Box Cupcakes with Chocolate Frosting

I’m about to share a deep, dark secret with you…sometimes I cheat on my baking. I know, I know, I’m despicable. But what’s worked for Mom for 30+ years certainly can’t be wrong, right?

We’re hosting a gamewatch today (GO IRISH!), and I wanted a no fuss dessert for our fellow ND fans. I don’t know how that box of Duncan Hines yellow cake mix got onto my pantry shelf, but it was a good find this morning. As you probably already guessed, I don’t make many things that come out of a box — especially not when I’m baking. I blame/credit my mother today.

For easy piping of the frosting, cut the tip off the end of a gallon plastic bag and add the tip.

Hold the bag near the tip, then fold the top down over your hand to add the frosting without making a mess.

Gently fold up the top of the bag and twist just above the frosting, so you can easily maneuver the flow of frosting as well as the tip.

She still makes our birthday cakes every year using exactly the same “recipe”: a box of Duncan Hines yellow cake mix baked in a 9×13-inch pan and the recipe for chocolate frosting from her Betty Crocker cookbook. It’s a-ma-zing. I can’t imagine a more perfect birthday cake. I love you Mama!

You can see how sad and runny the frosting is here — there’s no definition from the tip’s design.

But I was still able to have fun with my writing tip:)

For some fun today, I made the cake mix into 24 cupcakes, then piped the frosting onto them. However, the baking gods didn’t seem to like my decision to bake-from-a-box, and the frosting came out too runny. This is also punishment for not making the frosting the way Mom does with melted chocolate. I used cocoa instead. They still taste good, which is why I’m posting the “recipe” anyway – though I’ve modified it to prevent you from dealing with runny frosting:)

P.S. GO IRISH! Did I say that already?

Box Cupcakes with Chocolate Frosting

brought to you by: Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker


Box of Duncan Hines yellow cake mix.

  • Follow the directions, but only cook for 16 minutes to prevent the cupcakes from drying out.
  • Cool completely on a rack before frosting.


3 cups powdered sugar

1/3 cup butter or margarine (Mom always uses Blue Bonnet and promises it’s the trick), softened

2 tsp. vanilla

3 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate, melted and cooled OR 1/3 cup baking cocoa

3 to 4 tbsp. milk

  • Beat powdered sugar and butter until blended. Mix in vanilla and chocolate.
  • Gradually beat in milk one tablespoon at a time — to avoid my mistake, add it one tablespoon at a time and stop with the frosting is just smooth and spreadable!
  • Use a knife, offset icing spatula or fun icing tips (that’s how I got all the writing and silly designs) to frost the cupcakes.

Banana Bread

When I first moved to NH to begin my graduate school career seven (yes, I said 7) years ago, I lived with a fantastic family. I learned many things in that glorious neighborhood — how to appreciate bourbon, how to build a fort using a clothesline, how to love your children without smothering them…too much, and what great dads are made of. Like most of the other dads on the street, the father of the family I lived with did most of the cooking. Luckily, he liked company in the kitchen, so I sat and chatted with him about teaching and literature while he taught me to love food. He also taught me a heap of kitchen tricks that I still use today. (Mark, if you’re reading, I think of you every time I chop onions and smash garlic…which is just about every day.)

One of the simplest and most rewarding tricks I learned was to freeze mushy bananas. I think it’s pretty common practice for the last banana or two to get pitched after being ignored for a day too long. Fortunately, if you eat bananas you probably also like banana bread, so instead of tossing those too-ripe fruits throw them in the freezer until you’ve collected 4-5. Then, make this simple, but delicious banana bread recipe.

Let the frozen bananas thaw for a couple of hours (beware, they will be slimy and a little gross looking), them open one end, squeeze out the fruit, and continue as directed below. I assure you the bread tastes just as delicious with these bananas!

Banana Bread
adapted slightly from Better Homes and Gardens’ New CookBook

2 cups flour
1½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
2 eggs, beaten
1½ cups mashed ripe banana, 5 medium
¾ cup granulated sugar, scant
½ cup melted butter or margarine
¼ cup toasted walnuts, chopped, optional

Optional Streusel Topping
¼ cup brown sugar
3 tbsp flour
2 tbsp room temperature butter

  • Preheat oven to 350 F.
  • Grease bottom and 1/2 inch up the sides of a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan; set aside.
  • In a large bowl combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and set aside.
  • In a medium bowl combine eggs, banana, sugar, and oil. Add egg mixture to flour mixture. Stir until moistened – batter will be lumpy. If using walnuts, fold them in.
  • For an added crunch and sweetness make the streusel topping! Combine brown sugar and flour, then cut in the butter using a pastry blender.
  • Spoon batter into prepared pan. If desired, sprinkle streusel topping over batter.
  • Bake for 55-65 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then remove from pan and let cool completely.

Ina’s Chicken Pot Pie

There’s a chill in the air and I can think of no better way to welcome Fall than cooking up some piping hot comfort food. And I can’t think of many dishes more comforting than chicken pot pie. This recipe is a classic from the kitchen of one Miss Ina Garten – an idol of mine worthy of her position atop the domestic culinary world.

While these pot pies can be time consuming when done all in one day, they are totally worth it! I usually shy away from any dish that takes more than 45 minutes of attention, so I’ve found ways to put these together without committing an entire afternoon to their construction.

For instance, instead of roasting chicken breasts just for this recipe I will sometimes plan (you can see how I meal plan here) to make a dish early in the week that requires cooked, cubed chicken – like chicken quesadillas or penne alla vodka – and just cook up some extra meat. It’s amazing how much time this saves in an otherwise long process. However, if you have the time roasting keeps the chicken moist and flavorful, so roasting extra breasts early in the week to use for those other dishes is a great idea, too.

No need to be perfect with the pastry – rustic-looking edges are good!

Additionally, I will often double the pastry recipe and freeze the extra dough for quick assembly the next time. And because I’m often cooking for two, I usually only make four pies and freeze the extra filling as well. This gives me a quick go-to meal for impromptu dinner parties.

I use 8oz ramekins and can get 8-10 pies out of this recipe.

One more note: this recipe is THE ABSOLUTE BEST WAY TO EAT LEFTOVER THANKSGIVING TURKEY. I’m not kidding. Ask my family. I made two large (about 1&1/2 quarts each) turkey pot pies on the day after Thanksgiving last year and everyone was in heaven. I’m convinced that what makes this great is that my family only eats white meat, so all of the tender, juicy, most flavorful meat is left for a decadent pot pie. And, of course, the amount of butter in this recipe also gets credit:)

The hubby wanted to be involved, but remain anonymous…that and he’s just a silly kind of guy.

Chicken Pot Pie
from Ina Garten

6 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
3 tbsp olive oil
5 cups good chicken stock
2 chicken bouillon cubes or 4 tsp “Better than Bouillon”
12 tbsp unsalted butter
2 cups yellow onions, chopped (2 medium onions)
¾ cup flour
¼ cup heavy cream
2 cups carrots, medium-diced and blanched for 2 minutes or microwaved for 1 minute (4 medium carrots)
10 oz frozen peas
1½ cups frozen small whole onions (optional)
½ cup fresh parsley, minced
3 cups flour
1½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup cold butter, diced
½ – cup ice water
1 egg
1 tbsp water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Roast the Chicken
Place the chicken breasts on a baking sheet and rub them with olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, or until cooked through. Set aside until cool enough to handle, then remove the meat from the bones and discard the skin. Cut the chicken into large dice. You will have 4 to 6 cups of chicken.

Mix the Pastry
Mix the flour, salt, and baking powder in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the butter a few pieces at a time, pulsing in between each addition. Pulse 10 times, or until the fat is the size of peas. With the motor running, add the ice water; process only enough to moisten the dough and have it just come together. Dump the dough out onto a floured board and knead quickly into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow it to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Create the Filling
In a small saucepan, heat the chicken stock and dissolve the bouillon in the stock. In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter and saute the onions over medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until translucent. Add the flour and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the hot chicken stock to the sauce (or vice versa). Simmer over low heat for 1 minute, stirring, until thick. Add 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and heavy cream. Add the cubed chicken,carrots, peas, onions and parsley. Mix well.

Construct and Cook the Pies
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Mix egg and water in small bowl for egg wash and set aside. Divide the filling equally among ovenproof bowls. Divide the dough into the same number of pieces as bowls and roll each piece into a 6-8 inch circle. Brush the outside edges of each bowl with the egg wash, then place the dough on top. Press the dough to fold over the side and make it stick. Brush the dough with egg wash and make 3 slits in the top. Sprinkle with sea salt and cracked pepper (optional). Place on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour, or until the top is golden brown and the filling is bubbling hot.

Mini Apple Pies: Perfect for a Picnic

I never blog while I’m cooking, but I’m making an exception tonight. What’s the special occasion? What has happened to make me suddenly start posting again? Well, I’ll tell you.


In my baking and cooking adventures, I rarely stray from recipes until I’ve tried them once. Let’s just say that past experimentation in the kitchen has led to more take-out pizza than I’d like to admit. BUT NOT TONIGHT! Tonight I was inspired by a recipe, but wanted to change it…and this time it actually worked. I’m guessing there are other fledgling home cooks out there who understand the true elation that a culinary moment like this brings.


I am so thrilled by this pleasant development that I’m sharing it with you immediately — at the moment I’m waiting on my first attempt at “Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic” to finish simmering and just to be safe, I’m crossing my fingers on that one too. My pie recipe was inspired by Giada deLaurentis’ Baby Strawberry and Honey Pies. After reading some reviews, I decided not to make those, but stored away the idea because who doesn’t like mini pies? Fast-forward to today when I was coming up with ideas for a picnic dinner with my hubby. As it happens, the hub’s favorite dessert is apple pie. Blah, blah, blah. Insert some recipe re-making genius and I give you MY Mini Apple Pies.

Mini Apple Pies
yield: 12

1 Granny Smith apple, cored, peeled, and cut into 1/4 inch pieces

1/8 cup granulated sugar

1/8 cup brown sugar

1&1/2 tsp. flour

dash of lemon juice

heaping 1/4 tsp. cinnamon

2 dashes cloves (optional)

2 dashes nutmeg

1/2 tbsp. butter, cut into teensy pieces

1 pkg. Pillsbury pie crusts

1 egg, lightly beaten for an egg wash

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  • Using a 2-inch biscuit cutter, jar, or cup cut 12 circles out of the dough to use for your bottom pie crust. Gently press them into a mini muffin pan.
  • Bake for 6-8 minutes until golden.
  • While the bottom crusts are baking, stir together apples, sugars, flour, lemon juice, and spices in a medium bowl and set aside.
  • Using a slightly smaller biscuit cutter, jar, or cup, cut 12 more circles out of the dough for the top crust.
  • Once the bottom crusts are done, place a tiny bit of butter in the bottom of each.
  • Fill each crust with the apple mixture. (There will be some mixture left over. I suggest saving that for later in the week, then cooking it in a pan on the stove until it’s nice and gooey. This makes a great ice cream sundae topping.)
  • Top each pie with a smaller dough circle and gently press the edges together. Don’t worry about being precise here; on several of the pies, I ended up attaching the top crust more to the pan than the bottom crust and they still came out great:)
  • Brush the top of each pie with egg wash. Cut a small slit in the top of each, so the steam can escape.
  • Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden brown. Let cool slightly, then remove gently.

I hope these are as much of a success for you as they have been for me. Now if only the hubby would get home soon so I can eat more of these!

For my other sister: Strawberry Cake

Re-post with photos! I made this cake again today for someone’s birthday and it came out beautifully. Read on for a delicious and EASY cake recipe that will please any strawberry lover.

My house smells like fresh strawberry jam and cake!

From November: I know this is out of season right now, but I couldn’t stand the idea of posting a recipe for one sister and not the other:) So, biggest big sis, this one’s for you. We all know how much you love strawberry shortcake (even though you’re terribly allergic to those ruby red, sumptuous pieces of heaven), so I thought I’d offer an option that uses up strawberries that are a bit past their prime.

Here, strawberries are baked directly into the cake of “strawberry shortcake,” so you get the sensation of that summer dessert in every bit. The best part is that the cake isn’t overly sweet, so the fully berry flavor really comes through.

This simple and light, buttery cake is chucked-full with tender almost jam-like strawberries that melt in your mouth. It’s perfect for a mid-day snack or picnic and gorgeous enough for a dinner party.

Prettily patterned berries

Summer Strawberry Cake
adapted slightly from smittenkitchen

6 tbsp softened butter,  plus extra for greasing pan

1½ cups flour

1½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

¾ cup sugar, plus 2 tbsp

1 egg

½ cup milk

1 tsp vanilla

1 lb strawberries, hulled and halved

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10″ pie pan. (I used a regular round cake pan and it worked just fine. I believe a spring-form pan would also work well.)
  • Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in a small bowl.
  • In a larger bowl, beat butter and 3/4 cup sugar until pale and fluffy with an electric mixer, about 3 minutes. Mix in egg, milk, and vanilla until just combined. Add dry mixture gradually, mixing until just smooth.
  • Pour batter into the prepared pie plate. Arrange strawberries, cut side down on top of batter. Place them as close together as possible in a single layer (the more strawberries, the better here! I had to overlap some to get the whole pound to fit, and the cake was better for it). Sprinkle remaining 2 tbsp. of sugar over berries.
  • Bake cake for 10 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Continue to bake for an additional 50-60 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the cake batter comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow cake to cool in the pan on a rack.

Cut cake into wedges and serve with whipped cream or powdered sugar.

Penne alla Vodka

Unhealthy days call for hearty meals. Yesterday I finally emerged from the throes of my first adult ear infection. I hadn’t used my kitchen for much past a smoothie and some tea for days and I was dying for real sustenance. Thank heavens I had this recipe for penne alla vodka waiting in the wings.

I added the chicken early this time, but it didn’t make any difference, so you can just add it at the end:)

I like to think of this dish as adult comfort food — it has all the familiarity of a pot of spaghetti and meatballs or a casserole of baked ziti, but with the punch of some flavors I didn’t start to appreciate until after college. And best of all, it’s easy-peasy, only takes 30 minutes, and the ingredients should be easily found in your pantry and fridge.

Spoon-lickingly tasty vodka sauce

The recipe calls for penne obviously, but last night I decided that the pieces of sun-dried tomato in the sauce deserved a wider tubed pasta because the smaller penne tube doesn’t allow for enough pieces to get trapped inside. Also, the original recipe doesn’t call for chicken (and believe me, the pasta stands very well on its own), but we’re carnivores in this house, so I usually saute some in olive oil with salt and pepper for added protein. And, finally, don’t be tempted to use bottom shelf vodka here — you’ll be rewarded with a harsh sauce that burns your throat. Use decent vodka and give it the full 12-15 minutes to simmer and you’ll be rewarded with a silky, rich sauce that you’ll want to lick off your plate when all the pasta’s gone.

Penne alla Vodka
from Cook’s Country (June/July 2011)

1 tbsp olive oil

3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

¼ tsp red pepper flakes

1 (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes

½ cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, rinsed and chopped fine

½ cup vodka

¾ cup heavy cream



1 lb penne

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1″ pieces (optional)

cup fresh basil, minced

  • Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in large pot. Meanwhile, heat oil in 12″ skillet over medium heat until shimmering.
  • If adding chicken, heat 1 tbsp. vegetable or olive oil in skillet, salt and pepper chicken pieces, and saute until cooked through.
  • Add garlic and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 3o seconds.
  • Add crushed tomatoes and sundried tomatoes and cook until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.
  • Take skillet off the heat and add vodka.
  • Bring sauce to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and simmer until thickened, 12-15 minutes.
  • Take skillet of the heat again and stir in the cream.
  • Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and keep warm.
  • Add pasta and 1 tbsp. salt to boiling water and cook according to package instructions.
  • Reserve 1/4 cup cooking water, then drain pasta and add to the sauce in the skillet. Add basil and optional chicken and toss until pasta is covered. Add reserved pasta water as needed for moisture.

EASY Chicken Vindaloo: Restaurant Quality Indian at Home

This one’s for the hubby. He really loves Indian food, but it’s been in the “intimidating” category of food for me for years. That is, it was stuck there until I finally faced my fear yesterday and plunged into a fantastic Indian cookbook by the fabulous Madhur Jaffrey. If Indian food is something you love, but you’ve never attempted it because its flavors seem so complicated, then this is a great first dish to attempt. Also, I think this would make an excellent dish to take to a potluck in a CrockPot.

Instead of tooting my own horn here, allow me to toot Ms. Jaffrey’s instead. Her cookbook, Quick and Easy Indian Cooking, truly lives up to its title. Its pages are filled with simple, yet authentic Indian recipes and gorgeous photos that make you want to jump up and cook immediately. And jump you should because this vindaloo tastes just as good as what you can get at an Indian restaurant and only costs a few dollars since you likely already have all of the ingredients on hand (the only thing I had to buy was chicken and turmeric!).

Spice paste.

Vindaloo is a spicy dish, but the heat is easily controlled here by increasing or decreasing the cayenne pepper. Jaffrey recommends starting with 1/2 teaspoon, but since the hubby likes some heat, I added 1.5 teaspoons and we were rewarded with just the right balance (for us) of complex flavor and spice.

The sweet and savory aroma of coconut and spice.

I wouldn’t be surprised if several other Indian dishes make an appearance here soon:)

Chicken Vindaloo
from Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking (BUY THIS NOW!)

1½ tbsp grainy mustard

1½ tsp ground cumin

1½ tsp ground turmeric

1½ tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp salt

1 tsp red wine vinegar

3 tbsp vegetable oil

1 small onion, sliced into thin half rings

6 large garlic cloves, pressed and crushed with your knife blade

1¼ lbs chicken (or boned shoulder of pork or lamb), cut into 1 inch cubes

cup canned coconut milk, well stirred

1 cup water

  • Combine the mustard, cumin, turmeric, cayenne pepper, salt, and red wine vinegar in a small bowl.
  • Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until they take on a medium brown color.
  • Add garlic to skillet and cook until fragrant (~30 seconds). Add the spice paste and cook for another minute.
  • Add the meat and cook for about 3 minutes – just to sear the outside.
  • Stir in the coconut milk and water. (If you want to use a pressure cooker instead, use only 2/3 cup water and transfer to pressure cooker now.)
  • Cover and bring to a boil. (Or bring up to pressure in cooker.)
  • Lower the heat and simmer for 60-70 minutes. (Or 20 minutes in the cooker.)

Serve over your favorite rice – ours is jasmine.