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Posts Tagged ‘icing’

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The above is what happens when you’re hungry, you’re about to crew an enormously demanding show (The Who’s ‘Tommy’), and you need energy to make it through to 6pm (or later if we’re striking, or breaking down, the show. We were).

I have been wanting to try this newish place nearby, called Broad Street Dough Co., but held off until I had an excuse to consume such calories. This was one. That, and I tend to cast a skeptical eye on this treat-everything-like-a-sundae food trend that’s been going on for some time. Cupcakes, muffins, doughnuts, even coffee drinks have become bases for piling on heaps of candy and icing. It seems mildly hysterical, and is often a cheap way to disguise a poorly-made product beneath.

But I am always elated to support the exceptions, and yesterday’s doughnut was one. It’s essentially a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich (with black raspberry jelly), on a doughnut that’s been sliced in half standing in for bread. The doughnut was hot, tender, and right out of the fryer; it softened the creamy peanut butter and jelly and made them gooshy. A bit heavy on the fillings, but delicious. I ate it in maybe four bites.

A place with integrity will be proud to offer their product in the simplest manner, as an ice-cream shop that makes their own ice cream will be as proud of their vanilla as of their Rocky Road. The shortest distance between you and determining the quality of a place that cooks from scratch is to try that vanilla (or the simplest version of whatever they make) first. It’s a rule I made that has never failed me. I’m going back to Broad Street for a maple-walnut doughnut, which looked lovely, and I’m going to try out what they call old-school doughnuts—plain, sugar, and cinnamon—per my rule.

Crewing shows and doughnuts. I can live with this.

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A teeny post today, small enough to fit in the back pocket of your Calvin Kleins along with a fun size Twix and your voter registration card.

Recently I wondered what it would be like to paint on the surface of a cake. It’s not something you see often; most of the time, you see icing that’s been tinted (or not) and decorated with butter cream or fondant accents (or not).

I knew rolled fondant would work as a canvas. Royal icing would, too, but Google tells me if you make a mistake and try to wipe it away with a water-dampened brush or cloth, the icing would dissolve. Down the road I’ll do this—goodness knows the flavor is superior to rolled fondant—but not on my first go.

Gel paste, edible glitter, fondant cut to an eight-inch round, a brush with a tiny, tapered tip, and I was set. And being an inveterate nature girl, a botanical was my choice. This is a pond study: hibiscus, dragonflies, and damselflies, rimmed by swamp grasses and cattails.*

It was kind of easy, and really fun. What should I make next?

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Damsel going in at mach 2. The edible glitter on the wings ups the turbo considerably.

*My friend Charlie said on an actual cake I should paint a fishing boat, with a little guy with a line cast down the side of the cake.

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Raisins, Dots, chocolate buttons, mini marshmallows, M&Ms, shredded coconut, Junior Mints…and my brother-in-law’s fantastic concoction (supervising): apple cider, white rum, dry curacao, and orgeat syrup.

Yesterday was spent with my family, making and decorating Christmas cookies, opening presents, and generally chilling. Here are the takeaways, in no particular order.

  1. A small child will never tire of putting her hands in bowls of candy.
  2. And she will extract as much as she can in the manner of the claw machines at the boardwalk.
  3. You may have to tell her that the M&Ms are edible, and not, say, beads. Once you do, you’re on your own.
  4. If you give her two ornaments off the tree as gifts for her and her brother, she will continue removing the rest of the ornaments.
  5. After opening a handful of art supplies, she will want to play with them all. Simultaneously.
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This is Santa, created by my 2-year-old niece. He is either waving a Merry Christmas to everyone or imploring help for a severe Junior Mint injury to his right shoulder. I think we’ve all been there.

6) When offered two different kinds of homemade cookies, grownups will eat one after the other quite mindlessly, as if the room is a zero-calorie-emission zone.

7) Even after going through two pizzas.

8) The floor is a totally acceptable place to sit.

9) After a bottle and a tummy rub, a five-month-old will demonstrate the best way to enjoy life: by falling asleep in the corner of a sofa.

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Mommy at left; tiny artist at right.

10) Whether decorated perfectly or somewhat less so, a cookie made with good ingredients will always taste good.

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Snowflake with red royal icing and mini marshmallows, skillfully applied.

 

 

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Help me out here. Something’s not making sense to me, it hasn’t for a while, and I want to pick your collective brains to try to get back on the trail.

I went to a restaurant a couple of weeks ago and ordered ‘carrot cake in a jar.’ It was a charming presentation, cake layered with icing, but the cake was dried out and the icing tasted like really sweet chemicals.

Last week I met a specialty foods store owner who apologized for the way some of his multi-grain loaves looked. The oven was acting up lately, he said, and was turning out loaves that were browning unevenly. None were burnt. He was just worried that I’d be upset that some parts of the loaf I’d bought were mahogany while others were tan.

Many local, hardworking farmers I know don’t set out produce that has so much as one flaw—a nick, natural russeting, a lopsided bottom—because they say the public won’t touch it. Some stores wax their organic apples to make them look more buy-worthy.

My favorite ice cream shop sells artificially dyed green chocolate chip mint ice cream. I asked the owner why he didn’t seek out a variety that didn’t, since I know they’re out there. He said he did, and set it out, ‘but no one wanted it. They won’t buy it if it’s not green.’

The affluent parents of the nursery schoolers I used to teach chose Go-Gurt—those brazenly colored tubes of chemicals—instead of pure yogurt for their kids’ lunches.

My local bakery makes luscious, three-layer chocolate cakes with Jamaican rum. But if one comes out of the oven with a crack across the top, no matter how slight, the proprietor doesn’t put it in the display case because she says it won’t sell.

Yet.

We pay top dollar for low-quality supermarket-made cakes, and we feed them to appreciative partygoers who gasp over the design but don’t pay attention to the flavor or to the fact that they are poking forkfuls of powdered head fake into their mouths.

We buy massive, brand new houses in developments in the middle of farmland, bells and whistles from the sun room to the butler’s pantry, but the basement floods as soon as it rains because when the mason was given instructions to make sure the foundation was tightly sealed, he just shrugged.

We spend $45 for a shower curtain at a big box store, so enamored with the cute embroidery at the base that we don’t actually FEEL the fabric to be sure it’s good quality, and it begins to fray after a month.

We pay six men to haul out the vintage cast iron clawfoot tub that came with the house, consistently holds its toasty water temperature for the length of time it takes to read Eat, Pray, Love, and has never leaked in all of its 80 years, then we install a five-figure plastic Jacuzzi (in ‘Creme Brulee’) whose finish begins to peel by the end of September. And after each use we see little pools of water at the corners.

So it goes.

What is UP with us? Why are we so preoccupied with perfection, even if it’s—absurdly clearly—just the look of perfection, a solar system’s throw from the real thing? Why don’t we see the manipulation that’s going on here?

And a more insidious thought comes to mind: If we DO see it, why don’t we give a flying Wallenda?

We used to care, I know we did. I have cookbooks that prove that people wanted, and ate, honest, delicious food made from real ingredients. I’ve seen old-time ads touting goods made with care and attention, with ‘family-owned’ splashed across them. But when I wrote for radio (18-35 demographic) a few years back I was told not to include ‘family-owned’ in my spots. ‘This generation doesn’t care about that,’ the head sales rep told me.

But I can’t shake the image—and the flavor—of farm-fresh chard so full of rainwater that it snaps apart when bent…of a funkily shaped Sugar Baby melon that’s so ripe that at the gentlest prick with the top of a chef’s knife it cracks and splits open in two on my counter top. Real tastes better than perfect.

I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for convenience; I’m not saying every restaurant serves chemicals for dessert (and to be fair, the carrot cake was at a chain restaurant, so I wasn’t exactly surprised); and I’m not saying there aren’t notable exceptions to what I’ve outlined here.

I’m saying there seems to me to be a dismaying prevalence of choosing fancied-up crap over quality, and it’s a behavior that does not seem to be changing. There have been staggeringly positive advances in the food industry; maybe we all just need time to appreciate foods grown and made with integrity over ‘perfection’, or eating locally and in season, or what have you. And there will always be those who don’t care what they buy or eat. I get that.

But barring those who don’t know better or don’t care, I’m wondering where our predilection for mindfully choosing crap over quality comes from, and when and how the change took place. Thoughts?

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Last summer my neighbor, a lovely English lady, flattered me by asking if I would edit her family recipe for Traditional English Christmas Cake. She considers it an heirloom; and in the hopes that her children and grandchildren would make and enjoy it for years to come, she wanted it to be as clearly written as possible. I edit recipes often for the magazine I work with, but the prospect of doing this gave me chills—good ones.

Start with the fact that I am an Anglophile who has seen many recipes for this iconic cake but have never tasted it. Next, add in the fact that my neighbor is a graduate of London’s Cordon Bleu; she actually made Coronation Chicken for ambassadors and dignitaries for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Wow. Lastly, throw in the history of the recipe, which goes back centuries. (To give you an idea of how far back I’m talking, a variation calls for 12 marzipan balls to be placed on top, and some historians believe they represent the 12 Titans.) This recipe is a piece of living history, and I was offered the chance to be a part of it. I couldn’t wait.

My neighbor asked that I get the edited recipe back to her sometime in the fall, so in early October I delved into it. She was very happy with my edits and reformatting. Last week she gave me a slice of the fruitcake, which she had made for a garden club holiday party. It was like nothing I have ever tasted, surprising and complex. And a couple of days ago, I made the cake for myself—a little version of it.

The recipe predates refrigeration by hundreds of years, back when brainy and resourceful women figured out how to make food last. This is an example of what they learned. We know adding alcohol to foods preserves them. Here, the extra addition of a double layer of icing to the cake acts as a yummy edible Saran Wrap, helping it to stay fresh for a good month.

Which brings me to my next point, which you were waiting for. The traditional holiday fruitcake is much maligned, and generally I’ll agree it’s well deserved. Store bought fruitcake can be leaden, tough to swallow and moreover dangerous to drop even at short distances. But a homemade fruitcake, made with care and beautiful ingredients? I wanted to see if it was worth making, whether it’s been passed down for so many generations for a good reason, one this generation has missed.*

The first thing you do is roughly chop up dried fruits, like fancy raisins, cherries and unsulfured apricots, and soak them in brandy overnight. Or you can use fruit juice. The next day you make the cake batter and mix the fruit into it. My neighbor said to use only dark colored fruits because it’s supposed to be a dark cake (hence why I used unsulfured apricots), and indeed it is; the addition of brown sugar and a bit of molasses to the batter helps keep it dark, too.

Once baked and cooled, you release the cake from the pan and put it on its serving plate, tucking strips of parchment underneath. This way, after you’ve iced it, you can pull the strips out and discard them. Your plate stays clean as a whistle.

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Next you roll out some marzipan (I used my own, but a good quality store bought brand like Odense works, too) that you’ll use to cover the top and sides of the cake. Set it aside for a minute. Then put some apricot jam and a little water into a saucepan and heat it up so the jam loosens and becomes syrupy. That gets brushed on top of the cake, then you cover it with your marzipan. Here’s how mine looked. It’s a bit of a patch job, but this is home cooking. And Martha I ain’t.

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Royal icing comes next. I have never made it before and was amazed at how easy it is. You put a couple of egg whites into a bowl, beat them a bit, then add confectioners’ sugar spoonful by spoonful until you get the consistency and amount you like. That’s it. If it gets too thick, add a little lemon juice or milk. Mine was almost as gooey as honey, thin enough to pour. I used an offset spatula to coax it down the sides and made sure all surfaces were covered.

Royal icing dries at room temperature, or I should say the top of it dries to a delicate crispness, like the top layer of newly fallen snow. Underneath it stays a bit creamy and soft. Luscious stuff.

If you come from the south of England, you decorate this cake with lots of Christmasy embellishments. If you come from the north, you decorate sparingly or not at all. My neighbor friend is from the south, so I followed her lead.

Below is the cake just after I put on the icing. I put the little bottle brush trees on at this point so their bases would stay affixed to the top of the cake.

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I added tiny pine cones around the perimeter, then while the icing dried I made two rabbits, a fawn and a squirrel out of more marzipan tinted with gel paste. (If I added the animals before the icing dried, their color would stain the icing.)

I’ve been making marzipan animals for years, but they’re always somewhat stylized, less realistic. They’re also quite a bit larger. I have never worked so small as I have here: the largest figure is 1.5″ and the smallest is just 3/4″. But when I started thinking about how to decorate the cake, the thought of making this little woodland scene jazzed me. I loved the challenge, and I love working with my hands. This is something I really needed, especially after the grueling past couple of months. Made me feel human again, like myself again.

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This morning I had a little piece of the cake. The allspice, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg are what come through first, heady and wonderfully fragrant. I didn’t taste a whole lot of the alcohol, but that might be because I have a dopey oven, and when I turned the temperature down from 325 to 295 as the recipe instructs, the cake finished baking before it made it to 295. So most of the alcohol probably burned off, and the cake was less moist than it should have been, but I still love it. I was worried that the marzipan and royal icing that covered the already sweet cake would make it molar-looseningly cloying, but I was surprised to find that they were less sweet than the cake, and actually mellowed it.

And it was a little piece, not a big one. My neighbor tells me another reason why Americans aren’t fond of fruitcake is because we’re used to cutting cake in large slices and eating the whole fat slice. But this cake is very rich, very intense. It is not meant to be cut the way you would a Bundt cake. It is meant to be cut in what she called ‘fingers’, in inch-long lengths, the way my mom cuts a slice of banana bread into fifths. That’s all you want at one time from this cake; a little goes a very long way. Which is good because you’ll want the cake made from this ancient recipe to last, you’ll want to have some to nibble on each day as you watch the sky darken, as our ancestors did before us.

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*Guess the answer 🙂

Post script: This is my 100th blog post! Thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to playing with my food, with you, as long as I can.

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Irish car bomb cupcakes...the real thing.

I was all set to write about Meyer lemons when another idea popped into my little brunette head and I couldn’t shake it: Guess what I’m learning? Relationships or food, it doesn’t matter—what you get out of them is what you put into them.

Last year I was living at Square One—a notoriously topsy-turvy place, as everyone in the human race knows. And you’d think it would be at the highs, at the far-seeing vistas at the top of the roller coaster, that I would have gained the most knowledge, the most useful information I could take away from the experience. But for me, paradoxically, it was the lows that taught me the most. Once the dust (and tears) cleared, little glimmers of wisdom curled up all around me on the sofa, perching on the cushions and boxes of Kleenex. Sometimes they were comforting, sometimes not, but bless their little hearts, each set me on a healthier path.

This is one of them: Just as you can’t get a decent batch of brownies out of chocolate buttons from A.C. Moore and Splenda, you can’t get a satisfying relationship out of someone who doesn’t have the tools to give. Ingredients are everything. Across the board and without exception.

You know me. I’m the first one to say if you want something to be good, you have to start with the right stuff. No skimping, kids! I’m the poster child of real butter, chocolate that doesn’t taste like your driveway, creamy organic milk. But it took a perspective shift to hit the point home outside of the kitchen.

I’m reminded of an experience I had at a party years ago when someone had made a cake featuring an elaborate piped design. A fellow party goer saw it, nudged me and remarked, “Look at that! You’ve been outbaked.” But the cake was from a mix, and the icing was shortening and other assorted fakery, not butter and sugar. It was pretty unnerving that that cake had made the grade to that party goer…before she had had a single bite. What you bake might be pretty, but come on. Looks are far less important than how it tastes. I don’t care how you gussy it up and I don’t care how you slice it. Bullshit ingredients deliver a bullshit brownie. Or cake, in this case.

On to people ingredients. Start with someone who shows honesty, a good heart, courage and open ears (for simplicity’s sake, just glue all of the characters from The Wizard of Oz together, and then some) and you have the makings of a great relationship, whether romantic or platonic. It’s a lock. Then, when disagreements happen (when and not if—they’re inevitable if you’re both honest), you’ll get past them easily because the other qualities are in place. Better than that—you’ll be closer for having solved the problem together.

I’m not blaming people who, by genetics or happenstance, are missing the chip to be honest, or caring, or open-minded. Me, I’m missing the chip that allows me to be even marginally competent at math (and bio, while we’re at it. I never got above a D). But they probably don’t bring enough to the table to make the relationship mutually nourishing. Good ingredients are all.

Enough yammering. Go eat a brownie. And not a Betty Crocker one, for God’s sake. A real one.

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Forgive the lighting; it's as up to date as my appliances.

I had surgery on Monday, leaving my right arm in a sling (yes, I’m typing this with one hand—how much do I love you guys? 🙂 ) And knowing I’d be right-armless for two weeks at Christmastime, I did my best to write and send cards, shop, etc. as much as possible beforehand.

It was tough. Overwhelming at times. And I thought baking would feel onerous. It takes time and planning, and even worse, I didn’t know the peculiarities of the oven in my new place. (I posted on Facebook that it looks like it was shanghai’ed from the set of ‘Leave it to Beaver’.)  But I surprised myself: the one thing I truly enjoyed as I was scrambling to get stuff done was was baking. It was work, but it didn’t feel like it.

And it wasn’t because I used cake mixes or slice-and-bake cookies; I did everything from scratch. There’s a good chance that it was the tactile qualities of baking this way that calmed rather than frazzled—the smell of the real chocolate, the feel of loose sugar on my fingers, even scooping bits of broken eggshell out of the bowl (inevitable). When I get engrossed in yummy, it’s always good.

Made three soda breads with chocolate chunks and orange peel from a recipe I tore out of a magazine years ago, Kahlua brownies with a sacher torte ganache icing and Martha sugar cookies. There’s a shot of the latter above, right as they came out of the oven. Buttery goodness, baby.

It was relaxing for me to do all of this. But even if you’ve read this far and think I should be committed, think on this: last night I chipped wedges of cooled, melted, spiked chocolate out of a Pyrex bowl with a plastic spatula and ate it at 6 o’clock at night, without a speck of shame.

The cook can always make the effort worth it.

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