Saturday, November 10, 2007

Cake and cookies: always a winning combination

What have I gotten myself into? I think that I've inadvertently set the expectation that when there's a birthday at work, there will be cake. That's all fine and dandy until I stopped to think about how many people actually work at the company... and it's far too many to be baking something for all the birthdays. Hey, if I was rich I wouldn't mind paying for it all. Oh wait... I'm not. I think I'll cap it at one per month. "Happy November birthdays, everyone!" This one was for another co-worker celebrating another milestone birthday: the dreaded 40th. Sure, it's nearly black with all those crushed cookies on the side. But at least there aren't tombstones and such on it. Or a hill. A hill would've been tacky.

I think I might start bringing a camera along to take action shots and to give you a peek at what my cakes look like inside. This one was deceiving, because you'd think it was a chocolate cake like the other cookies 'n' creme cakes you see at the store, but I'm always one for fun surprises. White cake with Oreo chunks swimming around, all surrounded by a white chocolate pudding icing. Doesn't get any better than that!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Just in time for Halloween

"Holy hand cramps, Batman!"

With Halloween just a few days away, I decided to make some cookies to bring to work. I swear these guys are already spoiled from me bringing them so many goodies lately. Here is an example of how my day goes at work:

"Bring us some biscuits again, Dorothy. I didn't get one last time because T. ate three."

"When are you bringing something again? Cause my birthday is next month, you know."

"Next time bring a red velvet cake. With cream cheese frosting. And a casserole. A casserole would be nice."

It's a good thing I have nothing else better to do with my time and that I really enjoy baking for them. I'm still working out some kinks in the whole cookie making and decorating process, so I promise next time they will be much prettier. Outline first, then flood with icing is definitely the way to go. Because that's not the way I did it, and it shows! We'll see if the cookies are a success on Monday. I used the popular "No Fail Sugar Cookie" recipe found on numerous websites even though I'm always skeptical when a recipe claims to be "no fail" or "best ever." Maybe it's just my oven or whatever, but next time I either need to use different cookie sheets or jack up the oven temperature because my cookies took longer than the 8-10 minutes specified in the recipe. It was more like 12-14 minutes. Oh well, it's all a learning experience for me.

I think I did pretty well for my first attempt, if I say so myself :) And yeah, my ghosts and bats all have the Crazy Eye. On purpose.

Check out this guy:
His leg broke off so I reattached it with some royal icing and put a cast on him. How could you want to eat him now?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Knuckle-deep in chocolate

It's the big 3-0 for my co-worker G. Naturally, this is a cake makin' occasion and I eagerly volunteered to make one of the cakes for his big day. Yes, I said "one of the cakes." He very cleverly got another lady at work to bring a cake as well. She is known and loved by all as the company's cake lady, so it looks like I've got some competition. Hers will be a carrot cake, so as to not steal my thunder. You're darned right you're not bringing another chocolate cake.

Measuring in at 9"x13"x4", this isn't a cake for the weak of heart. It's a diet-busting, tooth-aching, died-and-gone-to-Heaven, where's-my-glass-of-milk? kind of cake. This is the kind of cake that inspires marriage proposals. Initially it was going to be a small round cake, maybe 9" or so, filled with creamy Twinkie-like filling and covered in chocolate ganache. After seeing my fellow lab techs annihilate the batch of biscuits I brought in earlier this week I decided to super-size the cake. How sad would it be if someone couldn't get a piece of birthday cake? (think "Office Space") Go big or go home, right?

I thought it would be kinda cool to Photoshop my pictures to eliminate the clutter I have going on around whatever it is I am snapping a picture of. Well, that only took forever. And it doesn't even look all that great, so don't expect to see more Photoshopped pics. It's at times like these that I remind myself that I need to invest in a good backdrop for my photos. One of those science fair tri-fold boards draped with a contrasting fabric (black or white) is all I need. That might be a good project for this weekend. It'd be a cheap way to really add some professionalism to my photos. You know, for my portfolio.

Tonight's also the first night I realized that I am in a chocolate rut. Why, oh why does everyone insist on requesting a chocolate cake? Someone save me from the monotony!!! Me? I'm a yellow cake/chocolate frosting or a carrot cake kind of gal. Funfetti is good too, if you're in the mood for something festive. If you read my last post you probably saw that I absolutely love Raisin Creme Pies but made chocolate creme pies instead since very few people I know actually like raisins. After all, I don't bake for myself. I do it for the masses. And alas, the people get what the people want.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Pie lovers unite!

Mmmm.... pie.

So here in the South we use the term "pie" to describe two distinctly different baked entities. Pie can refer to the dessert that normally comes to mind when the term arises, whether it elicits visions of apple, lemon meringue, or banana cream pie. However, I am proud to be a member of the collective of people who think of something very different when pies are mentioned. For me, pie is a delightful concoction that usually consists of a layer of creme sandwiched between two cake-like disks. I say "cake-like disks" because the texture hovers somewhere between the realm of cake and cookie. The Little Debbie company manufactures a couple of varieties, with the most famous being the Oatmeal Creme Pie and the Raisin Creme Pie. Some might argue that although the famous Fudge Rounds made by the same company is not named as such, it stills falls well within the pie category.

After watching one of my co-workers steadily work through his box of Fudge Rounds every day during our morning break, I remembered how much I loved pies. Or more specifically, Raisin Creme Pies. I made a mental note to put them on the next grocery list, and two boxes later I've ventured into my own attempt at pie-making. I should note that I don't even like "regular" pie because I never eat the crust. Give me apple pie filling anyday and I'll be happy.

So there you have it, homemade chocolate creme pies. Using a devil's food cake mix as the base and a ripped-off version of Hostess creme filling, I've made a delightful little batch of pure joy. I think if I started with a dark chocolate fudge mix I'd come closer to approximating the new Oreo Cakesters. Cakesters? Give it up, Nabisco. You know full well that those little suckers are mini-pies. Biting into the soft yet chewy chocolate outside inevitably causes the creme filling to ooze out the sides--just enough for you to lick and keep going. As it should be. And I know what you're thinking, so don't even say it. These ain't no Oreos, baby. They're PIE.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

This koala's goin' to Candyland

So I thought it would be fun to take a little break from baking and try my hand at candy-making. Seems fitting enough, since Halloween is just around the corner. Not that I would give these out to any kids because they'd just be thrown in the trash anyway. What a waste.
Turning once more to, I found a caramel recipe that sounded good and had a pretty respectable 4.5 stars out of 5 rating. I made out my grocery list and headed to Albertson's. Staring at the dairy case, my mind struggled to see the recipe I printed out not 15 minutes earlier. Did it say "heavy whipping cream" or "whipping cream?" I picked up the heavy version, put it in my basket, and proceeded to the next item on my list, only to return to the dairy aisle and grab the regular whipping cream instead. Once home, I discovered that I actually needed the heavy cream. Drat. No biggie, I'll see what happens. It's 8:15 p.m. and I'm not going back out.

The recipe says to "Monitor the hea
t of the mixture with a candy thermometer while stirring. When the thermometer reaches 250 degrees F (120 degrees C) remove the pot from the heat." Okay...does that mean stir the whole time, or can I stir occasionally? Too lazy to stand there stirring the entire hour it took to reach the 250 degree mark, I pulled up a kitchen chair and kept an eye on the boiling pot of candy. The other eye was busy watching the season premiere of "CSI."

Okay, so I'm stirring, and watching the little blue line in my candy thermometer rise up slowly, when I notice something unexpected happening: the butter is separating from the mixture. Could this be the result of using regular and not heavy cream? Have I upset the fat ratio, causing the butter to come out of
emulsion? It's because I didn't stir the whole time, right? I don't know. What I do know is that the 240 degree butter splattering out of your pot hurts. A lot. Proceed with caution, kids. An hour later it finally reached the right temperature, so I poured it into my parchment-lined 11x15-inch pan and left it to cool. It's almost 10 p.m. now, so I was off to bed.

When I got home from work the next day I discovered that the caramel hadn't set up; it was a viscous goo. Tasty goo, but goo nonetheless. Well
... maybe my thermometer is off. Me of all people should know that your instruments should be calibrated before you start working with them. So off it goes into a pot of boiling water to check for accuracy. I don't have a mark for 212 deg.F, but it was almost to 215 deg.F after a few minutes in the boiling water bath, so that wasn't the cause of my problem. Drying off the thermometer, I noticed that the handy dandy chart on the back says that "hard ball" stage is 260 deg.F, not the 250 deg.F specified in the recipe. Determined, I scraped the candy back into the pot and cooked to 260 deg.F, stirring the WHOLE TIME. Surely, it has to turn out this time. I poured the caramel into a smaller 9x13-inch pan and waited.

Great success! T
he next problem to tackle now is wrapping them. Armed with my Cricut (the mascot is a cricket. But it's a cutter. So cri-cut. Cricut! Get it? Haha, I am so easily amused!) paper trimmer and a roll of waxed paper, I cut 120 3x3" squares. In total, I cut 165 squares (about 2 cm big), but my sister took some to work and the rest were tasty "casualties." Wrapping them was going to be a tedious task, but oddly enough I like doing tedious things once I get into a rhythm. Popped in a good CD and sat down at my computer desk to wrap candy while chatting with friends online. And I always say I can't do two things at once. ;)

Pretty as a picture

While cleaning out a junk-filled room in our house, my mom and I found a Bundt pan set that came with its own plastic carrier for toting your goods around town. She purchased this last year to give to me as a Christmas gift, but forgot about it and it got lost amidst the clutter. I have a standard Bundt pan as well as a tube pan for making angel food cakes, but nothing as fancy as this. I was thrilled!

Using the "Whipping Cream Pound Cake" recipe from Allrecipes I filled up the well-greased pan. Greasing it, by the way, took forever and a day because of all the nooks and crannies. I knew all those sharp edges would be good for clinging to cake, so I had to be sure to get those suckers good. Looking at the batter in the pan my mind immediately flashed back to my muffin volcanoes incident. This cake batter came up to within one inch of the top of the pan. Re-reading the recipe to be sure I had the correct pan size, I crossed my fingers, put the pan on a foil-lined baking sheet, and popped it in the oven. Every 5 minutes I turned on the oven light to peep at it and check for overflow.

Rising...rising...getting dangerously close to the top edge...this is a LOT of batter to clean up if it overflows...still getting taller...

Much to my surprise and delight, the batter stayed within the pan. The result was a full, dense, yet fine-textured cake. Added bonus: it's pretty danged purty. It looks and tastes...well... caketastic. Enough said.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A little sad now that it's over...

But I'm definitely thrilled that J.and K. are finally married!!! You couldn't imagine a more perfect match :) I'm just sad because oh, do I love to make cake...and this was CAKE.

Let me just say that I should have never referred to their wedding cake as "The Beast" (see earlier post), because it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The original plan was to bake the cakes on Thursday night, ice and decorate on Friday night, and deliver the cake on Saturday morning to the reception hall. Well something told me to start on Wednesday night, just in case something unexpected happens and I could avoid staying up all night Thursday with the oven running. I'm so glad I started baking one layer of each tier Wednesday, because it took longer than expected to bake up some of those rounds. Oddly enough, it wasn't the gargantuan 14" bottom tier that gave me grief, but the middle 12" layer... which took an eternity and a half to bake.
The results of my wedding cake recipe test over two weeks ago taught me that I needed to adjust my frosting recipe to compensate for the heat and humidity down here. Well... by the time Friday night rolled around I forgot. I made the icing exactly as last time, which resulted in a softer product than I was hoping for.

Luckily it all worked out, although I had to be fast with the piping. Hats off to those ladies (and gents) out there who work full-time and do wedding cakes on the side. I don't know how you do it, because I stayed up till nearly 3 a.m. finishing up that cake. And it wasn't even elaborately decorated! There were definitely lessons learned, and next time (if ever there is one) I'll be much quicker and more confident.

Do I still want to make my own wedding cake, whenever THAT might be? Mayhaps.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

When good muffins go wrong...

Please, kids...don't try this at home.

I am a huge fan of Alton Brown, so I have in my possession two of his books: I'm Just Here for the Food and its sequel I'm Just Here for More Food. So I was bored last night and started thumbing through I'm Just Here for More Food; I came across a recipe for Orange Cranberry Muffins that I wanted to try. It looked interesting enough, and I've never made this particular flavor of muffin before so I thought I would give it a shot and bought the ingredients this morning. I put it all together this afternoon (which took forever by the way), meticulously following his instructions in order to get the proper result. Baking is, after all, a science. I'm a scientist. I can do this.

I've seen on some other blogs that some bakers prefer to use "nut & candy cups" instead of standard paper cupcake liners. They're cuter, and the look is different. Different is good. As a plus, you don't need a muffin tin to bake them in because they stand up all by themselves. How could I resist? They work for cupcakes, so they should work for muffins too, right? I mean, isn't a muffin just a cupcake cousin? Then I thought to myself, "well muffins usually have some sort of 'cap' on them... a muffin top, if you will. You NEED a pan to support the cap while it's baking, lest it overflow." I ignored this conversation with myself, eager to try out my new cups. (Mistake #1)

You're not supposed to just swap out ingredients when baking, because it all too often results in disaster. We all know this. I know this. But I'll be okay with just one change, right? Well anyway, the substitution I made was to swap out the unsalted butter for some Blue Bonnet margarine I had in my fridge (Mistake #2). I was trying to save money by not buying any unsalted butter, which to my shock I did not have already stocked since I almost always do have it. Besides, the margarine box proudly claims: "Bakes like butter for less than half the price!" Oh really? Let's just find out, shall we? So does Blue Bonnet margarine live up to its claim? Not in my opinion. The finished result was overly salty, even though I significantly reduced the amount of salt used in the recipe.

But that wasn't the least of my woes. Alton Brown's recipe clearly states that it makes 12 muffins, and that the cups should be filled "to the top." Now I am a very trusting person, but even I was skeptical at this statement. Thinking I was very clever, I decided to make a baker's dozen (that's 13, in case you were wondering) instead of a neat dozen to compensate for not having a muffin tin to support the muffin top. "Ha HA!" I thought to myself, "with that extra cup in there, the batter won't overflow. No cap will form and I'll have the cutest little domes on my muffins." Then I looked at the cups again. And again. "Should I put down 5 more cups and make 18 muffins? Nah, they'd be too small. What about 15 muffins? No, you're fiiine... 13 is better than 12. Alton Brown won't steer you wrong." Ignoring my better judgement, I put the pan in the oven and hoped they wouldn't overflow. (Mistake #3) Boy was I wrong. Luckily I had a baking sheet under them to catch the overflow.

Were these any good? No. Edible, yes, but I would be too ashamed to let anyone I know eat these. I DO have a reputation to maintain, after all. ^_^

Moral of the story (actually there are two):
(1) Don't ignore your baker's instinct.
(2) Don't be cheap when you KNOW that butter is better.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Now that's just obscene.

Here for your viewing pleasure...

I made cupcakes with the extra batter from my wedding cake trial run, and piped the leftover frosting from my experiment on it in the grand swirly fashion that's so popular these days. My title refers to the obscene amount of frosting on top... I mean, do people actually EAT all of that? And not feel sick? I know I couldn't. After the photo was taken I scraped off the majority of the frosting before consuming my delectable little cuppycake. Cute, huh? :)

Wedding cake recipe test

Still not at work yet, I've found that I'm at my wits end as to how to spend my days. Today I decided to go ahead and buy supplies for J. and K.'s wedding cake next month. There are still a few things I need to pick up (more on that later) as well as the actual cake ingredients, but I've gotten what I could from the cake store while I have the free time. Since K. decided upon a chocolate cake, I decided to experiment and see what devil's food cake would look like with the raspberry filling. I've concluded that I'm not happy with the overall look. It's just not as appealing as say, a dark chocolate cake with that glistening deep red filling sandwiched between the layers. Upon reflecting on the cupcakes I made for the bake sale two weekends ago, I realized that the color/flavor of those would almost be what I'm after. I'll compromise and do mix of the devil's food and dark chocolate fudge. I can't wait to try it.

I was told it would be better if the frosting wasn't pure white, since the bride's gown is ivory anyway. That makes things better since now I'm not limited to the recipes I can use. Butter is yellow. If you want pure white icing you can't have butter. Simple as that. Luckily for all involved, color is not an issue. What I whipped up today is the color of mayonnaise, a soft off-white that I think will complement the design of the cake very well. As you can see in the pictures, I had a bear of a time smoothing out the frosting. I used the "upside-down icing technique" posted on Cake Central, and one of the items listed as "necessary" was a spackling knife. I don't have a spackling knife. It's raining, and I'm too lazy to go buy one. Well guess what? It turns out that it's pretty crucial to the success of the technique, as evidenced by the stripe of icing at the top of the cake's side. *sigh* I'll have better luck next time when I adjust the recipe and mixing method. It was WAY too fluffy to smooth out and use that method. I whipped the heck out of that frosting with my KA Artisan stand mixer (in pistachio green, my fav.) Next go around I'll use less whipping cream and turn the speed down a couple of clicks. It tastes amazing though and pipes like a dream, which is one of the main things I was concerned about aside from smoothing potential. Oh well, we live and learn by our mistakes... in the meantime we have cake to eat.

I FINALLY get to make a wedding cake!

Saturday, September 15th marks the debut of my very first wedding cake (or tiered cake, for that matter); it's for my friends J. and K. who are *finally* tying the knot! I'm really excited about this whole thing, partly because I've always wanted to make a mega-sized cake but mostly because I love to bake so much. K. picked a really great flavor combo: chocolate cake with raspberry filling, enrobed in an ivory buttercream. Thankfully, she's also kept the design fairly simple, opting for Swiss dots and a bead border only. Adding a monogram or some type of flower bundle on top (daisies) is a possibility to round out the proportions, but we'll wait and see.

Last Saturday we spent some time in Hobby Lobby, taking up the aisle and making a racket while deciding upon the most aesthetically p
leasing size configuration that would also yield the desired number of servings. We stacked pans on top of each other in the middle of the aisle, and not in the most quiet way either because some of the pans were bent and didn't sit level. They kept falling down, which I suspect is the reason they are bent in the first place. I've seen quite a few other prospective brides do the same stacking thing. It really is the only way to visualize the final size and scale of your cake beforehand. While most wedding cakes typically cater to about 100 people, we have opted for a 158 serving behemoth cake with an 8-inch round serving as the top tier. It was decided that we'd do an 8-12-14 configuration with a solid separation under the top layer (which will be served, not saved). Adding a smaller fourth tier to her design would skew it, so we'd have to come up with something new. It wasn't easy coming up with the first one! As for the tradition of saving the top tier for the couple's 1st anniversary... I may either make them a small cake to freeze but not stack on the actual cake, or wait until next year and replicate one for them.

Nothing is set in stone yet, so we'll see. Ther
e seemed to be some debate as to the number of guests that would need to be served. The groom's cake, which will not be done by me, will be a red velvet cake. Well dang, guys, if I had to choose between the chocolate/raspberry wedding cake or the red velvet groom's cake, I'd opt for a piece of both!(fast foward to wedding reception)

waiter: "Excuse me ma'am, will you be having chocolate or red velvet?"
me: "Yes."

You're forcing your guests to make a very hard decision. Shame on you both :) I should be getting my cake pans sometime soon, so a practice cake is definitely in the plans. Hopefully they'll arrive early next week so I can get to baking. I'm being so persnickity about the pans I'm going to use that I won't settle for the Wilton ones I can find so easily in town. I'm so excited about my new pans... (edited to add that my pans arrived and they are PANTASTIC lol)

Here is a rough mock-up I drew of what we're planning:

Hamburger Buns

Bored out of my mind and not content to settle for grocery store buns, I decided that I really wanted to try my hand at making my own. My inspiration came from last month's issue of Cooking Pleasures magazine, a publication of the Cooking Club of America (of which I am a Life Member, how geeky is that?). It showcased some innovative burger recipes as well as several recipes for homemade buns. I wasn't sure if I liked the recipe in the magazine, so some internet searching yielded the interestingly named recipe that I tried: "Moomie's Beautiful Burger Buns" from the King Arthur flour company website. I mean come on, with a name like that how could I possibly resist? I adapted the recipe to include the rising technique shown in the magazine, which utilizes a second baking sheet placed on the dough balls during the second rise to create and maintain the shape worthy of a burger bun. As far as the actual burgers... I decided to go the easy route and purchased "Pub burgers" from the Albertson's meat counter. Seasoned simply with salt, pepper, and a touch of "Ragin' Red" seasoning before being cooked on my *fake* George Foreman grill, they ended up being the perfect size for the finished buns. Red onion, green leaf lettuce, American cheese...Now that's a pretty burger.

Games of Acadiana

So this is sort of late to be posting, but the Games of Acadiana will be held tomorrow, August 18th, at the Cajundome in Lafayette. I'll be there pretty much all day, but you can find me at the "Speed Stacking" event from 12:30-3:00 pm. Admission is free, and all proceeds benefit the Miles Perret Cancer Center. So come on out and have a great time! Come! Play! BUY! (edit: it was a blast! Definitely going to be volunteering again next year)

I will be sad if at the end of the day all my baked goods have not sold, so be a friend and BUY. It's for a good cause, and all packages are $1.00. I KNOW you have a dollar. (edit: Anika told me that a lady actually TOOK a pack of my cupcakes out of her hand. Apparently they were a hit! I was very glad to see that around 1 pm, almost ALL of my stuff had sold. It's all in the packaging, ya know. Which was very cute by the way.)

Bake sale madness...

All in all over the past two days I've made:
48 very tasty cream-filled cupcakes (mmm.. like Hostess, only BETTER!)

158 scrumpdiddlyumptious chocolate chip cookies
74 meltingly delicious lemon cookies
Here's a picture of what used to be our kitchen table:
And for those of you counting...not all of the baked goods made it to the table! Some were given away, stolen, or "lost" by the baker :)

Frozen Buttercream Transfers

Let me just say that there was a time I was addicted to Cake Central. It's an immensely helpful site where anyone interested in cake or cookie baking and decorating can come to for inspiration, advice, and support. It was there that I stumbled upon a technique called the frozen buttercream transfer (FBCT). Once mastered, this technique opens up so many doors, allowing the decorator to express his/her creativity in ways not ordinarily possible for those not possessing "crazy mad skills" as decorators. It's accomplished by making a mirror image of the target design, placing a sheet of waxed paper or parchment over it, and using icing to trace then fill the design. The whole thing is frozen solid, then plopped onto the top of the cake. Peeling back the paper reveals an *almost* perfect image of the original.

My first attempt was... well, it was an attempt. This cake was made for a co-worker's baby shower at work before she went on maternity leave. The animals were based on some onesies I bought for her shower gift. I drew them freehand on a sheet of paper then did the FBCT technique to replicate them on the cake. Cute, but not perfect. I still have a long way to go. However I will note that the candy buttons were really fun to make :)

My second attempt (and final so far) was a cake for another co-worker's son. Cakes for guys are hard to do. You don't want to go all frilly with the roses and such, so what to do? All I got from his mother was that his favorite color is hunter green and his interests include hunting and vet school. A helpful person (Doug) on Cake Central (CC) sent me the original image of the cat and dog that I used. Learning from last time, I made this FBCT much thinner. Almost too thin. I'll know for next time, if ever it comes up. And what my fellow CC'ers have said about the amount of Wilton brand coloring needed to produce dark colors was right: I used up nearly my entire pot of Kelly Green paste to get that deep green. It may be worth a try to invest in some Americolor brand food colors. Too bad I can only find them online or at Targil in Opelousas, who is NOT open during the weekend. How is a girl supposed to get her color fix?

I thought I told you to tell me to stop standing on that side of pictures.

I've decided to start keeping an online account of what I've been up to in the world of baked goods, since it's so much a part of who I am. This is a new project, so you'll be seeing a lot of posts with today's date on it, although many of the photos were taken months ago. Depending on how ambitious I decide to be, you may even see recipes posted. Maybe. I'm very protective of my secrets.

After looking through all the pictures of Zack and myself, I noticed that with maybe one exception I tend to be on the right side of the photos. Maybe it just ends up that way, or maybe subconsciously I just like being on Zack's left side... I don't know. It's not like I have a "good side" or anything :) So as a joke last Christmas I decided to take this photograph:

So can you tell which one is me??? I decided that gingerbread can show ethnic diversity too. Yeah I know that doing the eyes that way is politically incorrect and that my eye are, in fact, not all that slanty, but what the hey... it's still funny.