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!!