Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Product Review: ticings.com Cupcake Appliques

The awesome folks at The Daring Kitchen were asked to review a product for a website, and they asked me if I was interested. Was I ever, and boy was it fun! The great folks at ticings.com wanted to spread the word about their cupcake appliqués, and now I present to you, my first official product review!

Who doesn't love cupcakes? They are a fun, festive treat for almost any occasion, and are portion controlled, to boot!

If you are anything like me, though, the hardest part of making cupcakes (or cakes, for that matter), comes when it is time to decorate them. For that reason, most of my cake, cupcake and cookie decorating is limited to the basic “cover it with frosting and/or sprinkles” variety. This was why I was so excited to be asked to test out a new product from ticings.com – cupcake appliqués.

Cupcake appliqués are basically edible stickers cut to the perfect size for decorating cupcakes, and ticings.com offers designs for standard cupcakes, mini cupcakes, and even for full-sized cakes. They offer a variety of designs, perfect for almost any occasion that you have. They even offer an option of creating custom appliqués, created from customer-provided artwork.

I was impressed with the company right from the start. They sent the sample sheets to me very quickly, in an envelope made from recycled paper (I love a company that shows environmental responsibility). In addition to the appliqués, they also included clear directions, a suggested frosting recipe, and a friendly introductory letter with specific contact information, should I have any questions.

My kitchen helper (age 4) and I soon set to work. The directions indicated that the appliqués work best on as flat a surface as you can manage, and that they show up best on white or light frosting. My helper chose chocolate for the cupcakes, and we made a simple buttercream frosting.

The hardest part of the process was making a flat, level surface for the appliqués. I tried under-filling my cupcake tins a little bit, but still ended up with nicely domed cupcake tops. As they cooled, they deflated a little bit, but were still not flat. Rather than cutting the tops to level them, I used my frosting to try to build up a flat surface. Once I had my surface as smooth and flat as I could make it, it was time to decorate.

The appliqués were very easy to remove from their backing and apply – my helper had so much fun, she could hardly wait for each cupcake to be frosted to have the next “cupcake sticker” ready to apply. The appliqués themselves are not sticky, so we had to be careful not to remove more from the backing paper than we were prepared to use (you can't re-apply them to the backing paper), but that is probably mostly an issue when working with an impatient preschool sous-chef...

Applying the appliqués was just as easy. The design is simply centered over the cupcake and placed on top of the frosting. We had to be careful to smooth the edges gently to remove any air bubbles, but there was no trick to them – a simple stick and light press, and we had instant decorations!

It was interesting to see the cupcakes with the appliqués on them – I felt that I could really see the distinct outline of each appliqué on the frosting, but still, they really looked quite fun and festive. The instructions indicate that, if desired, you can embellish the cupcake with a decorative frosting border or sprinkles. I decided to see how they would look with additional buttercream stars piped around the appliqués. This had the double benefit of hiding the seam between the appliqué and the frosting surface and adding an extra decorative flourish to the cupcakes.

Once all of our cupcakes were finished, though, it was time to put these to the real test – how are they to eat? Watching them go on, I had no idea how the eating process would go. I know that sounds a little funny, but think about it – a sticker on a cupcake? Would my teeth cut through it easily? Would the whole appliqué slide off with the first bite? Would the appliqué affect the taste of the cupcake or the frosting?

I was very pleased to discover that the appliqués had absolutely no affect on the taste, texture or bite-ability of the cupcakes. Especially after allowing the decorated cupcakes to sit for just a bit, and thus for the appliqués to have time to fully adhere to the frosting, we couldn't feel any difference between biting into a plain frosted cupcake and one with an appliqué on it.

The directions indicate that the decorated cupcakes can be stored for several days, or frozen for several weeks, but we did not have the opportunity to find that out for ourselves, as we enjoyed the taste testing portion of trying these appliqués as much as the actual process of applying them.

Overall, we really enjoyed this product. These appliqués are a very fun and easy way for those of us without fine-art abilities to add beautiful, fun, festive decorations to fresh baked goods. The variety of designs, themes and sizes available through the ticings.com website mean that you can decorate your baked goods (cakes, cupcakes, even cookies!) for pretty much any season, holiday or event that you want to celebrate.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

November Daring Bakers' Challenge - Crostata

I can't believe how quickly the time is flying! It is time once again for another Daring Bakers' Challenge.

The 2010 November Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Simona of bricole. She chose to challenge Daring Bakers' to make pasta frolla for a crostata. She used her own experience as a source, as well as information from Pellegrino Artusi's Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.

I had never heard of pasta frolla before, and all I knew of crostata was from the photos that I had seen on foodgawker, which led me to believe that a crostata was a free-form type of tart filled with some kind of fruit filling.

As it turns out, pasta frolla is a type of sweet short crust dough, similar to tart or pie crust dough, but made with eggs (unlike other short crust or pie crust doughs), and there are limitless possibilities for filling crostata - they are not limited to free-form fruit varieties. Simona provided us with two different recipes to choose from for our pasta frolla, and then several ideas to inspire us regarding fillings, though did not limit us when it came time for filling and flavor decisions.

I had so many ideas right away, that I knew I would want to make more than one crostata. The challenge was narrowing it down to the few I wanted to make specifically during the challenge time-frame.

The inspiration for my first crostata hit me about a week after the challenge was posted, when our local food store listed fresh raspberries for sale. One of the ideas that Simona had provided for inspiration was a delicious looking crostata. made in a tart pan, filled with pastry cream and topped with fresh fruit. The raspberries looked too good to pass up, and thus I decided that they would be the showcase for my first attempt at a crostata.

The first step was to make the pasta frolla dough. The process for making pasta frolla is not that different from making pie crust dough - dry ingredients (flour, sugar and salt, in this case) are sifted together, then blended with (cold) butter. While most people use a food processor to blend in small cubes of cold butter, I usually either cut it in with two knives or use my fingers to literally rub the flour into the butter. I recently read about a trick to make this process even easier, and that is to actually grate the butter prior to incorporating it into the flour, so I decided to give that a try here. Oh my goodness, I wish I had known about this sooner. Grating the butter is so easy, and the smaller pieces are so easy to rub into the flour, making it so quick and easy to turn the combined ingredients into the coarse meal that it needs to be in order to then incorporate the liquid. As I mentioned, in this recipe, unlike other crust doughs that I have made, the liquid is egg (one whole egg, one yolk), rather than water, and the egg is incorporated much in the way it is for pasta dough - poured into a well in the middle of the flour mixture, which is then slowly mixed in to fully incorporate all of the ingredients. Once the dough becomes too stiff to stir with a fork, little miss helped me to knead the dough until we had the right consistency for our pasta frolla. At this point, the dough was placed into the refrigerator to cool.

With the dough in the refrigerator, it was time to make the pastry cream. I had a bit of trouble choosing a recipe for my pastry cream, since I had only made it once before (for the tiramisu challenge), and wanted to experiment with other recipes. I finally settled on this recipe. The cream took much longer than I had expected to thicken, and then, once it did, it actually thickened way up all at once, so I was a little concerned when I transferred it to a bowl and placed it in the refrigerator to chill for the afternoon.

When the dough was fully chilled, little miss helped me roll it out. I don't have a tart pan (which are commonly used used for making crostata, contrary to what I had seen with the free-form examples of crostata that I had previously seen on foodgawker), so I used my regular pie plate. Since I had chosen a pastry cream and fresh fruit crostata, my pasta frolla, once in the pie plate, needed to be blind baked, which just means that it is baked on its own with no filling in it. In order to help the crust maintain its shape, when blind baking a pie or tart shell, it is important to use pie weights. For us, we used dried beans (a combination of black eyed peas and garbonzo beans, in case you are curious - it's what we had on hand...) (and yes, I kept the beans, which will now officially be my pie weights from now on).

Right before dinner, when the baked pasta frolla crust was cooled, the pastry cream was fully chilled through and the raspberries, well, they were just waiting to be eaten, it was time to construct the crostata. The pastry cream was still very thick, but spread very nicely into the crostata shell. After being taste-tested by little miss, the raspberries were then arranged on top of the pastry cream, and the whole, completed crostata was placed into the refrigerator just waiting for us to finish dinner.

This dessert was fantastic - the pasta frolla crust was crispy and delcious, sweet without overpowering the flavor of the filling, and the pastry cream and fresh raspberries were delicious.

I was so encouraged by this first attempt at a crostata that I couldn't wait to try another. So a week later, I did.

Once again, the grated butter trick was awesome. Unfortunately, the pasta frolla gods were not with me that afternoon, as my dough seemed to have a very hard time coming together. I needed to add extra cold water, as the dough was way, way too dry and crumbly to come together. But with a little extra coaxing, we finally had a good dough, which was then set to rest in the refrigerator.

For this crostata, I chose to go more along the lines of what I had seen before, and went with a fruit filling and decided to forgo the pie plate. In keeping with the season, I chose apples and cranberries for the filling. While I peeled and cut the apples, little miss sorted through the cranberries, picking out only the best ones to be added to our apples. I wasn't actually working with a recipe, and just winged it for the filling. I was worried that the apples and cranberries wouldn't fully cook in the oven, so decided to pre-cook the filling. I cooked the apples and cranberries in a generous pat of butter with a small scoop (totally unmeasured, sorry) of brown sugar and a sprinkle of cinnamon. The filling was then poured into the center of the rolled out pasta frolla, which I had rolled into the closest approximation of a circle as I could. I then folded up the sides of the dough to contain the filling. The whole thing was then popped into the oven. I wasn't sure quite how long it would need. I started by setting the timer for 25 minutes. When the timer beeped, I could see that it needed a bit more time. I checked on it every five minutes or so until, after a total of about 45 minutes, the crust was a nice golden brown and the crostata looked and smelled fantastic. And when it came time for dessert, it did not disappoint. We actually all agreed that this one was even better than the first.

I had never made any kind of tart before, and never knew quite how versatile they were. Simona, thank you so much for introducing me to pasta frolla and the endless possibilities that it presents. I have so many ideas for so many other varieties, and I can't wait to try them.

To see some of the amazing, beautiful and delicious creations made by the other Daring Bakers this month, check them out here.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just a quick note to wish everyone out there a wonderful, restful, relaxing, delicious-food-filled Turkey Day.

There is so much to be thankful for, this year in particular, and I want to let each of you know that I am thankful to you for reading this blog and helping me share what I love to do.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Crock Pot Cheesesteaks on Pretzel Rolls

As you have probably noticed, if you have seen a post or two of mine, we love trying new recipes here. And learning new things. And trying things in new and different ways. So when daddy asked last week if I thought I could figure out a way to make cheesesteaks in the crock pot, I didn't hesitate to promise that I would figure something out.

The first step was the meat. As I have mentioned before, the crock pot is excellent for transforming even the cheapest cuts of meat into delicious and tender meals. I put the roast into the crock pot with nothing more than a sprinkling of onion soup mix and some water. I then put the lid on the pot, turned it on low, and let it sit. So far, so simple.

A few hours later, it was time to begin thinking about how I was going to serve the cheesesteaks. Cheesesteak being such a Philly tradition, we thought we would dive head-long into the Philly style and make pretzel rolls for the sandwiches. I have a fantastic recipe for pretzel bread, so decided to prepare that recipe and shape the dough into rolls rather than into loaves. Little miss, as always, was glad to help me measure, pour, mix and knead. The hardest part was figuring out counter space in my little kitchen to run the KitchenAid while the crock pot was going. It was a little crowded, but we soon had a soft, smooth dough ready to rise.

And then it was time to wait. Little miss's ballet class was the perfect length of time to let to dough rise, and when we came back home, it was time to get down to the real work. The dough was shaped and set to proof. As it proofed, I set a pot of water to boil. Once the water came to a boil, it was time to add baking soda to the boiling water, to make it alkaline, which helps the pretzels (rolls) develop their deep brown crust. The rolls, once proofed, were boiled in the alkaline water for about 30 seconds apiece, then transferred to a baking sheet. Just under 20 minutes in the oven and a quick brush with melted butter and we had some beautifully browned, delicious smelling rolls just waiting to be made into sandwiches.

So now it was time to work on the meat, which had been dutifully simmering away all day long, making the house smell delicious. The first step was to shred my now-tender beef. Once again, the crock pot is wonderful, an made this extremely easy - two forks and barely and pressure, and the beef practically shredded itself. I had to drain off some of the liquid, but we were soon ready to go from shredded beef to cheesesteak. In our house, that requires two things (aside from the beef, of course) - onions and cheese. Half a (large) sweet onion was sliced and caramelized, then spread on top of the shredded beef. Then the whole thing was covered with coarsely shredded provolone cheese. I returned the lid to the crock pot and let the whole thing heat together until dinner time, which wound up being about 40 minutes.

And the result? Absolutely delicious (though daddy and I both agreed that next time we will use more cheese!). I don't think that anyone would confuse our sandwich with that of one of the famous Philly chains, but we all really enjoyed them. The meat was delicious and flavorful, the onions and cheese went so well with it, and the rolls were absolutely fantastic. We all agreed that this is a definite repeat.

Pretzel Bread/Rolls
(original recipe can be found here)

2 1/3 teaspoons yeast
1 cup warm water (110-120 degrees)
2 tablespoons milk at room temperature
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 - 3 cups bread flour

4 quarts water
1/2 cup baking soda

Kosher salt to taste

2 tablespoons butter, melted

Add yeast, water, milk, brown sugar and three tablespoons of butter into a large bowl, whisking until all ingredients are combined. Let the mixture rest for 10 minutes for the yeast to activate. Mix in salt. Mix in two cups of flour, combining it with the other ingredients. Add more flour as needed, kneading until you have a firm but slightly tacky ball of dough.
Allow the dough to rest, covered, for 30 minutes in an oiled bowl. After 30 minutes, knead the dough for 5-10 minutes (either by hand or by mixer) until the dough is elastic and satiny. Cover the bowl again and allow the dough to rest for an hour.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. When the water is boiling, slowly (and carefully) add the baking soda.
Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it gently to deflate it. Divide the dough into two (for two loaves) or six (for six rolls) pieces and shape them as you want them (though round is easiest). Drop each piece into the baking soda bath for no more than 30 seconds, turning it once to guarantee that both sides are covered. Drain the excess water from the dough and place it on an oiled baking sheet. Repeat with each piece of dough.
Sprinkle each bread with kosher salt to taste and use a knife to cut a small incision on the top to allow for expansion.
Bake for 22 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through.
Once removed from the oven, immediately brush the top of each loaf/roll with melted butter.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

November Daring Cooks Challenge - Souffle

Part of the reason that I joined the Daring Kitchen was to learn new recipes and techniques, and to try things that I otherwise wouldn't. And it's not called the Daring Kitchen for nothing - each month's challenge is designed to test the members' skills, creativity and courage in the kitchen, and this month's Daring Cooks' challenge is no exception.

Dave and Linda from Monkeyshines in the Kitchen chose Soufflés as our November 2010 Daring Cooks' Challenge! Dave and Linda provided two of their own delicious recipes plus a sinfully decadent chocolate soufflé recipe adapted from Gordon Ramsay's recipe found at the BBC Good Food website.

I am not going to lie - I was pretty worried when I read this. I have never made a soufflé before, mostly because of the reputation that they have for being complicated and tricky, and for the fact that most of the stories you hear about amateur cooks making them end with some variation of "and then it collapsed before I could get it to the table."

That being said, I really like Dave and Linda, our hosts, from reading their blog and "seeing" them around the Daring Kitchen forums, and I knew that they wouldn't pick something destined for failure. So I trusted in our hosts and in the recipes, and decided that I would persevere.

My fears and insecurities got the better of me for the first two weeks of the challenge, and I pretty much did nothing more than scan a few recipes online, wonder what I would use as a soufflé dish (I don't have a real one), and worry about how I would keep an eye on my baking soufflé without opening the door of the oven (a classic no-no in soufflé baking) using my home oven, which does not have a window.

The answer to the last question came when my in-laws invited us over for brunch on Halloween morning. Their oven, as luck would have it, has a window. So I bit the bullet and offered to provide all of the food for our brunch, as long as they would let me use their kitchen as my soufflé test kitchen. They agreed and I knew I would have to figure out the rest!

I started by finding a recipe for a straightforward (not to mention, breakfast-appropriate) cheese soufflé. I did as much of the prep work at home as I could, so as to be as prepared as possible to tackle the actual assembly when I arrived at the in-laws' house. Other than gathering and measuring the ingredients, the main step that I had to do to prepare in advance was to grate the cheese, which little miss was more than happy to help with.

Cheese grated, eggs counted, milk, flour, butter and spices measured and packaged, we were ready to pack up our ingredients (as well as a couple other brunch-y type foods we'd prepared for the occasion) and head on over to begin our endeavor.

The preparation of the soufflé is actually very straightforward, but I was still pretty nervous. I read and re-read the recipe countless times, and performed each step as meticulously as possible. I carefully separated my eggs, then began preparing the, well, batter, for lack of a better word. The initial steps of preparing this batter do not differ very much from the way I make cheese sauce for macaroni and cheese - butter is carefully melted in a saucepan, then an equal amount of flour is whisked in to create a roux. To this, milk is whisked in, creating a basic bechamel or white sauce. The grated cheese is then melted into the sauce. This is the point where the process changed. In a separate bowl, the egg yolks from my previously separated eggs were whisked, then tempered by whisking in small amounts of the warm cheese sauce at a time, slowly raising temperature of the yolks to ensure that I didn't wind up with scrambled eggs. The tempered yolks were then fully incorporated into the sauce, and voila - I had the base to my soufflé.

The next step is to whip the egg whites - the aspect that gives a soufflé its airiness, its lift, its rise - basically, the part that can make or break the soufflé. I actually contemplated lugging my KitchenAid over to my in-laws' house for this part of the process, but thought that might be overkill, so I borrowed my mother in law's hand mixer and set to whipping the whites into stiff, but not totally dry, peaks. The beaten whites were then carefully and slowly folded into the prepared base, and we were just about ready to go.

In lieu of a single, large soufflé, I decided to use my five-ounce ramekins to make individual-sized soufflés for each of us at brunch. While I was preparing the batter, my husband and mother in law helped by generously buttering the ramekins, which I then filled as carefully and neatly as I possibly could. I was lucky that my mother in law also has a set of five-ounce ramekins, because I was amazed to find that my six-egg recipe more than enough to fill my six ramekins, and I had to borrow four of hers for the leftover batter.

And then came the real test.

It was time for the soufflés to go into the oven. And I assumed what I can only imagine is the position of almost every soufflé baker, especially on their first attempt:

(and no, that is not a real spider on my shoulder - remember, this was brunch on Halloween morning...)

It was fascinating and nerve wracking to watch these rise in the oven. I seriously watched them through the window with more interest than I do half of the television shows that are on these days... And after about fifteen minutes, I was rewarded in a way that no television show can duplicate. What came out of the oven were beautiful, puffy, cloud-like concoctions that none of us could wait to try.
We each took one on our plate and excitedly dug in. I have to say, I was pretty amazed - the texture was so light and airy, and the flavor was really good - like a really good cheese omelet, only lighter, fluffier, and a lot more fun to eat. I was really glad that everyone enjoyed them, too, because, no matter how many times I told everyone to go ahead and get started on the other brunch foods while these baked, everyone waited. And everyone told me that it was worth the wait.

I was so excited by this first soufflé effort, and so encouraged by the success, that I actually wound up, a couple of days later, doing something that I never ever expected to do - I decided, on a last minute whim, to "whip up" a soufflé to accompany our dinner that night.

During my initial search for soufflé recipes (in my attempt to put off making one, due to my nerves), I had come across this recipe for sweet potato-apple soufflés. Remembering that I had two small leftover baked sweet potatoes in the fridge from dinner the previous night, I took it as a sign and, while the rest of dinner was cooking, pulled together the remaining ingredients for a second go at soufflé.

Much like the first recipe, the process involved making a base, into which whipped egg whites are carefully folded. Unlike the first recipe, though, the base for these soufflés did not require any cooking. Rather than preparing a bechamel sauce, to be flavored and then puffed up, the base for this soufflé was simply the sweet potatoes and apples, pureed well, combined with some brown sugar, spices and an egg yolk. Super easy to prepare. The egg whites were once again carefully folded in to the base in small batches. The finished batter was carefully spooned into my well-buttered ramekins, and after fourteen minutes in the oven (into which, I am very proud to say, I did not peek at all, despite my lack of window and almost overwhelming desire to...), they transformed from this:

into this:

I was actually really amazed not only by the rise I was able to get out of these soufflés, but also at how cleanly they rose. I will say that these deflated much more quickly than the cheese soufflés did, but that did not affect either the taste or the beautifully airy texture of the dish. It was actually very interesting to eat such a light sweet potato dish, since usually potatoes of any sort are pretty dense and heavy. That certainly wasn't the case with these.

My only disappointment with this challenge, if you can even call it that, is that I didn't have the opportunity to try the recipe for the chocolate soufflé that Dave and Linda posted. If you had told me, when I first read the challenge, that not only would I succeed in making a soufflé, but that I would be disappointed that I didn't have the opportunity to make three of them, I probably would have laughed. Now I am seriously looking forward to whipping up more egg whites and trying as many variations as I can!

Dave and Linda, I cannot thank you enough for giving me the push I needed to finally try this amazing dish. I have no idea how long it would have taken me to overcome my fear without this challenge, and for that, I am truly grateful!

If you would like to see some of the truly impressive soufflés whipped up by the other Daring Cooks, check them out here.

And keep your eyes peeled - I will absolutely be making a chocolate soufflé in the not-distant future, and will definitely post it here for you to see!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How cute are these??

Are these not the cutest kitchen tools you have ever seen??

Little miss received these as a gift from our awesome neighbor, who just happens to have the coolest job in the world. He is a food stylist, and does a lot of work for a locally-based home shopping cable network. He stopped by yesterday with these adorable gadgets, saying that they'd been used in a demonstration that day, and that he automatically thought of little miss when it was time to close up the shoot (seeing as they could no longer be sold, having been used once).

Little miss wanted to test them out as soon as possible. Since yesterday was a pretty busy day, "as soon as possible" was actually this morning for breakfast, when we decided that, in order to use as many of these utensils as possible, we'd make pancakes.

She started by measuring the flour. With "Cuppy." Oh yes, they all have names. Cuppy was almost "Measure-y," but she changed her mind...

The dry ingredients were whisked together with "Whisker." Who was almost "Whiskey," but I sort of steered her towards a name fewer people would misunderstand... or give me funny looks upon hearing...

The wet ingredients were then mixed in with, you guessed it, "Spoony."

Once the batter was ready, it was my turn to take over, since I think that four is a little young to be working a griddle pan... But she did request that, when flipping the pancakes, I use "Flipper" rather than own utensils. I have to admit - it was definitely fun. I did have to reposition his arms and legs a little bit in order to get a good grip on him, but that was actually fairly amusing.

The only guy we didn't get to try out making these pancakes was the orange spatula, appropriately named "Spatulie" (I have no idea how to actually spell that...), but that doesn't mean that he was ignored. The whole gang had front row access to our setup and cleanup.

Speaking of cleanup, seeing these guys in the sink waiting to be washed was pretty funny...

A huge thank you to our awesome, generous neighbor - these are a huge hit.

And in case you are interested, I did happen to find them online. And am seriously tempted to complete our collection...
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