Monday, September 23, 2013

Too Much Stuff: The Moving Experience

Everybody who has moved has said this at least once during a move: why do I own so much stuff?  I'm no different, and packing to move across the country made it clear that I needed to be more organized and to get rid of quite a bit of extra stuff.  When I was unpacking, it was even more obvious that dumping things into baskets (my old method of organization) just wasn't going to work anymore.  It also became clear that I own a lot of earrings.  Lots and lots and lots of earrings.  So I decided that for my new place, I would make a new system for organizing little things like earrings and hair clips that take over when you're not looking.

I was inspired by a popular blog post on magnetic make-up boards.  Although I am way too lazy to wear makeup, it only takes a minute to put on a pair of earrings.  A magnetic board with small hooks would save space and make it easy to see all of my earrings at once.  I had to change several details to make it work, but I'm happy to say that the result is worth the work.

To make a magnetic hanging board, you need a pretty strange collection of things - but they don't cost very much.  I only owned the spray paint from a previous project and it was about $40 for everything else.  I had planned to do the entire project in one day but it ended up taking three days due to some moving shenanigans.  If you have the items you need, you could make this type of board in a day.  Paint and glue in the morning, wait for everything to dry, and assemble in the evening.

I ended up using:

  • 2 picture frames (no glass needed)
  • spray paint (primer and final coat)
  • gold magnetic paint (optional)
  • cotton fabric
  • spray adhesive
  • Goo Gone
  • tin snips (shears)
  • sheet metal
  • magnets (neodymium)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Moving On: Dulce de Leche Cake

All kinds of interesting things have happened over the last few weeks.  For the purposes of this blog, the only important thing is that I'm moving at the end of the month.  Since my stuff will not be delivered until the middle of August, this post will most likely be the last one until September.  That's probably how long it would have taken me to write up another entry anyways.

I decided to try something a little bit different for my last potluck out here, something besides chocolate or fruit tarts like I normally do.  Instead of a Fourth of July themed red, white, and blue dessert, I went a little south of the border and made a dulce de leche cake.

Dulce de leche is basically a very thick caramel that is made by heating sweetened milk until the water evaporates and the sugar caramelizes.  It is usually a dark tan color, and can be flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, or other spices.  It's a standard sweetening option in South and Central America, as well as Mexico.  People put it in their coffee, on muffins, in cakes, etc.

There are a couple of different ways to make dulce de leche.  The most common is to heat up a can of sweetened condensed milk.  This recipe uses the most time-consuming way: cooking it from scratch on the stove.  I'd never tried that method before so I figured I would give it a chance.  The results were just about the same as using the "put the can in boiling water" method.

This cake also has homemade buttercream frosting.  I wrote about making buttercream frosting at home in the post about checkerboard cakes.   The motor in the base of my Cuisinart heated up the frosting as it mixed so I had to put in the refrigerator for an hour or so to solidify properly.

Between the dulce de leche and the frosting, this cake was approximately two-thirds sugar.  I'm not kidding - it was so sweet that I didn't like it at all.  Ironically, several people told me that it was the best thing I've ever made.  I suggest eating a very thin sliver of cake with a nice cup of tea to balance it out.

The cake is a nice, moist vanilla cake and I will probably use the cake recipe for other projects.  The dulce de leche was a massive pain to make and took hours but it turned out nice so I may try using it again.  The frosting was just too sweet.  I dislike buttercream frosting because it's basically just butter and sugar, and there's only so much of that you can eat at one time.  If you like buttercream frosting, this recipe is definitely one of the best I've used, easy to make and has a nice consistency.

If you don't want to bother making dulce de leche and you live near a Trader Joe's, the TJ's fleur de sel caramel sauce is a very good dulce de leche substitute.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

I'm Too Poor For Your Recipe

Every cookbook and blog tell you the same thing: use high quality, fresh ingredients for the best tasting results.  This makes sense and I completely agree.  But there is a line between high quality ingredients and break-the-bank ingredients.  Certain blogs (no, I won't name them) assume that you have both access to quality but expensive foods and the bank balance to possibly waste a large quantity of said expensive foods.

"Take a quick hop over to Nepal and hike to the Lumbini Buddhist monastery.  Trade the monks for yak butter specially prepared according to the ancient rituals.  P.S. You need two cups of butter for this recipe."

No, thank you.  I will just use the regular, straight from the farm to my local farmer's market butter that is still kind of expensive but worth the money to support local farmers.

For this month's potluck, I tried two new recipes.  One was completely reasonable and used ingredients that I can get at my local supermarket.  The other one was also completely reasonable if you bake or cook using mostly pre-made stuff.  I am snobby enough that I will make my own whipped cream instead of using "whipped product".  This recipe was probably pretty cheap when made using Duncan Hines cake mix, etc, but became pretty expensive when I made almost everything from scratch.*  The good news is that everybody said both recipes tasted great, which is the most important part.

* Okay, so my complaint about how expensive the ingredients were for this recipe is due to my insistence on using expensive ingredients and not on the recipe itself, but let's forget about that so I can complain some more.

The first recipe was raspberry bars, although the original changed recipe used blackberries and the original original recipe used blueberries.  There weren't any blackberries at the store so the main ingredient changed.  People said that the crust was great and that the bars tasted very strongly of raspberry.  I like blackberries better than raspberries so I'll probably remake this one when blackberries are in season, or I may try this using cherries.  I also like this recipe because it shows the type of evolution that recipes undergo when we use in-season ingredients.  You can see how the basic structure and dough part of the recipe stay the same, but we all used different fruits.

The second recipe was a chocolate-nutella mousse stack cake.  If you love Nutella like I do, this is the cake for you.  This recipe also had very little from-scratch baking in it so my version has a similar result to the original but a very different set of steps.  People said that the Nutella mousse was fantastic as frosting, that the taste and texture was amazing.  They also said that the cake was great but the Nutella mousse got more compliments.  I would have felt better about all of this if the cake hadn't broken in the middle.

Cakes weigh a lot, so when you stack them up they need to be strong enough to hold up the layers on top of them and to stay together when stacked on top of other cakes.  Many cakes are moist and lovely but not strong enough to either hold up layers or stay together on top.  This cake recipe produced exactly that type of cake: moist, soft, and easily broken.  Stacking layers with this cake will work if you don't slice each cake into two layers.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My New Obsession: Omelettes

This blog is supposed to be about baking and cooking instead of about my rather boring life.  But it's not really possible to separate what you cook and eat from your life - food is a large part of our lives, even people who don't cook at all.  Several months ago, I was advised by various medical people that I desperately needed to eat more protein.  That's a little bit complicated because my digestive system doesn't handle red meat very well.  I'm missing one of the enzymes that you need to digest red meat, so I can eat it but I don't feel very good when I do.  Most people suggest fish and eggs as high-protein substitutes but I don't like the taste.

And then I got to thinking: what uses eggs but doesn't really taste like eggs?  Omelettes with salsa.  They taste great and you have a very fresh omelette which you can eat immediately.

Confession time: I love salsa and I put it or Sriracha on pretty much everything that I eat.  Brown rice + avocado + salsa = yummy time!  Etc etc etc.  Anything tastes better with salsa.*  So I looked up how to make an omelette and followed the instructions and dumped lots of salsa on it, and it was great.  Wonderful.  Fantastic.  Now I'm eating an omelette every day.

* No, not literally everything.  Just most things.

I used to associate omelettes with places like Denny's, which isn't a bad thing but I also didn't think I would be able to make one of those.  Jamie Oliver's youtube video on making omelettes looked so easy that I decided to give it a try.  His instructions are easy to follow and it's easy to understand what he means by the eggs being liquid and cooking because you can see it happening very quickly as you make your own omelette.

Warning: the whole process takes about 3-4 minutes so you need to keep an eye on the omelette or it will burn quickly.

Jacques Pepin has a longer video about the different types of French omelettes.  What we call omelettes in America are the country version of an omelette in France, but both types look pretty easy to make.

Monday, May 06, 2013

What Geometry Is Good For

At some point, everybody who's taken geometry in school has said, "When am I ever going to need geometry?"  The surprising answer: baking.  You really do need to know about degrees and angles and circles and triangles and rectangles (and various other geometric ideas) to bake and construct certain baked goods.  Listen up, class - today's lesson is on checkerboard cakes.

The idea of a checkerboard cake is that when you slice a piece, the inside of the cake isn't just one cake, but two different types arranged in alternating squares, like a chess- or checker-board.  The first time I saw a checkerboard cake, I actually thought that somebody had taken two cakes, sliced them up into little cubes, and then glued each cube into place with frosting.  I suppose you could make a checkerboard cake like this, but it's much easier to use geometry.

The key is to use circles to make the squares.  Hang on, what?  It's just like being in math class all over again.  To make a checkerboard pattern, you need to have the cake colors alternate.  You've got two round cakes and when you slice out a wedge, you want to see interlocking squares.  But the squares are really an optical illusion.  Instead, you cut out circles of cake and stack them so that the colors switch back and forth both horizontally and vertically.  (Or you can buy a pan that separates the rings for you.)

This sounds complicated but it's easy to see when you look at a picture.
A special pan for baking checkerboard cakes.  One color batter goes in the inner and outer rings, and the second color goes in the middle ring.  Swap colors in the next pan, and then stack the cakes vertically.  Cutting out the rings after the cakes are baked lets you skip using the special pans.
To make a two-layer checkerboard cake with six squares, you need two layers of cake where the inner and outer ring are the same color horizontally and a different color vertically.  You can achieve that part by simply stacking up two cakes like you normally would.  To make the middle squares be alternating colors, slice out a ring of cake from the middle, then switch the middle ring of one cake with the other one.  When you look at them horizontally, they make a pattern: Color 1, Color 2, Color 1.  The other layer will have the opposite pattern:  Color 2, Color 1, Color 2.  Then stack the two layers, and each ring will be sitting either on top or below of a ring of different color:

Color 2  Color 1  Color 2
Color 1  Color 2  Color 1

This is how you put together rings to make alternating squares when a wedge is cut.

See?  Geometry at work.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Mango Tart: Smashing At The End

Mangoes are my favorite fruit.  I love how they taste, their texture, that they can be eaten by themselves or used in both savory and sweet dishes - everything about them, which is why I make this mango mousse cake so often.  This time I decided to try something new and make a mango dessert that wasn't the mousse cake.  I had already decided to retry the green tea mille crepes cake from the Zen Can Cook website.  When I was on the website, I saw that he's got a recipe for a mango tart.  It was fate!

But of course I can't leave well enough alone, so I changed some things before I even tried the recipe for the first time.  You'd think that I would have learned after the mille crepes cake debacle, but no.  This time I decided that instead of using store-bought puff pastry, I'd make a tart shell and put the filling into that instead.  I used the tart shell from the dark chocolate and cherry tart and one and half bags of frozen mango chunks from Trader Joe's instead of four to five ripe mangoes.

Zen's original recipe produces a flat tart with a thin layer of mango puree topped with lots of fresh mango slices that are baked until they are cooked through.  This isn't a good time of year to get fresh mangoes on the East Coast, so I made a thick tart with a lot of mango puree topped with a small amount of fresh mango that was baked until the mango puree became more solid.  Sometimes it just isn't possible to get the right quantities of the ingredients you need to make a recipe.  There's no shame in improvising.  I figured if the whole thing didn't work, I'd just eat the mango filling with a spoon.

In the end, things worked out well enough that I have a couple of ideas for the next time I try the "thick variation" of this recipe.  Nobody at the potluck got to see the result because I was cut off when I driving on the freeway on my way to the potluck.  Fortunately I had put the mango tart in my cake carrier so when I braked suddenly, the mango tart smashed into the side of the carrier instead of into the back of the drivers seat.  I told the potluck that it was an Impressionist version of a mango tart.  We ate it with a spoon and it tasted wonderful, very mango-y.

If you don't like mango, it's not worth your time to make this since the filling is basically pure mango with a few extra ingredients.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Green Tea Mille Crepes: Second Time's The Charm

The first time I tried to make Zen Can Cook's green tea crepe cake, I got the crepe version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  This time I decided to follow the recipe exactly instead of using a different pastry cream recipe.  It also reminded me why I didn't use Zen's recipe last time: there's six egg yolks in it.  I will be eating a bunch of egg white omeletes this week.

The pastry cream needs to be firm and solid enough to hold up the stack of crepes.  Zen's recipe has both egg yolks and cornstarch for thickening so it's got the consistency of very solid jam.  I stacked up all of the crepes that made it (twenty), and the tower didn't even lean.

Twenty crepes is too many for this cake.  It was too tall to eat easily and we ended up splitting the slices into the top and bottom half.

The pastry cream has a lovely orange flavor but I didn't think it went that well with the crepes.  The green tea turned the crepes green but I couldn't taste it at all.  The texture was nice so the next time I make these crepes, I'll probably double or triple the amount of matcha powder in the batter.  Zen also has a version that is chocolate crepes with the same orange pastry cream.  I think that this combination makes more sense than green tea with orange.

This cake would work nicely as a single serving, personal dessert.  I may try making half sized crepes for small cakes instead of one large one.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Tea Sandwiches and Angel Food Cupcakes

When I moved to DC, I thought that it was an East Coast city that got snow regularly and that it had the infrastructure to handle snow.  How wrong I was.  This city can't handle more than an inch of snow.  Normally I just make disparaging comments comparing DC to Chicago, but at the end of January I ended up cooking for a baby shower twice due to DC's lack of snow skills.

My friend Y was pregnant and her due date was the second week of February.  I met Y at work and became friends with her and C, who are both great.  So C and I arranged to have a baby shower for Y.  We sent out invites, reserved a room, assigned various people to bring food and/or drinks - the whole shebang.

Three days before the baby shower, we found out that there was a major storm heading towards the East Coast.  The weather people were predicting 6 to 12 inches of snow in one night.  But then the predictions began to be downgraded and nobody was sure how much snow we would get.  C and I decided that we would do the baby shower and if work was closed due to massive snowfall, then we would just have some extra food at home to eat instead.

In the end, we got no snow at all but work was still closed down.  Why?  Because they got a half inch of snow.  Seriously.  So I was stuck with 36 angel food cupcakes and a whole bunch of tea sandwiches, all of which needed to be eaten in the next day or two.  I ended up having a spontaneous get-together at my place with a bunch of friends to eat all of the baby shower food, and then I made it all again the next week.

It all worked out in the end. Y had her baby three weeks early, a couple of days after the rescheduled shower.  But I learned a hard lesson about DC: the idea of snow makes everything shut down.

On the other hand, I can assure you that it is really easy to make angel food cupcakes and tea sandwiches.  Trust me, I made them twice in a week.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Winter Disapearance, But That's Normal (Blackberry Cobbler Again and Chocolate Cherry Tart)

My original plan for this blog was to post once a week, most likely over the weekend but maybe during the week if work was slow or boring. The last time I posted an entry was January 23rd (Oldest Sister's birthday) but I also made a draft for another post on the 27th.  And then I disappeared.

Winter makes me tired, slow, unhappy, depressed, irritable, and sloth-like.  All I want to do is to curl up in bed with a heating pad on my freezing cold feet, read a good book or watch some good TV, and eat cookies (or raw cookie dough or cake or candy).  I force myself to get up and go to work so I won't get fired, and I try all of the fixes that people suggest for seasonal issues: vitamin D, light boxes, massage, more exercise, etc etc etc (but not colon cleanses).  So far nothing has worked, and like pretty much everything else in my life, this blog doesn't get touched.

And then last week the weather got better.  There is sunlight.  It's not snowing.  I can wear sandals outdoors, I can ride my bike to run errands, I don't have to wear a winter coat with snow boots and earmuffs.  All of a sudden I want to go out with friends or do some exercise.

So obviously I need to move to a city that doesn't really have winter.  I hated living in Los Angeles but I never got the winter blues in the eight years I was there.  Although it's going to take a while to get the social part of my life back together, the current result is that I'm baking for three potlucks this week.  This blog is about to get a whole bunch of posts in a short amount of time, especially since the draft from January is already halfway done.

For yesterday's potluck, I made a blackberry cobbler and a chocolate cherry tart.  The cobbler is a recipe that I've made before and it's very reliable, while the tart was an experiment with a new recipe.  I chose these two recipes for several reasons.  One, if I want to try a new recipe and I'm going to a potluck, I make a reliable recipe as well in case the experiment fails.  You don't want to show up to a potluck with nothing but excuses about how the dough didn't come together right or the filling never solidified.  Two, one of my friends really doesn't like chocolate and I figured he would enjoy having a chocolate-free dessert option.  Although I didn't plan it this way, both recipes have something in common: blind baking/parbaking.

Blind baking and parbaking are different applications of the same idea.  When you want to bake a recipe where the different parts need to bake for different amounts of time, you bake each bit separately at first and then combine them for a final bake.  Although this sounds complicated, it is usually easier and more time-manageable than it seems because you can mix together the second part of the recipe while the first one is being blind or parbaked.

Cobblers are a fruit filling with some type of dough topping, usually biscuits or pie dough.  According to the almighty wikipedia, cobblers are an American invention to use less butter than some of the traditional English desserts.  Basically, if you don't put a layer of dough on the bottom of the pan but only on the top, you use half as much dough, which mean half as much butter, flour, etc.  We have many different types of cobblers over here but I like the good old-fashioned blueberry or blackberry cobblers.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Green Tea Mille Crepes: An Experiment Based On Somebody Else's Experiment

Update (4/22/2013): I tried this recipe for a second time and got better results.

I'm not the only baker who gets a type of recipe stuck in their brain and then has to make multiple versions of it.  I am also susceptible to food porn: pictures of somebody else's food creation that is so beautiful, you must try the recipe yourself.  Take a look at this:

Matcha mille crepes (from Zen Can Cook).
It's a green tea crepe cake with orange pastry cream filling.  This is the third mille crepe version that Zen blogged about.  He got the same "must make different flavors!" bug that I get.  Of course I had to make this cake.

Every European culture has their own version of crepes.  In my father's family, we eat blintzes, which are basically crepes filled with a sweet cheese mixture and then fried.  We also eat the classic French version of crepes, especially since there are a bunch of crepe restaurants in Berkeley (Crepes A Go Go, Crepevine, etc.).  These are more on the American side of what a crepe should be: larger and with more fillings than you'd get in France.  I'm an American so I don't complain.

So I'd been eating crepes for years but I'd never tried to make them.  I knew from the start that there would be a serious problem: I can't flip anything in a pan.  Pancakes and omelettes become smashed messes when I try to flip them.  I also don't have a crepe pan, which is a thin frying pan with a completely flat bottom and almost no outer rim (see this for an example).  I didn't know if the pan was necessary or not.  This entire thing was going to be an adventure, and if it didn't work I would hopefully have some delicious, smushed crepes to eat at the end.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Beer and Baking

When I was in high school, my father told me that if I drank enough beer I would learn to like it.  I spent the next five years or so doing my best to drink "enough" beer.  It never worked - beer is disgusting, bitter and nasty.  For the next ten years after that, I just thought that I was deficient in the drinking department.  There are very, very few alcoholic drinks that I like, and those are only the ones where you can't taste the alcohol.

I put this down to having an undeveloped/immature tongue.  Our parents used to tell us that we would like different foods when we got older, like eggplant and arugula.  But I never started liking any of those types of foods, and I just assumed that my tongue was the Peter Pan of my anatomy, doomed to be child-like forever.

I was complaining about this to a food guy, who looked at me like I was nuts (and to be fair, he may be right) and said, "You're a supertaster.  There's nothing wrong with you."

Supertasters are more sensitive to bitter tastes than normal tasters.  The wikipedia list of foods that supertasters hate is pretty true to my experiences, except that I like the more mellow types of green tea.  It also explains why I had such a hard time taking quinine and threw up afterwards.

So now I take a different approach to cooking, baking, and which ingredients I choose to use: if it's for other people, I use ingredients that are on the list because normal tasters like them; if it's for me, I only use ingredients that aren't on the list or which I know will have their taste covered up by something else.  The good news is that the taste of beer can be covered up easily in a lot of baking recipes so that it only comes out as a faint aftertaste.

That's good news because beer is one of the best liquids to use in baking.  It has both carbonation and gluten, and lifts dough and batter up to be light, moist, and fluffy.  Some people call beer a secret ingredient, but there's nothing secret about it.  Humans have been baking and cooking with beer for literally thousands of years.

Friend B's husband R is a beer guy, so if I have a beer-containing recipe that I want to try I just wait until there's an occasion in honor of R.  My thought process goes like this: "This recipe may turn out horribly, but R likes beer so he'll like it anyways!"  R is too polite to say, "Jesus Christ, this shit is terrible!  Not even beer can rescue it!" about a cake that somebody has made for him.

R's birthday was last week, so he got my second try at making a beer cake.  The first try was for something last year (Honey Spice Beer Cake) and this try was supposed to go along with the Italian-themed dinner party (Chocolate Stout Cake).  Both cakes turned out great, and the recipes only needed a little massaging.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Holiday Parties Galore: Mojito Doughnuts

Now that it's January and I'm looking back at the holiday season, I'm still convinced that work holiday parties are horrible.  It's not that I don't have friends at work, it's that either I've got work that needs to get done and I don't have time to waste or I usually hang out with my friends at work while we're at work and I don't need to do that with hundreds of other people as well.  I'm a total Scrooge and there will not be a Tiny Tim coming by to change that anytime soon.

By the time I got to the last holiday party in the Week Of Seven Holiday Parties, I was clearly in need of something alcoholic.  So why not make something sweet and boozy?  I've forgotten exactly what combination of words I put into google to find this recipe, but I'm sure that it included "yummy", "alcoholic", "sweet", and "doughnut".  Mojito doughnuts!  What a perfect and brilliant idea.

Of course, there were several setbacks, including my lack of a doughnut pan and the fact that one of my old roommates had a serious drug and alcohol problem and had secretly stolen all of my cooking booze (except the arak - even alcoholics won't drink the arak).  So I bought rum and with its help constructed a doughnut pan out of tin foil and a muffin tin.

Between the rum and the rest of the week, I was at the point where I didn't care if the recipe worked or not.  That's why it turned out to be one of the best recipes I'd made in 2012: recipes only work perfectly when you don't care anymore.  Martha Stewart should do a show about this phenomenon.

What's a slightly drunk girl with no doughnut pan going to do when she tries to bake doughnuts?  Construct one!  I just expected that it wasn't going to work and I would have oddly shaped, solid doughnuts, but it actually worked like a charm.  Who knew?  Definitely not me.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Holiday Parties Galore: Fantastic Holiday Party Cake Recipe

Having two jobs means that I've basically got double of all of those job-related things that crop up in life - specifically, I had three job-related holiday parties to go to.  If they had been spread out through the month of December, it would have been fine.  But not only were they in the same week, they were also in the same week as four other holiday parties that I had already said I'd go to.  To be blunt, the second week of December kicked my ass.

I wasn't planning on going to both holiday parties for Job 1, but I miscalculated: when you bake cakes that people like, they want you to come back for other potluck parties.  I got ambushed by the secretary to the Deputy Director a couple of days before one of the parties, and while I was making excuses about why I wasn't going, the Deputy Director popped up and said that he'd loved my cake last year and would I please bring it again this year.

This would normally be complimentary, but I'm pretty sure that the Deputy Director of a federal agency the size of ours doesn't know me from Adam and certainly didn't remember what cake I'd brought to a potluck party with hundreds of people that happened a year earlier.  But his secretary remembered and he's a good boss who tries his best to keep her happy, so I got commanded to show up with the cake.

They got a bit of a surprise when I mentioned that it was a lime-zucchini cake.  Zucchinis are a secret baking weapon: full of water to make cakes moist but they have a weak taste that can be overridden by any citrus fruit.  Lime-zucchini cakes just taste like lime, and nobody can tell that there's zucchinis in it.

Zucchini cakes are just like carrot cakes, where a mild tasting vegetable that holds a lot of water is used to produce a very moist cake.  If the idea of a zucchini cake freaks you out, just remember that lots of people love carrot cakes and don't think that there's anything wrong with using carrots in a cake.