Sunday, November 27, 2011

Say hello to my little friends!

This week I made a birthday cake featuring things of significance to the birthday girl - her family, her teaching job, reading and art. My experience with figure modelling has been limited to animals primarily and my dad. Most of my figures tend to look a bit on the chubby side which I wanted to avoid for this cake, so I took to searching on the internet for pictures and tips when it comes to making fondant/gumpaste figures.

One of the reasons that I have had some difficulty with my figures sagging and subsequently looking a bit hefty is that in the past I have not allowed enough time for pieces of the figure to set before adding other components - I have typically done the whole figure in one shot. This is not really a problem if you are doing small animals but is a good idea if you are doing larger animals or people figures. There are a few different options for what type of sugar product you use for figure modelling. Fondant alone will likely be too soft and will take too long to set. You can use gumpaste which dries super hard but is quite expensive and I find is better for smaller details, modelling paste which can also be referred to as 50/50 which is half fondant and half gumpaste, or you can making your own modelling paste by adding tylose powder to fondant (about 1/2 teaspoon to 8 oz of fondant). I tend to use the latter.

For this family, I made all of the bodies first and allowed them to set for a day. I secured the bodies with a piece of spaghetti as I don't like to use non-edible items on my cakes if I can avoid it. I placed sponge behind the bodies to prevent them from leaning backwards as they dried. I made the heads next and allowed them to set for about 4 hours before adding the hair to avoid the weight of the hair from squishing the head.

The requested cake flavour was chocolate with chocolate buttercream. I seem to be on a bit of a devil's food kick - I paired it with chocolate swiss meringue buttercream and masked it with vanilla since I was covering it in light-coloured fondant. I rolled the fondant a bit too thin so it wasn't as smooth as I would have liked. I like to roll my fondant a minimum of 3/8" thick. The brand of fondant I use tends to stretch quite a bit so next time I may even roll it to 1/4" thick.

To support the weight of the family, I covered a small, thin cake board in lime green fondant and finished it off as a rug. This way the family could simply be lifted off the cake before cutting. I seated the family on the rug around a mini fondant chocolate birthday cake. The front of the cake was finished with a blackboard with 'Happy Birthday' piped on with royal icing, fondant apples, a little book and a painter's palette.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

I'm holding out for a hero...


This cute, little 5-inch birthday cake was for a superman fan. The cake is chocolate with peppermint frosting. 

One of the things that can happen when covering cakes in fondant is air bubbles underneath the fondant. This can be due to humidity, changes in temperature, and the fondant not adhering to the buttercream. 

I used a peppermint frosting vs buttercream. This type of icing tends to 'crust' or get hard and dry. In the past, when covering a frosting-covered cake I've crumb coated the cake, allowed it to set and then put a thin coat of fresh icing on the cake for the fondant to adhere to. For large cakes, I've used a water spritzer to re-moisten the frosting prior to placing the fondant on. I used the latter method this time however I must have missed a spot on the cake as the next morning, a large air bubble had formed between the fondant and the cake. The remedy for this is supposed to be simple - puncture the air bubble with a thin pin and smooth the fondant out with your hand or a fondant smoother. The bubble on this Superman cake was a super bubble! I poked numerous holes in the cake to push the air out. The air re-accumulated at super speed and seemed to be getting worse. The more I tried to fix it, the more the bubble seemed to grow. It got to a point where the fondant above the air bubble started to crack, so I left it alone. 

There is always a back of the cake - this definitely became the back of the cake as I had to put lettering on the front. In retrospect, I could have covered this spot with some red fondant rolled out thinly as a cape draped over the back. Sometimes the ideas just don't flow freely when you are in a panic.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chocolate Candy Cane Cupcakes

We are having a holiday bake sale at work, so I decided to bake something festive. Enter chocolate cupcakes with peppermint frosting topped with crushed candy canes.

The chocolate cupcake is devils food chocolate. For the frosting I used peppermint extract with little bit of vanilla as well. I piped the swirl using a large french star tip.

The crushed candy cane was a little bit of an expedition. Note to self - not all peppermint candy canes are created equally. Paired with the peppermint icing, the first candy canes I bought did not end up tasting like mint. This necessitated a last minute trip to the store to buy better quality candy canes. I beat the candy canes into crushed submission by placing them in a ziplock bag covered by a tea towel and smacking them with my heavy duty All-Clad 1 cup measure. My husband felt that this was both too loud (we live in a condo) and ineffective. He crushed them by rolling a glass mason jar over them. In retrospect, I should have pulsed them in my mini food processor. I will keep this in mind for next time!

Coming up next, modelling paste figurines!

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Venturing outside my comfort zone of baking cakes and cupcakes, I decided to try to make French Macarons since I had a small amount of leftover swiss meringue buttercream and quite a few leftover frozen egg whites from making pate sucree tart shells and pastry cream.

I have wanted to try these for a while but after reading various recipes, blog posts and articles, I have to admit that I was feeling a little intimidated! 

French macarons are made with egg whites, icing sugar, granulated or caster sugar (superfine), and ground almonds. The ideal macaron has a smooth domed top, and a round base (also called the foot). The popularity of the macaron has soared in the last few years (although they have been around in France since 791) and you can find a number of books dedicated solely to these chewy, melt-in-your-mouth confections. 

There are so many possible macaron flavour combinations out there and they can be filled with buttercream, jam or ganache. 

I settled on a Maple-Cocoa recipe from a blog called Delicious Delicious Delicious. With a blog title like that, how can you go wrong? The yield of this recipe was also modest and perfect for a small amount of leftover buttercream.

For the ground almonds, I processed whole almonds (including skins) using a coffee grinder with a few almonds and a little of the powdered sugar at 5-second intervals to achieve a powdery texture. I then sifted each 'batch' of almonds and powdered sugar to catch any almond chunks that weren't sufficiently ground. I threw these back in the grinder and repeated the process until all the almonds were ground to a fine enough powder. 

I then sifted the ground almonds, remaining powdered sugar and cocoa powder into a small bowl. 

The recipe calls for caster sugar which is also known as 'superfine' in North America. I don't know if the Redpath 'Special Fine' granulated is 'fine' enough so for good measure, I ground it in my mini food processor. 

Now for the egg whites. There are some firm believers that you must used aged egg whites to make macarons. From a food safety perspective, I am really not a fan of leaving egg whites at room temperature for several days. I have several jars of egg whites in my freezer from various baking expeditions. They can be safely stored in the freezer for up to 4 months. I label each jar with the number of egg whites and the date. For this recipe I used 2 frozen egg whites that I thawed in my refrigerator overnight and let them come to room temperature prior to making the macarons. 

I piped the meringue mixture onto a Silpat liner instead of parchment paper for super easy removal! This recipe suggested leaving them to sit for 30 minutes prior to baking them. I have also read that you should leave them for at least 2 hours in order to get the right texture and adequate development of the 'foot'. I was in a hurry and let them sit for 30 minutes and the 'feet' developed just fine in the oven. I baked them for about 12 minutes but I think they could have used an extra minute or two. 

I was able to easily lift them off the liner with my hands - no need for a palette knife.

They have a little texture on the inside because I used the wrong side of the Silpat mat, ha ha!

For the filling, I had leftover vanilla swiss meringue buttercream. I beat the buttercream with a small amount of maple extract. I was not satisfied with the flavour - it tasted like an artificial extract. To remedy this, I added a little pure maple syrup at a time until I was satisfied with the taste. I also had my husband approve the flavour balance as he is a maple fanatic. 

I was extremely happy with the results of my first attempt. They are not perfectly smooth - I suppose I could have avoided the little piping 'knobs' on the top by gently tapping my pan before putting them in the oven. It is recommended that you refrigerate them for 24-48 hours to achieve the proper texture and then bring them to room temperature before enjoying them. We ate them almost right away and I had no problems with the texture! Now the only question is, what flavour do I try next?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Berries, bows, and chocolate, oh my!

What do bows, berries and chocolate have in common? This weekend's cake!

This weekend I took a class at Bonnie Gordon College, taught by the very talented Susan Trianos. The cake used a number of techniques, some that I was familiar with and some that I wasn't. We learned to make a gingham ribbon, which is similar to creating mosaic with sugar. We also learned to make two different styles of gumpaste bows - I love bows. I may just have to stick them on all of my cakes. One of the techniques that I was not familiar with was painting combined with royal icing brush embroidery. I definitely need to work on brush embroidery! My painted flowers looked lovely from afar but were not photo-worthy close up.

The little miniature strawberries had to be my favourite - they were so simple but so cute! 

So where does the chocolate enter the picture? For this class, we had to prepare an 8-inch cake masked in swiss meringue buttercream. I recently treated myself to a bag of Cacao Barry Extra Brute cocoa powder and Barry Callebaut bittersweet chocolate callets, so I decided to make a devils foods cake filled with chocolate swiss meringue buttercream and masked in vanilla. The cocoa powder has an amazing silky texture. I don't think I can bake with anything else now. My husband wondered if we should try making hot cocoa with it. I told him that we have to use up our other regular powder first because I am certain it will be a point of no return. The cake was beautifully dark and moist. 

For the chocolate swiss meringue buttercream I used about 60 g chocolate per cup of buttercream. I used half semisweet and half bittersweet. The results were delicious. It tasted like a smooth and creamy chocolate milkshake! 

This might be a good time to mention the status of my KitchenAid stand mixer since swiss meringue buttercream is very 'mixer-intense'. A few tightened screws and it is running beautifully! Just for good measure though, my dad is going to be replacing a few parts and refreshing the food-grade grease. The mixer shall live on!

Next up...cupcakes, cupcakes, cupcakes! ...and maybe a few macarons. 

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A pink winter wonderland

So what do you do for a baby shower where the mom-to-be doesn't want anything too cutesy? As this baby girl is expected to arrive in January, the baby shower had an elegant snowflake theme including these cupcakes. 

Originally I thought about piping the snowflakes with royal icing on parchment for topping the cupcakes, but I thought that it might be a bit too finicky and may result in a lot of broken snowflakes and one frustrated baker. I ended up buying a snowflake plunger by PME Arts and Crafts and I was very happy with the results. I used fondant with a little tylose powder added in to make a modelling paste as it sets harder.

The cupcakes are a devils chocolate with vanilla frosting. The cupcakes are extremely light and fluffy in texture and deliciously chocolatey. I used regular Dutch-processed cocoa but would love to try using an extra dark cocoa to get an even darker/richer brown. I haven't made frosting for a while and my last baking expedition was using swiss meringue buttercream (SMB). I must say, I may be switching camps here when it comes to icing (don't tell my husband). The flavour of a sugary frosting on a cupcake is delightful and nostalgic, however for those whose palates have an equal appreciation for lovely textures, you cannot beat the SMB. The frosting ends up having a bit of a gritty texture from the icing sugar which is reduced slightly after it sits for a bit but is still detectable. I topped each pink-frosted cupcake with some course icing sugar for a snow-like effect as well as a fondant snowflake.

Now while making these 3 batches of cupcakes and 4 batches of frosting, I noticed that my KitchenAid Professional 6-quart mixer was showing signs of being on the fritz i.e. shaking more than it should at a speed of 2 and motor oil dribbling down the back. I choose not to panic. My husband and I have an agreement that if anything should ever happen to the stand mixer, we would promptly replace it. Whew. After a telephone consultation with my father (he seems to be able to fix absolutely anything), it sounds like something may be loose in the motor. I am now anxiously awaiting his arrival to see if this can be fixed before my next baking project.

Now to display these pink winter wonderland cupcakes, we (my sister-in-law and I) made a cupcake stand using three cake drums and two 4-inch high styrofoam dummies. We covered the drums in a white polk-a-dot wrapping paper, covered the edges in pink ribbon (just a smidgen too narrow for these drums unfortunately) and wrapped the dummies in pretty pink and brown paper that was also used for the invitations. I was quite happy with the overall display.

Stay tuned for an update on my KitchenAid and whether it will survive my next baking project...

Friday, November 04, 2011

A little leftover lemon goes a long way...

When life gives you lemons (leftover lemon swiss meringue buttercream to be exact), whip up a dozen lemon cupcakes! 

So I know that I said my next post was going to be snowflake cupcakes and I'm working on those tomorrow, but having some leftover buttercream necessitated some impromptu baking of lemon cupcakes. This is the same lemon layer cake recipe from Magnolia that I love. 

Just in case you ever wondered how much zest really does add to the overall flavour of baked goods, let me just tell you that it really is key in enhancing your citrus flavour. I was busy chatting with my sister-in-law while whipping up these cupcakes and noticed after I had filled my cupcake pan, that I forgot to put in the grated lemon zest. I decided to try to evenly distribute the teaspoonful of zest among the 12 cupcakes and stir the cupcake batter carefully in the cupcake tin. The pairing of the cake and lemon swiss meringue buttercream was perfect in flavour. The cake alone without the buttercream was a little lacking in the lemon intensity that I so love compared to when I have remembered to put the zest in! 

This was my first time using swiss meringue buttercream rather than icing sugar-based frosting on cupcakes. I used a 1M tip for the swirl. It seemed to give a very pretty, ruffled effect versus my usual swirl with frosting - it may be due to using more pressure than was needed for a fluffy buttercream but I liked the results. 

Next up...snowflake cupcakes...really.