Cake: Expectations And Reality

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For ages now Ryan has been asking to make a Minecraft cake. And I’ve been on board with the idea, but let’s be honest – doing a really good Minecraft cake would definitely take some serious prep work. I was picturing one sheet cake laid on a piece of tinfoil, with blue frosting on the tinfoil for water, green on the cake for grass, and then blocks of another sheet cake piled up to create the landscape. Then we’d need to figure out trees and grass and flowers and maybe a crafting table…

I don’t think that Ryan was imagining anything so complex. It was hard to tell, because while he’s extremely voluble, he’s still working on the life skill of clear communication. In any case, I gradually downgraded my ideas for the project, and was ready to try something much simpler last Monday.

First step: bake a cake. No problem. Second step: make frosting. Done.

At this point Ryan told me he’d changed his mind. He wanted a Portal 2 cake instead. He began looking up designs that he wanted on the cake, and it became clear to me that what he was imagining was the sort of cake he’s seen in bakeries, with a photorealistic image on top. He saw no reason that I shouldn’t be able to reproduce the Aperture Science logo on the top of the cake.

This led to a semi-long conversation about the limits of my technical skill with sprinkles, and that in turn led to him downgrading his desires to a face from Geometry Dash, which I executed inexpertly. It also led to him admitting that mostly what he wanted was cake; the decoration was more of a nice-to-have.

Finally we understood each other. And he was happy.

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Breakfast

I have this idea about my role as a cook, that once I really *nail* the cooking, I’ll be able to plan out breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for a week, all healthy meals that people love, with a modicum of new and exciting recipes to refresh the repertoire. I think this is like the elusive quest for happiness, where one imagines that one some point one will reach happiness and just stay there — i.e., totally the wrong model. I’ve gradually accepted that happiness doesn’t work that way, but for some reason I still cling to my illusions about meal planning.

Part of my current attempt to reach this nirvana is that I’ve scheduled one breakfast a week as a “special” breakfast, where I can try something new. Breakfast is arguably my favorite meal of the day, so much so that if I get up early enough I do it twice. This week I made these beautiful double-layer smoothies.

smoothie

These were lovely and extremely tasty, and although next time I would de-seed the raspberries, overall I thought the recipe a real win. And if my model of food preparation were true, I would be able to report that my kids gobbled them up with delight. Alas, only the baby seemed very interested (she liked dipping the mint garnish in and sucking off the smoothie). The boys both said it was good but ate only a fraction of theirs.

Pretend Birthday Cake – and Frosting

I don’t seem to post much about food lately. That doesn’t mean I’m not trying new recipes — of course I am, and some, such as the Oven Roasted Broccoli, are even very good, eaten up by my family with far more interest than broccoli usually is in this house. The Cheese Stuffed Breadsticks were also surprisingly good for not too much work, although they needed a brushing of salty garlic butter in the middle, I thought. But usually, even if I like the recipe, I just add a link to my sidebar and move on with my life.

But today was different. Today I had a frosting revelation.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward cake. And over the years I’ve gradually begun to define more specifically my issues with it, helped largely by the fact that my brother makes truly awesome cakes. I think the trouble was that I’d eaten too many store-bought cakes in my life, and come to the conclusion that those somehow defined cake. Point number one: cakes should be moist, fluffy things (we’re talking about standard cakes here, not flourless ones, which I consider an entirely separate category) with good enough flavor that they’re worth eating without frosting. Pete makes those; and now, occasionally, I have made them too. I made one just today from a recipe online that I thought was actually quite worthwhile, considering that it wasn’t chocolate, although next time I might add some orange zest.

But point number two has been the sticky one: frosting. There is simply, in my clearly not humble opinion, not much one can do with buttercream. It is what it is, and what it is to me (I’m sure there are those who disagree, and I forgive you) is greasy in the mouth and almost always too sweet. Other frostings have done better for me, but they usually aren’t quite what I’m looking for — since we can’t use cream, whipped cream versions are out, as is cream cheese, and the various cooked icings I’ve tried are ok but not stunning. The closest thing I’ve found to true frosting love has been some kind of ganache (made with coconut milk), and they’re usually not sweet enough for the kids and a bit heavy to boot.

So today, when Ryan asked for a cake for a pretend birthday party, and specified that he wanted a “normal” cake (the last chocolate one I made was not very sweet and I think he remembers), I knew I needed something different. Not knowing where to start, I just googled “not buttercream frosting.” And this is what I got.

It’s good. Yes, there’s butter and sugar, but there’s also a roux made from flour and milk. Does it sound dubious? It did to me too, but I took a chance and am oh so glad. Tonight, by only making a third of the cake recipe and a quarter of the frosting, I came up with a dessert that our family and two neighbor kids could finish in a night, and I actually really enjoyed my piece. (I would have enjoyed it even more had I not allowed all four kids to decorate the cake first with sprinkles. What, did I think they would gently shake them on? Why shake when you can pour?)

I think I am slowly, very slowly, being converted to liking cake.

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Cider

It was a small cider-making year — small in people attending, and also small in the final volume of cider. The local semi-abandoned orchard that we raid (with blessings) was nearly bare this year, so we went up to Dad’s house bringing only an empty carboy and hope.

Also I forgot the camera. I do that way too often. (I forgot it again when we went to Ape Cave five days later.) I look forward to the day that I can have a camera surgically implanted in my forehead.

But in any case, we did get some juice, and we got to enjoy the process of making juice — from the initial duck-and-flinch as we shook the apples down into a sheet to the final spraying of the equipment. I’m making fun of it a little, but the truth is that I love apple juice making; that and winemaking are the quintessential fall jobs for me, and I’d be happy to be involved even if I didn’t get any of the final product. (That was a hypothetical, not me volunteering to give up my share.)

Since we had so little juice this year, we didn’t use any for wine or hard cider, but canned everything that we didn’t drink fresh. The only exception was that one quart came out to make apple cider caramels, a recipe I’ve been eyeing since last year. Holy Moses. Dave finds them a little too assertive for his tastes, and it’s true that this is the kind of caramel that walks up to you, punches you in the chest, and steals your wallet. But there’s no denying that the apple flavor is transcendent, and I love them.

Next year, when we (hopefully) have more cider, I’ll make another batch in December and stuff the kids’ stockings with them.

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First Picking

It’s u-pick time again! I’ve been keeping a close eye on the Sherwood Orchards web site, and last week when the boys’ grandma was here we made an excursion to get sweet and pie cherries. The sweet ones were Royal Ann, yellow blushed with red and purely delicious. What we didn’t eat fresh, we pitted and froze against the winter. (Ryan, my little fruit monster, loves eating them frozen.)

cherries

The pie cherries this year went mainly into jam. It’s the first time I’ve made cherry jam, and I was a bit taken aback by the time it took to cook down all those beautiful juices into a consistency that seemed thick enough. And afterwards… well, to be honest I’m not sure it was worth it. I know, it’s heresy… But even though I’ve been converted to the merits of cherry crisp, the cherry jam just isn’t doing it for me. Too cherry, not enough crisp, maybe. Nathan doesn’t care for it either.

It’s a mixed start to the fruit season, but we’re only just beginning.

Speaking of grandma, I completely failed to take a reasonable number of pictures while she was here, but she was a big hit, as I hope these indicate:

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The fact that all of my few pictures capture her with Ryan is not a bias against Nathan; Nathan is just harder to coax into a lap right now.

Emergency Jam

Our household has not bought a single jar of jam since soon after we moved into this house, more than five years ago. This became a matter of some pride to me once I discovered how easy and inexpensive jam is, especially when using berries that were homegrown or foraged. Flushed with my new knowledge, I embarked on a slightly insane amount of jam-making. Blackberry, strawberry, rhubarb, raspberry, plum, apricot, plus combinations thereof, conserves, marmalades, fruit butters… We’ve eaten a lot of jam, and a great many jars have been stocked away on the ledge above our kitchen cabinets.

Imagine my chagrin, then, when I stood on a chair recently and realized that we were down to exactly two jars each of some of our least favorite varieties: apple butter and peach jam.

But all was not lost. I still have about fifteen gallons of fruit in the freezer, and although berries have not yet graced my garden this year, rhubarb has. And, as I mentioned, jam is easy. With all those batches under my belt, I had no fear of bringing out every saucepan in the house and doing four batches at once.

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The real beauty of this situation, though, is that, after years of knowing that I had a jam overstock and ought to dial back, I now have a really good reason to start experimenting again. Blackberry peach! Apple raspberry! And man, I can’t wait for apricot season…

Tiny But Intense

No, not my children — cake! Flourless chocolate cake, to be precise, from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. I may have mentioned Smitten Kitchen before; that’s the site with 14 different brownie recipes, and also the one that supplied Nathan’s birthday cake last year.

When the corresponding cookbook came out I immediately put a hold on it at the library. Well, apparently not “immediately,” because 174 people got in ahead of me, but I did my best. And finally it was delivered to me. I browsed through it, sticking in a bookmark at every recipe that looked good, and noticing that the Breakfast and Dessert sections were strangely overloaded with tags at the end of that process.

Perhaps the most tantalizing one was Tiny But Intense Chocolate Cake (you can find a copy here). Deb Perelman (the author) assured me that buying a 6″ cake pan would make me a better friend, and I hope that’s true, because I now have one, and it was in my house for less than an hour before being filled with flourless chocolate cake batter.

This, my friends, is the result:

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A little slice of mousse-like heaven, rich and flavorful but not too sweet. I had it with a little of our 2010 blackberry wine, and it was superb. It was also simple to prepare, and best of all, that little 6″ cake is the perfect size for our family.

What else can I make in that pan? The cheesecake that I usually skip because it’s so expensive to make with sheep’s milk cheese? The raspberry rhubarb tart that we love but is a little overwhelming when I’m staring at 24 servings? I have a feeling that this pan and I will be very good friends indeed…