Happy Birthday Cupcakes with Chocolate Zinfandel Buttercream Frosting

26 Jan Vanilla Cupcakes with Chocolate Zinfandel Buttercream


When it comes to birthdays, I have found there are generally two types of people: those who approach them with dread, scarcely acknowledging the day, refusing to discuss their age, mentally ticking off the days til death; and those who fully embrace them, loving the attention, the gifts, the reasons to celebrate life. Age to these people is only a number. I definitely fall into the second category. I love my birthday, look forward to it for 364 days every year. Because on that one day each year, for those 24 hours, it’s all about me. Even if no one else were around to celebrate, as far as I’m concerned, my birthday is my day. Mine. I’m having a pretty good life, its good to take a day to celebrate it.


I am very fortunate in that I have a sister, Laura, who loves to celebrate my birthday with me. And by celebrate I mean she bakes me a fabulous 3-layer, decadent chocolate cake with creamy chocolate buttercream frosting. My favorite. She sometimes even decorates the top with these amazing shaved chocolate curls. I’ve written about this cake before. It’s a masterpiece. And all mine. For my birthday. And there is a reason I mention this.

This past summer, my friend Diane and I spent a beautiful August day in St. Michaels, Maryland. St. Michaels is one of those quaint little historic towns along the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, overflowing with little shops and eateries and, much to our surprise, a winery. As you can imagine, a day of browsing through shop after shop can really take it out of you, so a break to sample the local wine was just what the doctor ordered. St. Michaels boutique winery had several interesting offerings, but it was the chocolate zinfandel that caught my eye. Chocolate AND wine together in one bottle? Nirvana. I noticed the wine was just the prettiest shade of crimson red as it was poured into my glass, but it was as I lifted the glass to inhale the bouquet that I was immediately transported back to….wait for it….. my sister’s amazing chocolate, chocolate birthday cake. That wine was my sister’s cake in a bottle. With some alcohol added in.


You should know it took a huge amount of restraint to purchase just the one bottle to bring home. I pondered for quite some time what exactly should do with the wine and concluded it deserved to shine like the gem it is. Nothing fancy, something that would showcase that velvety wine, make it stand out.  I finally decided on a basic vanilla cupcake topped with a chocolate buttercream infused with the chocolate zinfandel – delicious!


A good vanilla cupcake can be tricky, but I found the best recipe posted here by American Heritage Cooking. Perfect flavor, perfect crumb, nice and moist – this recipe is a keeper.  The frosting is the basic Hershey’s recipe on the back of the can of cocoa, but I substituted the chocolate zin for the milk. Who knew such a simple switch would have such an amazing outcome?

So here it is, a classic vanilla cupcake topped with the creamiest, most decadent chocolate wine buttercream frosting.  The way I see it, whether it’s your birthday, your sister’s birthday, your dog’s birthday, or even I-Remembered-To-Pick-Up The-Dry-Cleaning Day, there’s always a reason to CELEBRATE! And here’s just the cupcake to make it happen.

Classic Vanilla Cupcakes – makes 24 cupcakes

Be sure to have all ingredients at room temperature before starting

3/4 cup unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 large eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1 1/4 cups sour cream

2 1/2 cups cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees; line 2 muffin tins with cupcake liners.

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together into a medium bowl; set aside

Cream butter and sugar in large bowl of electric mixer until light and fluffy

Add eggs one at a time, beating to combine after each

Add vanilla, sour cream and almond extract, mixing until just combined

Reduce mixer speed to low and stir in the dry ingredients in several additions. Stir in the last addition by hand until just combined, being careful not to over mix.

Fill cupcake tins about 2/3 full. Bake for 14-18 minutes or until a toothpick comes out with only a few clinging crumbs.

Cool completely before frosting


Chocolate Zinfandel Buttercream Frosting

1/2 cup butter

2/3 cup Hershey’s cocoa

3 cups powdered sugar

1/3 cup chocolate wine

1 teaspoon vanilla

Melt butter. Transfer to mixing bowl and combine with cocoa. Gradually add powdered sugar, alternating with chocolate wine on medium speed until desired consistency is reached. Stir in vanilla. Frost and decorate as desired.



Pumpkin Shandy Cupcakes with Ginger Limoncello Buttercream

27 Sep Pumpkin Shandy Cupcakes


September is a month of transitions. We still have the bright, warm, sun-filled days of summer, but awaken to chilly mornings with just the slightest little nip in the air to remind us autumn is just around the corner. We can still wear shorts and flip-flops, but maybe we’ll trade in that tank top for a long-sleeved tee. The trees themselves reflect this transition, still dressed in bright green leaves, but with a canopy of beautiful reds and oranges and yellows adorning their crowns. And I know I’m not the only one who is starting to look at her oven with love again, appreciating (instead of dreading) the warmth it fills the kitchen with while baking up a batch of some special treat I’ve been waiting all summer to try.


Now is also the time we begin to swap out our Leinenkugels and Blue Moons for the beloved pumpkin ales: Southern Tier’s Pumpking, Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale, and Sam Adam’s (8.5% abv!) Fat Jack, just to name a favorite few. All delicious to be sure, but what a shame there isn’t a way to smoothly transition from those bright, citrusy summer ales of summer to the heady, spicy brews of fall. Or is there?


Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you Traveler Beer Co.’s Jack-O Shandy! As the bottle claims, it’s a fine wheat beer with lemon peel (hence the shandy part) with natural flavors and PUMPKIN added (hence the pumpkin ale bit)! At last, the perfect summer-to-fall transition beer. No more Leinenkugel withdrawals, no more Pumpking spice harsh. Finally, the perfect way to segue from summer to fall, brew-wise. Thanks Travelers!


Inspired by such a delightful shandy, I decided to try a little baking transition of my own. And so I offer for your late summer/early fall culinary enjoyment my pumpkin shandy cupcakes. A light, spicy pumpkin cupcake topped with my delicious limoncello buttercream, topped with a dusting of crushed ginger cookies. These yummy cakes will be the perfect finish to any end-of-season picnic or that first hayride of the fall. But enjoy them while you can. Because like the beautiful fall foliage, pumpkin ale season is short…so many pumpkin ales, so little time….


Pumpkin Shandy Cupcakes

1 box spice cake mix

1 cup canned pumpkin (not pie filling)

2 eggs

2/3 cup Traveler Jack-O Shandy

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake  tins with paper liners – I was able to get about 18 cupcakes.

Mix all ingredients at low speed until combined, then at medium speed for about 2 minutes.

Fill cupcake tins about 2/3 full.

Bake for 17-20 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely before frosting.

Limoncello Buttercream Frosting

3/4 cup butter, room temperature

4 cups confectioners sugar

pinch salt

grated lemon peel

juice from one small/medium lemon

1 – 2 tablespoons Limoncello, or to taste

2-3 Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger Cookie Thins, crushed

Cream butter until soft. Add sugar, salt, lemon peel, lemon juice and limoncello, mixing at low speed until combined, then at high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Frost as desired and sprinkle with crushed cookie crumbs.



Tequila Lime Squares

27 Jul Tequila Lime Squares


Summertime! The word itself conjures up images of pure fun – swimming, sunning, playing outside, picnics and barbecues – so many awesome things to do! But let’s face it, baking isn’t one of them.  When the temperature soars into the 90s or higher, who wants to be pulling sheets of cookies or pans of cupcakes out of a hot oven, especially when she could be lounging by a refreshingly cool pool? But does this mean no goodies until the fall? Not at all!  Enter the simple square.


In an era before Pinterest and AllRecipes and Food.com made finding the perfect recipe a quick click away, one of the things my grandmother and I enjoyed sharing with each other was the discovery of an amazing recipe. Because we lived almost 400 miles apart, we had to share these finds originally by photocopying and mailing, and later by attaching to an email. But she always held onto a special recipe or two until I visited so we could make it together. My gram’s lemon square recipe was one such treat, a recipe so simple but so delicious, it remains one of my top go-to summer recipes to this day.


Squares and bars are the perfect summer dessert. Super easy to whip up, only one pan to dirty, requiring minimal oven door opening. Cover the pan and you’ve got your brownies or lemon squares or cheesecake bars ready to go for the perfect ending to any picnic or cookout. So imagine my delight when I came across this recipe from, believe it or not, food network.com, for Tequila Bars! Light, citrus-y, easy enough to toss together, and with a generous helping of tequila, definitely B.U.I. worthy. I had to give them a try, and I’m so glad I did. A new summer go-to recipe, I’m pretty sure my Gram would approve.



1 12-ounce box vanilla wafers

1/2 cup pine nuts

3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

1/3 cup tequila

1/2 cup fresh lime juice

5 large egg yolks

2 egg whites

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1 tablespoon sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Pulse wafers and pine nuts in food processor until well ground.

Add butter and blend until mixed. Set aside 1/4 cup of crumbs.

Press remaining crumbs evenly into a 13 x 9 pan.

Bake until golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Cool.

In a medium bowl, whisk together tequila, lime juice, egg yolks and condensed milk. Set aside.

In another bowl, beat egg whites and sugar with electric mixer until they hold soft peaks.

Gently fold the egg whites into the tequila mixture.

Spread the filling over the prepared crust and bake for 25 minutes. Cool.

Sprinkle the reserved crumbs on top.

Chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours or overnight before cutting.








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