Learning to bake fearlessly <3

One of my big cooking fears was caramel. How much do you cook it? What if it scorches? What if it crystallizes, or never thickens up in the first place? What if it tastes terrible?

Nevertheless, I got a craving the other day for spiked caramel sauce over vanilla ice cream–which oddly is something I’d never had before–so I decided to be brave. Learn to bake fearlessly, right?I googled up a recipe, went out for some heavy cream, and–caramel! It was nowhere near as hard as I thought it’d be, once I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. I actually thought it was a shade light, but it was still really good, at least as good as the bottled caramel sauce from the store. I had some over vanilla bean ice cream with my friend Beth, and it was good.

The recipe uses Barenjager, a honey liqueur that has good associations for me. For as long as I can remember, there’s been a bottle shaped like a cute beehive sitting with the liquor at my parents’ New Years Eve parties, which were always a ton of fun. And it goes great with the smooth caramel! But I bet any booze you choose would go just as well.

Honey liqueur spiked caramel sauce
5 tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 ounces Barenjager honey liqueur
1/4 tsp coarse salt
1.5 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
From Rachel Cooks

Combine butter, cream, vanilla, Barenjager, and salt in a small saucepan. Stick it on the stove over medium high heat until just boiling, stirring once in a while. Watch it carefully! It should be a nice yellow color from the butter.

Set that aside off the heat, and then combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water in a different saucepan. Stir til combined, then heat on the stove over medium high heat, this time without stirring. Watch it til it turns a nice gold (see picture).

When it’s the right color, take it off the heat and slowly pour the cream mixture in, whisking constantly. It will bubble up, so be prepared. Store in a heatproof container til thickened. Serve over vanilla bean ice cream, on apples, or however you like! Refrigerate when not eating.


My birthday’s coming up fast! I’m about to turn 21, the last of the “Oh boy! Now I can do things!” birthdays. It’s a milestone I’ve been looking forward to for a while, truth be told. There’s a kind of chocolate wine at the grocery store I’ve been eyeing up for ages. ;) And another milestone is coming with it! I’m making my own birthday cake this year. It’s kind of intimidating, but I think I can do it. And if I can’t, not a huge deal! That’s part of what this blog is about–learning to get past my mistakes and keep on baking fearlessly.

My original idea was to make a boozy cake, but I knew my little sister wouldn’t want to eat it then. So it became the practice cake. Funnily enough, I found the perfect filling recipe only about an hour before I decided to start baking! It was like it was meant just for me, decadent fudge with just a little bit of coffee to it. And the swiss meringue buttercream was an absolute must. I haven’t made it in ages, and it was high time to start again with it. I played with the recipe a little because I didn’t have quite enough eggs for my usual one, and I ended up liking it a lot! Note: the black flecks you see in the frosting are ground coffee. I threw some in, but I would omit it next time since it gave some bites a weird gritty texture. I’ve omitted it in the recipe. It comes out gorgeous, light and fluffy and deliciously tasting of kahlua. The chocolate cake is the first recipe I posted on the blog. The character on top is Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender, done in homemade marshmallow fondant (recipe to follow in another post). I’m on a huuuuuge Legend of Korra kick after the finale, so I’ve been rewatching both series lately. :D All together, it’s heavenly. And while it’s not perfect-looking, it’s pretty good for a first try! I’m completely satisfied. And I can only get better from here!

Dark chocolate cake
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup dutch-process cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 4.3 oz box chocolate pudding mix
2 eggs
1 cup black coffee
1 cup milk, room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Makes enough for two thick 8″ layers or three regular ones

Adapted from Sweetapolita

Preheat the oven to 350 F and grease or butter&flour your cake pans. Whisk together the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the wet ingredients and mix on lowest setting with the paddle attachment until just combined, then at medium speed (around 6 on a Kitchenaid mixer) for two minutes. The batter will be thin, that’s fine. Pour into your pans and bake around 37 minutes for a thick layer or 28 minutes for a thin one. Stick these in the freezer (if you plan to stack them, wrap in plastic wrap first) while you make the frosting and filling.

Kahlua espresso swiss meringue buttercream
8 large egg whites (set one yolk aside for the mocha fudge filling)
2 cups granulated sugar
6 sticks (2 pounds) unsalted butter, not cold, cut into cubes
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tbsp kahlua coffee liqueur
1 tbsp instant espresso (I used mocha flavor)
Makes enough to frost and fill an 8″ layer cake

I always cube and set out my butter on a plate first thing, and let it warm up while I work on the rest. Wipe out your mixer bowl and mixer attachments VERY well, making sure there’s no trace of grease. The first thing you’re going to do is make a meringue, and any grease could cause it to fail. Heat a large pot with an inch or so of water on the stove until it’s just simmering—we don’t want to cook our egg whites. Add the egg whites and sugar to your mixer bowl and whisk constantly until the sugar is melted and the egg whites are warm.

Stick your bowl on your mixer with whisk attachment and whip the egg/sugar mixture on medium-low (say 3 on a Kitchenaid) for a couple minutes, then switch to medium-high (say 7 or so on a Kitchenaid) until they’re white and fluffy, and the bowl is neutral to the touch. For me, it takes around 7-8 minutes. Voila! You made meringue. But it’s going to get even better still.

When the bowl feels room-temperature, switch to the paddle attachment on low speed and add your cubed butter one or two cubes at a time. This is the tricky part, and where it may look like everything’s gone wrong. At this stage, it is totally okay if your buttercream looks grainy, more like scrambled eggs. Trust me! Just keep whipping it, scraping the paddle clean if need be. Eventually, it will turn into creamy, smooth loveliness. Add your kahlua, espresso powder, vanilla, and salt, and whip it a bit longer, until they’re evenly incorporated. Transfer to a separate bowl and clean out your mixer for the next step!

Mocha fudge filling
6 ounces good semisweet chocolate
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 tablespoon instant espresso (again, I used mocha flavor)
Makes enough to fill between three layers of an 8″ cake

From Ina Garten

Chop and melt your chocolate in a double boiler or heatproof bowl over a pot of simmering water, then set aside to cool. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, whip your butter on medium high til it’s light and fluffy. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and keep beating until they’re completely mixed in, about three minutes. Slow your mixer to low speed and gradually add your powdered sugar until it’s completely incorporated and creamy. Then make sure your chocolate has cooled to room temperature, and add it and the espresso (dissolved in two tsp of hot but not boiling water) to the filling, and mix on low speed.

Assembling the cake
Remove your cake layers from the freezer and slap a ring of frosting on the cake board to keep the cake in place, then place the first layer in the middle of the board. Pipe a ring of kahlua frosting around the very edge, then fill the middle with mocha filling, smoothing it. Stack the next layer on top (if you plan on doing three layers, repeat the filling step and place the top layer on), and smooth a very thin layer of frosting over the cake, making sure to cover it all. It’s all right if you get some crumbs in it. This is called crumb coating, and it’s important if you want a pretty, crumb-free finish. Stick it in the fridge for about half an hour to an hour to set up. Once it’s set, smooth the final layer of frosting over, decorate with fondant or frosting as desired, then pipe borders around the top and bottom. I used a small closed star tip for the top (and the flame in Azula’s hand) and a round tip for the bottom, with frosting tinted blue.

I had a strange dream last night. I usually do, vivid dreams that are almost more movie than imagination. Part of last night’s entertainment was, a kid visited me at my house and wanted to make vanilla cupcakes with chocolate meringue filling in a heart shape. Always up for a baking challenge, I attempted it–only to make a silly rookie mistake with the meringue and fail.

I woke up full of purpose, ready to redeem myself by excelling in reality. The vanilla cupcakes came out amazingly, the recipe’s definitely a keeper. The first batch of meringue…less so. But that was 100% because of a faulty recipe. It called for 1/16th the required amount of cream of tartar. I hate that. But it tasted good at least! Undaunted, I googled around and more or less came up with my own approximation of a recipe. And it turned out great! I filled the cupcakes, stuck the failed meringue in the freezer (hey…it tasted like chocolate popsicles, maybe it’ll turn out like a chocolate sorbet?), and the unused successful meringue got turned into cookies. All in all, a very successful day of baking. And if there’s a kid out there that dreamed of meringue cupcakes–this one’s for you!

Perfect vanilla cupcakes
5 large egg whites, at room temperature
3/4 cup milk, at room temperature, separated into 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup
2 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
2 3/4 cups cake flour, sifted (I used a conversion, 1 cup of cake flour = 3/4 cup all purpose flour plus 2 tbsp cornstarch)
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 tbsp + 1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
12 tbsp unsalted butter (3 sticks), at room temperature and cut into cubes

From Sweetapolita

Makes about 2 dozen cupcakes

Preheat your oven to 350 F and line your cupcake pan with cute liners.

In a medium bowl, combine the egg whites, 1/4 cup milk, and vanilla. Grab your stand mixer and stir together the flour (or substitute), sugar, baking powder, and salt in the bowl. Add the butter and remaining milk and mix together on medium til well combined, about a minute and a half. Add the egg mixture in three batches, scraping down the mixer bowl and mixing until just combined. Scoop your batter into your baking cups and bake 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Be careful not to overbake! This is a delicate recipe.

Chocolate meringue
6 egg whites
3/4 tsp cream of tartar
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup dark cocoa powder

Original recipe

In the wiped-down clean bowl of a mixer with the whisk attachment, combine the egg whites and cream of tartar, and whip on medium-high til the egg whites begin to build. In a separate medium bowl, mix the sugar and cocoa powder together, then add it to the egg whites in three batches, continuing to whip, scraping down the sides between additions, and mixing until completely combined. Let the meringue build to stiff fluffy peaks, then use to fill cupcakes. Take a heart-shaped (or any shape, really!) cookie or fondant cutter and make a well in the top of the cupcake, then fill liberally with meringue.

Leftover meringue can be spooned onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and baked for roughly an hour at 200 F to make meringue cookies!

Konpeito cupcakes

This week was rough on the baking front. I started out full of enthusiasm, ready to tackle a cupcake idea I’d had for weeks, and excited. I put on Stargate (mmmmmm Jaye Davidson, the perfect baking companion) and set out to make cupcakes.

It did not go as planned. We all make mistakes, and I saw this exact one on Cupcake Champions not long after–putting in baking soda when baking powder was called for. And of course I didn’t realize it til after the cupcakes were baked. So when I bit into them to find a confection that tasted more like my vanilla hand soap (protip: too much baking soda makes cupcakes that taste like bitter soap), I was discouraged. I may have pouted at the boytoy for a bit.

But, gotta get back on the horse! I tried again this morning and was met with sweet vanilla success! This cupcake is a bit dense and thick, but tasty nonetheless, and if you’re after a more dense, moist crumb, this recipe will serve admirably. I only changed the frosting a bit, to make it less sugary sweet.

As for the pretty little candies on top? They’re these!

Little Japanese candies called konpeito. They’re essentially rock candy balls, sometimes flavored, but I like them best plain. I was introduced to them through Sailor Moon when I was a kid! But the more famous anime association with them comes from Spirited Away, where the soot spirits loved the little candies.

I order them online and I love them. And they look great as cupcake decorations!

Vanilla Cupcakes
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
¼ cup milk
From Annie’s Eats

Makes about 12 cupcakes

Preheat the oven to 350F and line your cupcake pan with cute liners.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together your butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat the eggs in one at a time, scraping down the mixer bowl after each one, and then the vanilla extract. In a medium bowl, add together the flour, baking powder (NOT soda!) and salt, and whisk together. Add half of it to the butter mixture, mix it up on low, and then the milk and the other half of the flour. The batter should be thick. Scoop it into the cupcake liners–bear in mind it rises only a little–and bake for 18 to 20 minutes.

Vanilla Buttercream
2 ½ sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 ½ cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp heavy cream
Adapted from Annie’s Eats

Makes more than enough for a dozen cupcakes

Once your butter is nice and soft, cut it into cubes and whip it on medium in the bowl of a stand mixer til smooth. Add the powdered sugar and salt and whip til the dry ingredients are moistened. Scrape down the bowl and keep going until the ingredients are all combined. Then add the vanilla and cream, keep whipping on medium until it’s incorporated, then add coloring if desired, increase speed to medium-high, and keep whipping until the buttercream is light and fluffy.

I used a large closed-star tip to pipe the frosting on, and this was my first time using an actual frosting bag instead of my mechanical one! I felt very accomplished. Enjoy!

I’m back home and mostly recovered! That trip was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was so worth it. I met amazing friends, both old and new (and my big sister!), and saw so much of the country! I’ve officially touched both coasts now.

I hit eleven tour stops all told, including the Vegas stop that was added after they made this map. The schedule was tough–every morning we’d have to get up around six, to be ready to go around seven AM. Then we’d have an eight to ten hour drive, and get to the theater two hours before the show to set up. We got so good at setting up merch displays.

During the show, we’d do whatever was needed–mostly selling merch and corralling fans, with occasional tasks like picking up dinner or making character card packs. The meet and greets at the end would usually get over anywhere from midnight to 2 AM, leaving us only a few hours to get back to the hotel room or friend’s house we were staying at and pass out, to get ready to do it again the next day! Tough schedule, but you do what you gotta do, right? Totally worth it. I worked with some wonderful people that I hope will be friends for a long time, and the energy at the stops was just amazing. Everyone was having a good time, excited and happy, and glad to be there. I tried to say at least a few words to every person that came through my line.

(Myself, Kimmie, and Shi being silly at the merch table while Kessie looks on judging us.)

And I even managed to get in some baking! Kessie’s mom’s birthday was a few days after we left, so I made her some cupcakes, plus some for us on the road. Hers were turtle cupcakes (devil’s food cupcakes with pecans baked on top, with caramel and chocolate ganache), and ours were simply devil’s food with chocolate ganache. We gave some to the tour team, and we were told they were inhaled. No pics since I was exhausted by the time they were finished, after the first show.

But that’s a few days gone already, and my baking fingers got itchy, so I whipped something up last night! I made this maple whipped cream with my sister ages ago, but this time I added more syrup and thought it was sooooo much better. But then, I’m a maple fiend. And maple+strawberries? Delicious! Who’d’a thunk?

Maple Whipped Cream
Adapted from JustJenn Recipes

4 cups heavy whipping cream
6 tbsp powdered sugar
6 tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla

Pour the cream into a cold stand-mixer bowl and whip it on medium-high til it starts to thicken. Then add the powdered sugar, maple syrup, and vanilla, and whip on high til you have a nice whipped cream. Don’t overwhip or it’ll get grainy–I overdid it just a bit, but not too badly. Eh, learning experience! And it still tastes lovely.

Then take your strawberries and wash them, cut off the stems, and core them. Sit them on their flat sides and cut halfway down the strawberry in an X shape. Then put your whipped cream in a piping bag and fill from the bottom so that the cream comes through the slits. Best enjoyed on the same day as made. I topped them with disco dust and a sugar heart.

It has been one hell of a week, y’all–no pun intended. Sorry for my silence! But I’ve been on the road for most of this week, first with a friend and then all by my lonesome, helping out with The Devil’s Carnival road tour! I’ve met so many lovely and excited fans, seen the movie three times, helped move and pack and unpack and sell more merch than I’d even know what to do with, met Emilie Autumn and Briana Evigan and Spooky Dan Walker and Terrance Zdunich and Darren Bousman (and if you don’t know who any of these are, shame on you for not clicking my links!), gotten more hugs than I’ve ever gotten in my life, and learned to use a big fancy intimidating camera.

I’ve been in a car or bus or train for 22 hours total this week, with lots of walking and waiting (I waited the whole night in a train station! It was an adventure!), and my feet and calves and ankles are killing me, but I’ve had so much fun. The Devil’s Carnival is 100% worth the trek and the money, and you’ll come out singing.

Welcome to my games, you gay and lucky souls! Er…I mean my blog. You see, I’ve been listening to The Devil’s Carnival soundtrack endlessly for the week it’s been out. I’m addicted. The voice talent in this movie is tremendous, and the soundtrack manages to paint a vivid picture of the plot before you even hit a theater. I can’t decide which is my favorite, but Trust Me, the Scorpion’s song, is definitely waaaaay up there. The man has a gorgeously angelic voice, and the lyrics are shiveringly intense.

The Scorpion

So for his cupcake recipe, I wanted to preserve that sweet and dark quality. And I think I managed it! Better Than Sex cake (devil’s food cake, with toffee mixed in and caramel sauce on top, allowed to soak into the cake), topped with sweet vanilla pastry cream and bittersweet chocolate ganache. It ends up perfectly satisfying and delicious. I topped it with a tiny fondant scorpion, and put edible glitter on some. I mean, the blog is called Sugar and Spice and Everything Sparkly—I gotta start living up to the name! ;) And everything’s better with glitter.

That said, this recipe (fittingly) gave me hell. The cupcakes and ganache went fine, but oh my god the pastry cream. It just would not thicken! I know what I did wrong, though, and I’ll discuss it in the recipe. I finished around midnight and promptly collapsed onto my bed—but not before grabbing a cupcake. Worth it? 100%. And now I know how to do it right for next time!

This recipe is in several parts, so I’ll write them in the order they need to be made.

Better Than Sex cupcakes with vanilla pastry cream and chocolate ganache
Makes about 18 cupcakes, topped
Recipes from Tumblr, Allrecipes, and Annie’s Eats

Vanilla pastry cream
2 cups half-and-half
½ cup sugar, divided into 6 tbsp and 2 tbsp
Pinch of salt
5 large egg yolks
3 tbsp cornstarch
4 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1½ tsp vanilla extract

Heat the half and half, 6 tbsp of sugar, and salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring once in a while, until simmering. Things I learned yesterday: cream takes forever to heat up. While you’re doing this, mix the egg yolks and remaining 2 tbsp sugar in a medium bowl. Add the cornstarch and mix until uniform. When the half&half mixture is done simmering, add it slowly to the eggs, whisking so you don’t scramble them. Transfer the mixture to the pan again and heat it on the stove on medium, whisking, until the mixture is thickened and bubbling a little. This is where I screwed up. The recipe I used says about 30 seconds, but by then my cream was nowhere near simmering or thick. I figured it was better not to burn it, and that it would thicken up in the fridge. I was wrong. Simmer it as long as it takes to thicken up. Then take it off the heat and whisk in the butter and vanilla. Once they’re incorporated, strain it through a wire mesh and chill it in the fridge (with plastic wrap over top so it doesn’t form a skin) for at least three hours before using.

While that’s chilling, make your cupcakes.

Better Than Sex cupcakes
For the cupcakes:
9 tablespoons dark (dutch-process) cocoa powder
1 1/2 cup all purpose flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup strong coffee
1/2 cup milk
1 cup toffee bits (I used 1/2 cup, but I feel like it needed more)

For the caramel drizzle:
3/4 cup caramel sauce
3/4 cup heavy cream

Line your cupcake tin and preheat oven to 350 F. Whisk together your cocoa, flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder in a medium bowl and set aside. Cream your butter and sugar together in the bowl of a stand mixer until fluffy. Then add your eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides to make sure everything’s incorporated. When that’s a pale yellow paste, combine your coffee and milk in a separate cup. Add first half your flour mixture to the mixer bowl, mix it up, scrape the sides, add your coffeemilk, scrape the sides, and then add the rest of the flour mixture and mix until combined. You should have a nice thick batter. Fold in the toffee bits, then scoop into cupcake liners and bake 22-25 minutes.

While they’re baking, make your caramel sauce. Heat the cream and caramel sauce in a saucepan over medium to medium-high heat, until combined and thin. Cut slits into the tops of warm cupcakes and spoon a bit of caramel ganache on top while they’re still warm (not too much, or you’ll soak your liners).

Chocolate ganache
9 oz bittersweet chocolate
1 cup heavy cream

You’re in the home stretch! Chop your chocolate and place it in a medium heat-safe bowl. Heat the cream over medium-high heat to a boil, but watch it carefully so it doesn’t boil over. Pour it over the chopped chocolate and stir til it’s melted and smooth. Let it cool for a moment.

Smooth your pastry cream over the cooled cupcakes and pour chocolate ganache on top. Then grab a cupcake to enjoy because you deserve it, and pop over to The Devil’s Carnival forum, buy the soundtrack so you can swoon over Trust Me, or buy your tickets to the road tour!