real life test kitchen: chocolate cupcakes with marshmallow icing

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Cupcakes are one of those things, like Chinese food, I never actually make myself. With so many awesome bakeries around (our new favorite is the Cupcake Corral in Maplewood, NJ), I am perfectly satisfied with the occasional one-off indulgence. But when our daughter’s 3rd birthday (Yes, 3! Can you believe it!) came round, we needed enough to feed a large a crowd and they needed to be made with love. Selfishly, we aimed to please our palettes, and went for a Devil’s Food Cake batter from Martha Stewart. With sour cream added in, they are extra moist and rich. For the frosting, I found this how-to recipe for marshmallow icing from Tribeca Treats over at Daily Candy. (Did you know that Daily Candy has some great recipe videos? Buried treasure.) It was insanely easy to make: beat four sticks of butter, with two cups of Fluff spread (don’t read the nutrition label, you’ll feel guilty forever) and a cup and half of confectioner’s sugar. Whip it into a white and creamy fluff and squirt. Ours were topped with some red sprinkles, but crumbled graham crackers would turn it into a s’more like treat. Adults to toddlers were so impressed with the results of ours, they kept suggesting we open our shop, but we’ll save our skills for birthday number four next year. — Angela M.

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custom baby showers made easy: polka dot design

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When I received the invitation to the upcoming baby shower of one of my dearest old friends, I was delighted — due not only to the prospect of spending quality time with the mom-to-be and some of our old crew, but also because the invitation itself was breathtaking. Her mom had the invites printed at Polka Dot Design, a site specializing in custom stationery and gifts in fun, modern designs. Of course they’ve got everything from kids birthdays to weddings, but I was really impressed with the assortment of helpful personalized party collections for baby showers, like the fabulous, Mardi Gras inspired Festival du Bebe collection seen above. These coordinated accessories (like monogrammed napkin rings, favor tags, and thank you notes) are a super-simple and affordable way to add a touch of polish to that special day. — Megan B.

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real life test kitchen: chocolate fire cake

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Spice up your Valentine’s day… with chocolate fire cake! I love savory, brightly-spiced foods. So, when it came to making a dessert for my Valentine’s dinner party last year, I wanted to make something with an unexpected flavorful twist. So, I took my favorite Bon Appetit chocolate spice Bundt cake recipe – and added cayenne pepper to it! The pepper and cinnamon gave the cake a great fiery kick without being overpowering. I served it with a nice full-bodied red wine, and it was a huge hit with my dinner guests. This would also be great served with a brandied whipped cream, or ice cream. — Rebecca F.
Click for more fire, and the recipe, after the jump! (more…)

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kinda genius: magisso’s cake cutter and server

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The worst part of baking a cake is serving it. It’s horrible! If left to my own devices, my expertly frosted and decorated dessert becomes a lump of mush on a plate. It still tastes the same but I would definitely be asked to pack up my knives if I served it to Padma and company on ‘Top Chef’. Perhaps there’s a secret way to slice and serve that leaves both the remaining cake and the cut up slices magazine-ready, but I haven’t found it. Enter Magisso’s Cake Cutter and Server (A+R store, $49.50). Scandinavian designer Maria Kivijarvi recreated a kitchen staple that not only cuts and serves perfect slices with one step, but also look like a gorgeous sculpture when not in use. The device is completely foolproof and makes serving your dessert, er, a piece of cake (sorry, guys- I couldn’t help myself!). — Katie D.

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consumable host gifts that aren’t wine

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I love to have people over for dinner, and I try to make it happen as often as I can. One of my constant dinner party invitees recently asked me for a list of my favorite host gifts I’ve received that aren’t wine, because she wasn’t comfortable picking a wine for someone else’s taste. The following is my list of favorite not-wine gifts that I shared with her. For the most part, they’re something easy and inexpensive to keep on hand for last minute dinner invitations.

Cheese paper
Proper storage of cheese helps to preserve the purity of its flavor, and helps prevent bad molds from forming.

Fancy peppercorns
I didn’t really understand peppercorn differences until someone introduced me to green peppercorns, with their clean, mild flavors. Delicious!

– Quality olive oil
I love a delicious olive oil that I can enjoy with crusty bread or drizzled on arugula salad.

Pink salt block
Amazing to cook on, and at less than $30, a really fun surprise gift!

– Organic Honey
Sweet and earthy, and very versatile!

Quality Black Tea
I love using black tea in baked goods, to smoke chicken, or in a fruit glaze. The better the tea, the more special the flavor turns out!

– Chocolates
I don’t think i need to explain …

– Local Coffee (like Chicago’s own Intelligentsia)
Even if a host is not a coffee drinker, having coffee on hand for guests is a must.

– A hunk of good Parmesan
Parmesan will add life to any salad, grilled pizza or a simple pasta.

Non-food gifts
These two aren’t edible, and probably appropriate for a more special occasion.

Guest book
During dessert, having guests sign a guest book is a special way to end the night.

Cook’s Illustrated magazine
One part cooking geek, one part culinary school, this publication helps demystify basic and more complicated cooking techniques.

Enjoy! — Rebecca F.

Photo credit: Intelligentsia Coffee

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