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Hey, I know what this is starting to look like...  and no, I really don't make cupcakes ALL the time!
I had a quarterly lunchtime get-together with some friends, and we all brought food.  So that's my excuse this time around.  That said, everyone flipped over these cupcakes, and insisted that I share the recipe. 

True to form for me, there is no single-page recipe for this: I took a regular cake recipe, added applesauce and spices to it, filled it with something complimentary I had in the cupboard, and made my favorite frosting, using cream cheese in it this time.

If you have a copy of The Chameleon Cook, the plain (yellow) cake recipe is on page 74, and the frosting recipe is on pages 76 (Boiled Milk Frosting) and 78 (Cloud Frosting variation).  I made a half batch of frosting; it ran out on cupcake #19.  If you like a lot of frosting, especially when it's fluffy, creamy, and not too sweet, make the full batch.  If you like a strong cream cheese flavor, instead of using 2 sticks (8 oz.) butter and 8 oz. cream cheese, decrease the butter to 1 stick (4 oz.) and add an extra 4 oz. cream cheese (total 12 oz.) To make it even more rich, reduce milk to 1/2 cup, Ultra Gel or flour down to 2 Tbsp, and sugar down to 1/2 cup.  

For the cupcakes:
Take any white or yellow cake recipe, or a boxed mix
.
Use the same ingredients and instructions as the recipe or box says, except:

Add 1 cup applesauce or pumpkin puree to it, and reduce the liquid the recipe calls for by 1/2 cup (this means reduce the milk to 3/4 cup if you're using my recipe)
Applesauce or pumpkin puree, for cooking purposes, acts like about 50 % water.
Stir in any or all of these spices: using all of them gives a full, round flavor, but if you only have cinnamon, it'll still be good:
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
, or 1 Tbsp. grated fresh, or 1-2 Tbsp. chopped crystallized ginger :-)
3/4 tsp. cardamom
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

If you like, also add 1/2 c. chopped walnuts, pecans, or hazelnuts, and/or 1/2 c. raisins

Bake according to regular instructions. 

When cool, add filling if you like.  I used Dulce de Leche, thinned with enough water that the caramel didn't hold its shape anymore (maybe 2 Tbsp. water to 3/4 c. caramel).  But use whatever you have or can make, such as homemade or jarred caramel sauce, unwrapped caramels melted with milk or water (try 1 Tbsp. milk/water for each 10 caramels).  If you have a decorating bag with a tip, you can fill the bag with caramel, poke the tip down into the cupcake, and squeeze the bag until the cupcake swells with the filling.  I have a bag, but didn't want to mess with it this time.  The other way I fill cupcakes is by cutting out a cone-shaped section from the top of the cupcake.  Lift it up, put a spoonful of filling in the hole, and replace the top of the cupcake.  Frosting the cupcakes will hide those surgery marks.  See the photos below.
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If you're making mini cupcakes, an easy, non-messy way to get batter in those little cups is with a small ice cream scoop.  Use a regular-sized scoop for regular-sized cupcakes.

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To fill a cupcake, run a knife around the top, with the blade angled so the tip is in the center, about an inch down.

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Lift up the top, and the cupcake is ready to fill!  How much you add is up to you.  Any less than 1/2 teaspoon just disappears into the cupcake, so use more than that.  Add too much and it will spill over the top...  so you'll figure out what you like pretty quickly.  That said, I used what fit on a regular spoon, about 1 1/2 teaspoons.  Put the top of the cupcake back on, then frost.

 
 
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SO... is there a difference between those big pumpkins that are cheaper, and the littler, "Sugar Pie Pumpkins" that are 3 to 10 times the price?

Yes, there is.  The smaller ones are varieties selected for smooth, dense, creamy flesh, with a higher sugar content.  The bigger ones are still good for eating, but usually have a higher water content, and often have stringy flesh.  When I make pumpkin pie using the small sweet ones, I can get away with using only 1/2 cup sugar per 2 cups puree.  If I use the bigger ones, it tastes best if I use the 3/4 cup sugar called for in the recipe.

How big of a pumpkin will you need for one pie?

A very small one.  If you're including the peel in your puree, there will be almost no waste from your pumpkin- only the stem, seeds, and stringy center will be taken out.  (Remember to rinse, salt, and roast those seeds!)  You'll get almost two cups of puree for each pound in your pumpkin, when prepared this way.  Two cups will make one 9" pumpkin pie.  That means a 5-pound pumpkin will yield enough puree for FIVE pies.   And if you use your 25-lb jack-o-lantern?......  Luckily, pumpkin puree freezes well!  My favorite way to preserve it now is by making pumpkin powder.  Less space, no freezer burn, and no electricity required once it's dry.

If you're using big pumpkins, you can still end up with dense, smooth puree if you know how to handle it.  Clean, chop, and steam, boil, or microwave the pumpkin until tender, then run it through a blender or food processor, adding water only if it won't blend without it.  You could use a potato masher, but it won't get rid of the strings.  When it's smooth, you can either use it as-is (which is thinner than usual), or let it sit in a colander lined with cheesecloth or paper towels.  Let it drain at least 1/2 hour.  The water drained off has vitamins in it; use that in pancakes, smoothies, or whatever else occurs to you.  Any winter squash can be used in pumpkin recipes.  I've eaten "pumpkin" pies made of kabocha squash, spaghetti squash, and Hubbard squash.  The spaghetti squash was a lot more watery (drain that liquid off!), and if only mashed, not pureed, the texture resembles coconut cream pie (in fact, there's a recipe for Mock Coconut Cream Pie that takes advantage of this!)  Hubbard and kobocha are both dense, creamy, and sweet, and only required the 1/2 cup of sugar that I use with sugar pie pumpkins. 
 
 
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 When else can you get another vegetable for under twenty cents a pound?


You may even get them for free if you ask a farmer, or grocer, right AFTER Halloween.  I was able to glean from two different farm fields last year!

I saw an interesting thing, as I was looking for pumpkins in good condition: one man was walking around with a hatchet and a bucket.  He wasn't after the pumpkins; he wanted the seeds!  It didn't matter if the pumpkin was shriveled or damaged; each pumpkin was chopped open and the seeds scooped out.

Most people look at pumpkins as merely decorations. They are great for giving your yard or home that homey, autumn feel.  But one cup of pumpkin (only 49 calories!) is also high in fiber (3 g) and beta-carotene (Vitamin A- 2650 IU), plus calcium (37mg), potassium (564mg), magnesium (22mg), along with smaller amounts of iron, zinc, selenium, Vitamin C, Niacin, folic acid, and Vitamin E. See University of Illinois Extension  or Nutritiondata .  That's just the pumpkin.  The seeds also provide exceptional nutrition. 

If you'd like to know how to turn that festive decoration into a form you can eat, it's simple.  Basically, you clean it, cook it, and mash or puree it.  I much prefer the flavor of fresh pumpkin to that from a can.  It can be frozen for later use, dried and powdered, pressure-canned in chunks, or stored whole in a cool (55-70 degrees), dark, dry location.  They can last the whole winter stored whole.  I stored a Hubbard squash last November; I finally cut into it in July this summer.  It was perfect.

For more detailed instructions for cooking it, along with a  few dozen  recipes, see The Great Pumpkin recipe book.   To get cooking instructions and just a few of my favorite recipes-
Pumpkin Chili, Pumpkin-Pecan Yeast Bread, Pumpkin Muffins, and Pumpkin Pie-

see the Pumpkin Class Handout.
 
 
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Aren't these so cute?  I saw them in a magazine someplace last week; wish I could remember which one it was!    Anyway, when there was a bake sale at school a couple days ago, it was the perfect excuse to make them!

You can make any kind of cupcake; I chose an applesauce cake recipe to go along with the look.  These also got a caramel filling, topped with caramel frosting, rolled in sprinkles, and then poked with a clean craft stick.

Mix up a batch of cake batter, either from scratch, or using a yellow, white, or spice cake mix: to make it applesauce cake, replace half the oil or butter in the recipe with twice as much applesauce (you can replace all the oil, but the cupcakes will be a little bouncy- fat adds tenderness).  For a 24-cupcake batch (same size as for a 9x13 pan full), also add 1 Tbsp. cinnamon.  If you have them (or like them!), you can also add a total of 2 teaspoons of other spices: ground cloves (go easy here!), nutmeg, ginger, and/or cardamom.  Bake as usual.  When cool, fill them if you like.  I used a sweetened condensed milk caramel (see Making Tres Leches Cake, second paragraph down), mixed with an equal amount of vanilla pudding to make it go further, since I was making 5 dozen.  Use whatever you like- homemade or jarred caramel sauce, butterscotch pudding, sweetened cream cheese (2 Tbsp. sugar per 8 oz. cream cheese), cream cheese frosting, or whatever sounds good with apple or caramel.
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Make a batch of caramel frosting (see second page here); leave the pan over low heat to keep it warm and soft.  If you want sprinkles on the edges, pour a layer about 1/4" deep in a wide bowl or on a plate.

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Dip the top of a cupcake in the warm caramel frosting.

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Let excess drip off for a couple seconds...

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then twist the cupcake so the drips end up on the frosted top.

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Put the cupcake on its side in the dish of sprinkles, then rotate it around to coat the edges all around.

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Set it on a tray for easy transporting, and insert a craft stick.


Done!  (Wasn't that awesome?)

 
 
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Alcohol is added for the flavor it gives, as well as for the liquid it adds.  Sometimes you can come up with a totally different flavor that you’ll like.  For instance, in a sweet dish or beverage, try adding some cream soda or other soda pop, coconut milk, juice or other liquid instead of liquor.  In a savory dish, to replace the “umami” flavor from alcohol, use some complementary liquid (water, milk, broth, clam juice, soy sauce, etc.) and/or herbs or spices for flavor.  Foods that are high in that ‘umami’ (savory) flavor include aged cheeses (like Asiago, sharp Cheddar, or Parmesan), soy sauce,  Worcestershire sauce,  anchovies or other fish, shellfish, dried seaweed, Chinese cabbage, vinegars, pickled foods, spinach, tomatoes (especially dried ones), mushrooms.  Cured, aged, or fermented foods are almost always high in “umami”.  Add whatever sounds good with your recipe; they’ll add a lasting depth to the dish’s flavor.

For the substitutions below, I relied heavily on an old cookbook I have, Entertaining Without Alcohol, by Dorothy Crouch.



In place of…       Use this…

Almond Extract
Replace some of the flour with an equal amount of ground almonds, or replace some of the shortening/oil with the same amount of marzipan.  The dish will be a little grainy.

Brandy
“Burnt” sugar (caramel) syrup: melt sugar until dark golden.  The darker it gets, the less sweet it will be; too dark  will be bitter.  Add an equal amount of water, stirring in drop by drop as it will splatter.  A little goes a long way; use 1 Tbsp. or less. 

Calvados or Applejack
Apple cider (fresh, if you can get it).  The dish will taste sweet if you use more than ¼ cup of this.

Cassis
Blackberry juice, or add water to blackberry preserves/jam/syrup.  Black currant or elderberry may be used instead.  If you have the fresh fruit, cook and press it through a sieve if you like.

Cognac
Apple cider with 1 Tbsp. dark brown sugar per ½ cup of cider
Reduce sugar in the recipe

Curacao, Grand Marnier, or Cointreau
Frozen orange juice concentrate, or tangerine juice.  For Curacao, also add 1 tsp. grated orange zest  (or a little orange oil or extract) per ¼ c. concentrate
 
Framboise
Replace with an equal amount of unsweetened raspberry juice, or add water to raspberry jam to make it the consistency of juice.  If you don’t have any, orange is usually a complementary flavor, or a little almond.

Lemon Extract
Same as Orange Extract, but use lemons.   Use a light hand; too much oil and peel make a dish bitter.  Use ¼ tsp. of zest or ¼ tsp. dried peel for ¼ tsp. of extract. 

Orange Extract
The oil you get from bending an orange peel over a dish, plus 1 Tbsp. grated orange zest.  Or use 1 Tbsp. dried orange peel.

Red Wine
Beef broth, tomato juice, and/or vegetable juice (like V-8).   Don’t substitute cream of tomato soup; it’s too sweet.
Reduce salt by ¼- ½ tsp. for each cup of broth used.

Rum, Light
Simple syrup made using light brown or granulated sugar
Reduce sugar in the recipe

Rum, Dark
Simple syrup made using dark brown sugar
Reduce sugar in the recipe

Sherry

Replace 1 Tbsp. of  butter or oil with 1 Tbsp. walnut oil, or add a couple tablespoons finely chopped walnuts.
 
Vanilla Extract
Use vanilla sugar, vanilla syrup, or vanilla ice cubes.  See under this chart for instructions.

White Wine
Replace with an equal amount of chicken broth, fish stock, or clam juice.  If you don’t need much flavor, use water or a little apple cider vinegar mixed with broth.
Reduce salt by ¼- ½ tsp. for each cup of broth used.

Wine  Vinegars
My understanding of wine vinegars is that there is no alcohol remaining; all vinegar goes through a fermenting stage first.  Specific strains of bacteria are added to this, and they digest the alcohols, leaving acetic acid as a byproduct.  "White wine vinegar", then, means that at one point the liquid was white wine, before the bacteria changed it.  You could just call it "white grape vinegar"; that's what it means.  If anyone knows different than this, please let me know.   If you're still concerned with using them, here are some substitutions:  White wine vinegar: use distilled white vinegar.  For red wine vinegar, use cider vinegar or some other made from fruit (raspberry, pomegranate, etc.) 

                                               
Vanilla Cubes: Chop 2-4 vanilla beans and add 1 quart (4 cups) of water.  Bring to a boil; simmer until reduced by half, to get 2 cups.  Cover and let sit overnight to intensify.  Pour through a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth, pressing on the bean bits to get as much flavor out as you can.  Pour this liquid into ice cube trays; it will be enough for two trays. When frozen, transfer cubes to freezer bags.  Remember to label them!

Vanilla Sugar:  Cut 2 vanilla beans into 1” pieces.  Stir them  into a container with up to five pounds of sugar.  Let this sit for a week or more (longer= better flavor).  To use the sugar, pour it through a sieve.  Alternately, you could very finely chop those vanilla beans, and use the sugar with flecks in it. 

Vanilla Syrup: Follow instructions for Vanilla Cubes, above, except:  instead of straining and freezing the water into cubes, mix the liquid with the bean bits in a saucepan with 2 cups of sugar.  Bring to a boil, cover the pot for a few minutes to let any stray sugar crystals dissolve in the steam.  Cool and pour into a jar, including the bean bits.  If the mixture crystallizes, reheat it to dissolve.  Reduce sugar in the recipe by about the same amount of syrup used.

 

 
 
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What better meal for a chilly, rainy, end-of-the-garden kind of day?

Picture warm, smooth, bright-flavored cream of tomato soup; tender, flavorful bacon and cheese biscuits with a crispy exterior.

The recipes are simple, and definitely beat store-bought for flavor and aroma!  I'll be teaching a class on this, with variations, next week (see Classes), and the recipes and variations come from my cookbook, The Chameleon Cook.

Cream of Tomato Soup
1 Tbsp. butter
1/2 medium onion
1/2 one carrot
1/2 one celery stalk
1-2 Tbsp. flour
1 lb. fresh, or 14 oz. can stewed, tomatoes
2 sprigs fresh parsley, 1 Tbsp. fresh basil, or 1 tsp. dried basil
1 c. chicken broth, or 1 c. water and 1 bouillon cube
1 c. evaporated milk, half-and-half, or cream
salt and pepper to taste

Cheesy Biscuits
1 cube butter, melted and cooled
2 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 cup cold buttermilk or sour milk
1/2 -1 cup shredded cheese
2 slices bacon, crumbled (optional)

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If you're making both, start by turning on your oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Chop half a medium onion, half a carrot (or 3-4 baby carrots), and half of one celery stalk. Cook over medium-high heat with 1 tablespoon butter or oil.  Stir once in a while, until the vegetables are tender, about ten minutes (depending on the

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While the vegetables are cooking, start the biscuits.  Melt one stick of butter; set it aside to cool.  In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine 2 cups flour, 2 tsp. baking powder, 1/2 tsp. baking soda, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1 tsp. sugar. 

Stir one cup of very cold (right out of the fridge) buttermilk or sour milk into the butter.  As you stir, the butter should start to form clumps.  This is good; it gives you the same effect as "cutting in" the butter with the flour, but much quicker.   Pour all but about a tablespoon of it into the flour mixture, add 1/2 to 1 cup shredded cheese (the milder the cheese, the more you need), and a couple tablespoons cooked & crumbled bacon (optional).  If you like, you can also add 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper and/or 1/2 tsp. mustard to accent the cheese flavor.  Stir just until combined.

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Put big spoonfuls on an ungreased cookie sheet.  If you want a more structured biscuit shape, use a greased 1/4 c. measuring cup as a scoop. 

Dip a pastry brush into that last little bit of milk/butter; dab some on the tops of all the biscuits.  Put them into the oven to bake, then check on your vegetables.  These will take about 12-14 minutes to cook- you want the tops crusty golden, and the insides just set.

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When the vegetables are tender, add 1-2 tablespoons of flour depending on how thick you want your soup. Cook and stir for one minute, to brown the flour a little. 

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Put 1 pound of fresh tomatoes (or use one 14-oz. can of stewed tomatoes) in the blender or food processor.  Add the vegetables, one cup of chicken broth (or water and bouillon), and blend until smooth. 

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Pour back into the saucepan.  To catch any little lumps or bits of tomato skin, set a fine-mesh sieve over the pan as you pour. (optional)  Add a couple sprigs of fresh parsley, a tablespoon of fresh basil, or a tespoon of dried basil.  Simmer for 10-20 minutes, to blend the flavors.

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Stir in one cup of half-and-half, cream, or evaporated milk.  Add salt and pepper to taste; about 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. pepper. 
Serve hot, with those biscuits to dunk in it!

Now let that wind blow and rain patter against the windows!