My Cake Decorating Gallery

Friday, March 27, 2009

Lasagne Verdi al Forno - The Daring Baker's March Challenge

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

Mmmm spinach pasta, with a delicious meaty ragu, creamy bechamel, and parmesan cheese?? Lasagne Verdi Al Forno? This is a tasty dish, there is no way around it. Everyone enjoyed it.. and sorry for the dark pictures but I tend to rush through photography when I'm not at home.. and I never seem to be with bloggers/foodies so I'm always the oddball with the camera by her plate! :)
The detailed recipe can be found on Mary's blog, but here is the general run down for this dish... it took about 7 hours, so it's a good thing I'm not a full-time old Italian lady where this kind of thing would be expected all the time (though I'd probably be faster in that case!)

The recipe calls for handmade spinach lasagne noodles which are layered with a bechamel sauce, country ragu, and parmesan cheese and then baked until hot, gooey and delicious. The bechamel sauce, a classic french sauce, is a pretty quick fix, maybe taking 20 minutes and it tastes oh-so-yummy. I would trade this for any "alfredo" sauce on pasta any day, that is for sure. I am reading a book called "The Making of a Chef" which describes the experience of a student at the Culinary Institute of America, and they make at least one bechamel sauce every day, so this was great timing for this challenge to coincide with this book.

The recipe for Country Style Ragu (ragu alla contadina) - a meat sauce - was more time consuming but it was quite good and worth the effort. First, I had to get some interesting cuts of meat - veal shoulder, pancetta, pork loin, skirt steak, and prosciutto. The pancetta was diced and sauteed along with mirepoix (diced onion, celery, carrot).

Meanwhile, I got to try out my new KitchenAid meat grinder attachment which I just got for Christmas - the veal, pork loin, beef, and prosciutto all got grinded up and then tossed in with the pancetta/veggies. Once everything was browned and drained, you add in some red wine, chicken stock, and eventually milk, while the sauce is simmering. You let it go for about an hour and then it's time to add 3 plum tomatoes... I was a little worried about the lack of tomatoes in this dish so I put in the rest of what I had in my can, and it still wasn't very tomato-y (and it still was excellent). You let that simmer for another 45 minutes and then season with salt and pepper.

So the Country Style Ragu is not your typical tomato sauce for lasagna, but it has awesome flavors. I was so surprised that there weren't any cloves of garlic going in or even any Italian seasonings. "Less is More" is the theme with this lasagna and a few really great ingredients layer up to make a complex and flavorful combination.

You can make the bechamel and ragu ahead of time, which I did the night before, and on the day-of I set aside a few hours to make the pasta and then assemble the lasagne. The pasta went OK, it was just a little time consuming. I do have an automatic pasta maker but the lasagne plate attachment would've made 2 inch wide ribbons of pasta so I stuck with going through the experience of hand-rolling out full sheets of pasta for the lasagne.

It actually took quite some time to de-stem all of the baby spinach, and then I used my mini-cuisinart chopper to chop it up. That plus eggs went into the flour and I used my KitchenAid in an attempt to have a shortcut pulling the dough together but I'd just do this by hand in the future, all I ended up with was a mealy mess of dough bits that had to be smashed together by hand anyway. (Plus I had to add a little water).

I was worried my dough wasn't the right consistency but I followed directions and kneaded for over 10 minutes and then let it rest for an hour. Then I separated it into quarters and rolled it and stretched it out as thin as possible (sometimes I would get tears, though) so that you could see through the pasta... and then cut it into shapes roughly 4in by 8in. This was a bit time consuming. Then, I cooked the noodles for a few minutes, put them in cool water, and reheated my bechamel and ragu, and was finally ready to make the lasagne.

You layer up the bechamel, noodles, more bechamel, ragu, more bechamel, and then parmesan cheese... and then repeat with more noodles, etc. I made this in a large 11x17 glass dish and made about 4 layers of pasta and meat, I think.. topping it with lots of parmesan, and then it was ready for the oven. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes covered, then another 10 minutes, cool a few minutes, and then serve!

This is a really different style of lasagne but the best "green" or "spinach" lasagne I've ever had, and that Country Ragu and bechamel sauce are totally excellent. I can definitely see myself making those items again. All of our lasagne taste-testers were pleased, as was I, so I am happy to have participated in this challenge. Thanks Daring Bakers!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Megan's Winter Baby Shower

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a baby shower for Megan at my house. Since she was due in early February, she chose a "winter baby" theme. There weren't too many ideas online so it was fun to think of ways to create a winter baby wonderland at my house and make it special for Megan. Also, (and because there isn't much online,) here are the details for all of you winter baby shower planners out there. Who knows, there might be some one one out there! Sorry this is a late post, but it took me a while to remember to take photos of the invites... so let's start with those.

I was really excited about making the invitations by hand, and while it is more time consuming, I knew I wasn't going to find any "winter baby" themed invites that didn't also involve Santa or a bunch of blue/silver.. they just weren't going to cut it. I quickly chosen pink and brown as the main party colors since we knew Megan would be having a little girl, and I knew the cake would be chocolate - one of Megan's favorites! Plus it's a cute color combo for baby girls these days. :)

So I went to some local scrapbooking stores and finally found the paper I liked - pink cardstock, cute striped white, and some brown card stock for details. On an earlier shopping trip at Michaels, I had already picked up some snowflake and "It's a girl!" stamps which ended up being useful. Snowflake confetti and little pink sparkles also made their way on the back of the invites for extra glamour Megan loves scrapbooking so I knew she'd appreciate me getting out all of my cropping supplies (most of which she bought for me!) to work on the fun project, and I'm really happy with how they turned out! Too cute! (sensitive information removed in photo above)

For favors, I waited until a little too close to Christmas and couldn't quite get a bunch of pink ornaments but ended up with a nice variety, including some carved snowflake ornaments. I had gone to the Paper Party Place for party supplies an that's where the little pink laundry pins and tags came from.

Paper Party Place also had the perfect set of pink and brown striped plates (technically in the wedding section) and I got some plasticware, napkins and pink polkadot cups to match.
For other decorations, I could tap into general Christmas decor but I was trying to stay away from red, green, and Santa... so we had some big and small snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, a Baby Shower banner, snowflake confetti, and I had purchased some inexpensive solid pink, pink polka dot, and white fabric for make-shift table clothes and table runners. Some of Megan's friends were super sweet and not only organized and ran the games but also helped with last minute set up and decorations!

Due to the layout of my house, the lunch would have to be a bit informal (i.e. plate in lap) since I didn't have room for big long buffet tables. It worked out OK and I used TV trays and also tied pink and white tulle into big bows to dress up the various chairs we have in our house. Informal seating just means informal eating - appetizers and finger foods - lots of good options here.

Let's talk about cake! "Winter Baby" didn't pull up any google hits for baby shower cake ideas so I decided on my own plan.. I knew Megan liked chocolate, so we had chocolate cake layers filled with raspberry preserves and buttercream (conveniently turning pink!) and frosted with chocolate ganache (2 types-whipped for the crumb coat and poured for the top coat).

This was going to be my first time making a tiered cake and I was excited to go out and get different columns and see what options I had. I had a 6inch cake on top of a 12 inch (I think?) round cake on bottom. The idea was to send the top layer home with Megan, just like a wedding!

The topper was made from ready-made fondant, and I kept the bear white with pink accents (blanket, etc) and made a little flag that said "Welcome Alyssa" for the bear to hold.

To give texture to the tops of the two layers, I did cornelli lace with extra chocolate ganache, and the sides of the cakes were decorated with white chocolate snowflakes with a border of pink polkadotted ribbon.

I picked a few snowflake clipart pictures I liked and melted down some white chocolate candy chips, and hand piped a bunch of snowflakes onto parchment. This was done a few days in advance. Half of them got a dusting of pink sparkly sugar, just for fun, and I alternated them on the sides of the cake tiers.

Everything with the cake went as planned and the stupid ladies at the cake store who told me I should use the ugly small solid snowflake molds instead of piping the white chocolate were wrong - but I used the snowflake candy mold remnants as something to munch on for myself and the guests!

I love the shapes of snowflakes and I guess you could say that was the main theme for this "Winter Baby" shower - pink sparkly snowflakes!

Now let's talk about the rest of the food!

I didn't have any obvious food choices for "Winter Baby" themes, so I just skipped the theme for the food and tried to pick interesting, tasty, and easy items. For beverages, though, I was having a hard time deciding between hot cocoa and spiced hot cider. I ended up doing a crockpot of spiced cider, with some soda, tea, coffee, and water as alternatives.

A common baby shower item is the carved melon baby carriage for fruit salad. A winter baby shower means that watermelons aren't in season so I used a canteloupe and filled it with just the berries, and had the rest of the fruit assorted (in a beautiful way by Cindy) around the carriage. Carving a melon is a nice idea because you can carve it a day ahead of time without a problem.

I had tried to get a mini green watermelon but Trader Joe's only had one beat-up one left so it just didn't work out.

Going with our informal / appetizer / finger food idea, we had an assortment of veggies. This idea was from Martha Stewart and didn't quite go as planned - she makes her own veggie dips and then piped them beautifully onto cut out veggies and snowpeas. I used dips from Nino Salvaggio's but the morning of the shower, they were not piping through my decorator tips very easily! I eventually just had to blob them on. I had three offerings - peas with feta dip and chives as garnish, red bell pepper diamonds with hummous and cilantro garnish, and cucumbers with dill dip and dill as garnish.

I filled up my three-tier server and while they didn't look as good as Martha's (as usual), they turned out OK and was an attractive finger-food friendly way to get in some veggies.

For hot food, I had handmade vegetable samosas from a local Indian store with homemade (from Padma my coworker!) cranberry tamarind dipping sauce and mango ginger chutney (from a jar). The cranberry sauce was awesome and I'll have to get that recipe. On the hot tray, I had Trader Joe's spinach/cheese triangles, and Trader Joe's italian meatballs, with hoisin/sweet and sour asian sauce. These were modeled after another Martha app idea - two meatballs on a skewer, separated by a folded snowpea. Cute! However if you heat the meatballs in the oven for too long, the peas turn a dull green. Microwaving would've kept them brighter. My oven was packed to the gills keeping all of these trays warm but it worked out OK, maybe a few samosas got a bit overdone. Timing is always difficult, especially when you decide to leave piping veggies in the morning! Cindy also brought an excellent italian bruschetta, which was a big hit and her help in the kitchen was much needed and appreciated.

Poor Cindy, I think there was one point when I was trying to put pesto into cherry tomatoes and she was frantically garnishing veggies, when I realized there wasn't time as guests were arriving and we had to "abandon ship" - she witness first hand that even careful planning on my part doesn't mean things will go exactly as expected! All in all I think it worked out okay, I had some diverse food offerings that I was able to attempt to make it look nicer-than-average, and I purchased pre-made quality items for any parts that I could so that I could manage everything overall. Before trusting any of the purchased items, I did have a trial tasting with my mom so there were no surprises or worries.

Hosting the baby shower was a great experience and it was a LOT of fun! Everyone was so happy to see the glowing mom-to-be and shower her with love and cute gifts that we could all "ooh" and "awww" over. Also a big thanks needs to be extended to everyone who helped out and even stayed to clean up, it was so sweet of you!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

THINK Cafe in Chicago

After an "amazing" New Year's Eve and Day celebration in Chicago, The Husband and I decided to just keep staying in Chicago until we were forced to leave due to work obligations. The Husband's friend Chris was immensely hospitable and his new place makes for a very comfortable stay in one of the nation's greatest cities to visit. So when Friday rolled around, January 2nd, we stuck in town and Chris had a brilliant idea to take us out to a nice restaurant - one of those ones you can bring your own bottle of wine to. This is a novel idea for Michiganders and it was also a special treat for The Husband and I, who typically only go to places where we have an Entertainment Book coupon to... haha. We're a little on the practical side. Anyway, so - this was a real treat!

Chicago is stocked full of awesome restaurants and they range from crazy expensive (100-200 per person) to moderate, and we googled menus and called for reservations. Actually, Chris was awesome and did all the research for us. Think Cafe was on his list and if you call earlier in the day and leave a message, they will call you back and let you know if you can get a reservation. Later that day we did get a call back and were excited to make the cut.

Another couple of friends joined us and the five of us brought two bottles of wine. The corkage fee was only $4 and they'll open as many bottles of wine as you'd like, which I think is supremely excellent. We almost never get wine when we're dining out.. the markup is so outrageous. A $30 of wine at Maggiano's Little Italy is only $9.99 at Kroger... wine before or after at home is fine, thank you very much! We like to spend our money on other things, like a dwindling 401k and such.

Let's talk about the FOOD. We chose some of their specials so my few pictures are not all firm menu items, you'll just have to show up and see what's on special that day! Chris ordered a delicious appetizer which was a special, so all I can remember was that it was red peppers stuffed with goat cheese and I know there were some truffles sprinkled on top, some microgreens, maybe some balsamic vinegar... whatever the details are, it was EXCELLENT. The Husband hates goat cheese but he would've downed a plate of those, for sure - Chris was so nice to let us all taste! Really good food is truly a fun experience. Next up were some of the entrees that we ordered... Chris tried the osso buco (Italian braised veal shanks, where bone marrow is part of the appeal!), The Husband had the rack of lamb, Pat had the formaggi penne (white wine poached pear, chicken breast, goat cheese, etc) and I had the chilean seabass special... I wish I remembered all the details but it was superb - banana chips, microgreens, buerre blanc sauce, and a lot more.

So next time you're looking for a delicious, high-end but still affordable dinner in Chicago - try THINK Cafe! Also, check out their website, as my photos above don't do the place justice! The website says business casual but jeans are totally OK in this place.

THINK Cafe (located in Bucktown)
2235 N. Western Ave
Chicago, IL 60647

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Christmas Colossus Cake: Bon Appetit's Devil's Food Layer Cake with Peppermint Frosting

This blog post is a little late... maybe because it wasn't one of my best looking cakes... oh well! I was very happy to bake and bring this monstrous delight to Christmas for the Bliss Christmas day festivities, but as you can see from the recipe, they don't recommend doing anything more than a day in advance so timing was a bit tight... And it being the holidays and my birthday (And my own stupidity deciding to bake the Triple Berry Tart for The Husband since he didn't like mint), I didn't get a chance to work on the appearance of this cake! I would've put more candy canes on top but I truly was out of time and already late somehow. I was inconveniently born on December 23rd which meant I was at my parents house from that day all the way until late evening on Christmas Eve for celebrating birthday and Christmas festivities with my family. After a horribly slow ride home through the snow, I was shaving chocolate curls late into the night (and listening for reindeer on the roof) on Christmas Eve. I did bake the cakes early, while I was also baking my birthday cake (yum!) and slip-sliding around on the roads to finish up Christmas errands on my birthday.

Opening presents and making frostings made for a busy morning but it was worth the effort as the end product was very tasty. I love mint and chocolate and I also love meringue so I was really excited to try this white and fluffy frosting. I love it and would definitely try it again. The picture in Gourmet magazine (see comparison with my photos below!) looked awesome and even though mine fell short of looking that great, at least the taste was good!

The main flaw of my cake, besides the need for more candy canes on top, was that I should've read the last word of the recipe "Chill" (or at least think about it for a minute, as it does seem obvious now looking back)..... I didn't keep it cold before serving so it made it sloppy to cut anything less than gigantic pieces. The cake really was a lot taller than needed but hey - it's Christmas - might as well, right? So, if you try this recipe (and it is delicious!) - just make sure to keep it in the fridge until serving!

Devil's Food Layer Cake with Peppermint Frosting

From Bon Appetit Magazine December 2008 (cover photo)

2 2/3 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 1/4 cups unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
2 cups ice water

Dark chocolate ganache
1 1/3 cups heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
14 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped

White chocolate cream
12 oz high-quality white chocolate (such as Lindt or Perugina), finely chopped
3 cups chilled heavy whipping cream, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons pure peppermint extract

Peppermint frosting
2 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
3 large egg whites
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon pure peppermint extract
Bittersweet chocolate curls

Position rack in center of oven; preheat to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 2-inch-high sides. Dust pans with flour; tap out excess. Whisk first 4 ingredients in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat sugar and butter in large bowl until well blended. Beat in eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in yolk. Add cocoa and beat until well blended. Add flour mixture in 3 additions alternately with ice water in 2 additions, beginning and ending with flour mixture and beating until just blended and smooth after each addition. Divide batter between prepared pans; smooth tops.

Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on racks 15 minutes. Invert cakes onto racks and cool completely. DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap in foil; store at room temperature.

Dark chocolate ganache
Bring cream and corn syrup to simmer in medium saucepan. Remove from heat; add chocolate and whisk until melted and smooth. Transfer to small bowl. Chill until firm enough to spread, about 1 hour. DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Before using, let stand at room temperature until soft enough to spread, about 30 minutes.

White chocolate cream
Place white chocolate in large heatproof bowl. Bring 1 cup cream to simmer in saucepan. Pour hot cream over white chocolate. Let stand 1 minute; whisk until smooth. Whisk in extract. Cover; chill until mixture thickens and is cold, at least 4 hours. DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Chill.

Add 2 cups chilled cream to white chocolate cream and beat until smooth and peaks form. DO AHEAD Can be made 3 hours ahead. Cover and chill. Rewhisk to thicken, if necessary, before using.

Using long serrated knife, cut each cake horizontally in half. Place 1 cake layer on platter, cut side up. Spread 1/3 of dark chocolate ganache over cake. Spoon 2 cups white chocolate cream in dollops over cake; spread evenly to edges. Top with second cake layer, cut side down; spread 1/3 of ganache over, then 2 cups white chocolate cream. Repeat with third cake layer, cut side up, remaining ganache, and remaining cream. Cover with fourth cake layer, cut side down. Chill while preparing frosting.

Peppermint frosting
Combine sugar, 1/2 cup water, egg whites, and corn syrup in large bowl of heavy-duty stand mixer. Whisk by hand to blend well. Set bowl with mixture over saucepan of gently simmering water; whisk constantly with hand whisk until mixture resembles marshmallow creme and ribbons form when whisk is lifted, 8 to 9 minutes. Whisk in peppermint extract. Remove bowl from over water and attach bowl to heavy-duty stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment. Beat on high speed until mixture is barely warm to touch and very thick, 7 to 8 minutes.
Using offset spatula and working quickly, spread frosting over top and sides of cake. Sprinkle chocolate curls over top and sides. DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover with cake dome; chill.

Big reminder here:
Don't forget to chill it before serving - otherwise the light and airy fillings will squeeze out and make for sloppy cutting like I had.