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.
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.
When I grow up I want to be like Paola Navone. The renowned artist and designer exudes warmth and a love a life that is evident in all her work, whether it be Anthropologie’s vibrant color-pop bedding, overly-tufted, welcoming sofas or her new vibrant and playful pieces at Crate & Barrel. She’s also a not-to-be overlooked Italian who gained prominence in the male-dominated design space, and displays a short hairstyle and a prominent nose that I can’t help but identify with. If I can’t grow up to be like her, perhaps we could have dinner one day?
I’m not sure how or when that may happen, but in the meantime I am going to take some inspiration from Crate & Barrel and channel a little Paola for my gatherings this fall. She’s created three collections all centered around entertaining.
The Como collection features bold blue on white designs with organic swirls and patterns. It reminds me of dining al fresco in Sicily, with smells of almond pastries mixing with Mediterranean breezes. Splashes of red wake you up.
The Mallorca collection is more calming, with white on white ceramics that have delicate, feminine edges. Aluminum trays with gentle dimples appear ready to elevate any dish.
All three themes bring a worldly sophistication to the table, without being stuffy or too precious. As the holidays encroach it’s easy to get drawn towards Northernly designs, but a few Navone bits sprinkled about will make sure your dinners always have a sunny disposition. Here’s a little peak at the artistry behind the work.
As if her new designs weren’t enough to inspire some noteworthy dinners of our own, Crate & Barrel even offers up a few recipes from the master herself. This one below, pasta with zucchini, in an interesting take on one of my favorites. I would add a sprinkle of crushed pastachios before serving, to give it a final hint of richness.
Pasta with Zucchini by Paola Navone
What You Need:
2 lbs. baby zucchini; no more than 1¼’ in diameter
Extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 cup fresh mint (smallest leaves only), thyme, rosemary
Saffron threads, a pinch
Fresh cracked pepper
Ground red pepper
Coarse sea salt
1 lb. uncooked dried mezzi rigatoni – shorter, ridged rigatoni
1/4 cup coarse sea salt to season pasta cooking water
To pass at the table:ricotta di bufala *
** Buffalo milk ricotta is less sweet than cow’s milk ricotta.
How To Make:
1. Wash and drain the zucchini. Slice into ¼-inch-thick “coins” and set aside. If using larger zucchini, slice lengthwise, core out the seeds, then slice.
2. Place a large, nonstick sauté pan over low to medium-low heat. Glaze the pan with olive oil. Add crushed garlic, herbs and saffron to the pan to flavor the oil. (Reserve a small handful of the herbs for garnish.) Stir and cook until the garlic just starts to color and become fragrant. Do not let the garlic burn. Remove garlic.
3. Add the zucchini to the pan and season with ground pepper and sea salt. Sear the zucchini until slightly soft and the zucchini begins to brown and caramelize. Remove from heat.
4. Remove ½ of the zucchini mixture; place in a food processor and puree.
5. Add a small drizzle of olive oil to the sliced zucchini still in the pan; gently fold in pureed zucchini. Add more olive oil to taste, but sparingly. The consistency of the sauce should be creamy, not thick.
6. Fill a large pasta pot ¾ full with cold water and place over high heat. Add ¼ cup** of course sea salt to water and bring to a rolling boil. Add dried pasta and cook according to package directions for al dente.
7. Drain pasta (reserving a cup of the pasta cooking water) and place in large serving bowl. Drizzle with a small amount of olive oil.
8. If needed, thin zucchini sauce with a bit of the pasta cooking water. Add zucchini sauce to pasta and toss gently. Garnish with fresh mint and serve immediately. Pass ricotta di bufala for guests to stir into their pasta, to taste.
Note: This post is sponsored by Crate & Barrel.
Spice up your Valentineâ€™s dayâ€¦ with chocolate fire cake! I love savory, brightly-spiced foods. So, when it came to making a dessert for my Valentineâ€™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 â€“ 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…)
The worst part of baking a cake is serving it. Itâ€™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 â€˜Top Chefâ€™. Perhaps thereâ€™s a secret way to slice and serve that leaves both the remaining cake and the cut up slices magazine-ready, but I havenâ€™t found it. Enter Magissoâ€™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 couldnâ€™t help myself!). — Katie D.
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!
I don’t think i need to explain â€¦
– Local Coffee (like Chicagoâ€™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.
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! â€” Rebecca F.
Photo credit: Intelligentsia Coffee