Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Visions of Sugar Cookies Dance in My Head

The Christmas season just begs for baking, especially in Texas since it's finally cool enough to want to turn the oven on. I baked a big batch of snowflake sugar cookies to give as little tokens of gratitude.

I iced the little snowflakes in wintery shades of white and pale blue, then added a few sugar beads to glam them up a bit. I gave a batch to the staff at our veterinarian clinic for keeping our furry family happy and healthy. I also gave some to our dentist's staff (they do eat sugar!), my husband's coworkers,  the lady who cuts our hair and, of course, some for our friends. When the snowflake cookies ran out, I baked a batch of snickerdoodles for anyone else who looked like they might enjoy a cookie. The next batch will be gingersnaps for Christmas Day. I've never made them before, but I do enjoy a good gingersnap with their gingery bite and subtle sweetness. So good with coffee!

So if you expect to run into me in the next few days, remind me to bring a cookie for you too. Happy holidays!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Lemon Curd in the Written Word

I am now officially a published baker! My friends at the newspaper that I used to work for needed a baking story for their holiday guide. Naturally, they asked their former graphic designer, blogger and up-and-coming baker to choose a holiday recipe to write about. I'm always happy to help the old gang, so I gladly accepted.

The hard part was choosing a recipe. It's easy to fall back on the usual holiday treats like sugar cookies, gingerbread or pies but that would be boring and too expected. Besides, people usually already have  recipes for these desserts because they've been made for years as a family tradition. I decided to offer a quick and easy recipe that isn't typical for the holidays but will fit right in and can be served in bite-size portions for parties or full bellies. I chose lemon curd tartlets in an optional no-bake graham cracker crust.

Sure, lemon is reminiscent of summer with its sunny color and citrus taste but that's what makes it such a refreshing alternative during the months of spices, apples and such. Plus, it only takes about 20 minutes to make enough curd to fill dozens of tart shells. The holidays are a busy time so it's nice to have a homemade recipe that is both quick and delicious. You really can't go wrong with lemon curd tartlets!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Wedding cake tiers, not wedding cake tears

Wedding cakes are stressful! My worrisome nature has left me ill equipped to handle the pressure of all of the potential disasters of making a wedding cake. And believe me, my brain has gone over every conceivable cake tragedy that could happen in a one-week time span.

What if I get sick or somehow end up physically unable to bake that week? What if I trip while carrying the cake? What if a stupid driver hits my car while I’m trying to deliver the cake? What if I somehow deliver to the wrong location? What if cake burglars try to steal it? Just kidding, but you get an idea of how my brain has been (mal)functioning all week. I dream cake, I speak cake, I AM cake.

Under Pressure
The upside to such a worrisome nature is that I am extremely careful during every step of the process and I’m prepared to avoid a wide range of ridiculous cake disasters. You might think I’m a bit silly, but it’s hard not to worry when it comes to wedding cakes. Wedding cakes come with higher expectations than most other event cakes. They are more than just dessert, they are symbolic of the wedding couple, a centerpiece for the celebration and immortalized in wedding albums for years to come. If you can’t rise to the occasion, you can ruin the once-in-a-lifetime special event that people spend months (sometimes years) and thousands of dollars planning to perfection. If something happens to their cake mid-delivery, there is no plan B. You can’t just whip up a three-tiered wedding cake in an hour or swing by the store to pick-up a mediocre substitute. It is a scenario that I am happy to have avoided but have feared all week. No pressure!

It's a Nice Day for a Blue Wedding
Phew! The cake is done and delivered safely, so now my nerves can finally unwind and I can now reflect on how happy I am with the results of my very first wedding cake. The cake was done in the style of Wedgwood china and pottery. Wedgwood products are known for their trademark shade of light gray-blue with ornate white detailing, often with a Greek- or Roman-inspired design. It’s a very elegant and luxurious style that has bold visual impact using muted colors.

The cake consisted of three-tiers — a 10-inch white cake on the bottom and 8- and 6-inch chocolate cakes on top. They were filled and iced with vanilla buttercream and decorated with fondant leaves and pearl dragĂ©es. As for the trademark Wedgwood blue color, I used Wilton gel paste coloring in Cornflower Blue and it’s almost a perfect match for the shade without having to worry about mixing colors. That’s important when you want to be consistent in color, but have to make more than one batch of buttercream. It can be difficult to duplicate an exact shade when you are blending two different colors on separate occasions.

I’m also finally starting to get better at achieving a smoother buttercream icing. It’s still not quite to the point where it’s so flawless that you can’t tell if it’s fondant or buttercream, but it’s certainly better than when I first started out. It’s harder than it looks and I tend to be a bit obsessive-compulsive about it, so I probably spend way more time on it than I should. I’m determined to get it as smooth as I possibly can, but I’m never quite satisfied with it, so I have to accept my limits at some point or I’ll never finish the cake!

I just hope that I met the expectations of the bride and groom and helped make their wedding day a sweet and memorable occasion. Congratulations to the newlyweds and I look forward to making their first anniversary cake.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Welcome to the Jungle

I love making birthday cakes. They're just so much fun and there are always lots of opportunities to add whimsical details. The latest cake was for a jungle-themed birthday party for a little boy.

I was given artistic license to do whatever I wanted with the design, so long as it went with the theme and the inside of the cake consisted of the ever-popular chocolate and buttercream combo.

I figured what little boy doesn't like monkeys? They're like nature's clowns (hmm, maybe that's why I don't like monkeys). Anyhow, I took off with the monkey idea, which naturally led to bananas. I thought the banana bunches (along with the grass) gave the cake a nice three-dimensional aspect in contrast to the flat monkey and jungle leaves.

It may be a jungle out there, but it's just tasty cake in this jungle.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Nine Sweet Years of Wedded Bliss

My husband and I celebrated our 9th (!?!) anniversary yesterday. I can't believe that we've been married for almost a decade now! It has been a very wonderful nine years and I can't imagine life without such a sweet and loving husband.

To thank him for being such a great companion, I baked him a mini-anniversary cake. It was his favorite, chocolate cake filled with buttercream and draped in ganache. I decorated it with white fondant flowers and leaves, then added sugar pearls around the flower cluster.

Happy anniversary and here's to many more sweet years together!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Year of the Tiger

 I'm honored that I was able to contribute a groom's cake to a very sweet and beautiful wedding. My friend (and ex-coworker) Lauri asked me to make a chocolate cake covered in ganache and surrounded by chocolate-covered strawberries for her soon-to-be husband, Duan. She wanted a tiger because his Chinese zodiac sign is the tiger. Of course, I said I would love to make the cake as my wedding gift to them.

This was the first wedding-related cake I've had to do, so I was a little stressed out about getting it just right and making sure it looked good enough to sit on the wedding cake table. Since I'm relatively new to the cake decorating world, I still get a little nervous about each cake I make but I'm gradually getting much more confident about my abilities. I haven't experienced any big cake problems yet, so I don't know why I tend to get a bit of cake anxiety. I think it's just a personality quirk, but I need to learn to relax and trust my own skills to make a successful cake.

Anyhow, the lovely bride adored the cake and gave me a big thankful hug. The wedding was fantastic— a joyous celebration of love, family and friends. It makes me happy that my little tiger cake was a part of such a beautiful and special day. Congratulations Lauri and Duan!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Happy (Foxy) Birthday to...Me!

I celebrated my birthday this weekend and figured, why not make my own cake? For a while now I've been wanting to make a cake of two of my favorite things: autumn and foxes. I knew just how I wanted it to look, but I needed a reason to make it. My birthday was the perfect opportunity.

The cake is chocolate filled with vanilla buttercream and topped with marshmallow fondant. I then made marshmallow fondant in autumn colors to make the leaves. I used a leaf-shaped cookie cutter to cut out the leaves, then etched in the veins of the leaves and texture on the acorns. I then sculpted a little red fox out of fondant so it can sleep among the leaves.

I adore this cake and still haven't figured out what to do with the fox since I don't have the heart to destroy the cute little guy. I'm just glad that I finally got to make the cake that I've been thinking about for quite some time and it came out just as I'd imagined. Now if only the autumn theme would help usher in some cooler weather and end this scorching-hot Texas summer!

Gotham City Just Got a Little Sweeter

The Lego Batman birthday cake is complete! It was a lot of work, but it was a blast to make. The two-tiered strawberry birthday cake is like a story in itself. A little fondant Lego Batman sits atop the Lego cake, overlooking a sugary Gotham City. Batman's foes have written graffiti all around the fondant buildings. Catwoman's paw prints. Riddler's trademark question marks. Joker was here indeed. Never fear! Batman won't let Joker's antics foil a kid's birthday cake, so he stands vigilant while wishing the birthday boy a happy birthday on a nearby billboard. Knowing that Lego Batman stands watch, I'm sure it was a great birthday after all.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sock Monkey, That Funky Monkey

I just finished the sock monkey first birthday smash cake, the first of my four upcoming cake projects. I have to admit that I don't really like monkeys and generally find them sort of creepy. I've seen too many movies where monkeys play the villain, take over the world or start epidemics (zombie or otherwise) to find them precious. However, this monkey is a definite exception to the rule. How can you not like a bashful little sock monkey with a birthday hat looking demurely festive? Plus, he tastes like marshmallows! I bet even "Planet of the Apes"-era Charlton Heston would be hard-pressed to call this sweet little guy a dirty ape. Too bad this poor little monkey will soon reach his demise by being smashed by the eager hands of a one-year-old. It's almost like King Kong in reverse. How ironic!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Season of the Cake

August and September have me busy and baking with four different cake requests. They all vary in style, theme and complexity so I'm pretty excited for the challenge. I've posted preliminary sketches of the cakes here and will post photos of the finished products over the next two months.

Sock Monkey Smash Cake
My first cake will be a sock monkey smash cake for a first birthday party this weekend. For those of you who don't know what a smash cake is, it is a small personal birthday cake for a one-year-old to eat as messily as he or she pleases (there is a separate cake for guests). This provides amusing photo opportunities of the birthday kid grabbing fistfuls of cake or eating it face first. I'd never heard of this tradition until I started getting into cake decorating. I must say I kind of like the idea of the cake destruction, but not so much the clean-up afterward. This will be a simple cake filled and iced with buttercream and topped with a fondant sock monkey holding a number one. I think this cake will be a smashing success. Sorry, couldn't resist the pun!

Lego Batman Birthday Cake
I love the concept of this one and I can't wait to get started on it next week. We are still working out the details on the design, but you get the general idea.

This will be a two-tiered strawberry cake covered in marshmallow fondant. The bottom layer will be a fondant skyline of Gotham City with a billboard that says "Happy Birthday". The second tier will either be hand-painted Batman villains, another level of city skyline or perhaps something else. The top of the cake will have Lego-style pegs so that the whole top tier looks like a Lego piece. Also on top will be Lego Batman standing in front of a full moon featuring the Batman symbol. 

I've always loved playing with Legos as a kid (well, okay, as a grown-up too) and I find the Lego video games unbelievably adorable. I had to resist getting too carried away with this design, but I was so inspired by the theme!

Year of the Tiger Groom's Cake

In September, I get to make the groom's cake for my friend's wedding. Earlier this year I did a mini-version of the chocolate cake filled with buttercream and topped with ganache for her to sample and to make sure she liked my design style. The top of the cake is decorated with a thin disc of marshmallow fondant and hand-painted with a Year of the Tiger symbol since that is her soon-to-be-husband's Chinese zodiac sign. That was my first time doing such a cake, so the actual wedding day groom's cake should look even better than this sample one. If I had more experience, I might have offered to do the wedding cake as well. However, I need a LOT more practice before I venture into the realm of flawless and precise wedding cakes.

Black Labrador Birthday Cake

Wrapping up the end of September bring a fun dog-themed birthday cake. Considering how much I love dogs, I was thrilled by the chance to do a cake based on their pet labrador. We are still working out the details of this cake, but it should look something like the sketch. Someday soon I'll make a cake inspired by our adorable greyhound, Lina. I think that will have to be sometime after this busy cake season though.

Snickerdoodles, Macaroons and Other Silly Words

I've had a little cake break recently, which gave me some free time to bake a few non-cake treats. During this time I turned to my personal favorite dessert — cookies. I decided to bake my first-ever batch of snickerdoodles and coconut macaroons and both turned out quite delicious. Maybe a little too delicious. I need to be sure to schedule in some extra treadmill time to undo the cookie snacking. Oh little tasty cookies, you are my dream and my curse...but I love you so!

For the longest time, I didn't even know what a snickerdoodle was and imagined a Snickers candy bar stuffed into cookie dough or something similarly disgusting. In reality, snickerdoodles are fairly simple and not too sweet — basically a sugar cookie rolled in cinnamon and sugar. However, this recipe was slightly different than a traditional snickerdoodle because it was cakey and had a slight saltiness that blended beautifully with the cookie and balanced out the sweetness. I've always been a fan of the salty/sweet combo (sea salt caramels, chocolate-covered pretzels, etc.), but I'm not sure if others enjoy that sensation in their cookies as much as I do. So if you are a fan of the salty/sweet combo, then I recommend using course salt instead of finer-grained table salt in your cookie recipe. When I want a cookie, I don't normally think of the plain and simple snickerdoodle. However, after tasting this batch, they just might be my first choice.

Coconut Macaroons
I don't often think about coconut, but I always enjoy its unique taste and texture when I happen upon a coconut dessert. I decided to whip up a little batch of coconut macaroons since they seem like such a perfect summer dessert with its tropical vibe. They are surprisingly easy to make, require hardly any ingredients and have kind of a festive feel. You can serve them plain or garnished with chocolate, nuts or both.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Bite My Shiny Metal Face

I recently got a request to make a birthday cake with some sort of Futurama theme. I'm a fan of the show so I was super excited to make this cake. I decided to make a chocolate cake version of Bender's head (the favorite character of the birthday girl). I did this by stacking four 6-inch chocolate cakes plus one mini-layer to create the rounded dome shape on top of the head (all of which are secured by a dowel for stability). Between each cake layer is a layer of vanilla buttercream and the entire head is covered with buttercream as well.

The face and antennae were made from fondant to help give it a sort of three-dimensional feel. I really love this cake and had a blast making it. Unfortunately, the eyes started to crack down the center of the black part when I put them onto the cake. The eyes are kind of heavy, so I carved a little shelf in the cake layer to help support the weight. Pushing the eyes back into the shelf is what caused it to crack. However, the buttercream helped prevent it from cracking any further and is also holding the crack closed. The crack is still visible, but not too bad. I'll have to use extra caution next time.

Surprisingly, it actually wasn't very hard to make this cake compared to some of the other, more detailed cakes I've made. I'll have to make another one sometime or perhaps some other fun Futurama theme. I'm envisioning Nibbler nibbling on a cupcake. time.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Cupcake a Day Keeps the Dentist Away?

My dentist requested an order of cupcakes for her daughter's birthday. She's only turning two (her daughter, not my dentist) so she wanted a simple mix of chocolate and white funfetti buttercream cupcakes with sprinkles. Done and done! It's a little odd pushing sugar to your dentist, but if the party attendees get cavities then she gets new clients, right? I believe that is called a symbiotic relationship. Just kidding! Being a dentist, I'm sure she'll be handing out toothbrush goody bags or something. Gotta keep up the smiles of the future!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Red (Velvet), White & Blue

What better way to celebrate Independence Day than with a patriotic batch of red velvet cupcakes topped with cream cheese icing and festive sprinkles? This was my first  red velvet cake and I was very happy with the flavor and the lovely color.

That being said, I never realized just how much food coloring goes into red velvet cake. Something about that kind of grosses me out despite the fact that it was delicious and a gorgeous color. Plus, that requires two bottles of red food coloring and I don't typically see food coloring sold in individual bottles.

It's surprisingly difficult to find a recipe with a more natural means of providing the red color. Some people use beet juice as an alternative, but I've never tasted a cake using this method so I didn't want to test it at a Fourth of July party. Plus, I don't like beets and wouldn't know what to do with a whole can of them after using just two ounces of juice. Perhaps if I puree two ounces of strawberries or cherries, but I wonder if that would alter the flavor too much. If anyone knows of a better alternative, please share your wisdom with me.

Anyhow, the cupcakes were fun and delicious (even with the food coloring) and were a great way to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Buttercream Trampoline

I had the honor of making my niece's third birthday cake last week. The theme was trampoline because the party was being held at Powersports Gymnastics in College Station and our niece loves to bounce and somersault.

The cake was two-tiers with the top tier made of strawberry funfetti cake and the bottom tier made of white funfetti. Both tiers were filled with strawberries and buttercream and the whole thing was iced in vanilla buttercream. The flowers and butterflies surrounding the cake were made of fondant and gave the cake a very girly and colorful look. The trampoline was made with piped buttercream and a fruit roll-up on the top (can't see that in the photo though) to give it a springy look like a real trampoline. The bouncing birthday girl on the top was made of rice krispy treats and covered in fondant. My niece and her parents loved the cake as did the rest of the birthday party crowd. Hooray! There's nothing like helping to make a birthday party just a little bit sweeter.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Wonder Pets on a Buttercream Adventure

This weekend I completed a fun and very colorful Wonder Pets birthday cake for a friend's daughter. When she asked me to make the cake with this theme, I can honestly say that I was beyond excited. If you've never seen the Wonder Pets children's show then you are missing out on the cutest television show ever. Basically, it follows the adventures of a duck, guinea pig and turtle as they travel in their little red flyboat and solve problems using teamwork. Like I said — adorable beyond words.

The birthday cake was a two-tiered funfetti white cake filled and iced with vanilla buttercream. The boat and the Wonder Pets trio were made of fondant-covered rice krispy treats. It took a while to create the little critters but I'm really happy with the end result. This was my first stacked cake so I was a little nervous about stacking it correctly and having enough weight support. Once I inserted the cake dowels and stacked everything without any problems, I finally relaxed and could easily transport my very stable stacked cake. Phew!

So what was the best part of making this cake? Probably when the birthday girl gave me a big thank you hug for making the cake that she had been anticipating for days. Moments like that are why I love making cakes!

Next weekend I will have a trampoline-themed cake for my niece's third birthday. I can't wait!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Perfect Blend of Perfect Balance

As I continue along on my career journey, I find that I've struck a moment of perfect balance. Although I don't currently have a full- or part-time job just yet, I've been quite busy with freelance work in both graphic and cake design. Considering that my graphic design career had been a bit of a rocky road filled with downsizing and dead-ends that left me burned out and jaded, it's nice to finally be at peace with my career. I'm very happy balancing both the freelance graphic design and cake decorating, plus having some (temporary) time to take care of all the little things I felt I never had the time or energy to do.

I'm now looking for a full-time job in graphic design with the intention of doing cakes as a freelance gig for family, friends and word-of-mouth cake requests. You may be wondering why I've seemingly gone full circle back to graphic design after going to culinary school. Well, I don't consider it a circle because it feels more like moving forward. I needed time away from office life to recover from that rocky career journey and I needed to challenge myself so that I could grow. At the beginning of this career shake-up, I'd felt stagnant, bored, frustrated and even a tad cynical. In other words, nothing like my old self who had been cheerful, optimistic and overachieving. A change was absolutely necessary.

I had always thought cake decorating would be a fun and a great creative outlet, so that's what I decided to pursue and I'm glad that I did. I'm not known for spending time in the kitchen, so going to culinary school allowed me to take a risk and truly challenge myself. I learned a lot and I gained confidence by discovering that I was capable of not only cake design, but of starting over and re-inspiring myself. So now I not only have a back-up career, but I also got my fire, joy and enthusiasm back. Now I can share that passion by making cakes that bring joy to others and maybe somewhere down the line I could teach people to develop cake decorating skills as well. For now though, I think I'd like to give my graphic design career another shot while still doing freelance cake decorating on the side. Don't worry, I still intend to keep my readers up-to-date on my my cake endeavors.

I'm enjoying this moment of peace and tranquility, and I know that once I find my next graphic design job that I'll be ready to take on the world with a smile and renewed enthusiasm. I might even bring my new co-workers a cake on my first day. The perfect blend of perfect balance.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Arrrrr You Ready For Ye Pirate Cake?

The Pirates of the Caribbean skull logo cake for my dad is now complete. I'm pretty happy with the end result except I made the skull a little too big and ran out of room for the flaming torches to go on top. That's okay though, I just used the flame-colored icing to pipe the borders around the cake to give it the feel of a flame effect. I love the color combination on this cake and the whole thing kind of has an unintended biker tattoo vibe to it. Pretty cool. I wanted to buy some chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil to put around the sides, but I'm not sure I'll have time to do that before I give the cake to my dad this afternoon. Either way, I know this Father's Day cake will make my dad one happy pirate!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Luke, I Am Your Froster

I've been trying out cake recipes and working on my piping skills lately. Many of my practice cakes will be going to my husband's techy coworkers, many of which have interests in things like sci-fi, gaming and other geek-friendly endeavors. Considering this fact, I decided to decorate my cake with a theme that would please such an audience, hence, the Star Wars Stormtrooper.

I found the design on a t-shirt and thought it would translate to cake perfectly. I baked a white cake with confetti sprinkles and covered it with vanilla buttercream. I had set aside some of the buttercream to dye black for piping the details and borders. I then lightly sketched the Stormtrooper face onto the cake using a toothpick to create a guideline before I start piping. Unlike pencil sketching, you kind of only get one shot when piping directly on a cake. I'm fairly happy with the end result, but I know the facial proportions aren't quite right and the mouth is slightly uneven. It is MUCH easier to replicate images with pencil than with frosting, but I'll get better at it. That's why I'm doing practice cakes after all!

Next up...a father's day cake for this weekend that will probably be the Pirates of the Caribbean skull logo. I found this cake online (see photo) that pulled it off beautifully, so I'm going to use that as my model and inspiration. I'm going to make the same chocolate/buttercream/ganache cake that I made recently for the practice groom's cake/cupcakes. My dad likes chocolate (well, really anything sweet) and I think he'll really like the design since he loves the pirate movies. The decorating technique is similar to the Stormtrooper's with some slight differences, so it shouldn't be too difficult to do. I hope it comes out like the cake picture, but I know my dad will love it no matter what it looks like. That's why he's a great dad...Happy Father's Day!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Build Me Up, Buttercup!

Now that I have that song stuck in your head, I'm pleased to introduce you to my new Kitchenaid Artisan Standing Mixer (in the sunny shade of buttercup yellow)! This will make it so much easier to whip up billions of batches of batter and buttercream for baking. How do you like that alliteration? I've been using a hand mixer, but it just doesn't have the torque to handle thicker mixes so I end up having to manually mix thicker batters. Not fun. I think this will make life a whole lot easier.

I'm planning to try out a recipe for margarita cake and a confetti cake in the next few weeks. Now I'm really excited to make them because I'll get to team up with Buttercup (yes, that's what I'm naming her because the name just makes me smile). I'll be trying to make at least one cake or cupcake batch a week to practice decorating and to narrow down my favorite recipes. Sugar-coated research and experimentation, if you will.

If you think I'm actually eating all of these tasty creations, you are mistaken. I sample a little bit to make sure everything tastes okay, but mostly I pass them on to friends while I go hit the treadmill.  Ironically, I'm not much of a cake person so I'm not that tempted by the things I've been baking. Cookies, on the other hand, are my weakness so you won't see me baking too many of those. I try to keep out of trouble so I can keep fitting in my jeans — a challenging feat while exploring the world of cake decorating, but I will prevail!

Oh My Ganache...I'm doing a Groom's Cake!

My friend (and my old coworker from the Leader newspaper) Lauri will be tying the knot this fall and she's asked me to make the groom's cake. I'm flattered and more than a little excited! I decided to make her a mini-version of the cake for her and her fiance to sample to ensure that is exactly what they want. I used the leftover batter to make cupcake versions for my other ex-coworkers to enjoy.

The groom's cake will be a not-too-sweet (as requested) chocolate cake filled with vanilla buttercream and coated in ganache. On top of the cake will be a fondant circle with a hand-painted tiger to represent the Year of the Tiger, which is her fiance's astrological sign according to the Chinese zodiac. For the cupcakes, I just painted a variety of fun and wacky images just for kicks.

The final result tasted a bit like hostess cupcake (the one with the swirlies on top) but less sweet a tad more sophisticated. Delicious! Most importantly, it was a hit with both the future bride and groom. The ganache was smooth and chocolatey, but not too sweet. I'm personally not a fan of buttercream, but the recipe I used was fantastic and I actually enjoyed it. It had a light, almost whipped texture and it wasn't overly buttery. I hate when it feels like I'm just eating a stick of butter — blech!

I really liked this flavor combination —I'm definitely holding on to this recipe for future use.

Wilton Class Complete!

As of yesterday, I completed the first course of the Wilton Cake Decorating class and got my certificate! Since my last post, I've made two other cakes for the class. One was supposed to be a creepy little clown, but we were given freedom to do something else using techniques we learned in class. I opted to do make a bunny using a demonstrated technique for making faces out of buttercream. I also practiced piping shell borders and hearts on that cake as well. You'll have to excuse the crazy colors that I used. I kept reusing the colors that I made for the rainbow cake (or altering them slightly) because I didn't want to keep buying more buttercream ingredients for just a practice cake.

Our final class taught us how to make buttercream roses. They are a little tricky to work with, but its worth it for the end result. We also learned how to pipe leaves, vines and bows too. I love how the leaves turned out because the piping tip we use automatically creates the center vein of the leaf stem. Pretty cool! The roses got a little smooshed when I picked them up though because they didn't have time to harden before the end of class, but they're mostly intact.

I don't think I'm going to sign up for the other two Wilton courses now that I've completed the first one. I'm glad I took this class because it introduced me to the basic Wilton piping techniques and allowed me to practice with some instructor guidance. However, now that I understand the basics I think I can figure out how to pipe the items for their other classes by purchasing the Wilton "Decorating Cakes" book (only $12.99 and I also had a 40% off coupon). This book is kind of a compilation of most of their techniques for piping a large variety of flowers and borders, as well as how to make fondant/gumpaste decorative pieces too. Between the book, the first Wilton course information and my culinary school knowledge, it should be, well, a piece of cake.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Where There's a Wilton, There's a Way

As I continue on my job hunt, I decided to sign up for the beginner Wilton cake decorating course at Hobby Lobby in order to develop my cake decorating skills even further. Our first homework assignment was to bake any kind of cake and ice it (they showed us how) using the Wilton butercream recipe in our handbook. We also had to put some of that buttercream in five small containers, bring it to medium consistency and use colored gel paste to create five different colors for our class assignment.

In class, we learned about piping techniques and how to decorate our cake with a rainbow pattern by using a transfer technique to move the image from a pattern in our book and onto the cake. We then used a piping bag with a star tip to fill in the colors with the Wilton's buttercream that we brought from home. It takes a little time to change out your piping bag and it does get a bit messy, but it's pretty easy. Unfortunately, we didn't start piping until the last 20 minutes of class, so I kind of had to rush it and didn't have time to use all of my colors. That's okay though, I intend to create my own more elaborate design to practice these techniques on a future cake in my own time. Rainbows are nice and all, but they make me feel like I should be plastering unicorns and sparkles all over my cake.

Our next Wilton class (the third of four classes) will cover making buttercream roses and other flowers, so I'm pretty excited about that. We'll also learn how to make creepy little clowns (see photo), something I'm less than thrilled about. Our instructor said that a lot of people don't like making the clowns, but it's part of the standard curriculum. She did say that instead of putting the clown on the iced cake that we have to bring in, we can make a practice clown on the table and then scrape it off. I'm opting for that one because their buttercream bodies are a bit disturbing to me. Besides, I don't want to eat a clown — I heard that they taste funny (sorry, couldn't resist making that joke).

I've also been experimenting with cake flavors in my spare time. I recently made a batch of lemon-rosemary cupcakes with lemon zest/cream cheese icing. I really like this recipe because it isn't too sweet and like the unexpected hint of rosemary. The cake is more dense than fluffy (less like cake, more like cornbread consistency), but I think it worked great in cupcake form. It might be a bit too dense for some in cake form. I found the recipe in a magazine, but a friend of mine found it online if you would like to make a batch ( I added an extra tablespoon of lemon juice and a little extra rosemary to the cake. I also added extra lemon zest to both the cake and the icing since I had some leftover and, in my opinion, you can't add too much lemony goodness.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Two Rights Can Make a Wrong

They say that two wrongs don't make a right. Well, conversely, two rights can make a wrong. Which is why I am no longer working at Coco Paloma Desserts. We both came to the conclusion that she needed an assistant with much more experience than a recent culinary school graduate. A great bakery and an eager worker may sound like a great fit, but you can't always assume it's a perfect match. You might love the taste of lemons and chocolate individually, but that doesn't mean you'll enjoy chocolate-dipped lemons.

It's odd to feel good about losing a job, but I think it was the best outcome for the both of us. I gave it my best effort (I even practiced at home), but we both understood that a few weeks of practice won't gain me years of experience. Since it would pretty much be just the two of us working on cakes, I felt pressured to achieve perfection immediately but that isn't a realistic expectation for a beginner.

I have no regrets about my short time at Coco Paloma Desserts. It was good to experience another person's techniques and work flow, plus I got a bit of training and practice in as well. I also learned that the saying "quitters never win" isn't always true. I think that in this situation parting ways will be a win for the both of us. She can find a more experienced assistant who can jump right in and help ease her workload and I can find a bakery that has time to allow me to develop my skills as a cake decorator.

So now I'm ready for the next step in my cake adventure...what will it be?!?  As always, I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Starting Out is No Piece of Cake

Phew! I survived my first week of work...barely.

My first week at Coco Paloma Desserts has been intense and a little rough. The first week of any job is always a little challenging because it takes a little time to learn the routine and adapt to a new environment. Well, it's ten times harder to do when it's your first job in a career you've only been immersed in for maybe nine months. Take that situation and add in the pressure of working in a small bakery where you are expected to take off running because it's just you and the owner. Add those together and you have a recipe for some serious stress.

It was even harder because it was an unusually stressful week for Paloma as well. She had a very busy week with some challenging orders and had to train me too, so it wasn't exactly a picnic for either of us. I felt terrible that I wasn't much help since I didn't know the routine, where anything was and was slow in a rushed environment. I hate feeling helpless and useless, but in such a harried week I just didn't have time to absorb and process the onslaught of information coming at me.

Next week is supposed to be a little slower, so hopefully things will get a little easier and more pleasant. This was definitely the hardest first week I've ever had and next month is supposed to be crazy busy. I'm hoping I can get really good at all of this before then, but all I can do is my best. No pressure!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Yummy Cum Laude

I am officially a culinary school graduate (see goofy-looking photo above)! Graduation day went smoothly and the buffet we created turned out fantastic.  For the buffet, I made chocolate financiers and lemon wafer cookies — two of my favorites from class. Chocolate financiers are a bit like a lightly sweetened brownie made with almond flour (gives it a nutty flavor), sprinkled with cocoa nibs (adds a slight bitter chocolate taste) and drizzled with chocolate. Lemon wafer cookies have a lot of lemon zest in them so they have a fantastic strong lemon flavor (but not sour) and then covered with a sweet splash of citrus glaze.

So what am I going to do now that I've graduated? Well, I've managed to get a job as an assistant at Coco Paloma Desserts. Coco Paloma makes some amazing and beautiful cakes, so I am excited to be a part of such creations. I start on Wednesday, April 14 and I'm both excited and a little nervous. It's a little daunting starting a new career, but I will jump into it with eagerness and ambition — a surefire formula for success.

Friday, April 2, 2010

It is Good to Love the Unknown

With just four days left until culinary school graduation, I am filled with excitement and just a hint of trepidation. I don't yet know what the future holds for me, but I am giddy with anticipation to discover my new path. I hope my first job in my new career is a good, strong stepping stone filled with great experiences and good people. There is a quote that says "It is good to love the unknown" and I must say that I agree. Some people fear uncertainty, and yes, it can be a little scary. However, you should try to view the unknown not as an obstacle, but as part of life's adventure and full of possibility.

This week, our class has begun to focus on planning for the future. We've prepped our resumes, discussed goals and job hunting, held mock interviews and learned a little about the business of entrepreneurship. I've been applying for jobs, sending out resumes and even scheduled a few interviews. I am eager to jump into my new career, so I'm hoping the job hunting process won't last too long.

I still can't believe that I'm already at this point. This time last year, I was sitting at a desk designing yet another edition of the newspaper and feeling a bit uninspired. Now I'm about to graduate from culinary school, I get excited about cakes design ideas and have grown extremely fond of working with fondant. Life is funny sometimes, but I'm always up for a good laugh.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Cats, Cotton and Cakes Galore!

I've been pretty busy helping out at Blue Note lately. I'm truly flattered that they trust my design skills to allow me to decorate cakes and create wedding toppers. You feel a little pressured to get it just right and not look like a culinary student made it since people are paying for it and featuring the cake at their wedding, birthday or shower. I'm learning a lot by helping out though and it's great practice to hone my skills to a more effortless flow. Here's what I've made lately:

Kitty Cake Topper
A couple requested a five-tiered wedding cake, plain white and nothing else on it but a simple beaded border and their two cats sitting on top. They even provided photos of their adorable kitties, a striped yellow tabby and a black tortoiseshell. Cute! It was fun creating the kitties out of gumpaste, but knowing that they were the main visual on the cake added some pressure. I love animals though and they have always been my main subject in my art, so I knew exactly how to pull it off. I even made sure to capture the unique patterns and patches that give the kitties their unique identity.  I'm really happy with the finished kitties and I hope it met the couple's expectations for their special day.

Cotton-Pickin' Cake
Someone ordered a birthday cake for their papaw who is a cotton farmer, so they requested the cake resemble a cotton farm with a tractor and a cowboy hat and boots. The bakery already baked and iced the cake, so they gave me a bit of guidance for decorating and then let me at it. I'm always astounded that they let me do so much on the cakes, but they always seem pretty happy with the result so I must be doing something right. All those years of art classes and doodling can pay off! I really like working with fondant and gumpaste, now I'm starting to really like modeling chocolate too (the boots).

Airplane Cupcakes Take Flight
An order for a baby shower led to these adorable airplane cupcakes. I used fondant and a little bit of innovation to create the little airplane pieces. I love the challenge of trying to come up with efficient and effective ways to create cake decorations. It would take too long to hand-cut 18 identical fondant airplanes, so you have to come up with short-cut techniques to get the job done. I had a moment of inspiration when looking amongst the collection of cookie-cutters for something to make propellers. I spotted a butterfly cutter and noticed that the top half of the wings were long, thin and even tapered in the center — just like a propeller. It worked beautifully and I even used the bottom half of the butterfly wings for tail fins. It may seem a little weird, but things like that excite me the way solving crossword puzzles excites people. Eureka moments are exciting no matter what problem you're solving...including cake!

A Shot at a Twist of Lime
Lastly, I helped out with this tequila-themed birthday cake. I didn't design the bottle, but I did paint the table, salt shaker and limes. I'm all about the little details, so I had a blast painting the table's wood texture and giving the limes segments and pulp.

Yep, I've definitely chosen a fun career. Designing on a computer is fun, but it's not quite as thrilling as taking a lump of white fondant and turning it into a cat, tractor or limes that will help make someone's special day that much more special.

Shake Your Tailfeathers...the Peacock is Done!

On Thursday, I finally completed my last practical exam for culinary school. The assignment was to design either a wedding cake or a celebration cake in the design of our choice (chef suggested we do a simple design, but I like a challenge), no larger than 12 inches for the cake and no more than two-tiers. We had to provide a sketch of the cake and cost out how much it would cost to make the cake and how much you would charge your client. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun and I'm happy with the final result considering I have never made a wedding cake before.

Not an Easy Feat
During class, we had to present our cake one-on-one with the chef in a separate room for review. Apparently, he judged everyone a bit harshly and was sparse with the compliments. Sure the cakes might look a little rough, but for many of us this was either our first (or one of just a few) cakes to decorate or our first time using gumpaste/fondant. I'm all for critique (that's how you learn and grow your skills), but it helps to balance out criticism with a little positive commentary as well — especially for the fragile confidence of the inexperienced.

My Critique
Based on that, I have absolutely no idea what my grade on this will be. In my critique, it was pointed out that the peacock should have been realistic looking and I should have hand-painted the feathers since I have painting skills. I never intended it to look realistic, I wanted an artistic interpretation of the peacock pattern and colors just as my sketch illustrated. This conflicted with the chef's comment that the final cake isn't exactly like my sketch because the teardrops around the cake aren't pointed in the right direction and the wings are slightly different. So first he says that it isn't exactly like my sketch, then he says that I should have painted realistic feathers (which was not in the sketch). So confusing!

He also pointed out that the royal icing that I used to "glue" the feathers could be seen seeping out of the sides. I agree with that one, it is a little bit messy. However, I've never worked with gumpaste before and the feathers were extremely fragile and kept breaking. So once I finally got them on the cake intact, I didn't dare touch them again. He also commented that the bead piped around the cake are messy. I agree with that as well, but that is partially because the icing that some of us were using wasn't very good and tended to either clump up or  drip messily when piped. We were all out of buttercream at that point and too close to deadline to bother making more so we just used what we had.

Overall, I'm very happy with the final result. It was very close to what I envisioned and I managed to pull off a complex design independently. Not too shabby for being the third cake I've ever designed. Despite the harsh criticism, I did manage to get a reluctant compliment out of the chef, "I guess it looks good....I guess." Considering the situation, I'll take that as praise and as a small victory.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fondant is Ruffling My Feathers

School is quickly coming to an end and the final projects are beginning to pile up. We only have 11 class days left, but in that time we still have a written exam, a wedding cake, the final buffet as well as regular class activities. Life has been a tad hectic lately, but I'm really enjoying designing the wedding cake!

I've been fixated on the idea of a peacock wedding cake for some time now and am giddy to finally start bringing that idea to life. We were encouraged to keep the cakes under 12 inches, so that definitely makes things easier. I decided on a two-tier cake (10- and 6-inch) covered in fondant and topped with a peacock and draped in fondant or gumpaste feathers. As per the assignment, I sketched my cake and priced out the cost of the cake based on ingredients. I tend to be a bit mathematically-challenged, so it took some time figuring out what 12 oz. of flour costs if you buy it at about $20 for 50 pounds. Once I dusted off the math part of my brain though, it all started to make sense and calculate quicker.

I started by working on the peacock's body. I first sculpted the shape using rice crispy treats because they are easy to mold, lightweight and strong enough to hold the form and support the bird's vertical neck. Plus it's easy to make and you get a tasty reward with the leftovers! Then I had to drape a first layer of  fondant (adhering it with a light smeary coat of frosting) over the rice crispy body to hide the bumps of the cereal. Once that was set, then I draped the final fondant layer and smoothed it out. It worked beautifully!

Next I carved out the wings in fondant using an x-acto knife and adhering it to the body with vodka (the alcohol evaporates and leaves no flavor or color). Then I used a leaf-shaped cookie cutter to create tail feathers out of gumpaste (really fondant with tylose powder added to make it harden stiff) in various colors. However, I've now run into issues of the feathers cracking or not staying glued together in a fan shape. It looks complete in the photo, but if I try to pick it up then things either break or become unattached. I've made more gumpaste feathers —this time even thinner — and will make a second tail to see if it will work better. I'll keep you posted, but I like the bird so far!

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