who doesn’t like birthday cake?

since i am blessed to have a very light work load this semester (even though i’m taking a full class load), i’ve had a lot of time on my hands lately.  i wouldn’t go as far as to say that i got bored last week, but i was sincerely in need of a project.  just my luck– my friend Beth had a birthday coming up in just a few days!  she’s a foodie too, so i decided she would appreciate an elaborate cake for her birthday present.  and hey, two birds with one stone– i found a project and she got a sugary confection!

i found myself in a Michaels craft store and saw the new aisle of cake baking materials by the Ace of Cakes himself– Duff Goldman.  Beth and i love Duff.  i found inspiration down that aisle and decided to make a multi-tiered cake with fruit filling, covered in fondant.  i’ve never worked with fondant before, but it looked like a really fun thing to try (not to mention it makes cakes look super professional)!  i picked up 16 oz of pre-made white fondant, a fondant rolling pin, a package of fondant flowers, a package of disposable piping bags (or you can use ziplock bags, really), a pack of 4 plastic icing tips, and a 10-inch cardboard cake base.  this does seem like a lot of things to get for one cake, but almost everything i purchased is reusable and, since i am sure i’ll be making more of these cakes in the future, it was an investment i was willing to make.

i planned out the cake flavor profile:  two layers of almond cake, a layer of chocolate cake, between the layers would be filled with raspberry preserves and the whole shebang covered in a layer of fondant (which tends to be slightly marshmallow-y flavored).

my first step was to tint the fondant a pale-green color.  you can buy already colored fondant, but it is considerably more expensive, and buying some food coloring and doing it yourself is dead easy.  i took my fondant and put it on a flat, smooth surface and kneaded it until it got more pliable from the heat of my hands.  if your fondant gets too warm and starts to stick, use confectioners sugar and dust the surface and your hands (just like using flour with dough).

once it is easy to knead, grab your desired color of food coloring and drop a few dots on to start, and begin to knead the color in.  **note: if you use liquid coloring, it’ll take quite a but of dye to get the fondant colorful.  if you use paste, it will take much less.  you can do this as far in advance as you’d like, but make sure to keep the fondant in a ziplock bag, and the bag in another tupperware container (air = hard fondant!)

the next step was baking the cake layers.  i used an 8-inch square cake pan and baked off one package of white cake mix flavored with almond extract (this makes two layers), and half a package of chocolate cake mix (make the whole mix, just use one cake layer and eat the other one :] )  i’d suggest making these early to give them enough time to really, really cool off and firm up.  once they are stone-cold, take a long knife (i used a big serrated bread knife) and level off the cake tops so they are flat and stackable.  i let them sit again after this step so they could harden ever so slightly (they’ll be easier to handle this way).

the raspberry preserve filling is super simple and went on the cakes next.  all i did was take room-temperature raspberry jam, throw it in a bowl, and stir it vigorously until it was smooth and runnier than the jelly consistency.  i used about half a cup for each cake layer (**remember, you’re only putting filling on two layers!)  leave about a 1/8 inch clear around the sides of the layers so that the filling doesn’t mush out when you stack the cake.
let this filling set on the cakes.  i popped them in the freezer for a few minutes and it did the trick :]

i laid out the cardboard cake base and carefully placed the first filled almond layer right in the center.  i gently picked up the chocolate layer and stacked it on the almond layer, and did the same with the top almond layer.

 

the next step is a very important one– the crumb coat.  crumb coating is just adding a very thin layer of frosting on the cake to catch any little crumbs that get torn off when you frost.  you can do this step before you put a final layer of frosting on a cake to make sure you don’t get any cake bits in the smooth final coat, or before you cover a cake in fondant– the frosting acts like glue.  i used a store bought icing (it doesn’t taste phenomenal, but it is quick and easy!  feel free to make buttercream frosting it if floats your boat) and frosted the entire cake.  use the frosting to fill in any spaces between the layers and to square out the corners before the fondant goes on.  it almost works like spackle!  ideally you’ll do this step with an offset spatula (AKA MY FAVORITE KITCHEN TOOL EVER), but i forgot mine at home.  a regular knife will work fine!  here’s what it looks like:

this coat MUST set for 20 minutes, or until it is not so sticky to the touch.  you want it to form a thin hard layer.  once that is done, get out that fondant!  knead and knead and knead until your fondant gets soft and pliable again.  using a large, flat surface, and a fondant rolling pin, roll the fondant out in a large square.  you want this to be pretty thin.  most fondant rolling pins come with rings on the ends that guide the thickness–they are not necessary to use.  just eyeball it, but make sure it is even all the way around.  you’re looking for about the thickness of a quarter (or a little thicker).  make sure you roll a square large enough to cover the sides of your cake.
take the fondant and fold it over the rolling pin, and transfer it carefully to your cake.  very gently, smooth the layer over your cake, making sure to get rid of air bubbles.  take caution around the corners.  work with this material very carefully because it can tear easily.  using your hand (or a fondant smoother), smooth the fondant down into the cake to remove any imperfections.  once your get the fondant on to your liking, take a knife and slice off the excess around the base (as i show above).  **note: your cake is very soft, not as dense as the ones in the cake bakeries.  so be more gentle when you smooth the fondant on!  here’s the covered cake:
i refrigerated my cake for about half an hour for the fondant to chill while i got my decorating materials out.  for the decoration, i decided to pipe vines on the cake and embellish it with the fondant flowers.  in order to pipe the frosting since i used a store-bought one again, i added some extra confectioners sugar to tighten it up.  i also dyed it a darker green than the fondant using the same food coloring.  i used the thin piping tip in a piping bag and added all the vines on the sides and the top, leaving room to write happy birthday.  
in the end, all the vines went on, i added the fondant flowers, and piped “Happy 19th Beth!” on the cake, and refrigerated it overnight until the party the next day.  that was a crucial step to make everything really set up and not look drippy.  i will be the first to admit that i am not the best decorator with a piping bag (especially since i used store bought frosting that has a difficult consistency), but it turned out great!

the night of the party, Beth, our friend Reva, and I ate 800 lbs. of thai food and washed it all down with this beautiful cake.  i think it was a big hit :]  
birthday calories don’t count, right?

pico de gallo TO THE MAX!

my best friend loves mexican food with a passion.  really, any kind of latino cuisine is right up her alley.  and since half of my family is uruguayan, we make empanadastorta pasqualina, and bombas around the holidays (and don’t even get me started on the chivito…).  but during the rest of the year, and when i’m not around Bonnie, i generally don’t eat latino food.  (no, i don’t crave chipotle like most other college kids do.. and they eat it five times a week :] )  BUT, on occasion, i really enjoy chips and salsa.  since i can’t have fresh guac (avocados are a no-no for my allergies), i stick to pico de gallo and salty tortilla chips.  mmm.

well, cilantro is now in season.  and at my favorite tomato stand at the farmers’ market today, the cilantro was perched strategically over the heirlooms and i could not resist– i bought a gorgeous bunch of the herb and three beautiful brandywine tomatoes.  i remembered that i had a red onion, fresh garlic, and the necessary spices at home to make the most wonderful salsa, and sprinted home.

this salsa is so fresh and delicious that you will never, ever buy it in the grocery again.  i’d like to think it rivals the pico of many of my favorite mexican restaurants.. :]

start by dicing two or three medium size tomatoes into salsa-sized pieces.  you can make them bigger or smaller depending upon how you like your salsa to be.

the next step is the red onion and garlic.  they are key to any good pico de gallo, but im not a huge fan of raw onion and raw garlic in my food if i am going to come in contact with any other human being in the next 24 hours.  so, i came up with the perfect solution that works wonders in your salsa.  dice up about an eighth of a red onion (or more to your taste) and throw it in a sauté pan with a touch of olive oil.  then, mash and mince a clove of garlic and add it in to the pan in the last minute or so (be careful not to burn it!)  you’re not sweating or caramelizing the onions and garlic, just adding them for a minute to soften and take the strong flavors out.  
let this mixture cool for a few minutes while you chop your fresh cilantro and collect the rest of your ingredients.  for the cilantro, i grabbed my beautiful bunch and tore off the top section of leaves.  i gathered them tightly and rolled them together as well as i could, and ran my knife through the pile (**note:  you just learned how to chiffonade!  well done!)  i cut mine a little finer one more time to make the pieces easier to mix through the salsa.
with the onion/garlic mixture cooled a bit, i tossed it on top of the tomatoes with the cilantro.  the finishing touches to spice up the pico de gallo are crucial:
lime, good olive oil, fresh pepper, and salt.  you won’t need much oil because the tomatoes are nice and juicy, but add a tiny drizzle for flavor.  squeeze a fresh lime if you have one, or just use about two tablespoons of lime juice (more or less to your liking).  with a nice crack of pepper and a generous sprinkling of salt (**note:  the salt is super important to bring out the flavor of the ingredients!), toss and you’re all set to go!
serve with tortilla chips, as a topping on fish tacos, toss in a salad or an omelet… the possibilities are endless!  this is a pico de gallo you will be making again and again :]

my favorite drink in the entire world.

i apologize in advance– this is not a post about a delicious meal.  this is a post about my most favorite drink that always cheers me up when i’m feeling down, a drink that i have when i am ready to celebrate the end of a long week (like this one.. ugh), and the simplest mocktail to make because i always have the ingredients in my fridge :]

THE SHIRLEY TEMPLE.  heaven on earth.  especially since i am obsessed with maraschino cherries.
very simply, this drink is sprite (or some white soda like ginger ale) and grenadine, which is the red syrup that maraschino cherries are packed in.  you can actually buy grenadine on its own where the other cocktail mixers are stocked in your grocery, but if you can’t find it, just grab a jar of maraschino cherries since you can use them to garnish your drink at the end, too!
if you like sweet drinks, this is totally the one for you!  take a tall, elegant glass and put a generous splash of grenadine in the bottom.  i also like to pop two or three cherries at the bottom.  then take your sprite and pour it in slowly at an angle (like pouring a beer) to avoid all the bubbles and fizz.  
and, seriously, that’s it.  its so, so simple.  but absolutely perfect and refreshing.  if you’re feeling adventurous, add a scoop of vanilla ice cream and make a shirley temple float :]

look how pretty it is!  enjoy!