Thursday, September 30, 2010

Daring Bakers' challenge: decorated sugar cookies (4 of 8 goals met)

The September 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mandy of “What the Fruitcake?!” Mandy challenged everyone to make Decorated Sugar Cookies based on recipes from Peggy Porschen and The Joy of Baking.

First, let me explain what this is. I have joined an online group called the Daring Bakers, which is a community of bloggers who make the same dessert every month. I joined last month in time to do this challenge, which, interestingly enough, ended up being one of my dessert goals for this year! How weird. Had it not been a challenge, I think I might not have made these by the end of the year. I'm glad I've gotten my first cookies decorated with royal icing out of the way. I can't imagine how frustrating this would have been without step-by-step instructions.

Anyway, the theme was to make cookies that remind me of September. That generally means the beginning of fall in Kansas, although the weather has only just now started to feel like fall. So I made fall leaves during a trip to Aunt Betty's. She had a couple old leaf cookie cutters and I had the day off, so it was perfect.

What I learned from this: do it over a couple days. The cookies are easy enough to make and held their shape really well. The hard part was the royal icing. You have to change consistencies for outlining and for flooding, and it wasn't until the last color that I really figured it out. Plus, piping made my hand hurt after a while! There's a lot of fun ways to decorate though, like that closeup of the brown leaf, which actually has luster dust on it. I'm thinking I will make cookies again around Christmas time, now that I've experimented a little. All-in-all, though, it was a fun time!

Now I have half of my goals conquered and three months left. Those cake pops and the fondant-covered cake, though, scare me a little bit. Before tackling those, I have to decide what kind of birthday cake I'm making myself this week :)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

An apple a day means fall

I've been in a bit of a baking slump lately. Granted, a slump for me is still baking once in a week or so, but it's less than normal. I think I've just been busy with other things, like working, writing stories and just hanging out with friends. All valid reasons, I think, for less baking. That, and I think I've lacked inspiration lately. The weather here has been strange, but hey, that's Kansas. I'm a huge fan of fall weather, but it only cooled down a couple days ago. Between the extended summer and the fact that I didn't go back to school for the first time in 17 years this August, I've been a little thrown off. Not that I mind — I'm super happy to not have homework. I'm just shocked at how late in September it is already, and that I haven't had a test in who-knows-what political science class. I actually sealed the post-grad deal last week when I went to pick up my diplomas (four months after I earned them). I got those, plus my distinction cords, plus my honors medal, plus my Phi Beta Kappa key. I didn't get any of them at the ceremonies, because I skipped them. So now that all of that stuff is sitting on my bedroom floor, it's easier to realize that college is actually done.

Not having homework means that I get to plan stuff in my free time, time that doesn't revolve around reading or calls from The Kansan. One of my days off I went to Aunt Betty's house and started fall baking (before the weather changed, but hey, I was being proactive!). Fall baking means apples to me. I'm not much of a pumpkin gal, but tart apples in an apple pie? Mmmmm. First, though, we made apple cider doughnuts. I've been craving these since I saw them in last October's Food Network Magazine, but since we knocked out doughnuts earlier this month, I thought we should try these. They're super heavy, but light inside. Rolled in cinnamon sugar and with a delicate apple flavor, they were heavenly. I managed to burn myself with hot oil while frying them. Always fun. Frankly, I hate cooking with oil. It's so temperamental. Boo.

Then we did the Martha Stewart apple pie. We did a nice Joy of Cooking double crust, complete with obscene amounts of butter, which, of course, makes it that much tastier. Then the apple filling and covering with a second crust, with apple cutouts. I'm getting slightly better at making crust, but that managed to injure me too. I cut myself on the food processor's blade, so let's just say it wasn't my day. The pie, though, was excellent, especially with some yummy cheddar cheese.

In between oil heating for doughnuts and pie crust chilling, I also made some cashews. I found a recipe for ginger cayenne cashews in my latest Martha Stewart Living. Last time I tried making flavored cashews, I burnt them pretty close to a char. We watched these much closer, and they turned out excellent. They had a really unique flavor, and the cayenne wasn't overpowering. They were a great snack.

Then a few days later I went to my friend Sarah's house to help with her baking. I admire her because she eats WAY healthier than me and does things like run 30 miles in one day (!). She bakes, but it's generally vegan, and always tastes excellent. After eating broccoli pad thai, we made carrot-raisin cookies. It always fascinates me when baking vegan, because I'm so used to putting butter and eggs in just about everything I bake. Apparently flax seed acts similarly to an egg and as a binding agent. Anyway, these cookies were super yummy and made a gazillion!

She also had me help ice a bunch of mini cupcakes, half chocolate chip agave, half key lime coconut. All vegan. I'd never tried agave before, but they were a much richer sweet. I didn't actually help bake the cupcakes, but did mix and pipe the icing. I think they turned out pretty :)

So now I'm getting baking bug again. I'm trying to decide what I will make for my own birthday, which is this Saturday. I might make another ice cream cake, or cupcakes, or nothing. I guess I get to decide, right? I can't wait!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Homer Simpson would be proud (3 of 8 goals met)

When it starts getting to the end of my work week, I start to get excited. And unable to sleep. So I do things like stay up late to fix my bedside table that's been broken. Or write stories that or due. Or write blog post entries for posting later :) Tonight is my Friday after a very long week. We're just getting into the swing of sports at work, which means lots of posting of game stuff that I'm not totally used to yet. I'll get better at it, but the first few nights are pretty tough. Speaking of sports, though, how about those Jayhawks? Granted, I slept through the whole Georgia Tech game, because that's the middle of the night for me. But it's quite the turnaround from losing 6-3 the week before. Who knows where this season will lead. Plus, sports means fall, which is my favorite season. For one, my birthday is in fall. But I've also discovered a new favorite time of day — driving to and from work. It's dark out, the weather is great and it's perfect for rolling down the windows and turning the music up. It's cathartic and clears my mind, and it's frankly a perfect few minutes. Too bad pretty soon it will be freezing out!

I felt like more cupcakes this week, and for some reason snickerdoodle was at the top of my list. I was flipping through my Martha Stewart Cupcake book and it just popped out at me. I don't even like snickerdoodles that much, but anything is better in cupcake form I think. Plus, I had a new piping tip for icing, so I wanted to try that out. A cinnamony cake, a quick buttercream and then cinnamon sugar on top. Voila! A tasty rainy day cupcake (and we've had plenty of rainy days lately!).

Here's where we get to the Homer Simpson part. I also went to my Aunt Betty's house last week for another baking extravaganza. One thing I made I can't talk about yet, other than saying I joined something called Daring Baker. It's a monthly challenge that a bunch of bloggers do together, but you have to wait till a certain day to reveal it. So that date hasn't come yet. The other thing we made was doughnuts, another of my baking goals. All you die-hard (or even just normal) Simpsons fans know Homer loves his doughnuts, and now I know why. They take a while because it's like normal bread dough with all the rising and such, but believe me, that day I needed some dough to knead to take my anger out on. Anyway, when I was in NYC, I bought a doughnut cutter (of all things, right?). So we made the doughnuts, frying them in a cast-iron pan and everything, then adding a chocolate glaze. Lemme tell you, I will never look at doughnuts the same way again. They were SO good. And I'm not even that much of a doughnut person! Pretty damn tasty though.

Last, I decided to do a repeat of a dessert I made in June. They were cookie dough cupcakes, and every bit as yummy as you can imagine. Kelly helped me make them, and even piped some of the frosting (this is significant because she generally complains that I only let her measure. So there, she frosted!). I just tasted them, and it really is like eating a completely rich chocolate chip cookie, because it's a chocolate chip cookie cupcake filled with eggless cookie dough and topped with a cookie dough-flavored icing. A friend at work said it was in his top 3 cupcakes ever, and he's eaten a lot of different cupcakes. I will take that as a compliment :)

So now I'm off to accomplish other things before my Friday. Can't wait for a couple days off to relax...and take care of everything I haven't had time to before now. Ciao!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A chocolate and peanut butter kind of week

I have watched “10 Things I Hate About You” three times in the last three days. Seriously. I think I might have a problem. I’ve loved the movie since it came out (probably because my mom thought it was inappropriate…what adolescent doesn’t love to rebel in some way?). A friend mentioned the other day their favorite band had a song on the movie, so naturally I had to watch. I had the soundtrack too, so I knew where it was. It’s just so great. “I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?” “I think you can in Europe.” Or… “My insurance does not cover PMS!” Oh and Heath Ledger’s smile? SO wonderful. Sigh.

Anyway, point is, I’ve been spending a lot of time with friends lately. I’ve reconnected with a lot of old ones and am making new ones, and it’s totally wonderful. Like I talked about last time, I had a major life event happen recently — I became single for the first time in more than two years. If you know me well, you know I’m a serial long-term dater. My goal this time is to avoid that and just do things I want to and remind myself who I am. Some of those things happen to be watching movies, hanging out with people and baking, obviously. This week I combined a couple, when my friend Anne came over and helped me make cupcakes (and took a picture of me with them so I could prove I actually do make them!). It’s been a learning experience thus far, but it’s a good thing too. A little alone time isn’t bad. And keeping up with friends isn’t either.

One of my friends from school, Lauren, just got hired on as a copy editor at my newspaper. I’m so happy I get to see her regularly! She likes chocolate (or so she tells me) so I wanted to make her a chocolate-y dessert to welcome her. Kelly gave me some polka-dotted cupcake wrappers for graduation, and I bought some yellow sprinkle things to match, so a basic devil’s food cupcake and basic buttercream and voila! a chocolate dessert. I’m not sure I’d buy those sprinkles again, because they were definitely capable of cracking molars...but they tasted good, so it's a trade-off. They looked pretty though!

Fun fact about me — I LOVE peanut butter desserts. Cookies seemed like the right way to go, because I hadn’t made them in a while. I made this peanut butter cookie recipe from Smitten Kitchen once before, and my roommate Eric LOVED them. I forgot why until I made them again, but they’re soooo fluffy and awesome. A lot of times peanut butter cookies get crunchy or hard, and then they’re just not as wonderful. These stay light, I think because you beat the hell out of the butter and peanut butter at the beginning. A few Reese's Pieces on top and you’ve got one of the best peanut butter cookies ever.

Like I said earlier, Anne came over to help me with a dessert this week too. Our sports editor at work missed a few desserts I made, so I told him to request something (I love requests! You should request something! It’s a challenge and I like those). He said peanut butter and chocolate. I’ve been kind of averse to this combo this summer because it’s been SO hot and muggy and it seems like such a heavy combination, but this cupcake had been sitting on my list of bookmarks for a while. Anne and I made them, but it really meant more talking than baking. They were tasty, although a bit rich for my tastes. The filling is pretty thick and the frosting so sweet, but if you like that combo, these are probably right for you.

For the holiday weekend, I drove out to the lake to see my dad, stepmom and stepbrother. My stepbrother, Justin, is in town from Canada, and he just returned there from London. It’s so nice out on the lake. We took the boat out after dark, anchored it and just stayed in the middle of the lake. The stars were so clear, and the Milky Way just looked like smoke. I made my first recipe out of “Booze Cakes,” a rum cake with a spiked chocolate icing. Very tasty and very pretty, although the rum in the cake didn’t come out as much as I thought it would. The bourbon in the chocolate sauce, though, you could taste.

So now I’m on to another work week. A couple things, I’ve switched so this blog has its own domain, Long and obnoxious, I know, but I didn’t really want to shorten it. The old address will still go there, but I thought it would be worth getting its own address. Plus, today I had centerpiece stories on the fronts of two sections of the newspaper! The first was about a local woman who is shaving her head to raise awareness for childhood cancer after her daughter was diagnosed. The other was about a woman who just returned from two years in the Peace Corps based in Togo. It's always incredibly satisfying to see these kinds of things in print (and online, with comments). Woo hoo!
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