Friday, March 22, 2013

Poker Cake

A good friend of mine challenged me to make a fancy fondant cake with a poker theme for her friend's 35th birthday. I've always been very reluctant to work with fondant as I don't particularly enjoy the taste or texture, but it really is a great medium for creative work on cakes. It was a lot of fun to work on this cake; it reminded me of making plastisine figurines in elementary school.

The cake inside is a moist chocolate cake layered with a rich vanilla buttercream frosting. I've discovered this amazing buttercream recipe from the Flour cookbook that is a cross between Swiss and American buttercream. You heat the whites and sugar mixture over a bain marie, whip that into a stiff meringue, add butter and then icing sugar. It is absolutely delicious!

The cards and poker chips were all made with fondant, I simply added a bit of tylose powder to make them a bit stiffer and made them a couple days in advance so they had time to harden properly. Apparently you can order edible playing cards online or through different bakeries, or even make your own with a special printer using edible ink. Unfortunately, I didn't have any of those luxuries so I had to go with the more simple designs for the playing cards - I think a perfect replica of the Queen of Spades may be a bit beyond my time constraints, not to mention abilities. The symbols on the cards were all drawn free-hand using edible markers.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A weekend of food

This has been an extra long weekend for me with a whopping four days off in a row. I hardly knew what to do with myself with all that extra time on my hands, so I transferred it into valuable cooking time. Did it ever pay off. I can hardly remember all of the ground we covered this weekend. It has been a really busy weekend bursting with delicious food and, suffice it to say, I REALLY need to hit the gym tomorrow morning.

Thursday didn't include any cooking, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the culinary treat we indulged in. Our Valentine's day gift to each other was an evening at home free of cooking. I really love to cook, but I didn't want to spend the precious couple of hours after work slaving away in the kitchen. All too often P and I do just that and barely have time to acknowledge each other while yawning around our forks at nine o'clock. Neither did we want to spend the evening at an expensive restaurant filled with cliche romance. Instead, we ordered the special Valentine's meal for two from The Red Apron. It was a scrumptious four course meal, highlights being the pumpkin bisque with toasted pepitas and mascarpone cream; papardalle with mushrooms; and (my personal favourite) passion fruit panna cotta.

Friday saw me trekking through Ottawa in search of ingredients to fuel our weekend of food-frenzy, with a hunger-inducing walk from Billings Bridge to Centretown I was certainly ready to eat.

Friday evening we had a couple of P's friends over for dinner and served up a nice cheese platter to start, then some comforting veal sausages with balsamic-onion gravy, brown butter mashed potatoes, lemon-garlic beans and roasted beets. I tried another recipe from Flour for dessert and it was a real hit. It was a pretty simple one, Nutmeg-Spiced Cake with a Rum Buttercream. With memories of the rum-soaked cakes from school, I was a little reticent to add the full amount of rum to the buttercream. After tasting it, I think the full amount in the recipe is probably best. To give a little bit more of a rummy flavour, P and I flambeyed some pineapple chunks in rum and served it on top of the cake. It worked really well with the rest of the cake's flavours.

Saturday was a pretty busy morning of cupcake madness. My uncle had ordered a few dozen cupcakes for an event that afternoon and I hadn't had time to start anything the day before. Everything was going very well. The maple-pecan cupcakes looked pretty sleek and the chocolate with salted caramel cupcakes almost made themselves. I ran into real difficulty with my strawberry shortcakes, though. With my uncle coming in less than half an hour to pick them up, I ran into several issues. I squirted way too much pink colouring into the icing, which became an almost neon nightmare. With no time to whip up another batch of icing and decorate them, I carried on. The icing was a little too thick for the rose piping I intended to do and there wasn't enought to do pretty rosettes on top. So I had to settle with smoothing the icing on freehand and adding a little strawberry to the top. We'll just say these ones were Valentines' day electrified.

Despite the chaos, the taste was bang on for all the cupcakes. Maple-pecan with chunks of pecans inside a white cake laced with cinnamon spice, topped with a creamy maple buttercream and a candied pecan. The chocolate cupcakes were filled with a salty caramel and topped with a chocolate italian buttercream and red sprinkles. The strawberry shortcake cupcakes (not pictured) were made with a tender white cake filled with stewed strawberries, topped with (neon) pink italian buttercream and strawberry.
I'm still not even halfway through the weekend... but I'll skip through a little bit. Saturday morning we cooked up breakfast burritos with spicy eggs, avocados and cheddar, and the evening was accompanied by a sausage, bean and cheddar risotto. Sunday brought with it oatmeal buttermilk pancakes and slow-cooked pulled chicken tacos. Those tacos were a real winner. I'm still drooling over them.

I also had to tackle a few more recipes from Flour and got through a whopping three in two days. We are practically wading through desserts in this house right now.

The first was the Lemon Poppyseed Pound Cake. I had made it a couple of years ago and wasn't quite convinced, but on the second attempt I can understand the appeal. It's a very rich and dense cake with a strong nutty flavour from the poppyseeds. The lemons in it add just the right amount of brightness to it.

Next up was the Good Morning Muffins, which I thoroughly enjoyed. They're jam packed with nutritious ingredients that you forget you're eating a pastry. Filled with zucchini, raisins, pecans, bran, apples and coconut, it's pretty much a full breakfast.

Last one and a real nightmare of a task was the Milky Way Tart. The picture in the cookbook looks absolutely divine, and miles away from the monstrosity I created in my kitchen today. I prepared myself well in advance for this one because you really need to set aside an entire day to factor in the wait times. The chocolate has to be combined with the mousse and then chilled for 8 hours. You have to chill the caramel for 4 hours before using it. Not to mention the wait times for pastry dough, it was a nightmare of logisitcs and planning. But I followed all of those directions to the letter. Pastry chefs would shake their heads in disbelief at my hack-job attempt with that tart.

Now you may recall that I had some difficulty with the pastry dough for the Chocolate Truffle Tart from last week. I figured that it was caused by my freestyling attempt to add hazelnut powder to the dough. After today's pastry catastrophe, I'm shifting the blame to the recipe for this. I made the pastry exactly as directed and waited all the appropriate times. When it came time to roll the dough out, the blasted thing cracked everywhere. The second I tried to lift it into the tart pan, the whole thing just fell apart. I ended up making the most motley patched tart shell - I don't know how many pieces the dough became before I welded it back together in the pan, but it really wasn't pretty.

The patch-work would ultimately be my downfall, as I tried to remove the tart from the pan pieces just started to fall away. And this tart requires stability in the tart shell, above all else because when I added the layer of caramel to the bottom, half of it leaked out of the little holes onto the plate. The chocolate mousse didn't set properly and we basically just slopped the whole onto our plates with a spoon. It was a messy mound of chocolate mousse, caramel and pastry, but it sure was tasty! The coffee flavour in the mousse really helps to balance the sweetness of the milk chocolate. And, despite all of my cursing, the sweet dough was really crisp and delicious. I think I'll need to practise this one a few more times; I certainly wouldn't mind eating the results. But I highly recommend using a different recipe for the pate sucree. I'll definitely be using the one from my school binder for the next attempt.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Chocolate Truffle Tart and Maple Oatmeal Scones

Continuing with the daunting task of tackling every recipe from the cookbook Flour, I made a chocolate truffle tart this weekend and it was absolutely spectacular. I played it pretty safe and followed the recipe exactly, except I couldn't resist adding a little bit of hazelnut powder to the crust. The crust was a real pain to work with and I'm not quite sure if it's because the additional hazelnut powder makes it too dry. Regardless, the dough kept cracking as I rolled it and ended up being a rough patchwork job. The chefs at school would have cringed to see it.

The tart turned out beautifully, though. There was just a hint of nuttiness from the crust that offset the richness of the chocolate very well. The filling was rich and smooth. I recommend using a very good quality cocoa powder to dust the top and eat with a dollop of whipped cream on the side. A true chocolate lover's dream dessert.

Next up on my list was the recipe for Maple Oatmeal Scones. They're not quite your normal scone recipe. Filled with raisins and chunks of pecans, these scones are really rich and hearty, and the maple glaze on top adds just a little bit of decadence. Paired with a hot cup of coffee, this makes for a really great way to start the day.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies

Next up on my to do list from the Flour cookbook was chocolate hazelnut cookies. If there's any flavour combination I love more than chocolate and hazelnut, I've yet to find it. I knew that I would love these cookies before I even started. The recipe is filled with hazelnuts, both ground and chopped, so every bite is filled with the rich, nutty flavour. Yum!

I cheated a little bit with this recipe and changed a few things. You're supposed to grind the half cup of toasted hazelnuts yourself, but as I already had a bag of ground hazelnuts on hand, I saved myself the trouble of having to clean my bulky food processor. I substituted dark chocolate for the milk chocolate, because I find sometimes that milk chocolate can be too sweet. I also scaled down the size of the cookies considerably because I wanted to share with the office. So instead of making only 20 cookies, I made more like 48.

The taste of these is absolutely divine. Just the perfect amount of chocolate and hazelnut flavour. The weirdest thing, though. I usually prefer my cookies hot out of the oven, but not these ones. The hazelnut flavour only really stands out once they've fully cooled. This recipe is definitely going to be a part of my regular treats!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Meringue Clouds and Challah

Challenge #1 is complete. Success! Well... mostly.

The first recipe I chose to attack was the Meringue Clouds. I thought I would take it easy and just breeze through it. Funny. Every time I approach meringue with a cocky attitude, it knocks me flat. Such was the case in this seemingly simple recipe. Beware. It comes with hidden traps.

Everything started out just fine. I made the suggested 8 mounds of meringue and slipped the pan into the oven, ready to wait more than 3 hours to get my sugar fix. Two hours into baking I peeked through the tiny little oven window and was greeted by a puddle of liquid sugar surrounding each puff. I rushed over to find the source of my problem and there are two main reasons why a meringue leaks sugar: 1) you didn't mix the meringue long enough and all the sugar didn't dissolve; or 2) it's too humid. Reckoning that I'm having trouble petting my cats these last few months without shooting off sparks, I think I made rookie mistake number 1. Owned by a meringue. Damn.

All in all, though, it's a pretty tasty treat. It's simply a French meringue with extra icing sugar and some sliced almonds folded into it. And even if you muck it up like me, it's darned delicious. Personally, I find meringues a little bit on the sweet side, which the almonds help to counter. But I decided to serve my meringues up with a drizzle (ok, I'll be honest, more like a pour) of raspberry sauce. The tartness of the raspberries really offsets the sugar of the meringues and really brightens it up.

Another of the things that I find myself drawn more to lately is making bread. I guess it helps that I now have quite a bit more time on my hands. The latest loaf was challah - yet another recipe from Baking with Julia. I swear that tome just keeps on giving.

This challah tested my KitchenAid to it's limits, and the challah won. The batter was too strong and big for the mixer and slowly creeped up the dough hook until it threatened to envelope the entire mixer. It was reminiscent of a scene from The Blob. I think I'll be picking bits of dough out of the mixer for a good while yet.

With that method exhausted, I had to knead the dough by hand. After the last 9 months of pastries, I think I more closely resemble dough than the challah. So with grunts of effort and sighs of exhaustion, I punched that dough into submission. And ate the reward. So delicious! It was perfect in a sandwich with roasted eggplant and red pepper, soaking up extra soup or just simply as toast with a smear of butter.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Challenge?

It's barely 2 days into February and I'm already feeling blue. I had promised myself the month of January would be a time to relax a bit and refresh after all the chaos of baking school and work. But now that January is over and I don't have any set plans in motion, I'm feeling really directionless and, for lack of a better word, blah. The real-world problems of Generation Y. I don't know of any other generation that has as many mini-life crises. And the guilt is coming in strong for allowing myself to sink like this when there are so many better things to be doing.

I had set a personal goal to myself that every Friday I would make something new. I spent half of the day yesterday and this morning looking at recipes and feeling completely unmotivated. So it's time to take action! I'm going to set a serious challenge for myself: I'm going to try to bake my way through the cookbook Flour. Now I may hear some grumblings about un-originality... Isn't this just like Julie and Julia?! Well, yes. It is. But it seemed like such a good idea I couldn't turn it up. I've found myself browsing through recipes online and in cookbooks, going after what I feel like making. But if I'm constantly drawn to the stuff I know, I won't really learn anything new. This way, I'll constantly be trying a new recipe, that is not necessarily something I have any previous experience in. Expand my abilities a little bit.

For those who know me, you'll know how my interest tends to wane or get distracted. So let's see how this goes... I'm posting this on here so I'll have the added pressure of making my promises public knowledge. I'm going to start this off on a simple note and a way to get rid of my extra egg whites. Stay tuned for Meringue Clouds.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A whole lot of butter later...

I was so excited for last weekend! Mom and both my sisters headed up for a weekend of girl fun in Wakefield to celebrate (very late) mom's birthday. I haven't spent much time with the girls in way too long. Living so far away from everyone always lends a frenzied edge to my visits. But this trip was such a nice and relaxing weekend, with no agendas or frenzy. Just what I need!

I've had almost no opportunities to treat my family with the new baking skills I've been picking up, so I went a little bit overboard for the weekend. It's just so nice to be able to share some of the goodies, and not have them sitting around my kitchen for ages, tempting me.

The first treat for the weekend was a pecan cupcake with maple buttercream and was a breeze to make. I've made the cake once before with walnuts, which is light and delicate. A hint of cinnamon adds a bit of spice that works so well with the nuts. However, maple buttercream is the real winner in this recipe. It's smooth and rich; every bite is filled with maple. I've made it a few more times and it works wonderfully as a filling for macarons. We kind of dolopped the icing on top of the cakes in a mad rush to get on the road, but the taste didn't suffer!

The next treat of the weekend were croissants. I haven't made them since last summer and was feeling a little adventurous and tried a different recipe this time from Baking with Julia. I had to make two batches, as I promised to bring a tasty treat in for the morning meeting at the office.

I can tell you that I was seriously cursing my eagerness while rolling out the croissant dough. The turning process wasn't too bad, but rolling it paper thin to form the croissants was backbreaking. Seriously. I had to put a hot pad on my back to relax some of my muscles. The worst part were the bruises. I had fallen up the stairs a couple days earlier and had small bruises along my forearms. The dough was so hard I ended up rolling using my whole forearm with the rolling pin in order to get some real pressure behind it. By the next day, I had purple bruising running up my arms from the elbows. Ouch! I don't know how bakeries only charge like $2.50 for one of those things. It's worth so much more!

The results, however, were divine! For the ladies, I made three different kinds: plain, chocolate-almond, and raisin-cream. The chocolate-almond were my favourites, so I made extras of those for the office. And they were so well-received at the office. I had a few people telling me that they hadn't had croissants that good since they'd been to Paris. Despite my earlier vows never to make that recipe again... I think I'll give it a go after the good reviews they got. I just have to start saving up some money for a sheeter machine. Those are pretty cheap, right? We should have some fresh croissants ready in about 5 years.