Friday, July 22, 2011

If You Can't Stand the Heat... Stay Out of the Kitchen

As I'm sure everyone is aware, most of the U, S of A is melting and we're all experiencing one heck of a heat wave. I live in Connecticut. You know, New England, the northeast, where this winter we got the most snow in a calendar month since some date I can't remember. But, it was a long time ago, definitely before I lived in Connecticut, probably before I was born. Here's some evidence to prove it.

That's Rollins, our dog, and you can see that the snow is almost as high as the chain-link fence.

This is our "weather station" (a gift to Bobby from his brother) that we keep in the kitchen because we like to know what the temperature is outside. Although today I'd rather now know because it's so disgusting. That' right, it says 108.1 degrees outside. I didn't realize I had moved to Phoenix overnight. You'll also notice that it's a much cooler 93.5 degrees in the kitchen. The worst part is, it's actually refreshing to come in the house from outside.

We don't have air conditioning in the house because we have radiators for heat so there's no ventilation system in which to pump cool air through the house to keep it under a balmy 93 degrees during these beloved heat waves. However, last year through a stroke of brilliance and getting tired of sweating while sleeping with the fan on full blast and no sheets, purchased ourselves a window air conditioner for our bedroom. That air conditioner is my new best friend. Normally we only use it at night for sleeping and sometimes during the day when it's really hot for Rollins. Yes, he's very spoiled. As of late however, we've been leaving the AC on all day, (on economy to save some energy) and holing up in the bedroom because it's just too uncomfortable to be anywhere else in the house... including the kitchen.

I really wanted to keep up the stamina of a cupcake a week, and have been debating about when to bake this week's cupcake because of the temperature. I almost did it today thinking, how much hotter can the oven really make the house at this point? So what if the can of solid fat that was sitting on the counter from taco night returned to its previously occupied liquid state during the course of the day. Maybe it'll do me some good and I'll sweat off a few pounds. My beach vacation is right around the corner! Plus, I can always retreat to the bedroom and the AC when I can't stand it anymore.

But, the more I thought about it I decided today wasn't the day for baking. I'm already working up a sweat just sitting still, mixing and stirring might equate to a full-fledged workout, and that runs the risk of me sweating into the cupcake batter. Gross. I would never think of ruining a cupcake that way. So, instead of baking and working up more of a sweat, I did my best to stay cool... and so did Rollins.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Devil's In a Paper Liner... Food Cupcakes

I've never understood where the name devil's food cake comes from. What does it mean? Is it because cupcakes/cake is bad for you? It certainly can't be an indication of taste because devil's food cake is delicious. I'm sure a simple Google search could find me an answer, but I've never been inspired to look. I'll just let it remain one of life's little unsolved mysteries, or some research that I'll save for a rainy day in the future.

I have made devil's food cupcakes before, but not with Martha's recipe. I've learned through my previous baking that devil's food cake tends to be a lighter version of a chocolate cake. I was most excited about this recipe because I knew I would be able to pawn off the cupcakes on co-workers, or friends (everyone loves chocolate!) and I would have the opportunity to make chocolate ganache for the first time. I've always wanted to try it, but I've purposely never come across a recipe that has required it. I've steered away from it because it always seemed time consuming and finicky, and I didn't want to spend all that time to only get a sub-par result.

The recipe for the cupcakes was fairly easy. The only thing that I thought was a bit strange was the part where I had to melt the butter with the sugar and then mix it for a few minutes in a saucepan on the stove. I've never done that with a cupcake recipe (or any recipe) before. I wasn't sure how long I was supposed to let the butter melt, if I was supposed to let the sugar dissolve, or what. Martha was not very specific. So, I let the butter melt, but didn't wait until the sugar dissolved because that seemed wrong. I mixed it for 4-5 minutes before I put the eggs in one at a time, and proceeded with the rest of the recipe.

The batter was scrumptious on a pre-baking taste test. I filled the muffin tins 3/4 full and baked for 20 total minutes, with a rotation halfway through the baking time. I even let the tins cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes before removing the cupcakes from the pan and putting another batch in the oven. At some point it would probably make sense to invest in another cupcake pan. Why I haven't at this point is a mystery even to me.

I came away with 27 cupcakes, 5 less than the recipe said I would get, but that's probably because I'm a little more generous with filling the tins (and taste testing the batter) than Martha is. I like a full-looking cupcake anyway. They look so much nicer. As per the norm I gave a taste test (you know I love taste tests!) to a non-ganached cupcake and it was very good. Light, like devil's food cake normally is, but thick (if that makes sense), as well. In other words, you wanted milk, or if you're like me, ice cream, while eating the cupcake.

Now the chocolate ganache. After this experience I know why I've never attempted to make it before... it takes forever. The chocolate chopping and heavy cream and corn syrup simmering were pain free, but waiting for the ganache to set up was not. The recipe said to refrigerate the ganache and stir it at 5-minute intervals until it started to hold its shape. I was thinking after 20-25 minutes I would be all set. I thought wrong. After about an hour of stirring every 5 minutes I got sick of waiting. I'm not a saint, I only have so much patience.

I wanted to frost the cupcakes like Martha did, using a spatula and spreading it on, but my ganache wasn't thick enough to get the kind of look I wanted. And as I previously mentioned I didn't want to wait any longer for the ganache to become thicker, so I came up with my own plan. I decided to dunk the top of the cupcakes in the ganache and frost them that way. It actually left them with a nice smooth finish that I liked. Another thing I didn't love about the ganache was the taste. The recipe called for bittersweet chocolate, which I used, and the ganache itself was on the bitter side (didn't see that one coming). The next go-round I might make it with semisweet chocolate just to better suit my taste. However, the ganache when combined with the cupcake was actually quite good. The 2 flavors bring out the best in each other.

Finally for the finishing touches I added the chocolate curls. Martha said they were optional, and I'm not always obliged to opt, but in this case I did. I got through adding the curls to about 8 cupcakes when the chocolate for the curls started melting in my hand making a sticky, though delicious, mess. It was at that point I rethought my decision to opt in, and opted out of the chocolate curls. At least I gave them a solid try... that's more than I can say for the flaked coconut option I was given a few cupcakes ago. It's all about progress!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I Came, I Sewed, I Conquered

In the spirit of variety and it being the spice of life here's a little something to illustrate that baking isn't the only thing I occupy my free time with. I give you, my first grown-up sewing machine experience.

I have used a sewing machine once in my life. In my 6th grade Home Economics class, where all the scary set-up is done for you and all that was required on me was to line up the fabric and push the foot pedal to make it work. Since then I have been far too intimidated to attempt using a sewing machine on my own without anyone else's guidance. Today I am extremely proud to say I have conquered the sewing machine. Conquered of course means that I completed a very novice project without crying, screaming out in frustration and throwing the sewing machine across the room. Success!

I was inspired to start this project when I was reading Young House Love, one of my daily blog reads and read about Sherry, who conquered her first sewing machine project. After reading of her triumphs I was inspired. So I took to to buy myself a sewing machine. My boyfriend's grandma (Cookie) is an expert sewer, like seriously a professional sewer. She owns somewhere around a $4,000 sewing machine, I think. It might be more, but that number is sticking out in my head for some reason. She's given me advice about making a sewing machine purchase, but she's suggested thousand-plus dollar machines that aren't in my budget, even if I wasn't a beginner. Since Sherry was also a beginner I followed her lead and looked up the same sewing machine she had purchased and had success with to see if I could perhaps find the same luck. I searched for and found the Brother XL2600I Sew Advance Sew Affordable 25-Stitch Free-Arm Sewing Machine and added it to my cart. The Brother as I now call it could be mine for the bargain price of $85.99. Not bad, but if I can save a buck, I'll save a buck. So, before I proceeded to checkout I contemplated spending nearly $100 on a sewing machine that might cause me serious heartache in the future. I am as frugal as they come. I clip coupons, I Google promo codes. I'm serious about pinching pennies whenever I can. I work hard for my money. I want to get the most out of it.

While contemplating my purchase I remembered seeing something about being able to shop on using American Express Reward Points. Wouldn't you know it, I have an American Express card and I've racked up a good amount of reward points. I did all the necessary account connecting and discovered that the points I had equaled just about 100 Amazon dollars! That meant with the Super Saver Shipping (free shipping on certain items when you spend at least $25) my brand new sewing machine was free 99! I could barely contain my excitement. I even made Bobby come into the room so I could tell him about it. Sadly, he didn't share my enthusiasm. Less than a week later, The Brother arrived!

The Brother sat in the box for a few days as I had been commissioned to make a birthday cake and the party was coming up in a few days so that was my first priority. Finally I made the time, bought the fabric I needed for my first project (bedroom throw pillows, inspired from these pillows I saw on and cracked open the box. I had no idea where to start, there were a lot of instructions and it was confusing. I almost gave up before I really even started, but I just thought of all the possible projects that would be ahead of me if I could figure out how to get started. After some careful reading and a few missteps I was all threaded up and ready to go.

I completed the project over a span of 2 days because sleep, my actual day job and real-life responsibilities had to come first. Before I started I did some Google searching and found this very helpful home video of how to make envelope pillow covers. I studied it, made some notes to myself and then started my own pillows. I thought for sure I would mess up at least one pillow and have to start over, but I didn't! I couldn't believe it. My very first sewing machine project didn't result in the returning of The Brother to, or tears. The pillows definitely aren't as good as ones Cookie would make, but I think she would be proud. Dare I say she would L-O-V-E them?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

I Think I Made a Mousse-Take

Recently I made this cake for the birthday of one of my co-workers kids. If you haven't already guessed, his name is Josh and he turned 3. I've done some things for other co-workers in the past, the Angry Birds cake for example, and am asked now and again to do birthday cakes or other cakes for various occasions. In this case I was asked to make a Toy Story cake based on some pictures I was sent with the request for a yellow cake with a chocolate mousse filling/icing. No problem. I took a look at the pictures and sketched out what I wanted to do. I decided on the sizes for the cakes and took inventory of what I would need. I have a go-to recipe for yellow cake that I've been using for awhile. It's easy to do and I personally like the cake. I do not however have a go-to recipe for chocolate mousse. Normally when I get requests for cakes the customer opts for buttercream. So, I had to do some research on what chocolate mousse recipe I wanted to use. I found one I liked and went with it.

With my lovely stand mixer the baking process was relatively simple and pain free. When I bake for a request I usually do it over a 3-day period. On the first day I bake the cake(s) and make the fondant. On the second day I make the icing, cut/shape the cakes if necessary and decorate. The third day is pick-up/delivery day with any last-minute fixes beforehand if necessary. For the Toy Story cake the process didn't start out any differently.

I'm always a little nervous when I bake per request because I always want the end result to be perfect and for my customer to love it. Especially since in most cases they're paying me for the cake, and because it's usually for an important occasion in their family that I want to help make special with a cool cake. I was confident with the Toy Story cake until I realized one thing after it was too late to do anything about it (as usual, perfect timing). The mousse would need to be refrigerated after it was applied to the cake so it wouldn't melt. It was at least 80 degrees out when I was working on the cake, and very humid. Even keeping it in the basement, which I normally do with buttercream cakes when I'm not working on them, wouldn't work for the mousse. I didn't want a runny cake. I use a marshmallow fondant that I make myself and I knew it would be a gamble putting it in the fridge and using it to cover a cake iced with chocolate mousse because of the moisture factor. When marshmallows meet moisture it can equal a sticky, yucky mess. But, I weighed my options and in my eyes, I would rather have a cake that tastes good (the whole point of a cake is to eat it, especially for a birthday) and doesn't look perfect, than a cake that's perfect, but tastes like garbage. So, after I was done with everything, I was ecstatic with the result. I thought it looked great, maybe my best yet. I wrapped it in Saran Wrap (mistake!) and tucked it safely in the fridge for the night.

Every once in awhile for the rest of the night I opened the refrigerator door and peered in to make sure it was still there, and looking the way it did when I first put it into the fridge. All looked well until I woke up the next morning, a half an hour before the scheduled pick-up time to check on it. The fondant on the top layer was becoming a sticky, soggy mess (just like I feared it would!) and was stuck to the Saran Wrap so when I pulled off the Saran Wrap, I pulled off the fondant too. I wanted to cry. Luckily it was only on the top layer (in hindsight had I used a thicker layer of fondant, I may have been in the clear and avoided this problem entirely). My mind immediately began racing... how am I going to fix this?!?!?! There I was in my Hello Kitty bathrobe (dig it) in the midst of a panic attack. Then I remembered that I had saved some already colored fondant (hooray for doing something smart) that I had used for that layer. I grabbed that, a cutting board, some confectioner's sugar and a rolling pin and got to work re-covering the spots of mousse that had been exposed. I couldn't recover the whole thing because I didn't have a lot of fondant left, so it wasn't a seamless fix. But, it was either that or a hole in the cake, and I didn't want that. It was the best I could do with the time and resources that I had. The final result didn't make me want to completely cry, though it was extremely disappointing to me that it wasn't perfect. I am and will probably forever be a perfectionist. This quality causes me great stress in my life, thanks mom and dad. In great news, I found out the day after the party that the cake was a huge hit. Everyone at the party loved how it looked and most importantly how it tasted. I couldn't have been happier. In the end, that was all that I wanted.

As with anything I learned some valuable lessons from this whole process.
1. Always save some back-up fondant just in case.
2. Covering a mousse icing with fondant probably isn't going to work out in the long run, or
at least not when it's very hot and humid.
3. Refrigerating a mousse-iced cake with fondant isn't going to work either.
4. Wrapping a mousse-iced cake covered with fondant in Saran Wrap also isn't going to work.
5. Moisture and humidity are no cakes friend, no matter what it's made of.

Anyone make baking mistakes like mine? What did you do to fix them? Could you fix them? Misery loves company... and advice!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

What the Heck is Rhubarb... Cupcakes

Have you ever tried a rhubarb cupcake? Scratch that... have you ever heard of a rhubarb cupcake? Me neither, but Martha has. She even has a recipe for them in her cookbook. I was not excited about this rhubarb cupcake recipe (unfortunately Martha's website does not have the recipe, but if you want it just let me know and I'd be happy to send it), not even a little bit. I know nothing about rhubarb except that it looks like pink celery. I like pink, but I don't like celery... it's the strings. I've never tasted rhubarb, I've never cooked with it, I've never even touched it. I have walked past it in the grocery store on numerous occasions, but that's the extent of my relationship with rhubarb... until today. Today, I got up close and personal with rhubarb. We took our relationship to a whole new level. If you want to take your relationship with rhubarb to a whole new level you can make these cupcakes, or click here.

My grocery store doesn't have a wide selection of rhubarb. In fact when I purchased the necessary amount of rhubarb for this recipe (3/4 pound) I wiped out their supply. Hopefully no one else was planning on making anything with rhubarb tonight. I stood for a few minutes just staring at the rhubarb and thinking that it wasn't the best selection. I don't really know what constitutes good rhubarb, we've already covered my lack of knowledge on the subject, but this rhubarb was rubbery and looked a little beaten up. I wasn't going to drive all over town looking for rhubarb. I probably wouldn't have found any anyway. So, I took what I thought I needed and was on my way.

I got my rhubarb home, washed it (I don't know if I was supposed to do that, but it felt like the right thing) and started to dice. I knew right away that I wasn't going to have enough. I was right (yeah me!). Instead of getting the 3 cups the recipe called for, I ended up with 2. I wasn't heartbroken. I figured less rhubarb in the cupcakes couldn't be a bad thing, especially if I didn't know if I would like them. Instead of putting 2 cups of diced rhubarb in the batter like the recipe called for, I just put in 1. I reserved the remaining cup for the syrup that would top the cupcakes later. I thought about putting more than 1 cup into the batter, but I didn't want to compromise the amount of rhubarb I would need for the syrup for the cupcakes.

I baked the first batch of cupcakes for 24 (Martha said about 25) minutes, turning them halfway through the baking process. I probably could have taken off a little baking time. They came out a little more golden than I normally like, but overall they were fine. I let them cool for a few minutes in the pan on a cooling rack before I removed them. Once the next batch was safely baking in the oven I performed my first taste test sans any topping. I wanted to try them when they were still a little bit warm. I thought it might enhance the taste so I would hate it less. I was apprehensive to say the least, but I was pleasantly surprised. They weren't horrible. In fact they were pretty good. The crunchy rhubarb that went into the batter, came out soft and had a very nice flavor to it. The rhubarb turned to a lovely pink color and the cupcakes were nice and soft.

Then came the rhubarb syrup. It was relatively easy to make, the hardest part was being patient and letting it cool before I could proceed. Luckily I kept myself occupied with making the whipped cream that would accompany the rhubarb syrup on top of the cupcakes. However, making the whipped cream took up almost no time, my stand mixer did all the work. That thing is amazing... gotta love the whisk attachment. After the whipped cream was prepared I put it in a Ziplock bag, placed it in the fridge to keep cool and got back to my rhubarb syrup.

After my rhubarb was done boiling, then cooling to room temperature, then simmering, then cooling again I was ready to "decorate". Martha put a dollop of whipped cream on the cupcake, but since my whipped cream was stored in a Ziplock I just cut a hole in the corner of the bag and piped the whipped cream onto the cupcake. I thought it looked nicer than a dollop. Lastly I put a spoonful of the rhubarb syrup on top of the whipped cream. The final result was a thing of beauty, maybe even museum worthy. My favorite part was the little beads of vanilla (from the vanilla bean) that you can see in the syrup.

Overall this cupcake is my favorite so far, simply because of how pretty it looks once it's completed. There's a lot to be said for a nice presentation. On Iron Chef America presentation is worth 10 points (I think). The fact that it's also very tasty isn't hurting its cause either. But, no matter how pretty (and yummy) the cupcakes were, it was difficult to get rid of them. For some reason people just don't come running when they're offered rhubarb cupcakes. I can't imagine why.