Sep 19, 2014

Cake Decorating 101

Remember this post, about the Flag cake Cameron requested I make for the 4th of July? This cake?

Well that cake inspired me. 

It's no secret that I love baking - to the point that I insist, almost every year in baking the birthday cakes and cupcakes for the girls. There has only been one year where I have agreed to purchase something from a bakery, cupcakes for London's 2nd birthday. But, that was when I was pregnant with Sydney and exhausted, so that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. 

I'm actually a bit snobby about baking when it gets down to it, too. I won't bake a cake from a box. They just don't come out dense and moist, even when you take them out just prior to them being fully cooked through. But one area I feel I need to improve is cake decorating. 

Don't get me wrong, I was proud of the 4th of July cake. London's 4th birthday cake? Not so much: 

Not my finest work. Screams homemade. But it tasted amazing. Which is why that one never saw the inside of the trash can.

So at the beginning of August I signed up for a cake decorating class through Jo Ann. Specifically, Course 1 of the Wilton cake decorating courses. I was so excited for it. And it almost didn't happen. The course was 2 Tuesday evenings for 3 hours. All other sessions of that class were offered during the day, so I couldn't do them. The Saturday before the first class was to start (the first Tuesday in September), I got a call saying that I was the only one signed up for the class and they have to have at least 2 people signed up for the class to take place! I quickly called around and got my girlfriends Lynde and Kim to sign up as well. 

We spent the first class going over piping basics and some easy piping techniques including the traditional cupcake swirl - but of course I forgot to take any pictures during that class. The only thing that would have made the class more fun would have been a bottle of wine for us girls to share.

The second class taught us the basics on cake leveling and the importance of a cake spinner. That and a handy dandy tool we were introduced to for cake leveling were quickly bought after class that night! 

And I did take a few pictures. I have a long way to go in developing my skills but as our teacher said, what really matters is practice. Which I should be doing given I have plenty of left over frosting sitting in my fridge. Better to practice than eat it, right? It's just a little weird to me still to just get out all the tools just to practice and not actually make anything.

Creating a "dam" to prevent our filling from spilling out

An Iced Cake

And the final result

Good thing Sydney's 2nd birthday is coming up, then I'll have a true reason to practice.Time to start thinking up the design. It probably will have something to do with trains. She is obsessed with trains these days. The second she hears one about to come by to our house she runs to me saying "mommy see mommy see" indicating she wants me to pick her up so she can look at the kitchen window - even though she can see it without my help from the back door! She's quite the character. My guess is her first ride at Disneyland is going to be the Disneyland Railroad!

And while I enjoyed the class, for now I am going to hold off on Course 2 - that one is four 2-hour classes. One, I don't have the time right now and two, I want to master course 1 as best I can first.

Sep 10, 2014

The Fig Tree

For the most part, our land is a bit barren when it comes to trees, especially established trees. When we purchased, there were 6 trees - albeit 2 being trees that have fallen over and grown over themselves.Two other trees, redbuds, that we absolutely love, have to come out as they were planted on top of our septic tank! And the two others need to come out because they are too close to the house and eventually can be hazards to our roof - then again I don't like the variety those two are so I could care less. But it's the two fallen over trees that have grown over themselves that I love. One of those is a fig tree. 

For one, it's such a nice contrast in the summer with all its green versus all the brown around us. And it actually produces fruit. Ok, so I have only enjoyed one actual fig, mainly because I have not successfully gotten to the fruit when it is ripe before the birds have, but I will one of these days. We also have discovered that it fruits twice a year - once at the beginning of summer and once at the end. Now that I know when it fruits I can be more on top of it. I've even been pinning Fig recipes in anticipation. 

Cameron eventually wants to remove this tree. And I get his reasons, but it will be hard for me at the same time. It's hard for me to describe - some of it has to do with it being original to the property. But it's also so organic in the way  that it has grown, fallen and come back again. I'll have to show you some pictures of it when the leaves aren't on it so you can see the trunk and limbs. It also creates a really cool cave with a canopy of leaves on one side. We'll see how long I can hold on to it.

Aug 21, 2014

Cooking with London - Blueberry Coffee Cake

Last week, or the week before, I received my September issue of Martha Stewart Living. Cameron brought it in from the mail just as I was starting a bath for the girls, so while they played, I sat on a stool and started to read the publication. I proceeded to leave it in there, given that I get a little distracted once the girls are out of the tub and we are working towards getting them down to bed. (Not to mention it was a Game of Thrones night, which means as soon as they are down, we are watching our Netflix disc of two episodes - it's our latest obsession when it comes to TV).

The next morning on my way to the kitchen after getting ready for the day, I spied London sitting on the toilet reading it, when she should have been getting ready herself. When she realized she had been caught, she quickly flipped to the cover, held it to her chest and pointed to the coffee cake that was adorning the cover. Then she asked "If I'm really good this week, can we make this?" I said yes. 

We've been having some trying times lately, with London testing the limits to see how far she can take things as well as talking back and plain, just not listening to us. From every other mother I speak to, they all have gone through this at this age too. It's like a switch goes off around 3 1/2 and continues through ages 4 and 5!

Any how, last week was an exceptionally good week. And with Cameron planning on being gone most of Saturday evening and Sunday for his Fantasy Football league's draft and the social aspects that go with it, the girls and I were having some of the other wives and kids over on Sunday for some girl time. Saturday night I let London stay up late so we could make the coffee cake. 

The recipe can be found here. I didn't follow it exactly but used it as basic recipe to which I added my own spin to it. First, I added cinnamon to the batter, as I have never heard of a coffee cake without cinnamon in it. I also used regular oatmeal instead of muesli for the topping. And instead of purchasing a whole new bag of white whole wheat flour, I used the regular whole wheat flour I already had on hand. And on top of the layer of blueberries in the center, I added a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon before topping it with the second half of the batter. Plus, I don't own a bundt pan or circular cake pan, so we improvised and baked in a normal 9 x 9 pan. 

It all worked out just fine and it cooked in just an hour versus the 1 hr 10 minutes mentioned in the recipe. 

My #1 baking tip is to always check something you are trying out for the first time 1/2 way through the recommended baking time. I then reassess how long I need to continue baking. Every oven is different. I then check a few minutes before the final buzzer. I find that a baked good is done when a knife inserted comes out ALMOST clean, with just a little of the baked good coming with it still. An absolutely clean testing knife or toothpick means its been over cooked. Then I cool the item on the sheet or in the pan for a few minutes - in this case 10 minutes, before transferring to a wire rack. The baked good will continue to bake in the pan/on the sheet while cooling.With cookies, I find 2 minutes on the cookie sheet to cool and solidify is perfect.

The resulting coffee cake was nice and moist, and oh so delicious. The girls loved it, I loved it, our friends loved it and my co-workers loved it. I took what wasn't eaten to work so that Cameron and I wouldn't indulge in the last half of it. Whatever we can do to keep the calories down, right?

If a promised baking experience every weekend results in happy weeks, I think my life will be easy. Helps that I love baking and my co-workers are happy to take whatever is leftover off our hands - that helps our waistlines considerably. 

Aug 19, 2014

Preserving the Harvest - Overn Roasted & Dehydrated Tomatoes

Unlike our basil, our tomato crop this year have been less than stellar. It;s not that we haven't yielded high number, just that the actual fruit has been small. Our Early girls, which should be the size of a vine-ripened tomato found at the store, ended up looking like extra large cherry tomatoes. In fact, I think we had cherry tomatoes last year the same size!

We also planted Romas. These didn't grow very large either - not even to the size of what you find in the store. But, given this was a learning year (more water earlier on, and fertilizer/nutrition for the soil next year) and that we still have plenty of tomatoes from last year frozen in our freezer in the garage, I decided to experiment in ways to use these tiny tomatoes this year.

We eat Greek salad for lunch on a weekly basis, and I've been using our home grown tomatoes for this salad each week - using up 6 to 8 at a time. And even at that rate we couldn't use them up, we do have that many. After reading my September issue of Martha Stewart Living, I decided to give Oven-roasted tomatoes a try. 

So last week, I set about rinsing, slicing and spicing up our tomatoes, laying the tomatoes halves, skin side down on cookie sheets lined with parchment. With the oven set at 250 degrees, it took 3 hours to get the tomatoes to a perfect sun-dried tomato-like consistency. And the house smelled delicious. I then canned the halves up in 1/2 quart canning jars, surrounded by 1/2 olive oil and 1/2 veggie oil. Because I jarred the tomatoes straight from the cookie sheets, 2 or the 3 jars sealed from the heat. The 3rd ended up sealing while in the refrigerator (we even tested it by taking it out of the fridge and letting it come to room temperature throughout an entire day). 

But given that our oven is gas and we are on propane, over-dried tomatoes isn't exactly economical, even in summer (especially given that we then have the AC going more).

We recently had solar installed, so I decided to give the dehydrator a second go, this time set up in the garage. That way I could poke my head in on the progress versus going absolutely batty listening to the fan in it. We put the tomatoes in for 5 hours at 160 degrees. After that, the tomatoes were almost done. An extra hour in the oven at 250 finished them off and provided the charred edges that I love so much. 

Again, I jarred the tomatoes immediately, with 3 of 5 sealing that night. The other two jars I simmered in water on the over for 30 minutes to get them to seal. 

I can't wait to use these on food soon. I love sun-dried tomatoes, whether blended with garlic and used as a spread with or without cheese, or mixed in with Alfredo sauce and pasta. Honestly I could just snack on these suckers. We tried a few right off the cookie sheets and they were delicious.

The recipe I followed from Martha Stewart is a simple one. Simply sprinkle sugar, salt and assorted Italian seasonings (I literally just used Italian Seasoning) over the cut-side of the tomato halves and bake at 250 degrees 1-6 hours, depending on how dried out you want them.

Aug 14, 2014

Homemade Pesto Recipe

We planted six basil plants this year in the garden, mainly as a way to combat pests for our tomatoes. While the tomato plants have been less stellar than years previous at our old home, the basil has turned out to be a rock star this year. But what to do with all the basil? One of my favorite recipes calls for pesto. And so, I set out trying to perfect a pesto recipe that could be stored in the freezer. 

I started out following one of Martha Stewart's recipes. After 4 attempts with tweaking different aspects of the recipe, I have finally come up with my own, which I love. Here it is: 

Roasted Garlic Basil Pesto

  • 1/2 cup roasted walnuts
  • 1/2 cup roasted pine nuts
  • 1 head oven roasted garlic
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 8 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves
  • 2/3 cups Extra Virgin Olive Oil 
  • Salt
  • Pepper
It usually takes me two nights to make a batch. This is why - first, I have to separate the leaves from the stems. This can be a bit time consuming.  I usually do it sitting in front of the TV, working between the basket full of fresh basil, a bowl that holds the separated leaves and a brown bag to place the stems in, which is then taken out to the compost pile. 

Meanwhile, while I am separating the leaves, I have the head of garlic roasting in the oven for an hour. I follow these directions for that. I just store the garlic, wrapped in tin foil for the oven roasting, in the fridge until the next day. By the end of the night our house smells heavenly from both the basil and garlic.

The next night, I roast the pine nuts and walnuts in the oven at 350 degrees for about 5 minutes, tossing half way through. These go straight into the food processor, along with the roasted garlic cloves and grated Parmesan cheese. 

This photo was taken during a pine nuts only attempt at the pesto.

Meanwhile, I bring a pot of water to a boil for the basil leaves. When the water is right, I blanch the basil quickly in the boiling water, then drain and cool it off in the sink with cold water. I like this step, mainly because my basil comes straight from the garden and not all spiders or other pests, along with dirt are removed with a regular old rinsing.  I feel this way, some sterilization takes place.

Originally I was then drying the basil leaves on paper towels, but I have since found it is much easier to simply squeeze all the water out by hand. It all goes into the blender next any how.

Once the basil is added, I start my Cuisinart. As it is going, I add the olive oil through the top, along with some salt and pepper to taste.

The final step is scooping out the pesto into a zip lock bag and placing it in the freezer. Usually my batches are about double the amount specified above, which fills up about 1/2 of a Quart Freezer bag by Ziplock.

The you have it.