Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas Sugar Cookies

Last year, I hosted a cookie decorating party for my friends and family to decorate Christmas-themed sugar cookies for the holidays. It was so much fun, I decided to do another one this year. Like last year, I used Alton Brown's sugar cookie recipe because it is hands down the yummiest sugar cookie EVER - light and buttery with a great crumb texture, it's also perfect for cutout cookies since it keeps it's shape really well. I can go on and on about how literally everybody tells me they looooove these cookies (unless they're all lying to me to be kind) and how fondant is the perfect sweet complement to this cookie but just take my word for it, m'kay?

I had to bake 140 5-inch cookies for the party which roughly translates into 7 double-batches of cookie dough. That's a whole lotta cutting and rolling folks! There never seems to be enough hours in a day so I'm always looking for ways to be more efficient, especially with processes. And as much as I love Alton Brown (he's my culinary hero), there was no way I was making his recipe exactly the way it is printed. Since the dough is too soft to be rolled and cut immediately after mixing, AB recommends that we refrigerate the dough for 2 hours before rolling it out with powdered sugar. I got to thinking, if the end product is a chilled rolled piece of dough, why not find a way to roll it out before you chill it? That way, it'll be ready for cutting immediately afterwards. So I forgo the powdered sugar and roll it out between two pieces of parchment paper (so it doesn't stick to your rolling pin) and shove it in the freezer for about 10 minutes....yup, you heard me....the freezer....10 minutes. I've made these cookies using both methods and I'm happy to report that there is absolutely NO difference in taste =D. And the bonus: not rolling with powdered sugar means that the leftover dough pieces you re-roll have the same consistency as the original batches.

Tip: Cookies with uniform thickness look better and bake more evenly. I've used baking height strips on either sides of the dough to ensure a consistent height but you can use just about anything (two strips of wood, cardboard, notebooks, etc.) to guide your rolling pin as long as they're the same height on both sides.

Alright, enough about rolling dough, let's see the final results. Since a lot of these were made to be gifted, we made stockings and ornaments that were customizable with names. There were 5 children under 12 at the party and they were each given a few cookies to decorate. Here are some of their creations - not bad, right?
Some cookies my girlfriends decorated, very impressive :D.
And some cookies decorated by me :-)
I didn't post them all here so you can check out the rest here.
Decorating is one thing but cookies aren't giftable until they are packaged with a bow.Looking at these photos make my mouth water - they are seriously that yummy.
Lien Sanchez

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Marshmallow Popcorn Balls

The previous weekend, I made 100 of these colorful marshmallow popcorn balls to give away to friends and coworkers. Similar to rice krispy treats, they are easy to make and just as yummy. Since these were for Christmas, I made mine red and green but I can just as easily see these popcorn balls in tiffany blue or lavendar as wedding favors.

You can find the original recipe here on but I found it a little too sweet and gooey so I've altered it a bit.
12 cups of popped popcorn
1/3 cup of butter + extra to grease your hands
10 oz marshmallows (large or small)
4 tablespoons of flavored gelatin
cooking oil (for popping corn)

* Makes 15 - 3 inch popcorn balls

Step 1: Place 3 1/2 tbspn oil in a pot with 1/2 cup of popcorn kernals (just enough to coat the kernals) and wait for the pot to heat up. When the corn starts popping, shake the pot so that the heavier kernals settle to the bottom - this will get the unpopped kernals closer to the heat and prevent the already popped ones from burning. Also, remember to occassionally open the lid to let some of the steam escape - nobody likes soggy popcorn.
Step 2: Place 12 cups of your popped corn in a large mixing bowl and set aside

Step 3: Melt the marshmallows with the butter. The original recipe used a saucepan for this step but I hate washing pots so I melted mine in the microwave instead. Just place the marshmallow and butter in a microwave safe bowl and heat on high for 1 minute. Remove and stir 'til all the marshmallows are melted.

Step 4: Stir the flavored gelatin into the marshmallow mixture. To get the red and green color, I used cherry and lime. Below is a picture of the slime, I mean lime mixture. The gelatin won't dissolve completely so don't freak if you can't get rid of all the gelatin granules.
Step 5: Pour your marshmallow mixture over your popped corn and stir to combine. A butter knife works nicely for this. Conversely, you can pour the popped corn into your marshmallow mixture instead but this will require more work to get an even coating on your popcorn.
Step 6: Grease your hands with some butter and shape your popcorn balls. I placed a chunk of butter between my bowl and my finished tray of popcorn balls and just made a quick swipe before shaping each one.
Step 7: Place popcorn balls in bags and wrap with a bow (saran wrap will also work :-)
These really are super easy and so much fun to make. I dare say it took more time to package and tie the bows than it did to actually make the popcorn balls, lol. There's still 9 days before Christmas, I just might make another batch :-P

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Cute Phallus?

A friend recently contacted me about a bachelorette cake for her FSIL (future sister-in-law for those of you who are wedding lingo challenged). She’d kill me if I mentioned her real name so let’s just call my friend "Sophia" (which happens to be the most popular girl's name for 2007). I had two main things to consider when designing this cake: 1) Sophia wanted something naughty but not too explicit and 2) she was picking up the cake en route to the party in San Francisco which means I had to stick to designs that could be easily transported by a petite woman in 3" party heels. In other words, no tall/narrow/heavy cakes that might possibly tip over. And seeing that Sophia is rather shy, I suggested some mildly risqué designs: you know, women’s lingerie, a Victoria Secret’s box with a functional lid, adult toy replicas, etc. And in jest, I ended my list of suggestions with, “or we can make the traditional penis cake.” Boy was I ever shocked when she said she wanted a penis cake! I guess I shouldn't have been though, after all, they say it's the shy quiet ones we all need to watch out for, lol ;-) ..........However, she did ask if I can make a cute one.

A cute penis (cake)? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Turns out not necessarily so. I've only seen a few before (I'm referring to cute penis cakes - get your mind out the gutter, sheesh!) but they do exist and Debbie from Debbie Does Cakes makes the cutest ones I've ever seen (This one's my favorite). As a professional courtesy, I emailed Debbie to make sure she was ok with me using her cake design as inspiration for mine. And being the darling that she is, she was totally cool with it :-).

Sophia's FSIL is a nature buff so after sorting through various design ideas, it struck me: What's more natural than Adam & Eve in "nature" in the "buff" (get it - "nature buff"? - hehe, I warned you that my jokes were cheesy). Now, if you would allow me a little poetic freedom, I'd like to explain how the below cake design fully captures the "original sin" - a very appropriate theme for a bachelorette party, no? Adam is represented in the overall phallic shape of the cake while Eve comes through in the face and dress. The apple is the literal representation of the forbidden fruit and the snake.....uh, the snake...........the snake was represented by the worms in the many tequila shots that were taken later that evening :-D. No, not buying it? The snake bit was too much, huh? Darn, I knew it! Alright, alright, I just thought it was a cute design, okay?

Top view: Side view:
Closeup of the face and apple:
Closeup of
I had a ton of fun making this cake. It was my first phallic cake and I have to admit that I did feel a tiny bit naughty when I was smoothing the fondant over the carved shape *blush*. Good thing my husband wasn’t around, heehee.

The cake itself was a delicious hazelnut chocolate cake with hazelnut buttercream but Sophia, FSIL, and the rest of the bachelorette party never got a chance to taste it. Why not, you ask? Apparently, during the alchohol-laden festivities, FSIL caressed the cake a bit too roughly and smushed it!!! I was literally ROTFL when I heard this. So much for my tip-over design precautions, lol. Sounds like the bachelorette had an awesome time though, and that's all that really matters........even if she doesn't remember any of it.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gold Gilded Gateaux

When I first spoke to Josephine back in March, she mentioned her love for the simple yet impactful designs of April Reed. And as an April Reed fan myself, I was super excited to sit down with Josephine and her fiance Jimmy to design their wedding cake. They wanted something classic and elegant with three-tiers that incorporated their colors: ivory and antique gold. Below is the sketch of the design we decided on.

Ideally, we would have wanted to display the cake on a cake pedestal similar to the one in the sketch, however Chinese tradition (and the bride's mother) stipulated that the cake be either three or six tiers total to be considered lucky. The height of the pedestal would have counted as an additional tier so to achieve a larger presence, we later decided to increase the middle tier from 8" to 10" tall.

Speaking of the middle tier, I have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive about achieving a smooth fondant finish on it. Any cake decorator that works with fondant will tell you that tall narrow cakes are notoriously tricky to cover - the larger the ratio of height to width, the higher the risk of the fondant bunching and tearing in the process. I had a back-up plan to cover the middle tier in two separate pieces of fondant in case things went horribly wrong but luckily, I was able to achieve a fairly smooth covering on the first try. :-)

The 10" middle tier before fondant
and after
Now for the assembly starting with the bottom tier.
With tier 2 added. The post-it note was to mark where the front of the cake should be.All 3 tiers - a total of 21" tall
The bow's loop and the gardenia were left off and added on at the site to prevent damage
Josephine and Jimmy's wedding cake full assembled. The uplighting on the wall adds a nice dramatic touch, dontcha think?
Some artsy-fartsy shots....
Close-ups of the gardenia:
Just speaking to Josephine, I knew that her wedding would be beautiful with lots of personal touches but I was truly impressed by how amazing everything looked. First of all, both the wedding ceremony and reception was held at Casa Real at the Ruby Hill Winery (a brand-spankin' new winery in Pleasanton) and I gotta tell you this place is gorgeous inside and out!! Below is a pic of the ceremony site.

The reception was in the ballroom adjacent to the ceremony. Each table alternately featured tall and low flower centerpieces.
The low centerpieces with gold framed table numbers.

Dinner menu with gold tissue poms
Last but not least, the escort cards on a bed of wine corks.

I'm sure there were plenty of gorgeous elements that were set up after I had left but I was glad to have seen some of the decor and to know that their wedding cake fit in just perfectly :-)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Masked Ball on the Blvd

I had the distinct pleasure last week to participate in a great charity event for a fabulous organization, namely the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra. Now I'd be the first to admit that I'm no great musician - I played the flute in high school but by no stretch of imaginaion would I consider myself a flautist. I do, however, have a great appreciation for music (greatly fostered by my stint with the flute) and recognize the importance of exposing children to music at an early age, a cause that the SPO wholeheartedly supports through their various musical outreach programs **. So it was with a happy heart that I agreed to donate my sweet-toothed services for the Masked Ball on the Boulevard.

As you may have guessed by the name, this charity ball had a masquerade/Mardi Gras flair so the thought had crossed my mind to design a colorful wacky cake that would fatten up any Tuesday, however keeping in mind it's association with the SPO, I decided to go with a decidedly more refined design: A bust of a lady on a pedestal.

Now I'd have to live under a rock to not have heard about the Nigerian bride who commissioned a cake in her own image and the backlash of responses to it, and since my mama didn't raise no rock-dwellers, I gave it some serious consideration before committing to making this edible human likeness. I figured that as long as it was done tastefully (read: not made of red velvet cake) and as long as we don't actually cut into the head, it would be safe.

OK, let's start with some in-process photos:

That, my friend, is 9 layers of my CA State Fair award-winning lemon zest pound cake sandwiched with yummy lemon buttercream. The round tin was a placeholder for where the neck would be positioned.
Carving in process.....
Mixing the right skin tone was by far one of the most difficult tasks in this project. A bit too much pink made her look sunburnt while a smidge too much yellow made her look sickly. After multiple trials, I finally settled on a mixture that I was happy with.

Then there was a few hours where I completely forgot to take pictures. I know, bad blogger! *slaps hand*

The mostly completed bust before I applied a color wash to her hair.
After all said and done, I seriously debated whether or not to actually put the mask on her. I know this is for a "masked" ball so it would only make sense that she wears the mask but you have to understand - In the 15+ years that I've been using makeup, I've NEVER been able to get MY eyebrows shaped that perfectly so it was truly a difficult task for me to completely cover up those brows with the mask, lol. In the end, I did what needed to be done. Well, at least I have these photographs to look back on.

I love how the subtle gold brocade pattern of the dress catches the light.
To set the mood, votives and select pieces of sheet music taken from the actual 2008-2009 season were arranged around the cake. The sheet music was printed on edible paper and airbrushed on the edges for a romantic aged look.
After delivering the cake, my husband and I changed into our party clothes and joined the festivities. We had an absolute blast admiring all the costumes and masks, sampling delectible hors'devours and wines from three different restaurants, and watching performances by belly dancers, fire dancers, and of course members of the Philharmonic. We witnessed the lively charity auction where among other things, they auctioned off the opportunity to be conductor at a live SPO performance. I even had my fortune read by both a medium and a numerologist who told me good cakey things were coming my way :-).
Then came my favorite part of the evening: the beheading, uh....I mean the cake cutting. Amid Marie Antoinette-esque cheers of "Off with her head!" Tony from Enotria (who makes the most delicious butternut squash pumpkin vanilla bean soup, evah) removed her head and served her up.
And yes, we did hear a few requests for "breast meat".... ah, boys will be boys. *shakes head*

**Oh, if you've got young ones at home, I highly encourage you to check out the SPO's Target family concerts where admission is free for children 12 and under and only $10 for the general public.