Thursday, October 25, 2012

Pink lemon cupcakes: The trouble with color (and a heartbreaking baby story)

My little boy turned six this week. It's hard to believe so much time has passed since those first terrifying days when he was a helpless floppy thing with a neck too weak to keep his head upright, soft spots in his skull, and an appetite I could barely keep up with. Now he's his own person, becoming more himself and more independent every day, which is great, but sometimes I miss him wanting to be with us. Other times I sigh with relief that I can just sit back and watch him be himself.

No. I must stop here. Pretending that the terror of those first days was solely because he was a helpless baby and I didn't know how to take care of helpless little babies is nowhere near the whole truth. There's more to the story. 

The Boo (nicknamed for scaring us so) was born with Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension of the Newborn (PPHN). It means his blood didn't flow the right direction, and he was at imminent risk of death from lack of oxygen from the moment he was born.

We were not prepared for trouble. My pregnancy had been just about perfect. Every test had gone well. So when the doctors and nurses lifted him over to the warming table, and I could hear him struggling and the quiet, concerned, intense murmur, I could tell something wasn't right, but I was too exhausted and torn up to understand. I was just waiting to see my boy. Instead, they whisked him away to the NICU, and I didn't get to see him at all. 

I don't remember much else about that day. I was stitched up. They tried to get me in a wheelchair to go and see the Boo in the NICU, but I passed out cold (blood loss or meds? I have no idea). Mike went back and forth between me and the NICU, watching over us both, doing his best to take care of us, understand what was happening, and translate medical speak into English for us laypeople.  

I think a day passed like this. I spent time learning how to pump milk, trying to eat well, and receiving lots of visitors, and Mike went back and forth, back and forth, relaying information, keeping us together. He brought me a picture of the Boo's ear; it was all he could see among the tubes and wires, and it was perfect.

A little over 24 hours after the Boo was born, I was finally able to sit upright in the wheelchair and make it to the NICU to see my baby. He was beautiful and heartbreaking. We weren't allowed to touch him or speak loudly around him. Any stimulation at all meant that his blood oxygen level would go down, so we had to keep our distance and pour love onto him through air and glass. 

By the second night, Mike had been awake for more than 48 hours. At two in the morning, it seemed as though the Boo was finally beginning to stabilize, so Mike lay down on the couch in my recovery room and fell asleep. Two hours later, I was still semi-awake when the doctors came in quietly to tell us that things were no longer going well. The Boo would have to be transferred to another hospital with more advanced equipment, specifically the ability to provide treatment with inhaled nitric oxide and an ECMO machine (a kind of bypass machine that takes blood out of the body, oxygenates it, and then passes it back into the body). I was wheeled down to the NICU with Mike, and we sat and watched as a team of medical personnel prepared to move our little baby into a plastic box on a gurney (a device they called the "Spaceship") and transfer him to Georgetown Hospital in Washington, DC.

I will never adequately describe the grief of sitting in that wheelchair, in that dark, night-quiet hospital corridor watching skilled, concerned, caring people preparing to take my son away. A cold, black pit had opened in my chest and would never close. I could not stop weeping. When I heard the siren as the ambulance left, I wept more. I wept every time I heard an ambulance for a few years. 

I couldn't go to Georgetown that night, but we decided Mike had to go while I stayed and prepared to leave Manassas Hospital the next day. I spent the day pumping milk, eating, and trying to get on my feet long enough to shuffle down the hall, a prerequisite for release. In late afternoon, I was released, and my parents drove me downtown.

What followed was a desperate search for food and a cold, miserable night in a guest room at Georgetown. By the time I got to the hospital, the cafeteria was closed, so we had to order Chinese to be delivered to the emergency room. We slept on a bare mattress on the floor. Mike's glasses broke during the night. The next morning, we decided this was no place for me to stay and recover and gave up the guest room. Our plan was that I would visit during the day, and my brother (who had immediately booked a ticket from Sweden on hearing of our troubles) would drive me home to rest every afternoon, while Mike stayed until late in the evening.

And so the next few weeks passed. Mike sat and watched our boy's saturation rate like a hawk for 10 days. For him, every dip in the numbers was a slash to the heart, a threat that our son would die. The one night I wasn't there because I was too sick and weak to make it, the doctors wheeled out the ECMO machine (an invasive procedure that can leave permanent scars) and then decided against it. I was dazed, in shock, and on pain medication, trying to maintain a schedule of pumping milk and stacking up bags of it in the hospital refrigerator until the day when the Boo would be able to start drinking. 

Then came a turning point. One night, while I was doing my two a.m. pump, and Mike was calling the hospital to check on our boy, the nurse told Mike that the little guy had extubated himself. (She had a hilarious way of saying this, which left us laughing in hysterics.) The boy was done. Annoyed with the stuff stuck down his throat, he just spit it right up. As my sister-in-law commented later, "Only two weeks old, and already rebellious and addicted to drugs." (To save his life, the doctors had had to administer a lot of drugs to keep him sedated and ensure his blood flowed in the right direction. We had to wean him from the addiction by administering opium for several weeks, but that's another story.)

After 29 days, we finally got to bring our boy home. Those 29 days of fear and grief were the worst of my life, and they left damage that took a long time to undo. But he survived. And now the earth has traveled around the sun six times since the day when he first arrived, so it's time for a treat.

This post was supposed to be about the cupcakes I made for his birthday celebration at school, but obviously, I got a little off track. My original idea was to make cupcakes that look like toadstools, a fun thing to celebrate both his birthday and Halloween. Sadly, the natural food dyes I purchased were not up to the task of turning my lemony frosting red, just pink. Even though I added ALL the dyes, red, blue, and yellow, the frosting remained stubbornly pink. It's a pretty pink, but I still feel a little funny about showing up with pink cupcakes to my boy's birthday party. At least the taste made up for it (and I gussied them up with some sprinkles, although my decorating skills are seriously lacking). 

So now, finally, here is the recipe for pink lemon cupcakes and some tips for coloring foods. This batch was enough for 24 mini cupcakes and 12 regular cupcakes, so it would probably be enough for 24 regular cupcakes or 48 minis (if you have two pans, which I didn't, thus the mixed sizes). 


  • 1 and 1/3 cup PLUS 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 and 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 and 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup canola or other mild vegetable oil 
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • zest from one lemon (don't forget to wash the lemon carefully)
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 12 Tbsps (1 and 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 4 Tbsps lemon juice (make sure to strain out any seeds)
  • zest from one lemon
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • red food coloring (optional)


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place bake cups in the wells of your cupcake pan(s). 
  2. In a large bowl (your stand mixer bowl if you have one; it will make this recipe so much easier), mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and lemon zest. Use the paddle attachment at low speed to mix it all together evenly. Then add the sugar and mix at low speed until evenly distributed. 
  3. Add the oil and mix at low speed until the mixture is crumbly, sort of like sand. 
  4. In a separate bowl, mix the eggs, milk, and vanilla extract until blended. Add the egg mixture to the flour-oil mixture at low speed until blended. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides if needed. 
  5. Finally, with the mixer at slow speed, add the boiling water in a slow, even flow until the batter is just mixed and smooth. Once again, scrape down the sides as needed. 
  6. Fill the bake cups about 2/3 full. Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes for regular cupcakes and 30-35 cupcakes for mini cupcakes. They should be lightly golden-brown on top when they are done. Let them cool in the cupcake pans. (Putting the pans on a rack would probably aid cooling.)
  1. Sift the powdered sugar into a stand mixer bowl if it has lumps.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients (softened butter, lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla extract) to the bowl. Start mixing slowly with the paddle attachment until the powdered sugar is just incorporated into the butter to avoid getting a cloud of sugar. Then beat on high speed until the frosting is white and fluffy.
  3. Beat in drops of red food coloring until you get the shade of pink you want. 
After making this recipe, I asked my friend Cheryll of Decker'ated Delights who makes beautiful cakes and cookies how to get a good shade of red. She shared these tips:
  1. Don't use food coloring. 
  2. Use the paste. Apparently AmeriColor works well and doesn't leave a funny aftertaste. (Obviously, this doesn't quite fit with my real food ideals, so I will probably have to live with pinks and lavenders for now, but I wanted to pass on the information in case you want to try it.)  
  3. Tint with a light pink first for a vibrant red. (Or light brown if you want a deeper red.)
  4. Then tint with red. 
* Adapted from the Devilishly Moist Chocolate Cake recipe in Tish Boyle's The Cake Book.
** Adapted from the Creamy Frosting recipe in Williams-Sonoma's The Kid's Cookbook. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fall market soup with bacon, beans, sweet potatoes, and kale

Some of the best soups are happy accidents. This is especially true when you get most of your produce and meats from farmers markets: Ingredients available one week may be gone the next, and the chances of that perfect convergence of vegetables and fruits ever happening again are slim. That's the case with this soup, which is a rich, warm, filling, and nutritious concoction that is just what you want on a chilly fall evening (in fact, I'll be going back for seconds soon), but it may be a long time before I can replicate it precisely because I probably won't have all these ingredients again at the same time.

But that's OK. Making this soup was an act of discovery, an exploration of flavors and textures. It was also an act of building something, adding component to component until it all came together with a toss of chopped kale at the end. Kind of fun to make, really. Furthermore, I experienced that moment when I had added just enough salt and pepper, the vegetables had mellowed and released their sweetness and savor to the stock, and the test spoonful exploded into my mouth, forcing me to do a happy dance and to shamelessly proclaim how good I am. It was a great soup.

I make a lot of these soups, the ones where I add this and that until it's done, but they don't always succeed. In fact, I've made some real disasters (beets and pumpkin do not, I repeat, do NOT go together). But most of them are pretty good, some are outstanding. There are a few lessons I've learned from building soups like this:

  • Always use a good stock, preferably homemade.
  • Give the onions that you will start almost every soup with plenty of time to mellow, at least 10 minutes. Don't rush soup.
  • The stock should slightly cover the vegetables, not drown them. If you have too much stock, your soup will be watery. If don't have enough stock, the soup could be mushy, more like a vegetable stew or porridge. 
  • Aim for balance of flavors: sweet vegetables combined with bitter ones. (Like sweet potato with parsnips.) 
  • If you include a lot of root vegetables, like sweet potatoes, potatoes, parsnips, and so forth, try dicing an apple and adding it to the soup. You'll be surprised. In a good way. 
  • If you have some greens on hand, try chopping them up and adding them in the last few minutes of cook time. 
  • Add salt and pepper at the end of the cook time to avoid oversalting. (The stock will cook down a little, which will concentrate the salt if you add it too early.)
  • Above all: Have fun, be inspired, see what you find at the farmers market, and taste, taste, taste. 
Now, even though the ingredients for this particular soup may not be easy to come by, here's the recipe anyway because you can use it as a starting point and replace or drop ingredients as you like. If you don't have fresh Dragon Tongue beans, which you probably don't (beautiful things, I wish I had thought to photograph them), you can replace them with cooked pinto beans. (If you use cooked pinto beans, drop the overall cook time by 20 minutes.) If you don't eat bacon or meat, you can use olive oil to soften the onions and replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock. Try different kinds of greens. And if you don't have butternut squash puree just hanging around the refrigerator (which I did), you can either eliminate it or use some plain pumpkin puree from a can (just go for the good quality stuff though).


  • 6 slices bacon, chopped finely
  • 1 onion, chopped finely
  • 2 cups fresh (shelled) Dragon Tongue beans
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 2 small potatoes (yellow or white), peeled and diced
  • 1 medium-large sweet potato, peeled and diced
  • 1 apple, cored, peeled, and diced
  • 1 cup butternut squash puree
  • 2-3 cups chopped kale
  • salt (to taste)
  • white pepper (to taste)
  • 1 tsp thyme


  1. Cook the bacon in a large soup pot over medium heat until crispy. Remove the bacon from the pot and let it drain on paper towels.
  2. Lower the heat to medium-low and add the onions. Let them cook slowly until they are soft and shiny. Give the onions a good 10 minutes to mellow. 
  3. Add the beans, the stock, and the thyme to the pot. Bring the stock to a boil, and then lower the temperature to a simmer. Let the beans and stock simmer for 20 minutes (if you are using cooked beans, skip to the next step).  
  4. Add the potatoes and the apples to the stock. Let them cook for 10 minutes. 
  5. Add the sweet potatoes to the stock (sweet potatoes cook faster than regular potatoes). Let them cook for another 10-15 minutes (check that they are soft). 
  6. Add the chopped kale and the bacon. Taste the soup, add salt and pepper to taste.          

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Butternut squash and tomato soup: Celebrating all things orange for #SundaySupper

I've left the windows open for a few weeks now. I wanted to be done with the air conditioning (although a few days of lingering heat did cause me to doubt my decision). But tonight chill air creeps in through the window, curls up around the house, and goes to sleep like the fog in T.S. Eliot's poem "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock." The mornings and evenings are getting darker, and a quiet, interior life is starting to settle in, a life of reading, dreaming, knitting, sewing, and, of course, cooking.

Fall is my favorite time of year, for many reasons. The trees dress in their brightest finery, their last party of the season, the world dances with liquid light and reflected color, and streams and rivers run dark with leaf tea. And when the rains come, the chilly air carries the smells of fire and dry leaves, and the urge to bake with rich spices or slowly braise a stew takes hold. And of course, this is the season for soups: warm, satisfying soups that take advantage of a harvest of winter squashes, root vegetables, and the last of the summer vegetables.

This butternut squash and tomato soup is one of my favorite fall soups, which I've adapted slightly from Crescent Dragonwagon's Dairy Hollow House Soup and Bread Cookbook, the first cookbook I ever fell completely heads over heels in love with. Warm and filling, the soup is sweetened with some maple syrup. Serve it with a piece of crusty bread for dipping and perhaps with a glass of cider for a simple fall meal. Or it could be a perfect starter later in the season for Thanksgiving.


  • 2 large butternut squashes (alternatively, you can use 4 cups of canned pumpkin instead, just make sure it's good quality)
  • 3-4 Tbsps olive oil or butter
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cups homemade chicken stock (or for a vegetarian soup, use a well-flavored vegetable stock)
  • 1 28-oz can of whole or diced tomatoes
  • 2-3 Tbsps maple syrup plus extra for drizzling
  • salt and pepper


  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Wash the butternut squashes and split them in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and discard (or you can clean them off and roast them like you'd roast pumpkin seeds). 
  3. Drizzle the cut sides with a little maple syrup and place the halves cut side down on the parchment paper.
  4. Bake the halves in the oven for 50 minutes to an hour. Poke them with a fork to make sure they are soft and cooked through. 
  5. Let them cool enough to handle and to reabsorb some of the liquid that will leak out.
  6. Scoop out the flesh and mash it with a big spoon. (Note: If you double the number of butternut squashes, you can make a lot of extra puree to freeze for other uses. You can use butternut squash puree as a replacement in just about any recipe that calls for pumpkin.) 
  1. In a large soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook slowly until they are soft and shiny, about 10 minutes. Try to avoid browning the onions. (Take your time with this step.)
  2. Add the stock to the onions, bring it to a boil, lower it to a simmer, and then let it simmer for about 15 minutes. 
  3. Add the tomatoes and their juices, 4 cups of butternut squash puree, and 2 tablespoons maple syrup to the stock. Let the mix heat up again. Then use a hand blender to puree the whole mixture until it's very smooth. (Alternatively, you can use a blender, but you will have to do that in batches.) Add salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle a little more maple syrup on top to serve.  

This is just one of many recipes celebrating fall and one of the most prominent colors of fall, orange (also my favorite color), in this week's All Things Orange Sunday Supper event. Here are all the wonderful recipes and don't forget to join in the Twitter chat using the hashtag #SundaySupper at 7 p.m. Eastern (U.S.) time.

Sunrise (Breakfast and Brunch)

High Noon (Soups, Salads, and Sandwiches)

Sunset (Dinner and Main Dishes)

By the Bonfire (Sweets, Snacks, and Sips)