Sunday, May 17, 2009

Environmental Science Thesis Cake

My friend Michelle just graduated with a Masters in Environmental Science. For her thesis project she studied the mosquito-spreading virus Chikungunya. I went to see a presentation of her work and on the title slide of her presentation she had an image of the earth with a giant mosquito sitting atop it. The mosquito was piercing the world with it's stinger and a little trickle of blood was oozing out. She really knows how to get your attention.

When I heard that her boyfriend was throwing her a surprise graduation party, I offered to make the cake. As I was sketching out ideas, I kept thinking of this mosquito sitting on and piercing the earth. So, I decided to make it the centerpiece of the cake and make the rest of the cake look very nature oriented with some grass and "twigs."

The "world" was made buy pouring cake batter into a glass bowl and covering with fondant. I began to cut out continents, but one look at it and Jon's expression said it all. I am not an artist. I can craft, I can sculpt, but I can't draw. That's his department. So, when he asked if I wanted him to do it...I said yes faster than you can say Antartica. He did an amazing job and it definitely made my world look realistic.

I sculpted the mosquito out of gumpaste and used wire for the legs and stinger. I made wings, but they were too heavy for the body and I ended up leaving them off completely. Who cares if my mosquito is anatomically correct? If people know what it is...then it's a success in my mind.

I had two tiers to the cake. Using 2 different piping tips, I created "grass" coming up the sides of the cake. I added a few flowers to make the lower parts of the cake a bit more pleasing to look at.

I wanted some wood to balance the grass (green, brown, and blue are the colors of the earth in my mind). I created "twigs" out of gumpaste and put them sticking out of the bottom tier of the cake.

Finished off the cake with the virus that Michelle was studying and VOILA! - my first disease oriented cake! (Given my probably won't be the last).

Non-traditional Easter Eggs

I love Easter. It's the beginning of spring, easter egg hunts, candy, and always means a new pair of pajamas for the warmer months (not sure how that tradition started in my family). However, the one tradition that I never understood was dying easter eggs. Open a box, put vitamin-C looking tablets into vinegar and dunk in a hard boiled egg. No matter how creative I tried to get with the stickers and the wax crayons, the eggs always turned out looking like a kindergarten art project gone wrong.

This year I happened to stumble upon someone's blog about chinese tea eggs and I was intrigued. So, then I started digging and read up on chinese tea eggs. In my search I also discovered "tie" dying eggs...literally, dying eggs using silk ties (or any silk fabric). So, come Easter Sunday, I saw the big pot of hard boiled eggs, the good old dye pellets soaking in cups of vinegar and knew that I wanted to dye eggs my way. I "stole" a few of the hard-boiled eggs and went to work. Here is a look at the two techniques.

Chinese Tea Eggs
Adapted from a culmination of recipes online

2 bags of black tea
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 tbsp cinnamon (cinnamon stick would be better)
2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp nutmeg
1 star anise (recommended, but I didn't use)

Most of the recipes for these eggs used hard-boiled eggs. However, for reasons that I will describe later, I would suggest taking out the eggs slightly before they are hard boiled. One recipe suggests bringing the pot with the eggs to a boil, let cook for 3 minutes and then stop. I would follow that plan if I were to do this again. Cool eggs until able to handle. Using a spoon or knive, tap the shell of the eggs until it pretty much looks like a shattered piece of glass all around.

On the stove, put all the above ingredients in a pot with enough water to just cover the eggs. Simmer uncovered for 2-3 hours. The longer the better. If the water gets too low, just add a little bit more in.

When you really can't stand waiting around anymore, take the eggs out of the pot and let cool until you can handle them. Gently peel off the shells and cross your fingers that the pattern transferred to the egg. As you can see, my eggs had a beautiful pattern on the shell, but it didn't transfer to the egg. I think not completely hard-boiling the eggs before steeping would help solve this. I've heard it also suggested that you could tap the eggs harder to break the membrane, but if you did that then I think you would get blobs of the stain and not the fine, intricate design that I've seen.

Supposedly, the eggs were to have a nice cinnamony tea flavor. But to be honest. It just tasted like an egg. Perhaps I needed to steep it longer. I only steeped for 2 1/2 hours.

Silk "Tie"-dyed Eggs

hard-boiled eggs
any material made of silk
plain white cotton (pillowcase, sheet, old shirt, etc)
rubber bands or strings for tying
water for boiling

I was fascinated by this next trick. I wasn't sure if it was going to work, but it worked like a charm!

Cut up enough of the silk material so that it will wrap around the hard-boiled egg. Same with the cotton sheet. Place the cotton cutout on the counter. Put the silk material on top. Place the egg on top of both of them. Wrap the materials up the egg and cinch at the top with a rubber band. Bring a pot of water to a boil and place a couple teaspoons of vinegar into the bot. Place the "egg packages" into a pot and boil for 20 minutes. Take out and cool. Unwrap the eggs and VOILA! The design on the silk transfers to the eggs. Beautiful. I'm all ready keeping our eye out for interesting silks for next year.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Liz's Birthday Cake

One of my best friends celebrated her 30th birthday this last Saturday, Valentines Day. Yup, she was born on Valentines day and her favorite color is pink (not sure if the two are connected). This was the perfect opportunity to test my cake decorating skills. So, I told her that if she was having a party I would make her the most fabulous birthday cake ever. (Talk about setting yourself up for potential disaster).

To design the cake, I thought of all the things that made Liz...well Liz. This wasn't hard: shoes, cosmos, and bubble baths.

Liz has more shoes than I have clothes. And these are not your Payless/Target shoes, but Jimmy Choo, Burberry, and Kate Spade. While I don't think I'll ever be able to lay the money down for these type of shoes, they do look phenomenal on Liz.
Most of the fond memories between Liz and I involve alcohol. Yup, we drink to celebrate, we drink to ease a broken heart, and we even drink when I come over to her place to do laundry. Now, before you think we're just a pair of drunkies, you need to realize that we
rarely drink enough to get tipsy and we are not having the drinkers drink of scotch on the rocks. Our favorites are the girly, cosmo-esque, yummy, tasty drinks that have so many calories in them it replaces the need to eat a gallon of ice cream.
Bubble baths:
Liz is one of the few people I know that still takes bubble baths and goes all out when she does...candles, music, etc. This had to be
a necessary component of the cake. Oh...and pink, the cake had to be pink. So with this in mind, I came up with the following:

Liz taking a bath in a cosmo glass and dangling her Jimmy Choo's over the edge.

(Click on image to enlarge)

There were small changes and developments, but overall the centerpiece on top was exactly as I had planned. For the rest of this post, I'll describe the different components of the cake.

The Cake

Since I was going to be spending a lot of time decorating this puppy, I opted to not make the cake from scratch. I took a basic french vanilla box cake mix and added buttermilk and eggs to give it a little oomph. The recipe is courtesy of In the Wabe, an american food blogger living in Italy (how awesome would that be??).

1 box cake mix (any flavor, chocolate, vanilla, etc.)
1 cup buttermilk
amount of vegetable oil as listed on box
4 eggs

Put the cake mix into a bowl. Break up any large lumps with a fork. In a separate bowl beat together the eggs, buttermilk and vegetable oil. Make a well in the dry cake mix and pour in half of the liquid ingredients. Mix well, pour in the other half. This method will ensure the least lumps. But if you don't care then you can just toss everything into the bowl and mix. I've done this before and it turns out just fine. Bake following the instructions on the box.

For Liz's cake I filled 2 10" pans and 2 6" pans and had to triple the recipe. I also had to cook mine for much longer because I had all the pans in the oven at once. Probably better to just put 2 in at a time.

The Fondant

Wow, fondant is a bitch. Sorry for my language, but I have the bruises on my forearms from rolling this out about 6 times. During my cake class in December, I got a recipe for rolled buttercream, which is similar to a fondant and it tastes much better than any other fondant that I've made or bought. Unfortunately, every time I placed the rolled buttercream on my cake, the weight of the overhanging edges would just tear it apart. Because I'm still a newbie I have no idea whether this is because it needed more sugar or more shortening or more water. I have no idea and if anyone has any insight I'd love to hear it because this recipe is too good to give up on. I know it's just something about the proportions that is off.

So, after wrangling with the rolled buttercream for hours, I ended up running to the store at about 10pm on a Friday night and bought the ingredients for a marshmallow fondant. Marshmallow fondant definitely tastes better than store-bought fondant, but it's not quite as good as the rolled buttercream. I knew that it would be tougher and would at least look good. I'll give you both recipes below and let you decide which to use...taste vs. asthetics. :) And if I ever figure out how to improve the rolled fondant recipe I'll update this post.

Rolled Buttercream
courtesy of Marian, my 80-year old cake instructor

1/3 cup crisco
1/3 cup white corn syrup (i.e. Karo)
1 tsp powdered vanilla (you can subsitute 1/2 tsp of liquid vanilla)
1 lb powdered sugar
dash salt (optional)

Mix all ingredients but the powdered sugar. Add 1/2 the sugar and mix till thoroughly. Continue to add the sugar until you form a dough. When you pull on the dough, it should break cleanly. If it stretches and is stringy, add more sugar. Depending on your humidity, you may need to add more sugar than specified. Also, there will likely come a point where the mixer just won't cut it and you have to knead with your hands.

Marshmallow Fondant
courtesy of Peggy @ What's Cooking America

1 package of mini-marshmallows
3 Tbs water
1 cup crisco
2 lbs powdered sugar

Put marshmallows in a bowl. Add 3 Tbs water and microwave for 30 seconds. Take out and stir. Put back in microwave for 30 seconds. Take out and stir. Continue this process until the marshmallows are completely melted. May take about 2 1/2 minutes. Add 1/4 of the sugar and stir it in. Now, take a gob of the crisco and rub it all over your hands. Yes, you heard me. Every, nook and crany of your fingers. Pour in another 1/4 of the sugar and begin kneading with your hands. When the goo sticks to your fingers, add more crisco to your hands. Continue adding in the sugar and kneading until you get a firm, but still malleable ball. It should be able to stretch without tearing and it should no longer stick to your hands. If it tears add a little bit of water and work it in. Once finished, coat the outside of the fondant with crisco, wrap in saran wrap, and then put it in a ziploc bag. Let it sit overnight before using. Fondant can be stored in the fridge for several weeks. So, feel free to make large batches at a time and store.

If you want to color your fondant, do not use liquid food coloring from the grocery store! Go to your local craft store and buy special food gel colors. These are a lot more concentrated and a little goes a long way.

Fondant covered cake.

Fondant covered cake with fondant cutouts and piped writing.

I found a shoe cookie cutter for the shoe cutouts, but had to free hand the martini glasses. I think there are ways to make/design your own cookie cutter. In retrospect, I would do this instead. Anything to save time.

The Centerpiece

The glass is just a basic martini glass bought at the store. I tried to find the shortest one I could, but it was still tall. I used a glass paint marker to paint the inside of the glass pink. This would help me hide what was going on inside. For the Liz figurine, I used gumpaste. While edible, I doubt anyone will ever eat the figurine (except the dog...which you can read about below). So, it doesn't really matter what it tastes like. You can buy a dry gumpaste mix from any craft store. Just add water and sculpt away. Unlike fondant, when gumpaste dries it becomes very hard. (The flowers used to decorate my Chocolate Bourbon Cake were also made of gumpaste). Since, my figurine was going to be in a "bath", I decided to make it into three parts: the head, the torso with arms, and the legs. The head was fairly straight forward. Roll a ball. Add a nose, eyes, and mouth, and voila! The hair was a bit of a challenge, but it all came together in the end. The torso was also pretty straight forward. I originally made a rectangle of gumpaste, cut slits on both sides to form the arms. Unfortunately, the arms wrinkled quite a bit when they dried (not sure why this is), so I ended up cutting them off and attaching a new set of arms using toothpicks and sugar glue. I also gave Liz some cleavage and was going to make sure it was mostly covered in the glass. But then, I knew that someone would "peak" to see what was there and decided I'd better give her a little bikini top.

The head was so heavy that it wanted to hang off the edge of the glass. I used a small piece of cardboard to keep it propped up. If I was a bit more professional, I would have designed an inflatable pink back rest that Liz uses in her baths. I also thought about painting the fingernails red, but I was getting tired by this point. The legs were also pretty easy. I formed them around the glass then gently took them off and let them dry in that shape. Each leg had cute little black strap shoes on the feet.

Once dry, I put it all together. I originally had Liz swimming in a bunch of pink and red M&Ms, but I found these darling flower petals at the craft store and thought they were perfect for hiding "the body" of the figurine.

Probably the worst part was transporting the super-heavy cake. I made it all the way to Liz's apartment and got about 2 feet in the door when, I swear, the figurine jumped out of the glass and crashed to its demise on the floor. Benson, a liitle pup visiting for Liz's b-day, came running over and would have eaten Liz up had it not been for some quick maneuvering to hold the dog off with my feet (I was still carrying the cake) while someone scooped up the pieces. I put her back together and the show went on!

Liz posing with her cake. I found these super tall candles to go with it.

All in all, everyone loved it. No one wanted to cut into it, so I got the biggest knife I could and....

Happy 30th B-day Liz!!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Chocolate Chocolate Bourbon Cake... with Chocolate

A friend of mine convinced me to sign up for a cake decorating class with her. There were only going to be 4 classes, the cost was minimal and since I'm self-taught, I thought a little formal training would be good for me. Unfortunately, the last class was the Tuesday just before Christmas and I would have to miss it because I was going to be in Utah visiting my family. To make up for it, I decided to test my new skills and create a wonderful cake for our Christmas Eve party. The question was...what would I make?

A couple weeks before Christmas, the New York Times published a recipe for a Chocolate Bourbon bundt cake. One of my favorite food blogs Simply Recipes tested it out for me with rave reviews. Being that my mom is from Switzerland, she is an avid chocolate lover and we grew up with it all around. Now that we are all adults, throw a little bourbon into the mix and it's a sure winner. To incorporate my new cake decorating skills, I changed it from a bundt cake to a layered cake and decided on a chocolate ganache covering.

Chocolate Bourbon Cake

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups all-purpose flour

5 oz bittersweet dark chocolate
1/4 cup instant (or liquid) espresso, or instant coffee
2 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup bourbon whiskey
1/2 tsp kosher salt

2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 Tbs vanilla extract
1 tsp baking soda
1 tub of store-bought dark chocolate frosting (or about 2 cups homemade)

Chocolate Ganache

9 oz bittersweet dark chocolate
1 cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 325° and grease/flour two 8 or 9-inch round cake pans. Put the chocolate in a bowl and microwave until about halfway melted (about 2 minutes). Swirl the bowl until the chocolate is completely melted. (In one of my preliminary trials, I found that the chocolate burned on the bottom if I tried to melt the chocolate completely in the microwave. This method works a lot better). Set the bowl aside to let it cool.

Put instant espresso and cocoa powder in a 2 cup measuring cup. Add boiling water up to the 1 cup line and stir until all the powders are completely dissolved. Add the whiskey and the kosher salt and set aside to let it cool.

In your mixing bowl, beat the butter until fluffy. Add sugar and beat until well combined. Add eggs one at a time and beat between each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract and baking soda. By this time, the chocolate should be fairly cooled, add it to the mix and make sure to get the majority of the chocolate into your mixing bowl by using a spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl. Add 1/3 of the coffee/whiskey mixture and mix thoroughly into your cake batter. Now add 1 cup of the flour and mix thoroughly. Add the next 1/3 of coffee/whiskey mixture and mix. Follow with another cup of flour and mix. And finally add the remaining coffee/whiskey mixture and mix.

Pour batter into your cake pans and put in the oven for about 45-55 minutes. I made this cake in both Philadelphia (humid climate, elevation 39 ft) and in Utah (dry climate, elevation 5100 ft) and the baking time was shorter in Utah (as might be expected). So, check your cake around 40 minutes for a Utah-like climate and more around 50 minutes for a Philly climate. The easiest way to check if a cake is done is to put a toothpick in the center. If it comes out clean (no batter-like residue), then it's done. Let your cake pans cool for 15 minutes, then invert the cake pans onto wire racks and carefully remove the cake from the pans.

When the cakes have cooled completely, assemble your cake onto your decorating surface (I just used a flipped over 10" cake pan). If you have a lot of doming on your cakes, you may want to trim the domed part off. My cakes didn't dome that much, so I used a clean dish towel to gently compress the top of the cake immediately after I took it out of the oven. Place one cake layer on your surface with the domed side up. Add about a 1/4" thick layer of frosting to the top of the cake
and then gently place the second layer on the cake with the domed side down. Use the rest of your frosting to add a crumb coat to the cake. A crumb coat is a THIN coat of frosting that just adheres all the crumbs to the cake. It helps achieve a smoothed look when you add the ganache. This layer of frosting should be thin enough that you can actually see the cake through the layer. The only place where you may want to add more than just a thin amount is at the frosted middle layer between the two cakes. You want to fill (spackle if you will) all the holes in the middle region so in the end you have a flat surface for the entire height of your cake. Place cake in fridge for 30 minutes until the crumbcoat hardens. You can leave it in the fridge overnight if you'd prefer.

When the crumbcoat is hardened, start on your ganache. Place the chocolate into a bowl. In a sauce pan bring the 1 cup of heavy cream to just below a boil. You need to stir
constantly to prevent the cream from sticking (and burning) to the bottom of the pan. The goal here is to get the cream extremely hot so that it melts the chocolate. When the cream is just about to start boiling, take it off the heat and pour it directly into the bowl of chocolate. Using a spatula, stir and fold the cream into the chocolate until you have a nice, smooth thick chocolate syrup. In the end, if you have small bits of unmelted chocolate, just pop the bowl into the microwave for about 30 seconds and stir again. Let the ganache cool before applying to the cake.

Place a wire rack onto a baking sheet. Take your cake out of the fridge and place on the wire rack. Pour the ganache onto the top of the cake and allow it to drizzle down the sides. W
hen I've used about 1/2 of my ganache, I get a spatula and start working on the sides of the cake first. You want a nice even coat of ganache on the side. There is likely an excess of chocolate on the top of the cake, so if I need more chocolate on one side of the cake I use my spatula to push the chocolate off the top and onto the side I'm working on. I continue to take chocolate from the bowl and the top of the cake until the sides are nice and flat and smooth. Don't worry about the very bottom of the cake where the chocolate is dripping off onto the baking sheet. We can fix that later. Once you are happy with the sides, clean up the top of the cake to your liking. Place in the fridge until you are ready to decorate.

To decorate the cake, move your cake to it's final resting place. For me that was a glass cake pedestal. To transfer the cake I use two wide metal spatulas. The cake will be very heavy, so you need to support it underneath as you transfer it. Once placed on the cake pedestal/plate, use a s
harp flat edge knife to trim the bottom of the excess chocolate from the bottom of the cake. For my decorations, I made 3 gumpaste carnations and dipped them in an edible gold pearl dust. I learned how to make these flowers in my cake decorating class and perhaps that's a post for another time. In fact, that's the only part of my class that I'm using for this cake. Initially, I wanted to add a satin ribbon to the bottom, but was convinced that an all edible cake was better. So, I created a pink fondant ribbon for the bottom that I shimmered with the gold pearl dust.

All in all this cake tasted and looked just like I wanted it to. It was very rich and chocolatey, but the addition of the bourbon and the espresso added a hint of uniqueness to the cake. Don't hesitate about the amount of bourbon used, it's perfect and
melds nicely into the cake. I think this cake is a great crowd pleaser for parties. Because of it's richness, partygoers will likely only have one slice, but that's perfect when there is a lot of people.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Home-made Mac n' Cheese

Anyone ever hear the Bare Naked Ladies song "If I Had a Million Dollars?" There is a line in that song that reads "If I had a million dollars we wouldn't have to eat Kraft dinner... but we would." I always loved that line because if I was ever a millionaire I know that I would still have the occasional bowl of cereal or Kraft box mac n' cheese for dinner. I've never tried to make my own mac n' cheese, so when I saw a recipe on the Dishing up Delights food blog I had to give it a go.

Now, this posed a little bit of a problem because when I don't feel like cooking (which is usually about once a week), I tell Jon to throw on some mac n' cheese. So, if I'm planning mac n' cheese for one of my meals, what in the world do we make on the night I don't feel like cooking?

Despite this small dilemma, I still forged ahead. I was not sorry. This was very, very good. It has a bechamel base which gives it a creamy consistency. (I didn't even know what bechamel was or how to pronounce it until 2 days ago). As a first time effort, my bechamel wasn't bad, but it wasn't perfectly smooth and creamy. I know there are some bechamel experts out there, so if you have any insight into perfecting the consistency please put it in the comments section. Even with this small imperfection, the recipe still tasted fabulous.

Home-made Mac n' Cheese

(modified from Dishing up Delights)

6-8 slices canadian bacon (cubed)
1 shallot, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 lb elbow macaroni
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup Fontina ch
eese, shredded
1 1/2 cups extra-sharp chedder cheese, shredded
Cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper to taste

Get the elbow macaroni started in some salted water. While the macaroni are boiling, saute the cubed canadian bacon in a pan. I didn't use any oil and just cooked the bacon until it started to brown a little. The original recipe used regular bacon, but I wanted something a little lighter to go with the cheesiness of this dish. Once cooked, remove the canadian bacon to a bowl and reserve for later. Add a little oil to the pan and saute the shallot. (Shallots and scallions are my favorite onions. They each have such a unique flavor that really add another level to a dish). After about 3 minutes add the garlic and continue to saute until onions are translucent. Add the canadian bacon back into the pan and mix thoroughly. Turn off the heat and set aside.

By this time your pasta should be cooked. Drain in a colander and set aside. Add the butter to the pot and set on medium-high heat. When half-way melted add the flour and stir until mixed. When the butter has completely melted add the milk. Continue to stir and cook on medium high heat until your "bechamel" has reached it's desired thickness. Add all of the Fontina cheese and about 1/2 cup of the chedder to your bechamel. Stir until completely melted. Add about 1 tsp cayenne and some salt and pepper. The original recipe didn't have amounts for the cheeses or the cayenne, so I did everything to taste. If sauce has no real flavor add some more chedder. If it needs a little kick, add some salt, pepper, or cayenne. I just kept adding chedder until I was satisfied. The fontina is a creamier cheese, but it has a very mild flavor. Add the fontina for texture, but the chedder for taste.

Once your satisfied with the taste, stir in the onion, garlic, and canadian bacon mixture. Once mixed, add the pasta and mix. Voila! It's yummy home-made mac n' cheese. I had leftovers the next day for lunch and it was great. Jon told me how his mom bakes homemade mac n' cheese and I can definitely see how having a crunchy top would be yummy. In fact, baking it in an oven reminds me a lot of my mom's macaroni casserole, which will have to be a post for another day.

What I would change about this recipe:
Nothing. I loved it. I just need to work on the texture of my bechamel sauce, but the flavor was great. I really liked the canadian bacon touch. Homemade mac n'cheese also makes you feel a little healthier than eating the box mac n' cheese, but I'll still always have a couple boxes on hand.