Friday, August 29, 2014

A Tale of Two Wedding Cakes

 I enjoy baking and over the decades have made a few wedding cakes for family and friends.
Two years ago I baked Lauren and Adam's wedding cake.  Since I knew life would get crazy as the big day approached, I assembled, iced, and froze the entire cake a week before the wedding.  Transporting something that tall (and heavy!) was scary but so worth it.

This year I heard God calling me to offer wedding cakes to two brides.  One is Lauren's dear friend, bridesmaid, and college roommate.  The other began her homeschooling journey when our family did, with a preschool co-op organized by her mom.

Both brides accepted my offer and both were married August 2nd!  The shared date certainly complicated my planning.  I prefer to transport a four-tier cake in two parts, assembling and finishing the decorating at the reception venue.  Knowing I wouldn't be able to manage that for both celebrations, I asked MK if a three-tier cake for display and photo ops with extra cake behind the scenes would be okay.  She graciously consented and my planning continued.

Lauren's friend met her husband while they were both studying in Spain.  M is from Mexico, so his heritage and homeland informed the wedding theme.  A found a cake online with ruffly fans that she wanted in coral, white, and aqua.  I breathed deeply and began researching how to recreate the design.  After spending hours looking for similar designs or tutorials, I emailed to ask some far away bakers what decorating tip they used.  It turns out the ruffles are made with a standard petal tip (#104).  Yay!

A and M had asked for a hazelnut cake (like Lauren and Adam's) so I made a sample.  It gave me a chance to practice the fans and try out an assortment of filling options:  chocolate ganache, ganache with raspberry jam, and homemade nutella.  The bride and groom came over to taste and see.  They chose nutella for the filling and A and I critiqued and tweaked the petal variations.
Note the toothpicks on top--marking the filling locations.  
We decided more ruffles were better and that the bottom beading was a no-go.

I volunteered for these weddings months in advance, but there is only so much that can be done ahead.  One long term project was emptying my upright freezer.  I'm a stocker-upper so we had a lot of food to consume.  My family ate some interesting combinations, especially once July rolled around.  Spinach squares anyone?

For a long time it felt too early to bake.  I didn't want cake layers sitting in my freezer forever, so I waited to start.  April--too early.  May--too early.  June--maybe it was time, but it didn't happen.  (I tried to be that mom who takes her kids to the pool.)  July--at last!  But I piddled away the first week of July.  Then we had a week of Vacation Bible School followed by a family vacation in the Adirondacks.  Suddenly the weddings were two weeks away and no baking had begun.  Yikes!

I started with MK's cakes.  She had asked for both chocolate and lemon tiers.  I tweaked a Cake Bible recipe for yellow cake to create the lemon.  It was reliable, with a solid structure (great for assembly) but also a tender, fine crumb.  The chocolate cake turned out to be trickier.

My sisters had recommended a Smitten Kitchen recipe (originally from Gourmet magazine).  It is intensely chocolatey with a super moist, fragile crumb (dangerous to stack).  I seem to be one of the few people in the world, based on hundreds of comments, this cake doesn't rise properly for.  I was skeptical of the recipe's baking temperature of 300 degrees.  After the disaster you see below--a 6" diameter cake that should have been fine--

--I raised the temperature for future batches to 325 with somewhat better results.
I spent a week or more slowly baking MK's ten layers, then a marathon day baking A's eight hazelnut. 
Here they are, wrapped and waiting.
So, yes, there was a lot of cake happening towards the end of July!  I was planning or cooking or shopping almost every day.  The day after buying a 10# bag of sugar I had to go out for more!  My family was wonderfully patient with my preoccupation.  The toughest day for all of us was probably Thursday, when I took a few hours to clean the kitchen and prepare a nice dinner before getting back to cakeness.  I'm not proud of how grumpy I became once those hours were gone and a long night stretched before me.  Always room for improvement . . .

Eventually it was time to starting putting the tiers together.  I tried to work with cold cake (a sturdier state), especially the fragile chocolate.  Extra batter had been baked and was used to patch the hollows.
A thin layer of ganache was spread between the cake layers before adding the icing--a flavor boosting idea I borrowed from my sister.
Do you use a crumb coat?  It's a thin layer of icing that, when chilled, keeps the crumbs contained so the rest of the icing can later be applied easily and neatly.  The delicate and dark chocolate cakes needed their crumb coats more than anything I've ever baked!
Below are MK's cakes.  The biggest round tier is lemon, as is one of the double layer rectangles.  The other rounds and rectangle are chocolate.  One of the things I enjoy most about this picture is seeing how well we emptied that big freezer.  As I said, it took months, but there was plenty of room for cake!

I could have assembled, iced, decorated, and frozen MK's cakes a few weeks before her wedding, but as it turned out they weren't all done until the night before.  They were fresher than Lauren and Adam's!
Friday night I also finished icing the four tiers of A's cake.  Her wedding was late enough that I decided to decorate it on Saturday.
When I began trying to figure out how to make petal arches that were a consistent size and would meet without overlapping, I called my local cake supply store to see if there was a tool available to make it happen.  The generous woman on the other end of the phone knew exactly what I needed--her advice.

She told me to get some adding machine tape, wrap a strip around each tier, and cut it to fit.  Then fold the tape in half and half and maybe half or thirds until it looked right.  Draw or trace a curve that looked nice, cut it out, wrap the tape back around the cake, and trace the curve with a toothpick.  Guidelines done!

Len and I worked together for a while and then I "allowed" him to finish that technical, vital task.  I think I was coloring icing or something . . .

The next day, MK's brothers came to pick up her cakes.  It was quite a sight--one not large car, three tall young men, and a cake on a seat, a lap, and a floor.  I'm told they all made it safe and sound.

Meanwhile it was time to start piping petals.  It had been about six weeks since my sample attempt, so I wanted to practice a bit (ya think?) before committing coral to the actual cake.

First I traced the design onto waxed paper
then attached it
to a faux cake.
and got to work with some extra icing.
Time for the real deal . . .
My photography skills are not the greatest; this kitchen shot gives the best approximation of the coral icing.
It looks too dark and too orange in all the other photos.
Cake in the back of the van on our way to the wedding.
I put a "wedding cake on board" sign in the window to explain our careful turns to other drivers.
  The bottom tiers (12" and 16" diameter) were so heavy!  
I think Adam made some sort of remark about Olympic lifting . . . 
When he wasn't commenting on how many pounds consisted of butter (he's a healthy guy) . . .
I thought I was fairly calm that day, but once the top two tiers were in place, a knot in my stomach uncurled.  Even though there was still work to finish, there was no more chance of a transportation disaster.  Alleluia!  I finally relaxed.

I brought a few bags of goodies with me to the wedding venue:

  • spatulas for setting the cake in place
  • a bag of white icing
  • extra icing and a spatula
  • toothpicks and a scraper
  • a pitcher of ice water to keep my decorating hand cool
  • scissors for the flowers
  • my good shoes (I started out in sneakers.)
  • paper towels
  • wipes
  • etc.

That last layer of white petals had to be piped on site.  If those fans had been put on in advance they would have been smushed when we put the cake together at the wedding.  (Needing time for final assembly and decoration of a huge cake is why MK's needed to be a more manageable three tiers.)
When you look at individual petals and fans it's obvious that there is a lot of variation. You could also call it inconsistency.  This is the type of thing that usually really bugs me, but the joy of this design is that the overall look and ruffly feel is so much more important than the up close details.  It's exuberant!
When the florist told me that the bride had chosen roses for her cake, I was surprised.  I assumed they'd be too formal for the lively fans, but no.  She chose "free spirit" roses, and they were GORGEOUS!  Big, blousy, warmly coral.  The picture below does not do them justice.
Len, Lauren, and Adam also helped with transportation, assembly, and flower arranging.  Thanks, guys!  Seriously--no one enjoys helping move or put together such an important package.  The consequences of a mistake are too nerve-wracking.

This was an exciting summer project.  I spent plenty of time and energy (much of it mental!), but it was gratifying to offer something special to two beautiful brides (and their grooms).  I also enjoyed the chance to stretch my baking and decorating skills.  Apparently I'm not too old to learn something new.  ;-)

Friday, June 27, 2014

It's Been Too Long . . .

. . . since I've grilled.
 How do I know?  Perhaps the mouse nest in the corner is a clue . . .
 It appeared to be mostly grass clippings for structure
with fur (from Dusty's outdoor grooming sessions) added for comfort.
 Note the cherry pits on the left.  There was a much bigger pile deep inside the grill.
The holes were gnawed in order to get to the tasty kernels.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Small Successes: Once Again

Although I always enjoyed the format, it's been almost three years since I've posted any small successes.  The host site changed a few times and I lost track (and maybe focus).  Last night I stumbled on Small Success Thursdays at CatholicMom.Com, so I'm ready to begin again.

Listing a few small successes is meant to encourage me (and you, dear reader) to recognize that all is not inefficiency and craziness.  Appreciating even bits of progress or brightness is a gift to myself and those around me.

Enough intro . . . here's my list for this week:

  1. I made it to Confession.  This was like hitting "refresh" on my Lent.  Time to move forward . . .
  2. Examining my conscience prior to Confession made me realize that I must stop watching (halfway through 34 episodes) a culinary series full of cursing--lots and lots of cursing.  Maybe the fact that I wouldn't let anyone else in my family watch with me was the first clue???  The withdrawal hasn't been as difficult as I expected given how much I enjoyed the show.
  3. Rebecca and I have spent time on her writing homework every day this week.  Breaking it up into bits makes the process so much easier, with no last minute panic or hours spent the night before it's due.  

I hope you're inspired to discover your successes.  Feel free to share or read about other moms here.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Fair Trade Nutella

The idea of buying fair trade products always made sense to me, but not enough to actually make me do it.  I had heard that purchasing certified foods ensured fair treatment and living wages for farmers, as well as better land-use practices.

Picture me with eyes closed, hands over my ears, chanting, "La la la la la la la . . ."

Then one night as I clicked around the web, I came across references to child slave labor being used to process chocolate in Africa.  I had finally reached my tipping point.

It's been over a year since I resolved to buy only fair trade chocolate.  I admit it's a lot more expensive than my supermarket baking bars and warehouse-store bags of chips (and harder to find, too).  I'm generally a price conscious shopper, but once I made up my mind that it was the moral choice, I didn't have to fight my frugality any more.

For one thing, it makes sense that it costs more to give the farmers a just income.  But the clearest point for me is that--hello--CHOCOLATE IS A LUXURY!-- and I live quite comfortably in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

My family has not complained about Mom's new plan, but they did miss Nutella.  I say DID because I finally followed through and made a batch from scratch.
 There are quite a few recipes online; I chose the ATK version.
 Their method of removing hazelnut skins is brilliantly simple.
Here's another link to the recipe with more chatting and better pictures.  Next time (oh, yes, there will definitely be a next time!) I'll try using 25-50% less sugar (1/2-3/4 cup instead of 1), but this Nutella is delightful.
Update:  My Nutella is runnier than what I see online, so I'll try decreasing or omitting the extra oil too.
UPDATE #2:  The first link (to the newspaper article) uses 8 times as much salt as the brown eyed baker's version!  I didn't notice and my latest batch is much too salty.  Use the lower amount (1/8 teaspoon) for starters.
Are you ready to switch to fair trade?

BTW, we now buy only fair trade coffee, too.  It's easy to find and tastes better than what I used to purchase--a simple way to start, perhaps?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Project Week

Every year, our "at school" children have two weeks of Christmas vacation followed by Project Week, time spent working at home.  The high schoolers write research papers, 7th graders report on an endangered animal, and 8th graders like Marianna construct a medieval town, castle, or cathedral.  

The students are supposed to spend at least thirty hours on their projects, and our 8th graders always do!  Usually the last few hours are late, late, late the night before returning to school.  Marianna worked hard and Len assisted with management coaching, so the final Sunday was not too painful this year (our family's fifth medieval project).

Here is Marianna's town:
 Some materials decisions:  plaster walls, paint mixed with sawdust for grass, dried grass for thatch, and glycerin soap to fill the well.
After searching the archives, I found Joe's castle from January 2012:
 And Daniel's from January 2009:

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find photos of David and Lauren's castles.  I'm sure they are disappointed!   ;-)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Secret Family Recipe

My sister invited a new family to our Saranac Lake week this year, and they fit right in--a great match!  When J mentioned a special family recipe for an upside down apple pie, I begged her for it.  I'm not sure I'm at liberty to reveal the details, but here are some hints:
 Butter and brown sugar in a deep dish pie pan
 Pecans--this was supposed to look like a spiral.
 Place a regular, two-crust apple pie on top.  Bake. 
 Turn it out.  Patch if necessary.
 Even tastier with ice cream and salted butter caramel sauce . . .
 There was so much spill over (butter, sugar, apple juice?) that I had to pull out the foil and use a 2nd piece.
Baking side note:  I favor the flakiness and decreased fragility of a shortening crust, but so many friends recommend the flavor of a butter crust that I've been trying a combination of both fats lately.  I wasn't too impressed with the results until today when I tested a technique from Crazy About Pies.  I softened shortening and unsalted butter, mixed them into a mostly homogeneous mass, then chilled the resulting glob.  It made a great crust, not as flat and tough as the all-butter versions I've made.  I'll be using this technique again.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Yes, My Boys are Crazy!

 One ran to the mailbox, one took the dog out . . .