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! 🙂

General Sewing

I’m Half Joe Camel and a Third Fonzarelli

Way back, when I was first dipping my toes into that great pool that is Etsy, I found some fabric from a purveyor of kawaii textiles that I just had to have. I don’t remember how closely I read the listing before adding it to my cart and waiting impatiently for my package to arrive from Japan.

When it did arrive, the package’s contents were just as lovely as they had looked online, only…much smaller than anticipated. I was not and am not a quilter, and had never heard of a fat quarter, and it was inconceivable (“I don’t think you know what ‘inconceivable’ means.” – Ed.) that someone should sell fabric in less than a metre cut. I had no idea what to make with an 18″ x 22″ piece of fabric – though admittedly, I don’t think I had a project in mind for a metre, either – and into my stash it went.

Fast-forward ten years (I know!), and suddenly every store is charging 5¢ for a plastic bag. I’m honestly not bothered by being charged a nickel, and as long as plastic bags are reused or disposed of properly, I don’t believe they’re the environmental bogeyman that everyone makes them out to be. (Edit: I found this, which confirms my theories at least partly.) But some stores’ (looking at you, Michaels) are made so cheaply that anything sharper than a cotton ball will cause them to tear so that they can’t be reused. And who wants to lug around one of those family-sized reusable bags from a grocery store when you’re just heading to the drugstore for dental floss and conditioner?

While browsing through files on my computer, I stumbled on a PDF that I had downloaded from the Happy Zombie probably around the time that I bought that abnormally tiny cut of fabric. This so-called “Poochie Bag” looked like the perfect way to use it. Honestly, if I hadn’t had to go out and buy coordinating fabric for the lining and handles, it would have been the perfect destashing project.

Except I didn’t make this a “true” Poochie Bag because…no pooch. Doing that would have relegated that lovely Cyrillic lettering to he bottom of the bag, and I didn’t buy this on whim and then sit on it for ten years just to do that. I still wanted to try the milk-carton corners, though, and decided to make one for my mom’s birthday.

Not only did it hold all of her other birthday swag admirably, she’s gotten a ton of use out of it since for all those small purchases. I picked three coordinating fat quarters (aha!) from Michaels, and was pretty pleased with the results.

So pleased, in fact, that I decided my partner in the Colour in a Box Swap on Craftster needed one in her chosen colour, too.

I love the lining fabric!

After three of these, I think I’m poochie-d out for a little bit. But they’re a great quick project, and I may have to revisit them for Christmas gift-giving.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

The Cheesecake Factory Has Nothing on Me

With my mom’s birthday approaching, I knew I had to find the perfect birthday cake recipe. There’s nothing wrong with an old standby (excuse me, classic), but then there’s no anticipation, no element of surprise. In the course of my regular web-browsing, I rediscovered the mini cheesecakes on Life, Love, and Sugar. She does like cheesecake…and that would certainly be a surprise. I was sold, but then the tough part came: deciding which variety to make.

Fortunately, this proved to have a rather elegant solution. Since each recipe calls for 12 oz. of cream cheese, and since cream cheese is sold in 8 oz. bricks, I decided to appeal to the lowest common denominator (ha!) and make two different kinds. I decided on chocolate Bailey’s (because the birthday girl loves her some chocolate) and cherry almond (because the baker loves her some cherries).

Did I mention that I had never made a baked cheesecake before? Is there a better time to try a brand-new, possibly-fussy dessert than for an actual occasion, with no back-up plan?

*crickets*

I was actually excited when the chocolate ones cracked a little bit: I know that while one does not normally want one’s cheesecake to crack, cracking is a thing that cheesecakes sometimes do, which told me I must be on the right track. Because gaaah, these things stressed me out. If I had been making a cake-cake or cupcakes, I could have jabbed a toothpick in the centre to check for doneness, touched it/them gently to see if it/they sprung back, all that good stuff. Cheesecake relies on sight and blind faith. It’s like a baking trust fall, and that makes me uneasy like you wouldn’t believe.

Once I had satisfied myself that these were more or less solid and baked through, and they had had time to cool completely, I tackled the flavoured (and occasionally boozy) whipped creams for garnish.

I had a lazy moment and didn’t really want to add two piping bags to my growing pile of dishes, so I snipped a corner off two sandwich baggies and dropped my piping tips in. They worked far better than I had thought they might, and cleanup was insanely easy. But just in case you think I’m completely lazy…

I made honest-to-goodness chocolate curls!

The birthday girl specifically requested no candles (sigh).

They passed their second-to-last test: they released from their paper liners with no trouble at all. It was the sigh of relief heard around the world.

(The combination plate is a venerable tradition around these parts. 😉 )

The birthday girl loved her unique dessert – and I may have inadvertently created some heightened expectations. That’s okay; after these turned out so well, I’m looking forward to experimenting with flavours.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking

“Zing!” went the strings of my heart

It all started when my friend had a birthday recently.

Wait, scratch that.  It started a few weeks before that, when one of the ladies at work (who knows I’m a baker and has previously been my sprinkle patron) asked me if I baked bars very often.

I wrinkled my nose.  “Not really,” I replied, and economically at that, for those two words were meant to convey the following:

I.  Don’t.  Get.  Bars.  They never seem to bake properly and become inedibly overbaked around the edges before the rest of it is done, and although they’re supposed to be easier than cookies, say, they seem like a lot more work, somehow.  Why do cookbook authors coyly list them with the cookies (e.g. “Bar Cookies”) when they are clearly not cookies?  They’re usually sticky or filled, and you sure as heck can’t eat them with your fingers like a cookie.  But they’re not cake, either.  And how are you supposed to portion/eat them?  With a (sliced) cake or a cupcake, the portioning is self-evident.  With cookies, you can go back and keep grabbing until you’re satisfied.  But bars?  Unless you’re at an outpost of a ubiquitous Seattle-based coffee chain, they’re generally cut into these teeny-tiny squares that look like something from a tea party, and which are not at all satisfying.  Yet because of their often-rich nature, too big a piece is just going to make your teeth and stomach hurt.  Just…why, bars, whyyyy?

I clearly need to work on my non-verbal communication skills, because she pressed on and explained that she had been tasked with baking for a church fundraiser, and thought I might have some ideas.  At that moment, I had a sudden flash of remembered inspiration, and told her all about the Cranberry Lemon Oat Zing Bars from The 100 Best Vegan Baking Recipes by Kris Holechek: they’re delicious, beloved by pretty much anyone who tries one; they’re quick and easy to make (and can be made not-vegan, if that’s how you roll); and they give you something besides just chocolate.  Sometimes there’s just too much chocolate, and these are a welcome antidote.

When I related this exchange to the Birthday Boy, he perked up and said that if I wanted to make a batch to show her what they were like, he would gladly help with the leftovers.  He wasn’t just being nice – I have honestly seen him lick out a container after being brought a sample.  When he mentioned them again, unprompted, a week or so later, I knew I had his birthday cake figured out.

And you know what?  I forgot just how easy these are to make!

Dry ingredients in one bowl:

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I always triple the cinnamon called for in the recipe because we like cinnamon around these parts. 😉

Wet ingredients in another:

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All together, with cranberries stirred in:

The batter was quite thick, and I had to use my fingers to spread/press it into place in the foil-lined, greased pan to get an even layer.  Always line those pans with foil, kids!

And now, we get to the fun part…

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My initial misgivings weren’t entirely incorrect – they did get a little darker around the edges, although not to the point of burning or otherwise ruining them.

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A lemon-cream cheese frosting seals the deal and hides the toasty edges.

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We managed to not set off the smoke detector or get wax on the cake bars, so I’d call that a win-win.

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Look at that: they cut beautifully, have just that little extra browning at the bottom edge, but stayed moist inside.  We played by ubiquitous coffee chain rules and made the pieces cake-sized, but because these aren’t overly sweet (the lemon zest and cranberries provide the right amount of tartness and tang), no one batted an eye.

The Birthday Boy was delighted by his “cake”, and even more so when I sent half of what was left home with him.

I’m still not sold on bars-as-a-culinary-subgenre, but these definitely have a place in my repertoire.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

General Sewing, Other Crafts

Now you’ve been a naughty girl, you’ve let your knickers down…

Fun fact: the eggman was actually Eric Burdon.  Shudder.

Ever since SiriusXM introduced its Beatles channel last May, it’s been my mom’s channel of choice.  I like them as much as the next person, but not on a 24-7 (excuse me, 24-8, as the station itself says) loop.  In any case, it seemed like a great theme to go with for her birthday.  Remember when themed birthdays were only for kids?  Me, too, but there’s no denying that having a theme makes everything fall into place nicely.

I dusted off my rudimentary and extremely rusty card-making skills for the occasion.  As soon as I found the main image in the course of a random Google search, I knew it had to be used somehow:

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I’m almost chagrined to include a picture of it in all its amateurish glory, but it served as a nice introduction to…

Pressies!  Back in October I discovered some wicked Sgt. Pepper-print fabric on Spoonflower, so hello pajama pants!

(A word about Spoonflower: while I love the fact that I found this fabric, it was $20 USD/yd, and because it’s printed to order there were wide empty white strips all around my 3 yards, which feels like a bit of a rip-off.  Also, they use yards instead of the vastly superior-and-slightly-larger metre, which also feels like a bit of a rip-off.  Those extra 10 cm make a difference!)

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And look, their little Scouse heads just about line up perfectly.

I used McCalls 4244, which at this point I can assemble without the instructions.  The piqué knit I chose is slippery – and surprisingly heavy – and required a ton of pins plus a steady hand on the sewing machine.  But ah, the drape!  As I spent, oh, minutes and minutes (ha!) guiding it through the machine, I started musing how many Beatles song titles could be greatly improved by the substitution of “pants”.  “I Want to Hold Your Pants”, “Maxwell’s Silver Pants”…and don’t forget, “You know I need someone’s paaannnntssss…”

At this point, I’m sure someone across the pond is reading this, sniggering at my obvious misuse of the word.  “Everyone knows pants are what go under your trousers!”  Sit tight, because I’ve got you covered, too.

Behold, Beatles knickers.  (To go with the pants, of course.)

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These are the midrise briefs from this pattern, and have very generous sizing.  I used fold-over elastic for the waistband, but went rogue and finished the legs but turning the edges under and running a zigzag stitch.  My reasoning was twofold: a) the FOE was a little fiddly to work with given the slippery fabric, and b) Fabricland only sells prepackaged cards of FOE at $6.49 for a yard – again with yards!  Since this particular view and size called for a total of 66.25 inches between the waistband and leg openings, that would have brought my total cost for elastic alone to $19.47 (unless I feel like sewing short ends together to make the proper length).  No, thank you.

I didn’t photograph the cake – I drew the themed-party line well before erecting some fondant-covered monstrosity in the shape of a yellow submarine, or whatever else it is one might do – but suffice it to say that a dark-chocolate cake with a cream cheese-whipped cream icing is lovely.

You say it’s your birthday?  We’re gonna have a good time!

baking

Moooommmm…my dessert is staring back at me!

I feel like I’ve gotten away from baking cupcakes lately.  Maybe because it’s all been done?  I don’t tend to get too crazy trying new flavours or techniques, and there are only so many ways to blog about chocolate (“No!!”) or vanilla (“Really?!”) cupcakes.  It’s a bit like watching someone’s really terrible vacation slideshow.

Whatever my reason, conscious or unconscious, I decided to make some mummy cupcakes for Halloween.  And this time I did exactly what I didn’t want to do the last time I made them: I broke down and bought candy eyeballs by Wilton.  In my defense, I saw no less a baking authority than Anna Olson use them.  I can’t explain why, but I tend to trust her far more than I do most of those soi-disant “experts” on the Food Network – she actually seems to know what she’s doing.  If these little shaped sprinkles (as the package describes them) were good enough for her, well, they’d be more than adequate for my purposes.

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Adorable, right?  My frosting process was thus: fitted with a basketweave tip, I first piped a strip across the cupcake to secure the eyes, and then added my bandages in what I hoped was a random pattern.  I didn’t want to paint on a bloody-looking mouth this time, so I left negative space instead to let my dark-chocolate cake show through.  Did you know that it’s really, really hard to randomly generate the mouth shape you’re hoping for?  After the first couple, I started outlining the mouth before adding my bandages – only to discover that my cupcakes looked like they were wearing blackface.  Ugh!  Some of them look truly horrified at that unhappy coincidence; luckily the end product turned out completely inoffensive.

All was well until I stored the uneaten cupcakes in the fridge to be consumed the next day: when I pulled them out, some of them had arbitrarily dilated pupils – usually just one, but not every single mummy had that problem.  I assumed that somewhere in the room temperature-to-refrigerated-to-room temperature cycle, condensation had formed and dripped on some eyes.  They were kind of ugly, but still tasted fine.

A few days later, I made a batch of vanilla funfetti cupcakes for a friend’s birthday, and was able to use more of my candy eyes to Minion-ize them.

Minion Cupcakes 1

(You’re not losing your mind; those are two different sizes of eyeballs.)

These guys made me smile so much, and I was determined to keep them looking good, so I kept them well away from the fridge.  But lo, by the next morning, some of my Minions were afflicted with the same ocular disorder that had plagued my mummies.

(I am so, so glad that I decorated these the day of his little birthday soirée, and that only the leftovers got bug-eyed.)

Having seen this happen with no significant temperature change, I can only guess that it’s not a condensation/temperature issue; rather, once the icing softens the eyes a bit, the pupils bleed.

Has anybody else had this problem with the Wilton eyes?  Or is there some trick to keeping the eyes looking (ha!) the way they should, short of using them immediately before serving?  At $4 a pack, I don’t think it’s worth fighting over, but I’m going to have to think long and hard before buying them again.

Oh, well.  Thanks for – ha, ha – looking. 🙂

baking

And the man in the back said, “Everyone attack!”…

So, recently I had been part of a project at work informally known as the “Blackout Blitz”.  In all fairness, its name comes from its ties to production quotas and inter-departmental deadlines; however, from the very beginning, it made me think simultaneously of the Blitz of WWII and of the blackout drills held during the war.  Hardly unusual, given the name.

(This raises an important question: why do so many people glorify the WWII era?  I do it, too, but why?  I’m perfectly able to wear oxfords and listen to big band music today, but without all the hassles of rationing, polio, wartime casualties, the marginalization of women and minorities…  I can only chalk it up to there being a heckuva spin doctor there somewhere, who made the whole damned thing seem so glamourous and wholesome.  And, let’s face it, the Bomb Girls of the eponymous television series seemed to know how to make a blackout drill a real gas.)

Needless to say, by the time my mom’s birthday was approaching, I had blackouts and blitzes on the brain, and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that for her cake, I decided to duplicate Ebinger’s Bakery’s famous Brooklyn Blackout Cake.

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I turned to Chloe Coscarelli’s Chloe’s Vegan Desserts for the basic how-to and for the killer chocolate pudding to slather between layers and all over the outside – and was I ever excited when the mixture smoothed and thickened exactly as it was supposed to! – but deferred to Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World for the cake portion.  Their Basic Chocolate Cupcake recipe is moist and foolproof, and with the addition of black cocoa powder to make it extra-dark and rich, there was no going wrong.

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I was concerned that the step of pulsing part of the cake in the food processor to make crumbs to be sprinkled on top would detract somehow from the finished product, but au contraire!  They only add to the chocolatey goodness.

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Moist chocolate cake sandwiching rich chocolate pudding?  Sign me up!

Thanks for looking! 🙂