Sunday, January 30, 2011

Wilton Decorating Basics - Lesson #3

Lesson #3 focused on flowers

Here's what we did in Lesson 3:
  • Made pompom flowers (first image) using the #12, 16, and 18 tips
  • Made shaggy mum flowers (second image) using the #233 tip
  • Made roses using the #12 and 104 tips

The good news this week is that my homemade frosting was much more successful.  Lesson learned, don't use old shortening :)  Unfortunately, my frosting was a bit too thin (especially after it got warmed over the course of the class) to make the flowers as dimensional as they should be.  The petals of most fell flat.  We learned the ribbon rose (taught in the lesson plan) and the rose they used to teach in the course that the instructor liked (pictured).  Both are difficult and require quick hands and dexterity.  I'll need to do a lot of practicing this week.

Next week is the last class of Decorating Basics -- time to decorate a cake for our final project!

Check out my post about Lesson #2.

Check out my post about Lesson #1.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

2011.01.27 - Roast Vegetable "Cake", Salad, Dessert Leftovers

I felt like making something vegetarian this week, and this roast vegetable "cake" looked great. I once again lacked imagination with a vegetable side dish, so salad it was. My freezer was full of small amounts of random baked goods, so I did a "clean out the freezer" dessert platter. It was successful, and augmented by the lovely desserts that C brought to celebrate the recent engagements in our group (including mine)!

Roast Vegetable "Cake"

I suppose this is really a tall frittata or a less eggy quiche. Either way, it was very good. I think that next time I'd use even more vegetables, especially broccoli. I used a mandoline to slice the potato and sweet potato, getting lovely thin slices. I would definitely make this again for a brunch, maybe Easter?

Modifications: Since I don't have a gas stove or a grill, I used a broiler method to roast the red peppers. I coated the peppers in some canola oil and put them on a baking sheet under the broiler. I then watched them and turned them when they began to char a bit. It is a bit of a pain because you have to watch the peppers closely and they sizzle and sound like they are one second away from explosion. After they are sufficiently charred (I get too scared to get it very black, so I only have a few char spots), I place them in a plastic bag and let them steam and cool a bit. After that, they are easy to peel. I also substituted the pumpkin called for in the recipe for pre-cubed butternut squash, because it was a whole lot easier. I used low fat ricotta and cream cheese and noticed no issues with consistency or taste.

Gripes: This took much longer to cook in my oven than the recipe called for (about 10 extra minutes to roast the veggies and about 30 extra minutes to cook). I really need to get an oven thermometer to see if the problem is on my end.


Trader Joe's bagged lettuce, heirloom cherry tomatoes, shredded carrots. Leftover balsamic vinaigrette from last week. Yawn.

Dessert Platter with Butterscotch Pecan Cookies, Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream, and Irish Soda Bread

I had made the ice cream and cookies for a dinner with my cousin and wanted to use up the leftovers from the freezer. The cookies froze and defrosted beautifully. The cookies are very butterscotch, which you either like or you don't. I like the texture added by the pecans. Next time I might leave the sprinkling of salt off the top, it was a little salty for me. The ice cream was very rich and almost a little eggy -- I think I prefer "Philadelphia" style ice creams that don't use egg yolks. The soda bread is my Nana's recipe, which I will be posting on this site when I get around to it :) This particular loaf was a pale (literally) imitation because I was out of molasses so had to make do with some brown sugar and water mixed together instead. Stay tuned for the awesome original. The platter ended up being sadly mono-chromatic, but that was also a little funny :)

C brought very adorable little chocolate ganache love bugs and a very rich ganache heart. So much chocolate! Heaven!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wilton Decorating Basics - Lesson #2

Lesson #2 was even more fun than Lesson #1 because we got to do a lot more stuff hands-on.

Here's what we did in Lesson 2:
  • Filled cupcakes with the #230 tip (I just watched others do this because I didn't bring cupcakes and I'd already tried doing this at home)
  • Used the #1M tip (kind of like a very large star tip) to ice cupcakes (I used my cookie and it looked kind of like a rose!  see the first picture)
  • Made a clown by painting two lines of icing color in a disposable piping bag, filling it with frosting, and then building the body, arms, and legs that had a color stripe on each side (using #18 star tip).  A clown head can be inserted in top to complete the effect.  I won't include pictures of this because I thought it didn't look very good and because headless clowns are creepy!
  • Used piping gel to transfer designs to surfaces like cakes or cookies (using the #3 tip).
  • Used the #12 tip to do "dimensional designs" like lines and circles (see the second picture)
  • Used the #352 leaf tip to make leaves

I brought my own icing to the class using the recipe provided in the lesson plan.  I had some non-soy vegan shortening to use up (palm oil), but unfortunately it was pretty old and I think badly affected the texture of my icing.  The texture seemed fine when I first made it, but it got really stiff overnight and was hard to get back to medium consistency.  It also seemed like there were little chunks of shortening in the icing that occasionally clogged the icing tip.  By the end of class, my icing was completely unusable.  I'm going to try making the recipe with brand new Crisco and see how it turns out for next week!

I plan on practicing the leaf tip, gel transfers, and cupcake icing techniques this week.

Check out my post about Lesson #1.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wilton Decorating Basics - Lesson #1

I've wanted to improve my baking and pastry skills for a while, but wanted to start small before exploring real classes at local community colleges or culinary schools.  I felt like the Wilton classes offered at many craft stores (I'm taking mine at a Jo-Ann crafts) would be a good "toe dip" into the world of cake decoration at a relatively inexpensive price.  The class is made up of 4 sessions of 2 hours each and is the prerequisite for taking any of the other classes offered in the Wilton series (more about those next month!).

I paid about $25 for the class and another $30-40 in supplies.  Although one of the goals of the class is to push you towards buying a ton of Wilton products (their prerogative!), I found that a lot of the supplies have cheaper DIY alternatives and that my instructor hasn't required we bring in or use a lot of the supplies mentioned in the lesson book.  For example, she's letting us use her own icing color instead of having to buy our own (which is great, since I plan to buy Americolor instead of Wilton anyway because I've heard great things about that brand).  She's also let us bring in cookies to decorate instead of having to make a cake or cupcakes for each lesson.

My understanding about the class is that the instructors are supposed to follow a rigorous lesson plan so that classes are pretty much the same wherever you take them.  My instructor is a little disorganized and seems to follow it a bit more loosely.  For example, she liked the clown cupcakes that they no longer teach in the class, so she showed us how to do that in Lesson 2.

Here's what we did in Lesson 1:
  • Toured the Wilton aisle at the craft store.  A few people in the class had barely even baked a cake before, so this was more of a walk through of the real basics you need to make a cake.  
  • Discussed how to torte (cut in half to make multiple layers) a cake.  Wilton's "ultimate cake leveler" is hilarious - it looks like a hacksaw for cakes. 
  • Reviewed the recipe for making Wilton Buttercream Icing (instructor suggests sifting the confectioner's sugar and using more water).
  • Reviewed the different consistencies of icing (thin, medium, stiff) and what they are used for.  Practiced making icing of these consistencies.  Discussed how to color icing.
  • Practiced icing cakes and cookies.  Key is to use an offset spatula and to never not have icing under the spatula (if it touches the cake directly, you will get crumbs).
  • Prepared disposable piping bags using parchment paper
  • Prepared piping bags with couplers and decorating tips
  • Discussed how to fill bags (no more than half way) and how to close them up properly (fold the sides in and twist!)
  • Practiced making stars, shell border, and rosettes with the #18 star tip

We decorated cookies that we had to bring to class.  I used the roll-out sugar cookie recipe recommended in the lesson plan book, using small pyrex bowls as the cookie cutter so I had fairly large circles to play with.  I am not very good at working with roll-out dough, so I added way too much flour in the rolling process and ended up with tough and not very tasty cookies.  This was no problem because I'm not going to eat the cookies I decorate anyway.

Since I'm fairly experienced with baking cakes (although I do want to test out a DIY version of their "bake even" strips for making flat-topped cakes), I just practiced the star tip piping at home.  I cheated a bit and didn't use the recommended icing recipe, but rather the marshmallow icing recipe I had made for cupcakes.  I practiced decorating the cupcakes and also practiced a bit just on the counter top.  The practice made me a lot better at shell border and rosettes in particular.

Overall, I think I would appreciate a more serious structure and student body (like I imagine I would get in a community college class), but I think this is a great introduction at a good price.  The classes force me to practice, which I've never made myself do before.  I also find it a lot easier to do things after seeing the instructor do them -- I imagine this will get more important particularly when we get to icing roses.

Wilton Class Resources:

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

2011.01.20 - French Dip Sandwiches, Salad, "Hostess" Cupcakes

I had an appointment shortly before dinner this week, which meant that the crockpot was the perfect solution to have dinner come in on time. I've found a few slow cooker recipes I love, so I admittedly haven't branched out too much with recipes because I just keep making the same ones over and over again! One of these is this week's French Dip Sandwiches. I also wanted to practice my piping skills from cake decorating class, so I chose to make homemade Hostess (or should I say "Hostess-like" to avoid copyright? is there copyright on desserts?) cupcakes.

French Dip Sandwiches

This recipe is easy and delicious. I think one of the keys is the small bit of garlic powder that's used - it definitely adds a distinctive aroma and taste. As someone who is fairly allergic to garlic if I eat it in anything but tiny quantities, I love using garlic powder because it doesn't seem to affect me! I served it on toasted rolls with melted provolone cheese and individual jus dipping bowls.


Bagged lettuce, shredded carrots, grape tomatoes, balsamic vinaigrette. Nothing special. Sometimes I just don't have energy to figure out an exciting vegetable side.

"Hostess" Cupcakes

I can't remember the last time I've had a real Hostess cupcake, which is probably for the best :) These were fun to make and delicious. The chocolate ganache frosting was less sweet and better consistency than the original, in my opinion.

Modifications: I used a gluten free chocolate cake mix instead of making cupcakes from scratch and halved the recipe. I didn't have the recommended Wilton #7 tip to make the swirls on top, so I used a #3, which was more difficult to use because the opening was smaller and my filling was pretty thick. I decorated a few with the Wilton #18 star tip, since that's what we needed to practice with for class (and the stars are pretty!).

Gripes: I am not sure what kind of marshmallow fluff is supposed to be used, but my filling/white frosting was much thicker than the pictures shown in the original recipe. It would have been nice (and certainly easier to pipe) if it was a little thinner. I used a cupcake filling tip (Wilton #230) to fill the cupcakes, but definitely was too hesitant because I got very little filling in the cupcakes. I need to practice more with getting good amounts of fillings in cupcakes!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A year of banana bread

One of my Christmas gifts to A was a monthly subscription to banana bread, baked by me.  Banana bread is one of his favorite treats, and I have over 30 recipes to try out!  I'll have to give him this gift next year too to get through them all :)

Once a month, A will be receiving a new type of banana bread.  I'll round up my impressions of the ones I try here, and maybe even get some guest commentary from the man himself.

December 2010 (Christmas) - Cinnamon and Chocolate Chip Banana Bread

This is (to date), my absolute favorite "fancy" banana bread.  The cinnamon sugar and chocolate chips push it into dessert territory (unless you are being really naughty for breakfast!), but it is well worth the extra bells and whistles.  Everything about the texture and taste is perfect.

January 2011 - Bananas Foster Bread

A and I were both curious if we should set this bread on fire for an authentic effect, but we refrained.  The bread itself is good and the nut topping provides good texture.  Walnuts aren't my favorite, so next time, I would try this with pecans, perhaps.  I was disappointed in how the rum syrup infused into my bread -- it hardly did at all! Unfortunately I could not soak the bread with the rum syrup in the recommended five minutes after baking, so I am not sure if my tardiness affected the absorption, if I didn't poke enough holes into the bread, if I wasn't patient enough about spooning the syrup on, or none or all of the above.

February 2011 - Plain Banana Bread

A great basic recipe.  I want to make sure that A gets a wide variety of banana breads this year, which means plain ones in addition to the more embellished.  This is one that I wouldn't feel too guilty about eating for breakfast :)

March 2011 - Nutella Banana Bread

This combination was amazing.  The nutella swirls added a great chocolate-y flavor to the bread.  It was a little bit of a pain to make because I thought the nutella mixture was too thick to get proper swirl and distribution in the bread.  This bread is definitely worth doing further experimentation with!

April 2011 - Vanilla Bean Banana Bread

I unfortunately didn't have the patience to let my vanilla sugar sit and meld for a couple days before making this, so I don't think it had as a pronounced vanilla taste as I was hoping for.  The bread smelled absolutely amazing when baking, so I think my expectations were a bit too high about the taste.  I liked the light color and texture of this bread.  Next time, I might save my vanilla beans for applications where they are really the star.

May 2011 - Peanut Butter Banana Bread

Another "jazzed up" version of banana bread.  This one had a different base than the others so far -- primarily whole wheat flour and some flaxseed.  This was the first time I've made a baked good with those and didn't mind the taste or texture.  I guess peanut butter can cure all ills :)  I wished this bread tasted a little less like peanut butter and a little more like banana, but it was pretty good.

June 2011 - Chocolate-Dipped Banana Bread Bites

I discuss this bread here.  The banana bread was very rich and delicious (my new go-to for a rich banana bread) and the chocolate was extra special.

Friday, January 14, 2011

2011.01.13 - Milk-Braised Chicken, Roasted Veggies, No-Knead Bread, Meyer Lemon Sorbet

I was down and out with the flu last week, so no Thursday dinner :( This week, I was back with a vengeance and celebrating a Christmas gift, my dutch oven.

For some reason, a stove-to-oven pot like a dutch oven has been missing from my kitchen gear since I've started cooking. I've always been intimidated by the Le Creuset prices and have been too lazy to research the alternatives. With Christmas money in hand and no job to distract me, I finally sat myself down and decided to purchase one once and for all.

The Journey:
  • Notice that Sur La Table has a sale on Le Creuset.  What!, I say, Sur La Table never has anything on sale!
  • Go to the Sur La Table store nearby, and hem and haw for a half hour.  Is the 3.5 quart oval big enough?  How come the color I want is under a stack of 20 other dutch ovens?  Is this actually a good deal?
  • Leave SLT defeated, no purchase in hand
  • Decide that my first step should be to determine what size I need for a general purpose dutch oven.  Internet to the rescue!  Remember that Not Martha did a post on this very subject that I bookmarked three years ago.  I knew I wanted to use the pot for no-knead bread (4 years too late!) and braising large pieces of meat, so I decide that six quarts would be a good size.
  • Pat self on back for not buying the 3.5 quart at SLT.  How minuscule that seems!
  • Look up the six quart Lodge enameled cast iron pots on Amazon.  What cheap prices!  What good reviews!
  • Place a pot in my Amazon cart.  Amazon goes down and I fall asleep before it comes back up
  • Go back to Amazon in the morning.  The pot in my cart is no longer available.  Ahhhhh!
  • Calming breath.  Look for the Lodge pot again.  Find it, but for $30 more than the one I lost.
  • Sadly, buy the more expensive pot.  But then, on the order complete page, Amazon shows me the same pot in a different color for the cheaper price that never came up in my search.  What is going on!?
  • Cancel the order, and place a new order for the cheaper pot.  End up happily getting a six quart dutch oven in brown, which isn't the cutest color, but is the cheapest well-reviewed pot I can find!

With all the effort it took to get this pot, I figured I needed to make not one, but TWO dishes with it for this Thursday dinner.  This led to milk-braised chicken with no-knead bread to sop up the sauce :)  And vegetables to be well-rounded and meyer lemon sorbet to end with a light touch.

Milk-Braised Chicken

Like everyone that discussed this recipe, I was grossed out, but oddly intrigued, by the sound of cooking a chicken in a pot of milk. Luckily the intrigue won out, because this chicken was super easy and quite delicious. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender (the easiest chicken I've ever carved) and the sauce was a wonderful lemony/garlicky/salty/silky combination.

Modifications: I used fresh sage since I had it on hand (full stems that I picked out after cooking), a few dashes of cinnamon since I didn't have a cinnamon stick, and a dash of cayenne pepper since I didn't have red chili flakes. I stirred the spices and lemon zest in the milk before pouring the whole thing over the chicken. I tucked the wings and trussed the chicken legs to make it easier to turn the chicken during the browning process.

Gripes: Under the heading "best problem ever", this recipe produced far more sauce than needed for eating the whole chicken. I'm going to roast up some chicken pieces and serve with the leftover sauce.

No-Knead Bread

I finally made the bread that took the world by 2006! Maybe this recipe is retro by now. It has been modified and discussed to death, but I decided to stick mainly to the original recipe to see what it's like before moving on to the many varieties out there. As promised, the crust was amazingly "shardy" and professional-like, the crumb was chewy and delicious.

Modifications: Based on Mark Bittman's follow-up, Cook's Illustrated's version, and Not Martha's recommendations, I increased the amount of salt to 1.75 teaspoons, decreased the amount of water to 1.5 cups, and did the second rise on parchment in a bowl covered with plastic wrap instead of messing around with incredibly sticky dough on floured cloths (obviously Jim Lahey doesn't have to do his own laundry! who wants to clean cloth with dough on it?)

Gripes: I only keep unsalted butter at home, but I wish I had one of those fancy European butters to spread on this!

Roasted Winter Vegetables

Another purchase with Christmas money was the Barefoot Contessa box set with Ina's first three cookbooks. I wanted vegetables to go with my meal, and the roasted winter vegetables from Barefoot Contessa Family Style sounded like an appropriate accompaniment. Roasted veggies are always a winner, so of course these were delicious.

Modifications: I didn't include sweet potatoes.

Gripes: I felt like the butternut squash got a lot softer than the carrots and parsnips in the same cooking time. I don't think I'd cook that combination together again because the squash was slightly too mushy by the time the carrots and parsnips were done.

Meyer Lemon Sorbet

The baked alaska in the blog post sounds delicious, but I only had time/energy to make the sorbet portion of it. I wanted to take advantage of the winter citrus season + end the meal with a light dessert since the chicken and vegetables were so wintery.

Modifications: I halved the recipe. I'm not sure the full recipe would have fit into my ice cream maker!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Christmas Baking Roundup

I was only at home for 15 days during December, most of those dedicated to my job search, so I did not get to bake nearly as much as I hoped this year. Baking a Yule Log will have to wait until next year :)

Orange, Raisin, Walnut Brownie Cookies

The recipe is for orange cranberry cookies, but I realized last minute I was out of dried cranberries, so I substituted with raisins and walnuts. I think I like cranberries better than raisins (the tartness is a better offset), but the walnuts were a good textural addition. These are one of my favorite cookies, the flavor and texture is terrific.

Tate's Bake Shop Chocolate Chip Cookies

I was paging through Ina's new cookbook and saw a chocolate chip cookie icebox cake made with cookies from Tate's Bake Shop in the Hamptons. When I saw this recipe for Tate's cookies come up, I figured I'd give them a trial run, since I want to make the icebox cake this summer (or maybe for my birthday :D). My cookies did not turn out nearly as flat as Tate's OR CakeSpy's cookies. In general, I never really produce flat cookies. Interestingly, the internet seems to have more cures for flat cookies than instructions on how to get them that way :) More research needed. Flavor on these was typical chocolate chip cookie.

M&M Cookies

The first time I made M&M cookies, I used the Toll House cookie recipe (subbing M&Ms for chocolate chips). For some reason, they became hard as a rock the day after baking and were just disappointing. After I managed to find another bag of Christmas M&Ms (I could NOT find them at local supermarkets this year, I felt like I was going crazy), I decided to try out Smitten Kitchen's chocolate chip cookie recipe (again subbing M&Ms for chips). These came out delicious! I popped them into the freezer the day of baking, so I'm not sure about their longevity.

Spritz Cookies

I am not a fan of butter cookies, but my mom loves them. She doesn't have the steady hand required for using a cookie press, so I make them for her every year. I love the shapes and decorative possibilities, but these cookies still do nothing for me.

Strawberry Sour Cream Bread

I used up the last few frozen strawberries that I picked over the summer for this bread. I think that the recipe should have called for chopping the strawberries, because I ended up with big chunks of strawberry that affected the integrity of the bread and got stuck to the side of my loaf pan and so on. I split the recipe into two loaves made in 8 x 4 inch loaf pans (roughly). I gave the loaves away as a gift, so I am not really sure how it tasted (oops). I really need to come up with a system for making a mini loaf when I bake breads I am gifting so I can taste the flavor without cutting into the gift.

Orange Cranberry Bread

I love the combination of orange and cranberry and love using up my excess of frozen cranberries in the freezer. I split the recipe into two smaller loaves and am giving them away, so I'm not sure how they taste. I will have to report back if I get to try them.