Saturday, March 6, 2010

Finally getting to the cakes

I've got quite a few hobbies... too many, in fact, when I try to do them all at once! Aside from the photography projects, I've also been spending a lot of time lately expanding my cake decorating skills. I've always loved to bake, but the icing decoration is a newer challenge.

It all first started when I took my first cake decorating class back in October. I had been wanting to try this out for a while and had been recommended to take my first class at a local bakery located down the street from me. Every time I asked when their beginners class would be, they either didn't have one schedule yet or it was completely booked up. So out of impatience, I went ahead and signed up for a Wilton method beginners cake decorating course at a local craft store. What fun!! I loved learning how to make things with icing, and by the end of the class, I felt like I had learned enough techniques to be able to accomplish lots of different cakes in the future. Our final cake in the course was a rose cake, and of course the goal was to make lots of buttercream roses to use with other techniques we learned during the course.

My final class cake from the Wilton Beginners course

A few months later, I tried my first "major" cake decorating project. My husband was going to be turning 30, and since I wanted his birthday party to be really fun and special, I made the bold decision to make him a guitar cake. While I was planning out what I was going to do for the cake, I made an even bolder decision and decided to decorate the cake like the Van Halen guitar. At this point, I knew I could pull off the cake if everything went smoothly, but I had also given myself quite the challenge. Red and black are the most difficult icing colors to achieve, and my cake had both of them. And I was making something large and in an unusual shape. Probably not the best cake to try right after learning the techniques.

Print out picture of real Van Halen guitar... pretty complicated!

But luck was on my side, and the cake came together perfectly! Sure, there were a few problems along the way, but it turned out great. FYI, the cake was made with 2 boxes of cake mix, divided between a 13x9 pan and 2x bread loaf pans. After the cakes were baked and cooled, I leveled the cakes to make sure they were all the same height and flat,torted them [cut them in half horizontally], and filled them with a white chocolate cream cheese mousse filling. After the cakes were all but iced, I used a template from a print out of the guitar body to cut the shape of the guitar from the 13x9 pan, and trimmed the 2 bread loaf cakes to match the neck on the body part. Then they were covered with icing. The day of the party, I added all the detail decorations using the print out image of the guitar as a rough guideline. Isn't that a fun cake?! And needless to say, it tasted awesome!

The finished cake!

Right around the time I was planning and making the guitar cake, I also had someone contact me about co-hosting a baby shower for one of my best friends. Naturally, I chose to take care of the cake. After looking through some baby shower cake design ideas on the internet, I decided on a "baby block" theme. Since I had planned on making the cake with 4 baby "blocks", that way I could spell B A B Y on the blocks, it worked out nicely that the name picked out for the baby was Kyle - 4 letters! The next trick was figuring out how to use the cake batter to make the blocks. I wanted them to be as close to "square" as possible, and was estimating for the number of people that 4x4ish blocks would work well. Luckily, that meant my 9x9 baking pans would work perfectly. I again made 2 boxes of cake mix and split them between 2 9x9 cake pans. Each cake was leveled, torted, and filled to a final height of 4 cake layers. The 4-layer 9x9 cake was then cut into 4 even squares and each was individually iced and decorated.

The final cake was decorated to read "BABY" on the front, "2010" on the top, and "KYLE" on the back. This cake was definitely easier than the guitar because there were no wierd shapes or anything, but it still took longer than I had expected. In fact, I think it took almost the same amount of time as the guitar cake! All those letters and perfectly icing each block took quite a bit of work, but I was thrilled with how it turned out and so was the Mom-to-be!

Front and top of cake

Back of cake

Now, as insane as this sounds, I have signed up to take another decorating course. I wouldn't have signed up for this so soon after doing these big projects in the past month, but it was the only chance I had to take this intermediate course at the local bakery. We are learning how to make more detailed flowers out of icing, and I will be sure to post a picture of the final cake when I finish it on Sunday at the second and final class!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Banana Nut Muffins

When I have "free time" on my hands, I usually get the itch to bake. Since I was snowed in this week after two back-to-back snowstorms, I had plenty of free time on my hands to crank out some goodies. I ended up only making banana nut muffins and brownies, although I would have made some cookies had I not run out of butter.

These banana nut muffins are a great easy way to use up old bananas. Since we have those around the house on a regular basis, it is not uncommon that sometimes they don't all get eaten. Instead of throwing them away, I make muffins. My husband prefers the muffins over banana bread because it is so much easier to grab these on the go, and they are quite close to bite size! The real recipe calls for macademia nuts, which I imagine would be amazing, but since I usually don't have those stocked in my pantry, I usually substitute walnuts which works great. Give them a try sometime!

Banana Nut Muffins
adapted from Bon Appetit

1 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/4 cups mashed ripe bananas (about 3 large)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup milk
1 large egg
1 cup unsalted macadamia nuts, toasted, chopped [or walnuts]

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease twelve muffin cups or line with muffin papers. Sift first 4 ingredients into large bowl. Combine bananas, both sugars, butter, milk and egg in medium bowl. Mix into dry ingredients. Fold in half of nuts. Divide batter among prepared muffin cups. Sprinkle tops of muffins with remaining macadamia nuts. Bake until muffins are golden brown and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Transfer muffins to rack and cool.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Treading water

I've got a LOT going on. Maybe a little too much. So far I feel like I have all the projects I'm carefully juggling still up in the air... but I'm afraid I might drop one.

Project 1: photography... or should I say "Project 365". This is going pretty well so far and I feel like I learn something new about myself and my photography every day. Last night was also my first time attending a meeting of the Central Maryland Photographers Guild where I met a bunch of other photo enthusiasts like me. While I didn't necessarily feel like I took home a wealth of information from the topics specifically presented at the meeting, I did have some great conversations with some other experienced members about some photo editing software that I have had my eye on, and ended up leaving the meeting with a fresh outlook on my options in that area. I'm really hoping to get some more out of this club in the future; I'm especially hoping for some more constructive criticism of my work and some group field trips to work on my technique.

Project 2: cake decorating. So I've started on another of my "101 in 1001" tasks by signing up for the second Wilton method cake decorating course. I really enjoyed the skills I learned in the first course, but was a little frustrated with the "informal" feel to the class, which I took at Michael's craft store.

My final cake project from Course 1

This time around, I've signed up to take the class at a local bakery, Cake's Plus. I've heard that their classes are faster paced and a little more "serious" which will hopefully suit me a bit better. In the mean time, I'm also working on a cake masterpiece for my husband's 30th birthday party this coming Saturday. Right now I am up to my eyeballs in batches of colored icing, cake mixes, and other decorating tools. It's by far the biggest cake project I've ever taken on, and I REALLY don't want to screw it up.... especially since it's for an important birthday. :-) I'm keeping the theme a secret for now, but will be sure to blog about the process after the fact, so stay tuned!

And of course, there are lots of social obligations, a trip to Germany/Austria in May to plan, a baby shower to help host (and make another cake for!), and a full time job unrelated to all these projects to stay on top of. Just trying to stay afloat for now....

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Recipe: Beef stir-fry with Orange and Ginger

Here is another new recipe I tried today. I am definitely WAY over my goal of trying 2 new recipes per month! I really enjoyed this dish, and the best part is that it is fast and easy and requires minimal ingredients. I got a new cookbook last fall that is full of great meals for quick, weeknight dinners, aptly titled "Best Ever 30-Minute Dinners". I will definitely be trying more meals from this book in the future!

Beef Strips with Orange and Ginger

1lb lean beef rump, steak, fillet steak, or sirloin, cut into thin strips
grated rind and juice of 1 orange
1 Tbsp light soy sauce
1 tsp. cornflour
1in piece of fresh ginger root, finely chopped
1 Tbsp sunflower oil
1 large carrot, cut into thin strips
2 scallions (green onions), thinly sliced

Place the beef strips in a bowl and sprinkle over the orange rind and juice. Marinate for 10 minutes or up to 30 minutes if possible.

Drain the liquid from the meat and set aside. Mix the meat with the soy sauce, cornflour and ginger, making sure the meat is evenly covered.

Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan and add the beef. Stir-fry for 1 minute until lightly colored. Add the carrot strips and stir-fry for another 2-3 minutes. Stir in the scallions and reserved liquid. Cook until sauce thickens, stirring. Serve hot with noodles or rice.

Pasta from scratch

One of the many fun new things I received for Christmas was a Kitchen Aid pasta roller set. I've been coveting this kit for quite a while, but had been putting the purchase on hold due to its relatively hefty price tag... there always seemed to be something else more important to purchase. But here it is... finally... and I couldn't wait to dive in and try my first batch of homemade pasta!

Kitchen Aid pasta roller set with flat roller,
and fettucini & spaghetti cutters

The kit comes with a few various recipes for making the pasta dough. As much as I wanted to try making spinach or whole wheat pasta, I figured I would start with the most basic recipe just to get the hang of the whole process before adding more complicated steps/ingredients. Turns out the process is quite easy and before I knew it, I had a nice little ball of pasta dough ready to feed into the first roller.

Ball of basic pasta dough

The dough gets divided up into 4 pieces, flattened slightly by hand, and then slowly fed through the flat roller on the lowest number setting which provides the widest roller. After kneading the dough through a few times, the roller width gets slowly decreased to make the pasta thinner and thinner until the desired thickness is reached, at which point it gets fed through the cutter of choice. Or if you are making lasagne noodles or ravioli (which I am really anxious to try!) then no cutting is required.

Cutting my pasta sheet into fettucini

And here they are... the final pasta "nests"! The pasta was dried before forming into nests. It can either be cooked immediately, refrigerated, or placed in plastic bags and frozen for up to 4 months. I froze most of what I made but save some for fresh pasta with homemade sausage sauce for dinner that night. It was delicious... less chewy than the store bought stuff, and much lighter in texture. Can't wait to try making more again soon!

Finished "nests" of fettucini

Monday, January 18, 2010

Photo-walk: 1/18/10

What better way to spend a day off of work than heading out for my first photo-walk! I realized when I headed out with my camera this morning that I have taken my camera out with me before with the sole intention of taking photos.... but that was usually when I was on vacation. This time, I was out on a mission to capture images of everyday life rather than monuments I want to remember visiting. I am pretty happy with how most of the photos turned out. Of course not every photo was a "winner", but here are some of my favorites.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Recipe: Pork Chops with Shallot-Apple Cider Pan Sauce

My first recipe post! Before I talk about this wonderful recipe, I'll take a quick minute to tell you a little bit about the food side of my personality.

I. LOVE. FOOD. Even more than food, I LOVE sweets, especially chocolate. I can not stress that enough. I have a sweet tooth to rival most, and so I love baking. Baking not only allows me to creat decadent desserts that will hopefully satisfy my insane sweet tooth (at least for a little while), but it also allows me to express more creativity by trying out new recipes. Most of the time, cooking and baking are fun for me, and I love to entertain.

Regarding skill level, I would say that I'm somewhere in the middle. Rarely do my recipes turn out complete disasters, and I can occasionally throw together something for dinner from scratch without a recipe, but more often than not, I prefer to use a recipe at least as a starting point. Thus, I love cookbooks and food magazines, and lately I've been following a number of cooking and baking blogs, which is how I found this recipe.

This recipe popped up in my Google Reader with perfect timing. I knew I was going to make pork chops for dinner that night, but was wishing I had a new recipe to try out instead of using my typical stand-bys. Up pops this awesome sounding recipe from elly says opa : Pork Chops with Shallt-Apple Cider Pan Sauce. YUM! And they were every bit as tasty as they sounded. Be sure to try it out, and enjoy!

[I am sorry to say that I somehow lost the photos I took of my recipe, probably while going through the 365 images... elly has a picture on her page if you are still curious]

Pork Chops with Apple Cider Pan Sauce

2 lean pork chops
salt & pepper
2 tsp. olive oil
2 tsp. butter
1 large shallot, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup apple cider
1/3 cup chicken broth

Sprinkle the pork chops with salt, pepper, thyme, and sage. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium head and add pork chops. Cook until done, about 4mins per side. Remove from skillet to plate and cover to keep warm.

Add the butter to the pan, and then add the shallot. Cook until the shallot is tender and then stir in the garlic. Once the garlic is fragrant, increase the heat slightly and add the apple cider to de-glaze the pan, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Allow the cider to bubble away and reduce by about half.

Add the chicken broth and salt and pepper to taste, and let that reduce until the amount of sauce you have left in the pan is about 1/3 cup total. Spoon the sauce over the pork chops and serve.