Monday, April 30, 2012

City Fresh Eggs

Alyda, I don’t know how you stay so thin.  The past few months while you’ve been literally holding this blog together on your own (nice job…btw), I think I’ve gained 10 lbs just reading your posts.  I have to say I am sooo jealous of your baking talent and wish that I even had the motivation to hop to it in the kitchen.
Now…what to write about now that I have been MIA for what feels like FOREVER!  There are so many things that have happened, oh where to start. 
Well…we shall start with the chickens.  If you remember this post back in February where if I didn’t get chickens I was going to die…I mean literally….just take my last breath.  Well it happened.  I loaded this family of 4 up just before Easter and toted them down to Tractor Supply and stood at the check out with 4 (hopefully female) (two Barred Rock and two Rhode Island Red) chicks and all the goodies that come along with raising these cute littler fur balls.
And we took them home.  The other animals were not impressed but poor Riley has lived through two children and many many MANY animals walking through this house.  You could say she was one of the founders of the Baker family…=).  Thanks Riley for putting up with us.
Here is Pan checking them out.  I have to say he is still just as infatuated with them now as he was then.  Here they are approximately 1 week old.  Aren’t they too cute?  Their names are: Little Fluffy, Fluffy, Nugget, Penny (bet you can’t tell which ones the kids named…lol).
Next step is the coop.  I searched and scoured the internet for what would be best for my girls and I decided a chicken tractor would suit us best.  Basically a chicken tractor is just a mobile chicken coop.  This way I don’t have to worry about them ruining the grass or the smell getting too bad, we can just move it around.
Here’s a pic of the coop.  I have to say I may have a slight obsession with power tools now…MAYBE…just MAYBE.
And here they are now.   At about 9 weeks old, they have been permanently living outside now for about 3 weeks and it is wonderful.  Between you and me….the garage was starting to smell like a barnyard…YIKES!  (I can’t imagine why….lol)  And now that we have a good routine down, they are almost no up keep.  I make sure they have food and water once a day and move the coop about every week or two and that’s all they require.  Now for the eggs.  I have read that they won’t lay for another 16 weeks, so around September, we will have farm fresh, or in this case, city fresh eggs.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Chocolate Chocolate-Chip Cookie Dough Cupcakes (no, that is not a typo)

(Yes, "chocolate" is supposed to appear in there twice)

As I mentioned in my post about heating cores, I have had a lot of baking going on lately, and this Chocolate Chocolate-Chip Cookie Dough Cupcake was one of the test-runs for cupcakes I wanted to make for Alex's coworkers. Versions of this particular recipe had shown up on several blogs I read, and it sounded amazing, but it was also one of those recipes where it sounded like a lot could go wrong. This meant I couldn't just bring it in to work (my normal go-to for extra desserts... and by "extra," I mean "must-get-out-of-the-house-so-I-don't-eat-800-pounds-of-chocolate-by-myself"), because my co-workers, they are like locusts.

And not very discerning locusts.

They eat EVERYthing.

And they are always very, very nice and complimentary, which makes me FEEL great, but that's bad when you are trying out a new recipe. I need real, unadorned feedback (like "Too much allspice in the carrot cake" -- thanks, Rick, a friend from my 20s-and-30s church group), and I just don't get that with my coworkers.

So I borrowed my aforementioned church group, as we were having a conveniently timed potluck dinner Saturday night. (Also, "20s and 30s" are really very loosely defined parameters for this group. It really should be something more like "we like playing drunk croquet, all ages welcome if you bring wine" group.) They are always honest with me, while also being very nice (for the most part....hi, Bert.... :)

They LOVED these cupcakes. And I loved these cupcakes. And I'm planning them for all things going forward, though they are a little more time-consuming than just plain bake-and-frost cupcakes.

My version for these consisted of three parts: the inner cookie dough filling, the outer chocolate cupcake, and the cookie dough icing. For the two cookie dough bits, I borrowed the recipe from this post at Recipe Girl. I've seen a lot of versions of these and for several reasons (which included being low on flour at the time), I decided hers sounded like the best. (If you're still concerned about my flour situation, don't be -- I overreacted as per usual and stockpiled from Sam's Club with a hefty 10-pound bag. I hate running out of things. Alex says he hates my stockpiling, but he appreciates it when he runs out of Saran wrap and I reveal the bulk pack I've been hoarding.)

I did, however, decide to do a dark chocolate cupcake because I felt like a regular milk chocolate would be too sweet with all the cookie dough going on. [Side note: What I have found about dark chocolate cake is that nobody realizes it's dark chocolate (even those who HATE dark chocolate). They just know it isn't that overwhelming sweet taste that regular chocolate cake can be.] I would link to the recipe here, but it's one I printed out forever ago and I can't find it online and my print-out is at home. So, experiment amongst  yourselves, I would imagine there are all sorts of good dark chocolate recipes out there. Yes, it is a pain to melt the chocolate down instead of just dumping cocoa powder into a bowl, but it is worth it, I promise!

Please also note, both cookie dough parts to this recipe are egg-free, which means you don't have to worry about people dying of raw eggs. This has never been a concern of mine while eating raw steps in baked goods, but I understand others worry about food poisoning and salmonella far more than I do, so egg-free it is. 

So here we go with the cupcakes. First, the filling:

You make up the filling as per the recipe below and then scoop it out into little balls of dough, and then (this is IMPORTANT, do not skip this step!) you must freeze them for 30 minutes. If you don't do this, they will not stay dough-y during the baking, and will get all hard inside. Bleh.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons granulated white sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup miniature chocolate chips

Cookie dough filling : In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. In a medium bowl, use an electric mixer to stir together the butter, sugars, milk and vanilla. Stir in the dry ingredients and the chocolate chips. Scoop out dough and place it on a cookie sheet.

Stick them on a cookie sheet and freeze at least 30 minutes. During this time, I have found you can start preheating your oven and begin mixing the cupcake batter. Do NOT think (like me) that you are going to be all efficient and go ahead and make the icing ahead of time as well. I will explain in a minute, but just trust me and hold off on the icing for now.

So! You can go ahead and fill your cupcake liners with batter (I found halfway up worked best), and 30 minutes later, the dough balls come out of the freezer.

 Take each somewhat-frozen cookie dough ball and push it down into the middle of the cupcakes, like so:

This will puff up the batter around the dough balls. Now, if you are using a cupcake recipe that normally bakes up with a flat top (like the one we used for Marie's cupcakes), then you want to cover your little dough thingies with a little bit of batter. My dark chocolate recipe bakes up with a domed top, however, so I didn't worry about it and it will bake up and cover the dough, so it looks just like a regular cupcake.

Also, I don't know if it can be attributed to the frozen dough or to the aluminum liners I used, but the cupcakes took a bit longer than that recipe normally does. So be forewarned. You want to be able to stick your toothpick into the very edge of the cupcake (not the dough center) to check for done-ness. (Not a word. I don't care.)

So, no in-between picture here (I was in a rush and I forgot again), but after I took the cupcakes out of the oven and they were cooled, I then made the icing and put it into a frosting bag with a pretty icing tip.

DO NOT MAKE THE ICING EARLY. The first time I made this recipe, I worried it would get all soft and squishy while waiting for the cupcakes to first bake and then to cool, so I made it and then put it in the fridge. It was rock-hard and I had to let it sit at room temp for FOREVER to get soft enough to smush out (this is the technical term) of the icing tip.

The second time, I made it and left it sitting out, thinking it would stay soft. But even though it was in an icing bag plus a cover on the icing tip, it STILL set up and began to harden, like buttercream left to air-dry. I had to put that version in the microwave a couple of times to get it workable. (Which was a pain because then I had to take the metal icing tip off to put it in there so nothing would light on fire. Safer, but super-annoying.)

ANYWAY. Learn from my mistakes and make the icing right before you need it. It doesn't take very long, I swear, and you will actually make things take longer as you try to figure out how to get it soft enough to smush out (still the technical term) of the icing bag without crippling your hands.

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter
1 3/4 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cookie dough frosting: In a medium bowl, use an electric mixer to combine the butter and sugars until smooth and creamy. Mix in the flour, milk and vanilla and continue to mix until all is well combined.

Then, ice your now-cooled cupcakes and garnish with a few more mini chocolate chips.

The center filling will bake slightly around the edges but remain dough-y on the inside, and it is a WONDERFUL taste surprise when you bite in and get the filling.

My friends from the church group were really taken with this recipe.

(Quotes from various group members --
Eric: "It has ruined all future cupcakes for me." 
Charles: "If ever there were proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, it's these cupcakes!" 
And no, that was not all the drunk-croquet talking.)

I recommend you try your hand at these. They are truly amazing. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Miracle of Heating Cores (done the lazy way)

First, the food porn:

(I'll get back to this in a minute.) 

So, I've been on a baking swing lately, and if you live near me you've been getting the benefit of this. If you're far away, I can only give you delicious recipes and horrible pictures of the results (the pictures, not the baked goods. The baked goods have been great). Sorry about that. On the bright side, you've never been forced to lie to me about how tasty (or not) something is. So there's that.

Today I want to talk about heating cores. I have the world's trickiest oven, and my cakes were forever coming out lopsided. Since my oven has (a) no interior light, (b) no window on the door, (c) two different thermometers on the backs of an upper and lower rack which I use to triangulate the ACTUAL temperature the oven is, regardless of the dial setting, and (d) a tendency to crisp things in weird places, I have been blaming this on the oven and just moving on with life. This usually means I have to get out the cake leveler and get rid of the lopsided bit before stacking layers or frosting anything.

Getting rid of ANY perfectly good food item pains me. Also, cutting cake tops means you get crumbs in your icing more than normal when you have to spread the icing. Both of these things bother me A LOT. So when I was at Joann's the other day, I spent a little while staring at the heating core.

This is a heating core (from Wilton):

What you do is, you stick it in the center of your cake pan, then pour in the batter, and put a little batter in the heating core, and bake. This redistributes the heat and helps your cake bake more evenly. However, I've used a heating core before, and I HATE it. Because what you end up with is a little circular plug that you drop back into the cake.

Fine, but when you go to slice the cake, you lose the end off your nice little triangular piece. It BOTHERS me, y'all! It does not help me a bit. And it's another step. Plus, the things are $9 apiece and if you're baking multiple layers, you have to clean the core in between and wait on one layer to finish to use it. If you know anything about me, you know that I AM NOT PATIENT. I am not sitting around waiting on any stupid heating core.

So instead, I googled for a better way. And what did I find? Flower nails!

They work just like the metal thingies you can put a baked potato on that allow them to cook twice as fast. They distribute the heat, AND they do not require any of this giant-hole-in-the-cake business. Also, I'm lazy. Also, they cost $1.50. YES. So I bought four. (I actually need to buy 4 more, I realized I will still be waiting on layers to cool and I am not OK with that.)


I tested out my new flower nails on a wedding shower cake I was doing for my friend Eli (you remember her and her adorable child and dog from Marie's wedding cupcakes, right?). So first I put down parchment paper cut to size on the bottom, and then stuck the flower nail through it. I sprayed it with Bake Easy all over as well (which also helps keep the parchment paper from curling up).

I had also recently invested in some Wilton Bake Even Strips, and between those and the flower nails, I got entirely flat cakes. No more wasted cake! (The strips say to just soak in water; the blog advice I read said 30 minutes of soaking. I would agree with that since these worked so well).

After they came out of the oven, I let them cool for a little while and then flipped them out of the pans and peeled off the parchment paper and flower nails. Then I wrapped them all in Saran wrap and stacked them in the fridge to sit overnight. This makes the layers less delicate and easier to work with. 

I should have taken a picture of the cakes when they came out all even, but it was late by then and I forgot.

However, I didn't trim these two layers at all, so you can judge for yourself in the picture below as I started crumb-icing:

Again, let me extoll the virtues of a cake turntable, shown above. It makes icing things super easy. (Also, I don't mean to be sitting around shilling Wilton items, but they are so often what's available that there aren't other brand options. Honestly, I don't know that there are brand differences, but if I find one, I will tell you.)

Anyway, so on to the stacking. Now, if I'm just buttercreaming a layer cake and not doing fondant, I prefer to stack my layers after the crumb-coating stage. This is just me, you can do it however you like. I find it easier to sort of shellack the layers together with a final icing coat so they don't slide, however.

This was a two-layer cake, so I had to insert the supports for the second layer: three wooden dowels, cut to the height of the cake and sharpened in a pencil sharpener.

I like to hold mine up to the side of the bottom layer and then cut them with a set of wire cutters. (Note: This will often cause the other end of the dowel to go flying across the room and smack your husband in the head. Be careful where you aim.)

Then I stacked up the second layer onto a 6" cardboard cake circle.

And then crumb-coated and stuck together with the bottom layer:

(I know you love my awesome phone photos, DON'T YOU?? Hahaha sorry, again. My camera died.)

I didn't take any of the in-between steps here when I did the second icing coat, but be assured it was just lots of buttercream. 

Anyway, so the cake was supposed to match the shower invitation, shown below, so I tried to mix a color as close as I could get to the invite border.

And then I piped on the little cross-hatch border with a tiny little #1 icing tip, as well as the monogram on the card. I think it came out pretty good, no? A little greener than I wanted, but still a close-ish match.

It isn't perfect, but I think it's pretty good for a two-night after-work-and-school project. Also, I'm told it was yummy, which is even better!

Yay cake!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Long-Awaited Wedding Cupcakes! (Also, a discussion between me and my husband)

I know, I fell off the face of the planet again. I apologize; school and work and wedding desserts ate up my time. (Also, I went to Savannah for St. Patrick's Day and it went about like it sounds such a trip would, only possibly with more green beer. However, that is a topic for another post.) So onwards to a new post, and the food porn (don't lie, I know that's why you're really here).

But first, a conversation between me and Alex, via e-mail, which I feel admirably demonstrates our relationship:

Me: FYI, you smacked the hell out of my hip last night in your sleep. This is the third or fourth time lately, and it's only a matter of time until you get my face, and I am TOTALLY gonna tell people you beat me when that happens, because it WILL BE TRUE. It's your subconscious, isn't it?

Alex:  When I decide to beat you, you won't have to explain it to people. They'll understand.

Me:  I'm saving this for my future legal filings.

And now, the wedding dessert post I know you have all been waiting for!

So as I mentioned in my last post, my friend Marie had courageously asked me to make her wedding cupcakes. We had gone through some variations to work up to what she wanted, but of course I only documented the end result, and not even in a well-lit photo. So when I went to make the real thing, I actually remembered and took (only slightly better-lit) photos of the whole process. I know, everyone is very proud.

First, I needed to make the sugar cookie toppers during the week ahead, because they were to be flood-iced and would have to dry properly between stages. In the first go-round I had issues with the little cookie cutter that was meant to look like an orchid -- the extra petal looked funny on the cookie, I thought, so I skipped it. This time, it came out closer to right, so I went with it.

As always, I used Sweet Sugar Belle's sugar cookie recipe, because it has been fail-safe and the one batch made enough for all the toppers plus extras.

This is a time-consuming step, because you have to roll out the dough like 80 bazillion times to cut out all these tiny (in the case of the petals) cookies. If you will notice, the petal sheets are rolled much thinner than the flowers; this addressed part of the "looking weird" problem from my previous try at this, that the petals were too thick and it made them out of proportion to the flower. HOWEVER, please note that this means they cooked in like 1/3 the time of the cookies. I put two on a cookie sheet as a tester first, and then baked the rest of them, out of paranoia over burning an entire sheet of tiny petals, cut out in a very painstaking manner over the course of several hours. (BTW, I use a very thin spatula-thingy to slide under the cookies and get them out of the cut dough. I have tried using the icing palette-knife type things, but I find them too narrow.)

So then you end up with, basically, rows and rows of tiny sugar cookies. I was attempting to get a bit more shape out of the petals by smushing them slightly, as shown above, but they still baked up a bit too fat to see it. (Also, in the top picture you can see my previously mentioned hoarding disability in the form of bulk paper towels. Ignore that.)

After they baked (which took up one evening), I let them dry overnight, and the next evening I started flood-icing them. This... took forever. There is no other way to say it. I filled, and refilled, and refilled, a small squeezy bottle with white royal icing and a #1 tip, and iced for about three days while Alex watched sports on TV. For three days, I had a grippy "claw" for a hand when I went to bed. BUT. They iced up so beautifully! I mean, look how nice! Also, they were all white, so I didn't have to fool with colored icing that had separated, which is always a pain.

Next, on Friday morning (I took the day off work for this) I laid them all out in rows on paper towels backed with newspaper on Alex's giant coffee table.

(Side note: I hate this table. It is heavy, and HUGE, and ugly -- this mid-brown lacquered-wood style that I deeply despise -- and it takes up SO much space in our tiny condo. It is, however, Alex's #1 favoritest piece of furniture in the entire world, because it has wheels and lifts up to TV-tray height to enable him to eat at the couch, whilst watching TV. Making 150+ cookies for Marie's wedding has been the absolute only time in our entire marriage that I have found it to be useful. But I digress.) Anyway, here are the cookies laid out:

I had one pearlized light blue lustre spray from PME Sugarcraft (I had to get it online) and one Wilton purple food spray (available at most craft or baking stores).

Remember, I was trying to match to this orchid:

  So first I did a layer of light blue over all of them. Then, I went back in with the purple, trying to hit the edges only (this is very tricky with a canned spray and not an actual spray gun).

Lots of those little suckers, aren't there? yeah. And for some reason, the pictures I took didn't really show how purple-y they were, but here's the best shot I've got:

So that part was done, but then I had to turn to the actual cupcakes. I had split this part out with three other wonderful women (thanks Shannon, Lauren and Eli!!), who baked 24 cupcakes apiece, and since I had the day off and the boxes to transport, I made up the difference. Marie wanted 125 chocolate cupcakes but the way the recipe broke down, I ended up with extras (which is always a good thing anyway). Then, Eli graciously offered up her house for us to meet at and do the decorating in an assembly-line fashion (first we were going to be at Lauren's, but she had to take pictures with her fiance for their engagement shots -- congrats Lauren!! -- so we rescheduled).

A note here on the transportation of mass amounts of cupcakes. I have carriers, but I could only easily move probably 84 in all my carriers, and I can't leave them with the caterer. I have no idea how professionals do it. I asked a bunch of people (some professional, some real and some online), and every last one said, "Oh, we just cram them into a box really close together so they don't move." This (understandably, I think) sounded terrifically unstable and unreliable to me. And I was not, by God, spending a week making cupcakes that would arrive at the venue tipped-over or with smushed icing. So I sat down and thought about it, and I decided that what I needed was a matrix. Kind of like what wine bottles come in when you get them by the case (not, of course, that I EVER do that... Completely unrelated: Hi, Trader Joe's! I do love your 3-buck-chuck!), but smaller to fit the cupcakes. I'd need long, narrow boxes for this, and I ended up getting them at The Container Store (if you read my blog, you already know about my addiction to this place), because they sell tons of sizes of boxes, all nice white ones with shiny outsides, for like $2. Not really knowing how many would fit until I baked the cupcakes, I bought 8 that were 4" high and something like 24"x48" (I don't remember exactly, sorry). Then I spent the time while my cupcakes baked and cooled putting together a matrix by sacrificing two of the boxes to use as cardboard strips with notches cut out. This sounds difficult, but here are some pictures that should help:

They aren't perfect or particularly pretty, but they just had to hold the cupcakes securely, yet not too close. This ended up being 2"x2"-ish. So I filled mine up to take all the boxes over to Eli's place on Saturday morning.

In between all of this, I also made Charlie's groom's cake. He wanted a big chocolate chip cookie cake. Not one of those flat things you get from the mall, but thicker, and not a cake, but actual cookie. I'd made blonde brownies last fall that were exactly what he wanted, so I just used that recipe in a round pan.

Looks yum, no? I might have eaten some of the dough during this process, but only to make sure it was fit for human consumption. I swear!

Anyway, once it was cooled, I flipped it out onto a plate, then back over, and then I had to decorate it. Charlie's request was, "Just enough icing that it looks like a wedding cake." I have no idea what this means. What I ended up doing, though, was taking inspiration from Marie's cupcake liners (shown below on top of the cake) and matching chocolate icing swirls to the design:

I think it turned out nicely, not too feminine, and it looks sooo good (which it was)!

(Warning here: The first giant cookie I made, when I went to flip it out of the pan, the very center was not cooked through and it fell apart. There is no fixing a fallen-apart cookie cake. So I made another one at the last second, which I had BARELY the right amount of brown sugar to do. It is a good thing I'm a hoarder. So anyways, moral: Cook your cookie cake until you actually think it's TOO done. Also, hoard brown sugar. You never know.)

Anyway! Back to the cupcakes.

Lauren dropped her baked cupcakes off with me that Saturday morning, and then I went over to Eli's, where Shannon met us and Eli's sweet husband took their new baby and went shopping to escape from the chatty girls and baked goods.

Oh, and I should have taken a picture of the buttercream I made Friday as well. I ended up with something like FOURTEEN POUNDS of buttercream icing (that is seven double rounds of icing. Thank God for stand mixers). It was huge, in a giant Tupperware container that was really heavy and awkward to carry, and which I almost dropped on our condo stairs. I just did not want to run out in the middle of decorating the day of the wedding. (We actually ended up with some left over, but I had to make a cake for a work retirement party on Sunday so that worked out fine.)

So I loaded and swapped out icing bags with 1M Wilton tips, while Shannon iced and Eli stuck the sugar cookie toppers on and loaded the boxes. It actually only took us about an hour to do all the cupcakes, and that included time for us to save various cupcake boxes from Eli's (determined) dog.

(This is Eli's baby and her dog. They are both adorable. I would worry about her son finding himself on the Internets later in life, but let's be honest, I'm pretty sure all babies look just like that. Only, of course, your son is cuter, Eli!)

Also, I will have you know that the cupcake matrix worked BEAUTIFULLY:

(Can you tell I had my phone again? yeah, sorry.) Then I drove them over to the venue and gave them to the caterer. I have NEVER IN MY LIFE driven so carefully. I imagine it's what my OCD will turn into when I have kids.

Anyway! The final product.... well, my photos do NOT do them justice. For that, I turn to the professionals. All of the following photos were taken by the amazing Anne Almasy. Her lighting skills are incredible, because the reception hall was dark and dimly lit by lanterns and candles and whatnot. Which makes for great atmosphere but TERRIBLE photos (I'm not even going to show you the ones I tried to take).

The tiers of cupcakes:

And the beautiful bride, eating the cupcakes:

Hoorah for cupcakes being successfully transported! And congratulations, Marie and Charlie, you guys are such a great couple and I am so happy for you!