Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Merry Birthday Cake

After making tons of cake lollies, brownies and cupcakes for holiday orders, I have to admit I was pretty exhausted and looking forward to the break that Christmas would bring.

That is, until I was asked to make a birthday cake.

For a birthday on Christmas.

And seeing as how this birthday belongs to my wonderful godfather, I was delighted to do it! Since it was my first time to ever make his cake (his mother usually makes one), I wanted to make sure it was really special - and really unChristmas-y.

I've always heard that Christmas babies aren't too fond of Christmas-themed birthday cakes. No one likes getting a two-for-one special on their birthday.


For inspiration, I couldn't help but think back a few months ago to a video my godfather showed me. It was one of him and some friends in the 80's, doing a dance number from the The Wiz. I know it sounds eccentric, but that's the kind of guy he is - and it's one of the many reasons why I love him so much! For the rest of that evening, he tried in vain to teach me the dance. And while I never got the pas du bourree* quite right, we had a lot of fun and it's a memory I won't soon forget.

And so a cake design was born.

(You'll have to forgive the poor photography... overhead lighting is the cake photographer's worst nightmare!)

The silhouettes were cut from gumpaste, and fondant accents were added later. The picture doesn't show it, but the black and red accents glittered.

I didn't get a good picture of the back of the cake, but this side view shows a few of the sugar poppies I made.

The theme ended up being more of a blend of The Wiz and The Wizard of Oz, but my godfather loved it!

This is what I call, "proof positive".


The cake itself was lemon sponge with a lemon and fresh blueberry cheesecake filling.

And just in case you aren't familiar with The Wiz, the words on top of the cake are "Ease on down the road", the name of the song famously sung by Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

If you haven't seen this movie, the songs alone are worth the price of the rental! You'll be a better person, pop culturally speaking, for seeing it.

I promise.

(*If you look closely, Lion is saying "Pas du bourree". It was an inside joke thing.)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Gingerbread House, Step by Step

I decided in November that this Christmas I would make my first gingerbread house...from scratch. You may ask yourself, "why would any sane person do this?". Talk about a valid question.

In my defense, sometimes I'm a little insane. Do you want to know how I know this? I also decided to take step by step pictures of this ordeal.

Told you.

While I have a pretty reliable recipe for gingerbread cookies, I didn't want to use it for the house. My recipe tends to make a really chewy cookie (I'll be a chewy cookie person 'till I die!), and since the words "chewy", "structural" and "integrity" don't mesh in my world, I decided to go with a crispy (read: "hard") recipe so that there wouldn't be any collapsing situations.

You see, my ego is fragile and I just don't think I could handle abject failure on my first attempt at something as iconic as a gingerbread house. If for no other reason, because it's Christmas, and I watch too many movies.

Moving on.

While I know you can buy cookie cutters specific to gingerbread house construction, I decided to go old school - whatever that means. Actually, it means I made templates out of card stock.

Only after I cut out identical pieces for the front and back and sides did I realize that I didn't need to. Special.

So, because I'm terribly impatient and didn't want to wait for the dough to sit in the fridge overnight (as the recipe suggests, for easier roll-out-ability), I let it chill for about an hour, then rolled it out between two pieces of wax paper until the dough was between 1/8" and 1/4" thick:

I've found that for impatient, Type A people like me, this is the absolute best method for rolling out any manner of cookie dough. Not only can you skip the chill-dough-for-several-hours step, but because the wax paper prevents sticking, you don't need to sprinkle your counter or the topside of the dough/rolling pin with flour. The addition of more flour can make for a drier cookie, so using this method allows the recipe to retain its textural integrity.

It's all about integrity, after all.

Plus, rolling cookies out on wax paper allows for easy transfer from the rolling surface to the cookie sheet. Easy peasy. Oh, and the clean-up is a cinch. Seriously, why would you roll out cookies any other way?

So, using the cardstock templates and a sharp paring knife, I cut each piece out of the dough. I did end up sprinkling a bit of flour on the surface so that the templates wouldn't stick, but brushed off the excess flour before putting the cookies in the oven.

Usually, when I use a new cookie recipe I worry about things like spreading and cookies sticking together, but this one worked great!

(Note: When I first cut out the cookie panels, I failed to cut a door and window out of the front panel. While I was able to cut them immediately after I took the cookies out of the oven, I definitely recommend doing it beforehand to avoid any messy cuts or cracking of the baked cookies.)

In the epic battle between my Impatience and Fear of Failure, Fear won. I let the cookies set up overnight so that they would be nice and sturdy when I began construction. However, as a consolation for Impatience, I made some Royal Icing.

Royal Icing (RI) is one of my favorite decorating tools. It can do anything, be anything, and obeys my every command. When constructing a gingerbread house, RI is the mortar that holds the ginger bricks together. It is a miraculous substance, I tell you!

I piped a hefty bit of RI onto the edge of one side panel, and glued it to the front of the house:

RI dries pretty quickly, but I still had to hold the panel in place for about a minute. I was watching the Radio City Christmas Spectacular (starring The Rockettes, for those of you who don't know. How could anyone not know?) on PBS at the time, so that minute went by pretty quickly. I was hypnotized by all of the kicking.

I added the other side panel in the same way, using a can of powdered eggwhites as an additional hand. My hand was tired, you see.

I let the sides set up for about 15 minutes (more kicking), then set the whole thing upright. I was elated that it held together!

As it turned out, some of the cookies were a little misshapen.

Nothing a heaping glob of RI can't fix! What did I tell you? Miraculous!

And now comes the part you've all been waiting for, and the part I dreaded. The addition of the roof, I was sure, would be my downfall. Those cookies seemed to weigh approximately twenty-seven pounds each, and I just knew it was going to end in disaster. I piped RI along the seams, attached the first roof panel... and prayed.

I was glad that my good friends Pumpkin Pie Spice and Poultry Seasoning were there to lend a hand... er, elevated surface.

After another 15 minutes and a lot more kicking, I decided that the roof panel would not fall or crush the house beneath, along with my Christmas hopes and dreams. So I attached the other panel in the same manner.

This time Cloves and Nutmeg dropped by to help.

After both panels were set, I piped a thick rope of RI into the apex seam of the roof.

Right before I finished the roof, my camera decided that it wanted to take a nap - a long, battery-charging nap - so I wasn't able to document the addition of the chimney. I was a little off in my measurements (math is not in any way my strong suit), but after some trimming and strategic RI placement, the chimney was on and looking pretty good.

I decided to let the house sit overnight before decorating it. I'd devised a pretty reliable system by this point, and there was no use tinkering with it. I'm a fan of what works.

What happened next was a terrifying and exhilarating first: stringwork (string work?). Stringwork is one of the most feared and revered forms of sugar art. It is, quite literally, strings of RI suspended in midair. Here is an absolutely stunning example of stringwork by Scott Clark Woolley of Cakes by Design:

Man, that is some impressive stuff!

And because I am a master at subverting expectation, I'm going to show you my humble attempt at stringwork.

Please don't laugh.




Have we all had a good chuckle? Are we tired of the self-deprecation? What about my speaking in third person? No? Well, don't worry. There will be more blog posts in the future.

Until then, here is my finished gingerbread house:

Gingerbread Dough

(Not very tasty, but quite sturdy!)

6 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
4 tsp ground ginger
4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves or allspice
1/2 tsp salt
12 Tbsp butter (1 1/2 sticks) at room temperature
1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup dark, unsulfured molasses
1 Tbsp water

Whisk the flour, baking powder, spices and salt together thoroughly.
In a separate bowl (preferably on a stand mixer), on medium speed, mix butter and brown sugar together until well blended and very fluffy. Beat in eggs, molasses and water until everything is thoroughly combined.
Beat half of the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until well blended and smooth. Stir in the remaining flour mixture, and knead until everything is blended. If using a stand mixer, you can use a dough hook for this part.
Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Let dough come to room temperature before rolling out.
Bake in preheated oven at 350 F until the edges of each cookie piece is tinged with brown, about 15 minutes for larger pieces and 8 minutes for the smaller ones.

Royal Icing

3/4 cup warm water
5 Tbsp meringue powder OR powdered egg whites
1 tsp cream of tartar
2.25 lb powdered sugar

In mixer bowl, pour in the warm water and the meringue powder. Mix it with a whisk by hand until it is frothy and thickened, about 30 seconds.
Add the cream of tartar and mix for 30 seconds more.
Pour in all of the powdered sugar at once and place the bowl on the mixer.
Using the paddle attachment on the lowest speed, mix slowly for a full 10 minutes. Icing will get thick and creamy.
Cover the bowl with a dampened tea towel to prevent crusting and drying.
Tint with food coloring or thin the icing with small amounts of warm water to reach the desired consistency.

Monday, November 30, 2009

3-D McQueen

You may recognize this little guy from the Disney movie, Cars:

A few months ago, my dear friend Brenda asked me to make her nephew's 3rd birthday cake. And because he is just about the most adorable little guy on the planet, I had no choice! Javi's favorite movie is Cars, so naturally Bren requested a cake featuring his favorite character, Lightning McQueen (or, as Javi calls him, "Lining A Queen"). I'd never made a 3-D car cake before, so while I knew it would be a challenge, I also knew it was going to be lots of fun! The experience did not disappoint.

I worked so intensely on Lightning, that I forgot to take any pictures of the process. However, my friend Stacie has a great tutorial on her website that you should check out:

This is my finished Lightning McQueen, sans wheels:

Instead of using an edible image for the "Rust-eez" logo, I decided to customize it for Javi by cutting out individual fondant letters.

I had originally planned for Lightning to sit on a fondant street surrounded by grass and trees, but at the last minute I changed my mind. I decided that Javi would probably dig a checkered racing flag more. After all, what says "race" more than a checkered flag?

In the end, I was really glad I chose the flag backdrop. I think it looks pretty cool!

The car was made from a sturdy almond sponge cake, while the base was dark chocolate cake filled with white chocolate raspberry truffle.