Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Traveling by Train Cake

Traveling by train was a given when I was living in China.  I've never ridden a train in the States, but in China, it was the most convenient way to travel.

For weekend adventures, my friends and I would stuff our backpacks as heavy as we could carry and take a cab or the bus to the Dalian train station.  From there, we'd head off to explore other cities in the northeast like Tianjin, Harbin and of course, Beijing.

With many cities being an 8-12 hour train ride away, traveling at night was the most efficient, and there were a few types of tickets you could purchase.  The cheapest option was to sit up all night in the hard or soft seats, an option we learned the hard way as a completely miserable way to travel for that many hours.  If you wanted to lie down and sleep, then there were the cars with bunk beds, and you could choose between the hard sleeper which was an open car with rows of bunks, or the more luxurious soft sleeper with a private compartment containing four bunks.  Check out some of these photos on the Travel China Guide.

I only shelled out money for a soft sleeper once, and traveled by hard sleeper for most other lengthy trips.  Although seriously lacking in privacy, it was a decent way to travel and be able to stretch out and get some sleep.  The bathroom situation, though, with the Chinese-style (squatter) toilets opening up to flush over the train tracks rushing just inches beneath you, was something else!

I couldn't help but reminisce about all those adventures in my 20s while I was making the fondant decorations for Brody's 1st birthday cake.  The theme for the party was trains, so I wanted to make a cake with a train circling around, with puffy clouds of smoke floating up into the sky.

The decorations are all made from fondant, and really are just a combination of squares and circles put together, with edible food coloring pens for the finer details like the polka dots on the wheels and the writing on the train ticket and signs.

Everything else - sky, grass, train tracks and smoke - is buttercream.

My favorite piece was the engine, with its bright blue and red colors, two sets of cute little wheels, and B.H. (the birthday boy's initials) for B.H. Transportation, an idea I pulled from the birthday invites.  I don't think I ever rode on a train this cute in China, though!

One Year Ago:   Avocado, Orange and Basil Salad
Two Years AgoApple, Cardamom and Ginger Streusel Muffins

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Watercolor Striped Cake

Today we'll be having Easter dinner with friends who are "orphans" like us, without family in town to spend the holidays with.

I had been planning to make my peanut butter cheesecake again, since nothing says Easter like chocolate and peanut butter.  But then a friend asked if I could make a birthday cake instead, as a surprise for one of the girls who would be at dinner.

So I baked a white cake, whipped up some fluffy vanilla bean buttercream and frosted the cake in a design I'm calling "watercolor stripes".

There is a wonderful blog called Jones Design Company, and the designer Emily creates these beautiful, seasonal watercolor prints which she makes available for download.  This print is from her spring collection - isn't it gorgeous?  If you've never been to her blog, I hope you will pay a visit.  And once you start looking around, you may not want to leave, because there's so much creativity and inspiration - the lovely soft hues of her watercolor artwork was my inspiration for this cake.

Photo and Artwork from Jones Design Company

The blended stripes were actually quite easy to make.  After first frosting the cake in a crumb coat of white buttercream and letting it chill, I filled a piping bag to pipe the frosting on in a even layer, starting at the top, and one fourth of the way down the sides.  Then I added a drop or two of purple food coloring to get a pale lavender color, and piped the next section.  Then I repeated that twice more, each time tinting the frosting just a little darker.

After the frosting was in place, I took my bench scraper and lightly ran it around the sides, two or three times, until the frosting was smooth and the stripes blended together seamlessly.  It's a pretty effect, don't you think?

So as not to ruin the pretty cake with writing (and because I have awful cake writing skills), I made bunting to wish the birthday girl a happy birthday.  I made the letters in Excel and printed them on card stock; then by punching a small hole punched in each corner I was able to run the twine through the bunting without needing to use any glue or tape.

I loved the look of this cake so much, I sat and stared at it for a while and dreamed of all the other cakes I want to decorate this summer with other pretty pastel stripes.

One Year Ago:   Strawberry Rhubarb Almond Crumb Bars
Two Years AgoSalted Caramel Almond Tarts

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Things I Love

I recently discovered and fell in love with a blog.  Reading her words, I just felt like I had come home, that is if there were a home that were any more home than my own.  If the writer and I lived closer, I have a feeling we would become great friends.

But there was a part of me that felt sad, too, after reading her posts.  I don't always feel quite able to say what I feel in the exact way I wish I could express myself.  I often feel words, lingering in my fingertips as I type, but then stopping short as my fingers hit each key.

Maybe I hide, just a little, behind my photos of pretty cakes and sweets, but I'd like to share more everyday moments and impulsive photos of the things I love.  So, here are just a few, to start...

One Year Ago:   Salted Caramel Apple Bread Pudding
Two Years AgoCaramelized Balsamic Onion and Parmesan Mini Pizzas

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Easter Egg Hunt in the Garden Cake

Quite a while ago, I stumbled upon this tutorial for "quilling" with fondant or gum paste.  As I was still in the beginner phase of learning how to use fondant, this seemed like a fun and easy technique to learn.  Quilling or paper filigree, is an art form of rolling strips of paper for scrap-booking, and long before that, for decorating book covers or religious artifacts.

It was the middle of winter, but I must have been dreaming of warmer weather when I created my little quilled butterflies, bees and flowers, which I packed away in a box to wait until spring had arrived.

The wall next to our kitchen table has become the storage area for everything to do with our upcoming wedding - decorations, candles, vases, and miscellaneous projects I'm working on - and while organizing it all the other day, I found my box of dried fondant decorations.  It was time to make an Easter cake with my pretty little decorations, which I decided to call my "Easter Egg Hunt in the Garden" Cake.

The cake itself is vanilla, with minty shaved chocolate buttercream.  I tinted the buttercream an ever-so-subtle shade of pale green, with the shaved chocolate to hint at a speckled Easter egg.

To complete the cake, I wrapped a few plastic eggs in fondant and decorated them with stripes and polka dots, with the eggs "hiding" beside a paper flower attached to a wooden skewer.  Even my rolled paper flower is a form of quilling.

I don't have any memories of hunting Easter eggs in the yard, or even dyeing or decorating Easter eggs as a kid, but I do remember the baskets of candy waiting on our beds on Easter morning and how hard it was to put the candy away until after lunch.  I'm sure we sneaked a jelly bean or two, though, when our parents weren't looking.

For a how-to on "quilling" with fondant or gum paste, click HERE for a photo tutorial by My Cake School.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Chocolate Cake Doughnuts with Ganache Glaze

I woke up to a cool, misty morning with a few scattered snowflakes mixed with rain here and there.  It's been a beautiful, sunny spring week, but I don't mind the weather today since we need the moisture.  And gloomy Sundays suit me, as long as I get to stay home and be cozy.

When Jamie and I came home from my parents' house in South Carolina the day after Christmas, I made cinnamon rolls that morning, and froze half the rolls.  With the chilly weather this morning, I thawed out the rest of the cinnamon rolls and baked them up - they filled the house with their sweet, cinnamony aroma.

With Easter almost here, my jars of colorful sprinkles were begging to be used on something.  So one weekend morning I baked dark chocolate cake doughnuts and dipped them in bittersweet ganache before covering them with sprinkles and colored sugar.

For taste, I far prefer just the simple sprinkling of coconut, but the pastel sprinkles are sure a pretty way to welcome Easter.

One Year Ago:   Chocolate Ice Cream and Peanut Butter Cookies
Two Years AgoHot Cross Bun Bread Pudding

Chocolate Cake Doughnuts with Ganache Glaze

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons special dark cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon espresso powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
ganache and garnish:
  • 2 ounces heavy cream
  • 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • sprinkles, coconut, chopped nuts, toffee bits, etc

Bake the Doughnuts:
Preheat the oven to 375 and spray a standard-sized doughnut pan (6 doughnuts) with non-stick spray.

In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder, salt and baking soda.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, heavy cream, sour cream, oil and vanilla.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry and whisk until smooth; batter will be very thick.

Scrape the batter into a piping bag (it is too thick to try to spoon evenly into the pan, so you will need to pipe it), and snip a 1/2 inch hole at the tip.  Pipe the batter into the pan, dividing it between the 6 doughnut molds.

Bake for 8-9 minutes, until risen and the doughnuts spring back when lightly touched.  Cool in the pan for 1-2 minutes before glazing.

Make the Ganache:
While the doughnuts are baking, heat the cream in a small saucepan over medium low heat, just until it begins to bubble around the edges.  Add the chocolate and let stand for 3 minutes, then stir with a spatula until smooth.

After cooling the doughnuts for a couple of minutes, dip each doughnut in the ganache, then sprinkle with your toppings of choice.  Let sit for 15-20 minutes until the ganache is set.

Yields 6 doughnuts

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

    Thursday, April 10, 2014

    Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheesecake

    Unbelievably, Easter is the weekend after next, and you would think that the trees and flowers would already be in full bloom, but spring is coming as slow as molasses around here.  Just this morning, I saw a few tiny green shoots on the tree outside my office window, so there is hope.  But we're actually supposed to get more snow this weekend, too.

    The lack of lush greenery and fragrant blooms makes me miss spring in South Carolina, where the dogwood trees are covered in pink and white flowers and the sweet scent of honeysuckle bushes attract bees and hummingbirds.  I can imagine walking barefoot through dew-dampened grass, bits of rich soil and freshly mown grass sticking to my feet, the morning chill giving way to warm breezes that carry stray flower petals and the aroma of spring.

    The grocery store aisles of Easter candy are tempting, in particular the Cadbury eggs, but so far all I've bought was a bag of dark chocolate eggs.  Since Jamie loves chocolate and peanut butter, I made a peanut butter cheesecake with a chocolate cookie crust, garnished with the chocolate eggs.

    The cheesecake was so creamy, and not too sweet, and dare I say, better than a peanut butter filled egg.  A perfect Easter dessert.

    One Year AgoA Mouthful of Pie (Coconut Cream Pie and Key Lime Pie for Easter)
    Two Years AgoFlourless Chocolate Cake with Salted Caramel Sauce

    Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheesecake

    • 1 1/2 cups very finely crushed Oreos, including the cream filling (about 1/2 package)
    • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
    • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
    • 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream, cold
    • 1 envelope unflavored gelatin
    • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
    • 1 pound cream cheese, room temperature
    • 1 cup creamy peanut butter
    • 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
    • Chocolate eggs, peanut butter cups, etc.

    Preheat the oven to 325.  Combine the crushed Oreos, salt and melted butter.  Press against the bottom and up the sides of a 7-inch springform pan.  Bake for 10 minutes.  Cool completely on a wire rack.

    Pour 1/2 cup heavy cream into microwave-safe measuring cup. Add gelatin and whisk to combine. Let stand for 5 minutes; it will be thick and clumpy.  Microwave on high for 30-45 seconds to completely dissolve the gelatin.  Set aside.

    In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the remaining 1 cup heavy cream and brown sugar at medium-high speed until soft peaks form, about 2 minutes. Add cream cheese, peanut butter, vanilla bean paste and gelatin mixture (strain the gelatin mixture if there are any lumps) and beat at medium-high speed until smooth and thick with no lumps, about 2-3 minutes, scraping the bowl down a few times.

    Spread the filling over the cooled crust and smooth out the top.  Cover and refrigerate until well chilled and set, about 3-4 hours, then carefully remove the sides of the pan and set the cheesecake on a serving pedestal.  Top with the candy and serve.

    Yields 8-10 servings

    Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

    Tuesday, April 8, 2014

    Starting with Lemons

    I zested and juiced about a hundred lemons the other day.  Well, not really a hundred, more like 20, but my hands were still aching by the time I was finished.

    After zesting all the lemons, I divided the zest between two quart-sized canning jars and poured in vodka for homemade limoncello.  The lemon zest and vodka will have to steep for about a month before it's ready to be strained and then mixed with simple syrup, after which it will rest for another month or so before it's ready to drink.

    If you've never tasted limoncello, I urge you to try it.  It's an Italian lemon liqueur, and it's tart, sweet, refreshing and delightfully summery.  I'm excited that mine will be ready when summer arrives.

    Once a lemon is zested, it will quickly lose its freshness and dry out without the peel to hold in the moisture, so it needs to be juiced right away.  I juiced all the lemons and filled another quart-sized jar almost full with fresh lemon juice, intending to keep it in the fridge for future use.  But then I thought of freezing the juice in ice cube trays, with a few mint leaves in each, to toss into glasses of ice water.

    The size of the glass will determine how many lemon ice cubes you need, and for these little half-pint jars, one cube was plenty.  You can even add sugar, if you like, for lemonade, but I like the tart freshness of just the lemon water.

    One Year Ago:   Strawberry Tart for Sunday Breakfast
    Two Years AgoOur Easter Dinner