Monday, April 30, 2012

From the Kitchen: Rainbow Cake

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Phew! I survived the birthday weekend! Friday was the usual nuttiness of our school schedule, on Saturday we did lots of family activities in a whirlwind of cheap thrills (UM Museum of Art, UM Natural History Museum, Chuck E Cheese, returning pop cans at Walmart, spending $0.25 on “prizes” from the gumball machines, and the like), and Sunday was Sort-of-Big-Party Day. The Trifecta of birthdays… our Kitty, her Auntie Anne, and our nephew Sean who was turning 1. It was a big deal!

In addition to a mini baby-friendly (and adorable) cake of pancakes and strained yogurt, Sean’s talented mother Yoko made a beautiful rich chocolate cake with white chocolate icing (it was truly as yummy and lovely as it sounds). I, on the other, less gourmet hand, used 1.5 box mixes for white cake and made a “surprise cake”… you know, a cake that was surprising!

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This type of cake and variations on the theme are ALL OVER pinterest right now (the craze originating from Martha Stewart, maybe??), and I know multiple people who have pulled off virtual masterpieces in cake. I, too, was captivated by the idea, and a girly cake was needed. So, I gave in. I followed the general directions from this tutorial by Omnomicon but instead of two pans, I used three. It took my cake batter estimating skills to a whole new level of complication, but it turned out great.

The uncut cake:

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It looked sloppy and simple because it was. I whipped up an obscene volume of buttercream and used almost all of it. The weight and relative uneven thinness of the three layers and heavy icing started to break the cake apart from the inside out (poor engineering on my part), so I used more icing to spackle the cracks. Yup. And then I put it in the fridge to set up a  bit. It felt like cheating. But it looked sloppy and I was OK with that. The secret was on the inside, and the ensuing oohs and ahhs from the horde of onlooking little girls when I pulled out the first slice was worth the (minimal) extra effort:

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I had another piece of cake after everyone went home (because I had to take a nice clean picture of the perfect slice, didn’t I? Right? At least that was my rationalization). I even remembered to stack the layers in the right order so it looked intentional. I love how the colors turned out perfectly matchy matchy to the birthday dress, since I think that, whenever possible, one’s clothes should match the food one is eating… plain and simple practicality from a laundry standpoint :)

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Sewing Class: A Gathered and Rolled Birthday Dress

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Firstly, I want to wish the happiest of birthdays to my darling 6 year old daughter! She is cute as a button, sharp as a tack, and as sweet as can be. We love her and all her silly, crafty, charming ways :)

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Nobody likes a party dress more than this girl! For her birthday, since she tends to get hand me downs from her decidedly less girly older sister, I wanted to make a fancy schmancy dress just for her, to help her feel special on her big day (actually the day before her birthday, since she is the “Star of the Day” at school today). Her take on fashion is that MORE IS MORE, so I went with layers and ruffles and flowers and bows and tulle and chiffon and organza. MORE. Definitely more.

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My goal was to make a dress that a) didn’t look like a flower girl’s dress (meaning it didn’t look like it was trying to match some other dress somewhere else), b) didn’t look like a mini prom dress (too short, poufy like a tutu, and/or chintzy), c) incorporated many colors, and d) was very very very girly. I think I succeeded.

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The gathered skirt is made of one layer each of purple and blue organza on top of a heavy weight pale green lining, underlined with a thinner matching lining with a yellow tulle petticoat sewn inside for volume and drama. I added the teal blue chiffon ruffle and flower at the end, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I had some thinner strands of smaller ruffles in pink and yellow that I was planning to add as well, but in the end I left them off because I didn’t want there to be anything stripy about this dress, and that was the vibe I got when I was trying things out. Truth be told, I might have liked the dress much better without that bold blue ruffle, but I wasn’t going for subtle, and I wasn’t the one who was going to love this dress into the ground before I outgrew it.

The bodice I copied (more or less) from a well-fitting dress she already had, and, like the skirt, it required 4 layers of fabric. Lots of basting, a little bit of seam ripping, and a sizable measure of rare patience. I’m getting better at taking the time to do things properly rather than “improvising” my way to a sloppy end result, and I feel good for having done it.

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I went with a design including ample rolled hems in order to force myself to improve my skills. Many yards of rolled hems on lining, chiffon and organza later, and I feel pretty confident about it! There was also a lot of gathering, and it was fun to give another specialty sewing machine foot a whirl too. My machine was happy for the change of pace.

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I feel that this dress, while perhaps not exactly the mental image I had before heading to the fabric store, embodies the sheer, unfettered joy of being fancy. When I gave it to my girl yesterday so she could wear it today, she was compelled to run a few graceful laps around the yard to celebrate… oh to be so free.

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I haven’t been doing much else creative lately, and that made it extra nice to have a purposeful project with a distinct due date (pardon the alliterations). My daily pursuits at present include trying to keep my adventurous baby from diving off the couch (since he can climb up there himself), prevent him from falling out of his high chair (since the belt won’t contain him anymore) and block him from getting to the toilet (since the older kids can’t seem to remember to close the bathroom door), among other less vital tasks.

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But, amidst the chaos and occasional bouts of unpleasantness that are an integral aspect of every family’s life, I am doing my very best to take time to smell the lilacs as they sporadically bloom, and to enjoy each and every one of my little people while they are still both little and mine :) Happy birthday, Kitty! I can only imagine what amazing things you’ll accomplish when you get big enough to reach all the art supplies! Don’t ever lose that smile :)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

From the Kitchen: Homemade Pasta

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Mmmm… pasta. And not just any ol’ pasta… homemade pasta! While you might question the need to make something you can readily buy at the store for about a dollar, I assure you that some things are worth the extra work. Maybe not everyday, but for some meals, making your own pasta is an alternative (or nice addition) to making your own bread. I have a feeling that, now that I know how easy and delicious this process really is (with the right equipment), I will do it more often. Some things you just know. You know?

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 Basic Pasta Dough Recipe
(adapted from the King Arthur Flour website – a treasure trove of great recipes, in case you wanted to know)

Ingredients

4 cups all-purpose flour

4 eggs

Directions

In the bowl of your stand mixer (fitted with a dough hook), create a well with the flour. Crack the eggs directly into the well. Scramble them with a fork.

Mix on low speed until a soft, loose dough forms. Continue to knead the dough, 8-10 minutes until a firm, but not dry dough forms (can be hard on your mixer so use the lowest speed). Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.

Fresh pasta cooks quickly, so start heating your water early. After the dough has rested, divide into 4 even pieces. Set aside and cover 3 pieces while you work with the 4th. Lightly dredge your working piece in flour.

Roll through the largest setting on your pasta machine. Remove the dough, fold in half and repeat the roll. Repeat again 4 times, for a total of 6 rolls. After the 6th roll, dial the machine down to the next smallest setting. Roll the pasta through once, and dial down again. Only the first roll on the largest setting is done 6 times. Continue to roll thinner and thinner until you reach the 2nd smallest setting.

Let the pasta sheets rest for 10-15 minutes. Be sure to check the pasta water. After the pasta has rested, run each sheet through the cutting blades of the pasta machine. Gently separate the noodles, and loosely pile the pasta while you roll the rest of the sheets.

After all sheets are cut, add the pasta to the salted boiling water (use lots of salt since the dough has none in it!). Cook for 2-3 minutes. Drain the pasta and serve immediately. Refrigerate any leftovers (if you happen to be so lucky!).

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See, not so tricky!! I have no idea exactly how one might go about drying fresh pasta (or freezing it?), but I will probably find out soon enough. And then I’ll tell you about it… eventually…

Sunday, April 8, 2012

From the Kitchen: Redemption Cookies

Happy Easter! HE IS RISEN! Hallelujah!

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By now you are familiar with our quirky holiday-celebrating ways, so I am not feeling too funny writing this post. Today my darling daughter – the oldest of our brood – made her First Holy Communion. We are so proud! We are also celebrating Easter itself as well as the baby’s birthday, since we’re bundling occasions for convenience and fun. To help celebrate the Eucharist aspect in a special way, my daughter requested “Jesus cookies, some crosses, and… host cookies.” Okay… I could do that, it turns out.

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I made them at the same time as the bridal shower cookies, and they also lived, well-wrapped, in the freezer until yesterday.

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The crosses I decorated using a bag filled with brown, but I piped a few lines of flesh color and black to give it a faux bois effect. I also let them have some lines of emptiness for wood grain. Not too shabby. I think the host cookies turned out very well too. I was not exactly sure what color I could ice them to look authentic and also appetizing, but it turns out a pinky-brown flesh color hit the mark (fitting, no?). At first it seemed strange to make cookies that impersonated the Precious Body, but my husband reminded me that they were (of course) unconsecrated and therefore a perfectly appropriate. OK. Request fulfilled, conscience cleared.

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Jesus got a 3D nose… I just let the face dry a bit, but not too much, and added another drop. The first time I tried it wasn’t dry enough and the weight of the drop cracked through the face and left Jesus with a hole instead of a nose. So I just added another drop when it was a little drier and covered up my mistake. I also added some gold luster dust (made paintable in clear vanilla extract) to accentuate the sunny halo. I made 8 Jesuses total, and a couple were gifted to the amazing catechists who wrangled 40+ 2nd graders through a year of formation and brought them, very well prepared, to this wonderful sacrament. Now that, dear readers, is an Easter-worthy miracle. May God bless them for their tireless efforts!

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A very Happy and Blessed Easter to you and your family!!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

From the Kitchen: Belgian Chocolate Birthday Cake

*gulp*

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I’m sorry!!! I know it’s still Lent. Really I do. And I do try to be considerate of my readers. But… but… we’ve got this baby. And he’s turning ONE… we just have to celebrate every inch of his pudgy, gorgeous existence. My baby! And how could I make something other than chocolatey chocolate cake covered with chocolate mocha frosting and topped with chocolate shavings for a FIRST BIRTHDAY? I couldn’t. And so, you see, this was unavoidable. You can’t blame me since you must see that I had no alternative. But I still feel a little bad about it. Just a teeny bit.

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For my mini guy’s actual birthday (today), I made cupcakes. Kid-friendly, chocolate, lots of icing… yes, they’ll be delicious. But not as decadent and divine as this company-worthy cake that I’m making for the bigger extended family Easter-First-Communion-First-Birthday celebration we’ll have on Sunday. It is a fussy recipe - true. By the time the cake is in the oven you will feel like you’ve dirtied every bowl and pan in your kitchen, and you may begin to have doubts about how good it’s going to turn out. Will it cook through? Will it look good?

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The answer to your worried hesitations? Yes. Yes, it will turn out. Yes, it will be as fabulous, rich, dense, moist and luxuriously satisfying as you hope. Yes, it will be worth the gigantic cleanup it will require. Yes, it will be best to serve to many people so you aren’t left alone with any extra at the end of the night because then, only then, might you regret making this cake.

{And if you are wondering why I am talking about this cake in the future and showing you pictures of it all cut up… it’s because I’ve made it 2 other times in the past year, and I have zero time in the present to take new photos. Zilch. Good thing I had some from last time!}

Belgian Chocolate Birthday Cake
from Martha Stewart Living Annual Recipes 2003

Ingredients: (I omitted 4 oz toasted hazelnuts from original recipe, FYI, in case you care)

13 1/2 tbsp. unsalted butter (1 2/3 sticks), softened, plus a bit for pan
2/3 c. Dutch-process cocoa powder, plus more for pan
1 2/3 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
2/3 c. boiling water
1 3/4 c. packed dark-brown sugar
4 large eggs , at room temperature
1 1/3 c. buttermilk, at room temperature
2 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9×3″ springform pan. Dust with cocoa, tap out any excess.

In the large bowl, add flour, baking soda, and salt.

In a medium heat-proof bowl, whisk together cocoa and boiling water until smooth. (Mixture will thicken as it cools.)

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and brown sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until well blended.

Stir buttermilk and vanilla into cocoa mixture. Mixing on low, add half the flour mixture to butter mixture until well blended; pour in cocoa mixture, and add remaining flour mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Scrape batter into prepared pan; smooth top. Bake 60 to 70 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven; let cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and cool completely.

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Mocha Cocoa Frosting
(I’m not sure if this is the exact recipe from my mother-in-law which came from her wedding-cake-making friend, but it’s close. I applaud any combination of mocha and cocoa in frosting form!)

Ingredients

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/3 cup strong, hot, brewed coffee
3 cups confectioners' sugar
1/3 cup melted butter
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

Combine coffee and cocoa in small bowl of electric mixer. Beat until blended. Add sugar, butter or margarine, salt, and vanilla. Beat until blended. Scrape bowl, and beat icing until it has a spreading consistency.

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So, after all that delicious detail, I must wish a very Happy Birthday to my darling Baby Boy! May God richly bless you this year, keep you safe and sound, teach you love and joy, and make each day a journey of wonder for your little baby heart. I’m so immensely glad that you are mine!

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Oh my… I love this handsome little guy sooooo very, very much. So much more than the best chocolate cake, even :) But since you can’t have him, you had better give the cake a whirl at the earliest opportunity…