Monday, March 30, 2009

Mom's Birthday Cake: Part 2

The morning after baking the cake, I slumped out of bed around 6:30.  My dad came into the kitchen and said, "You know you're awake, don't you?"  Perhaps he thought I was having a sleep eating event since I was standing by the open refrigerator.
I sleepily replied, "Yeah, I'm just setting out the butter." Then I slumped back to bed.

By the time I actually woke up around 10, the butter was nice and soft and ready to be made into decorator's icing (aka the best icing in the world.)  The Mocha Cake recipe also had a Mocha Frosting recipe with it, but I didn't think that would be very pretty or fun to decorate with.  I got to work sifting five cups of powdered sugar, which is a ton of sugar!  I then got out the stand mixer and mixed 1/2 a cup of butter, 1/2 a cup of shortening, 1 and a 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla, and all the powdered sugar.  My mom said she actually burned out the motor on her old stand mixer (not a Kitchen Aid) making this icing because it gets incredibly thick when all those ingredients are finally mixed.  For the final touch, I added 3 tablespoons of milk and it magically went from "thick and clumpy" to "smooth and creamy."  Perfect icing every time.

I slathered it on the bottom cake, then plopped on the top cake and slathered it too.  I never work with chocolate cake, so I was frustrated with the amount of chocolate crumbs befouling my pure white icing.  I did my best and managed to get a crumb free section smoothed in the very center of the cake.

I borrowed from my mom's birthday cake two years ago (the best cake I've ever decorated) and went with a basket-weave technique all around the sides of the cake in a vibrant turquoise.  This took quite a while and I had almost everyone in my family looking over my shoulder jokingly saying, "Don't mess up!"  The bottom row was difficult because the platter that we chose for the cake, while beautiful, had a giant lip that came up, making it impossible for me to get the angle I needed.  I'll try to remember to think of that before I start decorating next time.

Once the basket-weave was complete, I moved on to the fondant.  I have used fondant once before, and I've seen it on a few wedding cakes.  The first time I encountered it on a wedding cake, I didn't know that you weren't supposed to eat it so I went chomping away and quickly figured out that it doesn't taste very good.  I am usually a buttercream purist, but for this particular design, I wanted to use fondant.

The design I chose was a quilted flower pattern from The Essential Cake Decorating Guide.  I didn't have an appropriate flower cookie cutter so I drew one and made a template with construction paper and then cut the flowers out with a knife.  I also didn't have a wheel tool that makes the little stitch marks so I did that with a bent paper clip.  I wanted to make the flowers seemed raised (like in the book) but it just didn't seem possible without the entire cake being covered in fondant (which I refused to do) so the flowers are a little flat.

We got all of the yellow flowers placed around the cake and then I decided that it needed some extra zing (and I wanted to cover up some of the places around the edge with chocolate crumbs stuck in the icing.)  We got out some neon pink fondant and I tried unsuccessfully to cut the tiny flowers out using a knife.  Thank goodness for Brett, who has more patience than me.  He was able to sit there and cut out all the little flowers perfectly, while I almost ruined the cake with my shaky handwriting.  Why is the writing always the most difficult part?!

Then, after some discussion about what would look best, I made brown centers on all of the flowers using my star tip.  This final touch really made the cake come together.

When it was finally time to eat the cake none of us were disappointed (except Brett who hates chocolate and therefore did not even have a bite.)  It was very chocolatey and still moist.  The coffee flavor that was so nice in the batter must have baked out because at first I couldn't taste it at all.  My dad claimed that he could taste it, and after careful concentration so could I, mostly as a subtle aftertaste.  Maybe if I'd have used espresso powder instead of coffee, the flavor would have been more prominent, we'll never know.

Mom's Birthday Cake: Part 1

I always try something new for my mom's birthday cake, and this year was no exception.  I was tempted to just use a box of cake mix, but when I mentioned the Mocha Cake recipe I had found in Ellie Krieger's The Food you Crave, my mom oooohed and yummed enough to get me to bake one from scratch.  Another good thing about this recipe (and all recipes from that book) is that it is attempting to be more healthy.

I know that you are supposed to follow the recipe exactly when you bake, which is why I think I'm a pretty good baker, but this recipe got off to a rough start just from gathering ingredients.  The first problem was that I couldn't find instant espresso powder, so I just bought some instant coffee.  The next change was that I already had regular pastry flour (that I rarely use) so I didn't want to buy whole wheat pastry flour.  The final change we made was using vanilla nonfat yogurt instead of plain (in case there was extra I wanted it to be edible.)

Once the ingredients were gathered, I promptly spilled a lot of cocoa powder all over my mom's kitchen table.  Next time I will not try and pour it, I will get a spoon.  My mom asked if she should leave and I said no as long as she doesn't mind watching me make a mess out of her kitchen.  For the wet ingredients we mixed a tablespoon of instant coffee with a tablespoon of hot water and it instantly made the kitchen smell wonderful.  I do not drink coffee, but I sure love the smell!  We started pouring in the yogurt and realized that we were about half a cup short (apparently I had mistaken weight ounces for fluid ounces, oh well) so I substituted half a cup of sour cream.  The batter was delicious.  The coffee was there but not overpowering.

The recipe called for the cake to be baked in a 9 x 11 pyrex dish, but I wanted to do rounds so we compared baking times on the back of a cake mix box and came up with a good estimate.

With all of these changes, you would think that the cake wouldn't turn out well (believe me, I was worried.)  In actuality, it turned out moist and perfect.  We let the cakes cool and then covered them overnight to await decorating the next day.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hot Italian Sausage Pitas

This recipe was inspired by a recipe from my Bon Appetit cookbook; I think the only changes we made were leaving out the cumin and substituting pitas for tortillas.  We love cumin and put it on everything, but for this we wanted to keep the Mediterranean feel by leaving it out.  Same reason we switched the tortillas for pitas.

It was super simple.  Take the sausage out of the casings and cook it in a skillet just like you would ground meat.  Thinly slice a red onion and toss it in with the meat.  That's it!

Scoop the meat into a pita and toss on some feta cheese.  I went a little nuts with the feta.  I always forget how strong that stuff is. We liked the meal (I don't think we loved it) but it was certainly easy and a good change of pace from all the usual suspects that show up on our dinner table.

A little side note about our feta cheese:  If the price is significantly lower I generally buy store brand products.  I have been thoroughly pleased with our store brand's cheddar and mozzerella so I bought their feta as well.  It tasted fine, that's not what this side note is about.  It had a cute little village scene on the cardboard packaging, but when we took it off this is what we found.

How's that for generic?! We've taken to saying, "Crumbled Feta Cheese," in a deep, monotonous voice.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Yummy Hummus

I know it looks like another "tan" dip, but trust me this one tasted anything but tan.  As predicted, I made hummus this week for our "What do we do with the other half of this french loaf before it goes bad" meal.  I researched a few recipes online and finally settled on this recipe from The Barefoot Contessa because it contains no olive oil and I trust her. The only change I made was omitting the hot sauce (it didn't need it at all.)

It was incredibly easy to make, but would have been a lot easier with a full sized food processor.  Instead of just throwing all the ingredients in, I had to puree in batches, then stir everything together in a large bowl, and then smooth some more in batches. I didn't mind that much considering you all know how much I love to use my mini food processor.

This dip was FLAVORFUL!  Brett's first comment was, "Oh my gosh!"  He thought that the garlic was overpowering.  I, however, don't mind the spicy sting of raw garlic.  Hummus is supposed to be garlicky!  After realizing that we were going to have garlic breath for the next few days, we agreed that the next time we make this we'll roast the garlic first to take some of the bite out.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Fantastic Ranch Potatoes

While I do try to eat and cook healthy things, I also believe that it is healthy to indulge every once in a while.  One particular indulgence that I love is ranch dressing- especially on fries.  This recipe (of my mom's) is kind of a compromise.  It gives me my ranch and potatoes- minus the fries.

I chopped up seven red potatoes with the skin on.  I put a couple of handfuls of potato cubes into a casserole dish, then I sprinkled them with seasoning salt and several dots of butter. I repeated this process until all the potatoes were in the dish, ending with seasoning salt and butter.  With the lid on, it went in a 350 degree oven for about an hour (or until the potatoes were soft.)

I mixed a packet of ranch salad dressing mix with 8 oz of sour cream and globbed it over the top of the cooked potatoes.  I finished with a couple handfuls of cheddar cheese and then put it back in the oven until the cheese melted.

I must admit that I was so excited to eat this, that I completely forgot to take a picture of it.  I did, however, remember the following day when I ate some of the leftovers.  YUM!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Baba Ghanoush/Hummus

Every week after eating Nacho French Bread Pizzas, we are left with half a loaf of french bread to deal with.  Sometimes we make French toast, but it's a little too sweet to eat every week, so lately we have been on a dip making kick.  Last week I adapted a Rachael Ray recipe for a Baba Ghanoush/Hummus Pasta sauce into a dip.

Brett and I are big fans of hummus (now that I've bought a big jar of tahini we'll probably attempt to make hummus next) and we have had baba ghanoush before in Greek restaurants and have generally liked it.  Baba Ghanoush is made from eggplant and has lemony undertones.

First I chopped the eggplant and garlic and sauteed that with chick peas seasoned with coriander, cumin, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.  I let it cook until the eggplant was soft (and thoroughly stuck to my pan.)  Lemon zest went in at the very end.

Then it went into the food processor with a couple of tablespoons of tahini (roasted sesame paste) and a couple splashes of vegetable stock until it was a good dipping consistency.

It was not the best dip I've ever had, and despite all of the spices that went in, it tasted a little bland (or tan as Brett likes to call it.)  The dip did have a spicy hint to it from the red pepper flakes and we could just taste the lemon zest.  If there is a next time for this one, I think I will roast the eggplant first instead of just sauteeing, that way it will save my pan and give it some extra flavor.

Monday, March 9, 2009

White Chocolate, Cherry, Oatmeal Cookies

My mom makes the best oatmeal cookies in the world.  I'm pretty sure it's the recipe from the back of Quaker Oats, but I would still put my mom's cookies up against anyone else's.  Usually I believe in the maxim, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," but I've gotta say that my mom's attempt to improve upon plain oatmeal cookies is quite delicious.  For the past couple of years she has been adding 1/2 a cup of white chocolate chips and 1/2 a cup of craisins to her regular oatmeal cookie recipe.

Hungry for cookies, Brett and I decided to try and recreate my mom's masterpiece with a twist: dried cherries instead of craisins.  Dried cherries are significantly larger than craisins so it adds a little work to chop them up, but I didn't mind.  The results were delicious, but Mom's are still better.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Salad Spinner!

Yes, I know that this gadget has been around for a long time, but I just now got one and I'm excited about it!

I haven't felt the need for a salad spinner until recently because I had always just bought the pre-washed bag of salad.  When I actually started comparing prices between a head of lettuce and a bag of lettuce, I realized that I was paying a couple of dollars just for a factory to cut and wash my lettuce for me.  "I can totally do that myself," I thought.
Well, I realized that drying lettuce is no easy feat.  I chose the Barefoot Contessa method of wrapping wet lettuce in a dishtowel and slinging it around fast-pitch softball style.  This is kind of fun, but water gets everywhere.  I tried to do it in the general direction of the trash can, but there is really no hope in aiming it, so I settled for sprinkling the mini-blinds.  It was also an "oops" waiting to happen.  I can just picture me giving the towel a hearty sling, my grip slipping, and lettuce flying like confetti all over the kitchen.

With a couple of gift cards and the ever present 20% off Bed Bath and Beyond coupon, we were able to get a salad spinner for $1!  Not only does it get the job done much faster, but it also is pretty fun to operate.