Monday, December 22, 2014

Have Yourself a Merry Little Cake Pop

A trillion years ago when I was a child (or so it seems), Pier One came out with some of my favorite Christmas ornaments...they were just simple spherical-shaped ornaments in bright, shiny colors like blues or purples or silvers, but they were all lined in pretty glitter lines or swirls. Much like the caramel bars and various treats were a part of Christmas tradition, each year we all also bought a new ornament to put on the tree, too. I noticed once I received all my ornaments from my mother a few years ago that I was absolutely obsessed with those Pier One ornaments, as they comprised about 90 percent of the ornaments I had acquired since my youth, and since that was a trillion years ago, that's a lot of freakin' glittery ornaments. So much so that unpacking Christmas here leaves trace amounts of glitter on things until sometime in March. Apparently I share many commonalities with crows and other creatures that are as equally attracted to shiny objects as I am. Since we were having early Christmas with my mom, stepdad, sister, brother-in-law, and niece last weekend, I decided to make cake pops that were all glittery and fantastic (glitztastic, anyone?) to mirror those ornaments and reach an almost catastrophic level of glitter spill in my kitchen.
That's about seventy-five gallons of sanding sugar you're looking at right now.
I wish I could lie to you and tell you these didn't take me two days, but then I'd be lying to you and telling you these didn't take me two days...maybe I just wanted to lie to myself because I'm still picking sanding sugar out of various crevices on my kitchen counters and kitchen floors and wondering what the factories at Pier One looked like when they made all those glitter ornaments. Did they have to swim in and out of glitter each day to get to their workstations? Were snorkels involved? How can something so seemingly innocent and sparkly become so evil and unstoppable? I may never know. But I can tell you how to make these glitter swirl cake balls-- and if you heed my warnings-- you may have more success at being less of a mess. Honestly, these do require a level of patience that exceeded my grasp (there was some yelling), but if you work well under pressure, you'll show that sanding sugar who's boss.
Start by making a cake of your desired flavor, let it cool completely, and then crumble it up into tiny little pieces. I broke my French Vanilla cake up into chunks and rubbed a couple chunks together at a time, think like grating cheese, but even more delicious and without the cheese grater. So nothing at all like grating cheese, really.
In keeping with my vanilla theme, I plopped a tub of Pillsbury vanilla icing into my cake crumbles. I figured what with all the chocolate-based desserts we'd be eating over the weekend, these cake pops would pair nicely with my stepdad's lemon bars. My assumptions were correct. They also tasted really great with Pinot Grigio, FYI.
You will eventually have to use your hands to mix everything together, so wash up and keep from really ruining your family's Christmas with a round of food poisoning. Wait to ruin it in some other way that doesn't leave your family with a bathroom shortage situation, like drinking the last of the wine and not telling anyone about it.
Once your mix is...mixed...use a cookie scoop to...scoop...and then roll your cake into little balls. I will refrain from making tiny testes jokes after last week's blog. I promise. One cake should make around 33 cake balls.
Place these all on Parchment-lined cookie sheets. Freeze for a half hour or so. I ended up breaking this up into two days, so once my pops were done, I actually decided just to put them in the fridge overnight, but didn't take a picture of that. So here's what my garage freezer looks like. Much like it's attached fridge, it is also full of booze and poor life choices.
If you have the time to do these all in one day, I highly recommend it. Either leave in the freezer for 30 minutes to 1 hour or in the fridge for 2 hours. I didn't have the time to start on these until about 5 p.m., so I threw in the towel to make dinner; otherwise I was going to feast on uncoated cake pops, and this would have been a very sad, very eye-opening blog. On to day two...
Hobby Lobby, for all your clean-house-ruining dreams.
Depending on what color you want your faux-glitztastic ornaments, buy a bag of melts for each. You should get enough melts out of one bag to decorate 10-12 pops, so I recommend selecting three bags of melts. I knew I didn't want these to stay actual cake pops since pops are much harder to travel with, so I bought mini cupcake papers to place them into...I know, I'm a genius. I bought sanding sugar in colors to match, and Styrofoam blocks to places the pops in to dry.
We meet again...
I inadvertently did myself a huge favor by leaving these in the fridge all night because I gave myself a chance to re-roll each ball into a smoother, less lopsided...blob. The nine on the left are re-rolled, so you can see how much nicer and actually spherical they are. I recommend a re-roll after you have cooled your pops regardless. But you will need to stick these back in the fridge for just a few (10-20 minutes) after re-rolling so they can maintain their shape.
Use about 2/3 of a bag of melts, and melt away, baby! Then place your stick into the chocolate...
And stab each pop through the heart.
Then display your trophies as a warning to other cake balls in a Styrofoam block.
This was only my second time making cake pops, and I learned a few things I want to pass on to you to make this process easier. When I made the purple pops, I left them out while the melts hardened around the stick. This meant that my pops sat out at room temperature for too long, so when I wanted to actually coat the whole pop into the melted chocolate, things got very slippery, very fast. The pops were too warm and wanted to just break apart or slide right off the stick. They were crumbling faster than me watching an emotional episode of Supernatural...I just want Dean to be happy, okay? So I learned my lesson, and HEED MY WARNING! Place your pops BACK into the fridge after you spear them to death. Let them cool back off for about 10 minutes, preferably 20. 

So remember:
Stab, THEN cool. Since you're working in color groups, you can do one color, let cool, and while they're cooling, start the process on another color...stab, then cool, stab, then cool. Repeat until you've run out of objects to skewer.
Once the pops are cooled back down and the sticks firmly cemented in place, dip each pop into the color of your choice. Pull out of the melts, and get to tapping.
You want to tap it a few times up against your dish, then turn, tap a few times, then turn...keep doing this until you have evenly distributed the melts and things look nice and smooth.
I was so proud of how smooth the blue pops turned out, my faith had been restored. My purple pops turned out horrid since I was too impatient and hadn't yet learned my lesson, so it should come as no surprise that I have no pictures of those.
Time is really a factor here. The melts cool fast, so you'll want to spend about a minute dipping and tapping each pop into a perfect sphere. You will lose your mind if you try to do all 33 of these at once, so give yourself a break. After the purple pop fiasco, I took a breather while considering if art is punishment or vice versa before getting back at it. I also wondered how many pops I could fit into my mouth at once, but decided against going for it since I'm not sure whether my dog knows the Heimlich maneuver.
Now, get ready to make a mess and possible disaster area.
You'll also want to raid your spice cabinet for a lid to fit the top of your sanding sugar to maintain some semblance of control.
Once you've dipped all your pops and they have sat out to harden for about 15-30 minutes, you're ready to get down to decorating. You will want to take the remaining 1/3 of your bag of melts, and melt according to package instructions. Let that cool off for a bit while you fit three piping bags with small round tips...Wilton 2, 3, or 4 tips will work for these designs. The thing about decorating with chocolate melts...its messy. There is this perfect 5-minute window where the chocolate is not so hot that it is spewing everywhere like a bleeding limb (think the Black Night from Monty Python), or not so cold that has hardened into what more resembles cement than an edible material. This is where patience comes in handy. Even if you aren't the most patient person, realize that just about any ugly incidents can be covered up with a proper amount of glitter. Sparkles fix EVERYTHING. So, using my ugly purple pops (why didn't I think to do this with my beautiful blues...), let me show you some mock techniques on decorating...
                                     video

video
Since I don't have a third arm, I couldn't really show the technique while actually piping, but you get the gist. Have fun with it, really. Make messy lines instead of swirls, or make tons of little swirls, or write your name on a few to claim them as your own, whatever you like. Just remember to do ONE POP at a time. Once you have decorated ONE POP the way you want, hold it over a bowl, and top it with your sanding sugar. Those melts dry fast, so you need to get the sanding sugar on while they are still wet.
Not pictured, the sanding sugar inside of my shirt.
You can come back over your pops with more piped lines and even do sanding sugar in another color. I started to really mix up my glitter colors and designs with the white pops, so of course I forgot to take pictures of that.
If you buy melts and sanding sugars that all look nice together, you can really come up with a ton of color combinations when you add sanding sugar to the pops. I do wish I had been more adventurous with my pops, but live and learn. They still tasted delicious either way. But dear God...I took too long decorating a few of my purple pops, and the chocolate hardened up in the decorating tip. This led to me pushing really hard on the decorator bag and the decorating tip flew off the bag, and chocolate spewed EVERYWHERE. Its like candle wax, and it hardened completely as soon as it was out of the bag and exposed to air. Lesson learned- find the magical Goldilocks window where its not too hot and not too cold. This happens approximately 8 minutes after heating the remaining melts to decorate with. 

It's beginning to look a lot like cake pops! God, I have tons of these...
As for the sanding sugar mess, be sure to keep a LARGE bowl under your pop as you dust it with glitter, and keep wet paper towels to mop up whatever spills outside of the bowl. I used a small bowl, and by the end of it, I had purple, blue, and white sanding sugar covering my kitchen floor with such intense volume that I felt like I was standing on a real beach. Not exactly what I had in mind as far as tropical vacations go. Once my pops were totally dry (another 10 minutes), I simply wiggled the sticks out of the bottom and placed each pop into a cupcake paper, as seen above.
You look good enough to stare at for a minute, then eat.
I gently placed all my pops, now just balls (no joking here), into a large Tupperware to make them travel safe. I put them into a hot/cold bag on top of a bag of ice so they would stay cool for my travels. I'm glad I did, too, because I was slowed down a bit...
...by this Silent Hill fog that had rolled into Texas. Literally the moment I crossed state lines, I was met with low visibility and a sneaking suspicion that Pyramid Head was waiting just out of sight to ruin my Christmas. This was the second year in a row I've had to drive through pea-soup fog to get to Denton...but I'll take that over the year I was stranded on I-20 for 18 hours in a snowstorm in a line of 20 miles worth of other traffic. Fa la la la la la la la, dammit. Maybe I should just stay home next Christmas.
But my sister has way better serving dishes for photography purposes.
Early Christmas was a success, and Derek was finally able to join us all for a major holiday and is now home. For the time being. Don't want to jinx it. Knock on lots of wood. So if you want to bring in the wow factor this Christmas, start on these pops tomorrow and by Christmas day, you and your family can be eating decadent little cake balls that look like ornaments that tested every last bit of the sanity you had left for 2014. Thank God you get to go on a cruise soon. Wait, that's not you...that's me. So I'll be back, Terminator style, in 2015 with hopeful tales of wonder and excitement from the Caribbean. Have yourself a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year- all filled with treats! And tell me how delicious they are, because I couldn't have picked a worse time of year to have to wear a bikini. 'Til next time, my fellow eaters!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Traditions You Can Really Sink Your Teeth into!

For all major holidays, every family in the world as a different tradition when it comes to proper celebration. Maybe your drunk Uncle Larry likes to fall asleep under the Christmas tree every Christmas Eve, or perhaps your grandmother makes a mean spiked 'nog...whatever it may be, if you took it away a piece of that holiday would be missing. I am fortunate enough to have inherited my mother's ability to bake (and also her awesome sense of style), so I can carry on the tradition that reaches back as far as I can remember each Christmas: Spending a ridiculous amount of time slaving over a hot oven to make treats for the family. Every year growing up, my mother would make fields of Spritz cookies, peanut butter Kiss cookies, caramel bars, chocolate fudge-- hell, my stepdad even makes a lemon bar that would make you salivate upon first whiff from the oven. At this point you may be asking yourself if I got Type 2 Diabetes for my 11th Christmas, but my mother has eyes in the back of her head and hearing that is best described as a combination of echolocation meets librarian. If I so much as thought about gliding through the kitchen in one pass to open a Tupperware lid and wait a solid 15 minutes before returning through the kitchen to grab a treat from that Tupperware, she would know. She would be there...waiting. It was something akin to a storyline from all the Ocean's 11 movies. There was no pulling one over on her.
But you can see why I still tried anyway.
2014 is the year of celebrating Christmas early in my family, so I made these treats last week so I could indulge my dad and stepmom with peanut butter Kiss cookies and caramel bars when they began Christmasapolooza '14: The visiting of the family. The cookies are so insanely easy to make, so I'll start with them and work my way to the caramel bars. I thought about making fudge, but the greatest fudge in the world can be mailed to me from Frankenmuth, Michigan, so I decided to pass on that...plus, Derek is still not home, so I cannot be trusted with that mass quantity of dessert.
Standard ingredients- check.
Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies:
  • 1/2 C butter
  • 1/2 C sugar
  • 1/2 C brown sugar
  • 1/2 C peanut butter- Jif, unless you hate your family.
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla (not pictured, was being shy)
  • 1 3/4 C flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 bag of Hershey Kisses
Oh yay, a crappy picture tutorial! You're welcome, reader. Start by creaming together the butter and both sugars. Resist eating bowl of sugar-butter paste.
Add in the egg, peanut butter, and vanilla extract and blend until combined. If you have no quality or zest for life, I suppose you could use Skippy peanut butter, but you're then the one responsible for ruining Christmas.
Once your cookie dough is mixed, you can either shape into little balls (haha) with your hand, or use a cookie scoop. I always opt for the scoop to keep my hands clean. Then take your little balls (haha) and roll them around in a dish of plain white sugar..good name for a crappy Indie cover band. You know they'd be from Dayton or Toledo.
At this point, I forgot to take a photo, but you're going to need to have your oven preheated to 350, and place the little balls..pause for chuckle...onto a baking sheet. You will need two sheets because depending on the size of your balls (c'mon, its funny), this makes 24+ cookies. Bake your cookies for 8-10 minutes depending on the size.
While baking, unwrap however many Kisses there are cookies. Pull out of the oven after 8-10 minutes and smoosh a Kiss into the top of each cookie. This gives me an insane sense of satisfaction, like popping bubble wrap or peeling the goo off  the back of gift cards. I need serious psychological help. Stick back in the oven for 2-5 minutes so the Kiss doesn't completely melt, but gets all gooey and yummy.
Let rest on the cookie sheet for a few minutes, then move to parchment paper to finish cooling. These are absolutely amazing fresh out of the oven, but even better after a day or so when the cookie part gets a hint of crunch while the Kiss stays soft. Such a winning combination!!
 Easy enough? Right? I mean, you even get to eat a few Kisses while you're waiting because you simply deserve it. Now, I want to introduce you to a dessert that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE. I suppose you could even consider it somewhat healthy because it contains oatmeal. Its a stretch, but I'll take it. Ladies and gents, here's how to make my mother's awesome caramel bar recipe...drum roll, please...
So much goodness, so few mouths.
Caramel Bars:
  • One bag of Kraft caramels
  • 5 ounce can evaporated milk
  • 1 C flour
  • 1 C quick cook oatmeal...is there other oatmeal besides Quaker? I mean, this is like the whole peanut butter discussion all over again.
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 C butter
  • 3/4 C brown sugar
  • 12 ounce bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • Prepare yourself for yet another crappy photo tutorial!!
Start by mixing the flour, oatmeal (uncooked), brown sugar, baking soda, salt, and butter together.
All ingredients should be blended nicely together, but it looks like cornmeal to me at this point.
Oh yes, you get to use the rolling pin for this!!! Take the dough and flatten it out with your rolling pin, or even by hand...you may have had a bad enough week to punch some unassuming dough flat, I'm not judging. Reserve a 1/3 of the dough for later.
In either case, you want it to be thin but not too thin. Like, crust thickness...yes, crust thickness. That's a new measure of thickness you heard hear first.
Again with the pivoting...now, take sections of dough and press them into a greased 9x13 pan...
Until you've covered the whole bottom of the pan. I had some seams in there that I just smooshed together with my fingers. You just don't want stuff to leak through later. Now toss this in your already preheated oven leftover from round 1: the cookies, and bake at 350 for 12-15 minutes until golden.
While your crust is golden..ing, unwrap all of the caramels and dump them into a microwave safe dish. Pour the evaporated milk on top, and microwave together. Try one and a half minutes, then stir, and another one and a half minutes, then stir, and you should have well-mixed milky caramely goodness.
Once the time is up on your crust, remove it from the oven and then sprinkle the whole thing evenly with the bag of chocolate chips. Sorry, no leftovers here. Work quickly to evenly distribute the chips since they melt like an albino on a hot day over that crust.
Pour the caramel mixture evenly over the chips.
I realize that looks like nacho cheese,  but trust me, its not.
Now, take the remaining 1/3 of crust, and top the mixture with it. It doesn't have to be perfect or cover every inch, as it will expand a bit in the oven, and having some caramel seeping through the top makes it look pretty. True fact. Place back in to the oven and bake another 10-15 minutes until nice and golden..y.
And there you have it! These bars aren't the most gorgeous dessert in the world, but my God are they delicious. I would go so far as to say "life-altering" would be an appropriate way to describe them. I mean, my parents have been divorced since I was like 4, and my dad still goes on about these babies. He was more than happy to help finish off half a pan of these in two days. That's a dessert, right there. Since my poor husband is still MIA until Thursday, I took half the cookies and half the bars and froze them. This is the season of giving, after all. I give the gift of calorie-laden treats from my family to yours this year. 'Til next time, my fellow eaters!
That Santa sure is one lucky bastard when he comes down my chimney...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Its Beginning to Look a Lot like (The Nightmare Before) Christmas

I've been fortunate enough to make quite a few "milestone" birthday cakes this year...my niece's first, a friend's 40th, my sister's 30th, and last weekend, another friend's 30th. Had you told me all this would occur this past April when I started baking, I would've laughed at you. I mean, I still laugh (nervously) now because every time I am asked or volunteer to make a cake for an event, I am filled with dread that things will go terribly wrong and I will be forced to beg Walmart to give me a cake at the last minute, and then Walmart wins. I cannot ever let Walmart win. They already have stripped away tiny chunks of my soul every week when I am forced to finish my grocery shopping there without committing vehicular manslaughter via shopping cart- they cannot have my pride, too. And my pride was definitely on the line because this birthday cake was my first honest to goodness paid job as a caker. A lot was riding on the line. *Cue the Rocky theme music...*
Hello, Jack.
Whew. I think I stopped breathing for a combined total of about thirty-five minutes while making this cake. My lung capacity is apparently way more impressive than I thought it was. I am happy to report that minus several snafus on the birthday girl's night (like the restaurant saying the reservation was cancelled), the cake was exactly what her husband was hoping for, and she truly enjoyed it. My cake very well could have saved the night and fed us all if need be, but thankfully that was not the case, and we all got to savor a slice later in the evening.
I thought Devil's Food would've been Jack Skellington's first choice, for obvious reasons.
 Since it was finals week, I had spent Monday-Thursday grading final essays, final portfolios, final exams, and calculating final averages. My eye still twitches a little every time I hear, see, or type the word "final." Cringe. This meant come Friday after running errands, grocery shopping, and failing to avoid Walmart, I did not have enough time to make EVERYTHING from scratch, so I had to cake-jack a box cake mix to get that fresh bakery taste. Remember, add an extra egg, use milk instead of water, and use softened butter instead of oil and double the amount. The more you know...
"I'm in need of a layer of clothing."
Once my cakes had cooled off long enough, I made the standard white frosting so I could crumb coat and then add another coat to smooth out the sides...and guess who actually made a short video clip to show this process to you? Yeah, about friggin' time, amiright?

video

This only works with non-textured paper towels, like Viva brand.
I first smooth side to side, then top to bottom for the most part.
You don't have to apply much pressure to get this done. Freeze the cake after you've put on your final layer of frosting for about 30 minutes, and to smooth it just be firm and gentle, like scolding a toddler. I'd imagine anyway, since I clearly don't have any toddlers as I have time to make cakes for fun. I also get to sleep in on a regular basis, but I don't want to make those of you with toddlers long for your past, so let's move on.
He's toddler adjacent, and usually also somehow covered in a sticky mess. However, I do encourage him to lick the floors when I drop food, which I sincerely hope you don't allow your toddler to do.
I loved only having to dye one bag of frosting. It is literally my least favorite part about caking.
To decorate, I used open star tips again, like I did with Aurie's sock monkey cake. I put plain white decorator frosting into two bags, one fitted with a triple star tip, and one with a Wilton 18 tip. I mixed chocolate decorator frosting with black dye, and fitted that bag with another 18 tip.
Baby steps, I tell ya.
To make Jack's trademark mouth and fantastic resting bitch face (totally on point), I outlined everything with a toothpick. Since I was piping on his...bone structure? Let's go with that, I did not bother to cover the top of the cake with a layer of thick frosting to smooth.I started by working my way in...
I used the triple star tip to cover more ground in the bigger areas away from his eyes, nose, and mouth. I then came back in and filled in empty spaces with the 18 tip, and decorated around the eyes, nose, and mouth.
I then used my black frosting to outline the eyes and fill them in.Side note- getting a demented Spiderman vibe here.
"PIVOT! PIVOT!" - Ross Gellar
His nostrils each took two black stars a piece.
The eyebrows were done with one line of black stars each.

For the mouth, I filled in the grin with a single, long line of black stars, and then for the stitches, single columns of black stars. I then CAREFULLY, so as not to smudge the black everywhere, came back in and filled in the rest of the mouth with my white single star tip. I became so unbelievably still I wasn't sure I was even moving while doing this. There was still time to screw up elsewhere, but this is what I worried about most!
A rope or shell border seemed too dainty or girlie for Jack- so he got a row of spikes from my 18 tip. Just pipe stars, and pull up and away quickly to create a point.
Now, I suppose you could pipe Jack's signature bow tie on to the side of the cake, but I did one further and made a bow tie out of felt paper and a dowel. My middle name is Overachiever.
I snapped a dowel that would usually be used to hold together tall or odd-shaped cakes in half, and found the felt paper in HobLob's specialty paper aisle where the crazy scrapbookers live. Not to start a crafter vs. crafter war, but who gets that excited about paper? You can't even eat it...
I fail at remembering to rotate my photos...so, I free-handed a bat on the back of the paper.
And simply cut it out! Naturally, that would be the next step.
Then I got a dab of Gorilla Glue and firmly pressed the dowel on to the paper until it could stand on its own. I had a Leaning Tower of Pisa thing happening to me for awhile, so patience is your friend for this step. I could hear the dowel keep toppling over as I was plugging away at laundry, so I gave in and just held it in place for two minutes.
I couldn't get frosting to stick to the felt, but luckily I had paint pens leftover from our painted pumpkins, so I drew on the details before plunging the dowel into the side of the cake.

And walla, Jack is ready to party! I then took a 2 tip and drew on the birthday message in my black frosting (obvs.).
Yeah, I'm super proud of this cake, so here's another picture from a slightly different angle.
In all, this cake took 5 hours from baking to final touches to make. This seems like a lot, but there is waiting in there for cakes to cool, frosting to set, etc. The actual decorating and bow tie took 2 hours. I was only making my "customer" (that sounds cooler than "buddy") pay for ingredients, but he threw in a fat tip because I'm such an awesome cake maker..or he's just nice, whatever, let me have my moment. I had done a sample cake for them many moons ago, so I was thrilled to have a "repeat customer" for the first time. The tricky part was transporting this from Clovis to Portales while sitting in their back seat with a cake on my lap.
"The job I have for you is top secret. It requires skill, craft, cunning..." ...seriously, Jack, just don't fall off on to the floorboards.
We ended up taking the cake BACK to Clovis to devour at their house..mostly because I refused to hand my cake over to strangers to put in a fridge at a restaurant that "lost" our reservations. If they "lost" my cake, I'd be blogging from a jail cell. Happy to report that did not happen, cake was had by all, and the night(mare Before Christmas...sorry couldn't resist) was good. 'Til next time, my fellow eaters!