Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Adventures in Cake Decorating #4 - Monster Cakes

The exploits in icing—and more importantly, the lessons learned from them—have been piling up these last few years thanks to The Birthdays. These would be primarily my niece and nephews' birthdays, but there are others I hope to document here as we get caught up.

We're way out of date—the first birthday cake I'm about to show you (that would be the first cake for a first birthday) was for a nephew who just this year turned four, so... yeah. But, begin at the beginning, right?

The Monster Cake

This was a fun cake. It was a ton of work, but I'd actually love to do it again because I have learned so much since then. First of all, I would make it less droopy.

This cake overcame such baking obstacles as:
  • The cake won't keep its structure.
  • The cake won't bear the weight of stacking.
  • The cake pops are falling apart when we dip them.
  • The dogs ate half the cake.
It's hard to say what was the biggest or most important lesson I learned while making the monster cake, but there were more than a few important lessons.

You're Probably Thinking Too Big
Sketch of the Grand Idea
I remember describing the initial concept of the cake to my sister as a "grand idea," but we could have executed it on a less grand scale. Or, she should have invited more people. This first birthday was a big party, so we used three boxes of cake mix—well, four, because of the dogs, but there was the equivalent of a whole cake leftover, maybe more. 

Now I'm more realistic in basing the cake size on number of servings. Search for a cake serving chart, and you'll see that an ordinary two-layer round cake can serve up to 20 people depending on how you slice it. (Although I know a certain family member who would just as well slice any round dessert into eight humongous servings and call it day). And, know your crowd. Often you can count on a small percentage who aren't going to eat any cake.

Freeze the Cake Balls and Shorten the Candy CoatingNot pictured except in my "grand idea" sketch were the cake pops we also made to complement the monster cake. We decorated a few of them to look like eyeballs and various little monsters until things got frustrating (cake balls falling apart, Candy Melts getting clumpy) and we were running out of time, and then we simply dipped them in clumpy white Candy Melts. Ta-da!

Cake balls or cake pops (just add a stick and now it's a fad!) can be easy if you follow some basic rules. They can be a picturesque fail if you don't. Form the balls, stick the sticks and then freeze them before you start dipping them in the melted candy coating.

Overheat the Candy Melts and they get clumpy. So microwave them gently and stir, stir, stir. If there are still some solid pieces, stir some more until they melt. It is OK to reheat them several times as needed, but for only 20 seconds at a time on a low power. The melted Melts are still rather thick and not an ideal dipping medium. Add a spoonful of melted shortening (vegetable oil also works) to slightly thin out the coating, and now dipping those cake pops is a cinch. Yeah, I said it.

Moisture and Structure are (Somewhat) Mutually Exclusive
Almost all cake mix boxes are labeled "super moist deluxe" or some such thing, but they're really just ordinary cake, aren't they? Plain old ordinary cake is what you want for a sturdy structure. The cakes that are truly super moist, like the ones with pudding in the mix or your chocolate cake recipe that calls for mayonnaise, are delicious for an ordinary-sized single or double-layer cake with no fancy stacking or shaping. But the extra delicious moisture provides no solid foundation and will not reliably support multiple tiers. The dowels are wont to tilt in that squishy loam of deliciousness.

We originally planned for a four-tier monster of a monster cake: A square on the bottom with fun stripes and birthday boy's name, then a round tier decorated as a blue and black polka-dotted monster with a toothy grin and googly cake ball eyes, topped with an orange monster with more cake ball eyes plus a tail that wrapped round the back, and a green hairy one-eyed cupcake-sized monster on top as the baby's personal "smash cake." The weight of the tiers was too much for the moist delicious cakes to hold, so the bottom tier became its own separate cake. We simply frosted over the mess on its surface caused by all the attempted stacking and piped on a giant number 1. In case anyone wasn't sure which birthday this was.

Icing Covers All Flaws
With the exception of deteriorating structural integrity, icing can mask just about any mistake on the cake, as mentioned just a few lines ago. Crooked line? Wipe it of and ice a new line over it. A misshapen edge? Just add more icing and smooth it out. Dogs ate half the cake? Bake more cake for a replacement section and use icing to glue it all back together.

"Remember this is the side the dogs bit off of, and we just won't serve any pieces cut from this side, OK?"

Friday, May 20, 2016

Just Skim the Mold Off the Top

Skimming scum sounds like aquarium maintenance, not a step in a recipe, but we've been dabbling in fermenting foods. We already make our own yogurt, which led me to using leftover liquid whey for lacto-fermenting fruit juice into homemade soda, which led me to lacto-fermenting veggies, which are made with salty water rather than whey.

Vocabulary lesson: It's called lacto-fermenting because the bacteria in action here are lactobacilli, a beneficial strain that break down lactose (the sugars in milk) and produce lactic acid from the fermentation of carbohydrates. Like yogurt, lacto-fermented veggies are probiotic, so they're trendy—I mean, good for your tummy.

A few summers ago, we watched a sauerkraut demonstration at the farmers' market. We haven't tried it at home yet, but I recently learned that it's the same process whether you are fermenting cabbage—sauerkraut, kimchi—or any other suitable vegetable. The veggies sit submerged in a brine at room temperature, you occasionally skim mold or scum off the top of the liquid (but the veggies are OK because they are not touching the surface), and cultures of good bacteria turn the veggies into pickles. And by golly, it works! (We have also pickled veggies using vinegar. Dare I say expect a future post on that? Let's say, distant future.)

Hence our jars of sauerbeans. (OK, in actual German they'd probably be sauerbohnen, but I think "sauerbeans" is cute.) They're tart and crunchy and have not given us food poisoning.

Photo disclaimer: Plenty of websites have pretty pictures of pristine countertop pickles, but this is what they look like at home. Cloudy liquid is to be expected as a result of the lactic acid forming in there, and it's a sign the vegetables are culturing properly. Don't be scared.

Read on for the important stuff like how to do it and what else to expect besides cloudy brine.

Many people ferment their veggies in gallon-size mason jars or large pickling crocks. I don't like experimenting with food on such a large scale (because if it turns out nasty, then I've wasted so much food!), so my recipe here uses just two quart jars.

Simple Fermented Green Beans
2 quarts water (see note below)
3 ounces pickling salt (see other note below)
1 pound green beans, washed and trimmed
(Also see note on seasoning)

Heat the water and salt, stirring, until the salt dissolves. Cool to room temperature (or else the bacteria won't culture properly).

Divide the green beans evenly between two quart-size mason jars, breaking beans in half if necessary so they will all fit below the neck of the jar. Pour in the room-temperature brine, enough to cover all the beans, but do not completely fill the jar. (I filled the jar too high, and then when I weighed the beans down, my brine overflowed, which was just annoying.)

Weigh the beans down so they will remain safely below the surface of the brine, protected from surface molds that thrive on oxygen. (The salt in the brine will help inhibit mold formation, but you'll probably still get some. I saw minimal pinkish scum this time.) Meanwhile, the good, anaerobic bacteria get to work underwater. For keeping my beans submerged, I used an idea recommended by Food52 and put some extra brine inside a sealed plastic baggie and shoved the baggie into the top of the jar.

Cover the jars with loose-fitting lids or cloth secured by a rubber band. They should not be airtight—gases need to escape as fermentation occurs. Leave the jars in a dark corner of your kitchen where they can sit at room temperature for two weeks.

Check the jars every day and skim off any mold or scum that grows on the surface of the brine. You do not have to clear off every last speck; you just don't want it to overrun the place. Scum is supposed to happen, and the veggies remain safe beneath the surface. Feel free to fork out a bean occasionally to taste the progress. Many recipes advise tasting daily; I think that's unnecessary. The first couple of times, all I tasted was a really salty green bean, so I waited longer in between samples and tasted maybe four times total during the two weeks' fermentation. It was probably a week before I detected a hint of sauer. If your kitchen is warmer, maybe your beans will ferment faster, and then tasting every day might be useful.

The beans should be fully pickled after two weeks, so now you can move the jars into the fridge, where the beans will continue to ferment much more slowly. Like anything in the fridge. Eat them within two months.

Note on water: Chlorinated water from your tap contains, ahem, chlorine, which is a disinfectant—not exactly a hospitable environment for bacteria, good or bad. So, you can use filtered water or you can boil and stir some tap water to evaporate most of the chlorine. That's what I do, dissolving the salt at the same time, and my pet bacteria multiply quite healthily. Just remember to let the water cool to room temperature before pouring it over the beans.

Note on salt: Iodized table salt contains another bacteria fighter: iodine. Don't use it. Use pickling salt or sea salt or any other salt without iodine. The recipe measures the salt in weight so that no matter what kind you use, you'll have the right amount. You can imagine that a tablespoon of coarse kosher salt would not be the same as a tablespoon of fine sea salt. Weigh the salt.

Note on seasoning: The simple recipe above results in some tasty green beans, but they can be made even tastier with some smashed cloves of garlic or sprigs of dill or a hot pepper, for example. Submerge any of these in the brine along with your beans to infuse extra flavor into the fermentation.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Celebrating Bike Lanes

Long time no see. Let's jump right in.

We're finishing up National Protected Bike Lane Week. These are the bike lanes protected from the main street by curbs, posts, planters or parking spaces, as opposed to the bike lanes separated from traffic by a stripe of paint. To celebrate, downtown Aurora hosted a group bicycle ride this perfectly sunny morning, followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the River Street Conversion and Fox River Trail Bike Lane Connection.

I wish I could have been there, if only to score this cool key chain.


But day jobs, right? Always taking up the days.