Thursday, December 30, 2010

Daring Bakers' challenge: Stollen

The 2010 December Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Penny of Sweet Sadie’s Baking. She chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ to make stollen. She adapted a friend’s family recipe and combined it with information from friends, techniques from Peter Reinhart’s book.........and Martha Stewart’s demonstration.

What is stollen, you ask? Or at least that's what I asked. Apparently it's some sort of fruity bread, which honestly didn't sound so hot to me. I'm in that generation that thinks fruitcake is better used as a doorstop. Forget that I don't recall ever actually trying the stuff. When I showed the challenge to Aunt Betty, she got excited, because stollen is also apparently a German bread. We have lots of German in us, as evidenced by her (and my mom's) maiden name: Hofmeister. And our stubbornness. And our work ethic. And that when Aunt Betty really gets talking, her D's mysteriously turn into T's — think "good" said as "gooT."

Anyway, the bread wasn't that hard, besides the fact that it had to rest overnight before we could bake it. Luckily, I was planning on going to her house two days in a row anyway. So in the dough were all kinds of citrus, some almonds, dried cherries (we left out the raisins, which happens to be a food I HATE). It rose overnight, and then we formed it into the wreath shape and we cut the slits. It turned very golden brown, which was a little bit strange. After taking it out, you're supposed to put layers and layers of powdered sugar on top, along with almonds and those weird candied cherries.

All in all, not too shabby. It was a really tasty bread, and definitely would make a good breakfast food. I think if I ever make it again, I'll really edit the recipe. Maybe more like a monkey bread, or something chocolate-y. Hmmm.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The last of holiday baking: Cookie dough truffles, chocolate spice cupcakes, a gingerbread house and a maple nutmeg tart

It's funny how fast the holidays fly by. There's a month of build-up, of Christmas trees, decorations, holiday music and then suddenly Christmas is here and gone. Then everyone asks how the holidays went, and this year I'm not really sure how to answer. Last Monday I got a call from my mom that I'd been expecting for a while, but was still shocking: my Grandma Hofmeister died after battling Alzheimer's for years. That same night, my Grandma Hawley (the one I baked 90th birthday treats for) went to the hospital. It was a bad day for grandmas. Strangely enough, these two less-than-happy events led to me seeing more family during the holidays than I have in years. On my mom's side, cousins, aunts, uncles and other extended family. On dad's side, I spent a bunch of time at the house, more than I would have been able to previously. Funny how those things work out. And it also meant I've spent more time at home with my parents and grandmother in the last month or so than probably the last whole year. So, I guess the holidays teach us there is good and bad, but you just have to try to see the good.

I had a couple baking dates in the weeks before the holidays, the first with a couple of my friends from work, Sarah and Christy. We decorated sugar cookies, I made cookie dough truffles and Sarah made healthy(ish) buckeyes. It was nice to spend time with them, and watch Sarah's son create masterpieces on his easel. Plus, I made these truffles, which while crazy good, were suuuper rich. Somehow my friend Nick managed to eat four at work that night. I'm not quite sure how.

Another treat I brought into work were these chocolate spice cupcakes a la Martha Stewart. The icing was my own creation, a swiss meringue buttercream that I added a few spices to (nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger). It had a really subtle flavor but made the cupcakes really tasty. On top were Christmas light cupcake toppers from Bake it Pretty, which were also rings. I ordered them a while ago and was so excited to use them! These disappeared pretty fast at work, and a small crowd gathered when I brought them in :)

The day after Grandma died, I was supposed to bake with Aunt Betty. I wasn't sure we would still bake, but it turned out we both needed a stress reliever, so we kept our date. It was actually incredibly therapeutic, although I'm sure baking is anything but that for some people. But Aunt Betty is one of the easiest people to talk to in my family, and it was nice to be around someone else who was sad Grandma was gone, but also knew it was for the best and that Grandma was better off where she was now. Funny enough, we'd both done stress baking the night before to calm down. Mine was homemade marshmallows, to go with my Grandma Hawley's classic hot chocolate for some Christmas gifts.

Hers was the gingerbread dough we used to make this gingerbread house. No kits for us, although that led to a fairly lopsided house. We called it the tornado house, because parts of it looked like it had gone through a fairly substantial storm (notice the roof that looks caved in). Non-kit gingerbread doesn't always bake through right and create perfect corners, so we had to do some patching with royal icing. It was fun though, even though by the time we got to decorating, we were fairly tired.

Last on the list for that day was this maple nutmeg tart, which I'd had bookmarked on Smitten Kitchen for a while. The crust turned out perfectly, and I honestly wish the filling had been far more maple-y, considering that's my favorite fall flavor. Now I just want to make a bunch more tarts, but need some fillings! Suggestions, anyone?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Grandma Hofmeister, you will be missed

I feel a bit like I fell off the face of the earth this week. My phone was turned off for longer than I expect it's ever been, and there were whole days when I didn't get on the computer(!). I have quite a few things I've baked, but I honestly can't bring myself to really think about writing about them right now. I had four grandparents in my life when I was born. I lost my paternal grandfather in 1998, and then my maternal grandfather in 2005. This Monday, I lost my maternal grandmother, Menta Hofmeister. She was my mom's mother, and left behind my mother and her three siblings Betty, Fred and Phyllis along with my cousins and their kids.

It's not to say it was unexpected. She'd had Alzheimer's, and hadn't really been the Grandma I knew as a kid for a long time. But that didn't mean it was easy, either. Things I loved about that Grandma:

She always sent Christmas presents early. I may or may not have accidentally pried one open before Christmas day once. It was a stuffed animal of Percy, the pug from Disney's "Pocahontas." Tell me you're surprised.

She had a collection of collectible spoons that hung by the kitchen. An interesting thing to collect, but it was her thing.

She always had candy waiting for me at her house when we came to visit.

She kept sandwiches and chips for every visit too. Oh, and cans of Pepsi. She would put a lid over the top of the glass in the fridge if people hadn't finished it all the way.

She, like every other grandparent of mine, teased me relentlessly. In a good way :)

She adored my grandfather. They met as pen pals during World War II and were hardly ever apart after that.

I know that because I'm the youngest grandchild by a long shot, that I missed out on many memories of her that my cousins might have. But that was the positive that came from this: I saw many cousins at her funeral that I hadn't in quite some time. A couple were missing, held up by weather, but most of us were there. It's strange how death can bring together family for a sad reason but the situation can also be happy.

My grandpa had this habit, that he even had while in France and Germany during WWII. He shot pictures of everything. German soldiers, friends, downed planes, and later in life, family when we would come to visit. Looks like I've inherited the duty of forcing family to take pictures :) I want to remember the few times we get to see each other. A picture can be incredibly valuable.

So, that generation of my family tree on that side is officially gone. She's much better off where she is now, though, and I hope that wherever she is, she's by Grandpa Hofmeister's side.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas break baking: cake pops, meringues, spritzers, peanut butter cookies and Trix bark

With the amount of sweets sitting in my grandma's fridge right now, I could feed a small Kansas town. It's a little ridiculous. So far I've taken cookies to two of her neighbors and introduced my dad's employees to cake pops. Before I talk more about that, some good news.

I won Hoosier Homemade's Holiday Cupcake Challenge! I'm super excited about it. It was a really good excuse for trying some great new cupcake flavors: eggnog, pecan pie, chocolate peppermint and champagne. Thanks to Kelly, who helped me come up with the flavors. I will definitely be making a few of these again.

I've been taking care of all my Christmas traditions lately. This Sunday, my friend Lauren and I went to see the KC Ballet's production of The Nutcracker. She used to dance in her company's production of it, and I have gone to see it every year since...well, I don't know how long. Probably since I was about 5. Mom and I used to go, and then more recently I dragged a boyfriend along, but going with Lauren was perfect, except for the bratty little kid sitting next to her. Sigh. This picture is an old tradition that we don't do anymore, but was still fun when we did. My mom worked at Plymouth Congregational Church for 17 years, and it was a beautiful old building. Every Christmas they had a day of decorating, and my dad and I were unstoppable, because we didn't need a ladder to reach the things that were high up! I'm not sure we could manage that nowadays.

I did a bit of baking last week before coming back to Salina for my psuedo-Christmas break. First, a Christmas present for my friend Tim, who I made Boston Creme Pie for after his birthday. The last time I was at Tim's, there were about four empty bowls on his table that had been filled with Trix at some point, so when I came across this recipe for Trix candy bark, I knew I had to make it for him. It's my understanding it's not going to last very long.

I took these cookies into work (and I absolutely had to go for the Sesame Street fabric...yes I'm a 5-year-old sometimes). They're plain old peanut butter with chocolate chips and peanut butter chips. Always a hit.

Now for the baking at Grandma's. Pretty sure I packed up about half of my kitchen, including my KitchenAid, for my trip back to Salina. First up were cake pops, and these are easily the best ones I've done thus far. Red, green and gold sparkles. Dad's employees loved them!

Then spritzer cookies with the cookie gun Aunt Betty gave me. The recipe makes a gazillion cookies, so I've had to hand some out. I don't think the neighbors mind :)

Then some peppermint meringues with a chocolate frosting filling. Needless to say, Grandma's fridge is full right now. And I came to find that today is national cupcake day. I'm going to have to make up for that later. More holiday baking to come!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Holiday baking: meringues, divinity, Buche de Noel and gingerbread cupcakes

I have inherited Christmas decorations. Honestly, I'm not sure where some of them came from. I've got lots of gaudy plastic garlands, plenty of lights, red velvet bows, a gazillion ornaments and countless other things. Our front closet is filled with multiple boxes of decorations. I have to admit, I tend to be a fan of flashy Christmas decorations. When else do you get to light up a tree? I didn't put up all my decorations this year, though. Big Christmas tree in the living room, little one in my bedroom, garland and lights over the front window, stockings and a few knickknacks. I'm good with that for now.

I talked before about how we used to get a giant tree when I was younger. See how big that tree was? When you have 14-foot-tall ceilings (at the peak), as a child, you want the tallest tree you can fit in the space. We got a real tree every year, then had to use the ladder to decorate it. And just look at those AND silver. I'm glad I didn't inherit those.

I had another baking marathon with Aunt Betty last weekend. After many-a-day-in-a-row working, I had a number of days off, which I promptly filled with things to do. It's kind of unintentional, but I always enjoy seeing all the people I can when I'm off. Anyway, for once, we didn't use a ridiculous amount of butter. Only three sticks! Which is nothing, considering we made a bunch of different things. These were some meringues that I saw in my latest issue of Food Network Magazine. They are so light and airy, and I liked having them piped this way. They received mixed reviews from friends, but I think it was more the strange texture of a meringue than the taste.

Next on the list was divinity. I'm pretty sure not many people my age know what this is. I remember a woman in my mom's church choir made it every year, and I could never quite decide if I liked it. So we made it, and I definitely like it. I ran across this recipe at BakedBree that was pretty specific, thank goodness. We had to be really careful to cook it to the right temperature so it's firm but still chewy, and when the mixer started struggling (like the recipe said it would), it was perfect. I can't really describe the flavor on this, but it's basically really sugary with pecans.

Don't know if you remember, but one of my baking goals from a few months ago was a Buche de Noel, a French holiday cake. Basically it's a giant Swiss roll cake that you then decorate like a log. We made it from a cookbook Aunt Betty had, then used three (!) batches of frosting for the inside and the outside. It was soooo good though. And it does look like a log, I'd say!

Last but not least, my latest cupcake. I found these absolutely adorable gingerbread man sprinkles from Bake it Pretty. So I bought them, and then decided what to put them on. Enter the Martha Stewart Cupcake book. I hear these were pretty good, but I wouldn't know, because I never tasted them. I'm not big on spiced foods. But they sure looked nice!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cupcake challenge week 5: Cupcake roundup

Sometimes I get bored with baking. Or find that I really don't have any inspiration, even though I feel like baking. So the holiday cupcake challenge at Hoosier Homemade was really nice, because it made me think a little outside the box. The challenge is over now, except for voting (please vote for my New Year's champagne cupcakes, number 3). So here's what I did for the last month, with both the help of Kelly and Aunt Betty.

Week one: favorite fall flavor. I made egg nog next goal is to make some egg nog homemade!

Week two: Thanksgiving cupcake. I made pecan pie cupcakes, and found I like them better than actual pecan pie!

Week three: Christmas cupcake. I did chocolate peppermint, with a peppermint patty baked into the middle. They were pretty rich, but people sure seemed to like them.

Week four: New Year's cupcake. I did champagne (not terribly creative, I know). But these were a nod to my Kansan folk (LNOPwooo!), and the frosting was darn good.

So, happy holidays! I'm posting this roundup on the last Hoosier Homemade challenge. Now it's time to go scheme away and come up with more holiday cupcakes. I'm thinking gingerbread.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cookies, creme brulee and cockpits, oh my!

I know I've been writing about my family a lot lately. But my dad found something when I was home last that was just too cool not to write about. It was my grandpa's first flight log book. As in, records from when he learned to fly. In 1942. Pretty darn cool. That goofy guy in the helmet and goggles? That was him (I can see a lot of my dad's face in him too). The Army PT17 was a Stearman (check out this picture of one of those). It was a two-seater biplane used for training.

This is a picture of him in high school, and then some of the stuff he was doing while training in Florida. Spins, stalls, figure eights, all in a plane that doesn't have an enclosed cockpit! It's not surprising that I grew up in airplanes then. Grandpa went on to be a trainer in the Army Air Force, and my uncle and dad grew up around planes. Dad went on to be in the airplane business, and flying in small planes is one of my favorite things (I'm a total weirdo — I actually really like turbulence!). It also means someday I will have to get a pilot's license...make money first, then I will do that. Someday.

My last few desserts have been a sort of hodge-podge in between cupcakes for the cupcake challenge. I made this creme brulee from Joy of Cooking for a girls' dinner we had at my house. My friends Kelly, Brianne and Lauren came over and we had a big dinner together. It was so nice to just have time with's so needed. Brianne and Kelly had never had creme brulee, so I definitely had to introduce them. I thought I ruined it at first, because you have to cook them in a water bath, and let me tell you, getting water into the pan in the oven and later getting it out without getting it in the custard is tough. But it turned out perfectly.

I got to go home before Thanksgiving, but had to work on the actual day. I wanted to bring a treat in for everyone who was working, but didn't really feel like making the trip to the store for Thanksgiving-y ingredients. So I made chocolate cookies with peanut butter chips. Pretty simple, but still tasty.

I've started seeing a lot of Christmas recipes pop up, and my bookmark list is getting longer and longer. I've been wanting to make meringue cookies the last few days, but after a marathon of days at work, I wasn't getting up early enough to make them and let them dry out. So instead I went for these molasses cookies, which was definitely the right decision. They were SO good. They have some cinnamon and ginger in them, but they're not quite a gingersnap. A little red and green sanding sugar, and I've started my holiday baking! I handed them out to the whole newsroom, which I hadn't gotten to do in a while. They were all gone at the end of the day. I will definitely make them again. Now, I'm preparing for a baking day with Aunt Betty. It's December, so holiday music and holiday baking is fair game!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cupcake challenge week 4: Champagne cupcakes

It seems a little silly writing about New Year's when I just put up my Christmas tree. This week, when I got home from Salina, I put up my multicolored tree. It's pretty ridiculous, actually. Kelly will tell you so. But hey, I like bright colors, so I suppose my tree should match.

My tree is one of my Christmas traditions I've built for myself. I've found it necessary to start making my own traditions up, because it's pretty tough to keep holiday traditions alive when your parents divorce and move away. So my tree is it. Some of the tradition is through the ornaments. I've got Santas my aunt painted for me, and porcelain versions of the Seven Dwarfs (yes, my parents started me early on the whole Disney thing). There's a collection of cloth ornaments a dear family friend made for me, one each year when I was growing up. There's the super gaudy old ornament with sequins and fringe, and I couldn't even tell you its origins. Mixed in with all the old stuff is the new, though. I've got the colored globe ornaments, but also my 2008 National Championship ornament, next to my Bolt ornament I got last year. There's lots of sparkle too. And a fair number of animal ornaments too.

My other two favorite traditions I've also made plans for. First, I watch White Christmas. A lot. If you let me, I'll force you to watch it too. But also, every year I go see the Nutcracker ballet in Kansas City. It's something I used to do with my mom, then later with various boyfriends throughout the years. I know this show by heart; the songs, the choreography, the costumes (the Dance of the Flowers is my favorite). This year, I'm pretty excited because I just bought tickets to see it with my friend Lauren, who used to dance in the show. I know she will love it just as much as me, and we'll get to do our Christmas tradition together.

Anyway, New Year's Eve is still a little far away to really plan for. I've got to get through the winter holidays first. But for this week's challenge, I had to make a New Year's-themed cupcake. I know champagne is a little cliche, but I hope all of my friends from the Kansan will appreciate what I made this cupcake with: a nice $5 bottle of Andre. Yup. Definitely some sentimental value there, some memorable Wednesday nights at the ends of semesters. I couldn't resist.

So I used this champagne cupcake recipe, which called for whipping the egg whites instead of adding eggs straight in, making the cupcakes a bit lighter than normal. The strawberry Andre gave them just a hint of flavor, but the icing is what really made these cupcakes. It might be in my top three icings ever. It was just a basic buttercream, but with the Andre added, and it almost seemed to have a fizzy flavor. Not possible, but I stand by what I say :)

I'm posting these cupcakes over at the New Year's challenge. I'd really appreciate if you'd go vote for my chocolate peppermint cupcake (number 4) to help me win last week's challenge. Thanks!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Daring Bakers' challenge: Crostata

The 2010 November Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Simona of briciole. She chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ to make pasta frolla for a crostata. She used her own experience as a source, as well as information from Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.

Okay, I won't lie, I don't really get crostata. Not that it's hard, but what makes it different from a normal pie or tart. Apparently it's Italian, especially the pasta frolla, which is the crust. It's pretty simple, so that was nice. Just throw some ingredients in the food processor, knead it a bit and you're done. You're supposed to make it in a tart pan, but I don't have one, so I used a pie pan.

Aunt Betty and I made this earlier this month, the same time as the pecan pie cupcakes and buckeyes. We didn't have a solid plan for a filling, but she had some cherry preserves she'd made earlier in September from their cherry trees out back. It turned out to be the perfect filling! Some of the other bakers did some crazier fillings, like a roasted beetroot and chilli chocolate crostata with a charred carrot lattice, or some savory options. I don't think I'm that adventurous with desserts.

But now it's time to start thinking of Christmas-themed desserts. I'm hoping the December challenge will fit that role. I definitely have to make pizzelles, something I make every year. My Aunt Mary K's mom Mildred makes them every year, and I miss them so much I've started making them. I might even transform them into a Christmas cannoli. On top of that, I'm starting Christmas decorating and movie-watching. Count for "White Christmas" (my Christmas movie of choice): 3. And it's not even December!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A successful surprise 90th party, complete with cake and cupcakes

Operation Surprise 90th Birthday Party: complete success!

This Saturday, after working 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. (on four hours of sleep!) I hopped in a car full of cupcakes, a cake, my clothes and my cat and headed to the Brookville Hotel in Abilene for a surprise party for my grandma. She turned 90 last week, and a whole bunch of family gathered at the restaurant, where she and my grandpa celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary when I was 6. This time it was my family, my uncle's family and a multitude of my dad's cousins there to celebrate.

This is easily one of my favorite places in the world to eat, even better when filled with family. Dad had told Grandma that it was just them and my stepmom Cathie going to dinner. She walked into the room and saw a table full of about 2o family members and was shocked, then immediately asked how Dad got us all together. He' just sneaky, I guess :)

After dinner, everyone drove back to Salina to my dad's house. There we ate the treats I'd made in the days before. I made two kinds of cupcakes: red velvet (at Dad's request) and screwdriver cupcakes, which is Grandma's favorite alcoholic drink.

The red velvet was simple, my favorite Martha Stewart recipe. They always end up light and fluffy and wonderful. The cream cheese frosting is excellent as well.

The screwdriver cupcakes weren't too shabby either. I got the recipe from Booze Cakes, which I got a few months ago. It called for coconut in the cupcake, but I'm anti-coconut, so I left it out. The cupcake ended up tasting like Trix to me. The frosting recipe, on the other hand, was a disaster. Just goes to show that I should just follow the recipe I know works and flavor it accordingly. It basically gave me orange-vodka flavored soup. Yech. I also candied orange peels to go on top.

Together, they looked pretty snazzy, I think. :)

Then was the birthday cake. I made a couple layers of square cake from my favorite yellow cake recipe. I froze it overnight and then decorated it super late the night before the party. I frosted it with buttercream and then did my first experiment with fondant, the bow. The night before, I rolled it out and dyed it (and my fingers too!) and then cut it into strips, which I formed into loops and let set. After frosting the cake, I attached the loops to make a bow, then frosted down by the cake board, and voila! My first attempt at a decorated cake! I'm pretty pleased with how it turned out. And I'm going to count it as completing one of my baking goals. It's not a cake totally covered in fondant, but it's on there, so I think it works.

Grandma was too. It was incredible to have everyone in town. That picture is four of my dad's cousins with my grandma. They live all over Kansas and Oklahoma and came down for this one day! It's also pretty incredible that Grandma is 90 and still doing well.

So I've spent the weekend being lazy with Grandma, eating my favorite Salina food and watching old movies. Pretty sure none of them we've watched were made after 1954 (The Philadelphia Story, Harvey, White Christmas and Singin' in the Rain). It's been a super relaxing break, and having my kitty cat here with me has been entertaining as well. He's currently complaining that I've shut him in the TV room with us.

Ultimately, the best thing I got from this weekend: I am very lucky to still have my wonderful Grandma around. I was also very lucky to see so many family members this weekend (that's my uncle on the left; he lives in Illinois and I don't see him often). So for my Thanksgiving break, I am thankful for all that.
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