Monday, September 29, 2014

Buttercream Cake Decorations

Eleanor blowing out the candles on her birthday cake, iced and decorated with buttercream.
Elaborately decorated cakes often taste not so great. That's right, not so great.

This is because satin smooth finishes and fancy three-dimensional decorations are usually obtained with rolled fondants and gumpastes, sickly sweet sugar doughs that frankly taste terrible.

I really don't want to eat a cake that's covered with something bought in a can at the craft store, not to mention the manhandling that goes into getting these decorations onto the cake. Do I really want eat fondant that's been warmed in someone's hands before being rolled out and pressed and smoothed onto a cake? No, I don't. I want cake topped with homemade frosting that's applied with a spreader.

The fact is though that I do get requests to make special theme decorated cakes for celebrations and I've done my best to figure out a way to make these cakes with buttercream.

Recently my daughter Eleanor asked me to make a CaptainSparklez cake for her 15th birthday celebration. For those who don't know (I wouldn't if it weren't for Eleanor), CaptainSparklez (real name Jordan Maron) is a very popular minecraft Youtube personality with more than eight million subscribers.

For her birthday cake, Eleanor asked me to put the CaptainSparklez logo on top of a Guinness chocolate cake.
The CaptainSparklez logo.
 Lucky for me, the logo isn't too intricate and with a bit of help from my much more artistic husband Joe, who outlined the logo for me onto the cake using a wooden skewer, the cake turned out great. The final buttercream decoration looked clean, was recognizable and most importantly tasted great.
Eleanor's cake.
And, it was easy to make. After Joe outlined the logo, I traced the outline with buttercream using a #2 tip and then filled it in by adding more buttercream and simply smoothing it out with a small table knife. Completing the decoration took just about 30 minutes.
Joe used a skewer to outline the logo onto the yellow buttercream iced cake. If you don't feel comfortable just going for it, an option would be to print and cut out a template that you could trace.

I outlined the design using a # 2 tip, filled it in using the same icing and tip and used a small knife to smooth it out.
Almost done!

Here are some other cakes I've made using the same technique of piping an outline, filling it in with buttercream and using a knife to spread the frosting. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

Airplane Cake:
This is still my all-time favorite cake and was for my friend Jack's 90th birthday. The airplane is the B-29 he flew as a navigator in World War II.

I traced the plane using a cardboard template. Once again, my husband Joe helped by drawing it for me. Then I set the template on the cake, traced it then outlined and filled it with buttercream.
The template.

Adding more details with buttercream.

The skewer trick of tracing on your design before you add the icing also helped me get the lettering onto Jack's cake.

Dinosaur Cake:
This cake was for my Goddaughter GraceLin's 5th birthday party.

I used a dinosaur cookie cutter as a guide to making a template.


Fill in the dinosaur and smooth out the buttercream using a small knife.

Looking good.

Looking even better with some pearl sugar for teeth, a candy eye and upside down heart sprinkles for spikes.

And, here's the recipe for the Swiss Meringue Buttercream that I use. It's from Julie Richardson of Baker & Spice Bakery and it's absolutely delicious and not too sweet.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream
6 large egg whites
1 1/4  cups granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
2 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon of fine sea salt
1 tablespoon espresso powder, dissolved in 2 teaspoons hot water.

Place the whites in a clean mixing bowl. Whisk in sugar and cream of tartar.

Place bowl over a double boiler on medium heat, stir frequently until the mixture is very hot (120 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit).

Move to mixer and whip whites on high for 2 to 3 minutes; turn down to medium low until cool (use the bowl as your guide).

In a separate bowl with a wooden spoon, stir butter to soften.

With mixer on medium/high speed, add the butter one tablespoon at a time, adding the next tablespoon just as the previous one is blended in. Once all the butter incorporated, add in vanilla, salt and coffee and whip on high speed until fluffy.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Autumn Tree Cookies

These Autumn Tree Cookies just kind of evolved as I recently baked and decorated a batch of cookies just for fun so that I could experiment and practice.

When it comes to cookie decorating, I will never rest on my laurels. There's always something to learn and new cookies to attempt.

The falling leaves on the cookies were added with a #67 Wilton leaf tip.  These cookies came together quickly and what I found most difficult was trying to decide where to add the leaves. I wanted their placement to look natural and for me that was hard to do.

I used dark blue royal icing for the trees and added them while the white base coat was still wet.

I'm now thinking that for Halloween I should make black trees on an orange base coat.  I think that would look really cool and I could also add some black crows and a full moon. I know I'm getting ahead of myself but I can't help it, I really enjoy the creative process of cookie decorating.

Here's how to decorate Autumn Tree Cookies:
Outline the cookies with medium consistency royal icing using a #2 tip. Let this dry for about 30 minutes before moving on to the next step.
Put flood consistency blue and white royal icing into pastry bags that are each fitted with a #2 tip. Flood the cookie with the white icing.

Then immediately use the blue icing to make a tree trunk. It doesn't have to be perfect.

Add some branches.

Here's another example. Let the cookie dry completely before adding the leaves.
It usually takes anywhere from 8 to 12 hours for the cookies to dry completely.

After the cookie has dried, pipe dark orange leaves onto the tree using stiff royal icing and a #67 Wilton leaf tip. Once the leaves are added, use a skewer or scribe tool to gently flatten them. If you leave them sticking up and out like in this photo, they will be too fragile for packaging.

This is how the leaves look after gently flattening them. Wait for the leaves to dry completely before packaging.
Here's an Autumn Tree Cookie with some Double-Decker Mini Pumpkin Cookies that were also part of my recent practice batch. Happy Autumn!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

How To Decorate Pumpkin Cookies (In Three Easy Steps)

These Pumpkin Cookies can be decorated in three easy steps using a piping technique that adds diminision and interest.

And now is the perfect time to learn how to make them since they are ideal for fast approaching Fall, Halloween and Thanksgiving celebrations.

I made my pumpkins mini-sized and used them to top a batch of double-decker Fall cookies but they are definitely cute just the way they are too.

My recent batch of double-decker cookies.

Here's how to decorate them in three easy steps:

Step 1:
Outline and fill the two outside sections of the pumpkins with flood consistency royal icing. Let this dry for at least 15 minutes before moving on to the next step.

Step 2:
Outline and fill in the middle sections with the same icing. You might need to use a skewer or scribe tool to ease the icing all the way to the inside edges of the already filled sections.
Step 3:

Finally add a green stem using a paint brush and piping consistency royal icing. I have a small stiff square tip brush from Wilton that I recommend using. By painting on the stem you eliminate having to use a pastry bag and it gives that rough textured look of a real pumpkin stem.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Changing Weather And A Full Dining Room

After a long dry summer, the weather in Portland has suddenly changed to rain, marking the start of cooler temperatures and rough outdoor living conditions for our homeless Wednesday Community Meal guests.

When I entered Trinity Episcopal Cathedral this morning at 7:30 a.m, there already was a line for the meal which was still three and a half hours away. By opening time, the line went all the way through the church's large courtyard and out to the sidewalk.

Unpleasant weather always causes our guests linger longer in the dining room and who can blame them for that? — But this means that tables don't clear up as quickly, there's a constant line to be seated and a more hectic feel to the meal. All of our volunteers worked really hard today.

The first 75 guests inside got chili dogs as their main entree. After that there were tamales, enchiladas, chicken, beef stir fry, green curry, cod, halibut, gumbo and pizza. It was a challenge changing entrees so many times but we need to utilize the food we glean from our donors to help keep our costs down.
Seventy-five of our guests today got a chili dog, quinoa, collard greens and fruit.

We offered all of our guests green salads made by volunteer Linda. We were short kitchen volunteers today but that didn't faze Linda who on her own made all of the salads we served. The just-picked tomatoes in the salads are from Linda and her husband John's garden.

Thank you Good Samaritan Hospital, Phil's Uptown Meat Market, Trader Joes, Pizza Schmizza, Grand Central Bakery and Starbucks! Because of your generosity, we were able to feed everyone who came to our door today a well-rounded delicious and nutritious meal. We served 362.

Dessert today was an assortment of cakes and pastries courtesy of the Trader Joe's on NW Glisan Street.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Watermelon Macarons

A box of lemon and watermelon macarons.
 I'm always on the lookout for new French macaron flavors so I was happy when I recently spotted watermelon flavoring for sale at Michael's Arts & Crafts.

Watermelon flavor from LorAnn Oils.
The flavoring is from LorAnn Oils and is super concentrated, just a few drops equals a teaspoon of traditional extract, so just a bit is needed to flavor a full batch of buttercream.

Because the flavoring is artificial though, I was a bit worried about how it would taste but my daughter Eleanor on the other hand had no qualms. "I can't wait. Watermelon macarons are going to be so good," she enthusiastically said. Then again, her favorite flavor is blue raspberry so I still worried a bit. The only way to find out was to make and taste them.

I didn't tell my husband what I was up to and when I gave him a blind taste of a finished macaron and asked him to guess the flavor he said, "cucumber?" Cucumbers are fresh and natural so I was indeed relived that it didn't taste artificial. When I told him it was watermelon he said, "Oh yeah, I should have gotten that. Now I can taste it. It's really good."

I tasted one and agreed. They are delicious and a nice addition to my macaron repertoire. I am definitely going to seek out other interesting flavors from LorAnn Oils. There is a limited selection at Michael's Arts & Crafts but the company has a website and oh my gosh — they sell just about flavor you can imagine — rootbeer, bubblegum, red licorice, pina colada, strawberry kiwi, eggnog, cola... And, they also sell a line of natural extracts.

I can't wait to try more! In the meantime, here's the recipe for Watermelon Macarons:

Watermelon Macarons 
180g ground almonds, sifted
270g powdered sugar, sifted
150g egg whites, aged 2 to 4 days in the fridge and then brought to room temperature
100g granulated sugar
 Red food coloring

Line four heavy baking sheets with good quality parchment paper and set aside. Also, set aside two pastry bags for the piping of the macarons.

Sift together your ground almonds with the powdered sugar and set aside.

Whisk the egg whites (at room temperature) to glossy firm peaks adding the granulated sugar gradually in four parts. Add the coloring.

Incorporate the dry ingredients into the beaten egg whites using a large rubber scraper.  Mix well. 
Fold the mixture with the rubber scraper by pulling down the sides and flipping the mixture over. Do this until you have a smooth mixture that falls like a “ribbon” off the scraper.

Transfer the mixture into the two piping bags. Use rubber bands to close the piping bags. Clip the tip of the bags, one at a time, and pipe small quarter sized rounds, leaving 1-inch of space between each because they spread as they set.

Leave to set for about 30 minutes or until the top has formed a crust and is not sticky to the touch.
While they are setting, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. A convection oven is preferable.  Bake one sheet at a time in the center of the oven for about 12 minutes or until the cookie is firm, matte and doesn't wobble when touched.

Leave on the baking tray until cool then lift them all off the parchment carefully. You may need to use a thin knife to help lift them off.

Sort into pairs and fill with Watermelon Buttercream.

Filling the macarons.

Watermelon Buttercream
3 large egg whites
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/8 teaspoon super concentrated Watermelon Flavor from LorAnn Oils
pinch of fine sea salt
green food coloring

Place the whites in a clean mixing bowl. Whisk in sugar and cream of tartar.

Place bowl over a double boiler on medium heat, stir frequently until the mixture is very hot (120 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit).

Move to mixer and whip whites on high for 2 to 3 minutes; turn down to medium low until cool (use the bowl as your guide).

In a separate bowl with a wooden spoon, stir butter to soften.

With mixer on medium/high speed, add the butter one tablespoon at a time, adding the next tablespoon just as the previous one is blended in. Once all the butter incorporated, add in the watermelon flavor and salt and whip on high speed until fluffy. Tint with green food coloring.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Macaron Boxes

I couldn't resist making macarons so that I could see how they looked in my new boxes. I like it!

I'm so excited to share with you these boxes I found online just for packaging macarons.

When I first started making macarons a few years ago, I couldn't find any boxes specifically made for them so I came up with my cupcake-liner and cellophane bag solution which works well and is cute but I always held out hope I would also find some great boxes. A box does look more professional.

Before the boxes, this is how I packaged macarons using cupcake-liners and cellopane bags.
I found the boxes at Paper Mart, the same online company I order my cellophane bags from. They have an assortment of colors, styles and sizes to choose from and they come in parts that arrive flat and need to be folded and assembled.
The parts for one box. They arrive flat and need to be folded and assembled.

I went with the double macaron box that comfortably holds a dozen 2-inch cookies and comes in three parts — base, divider and full-window slider. Without shipping, the parts for a single completed box cost .99 which I didn't think was too bad.

Of course once my shipment arrived I had to whip up some lemon and watermelon macarons because I couldn't resist filling a box and adding a homemade tag to see how it looked. I'm very pleased.
The divider in the base helps keep the macarons stable.

I chose a slider with a full window but you can also get sliders with half a window and no window.

The homemade tag and twine adds that final touch.

These boxes will be perfect for future bake sale fundraisers for The Wednesday Community Meal. I can't wait!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Helping Wherever Needed

Bill who is one of our dedicated dishwashers really helped us out today by also serving meals in the dining room.
It just happened that four of our regular dining room volunteers weren't able to help today at the Wednesday Community Meal and we were seriously short-handed, particularly at the start when we had 10 tables full of guests waiting to be served.

Well, I know I've said it before but it takes team effort to feed the masses and we might of had a small team today but it was a great team.

Every volunteer pitched in to help wherever needed, often multitasking. Our super dishwashers in particular came to the rescue, serving in the dining room when we needed the extra help. Thank you Bill, Kevin, Jay, Steve and Dave!

We served 255 meals today and received this sweet compliment from a guest who told volunteer Cheryl, "That was the best meal I've had since last Wednesday." So sweet and why the Wednesday Community Meal is worth the work, no matter the circumstances.

Today's Meal: Pork Loin, Rice with Sauteed Kale, Roasted Zucchini and Carrots and Honeydew Melon. Trinity purchased the pork loin, the rice was donated by Good Samaritan Hospital, the kale was donated by Spring Hill Organic Farm and the carrots and zucchini came from The Oregon Food Bank.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Maple Cream Cookies

My husband chooses maple treats over anything else so I can't wait for him to taste these Maple Cream Cookies.

They are my latest creation and my version of Canada's very popular Maple Cookies. The secret to making them is using B-grade pure maple syrup which is darker and more flavorful than A-grade because it's harvested later in the season. Because it's been in the tree longer, B-grade has a stronger maple flavor and a darker color.

I also pulled back a bit on the sweetness of the filling from the purchased Canadian version which I think improves the cookie. Too much sweetness can override the maple flavor.

Before baking, I imprinted every other cookie with a maple leaf using a small cutter. This isn't a necessary step but it's cute and it lets people know that if they eat one they are in for a real maple treat.

Here's the recipe:

Maple Cream Cookies
(Makes just over a dozen 2-inch sandwich cookies)

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons B-grade maple syrup
3 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/4 cups flour

Preheat the oven to 325-degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Cream together the butter, syrup, sugar and sea salt. Add the flour and mix just until a soft dough forms.

Roll the dough on a floured surface until it is just under 1/4-inch thick. Cut cookies using a 2-inch round cutter and lay the cookies on the baking sheets, spacing 1-inch apart.  If desired use a maple cutter to imprint half of the cookies.
Cutting the cookies.

If desired, imprint every other cookie with a maple leaf. My mini leaf cutter is from a set of Fall cutters by Wilton that I found at Michael's Arts & Crafts.

Bake for 15 minutes or until done and lightly brown around the edges. Let the cookies cool completely before filling.

Maple Filling
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon B-grade maple syrup
3 tablespoons powdered sugar

Whip the butter with the syrup and powdered sugar until it is light and creamy. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag to fill the cookies.
Adding a dollop of filling.

All done. These cookies are especially good with a cup of hot tea. Enjoy!