No Ordinary Bake Sale: Simply Made From Scratch

Parenting has changed in the past few decades. My mother didn't work while raising her first three children, finally going back when I was 4. She didn't have to worry about car seats or tummy time or how much television we watched.

And when she baked something for a school bake sale, she had plenty of time to make something from the typical wheelhouse — chocolate-chip cookies, brownies, pineapple upside-down cake — without ever worrying about nut allergies or gluten-free kids. My mother didn't think twice about what she bought at the grocery store — whether they had artificial flavors or preservatives. (Those things were modern and magical.) She also never had to ask herself the ridiculous question that often rings through my mind when faced with a baking project: What would Martha do?

Well, Martha definitely would not buy something at the grocery store, but times have changed. Parents work crazy hours, life is somehow faster, and a stray peanut could send someone to the emergency room. And sometimes you sign up for these things fully intending to bake something, but the day gets away from you.

Unfortunately for me, like the famous Ms. Stewart, I rarely take the easy way out. I have been known to torture myself with mile-long to-do lists, and short cuts just aren't my style. Because of this persistent (some might call it annoying) personality trait, I mainly gravitate toward recipes that rely on pantry and refrigerator staples. Buttermilk biscuits? Forget it. I'll scour my cookbooks or do an online search until I find a recipe that uses regular milk — and I'll stick with that recipe loyally.

About The Author

Rina Rapuano is a freelance food writer and restaurant reviewer based in Washington, D.C. She writes for The Washington Post's Food section; CityEats; Washingtonian magazine; and Capitol File magazine. When she's not dragging her husband and two kids to area restaurants, she's usually in the kitchen cooking, baking or sneaking a cookie. Find Rapuano on Twitter at @rinarap.

Being a fairly regular baker, however, means I now have a few easy go-to recipes that are both simple and elegant — yet still adhere to my rule against last-minute trips to the grocery store for exotic ingredients. Those recipes include a knockout whoopie pie and a sophisticated spin on the ubiquitous cupcake, this one a moist banana cake gilded with honey-cinnamon frosting. Having the right recipes at hand means you can churn out show-stopping desserts in little more time than it takes to make cupcakes from a box or pick up something from the store.

Aside from the actual treats you make, bake-sale gurus know packaging and presentation are as essential to wowing customers and making them reach for their coin purses. Natasha Kobran of Frederick, Md., made coordinating labels and arranged everything on pretty platters and cake stands for the bake sale she recently organized. "People were saying that it looked like a fancy bake sale," she says, adding that selling coffee and iced tea went over well, too. "I brought in my own dishes so things wouldn't just be on paper plates."

She says the sweets that had a twist got the most buzz. "People are always into nostalgia, but people's food vocabulary is so much bigger than it was even five years ago," she says. "Now they sort of expect unusual ingredients. People have been exposed to more."

With my oldest child about to enter kindergarten next year, the bake sale years lie ahead of me like a virtual trip through Candy Land. Unlike flu shots, sleepless nights and the constant pleading of "why, why, why?" this is a part of their childhood I'm truly looking forward to.

However, even a perfectionist like me realizes that the dream sometimes withers in the face of the day to day, and that I'll always rely on recipes that look tough to make — but are actually a piece of cake.

Whoopie Pies

I've made this recipe from Martha Stewart's Everyday Food magazine many times, always to rave reviews. (At a dinner party once, someone jumped up and kissed my cheek after his first bite.) If I plan to decorate by rolling the edges in nonpareils, I make "one and a half" of the filling recipe so more of it oozes toward the edges.

Whoopie Pies
Rina Rapuano for NPR

Makes 12 to 15

Cookies

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup packed light-brown sugar

1 large egg

1 cup unsweetened applesauce

Nonpareils or sanding sugar, for decoration

Filling

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup confectioners' sugar

For Cookies

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a medium bowl, whisk flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat until smooth.

With mixer on low, alternately add flour mixture and applesauce, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Mix just until smooth (do not overmix).

Drop dough by heaping tablespoons, 2 inches apart, onto two ungreased baking sheets. (It's best if they are lined with Silpat mats, but not necessary.) Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cookie comes out clean, 10 to 14 minutes. With a thin metal spatula, immediately transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool completely.

Meanwhile, make filling. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter and vanilla until light and fluffy. Gradually add confectioners' sugar with the mixer on low, slowly increasing the speed and beating until smooth.

Spread flat side of half the cooled cookies with 1 tablespoon filling each. Sandwich with remaining cookies, pressing gently so filling oozes out slightly. Sprinkle exposed filling with nonpareils or sanding sugar. Let rest 15 minutes to set.

Flourless Fudge Chocolate-Chip Cookies

These days, you really need to have a few gluten-free options at any bake sale (keep in mind that it's the whole process, not just the ingredients, that must be flour-free). These flourless cookies are rich and chewy, packing a powerful punch of chocolate. Try sprinkling coconut or sweetened dried cherries on top before baking to add another flavor. I got this recipe from RecipeGirl.com, which writes that it was adapted from New York baker Francois Payard's Chocolate Epiphany.

Flourless Fudge Chocolate-Chip Cookies i i
Rina Rapuano for NPR
Flourless Fudge Chocolate-Chip Cookies
Rina Rapuano for NPR

Makes 30 cookies

3 cups confectioners' sugar

2/3 cup unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

2 to 4 large egg whites, at room temperature

1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Set aside two baking sheets lined with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk the confectioners' sugar, cocoa powder and salt until blended.

Whisk in the vanilla and egg whites starting with just 2. Beat just until the batter is moistened. You're looking for a brownie-like, thick and fudgy batter. If it seems too thick, add another egg white — then a fourth one if it still seems too thick.

Stir in the chocolate chips.

Scoop tablespoons of the batter onto the prepared baking sheets. Leave enough space between each cookie for them to spread, and avoid making them too big or they will be tough to remove from the parchment paper.

Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until the tops are glossy and lightly cracked.

Slide the parchment paper (with the cookies) onto wire racks. Let cookies cool completely, remove from parchment paper and store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Homemade Pixy Stix

Any arrangement of these homemade treats, which use real fruit and none of the preservatives or artificial flavors of the childhood favorite, is undeniably festive. Filling the straws is the most difficult part, but it gets easier as you get the rhythm and the technique.

Homemade Pixy Stix i i
Rina Rapuano for NPR
Homemade Pixy Stix
Rina Rapuano for NPR

Makes 50

1/2 cup freeze-dried fruit

1/2 cup granulated sugar

Sugar and dehydrated fruit are pulverized using a mortar and pestle. i i

Sugar and dehydrated fruit are pulverized using a mortar and pestle. Rina Rapuano for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Rina Rapuano for NPR
Sugar and dehydrated fruit are pulverized using a mortar and pestle.

Sugar and dehydrated fruit are pulverized using a mortar and pestle.

Rina Rapuano for NPR

Combine sugar and fruit in a clean coffee grinder and pulse for 5 seconds at a time until all the fruit chunks are gone. A mortar and pestle also work well. Taste the mixture and add fruit or sugar to taste. (If using more than one type of freeze-dried fruit, be sure to keep the one-to-one ratio. I used a tablespoon of sugar and a tablespoon of fruit for each variety, which made 6 sticks at a time.)

Bend the bottom of a paper straw, and make a paper cone with a hole just large enough to fit inside your straw.

Sprinkle the mixture into the cone a little at a time so it won't clump, filling each straw about 8/10 full. Tipping the straw and cone to the side while filling and poking the mixture into the straw with a cake tester or toothpick is a good technique. Fold the top to seal.

Store in a dry place.

Banana Cupcakes With Honey-Cinnamon Frosting

These were a huge hit when I made them for my son's second birthday party, and I've been itching for an excuse to make them again. A bake sale would be the perfect reason. The frosting, in particular, is both unusual and comforting, taking it from a banana-muffin-like cake into the realm of something special. This recipe is adapted from Martha Stewart's Everyday Food magazine, a great source for the fast but fancy recipes we're going for here.

Banana Cupcakes With Honey-Cinnamon Frosting i i
Rina Rapuano for NPR
Banana Cupcakes With Honey-Cinnamon Frosting
Rina Rapuano for NPR

Makes 12

Cupcakes

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

1 1/2 cups mashed bananas (about 4 ripe bananas), plus 1 whole banana, for garnish (optional)

2 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Honey-Cinnamon Frosting

1 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 tablespoon honey

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line a standard 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Make a well in center of flour mixture. In well, mix together butter, mashed bananas, eggs and vanilla. Stir to incorporate flour mixture (do not overmix).

Dividing evenly, spoon batter into muffin cups.

Meanwhile, make frosting.

In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat confectioners' sugar, butter, honey and ground cinnamon until smooth and fluffy, 4 to 5 minutes.

Bake cupcakes until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes.

Remove cupcakes from pan and cool completely on a wire rack. Spread tops with honey-cinnamon frosting.

Just before serving, peel and slice banana into rounds, and place one on each cupcake, if desired.

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