baking

How do you solve a problem like vanilla?

How do you stop the cake from being dry?*

*In my case, I used a schmancy boxed cupcake mix (schmancy in the sense that it cost nearly five bucks, and came with some prepackaged frosting that I ultimately threw away, while the usual Betty or Duncan extravaganza will set you back about $1.29 on sale and yields twice as many cupcakes) and kitbashed it into something much more party-worthy.

The birthday boy in question will always choose vanilla over chocolate, and although I don’t have issues with vanilla per se, I don’t have much luck baking it at home. Even the vanilla recipe from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, whose chocolate cupcakes have garnered rapturous eye-rolling, gives me a finished product that is dense and drier that just about anything else I’ve made. Vanilla might be my new red velvet: vegan or not, that perfect version eludes me. Even the Minion cupcakes I made using VCTOTW’s recipe a couple of years ago were…okay, but not that light, melt-in-your-mouth moist WOW that the chocolate ones are. With that in mind, I didn’t feel exceptionally guilty starting with a mix, and felt even better when Alton Brown said that it’s hard for home bakers to compete with the various commercial ingredients in the boxed mix. I decided this was going to be a gummi bear cake, after seeing one in a magazine and deciding I wanted to try it.

My local Bulk Barn doesn’t carry straight-up quins anymore that aren’t (when I was looking) Halloween or (right about now) Christmas-themed, so I picked up these pastel starts to Funfetti the heck out of the cake.

They do, however, carry the best gummi bears ever. Despite the zoom in the photo, these guys are mini, and come in 11 different flavours. I’m kind of a sucker for proper ordering of colours, so…

Instead of cupcakes, I poured my batter into two six-inch pans. During baking, these things developed a bit of a crazy-high dome, and while leveling your cake before assembling it is the traditional method of handling this kind of baking topography, mine didn’t rise terribly high when baking and completely eliminating the domes would have left me with ridiculously thin layers. I spread a thick layer of almond-flavoured buttercream on the bottom layer, and…

…built up the edge using gummi bears. You won’t find that trick at fine French baking schools, kids. I then set my second layer, dome-down, on top of it, frosted the whole shebang, and added rows upon rainbow-ordered rows of gummi bears.

I staggered the colours in each row, but make no mistake: the order never changes. It was a bit fiddly positioning them in four iterations of twenty-two reasonably even intervals, but that’s the kind of weirdo I am. My original plan was to tint part of my buttercream a different colour and write a message of birthday goodwill on top, but the teeny letters were too cute to pass up. (It doesn’t hurt that they match the aesthetic pretty much perfectly and made that part so much easier and faster.)

You can see a slight fault in the icing in what I’ve come to think of affectionately as the “dome crack”, but it held up really well and the gummi bears between the layers were a fun surprise.

The birthday boy loved his highly customized (*snerk*) dessert, and now I have almost another year to crack the secret to homemade.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

Cuban Lunch: The [insert scary-sounding gerund here]

This is a short one, because Halloween is imminent and I still have to do my nails, gather together the components of the two different costumes I’ll be wearing (yes, I’m insane), and finish planning a birthday party – the latter has nothing to do with Halloween, but still falls close enough to feel like it.

Remember my Cuban Lunch that I shared the recipe for last year? Two very exciting (or not) addenda to that. First, I’ve managed to find the commercially-manufactured resurrected version, which worded thusly sounds a bit Halloween-y in its own right.

It’s a beaut.

Second, I still think I prefer my homemade version, and so I made up a batch to hand out to a few lucky individuals at work as an early Halloween treat.

Because it’s already unseasonably cold around these parts, I was able to stash these in the garage for about 45 minutes to let them really firm up before packaging them for delivery.

Aren’t those bags cute? Each one contains a baggie holding four chocolates, sealed for freshness (if they last that long).

Thanks for looking – have a spook-tacular Halloween! 🙂

baking

If you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain…

First off, can we all just agree that that song is not some romantic, carpe diem-type thing? They both tried to cheat, and caught each other in the act. That marriage has issues a pina colada or two won’t fix.

A while ago at work, our friendly neighbourhood social committee organized an island-themed potluck. I found myself lumped in with Team Hawaii, and although I didn’t wind up taking part in the end due to mitigating circumstances, I had started brainstorming dessert ideas. (Isn’t a dessert island far preferable to a desert island??) Faithful readers know that I’ve been having fun since January experimenting with mini cheesecakes, and they seemed like a great option. Bonus: no getting caught in the rain required.

I started with the blank-slate mini cheesecake recipe from Life Love & Sugar (with a graham-crumb base and not vanilla wafer crumbs, thank you very much), and added between one and one-and-a-half teaspoons of coconut extract and half a cup of shredded toasted coconut to the filling mixture.

Once they were baked and cooled, I combined one cup of crushed pineapple (in its own juice), a quarter-cup of sugar, one tablespoon of cornstarch, and about a half-teaspoon of vanilla in a small saucepan. Once the mixture came to a boil, I stirred for 30 seconds before turning the heat down to low and stirring for another minute – until it was nicely thickened – before removing it from the heat and dolloping it on my cooled cheesecakes.

A maraschino cherry in the centre of each cheesecake sealed the deal, and in my haste I completely forgot to sprinkle some additional shredded toasted coconut on the tops, which would have added some extra flavour and crunch, and I am absolutely doing that next time.

Although these didn’t make it as far as the office, my test audience loved them. My dad – who basically only eats cookies – described them as “really good” (which is kind of the equivalent of a Michelin star or two), and my baking buddy took a few in for his coworkers, who devoured them and then scraped their cupcake liners clean.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

Cross-stitch and Embroidery

Words to live by

A little while ago, I was part of an ATC Address Card swap on Craftster. (An ATC, for the uninitiated – as I was – is an Artist Trading Card; you can read all about them here.) The idea was that you would create cards for four swap partners that featured your name and address on one side and a brief biography and/or likes and dislikes on the other, so that you would be able to exchange birthday cards, random crafted items, or even swap stash. I’m a sucker for anything that might mean more mail coming my way, and despite not being a papercrafter (or, um, able to draw) I was on it.

One of my partners went completely above and beyond, and I was shocked to receive an envelope too large and too fat to hold just a 2 1/2″ x 3 1/2″ card. She had filled this thing to the gills with assorted pieces of cardstock, embellishments…all sorts of different colours and textures to play with. As soon as I opened it, I knew I’d have to come up with something amazing to send her. I’m not a papercrafter, though, so I played to my strengths, and when I saw the pattern in my stitching stash, I knew I had found my something.

The pattern is by Emma Congdon, but I changed up the colours a bit and really prefer the rich green to the original shades of yellow. I love typography, and given that the recipient is a prolific and multi-talented crafter, this was just too perfect for her.

She wasn’t expecting anything and so this proved to be a complete surprise when she came home after work one day to find it in the mailbox. And really, isn’t that the best kind of mail?

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

He’s not a monster; he’s just misunderstood.

My dad’s got a bit of a thing for cookies. If you were to drop him into the middle of a bakery (or heck, even the kitchen at home), he will see past all the other treats and head straight for the cookies, irrespective of type. When I asked him back in June what type of dessert he wanted for Father’s Day, he asked for – and got – cookies. They were “fancy” ones, a chocolate cookie filled with a peanut butter fondant, but still.

A while ago, I had seen this post on Craftster…and then I went back and looked at it a few more times for good measure. It was a really neat looking cake, and I knew I had to try one like it. I normally prefer cupcakes to a cake for a birthday or other festive occasion since they’re less of a pain to store if you have leftovers, but I had already done Cookie Monster cupcakes once, and besides, the idea of the cake being his whole head was too good to pass up.

I didn’t want a giant cake, since I wasn’t really baking for a crowd, and I knew my 6″ pans would be perfect Bonus: one 12-cupcake recipe’s worth of batter divides perfectly between the two pans. Plus, the slightly smaller circumference/diameter meant the ping-pong balls I bought to use as eyes would be perfectly proportionate.

I ❤ perfectly proportionate ping-pong balls. “See” what I did there?

I started with my usual most famous dark-chocolate cake (because, um, have you met my family?) and made a small batch of peanut butter frosting to smear between the layers. For the crumb coat and fur, I made what was possibly the largest batch of blue-tinted vanilla buttercream ever, because this was not going to be one of those cakes whose frosting technique could change in the event of a blue-icing shortage. In all my remarkable foresight, I kept it just a little less stiff than I normally like my frosting – I didn’t want to have to force it through the grass tip like some sort of Play-Doh extrusion.

A quick image search for “Cookie Monster cake” shows a lot of cakes whose entire mouth area (that’s a very specific medical term) consists of cookies, like CM just couldn’t help himself. I didn’t want to do that because a) I don’t love the aesthetic of it, and b) unless you eat the cookies immediately upon serving, they’re going to get either soggy or stale, and that’s a waste of perfectly good cookies. I had toyed with the idea of tinting some of my frosting black to draw in a mouth, or even leaving the mouth as negative space (like I did here), since the cake is pretty dark. But! I’m so happy with the solution I hit on: after applying my crumb coat (ironic foreshadowing/nominative determinism alert!), I used a toothpick to trace a mouth shape and then filled it in with chocolate cookie crumbs. They kept the space from drying out and don’t have the ick factor of black frosting. And then…presto, pipe the fur around it like usual. Of course, I couldn’t leave him completely cookie-less…

I learned some valuable frosting tips, too. When piping at a 90° angle to cover the sides, start at the bottom and work up, and gravity will let the “fur” fall into place. And if your buttercream is on the soft side and prone to softening further just from holding the piping bag in your hot little hands, don’t overfill the bag – some of the frosting will commit hari-kari and throw itself onto the kitchen floor from the top of the bag, and you will, repeatedly and with increasing frustration, have to shoo away with your foot the cat, who will look at the overpriced and specially formulated food in his bowl like it’s poison but who will enthusiastically eat dust bunnies and flecks of dirt, and now unnaturally-blue frosting, from the floor. Who needs to explain that to the vet? You’ve been warned.

Cat-herding issues and all, I’m so happy with how this turned out:

The peanut butter centre was the perfect compliment to the dark chocolate cake, and not as sweet as more blue vanilla buttercream would have been.

As birthday cakes go, this was a pretty good one. He definitely didn’t see it coming, and that made it so much more fun. But, whoosh, I don’t know that I want to see blue frosting again for a while. 😉

Thanks for looking! 🙂

Cross-stitch and Embroidery, Other Crafts

She’s still preoccupied with 19…19…1985

Nostalgia makes everything better, doesn’t it? Food is tastier, music is better…all because of the memories associated with it.

When the “I Love the 80s” swap showed up on Craftster, I was so, so in. The cartoons! The neon colours! I think that was probably the first generation of kids that was marketed to hardcore by businesses, and it showed in the Pinterest rabbit hole I found myself falling down. I think I could have made a career (if a low-paying one) out of curating just the right Popples and Strawberry Shortcake pins.

Apparently not many people feel that way, because when sign-ups closed, there were only three of us signed up. We did a round-robin swap, which sounds more family-friendly than “three-way” – Person A sent to Person B, Person B sent to Person C, and Person C sent to Person A. It was a three-point swap, which meant that your swap package should take three or more hours to craft or cost $30 or more in supplies.

I found a truly outrageous pattern to stitch up:

I found neon craft acrylics to paint the hoop, too. Between the colours and the sparkly aida fabric, it popped. But it felt kind of underwhelming on its own (despite meeting the 3-hour mark), so I made a felt-appliqué My Little Pony to go with it.

Luckily, the same purple paint complemented Glory’s mane and tail perfectly.

I felt pretty good about my package, but hoo boy, did my partner ever spoil me!

A mug rug! The 80s-est (it’s a word now) notecards ever! Even a Caboodles! But the Lisa Frank shrine really shone, and needs a little love of its own.

I was seriously blown away by her generosity, and quite frankly by the utter perfection of her choices. It seemed like if it was on my swap questionnaire, it found its way into my package. I thanked her profusely, of course, but couldn’t let that be the end, so I felt-appliquéd a hoop for her, too.

What else do you send someone who brought such cheer to your day but Cheer Bear? All right, and some chocolate, too. (By the way: that purple door in the background isn’t long for this world. Pretty soon you’ll be seeing a different backdrop for hanging crafts.)

This all culminated in mutual goodwill, and I was a little sad to see it all over – this was probably the most fun I had ever had in a swap, playing with the colours and characters. As it turned out, one of the Craftster members hadn’t been able to take part in the official swap, and so with a brief private-message exchange, we were able to work out details of a private swap.

My new partner was a collector of My Little Pony as well, and in the course of our exchange, I quickly hit on exactly what I had to make for her.

Gusty!

And Medley! (I’ve also seen it spelled “Melody”, and if someone knows which is right, let me know.) Gaah, the detailing on her wings stressed me out. I kept worrying the definition wouldn’t come through.

I still wanted to include something else with them – I might be a lot of things, but I’m no one-trick pony (ha!). While Googling the Wuzzles at work one day, I discovered just what an amazing collection of vocal talent that show had. Bill Scott (you might know him as Bullwinkle J. Moose, Dudley Do-Right, Mr. Peabody…) was on it, but – and this is what did it for me – so were Henry Gibson and Joanne Worley. I had never heard of them, or of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, as a kid, but present-day Witty Child just about fell out of her chair.

But how to immortalize their characters? More felt appliqué? Nah. Embroidery would be nice, but I’d want to do a fill stitch of some sort to capture the colours better than an outline alone could do, and I didn’t have the time for that. And for the first time ever, Michaels provided me with something useful, in the form of fabric markers.

The markers gave me the colours I was looking for, and worked really well on the tea towels I used. They even held up after being washed, and I can’t imagine how many hours and needle-induced callouses they saved me.

It seems that my partner and I were kind of on the same wavelength, because I got home one day after work to find these waiting for me:

Felt-appliquéd My Little Ponies! Cotton Candy will always be #1 in my books. And Lisa Frank kittens! That neon yellow on both of them (fleece for the ponies, and embroidery floss for the kitten) positively draws the eye. Who am I kidding, I can’t stop looking at either one of them.

80s-themed crafting: can’t stop, won’t stop.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

How do you spell “fun”? F-e-t-t-i!

Back in the spring, I had made some cookies to share with my coworkers in celebration of what was admittedly a rather arbitrary anniversary. Oh, I didn’t make a big deal of it, plastering “Five Years Since I Accidentally Took the Elevator to the Wrong Floor” banners across my cubicle walls, or anything like that. I packaged them unceremoniously in a Gladware container, scrawled “Funfetti Chocolate Chip Cookies” in green Sharpie on a folded piece of notepaper, and dropped the whole works in an obvious place in the communal kitchen. Free food always moves, and by eleven o’clock that morning, they were gone.

Do you want to know the difference between a “normal” person and a social committee member? The “normal” people instant-messaged me to say thank you, or how much they enjoyed them. Awww. One of the social committee members led with an instant message that started out like that, but turned into, “You should make some for our bake sale! I’d totally buy some! My kid’s two favourite things are chocolate and rainbows.” And so, it came to pass that I was going to be part of the sale.

I’m not going to torture you with a long and complicated recipe, insisting that you not overmix and taking a tape measure to your prepared cookie sheets to determine exactly how far apart your portions of dough are. I’m going to KISS (Keep It Super Simple; or Keep It Simple, Stupid – depends on how surly you feel).

Are you ready?

Take your favourite chocolate chip cookie recipe. In this case, the tubes of dough from the refrigerator section of your local superette does not count as a recipe.

When you get to the point where you’re about to stir in the chocolate chips, add in half a cup (or more, depending on the size of your recipe and your own aesthetic preferences) of rainbow sprinkles – jimmies, not nonpareils.

Bake as prescribed in the recipe.

Enjoy your colourful homemade treats.

I used my grandmother’s recipe, which yields a not-overlarge batch of cookies, and which bakes up nice and chewy, with just the slightest crispiness at the edges. They proved just as popular at the bake sale, even when people had to pay for them – by ten o’clock, only one package was left.

Thanks for looking! 🙂