Monday, February 27, 2012

Why are there so many cakes about rainbows?

This weekend I had the profound pleasure of celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday.  He threw a huge bash with fun party treats like glow-necklaces, birthday cake martinis (shut up!), blinking ice cubes and a playlist that had me strap my groove on by 8pm.  No one throws a party like a gay dude.  I’ve had homosexuality on my mind recently for a few reasons – 1.  The awesome party that I knew was coming.  2.  A friend recently came out to our group of pals and 3.  The ridiculousness of how people’s personal lives are intertwined with our political system.  This isn’t a political blog so I won’t get too far into my opinions but when did a candidate’s religious based opinion become how we judge what is right for the country – in my book, if someone isn’t hurting other people and doesn’t break the foundation of our country’s values of everyone’s right to pursue happiness, then it shouldn’t be anyone’s business and certainly not part of a campaign platform.    Anywho, how can you celebrate the fabulousness of diversity without cake?  I made the cake below based on Whisk Kid’s idea for a rainbow layer cake.  I used a completely different vanilla cake recipe and used plain buttercream instead of the Swiss meringue version.  Her delightful recipe and pictures can be found here:  Whisk Kid RainbowCake.  Thanks for the brilliance Whisk Kid!

Here is what I learned –
Whisk Kid used 6 layers instead of 7 – but there are 7 colors in the rainbow.  But 6 is probably easier to stack.  Maybe that’s why she was on Martha Stewart and not me.

Even out your cake layers or your layers will break   and your cake will be round on top.  Whoops!

When you make this as a birthday cake for a straight dude, you’ll get funny looks and questions.

I apparently have no idea what color indigo is.  Blue?  Purple?  Purplish blue?  Wtf?!

Use more food coloring than you think you need – in rainbows there is no such thing as too much color.

Nonetheless - this one was a hit - really yummy and HUGE!

Not quite finished but already tall!                 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cupcakery Review! Indulgence Cupcakery – Haddonfield, NJ

Having no children of my own, I get to politely excuse myself when some unpleasant parenting task is about to happen.  If I’m with you when your kid acts up, I can just leave.   Tantrum?  No thanks, I think I have a wax appointment.  Explosive diaper?  Oooh – I just had a manicure – sorry!  Time for potty training?  Apparently for that one I’m totally on board.  When my friend dedicated President’s Day weekend to the trials of potty training her 2 year old, I of course volunteered my non-parenting expertise which says for everything child-rearing, rely on bribery.   If I know anything about toddlers (which I don’t) I know that they like toys, cartoons and sugar.  This philosophy also works with dudes in their twenties but for them you can also add beer. 
Anyway, for my potty training adventure, I swung by Indulgence Cupcakery in Haddonfield, NJ to pick up a dozen bribes – err – cupcakes.  I got there at about 4pm and they close at 6 so they were already out of a number of flavors.  To their credit, they did have a lot of flavors available for the day.  I got the following:  Smores,  Red Velvet, Butterfinger, Cookies and Cream, Peanutbutter Cup, Classic Vanilla, Classic Chocolate, and Black Forrest and one more flavor I can’t seem to recall but I think there was a pretzel in it. I'd guess they had 15 or so flavors of the over 45 they list on their website.   Anyway, the place was totally cute and I liked their logo:

Here are the dozen adorable cupcakes.  I can’t decide if these are mini – I guess technically they are – they are certainly smaller than a standard cupcake.  But with each having a generous dollop of frosting – not to mention additional toppings like nuts, mini chocolate chips, etc.  These cupcakes are just the right size – 2 or 3 bites  - enough for a sweet treat and it’s gone before you have time to calculate how many more sessions with your trainer this will cost you. 

I ate the Smore cupcake.

I suppose it was a “graham” cupcake with chocolate frosting and a marshmallow syrup that penetrated through the frosting and was inside the cupcake too.  The cupcake was moist and a bit like a spice cake but I can’t say it had a graham flavor – yummy nonetheless.  The frosting was thick and chocolately and topped with the graham cracker crumbs –  a nice touch.  I’m a fluffy frosting person rather than thick but this was still super good. 
One - VERY minor complaint - it took a while for someone to come up front to help me and although she was certainly friendly, she warned me to hold the box very straight because the cupcakes were prone to tipping over.   I was nervous the whole way that I'd open my box of 12 cupcakes to find one stuck together frosting/cake mash.  Maybe there's a better packaging option out there to prevent top-heavy cuppies from tipping?
And for my potty training pal - he did great!  He had the cookies and cream!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

French Goo. Crème Pâtissière or Pastry Cream (in American)

You ever have something that is so good that you just want to put your face in it?  Like no matter how much of it is available – it’s never quite enough?  The kind of thing where if you were in polite you would leave a bit on your plate but if you were home alone, you’d actually lick the plate until your nose is sticky.  This is my relationship with pastry cream.  I’ve mentioned it a few times already and you will definitely hear more about it in the future but I thought I’d outline my relationship with Crème Pâtissière – that’s French because I’m fancy like that.  Actually, it’s French because I learned the magic of pastry cream in Paris.  Yep – be jealous there for a minute. 
When a friend says – hey – come meet me in Paris for the weekend – you go.  Those are words to live by people.  And when that friend is someone you’ve been bffs with for over 20 years, you know that you’re in for a good time.  And sometimes that bff goes above and beyond in planning and finds you a baking class that teaches some traditional French baking techniques in English. Cookn With Class is where I learned the deliciousness that is pastry cream.   Below is not the recipe they gave us but this is darn close and not in the metric system which is handy for us Americans. 
In the class, we also got hands on experience with croissants and pain au chocolate as well as brioche, boules, and a yummy sweet raisin bread.  This was seriously and adventure in flour and butter that would not soon be forgotten.  Our teacher, Pino was extremely fun and engaging and offered lots of opportunities to try the techniques.  As a bonus, we got to take the many treats with us and we had them for breakfast every day during our trip. 

Here are some pics of our sweet treats:

Now onto the Pastry Cream – this seriously is a versatile deliciousness that I would squarely put in the category of “goo”.   Technically, I think it might be a custard.   A little more sturdy than a pudding, it works great as a filling for cakes, cupcakes, cream puffs and other sweet treats you might fill.   Or just fill a bowl and eat it with a spoon. Don’t judge me. 

Pastry Cream you'll want to swim in...

1 ¼ cups whole milk
1  vanilla bean
4 egg yolks
¼ cup white sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp flour – all purpose

Mix together the egg yolks and sugar.  Add in the flour and cornstarch until smooth – a whisk works well here.
Heat milk and vanilla bean to just about a boil.  Take off heat and add a splash to your egg mixture and whisk.  Then add the rest of the milk slowing – whisking the whole time.    Note – if you get some cooked egg pieces, you should pour mixture through a strainer.  Take out the vanilla bean – CAREFULLY! Split bean down the center lengthwise and scrape out the seeds.  Add the seeds to your mix and put the whole thing back into your saucepan and put over medium heat until boiling – WHISKING the entire time!  Seriously – be ready to whisk!  Once it boils, keep whisking until it thickens.  It will get to a pudding-like consistency and it hardens up a bit more in the fridge.  Once you get the pudding-like consistency, remove from heat and pour into a clean bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap with the wrap pressed onto the surface of the cream to prevent a skin.  Cool to room temperature or refrigerate up to 3 or 4 days.  Whisk again before using. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

1 Amazing Kid and 1 Wimpy Kid

My nephew Braden is amazing.  When he was a toddler, he was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder which is on the Autism Spectrum.  He’s now eight, and my sister has remained unrelenting in finding the tools that will help him function better among typical kids – be it a therapy, a sport, a playgroup, or working with his school counselor and teachers to make sure he gets the help he needs.   She’s awesome and  Braden is brilliant – he just made the honor roll but as with many autistic children, his social skills are not the same of a typical child.  Lots of autistic kids will play by themselves and some are non-communicative at all.  We’re lucky with Braden   - he talks pretty normally but wouldn’t necessarily go play with other kids.  His teacher this year has set up a book club once a week where kids can stay in from recess and talk about a book they are reading to help Braden with his social skills.  Right now they are reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  My lovely sister has been making treats for this event each week.  And when I suggested that the Wimpy Kid would make a totally cute and easy cakepop she said that she thought the kids would love it if I made cakepops.  So much for suggesting that she do it.  So I set to thinking about what I would need.  I figured I could use half a jelly bean for his nose and just pipe on his eyes and smile with black frosting but  I didn’t think the frosting would work as his hair and indeed – it didn’t. 

I finally settled on some black string licorice cut into quarter inch pieces.

I like this one the best:

 I showed the best one to Braden only for him to proclaim that he wanted cupcakes.  Oy.  But by this point I had already baked and crumbled a cake for cakepops.  So not to waste the opportunity to cover crumbs with white chocolate I made the cake pops without sticks.  I used a toothpick to dunk the balls into the melted chocolate and then another to push it off the first toothpick and onto a parchment lined pan.  Before it hardened I stuck half a white jelly bean on the front and three slivers of precut string licorice on the top as hair.  When I hardened I used black frosting to pipe on eyes, ears and a smile J  Since Braden wanted cupcakes, I decided to use these adorable little Wimpy Kids as toppers.  I whipped up a batch of chocolate cupcakes with vanilla buttercream and piped on a generous pile of frosting – I find giving third graders a lot of sugar mid-day is always a good idea when you don’t have any kids.  Then I popped the little Wimpy Kid heads right into the center and went from cute cupcakes to adorable overload!

I swear I will never get tired of people saying "Wow!" when they see something I made.  Especially kids!  

Friday, February 17, 2012

MMMMMMM....Beer caramel sauce

I don’t like beer – that’s right!  I said it!  I do like most other booze but I don’t much care for beer.  Beer bread on the other hand- - yum!  Beer cupcakes – oh yeah!  Beer in any form except for actual beer form is really what I’m looking for.  The ironic thing is that two of my very good friends actually own a beer company:  Evil Genius Beer Company.  Every time I take a swig of one of their new products, I think to myself –yep – tastes like beer!  I’m told it’s all really good and in fairness, their Good n’Evil Kolsh is pretty good – even for someone who’s not a beer drinker.  One of these dudes, Trevor, is one of my besties and listens to my overall life nonsense on a regular basis.  Like when I wonder if gnomes are real or if they are just little people with funny hats – Trevor is my go-to guy.  So when Trev asks for a cake, I’ll usually just make one for fear that he’ll stop listening to my crap. 

So their company is still pretty new and when they signed with a local Philly distributor, a celebration was in order.  Trevor called and asked for a cake to bring to the distributor and I easily agreed.  Now, when it comes to making cakes – I pretty much got a system but working beer in – well that’s always a challenge.  For their cake, I didn’t want to go too crazy – I’m not sure of the audience so what if they are all chocolate folks but I gave them banana flavor?  That’s a bad scene and I’m sure it’s not quite the response my pals would want.  I went with a vanilla layer.  I filled it with a delicious pastry cream – because I’m in a pastry cream phase – more on that another time.  But before I put it together, I assaulted my cake layers with the business end of a fork and made holes all over.  Then I poured a spiced beer caramel sauce made from my buddies’ beer.  That’s right – and old fashioned poke cake!  Why don’t we appreciate poke cakes more?  They can turn a dry cake into a food-gasm in the space of 2 seconds.  I mean when other stuff is dry, we moisten it right?  Why not cake? And honestly, have you ever poured caramel over anything and regretted it?  Me either.   So I whipped up some beer caramel – or rather, I experimented with hot sugar and beer.    I got to something that seemed lovely and so the recipe is below – it’s should come as no surprise that it’s beer, sugar, and cream – wtf else would it be? 
Finally, I attemped to make their Good n’ Evil logo – a true labor of love.  There is a chic on there with a horn and a halo – hence good n’ evil.  Trevor calls her…..I forget – I listen to his crap too but sometimes when he’s talking I think about cupcakes or rainbows.  Anywho, the chic and some pretty intriqite hops all outlined in an oval with a  banner going across makes for some pretty challenging detail work.  The rest of the label at first appears just a golden color but as it turns out, has a very faint hops-like pattern.  Here is my version of their logo in fondant:

I rolled out and cut – kindof freehand and kindof using some paper cutouts as a guide.  The hard part was getting the details right.  I was still pretty new at fondant so I wasn’t sure the best method to use was.  I started  with just those edible markers from  Americolor.  That wasn’t really giving the effect I was hoping for so then I considered piping but that doesn’t have enough control for such small specific details.  Finally, I made myself a “paint” using vodka and food color gels.  At the end, I was pretty proud of it. 
Here is the final cake – covered in fondant that I sprayed gold and then went over with some of my vodka paint.  I also used it to paint on the faint hops pattern. Here is the finished product.  I was pretty proud of it at the time and I still am but now I think I'd work a little harder to get the fondant even.  

Here is how I made the beer caramel:

24 oz beer
2 c. brown sugar
1 c. white sugar
2 tbsp butter
2 c. heavy cream
1 tbsp vanilla extract

Boil the beer until you're down to about a cup left.  The alcohol will boil out first and then the water.  It takes a while. 
Add in both sugars and stir gently
Let simmer and when it looks like the sugar has dissolved, add in the butter.  Continue to simmer until you get to a  caramel color and it becomes syrupy.  If you're not sure you're there yet - try the ball method of testing.  Drop a bit into a glass of cool water and if the syrup balls up, holding it's form rather than just dissolving into the water, you're probably good to go.
When your at a deep amber color and you've reached the syrup stage, you're ready to add the cream. BE CAREFUL!  When you add the cream, it is likely to boil violently!  I usually add the cream with my hand and arm covered with a dishtowel in case it splatters. 
The boil will drop down quickly and then you can just stir and you're pretty much done.  If it seems that the cream has cooled the mixtures down too much and you have some solid chunks, keep it on the heat for a bit until those melt. 
Stir in the vanilla - I also splashed in some cinnamon extract  to get a nice "spiced" flavor.

Voila! done! 

You could keep this caramel in the sauce in a tighly covered jar and refrigerate - I wouldn't use it beyond a week or 10 days though. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

When the cakes began

I think so many home bakers start out by just making treats for the family.  I don't have kids - thank @#$! but there are plenty of kids in my family.  I think my passion started when people actually started asking me to make stuff instead of me just forcing my treats upon everyone.  When my twin niece and nephew turned one, I was honored that my sister-in-law called me to see if I'd make the cake.  It was a simple design - she had found a shaped pan from Wilton and even ordered it.  It's the Wilton Monkey Pan and was a decent enough product to work with.  I think now I'd prefer to attempt a monkey without the help of a shaped pan now but at the time I didn't care.   I used the directions that came with the pan as a guide for decorating but I put this cake on top of a double layer sheet - or half sheet I guess.  I filled it with a buttercream - yum.  One other added feature - my SIL also bought some little royal icing jungle creatures which I stuck on the sides of the cake just to work them in. They are hard to see in the picture but if you look under the monkey's foot you can kindof see one.  It's not my best work but it was brilliant at the time!  The little flowers are just a basic buttercream.  I clearly need to practice my writing.  Happy birthday Spencer and Scarlett!  I can't believe you'll be TWO soon!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Epic Valentine Fail

I recently saw a pretty simple technique to cover cupcakes with chocolate - similar to how you might have a cakepop with chocolate but instead of dipping, you just pour the melted chocolate over and un-frosted upsidedown cupcake.  With the cupcake on a wire rack, the chocolate would cover nicely but just run off.  So instead of covering a cupcake I thought I would try  making cakepop "dough", shape it into hearts and pour the chocolate over it.  It went....ok.   I probably should have been more methodical about the shaping.  Mostly I made a ball, flattened and tried to get it heart-shaped.  I made a bunch of different sizes even using a tiny cutter.  Some of the shapes look ok.

Then I put them on my wire rack and started the pouring process.  Without a doubt I was too stingy with the chocolate - I poured on a little and tried to spread it with a lollipop stick.  This one was bad:

This one is a little better:
So finally I said @#$%#@ it.  (I say that a lot.) And I dumped a whole lot of chocolate on the fattest heart.  This definitely gave the smoothest finish so the obvious thing to do was write on it.  I added a little drippings to make the white one fancy and so it wouldn't feel left out in a sea of pink hearts.  In your face pink hearts!   These turned out just OK.  The backsides were bare - although perhaps that's V-day appropriate - and I wonder if they would "keep" as well as cakepop dough that's completely coated.  Also, you have to wait until they are set to move them off the wire rack but once it's dry, it's also dried to the rack - @#$!#!  So I used a spatula to remove them but they are a little less sturdy than a cakepop so then the chocolate cracked #$%$@!     They still tasted good and I'm sure they wouldn't be that hard to improve but I am worried about the opportunity for microbe to grow in the exposed back.  Even if Cupid did like it. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ode To Cakepops!

Oh Bakerella!  How do I love thee!  In her blog on February 1st, Bakerella posted that she was making that day the Official Unofficial Cake Pop Day!  My new favorite holiday!    Here is a woman who has really revolutionized how cake is consumed.  I’m not entirely sure if cakepops were born in the Bakerella kitchen or if she just found a good idea and turned it into a phenomenon.  Every time I visit the Bakerella site, I’m awed by the sheer number of ideas that have stemmed from the simply idea of mixing cake crumbs with frosting and coating it in chocolate.   From Bakerella’s own brilliance to that of her many loyal PopStar followers, cake pops have exploded into a trend that has infiltrated even the mainstream coffeeshop Starbucks.    But can the average amateur baker make a cakepops?  I thought I’d find out.
 My first cake pops were a basic chocolate cake with vanilla frosting and covered in a dark chocolate coating.  I made them to bring to a graduation party.  Sadly the party was in July on one of the hottest days of the year.  I didn’t really know how to transport them so I left them in the Styrofoam square I had used to help make them.  Little did I realize that dry cakepops are just that …..dry.  Duh.  Anyway, I did a few white chocolate swirls on them with some blue sugar and called it a day.  My kitchen was a mess.  There was chocolate and blue sugar everywhere.  I managed to get the cakepops to the party and park them next to the real cake.  Everyone loved them but even in an air-conditioned house – the party got really hot and the cakepops started sliding down their sticks!  BAH! Cakepop fail! 

My next cakepop adventure was a little practice version – Just some spice cake covered in white chocolate with sprinkes.  Cute and I finally understood how to transport them.  This photo shows that cakepops are toddler-approved! 

Then I made some cakepops for a girls’ night with my pals from highschool and they loved them.  Three of us were in a wedding in Maine in August and I made some Bakerella-inspired cupcake bites as our snack for the 8 hour drive.  Same idea, less stick.  These were surprisingly easy.  Seriously – maybe I’m just stick challenged but these were super easy.   The drive ended up being fun and we rationed the cupcake bites  throughout the whole weekend.  I’m looking forward to doing lots more cake pops and cupcake bites in the future!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Learning Fondant

A few years ago I didn't even know what fondant was.  I'm still not entirely sure I know what it is except that it's awesome.  If you're a caking kinda gal - or dude - you probably already know and love fondant for its flexible options as far as making smooth surfaces that can be airbrushed, painted or piped upon.  It also can be shaped, molded and cut into anything.  I think the best part of fondant is that it's fun!  It's like playdough for grown-ups.  My first forray into fondant was for my nephew's 6th birthday.  As a huge fan of the Flyers and future NHL star, he wanted a hockey cake.  He wanted it to be in the team colors with their logo.  Then every day or so, he'd call me to ask me how his cake was coming and then he would request more features.  First he wanted an ice rink, then a hockey stick, then a hockey "guy".  I wasn't sure about using fondant but how hard could it be?  All the descriptions online and on tv made it sound easy peasy.  And for the most part it was pretty easy to figure out.  I picked up some of the typical tools from Wilton, a few tubs of their precolored fondant, a roller and some of those edible ink markers.  Looking back, it's not bad for a first attempt but anyone who would see it would definitey think "hmph! amateur!". It certainly wouldn't win me any prizes on Cake Wars.  (Which I totally think about winning when I'm making a cake.)   I think this cake was a good lesson in knowing your audience.  When I brought the cake to my sister's house in preparation for the ice skating party my nephew was so excited!  Seeing his eyes light up and proclamations of "WOW!" was such an awesome feeling.  And one of the best moment of my life was when asked if he liked it he said "I LOVE IT!"    Here is my first fondant cake - it's a standard vanilla cake - I'll post my recipe another time - with pastry cream filling.  It's mostly buttercream frosting with the ice rink, hockey stick and "guy" made from fondant.  In hindsight, I'd probably have used gum paste.

A note on store-bought fondant.  Lots of folks don't seem to like the premade stuff. It's ok.  I don't find it as delicious as buttercream but I don't think anything is as good as buttercream - I'd have buttercream oatmeal with buttercream coffee and a buttercream banana for breakfast everyday if I could.  The store-bought stuff works - there's always a consistency and the pre-colored stuff does save a lot of time.  I've made fondant myself and there's a time and place for that too.  More on the store-bought fondant vs. homemade another time...

Awesome amateur hockey cake:

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Awesomest First Blog Post You've Ever Read

Here it is people - my riveting attempt into the world of blogging.  Soon, I'll be rocking your world with a comprehensive overview of sweetshops across America and abroad but for now I thought I'd start with a look at my journey in the magical world of cupcakes.  Cupcakes are so 2009.  and 2010. and 2011 and 2012 and are hopefully around for a long time.  There was a time when cupcakes were just for kids.  Even if your mom couldn't create a 3 tier wedding cake, a Halloween costume or barely throw together macaroni and cheese out of a box *I'm looking at you Big Mama!* You knew that when it was your birthday, there would be a box cake mix and a tub of frosting with your name on it slapped together and presented to your class in your honor.  It was your day!  You could look around at your classmates with pride as they licked Betty's finest frosting off their fingers with crumbs all over their chins and sticking to their math worksheet.  It was your day, your moment and your chance to look at these kids smugly and think "yeah - that's right!  You had a cupcake today because of me so I don't wanna hear your crap today!"  Back in the day, the kids with summer birthdays didn't get this honor.  Now I think they celebrate summer birthdays in classrooms all throughout the year.  My older siblings' birthdays are in August - I don't think they ever had cupcakes in school.  They also didn't have hand-me-downs so we all had our crosses to bear in the Snarky household.

The rise of the cupcake in the last few years brought on a new life to niche bakeries.  In a time where big box stores have taken over many industries, bakers have had a resurgence through these niches and the local bakery has made a comeback.    Cupcake shops, trucks and carts have put cupcakes on the map.  TV shows like Cupcake Wars, Cake Boss and Ace of Cakes took cupcakes and cake decorating and the art of cupcakes from birthday celebrations to serious works of art. Love them or hate them, the celebrity baker has brought this art form to the general public and given many of us courage to try new things in the kitchen in hopes of emulating the magic we see on TV.  Cupcakes are now all grown up.  Complex flavors, creative fillings and newer methods of decorating have put cupcakes back into our lives and are mainstays at parties, restaurant dessert menus, coffee shops and even weddings.  I love the cupcake.  It's the perfect dessert.  Just the right size and with such variety of frosting and decorating techniques, there are literally millions of ways to make a cupcake.  You're limited only by your imagination.

I found cupcakes as my creative outlet during grad school.  Balancing a full time job, two-three nights a week at school and a 40-50% travel schedule was putting me in a frazzled state.  Cupcakes started as a treat for a finance class but has since turned into a full time hobby.  Then graduation came and it seemed like I could make a hobby a business but the gang in my state's legislature prevent me from having a home-based baking business.  Since I'm not really looking to leave  my real job (*which also has me cavorting with real bakers!) I bake for fun and for friends.  Sometimes those friends do fun stuff like get married and let me bake a lil' something for their special events.  So I present to you my first wedding cupcakes.   They are a mix of a chocolate stout cupcake with whiskey ganache filling, a red velvet, a champagne cupcake with a pastry cream filling and a good old fashioned vanilla cupcake.  I'm so lucky to have participated in my friends' wedding this way and I'm thrilled that I've gotten a lot more requests for more events!  I can't imagine my life without frosting...mmm....