Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Quietly kicking off the 2013 garden

We've made it through February again, and I feel like my garden planning is behind schedule. But maybe not. We still have a good six weeks or so before we'll be able to get into our community garden plot, so as long as we get the indoor seeds going now...

Let's just glance at what's different this year.

First of all, I'm trying a new garden tracking website. Last year I joined Sprout Robot, which gave me a calendar of when things are supposed to happen, but seemed limited and didn't send me reminder emails as promised. I have since discovered, a "social garden tracker & organiser" that seems more comprehensive. So far, I've only signed up and named my garden, so stay tuned for a report on how the inputting of seed information goes and how the garden calendar shakes out.

So long, squash! We're only going into our fourth season in the garden plot, but we're already sick of battling squash bugs and powdery mildew. Our first time out, we grew almost nothing but squash simply because the space could be filled with viny things; we never ate so much butternut squash and pumpkin in our lives! The second year, we tried growing a much wider variety of gourds among other things; some failed miserably, others, a modest yield. Last year, even though we told ourselves we were giving up growing squash, I just couldn't stand to see the seeds go unused, and we planted a few kinds anyway. Pff! I was only reminded that it wasn't worth the effort. So this year, no squash! Forget it. Well, maybe I'll still try the cucumbers and maybe zucchini—no! None of those things. Don't let me do it!

Also, no beans. Like the squash, it's an issue of the yield not justifying the effort or use of space.

Instead, we're increasing the veggies that seem to do well no matter the uncooperative weather or our sporadically lackadaisical approach. More beets! More carrots! Okra, tomatoes, kale, and onions.

And then, even though it hasn't gone so well in the past, I still want to try a decent herb garden in our little front yard space. I even bought brand new seeds. Speaking of the front yard, we've been saving plastic two-liter bottles to use as mini greenhouses here. Perhaps to get some herbs or lettuce in earlier than usual; I haven't quite planned it out yet. At any rate, the snow needs to melt first.

Lastly, we've tried to put in a little more effort to preparing the soil. Even though the community garden was technically closed for the season, we stopped by our plot to make a late autumn deposit of compost and horse manure (collected from a guy down the road). The idea is that it will sit on top of the soil and "season" all these winter months and then be tilled into the soil as a wonderful, nutrient-rich amendment when the park district people come out in early April to give the ground a rough chop.

So anyway, it's another kick-off to big garden aspirations. I hope for everything, of course, but I promise nothing.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Adventures in Cake Decorating #3 - Book Cake

How do you celebrate the start of a new career as an English teacher? With a book cake!

The Complete Works of William Cakespeare, to be exact.

This was a fun cake to make—and fairly simple. Also, the timing of other things in life required that the cake be made in advance, giving me the perfect opportunity to try properly freezing a fully prepared cake (as opposed to leftovers). I looked at several online articles and forums to research cake-freezing, and many of them claimed that the cake tasted even better after having been frozen and thawed. Who knew? I guess lots of people, actually, because that's the way most professional bakeries do it. You think they baked, frosted and assembled your five-tier wedding cake that very morning? Please.

This book cake was just a 13x9 rectangular cake cut in half and stacked to make a smaller rectangular two-layer cake. The rounded edges of the pan even helped it look more like an old book, but I still did a little bit of trimming for a flatter top and even sides, and those scraps plus a little leftover icing became a handful of cake balls. Yum. (This was a much more low-maintenance trimming job than the wedding cake I did in March 2012.)

Once again I used a boxed cake mix (Funfetti. It was a celebration!) and canned icing (chocolate and vanilla) for the simplicity of it all. When the cake had cooled, I cut it in half and placed the first half on a rectangle of cardboard cut just a little larger than the cake itself. I loaded the top of that half with vanilla icing, except for the edge that would be the binding of the book. I spread a thick layer of chocolate in that area, so I didn't have to worry when I started frosting the sides later whether icing of different colors would mix and ruin the look. Then I put the second half on top and adjusted the icing as necessary to make a nice level surface.

For frosting the top and sides of the cake, I put the vanilla frosting on first. It was just around three sides to be the pages of the book. I did it first because the chocolate would be sticking out past the edges a bit (as the book's cover), and chocolate can more easily cover vanilla mistakes than the other way around. I very carefully spread chocolate icing all over the top and along the one remaining long edge of the rectangle, and I let it go past the edges just a touch for a more realistic book cover look. Using my typical method of keeping the spatula clean and moist by continually dipping it in a cup of hot water, I smoothed the chocolate icing as best I could.

Finishing touches
I mixed a little food coloring into some vanilla icing to create the gold text and embellishments. Before piping out the text of the book's title, I practiced it first on a piece of paper and then lined the paper up with the cake to better judge the placement.

For the crease of the binding, I just drew a line in the icing with the tip of the spatula.

To create the look of pages, I trailed a fork through the vanilla icing around those three sides of the cake. I tried my best to keep even rows. It got the point across anyway.

Freezing the cake
First and most important in order not to mess up the beautiful frosting-work: Put the cake (still on its little rectangle of cardboard) in a box small enough to fit in your freezer but large enough so that the sides and top will not touch the cake. Put the boxed cake in the freezer until the icing has frozen solid. Touch it lightly, and if doesn't come off on  your finger, give it a few more taps of the fingertips to make sure it is solid all over. Only then is it safe to proceed with wrapping.

Wrapping the frozen cake is important to protect it from freezer burn. So you freeze the cake solid first, and then take it back out of the freezer and wrap it with plastic wrap. I did two layers of plastic wrap. And then I wrapped the whole thing in foil. And then I put it back in the box and back in the freezer, and there it stayed for one week.

Until party day. The morning of the party, I took it out of the freezer and unwrapped it immediately. The icing was still perfectly intact. Not a smudge! The cake went into the fridge for a few hours to thaw slowly, and then as the party drew nearer, I put it out on the table. A little condensation appeared on the icing, which made me nervous, but it soaked back in or something, and nothing bad happened to the cake. All's well that ends well.

And the cake was delicious. Really, really moist. Must have been the freezing/thawing.

Shared on: Make the Scene Monday, Inspire Me Monday, Marvelous Monday, Creative Bloggers' Party & Hop, Sweet Sharing Monday, Friday Favorites, How To Tuesday

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The science of Valentine candy

The thing about making candy at home is that it is really, really sticky. Impossibly sticky. And lava-hot at the same time—dangerous combo. But, the mess (and occasional finger burn) is so worth it. For easily less than five dollars, thanks to inexpensive everyday ingredients, you can cover your kitchen counter in more delectable tempered chocolate than fifty bucks'll get you at Godiva.

Oh, the other thing about making candy at home: specifics matter, especially temperatures. It's not an art; it's a science. You can't rush. Except when you have to.

As usual, I wanted to try something new and special for a Valentine's Day dessert. (See failed 2010 Valentine dessert here and successful 2012 dessert here.) Mostly, I followed the Chocolate and Peanut Butter Nougat Squares recipe from Saveur, but with a few changes: First, I halved it. Second, I used bittersweet chocolate chips instead of semisweet. Third, I didn't sprinkle any salt whatsoever over the finished squares. And fourth, my confections were not squares.

My version of the recipe is below, following these words of encouragement: At first glance, this recipe is ambitious, but really, these candies can be made in one evening if you have at least two and a half hours to spare. Some of that time is waiting time, and the remaining intensive hands-on time is well worth it in the end. You may also be happy to know that the nougat, while impossibly sticky and stretchy, washes right out of your mixer bowl (or hair) with warm water, easy.

Chocolate-Covered Peanut Butter Nougat
Makes 50 or so candies

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 small egg white (or about half to three-quarters of a large one)
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons dry powdered milk
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 pound bittersweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon vegetable shortening

Spray a 9x9-inch square baking pan with cooking spray; set aside. In a 3-quart saucepan, combine the sugar, 1/2 corn syrup, molasses, and water and heat over medium-high. Clip a candy thermometer to the pan and cook the mixture, without stirring. NOTE: At this stage, the pot will seem far too large for the amount of ingredients, but just wait. You will be glad for all three quarts of it once this stuff starts boiling.

The first important temperature on your candy thermometer is 235 degrees, so keep an eye on that 3-quart pot while you tackle these next steps. (It takes a little while for the temperature to reach 235, but when it does, you have to move fast!)

While the mixture is heating, put the remaining 2 tablespoons of corn syrup, the vanilla, and the egg white into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk. Don't turn the mixer on yet. Then, in a separate bowl, combine the peanut butter, powdered milk, and powdered sugar and mix those three ingredients until smooth. Just get your hands in there and knead it like dough, then set it aside.

When the syrup in your 3-quart pot reaches 235 degrees, switch on the stand mixer and let it whip the egg white, corn syrup, and vanilla on high speed.

Now run back over to the stove because that syrup that had been so slowly creeping up to 235 degrees is now rocketing toward 250! When it reaches 250 degrees, remove the pan from the heat and just let it sit for 1 minute. (Mine continued to boil and get even hotter on its own, but either that is supposed to happen or it just luckily didn't adversely affect the nougat's outcome. OK, so not always an exact science.)

Your kitchen will smell like burnt molasses by now.

When 1 minute is up, reduce your mixer speed to medium and ever so carefully pour the hot syrup into the egg whites in a slow, steady stream. Scrape the last of the syrup out with a rubber spatula to get it all in there. Then, increase the mixer speed to medium-high and let it go for 4 minutes. It will become a creamy light brown and extremely sticky. Marshmallowy.

At the end of 4 minutes, remove the bowl from the mixer (forget scraping the whisk clean—time is too precious at this stage—just take a quick swipe at it to get what you can and lick the rest later!) and quickly but gently fold the peanut butter mixture into the egg white mixture until well combined. Scrape it all out into the sprayed 9x9 pan and smooth it out with a rubber spatula. I used a spatula in combination with a butter knife because otherwise I'd try to spread the nougat into the corner of the pan and only lift it all away again as it was stuck to the spatula!

Now, just let that sit and cool to room temperature. It doesn't take particularly long, which is why you had to work so quickly to get it mixed and in the pan.

If you taste the nougat now, the molasses nearly overpowers the peanut butter. I was disappointed by that taste. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't what I'd hoped for. However, I can now assure you that the strong molasses flavor fades by the time this whole process is finished, becoming a nutty undertone instead. Your sweetheart will never guess that molasses is in there.

When the nougat is cooled, transfer it to a cutting board. How? Hold the pan upside down over the cutting board. With a little encouragement from the rubber spatula around the edges of the pan, the whole square of nougat should just peel away and dump itself out.

It's still incredibly marshmallowy but not impossible to work with. Slice it up into a grid of approximately 1-inch pieces. In theory, that would be 9 columns and 9 rows, based on the size of the pan, but I cut roughly 11 columns and 7 rows. (I say, "roughly," because my columns were crooked and resulted in a corner of extra pieces.)

Using the knife and your fingers, pull the pieces away from one another, more or less preserving their rectangular shape.

Now, to melt the chocolate. Fit a pot of simmering water with a heat-safe bowl, and put the chocolate and shortening in the bowl. Heat, stirring often until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Remove the bowl from the pot and set it aside until the chocolate cools to 89 degrees.

The original recipe says that when the chocolate reaches 89 degrees, you can start dipping the pieces of nougat, and if the chocolate cools below 86 degrees, you should heat it  back up to 89 to continue dipping. Well, we do not own an instant-read thermometer. So, I used the candy thermometer to keep watch on the chocolate's progress until it got down to 100 degrees, the lowest the candy thermometer goes. Then, I switched to... um... a digital oral thermometer. Yes, the kind you stick under your tongue to see if you have a fever. Yes, I cleaned it first! Even that thermometer only goes down to about 91 before it declares its subject dead, so I had to estimate when the chocolate was really ready, and I have no idea whether it cooled below 86 degrees during the dipping. But once again, my inexact science did not seem to be a problem in the end. (We have since gained another thermometer from a cheese-making kit, and it reads all the way down to zero. Science can resume.)

The chocolate takes forever to cool. Way longer than the nougat does. At last, around 89 degrees, the chocolate's good for dipping. With a couple of toothpicks or tiny forks, stab your nougat rectangles and dip them in the melted chocolate. It's OK if the rectangles become blobs. Shake off the excess coating, and then place each candy on a sheet of wax paper. Let them sit out at room temperature.

In about an hour, the chocolate will have set, or will at least be solid enough to handle. By the next morning for sure, you'll be able to put the chocolate-covered nougats into a heart-shaped box or whatever you like! You see I simply piled them into a bowl.

Try not to eat all of these fluffy little nuggets in one sitting.

This post shared on: Real Food Wednesdays, Frugal Crafty Home, Eat Make Grow, Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways