Let them eat CAKE! (part 1)

WOW – it’s been a L O N G time since my last blog post!  Time certainly flies when you’re having fun!!  Apologies for the unintentional hiatus:  I’m in the midst of work that requires a lot of my attention and energy.  But I do think all the time about blogging… and I have begun many topics that I’ve saved in my drafts folder!

Enough of that for now.  Let’s get started, shall we?

Cake or Death? Cake, please.

Do you like cake? So do I!  Cake makes everything better.  It can transform any casual social gathering into a happy little party.  Cake is magic. Cake spreads happiness and good vibes.  Cake smells good, tastes good, looks beautiful, conjures up sweet memories and spreads smiles all around.  I am sad that I don’t get to make as  much cake as I used to… In the last couple of years, I only get to bake for special occasions.  When I first started baking (years and years ago), I took any excuse possible to bake a cake.  I guess I had more time on my hands back then.

For some casual occasions and lighter holidays (Halloween, Valentine’s Day, etc), I like to make cupcakes.  They are cute, sweet and the perfect portion size.  For larger birthday parties and bigger events, I make full-sized cakes.  But the piece de resistance, the tip top of the cake hierarchy, the crown jewel of all cakes is the wedding cake!

Making a wedding cake is like running a marathon in the Olympics for me.  I make them about once every few years for close friends and family.  It’s strenuous, physically and emotionally.  I’ve learned a lot over the years about making a wedding cake… which would be the topic of another blog post soon.

For today, I wanted to tell you about the cake tasting, which is the run-up to the wedding cake.  My training session, if you will.  Ok, I’ll admit, it’s purely a selfish thing for me:  I get to have a small private party with the happy couple, ostensibly to discuss plans for their wedding cake; but really it’s all about sitting around, sipping champagne, talking about the wedding plans and of course, eating cake!  Actually, it’s a great idea to figure out the best type of cake to make for the wedding.  We learn what their likes and dislikes are, what their preferences are for frostings, the look and design of the cake, etc…

Last weekend, my husband and I hosted a cake tasting party for my brother and his lovely bride.  All of the cake tastings we’ve had over the years have been special and fun; and this one was no exception! The bride and groom invited their parents to join in and the bride’s brother also came to sample cakes – it was such a relaxed and easy-going afternoon filled with champagne, coffee, tea, and CAKE!

I made four tasting cakes on Saturday for the tasting on Sunday.  I tried to keep  in mind that I wanted to post a blog about the process of baking 4 separate cakes, but it was hard to remember as I got into full production mode, sorry; but as you read on, you’ll see why.

Part of the plan was to make cakes that were significant to the couple.  The other part of the plan was to make cakes that I could do relatively easily.  I chose cakes I had made countless times over the years.  These are my “Greatest Hits:”

1) My Signature Wedding Cake:  almond genoise filled with apricot puree, frosted with amaretto buttercream (I wanted to use Grand Marnier for the buttercream, but at the last second, I changed my mind).  This is my signature.  It’s the “ringer” I make for all cake tastings.  Surprisingly, a good number of people choose this cake (for different reasons) — I like it because it’s unusual, light and flavorful.

2) The Royal Hawaiian Cake:  pineapple cake filled with guava puree, frosted with vanilla buttercream and garnished with lightly toasted coconut flakes.  Since they got engaged in Hawaii last September,  I wanted to make something that was significant to them.  This is a fun cake for a party, and this combination makes excellent cupcakes as well.

3) The Strawberry Dream: Italian cream cake filled with vanilla mousseline cream and fresh strawberries from the Farmer’s Market (thanks, Abby!), frosted with limoncello buttercream.  I knew I was going to make this, and that it might very well become the wedding cake because it’s my brother’s favorite.    I have to admit it’s my favorite as well.

4)  Chocolate-Hazelnut (Gianduja ):with bittersweeet ganache, hazelnut dacquoise and frosted with frangelico buttercream.  I knew the bride liked chocolate and that she liked Nutella so I wanted to make something that hinted at the flavors of Nutella, making sure it came across as a bit more upscale.

The following content describes my personal journey in three acts as I prepared for the cake tasting party.  The irony is, it’s not my first time doing this.  I’ve done this so many times before I should be a pro at this by now.  But for some strange reason, things go wrong at the worst possible time, and then events spiral out of control for me. Every. Single. Dingle. Time.  My best-laid plans to be organized and efficient all seem to go pear-shaped when I least expect it.  Just when I can’t seem to overcome my problems, I somehow pull it together and in the end, the party goes off well and everyone lives happily ever after.  But for your reading pleasure, I’ll recount for you the ordeal (but don’t worry, there’s a happy ending at the end!)

Act 1: The Best Laid Plans…

On Saturday, I began pretty early with the baking.  I made two of the cakes from what I already had in my pantry (almond genoise and chocolate), fully intending to go shop for the rest of the ingredients later on in the afternoon.  Mind you, when I say I’m baking 4 cakes, I should state that they are all 6-inch cakes and not full-sized ones.  These smaller cakes are easier to make because they use less batter and take less time to bake in the oven.  They take less time to cool as well.   So these two cakes I made right away were easy and fast.  My confidence was building.  I took a break to have some lunch and went out to shop for the rest of the ingredients I needed for the rest of the day.

When I returned from the shops with the rest of the items I needed, I noticed that the chocolate cake turned into a hockey puck.  I was confused:  this is a cake I can practically make in my sleep.  I know the ratios by heart.  Why did it fail?  No idea.  I threw out the failed cake and started another batch.  Again, it wasn’t a big deal;  it was still relatively early in the day and I was confident I had enough time for the other 2 cakes (pineapple and Italian cream), 2 full batches of buttercream, pastry cream, chocolate ganache and a hazelnut dacquoise.  Every endeavor starts out this way… until….

Top: almond genoise left, pineapple cake right. Bottom: Italian Cream left, chocolate right

As the afternoon wore on, the other 2 cakes were made relatively quickly and all four cakes were set to cool.  I was feeling pretty good by now.  I made the chocolate ganache and set that aside to cool to room temperature so it would become a spreadable consistency (like peanut butter).  On to the pastry cream… which ruined itself immediately when I went to answer the phone.  Pastry cream is another recipe I can make in my sleep.  The mistake I made was trying to rush it along.  I had turned the heat up higher than I normally would so that it would cook faster.  If I had been diligent and just whisked and whisked quickly until it set up, I’d have been fine.  But, I was a moron and answered a phone call.   The pastry cream curdled and seized as soon as I turned my back to get the phone.  Nasty. I had to make that over again, too.  What’s that saying about haste making waste?  Yes, I’m an expert at that, too.

Pastry cream 2.0, chocolate ganache and simple syrup. Ready and waiting!

The ruined pastry cream threw a wrench into everything.  By then, most of Saturday was gone. I had only 4 cakes and ganache to show for it.  After I cleaned up the pastry cream mess and prepared for another batch, I realized that I hadn’t gotten the dacquoise started yet.  Damn.  Dacquoise is a crunchy disk of meringue and ground nuts  baked until it is dry, crunchy and light.  Layered in a cake, it gives a sweet, crunchy texture to a soft, moist cake.  It also takes SEVEN F*CKING HOURS to bake.  I think I finally got it into the oven around 9pm.  Crap.

So, ok, dacquoise in the oven.  Pastry cream 2.0 made and cooling… it was time to make the buttercream.  I decided to make 2 full batches of unflavored buttercream and then divide the whole lot into quarters to flavor individually for each cake.  By that time, it was nearing 11pm.  I made the buttercreams as quickly as I could (only 1 Kitchenaid machine) and decided that I’d assemble the 2 easier cakes before going to bed.

Buttercream in the making!

I put the almond cake together with no problem.  Feeling better.  Feeling like I was gaining ground again.  Next, I tried the Strawberry cake… and failure #3 occurred.  The entire cake was under baked in the center.  W.T.F.  Glancing at the clock, it was already near midnight. I was getting tired, cranky.  Stressing out.  Crying.  Time to give Terri a 10-minute time-out.

10 minutes later, I’m re-purposed.  I decided a new plan of action:  assess the situation, see what can be done tonight, wake up super-early tomorrow morning and carry on.  I took stock of the situation:  the Italian cream cake had to be thrown away, the pineapple cake also looked slightly underbaked too (damn), buttercreams were done and flavored, ganache was cooled to the right consistency, dacquoise still had 3 more hours to go.  Damn.  I checked my ingredients.  Double Damn:  I had run out of eggs, sugar and pineapple.  Even though a 24-hour Safeway is down the street from me, I waved the White Flag.  I cleaned up the kitchen as well as I could, set the timer for when the dacquoise would be ready and crawled into bed.  Defeated.  All day I worked thinking it was going to be a slam dunk.  I do this to myself every time. It was 2am and I had only 1 finished cake.  Loser.

~~~~~~~ TO BE CONTINUED ~~~~~~~~~

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Super Bowl, the aftermath

OK, I’ll come clean: I got 2/3s of my work done on Sunday. It was hard! There was a Puppy Bowl to see, fried chicken to fry, commercials to watch… I had all kinds of stuff going on that day!

We all enjoyed hanging out at the house on Sunday very much. We each had our laptops out, beverages and snacks spread around and while some were actually watching the game, I only paid attention during commercial breaks.

We were live-Tweeting during the game.  At one point, we realized we were on a 6-minute delay due to my  having to rewind to see a commercial over again.  We hadn’t noticed until we saw someone’s tweet about the Bieber commercial and we hadn’t even seen it yet.  Like the scene in the fourth Harry Potter book – where Harry’s watching the Quidditch World Cup through his Omnioculars and forgot he was on delay.

Which were my favorites commercials? Darth Vader Jr. Cowboys and Aliens. House as Mean Joe Green.   The one that had the dogs playing poker.  Finding the hidden code for Angry Birds in the Rio trailer and not knowing what exactly to do (none of us play Angry Birds).

Oh, and I loved the Black Eyed Peas Half Time show. Yes, I did. Their homage to Tron really got me. I recognized pieces of their act from seeing them last October when they opened for U2 at the Rosebowl. But I felt they totally got screwed by the sound mixers.

But honestly, folks, the most excellent part of the day, was spending quality time with Mr. B and Ms. S chowing down candy, chips, popcorn, fried chicken, shrimp cocktail and being introduced to the phenomenon known as the Puppy Bowl.

 

 

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Good Morning, SUNSHINE!

In my opinion, there is nothing as incredible as a glass of freshly extracted juice enjoyed first thing in the morning.

I’ve been experimenting with many combinations over the years, but carrot/apple/orange/ginger seems to be my hands-down favorite.  It’s like drinking a glass of sunshine!

If you don’t already have a juice extractor, consider getting yourself one.  During the flu and cold season, mine works overtime making juice from whatever veg and fruit combination I can get my hands on. I like this one, personally….but I’m sure you can find other good, quality models for less by looking around.

Good combinations to juice, until you find your own preferences are:

Tomato/cucumber/carrot/celery/lime — tastes like V-8, but better!

Beet/carrot/peach/ginger — thawed frozen peaches are perfect and cheap!

Spinach/pear/cucumber — refreshing!

The combinations above are just suggestions.  I’ve left out amounts because it’s all based on what you’ve got on hand, and what you’re in the mood for.  If you like a sweeter juice, then by all means, add more fruit.

Some folks have asked me about what to do with the pulp that’s left after the juice has been extracted.  If you buy organic produce for your juicing, you can add the pulp to your compost (if you’re into that).  I’ve seen horrifying recipes that suggest adding the pulp to stuff like meatloaf, soup and salsas.  The pulp is really tough and fibrous.  If you are using a centrifugal extractor, practically no moisture of any kind will be left over.  Please don’t feel guilty about tossing out the pulp.

Another related question that comes up, too: fiber.  Someone asked me once if I was getting enough fiber by drinking fruit and vegetable juice.  The answer is no.  I still eat whole grains, and whole fruits and vegetables.  The juice I drink is in addition to what I eat, and is not a substitute for meals.

Lastly, if ever time and circumstance do not permit me to set up the machine, I hit Trader Joe’s or Jamba Juice.  The priority is the juice, and sometimes the situation calls for buying it.

Happy Juicing!  :D

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Super Bowl Workday

Today is Super Bowl Sunday. I’m looking forward to having it on the television and watching it with Mr. B and a friend later on this afternoon. I root neither for the Steelers nor the Packers… I don’t even know the basic strategies of the game. For me, the enjoyment of Super Bowl comes from the massive energy from those who consider it a National Holiday, the commericals (of course), the halftime show and the FOOD. :)

My friend also has to work during the afternoon, but since she telecommutes, we decided to have a joint-working-watching-the-Super-Bowl XLV-Party together. Maybe, if we have and opportunity, we’ll fire up some Mario Kart or I’ll introduce her to The Grid. Every day at work should be this fun!

We’ve even planned the snacks:  chicken wings (the wings are soaking in buttermilk as I type this), tortellini salad, veggies, homemade pizza and some brownies to round it all out.  I’ll make popcorn for the pre-game stuff… but once the game begins, the real serious food comes out.

I wish you all could come join us, but then for sure we won’t get any work done!

I’ll post later after it’s over and we’ll discuss our favorite commercials and come clean with how much work we actually got done…

TTFN!!

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Granola!

I’ve been making my own granola for quite some time now.

Granola!

Did you know that it’s inexpensive and easy to make? Did you also know that it tastes better if you make it yourself?

OK, fine – don’t believe me. I didn’t either for years and years. In fact, claims like what I’ve made above sound so cliche I wouldn’t have believed it either…until I figured out how to make it work for me.

My pantry is a bit more extensively stocked than that of the average person’s – it extends from the normal concept of what’s stored in cupboards to the stuff I keep in the freezer. My downstairs freezer is a virtual backstock of nuts and dried fruit.  What goes into the granola totally depends on what I have in the freezer.

To make your own, all you need is about 90 minutes of baking time, and a basic granola recipe like this:

Preheat your oven to 250 degrees, Fahrenheit.  Line two baking trays with parchment paper (or foil). Mix 1/2 cup of maple syrup with 1/4 cup vegetable oil.  Stir to combine the mixture – it may form a gelatinous mass, and that’s OK.

In a large bowl, mix together 1 tablespoon of ground cinnamon, a pinch of salt, 4 cups a rolled oats (not the quick-cook or instant kind), and three cups of a combination of any of the following ingredients:

Flaked coconut, raw almonds, sliced almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds… you get the idea…

Stir the nuts and oats together with the maple syrup mixture and divide the mixture between the two prepared sheetpans. Spread in a single layer and bake in the oven for 90 minutes.  I set the timer for 15 minute intervals, and I stir the mixture around every time.   When the oats and nuts are golden in color, it’s done.  Remove from the oven and set aside to cool completely to room temperature.

While the oats are cooling, mix together another 3 -4 cups’ worth of the following dried fruit:  dried cranberries, raisins, dried cherries, blueberries, dried apricot chunks… you get the idea… My extra-special ingredient: crystallized ginger bits (a little goes a long way so add only about 1/4 cup).  Play with the ingredients.  Your granola should have a nice balance between oats, nuts and fruit.

When the oats are completely cooled, stir in the dried fruit mixture and transfer to airtight containers for storage.

Give one container to a friend.  Pay it forward.  Sharing is caring.

*Note:  please don’t judge me by the bad quality of the photos.  I have very little natural light in my kitchen.  As I progress with this blog, it is a priority of mine to improve the quality of the photographs as well. :)

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Entertainment Package

If ever there was a good enough reason to have an iPad, it’s the roadtrip.  I can’t even count how many ways it came in handy, not to mention just how incredibly cool it was to send Twitters out while we were driving up to Vancouver.

In addition to the iPad, all three of us had our own iPhones – I kept mine on Pandora the whole time.  My mom brought along her own netbook for movie-watching and I also packed my Macbook just in case I was inspired to get some work done during the trip.

While this is in no way a paid endorsement for the Apple iPad, I seriously think it’s an amazing device.  Sure, it’s something you CAN live without.  Sure, it’s awesome and convenient.  Sure it’s expensive.  Damn, is it cool.

I can count off a few of the ways we enjoyed using it on the trip… and for your reading pleasure, I’ll do that now:

1) We continued checking the maps app while driving to see the traffic conditions ahead.

2) I got to play MovieCat and Words with Friends all the way up and back and didn’t have to forfeit my games (in case you didn’t already know, if you play out your turn in 2 days, you forfeit and lose the game).

3) I updated my iCal and my MobileMe account caught it and synced all of my calendars for me at once.

4) Sharing photos while catching up with cousins was a breeze.

5) Staying updated with email, Facebook and Twitter was impossibly easy and stupidly efficient.

6) Finding hotels when it was time to stop for the night was a snap.

7) My dad had a great time using the Netflix app.  The trouble is, he did not sign on using his own account and now I’ve got all kinds of movie recommendations in the World War II and Espionage genres based on the movies he watched.

8) Skype-calling the relatives in Canada to keep them updated on our status kept our cellular roaming charges and long distance rates from kicking in.

I remember back in the Dark Ages, when my parents would pile my brother and me into the backseat of our 1984 Toyota Camry for roadtrips.  Between us on the backseat sat the blue cooler.  We were equipped with our Sony Walkmans and some books.  And that was it.   Navigation was the form of papermaps from CSAA, not the Garmin GPS device we had in addition to the iPad GPS, and if we wanted to find the nearest gas station or rest stop, we had to pay attention to the blue signs along the freeway.

Road travel today is made so much more enjoyable thanks to technology.

Now, if only I could remember where we misplaced my neck pilllow….

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Road Trips and Car Snacks

I love road trips.  Actually, I love to travel in general, but driving long distances makes me especially happy — the adventure of the unknown, the long stretches of freeway that give opportunity for introspection.  I find my thoughts taking on new directions, planning new projects, discovering why I abandoned other ideas, etc.

I also love snacks.  But road trips and snacks always conjure up memories of junky food that makes me feel like crap before I even get to my destination.  Last week, I took a trip with my parents to Vancouver, BC to attend my uncle’s funeral.  My father’s Type2 Diabetes is mild, at  best, but I am constantly aware of his dietary restrictions.  Because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I know he loves snacks and enjoys nibbling and noshing the hours away (me too – just plunk me down in front of a movie and I’ll graze my way through an entire extended edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy). So before I even began packing my clothes, I started planning my FOOD BAG to take with me.

Whether I travel by plane, train or automobile, I do my best to pack some healthy snacks: stuff that’s good for you inside and out (hello: vacation-constipation). Vegetable crudités and popcorn are my favorites.  For a trip to China a few years ago, I popped some popcorn and seasoned it with truffle salt.  During the flight, my brother found my snack bag and liberated the pistachios and popcorn.  When I woke up from my nap, needing a nibble of some kind, there was nothing left.  Lesson learned:  pack enough for everyone.  Last summer, on our trip to the Hamptons, Miller and the M-Train rooted through my bag and found the popcorn as well.

The Crudite Canister: Dad picked out his carrot sticks and left me with the rest.

Mixed nuts and pretzels - all I needed was a Manhattan...

For this trip, I cut some vegetables for a crudité canister and, in a moment of whimsy, found a bag of pretzel goldfish crackers which I mixed with a can of mixed nuts.  I threw in a handful of mandarin oranges (or were they tangerines??), a small bag of M&Ms and some bottled water.  Feeling quite smug about how feastly this snack bag was becoming, I remembered that a friend once came to visit us and had brought his own tea with him.  I added my favorite tea bags (Irish Breakfast from Trader Joe’s) to the pack and ran upstairs to start packing for real.

Missing from this canister were the grape tomatoes... Mom ate those.

The tea strategy was brilliant:  during pitstops, if we were ever near a Starbuck’s or other coffee house, I’d run in and buy a cup of hot water.  On my way out, I’d stop at the condiment bar and pilfer a packet of sugar and add a bit of half and half to the hot water.  Back in the car, I’d pull out a tea bag and in just a few moments, I would be enjoying a lovely cup of tea on the road.  It makes a huge difference to have the exact flavor of tea you crave… in some places, they don’t carry the right kind you’re looking for.  I was happy as a clam (however happy a clam can be), sipping tea from home.

The drive up to Vancouver from the Bay Area was cold and rainy.  But with proper planning, we barely stopped except for potty breaks and fuel.  When I wasn’t on my driving shift, I was wrapped in blankets, listening to some seriously fantastic music (or watching a movie on the iPad) with a hot beverage at my elbow and some great munchies within reach.  This was the life.

Next installment:  the Entertainment Package

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First…

My Uncle Robert died last week*.  No, no, I didn’t announce that in my very first blog to ask for your sympathy.  I stated this because the idea for beginning a blog came from visiting family during his funeral.  My cousin (whom I am hoping will be delighted to learn I’ve begun this blog at her encouragement) and I were catching up and she mentioned that she’s an avid blog reader on food-related subjects.

I really don’t know what I could possibly offer that would be just as interesting if not more than what the hundreds of other bloggers out there are already doing; but I sincerely hope what I contribute doesn’t just add to the noise.

Things I love (in no particular order) are:  food, music, movies and books.  This very mundane and banal list will more than likely turn a few readers away; but for me, I spend a great deal of my waking hours thinking about these four subjects.

I thought I’d take a first shot at a topic that came to me as I was on the road earlier this week.  In the back recess of my mind, I am developing a topic that I hope you will enjoy reading.  I dedicate this first entry to my cousin, Lara.  I’ll post it later today, after I’ve written it and am satisfied with the content.

Thanks for reading.  I hope to entertain, inspire, and inform you.

Peace.

*Side note:  My Uncle Robert and I were very close.  He was an extremely nice man, generous and considerate to a fault.  I loved his sense of humor and always found his acerbic quality amusing. Though I didn’t spend a lot of time with him, the time I had was very profound to me.  He was my mother’s younger brother.  They were very close when they were growing up together.  My interactions with Uncle Robert gave me huge amounts of insight into my mother – which has greatly improved my relationship with her.  While I am very sad that he is gone, a huge part of me is relieved that he is not longer suffering and is away from pain.  He is finally at peace.

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