Lincoln Logs, or, Double-Chocolate Almond Cupcakes

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There hasn't been a lot of presidential celebration in the Recipe Box kitchen lately, and since technically our leader is Theresa May, I guess that makes sense. But then I found a recipe in the box that is specifically for celebrating Abraham Lincoln's birthday. I'm not sure why anyone who isn't Mary Todd Lincoln or the parent of a child in the 1950s would need a specific baked good to celebrate Lincoln's birthday, and if you DID need one, I'm not sure why you'd want to make him cupcakes shaped like logs? Wouldn't he appreciate a cupcake decorated to look like a penny? A tiered cake built like the Lincoln Memorial? Or maybe he's more of a pie guy? DID BETTY CROCKER EVEN THINK TO ASK HIM?

In an effort to answer these vital questions, I did some research on Lincoln Logs so you don't have to, and here's what I learned: a lot of weird stuff. Lincoln Logs, in case you did not grow up in the US, are log-shaped pieces of wood out of which you can build houses and buildings, toys marketed to young buys as an alternative to blocks. They're notched at both ends so the things you build look like actual miniature log cabins. I assumed (or maybe was told?) that Lincoln Logs were named after Abe Lincoln because he was born in a cabin, but I always thought that was weird because, like, a billion people were born in cabins in the 1800s, so why does he get called out specifically? Turns out I was onto something: Lincoln Logs were invented by Frank Lloyd Wright's son, who named them possibly after Abe Lincoln, but equally plausibly after his father's original middle name (Lincoln) or as a pun (Linkin' Logs) because of how they fit together.

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It gets even more surprising: the original idea came to Wright when he was in Japan viewing a building there that was thought to be earthquake-proof on account of it's cross-hatched base (so why did he market it as a Western American thing, especially when Japonism was at its height in the early 1900s?). And strangest of all (to me), the original kits came with instructions to build Lincoln's house (would this not be the White House?) and Uncle Tom's Cabin (why?!).

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What does this have to do with this cupcake recipe, you ask? Nothing. And that's my quibble with the recipe. The cupcakes don't even look like Lincoln Logs, they just look like logs... and only if you squint. Plus, I can't think of a reason I would need to make a dessert for Lincoln's birthday, and if you didn't explain that's what they were for, you're just left with unexplained log-shaped desserts, which somehow manages to be EVEN WEIRDER than log-shaped desserts in honour of a former president's birthday.

the verdict:

3 spoons out of five. The cake was soft and plush, the frosting was easy to pipe and to die for delicious... but the finished product comes in a serving size of two cupcakes, which seems excessive, and, really, why would you want a cupcake shaped like a log to begin with?

one year ago: Crazy Chocolate Cake
two years ago: Chocolate Cake with Date Filling

the recipe:

Lincoln Logs

the directions:
cupcakes:

Preheat oven to 200C/400F and grease 18 muffin cups.
In a large mixing bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
Beat in almond extract, shortening, milk, yolks and chocolate.
Beat 2 minutes on medium speed until very smooth.
Fill muffin cups ½ to 2/3 full, then bake 15-18 minutes until the top springs back to the touch.
Remove cupcakes from tins and allow to cool completely on cooling racks.

Frosting:

Beat butter and powdered sugar until smooth, light and fluffy.
Add vanilla and cream, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the frosting is smooth and spreadable.
Set aside ¼ of frosting.
To the remaining ¾ of frosting, add chocolate and beat to combine.
Use a small amount of chocolate frosting to 'glue' the flat bottoms of two cupcakes together.
Use a knife to frost the ends of your 'log' with the white frosting, adding a swirl with the knife to resemble the cut side of a log.
Using a piping bag with a round tip, pipe the chocolate frosting in lines connecting the two ends of the log (you'll have to leave the very bottom unfrosted as a 'rest' for the log to sit on).
If you're keen, you can use a knife to swirl the chocolate frosting so it looks more like bark, but by the time you've done this nine times, you're probably not going to be too interested in doing so.

the ingredients:
the cupcakes:

1 ½ c (180g) flour
1 c (200g) sugar
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 tsp almond extract
½ c (102g) shortening or Stork
¾ c (175ml) milk
4 egg yolks
2 oz (60g) unsweetened chocolate, melted and well-cooled

the frosting:

½ c (110g) butter
4 ½ c (500g) powdered sugar
2 ¼ tsp vanilla or almond extract
3-4 tbsp cream
4 oz (120g) unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled

A Tetris Cake for Someone You Really Love, or, Dewy Velvet Chocolate Cake with Bourbon Vanilla Frosting

Judson's birthday was last month, and while I'm now super late, I can't let it pass without telling you about his cake, because as we all know, Judson's birthday means two things: I want to make a cake and he doesn’t care about cake. So while I took to heart his request to ‘please, please don’t go over the top with food at my party’, I still couldn’t resist making a proper cake for the guests at his shindig.

Only I can’t ever just leave it at… you know, a plain old cake. For his birthday in years past there’s been the Domo cake with corresponding speech bubble; the ill-fated sushi cake (which was the same year as the jello shots inside of real strawberries, so I feel like I should get a pass for the cake only looking ‘meh;’ the key lime pie made in a country where I can’t buy key limes; and too many others to count. (I’m pretty sure there were beer popsicles one year? And another year, jello shots in the shape of the Scottish flag made with the largest bottle of blue curacao I've ever seen and if anyone can remember what I used to make the white ones, then they're doing better off than me).

So this year, Judson had a board-game party for his birthday- relatively chill, lots of games and puzzles and nerdy jokes and day-drinking, so I decided to make him a Tetris cake. Not content (and let's be real, not skilled enough) to use frosting for the shapes, of course I decided to make square macarons. But I didn't reckon on there being seven iterations of Tetris shapes. Did you know there are seven Tetris shapes? Well, there are. I'll give you a minute to think it through, but here is a list: line, square, T, squiggle-to-the-left, squiggle-to-the-right, L, and backwards L. I considered wussing out and only doing some of them (no I didn't) but instead of that, I called on my best baking buddy and while strolling through the streets of Barcelona, we brainstormed the best way to divide up a single batch of macaron batter into seven different colours out of which to build the shapes.

We haven't really talked about macarons much here because (no surprise) there are no recipes for them in the recipe box, but they're my absolute favourite dessert and one that I previously thought so untackle-able that I refused to even try to make them. Fast forward to this spring when I finally gave it a chance, and you know what? I'm not half bad at macarons! (Actually, I'm rather good at them and wildly enjoy making them). But being good at making them doesn't mean they're easy, and when you divide something as temperamental as macaron batter into sevenths, things are bound to get iffy. Combine the fact that I was using food dye to colour them pretty vibrant colours as well, and some of my shapes had some cracks in them, I'll admit it.

But the cake, dear reader, was amazing: plush and soft and so moist it hardly held together when I frosted it with the softest buttercream I could manage. I know I say I love one of the cakes I've made often, but this cake and the banana caramel cake from 2015 are without a doubt my two favourite cakes I've made since starting the Recipe Box Project. If you're a new reader, start with this cake... skip the macarons and it's actually beyond easy!

Or, even if you're not new here, next time you need a cake for someone you love dearly, give this one a go. It's the perfect way to tell someone happy birthday.

This is the footnote on the recipe for this cake... And i also quoted it to judson like a billion times when he kept requesting that i rein it in on party foods.

This is the footnote on the recipe for this cake... And i also quoted it to judson like a billion times when he kept requesting that i rein it in on party foods.

Some Notes:
  • As listed below, this will make you enough for 2 9x13-inch layers. If you'd rather have 2 9-inch round layers, you may halve the recipe.
  • If you've never made macarons before, then don't try to make them square the first time. I've made them close to a dozen times and still had some trouble making it work.
  • I used this recipe as my inspiration, splitting the nut & sugar mixture into seven by weight before I even beat the egg. Then I beat the eggs as normal, divided the weight of the egg into sevenths, and added it to my individual bowls of nuts & sugar. Add the food dye at that stage and make as normal, but work quickly. Fill your piping bags and pipe 1-inch squares onto parchment or a Silpat.
  • You'll also need to make your Tetris pattern. I used a 9x13 inch pan to make my cake, so I went for 8 columns of 1-inch Tetris blocks (because the macarons will swell a little in the oven and you'll need a bit of space around them). I found it useful to print out graph paper and doodle a few options before I committed to this one.
  • Once you decide on your pattern, make sure that you'll have enough Tetris blocks to make it- one batch of the above macaron batter makes approximately 16 square macarons in each colour, but that's very dependent on how well you scrape the bowl, how much you can get out of your pastry bags, etc.

the verdict:

5 spoons out of five. I still have dreams about this cake.

Two years ago: Bacon Rounds

the recipe:

Dewy Velvet Chocolate Cake with Bourbon Vanilla Buttercream

the directions:
cake:

Line 2 9x13 pans with paper on bottom and preheat oven to 175C/350F.
Sift flour, baking soda, salt and cocoa into a large bowl and set aside.
In a separate bowl, beat eggs until thick and lemon-coloured.
Gradually add sugar and beat until very well-blended and almost smooth.
Add oil, buttermilk and vanilla to dry ingredients and beat until very smooth.
Fold in egg mixture thoroughly but gently.
Pour into prepared pans and bake 30-35 minutes, until a wooden pick inserted in the middle comes out very slightly sticky.
Allow to cool completely before frosting.

Frosting:

Beat butter until very light and fluffy.
Add powdered sugar gradually until mixture has the consistency you want.
Add cream, vanilla and bourbon and blend well; adjust powdered sugar if necessary.
Frost and fill cake, then decorate with macarons if going for a Tetris cake.

the ingredients:
the cake:

3 c cake flour, sifted (OR 3/8 c cornflour PLUS 2 5/8 c flour, all sifted together)
2 ½ tsp baking soda
2 tsp salt
1 c cocoa
4 eggs
2 ½ c sugar
1 1/3 c vegetable oil
2 c buttermilk (OR 2 tbsp lemon juice or white vinegar PLUS scant 2 c buttermilk)
1 tsp vanilla extract



the frosting:

2 c butter
6-7 c powdered sugar, sifted
½ tsp salt
4 tsp cream
2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp bourbon

Devil's Food Cake with Vanilla-Almond Buttercream

When I was a kid, I always thought that the worst part about growing up would be having to give up summer. Not even just giving up the fact of having summers off (because by the time I hit high school I was working through the summers anyway), but just the magic of summer. How everything seems to happen over the summer, and how everything that does happen over the summer always seems a thousand times more excellent because it’s bathed in sunshine and tank tops and pool water.

And then I grew up and almost across the board, every summer of my adult life has been awesome.

But since moving to Scotland, it’s a little easier to forget this: the weather stays more or less the same year-round, and it’s never properly hot. Plus, despite the fact that this city sits on the water, it’s literally never warm enough to even put your toes in, much less go for a dip. So I forget how awesome the summer is until it sneaks up on me, year after year, just like this one has managed to.

But you know what’s great about letting the summer sneak up on me? When it finally rolls around, it’s awesome. Here’s what the next month-and-a-half look like Chez Cowan: interviews for a new job as my contract is up in mid-July, then a week in Barcelona with my bestie. When I get home from Spain, I’ll have houseguests waiting for me who arrive while I’m away, then the day after they depart is Judson’s birthday party. The next day Holtzmann gets spayed (not exciting except that we’re hoping it will help her outgrow some of her annoying puppy habits), then it’s Judson’s actual birthday, my last day of work and then we head to the US for two weeks of sun and sand in my hometown at the Florida beach. When we get back, the Edinburgh Fringe will be in full swing and I’ll be ready to hit the ground running on whatever my next gig is. It’s nearly as busy as last summer’s new job-Highlands-Amsterdam-Tokyo-Mont St. Michel-Athens-Paris madness, and I can’t wait.

But the part I’m most excited about, in case I glossed over it a little too much there, is seeing my bestie in Spain. Emily and I regularly go two years at a time without seeing each other, but it never gets any easier to do and it never gets any less special when we reunite. I’ve never been to Barcelona so I’ve been counting down the days for ages now and I cannot wait to catch up with her there. Also, Emily owns and runs a wildly successful and super awesome bakery in California, so of course whenever I think of her I also think of cake.

Enter Judson and his co-worker’s birthday, and I had the perfect excuse to mix up a pretty awesome triple layer chocolate cake on which to practice my (still relatively new) frosting skills to occupy my time before I leave for Spain at the crack of dawn on Thursday.* I’m super proud of this cake and really disappointed that I don’t have a picture of the interior to show you as it was quickly dispatched out of my kitchen as soon as I finished it, but I have a crowdsourced opinion that it was stellar and I have my own personal knowledge of how far my frosting/piping skills have come to tell you that this is the prettiest cake I ever made (a record I hope to soon break, given that Judson’s birthday is rapidly approaching).

The cake is ‘devil’s food,’ but I’m putting that in inverted commas because, well, it’s not like any devil’s food I’ve ever tasted. Maybe devil’s food meant something different in the 1950s, maybe my cocoa wasn’t dark enough or maybe the recipe just didn’t come out the way it was supposed to, but this cake was so light in colour that before I sliced it, Judson thought it was white cake. Don't fear, though, it still tastes incredibly rich and chocolatey, just maybe a bit more caramel-y and a little less fudgy than I would have anticipated. I went a little over the top with the filling and frosting because I was in a celebratory kind of mood, but you could use the filling as listed below and leave the cake 'naked' for a more chocolate-on-chocolate version, or you could cut the frosting recipe in half for a more reasonable amount of frosting. But really, you should make it as below for the next celebration you attend. It's delicious, classic, and, really, who doesn't love chocolate cake?

*Thursday, as you may or may not be aware, is the longest day of the year. Which means that even though I’ll be up at 4am to catch my flight, the sun will have been up for nearly an hour before I wake up.

The verdict:

5 spoons out of five. I had a blast making this cake, and was so pleased when it turned out to be as tasty as it looks. Make this for a party and you'll cement your invite to every party until 2018.

Two years ago: Peach-Apricot Pie

the recipe:

Devil's Food Cake with White Chocolate Ganache and Vanilla-Almond Buttercream

the directions:
cake:

Preheat oven to 170C/350F & line two 9” layer pans with parchment on bottom.
Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, then set aside.
In saucepan, whisk together cocoa, egg yolk and 1 c milk.
Simmer, stirring constantly, until smooth and thickened (mixture should coat a rubber spatula), then set aside to cool slightly.
Cream butter and sugar, add eggs and beat well until smooth.
Blend in cocoa mixture (this will melt the butter mixture and will make a batter that is very liquid).
Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with remaining ½ c milk, then beat until smooth.
Add vanilla and stir to combine.
Pour into prepared pans and bake 20-25 minutes until a wooden pick in the middle comes out clean.
Allow to cool completely, then fill with this recipe and frost.

Frosting:

Cream butter until light and very fluffy.
Add powdered sugar and blend until smooth.
Add cream, salt, vanilla and almond extract and blend until smooth and very soft.

the ingredients:
the cake:

2 c flour, sifted
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
5 tbsp cocoa
1 egg yolk + 2 eggs
1 ½ c milk, divided
½ c butter, softened
2 c sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

the filling:

½ recipe white chocolate ganache buttercream from this recipe

the frosting:

4 c powdered sugar
1 c butter, softened
3 tsp cream
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp almond extract

Notes: I doubled this recipe to have four layers so I could reserve one for me to taste-test before Judson took the 3-layer cake to work. Made as above, your cake will only deliver two layers and will thus be slightly shorter than my finished, triple-layer version.