Red Velvet and Bacon Cupcakes

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The holiday season is a time of wonder – and wonder is just what your friends and family will do when they spot bacon atop the sacred red velvet cupcake. But just like Santa Claus, tasting is believing. Or was it seeing?

This is a classic recipe for the red velvet cake, with a sweet cake and tender crumb. Crumbled bacon is added to each cupcake before baking, and as a garnish at the end along with a traditional cream cheese frosting. The introduction of bacon fat into the frosting brings the flavor profile back into balance as a sweet and savory duet.

Ingredients:

Cupcakes:

  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tbsp. red food coloring
  • 1 tsp. white vinegar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 3/4 lb. plain or maple flavored bacon

Frosting:

  • 1 lb. cream cheese (2 8 oz. packages)
  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 14 tbsp. unsalted butter (2 sticks minus 2 tbsp.)
  • 2 tbsp. bacon fat, strained
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 4 cups confectioners’ sugar

Red Velvet & Bacon Cupcakes

Bacon Cupcakes are Happy Cupcakes

Directions:

  1. Fry, drain, and crumble the bacon. Strain pan drippings and reserve 2 tbsp. Set aside.
  2. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  3. Line muffin tins (makes 24 muffins).
  4. Sift or whisk together dry ingredients in a large bowl.
  5. Beat the eggs, then add remaining wet ingredients. Mix well.
  6. Combine wet and dry ingredients, mixing gently until incorporated.
  7. Transfer batter to muffin tins. Top each cupcake with crumbled bacon, reserving 1/4 for garnish.
  8. Bake 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Remove to baking rack and cool completely before frosting.
  9. For the frosting, beat cream cheese and butter together until smooth. Incorporate bacon fat and vanilla. Add sugar slowly at a low speed, then beat on high until fluffy.
  10. Frost cupcakes, then top with crumbled bacon.
  11. Serve immediately, or store completed cupcakes in the refrigerator until just before serving.

Tips:

  • You can adjust the amount of bacon fat you add to the frosting if you inversely adjust the amount of butter. However, be careful not to add too much or the frosting will be runny as bacon fat has a lower melting point than butter.
  • Making these as mini cupcakes can make them go further and encourage skeptics to give it a try. You’ll need to reduce the cooking time.
  • Red velvet cake gets its signature flavor partially from the tangy notes of vinegar and buttermilk, but the vinegar also reacts with baking soda to contribute to leavening. Keep this in mind as a quick-acting chemical reaction and work quickly once the wet and dry ingredients are combined to get the best texture and prevent a dense cake.

 

Geek and Sprinkles – A Wedding on a Hill

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In case you haven’t followed along, I have the best friends in the world. Really (read more here).

About a month ago, I had the esteemed privilege of officiating as 2 of my friends joined in marriage. One of them is a geek, and one of them is a sprinkle. Or… she would be a sprinkle if she got to pick, but for now she’s settled for just being in love with sprinkles. Anyway – you can get to know them at geekandsprinkles.com.

Coral and Jason

You get to guess which is Geek and which is Sprinkles.

This was my first chance to preside over a ceremony like this. I cannot put into words how momentous it is to be such an intimate part of a couple’s special day – being asked is an incredible honor. Here is an excerpt of words I shared on their wedding day:

What began as a surprise phone conversation when a phone was quite literally thrown at Jason, led to a Southerner moving to Minnesota, later kneeling in the snow on the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis asking for a Chicago girl’s hand in marriage. I have known Coral long enough that I tend to forget she was not always part of my family. Once Jason moved and began to court her, I began to feel the same way about him. I have the privilege of seeing this love grow from the beginning and am excited to watch it blossom into a new era.

If you know Coral or Jason, you know how incredible their story and love for each other is. The setting atop a hill in Stillwater, MN on the steps of the historic courthouse was both appropriate and breathtaking. I hope you’ll join me in congratulating them!



Chorizo Shepherd’s Pie

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I had another one of those “I’m not sure what to make for dinner, but I have a bag of potatoes to use up” moments a few nights ago. I decided to dig for other things that needed to be used soon, and found I had partial bags of corn and peas in the freezer. I decided a shepherd’s pie would be nice, but the only ground meat I had was chorizo. I’m quick to exchange ground beef or lamb out of a recipe in favor of Italian sausage or chorizo, given I change the herbs or spices up a little. And so, Chorizo Shepherd’s Pie was born.

You’ll notice the chorizo speaks for itself in this version, since so much flavor already exists there. The only flavorings are salt, pepper, garlic, and onion. The potatoes should be a golden variety, as the clean taste of a white-fleshed potato just can’t compete with chorizo.

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs. potatoes (Klondike or Yukon Gold), peeled and chopped
  • 2 lbs. chorizo (pork or beef, spicy or mild)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 1/2 cups total frozen vegetables (mix corn, peas, and/or carrots)
  • 3 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • salt to taste
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 3/4 cup Queso Oaxaca (or other melting cheese), shredded
  • Cilantro, chopped, for garnish (optional)
Chorizo Shepherd's Pie
Goodness Peaks
Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Peel potatoes, then add to salted water and boil until tender (time will depend on size of chop).
  3. Brown chorizo in a large skillet while potatoes are boiling.
  4. When the chorizo is about half cooked, add onions. Once fully cooked, add garlic. Reduce heat to medium.
  5. Add flour to pan with chorizo, and stir constantly for about 2 minutes, making a roux.
  6. Add milk slowly to skillet, and stir until the roux is incorporated. Add salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low.
  7. Drain and mash the potatoes with butter. If they are too dry, add a small amount of milk or cream.
  8. Add the chorizo/onion mixture to the bottom of a casserole, leaving as much gravy as possible behind in the pan.
  9. Top the chorizo with vegetables. Add a pinch of salt over the vegetables.
  10. Add the remaining gravy to casserole, then top with cheese and mashed potatoes. Make small peaks on top of the potatoes to allow crisping in the oven.
  11. Bake at 400°F until bubbly (about 30 minutes), broiling the last 5 minutes if needed to brown the potatoes.
  12. Allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving. Garnish with chopped cilantro if desired.

Tips:

  • You will not be able to judge the doneness of the flour by color, as you’re cooking it in chorizo drippings, so be careful not to overcook it.
  • Use a wooden spoon to incorporate the milk into the roux, as a whisk will be difficult with the meat and onion in the pan.
  • Keep the potatoes a bit dryer than you would typically serve as a standalone side dish to ensure they’re firm enough to serve as a top crust.
  • The overall method is different than you may be used to in a traditional shepherd’s pie, with the vegetables and gravy being cooked all together with the meat. The chorizo flavor needs to be spread out through the dish to prevent too stark a dish between the chorizo and the remaining ingredients.
  • Afraid of chorizo? Don’t be! You can find a range of spiciness, from very mild, to very hot. The vegetables and potatoes in this dish help to cut the spice. If you’re afraid the dish will be too spicy for you, cook the onions/garlic and gravy separately and discard the drippings from the chorizo.
  • Try creative ways of serving it – perhaps even in some preheated corn tortillas? Chorizo Shepherd’s Pie Tacos. No one will expect that on Taco Night.

 

Back with a New Back

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You may have noticed I haven’t been here in a while (if not, scroll down). First, I got a new job, and was busy adjusting to a new world, then I started noticing some pain, which kept me from sitting to write as I usually would. A lot of people have asked about my back, so here’s the “short” story.

I began noticing pain in August. Nothing major, just a little twinging in my lower back and left hip if I walked for a while. If I pushed a cart in a store or sat down when I started feeling the pain, it went away. I could then walk just as far again before the pain started. It wasn’t in the way of my life.

As time went on things got worse, but I still didn’t worry. Then, in October and November, I started noticing I’d sit, and the pain didn’t budge. I still did nothing about it, except try to reduce my overall activity to reduce whatever strain I must have been putting on it.

Later in November, a day came where even in my office chair that had been my sole relief all this time left me in excruciating pain. By this time, the pain went all the way down my leg. For months I had been doing my best to hide a limp so people wouldn’t worry about me. I told myself I didn’t have time to worry about it. But this day, everyone knew how much pain I was in. I couldn’t hide it. My friend recommended an orthopedic clinic just down the road from work. I probably shouldn’t have driven, because I couldn’t pay attention to the road. But I went straight there from lunch.

I was seen right away. They suspected either a displacement of my sacroiliac joint or a bulging disc. They tried physical therapy first, since the SI joint problem would respond if that was the case, and would be a less expensive route. My primary physician also did an x-ray and saw my disc spaces seemed fine, but my pelvis was in fact out of place. By the second week in January, I was released by my therapist, had lost 30 pounds, and joined a gym. The pain was back to August levels, so it was once again not in the way of my life, even though I still had a limp. So my diagnosis seemed sound.

Time went on, and it didn’t get any better, but it didn’t get any worse. I continued a lot of physical activity, feeling lucky to dodge the bullet of a long drawn-out back problem. I lost 45 pounds (woohoo!) and went shopping without the motorized carts again (a bigger step than you might realize). But then in early April, as I was vacuuming the living room carpet, my back, leg, and foot hurt like never before. I stopped what I was doing, but the pain only got a tiny bit better. Back into the clinic I go.

This time, an MRI confirmed a ruptured disc – bad enough it wouldn’t respond to therapeutic or pharmaceutical therapy. Even with strong narcotics, steroids, and anti-inflamatories, I was in pain beyond any I’d felt before. I laid on the floor for 2 weeks, drugged and asleep. I didn’t leave the house except to see a spine specialist and back surgeon.

Surgery day changed my life. I woke up without any of the pain I went in for. Since then, I’ve only been dealing with the surgery pain, along with numbness and tingling left over from the nerve damage the disc did to my sciatic nerve root. But that I can live with, and it may go start to heal soon. I can sit and walk straight – and that is surreal. I’m still a month from being considered “recovered,” but I’m off pain medication and am returning to work tomorrow.

So next time you see me – take note that I’m not wearing the walking shoes, leaning to the side, or sitting on every bench in my path. I didn’t want surgery to be the answer, but I’m so relieved I took the step I needed.

If you want to see the fun conversations that happened online as a result of this ordeal, search for #HowChiChiGotHisBackBack (my recovery) and #ChiChiGoneCrazy (me, medicated). Hint: Chi Chi was the name I ended up with in Spanish Class in high school, and several of my classmates didn’t know my real name.

Headed Into Surgery

Coworkers sent me a unicorn

I wore the shirt ironically

My floor bed

This is how I walked. (Extras only lasted 5 minutes for a picture)

My parents came into town to help with my recovery. They went with Matthew to fill 2 sides of the house with flowers. After one day, I could get outside with help to enjoy it!

 

 

Inception, Grief, and Serenity

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Sometimes, a dream can change your life.

I found myself in China standing outside a rectangular red and gold painted building I knew to be a school, with a tall roof  supported by many dougongs. Around me were about 50 other people my age, all pacing anxiously. I was anxious too; I was awaiting news of the academic fate of my daughter. There was a chill in the air with Autumn on the way. The leaves in the ancient forest surrounding the school weren’t yet changing, but they were showing the fatigue you see in leaves that have been feeding a tree all Spring and Summer, with the green looking almost lifeless, ready to give in. I watched as the mid-morning sunlight danced through the leaves onto the ground where I nervously kicked my feet back and forth on the path that led from the school to the garden. It was a place of pure beauty, with the grandeur of nature mirrored in the architecture. It was the time of year in my village when parents bring their six-year-old children to see if they will be accepted into school. It’s an open house of sorts, but one to which only the children are invited. Parents stand outside waiting while their children express their academic aspirations to sages of many disciplines. Professors are looking for children they believe have particular talent in the area they are skilled at teaching, and select only the students they believe will succeed. It becomes a highly competitive audition which shapes the rest of the child’s life. Through the doorway I can hear conversations about the beauty of art, the science of plant cultivation, the exactness and unlocked mysteries of mathematics, and the timelessness of literature. These are children that will become academic apprentices taught by some of the wisest people in all of China, and may grow up to shape the future of Chinese academics. I stand in awe of all the children already sure of what pieces of the world are most fascinating to them, and remember when I was six how horrible it felt to be rejected. I dreamed of greatness, but was not chosen for the coveted school on the hill. I couldn’t bear to think how Lan would feel if she did not get accepted. I muttered reassuringly to myself that I had done everything I could to foster her creativity and imagination, as she wanted to be an artist.

Suddenly, I hear her call my name. I turn toward the doorway to see her standing beside a tall elderly lady dressed in red silk. Lan had tears in her eyes, and the professor looked at me knowingly, as if her heart was broken for me. Children who were chosen did not return home for many years, as their life became committed completely to their studies. I was filled with excitement as I realized my daughter, MY daughter, had been chosen! At the same moment, I was in grief when I considered how long I would be without her. She ran to me, grabbed my leg in a tight hug, and cried. I knelt down beside her and cried along with her for a short time before doing my best to cheer her up and say my goodbyes. I wrapped my arms around her to give a final hug…

…And I woke up. I lay in bed crying, greatly moved by the dream I had experienced. As real as a nightmare feels when you’re at the moment just before death, that incomparable fear that spreads throughout your entire body, I felt that level of sadness when I was trying to say goodbye to my daughter. And just as you can’t quite shake the fear when you wake up from a horrible dream, I couldn’t shake the sadness. It just felt, somehow, surreal. I’d never known sadness quite like this. I lay there for what felt like an hour, tears pouring from my face. Then suddenly…

…I wake up. ACTUALLY wake up. I had only dreamed I woke up before. All the sobbing never happened – my pillow was dry. Now, instead of feeling sad, I was frustrated and annoyed. I didn’t understand why if I was going to have a dream-within-a-dream it couldn’t have been more fun, more exciting, maybe even a little funny. Why had my brain concocted a life completely alien to my own, on another continent, in another time, with an entirely new set of life experiences not tied to the life I know in the waking world? Did I really need to construct a China that only had pretty buildings, gardens, and silks? Way to go, cultured brain. And what’s with schools stealing children at such great emotional cost? What could it mean?

Then, just as suddenly as I had woken up before, the frustration and confusion drifted away like a dried rose petal in the wind. I was left with a calm and serenity that felt like the hug of a grandmother. I learned that through exercises of turmoil, our hearts learn also to feel joy. Through grief, we can find peace.

You see, not long before this night, Matthew’s grandmother passed away. My grandmothers both passed away in the same week when I was 17, and my grandfathers both before I was born. My grandmothers played a great role in shaping who I am today (you can read a little about them here). When I moved to Minnesota six years ago, both of Matthew’s grandmothers, and truly his entire family, welcomed me. Although it’s never easy to be 1,300 miles from my own family, I’ve been surrounded by people I love and who love me. Very early on, Matthew’s grandmothers became my grandmothers too. The loss was a great painful burden to me, much more than I first realized. But the calm I felt after this dream felt exactly the way I felt when I got a hug from Memaw, and I knew everything was going to be ok. It is no longer time to lament. Rather, it is time to live, keeping those who have gone close in the heart. Though the anguish will always be present, soothing memories will always be with me.

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