Gnarly 30th Birthday

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The hubs (henceforth known as JMFH) has been talking about his 30th birthday since I met him…when he was 20. Mostly, he’s been talking about 30 as if it were the end of his life, laying out a pretty detailed scenario in which I was supposed to behead him on the morning of his 30th. Uhhhh…dramatic much? Obviously this meant I had to take matters into my own hands,  put my event planning hat on, and make his birthday as awesome as possible.

Just after the new year started in 2014, I started to see lists of things that were turning 30 in 2014, and it was a movie and comic lover’s dream – TMNT, Transformers, Tetris, Karate Kid, Muppet Babies, Ghostbusters. Naturally, I started a Pinterest board…6+ months in advance.

ConfessionCalling JMFH a movie and comic lover is pretty much the understatement of the year. This man is a filmmaker, inspired by 80s-tastic movies like Karate Kid, Ghostbusters, Gremlins and Terminator. This man has a bi-weekly podcast (POW!Cast – check it out!) about comic books and movies. A party theme focused on 80s geek culture? Jackpot.

I had a theme and a Pinterest board, but to take this party to the next level I had to convince JMFH to let me surprise him – not with a full-on surprise party, but with the theme: he could know no details except the basics – day, place, time, guests. Easy enough, right? Wrong.

The thing about JMFH is that when I think I have a ridiculous idea that he’s never going to go for, he agrees immediately; and when I think I have a straightforward idea he’s going to like right away, he resists. So it took some convincing, but finally I convinced him, and the scheming could begin.

Step 1: Beverages

We have some amazing friends with a hobby every bit as wonderful as baking – brewing beer. I asked them to brew, gave them some ideas of what he’d like, and they came up with a great name, recipe, and even labels to bottle some.

Confession: He almost figured me out on the beer front. I was digging around, trying to make sure I was making the right choice as far as the kind of beer for the guys to make. I was asking him things like, “What would you say is your all time favorite kind of beer?” when he said, “I should ask Rick to make beer for my birthday!”

Enter panic mode!

MUST. THINK. FAST. So I said, “You can’t do that! That’s so rude! Making beer is hard! It takes a long time! You can’t ask him to do that!” …and it worked! He was completely thrown off, and the surprise was AMAZING! There are few things I love more than seeing JMFH’s surprised face. 🙂

Story on the name: JMFH is my shorthand for what many call my husband: John Motherf*&#ing Hale. No, seriously. They actually call him that. So naturally the beer had to be named…

John MF'in Ale

…John Motherf*&#ing Ale.

The best part? It tasted FANTASTIC, and it was a huge hit. They even made extra (and, luckily, hid them from party guests) for us to take home. JMFH has been hoarding them for months and is protecting the last bottle with his life!

I even made a drinking game based on stuff JMFH says or his reactions to life in general. Super easy to do – just come up with your list, type it up, print it out, and prepare to get drunk! This spawned my favorite quote of the evening, from the birthday boy as he read through the rules: “Awww…y’all about to get drunk tonight!”

Step 2: Decorations

For decorations, I just went over the top, typical 80s – tie dye, neon colors, silly phrases, even Grumpy Cat in Ray-Bans.

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I also made a poster with a list of things created in 1984.

1984 POSTER

And of course, there was a photo backdrop and tubular props (mics, sunglasses, shutter shades, and fingerless mesh gloves) to catch everyone in their 80s garb.

The birthday boy and his podcast partner

The birthday boy and his podcast partner

Step 3: Cupcakes (duh)

The cupcake flavor was a no brainer. JMFH is crazy for cinnamon, so these Snickerdoodle Cupcakes were a perfect choice. The question was the decorations. Ultimately, I went with two 1984 classics: TMNT and Tetris.

I found some Tetris cookie cutters, which made those decorations pretty easy to make out of neon-colored fondant.

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It just so happens that a new TMNT movie came out in 2014. So I figured it would be easy to track down some good decorations, even if they weren’t edible. I searched everywhere – big box stores, local party store. No TMNT anywhere to be found. So ultimately, I had to create some fondant toppers myself. They turned out great.

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Finally, I arranged the cakes into the number 30 for the party.

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Between the decorations, the beer, the surprise, and the cupcakes, it was a huge success and so much fun. And it was nice to finally use my themed event planning skills outside of work! Now to start planning for his 40th…

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FABulous Strawberry Cheesecake Cupcakes

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Graham cracker. Cream cheese. Cake. Strawberries. Need I say more?

For my BFFAEAE’s 30th birthday, I searched and searched for the perfect recipe and finally discovered the winner: strawberry cheesecake cupcakes. What could be better for a low key girls’ night in than that?

It was one of the more ambitious cakes I’ve tried, so ambitious that about halfway through I started sending desperate Plan B texts to the birthday girl. But then, they came out of the oven, and you know what?

A. MA. ZING.

Seriously. The biggest hit ever. At the office, with the hubs, and – most importantly – with the BFF. So good, in fact, that I made them again within a couple of weeks – this time, with some tweaks to make it my own.

FABulous* Strawberry Cheesecake Cupcakes
Adapted from Tortillas and Honey

Graham Cracker Crust:
2 pre-made graham cracker pie crusts
3 Tbs of melted butter

Cupcakes:
1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
12 Tbs. unsalted butter, room temperature ( 1 1/2 sticks)
1 c.  + 2 Tbs. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. sour cream
4 large egg whites
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
2 c. fresh strawberries, hulled and coarsely chopped

Cream Cheese Frosting:
1 (8 oz.) packet of cream cheese, room temperature
8 Tbs. salted butter, room temperature (1 sticks)
2 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

Instructions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line 2 muffin tins with cupcake liners. Pour both graham cracker crusts into a medium bowl and break up all large pieces until you’re left with crumbs. Add melted butter and mix evenly (I used a whisk). Sprinkle about 1 tablespoon of the crushed graham cracker into the bottom of each prepared muffin tin. Press down to create your crust and bake for 4-6 minutes or until slightly browned (Remember: they’re going to get baked again with the cake, so don’t overcook).  Remove immediately from oven and set aside to cool.

In a small bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla. Next, add half the flour mixture until incorporated, then mix in the sour cream. Add remaining flour and mix until just blended.

Now. This is where I got nervous. The batter was much thicker than I expected. Much thicker. More like a cookie dough. Don’t worry. It’ll all be okay. Promise.

Add the egg whites into a clean bowl in your stand-up mixer with the whisk attachment. Start on low speed and add the cream of tartar slowly.

Why cream of tartar? Well, the hubs has started falling asleep to Good Eats with Alton Brown every night. Just after I made this the first time, we watched an episode where Alton was beating egg whites and he mentioned this idea. I was skeptical, so I searched around, found others who did the same, and ultimately asked the second most trusted baking advisor (after my Nana, of course): my dad. He concurred that it helped to stabilize the egg whites and keep them from collapsing. So I went with it.

Gradually work the mixer up to high speed and beat the egg whites until stiff, glossy peaks appear, about 3-5 minutes, careful not to overbeat.

Gently fold 1/3 of the egg into the batter until combined. Add remaining egg and fold in the chopped strawberries. Fill each muffin tin about 3/4 of the way. I like to use a good 1/4 cup measuring cup, just because it seems to work out (and not because I am that exact, believe me). For this recipe, I fill them a tiny bit more than others, since there is added height from the strawberries. Bake for about 18 minutes depending on your oven. Start lower than you think it will take, and use the toothpick test! When it’s clean, they’re ready.

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Allow to cool in the pan for a few minutes, then place on wire racks (or just out of the way) to cool completely.

For the cream cheese frosting:
In a large mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla together until smooth. Add the heavy cream and beat until it starts to get fluffy. (I do this with most of my frostings because I find it makes for a lighter topping and helps it hold up for piping without needing as much sugar.)

Now for the sugar. Confession: I don’t really like icing. It’s way too sweet for me. For this recipe, since I was going for a cheesecake feel, I especially wanted to go light on the sugar to get closer to a cheesecake taste than a super sweet buttercream. I generally add sugar slowly (and without measuring) until it tastes okay and is thick/stiff enough to pipe onto the cupcakes. For this recipe, I used around two cups of powdered sugar, but you could easily add more without it being too sweet. At this point, it’s all a matter of taste.

Add the sugar slowly in small batches, beating on low speed until incorporated. Once all sugar has been added, increase the speed to high and mix until light and fluffy. Spread or pipe onto the cupcakes and garnish with leftover graham cracker crumbs or strawberries or both!

 

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I usually don’t refrigerate my cupcakes, mostly because they get eaten pretty quickly, either at work or whatever function I’m making them for (or the hubs). For these, to help reinforce that cheesecake texture in the frosting, I do refrigerate overnight, and then let them thaw 45-60 minutes before serving. My husband thinks they’re best if you eat them straight from the fridge.

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Enjoy! And if you plan to take them to work or a party, be sure to bring plenty. I’m telling you, they’re a big crowd pleaser!


*Because they were first made for her birthday, the BFF had naming honors for this recipe. Their official long-form name is: F*@#ing Awesome Birthday Cupcakes. 🙂

Update 1: substitute Greek yogurt for the sour cream (I used vanilla) to tell yourself that it’s healthier. Add a little more than the recipe calls for a thinner batter too.

Update 2: also amazing as a turtle cheesecake cupcake. Swap the strawberries for pecans, add extra yogurt/sour cream to make up for the lost moisture, and top with caramel and chocolate drizzle. (Or even poke into the cake for richer flavor.) Still a crowdpleaser!!

A Baker is Born

I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult. – E. B. White

In college, my academic advisor told me once that she was preparing me to take over the world. She said this, as she did most things, in a way that made me think she was serious, that she’d be disappointed if I didn’t. So I set out to do just that.

I got a Master’s Degree in Public Administration (MPA) and officially began my life as a public servant. I spend my days working with communities in West Virginia to redevelop brownfield properties – that is, properties with real or perceived environmental contamination. This allows me to work with stakeholders of all kinds, academic experts in numerous fields, and service providers in all sectors. I spend a lot of time traveling the Mountain State, seeing the many things that communities have to offer, and helping them to build their assets and tackle their challenges.

Taking on the celebrations and frustrations of multiple communities at the same time is usually exhilarating, but sometimes it’s exhausting. Long hours in the car, fielding questions about state and federal programs, begging people to return your calls and emails – these are the exciting and integral parts of life in community development. It helps to have a creative outlet, a way to turn off my work brain and focus on a single, finite, creative task that will almost instantly bring people joy.

That’s how I discovered baking.

I can remember baking cakes for Christmas with my grandmother when I was young. She had this kids’ cookbook that had belonged to my dad that she gave to me. It was falling apart and yellow from use – everything a cookbook should be. For a handful of years, I was so excited to help decide what kind of Christmas cake we would have – how it would be shaped, how we would decorate it, what flavor it would be. She seemed to have all the answers, as grandmothers often do, and cake pans in every shape (many of which I’d be thrilled to find in my adulthood).

The first Christmas after I met my husband I made snickerdoodles for his family as a gift. I am convinced that that was the point at which his dad even considered letting me stick around. For months after, any time I would come over, the first thing he’d say was, “Where are the cookies?” For 7 years, even after we got married, I made him cookies for Christmas. When I switched my baking specialty to cupcakes (more on that later), my husband and I had to consult about how to mitigate his dad’s disappointment when I showed up with cupcakes instead of snickerdoodles. I’m still not sure he’s gotten over it.

In the last couple of years, I’ve come to rely on baking as a creative outlet and stress reliever. I’ve gotten my sea legs in the kitchen, upgraded to a larger kitchen – thank goodness! – and started to make my own tweaks to recipes, to trust myself to go on instinct on occasion. This new-found confidence has inspired me to combine baking with my tried and true stress reliever: writing. Thus, Confessions of an mmmMPA was born.

Although I expect that the bulk of my posts will focus on baking or event planning, I hope that some of the MPA side will have occasion to come out. I see and experience so many great parts of West Virginia and the rest of the country through my work that it would be a shame not to share those stories along the way. After all, who says you can’t change the world and have a hell of a good time while doing it?

Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let’s get baking!