January 31, 2008

Birthday Cake

Coconut Layer Cake

I think the most important part of a birthday is the cake. That's all. I mean, you can get presents other times in the year, but how often do you get a cake topped with candles lit afire? That's right! This is why I love making birthday cakes. They're extra special.

Everyone has their cake preferences, though. One of my dear friends loves white cake with white frosting, for example, and that makes me want to recoil in horror. Where's the chocolate? Auntie and I have discussed that most of the world's best cakes have coconut and/or pecans as well.

I had the yummiest birthday cake ever on my 25th, with chocolate, pumpkin, cream cheese, cinnamon. The 25th is not necessarily a good birthday for a woman. An unmarried woman is supposed to send in her old maid registration. Regardless of marital status, we women are supposed to chop off our hair or wear it in a bun for the rest of our days. Miss Manners says so.

What's the best birthday cake you've ever had?

And speaking of happy returns of the day, I filed my taxes tonight and expect a refund, which I shall promptly spend in one place, somewhere frivolous like United.

January 29, 2008

Pan de Avena

Obed gave me a recipe for his mother's Pan de Avena, translated, Oatmeal Bread. Feeding my recent oatmeal addiction, I think I might make some tonight. It's one of the easier recipes around.

Pan de Avena

2 c. flour
1 ½ c. oatmeal
2 c. sugar
3 eggs
3 T. baking powder
⅓ c. corn or vegetable oil
2 c. milk
2 t. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325º and spray a 9x13" pan with cooking spray. Mix all the ingredients together thoroughly in a large mixing bowl. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.

Sometimes it takes a little longer than the recommended 30 minutes' cook time, so you might check its doneness with a knife. Pan de Avena is good for breakfast, and I hear from Obed that it's also good with jelly or coffee. That Obed is sneaky. I've caught him more than once saying "Mmmmm" before the bite of food is in his mouth.

Tonight for dinner I had steel cut oatmeal. It's a little unnerving to see blue bubbles in your oatmeal, let me tell you. Leftover dishwasher soap residue, I suppose. That'll teach me not to put my pans in the dishwasher. That is so not kosher, but lately I often find myself doing it anyway. I will never never put my good knives in the dishwasher, though. That can be deadly. I can't find it now, but one time I saw a statistic about how many people die each year from knives flying out of the dishwasher. Probably another fabricated statistic. Another reason not to put your knives in the dishwasher, besides death, is that it will ruin them.

More randomness: how come cinnamon and vanilla smell wonderful but taste so awful by themselves? They are magical indeed.

January 28, 2008

I Scream

Ty's BirthdayI made an ice cream cake for Ty's birthday that actually received rave reviews. I feel I can take credit for coming up with the method for it. That's rare, because my cooking usually requires hours of research to find the most common recipe ingredients, methods, and tips. I know it's excessive.

Ty ordered an ice cream cake for his birthday with chocolate cake and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Here's what I did: First, I made a Betty Crocker Chocolate Cake Mix (butter recipe) in a 9x13" pan buttered and lined with parchment paper. Was my family right to be horrified that I used a mix? After pouring the batter into the pan, I made a valley in the center of the batter. I find that cake mixes rise in the middle very unnaturally. My "from scratch" cakes never do that. After taking the cake from the oven, I let it sit in the pan for 10 minutes before turning it onto a rack to cool.

After about twenty minutes or so, I removed a half gallon carton of Bluebell Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream from the freezer. Then I lined the cake pan I had just used with two layers of heavy duty foil, one horizontal and one vertical, with a couple of inches of overhang on all sides. I sprayed the foil with cooking spray. I scooped the ice cream into the pan. The warmth of the cake pan softened up the ice cream. I spread it into an even layer against all sides of the pan. Then I covered the ice cream with plastic wrap and put the pan in the freezer to refreeze.

Probably an hour or so later, I inverted the cooled chocolate cake onto a serving platter. Platter is a pretty optimistic term for the cardboard rectangle that United gave me. Thank you, United! I promise not to shop anywhere else in Lubbock. I leveled the top of the cake with a serrated knife. I often see so-called cake levelers for sale. I don't see the point of buying that uni-tasker. A long serrated knife works perfectly if you just take your time and crouch down at eye level to the cake. I pulled the ice cream pan out of the freezer. I removed the plastic wrap and lifted the ice cream out of the pan using the foil overhang. Then I turned the ice cream onto the cake, removed the foil, and smoothed out any unevenness between the cake and ice cream layers. I covered the whole cake with the plastic wrap again and returned it to the freezer.

The next step was preparing the "frosting." I had a few ounces of white chocolate frosting left over from the Nostalgia Cake. I heated it in the microwave for about thirty seconds. Then I added about two pints of vanilla ice cream to the bowl and stirred to soften and blend it. The next step was the hardest of all. I pulled the cake from the freezer, removed the plastic wrap, and tried to spread the frosting in a thin, even layer over the top and sides of the cake. The ice cream layer needs to be frozen solid before frosting. I rushed mine, and as a result, some of the green mint ice cream seeped into the white vanilla frosting. It was difficult to spread the frosting anyway, because there is a small range between the temperature at which the ice cream is soft enough to spread and the temperature when it becomes a drippy liquid.

Ty's BirthdayThat's about it. I'm sure that there are some things that could be done to prettify the cake, like decorating with sprinkles, chocolate chips, and whatnot. I decided to write on top of the cake using Hershey's Shell ice cream topping. I had a ridiculous time trying to write with it, but I was already committed after a terrible capital H. It seems impossible to stop the flow at the end of a letter, so I switched to cursive. Dotting the i's and crossing the t's was fun. Then Wendy insisted I needed a comma in there, and that was a mess, too. Ty said I made a lazy 'T' in his name.

After that, the cake just needed to sit in the freezer until a few minutes before it was time to put the candles in and sing. Today is also my grandmother's 80th birthday, so it was a fun party day.

Ty's Birthday

January 27, 2008

The Cake Bible vs. The Good Book

I attempted the White Lilac Nostalgia Cake from The Cake Bible. As a result I had to Google such things as "rescuing buttercream" and "cocoa butter substitutions," so you can probably imagine how it went.

White Lilac Nostalgia Cake (sans lilacs)

The White Lilac Nostalgia uses four recipes from The Cake Bible: White Velvet Butter Cake, Raspberry Mousseline, Crème Ivoire Deluxe, and Crystallized Lilacs. The white cake was pretty standard. The mousseline was quite an undertaking, though. It was similar to the coconut buttercream I use for the Chocolate Blackout Cake, but it uses egg whites instead of yolks. The frosting curdled and separated upon mixing. I thought that the butter must be too warm, so I stuck the mixing bowl in the fridge. Chilling didn't help the problem. I finally decided that the frosting wasn't too warm but was in fact too cold. I have a reputation for not turning on the heater at my house, and my kitchen was probably 60º. I soaked a dish towel in hot water and wrapped it around the mixing bowl. After a few minutes, the frosting had warmed up and whipped up smoothly. I pureed some raspberries, strained the seeds, and added it to the frosting. I didn't think the raspberry flavor was strong enough, so I added more puree. The Crème Ivoire Deluxe recipe called for 1½ pounds of white chocolate, cocoa butter, clarified butter, and safflower oil. I didn't find cocoa butter at United, so I added butter. This frosting was easy to whip up, but spreading it smoothly was difficult. The last step was adding crystallized flowers. Lilacs are as hard to get around here as cocoa butter is, so I used some pansies from one of those edible flower packages. I had this brilliant idea to put the flowers in the oven on low heat to dry them, being short on time. That didn't work out so well. They got pretty crispy.

White Lilac Nostalgia Cake (sans lilacs)I have these unfortunately high expectations, and when I spend this long on a cake recipe, it'd better wow me in both the presentation and taste categories. I thought this one scored pretty high on presentation points. I wasn't very happy with the taste, though. The raspberry frosting had a bizarre consistency and wimpy flavor, and the white chocolate was thick and didn't melt in the mouth as quickly as it might have. I could go on with further analysis, but the funny thing was that the cake was markedly better the second day. The cake absorbed moisture from the mousseline, and that improved the frosting's texture significantly.

I found a blog devoted to working through The Cake Bible recipe by recipe. They have a write-up of their White Lilac Nostalgia here. My frosting looks neon pink compared to their pastel pink frosting, and I didn't even add the food coloring Beranbaum's recipe called for. May I say, too, that when I'm out of school, I would love to blog my way through a cookbook. That is, if I don't have my own cooking show by then, right, Katie?

It seemed like this cake recipe took some extra pains that really weren't necessary. I always look to The Good Book, or The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, first for recipes. ATK is good about explaining why they use certain ingredients or follow a certain process. I've almost always had good results with their recipes. Compared to other cookbooks, you could say it's fussy, but I'd say precise and meticulous. One thing I sorely miss in The Cake Bible is the step-by-step, "look for this" type of instructions. I'm a beginner who needs thorough explanation.

On a better note, today for lunch we had Reubens, and I thought they were fantastic. I should have taken a picture, but I was in a hurry to stuff my face.

January 23, 2008

In Defense of Food

It's no wonder people don't like to eat their vegetables. I ate some spinach from the cafeteria at work yesterday. It was mushy and bitter and just plain awful! Spinach is one of my favorite vegetables, and I hated to see it maligned in this way.

I've heard some buzz about Michael Pollan's (Omnivore's Dilemma) new book, In Defense of Food. I hear the book can be summed up in a few words: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He advocates that we should quit eating food that our great-grandmothers wouldn't recognize, like Go-Gurt, for example. When shopping, we should stay on the outer fringes of the store, buying fresh produce, meats, and dairy, rather than the processed packaged stuff in the middle aisles. Makes sense. Don't you think the ideas put forth as groundbreaking in most books and studies seem so obvious that you wonder who's funding this research? Not that Pollan's book doesn't look like an interesting read. My cafeteria spinach experience and oh so many other bad food experiences make me think that crappy food is all too available. Yep, groundbreaking, I know.

Another book on my foodie reading wish list is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Anyone have any good books to recommend? With school in session, I need some avoidance strategies. Speaking of which, I have some good ideas for excuses if you need a couple of extra days on that assignment. You could e-mail your professor and say, "My grandmother needs constant care." You don't have to say that you are or aren't the one doing it. Or "I'm planning a wedding." You don't even have to be dating anyone to mimic those girls that have every detail of their weddings planned by the age of 13.

January 21, 2008

Many Pies

Many Pies

Maybe I'm the only one that finds it hard to do Christmas shopping for my dad. I decided to give him an IOU for "Many Pies." The first edition, tonight, was Coconut Meringue.

Coconut Meringue PieFirst step, the crust. I used a regular pie dough recipe but rolled the dough in graham cracker crumbs. The graham cracker crumbs are supposed to add flavor and stabilization to pie crusts for custard pies. Custard fillings tend to make a pie crust soggy. This crust turned out fair. I didn't do a great job rolling it. It wasn't as even and flat as I'd have liked going into the pie pan.

Next step, coconut custard filling. This one had a can of coconut milk, whole milk, unsweetened shredded coconut, sugar, egg yolks, butter, vanilla, and salt. Pretty simple to whip up. The first time I made this pie, I couldn't find unsweetened shredded coconut (so I used regular Baker's sweetened). They stock it at Market Street United on 98th & Quaker. I remember when the store first opened, I noticed the unsweetened coconut on the baking aisle. I remembered this recipe and excitedly snatched it up. Most people don't get giddy about grocery shopping as I do. It's especially silly when I go grocery shopping out of town, spot some intriguing item, and say, "How cool is this! You could never find this in Lubbock!" Then I usually see said item at Market Street upon returning home.

Third step, meringue. There are three types of meringue: French, Swiss, and Italian. French (ordinary) meringue is made by beating egg whites and slowly adding sugar. It is baked or folded into batters and baked. Swiss meringue is made by beating egg whites and sugar in a pan sitting above boiling water. The heat stabilizes the whites and makes them smoother and denser than French meringue. Italian meringue is made by pouring 240º sugar syrup into whipped egg whites, then whipping the whites until they are fluffy, yet stiff. Italian meringues are used as frostings, because they are fully cooked and stable.

I went with the Italian meringue variety. Since the coconut filling was already cooked and chilled, I didn't want to put the pie back in the oven for an extended period of time to cook the meringue. I found a recipe for "Mile High Meringue" and went with it. Dad rightly noted using that much meringue would be more appropriate with a tart lemon pie, instead of the already very sweet coconut pie.

Mile High Meringue

Scott said he wanted many pies next year, too. "And that's many pies, not mini- pies." He keeps reminding me about that cheesecake I promised him a couple of weeks ago. Now that school has started, I'll do anything to avoid homework, especially going on a baking marathon. What pie should I make next?

January 19, 2008

That Was the Worst Christmas Ever

Sufjan Stevens actually recorded a song by that title, referring to the year his family got into a big fight and some of the Christmas presents were thrown into the wood stove. For my family, this year's Christmas was certainly the longest Christmas ever, but it could rank up there with the best. I know I'll not soon forget it.

There was the traditional Festivus celebration on Dec 23, complete with the aluminum pole, feats of strength, airing of grievances, and a screening of The Strike. On Dec 24, we did the traditional chili and tamale dinner, birthday party and cake for Auntie, and Christmas presents with Dad's side of the family. Dec 25, more food and presents, fun fun, but my family waited to open presents from each other until Katie got home. So you can imagine that Christmas seemed like really old news by January 9.

On top of that, we didn't even complete the festivities and open all the presents in one night, so Christmas went to round three a few days later. It became a running joke that we were still celebrating Christmas two weeks into January. We were determined to make round three the knockout round, and Scott said in a menacing voice, "Tonight we end this!"

Poach PodsWe started with our traditional Eggs Benedict. This year for Christmas, one of my gifts was three sets of Poach Pods. Though I subscribe to Alton's 'Death to uni-taskers' mantra, these are pretty cute and useful little apparatuses. You just crack the egg in the pod and set it in the simmering water. Some of the reviewers on Amazon complained that it's too hard to remove the cooked egg from the pod. I found it worked well to run a knife between the silicone and the egg's edge, then invert the poached egg onto the serving plate, but it certainly doesn't slide out easily. Then again, getting an egg to poach in a nice oblong shape every time is hard to do as it is. I think the pods helped simplify things, in that one doesn't have to shock the eggs in cold water and drain them on paper towels before moving them to the serving plate. The main complaint I had is that the shape of the pods does tend to make the eggs look rather round on top, like a scoop of ice cream, instead of the flat, ovular shape I'm used to.

Eggs Benedict for Christmas DinnerI don't think I've ever made the same hollandaise recipe twice. I know the first few times I made it, each attempt had huge differences in thickness and the strength of the lemon flavor. Nowadays, my concoction is a hybrid of Martha Stewart's Hollandaise, Brennan's Hollandaise (no idea if this is the famed Brennan's recipe - it looks a little low on acidity to me), and America's Test Kitchen Hollandaise recipes. Martha uses white pepper, for example, prettier than black, unless that's not a problem for you. Brennan's recipe calls for a little red wine vinegar, but Martha and ATK use lemon juice. I use mostly lemon juice but have started adding a bit of vinegar, too. And Brennan's and ATK call for a touch of cayenne. The three recipes vary a bit on their egg/butter/acid ratio.

This year I used three egg yolks, two sticks of butter, juice from one lemon, a teaspoon or so of vinegar, plus salt, black pepper, and cayenne. I happened to have only Meyer lemons, and since they are a sweeter variety, everyone complained that this year's sauce lacked the lemon flavor they're accustomed to. The best and easiest method for mixing the ingredients is to melt the butter in a glass measuring cup in the microwave; mix the egg yolks, lemon juice and/or vinegar, and seasonings in a blender; slowly add the butter while the blender is on; then add hot water as needed to thin the sauce.

One interesting dessert that we ate at round two of Christmas was the Norm Thompson Chocolate Coconut Snowball. Devil's Food Cake + a little chocolate frosting + marshmallow frosting + coconut. They were very tasty. Something to think about getting for next year, I suppose. Also, check out that Sufjan Stevens Songs for Christmas collection. In addition to the aforementioned, look for such fun titles as:

January 15, 2008

My Year in Cities

Saw Miss Nemesis do it, so I thought I would, too. List all the cities where you stayed at least one night in 2007.

Las Vegas, NV
Dallas, TX (times three trips)
Provo, UT
San Diego, CA
New York, NY
and obviously Lubbock, TX

I left off some of the small suburbs, like Boulder City, NV, and Richardson, TX. I don't think I'm forgetting anything major, though. I feel pretty happy about that list. Even though it is short, I really had a lot of fun travels. New York was definitely the most fun of last year's trips. I still think about it every day. It's a couple of months until the Taiwan/Hong Kong trip. That should get 2008 off to a nice start. After that, who knows? At the very least, I seem to make a few annual pilgrimages to the Metroplex.

I would love to see your 2007 lists in the comments. If 2007 wasn't a great year for your traveling shoes, feel free to post a better year or your 2008 wish list. I know Auntie has a fun upcoming trip...!

January 12, 2008

All Is Right with the World

Christmas with Katie

Or at least all is right with my little world. It is even more fun than I imagined it would be to have all of the family in one city again. We're all just a little bit giddy. I looked forward to coming home tonight and not being the only one home. But then I beat Katie home, so I ended up being home alone as usual. Then I was further saddened to realize my little sister was out later than I was. Made me want to go out on the town, just so that I wasn't the old fogey that was the first one home for the night.

Katie spouts a lot of random Chinese phrases in conversation now. It's cool, but a little unnerving, because she often laughs afterwards. I just know she's joking about me. Last night, she and Dad were sitting in front of the computer watching this clip, which inspired laughter as well.

Who knew "Hakuna Matata" was a Chinese phrase? I need to brush up on my Mandarin before our Taiwan trip in a couple of months. Or I could buy these T-shirts:

Katie's Return

January 7, 2008

Time to Panic

  • School's about to start!
  • Katie will be home in 36 hours!
  • Christmas bills are coming in left and right!
  • My e-mail is not going to check itself!
  • I attribute my winter blahs to a crazy infection or a case of mono or something worse!

It's disturbing, isn't it? You want to look away but can't. And doctors have proven useless thus far. Oh so many reasons to panic.