Sunday, December 11, 2016

Edible Trees That Aren't Broccoli

For 72 hours, I have been in pure winter bliss. I am sure this is some sort of Floridian record, and I greatly appreciate the weather gods for listening to my (annoyingly) relentless pleas for cooler weather to get into the Christmas spirit. When approaching the eve of my 30th birthday, it is shocking to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas as an adult and realize I wholeheartedly understand the titular green creature whose heart is three sizes too small because I am him. I've always hated popular, lyrically-sappy Christmas music, Santa Claus is a creepy old guy with a B&E record that could circle the North Pole a million times, and if I see one more child pitch a fit in the aisles of Target only to be rewarded with a toy, I might lose it and start decking someone's halls. As it stands, I'm wearing Halloween socks today. So it really, really takes a lot to get me into the spirit of Christmas...but when the temps drop below freezing and Jack Frost is actually nipping at my nose, I'm all in. I want to listen to "Carol of the Bells" for five hours straight while baking every Christmas treat known to man directly followed by eating most of them while driving around looking at Christmas lights, full of splendor and uninhibited hope for the season. I really am all or nothing when it comes to life. But since I've actually been able to bust out the gloves and boots and get into the Christmas spirit, the oven mitts and baking equipment came out with the cold weather, too. Peppermint is the essential oil of Christmas, and I'm going to go full steam ahead with it in my baking this week. I can't let that zest for the holidays leave when its 75 again tomorrow. Peppermint will help me limp through the week before its time to travel off to much colder parts of the world. And since I never got into gear early enough to put up our Christmas tree, I decided to decorate a whole bunch of tiny ones instead to keep me inspired:
Edible trees that aren't broccoli...a Christmas miracle!!
These mini chocolate cupcakes with peppermint buttercream Christmas tree decorations were so unbelievably fun and festive to make I almost forgot I'm a curmudgeonly grump that hates everything except dogs (another thing I have in common with the Grinch; it's a startling resemblance, really). I am still on a mission to make Christmas healthy and not the season of the bulging waistline, so I tried another science experiment in the way of the actual cupcakes themselves: they're made out of only chocolate cake mix, one egg, and Coke Zero. That's it. I thought for certain they'd be a puddly mess or just taste like Coke and not chocolate, but the Coke Zero doesn't lend any taste here once baked; it evaporated like alcohol would and instead left an incredibly springy and moist cupcake in its wake. If you didn't frost these, each mini cupcake is only 64 calories! So eating a normal serving size of two would only set you back less than 130 calories. If you omitted the egg (I might try this to see if the cakes still hold together) and didn't frost them, they'd be practically zilch. But I like frosting. Nay, I feel the way for frosting most people feel for the holiday season: can't get enough of it. I want it inappropriately early in the day like Christmas lovers want the holiday to continue coming inappropriately early in the year. So a mound of delicious peppermint wonder adds on an additional 63 calories per cake for the grand total of 127 calories per mini cake. Still not bad for a 2 serving deal, and certainly way less than when prepared the traditional way with butter, more eggs, and milk.Don't say I never did anything nice for anyone trying to battle the bulge this Christmas!

Pictured: sprinkles I already had on hand.
I have a problem. I love sprinkles. I always stop to peruse when I see nonpareils because they're tiny, adorable, and usually sparkly, like the gemstones of baking. I have an entire cake safe packed full of sprinkles and edible glitter. I knew with these Christmas tree cupcakes, it was literally time to let my massive sprinkle collection shine. I used white and yellow stars as tree toppers, and a variety of green, silver, red, and white sprinkles. I added white pearls and silver and gold stars as ornaments as well. The key was to mix and match. As much as I wanted to add all the sprinkles at once, I knew that would end up looking more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a cupcake, so restraint was needed. Gather up mini cupcake papers and sprinkles in your preferred Christmas colors before you set off on a mission to don we now our sprinkly tree apparel.  
Ugh, even Coke cans are more in the spirit of Christmas than I am.
I only used HALF my box cake mix, one whole egg at room temp, and 5 ounces of Coke Zero (still chilled) to make 26 mini cupcakes. This would probably yield 13 regular cupcakes or one 8-inch round cake. To double, simply use the whole box of mix, two eggs, and 10 ounces of Coke Zero. If you want to omit eggs, use the full 12 ounces of Coke. Follow baking temperature recommend on the box and preheat your oven. Dump the egg, mix, and soda into a mixing bowl and blend on high for 2 minutes.
'Cookie scoops are versatile!' I justify to myself for spending more than two dollars on one.
Line your mini muffin tin, gather up your batter, and scoop a cookie scoop a little over half full. Use this to quickly and less messily dump your cake batter into the liners:
Such precision! Your dish soap and sponge will thank you.
 Once all liners are 2/3 full, tap the pan gently on the counter to remove bubbles. These suckers bake fast, so only cook for 10 minutes before toothpick testing. Mine were ready to be removed from the oven and cooled on a cooling rack after 9-10 minutes.
They look like cupcakes...
At this point I thought for sure after they cooled they would cave in and implode because I still couldn't wrap my head around Coke working well enough to hold something together when I've seen it dissolve a penny with my own eyes (I type as I drink one...). Some people might gripe diet colas are terrible for you, but so is butter and a ton of sugar. You're reading a baking blog, what exactly were you expecting? When someone finally comes up with a healthy way to eat baked goods that doesn't potentially embalm me from the inside out, I'll totally follow along. Until then, I'm gonna have my cake and eat it too, but in a way that doesn't cause an extra hour on the elliptical every day. 
I also have way too many choices when it comes to decorating tips.
Awesome thing about mini cupcakes (other than being able to fit an entire one in your mouth at once), is that they cool off incredibly fast. I spent a few minutes weighing out which tips I wanted to try for my trees, and after that agonizing ten minute assessment (I'm really thorough), they were already cool on the cooling rack, so I set aside my #21 and #32 Wilton tips and got down to business. Frosting business.
I'm still wondering why in Florida, my commissary milk brand is named California Sunshine.
These mini cupcakes don't need a ton of frosting, so this is a half batch of my peppermint buttercream. I didn't even use all of it, and I could've easily frosted 5-6 more mini cupcakes with it. To make, you need:
  • 1/2 cup room temp butter
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar (2 might even suffice)
  • 1/2 tsp peppermint extract
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 TBS skim milk
  • Green gel dye
Cream the butter until fluffy, then add in the extracts and sugar. Blend on low while adding in enough milk to get things into thinner piping consistency. Once this is done, add in the green dye until you get a nice festive green. Load up into a piping bag fitted with a #21 or #32 tip. If you're frosting regular sized cupcakes, use a 1M tip. Ensure all the lids are off your sprinkles for quick access, and you're ready to roll.
On the left: the #21 tip. On the right: the #32.
To make a tree, start on the edge of a totally cooled cupcake and make a ring. While continuing to pipe, slightly overlap that bottom ring with another ring on top of this. Continue ringing-around-the-cupcake until you have a tall mound of frosting. Pipe a little extra on top while gently pulling away to create the top of your tree. Now, I thought the #21 tip did a better job of looking like an actual tree, but you can use either tip here for this look. You could also try using a 1M tip while simply piping a large mound of frosting for one uniform tree. Whichever tip or method you choose, only frost 3-4 of these at a time because you have to work fast to get your sprinkles on each tree before the frosting sets up and things will just roll off--like water off a duck's back or your Christmas spirit off my cold shoulder. 
A tiny field of glee!
I frosted 4 cupcakes at a time, then topped each one with a star sprinkle before adding either pearls, various glitters, sprinkles, etc. The combinations here are pretty endless as you can tell above. I made most trees completely different from one another, but a uniform style for all 26 would've been pretty as well. I finally felt the Christmas spirit, so I was like a kid in Santa's Workshop just going for it, no holds barred with reckless delight. Similarly, my fingers were also sticky like that of every child I've ever come into contact with. Go figure.
Pictured: my missing Christmas spirit.
Baking has, and will always be, a cathartic experience for me. When I am sad, it cheers me up. When I am happy, it fills me with hope. When I am still wearing Halloween socks in December, it gets my butt into gear. Upon glancing my creations, I was positively giddy and filled with a month of missing Christmas spirit all at once. If I had a Santa hat, I would've put it on. Maybe I should just start small and find some Christmas socks. Either way, I knew exactly what the Grinch felt like when his heart grew three sizes. Thankfully this was just a metaphorical and not physical experience for me, or, you know, I'd be dead and all and unable to eat these delicious cupcakes. That would be the real tragedy. I've got enough juice (of the peppermint extract variety) left in the tank and a few days before we head off, so I'll be back in later in the week with my next great experiment: peppermint bark fudge. But as for now, I'm going to find appropriate sock wear and giggle with delight at the field of Christmas trees in my kitchen. 'Til next time, my fellow eaters!
Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, how tasty are your branches.

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