About Writing a Cookbook, Crying, and Getting Phyllo Dough in My Hair
You have not been completely humiliated until you've had an emotional breakdown brought on by something as innocent and inconsequential as a goddamn cupcake. I've experienced the death of loved ones, severe bouts of depression, and heartbreak, but last October, if you'd asked me how I was feeling one night when attempting to make baklava at 2 a.m., I would've told you it was the worst day of my life.
It was the week my husband and I still lovingly refer to as Hell Week. I was nearing the end of completing my first cookbook manuscript, and I had to go to the book's photo shoot every day that week, as well as do my usual 40 hours at The Stranger. I didn't want to take time off because I was getting married in less than a month and wanted to save my vacation days for the honeymoon. Stress level: RED (VELVET CAKE).
As far as the photo shoot was concerned, I had one job to do on this particular day: make the baklava that would then be baked into a spiced cupcake. Easy. Time-consuming, but easy. So after finally leaving the office after 10 p.m., I rushed to the grocery store to buy all the ingredients—phyllo dough, a mixture of nuts, honey, etc. Phyllo dough is impossible to work with until it's thawed out, so I had to leave it on my kitchen counter for 30 minutes before going any further. I waited, and waited, and when I went to go check on the progress of the dough, I noticed something: It was goddamn motherfucking puff pastry. I had grabbed the wrong box! GODDAMNIT.
So just before midnight, I ran back to the store. I got the right box. I took it home and let it thaw for 30 more minutes. I was tired, I wanted to sleep, I still had more words to write for the cookbook and I still needed to figure out what was going to go on the tables at our reception and we had gotten more RSVPs than we expected and my husband-to-be (hopefully) just sat there, calmly, watching me storm through the apartment like a crazed animal. It was the smartest thing for him to do.
Half an hour later, I began to carefully unroll the phyllo dough. Phyllo dough, if you aren't familiar, is a rolled-up stack of paper-thin pastry—it's the most fragile thing in the world. Slowly, with a very soft touch, I continued unrolling. Halfway through, the feather-light sheets of pastry started to crack. It was still frozen in the middle. THIS IS THE WORST THING TO EVER HAPPEN TO ME, I thought. I continued to unroll it, knowing damn well it wasn't going to work, and it kept crumbling. It was still redeemable—if I'd let it sit for another 20 minutes or so, I could've made it work. But nope. Stupid stressed-out Megan had a stupid emotional breakdown—I stupidly grabbed up the pile of pastry sheets, crumbled it into my balled-up fists, lifted it over and my head, and yelled "MOTHERFUCKER!" as brittle little pieces of phyllo rained down over me like buttery confetti.
"That's one of the best things I've seen you do," my husband says to this day. That night, he didn't dare say that, though. That night, he (without saying a word) put on his shoes, helped me pick the bits of phyllo dough out of my hair, and walked me back down to the store for a third time so I could get yet one more box of phyllo dough.
The baklava was finally done somewhere around 2:30 or so, maybe 3 a.m. I had to be awake in four hours. As I pulled it out of the oven after it had baked for nearly an hour, I realized I had forgotten to cut it into squares, which is something you must do before baking, not after. The sheets of dough are too brittle to cut after baking. The whole mess was a wash. It was unusable. I started to cry. I sat in my kitchen and cried for 20 minutes over cupcakes and phyllo dough. I've never felt so ridiculous in my entire life. I ended up using store-bought baklava for the photo shoot. Don't tell anyone.
Should you want to try the baklava-stuffed cupcakes, the recipe is in my brand-new cookbook, Bake It in a Cupcake: 50 Treats with a Surprise Inside. It's easy. And delicious! So long as you are, you know, patient. But should you want to impress your friends or officemates with something a bit simpler, you can find one of my favorite recipes from the book, and one of my first stuffed-cupcake creations ever, Cherry Pie Dark Chocolate Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean Frosting, with this article online. These are chocolate cupcakes with mini cherry pies baked inside! And this recipe is extra simple when you use pre-made piecrust and canned cherry pie filling which—I know, I know—would be horrible if you were making a cherry pie in and of itself, but it's not cheating when you still make the cupcake and frosting from scratch. And no one will be judging your piecrust anyway because, duh, IT'S BAKED IN A CUPCAKE.
Makes 24 cupcakes
For the cherry pies:
2 (16-ounce) batches pie crust dough (your favorite recipe or store-bought, enough to make 2 two-crust pies)
1 cup cherry pie filling
For the cupcakes:
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, broken or chopped into small pieces
1⅓ cups plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1½ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
For the frosting:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
Seeds from ½ vanilla bean
2 tablespoons whole milk, if needed
24 maraschino cherries, for garnish
1. To make the mini cherry pies, preheat the oven to 375°F and grease a 24-cup miniature muffin tin. Use a rolling pin, roll out the pie crust dough on a lightly floured smooth surface until the dough is about ⅛ inch thick. Then use a 2½-inch circular cookie cutter to cut out 48 small circles.
2. Press the dough circles into the prepared tin and fill them three-quarters full of cherry pie filling. Top each pie with another dough circle, sealing the pies by pinching the edges of the bottom crust to the top crust. Use a sharp knife to cut a small X into the top of each pie. Bake the pies for 10 to 12 minutes, until the edges of the crust have browned. They may overflow a bit, and that’s okay. They don’t have to look perfect since they’re going into a cupcake! Allow the pies to cool for 10 minutes in the pan and then carefully transfer them to a wire rack to finish cooling while you mix the cupcake batter.
3. To make the cupcakes, turn the oven temperature down to 350°F. Line 2 standard muffin tins with 24 paper liners. Place the chocolate and 2 tablespoons of the milk in a small microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 20 seconds on high. Stir and microwave for another 20 seconds. Stir the mixture until the chocolate has melted completely and the cream is fully incorporated. Place the bowl in the refrigerator so it can cool while you prepare the rest of the cupcake batter. Use a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or a hand mixer on medium speed to combine the butter and sugar for 90 seconds, until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing in each egg completely before adding the next. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Then, with the mixer on medium-low speed, add the vanilla, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the cocoa powder. Turn the mixer up to medium-high speed and mix for another 30 seconds, until all the ingredients are well combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and then add the flour, ½ cup at a time, alternately with the milk, ⅓ cup at a time, mixing until each addition is completely incorporated before adding the next. Finally, with the mixer on medium-high, drizzle in the cooled chocolate mixture. Continue to mix the batter on medium-high speed for 30 seconds, until smooth and creamy.
4. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of batter into the prepared tins. Place a cooled cherry pie into the center of the batter and press it gently toward the bottom. Cover the pie with another heaping tablespoon of batter so the top and sides are completely covered and the cup is about three-quarters full. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the edges and tops of the cupcakes have set and the cake springs back when you gently press your finger into the top of it. Allow the cupcakes to cool in the tin for at least 10 minutes before moving to a wire rack to cool completely.
5. For the frosting, whip the butter for about 30 seconds with a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or a hand mixer on medium speed. Add the powdered sugar, ½ cup at a time, whipping on medium-high speed until fluffy. Add the vanilla seeds and whip until just combined. If the frosting is too thick, add the milk and whip on high for 20 seconds. Pipe or spread the frosting on top of the cooled cupcakes. Top each cupcake with a cherry.