Sunday, August 30, 2009

Boo-ter-fly Cakes

Sometimes I get myself in over my head without even trying. Such was the case with these adorable little cakes made for our little friend Boo. Exactly 7 days before her party her mother and I went over to the bookstore so I could show her Hello, Cupcake! to see if there was anything in there she liked. To my honest shock and surprise there was nothing in the book that tickled her fancy so we moved on to other books, fancier books, more complicated cakes. In the end we settled on a combination of the butterfly cupcakes from Hello, Cupcake! (with modifications) and a mini-cake from Mich Turner's book Spectacular Cakes. While the cakes would be labor intensive they weren't really all that complicated, especially if I started them three or four days before they were needed for the party. What I didn't count on was an entire week of whatever could go wrong, would go wrong (including me getting a migraine that just wouldn't quit).

The plan was that the mini cakes would be french vanilla, filled with soft pink buttercream, covered in poured fondant of pale green, striped with thin lines of pale pink and magenta buttercream and topped with a pastel colored butterfly. They needed 36 little cakes for their party. In order to ensure that I would have enough I decided to go with cupcakes thinking I would use a timbale mold/cutter to make them all uniform. Due to time constraints, I used french vanilla cake mix that I doctored up with a box of instant pudding and some vanilla extract. The cakes were soft and dense and yummy! However the timbale mold/cutter I bought was 1 size too big and I was unable to make them all completely uniform. Not a problem for cupcakes but for sure a problem when you're going to be coating them with poured fondant. Next time I will make sheet cakes and cut the cakes out to ensure uniform cylinders and save myself the headache when it comes time to coat them. The cakes looked like little light green Ring Dings (or Ding Dongs depending on where you grew up) but tasted amazing!

I used my go-to vanilla buttercream for the filling and butterfly bodies. Man I love that stuff ... it's just everything you want and need a buttercream to be. The pourable fondant however was a COMPLETE disaster! I used the recipe on the King Arthur website. Now, before I go on, I want to remind you guys of my love affair with King Arthur flour. To be fair, it's not that their recipe was a complete disaster, it was a comedy of errors and miscalculations and a migraine that set the whole thing on the road to horrible. We ended up having to scrap the Mich Turner like stripes we had planned on piping onto each cake pre-butterfly because we ran out of time and patience with this project. In the end I don't think it made that much of a difference to anyone but the two of us. Both child and mom were thrilled with the cakes and really that's all that mattered!

I had a little accident in the kitchen and I lost 1/2 a pot of liquid fondant to my kitchen floor. I also thought the original coating looked like, well, snot. It was light green and shiny and definitely had an "eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeew" factor. In the end I had to remake the fondant and add a can of ready made frosting to make it opaque (which turned out really well for my purposes) but not before I ended up with a sugar burn on the fingers of my right hand. I used a glass bowl over a pot of simmering water for the second batch and it makes the whole process so much easier as you can regulate the temp as you go. Also, the second time around we chilled and dipped the cakes instead of pouring them. I highly recommend using the dipping method! However, my partner in culinary crimes ended up with sugar burns on his palm when one of the cakes got away from him and instead of letting it fall to the floor he tried to be a hero and save it mid-fall only to have it land top down in his palm. This is not a project to try with the kids in case anyone was wondering. That being said, I have it on good authority that the cakes were a big hit with kids and kids at heart alike! Although, the kids weren't sure what to do with the wings and had to be told they could eat them!

The butterflies were the easiest part of all this and made using Merckens Rainbow Wafer Coatings (in white, pink, purple, blue, peach, yellow and light green) and a hand drawn pattern that eventually was only used as a guide. Once again my creative partner saw potential to put his own stamp on something already pretty cool and he made the wings more monarch-like by free-handing a wing extension. There are detailed directions in Hello, Cupcake! but you really don't need them (buy the book anyway, it really is cool). Just melt some coating or chocolate, draw a butterfly and fill it with a second color of coating or chocolate and then swirl. You should also know that we had to custom blend the Merckens to get these shades by mixing them with white. There are a few tricks and tips, enough so that they will be their own post in the near future.

Assembly was easy and went pretty quick. Just make sure you are not working in a hot kitchen or the wings will get too soft and give you issues. We placed each cake in a pastel cupcake liner, piped on the body and stuck the wings in place. They all sat in the fridge for almost 2 hours pre-transport to make sure the buttercream and fondant were really hard to minimize the potential for transport disaster. I made a cake taker out of a heavy duty plastic soda case topped with a cookie sheet that sat on the edge of the case and wrapped the whole thing in plastic. It worked like a charm and fit in a fridge perfectly! For display at the party I lent them my wire cupcake holder and a silver platter. With a few pretty cupcake papers and some doilies it made for a really neat display! I may try these again at some point, the original version as they were supposed to be .... maybe not. I am such a huge fan of petit fours and to me this was a great updated version of a classic little cake that time has forgotten. Hopefully next time there won't be so much other stuff going on, I won't have a migraine and they will come out as anticipated!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Princess In A Punch Cup

It's almost time for back to school around these parts but not before just one more summer birthday bash! It's a fairytale theme for one of my favorite little princesses, adorable, squishable, kissable "Boo"! Boo's fairytale comes replete with Butterfly Petit Fours (check back soon to see them in all their glory) and pink and purple princess lollies!

For the record there are not made with actual chocolate. Merckens, the white and colored disks we used to make the lollies, is confectioners coating. What's the difference? F.D.A. specifications for chocolate say it must contain chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. While the Merckens wafer coatings contain neither of these ingredients they are good, creamy and most people won't know the difference. We've worked with several flavors and colors of Merckens over the past few months and have had great success with all of them!

I can't say I would make this the first chocolate mold a beginner should attempt. Why? Because this, at minimum, is a three color lollie which means getting down your chocolate painting technique in addition to melting and pouring. We also have to play with paramount crystals because some of the colored wafers were just took thick for such detailed work. Ultimately we did not use paintbrushes to fill in the colors. My partner in crime found that wooden kabob skewers actually worked better and he was able to drop the colors exactly where he wanted. He was also steady enough that he was able to drop all the areas of color without chilling until he was ready to pour but I wouldn't recommend doing it that way. I think slow and steady will win the race for most beginners. Melt and paint or drop one color at a time in your mold then chill before you move on to the next. Also, when choosing your colors, be mindful of how they will play off each other when layered. The lollies back filled with pink left the peach/skin tone unchanged. The lollies back filled with purple made her look like she had a tan. This wasn't a huge deal for this project but I could see it easily becoming one in others.

Another tip I can offer when you are making multiples is to package as they are done. The mold we had made 6 at a time so I had set up a foam holding area/wrapping station while the first batch was in the freezer. I picked up the bags and ribbon at Eatons at the same time I got everything else we needed for this project. Each one got bagged and tied with one of two colors of ribbon and nestled into their final destination which turned out to be a few vintage punch cups I had laying around. I had some opalized basket filler that I lined the cups with, dropped in a small block of Styrofoam, wrapped the long strands of basket filler over the top to hide the foam and then arranged the lollies in the cups. Hindsight being 20/20 and of course if this weren't another party on a budget I would have purchased large bags of pastel jellybeans or M&Ms to fill the cups with before sticking the lollies in. In any event everyone seemed thrilled with the final product and Boo got to have handmade lollies at her party!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Chicken Spaghetti

My mother made very few dishes well and this was one of them. Mind you, when this dinner came into rotation grocery stores were literally giving chicken wings away. Buffalo Chicken Wings weren't invented until the early sixties and they wouldn't come into vogue for years to come so back then chicken wings were probably the least desirable part of the chicken where I grew up. Now chicken wings are often the most expensive part of the chicken at the market and so I use legs and thighs if that's what's on sale. The meat isn't as sweet but it's still pretty good.

I have three different versions of this sauce, one is exactly how my mother made it, the other is how I make it when I have the ingredients on hand and the third is using raw or homemade ingredients only. Her version uses the pre-made spaghetti sauce only (poured over the browned chicken & simmered for hours) and is pretty good but I think the addition of canned tomatoes, chicken stock and garlic make it so much better. However you make it, this isn't a weeknight dish unless you have extra time on your hands simply because of the time involved in cooling and deboning the chicken that was cooked in the sauce.

1 flat of chicken wings (5-8 lbs is what they usually sell) or 4 chicken leg & 4 chicken thighs
20 cloves of peeled garlic
olive oil for browning
salt & pepper
1 4lb jar of spaghetti sauce
1 large can crushed tomatoes
2 C chicken stock
1/2 C grated Parmesan cheese

In a large stock pot combine the spaghetti sauce, the crushed tomatoes and 1 cup of the chicken stock. Set over medium heat while you prepare the chicken.

Wash the chicken parts, pat them dry and season with salt and pepper. Brown the chicken over medium-high heat in the olive oil, in batches removing the browned pieces to the stock pot. When all the chicken is browned, turn the heat down to medium and saute the garlic cloves until lightly browned (5-10 minutes.) Deglaze the pan with the remaining cup of chicken stock and add it to the stock pot. Stir to combine, cover and simmer for 2 hours or until the chicken is cooked through and basically falling apart.

Remove the chicken sauce from the heat. Using tongs or whatever tool you find works best for you, remove the chicken pieces to a platter leaving as much of the sauce as you can in the pot. Allow the chicken to cool until it can be handled comfortably and then remove the skin and bones returning the meat to the pot. When all the chicken meat is back in the post, stir in the Parmesan cheese and simmer uncovered until the sauce is reduced by about 1/4 and has thickened up.

You can serve this over pasta but my favorite way to eat it is over mashed potatoes with a side of baby peas (that I prefer to make part of the potato mound.) It's a great meal and one of those feel good comfort foods that we all crave from time to time.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Food Cheats: Just Like Tomato Sauce From Scratch

I hope to make Food Cheats a semi-regular feature here at Our House. There are tons of food sites out there with phenomenal gourmet recipes but truth be told there are times when even the best of us have zero time to give in the kitchen, not to mention that many of the recipes have costly ingredients that aren't always in a family budget. Over the years I have developed more than a few of what I call "food cheats" using ingredients right from my pantry. Most of these cheats are so good people swear they must be "from scratch recipes" or that I slaved all day. Neither of these things are true. Case in point my basic tomato sauce.

1 jar of Prego Fresh Mushroom Italian Sauce
1 28 oz jar of crushed tomatoes
1 14.5 oz can College Inn Light & Fat Free Chicken Broth
2 cloves of garlic, smashed
1/4 c Parmesan cheese
Meatballs, sausage or other meat optional

In a large saucepan combines all the liquid ingredients, garlic and Parmesan cheese, bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer uncovered for about an hour. If I am going to add any meat I do it after the hour mark and let it simmer another hour. The longer you let it simmer, the thicker the sauce gets. And just like most other tomato based sauces, it's better the second day.

I use this sauce in everything from simple noodles and sauce to lasagna to stuffed peppers and even in my stuffed cabbage. It's great for subs, homemade pizza and can't be beat when you make it with meatballs. It tastes like you slaved away when all you really did was throw it all in a pot and leave it alone. I've even made this sauce in a crock pot on low and let it go all day while I was out and about.

I've tried it with other brands of sauce and they just don't cook down as well. However, I've changed out the College Inn broth for homemade chicken stock when I've had some on hand and man alive was it good. Play around with your own favorite brands and I'm sure you'll find one that your family will call a winner and dub you Queen Of All Things Yummy for!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Brioche Sticky Buns

In this house we have huge affection for breakfast rolls. Cinnamon rolls, sticky buns, sweet rolls, orange rolls... Is there anything better with your morning coffee than a fresh from the oven bun? Of course there is! A fresh from the oven bun with a tall glass of cold milk any time of the day! I have my favorite go to for Cinnamon Rolls covered in Cream Cheese frosting (which I will share at some point) but sticky buns have been a favorite of ours long before the cinnamon rolls came into rotation. For years I used a simple scalded milk dough recipe from the 1800s. It was simple and good and fail proof. When we lived in Las Vegas I made more sticky buns that I can remember because baked goods like that didn't exist in any of the shops out there, either did real bagels if you can believe that. The smell that emanated from our apartment brought company by (no matter the hour) wondering what the delicious aroma you could smell on the other side of the complex was. I never thought I would replace that recipe until one night a few months ago when I got it into my head to make them out of brioche.

For those of you who have never experienced the bliss that is brioche it's a yeasted bread that masquerades as a pastry. It is buttery and rich and sweet and flaky when made right. It's also one of those doughs that requires patience. I was pleasantly surprised by the brioche dough recipe I used. Looking at the recipe I wasn't 100% convinced that it was going to work, be enough or taste all that great, boy was I wrong! The starter actually sat in the fridge for over 24 hours with no problem. I'm not gonna re-post the dough recipe here because Joe Pastry does an awesome job, complete with much better photos than I can produce, walking you through the whole recipe. I used King Arthur all purpose flour and lightly salted butter because that is what I had on hand. I only left the finished dough rest in the fridge for 2 hours before I formed the rolls.

While the dough sat in the fridge chillin' I made the sticky part of the Sticky buns. I melted 1, 4oz. stick of lightly salted butter together with 1 C light brown sugar. Once the mixture melted I added 2.5 oz of light corn syrup (I was out of honey & golden syrup) and set the mixture aside to cool. About 20 minutes later I whisked in 1/4 C half & half and 1/4 C water and stashed the mixture in the fridge until I was ready to form the rolls. The brioche dough really was a treat to work with. Nice and firm, it rolled easily into a 12"x12" square that I sprinkled with 1 C of dark brown sugar and about 2 t of cinnamon before rolling up, slicing into 12 pieces and placing in a 9"x13" glass pan that I had already poured the sticky sauce into.

I left the covered pan on my counter for 90 minutes before placing them uncovered in a cold oven next to a saucepan of boiling water for another 20-30 minutes. I took the rolls out, preheated to 350* and baked them for 40 minutes. Once they were done I left them in the pan for ten minutes, removed them to a serving platter and spooned the remaining sticky sauce on them. They are good and completely worth the time and effort! Plus, when is the last time you had a really good sticky bun that didn't taste like chemicals or cost you $5.00 a piece?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Party Treats

Have you ever wanted a custom look to a party, special event or wedding you were throwing but knew you couldn't afford the custom price tag? Been to those pricey gourmet stores and seen little truffles and bags of candies at outrageous prices? What if I told you that you could make these cute little cupcake truffles (as seen with packaging) for less than $1.00 a piece? The bucket full of candy popcorn? About $2.10 per bag. Not bad for edible treats in this day and age. In fact, assuming you have a few basic kitchen tools and some of the usual suspects (butter, sugar, vanilla) on hand, there really isn't much you can't turn out of your own kitchen for less than those fancy shops charge.

The cupcake truffles are a variation of the cake-pops we made for June's Graduation BBQ and again the idea comes from Bakerella's blog. Using the same candy mold that made the base for the grad cap, two flavors of cake (left over cupcakes from the gator cake made for the same party), about a cup of cream cheese frosting, two flavors of candy melts (Merkins is my favorite) and the leftover sprinkles from the cake-pops we turned out these little cuties in no time at all. In fact, the only frustrating part was the heat and humidity the week these needed to be made. Just like last time we used the freezer to our advantage!

The candied popcorn idea came from one of my favorite blogs Saucy's Sprinkles! It's candied popcorn flavored with Kool-Aid! In this case we used pink lemonade and black cherry. It's colored with the same Wilton gels you use to tint frosting and friends it's good. I mean crazy good. I mean crack-like addictive good! It's sweet and buttery and "omnomnom" is the only thing you really hear when people get their hands on it. A candy thermometer is a must for this because unlike other kinds of candied popcorn this does not get baked to set the coating! Here's a few tips if you decide to try your hand at candied popcorn:

* 1/2 cup kernels = 12 cups popped corn
* have a partner when you make this, 2 sets of hands are infinitely better than 1
* butter/otherwise grease the pan you are going to mix the coating with the popcorn in and the mixing utensils for easier cleanup
* don't try to make this when it's humid
* a lidded bowl or other food-safe container is perfect for mixing two flavors together and breaking up any large chunks of popcorn that stick together

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Hello, Cupcake! A Review and Project Test

Our little friend Emmy had a birthday this past week and it was her wish that she get a crocodile cake for her big party. As it turned out the book Hello, Cupcake! (by Karen Tack and Alan Richardson), which I've been wanted to check out for a while now, had instructions on how to make such a marvelous creature. As you can see we (we being myself and my wonderful, never used a piping bag before partner in confectionery crime) were able to turn out an end product that look pretty close to the photo in the book!

Hello, Cupcake! is an excellent resource for any baker's personal library and well worth the modest price tag! The bigger bonus is that you honestly do not need baking, cooking or decorator skills or any special equipment to turn out end products that look like the creations from the book. While I disagree with the authors on both the subject of cake and frosting (which I'll get to in a minute), I couldn't help but get lost in all the wonderful photographs and easy to follow directions. The cookies and candies that make up each project are readily available at more than one retail outlet in my area. In fact the only things I was unable to find for my project were white cupcake liners (my supplier was out) and green jelly beans (because I was unwilling to pay $4.50 for a bag when I only needed 2 beans).

"Old Swampy" as we made him consisted of 12 Chocolate Buttermilk cupcakes and 12 Buttermilk French Vanilla cupcakes tinted pink (to please the Birthday Girl) with Wilton "Rose" colored gel. He is frosted in homemade vanilla buttercream tinted with a mixture of Wilton "Leaf Green" and "Brown" gel tints. I followed the cake instructions in the back of Hello, Cupcake! and was very disappointed with the cakes themselves finding them a bit dry, bland in flavor and not at all as solid as the book suggests they will be. For future Hello, Cupcake! projects I will be sticking with my own tried and true cake recipes that have stood the test of time as being moist, dense and full of flavor. Hello, Cupcake! also claims that canned frosting works best for their projects however my own vanilla buttercream frosting pipes well and when refrigerated holds its shape even in the heat of an outdoor party (unlike canned frosting which gets drippy when it gets too warm)!

One of the other benefits of using my homemade frosting is that you can make up to 2 days before you plan on eating the end product and it actually improves the flavor! It's super easy to make and lends itself to an infinite variety of flavor possibilities!

Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

1 stick room temperature salted butter
2 1/2 C confectioner's sugar
2 t milk + a little more
1 t vanilla
1 t freshly squeezed lemon juice

Put all of the ingredients in a bowl and mix on low until blended then kick it up to high and let it go for 3 minutes adding more milk if necessary for thinning. Store in an airtight container for up to 48 hours prior to use. Holds well in the fridge for the life of the finished cake product (they never seem to be around for more than a few days here!)