Tuesday, April 27, 2010

the adventures of cakelock holmes

Time to put on your detective caps, friends. This one's a doozy.

Here's your background: last week I had my first "real" cake decorating class (the one before being the introductory session), and here are the photos to prove it:

Really? you ask. A photo of cake crown remnants, followed by the remnants of the cake crown remnants? The absence of a round layer cake, frosting, and piped flowers, stars, shell borders, etc. means something, I think. Some possibilities:
  1. I dropped the finished cake in the parking lot after class, smooshing it into oblivion.
  2. My dog ate it.
  3. Cake was attacked by an asteroid!
All right, this whole "present a mystery and then attempt to solve it through witty prose and pictorial evidence" thing has lost its novelty. The sad truth is that the cake was U-G-L-Y. Yea, that happened. I was way too embarrassed to show it to you, as in I'd rather show you what the leftover pieces look like rather than the finished product itself, which I gave away to a sympathetic family. Whoops. Aesthetics have never been my thing, but I'm trying. It can only look up from here.

Oh, and just so you know...that is some good chocolate cake. Okay? I do not fail at chocolate cake.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

field day

I'm assuming that none of you are interested in the reasons for my momentary absence (who likes listening to excuses?!)...so I'm just going to jump right in.

If you've followed this little blog for any length of time, you know that I tend to focus on the sweet side of life. What can I say? The endless kitchen parade of baked goods fueled by throwing butter and flour and sugar and eggs together never fails to excite me. Fortunately for my health, my diet does not consist of exclusively sweet things.

Veggies...I used to feel pretty whateverishly towards them and am still notorious among those who know me well for strongly disliking salad. Vegetables were always so green tasting...and so unchocolaty! (By the way, they are still green and unchocolaty, but I like them now. Wonder of wonders.) At some point in the not so distant past, I decided that health should be a priority, maybe...so in came the produce. In east asia, I fell head-over-heels in love with eggplant, cucumber, cabbage. However, we also had to scrub each veg and fruit passing through the kitchen with salt or special fruit wash to de-pesticide it. Grateful that is no longer a part of my life.

And now I live in one of the most agriculturally rich areas in the world. I love driving through orchard-lined streets on my way into town and stopping by roadside fruit stands that magically pop up like flowers in the summer for cherries and peaches, but prior to last week, I had never actually been on a farm. (Crazy, because the largest student club at my high school was definitely the Future Farmers of America: Drive Your Tractor to School Day, anyone?)

Our CSA hosted a field day on Saturday, meaning an open invitation to anyone to come out and check out how organic farming works. I think I knew in theory before that farming is hard, but...wow, now I know that farming is an incredible labor of love. If you personally know any farmers, give them a great big hug the next time you see them because...wow. It is certainly not for the faint of heart. Also, you can ask me about cover crops, devilish weeds, methods of preventing cross-pollination, and irrigation systems anytime. (Actually, please don't...I only know what I was told, and mostly I kept envisioning how long it would actually take me to drive a tractor to high school. Yeah...I'm a daydreamer.)

And now...your own personal tour of Kline Organic Farm!

Green onions are in season!

A very WMFHB-esque picture with the beginnings of some sugar snap peas. (This photo was actually accidental...but I like it.) Right after I shot this, one of the little boys in our group ran up to Brian (the main farmer) and asked him, "Where's the kale?" I was astonished. Some of the littlest children have the oldest (and apparently healthiest) souls. 

After the farm tour, Brian asked for help transplanting arugula...he got a great response! Being on a farm has this uncanny tendency to make you feel like digging around in the dirt.

Our edible souvenir of our day: some beautiful strawberries from Kline Organic's sister fruit farm, Tyson Hill. Now this is not me on a soapbox or anything, but these strawberries had a depth of sweetness, a complex flavor unlike anything I've ever tasted before that I am 150% attributing to the organic factor, the small farm factor, the local factor, and the just-picked-about-5-minutes-ago factor. My brain has a very difficult time thinking about anything else when Tyson Hill strawberries are in the house. We got another half flat from them yesterday, and it's almost already gone.

Oh be still, my strawberry heart.

Monday, April 12, 2010

son of a cream puff

First: the new face of cooking shows...you won't be sorry if you watch the entire ten minutes. Trust me on this.

(Note: chocolate chip cookie baking in my kitchen bears more than a slight resemblance to this video. Minus the gratuitous chocolate chip cramming in mouth part in the middle. Just kidding to both points. Although if you see me throwing my eggshells on the floor instead of in the trash can from now on, you know why.) (Favorite line at 2:51..."son of a biscuit", which I am totally going to start saying instead of, well you know. Not that I say that anyway. I hereby pronounce this little girl Sass Queen 2010.)

Where was I? Baking...the past week...oh yes. Our home hosted an "Iron Chef" competition last Thursday, which was messy good fun. 1 kitchen, 8 people, 2 teams, 2 bags of unknown groceries, 7 final dishes comprising 1 gut-busting meal. At the risk of sounding horribly bossy, I strongly suggest that you call up your friends now and set a date (this week?) for your own cooking party, competition optional. (This was way more enjoyable than I thought it would be!)

Random ingredient usage highlights: dried mango slices transformed into a cinnamon/nutmeg chutney? compote? of sorts, starfruit smashed into lemon vinaigrette for salad, stealing greens from the salad for pesto (remember, all's fair in love and pesto).

Of course I made dessert...the day before. (Loads of prior history dictates that dessert never be made in a hurry.) I will not bore you with the sordid details of my spotty record of successful pate a choux baking; just know that the record was spotty. But what to do with a dessert request--ignore it? Deny it? I swallowed my choux pastry fears and hopped to it.

A profiterole, if you've never had one before, is like the child of the cream puff...a beautiful, tiny, smothered in chocolate sauce cream puff child. Oh lordy. They're both made from choux pastry, which are those balls you see up there: dry and crusty on the outside, light and airy on the inside. Basically, a perfect vehicle for whipped cream (cream puff) or ice cream and chocolate sauce (profiterole). Relatively easy and super impressive. (Note: do not try to serve any more than two apiece to a person after an extremely large meal. Mild curse words may be tossed your way.)

(adapted from Joy of Baking--this recipe is enormously informative and useful. Read the top part through; it'll tell you everything you need to know!)

1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup water
2 eggs, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 400 and position a rack in the center of the oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, and salt.

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt together the butter and water and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add the flour mixture all at once. Returning to heat, stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a smooth ball.

Transfer dough to the bowl of an electric mixer and with the paddle attachment, beat on low for a couple minutes to cool down the dough. (Alternately, beat on low with a hand mixer.) With the mixer still running, slowly stream in the eggs and continue beating until dough turns into a smooth paste. (It will look a little curdled and scary for a bit, but don't worry, just keep going.)

Spoon 12 mounds of dough onto the sheet (I found my medium sized cookie scoop worked great for these purposes). (You could also pipe it onto the sheet, but I would never ask you to do this.)

Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the oven temperature down to 350 and bake for another 30-40 minutes until the exterior of the little puffs are golden and the interior fairly dry. (To check, just slash one open and check.) Turn off the oven and leave the door slightly open for 10-15 minutes to let the puffs dry out, then remove from sheet to a cooling rack for an additional 5-10 minutes.

To serve, you can reheat them in a 350 degree oven for 5 minutes, then split open and fill with little scoops of vanilla ice cream. Drizzle warm chocolate sauce over the tops (or just make a pool of it on the plate) and be generous with it, please.

Okay so exciting: my very first cake decorating class starts tomorrow! You will definitely be reading all about it here, so get amped!!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

frosting war and peace

Hi! I'm back. Hello. I missed you guys! First off, a big thanks to Aubrey for an amazing peek into her world last week! My heart...it smiled and ached at the same time seeing photos of the national treasure otherwise known as la mian. And the gai fan. Oh my. I will stop now, but you should seriously go check it out if you haven't already.

Okay. So...what have I been doing the past two weeks? There was a test that went well enough. Not too many brain cells were obliterated by it, so hooray for that.

Also...entrepreneurship! (Fancy label for: Arijaan and her fam hosted their very first Easter Egg hunt on Saturday and asked me to bake stuff and sell it there! Thank you Bulks by the way; it was super fun!) There were some technical difficulties the day beforehand, most prominent being THE ONE WHERE THE WATER GOT TURNED OFF ALL DAY, one thing led to another, and all of a sudden I was standing in the middle of the kitchen at 11 pm Friday night, thinking about the acts of God it would take to produce the cupcakes and their frosting and brownies and snickerdoodles and banana muffins I had planned on making for the kiddies of Oakdale by morning with my sanity (fairly) intact.

Around 2 am is when things got sticky. For reasons only an unhinged, sleep-deprived brain could understand, I decided to be ambitious (WHY???) and make French buttercream frosting. Things turned ugly and catastrophic in the way that only overly earnest undertakings far too late at night go. Something about a soft ball stage, way too many egg yolks, and...the cause was lost long before I even separated the first egg. I should have known. Frosting attempt #2 was also a bust. Panicked, I started frantically flipping through the 10+ cookbooks I dragged into the kitchen for a Hail Mary pass at frosting redemption.

The short version: I found it (or should I say I caught it? I threw it? Sports analogies escape me), breathed an immense sigh of relief, slathered everything in sugar and even managed to get an hour of sleep in. Your take-home messages:
  • Don't mess with French buttercream in the wee hours of the morning. It will only lead to pain.
  • Make sure that thing in your kitchen drawer that you thought was a candy thermometer is not actually a meat thermometer. 
  • Always have a reliable frosting recipe in your back pocket (and the supplies to make it happen). 
  • Also...sprinkles cover over a multitude of sins. Amen.

The Chocolate Frosting that saved the day
(adapted from Absolutely Chocolate) (one glimpse at this book elicits a very Pavlovian drooling response from me)

1 1/2 pounds chocolate (I used a mixture of milk, dark, and whatever else I could scrape together), chopped
6 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
4 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder (optional, I left this out because it was for kids)
pinch of salt
1 cup + 2 tablespoons heavy cream
3 teaspoons vanilla

Put the chocolate, butter, espresso powder, and salt in a large bowl. Bring the cream to a boil on the stovetop and pour it over the chocolate stuff. Stir until everything is melted and smooth. Stir in the vanilla. Refrigerate until cold (at least 2 hours). (Longest 2 hours of my life.) Beat frosting with a hand-held mixer (will be kind of hard at first but should soften up with more beating). Frosting will lighten in color and become more spreadable. Frost your (cup)cakes of choice and smile because that was not difficult at all!

Your most memorable kitchen failure?