Friday, February 26, 2010

SP's Birthday Cake Disaster

Today is SP's birthday! I wanted to bake him a cake. Since the cleaning lady is coming on his birthday, I decided to bake it a day early (on Thursday) and surprise him Thursday evening.

I spent a not insignificant amount of time on Wednesday trying to decide what kind of cake to bake. Last year I baked his favorite cake, carrot cake, and made cream cheese icing for it. I looked at pumpkin cake recipes, gingerbread cake recipes, paged through all our recipe books, read blogs, looked up cake recipes online, checked our ingredients supplies, and in the end, I decided to make a simple Citrus Yellow Cake from Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook.

Thursday morning I gathered my ingredients:
The cake:

3 cups all purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1.5 cups milk
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 tsp lemon peel
1.5 tsp vanilla
2 eggs

What I really liked about this cake is that the dry ingredients are combined in a bowl and then, except for the eggs, all the other ingredients are added to the bowl and it's mixed together. Sort of like making muffins - put in all the dry ingredients, make a well, add the wet ingredients.The ingredients are beaten on low until combined then beaten on high speed for 2 minutes. Next, add the eggs, beat another 2 minutes, pour into greased & floured 9 inch cake pans, and bake at 375 for 25-30 minutes.Soon the house was filled with a lovely lemony baked good smell. I baked the cakes for the full 30 minutes.The cookbook suggests filling the cake with Lemon Filling and frosting with Lemon Butter Frosting, so that's what I decided to do. The Lemon Filling made me think of lemon curd and I thought that would be a nice surprise between the layers instead of just frosting.

While the cakes cooled, I made the Lemon Filling:3/4 cup sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
1/2 cup water
2 beaten egg yolks
1 tsp grated lemon peel
3 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp butter

This is quite easy: mix the sugar and cornstarch together in a small saucepan. Stir in the water. Add the egg yolks, lemon peel, and lemon juice. Cook and stir over medium heat until bubbly. Cooke for 2 minutes more. Stir in the butter until it is melted. Cover the surface with plastic wrap and cool. Makes about 1 cup.

I was very careful to constantly stir! I feared it might curdle. When I was finished, it looked like lemon curd, but I didn't taste it while it was warm. I set it aside and made lunch!

After lunch, I made the frosting:1/3 cup butter
4.5 cups sifted powdered sugar
1.5 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 tsp grated lemon peel

Beat the butter until fluffy. This really didn't take long - 1/3 cup is 5 and 1/3 tbsp so not even a whole stick. Next, gradually add 2 cups powdered sugar. I don't sift my powdered sugar ahead of time; I measure it into bowls and then sift directly into the frosting bowl. The 1/3 cup butter didn't seem to be able to absorb the initial 2 cups of powdered sugar plus I was using a hand mixer so I got annoyed and impatient and decided to skip ahead! I added the lemon juice, vanilla, and lemon peel before the first 2 cups of powdered sugar were completely beaten into the butter. This helped things speed along! And made things easier! Next, I gradually sifted in another 2.5 cups of flour. I ended up adding a bit more lemon juice and decided to tint the frosting with yellow food coloring, as suggested.

Time to assemble the cake - and here's where things rapidly went downhill.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that I should have cut off the slightly raised center of the bottom layer to flatten it out. But I didn't. Why? Probably because I have never before done so. Usually, the frosting anchors the top layer in place and I just smush in more icing along the outside between the 2 layers, so that around the edges between the layers there is a thick layer of frosting but in the center a thinner layer of frosting.

I should have realized that the lemon filling has a different consistency than frosting. It's more liquid-like. It spreads. Runs. It does not anchor a top layer to a bottom layer.I spread the lemon filling on the bottom layer, being careful to not extend it all the way to the edges, but it ran to the edges anyway. When I set the top layer on, the lemon filling predictably squished out but also, as I gently pushed the top layer down, the top layer cracked on top. I was annoyed but thought, well, that's what frosting is for - to cover cake flaws.Next, I started frosting the top of the cake. I don't know if there is a 'real' way to frost a layer cake - the top first and then the sides, or the sides first and then the top? Is there an advantage to one way over another? I have always done the top first, my reasoning being that if I start to run out of frosting or realize there isn't enough, the cake will look OK with only the top frosted, but if only the sides are frosted, well, that's just not good.

And the big trouble started. As I gently (so I thought) starting spreading frosting on top, the top layer cracked more along the existing cracks. The top layer slid around on top the lemon filling. The lemon filling started oozing out and dripping down. A lot.

I frantically tried to scoop the lemon filing up and shove it back between the layers. That didn't seem to help much - it just kept oozing out. So I abandoned frosting the top and decided that if I could quickly frost the sides, I could use the frosting to 'trap' the lemon filling and that maybe the sides being frosted would anchor the layers in place. No such luck. The side frosting got mingled with the oozing out lemon filling which made the frosting more 'runny,' the top layer slid from side to side depending on where exactly I was frosting, the frosting mixed with filling on the sides kept slipping down and puddling around the perimeter of the cake (thank goodness the cake plate was large enough to contain all the slop and it didn't ooze onto the table or floor!), my hands were getting coated in filling and frosting, my pajamas were smeared with filling & frosting. And I started to lose it.

SP's birthday cake was rapidly becoming a disaster. A Leaning Tower of Pisa. It looked like I had never before baked a cake.

I decided to just slather on all the frosting and get the darn thing in the refrigerator - surely the refrigerator would firm everything up. It looks pretty normal here, just a messy frosting job, not a nice smooth coating of frosting:Unfortunately, it of course slid precariously with every wee tilt as I carried it across the kitchen to the refrigerator and attempted to slide it onto a shelf in our side-by-side refrigerator (not the widest shelves!).

I slammed the refrigerator door and began cleaning up. Then I showered. And then I decided to check on the cake - just to be sure the top layer hadn't completely slid off. This is what I saw:I cried a bit. It looked horrible. The top layer had slid off the bottom layer. The frosting/filling on the sides had slid down and puddled around the cake. I wasn't sure I could salvage it even if I wanted to devote more time to trying to anchor the layers and spread the frosting. The cracks - well there was no way they could be hidden by frosting. They looked like earthquake fault lines - deep cracks in the cake.

I ignored the cake until I heard the garage door open. Then I got it out of the refrigerator and placed it on the table with one candle on top. I got out my offset spatula to try to pretty it up some, but the refrigerator had done the trick - the icing was very, very firm. Definitely not spreadable. But also not sliding around every time it got touched!

SP came up the stairs, looked at me, looked at the cake, and said thank you and hugged and kissed me. Being the wonderful fiance he is, he said it didn't look that bad and he scooped up some of the firm, puddled frosting and said it tasted yummy and lemony.

After dinner, we sliced the cake. Placed on a plate and pushed back into position a bit, it looks pretty normal: I thought the cake itself tasted fine, but it had just a wee hint of lemon. That was OK because the filling & frosting are very lemony. Very tart. The curd oozed out so much that I was a bit disappointed in the thickness of the filling layer between the cake layers. Most of the filling was scooped up with frosting from the puddles ringing the cake plate. In this photo on the right you can see how much the top layer slid - it hangs way over the bottom layer:I like the frosting, but to me, homemade frosting is tough to make, maybe because I am a picky frosting person. Sifting the powdered sugar definitely helps, but I've noticed that unless I use a cream cheese frosting, my frosting seems to taste a wee bit grainy and a wee bit too sweet. Last year's cream cheese icing was very tasty. This years was OK. Not bad, I'm just not sure I'd want this frosting again.

We don't have a Cake Saver/Keeper (it's on the registry!!!) so we decided to slice the cake and put the slices in containers which we then placed in the refrigerator.
Admittedly, the presentation is horrible, but that could easily be improved upon. Would I make this cake again? Probably not, but only because we have a super yummy, moist, lemony lemon pound cake baked in a loaf pan recipe that I like a lot more than this one. Somehow, a layer cake seems more birthday-ish than a loaf cake which is why I opted for a layer cake. Is this cake horrible? No, it tastes fine - we'll eat it during the coming week for evening dessert. And maybe small pieces for breakfast. Yes, we ate birthday cake for breakfast today.

Thank goodness it's sliced and contained in plastic ware. It looks much better than when it was on the cake platter!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Vegetable Soup

Last Sunday we slept in late. When we got up, SP started preparing the vegetables for vegetable soup.

I'm not as huge a fan of soup as SP, but the last time we made vegetable soup, I really enjoyed it. I like that it is filling and has lots of vegetables and is pretty healthy/non-fattening. Sometimes it seems like we eat a lot of cheesy, fatty, creamy, saucy dishes, which I love, but...

Since I wasn't allowed to do anything too strenuous for 2-4 weeks after surgery (like exercise) and surgery plus Valentines plus Super Bowl weekend (plus SP's birthday this weekend) equals lots of treats and not-so-healthy eats, I'm feeling a bit, well, more stuffed than usual! I don't think I actually gained any weight, but I just feel like it's time for a diet change - a change from hearty, filling winter foods to lighter, spring foods. I'm ready for a diet change - I've been craving the greens that we got in our first few CSA boxes last April. Thank goodness our CSA starts in about 6 weeks. I've been thinking a lot about salads and grilled veggies and fresh berries.

But it is still February and the grill is still buried under a mound of snow, so vegetable soup seems like a good idea!

I agreed to let SP put navy beans in the soup. Beans are another 'incompatibility' - as with fish, beans are something SP loves and something I don't really like!! He soaked the beans overnight.

Sunday morning we poured chicken broth and some canned tomatoes into the crock pot and then added the navy beans, carrots, potatoes, celery, green beans (we used frozen because the fresh seemed pricey), and peas plus some seasoning (pepper, thyme, parsley) and let it slow cook all day.For the chicken soup a couple of weeks ago, SP made homemade chicken stock. This time, we used store bought. We used College Inn but we prefer an organic, low salt, boxed chicken broth that we get at Costco. We needed chicken stock one weekend and Costco was out of our usual boxed kind, so we settled for the cans of College Inn, which are OK, but not as tasty to us as the organic, boxed kind.

Sunday evening we poured the soup into a large storage container and put it in the refrigerator. Last night, we re-heated some of the soup for dinner. We figure we'll get about 3 meals from this batch of soup.It was very tasty - even the beans were OK. I ate some of them and picked some out for SP to eat. We had some Carr's crackers and soup/oyster crackers with the soup. Comforting and warming and tasty - plus lots of veggies!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Salmon in Puff Pastry

**please see comments for recipe**

Fish. It's not a food I especially enjoy. Unfortunately, fish, like salmon, is good for you. And SP loves fish. It might be the smell - I can't stand fish smell. Of course, I also don't like the meat smell when we are near the meat department in a grocery store. And I don't like the smell of shellfish, but I love eating shellfish (crab, shrimp, lobster). What can I say, I'm odd.

SP decided that, in an effort to entice me to eat fish, he'd start suggesting slightly decadent fish dishes. Like the one we made on Sunday. It's a salmon dish, but it's salmon 'disguised' in puff pastry and smothered with spinach and mushrooms and a sauce. I suppose the puff pastry and sauce cancel out the healthiness of the salmon, but...He first got this idea from a blog post on Good Things Catered for Salmon en Croute. This sounded similar to a salmon in puff pastry recipe in the puff pastry cookbook that I got for Christmas. We ended up following both as rough guidelines. One calls for just spinach, the other for mushrooms with greens on the side. We decided to use mushrooms and wilt spinach in with the mushrooms.One recipe calls for cream cheese for the 'sauce' while the other calls for creme fraiche or heavy cream. We decided to use light sour cream with the lemon, dill, and capers. Here's our huge, Costco jar of capers:Thirty-two ounces of capers!!!! I'm not sure how long we've had this jar, but I made fun of SP when he bought it, telling him that we'd never have to buy capers again!!! We chopped the capers for the 'sauce.'Here's the 'sauce' that we added to the mushroom-spinach mixture:SP put the pastry pockets together while I started cleaning up dishes and the kitchen. This means we didn't take any pictures between the first step:and the final result:His hands were all fishy and saucy while mine were soapy so we didn't dare touch the camera!! To assemble the puff pastry pockets, he cut the skin off the salmon, rolled out a puff pastry sheet, cut it into 4 squares, put some salmon on each square, topped the salmon with the mushroom-spinach mixture, folded the puff pastry over the filling and sealed the edges, cut some slits in the top, refrigerated them for an hour, and then baked them for about 25 minutes.These were good. Not my favorite because it is fish, after all. I could have used more sauce and right as I made that comment we remembered that one recipe has a sauce on the side but we forgot to make it. Oops.

We made the beurre blanc sauce on the side Tuesday night with the last 2 pastry pockets. It was 1/2 stick butter, lemon juice, capers, onion, pepper, and parsley. It was definitely a nice addition to the dish. SP likes the puff pastry pockets on their own without the beurre blanc sauce though he agreed it added a nice touch; I like it better with the sauce (but of course a sauce of mostly melted butter isn't healthy!).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Market District Dinner

In my last post I wrote about our 9 hours of errands on Saturday. We were pretty tired after running around all day and agreed that neither of us had any energy to make dinner at home - not even a grilled cheese sandwich! We had to get the groceries home and figured that once we got home and unloaded everything and then put it all away, we wouldn't feel like going out again. Plus, it'd be late, and we might face a long wait at a restaurant, and we were getting kind of hungry. As filling as our Bob's Diner breakfast was, we ate it around 10 am so by 6:30 pm, we were hungry and tired of traffic and crowds! So, since we were at Market District, we decided to have a Market District meal.

There are a lot of prepared foods. We wandered by everything and then started trying to make our choices.

First, we decided to each have an eggplant rollatini. In November we tried to get these as one of those 'Meal For Two' deals but they were sold out. So we figured since there were some left, we should take advantage and try them.They were good, but not great. We both noticed that they had a lot of onion, and while not raw, the onion was not fully cooked (soft), it was only slightly cooked so it retained a lot of that raw crunch and strong taste. I would probably not get this again because of my personal tastes about onion - I like onion rings, I like grilled onions, I like when onion is cooked and added to a sauce or dish like scalloped potatoes, but raw/crunchy onion just doesn't sit well in my digestive system.

Our next choice: a potato-spinach-feta pancake.Shredded potato, spinach, feta, and some red pepper. It was good, not great. I ended up giving SP the last few bites of my portion because I was getting full and because this just wasn't my favorite.

Our final choice: the crab cakes. We've been wanting to try these as well. Happily, there was a special buy one/get one on the crab cakes, so we got 2 for $5 instead of 2 for $10.These were definitely the best of the foods we tried. Big chunks of crab, not too much filler, a good taste of celery and seasoning.We'd definitely try these again.

I think I've mentioned my love of dessert and my lack of willpower in grocery stores!!! Of course we got some bakery goodies! It is just not possible for me to be near the Giant Eagle Market District bakery and not get something(s). Since we were not planning on baking any goodies for this week, we got 2 kinds of cookies: chocolate thumbprints, which I love:and huge soft sugar cookies with sprinkles, also very yummy:After our day of errands and Market District dinner, we snuggled up on the couch with one each of the cookies and some of our new tea (Cardamom Cinnamon for me; Sun, Moon, & Star for SP) and watched the Olympics and started making some plans/reservations for our honeymoon!!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Saturday: Breakfast & (Wedding) Errands

As fellow Pittsburghers know, this month has been a darn snowy month. SP has done a lot of shoveling and I think we've both reached a point where we almost can't take any more snow! Of course, we also are not cold, snowy, winter people to being with - this is our least favorite season.

The snow is one reason we have not done much outside the house lately. There was surgery weekend, then Snowmageddon weekend, then snow & Valentine weekend, and all we did was the bare minimum: grocery shopping. And snow shoveling. And a nice dinner out. Nothing else.

All of which means that the other errands were piling up. I erased the list of errands/chores from the whiteboard because it was so daunting and depressing. But finally, we committed to a busy errand-filled Saturday.

Of course, one needs a good breakfast before setting off on errands. We decided to go to Bob's Kennedy Diner again. We were quickly seated and ordered drinks: SP had iced tea, I had coffee, and we were served two small donut holes as an 'appetizer' (SP snarfed his before I took a photo!):I love breakfast sandwiches so I ordered it again, with bacon, of course:And SP again ordered the Bountiful Breakfast, but this time with hot sausage and over medium eggs.This time instead of splitting a slice of French Toast, we split an ENORMOUS Blueberry Pancake:It was yummy!!! We had a discussion about pancakes - are thin, crepe-like pancakes like Pamela's tastier than thicker, poofier pancakes like Bob's? For us, it depends on our mood. This time, the thicker, fluffy pancake filled with blueberries and served with butter and maple syrup was delicious and filling - it made me feel ready to attack the errand list!!

First up was some wedding business. I've mentioned before that we are not having a very formal wedding, it's kind of traditional, but not really. We mailed our invitations last week and we've been asked where we registered. Uhhh..... Wedding registry.

Here's the thing: SP and I are not in our early-mid 20's and just starting out. Plus, we both enjoy cooking and on our own, we each accumulated an impressive stockpile of kitchen stuff which, when we moved in together, resulted in some amusing discoveries and a lot of stuff to sort through. Combined, we had 10 cutting boards. We've pared it down to 6. Combined we had a ridiculous number of colanders. We pared it down to 7 - ! One of us has a a set of 8 matching dishes plus the matching pieces like the gravy boat, bowls, sugar bowl, etc. The other has a complete set of 8 dishes but not the matching pieces.

You get the idea. We had/have a lot of stuff. But in the interest of giving our guests gift ideas and not receiving a 4th crock pot or 3rd rolling pin, we decided to register for some kitchen goodies at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. I couldn't resist taking a photo of the snow mountain, and this is one of the smaller ones: So of course to get started, we had to meet with the wedding registry lady, who was quite nice, but I don't think she knew what to make of us - we did not fit the mold of a couple about to get married!!! Our wedding is less than 2 months away and we're just now registering - scandalous! We sent the invitations before registering - how horrible! No bridal shower - what??!! I'm not having a maid of honor, the bride's mom isn't supposed to plan a bridal shower, and all but one of my friends is out of town... plus, none of our local friends or other family has offered, so...

She tried to convince us we need more dishes - seriously? She mentioned china - I nearly snorted aloud!! People pull out good china maybe 3 times a year (if they always host and it's always a 'fancy sit down' meal) and for us, we have my mom's Christmas china for Christmas meals. A set of expensive china is ridiculous for us. Plus, if you don't get all the place settings, then you have to buy the rest of the place settings yourself, and I have no interest in spending my own money on fancy $100/setting china!!! That's $800 on fancy dishes -- you need at least 8 place settings - well, wait, SP has a large family so really we'd need 16 settings in case everyone, including kids, is here at the same time for a fancy meal so that's $1,600 on china. Then you worry about chipping or breaking and needing to replace pieces and you know the pattern won't be available forever...

She pulled out the booklet of expensive stemware -- Seriously? We'll probably end up breaking it and the friends/family we entertain really don't care if they drink their Syrah from a regular wine glass or a specially shaped Riedel glass!! She told us all about the kinds of pots and pans -- uhhh, we have 2 of everything already, just not matching.

We're old enough and practical enough that some of this wedding stuff just seems so ridiculous and selfish to us, plus impractical, and a waste of money. We really don't care if all our pots and pans match. We don't need wine glasses that cost $25/each.

We did find a bunch of things that we would really like to have - like I am really hoping to receive the Mini Salad/Herb Spinner since the salad spinner we have is huge and I have a hard time with it. A real pastry bag and tips. A cake keeper. Lots of other, smaller things, plus a couple of larger things like an ice cream maker since ours broke.

Nearly 2 hours later we left BBB, feeling a bit... overwhelmed. We headed into Hallmark to buy cards for March & April (lots of friends/family birthdays coming up), Michaels, and then to WalMart - always the 'high-light' of a shopping trip.

Thankfully, WalMart was pretty painless. Next up was the mall!!!!! We decided that all the kitchen stuff would be at BBB and the towels/linens would be a JCPenney registry. We tried to set it up online but ended up selecting 'online only' items (oops) so off we went to fondle towels and check out sheet thread counts. Of course the one and only scanner was out in use. Of course the expected 15-20 minute wait stretched into 40, then 50, then we gave up and grabbed what we wanted, took it to the computer, and manually typed in all the UPC codes. Grrrr.

We were getting tired, but we pressed on, grabbing some drinks to hydrate ourselves. OK, so root beer isn't really a good for that, and I usually don't drink soda, but oh that root beer tasted good!!! I decided to skip looking for shoes for the wedding so we headed off to Costco!!

From Costco we went to the new Verizon Wireless store to merge our accounts into one family share. That took 30-40 minutes. Sigh. And then, the new Giant Eagle Market District.

Usually SP does the grocery shopping without me. I make the list and gather the coupons, but usually I don't go. It's faster that way, for many reasons, one of which is how easily distracted I am by food goodies. The way SP is with electronic gadgets and shiny knives I am with bakery goodies, teas, spices, all things foodie. Proof of my lack of willpower and ease of distraction: I was waiting by the loose tea and coffee bean counter while SP went over to get the lunch meat. Sniff. Mmmm. What's that smell? Hmmm... Cardamom Cinnamon tea. Sniff. Hmmmm Ginger Peach tea. Ahhhhhh. Sniff. Mmmmm Earl Grey. Tea. Tea is good. But we have something like 12-14 kinds of tea at home. Do we really need more? Sniff. Mmmmmm.
Yes, we need more! Impulse purchases: Cinnamon Cardamom and Sun Moon and Stars (a blend of green, oolong, and jasmine) teas.

Finally, we left the store and were done with our errands. There's only one thing we didn't do, and that was go to the bank to set up a joint account. Total time away from home, start to finish, including breakfast: 9 hours. Thank goodness we had some new tea flavors to help us relax and recover when we got home!