Happy Valentine's Day & the last of sweets for 28 days........

This post is slightly belated, but the treats within are appropriate for any occassion. Just fun for Valentine's because they are red & white. The first treat for a Valentine's/Chinese New Year work lunch was a hit, and was quick, perfect to whip up during a busy week. I had this strawberry pretzel dessert a few years ago and knew the recipe was not hard, but never found it until my co-worker, Natalie, was making a family recipe book and it was just what I had been looking for. We had also received some cupcakes from a rep the day before our lunch so we saved them and I created some paper conversation hearts to jazz them up. The words are heard throughout our group on a regular basis. The reason this post is also titled 'the last of sweets for 28 days' is because, althought I have suffered from migraines for the last 15 years, the past two months have been unbearable, so I have started a restrictive diet that slowly adds back in 'trigger' foods, so that means no sugar for about a month. It will be tough, but definitely worth it if I can figure out what is causing my migraines. And who knows, maybe I'll get creative and come up with some tastey sweets using things that are not restricted like agave nectar and pure maple syrup.
Strawberry Pretzel Dessert

2 Cups Crushed Pretzels
1 1/2 Sticks Melted Butter
2 Tablespoons Sugar
8 oz. Package Cream Cheese (I used 1/3 less fat cream cheese)
1 Cup Sugar
8 oz. Cool Whip (I used light cool whip)
2 Small Packages Strawberry Jello
2 Ten oz. Packages Frozen Strawberries (I used 1 16oz package of fresh strawberries, sliced)

Mix crushed pretzels, butter, and 2 tablespoons sugar to form crust. Spread across the bottom of a 9x13 pan. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes. Let cool.

Bottom Layer
Mix together cream cheese and sugar until smooth then fold in cool whip. Spread over pretzel crust and refrigerate.

Top Layer
Mix 2 cups boiling water with jello powder in a bowl. Refrigerate until somewhat gelled and then add strawberries. Pour over cream cheese layer and put in the freezer until set.

I spent the rest of my Valentine's weekend in Wisconsin with Gregory, Dino, and my Mom. Dino made us delicious dolmates for dinner and Gregory and I made red velvet cupcakes for dessert. For now, these are definitely in my top 3 favorite cupcakes along with the strawberry dream cream cupcakes and the snickerdoodle cupcakes I made last year. I really love red velvet when it's done right (it's like tiramisu, if it's not amazing, I can't even be bothered with it) so I did a lot of research and landed on the combination of red velvet cupcake recipe from Magnolia Bakery in NYC and the cream cheese frosting recipe from Sprinkles Cupcakes originally out of California.  The cupcakes are so light and airy but still have a great flavor, just enough cocoa to actually taste it, and then paired with the cream cheese frosting, they are just to die for! Like most frosting recipes it makes more than enough, so we also had a bonus dessert of cream cheese frosting on graham crackers.....brought Gregory and I right back to our youth, the frosting was usually from a can though.
Magnolia's Red Velvet Cupcakes
3½ cups cake flour (not self-rising)
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 ½ cups sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
6 tbsp red food coloring (I used one whole tube of the red gel coloring and it was just enough)
3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa
1½ tsp vanilla extract
1½ tsp salt
1½ cups buttermilk
1½ tsp cider vinegar
1½ tsp baking soda
1.Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and lightly flour 2 cupcake pans (24 cupcakes), or use cupcake liners.

2.To make the batter: In a small bowl, sift the cake flour and set aside. In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. In a small bowl, whisk together the red food coloring, cocoa, and vanilla. Add to the batter and beat well.

3.In a measuring cup, stir the salt into the buttermilk. Add to the batter in three parts alternating with the flour. With each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated, but do not overbeat. In a small bowl, stir together the cider vinegar and baking soda. Add to the batter and mix well. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the bowl, making sure the ingredients are well blended and the batter is smooth.

4.Divide the batter among the prepared pans. Arrange the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and bake the cupcakes, switching positions of the pans halfway through baking, until a tester comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool the cupcakes in the pan 10 minutes, then remove from the pan and cool completely on a rack before icing. To ice, mound about ¼ cup of frosting on top of each cupcake and use an icing spatula to make a swirl on top. If desired, decorate with colored sprinkles.

Sprinkles Frosting
12 ounces cold cream cheese

1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) butter, firm but not cold
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds (1 1/2 boxes) powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla

1.Combine butter, salt, and cream cheese in mixer and beat on medium speed 2-3 minutes.

2.Add sugar until just incorporated. Don’t over mix. It should be thick but not fluffy.

3.Add vanilla. If necessary, add milk to thin.
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Cinnamon Raisin Bread

It has not taken me long to truly enjoy the art of baking bread. I am still starting out and have yet to try some more complex breads (I am waiting to get a kitchen scale so I can weigh flour and also waiting for some warmer days). However, a couple of Sunday's ago it was a gorgeous sunny day which I figured would aid in the rising of my dough and it certainly did. A few days earlier I was out with some co-workers and someone mentioned cinnamon raisin bread and I could not get it out of my head. Of course Martha has a recipe for it in her baking hand book so that is the recipe I chose to proceed with. It turned out SO good, I could have eaten the whole loaf right out of the oven. I was initially excited because the recipe made two loaves so I made sure to freeze one right away for a future day. Well, I recently retrieved that loaf for the weekend because I had friends in town, and although it worked perfectly for french toast, freezing it had dried it out a lot. I guess from now on I will just have to be a generous bread baker and pass on a delicious fresh loaf to a lucky recipient.

2 cups plus 1 1/2 teaspoons warm water (100 degrees to 110 degrees)
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
5 3/4 cups bread flour, plus more for dusting
2 tablespoons nonfat powdered milk
4 teaspoons sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 cups dark raisins
Canola oil, for bowl and plastic wrap
3/4 cup sugar
7 teaspoons cinnamon
1 large egg, beaten
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg white, beaten  

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine 1/4 cup warm water and yeast. Let sit until yeast is foamy, about 10 minutes. Add flour, powdered milk, sugar, salt, 3 tablespoons melted butter, and 1 3/4 cups warm water. Mix, using the paddle attachment, on low speed for 1 minute. Change to dough hook, and mix on medium-low speed for 7 minutes. Or knead by hand, 15 or 20 minutes. Add raisins, and mix on medium-low speed until dough is firm but not dry, 3 minutes.

2. Transfer to a lightly floured surface, and knead by hand into a ball. Place dough, smooth side up, in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap; let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.

3. Butter two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans generously, and set aside. In a small bowl, combine sugar and cinnamon, and set aside. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface, and cut in half. Cover one piece of dough loosely with lightly oiled plastic wrap.

4. Press the other piece of dough into a 10-by-12-inch rectangle. Brush with half of the beaten egg, sprinkle with half the cinnamon sugar, and drizzle with half the melted butter. Rub the surface with the back of a spoon to blend butter and cinnamon sugar. Starting at a short end, roll up dough tightly, and pinch together along crease. Roll the dough back and forth to make it cylindrical, and pinch the ends together. Transfer to a loaf pan, seam side down, and cover loosely with lightly oiled plastic wrap. Repeat process with second piece of dough. Let loaves rise in a warm place, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Thirty minutes before this final rise is completed, place a baking stone, if using, in the lower third of oven. Heat oven to 425 degrees.

5. Brush tops of loaves with egg white, and sprinkle each loaf with 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar. Bake 15 minutes; lower oven to 400 degrees, and bake 15 minutes more. Remove from oven; cool on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes before slicing.

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