Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Rainbow Velvet and Marshmallow Clouds

When I was a kid, I loved Lisa Frank stationary. Remember that stuff? It was bright and colorful, and even at age nine, when you should be a little too old for stickers, I had a sticker collection which consisted mostly of Lisa Frank and Sanrio stuff. This rainbow cake reminds me of a Lisa Frank collection and of being a kid. In fact, I believe I was humming the Reading Rainbow theme song while affixing the clouds onto the sky… “Butterflies in the sky, I can go twice as high…

A cousin of a friend of a friend (right?) was planning her daughter’s first rainbow themed birthday party and had this cake in mind. I was super excited, you have no idea. Lately I’ve gotten opportunities to challenge my skills and make things that I couldn’t justify doing just for fun. Except wedding cakes. When I start getting more than 4 hours sleep a night, I realize I’m just being a lazy blub, and I start making wedding cakes. Just for fun. I kid. It’s usually 5 hours of sleep. But these opportunities actually justify all my trips to Costco for embarrasing amounts of butter. 

I’ve made marshmallow clouds before and I think the idea is really really cute and I’m so glad I got to make them again. It’s just Martha’s piping marshmallow, with a 3/8” round tip (the same one I use for macarons) piped into free form cloud shapes. They are fixed onto the fondant cake with royal icing. I was pressed for time, however, and used a toothpick to hold the clouds on as the royal icing dried. I wish I could take credit for the cake topper, but this creative mommy actually ordered this figurine to be custom made to her little girl’s photo, favorite bear and birthday outfit! It’s just so insanely cute. It hurts.

I’ve been on a red velvet kick lately and I thought to make the cake a “rainbow velvet” which would have some of the same great “velvet” complexity. I used a double batch of my wedding cake recipe, omitting the cocoa and leaving the baking soda/vinegar emulsion to the end to be mixed separately for each portion before baking. Once the batter was mixed, I portioned out into seven bowls (using a scale) and mixed my colors in. Since I only have three 8” pans, the baking was done in three batches. Yes, I waited for each batch to cool enough, re-washed, re-greased, and re-parchmented. This is also where I learned that stacking your pans on two different levels in the oven results in uneven cake layers (no convection oven here) even when using cake strips. Luckily, with the thickness I needed the layers to be, I torted off essentially all of the unevenness. With seven layers, it was necessary to really get these even and level while building on them so they would be structurally sound as well as aesthetically pleasing. I used a ruler, as cake leveler and a cake knife to do it. A thinner layer of cream cheese frosting went in between to keep the layers from sliding around or icing from oozing out from the weight of the stack, but with seven layers, I was not worried that there wouldn’t be enough frosting to cake ratio.

The cake was complemented with a set of Lemon Cupcakes and Coconut Swiss Meringue Buttercream, which was a standard SMBC recipe with added reduced coconut milk.

I'll post the recipe soon-ish!...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Baker, Shaker, Wedding Cake Maker

A month ago, a friend asked me to make the cake for her daughter’s wedding and confirmed my standing suspicion that she was a little cuckoo. (Tooootally kidding! I love you, Liz!) I was honored and happily agreed… and as I thought and thought about it over the course of weeks leading up the wedding day, I realized that I was, in fact, the cuckoo-bird. I started to wake up in the middle of the night from dreams of the cake toppling, or being in a car wreck on the way to the reception, or even forgetting to bake the cake! Really, who do I think I am? I bake at home, purely for my own amusement. My mom pragmatically pointed out that this was someone’s wedding, and maybe just a little more than one of my fun little baking experiments. A wedding cake is one of the most important pieces of one of the most important events in two peoples' lives! No pressure or anything. But in the end, they had that much faith in me to have me do my first ever wedding cake and I always step up to a challenge. Anyways, I’ve watched enough Food Network Challenges to have it in the bag.

We decided to go with Red Velvet – as the bride is a big red velvet fan. The only catch was, this cake needed to be parve, and I know from my vegan sister, that subbing for dairy sometimes results in wonky tastes and textures. I went through a few recipes and test batches and put together my favorite Red Velvet, parve or not. Ever (recipe to be posted soon). I was also really inspired by Smitten Kitchen’s wedding cake and took advantage of many of her tips. And just like she said, my kitchen floor ended up disastrous. Maybe the kitchen walls too. Somewhere along the way, I knocked a bowl of red food color-cocoa emulsion from the counter. Splatter. Everywhere. I’m sure it really looked like a crime scene when my boyfriend came running in response to my shrill scream to discover a deep read puddle in the middle of the kitchen and me and everything in a five foot radius covered in forensic evidence. It’s really funny actually. Or twisted. As far as clean-up, I had three days of sleep to catch-up on and another wedding to attend the next day and decided to avoid going into my kitchen altogether. In fact, tonight I'll have to chose between doing dishes and disposable dining ware. My hands are still chapped from washing my mixer bowl 73 times. When the dust powdered sugar settled, there were piles and piles of emptied flour and sugar sacks, bottles of vanilla, buttery stick boxes, cocoa containers, shortening and tofutti tubs. I’ve never gone through so many baking supplies before. Not to mention cake boards and cake board foil and transporting boxes, pans and parchment. I literally multiplied my standard 8” cake recipe by 15 times. Read: 72 cups of batter. I needed a spreadsheet for these calculations. Now I get why wedding cakes are so expensive. Macarons too. Totally justified.

The wedding venue was a gorgeous historic building in Downtown LA, complete with marble balusters, a dramatic cascading staircase leading to a mezzanine and over 200 guests. I must admit, when I arrived to set up the cake and saw the crews of florists, caterers and lighting specialists running around, I started to get nervous. By the time I saw the showcased cake table and display of exotic fruits and desserts behind it, yogic breathing was all I could do to quell my shaking hands into piping the snail-trail trim on the cake. Ricardo from Luna Gardens, who was a delight, added the exquisite Black Magic roses to finish it off. 

I snapped some pictures and slipped out just as the valet guys were taking the first guests to pull up for the ceremony.

It’s an amazing feeling to have successfully pulled of my first wedding cake and I must give special thanks to my boyfriend. He picked up food for me when I forgot to eat, demanded that I take power naps (demanded – we were on the verge of a fight at my refusal to sleep) and made up my whole delivery team. Imagine the patience it takes to keep it together when you're driving a car full of wedding cake and your girlfriend is hyperventilating at every stop light you close in on. He completely believed I could do it and assured me the world would not implode if I didn’t.

Congratulations, Natlie & Ed

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds and a Pumpkin Carving

Yeah, I’m one of those people who likes to enter into every contest, giveaway and raffle. Some person, somewhere, is going to win free stuff, and that person might as well be me! It so happens that my boyfriend is a tech enthusiast (I didn’t say “geek”, ok? You did. Didn’t you? Oh, you didn’t. Ok…) and told me about this contest that IntoMobile was having for some great shiny new toys provided by Nvidia. Mostly, all I heard was that I get to carve a pumpkin and my mind wandered off with the possibilities of how I would execute this, while he went on about how awesome the prizes were (a Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9, a Jawbone Jambox and a $25 gift card).

The day before Halloween, we set out to find a pumpkin. We strategically consulted some neighbors and learned that the best place to get pumpkins was at the Trader Joe’s… in the Valley. I briefly considered a Coach purse and some Juicy Couture sweat pants to blend in with the natives but abandoned that idea when we decided to expedite the process to fit in a beach day as well (wouldn't have worked without a Range Rover anyway). We were gonna go into this store with shields up - quick and dirty!

Well, after stumbling over a few bales of hay, elbowing a couple of pre-teen girls and narrowly avoiding a head-first dip into the giant pumpkin bin, we succeeded in securing the largest, orangey-est, most gorgeous two pumpkins, if I do say so myself. We happily went on to enjoy an such a fantastic picnic on the beach that we neglected to realize that it would mean not getting home to start the carving until very late! Seven long, infomercial filled, exhausting hours later (including ice cream breaks), this is what I got:

To do this, we printed out a logo image in grayscale and taped it to the pumpkin. Then I used an exacto knife to make perforations along all the lines I wanted to carve. Exacto blades (that were completely dull by the time I was halfway through) were used for almost the entire thing, with the help of a sharp paring knife for some of the clean up. I used a serrated steak knife for the lid, of course. The texture in the negative space is a familiar one I'd done before in making this watch carving a few years ago from a bar of soap. I love exacto knives. Exacto knives and silicone spatulas. And puppies.

Oh yeah, the pumpkin seeds! Well these were a total bonus. I haven’t carved a pumpkin in years, I almost  threw these away as an afterthought. Glad I didn't, because I'm chomping on them right now. Here they are, all dressed up and yummy!

Cinnamon-Sugar Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

1 1/2 cups pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons melted butter (or olive oil)
2 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350°F. Wash pumpkin seeds and lay out on a paper towel on a cookie sheet to dry. In a medium bowl, toss the seeds with the melted butter, coating thoroughly. Add the remaining ingredients and toss. Spread the seeds out evenly across a baking sheet lined with foil. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the seeds are golden brown. Stir the seeds every so often while they're baking, so that they toast evenly.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Halloween Cake: Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet

Last week I had a housewarming party to go to, a cake recipe to test, and some Halloween spirit to get out of my system. Since I am a super-woman, multi-tasking model of efficiency, I did all three in the form of this one cake. Of course, since the party was across town on a Friday evening, and I have a day job that might as well be located in another country, and every now and then my body does this weird shut-down thing called sleep, something inevitably had to go. (So, super-woman - not so much) Usually that something is combing my hair, or matching my left shoe to my right. Luckily, when you walk in with a triple layer cake, no one seems to notice that you didn’t get your hair done, nails done, everything did…

Red velvet cake has been in trend that past few years and I’m not one to jump on a bandwagon. However, I really do love the complexity of this flavor and it’s a little puzzling to me why it’s not as ubiquitous as chocolate or white cake. I have a very big project coming up in the next few weeks involving a whole lot of red velvet cake - dairy free red velvet cake - and I’ve been going through all my red velvet recipes. This may be the one. I used the traditional boiled icing for the frosting here (which has dairy ingredients) and found it to be really nice – not too sweet, and not too buttery.

Waldorf-Astoria Red Velvet Cake
Adapted from troyh on

1/2 cup shortening (Spectrum brand organic vegetable shortening)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 ounces red food coloring
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup almond milk
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vinegar

Prepare three 8” round baking pans with parchment rounds and baking spray. Pre-heat your oven to 350°F. Cream the shortening and sugar and eggs one at a time until blended. In a separate bowl, combine the food coloring, vanilla and cocoa until dissolved. Add to the creamed mixture. Add almond milk, alternating with flour and salt. In a small dish, add soda to vinegar, and blend into the batter. Pour batter evenly into the baking pans and bake immediately. Bake 24-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out mostly clean. Allow to cool in pan about ten minutes, and then remove from pan and allow to cool completely on a rack, parchment side down.

Boiled Icing
Adapted from Sprinkle Bakes

1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups almond milk
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

In a large saucepan, combine flour and salt. Whisk in almond milk slowly until smooth while placed over medium heat. Allow mixture to reduce and thicken while whisking constantly until past-like. Remove from heat and cool completely. For me, this was at about one in the morning so I decided to “relax” on the couch while the mixture cooled…until 6 am when I woke up with a giant couch cushion imprint across my face. This was probably why my frosting wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and mix until combined. Combine cooled flour mixture on high speed and beat for about 10 minutes until smooth and you can no longer feel the sugar granules. Or just beat for as long as you can get away with before your neighbor puts in a complaint that you’re doing kitchen construction at the crack of dawn. Frost cakes as desired. Go to work. Come home and stencil some orange frosting on the side of the cake, throw some Halloween sprinkles across the top, find a clean dress, and go to the party. Remember to bring the cake.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies


It rained here this week. And by rain, I mean it was raining cats and dogs, minus the cats and dogs. Because that would have been awesome. And it was cold too! And by cold, I mean about 60 degrees around dinner-time by which time the rain had cleared in Hollywood and I was able to don my high heals. The weather forecast also says it should be back in the mid-eighties next week. Okay, so for just a day or two, I got to feel sad for my sun dresses and flip-flops that didn’t get nearly enough wear this past summer. I got to pretend I was a Seattleite and wear my favorite trench coat. I also got to be nostalgic over fall spices and pumpkin baked goods. Fortunately, this is LA, and that rain thing is sooo just a fad. And I can still have my pumpkin spice latte at the corner Starbucks.

I’ve been planning my baking around pumpkin for the past month, but pumpkin puree wasn’t nearly as easy to find as I thought. Luckily, my wonderful boyfriend was able to track some down at Trader Joe's and got me three times as much as I asked for. This was a quick one to whip up: Soft pumpkin sandwich cookies (aka: pumpkin whoopie pies) from A Cozy Kitchen. I have to say, I couldn't resist filling a pair of the cookies with cream cheese filling while the cookies were still a bit warm. If only you (someone, anyone) were there with me for that - it was amazing. And you know - they only come out of the oven once.
These are just perfect. Not too sweet with just the right amount of spices. And oh, my new fascination with the scent of cardamom! This was my first time using it. I finally got to use the cardamom I picked up a while ago, but they were whole pods and I didn't have a spice grinder. Just cardamom pods... and a hammer... Guess what? Of all the bumps and cuts I've gotten over the past few days - burning my finger on a sheet tray, getting a paper cut from card-stock, a sore arm from the flu shot - I did not injure myself with the hammer. Ha! Well, not this time...
I think you should make these. They're super easy. And yummy. I didn't fuss with the recipe at all (if you don't count the hammer-spice-grinder technique) so you can get it at A Cozy Kitchen.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Go Bananas for Best Chocolate Frosting and Cupcakes

Recently, I was told by my boyfriend that his mom’s chocolate frosting was the best chocolate frosting he’d ever tasted in his entire life, wait, no, in the world (he might have held his arms outstretched demonstrating the magnitude of this concept: the world). That was quite a bold statement. Everyone thinks their mom’s such and such recipe is the best ever.  Even Supreme Court judges are biased when it comes to their mothers' cooking, I'm sure. I considered my own frosting repertoire and although I make ganache from time to time, I never really do chocolate buttercream. I guess I hadn't yet found the one. Suffice it to say, I was extremely intrigued and I’ve been a squeaky wheel about getting this recipe for a while.

I was taken aback to find out that it was an American (aka simple or confectioner’s sugar) buttercream, which I’ve been poo-pooing since I discovered meringue buttercreams. American buttercreams are usually over-the-top sweet and just one-dimensional. Alas, it seems that sometimes the most elegant solution is the simplest one. This gorgeous frosting was just right – light, not too sweet, with just the right sharpness from the chocolate. There is noticeably less butter in this recipe than other confectioner’s buttercreams making it much lighter in taste and texture. I added a touch of cornstarch so it would hold up to the summer heat a little better. I will definitely be making this again. What a find.

Chocolate and bananas are one of my favorite cake combinations. Banana cake is just simple and homey and satisfying. This Smitten Kitchen recipe was used for a monkey cake (cutest idea ever) and makes the moistest, most yummiest banana-ey cake ever (I'm allowed that - I was eighth-grade vocabulary bee champion). I cut the recipe by half, hoping to yield just a dozen cupcakes but ended up with 18. Somehow, they've almost all been eaten.

Banana Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
(Yields ~18 cupcakes or one 9” round cake)

1 ¾ C cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
¾ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
¼-½ tsp cinnamon
½ C unsalted butter, room temperature
½ C sugar
½ C packed golden brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 cups mashed very ripe bananas (2-3)
3 tbsp sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line cupcake pan with cupcake liners. Whisk together dry ingredients and set aside. Using electric mixer, cream butter and sugars in large bowl. Beat in eggs one at a time, and then bananas and the remaining ingredients. Beat in dry ingredients in two additions just until combined. Divide batter into cupcake pan evenly (about 2/3 full). Bake about 22-25 minutes until a toothpick comes out mostly clean with just a few crumbs on it. Allow to cool in pan 10 minutes before transferring to a rack.

Rich Chocolate Buttercream
Adapted from The Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook
(Yields about 2 cups for 14-18 cupcakes)

1 oz unsweetened chocolate
1 oz semisweet chocolate
½ C butter, softened
2 C sifted powdered sugar (I sifted this with the cocoa)
1/8 C cocoa
1/8 C milk (I used almond milk)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1-2 tbsp cornstarch (optional)

Melt chocolate on double boiler, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Beat butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Add chocolate and mix until combined.  Mix in powdered sugar and remaining ingredients and beat until smooth and fluffy. Optional: I added some cornstarch (let's be honest, I wasn't really measuring) to get a consistency that would hold up to piping and popped the batch in the fridge for a bit before actually frosting.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dog Bone Sugar Cookies for Humans

After last week’s success with the Owl Cupcakes, I’ve gotten requests for more treats from the same bunch at the office: doggy themed sugar cookies! This quirky fun group threw a little farewell party for the office Chihuahua, Chloe. Chloe is moving out of state and these cookies are in her honor. Except the cookies are not for Chloe, they are for the humans (I'm hoping Chloe got a nibble anyway!). I should mention that these people are entertainment industry folk.  And it's LA. Now it’s making sense, right?

Ok, so for these dogbone cookies – I went to Sur la table, the toy store to my inner child. They have a really great selection of all kinds of gadgets. I’m giddy right now just thinking about it. Really. Well, they had every cookie cutter I could have wanted – except for the one I wanted. When I probed an employee to see if he was hiding the one shape I was looking for in his apron pocket, the security guard dutifully chimed in that a group of hoodlums had hit the display the day before and shuffled all the shapes together. I just didn't get that - I was the OCD kid that was sorting the items by type, size, shape and color while my mom shopped. Well, Security-Man was also absolutely certain that there was exactly one dog bone cookie cutter somewhere in the pile. One. That much confidence is always inspiring and contagious, so the three of us were now crouching, reaching and squinting about this massive rotating cookie-cutter tower, up to our elbows in crimped aluminum. You should have seen it – quite the collective effort. The outcome did not look good, and just as I was about to throw in the towel, Security-Man shot a triumphant fist in the air with gleaming copper dogbone cookie cutter safely in his possession. The entire store broke out in sustained applause. Ok, not really, but I was quite grateful.

For this cookie, I used Bake at 350’s recipe with the addition of a vanilla bean. It’s awesome because the dough is quite manageable and easy to roll. It maintains it’s shape well after baking, without the requisite hour or two of refrigeration normally called for. For decorating and transporting, however, I found that it was not as sturdy as I would have liked. For eating – it was perfect. I think I would like to have baked these a couple minutes longer just so they would have been slightly crisper.

The royal icing was also from Bake at 350 and it was a pleasure to work with. The recipe calls for corn syrup, which I think adds to the drying time. While the icing was in the mixer, a friend popped by and totally distracted me in conversation. Of course I didn’t forget about it – please, I’m not an amateur – but I assumed it was like Sweetopia’s royal icing, where you could walk away for half an hour while the mixer was stirring away with no problem. Problem. The icing was fluffy and meringue-like and dreamy to pipe with, but I realized later that the extra air and fluffiness resulted in an icing that lacked the density to withstand the Throw Your Cookie Across the Room at Your Cat/Family Member/Neighbor’s Kid Test. I suppose you could probably get away with just holding and packaging your cookies very gently. The cat/family member/neighbor’s kid would probably prefer that too. But that's no fun.

Vanilla-Almond Sugar Cookies

3 C AP flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 C sugar (you can use sugar stored with vanilla beans in it)
2 sticks (salted) butter, cold
1 egg
¾ tsp pure vanilla extract
½ tsp pure almond extract

Preheat oven to 350. Combine the flour and baking powder, set aside. Cream the sugar and butter and then add the egg and extracts. Gradually add the flour mixture and beat just until combined, making sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Knead the dough just so the crumbly bits come together when taking it out of the bowl. Roll on a floured surface and cut into shapes. Place on parchment or silpat lined baking sheets and freeze for about 5 minutes before finally baking 10-12 minutes. Allow to set for a few minutes out of the oven before transferring to a cooling rack.

Royal Icing
Adjusted for yield from Bake at 350
(Enough to cover 4 dozen cookies)

6 tbsp meringue powder
¾ C water
1.5 lb. powdered sugar
1 tsp light corn syrup
A few drops clear extract (I used lemon)

With the paddle attachment your stand mixer, mix the meringue powder and water on low until foamy. Sift in the powdered sugar continue to mix until combined. Add in the corn syrup and extract and increase speed to med-high/high and beat for about 5 minutes and glossy stiff peaks form. The corn syrup is optional, really, and I think I’ll skip this next time as it added to the drying time. Divide and color using gel paste food colorings. Use this consistency for lettering and decorating. Use a portion of the divided and colored icing to dilute with water into flooding consistency (the streak of a butter knife swiped through should disappear completely in 10-12 seconds).

Au revoir, Chloe!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Guess Whoooo? It's a girl!

I can share something with you because we're so close, right? Meh, I don't care, I'm going to tell you anyway. I've always known I'd have a daughter someday; someone whom I would dress up and be besties with… and I'm really excited I finally get to celebrate! Yes, there is a baby girl on the way and so this cake story was a labor of love. And of course, it was always a given that my first girl would be special.

These creations will be taken to work for the office baby shower and I'm so excited to share them with everyone there. They are the best chocolate (cup)cakes with the most delicious strawberry-raspberry Swiss meringue buttercream. And who doesn't love owls. WHO? WHO? I can’t believe I stayed up all night making over 30 of these little buggers.

I haven't told many people about this but I guess I'm telling all 3 of my readers now - this was the first order I’ve received for a girl baby shower and it was so much fun! So, no, there are no actual baby showers in my honor.  I’m just crashing others' living vicariously for now. (Mom: You can exhale and release your death-grip on the chair arm-rests. No grandkids for you just yet.)  I also did a sky themed order for a baby boy named Skylar last year with piping marshmallow for clouds. Just redonkulously cute. I can't help but wonder what theme my own baby shower will have... A girl's gonna day dream, right?

I’ve used this Smitten chocolate butter cake recipe before for the Captain’s Cake and for cupcakes… I don’t remember the occasion. Cupcakes don't need an ocassion. They should be eaten just because. This cake is just so dang soft and chocolately and delicious that I always forget to write down that it does not make for a very pretty cupcake! The cake is so light that the paper liner kind of slumps off. Fiddlesticks! Whatevs, it’s still delish and I got mine.

The Swiss meringue buttercream was made in the usual manner with added berries and the frosting came together beautifully with no fuss at all (the stars must have aligned in my favor). Just think of the best strawberry ice cream you’ve ever had. This is it. Next time, however, I would pipe with an open star tip Atecco #828 rather than the closed star tip Wilton #2D because pieces of fruit purree kept stopping up the tip - but really, this might only become frustrating if you're sleep deprived, covered in cake batter and piping at 3am with 32 fondant owls still to make.

I’ve learned to make my own fondant since the fiasco of my first experience (you can re-live that here if you must). It’s time consuming, but so much tastier and cheaper. You can make it ahead and freeze it too according to Rose Levy-Berenbaum in The Cake Bible. And We do not question Rose. For this project, however, I am guilty of using the pre-made stuff. If you’ve ever played with play-doh, it’s pretty much that. No special tools. I don’t have a ton of experience with fondant but this was just what I needed to get back in my artsy groove. (Fondant's a total fad and buttercream will rise up and dominate once again.)

Chocolate Butter Cake
I adapted Smitten Kitchen's recipe to yield 2/3 of the batter and 48 cupcakes

Strawberry & Raspberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Enough for 36 cupcakes
6 sticks of butter (1.5 lbs)
1.5 cups plus 3 tablespoons sugar
8 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup raspberry puree
1/2 cup strawberry puree

Mmmm, so I eyeballed the amount of buttercream I needed for 4 dozen cupcakes and came up short by a whole dozen. Good thing I needed only three dozen! You can look at my post on Swiss meringue buttercream for the method. Make sure to use soft butter that's been out at room temperature for a while, and have to whisk attachment on your stand mixer set to medium-high. Add the fruit last, little by little, making sure the buttercream doesn't get too runny.

Monday, August 1, 2011

All of me. Why not take all of me?

Can't you see? I'm no good without you... Billy really did say it best - she totally got it.

I had no oven for an entire month. (Pause to appreciate the gravity of this situation) No. I'm not kidding you. And seeing as how I don't really know how to do much else in the kitchen aside from baking, I was lost. Last month I moved to a new apartment. It’s a very charming place, really, with loads of character and vintage details. At first, I was concerned that my half-sheets wouldn't fit in kitschy, made-for-TV oven. But they did. And even the overwhelming sunny-yellow 1950’s kitchen tile grew on me. So when just enough boxes were unpacked that I could get by (think toothbrush and clean underthings), I decided that the new Smitten recipe could wait no longer. I got to work with my dozen eggs and two pounds of sugar, buzzing with the excitement of turning out my first creation here. And of course, just before I poured the batter into the pan, I checked that the thermometer in the pre-heating oven read 350°F.

This would be the part of the movie where the music crescendos - right before the alien/evil-bad-guy/mutated-virus-infected zombie jumps out at you...


As in: No heat. As in: No fire – that thing whereby the ability of which to create it propelled Man into an era of progress and development. Wild-eyed and ear pressed against the oven to listen to the subtle changes of the gas flow, I  frantically cranked every knob, pushed every button and checked every pilot light.

Nothing. Nothing!

The next few hours were spent writhing on the kitchen floor - kicking, screaming and cursing the gods who laughed down on me, cruelly.

OK, not really. But I had to be somewhere and there was just no more time. No TIME, I say! I forced myself to shove the batter into the fridge – it was too painful to toss and too painful to look at. It would take three weeks for the repair guy to track down the antique spare parts needed to make my soul whole again. In that expanse of time, my stand mixer was left to sit quietly in the corner of my kitchen, watching me with sadness and resentment. A sign of onsetting psychosis, I'm sure.


Meanwhile, life went on. But everything I came across reminded me of the lost opportunities to bake. Like these gorgeous organic summer cherries that were on sale at Whole Foods.

And then these strawberries, that, as sweet and delicious as they were on their own, yearned for a coating of chocolate to make them all fussy and special.

The Dobos Torte was actually baked the next day after work. I had anxiously driven to my mom's with the batter cradled by ice packs in a cooler, white-knuckling the entire drive the way a mother might as she urgently and calmly drove a sick child to the doctor. The Torte was saved (and delicious) and my oven was eventually fixed. Good thing, because otherwise I might have gotten a bit overly dramatic. Maybe.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chocolate Toffee Cookies and a Bake Sale

Aren't they beautiful? Can you tell how very chocolate dense these are? How very rich and addictive? Now can I feed you? Open wide... I've made at least half a dozen batches of these cookies in less than a month. They are soooooo goooood. I don't normally eat a lot of my own baked goods - I enjoy giving them to others. But I really couldn't help myself with these. I just kept breaking off pieces, promising  myself it was the last one.... and before I knew it, half a dozen were in mah belleh before I was even done photographing. I'm a nibbler. Isn't that weird how we do that? (I know you do it too) For example, it's like with ice cream. You decide to go in for just a spoon full. But then the ice cream container looks uneven, and you just can't leave it like that. So just one more spoonful to even it out...

Anyway, the first time I made these I had to triple check the recipe. It called for a pound of chocolate and only half a cup of flour. For reals? But yes, the recipe was correct. And really, who complains about too much chocolate? And then there's the salt. It's mystifying how a little sprinkling of course sea salt can make such a difference. I forgot the salt with one of the trays going into the oven - good but not memorable. So my conclusion is, these cookies are ah-mazing. I want you to try them. In fact, I will make them for you if you ask me to. I even made these for the Share Our Strength bake sale in Los Angeles last Saturday.

The 2011 National Food Bloggers Bake Sale was held on Saturday throughout the nation to benefit Share Our Strength and ending childhood hunger in America. Our LA edition was organized by Gaby of What's Gaby Cooking and raised over $2300 which will stay in the LA area to benefit our community. I am so impressed and moved that the collective efforts of people in the community, whether they baked a little, bought a little or contributed a little time, have raised money and awareness. You wouldn't think that in this country, childhood hunger would be a problem. But it is. There are many underserved and vulnerable groups of people in our very own communities who lack access to healthy and affordable nutrition. The bake sale was such a success thanks to everyone involved and especially thanks to Gaby for making it happen.

Chocolate Toffee Cookies
Recipe from Smitten Kitchen
Makes about 45

1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 lb bittersweet/semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups (packed) brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
7 oz chocolate-covered English toffee bars (such as Heath), coarsely chopped*
1 cup walnuts, toasted, chopped
Flaky sea salt (or kosher salt) for sprinkling

Sift flour, baking powder and salt together in small bowl. Stir chocolate and butter on a double boiler over simmering water until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and allow to cool to luke warm. Using electric mixer, beat sugar and eggs in bowl until thick, about 5 minutes. Beat in chocolate mixture and vanilla. Stir in flour mixture (don't over mix), then toffee and nuts. The batter will be very thin - chill batter about 45 minutes to firm up.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment or silpat. I like to use a cookie scooper to drop batter onto baking sheets. Allow about two inches in between because they will spread out. Don't forget to sprinkle with a little salt. Bake about 12-14 minutes until tops are cracked. Pick off pieces to eat right from the pan before they've set up. Cool completely before trying to remove cookies from the baking sheet.

Since these have turned out to be such a favorite of mine, I freeze the cookie dough into logs about 1.5" in diameter. When I need a hit of chocolate, I just slice right out of the freezer using a sharp knife and bake immediately.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hydrangea Cake for Mom

I love hydrangeas. I just get so happy when I see them in full bloom. They are elegant yet unpretentious. So it is no wonder to me that I couldn't wait to do try a hydrangea cake inspired by Amanda of I Am Baker. Her cake is gorgeous. Mine passable though, right? It sort of reminds me of some sea creature or maybe something from a coral reef - but if you squint just right, you could see an arrangement of hydrangea flowers. Hopefully. My mom saw me making this cake and at first guess thought it was some sort of hat. Hmph, well it's the thought that counts! And I also happen to think my sea creature creation is pretty.

My idea for this cake was for a chic contemporary arrangement of tightly placed hydrangeas in a cube shaped flower vase - so en vogue these days. I was having issues with the buttercream modifications I made, the weather, and overall, it was just one of them days that a girl goes through... (Monica, anyone?). First, the colors came out a bit more intense than I intended. I love pale green and blushing pink hydrangeas, but I was a little heavy handed in coloring the frosting. Secondly, although I gave this cake a crumb coat, this frosting did not harden enough even when placed overnight in the fridge. This also lead to petal shapes that were not as sharp as I would have liked. The original frosting suggested for this cake, also used in my cake of roses, was perfect. If it ain't broke, well then, that's a challenge to tinker it to make the recipe better? Maybe not. I subbed an organic, non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening I picked up at a health food store, because I was trying to avoid Crisco (which grosses me out). I guess fully-hydrogenated fats are essentiall to piping perfection.

I used on of my favorite chocolate cake recipes from Smitten Kitchen. I made half the recipe and baked up one 12" x 12" sheet  and divided into four quarters. I stacked the quarters with a chocolate Swiss meringue buttercream filling and carved the top two layers into a dome. Once the whole thing was crumb coated and chilled, I frosted the bottom half to mimic a vase and then went wild on the top for the hydrangeas. The flower was made with a Wilton #104 tip into four petals. Amanda from I Am Baker has a tutorial on how to do this!

These are my hydrangeas just starting to bloom. Isn't spring exciting?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Let every day be Earth day

I think we should respect Mother Earth and our environment everyday (so I'm not really late at all on the Earth day posting). In my little world, everyone does whatever they can to be "green". But every now and then, I get the sense that the universe does not revolve around me and that there are still people out there driving Hummers and burning through plastic water bottles. Just a nagging feeling (did I ever mention that this is Los Angeles?). I suppose I've always been a romantic type, believing that we could change the world and make it a better place when we grew up. The environment is actually something that can be saved seeing as those who are causing harm to it, have both the wealth and ability to try to undo some of the damage. And as individuals, it wouldn't hurt to be more conscientious about daily choices we make. But what do I know, I am just a humble baker.

One thing I did know was that I wanted to mark the occasion of Earth day with a treat: chocolate cupcakes with cream cheese frosting and royal icing Earth decorations. With all the wonderful exotic flavors that I love to try, chocolate never fails to make me happy. This was a chocolate cake recipe from Smitten Kitchen I used for my chocolate peanut butter banana birthday cake last year with enough intensity to satisfy the true chocolate lover. I adjusted the recipe to yield about 20 cupcakes. I am not one for basic buttercreams, but I think a cream cheese frosting cuts the richness of the chocolate cake nicely. I used Annie's cream cheese frosting, which tasted and piped gorgeously for me in the past. I did, however, make the mistake of using a neufchatel cheese I had on hand instead of a full-fat cream cheese, which resulted in a less stiff and slightly stickier consistency (more appropriate for sticky buns I would say). Listen kids, I know your cringing that I just said full-fat. Say it with me: Full. Fat. If you skimp, it will not be as good. If I'm going to eat a chocolate cupcake, it should be an experience of chocolate insanity in my mouth. Got that? Good. Now that we've learned a lesson here, I got pretty positive feedback from these. I took these beauties to a birthday party the same night where they were promptly consumed - royal icing decorations and all. (happy bellies make me a happy baker)

As usual, I was too wrapped up in my project to take pictures. The fun of royal icing is that you can pipe up whatever your imagination designs. To make these decorations, I referenced some images of Earth I had googled. I then drew sketches to the size I thought would work. I prepared my piping bags with royal icing tinted to bright aqua and green, with couplers and #1 Wilton icing tips. I placed transparency film (the type you get at Office Depot for overhead projectors) over the sketch and outlined and immediately flooded in the continents with green - the way you would pipe on sugar cookies. I repeated that a million times, filling up about four transparency sheets. I allowed the continents to dry enough to touch and then proceeded with outlining the globe shape and flooding with the blue color icing. Once done with the blue icing, make sure to allow a couple days sitting out to dry completely. I made the mistake of trying to peel the decorations off the transparency a day after and broke quite a few of these because they didn't come off cleanly.