Thursday, March 20, 2014

christmas (or anytime) wreath

After ogling blog post after blog post of twisted wreath breads for what felt like ages, I finally baked this Christmas Wreath. I was so excited to try it! We were headed to a potluck brunch at a friend's house, and it felt like the perfect hostess gift - something they could easily put out on the table or save to eat later (though selfishly, I hoped they'd share it so I could taste it!). Sara Kate Gillingham has written reverently about her family's Christmas morning tradition that involves this bread, but for me, the clincher was when my old friend from Bologna, who now teaches cooking classes in England, shared a recipe using nearly the identical shape and technique!

First, look how pretty it is!

Now let's talk about the taste. It is a just-barely-sweet bread, and it is actually much breadier, perhaps drier, than I had imagined. I expected the consistency of a coffee cake, like a king cake, but it's pretty true to its yeast dough origins and not as soft as a brioche. Both my friend's recipe and Sara Kate's are for a slightly more sophisticated palate, and I simplified the filling and just used dried cranberries plumped in a little hot water. Ottavia's is filled with raisins and chopped, candied orange peel; Sara Kate's with a mixture of dried cranberries, almonds, and lemon zest that also sounds delicious.

What appealed to me most was the way you achieve the shape. After mixing the dough and letting it proof, you roll it out into a large rectangle, brush it with melted butter, and sprinkle on the filling of choice. Next, you roll up the dough tightly. Here's where it gets interesting: using a thin, sharp knife, you cut the snake in half lengthwise. Keeping the cut edges up, you twist them together, then bring the ends together, leaving a hole in the center, to form a wreath. My only quibble with the way it turned out is that I thought the layers would look more distinct. Next time perhaps I can roll it more tightly so there are more internal layers; then, when I dissect it, it will have more striations.

It's really a lovely bread, and I can see how both the orange peel or the cranberries make it a perfect winter treat; they are such cold weather flavors! I'm sure you could fill it with any flavor combo you like (I actually think almond paste and cranberries would be even nicer!), so perhaps I will try that next time. This definitely deserves a "next time!"

Holiday Breakfast Wreath with Cranberry-Almond Filling or Raisin/Candied Orange Peel Filling
Makes about 12 servings

1 packet active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
1/4 cup warm water (about 110F)
1/2 cup warm milk (about 110 F)
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cardamom powder (I omitted this)
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
3 1/2 cups (14 7/8 ounces) flour

Cranberry-Almond Filling
3/4 cup dried cranberries or cherries, soaked in 1/2 cup brandy, other liqueur, or hot water
6 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup (1 3/8 ounces) flour
3/4 cup finely chopped blanched almonds
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon lemon peel
1 teaspoon almond extract


Raisin-Candied Orange Peel Filling
3 ounces raisins
3 ounces candied orange peel, chopped
2 ounces butter, melted

Sugar Glaze
1 cup (4 ounces) powdered sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoons cardamom powder (I omitted this)

First, make the dough. In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water and let it foam up for a minute or two. Blend in the milk, sugar, butter, salt, cardamom (if using), eggs, and lemon peel. Stir in two cups of the flour, a cup at a time. Beat for two minutes. Add remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until you have a soft, workable dough. You may not use all the flour.

On a lightly floured board, knead the dough until smooth, about 5-10 minutes, adding flour if needed to prevent sticking. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.

Meanwhile, prepare the cranberry-almond filling if using. Drain the dried fruit of its liqueur and reserve the liqueur for another use (or have a swig). In a small bowl, combine all ingredients. Cover and refrigerate.

When the dough has doubled in size, punch it down and knead it just to release any air bubbles. Roll it into a 9x30" rectangle. If you are using cranberry-almond filling, crumble the filling over the dough to within 1" of the edges. If you are using raisin-orange peel, brush the dough rectangle with the melted butter, then sprinkle with raisins and orange peel to within 1" of the edges. Starting on a long side, tightly roll up the dough, pinching the edge against the loaf to seal it. With a thin, sharp knife, cut the roll in half lengthwise. Carefully turn the halves cut side up. Loosely twist the ropes around each other, keeping the cut sides up.

Transfer the twist to a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silpat and shape it into a wreath. Pinch the ends together to seal. Let it rise a second time, uncovered, in a warm place, for about 45 minutes or until puffy.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Bake until lightly browned, about 25 minutes. While the wreath is baking stir together the ingredients for the sugar glaze.

When the wreath is finished baking, transfer it to a cooing rack. Cool for a few minutes, and then drizzle the glaze over the warm wreath.

The wreath can be eaten immediately, or it can be prepared up to two days in advance, cooled completely, and wrapped tightly in foil. Store at room temperature, and then reheat at 350 for 10-15 minutes, drizzling the glaze just before serving.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

honeybear cake for my beautiful niece

My littlest niece recently (ok, Thanksgiving weekend) turned 2. She is so delicious, with the softest cheeks you can imagine. Her favorite toy buddy is Honeybear, her lovey, who goes everywhere with her, so we thought it would be fun to make a Honeybear cake with the bear peeking over the edge of a giant vat of honey. 

Here's the bear:

And here's the cake:

And here's the delighted girl with her two buddies together!
I hand-cut Honeybear out of fondant using a template I sketched after looking at a picture of the real lovey. I used a few brown tones for his paws/face and head/ears, though it was hard to get them perfect; the brown food coloring often looks too pink, and I'm not quite sure how to get that golden tone, even though I tried variously adding gold and yellow food coloring. Anyway, I cut out a flat bear and layered on the muzzle, nose, and eyes. I added some texturing, hitting the fondant gently with the back of a small knife to look like fur. The paws were kept separate because I wasn't sure where Honeybear was going to perch. I left the fondant to dry for several days so it would be sturdy enough to stand up without caving in. Although it would have been cute to press the bear to the back of the cake, like he was climbing up the jar, I knew the fondant would slide down, so I just inserted it into the cake about an inch from the edge. (The frosting around the edge was fairly thick, and the fondant needed to be jammed more into the cake than into the frosting; it kept trying to lean backward.) Anyway, it stayed upright as long as it needed to, and the birthday girl loved it.

The cake was chocolate - my family is a chocolate family - with vanilla frosting. Perfect for a 2-year-old family party! Happy birthday, A!

Print the chocolate cake recipe.
Print the vanilla frosting recipe.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

buttercream flowers with carrot cake

Recently, our neighbor asked me to make a carrot cake for a birthday party she was throwing for her good friend. I used my favorite carrot cake recipe. It's so flavorful and goes so well with the slightly tangy-but-sweet cream cheese frosting. My neighbor asked me to decorate it with pink and purple flowers, so I decided to try out the buttercream flowers I'd seen on My Cake School.

One of these days, I really want to make a double-barreled cake (twice as tall as a regular cake) so I can do some kind of cascading design down the side. This cake was just a standard height (they only needed to feed about 15 people), so I cascaded the flowers across the top and side of the cake. I'd also love to try all-white flowers at some point; I think the white-on-white would look very elegant.

It was fun to try my hand at different shaped flowers, and Melissa's tutorial made it really easy to learn how to pipe them. I strongly recommend piping more flowers than you need in case one falls apart when you try to adhere it to the cake. You're really limited only by the size (height) of your piping tips. For example, I could only pipe a really low rose (see above) with the small size rose tip I have.

I used white pearls for the centers of the flowers. Silver dragees are nice, too, or other-colored sugar pearls. The flowers are piped onto small squares of parchment, placed on a cookie sheet, and refrigerated until firm. Then it's really easy to peel the parchment off the back and press them gently to the side (or top) of the cake. Obviously, you don't want to handle them too much, or they will warm up and get smushed. If the flowers won't stick easily on their own, pipe a dab of frosting onto the back of the flower and then gently press it onto the cake.

The cake was a hit and as always, I enjoyed trying something new! I would definitely be willing to grab some more piping tips and play with buttercream flowers again.

Print carrot cake recipe.
Print cream cheese frosting recipe.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

bridging to juniors

My girl has had quite a ride with the Girl Scouts of America. She and 11 friends started as Daisies, moved up through Brownies, and this year, they flew up to Juniors! The girls had an official bridging ceremony with the rest of our unit (all the troops in the area), but they celebrated at their first meeting of the school year with a private party. And what's a party without cake?

I made a really simple, homey vanilla cake with chocolate frosting, a rainbow bridge, and the Brownie and Junior symbols. They gobbled it up, so I guess they liked it!

I am proud of their accomplishments as a troop, and I am glad my Bug has this special group of girls she can count on for support and friendship.

Print vanilla cake recipe.
Print chocolate buttermilk frosting recipe.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

are you my mummy?

Every Halloween, our school has a carnival with a cake walk. I like to do something fun and different every year. Last year was a Kit Kat cake (frosted with chocolate, surrounded by standing-up Kit Kats, and laden with M&M's). This year, I made a cute little mummy.

Underneath the fondant wrapping is a chocolate cake covered with chocolate ganache. I fashioned a body-like shape out of a 9x13" cake. The scraps were used to add dimension for the arms and feet (I glued them on with frosting, then spread ganache right over them). And the eyeballs are simply blue and white fondant with a food-safe marker used to make the pupils. I know they're not scientifically accurate, but they're cutely creepy.

I rolled out white fondant to about 1/8" thickness, cut it into somewhat regular strips, and laid them at angles across and around the "body." Anywhere there was a gap, I covered it with another strip. It's an easy project because it's so inexact. It doesn't matter if the fondant appears torn; in fact, it adds a little texture.

I never got to see who won the cake, but hopefully it gave them a good giggle before they devoured it!

bruce and wayne's wedding

Last week, I had the honor to cater dessert for a very special wedding. The grooms are in their 60's and 70's, and they are close family friends of my client. After 37 years together, with the overturn of Proposition 8, they decided to make it legal with a beautiful ceremony and evening celebration. What a treat to be part of such an important day! The grooms requested cheesecake - we opted for two flavors - and we decided to add an 8" cake so they'd have something to slice and taste together.

I think this vertical piping looks elegant and clean.

Smart fellas: they are chocolate lovers, so while the outside decorations corresponded with their invitation and event colors, the inside was four rich chocolate layers filled with creamy chocolate mousse. The ribbon design with cursive initials mimicked the wedding invitation, and the grooms requested their names and the wedding date underneath. I used white candy melts to pipe the letters onto parchment. They are so delicate, I was afraid they would either snap or melt, so I piped about half a dozen of each. It was a wise choice, as a few of them bit the dust as I tried to transfer them; I was really grateful to have extras! I used an offset spatula to gently lift and transfer them and simply laid them on top of the fondant, using just a tiny dab of corn syrup on a paintbrush to act as glue and make sure the letters wouldn't slide around.

We decided on plain cheesecake with candied lemon peel and pumpkin cheesecake with a cream cheese-caramel swirl. It felt seasonal, and I liked the look of having two flavor options.

I have posted the cheesecake and candied lemon peel recipes before. The pumpkin cheesecake recipe is from the 1993 Thanksgiving edition of Bon Appetit, and I think my family has made it every year but one of the last 20! I made 1 1/2 recipes and baked it in a 9x13" pan following the same basic formula as the other cheesecake (which also bakes in a 9x13). I started it at 475F for 8 minutes, then reduced the heat to 200F and baked it for 50 minutes, and then turned off the oven and left it in for another 50 minutes. The pumpkin cheesecake has a little more volume than the plain, and it needed just a little longer. I probably baked it for 60-65 minutes and left it in the oven for 65-70 minutes. As a note, 1 1/2 recipes made just a little too much batter for a 9x13, so I had a little batter leftover (and made a few mini-cupcake-sized cheesecakes that baked for about 18 minutes).

Tasting the two side by side, I was surprised to find that I preferred the pumpkin cheesecake. It is much creamier, and in comparison, the plain cheesecake was a bit dry. I also think I would add a bit of melted butter to the crust for the plain cheesecake. It would hold together better and provide a little more flavor. And I would not skimp on the Whole Foods (or at least Trader Joe's) vanilla wafers; I used a different brand (not 'Nilla Wafers) and the others are superior.

Cheesecake needs a day to sit and develop the flavor in the fridge, which makes it a great "do ahead" recipe for parties. I sliced the cheesecakes into about 2" squares and placed each piece into a silver cupcake liner (following the wedding color scheme). Make sure to wipe the knife after each cut to keep the lines very clean and smooth!

For the cake, I made the Martha Stewart chocolate cake and regular vanilla buttercream. The chocolate mousse filling came from a very simple recipe I found here, though I admit to some temperature confusion. This recipe - and several others I saw - call for folding whipped cream into a melted chocolate mixture, but I wasn't sure how much, if at all, to cool the melted chocolate before folding in the cream. The recipe didn't mention it, but the heat from the chocolate definitely melted and deflated the whipped cream a bit. I ended up whipping it a little more before refrigerating it (which I think was probably not strictly necessary, but gave me more confidence it would turn out okay). After several hours in the fridge, it had set up nicely and ended up being thick enough to stand up as a cake filling. With more time to experiment, I might look for other recipes or play around with the temperatures a bit. Here's the recipe for the record.

Chocolate Mousse

1/2 cup cold heavy cream
1/2 cup (2 ounces) powdered sugar
1 cup (6 ounce) chocolate chips
2 teaspoons vanilla

1 1/2 cups cold heavy cream
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) sugar

In a medium saucepan, combine powdered sugar and 1/2 cup heavy cream. Add chocolate chips and stir over low heat until chocolate chips are melted and well-blended. Remove from heat, stir in vanilla, and set aside. (The recipe doesn't say so, but I feel like it couldn't hurt to cool it to just warmer than room temperature. You don't want it too cold, or the chocolate may seize when you fold in the whipped cream, but too warm and it will melt the whipped cream you're about to beat.)

In a large bowl, beat the remaining 1 1/2 cups heavy cream on medium speed. Gradually add sugar. When all the sugar has been added, increase speed to high and beat until stiff peaks form.

Fold about 1/3 of the whipped cream into the chocolate mixture to lighten ("temper") it. Then fold in the remaining whipped cream, but do not overmix. Refrigerate for several hours before filling cake.


Bruce and Wayne have already shared nearly four happy decades. I was honored to help make this special day a little more memorable, and I wish them many more happy and healthy years together!

Print chocolate mousse recipe.

Friday, October 18, 2013

PTA founder's day cake (or: what to do with a lot of spare cake)

Once upon a time in February, I had a lot of extra cake on my hands. Three, 12" round layers, to be exact.

Luckily for me, our school was celebrating PTA Founder's Night. And what better way to celebrate than with a giant cake that will feed 50 people?

I quickly frosted it with delicious chocolate frosting and ran it over to school. Voila!

the pink heart cake that almost wasn't pink

Once upon a time in February, I made a cake for a very sweet, four-year old girl named Ramona. Ramona had a very specific idea of what she wanted for her cake. She wanted it to be heart-shaped. She wanted it to be decorated with purple, red, and pink with hearts and flowers. And she wanted the cake itself to be pink.

Super cute, right?

So you can imagine my horror when I began to assemble it and realized I had forgotten to tint the cake batter! This was a really big cake: three, twelve-inch layers. That's a lot of cake, and there's really no fixing it. So I quickly started baking again - carefully adding lots of pink food coloring to the batter - and this is what I ended up with...


To make the cake heart-shaped, I started with a 12" round. I assembled and chilled the layers (but didn't frost the top or sides). Chilling it makes it much easier to sculpt, rather than doing the layers separately and hoping they match up size-wise. I cut a heart shape out of parchment paper, laid it on the top of the cake, and used a tomato knife to saw off hunks (and then fine tune) until it was the right shape. Then I used my favorite tie-dye look to spackle purple frosting on the top, and then white, pink, and red on the sides to make a pretty, melded frosting design. I ringed the sides with dozens of pink, purple, and red hearts, and made a few simple white flowers for the top.

I'm only glad I realized my mistake before delivering it. Can you imagine the birthday girl's disappointment? Whew!

Tune in next time to find out how I put the extra layers to use...

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

cowboy cupcakes

I recently was asked to make cupcakes for a client whose son was having a western-themed birthday party. The party was being held at Travel Town, an outdoor museum showing the history of trains and Los Angeles, but the birthday boy was adamant that the cupcakes be red, white, and blue and western. I made chocolate cupcakes with colored frosting and a variety of cupcake toppers: cowboy boots, sheriff stars, horseshoes, and cacti. (I thought cowboy hats would be cute, too, but the birthday mom preferred the other designs.)

I found some appropriate images and drew small templates to fit the top of a standard cupcake. The templates made it easy to cut out the fondant. I let the cut pieces dry overnight to firm up, and then I used food-safe markers and luster dust to decorate each topper. I brushed the boot lightly with a dry brush dipped in luster dust (I dipped it in and then tapped it on the side of the container to get just a tiny amount). The star and horseshoe needed a deeper color and thicker coverage, so I mixed the luster dust with a few drops of vodka to make a paint. (Luster dust is not water soluble, but the vodka will evaporate - no worries about feeding it to kids!)

The cupcakes looked adorable and fit the theme perfectly. Happy birthday, Li'l Cowboy!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

chicken soup and chicken stock

I feel like a post about chicken soup is long overdue. And not just because I burned the crap out of my hand making it last night and feel like the soup owes me, but because it is delicious, incredibly easy, inexpensive, filling, AND... best yet... it does double duty when you strip the bones of all their delicious meat and repurpose them to make chicken stock. A two-fer! What could be better?

The only bummer is that I don't have a picture of it, because right now it is sitting in my fridge, disassembled. (Quick: picture a bowl of steaming, golden chicken soup, flecked with veggies and chicken and a few remaining bits of dill.) I like to store the vegetables separately from the soup so they don't get too soggy. So I've got one huge tupperware with just broth, and another with the carrots, parsnips, and shredded chicken, and the matzah balls haven't been made yet.

My mom taught me how to make soup, and she, my sister, and I all make it pretty similarly; I have a few changes that I'll reflect below. You start with a kosher chicken. Salt is used in the kashering (making it kosher) process, so kosher chickens are that much more flavorful. You can go to the kosher butcher, which is an experience in itself, or you can just pick up a kosher chicken, already cut up, from Trader Joe's. (See? Easy.) Place the chicken in a large soup pot. Due to all the recent recommendations not to wash chicken, I skipped that step and went straight to the pot. Cover the chicken with water by about an inch. I usually throw in a peeled onion (cut the ends off, but you can leave it whole), some salt and several grinds of pepper, as well. Turn the stove on to high and bring it to a boil, then bring the light down to simmer the water for about an hour.

During this time, gross foam will rise to the surface of the water. Skim it off with a slotted spoon, paper towel, or fine-mesh sieve - whatever works best for you. Last night, the mesh sieve worked for me. I skimmed and dumped it into a bowl (you'll throw out the scum; it just makes it easier to have somewhere to put it while you're next to the stove).

After an hour, you'll add the vegetables and seasoning. This is flexible (and this is where I stray from the recipe, which calls for celery, which I hate). Use what you like. You're going to cut the veggies into bite-sized pieces, so you don't want them to cook for more than about 30 minutes. For one chicken, I used 4 skinny carrots (peeled and chopped), 4 skinny parsnips (peeled and chopped, and a bunch of fresh dill (throw it in whole). I also added about 2 tablespoons of Osem chicken bouillon powder and a little more pepper. Though it will be piping hot, spoon out a bit into a dish and blow on it, then taste it to see if it needs salt. Now's the time to add it. However, the Osem is salty, so taste first. Then let it simmer for another 30 minutes.

When the soup is done, I take a few steps right away. First, I remove the chicken pieces to a very large bowl to cool for a bit. Last night, I used tongs, and somehow some of the boiling soup ran down the tongs and burned my fingers. Not recommended. Using a slotted spoon next time. Next, I use the same slotted spoon to separate out the vegetables. The onion and dill get tossed, and the carrots and parsnips are saved for eating (refrigerate in a tupperware). Let the soup cool for a while on the now-turned-off stove.

After about 30 minutes, the chicken is cool enough to shred. Pull off and discard the skin and any fatty, yucky bits. The meat will basically fall off the bones and can be shredded by hand or with two forks. Reserve the bones to make chicken stock. I usually put a third to half of the meat with the veggies to serve with the soup. The rest, I put in a ziploc bag and freeze for any of a million uses: enchiladas or rolled tacos, pulled chicken, etc. Store the broth in the fridge once it's cooler. In the morning, once the soup is cold, some of the chicken fat will rise to the top. Skim it off (usually a slotted spoon will work) and either discard it or reserve it for making chopped liver. (I have personally never done this, but I don't like chopped liver.) If you are a purist, you can pour the soup through a cheesecloth-lined fine-mesh sieve to strain it for a very clear soup. This is definitely an optional step.

Eat the soup within a few days - heat the broth and add some shredded chicken and vegetables. It's also great with the addition of rice, pasta, dumplings, matzah balls, or kreplach; whatever you have on hand. I'll bet even barley or a similar grain would be nice to make a heartier soup. The soup also freezes very well, though should be eaten within 3 months. Again, I like to freeze the veggies and chicken separately from the soup. To get them ready to eat, you can pull the soup out and put it in the fridge overnight to begin to thaw, then just heat it straight on the stovetop. The veggies and chicken do not need to be thawed; pop them into the soup as it's heating, and they will heat through as well.

Now for part two... You can use the bones to make stock, which can be used as a base for other soups, sauces, gravies, or stews. It's just as easy as making the soup, and you probably won't even need to skim it since most of the scum will have cooked off the first round. Because you're going to discard everything but the stock itself, add all the ingredients now to make it really simple.

Place the bones in a medium pot and cover with about 6 cups of water. Add a few teaspoons of salt, about 10 whole peppercorns (or a bunch of coarse grinds of pepper), a couple of bay leaves, some dried or fresh herbs (herbs de provence, thyme, and dill are all nice), a peeled onion, a couple of whole carrots, and a few stalks of celery (if you want). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cooking it lower will make for a clearer broth. Simmer for about an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and a half. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve (which will catch the peppercorns!), cool, and then portion and freeze. Some people like to pour the stock into ice cube trays to make tablespoon-sized blocks of stock which are very easy to use in small quantities. You can also just freeze it a cup at a time in ziploc bags. It yields about a quart to 5 cups of stock, and here's how the leftover bones and vegetables look after you've poured off all the stock:

Family tradition dictates that on the night the soup is made, you have make-your-own chicken sandwiches for dinner with good bread, crisp bacon, lettuce, cheese, and Russian dressing. I made the soup after dinner, so we didn't get to have sandwiches, and I was jonesing for them! Maybe tonight.

ETA a note from my aunt: "Aunt Lydia [my great aunt] told me years ago that her mother... always put the onion in whole with the skin on. The onion skin also gave the soup a golden color. Rose was a caterer and never wasted anything. So I always do that in honor of Grandma Rosie and Aunt Lydia."

What a nice family story that I never knew!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

joyce's 70th and candy melt flowers

The same weekend that my Dad turned 70, one of my parents' best friends, Joyce, also turned 70. These two food-lovers have celebrated lots of milestone birthdays together now! Joyce's kids threw a big party for her and they asked me to make Joyce's favorite chocolate cake. She has ordered it from me on two prior occasions - I think it might be becoming their family's signature cake. (Is that a thing? I'd like to have a signature cake.) As far as I'm concerned, you can never go wrong with a dark chocolate cake, filled with chocolate buttermilk frosting, and covered in chocolate ganache. I accented the chocolate with colorful candy melt flowers and used them to pipe happy birthday lettering as well.

The candy flowers are super easy to make. I learned how from these handy-dandy instructions at My Cake School. The candies melt easily, and they pipe smoothly onto parchment paper where they set up within minutes. If you mess up, you can scrape off the melted chocolate and try again. You can even re-melt it it need be. You do need to work pretty quickly, however. The chocolate in the piping bag starts to set up rather quickly, which can also plug up the piping tip. (Use a small tip, size 2, or 3, for the most control and the most delicate petals.) By resting the piping bag on a heating pad if you need a break, the chocolate will remain melted and pipe-able. But the best bet is just to work quickly, with only a small amount of candy melts at a time.

I stored the firmed-up flowers in a Tupperware in the fridge in between layers of waxed paper. Run a small offset spatula under them to remove them gently from the parchment paper. As you'd expect, they're extremely delicate, so I recommend piping more than you need in case of breakage. They will keep for at least a week. To stick them to the cake, simply pipe a small dab of frosting on the back of the flower and press gently onto the cake.

I've covered the cake and frosting recipes before, but here are links to them:

Martha Stewart's One-Bowl Chocolate Cake
Chocolate Ganache
Chocolate Buttermilk Frosting 

Joyce's family loved the cake, and I loved getting to help our good friend celebrate an important day!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

unicorns and sailboats

I met my dear friend, Liz, when our oldest kids were just a month old. We were new moms, frazzled by every new phase or excessive bout of crying. We quickly gravitated toward one another, each grabbed a couple of friends with newborns, and formed a moms group that gave us so much comfort: new friends with whom we could exchange worries, ooh and aah over sweet babies, spend hours in the park, and go to mommy movies (followed by the challenge of where to eat lunch that would let us bring in six strollers, sit for hours, nurse, and change diapers). Now our oldest are 9 1/2, and Liz has 5-year-old twins as well. Amazing how fast that time has flown!

For the twins' 5th birthday, Liz asked me to make cupcakes. Her daughter likes unicorns, and her son likes sailboats. Although there's not really a common theme there, each twin was happy with his/her cupcakes and they came out really cute. She requested basic vanilla cupcakes with vanilla frosting, and I made cupcake toppers of fondant discs with tiny fondant unicorns (from a horse cookie cutter, to which I added hand-twisted horns and pink-and-purple fondant manes - I used an extruder to make the fine strands of hair) and tiny fondant sailboats. I tinted the frosting to match each set of cupcakes: purple for the unicorns and sea blue for the boats. 

I actually loved how the boats "sailed" on the cupcake frosting sea.

Cupcakes like these are fun to do because the project can be broken up into stages. A few days before, to give them time to dry and firm up, I cut out the fondant discs and laid them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment. It took just a couple of hours to cut out and assemble the unicorns, twisting teensy horns, and the boats, using contrasting blue and red for the sails and the base of the boat and mast. The day before the party, I baked the cupcakes and quickly piped the frosting, then topped each cupcake with the fondant topper. Easy and so cute!

Happy sugary birthday to some super-sweet twins!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

churro cookies

When I think of churros, I think of theme parks. At Disneyland, they were always one of my favorite in-between-ride treats. These churro cookies taste remarkably like a snickerdoodle - they're based on a soft sugar cookie recipe, coated with cinnamon-sugar - but they have the cute look of a churro. Or a mini-churro, I guess. Soft, just a little chewy, deeply cinnamony, they taste delicious and would be especially perfect for a Mexican-themed fiesta. They were Nicole's brain-child, and I think they're adorable, easy, and fun to make. They also happen to be egg-free, so a perfect recipe for those with egg allergies! (I feel like I don't come across too many of those.)

Nicole instructs the baker to form the dough into logs and refrigerate it before baking, then use a wooden skewer to indent the cookies. I did that, but my cookies definitely flattened out more than hers. I wonder if refrigerating them longer might have kept the end result rounder. But since my kids took them for churros, I'm pretty sure the distinctive shape made them identifiable enough.

Churro Cookies

2 1/2 cups (10 5/8 ounces) flour
3/4 cup (5 1/4 ounces) superfine sugar*
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, cut into 1/2" pieces and softened
2 tablespoons cream cheese, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons cinnamon
pinch of salt

*As a substitute for superfine sugar, process 1 cup sugar in a food process for about 30 seconds, and then measure out 3/4 cup for the recipe.

Whisk the flour, superfine sugar, and salt together in a large bowl. (I used the bowl of my Kitchen Aid mixer.) With the mixer on medium-low, beat in the softened butter to the flour mixture, one piece at a time. Beat until mixture is crumbly and slightly wet, 1-2 minutes. Then beat in the cream cheese and vanilla until the dough begins to form large clumps, about 30 seconds. Knead the dough by hand a few times until it forms a large, cohesive mass.

Roll the cookie dough into logs about 3/4" to 1" in diameter. Cut the rods into 3" pieces, place on a cookie sheet lined with a silpat or parchment with about an inch between cookies. Refrigerate for 10-15 minutes.

Make the cinnamon sugar by combining 1/2 cup sugar, cinnamon, and pinch of salt.

Heat the oven to 350F. Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in a small dish. Using a pastry brush, brush each cookie with melted butter and then sprinkle it generously with cinnamon sugar. Bake for 10 minutes, and then remove from the oven and immediately use a wooden skewer to make three indentations lengthwise on each cookie. Cool for 5 minutes on the cookie sheet, and then remove cookies to a rack to cool completely.

Optional: For even more cinnamon-sugar flavor, brush the cooled cookies with more melted butter and sprinkle again with cinnamon sugar.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

cherry nectarine pie: hailing summer!

It's beginning to look a lot like summer... at least in terms of the fruit I'm seeing at Trader Joe's and the farmer's market. We live in Southern CA, and June gloom kicked in right on June 1. So weather-wise, we're not so warm and sunny. But nectarines are out and about, and I've eaten the first (expensive) cherries as well. That means it's time to start thinking about stone fruit pies!

This pie was an amalgamation of recipes. I used the New School of Cooking recipe for pie crust that I learned in my pie class a couple of summers ago. I used this cherry pie filling recipe. And because I was a little short on cherries, I threw in some roughly chopped, sweet nectarines.

Nectarines are super easy to work with. Their skins are so thin, you don't have to peel them if you don't want to. It's opposite with peaches, where the skin is thicker and the fuzziness can be off-putting to some tastes, so it's often easier to peel them. It's actually a snap to peel peaches: you blanch them (throw them in boiling water) for 20-30 seconds for ripe peaches, 1 minute for unripe peaches. Then you shock them in some ice water, and the skin will peel away in seconds.

Anyway, I didn't actually cook the nectarines since they were so ripe. I just chopped them up and stirred them into the cooked cherry filling, and then poured the whole thing into the pie shell.

Oh! And I should tell you how it tasted! Deeee-licious! The nectarines and cherries play off each other nicely. Though sweet, the nectarines are actually a little tangy in comparison. And this pie crust is light and flaky with a hint of sweetness. Just the right complement to the filling.

I do still get annoyed that no matter how beautifully I crimp the edges, they don't hold their shape as perfectly as I'd like when baked. I wonder if an all-shortening crust holds its shape better? This one is made with all butter (I often make crusts that are a combination), mostly because butter tastes so good. And I'm going to cut myself some slack. It's food, not architecture. The crust is substantial enough to hold up the filling on its own, once cut, and it tastes great. Props to the pie crust.

(For the record, here's an unbaked cherry pie I made previously. See how nicely crimped, before baking?)

Here's the pie crust recipe.

Pie Crust (and general pie how-to)
Makes dough for 1, double-crust, 9" pie

2 1/2 cups (10 5/8 ounces) flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
8 ounces (2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1" cubes
6 to 8 tablespoons ice water

Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Cut in the butter. I do this by hand, though a pastry blender works, too. Try to use your fingertips, not your hands, as they will warm up the dough too much. The New School taught us to put the butter in the bowl, toss it with the flour so all the butter is coated, and then start working it into the dough. You want to end up with pea-sized pieces of butter.

Add about 4 tablespoons of ice water. You will probably need a little more, but it's easier to add it than to take it away if the dough gets too wet, so go slowly. Mix the dough by hand until it just holds together. The way to test it is to grab a small handful and squeeze it together. Rub your thumb across it. If it holds together, you have enough water; if it's still crumbly, add another tablespoon of water and toss together.

Divide the dough in half and wrap it in plastic. Form each half into a disc and refrigerate for 1 hour. (You can do this in advance.)

When you roll out the dough, it's easy to roll it between two pieces of parchment, waxed paper, or plastic wrap. This lets you get the dough fairly thin without using a lot of extra flour to prevent sticking.

Roll out one disc of dough and drape in pie pan. Gently push the dough into the corners of the pan. Fill with pie filling (cherry, apple, or really any fruit that would work in a baked pie). Roll out the second disc and gently drape it over the top. Trim the edges of both pieces of dough to about 1". Gently pinch them together and roll/fold them underneath each other, on top of the edge of the pie pan. Crimp the dough in whatever manner you prefer. I am lefty and I hold the knuckles of my left hand on the outside edge of the pie and the knuckle of my right index finger on the inside edge. I pinch the pie dough between my knuckles so that the right index knuckle meets the middle of my left 2nd and 3rd fingers. Make sense? That makes a little "v" shape, and then I move around the edge of the pie doing the other ridges, about 1/2" to 1" apart.

If desired, brush the pie crust with milk, cream, or egg (yolk, white, or the whole thing) and sprinkle with sanding sugar or demerara sugar. Cut a few vents in the pie to allow steam to escape. Place the pie on a foil-lined (for easy cleanup), rimmed cookie sheet. If you've ever had a pie ooze in your oven, you'll know it's not a fun cleaning job, and this makes it 1000x easier.

Bake at 350F for 1 hour or until crust is a nice, deep golden color. After 45 minutes of baking, check the pie. If the edges are getting too dark, drape them loosely with tinfoil.

The pie will do just fine in the fridge or at room temperature, covered, for a few days - if it lasts that long!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

homemade hostess cupcakes

I made these today for the school bake sale, and I have to say, they came out just how I wanted! They looked just like Hostess (fauxstess, I suppose) cupcakes, and they tasted even better (no chemicals!).

They had shiny chocolate ganache glaze...

Reasonably well-piped swirls (I only piped 7 swirls, but rumor has it the official ones have 8)...

And just the right amount of creamy, marshmallowy, sweet filling.

Although these are not hard to make, they are a multi-step project, which kind of flies in the face of my "dirty as few bowls as you can" philosophy. So I took some liberal short cuts and I don't regret them one bit. In fact, I'll share them with you.

1. To fill the cupcakes, I just poked the round tip in my icing bag straight into the cupcake and gave a little squeeze. No coring the cupcake, cutting out divots. Just straight in. You can't over-fill 'em, though, or the filling will ooze right out the top and you'll crack the cupcake, making it difficult to coat them smoothly with ganache. So go easy with the piping bag, and then let them sit for a few minutes. If the filling oozes up, just use a small offset spatula to scrape away the excess gently. (And if you eat it, I won't tell.)

2. I didn't wait at all for the ganache to set up. I find it easier to dip the cupcakes right away when the ganache is nice and thin and runny. If the coating isn't thick enough, either dip it briefly again, or dab on a bit of extra ganache and smooth it over with the offset spatula. If you work relatively quickly, you'll get them all dipped before the ganache has thickened too much. If it becomes difficult to work with, a few seconds in the microwave and a quick stir will make all right with the world again.

3. And this is the really big tip... I used the same filling mixture to pipe the curlicues on the tops of the cupcakes. (Gasp!) Since you can't fill the cupcakes that much anyway, there is plenty of marshmallow mixture left. Just transfer it to a piping bag with a smaller round tip. No need to make a different frosting. It's white, it pipes easily, and you've already got it made.

See? Easy peasy!

I used my usual chocolate cake recipe (1/3 of the recipe, which is very easily divisible by 3, made 15 cupcakes). I made sure not to overfill the cupcake tins since I didn't want huge, domed cupcakes. I wanted them relatively small and flat on top, which worked out well.

I borrowed the filling recipe from Brown-Eyed Baker. Some recipes online call for making your own filling from scratch, while this one uses Marshmallow Fluff as a base. Folks, we're making a snack cake here. I don't think it's really a problem to borrow a little Marshmallow Fluff. If you are really insistent, you can follow a marshmallow recipe and stop at the point it resembles fluff.

And ganache is ganache. 1:1 chocolate to cream. Heat the cream until it's quite hot, and little bubbles form around the edges, but don't let it boil. Pour the hot cream over the finely chopped chocolate, let it sit for a minute or so to melt the chocolate, and then stir it gently until it comes together into a satiny, glorious glaze. For 15 cupcakes, I used 3 ounces of chocolate (2 ounces of 72% bittersweet and 1 ounce of semi-sweet chocolate chips; all bittersweet was a bit too bitter for me) and 3 ounces of cream.

Basic instructions:

  1. Make cupcakes.
  2. Cool completely.
  3. While the cupcakes are baking, make filling. Place in piping bag with a medium round tip (maybe 1/4" across). Brown-Eyed Baker suggests refrigerating it, but if you're going to use it right away, this is not necessary.
  4. Poke the tip straight into a cupcake. Give a little squeeze (not too much!). You'll feel the cupcake expand in your hand and get a little heavier. Let it sit for a second to see if the filling oozes out. If so, fill the next cupcake a little less. If there's a gaping hole, give it a tiny bit more filling. You just want the top to be smooth and flat.
  5. Make the ganache.
  6. Coat the cupcakes with ganache. Working with one cupcake at a time, hold it by the bottom and dip it straight down into the ganache. Twist it to the left and to the right, and then lift it out and let the excess drip off. Check your work. Is the whole top of the cupcake covered, up to the edge of the paper? If so, good job. If not, use an offset spatula to add a dab of ganache and smooth it. Repeat with remaining cupcakes. If needed, reheat the ganache in the microwave for a few seconds (<10 and="" li="" stir.="">
  7. Chill cupcakes in the fridge for 20-30 minutes.
  8. Transfer remaining marshmallow filling to a piping bag with a #3 tip (small round tip). Pipe curlicues across the top.
  9. Refrigerate until shortly before serving. It's nice if they come back to room temperature so the filling is soft!
Marshmallow Filling
1 cup Marshmallow Fluff
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup (2 ounces) powdered sugar

Beat the marshmallow fluff and butter on medium speed until soft and light, about 2 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and add the powdered sugar. Once incorporated, increase the speed to medium and beat for another 1-2 minutes, or until very light and fluffy.

Enjoy at a bake sale or any old time!