Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Friendly faces on a cold day

It has been cold and snowy here for the past few days. Which has made going outside to play a much less appealing activity for me... But there is still a Little Girl to entertain, so I have been doing my best to be creative. One problem though, is that when I ask Little Girl what she would like to do, her answer is usually "Elmo!" Well, we can only watch so many Elmo DVDs in a day (that would be one...!), and her Elmo stuffed animals and coloring book don't hold her attention for as long as other activities. So today I decided to get creative. It had been a few days since I had baked anything, and we should be getting some company tomorrow, so I thought it only appropriate to multitask. I asked Little Girl if she would like to help me make Elmo cupcakes. She was pretty excited about the idea, so I figured we should go for it. I started my looking on-line for different examples of Elmo cupcakes. I then needed to think about what I had on hand to use for decorations. My two concerns were: 1) I didn't have enough eggs to make both cakes and frosting and 2) the only red food coloring I had was liquid drops - I knew that would water down the frosting and end up pink... So Little Girl and I made a quick trip to the craft store and the neighboring grocery store for gel color and eggs. Tools in hand, it was time to bake.
I used my regular yellow cake recipe, but added a whole lot of red (liquid) food coloring to it. How much? Oh, something like 18 drops. And the result? Still pink. But oh well, the cakes cooked up nicely, so I figured that the pink base would be fine...!
Next, it was frosting time. I used the same frosting recipe I used for my birthday cake a few weeks ago. I then added my new red gel food coloring. I watched the gel mix into the white frosting... and watched it turn pink. I added more gel. Still pink. Hmm... Not how I had hoped things would go... I decided to use the pink as a base coat on the cakes while I tried to figure out how to make sure Elmo didn't wind up being pink through and through...
When I spoke with my sister later in the day she offered her bright red sanding sugar to me, but the little matters of a 45 minute drive between our houses and her just getting home after having a baby (welcome home, Baby Boy!!) made it so that the genuine offer wasn't very practical. But it got me thinking. With the gel coloring, I wouldn't have to worry too much about dissolving... I would try to make my own red sugar! While I think that my fingers might be permanently stained, I wound up with a great color that was much more appropriately Elmo than the pink was!!
With the color right, it was time to make the facial features. I didn't have marshmallows or black decorating icing or anything. But I did have miniature spice gel candies, mini chocolate chips and small chocolate sandwich cookies. Those turned into eyes, noses and mouths.
This was a lot of prep work, and I wasn't even done yet. But it was finally time for the last step. Assembly. I have to admit, though, I was enjoying myself the whole time. (Well, except for the part where it was a little creepy seeing 16 pairs of little googly eyes staring at me...!) I couldn't wait to see how they looked put together. And I was also curious to see if Little Girl would like them.

When she woke up from her nap I brought her to the kitchen to see who was there. She took one look and answered, with a huge smile:


Totally worth it!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Daring to do it: Stollen

The 2010 December Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Penny of Sweet Sadie’s Baking. She chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ to make Stollen. She adapted a friend’s family recipe and combined it with information from friends, techniques from Peter Reinhart’s book.........and Martha Stewart’s demonstration.

While I can't say it was a surprise, I was a little... frustrated? disappointed? concerned? when I saw that the December Daring Bakers' challenge was something so very Christmassy. Me being so very Jewish, I was considering sitting this one out, more on principle than anything else. That and the fact that this looked to be a lot like a fruitcake. Something I never had any interest in even trying... But after thinking about it for a couple of days, I realized that this might be an interesting one to do, Christmassy or not. For one thing, my mother-in-law loves fruitcake, so this might be something nice for her to enjoy. For another, my husband's family is of German descent - Pennsylvania Dutch. ("If you ain't Dutch, you ain't much," as my husband has said on occasion...!) This being a traditional German treat, it was just another reason to give it a try.

Once I decided that I was going to take part in this challenge, I had to decide how I was going to put my own spin on it. I knew I wouldn't be using candied fruits, as I don't have any interest in them. I knew I would not be using any nuts, as we have not yet given Little Girl any nuts. And I knew I wouldn't be soaking anything in rum, as we don't have any, don't drink it, don't like it, and otherwise have no reason to keep it around! Looking at all of these limits I was giving myself, I again thought about sitting this round out. Then I got inspired. Really, I think it was the huge bag of dried cranberries that got me. I decided to make two different versions of the stollen - both using cranberries as the primary fruit component.

My first stollen would be made for a holiday party for the mom's group I am a part of. This one was an orange-cranberry-white chocolate stollen. I soaked the cranberries in orange juice, and used only orange zest in the dough. The dough was not difficult to make, but it did take a lot of dishes, and I was really glad to have the use of my KitchenAid to do the kneading! Once the dough was made it went into the fridge for a nice, slow, cool rising. I actually kept the dough in there for about three days. Other than taking up a lot of room, it wasn't even close to an issue! When it was time to make the stollen, I took it out and let it warm up for a couple of hours. The next step was to roll the dough out. This is not something I am used to doing for bread...! For this first go, I actually don't think I rolled the dough thin enough... Oops... Before rolling the dough into a log, I sprinkled chopped white chocolate chips onto the surface, just to add more dimension to the final product. Once rolled, the log was formed into a ring. Penny had wanted us to shape our stollen like wreaths in honor of the holiday. As wonderful as Penny is, and as amazing as her stollen looked, I just didn't feel right making a wreath. So I stuck to a ring. Another rise and it was into the oven to bake. But the baking isn't the last step...! As soon as the stollen came out of the oven it was time to brush the whole thing with melted butter (or margarine, in my case...) then give it a few generous dustings of powdered sugar. Messy? Absolutely. Worth the mess? Heck, yeah! The finished stollen looked like a snow covered island. Because this was made for a party, I couldn't test taste it or there would be a big gaping hole... Luckily, though, I had planned ahead... Before forming my ring I had cut off a small section of dough and made a mini "bun" to taste. I am glad I did, too...! The stollen was enjoyed all around, both at home and at the party. So I was really glad that I hadn't walked away from this challenge!
But I wasn't done. Remember that Pennsylvania Dutch family of mine? I still wanted to do a stollen for them, too! So I made my second version - lemon-cranberry-dried pineapple with cinnamon sugar stollen. This time around I rolled my dough thinner, making for better rings. I also decided to make three smaller loaves and a set of six muffins instead of one large loaf. This way I could give one to my parents-in-law, one to my siblings-in law, have some for snacking, and even have one for myself! I have not yet had the chance to taste this creation, but I am really looking forward to it... The smell of it baking was amazing, and the combination of the lemon and cranberry, with the bits of pineapple... So tempting! But I am trying to keep things intact until they can get to my in-laws' house tomorrow...

Thank you so much, Penny, for encouraging me, and the rest of the Daring Barkers, to try something so wonderful. I can honestly say this is not a recipe I would have ever made were it not for the challenge, and I am really glad that you gave me the opportunity and the push to do it! If you want to see what the other amazing Bakers did with their stollen, take a look here!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Daring to do it: Poaching

Jenn (from Jenn Cuisine) and Jill have challenged The Daring Cooks to learn to perfect the technique of poaching an egg. They chose Eggs Benedict recipe from Alton Brown, Oeufs en Meurette from Cooking with Wine by Anne Willan, and Homemade Sundried Tomato & Pine Nut Seitan Sausages (poached) courtesy of Trudy of Veggie num num.

I have, in the past, tried my hand at poaching eggs. While they turned out tasty, they were not all that attractive, and I didn't feel like I had actually done the process as it deserved to be done. I had even recently torn out an article from a cooking magazine to which I subscribe about how to have better success poaching eggs. Then came this challenge! The timing couldn't have been better if I had planned it myself! What made the timing even more amusing was that the challenge was announced on a day where my weekly meal plan had us scheduled for eggs for dinner! The stars were absolutely aligned, this was something I was supposed to do!

Luckily for me, the hosts of this challenge were much more interested in getting us Daring Cooks to poach than they were in having us follow the exact recipes they provided. Even making substitutions for vegetarianism/Kashrut, Eggs Bennedict with its Hollandaise sauce wasn't something I felt the need to try. And the Oeufs en Meurette would be great, except we are not wine drinkers, so the wine poached eggs/sauce probably wouldn't have been appreciated... (The vegan sausages looked really great, but I didn't feel quite up to that challenge...) So I decided to be somewhat creative and give things my own spin.

While I was not making Eggs Bennedict, I did decide that English muffins would be a great base for my dish. After looking at a variety of recipes online, I decided to go with this one. I did sub in some whole wheat flour, which I was very glad to have done. I also baked them in the oven instead of using the pan fry/bake method. Again, I was very happy with this decision! The muffins came out beautifully and deliciously. I will never buy English Muffins again!!

Then next step was to tackle the poached eggs. The hosts gave a whole list of suggestions to try, some of which I had heard, some I had not. The one I made sure to use was adding vinegar to the poaching water. I don't know the science of it, but it does seem to help... I also made sure my water was simmering, not boiling and not simply warm. This did help a lot. My whites did spread a bit more than I would have liked, but I was much more successful this time than I had been on my previous foray into poached eggs!
Finally it was time to assemble my dish. I started with warm English muffins, then placed a slice of cheese on each half. Onto the cheese went a poached egg, and all of it was covered with warm tomato sauce. Served with roasted asparagus and butternut squash, this was an amazingly delicious meal!! All of us agreed that this was something to be made and enjoyed again!!

So it seemed I was done with this month's Daring Cook's challenge. On the first day. Huh? I knew I couldn't let it go at that. So I gave it one more stab. On the last day. Yes, this post goes up on the 14th, I made another poached egg dish on the 13th. It seems I was into the timing extremes on this one. For this meal I wanted to do something similar to what I have done in the past as a comfort meal: eggs poached directly in tomato sauce. Eggs and tomato go so well together... Instead of using a bread base this time I made pasta to use under sauteed spinach and garlic topped with a roasted vegetable tomato sauce in which I poached the eggs. (It sounds kind of fancier than I meant it to be when it is all spelled out there...) This, again, was really yummy. The spinach and the tomatoes and the egg just worked so well together! They made for a great sauce for the pasta, and it was a great, hearty and comforting treat.
So thank you to Jenn and Jill for such a great challenge! I had so much fun trying different combinations, and poached eggs (and, hopefully, other things!) will definitely make it into our regular meal rotation!
To the the amazing creations of my fellow Daring Cooks, check things out here!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me!!

So today is my birthday! Yay! I still love birthdays. Not for the years, not for the presents, and not for the center of attention thing. I just love birthdays. It is fun to celebrate, share happy occasions, and have an excuse to make and eat cake! When I said something about making my own birthday cake, Hubby was shocked. "You shouldn't have to make your own birthday cake!" But I have fun baking, so I explained that this was actually something fun for me. I searched high and low for the perfect shape cake for my birthday, and came up with nothing good. Sure there are some amazing cakes out there, but there wasn't anything that seemed right to me... So I stuck with traditional round cake, and decided that it would be fun anyway!
This year Little Girl was able to help me make my cake. Last night we made my regular yellow cake recipe, but added some cocoa powder to make it a marble cake, which is my favorite. She helped me measure, pour, mix and smooth the cakes, which was a ton of fun!! I did decide to do the marbling myself, though... I just thought it might be less of a mess that way...
Tonight it was time to make the frosting. The traditional white frosting that I grew up making requires a double boiler and a hand mixer. A double boiler I can improvise, but the lack of a hand mixer would have made it a bit tough. So I searched around and found this recipe for Fluffy White Frosting. So similar to the one I grew up with, but even easier! I think this is going to be my new go-to frosting recipe!! I was so amazed when, after walking away from the mixer for a few minutes, I saw how light and fluffy this became!
Finally it was time to assemble the cake. I used some triple berry sauce (store bought... sorry!) between the layers, just because I like it! (It's my birthday, I get to do my own thing!) Then the frosting! Lots and lots of smooth, fluffy, marshmallowy frosting! I usually make a mess with this part, which is fine... I make the mess, I clean it up...! But this frosting was so easy to work with! I had fun covering the tops and sides, and even making a little bit of a swirly design.
Now a white cake is pretty and all, but I wanted a little bit more festivity. So on with the colorful sugar sprinkles!! Now this is a birthday cake!!
I would like to thank my family and friends for making this such a fun birthday. I am very lucky to have such wonderful people around me!
But now it is cake time!! Enjoy!!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

When laziness wins...

The meal plan for the week showed that tonight's dinner was to be a baked vegetable and pasta dish. Nothing fancy, nothing too involved. Especially because I still had a nice variety of vegetables left in my refrigerator all ready to be used. So while Little Girl napped, I started chopping. As I chopped, though, I realized that I had a lot of veggies. A whole lot. More than would fit in any of my pans to be sauteed before being tossed in with the pasta. And I am way too lazy to use multiple pans - more dishes to wash? No, thank you!
I then realized that I didn't have to saute. I could roast. Why did I never think of this before? No worrying about overcooking none veggie or undercooking another by adding them in the "wrong" order. I pulled out my biggest baking dish and threw everything in all at once - onions, carrots, parsnips, peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, garlic... Add some olive oil and some spiced and get the whole thing into a 425 degree oven, and no more thought necessary!!

Once the veggies were cooked, I added a can of kidney beans, shredded cheese and the cooked pasta. After popping the whole thing into the oven, dinner was ready.
I don't know why I never did this before. In addition to saving on prep dishes in need of washing, roasting the vegetables added a whole new layer of flavor that I never thought of!! This was a wonderful dinner, with plenty of leftovers for Hubby to take to work for lunches! I can't wait to make this one again!