Monday, April 30, 2012

Guitar cake - and cake making for business

One of my hobbies is to make decorated cakes. Once upon a time I thought about making a go of a mini business of cake decorating, but I quickly found that unless you are extremely good and very artistic and have nerves of steel, there's no career in cake as really the only money maker of cake are wedding cakes.

But, I do love doing it for fun and for friends. It makes me feel good to be able to do something special for someone and to make a special celebration just a little more special by my cake creation.

This past weekend a friend asked me to make a cake for her singing partner. They were giving a John Denver concert on his birthday. Here's the concert:

And then I was surprised to see this in the interior. The last "Special Thanks to: Melissa Sinclair (a surprise!):

My friend thought it would be extra special to have a special birthday cake. We settled on a price (cake for exchange of two tickets to the concert) and then I gave her a few options for cake ideas and from there we came up with the cake design.

When I was looking for cake design ideas, I googled, just for fun, if there was a John Denver cake. As isn't there a cake for everything? Well, yep. There is a John Denver cake. Click on the link if you can stomach an odd looking cake! John Denver cake. Sorry, I just cannot get into people cakes!

I tried looking up so many things for ideas. Rocky Mountain cake. Country Roads cake. Then, when googling images for music guitar cake, I found this cake that brought on the idea: guitar cake.

So, in the end what she wanted was a miniature guitar on the cake with the words Happy Birthday Sean on top and then, as many of a long list of titles of songs along the sides of the cake as would fit nicely. I was to just choose titles and 'surprise' her.

This is where it gets tough for me. I am good at deconstructing and building ideas. I know how to go about creating things as long as no real artistic talent needs to come into play. I simply cannot draw or mold or sculpt. A guitar I figured I could handle. That could be deconstructed. I got some gum paste and made the guitar in several pieces. I printed three copies of this picture: acoustic guitar.  One copy I cut out  the body of the guitar, put it on top of the gum paste cutting around it to make the back and the front, cutting out the circle for the front. On the second copy of the picture, I cut out the neck of the guitar and the part that holds the strings. I then rolled some little balls and flattened them for the tuning knobs.  Lastly, the most difficult part, I rolled out a piece of gum paste and cut a thin strip of it (same width the entire way). I then tipped it in it's side and outlined the back of the guitar, thus making the sides/girth of the guitar. I put this all in the oven to dry - with just the light on in the oven for a little bit of dry heat.

The third copy of the picture I used to know how to color and assemble the guitar later. I decided painting the guitar would look better than tinting the gum paste and I think it was a good decision. Looked more like wood tones than if I would have tinted the whole thing a solid color.

Meanwhile, I made the cake. The friend ordering didn't know if her singing partner preferred yellow or chocolate cake, so she ordered a layered cake of both kinds. It had five layers - chocolate, yellow, chocolate, yellow, chocolate. I then used Italian meringue buttercream for the filling and icing. (my new buttercream of choice when lots of piping isn't needed).

The chocolate cake is a labor of love. You need to melt and cool unsweetened chocolate (thought not cooling until it is stiff). As always I needed room temperature butter and then I needed to make a fudge of coffee and cocoa, boiling the coffee first, adding the cocoa and then letting that cool. The cake cooks at a low 275 for over an hour too. This is not a quick mix cake!

Then, when that was done, I made the yellow cake. This one uses sour cream.

While the second cake was baking, I made the buttercream. Once again, a labor of love. This particular recipe takes about 45 minutes to make - first boiling sugar, whipping egg whites, then adding the boiled sugar to the egg whites, beating that forever and then adding the butter and lastly the flavorings.

Cakes have to cool, of course, and then sliced for layering, buttercream needs to be added to each layer, stacked carefully, then icing all around. Since this is a really light icing, I then needed to refrigerate it to stiffen up the icing a bit before adding the fondant.

Fondant is not my favorite medium, but in this case, with all that writing, it needed to be fondant. It takes forever to roll too. But, I rolled it out for the cake, put it on and then waited some more. I needed to let the fondant dry some before we could write on it.

Finally, time to write. Now, I 'could have' written on the cake, but my handwriting is like my artistic ability - not great. My husband is artistic and has great handwriting. Since this would be writing with food markers, I figured he would be able to do it for me (as he has no idea how to use piping bags filled with buttercream). I had rolled out a bit of spare fondant for him to practice on first and yep, he had better writing than me. But even he was nervous as there was no 'do overs' with fondant. You can't erase any mistakes. Writing on the cake took about an hour.

Of course, while all this is happening, I worked on the guitar little by little. First I mixed up some colors to paint the guitar and then let that dry. After that, I mixed up gum paste glue and assembled the guitar and let it dry some more. Lastly, I needed to add the strings of the guitar. I had some fishline for making necklaces and after about 30 minutes or so, I managed to get 6 strings on the guitar. The guitar I didn't add to the cake until about an hour before going. We used a paper template for placement purposes when writing on the cake.

Voila - finally done. Now, add up those hours, OK?  I started making the cake at 9 am. I stopped for lunch and for making dinner and briefly to write my two blogs while things were baking/cooling. We finished at 9:30 pm. I was on my feet for hours and hours. Now, the costs. I used top quality ingredients and then of course, there was the cost of fondant, gum paste, the box, the cake plate and so on. The cost of this cake for my friends was $50. It was not cheap for the buyer, but for supplies and ingredients, it cost about $20 or so to make. That's $30 for labor. Let's say I put in 10 hours of labor, which is about right. That's $3 an hour.

There is a reason Charm City Cakes (of Ace of Cakes) base price for cakes is $500. Artistic cakes take time and talent. I'm not of their caliber, but still, it's not cheap. I can make a simple 8" iced cake with a simple border and "Happy Birthday" in about 2 hours, but a really yummy, artsy cake? It takes many, many hours.

So, I don't do this for money. I do it for the joy it gives the recipient and the giver of the cake. As long as I can cover my costs, then it's worth doing it for me, but as a business? Nope. Only cakes that really make money are wedding cakes. Everything else really needs to be just the love of doing it.

At the end of the concert, my friend again said, "I want to Thank Melissa again for making Sean's cake. It was just perfect. It was exactly what I wanted." And, I saw that Sean was having his girlfriend save the guitar for him to keep. That, right there, is why I make cake. Making someone's life feel special. Anyone can buy a cake from the grocery store. Custom ordering a cake shows love and being able to make such a cake, makes my heart sing.

But, all these words. You want to see the cake, right?  Well, here it is:

Here is the birthday boy, Sean, cutting the cake:

And here they are performing:

And really, if you ever want to see a great show, see them sing. They are Side by Side. They are wonderful. I see them at least once a year. Here are a couple YouTube clips from a similar show they did years ago. Beautiful harmonies: Goodbye Again, Side by Side and  Fly Away, Side by Side.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Banana split cupcake

While I haven't been active with this blog, I have been busy baking. That hasn't ended and so, I have a backlog of blog (rhymes!) to enter.

Here is one of my creations and it was a big hit. At the Ethical Society where I work and teach Sunday School we celebrate, sort of, Darwin Day. Years ago we had a member who would bring all the makings for Banana Splits on that day. Banana Splits for Darwin Day you say? Well, it goes like this - Darwin was about evolution right? That means we are related to monkeys/apes and what do monkeys like to eat, stereotypically? Bananas, thus, banana splits.

Well, I realized it was Darwin day like a day before that Sunday, so there wasn't time for a sign-up for people to bring items for banana splits, so I got this idea of making banana split cupcakes. Unbelievably, I could find nothing online about them. What? The internet that has ideas for everything you can imagine didn't have a banana split cupcake? A challenge for me!

So, the first part was easy. I made banana cupcakes.

I first posted this trying to get away without posting a recipe. However, I was caught being lazy, so here goes. I used this recipe from the book, "Martha Stewart's Cupcakes".

Roasted Banana cupcakes:
makes 16 - so I doubled the recipe of the cupcakes only

3 ripe bananas
2 cups cake flour (can use all-purpose)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup sour cream (can substitute yogurt if you wish)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners. Place 3 whole unpeeled bananas on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes (the peels will darken). Meanwhile, sift together cake flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Remove bananas from oven and let cool before peeling. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Add roasted bananas, and beat to combine. Add flour mixture in three batches, alternating with two additions of sour cream, and beating until just combined after each. Beat in vanilla.

In another clean mixing bowl, with electric mixer on medium speed  (clean and dried) whisk egg white to soft peaks; fold one-third whites into batter to lighten. Gently fold in remaining whites in two batches.

Divide batter evenly among lined cups, felling each 3/4s full. Bake until a cake tester inserted in centers comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Transfer tins to a wire rack to cool completely.

In another bowl I then made a strawberry filling which I injected into the cupcake (there is a special tip that plunges into the center of cupcakes and all you do is squeeze - so it fill's in like a Twinkie).

Strawberry filling:

One jar of strawberry preserves blended in a blender to liquify. (Or make homemade preserves and do the same).

Then I made a traditional buttercream and instead of milk or cream to thin it out, I took a can of pineapple, drained it and then whizzed it up in the blender to liquify it. I then added the pineapple to the buttercream. And let me tell you, that is YUMMO!

Pineapple Butter Cream:

2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 bag (2 lbs) powdered sugar
1 can of pineapple slices, thoroughly drained and liquified in food processor or blender.

Beat butter with mixer until smooth and creamy. Add powdered sugar in batches. Blend until smooth. Add liquified pineapple until incorporated. If it is too liquidy to spread/pipe, added powdered sugar until the desired consistency is reached.

And what is banana splits with out a fudge? So, I made a fudge sauce.

Chocolate fudge sauce:

3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1/2 cup heavy cream or milk
4 tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla

In a large microwave-safe bowl, combine sugar, cocoa and cream. Cook on high 2-3 minutes, until sugar dissolves and mixture boils. 

Stir in butter and cook on high 2-4 minutes more, watching closely and stirring every 30 seconds or so, until mixture thickens. Stir in vanilla

I then topped it with a patted dry maraschino cherry. Voila! A banana split cupcake with all the flavors - banana, strawberry, pineapple, Chocolate and cream with a cherry on top.

Aren't they cute? And they were oh so yummy! And quite easy!

And here is a tray of them and then the whole 3 dozen I made.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Savory pies - Yummy bean and salsa!

This makes a great snack or lunch for kids. Well, kids who are willing to eat beans. One of mine will. One won't. My husband and I really like it too.  For this recipe, I just used regular pie crust, but you could make a masa (corn flour) version too that might taste more authentic. In this case, I was also making sweet pies and just used the same dough for both. As I said, it was yummy.

My youngest son is high functioning autistic and with that, he has a fear of trying a lot of new foods. Getting him working with food hopefully gets him more interested in trying new foods. Plus, it's a great way to do things together we both can enjoy. It's his hands that you see in the picture to the right (a couple years ago).

So, here we are rolling out and cutting out the dough for the mini pies. He's six years old and doing it here. That means you can do it too. (OK, I rolled the dough, but he did all the cutting.

As a reminder as it's been eons since I've written about them on this blog, I bought brookster pans from Williams Sonoma (and reviewed them there) for making mini pies. There are also mini pie electric machines. Breville makes one and there is a knock off brand too. and now WS also sells mini cup pie pans I guess pies are the next fad in foods - first cupcakes, now pies. Pies are way more versatile. Here's my son putting the pie crusts into the brookster pans.

In a food processor, I blend up a can of drained black beans. You can make your own beans too much more cheaply - less sodium that way, but of course it takes advanced planning for that. I always keep a couple cans of black beans on hand as they are easy to make quick last minute dinners with.

Back to the pies: I add a couple tablespoons of the blended up black beans to the pie crust and smooth it out to cover the pie bottoms.

 Next, I spoon on salsa. In this case, it's a jarred salsa - spicy. I never, ever buy salsa from a jar, but I needed some for a school event or something and they didn't need it, so there we had a jar of salsa we would never use for fajitas or tacos. We prefer fresh. One day I'll walk you through how utterly easy it is to make fresh salsa - you'll never buy jarred salsa again - except maybe to make this savory pie! Jarred salsa is less liquid than fresh, so it lends itself well to this savory pie. I guess this is a few tablespoons per each. I used the entire jar for 2 pans (so 12 mini pies):

Then you sprinkle on cheese. I always have some sort of shredded cheese on hand. Usually Mexican four blend cheese. It's more finely shredded than mozzarella too which does great on mini pies. Bake until the crust browns up a bit and the cheese startes to toast up - just like a pizza. Eat warm or room temperature. We love it! The black beans tame the spicy heat of the salsa, making them perfect partners.

And now, all done:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

When you bumble at one thing, you can do something great with another!

One of the ways I try to cut costs is to make our own peanut butter. My husband likes natural peanut butter with no salt and no sugar added. Just ground up roasted peanuts. A jar of that (16ounces) is about $4 on up to $7 depending on where you find it. I can buy roasted, unsalted peanuts for $2 a pound. Grinding them takes just a couple minutes in the food processor and the big bonus is that then you don't have to stir up the peanut butter which, to me at least, is a huge pain in the butt.

So, I've been making my husband's peanut butter that way recently. Well, I got it into my head to try to make my version of Jif peanut butter. The rest of us in the household don't like the taste of natural, unsalted, unsweetened peanut butter. We like Jif. No, we love Jif. Jif is cheaper than natural, but it's still more expensive than making it at home. I can get two 40 ounce jars of it for $14.99. 80 ounces (or 5 pounds) to make fresh would be $10 plus the cost of sweetener. I decided on honey. Which, about wipes out the savings as honey is not cheap.

Anyway, so I tried to make Jif. Problem is, honey stiffens the peanut butter somehow. I got a very yummy blend of flavors with salt and honey and peanuts. But... it was solid. Kind of like the middle of a Reese's peanut butter cup, but even more 'stiff'. There was no way to spread that on bread. I tried in vain and all it did was sit on top like a blob with a gouged out hole in the bread.

Hmm... what to do, what to do. I now had 2 pounds of this yummy stuff that I couldn't spread on bread.

Well, I decided to make cookies with it. I had made these cookies the week before and they were delicious. Maybe with this homemade almost peanut butter, it would work.

Here is the recipe (though I tweaked it) Paula Deen's Monster Cookies. When don't I tweak recipes?

Here is what I did, which is doubling it too. I double it because that way I am using a full bag of chips and a full bag of M&Ms. They last a long time and freeze well. I would rather have that than half bags of things laying around. Then again, I'm in a household of two hungry boys and we go through things quickly. You can always halve what you see below:


  • 6 eggs
  • 2.5 cups packed light brown sugar
  • 2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 12-ounce jar creamy peanut butter (since it had salt I didn't add salt)
  • 2 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4s of a bag of 12.6 ounce bag of M&Ms (reserve a 1/4 of the bag for later - detailed below)
  • 1 11 ounce bag of white chocolate chips
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda (completely optional)
  • 4 1/2 cups quick-cooking oatmeal (not old-fashioned rolled oats)


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or nonstick baking mats.

In a very large mixing bowl, combine the eggs and sugars. Mix well. Add the vanilla, peanut butter, and butter. Mix well. Add the oatmeal. Mix well. Stir in the chocolate candies, chocolate chips, and if using the baking soda. Drop by tablespoons or use a small ice cream scoop. (I like the 1.5 tablespoon scoop.) Placing them 2 inches apart onto the prepared cookie sheets.  Then with the remaining M&Ms, dot the tops of the cookies. You'll see why below.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes until edges begin to brown and center firms up a bit. Do not overbake. Let stand for about 5 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool. When cool, store in air tight containers. These are a moist/chewy cookie and will store well for a couple weeks.

These cookies are dangerously good. Like, I think these are now my favorite cookie and if you notice - they are gluten free.  Also notice I say you can use the baking soda or not. I did the first time, I forgot the second time. I notice no difference, but then the second time I made them I was using a much firmer, natural peanut butter, so maybe that's the difference? I guess I'll do it a third time to give a final verdict and then update this page. If in doubt, use it.

I always prefer to use a medium ice cream scoop with a lever for cookies. That way the cookies are all the same size, they look more professional and it's easy. You can see them below. All scooped and ready to go in the oven:
Now, about dotting the cookies with the remaining M&Ms. Kids (and who are we kidding, adults too) love to see the chocolate goodies in cookies and what's the point of using M&Ms unless you can see the candy covered chocolates? As you can see below, I have one that is not dotted with the spare M&Ms yet and one that is dotted. Big difference. No kid will pick the cookie that looks void of M&Ms. So, fix the problem to get a tray of cookies that look mostly the same (like above).

These cookies don't spread much when baking, but somewhat. I love a plump, chewy cookie, don't you?

 And up close and personal. The M&Ms crack from the heat, but they don't lose their shape or color:

We've also made them with semi-sweet chocolate chips, but we like the white chocolate chips best paired with the M&Ms. These particular M&Ms were their Easter candies. I got them 75% off, making them cheaper than regular chocolate chips. Kids like them better because they think they are extra special or something.

And this is the entire double batch (minus a few from nibbles from the bowl and one or two fresh from the oven the kids stole):

Later, when they were cooling, I went out to take a walk. When I came back, this is what greeted me from the front door. Good thing you can't smell them too. Is there a much better smell than peanut butter and chocolate? Well, OK, homemade bread!

(Racks are from Pampered Chef, btw).

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The 7 year old's birthday cake.

This past Sunday my little guy turned 7. I guess he's not so little any more, huh? It is all perspective. When you also have a nearly 6'2" 15 year old, 7 seems pretty small.

Well, months ago I made a birthday cake for a friend's daughter. This girl wanted an Angry Birds cake and it turned out really cute. Here are some photos:

My then 6 year old was really impressed with the cake and he didn't forget it, so when it was time to choose his cake, what did he want? An Angry Birds cake, of course.

Thing is. I'm not an artist, so this cake intimidated me, but there was a couple tutorials on how to make the Angry Birds: and then I'm a very visual person who is good at piecing things together - puzzling through things and figuring out how to accomplish a task. So, for some reason, I was able to do this fairly quickly and easily. Can't draw or paint to save my life, but somehow, it comes together with cake, a very fickle medium! Go figure. Here are some close ups of the figures I made:

Problem was with his birthday's date. It landed on one of the busiest weeks I had. I had a silent auction to deal with, a dinner party, a taping of Jeopardy to go to and this birthday cake. I was up till the wee hours getting it done.

For his cake too, I used an Italian Meringue frosting which is more to our liking taste-wise. However, for decorative purposes, it's not as nice to work with as it's softer and doesn't take color as well. He didn't care about that though. He loved the figures (which we still have) and the taste. This cake below is huge. So the figures were bigger too which was much easier to make and, of course, second time around is quicker too.

Best thing was though, the birthday boy said it was scrumptious! (and it really was). That day? I only ate cake and added 4 pounds of mostly water weight that day. Yikes!

Here are pictures of his cake (click on the photos to see them larger):

And here's the birthday boy and me. He wanted to share his cake with his friends at Sunday school which was nice.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

How can I neglect this blog?

I needed to send a link to my blog yesterday and then felt so bad about neglecting my pet project. I love baking and I take photos so often while I'm baking with having every intention of blogging about it, but I never seem to get around to it. How is that possible?

So, last night I was baking my husband's favorite bread and decided I had to take photos. I even decided to use the real camera instead of the iPhone which is always in my pocket at the ready. And what happened? My husband forgot to turn off the camera when he uploaded the birthday pictures from Sunday and drained the battery! Ugh! I almost decided not to take any photos, but then said, "What the heck" the iPhone has worked thus far, even though it's the older 3GS phone with the way inferior camera - what is one more photo shoot? And really, it did the job fine.

Last night I made, once again the Pan de Campagne bread. My husband got all excited when he saw the bannetons out. Forgot what those are or have no idea what I'm talking about? Here's a link about bannetons: They are also called proofing baskets or brotforms.

It's funny that this is his favorite of the breads I make. I make it because it's my favorite bread at Whole Foods that they sell. I've mentioned it before that they make one HUGE loaf and then sell it by weight/sections. One quarter of a loaf sells for $6 or so. And it's taken me a gazillion tries to finally get it right. It seems like such a simple bread, but it does need some finessing.

I have no idea why it sells for a gazillion dollars at Whole Foods. As for ingredients, it's one of the simplest and cheapest. It really is only whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, water, salt and yeast. That's it. The only reason I think it might be pricier is that it takes longer to make. It's not exactly a sourdough, but it does have a preferment that needs to sit/ferment for at least 4 hours. Then you make the rest of the dough, let that rise a couple hours. Then mold it and let it rise again for a couple of hours and then finally bake. Perhaps it's the preferment that is where they factor in the cost. I'm going to guess with their sourdoughs, that they don't make their own sourdough in the store and just use a scoop of it as needed - feeding it on schedule to keep it day to day, week to week, but with this bread, the pan de campagne, you have to make a new preferment every single time.

I'm guessing here. I don't know why it's so expensive. Maybe I'll ask one of these times, but it is one of my favorites and I've finally learned how to do it correctly. Now, next time, I'm going to make a different variation of this bread, the pan de campagne honfleur just to see how it differs in taste and complexity.

But you want to see the finished product, right? (Maybe next time I'll take some "while rising shots"). Here are the two loaves straight from the oven (and as always, click on the photo to see it larger):

You will see that they are covered in flour. This is the flour that I dust the banneton with. It's rice flour. Rice flour is like a natural teflon - it keeps the dough from sticking to the basket. One bag will last me forever as I need so little of it.

Here is the round loaf up close:

And then dusted off:
I always love how it looks when it is free form and from baskets. I feel like I've made something artisan and special. Something you could only buy in the bakery.

My husband couldn't resist the bread last night so as soon as it wasn't  burning hot, he cut into it. Here is the oval loaf inside. Pretty crumb:

And then this is what he loves - the crust. It gets a really nice crust. When I was taking pictures of it I could hear the crust crackling as it cooled. And here you can see it. Yum! Yum!

These were done about 10:30 pm last night. As of this morning (and not everyone ate it), there is only a quarter of the oval loaf left! My husband chose this bread over leftover birthday cake last night! So, I guess it is worth the effort, even if I don't eat bread any more!

Tomorrow, and I will post tomorrow, I will show my son's birthday cake and the cake that inspired my son's birthday cake. There's a tale to it too, of course! Can't believe my little boy turned seven!