Happy Monday!  I hope everyone had a great weekend!  If you overindulged a bit (and don't we all?) I have the perfect recipe for you!  This is another recipe that features my very favorite fruit: the avocado.  Over the past few years I have developed a lower and lower tolerance to milk (and sadly, milkshakes), so I've been enjoying less and less smoothies and milkshakes.  I had read many times that avocados are a great addition to shakes and smoothies to get the creaminess that is missing from non-dairy versions.  I had never actively searched for a recipe but once I came across this recipe on Pinterest and knew this was one to try!  Lots of smoothies look healthy but are secretly filled with tons of sugar and calories.  What I like about this smoothie is that it is dairy-free (yaaay!), contains 1 1/2 servings of fruit, is sweetened with honey, not sugar and has tons of protein.  

This drink totally disguised itself as a chocolate milkshake to my two princesses!  JP liked it and Bean loved it.  My little Bean definitely acquired Mommy's avocado obsession :)  It's chocolate-y and creamy and sweet, but not too sweet.  The avocado is there, but I swear you can barely taste it.  It's a great way to sneak a lot of healthy things into your kids!
Chocolate Banana Avocado Smoothie
Serves 2

1 cup unsweetened almond milk
1/2 cup crushed ice
1 ripe banana
1 tablespoon honey (you can use dates if you want to make this vegan)
1/2 ripe avocado
2 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
2 tablespoons almond butter (make your own here!)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground flax seed

Combine all ingredients in a blender until smooth, about 30 seconds.
Adapted from Against All Grain
Have you ever tried an avocado?  Do you love avocados?  No, I mean love avocados?  I do!  I'm kind of obsessed with them lately, especially since I can get them for $.79 at Aldi!  Even if you think you don't like avocados, I'm asking you to hear me out.  I actually have two pretty unconventional avocado recipes to share with you.  Both of them have the avocado flavor neatly disguised within the recipe (pretty sneaky, huh?)  With the weekend coming up I decided today's selection would be a sweet and sinful dessert.  On Monday I'll give you something healthy to start your week off right.  :)

I have been eating avocados in guacamole and on salads and sandwiches for years.  When I was pregnant with Princess #1 I never had much of an appetite in the morning, but I always craved cottage cheese with diced avocado (so yummy!) for breakfast.  A few years ago I was on a play date and another mom (from India, I believe) told me that she grew up eating avocados in sweet, dessert foods, never savory as we know it here in America.  As I sat there eating guacamole I couldn't even imagine the flavor in something sweet.  Hmmm...intriguing.  Being the foodie that I am I started to be on the lookout for a dessert that consisted of avocados.  About a year later I found it in Food Network Magazine.  The recipe seemed simple enough so I gave it a try.  I figured I'd like it but wasn't sure about my family.  To my surprise it was very well received!  The avocado flavor was mild and blended well with the sweetness of the sweetened condensed milk and the citrus juice in it gave it the tangy feel of a key lime pie.  Other than baking the pie crust, this is basically a no-bake recipe, which makes it perfect for hot summer months.  I knew I would be making this one again!

It took a few years but I finally got around to whipping this up again with a few small improvements.  The original recipe is to be made in a springform pan and serve 8.  I found the pieces tended to fall apart when it was cut and 1/8 of the pie was just a bit too rich for anyone to finish their piece.  I adapted the recipe to make individual pies using a 12-cup muffin tin which did a few things:  1) the crust to filling ratio is a higher so you taste a bit of crunchy graham cracker in nearly every creamy bite. 2) the serving size is smaller so everyone could finish their portion and there was no waste.  3)  the presentation is adorable on little square plates with a generous amount of whipped cream on top!

If you've ever work with avocados before you know that they oxidize rather quickly.  The addition of citrus slows down the oxidation (browning) but doesn't eliminate it altogether.  I found that these tasted best the first day I made them and the following day.  By Day #3 they were still ok, but not as tasty as the first two days.  Also, don't plan on taking these to an outside event in the summer where they will sit on a dessert table for a few hours...trust me on this...just don't!
Individual Avocado Pies
Serves 12

For the crust
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

For the filling
2 medium, ripe Haas avocados
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat oven to 350° F.  Spray 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray.  Combine melted butter, graham cracker crumbs, sugar and salt in a medium bowl.  Press the graham cracker crumb mixture into the bottom and up the sides of each cup in the muffin tin.  Bake until golden brown, about 9-10 minutes.  Allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

Once the crust has cooled completely, make the filling.  Halve and pit the avocado and roughly chop the flesh.  Add to the bowl of a stand mixer (a hand mixer can also be used) with the softened cream cheese and beat until combined and smooth.  Add the sweetened condensed milk, lime juice, lemon juice and salt.  Beat until smooth and fluffy, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed.  Divide the filling evenly among the 12 prepared crusts.  Cover pies completely with a piece of plastic wrap, making sure to press it down directly on top of the pie filling (this helps reduce oxidation).  Chill thoroughly, about 4 hours.

To serve, loosen pies from muffin tin with a fork.  Add whipped cream, if desired. 
Adapted from Food Network Magazine
Do you see the picture above?  Do you know what that is a picture of?  Freedom!  Er...Iced Coffee!  But, iced coffee that I made by myself, at home, for a fraction of what it costs at a coffee shop!  To me, that is sweet coffee freedom!  I am a coffee drinker in that I have to have a cup (sometimes 2) of coffee every day or else I end up with a dreaded caffeine-induced headache.  I hate that I'm a slave to coffee, but I accept it.  I've tried a few times to give coffee up over the summers because, quite honestly, who wants a hot cup of coffee when it's 80 degrees at 10:00 am?  Giving up coffee never really worked for me.  A few years ago I discovered iced coffees at the coffee shops around town.  Genius!  It's coffee.  It's cold.  It's refreshing.  It's perfect for summer!  This great find came with a few problems - 1) Buying an iced coffee every day is not budget-friendly 2) Getting to a coffee shop every day is not convenient AT ALL and 3) Doesn't it seem like they put way too much ice in those drinks and not enough coffee?  So, why not make it at home????  And I tried....

My first attempt was making a full pot of coffee in the morning and only drinking what my hubby and I wanted for the day, then dumping the leftover into a pitcher in the fridge.  Then, the next day, then the next day...eh.  I was still drinking warm coffee from the initial brew and the stuff in the fridge just tasted stale and nasty.  Fail #1!

My second attempt was to make espresso and get out the blender and make a sweet, frozen coffee concoction.  Messy, too sweet, too many calories, too much work and just tasted off.  Fail #2.

My third attempt came when I purchase my beloved Keurig.  One of the reasons I bought the Keurig was because I read about how you could make iced coffee by using them.  Intriguing.  How this was achieved was by brewing a strong blend of K-Cup using only 6 ounces of water.  Once you had this potent little concoction in your coffee mug, you simply dumped it over a FULL cup of ice in an insulated cold beverage tumbler.  Ok, let's try it.  It worked....sort of.  The taste was ok, but since you are pouring piping hot coffee over ice the ice melted instantly and left you with almost-cold coffee.  Probably my best attempt up to that point, so we went with it for a while.  I'm still comfortable calling this Fail #3.

Then, along came this brand new technique I saw on Annie's Eats.  I've never really heard of cold brewing coffee before.  Looks complicated....or does it?  The originally recipe makes quite a bit so I quartered the recipe down to yield just one pitcher and suddenly this was the easiest thing I'd ever done in the kitchen!  It takes just a few minutes of planning and very minimal kitchen supplies (I think a kitchen scale is extremely helpful in this recipe).  I usually throw a batch together at night and let it sit on the counter overnight.  The next morning I strain it through a colander lined with a heavy-duty paper towel (I like Bounty) or a cheesecloth.  Once it's strained I pop it in the fridge until I'm ready for it.  You can add any kind of syrup or sweetener to your drink if you like, but I usually just add some almond milk to balance mine out.  It keeps in the fridge for quite a while too - I've had my current batch in there for 3 weeks now (I'm blaming Mother Nature on her late arrival of spring here in PA).  So, if you've been looking for a perfect recipe to make iced coffee at home, look no further - you have found it!
DIY Iced Coffee
Makes about 2 quarts

4 ounces bold/dark roast coffee, ground (this is where the kitchen scales comes in handy)
2 quarts cold, filtered water

Add coffee grounds to a 2 quart pitcher.  Fill about halfway with cold water.  Stir to moisten grounds.  Continue filling pitcher with water until it is full (this may be slightly less than 2 quarts).  Cover and let sit at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight.
After 8 hours, pour coffee and grounds through a fine mesh sieve lined with a strong paper towel or cheesecloth.  Push gently on the coffee grounds to extract all the liquid.  Discard coffee grounds.  Place coffee in a pitcher and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.  Enjoy!
Adapted from Annie's Eats, which was adapted from Pioneer Woman, who originally saw it on Imbibe Magazine
I grew up in Central Pennsylvania and because of that I tend to hold a loyalty to all PA-based foods - TastyKake, Heinz ketchup, too many potato chip and pretzel makers to count and, of course, Hershey's chocolate.  A few years ago when I quit working to become a stay-at-home-mom I began watching my grocery budget to the extreme (we're talking Excel spreadsheets, broken down by item, store and price per unit.  Yes, I'm that person).  I tried many store brand and generic items and, for the most part, they were all acceptable substitutes.  Hershey's Chocolate Syrup though....no way I could give that up!!  I justified the higher cost over store brand because I consistently bought it at Target which was much cheaper than my go-to grocery store.

About a year ago, when I first stumbled across food blog (seriously, you'd think I'd been living under a rock all these years!) I saw lots of recipes for DIY Chocolate Syrup.  Naturally, my first thought was "Yeah, right.  Who wants to do that when you can buy Hershey's?"  I'm not sure what possessed me to do it (possibly the crazy short ingredient list?), but I gave this recipe a shot and, WOW!  No more store bought in this house!!  I felt a little bad abandoning my old-faithful, but I used Hershey's Cocoa Powder so I could still sort of call it Hershey's Homemade Chocolate Syrup....right?  Give this one a try - it's one of the easiest DIY recipes you will find!
DIY Chocolate Syrup

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt (I use kosher)
2 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar and cocoa powder.  Whisk together to break up any lumps.  Stir in the water and salt.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently.  Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.  Remove from the heat and let cool for about 5 minutes.  Stir in the vanilla.  Once cool enough to handle transfer to a bottle and store in the refrigerator.

I like these bottles from The Container Store because they are squeezable and BPA free.
As seen on Annie's Eats, originally from 52 Kitchen Adventures
Are you all ready for the upcoming holiday weekend?  Based on what I see out my window I would guess said holiday would be Christmas....I would be wrong.  Despite the temperatures lingering in the 20s/30s and the daily snowfall, we are actually coming up on Easter weekend.  I always associate Easter with the start of Spring, flowers blooming, birds chirping, windows open and kids playing outside.  Ahh.....this year I guess we'll all have to wait just a little bit longer. 

The dish I have for you today doesn't mind the weather.  Nope, it's delicious any season for any reason!  Carbo-licious, Cheesy-licious, with a teensy bit of healthy.  That's how I would describe this dish.  I've made this strata a few times over the past year and it's so indulgent that it just has to be saved for holidays around here!  Health food this is NOT!  This is a perfect dish to make for an Easter brunch because you need to prepare it the day before and bake it the next morning.  Just toss it in the oven amid the Easter-morning chaos.  It feeds at least 8 and looks quite impressive when brought to the table - which also makes it great for hosting overnight guests!  Sometimes I add some roasted red peppers to it, which is great for Christmas morning since it adds an extra layer of flavor while upping the festive look to make it more Christmas-y.

I have found that this monster of a casserole needs some extra lovin' time in the oven.  We usually let it bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes to make sure the eggs are cooked in the middle.  Trust me, it's totally worth the wait!
Spinach and Cheese Strata
Serves 8-10

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 10-ounce packages frozen spinach, thawed and drained
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, divided
8 cups ciabatta bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
6 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
9 large eggs
2 3/4 cups milk

Melt the butter in a large saute pan, over medium heat.  Add the onions and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and cook for another minute.  Add the spinach and cook until heated through, about another 2-3 minutes.  Set aside to cool slightly.

Combine cheese in a medium bowl.  Set aside.

Coat a 2 1/2 quart casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray.  Place 1/3 of the bread cubes in the bottom of the dish.  Top bread cubes with 1/3 of the spinach mixture.  Top spinach mixture with 1/3 of the cheese mixture.  Repeat the layering 2 more times, finishing with a layer of cheese on top.

In a medium bowl place eggs, milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper.  Whisk to combine.  Pour egg/milk mixture evenly over top of entire casserole.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 350° F.  While the oven is pre-heating, allow the strata to sit at room temperature.  Bake uncovered for 60-75 minutes or until strata is no longer runny in the middle.
Adapted from The Curvy Carrot, via Annie's Eats, as seen on Smitten Kitchen, originally from Gourmet, February 2003.

We are continuing today with the Irish-food theme.  Again, this is another recipe that is too good to wait a whole year to make again!  Are you intimidated by making bread?  If you are, this is the perfect recipe for you!  Are you always looking for something warm and hearty to dip into your winter (spring) soups and stews?  If so, this is the perfect recipe for you!  Are you looking for something to whip up last minute while the kids are doing homework and you are tight on time?  Again, I have the perfect recipe for you!!

I saw many recipes last year for Irish soda bread and had wanted to try one but just never got around to it.  This year, as expected, all sorts of Irish soda bread recipes started popping up all over the place.  This one, in particular, grabbed my attention because 1) it needed only 4 ingredients and 2) it takes about a half-hour from start to finish.  These are ingredients that I usually have on hand too, so it earned some bonus points there too!

The bread itself is quite dense and doesn't rise much.  It's perfect warm from the oven or at room temperature too.  Just slather some butter on it and enjoy with a nice stew or even some chili.  If you plan to eat the bread warm, pretty much straight out of the oven, bake it on the longer side (30-ish minutes).  If you plan to let it cool completely and eat it an hour or two later, you should be fine with the shorter time (25-ish minutes) since the bread continues baking a bit while it cools.
Irish Soda Bread
3 2/3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups buttermilk **

**If you don't have buttermilk on hand you can make your own, easy substitute.  Simply add 1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice to a 2-cup liquid measuring cup.  Add milk to the measuring cup, filling to the 1 1/2 cup mark.  Let sit 5 minutes.  After 5 minutes, stir and use in your recipe.

Preheat oven to 425° F.  Line a baking sheet with a silicon baking mat or parchment paper.  Set aside.

Add flour, salt and baking soda to a large mixing bowl.  Whisk to combine.  Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and slowing add the buttermilk.  Stir with a fork to combine.  The dough will be very sticky.  If needed, add as much as 1/4 cup extra buttermilk.

Knead the dough lightly with your hands while it is still in the bowl to help it come together.  Dump the dough onto the prepared baking sheet and form it into an 8-inch circle.  Use a sharp knife to cut a cross in the top of the dough.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly before serving.
Adapted from Bake at 350, originally from The Complete Irish Pub Cookbook
How was your St. Patty’s Day?  Did you celebrate with green beer?  Or Irish food?  Or a local parade?  How about all three??  I didn’t indulge in any green beer this year and (sadly) didn’t make it to Pittsburgh’s awesome St. Patty’s Day parade.  I DID, however, attend a fun St. Patty’s Day party and enjoyed some good Irish food!  My contribution to the party was this Guinness and Cheddar Dip.  Come to think of it, I may have brought this exact same dip to last year’s party….hmmm…no one seemed to mind!  I’ve actually made this dip several times over the past year and it’s always quite popular!  I’ve tweaked the original recipe a little so that the Guinness flavor really stands out.  I like to serve it with hearty crackers or some veggies.  So, even though the celebrations are over for this year, please don’t wait until 2014 to give this recipe a try!!
Guinness and Cheddar Dip

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons half-and-half
1/4 cup Guinness
1 scallion, greens and whites, chopped
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

In the bowl of a food processor, combine cream cheese, cheddar cheese, mustard and half-and-half.  Blend until smooth.  With the food processor running, slowly pour the Guinness through the pour spout and blend until combined.  Add the scallions and parsley and pulse a few more times to combine.  Adjust flavor by adding salt and pepper to taste.

Transfer to a bowl and cover.  Chill at least one hour before serving.  Serve with crackers, pretzels or veggies.
Adapted from The Curvy Carrot.  Originally seen on Wisconsin Cheese Talk via The Parsley Thief
I know, I know.  Crazy long title for a little cookie.  But I didn't want to leave any one, delicious ingredient out of the name.  Brown butter - just like regular butter, but toasty and nutty and filled with awesomeness.  Dark chocolate chips - just like regular chocolate chips, but richer and a little bitter and a little better for you, too.  Sea salt - my second kitchen love (after butter, of course) that comes in so many unique varieties.  They are all important players in the game.  What you end up with here is a basic Nestle Toll House cookie that's been dressed up all fancy and treated with extra love.  Yeah, that's exactly what you have here. 

I've been trying to think of ways to take something simple and well-known and really amp it up and make it mine.  I had been thinking about fancifying the basic chocolate chip cookie for a while now since seeing all of those brown butter, Nutella-stuffed, sea salt cookies all over Pinterest.  I finally had a chance to give this idea a try since we hosted out of town guests this past weekend.  The cookies were made Friday night with the intention of taking pictures Saturday afternoon when we had a rare sun-filled PA day.  Let me tell you, by Saturday afternoon they were almost gone!  Can you say "Success"?  I couldn't stop eating them on Saturday - so much for cutting back on sugar.  I ran 7-miles on Saturday morning so I sort of gave myself a free pass!  Ha!

Browning butter is a relatively easy thing to do.  You just heat the butter over medium-low heat until it starts to turn brown and smell nutty.  Watch it very carefully because no one wants cookies made with burnt butter!  Check out this tutorial here.

You can use any sea salt you have or kosher salt, but I used this fancy Maldon Sea Salt I bought a while ago.  It's so neat looking - almost looks like little pyramids - so cool!  I think it really imparts a nice, balance salt flavor to these salty-sweet dishes that are so popular now.
Brown Butter Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies with Sea Salt
Makes about 30 cookies

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon flaky sea salt, I used Maldon
2 sticks of unsalted butter, browned (see this link) and slightly cooled
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
12 ounces dark chocolate chips
Additional sea salt, for topping

Preheat oven to 375° F.  Line two baking sheets with silicon baking mats.  Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt.  Whisk to blend.  Set aside.

In a large bowl combine brown butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract.  Mix until well-combined.  Add in the eggs and mix until blended.  In two or three batches, add in the flour mixture and stir until just combined.  Fold the chocolate chips into the batter.

Drop by heaping tablespoons onto the prepared cookie sheets.  Bake for 9-11 minutes or until golden brown.

Sprinkle hot cookies with additional sea salt.  Allow to cool on the cookie sheets for about 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
Adapted from Nestle Toll House
My current food focus these days is healthy, easy and tasty.  Portability never hurt, either.  I'm also trying to cut back on my consumption of meat, sugar and dairy.  I will NEVER cut these things out of my life entirely - I simply love food too much - but I'm doing my best to pick mostly whole foods for most meals and snacks.  Last summer I came across these Energy Bites on Pinterest and they were a huge hit!  However, they contain chocolate chips and sweetened coconut, which are fine, but in trying to limit my sugar I decided to avoid making them for a little while.  So I kept searching.  Thank you to all of you bloggers out there who do "Best of" posts at the end of each year!  Thanks to Anne at fannetastic food I found these tasty little morsels as well as inspiration for lots more healthy meals in the  months to come!

This particular recipe is as easy as they get.  You will need a food processor to get the best results.  You simply combine almonds and raisins together in the food processor to form a paste, then flavor the paste and form into balls or bars.  That's it!  Anne's original recipe flavored the balls with ground cinnamon but I used a little imitation rum extract for the rum raisin flavor I was looking for.  Anne's recipe is gluten-free and vegan.  To the best of my knowledge I believe the addition of the imitation rum extract does not change this fact.  If anyone out there knows otherwise, I would love some education on the matter!

As you can imagine, these are highly customizable.  You could use vanilla extract in place of the rum extract or you could swap out the nut/fruit combo.  I plan to try an cashew/date version soon to simulate my favorite LARABAR!
Rum Raisin Balls
Makes 12 balls or 6 bars

1 cup slivered almonds
1 cup raisins
1/2 teaspoon rum extract
Put almonds and raisins in a colander and rinse with water.  Drain.  Place wet almonds and raisins in the bowl of a food processor.  Blend until a thick paste has formed, about 30 seconds.
Form into 12 balls or 6 bars.  Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Adapted from fannetastic food
This past weekend I celebrated my 39th birthday.  39....a number that doesn't scare me or depress me, but rather baffles me.  How?  When?  Wasn't I just 26 yesterday?  I wonder where all the years have gone and think back to when my parents were 39 - I remember that time vividly.  Am I really as grown-up now as they were then?  Wow...I guess so?  I have a home, a family and responsibilities so I guess that means I've been a grown-up for some time now.  But...39?  I guess the best part about turning 39 is not feeling 39!  I feel happier and healthier than I ever have in my life before!  Part of that is due to me trying to find inner peace and life and in parenting (that's a biggie).  I attribute the other part to my dedication to fitness and exercise.  I've always enjoyed exercising, but in my younger days I felt like it was a chore...something to check off of my To Do list.  The last few years I've embraced exercise (especially running) as a way to have some time to myself or time with friends.  A time to really push my body to its limits and a little bit farther.  A time to work on achieving goals I could only dream about a decade ago.  With all that being said, I'm working on a Birthday Resolution of sorts - I'm trying to stop worrying about the number on my scale and start paying attention to how good and strong my body feels when I treat it right!  I plan to hit 40 happier and healthier than I hit 39!!

BUT, before we do all that....LET'S EAT SOME CUPCAKES!!  I, unapologetically, decided to bake myself cupcakes for my birthday again this year since I enjoyed last year's cupcakes so much.  I had no plans on a party or a small gathering, I just wanted to enjoy baking my own birthday (cup)cake and eating more cupcakes than I want or need.  I looked through lots of blogs and cookbooks trying to find this year's perfect cupcake.  I ended up settling on this Almond Cloud Cupcake I had at a cooking class I took many years ago at Crate Cooking School.  This was the perfect choice because it is a rather simple recipe - ie, I had most of the ingredients on hand and would be enjoying cupcake satisfaction in a very short amount of time.  The cake itself is light and airy with a hint of almond flavor - the almond flavor really comes through in the icing.  I decided to top it off with some toasted, slivered almonds which gives the perfect amount of crunch. 
Almond Cloud Cupcakes
Makes about 24 cupcakes

For the cupcakes
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups 2% milk
2/3 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon almond extract
5 egg whites

Preheat the oven to 350° F.  Line 2 standard cupcake pans with liners.  Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment add flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, milk, butter and almond extract.  Beat on low sped for about 30 seconds to combine.  Adjust the speed to medium-high and beat another 2 minutes, scraping the bowl as necessary.  Add egg whites and beat on medium-high for another 2 minutes. 

Scoop the batter into the prepared liners, filling about 2/3 full.  Bake for 18-22 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Allow cupcakes to cool in pans for about 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

For the Almond Buttercream
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature (I prefer Plugra, European butter)
4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 1/2 tablespoons cold water

Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.  Cream the butter for 1-2 minutes.  Add 2 cups of confectioner's sugar and mix on low until well combined.  Add almond extract and water, mixing for about 30 seconds.  Add the remaining 2 cups of confectioner's sugar and mix until just incorporated.  Increase mixer speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 5-7 minutes.

Transfer buttercream to a pastry bag fitted with a wide tip and frost cupcakes.  Top with toasted, slivered almonds, if desired.
Barely adapted from Crate Cooking School