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!