Posts Tagged ‘ baking ’

Thanks, Teach! End-of-year Gifts for Educators

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

Whether you’re planning an end-of-year gift or looking for a little something to honor your child’s instructor during Teacher Appreciation Week (May 5-9!), we’ve got you covered.

If you want to…opt for the oven. Sweet treats are a simple and inexpensive way to say “thank you,” and you can easily involve your child in the baking process. Place cookies or brownies in a tupperware container that Teacher can keep, and top off the tin with curled ribbon or a bow.

If you want to…give grub. Every professional appreciates a night off from cooking. Purchase a gift card to the hot new restaurant in town so that she can dine out with a friend or significant other. If she lives a few towns over, consider choosing a place in that area. Looking to spend a little less? A $10 gift card to the nearby ice cream or coffee shop is sure to please–she can sneak on over after school!

If you want to…get crafty. Younger kids looking to get creative may enjoy decorating a wooden box or picture frame incorporating their teacher’s name, school mascot, whatever! Head to a craft store to pick up the supplies for this easy, engaging gift. Check out these other artsy ideas!

If you want to…contribute to the classroom. Before heading to the mall to pick up a present you think your child’s teacher may like, try to get a sense of what he or she seems to need in the classroom. Maybe the pillow on Mrs. Smith’s rocking chair has seen better days or Mr. Jones’ class library is a bit depleted. Suggest some ideas to your little one and have him report back after school. That way, he’ll be involved in the planning process.

If you want to…require relaxation. You know how you live for those Mother’s Day spa gift cards? Odds are, your child’s teacher could use some pampering, too. Give her a certificate to your local nail salon so that she can get a manicure (or perhaps a pedicure right as sandal season is starting!).

No matter what you choose, be sure to include a thoughtful card, too!

Ready for Summer? Check out our Summer Activity Finder for fun ideas the whole family can enjoy!

How to Thank a Teacher: Gift Ideas
How to Thank a Teacher: Gift Ideas
How to Thank a Teacher: Gift Ideas

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Spice up Your Girl Scout Cookies with These Clever Recipes!

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Like the supportive parent you are, you stocked up on all types of Girl Scout cookies to help your daughter’s (or the neighbor girl’s) Brownie troop shine. You’ve devoured Thin Mints and snacked on Samoas for several weeks, but you still have a shocking amount of boxes left over. What to do?

As delicious as these classic treats are on their own, who says you can’t get a little creative when it comes to eating them? Forget about freezing boxes for a rainy day–we turned to Pinterest to round up a variety of dessert recipes that incorporate Thin Mints, Tagalongs, and more.

  • One mama purchases Girl Scout cookies specifically for baking purposes. Over the past few years, she’s crafted Thin Mint Cupcakes, Samoa Cupcakes, and Tagalong Brownies–yum! If one cookie just doesn’t feel like a decadent enough dessert, her recipes are sure to please.
  • Switch up your wine and cheese night ritual–instead, surprise your gal pals with a wine and cookies night! Have each mom bring her own box of cookies along with its recommended drink pairing, or keep it simple and set out three boxes of Savannah Smiles, for example, and a couple bottles of Pinot Grigio. Plus, there’s no baking involved!
  • If you’re a sucker for chocolate and peanut butter, you’ll love this recipe in which Tagalongs are “hidden” inside of chocolate chip cookies.
  • No chocoholics in the house? Don’t stress. Emeril’s recipe incorporating Lemonades is not only appealing to the eyes; it’s sure to please stomachs, too.
  • Hungry for more? There are countless additional recipes out there that incorporate or are inspired by various Girl Scout flavors, so you’re sure to find one that satisfies your taste buds!  Now get cooking!

Is your little scout still a “Daisy”? Surprise her with this festive flower cake.

Baby Shower Desserts: Flower Box Cake
Baby Shower Desserts: Flower Box Cake
Baby Shower Desserts: Flower Box Cake

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Cakes with a Surprise Inside

Friday, April 25th, 2014

Self-taught baker, blogger, and mother of five Amanda Rettke created her first surprise-inside cake four years ago. Since then, she has crafted countless confections that reveal rainbow hearts, butterflies, balloons, and even houses (!). The busy baker also homeschools her children, writes for, and recently released her debut book, Surprise-Inside Cakes. Amanda’s recipes range from simple to intricate, so you can recreate her inventive designs no matter your level of kitchen experience. Read on for her tips for whipping up better-than-the-bakery desserts—it’s a piece of cake!

You were first inspired to bake a surprise-inside cake while preparing for a potluck. Where in the world did this idea come from?

To put it simply, I wanted to bring something completely different. It was Halloween and I knew everyone would have run-of-the-mill seasonal desserts. I knew I could make a pumpkin-shaped cake, but that wasn’t unique enough. When I saw a few white cupcakes sitting on my counter, the idea just hit me: pop them inside, in the shape of a candle. Honestly, I was shocked that it worked. And, ironically, that cake never made it to the potluck—we ate the entire thing at home!

And you had never done this before?

That’s right. In the kitchen, I had no formal—or even informal—training whatsoever. In fact, my husband did all the cooking when we first got married. So I had to teach myself everything. I was so terrible that the first time I tried to make a cake that I forgot to add some of the wet ingredients. Whoops!

So what’s the process like in creating one of these confections?

I use three general techniques. The first is deconstruction, when I stack multiple layers, cut shapes out, and fill in the holes with another piece of cake or a cake mixture [Rainbow Cake, page 41]. The second is batter manipulation, where I place different colored batters into the pan in a specific pattern [Leopard Cake, page 109]. And then there’s the twice-bake method [Candle Rose Cake, page 131], where I stick hand-molded cake shapes into new batter.

Okay, you’ve got me hooked. How do I begin?

Twice-baked is where to start. Cut a design from a sheet cake (like the hearts in my Candle Rose Cake) and place it in a clean cake pan. Then surround your shapes with cake batter, which acts as insulation and keeps everything moist.



And once I’ve mastered the twice-baked method, what’s next?

Move on to a layer cake. It seems simple, but it really does challenge your cutting, leveling, and frosting skills. Plus you’ll learn how to physically handle a cake and, in turn, build a strong comfort level required to move forward with other designs.

That’s easy enough. But with the other, more intricate cakes, it seems there is a lot of measuring and geometry involved…

Actually, there are only a few cakes that I’ve measured beforehand. Most others require such a trial and error process that I typically just get right into it: I dig in, cut out shapes, and add new colors and textures. To me, cake is a form of art.

With all this creativity, do your kids like to join in on the fun?

This is one of the best things you can with your kids. For my kids, the idea of making a cake and then playing with it is thrilling. I’ve also found ways to incorporate baking into home-school lessons: measuring, cutting, and building three-dimensional designs.

I can see beginners (like myself) getting frustrated when their cakes aren’t executed perfectly. Did this happen to you? How did you overcome it?

I’ve had more failures than successes by far, yet we’ve always found a way to hide the evidence … haha. But in all seriousness, I had more than 60 cakes that didn’t make it into the book. Because I’ll have an idea that I then try to create and it turns out nothing like it’s supposed to. For an important event, practice making your cake at least once ahead of time. Get a sense of what you need to improve on when you go to polish the final product before the big day. The plus side is that no matter what the result, you get to eat cake!

One of my favorite lines from the introduction is: “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be appreciated.” What does this mean to you?

You know, I really believe that mantra applies to all avenues of life, but especially with baking. There is a great debate between using boxed mixes and from-scratch recipes, but I just can’t embrace choosing sides. In my opinion the same amount of love goes into both. No one cares if you jazzed-up a store-bought treat or if your homemade cake slides halfway off in the car on the way there. When people bake and share their creations, they are simply spreading joy.

Where do you find the time to “practice, practice, practice,” as you advise, while balancing a high-traffic blog and busy family life?

The truth is everything doesn’t stay balanced. A typical day for me: We eat breakfast together as a family, and then the kids and I start school—sometimes that includes me holding a screaming baby, or changing a dirty diaper. Each day can be a struggle just as much as it can be a blessing. I can’t strive for perfection, but I do strive to make it through my day with peace. To us, the things that matter most are learning something at the end of every day, and figuring out how to be better the next.

Want more ideas? Try one of our super-simple birthday cakes.


Interview has been edited and condensed.

Images by Susan Powers; published with permission from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publisher.

Quick Cake Decorating Techniques: How-To Video
Quick Cake Decorating Techniques: How-To Video
Quick Cake Decorating Techniques: How-To Video


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Traditional Christmas Cake, French-Style

Friday, December 20th, 2013

To me, French is the most beautiful language. It floats like a cloud and feels romantic. It’s the language of love. In high school, I worked my butt off to become proficient, taking honors-level classes, joining French club, and even becoming a teacher’s aid. I had dreams of keeping it in my daily life and raising bilingual children. Unfortunately, like a flower, language is delicate and must be tended everyday in order to flourish. When I got to college, my schedule doubled and I didn’t hold a single conversation en français.

Enter the French Institute Alliance Français (FIAF), a non-profit organization in New York City that promotes cross-cultural dialogue for children and adults alike. One of the largest and most respected centers of French-American activities in the U.S., FIAF offers art and education workshops for families.

Last Saturday, I tagged along to FIAF’s holiday bûche de Noël cooking class, where kiddos spoke elementary-level French to their moms and dads—c’est manifique!—while slathering layers of sponge cake with rich chocolate icing (and tons of red and green candies). Taught by Sylvie Berger, a chef raised in Paris, the class fully immersed children in the French language and was sprinkled with bits of English.

The bûche de Noël (“Christmas log,” or “Yule Log”) is a rolled sponge cake filled with buttercream and traditionally decorated with meringue mushrooms, marzipan holly, and wood-grain scored frosting. Its origins can be traced back to ancient Celtic celebrations of the winter solstice, but French pastry chefs popularized the confection in the 19th century and each bakery became known for its unique and elaborate embellishments. Today, few French people celebrate Christmas without one of these cakes.

Though messy, making the baby bûche was a blast! Take a look at my mini how-to video (click the play button), then make your own Christmas cake using one of the recipes below.




Want more? Check out these recipes for easy holiday treats!

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Sweet Charity

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

No matter how health-conscious you are or what diet you’re on, there are times when you just can’t pass on dessert.

When it comes to Sandra Lee’s pineapple-passion-fruit cupcakes, Guy Fieri’s caramel apple bread pudding, and Buddy Valastro’s Italian butter cookies, I can’t think of a single reason to say no.

On May 1, I perused the World’s Largest Bake Sale at Grand Central Station, sampling sweets, meeting local bakers, but most importantly, learning about child hunger in America.

Sponsored by the Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, the bake sale raised both money for the cause and awareness for the more than 16 million children affected by hunger in America.

I chatted with of New York City’s best bakers and browsed their selection of champagne cupcakes, pistachio-cherry scones, and peanut-butter-strawberry-jam doughnuts. All sweets were sold for $5, the proceeds from which were put toward the campaign.

Bake sale host Sandra Lee whipped up her favorite strawberry shortcake and banana split cupcakes for the event, and spoke to me about the urgency of the child hunger epidemic.

“Some working moms are going home with one check, paying rent, and wondering how they are going to feed their kids. Sometimes they have to choose between paying bills and food,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that way in America.”

Buddy Valastro, the “Cake Boss,” said that as a baker and a father, he just had to be part of the event. He also shared with me a personal story about his family history.

“My dad grew up in Sicily and I remember him telling stories of going to bed hungry, after sharing one plate with his family,” he said. “It really puts life in perspective. This is about more than raising money, it’s about saying, ‘Hey, America, this is happening!’”

Ty Pennington, former host of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, expressed a personal connection to the cause and donated a colorful, handmade bake sale stand for the Share Our Strength Auction.

“I may not have a child of my own, per se, but it is staggering to hear that one in five kids goes hungry,” he said. “It really opens your eyes about not wasting as much and makes you think about what we can do to make sure they are fed.”

The Share Our Strength Auction for No Kid Hungry runs through May 31 and features items donated by food masters like Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse. This is your chance to take a class in the Cake Boss’s kitchen, dig in to Bobby Flay’s signature Southwestern dishes, or learn to swirl icing like New York’s iconic Magnolia Bakery.

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A Yummy Cupcake Contest

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Calling all bakers! Dream up your own cupcake creation for a chance to win drool-worthy goodies including a high-end stand mixer. Visit Reynolds Wrap on Facebook to design your own cupcake liner, and pair it with the virtual cake and icing of your choice. (And next time you’re in the kitchen, try the foil-lined StayBrite Baking Cups, which help prevent your batter from seeping out into a goopy mess.)

Submit your masterpiece by October 19, 2012, then check back on October 22 to vote for your fave. The winner will be selected by cupcake wizards Karen Tack and Alan Richardson, authors of the book Cupcakes, Cookies & Pie, Oh, My! (This duo really can make baking magic–just check out the wild cake Karen designed for our zoo-themed birthday bash.) Good luck!

Image: Many cupcakes via Shutterstock

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Weathering Hurricane Irene

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Hurricane-Irene-BakingDon’t believe what you hear from most New York City residents about Hurricane Irene being a dud. Our corner of the city felt the storm’s wrath, and it left more fallen limbs, uprooted trees, and dangling electrical wires than I care to think about. Yet somehow, my older daughter declared yesterday “the best day ever.” And she’s got a point.

It didn’t start off that way. All of us were woken at around 4 a.m. Sunday morning by what sounded like a small army angrily marching across our roof. It must have come from a bunch of branches coming down all at once, but we frankly weren’t sure. Adira told us she was scared, and we admitted that we were a bit worried, too. I think she appreciated our sharing in and validating her feelings–and appreciated even more the super-rare invitation to sleep in our room. And then something near-miraculous happened: She actually slept, solidly, for a few hours. We expected her to be up, either worried about the storm or excited at the prospect of sleeping in our room, but we all got some needed rest.

The day picked up from there. We managed a morning walk around the neighborhood, and built a tent in her room, where she read books, played games, and had a snack. Thanks go to a Caillou episode for the idea. We cooked applesauce and baked cupcakes, something healthy and something not, and she pretended to open a restaurant. Our next-door-neighbor came over for a visit, and I got out for a late-afternoon walk with the baby.

We didn’t hear even once during the day the mantra so often repeated on other lazy days, “I’m bored.” Maybe we were better prepared, having expected to remain indoors all day. Or maybe when faced with the reality of the storm and the damage she saw, Adira knew on some level she needed to make the most of it and not complain.

The best day ever? Maybe not for us adults. But as things go, it was a pretty darn good one. I am proud of Adira for making the most of it, and will think back with some (tiny, begrudging) bit of fondness on angry Irene.

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