Wednesday, September 1, 2010

In Which I Pickle And Can Some Beets

I like beets a lot. The problem with them is that many people have only encountered beets as those sodden, mushy slices available at salad bars, pinkening the baby corn with their drippings. And they often taste like dirt and metal. Which is a sad fate for the noble and delicious beet.

According to the interwebs:
  • Garden-beet is very low in calories (contain only 45 kcal/100 g) and fat; but is very rich in dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals.

  • The root is rich source of phytochemical compound Glycine betaine. Betaine has the property of lowering homocysteine levels in the blood. Homocysteine, one of highly toxic metabolite, promotes platelet clot as well as atherosclerotic-plaque formation which is otherwise can be harmful to blood vessels. High levels of homocystiene in the blood results in the development of coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke and peripheral vascular diseases.

  • Raw beets are an excellent source of folates; contains about 109 mcg/100 g ( Provides 27% of RDA). However, extensive cooking may significantly depletes its level in food. Folates are necessary for DNA synthesis in the cells. When given during peri-conception period folates can prevent neural tube defects in the baby.

  • It contains significant amounts of vitamin-C, one of the powerful natural antioxidant which helps body scavenge deleterious free radicals one of the reasons for cancers development.

  • Beet’s green leaves (tops) are an excellent source of carotenoids, flavonoid anti-oxidants and vitamin A; contain these compounds several times more than that of in the roots.Vitamin A is required maintaining healthy mucus membranes and skin and is also essential for vision. Consumption of natural vegetables rich in flavonoids helps to protect from lung and oral cavity cancers.

  • The root is also rich source of Niacin (vit B-3), Pantothenic acid (vit.B-5), Pyridoxine (vit.B-6) and carotenoids, and minerals such as iron, manganese and magnesium.

  • In addition, this root veggie indeed has very good levels of potassium. 100 g fresh root has 325 mg of potassium or 7% of daily requirements. Potassium lowers heart rate and regulates metabolism inside the cells by countering detrimental effects of sodium.

So, as you can see, beets are our friends and deserve better.

On the last day of our mountain vacation a couple of weeks ago, AlmondBoy picked 3 pounds of beautiful beets from our friends' garden. I debated what to do with them. Mr. Marzipan loves borscht, but our host remarked upon how he enjoys pickled beets and so I figured it might be neat for him to get a jar of his own beets in the mail as a thank-you. They're also highly flavorful and make a great addition to salads, negating the need for high-fat condiments.














The morning after we got home from our trip, I cut the greens from the beets and trimmed the roots. It is important to leave the taproot intact when you're cooking beets or else all of the color will leach out. And leave the base of the leaves on as well, Basically, your beet should look rather like a human heart. Do not peel the beets. You'll slip the skins, roots, and tops off after they've cooked.





























Place the beets in boiling salted water. They'll need roughly 30-40 minutes to cook, but you'll know they're done when you can easily poke a knife through.

While you are cooking and preparing the beets, make your pickling solution. Pickling solution is a high-acid brine that will preserve your food. It is not necessary to can these beets, and you can just keep them in the fridge if you like. But I like to cook in bulk when possible, so canning and freezing are handy. I used this recipe for the brine. It was heavenly. The recipe is for 1 pound of beets, and I had 3. I actually made a quadruple batch of solution to ensure I'd have enough to fill the jars. If you're not canning, a 1:1 ratio is fine.

Once they are sufficiently tender, remove the beets to the sink, drain, and allow to cool.

Once the beets have cooled enough, pick them up and slip the skins off with your fingers. It is very fun to do, actually.














Chop the beets into cubes.




























If you are canning, put the cubes into the strained brine and bring back to a boil. If not, just pour the strained marinade over the beets and put everything in the fridge.

Canning The Beets

I don't have a high pressure canner yet and therefore use the open bath method. Which is a fancy way of saying I can using a big pot of boiling water. I also never got around to buying canning tongs and just use use two pairs of silicon-tipped kitchen tongs. It works find for me, but canning tongs really are better. When you do open bath canning, make sure the jars stay covered with water at all times or the pressure gradient will cause an explosion.

Here is a good link to canning beets. Scroll down to step 11 as the first 10 steps deal with trimming, cooking, and making the brine. (The brine recipe I used is vastly superior.) They have their brine and beets separate, but you can use your combined and boiling mixture.

My 3 pounds of beets yielded 5 jars. I apologize for not taking pictures of the brinemaking and the canning process, but I kind of forgot.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

In Which I Make Some Pizzas















I love making pizza. It's cheap, it's easy, and it can double as a craft for bored children. It's clay, it's finger paint, it's confetti. Pizza dough also freezes beautifully, providing an excellent make-ahead dinner. Just pull the frozen dough out in the morning, unwrap it, stick it in a covered bowl, and it will be thawed and risen in plenty of time for dinner. I'm always a bit bemused when people act like I'm making handcrafted croquenbouche towers from scratch when I mention making my own pizza. Anyone can do it, and for a small investment, you'll have all of the equipment you'll ever need need.

First, a pizza stone. You can spend a lot on a very high end one, you can spend between $10-$40 at a store like Target, or you can get unglazed (glazed ones can contain lead, so ask) terra cotta tile from the garden center for like $2 apiece. They're all fine, but thicker is better. Mine was around $50 and has lasted me a decade. I use it at least twice a week for a variety of baking needs but if I had known about the terra cotta tiles, I'd have one of those.

Next, a pizza pan. I strongly recommend that you get one that lets air flow through, like this one.

Okay! Now you need some pizza crust. There are two recipes I like to use. The first is my own whole wheat crust recipe, and I have never once had anyone complain about the texture. I served it to four children today and they all had at least two pieces. It is chewy rather than dense. The second recipe is based on the (delicious and brilliant) No-Knead Bread craze.

Here's a quick tutorial on dough: dough gets chewy and delicious because of gluten. Gluten is the protein in flour, and it's what differentiates things like cake and pastry flour (low gluten) from bread flour (high gluten). You can think of the gluten as being like chewing gum. It starts out as being soft and flexible but as it gets worked, it gets hard and stretchy, just like your Bubble Yum. It's why dessert recipes will often direct you to mix things until "just combined." Overworking a cake batter builds up gluten and you get tough cake. (Or cookies, or pie crust.)

All-purpose flour has 11% gluten, making it suitable for most day-to-day uses. It's what I buy (King Arthur Unbleached), and I alter as needed. It's too annoying to keep track of a bunch of extra flours beyond white, wheat, and anything specialty like rye. There's something known as "baker's math" but here's a basic approach that is pretty much no-fail. To substitute AP flour when cake flour is needed, remove two tablespoons per cup. So if a recipe calls for 1 cup of cake flour, measure one cup of AP and then take out two tablespoons. For bread flour, use the amount of AP flour called for and then 1.5 teaspoons of wheat gluten per cup. You can get wheat gluten at most grocery stores in the baking aisle and it's a little spendy, but it lasts a long time and comes out way cheaper than paying a premium for bread flour.

But in breads, we usually seek that chewiness and it's why we knead doughs and let them rise. Time and energy make for chewy gluten, and gluten will also give your bread a better rise. The first recipe relies primarily on kneading, the second on time. So! Here we go. I'm going to share the recipes first, then discuss shaping and baking because they're both done the same way.

Whole Wheat Crust

1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup vital wheat gluten
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 2/3 cups warm water
1 1/2 teaspoons yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon olive oil, more if needed

Mix first four ingredients together, then knead for 5 minutes. (I use the dough hook in my Kitchen Aid.) Dough will be veeery sticky and wet, but do not add more flour. Allow to rest for 20 minutes.

After the dough is done resting, add the next three ingredients and knead the dough for ten minutes.

Coat a clean bowl with the tablespoon of olive oil and transfer the dough to the bowl, turning to coat it with the oil and prevent sticking. Add more if you need it.

Cover and allow to rise for about two hours or until the dough has at least doubled in size.

No-Knead Crust

Follow this link and do what they say.

***

Both of these recipes generate two pizzas each at our house. There are benefits to both hand-stretching and rolling dough, and I'll just let it come down to your preference. But here's a good tutorial on hand-stretching.

Sprinkle the counter with a little flour - just enough so it doesn't stick because too much will spoil your dough, plop half the dough on the flour, and either roll it out with a wooden rolling pin (the tapered dowel kind are the best in my book) or shape it with your hands. Spritz your pan with a little nonstick spray, then transfer your dough. Repeat with the other half.

***

So now we come to tomato sauce. There are many options out there. You can make your own from scratch, which I like to do when I can/feel like it/have tomatoes handy, but it's not always an option. There's good stuff available in jars too. But I think the best of both worlds is what I like to call Half-Assed Homeade Sauce.

Half-Assed Homemade Pizza Sauce

28 ounces crushed or whole peeled tomatoes (info on BPA in cans here, if you're interested)
Fresh or dried herbs to suit your taste (I use rosemary, oregano, basil, marjoram - Italian seasoning, basically)
1 - 2 tablespoons of olive oil, whatever your preference

Okay, this is so easy you'll kick yourself. If you're using whole tomatoes, you can heat them and stir to break up the pieces or just pour the tomatoes and juice into the food processor.

Take your dough, which you have rolled out and placed on your pan ->

Drizzle it with the olive oil ->

Sprinkle some herbs on top ->

Pour on however much liquefied tomatoes you like ->

Use your fingers to paint it all together on the crust ->

Voila! Sauce.

***

Now what? Well, the best pizzas come from very hot ovens. So I preheat my oven (and the pizza stone, which lives and works on the floor of my oven) at 500F for at least half an hour before I bake. One it's done heating, I place the sauced crust (and pan) on the pizza stone for 8 minutes.

No, I didn't forget the cheese. Putting the cheese on too early will give you one of two results in a home oven because they're nowhere near the temperatures of pizzeria ovens: Either underbaked, bland crust or burnt cheese.

Then I remove it and put the cheese on top. Fresh mozzarella is better, but kids like to sprinkle the grated stuff, so we usually go for that. Okay, now comes the tricky part. You want to get the parbaked pizza off the pan and onto the middle rack of your oven. I do it with a little wrist-flicking motion, but you can also use a spatula or tongs to help. Bake like that for about 5 minutes, or until the cheese is brown and bubbling.

Slide the pizza back onto the pan, allow to cool for a few minutes, then slice and serve!

The whole pizza at the top is a no-knead crust. Here's a side view of the whole wheat crust, which you can see has risen almost like a white flour one. AlmondGirl ate 5 pieces today. She has also apparently been sneaking up to Boston because she told me lunch was "wicked awesome."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

In Which I Am Tired Of Giving A Crap

I care about a lot of stuff. Sometimes it is overwhelming, to be honest. I recycle and compost and buy as much organic/grassfed/locavore/sustainably farmed/humanely slaughtered food as I can. I clean with earth-friendly products when possible and I shop at consignment/secondhand shops a lot to avoid contributing to mass consumption of goods. I read articles about parabens and BPA and sulfates and now even buying shampoo and canned tomatoes can be exhausting. A friend with a fledgeling Mary Kay business reached out to me to see if I'd host a party, but the cosmetics are so full of chemicals I'm trying to avoid that I had to decline, so now I feel like the asshole who stole her pink Cadillac and used it to run over her dreams.

But it all really matters to me. It matters a lot for a whole bunch of reasons and even though my daughter's kindergarten teacher had to have a talk with her about why it is inappropriate to discuss the factory-farmed meat at McDonald's with the rest of the students, I am proud to be raising socially aware little people. (Secretly, I can't wait to hear when happens when she goes to school in November and says, "Mama is out of town deer hunting this weekend because deer are such a sustainable form of meat.")

Honestly, it's a good thing they're pretty kids because they're destined to be weird.

Right now we're having a dilemma over the Boy Scouts. On a local level, I think the Boy Scouts are awesome. AlmondBoy - aside from the nail polish and love of Disney Princesses - is your Classic Model of boy. He likes hitting things with other things and cars and explosions and mud and frogs and...I don't know. Stereotypical Y-chromosome junk. But on a national level, the anti-gay policies of the Boy Scouts repulse and anger me. And so Mr. Marzipan and I are not going to let him join. Which sucks, because AlmondGirl really wants to be a Girl Scout which I support and endorse because they are progressive and inclusive and don't make you mention God, but I just can't let my blue-eyed boy march around in Cub Scout gear.

And the thing is that I really want to. I want to give him this instead of it being one more thing to tell his therapist about his uptight mother years down the road. And I grew up Orthodox Jewish and I have all but completely eradicated all traces of that, so of course now I worry that my kids are going to grow up and eat McNuggets while they drive endangered-animal-fueled Hummers over gay people. I want to sigh and say, "Well, it's not like they protest same sex marriage at meetings or anything," but I just can't do it. And it sucks that this is even an issue, really, but that's a frothing rant for another day.

So we're looking into alternatives and I'm feeling pissed off at the Boy Scouts for being such medieval douchebags and at myself for caring and at the country in general for tolerating this kind of thing in a "well, the back of the bus is still the bus, Miss Parks" kind of way and I really think that if I find one more thing to angst about, my brain is going to liquefy and run out my ears.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In Which Fruit And Pork Make Beautiful Music Together

Let me begin this entry by apologizing to my parents for the fortune they spent on parochial school. But, quite frankly, if we're not meant to eat pigs, they ought not to be such a readily available source of lean and delicious protein.

I love pork tenderloins. The problem with them, however, is twofold. For one, they are incredibly lean and therefore prone to becoming dried out lumps of jerky. Secondly, many people believe that if pork isn't a solid gray throughout, it will cause you to develop intestinal worms and liver flukes and experience unpleasant side effects such as vomiting and death. But with a little know-how and attention, this cut can be tender, flavorful, and juicy. Properly cooked, pork tenderloin should be rosy in the center rather than looking like putty.

I like light, simple food in the summer and had purchased a pork tenderloin for grilling. I think pork pairs wonderfully with fruits (roast pork and applesauce being a classic combination) and considered dressing the loin with fresh apples and allspice. But that felt rather heavy for the weather. On Monday AlmondBoy and I had gone to the farm stand and selected some beautiful summer produce, including some enormous peaches and a variety of squashes. I thought the peaches would do nicely, and then I recalled that I had some sliced mangoes (thanks, Trader Joe!) in the freezer as well. Peaches and mangoes together are scrumptious, ergo I decided that all three would be a tasty trio.








To begin, trim the fat and remove the silver skin from the meat. Then soak it in a saltwater brine for roughly 12 hours.








After the meat had finished soaking, I patted it dry with paper towels. I took out a large piece of tin foil and spritzed it with olive oil spray. I placed the loin on the tin foil, then topped it with the mango slices. I arranged the sliced peaches (it took two, sliced into eighths) all around the perimeter like a fort of deliciousness, topped it with some fresh herbs (tarragon, sage, and rosemary from the garden) and sprinkled on some good sea salt.








Finally, I just folded it up into a packet, taking care to seal the seams. Make sure you crimp it pretty tightly because you don't want all of the juices to come pouring out when you flip your packet. I placed the packet on a hot grill and cooked each side for approximately 8 minutes, until the internal temperature reached 135 degrees.








After that point, I placed the pork directly on the grill to brown the outside and let the internal temperature come to between 145-150 degrees. I left the fruits in the foil over the heat.













Once the internal temperature was high enough, I moved the pork to a large platter and smothered it with the fruits, juices, and herbs.













Then I tented it loosely with foil and let the whole dish rest for about 5 minutes to let the interior finish cooking. Because the grill gets the meat so hot, it continues cooking after being taken off the grill. Therefore it's essential to have it come off a touch early if you want the middle to stay moist and juicy and delicately pink.. Which you really, really do.








As I had hoped, the flavors were wonderful together. I served the dish with a steamed squash medley (pattypan, crookneck, and zucchini) which I flavored with oregano and sea salt. We also had corn muffins with homemade strawberry jam.

Monday, July 12, 2010

In Which There Is Blueberry Onion Marmalade

I love this recipe. It's very fresh and summery, and blueberries and lemons are a perfect flavor combination. It's a little sexy, this marmalade, with the luscious melting texture of the onions and the unusual - yet regal - hue from the blueberries. The chicken itself was juicy, flavorful, and perfectly cooked. I served it atop a spinach/romaine salad topped with jicama, pigeon peas, cucumbers, and crumbled Pepper Jack. The marmalade is a beautiful violet color, and it contrasted marvelously with the green salad leaves, the caramelized exterior of the chicken, and the creamy white cheese.

Unfortunately, my USB port is acting up and my dad has my memory card adapter thingy so I can't show you the pictures I took.

Blueberry Onion Marmalade Over Grilled Lemon Chicken

Recipe courtesy of Jerry Edwards of Chef's Expressions Catering

4 whole chicken breasts
2 lemons
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
White pepper
1 pound chopped sweet onions
1/2 pint fresh blueberries
1 cup chicken stock
1/8 pound butter
Sea salt
White pepper

Zest one lemon and squeeze the juice from both. Cover chicken with the olive oil and lemon juice. Marinate for two to three hours. Toss together sea salt and zest. Remove chicken from marinade and sprinkle with lemon salt and white pepper. Grill on each side until browned, but still rare in center. Bake for 10-12 minutes in a 350-degree oven until they reach 150 degrees in center. Let stand for 5-8 minutes before slicing. (The chicken should reach 160 degrees while resting.) Slice in 1/4-inch slices.

In melted butter, simmer the onions slowly for about an hour. Continuously add chicken stock during the cooking process to keep moist. When onions are soft, add blueberries and cook slowly for 20 minutes. When the onions are almost a jam, season to taste with salt and pepper and serve over sliced lemon grilled chicken.

***

I cut the butter and olive oil in half, and the dish still had a wonderful, silky texture with a rich flavor. As you can see, that change eliminated a significant amount of fat and calories from the dish:

Original

Calories 500.0
Total Fat 22.4 g
Dietary Fiber 3.1 g
Protein 56.4 g

Modified

Calories 414.9
Total Fat 12.7 g
Dietary Fiber 3.1 g
Protein 56.4 g

I recommend unsalted sweet cream butter. I used thawed frozen berries (Trader Joe's sells some very nice organic wild blueberries at a good price) in place of fresh, and for the stock I went with Trader Joe's Free Range Organic.

Friday, July 9, 2010

In Which I Make Things Out Of Bananas And Chocolate

Okay, first of all, I need to kill one of my neighbors. Someone keeps putting trash in one of my recycling bins and the recycling people won't take it. It is driving me crazy. The recycling bins are in the house and I take them to the curb on Thursday night for the Friday morning pickup. This morning one of my bins was left because there was a chicken tray covered with maggots perched on top of my recyclables because there isn't a lid. So I had to take that off and then pick about a dozen maggots off of my recycling so that I didn't have to trash it all. Thanks, asshole.

In more delicious news, I have done quite a bit of baking due to numerous parties in June. The titles link you to the recipes and my notes are underneath.

Banana Layer Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

This is the most delicious banana cake I have ever eaten. It practically begs for some dark rum and possibly some coconut, so I think I'll play around with that next time I make it.

* I made this cake in two 9-inch pans instead of three 8-inch.

* I used four bananas instead of two to make the cake more moist and banana-y. And I let my mixer mash them because I am lazy.

* I used nonfat plain yogurt in place of buttermilk

* I found that the frosting needed more than the recommended amount of powdered sugar. I probably used closer to 2 1/2 - 3 cups, but your mileage may vary.

* To fill the cake required about two bananas. I did a layer of cake, a layer of frosting, a layer of sliced bananas, another layer of frosting, cale, and then covered the whole think thickly with frosting. I put it in the fridge before stacking on the second layer of cake in order to let the filling firm up.

*I kept it in the refrigerator overnight and it was still extremely moist the next day.

***

Bittersweet Chocolate Cake

This is a cake for people who love good dark chocolate. I don't think it would do well with milky stuff at all.

* I used 60% cacao chocolate for this cake. For eating chocolate, I like 85%, but I think that the subtle, complex sweetness of such a dark chocolate would be lost in this confection and therefore I went with something much sweeter.

* With only three ingredients, the flavors need to shine. Buy the best ingredients you can for this one, folks. Use good, vegetarian-fed eggs with lovely orange yolks and a dense, high-fat butter with a fresh, creamy taste. You'll be so glad you did.

* I cooked it for the recommended 20 minutes and found it ever so slightly dry. I think 17 or 18 would have been better.

* I served this confection with a tart raspberry coulis and lightly sweetened rum whipped cream. The flavors and textures came together quite nicely.

* If you've never made raspberry coulis, it is quite simple. Thaw a bag of frozen raspberries, stir in 3 tablespoons of sugar (or to taste), about a 1/4 cup of water, and a teaspoon or so of fresh lemon juice (if you like), allow to sit together for about an hour, puree, then press the whole mixture through a mesh strainer to remove the seeds. It's a lovely fresh sauce and, mixed with some balsamic vinegar and olive oil, an excellent salad dressing. Fresh mint perks up the coulis nicely as well. Note: If you use frozen raspberries in syrup rather than just regular frozen berries, omit the water and reduce the sugar to 2 tablespoons.

AlmondBoy approved:














***

White Chip Chocolate Cookies

These were pretty to look at and had a scrumptious, fudgey crumb. I made them using a cookie scoop, which made for perfectly round, thick cookies. Mine baked in the center of the oven for exactly ten minutes.

* My only note is to keep the dough cold at all times. Chill before scooping, and keep in the fridge between batches. Other than that, no changes. These are wonderful.

***

Chernowitzer Challah


This is my standard challah recipe and my absolute favorite. I get 16 rolls per batch. No changes because Maggie Glezer is a genius.

***

No-Knead Bread

I love this bread. It's easy, it's delicious, and almost foolproof. It lends itself wonderfully to add-ins like rosemary, dates, walnuts, kalamata olives, sundried tomatoes...the possibilities are endless.

* Don't skip the autolyse (that 15 minute rise under plastic) step. It really develops the flavor.

* I bake mine in a cast iron Dutch oven.

* For the final rise, I put the cotton towel/dough/wheat bran bundle on my pizza peel. I also usually need closer to 3 hours than 2 for a good rise.

***

Banana Split Trifle

I invented this dessert for my dad for some occasion or another, and it has become a family favorite. In fact, to encourage more frequent production, my dad purchased me a cherry pitter as a gift. I do not know how I lived without it.

Let me begin by saying that this is a fussy dessert in that it has lots of prep, but it can all be done well in advance. The ganache will keep in the fridge for a week; you'll just have to rewarm it. The cake will keep in the freezer for a couple of months if properly wrapped.

The structure of the dessert is a trifle dish with a layer of banana walnut cake, a layer of ganache, a layer of cherries, a layer of bananas, a layer of whipped cream, repeat.

You will need:

1 layer banana walnut cake
1 quart of heavy whipping cream
Ganache
1 lb pitted cherries, halved (Trader Joe's has a good price on organic Raniers right now)
3-4 ripe bananas (depending on size), sliced

For the cake, I use this recipe with a few modifications. You will not need to make the frosting, so only pull out 1 stick of butter.

* I double the amount of banana
* I use 2 9-inch pans
* I add in about 3/4 cup or so of chopped walnuts

Ganache is extremely simple to make. It is a 1:1 ration of heavy cream and chocolate, melted together. You'll need heavy whipping cream for the whipped cream layer, so buy one quart. Measure out a half cup of it and bring to a simmer in a small saucepan. Once the cream is simmering, remove it from the heat and stir in an equal amount of chocolate, either chips or chopped. I recommend bittersweet or semi sweet for this. Stir the chocolate until it is all melted in and the ganache is smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature.

For the whipped cream, I like to flavor mine with brown sugar and kirshwasser, but it's up to you. Just beat the rest of the quart of heavy whipping cream with your desired flavorings until stiff peaks form, taking care not to overbeat. (You'll get butter if you overbeat.)

Now, for the assembly:

Once your cakes are baked, turned from the pans, and completely cooled, wrap up one layer and freeze it for next time/snacking.

Divide the remaining layer in half and break each half into chunks, roughly 1 inch square. Put the cake into the trifle dish, pressing slightly to fill in the spaces. It's not an exact science, just somewhere between crumbs and chunks. Then drizzle the cake with room-temperature ganache.

Add a layer of cherry halves, then a layer of sliced bananas. Top with half of the whipped cream, then repeat the whole sequence. I like to decorate the top of mine with cake crumbs, chocolate drizzle, and a whole cherry. It keeps nicely in the fridge until you're ready to serve it.
































I have considered involving fresh pineapple in this recipe because I am fond of pineapple on my banana splits, but it's so good as-is. Maybe one day…

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

In Which I Am Back From Hiatus

I hadn't planned on taking so long a break, but it's been a busy couple of months. We went to Florida in mid-May for the purpose of attending my sister's law school graduation. We figured that we might as well take the kids to Disney while we were there, and we had a very nice time doing so. Because we are control freaks/obsessive planners, we used the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World to plan our trip. You would have thought we were waging war on the Magic Kingdom with the way we had the schedule down . (Actually, after being overwhelmed by too much whimsy when the denizens of Frontierland spontaneously burst into a song and dance routine without provocation, a little light artillery didn't seem like such a bad idea.)

But anyway, the book was fabulous. We pored over it together, two geeks in love.

Mr. Marzipan: And see! See how it uses linear programming to map out the optimal itinerary? Behold the Fastpass recommendations! IT TELLS US WHEN TO GET IN LINE FOR WHICH THING.

Me: (Gazing at him in starry-eyed adoration) Cooooool...

My closet is organized by color. I live for this sort of thing.

AlmondGirl was taken to Castle Couture by my mother, and two Japanese tourists found the results irresistible:




















My son and my husband favored the Buzz Lightyear ride. Mr. Marzipan ended up scoring like a trillion points and was so pleased with himself that it depressed me.

Two weeks later we made our annual memorial Day trip to LBI in New Jersey with my aunt, uncle, cousins, and their children. I'm so glad to be part of a big family, even though it can be exhausting on occasion. But I love that my kids are growing up with so many cousins.

My daughter turned 6 on June 4th and we had a girls-only tea party to celebrate on the 6th. I went for a Shabby Chic look, picking up mismatched china from the Goodwill.



























The cake was teapot shaped and decorated with marshmallow fondant. It didn't turn out quite how I hoped, but I was fairly pleased overall:




























Also! My daughter lost her first tooth that day, which was very exciting. I have been cooking and baking quite a bit and will share some recipes in my next update. Just wanted to check in and say hey for the moment.

Monday, May 3, 2010

In Which There Is Gelato And Also Langoustines

Partly because I tend to buy expensive food and partly because I hate wasting things and partly because I sometimes like to pretend I'm on a Food Network hidden camera show called Suburban Freezers, I save odds and ends of things in my freezer. When the tomatoes start to look elderly or the blackberries begin to take on a withered appearance, they go into the freezer for later use in sauces or jams. Fallen cakes await conversion to trifle, stale bread to French toast. I have containers of au jus, bagged poultry carcasses, and the occasional avocado.

But, for all my frugality, I loathe clutter. This extends to the freezer, and so on Saturday morning I went prowling through the big freezer in the basement in search of inspiration. I found it in the form of half a bag of frozen strawberries, three frozen mangoes, and a frozen banana. I recalled some buttermilk in the fridge, and decided that gelato was the order of the day.

A note on mangoes: they can sometimes be very starchy and fibrous, so be careful. I prefer champagne mangoes for this reason. And, because mangoes are annoying to cut up, be aware that Trader Joe's carries packages of halved ones in their freezer section. One package is about the equivalent of what I used here.

In the warmer months I always keep 1:1 simple syrup on hand. I make it in big batches, then store it in glass bottles in the fridge. It's nice to have for ice cream making and for mixed drinks, but it's also nice for making cold drinks like lemonade or sweetened iced tea because the sugar is already dissolved.




















To make this gelato, I thawed the fruit in the microwave, but not entirely. The colder your starting mixture, the better resluts you'll get with your ice cream maker. Here's how much fruit I had, plus the banana. I'd estimate it at around 5 cups fresh, and around 3 thawed.














I then took 2 cups of simple syrup (in retrospect I think I might reduce the simple syrup to 1 1/2 cups) and combined it with the fruit in my food processor. I left some little chunks intact, but you can puree it as much as you like. I then added 2 cups of low-fat buttermilk (plain European or Greek style yogurt would do nicely as well) and the juice of 5 seedless lemons. Once everything was combined into a beautiful peachy color with ruby highlights, into the ice cream maker it went. After about 30 minutes in the ice cream maker, I scraped it into a plastic container and put it in the freezer to harden.














Because it was sultry out, I wanted to have a light dinner on the deck to complement this dessert. I pulled out a bag of langoustine tails. Langoustines are like teeny lobsters and the meat is very tender and sweet. AlmondBoy loves lobster but langoustines are cheaper, easier to work with in the kitchen, and much less fuss because you can buy bags of them at Trader Joe's, where someone has thoughtfully killed and packaged them for your convenience. I thawed the langoustines, then tossed them in a mixture of olive oil, garlic, sea salt, dried coriander, basil, and Greek oregano. I left them in the mixture for about thirty minutes while I got everything else ready.














I boiled half a box of whole wheat penne in salted water and let that cook while I cut a fresh pineapple into 8 long pieces. I put the pineapple on the grill and returned to the pasta. After draining the pasta, I added the langoustines and their juices, half a package of English peas, the juice of 2 lemons, and returned the pot to low heat. I wasn't quite happy with the results, so I added a quarter cup of Greek yogurt and found that it bound everything together perfectly.

Returning to the grill, I checked on the pineapple. It had been grilling for about 5 minutes and so I flipped it to let the other side finish. Grilled fruit is one of my favorite warm weather side dishes, and pineapple is one of the best. The charred spots have a deep, caramelly sweetness that goes wonderfully with the tart acidity of the fruit. As soon as the pineapple was charred to my liking, we ate. I had a lovely piece of Parmigiano Reggiano stravecchio, which we grated over the pasta. It was so good that I kept breaking off chunks to eat alone. The cheese was wonderful and nutty with delicious crunchy toffee-like crystals studded throughout. I luuuurve cheese.















For dessert, I served mugs of the gelato topped with Trader Joe's plain European style yogurt, drizzled with mesquite honey, and ornamented with a mint leaf plucked from the plant on the deck. It was heavenly. The sour, astringent creaminess of the yogurt was a perfect complement to the light, fruity gelato, and the sticky-sweet honey hardened from the cold into delicious chewy strands.














Sunday, April 25, 2010

In Which I Opine About Snacking

This morning I received a message from a friend whose children are in the same baseball league as my own. She was asking for ideas about healthy snacks for after the games, as her team assigns one parent each week to bring a snack and she has been disappointed with the offerings thus far. I gave her some suggestions based on what my own kids eat, though mentioned that I wouldn't even bother with snacks except for the fact that AlmondBoy's metabolism is such that he has got to eat about every hour or so or ends up feeling very sick.

I've been thinking a lot about snacks lately. Whenever I am out with my kids for extended periods or when we are going some place where we'll engage in lots of physical activity, I bring healthy snacks and water. But it seems to me as though the snacking habit has really gotten out of hand, culturally speaking. I feel like a snack should be a small, healthyish something to tide over an empty stomach until mealtime. Not a pacifier. Not a bribe. But all too often I see bored children placated with empty calories to keep them quiet and, as someone who fought an uphill battle towards healthy eating, it worries me to think about what kind of eating habits these children are learning. And I feel pretty strongly that Munchkins or "fruit" gummies are not what growing bodies need after 1.5 hours of t-ball practice.

My kids don't get to eat in my car because cars are for traveling. They are not mobile cafeterias. We do not eat in front of the television. There are no Dunkaroos or Fruit Rollups in our house. And I don't say this to brag in some kind of mommier-than-thou competitive way. It's frequently a pain in the ass to be That Mom. People think you're weird or judgmental or Amish. There are times I honestly wish I didn't give a crap about corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils and food dyes and corn agribusiness and the two dozen other things that give me the occasional headache at the grocery store. But the fact is that these things matter to me. Weight, health, and nutrition matter to me. I'm hoping to spare my own children many of the issues I have faced by not instilling bad habits which they'll have to learn to break on their own. I'm hoping to spare them the dubious distinction of membership in the growing childhood obesity problem in this country.

I love food. In particular, I love beautiful, delicious food. I try to prepare myself three meals a day and then I sit down to eat and enjoy them. I find that I am more mindful of my eating this way, that I enjoy what I put in my mouth. That respecting my food equates to respecting my body. I am trying to pass this on to my children, this idea that eating should be both for sustenance and pleasure, but not just for something to do. By constant snacking - especially snacking on empty calories - food becomes part of the background noise. It becomes an expectation. We eat when we are bored or lonely or happy or sad. We eat for something to do, and often it's when we're already being entertained. (I'm looking at you, movie theaters.) And as more of us have our butts parked in front of the computer (hi!) or the 4,382 channels on the TV or the Wii or let the kids play with [current trendy electronic device], we're doing less and less to burn those snacks off. By constant eating we take our bodies out of their natural rhythms. We don't learn what it means to feel hungry and instead, we eat right through those hunger cues. And by not knowing what hunger feels like, it becomes very difficult to learn what satiation feels like. There is no "clean plate" rule in our house for that very reason. In addition, many people also think they are feeling hunger when they are, in fact, thirsty.

I don't think snacking is completely evil by any measure. I always have a high-protein something after the gym or I don't feel very well. But I do think that getting children established in a routine where all outings and activities include something to munch isn't a great idea. And as I said, my son has to eat constantly or he loses weight so I certainly know that there are kids who really are hungry all the time. But I do suggest that we all try to be more mindful of what we're putting in our kids' bodies and in our own bodies, particularly between meals. I try to pack healthy, filling calories like full-fat cheeses, cashews, fresh fruit or vegetables, boiled eggs, etc. And I urge everyone to take a look at this article.

Friday, April 23, 2010

In Which There Is Stuffed Cabbage

I love stuffed cabbage. It's a great all in one dish and has lots of wonderful flavors and textures going on. It also always makes me think of my grandmother, because it is a specialty of hers. However, my grandmother makes a sweet version and the members of the Marzipan household prefer a tangy one. It's a little time consuming, but not at all bad if you break it down into steps. The rice, sauce, and cabbage can be prepared the day before. I like to make extra rice to serve on the side because the sauce is so delicious.

Stuffed Cabbage

1 Savoy cabbage, leaves stripped off
1 pound ground turkey
1 pound very lean ground beef
1 1/2 cups cooked brown rice
1/3 cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt or sour cream
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 red onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Tangy Tomato Sauce

a 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes (preferably Italian flavored)
1 cup chicken broth
3 bay leaves
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

***

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Add the cabbage leaves and cook, until tender, about 4 minutes. Drain the leaves into a colander in the sink and run under cold running water. Set aside.

In a large bowl (I use my Kitchen Aid with the paddle attachment) place the meat, rice, yogurt/sour cream, pepper, and 2 teaspoons salt and mix together very well.

Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, about 7 minutes. Stir in the paprika and allspice and cook, stirring, about 2 minutes more. Add the onion mixture to the beef mixture and mix until well combined. Season with pepper to taste.








Lay the cabbage leaves on a work surface and blot dry with paper towels. Now take a look at the back side of your leaves. See that thick ridge at the base of the leaf? Trim it nice and flat with a very sharp knife. This way your leaves will lay flat on your work surface and not split. Just make sure you trim the ridge, not slice a hole in the leaf.

Starting with the largest leaves, place about 1/2 cup of the beef mixture in the bottom center of each leaf. (You should have enough for 10 very generously filled rolls.) Roll the bottom of the leaf over the beef mixture, fold in the sides, and continue rolling forward until completely closed. Repeat with the remaining leaves. If you need, you can make little patches with smaller leaves if the big ones tear.
















Arrange the rolls seam side-down in a 9-x 13- x 2- inch baking dish.








Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

In a medium saucepan, combine the tomatoes, broth, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and season with pepper to taste. Fish out the bay leaves, then pour over the cabbage rolls and cover the baking dish tightly with foil. Bake for 1 hour.













Remove the foil from the baking dish and continue cooking until lightly browned and cooked through, about another 30 minutes.








Cut open and devour.








AlmondGirl approved!

Friday, April 9, 2010

In Which There Is Steak Salad

There's a certain self-congratulatory pretentiousness inherent in calling oneself a foodie and so I'm reluctant to use the term, but I do love good food. The problem with loving good food is that it tends to get expensive and so if one has a weekly grocery budget to which one likes to adhere, one must stretch those ingredients however possible. And when one of the people one feeds is a 6'5 man with a proportionately large appetite, that can take work.

Last night we had steak salads for dinner. Salads are one of my favorite things to eat because of the fact that they are bulky and filling without being heavy. They're endlessly variable and provide an excellent way to make the most of pricey and/or calorie-dense foods. Steak salads are a always a hit around here and they are a great way to showcase some really high-quality ingredients. No dressing needed. All items shown were purchased at Wegman's

The components of last night's salads were Wegman's organic spring mix, Wegman's perfect portions of organic grass-fed sirloin, sauteed mushrooms and red onions, St. Agur (one of my absolute favorite blue cheeses), walnuts, and dried cranberries.














To begin, I sprinkled the steaks with kosher salt and seared them on the grill. While they were cooking, I sliced the mushrooms and red onions, then cooked them until caramelized in a pan sprayed with Pam.















When the steaks were done to our taste (we eat them rare at the Marzipan household) I let them sit for about 5 minutes, then sliced them.















Assembling the salads was a snap. Bed of lettuce, saute mix and steak so the juices would run down, then top with cheese, nuts, and cranberries.














Detail of the tastiness:














For dessert, the kids had some Pocky that I picked up from Han Ah Reum and Mr. Marzipan and I had rock glasses full of Traderspoint Wildberry Yogurt. It is amazingly creamy and rich and heavenly, and contains only a few more calories and far less sugar than that godawful stuff stabilized with cornstarch and gelatin. And such lovely packaging! It's in a glass bottle with this pretty label.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

In Which I Have No Shame

I love sale shopping. I always feel faintly stupid when I pay full retail for an article of clothing, as though the store has bested me in an ongoing and elaborate battle of wits. I'm the slow-moving lady who peruses the shelves and stocks up on twenty bottles of clearance SPF 75 in October. I have a beautiful red satin evening gown that I love in part because it's beautiful and sexy but largely because I got it marked down from over $300 to $23. I haunt consignment shops and the Goodwill. (Really - you would not believe these fabulous Diesel jeans I picked up for $4.25.)

It annoys/amuses my husband at times I think. We sometimes have conversations like this:

Him: I like your shirt. Is it silk or something?

Me: Thank you, yes it is. I got it on clearance for $3.

This is in part because I do not cut corners on my food because I am a snob and therefore need to economize in other places. But I kind of get a rush from it, like a treasure hunt.

So today I was at Target, perusing the end caps as per usual (very good deals at the Owings Mills store, locals) when I found a shelf with about 30 packages of the store brand "personal warming gel" marked way down. This gave me pause. I recently attended one of those Very Special Grown Up Toy parties at a friend's house. The toy lady was raving about the benefits of such ointments and how they were the most glorious substances on earth and how unless you were a nun or a masochist, you should have an ample supply.

And there, in Target, I remembered her enthusiasm. I also remembered that she encouraged me to hold about a dozen different kinds of vibrators to the tip of my nose and that I had something called "The Dolphin" buzzing in my face when my friend's husband got home, but I can forgive. It had been a long time since I made such a purchase, but I had a vague idea that she was correct.

It was on sale, you guys. And so I bought discount generic personal warming gel. I feel like it would be awkward to remark upon the price if Mr. Marzipan likes it though.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In Which There Is Sunshine

It's only Wednesday, and I've already had too long of a week. Emotional strain, kids out of school, and a hacking lingering cough that is making me sound like a phone sex operator and which I wish to hell would have the decency to just get bad and then go away.

Mr. Marzipan and I put the kids to bed early last night because they needed it and we really needed it. Then we curled up on our epic couch (21 running feet of L-shaped couch) to watch Chuck. Mr. Marzipan hates to watch TV and movies with me because my suspension of disbelief is horrible and I get confused by elaborate plot points. He has to hit Pause a lot so I can say things like, "How come she's with that guy? I thought the other guy was a bad guy and then they....oh. Because of the raccoon, right? Oh, hey, that guy's using the mass spectrophotometer wrong. This is stupid."

But aside from making no sense at all in this universe or any other, Chuck is fun and silly and the theme is an instrumental version of one of my favorite Cake songs ever. Mr. Marzipan put a pillow on his lap and patted it, indicating that I should lay down. I did, and he drew endless circles on my back as I lay drowsing in the ambient light of the TV, coughing feebly.

When the episode ended, he ordered me to bed. I coughed my way upstairs and curled into a pitiful ball on my side of the bed, which Mr. Marzipan refers to as The Pit because my Sleep Number is 30. He came up a few minutes later, carrying the vaporizer. He filled it with eucalyptus oil and set it on my night table. Then he brought me Ny-Quil and water before climbing in bed next to me. He removed his shirt and rubbed some eucalyptus oil into his skin so that I could lay my head there and breathe it in. It was a very good way to fall asleep.

***

I talked to my friend Julee this morning.

"You sound better," she said. "Or at least you sound less sexy."

***

I had a playdate with my friend Mary Alice and her five children. We went to one of those inflatable bounce room places and this total weirdo came up and started talking to Mary Alice about the aforementioned five children, demanding to know whether Mary Alice was "Catholic or something." Mary Alice is Mormon. The woman then told us an elaborate story beginning with how her mother was a nun and then moved on to an IUD and ended with liver failure. She also mentioned Big Love in an attempt to connect with Mary Alice.

Facepalm.

But also hilarious.

***

I came home and there was a message from my mother in law who - in the past ten years - has said maybe five overtly nice things to me. She thanked me for coming to the Seder and told me how much she appreciated it. This is a huge step forward.

Thanks, Heather.

***

My aunt came over and helped with the kids while I worked in the garden. I'm muddy and bloody and scratched and be-splintered. The afternoon light was warm and buttery, and there were the most delicious smells coming from the hyacinths. I'm going to grill some chicken here shortly and be thankful that I am alive in the world today.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

In Which I Say Goodbye To A Friend

On Saturday morning I received the very unhappy news that a friend of mine - a beloved wife and mother of three - had died very unexpectedly. I thought it must be some kind of sick joke that someone was pulling because there was simply no possible way Heather could be gone. It was incomprehensible to me that the brilliant, funny, kind, gentle person I respected so highly could wink out of existence without warning. She'd been there for me on the days when I believed I had to abandon my children and flee to Istanbul to stay sane and on the days when I was in love with the world and needed to share it. She was so delighted with the lot life had handed her that I wanted to take notes so I could be more like her.

Other than her dazzlingly dry wit and storytelling skill, one of the best things about Heather was her wisdom. She was so refreshingly honest about herself and her shortcomings, but never gave herself enough credit for what a knack she had for presenting advice in a simple, non-condescending way.

Since before my husband and I got married, there have been Ongoing Issues with his family, and I haven't been to a family holiday in almost 6 years. I was planning to skip Passover this year too, but I've been thinking a lot about something Heather wrote about marriage once:

A marriage that demands nothing from you is not a marriage, it's somebody indulging you. Love will get you through anything, but love doesn't mean "feeling affectionate." Love is giving of yourself when you don't feel like it, and I guarantee you that sooner or later, you're not going to feel like it. At that point, you will have to make an effort to swallow your pride, gain self-control, and behave completely unselfishly. Unless you've gained the status of saint, it's going to be hard. This is true of everybody, not just you.
I started thinking about what I have been teaching my children by not going. About what I have been telling my husband about my ability to put his needs before my own when I really, really don't want to. Heather gave me so much over the years I was graced with her acquaintance, and the best thing I can think to do to honor that is try to make choices that I wouldn't be ashamed to confess to her. I admired her so deeply.

So I'm going to dinner.

I was stricken with grief for her family and I was - I am - so angry about it. She was a wonderful friend, a wonderful wife, and a wonderful mother. She loved her family fiercely but never cheapened that love by idealizing anyone, or putting them on a pedestal. And despite my gimlet eye towards religion, Heather's brand of Catholicism always sounded so reasonable to me. I envied her faith because rather than seeming like blind obedience, her devotion to her beliefs came across as the natural conclusion to a well thought out course of questioning. I don't believe in Heather's god but I truly, truly hope that I am wrong and that He exists and has welcomed her warmly home.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

In Which There Are Vampires

I need to make a little preamble here. I know hating on Twilight is the Thing To Do among certain people and that it hasn't got the same elitist cachet as opining that Picasso is just so pedestrian, Stanley, and we really need something a little less nouveau riche above the guest bidet, don't you think? If I were a cutting edge hipster I would - instead of mocking Twilight as the literary equivalent of Cheez Whiz - like it ironically and host dramatic readings of it at an ugly sweater party while serving ironic hipster canapes and playing some tunes on the 8-track. So I'm not even a hipster. I'm a run of the mill uptight snob. Which I'm okay with.

Back when I was a teenage girl we read Anne Rice books and they were full of florid purple prose and the most godawful glut of adjectives and lurid emotions on Earth. Which I loved, of course, because I was fourteen and therefore terribly misunderstood in the way of all fourteen year old girls except that I was different and special and there was this seriously crazed part of my brain that wanted to believe Lestat and I would, like, totally have this connection and it would be magical and intense or whatever. So I understand this desire to read about the captivating undead and I get the whole sexualization of vampires and witches and whatever the hell Lasher and Emmaleth were. (And just a note here, Stephenie Meyer - even crazy Anne Rice knew that giving birth to a fully formed human adult is creepy and weird and the creature must be destroyed, okay? I'm just saying.)

But you know, Anne Rice is Anne Rice. Not everyone can pull it off. For the same reason that Lady Gaga can get away with wearing bows made of hair and dressing up as a used tampon at a major musical event but if I did it would not be unexpected to find myself approached by people who think NASA uses microwave ovens to implant subliminal messages into our brains while the meatloaf reheats.

The gag-inducing writing style aside, these Forks vampires are fairly wimpy. They decide to spend eternity in high school. Lestat and Louis were off eating luscious prostitutes and buying chateaux and hanging out with Lucifer. They rocked immortality, my friends. They rocked it hard. Note: Robert Pattinson looks like a total wanker, but this quote from him makes him not such a bad kid: The more I read about this guy the more I hated him, so that's how I played him—as a manic-depressive who hates himself. Plus he's a hundred-year-old virgin, so he's obviously got some issues there.

Also I don't like the way the books romanticize creepy possessive stalker guys who condescend to you and WATCH YOU SLEEP WHAT THE HELL THAT IS NOT ROMANTIC. From what I gleaned about SMeyer by reading interviews and suchlike, she has very juvenile ideas about relationships. These books bug me because the writing is lame and stilted and thesaurus-reliant. It makes me sad that people are going apeshit over this stuff when there are so many amazing books out there.

So, in the spirit of being kind of bitter that SMeyer cannot, in my humble opinion (and also Stephen King's), write for shit and yet probably sleeps on a mattress stuffed with shredded hundred dollar bills, I bring you this list of funny websites that make fun of Twilight. Many thanks to the parenting message board where I am a member for bringing a number of these to my attention.

Writing

Why Breaking Dawn Must Be Made Into A Movie
Cleolinda's Recaps
Growing Up Cullen
Chris vs. Twilight
The Onion

Multimedia

Twilight Moms
Buffy vs. Edward
Vampax
Firelight With Taylor Swift
My Life Is Twilight
Twilight Dildo _NSFW, Reviews Are Priceless
Regretsy-ed
Twilight the Musical

Monday, March 22, 2010

In Which I Bake A Fire Truck Cake

There comes a moment in every woman's life - if she is the mother of a small, fire-truck obsessed boy - when she will be asked to bake a cake shaped like a fire truck. And if this moment comes very early on a Wednesday morning and the boy is sufficiently wide eyed and adorable and her husband is already in the shower and can't intervene, she will say yes.

So, in the spirit of letting others learn from my mistakes, I bring you my step by step Guide To Making A Fire Truck Cake. Please note that I have never taken a cake decorating class. I can't pipe a beautiful rosette, or sculpt a scale-model medieval castle from gum paste. I did not walk to the fire station and take pictures first, so this cake is what fire trucks kind of look like in my head, but would cause you to panic if one like it arrived at your house for the purpose of flame extinguishment. I am a good baker, but a lousy decorator. So this is not a Duff Goldman cake. (Which, incidentally, are beautiful but don't taste so good.) This is a Mom Cake. This is a cake that suffered cake slumpage after being beset by cats and had to then be reinforced with bamboo skewers.

First things first. I recommend using a firm cake recipe for any kind of sculpted cake. I like the Magnolia cake recipes because they're slightly dense. If you want to use a mix, do the thing where you add pudding to make a kind of pound cake. Use 2-3 recipes/mixes per fire truck, depending on how tall you want the cake. I did 3 for each of these. The yellow cake is yellow cake (see what I did there?) and the red cake is chocolate.

I use the Magnolia buttercream recipe for almost every buttercreamed baked good I make. It's very tasty and very easy. The yellow cake is filled with vanilla buttercream and the chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream. (Which I make by replacing some of the vanilla's powdered sugar with cocoa powder.) Both are frosted with tinted vanilla. It took about half a batch to fill each cake and one batch to frost. Make all of the frosting at once (or in two batches, whatever you can do in your mixer bowl) and tint separately.

The yellow frosting was colored with a small amount of Wilton's Lemon Yellow gel coloring. The red frosting took three whole containers of No-Taste Red to color, which is typical for red. The color deepens and intensifies over time, so don't worry if it looks a little magenta at first. And definitely get the No-Taste Red because otherwise your cake will taste like evil.

For the silver, take some vanilla frosting and stir in some black decorating icing (the tube kind) from the store until you have a nice metallic gray. They make black gel icing but sometimes the color goes all weird and you'll need black for the wiper blades and stuff, so I say go for the tube.

Or, if you like, skip making your own and buy containers of vanilla frosting and tint.

Materials

1 sheet cake pan
Disposable pastry bags (Ziplocs work okay too)
1 large offset spatula
1 small offset spatula
Electric mixer
Silicone pastry brush
Bamboo skewers (if you have cats)
Cake board (foil covered cookie sheets are great)
2-3 batches of cake batter per fire truck
Roughly 1.5 batches of buttercream total per fire truck Meringue powder
Powdered sugar
Gel food colorings
1 tube black icing
Mini chocolate frosted donuts
Assorted candies

***

Okay, these pictures are pretty bad, but I was in a hurry.

***
Step One: Mix up the batter

I mixed the batters separately in my stand mixer, then combined them in a Tupperware vat to mix them all together. It was a lot of cake. You'll probably have to bake it longer than usual if you use 3 batters. If you go with 2, you'll probably have to underbake so it's not too dry. Just keep checking.


















Step Two: Trim the cake

After the cake has cooled and you've turned it out of the pan, use a very sharp knife to even up the top and sides. If you like, freeze the cake and do all of the cutting frozen. I had to do that with a Mad Hatter-style cake I made once. It made things much easier.















Step Three: Cut the pieces

The cake is 17 inches wide and after trimming, I cut it into three sections of about 5 2/3 inches wide. One of these thirds was then cut into thirds along the width, each third being about 3 3/4 inches. Behold:















Step Four: Laying out the pieces

The two big pieces are the body of the cake and the three small ones are the cab. I set it up just to see what needs trimming and so forth. Note that I cut out a chunk from part of the top layer of the truck body. That's for that metal compartment on the fire truck.















Step Four: Glue it together

Spread thickly with buttercream and stack everything together. After gluing, I cut a slant from the top front of the cab for the windshield area.















Step Five: Crumb coat

Please crumb coat your cakes. It's easy and you will be glad you did. A crumb coat is just a very thin layer of frosting put on the cake to make the cake smooth when the time comes to put on the final coat. Use a silicone pastry brush (they're like $4 at the grocery store) to brush all the loose crumbs off. Then spread a very thin layer of frosting over the whole cake. Let the crumb coat sit for at least an hour. I covered mine with plastic wrap and left them over night, or you can take this time to make your royal icing.








Step Six: Ladders and glass

I used royal icing to pipe the ladders, windows, and windshields. Do not be scared of this. It is very easy, even for the severely Coordination Impaired such as myself. Royal icing is simply meringue powder, water, and powdered sugar. You beat it in your mixer, glop it into a pastry bag, snip a weensy little hole in the end, and have fun. I love it for cookies because you can flood with it.

I drew a template on white paper, taped it to a cutting board, taped waxed paper over my template, and made all the pieces for my ladder. The ladder pieces need about 6 hours to dry and the windows would do best overnight. You'll know when they're ready because they'll come right off the wax paper. Just be careful because they are fragile. After they were dry , I used more royal icing to glue the ladder together. Let the completed ladder dry over night at least.

If you've never used a piping bag before, you can watch this video here. I don't bother using a coupler and tip for stuff like this. Just use scissors to snip a tiny (really tiny - like 1/8 of an inch) piece off the end.

Note: The picture of the completed ladder was taken with my new camera. Even though I don't know how to really use it yet, the difference in image quality is impressive I think.








































Step Seven: Frosting and decorating the cake

Spread a generous layer of tinted buttercream over your crumb coat. If it's sticking, it's probably too thick. Whip a little milk into the frosting until it spreads smoothly. Also, keep a glass of water handy to dip your spatula in and smooth over rough spots as needed. Not too often or you'll sog the cake, but a little is okay.

Spread the silver frosting over the indentation you made between the body and the cab. Pipe a silver border around the base and over the wheels if you like, and use the small offset spatula to make the bumper. Use the mini donuts as wheels and put a dot of silver in the center of each for a hubcap.

Use whatever candies strike your fancy for the rest of it. I used Tootsie Pop Drops, a Rolo, and a licorice allsort for the top. The doodads on the side are mini jujubees, the headlights are licorice allsorts. The red cake has some licorice wheels on the silver part to help disguise the slumpage-induced crack. I got all of the candies from the bulk candy bins at Wegman's. The hose thingies on the side are Oreo cookie straws. I stuck toothpicks into them, spiked those into the cake and, for good measure, used a ledge made of a popsicle stick. In retrospect I would have skipped the ledge because I don't like non-edible decorations on cakes.









Perch the ladder on top, and voila! (Note the enucleated red cake in the background. SIGH.)









At first I considered doing this in fondant, but even marshmallow fondant doesn't taste great. I also thought about doing a lot more detail, like a bi-color top and also making a little door with a shield and a latch on it, but I think this is fine for a 4 year old's party, to be honest with you. He seemed happy, anyway!