Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cupcakes Go Boo

Halloween is a fabulous holiday.  What's not to love about candy, more candy, crazy outfits, and, um, more candy?  Even more than dressing ourselves in costume, my husband and I love dressing our dog.  She's been a pumpkin, a lady bug, a skunk.  One of my personal favorites is her chicken costume. 

For some reason, I don't think she enjoys it so much.  Perhaps she'd rather eat it than be it.

In addition to absurd outfits, Halloween is prime time for baking.  There are countless spooky, creepy, elaborate, insane things that you can bake to celebrate.  Yet...

Sometimes, you just want to go old school.  No fondant, just fun.  This was one of those times.  Today, it was all about cupcakes and decorations that a two-year-old could handle (literally).  We invited over our favorite local toddler and went to town.  The frosting was blobbed on and so were the candy corn, bats, sprinkles, licorice, and gummy finger puppets.

The results?  Completely silly and downright delicious.  The trick of this treat?  Keep it simple...

Keep it sweet.
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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Hot Mess of Cakes

A year or so ago, a friend turned me on to Cake Wrecks, a blog that pays tribute to the best of the worst in cake decoration.  In short, it is a menagerie of funny, sad, and downright scary icing mishaps.  The photo that she sent me is apparently the photo that started it all, and the photo that is featured on the front of the Cake Wrecks book:

Yes, someone actually wrote that on a cake.  Other Cake Wrecks classics include Naked Mohawk-Baby Carrot Jockeys and why cupcake cakes are such a bad idea.

Since then, friends and family have forwarded me photos and links from the blog.  I'm always happy to be reminded of it and usually spend a good twenty minutes or so catching up on the horrors I've missed.  The photo I received this week was from my friend Brad.  Based on the quality of the image, I'm pretty sure it was done on purpose.  I'm guessing it was done in good fun by someone with mad Photoshop skills.  It's Jesus.  Holding a baby dinosaur.  Really.

The fact that the entire post is a riff on the Old Spice commercial makes it even better.  (If you don't know what I'm talking about, click here.  If you do know what I'm talking about, but haven't seen the Grover version, click here.)

Okay, I know I'm teetering precariously on the edge of completely off-topic, but I couldn't resist.  Besides, laughing at cakes gone awry is a calorie-free way to...

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fridge of My Dreams

I am, in my heart of hearts, an academic.  I love literature, learning things just because, and not fighting my way up the corporate ladder.  This fact has always caused much chagrin for my Uncle Charlie, who currently works as the Director of Demand Flow for Electrolux Major Appliances.  Although I always assured him that I didn't hate capitalism, I don't think he believed me.  Since starting my cake business, he's taken to teasing me about there being hope for me yet.

At a recent family wedding, we got to talking about our work.  I think of the wedding cakes I create as my babies; I love sending them out into the world and seeing them succeed.  He shared a similar sentimentality over a commercial refrigerator he worked to design and brand.  The way he spoke about seeing one in the real world for the first time made my humanities heart go pitter-patter.

What, you may ask, is the point of this story?  Well, as a show of capitalistic good faith, my uncle decided to bestow upon me one of his babies.  On a recent Friday morning, the most beautiful thing was delivered to my house.  It's big and shiny and cool.  It's the type of thing that makes a baker giddy.  (Like Hobart mixers.)

The Frigidaire Commercial Cooler has the functionality of any good commercial appliance--all the NSF bells and whistles, strong and interchangeable shelving, casters that make moving and cleaning a breeze.  There's more to it, though.  It's... pretty.  The clean lines and shiny Frigidaire badge make it feel downright designer.  It's an appliance I'd be proud to have in the front end of my shop or my kitchen at home.  Frigidaire definitely got this one right.  If you're in the market, or just want to daydream, check out the goods at Frigidaire Commercial

I can now keep two wedding cakes cool simultaneously.  Hot.  Yes, Uncle Charlie, there is hope for me.  I love my new fridge.  I like selling my wares.  I even consider making money a perfectly legitimate way to...

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Ask the Literate Baker: Fast Sweets

Since writing about Jennifer's Bundt-turned-trifle adventure, the Literate Baker has been receiving a variety of questions and requests.  I'm always looking to spread the love of baking and all things baked, so I'm happy to announce the official start of "Ask the Literate Baker."  If you have questions or are in search of a sweet treat, send me an email and I'll see what I can do!

Today's request comes from Annie in Oregon.  As a business owner and a mom, time for baking is always scarce.  She writes...

There's an idea, baking that takes less than 30 minutes from beginning to out of the oven... can I request a post about this? The dessert that can wow utilizing quick prep and ingredients one is likely to have on hand?

Well, Annie, the first thing that comes to mind is puff pastry.  I think the Pepperidge Farm brand can be found in just about every grocery store in the country.  It's easy to keep in the freezer, has an inherent wow factor, and bakes very quickly.  It also plays well with a plethora of other flavors and ingredients.

If you have sheets, you can make a tart shell by cutting a one-inch strip from each side of the square, then attaching said strips to the remaining square with a touch of beaten egg.  Once baked, you can spread the inside with Nutella or even pre-made or instant pudding.  Add fresh fruit and you're good to go.  If you have a little bit more time, spread the unbaked shell with purchased caramel sauce, add thinly sliced apples or pears, and drizzle with more sauce.  Bake until the apples are tender and the shell is golden brown.  You can also buy puff pastry in ready-to-bake shells.  These single-serve delights bake even faster and can be filled with just about anything.

My other favorite no-one-seems-to-know-how-easy-this-is dessert is Bananas Foster.  Bananas Foster? you ask, incredulously.  Bananas Foster.  Here's how you do it...

Melt two tablespoons of butter and 1/4 cup brown sugar in a skillet; cook until bubbly.  (You can add a handful of pecans or slivered almonds at this point, if you'd like.)  Add two bananas that you've sliced in half then split lengthwise; cook just until the bananas start to soften.  Remove from heat and add 2 oz spiced rum.  Carefully ignite with a match or lighter, gently shaking pan until flames die out.  Serve over vanilla (or butter pecan) ice cream.

I hope I've inspired you to try more desserts on the fly.  Whether it's last-minute company or simply laundry day, quick and easy baking is a great way to..

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Pretty Pie from a Pretty Chef

I can admit to having occasional visions of grandeur.  Some days, I'm a best-selling novelist.  More often, however, I am the queen of a very large food empire.  Much like Ina Garten and Rachael Ray, I see myself with a television show, cookbooks, and a line of specialty foods and kitchen tools.  I don't actually need adoring fans, but can accept that they come with the territory.

Recently, I've been seeing commercials for a new Food Network show: Dessert First.  It's hosted by a gorgeous pastry chef named Anne Thornton who seems to love sweets as much as I do.  I've been a little bitter, but have decided to embrace it.  She seems fabulous and I'd never say no to a show all about desserts.

Today, Anne Thornton is a feature on CNN's Eatocracy (which I know because a friend has already posted it on my Facebook wall--thanks, Sohug!).  She talks about her favorite sweet and salty combinations.  Again, feeling a little bitter here (given the Literate Baker's recent goings on about the joys of salty and sweet), but trying to keep the mindset that my time has not yet come.

Envy aside, I think I'm smitten with one of recipes.  Salted Caramel Banana Pudding Pie seems like a blissful marriage of not only salty and sweet, but creamy and crunchy as well.  Given my husband's adoration of all things banana, I'll be giving this recipe a try in the near future.  In the meantime, hats off to the lovely and talented Chef Thornton, a kindred spirit in the quest to...

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Crispin (et. al.) Crisp

I love picking apples.  Seriously.  I love riding in the wagon pulled by a tractor.  I love the way the air smells like apples.  I love the way the apples literally pop off of the tree into your hand when you twist them.  I love that you can give one a quick buff on your shirt and take a bite right then and there.  I love the apple cider doughnuts and local cheese in the little shop next to the orchard.  I even love the picture mail my grumpy friend Joel sends me telling me exactly what he thinks of my apple enthusiasm.

Crispin, Empire, and Northern Spy

To be completely honest, I might love picking apples more than I love eating apples.  That said, I really do enjoy eating, and baking with, fresh New York apples.  Yesterday, I had a lovely time with a new apple recipe, Caramel Apple Crisp from the March 2009 issue of Bon Appetit.

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
10 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, diced

1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, diced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 Pippin or Golden Delicious apples (about 2 3/4 pounds), peeled, quartered, cored
Lightly sweetened whipped cream
For topping:
Whisk first 6 ingredients in medium bowl to blend. Add butter and rub in with fingertips until small moist clumps form. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.

For filling:
Preheat oven to 375°F. Stir sugar and butter in large skillet over medium heat until smooth sauce forms. Add lemon juice and cook, stirring, until caramel is deep brown, about 5 minutes. Mix in salt, then apples. Toss until apples are evenly coated, about 1 minute. Scrape apples and caramel into 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish; spread evenly. Sprinkle topping evenly over.
Bake crisp until apples are tender, sauce is bubbling thickly, and topping is golden, about 50 minutes. Let crisp cool 15 minutes. Serve warm with whipped cream.

Literate Baker Notes:  I substituted 1/2 cup oats for 1/4 cup of the flour.
I served with vanilla ice cream.
All in all, this was a great recipe.  I like the idea of a deeper flavor with the apples.  I did, however, find the lemon juice to be in competition with the caramel flavor.  Next time, I think I'll skip it and add a few tablespoons of cream instead.  That should make for a more authentic caramel flavor.  

I don't know if apple crisp counts in that whole keeping the doctor away philosophy, but it sure was good.  It also made the backyard squirrels happy--they seem to really like apple peels!

Not composting, but better than nothing!
Now, if I make one more of these and have an apple for lunch every day this week, I just might be able to justify going apple picking once more before the season ends.  Hooray!  Orchard to oven to tummy--a fabulous fall way to...

Keep it sweet.
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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Baker Off Duty

For the first time in quite a while, I have no cake orders for the entire weekend.  When this happens, things could go one of two ways.  On one hand, I could go wild, baking all sorts of things that aren't on the Much Ado About Cake menu.  On the other, I could shun baking altogether, reveling in the fact that I needn't even turn on the oven.

Today, I'm rocking the latter.  This does not, however, mean that I am forced into a sad state of dessertlessness.  I could eat ice cream.  I could try a new bakery.  I could make Rice Krispies treats.  Mmmm...

What is it about the RKT?  Childhood nostalgia?  Marshmallow perfection?  In my book, the chewy-crispy squares are a wonderful foil for the richness of my usual dessert pursuits.  The fact that a six year old could make them is a total bonus.

According to the official Rice Krispies website, Rice Krispies Treats consist of the following:

3 tablespoons butter or margarine
10 oz marshmallows
6 cups Rice Krispies

Melt the first two ingredients together, add the third, and mush into a pan. 

Since I was home alone this evening, I decided a half batch would be sufficient.  I opted for the microwave method, but committed the ultimate rookie mistake...

This is what happens when your bowl is too small.

I compensated for my faux pas with a handful of M&Ms.  I consider myself forgiven.

Tomorrow, I plan some legit baking.  I've got a sack full of apples that I picked myself.  I feel a crisp coming on.  Until then, I'll do my best to save a couple of these for the husband so he, too, can...

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

When Good Bundts Go Bad

We have our first write-in!  Jennifer in Maryland writes...
Literate Baker -- helpppppp! My family is coming tonight and I made a lemon bundt cake. Trouble is, the damn thing is in two jagged pieces -- I don't think I can even salvage the bottom neatly to place it on top. I thought of turning it into some sort of trifle -- like, lemon cake, cream or custard, and fruit. Do you have any ideas on how to execute such a thing?
Jennifer, I've so been there!  I do love a nice Bundt, but they can be so temperamental.  My solution is typically to piece it together and slather it with a nice glaze.  (You can get really nice coverage if you use a little cream cheese as your base.)  If you feel like you're beyond that, I definitely think you're on to the next best thing.  You can never go wrong with a trifle!  If you don't have a trifle bowl (clear glass with straight sides so you can see the layers), consider any pretty bowl or baking dish.  You could even make individual trifles in martini or margarita glasses.
As for your recipe, the traditional custard and fruit are tradition for a reason--they're so tasty!  If you're pressed for time, the "cook and serve" puddings are quite good, especially if you add a touch of vanilla or almond extract.  For extra fun, you can sprinkle the cake with a liqueur as you layer it.  For a lemon cake, limoncello or Grand Marnier would be lovely.  So would a raspberry liqueur as long as it's clear.  Finish with whipped cream (with a little lemon zest, perhaps?) and some shaved white chocolate or slivered almonds.  
Turning broken lemon cake into trifle?  That's definitely the Literate Baker's idea of lemons to lemonade.  Thanks for writing in!  Please let us know how things turn out for you!
Keep it sweet.
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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Best Part of Waking Up

I love caffeine as much as the next person, especially in the form of iced coffee or Diet Coke.  I'm also quite fond of waffles, almond croissants, and cheese danish.  I have a new breakfast favorite, though, and I think it's fair to say it makes getting out of bed a much more pleasant endeavor.

It is... the grilled Nutella sandwich.  It goes a little something like this:

Step 1: Smear bread with Nutella.

Step 2: Cook in a skillet with butter.

Step 3: Eat, licking Nutella from fingers and plate as necessary.

Is it baking?  Not technically.  Is it beyond yummy?  You bet.  It's crispy yet oozy, chocolaty and hazelnutty and buttery.  It probably isn't any more fattening than pancakes.  So there.  I wonder if I could get away with having a hot plate in my office?

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Butteriffic, Or, Why I Love Shortbread

Generally, I'm  a chewy-chunky kind of girl.  No, I'm not talking about my personality or my fashion sense.  I'm talking about my taste in cookies.  I adore a chewy texture, and there are few combinations of chocolates, nuts, and fruits that I wouldn't support.  That said, my favorite cookie in the whole wide world might just be shortbread.

Truthfully, shortbread is butter in cookie form.  When made well, a shortbread cookie is at once light and rich, perfectly buttery and just barely sweet. The other cool thing about shortbread is that it is ridiculously easy to make.  Here's my favorite recipe, from my (in my dreams) good friend, Ina Garten:

Shortbread Cookies

3/4 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 to 7 ounces very good semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  • In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together the butter and 1 cup of sugar until they are just combined. Add the vanilla. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and salt, then add them to the butter-and-sugar mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together. Dump onto a surface dusted with flour and shape into a flat disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.
  • Roll the dough 1/2-inch thick and cut with a 3 by 1-inch finger-shaped cutter. Place the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Allow to cool to room temperature.
  • When the cookies are cool, place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Put 3 ounces of the chocolate in a glass bowl and microwave on high power for 30 seconds. (Don't trust your microwave timer; time it with your watch.) Stir with a wooden spoon. Continue to heat and stir in 30-second increments until the chocolate is just melted. Add the remaining chocolate and allow it to sit at room temperature, stirring often, until it's completely smooth. Stir vigorously until the chocolate is smooth and slightly cooled; stirring makes it glossier.
  • Drizzle 1/2 of each cookie with just enough chocolate to coat it. 
Literate Baker notes:  I also add 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract because I love it and would use it as perfume in a pinch.  I prefer to roll mine a little thinner, closer to 1/4 inch thick.

You can use any cookie cutter.
I do a chocolate dunk.
Shortbread stays fresh for a while, so it's a great cookie to give as a gift, to ship to a friend, or to use as a party favor.  Just be sure to make extra.  Eating three or four (or five) in one sitting is not unreasonable, given that they are the perfect not-too-sweet way to...

Keep it sweet.

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Monday, October 4, 2010

Best Laid Plans

I recently saw an old Eddie Izzard sketch about the best laid plans of mice and men.  (You can see it here; skip to the 4:00 mark.  While you're at it, you should look up Cake or Death, my single most favorite Eddie bit.)  While neither mouse nor man, I am quite fond of making plans.  Much like mice and men, my plans gang aft agley.  (Really, that's what Robert Burns said; look it up.) 

Anyway, I do have a point.  Or at least a story.  Sort of.  On, Mondays, my best laid plans generally include getting a lot of work done and eat in a much healthier way than I did over the weekend.  Dear readers, I am seriously agley.

I am currently chucking in the dream bar/hello dolly/seven-layer bar pictured above while attempting to wrangle the spring class schedule and my inbox.  I'm sure regret will set in shortly.  At the moment, it's cloyingly sweet gooeyness is making the day just a bit more manageable.  And that's good enough for me.

If you'd like to try your hand at these, here is a classic recipe from Eagle Brand:
  • Crisco® Original No-Stick Cooking Spray
  • 1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 1 (14 oz.) can Eagle Brand® Sweetened Condensed Milk
  • 2 cups (12 oz. pkg.) semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 1/3 cups flaked coconut
  • 1 cup chopped nuts
HEAT oven to 350°F. Spray 13 x 9-inch baking pan with no-stick cooking spray.

COMBINE graham cracker crumbs and butter in small bowl. Press into bottom of prepared pan. Pour sweetened condensed milk evenly over crumb mixture. Layer evenly with chocolate chips, coconut and nuts. Press down firmly with fork.

BAKE 25 to 30 minutes or until lightly browned. Loosen from sides of pan while still warm; cool on wire rack. Cut into bars or diamonds.   For perfectly cut cookie bars, line entire pan with foil, extending foil over edge of pan. Coat lightly with no-stick cooking spray. After bars have baked and cooled, lift up with edges of foil to remove from pan. Cut into individual bars.

SUBSTITUTE chocolate chips or nuts with candy coated pieces, dried cranberries, raisins, mini-marshmallows or butterscotch chips.

I don't think these should ever be made without butterscotch chips.  I'm also fond of the chocolate cookie crumbs used in the crust of my current specimen.  Personally, I could do without the coconut.

I suppose the moral of today's story is to go with the flow.  (This is more uplifting than the alternative: Don't kid yourself, just bring the cake scraps to work with you.)  Either way, I'd better get back to work.  Given the sugar high I feel coming on, it should be quite a bit easier to...

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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Something Fishy

It is my sincere intention never to allow this blog to become a mere offshoot of the baking I do for my business.  That said, I just made the coolest cake.  Ever.  Well, probably not ever, but close.

I received an email several weeks ago from a guy looking to surprise his wife for her birthday.  The cake he wanted?  A sushi boat.  With sweet sushi in it.  Sweet.  Had I not just seen a sushi boat cake on one of my many tivoed cake shows, I might have been intimidated.  Since I had, I was giddy, I mean, well-prepared.  (See, watching cake tv pays off.)

The boat was red velvet cake, covered in fondant and painted to resemble woodgrain.  For the sushi, I wanted something more palatable than fondant, so I used rice krispy treats for the rice (I know, brilliant).  I dipped that in white chocolate and added white sprinkles.  For the salmon, I made a pinky-orange modeling chocolate.  I did use fondant for the fishy bits inside and the nori.  I also made a giant mess of my work table and myself.

I made a few extra so the husband and I could sample them.  The verdict?  Very tasty, but a little unsettling.  Even though we knew they were sweet, I think our brains were programmed to expect, well, sushi.

I now wish I'd taken pictures of the work in progress.  Next time I suppose.  Here is the finished product.

A success, I'd say.  I love making cakes that don't look like cakes.  Raw fish: the literate baker's newest way to...

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