Monday, January 23, 2012

Cake Trial: Part 2

This weekend was frosting and filling weekend. The cakes hung out in the freezer all week, and I worried that I was not up to the task of actually putting them all together every time I got ice or frozen corn. But I persevered and on Saturday morning set out a dozen eggs and two (2!) pounds of butter to come to room temperature. By that evening, I was freshly napped and ready to tackle butter cream.

But before I could frost the cake, I needed to put the filling between the layers. This is where I encountered my first hiccup. The filling (which I made a few hours earlier), hadn't set up properly. The chocolate hadn't melted completely and was grainy. It sunk to the bottom, leaving me with a bowl of heavy cream with grainy, goopy chocolate. I was unhappy. Halfway into batch one of buttercream, I was unsure what to do.

Chocolate and heavy cream are too expensive to just toss away, so I put a metal bowl over a pot with about an inch of water in it to create a double boiler, put the filling mixture in it and whisked away. (This is where I begin my rant against microwaves. If you love your microwave, skip to the next paragraph.) My personal feeling about why the filling failed me the first time around was because the instructions tell you to melt the heavy cream and chocolate together in the microwave. My cream was at room temp, and I added my chocolate, then microwaved for the required 2-3 minutes. This did not work. I know that people are all for melting chocolate in the microwave because it's easier than doing it in a double boiler. But I think that microwaves ruin the texture of all foods, including chocolate, don't heat evenly, and I can't keep an eye on it in the way I want to while it's in the microwave. Plus, using a double boiler isn't that tough, and it makes me feel like a fancy cook. The filling, after being reconstituted in the method of my choosing, was much smoother, and looked much more even. However, I was now set back an extra day since it was 7 pm and the filling needs to chill for at least 4 hours.

With the filling back in the fridge, I turned out two batches of buttercream, put them in the fridge, and with an aching back, went to bed.

I woke up at 8 am on Sunday, fully intending to go to church, but unable to get the cake out of my mind. I wanted it finished. I wanted to check on my filling. I wanted to use my icing spatulas. I pulled out the filling and was thrilled to see that it set up properly! I whipped it up, pulled out my buttercream, warmed it, whipped it, and was ready to go. I had the cake assembled and frosted by 10 am. (I'm not a morning person--this in and of itself is a feat.) (Also, I did this without coffee.)

This is where I implore you to read and follow all directions. In my excitement to assemble the cake, I failed to follow directions properly. I put my bottom tier together, frosted it, and then rushed to put my second tier on top of it. As I did, I realized that I was supposed to frost all the tiers before assembling, and I was supposed to leave the cake tiers on their little cardboard cake rounds for structural purposes. (This is why we do a practice cake.) I still managed to get the middle tier frosted, though not as prettily as I would have liked. I followed directions with the top tier, and put the whole thing together. Then I, like a child on Christmas day playing with her toys, pulled out my brand-spanking-new pastry bag and started to pipe pearl borders. The result is what you see above.

I'm pretty damn proud of this cake. This is probably the biggest baking undertaking I've ever done in my life. (Aside from my intense Christmas cookie annual baking where I bake 3-4 types of cookies as gifts.) Greg has pronounced it incredibly good, with the filling being his favorite part. (Yay!) Now that I know how long all of this will take me, I feel pretty confident that I'll be able to do it come wedding week. Also, I'm really lucky that a huge number of people in my life are helping with the other wedding details so I can focus on the cake. (And getting married to an amazing guy.) Really, the timing is what is most important with this. I have a timeline written out so I can tackle this project and have an amazing wedding cake.

If all else fails, I'll buy a sheet cake at Giant.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cake Trial: Part 1

I baked cakes yesterday in the start of my practice run for my wedding cake. I didn't make the full three rounds of batter like I will for the "real" thing, I just made two rounds. This means that I will have three tiers with two layers each. (Above: 9-inch and 12-inch layers.)

Here's what I learned:
- It's not that hard to make a cake batter. (I already knew this.)
- It's not hard to bake the cake off, although I did need to adjust baking time for my oven. (This is why I'm making a practice cake.)
- Prep work takes the most time. (Eggs, butter, and milk take several hours to come to room temperature.)
- Making a cake this large uses more eggs and butter than anything else I've ever made in my life.
- Greasing, flouring, and cutting parchment paper for my pans took as much time as making the batter.
- I need bigger cooling racks. The 6-inch layer ended up cooling in a flat-bottomed colander because I didn't have enough cooling rack space. It still worked.
- Wrapping the cakes in plastic wrap for freezing takes almost as much time as prepping the pans.

The instructions in the book (America's Test Kitchen Baking Book) and the blog I read for help both said that time is the biggest factor. I do like that I can do this in stages, so when the actual time comes, I can be comfortable making the cakes a few weeks in advance. I ended up dragging a chair into the kitchen to sit in front of the oven while I read my book and kept an eye on the cakes. I've never been much of a cake baby-sitter, but this is important. After the first batch came out, I was more comfortable with the baking time and just letting it go on it's own. (With a timer.)

I am very excited to have all these new baking supplies. Where have offset spatulas been all my life? I finally have a pastry bag with different tips for frosting, which I look forward to breaking out. I never felt stressed when making this cake. I think knowing that it could fail and that was okay made it a much better situation for me. We'll see if this feeling continues throughout the process. I do like my start though!

Next weekend, filling and frosting.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fish Tacos

I've only eaten fish tacos a handful of times in my life, but I always really like them. The creamy sauce and the cabbage create a great contrast to mild fish. The fish is usually fried, sometimes breaded, sometimes not. Last night, I was craving great flavor and something light, yet meaty. Enter fish tacos.

We're trying to eat a little more healthily around here, so I combined a few recipes to get the tacos we had last night. I used Serious Eats Fish Taco recipe, but used catfish instead of tilapia. (I don't like tilapia; it has no flavor.) I also didn't make the sour cream sauce, but instead substituted with Pioneer Woman's pico de gallo and guacamole. (As requested by Greg.)

For the fish, I coated it in a spice mixture of salt, cayenne, paprika, and cumin, and then shallow fried it in olive oil. The result was great flavor that married well with the cabbage, guacamole, and pico de gallo. It was like eating a salad with fish and a tortilla. For two people who have eaten a meat salad as a side dish with fish (we follow the Ron Swanson rule that fish is a vegetable), this was satisfying and filling. We will definitely be having these again, paired with a Corona.

I promise that at some point, pictures will get better. It's hard to cook and photograph at the same time!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Creativity Always Needs an Outlet

The problem with being a potter is that when people ask me if I ever get to work in clay, it's always a tough question for me to answer why I don't. It's not quite a hobby, and even with my class this summer, I never got it together to pick up my finished pieces. (Part of the problem there was not having a car.) It's tough to lug a wheel, clay, kiln, and glazes around with you. And expensive to have those things on hand. I know every art comes with it's tools, but I tend to think mine are slightly less portable.

Which is all to say that at times, I still need an outlet for my creativity. Sometimes I write, but mostly I cook. I really think cooking, baking in particular, is a close cousin to pottery. You work with your hands, you shape things, you add heat, some basic chemistry, and BAM! you have a work of art. This weekend I was very much in a cook-to-be-creative mood. I made fresh Italian bread that we turned into garlic bread, lasagna from scratch (everything except the noodles), biscuits, brownies and pizza. I've often thought about being a food blogger, since I cook and bake all the time, but just forget to take pictures.

However, I've resumed my resolution from a few years back to make one new dish every week. I realize that I get stuck in a rotation of about 10-14 dishes that I really like, are easy to make, and lean toward the healthier side. I'm going to try and remember to take pictures and I'll try and blog about the new dish each week. This will also help me get toward my goal of blogging more, since the job has led to less of that.

And, at the end of the month, there will be the test wedding cake, which will definitely have to be blogged.

I'll try and provide links or where you can get the recipes I work from. Typically, I use America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, which I received for Christmas last year. Really great recipes, but I also try things from Serious Eats and Pioneer Woman Cooks. So, there will be more pictures, and food!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Abstract Art

I've been studying art in one way or another for most of my life. It occurred to me the other day that my elementary school art teacher was teaching us art history right alongside our art lessons. This became more pointed in high school, and then one day, in my college years, someone pointed out that Art History was a discipline. Something that I could study, write about, and explore in ways that other subjects were explored. My life was forever, wonderfully changed.

But in all of this study, and after all these years of looking at art, sometimes I forget how important and powerful it can be. I am fortunate in that every single day of my job, I get to handle original artworks, but most of the time, I don't even think about it. It's just my job. I never walk in and think, "I GET TO LOOK AT AND TOUCH ARTWORK TODAY!!!!!!!!" Today though, I realized I should.

I often think about art more in the abstract, like an idea to be discussed, rather than actual, physical objects. Strange, since I argue all the time about object-based focused in art. In all of my studying, writing, and working, I've forgotten how powerful the original artwork can be--and is.

Today, I got to touch an M.C. Escher print. And a Van Gogh print. Two things that the artist also touched. Two things that the artist designed, created, and have survived in amazing condition. I stared at both for minutes on end, poring over each little detail, marveling at how Van Gogh's faces all seem sad, sunken, and full of a world-weariness. Escher's print was like standing on the top of a roof and looking both down and out, with the perspective working perfectly--simultaneously! That is the beauty of Escher, he understood how math made amazing art. Something I still don't grasp in my own work.

The irony of working in a museum is that you can become numb to some of the things you see on a daily basis. Artwork becomes part of a job, not a thing of beauty. Today I was reminded that artwork is a real thing, to be admired, savored, and learned from.