Monday, August 25, 2014

ThrowBAKE Monday

See what I did with the title there? It's basically the epitome of my cleverness. As you should have gathered by now, I'll be blogging (finally) about a baking project (at last) from way back when. No, seriously, it's from April. That's so many months, I don't even know how long that is! Anyway, get excited because this is something new, something exciting, something trendy. That's right: cake pops! My first foray into the world of cake pops. Are you excited yet? You should be.

To set the stage, I was invited to my future cousin-in-law's bachelorette party. I say future because at the time it was future but by the time I'm writing this, they're married sooooooo....whatever. Bachelorette party! And what is better at a bachelorette party than cake pops! And what better time to start them is the night before the party/weekend? That's what I thought too. So, the night before I had to leave for the party, I was up late making cake pops. Which I've never made before. But how hard could they be? I got all the ingredients and I decided that since the color theme of the weekend was blue and yellow that I would make sky blue cake pops with yellow polka dots. See? Nothing crazy. I'm keeping it simple. I even used boxed cake mix and canned frosting rather than make it myself. I'm getting reasonable in my old age.

So cake pops are actually quite easy (in theory). You bake the cake. Let it cool. Crumble it into a zillion pieces. Mix in frosting (about 3/4 of the can). Roll into balls. Put in sticks. Dip in chocolate. Decorate as needed. Easy. I decided to go with chocolate cake (I believe I used Duncan Hines double fudge cake because, of course) and cream cheese frosting. I was hoping to avoid it getting too sweet with all of the chocolate and everything. Baking the cake was a piece of...cake...yeahhhhhh...I couldn't resist that pun but now I don't know where to go from here. I'll just pretend that never happened. You know what's really fun? Crumbling cake with your bare hands. Seriously, I enjoyed it and spent about half an hour doing it while watching an episode of 30 Rock. Next, I mixed in the frosting. I found that the best way to do this was to squish it all together with the backside of a big metal spoon. It was surprisingly good at incorporating the frosting into every bit of the crumbs. Then I rolled them into balls and tossed them into the freezer to harden up a bit.

Here's where things got a little tricky. Dipping in chocolate. I melted my chocolate wafers and the chocolate was really thick. Definitely wasn't going to make dipping easy at all. I read somewhere that you can add some vegetable oil to thin it out a bit and thus began the process of microwaving and stirring and trying to find the right consistency. Also, I should point out that by now it was awfully late. Anyway, I started out with dipping the lollipop stick in the chocolate so that it would be like glue inside the cake pop, stuck the stick into the cake ball, and then gently rolled the ball in the chocolate and let the excess drip off. Doesn't that sound so pleasant and easy? It wasn't. The chocolate was still really thick and sometimes the cake balls would fall of the stick and get stuck in the chocolate. Sometimes the chocolate would drip all the way down the stick. Sometimes the cake pop would hold on just fine until I stuck it into the blocks of styrofoam (which I legitimately have no idea why I had) and then the cake ball would sadly slide halfway down the lollipop stick. Needless to say, it was a little frustrating to have such inconsistency. Plus it was late. Plus I kept running out of chocolate. Plus it was never the right consistency. But whatever, eventually, all the cake pops were coated in chocolate.

Now to decorate them! And keep in mind, all I'm doing is yellow polka dots! Yeah, no. Not happening. I polka dotted two of them and decided they looked stupid so I stopped. They just came out spikey and weird and I didn't like it. Blue cake pops it is! Late night Jen makes the best decisions. Zak got in on the decorating a little bit and made one that said "Hi!" and another with a happy face and a third with a penis (not pictured) because ya know, it's a bachelorette party! Our beautiful work is displayed below for your judgement:

But now that they were all done, how did they taste? Awesome. They were really delicious, albeit a bit sweet for me. But it's cake with frosting and coated in chocolate so it's hard for it to not be sweet. The girls at the party demolished them though. They were a great drunk bachelorette party food. And it was funny because as frustrating as they were, when people were asking me how I made them, my first response was "oh, it's really easy..." Funny how memory works, isn't it?

A Disney Moment: Lilo and Stitch

I remember seeing Lilo and Stitch in theaters when it first came out. It was actually somewhat notable in that it was in the pre-Pixar-rip-your-heart-out era. (And before you say anything, I know Toy Story 2 came out before that but it didn’t crush my soul as much on the first viewing as it does now.) I just remember sitting in the theater and crying my eyes out because I couldn’t figure out what loophole they were going to find to keep Lilo and Stitch together and to keep Lilo and her sister together! I just couldn’t see the way out for these characters! Maybe it was my age or something but it’s the first time I remember really crying at an animated film as an adult-ish person. All that said, this movie doesn’t hold up to that memory that I have.

It certainly has its touching moments and there’s some great messaging about unconventional families but there are some visual and storytelling hurdles that the movie doesn’t quite overcome. The whole Ugly Duckling comparison is extremely heavy-handed, the Elvis bits just feel stupid on the rewatch, and OH MY GOD, LILO’S SISTER’S LEGS! No human’s legs look like that! She has no ankles and her thighs are tree trunks. I’m not even sure she has knees. It’s more than I could handle. This surprised us by not ranking the highest in the group of five and instead landed at 2/5. Soon you shall see why. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Disney Dining Service Reviews! [Part 2]

This is part 2 of my Disney Dining Service reviews. If you haven't read part 1, you may do so here. Resuming reviews!

It’s a really good thing we left a little room for someone to exceed our expectations. Because James from Cocoa Beach, Florida did just that. He blew it out of the water. Our next meal was at Artist Point at Wilderness Lodge and it was awesome. We’ve only been to Artist Point once before and the running joke is that I loved my meal there but can’t for the life of me remember what I ate. In fact, even as I write this, I don’t remember what I ate as an appetizer. Crazy. All I ever remember is that Artist Point is delicious. But enough about the food, this is about the service! We arrived early for our reservation so we had some cocktails in the bar area. We checked in but were still drinking our cocktails and were told that we could sit as long as we like and could come over when we were ready. That was super nice because it’s sad when one needs to rush a drink. We still ended up taking our cocktails to the table but we took our sweet time going about it. Once we arrived, we were introduced to James who was extremely talkative. But oddly, not in a bad way. I’m usually extremely turned off by waiters that talk a lot because I’m shy and awkward and I just want my food, dammit. But somehow, I was not at all bothered by how much James was talking. He described most of the menu in great detail (including pointing out which dishes are most popular and have been on the menu since the restaurant opened) and made some good recommendations. He also was able to explain the wines quite well and deftly answered my sister’s question about where in Washington a particular wine was from. He really seemed to know his stuff front and back. He brought out the wine for me to taste (I tasted the wine again! I’m like a star of wine tasting this trip!) but he refrained from pouring our glasses of wine until we were through with our cocktails and kept our white wine chilled in the meantime. Good move. Also a good move and what we call a touch of the “above and beyond-ness” was the fact that as he was describing the menu, he was constantly moving around the table. He didn’t describe the menu to just one person. Take notice the next time you have about four people at your table and you’ll see that the waiter rarely moves as he describes the menu and/or specials. It was a very nice maneuver. At this point, we were starting to get excited about the service. Our appetizers arrived and we all got different ones (quite an unusual occurrence for us) and I noticed that when Zak accidentally used his steak knife on his appetizer, it was quickly replaced with a new knife immediately following that course. Also, James noted that Zak had not eaten one of the side veggies or garnishes (I forget which) in his appetizer and he explained what exactly it was to Zak and encouraged him to give it a try. That was great because it was clear that Zak didn’t know what it was (and frankly, we didn’t know either) but as a result of the waiter paying attention, Zak tried something new and liked it. 
After our appetizers, James came back with a couple of bonuses: Mickey straws
for our waters (because come on, who doesn’t love a Mickey straw??) and small, espresso-sized portions of the famous smoked Portobello mushroom soup. My sister had ordered this as her appetizer and I’ll admit I was a bit jealous because it was really good. So when that soup came out, I was beyond thrilled. Also, even though Zak refers to mushrooms as terrorists, James managed to talk him into giving it a taste. Now we hit the point where James basically won the game: he cleaned our table after the appetizer! That almost never happens! Table Zamboni win! We were dealing with some next-level service here. James continued to amaze us when my sister left for the restroom and he picked up her napkin and folded it neatly on the arm of the chair. He also replaced Zak’s napkin after our entrée when he left for the restroom (which was good because Zak and I both ordered surf and turf and the lobster was a pretty messy endeavor). He didn’t rush us at all and waited until we were all done eating to clear our plates. He also took some time to inform us (albeit incorrectly) of the park hours for that night. This whole meal was the perfect blend of high class service and Disney friendliness and I cannot rave about it enough. If Sara in France was a 10, James was about a 14. He was that good. I only even took notes on his above and beyond actions because all of my usual standards were met. The wine was poured perfectly, the pacing was great, and he was conscientious of when to clear our plates and when to interact with us. Also, the food was, once again, absolutely amazing. Best meal. Best service. Game, set, match. High five to Olaf.

So of course, after the great triumph comes the fall. Obviously, we knew we weren’t going to get service that would be as good as James. So we weren’t even hoping for that. What we were hoping for though, was competent service. We didn’t get that either. Our final stop was a late night dinner at California Grill at the top of the Contemporary resort. This restaurant recently underwent a renovation and this was our first time back since. My mom and sister loved this restaurant in the past but I’ve always been a bit lukewarm on the menu. It just doesn’t hold that much excitement for me. However, when Zak and I went there the last time, the service was fantastic. Definitely had the essence of “above and beyond-ness”. This visit did not. First, let me talk about the renovation a bit. A big part of the redesign was adding a second observation deck for fireworks viewing. That’s nice. However, they also removed some of the sound absorbing qualities of the restaurant itself and effectively the bar/lounge area melts into the restaurant area which melts into the kitchen area. And the whole thing is loud. Really loud. We don’t like the loud. It wasn’t this loud before. We also didn’t really like the new décor. It felt like it lowered the class level of the restaurant and the patrons tended
to be dressed accordingly. Unfortunate. However, we did get a nice window table which is great for firework watching. So we sat down and immediately we had some waiter issues. He mumbled. So for a loud restaurant, he was pretty hard to understand. He also only explained the menu to me. I mean literally he’d point to my menu and say “This is very popular” or “This one is new on the menu” without actually saying what dish he was talking about. As a result, the rest of the table couldn’t really follow his comments. We already missed James and his flitting around our table. Our waiter did offer to bring out a couple of wines for us to try because I said that we wanted a Cabernet Sauvignon but were having some trouble deciding. I thought that was very considerate until he brought out a Malbec and a Cabernet Sauvignon. Umm, those are decidedly not the same type of wine. Also, I thought it was a little odd that he brought out only a small sample of each. The last time I was there and Zak and I were having trouble deciding, the waiter brought out 4 tasting glasses for each of us so we could both try. Now, that was obviously exceptional but it’s odd that he designed it so only one person could taste the wines. So anyway, between the Cab and the Malbec, I picked the Cab. Obviously. Because that’s what we wanted in the first place. Rage. Our waiter also did not ask about or explain the dining plan to us. Which actually would have been nice since we weren’t sure if the sushi counted as an appetizer under the dining plan. The bread guy literally threw the basket of bread on the table without describing what the breads were and actually knocked over the candle on the table in the process. This was not an auspicious start to the meal.
Oh yeah, and the first butter he delivered didn’t have any sea salt on it. We asked for more butter and there was the sea salt which changed the flavor completely. The next faux pas was that while Zak was in the restroom, the appetizers arrived. A good waiter would have noticed that and would have held the appetizers until he returned. Instead, we were forced to start eating without him or endure cold appetizers. He also noticeably did not pick up Zak’s napkin and fold it neatly on the arm of the chair while he was gone. My expectations have gotten pretty high, people. After the appetizer, our waiter actually asked my mom and sister to pass their dirty plates over to him. Now, there was plenty of room behind each of them for him to stand and fetch their plates. Unacceptable at a restaurant like this. Maybe acceptable at a Friday’s but not at a fancy restaurant. After the appetizers, we were informed that the fireworks would be starting in about 20 minutes so would we like our entrees to be served before or after the fireworks? We weren’t inclined to wait 30 minutes between appetizer and entrée so we opted for before the fireworks. The problem with this was that we were still eating during the fireworks and Zak effectively had his plate taken before he was actually done. Maybe it’s our fault for wanting to eat overlapping the fireworks but our waiter really should have asked if Zak was done with his meal. Also, the steaks were undercooked. I tried to get Zak to send it back but he didn’t want to deal with that. He really should have though. His bison was definitely rare and not medium. As the plates were being cleared following the entrée, our waiter actually asked my sister to pass him the bread basket. Which was in the middle of the table. That he absolutely could have reached. And when I say “asked” I do not mean that he asked politely. I don’t remember the exact phrasing but the essence of it was “Could ya give me that?” Again, probably not the exact sentence but there was definitely no “please” or “thank you” or apology for not picking it up himself. We were feeling a bit of rage at this point. And that’s when things started to border on comical. Because as he was clearing the table, he took a half full glass of water and actually laid it down on his tray. This all happened behind my back so all I saw was my sister’s horrified look and Zak being unable to contain his concern and actually starting to say “no no no, don’t do that!” Meanwhile, my mom was pretty sure that she was going to have water spilled down her back. She didn’t but that was some pretty high drama. The next comical piece was my mom’s bread plate. The table was entirely cleared after the entrée, except for her bread plate and knife. And then the desserts came and the bread plate remained. And then the desserts were cleared and the bread plate stood its ground. We left the table and the bread plate was still on the table. How hard is it to clear a bread plate? Every time our waiter walked by and did not take that plate we would burst out laughing. Furthermore, he also had the gall to point out where on the check we are supposed to leave the tip. I understand that sometimes on the dining plan people fail to tip properly but I thought it was telling that he was the only one who felt the need to point it out. All in all, it was an extremely disappointing service. The food was pretty disappointing too (although mine was quite good) and I don’t think we’ll be back for a while. Plus the angle of watching the fireworks is better from Narcoossee’s anyway. So by far this was the worst service which made us sad because this was our last nice dinner of the trip. [Ok, so maybe the picture below isn't at all from that day or that dining experience but look how sad they look after riding Kali River Rapids!]

So with that, we end our service reviewing adventure. Artist Point knocked it out of the park. California Grill had a super fail. Monsieur Paul was a close second and all the rest fell somewhat in the middle. I think I’ll do this again the next time we visit though. It was a lot of fun passing judgment on the professionalism of the service! Ok, and now I'm hungry. Guess it's time to go bake something!

Disney Dining Service Reviews! [Part 1]

Hello all! Today I take a brief hiatus from blogging about baking and instead give a report on my recent trip to Disney World. Enjoy the diversion!

My family goes to Disney World to eat. Admittedly, we like everything else about Disney as well (with the exception of the heat. In Florida. In August.) but really, the star of the trip is usually the dining. Over the years we have tried the majority of the Signature restaurants several times and we are rarely disappointed with our meals. On our last trip though, we found something to be lacking…the service. With Disney’s high standard of customer service, we were shocked to find the restaurant services extremely lacking. With that in mind, on this trip, I made it my mission to review our dining experiences – not for the food, which we know to be excellent, but for the service. The cast of characters on this trip include my mom, my sister, my fiancé, and me. We booked five fancy dinners including Be Our Guest, Yachtsman Steakhouse (a new restaurant for us!), Monsieur Paul, Artist Point, and California Grill (first visit since the remodel). Some of my comments might be outdated practices (e.g. waiting to clear plates until everyone has finished eating), some may be oddly specific (e.g. it is important not to drip wine on the table when it is poured because let’s face it, wine is good to the last drop), and some are just obvious to anyone who has ever eaten at a restaurant (e.g. the tempo of the meal being too fast or too slow for what is ordered). As an added complication to the tale, we were using the Disney Deluxe Dining Plan which entitled us to an appetizer, entrée, dessert, and non-alcoholic beverage at every meal. Ok, that’s enough background! On with the reviews!

Just kidding. One more note: I will be changing the names of most of the servers because anyone can have an off-night. The names of the truly exceptional will be retained and maybe if they like to google their names, they’ll find a good review of their service. Ok, now onwards!

Just kidding again. I'll also include pictures of my entree and Zak's entree even though this is about service, not food. But seriously, yum. So just to get you hungry, you'll get some pictures too. Ok, for real this time, let's go!

Our first stop was Be Our Guest which is the new restaurant in the Magic Kingdom at Beast’s castle. The last time we dined here, we had the best service of our entire trip. So our expectations were pretty high. My sister and I checked in at the castle exactly on time for our 7:20 reservation. My mom and Zak, however, had underestimated how long it takes to get from the hotel to the restaurant so alas, we were THOSE people who got buzzed but didn’t have our whole party.

So we waited behind the iron gate of the castle, punished for our sin of checking in without our entire party. On the bright side, we met a fascinating member of the custodial staff who entertained us with discussing Doctor Who and his encounter with John Barrowman (BARROWMAN!). Once the late people arrived, we were escorted into the restaurant. The hostess nicely explained the different rooms in the castle and we were seated in the West Wing. Our waiter greeted us and took our drink orders. We ordered a bottle of wine for the table (Conundrum, a crisp, fruity white) and while we were all pulling out our IDs, he kept trying to push us to order appetizers. I mean, really? We had barely even read the menu yet! We shooed him away until after our drink orders arrived. We placed our orders and as he walked away, we realized that he never actually explained the dining plan to us. This wasn’t a big deal to us because we knew what was included but we also know that they’re supposed to explain the inclusions of the plan to us whether we want them to or not. Strike 1. The next major test is the pouring of the wine. Our waiter gave us nice, healthy pour with no drips. Also, I got to taste the wine which is so rare! Probably because I always look like the youngest there. However, the wine pouring failed during the appetizers. Understandably, it’s hard to split a bottle of wine among four people but what you don’t do is top off three people’s glasses until the bottle is empty and give nothing to the fourth person. We are not a fan of that. So, alas, my mom only got one glass of wine during this meal. She also got the short end of the stick because the appetizer plates were cleared while she was still eating. This may be my biggest pet peeve. Everyone should be done eating so no one feels rushed. The same thing happened to Zak during our entrée.
The waiter then tried to show us the dessert cart while our entrees were still on the table. Talk about being rushed! We actually did not let him describe the desserts until after we were done with our entrees. The moment our plates were cleared though, he was back to give us our desserts. He didn’t even offer dessert drink options (since we hadn’t yet used our non-alcoholic beverage) and we had to ask for the types of tea and coffee that were available. There was also some confusion when the check came because only then did he mention the dining plan which he kept referring to as “coupons” instead of “credits.” Overall, the meal was pretty rushed. We anticipated this a bit because it is a restaurant inside a park and I’m sure most people want to get moving quickly. However, a good waiter would have recognized that we were in no rush after one of our multiple attempts to get him to slow the pace. A couple of side notes: the waiter was quite soft-spoken for a loud restaurant and the room we were in routinely had loud thunder which scared the bejeezus out of my sister every time. Overall, not a great service experience but it was what I’d call ok. Not offensive, not outstanding, just a mid-level start to our vacation.

Next up, we have the Yachtsman Steakhouse at the Yacht Club. This was our first time ever dining at this restaurant. We were very excited though because this was where the best steak is rumored to be. We arrived at 7:00 and were seated at 7:10 so that was quite good. We were waited on by Lulu from Bangkok, Thailand which was fun for us because my great-grandmother’s name was Lulu. And no, that wasn’t her nickname, that was her given name. Our waitress, however, had Lulu as a nickname. Enough about the name though. We also noted that the restaurant was quite loud when we sat down (another pet peeve of ours. Put in some soft wall hangings or some carpets, people!). Lulu was very knowledgeable about the menu and described all of the options very well. When my mom was bouncing between ordering medium rare and medium, Lulu actually suggested “medium rare +” which was exactly what my mom wanted. 
Our wine was served with a wine bottle plate and was poured with a napkin to catch any drips, which is 
always a classy move. Basically a great start. Zak couldn’t decide between two of the sauces so she offered to bring him both and effortlessly switched out his truffle fries for a twice-baked potato. Very accommodating. She even asked if we were celebrating anything special. That is always a nice Disney touch. Unfortunately, now we hit a slight glitch. This time my sister got the short end of the wine pouring stick. She got only a couple of drops in her second glass. The entrees arrived as the appetizer plates were being cleared which didn’t give anyone much time to digest their appetizers. For a steakhouse, that’s kind of a problem. And then Zak’s steak arrived with the wrong potatoes. Lulu graciously allowed him to keep the truffle fries and brought him his twice-baked potato but alas, when Zak cut into his steak, it was basically still moo-ing. His medium steak was very very rare. We suspect that he had accidentally gotten someone else’s meal. 
Unfortunately, it meant that Zak only got to eat potatoes while the rest of us were eating our steaks and his got cooked properly. He was offered a third type of potato for his inconvenience though! Which he (thankfully) declined. After that blip though, the service went back to being quite lovely. Clean, white napkins were placed on our table post-entrée to simulate a clean tablecloth prior to dessert. They had a lovely tea menu and Lulu poured our tea for us quite nicely. She even got us tea to-go cups when we were just too full and tired to finish our tea in the restaurant. So Lulu was pretty great but part of the service is all of the food arriving properly cooked and on time and that’s where we can’t call Lulu the best of the trip. Also, unrelated to the service, we were all very disappointed in our steaks. We had much better steak at other Disney restaurants. So despite the service being adequate, we probably won’t be back anytime soon due to the food.

Ahhhhh, now we’re talkin’: Monsieur Paul. Formally known as Bistro di Paris, it was once one of the fanciest restaurants at Disney, second only to Victoria and Albert’s. In recent years, it’s undergone a transformation that allows it to be a part of the dining plan and slightly toned down its rigid standards. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still quite fancy but it lacks the snooty-ness it once had. The last time we were there, we had a waiter that would. Not. Stop. Talking. I’d take a mouthful of food and he’d ask me a question. He was chatting with us while we ate. It was extremely uncomfortable. So as long as we didn’t have that guy, we were pretty sure our service would be better. We arrived early for our reservation but we were seated almost immediately so we didn’t have to wait at all. Our waitress this time was Sara from Nimes, France. She was extremely personable and explained the dining plan well and succinctly. She chatted with us a bit when we asked where she was from in France but did not overstay her conversational welcome. 
She poured nice, even glasses of wine with the professional drip-napkin and she even smelled the cork herself rather than offering it to one of us to smell. I thought that was a nice touch since my response is usually “it smells like a cork” and gives me no information. It at least gave the illusion that she knew what she was doing, even if she didn’t. Good trick. She also managed to pour us all a second glass of wine while still leaving some in the bottle. So yes, she poured smaller glasses but that’s the best thing to do when you have four people. We all drank an even amount, which was lovely. Another small touch I love is the bread service that serves the bread with a fork and spoon. There’s something so classy about that. I have no idea why they do that but it’s cool. And having three options for bread is always a plus. This place was even classy enough to trade out our utensils with the ones that would be appropriate for our next course. After our appetizer (which was insanely delicious, by the way), we were asked if we were all through with our appetizer before clearing the plates and in fact, we were asked again at the end of our entrée when everyone was clearly done eating. I also loved that our entrees were served by four different waiters so that all of the entrees arrived at exactly the same time. That’s classy. 
And I love it because typically, I always get my food last. In fact, on our last Disney trip, we were consistently waiting for my food to be delivered. That didn’t happen once on this trip which was a surprise and a delight. After our entrée, the table Zamboni came out. By that I mean the blade that they use to clean crumbs off the table but we always call it the table Zamboni. Now that’s nice service. Somewhere around dessert, our empty wine glasses magically vanished. I still don’t know when they were taken away. It was done so seamlessly! The manager came over to talk to us for a bit and check in and was especially interested in why I had a notebook on the table. We explained that while I am certainly no food critic, I would be reviewing the service of the restaurant. I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t always pull out a notebook just to get better service! Finally, in a moment of slightly outdated tradition, Zak was handed the bill as the only male at the table. Technically proper, so I’ll forgive that small bit of sexism. Oh, and I almost forgot: the pacing of the meal was just lovely. There was the exact correct amount of time between courses so we never felt like we were waiting around or that we were rushed. Very nice tempo for the meal. All in all, the service was impeccable. Perfect. However, even though the service was downright flawless, it lacked what my sister and I call the “above and beyond-ness”. We could point to no flaw in the service but at the same time it wasn’t exactly memorable as “Oh my, that was the most amazing service I’ve ever had at a restaurant!” So we didn’t leave there thinking that nobody could possibly ever beat this service but we also didn’t leave wanting for anything more. Excellent job, Sara from Nimes! 

 So ends part 1 but no worries, the best (and worst!) are yet to come! No, really, they'll be coming sometime in the next five minutes.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Imitation is the Highest Form of Flattery

Hello loyal readers! I return semi-triumphantly with a tale of adventure, challenge, foes, and moderate defeat. I am technically blogging out of order right now because I had another big, exciting baking project about a month ago but this one is fresh in my mind and more fun so I’m writing about it first. Get over it. Today’s challenge: Salted Caramel Cheesecake with Salted Caramel Ice Cream and Pop Rocks.

Allow me to give you some background. There’s a delightful restaurant by my new house called Market Place which specializes in farm-to-table type food. It has some truly excellent food (I’m talking NYC quality here) and the chef will even be competing on Iron Chef in July. However, I’m not here to tell you about the food. I’m here to tell you about the dessert. My first time there, they had a salted caramel cheesecake and I love cheesecake. I’m usually not an overly huge fan of salted caramel ice cream (too sweet) but I was so intrigued by the Pop Rocks. I haven’t had Pop Rocks since the 6th grade and I bet you haven’t either! Who would think to put it in a dessert??? A genius, that’s who. Because let me tell you, taking a single bite of the cheesecake, the ice cream, and the Pop Rocks was AMAZING. You have to let the Pop Rocks pop in your mouth while the ice cream is melting in your mouth and the flavor was just perfection. I know I’m waxing poetic about this dessert but I’m not even exaggerating when I say that I have had dreams about this cheesecake. I once went to the restaurant just to sit at the bar and get dessert.

Now the tragedy, dear readers. Zak and I went to dinner there a few weeks ago and they completely changed the menu for seasonal reasons and they REPLACED my cheesecake with some sort of awful Black Cherry Cheesecake. Ok, well, I don’t actually know if the new cheesecake is awful because I didn’t try it but Zak and I were heartbroken. Betrayed. Confused. Obviously there is only one response to this tragedy: I must recreate the world’s most awesome dessert. That’s a sane person’s response, right?

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the scope of this project. Not only do I have to make cheesecake, but I also have to MAKE ice cream and obtain Pop Rocks. I’m completely nuts. AND I LOVE IT! (Also, be aware, this is a long blog post because of the many steps.)

Let the baking commence! First step was to find some Pop Rocks on Amazon. I should note that these are special unflavored, culinary Pop Rocks. Because such a thing exists. I actually found them though and ordered them and they arrived swiftly. Easy first step, right? Hahaha oh just wait and you will see. Next step: make ice cream. I found a recipe online that seemed moderately difficult but I suppose if ice cream making were easy, everyone would do it, right? I also pulled a recipe for the cheesecake before heading to my friendly neighborhood Big Y.

Fun fact: I do not get cell reception in my new friendly neighborhood Big Y. So when I’m standing in the dairy aisle trying to figure out if there is any difference between heavy cream and heavy whipping cream, I have no options. I read the labels, compared the ingredients, the nutrition facts, the prices and came to the conclusion that they look identical. However the recipes took the time to specify the difference so maybe there is a difference? Damn my smartphone not working for me! Since I am a slave to the recipes, I bought both and paid about 30 cents more. I also had to buy caramel syrup (that you would normally put in coffee) and flaked sea salt (fortunately, I was provided with a brand name and could find it easily). Armed with my ingredients, I headed home to begin.

Now, to make salted caramel ice cream, one must first make caramel. I’ve never made caramel. Websites, my sister, and the recipe informed me that it’s really hard and easy to screw up. So, I was rightfully nervous about this. But I was ready! I was dressed in a sweatshirt in 90 degree heat because I was warned that it will spatter a lot and I don’t want it to burn me and I had everything prepared to move as quickly as possible. First step, melt sugar in a pan. That went pretty well. It got all bubbly and melty and turned the right color without getting burny. Seems easy so far! And it smells good! Next step, add heavy cream and stir until caramel is fully dissolved. Adding the heavy cream was the spatter part. But you know what? I actually used the correct pan for once! I used one with high sides so there was a large amount of sizzle and bubbling and spattering but very little that left the pan. Win! Oh wait, except for those two drops that spattered onto my newly refinished hardwood floors. Crap! A quick Google search suggested chipping the hardened caramel off with a metal spatula. That…worked! Success! The stirring part confused me a bit because I wasn’t sure how to tell when the caramel dissolved. I was stirring with a spatula so I figured once I didn’t feel any grainy parts, I was done. Visually, I couldn’t see any difference. But I’m pretty sure I did that step correctly! At this point I’m all, caramel, you have been defeated! Next step, put it in a bowl, add sea salt flakes and vanilla extract and stir. Cool to room temperature. That seemed to go fine too but the vanilla extract suspiciously bubbled and hissed when I added it. I figured “Ok, caramel is still hot, I guess I just burned off the alcohol?” More on that later.

While it was cooling, I got started on my custard for the ice cream base. Who remembers the last time I made custard?  I do and I was really bad at it! But I trudge on, hoping this time will be better. I start heating up my milk and other ingredients while I beat my eggs a bit (but not too much). I think I did a good job this time tempering the eggs and then stirring them in without ending up with an omelet. Progress? I’m still not sure if I let it thicken enough though. It said until it coated the back of a wooden spoon. It seemed like it did but I’m not entirely sure. Thicken! Thicken, you fool! Oh well. Next step, add the caramel to the custard. Now, I know I was supposed to cool the caramel to room temperature but ya know what? At room temperature, caramel is hard. So mixing it in did not really work. This was a problem. I was maybe able to mix in about three quarters of what I was supposed to (with some cursing and some vigorous whisking). I made some progress when I put the bowl over a double boiler but some of the chunks just had to go. Side note: hardened caramel is annoying to clean. Just sayin. Finally I threw the bowl over an ice bath to let my mixture chill.

Now you may be asking, how does that mixture turn into ice cream? Well, I just bust out my handy dandy ice cream maker…oh wait, I totally don’t have one of those. Seems rather problematic, doesn’t it? But here’s my thinking: ice cream was around before electricity so there must be a way to do it! I actually did find a method online that effectively directs one to alternate freezing and blending every 30-45 minutes for a few hours. Seems good enough to me! So I froze and I blended (with my fancy new stick blender!) and I froze and I blended and I froze and I went out to a bar. Whoops. Several hours and several drinks later, I returned home to give it a final stir before falling into bed. I didn’t even taste it because I was waiting for the full flavor profile of the ice cream, cheesecake, and Pop Rocks.

Onwards and upwards to cheesecake making! I’ve made some delightful cheesecakes in my day. I’ve learned some lessons such as, don’t buy the pre-crumbled graham crackers. Seems I’m still a few lessons short of successful though. First off, now I have a food processor to crush my graham crackers! Did I use it? No way! I wasn’t about to clean that thing just to crush graham crackers. Nonsense. I stuck them in a Ziploc bag and smashed them with a rolling pin. No seriously, I kept slamming the rolling pin into them. It was very sophisticated. But effective! I prepped the crust and baked it according to the directions. Well, maybe not 100% according to the directions. The recipe specified wrapping the bottom and outsides of the springform pan with tin foil to prevent leakage. I have never done that and deemed it nonsense. So I didn’t do it. Poor choices, people. It didn’t seem to matter when I baked the crust but something was definitely leaking when I baked the cheesecake. I had a puddle of what I presume was butter (but really could’ve been anything, I guess) on the bottom of my oven. Methinks a self-cleaning cycle will be in order. So sure, the ONE time I don’t obey the recipe, it turns out I should have. I also should have defied the recipe in other respects because I am a more knowledgeable baker than I give myself credit for.

The filling for the cheesecake went pretty smoothly. Here’s a question though. If you have to add ½ cup of heavy whipping cream and ¼ cup of caramel syrup and you add both to the same measuring cup so the total is ¾ cup, is that an accurate thing to do? The two liquids have different viscosities so I’m wondering if adding one to the other affects the volume of the second thing you’re adding? This is an interesting scientific question to me. I think I’ll need to ask a chemist or something. Mommy, do you have an answer???

Anywho, the mixture was easy aside from the scientific quandary but the baking left something to be desired. Namely, I forgot to put in a pan of water below the cheesecake so it wouldn’t crack. I had a nagging feeling that I should but I couldn’t remember if that was for cheesecakes or not and I was too tired to look it up so I didn’t do it. So my cheesecake cracked. Which was sad. Also, it needed some extra cooking time because it was way too wibbly wobbly all over by the time it was supposed to be done. That’s ok, I needed the extra 10 minutes to finish watching Heathers (which I had never seen). That is some dark comedy. I had no idea what I was getting into.

Fast forward to two days later for the actual assembly of the epic dessert.  I open up the Pop Rocks to complete my culinary concoction and to my surprise, most of the Pop Rocks had melted into a single, unbreakable ball in the center. I tried to break them up a bit but really just ended up making a mess. There were enough loose Pop Rocks to include in about three servings of dessert but they were otherwise useless. Shout out to Amazon customer service though. After reporting the issue, they refunded my purchase and instructed me to order a new one with free one-day shipping. Quick resolution, no muss, no fuss. Good job, Amazon. Anyway, here’s some photos of the components (I really need to stop taking photos with my phone) and the finally completed dessert:

It’s a work of art, right? Just beautiful. I’m impressed with myself. And now the taste test! Well, hmm. That’s…interesting. And not really in the good way. The ice cream tastes weird. The cheesecake is delicious and the crust came out nicely and the Pop Rocks are awesome with the cheesecake but the ice cream is…not right. It has an almost bitter, burny, coffee-like flavor. Which doesn’t make any sense considering the ingredients. Except, oh wait, remember what I said about the vanilla extract? Yup, I bet that was it! Something went seriously wrong there. Of course, I was supposed to add it while the mixture was still hot so I have no idea how I would have avoided that. So the ice cream, while edible, was not very good and was discarded. The cheesecake, however, is delightful. I’ll chalk this one up to a semi-success and I’ll definitely take a second stab at salted caramel ice cream in the future. Does that count as baking though? It never technically gets baked but it’s complex enough that I will call it baking so that I can blog about it in the future. Seems I’m not quite an Iron Chef yet. But I will admit, I did like the challenge!

A Disney Moment: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Rage. Welcome to the Dark Times Disney films: Round Two. If you recall, round 1 was the strange compilation movies that were made during WWII. These may in fact be worse. So once again we have a rating system out of 5 movies but lest you get confused, none of these movies are good. I resent Disney for making these films because making them meant that I had to watch them for this project. Ok, I’ll try to let the rage subside to actually review this movie.

This movie is Black Cauldron bad. I believe this is one of those that resulted in yelling at the TV during viewing. The main character is so naïve you want to smack him in the face, the animation is downright haphazard, and the whole plot feels like a gigantic ripoff of Ferngully and Pocahontas. I can’t help but think that Avatar took some cues from this movie because a lot of the tones and coloring choices are very similar. I can’t even talk about this movie without getting enraged. This was a definitive 5/5. The one thing I can be grateful for is that this was my first viewing of this movie and it will also be my last.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The One Where the Baker Finally Sets Something on Fire!

Oh dear readers, you’re in for a rare treat of baker ineptitude. I’ll cut to the chase: I finally set something on fire. But oh the tale of how I got there…

In the midst of Easter preparation madness, I was informed that I had to bring a dessert to Easter. Since my brain was mostly on a work crisis, I decided to go with something easy, tried, and true…the pecan pie. I've never actually blogged about the pecan pie but I've made it twice before with varying degrees of help. It’s a great recipe that makes a very pretty pie. So with that, we commence!

I first had to make the pie crust which is a pretty straightforward process. Except that my mom usually does that part. Mixing the ingredients was easy but then I had to cut in the butter and that was such a colossal pain in my ass. I really don’t like the sound that the metal knives made against the metal bowl that I was using. Eventually, I got there though and, after confirmation from my sister that it looked ok, I set about rolling out the dough. Well, I don’t know if I made the dough too sticky or if I’m just bad at it but when I rolled it out, I got a bunch of holes, it stuck to the countertop, and when I tried to move it, the whole thing broke into about four pieces. Too frustrated to re-roll the crust, I just smooshed it all together into the pie plate. I tried to use my fingers to make it look pretty and to make it of even thickness but honestly, I was tired and didn't care that much.

On to the filling! The filling is super simple: light corn syrup, dark corn syrup, crushed pecans, eggs, and…brown sugar. Whoops. I totally forgot to check if we had brown sugar when I assessed that we had all the ingredients. So I went digging around and eventually found a little bit of brown sugar. I needed ¾ cup and I really didn’t think there would be enough. Also, the brown sugar was hard as a rock. Not exactly the consistency you want for brown sugar. But that’s ok, I know that I can microwave brown sugar to soften it up. No big deal. As it’s microwaving, I start to try to figure out what I can substitute for the remaining brown sugar that I’ll need. Eventually I found some dark brown sugar. Perfect! Except that it’s also hard as a rock.

At this point, the light brown sugar only needed about another 30 seconds in the microwave so I figure “whatever, I’ll toss the dark brown sugar in there too to soften it up.” So I do. Approximately three seconds later, there’s a loud bang from the microwave and a tiny, tiny flame on the bag of dark brown sugar. Apparently the twist tie was still on the dark brown sugar and, being metal, it doesn't like microwaves. Now things get comical. I immediately turned off the microwave and was just standing there staring at the tiny tiny flame. Seriously, it was little match girl tiny. Almost adorable. Except that it’s a fire in the microwave. Meanwhile, my sister panics and runs to get the fire extinguisher…except she ran to the place where the fire extinguisher was before the kitchen remodel and there is a refrigerator in that spot now. Actually, the kitchen fire extinguisher isn't even in the kitchen anymore (a detail that should probably be corrected). So my sister is all “I don’t know what to do! Open the microwave and we can put water on it to put it out!” Now, what do we not do if there is a tiny microwave fire? We do NOT open the microwave, give it oxygen, and turn it into a big microwave fire. Somebody wasn't paying attention to fire safety. So picture if you will: me standing calmly in front of the microwave waiting for the flame to burn itself out and saying “oops.”, my sister pacing and freaking out, and my mom…in the other room having no idea any of this happened. Until now. Sorry Mom, I cleaned it up! Microwave’s fine!

So there you have it. I finally caused a fire. But it was tiny and controllable! Here’s the best part: turns out there was actually enough light brown sugar in the bag. I never needed to put in the dark brown sugar. Oops.

Last thing to do was to make the pie look pretty. I made some lovely pecan concentric circles. And I had juuuust enough whole pecans to finish it. My sister was in charge of preheating the oven…unbeknownst to me, she set the oven to convect bake. I don’t have a newfangled convection oven so I’m not used to it. I noticed when I put the pie in the oven though and asked my sister if she did the time adjustment on the oven. Her actual response “No, but it doesn't matter, things just go more quickly. Keep an eye on it to see when it’s done.” Dear sister, that is not how baking works. So then she says “you just take off five minutes.” Ok, easy enough. My mom checked it 15 minutes before the timer was due to go off and it was already getting pretty burn-y. Alas alack. First a fire, now a burned pie. Fortunately, my mom pulled it out so it wasn't really badly burned. (I was way too busy watching Billy Crystal’s HBO special, “700 Sundays” which was fantastic).

When all is said and done, the pie still looked and tasted terrific. So it was a baking win, ineptitude and all!

A Disney Moment:…nope, we still have one more movie to watch in the next group of five. We’re so close but we just can’t make ourselves watch Home on the Range! 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I'm Jonesin' for Some Sconesin'

Welcome back! I'm just going to jump right in today. I'm suddenly obsessed with scones. I just want scones all the time. I'm currently sad because I have eaten all of my scones. I think this stems from the fact that my sister bought a Groupon for a high tea in a neighboring town and we had really high hopes for it and it ended up being just awful. We were there for two hours and could have consumed all we were given within 30 minutes (except for the cucumber and BUTTER sandwiches). Very poor service. So afterwards, I wanted scones and clotted cream that were actually good. Conveniently enough, I have a specialty shop near my house called UK Gourmet which is...exactly what it sounds like. It's a tiny, tiny store that is filled with magical things that I want to eat. On this particular visit though, I bought some scone mix and some clotted cream.

I won't actually talk about the scone mix (though it was pretty decent) except to say that the only reason I bought it was because my oven could only bake at 350 or 400 at the time. Now I have a fancy new oven that can bake at all the temperatures! And I still had a lot of clotted cream left so...more scones! This time I decided to bake them from scratch so I went to my handy dandy America's Test Kitchen Baking cookbook.

Since America's Test Kitchen is awesome, they test all the best ways to bake things so I trust them when they say that I should make the scones entirely in a food processor. And I even have one of those now! Yay! First step was to pulse together the dry ingredients a couple of times in the food processor. Flour explosion! I swear, I checked every connection and even had my sister confirm that yes, everything was locked but after every pulse, flour went flying out the sides. For some reason (I suspect that reason being that it was flour), I couldn't stop it from exploding. Oh well. I had to keep pulsing the dry ingredients with the butter too. In the future, I would just cut in the butter like a normal person instead of dirtying a whole food processor (and my counter). Then I had to move the dough to a bowl and mix in the heavy cream and currants. That actually went smoothly. This is actually a fairly easy recipe.

Now Test Kitchen gets a little weird here. They instructed me to press the dough into an 8 inch cake pan. Odd. But I obey! After pressing it into the cake pan, I had to flip it out of the pan and onto a cutting board. At this point, I was thinking that it would be difficult and sticky and pointless to use the pan but you know what? They were right. I ended up with a beautiful circle of dough of even thickness. Only thing left to do was to cut it into eighths and bake! About 15 minutes later, I was presented with some beautiful scones with which I could enjoy my clotted cream (and some tea, of course). I was warned by the cookbook to resist the urge to eat them immediately out of the oven but to let them cool completely so the texture would be right. Again, I obey and am rewarded. They were delicious. Just the right texture. Just the right sweetness. And so easy. All I've wanted to do since making these has been to make more of these. But then I'd just be eating scones for every meal and I suppose that would be unwise.

So, this wasn't exactly the baking challenge that I swore I'd be doing from now on but everyone needed to know about how yummy these scones are! Challenges on the horizon!

A Disney Moment: The Emperor's New Groove
Full disclosure: I've always liked this movie. Something about the way it breaks the 4th wall all the time and has a certain sarcastic sensibility has always appealed to me. The narration is very self-reflective while still being humorous. Some of the jokes are overly corny and immature but they work on the brutish sidekick. Our evil villain is visually disturbing (a fact that the movie acknowledges and makes fun of) and somehow that kind of works. I enjoy it a lot so as we round out this group of five with a ranking of 2/5, I ask you…why do we even HAVE that lever? Squeak squeakum squeak squeak.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Chinese Fighting Cupcakes

First post from the new kitchen! Before anything else, let’s all just gaze upon a photo of my beautiful baking cabinet:

I have so much counter space and I have space to store all my ingredients! It’s mind boggling! FYI, this does not make me any better at baking. During the unpacking process, I was flipping through the Cake Boss cookbook and I decided that it was time and I really wanted to try my hand at a piping bag. Buddy recommends starting with cupcakes to get some of the piping techniques down before advancing to cakes and that seemed fair to me. So begins a multistage process that leaves me with a mess and Chinese Fighting Cupcakes (a cupcake to anyone who understands this reference by the end of the post).

To start with, I (obviously) had to make some cupcakes. Now, I fully intended to be lazy here. I was working from home last week because Mother Nature decided it would be delightful to dump a heap of snow on us and I knew I had some box cake mix so I figured “the point of this is piping, not to make fancy cupcakes from scratch. Box cupcakes it is!” Unfortunately, the box cake I thought I had was actually brownie mix. And it was snowing. So I wasn't about to go out and buy some. No big deal though, I can make cupcakes like a pro from scratch. Here was my critical mistake though: I got lazy and didn't want to search for a recipe I knew worked well and just took the first recipe for chocolate cupcakes that popped up on the internets. BIG MISTAKE. Even though I’m a million percent sure I followed the recipe perfectly, these cupcakes did not turn out well. They were hard as rocks. Dense. Awful. Sadness. Now, I didn't actually find this out until we ate them but it was sad nonetheless. And before you even suggest it, I did not overcook the cupcakes. They were underbaked the first time I checked them and they were perfect 1 minute later when I took them out. It was just a bad recipe.

Ok, so enough ranting about the miserable cupcakes. More importantly, we’re talking about piping flowers. Turns out, I’m also bad at that. But we’ll get there in a minute. First I had to actually make some buttercream. I’m going to choose not to tell you how much butter and Crisco is in buttercream because it’ll only make you sad. I did love the 7.5 cups of powdered sugar that went into my mixer though. No matter what, that was always going to end in an explosion of white the second I turned the mixer on. So at approximately 7:30 in the morning, I mixed up my buttercream. This was largely uneventful besides the sugar volcano. Now, to make the flowers, I needed three colors. I decided to go with green grass and pink flowers with orange centers. Because that’s what the picture in the book did! So, first I mixed up my green. No matter what I tried and how much color gel I added, the buttercream wouldn't get any darker than a pastel green. After a while I gave up trying and just decided a light green would be fine. So I went in search of the decorating tip that Buddy recommended. Looking…looking…looking…nope. Don’t have it. Not cool people. So I picked one that looked flat-ish so I could make the flat circle of “grass” that was in the picture.

To do things properly, I even pulled out my cheap turntable/cake carrier that I bought ages ago so I could get used to using a turntable in conjunction with a piping bag. Let’s just say it took some time to get the hang of it. Getting the speed right was challenging and remembering not to move my hand was hard to do but eventually I was able to understand the mechanics of the process. There will be many pictures in this post of my triumphs and failures so here’s the first set with my range of green grass-layers:

Not great but not too bad, right? Passable? Oh, you just wait. Now I have to actually make flowers. That was just green circles, people! Child’s play! And that was already a challenge! For the flowers, I was supposed to use another tip that I absolutely did not have. No problem, I can improvise. However, none of the tips that I tried worked very well. They all made wavy patterns and none of them really looked like flower petals no matter how I tried. Oh yeah, and I had the same pastel pink issue as I did with the green except the pink looked even worse and was not at all vibrant. Anyway, I tried three different “types” of flowers but my conclusion is that they generally look like octopi, nonapi, jellyfish, or squished jellyfish. It was so sad.

On the bright side though, even though my creative piping skills leave something to be desired, I was able to consistently pipe things that were the same size, shape, and design. So I guess that’s something? Mechanically, I suppose I’m doing something right. I just may not have the creative eye. This should not surprise me at all. It probably shouldn't surprise you either at this point.

Last step was to add the orange centers. I know that the centers of flowers aren't typically orange but they’re whimsical so it’s ok. Or so I keep telling myself. And that’s what the picture had! Since I only have two piping bags, I had to wash one of them. Let me tell you something: buttercream is ridiculously hard to clean off hands, piping bags, utensils, or pretty much anything else. Cleaning a piping bag isn't easy in the best of situations and this was just crazy. It took me forever and then, as I’m looking at a still soaking wet piping bag, I decided that I could just use a Ziploc bag with the tip cut off. (Obviously, I had to clean all my stuff anyway but it was so annoying to have to do it in the middle of what I was working on.) Super annoyed at this point and thoroughly depressed by my ugly flowers, I piped in the middles. Which made them look worse. Seriously. I mean, you can see the pictures and decide but I think they look much worse with the orange. Mostly because the orange was barely orange. I really need to get this color mixing thing down better. Anyway, here’s the finished product:

So sad. And then to make everything worse, by the time I ate them, I discovered that they were dense and icky cupcakes. And to make everything worser, I had brought them over to my aunt’s for her birthday and they weren't good and I never like bringing something not good and inflicting it on other people. The only good part was the taste of the buttercream. Which was actually really good. My sister just ate that and decided to forgo the actual cupcake. Smart girl.

Well, first baking adventure out of the gate in a new kitchen and it’s basically a disaster. Sound familiar to anyone? Reminds me of the good ol’ days making cookie dough bites and pinwheel cookies. I think the key is that this was a recipe that really challenged me. And I need to keep challenging myself because well, it just makes for better stories. So until next time…

P.S. If you think of any baking challenges that you’d like to see me try, feel free to comment! There will most likely be a Tardis cake in my future sometime in August but I’m open to other ideas before then!

A Disney Moment: Dinosaur

This movie is THE WORST. Dinosaur is Black Cauldron bad. It’s Saludos Amigos bad. I can’t even explain how bad it is but it may in fact be the worst (so far). From the very first moment, it looked weird. A quick IMDB search informed us that the backgrounds are actually superimposed photos of tropical locations. Ok then. It’s not bad in theory but the technology wasn't quite there, I think. Or maybe it just looks bad because they superimposed the most detestable characters on the lovely backgrounds. The plot is basically Land Before Time (which is an excellent movie) but everything about this rendition falls flat. Aladar is a stupid name for a protagonist. Just sayin. And there are lemurs. For no reason that I understand. Let me explain the plot to you: there’s an asteroid and we have to go to the nesting grounds and we have to go there quickly or we’ll die. There’s a meaningless love story, an antagonist who was TOTALLY right, and a wandering aimlessness to the whole story. As far as the antagonist goes (and I will not refer to him as a villain), he saw a threat to his herd. He was the leader. It was a choice of either slow down for the old and sickly dinos and have everyone die or move on and wish the slow ones the best of luck. I’m sorry but if you’re talking about the survival of your species, you should probably just keep moving. Aladar and friends got lucky and found a cave to hide out in. A CAVE WITH STAIRS. Seriously, that cave has stone stairs. Few things have ever annoyed me so much in a movie. I was literally yelling at the screen. Ask my sister. And then Aladar is a really obnoxious know-it-all when he finally does catch up to the herd so why would anyone be listening to this guy they just met? The whole movie is fraught with implausibility. Worst. Worst. WORST. 5/5. If I could give it a negative score, I would. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Try the Grey Stuff, It's Delicious!

Don't believe me? Ask the dishes! (You're welcome for getting that stuck in your head all day.) Life is finally calming down for the blogger! Isn't that exciting?!? Basically what that will mean is some more regularly scheduled baking! I just moved into a new house which has a kitchen to die for. It also has an oven that can currently only bake at 350 so will need to be replaced. Oops. However, this blog post isn't about baking in my new kitchen, it's about baking in my mom's new kitchen. There was a good amount of baking over the holidays but nothing that was noteworthy except for my very special birthday cupcakes. That I made for myself.

A bit of background: Being the Disney-obsessed person that I am, I somewhat recently was fortunate enough to eat at the brand new Be Our Guest restaurant in Disney World. I'll make one quick note that while we were there, the food was excellent, the service was fantastic, the ambiance was magical, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. But a dinner review is not part of the story. Since the restaurant was still in grand opening phases, they were serving a special dessert called "The Grey Stuff" which was some kind of mysterious mousse with candy pearls on it. Here's a photo of what the dessert looked like at the restaurant:

(image courtesy of

Anyway, it was indeed delicious so obviously I had to seek to recreate it. After poking around on the internets a bit, I found a recipe here. I decided to make this for my already once-cancelled birthday party. My birthday got snowed out this year so I was left with a big ol' cake and very few people to eat it. So instead of cake, I decided to make grey stuff cupcakes.

Now, if I were really dedicated, I would have made stuffed cupcakes. But I was lazy. So there. Anyway, I set off to get the ingredients which basically consist of Oreos, vanilla and chocolate instant pudding, and Cool Whip. And some milk. And edible candy pearls. Oddly enough, I knew that I could get edible candy pearls at AC Moore so after the grocery store, off I went!

[Sidebar: First of all, they only had pink candy pearls because all of the other colors were sold out. Who knew candy pearls were such a hot commodity? I went to pay for the candy pearls (which cost $2.50 with my coupon) but alas, I only had a hundred dollar bill in my wallet. Which is super annoying, I know, but I figured, I have to break that bill sometime. So, long story short, the cashier didn't have change of 100 in her drawer, she had to bring over a manager at which point I just offered to pay with a credit card and by the time the manager had voided the transaction, I had actually dug $2.50 in change out of my purse. I felt so bad being THAT customer causing an obnoxious hold-up. Also, my $2.50 was completely in dimes. Such drama. My supposedly short trip to the store ended up taking about 20 minutes. Whoops.]

Finally I got home to perform the multistep process of making the grey stuff. Started by mixing the vanilla pudding and milk and putting that in to chill. Then proceeded to crush an entire box of Oreos in a food processor. Did I forget to mention that I doubled the recipe? It wasn't clear how much grey stuff the recipe made and I didn't want to run out. Let's just say I had a lot of extra. Meanwhile, I was baking cupcakes. And by baking cupcakes, I actually mean using a Duncan Hines Devil's Food Cake box mix. I know, I know, big fat cheater but you know what? They're good and easy. And I was time pressed because we were also making three pounds of homemade pasta.

Next step was to add in the Oreos and the Cool Whip. I was like an expert folder. I folded in those ingredients like a pro. I only flung a little bit onto my mom's fancy new counters. And all over the food processor (somehow). Last step was to mix in a few tablespoons of the chocolate pudding. Now, in hindsight, I think that I should have stopped before the chocolate pudding. While it might help the taste, the grey stuff was a much nicer grey color before the chocolate. As it was, it turned out a little browner than I would have liked. It was super cool to watch the colors change as I mixed the ingredients though.

Only thing left to do was to make it pretty. I made a nice huge mess piping the grey stuff on top of the cupcakes (I had to refill the piping bag halfway through and my mom's piping bag is super terrible so it makes a mess) but the end result with the pink pearls was gorgeous:

Sorry for the bad picture, I only thought to take a picture at the last minute and only my cell phone was handy. Aren't they pretty though? My piping needs a bit more work and I definitely could have used a wider tip to get the desired effect but again, I was time pressed trying to pipe these immediately following dinner. I actually think the pink pearls look really cute on these. And they tasted AMAZING. The cupcakes were really light and fluffy and the grey stuff melted in your mouth and the pink pearls give you that little extra bit of texture and crunch. Perfection. I would really recommend that people take a chance and try making these. They're so easy and only involve stirring and crushing Oreos. You don't even have to pipe them! I was eating leftover grey stuff with a spoon and it was delicious. And if you don't believe me....well, too bad.

A Disney Moment: Fantasia 2000

Flying whales. Donald Duck. Fantasia 2000 suffers from the same flaws that the original Fantasia had. Namely, it’s uneven in quality, some parts are downright boring, and it lacks the overall cohesion that I think a movie should have. Also, I don’t think there was a need for a reboot of Fantasia. I understand and respect the concept: animate classical and wonderful music to blend the two art forms. It’s not unlike dance in that sense; use visual displays to elevate the quality of and interpret the music. Make it available to the masses. Introduce kids to it. I am all for the mission of getting kids into classical (or jazz) music. I just don’t think Fantasia 2000 accomplishes it as it seems to have been largely forgotten.

Maybe that’s just my impression. And maybe I’m just cranky. But it doesn't grab me. Let’s break it down anyway though, shall we? Ok, I just googled Fantasia 2000 to remind me of the order of the scenes and I read that famous people introduced each segment. I don’t remember that at all. Yikes. We’re not going to break this down by segment because I don’t remember enough to sound informed. It’s such a shame, I used to be good about writing these up immediately after watching and then I got out of the habit and now I don’t remember a single thing. I’ll just go through the stuff I know I liked. I always remember the flying whales and think they’re cool for a few minutes but then I get bored. I love Rhapsody in Blue. I think it’s the best part. I remember the flamingos and the yo-yo and think that that is kind of fun. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, despite being a classic, always feels out of place in this movie. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve all seen it already, because it’s so iconic, or because it’s awkwardly ¾ of the way through the movie but it always strikes me as jarring in the context of Fantasia 2000. The part with Donald Duck and the ark is ok but not too thrilling. And I think I was falling asleep during the last segment. So it’s a mediocre 3/5. Not really bad, not really good, not really that memorable.