Sunday, January 29, 2012

The dark side of a birthday cake...

I've taken a bit of a baking/blogging break in the last couple of weeks to get myself settled in for a productive 2012. What better way to get back in the swing of things than a Star Wars Lego cake.

This Star Wars cake - the dark side of the Force - had me singing Darth Vader's tune all week long. For added inspiration I had to revisit Volkswagen's 2011 Superbowl commercial and their more recent 2012 Superbowl teaser both of which put me in a great mood for creating and further cemented Darth's theme in my head.

The cake had a few challenges along the way but I was happy with the overall result.

My first order of business was creating Darth Vader as I anticipated the helmet might present a challenge. Do I create the face and then put a helmet around the face or do I created his head using one piece of fondant? My first attempt consisted of creating the face and then I tried to shape a helmet around his face. The result was not great. I decided to sleep on it and see if I could come up with another plan. My second attempt involved shaping the head to include the helmet and then I carefully used an X-acto knife to cut the helmet away from the face. Success! I allowed the body with cape to set for a day before attaching the head and waited another day before attaching the arms to make sure everything was secure. I made him shiny by painting him with piping gel mixed with a small amount of vodka. The details are painted on using both a silver glaze and powdered food colouring mixed with vodka.

Next were the Stormtroopers. Similar to Darth Vader, I made the bodies first and allowed them to dry before making and adhering the heads. The heads were shaped from one piece of modelling paste and details were painted on with colouring mixed with vodka as well as edible marker. It was challenging to paint small black details on white fondant and not get it all over the place. I learned that little smudges could be fixed with a little brush of vodka. I allowed the heads to dry for about a day and a half before attaching them to the bodies. The hands and the weapons were made using gum paste as it dries harder and faster meaning less chance for breakage.

The cake was chocolate devil's food cake with vanilla frosting. Now comes the real challenge of the cake. You may remember my Superman cake post from November in which I fought with a giant air bubble. I attributed this to perhaps missing a spot when moistening the cake. Some people attribute the development of giant air bubbles to a rapid change in temperature after covering a refrigerated cake and that this can be avoided by allowing your cake to come to room temperature before covering it. I must say that I thoroughly chill my swiss meringue buttercream-covered cakes prior to covering in fondant and this has never happened as a result of the refrigeration. Some say that frosting is not stable enough for fondant-covered cakes although I cannot find a good explanation as to why. Perhaps they are right but some people just prefer the taste of frosting. I think you can gather from this paragraph that the giant air bubble or rather bubbles reared their ugly bulges with this cake. If I learned anything from the Superman cake, it was to leave it be as the more you fuss with it, the bigger they seem to grow and the fondant may start to crack in places. It created somewhat of a Jabba the Hut shape to the sides of the cake which for the most part was thankfully covered by the figurines. My other problem with covering this cake was perhaps the brand of fondant. The fondant I use tends to be on the softer side which means that it may be prone to stretching after you've rolled it out. This has not caused too many issues in the past, however in making a dark coloured fondant, you have to add quite a bit of gel paste colouring and this may soften your fondant further. I always weigh and colour my fondant a few days in advance to allow the colour to set and usually the fondant firms up again. I found that this time, the fondant was just too soft and I think this may also have caused problems with getting a smooth finish around the cake as I had to repeatedly re-trim the bottom of the cake. I believe that I am going to be giving another brand a try for covering cakes but may still use my current brand for figure modelling since it still works quite well when mixed with a little Tylose powder. If after switching brands, I continue to experience these frustrations with frosting-covered cakes, I may use frosting only as a filling and continue to mask and crumb coat my cakes with buttercream - it's safer for the cake and my sanity.

May the frosting be with you.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Citrus-y Carrot Cake

I have quite a few goodies from Christmas for cake baking, inspiration and design. This week I used Mich Turner's The Art of the Cake and my new flower cutters to make this 6-inch carrot cake.

I made the flowers using modelling paste made with fondant and tylose powder.

The design is piped on with royal icing and is the lace design from the book. I think that I made my royal icing too stiff as the design in the book looks softer and shinier. I also used a quick royal icing using water, meringue powder and icing sugar with a small whisk rather than using egg whites which may have also affected the consistency of the icing for pressure piping. I think that the overall effect is still lovely though.

The recipe for this very moist carrot cake with a hint of citrus is also from Mich Turner's book with one minor alteration in that I used toasted pecans instead of walnuts purely due to my taste preference. I am also not a fan of raisins but they are rum-soaked, so I thought I would give them a fair shot. The cake has the added moistness of a citrus-based syrup that is meant to be poured over the cake as soon as it is removed with the oven. I used the syrup as you would use a simple syrup and brushed it over my cooled cakes after levelling. The cake is iced with cream cheese frosting that I also spiked with a hint of orange extract.

Overall this was a great project to work on my flowers and my piping skills. This is also the first time I've ever made carrot cake. I will definitely be adding this cake flavour to my repertoire although I may omit the raisins - they remind me too much of fruit cake.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Orange cream macarons

So once again I had leftover swiss meringue buttercream and leftover egg whites from making swiss meringue buttercream. The most logical and delicious solution to this problem is the macaron.

I am hardly an expert in macarons. This is only my third time making them. My two other macaron adventures were maple cocoa macarons from Delicious Delicious Delicious with the exception that I preferred the flavour of maple syrup to maple extract, and chocolate peppermint macarons (using the same cocoa shell as the previous ones). Before embarking on another macaron experiment, I decided to do a bit of research again. It amazes me how much variation exists in macaron recipes and techniques. I checked numerous websites, online videos and books (including my Larousse Gastronomique, which seemed significantly different from other recipes - bake at 400ºF??). I narrowed down my recipe choices using 2 criterion 1) I do not have powdered egg whites in my pantry, therefore I excluded all recipes requiring powdered egg whites, and 2) I did not want the fuss of using an Italian meringue technique. The Italian meringue technique involves heating up sugar and water to the soft ball stage (240ºF) and then carefully pouring the hot syrup in a steady stream, into medium peak meringue with your mixer on low speed. You want to stream the hot syrup down the side of your mixing bowl to firstly avoid pouring the hot mixture in too fast and scrambling your egg whites and secondly, to avoid pouring it over your moving beater and getting hot sugar syrup in your face.

I decided on the ingredient ratios from Ms. Humble's Scatter Plot Macarons, mainly because I love that there was a very scientific/analytical method to developing this recipe.

The original ingredient list is as follows:
120 g almond meal
200 g powdered/confectioner's sugar
100 g egg whites
30-35 g granulated sugar
food colouring gel

Before I start, I wipe all of my utensils down with lemon juice to ensure that everything is grease-free. This includes the prep bowl that I'm pouring my egg whites into, my mixing bowl (you don't need it dried off as the acid in the lemon helps to whip up your egg whites), my mixer beaters and my spatula.

I used pasteurized egg whites from a carton (leftover from making buttercream), weighed them out and let them sit at room temperature for several hours. If you are separating whole eggs, 1 egg white is equivalent to about 30 g.

For the almonds, rather than using almond meal, I used whole raw almonds (including the skin). If you do not want the rustic speckled nature from the almond skin colour, then you can use blanched almonds.

I weighed 120 g of whole almonds and processed them (about 30 g at a time) with about a tablespoon of the powdered sugar. I end up sifting this mixture several times with the remaining powdered sugar to ensure that I have a finely powdered mixture.

For the granulated sugar, I weighed out 35 g and then I also processed this using my mini food-processor to resemble caster sugar which has a finer texture. I let it settle for a minute before opening the food processor.

For mixing the egg whites, as much as I absolutely adore my stand mixer, I used my hand mixer since it is a small volume mixture. Beat the egg whites until they are foamy and begin to hold a shape, and then with the mixer on low-medium speed, add the granulated/caster sugar, about 1 tablespoon at a time. Once all of the sugar is added, I beat the meringue on high (number 5, the highest setting, on my KitchenAid handheld mixer is really not all that fast) until the meringue had stiff glossy peaks. At this point you can mix in your gel colour. I chose orange since I was making orange cream macarons.

I then folded in my sifted almond and powdered sugar mixture (about 1/4 at a time) until it was all mixed in nice and evenly.

Pipe the meringue mixture onto Silpat mat or parchment-lined baking sheets (if you're using parchment, tack down the corners with a dab of your meringue mixture) in little quarter to loonie-sized rounds (I like my macarons to be a bit on the larger size). Gently tap your sheet on the counter to get rid of any piping peaks and bubbles and allow to sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

I baked my macaron shells at 300ºF for 17 minutes on the middle oven rack. I had one baking sheet lined with my Silpat mat and one sheet lined with parchment. I did not find any appreciable difference between the two except that I found it much easier to remove the shells from the Silpat Mat. I placed my baking sheets on a cooling rack and allowed them to cool completely before I attempted to lift the shells.

For the filling, I used leftover vanilla swiss meringue buttercream flavoured with Whittington's Natural Orange Essence. To reconstitute leftover swiss meringue buttercream, heat about 1/3 of it for about 5-10 seconds in the microwave until warm (it may liquify slightly), add this to your cold buttercream and beat on high. You'll notice it becoming creamy fairly early on, but looking closely it may look slightly separated. Keep beating it on high until the texture is fluffy and the buttercream is smooth and shiny looking. I did not measure the amount of buttercream that I had left. I simply added a 1/4 teaspoon of flavouring at a time until I achieved the flavour intensity that I wanted.

I think this recipe will be a keeper. I look forward to trying many more flavour and colour combinations.