Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cakes for Dudes

Tomorrow, the man in my life turns the big 3-0. This has its pros and cons. Pro: cake. Con: my big 3-0 is not far behind. But lets focus on the the positives shall we?

Turning thirty is supposed to be such a big scary thing. I make jokes a lot about it, and tease him endlessly since he is hitting the milestone before I am, but deep down I don't think either of us really care all that much. Plus, we all become mature, responsible adults when we turn thirty right? Right?? All jokes aside, we aren't big birthday celebrators in the first place, so we tend to keep things pretty low key.

I have learned that it is pretty much impossible to make a surprise cake for someone you live with. I have also learned that when you make a cake for someones birthday without having a party or a bunch of people over, the majority of the cake goes untouched in the refrigerator until it ends up in the garbage. So, I am going to forgo the cake this year (sorry Steve) and hope that the pistachio gelato and half eaten shamrock shake in the freezer will suffice.

I have made quite a few cakes in my day, and lets face it, they were pretty much all for the ladies. Even the wedding cakes I have done, though they were for a couple's celebration, it was mostly the bride that cared about the look of the cake (I find the grooms tend to only care about what is inside the cake).

Obviously there are exceptions to this, but it is always a bit tricky when asked to make a cake for an adult male. It is easy to make a pretty pattern, throw some frilly gumpaste flowers on a cake for any occasion, but that is typically seen as being 'girly', and that usually doesn't fly for the guys.

So what's a girl to do? Beer, baseball, and totally neutral colors and shapes, that's what! Yay gender roles! Actually in full disclosure, the baseball cake turned out to be for a woman, which I didn't find out until the party started and totally made me happy. I also felt guilty for just assuming it was for a man. In general, I am finding it easier to break my habits of always making 'feminine' cakes. Using darker, bolder colors, utilizing more geometric patterns and shapes, bold writing and designs, and generally staying away from flowers seem to be some basic stepping stones for creating a more masculine cake.

Making it look and taste like beer always helps.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Wedding and a Baby

Before you get too excited (MOM), neither the wedding nor the baby are mine. I was however, lucky enough to be a part of both my cousin's wedding day, and my boss's baby shower. My participation in both these events was my favorite kind of participation, I was asked to make the cakes. I think one of the best parts of doing freelance baking is that you are often providing a service for a friend, a member of the family, or a friend of a friend or family member (it is all about 3 degrees of separation here). With this familiarity tends to come an immense amount of freedom. Many of my 'clients' know me, know what I can do with some cake and a bowl of buttercream, and they tend to put a lot of trust in my designs and decision making.

It can be such a contrast from working with complete strangers (at the restaurant) who hand me a picture and say 'I want this cake'. I have a big ethical problem with copying cakes. Unless it is a very generic plain buttercream cake, say with some texture, or plain fondant with ribbons on the bottom like every other wedding cake these days, I won't make a copy, I just won't do it. I will give you a cake that is inspired by your picture, has all the elements you want, and in the end, is hopefully better than what your were expecting in the first place.

I think that designing and creating cakes can be an art form, and plagiarism ethics should apply. In the age of pinterest and blogs and instagram, I realize that this isn't exactly feasible, to expect people not to copy your designs while trying promoting yourself through pictures and tutorials in these same outlets. So, in my personal credo as an 'artist' (and I do use that term loosely) I pledge not to steal other people's work. I DO pledge to be inspired by, learn from, and give credit to the cake artists that I admire and follow.

So, when I get an order for a cake with very minimal requests, and the client says 'just do whatever you want, I trust you', there's a feeling of excitement and perhaps a little bit of anxiety. Both of the events pictured here were for very, VERY trusting people.

A fall themed wedding with golds, reds, pinks, and browns, and a joint baby shower for two sisters having babies just a few weeks apart. The wedding for my cousin was discussed over email from a few states away, and she put her trust in my to execute her ideas and make the trip up to Minnesota for her wedding, without even talking to me in person. For the baby shower, my boss's wife handed me her shower invitations and said 'do whatever you want, all I care about is chocolate'.

This is why I do what I do. The daily grind of production and working the line at the restaurant is a great, stable job, but the creating I get to do in the background is the icing on the cake.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Jump on Autumn

One bonus of working in a professional kitchen, is that I get to have a jump on the seasons. I get a head start on fall baking in early September, start playing around with winter spices in November, and experiment with bright winter citrus in December. We are rolling out a new fall inspired menu at the restaurant in the next week and I could not be more excited. Does this early run on autumnal goodies mean I will hit burn out on fall flavors by November?

Fall is my favorite season, and the food that comes with it is second to none. Even better than fall baking, is fall cooking, and while I am up to my ears in cinnamon, pumpkin and apples at work, at home I am diving head first into slow braised meats, stews and soups, and some serious comfort food. This week I made my first big 'ol pot of chili of the year. Chock full of hearty ingredients, warm spices, and healthy lean ground turkey, this is one soup to keep on rotation. Roasted sweet potatoes, black beluga lentils, white cannelini beans, crunchy corn and yellow bell peppers all add to the complexity and texture. Cumin, coriander, ginger, smoked chipotle chili powder add to the depth of flavor and slow subtle heat. If you are looking to change up your usual chili recipe, this is it.

Autumn Chili with Beluga Lentils, Roasted Sweet Potatoes, and Turkey

2-3 lbs ground turkey,
3 teaspoons paprika
1/4 cup AP flour 
1/2 cup olive oil 
1 large vidalia onion, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 large green jalepeno, diced (remove seeds if you want it a little less spicy)
1/4 cup tomato paste
4 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons smoked chipotle chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatos
2 cups white wine
8 cups chicken stock
4 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced small
2 cans canellini beans
2 cups black beluga lentils
2 small cans corn
2 bell peppers (red, yellow or orange are my preference), diced
1/2 cup parsley leaves, minced
greek yogurt and more chopped parsley to garnish
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Toss diced sweet potatoes with 1/4 cup olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 30-40 minutes, tossing periodically until starting to caramelize. Set aside. 

Meanwhile, heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of a large heavy bottom pot, such as a dutch oven, over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add turkey and cook until cooked through and starting to brown. Add the onions and garlic and cook until softened and starting to caramelize, about 5-7 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the turkey and cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly to cook off a bit of the raw flour taste. Add the jalepenos and saute another 2-3 minutes, until softened.

Add the tomato paste, chili powders, cumin, coriander, ginger, and stir to combine. Add the wine, bring to a simmer, then add the chicken stock and tomatoes. Stir to combine, then bring to a boil and add the lentils. Reduce heat, and simmer for 30-45 minutes, until lentils are starting to get tender.

Add the beans, corn, bell peppers, and sweet potatoes. Bring back to a boil and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until veggies are tender. Stir in parsley and serve immediately topped with greek yogurt and more parsley. This also freezes wonderfully.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Good as Gold

It's Saturday morning, and I am at home, drinking coffee, and...well, that's it actually. I am sitting in my pj-s, doing nothing. Nothing except writing this post. It feels wonderfully weird. No baking to do, no projects to work on, nothing. I get to spend some time with friends today whom I haven't seen in far too long, participate in some fall-themed activities, and share with you some goodies that I just haven't had the time to post.

A few years ago, I hinted not-so subtly on this very blog that I wanted Santa to bring me an airbrush machine for christmas. Santa pulled through, but unfortunately the machine was swiftly delegated to our second bedroom, otherwise known as the room where kitchen appliances go to die. When a friend of mine asked me to make her a anniversary cake, and showed me the picture of what she had actually wanted her wedding cake to look like (not what they ended up receiving unfortunately). I knew this was a perfect opportunity to resurrect and make use of my not-so new toy.

A smooth layer of buttercream, a quick coat of airbrush gold, and a light pressing of a textured paper towel, gave this cake it's antiqued look. For the flower, I rolled what felt like a million little balls out of fondant in multiple sizes and used royal icing to secure them to the center of the flower. Then I airbrushed the entire center and let it dry before affixing the petals.

Inside is my favorite devils food chocolate cake, frosted with vanilla italian meringue buttercream and filled with this raspberry curd mousse.

Raspberry Curd Mousse
recipe adapted from epicurious.com

12 oz raspberries
1 1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 TBL lemon juice
2 TBL unsalted butter (room temperature)
pinch salt
1 tsp gelatin
1 TBL water
1 cup heavy whipping cream

Combine raspberries, sugar, lemon juice, and butter in a food processor, and pulse until raspberries have broken down. Transfer to a saucepan, and whisk in the eggs and salt. Place pan over medium heat, and bring mixture to 175 degrees F, whisking constantly. Remove from heat, strain through a fine mesh sieve, and let cool to room temperature, whisking every few minutes to aid cooling. Combine water and gelatin and let bloom for 5 minutes. Melt gelatin and whisk into raspberry curd. When mixture has cooled to room temperature, whip the heavy cream to medium peaks. Add the raspberry curd and mix until combined. Chill until you are ready to fill your cake.

You can skip the gelatin if you want, but I found the raspberry curd to be a little runny to be filling layer cakes with. If you are using the curd or mousse for a different purpose you can omit it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Checking In

If I have been reminded of anything this summer, it is that life is short. Too short. The life you've grown accustomed to, your sense of comfort and control, and even the ones you love can be snapped away in a mere second. The months fly by without you noticing, or having the time to stop and realize what you are missing.

I found that I sort of checked out of life this summer. I checked out of social activities, checked out of taking care of myself, checked out of a lot of things. I threw myself into work and grief, and neglected most of everything else.

Now I find the weather beginning to cool off, there are pumpkins for sale at the garden store down the street, and I am wondering where the season went. I am also wondering what the hell was wrong with me?

My wake up call came in the form of a much needed celebration to close the summer. I have been home so many times these past few months, a few times to say goodbye to lives cut too short, but most recently a visit home for a wedding was the giant breath of fresh air that many in my family needed to come together and celebrate love and new beginnings.

Weddings have a way of doing that I think. It reminds you of how much love there is in this world. You can look around, and see all eyes and hearts focused on the two people in the front of the room, supporting them and wishing them a life full of happiness. In this case, the wedding was my sister's (which will have it's own post altogether) and there were just so many faces that I had a chance to catch up with and reconnect with. I also was scolded by more than a handful of family friends and relatives that I had not updated this space in a long time, so friends, this is for you.

I feel honored every time I am trusted to make a wedding cake. It is a big job, and often it is the first thing guests see when they walk into the reception space. It is a constant reminder of why I do what I do. I am in the business of making people happy, and to see the joy on someone's face when they catch the first glimpse of their wedding cake, or when dessert is placed in front of them at the end of their meal, is my motivation to keep creating.

When life hands us a little more than we can handle, it's easy to check out. The better path though, is to check back in, keep getting better at your job, strengthen your relationships, tighten up your family ties. Life may keep you busy and overwhelmed but at the end of the day, what is left is family, love, and passion, things that should never be taken for granted.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Buttercream Beauties

I think its safe to say buttercream is BACK. Not that it ever went away completely, but after years (decades even?) of playing second string to fondant, buttercream-covered wedding cakes are making a comeback.

Maybe its the blossoming culture of relaxed bridal "rules", or the trend of rustic-chic wedding decor, or it could be valuing taste over perfection, but more and more brides are eschewing fondant for the cake of their dreams.

I have a few opinions on fondant, some of them conflicting. There is a time and a place for fondant cakes. Many of these times and places happen to be weddings, but I don't see it as a necessity anymore . Once upon a time, and I was recently told this by a VERY traditional, VERY southern mother of the bride, the cake represented the 'bride', and therefore needed to be white. Pure white, inside and out. She was not very happy with the bride wanting my buttercream on the outside, and buttermilk cake on the inside, both of which are made with butter, and therefore not pure white. I explained that I do not use shortening or imitation vanilla extract which results in my frosting being a very slightly off white, but that the flavor and texture is unbeatable. For my cakes, if you want pure white, it has to be fondant, I simply will not compromise the quality of my ingredients for color.

If your primary goal with the cake is design, and tying it perfectly into the theme or color scheme of your event, then fondant may be the obvious way to go. On the other hand, I would say 90% of people end up peeling it off before consumption, or just eating around it. It truly is for aesthetic purposes only, albeit an edible one. Don't get me wrong, I love making edible artworks with fondant, but sometimes, buttercream is best.

Sometimes, simplicity makes for a stunning cake on its own, without all the adornment of details and adornments. These two cakes were my first of many this wedding season and I think they kicked it off with a great start. More to come, so stay tuned.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Easy Does It

There are things in life that just work. The perfect cup of coffee, weekly brunch dates, long bike rides on the first warm day in the spring,  pajamas and reruns. Routines, traditions, patterns.

There are also thing in life that you have to work at; friendships from afar, love on opposite schedules, family ties being stretched thin, career in constant adaptation and change. They need effort, they need attention, they just need more of myself than I have been giving them. As my career is taking up so much of my time, sometimes I feel that the other areas of my life suffer. They get neglected, pushed aside. Just until tomorrow, I tell myself.

This concept of 'tomorrow' finally materialized. I was able to fly home for a short 48 hours to try to pack in as much as I could. And pack it in I did, by meeting new babies, spending some girl time with my sister and mom, sharing meals and wine with my dad and soon to be brother-in law. So many sentimental and rather emotional activities in such a short period of time left me kind of a mess, exhausted and a bit emotional myself. But I would do it again in a second, because you know what? It works. I just don't have the time off or the money to travel home that often, so when I get the chance I make it work, no matter how short the visit, or sad the goodbyes.

When I get a bit of time to myself, sometimes I can let my brain overload on all the possibilities of things to do, new recipes to try, and crazy projects in the kitchen. Lately though, I have been focusing on easy, simple, and classic. A disc of leftover pate brisee hanging out in the freezer, some berries on sale at the grocery store, and just enough eggs left in the fridge to make pastry cream, it just came together without much effort. For those few hours alone with my coffee that morning, it was the perfect thing to keep my hands busy and let my mind wander. Its something that doesn't happen as often as it should these days, plus pastry cream with fresh berries is just one of those things that works. Always has, always will.

Pate Brisee Crust
(this is enough for 16-20 3-inch tarts)

400 grams (14 oz) unsalted butter, chilled, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 tablespoon white distilled vinegar
100 grams (3 1/2 oz) granulated sugar
2/3 cup water, chilled
665 grams (1 lb 7 1/2 oz) all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt

Remove butter from fridge 20 minutes before mixing.

In a small bowl, combine sugar, water, and vinegar, stir to aid the dissolving of the sugar. Set aside in refrigerator for 10 minutes. Then, stir again to completely dissolve sugar.

In a food processor, pulse the flour and salt together a few times to combine. Add the butter, and pulse in one second bursts about 3-4 times until butter is cut in and evenly dispersed. You should have visible chunks of butter in your flour mixture, this is where the flakiness comes from.

Pour mixture into a large bowl and make a little well in the middle of the flour. Pour the vinegar water mixture into the well, along with the almond extract, and gently mix liquids into the flour with a fork. When liquid is evenly dispersed, dump dough out onto a clean surface and knead gently a few times, just until dough comes together in one cohesive ball. It may be a bit shaggy or falling apart, but that's okay, while it is resting the moisture will bind everything together.

Cut ball of dough in half and shape each half into a disc about 1/2 - 3/4 inch thick. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least two hours, or overnight. Take dough out of fridge about 15 minutes before you roll it out. For the 3-inch sized tarts, I cut each disc in half, rolled it out into a square, 1/8 inch thick, then cut the disc into four pieces, placing each one of the four pieces in a tart mold. How you roll the dough out will depend on the size and shape of the tart mold you are using. Always start in the center of the disc and roll outward, turning the disc 30 degrees after each roll to get an even thickness throughout. Carefully move the dough to your tart pan and press evenly into all corners, pinching off the excess.

Dock with a fork (meaning poke a bunch of tiny holes in the bottom of the tart crust with a fork) and freeze for twenty minutes. Preheat your oven to 400 F. Place a piece of tin foil over your tart shell, pressing it down to fit the form of your tart, and fill with beans or rice or pie weights. Blind bake your tart for 15 minutes, flipping the pan front to back halfway through. Remove the pie weights and tin foil and bake for another 5-7 minutes, until the crust is golden brown (the times on this will depend again on the size of your tart pans) . Let cool completely.

Orange Vanilla Bean Pastry Cream
(makes enough for 16 3-inch tarts)

1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 eggs
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
2 oz butter, chopped into small pieces
1/2 vanilla bean
zest of 1 orange

In a medium sized sauce pan, heat the milk, 1/2 cup of the cream, and the vanilla bean pod, split and scraped. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, cover and let steep for about 20 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh seive, then return to burner. Add the sugar and bring to a boil. While mixture is heating, combine the eggs, yolks, cornstarch, and the remaining 1/2 cup of heavy cream in a medium bowl. Whisk until smooth.

When the cream/sugar mixture reaches a simmer and the sugar is completely dissolved, temper into the egg mixture,  whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the saucepan, and cook over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens.

Since it has cornstarch in it, it does technically need to come to a boil for it to thicken properly, so once that first bubble pops, remove from heat and immediately put through a fine sieve to ensure that no scrambled eggs make their way into your pastry cream. Whisk in butter and orange zest and chill about 4 hours or overnight before using.

Tarts - Assembly

Pipe the pastry cream into each of your tart shells, using just enough to cover the bottom. Arrange blackberries on the surface of the pastry cream and top with chopped pistachios, and more orange zest. These are best eaten within a few hours, if you are making them much ahead of time, I would spread a thin layer of apricot jam onto the pastry crust before filling to keep the shell from getting soggy.


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