Monday, June 30, 2008

Educational Cake

While in line to see Iron Man, my friend Shawn said, "I'd want an Indiana Jones birthday cake". I was pretty sure he wasn't hinting, but that didn't stop me from making it anyway. The cake making was complicated by two things:

1. Shawn is a very picky eater.
2. I didn't remember anything about Indiana Jones.

But I tried my best and it turned out semi-decent. More importantly, I learned a lot.

Many thanks to our friend Adrienne who was kind enough to take the pictures below.

When I think of Indiana Jones, the first thing I think of is brown. The second thing is that scene where the guy rips the other guy's heart out and it beats in his hand. I don't have the skills to make a beating heart cake topper (but hope to add it to my repertoire by Valentine's Day!), so I decided to make the cake brown using the Chocolate Buttercream Frosting from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. The cake itself was a double recipe of the Crimson Velveteen Cupcakes from the same book. I topped the cake with a "whip" made of marzipan and wrote Happy Birthday Shawn in the closest I could get to the Indiana Jones font.

I used the Crimson Velveteen Cupcake recipe, not a regular cake recipe, because I already knew the birthday boy liked it. Oddly, I was short a tabelspoon of food coloring, but was still able to taste it in the cake. I've made this recipe as cupcakes many times and never experienced that before. It was really weird. Because it wasn't a cake recipe, the cakes turned out a little larger than they should have and the tops rounded. I was dumb and it didn't occur to me to trim them until the next day, so as you can see here, the cake was very lopsided and has a noticeable seam:

My first idea was to make a fedora (or heart full of cherry pie filling) out of home made chocolate clay, but after discussing it with Adrienne, I decided to stick with marzipan because I already knew Shawn liked it and a whip because it should be relatively easy. I used Wilton's coloring paste on it and it ended up the exact same color as the frosting. That wasn't good, so I added some black. Then it was 3 AM and I decided the color was good enough, so I worked on the shape, modeled after this picture.

For the writing, I printed out the Happy Birthday and tried to trace it onto cardboard using a Xacto knife. Unfortunately, I don't have any hand-eye coordination, so Adrienne had to trace out the stencil for me instead. I thought that if I frosted the whole cake, then put the stencil on top of it, I'd ruin the frosting, so I left a blank area for the stencil, which I filled in using a pastry bag and some light yellow royal icing. I then went over it with some orange food coloring on my finger, then red over that. I intended on using a small knife to frost between the letters, but once I was done, I knew that'd never work and ended up with a naked stripe across the cake. Next time, I'll definitely frost the whole thing, do the stencil, then just smooth the defects in the frosting as best as I can.

As you can see, it totally needed more filling:

The final thing I learned making this cake: brown marzipan looks like a turd. D'oh!

Thankfully, that was my last cake for June. As far as I know, July will be a month of rest. Then I hope to bake for two or three people in August, depending on who lets me honor their birthday in pastry fashion.


Last Sunday was bittersweet. My friends and I got together, which is always fun. It was a happy time because it was a birthday. It was a sad time because the birthday girl is moving home (Barbados) next week and will be missed.

For dinner, I brought the Fresh Mango Summer Rolls from Vegan With a Vengeance. For dessert, I brought a big fruit tart. She loves them, but they can make her sick because she's lactose intolerant, so she asked me to veganize them. I did:

First, I made Betty Crocker's Baked Pie Crust and sealed it with an apricot preserves glaze. I filled that with the pastry creme filling of the Brooklyn vs. Boston Cream Pie Cupcakes in Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World (yes, the stuff with the amazing, non-dissolving agar flakes. This time, I doubled the recipe and got the flakes dissolved in about an hour. That's comparatively no time) and topped that with kiwi, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and more glaze. Viola!

I was lazy about skinning the kiwi, so I just cut the sides off, not realizing it would leave me with rectangular kiwi slices. I felt really stupid, but put them on the tart anyway. My brother thought it was an intentional design and he liked it, so I played along.

No one brought candles, so here's everyone getting ready for the birthday girl to blow out the matches on her cake (store bought, non-vegan, red velvet) and tart:

The Fresh Mango Summer Rolls are very nice, but the Thai Peanut Sauce is really what makes them pop. I had to omit the cilantro, which undoubtedly left them a little less flavorful (and colorful) than they should have been, but they were still very nice. And I want to put the accompanying sauce (which is incredibly fast and easy to make) on everything.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I Havent a Sheep

I haven't a sheep, so I can't make shepherd's pie. I have a garden (of sorts), so I made Fatfree Vegan Kitchen's Skillet Gardener's Pie instead.

With all the brunch and birthday I've been having lately, I really needed to make something healthy to eat this week. As usual, Fatfree Vegan came to my rescue. I can always find something guilt free, relatively easy to make and tasty over there. This dish has the added bonus of being pretty much fuck-up-proof. For some reason, I decided not to chop any of my vegetables in advance, so I left everything cooking longer than it should have a few times, but nothing got grossly overdone. It's all still fine.

I'm not going to go on about it too much because Susan went over it in detail on her blog, but not only does this only have one gram of fat per generous serving, but it's full of loads of vitamins and minerals and all that fun stuff.I guess this dish doesn't really work for people watching their carbs, since it's smothered in potatoes, but I still don't understand that fully anyway, so I'm not too worried about it.

I wasn't able to get an attractive picture of the inside, but at least this gives you an idea of what's inside (other than, you know, yumminess):

Friday, June 20, 2008

Things Fall Apart

The centre cannot hold.

Especially when said centre is made of crepes and pastry cream. Behold! The crepe cake!

Doesn't that look lovely(ish)? It's rather a pity that that's not how it looked when it got to the table. This is:

Back in January, my friend challenged me to veganize this cake. It looked complicated, so I decided to wait a while, until I was a bit more comfortable in the kitchen. A while turned into months and then her birthday was coming, so I decided to figure it out and make it her birthday cake. I really wanted to get it right, so I started working on it over a month in advance because the filling kind of freaked me out. This wasn't merely a case of substituting margarine for butter and a little bit of soy yogurt for an egg and I didn't know what to do, so I took it to The PPK. As always, they were very helpful and directed me toward the pastry cream filling of the Brooklyn vs. Boston Cream Pie Cupcakes in Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. I decided layering that with a few batches of the sweet crepes from Veganomicon would do the trick and set to work.

Here's my first attempt:

Failure. The crepes were too thick and not browned enough and the pastry cream was too loose. The reason? I couldn't get my agar flakes to dissolve. I officially hate agar flakes.

A few days later, I tried again:

Per the suggestions of the lovely people on The PPK, I reduced the crepe batter from 1/2 cup to 1/3 per crepe and dissolved the agar flakes in the microwave (which still took HOURS). The crepes still weren't brown enough, but it was only a test, so I was going for speed (as you can see by my ever-so-smooth filling job). It looked good enough to me. The cream was thick and the crepes were thin, so the cream was able to support the crepes, instead of the other way around. With eight crepes, I called it success. But the recipe called for 25 crepes and it never occurred to me that the number would cause a problem.

Though it looked good, I found the taste slightly lacking. It tasted good and it was nice and sweet, but it didn't taste like anything. Just sweet. I wanted to layer in some thinly sliced strawberries, but I thought that would be too much of a variation (read: cheat) from the original recipe, so I decided to substitute chocolate extract for vanilla in the final cake, top it with powdered sugar and write on it in melted chocolate (at first, I wasn't going to write on it at all, then I was thinking of using royal icing or something similarly generic).

The birthday dinner was on Wednesday, so I planned my week accordingly. Monday night, I went home early and made the crepe batter (four times the written recipe) and the pastry cream (six times the written recipe). I knew I'd have the agar issue, so I did that first, working on the batter while the agar sat in the warm/hot soy milk slowly dissolving, then whisking it for five minutes at a time. For hours. My right arm is currently on strike.

This is a lot of crepe batter:

Please notice the box of soy milk in the background. It's right side up, but I'm pretty sure the text on the back is upside down.

More pastry cream than I ever want to see again:

Tuesday night, I went to see The Futureheads do their first US show in two years (which was superawesome. Expect a fall tour. Run, don't walk for tickets!), then went home and made the crepes and put it all together.

Thirty crepes:

I only needed 25, so I put aside the uglier crepes and the best one (for the top) on a cutting board as I worked. I got to 18, paused to wash my hands, looked over at the cake and it looked like a landslide. As I stood there, the crepes were sliding off of the cake, onto the table, then almost onto the floor! I ran over and caught them (part of them were already hanging off the table), then grabbed up the whole cake and dropped it down on the cutting board. Right on top of the nicest crepe. Crap.

Once I got the pastry cream of of myself (and the table) and convinced myself I was neither going to cry nor throw the crepes around the room, I started reassembling the cake crepe by crepe, using my hands to smooth the filling, instead of my spatula. Since half the filling ended up on the table, cutting board and me, I thought the cake might hold together better with the thinner layers of filling. Since it was already covered with pastry cream, I included the "best crepe" in the cake and topped it off with a clean one, so the cake ended up being twenty crepes instead of 25. That was good enough for me, so I dusted it with powdered sugar and wrote on it with the melted chocolate.

That's how it looked when I put it away. This is how it looked when I woke up:

Appetizing, isn't it? (No)

I IMed the birthday girl when I got to work and basically apologized for completely ruining her birthday (because that's how it felt to me) and tried to brainstorm how to fix it. A coworker noticed I was upset and when I showed her why, she laughed at me. When she was done laughing, she suggested I just move the top of the cake to the center of the pile and trim it around, so that's what I did.

Here it is, with the trimmings my coworkers and I ate throughout the day:

And here's the finished product:

Obviously, it's not nearly as attractive as it started out, but it was presentable enough. And everyone seemed to enjoy it. Even the wait staff at the restaurant tried some, but they didn't tell me what they thought of it, so maybe that was their polite way of not telling me they hated it.

Wow, this post is sort of epic (read: too damn long). Sorry about that. But if it took you this long to read it, think of what it must have been like to do it!

And if you're reading this, happy birthday, Shar! (that's what the cake says, in case you can't tell)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Buncha Brunch

Testing is still going strong for Isa Chandra Moskowitz's upcoming vegan brunch cookbook, Crack of Noon. Most recently, I've been getting down with the muffins, artichokes and quiche.

As I think I've mentioned before, I'm not very good at making muffins. Despite passing the toothpick test, they almost always end up underdone in the middle when cut open. Until now. Enter Isa's Bakery Style Berry Muffins. They baked perfectly, puffed up nicely and taste amazing. They make bakeries completely obsolete in the morning.

From the outside:

Showing off the raspberries, blueberries and strawberries:

Being the savage muffin failure that I was until now, I would totally buy the book just for this recipe.

If sweet, fruity, yogurty muffins aren't your thing, how about Zucchini Spelt Muffins? They're one of your healthier muffins, but that doesn't prevent them from being damn tasty. I had to overbake them a bit to get them right, but that may just be due to my muffin disability. Despite being healthy, they're all kinds of sweet and awesome. The homeless guy in front of Grace Plaza really seemed to like them.

They're so cute and round:

If "real" food is more your thing, check out this Caramelized Onion Quiche:

When I first read the recipe, I thought "Onions? That's it? No garlic or anything? Snooze." I was so wrong. This stuff is so good. I've been eating it for lunch every day, so it's almost done and that makes me sad. It's very easy to make, though prepping the onions does take quite a while.

If you want something that looks (and sounds!) a little more impressive, how about Simple Stuffed Artichokes With Ginger And Chervil?

Ooooo steamy!

For those not in the know (like me a week ago), chervil is fancy pants, fairly hard to find, parsley. Look for it at greenmarkets. It tastes sort of like a cross between parsley and licorice (it's not strong; I hate licorice but like this anyway), and is smaller than regular parsley.

Artichoke prep is always a pain in the ass, but this isn't too bad. Removing the choke is definitely easier when you're artichoke is cut in half, but this still doesn't take a huge amount of time. It just looks like it does. The steaming definitely takes longer than the prep, and that's inactive, so if you're me, you can spend that time picking choke bits off the floor. The stuffing for these things is so good. I think I'm going to try stuffing zucchini or something with it. Something slightly less spiky than artichokes.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Catching Up

Last week, I did a whole mess of cooking for the holiday of Shavuot (Jewish people celebrate being given the bible. It's customary not to eat meat because supposedly meat wasn't eaten until after we received the rules for kosherness in said bible). I was also commissioned to make my boss' birthday cake. I don't have any pictures of the holiday food, but here's the cake (frankly the best part anyway):

I tried to convince my family to go vegan for the holiday (it's only fifty hours), but it didn't work so well. One of the few things my mother actually cooks is a cheese dish that she only makes this time of year and she insisted on making it. Also, someone gave her a baked ziti, so she wanted to serve that. However, it turned out to be crap, so they stuck with her dish. I made the rest of the food for the holiday and it was all vegan.

Blintzes are traditional, so I made the Veganomicon crepes and made some of them into Potato-Mushroom Blintzes. My brother hates mushrooms, so I halved them and made plain potato blintzes as well. I also stuffed some with the Tofu Ricotta, also from Veganomicon. I made the Cherry Compote from Yellow Rose Recipes for dipping.

I love the Veganomicon crepes. I'd been nervous about making crepes because everyone always talks about how delicate and easy to ruin they are, but I had been practicing making them for something else and these are really easy. At first, I was annoyed that the batter had to be refrigerated for an hour before using it, but now I love that I can make the batter the night before I want to make the crepes and just get right down to the cooking when I'm eager to get down to the eating. I don't even have a crepe pan. I use a regular little non-stick pan and it works quite well.

The potato-mushroom filling is amazing. Everyone (except my brother) loved the blintzes. And he said his plain potato ones were some of the best he'd ever had. The filling couldn't be more simple, but it's one of those things that come out tasting very restauranty and people are impressed.

The Tofu Ricotta has the ricotta texture, but definitely not the taste. Everyone liked them, with the "This tastes nothing like cheese" caveat. To me, they taste strongly of nutritional yeast, so I was surprised my family liked them as much as they did (they liked them enough to honestly say they're enjoyable - they don't spare my feelings - but not enough to take seconds).

Making the blintzes themselves takes a bit of practice. I couldn't get a nice shape going, even at the end (I made about fifteen), but only one lost structural integrity and fell apart, so that's not too bad.

The Cherry Compote is very nice. My father has been putting it on everything. It's a bit more sour than I expected it to be, so I probably just used too much lemon juice. It went quite well with the cheese blintzes. I think I'll make it again next time I have a container of vegan ice cream in the house.

My mother requested something with eggplant in it, so I made the Eggplant-Potato Moussaka with Pine Nut Cream, also from Veganomicon. Dudes, that pine nut cream is so rich and awesome and...creamy. I'm always amazed by the ability of nuts to act like dairy. It's so weird. This cream is double great because it doesn't require overnight soaking or anything like some of the other nut "dairy" recipes I've seen. If you don't like eggplant and zucchini and whatnot, just make the cream and put it on...everything. I also got many compliments on the sauce. The shallots make it stand out a bit from jarred stuff. And, of course, there's nothing to not like about eggplant, zucchini and potatoes, so this recipe is a total winner.

I also made Potato Spinach Wedges, a test recipe for Isa Chandra Moskowitz's upcoming brunch book. Isa describes them as knishes without the dough, and that's basically what they are. They're tasty and easy. It's great that you can just throw it in a baking dish and be done, instead of making little, individualized items.

Dessert is the most important part of any holiday and I didn't pull any punches. I made Pain Au Chocolat (another brunch tester), Chocolate Almond Cheezecake with Graham Cracker Crust from The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook and Strawberry-Rhubarb-Peach Pie from Vegan With a Vengeance.

Everyone went nuts for the Pain Au Chocolat. I stuffed them with raspberries, strawberries and blackberries and served them warm. The chocolate oozed all over everyone's faces and made a wonderful mess. This dessert is wonderful and best eaten 1. warm and 2. with other people. Make them with a few different kinds of fruit, share them around and laugh at the chocolate on each other's faces.

The Chocolate Almond Cheezecake was sort of like a really firm chocolate pudding pie. A really good, a really firm chocolate pudding pie. Serving it with cherries somehow enhanced the almond flavor. It would probably go nicely with a vegan whipped cream, but I haven't mastered one of those yet.

The Strawberry-Rhubarb-Peach Pie was amazing. It really hit the spot, serving it on the first hot days of the season. This was my first time having rhubarb and it really heightened all the other flavors. I love this pie. There have been requests to make it again and I will not hesitate to fill them.

Some of you may remember my birthday cake from last month. If you don't, that's OK because my boss and office manager did. It was Blackout the Forest Cake: a cross between blackout cake and black forest cake. To make it, I adapted parts of Raspberry Blackout Cake with Ganache-y Frosting and Chocolate Chip-Raspberry Blondie Bars from Vegan With a Vengeance. They requested I make the exact same cake for the office celebration of my boss' birthday. Taking advantage of any opportunity to feed people yummy vegan food, I complied. The only change was to the decoration: I halved the cherries and removed the pits so people didn't have to spit while enjoying the cake. I liked how the stems looked like candles on my cake, but I think it was worth sacrificing that for the convenience of a spit-free party. Unfortunately, I made it and carried it to work when the temperature was over eighty degrees. Ganache doesn't like to behave at temperatures like that, so it looked a little funny, but everyone agreed the taste more than made up for it.

Monday, June 2, 2008

All You Need is Brunch

Lately, all I've been eating is brunch. This is for two reasons:

1. It's yummy
2. As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm helping test for Isa Chandra Moskowitz's upcoming vegan brunch book, Crack of Noon.

Let's take a little look at what I've been eating lately.

Like I already said, potatoes are the most important thing about brunch. Check these bad boys out:

Individual Baked Hashbrowns. Individual servings make everything cuter. Cute + potatoes = the best thing ever.

My favorite veg/spice combination is cauliflower and curry. My favorite meal is brunch. Guess how I feel about the Curried Cauliflower Frittata. Go ahead. Guess.

I like using purple cauliflower in this so you can actually see it and it doesn't just blend in with the tofu and curry powder.

I was never a big egg eater, even before I went vegetarian, so I never expected to eat an omelet ever again. I was wrong:

That there is an overstuffed Grilled Asparagus Omelet with Miso Tahini Sauce. The omelet is great and the asparagus is AMAZING. It's marinated in (among other things) balsamic vinegar and is damn tasty. The sauce (not visible because it's inside the omelet) is surprisingly good, given that I don't like tahini.

You know what I think I missed most this past Passover? Matzo brei. Well, I don't have to worry about that any longer.*

It seriously tastes just like my mother makes it. I mixed in a bit of raspberry preserves and was in heaven.

Brunch is never complete without muffins. These Toasted Coconut and Mango Muffins are really good (even though I'm still not so good at making muffins and they're not cooked all the way through despite passing the toothpick test):

Let's not forget dessert: a chocolate cherry variation of the East Coast Coffee Cake:

The longer that cake sits, the better it gets. It's even better if it sits out on the counter, instead of in the fridge. The cut piece looks a little flat because I brought it to a party and it got a bit squished along the way. Oops!

That's it for now, but testing is far from over. My belly is looking forward to more brunch.

* That's not 100% true; this recipe uses tofu, which I can't eat on Passover, but it's still totally acceptable the rest of the year.