Thursday, July 31, 2008

Wisconsin Eating

As of tomorrow morning, I'll be vacationing in Wisconsin with my best friend and her family. This trip has been a tradition in her family for years, spanning multiple generations, and since sometime in middle school I've been lucky enough to join them when my schedule fit.

Not wanting to be a rude guest (and being a guest who likes to cook), I've always contributed to making lunches and treats, and I always cook one family dinner during the week. The only one I can remember making (it's been a while since I've gone) is my mom's spaghetti, but I don't do repeats. Not with people I only see a few times a year.

My meal this week will be Italian Chicken Sticks, Paula Deen's herb-y baked take on kid-friendly chicken fingers (did I mention there will be four children aged seven and under in Wisconsin?). I made them for New Years Eve and they were a hit, so I figure repeating them with whatever veggies look delightful and some sort of potatoes will keep everyone happy on my night for dinner. That is, if they haven't all filled up on the wonderful local cheeses during afternoon snacks.

I'll be back August 10 with another post and, hopefully, photos. In the meantime, if you've got a hankering for some tasty chicken, try these out. I'm sure you'll enjoy.

Italian Chicken Sticks
from Paula Deen

1 c. seasoned bread crumbs
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan
1 1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 1/2 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder
pinch ground red pepper
8 boneless chicken breast halves, cut into 1/2-inch strips
1/2 cup melted butter
marinara sauce or honey mustard, for dipping

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. In a bowl, combine dry ingredients. Dip the chicken strips in the melted butter with one hand, then dredge them in the crumb mixture using your dry hand to cover. Place the chicken strips on a lightly greased baking sheet, taking care not to overlap them. Bake for 20 minutes, or until cooked through. Serve with the sauce of your choice.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

If You Use More Sprinkles Than Spices

This post may seem like a total backward step in baking after all that hullabaloo about cake decorating. I mean, two posts about the fancifulness and effort that is baking the cake, making the icing, filling and icing the cake, making the decorating icing, tinting the decorating icing, filling pastry bags with the appropriate decorating tips with the appropriate tinted icing, decorating the cake...

...only to be followed up with a post on sprinkles?!? I know, I know, any five-year-old can decorate a cake with sprinkles, right? Maybe so. But if you're like I was before I started cooking for myself in college (i.e. if you bake more than you cook), sprinkles are good. They're cheery. They're fast. They make any baked good look homemade and yummy.

And boy are they handy and impressive-looking when you've got a sprinkle rack.

Presenting... the Sprinkle Rack!

It's so simple, yet so ingenious. It's just a spice rack, spice containers emptied, washed, and then filled with all your favorite sprinkles. I got mine as a birthday gift several summers ago, and I've been storing all of my necessary sprinkles there since. Right now the contents include four colors of sugar, several varieties of rainbow sprinkles, two different chocolate sprinkles, toffee bits, and your average assortment of holiday sprinkles (hearts, Christmas lights, Christmas trees, stars). They're always right there, whenever I need them.

Like I told you, it's ingenious. Plus it looks pretty sitting on the kitchen counter. Doesn't it just make you want to bake and be happy?

Just think of the wonderful creations you can bake with sixteen varieties of sprinkles!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cake Decorating: The Birthday Cake

Here you go, folks: my birthday cake, my first real try at cake decorating.

The cake: Spice Cake
The icing: Browned Butter Icing
The decorating icing: Wilton Buttercream in a floral theme

Looks good, right? I'm pretty sure it'll taste fantastic, too.

The cakes cooling. Look how perfectly symmetrical!

Spice Cake
from Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book

1/4 c. butter
2 eggs
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 c. shortening
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 1/4 c. buttermilk

Allow butter and eggs to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, grease and lightly flour (or use a parchment paper base) two 9-inch round cake pans and set them aside. In a medium bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger; set aside.
In a mixing bowl beat butter and shortening with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add sugar and vanilla and beat until well combined. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk to butter mixture, beating on low speed after each addition just until combined. Pour into prepared pans.
Bake in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Let cakes cool in pans on a wire rack for ten minutes, then remove them from the pan to cool completely. Once cool, frost as desired.

For being an icing novice, not too bad!

Browned Butter Frosting
from Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book

3/4 c. butter
6 c. sifted powdered sugar
3 tbsp milk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla

In a small saucepan heat butter over low heat until melted. Continue heating until butter turns a delicate brown. Remove from heat. In a large bowl combine powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla. Add browned butter. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed until combined. Beat on medium to high speed, adding additional milk if necessary. Makes enough to fill and frost a two-layer cake.
Note: For those of you who don't know (ahem, that was me), browning butter takes a long time. And you need to clarify the butter, too, which means skimming off the creamy solids after the butter has completely melted. If you neglect to do this (ahem, that was me again), just make sure not to let the solids burn. Then pour the whole thing through a coffee filter and you'll end up with the browned butter.

Pretty, right? At least I think so. And it's my cake, after all...

Wilton Buttercream (for decorating)
from The Wilton Way of Cake Decorating

1/6 c. butter
1/6 c. shortening
1/2 tsp vanilla
pinch salt
1/2 lb. sifted powdered sugar
2 1/2 tbsp cool milk

Cream butter and shortening together with an electric mixer. Beat in sugar, 1 cup at a time, blending well after each addition and scraping sides and bottom of bowl with a spatula frequently. Add milk and beat at high speed until it becomes light and fluffy. Keep icing covered with lid or damp cloth and store in refrigerator if not using immediately. Bring to room temperature and rebeat to use again. Tint the icing the colors you need and decorate to your heart's content.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Cake Decorating: The Beginning

What does the average semi-employed college student on summer vacation do with free time? Probably watch a lot of television. What do I do with my time when my circumstances fit the above description? (Hint: You're reading a food blog).


Some of my decorating tips, lined up all pretty.

Lately I've done quite a bit of cooking experimentation, trying new dishes and reading cookbooks. My latest project, however, is a bit more involved. You see, I want to learn how to decorate cakes.

Due to a variety of circumstances (including not being able to get into a cake decorating class and the fact that my library has a Wilton cake decorating book) I am teaching myself this skill. Not too hard, right? I mean, I've baked cakes before, although I have to admit that in the past it was all about doctoring up boxed cake mixes and a multitude of sprinkles. But it's not like my first project is anything of major importance. The first real cake I'm going to decorate is my birthday cake, next weekend. If it looks odd, I really don't care all that much. And I'm pretty sure my friends will still dig in.

The full practice sheet definitely showed signs of my cake decorating inexperience, but I saved the extra icing for another practice round.

The major element of cake decorating, it seems, is making the intricate icing designs. Start with a well-iced cake (I'm confident I can accomplish this, although it might take more patience than I normally put into frosting a cake). Then, with your general design in mind, use the decorating tips and tinted icing to create your masterpiece. Viola!


Although I've had years of experience in decorating cookies of all sorts with many of these same decorating tips, I knew I needed practice. So I picked up a can of generic pre-made icing at the store and sat down at the kitchen table today to try my hand. I think I got better as I tried each tip more, and I'm sure better quality icing will improve the decorations for the real cake.

Flowers made with tip 107. I accidentally bought the left-handed tip. Does it make a difference to someone who doesn't know what she's doing? I don't think so...

Here's where I need input. Despite having a general idea of how I want to decorate the cake, the actual flavors aren't chosen yet. What do you think?

Cake: Chocolate? Red velvet? Butterscotch?
Filling: Chocolate ganache? Buttercream? Caramel icing? Whipped cream?
Outer icing: Chocolate buttercream? Vanilla buttercream? Stabilized whipped cream? Same as the filling?

As the icing got warmer, my script improved. Also, check out the leaf! I patted myself on the back for that one.

Let me know what you think, or if you have any other suggestions. Then come back next week to check out the final product.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Cooking Class

I know, I'm late. I was supposed to update with a new post on Sunday, but in all honesty I got distracted. And now I cannot remember by what.

There is good news, however! Instead of making up for my tardiness with a hastily scraped-together post on Monday, I decided to wait until after my Tuesday evening cooking class. It's a legitimate class, so I figured it would be good, right? Correct. Be glad I somehow got so wrapped up in something or other on Sunday that you now get to find out about grilling pizza.

Roll your dough as flat as you possibly can. That's a bit of cornmeal you see on the dough, to keep it from sticking to the rolling pin and the grill.

Yes, I know, two out of my first seven blog posts will now be about pizza. But grilled pizza is good. Very good. So good, in fact, that I am happily imagining so many deviations from my usual plain-cheese pizza preference. Taco pizza? Sounds terrific. Chili pizza? Yum. Chicken alfredo pizza? Sign me up.

Cook the bottom of the pizza before flipping and adding sauce and toppings.

But I'll get to the actual pizza part in a moment. A main point of this post, you see, is the cooking class itself. Now, my interest in taking cooking classes this summer stems both from my interests in everything culinary and the fact that I am getting practically no hours at my part-time summer job. On a larger scale, though, it seems I'm not even close to being the only person interested in learning about cooking in a hands-on social setting. Case in point: I couldn't sign up for the July Wilton cake decorating classes at my local Jo-Ann because it's completely booked. Also, my local newspaper includes a weekly rundown of places all over the Chicago-land area that offer cooking classes. The supermarket where my grandmother shops offers twice-weekly stand-alone classes. People want to attend these classes. People want to learn how to cook new and interesting things. Doesn't that make you feel good about the world?

I hope, for part of my research, to get more information on the number and types of cooking classes being offered in the country, as well as information about the people who attend them. But that will be later. Now comes the pizza.

What do you like on your pizza?

Like any pizza, grilled pizza is comprised of three parts. And like any really good pizza, you get to pick all the details of those three parts. So I'm just providing loose guidelines and suggestions as far as ingredients go.

Pizza crust:
Use your favorite! Stick with a white pizza crust, try a wheat one, or you can Google something new and exciting, like a cornmeal- or polenta-based crust. The class instructor suggested seasoning your crust; most pizzerias don't, so this is your opportunity to really improve.

This is a picture of the pizzas before they go on the grill after topping them...

Use your favorite! Stick with a tomato-based pizza sauce, use olive oil (as in an Italian "pizza bianca," or white pizza), or try a pasta sauce. We had a great alfredo sauce. Try salsa. Chili. Pesto. Barbeque sauce. If it's even remotely sauce-y, try it!

Use your favorite! My only suggestion is to make your toppings match your sauce. Tonight I tried tomato, onions, and mixed cheeses over olive oil, and my mom tried chicken, spinach, and Parmesan over alfredo sauce. Both were terrifically yummy.

...and this is a picture of the finished product, melt-y and delicious. Have I mentioned I love pizza?

Cooking instructions:
Make sure all of your toppings are cooked through; this means that meats should be fully cooked and veggies should be cooked to your liking. Heat the grill to high heat. Roll your pizza dough into the size and shape you prefer, and roll it as thin as possible (it will puff up a bit as it grills). Place the dough on the grill using a turner or your hand. Cook, covered, for about two minutes or until the bottom side is done.
Take the dough off the grill with a turner. Flip it over so the cooked side is facing up. Cover the pizza with the sauce and toppings of your choice. Reduce the heat of the grill to about medium and place the pizza back over the heat. Cook, covered, until the cheese is melted (or, if you didn't add cheese, until the toppings are hot). Carefully remove pizza from the grill using a turner and let cool for a few minutes. Slice and serve!