Tuesday, September 25, 2012

One More Cake

203 Years of O'Briens

I've celebrated my birthday with my grandfather as long as I can remember. His birthday is the 5th of August mine the 8th. Every summer my family would head up to my grandparents place in Sicamous, spend some glorious days on the Shuswap, and always, always, always enjoy Grandma's Chocolate Cake for our birthday.

Claire and Lloyd turn 7; a few years later they turn 77; making the infamous chocolate cake with the original cake master.
This year my birthday was on Saturna Island where Caitlin made a delish cake for me, with fresh blackberries. I admit I did not realize it was from a box, although she was acting a little odd until I took the first bite and proclaimed it delicious.

The celebrations were not over, however. Once back in town, we headed out to Langley to celebrate the O'Brien August birthdays; my great aunt's on the 3rd, my grandfather's on the 5th and mine on the 8th. Now you don't show up to Lloyd's birthday without Grandma's Chocolate Cake or you may as well not come at all. 

I love this tradition, and the cake is a super tasty moist delight, but I wanted to do something to make it a little more special. I decided to spell out our combined age with numbers. When Caitlin and I were young, our mom would make us these beautiful cakes in the shape of the age we were turning. We always loved it, and I feel that making a cake in a meaningful shape really brings it up a notch. I added our ages together and went with that number: 203.

Aunt Dorothy turns 92, Grandad 86, and me 25.

About the cakes: I knew that one had to be Grandma's chocolate cake, which always has a strawberry jam filling. However I had three numbers and three cakes of the same flavour seemed a bit much. So I made one a white cake with raspberry curd filling, to give people an option. I picked a white cake since it would be simple and is the perfect canvas. The flavour is mild and sweet which lets you get a little crazy with the icing and filling. 

Vanilla cake with Raspberry curd filling.

I used the white cake recipe from Baked:New Frontiers in Baking. Caitlin got me this bake book for Christmas a couple of years ago and I. Love. It. My one negative is that the recipes can be a little more complicated, but when you bake for a living, like these guys do, it makes sense to go all out. You will see the difference in the recipe's. Grandma's is a depression era family recipe based on your classic devil's food cake, whereas Baked's recipe has more ingredients and specific instructions. Both cakes are delicious.

Cross section of Grandma's chocolate cake. Please note jam filling.

As previously mentioned, I filled the white cake with our raspberry curd, and the chocolate cake with strawberry jam. Homemade is best. For the icing I just did classic vanilla and chocolate butter icing.


Cake shapes. 
As for the shapes, simply trace the shape you want on a piece of wax paper and use that as your template for both layers. I did this for the chocolate cakes. Before you start you do want to think of how to be most efficient with your cake for your shape. For example, for the three and the two, both are from a two layer round cake. The round of the two is half the cake with the centre cut out, and the bottom bar is from the other half. If this makes no sense don't worry. Once you get a pan out and start trying to visualize it it will come together. The zero is simply a round cake, with the centre cut out with a glass, and the edges cut straight.

Grandma's cake recipe is on an old and faded cue card, with the simple instructions "alternate wet and dry ingredients into cocoa and sugar mixture. Mix in order of ingredients listed. Oven @ 350. About 20-25 mins". I've gone into greater detail below.

Considering the shapes and candles, I didn't go all out with icing decorations.

Grandma Jean’s Chocolate Cake

¾ cup margarine
1 ½ cups sugar
2 eggs
¾ cup milk
½ cup cocoa
½ boiling water
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp vanilla


1. Preheat oven to 350.  Prepare two 8 inch cake pans*.

2. Bring water to a boil and add to cocoa. Mix and set aside. 

3. Sift together all dry ingredients. Set aside.

4. In another large bowl, cream margarine and sugar until fluffy.

Add eggs to sugar mixture. Beat until just combined. Add vanilla. 

5. Add cocoa to sugar mixture. 

6. Alternate folding in flour and milk into cocoa/sugar mixture. Be sure not to overmix.

7. Separate batter into your prepared cake pans.

8. Bake at 350 for 20-25 mins or until a tooth pick comes out clean.

To put the cake together flip pan onto a flat surface and gently remove cake. Place stencil on cake and trace out cake shapes with a knife. Place first layer on plate. Top with Jam. Place second piece of shaped cake on top. Cover cake with a crumb layer*. Let dry. Then finish with icing and decorations.

For the vanilla cake, I altered the ingredients measurements so that I only had batter for two layers.  Also I only had all purpose flour, which worked just as well as the cake flour. However, for simplicity’s sake I have written their specific instructions, ingredients and measurements. (and honestly I don’t remember my exact changes!)

Baked Whiteout Cake   
2 ½ cups cake flour
¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt
½ cup (1 stick) butter
½ cup shortening
1 ¾ cups sugar
1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
1 lg egg
1 ½ cups ice cold water
3 lg egg whites
¼ tsp cream of tartar

1. Preheat oven to 325. Prepare three 8 inch pans.

2. Sift the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a large bowl. Set aside

3. Beat butter and shortening until creamy/ fluffy and pale.
4. Scrape down bowl and add the egg, beat until just combined.

5. Add the flour mixture, alternating with ice water, in three separate additions, ending with flour. Scrape down bowl again

6. In a medium bowl whisk the egg whites and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Do not over beat. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter.

 7. Divide the batter among the prepared pans and smooth the tops. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, rotating pans halfway through, until toothpick comes out clean. 

8. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool before removing from pan.


For icing I used Roger's classic butter icing. 

Cream 1/2 cup soft butter with 2 cups icing sugar. Beast 2 tsp vanilla, 2 tbsp milk and 1 cup icing sugar into mixture. 
Grradually add 1 to 2 tbsp milk into icing until smootha and of desired spreading consistency. 
For a chocolate icing, add 1/3 cup sifted cocoa powder to the first addition of icing sugar. 

I doubled the recipe for the chocolate icing since I had two chocolate cakes, but used just one for the vanilla. It makes more than enough since I do not use it for filling.

*Notes on the cakes

-- an alternative to baking soda and tartar is one tsp baking powder

-- to prepare a cake pan simply butter the pan, then knock flour in the pan until you have coated the buttered pan with flour. It is now ready to use.

-- a crumb layer is a simple thin layer of icing that you do to catch all the crumbs! That way when you do the proper icing layer it will be smooth and clean. It is important in these cakes since you will have 'raw' edges from cutting them into shapes.  Otherwise I don't often worry about a crumb layer

--I've noticed that cook books recommend turning the cakes half way through. If you have a good oven I don't think this is really necessary but it can't hurt for even baking. 

-- Cookbooks also recommend using an electric mixer but ever since I've moved out of my parents place I've been lucky to get my hands on an electric mixer let alone electric beaters. Using electric beaters or even by hand will work just as well, it will just take longer. I'm sure baked goods were just as delicious before electricity!

--all eggs and margarine/butter should be at room temperature unless otherwise specified. This helps you cream or incorporate them into the mixture more quickly.  Do cream your butter/sugar mixture until fluffly/pale. This step is what helps dissolve the sugar as well as add air. The eggs help emulsify as well as bond the sugar and butter. 

Sorry for all the notes. I think Caity and I will do a tips and tricks post soon. AKA techniques and how they help.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Pizza Potluck

Pizza, one of the most loved foods. The other night my friends invited a group of people over for a Pizza Potluck. What a good idea! All you had to do was bring a homemade pizza (and wine/booze). 

I've wanted to make wholewheat pizza dough for a while, and here was my opportunity.

Make sure to make the dough first, as you need to leave it time to rise (see above). I followed Smitten Kitchen's Really Simple Homemade Pizza Dough recipe, and did the whole wheat version.

She states that the recipe makes one small thin crust pizza, so I doubled it, and warning, ended up with one ginormous medium crust pizza. It was too big for my parents pizza stone and to transport it I had to make a home made pizza box as well!

Looking through SK's pizza recipe's i decided on my favourite toppings and went to town on my onw pizza! It was deeeeelicious. I went for a prosciutto arugula pizza with caramelized onions, mozzarella and ricotta cheese, and garlic infused olive oil base. 

First off, make your dough.

Next gather your ingredients for the pizza. 

2 clove garlic
Forgot I did not own pizza pan so packed up to parents
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
250 mg container ricotta cheese
1 block mozzarella cheese 
1 red onion
2 tbsp brown sugar
100 grams prosciutto
fresh arugula 

Third step.
Infuse olive oil with garlic by simply adding crushed garlic to the oil. Let sit!

Step Four. 
Caramelize onions. You have options here. You can try them this way, with just a little butter, salt and balsamic vinegar. Or the way I did them was to slice them thin, put them in a hot pan, no oil necessary and once they start to soften, add 1 to 2 tbsp brown sugar depending on the size of your onion.
So tasty, aka finished product. 

Next pack up all your ingredients and take them to your parents house. Skip this step if you own a pizza pan, pizza stone, BBQ or pan large enough for a whole pizza. 

Once at destination where pizza will be baked. Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Roll out pizza dough. Paint on garlic olive oil, then ricotta cheese. This is your base, as opposed to a tomato sauce. 

Next add your toppings; prosciutto, mozzarella (I ripped it up in chunks and plopped them on willy nilly), and onions. 


Once out of the oven, top with fresh arugula. 

Mine's to the right. Also, remember to take pictures early, before all the pizza is gone!

P.S. This pizza party got me in a pizza mood, so later that week I made another pizza, same dough recipe, but with roasted red peppers, tomatoes, basil and the garlic olive oil. I made it much smaller and fried it up in a pan! It was perfect for one.

Just remember to the heat low so you cook the dough and melt the cheese. Too hot and you burn the bottom before you ingredients on top have cooked/melted.   

Happy pizza making!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Banana Caramel Cake

I used to think that any cake that wasn't a chocolate cake was kind of a waste of time. How I've changed. Something about baking makes me want to never try the same thing twice, and I always have a bunch of cake ideas lined up to try. But.. you need a good excuse to try them. I had had this Banana Caramel Cake from the Kitchn pinned for a few months before I had the opportunity to try it out- as soon as I saw the pictures I knew I would have to bake it. 

Then came the perfect opportunity! My friend Karina moving back from England, pregnant, with husband and dog, just in time for her birthday. 

What could be better than a banana cake? Swirling homemade caramel in it. This cake is truly extraordinairy- the caramel keeps it super moist, and while pretty sweet it adds a bit of a bitter burnt edge. Just enough to keep the cake interesting. The recipe makes three good layers, or two very generous ones. Either way its enough cake for at least 15 people I would guess. 

I also made the caramel icing with the cake- and doubled it since I wanted to ice the edges of the cake as well. For some reason I felt a birthday cake needed to be totally iced? The icing is really nice- super light, fluffy and spreadable. But since its also got caramel in it, its very sweet. I love it, but I might go with a cream cheese icing next time for a bit more contrast and less of a toothache, and save the caramel icing for a dark bitter chocolate cake.
I can wait to try this cake again- maybe with nuts, or a dusting of powdered sugar, or with sliced banana and a drizzle of caramel sauce like originally pictured. 

The finishing touch was decorating it with Brown Eyed Suzannes from around the neighbourhood. I love these beautiful simple flowers, and they seem to match banana cake. I got the idea here.
congrats beautiful karina!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Growing Potatoes in a Sack

Last year I planted my potatoes directly in the ground. You are supposed to hill up the dirt around your potato plant as it grows in the hopes that it will produce more potatoes. I found it pretty hard to get a really decent hill going directly on the ground- but I still got an okay harvest.

This year I decided to try the burlap sack technique- its saves a lot of space since you go vertical, and hopefully you get more potatoes for your efforts. 

Here they are just part way into June and growing quickly. I'd say they were about a quarter way hilled up at this point.
I was worried about finding burlap sacks big enough. I asked at my local coffee shop, and guess what? Turns out that a block from my office is Burnaby Burlap. They sell whole sale Burlap but were kind enough to give me 3 bags for $2 each. Score.

To plant the potatoes, roll the sacks all the way down until they roll no more and add about a foot of soil. Make sure you have your sacks situated where you want them- once you've planted and watered you aren't going to be able to move these guys around. The burlap starts to decompose, which is actually great and the bag gets super heavy.

I was worried that light wouldn't be able to get in from the sides of the sack shading the little plantlings. I worried for naught! We had a crazy rainy June and the potatoes sprung up. I put about 4 potato seedlings in each bag.

Here they are with a bit more dirt, probably early July.
Later July, just before flowering, they really went nuts!
Around midsummer they flowered, with lots of beautiful white buds. After they had flowered I didn't bother to hill them up anymore since I guessed they wouldn't be producing anymore potatoes. 

After the flowers are gone, the plant will start to die back a bit. Once its died back, the stems getting old and scraggly, its pretty safe to dig up your potatoes.  The great thing about the sack is you basically just rip it open and root around in there for the goods. They were pretty easy to find, and I was happy with how many were produced. Interestingly I'm not actually convinced that a lot more potatoes grew after the second or third time I hilled it up. That might save you on some soil!

Plants have died back, and I'm digging through for potatoes.
Finally once you've pulled up all your potatoes you lay them out in the sun for one day to 'harden them off'. I think this helps prevent them from going bad in storage. But make sure not to leave them out for too long or the sun turns them green and gross and not good to eat (which I did forgetfully to a few of mine).

There they are!
All in all a pretty easy and successful way to grow potatoes if you don't have lots of space to spare! The only real investment is in a lot of soil for hilling. We are planning to eat some of these tonight with steak and greens. 

Final harvest drying in dish rack after a good scrub.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The truth behind the cake

Way back in August I made Claire a cake for her birthday. But we were on Saturna Island, staying in a cabin rented by my parents. It had very few baking necessities. I really had my heart set on a cake made from scratch, and I usually think ones from the box taste pretty subpar. But in this situation, it was box cake or no cake. Its clear which situation wins out. 

So here are my tips for making a box cake almost as good as cake from scratch:

  • First when we are talking birthday cakes, go for the yellow cake. It truly is the classic! The chocolate just doesn't taste like good chocolate to me.
  • These cake boxes suggest you use water. That is blasphemy when there are about 8000 wet ingredients better than water that you could add to a cake. In this case I used buttermilk and I honestly think that is what made the difference. Buttermilk is flavourful, tangy and rich and adds depth to the cake. 
  • Get some fruit going on somewhere on there- adds to the homemade feel and flavour!
  • Presentation is everything: I made stencils in the shape of '25' (Claire's age) and dusted it with icing sugar, since I didn't have icing implements.
  • Don't over bake- super key! These babies can get dry.
  • A bit of citrus zest never hurt anyone. 
  • And finally- ice cream on the side! Makes everything good.
I've got to say I was super surprised with how good this was and everyone went back for seconds. And when it comes to baking the means almost always justify the ends, so it doesn't matter how you got there so long as whatever you make taste good and creates love. 

Also - I just wanted to share these nice pictures of one of the most beautiful places in BC, that I took while on the island that weekend.

Orca sightings are always magical.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Labour Day

'... consider also all the ways we are intwined and connected, how we are sustained and supported by each other, that the reason you have food on your table is deeply, profoundly and nobly linked to the lives and labors of innumerable, uncountable people. Hold and respect equally the twin truths of our self-sufficiency and our interdependence.."

From a great post on The Kitchn celebrating Labour Day. Go read, appreciate all us workers who make good things for each other, and then cook something delicious in solidarity.

Image from Bryce Brow Art here.