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Put me on your cupcakes!

So there’s this awesome website called Bake It Pretty – if you haven’t been there yet, you really really must. And if cutesy adorable baking supplies weren’t enough of a reason, here’s another one… to VOTE FOR MY CUSTOM SPRINKLE MIX! So there’s this contest, okay? And one of my custom sprinkle combinations was chosen as a finalist! The name is “Hello Kitten”, and SHUT THE FRONT DOOR, what little girl wouldn’t want this on their damn cupcakes? Hell, there are little boys out there that would love it too. For that matter, there are BIG boys and girls who would kill for this stuff. Seriously. Hearts, pink sugar bubbles, and pearly white sprinkles?

So get thee to the following link: http://www.bakeitpretty.com/blog/2010/05/vote-for-the-ultimate-sprinkle-mix/ and vote for me!!!

Okay, shameless self-promotion is now complete. 🙂

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These dewy flowers are more than ready for their closeup...

Hello, my darling readers. Are any of you still there? Yes? Oh good, I’m so glad. I know I’ve been a Very Bad Blogger as of late. *wrist slap* I’ve given you virtually nothing to gnaw on with this blog in the past few months, but I honestly truly kinda sorta feel like I might have a bonafide excuse… I’m a gettin’ hitched in less than a month! Yes, it’s true, and I’m soooooo excited. I’m happier than a piglet floatin’ a warm bath bucket. (Click the link. No, really, do it. You’ll thank me once you’re done “squeeeee”ing from the epic cuteness).

Getting married! So what exactly does this mean? It means I’m throwing the awesome party to end all awesome parties (I’m talking even better than my infamous 29th birthday Pirates a-Go-Go! party. Yeah, epic, I know.) and y’all are invited (through the magic of the intertubes, that is). What else does this mean? Besides wearing a purty dress and lookin’ all fancy, it means I have a legitimate reason to make a BIG HUGE FREAKIN’ FRACKIN’ CAKE!

I’ve gotten pretty much the same reaction each time I tell someone new about my wedding-cake-making experiments so far. They inevitably get a queer look on their face and ask, “You’re not making your own wedding cake, are you?!” When they encounter my enthusiastic affirmative response, the next question is always the same: “Are you crazy???” I’m still not sure if they mean this rhetorically or not… hmm… regardless, it is true: I AM CRAZY. Crazy like a fox (one covered liberally in buttercream, of course). In truth, I am crazy for a number of reasons, but not this one. If anybody has eaten one of my cakes, they’ll understand. I will be that bride, the one wearing a plastic poncho over her dress while she touches up the decorations one last time. Because my cake is worth it! It is made of butter, sugar, love, fairydust, magic, rainbows and EPIC WIN, and I won’t put up with anything less for my own wedding.

I even got to do a trial run, if you can believe it! My darling friend Anne, upon hearing my wedding cake plans, asked how much I would charge for such a cake and if I would consider making HER cake in late April. I said HOLY CRAP OF COURSE I WILL! duh. And don’t bother with the payment, as this is my wedding gift to you, silly girl. She gratefully purchased the materials (butter. lots and lots of butter.) but the labor of love was my gift to them. It also served as a perfect trial run for our own cake in June, and they had no problem whatsoever with being my guinea pigs. 😉

So where to begin? How to go about this epic task? Like the good librarian that I am, I read a bunch of books! While I gleaned tips from all of them, one in particular stuck out as the ultimate DIY reference book: Wedding Cakes You Can Make, by Dede Wilson. The instructions were spot on, with great tips, tricks, and the recipes are SLAMMIN. Unlike many similar books, she spells out to you how many cups of cake batter, filling, frosting, etc. you need for every shape and size of pan you would possibly use. Each of the cake recipes is SCALED FOR YOU, to fit a variety of pan sizes. Seriously, this book saved my ass from doing a lot of math. I cannot recommend this book highly enough! Also of much help (and encouragement) was Deb from Smitten Kitchen’s Project Wedding Cake posts from 2008. It’s one of my ultimate favorite blogs, and reading through those posts truly gave me the courage I needed to tackle this momentous project!

What came next was about a month and a half of lists, spreadsheets, sourcing, shopping, baking, filling, frosting, decorating and EATING. Because I’m ME, and couldn’t think of doing only one cake flavor, each of the three tiers was completely different. All told, I made and baked 5 batches of cake batter, 4 batches of Italian buttercream, 1 saucepan of dark-chocolate-mint ganache and 2 quarts of strawberry-balsamic filling. The final tally of ingredients included 10 pounds of butter, 9 pounds of sugar, 5 dozen eggs, 3 boxes of cake flour, a pound of chocolate, and nearly a whole bottle of vanilla. Yes, you read that right, TEN POUNDS OF BUTTER. I don’t mess around when it comes to cake, this stuff is SERIOUS.

The final masterpiece was three stacked tiers (12, 10 and 8 inches), each of which was split into 4 layers of cake and 3 layers of filling, plus a good 60 or so cupcakes:

Top tier: “Dreamsicle” Cake – Golden butter cake with orange zest and orange/vanilla buttercream.

Middle tier: Chocolate-mint cake with minty dark chocolate ganache and creme de menthe buttercream.

Bottom tier: Golden butter cake with a fresh strawberry-balsamic filling and vanilla buttercream.

Cupcakes: Golden butter cake with strawberry cream inside, topped with vanilla buttercream and sprinkles.

Behold, a wedding cake appears!

Upon reaching the reception location, unloading my gear and stacking the cake layers, I made a horrific realization: The batch of buttercream I’d made the night before, intending to use for piped decorations, had separated into a globby mess of FAILcream! After a moment of intense freaking out, I came up with a solution that I’m just gonna go ahead and call BRILLIANT, since it turned out prettier than my original plan. I took the organic roses I’d bought to decorate the top of the cake (Why organic? Because nobody likes pesticides in their buttercream!) and ruthlessly tore half of them apart into a pile of petals. Using the FAILcream as a sort of glue, I stuck petals along the base of each tier in a crown/halo sort of effect, which hid the cardboard cake-boards beneath each layer while simultaneously LOOKING GORGEOUS. There were even still enough flowers left over to make a pretty cake topper!

You may have noticed, dear readers, that there is no fondant in sight. That is because I don’t believe in fondant. Why? Because 99% of the time it tastes like a nasty, sugary mess! Also, call me crazy (we’ve already established that I am), but I want my cakes to look like CAKE, not playdough or plastic. Seriously! I want my cakes to be liberally smothered with luscious, dreamy buttercream. I want you to look at the cake and KNOW it’s gonna taste good under there, not wonder what’s hiding behind the sugar-dough curtain.

Luckily, Anne and Brett – the happy couple – fully agreed with me! 🙂 All in all, they LOVED the cake, as did all the guests, apparently, judging by how fast that sucker went! I, of course, had to try all the flavors. Multiple times. You know, for science. I went home that night exhausted, but ecstatic – the tiers stayed stacked, nothing fell down, no major catastrophes (other than the buttercream FAIL), and most importantly, it tasted awesome! Not bad for my first wedding cake, eh?

Because I’m lazy, and feel like I’ve already written a ton, I’m just going to paste some pictures here of the process. You’ll be hearing more in part 2, when I start baking my own wedding cake in the coming weeks!

Cuppycakes ready for the oven. FYI, the bestest tool in the world for scoopin' batter into muffin tins is a mini ice-cream scooper (the kind with the trigger in the handle to release the batter)

Aren't these cupcake wrappers just darling? I got them at a wonderful online store called Bake It Pretty!

Cupcakes cooling on the counter... hey wait a minute, what's that down on the floor?

Mango sayz: I LIKE CUPPYCAKES TOO! NOM!

I think you guys should maybe cool off in the cupboard here instead...

Aren't these berries gorgeous? You should look closer...

Obligatory macro shot

By the end of the day, this bowl had THIRTY TWO egg yolks in it. The buttercream only needs whites!

Did somebody say buttercream?

Are you drooling yet?

Crumb coat is crumby.

Much butter was harmed in the making of this cake. By harmed, I mean MADE EVEN MORE DELICIOUS.

Ta-dah! May I present one gorgeous wedding cake (and one very tired but happy baker)!

The 2010 March Daring Baker’s challenge was hosted by Jennifer of Chocolate Shavings. She chose Orange Tian as the challenge for this month, a dessert based on a recipe from Alain Ducasse’s Cooking School in Paris.

A quivering, glistening yolk, shortly before its demise

You may have noticed I’ve been conspicuously… um… silent lately. Yes, my friends, I am a Very Bad Blogger. *slaps my own wrist* I could spout all sorts of lovely excuses, but to tell you the honest truth, I’m kinda lazy. SHOCKING! I know, right? So I totally bailed on the DB challenge last month despite it being something very exciting and delicious (tiramisu! yum! and my fiance is STILL begging me to make it for him…). Mostly it was from the horrifying experience of trying to make my own mascarpone cheese – if any of you know me and my hatred of cheese, you’ll understand. BUT I WAS DARING! I tried, even though the smell of the cream heating and curdling on the stove almost made me vomit. I couldn’t bring myself to use the stuff when it was done. Sigh…

So THIS month I see the challenge and am left, well, a bit baffled. First of all, it was a word I’d never seen or heard before (what the heck is a “tian” anyway? really?). Then when I started looking further I just couldn’t help but think “okay, so it’s a cookie with jam, whipped cream, fruit and caramel on top? What’s the big deal? Needless to say, I was not particularly inspired to action. This is why I didn’t get off my fat ass to do the darn thing until the day the challenge was due. Will I never learn??? This is ALWAYS a recipe for disaster!

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1 out of 2 cats approve of blueberry crumble a la mode.

1 out of 2 cats approve of blueberry crumble a la mode.

The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

Every month, an intrepid group of plucky bakers take on a challenge… yes, a CHALLENGE! It’s called the Daring Bakers Challenge, to be dared by only the daring-est of daring bakers across the land! Well, actually you just kind of have to sign up for it…. BUT STILL, it’s a chance for a lot of people to tackle the same recipe at the same time, and see what kind of learning and chaos ensues. In other words, if you’re a fan of food blogs, you may see quite a bit of strudel hit the interwebz today.

Most months require you to stick to the recipe exactly, but this month was a bit different. The mission? STRUDEL! And though the actual strudel dough is set in stone, the fillings – oh, the FILLINGS – are entirely up to us. Considering the plethora of beautiful bountiful berries hitting my supermarket shelves these days, I decided to throw a bunch of ’em in a strudel dough and see what happens! That and I love berries. No seriously, I lurrrve them. Like, one-day-we’ll-run-off-together-and-illegally-marry-each-other-and-those-normal-people-won’t-ever-understand-us kind of love. Berries are where it’s at. An ex of mine kind of hated many types of berries, because of all the little worrisome seeds (bah, humbug!). I like to think I left him because of the berries. It’s a better story that way.

But back to strudel. Or non-strudel, as the case may be. You see, it helps to bake strudel on a day not made entirely of FAIL! It also helps to not, like, make the recipe for the first time on the day the blog posts are due. Yes, my friends, I have been humbled today. My swollen culinary ego has taken a good swift kick-in-the-stones. This is probably a good thing, in the long run. Everyone needs to be taken down a step every now and then, right? Because I fully admit defeat today, and my foe, thy name is STRUDEL DOUGH. What follows is a true and harrowing account of my epic fail of a baking adventure today:

So remember those berries? Those scrumptious berries I’d been salivating over for the past week, imagining them in light, buttery, flaky strudel dough? Yeah, uh, I should have baked this a few days ago, because a good third of them were now slightly fuzzy and un-bakeable. Grumblecakes! Okay, so scrap two of the berries and go for pure blueberry! I love blueberries! I’ll put in a touch of cinnamon and some walnuts for texture. It will be beautiful. It will be a work of art! It will be the envy of daring bakers everywhere!

The dough, however, was also not-so-fortunate. The list of ingredients was so small, so simple. How could I fail, I thought. Well, for starters I wrote down the recipe wrong. NOTE TO SELF: 7 teaspoons and 7 tablespoons are two entirely different amounts. No really. I was so confused when I should have had a dough coming together and it was still a crumbly mess. I started adding more water to make up the difference, and have no idea whether or not I hit the right amount eventually. But I know dough – I know what it’s supposed to feel like! A bit of kneading, and into an oiled bowl it goes to sit and mellow out.

A few hours later, I assemble a scrumptious blueberry filling and then turn “to the dough. “It’s SO EASY to stretch,” they all said! “Worked like a dream… so stretchy and pliable!” Uh…. not so much. My FAIL of a dough refused to act with any civility whatsoever. It stubbornly fought me at every turn, causing a bout of cursing not often heard in the TLB kitchen. After nearly 45 minutes of gruesome stretching and pulling, I had a lumpy hole-ridden mess of dough that wasn’t anywhere near thin enough to even attempt rolling.

“ENOUGH!” I said. I may be stubborn, but I know when to throw in the towel. Strudel dough, you’ve won. I managed to salvage two tiny pieces of dough that were almost thin enough to work with, and used them to make two tiny little mini-strudels of dubious quality. The remainder of the filling, which still looked delicious, promptly got thrown into a casserole dish and topped with a buttery crumble to bake alongside the sad little strudel wannabes. I’ll be damned if I’ll let a perfectly good pile of blueberry deliciousness go to waste because I can’t manage to stretch a strudel dough!

So the results? Thick, lumpy misshapen logs of sadness that break my heart. Yes, they’re that bad. They look less like strudel than pale, bleeding dough-fetuses, curled upon their weeping berry centers. Case and point:

Strudel-fetus is sad.

Strudel-fetus is sad.

Strudel fetus bleeds for you.

Strudel fetus bleeds for you.

The crumble, however, is delicious!

The prerequisite food-porn shot.

The prerequisite food-porn shot.

This is a sad start to my Daring Bakers career, alas. Lets just say that from now on I’ll stick to making strudel with store-bought phyllo dough. But hey, at least I dared to… um… dare! I’m hoping next month’s challenge will be a bit smoother sailing?

The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.
EXTREEEME CLOSEUP!

EXTREEEME CLOSEUP!

Spring has finally sprung up here in my own private tundra, also known as southern Minnesota. We don’t call it the midwest – no! – it’s the Lower Mid-North. My grass is the most luscious, practically edible shade of green and the trees have started to burst out all over the place. In other news, I’ve started my FIRST EVAR! herb/tomato garden, in some planters on our sunny little deck. I’ve got two happy little tomaters (one regular, one “cherry”) and a whole bunch-o-herbs a-growin’ out there (if you must know, we chose mint, rosemary, parsley, cilantro, basil, and thyme). I gotta say, I’m a happy little plant mama so far. I seem to have inherited my mom’s brown-thumb when it comes to houseplants. I won’t even tell you how many lovely little potted flowers and spider plants and ferns and shrubbies I’ve brutally murdered in the course of my lifetime. It’s a sad tale. But I’m hoping that I also got my mom’s veggie-garden GREEN thumb!

Growing up in California, we had this randomly huge plot of land in the back of our suburban house (a double or triple lot, I think) which was turned into a gorgeous vegetable garden every summer by my mom. Of course at the time I thought nothing of it. I might have even resented it at times for taking away valuable play-space and supplying yet more dreaded vegetables for our dinner table. But my memories of it are vivid and strong (sometime I’ll tell you the infamous story of the “fuzzy zucchini”), and I’m trying my darndest to channel them as I coo to my little herbs and tomato runts.

My grandfather, who passed away early this year at the sh*t-kickin’ age of 93, was a mean old bird, but he grew one HELL of a tomato. Tomatoes of legend, they were. So juicy and flavorful, I was tempted to eat them right off the vine. Sadly, at times I’ve thought that his tomatoes are one of the very few things he really did right in his life (other than spawn my dad, of course). But I’m thinking happy thoughts of him every time I pass by the proto-tomatoes, hoping desperately that somewhere down the genetic line his tomato-growing gene may have passed on to me. Only time will tell… I’ll keep ya posted.

So ever since the weather finally started to turn, I’ve found myself (predictably) craving all sorts of lush, leafy green things. Salads, which I scoffed at in the sub-zero winter months, are now invading my foodie mind. In the grocery store I find myself passing by the delicious parsnips (love!) that I couldn’t get enough of a few short months ago, in favor greener, leafier pastures.

A month or so ago I came up with a salad recipe that was SO DAMN GOOD (!) that we haven’t been able to stop eating it ever since. So much so that we simply call it “THE Salad” – no fancy titles, no foo-foo names, it’s just THE Salad, as in the only salad I want to eat because it is full of my favorite things! At first look, you may think the combination of avacado, strawberries, and walnuts to be an odd one… but trust me on this one. It works. The sweetness of the strawberries is mellowed by the lush, buttery avocado, which in turn is sharpened by the musty, soft crunch of toasted walnuts, all wrapped up in baby greens, dressed with a sweet and sharp balsamic vinaigrette. Heaven, I’m telling you. Pure heaven. And you can pair it with all kinds of proteins! Though we often have this as a side-salad, if you want to make an entree out of it you could top it with shrimp (which we did here in these pictures), or grilled chicken… or even a seared jumbo scallop if you’re feeling decadent.

So please, do yourself a favor and make this salad for yourself this summer. I know I will…

THE Salad

  • 1 bag-o-baby greens
  • 1 package of strawberries, washed and sliced
  • 1 red, yellow or orange bell pepper
  • 3-5 scallions, depending on size and to taste, sliced fine
  • 1 avocado, halved, deprived of its pit, and cut into chunks
  • 1 cup (approx) walnuts, lightly toasted if you have the time
  • optional herb additions: torn basil leaves, torn mint leaves, or both!

Put the greens in a big ol’ bowl. Top with everything else in whatever order your little heart desires. Freshy ground black pepper over the top of it all is a very good idea. The fresh herbs like basil or mint are optional, but every time I’ve added them to THE Salad it’s been marvelous.

Serve with THE Dressing:

  • apricot spread (the no-sugar jam type stuff, like “simply fruit”) – couple of big spoonfuls
  • balsamic vinegar, the best you can get – maybe 1/4 cup? I don’t measure
  • olive oil, extra virgin if possible, good quality works best – 3 tablespoons or so
  • orange juice – a splash!
  • pomegranate molasses or syrup – a spoonful
  • Dijon mustard – a spoonful
  • Salt n’ Pepa – to taste

Zap the apricot spread in the microwave for 10-15 seconds or so, until it is soft enough to stir easily with the other ingredients. (I like to do this all in a big pyrex measuring cup, because when it is done, it can be easily poured on to the salad from there.) Add all the other ingredients and whisk until smooth and delicious. The mustard should help sort of emulsify the oil & vinegar together, making the dressing less likely to break into its base components.

TOP WITH ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT AND EAT IT ALL! As a side salad, this can serve 4-6 ; as a main course, 2-3.

Scallions, on the verge of death.

Scallions, on the verge of death.

That walnut looks almost pornagraphic...

That walnut looks almost pornagraphic...

You know you want it.

You know you want it.

THE ULTIMATE BITE! NOM NOM NOM!

THE ULTIMATE BITE! NOM NOM NOM!