Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bad Cakes and Better Cakes (but still not Good)

Bad Cake

On March 17 I had my third of four cake classes, decorating the second of three cakes we would do in the course. In this class we learned shells and dots, which could be used for decorative touches and borders, as well as to pipe figures like the clown bodies shown above (the heads are little plastic pieces on stems that you stick into the icing). I was having a very "off" night and things did not go quite as well as I felt they had with my first cake-decorating attempt. There were probably a number of factors involved but one of them was definitely the fact that I was not looking forward to doing that week's clown cake. I think clowns are creepy! But I tried to make it fun and used white, green, and orange icing in honor of St. Patty's Day.

For some reason I was having a really tough time doing the shell decoration, which is embarrassing because that is supposed to be a pretty easy one! But they just weren't coming out right. When I went to pipe the shell border on the cake I tried using a color-striping technique, where you paint strips of the dye on the inside of your pastry bag so it makes stripes when you squeeze the icing through it. I used green stripes and white icing. But I was doing so poorly on the border that my teacher actually made me stop (more than once!) and practice on our practice boards before going back to the cake. But in doing so I ended up with noticeable differences in the placement of the color stripes and in the strength of the color on the cake. Towards the end, when I got to the bottom border there is almost no stripe at all! FAIL.

The second FAIL is those awful green dots on the top of the cake. The sample clown cake they showed in the book had dots on the side of the cake, but something was weird with the tackiness/consistency of my icing that night and when I tried to do dots on the side of the cake they were actually falling off!!! So I just sprinkled a bunch of them all over the top of the cake to fill up the empty space around the clowns. Ugh, it's so ugly it seriously belongs on Cake Wrecks. You know what though? Cake is cake, and when I set it out at work the next morning it was gone by lunchtime!

One bright moment in the class happened when I was trying to add hands and feet to the clowns. The icing kind of sputtered out in a weird way on one of the hands, and it looks like the clown is giving a thumbs up!! I couldn't have done that again if I had tried! Everyone got a good laugh out of it.

Better Cake
On March 24 we decorated our "graduation" cake. This class was devoted to learning how to make roses. I thought it would be difficult because of the intricacy involved, but I never considered that I would have trouble due to hand cramps! Seriously, my hand got so tired from squeezing that pastry bag. I had a bunch of trouble with these at first. The icing was cracking, falling off, etc. I couldn't make anything resembling anything close to a flower! But towards the end of class I was able to at least put something together that had multiple petals, despite the fact that they were cracked, stumpy petals. And I was proud of myself for persevering. A lot of women in the class (yes, it was all women) were frustrated as well but one of them went so far as to give up completely.

The cake was decorated with an arrangement of roses on top, and I did dots again which were a little better this week. I will say that doing the leaves on the roses was really easy!

All in all, I did enjoy taking this class, despite my frustrations. I don't think I'll be selling cakes, which some students come out of that class wanting to do, but I think that with a little practice I could get better at this. I am looking forward to making my next cake that is NOT for class and decorating it however I like. I would also like to experiment with using different types of icing as well, because I didn't really like the icing recipe that was used for class.

I learned a lot and now own some supplies that I can use again and again. One conclusion I came to after trying a different brand of cake mix each week is that I felt the Duncan Hines mix made the best cake. I thought Pillsbury was the worst because it was really crumbly. The Betty Crocker mix was somewhere in the middle.

There are three more levels of cake decorating courses offered at the craft store, and I may choose to take another one in the future. For right now though I'm a little "caked out."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cake Class

A few weeks ago I decided to enroll in a cake decorating course. I have always enjoyed baking and this was something I had thought would be fun to do for a long time.

It's a 4-week course being offered at a local craft store. Each class lasts two hours. During the first week's class we didn't actually do any decorating but just learned about how to make the icing, how to make it in different consistencies that would be useful for different types of decorations, how to level a cake, and we got some guidance on what supplies to buy for class.

For the second class, we had to bring an 8-inch cake that had been iced with a base coat. In class we would practice techniques for a few types of decorations, and then we would decorate the cake.

In the first class we learned a few tips for baking and prepping the cake that, as one girl in the class said, were "worth the price of admission alone." One tip was for greasing the pans: rather than spraying the pan with Pam, or messing with greasing and flouring the pan, we learned to make a "cake release": mix well equal parts of shortening, vegetable oil, and all-purpose flour and then brush this mixture all over the pan with a pastry brush. It worked really well and my cake came out of the pan with nothing sticking to it.

Another tip we learned was to ice the cake with a "crumb coat" first. This is a really thin layer of icing that traps in it any crumbs on the outside of the cake. You let it set up for about half an hour, and then when you put on the 'real' coat of icing you get a smoother finish. Here is a picture of my cake with the crumb coat on it:

Now here's what I felt was the most useful tip I learned. After you put on the final coat of icing, here's how you can get a really smooth finish: wait about half an hour for the icing to set, and then place a piece of parchment paper on top of it. Rub your spatula on top of the paper to smooth out the icing. Here's a shot from before and after I did that:

So once my cake was ready to go, I had to pack up all the supplies that were needed for the 2nd-week class. And it was a LOT of stuff. That is one minor complaint I had about this course. The course itself is not expensive, but you have to buy a lot of supplies. Here's a picture of everything loaded up and ready to go to class:

In class we practiced making stars, curved lines, zigzag, dots, outlining, and writing. Then we used some of those techniques to decorate our cake. The sample cake in the book had a big ugly rainbow on it, but I decided to make a hot air balloon instead. Class was actually slightly stressful because we didn't have much time to finish everything, but I finished it when I got home.

There were a few mishaps as I was decorating... I kept accidentally putting my fingers in the sides of the cake. Exhibit A:

So when it was time to try the cake I just cut out a piece that had my giant thumb gouge in it.

It was pretty good! I'm looking forward to doing the cake for week three, although it involves creepy clowns... stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


My work is kind enough to allow employees to telecommute one day a week. Once nice perk of telecommuting is that I can whip up something in the kitchen for a meal or snack if I choose to. I took the above picture while I was on a conference call, with my work and a big orange smoothie in front of me. (That big Samuel Adams glass stein is the perfect size for a smoothie!)

One thing you may or may not know about me is that I LOVE DRINKS. I am pretty much drinking all day long. I'm the girl at the continental breakfast who has a coffee AND a water AND a juice. (However there are two drinks that come to mind that I don't particularly like... milk or tea.)

I've recently taken a liking to smoothies. I got a number of smoothie books from the library and I've been trying a few recipes. I've never been a big fruit eater, but I will drink fruit that's been blended into a drink. Take the one in the picture above... it has bananas in it. My mom will be shocked to know I actually bought bananas at the grocery store... I haven't eaten one of those since I've been old enough to feed myself! It also has mango in it. Trader Joe's has bags of frozen mango cubes that are perfect to use in smoothies.

The downside of smoothies is that the ones that taste the best often have sugary extras added, which probably cancel out the benefits of the fruit. This one had orange sherbet in it. But I could make it without adding the sherbet, or I could try it with some low-fat vanilla yogurt instead. I think I'll continue to experiment until I find something that is healthy but tasty without having too many calories (I'll have to cut back on the amount of ingredients used to achieve that last part. I certainly don't need a stein-full of smoothie every time.).

Here's the recipe for the smoothie I made today. I adapted it from a similar recipe in the book "Jamba Juice Power" by Kirk Perron. What I do is use frozen, chopped fruit, either like the frozen mango cubes I bought at Trader Joe's, or fruit I have purchased fresh and then chopped and frozen (like the banana). When I use frozen fruit I don't need to add ice.

1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup bananas
1 cup mangos
1 cup orange sherbet

Put everything into a blender and then blend until smooth!

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Breakfast casseroles usually aren't the prettiest looking dishes, but they definitely are tasty!

But first, an update on how the home improvements are coming along. As I mentioned previously, Jason and I are replacing our carpet with wood laminate... ourselves. It's been a learning experience at every step of the way. We decided to start with our old guest room/new office since it's a low traffic area and it could be our "practice room." We were able to finish putting down the floor in about a day and a half. There were a few kinks along the way but we learned (often through trial and error) some valuable tips that will help us complete the other rooms more easily.

Where we really ran into trouble was with the baseboards. Jason measured and cut all the molding, and was going to nail them in by hand, but this proved to be really a pain in the butt because the boards were shifting as he was nailing and didn't line up properly in the end. So after only doing two small boards in a corner he decided we were going to have to use a nail gun instead. We considered renting tools from our local Home Depot or Lowes, but decided to buy instead so we wouldn't have to worry about renting multiple times as we finished the floor in each room (or have to wait to put the baseboards up until we were done with all rooms so we could rent only once and do them all at once).

After doing a lot of research I thought we would end up having to get a pneumatic finish nailer and a compressor. I bounced the idea off of a college friend who is a big DIYer, and he said we could probably get away with using an electric nailer which would be much cheaper. I am a big advocate of reading reviews before purchasing anything, so I looked for an electric nailer that got good reviews. This was very difficult to find. Most people complained that the electrics didn't have the same oomph behind them that a pneumatic gun had, and often couldn't sink the nails in all the way. I finally found one that had decent reviews and purchased it. Our concern was that the biggest size nails it could hold were 1 3/16 inches (it was a brad nailer), but the packaging said it was good for trim, molding, baseboards, etc., so I figured it would be okay. When Jason started to use it though he realized that it wasn't... he was having problems with boards pulling away from the wall after they had been nailed in. (I should also mention that we lost over a week's worth of work time on this while I tried to find that biggest sized brad nail in a local store... it was like a wild goose chase.) So we decided to suck it up and buy a compressor and finish nailer when we saw a set on sale in today's Sears ad.

So here we are, hopefully with the proper tools so that we are ready to get these baseboards up there for good, and then we can move furniture in and pronounce that room DONE. And then move on to one of the other four rooms we still have to do. We did get started on some prep work for the next room last night (Saturday). We pulled up all the carpet and padding in the living room and removed all the nails/staples that were sticking out of the floor. We worked hard (there was a lot of furniture to move out of the way, and then a LOT of staples stuck in the subfloor) and ended up working on this until almost 2 in the morning.

Consequently, I didn't get out of bed until close to 11 this morning!! When I woke up I decided that brunch was in order, and fortunately I had everything I needed to make this casserole. This was a recipe I had torn out of a Kraft "Food & Family" magazine. It's very similar to other breakfast casseroles I have made in the past, but unlike other recipes it doesn't require being refrigerated overnight. It's quick and easy. I would definitely make this again. (One tip though... it took longer than 25 minutes for the center to set up. I probably had to bake it for about 35 minutes.)

Breakfast Bake
1 can (8 oz) refrigerated crescent dinner rolls
1 package cubed ham
6 eggs
1/2 cup cold milk
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Unroll dough in 13 x 9 inch baking dish; press to cover bottom of dish, firmly pressing holes and seams together to seal.

Sprinkle ham over crust. Beat eggs, milk, and pepper with whisk until blended; pour over ham. Top with cheese.

Bake 25 minutes or until center is set.