Coming Up Roses

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After Eliza, our first daughter, came into our lives, we sort of stopped throwing parties.  Gone were the days of the Kung Fu Fondue Bash and Home Brew-Barbecue-Tattoo Night.

But we eventually discovered a new kind of party that meshed with our suddenly exhausting lifestyle.  When Eliza turned one, we invited all of our friends, and hers, of course, to celebrate her birthday with us.   By shifting our party hours earlier, we could have lunch instead of dinner and still squeeze in naps and a reasonable bedtime.  Problem solved.

When Tessa’s first birthday rolled around, though, we had just moved from Santa Barbara, CA, to Friday Harbor, WA.  As practically friendless newcomers, we decided to forgo the traditional birthday bash we’d come to know and love.  My parents came from California, we went out to a nice dinner, ate some cake, and that was that.

By the time Tessa turned two, we’d connected with an amazing group of island friends, so we planned a big party for our small girl.  But the night before the party, Tessa burned with high fever and grew delirious, so we cancelled the event at the last minute.

Long before her third birthday approached, Tessa declared that she wanted a garden party with a rose cake.   We didn’t care about the fact that her birthday falls in February, and that for all we knew it might be snowing.  My girl had waited three years for an honest-to-goodness party, and she was going to have one awesome party this year.

I’d been toying with the idea of using fondant to decorate a cake for some time.  I’d started making fanciful cakes–a crab for Eliza’s birthday and a shark cake for a friend’s.  They both looked fine, but I  couldn’t get the butter cream smooth enough to make me happy.   I knew fondant would solve the problem, but it just seemed so intimidating, and I always chickened out at the last minute.   Over dinner one night, my friend Elizabeth convinced me that it was simple.  “If I can do it,” she said, “so can you.”   The recipe she sent me for marshmallow fondant looked easy enough, and I had this vision of a cake that I knew I couldn’t pull off with butter cream frosting.   This was just the excuse I needed to give it a try.

I didn’t want to risk ruining Tessa’s party with a serious cake wreck, so I decided to make sure I could really create the cake that looked so lovely in my mind.   The week before the party, I made marshmallow fondant for the first time.  I mixed some pink icing color into a large slab of it and tried making roses.  Through trial and error, I learned to make a small pink fondant egg and wrap circular petals around it.  I didn’t have the gum paste I needed to help my blooms hold their shape, but letting them sit over night hardened up the petals a bit.

The green candy sticks I’d bought for stems seemed too short and squat to use.  My husband suggested wrapping green fondant around long skewers;  once wrapped, it was easy to stick the roses in the pointy ends, and then I could use extra green fondant to smooth the transition from flower to stem.

I started fastening leaves to the stems, and they stayed put for a while, but eventually they drooped or fell off the stems.  Additional skewers topped with a cushioning of fondant or paper towel braced the leaves and gave them the boost they needed to harden and stay put.   In the meantime, I tried to mix colors with another chunk of fondant to produce a hue that looked like terra cotta.

In the midst of our experiment, our neighbors invited us over for dinner, so we offered to bring dessert.  I had baked two two-layer cakes, so we felt relieved to be able to share our four-layer prototype with friends.  We frosted the cake, rolled out terra cotta fondant over a thick sprinkling of corn starch, and then wrapped the fondant around it the cake.  After sprinkling smashed chocolate wafers on the top for dirt, we added the flowers.  Our neighbors looked a little surprised when we arrived at their impromptu dinner party with our 12-pound cake.

The trial run helped me realize that I needed to get started on the flowers mid-week.  Fortunately, the large piece of foam we found to hold our fondant-wrapped skewers made the task of moving them out of small fingers’ reach easy.

The day before the party, we prepped food and craft projects while spending time with visiting with family and friends.  After baths and stories and tucking girls into  bed, we finally got started decorating the cakes I’d baked earlier that day.  It took some time to get the shade of terra cotta fondant just right, and then our first attempt to wrap the cake in it proved disastrous.  I rolled the fondant too thin, and it started tearing on the cake.   About this time I was wishing we had saved our prototype cake instead of eating it.  After trying everything we could think of to make it look better, I ended up making another batch of fondant sometime around midnight.   I rolled it thicker this time, and that prevented tearing.

The next next time I make a flower pot cake, I’ll roll out a giant circle and cover the cake from the top down instead of wrapping fondant around the sides.  I have since decorated other cakes with fondant, and covering from the top down makes the process easy. Fondant stretches quite a bit during application, and applying from the top allows the downward stretching to work with you.  Wrapping fondant around a cake combines downward stretching and sidewards stretching and finally leaves you with a long seam down the cake.

Late that night I also learned that you only need a very thin base-coat of frosting beneath fondant.   Instead of the smooth, flat finish I’d hoped for, the thick layer of frosting I’d smoothed on the cake squished around underneath, making it buckle in some places.  At this point in the evening, I wasn’t up to making yet another batch of fondant, but some day I’ll make a perfectly smooth flower pot cake.  Once I came to terms with the uneven surface, I added a wide band of fondant around the top to make it look more like a real pot, and it was ready for cookie crumb dirt and fondant roses.

I used to be the kind of person who likes to stay up really late, but I’m not any more.  I just start getting grumpy and clumsy late at night, so it’s better for everyone if I go to bed early.  Decorating cakes has helped me rediscover my ability to function at night, though.   This project kept me up until around 3:00 A.M., and, despite some tense moments, I didn’t get especially grumpy or clumsy. I even had fun.  Thankfully, I have this awesome night owl husband;  I’m pretty sure severe grumpiness and dangerous clumsiness would have reigned that night if I didn’t have him helping me figure out what to do along the way.  And the fun?  That wouldn’t have happened.  Oh, and the cake for the poor three-year-old who’d never yet had a birthday party?  That wouldn’t have happened either.

So, not too long after we finished the cake, we bundled up for for Tessa’s winter-style garden party.   Outside on that brisk February day, we planted real bulbs in small pots. We tried not to shiver too much while making paper flower crafts.   And after lunch, we had flower pot cake, and even a few magical wind-free moments that enabled Tessa to blow out her candles.

After that, kids ran around eating roses.   They were pretty sugared up before they even got to the cake.

This year, Tessa wants a Tinkerbell cake.  Check back with me in February to see if I can pull that one off.

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A Tale of Two Cakes

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The first time I baked this cake, my husband said, “I can’t believe you like this.  It’s so sweet.”

It’s true that I don’t like super sweet things.  I don’t drink soda or eat candy.  I don’t even like milk chocolate;  it’s just too sweet.  But hearing these words from my husband–who thinks Coke sipped through a red vine makes a nice afternoon snack–surprised me.

Sure, the cake tasted sweet.   With a title like “Burnt Sugar Cake,” that was the point.  I didn’t think, though, that it ranked in the category of over-the-top sugary sweet monsters.

In fact, before my husband interrupted my train of thought, I’d been mentally calculating how soon I could reasonably bake my new favorite cake again.

I had tried out the recipe for our friend Ellie’s fifth birthday.  Her actual birthday had long since passed;  we’d been on vacation at the time, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t still celebrate with her.

Once I got going on this new recipe, though, I worried that I’d made the wrong choice.  I lost count separating eggs and had to result to tricky math (two tablespoons equals one large egg white, if you ever find yourself needing to measure).  Then I poured the milk too quickly into the caramelized sugar.  Finally, I grew concerned about the lack of chemical leavening in the batter (really? no baking powder?  no baking soda?).

Much to my relief, it emerged from the oven just fine. I didn’t have time to bake another one, and I’d promised cake; when you promise cake to a five-year-old, well, you’d better deliver.

When it cooled enough to frost, and Ellie, Eliza, and Tessa watched intently, mostly because they wanted to get their hands on the extra cream cheese frosting.  I didn’t dare hand the bowl over before dinner, so I gave each girl a spoon to fill.  Who knew how much frosting one could get on a small spoon?<

After we finished dinner, the girls decorated Ellie’s cake with pink sprinkles.  The only way I could get them to stop decorating was to remind them that we actually wanted to eat the cake.

Almost everyone loved it.  Tessa started eating with with her bare hands because she couldn’t eat it quickly enough with her fork.

My fork-wielding husband, though, was on the fence. Upon pressing, it wasn’t that the cake that was too sweet;  he thought the frosting tasted like cotton candy.

“Maybe you could try it again with chocolate frosting,” he said.

Tempted though I was to bake it the next day, I didn’t have time.   Days turned to weeks, and I still couldn’t get the cake out of my mind.  I found myself daydreaming about its delicate caramel flavor with the merest hint of coconut.   So when we got invited to Ellie’s dad’s birthday party, I selfishly offered to bring cake.

While I perused chocolate frosting recipes the night before the party, my husband suggested that that I add caramel between the layers.  I liked the idea.  He even found me a recipe.

The caramel turned out so great that I decided to split each cake layer in half so we’d end up with three layers of caramel and chocolate instead of just one.  I know, I know, I said I don’t like super sweet.  Go figure.

By the time the layers were baked,  sliced in half, layered with caramel, and frosted with chocolate, the cake weighed eight pounds.  The combination of caramel and chocolate between the layers made them slippery, resulting in a sloping cake.  No matter — whenever the cake started to look lopsided, I picked it up and tilted it in the other direction to even it out.  This kept me quite entertained as we drove to our friends’ house, and unlike some, this cake made it to the party in one piece.

The layers of pale cake, golden caramel, and dark chocolate provided a dramatic pattern once we sliced into the cake.  And the combination of flavors tasted, well, sweet —   sweet and rich and carameliscious.  Let’s just say there were maybe two crumbs left at the end of the evening.

Delicious as it was, though, I missed the subtle, interesting flavor of the cake itself.  For all the trouble I put into caramelizing sugar to stir into the batter, I wanted to savor the taste of it.   The combination of chocolate and caramel just overwhelmed it.

Next time I make this cake, I’ll skip the caramel and try it with chocolate frosting.   I’ll even pass on slicing the layers in half to squeeze in extra frosting.

And if it’s not perfect, well, I’ll just have to try again.


Burnt Sugar Cake

From Baking in America.  Makes two 9-inch cakes.

2 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
3 cups sifted cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 large egg, separated
3 large egg whites

Heat 1/2 cup of the sugar in a large saucepan over medium heat, stirring with a heat-proof spatula until the sugar begins to melt.  Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is completely melted and turns a deep caramel color, about 10 minutes.  Immediately remove the pan from heat and very gradually stir in the milk.  The mixture will seethe and sputter (if you pour it in too quickly, it will solidify;  if this happens, just reheat, stirring constantly until it melts again).  Cook, stirring occasionally until the mixture is smooth.  Transfer to a heatproof 2 cup glass measure.  Shake the can of coconut milk and add enough of it to the caramel to make 1 1/4 cups.  Set aside.  Reserve remaining coconut milk for another use.  (You can prepare the caramel/coconut mixture 1 day ahead.  When cool, cover and refrigerate.  Bring to room temperature before using.)

Adjust oven rack to the lower third position and preheat oven to 350° F.  Butter or grease two 9-inch round cake pans.  Line the bottoms with rounds of parchment paper;    butter the paper, and dust the bottoms of the pans with all-purpose flour.  Knock out the excess and set aside.

Resift the flour with salt;  set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter on medium speed until very smooth, about 1 minute.  Add the vanilla and 1/4 cup of the sugar and beat for 1 minute.  Beat in 1 1/4 more cups of sugar about 1/4 cup at a time, beating for 20 to 30 seconds after each addition, then beat on medium speed for 5 minutes.  Scrape the bowl and beater.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each.  Add the egg yolk and beat for 1 minute.

On low speed, add the flour in 4 additions, alternating with the caramel mixture, beginning and ending with the flour and beating only until the batter is smooth.

In a large bowl with clean beaters, beat the 4 egg whites on medium speed until they form soft peaks when the beater is raised.  Beat in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar about 1 tablespoon at a time, and continue beating until the whites resemble thick marshmallow cream and form softly drooping peaks.  Fold the whites into the batter in 2 additions, just until incorporated.  Divide the batter between the prepared pans.  To level the batter, rotate the pans briskly on your counter top.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the layers are golden brown and spring back when pressed very gently in the center and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool in the pans on a wire rack for 5 minutes.  Run a small, sharp knife around the layers to release them from the sides of the pans.  Cover with wire racks, invert again, and cool completely before frosting.

Chocolate Satin Frosting

From Foster’s Market.  One recipe will frost a two-layer cake or one large sheet cake.

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2/3 cups sugar
5 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
20 ounces (1 1/4 pound) semi-sweet chocolate
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/3 cup sour cream

Combine the cream and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat and bring to a low boil, stirring constantly, until all the sugar has dissolved.  Set aside.

Combine the egg yolks and vanilla in a small bowl and whisk until well blended.  Whisk 1/2 cup of the warm cream mixture into the yolks.  Add the yolk mixture to the saucepan and cook, whisking constantly over very low heat for 3 to 4 minutes, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon (be sure to keep the heat very low and that you whisk constantly so you don’t cook the yolks).

Add the chocolate and butter and whisk several times.  Remove from heat and whisk until the chocolate and butter have melted completely and the mixture is smooth.

Add the corn syrup and sour cream and whisk until well blended.  Transfer the frosting to a shallow bowl and refrigerate for 30 to 40 minutes until cooled, stirring occasionally, until the mixture becomes thick and creamy (if you refrigerate it too long, it will become hard to work with).  Frost cake while the frosting is smooth and creamy.

Cream Cheese Frosting

From Baking in America. Makes more than enough to frost a two-layer cake or one large sheet cake.

While my husband didn’t care for this frosting, everyone else did.  Adam, Ellie’s dad, suggested that we use it to frost cinnamon rolls, which sounds like a fine idea to me.

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese (do not use low-fat), at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 pound confectioners’ sugar

Beat the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla in the bowl of your electric mixer until very smooth and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes.  On low speed, gradually add confectioners’ sugar and beat until incorporated.  Increase the speed to medium-high and beat for 1 minute until smooth and creamy.

Caramel Filling

From Cake Central.

While I probably won’t layer this filling into a Burnt Sugar Cake again, its deliciousness and texture compelled me to share the recipe.  It made my cake slippery, but I’m guessing that omitting the chocolate layer on top of the slick caramel would take care of this problem.  If you discover the perfect cake for its use, let me know.

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
2 cups packed brown sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons whipping cream
2 teaspoons pure vanilla
1 teaspoon salt

In a heavy saucepan, bring butter, brown sugar, corn syrup and sweetened condensed milk to a boil over medium heat, stirring.  Carefully stir in whipping cream.  Attach a candy thermometer to your pan.  Continue to stir until the caramel reaches 238° F. Remove from heat and add vanilla and salt.  If the the caramel is too thick to spread, heat in the microwave in 10 second intervals until it becomes workable.

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Sweet and Sour

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The universe conspired to ease me into week two of my back-to-school bread baking plan.  On Monday, Labor Day holiday, when my husband arranged a sailing date for us, I decided to stay home.
As my family scrambled to the car clutching snacks and trailing life jackets, I averted my eyes from the mountain of laundry and the chaos of toys, art supplies, and dead batteries.  I knew if I so much as started sorting light clothes from dark, my day would disappear unpleasantly and my family would return complaining about missing toys that had somehow made a fateful journey into the dumpster.

I cast these potential unpleasantries aside and started making bread dough in the peace and quiet of my messy kitchen.  Lest you think I’m some magnanimous but slothful soul who forgoes fun to slave the day away baking for her family, I must set the record straight.  Sure, I love making bread, and I love to bake for my family, but this particular morning was really about going swimming.  When I finished the dough, I left it to rise on a clear corner of the kitchen table and hightailed it to the gym.

I go slightly crazy when I don’t get to go swimming, and I hadn’t been to the pool for at least a week.  Starting the school year consumed any spare time I might have carved out for myself;   my job at an alternative high school requires me to prep coursework for all the subjects needed by my 9th through 12th grade students.   This is just about as insane as it sounds, maybe more so.   So while I felt torn about not spending the day sailing with friends and family, in the interest of avoiding a nervous breakdown, I opted for exercise.

As it happens, the time required for a workout in the pool aligns well with the time required for dough to rise.  And so the morning provided me the perfect opportunity to try out sourdough bread using a starter I mixed up a few weeks ago.

Now that I have this living, breathing jar of liquid burbling contentedly in my fridge, I’ve discovered extraordinary possibilities for its use.  I’ve flipped sourdough pancakes and baked a sourdough chocolate cake.  The time had finally come, though, for me to make bread with the stuff.   I had, after all, cultivated the starter with the intention of baking bread in the first place.

So, on this leisurely Monday, I did.  And, in doing so, I managed the small personal victory of making bread two weeks in a row for the first time in a long time.

When my family returned home from a day on the water, everyone was eager to slice into fresh loaves.  Eliza gave the bread her seal of approval, calling it “squishy.”   I never dreamed of feeling complimented by that particular word, but if it makes the girl happy, I’ll take it.

Sourdough Bread

Adapted from The Bread Bible.  Makes two 9-by-5-inch loaves or two large round loaves.

1 1/2 cup warm water (105° to 115° F)
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup sourdough starter
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon salt
5 to 6 cups unbleached all-purpose or bread flour
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal, for sprinkling
1 egg beaten with 2 teaspoons water, for glazing

Pour 1/2 cup of the warm water in a small bowl.  Sprinkle yeast and a pinch of sugar over the water’s surface.  Stir to dissolve and let stand at room temperature until foamy, about 10 minutes.

In the large bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer, combine sourdough starter, remaining water, sugar, melted butter, salt, and 3 cups of flour.  Using the paddle attachment, beat until smooth, about 1 minute.  Add the yeast mixture and beat for 1 minute more.  Add the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a soft shaggy dough that just clears the sides of the bowl is formed.

Switch from the paddle to the dough hook and knead for 3 to 4 minutes, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed.  If desired, transfer dough to a floured surface and knead briefly by hand.

Place the dough in a deep greased container.  Turn once to coat the top and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  Let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Gently deflate the dough.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and sprinkle with cornmeal or lightly grease loaf pans and sprinkle with cornmeal.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and divide into 2 pieces.  Shape into tight rounds or form portions into rectangular loaves and place in the pans.  Cover loosely and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.  Slash tops decoratively and glaze with egg and water mixture.

At least twenty minutes before baking, preheat oven to 350° F.  Place loaves on a rack in the center of the oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the loaves are golden brown and the loaves sound hollow when tapped with your finger.  Transfer to a cooling rack.  Cool completely before slicing.

Sourdough Starter

Adapted from The Bread Bible.

2 cups lukewarm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar or honey
1/4 cup buttermilk powder
1/3 cup plain yogurt
2 cups bread flour

Pour the warm water into a medium bowl.  Sprinkle the yeast, sugar, and buttermilk powder over the surface of the warm water.  Stir with a large whisk to dissolve.  Stir in the yogurt, and then add the flour and beat until well blended.   Transfer to a largish glass jar, ceramic crock, or plastic container. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for at least 48 hours, whisking the mixture 2 times a day, or up to 4 days depending on how sour you wish the starter to be.  It will bubble and begin to ferment.  A clear liquid will form on the top;  stir it back in.  On the fourth day, feed with 1/4 cup water and 1/3 cup flour.  Let it stand overnight, and then store in the refrigerator, loosely covered.  Feed the starter every two weeks.

Bring to room temperature before using.  Remove amount needed for your recipe.  Add 1 cup of flour and 1/2 cup water or nonfat milk to the remaining starter, stirring to incorporate.  Let stand at room temperature for 1 day, then refrigerate.  It will improve with age.  If a pinkish color or strong aroma develops, discard and start anew.


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Loafing | French Bread

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This recipe makes three French bread loaves: one to eat right away, one to share with a friend, and one to eat tomorrow.
Before I went back to teaching again last year, I used to bake bread several times a week.  We ate plenty and shared plenty.

Working messed with my bread rhythm, though, and finally I started buying bread.  It wasn’t the same, but we all got used to it….

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