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!


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"...

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Little Puffs of Happiness

Just a quick little update to brighten your day! Some epic baking tales are in my backlog but I thought I'd just give you all a little taste of what I've been up to lately. After my super awesome trip to South Africa, I've decided that the lack of a proper afternoon tea is everything that's wrong with our country. (Not really, there's a whole host of other things, but afternoon tea is the one I can tackle today.) To that end, I've decided to institute tea time in my day at approximately 3:00. Naturally, if I'm going to have tea, I'm going to need some afternoon snacks to go with my tea! I wanted something that stored easily and something more on the savory side so I opted for Cheese Gougeres.

Basically these are nice bite-size cheese puffs made from a pate a choux (forgive my French, I'm way too lazy to put in appropriate symbols). What's a pate a choux, you ask? I barely know myself. It's the pastry that you use for cream puffs and eclairs and such. Which means I've made it before. With mixed success. However, I've been binge watching the Great British Baking Show on Netflix so I've watched it get made a bunch of times and now have a much better idea of what to do. Maybe. Ok, not really. But off we go anyway!

Step 1: preheat oven. Check. I'm doing so well already. Next I had to combine butter, water, and salt into a 2-4 qt saucepan. I literally have 2, 3, and 4 qt saucepans and stood motionless in my kitchen for a solid 5 minutes debating which one to use. I opted for the 3 qt because I was only combining a cup of water and a stick of butter and then adding a cup of flour to it later. Plus I never get to use my 3 qt pan so this was a new and exciting adventure. I brought it up to a boil as directed and then took it off the heat to IMMEDIATELY! add a cup of flour and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until it resembled mashed potatoes. Ooof, need to work on my arm muscles. After a couple minutes, it actually did start to resemble mashed potatoes! I swear it even started to smell like mashed potatoes. Then I had to return it to medium-low heat and stir for 3-5 minutes until the dough "smells nutty, glistens, and dries out enough to hold up a spoon". Disaster.

At first it seemed like the dough would never dry out and I got worried that the heat was too low. Then I worried that I was stirring too fast (or maybe too slow?) and was experimenting with different speeds. And actually, at about 5 minutes, the dough was glistening and smelled nutty and looked drier. But it couldn't support a spoon. That said, I suspect that in the 3 qt pan, it never would have supported a spoon because the base was too wide. So I kept stirring a little over the 5 minutes and I swear, at 6 minutes precisely, the dough just died. It somehow seemed to be getting worse! It looked to me like all of the butter was now seeping out of the dough from overmixing. I had no idea if it could be saved. I took it off the heat, I tried stirring it slowly to try to reincorporate the butter, I prayed to the baking gods, I stared at my pot...and I threw out the dough. Failure.

Don't get despondent yet! I'm determined to succeed!

So I just started again. This time, in the 2 qt pan and with a shorter wooden spoon so I could get better leverage. And with timers so I didn't go one second over that 5 minute mark. And ya know what? It worked! I'm really proud of myself for trying again. I moved the dough to the mixer where I was supposed to mix for about 1 minute until the dough stopped steaming. After a minute the dough was still steaming and I started panicking again. But the next step was adding eggs and I really didn't want scrambled eggs. I let it mix a tiny bit longer and then added the eggs one at a time as directed. The recipe was a little bit weird in that it said some days I might need 3 eggs and some days I might need 4 and to check it by seeing if the dough makes a V when I lift it with a spatula. Ooooook. I did get a little worried after the second egg because I felt like the dough was doing the opposite of incorporating the egg and was splitting apart instead. But I upped the speed just a bit and it all came back together. By the way, I did need all 4 eggs.

Next I had to mix in the cheese. I decided to make half with Gruyere and half with Parmesan. I eyeballed dividing up the dough and mixed in the Gruyere first. I was pretty amazed how well the shredded Gruyere incorporated into the dough. It was a super smooth dough. Finally, I had to scoop out 12 Gruyere balls from my dough. They seemed a little bit big and definitely sticky and I ended up with 15 instead of 12. I think in the future I'll make them smaller but I didn't want to work with 3 baking pans this time. Then I mixed up my Parmesan gougeres and got about 9 out of that. Again, bigger than I wanted but I couldn't stand the thought of 2 batches.

Apparently the key to baking these is a high heat initially then longer on a lower heat. I'm going to come out and say this now: I do not think my oven is baking at correct temperatures. I keep meaning to get an oven thermometer and check but I haven't gotten around to it. And with pastry, you really do want to be correct. So into the oven they went at 450 for 5 minutes. I'm not sure if this step was supposed to brown them or not but they didn't really get very brown. Then the directions said to reduce the heat to 350 and bake until puffed, deep golden brown, and dry to the touch. For some reason, I thought I had to take them out of the oven and wait for the oven to come down to 350 before continuing to bake them. I have no idea why I thought this. It's not like the recipe said to take them out. I've literally never done that before for anything I've ever baked. I can only claim temporary insanity that lasted approximately 3 minutes before I yelled in my kitchen "WHAT AM I DOING?!?!" and threw them back in the oven. So umm, that happened.

At the end of the day, they needed a bit longer in the oven and didn't get quite as deep golden brown as I would have liked but they were done and they were delicious. Little puffy heavenly bites.

The more neatly rounded ones are the Parmesan and the messy ones are the Gruyere but I actually really like the nooks and crannies of the messy ones. Plus I think I like the taste of the Gruyere better.

Overall, definitely some user error in this recipe but live and learn and now I have a bunch of these in my fridge and freezer to enjoy with tea! Yum! I'll take any other suggestions people have for afternoon tea snacks by the way, and encourage you to institute your own personal afternoon tea time!