Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Checkmate!

This installment of A Statistician Bakes is brought to you by: sort of using a ruler. I wanted to make some impressive-looking cookies for my holiday potluck at work and because I can never do anything halfway, I picked Checkerboard Cookies. I've actually been dying to make these for a while but they seemed so tedious and you have to refrigerate the dough for a while and I rarely meet a sugar cookie recipe that I enjoy. But my trust in the America's Test Kitchen is absolute so I decided to dive in...and instantly deviate from the recipe.

For those of you who have been living under a rock, checkerboard cookies are sugar cookies with half the dough flavored with some chocolate and then the dough arranged to look like a checkerboard. Done well, they look really good. Here's my problem: the America's Test Kitchen recipe only describes a 2x2 checkerboard and I think that looks lame. So instead of doing the sensible thing and splitting the dough in half to design my cookies, I decided to go with 4 squares of chocolate dough and 5 squares of regular dough to get a 3x3 checkerboard. Math! You'll see how that turns out.

Since I was baking for a large party, I decided that instead of cutting the dough in half and turning one half chocolate, I would just make two batches of dough. Spoiler alert: I had way too many cookies. Anyway, I made my regular sugar cookie dough first. Devotees of this blog will recall that I am now worshiping at the alter of my digital scale and am weighing my flour and sugar. I held fast to this belief and bing, bang, boom, my sugar cookie dough was done in no time. It was seriously so much faster weighing ingredients! Why carefully measure out 2 1/4 cups of flour when you can dump 11 1/4 oz into a bowl on a scale? I wish I had timed myself because I think I broke some sugar cookie dough-making records.

I tossed the dough on the counter to roll it out into two 6 inch long squares. Well sort of. First I cut the dough in half. Then I rolled the dough out to 6 inches long. Then I tried to make it square-ish. Then I cut the dough into quarters lengthwise so that I had 4 long rectangle pieces. And then I confused myself about how many rectangles I needed. Bad baker, each 6 inch completed log should have 5 long rectangles! Not 4! So I kinda fudged it and cut off a piece from the dough I had set aside to roll out the bonus two rectangles I'd need. Confused yet? I sure was. I also tried half-heartedly to square up the edges so I would get some nice clean lines but I'd be lying if I said was patient enough to do that well. Anyway, rectangles made, it was on to the chocolate dough!

I melted some semisweet chocolate on the stove while I washed all of my tools. Well, sort of washed. Come on, the same exact stuff is going in. I wasn't going to lose my mind over it. And then I followed the exact same process adding melted chocolate and cocoa powder. I even weighed the cocoa powder! Then I grabbed the measuring spoon that I had used for the salt to add 1/2 tsp and...oh shoot, that's the 1/2 tbsp measuring spoon. Well....crap. I put 1/2 tbsp into the regular dough instead of 1/2 tsp. Here's some more math, folks: that's THREE TIMES the amount of salt I should have used. I stood frozen at my counter for a few minutes. What should I do? Should I chuck the whole thing and start over? But I already made all of those annoying rectangles! But what if the cookies are super salty? But I already made all of those annoying rectangles! But baking is an exact science...shut up and just move on, internal monologue!

So that happened. And I just pretended it never happened.

With that all in mind, I finished up my chocolate dough and went to roll it out. But then I thought, if I made 5 logs from the regular dough and I only need 4 logs of chocolate dough and the intent is for all of these square to neatly fit into a checkerboard pattern, they should logically be the same thickness. At this point, I was over it, cut off a bit of chocolate dough, chucked it in the trash and declared them even. I rolled out the chocolate logs and then set about arranging them. It was actually surprisingly easy. The only problem I had was not getting crisp right angles at the junctions because I had been lazy with my rolling earlier. But I guess that's something I should only care about if I want them to look professional. I wrapped up my two now-giant logs of dough and put it in the fridge to chill.

[Two hours later]

Ok, time to cut them! The beauty of these cookies is that they're so easy to cut once the dough is chilled and they reveal such a lovely pattern once you cut them. I was supposed to cut them 1/4 inch thick and for once, I actually measured. Well, for the first 5 or 6 cookies. Then I eyeballed it because I prefer speed over precision. Clearly. I baked them up (two sheets, 3 batches!) and called it a night. Here are the checkerboard cookies for your judgement:




I think they generally looked pretty good except for the fact that they're all wobbly on the edges. However, people at work LOVED them. They thought I had purchased the cookies. So maybe I'm too much of a perfectionist for my own good? And they were pretty tasty cookies. People really liked them and someone even asked me for the recipe.

I told no one about the salt.

But I could totally taste the salt.

Good recipe. Next time, less salt.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Science Experiment Brownies

It's time to science the sh*t out of this. I have a new cookbook! I finally caved and actually joined America's Test Kitchen because I love all of their recipes so much. Then I agreed to do a phone survey on my experience with the website in exchange for 50% off a cookbook. I opted for the "Science of Good Cooking" and I am beyond thrilled with it. I literally want to sit at home reading a cookbook for fun. It has recipes but also has pages and pages about why they actually work. It's so fascinating! So when tasked with making brownies for my choir's holiday party, I decided it was time to test a hypothesis and bake with some science.

I opted for the Chewy Brownies which were described as the closest approximation to boxed brownies that we could get. Everyone knows boxed brownies are good but it's more fun (and impressive) making things from scratch. So what's the secret of boxed brownie goodness? Apparently it's all in the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fat. For boxed brownies, it's 28% to 72% and for traditional homemade brownie recipes, it's closer to 64% to 36%! Wow! This recipe uses a combination of butter and vegetable oil to get a ratio of 29% to 71%. Was that enough math for you? Too bad, there's more!

Since I was already geeking out over learning about the science of making brownies, I decided to go one step further and actually weigh my ingredients for the first time ever. America's Test Kitchen always supports weighing baking ingredients but I never have because hey, I've got those convenient measuring cups. But when I read a section in the cookbook about the variability in the amount of flour measured by the professional cooks at the test kitchen who were all using the same scoop-and-sweep method, I got curious. So I busted out my digital scale (because I'm fancy like that) and measured my 2.5 cups of sugar the way I normally would and put it into a bowl. When I weighed it, it turned out that I was nearly half a cup UNDER the amount of sugar I needed! Huge difference! I tried the same thing with the 1 3/4 cups of flour. It turned out that I was about a quarter cup OVER on the amount of flour! I would never have believed that my measurements could be so far off if I hadn't tested this. My life is forever changed.

Ok science nerdery aside, let's get to the actual baking. The first step was to whisk cocoa and boiling water until smooth. Oh yeah, here's another bit of science: the book recommends always "blooming" your cocoa in boiling water to bring out the cocoa flavor. The earth just shifted on its axis again. Anyway, next was whisking in unsweetened chocolate (I won't bore you with the explanation about the science behind using unsweetened chocolate) and I was actually clever for once and used my food processor to chop up the chocolate into tiny pieces so it melted easier.

While all of this was happening, I was melting half a stick of butter in the microwave. I could have done it on the stove but didn't want to dirty the pot. Mistake. I swear I was melting it in 7 second intervals. It was barely half melted when I put it in for another 7 seconds and then BOOM. It sounded like there was an actual explosion in my microwave. I opened it up and not only were the door and the entire top of the microwave covered in butter but not all of the butter was even melted! What the hell? So I got annoyed and cleaned it up and my perfect measuring and science was probably screwed up because of all of the lost, exploded butter but onwards and upwards. It didn't occur to me to ditch the butter and start over. I just went with it.

I added in the stupid butter and the vegetable oil and got whisking. Ever notice how brownie recipes never want you to use an electric mixer? I've never made brownies where I used something other than a large bowl and whisk. I guess it's unnecessary to use a mixer but...weird. Anyway, next was two eggs, two egg yolks, and vanilla and then the sugar, flour, and salt. Finally, I was instructed to fold in bittersweet chocolate pieces. I used bittersweet chocolate chips. This was likely also a mistake. The idea was supposed to be that the bittersweet chocolate would create "gooey pockets of melted chocolate" in the brownies and spoiler alert: that didn't happen. Because there something added to stabilize the shape of the chips, I didn't get quite the effect I was going for. I shouldn't have substituted the chips but who really wants to chop chocolate into 1/2 inch pieces?

Anyway, into the oven to bake. The temperature of my oven is still a great mystery but since I was instructed to bake on the lowest rack (an unusual instruction), the temperature was a bit more stable than normal. I remembered to foil sling and the baking time was quite accurate. Then all I had to do was wait for them to cool. Brownies take FOREVER to cool. I was supposed to let them cool in the pan for an hour and a half then remove them from the pan and let them cool for a whole extra hour! Fortunately I made these in the morning before the party. Then I sliced them nice and small and dusted them with some powdered sugar snow and tasted one. Wow. SO GOOD. They weren't quite as moist as I wanted but I think that's down to the exploded butter. They were a huge hit with people. Everyone who had one really loved them. Just one problem: I didn't take a picture! Noooooooo! All I had left was the one brownie I left home for my husband which didn't even have powdered sugar.


Sad. They looked so pretty. But they tasted great and I'd definitely make these again. And I learned so much science too! I am still aghast at how off my sugar and flour measurements were and fully intend to measure these from here on out. Only problem is that a lot of recipes don't specify the weights. So I guess it's time to memorize how much a cup of sugar and a cup of flour weigh! I feel like I've powered up and advanced to the next level of baking! [Insert triumphant Super Mario music here.]

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Lazy Thanksgiving Dessert

Alas, I've fallen behind on my blogging again! So get ready for some blitz blogging as I inch ever closer to my 100th baked good! Thanksgiving was only two weeks ago (but it feels like it was about 5 years ago already) and I always struggle with what dessert to make for Thanksgiving. We always have way too many desserts and we're always way too full to eat the ones we have. So I opted for a quick and easy dessert that would look festive and that my sister would actually eat: Rice Krispie Treats that look like pumpkins.

On paper, super easy. Just make Rice Krispie Treats as normal, dyeing the butter and marshmallow orange along the way, shape into balls, add a mini Reese's for a stem and a green M&M for the leaf. Voila! Fast, adorable, easy.

It's me, it's never easy.

To start off with, I basically never make Rice Krispie Treats. I'm far from the expert. I actually thought you toss the whole box of Rice Krispies in. You don't. So while I was melting marshmallows and butter and unwrapping mini Reese's, I realized that I also needed to measure the Rice Krispies. Ugh. This recipe was already annoying me. I did manage to dye my mixture a perfect orange with my fancy food dye kit. Anyway, not much to talk about with a three ingredient recipe so let's get to decorating.

I had to shape the treats into balls. Ostensibly, I was supposed to make 12 but those would have been giant so I went a bit smaller. Now, there were lots of Pinterest tips and tricks for making these without them sticking to your hands and I opted for the "use wax paper" approach. I put a spoonful of oozy melty goodness onto some wax paper and tried to shape it into a ball...and it stuck all over the wax paper. No dice. At this point, fortune smiled upon me and my sister walked by and said "what are you doing? Spray your hands with some PAM, idiot." Ok, I'm paraphrasing but she did give me the "you idiot" look but then was nice enough to help me out a bit. I bow to the Rice Krispie Treat expert.

Spraying hands with PAM worked like a charm. No more sticking. Now there was just the issue of rolling hot Rice Krispies into a ball and then adding the mini Reese's and M&M. The problem was, I would roll a ball and then press the decorations in, which would flatten the ball and make it all misshapen. Plus the hot Rice Krispies were melting the Reese's and M&Ms. Contrary to popular belief, M&Ms can in fact melt in your hand. I eventually developed a system of rolling, pressing in the decorations and then reshaping my pumpkin into a ball. Oh yeah, and I had to work fast because the Rice Krispies were rapidly cooling and hardening. No time to think! Go! Go! Go!



They're cute but a little annoying. Probably a good baking project for kids. But overall, they were a bright and festive addition to the table and I'm glad I tried it. So that I don't need to try it again. Ever. But let's face it, it's far from the most annoying thing I've baked. I never learn.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Not Quite My Jam

When the frustration of untreated roads in a snowstorm that everyone knew was coming leads to a 3 hour commute home, what better activity is there than baking? Clearly I wasn't going to make it to the supermarket for ingredients so I was left foraging in my pantry to bake with whatever I had on hand. After a few false starts due to lack of ingredients, I found a recipe I could make: Raspberry Pecan Thumbprints. I've never actually made thumbprint cookies but they always look very pretty so I've been wanting to try it for a while. This recipe comes from the old classic, the Favorite Brand Name Bake Sale Cookbook. I didn't notice what the brand name ingredient was though. Whoops.  I set to work softening my butter while I gathered the rest of my ingredients...and realized that I didn't have pecans. Oops. Now they're Raspberry Walnut Thumbprints! I'm still amazed that I had raspberry jam but no pecans!

Moving on, I creamed up the butter, added the brown sugar and the vanilla, and then pondered if I should actually mix the dry ingredients as directed. Nah. Nonsense. So I chucked in the allspice, cinnamon, and salt, gave it a quick stir, then tossed in the pecans walnuts, gave it another quick stir and finally added the flour. Dough complete. Very easy.

But the dough is not the challenge of thumbprint cookies! Oh no, it's the shape and the filling. So here we go. I was suppose to roll one inch balls, flatten slightly, then press my thumb in, smoothing any cracks that form. I have no idea how big one inch is and I will never measure so I just guessed. It didn't help that the recipe didn't specify how many cookies this recipe would yield. So I couldn't even figure out if I was on the right track or not. I ended up making roughly two dozen cookies. In hindsight, I think I should have made them smaller but oh well. I rolled them all out and pressed my thumb into them like a pro. Except I didn't really like the look of them. Maybe it's because I have long nails or maybe I don't know how to properly thumbprint but all of the indents were oblong instead of circular. I feel like an actual round tool would have been more appropriate. Next time, Gadget.

Next, I had to fill the thumbprints with "a heaping 1/4 teaspoon of jam." I take issue with this direction because by the time you make 1/4 teaspoon heaping, you've basically got a half a teaspoon. I pretty much ignored this direction and put in enough to fill the holes. And since I think I made my cookies too big, it was at least a half a teaspoon in each. It was also really difficult getting the jam out of a 1/4 teaspoon scoop but I managed a system of using the back end of a spoon to scoop the jam out of the measuring spoon. I do weird things in the kitchen.

Finally, I was supposed to "scatter the remaining pecans walnuts over the filled cookies." Yeah, no. I see a lot of issues with this direction including that I didn't want any walnuts actually in the jam. Plus, I knew just scattering the nuts would mean that they wouldn't stick. So, like a crazy person, I actually pressed bits of walnut around the sides of each cookie. For what it's worth, by doing it that way, it looked exactly like the picture. It took a while, but hey, what else is there to do when you're snowed in? (Lots. There were lots of things I could have been doing in my house but did not.)

Now, before tossing these into the oven, a slight diversion on my oven temperature. I finally bought an oven thermometer and the conclusion is...I have no freakin' clue. I tested it once before when it was set to 350 and it was reading 400. Today when I tested it, it was reading 325. So I turned up the heat to 375 in hopes that it would get to an actual 350. Then it was actually 375. So I turned it back down. Then it was back down to 325. Then it was back up to 365 for no reason that I understood. I have no idea what's going on or how to fix it. My oven sucks. So I just landed on "I guess I'll keep an eye on my cookies" and tossed them in.

I was pretty curious to see how jam behaves in the oven. I didn't perfectly fill the thumbprint holes in case the jam expanded a bit to fill the holes. This was an inaccurate guess. The jam stayed pretty much exactly where I put it and cooking it just made it set. Well now I know. All in all, they didn't turn out to be the prettiest cookies as a result.


The cookies grew a bit in the oven which only emphasized the weird shapes of the jam. Alas. But look at that excellent walnut decoration, right?! As far as taste goes, I liked the base cookie a lot but I think the jam makes them way too sweet. But I don't really like sweet things so they're probably fine. Since I was home alone, I had no one else to taste test so I'll have to wait for some other opinions. All in all, not a bad snow day's work. The whole baking/cleaning process took me only an hour from start to finish so I deem these quick and easy cookies. So go try to make some cookies with whatever is in your pantry! You never know what you might come up with.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A Tuile Good Time!

The Great British Baking Show is clearly warping my brain. No longer do I do anything simple like a basic drop cookie. Instead, I spend my time making delicate lace cookies and rolling them into precious shapes. On the other hand, I've been wanting to try to make tuiles for a while now so I guess now's as good a time as any!

I went with a lace cookie recipe from (you guessed it) America's Test Kitchen. I know, I know, I should probably start to open my other cookbooks but this one is so foolproof. I've never actually had a lace cookie and I don't really know the difference between a lace cookie and a tuile. I speculate that a lace cookie becomes a tuile when you curve the warm cookie into a cigarette shape or any sort of curved shape. I guess I could look it up but I don't much feel like it.

Anyway, back to the kitchen. I started out with boiling my butter, dark brown sugar, and corn syrup on the stove. My dark brown sugar was a little bit clumpy but I figured since I was dissolving it, it wouldn't matter in the end. (It didn't.) After boiling the mixture for a few minutes, I took it off the heat and mixed in vanilla, salt, flour, heavy cream, and finely chopped almonds. Basically the easiest recipe ever. The only bad part about it was using up the last of my good Mexican vanilla! Anyone I know going to Mexico anytime soon? I could really use some more.

For once, I actually followed the parchment paper direction and lined the pan with the paper. I usually skip this because I hate cutting parchment paper but the cookbook warned me that these cookies get really sticky and hard to remove and that timing is critical to success. Ok. Next I had to drop rounded teaspoons of batter at 4 inch intervals. That's....very little batter for a very large area. I could only bake 6 cookies at a time. And since I'm terrible at measuring things by eye, I even used my teaspoon measure to dole out the cookies. The problem with this was the fact that a teaspoon is quite small and the batter was quite sticky so getting the batter out of the teaspoon was a challenge. I ultimately got another spoon and had a bizarre method of double scooping but I got those tiny, round balls on the pan eventually.

Then they had to bake for 5-7 minutes or "until deep golden brown and bubbling has subsided." They needed about 6 minutes in my oven and wow, did they ever grow! Good thing I was only making 6 at a time! Once taking them out of the oven, I had to wait 1-2 minutes for them to cool before shaping them. I even set a timer to be sure. Probably overkill but timing was CRITICAL! Initially, I decided to simply shape them into curves by putting them on my rolling pin. After the first two, I realized I needed to shape them a bit with my fingers around the curve of the rolling pin to make it the right shape but by then, the other 4 were cooled. I could have put them back in the oven to soften them again but I didn't bother since I had another 2 dozen or so to make. Clearly, working fast was key to the process. Actually, the book recommended only baking two cookies at a time if this was my first time making tuiles but that seemed insane to me. I'd just have to work faster.

For the second batch, I did four quick rolling pin tuiles and then decided this was way too easy and wanted to make the cigarette shape. I don't have any dowels for shaping or anything so I decided to use the handle of my wooden spoon. That actually worked perfectly. Except I decided to do this way too late and my last two cookies were cooled. Damn. Next batch then.

By the third batch, I planned to roll one cookie, put four on the rolling pin, and then roll the last cookie. The rolling definitely required practice. It was a very delicate balance of moving fast but not cracking the cookies and, oh yeah, not burning my finger tips. Ultimately, I got a few good looking ones but realized I was actually rolling them inside out. That is, the smooth side was facing out instead of the bumpy, crispy side. (Who am I kidding, the whole cookie is crispy.) So for the next batch, I had to flip the cookie over and then start rolling. I was clever for once and did all of this flipping and rolling nonsense on a piece of parchment paper. By the last batch, I was definitely getting the hang of it. I even went so far as to put the over-cool cookies back in the oven to soften because flat cookies are boring. How do you think I did?




They're pretty good, right? Not pictured: a bunch of flat cookies and less pretty cookies and half-broken cookies. One advantage to half-broken cookies though is that I get to taste them! I thought they tasted really good but they were a little bit sweet for me. I don't really know what they're supposed to taste like though. Oh, and one more thing: these little babies are FRAGILE. When I was moving the plate of cookies into the dining room, I may or may not have accidentally walked into the wall and two cookies slid off the plate and shattered on the floor like glass. Of course, the two most perfect cookies. No exaggeration though, I've broken glass on my kitchen floor before and these cookies shattered the exact same way. So it wasn't a perfectly perfect bake but it was generally pretty nice. And quick and easy enough that after baking these, I immediately started baking some chocolate cakes. But that's a story for another day. Coming soon to a blog post near you!

Friday, October 12, 2018

My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Cake



Last stop on the catching-up-on-blog-posts train is my attempt at the Kit Kat Spa cake as prominently featured on Nailed it! The idea behind this is that you build a small two layer round cake, surround it with Kit Kats to look like a fence, top it with ganache to look like mud or water, and then add little modeling chocolate animals so the whole thing looks like pigs in a mud bath or ducks on a pond or a woman soaking in a spa. You know, something adorable like this (image not mine - it's floating around on Pinterest pretty much constantly):
 
Image result for nailed it netflix kit kat cake

I decided to go with ducks in a pond. Because I think I can actually make rubber duckies out of modeling chocolate and if all else failed, I would straight up put actual rubber ducks on the cake. Sound good? Let's go!

The first thing I did was make the modeling chocolate. The last time I tried to do this, I really screwed it up and all of the oil leaked out. This time, however, I was very careful about following the directions and heated up my corn syrup and chocolate to the appropriate temperatures. I was careful to not overwork the chocolate and it came together pretty nicely! Yay for nice yellow rubber ducky chocolate! I put that aside since I made that well in advance and then I went and got an appendectomy. Yeah, surgery sort of derailed my cake baking schemes. The only thing I was really planning on doing in advance though was baking the cakes and freezing them now that I know the magic of freezing cakes. 

Once I was feeling better and could safely lift my KitchenAid onto the counter, I went about making my cakes. I decided to go with America's Test Kitchen again since it tasted so good but I didn't want to be boring and decided to make the marble cake. Basically this is the same as the other cake I made except in the last steps. Before filling your pans, you're supposed to separate a third of your batter and add melted chocolate to it. Then, when you fill your pans, you put in half of the white batter, then the chocolate batter, then the rest of the white batter in layers. Using a sharp knife, you then make marble-y shapes and then bake. 

The recipe specified that this was for 2 8- or 9-inch round cakes. I would have preferred to make 8-inch cakes but I only have one 8-inch pan. Meanwhile, I had 2 9-inch pans. I wanted a taller cake but I really didn't want to bake in two batches. My laziness won out and I went with the 9-inch. Mistake. 

Well, actually, there were several mistakes going on. First, my oven temperature, which I've mentioned (and which I should really really really check!). Second, using too large a pan. As I filled the pans with my very scientific eyeballing method, it did seem like the batter was a little bit low in the pan. But I figured that if I wasn't overfilling the pans, I'd have a better chance of not getting that domed top and having to level my cakes. Wrong on so many fronts. After the timer went off, I pulled out my cakes and not only did they have domed tops, they were FLAT. I mean, ridiculously flat. To illustrate my last remark:



These cakes were no more than an inch and a half high! I got angry and went on a Google and cookbook deep dive to see why my cakes aren't behaving. I found lots of information about tapping the pans on the counter (did that), baking at a lower heat for a longer time (might try that next time but the cakes were honestly baked perfectly), adding a metal nail in the center of the cake to distribute the heat better (seems dangerous), and a host of other seemingly ridiculous suggestions. I decided to just blame my oven and go about my business. 

I sulkily cleaned up my kitchen and pondered what to do with my cake. I clearly couldn't make a hot tub cake out of that. I really didn't feel like making another cake that day and redoing it. The spa cake was just going to have to wait for another day. But in the meantime, I might as well whip up some buttercream and invite people over to eat cake! 

So I started gathering my ingredients for my buttercream and that's when I noticed my baking powder. My evil, evil SUPER EXPIRED baking powder. It expired in 2012. I don't even know where this baking powder came from. In 2012, it should've been Big Y brand and it wasn't even that. I'm suspecting it somehow came from my grandmother's house. Regardless, baking powder is kind of that thing that makes cakes fluffy. Expired baking powder will not do that in the least. Mystery solved, I guess. (Though I'm not ruling out oven temperature as a contributing factor.) 

Ok, with that sorted out, I went back to the buttercream. I went with the chocolate buttercream in America's Test Kitchen because, again, yummy. This was very uneventful and makes a really nice buttercream. Now I've got about a half hour to frost this sucker and decorate it and oh, did I mention that now I'm marinating steaks because I've invited people over? Never a dull moment. 

First I assembled the cake. This was easier than normal because there's no need to level out a completely and utterly flat cake. Then I frosted the entire thing and that looked fine. But I had leftover buttercream! I can't leave leftover delicious buttercream! I decided to pipe a bottom border because, why not? STILL leftover buttercream! What to do??? 

Just keep piping. 

I started making some sort of strange zigzag pattern on the side of the cake. I was running out of time and wanted to clean up and I didn't care too much about the aesthetics at that moment. It didn't look bad. Until I ran out of buttercream. Because of course I did. I cannot for the life of me gauge how far buttercream will get me. I'm the same way with knitting and guessing how far my yarn will get me. So now I have people coming over and piping around 2/3 of the sides of my cake. I certainly wasn't about to make more buttercream. So what did I do? 

I got creative. Uh oh. I dug in my pantry for anything resembling cake decorations. Random sprinkles that I bought to decorate cake pops? Yup, looks like a cake decoration to me now. I had some nice pastel round confetti sprinkles that I tossed into the gap in the cake. Literally tossed. Because when I tried to press them in, my hands and the sprinkles got covered in buttercream and I'm not nearly OCD enough to do something like use tweezers to decorate a cake. Whatever, guys, I was over it at this point. 




On the bright side, the cake tasted really good. It was a little bit dense (obviously) but the flavor was great. The pictures don't show it well but you could even see the marbling in the cake a bit. When all was said and done, not my finest hour as a baker. And now I have a bunch of yellow modeling chocolate and Kit Kats sitting around useless. Maybe I need to go back to cupcakes for a bit. And definitely need to check the expiration dates on all my ingredients! Sheesh.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Because "Retirement" Has Too Many Letters!

This a super late baking report but I just have to tell you all about this one...

Get ready, because this was an advanced cake-building adventure. My mom has retired after a long and illustrious career and what better way to celebrate than with a big party, right? In planning the party, originally I was going to buy a cake. But then I thought to myself, "Why would I pay for a cake when I can just make one myself?" Seems absurd to pay for a cake! Surely I can make just as good a cake as any bakery who would inevitably misspell my mom's name. So I started planning my cake-building endeavor. Step 1: Make cake. Step 2: Make buttercream. Step 3: Build cake. Step 4: Frost and decorate cake. Easy peasy!

Sure.

Let's start with the cake. I wanted to make the cakes a bit in advance so that I wouldn't have to be spending an entire day and night making this cake. A bit of Google research informed me that cakes can in fact be made several days or even weeks in advance if they're frozen. Moreover, frozen cakes actually result in a moister cake. Interesting theory. Willing to put it to the test. So I turned to the good ol' America's Test Kitchen for their chocolate cake recipe. I briefly thought about using box mix but a) I wanted the cake to be more special than that and b) I didn't have any. Conveniently enough, I had all of the ingredients to make two 9x13 cakes. My vision was basically a sheet cake structure with some nice decorating. A simple two-layer cake seemed like plenty to feed the party masses. One problem: I only have one 9x13 pan. Of course. But it's fine, it just meant a long day of cake baking.

There's nothing too interesting about the recipe except that it includes sour cream and cocoa melted together with bittersweet chocolate. I'm convinced that's what makes it so good. I also didn't even  use my KitchenAid for this one. The recipe recommended a bowl and whisk. This surprised me because hours of watching Nailed It! have told me that I need to use a good mixer to get light and fluffy cake but ya know what? America's Test Kitchen has never once steered me wrong.

You know what just occurred to me? I could have just made a double batch of the batter and then only filled the pan with half the batter and covered the rest. Why didn't I do that? Why did I spend roughly 4 hours making two identical batches of cake? Seriously, weeks later and this idea JUST occurred to me.

Moving on.

I mixed up the batter (the first time) and filled my very carefully greased pan. America's Test Kitchen didn't specify how to grease it so I used Crisco. Nailed It! recommends butter. I figure Crisco is close enough. So I baked the cake perfectly and then had to wait for the cake to cool for 2 hours before removing it from the pan. Waiting. Waiting. Might as well make the second batch of batter while I wait. Waiting. Waiting.

Finally after two long hours, I could flip the cake onto the cooling rack. I'm always impressed by how cavalierly people on baking shows toss their cakes around. I'm always terrified of them breaking. I very carefully flipped my cake out onto the cooling rack and only slightly lost two of the corners to sticking. Ooops. I really greased the corners well so I'm not sure what happened. However, it is a super duper old pan. Look back to when I started this blog. It's my ONLY 9x13 pan. Anyway, the broken pieces allowed me to taste the cake and YUM. So good. So I filled the pan for the second time and took extra care re-greasing the corners and let the second cake bake. And then let it cool for 2 more hours. Waiting. Waiting.

Finally, I could flip the second cake out of the pan and once again, the same two corners stuck. Time for a new pan for sure. But overall the cakes were pretty even and it seemed like a success. Just needed to wrap them in plastic and put them in the freezer. I laid the plastic wrap out on the counter and flipped the first cake from the drying rack onto the plastic. Not bad. I got a nice tight wrap on the cake and put it in the freezer. It did seem like I needed to handle the cake very carefully though. Did the same thing with the second cake annnnnnnd...crack. Entire cake split right up the middle. Devastation. How do people toss cakes around and not have them break?? Are they making super dense construction cakes? What's the story here? I certainly wasn't going to make another cake so I just wrapped it up tight and told myself that I'd stick it back together with buttercream.

Whew. Now I can take a break for a few days.

The next step required a change of location. Better to decorate a cake where you'll actually be serving it so I headed to the shore armed with two frozen cakes, ingredients for buttercream, and everything I could possibly need for decorating this cake. Oh, and cake boards because I thought I'd get fancy and not just serve it on a sheet pan.

I decided to go with a simple vanilla buttercream but used the recipe specified by America's Test Kitchen. This recipe is terrific but is a pain in the butt to make. It involves whipping egg whites, simmering sugar and ever so carefully pouring the sugar into the egg whites extremely slowly while the mixer is going and "being sure not to get any on the sides of the bowl and beater." Sure. I actually managed to not make too much of a mess with my pouring and while I was doing this, my mom was carefully cutting the pound of butter into small pieces. Yes, a pound. I had to mix until the bowl was barely warm which took around ten minutes and then had to beat in the butter one piece at a time. Needless to say, this buttercream took forever to make. I used the time to unwrap my cakes and level them. I haven't been super pleased with the way my cakes have been puffing up lately and I think that's down to my oven temperature but no big deal since I was just going to cut the cakes to the size I wanted anyway. Buttercream ready to go, it was time to start frosting!

I leveled out the bottom cake and put it on the cakeboard and flopped some frosting on top. And immediately figured out that a) two of these cakes would be extremely massive and b) I was going to almost surely run out of buttercream. I probably could have made one 9x13 cake and cut it in half longways. That's how fat these cakes were. So I was trying to walk the delicate tightrope of having a thick layer of frosting in the middle so it wouldn't just be huge bites of cake and not running out of frosting. I used my best judgment and then flopped the second cake on top. Seriously big cake. I leveled out the sides, somehow did a poor job of doing so, and ended up with a bit of a trapezoid cake. Oh well. I eeked out every last ounce of frosting to cover the cake. I managed to but it wasn't a very neat job at all. And I had run out of buttercream for decorating. Damn.

Guess that means I have to make a second batch of buttercream! I didn't feel up to spending another hour making buttercream so I pulled up some random recipe online and made a simpler buttercream. It tasted decent but not nearly as good. Since this buttercream would be used for decorating, I consulted the guest of honor on what color she would like. I had my amazing color mixer kit so could make any color in the world. She said orange. "Orange??" "Yeah, orange would be fun!" Ok. Not exactly what I would have picked but what the retiree wants, the retiree gets. Plus it was getting late and I was getting a little punchy. A note on colors: since we did all of the frosting the day before the party, the buttercream yellowed a bit overnight (as predicted by America's Test Kitchen) so the orange was a nice complement to the yellowed buttercream. Personally, I didn't find it the most appetizing combination of colors though so in the future, I think I'll definitely color the buttercream.

Anywho, my concept for this cake was to represent all of my mom's different jobs over her career. A bubbling beaker for her lab job, a bottle of pills for one of her companies, and two of the products from her other two companies for a small bit of a 3D element. I also fully intended to write "Happy Retirement!" However, at that point, my brain wasn't up to that much piping or for correctly spelling "retirement" so instead I landed on "Yay Jean!" I apologize for nothing. I was also very anxious about piping the decorations on and wasn't pleased with how one came out so I had to scrape it off and try again but eventually it got done. And now I had a ton of orange buttercream left over because I had only piped tiny decorations. So I decided to use the rest of the buttercream to line the top and bottom of the cake. I was looking for a swirly rose type piping tip and I mostly achieved that. I'm also very proud of the evenness and uniformity of my piping. Only problem: I once again ran out of buttercream! I am apparently a very poor judge of buttercream quantities. I managed to juuuuuust eek out enough to finish the decorations. Way more stressful than it needed to be. Plus my cakeboard really backfired on me because it left stains anywhere I dripped buttercream so I didn't get the nice, clean look that I was going for. I've since seen a trick where you put parchment paper strips under the edges of the cake to avoid that. I'll have to try that next time.

At the end of the day, I was pretty pleased with how the cake turned out and people were generally impressed. Decorating skills need some work but I'll get there someday. Maybe.



Oh, by the way, the cake tasted AMAZING. It was one of the best cakes I've ever made. Super moist. Great pairing with the buttercream. It could've been a bit thinner but overall, flawless cake recipe as far as flavor goes. A store-bought cake wouldn't have tasted this good! Although, maybe a store could've spelled "retirement"...