Ghosted

Last week my husband celebrated his 40th birthday.  This momentous birthday happened to coincide with my need to try out a tiered cake.  If you had asked me a year ago if I’d ever make a tiered cake, I probably would laughed, but here I was, scheming to plan a party for my husband so I’d have an excuse to make one.   Making a crazy tiered cake for my husband’s birthday party seemed a little over the top, even for his 40th birthday, so I asked two friends who also have October birthdays if they wanted to celebrate together.   Three cool people, three birthdays, three layers of cake — a perfect combination.

My husband had dropped some not so subtle hints about a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting.  Since I knew I’d have to make multiple batches to fill three 8-inch pans, three 6-inch pans, and two 5-inch pans, I asked what he thought about layering in some strawberry cake as well.

Scaling two different recipes into eight cake pans didn’t make the math any easier for me, though.   I finally admitted defeat and asked my husband to help me with the spreadsheet I had started to calculate the volume of cake batter I needed.

I rarely use Excel anymore, but my husband uses it to analyze data for experiments all the time.  Say you wondered what would happen if you raised limpets in seawater with varying CO2 concentrations.   He has hundred-page spreadsheets that analyze the effects of such a treatment on their food intake, shell strength, radulae development, or whatever.  Yeah.  At least this is what I imagine keeps him busy when he’s not traipsing through the intertidal pretending to work.  In any case, I pushed my laptop in his direction just as soon as he agreed to help me.

Numbers started flying all over the place.  Formulas appeared and cell contents moved and reappeared as if by magic.  In no time, I knew I that one and a half recipes of chocolate cake  would fill two 8-inch pans, two 6-inch pans, and one 5-inch pan.  A single recipe the addictive strawberry cake recipe I’d recently tried from Smitten Kitchen would fill one 8-inch pan,  two 6-inch pans, and two 5-inch pans.  His willingness to scale the strawberry recipe assured me that he felt okay about layering it into the mix.

Making one recipe of strawberry cake would actually give me two extra cake layers.   It seemed silly to scale down the full recipe to an odd proportion to make it fit into the number of pans I needed, especially when I saw an extra layer or two as a bonus.  My biggest concern about making this cake centered on leveling it.  I like to eyeball things, which doesn’t always turn out for the best when cutting rounded tops off of cakes so they’ll stack well.  I’ve made some lopsided cakes, it’s true, but this has never really mattered so much before.  I knew that once I started stacking cake upon cake upon cake, a little lopsidedness would surely result in enormous disaster.  These extra layers would be my insurance in case I really screwed up my trimming.

I’d decided to try finding some object of the right thickness to drop in the cake pans underneath the baked and cooled cakes. This would enable me to use the edge of the pan to guide the knife while trimming, which would ideally result in a smooth, level surface.  I had some cardboard cake rounds, but they were too thin.  In the end, I used some of my kids’ foam letters.  They worked perfectly.   I hope my kids don’t miss their letters, which I’ve now claimed as my own.

I had ambitious visions of covering the cake in chocolate plastic.  My sister introduced me to this chocolate play dough-like stuff at one of my niece’s birthday parties about five or six years ago.  When her girls were small, she always made a few batches for kids to shape into edible treats as a party activity.  I’d played with it many times, but when I had tried using it to cover a cake, things went seriously amok.

Chocolate plastic doesn’t stretch like fondant, so if you’re not careful, you end up with big folds down the side of the cake.  In my previous attempt, I had pulled and stretched as much as I could, but I still ended up with unsightly folds.   I used my hair dryer to warm the chocolate and smooth it out, but it just didn’t look great.   After that disaster, I tried making chocolate fondant, but it didn’t taste like chocolate and it didn’t look like chocolate, so really, there was no point in pursuing this option.

In the end, I just decided to try the chocolate plastic one more time.  I’m always telling my kids that you can’t get better at something if you don’t give it your best effort, so that was my plan.  Best effort.  And if the cake looked crappy, I figured my family and friends would still love me.  I made a batch of chocolate plastic and let it cool for several hours before applying a thin layer of chocolate sour cream frosting to the cake.

My husband, who has infinitely more patience than I do, helped me ease my flattened disk of chocolate plastic down the sides of the cake, stretching and stretching slowly until we’d covered it without too many wrinkles.  It wasn’t perfect, but I planned to wrap the bottom edge with a band of chocolate plastic, so it would do.  With new confidence, I made one and a half more batches of chocolate plastic.

The bottom two tiers needed dowels to hold the weight of the top tiers;  I delegated this task to my husband.  He bought some clear plastic tubing that he cut to size once the cakes were frosted and chocolate plastic wrapped.  I don’t even own safety glasses, so I clearly needed help with this.  I inserted his five perfectly-sized dowels in the bottom two tiers.

A few hours before the party, I trudged the cakes and all of my decorating supplies to our party location.  I used the hair dryer to smooth imperfections in the cakes’ surfaces and dusted them with cocoa powder for a matte finish.

Stacking the cakes felt almost anticlimactic.  My mostly level cakes resting on cardboard rounds and inserted with supporting dowels made a surprisingly lovely chocolate tower.  I used a small paint brush to dampen the bands of chocolate plastic I’d cut to encircle the bottom of each layer.   By this point, I almost felt like I knew what I was doing.

Two days beforehand, I had rolled out white marshmallow fondant and cut out about a million tiny ghosts for decorating the cake.  Rain had poured down during those two days, so instead of the hardened ghosts I’d planned for, the damp air turned them into a gooey mess.  Fortunately I had some leftover fondant, so I made more ghosts without too much trouble.

Initially, I had planned to put ghosts around the bands at the bottom of each cake.  I dabbed each ghost with a bit of water to help it adhere.

Once I finished, it looked pretty good.  I asked my daughter Eliza if she thought it needed more ghosts;  I just couldn’t decided if it looked finished or not.  She voted for more, so I started adding ghosts here and there.  In the end, I liked the look, but I wish I had planned it out ahead of time so the ghosts floated around the cake in a more organized pattern.

I finished decorating just before the party started.

At the end of the evening, I noticed a smear of cocoa powder on my cheek.   I’m guessing it was there all night.  Sweet.

Chocolate Plastic

From Chocolate, by Nick Malgieri. Makes about 1 1/4 pound.

2/3 cup light corn syrup
16 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted
1 cookie sheet or jelly roll pan covered with plastic wrap
cocoa powder, for rolling

Melt chocolate in the microwave or in a double boiler.  Stir in corn syrup thoroughly with a silicone spatula.  Scrape down the sides to incorporate any unmixed chocolate clinging there.

Scrape the chocolate plastic out onto the prepared pan and spread mixture no more than 1/3 inch thick.  Draw the plastic wrap up around the chocolate to cover it completely.

Allow to cool to room temperature for several hours.  If you need to use it quickly, cool it in the refrigerator before using it.

Before rolling or shaping, dust surface with cocoa powder to prevent sticking.

Framboise & Creme de Cacao Syrup

Brush the tops of your cake with a simple syrup before frosting to keep your cakes moist.

1/3 cup framboise
1/3 cup creme de cocoa
1/4 cup sugar

Combine ingredients in a small sauce pan.  Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon over low heat until most of the sugar is dissolved.  Do not stir again.  Brush down the insides of the pan with a wet pastry brush and bring to a simmer.  Cover and simmer gently for 2 minutes.  Remove from heat and let cool, uncovered, before using.

 

Photo note:  Thank you to birthday girl and photographer Val Curtis for sharing her picture of the the sliced cake.

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Paradigm Shift

At the beginning of the school year, I decided to bake bread at least once a week for my daughter Eliza’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  She loves fresh bread — not that the rest of us don’t — but it is her reaction to loaves warm from the oven that prompted me to make this commitment.  If I can bring indescribable joy to this six-year-old by doing something that I enjoy, well, why wouldn’t I?

So far, I’ve produced at least two loaves a week, enough not only to stock her lunch box, but to provide sandwiches for the rest of us as well.  Every now and again I even end up with a spare loaf to share with friends.  I have had some late-night baking sessions, but on the whole, I’d say I’m almost back in the bread making rhythm.   I’ve learned I can make time for anything I really want to do.

Eliza has a refined palette in some ways.  She can wax poetic about cheese, for example.  She loves a nutty Parmesan, a strong blue, and any number of expensive cheeses.   Her passion for cheese prompted her to name our white Prius “Feta” and our blue Accord “Gorgonzola.”

She gobbles up prosciutto and Kalamata olives with abandon, but aside from these exceptions, she likes plain, bland food.  To call her a picky eater involves some serious understatement.   After a few embarrassing episodes eating dinner at friends’ houses, we laid down the law:  at dinner, you eat what you’re served.

Lunchtime in our house, though, is a different story entirely.  Since the sandwiches for adults always seem to involve elaborate customization, it only seems fair to let Eliza eat what she wants as well.  And since she balks at anything but a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, that’s what we give her.

Until recently, that is.

Not long ago, she tasted some fennel seeds while I was making potato samosas.  On the spot, she ate nearly half a jar.  When lunchtime rolled around, she asked me to put seeds on her sandwich.

“Peanut butter and jelly with fennel?” I asked.

She thought about this, looking serious, then replied, “No, I think maybe with ham and cheese.”

“Grilled or cold?” I asked, trying not to make a big deal of this momentous request.

She made the right choice.

The fennel seeds melted into the cheese, which kept them from spilling out of the sandwich.  And the taste?  Delicious.

As we ate, I asked her if she wanted me to try making bread with some fennel seeds in it.  Her full-mouthed smile gave me my answer.

After two weeks of tinkering, I’ve come up with a decent whole grain recipe.

And, as I put last week’s loaves in the oven, I fondly recalled the potato filling that inspired this widening of my daughter’s lunch repertoire.   Suddenly, I felt inspired.

If next week’s potato fennel loaves turn out great, I’ll let you know.

Whole Grain Bread with Fennel Seeds

Sponge

1 cup uncooked multigrain cereal
1/4 cup fennel seeds
1/2 cup flax seeds
1 1/2 cups hot water
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 tablespoons honey
1 cup whole wheat flour

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a standing electric mixer.  Mix and cover loosely.  Set aside for an hour to soften the grains and proof the yeast.

Bread

2 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons butter, melted
4 cups whole-wheat, all purpose, or bread flour
1 teaspoon water
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon salt

Stir down the sponge, then stir in the salt and butter.  Mix in two cups of flour and beat hard with the paddle attachment for two minutes.  Add remaining flour, about 1/2 cup at a time until the dough smooth but still a little sticky.  Switch to the dough hook and knead dough for 3-4 minutes.  Transfer to a lightly floured counter top and knead briefly by hand, if desired.   Turn dough into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 ° F.  Grease two 4 1/2 by 8 1/2-inch loaf pans.  Deflate the dough and turn out on a counter top.  Divide in two pieces and shape into loaves.  Let loaves rise in loaf pans until doubled, about 30 to 45 minutes.

Mix water, honey, oil and salt in a small bowl.  Brush the tops of the loaves lightly with this mixture.  Bake loaves in the middle of the oven until the loaves are golden brown, well risen, and firm, about 45 minutes.

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Getting Our Fill

Living on a small island limits your food options.  San Juan Island has some spectacular restaurants, but the ethnic choices, well, they’re nearly non-existent.   I miss eating sushi.  I miss eating Ethiopian food. And Greek food and Italian food and Indian food.  And Maloula’s — the Syrian restaurant open only  from April to September — I heard it just closed it’s doors for good.

My friend Sharalyn has devised a fix for Indian food cravings that doesn’t involve getting on a ferry boat;  every now an then she hosts an Indian feast.

For the first feast, I ambitiously offered to make samosas.  We’d harvested about 300 pounds of potatoes from our garden, so I felt eager to use them in a new and different way.

As I prepared the filling, inviting aromas tantalized us.  The scent of fennel, mustard, fenugreek, cumin, and turmeric peaked even daughters’ interest — my daughters who rail regularly against “spicy” food.

When Sharalyn invited me to the most recent feast, I’m not even sure I told her what I was bringing.  By now she knows I’ll make samosas.  While I prepped the filling this time, Eliza asked if she could taste some of the seeds, and  it was love at first bite.  She nibbled fennel and brown mustard seeds as I worked.  She even asked me to sprinkle them on her sandwich at lunch time.  I think it’s a new addiction.

The potatoes I used in the latest batch came from our harvest this year — gorgeous purple potatoes.  The previous weekend, I had used them to make yeasted potato doughnuts and felt cheated when they didn’t produce lavender-hued dough for me.  Because of this, I didn’t have high hopes for purple filling.

It takes a good chunk of time to roll out samosa wrappers, fill, and then seal them.  Here’s my secret for efficient samosa making:  prepare the filling ahead of time, and then  involve the some of your eaters in the production process shortly before your meal begins.

I usually head over to Sharalyn’s house early, where we hang out and fill samosas, make naan, and finish other preparations for the evening.  As people arrive, they invariably ask if they can help with anything.  In no time, you have all your samosas filled.

I love working in the kitchen with friends, and I love eating the food that we prepare together.  Sharalyn’s new baby even helped by sleeping the whole time we worked.

We filled 36 turnovers.  Clearly it wasn’t enough.  At dinner’s end, when I’d eaten only two, I found the samosa bowl empty.  This was probably for the best.  After gorging myself on the amazing Indian dishes prepared by other guests, I still had room for one of Laurie’s chai ice cream cones for dessert.

Filling the role of samosa girl is not so bad.   I’d eat these samosas any day.

Potato Samosas

Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated.  Makes 36 turnovers.

Filling

1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek seeds
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 pounds russet potatoes (about 4 medium), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunk
salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion , minced
3 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger or grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons juice from 1 lemon
ground black pepper

Combine the spices in a small bowl and set aside. Cover the potatoes with 1 inch of water in a large saucepan and add 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender and a fork can be slipped easily into the center, 12 to 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes and set aside to cool slightly.

Heat the oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the spices and sauté until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Stir in the onion and 1 teaspoon salt and cook until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the cooled potatoes and cook until they begin to brown around the edges, 5 to 7 minutes. Mash them slightly and stir in the peas to combine.

Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until completely cool, about 1 hour. Stir in the cilantro and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste before using.  Refrigerate for up to 2 days if desired.

Wrappers

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for the work surface
3/4 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons plain whole milk yogurt
3 quarts vegetable oil , plus 4 1/2 tablespoons
9 tablespoons cold water

Pulse the flour and salt together in a food processor until combined. Drizzle the yogurt and 4 1/2 tablespoons of the oil over the flour mixture and process until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, about 5 seconds. With the machine running, slowly add 6 tablespoons of the water through the feed tube until the dough forms a ball. If the dough doesn’t come together, add the remaining water, 1 tablespoon at a time, with the processor running, until a dough ball forms. The dough should feel very soft and malleable.

Transfer the dough to a floured work surface and knead by hand until it firms slightly, about 2 minutes. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let rest for at least 20 minutes, or refrigerate for up to 1 day.

Cut the dough into 18 equal pieces.  Working with 1 piece of dough at a time, roll the dough into a 5-inch round using a rolling pin. Cut each dough round in half to form 36 half moons. Working with 1 half-moon piece of dough, moisten the straight side with a wet finger, then fold in half. Press to seal the seam on the straight side only and crimp with a fork to secure; leave the rounded edge open and unsealed.

Pick the piece of dough up and hold it gently in a cupped hand, with the open, unsealed edge facing up;  gently open the dough into a cone shape. Fill the dough cone with about 2 tablespoons of the filling and pack it in tightly, leaving a 1/4-inch rim at the top.  Moisten the inside rim of the cone with a wet finger, and pinch the top edge together to seal.  Lay the samosa on a flat surface and crimp all the edges with a fork to secure.

Frying

Line a baking sheet with paper towels.  Heat the remaining 3 quarts oil in a large Dutch oven or deep fryer to 375 degrees. Add several samosas and fry until golden brown and bubbly, 2 1/2 to 3 minutes, adjusting the heat as needed to maintain 375 degrees. Using a slotted spoon or tongs, transfer the samosas to the prepared baking sheet.   Repeat with the remaining samosas.  Make sure you eat a few before they’re all gone.

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To Germany with Love

When our German neighbors first moved to San Juan Island, they spent nearly every free moment at Lime Kiln State Park.  The park includes a quaint lighthouse, rocky shoreline, and trails that lead to 19th century kilns used for transforming limestone into cement.   As you take in the ocean view from almost any spot at Lime Kiln, you can look across the Haro Straight and see Canada’s Vancouver Island.   Whenever anyone expects me to know anything about getting from one place to another in in Washington State, I remind them that this California transplant lives closer to Canada than mainland United States.

It’s possible that our German friends spent time at Lime Kiln to feel more connected to the global community, but there’s an even stronger draw than international views or  scenic beauty.  Lime Kiln may well be the best place in the world to view Orca whales from dry land.  From about March to September, the San Juan Islands’ resident population of whales passes by Lime Kiln on a regular basis.  It’s one of my favorite spots to savor a lingering picnic, ever hopeful that the whales will appear to add a bit of icing on the cake of your otherwise perfect afternoon.

Our neighbors came here ready to see whales, and we understood this well.  Before moving here ourselves, we took our daughters to meet Shamu at Sea World in San Diego to get them geared up for the wildlife of the Pacific Northwest.  Eliza’s Santa Barbara preschool friends sent postcard after postcard asking after the Orcas of the San Juan Islands.  Since we moved here in fall, and Orcas don’t usually show up until the spring, Eliza had to wait months and months before reporting back about the whales.  Our neighbors also moved here in the fall, and so spent many a weekend hanging out at Lime Kiln waiting for whales to arrive.   Finally, spring brought with it returning Orcas, and our neighbors saw quite a few.  This didn’t stop them from spending their weekends at Lime Kiln;  if you’ve ever witnessed Orcas at close range, you recognize that quite a few will never be enough.

When our German neighbors arrived, we knew they would be here for two years, and that seemed like a long time.  We live at a marine lab that bustles in the summer time, but after summer’s bright days fade into fall, it gets pretty quiet around here.  Having another family close by to share our deserted summer camp made things cozier.  Seeing another set of windows throw light out at the darkness at 4:00 pm on a winter afternoon always lifted my spirits.  Having another mama to talk with while our kids played at the small playground here saved my sanity on more than one occasion.  We traded salt and sugar and eggs with regularity.  We traded big slices of cake as well.  This is not something I say lightly:  Anja taught herself to bake while she lived here, and I threw together many a cake trial that needed testing.  We ate more than our share of cake.
When our German neighbors finally had to return to Germany, I wasn’t ready for them to leave.  I’m still not used to the dark, empty cottage next door. At their goodbye party, it only seemed right to bring a cake since we’d traded so many slices back and forth during their two years here.   I baked an “American-style” chocolate cake, which Anja said she would miss in Germany.   When it came to decorating the cake, I knew exactly what to do.  I covered it with blue fondant and fashioned three Orca whales for the top — one large, one medium, and one small.  My daughter Eliza knew right away what was going on, “It’s Thomas, Anja, and Lea!” she cried before asking me for the leftover fondant.
Like the whales that always come back to the San Juans, we await our neighbors’ return.   And when they arrive, we’ll eat more cake.

Devil’s Food Cake

Adapted from Foster’s Market.  Makes one 9-inch layer cake.

5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks butter (12 tablespoons), softened
1 3/4 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1 1/2 cups boiling water

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Grease two 9-inch cake pans.  Line them with rounds of parchment paper and grease the top of the parchment paper.  Flour pans and set aside.

Place chocolate in a double boiler and melt over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate melts.

Combine flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt in a bowl and set aside.

Cream together butter and brown sugar in standing electric mixer until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs, one at a time, to the butter mixture, beating well after each addition.  Beat until well blended.  Add the vanilla and melted chocolate and stir to mix.

Add the flour mixture, alternating with the sour cream, to the egg-butter mixture.   Stir just until the dry ingredients are moist and blended.  Do not over mix.

Stir in boiling water and mix until blended.  The batter will  be fairly liquid and runny.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.  Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until the cakes are firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and cool the cakes for 10 to 15 minutes in the pans.  Remove from the pans and continue to cool on a baking rack.

Once the cakes have cooled completely, use a serrated knife to slice off the top rounded portion of each cake to make a flat even surface.  Discard the trimmings.

Place one of the layers cut side down on a cake plate.   Top with about 1/3 of your frosting and spread evenly over the top of the cake.  Place the other layer on top with the  cut side down.  Top with remaining frosting and spread over the top and sides of the cake.  If you plan to cover your cake with fondant, spread the frosting thinly on the outside of the cake.

Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting

From The Joy of Cooking (1997 edition).

Note:  Because I pulled this cake together on a weekday after work, I needed a quick and delicious chocolate frosting recipe.  I’m glad I remembered this recipe I used for chocolate cupcakes several years ago.  It’s simple to make and incredibly decadent.   Taste it on the trimmings of your cake to “make sure” everything will taste all right once you cut the cake.  Try to restrain yourself from eating the whole bowl so you have some frosting left for your cake.

10 ounces chocolate chips
1 cup sour cream

Melt chocolate chips in the top of a double boiler.  Remove from heat and stir in sour cream until just combined.  Use immediately;  if the frosting becomes too stiff or loses its gloss, set the pan in a larger pan of hot water for a few seconds and stir to soften.

If you plan to wrap your cake in fondant, cover with a very thin layer of chocolate frosting to ensure a smooth surface.

 

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