Monday, October 27, 2014

A Tale of Four Cakes

I often feel like I need to post more than once every 3-4 months, but today I was reminded by a very wise person that I don't have to blog if I have nothing to say.  In fact, I shouldn't.  But that's for another day.

Deep down, I bake because it makes other people happy. Nothing compares seeing the look of pure enjoyment on someone's face when they take a bite of a homemade cookie. That's why I do it - not for the compliments or for the sense of accomplishment, but because sometimes I feel the only way I can make other people happy is by stuffing their faces full of sugar, butter, flour, and vanilla (and sometimes chocolate). No one's day has ever been ruined by a chocolate chip cookie. And (French Revolution aside) wars are not started or fought because of cake.

 As great as the feeling of giving out happiness is, I also know I enjoy baking because I am good at it.  For the most part, following recipes just comes naturally to me. Once I've tried something once, I'm very quick to learn from my mistakes, or if it was a success to start with, try to make it my own.  I try to be humble, but I have a knack for recipes turning out the first time (although not necessarily the second or third time).

 I am by no means a great baker - I can't whip a cake up without a recipe, and my creativity in flavour combination and decorating is average at best. But I can make a great tasting chocolate cake. And vanilla. And carrot.

 And that is where this whole post is going - Carrot cake. You see, my dear sister generously offered my baking services to a friend of hers who got married a while ago and whose (now) husband wanted carrot cake for their wedding. A little unusual for a wedding cake maybe, but that's what the groom wants and he wouldn't budge.  I hadn't made carrot cake since the first time I was in university, so I didn't have a go-to recipe sitting around.  And if there's one thing I love as much as baking, it's doing comparitive taste-tests.  So I collected four recipes for carrot cake: two that came highly recommended by the internet, one I personally thought would be interesting, and one from my mom's neighbor that my mom swore by. I baked all four on one weekend, gave half of each cake to the bride and groom, and shared the rest with my family.  The results are thus:

Carrot Cake #1 was firm and used applesauce to keep it moist. It was dry, bland, and reminded me of carrot cake from the grocery store's bakery cooler. My sister liked this one the best, but everyone else thought it was merely edible.

Carrot Cake #2 used pineapple. It was sweeter and moister than #1 and tasted like I remember homemade carrot cake tasting. The crumb was softer than #1.

Carrot Cake #3 had too much baking soda, and you could taste it.  It was dry and crumbly, and personally my least favourite of the four, so I won't bother you with the recipe.

Carrot Cake #4 was rich, decadent, and exotic (well, for carrot cake).  Candied ginger gave it a nice snap, and notes of tangy orange complimented the cream cheese frosting really well.  It doesn't really stand in well for "traditional" carrot cake, but I'll definitely be making it again in the future.

What I Learned About Making Banana Cream Pie

First attempt was not a failure, but not what I call a success.  It was very tasty, but it very much fell apart.  Here's what I learned:

1. Only homemade crust will do.  And don't forget to blind bake with pastry weights.
2. Only homemade custard will do.  No instant pudding for this lady.
3. Speaking of homemade custard... if you think it's not thick enough, it's not.
4. When slicing the bananas, if you're not sure if they're thick enough, they're not.
5. When making the whipped cream, if you're not sure if it's sweet enough, it probably is.

There are definitely more custard-based pies in my future.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Homemade Marshmallow fondant

I'm making a friend's wedding cake next month, and she would like it with fondant.  I hate the taste of store-bought fondant so I decided to try to make my own.  I'm just documenting the proccess here for next time, so that I can compare.

I used this recipe from A Spicy Perspective.  However, the marshmallows I had on hand were large (instead of small), and the bag was 400g (13.5oz instead of 16 oz) instead of 16 oz.  The marshmallows were.. also not the freshest.

In light of this, I used 6 TBSP of water, microwaved for 5 minutes in 30 sec. intervals, and used 28 oz. of powdered sugar along with 2-3 oz of corn starch.  After kneading in the cornstarch (which is extraneous to the recipe), the fondant was still somewhat soft so I am letting it rest in the fridge over night.  The mistake I made was adding all 6 TBSP of water at once; I should've stuck with the recommended 3 TBSP which probably would've been enough liquid to adjust for the dryness of the marshmallows.

We'll see how it feels tomorrow; I may have to add more cornstarch, but I'm hoping it will firm up once the fridge takes the heat from the microwave out of the fondant.

However, I did learn some important lessons:
1.  Fondant is an excellent use of old dried out marshmallows!  You just have to be more careful about adding enough (but not too much) moisture.

2.  It is easier to add more moisture than it is to add enough powdered sugar/corn starch to make up for too much moisture.

3.  If the fondant is too soft and sticky, adding more powdered sugar just makes it stickier - use cornstarch!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Refreshing Blackberry Mojitos

The days of summer are still getting longer, and the weather outside is slowly warming up. Every time I look, my container garden surprises me with more sprouts and seedling. The temperatures here are set to be around 20C and mostly sunny every day - pretty nice weather, I'd say! Yesterday just seemed like the perfect day for a refreshing beverage - we got home from after-dinner shopping and I knew exactly what I was going to make with my pretty new Apple Mint plant: Mojitos. And just yesterday morning, I saw this recipe from Just Putzing Around the Kitchen on Pinterest. Have I mentioned how much I love Pinterest? No? Well its a lot. Anyway, getting back to the beverages... I had some blackberries in my fridge. I often buy blackberries when we go to Costco, especially if they're a really good price. I don't know why. I don't particularly love fresh blackberries... I find the white part in the middle to be bitter and pithy, and the fruits themselves to be not particularly juicy or flavourful, especially when compared to my favourite raspberry. These mojitos were a fantastic use of those blackberries! A little bit sweet, a little bit tart, and a little bit of sad because they used up the rest of our delicious Flor de Cana grand reserve (7 year). That's something else I can't help buying... if we're in our favourite liquor mart, and there is liquor that is above the quality we normally purchase (which is usually middle-shelf to begin with, as we're kind of liquor snobs). Liquor is quite a bit more expensive here than it is in the US, so when we come across an interesting or upper-shelf bottle of liquor for a non-exorbitant price (usually at our local SOLO liquor) we snap it up. And its usually great, like this Flor de Cana rum was. Anyway, its all gone now (sadface) leaving me without any rum and thus no way to make more of these delicious mojitos! On the plus side, that means an exciting trip to SOLO tonight - I wonder what interesting things they'll have for us today? Blackberry Mojitos

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Pet Peeves and C4 Results

Anyone else out there have pet peeves related to their hobbies? One of my friends is irritated by people that scrapbook better than she does. Does that count? I don't know. I know I have lots of pet peeves when it comes to baking.

1. Calling something "homemade" when its made from a boxed cake/cookie/brownie/muffin mix with slight alterations to the added ingredients. I get it, purchased mixes are made at home, but that is totally not the same thing as homemade!

2. The obsession with calorie-wise or low-fat baked goods. If I am making a cake, you bet your ass I'm going to be using butter. The only exception to this is things that are also considered breakfast foods (muffins, I'm looking at you). It is totally acceptable to have a low-fat muffin... as long as it still tastes yummy, and not like cardboard.

3. Light butter. Seriously. What the heck is this? HButter should only ever contain a maximum of 2 ingredients: cream, salt, in that order. The list of ingredients in "light" butter should be terrifying to anyone trying to eat healthfully, and if you're really trying to be health-conscious you should limit your butter intake anyway, and find a recipe that doesn't require it. Not that I would ever suggest anyone to restrict anything as delicious as butter...

Speaking of butter, I sent through 5.5 lbs of it during the course of my C4 study. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it made close to 600 cookies. Some were small, some were not so small. All were edible, but some were more delicious than others. The average rating out of 10 was 6.24 (Min 4.5, Max 7.7). The winner? This recipe from the NY Times. Its a pain in the butt to make though, and requires at least 24, and preferably 48, hours for the dough to rest before baking. The second place recipe is less finicky, and scored very well. Funny enough, its my go-to recipe for chocolate chip cookies, so I think in the future I will just stick with it!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Microwave Popcorn, without the bag!

Last year for Christmas, I made everyone I knew caramel corn, peppermint bark, and homemade nuts and bolts. The caramel corn recipe that I used called for bags of microwave popcorn, which I thought was ridiculous. Not only is microwave popcorn expensive, but imagine all the extra chemicals and calories that are totally unnecessary! After a quick google, I discovered that it was easy to microwave your own popcorn, but I needed at least 10 quarts of popcorn, so I wasn't about to do it one lunch-bag at a time. After a bit of trial and error, I discovered that using a large, glass or ceramic mixing bowl, and a microwave plate cover (which I got from the dollar store) worked perfectly! It works best with a bowl large enough for the microwave cover to fit completely inside, so its resting on the bottom of the bowl (at least to start). I initially tried a plate over the top of the bowl, but I found that the popcorn popped better when it was more closely enclosed. Plus, the plate was too heavy to be pushed up by the popcorn.

Anyway, at the family gift exchange last year, I got a home popcorn kit. It had a bottle of popping corn, some seasonings, and a microwave popper! Its basically a melanine bowl with a loose-fitting plastic lid (sound familiar?). I decided to try it out this year, and what I found is that it doesn't pop popcorn any better than my initial set up. So, I suggest if you want to make microwave popcorn for yourself, without the added chemicals, etc. Just buy a $1 microwave cover and use the heavy, microwave-safe mixing bowls you already have!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

C4 Week 1

Softening butter is difficult when you don't have a working furnace and it is -5C outside. Thankfully we have a fireplace and access to free firewood! Oh, and having the oven on for several hours doesn't hurt either.

Today marks the start of my C4 study. I have 14 recipes, each of which has been assigned a number 1-14 so that I could use to randomly select which recipes are baked each week.. I am baking two recipes per week, from now until December 21. I sent out e-mails to my friends, family, and skating teammates and currently have 16 respondents plus myself (I'm eliminating myself from analysis because I will have bias because I know which cookies are which). Final results won't be available until the New Year because my sister is taking samples of each recipe to two of her former roommates in Germany (I am going to freeze the cookies for them, so each cookie should still test the same because they will have all been frozen).

I am also keeping a detailed research journal, in true scientific fashion. I am also taking photos of the cookies in dough form and after they have been baked.

The original list of recipes I had was 21 strong, but some of the recipes were not different enough for me; I actually did an ingredient ratio comparison to pick recipes that differed the most. Over the next 7 weeks I will be testing:

Ad Hoc Chocolate Chip Cookies
Anna Olsen's Chocolate Chip Cookies
The Best Cookies
Big Fat Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
Brown Sugar Chocolate Chip Cookies
Chocolate & Zucchini's Chocolate Chip Cookies
Chocolate Chunk and Vanilla Bean Cookies
Giant Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
Hummingbird Bakery's Chocolate Chip Cookies
New York Time's Best Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe
Pudding Cookies
Skinny Chocolate Chip Cookies
Smitten Kitchen's Favourite Chocolate Chip Cookies
Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies

I'm really looking forward to it, are you?