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

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! 🙂

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! 🙂

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! 🙂

baking

Rainbow Rah-Rah (Lisa Frank would be proud)

At the risk of sounding like a crazy cat lady, Saturday was my cat’s birthday.  I’m not the best cat-mom when it comes to remembering stuff like that; in the eight years that I’ve had her, I think I’ve only remembered once before this.  But hey, my bad parenting/sieve-like memory doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have a fabulous celebratory cake, right?  The stars were aligned: it was a long weekend and I had icing sugar in the house.  And truthfully, I had been looking for an excuse to do up something like this, and what better reason than a birthday?

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Say, that looks tall.  How many layers did you say it was, again?

I didn’t, but: six.

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Proof that “vegan” ≠ “healthy”.  I used the basic vanilla cupcake recipe from VCTOTW, doubled it, and divided it amongst six bowls to tint each one separately.  You definitely don’t want to attempt this if you have a serious aversion to artificial colours – but my theory is, as long as the majority of my diet isn’t neon-coloured, a piece of cake now and then isn’t going to kill me.  I made a huge batch of the fluffy buttercream frosting recipe from the same book, and barely had enough to finish the cake.  Even though each layer is only 6″ across, it still used a lot!

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The birthday girl was somewhat intrigued by this candy-coloured confection, but quickly lost interest and resumed the nap from which she had been so rudely awakened.  Hey, more for me!

I’m not sure if I’d try this again.  It’s not difficult, just a bit fiddly, and is a bear to store as none of my cake-takers are tall enough to house it.  But I can cross “rainbow layer cake” off my baking bucket list.

Thanks for looking! 🙂

baking, Cross-stitch and Embroidery

Happy Birthday from the Muskrat

I know I’ve disappeared for the last month – January seems to have gotten away from me, but I was quite pleased with myself for having been able to post at least one handmade/home-baked item per month last year, and had no intention of letting my streak disappear!

My mom celebrated a birthday recently, and those of you who follow me regularly know my Birthday Rule.  Obviously there was going to be a homemade cake of some kind; it just took me a while to decide which kind.  I had contemplated tiramisu (vanilla cake, coffee, Kahlua, chocolate shavings) in all its adult glory, but finally decided I needed something chocolate-based.  No matter how fancy I get, she always seems to like my plain chocolate cake/cupcakes best of all.  I got the idea to make a chocolate buttercream frosting laced with raspberry syrup (the latte kind, not the pancake kind), with fresh raspberries for garnish.

Cake 1

Cake 2

But the true stroke of genius, in my obviously completely unbiased opinion, was to place some raspberries on top of the bottom layer once it had been frosted.  It reminded me of some of the fruit tortes from store bakeries, and adds a really nice bit of flavour and texture where one might not expect it.

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I also had the perfect birthday card in mind: a Margaret Sherry illustration from The World of Cross Stitching a few months back.  It features a sweet little mouse presenting his hedgehog friend with a birthday cake.

Hedgehog Mouse Card

When I showed it to one of the other party guest, he commented, “Aw, look at the cute little muskrat!”  I’m not sure he was joking.

Also, update on my grammar hoop: I finally got to give it to its intended recipient this week, and he loves it.  He’s displayed it proudly at work, only to have one of his coworkers ask him: “Do you really do it silently?”  Maybe not always…