Category Archives: holidays

New Baking Cookbooks for Me!

IMG_1386Harriet gave me not one but two new baking cookbooks for Mothers Day – and both are fantastic.

First off: Baking At Home with The Culinary Institute of America: Essential Techniques and Recipes for Creating Great Breads and Desserts. This hefty, beautiful book is full of great step-by-step techniques, illustrations and tempting photos. When I unwrapped it, I opened it to a recipe for Smoked Provolone and Thyme Muffins. They’re in my very near future. Same goes for Eclairs, which I think would  be a hit with the Bake Sale crowd — come to think of it, there’s a bake sale Saturday…

This book is beautiful, worthy of coffee table status, well on my coffee table, anyway. There are SO many new things to try.  And if something goes awry, there’s a “What went wrong?” appendix of common baking problems. (Hmm, I don’t see “didn’t follow the directions” as a common problem; clearly the CIA Chefs aren’t familiar with the root of my problems!)

Next up: The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum, who I’ve used before when she contributed a bread baking primer to Epicurious. This book is also full of great illustrations, photos and recipes for every kind of bread you could want to bake – from quickbreads and crumpets to sourdough and stud muffins. (Yes, stud muffins, which I’m going to have to bake just so I can say, “Oh, my weekend was great, I had some superb stud muffins!” )

So thanks again, Harriet, for the absolutely perfect presents.

A belated Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, wanna be mothers and mothers in spirit.


Easter Chick in Chocolate Lace

img_7830Harriet was at her dad’s house on Easter, so I was not on Easter Bunny duty for the first time in 12 years. But I did bake some Easter Cookies.

The girl is a fan of lace cookies, so I made some chocolate lace cookies and tried to cut them with cookie cutters. It did work once!

The Twilight Cake

cakeThe Tween Tsunami known as a slumber party swept through the house, leaving puddles of eye shadow, a defaced wall of posters of the no-longer-crushworthy Jonas Brothers, more unfamiliar socks than party guests, and one sleep-deprived but very happy birthday girl. Oh, and an exhausted mom who has already agreed to do it again soon. (Momnesia, we call this state.)

The highlight for me was showing my girl the promised Twilight Cake. She was speechless — I suspect she doubted my ability to pull this off, and honestly, that made two of us. (Some of you may recall that my two practice runs at the Twilight Birthday Cake ended in the Tectonic Plate Cake disaster and the Collapsing Chocolate Cake disaster. But I had the pressure of an Impending Slumber Party behind me, not to mention the lesson learned over and over – read the directions! While it was not as perfecto as some of the truly impressive Twilight Cakes out there, I think for my first actual cake and my first cake with any sort of decoration on it… Well, I impressed myself and, more importantly, the Twilight-obsessed party guests.

The Twilight Cake Details:

The cake was a yummy 9-inch chocolate layer cake, using a recipe from Baking Illustrated. I followed the directions. I even remembered the eggs.

We made a black fondant to cover it. I’d read that some of the fondant you buy ready-made doesn’t taste good and is meant to be peeled off like orange skin or cheese wax. Then I found a really helpful site with instructions on making marshmallow fondant. Fortunately we did this a couple of weeks ahead of time (Harriet did the sticky kneading) because we made black fondant and red fondant.  (Warning: this stuff is really sticky. It helps to have a child on hand to do the kneading.) While the black fondant was (to me) edible and (to the girl) delicious, the red fondant tasted awful. Like run-to-the-sink-and-spit awful. Red food coloring, at least in the shade I selected for its bloodiness, tastes horrible. I later discovered that there is a red food coloring that has no taste, but we never got around to making another round of red fondant. The black fondant was perfect, though, and stayed in the fridge for two weeks.

For the decor, I used symbols from three of the four Twilight book jackets. (I have no idea if these things appear in the books. As I’ve previously confessed, as the not-always-so-involved-in-my-kid’s-interests-when-they-look-not-only-um-uninteresting-but-very-time-consuming mother that I am, I have not yet read any of these Vampire books, even though the girl devoured them.) So there’s an apple, pink and white flowers (those are candles and they are so freaking cute but nearly impossible tophoto light) and a broken red ribbon. The ribbon went on first with store-bought red decorating icing. I did that first and thought for someone who can’t draw worth a lick that I’d done a damn good rendition of the torn ribbon from the book jacket.

By the time all the symbols got on board, there was no room for any writing. Just as well. I know from experience that I stink at writing on cake. (I have tried in the past with store-bought sheet cakes, and recall being offended when even pre-schoolers mocked my efforts.) I had downloaded a Twilight Font  (I would give you the link, but I can’t reach the site today) and thought I’d try and make a stencil or something. But time ran out. (Have I mentioned the actual decorating occurred as the girls were loading up at our Taco Bar in the next room?) Besides, there really wasn’t a spare inch. And it didn’t matter – the cake was a success.

I did make a few mistakes that fortunately had no huge ramifications. You are supposed to use buttercream under the fondant. I knew that, I made buttercream and had it sitting there. But I forgot to put it on the cake top. I did buttercream the sides. Also, the fondant should go on smooth as glass (I think), and mine had lots of dings from me trying to park the top while I buttercreamed the sides. That didn’t matter a whit since the cake’s entire surface was covered by Twilight symbolism by the time it hit the dining room table.

Also, Saturday was warm and super sunny and the cake, wearing just its fondant, sat in my new thrift-shop cake holder on the kitchen table, safe from inquiring feline and canine noses but not from the sun’s glare. I lifted the lid to admire my black cake and discovered that the fondant was starting to melt, I guess, because while it still nicely covered the cake, there was a quarter-inch ring of black around the cake’s base. You’re not supposed to refrigerate a fondant-covered cake, so I put it, under the lid, in my chilly mudroom. All was well and no one but me noticed the cake had a little hat brim.

Next time (ha!) I would make chocolate buttercream or at least color the buttercream so I could put it between the layers. I gave myself an extra step by making chocolate frosting to cushion the layers. No reason the buttercream couldn’t do double-duty.

Oh – and finally — the cake was delicious. Rich, fudgy and really tasty. I’m not a marshmallow fan, so the frosting/fondant wasn’t my favorite, but the party guests ate it right along with the cake. Half the cake was left after dinner, and my plan was to take some nice photos of the cake interior on Sunday. Sunday morning I discovered an empty cake plate on the counter and several forks in the sink. No better review than that, I guess!

Baking Bird Seed Biscuits

img_6878_2Happy Valentines Day!

I don’t really think Valentines Day is for the birds …. but my first post-divorce Valentines Day seemed a perfect time to be baking for the birds. Besides, the birds are arriving in Maine and emptying my feeders daily, and I want to repay them for reminding me that winter isn’t going to go on forever.

I saw the recipe for these cute bird seed biscuits in Family Fun magazine. They are so easy and baked at 170 for an hour.

Nobody Likes Fruitcake?

I’m a little late on this, but I have already admitted that I’ll be baking Christmas cookies for months in an effort to make up for not baking them ever before.

More than one person asked me if I baked a fruitcake this holiday season. In a word, no. The video above, which is absolutely wonderful, will explain why.

Besides, not only do you risk that nobody will eat your fruitcake, but there’s something in the way back of my mind that says in order to make fruitcake, you have to start soaking fruit in liquor months ahead of time. I didn’t start Learning to Bake early enough for that. And I don’t much like liquor-soaked fruit.

I have had fruitcake that I liked. If it doesn’t have those candied green and red things that don’t really look like fruit at all – I’m all for it! Next holiday season, I may make it my mission to make a likeable fruitcake. I think the secret may be to not call it a fruitcake. Maybe I’ll call it an nut-spice cake and not mention of the fruit.By the time the recipient realizes they’re eating fruitcake, it’ll be too late, they’ll already like it! (Yes, I’m on a flight of confidence.)

Anyway, watch the video. It’s worth it. Even if the holidays are long gone in your oven.

Twilight Birthday Cake

Plans are in high gear for a 12th birthday slumber party, and I’ve been thinking about Birthday Cake. I think a beautiful chocolate cake will/would do, but for some reason I Googled “Twilight Birthday Cake” since the girl and her friends are obsessed with Bella, Edward and all things Twilight.

Boy, there are some impressive Twilight cakes out there! As you can see, many look like a book (How do they get that title font in icing? I can barely print in icing!) while others go with the chessboard theme,  with an apple, chess pieces or red ribbon on them. (Bad mother confession: I have yet to read any of these books. The girl raced through all four.)

So I wonder, does fondant taste any good? Some of these seem to use a lot of it. I don’t think I’ll tackle an entire fondant cake for my first cake. But I might pull off the ribbon.

I may try a mini practice cake… Have I mentioned I’ve never baked a cake? (Other than the Apple Cake, which was wonderful but wasn’t a birthday cake.)

Ever confident in my cake-baking ability, Harriet suggested we just get the cake at the supermarket. It may come to that!

Lace Cookies v2

img_6858I’ll set the scene: it’s Jan. 25th, the night before my daughter’s 12th birthday. She has gone to bed, just a tiny bit excited about the coming holiday. (I’m kidding; I don’t know what year you stop being excited about your birthday, but it’s not 12.) I head downstairs and think “Sixth-graders don’t take a special snack to school on their birthdays, do they?”

I head upstairs and ask my still-11-year-old this question and she says, “Yes!” I run to the kitchen and realize that, thanks to my recent Chocolate Chip Cookie v3 baking, I don’t have enough Chocolate Chips to make those cookies again. It’s Sunday night and our big-city supermarket is closed. I briefly wonder whether gas stations sell chocolate chips. Then I remember that Harriet was wild about the Lace Cookies I’d made a few weeks ago. I realize they were full of finely chopped pecans – and while there is no nut prohibition at the girl’s school, I know there are kids with nut allergies. These cookies don’t even look like they have nuts in them. Those were out.

I remember a recipe in a cookbook I’ve owned for a good 15 years and may have never used, Rose’s Christmas Cookies by Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Cake Bible. (Why would someone who didn’t bake own this cookbook? Don’t ask.) I baked her “Lacey Susans” – Success! (By the way, if you are a baker, click on Beranbaum’s name; she has a super baking blog.)

These cookies were a hit at school, and why wouldn’t they be? Potato chip thin, all butter rich and caramelized sugar, part-cookie, part-candy – do you know a Middle Schooler who could resist? Or anyone?

The best part is they were so easy and fast. Beranbaum recommends  piping the batter onto the cookie sheets, and once I got the hang of it, I was a one-woman Lace Cookie machine. She promised “about 100 cookies in less than 1 hour,” and I thought, “Yeah, right, maybe if you’re the author of The Cake Bible!” But guess what? One hour later, I had close to 100 beautiful little cookies. One note – the recipe has mini chocolate bits in the batter. I tried that with a test batch, and preferred them without the chocolate. Lacey Susans are definitely going in my arsenal of easy, fast and delicious sweets.

These cookies represent another personal milestone. I think of all the years I sent my daughter to school on her birthday with store-bought treats. Never, ever, ever would it have occurred to me to actually bake her special snack. Buying cupcakes at the supermarket is not going to send her to therapy when she’s 30, but I felt great taking a handful of ingredients and turning out these fantastic treats.

In case you’re wondering, no birthday cake yet. We’re saving that for an upcoming Slumber Party, where I will try and ignore a pack of 12-year-old girls staying up until the wee small hours, singing along to Mama Mia.