Friday, October 30, 2009

Still more Halloween stuff

A coworker of mine ordered two 6" pumpkin cakes (that is, cakes shaped like pumpkins, not cake tasting like pumpkin) for today.  It was an interesting challenge to make them, since I had to improvise a little bit.  My first plan was to make them with mini bundt pans, to produce mini versions of the cake pictured here.  Unfortunately, that had to change when I found out I couldn't get 6" bundt pans for less than $30 each.  Which, by the way, is outrageous.  So I had to do some last minute improvisation.

First thing I had to do was figure out if I was going to carve the pumpkins out of normal cake rounds or if I was going to shape the cake before baking.  Carving cakes seems to go best when the cake is frozen.  Considering my limited experience carving cakes (and limited time), I opted for the latter option.  This also gave me an excuse to use one of my new baking pans!

The pan on the left is essentially a metal bowl, and any oven-safe bowl will work for this.  Using one produces cakes like this:

which can then be stacked like this:

(Remember to carve a spot for the stem!)
frosted like this:

and topped with some of these:

to be made to look like this:

The stem, vine, and leaf were made of marshmallow fondant, and the rest was orange buttercream.  
I think it's cute!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Apple Pie

First I must disclose: I have decided I am utterly in love with Cooks Illustrated (and their TV show, America's Test Kitchen).  Any time I want to try a new recipe or am having trouble deciding what variation to choose, I just use theirs.  As yet, I have not been disappointed.

That being said, now onto the business at hand: Pie.  Pie makes me anxious.  Every year I attempt it, with varying degrees of success.  Sometimes the crust is too tough, sometimes the pie has soggy bottom syndrome, sometimes the fruit is underdone or sometimes it doesn't set...the list goes on and on.  It is for this reason that I reserve pie almost exclusively for special circumstances during the fall season.  There is just something so tricky about the balance between structure and tender flakiness combined with a juicy, heavy fruit filling---- I simply cannot seem to master it.

I love pie.  For that reason I soldier on, year after year, in my (often vain) attempts at getting it right.  I use a shortening "water barrier" on the bottom crust to insure against soggy bottoms, add extra starch to help the juices set, work the crust as little as possible to prevent toughness, and constantly second-guess the doneness inside that golden top crust.  But somehow it always eludes me-- that perfect piece of pie.  I speak, of course, of the double-crust fruit pie.  Other pie variations I can handle without losing too much sleep.

One of my "special occasion" pies every year is a fresh apple pie made from apples obtained from the orchard itself.  Usually this is a pick-them-myself venture, but this year was apparently a bad apple year so I had to settle for a farm stand on the orchard property instead.  It is one of the things that symbolizes the essence of fall for me. 

This year, I tried a new crust recipe from (lo and behold!) Cooks Illustrated.  It is unique because it calls for vodka (or other 80 proof alcohol).  I just happened to have AppleJack on hand (from my last apple pie attempt), which is a brandy made from apples and which also happens to be 80 proof.  I used that instead of the vodka.  This recipe was purported to produce an extremely flaky crust, due to baking science I will not go into except to say that the vodka does not interact with the starch in the flour to produce gluten (which makes dough tough when you work it too much).  It also evaporates at a lower temperature than water, meaning the crust will dry out faster, thus not getting soggy.

I am quite pleased with the texture of the crust, although I wish I had used an egg wash since it is a little bit too pale for my liking.  I attempted to fix that with a short stay under the broiler, but the stay was just a hair too long and the top got a little too brown:

It still tastes fine, but next time I will just use an egg wash and be done with it.  The crust is quite flaky and very structurally sound, both of which are very good things.  Overall, I think this will be my go-to pie crust recipe (unless I find something better).

As for the filling...I'm not quite sure where I got the recipe, or if I just jumbled bits and pieces from a bunch of them, but I am not sure how I feel about it.  I used Jonagold and Ida Red apples for this pie, and I guess they were not particularly juicy because the recipe I had called for 5 pounds of apples, but even mounded up I could only fit 3 pounds' worth in there.  Perhaps my recipe was for a deep dish pie and I did not notice.  Anyway, that is why this pie is a little...bulgy.  For the filling recipe I was not as careful as I normally am-- I believe I put in about 2/3 cup of sugar and one heaping 1/2 teaspoon of apple pie spice in there along with the apples.  I wish I had added more of everything!  The tart Ida Reds were a little too tart, and while the appley flavor of this pie is nice, I miss the notes of flavor contributed by the cinnamon and nutmeg-- they were just overshadowed by the apples, somehow.  I also drained some of the liquid (concern for soggy bottoms), which I will not do next time, as the pie could benefit from some juicy goodness.  I think next time I will experiment with using some brown sugar instead of all white-- I think the molasses will contribute nicely to the flavors.

 It's not a bad pie-- in fact, all of the things I was worried about turned out just fine!  The crust was easy to work with and in many ways perfect, the apples were done enough and it wasn't soggy or drippy or anything like that.  But, what I didn't worry about I played a little too loosely, because the flavor of the filling I expected to pretty much take care of itself, and next time I know to pay more attention to that.

Perhaps the perfect apple pie is within reach after all?  I will try this crust recipe again at the other special fall occasion: Thanksgiving.  If it turns out as well then, I will definitely keep this recipe in my repertoire for the future. 

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Halloween Display

The caterer I work through wanted me to make some faux cakes and cupcakes to help her promote her new website,  She is going to display them in 4 Whole Foods stores throughout the LA area, so they needed to be made of materials that would not go bad or need to be refrigerated.

This made for many unique challenges.  First and foremost:  how to construct fake cakes and cupcakes?  I found some varying techniques online, calling for everything from plaster of paris to styrofoam, but they all sounded rather complicated.  Thankfully, people construct cake and cupcake "dummies" for just this purpose!  The cupcakes were quite difficult to find, so I ended up having to order them online:

Little styrofroam shapes pre-glued into cupcake liners-- these babies saved me quite a bit of hassle.  For the cakes, however, I decided to construct my own cake dummy out of dry floral foam blocks, like so:

The blocks were glued together with a little bit of royal icing, which dries completely hard and does not need to be refrigerated.  That, along with Marshmallow Fondant, were the only frostings suitable for display cakes-- which was a challenge in and of itself, since I don't have much experience with royal icing.  I would have much preferred to work with buttercream, but it isn't as stable and is more prone to damage.

So, first I made 2 dozen cupcakes of assorted Halloween varieties, all of which are available on the Creepy Feast website.  The designs I chose were:  Ghost with pumpkin, Vampire, Monster, "Slug", Centipede and Mummy.  Because there are 4 locations she is displaying these, she requested 4 sets of 6 different cupcakes.  I didn't take any progress shots of these, but here is the finished product:

These little suckers took SO much time to do...especially since each style required different colors, materials and techniques.  The mummies and the ghosts are my favorites.

So, after finishing the cupcakes I had to tackle the cakes, which were taken from this design:

However, this cake is frosted in buttercream, which I did not have at my disposal, so some alterations had to be.  I also had to make 2 of these.

So first off, I covered the face part of the cake in green fondant:

For the hair, I used black fondant and white royal icing, mainly because I did not have enough of either one to do it entirely one way or the other, and I didn't want to have to make more frosting because all my bowls were dirty and it was 1 in the morning already. 

First I smeared on a thin layer of royal icing on one surface of the "cake" so that the fondant would stick.  After applying the fondant, I went back and filled in the spaces with more royal icing.  I really lucked out with my management of supplies with this whole project-- at the end of it, I had a golf-ball sized amount of black fondant left and that was it.  Everything else was used up completely.

The face is almost entirely fondant-- the whites of Mrs. Frankenstein's eyes are flattened marshmallows, but everything else is fondant.

By the time I had finished, it was 4 AM (these were for a pickup Saturday morning), and this was the state of my kitchen:

I was rather annoyed after staying up so late to make sure everything was done this morning, the caterer decided (at 7:30 this morning) that she was going to pick them up tomorrow morning instead. 


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pretty pretty dragonflies

I had an order for 3 dozen cupcakes like this:

 They wanted half chocolate and half yellow cake, which comes out to 18 cupcakes of each, so I made two batches of 24 cupcakes to ensure I had enough.  Good thing, too, because the first batch had a few cupcakes that were too close to the walls of the oven and they....became significantly overdone.  Anyway, due to my ingenious planning, even with this mishap, I had enough cupcakes to fill the order.

The next issue was finding dragonfly toppers for the cupcakes.  The caterer said they were willing to pay for the exact cupcake picks pictured above, so I had to find them.  I couldn't find them in any store near me, unfortunately, so I had to turn to the internet.  Also significant is the fact that this order was solidified on there was some haste necessary.  I finally found them at a lovely baking resource that I will certainly purchase from more often, now.  So I placed the order on Monday (a holiday), and priority mail claimed 2 day delivery.  They were delivered today, just in time.  There was minor panic when I checked online this morning and they still had not been delivered, but the box was there waiting for me when I got home from work.

(Hard to see, I know)

 Anyway, after the picks were safely received, I whipped up a batch of buttercream and frosted the cupcakes in the closest approximation of the picture that I could.

The blue color comes compliments of Wilton.  Their "airbrush in a can" is perfect for people like me who want the effect but cannot afford to purchase a food-grade airbrush machine and dye.

Works like a charm.  So after a quick spray with this, all they needed were some extra buttercream clouds and the dragonflies!

Now time to work on some halloween cupcakes for tomorrow.  More soon!

Sunday, October 4, 2009


It has been awhile, I realize, but to make up for it this post is going to include 2 baking forays!  So, without further ado:

First up were some mini cherry pies because the cooler weather as of late had me in the mood for pie.  I have used the recipe twice before, and it has always turned out very well.  For anyone looking for a go-to cherry pie, I highly recommend this one.  It has a nice tanginess to it-- not too sweet.  The different kinds of cherries add texture as well.  I'm a sucker for good cherry pie, I have discovered recently.

Anyway.  I admit that I cheated a little on this one-- rather than making the crust from scratch (which I can only muster the energy to do if I'm trying to impress someone) I used refrigerated pie crusts from the store.  This was, after all, just for me.  I used one pie crust and a half recipe of filling for these little guys.


It made just enough for four really mini pies (made in a muffin tin) and two slightly larger ones (in aluminum tart pans).   It was the perfect amount for a quick pie fix, and they were very easy.

Basic instructions:  Cut rounds out of pie crust and press into muffin tin.  Fill with a few spoonfuls of filling and top with additional crust if desired.  Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until crust is golden brown. 

I imagine this would work really well with quiche, too.  Pie as finger food!  What could be better?!

I will say, however, that these work better with smaller fruit.  The cherries in these were almost too big to fit tidily, so I would advise against things like blackberries or apples unless they were cut into smaller pieces.

Now: Cupcakes! 

A coworker of mine requested some ghost cupcakes for her daughter's birthday next week, so I got a start on them today.  The cupcake recipe is from Cook's Illustrated, which I have not tasted but they certainly smell amazing.   The frosting is orange Swiss Meringue Buttercream (my favorite!) and the ghosts are made of gumpaste. 

The cupcake recipe only makes 12, and apparently should not be doubled, so I have another 2 batches to make either tonight or tomorrow. 

So first, you make the cupcakes.  Then let them cool and frost with your favorite frosting.

Next, make some adorable ghosts!  I used storebought gumpaste, but fondant would work as well (and if you made marshmallow fondant it would taste better, too!). 

So first roll out your edible medium of choice, then use some kind of round cutter to cut discs of the desired size.  For these, I am using a small biscuit cutter to make adorable mini ghosts.

To do the eyes, I used an edible marker but royal icing or melted chocolate would work as well.

Once you cut the discs out, drape them over a lump of gumpaste/fondant (or you can try cotton balls) so they stiffen enough to stand up on their own.  Once they have stiffened, you can go ahead and plop them on top of your frosted cupcakes, like so:

They are kind of work intensive due the drying time and the fact that you can only make 12 at a time, but they certainly are cute!  I wish I had some extra that I could try, but no,  I must resist...

must resist....