My Aunt Jenny and Uncle Von are in town this week with their three awesome kids, Nate, Alaina and Torrie. It’s spring break from school, so they’re here on vacation – seeing the Chicago sights and getting in a little bit of Ben and Kate time too. I have to say, we’d take these guys any day, because they’ve brought along some seriously sensational weather! But even without their gifts of sun and seventy degree breezes, we’d be thrilled to have Aunt Jen and her crew over just about any time at all, because all five of them are sensationally fun. And also, I always love a good excuse to make kid food!
Now, I’m pretty well versed in the field of kid cuisine. My initial education came first hand. Growing up, I was downright picky. My sister Molly readily ate every kind of vegetable under the sun. And what’s more, she loved them. But in my mind, this was rare talent, one I could hardly fathom possessing myself. I loved things like pizza, mac & cheese and ham sandwiches, chicken fingers, grilled cheese and PB&J’s. Little else fit within my comfort zone. Somewhere along the way I became more courageous, and today, aside from green peppers, I’ll definitely try and probably like just about anything out there. But I still recall my safe zone foods with a nostalgic fondness. And to be honest, they’re most of the time still my favorites.
I learned a valuable kid food lesson while cooking in restaurants: The simpler the better. When kids want pasta, they mean noodles and butter. Not noodles and butter and salt and pepper – They’ll see the pepper specks, and the dish will get sent back to the kitchen. And don’t even think about adding a pretty green sprinkle of parsley. Your parsley garnished noodles will share the same sad fate as the pepper-flecked ones. So, when I cook for my kid friends, I follow two rules of thumb: One, stick within my childhood safe zone, which luckily seems to be pretty universal. And two, nothing fancy-schmancy. It always makes for full and happy children. And full and happy grown-ups too.
Chicken fingers will always be a great bet for kids. The ones I made for my cousins this week were not your average nugget. Thick and juicy slices of chicken breast, rolled in a crispy crust of herbed breadcrumbs and parmesan, pan-fried to golden brown. Finger lickin’ perfection. But really, no one actually cares about the fingers themselves – all kids are really in it for is the dipping sauces! So I provided a whole slew of dunkables too – homemade ranch dressing and honey mustard sauce, buffalo sauce, honey, ketchup and Sriracha. My cousin Nate, gotta’ love him, went with one of each. A man after my own heart!
The only food more loved by kids than chicken fingers, has got to be mac & cheese. I could go on for days about how much I love the stuff. But there’s no need really – I’m sure all of you feel the exact same way. Really though, nothing beats cheesy, oozy mac & cheese!
My ‘perfect’ mac & cheese recipe is something I’ve been working on since high school. It’s evolved slowly through the years, with numerous changes in both ingredients and method. I’ve experimented with countless cheeses, tried a myriad of toppings, and have by now lost track of the total number of attempted tinkerings. What we have below is a mac & cheese recipe which Ben and I both agree, is so completely delicious, it needs no further tinkering. It’s simply reached the zenith of its evolution. Please, try it and enjoy!
Vegetables, the necessary evil. I tried my best to make them as enticing as possible, and I’m pretty sure I succeeded. With sweet young carrots and even sweeter snow peas, I was off to a good start. The carrots I cooked slowly, in a light glaze of butter and honey – a little touch of sugar to help charm the kids. But the snow peas needed little to heighten their inherent candy-like qualities. Folded together, the tender carrots and snappy peas made a very kid-friendly vegetable option, as tempting a dish as vegetables could ever hope to be. My cool little cousins undoubtedly agreed – all three of them ate their plates clean.
And for dessert, chocolate cupcakes. But not just any chocolate cupcakes. Hostess-style chocolate cupcakes! With the white, creamy filling, the smooth chocolate icing and the squiggle on top. I’ve always had a weakness for Hostess, from HoHos to Twinkies, Snowballs to DingDongs. Don’t even get me started on the Fruit Pies. I’m not proud of it, really. But at the same time, I’m not ashamed of it either.
So, what’s even better than Hostess cupcakes? Homemade Hostess cupcakes! With the quick help of a pastry bag, the creamy filling and squiggle topping are as easy to do as anything. The hardest part I think is the plain old chocolate cupcake itself.
As you may recall, I had a bit of a chocolate cake failure a few weeks ago. But the good thing about a failure (especially a blogged failure) is that it gives you a push to find something better. So, I’ve spent the last few weeks experimenting with chocolate cake, and sampling every last one of these experiments. (Luckily for me and my favorite pair of jeans, I have Ben, and our neighbors too, to help me with the sampling part.)
After my first few attempts fell short of chocolate cake perfection, I did what I should have done in the first place – I called Ralph and Bill. I knew that Bill, pastry chef extraordinaire, was bound to have a fabulous chocolate cake recipe. And I was right. Ralph dictated it over the phone for me, from the pages of Chocolate Obsession, their favorite chocolate cookbook. I remember this book from the last time I visited, and loved it even then. After trying out this recipe, I wonder why it’s taken me so long to buy a copy of my own. These cupcakes were incredible. The best I’d tried yet. With just a touch more cocoa powder and a pinch more salt, a change I experimented with in my final attempt, I do think they may in fact be perfect.
As for the perfect frosting to go with these perfect cupcakes - I had this up my sleeve all along. Chocolate ganache with a spike of espresso. There’s something about coffee that just works magic on chocolate, bringing out even more chocolate flavor than was in it before. Adding just a bit of espresso powder, so little you’d hardly even taste it, works huge wonders, elevating a simple chocolate frosting to new heights of chocolaty deliciousness.
I’ll leave you with one important rule about these cupcakes. To be served in true Hostess fashion, they must be eaten in pairs of two! Eating just one would be hard to do, and wouldn’t embrace the Hostess spirit at all. So please, double up!