Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Commission Tales: The Cutest Little Hallowe'en Cake

This past weekend was my beloved little nephew's first birthday party, and I was asked to bring the cake and some decorated sugar cookies.  I'm so there!  I also was tasked with making a little smash cake for him so that he could enjoy his first taste of cake too.  Done and done!

As he was born the day before Hallowe'en, his first party was going to be Hallowe'en related.  We'll see about future Hally-related parties once he reaches the Age of Reason...but in the meantime, his Mummy gets her way! (heehee...)

My sister and I used Pinterest to inspire us for what kind of cake would be the most awesome for the party; we must have looked through a thousand pictures between the two of us. We chose elements from a few of those cakes we loved the best, and with a few parameters (non-scary, at least one layer to be chocolate, and for about 25 people), I went to work! 

My friend, Erinith, made all of the teeny little punkins (her first time working with fondant!), and I think she did a fantastic job. Once they had a day to dry out a bit, I dusted them all lightly with Super PEarl luster dust and some holographic white disco dust, and they absolutely sparkled! There must have been about 50 or so of these little guys...and I used every single one of them in the final design (except the one that accidentally hit the floor; no "floor punkins" were utilized in this cake design).

While Erinith was working on the punkins, I was busy working on the other 2-D and 3-D elements of the
cake. There were the fondant bats, which I made a quick template from some cardboard (I strongly recommend using strong cardstock instead of corrugated cardboard like I did; I had forgotten that I gave away all my cardstock to our Beaver colony for crating purposes and had to make do with what I had on hand). Luckily, I wanted them a little rough-looking, so it didn't matter that there were some corrugation lines on them when I was done. I set them to dry in such a way that they would curl a bit at the edges, so they would look like they were flying away from the cake once they were glued in place.

Another 2-D effect was the "BOO!" I wanted to make for the side of the cake.  I found a font I liked online, downloaded it, then blew it up to the size I figured would work best on the cake.  I printed it off, cut it out with an exacto knife, then cut it out of the black rolled fondant, and cut out a larger size from the white rolled fondant.  I attached them to one another with some piping jelly, and let it dry before attaching.

I also was inspired by a spooky house I saw on another Hallowe'en cake, and found a similar line drawing online that I could use to emulate it. I followed the same process as with the black layer of the "BOO!", but then I left it to dry on a piece of paper which I then taped to the outside of a round cake tin, in order to allow it to dry in a curve that
would fit the contours of the finished cake. I also knew that it was so fragile, I could carefully remove any parts of the design I didn't want (or wouldn't fit) by using the exacto knife. I also cut out a thin circle of yellow and let dry for a spooky moon, and some windows and a door for the haunted house.

The best little thing I made for my nephew's cake, hands down, is a tiny little fondant mummy, wearing a cute little blue bowtie!  I saw the most adorable little gumpaste mummy on a different cake, and thought I'd take the inspiration and make one for the top of the cake.
This mummy is held up by a toothpick through the top to the bottom of the body, with another toothpick through the arms for stability.  I don't normally use non-food items on a cake, but I knew that fondant is so heavy and soft, and I found that my gumpaste had dried out to my chagrin, so I really wanted this little guy to work out!

SO, without further ado, here is the Halloween cake in all its gory glory! I left a space on the top in case there was a birthday candle or something that the parents wanted to add to the cake.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Recipe and Tutorial: Chocolate Hazelnut Toffee Biscotti

Hoo boy! I am giving you the recipe for one of the most delicious cookies in my arsenal!

...hmmm, arsenal....why does that word look so RUDE?  I don't want to talk about cookies in my arsenal....I think I need food. My mind wanders when it's hungry.

Back to the point!  Yes, these biscotti are frelling delicious! They are so deep, dark and chocolatey, and the toasted hazelnuts work well with the toffee and chocolate....it's like a grownup's Nutella With a little twist.

This is a 5kg jar of Nutella. WTH.
Although from what I've seen of those friends around me who grew up with Nutella and are still horribly addicted to it to this day, Nutella is the grownup's Nutella. Doing a quick, casual Google image search for Nutella indicates that people are deeply bug-nutty for this stuff.  I was brought up in a British household, peeples...the closest I ever got to Nutella was peanut butter.  I had never even heard of hazelnuts until I was in my twenties.

Again with the wanderings!  Sorry. I really need some food. But I'll pass on the Nutella if I could have a plate of these Chocolate Hazelnut Toffee Biscotti...mmmm...

Chocolate Hazelnut Toffee Biscotti 

Yield: about 30 biscotti
  • 1 cup (150 g) toasted and chopped hazelnuts
  • 4 ounces (120 g) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup (210 g) firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 ¾ cups (230 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup (30 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon (4 g) instant espresso powder
  • 1 teaspoon (5 g) baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • ½ cup toffee bits
  • 1 egg white, lightly whisked
  • ¼ cup white sanding sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (177˚ C). To toast hazelnuts: spread on a baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes or until lightly browned and the skins begin to blister and peel. Remove from oven and place the nuts in a clean dish towel. Roll up the towel and let the nuts 'steam' for 5 minutes and then briskly rub the towel (with nuts inside) to remove the skins from the nuts.  Cool and then chop coarsely.

Reduce the oven temperature to 300˚ F (150˚ C). Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a food processor, fitted with a metal blade, place the coarsely chopped chocolate and brown sugar and process until the chocolate is very fine.

In a large bowl, sift or whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, espresso powder, baking soda and salt.

Beat the eggs and vanilla extract until combined (about 30 seconds). Add the chocolate/sugar mixture and the flour mixture and beat until a stiff dough forms, adding the hazelnuts and toffee bits about half way through mixing.

Scrape bowl and, with floured hands, divide the dough in half. On a lightly floured surface roll each half into a log about 10” long, 4” wide and 1” tall. Transfer the logs to the prepared baking sheet, spacing about 3” apart. Lightly whisk the egg white with a tablespoon of water, and brush over tops and sides of logs, coating sparingly but evenly.  Sprinkle both logs immediately with sanding sugar.

Bake until almost firm to the touch, about 35 - 40 minutes (logs will spread during baking). Remove from the oven, place on wire rack, and let cool for 10 minutes.

Using a long spatula transfer the logs to a cutting board. Using a serrated knife cut the dough into slices 3/4 inch (2 cm) thick. 

Arrange the slices standing on-end on the baking sheet and bake 15 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet(s) and bake for another 15 minutes, or until crisp and dry. Remove from oven and let cool on wire rack. 

Store in an airtight container for several weeks.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Recipe and Tutorial: Gingerbread Biscotti

I have a regular customer who loves loves LOVES my gingerbread biscotti! While he is Croatian, he has a poker party nearly every weekend, and his fellow players are mostly Italian...and Italians know good biscotti, letmetellyou. I am constantly informed of how GOOD these are, and that no matter how many dozen he buys, there are never any left over at the end of the evening.  My father used to call this phenomenon "moreish", as in when you eat something that is so tasty, you end up having a little bit more, and then some more, until they're all gone.

This recipe is one I developed specifically for this customer, and is one of two "go-to" favourites of his; the other favourite will be the topic for another post! This gingerbread biscotti recipe can be made with or without nuts, but I usually make it without, since I am often pairing it with the other biscotti recipe that's chock full of them!

Don't be nervous or afraid of making biscotti if this is your first time; they are essentially cookies, but baked twice so they dry out crisp and firm, which leaves them the perfect vehicles for dunking in your coffee or espresso to soften.

The recipe below is a bit fiddly and involved, but most of the ingredients are spices and fruit, so once those are combined, it's much easier.  Don't skip the processing of the rolled oats; this makes for a firmer cookie.

Gingerbread Biscotti

Yield: approximately 30 biscotti

  • 1 cup (100g) old fashioned rolled oats, divided
  • 1 ¾ cups (225g) all purpose flour
  • ¾ cup (160g) dark brown sugar
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ¾ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • 1/8 tsp ground cloves
  • 2 large eggs
  • ¼ cup (60ml) fancy molasses
  • 2 tbsp light oil
  • ½ tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp crystallized ginger, minced
  • 2 cups of three of the following: raisins (any kind), dried cranberries, dried blueberries, currants, pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds), chopped dates, chopped dried apricots, white chocolate chips, mixed nuts, lightly toasted and chopped
  • 2 (60 g) egg whites, lightly beaten
  • ½ cup white sanding sugar

Preheat oven to 350˚F and place the oven rack in the center of the oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat (silicone baking mat). 

In a food processor, finely grind ½ cup (50 grams) of the rolled oats. Combine the finely ground oats with the remaining whole oats and the other dry ingredients.

Whisk together the eggs, molasses, oil, and vanilla extract in a separate bowl. Slowly add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients, and beat just until combined. Mix in the chopped mix-ins until just incorporated.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and divide in half. Form each half into a flattened bar about 12” long and 5” wide. Transfer the bars to the prepared baking sheet, spacing at least 3” apart.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown on the edges and firm to the touch. Remove from oven, immediately brush the top lightly with beaten egg white, and sprinkle generously with sanding sugar; let cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, or just long enough so you can hold the cookie bar for cutting without burning your fingers.

Reduce oven temperature to 300˚F.  Transfer the partially cooled bars to a cutting board and cut into ¾” slices.  Place the biscotti back on the baking sheet face-up, leaving about ½” between each cookie.

Bake for 6-8 minutes, rotate pan, and bake for another 8-10 minutes or until dry and firm. Remove and let cool completely.

Can be stored in an airtight container for several weeks.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Recipe: Meyer Lemon Tarts

I had soooo hoped to find the time (and the lemons!!!) to make these Pierre Hermé Meyer Lemon Tarts for my own wedding dessert table back in August of this year, but events conspired against me (damn you, Whole Foods!), and now I am awaiting for Meyer Lemon season to come back around to make them for myself and my loved ones.

For those who are not pastry geeks like myself, Pierre Hermé is an absolute legend in the world of pastry; still going strong in his 50's, Hermé is best known worldwide for his perfect macarons and his gorgeous chocolate confections, but pretty much everything he makes is divine. One of my dreams is to go back to Paris and visit each of his 10 confectionery shops there, buying and trying a few somethings from each boutique, then photographing it and blogging about it (oh God, I'm the Baking Hipster!!! auughhhh!)

...ok, I'm going to need a minute to get over that image....

Back to the blog at hand...!

So you may be asking, just what makes a Meyer Lemon Tart so different from a regular lemon tart?  Well, I could be a jerk and tell you it's the Meyer Lemons, duh, but in all seriousness, it *is* exactly that. The best way to describe Meyer lemons is that they are a fascinating cross between the sourness of a lemon and the floral notes of an orange, so that they are not exactly one or the other, but very much their own thing.  The rind of a Meyer lemon is a deeper yellow, and the scent is to die for.  I've definitely scrubbed, zested, and juiced my share of Meyer lemons in my day -- boxes upon boxes of them -- but even so, I'm not tired of them and would use them every day in every way I could if I had a reliable and affordable supply of them.

So, until Meyer Lemon season comes around again in my little corner of the world (which is around August for me), I figure, why make you wait for this fabulous recipe in the meantime?  I promise that when I have access to more Meyer Lemons, I'll make up this recipe, and probably a few more as well!

Meyer Lemon Tart 
Source: Pierre Herme

Pate Sucree Base:

Yield: three 10 ½ “ crusts or four 8” crusts, or eight 4” crusts
  • 300g unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
  • 190g powdered sugar
  • 60g ground almonds
  • 1 vanilla bean, scrapped
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 500g all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt

Lemon Cream:

  • 200 g whole eggs (4 eggs)
  • 240 g granulated sugar
  • 160 g fresh Meyer lemon juice
  • zest from about 5 Meyer lemons
  • 300 g unsalted butter, room temperature and cubed


  1. Put the butter in a mixer bowl and cream until smooth and creamy using a paddle attachment.
  2. Add the sugar, ground almonds, and vanilla bean seeds. Mix until combined.
  3. Add the eggs one at a time, fully incorporating the previous one before adding the next one (the dough might look curdled at this point but don't worry, it'll come together once you add the flour).
  4. Combine the flour and salt. Add to the dough in about three addition. Mix until just it comes together. Do not overwork! Like Pierre said, "it's better to have lumps of butter rather than to have an overworked dough".
  5. Divide the dough in the portions you need. Form each one into a ball and flatten it into a disk. Wrap each disk with plastic wrap and store in the fridge overnight (you can also freeze the dough at this point and thaw it in the fridge overnight).
  6. Remove one disk from the fridge, and roll it either between two sheets of parchment paper, or just well-floured surface. You need to move quickly though. You don't want the dough to be soft and overworked.
  7. Line your tart pan with the dough and put it back in the fridge for at least 1-2 hrs to rest.
  8. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  9. When you're ready to bake, put a parchment paper on top of the dough and fill the bottom with either rice or beans.
  10. Bake for 20 minutes. Take the parchment paper and the beans/rice off, then continue to bake for another 5-10 minutes until it's golden brown.
  11. Let cool in the ring.

Lemon Cream:

  1. Rub the zest with the sugar using your finger until the sugar is moistened with lemon oil.
  2. On a double boiler, combine the sugar, eggs and juice.
  3. Whisk/stir constantly until the mixture reaches 85-86 C.
  4. Strain the mixture and let cool to about 55-60 C and put it in a blender (if you don't have a hand-held blender)
  5. Add the butter a couple of pieces at a time, to make an emulsion. The mixture will lighten in color. Continue running the blender for a few minutes after all of the butter has been added to ensure the airy and light cream. Make sure stop and run the blender a few times to avoid over-heating.
  6. Pour the mixture into prepared crust and refrigerate.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Tips for Better Baking: Sugar and Other Natural Sweeteners

Sugar, and its cousins, performs many important roles in baking. 
  • provides moisture and tenderness
  • increases the shelf-life of finished products
  • caramelizes at high temperatures, and
  • adds sweetness
All refined sugars (granulated white sugar, confectioner's/icing sugar, brown or golden yellow sugar, and "raw" sugars such as Demerara and turbinado), are equal when it comes to their nutritional value. While in the past brown and raw sugars were considered more "natural" than refined white sugar, now they are made *from* white sugar and simply have a portion of molasses added back in. Refined sugar is 99 percent pure sucrose, a simple carbohydrate.

Refined sugar helps cookies spread during baking, which allows their crisp texture. Because of these critical functions, bakers can't simply replace all the sugar in a recipe with a different sweetener. However, in many recipes, you can decrease the amount of sugar by up to one third without affecting the quality of the product.

Be careful with your sugar: too much can cause a dark crust (one of several possible causes), and too little can cause too light a crust or a tough texture.

But, sometimes you may want to substitute using granulated sugar for another sweetener. Maybe you've run out, maybe there was a great sale on honey and now you need to find a way to use it, and maybe you simply want to try something new.  While not all sweeteners are identical enough to substitute 1:1 (although there are some), don't fret; below are some alternate choices, and how to substitute them into your baking recipes.

And, as always, a fun and super-easy recipe at the end for you to try!

General Rules for Substituting Sweeteners:
  • When substituting a liquid sweetener (such as honey, maple syrup, etc.) for a granulated sweetener (i.e. sugar), for every 1 cup granulated to be replaced by a liquid sweetener, subtract 1/4 cup of liquid (water, milk, etc.) from the recipe to re-balance the moisture content.
  • The converse being, when substituting a granulated for a liquid sweetener, for every 1 cup of sweetener, add 1/4 cup of liquid from the recipe.

Other sugars, such as honey, taste sweeter on the tongue than granulated sugar; in fact, honey is 25%-50% sweeter than refined sugar. You can therefore use less honey to sweeten a batch of muffins than you would sugar. The flavors and colors of honey can vary depending upon the bees' diet -- buckwheat honey, for example, is darker and stronger than clover honey -- and consequently will impart a subtle flavour to your finished product.

Baked goods made with honey are moist and dense, and tend to brown faster than those made with granulated sugar, so if baking with honey, reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit.

How to substitute honey for sugar in your baking recipes:
Use ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon honey in place of 1 cup sugar (maximum), and reduce the other liquid ingredients by 2 tablespoons. Honey is slightly acidic, so if the recipe includes sour cream or buttermilk, add 1/4 tsp of baking soda to neutralize the acidity.

Maple Syrup:
Maple syrup tastes less sweet than sugar, but its unique flavor is prized in baked goods and desserts. Canada produces 85% of the world's maple syrup supplies, and 90% of that production is located in Quebec.

Maple syrup can be used in most cases as a direct 1:1 recipe substitute for liquid sweeteners with the same density (i.e. golden syrup, glucose, corn syrup, honey, etc.). If using barley malt syrup or other sugar replacement syrups, do some recipe testing first, or find a recipe that has already accounted for its unique tastes and properties.

If baking using maple syrup, reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit, since maple syrup will tend to caramelize and burn faster than granulated sweeteners.

How to substitute maple syrup for sugar in your baking recipes:
Use ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon maple syrup in place of 1 cup sugar (maximum), and reduce the other liquid ingredients by 2 tablespoons. Buttermilk is slightly acidic, so if the recipe includes sour cream or buttermilk, add 1/4 tsp of baking soda to neutralize the acidity.

Molasses is a byproduct of refined sugar production. It contains small amounts of B vitamins, calcium, and iron. Molasses imparts a dark color and strong flavor to baked foods, but is not as sweet as sugar; replace no more than half the sugar called for in a recipe with molasses. 

The quality of molasses depends on the maturity of the sugar cane, the amount of sugar extracted, and the method of extraction.  There are three major types of molasses sold in North America: unsulphured, sulphured, and blaskstrap molasses. Some minor types are known as fancy and cooking molasses.

Unsulphured molasses is the finest quality. It is made from the juice of sun-ripened sugar cane, and that juice is clarified and concentrated. Molasses from the first boiling is the finest grade because only a small amount of sugar has been removed.

Sulphured molasses is made from green sugar cane that has not matured long enough and is treated with sulphur fumes during the sugar extracting process. The second boil molasses takes on a darker color, is less sweet and has a more pronounced flavor.

Blackstrap molasses is from the third boil and is very dark; it imparts a slightly bitter, robust flavour. Blackstrap molasses only has a commercial value in the manufacture of animal feed and other industrial uses. However, some manufacturers have come up with a product in mixing Fancy and Blackstrap molasses together to create what is called Cooking molasses. If you enjoy the deep, bitter taste of blackstrap molasses in your baking, this is probably the one for you. Excellent for ginger snaps!

How to substitute molasses for sugar in your baking recipes:
Use 1 1/3 cups molasses for 1 cup sugar, and reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by 5 tablespoons. Molasses is also more acidic than sugar; add ½ teaspoon baking soda for each cup of molasses used.

Corn Syrup*/Golden Syrup:
Corn syrup is known as an "invert sugar;" it is useful in cooking and candy-making because, unlike other sugars, it does not crystallize. Corn syrup is less sweet than sugar, and does not add flavor like molasses or honey. 
Golden Syrup, on the other hand, is very common in the United Kingdom; it is a refinery syrup made from sugar. and can be used in place of corn syrup. Some cooks believe sugar syrups have a livelier flavor than corn syrups and add more character to dishes such as pecan pie or butter tarts. (*Ed.* Let me say for the record, it is one of the most DELICIOUS sugar syrups I have ever tasted!  It may not be cheap -- it's an import from the UK -- but a little goes a loooong way. I don't use this for my own baking simply because I treasure it like gold, and will only put it on top of homemade pancakes so I can enjoy its flavour to the max!)

How to substitute corn syrup or golden syrup for sugar in your baking recipes:
Use ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon corn syrup/golden syrup in place of 1 cup sugar (maximum), and reduce the other liquid ingredients by 2 tablespoons.

And now for the recipe!

These are the most delicious molasses cookies I have ever made, and the recipe is from the cookbook author and fellow Canadian whom I respect the most, Edna Staebler. I've read all of her fun, chatty little cookbooks documenting the trials and tribulations of creating and curating thousands of recipes from her Mennonite neighbours and friends in Southern Ontario and beyond.  Reading her cookbooks like novels, I firmly believe that her writing is what started me on the path to becoming a professional baker.

In any case, here's the recipe for Edna Staebler's famous Molasses Cookies. These are absolutely delicious, but be sure to make them with unsulphured or fancy molasses; you don't want them bitter.  I've also made these with apple butter (also called apple molasses) and had a near metaphysical experience with how good they were!  Check the link for a reminder on how to make your own apple butter.

Eva's Chewy Molasses Cookies
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • Flour to make a soft dough (1 recommend starting with 1 cup, then going on from there)
  • Granulated sugar for dipping
Preheat oven to 350 DegreesF. Mix in the order given. Roll into balls (about 1 tsp in size) and roll in dish of granulated sugar. Place on buttered (or parchment paper-lined) cookie sheets and bake for 10 to 12 minutes (rotate pans once in oven). Let rest on pans for five minutes to firm up, then transfer to cooling rack to cool completely. When cool, place in crock or cookie jar, cover it with a cloth until the cookies are soft and chewy, then cover tightly.

*Note: You may have noticed that I have not made a value statement on the "goodness" or "badness" of corn syrup in your baked goods.  This is so for two reasons: First, I'm a professional baker, and though I try to avoid it when I can, I do occasionally use corn syrup in some of my recipes when necessary, so to lambaste an ingredient or product when I myself use it seems hypocritical. Second, a political rant about how corn syrup and the food manufacturing industry is ruining our health, simply is not within the purview of this particular blog entry.  

If you are truly interested in learning more about our food sources from an industrial food manufacturing perspective, and for more information on corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup and its place in our modern diets, I recommend this and this article for short, thoughtful, well-reasoned discussion on HFCS, and if you're looking for a polemic, a link to two excellent books by Michael Pollan for a blow-the-doors-down expose of what we put into our bodies and the psychology of why we do so.

In Defense of Food, M. Pollan

Information gleaned in part with thanks to: