Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Anchors Aweigh!

Ahoy! How exciting, two posts in one month! I'm on a roll. This post is brought to you by my sister's birthday, baking in a new kitchen, and viewers like you. Normally I do something completely crazy for my sister's birthday (see: TARDIS, panda cupcakes, cookie monster macarons) but I have the problem of my living situation being somewhat complicated right now and my baking tools being very far away from me. So I decided to go with something simple: cupcakes with fun anchor decorations because my sister loves anchors. Easy enough, right? HA.

The first decision to make was what to make the anchor decorations out of. Ever helpful Googling suggested just using Wilton candy melts and then piping the shapes. I seriously considered this idea because a) it's just melting chocolate and b) chocolate is yummy. However, it is August and chocolate is also melty. I wasn't confident enough in the anchors not melting after piping. Then I remembered the adorable glasses from the Smart Cookies that I piped with royal icing and they were super duper easy and dried perfectly. So I opted for royal icing. Next, I had to deal with the problem of having no tools whatsoever. I took a quick trip to Michaels and picked up the super awesome food dye kit (if you'll recall, I'm never dying anything again without this color palette of food dyes. Don't care about the cost. Worth it.) and investigated some piping tips. I didn't want to get anything too expensive but I knew that I needed at least two piping tips (one fine for the decorations, one large for the cupcake frosting) and I knew that my mom's piping bag is crap so I wasn't going to deal with that nonsense. Then my eyes fell upon a set of two squeeze bottles with #2 piping tips (the fine ones) for only $5. How wonderful! Seems like it will be an easy and not at all messy way of piping my decorations! You totally believe me that that's how it turned out, right? Finally, I got frustrated considering what to do with the big piping tip and just bought the tip I needed for $1 and said, "Eh, I'll use the method of cutting the corner of a Ziplock bag and call it a day."

Tools acquired, I asked my sister what flavor cupcakes she would like. She sent me four ridiculous flavors with no recipes attached. Because of course. I landed on the salted caramel cupcakes because they sounded yummiest to me and the most attainable. Did I mention that I have none of my cookbooks with me also? No? Well, I didn't. So boxed chocolate cupcakes it is and I'll have to find a salted caramel buttercream recipe on the interwebs.

The night before the birthday party, I set sail to pipe my anchors (get it?!?!?!). I made my royal icing which is pretty easy because it's just egg white, vanilla, and powdered sugar until you get stiff peaks for good piping consistency. I also dyed the royal icing black (I was originally thinking a dark blue but then changed my mind). This was probably a mistake because I always forget that the color card specifies 70 drops of black dye to get the color black and that much dye in that little icing turns people's mouths whatever color I'm dying it. Whoops. Too late. Once my icing was the right color, I started to put it into my handy dandy squeeze bottle. Or maybe not so handy dandy. Because the problem with a squeeze bottle instead of a piping bag is that it only has a small bottle-sized opening to put all the icing in through! So it takes forever and I had to develop a system of using the spatula to put some icing on top of the bottle and then used the back of a spoon to poke the icing enough to let some air through so it would actually go in the bottle. It was messy, it was slow, it was annoying. That's what I get for not just buying a piping bag. (I'd also like to point out that while I was raging in the kitchen, my mom and husband were paying exactly zero attention to my struggles. Too bad, it was pretty amusing.)

Anyway, once I finally filled the squeeze bottle, I started to pipe my anchors. The interwebs encouraged me to print out a template to put under my parchment paper but templates are for suckers. I simply googled "anchor royal icing decorations" and then eyeballed it from the image on my phone. And you know what? They came out surprisingly well! Piping with the stupid squeeze bottle hurt my hands and it was slow going but I think they came out pretty nice. They definitely actually look like anchors. Then I got bored of making anchors so I went rogue and did some fishies, some seaweed, and a few octopi (ok, maybe they're sept-or-fewer-opi). Then I offered the piping bottle to my mom and husband to see if they wanted to make any creations. Husband opted out and said he'd just eat them later and my mom attempted some shells and a truly horrifying mermaid (pictured below for your amusement). Off to bed to let them dry into perfectly professional decorations!


Now that went so smoothly so the rest of this will obviously be a shit show. First I had to make the cupcakes. Yes, I went with a boxed mix because I was short on time and didn't care. Unfortunately, this was needlessly difficult because it was an unfamiliar kitchen in my mom's fancy new shore house and I couldn't find a damn thing. And I'm extra annoyed because the box said it made 24 cupcakes but making 24 cupcakes with that amount of batter led to some very low cupcakes. Most of them didn't puff up above the ridge of the cupcake sleeve which made piping annoying and difficult. Not sure if it's because the cake mix was too fudgy or what but it was irritating.

Whatever, on to the fun part: salted caramel buttercream! I went through several recipes online and finally landed on one that looked relatively simple and caramel-y. A lot of recipes called for store-bought caramel syrup and that just didn't seem right to me. Eventually I found one that forced me to make my own caramel syrup. Buttercream is actually quite easy. It just requires a lot of butter and a lot of powdered sugar. Then for this recipe, I had to add my homemade caramel syrup. I was directed to boil water and sugar until it turns a light golden brown (super boring to watch, by the way) and then add heavy cream and vanilla VERY slowly. This almost went perfectly except for the part where some of the caramel converted to a soft ball stage and my spoon got stuck to the bottom of the pot while I was stirring. Oops. But it wasn't a whole lot so once the mixture cooled, I just poured in the amount that was pour-able and discarded the rest. Flawless logic. Baking is definitely not an exact science, right? Only thing left was to dye the buttercream a light ocean blue and assemble the cupcakes! (You can barely tell from the pictures because I'm bad at photography but I swear, the buttercream is blue!)

Having abandoned my nonsense squeeze bottle, I filled a plastic bag with the buttercream, inserted the piping tip into the corner and cut the tip off. And it worked great. No messes, perfect piping. Lovely spirals of buttercream even though the cupcakes were way too short. I was rockin', I was rollin', I was...suddenly out of buttercream with four cupcakes left. Well, screw that, I'm not making more buttercream. Those four are now officially chocolate muffins for breakfast. Last but not least, I had to remove my decorations from the parchment paper to adorn my adorable cupcakes. First anchor off: no problem. Second anchor off: broke in half. Must've been a defective anchor. Third anchor off: DEAR GOD, WHY ARE THEY ALL BREAKING! I underestimated how delicate these decorations were and do not yet have a good technique for handling them. The result was a lot of broken anchors, amputated octopi, and a decapitated mermaid. But I did the best I could and put in the broken decorations so it looked like they were under the waves of the frosting. All in all, it didn't end up looking that terrible.

Seriously, my photography skills need some work. But most importantly of all, these cupcakes were DELICIOUS! Recall that I do not have a sweet tooth but I inhaled this cupcake. So so so so good. I could've used a bigger cupcake to carry all of that buttercream but whatever, it was nummy. Overall, another success even with some bumps in the road. Might need to revisit some cookies next, it's been a while...

Monday, August 21, 2017

PeCAN I Start Baking Again Now?

Eight months without baking. That's just not right, friends. Not just eight months without blogging about baking, no no. Eight months without baking. If I've baked anything between now and New Years', I don't remember what it was but it couldn't have been substantial. My metaphysical angst has returned and I believe it to be in direct correlation to the amount of dust on my KitchenAid.

Step one: Dust my KitchenAid.

Today seemed like the perfect excuse to get my bake on since I have some friends coming over for dinner. I started my morning by searching for the perfect dessert to go with kabobs. Just kidding, I definitely didn't think that hard about it. I pulled out the good ol' Martha cookies book and I thought about making something tried and true but that would be so boring. Then I saw that there was a recipe for pecan bars that I've never tried before. Pretty easy to get back into the groove of things. Or so I hoped.

The first thing I was told to do was preheat the oven. Check. Then make the crust. This involved creaming the butter and brown sugar and I miraculously managed to make that happen. You know, considering how long it's been since I baked, it's a genuine miracle that my brown sugar was soft enough to use. Then I added my salt and my flour and bam! Crust done. I pressed the dough into the pan and pierced the bejeezus out of it with a fork and then was directed to chill it for 20 minutes. What? TWENTY minutes? Why on earth did I preheat my oven when I started? Why does Martha think an oven takes 30-40 minutes to preheat? Does she think there's little miniature Boy Scouts sitting in my oven with sticks and leaves trying to start a fire? Silly Martha.

To be efficient while the crust was chilling, I put together the ingredients for the filling. It's just butter, brown sugar, honey, sugar, and heavy cream at first. I finally killed my honey bear with this recipe. I actually almost didn't have enough but I stood over the saucepan letting the honey drip out ever so slowly for approximately 10 minutes so I think I ended up with enough at the end. I squeezed that honey bear for all he was worth. All that is in a pot ready to be boiled and then I'll just stir in some salt, pecans, and vanilla extract. Hmm. Where is my vanilla extract? I searched every single cabinet that seemed even marginally related to baking and could not for the life of me find my big bottle of vanilla extract. Is it possible that I used it up and forgot about it? I dove into my pantry for a deeper hunt and allllllll the way in the back, I found a little box with Big Y vanilla extract! Success! And it doesn't even expire until...January, 2015. Hmm. How much of a risk do I think that is? I mean, I doubt it'll outright poison my guests. It's unopened but there's a chance I may not get that potent vanilla flavor. Hmm. Well, I'm not going out to the store so I guess it'll have to do.

I just took the crust out of the oven (yes, I'm mid-recipe while I write this) and I am supposed to lower the oven to 325 and let the crust cool completely. Nice try, Martha. I turned the oven off until the crust cools. I imagine it may take a while in 90 degree heat.

Oh my goodness! I literally just remembered that I brought back vanilla extract from Mexico! Be right back...

YES! Found it! And before you comment on the fact that it was staring me in the face while I was looking for the other bottle, let me say that the other bottle was a slightly different shape. So I obviously can't be held accountable for not seeing it. Obviously. Goodbye, vanilla extract from 2015. I'm not going to deal with your nonsense.

And now I'm just waiting for the crust to cool. And waiting. And waiting. And reading the rest of the recipe. I've got some real questions about the end of the recipe where I'm supposedly going to be able to just invert the bars onto a cooling rack with no problems whatsoever. This crust was baked in an ungreased pan so I'm going to anticipate some difficulties with this step. Stay tuned.

I'm back! That went...surprisingly well! No issues with boiling the filling or pouring it on top of the crust (though, to be honest, it didn't look like enough filling/topping and next time I'd probably add more pecans) or baking it and letting it cool. Then, as directed, I used a sharp knife along the edges of the pan, flipped the bars onto a wire rack, and then flipped them back onto a cutting board. No issues! Well, a few crumbs on the floor but it worked perfectly! Not sure what sort of voodoo magic allowed this to happen but I am not complaining.

They looked exactly like the picture! And they were soooooo tasty! Definitely sweet but not overly sweet. I think maybe I could use a little less salt next time but in general, these bars were a great success. Considering I only had two left at the end of the night, I'd say they were pretty well received! Glad to be back - looking forward to more adventures!