who doesn’t like birthday cake?

since i am blessed to have a very light work load this semester (even though i’m taking a full class load), i’ve had a lot of time on my hands lately.  i wouldn’t go as far as to say that i got bored last week, but i was sincerely in need of a project.  just my luck– my friend Beth had a birthday coming up in just a few days!  she’s a foodie too, so i decided she would appreciate an elaborate cake for her birthday present.  and hey, two birds with one stone– i found a project and she got a sugary confection!

i found myself in a Michaels craft store and saw the new aisle of cake baking materials by the Ace of Cakes himself– Duff Goldman.  Beth and i love Duff.  i found inspiration down that aisle and decided to make a multi-tiered cake with fruit filling, covered in fondant.  i’ve never worked with fondant before, but it looked like a really fun thing to try (not to mention it makes cakes look super professional)!  i picked up 16 oz of pre-made white fondant, a fondant rolling pin, a package of fondant flowers, a package of disposable piping bags (or you can use ziplock bags, really), a pack of 4 plastic icing tips, and a 10-inch cardboard cake base.  this does seem like a lot of things to get for one cake, but almost everything i purchased is reusable and, since i am sure i’ll be making more of these cakes in the future, it was an investment i was willing to make.

i planned out the cake flavor profile:  two layers of almond cake, a layer of chocolate cake, between the layers would be filled with raspberry preserves and the whole shebang covered in a layer of fondant (which tends to be slightly marshmallow-y flavored).

my first step was to tint the fondant a pale-green color.  you can buy already colored fondant, but it is considerably more expensive, and buying some food coloring and doing it yourself is dead easy.  i took my fondant and put it on a flat, smooth surface and kneaded it until it got more pliable from the heat of my hands.  if your fondant gets too warm and starts to stick, use confectioners sugar and dust the surface and your hands (just like using flour with dough).

once it is easy to knead, grab your desired color of food coloring and drop a few dots on to start, and begin to knead the color in.  **note: if you use liquid coloring, it’ll take quite a but of dye to get the fondant colorful.  if you use paste, it will take much less.  you can do this as far in advance as you’d like, but make sure to keep the fondant in a ziplock bag, and the bag in another tupperware container (air = hard fondant!)

the next step was baking the cake layers.  i used an 8-inch square cake pan and baked off one package of white cake mix flavored with almond extract (this makes two layers), and half a package of chocolate cake mix (make the whole mix, just use one cake layer and eat the other one :] )  i’d suggest making these early to give them enough time to really, really cool off and firm up.  once they are stone-cold, take a long knife (i used a big serrated bread knife) and level off the cake tops so they are flat and stackable.  i let them sit again after this step so they could harden ever so slightly (they’ll be easier to handle this way).

the raspberry preserve filling is super simple and went on the cakes next.  all i did was take room-temperature raspberry jam, throw it in a bowl, and stir it vigorously until it was smooth and runnier than the jelly consistency.  i used about half a cup for each cake layer (**remember, you’re only putting filling on two layers!)  leave about a 1/8 inch clear around the sides of the layers so that the filling doesn’t mush out when you stack the cake.
let this filling set on the cakes.  i popped them in the freezer for a few minutes and it did the trick :]

i laid out the cardboard cake base and carefully placed the first filled almond layer right in the center.  i gently picked up the chocolate layer and stacked it on the almond layer, and did the same with the top almond layer.


the next step is a very important one– the crumb coat.  crumb coating is just adding a very thin layer of frosting on the cake to catch any little crumbs that get torn off when you frost.  you can do this step before you put a final layer of frosting on a cake to make sure you don’t get any cake bits in the smooth final coat, or before you cover a cake in fondant– the frosting acts like glue.  i used a store bought icing (it doesn’t taste phenomenal, but it is quick and easy!  feel free to make buttercream frosting it if floats your boat) and frosted the entire cake.  use the frosting to fill in any spaces between the layers and to square out the corners before the fondant goes on.  it almost works like spackle!  ideally you’ll do this step with an offset spatula (AKA MY FAVORITE KITCHEN TOOL EVER), but i forgot mine at home.  a regular knife will work fine!  here’s what it looks like:

this coat MUST set for 20 minutes, or until it is not so sticky to the touch.  you want it to form a thin hard layer.  once that is done, get out that fondant!  knead and knead and knead until your fondant gets soft and pliable again.  using a large, flat surface, and a fondant rolling pin, roll the fondant out in a large square.  you want this to be pretty thin.  most fondant rolling pins come with rings on the ends that guide the thickness–they are not necessary to use.  just eyeball it, but make sure it is even all the way around.  you’re looking for about the thickness of a quarter (or a little thicker).  make sure you roll a square large enough to cover the sides of your cake.
take the fondant and fold it over the rolling pin, and transfer it carefully to your cake.  very gently, smooth the layer over your cake, making sure to get rid of air bubbles.  take caution around the corners.  work with this material very carefully because it can tear easily.  using your hand (or a fondant smoother), smooth the fondant down into the cake to remove any imperfections.  once your get the fondant on to your liking, take a knife and slice off the excess around the base (as i show above).  **note: your cake is very soft, not as dense as the ones in the cake bakeries.  so be more gentle when you smooth the fondant on!  here’s the covered cake:
i refrigerated my cake for about half an hour for the fondant to chill while i got my decorating materials out.  for the decoration, i decided to pipe vines on the cake and embellish it with the fondant flowers.  in order to pipe the frosting since i used a store-bought one again, i added some extra confectioners sugar to tighten it up.  i also dyed it a darker green than the fondant using the same food coloring.  i used the thin piping tip in a piping bag and added all the vines on the sides and the top, leaving room to write happy birthday.  
in the end, all the vines went on, i added the fondant flowers, and piped “Happy 19th Beth!” on the cake, and refrigerated it overnight until the party the next day.  that was a crucial step to make everything really set up and not look drippy.  i will be the first to admit that i am not the best decorator with a piping bag (especially since i used store bought frosting that has a difficult consistency), but it turned out great!

the night of the party, Beth, our friend Reva, and I ate 800 lbs. of thai food and washed it all down with this beautiful cake.  i think it was a big hit :]  
birthday calories don’t count, right?

pico de gallo TO THE MAX!

my best friend loves mexican food with a passion.  really, any kind of latino cuisine is right up her alley.  and since half of my family is uruguayan, we make empanadastorta pasqualina, and bombas around the holidays (and don’t even get me started on the chivito…).  but during the rest of the year, and when i’m not around Bonnie, i generally don’t eat latino food.  (no, i don’t crave chipotle like most other college kids do.. and they eat it five times a week :] )  BUT, on occasion, i really enjoy chips and salsa.  since i can’t have fresh guac (avocados are a no-no for my allergies), i stick to pico de gallo and salty tortilla chips.  mmm.

well, cilantro is now in season.  and at my favorite tomato stand at the farmers’ market today, the cilantro was perched strategically over the heirlooms and i could not resist– i bought a gorgeous bunch of the herb and three beautiful brandywine tomatoes.  i remembered that i had a red onion, fresh garlic, and the necessary spices at home to make the most wonderful salsa, and sprinted home.

this salsa is so fresh and delicious that you will never, ever buy it in the grocery again.  i’d like to think it rivals the pico of many of my favorite mexican restaurants.. :]

start by dicing two or three medium size tomatoes into salsa-sized pieces.  you can make them bigger or smaller depending upon how you like your salsa to be.

the next step is the red onion and garlic.  they are key to any good pico de gallo, but im not a huge fan of raw onion and raw garlic in my food if i am going to come in contact with any other human being in the next 24 hours.  so, i came up with the perfect solution that works wonders in your salsa.  dice up about an eighth of a red onion (or more to your taste) and throw it in a sauté pan with a touch of olive oil.  then, mash and mince a clove of garlic and add it in to the pan in the last minute or so (be careful not to burn it!)  you’re not sweating or caramelizing the onions and garlic, just adding them for a minute to soften and take the strong flavors out.  
let this mixture cool for a few minutes while you chop your fresh cilantro and collect the rest of your ingredients.  for the cilantro, i grabbed my beautiful bunch and tore off the top section of leaves.  i gathered them tightly and rolled them together as well as i could, and ran my knife through the pile (**note:  you just learned how to chiffonade!  well done!)  i cut mine a little finer one more time to make the pieces easier to mix through the salsa.
with the onion/garlic mixture cooled a bit, i tossed it on top of the tomatoes with the cilantro.  the finishing touches to spice up the pico de gallo are crucial:
lime, good olive oil, fresh pepper, and salt.  you won’t need much oil because the tomatoes are nice and juicy, but add a tiny drizzle for flavor.  squeeze a fresh lime if you have one, or just use about two tablespoons of lime juice (more or less to your liking).  with a nice crack of pepper and a generous sprinkling of salt (**note:  the salt is super important to bring out the flavor of the ingredients!), toss and you’re all set to go!
serve with tortilla chips, as a topping on fish tacos, toss in a salad or an omelet… the possibilities are endless!  this is a pico de gallo you will be making again and again :]

my favorite drink in the entire world.

i apologize in advance– this is not a post about a delicious meal.  this is a post about my most favorite drink that always cheers me up when i’m feeling down, a drink that i have when i am ready to celebrate the end of a long week (like this one.. ugh), and the simplest mocktail to make because i always have the ingredients in my fridge :]

THE SHIRLEY TEMPLE.  heaven on earth.  especially since i am obsessed with maraschino cherries.
very simply, this drink is sprite (or some white soda like ginger ale) and grenadine, which is the red syrup that maraschino cherries are packed in.  you can actually buy grenadine on its own where the other cocktail mixers are stocked in your grocery, but if you can’t find it, just grab a jar of maraschino cherries since you can use them to garnish your drink at the end, too!
if you like sweet drinks, this is totally the one for you!  take a tall, elegant glass and put a generous splash of grenadine in the bottom.  i also like to pop two or three cherries at the bottom.  then take your sprite and pour it in slowly at an angle (like pouring a beer) to avoid all the bubbles and fizz.  
and, seriously, that’s it.  its so, so simple.  but absolutely perfect and refreshing.  if you’re feeling adventurous, add a scoop of vanilla ice cream and make a shirley temple float :]

look how pretty it is!  enjoy!

a fall-inspired dinner party

the weather in charlottesville has been quite hot lately, but i am starting to feel the very beginnings of fall– my absolute favorite season!  the leaves are changing and falling off the trees, and there’s an occasional chill in the air in the morning when walking around grounds.

so, when a friend and i decided to throw a dinner party this weekend, the weather inspired us to create a fall meal with all the fresh flavors of the season.  we planned the most delightful menu of dishes:  rosemary and garlic pork tenderloin, roasted vegetables, wild rice and cranberry salad, and a wonderful (secret) fall dessert.

i got up bright and early on saturday morning and and hit the farmer’s market to pick up some fruit and veg for the meal.  for the roasted vegetables, i got some small red potatoes, two large vidalia (or yellow) onions, and a bunch of beautiful carrots with the leafy tops still on.  nothing says “fresh” like full carrots!

i scrubbed my veggies well and cut them all in to nice bite-size chunks, similarly sized.  the potatoes were small enough that i just cut them in to eighths, the onion in to twelve, and the carrots in thick coins.  i didn’t peel the carrots because it looks more rustic that way, but if you’re more comfortable peeling them, go for it!  i tossed the whole mix of veg with olive oil, salt, pepper, and some red pepper flakes for a little subtle kick.  
i roasted them in the oven at about 400 degrees for about 45 minutes, flipping them around a few times.  your veggies might take more or less time depending on how small or big you cut them, so just keep and eye on them in the oven.  you can tell if they’re done when the carrots are soft (but not mushy), the onions are caramelized, and the potatoes are fork tender.  
here they are!

the next fall-inspired side dish we served was a warm wild rice salad with dried cranberries, green onions, and almonds.  i started by using the fast-cook recipe of the long grain wild rice, substituting chicken stock (instead of broth if you can!) for the water called for in the cooking instructions.  i cut up a small bunch of green onions and tossed them in with the cooked rice.  the final mix-ins were about a cup of dried cranberries and a half-cup of slivered almonds.  with all the ingredients together, i made sure to salt and pepper the dish, and added a squeeze of lemon juice for an acidic bite (great tip, Beth :] ).  you can serve this room temperature, but i would suggest serving it warm.

and for the main attraction: rosemary and garlic pork tenderloin with a parmesan cream sauce.  i started by making a garlic and rosemary paste to spread on the tenderloins. i believe just about an entire large head of garlic went in to the food processor along with three or four sprigs of fresh rosemary, some olive oil, and S&P (salt and pepper).  i pureed it until it made a nice small paste and shmeared it on the tops of the S&P’d tenderloins in a baking dish.  **note: this works wonderfully as a spread over chicken or steak, too, if you don’t eat pork!

i baked them at 400 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes and cut in to them to make sure their juices ran clear and let them rest for five minutes.  while they rested, i put a cup of cream into a small sauce pan and brought it to a simmer, added a cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese, and stirred until the cheese melted.  i added a few cracks of fresh pepper and a generous squeeze of dijon (or any kind of brown) mustard to give it a little zip.  stir until thick and creamy.

when the pork had rested, i sliced it into medallions and arranged it on a platter.  then, to finish it off, i drizzled the parmesan cream sauce right over the top (and put the rest in a bowl on the side for extra spoonfuls).  i cannot describe how tender and delicious this tenderloin was!  all together on a plate, this meal was a delicious homage to fall, and a fun and easy supper to serve at a dinner party.  here’s the final product:

but now for the most important part of any dinner party:  dessert!

 when the weather starts to get this way, i always crave apples.  since i am allergic to raw apples (and annoyingly, a lot of fresh fruit), i decided to buy some this week to bake the most adorable (and delicious!) dessert with them.  with a dinner party of 12, i didn’t want to make a whole pie (or two..), but i really wanted to make apple pie.  i decided instead to make mini honey apple pies. oohhh yes.

i started by making the filling:  six small empress apples cut in to six slices and then cut again (see the photo), 1/2 c. of light brown sugar, 1/3 of flour, a generous sprinkling of cinnamon and the same of nutmeg, and the juice of one lemon.  this makes the filling for about 14 mini pies.

the cute “mini” part of these pies comes from the fact that i baked them in a cupcake pan, so everyone gets their own tiny apple pie.  i bought two boxes of pie crusts (so in total, 4 dough rounds) and, using a small bowl, cut out circles of dough about a 1/4 of an inch wider than the openings of the cupcake wells.  after spraying the wells with cooking spray, i tucked the dough inside each one, making sure to leave a crust around the outside of each one.  i filled each pie just to the top with my apple filling and dotted them with very cold cubes of butter
i then cut out circles of dough for the top crust big enough to cover the wells and the crust of dough that i left around the edge of each pie.  using egg wash as glue, i put the top crust on the pies and crimped the dough together with a fork.  i egg washed the tops of each one and sprinkled them with granulated sugar.  the final step was to take a sharp knife and make a slit in the tops for the steam to escape during baking (or else you’ll have exploding pies on your hands!)  i baked my pies at 375 for 25 minutes, turning halfway through.  you’ll know they’re done when they are golden brown on the top.

serve warm with a scoop of good vanilla bean ice cream, and enjoy with good friends.  bon appetite!

upside-down cake heaven.

at the farmer’s market last weekend i picked up some gorgeous small plums and a few nectarines, fully intending on crafting a tart of some kind.  but i decided instead of making a pastry, i was in the mood to make a delicious cake from scratch.  a few minutes digging around the internet landed me on this gorgeous recipe for plum upside-down cake.  nope, its not an original recipe (as i am not one to whip up new baking recipes from scratch because too much measurement is involved and the chance of things going terribly wrong is high) but one that looked simple and delicious.  PLUS, eating pineapple upside-down cake is a family tradition on birthdays and i love love love it, so a variation on a classic is just fine with me!

you may also be wondering how my fruit wasn’t rotten by friday if i bought it nearly a week beforehand.  well my fine friends, let me go in to informercial-mode and tell you about these green bags.  i have heard mixed reviews on whether they actually work or not, but for a college student who goes to the market weekly and just needs to keep fruits and veg fresh enough to eat for up to a week, these bags are great.  i have had some problems in the past keeping tomatoes fresh until friday or saturday, as well as lettuces.  but these bags do just enough to prolong their shelf-life and keep them from molding and me from practically throwing money in the garbage.  this week when i got home from the market, i put my just under-ripe plums and nectarines in the bag and by the time i was ready to bake with them on friday, they were the perfect ripeness and none of them were even close to going bad.  good investment if you ask me!  (plus they were $4 for 20 reusable bags at CVS when i picked them up!)

but back to the dessert.  you can follow the recipe in the link above for all of the ingredients and the step by step instructions, but i’ll chronicle a few of them here.  i gathered all of my supplies and headed over to a friend’s place to bake.  we started by making the caramel sauce (that is so very key to any upside-down cake) on the stove with butter, brown sugar, and honey.  we cooked it on very low heat, to avoid burning the sugar, until everything was melty and delicious.  here’s what ours looked like:

we next made the cake batter (from scratch!) according to the and it turned out so soft and light.  i would recommend this as a great yellow cake base for anyone who is looking to skip the boxed mix in the future when baking for a birthday party, etc (but obviously there is a time and a place for boxed baked goods– i’m not knocking them at all!)  the only thing that i will stress from the recipe is definitely to alternate adding the dry ingredients and the milk and stir slowly.  it is a key step that doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but dumping everything in at once and over-mixing can lead to a very tough cake (and no one likes that).

we set the batter aside briefly and turned our attention to the fruit.  we washed the plums and nectarines, halved them, and removed the pits.  since we had small plums, we cut up four into six wedges per plum and the nectarines into eight wedges (or just cut the fruit into slices that are big enough so that they won’t disintegrate in the oven–this will depend on the size of your fruit!)  we poured the caramel sauce in the bottom of a 9-inch baking pan and arranged the fruit in a nice fan pattern around the pan.  observe:

lastly, we gently spooned the cake batter on top of the fruit (be careful not to drag the batter or you’ll mess up your pretty design!) and smoothed it out into one nice layer.  
our little cake went in the oven to bake for about 50 minutes (even though the recipe calls for an hour and five minutes, our oven was powerful and apparently speed-baked the cake) and we took it out to cool for ten minutes.  once it was cool, we employed the “plate method” to flip our cake out:
–Step 1:  Get a plate that is big enough to cover the entire cake pan and place it face-down on top of the cake
–Step 2: Use caution.. the cake pan is hot.
–Step 3: Grabbing the lip of the baking pan and the rim of your plate, carefully flip the cake pan over so that the plate is on the bottom (right side up)
–Step 4:  Gingerly take the cake pan off the plate and marvel at your creation!  (Hint: you may need to loosen the sides of the cake pan with a knife before you flip!)
 voila!  your cake is flipped and presented perfectly!  keep in mind the cake will be a caramel color because of the deliciously drippy caramel sauce we made that is now the top of the cake.
serve wedges of warm cake with a dollop of fresh whipping cream or a little vanilla bean ice cream. 

supper in a flash!

i love nights when i can just grab some leftovers from the fridge and reinvent them in a quick and delicious way.  with just a pot, a skillet, and the time it takes for water to boil, i can have a complete and satisfying dinner on the table.

i had half of my steak left over from the other night, so i needed to build a meal around that.  i remembered my green beans from the farmers market and blanched them in salted boiling water for about three or four minutes, until they were tender.

with the veg taken care of, i needed a starchy side.  i realized that i had brought a few side dishes from Let’s Dish (check out the website.. you’ll fall in love!) and pulled the “Pearl Couscous with Roasted Vegetables” side from the freezer and poured a portion of the bag in to a skillet with a drizzle of olive oil.  it cooks up in no time at all and is my favorite ready-made side from Let’s Dish.

i just seared the steak for a hot second in the pan after i took out my couscous, and just like that– dinner was served!  it took me 15 minutes, tops, and was super flavorful and very satisfying.  check it out!


what you should have in your pantry at all times

you may be wondering if i cook elaborate meals and have dinner parties every night.  nope, i sure don’t.  i’m still a busy student and there are several nights during the week where i either have leftovers from a big party the night before, or i just whip up something quick and dash out the door.

and, i definitely have those nights where i don’t feel like cooking something big.  mac and cheese is always a go-to meal for me :]  but i generally try to always have some quick things in my pantry/freezer that can be used for a million different meals or that can act as a great side in a pinch.  here’s a list of some things i always have on hand:
a) Frozen veggies: i always have a good selection of bagged frozen veg in my freezer to throw in to soups, toss in a stir-fry, or just steam up to serve as a vitamin and nutrient packed side dish.  watch for them to go on sale at the grocery– i stocked up last week when they were $0.88 per bag!  i generally have corn, broccoli florets, mixed veg, and lima beans in my freezer.  **heads up:  avoid getting the veggies in the bags that are labeled “lightly or specially seasoned” because they add an incredible amount of salt to your food (just look at the numbers!).  take the time to season them yourself when you cook them, and that way you control the salt.  
b) Purple Box Pasta:  i can’t say enough good things about this product.  you should always have a box or two on hand for those nights when you just want a big bowl of carb-y goodness.  the best thing about pasta is that its versatile: you can make it italian by adding pasta sauce and parm, make it a pasta salad by tossing in some tomatoes, carrots, green peppers, and a balsamic vinaigrette, make an alfredo sauce and throw in some grilled chicken… the list goes on and on.  
c) Chicken breasts: delicious, lean protein that can be seasoned a million ways, grilled on a sandwich, breaded and pan-fried, sliced and thrown into a stir-fry, marinated and put into fajitas, added to a salad–literally anything can happen when you have chicken.  i use my organic, humanely raised chicken from the grocery and watch for it to go on sale.  when that lovely day comes, i buy up several pounds, separate it into individual portions, and freeze it for a later date.  and presto, you have chicken on hand for any occasion!
d) Fresh veggies: i have enlightened you on the virtues of the frozen vegetable, but i am certain i’ll sound like a broken record if i explain how much i love and how often i use fresh veg.  i honestly go to the farmers market or the grocery and buy several different and interesting vegetables based upon what looks  the freshest, and go from there.  having chicken one night and don’t know what else to eat with it?  steam up some fresh zucchini!  saute button mushrooms and a little butter in a pan!  blanch green beans!  eat raw carrots and celery!  the possibilities are endless.  
e) Spices, oils, and flavorings: never underestimate the power of spices to add variety to your meals.  i am slowly acquiring a nice spice collection of my own, but there are a few things you should always have on hand for cooking.  dried red pepper flakes spice up everything from asian marinades to chicken noodle soup.  rosemary is a perfect complement to grilled chicken as well as roasted potatoes (or roasted anything for that matter).  Invest in a pepper mill and a salt mill (or just buy those grinders from the store like i do).  olive oil is crucial.  like seriously crucial.  you can buy a lighter olive oil if you frequently saute in it, but get the good tasting extra-virgin kind if you are planning on making salad dressings or drizzling it over a meal.  in other words, if you want to taste the olive oil as an ingredient, get something that tastes good.  i also always have lemon and lime juice (in these adorable little squeezy bottles) in the fridge to add to marinades or to brighten up sauces.  
f) Baking Staples: if you are one to bake from scratch (i’m not saying i do all the time– i like brownie and cake mix as much as the next person), there are a few things you should always have.  a small bag of all-purpose flour, granulated white sugar, light (or dark) brown sugar, vanilla extract (NOT IMITATION VANILLA!), cinnamon, and unsalted butter (in the freezer).  these few ingredients will be everything (with a few exceptions) you need to make most baked goods.  you might also invest in some baking soda and baking powder if you’re a cake or muffin baker.  
and, if you have one around (no, this is not a shameless plug for my place of employment), Let’s Dish is a great place to get side dishes to have with whatever meat and veggies you cook up for dinner.  they are absolutely delicious, and in my next post which will follow this one shortly, i will show you how i used one first-hand!  **P.S. college kids– they deliver to school for free!
i hope that was helpful and that you will run right out to the store to stock your pantries and freezers :]