Monday, October 24, 2011

Pumpkin Cake

You all are going to think I'm crazy, but I had some free time yesterday and what did I do with it? I baked a cake of course! I guess baking and decorating a 3-tier cake wasn't enough to satisfy my cake obsession for this weekend!

Here she is...

Isn't she pretty? She's rustic. But that's on purpose.

I can't really take credit for the design. I got it from Miso. Some of you may remember that I have done some challenges for Miso's blog. She is an amazing decorator that also does some cake-related posts for Half-Baked, the cake blog. She did a post on Half-Baked last week in which she shared this design and her recipe. It is delicious! You can read her post, her instructions, and her recipe here.

For mine, I used a smaller bundt-type pan that is shaped like a donut. It is the giant donut cake pan from Williams-Sonoma. I got it as a gift from my mother-in-law last year and I love it! (Thanks Mitzi!) To give my pumpkin a bit more height, and so it wouldn't look like just a donut, I also put a little of the batter in an 8-inch round cake pan. I didn't cut and fill the halves of the donut, but instead put my 8-inch round (trimmed to fit) in between the two donut layers with ganache on each side. (I hope that made sense!)

Maybe this picture of one of the slices will help you see what I mean.

I'm not sure why I cut such a measly piece. I will definitely make my own slice bigger! Don't judge! :)

I will say a word of caution. Don't be too heavy-handed with the chocolate or it will overwhelm the pumpkin flavor and spices of the cake. A thin layer is perfect! Or, you could use some cream cheese icing instead for a more traditional, but no less delicious, combination. I also noticed that Miso's ganache recipe calls for chocolate chips. You may recall that I told you not to use chocolate chips. And I stand by that! Chocolate chips contain extra wax that makes them more challenging to melt. So, I recommend a good-quality chocolate instead of the chips. But if chips are all you have or all you can find, by all means give it a go. Just be aware that they may not melt as well or behave for you like other chocolate in non-chip form.

I covered my pumpkin with vanilla bean swiss meringue buttercream that was tinted orange. I think it was perfect! Not quite as artsy as Miso's, but I love it all the same. (I really love Miso's too though!)

Actually, I had some orange left over from the last MisoBakes cake that I did, as well as some white from the baby shower cake and a little green from another cake. I mixed them all together and covered the pumpkin with the resulting perfect pumpkin color. I love it when using leftovers works out so well!

One batch of batter was enough for my little pumpkin. Miso's was a lot bigger, I think, and would serve more people.

This is a perfect cake to try this fall! It's moist and wonderful, with good pumpkin flavor and a boost from the chocolate ganache. Enjoy!!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Baby Shower Cake

My latest creation is probably my favorite one to-date. Check out those swirls! I did this cake for a friend who was bringing the cake to her sister-in-law's baby shower. The colors and baby buggy topper were done to match the invitations. I really love this one - the simplicity of the design, the colors, the topper, and the overall effect of all of those swirls.

Here is another view of the cake, without the topper on yet. This would be good for a wedding cake, I think.

Want to see that topper up close? I thought you might....

It's a little hard to see the details, but I hope you can make them out. I free-handed a little drawing based on the invitation onto the back of some photo paper, then cut it out. I rolled out brown fondant and used the photo paper, which I lightly brushed with some shortening for some extra insurance against sticking, as a template to cut the back piece for the baby buggy. I then used the same technique to cut out the pieces of the buggy in green and brown. For the bottom part, the basket/bassinet part (does that make sense?), I used one of my rubber stamps (never ever ever used with ink, so clean and perfect for caking) to imprint a pattern, then I painted the raised portion with a mixture of brown gel food coloring and vodka (to thin it out to paint consistency). I used a lighter version of my "paint" to brush the whole thing to give it a bit of a washed look and to dull the remaining green portions as a contrast to the top part of the stroller. There are sucker sticks between the back and front fondant pieces to hold the baby buggy in place on top of the cake.

On a side note, I really need a better system and lighting for taking pictures of my cakes. If any of you are photogs and have suggestions, I'd love to hear them!! Right now, I take the pictures in front of a big window, on a table usually with wrapping paper as the backdrop/underneath the cake. I use a big piece of white foamcore board as a reflector, but, like in these pictures, sometimes it doesn't seem to work very well. I'm trying to avoid buying a huge "booth" for my cake pictures, but if that is the best way to photograph my cakes, I'd try it (if it's not too much moolah). I've discovered that a good picture can make a huge difference!

Anyway....back to this baby shower cake.

I also decorated the cake board by marbling the green and brown fondant used for the baby buggy and rolling it onto a piece of 1/2-inch foamcore board cut a few inches larger than the cake. I stamped "congratulations katie and steve" into the front and then painted the letters with edible gold dust mixed with a tiny bit of vodka to make it into a paint-like consistency. I used the tiniest brush I have to get into the grooves of the letters without getting gold all over the place. I like the effect! Subtle and pretty.

The entire cake is covered with mini-swirls similar to a cake I did awhile ago for my new neighbor. You can see that cake here. This one is exactly the same, but on a much larger scale! I used vanilla bean buttercream made with vanilla bean paste. The paste and the butter give the icing an off-white color that was perfect for this cake. I love how the creamy icing with little flecks of vanilla bean looks against the green and brown ribbons and the baby buggy on the top.

The ribbons are real and the only inedible decorations on this cake. The little bows are made with the brown ribbon. All are fastened onto the cake with a dab of buttercream. I do think that in the future I will use royal icing or something like that to attach the ribbons, though. I think that may hold a little better. I was really nervous that the ribbons would fall once the buttercream softened. These held on, but I think a stronger "glue" would help my peace of mind!

Do you all want details about the cake itself? I thought so!

The bottom tier of the cake is 4 layers of marble cake with vanilla bean buttercream filling. The marble cake is my vanilla bean cake swirled with my newest chocolate cake. I think this is my favorite cake yet. It was sooooo good! I could barely keep myself from cutting out a big slice of it while I was putting it all together! And when I torted the cake (that's cutting it into layers), it revealed the most beautiful swirls of chocolate inside. The cake itself was so pretty. I took a picture so you could all enjoy it too!

Doesn't that look amazing? Don't you just want to reach into your computer and grab a slice or two? I've never been happier to have a little dome on the top of my cake. I cut it off to level the cake and I got to taste the cake that way. Delicious!!

The middle tier is an extra-tall (I think it ended up at around 7 inches tall) 6-inch round vanilla bean cake with milk chocolate ganache filling. Also delicious! The top is a 4-inch chocolate cake with vanilla bean buttercream.

Now I know you are wishing right now that I would give you some recipes. And I will. I promise. But in another post. :)

And there you have it. My baby shower cake. I hope you enjoyed it!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Swiss Meringue Buttercream aka The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

Have you ever tried a meringue-based buttercream? If not, you are really missing out!

I confess that I used to be a frosting-hater. Maybe hate is a strong word. I was always the one who scraped the icing off of the cake, then ate only the cake. Maybe I would pick at the icing a little, but it always seemed to overpower the flavor of the cake. I recently discovered why. It is because the typical American buttercream is nothing but shortening, a LOT of powdered sugar, a little milk or water, and some flavoring, usually vanilla. Yep, that's it. Many people don't even put real butter in their "butter"cream! No wonder I didn't like it!

Now, if you love American buttercream, I don't mean to offend you! There are people who prefer it. But wait until you taste a meringue buttercream!

There are lot of recipes with different ratios of egg whites to sugar to butter out there. Play around with it and see what you like. You do have some wiggle room here. The one I like the best is the 1-2-3 ratio. That's one part egg whites to two parts sugar to three parts butter. It always comes together nicely; it tastes sweet but not sickeningly so and does not taste too buttery. But you can really taste the butter in this buttercream, so be sure to use a nice one.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream
5 ounces egg whites (about 5 egg whites)
10 ounces granulated sugar
a pinch of salt
1 pound good-quality unsalted butter, softened overnight at room temperature (I use Kerrygold)

You may have noticed that there are only weights listed in this recipe. Well, you can't make my recipe without a kitchen scale. Sorry! If you simply must use regular measurements, know that 10 ounces of granulated sugar is just under 1 1/2 cups and 1 egg white weighs about an ounce. The weight of an egg white can vary, so I do recommend weighing those too.

Whisk together the egg whites, sugar, and salt in the top of a double-boiler or in the bowl of your stand mixer. You can make this with a hand-held mixer, but I highly recommend a stand mixer so that you are free to do other things while it all mixes away for 10 minutes or more at a time. That's a lot of time to be standing there with the hand mixer!

A quick note about the egg whites. You can use liquid egg whites that come in a carton from the store, but make sure there are no added ingredients. I personally just crack fresh organic eggs for my buttercream. I save the egg yolks to use in my yellow cake recipe. But there are wonderful uses for egg yolks besides yellow cake. You can make amazing custards, like creme brulee, and cream fillings with them. I haven't tried a lot of these yet, but I will be trying some soon and will share if possible! (I just made some white cakes and now I have 25 egg yolks to use!)

Bring about an inch of water to a boil, then set your egg white mixture in your bowl over the top. Make sure that the bottom of your bowl is NOT touching the boiling water or you will cook your eggs, ending up with little bits of scrambled eggs in your icing. That, my friend, is definitely not creamy goodness. Keep those eggs moving. I stand there with a whisk and swirl them the whole time. Trust me, if you stop for even a few seconds, your eggs may start cooking at the edges. Can you tell I discovered that one by experience? :) You will want to lower the heat a little so that the water is simmering and keep whisking those eggs gently until they are foamy and the sugar is completely dissolved. You need your eggs to be between 145 and 160 degrees F in order to kill any harmful bacteria that may be living in them. You can use a candy thermometer for this, but you can also just tell by sight. If your sugar is completely dissolved, you are in the right range. By 160 degrees, your eggs will be foamy and pretty clear underneath the foam.

When the eggs are ready, place your eggs in the mixing bowl and fit your mixer with the whisk attachment. If you are using your mixing bowl as your double-boiler, then just place it on the mixer stand and start whisking! Whisk on high until you reach stiff peaks and the bowl is cool to the touch. Your egg whites should be VERY stiff. It is possible for the bowl to be cool before the eggs are stiff enough; keep whisking! By the same token, if your eggs are stiff and your bowl is still slightly warm, you aren't finished; keep whisking! This can take 10 minutes are more. I do find that it takes a little longer if you used your mixing bowl as your double boiler. Make sure this bowl is cool to the touch, though. If it is warm still, the butter will melt a little and you will end up with icing soup. Don't fret too much if this happens; just pop the whole thing (after mixed together and creamy) into the refrigerator to firm up a bit. It is definitely better if you can avoid this though!

Here are the stiff peaks. Sorry for the poor picture. Check out the top of my whisk, though. The egg whites are shiny, standing at attention, and not too dry. Perfect!

Now let's talk about the butter. Lots of recipes will tell you to use butter that is still cool in the middle, but your butter should be so soft that you can barely pick it up. Don't worry about leaving it out overnight at room temperature. It will be fine and will not spoil! Trust me! And the warmth of the butter will allow it to incorporate into the egg mixture more quickly, more smoothly, and with very few air bubbles, which is exactly what you want! Do not try to rush the process by microwaving or heating the butter, though. Melted butter will not work!

When your eggs are ready, switch to the paddle attachment and throw your butter in there. All of it. All at once. It's okay! I do not recommend actual throwing though. That could get messy!

Mix on LOW until the creamy goodness reveals itself. Don't start hating me and my recipe when you see your eggs start to deflate. Don't fear if your buttercream looks like a soupy, curdled mess. It's supposed to go through that stage and has to in order to become the stuff dreams are made of. So, just look away, exercise some patience and let your mixer do it's work. Don't try to speed it up by turning your mixer to medium or, heaven forbid, high speed. It may come together, but it won't be the same. Think buttery lumps. Not so delicious. This is science, baby! Sit back and enjoy the absolute coolness of what is happening here. You are transforming simple butter, sugar, and eggs into something that is light, creamy, and totally delicious!

Here is the "curdled" stage.

When the buttercream comes together, you will know it. It will be fluffy, light, and creamy looking. The process could take 10 minutes or more, so hang in there. I've had it come together really quickly and I've also had it take more time. Once it comes together, you can add your flavoring. I often will just add about a tablespoon or so of pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste. Vanilla bean paste is delicious and will add little flecks of vanilla bean into your icing. It's pricey, but totally worth it if you can find it. You can also add other flavorings, like fruit purees. Add about 1/4 cup to start and then more to taste. To make chocolate buttercream, add melted and cooled chocolate and mix until it is incorporated. Be careful not to add too much liquid or you will break your buttercream. I have found this recipe to be pretty forgiving, so play around with it and have some fun!

When you are finished, layer it into a nice homemade cake. Or spread it on a cookie. Or a brownie. Or just eat it with a spoon. Not that I've ever done that. Not me. Really.

Your buttercream will keep in the refrigerator for two or three weeks, though if you are going to keep it for more than a week, I recommend freezing it. To use it again, let it come to room temperature (do not try to help it with the microwave, oven or anything else!) and re-whip it to restore it to it's original fluffiness. If you ice a cake with it, there is no need to refrigerate your cake. You can, though, if you prefer. I wouldn't leave it out for more than a couple of days though. If you do refrigerate your buttercream, let it all come to room temperature before serving. The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of will have the texture of butter straight out of the frig and will have a more heavy buttery flavor. At room temperature, you won't notice the texture of the butter at all, but you will get the flavor in the background and the icing will melt in your mouth with subtle sweetness. A perfect compliment to any cake!

For a truly wonderfully-written and excellent version and explanation of Swiss Meringue Buttercream, check out my fellow blogger, FromScratch SF. You can read her tutorial here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Minnie Mouse Cake

Happy birthday to Madison! She turned one year old on Saturday. Her lovely parents threw her a huge party and I was honored to make the cake for them. They chose a Minnie Mouse theme for the party because Madi loves Minnie. Who can blame her? Minnie is so stinking cute! I really loved seeing Madi's face when I dropped the cake off at their house. She lit up! I think she liked it...

This cake was a fun one to design and put together. The design is based on their party materials - invitations and decorations ordered for party. The bottom tier is 8 inches and 4 1/2 inches tall. It is chocolate with oreo buttercream filling (crushed oreo cookies mixed into vanilla swiss meringue buttercream), milk chocolate ganache and fondant decorations. Yum! Let me tell you, it takes self-control to put together a cake like that and not dig into it! The top tier is 6 inches and is also 4 1/2 inches tall. It is yellow (vanilla) cake with strawberry swiss meringue buttercream, strawberry puree brushed onto each layer, and fresh strawberry slices. This is one of my absolute favorite flavor combinations. It is moist, flavorful and perfectly balanced. Yum!

I also made a little smash cake with the yellow cake combination. It was a little 4-inch cake and I think it is adorable. You can judge for yourself.

For the decorations, I hand cut with an exacto knife Minnie's face for the smash cake. The letters for Madi's name on the larger cake were cut with cutters - funky alphabet letters by FMM. The circles were cut with various-size circle cutters and the large end of a piping tip. The smallest circles were also cut with a piping tip. The stripes were cut using a Wilton cutter. I must say, I don't like that cutter very well. While it's easier than using a ruler and exacto knife, the Wilton roller cutter gets caught a lot and either loosens too much or tightens up depending on what direction you are rolling. I am looking for a better cutter or a DYI solution to make this easier in the future and so I can get my fondant strips perfectly even.

Overall, I'm happy with how this one turned out. I hope you enjoy it too!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Superhero Cake

Happy Birthday to Henry and Jack!!

Jack, our nephew, turned one on Monday. Henry, another nephew, will turn 2 in a couple of weeks. We had the privilege of being a part of a joint party with both boys and the whole family. It was a wonderful, fun, busy weekend with the Streepeys! I had the fun of making the birthday cake! I decided to go with superheroes because I knew both boys would appreciate the theme (if they were aware of it at all!) and it seemed like it would be fun to do. Also, because that's what Will wanted! :)

Here are views of each side of the cake.

For the design, I covered the cake in white fondant, then divided the sides into three parts. The three sections were each a panel featuring the logo of one superhero and the panels were separated by just under an inch of white space. I chose Superman, Spiderman, and Captain America because the colors of the three go together really well, they were relatively easy to do in panel form, and because that's what Will wanted. (Do you sense a theme here? Will plays a big role in my decorating sometimes!)

I wanted to keep the overall design and cake simple because it needed to travel 4 1/2 hours to get to the party in one piece, but it did need a little pop of something so I added some stars shooting out of the top of the cake. Each birthday boy has a star with his initial on it. The stars are suspended on floral wire (16 gauge for strength) and held into the cake with a drinking straw so that the non-food-safe wires would not touch any part of the cake itself. Rule number one of caking: never poison your guests! :)

The Captain America panel is my favorite. I cut rings out of fondant and a star for the middle, then pieced them together like a puzzle. The background is marbled fondant (red and blue kneaded together). I just really love the look of this one!

For Superman and Spiderman, I printed the logos on the computer, then traced the design onto waxed paper. I then poked holes along the edges of the design with a toothpick so that little bumps would form on the underside. I then placed the waxed paper with the little bumps onto my rolled-out fondant and gently pressed so that the bumps I made with the toothpick would form the outline of the design on the fondant. I then cut the design out with an exacto knife. I did this in two stages - once with only the outline of the design poked through, then a second round with the center design poked through. I then layered the fondant pieces onto the background panel on the cake. Whew! Does that all make sense? I hope so!

The spider gave me the most trouble because of all the little points and intricate cutting. I had a really hard time getting a clean cut and smoothing the edges. I was also going to do a web surrounding the Spiderman logo, but could not get my extruder and fondant to cooperate with that. The "web" just kept falling apart, so I decided to not use it. I do think this makes the Spiderman logo match the others a little better, though, since the others do not have anything surrounding the center logo.

And I probably should apologize for my photos on this one. I got lazy and didn't do the lighting set-up. I think you can still get the basic idea though! I promise I will be more on my game again for the next one! :)

The cake itself is vanilla bean layered with chocolate filled with raspberry preserves and raspberry swiss meringue buttercream. The entire cake was covered with raspberry white chocolate ganache and then with fondant. The overall result was so delicious! This is definitely one of my favorite combinations!

I hope you enjoyed this one! Thanks for stopping by!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Brown Sugar Caramels

Hello everyone! I hope you are all enjoying this holiday weekend! Here outside of Chicago, the weather has been absolutely beautiful!

So, I'm catching up with my blog posts here. I've made several treats in the past few weeks that haven't been made into posts yet. Here is the first one.

Check out these beauties!

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to try my hand at making caramels. I love, love, love, love caramels. Actually, I think I understated that. I really love them! But I haven't actually made them before. I've made caramel sauce, but not chewy squares of caramel-y goodness. This requires a candy thermometer. And good instruction. But, in the end, they weren't all that complicated to put together.

First, melt some butter. Easy enough. Add brown sugar, a little salt, and some corn syrup and mix. Again, not so bad. Add sweetened condensed milk and stir, stir, stir until the temperature reaches 248 degrees F. It gets bubbly, golden, and delicious-looking.

Don't you just want to dive right in? I'd been warned not to look away from the thermometer for too long as it can rise quickly and, before you know it, it will be beyond the temp you want. So, I watched that temperature like a hawk! The higher the temperature, the more firm your finished caramels will be.

You don't want them to be hard enough to break a tooth.

Well, maybe you do.

But I didn't.

248 degrees should give you a medium-firm chewy caramel. After the mixture reaches 248, remove the pan from the heat and stir in some vanilla, the pour the mixture into a buttered, parchment-lined baking dish or pan.

The recipe I followed (the link is below!) calls for an 8-inch square pan, but I thought that size made the caramels too thick, so I would use a 9X13 pan next time for this. The parchment paper lining makes it easier to remove the caramels from the pan and cut them after they have cooled. You can just lift the parchment, with the big block of caramel on it, out in the end. Here are my caramels resting in the pan. You can see mine aren't perfect - they have lots of bubbles - but I think that's part of their charm!

I sprinkled some fleur de sel on the top to make them fancy sea salt caramels. I also used sea salt in the recipe itself instead of regular table salt. Salted caramel. Delicious!

When they are completely set (allow at least 6 hours for this), lift the whole block out using the ends of the parchment paper. Place on a cutting board and cut them into squares using a large sharp knife. If the knife starts to stick, run it under some hot water, dry it off and continue cutting. You may need to do this several times.

Wrap each square in waxed paper and store in a container for a couple of weeks. But I doubt they will last that long!

Later on, I took a large portion of my caramels, melted them down and added some heavy cream to make them softer. Now they are not quite a sauce, but very soft. Perfect to use as a filling for chocolates. Salted caramel chocolates. Does it get any better?? That is, if I don't eat it all before then! The softer stuff is really good off of a spoon. And dolloped onto the scraps of chocolate cake that I made the other day. Ooh la la. I may have to go get some right now....

Click here for the recipe for these caramels. If you haven't tried making them yet, give it a go and let me know how they turn out! If you don't have a candy thermometer, you can find a good one for $3.99 at well-stocked grocery stores or Walmart. I found mine at Meijer. No super-fancy equipment required. So now you have no excuse!

If you are a caramel-making veteran or expert, share your own favorite recipe or tricks of the trade! I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, October 3, 2011


Hello all! I want to share another challenge cake with you. This is from the Miso Bakes Project, which I've talked about before. For September, the challenge was to use a Wilton tip #81 to decorate a cake with orange icing. The background icing color could be white or off-white and all decorating had to be done in buttercream.

I really struggled with this one for some reason! Just wasn't as inspired as in the past for other cakes. I do think it came out okay in the end, though. The cake itself is chocolate with strawberry preserves and strawberry swiss meringue buttercream filling. It is iced in vanilla swiss meringue buttercream and decorated in the same buttercream tinted orange.

Check out the other submissions here!