By Tim Bruderek

For most people, holiday desserts don’t include cupcakes. But Chef Melanie Underwood‘s “Holiday Cupcakes Workshop” helped this non-believer (and non-baker) realize that the cupcake is an excellent format for the festive flavors we all know and love.

Chef Melanie and students mix up a few batches of batter.

Chef Melanie and students mix up a few batches of batter.

As mentioned, I’m a self-proclaimed “non-baker.” I have confidence in my savory skills, but when it comes to flour, eggs and sugar, my knowledge leaves something to be desired. So I brought along my fiancée, who loves to bake – especially cupcakes. She’s always testing out new flavors and techniques, making the class a fun way to kick off our first holiday as an engaged couple.

Chef Melanie taught us to integrate gingerbread, eggnog, peppermint and cocoa into a range of simple, seasonal recipes, while sharing a wide range of general baking tips. For example, I learned how to whip up silky meringues, proper pastry piping technique, the importance of mise en place, and options for ingredient subsitutions (yogurt or sour cream for buttermilk).

After mixing our batters and placing them in the oven, we learned that when it comes to baking cupcakes, time is truly relative. The best way to tell when the cakes are done is to press them with your finger. If they spring back to the touch, they are ready. If you leave a fingerprint, they’re not done yet. After taking them out of the oven, it’s best to let the cupcakes rest for a few minutes in the pan, before transferring them to a cake rack (so the air can flow to the bottom of the cupcakes).
pipingcupcakes

Next came the whimsical decorations. The “hot cocoa” cupcake was topped with a few mini-marshmallows and a candy cane “straw” or “handle” to make it look like a steaming cup of hot chocolate. The egg nog cakes were sprinkled with nutmeg (and a healthy splash of rum), evoking all the flavors of our favorite warming drink in a single bite.

Not only did I enjoy whipping up these impressive holiday cupcakes, but I’ve gained the confidence to lend my fiancée a hand in all her future baking experiments. Below, I share my favorite of the recipes, compliments of Chef Melanie.

GINGERBREAD CUPCAKES WITH CREAM CHEESE ICING

Yield: Makes about 20 cupcakes

Ingredients

  • 2¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1½ teaspoons ground cloves
  • 12 tablespoons (6 ounces) room temperature unsalted butter
  • ¾ cup molasses
  • ¾ cup light brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • ¾ cup buttermilk

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F; Line pans with cupcake liners.
  2. In a large bowl combine the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon and cloves; set aside.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment cream together the butter, molasses and sugar until light and fluffy, 5 to 10 minutes.
  4. Add the eggs one at a time and mix well.
  5. Add one-third of the dry ingredients and mix, add one-half of the buttermilk, and continue alternating dry with wet, finishing with dry.
  6. Spoon or pipe the batter into prepared cake pans and place in the oven. Bake until the cakes spring back when touched, 20 to 25 minutes for large cupcakes.

Cream Cheese Icing:

  • 12 tablespoons (6 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 pounds (32 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

In the bowl of an electric mixer combine butter and cream cheese and beat until light and fluffy, about 10 minutes. Add in the sugar and vanilla and beat until smooth. Top each cake with an icing and serve.

Yesterday, ICE hosted a very special class with the reigning Miss USA, Alyssa Campanella. The baking class raised funds for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, a non-profit dedicated to raising funds for pediatric cancer research through bake sales.

Alyssa was named Miss USA in June 2011 and since then has been working as a spokeswoman for cancer education and research. In her free time, Alyssa also has a great love of cooking and baking. In fact you may have seen her competing on Rachael vs. Guy Celebrity Cook-Off earlier this year.

Yesterday, she combined her passion for food and her charitable work by teaming up with Gretchen Holt-Witt, who was inspired by her son Liam’s battle with cancer to create Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, and ICE Chef Instructor Melanie Underwood to lead a special holiday class filled with cookies, friends, and good times. Alyssa even brought her mom with her to class! More…

This weekend, ICE hosted Cookies for Kids: A Bake Sale, a unique opportunity to learn some new recipes and skill as well as support a great organization. Chef Instructor Melanie Underwood walked the class through an assortment of cookies from Gretchen Holt-Witt’s cookbook, Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Best Bake Sale Cookbook. Every student in the class also received a copy of the book — whose author donates 100 percent of royalties to pediatric cancer research.

The book’s royalties go to Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, a charity committed to raising funds to support research for new and improved therapies for pediatric cancer. Cookies for Kids’ Cancer was started by Gretchen Holt-Witt and Larry Witt after they were inspired by their son Liam’s battle with cancer. They were shocked to learn that over 25% of kids diagnosed with cancer do not survive due to lack of effective therapies and they decided to help increase funding for research. Since then, Cookies for Kids’ Cancer has been raising money through bake sales, online sales and donations. Late in 2009, ICE’s kitchens were packed as volunteers baked approximately 30,000 cookies for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer bake sales nationwide and earlier this year ICE hosted a special Valentine’s Day fundraiser. More…

Last Friday, ICE Chef Instructors Melanie Underwood and Marge Perry hosted a special fundraiser for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, a charity committed to raising funds to support research for new and improved therapies for pediatric cancer.

Cookies for Kids’ Cancer was started by Gretchen Holt and Larry Witt after they were inspired by their 2 1/2-year-old son Liam’s battle with cancer. They were shocked to learn that the main reason over 25% of kids diagnosed with cancer do not survive is because of a lack of effective therapies and wanted to increase funding for research. Since then, Cookies for Kids’ Cancer has been raising money through bake sales, online sales and donations. More…

When my best friend got back from a weekend in New Orleans and all she talked about was how good the food was, it was time to make good on my promise to bring her along for an ICE recreational cooking class. After a little perusing of the class listing, All American Hot-N-Spicy was the winner. It not only featured gumbo, in homage to her recent trip, but also a wide variety of American classics. Seeing as we both grew up in families that moved around the world constantly it only seemed appropriate to take a class that mimicked the “spice of life” aspect of our lives and friendship.

Led by Chef Melanie Underwood the class completed 10 different recipes with unique flavors and stories of their own…

* Make-Aheads: There were several recipes that Chef Melanie actually encouraged us to make ahead of time for optimal flavor and convenience. For most spicy foods the spice continues to intensify as it sits, so making things like the red-pepper garlic oil and gumbo the day before allows for a complexity and intensity that day-of cooking just can’t match. More…