30 June 2011

United States Botanic Gardens

Last month my little brother came for his first visit to DC. One of the first places we went, and to which he subsequently returned twice more, was the US Botanic Gardens so he could practice with his new 60mm lens.

Moment of jealousy that I don't have a 60mm lens.

I had to settle for using my 35mm but, thanks to some great Photoshop effects, I ended up with some pleasing shots I wanted to share.

25 June 2011

A Non Traditional Cake ... Really Non Traditional

Happy Birthday Lauren!! Yesterday was Lauren's 32nd and this year she decided to challenge my construction skills, patience, and ability to not eat ice cream the instant it comes out of the machine. I don't know how she found this, but What's Gaby Cooking had a crazy dessert she asked me to make. I've certainly made ice cream cakes before (in fact I think I made that particular one twice last summer) but this was something more.

I started with the brownies. I have to admit that I almost always use box brownies. I just have not found a recipe that makes better tasting brownies than almost any box mix. That is however, the only box mix I use. I poured the brownie batter in three 9" pans and after they cooled I wrapped them in wax paper and cling film. I had a busy week so I needed to make them well in advance and freeze them.

They really freeze very well.

That same night I started ice cream number one, mint chocolate chip. Both ice creams (yes both) were firsts for me. The mint chocolate chip was super easy to make. I have two recipes for it and decided to not use the custard-based recipe, which is usually what I use, but to make what is apparently a Philidelphia style ice cream:

3 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon peppermint extract
green food color

Heat the heavy cream until those small bubbles form around the edges. Do not let it boil. When you see the little bubbles, pull it off the heat and stir in the sugar until it dissolves. After it's cooled to room temp add the peppermint and the food coloring. The food coloring isn't necessary of course, but mint ice cream just isn't the same if it's off-white, is it? I refrigerated the cream overnight and ran it in the ice cream maker the next evening. After it had partially firmed in the maker I added mini chocolate chips. It's always a little iffy adding solids to the ice cream maker. It hiccups a little and makes angry noises but hasn't broken yet.

It was very, very green. Also, I would recommend slightly less than a full tablespoon of peppermint extract. While it blended well with everything else in the dessert, on it's own the ice cream was rather too refreshing.

Then I made the chocolate chip cookies. Sure there are plenty chocolate chip cookie recipes out there; but why look anywhere other than the back of the Toll House bag?

There's just something about cookie dough that begs to be eaten, isn't there? I mean what's better than whipped raw eggs, butter, and sugar?!

Oh yes, when you add chocolate!

Yum! I also used one of my baking secret ingredients for the cookies. I don't use vanilla extract. I haven't since I really started doing a lot of baking. I only ever use real vanilla. It's not that inexpensive but I have been to Mexico a couple times in the last few years and while I do not bring back sombreros or tequila; I do bring home vanilla. Lots.

Also a side note to the makers of baking parchment paper. Love you, great product, but the size is a bit off. Have you ever worked with parchment paper? Sure the wideness is great if you're using it on a cookie sheet or something but when cutting rounds for anything less than a 12 inch cake pan you end up wasting so much. Case in point:

So I'm just saying, think about making a couple different sizes, eh?

Next was ice cream number two. I find it incerdible that after making ice cream for what, three plus years now? this is the first chocolate ice cream I've ever made. How is that even possible? Chocolate is my favorite! I guess it was worth waiting for though because this is seriously the best chocolate ice cream ever. Do you remember Jello Pudding Pops? If not I feel deeply sorry for you. No clue why they were taken off the market since they were some of the best things in the entire world. But if you have this ice cream you'd have an idea of how good they were.

1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon vanilla

Blend the sugar, cocoa and eggs until smooth

Bring milk to a boil in a heavy sauce pan. Unlike with the mint this time you actually boil it. Then slooowly pour it into the sugar/cocoa/egg mixture blending the entire time. My recipe book suggested using a food processor but I was too lazy to get mine down from its spot on the top shelf of the cabinet. And be careful, it will spatter.

Pour everything back into the saucepan and on medium to low heat stir constantly with a wooden spoon or whisk (I prefer whisk) until it thickens. I poured it back into the bowl again right away to help it cool faster. Once it was about room temp I put it in the refrigerator to chill overnight. One thing I like to do before putting these ice creams away to chill is to cover them with cling film; but not just cover like you do normally. I put the cling film directly on the ice cream.

This helps keep that nasty skin cooked milk things get. That's just gross. This one didn't go through the ice cream maker quite so well but I think it's because I hadn't let it freeze long enough.

The night before the birthday it was assembly time!! At this point you should have: 2 different ice creams, 2 9 inch cookies, and 3 9 inch brownies. Oh, you also need craem cheese frosting. Whip 1/2 stick soft butter, 8oz cream cheese, and powdered sugar to taste and ta da!

Step 1: Spread mint chocolate chip ice cream on top of brownie

Step 2: Press cookie gently on top of ice cream and freeze for at least 30 minutes.

Step 3: Spread chocolate ice cream on top of cookie, press brownie gently on top of ice cream, and freeze for at least 30 minutes.

Step 3: Repeat steps 1 and 2. Freeze overnight.

Step 4: Cover with a thin layer of cream cheese frosting.

Step 5: EAT!

I think the above shot is worth repeating but with some handy Photoshop labeling so you can see the various strata.

Hmm...hope you can see that. It's much smaller than when I viewed it in Photoshop. But awesome right? It tasted pretty good too I must say. And I am happy to report that unlike my last post, this cake caused no breakdown or emotional outbursts of any sort.

20 June 2011

Follow the Butterflies*

Absolutely aaaages ago I co-hosted a pre-wedding party for two colleagues who got married this spring (but not to each other). My part of the job was, of course, dessert. I had huge plans that I was positive were completely unfailable.

I got up the day of the party really early to start baking. I had to make two batches of cake batter to fill a 12, 10, and 8 inch pan. And the baking took for-ever. Once those were in the oven I got down to the business was the chocolate. The bride co-worker only requested that something be chocolate. I decided I would jump on the cake pop train but make brownie pops (because obviously brownies are better than cake).  I made the brownies the night before and decided that I was not going to mix in frosting as I've done with the brownie balls I've made. That was stupid. I thought this would be the easy part of the day but it turned out not so much. You know how brownies get all nice and crispy and slight hard on the top and around the edges? That actually makes it really difficult to smoosh them together into balls. I had to make sure that the crispy bit was never on the inside of the brownie.

I finally got all the balls together and sticks shoved through them. Then I regriderated them in hopes that making them cold would make them easier to deal with. Using a double burner (ie a coffee mug in a pot of hot but not boiling water) I melted pink, blue, and purple white "chocolate" for dipping.  I bought a styrofoam cake form and used it to hold the pops while they dried. Before they were completey dried I decorated them with sugar bells and butterflies.

A few died along the way which was sad but yummy. I ate the dead ones. Can't let food go to waste.

Then the cake. I started by ordering a patterned Wilton decorating matt I'd had my eye on for a while and running by the local bake shop (in the rain) for a cake board and more royal icing mix. The cake was to be a three tiered lemon raspberry covered with white chocolate mousse. I would then pour a pale yellow thin royal icing over each layer and after it hardened I was going to press the form into it to make a nice pattern.

Things started out fairly well. The cakes came out well, I managed to slice them in half with little incident and the white chocolate mousse came out very nicely. Assembly went pretty well too. Pictured is the 8 inch cake but I even managed the 10 and 12 inch rounds without the cakes falling apart. I think I got too cocky.

I even did the cakes properly this time. Unlike the Great Cake Disaster, this time I put each layer on its own cake board separator thing and drove straws through the cake at strategic points. Not more dowels shoved through multiple layers to please God hold this cake together resulting in slices with slivers thank you very much!

Each cake went into the fridge for the getting cold while I mixed up the yellow royal icing. I left it a little thin so it would pour nicely. That is what I would remember as mistake number one. I poured icing over each cake and then back into the fridge they went. I checked them an hour or so later and notices that the icing was not only not hard ... but it seemed to still be running off the top. So I figured it just wasn't cold enough yet. Back into the fridge.

An hour later, same story.

And another hour after that.

And after that.

And after that.

Then panic started to set in a little because it was getting pretty close to the time when Lauren was going to pick me up for the party. And the blasted icing had not hardened. At all. There was just a pool of icing around each cake. It probably wouldn't have been so bad if all the icing had just slid off but no. I put the three tiers together anyway and hoped for the best.

The best did not happen.

In a desparate attempt to fix it I slapped more mousse over the melty icing. Two problems there. One, the three tiers were already assembled so now the cake did not look like three separate tiers but one tall cake that simply tapered off at the top. Two, mixing mousse with un set up royal icing was just a truly bad idea. Then I had another bad idea.

I took the leftover sugar butterflies and carefully placed them in concentric patterns around each layer. Only to notice that the pattern in my mind was just a nonsensical mess. And that pale yellow frosting combined with pink, blue, yellow, and green butterflies made the cake look like it was for a two year old's birthday party. And that said two year old decorated it. Then I had an even worse idea.

I decided to put on more mousse to cover up the butterflies.

Two full months later and I'm still banging my head on hard things when I think about this. Needless to say, the extra extra mousse just made things worse. And then, believe it or not, it got worse. I blame this on a number of things:
  1. I had just quit my job.
  2. I was fully realizing that, having quit that job I would no longer be getting free trips to hang out with my friends in Serbia and Kosovo.
  3. I had this fail proof plan for a beautiful cake that somehow failed anyway!!
  4. I was on cake decorating failure 3,000.
  5. And about three other things that I don't want to list.
So I started crying. And I don't cry prettily. There are not tears that fill the eyes, overflow, and roll delictely down the cheek. No no. My face gets all red and scrunches up and heave out harsh sobs. Totally unattractive. I sobbed all through reading Lauren's text that she was 10 minutes away and all through getting dressed and fixing my hair. I about had it under control until I looked at the cake again. I'm sure when poor Lauren came in to my hysterics she was probably sure that my cat had died or something.

She came into the kitchen where I was standing in front of the cake (and I use that word lightly) with one arm wrapped around my middle and the other covering my face. Sobbing loudly. And hysterically. When asked what was wrong all I could do was gesture emphatically at the "cake". Lauren looked at it, then looked back at me.


"It's hor-horibble!"

"No, no it's fine."

"NO IT ISN'T!!!!"

"No, look, we can fix it. We'll just add more butterflies."

So we threw more butterflies at the cake while I continued to cry. When they were all gone we left for the party. The ride there I had to keep pushing the 10 inch back onto the 8 inch. The damn royal icing was still so runny that the cakes were sliding off each other. On the way Lauren tried to reassure me that the cake would still taste fine. To which I responded:

"I don't care how it tastes!"

We got it to the party with no more major incidents. The people I worked with are overly nice and praised the cake to no end. I looked at them all like thery were idiots.

Also, side note. When directions tell you to put cake tiers on those separators for stability they do not mention what a mess they are to deconstruct!! All the frosting sticks to the bottom of the cardboard and not the top of the cake. No wonder they take away wedding cakes to cut them. And another note, if anyone knows how tiered cakes covered with smooth fondant don't slide off each other when I couldn't make them hold with sticky mousee/royal icing...please let me know.

Now I suppose if you've stuck around this long it's because you want to see the creature. sigh. I guess you deserve it.

And no ... I couldn't even bring myself to eat a slice.

*10 points if you know the reference!