Thursday, July 29, 2021

Adventures in Cake Decorating #9 - Beach Cupcakes


Another cake flashback. Memorial Day 2018. A nephew's first birthday. A beach-themed backyard party.

The more I look back at these beach cupcakes, the more I think they are among the cutest I've made, and I think I'd like an excuse to make them again. 

Bonus points for the decorations made entirely of edible things (uh, paper cocktail umbrellas notwithstanding) -- blue frosting for the ocean of course, and graham cracker crumbs as the beach sand, plus Teddy Grahams as the sunbathers, Lifesavers Gummies as their rafts, and Fruit by the Foot as their beach towels. 

Although a cupcake would have served the purpose, there was also a separate, special "smash cake" for the 1-year-old birthday boy, per current trend -- see the slightly larger, more cake-shaped one on the left that incorporates all of the decorative topping elements, whereas each individual cupcake only had one or two. You can see we set up a few different scenes. 

There's the floating teddy on his raft, surrounded by water. There's the all-sand cupcake, with the sunbathing teddy. My favorite vignette is probably the half-beach, half-ocean, with teddy floating in the waves, his toes poking up out of the water. (Just break off the legs of the Teddy Graham.)

I see now, I enjoyed making these so much because the decorating process was really just playing with food. 

If I find that excuse to make them again, I'll up the ante by making the cupcakes tropical flavors -- no simple vanilla or chocolate, but instead maybe coconut with pineapple goo in the middle. Or lime. Oh, now wait. Coconut and pineapple, the cocktail umbrellas... the cupcakes should be tropical drink flavored. 


Thursday, July 22, 2021

Deconstructing the dog bed


Why are the undersides of these dog beds made of this crappy fabric with the mere strength of a dryer sheet? It falls apart too easily from normal wear and tear (i.e., lying on the floor). The topside, meanwhile, which gets all the real use as the dog circles and scratches and flops and turns, is holding up just fine. It's this underside. 

Once, while our family was dog-sitting for us, my sister-in-law called to ask if the dog bed was washable. "Yes, of course, go right ahead." Well, that wash was the final nail in that dog bed's coffin -- stuffing fluff everywhere when she opened the machine at the end of the cycle, as the underside practically disintegrated.

This latest dog bed has made it through a wash or two, but the underside is pilling badly and seems just threads away from being worthless. I had already sewn a replacement inner pillow case out of an old bed sheet, so the stuffing is not about to spill out, but this outer cover is showing its not-so-old age. Time to fix this problem.

Thankfully, replacing one side of a rectangular pillow-style dog bed is a simple project. I have my trusty seam ripper to separate the top and bottom rectangles of fabric as well as the zipper from the one side being replaced.

Oops. Pause the project for 20 minutes or so while I reattach the zipper tab I accidentally pulled all the way off!

Oh, and then this tangle resulting from my hasty bobbin-loading:

Some people -- most people -- would just cut the the thread at this point and move on. I, on the other hand, was determined to save what turned out to be at least 10 feet of good thread. It took another 15 minutes, but I got it.

This is why the seam ripper remains my best friend.

Aside from those complications, an easy project:

Spread out whatever fabric you're using to replace the disintegrating underside. I had a big blue piece of fabric leftover from some other thing. Lay the good rectangle of fabric from the dog bed (the topside we're keeping) on top of it as your pattern. Cut out a rectangle from the new fabric to match. 

Place the two rectangles together right sides facing in (i.e., their outsides against each other, so it will be inside-out when sewn together). Sew up three sides. Sew up the zipper side -- something I am no longer trepidatious about doing since the time I finally sewed one onto a bean bag chair I was making for my dad, after procrastinating for quite some time out of fear. (Hm, did I take pictures of that project? I will have to check and possibly add a post.)

Now, turn it right-side-out. Stuff the inner pillow back in. Happy dog!

Yes, that is a dog bed on top of a dog bed. He's a spoiled boy.


Thursday, July 15, 2021

Farming in the backyard (and side yard, and front yard...)

"You guys do a lot of farming," observed one of our eight-year-old neighbors.

Not as much as I'd like, was my first thought, and not nearly as much as the neighbors a few door down, who last summer put a basket of free cucumbers at the end of their driveway, from which we gratefully selected a couple for making cold cucumber-avocado soup. 

We're surely not suburban-homesteading to the max, but I guess what we do is impressive to the eight-year-olds next door. Together, we counted the edible things growing in the side flowerbeds and backyard (recognizing that many were not in their edible season):
  1. Strawberries (recently finished)
  2. Rhubarb
  3. Raspberries (ripening daily now!)
  4. Onions (Egyptian walking and green, always in season, really)
  5. Sunflowers
  6. Apple trees (maybe next year?)
  7. Cherry tree (maybe next year?)
  8. Tomatoes (possibly 4 kinds, but time will tell)
  9. Marigolds (technically edible, but I have not tried)
  10. Many herbs (generally in season all summer: cilantro, lemon balm, spearmint, oregano, basil, marjoram, and... parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme!)
  11. And, newly planted (and therefore not previously counted) tabasco peppers and chamomile.

For not having any official "Square Foot Gardening" raised beds, we're cramming it in. I'm looking forward to our strawberry, rhubarb, and raspberry transplants spreading their roots and tubers and shoots this summer for a more productive crop next year. Fingers crossed. 

I wanted a more robust herb garden, so I spent money on it this year. But, I also like to at least pretend I'm self sufficient, so I'll be trying to save seeds from those herbs this fall.

I have been enjoying the blessing of time, thanks to working from home. Just a fraction of the time I used to spend on commuting is now spent tending the garden. I've realized that it isn't just an extra 10-15 hours a week I have -- it's extra energy. There's a momentum no longer interrupted by the commute. How many four o'clocks did I daydream at the office about some creative endeavor at home, only to find that energy sapped by 6:30? Motivation enough only to make and eat dinner, and maybe clean up after it. 

I'm still regularly a couch potato after 7 p.m., sure. But between signing off for the day and starting dinner, plus a lunch break in the backyard, there's time and energy aplenty for farming.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Adventures in Cake Decorating #8 - Bowling Cake


This is the cake that started it all. 

Or, maybe the cake that continued it all? It was before any of the niblings were born, so I didn't have regular birthday cake "clientele" yet, but I had already made baby block cakes for a friend (so many things I have learned to do better since then!). Even before that, I'd had ambitions on making our wedding cake myself -- ambitions left unrealized, as getting a great deal at a traditional bakery coincided with starting a brand new, soul-sucking job less than a month before the wedding. 

It's definitely the cake that ignited my enthusiasm for using cookies as a part of the decoration. (See later the Word World cake and cookies, the Cookie monster cupcakes with ABC and 123 cookies, a dinosaur cake I haven't told you about yet, and some sort of woodland creature cake and cookie combo I'd like to make, inspired by an autumn issue of Woman's Day magazine.)

This bowling cake was early enough in my cake decorating hobby-career that I can see now what I could have done better. Nevertheless, I still think it was awesome.

It was a large sheet cake; i.e., two 13x9 cakes set next to each other.

The bowling bowl was a smaller cake baked in a bowl. Tip: Use as round a bowl as possible (you know, some have a flat bottom inside), but then sculpt and/or patch with cake scraps and frosting.

The wood grain of the bowling lane was watered down brown food coloring, painted onto the crusted buttercream base. (Crusted = the buttercream has been allowed to sit exposed to the air, so it sets (or dries or hardens) enough that you can touch it lightly without it sticking to you.)

I thought I was so clever, illustrating that it was a 30th birthday by piping on a score sheet with the beginnings of a perfect game. Three strikes in a row = 30 points for the first frame!

Then, of course, sugar cookie bowling pins. I didn't have a bowling pin cookie cutter but rather cut these by hand using a paper template -- easy enough to do when the cookie is large and symmetrical.

And, that's a look back at one of my first three-dimensional birthday cakes.


Thursday, July 1, 2021

You may try to be a fair-weather bicycle commuter


 Len has been biking to work lately -- 19 miles round trip. Most of the time, the weather has cooperated.

When your preferred transport is an open-air vehicle, you become obsessed with the weather. Did they say it would rain today? Does it look it will rain? How hot is supposed to be? How hot does it feel? Alexa, what's the hourly forecast?

Then I was reading a Bicycling Magazine article, "6 Cycling Mistakes I've Made So You Don't Have To," by Fit Chick Selene Yeager. Mistake #3: Believe the Weather.

"Why, oh why is it still so difficult to predict the weather in the 21st century? And why, oh, why do I still believe said forecasts? (And I have four weather apps that I check obsessively before any given event.)"

I second that! I don't have four weather apps, per se, but I watch the morning news, ask Alexa, and wander outside to look around. Sometimes I'll pull up a weather radar online.

Yeager's lament is more about stubbornly going forth and then not finishing an event due to severely inclement weather. I have been thoroughly soaked by unanticipated rain plenty of times -- on the way to work, on the way home, on our Katy Trail trip -- but I've also had the opposite problem -- deciding not to get on the bike, thinking it will storm on me, only to spend a gorgeous day wasting gas in the car instead. Sigh.

Getting caught in the rain can be refreshing in a way. It can also be miserable, let's be honest. At least it comes with a rugged sense of fortitude. There is no positive feeling haven driven the car out of fear only to realize you could have biked.

The past week has been very rainy, and even still, Len biked every day. He did have to slog through rain a couple of times -- thank goodness for locker rooms.

Moral of the story? Do or don't trust the weather, and kudos to you if you biked somewhere today!


Thursday, June 24, 2021



Just a few months ago, I posted about cooking with kitchen scraps, but the overarching theme had more to do with making the most of your leftovers than using actual scraps (stems, peels, cores) -- although James P. DeWan's column did touch on that. Well, I've just learned that IKEA came out with The ScrapsBook earlier this year. It's a cookbook based on using typically discarded parts of food and features other tips for reducing your food waste at home, including uses for inedible scraps like eggshells (besides simply composting them).

Skeptical as you may be about putting banana peels in a cake and apple pulp in a burger, you might be comforted to find within the cookbook some more familiar "waste not" tricks you already have up your sleeve -- or is it just me? Things like freestyle vegetable soup to clear random things out of the fridge, a stash of chicken bones in the freezer for making broth later, cheese rinds to enrich a sauce, and watermelon rind preserves.

Another thing the cookbook has going for it -- photos. You know you're more inclined to try a recipe when it comes with a beautiful picture of the finished product. Each recipe also has a real professional chef's name behind it, imbuing the incredible with some credibility.

And another thing. The e-book is free to download. No risk to flip through. Yes, IKEA products are identified throughout the book, but they're unobtrusive.

But, wait! There's more!

A few days later, I (coincidentally?) read a newspaper article titled "Think outside the banana" that featured two recipes using -- you guessed it -- banana peels. Apparently, these slippery characters have made news before:

  • Food personality Nigella Lawson made headlines when she prepared a cauliflower and banana peel dish on TV.
  • Nadiya Hussain (a Great British Bake Off winner who suddenly had a cooking show of her own) made whole-banana bread and also brought to light a savory way to prepare banana peels common in Bengali cuisine -- think pulled pork but with sliced banana peels -- which is essentially how vegans have been using banana peels for a while now, like a shredded meat substitute.
  • And, there's an earlier cookbook: Cooking With Scraps by food writer Linsday-Jean Hard.

I guess the thing most foreign to me that I am also most likely (maybe?) to try in the near future will be one of several banana peel recipes out there, as we just so happen to have a plethora of ripening bananas at the moment. I'll keep you posted if I do... 


Thursday, June 17, 2021

Adventures in Cake Decorating #7 - Flame Cupcakes for Fireman Sam


Another nephew's birthday party, another cartoon character–inspired birthday cake. Cupcakes of course, in this era of serving food with as little touching as possible.

These Fireman Sam cupcakes were a simple job of using store-bought decorations -- see the toothpick toppers and edible wafers -- so the creative part was choosing icing colors. 

I did yellow and blue icing to sort of match the main character's hat and jacket. And then, the most fun part, flame icing!

I learned a new trick from another blogger's post, How to Make Multi-Colored Swirled Cupcakes, which you can read for more details, but here's a quick overview of what I did to make the tri-colored flames atop the Fireman Sam cupcakes:

  1. Make three colors of buttercream. I made red, orange, and yellow.
  2. Glob each colored icing onto its own sheet of wax paper and chill for a short while in the fridge, until you can touch the icing without it sticking to your fingers.
  3. Use the wax paper to help you gently roll each color of icing into a thin log.
  4. Now put all three logs together and slide them into an icing bag. Let the icing warm back up to room temperature, so it's again easily squeezable.
  5. Have fun piping a tri-colored swirl!


  • Keeping your three icing colors individually wrapped inside the piping bag, as instructed in the aforementioned Beki Cook's Cake Blog, will help keep each color more defined. Skipping the individual wraps and just letting the three colored logs of icing touch inside the bag works fine, especially if your colors are analogous (like red, orange, and yellow), but toward the end, because you've been squeezing, the colors will start to blend together. My last flame cupcake, as I used up the rest of the icing in the bag, was not multi-colored but rather a solid red-orange. That worked fine for the Fireman Sam theme, but it may not be OK if your colors are opposites, like blue and orange, which mix together to make gross-colored icing.
  • Edible pre-printed wafers are an easy way to decorate with precision -- no trying to draw the cartoon character yourself. The wafers taste like nothing, really. The kids may or may not believe you that they can actually eat them.