Friday, May 28, 2010

More Kale Please

Summer hit like a slap in the face. Last week, I went camping with friends to glorious, wooded, rocky, redneck southern Missouri--Thursday, it rained all day, Friday, it was sunny and 75, and then Saturday, bam, it was 90. And I love it. Love it. I have a theory or life philosophy that you can't complain about the weather being hot and about it being cold--you have to pick one or the other. It's supposed to get up to 90 degrees today and guess who still doesn't have their air conditioning on? This guy.

It's time to swim at the pool, go camping and fishing, turn off the oven and toss together salads (except for next week when I master the cake--I am determined to succeed, so get excited readers). I cannot wait until the tomatoes come in and I can make this salad. In the meantime, I discovered roasting greens until they're crisp. So it does involve an oven. But if fall is about soups, winter is about stews and spring is ... I don't know what spring is, recovery from winter? Then in summer, I'll keep it simple: crackers, soft goat cheese and kale chips drizzled with olive oil and salt roasted for 15 minutes at 350 degrees. I suppose we're still technically in spring, but I mean, once people start turning on their ACs and leaving them on, I think it's transition time.

I can barely remember this day back in February when my world was buried in three-plus feet of snow and it seemed like it would never melt. But Omaha in summer totally makes up for the howl of a Nebraska winter. I've already done the Wabash Trace Taco Ride once, in fact, I've been riding my bike about Midtown and Dundee for the past month or so. The farmer's markets have started, some even a few weeks ago. The College World Series will be here in a month, bring thousands of fans to the steamy hot grandstand at Rosenblatt. And then there's Shakespeare on the Green and, my favorite, the Summer Art Festival. Outdoor concerts featuring the Old 97s, the Faint, Spoon, Superchunk and the Morning Benders. Now if only I could round out the season with a summer fling.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Meltdown

I'd like to blame some abstract cosmic force who is obviously working against me in the kitchen, but it's me. It's all me. I have an inability to follow directions. I don't plan on it. It just happens. I get to the bottom of the ingredient list and think "SIX egg whites! I have this meringue powder that should be a perfect substitute." And there it is. I've strayed ever so slightly from the instructions down the precipice and into the canyon.

Difficulty arose with my stubborn refusal to make another batch of hideous frosting. That buttercream frosting truly makes me want to yack. There was no way I was going to make an entire cake that I didn't want to eat. So I went to who we all know is the master of home baking: Ms. Martha Stewart. I decided upon her orange-almond cake with Swiss meringue buttercream--a buttercream recipe that calls for actual butter not Crisco. Using my new KitchenAid mixer (!) I whipped up the most delicious batter. The recipe calls for folding in egg whites--who knew how glorious egg whites could be when whipped to a frothy tower! So easy with the KitchenAid. The orange gave just a touch of zing to the moist cake littered with barely noticeable crunches of almond. For a filling, I used the remainer of the strawberry-peach-orange jam I made last summer.

I made an orange-flavored crumb coat, and moved on to the frosting while the crumb coat dried. We already know I substituted meringue powder for egg whites in the Swiss buttercream recipe--to my eventual detriment. But the frosting went on fairly smoothly, plus it's edible. A touch on the too-sweet side, but a fine balence when teamed with the cake. And I made the traditional buttercream frosting for the decorating portion of the cake--thank goodness. My sister Allison was standing by in case disaster struck but more to witness an emotional breakdown.

I carefully hauled my cake to the decorating class, taking every turn at calculated pace. One member of the class was not so lucky as I. By the time I waltzed into the classroom cake in hand, Desiree was red-faced and grumbling. Her cake broke en route--the top separated from the bottom and she was busy spackling it back together with the loathed buttercream. I offered a simpathetic glance and we mumbled about how horrible the frosting tastes--her fix was to substitute lemon juice for the water in the recipe (an excellent idea).

Together I and Desiree (my cake-decorating kindred spirit) fumbled through the final session. Once I coaxed my icing away from neon hues, I aced the roses. Desiree struggled with cabbage-like constructions until the light bulb clicked, and she got it too. I mastered the sweet pea, the simple rose bud, the leaf and the ribbon with almost no tribulation. Transferring my skills to the cake was more of a challenge, but it came out pretty well. I was the first one in the class finished with my cake, received my "diploma" and headed out to meet up with friends. I would trade my spendid cake for a meal of stir-fry.

I precariously balenced my cake in the front seat next to me and drove off. A little frosting transferred to my purse, so whilst driving I lifted the cake and balenced it in my right hand and steered with my left. There I was driving down Center Street with a cake in one hand. Not five minutes into the drive, I noticed that the butter-based icing was indeed melting in the 85-degree evening heat. My green-dot border was not-so-slowly sliding down the side of the cake and onto the stand and my arm. At a red light, I placed the cake back in the passenger seat. I couldn't have cried--it was too funny. I'm a lost cause with the cakes. If only Desiree could have seen me, she would have felt so much better about her own cake. I parked quickly at Dan's and ran up without even grabbing my purse. Once inside, Laura and Adam licked off the dripping frosting with their fingers while Dan snapped a quick photo (below). Such a delicious disaster.

Here are only the successful portions of the recipes, including the buttercream, which does taste horendous but works great with the roses.

Orange-almond Cake:
1 cup butter plus more to grease pans
1 1/2 cups flour (sifted)
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
6 large eggs, separated
orange zest from 2 oranges (I skipped this)
2/3 cup orange juice
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup coarsely ground almonds
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 350. Grease two 8- or 9-inch baking rounds and sprinkle with flour (that's a new trick I learned). Set aside.

In a medium or large bowl, beat together the sugar and egg yolks until light and fluffy with the whisk attachment (because I have that now!). Add the orange juice and zest and both the extracts and mix well. Using the paddle attachment, gradually mix the almonds and then the flour into the batter until combined. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the salt and the last 3 tablespoons of sugar. Beat until stiff but not dry. Set aside.

Melt the butter. Fold the butter into the batter using a spatula. Then gently fold in the egg whites, being careful not to deflate the whites. Pour batter into the two pans and bake for about 35 minutes, until cooked through. Let cool for 15 minutes. Turn out on a wire rack to cool completely.

Crumb Coat:
1 cup powdered sugar
orange juice

Put powdered sugar in a small bowl. Pour orange juice into the bowl one tablespoon or so at a time (very slowly). Mix with a fork between each tablespoon. Add enough liquid to make the icing runny, but still viscous. It should be about as thick as corn syrup. Pour onto the cooled cake that has already been stacked (if it's a two- or three-layer cake). Let dry.

Buttercream Frosting:
1 1/3 cup vegetable shortening
2 tablespoons meringue powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon butter flavoring
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 or 6 tablespoons water
2 pounds powdered sugar (!)

In a mixing bowl, cream the shortening with the paddle attachment of a standing mixer (or just any old attachment for you commoners without a KitchenAid, yes, I'm already a snob). Add the meringue powder, vanilla and butter flavoring, salt and 5 tablespoons of water. Mix until smooth consistency. Add the powdered sugar one-third at a time. I left out probably 1/2 to 1 whole cup of the directed amount of powdered sugar and the consistency was totally fine (this was according to some tips from one of my aunts).
Add more water as needed to get the right consistency to frost a cake and/or make silly decorations like the roses and leaves (don't even ask me how to know what consistency is right).

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Coolest People I Know

It only took 23 or so years for me to realize how truly amazing my parents are. Before moving to Thailand, all I wanted to do was get away from boring America, boring suburbia, boring parents. One of the things I learned in Thailand and through coming home is that life is only as boring as you let it become. My parents, who I once thought were the epitomy of predictability, are shining examples of people who have found contentedness in everyday life. Sure not every day is a breeze, but at the risk of my own "hip" reputation, these people are cool.

Now that my sisters and I are older, they have a lot more time to pursue their own interests. They've been married 32 years now and are still totally in love--they still hold hands people! They are obsessed with playing tennis. I would often call their house on a Friday evening to catch Emily home alone because Mom and Dad were out with their tennis team. My mom gardens, which is something I would have thought to be the most boring, suburbanite thing one could do back in my high school years. In the summer, they ride their bikes from Millard to Dundee (probably 10 to 15 miles) eat dinner at the Dundee Dell and ride home. They go skiing on vacation or canoe the Boundary Waters. And my dad is an amateur carpenter. He made the table pictured above and below with his own two hands and a few saws. He makes furniture. And not just any old furniture, really really nice furniture. Furniture I would never be able to afford. So far, he's made me a desk, bookcase and now this 6-foot-long dining room table. My parents' entire house is furnished probably 50 or 60 percent with stuff made by my dad. That is cool.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Every Rose

Cupcake decorating went way way way better than the cake decorating near fiasco. There were no bag explosions, no meltdowns. And look what I can do. I can make a rose out of sugar and Crisco. And it actually looks alright. Again, I won't vouch for the taste. I couldn't eat even one cupcake. Too sweet. But my friends, thankfully, finished them off.

At the third session in the four-week cake decorating class, I learned to make a shell border (sort of), a number of different flowers and should anyone be in need of a cake topper in the shape of a clown, I can do that too, but that one will cost you.  

Megan and Eric were packing up their stuff all day last Monday before they left on Tuesday. After a long sweaty day, we met up for the last drinks with friends at the Dundee Dell. Our whole little group of friends came to hang out with only a half-hour notice. It's surreal to be saying goodbye to Megan. It's sort of like a chapter closing on life.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Back in Gear

I coach this high school lacrosse team, which is quite possibly the sweetest, most fun group of teenage girls one could encounter. It's been a great season, though incredibly time-consuming for me. My weekends are sucked away travelling to out-of-town tournaments--because I coach the only girls lacrosse team in the state of Nebraska, we have to travel at least two hours to play someone. There are two to three practices a week, plus pasta dinners and I haven't gone to one single pasta dinner. I scheduled them all, but I bow out every time. I'm trying to grasp onto a shred of sanity, and that involves making time to cook. Yesterday was the last pasta feed of the year (minus the end-of-the-year party), and the girls were asking "Oh Lainey aren't you going? We made the best cake ever! You have to try it." I was tempted to go, I really was, but this tart was calling my name all the way from my home in Dundee to way-out West Omaha. After a day spent indoors, doing a number on some flour with a pastry blender and chopping some vegetables to bits is how cope with the overabundance of fluorescent lighting in my life.

Once I got home, I realized I didn't have enough flour. In typical fashion, I substituted polenta for what I was missing. This didn't quite work out. It wasn't bad per se. I didn't realize until the tart shell was browning in the oven that corn meal polenta isn't exactly interchangeable with flour. Now I know I should have just cooked the polenta the way you're supposed to cook polenta, which is with boiling water to dissolve the larger, crunchy bits of corn. It's fine though, this crust is a tad on the too-crunchy side for my preference, but everything else, the wilted kale, pancetta and the creamiest feta cheese I've ever eaten, made up for it. By the time the savory tart was finished, it was nearing 9 p.m., and being no European, I was practically gnawing my arm off. I downed at least one-third of the pie while watching Hulu and finished the night off with some amazing gelato from eCreamery. Ah life, I'm back.

Savory Tart with Kale and Pancetta: from Tartelette (tart shell recipe not included here)
1/2 onion, chopped
big bunch of kale, chopped (any green will do here)
2 ounces pancetta, chopped
3 eggs
2/3 cup milk
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon nutmeg
crumbled feta cheese

Preheat oven to 350. Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. Once it's hot, saute the onions for a couple minutes until they're a bit translucent, then add the kale and saute until it's wilted and turned a brilliant green. Remove from heat. Saute the pancetta for a few minutes to crisp.

In a small bowl, combine eggs, milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Whisk to blend. In a nearly finished tart shell (I recommend following the shell recipe on Tartelette, linked above, for a regular shell or here for a polenta shell). Arrange the kale, onion and pancetta on the tart shell. Pour the egg mixture over the top. Sprinkle with crumbled cheese. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the egg has set completely.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Oh Dear

Well, I survived. I made it through the Monday-night cake-decorating class, barely. Without assistance from my mother, I would be crumpled up on my parents' kitchen floor--still.

Things started out fine, er, rather, things started out OK. The cake only momentarily got stuck to the pan, but things were set by the time I got to my mom's house. I cut off the rounded top of the cake to my satisifaction, saying "Hey, that looks pretty good." However, my sister Emily (honestly and naively enough) said, "Oh, is it supposed to be crooked?" Thanks, Em. You may have been to young to recall all my cake icing debachles and have thus set the bar far too high.

Next, I set to work on the crumb coat, which is 1 cup of powdered sugar mixed with 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of water. It's drizzled on the cake and allowed to dry; it forms a hard-ish crust that makes the frosting go on smoother. Because I was only making a one-layer cake for last night's class, I decided to cut the crumb coat recipe in half. I should have thought that through mathematically, because yes, there was half the area but not half the surface area. I thought it was no big deal that I didn't have enough icing to cover the sides of the cake--this was a  HUGE mistake.

Here's me mixing blue into the icing for the base layer. Things are still going well, or so I think.

Still smiling before the icing goes on. I had the foresight to buy this gigantic cake tip that supposedly makes icing easier. Technically, it does, but my frosting was so thick it took a look of muscle to push it out of the bag and onto the cake.

Here we go. The entire time I was coaching myself: "don't mess up, Lainey, don't mess up."
Things start to get sticky, and I called Mom over to help turn the cake.

Damn, I ran out of icing. Cue the whining and cursing. Emily thought it was funny that the icing looks like a face here; I did not laugh.

I try spreading the icing along the sides of the cake and ACK, it won't stick and it's pulling off the cake forming a pool of crumbs along the edges. The whining turns to a wimper: "Mom, mom, it's not working." I am on the verge of a complete meltdown before my mom flies in and whisks the spatula away. She and Emily are in fits of laughter. Thankfully, I had enough good humor (barely, barely enough) to be chuckling between stomping feet. Mom was laughing and saying, "It's only your first time. You're doing better than Allison (my other sister who is teased for taking this same cake decorating class 10 years ago)." She was consoling because I was going on about I'm hopeless, what am I doing taking this class, I can't decorate a freaking cake, I'm a worthless human being. OK, I wasn't saying that out loud, but only a mother would know that was what was going through my head. I had plunged into the state of a toddler, whining and wimpering about a dang cake and begging my mom to save me, "oh but don't do the top, mom, I want to do the top, boo hoo!" What a two-year-old.

With the sides of the cake fixed (how did she do that?!), Mom returned the spatula to me and out of nowhere tosses a glass of wine into my hands. "Here, you just have some soup and wine." It's true, I hadn't eaten much all day (popcorn, chips and a muffin), probably with anxiety over having to ice that cake. I had a dream/nightmare about it the night before that I had to decorate a cake for the wedding of this boy I used to be like in love with a long long time ago and then I had to be in his wedding. Horrors! I am not that big of a person.

As you can see from the above picture, the cake ended up alright and my mom and Emily got the greatest kick ever out of my minor meltdown. We colored the rest of the icing while eating gumbo at the kitchen table. My mom begged me to come over again next week (I may have to) because apparently my meltdowns are highly entertaining.

Below is the finished cake. My attention to detail is evident by taking a close look (the piping gel is peaking out from under the icing), which is to say I have no thought for details. All I care about is if something tastes good and if it look reasonably nice--sort of "it's the inside that counts" of cooking.

And I do not have high hopes for the inside of this cake. I'm actually afraid to eat it. Just taking the top off the cake holder thingy, the smell of sugar slaps you in the face. I came home and brushed my teeth after class because they were covered in grimy sugar from the frosting. And the cake itself did not turn out (I think). It's incredibly dense. My mom actually spit out a piece of the rounded top when she tried it. And here's the thing with these fancy cakes: As far as I can gather, you have to use this buttercream frosting because it hardens to the right consistency. But it tastes awful. It's way too sweet and greasy. At some point in life, I changed over to liking dark chocolate better than milk chocolate. I prefer desserts flavored with fruits instead of laden with sugar. I can eat salty anything, but something overly sweet (like this cake) makes me want to yack. Thing is, I'm not sure I have enough determination to figure out how to make and ice a cake that I actually or that anyone actually wants to eat.

Correction: The cake is fine, as in edible. The frosting is way too sweet, but the cake itself turned out OK, nothing special, but totally edible.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Taking the Cake

Now for what's become a once-weekly installment of cooking. I must be a glutton for being busy--once my university class was over I signed up for a cake decorating class. I just replace one thing with another. The class started last week and meets at Mangelson's, a local craft store and actually my first employer way back 10 or 11 years ago. I walk through the aisles, which have been slightly rearranged and recall sorting shopping carts filled with beads and rhindstones. The store still has a popcorn machine.

Tonight's class should be interesting: I have to bring an already-frosted cake. I have never once been able to properly frost a cake--not ever--and I've had numerous chances. I've had cakes break apart on me, I've made frosting too runny, I've ran out of frosting midway through, you name the disaster involving the sugary-glue and I've done it. This time, I swear to follow the instructions. I'm going to make a crumb layer, and I'll even use Crisco instead of butter. My poor mom is perpetually the recipient of my awful cakes. She's the only one who would appreciate these efforts anyway. Get ready to be stunned mom--this one's for you.
This is what I'm aiming for: (I'll keep you posted on my progress)

Monday, May 3, 2010

May Berries

The only reason I had time to make this blackberry cake was because the last of six lacrosse games this weekend got cancelled because of lightning. I coach a high school lacrosse team in Omaha and signed them up for SIX games this weekend--complete madness, but the girls really were such great sports about it. As the thunderhead rolled in from the west, the sky was blueblueblue and dotted with puffy clouds to the southeast. Driving back to Omaha, I was racing the storm going in and out of the rain. It barely rained while I napped in the mid-afternoon and then cleared up in time for me to go on a run and bake. It was a great end to what turned into a pretty good weekend.

Megan is leaving soon--she's getting married and moving to Madison, Wis., this month. Spring cleaning is all very real as I wake up to boxes of stuff and half-empty walls. Moving on is so strange post-college. After graduating, everyone leaves, but not so this time. I know Megan is really excited to be living with Eric, but I also know she's nervous about finding new friends and a new job in Madison. It's bittersweet for me as well: a good friend is moving far away (she's the best listener ever), but I do have a pretty cool new roommate moving in. It's just this trudging along of life, I guess. A reminder to enjoy life in the celebratory moments (like weddings and graduations) but also when it rains and thunders for an hour but becomes a beautiful evening in the end. Enjoying life definitely includes making this cake.
I've made the cake once (OK more than once) before but with blueberries. The blackberries were on sale and the grocer. They were nice, a cross between the sweetness of a blueberry and the tartness of a raspberry. There aren't many pieces left, so if you want some, you better stop by today.