Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Cheer

Merry Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/New Year/Winter Solstice/religious or secular holiday of your choice! I'm feeling like a scrooge this year. I don't have a single decoration up in my house. Finals week comes too close to Christmas and the end of semester things have taken up most of my time. But there's always time for baking! My favorite Christmas baking project is cookies. I love sugar cookies. Boring I know, but they taste so darn good. And I make perfect sugar cookies, if I do say so myself. I went out and got new cookie sheets this year. Four of 'em with just a raised handle on two sides. And of course I had to get cookie cutters too. My cookie recipe is super easy. The key to this is to make sure the dough stays cold or it gets too soft to work with. So once you've cut out your cookies, put the scraps into the fridge to get cold again, you may have to wait a while though. Once the cookies are baked, the fun begins. I love Toba Garrett's glace icing. This stuff is super easy to make, dries hard and shiney, and it tastes INCREDIBLE! You can add whatever flavor you want. My favorite is almond extract and I use that almost exclusively. I've made it before with lemon juice and it turned out great and I have aspirations of trying it with peppermint extract for the hubbin. Pick your favorite flavor, but I would suggest going for a clear flavoring otherwise it will mess with your colors. The only drawback to this recipe is that you can't get very detailed. I know a lot of people use this to cover the cookie since it tastes so yummy, and do the detail work with royal icing since it can be piped. I bought me a big ol' jar of sugar pearls to go with the other sprinkles and sugars to decorate the cookies, but lots of candies would be cute too. This isn't exactly a quick project. Day #1-mix up dough and stick in fridge. Day #2-bake cookies. Day#3+- Decorate. Day #4-box up. It's important to give these things a good 12 hours for the icing to set up completely. And now the picutures! My very favorite of all of them-the snow man. The eyes are black sprinkles from the jar I use when I make Rice Krispie treats. The nose is an orange ice cream sprinkle. So yes, this project totally included using tweezers and I LOVED IT! The lazy man's tree- Star shaped sprinkle and the round ones that match the snowman's eyes.
Other trees with sugar pearls-
Ornaments and trying to be artistic-
The rejects- These are cookies with icing that ended up running over the side. I handed them out to my students during their finals, so the cookies still went to a goood cause.I'm planning on making more cookies in my time off work, so I should add some more photos.

Have a wonderful Holiday season!

"The best muffins I've ever eaten"

I love praise, I'm just that narcissistic. I'm not afraid to admit it. So I bake and share with others in hopes of having praise showered upon me. That was the point of the blog in the first place! But I have to say, I got the best reaction from this recipe.
I have a few recipes I absolutely love. My red velvet is probably number one. The vanilla cake ranks pretty high too. But I make my pumpkin loaves every single year without fail and I get heaps of complements on them. The recipe comes out of a Taste of Home book and I've never tried anything else. This isn't exactly health food when you see the ingredient list, but it makes your tummy feel good and that's important too.
1-1/3 c AP flour
3 c sugar
2 tsp baking soda
1-1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg (I was out so I just doubled the cinnamon, but I really prefer less nutmeg than the recipe calls for anyway.)
1 can (15 oz) solid-pack pumpkin (I just measured out 15 oz of my pumpkin goo)
1 c vegetable oil
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 c water
1/2 c chopped pecans (Texan ones preferred)
1/4 c butter
1/4 c sugar
1/4 c packed brown sugar
1/4 c whipping cream
2/3 c confectioners' sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
In a bowl, combine the first six ingredients. Combine the pumpkin, oil, eggs and water; mix well. Stir into dry ingredients just until combined' fold in the pecans. Spoon int two greased 9x5x3" loaf pans. Bake at 350 for 60-65 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pans to wire racks. For glaze, combine butter, sugars and cream in a saucepan. Cook until sugar is dissolved. Cool for 20 minutes. Stir in the confectioners' sugar and vanilla until smooth. Drizzle over cooled loaves.
I have to say, the star of this recipe really is the glaze. I'll eat that stuff with a spoon if you don't take it away from me. And of course I sprinkle some pecans on the top after I've added the the glaze to the loaves.
My favorite way to make this is in mini loaf pans. They make a great gift size that way. Enough for one person to polish off in a couple of sittings. I made the mini loaves for my mom to give as Christmas gifts one year. I wrapped each loaf and then we put them into some Christmas pottery loaf pans from Michael's. Pretty cute, really yummy.
Since I'm on a cupcake kick here lately, I decided to stick these into cupcake liners and dub them muffins. Those I took to work and passed out to any coworkers I ran into. I caught my boss in her office and gave her one. Less than 15 minutes later, she found me and declared they were the "best muffins I've ever eaten" and then ate another one. :) That's what I like to hear.

A box full of Texas

The greatest gift came in the mail. Oddly enough, it wasn't a rock. But hint, hint, it IS Christmas time and I LOVE rocks...
Why am I so excited about a busted up FedEx box? It's not the box but what I found inside....
Oh yes! PECANS!!! Now why am I so excited about a box of pecans? These aren't just any pecans but honest-to-goodness Texas pecans. Being a misplaced Texan, I love any little piece of home and I got a whole box full. And just for the record, it's pronounced Puh-con.
My in laws have a pecan orchard. That's why the hubbin sported a farmer's tan through high school, riding the tractor. Right about this time of year, we start begging. Last year was a bad year and no box of pecans came. (Funny, the pecan trees must be in cahoots with the pumpkins since I didn't get that last year either. How in the world did I do any baking at all?). But this year's crop was better and low-and-behold this box showed up!
Which means I got to spend some special time with this:
Of course I put them all to good use!

Giving Thanks

Seeing as how I had a whole mess of pumpkin goo in the freezer, I had the perfect opportunity to finally get some baking done with it: Thanksgiving! Now I know that this is a time to be with family and all sit around the table and eat turkey and watch football, but we aren't exactly traditional. My Thanksgiving dinner? Steak and Shiner at Saltgrass Steakhouse in Laughlin, Nevada. And it was awesome. Of course that was just a stop on the way to Vegas. The breakfast at the Vegas Hilton is pretty dang awesome, if you want my two cents.
The point of the trip was to head to Death Valley. I'd never been there but I had a great time and got to see some freakin' awesome alluvial fans.

What about baking you say? Oh yes, there was baking when we made it home. We rushed back in time to have Thanksgiving at my favorite astronomer's house. The same annual Thanksgiving dinner that I was forced to bring canned pumpkin pie to last year. BUT!!! Since I had those awesome pumpkins in my freezer, all was well this year. That lovely spot on the top of the pie is due to condensation since I baked the pies that morning and carried them, still warm, to Melissa's.

If you have never had real pumpkin pie, you don't know what you're missing. Seriously, try it next year. Of course, Thanksgiving is really about the food, but the people sharing with you are important too. So thanks for having us out again Melissa! And here's a picture of Kristen and her Thanksgiving herpes (Don't ask, but it's really just hives).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Down on the Farm

I'm so excited because I've had my first request for a cake (I've done cupcakes for folks before, but not cake). And not just any cake, a birthday cake. And not just any birthday, but a first birthday. A farm themed party at that! The birthday boy (and Dad):
Daunting task, being one of the most significant birthdays in a human's life and I was terrified of a repeat of Erik's birthday. But I went with a tried and trusted recipe that I love and trusted for this cake and it was a perfect choice.
The Magnolia Bakery is located in NYC, but published their Vanilla Birthday Cake recipe in a cookbook. I love it because it's a super simple recipe, super easy to put make, and tastes like a sugar cookie. Since the party was outside in November, there was a chance of it being pretty warm. I realize that may sound absurd to most people, but this is Phoenix and we've recently been having temperatures over 100, so it's always possible. Traditional buttercream must have been invented in a temperate climate because it melts in the heat. I turned to a Crisco-based frosting that is really tasty and can withstand any Phoenix day.
So how does 4 pounds of butter, 3 pounds of Crisco, and 10 pounds of powdered sugar turn into a cake for one tiny little dude? Pure bakery magic! And of course a GIANT mess in the kitchen. Every chef needs awesome attire for baking, so check out the footwear (props to Corynn, the birthday boy's mom):
These look way more sinister when they're on my feet than when they're not.
Everything needs to come to room temperature before the baking begins. And since I was making 5 batches of the recipe (yes, that was FIVE, it was a big party), it took up most of my counter space. But of course, it's when the real baking starts that things get interesting and my kitchen smelled awesome! The cake looked great coming out of the oven. So did the cupcakes.
Then came the best part, all the frosting! I didn't get pictures in the process, too busy. But I got pictures of the results. The cake:
How freakin' cute is the Little People Farm set? This may be the most adorable cow ever.
You may also notice that I finally found an excuse to buy myself a grass tip. :)
I pitched the idea of a cake just for the birthday boy after seeing quite a few "smash" cakes online. These are so you can get pictures of the birthday kid playing in the cake, but everyone else gets one without the handprints. Jake's cake: And the whole spread, complete with the cupcakes plus the birthday boy and Mom: So what was the verdict? I think he liked it:
Big thanks to Corynn and Cameron for letting me make the cake and inviting me and the hubbin' to the party. These two are awesome parents and super cool people and have one of the cutest kids on Earth. Thanks for putting the hubbin' to work for them setting up, keeps him out of trouble.
And to a big thanks to Melinda who took pictures for me when I had other commitments and was super late to the party. Since this was my favorite picture of Jake that I found on my camera, I'll leave you with it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Getting into the Holiday Spirit

I spent an entire afternoon last year calling grocery stores. Why? I needed some pumpkins. I called every single major grocer within a 100 mile radius from my house. Whenever they'd answer, I'd ask for produce, then tell the person on the other end of the line that I was looking for sugar pumpkins. These aren't your Jack-o-lantern pumpkins, they're smaller, full of sugar and meat, and used for pies. I'm a pie snob. I make my own crust (finally got that figured out, but it took a while) and I make my own fillings. No canned stuff for me. Which is why I was on a mission. But it was to no avail. The folks at A.J.'s (a snooty, high-class grocer) weren't much help at all. But the lady from Trader Joe's was super friendly. I learned from her that last year was apparently a bad year for pumpkins. Trader Joe's suppliers couldn't get any in stock at all. And so I brought a pie with canned pumpkin to my friend Melissa's giant Thanksgiving shin-dig, head hung in shame.
So I felt all sorts of giddy when I walked into my normal grocery store the day after Halloween and saw the display of tiny pumpkins. Even with nearly a month before Thanksgiving, I knew I had to have them. Cooking them is almost as easy as opening up a can of "pumpkin." Did you know that most canned pumpkin is not really pumpkin at all, but some other squash? The first step is to cut them in half. And who doesn't like getting all stabby?
You may notice all the pumpkin guts already on the counter. I'm a messy person in general and this project isn't for the clean freaks anyway. But it's all worth it in the end. Of course, the next step is to get out all the goo from the insides.
Once the pumpkins were all cut, I put them face down on a cookie sheet and baked them until they smelled good. That comes out to about 45 minutes or so. How do they smell so cinnamony already? I love the color of the pumpkin here.
The easiest part is getting the good stuff out of the pumpkin skins. You'd think that you should let it cool so that you can scoop out the flesh, but since they're already face down, they easiest way is just to peel the skin off of the still warm pumpkins. Once everything was cool, I ran the pumpkin through a food processor to smooth it all out. Four little pumpkins make an awful lot of goo. Here's the results after getting processed. It'll probably give me two pies with enough left over for pumpkin bread. Awesome. And since I still had nearly a month until Thanksgiving, it all went into the freezer. But I'll have a real pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving this year at Melissa's.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thing 1 and Thing 2

I haven't posted anything in a while, not because I haven't been baking or finding ways to use up those leftover supplies but because almost everything I've tried has been a dismal failure. I have an oddly short loaf of banana bread sitting on the kitchen counter. I like banana bread, but this one just wasn't right. Too sweet. Guess that's what I get for deciding it needed brown sugar, it messed up the taste.
My saddest failure, however, was a birthday cake for the husband of a friend, though I suppose you should probably consider him a friend as well. He does like the Seahawks and I'm a huge fan of those bright green uniforms they wore this weekend while getting stomped by the Bears. This couple had visited San Francisco recently, so Melinda and I stuck our little heads together and we decided that using San Fran as a theme would be awesome. And I decided that I needed to make a cake in the shape of the Palace of Fine Arts. This is the happy couple during their vacation. You can visit her blog for a long-winded account of the trip, but you may want to block out a few hours to get through the whole story. I stole this picture from her blog, I suppose I should have asked permission first. Oh well.

This should have been a fairly easy project. I have a Wilton ball pan, so dome was done. That fit nicely on my tiny little 6" pan, so I could just fill that three times and I'd be done. Then a 9" to which I was supposed to add the lake complete with fondant swans (it's like Play-doh but you get to eat it). The Palace itself was just going to be covered with fondant with cutouts to mimic the arches. I even bought little cardboard rounds and dowels to create the internal structure.

But things went awry when I baked the cake. Erik had asked for carrot cake. I've baked these before with success, but didn't really note where I got that recipe, so I turned to the interwebs and that's where I went wrong. The first batch of cake never rose so they were sad little layers that wouldn't make the palace tall enough. So I made a second batch with a different recipe. These rose a little too nicely in the oven, overflowing the pan, but then sank so that the cake was definately concave.

I did try to stack these up and go with it, using the dowel rods to hold it all up, but it was to no avail. And I was pissed off, so I decided just to deconstruct the cake and make two. These shall henceforth be known as Thing One and Thing Two since I refuse to refer to them as "cakes." I did my best to salvage the day and they still tasted pretty good, sunkend middle and unrisen layers and all. I didn't get any photos of the process since I was too busy cussing at the cake to take pictures, but I give you the results:

I decided to keep the dang swans that were supposed to be in the lake by sticking one big one on the top of the dome cake. Odd for a dude? Yes. Something I find great pleasure in anyway? Of course! But I had made up a whole bunch of white fondant and needed an excuse to use it up anyway. And the picture doesn't show how even the swan was lopsided, but it does nicely show off the swan cleavage. :)

The birthday dude (felt bad typing boy) still ate at the cake anyway. And yes, he's going right for the swan with the knife.

Of course it's just not a party at my house without the cat. So here she is trying to convince Erik that she really needs a slice of cake too. Yes, she does sit for treats, she's very strange.

So happy birthday Erik, even though it's been a while.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lemon Posset

This technically isn't baking, but I thought it'd be a nice addition anyway. I was making the Chocolate-Peanut Butter cupcakes and they're topped with ganache. Since heavy cream generally comes in a larger container than you really need for just ganache, I went searching for something that called for it. I love creme brulee, but I wouldn't have quite that much cream left over, not to mention that's pretty heavy on the cholesterol.
So I turned to the ingredient search on Allrecipes. You can tell it what ingredients you have, it'll tell you recipes that include them. It's a great tool, particularly when you're craving something but want a new way to use it. Or when it's still two days away from grocery shopping and you're desperate to use whatever is in your freezer.
This particular search gave me Lemon Posset. Score. Three ingredients: heavy cream (this was the point), lemon juice (had some in the fridge, personally squeezed by me), and sugar (I'm a baker, this is always around). Heat the sugar and cream, add lemon, refrigerate. Easy as pie. Or easier, since pie can be kinda tricky. I added some lemon zest while the cream and sugar were heating and a little less sugar, both suggestions from other users on the web page.

The lemon dessert was chosen because the hubbin loves lemon. About the only way I really like it is in water, which he won't touch. Odd, no? But I thought it would be a nice consolation prize since he got to clean up the kitchen after I wreaked havoc for three days straight in there.

The verdict?

"It's lemony." I suppose I should take that as a complement. And a warning to not ask the hubbin' for his opinion in the future. I also got a request to leave out the lemon zest since it apparently annoyed him. Wimp.
I got a taste myself though and I have to say it was pretty yummy. Not pudding like at all. The flavor was nice and deep and rich thanks to the heavy cream. It's the flavor I like so much in the creme brulee. I'm thinking you could even through some sugar on these and break out the blow torch (I tell people I have a blow torch, but it's really just one of the little hand-held guys to caramelize sugar) and make a "brulee" since you don't stick these in the oven.
So not too bad if I do say so myself, and a great way to use up those leftover ingredients from baking that would just go bad otherwise.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Cupcakes

Well, since the majority liked chocolate peanut butter cupcakes, I set out to try a few recipes. I love the flavor combination and see Reece's peanut butter cups as some sort of gift from the confectionery gods, so this was a great fit for me and something I've never tried before. Since every baking adventure starts with a Google search, off I went. The winner was the Double Dark Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Filling from Food & Wine. This won since the ingredients were all things I either already have or I keep around anyway so it's a good excuse to restock. Plus, this includes filling the cupcakes and I haven't had an excuse to use my nifty new cupcake filler tip yet. I made very few changes to the recipe since it sounded pretty good right from the start. I didn't realize I was out of buttermilk until I got home, but I found some yogurt in the fridge and decided to make an easy substitution. Since yogurt is pretty tangy, you don't lose much flavor the buttermilk would have added. I mixed up the ganache for the top early on since I wanted to see how much heavy cream I'd have leftover for another recipe. I stirred it all up, got it nice and smooth, but the jar of peanut butter I'd left on the counter after the run to the store was taunting me from behind the flour. Never one to back down from a food themed taunt, I stuck a few spoonfuls in with the chocolate. :) The batter itself mixed up nice and fluffy, almost moose-like. That's moose as in the dessert, not moose as in Bullwinkle. No antlers on the cupcakes. But this made it easy to scoop out with an ice-cream scoop. Some didn't crown quite so nicely as they baked, but I got a few that looked real purty. Of course the next step after baking these little guys was the filling part. As I said, I had a tip that I hadn't had the opportunity to use yet. That's pretty tragic in and of itself, but I'd also never actually filled cupcakes before. Read about how to, thought about fillings, but never got this far. So yay! It's pretty easy: shove the tip in the cupcake and squeeze till the top starts to dome up. After all the peanut butter filling was in, all that was left was the ganache. The directions said to just dip the tops of the cupcakes in. Upon reading this I had visions of cupcakes floating in the bowl of chocolate, so I just slathered it on with my handy offset spatula. Probably not as pretty, but definitely cleaner. And since I do have the other tips that came along with the filler tip, I had to add a little bit of flair to the top. Just too dang cute. And check out that adorable little swirl on top. Of course the very last step is loading them all up to be toted in to TCTMNBN. I begged for months for the cupcake carrier that holds two dozen. So many of them only hold one and who in the world ever makes just one dozen cupcakes?!

These are some serious cupcakes. See how the weight of them are bowing the middle of the top tray? That's all that yummy peanut butter filling creating all that stress. :) It's the sign of a good dessert.

Hope you enjoy them if you get to try them. I was super busy in the kitchen this weekend, so I've got a few more things in the works. And I'm still looking for a caramel recipe, maybe soon. But up next week is a birthday cake that I'm totally excited about. It's gonna be awesome.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Red Velvet Cake

Welome to my blog! This first post was supposed to be a birthday cake for Nini but I missed her birthday. I finally found a new reason to bake and I thought this would be a great way to start.
The hubbin's boss is having a birthday, so a cake is in order. The hubbin works at The Company That Must Not Be Named (henseforth TCTMNBN); those that work there will probably understand. The only rule for today was no cinnamon, so I went back to my old standby, Red Velvet Cake (a favorite at TCTMNBN). And this being a holiday and all, I decided to go easy on the decorating so this in an entirely fondant-free cake. The beauty of the red velvet cake is the ridiculous quanitites of red food coloring that creates the characteristic color. It leaves the batter looking like something from a bad slasher movie.

But the results are totally worth it. I don't give out this recipe (so sorry if you were watching for it, I won't be so stingy in the future but this is my secret weapon in world domination), but it's from the internet anyway so a little searching will find it quickly. The only change I make is adding way more cocoa than the measly two teapsons that the recipe calls for. Today it was however much was left in the Hershy box, but it's generally even as much as 1/4 cup. This gives it a nice chocolaty taste and smell.

The baked results aren't quite as bright as the batter, but they still look pretty nice. Of course it wouldn't be red velvet cake without the cream cheese frosting, right? Add to that a few pecans (that's pronounced puh-con if you were ever informed incorrectly) and some fancy piping with the frosting and you've got yourself a mighty good cake. Who am I kidding? This stuff is incredible!!! Seriously, if you haven't had it, as me to make you some cupcakes. These things are made of of awesomeness. And of course, there is the leftover frosting that is sitting in a bowl next to me at this exact moment. :) So here's the final product, pleas excuse the wonky shell right front and center. That was the last few I was trying to squeeze in and things went horribly wrong.

So Happy Birthday Susanne!

And for all of you from TCTMNBN a big thanks for checking out the blog. I'm going to take a vote for what flavor of cupcakes you'd like next. Leave your suggestions in the comments.