Wednesday, December 30, 2009

4-Wheeling Birthday Cake

This cake was made for a 10 year old boy, whose birthday was December 10th, as a "clue" about his new 4-wheeler for Christmas.  I left a place at the bottom of the cake for his Mom to add a toy 4-wheeler.

The cake was made using 10", 8" and 6" round cakes stacked off center.  After adding the chocolate buttercream frosting I used my fingers to add the tire tracks and just generally make the surface not smooth.  I wish more cakes could look like mud!  I sprinkled some graham crackers crumbs to add to the dirt effect.  The rocks are chocolate covered bridge mix and the logs are Pirouette cookies.  I made the sign using a plain Hersey's bar.  The trees are sugar cones covered with buttercream frosting using a size 18 star tip.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Christmas Present!

Now before you say "A kitchen appliance?!?!"....I did ASK for a new Kitchen Aid.  This model, the Artisan, is a little bigger and has more power than my old Classic model.  Now I'll be able to whip up cakes and frosting in half the time!  OK, maybe not, but I'll still enjoy it.  And look, a splash guard, which means no more powdered sugar all over my kitchen.  (Fingers crossed)

My sister is now the lucky recipient of my Classic.  Happy Mixing Beth!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Science Cake

My Mission
I was asked to create a science theme cake for a scientist’s retirement party. Hmmm, a lot harder than it sounds. I wanted to somehow make a large molecule, but decided that wouldn’t involve vey much cake and would probably require more time than I had to figure out how to do it, 5 days! So I started searching the internet for some ideas. It turns out when you search for chemistry and cake you learn all about the science behind baking! Not too many science theme decorated cakes out there. So I started thinking about lab equipment. This scientist works in a chemical durability lab and was very involved with safety. What came to mind was safety equipment (gloves, goggles, safety labels, etc) and labware (beakers, flasks, chemicals).

My Design
I started by making paper templates of different items, so I could play with placement and scale. I turns out there isn’t much room on an 8 or 9 inch cake. I decided on a flask, a beaker, test tubes, a small molecule, and purple nitrile gloves (of course!) I would also add some chemical formulas and safety symbols to fill in the dead space.

The Process
I needed to make the 3D items early so they would have time to dry. Fondant wouldn’t dry hard enough for these items so I had to either use straight gum paste or a fondant gum paste mix. I chose the mix because it gives you a little more working time. Straight gum paste can actually dry out and start cracking on you if you don’t work fast enough. I finished these on Sunday night, so they had plenty of time to dry before cake delivery on Wednesday.

• I found a bottle to use as a mold for the beaker; I made the walls of the beaker first. After that dried, I added the base and glued them together with gum paste glue. I wanted to fill the beaker with something so I added some extra support around the edges inside so it wouldn’t leak.
• The test tube was just formed around a wooden dowel rod. Easy enough.
• I made the center molecule and added toothpicks for “bonds”; I had to add these before the fondant dried. Then I made several other balls and put them on toothpicks to dry.

That was all I could do ahead of time, the rest would need to be added to the cake while still pliable.

What should I fill the beaker with? I know…lime jello! That would be cool. I made 2 beakers, just in case, so I figured I better try this and see if the beaker could hold the jello. Using the quick set method I added grape jello to one of my beakers. After 1 hour the jello was set and everything was looking good. The next morning, still OK. But later that day, Doug called and said he had some bad news….The jello had dissolved the beaker! I am sad to say, the jello was not a good idea.

At least the beaker was not on the cake; jello all over my completed cake would NOT have been good! Back to the drawing board.

The flavor was left as my choice. I decided to go with a strawberry cake and vanilla butter cream frosting. Strawberry could be risky but I thought it was worth taking a chance. It turned out that strawberry was the recipient's favorite cake flavor!

After the cake was frosted with butter cream, I added the fondant layer. Fondant would be smoother to apply all of the decorations to. My test tube and beaker were white, so I didn’t want to start with a white base. Why not a light yellow color?

I rolled out the purple fondant (for deep colors I buy pre-tinted fondant, the colors fade less) and used my template to cut out two gloves. I did remember to do a left and a right. Luckily these could be placed to hide a small crack in the yellow fondant (our little secret). I was able to allow these to hang off the side of the cake because they were not dried and stiff.

Next, the “chemical spill”. I thought green would be a good choice. Just a free hand blob cut from the fondant and placed on the cake.

I cut out small squares of red, blue, yellow and white to create the HMIS labels. The numbers were added with edible marker.

The gloves, spill, HMIS labels, and test tube were glued to the cake using gum paste glue.

The molecule was put together and just placed on the cake.

I added the markings on the beaker but it still needed to be filled, I used frosting and tried to make it look like bubbles, but as you can see I ended up just swirling the “liquid”. The beaker was placed on the cake. I was afraid if I glued it the weight would rip the yellow fondant.

Last I added some chemical formulas and equations to fill in the bare spots.

The result!

The cake was a hit! I had a lot of fun putting it together.

Happy Retirement Duane!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An Attempt at Spinach Phyllo Triangles

Now I know you're probably saying "Those don't look like triangles".....and you would be correct! 

I did start to make triangles, and I actually made three.  I started with 6 layers of phyllo dough, cut it into strips and put a small amount of filling at one end.  I tried to fold the phyllo into triangles (like folding an American flag) but first I had to remove some filling, and I still couldn't get it to fold properly.  Sorry, I should have taken pictures to demonstrate my failed attempts.  I decided to bake the three that I made because the corners weren't sealing and I was afraid the filling would just run out.  They baked up fine.  The filling set OK and the phyllo dough was light and flaky. 

The problem?  The ratio of filling to phyllo, not enough filling.  I could have tried less layers of phyllo but I decided this would take some playing around with, so I ran to the store and purchased the already made phyllo cups to add my filling to.  That's how I ended up with what you see here.

I'll have to work on perfecting the triangles and I'll be sure to let you know what works best! 

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hummus Stuffed Portobello Caps

Hummus Stuffed Portobello Caps

2 tablespoons olive oil
6 small portobello mushroom caps, stems and ribs removed
1/2 cup cream cheese, softened
1/2 green bell pepper, diced
3/4 cup roasted red pepper hummus
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon lemon pepper seasoning
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).
2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the portobello mushrooms for 3 minutes on each side until browned.
3. Stir together cream cheese, green pepper, and hummus until evenly blended. Season the mushroom caps with salt and pepper on each side. Place the mushrooms onto a baking sheet, with the stem-side facing up. Sprinkle with lemon pepper, then fill with hummus mixture.
4. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes until the filling is hot.
My Comments & Tips
  • The filling was prepared the day before the party.
  • I also wiped the mushroom clean and removed the stems the day before and stored them in a paper bag in the refrigerator overnight.
  • I purchased baby portobello mushrooms for this recipe.  I doubled the filling and filled almost 30 mushrooms with TONS of filling left over!  So either I purchased the wrong size mushrooms or somehow I didn't use enough filling. 
  • I tried the extra filling on some crackers the next day and it was a very tasty spread.
  • These were very easy to make.  I seared the mushrooms, allowed then to cool a bit, then filled them and kept them at room temperature (only about an hour) until I baked them. 
  • Best served hot.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Caesar Salad Spears

Caesar Salad Spears

A classic Caesar turned into a clever finger food!


2 cups 1/4-inch-diced white bread
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 anchovy fillets, mashed
1 small garlic clove, smashed
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for garnish
7 Belgian endives


Preheat the oven to 350°. In a medium bowl, toss the bread with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Spread the bread on a baking sheet and toast for about 10 minutes, stirring once, until golden and crisp.

Meanwhile, in the same bowl, using a spoon, mash the anchovies to a paste with the garlic and a pinch of salt. Whisk in the mayonnaise, lemon zest and lemon juice, then whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the 1/4 cup of grated cheese.

Trim the endives and remove the 60 largest leaves from 6 of the heads. Stack the leaves and trim them to about 4 inches. Thinly slice the remaining endive, along with the trimmings of the 6 other heads (you should have about 3 cups), and toss with the dressing. Spoon the salad onto each spear and garnish with the croutons and grated cheese. Serve immediately.

My Comments & Tips
  • Very clever idea!  These were a hit! 
  • I will confess I used store bought croutons.  Hey, I'll take help where ever I can when I'm sure it won't compromise the dish! 
  • I left out the anchovy fillets to make the dish vegetarian and the dressing was still very tasty.
  • These were fast and easy to prepare.
  • The only thing I would do differently next time is make sure I have extra endive.  The heads I bought were kind of small and the filling turned out to be less leafy and more crunchy.

Sausage Stuffed Peppadews

Sausage-Stuffed Peppadews

1 pound hot Italian sausages, casings removed
1/2 cup cooked white rice
2 tablespoons olive tapenade
60 yellow or red peppadew peppers (from two 14-ounce jars), drained
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Preheat the oven to 450°. In a medium bowl, knead the sausage meat with the cooked rice and olive tapenade. Fill the peppadew peppers with the meat mixture, pressing to compact it. Arrange the peppadews meat side up on a lightly oiled baking sheet; lightly press down on them so they don't wobble. Drizzle the peppadews all over with olive oil and sprinkle with the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Bake the peppadews in the upper third of the oven for about 15 minutes, until the sausage meat is cooked through. Transfer the peppadews to a platter and serve warm or at room temperature.

My Comments & Tips
  • I will admit I had no idea what a peppadew was when I read this recipe.  (FYI - Peppadew is actually a trademarked brand name for sweet piquante peppers.)  I envisioned something similar to a pepperoncini.  They are quite different, they resemble cherry tomatoes (there is a yellow version too) and taste slightly sweet.  I may look for some new recipes to try these tasty peppers again!  I found them on the olive bar at my local Wegman's, both the red and the yellow variety. 
  • I browned the sausage before preparing the filling, I was hoping to reduce the amount of grease in the peppers and I wasn't confident that 15 minutes would be enough time to make sure the sausage was fully cooked.
  • I halved this recipe and still had almost half of the filling left after stuffing over 30 peppers.
  • I had so mmuch filling leftover that I decided to stuff some pepperoncini's as well.  These had a little more zing to them but turned out good too.
  • I prepared the filling and stuffed the peppers one day ahead.  They were stored in the refrigerator and brought to room temperature before I cooked them.
  • I will admit, I forgot to add the parmesan cheese.  Sometimes that happens when I prepare items ahead of time.  They still tasted yummy!
  • These tasted fine at room temperature.
  • I used the hot sausage but I may consider using a different kind next time.  They had a little kick, but you really couldn't taste any sausage flavor.

Tomato Tartlets

Tomato Tartlets

All-purpose flour, for rolling
1/2 pound all-butter puff pastry
30 cherry tomatoes (about 1 pound), halved crosswise
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, plus more for garnish
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 pound fresh ricotta

Preheat the oven to 425° and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Position racks in the middle and upper thirds of the oven. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff pastry to a 9 1/2-by-17 1/2-inch rectangle. Using a straight edge, trim the pastry to a 9-by-17-inch rectangle. Transfer the pastry to the baking sheet and poke all over with a fork. Top with another sheet of parchment and another baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes on the middle rack, until golden. Remove the top sheet and parchment paper and bake the pastry until lightly browned and dry, about 10 minutes longer. Slide the paper and pastry onto a rack and let cool.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, toss the tomatoes with the olive oil and 2 teaspoons of thyme and season with salt and pepper. Place the tomatoes on a baking sheet, cut side up, and bake on the upper rack for about 15 minutes, until softened slightly. Let cool.

In a food processor, puree the ricotta until very creamy. Spread the ricotta over the pastry and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the tomatoes cut side up on the ricotta in 5 rows of 12. Sprinkle lightly with fresh thyme. Using a long knife, cut the pastry between the tomatoes into 60 squares. Transfer the tartlets to platters and serve at once.

My Comments & Tips
  • Isn't the purpose of puff pastry to puff?  This was the first time I used the two baking sheet method to bake the puff pastry flat.  One very important tip - DO NOT use air bake cookie sheets to do this!  I don't know if all air bake cookie sheets are the same, but mine have 1 small hole on the bottom of each corner.  I think this caused hot air to flow between the cookie sheets and burn my first attempt!  I should have checked earlier but by 25 minutes the pastry was very dark brown.  It's a good thing there are two sheets of puff pastry in each box!  For the second attempt I actually used two baking sheets (aka jelly roll pans) and it turned out fine.  But I did check it after 15 minutes this time.
  • Cutting a tomato crosswise means not through the stem.  The ones I did this way deformed when roasting.  You will essentially want the top and bottom of the tomato.  I know this sounds silly but how was I supposed to be sure what crosswise meant? 
  • The tomatoes smell divine after roasting in the oven!
  • I prepared the puff pastry and tomatoes early to allow them to cool. 
  • Creaming the ricotta in the food processor made it super smooth and creamy!  Nice change of texture for ricotta.
  • A  pizza cutter worked great for cutting the pastry.
  • A tasty treat!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Gorgonzola and Caramelized Onion Appetizer

Gorgonzola and Caramelized Onion Appetizer

Crunchy baguette slices are topped with robust Gorgonzola and sweet caramelized onions.

1 tablespoon butter or margarine
3 medium onions, chopped (1 1/2 cups)
2 teaspoons packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon balsamic or red wine vinegar
16 slices (1/2-inch-thick) baguette-style French bread (from 10-ounce loaf)
3 tablespoons crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

Melt butter in 7-inch skillet over medium heat. Cook onions, brown sugar and vinegar in butter 20 to 25 minutes, stirring frequently, until onions are golden brown.

Set oven control to broil. Place baguette slices on ungreased cookie sheet. Broil with tops 4 to 6 inches from heat 1 to 2 minutes or until lightly toasted.

Spoon about 1 teaspoon caramelized onions evenly onto each baguette slice. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the cheese. Broil about 1 minute or until cheese is melted.

My Comments & Tips
  • I chopped 3 medium onions and ended up with WAY more than 1 1/2 cups, I would say it was more like 3 cups. They did however reduce quite a bit in volume after cooking.
  • I tripled the amount of brown sugar and balsamic vinegar because it just didn't look like enough while cooking.
  • The onions took at least an hour to cook.  Having caramelized onions before I knew they should be cooked slowly, so I resisted the urge to increase the temperature.  Maybe it was my onions (I used sweet onions) but there seemed to be a lot of water released from them, and they didn't start to caramelize until that cooked off.  The last recipe I had for caramelized onions took about 3 hours, so this wasn't too bad.  The trick is to be patient, you don't want to saute them.
  • I prepared these one day ahead and reheated them slowly on the stove.  They turned out fine.
  • The recipe says to chop the onions. The onions in the picture on the website appeared to be sliced thinly, so I cut the onion in half and sliced it from there. Although the texture was fine, eating them was a little tricky! It was difficult to bite the baguette without the strings of onions falling off. Next time I will actually chop them in squares or at least smaller slices.
  • I ended up with about 25 pieces, and still had about a 1/2 cup of onions left over. I'm looking forward to trying them on a homemade burger!
  • I was able to assemble these about 15 minutes before broiling, I didn't want the bread to get soggy.
  • These were also good at room temperature.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chocolate Topiary!

Browsing the Betty Crocker website I found this cute idea for making a Chocolate Truffles Topiary.  I thought this would make an excellent prize for my cookie exchange party.  So off I went to Michael's looking for pots, styrofoam, dowel rods, and inspiration!  Looking through the containers I wasn't feeling inspired but when I looked at the styrofoam shapes the cone shape jumped out...of course, I should make a Christmas tree!  A gold cube pot was the perfect fit.  Simple and elegant!  Here's my version...

The tree shape did require more truffles but I thought it would be more appropriate for the holidays.  I used Ferrero Rocher Chocolates.  You MUST try these if you've never had one!  Chocolate and hazelnuts - YUM!  Shopping tip - unless you are giving these chocolates alone as a gift look for them in the regular candy aisle.  At Christmastime they package these in all kinds of fancy containers and of course those cost quite a bit more.  I added a little greenery and some red ribbon, next time I might use a red pot to add more color, but I think it turned out fine.  The recipient could also reuse the form and re-gift!

If you are going to try making one of these, poke a small hole in the truffle first then put the toothpick into the foam and place the truffle on the toothpick.  The foil on the truffles will still hold it firmly in place.  If you put the truffle on the toothpick then try to put it into the foam, the toothpick with poke through the truffle, or you will crush the truffle.

The Betty Crocker website suggests using these as centerpieces on wedding reception tables, but imagine the possibilities! You could use almost any kind of container, any shape foam, different candy (maybe the mini chocolate peanut putter cups) and colorful ribbons to make gifts for Christmas, birthdays, baby showers, teacher's gifts or thank you gifts. 

And because it's homemade it feels just a little more special.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cookie Exchange Party!

Well, the cookie exchange was a hit and I want to say THANK YOU to all of my friends for making this cookie exchange such a great time! Everything went smoothly and of course it being the first one, we learned a few things in the process.

None of us are very festive dressers! A few holiday sweaters and Santa hats but that was really the extent of it. Not ONE pair of flashing earrings, how disappointing! We did however have a winner for the Most Festive Dress and she took home a chocolate topiary tree. Congratulations Linda!

Eight cookies don’t sound like a lot but when you are faced with a full plate of cookies it sure looks like a lot! Needless to say most of us didn’t have a problem at least tasting each of the cookies. Wow, what would happen if we had more people? The Best Cookie winner, Azita and her Orange Cranberry Walnut Biscotti, took home a cute snowman cookie jar to put all her delicious biscotti in! Congratulations Azita!

Most everyone packaged up their cookies in small containers for each person to take home. I think with a small group of 8 like we had, this actually worked out pretty well. We had holiday boxes, containers, and bags. Even if they don’t admit it, I know creating the presentation is half the fun! Each person also received a collection of all the cookie recipes to take home.

The menu turned out very tasty. We had a pretty good spread! My pre-planning worked out perfectly…finished plating the last appetizer at 5:59pm! (I’ll post the recipes separately.)

I will definitely try to have a cookie exchange every year! I enjoyed the time relaxing and socializing with friends and of course it was great to make one type of cookie and walk away with eight different kinds! I even heard talk of collecting cookie recipes to try for next year!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cookie exchange in three days!

The Christmas decorations are up, my lists are made, and this weekend will be busy with grocery shopping, house cleaning, cooking, and of course…baking cookies! One last thing I do at least a few days before the party is prepare all of the non-food items that I can. I can make sure I have everything I need and that nothing is broken. This is a huge timesaver the day of the party, I can just cook and plate!

Platters/serving dishes - I have gone through all of my platters and decided which ones will work best for each menu item. They are all washed and ready.

Tablecloths/Napkins - I have ironed my tablecloths; I think I’ll use paper dinner napkins. People seem more comfortable with paper; whenever I put out fabric napkins its like no one wants to actually use them.

Glasses - I have my wine glasses out and polished, can’t have spots on my wine glasses. Charms for stemmed wine glasses are a great way for guest to keep track of their glasses. Luckily, I received some Christmas charms a few years ago as a gift! I also have mugs ready for hot apple cider.

Silverware – No silverware or serving utensils required for this menu as its all prepared finger foods. But if I was using them I’d make sure I had enough settings and that they were, of course, polished and shiny!

Centerpieces and table decorations are out. This is one area that I like to fuss with, so doing this in advance allows me enough time to get it just right.

I'm pretty comfortable with everything that needs to be done this weekend, but it WILL be a busy weekend!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Cookie Exchange Menu

I love decorating for the holidays! Still working on getting my Christmas decorations up for the party next week, but I do have my menu, grocery list and TO DO list done.

Here's the menu I've decided on:

Caesar Salad Spears - Caesar salad made into finger food by serving on endive spears. Easy, elegant and can be made quickly at the last minute.

Hummus Stuffed Portobello Caps - Hummus, cream cheese and bell pepper stuffing. Can be prepared ahead and baked right before the party.

Sausage Stuffed Peppadews - Sausage, rice, olive tapenade and cheese stuffing. Can be stuffed the day before, refrigerated overnight and baked right before the party.

Spinach Phyllo Triangles - A version of family recipe for Spinach Pie but made into little stuffed triangles of phyllo dough. Can be made a day ahead and served at room temperature.

Gorgonzola and Caramelized Onion Appetizer - Baguettes topped with caramelized onion and gorgonzola cheese. The onions can be made a day ahead and reheated before assembly.

Tomato Tartlet - Roasted cherry tomatoes and ricotta cheese spread on puff pastry. Puff pastry and tomatoes can be prepared ahead and kept at room temperature up to 8 hours.

Potato Cakes - Baked mini potato cakes with sour cream and chives. (These are last on my list. I always have one item that can be left out if I take on too much, but these are simple so they probably make it.)

I think this will be a good mix of flavors, temperatures, colors, shapes and textures. It's all finger foods, so no silverware required. These are a little more time consuming as they are all pre-assembled bites (I think that looks more fancy) but with time to prepare on Sunday, I should have enough time to assemble on Monday. I'm adjusting the recipes to allow for 2-3 pieces of each recipe per person. Plus we'll have cookies for tasting.

The only thing I haven't decided on is drinks. Hot cider or milk seems like an obvious choice, but I'll probably also have some wine and coffee/tea.

Don't worry, I'll be sure to post recipes, photos and comments!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Panda Bear Cake

A small cake I made last night with some leftover frosting. The cake was made from a small mold, and the buttercream was piped on using a star tip. The eyes are a little off but I think he's cute. I did the panda bear because I had LOTS of black frosting left over. This could be used to do a teddy bear, a polar bear, or even a baby (Of course the ears on top of the head would need to be cut off!) I have seen a cookie monster cake that uses this mold that I think would be cute too.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Legal Cake

Earlier this week I was asked to make a cake for our communications meeting at work. Not much direction so I had to think of a design myself. I opted NOT to try to make the Scales of Justice. A few law books, a gavel, a patent and a cake for the legal department is born! The patent is made from gumpaste and supported by a wooden dowel. The text on the patent was was done with an edible marker. The books and gavel are made from crispy rice treats and covered with fondant. I did learn that I should have used at least 50% gumpaste for the books so they would harden more. The fondant stayed fairly soft, but was OK. The cake is made of layers of chocolate and yellow cake with chocolate buttercream filling. The design was a hit!

I tried using melted chocolate (Baker's unsweetend) instead of cocoa powder in the chocolate buttercream. I think it tastes much better with the melted chocolate, that will be my MO from now on! Plus I won't have cocoa powder flying all over my kitchen everytime I make chocolate buttercream.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Planning to Execute a Party Menu

One thing I forgot to mention previously is try to avoid going overboard! Anyone who has been to one of my parties knows that I can do very well! But I AM trying to reduce the amount of food that I make and choose items that will make a statement rather than having lots of stuff that just gets lost in the mix. I enjoy trying new recipes and usually get lucky finding many good ones, but I also want to make sure I have some old favorites just in case one of the new ones is a flop.

Another flexible! My December issue of Food & Wine arrived a few days ago. While flipping through I noted a few recipes that I think I might like to add to my Cookie Exchange menu...Caesar Salad Spears, Artichoke and Fontina Pizza, Sausage Stuffed Peppadews and Tomato Tartlets. So what I will do is print out all my recipes, figure out what the best combinations are and narrow down the list.

Once I have decided on the menu items, I work on planning the details. Please note that I love to organize, and you don't have to go to this level of planning, but I'm sharing what works for me. These details help me get my head around everything that needs to be done in the days leading up to my party. I am definitely a list person. And I love crossing that last item off my list right before my first guest shows up!

I look at each recipe and determine the number of servings it makes. Do I need to half, double or triple it? I will mark it right on the recipe in bold so I remember when I’m making my grocery list. Next I make a grocery list. I make a long list including every item and then add the quantities before each item as I go through the recipes. I usually do this by hand and group by the layout of my store. Then I go through my kitchen and cross off what I have and write out a new clean list to take shopping. Depending on the ingredients and how many days ahead I will start cooking, I may buy all the dry goods/staples pretty far in advance and then make a shorter list of fresh ingredients I need to pick up at the last minute. More than once I’ve purchased fresh items that didn’t stay fresh long enough (raspberries do this to me all the time!)

Another thing I do ahead is read thoroughly through each recipe. I highlight the items or step in each recipe that can be or need to be made ahead of the party. Then I can tell at a glance how much I can do ahead and how much is left for the day of the party.

After that I make a timeline of items that need to be completed the day of the party. Complete with cooking or estimated prep times. This may sound a little “crazy” (read OCD) to some people. But when I get home from work at 4pm and people are arriving at 6pm I need to know what I am doing next. Plus I’ll know if I left myself enough time to get everything done.
Next I fill in the middle; I make a less detailed list of everything that needs to be done between now and the day of the party. I can then work at getting a few things done each night, leading up to the party. So I don’t overload myself, I actually include house cleaning items on this list too.

Now I have a complete picture of EVERYTHING I need to do for my party!

One of the last things I do is make sure I have any specialty cooking pans I’ll need, and enough serving utensils, platters, glasses, etc. for the number of people attending. Then I shop to fill in any gaps! Always a fun part of the process, although my closets are becoming quite full of entertaining and cake items!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Doll Cake

Feeling creative last night I decided to try to decorate a mini doll cake. So I pulled out my box of fondant tools and looked for inspiration. I knew the dress would be blue, so why not white and yellow flowers? Very simple design, some shimmer dust on the white and she's done. Oh yeah and a big yellow bow to cover the big gap at the base of her back (Shhh, don't tell anyone!)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Creating a Party Menu Part 2

Once I have answered the questions I posted earlier, I move onto more detailed planning of my menu...

I spend some time looking through my cookbooks, magazines (Living, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Every Day Food) and browsing websites like,, and looking for recipe ideas. I also have an extensive list of bookmarked recipes that I have saved while browsing. Usually one or two recipes will stand out and drive the rest of the menu. I almost always have a list of more recipes than I can serve so I gather them up and use the following points to narrow down the items.

I like to make sure I have hot, cold and room temperature items. This gives variety for the guests as well as ease of preparation for me. The cold and room temp appetizers can usually be made ahead, and warm items can either be made at the last minute or kept warm in a buffet server or crockpot. I received a buffet server a few years ago for Christmas and that was one of the best gifts to make entertaining easier! It does an excellent job of keeping the food warm without drying it out. (Not sure how well it would work for crispy or fried items.)

Another thing I look out for is variety of color and texture. Sure I can add color with serving platters but who wants to end up with a plate of all white foods, or any other color for that matter! Remember we eat with our eyes first. I also don't want to serve foods that all have the texture of baby food, or crunchy potato chips.

It's also a good idea to have a mix of "light" and "heavy" dishes. I don't want everyone to feel like they have to roll out the door, but I also want to make sure everyone has enough. I like to mix in few healthy items too. Entertaining doesn't have to mean only high calorie foods, I think mixing a few indulgent foods with healthy items is the way to go.

Variety is another thing to watch out for. It seems like repeating flavors occur sometimes when I'm gathering recipes. Do I want 3 different recipes with gorgonzola cheese? Not really. If I do use the same flavor twice I try to make sure it is in two different ways, for example savory and sweet, or with different flavor combinations. Sometimes having a major flavor in one item and the same flavor in a minor way in another item helps tie things together.

I also make sure I have vegetarian options, for my vegetarian friends.

For the cookie exchange, we will have plenty of sweets, so I'm sticking to primarily savory items. And I'll want to make sure we have enough substance. Here's what I'm thinking so far...

Cheese Fondue
Mini Quiches
Spinach Phyllo Triangles
Gorgonzola/Onion Appetizer or Portobellas w/Corn Salsa

Now I'll start looking for specific recipes for each of these...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Creating a Party Menu Part 1

How do I decide on a menu for a party? After having some crazy, running around at the last minute menus I've learned a few lessons. Hopefully I can share some "tips" to help you put together your next menu.

First I ask myself a series of questions...

Is there a theme? Maybe a regional theme... Italian, French, Mexican. A food theme...chocolate, cheese, apple. A holiday theme... Chinese New Year's, Mardi Gras, Halloween. Or anything else you can think of...Springtime Tea Party, No Cook Menu, Super Bowl Party, Carnival Food. Food Network shows typically choose a theme menu for each episode, if you need some ideas. I am currently planning my cookie exchange menu.

How many people will be attending? Will it be a small group of girlfriends? One or two couples invited over for dinner? A party for everyone we know. Or somehere in between? My cookie exchange should have 8-10 people attending.

What courses do I need? Appetizers only? Heartier snack foods? Full course dinner? Desserts only? I will be doing an appetizer buffet. We will also be tasting our cookies before the swap so I won't need any sweets.

How will the food be served? Will it be buffet style? Sit down dinner? Or just grazing while hanging out? Will people have to hold drinks and plates of food at the same time? Do I want to plate each course before serving? Are there last minute items that will need to be cooked and served immediately? I prefer to do as much as possible before the party. Although my kitchen is part of an open floor plan, I want to attend my party and not be cooking/plating during the whole thing. Due to my limited size dining table, I usually do a buffet style spread on my kitchen island.

Finger food or silverware required? Seated at a table is pretty much the only way to serve items requiring cutting with a fork and knife. Items like soup are also best served while seated. Finger food is the easiest. People can put items on a plate and mingle, or stand and graze at the buffet. You can also put "food stations" around the room to prevent a traffic jam at a single buffet. Finger food also helps reduce clean up. No silverware to wash!

How much time do I have to prepare before the day of the party? Can I go grocery shopping well in advance, or do I need to buy lots of fresh ingredients right before the party? Can I make menu items a day or two before? For example, foods like dips usually taste better made the day before instead of at the last minute. Will I have time to cook days before or will I be cleaning my house and decorating? Monday is a great day for my cookie exchange. I can do all my baking and cooking/prep over the weekend.

How much time will I have to prepare the day of the party? Will I be having people over right after work during the week or will I have all day Saturday to cook? Saturday parties allow more last minute cooking but I still try to serve items I can finish before the party and not have to cook during the party. For after work parties I try to choose items I can cook the day before, or prep all the ingredients and cook quickly at the last minute.

Will others be bringing anything? Do I need to prepare the entire menu or will others be bringing dishes. If I am preparing the entire menu I have to choose some quick and easy items, but if others are bringing dishes as well I can choose a few more time intensive items.

Next time I'll talk about choosing recipes.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Happy Friday!

Happy Friday!

The Tastefully Simple party was fun. All of their items are either open and serve, or add 1 or 2 items max. Quite simple. They send the hostess a kit of items to make for serving at the party and I have to say all of it was very good. OK, maybe I could have done without the Key Lime Cheese Ball but everyone else seemed to enjoy it. The prices didn't seem too bad either but I may have to reevaluate that statement after I receive the items and see the size of the packages.

The peanut butter silk cake was a hit! I was slightly worried, as I was cutting the pieces it looked dry (my worst fear is to serve DRY cake!) but it was actually pretty moist, it just looked crumbly. Next time I would bake it just a few minutes less though. The filling was quite tasty and soaked into the cake a little bit. I am happy to say the layers did not slide and the cake stayed in tact during the trip to work. The peanut butter chip decoration was fun too, it took everyone a few seconds to figure it out because they were looking at the bottoms of the chips!

I would consider the new recipe a success. And I can mix and match the cake or the filling with other recipes too! I'm also thinking peanut butter cupcakes with the filling would be good too. I love it when a new recipe works!

Glad to have the weekend off from baking. Looks like nice weather. Is it too early to put up Christmas lights???

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Peanut Butter Silk Cake!

Well, after a day of baking I'm sorry to say I ran out of time to make the doll cake. I'll have to try for this weekend because tomorrow night, I'll be attending my first Tastefully Simple party. Hopefully I'll get some ideas for my cookie exchange party menu!

Today I made a white cake with raspberry jam filling and lemon/vanilla buttercream frosting. I also made a Peanut Butter Silk Cake from the Betty Crocker website. (I'll post the recipe at the end of this post in case the link doesn't work.) The pieces certainly tasted good putting it together! Basically for the cake just add 1/2 cup peanut butter to a yellow cake mix. You could do this and just use chocolate frosting and I'm sure that would be great. Or even to make peanut butter cupcakes!

I doubled the recipe to make a larger cake. I ended up putting one complete cake mix in each of two 9" pans. After all was said and done I had 2 - 1"layers from each pan. If you split one mix between two pans you may have very thin layers. Just remember if they crack as you handle them you can just put them back together and no one will ever know once the cake is done! One key would be to buy Bake Even strips. They work great for helping the cake rise evenly and practically eliminate the hump in the middle. Most of the time I don't even need to level the cakes when I use them. Of course you'll need to make sure your oven is level!

I think the filling is what will make this cake! It's a little tricky and I actually had to throw away the first batch. I over whipped the heavy cream and ended up with something that looked like curdled milk! That's what I get for trying to multitask! The second time it turned out fine. The filling does end up pretty thin, so it may not be a great choice for a cake that needs to travel. I am hoping the chocolate frosting on the outside will be firm enough to prevent the layers from sliding! I'll let you know.

I borrowed an idea from one of my cake cookbooks for the decorating. You don't have to be an experienced cake decorator to do this one! Peanut butter chips pressed into the frosting like studs. I think I'll stop at the store in the morning to find something to add to the top, maybe two peanut butter cups.

And here it is as promised..

Peanut Butter Silk Cake
1 box Betty Crocker® SuperMoist® yellow cake mix
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 container (1 lb) Betty Crocker® Rich & Creamy chocolate frosting
1 cup chopped peanuts, if desired

1. Heat oven to 350°F (or 325°F for dark or nonstick pans). Generously grease bottoms only of 2 (8- or 9-inch) round cake pans with shortening or cooking spray.

2. In large bowl, beat cake mix, water, 1/2 cup peanut butter, the oil and eggs with electric mixer on low speed 30 seconds. Beat on medium speed 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Pour into pans.

3. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes. Run knife around sides of pans to loosen cakes; remove from pans to cooling rack. Cool completely, about 1 hour.

4. In 2-quart saucepan, melt butter over medium heat; stir in brown sugar. Heat to boiling; boil and stir 1 minute. Remove from heat. Refrigerate 10 minutes.

5. In chilled medium bowl, beat whipping cream on high speed until soft peaks form; set aside. In another medium bowl, beat 1/2 cup peanut butter and the brown sugar mixture on medium speed until smooth and creamy. Add whipped cream to peanut butter mixture; beat on medium speed until mixture is smooth and creamy.

6. Split each cake layer horizontally to make 2 layers. Fill each layer with about 2/3 cup peanut butter mixture to within 1/2 inch of edge. Frost side and top of cake with frosting. Press peanuts onto frosting on side of cake. Store covered in refrigerator.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Day off = More baking!

Well, Wednesday is a day off from work, but NOT from baking!

I bake our Birthday celebration cakes at work and decided I'd rather bake on this day off instead of over the weekend. But what should I make? Chocolate and peanut butter is always a favorite, but I have already done chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting, TWICE! I decided it's time to start some experimenting, I found a recipe for Peanut Butter Silk Cake. If it turns out well, I'll be sure to share! Also going to bake a white cake with raspberry jam filling and vanilla buttercream frosting.

I have purchased two new pans this week, a Mini Wonder Mold Pan and a Mini Stand Up Bear Pan. Excited to try them. I think I will try to make a doll cake. One of my friends at work was talking about how her Mom used to make one every year for her birthday. I thought it would be nice to make one for her this year (her birthday is Friday). Trying to decide if I will use buttercream frosting or fondant to decorate. I have no ideas for a design at this point. Hopefully something will come to me!

Stay tuned for pictures!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

My first cookie exchange!

I’ve decided to organize a cookie exchange this year!

I've never been to one but I’ve seen some great ideas especially on and the photos look like a lot of fun, so why not?! I sent out an email to some good friends to see if they were even interested, the responses came back so positive that I can’t wait! We’ve picked the date of Monday December 7. It should be easier for everyone to bake their cookies over the weekend. I’ll keep you posted with all of my ideas along the way.

I have already sent out a "Save the Date" email to everyone. Working on the complete invite. There are lots of different types of exchanges. I've decided to have everyone bring 7 dozen cookies and the goal will be to have 12 people attend. We'll taste one dozen of the cookies and everyone will be able to take home 1/2 dozen each of 12 different types of cookies! If we don't have 12 people attend, each person will just get more of fewer types of cookies.

Now, which rules should I include? Some rules I DO know I want to do is no duplicate recipes, and no basic chocolate chip cookies. One rule I've seen is no bar cookies, but I seen nothing wrong with that. I think that rule would be for all serious bakers attending. But as far as I'm concerned, this is for fun and shouldn't be stressful for people to attend. I even have a complete non-baker who has agreed to take on the task! (I'll have to keep an eye out for an easy recipe to share with her.)

Planning to have a few prizes. One for the best cookie and one for the most festive holiday outfit. I'll have to think of something creative for these.

Next will be to decide on a menu for snacks to have while we socialize and taste the delicious cookies! And decide what I am going to bake myself!

Oh my, I almost forgot I'll have to have all my holiday decorations up too!

Looks like I'll be busy for the next few weeks but this should be fun!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Nascar Cake Delivery Day!

Today I delivered the Jimmie Johnson cake to a very happy customer. I even got a hug!

This was a fun project. At about 11:30pm last night I was thinking "Wow, this does NOT look like a car at all!" But then as I began to add all the details it started to look better and better. At 2:30am this morning Doug came downstairs and I said "I know, I know, I can't stop!" The perfectionist in me wanted to keep adding more details, but I finally decided I was happy and went to bed at about 3am!

Every time I bake a cake I still learn new lessons. Here's what I learned while creating this cake:

Piping thousands of stars can make your hand cramp!
The checkerboard on the bottom cake was created using a star tip. This is usually what you see on the character cakes/specialty pans. It actually moves along fairly quickly once you get into a groove, but my carpal tunnel certainly doesn't like this technique. I'll have to look into getting a 3 star tip if I am going to be doing this again.

Black icing requires A LOT of color gel!
Adding too much of a red or black color can make icing taste bitter. (If I only need small amounts I usually just buy tubes of the already colored black icing.) I started with chocolate icing so I wouldn't have to add too much color gel. It took almost half the jar! I had to run to Michael's in the middle of making the icing because I ran out of color, and it was still only a nasty gray color. I used Hersey's cocoa powder, but I have seen tips about using black cocoa powder from King Arthur, so I might try to find that if I need a lot of black again.

I love fondant!
Fondant is SO much easier to decorate with than buttercream. Buttercream is still used under the fondant, but it doesn't need to be perfectly smooth. I prefer the smooth clean finish of the fondant. Decorations/details can be placed on the cake and easily moved around before adhering them to the base fondant layer with gum paste.

Creating cakes like this for adults causes a little more pressure than creating fun cakes for children but I truly enjoy the detail work on cakes like this. I know I am always my worst critic and can see all the small "errors" on the cake, but all things considered, I am very happy with the way this cake turned out. Another success!

Time to clean my kitchen!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Nascar Cake Countdown 1 day to go

The 11X15 and car shaped cake are baked and cooling. The car was a pretty deep pan so I tried a trick I read about. Using a flower nail upside down in the deepest part of the cake to help it bake more evenly. A flower nail is exactly what it sounds like, a very large nail. It is usually used to create buttercream roses because you can rotate it as you pipe out the petals. Happy to say the flower nail is no longer a "unitasker" as Alton Brown would say.

Another item I HAVE to mention is Wilton Cake Release if you ever have a problem with cakes sticking to the pan, you hate greasing and flouring the pans, or you hate cutting those parchment circles for the bottom of the pan, you need this! You can buy it at Michael's or Hobby Lobby. You squeeze it out onto the pan, spread evenly with a brush, then add your cake batter. After you remove the cake from the oven, allow it to cool 10 minutes. You may even notice it shrinking away from the sides of the pan already. Turn the pan upside down and voila! A perfectly smooth cake that pops right out of the pan! I think the top comes out even smoother than the parchment circle technique.

Time to wrap up my cakes..tomorrow is the fun part!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Nascar Cake Countdown 2 days to go

Quiet night as far as my cake goes, cut out a few more numbers and letters (I'll save you the boring pictures), but that's as much as I can do until I have the final dimensions of the cake in front of me.

Tomorrow, I bake. This allows the cakes to cool completely before I decorate. Ever tried cutting layers in a warm cake? Not to mention, the buttercream won't be too happy either. I store my cakes in the refrigerator overnight, I think that helps keep them moist. Another key is to be sure to wrap the cake as airtight as possible soon after it cools, saran wrap or large Ziploc bags work best, otherwise the cake will dry out.

I'll leave you with a fun cake blog.
Hopefully one of my cakes never ends up on this blog!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Nascar Cake Countdown 3 days

Working on a Jimmie Johnson cake for one of my coworkers to be delivered on Saturday. Who's Jimmie Johnson you ask? I had the same question (silly me) NASCAR #48 Lowe's Car. Sorry but that is still the extent of my knowledge :) So after some internet searching and receiving a small model car, here's my plan...

An 11x15 rectangular cake decorated in a checkerboard pattern (also known as victory lane). With a 3D race car cake on top decorated with fondant to look like Jimmie Johnson's car (hopefully).

Fondant is a relatively easy medium to work with, imagine modeling clay that tastes like marshmallows. You usually see it on wedding cakes because it looks so perfectly smooth (if done right!) It's flexible so it can form to curves or you can mix it with gum paste and it will harden. It's still edible but depending on the amount of gum paste used, you could break a tooth if you try to eat it!

The engineer in me has to plan ahead and figure out how to make some of the decorations. I sat down tonight to get started on some of the pieces so they could dry by assembly time. Here you see tires, spoiler, door numbers and obviously, Happy Birthday.

Tomorrow I tackle the hood graphics.

Why am I blogging?

A few friends suggested I start a blog about my food adventures. I didn’t really know what was involved or even how to start one. I read a blog post about choosing a topic for your blog. She says write about what you can’t stop talking about. Hmmmm….I immediately think about cakes, cake decorating, and planning Girl’s Nights In.

But then I struggle with a name. What do I call my blog? All of my initial (and uncreative) thoughts are taken. So I decide to think about it. One night at dinner I ask my husband, Doug, if he has any ideas what to name my blog. Although he had no immediate ideas, a few days later while we were (again) out to dinner; I was talking about a cake I needed to decorate for a co-worker. He says, “Can we have one day where you don’t say the word cake?” I laugh but think...and after a few iterations I have it! Saving Doug’s Sanity! I can use the blog to talk about all of my cake ideas, planning, failures, and successes; therefore saving my wonderful husband the agony of listening to me talk about cake all the time!

The only other thing that is holding me back from starting to write is “Will anyone actually want to read what I have to talk about?” I run it by some friends and they say they would, maybe they are being nice, but I figure what the heck!? I won’t know until I try.

So my plan is to share with you my adventures in creating cakes and party planning/entertaining ideas. Who knows I may even add another hobby that I won’t be able to stop talking about, that is, if I can find the time.