Sugared Mango Muffins

4/20/14
Photo by Philip Ficks

Photo by Philip Ficks

Weekend mornings spent at home call for big breakfasts. Still in our pajamas, my family and I take time to prepare dishes that weekday schedules prohibit: Belgian waffles, baked eggs, and muffins. We love muffins, and our favorites are the ones laden with sweet, ripe fruit—blueberries, bananas, raspberries, peaches. While I prefer this recipe with mango, you can substitute any of the aforementioned fruits. Although usually available year round, mangoes are at their best in spring and summer, which is when I bake these moist muffins that aren’t too dense and deliver the essence of mango.

Mangoes that are green and hard should ripen after a few days at room temperature. The feel and smell of the mango are much more important than the color. Never refrigerate unripe mangoes.  If ripe mangoes aren’t available, look for jarred mango in the produce section or bags of mango chunks in the frozen food section, now available from Trader Joe’s and Dole. When mangoes are in season (and usually on sale), I buy them in bulk, cut the fruit into chunks, and freeze it in air-tight containers.

Do you struggle with cutting mangoes though?

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It can be difficult getting close to the pit. Even when I make a bad cut though I never worry about mango going to waste in our house. My kids suck those pits clean, almost as good as licking batter off the spoon!

However, after I made these muffins for a friend staying with us, a week later I received an oddly-shaped package in the mail. You know the kind, a bulging paper envelope that’s slightly too small for its contents, ripped in a few spots with bubble wrap and newspaper peeking through. When I opened it, this is what I found inside:

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A mango splitter. This cool little kitchen gadget is made by OXO. It was actually invented by a pastor about 10 years ago who couldn’t find any type of mango cutter on the market so he measured a bunch of pits, sought out a prototype builder, and had one made. I admire that kind of initiative…and I love that my friend sent such a thoughtful gift!

For those of you unfamiliar with this handy little tool, you simply press it down over the top of a mango and it cuts close to the pit leaving two halves ready to slice or cube. Really makes the process a cinch.

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To cube the mango, make lengthwise and crosswise cuts into the flesh, creating a crosshatch pattern, without cutting through the peel. Then using the knife, gently slice the cubes off the peel.

Available from Amazon, Williams-Sonoma and Bed, Bath & Beyond, mango splitters sell for $13-15 dollars. If you’re in need of a gift this spring, how about a basket of these muffins paired with a mango splitter and copy of this recipe?

Sugared Mango Muffins

These muffins are best eaten the day they are baked.

Makes 16 to 18 muffins
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream
2 to 3 mangoes, cut into 3/4-inch dice (about 1-1/2 cups)
2 tablespoons sparkling white sugar or coarse sugar crystals

NOTE: If using frozen mango, thaw it before adding to the batter.

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place paper liners in 18 standard muffin cups.
2. Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl. Set aside.
3. Put the butter and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium for 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, blending each time until fully incorporated, stopping and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed with a rubber spatula. Stir in the vanilla extract.
4. With the mixer on low, slowly add half of the dry ingredients. Using a rubber spatula, stop and scrape the sides of the bowl to ensure everything is moistened.
5. Add the sour cream and beat until just combined. With the mixer on low, add the rest of the dry ingredients until moistened, stopping and scraping down the sides of the bowl with the spatula. Do not overbeat. Stir in the mangoes using the spatula or a wooden spoon.
6. Using a tablespoon or ice cream scoop, fill the prepared muffin cups three-quarters full. Sprinkle each muffin with 1/4 teaspoon sparkling sugar.
7. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until pale golden and a toothpick.

An egg you say? On chili?

3/27/14

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I never thought it’d come to this, but it has—I’m talking about the weather. But who’s not? On the elevator,at the checkout, in the park, whoever I turn to, they shake their heads and say, “can you believe this cold?”

It’s fffffreeeezing out (at least in NYC).  It’s supposed to warm up today, but it was a mighty chilly 29 degrees when I was out this morning. An extremely inspiring friend of mine, who among many distinctions can claim  breathing and meditation coach, ski coach, and high school teacher, told me she decided in early adulthood she would never let the weather bother her. She can’t change it so why fight it, and this was before she took up mediation. Instead, embrace the elements—snow, sleet, rain, or drizzle—don on a poncho, and carry on (don’t think her skiers are allowed to come in off the mountain if it’s raining).

Adopting MJ’s reasoning, I may be talking about the weather, but I’m not letting it bother me. Instead, I’m taking this opportunity before it gets too warm to share my latest fancy: chili with an egg! An egg you say? (I feel like I should reply a la Dr. Seuss, “You may like them. You will see. You may like them in a tree?”). But no, I will just say YES. If you haven’t had it, a perfectly poached egg topping a spicy veggie chili is to die for.

The egg’s creaminess blends with the fiery tomatoes and gives a rich mouthfeel. I convinced my husband Jim, also known as Rug Boy, to show you how to poach an egg. You may recognize his voice from the PBS series Antiques Roadshow, on which he has appraised rugs and textiles for over 15 years. I’ve had friends say they were in their kitchens or elsewhere in the house while the show was playing, and they could recognize Jim’s deep tone without even seeing the screen. You won’t see his face, but it’s his soothing baritone voice you’ll hear.

Rug Boy is the dedicated poacher in our house. If you haven’t done it before, for some reason cracking an egg in simmering water and letting it float around seems intimidating . Why is that? It’s just an egg and water. I don’t know but it used to scare me. So virgin poachers, if you feel the least bit uneasy, take a look at this video to ease any hesitations you may have.

To poach an egg you’ll need:

Eggs, white vinegar, a cup or small bowl, a slotted spoon, and a pan filled with water

1. Start your water at a high boil then reduce it to below simmering.

2. Add about two tablespoons of vinegar to the water.

3. Crack your egg in a cup or bowl and place it gently in the water.

4. Using the slotted spoon, push the whites near the yolk so they don’t settle on the bottom.

5. Let your eggs cook for 2 to 5 minutes then remove gently with the spoon (2-3 minutes for a runny yolk). Gently blot it with a paper towel and serve.

And like anything, it takes practice. But not much. A few tries and you, too, may become the house poacher.

Now on to the chili. I highly recommend Phoebe Lapine’s Smoky Chipotle Vegetarian Chili posted on the notable Leite’s Culinaria site. The recipe is originally from her cookbook, In the Small Kitchen (Morrow, 2011), co-authored with Cara Eisenpress.

I met the extremely lovely Phoebe at Haven’s Kitchen a few years back. At that time she was a contestant on BBC America’s Chef Race: UK vs. US. From blogging to catering, she seems to have done it all, including several appearances on Ina’s show, lucky girl! Her parents were friends with the Contessa, so Ina was a mentor of sorts to Phoebe. Check out her blog Feed Me Phoebe for more healthy comfort food recipes.

I’ve said lots about Phoebe but neglected to say anything about the chili, which, with an egg, hits the spot for a hearty meal. It may not replace the lead-brick fullness that can occur after a big bowl of stick-to-your-ribs beef chili, but isn’t that a good thing?

Loaded up with peppers, zucchini, and squash, this chili is rounded out with three kinds of chiles.

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I also added a few carrots for even more veggie goodness.

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The fire-roasted tomatoes are key. I use Muir Glen Organic Fire-Roasted Diced Tomatoes, which I’m convinced are a worthwhile addition to most recipes. Then of course, the beautious egg!

How do you eat your chili? Cincinnati style, with spaghetti? Or maybe just some shredded cheese and diced onions? I love scooping this this chili up with big blue corn chips. And just because we’ve been talking about the weather, I can’t help but close with my husband’s favorite line: Chilly today, hot tamale…or should I say Chili today, hot tamale? Well, let’s hope so.

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Irish Steel-Cut Oat Apple Whiskey Cake

3/17/14

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Early this morning, my gym instructor was wildly gyrating between squats, lunges, and bicep curls with more vigor than usual. “See what happens when you have whiskey on your Lucky Charms,” she told the class, smiling widely as she pulled off her black sweatshirt to reveal a bright shamrock-color tank and asked, “where’s your green y’all?”

“Oh yeah, it’s St. Paddy’s Day,” I remembered. The thought had slipped my mind in those wee hours of the morn as I was trying to keep up with Tracie’s tireless thrusts.

While I may not be wearing green today, I have baked up a comforting dessert in recognition of this Irish holiday. I don’t have a lick of Irish in me, but my mother, who celebrates every holiday (she’d put things like leprechaun stickers on our lunch bags) always makes corned beef and cabbage on this day. I usually do the same, but my daughter made me promise we wouldn’t have to eat “that boiled meat” this seventeenth of March.

Okay, okay, she got her way. But only this year. Instead I thought I’d try to do something with steel-cut oats, inspired by my Irish mother-in-law, Renee, who introduced me to the cereal.

Rolled oats, right; Steel-cut oats, left

Rolled oats, left; Steel-cut oats, right

Unlike rolled oats, which are steamed and flattened whole oat groats, steel-cut oats are made by cutting the inner portion of the oat husk into little pieces. The result is a hard kernel that when cooked up with milk makes a mighty mean porridge. Steel-cut oats take longer to cook than rolled oats (I find it best to soak them overnight), and they have a slightly chewy, almost nutty texture.

I initially set out to make some type of nutritious oatmeal snack cake, but that idea quickly deteriorated as I started thinking about a little Irish whiskey in the cake, then a poke oat cake doused in a rich whiskey sauce. (I’m glad to know that like my gym instructor, I’m not the only one who pairs liquor and cereal!).

After a little experimenting, my whole-grain health cake turned into a dense, impossibly rich, butter-laden dessert—it’s so moist and custardy I don’t even know if I can call this confection cake. I would say it’s more like a bread pudding that develops a delicate, almost crispy top crust. The softened apples and oats add a satisfying texture to the simple egg-butter-flour-sugar batter.

There is no cinnamon, or other spice for that matter in this dessert. I was tempted to add a little cardamom, but instead added some orange zest, which complements the hint of whiskey in the batter. The best part is the topping (yes, it also contains whiskey): a smooth, caramel-colored whiskey butter sauce. I didn’t even dare (probably only because I didn’t have any in the house), but just to gild the lily, you could add a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I’m thinking ice cream could be another vehicle for the sauce…I don’t want to downplay the cake, because it can stand alone on its own, but the sauce is so addictive the cake could get the reputation of just being a “carrier food.” You know, those ones that are there just to transport a yummy sauce, like fries for aioli, asparagus for hollandaise.

So while this cake is even less Irish than corned beef and cabbage (which I don’t even think they really eat on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland), it’s a hearty, heart-warming finish to a meal that will leave everyone smiling.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day y’all.

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 Irish Steel-Cut Oat Whiskey Cake

1 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup steel-cut oats

1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 large eggs plus one yolk

1-1/4 cups packed dark brown sugar

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted plus extra for greasing the pan

3 apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4″ dice

1 tablespoon orange zest (about the amount from one large orange)

3 tablespoons Irish whiskey

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1. Mix the buttermilk and oats together in a small bowl, cover and refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch springform pan. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, soda, and salt. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl whisk together the eggs and brown sugar for about 100 strokes. Add the melted butter and whisk again. Next add the buttermilk-oat mixture and stir with a spoon.

4. Gently fold the flour mixture into the batter until just incorporated. Lastly, fold in the apples, orange zest and whiskey.

5. Spread the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle with the tablespoon of sugar (helps form a golden crust) and bake for 65 minutes. The cake will remain moist but should be cooked through, and not have a runny center.

6. Allow the cake to cool in the pan. Run a knife around the edges and carefully open the springform ring.

Whiskey Butter Sauce

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

1 cup half and half

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

3-4 tablespoons Irish whiskey or to taste

1. Place the sugar and water in a small saucepan and stir once or twice. Allow the mixture to cook over medium-high heat for 6 to 7 minutes without stirring. As the mixture starts to turn golden, swirl the pan to ensure the entire mixture turns golden and remove from heat.

2. Add the half and half and butter being careful if the mixture bubbles up from the pan. Stir to incorporate. Return the pan to the stove and heat for another few minutes until thickened and warmed through. Stir in the whiskey. Serve over Irish Steel-Cut Oat Apple Whiskey Cake

Elegant Academy Award hors d’ouevres + bonus Oscar ballot

2/27/14

IMG_7237When watching the Superbowl, it somehow seems okay to gorge on carb-laden appetizers and creamy, cheesy dips while those big, buff football players huff and puff around the field.

On the contrary, an Academy Awards viewing party does not inspire super-size plates of heart-hazardous grub. Instead, dainty portions of more nutrient-rich fare seem de rigueur while watching those Hollywood babes slink down the Red Carpet.

Putting together an elegant, tasty Oscar Night spread is really quite easy. It’s all in the presentation—make it small (like the waistlines of those coveted designer frocks!). Soup ladled into shot glasses is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Anything mini makes you just wanna declare, “aww, that’s so cute.”

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Banana smoothies served in mini parfait glasses are equally festive.

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Put out some edamame dip and veggies, a bowl or two of pita chips and nuts, and you’ve got yourself some Oscar-worthy snacks. Oh, and don’t forget lemon-zest parmesan popcorn in petite containers for continued munching throughout the evening. Even with the music escorting stars offstage, the program can get a little long.

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And to really pull your night together, calligrapher Nancy Howell and her husband, graphic designer Mark Lerner, have created this very snazzy Oscar Ballot, which they have kindly given permission for anyone to use…it is yours for the printing, just click here. Please look them up, not only are they extremely talented, but fun to work with. (Remember the recipe platter Nancy illustrated for me?).

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So here’s the skinny on the Oscar Night menu…

Homemade Spiced Nuts

Seriously, one of the BEST nut recipes ever: Ina Garten’s Chipotle and Rosemary Roasted Nuts. Sweet and spicy, they are more addictive than chips. If you make these, I bet more than one person will ask you for the recipe, as I once did to my friend Elizabeth, who has kept me in good supply ever since!

Fall Squash and Apple Soup

Debra Ponzek, former executive chef at New York’s Montrachet Restaurant, shares a recipe for a velvety-smooth Fall Squash and Apple Soup on her Aux Délices catering site. To ensure the creamiest texture, I use a blender to puree the soup.

Two-ounce plastic shot glasses are available online or at most party stores.

If you don’t have the time or energy to make soup, just dish up a prepared one.

Lemon-zest Parmesan Popcorn

Give some added zing to popcorn—either freshly-made or store-bought—by sprinkling  1 tablespoon melted butter and the zest of 1 lemon over 8 to 10 cups of popped corn. Toss thoroughly. Next sprinkle the popcorn with 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan. Add a few turns of freshly ground pepper and toss again.

Use gold star stickers to glam up  mini red-stripe popcorn boxes.

Edamame Dip

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Place one small garlic clove in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times. Using a spatula, scrape the garlic down from the sides of the bowl and add 12 ounces (about 2 generous cups) cooked shelled edamame, 1/2 cup water, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 2 tablespoons sesame oil, 1 tablespoon white miso paste, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, and 1/2 cup fresh cilantro. Process until smooth. Add salt to taste. If desired, add 1/2 teaspoon or so of Sriracha sauce.

Be sure to save out a few edamame for garnish so guests don’t mistake the green dip for guacamole.

Serving dips, chips and veggies in uniform dishes creates a simple yet stylish presentation. If you don’t have something already, you can buy white plastic bowls for just over 5 dollars.

Frozen Nilla Wafer Banana Smoothies

In a blender mix 2 cups low-fat frozen vanilla yogurt, 1 cup skim milk, 2 frozen bananas cut into small pieces, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and a 1/2 cup ice. Blend until smooth. Add 1/4 cup crushed Nilla wafers and blend again. Serve immediately.

(For peanut butter lovers, replace Nilla wafers with crushed Nutter Butter cookies.)

Clear two-ounce plastic cordial glasses  adorned with gold stars are perfect for serving mini shakes.

And the Oscar goes to…

Last-minute Valentine’s dessert: Sweethearts pound cakes

2/14/14

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Why is it that I had no idea what these colorful candy hearts, above, are called? Both my daughters do, but if you asked me I’d say, “you know, those cute little hearts that say things, the ones made by, I think, Necco.” Well, I learned something new: they’re called Sweethearts AKA conversation hearts, and yes, they are made by Necco.

Do you know these legendary candies with sayings now come en Español? They are also available in chocolate, cinnamon (with supposedly equally spicy sayings), and sugar-free.

But just like the rest of us, these little candies have evolved over the years. After all, they’ve been in production for over a century and now billions of candy hearts are sold annually. While some of the original sayings have remained and include “Be True,” “Kiss Me,” and “Sweet Talk,” others have come and gone like “Fax Me” and “Email Me.”

Some of the newest phrases include “LOML,” “Tweet Me,” and “Text Me.” BTW, LOML = love of my life (just like this candy’s name, something else I learned!).

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While I don’t especially love eating these little guys (I much prefer a gooey salted caramel truffle or fruit-nut-chocolate bar), I adore their iconic look—they just scream, well converse, Valentine’s Day. Check out this staggering cake from Gimme Some Oven. Ali made a masterpiece!

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Since I’m not a huge fan of their flavor, but love their look, I’ve always wanted to recreate the heart-shape candies as mini cakes.

When skimming through Family Fun in the orthodontist’s office waiting room (I can always get through a good 3 or 4 issues to glean some creative ideas during one appointment), I remember seeing the best idea for cheater’s petit-fours: cut store-bought pound cake into squares and dip it in icing. So easy.

That’s how I was going to make my conversation heart cakes, pound cake dipped in icing. But in the end, I ended up not cheating, and baked a cake. But only because I’m a hopeless bake-a-holic. I also tried the store-bought method, and it worked like a charm…honestly, it was so quick that if you have an extra half hour in your schedule today, go for it.

Either way, make your own conversation hearts this Valentine’s Day…it’ll be a piece of cake!

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Method 1: Easier Sweethearts Pound Cakes

1 store-bought pound cake

1 can creamy vanilla frosting (don’t buy the whipped kind)

food coloring

red gel pen

1. Slice a store-bought pound cake into 1/2-inch slices.

2. Using a heart-shape cookie cutter or knife, cut one heart from each slice of cake.

3. Place a cooling rack on top of a baking sheet or piece of wax paper. Line your heart-shape cakes up on the rack

4. Scoop out 1/4 cup canned frosting into a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high for 15 seconds. Add a drop of food coloring and stir until thoroughly colored. The frosting should be thin like a glaze. If not, heat for another 5 or 10 seconds.

5. Gently pour some icing onto the center of the cake and using a spoon, coax the icing toward the sides. It should easily fall over the edge and coat the sides. Unfortunately there will be what seems like an excess icing beneath the rack.

6. Using a bamboo skewer or toothpick, gently pop any small air bubbles that may appear in the frosting.

7. Then repeat with the next color. Work in small batches so the frosting doesn’t form a crust and start to harden.

8. Allow the cakes to dry about 1 hour. They will not harden completely but will be slightly tacky to the touch. Do not refrigerate them, keep them at room temperature.

9. Use the red gel pen to decorate your cakes (the Betty Crocker Cookie Icing in a bag works well too). You made it this far…U R IT.

Method 2: Homemade Sweethearts Pound Cakes

For the pound cake you’ll need:

12 ounces (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2-1/4 cups sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

5 large eggs

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup heavy cream

1-1/2  teaspoons pure vanilla extract

To make the pound cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line an 11 x 17-inch sheet pan with parchment paper with a 1-inch overhang on the two long sides of the pan. Grease the pan and parchment using baking spray.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, sugar, and salt on medium until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each. Add 1-1/2 cups of the flour, the cream, and then the remaining 1-1/2 cups of flour, beating well after each. Stir in the vanilla extract.

3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35 minutes, or until the top becomes golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a few crumbs attached. Let cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then turn out onto the rack to cool completely.

For the icing you’ll need:

1 cup white chocolate chips

1/4 cup corn syrup

1 tablespoon room-temperature water

6 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup boiling water

To make the icing:

1. Place the chocolate chips, corn syrup and 1 tablespoon water in a microwave-safe bowl and heat on high for 1 minute. Remove the bowl and stir vigorously, working to incorporate the ingredients and get the mixture as smooth as possible. Put the bowl back in the microwave as needed at 10 to 15 second intervals, stirring well each time until the mixture is completely smooth.

2. Put the sifted confectioner’s sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and add the melted white chocolate mixture. Mix on low for a minute or two.

3. Slowly add the boiling water and continue to mix until the desired consistency is achieved. You want the mixture to flow well, but not be runny. Add more water or confectioner’s sugar as needed. Finally, add the vanilla and mix to incorporate.

You’ll yield about 4 cups of icing.

I cut 12 cakes from my 11×17 pound cake (I had eager testers waiting in the wings so not all the cake made it to heart shapes.) I cut my hearts using a knife and tracing a cardboard cutout, a cookie cutter would definitely have been easier. My cakes were 3 inches from top to bottom. I think I’d make them slightly smaller next time.

Nevertheless, I used one cup of frosting for every three cakes and had enough leftover to do at least two to three more cakes, which would have frosted all the pieces from the entire 11×17 cake.

I put one cup in a bowl, colored it, and frosted the cakes. Then repeated the procedure. Keep a damp paper towel on top of your unused frosting when not using to prevent a crust from forming across the top.

To assemble the cakes:

1. Place a cooling rack on top of a baking sheet or piece of wax paper. Line your heart-shape cakes up on the rack.

2. Gently pour some icing onto the center of the cake and using a spoon, coax the icing toward the sides. It should easily fall over the edge and coat the sides. Unfortunately there will be what seems like an excess icing beneath the rack.

3. Using a bamboo skewer or toothpick, gently pop any small air bubbles that may appear in the frosting.

4. Allow the cakes to dry about 1 hour. They will not harden completely but will be slightly tacky to the touch. Do not refrigerate them, keep them at room temperature.

5. Meanwhile, mix one egg white with about 1-1/2 to 2 cups confectioner’s sugar in a small bowl. Add a few drops of water if necessary to achieve the desired consistency. This is the icing you’ll be writing with so you want it to maintain its form when piped. Add several drops of red food coloring and mix well. Put the icing in a small plastic baggie or piping bag and use to write your sassy sayings!

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