Strawberry Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

Okay people, I've been trying, really I have, but there really is no way to explain the surreal time warp that was my first year of parenting. So full of challenges and successes and failures and giddy celebration of the smallest things. Life has truly taken on a meaning I never knew existed. This, of course is not a revelation unique to me; millions and millions of other crazy people who have decided to become parents know exactly what I'm talking about. And to you, fellow crazy people, I offer you a cold beer held high and one of Baby C's wholly delicious birthday cupcakes--a tender strawberry cake enlivened with a sassy strawberry coulis and white chocolate cream cheese frosting. While I baked up a couple dozen of these heavenly cupcakes for a lively party to celebrate our sweet Baby C's first year of life (and by extension, one year of parental survival), I really couldn't help but marvel at the juxtaposition of the passage of time during Year One. For example, the months it took for our darling daughter to sleep through the night (nine of them, people--feel for me a little, won't you?) made it seem like the first year would never, ever end, and some of those days seemed like such a bizarre blur of sameness that I felt (and let's face it, looked) an awful lot like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

And yet, the leaps and bounds by which our daughter grew each day during this first year have created a staggering sense of jetting through time. Literally there were mornings where we picked her up out of her crib, looked her in the face and could have sworn that she had a completely different face from when we tucked her in the night before. That sort of thing is as astonishing as the insane amount of joy she brings us.


Oh, and the joy! A kind of spontaneous happiness that seems to flood me at the most unexpected moments; a feeling that puts me on maternal autopilot, so that no matter how frazzled I am, I can't keep from dropping whatever I'm doing to smooch her chubby little cheeks and squeeze her tight, desperately hoping that she'll somehow never grow out of my arms. Man, I wish someone could invent a way to bottle that feeling. Because that is what's It's really all about.

At one year old, it is also becoming clear what kind of child we have been given. I can't mince words here, people. Girlfriend is basically a


. Her nickname in our weekly playgroup is Little Hollywood. This is not a joke. She would dramatically outstretch her arms and smile brightly on cue when someone would say "ta-daaa!" long before the whole "How big is baby? Soooo big!" act ever took hold.

She is endlessly curious, a true extrovert (when naps are a bust, we must go out--keeping my cranky child away from her public only exacerbates the situation), and a lover of music. She's quite the dancer and a singer already too--eyes closed, chin jutting out, sustained falsetto notes, Mariah-esque hand movements--it's fabulous.

Given her flair for the dramatic and the way she positively blossoms in a crowd, it was only fitting that we threw a big, loud party with all her little friends in attendance to celebrate her big day. I think she would've really let us have it otherwise.

There was a table of dips and chips and bacon-wrapped dates (!!--thanks, Aunt Lauren!) and slow-cooked pork with creamy slaw and a tangy homemade barbecue sauce. And of course, perfectly powder pink cupcakes fit for a first birthday girl. When the lights were dimmed and the birthday song was sung, Baby C lit up as bright as the flickering candles, and dutifully shoved an entire cupcake into her face in short order. It was, in short, an awesome day to celebrate one awesome little kid.

With one year of motherhood under my belt I can honestly say that I never thought I could learn so much, love so much, hope so much. And to my darling baby girl, thank you for making my life so, so sweet. I love you, Bubs.

Strawberry Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes

Makes about 4 dozen frosted cupcakes

First, I'd like you to meet my new go-to cream cheese frosting. Perfection, I tell you. Also, for you party planners: the strawberry puree for the batter and the coulis can be made at the same time, several days in advance. The cupcakes can be baked a day before serving, kept at room temperature in airtight containers. The day of serving, whip up the frosting while you wait for the coulis to soak into the cakes a bit. There will be more spiced strawberry coulis than is needed to brush the cupcakes before icing them, but it thickens nicely in the fridge and is amazing on toast. You could also fill the cupcakes with the thickened coulis rather than brushing it on top, which would be both delicious and frugal of you.

For the strawberry puree and coulis:

1 1/2 pounds frozen unsweetened strawberries, thawed with their juices 1/2 cup sugar 1 cinnamon stick 1/2 star anise pod 1 one-inch piece of vanilla bean, split lengthwise

For the strawberry cakes:

4 1/2 cups cake flour 3 cups sugar 5 1/4 teaspoons baking powder 3/4 teaspoon salt 3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature 1 1/4 cups strawberry puree 8 egg whites 2/3 cup milk For the white chocolate cream cheese frosting:

1 pound cream cheese, chilled (do not use reduced fat cream cheese) 6 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted if lumpy 6 ounces white chocolate, melted and cooled 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract White chocolate sprinkles, and various shades of pink Dum-Dum lollipops (sticks trimmed to about one inch long) for decorating (optional)

Begin by making the strawberry puree: Puree the thawed berries in a blender or food processor until smooth (do not strain the puree)--you should have about 2 3/4 cups. Set aside 1 1/4 cups puree for making the cake batter, and put the remainder into a small saucepan with the sugar. Add the cinnamon stick and the star anise, scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod into the pan, and add the vanilla pod as well. Bring the coulis to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has thickened considerably and reduced by about half (about 3/4 cup). To ensure thickness, dab a teaspoon of the coulis onto a freezing cold plate and set it in the freezer for a minute or two--if you run your fingertip through the coulis, a track should remain. Discard the cinnamon stick, star anise pod and vanilla pod, and scrape the coulis into a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Next, make the strawberry cupcakes. Place the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two 12 cup muffin tins with paper liners.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir together the cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt on low speed for a full 60 seconds. Add the butter and mix on low speed until the butter is well-blended into the dry ingredients and it resembles coarse crumbs. Add the strawberry puree and mix on low to blend, then crank the speed to medium and beat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the batter is light and fluffy and resembles strawberry ice cream.

In a large bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the egg whites and milk until very well-blended. With the mixer running, add the liquid to the batter in 2 or 3 additions, stopping the mixer to scrape down the bowl as necessary. Divide half the batter among the muffin cups, filling the tins about 2/3 full. Bake for about 22 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the tins on wire racks for about five minutes, then remove the cupcakes to the racks to cool completely. When the tins have cooled, line them with more paper liners and bake the rest of the batter.

To make the white chocolate cream cheese frosting, place the very cold cream cheese and confectioners' sugar in the bowl of your standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Start beating at low speed just to get the ingredients blending, then beat at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the melted white chocolate and the vanilla and beat on medium speed just to blend--don't overbeat at this point, or the heat of the mixer will start to break down the cream cheese.

To assemble the cupcakes, thinly spread about half a teaspoon of coulis over the top of each cupcake (alternately, fill the cupcakes with the coulis using a squirt bottle or piping bag). When the coulis has soaked into the surfaces of the cupcakes a bit, frost them generously with the white chocolate cream cheese frosting and gently roll the frosted tops in a plate full of white chocolate sprinkles. Store the frosted and sprinkled cupcakes in airtight containers at a cool room temperature until ready to serve. Add an extra bit of flair with the lollipops just before serving, if desired.