A confession of love

It’s true, I idolize Martha Stewart, felony and all.  There is something about her crisp life that is neatly organized and cleaned that I love.  Her food is good, her tips are better (No one else had a solution for when Vito ate an ink pen and spilled the ink all over my brand new couch and white carpeting.  It’s isopropyl alcohol, by the way.  Little bit on a cotton ball, dab it on the ink and it draws it right out. It was miraculous.), and the photos in her books/magazines are inspiring.  That being said, I no longer have a subscription to her Living magazine as the projects aren’t practical for my season in life and I felt like I was paying to read advertisements.  I do however, have her Cooking School book.  I like all the step-by-step instructions and the photos, but what I now like above all else, is this cake recipe.  According to her directions, this recipe is supposed to make 42 cupcakes or 2 9-inch round cakes.  I made the cupcakes, but only got 36 out of the batter.  I like my cupcakes to fill out the wrapper.  Actually, I only got 35 cupcakes.  We left the cupcakes on the dining room table to cool and ran out to get some last minute errands done.  Upon our return, I realized that one cupcake was missing from the rack and Nunzio seemed extra pleased with herself.  

Yellow Butter Cake (From Martha Stewart’s Cooking School)
  • 2 1/4 sticks butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 3 cups cake flour
  • 2 1/4 tsp. baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 1/4 cup sugar
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter and line your cake pans or cupcake tins.  Whisk together the dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside.  Cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed in an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy.  Add in the vanilla.  Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl as necessary.  Alternate the addition of the dry ingredients and the buttermilk until all the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated.  The batter should be smooth and rather thick.  Divide the batter evenly between the cake pans or cupcake tins.  For the cakes bake for 40 and for the cupcakes, bake 20-25 minutes.  Allow the cakes to cool for 15 minutes before removing from the pans.  Then allow them to cool completely on a baking rack.  Ice with your favorite icing.

I am not a huge fan of butter cream icing.  Perhaps it was all the batches I had to make for my Wilton classes, but I will do anything to avoid it!  I do, however love cream cheese icing.  I like the tanginess of the flavor and the fact that leftovers can be spread on waffles the next morning.  That is, if you aren’t having left over cake for breakfast the day after your birthday!

Basic Cream Cheese Icing
  • 16 oz. cream cheese (2 packages), softened
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter (one stick), softened
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
With an electric mixer, blend together cream cheese and butter until smooth on a high speed setting so that there are no lumps. On low speed blend in powdered sugar and vanilla extract.  Then return the mixer to high speed and beat until light and fluffy. Use immediately or refrigerate, covered, until ready to use.  If refrigerated, the frosting will need to be brought to room temperature before using (after frosting softens up, beat with mixer until smooth).  If you prefer a sweeter and/or stiffer frosting, you could add more powdered sugar (up to four cups). I don’t think this is necessary though, as the more sugar you add, the less you’ll be able to taste the tangy cream cheese!

Marshmallow Fondant

Alternate title: Because I  Married a Man With an Art Degree!
I should begin this post with a confession:  Liam’s cake was supposed to be a pirate ship.  When we first began talking about the birthday party and what, we as the parents, wanted we thought of an outfit in Liam’s closet with a cute little pirate and ship on it and thought it would be fun to theme the party around the outfit.  As the months passed, we came to our senses and realized that we were going to be the only ones to enjoy this and we really should save it until we have had more experience with fondant and Liam will care.  I know, we’re so smart.  Anyway, since Liam is really into the dump truck and I wanted to make something to decorate the top of the cupcakes, we settled on making cute little primary colored dump trucks for the toppers.  So the decision was made and ingredients purchased.  And then, 10 pounds of green beans landed in my kitchen and I had to deal with them pronto.  So last Friday night, my husband was making fondant.  That’s right, my 6 foot, manly man of a husband was rolling out marshmallow and confectioner’s sugar so that I could have the cupcakes of my dreams.  He’s a doll isn’t he?
We used the recipe from the Wilton site, but without the shortening.  Matt thought it would be better to simply coat our pastry board with more sugar and roll the blob of fondant around on it until he had managed to get the consistency that he wanted.  Since he was the one doing it, I did not stand in his way.  Turns out, his method worked just fine and I didn’t have to clean shortening up from anything in the kitchen!  Once the fondant was worked together and in a ball, Matt divided it into thirds so he could color it.  There aren’t too many pictures of this whole process because I was up to my elbows in beans and didn’t really think about documentation.  For coloring, we used a vegetable based food colorings that I got at the health food store.  What with all the research that food coloring isn’t the best thing to put in children’s bodies, I felt it was our best choice.  I don’t know what it would be like if you were using conventional food coloring, but with the veg based, it took a LOT of  coloring to get to the bright colors.  
We double wrapped the fondant in plastic wrap and let it set over night.  Saturday night, after everything was ready for the party, we put in a movie and sat down to mold the trucks.  Matt made the cab and the bed (Is it obvious I’m the mother of a little boy?  2 years ago, I hadn’t a clue what those parts were!) and I did the wheels.  For the record, blue food coloring, dyes your hands far more than a combo of red and yellow.  I had blue thumbs until Monday.  We started out making the whole truck, but got tired as the night went on, because let me tell you, 11pm after a full day is not the time to decide to make 60 fondant dump trucks.  So in the end, I made the wheels and he put together the bodies and we refrigerated them until the next afternoon.  Since it is July and it is HOT in Ohio, we waited until the last possible moment before icing and decorating the cupcakes.  Once they were all done, we turned up the window AC and put the cupcakes on a table in front of it.  I think the kids at the party were a little disappointed that I didn’t bring them out until right before we were ready to sing Happy Birthday to Liam.  
I must tell you that I’ve had traditional fondant on wedding cakes and not really liked it. However, even I who does not like marshmallows, thought this turned out well.  It was a little time consuming to shape, but if you were going to use this to cover a cake, it would be easy as… well, never mind. 

Low Impact Birthday

 

This past weekend, we celebrated my baby’s first birthday.  His first birthday.  I haven’t any idea where the time went and how it got there without warning me, but it would seem that we are no longer counting his age in detailed weeks and days, but general months and before I know it, he’ll be referred to as a toddler.  Ugh.  Part of me was thrilled to be throwing a party since we haven’t really entertained since Liam was born and if there’s anything I like to do, it’s feed people.  But then, the other side of me was saddened by his growing up and the stunning reality that since I take birthdays very seriously, we are going to be doing this every year for multiple children (hopefully) and this singular event has the very possibility of ruining my comfortable low-impact lifestyle.  What to do?  Here is an outline of each step I made to insure that we had as low an impact party as possible without breaking the bank or putting a damper on the fun.  I’ll be posting recipes this week as well for the food. 
Paper Products:
The planning for this party began way back in the early spring when I started attending other birthday parties and taking notes.  The biggest waste that I saw and wanted to eliminate was the issue of cups, plates and forks.  The options can be overwhelming and for a brief moment, I was lured towards the disposable just because I wasn’t sure what to do.  I don’t know if this happens to everyone, or if the marketing gods smelled my wavering mindset, but about a month ago, I was sent a catalog for paper supplies for birthdays.  They featured just about every character known to man or personalized designs.  At first, I did consider using their products until I realized that for one party, I was going to spend roughly 85 dollars on paper supplies alone for one party!  I passed it along to another mom.  In the end however, I wasn’t able to come up with a cute invite solution that was both memorable and effective, so we wound up doing photo invites to the party since we had invested in a photo shoot and wanted to share. 
I started searching around town and found plates and cups that were themselves recyclable.  They are pretty, and will fulfill a variety of uses.  I bought 3 dozen of each.  Wandering around a party supply store a few weeks ago, I happened upon biodegradable forks
They are supposed to meld into your compost pile in 1 year, so I buried one.  I hope I don’t find it next summer.  I do have beautiful dinner plates that I use when entertaining, but given that we were celebrating a child’s birthday with lots of children, I didn’t want to take a chance that I would have a broken plate in the midst of the celebration.  The plates and cups I bought are dishwasher safe, so they have been cleaned and put away for another time.  I had meant to make more cloth napkins, but didn’t get them done in time, so we used some of these as they were all our grocery had to to offer.  Hardly any were used, so I guess I’ll have them for a long time.  Clean up was a snap, because as I already mentioned, the plates were dishwasher safe and I just put a basket under the table for guest to dump their used dishes, napkins, cups and forks.

Let’s Eat!
Food is another big deal for me.  I wanted to create a menu for my guests that truly reflected our food passions and utilized the resources around us.  We served sloppy joes made with local ground beef, a broccoli cauliflower salad with local produce, bacon and cheese, a fruit salad with seasonal items and I made the cupcakes.  The only “bad” thing in the cupcakes (all 60 of them) were the conventional marshmallows I used to make the fondant.  Not too shabby considering that even the chocolate was fair trade!  I asked my mother-in-law and sister-in-law to help me with the salads and sloppy joes so that I didn’t wind up getting overwhelmed.  In the end, I overestimated how much beef I was going to need and consequently have had sloppy joes for the last 3 lunches.  For drinks, we made lemonade (from concentrate) and had water.  No one went hungry and my in-laws were praised thoroughly for their contributions to the meal!

Decorations:
This was the biggest undertaking of the whole party for me.  When I was growing up, my mother made banners for each of us kids announcing our birthday and hung them on the front door.  After much thought, I decided that I would do the same for my kids.  So I set out to make a banner that I swore I had seen online.  I never found the pattern, but my MIL and SIL were very helpful in the process, brainstorming, cutting fabric and trying different stitches.  I was thrilled to see that we were able to take a pile of fabric and turn it into a beautiful decoration that will last for years to come.  The added bonus was that everything wound up color coordinating between the banner and my tableware.  My aunt came bearing balloons after I had set up for the party, but for future reference, I’m not a fan.  They kept blowing into the pear tree and popping, causing everyone’s heart to stop in panic.  Balloons are not the most practical thing for my backyard. 

Gifts:
People know us well.  Most of the gifts Liam received were wooden or puzzles.  He did, however get a few trucks that were made of recycled plastics and are super cool!  They were mostly presented in gift bags that had been recycled from other events.  I saved them all and smoothed out the tissue paper.  Waste not, want not.  In the future, once Liam is old enough to choose, we may wind up doing a benefit party where we ask people to not bring gifts but to make a donation to a charity.  I’d love for Liam to learn to give back at a young age.  I made all of Liam’s thank yous from card stock and a printed dump truck.   They are not fancy, but they also didn’t require tons of fossil fuels to produce them en masse.  I have a stash of card stock that I plan to let Liam decorate as he gets older to make his own thank yous.  

I felt like the party was a huge success, not only for Liam’s sake, but also in the sense that we didn’t betray who we are just for the sake of a theme or being trendy or doing what’s easy.  I’m glad that I was able to find solutions that will last for years and that in the end, it really wasn’t that much extra trouble.  My parents spent a great deal of time when we were younger planning birthdays and holidays.  I know we never used paper products because I was always doing dishes after each party.  But that experience stuck with me.  Here I am, 20 years later wondering how I can make an investment that will last for as long as I want so that we can spend the time focusing on the birthday boy (or girl) and not filling our landfills with more junk. 

Profiteroles

I am more than relieved to announce that I can wipe this one off my list.  Making the profiterole (also known as a cream puff here in the States) is really a very simple task; the baking of it requires a bit of attention.  Oh.  And you absolutely, certainly, should not open the oven to “peek”.  Be patient and back away from the oven.  I’m saying this because it was humid yesterday while I was baking, so we were already at a tenuous balance between the puffs puffing or not and I couldn’t control my anxiety and peeked.  Several times.  I might have been able to overcome the humidity issue if I had only been more patient.  Of the 4 dozen I baked, only about 16 turned out nicely puffed.  That should teach me.  Thankfully, I have made these several times so I know what my error was and am only telling you this so you don’t also make the same mistake.

 How beautiful your profiteroles can be if you don’t bother them while they bake!
The official name for the dough is Pâte à choux.  A choux dough doesn’t have any sort of a leavening agent in it; instead it relies on the moisture in the dough to create steam while it cooks and puff up the dough.  This type of dough what one would use to make profiteroles, croquembouches, eclairs, beignets,and gougères. I am anxious to keep trying this dough and working with it so I that I can become comfortable.  I have decided though that I should invest in a larger piping bag and tip so that I’m not covered in the dough by the time I’m done piping out my little puffs.  I’m also anxious to try these as a gougère in the winter with a hearty stew.
Basic Pâte à choux dough:
  • 10 Tbsp. butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 1 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 cup flour
  • 6 large eggs

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.  In a medium saucepan, bring the water, butter, sugar and salt to a simmer so that the butter is able to melt.  Remove the pan from the heat and using a wooden spoon, stir in the flour to make a paste.  Return to the heat and cook, stirring constantly until the paste is shiny and easily pulls away from the pan (about 7 minutes).  Cool slightly.  Either transfer the paste to the bowl of a stand mixer or use a hand mixer fitted with beaters and then beat it for about 2 minutes on low-medium speed to cool the paste further.  Then, add in the eggs one a time.  Scrape the bowl as needed.  Once all the eggs are incorporated thoroughly, transfer the dough to a large pastry bag fitted with a 1/2 inch tip.  Have 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper ready.  Pipe the dough out until it is about the size of a golf ball – you should have 4 dozen.  Wet your finger and smooth down the peaks of dough that will form from being piped.  Bake until they are puffed, about 15-20 minutes, and then lower the heat of the oven to 350 degrees to finish until the puffs are golden.  You can then turn off the oven and leave the puffs inside for up to 10 minutes to dry them out.  Once they are cooled, you can fill them with pastry cream.

The 16 winners for the baby shower… ignore the florescent icing on the cupcakes, please.  Due to a sick child throughout the week, I had to sacrifice some of my baking.  What suffered was the thing I hate the most: cake icing.

Sandwich wraps with a surprise

Today is my sister-in-law’s baby shower.  I get to host it so I am in charge of the food… yay!  I’ve made some delightful little cream puffs, potato salad and sandwich wraps.  Since the party starts in a few minutes, I’m only going to share the sandwich wrap idea with you.  It’s simple, but I’m head over heels in love with it.  You see, I have gotten rather concerned about the amount of fresh vegetables I consume in a day.  I’ve started putting thin apple slices in my turkey sandwiches.  It’s amazing as a panini, by the way.  And as much as I love this idea, people who see me slicing an apple for my sandwich tend to give me the stink eye before declaring they will make their own.  I know I saw somewhere a photo (and it probably was followed by a recipe) of a sandwich wrap with included veggies.  I searched high and low but couldn’t find it anywhere in my bookmarks and since I didn’t decide to start the hunt until a few hours ago, I had to improvise.  Initally, I thought that a juliene cut would be wonderful in a wrap, but slicing up the carrots like that proved to be a serious challenge.  Also, the little carrot twigs fell right out of the tortilla.  In the end, I chose to slice the carrot lengthwise on the thinnest setting (the one we use for chips).  Instead of your traditional condiments on a sandwich, I used an herb and vegetable cream cheese.  I bought a mix for the cream cheese at a little coffee shop, but I am going to play around and try to make my own… It was divine!  

 Just had to show off a photo of my grandmother’s fruit tray and the super cute plaque I got to decorate the table!

I used simple tortilla wraps from the store and layered the meat, cheese and lettuce on before adding the carrots.  Since I had used cheddar, I thought it would be nice to not put the two ingredients of similar color next to each other.  I rolled each tortilla up and cut in it half on the bias before spearing it with a toothpick.  Matt was busy outside doing yard work all morning and when he came in, he was hungry.  He was also disappointed that I had taken a bite of his wrap.  I had to taste it first though!

**post edit note**  These wraps were a hit, even with people I didn’t think would like them.  This may wind up becoming a new go-to dish for visiting family instead of the ubiquitous burger!