that?

Once you're done your graham cracker and pudding layers, boil together some sugar with cocoa and milk, and then add some butter and vanilla.  Pour all that over the top graham cracker layer.

Now lick the spoon ... and the pudding bowl ... you deserve it.

Refrigerate the dessert over night, and then dig in!

You'll be surprised how yummy and satisfying this super-simple concoction is.  It's totally fabulous for pot-lucks.  And in our house it's not at all relegated to dessert ... Mark says it makes a great breakfast!  I wouldn't know.  (Okay ... I may be fibbing about that ...)

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No-Bake Chocolate Eclair Dessert
Source: My Mother-in-Law

2 (3.5 oz.) boxes vanilla instant pudding
3 c. milk
1 (8 oz.) container Cool Whip

1 c. sugar
1/4 c. milk
1 stick (1/2 c.) butter (or margarine)
1 tsp. vanilla

For the filling: 
1.  Combine pudding mix and milk; beat. Stir in Cool Whip. 

2.  Place a layer of graham crackers in the bottom of a 9x13" dish. Spread 1/2 of the pudding mixture over the graham crackers. Repeat with another layer of graham crackers and pudding; then top with a final layer of graham crackers.

For the topping: 
3.  Bring cocoa, milk, and sugar to a full rolling boil; boil about 1 minute, stirring very frequently. Remove from heat and cool one minute. Add butter and vanilla; stir until butter is melted. 

4.  Pour chocolate topping over the top layer of graham crackers. 

5.  Refrigerate over night.

Enjoy!  (Seriously, enjoy! ... this stuff is soooooo good.)

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Enjoy these other scrumptious no-bake desserts from The Kitchen is My Playground ...

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