Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Kristen's Chocolate-Salted-Caramel-Pretzel Cake

This year, my friend Kristen Bonstein offered to make me a birthday cake. Here are the amazing results, with instructions so you can make a cake of your very own. Happy birthday, every one!

I asked Liz what flavor cake she wanted for her birthday bash and she immediately responded "anything with salted caramel!" When I asked whether that should involve white or chocolate cake, without hesitation she replied "chocolate!"  So, I knew if I ran with those two ingredients, we would have a Very Happy Liz on our hands.

Although "tablescapes" are pretty amazing, I'm no Sandra Lee.  I try to make most things from scratch, ESPECIALLY frosting.  However, cake mixes are just so damn easy and good, they are nearly impossible to screw up.  So that's what I did here.  This is a simple, fun (albeit very rich and sweet!) cake, which is made of:

  • 2 boxes of chocolate cake mix of your choice (I used Duncan Hines Devils Food)
  • The appropriate amount of eggs, water and oil as dictated on the box
  • 2 jars of caramel topping of your choice (I used Mrs. Richardson's) - one for the frosting, one for the middle layer
  • 3 sticks of SALTED butter, close to room temp but still cool
  • Up to a pound of confectioner's sugar, depending on your desired frosting texture and sweetness (I think I used a little less than that; you just have to continually taste to figure it out!)
  • 2 bags of chocolate-covered pretzels of your choice (I used dark chocolate mini Flipz) for decorating the cake 
First, following the box mix directions, use 2 half-sheet pans to bake 2 thin cake layers at the same time.

Meanwhile, with an electric mixer, beat the butter until creamy with no lumps. 

Add 1/4 jar of caramel sauce. Add 1 cup confectioner's sugar. Repeat the process, tasting in-between additions, until you reach the desired consistency and sweetness level (you may use the whole jar of sauce and the whole bag of sugar; that's fine), then set aside.

Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool.

Once cakes are cool, if cakes are slightly domed, use a serrated knife to slice thinly across the top until cakes are flat.

Pour the remaining jar of caramel sauce over one of the cakes, then turn the other pan upside down on top of the first (caramel-y) cake.  If layers or corners are uneven, use the serrated knife to trim edges.

Frosting the cake: 

Use a silicone spatula to heap large hunks of frosting onto the cake before spreading it with a small, flat knife, pressing down gently rather than side to side.  If you don't do it this way, you will have chocolate cake crumbs everywhere!

Once frosting is evenly spread, use chocolate-covered pretzels to decorate as you like!  For this particular cake, "LIZ!" seemed like the obvious word choice, plus I had extra pretzels to line the edges of the cake.

If not serving cake immediately, refrigerate so frosting stays firm.


Craving more chocolate? Check out Molly's Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake or Liz Laneri's Raw Chocolate Pudding.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Rachel's Cupcake Academy

Guest chef Rachel Moliere has a few things she'd like to tell you about cupcakes:

My favorite New Year's resolution this year was to become a better baker. I decided to start with something fairly foolproof - cupcakes! - and perfect my technique. For St. Patrick's Day, TheBashionista threw a dinner party, so I decided to bake her a batch of my new favorite recipe - sour cream cupcakes with green frosting. Naturally.

First, the recipe, then some tricks of the trade I've picked up:

Sour Cream Cake

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 3/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup milk
Wilton Green color mix-ins, optional

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla and mix.
Then whisk in flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside.
3. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together milk and sour cream.
4. In a large bowl, add the flour mixture and the milk mixture alternately, beginning and ending with flour. The batter should be thick. At this point, fold in color mix-ins, if using.
5. Line a cupcake pan with cupcake wrappers and pour in 1/4 cup level measures of batter into each one. Bake for 17 minutes. Let cool completely and set aside.

Dyeing Frosting
Ok, so sue me, I used frosting out of the can. But I did use food coloring to make it a vibrant shade of emerald green. Tip #1: When dyeing frosting, be sure to buy a can of white frosting, NOT vanilla, as the vanilla extract will affect the hue.
Batter Consistency
If you're making sour cream cupcakes, you want your batter to be slightly thick - not as thick as oatmeal, and not as thin as soup. Here's what you're aiming for:

Adding Mix-ins
If you're planning to dye your batter as well as your frosting, Wilton makes mix-ins - they look a lot like sprinkles - that you can throw into the batter. The trick is to add them to the batter last, and gently fold them in. If you mix too vigorously, they'll dissolve completely - you don't want that. Rather than dying the whole batter a vague green, you're going for little punches of color.

Applying Frosting
Maybe you already own a pastry gun. Aren't you fancy! If not, you can make one out of a plastic storage bag. Just make a small snip in the corner of the bag, and insert a metal tip. The one I used was a Wilton 2b tip - the kind with a star-shaped opening. You can pick these up at your average kitchen supply store, or possibly your supermarket.  
My favorite trick for loading up the pastry gun? Place the bag in a tall glass, then fill it up with frosting.


In the mood for more dessert? Try Molly's recipe for homemade Vanilla Marshmallows, or Cara's Death by Chocolate Cake.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Help! I need to reboot my dinner parties.

Dear Bashionista,

I want to throw parties! Specifically, themed dinner parties. My fiancĂ© and I throw regular dinner parties - cozy, homemade, casual yet classy, with great conversation. They are sustenance for the body, mind, and spirit.

I'd like to take these dinner parties a step (or five) further, by adding in a special guest star element. I'm hoping that by adding a little structure we can create a community of people who are excited about the same things. We can get together for a delicious meal, and at the same time, learn and flourish as a group.

Do you have any suggestions for how to go about doing this?

Katie S.

Dear Katie,

As someone who's thrown a weekly potluck dinner party for the past seven years, I completely understand what you're saying. Supper club is often the highlight of my week! Getting creative in the kitchen, sharing a meal with friends and getting the chance to really talk is so important. I also love how people can really connect at my dinner parties, and then when they show up at a house party of mine for the first time, they already know a bunch of people there - and not just superficially.

Taking things an intellectual step further is a really ambitious idea. I love it! I've come up with the following suggestions for a dinner party series - I hope you can use this list to spark some ideas of your own. The idea that sticks will depend on who your friends are and what they're most interested in.

Nerd Nights

Cities across the country have Nerd Nights - where experts will give brief slideshow talks on the things they know best. From how to be a professional gambler to examples of zombification in nature, from sex ed to bizarre sleep disorders, these talks are riveting - and the people giving the talks may be just like you and your friends. If you've got the right pool of talent - and really, everyone can be an expert on something unusual - you could invite one person to be that night's special guest, and have them give a five minute talk. Slide show optional. This could also work well if you know any writers; the next time a friend of yours publishes an article, short story, poem, or novel, invite the group to read it and then have a discussion with the author at your next dinner party.

Group Shares

Interested in short fiction? Invite each guest to bring a short story to read aloud around the table. You may want to have a page limit, depending on the size of your group, or you could just let the chips fall where they may. You could also have themes within this theme - stories and food from Ireland; semi-erotic stories paired with a decadent dessert buffet - your options are limitless.

Want to get turned onto poetry? You can easily set up your own informal poetry seminar. Invite each member of the group to contribute a few poems (written by others) with enough copies for the whole group. This packet of poems will be your text for the series. After dinner, invite everyone to go around the table and read one or two poems aloud - not for analysis, just for enjoyment. People can talk about what they connect with in the poems, or what might pair two poems together in their minds. It's a great way to create a love of poetry without the typical analysis anxiety people develop in school.


Are your friends into theatre? Consider forming a play-reading group. This involves more pre-planning than the other themes, but can be a great way to connect with friends and keep your acting skills sharp. Getting ahold of scripts and choosing plays with the right amount of characters for your group can be tricky, but if people take turns carefully selecting plays, it can be managed.

Arts & Crafts

More interested in visual arts? Consider throwing a monthly Salon. Invite people to bring work to share in any medium - knowing you have an audience waiting for your next creation can be a great impetus for getting work finished. Then have a special guest each night who will lead everyone in a fun art project, game or activity.


Interested in a theme dinner party that's more about the food itself? Get your friends to compete and feed you at the same time! Try our Iron Chef Party or our Mac & Cheese Bake-off.

Monday, March 25, 2013

If You Like I Heart Huckabees . . .

Our I Heart Huckabees movie night was a success! We sipped cocktails through mancala hour, enjoyed a little ice cream with Angela, tried not to be sick at the sight of Jude Law breastfeeding Jason Schwartzman, and had a rollicking good time. David O. Russell directed this stellar cast and got them to deliver some of the best work I've seen from them (Unfortunately, he is an alleged nightmare to work with. Lily Tomlin for one has vowed that this is her first and last David O. Russell film. Watch this Not Remotely Safe for Work video on youtube, and you'll understand why).

If you're looking for movie ideas for your Netflix queue, here are some crowd-pleasers, starring actors who appeared in I Heart Huckabees:

If you like Jason Schwartzman . . .


. . . rent Moonrise Kingdom.

Schwartzman has long been Wes Anderson's darling, starring in movies we've screened at previous movie nights, such as Fantastic Mr. Fox and Darjeeling Limited. Anderson's latest film is his most endearing, an adventure but more importantly a first-love story between two "emotionally disturbed" 12-year olds. Schwartzman may only have five minutes of screen time, but he absolutely nails it in this role.
If you like Mark Wahlberg . . .
. . . rent The Fighter.
Thankfully, David O. Russell doesn't give everyone the Lily-Tomlin-screaming-temper-tantrum treatment. Wahlberg worked with him on Three Kings, and then The Fighter made it a hat trick. It took him two years of training to get into fighting shape - this movie is no joke. Wahlberg plays real-life boxer Mickey Ward, and at ringside are Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, both giving Academy-Award-winning performances.
If you like Jude Law . . .
. . . rent Sherlock Holmes.
Within the first five minutes of Guy Ritchie's new take on Sherlock Holmes, I knew this was a movie I would watch at least 20 times. With mind-bending fight scenes, great irritable chemistry between Holmes and Watson, gorgeous shots of mysterious Victorian London, and the patented Holmes deduction monologues, this film is irresistible.
If you like Richard Jenkins . . .
. . . rent Step Brothers.
He broke your heart in another one of our movie nights - Burn After Reading - but Step Brothers will make you laugh until your face hurts. Jenkins falls in love with Mary Steenbergen and marries her in the span of one tidy Vampire Weekend montage. The only trouble is, they each have a 40-year-old son who has never left home. Jenkins is a brilliant foil to their two sons, Will Ferrell and George C. Reilly.
If you like Jonah Hill . . .
. . . rent Superbad.
This is Hill's breakout performance, and it's a must-see. The plot arc might sound familiar - teenage boys on a quest to get score some alcohol in the pursuit of the holy grail of deflowering themselves - but you've never seen it so well-written. Seth Rogan wrote the script and it doesn't seem like a coincidence that lookalike Jonah Hill was cast in the starring role.
If you like Dustin Hoffman . . .
. . . rent Stranger than Fiction.
Let's face it, the man is a moviemaking powerhouse. But of all his fine films, Stranger than Fiction has the most similar feel to I Heart Huckabees. Absurd in the extreme, it tells the story of a man - Will Ferrell - who comes to realize that his life is being narrated by an author who seems to yield total control over him. Hoffman once again plays a detective of sorts, trying to solve the mystery of who the author is . . . before it's too late.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Thanks for coming, now get out

image via iwillnotdiet.com

Dear Bashionista,

Let's say you're having a party and it's a smashing success - but now it's getting on to the wee hours of morning, most people have left, but there are some people there who just. will. not. leave. What is the etiquette here? How do you kick people out without making them feel like you're kicking them out?

Kyle K.

Dear Kyle,

I feel your pain. Sometimes a party is going great and you are thrilled that people want to keep things rocking until dawn. Other times, a party is going great but you got up 20 hours ago to start cleaning and cooking for this party, and all you want to do is go to bed. Here's how to keep things from ending on a sour note.

When the group has the stamina of a Russian army brigade:

Start cleaning up your apartment. Generally when the host starts gathering up empty beer bottles people get the idea that things are winding down. You get extra style points for this move because your guests may take this as a sign that you need help with cleanup. Win!

When you want to go to bed alone, but someone has a different agenda:

So you're single, and it's down to you and one person of the appropriate gender. Dawn is beginning to break, he's offering to pour you more of his specialty cocktails, and you could not be less interested. It's best to play this as though you are blissfully unaware of his intentions. Say something like, wow, I am EXHAUSTED. You're welcome to crash here if you need to - I can make you up a bed on the couch. Give the night a firm stop, but spare him the embarassment of an outright rejection.

When the last two people clearly want to go to bed with each other:

You've cleaned your entire apartment, and those last two guests have not gotten the message. Maybe it's two lovebirds who are willing to wait seven more hours until the perfect moment to make a move. Or maybe it's just a bromance, and these dudes are happy to discuss their ideas for a communist utopia until the local brunch place starts serving. Consider yourself relieved of your hosting duties! There's no shame in saying good night and telling them they can stay as long as they like.

When your ex-boyfriend's girlfriend has gotten drunk and locked herself in your only bathroom for the past three hours:

A host has to make decisions for the good of all. When your other guests have to piss off your back porch, it's time to pound on the door and tell her the party's over. Send her boyfriend in for an intervention while you call them a cab.

When your "friends" are being a bunch of jerks and will not leave:

Maybe your friends are so drunk they think a reenactment of Fight Club would be a really fun idea, maybe a boatload of drunken sailors have crashed the party and are bragging about their number of confirmed kills, or maybe you are ready to kill your friends but know you would regret that decision in the morning. If the party is seriously out of hand and no fun anymore, call for professional help:

Friday, October 5, 2012

Throw Down: I Heart Huckabees Movie Night

What would you do as an American with a philosophical crisis, 3,500 miles and 72 years from the epicenter of existentialism? You'd outsource your problem to a husband & wife team of Existentialist Detectives. Obviously.

I Heart Huckabees is absurd and completely entertaining. Jason Schwartzman is pitch perfect as the disaffected, 20-something environmental activist poet, raging against crass consumerism and corporate doublespeak when he isn't drowning in self-pity; Mark Wahlberg is brilliant as the depressed fireman so obsessed with oil consumption and the meaninglessness of life that he will punch anyone in the face; and Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are their philosophical investigators. Add Jude Law and Naomi Watts as the golden couple Schwartzman despises, and Isabella Huppert playing the French former protege turned dark philosophical nemesis, and there is just no telling where the plot will veer next.

Might I suggest this fine film for your next movie night?

photo via thereelist.com
 If you're familiar with our other movie nights (Darjeeling Limited; Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy; Love Actually; Fantastic Mr. Fox; and Burn After Reading) then you know that one of my favorite things to do is serve food as it appears in the movie, so you can eat along with your favorite characters. Read on to learn what food appears when, and choose to serve as many items as you care to. Join us next week for a playlist of French songs inspired by the films of Isabella Huppert, and for our wrap-up post where we'll give you some fodder for your Netflix queue - a list of my favorite movies featuring actors from this movie.

The menu for I Heart Huckabees can be as simple as you want to make it. At the very least the afternoon before the party, make a tray of brownies. Then decide how elaborate you want to get with dinner. There is one scene where our protagonists are sitting down to dinner in a house of super-Christian strangers. The family is feasting on pasta, peas, asparagus, green beans, bread, salad and tall glasses of milk. For my purposes, I bought some pre-packaged garlic bread and popped it in the oven - but feel free to substitute a healthier option from that list. If you'd like to serve cereal, pour out small bowls ahead of time and load them onto a tray with spoons and a carton of milk. If you'd like to serve ice cream, load up a second tray with ramikins and put a nice chunk of ice cream cone in each as a garnish. Leave the carton of ice cream on the counter to soften as the movie begins, then scoop out small servings right before go time.

As your guests arrive, put out licorice in bowls within their reach, and then take their drink orders. You may want to mix up a shaker of martinis, or a pitcher of your favorite cocktail with lemon garnish. You can also give guests the option of coffee, tea with lemon, or a glass of milk. If you plan to serve champagne, load up a tray with glasses which you can bring out when it's time to pop the cork.

photo via thefancarpet.com
 Minute 11: Jason Schwartzman is being surveiled while eating cereal. Bring out the tray and let guests pour their own milk.

Minute 17: The snooty lady is washing down her hatred of Schwartzman's character with an ice cream cone. Bring out your tray of little ice cream bowls.

Minute 36: It's Mancala Hour! Time for some nice cocktails with lemon.

photo via businessinsider.com . . . and yes, that is a
really young Jonah Hill.
 Minute 42: Schwartzman and Wahlberg break bread with some right-wing Christians, and nearly end up brawling. Serve your dinner item.

Minute 53: Isabella Huppert is driving around and Wahlberg is noshing away on some licorice.

1:11: In one of my favorite scenes, Naomi Watts is wearing a bonnet and unselfconsciously stuffing her face with brownies. Mmmm. Brownies.

1:35: We've finally arrived at the Wetlands Benefit! Time to pop the champagne.

After the movie ends, invite your guests to stay and mingle. Press play on your Isabella Huppert-themed mix, and stage your own mancala hour - or just hit each other in the face with a punch-ball. Enjoy!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Sam's Simple Mint Juleps

I don't know about you, but I could use a drink right about now. Here to help us out in that department is . . . my Dad! Apparently, he and my Mom have been enjoying a nightcap in the evenings this summer, using mint from his own garden. Take advantage of Indian Summer, mix up a pitcher of delicious Juleps, and get thee to a veranda, post haste.

Mint Juleps

4 cups of water
1 cup of sugar
1 hand full of mint leaves with stems (save a few leaves for a garnish)
Bourbon or blended whisky
Add water and sugar to a sauce pan.  Heat and stir occasionally until the sugar is dissolved.  Remove from the heat and add the mint.  When the pan has cooled to near room temperature, remove and discard the mint.  The mint syrup can be refrigerated for several days.
To make the julep:
Add 1-2oz of Bourbon to a tall tumbler.  Add 4oz of the mint syrup and fill with ice and add the mint garnish.
Makes 8 servings