Flicks and Eats

Life is like a box of cupcakes…

500 Days of Cupcakes


Summer Crush cupcake from The Cup in St. Louis, MO

It’s official: I’m in love with summer—and cupcakes. I’m itching to pull on my after-Memorial-Day appropriate white pants and enjoy some sweet summer loving with cupcakes. It feels oh so wrong, but oh so right.

Last summer, while visiting some family in St. Louis, we scouted out a cupcake joint called The Cup (Crave the Cup). It was a trendy, decent-sized cupcakery that smelled of sweet, sugary goodness. Their cupcake menu boasts flavors such as confetti, cuppa coffee cake, island dream, and much, much more. In addition, they have seasonal flavors up for consumption during certain months of the year.

When we arrived, they had the Summer Crush cupcake up for grabs. Clearly, we came at the right time. The Summer Crush cupcake consisted of a perfectly moist cake with a burst of tart, orange flavor, completed by a sweet cream filling. The texture, taste, and consistency of the orange buttercream frosting was summerific. Finally, a single orange gummy bear was perched on top of this summer creation. I had died and gone to heaven, where it’s summer all the time, with a little bit of fall.

Following my natural instincts, we also ordered a Peanut Butter Cup. The dark chocolate cake was frosted with peanut butter buttercream and completed with Reese’s® peanut butter cups crumble. If I could live off of Reese’s, I would. It is a well-known fact that Reese’s are an essential part of a “nutritious” diet. The cake wasn’t quite as moist as the Summer Crush, but the flavors were just as delightful.

When I’m in St. Louis again, I’m going back to this place. It deserves repeated visits. Also, the Summer Crush has inspired me to make an Orange Creamsicle cupcake. To be continued…

Partygoer: So, Tom, what is it that you do?
Tom: I, uh, I write greeting cards.
Summer: Tom could be a really great architect if he wanted to be.
Partygoer: That’s unusual, I mean, what made you go from one to the other?
Tom: I guess I just figured, why make something disposable like a building, when you can make something that lasts forever, like a greeting card.

Substitute “bake cupcakes” for “write greeting cards.” Wise words, Tom.

Rating:  ★★★★½ 

posted by Rachael in Cupcakes and have No Comments

Banana Nut Cupcakes with Nutella® Frosting


Rachael’s Banana Nut cupcakes with Nutella® frosting

For those of you who have never had Nutella®, it is simply a chocolate hazelnut spread, but it’ll blow your mind. Warning: You may find yourself eating spoonfuls. History lesson: Nutella was first introduced on the market in 1963, is manufactured by an Italian company, Ferrero, and is now sold in over 75 countries. I had my first taste of Nutella while I was in Mexico, which perhaps gave it a more exotic flavor at the time. I tried it again in the U.S. and decided it was just as I remembered. Your first step is to go buy some and then save enough for these cupcakes, which will be a challenge.

I’ve made a variety of different cupcakes in my day and so far, these take the cake. My friend Katie inspired me when she planned to come over for a belated birthday celebration to eat cupcakes, drink wine, and play with my dogs. My dogs are more interesting than me, and fluffier…thankfully. In honor of her birthday, I wanted to make a cupcake that combined a couple of her favorite things—bananas and Nutella, especially Nutella. In anticipation of these cupcakes, she wrote on my Facebook wall, “I had a dream about nutella last night.” She was not disappointed, nor was I.

I pulled the recipe for the cake from a post on squidoo.com from a woman who claimed her family recipe for Banana Nut cupcakes was “The Best Recipe Ever” and titled it, “The Coveted Recipe.” I was intrigued. I didn’t doubt its covetedness, but I still made a couple changes/additions. I pulled a recipe for Nutella buttercream frosting from Food.com, but only used it as a guideline.

These cupcakes were the freaking bomb. Per usual, I immediately posted a picture on Facebook and some of my neighbors saw it and requested some. One neighbor’s response after biting into one was, “Holy hell.” ‘Nuff said.

Yield: 24 cupcakes
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Bake Time: 18-20 minutes

Banana Nut Cupcake Ingredients:
½ cup butter (1 stick)
1 ½ cup sugar (I used 1 cup of white sugar and ½ cup of brown sugar for more flavor)
2 eggs
1 (heaping) cup mashed bananas (about 3 large bananas, which was probably more like 1 ¼ cup)
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup buttermilk or soured milk
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ (heaping) cup chopped walnuts
Another addition: ½ teaspoon cinnamon

Directions for cupcakes:
– Preheat oven to 350°F.
– Cream butter and sugar until light. Add the eggs and beat well.
– Stir in the mashed bananas and vanilla.
– In separate bowl, whisk dry ingredients together.
– Alternately add dry ingredients and milk into wet mixture.
– Fold in the walnuts.
– Fill each cupcake wrapper almost ¾ full. Bake for 18-20 minutes at 350 degrees F.

Nutella Frosting Ingredients:
1 stick of butter
About ¾ cup Nutella
Dash of milk
1 tsp of vanilla
About 2 tablespoons of shortening
About 3 cups of confectioners sugar (maybe more)

Directions for frosting:
– Mix together with a mixer. (Was this direction even necessary?)

I know my frosting recipe isn’t precise, but the key is to look for the consistency you want. If you need exact measurements, stick with the recipe from Food.com. Whichever recipe you choose, it doesn’t matter. Nutella makes anything delicious.

posted by Rachael in Recipes and have Comments (2)

Guinness, Baileys, and Whiskey Cupcakes


Rachael and Kristin's 'Irish Car Bomb' (the beer cocktail) Cupcakes

These cupcakes are inspired by the “Irish Car Bomb” cocktail, which is drunk as a bomb shot. It’s made with Irish stout, Irish cream, and Irish whiskey. A shot glass of whiskey and Irish cream is dropped into the stout and once mixed, it must be drunk quickly because it will curdle.

Drinking alcohol on St. Patrick’s Day is nothing new, but eating it may be. Celebrate the Irish by dying your hair red, busting some Riverdance moves, and baking some Irish Car Bomb cupcakes. This St. Patrick’s Day, I did all three. What can I say, I love the Irish.

Most notable, however, were the cupcakes. My friend Kristin and I whipped these up on St. Patrick’s Day morning and two days later… they’re still just as good. Seriously, I’m eating one right now.

As Kristin so accurately put it, these cupcakes are ridiculously decadent. The cake is sweet, but not too sweet, with a subtle hint of Guinness. The chocolate whiskey filling and creamy Baileys frosting are really what send your taste buds reeling.

Yield: 24 cupcakes
Prep Time: 40 minutes
Bake Time: 18 – 20 minutes

Cupcake Ingredients:
1 cup Guinness stout
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
¾ teaspoons salt
2 eggs
⅔ cup sour cream

Whiskey Ganache Filling Ingredients:
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
⅔ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons Irish whiskey (and an extra dash for good luck)

Baileys Frosting Ingredients:
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 cups powdered sugar
6 tablespoons Baileys Irish Cream

Directions for cupcakes:
– Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 24 cupcake cups with liners.
– Bring the Guinness and butter to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the cocoa powder and whisk until the mixture is smooth. Cool slightly.
– Whisk the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl to combine.
– Using an electric mixer, beat the eggs and sour cream on medium speed until combined. Add the Guinness-chocolate mixture to the egg mixture and beat just to combine.
– Reduce the speed to low, add the flour mixture and beat briefly. Using a rubber spatula, fold the batter until completely combined.
– Divide the batter among the cupcake liners and bake about 18 minutes. Cool the cupcakes on a rack.

Directions for Whiskey Ganache Filling:
– Finely chop the chocolate and transfer it to a heatproof bowl.
– Heat the cream until simmering and pour it over the chocolate. Let it sit for one minute and then, using a rubber spatula, stir it from the center outward until smooth.
– Add the butter and whiskey and stir until combined. Let the ganache cool until thick but still soft enough to be piped.
– Using a 1-inch round cookie cutter (or the bottom of a large decorating tip), cut the centers out of the cooled cupcakes, going about two-thirds of the way down. Transfer the ganache to a piping bag and fill the holes in each cupcake to the top.

Directions for Baileys Frosting:
– Whip the butter on medium-high speed for 5 minutes until fluffy.
– Reduce the speed to medium-low and gradually add the powdered sugar until all of it is incorporated.
– Add the Baileys, increase the speed to medium-high and whip for another 2 to 3 minutes, until it is light and fluffy.

(Recipe adapted from browneyedbaker and Smitten Kitchen.)

May you alway walk in sunshine.
May you never want for more.
May Irish angels rest their wings right beside your door.

posted by Rachael in Recipes and have No Comments

Lemon Poppyseed Cupcakes


Rachael’s Lemon Poppyseed Cupcakes with Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting

Chicago was supposed to have one of the worst winters in the nation, but all the hype was for a couple relatively small snowfalls that melted within a few days. Lame! I enjoy warmth as much as the next person, but if it’s winter, I expect at least a few decent snowstorms. Just today, I saw something green sprouting from the ground. Spring is officially on its way, which means we’ll probably be twang dillo’d by an unwanted blizzard in March or April (just learned the definition of twang dillo during a game of Balderdash and wanted to use it in a sentence). Such is life.

Here’s a recipe for a fresh cupcake to get your spring off to a bright start.

Yield: 12 cupcakes
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Bake Time: 20 minutes

Lemon Poppyseed Cupcake Ingredients:
½ cup butter, room temperature
1 ½ cups cake flour
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
zest and juice of one meyer lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ cup buttermilk
¼ cup poppy seeds

Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting Ingredients:
½ cup butter, room temperature
4 oz cream cheese, room temperature
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 cups icing sugar

Directions for cupcakes:
– Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 12 cupcake tins with cupcake wrappers.
– Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a small bowl.
– In bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter and sugar until fluffy.
– Beat in eggs one at a time, ensuring they are completely incorporated before continuing to the next one.
– Mix in the zest, lemon juice, and vanilla.
– Add flour and buttermilk to batter in two separate additions, beating completely between additions.
– Fold in poppyseeds.
– Fill cupcake liners and bake for 20-25 minutes.
– Remove from oven and cool completely before frosting.

Directions for frosting:
– Beat butter and cream cheese together until fluffy.
– Slowly add in vanilla.
– Slowly stir in icing sugar on low speed, one cup at a time.
– Pipe onto cupcakes and serve immediately.

For my cupcakes, I substituted SPLENDA® and low-fat cream cheese to lower the calories. Whenever you substitute SPLENDA for the sugar, you have to change a few things. For one, you need only half as much SPLENDA as the amount of sugar called for in your recipe (e.g., ½ cup of SPLENDA would replace 1 cup of regular sugar). To achieve a better rise, add a ½ teaspoon of baking soda for every 1 cup of SPLENDA you use. And, add one or two tablespoons of honey or molasses to boost flavor and provide some moistness. Finally, cakes made with SPLENDA don’t need to bake as long, so check 7-10 minutes before the original recipe’s expected bake time. For other tips on baking with SPLENDA, check out SPLENDA’s website.

I topped mine with blueberries and lemon zest, but you could top it with a variety of other things—lemonheads, chopped fresh strawberries, yellow sprinkles, etc. Don’t be afraid to eat this subtly tart treat for breakfast, we did. Live it up.

posted by Rachael in Recipes and have No Comments

Chocolate-Covered Strawberry Cupcakes


Rachael’s Chocolate-Covered Strawberry Cupcakes

Valentine’s Day has been labeled and advertised as “the day for couples,” but I disagree. It should simply be “the day of love.” Valentine’s Day should be the day that you are reminded of all the people you love in your life—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, cousins, best friends, kids, and yes, significant others. I’m sure I left out a few groups of people (e.g., teachers, neighbors, pool boys). Go out of your way on Valentine’s Day to tell/show the people you love that you are so grateful they’re in your life. When my sister and I were kids, my mom had a fun, little tradition on Valentine’s Day. She’d place a couple unwrapped goodies (e.g., Valentine’s Day-themed pajama pants, a gigantic Hershey kiss) at the end of our beds for us to discover when we woke up. Her gesture was sweet and simple. I want to continue the tradition with my future kids.

Your mission on this upcoming Valentine’s Day, if you choose to accept it, is to identify several of the people you love in your life and do something out of the ordinary. Drop them a note, give them a call, or bake them something sweet. I have just the thing! Inspired by a chocolate-covered strawberry, I decided to attempt Chocolate-Covered Strawberry cupcakes. The following recipes for strawberry cupcakes and strawberry frosting are from Candace Nelson of Sprinkles Cupcakes (with some minor alterations). The recipe I found online accidentally omitted the ½ teaspoon of baking soda, which makes the cupcakes lighter. In addition, I (as well as other bakers) added a bit more strawberry puree to up the strawberry flavor.

Strawberry Cupcakes

1 cup whole fresh or frozen strawberries, thawed
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon coarse salt
¼ cup whole milk, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
2 large egg whites, room temperature

– Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with cupcake liners; set aside.
– Place strawberries in a small food processor; process until pureed. You should have about 1/2 cup of puree, add a few more strawberries if necessary or save any extra puree for frosting; set aside.
– In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside. In a small bowl, mix together milk, vanilla, and strawberry puree; set aside.
– In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter on medium-high speed, until light and fluffy. Gradually add sugar and continue to beat until well combined and fluffy. Reduce the mixer speed to medium and slowly add egg and egg whites until just blended.
– With the mixer on low, slowly add half the flour mixture; mix until just blended. Add the milk mixture; mix until just blended. Slowly add remaining flour mixture, scraping down sides of the bowl with a spatula, as necessary, until just blended.
– Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin cups. Transfer muffin tin to oven and bake until tops are just dry to the touch, 22 to 25 minutes. Transfer muffin tin to a wire rack and let cupcakes cool completely before icing.

Strawberry Frosting

½ cup whole frozen strawberries, thawed
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, firm and slightly cold
Pinch of coarse salt
3 ¾ cups confectioners sugar
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

– Place strawberries in bowl of a small food processor; process until pureed.
– In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat together butter and salt on medium speed until light and fluffy.
– Reduce mixer speed and slowly add confectioners sugar; beat until well combined.
– Add vanilla and 4 tablespoons strawberry puree; mix until just blended. Do not overmix or frosting will incorporate too much air. Frosting consistency should be dense and creamy, like strawberry ice cream. (Note: You could seriously eat this by the spoonful, just save enough to frost your cupcakes.)

Chocolate coating

2 cups of semisweet chocolate chips (or chopped semisweet chocolate)
3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil

– Combine chocolate and oil in microwave-proof bowl and microwave for a minute. Take out and stir; microwave for another minute until completely melted.
– Transfer to a small, deep bowl and let cool for about 15 minutes.
– Holding each cupcake by its bottom, dip cupcake in the chocolate to coat frosting, allowing excess to drip off.
– After dipping all of the cupcakes, refrigerate for 30 minutes to let coating set.

What I learned from this experience:

  • As delicious as this strawberry frosting is, it did not successfully dip in the chocolate coating. Therefore, do not use this frosting recipe if you plan to dip the cupcakes in the chocolate coating. Find a thicker, more solid frosting recipe. I used a store-bought brand which dipped successfully. However, the flavor of the homemade strawberry frosting was far superior to the store-bought brand. For the ones I didn’t dip, I topped with half of a chocolate-covered strawberry. Appropriate and delicious.
  • The strawberries provide just a little pink coloring to the batter and frosting, but if you want more, just add a bit of red food coloring. I didn’t because I was okay with the natural colors. Also, I was out of red food coloring.

Though this creation consisted of strawberry cake topped with strawberry frosting, it was not too much strawberry. I brought these to our friends’ house and got rave reviews. I asked if they wanted to keep the extra cupcakes and I didn’t have to ask twice. I expected nothing less from a recipe created by Candace Nelson of Sprinkles Cupcakes.

Spread a little love this Valentine’s Day. Everyone deserves something sweet.

posted by Rachael in Recipes and have No Comments

Bitchin’ Blue Moon Cupcakes


Rachael's Bitchin' Blue Moon cupcakes topped with orange cream cheese frosting and an orange candy slice

Holidays = time with family and friends, gross amounts of food and drink, and subsequent feelings of bloatedness. Therefore, Super Bowl Sunday should be hailed as an official holiday, and we should get the next day off to recuperate.

The special, caloric treats I made this year were Blue Moon cupcakes. Before you start your post-Super Bowl diet, pull on your “cookie pants” and make these bitchin’ cupcakes (recipe and alterations provided by The Bitchin’ Kitchen). Thanks, Ellie! I’m raising my Blue Moon to you right now.

Cake Ingredients:
A stick of butter, melted
2 eggs, room temperature
4 oz buttermilk*
6 oz Blue Moon beer*
2 tsp vanilla
zest of one orange
1 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp baking soda

Orange Cream Cheese Frosting Ingredients:
1 package (8-ounce) cream cheese, softened
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
1 tsp grated orange zest
5 cups confectioners sugar
1.5 oz Blue Moon beer

For decorating (optional):
Old fashioned orange candy slices

*1 shot glass equals 1.5 ounces. Since you have your shot glass out already, open the liquor cabinet. One shot, or a couple, should do it. Now you’re ready to make these cupcakes. No mistakes, people! Baking is for winners.

– Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
– Melt butter and set aside to cool down.
– Whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, beer, vanilla, and orange zest in one bowl, and mix together the sugar, flour, coriander, and baking soda in another. (Here’s a tip from Ellie: You can make buttermilk by combining 1 tbsp lemon juice and enough milk to add up to 1 cup.) (A tip from me: Finish off that Blue Moon. You will need a shot glass more for the frosting but you can just open up a second bottle when the time comes.)
– Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in two parts, using a mixer to combine.
– Add the melted butter and combine.
– Pour batter into cupcake cups and bake for 16-18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
– Whilst the cupcakes are baking, make the frosting. First, blend the cream cheese, butter, orange juice, orange zest, and Blue Moon in a large bowl, using an electric mixer set at medium speed, until smooth.
– Add the sugar and continue to beat until light and creamy — about 3 more minutes.
– Chill frosting and let cupcakes cool before frosting. If you don’t, the frosting will run off the sides. Frosting is valuable. Winners don’t let frosting run off the sides.

At this point, you should either be scared or motivated to make these cupcakes, or maybe a little bit of both. Don’t worry… if you fail, you’re not a loser. You’re just not a winner.

The cupcakes came out moist and subtly spiced with coriander and orange zest. The orange cream cheese frosting complemented the wheat-y flavor of the cake. Wash it down with a third Blue Moon beer, and then it may be time for some coffee.

Godspeed, winners. I know you all have it in you.

posted by Rachael in Recipes and have Comments (2)

A Cupcake Carol

Chocolate Raspberry Cupcake from A Taste of Heaven in Chicago

Out of curiosity, I checked when I last posted a cupcake review and the date read September 28, 2011. I cried out in disbelief! Could it really have been that long? I’ve been wearing black ever since this discovery, and now I’m ready to join society again. My lack of posting can be attributed to the all-consuming “Graduate School,” subtitled, “Dissertating is a pain in my arse.” It still is, but I’m back, for better or for worse.

I didn’t write this at Christmas and then forget to post it. Sadly, I’ve written it now, at the end of January. All you judgers don’t be judgin’ and all you haters save your hatin’. At least give me a chance to explain.

Christmas in January exists. Its presence is confirmed by the lingering Christmas lights strewn haphazardly across the local shrubbery, and dried up pine wreaths hanging askew on a neighbor’s door, waiting to be ignited by the unsuspecting front porch smoker. Just yesterday, I saw a manger scene lit in full glory. “Laziness!” the haters exclaim. Perhaps. I like to think of January as the mourning period of Christmas past. Christmas enters as a whirlwind, and leaves us just as quickly with the blissful blinking lights fading in our eyes. Do I paint a sad picture? Well, cheer up! Christmas will be here again 5 years, 0 months, 24 days, 13 hours, 56 minutes ago.

Our Christmas tree is still up and glowing brightly. Let your judgment rain down upon me like soap flakes of shame. I am not worthy of real snow. We have many excuses. “We haven’t had time to take it down.” “We like the glow of the tree in the background while we watch a movie.” “It babysits the dogs while we’re gone.” Poppycock! We desperately cling onto that last bit of Christmas like I imagine grown’d up Linus would have clung to his childhood blankie before being forced to part with it. It’s not just a tree, or a blankie, it’s what it represents.

The tree comes down very soon, but I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I challenge you to do the same. That’s one of my New Year’s resolutions. Another (almost) universal resolution—lose some weight. A majority of us know this can be difficult, especially when you have a sugar addiction. My philosophy—if you’re going to cheat and have something sweet, reach for the real deal. Odds are, the low-cal, low-fat, tasteless garbage that some fools try to pass off as dessert will leave you unsatisfied in the end. Best treat yoself, lest you cheat yoself.

You deserve a taste of heaven. This provides a perfect segue into today’s cupcake review of A Taste of Heaven in Andersonville, Chicago. To find their site, I mistakenly typed tasteofheaven.com into the search engine. It was a naughty site for “cupcakes,” if you know what I mean. If you just came back from checking out the site, you best check yoself, lest you wreck yoself.

A Taste of Heaven (linked to the correct site) is a charming, little Chicago café that provides a surplus of savory and sweet items. I’ve been there three times just to confirm that each time would be as delectable as the last. I’m basically a regular. Cue soap flakes of shame. In my past wanderings to this establishment, I have tasted their Orange Dreamsicle, Boston Cream, and Chocolate Raspberry cupcakes.

On my first visit this past summer, I wisely chose the Orange Dreamsicle cupcake. It consisted of a scrumptious vanilla cake saturated with a creamy, yet tart orange-flavored filling, topped with smooth, orange-flavored buttercream frosting and an orange jelly candy. It should be the official cupcake of Florida. Disney should try to recreate this cupcake, because it is pure tropical magic.

On my second visit this past fall, the Boston Cream cupcake chose me. It’s breakfast for dessert, otherwise known as “bressert.” That is, if you consider a Boston Cream donut as breakfast, and I do. It’s the American way, otherwise known as “the fat country” way. Fatty! Fatty! Fatty! The dense vanilla cake oozed rich vanilla custard. This bressert was complete with a thick chocolate frosting, reminiscent of the chocolate icing that coats the traditional Boston Cream. I consumed it with a cup of coffee and was most satisfied.

On my most recent visit, which will surely not be my last, the server recommended the Chocolate Raspberry cupcake. This bit of heaven consisted of a decadent chocolate cake filled with fresh raspberry preserves, topped with a sweet, but not too sweet ricotta cheese frosting that was dipped in hard chocolate and topped with a ripe, red raspberry. This cupcake was luxurious in every way.

I don’t need to tell you that life is full of stresses. Don’t let them weigh you down. Instead, take a moment to treasure the sweet things.

As Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, everyone!

Rating:  ★★★★★ 

posted by Rachael in Cupcakes and have No Comments

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

You have to hand it to Edward Cullen—for a vampire, he’s rather traditional when it comes to love and marriage. Despite being a bachelor for the past century, he’s willing to wait until the right girl comes along. And my parents thought I waited a long time to get married.

If you’ve been hiding under a pop culture-shielding rock for the past few years and have no idea who Edward, Bella, and Jacob are … well, sorry. Much in the same vein (seriously, no pun intended) as other multi-part epics such as the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, Breaking Dawn Part 1 doesn’t waste time catching us up on what has already transpired. Bella has finished high school and is now preparing for her marriage to Edward (even though cold feet seems to have finally caught up with the “make me a vampire now” girl from last year). As we already know from the previous three films, everything has been leading up to this—Edward and Bella are destined to be together, but before he’ll agree to (a) consummate their love and (b) officially make her part of the J Crew-model Cullen family, fangs and all, she has to marry him first. Such an admirable vampire.

The supernatural love triangle wouldn’t be complete, however, without a last disapproving growl from Jacob, who runs off in anger upon receiving the invitation to Bella and Edward’s wedding. It has to be mentioned that Bella shares a close connection to Jacob that would raise the hackles of any groom. Nonetheless, not only does Edward accept their relationship, he apparently condones it by allowing Jacob to show up at the wedding to wish Bella well. Again, what a guy.

Jacob is, of course, a rising member of the sometimes-shirtless werewolf clan that despises all thing vampiric. They’re the lycanthropic McCoys to the Cullen’s Hatfields, if you will. While he would love to literally bite Edward’s head off, he wants Bella to be happy, and he’s also bound by an ancient peace treaty that prevents the wolves and vampires from killing each other off.

Immediately after the wedding, Edward and Bella depart for an island paradise off the coast of Brazil for their honeymoon. Here they finally get the passionate somethin’-somethin’ they’ve been denying each other for years. A two-week montage of newlywed awkwardness (yes, it feels like two weeks, also) follows, and then … morning sickness? Bella and Edward are flabbergasted. Is this even possible? What will happen now? Not even Carlisle, Edward’s physician “father” knows.

Meanwhile, Jacob’s clan finds out about the demon-bun-in-the-oven, and the wolf feces hits the fan. The child won’t be able to control its feeding like the Cullens have, it would threaten the wolf/vampire covenant, and it could even destroy Bella in utero. It will be an evil abomination, they think. It must be destroyed. Jacob is torn—he loves Bella and cares for her safety, but he’s also lower on the wolf totem pole and has to follow the pack leader. If only he could assert himself somehow…

As a standalone film, Breaking Dawn Part 1 is somewhat shallow on plot. Not a lot happens here, but it’s somewhat forgivable since we know it’s essentially a buildup chapter to the final installment (much like the penultimate Harry Potter film—another story where not a whole lot happens, but with that one it felt as though there was a lot more on the line). And, it does drag at times, although it does successfully build up to an emotionally satisfying ending.

Kristen Stewart, who has always seemed too tomboyish and monotone in the past for Bella, comes across here as ladylike. I never completely bought the Jacob/Edward feud over her before, but I did here. The Twilight films have never lacked for melodrama, but these are teenagers prone to be that way by nature. That being said, there are a few scenes where the melodrama is turned up to 11, and one moment in particular that is meant to be intense comes across instead as laughable—even the giggly fangirls in front of us couldn’t help but LOL.

The secondary characters have always brought some gravity to the other films, and they do well here, too. Edward’s family becomes more and more likable in each new installment, as do Bella’s parents. Bella’s dad deserves a special mention. He has continually been one of my favorite characters, and here he shows great emotional depth during his daughter’s wedding as he gives her away in a way he couldn’t possibly understand.

If I have one lingering complaint, it’s that the special effects aren’t always consistent. Back in the day when it had a lower budget, it was understandable. Nowadays, though, Twilight is a bonafide blockbuster. To be fair, it looks great. The cinematography is one of the film’s strong suits. As for computer trickery, one visual effect presents an emaciated body and is done flawlessly, but any scenes that involved animated wolves did little to convince me that I wasn’t watching a video game.

On another note, as Jacob grows into adulthood, we are meant to accept his position as a powerful figure in the wolf clan. There’s just one thing—Taylor Lautner still sounds like a 14-year-old. It’s no fault of his own, but it makes his voiceovers less authoritative.

All things considered, though, Stephanie Meyer deserves a tip of the hat. She has taken some heavy-handed concepts—love, devotion, family, respect, sacrifice, celibacy, choice—and made them relevant to teenage girls. Meyer knew early on who her target audience would be, and she imbued her characters with the kind of traits she felt her readers should honor. Bella, Jacob, and Edward may be odd choices for role models, but the ideals they hold important are a welcome message for young adults in a culture that tells them these things don’t matter anymore. Long story short, parents, if your 16-year-old daughter wants to date a 100-year-old vampire from a good family, there are worse alternatives.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

posted by Ian in Flicks and have No Comments

Paranormal Activity 3

As in years past, Rachael and I have celebrated Halloween with a month-long horror movie marathon. We finished off this October with the third installment of the Paranormal Activity series, now in theaters.

If I were to ask you to name the top 10 scariest movies you’ve ever seen, and if any of those titles started with the word Saw, you can stop reading now.

To be fair, the Paranormal Activity films aren’t for everyone.  There tends to be two dominant opinions among those who have seen any of the now three offerings: (a) they’re maddeningly suspenseful creepers full of nail-biting tension, or (b) they’re boring and nothing happens. If you find yourself agreeing with the latter, this isn’t the movie for you.

Paranormal Activity 3 continues (and hopefully ends?) the tale of two sisters, Kristi and Katie, whose trials at the hands of a malevolent, unseen entity formed the basis of the previous two stories. The first movie (wide released in 2009) presented probably the most original piece of first-person horror narrative since The Blair Witch Project, while the second (2010) expanded on a back story in which both women mentioned being terrorized by a demon when they were children. This, then, is that story.

Set in 1988, the girls live with their mother, Julie, and her boyfriend, Dennis (a videographer, of course), in suburbia, where they share a room in the attic. One night, after Dennis sets up a video camera to film his and Julie’s weed-induced bedroom antics, they experience an earthquake that shakes the tripod to the floor. Upon reviewing the film (on VHS tapes), Dennis notices that debris shaken from the ceiling seems to land on something. Hoping to catch this something again on video, he sets up a number of cameras around the house, setting in motion the multiple-angle views we’ve come to expect from the series.

Before long, the familiar title cards (“Night #1,” etc.) begin appearing to let us know it’s time to be on guard and begin inspecting every square inch of the screen in anticipation. On one of the first nights, we hear the offscreen closet door in the girls’ room open. Kristi, the younger daughter, nonchalantly crawls out of bed and talks to someone out of our field of vision.

When asked about it, she says it’s “Toby,” who the rest of the family assumes to be an imaginary friend, however as we all know from numerous horror films, children’s “imaginary friends” are never too innocent—Captain Howdy from The Exorcist or “The TV People” from Poltergeist, anyone?

In Paranormal Activity 2, the gimmick of multiple security cameras was added to intensify the suspense. When just one camera angle is shown (as in the original film), we wait for something to happen. When numerous camera angles are thrown into the mix, many of which show long stretches of nothing, it becomes unsettling. In this one, Dennis comes up with a solution to get a full view of the living room and kitchen—he attaches a camera to the base of a swiveling house fan. This is, of course, an ingenious move on the filmmakers’ part, allowing us to only see half of the room at a time, waiting for it to turn slowly back in the other direction so we can see what has or hasn’t changed. It’s an extremely unnerving effect and played out well.

I can’t say too much more, but there are a few drawbacks that need to be mentioned. First, because we know that the girls grow up to be in the other two films, we know their safety is never really at risk. Fortunately it doesn’t really dispel the feeling of impending dread, and I did find myself caring about the characters—something that doesn’t frequently happen in most horror films.

It’s worth noting, though, that I didn’t always find the characters’ actions believable. Despite the fact that everyone seems terrified, Julie always seems annoyed by Dennis’ need to film everything. Maybe she’s just in denial? Also, despite the weird goings-on, everything goes back to business as usual at night. I saw The Ring in the theater and slept in my living room with the lights on for a week—these characters experience supernatural frights but go back to sleeping in their own beds at night as if nothing happened. Maybe I’m just a little girl.

As with the first two films, most of the special effects appear to be done with conventional moviemaking techniques, although a couple here seem to be obvious CG. While CG can sometimes be even more convincing than miniatures and strings, it stretches credibility slightly when you’re watching something that looks animated on video that was supposedly shot on VHS tape over 20 years ago.

All that aside, however, Paranormal Activity 3 is an effectively made scarefest that draws you into the story and presents characters who are likable in situations that seem mostly plausible. I also give props to the film’s marketing team for creating trailers with scenes that appear nowhere in the movie. When we see a series of scary scenes in a trailer, they lose a little of their impact when we finally see them in the movie. When none of those scenes happen in the final cut, anything goes—it’s all new to us. Bravo, advertising peeps.

Yes, some of the scares tend to be more subtle, but this is what sets the Paranormal series apart from the standard jump-cut-loud-music boo! moments of most contemporary horror movies. We are asked to imagine we’re experiencing a real-life account of a family terrorized by an unseen evil. In real life, there isn’t any ominous music or alternate points-of-view that warn us something is about to happen.

I’ve always felt it’s what we don’t see that scares us the most. There’s nothing more scary to me than a closed door at the top of a dark stairway, and this movie has plenty of them. I’ve never personally experienced any real, terrifying supernatural events, and I hope I never do. But, if I did, I’m guessing it wouldn’t be some monster or deformation that jumps out at me accompanied by an audible crash of strings and percussion. Instead, it would probably be a dark shape at the end of the hallway that stands there silently, watching me as I slowly become aware it’s there.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 


posted by Ian in Flicks and have Comment (1)

The Frosting

The Pumpkin Patch cupcake from Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique, Chicago

All work and no cupcakes makes Rachael a dull girl…

I spent last week under house arrest writing my second candidacy exam. One week and 30 pages later, I was hanging on to the last thread of my sanity. Cupcakes are one of the only things that can revive me.

The fall season is upon us and what better way to commemorate the beginning of my favorite season than to reference one of my favorite horror movies of all time, The Shining. The book is great too. I suppose I can think of one better way to celebrate Autumn, fall-flavored cupcakes. Check out my yearly to-do list of fall activities:

  • Eat fall-flavored cupcakes.
  • Drink a pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks.
  • Find a pumpkin with an unnaturally long stem.
  • Carve a wicked pumpkin.
  • Play in a pile of leaves.
  • Watch Michigan football.
  • Drink apple cider and eat apple cider donuts.
  • Wet my pants on a haunted house tour.
  • Celebrate my dogs’ birthdays.
  • Play in a pile of leaves bigger than the first.

Some people like to celebrate fall with Starbuck’s pumpkin spice latte. More power to them. It is indeed a delicious hot beverage, and on my fall to-do list. However, I decided to jump start football season, crisp weather, and haunted hayrides with a Pumpkin Patch cupcake and cappuccino frosting shot from Sugar Bliss.

Entering the establishment, I sauntered on up to the cupcake bar. When the girl behind the counter asked me what flavors I’d be having, I replied, “The hair of the dog that bit me, miss.” Of course, she had no idea what that meant so I clarified that I wanted a mini Lemon Drop, a mini PB&J, a full-sized Pumpkin Patch, and a shot of cappuccino frosting to wash it all down. Then, those it shall be.

They boxed up my cupcakes and slid the cappuccino shot across the counter. Dana and I tapped our mini paper cups (the kind that school nurses use to hand out ibuprofen) of cappuccino frosting and squeezed the sugary concoction into our mouths. If Sugar Bliss is known for anything, it’s their frosting. Sugary sweet and goes down smooth. I immediately regretted having two cups of coffee prior to my frosting shot. It is possible that Dana regretted it more. I swear I saw some animal hedges move. Sidenote: scientists say that coffee may prevent depression. No wonder I’m such a happy person.

Now, for the cupcakes. The cake of the Lemon Drop was dry and crumbly but it had a pleasantly subtle lemon flavor. The lemon frosting did not disappoint. The mini PB&J was also a tad dry but I enjoyed the burst of jelly filling which complemented the creamy peanut butter frosting. What kind of peanut butter person are you? Chunky or smooth? Overall, I was a bit underwhelmed with the minis.

When I saw the Pumpkin Patch cupcake, similar to when I see a real pumpkin patch, a pillar of light shone down from the sky. The cake was moist and spiced to perfection. The cream cheese frosting was silky, unlike some cream cheese frostings which are thick or fluffy. In my opinion, it’s hard to go wrong with any of the textures. Also, Sugar Bliss has a distinct way of frosting their cupcakes, with precise globs which form a pattern of globs. Sounds pretty, doesn’t it? Well, it is. Then, it was sprinkled with a mix of spices.

Some cupcakes are like people—some shine and some don’t. Though one thing is for sure, Sugar Bliss has THE frosting.

Rating:  ★★★½☆ 

posted by Rachael in Cupcakes and have No Comments