Friday, July 29, 2011

So THAT's Where the Damn Spoon Goes

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Table Manners and Other Things That Become Important Over Time

I was having lunch with an old friend last weekend, and he was excited to tell me about this new girl he had met. He hasn't been in a serious relationship in awhile, and he asked my advice regarding how to really wow this girl. It took me awhile, but recalling some of the things that had turned me off to a guy (or really making a big impression on me) boiled down to a few points. One of those was table manners.

I know that sounds really bizarre, but now that I really think about it, table manners have been something important in my upbringing. It's no wonder that it has, as a consequence, had such a huge impact on my dating life.

Some of my very first memories of being disciplined by my parents were over the dinner table. Don't get me wrong, my parents weren't the decorum Nazis, but because of our food idiosyncrasies, my mother had to exert some measure of control over meals. The first dinner table rule I remember was this: "No singing at the table." Apparently, as a youngin' I would provide dinner entertainment with a rousing chorus of "Everybody Knows Your Name" from the show Cheers. Mom got tired of me not eating my food, so she put an end to that. After listening to song again, just now, God only knows what I was really singing. Probably only the part that everybody knows...(~~~...Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your naaaaame!!!!!......~~~).

Sidenote: It's really odd knowing this because now I am so bashful that I can't won't even sing alone in the shower when Jon is five states away on a business trip. Jon has some spider senses, and sometimes, if I am singing VERY quietly to myself while being lost in a task, he will sneak into the room and listen, smiling. Romantic? Yes. Any less embarrassing when I've found out he's been listening to me sing off key? No.

Back on Task.

Now, if you are dating a person that sings at the dinner table, than I can't help you. Wait, yes I can. Dump that weirdo. As far as the rest of the table manners I am going to talk about, most adults should have this minimum level of decorum to be up to snuff. These standards, like I said previously, did not seem overly important at the time. However, they have grown to be very important aspects of what I consider proper adult behavior. How to start? Historically to present time, or from modern time moving back? Let's start historically.

Do not reach across the table. Request items be passed to you.

This was the second oldest dining rule I can remember. It comes from me reaching across the table for more mashed potatoes and my mom whacking the crap out of my hand with a wooden spoon. I never reached again, even if something was at a full arm's length. I would ask for it to be passed be someone who was a little bit closer. As a result, I have never had a sleeve accidentally get dipped in a bowl. Mom also tried her hardest to make me use the "May I...?" versus "Can I...?" statements properly during this time. That never did work out. Oh well, can't win them all.

Ask to be excused from the table, don't just leave.
If you need to leave the table, for whatever reason, asked to be excused for a moment. Don't just get up and leave. I don't need to know if you are going to the bathroom, or answering a call or whatnot. Just ask, "May I be excused?" Even at the end of a meal, if there are others still eating, ask to be excused.

Don't eat in front of others with no food, serve a guest first, the host takes the first bite.
This is a dining trifecta. If your meal at a restaurant arrives before your partner's, wait until theirs arrives unless they insist that you start. It is rude to nosh down on your meal while they are salivating for theirs. It is okay to start, say, if you get a salad before your meal, and they don't. However, if you both have just entrees, wait. If they did not order anything, offer to share some of your meal. I always ask twice. This part is from a harsh smack down in first grade when I was eating a snack after school and taunting the other kids. "MMMMM, these crackers are soooooo good and you don't have any!" My mom caught that one. I'm sure my butt was tore up after that.

If you are hosting a meal, you always serve your guest first. Guests should be given the choicest pieces of the meal because they are honoring your table by dining with you. If a guy asked me out and we go to a restaurant, he had better have offered me the bread basket first before grabbing a roll for himself. I would do the same if I asked him out.

Finally, if I am the guest at a meal, my host is the one that takes the first bite of a meal. He/She may have offered me the first plate which means her meal was served last. Until she is settled and begins, neither can I. It is just a way of showing that we are equals and that I honor them by waiting. This all may sound very formal, but really, if I am sitting at a dinner party with four, how long am I really going to have to wait until the host serves themselves? Three to five minutes tops? I think I can manage that level of respect.

Don't hold your fork like a shovel.

It KILLS me when I see adults who hold a fork like a shovel, then summarily shovel food into their mouth.

The "Shovel" *said with disgust*
I remember one day, when I was probably 6 or 7 years old, my mom said with a fair amount of tension in her voice: "THIS is how you hold a fork like an adult." I've held it properly ever since.

Proper "forking" technique
You would be surprised how many men out there are shovelers. They are barely one step above Neanderthals.
I have other fork idiosyncrasies when it comes to cutting, but I will spare you...for now.

Forks on the left, knives on the right.

It was my job to set the table. I would put things willy-nilly to get done quick-like and in a hurry. Mom got tired of that. She taught me to remember that forks go on the left because fork and left have same number of letters. Same with knife and right. To this day, I always do it. It makes sense because most people are right handed, and you want a knife controlled by your most dominate hand. Now if I only knew where to put that damn spoon.

No hats at or on the table.

To be fair, this was never explicitly stated at our home. My step-dad is a ball cap guy. He would always take a hat off at the table and put it on his knee or under the chair. When I would go out with a guy and he would eat with a hat on, I would get a sense of uneasiness. If he took it off for me +1. If he then proceeded to put that nasty, sweaty thing on the table next to his plate, -5000. Gross. I don't care how bad your hat hair is guys. If you don't want me to see your hat hair, you shouldn't have worn a hat on our date. No hats at a table unless you are at a picnic table, outside.

No elbows on the table. Ladies, only one hand in view at the table. The other in your lap.

Elbows started early, but the development of the gender specific rule came much later. This one developed more from my dad. For the longest time, I would snarf my food down as fast as I could. I don't know if this was so I could hurry and play outside before the sun went down, or because our lunch period at school was only 20 minutes and riddled with food thieves. Probably a combination. While whroffing down my dinner one day, my dad jokingly told me that he wasn't going to steal my food and to take it easy. Being just a child, I didn't get that this was a reference the almost vacuum-like manner I was using to consume my daily bread. I would use my right hand to fork in food, and my left to hold on to anything else, like a roll or my drink. Finally, he got so disgusted that he made me take a bite and put down my fork between each bite. My left hand was not allowed to mantle over any of my other grub. No elbows on the table meant that it naturally had to rest in my lap unless I was using a knife. That is where it is to this day. My amount of "fork resting" is situational. The more formal the meal, the more likely my fork is to rest between bites. It really helps me to savor my food anyway.

No technology at the table.
As you might have guessed, this one developed a bit later. This is actually a rule I came up with in high school with the very friend that inspired this post. We were out together at a restaurant. He had just gotten a new cell phone (for the first time!!!) and he was on it constantly! He was also on his palm pilot, and any other gadget that was in circa 1998. This particular time he was attending to 3 separate pieces of technology at the table. He would spend so much time fiddling around with these devices that I could not so much as get a word in without him holding up his finger for me to wait. Asshole. I laid down the law then and there, if you are with me, no technology is to be pulled out at the table. This is probably a peeve that was ingrained in me earlier than I initially realized. My mom took no phone calls while we ate dinner, and no TV was allowed either. I guess that the cell phone was just a natural extension of that rule. Of course, you see this rule all over dating websites now. I like to think I invented it 1998.

Jon learned this rule hard and fast with me. It was especially difficult when we got our first smartphone. Now we will only pull it out to play games together while we wait for our food, or if we are having a discussion and we have to Google a fact. Then it is put away. No matter what, if our food comes, technology is put away.

In addition, I do not see technology as a means of distracting kids while parents eat their meal either. Children need to learn that the entire meal does not revolve around them finishing their nuggets. They can be a part of the family and behave appropriately at a table without constant entertainment. They learn important skills about listening, appropriate times to enter and exit a conversation, and how to introduce new topics. Angry Birds or texting is not going to teach them that.

Men stand when a lady excuses herself from the table*.
*Let me add the little caveat that this behavior is reserved for more formal and sit down restaurant level dining experiences.

This is the newest of my meal time standards, and may be more of a southern tradition. When a lady excuses herself from a table, the men at the table stand with her until she leaves the area. This was a very common practice in British courts and made it's way across the pond. It was very aristocratic. I am not sure when the practice died out here in the US, but a few true blue gentlemen still hold onto it.

I'll never forget the first time I experienced this. It wasn't but a few years ago. I was sitting at a table of 10 during a meal hosted by Jon's company. We were in the presence of four to five influential gentlemen that Jon regularly does business with. I had to go "powder my nose" and as I stood up, every man at that table stood up, too. At first, I did not realize what was going on and was kind of shocked as they were all standing there staring at me. I think I had a big goofy smile on my face and said, "Excuse me, gentlemen." A chorus of, "Ma'am" with a slight nod was returned. I was enamored. As I returned to the table, the men were on their feet again. Jon pulled out my chair, I sat, then the men sat. It was truly breath-taking.

When Jon is aiming for lots of brownie points with me or to show off his chivalry amongst other men (usually his younger brothers, which I can only assume he's doing to whip them into shape) he pulls this baby out. It's a pleasant surprise every time. To be treated with such a level of dignity and respect is not something ladies of our generation are accustomed to. 

Wow, this post got a little out of hand. Now, however, you can see where some of my dining rules developed. I'm sure there are many more. It seemed like as I was typing this another would pop into mind. I take them so much for granted that it seems almost weird to have to flesh them out. (i.e. don't chew with your mouth open.)

What are some dining rules you look for require for your date, family, or children?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Real Things People are Saying About My Cakes

*About Johnny Walker Cake*

Mom: "Oh wow honey, did you make that!?"
Me: *All proud* "Yep, what do you think?"
Mom: It looks fantastic. You really nailed that little marching band director guy in the middle there!
Me: ...  :-/

*About Hello Kitty Cake*

*Via Text Messaging*
Me: " My first fondant cake. What do you think?"
Doug: "Nice hat."
Me: "I will kill you..."

*About Rainbow Wedding Cake*

*As recounted by my mother*

Father of the Bride: "That cake was great! I think I ate more than anyone."
My Mom: "Yea, Andrea really is coming along with this baking thing."
Father of Bride: "You know, I really didn't believe she made it until I saw the wedding album. Sure enough, there were the pictures of her puttin' it all together. Who would have thought that your daughter could cook."
My Mom: ... >:-( 

*About My Cake Balls*

*Via email, with a back story of knowing this coworker was looking for cake pops last week at a local retailer*

Me: "I made these last night. What do you think?"
Coworker: "Super CUTE!...What are they?"
Me: *facepalm*

Follow Up on Saturday's Cake

Well, the Johnny Walker cake did not turn out as awesome as I had hoped, but it was still well recieved and enjoyed. My internet has gone down at home, so I am a having a hard time getting all the imagery to you. Here is a little tidbit to tide you over until the repair dude gets there tonight.

How did this get cropped so badly?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Another Cake Coming Down The Pipe

Tomorrow is my GRE Exam and I am nervous as hell. I have been studying like a mad woman and cursing profusely over Facebook about my lack of progress in math. Keep my in your thoughts Saturday and wish me luck. After the test, I will probably start reading this book:

In other news, a new cake has been pseudo-commissioned. Jon's friend is having a birthday Saturday, and Jon and I thought we'd bring a cake in leau of a gift. I know that sounds cheap, but these cakes are starting to cost a lot! I never realized the cost of supplies alone, even if the 4-6 hours of labor are free. Besides, the party is at a bowling alley, and we wouldn't want someone to constantly be having to watch gifts so they didn't disappear. So...

A little about our birthday boy. He is a bit of a restaurateur and wine aficionado of sorts. He likes golf, country music, and Johnny Walker Scotch. After debating a little last night, Jon and I think that a Johnny Walker style cake would achieve the biggest reaction.

Jon, surprisingly, dove off the deep in with ideas of making a whiskey bottle shaped cake with labels and what not in fondant. My eyes were as big as saucers because this is completely out of character. Also, because I SUCK at lettering, this is waaaay beyond the scope of reality.

My husband is suffering from delusions of grandeur.
 I had a much simpler cake in mind, but I don't want to post my template just yet in case this somehow floats around the interweb for Brandon to get a looksie. Don't want to spoil the surprise after all. Just know it will 99% likely be in a standard cake shape. No more spoilers.

I found a a cake supply place down the road from my office. Thank God, because those hobby stores are very limited. I am going to run over at lunch and possibly purchase colored fondant(!), dyes, and possibly some metallic dusting. If I haven't blown my entire pay check by that point, I may buy some sprinkles. Oh who am I fooling? I'll probably go hog wild. Don't tell Jon.

Also, there is a new feature to the blog. I have added a wish list to the side bar. If you are feeling ever so generous, you can purchase items through and have them sent to me. You know I will squee of course, but I will do everything in my power to thank donors profusely. Thanks again just for reading.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

My First (Real) Fondant Cake

My friend Nancy is getting married in a couple of weeks, and today we are tossing her a wedding shower at work. I've been really crunched for time, so I was just going to whip up some cake balls for the party, but I let my ambition (and my desire to get out of this stupid blog slump) get the best of me. I decided at the last minute to make a little 6" personal cake for her, in addition to the balls. She is a Hello Kitty FANATIC, much in the way my gingerific gal pal Sam is a GLEE fanatic.

"Hello Kitty"

Now, in my opinion, this is my first fondant cake. Jon seems to think the mini rainbow wedding cake is. That cake was not really for consumption, so I am counting this cake as the first. It's a bit of a philosophical disagreement in our household.

Anyways, the first thing I did was go out and get a 6" pan. I guess I'm getting serious about this because I am investing so much in equipment. I popped the first layer of chocolate cake in the oven. While it cooked I melted the candy for the cake balls and finished those up. (I had made the batter and formed the balls over the weekend and kept them covered in the fridge.)

After I had made, cooled, and leveled 2 layers of the 6" cake, I put a crumb coat of butter cream icing down. This helps the fondant adhere to the cake and not slide off, as fondant is wont to do. This layer doesn't have to be thick or pretty. Just enough icing to keep everything in place will do. Oh, and don't forget a little dollop of icing on the plate you are icing on to hold the bottom layer in place while you are icing.

Bottom layer's crumb coat after I put the top layer down and Jon said "Oops, I didn't get that shot. Redo!"
After the whole thing was crumb coated, I put it in the fridge for a few minutes and took a break. Cake making is exhausting. I wish I could have had a margarita, but alas no mix. Moving on.

Next, I used gel food coloring to dye some fondant pink, because Hello Kitty wears a pink bow. Always make more than you think you need, because you can never get the colors to match perfectly if you have to make a second batch. I also adjusted the image of Hello Kitty from above to the size I needed, and printed it from my computer to use as a template. I was not going to go hog wild and purchase a bunch of Hello Kitty cutters.

Using scissors, I cut out the template and set it aside. I then rolled out the pink fondant and used a toothpick to etch the outer part of the template (which was a heart). I used a sharp knife to cut it out. Don't pull the fondant or it will stretch your shape. You have to be patient and cut cut cut.

I put the heart to the side and then rolled out the base layer of fondant. From what I understand, you need to roll it out to about 1/8 of an inch. I don't know if made it that thin (I always feel like I make it too thick) but it worked out ok. You are going to have to make the circle of fondant much larger than the actual cake. I did not and had to do a little last minute stretching to make it fit. Roll the edge of the fondant over your pin, and drape it over the cake, unrolling gentle as you go.

"Damn! A little too small!" *streeeeech* (please don't tear!)*
Next comes the smoothing of the fondant, which I have to say is the part I haven't quite wrapped my head around yet. I understand the concept, which is to slowly, from the top edge around and down, smooth it up against the cake. At the same time you have to sometimes have to lift so that this is no ruffle/bend/fold. It never seems to work out just right for me. Probably because I am in a hurry and not patient enough. I did my best to smooth out and only got a mild crease at the bottom of one side. I had a plan to cover it though. More on that later. Use a pizza cutter around the base to cut off excess fondant. Remember, cut don't tear or you will stretch and tear the fondant.

Notice the fold there on the right! Got most of it smooth but still, Grrrr!
Now, to the sneaky covering around the bottom. I decided to make a pink ribbon around the bottom to disguise any flaws. I barely had enough pink to do it. (remember always make more than you think you need). I made a log of the left over pink and rolled it into a flat strip. Luckily, my mat has grid lines. I was able to use them to made a pseudo-straight piece of 1" ribbon. I swear I can't make a straight line, even with a ruler.

To get a piece of fondant to adhere to another piece you have to dab a small amount of water where you want to place the piece. I made a damp line all around the base of the cake and tried my darnedest to make it work. Alas, I stretched to much and it tore. Crap! I did the best I could to smooth it down and moved on.

I wanted the heart for HK right in the middle of the cake so I dabbled a little water and made a little sticky patch about 2" in diameter. You will notice the texture of the fondant gets kind of gummy when you do this. I stuck my heart on and prayed to God that it was centered. (Another thing I am not very good at).

Afterward, I cut the heart section of the template off and cut around the actually Kitty part of the shape. Again, I traced the area with a toothpick, this time on the white fondant, and cut it out with a knife. I dabbed some water on the heart shape and placed the kitty shape on the heart. (A little off center to my consternation. I didn't notice until it was set.)

HK got a little oily from all that handling.
 Now for the detail work. I laid the template over the cake and used a toothpick to punch a tiny hole where the eyes and the nose should be. From what I understand, making a true black fondant is hard work, so I chickened out and bought a black tube of regular icing. Unfortunately it was a little thin, it seemed to have separated a little. I guess I didn't squeeze the packet enough to make sure it was remixed. Oh well. I made the eyes, nose, and paw outlines.

Now, Hello Kitty is all about the bow on her ear. In some images of HK (particularly "wedding" Hello Kitty) she has a flower on her head instead. I had a tiny flower cutter already so I opted to use it instead of fighting my exhaustion for the bow.

After the flower was in place, I added the whiskers and a little ear fold details. One of the whiskers ended up running together a little on one side after the cake sat, but it's no big deal. Just be careful not to rest your hand on the cake or you will smear your detail work.

Black icing: "As soon as this photo is over, I will smudge into my neighboring whisker!" *Evil laugh*
At this point, I told myself I was done, but that damn tear in the pink ribbon was bothering me. You see, I wasn't paying close enough attention when I put the heart down, so the tear was front and center, instead of hidden in the back. I thought for a few minutes about how I could hide it, and then it came to me: a bow of course! HK has to have a bow.

Using the remaining pink 1" strips I had, I fashioned a bow to cover the tear. All you have to do is gently fold the strip in half and pinch the base flat-ish. Cut of any excess fondant and stick it to the cake. Two folded strips will make a standard bow. Make a disk to place in the center to hide your pinches. Then, use a toothpick to "fluff out" the loops of the bow. It was the perfect finishing touch. I couldn't have been more pleased with how the whole thing turned out.

Tear? What tear? All I see is an ADORABLE bow!
Thankfully, the cake made the trip to work without incident. I had to drive it alone this time. I think I'm getting pretty good at transport. Now we are just waiting for the surprise party at 1 o'clock. I'll post a picture of her with it later this afternoon if I can.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Turns Out I'm Not the Only One Ranting

I frequently read a blog called Frugal Confessions to get tips on saving money. She recently posted about cheap "food" and tricky labeling that I thought was full of very useful information.

So, until I can crawl myself out of the doldrums to give you something substantive to read, please read her post and get educated about what you are feeding you family.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Food Porn & Other Wordlessness

Proof it was really rainbow on the inside

*All images were a gift from Jennifer Davis Photography. All images are of my work, subject to copyright, and used with permission of the photographer.*

What I've Been Up To

So one of you were wondering WTH has kept me so busy that I cannot drink the night away while cooking tons of goodies for your viewing pleasure. The truth is, quite a lot.

If you didn't know, I am trying to get into a competitive doctoral program on the other side of the country. This is a very labor intensive process. (Even more so than kolaches). It involves lots of testing and writing, and generally looking like a hero. Well, I'm no hero, so I have to work extra hard. I have been working to get letters of recommendation, while studying for my GRE that is in 2 weeks. I have also been reading up on neuropsych research so if/when I do an interview, I won't sound like the drunken tard that I am. I interview terribly. To bad their loyalties can't be bribed with cake like y'alls.

Besides all that, I am house sitting and brother sitting for my parent's while they take a vacation. No big deal except caring for an adult with autism and multiple medical conditions is a bit taxing. I don't know how my parents do it everyday. The are probably close to sainthood.

What else? Jon signed us up for this stupid fitness contest and we have seriously been slacking over the last month. The contest ends this Friday and we are WAAAAY behind. Last night I rode a bike for 10 of the 40 miles required as part of the contest. I now have jelly legs...and a sore bum. Bugger.

Work is ramping up some as well. I've volunteered to give two talks on health disparities and disabilities. More literature research is required. PowerPoint presentations must be made, handouts produced.

To top it off, I went to feed my kitty this morning, bumbled the cup and spilled food all over the kitchen. I was already running late for work, so poor kitty had to eat off the floor.

Sorry for the pity party, it's just been a rough couple of weeks.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Running on Empty

Hey Gals,
   I assume gals, because only ladies are following at this point. Sorry I've been a little lax on posting. I haven't been really cooking (if you can believe it). I am fresh out of ideas to entertain you, and I have a teensy bit or writer's block. Is there anything you would like to read about? Let me know in the comments.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Guess What I've Been Doing All Evening

posted from Bloggeroid

Real Things Jon Says...

*Talking about my plans to start baking for profit*

Me: The cake balls have to be covered in a different coating than the cakes.

Jon: Oh, like the wedding cake the other day. You used buttercream and fonduit for the scrolling right.

ME: ....Yes, I used fondant on that cake.

Jon: I think you're getting pretty good with that fonduit stuff. Maybe you should make more cakes with that.

Me: I'm sorry, I didn't hear you. What did you say?

Jon: Fonduit.

Me: Do you mean...conduit or FONDANT?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Get More Bang for Your Food Budget Buck Part V: Saving on Fruits & Veg

I can hear a collective groan from my readers. Yes, I am going to talk about eating more fruits and vegetables to save money. I know, I know, everybody hates some fruits and vegetables but I argue that its not the plant that you hate, it is the preparation method. Today I'm going to cover a two topics: Buying in season and basics in organics. Let's get started.

Eat me!!!

Fruits and vegetables, like any other food, taste best when they are fresh off the farm. However, what you find at most American chain groceries stores is not fresh. "But it looks so colorful and shiny!" Well, a lot of that, believe it or not, is dye and wax. Ewww. Many people mistakenly think what they are tasting is the produce, not the chemicals and dyes sprayed on them So let's wind back the clock a bit. Because we have gotten used to a lifestyle where we can get what we want, when we want it, we have lost touch with how awesome truly fresh fruits and vegetables can taste.

Fifty years ago, stores only stocked seasonally appropriate produce. There is a reason we think of strawberry shortcake and watermelon at our Summer picnics, and pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce in Autumn. Back then, there were no strawberries or watermelon to be had in December, no pumpkins or cranberries in May.

Because of globalization, we are now able to ship food from all around the world, where it is the right time of year. We get bananas, coffee, papayas, kiwis, and countless more exotics thanks to globalization. However, there is a several trade offs: Flavor, Chemicals, and Cost.

Let's start with flavor. Why are fruits that are grown in season elsewhere and trucked in not as flavorful? They are seasonally appropriate, right? Wrong. In the depths of winter, shivering your tookis off, jonesing for a pineapple, you aren't getting the benefit of nature's bounty if you get one at the store. Why is that? The truth is that many, many vegetables that are trucked in are not picked at the peak of ripeness. Vegetables that have to make long trips in trucks across the country/world have to be picked waaaaaay before they are ripe. Why? Well, if farmers picked vegetables at peak ripeness, they would have to be sold within a day or two or else there would be mass spoilage. The vegetables and fruits are forced to ripen off the plant, which means they are not getting the sunlight and nutrients required to get to that pinnacle of tastiness.

Chemicals. Blasted chemicals. Chemicals are another reason conventional produce tastes like waxy cardboard. As I stated earlier, farmers have to do a lot for our fruit and veg to still be pretty when it arrives for us. Many people don't understand that farmers have lots of strict planting deadlines, and nature doesn't always cooperate. For instance, in Jon's hometown, almost every farmer we know has lost all their corn and maize crops this year because of drought. Farmers are desperately trying to keep plants alive by artificially pumping in water and fertilizers so they can at least pull some crop in. But what about in perfect years? You still aren't off the hook. Again, crops have to be picked early, and industry has found many ways to chemically preserve in order to "enhance" the look of produce by helping the plant retain moisture, while preventing mold and bruising.

Cost. Everything has a cost. Fertilizing, pesticides, trucking, shipping, gasoline, preservatives...they all cost a lot. These prices, of course, are passed on to you the consumer. Now that pineapple that would have cost you $1/lb in summer, is going to cost you $3/lb in winter. Plus, it won't taste anywhere near as good as that cheap, summer pineapple. Think about it.

There are several guides around the Internet that will give you tips about what plants are in season at what time. This one is pretty comprehensive.

Let me talk a brief spell about organics. They can be just as expensive, but for other reasons. Most organic farms are small, subject to local property costs, and don't have the same mass production equipment as factory farms. As such, they have to charge more to cover their expenses. Business 101.

Despite the higher costs, you can still give your family organics if you buy them when they are in peak season and produced locally. You will seriously taste the brightness of a chemical free plant. There is no other way to describe it. If you're trying to decide which plants to buy conventional (chemically-fertilized) or organic, the general rule of thumb is buy organic on thin-skinned fruits and veggies, while buying conventional with produce with thicker skins.

Buy Conventional:

Buy Organic
Berries (strawberries, blueberries, dew berries)

The items I have listed in the organics section tend to be the most heavy fertilized in recent documentation. Of course, there are variations based on your location, and this is not meant to be all inclusive. Go where your stomach, heart, and pocket book allow. Remember, grocery stores only stock what people are buying. If you want more organics or more local produce in your store, talk to the manager. Don't believe me? Thanks to a concerted efforts by families across the USA, Wal-mart, Chipotle, Safeway, Starbucks and various other national chains have pulled milk and milk-products from cows injected with the artificiall growth hormone recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). In the past 5 years, the number of farmer's markets have more than doubled in the Houston area because people kept asking for it from the city.

What it all boils down to is that feeding our families is costing more every day. People are holding on to every penny they've got. Retailers know if that if they don't have what people want, the consumer will go elsewhere, taking their money with them. If you want to get the most flavor for your buck, buy local, in season fruits and vegetables. Then pocket the difference. Your meals will be more satisfying, you'll have more change in your pocket, and you'll keep a local farmer off the unemployment roll.

Are you making any changes you that you have read about? What did you do and how much did you save, and what did you learn? Tell me about it in the comments or Follow Me for my next installment in the Food Budget Series.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How to Make Tiny Wedding Cakes...Sort of

Alrighty gang, I think I have finally recovered from the cake-making mania from this holiday weekend. It went fair, but took much longer than I anticipated. The large (purple) wedding cake went over just fine. The bride wasn't as excited as I had hoped, but then again she was in that "I'm getting married tomorrow, I need a cigarette" mode, so I decided not to push too much for feedback. I didn't actually attend the wedding, but I heard some of the guests were interested in buying their own cakes in the future. Let's see how that works out.

A "meh"  rainbow wedding cake

Let's talk about the mini cake. Last week I was challenged to do a mini wedding cake as seen below:

Super Teeny
I knew I couldn't get it that small, but I decided to take a stab at it and here is what I came up with:

Yes, the layers are rainbow and slightly out of focus.

So again, I am going to have to say...

So how did I do it? I'll teach you how so you can make it yourself.
First things first, make the Rainbow Cake Batter per these instructions from the earlier post.

Instead of baking these layers in a cake pan, I used a jelly roll pan, making two colors at a time. I tried two different techniques to get the batters not to mix. Both were pretty successful, so just use the one that you like best.

Technique 1:
Grease your jelly roll pan very well, then place a strip of aluminum foil make into a thick L shape and fit snugly across the middle of the pan. Then add your batter to both sides. Shake the pan a little so that the batter settles evenly across the pan.

Technique 2:
You can make an entire section of the pan a foil cut out so that it actually sits in one whole side of the pan. make sure to spray it really well so it doesn't stick.

The cakes are so thin that they will cook very quickly (between 3-6 minutes). You almost have to stand there and watch them, lest they end up like mine.

Cool completely on a rack before starting the next part.
Now most people would think the next part is cutting those teeny tiny little rounds and icing them to stack. I went a different route. I decided to ice all the layers as if it were a thin, square sheet cake, then used a sharp biscuit cutter to cut through all the layers at once. It saved a lot of time and agony, in my opinion.

There really is no leveling of the layers for this cake, so you pretty much have to cut from the middle or you cake will have a significant lean. This gave me some nice fat layers. The bottom later of the cake was able to keep all of its rainbowy goodness. The middle and bottom layers were far too tall to be accurately proportioned. I ended up removing two layers of cake from both the middle and top layers for aesthetics.

Each section of cake was then individually covered in a layer of fondant and stacked. The layers were held in place with a toothpick. I inserted the toothpick about two-thirds of the way into the bottom two layers and used the remaining part to hold the top layer in place. It worked perfectly.

Tiny little pearls of fondant were rolled from scraps. A little bit of crumbs got stuck in there, that's why few of the pearls have a yellow or green tint to them. It was getting late though, and I was too tired to care on a project that was just to challenge myself.

I was going to make a rose for the top, but my first flower looked like such a pretty, little Calalily. I decided to stick with that instead. It turned out very cute if I do say so myself. The cake is now sitting in my fridge because I can't bring myself to eat it.

So, there you have it, how to make a teeny tiny wedding cake. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Wedding Cake Teaser...

Rainbow Wedding Cake with buttercream and fondant, not too shabby for a first try

Tiny Wedding Cake (Rainbow) with fondant lilies.

More to Follow...

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Two Wedding Cakes Done, I'm Exhausted

The two wedding cakes are done. I have been working on them all day long. I'm completely exhausted and will try to get them up for y'all to ogle tomorrow. Stand by...

Fourth of July Recipes to Make Your Party Sparkle

It's time to break out the grill and dress the picnic table because it is the Fourth of July! Let's have some fun planning some yummys to make to make your guests ooooo and ahhhh over more than just the fireworks.

Today we are do cover the following treats for your dining delight:
  • Apple-Spiced BBQ Pork Ribs
  • A Broccoli and Carrot Cole Slaw
  • Fourth of Jello Parfaits
  • Fourth of July Cocktail for the grown folks.

Apple-Spiced BBQ Pork Ribs
  • Rack of pork ribs
  • Your favorite dry rub seasoning
  • 1 bottle of apple juice
  • 3-4 apples, sliced
  • Heavy duty aluminum foil

At any 4th of July Party, everyone's going to have burgers and hotdogs. How about we make some grown up food? I'm talking fall-off-the-bone mouthwatering BBQ pork ribs! This dish is fairly straight forward, and it's a great braising recipe! That means you can start it early and work on other dishes while it does its own thing, low and slow on the grill.

First things first, heat your grill up to 300 degrees. Break your ribs out on a tray and give them a good rub down with your favorite store bought dry rub. Grill them on each side for 30 minutes. After that time is up, pull the ribs off the grill and take out a piece of foil large enough to cover the ribs (but don't cover them yet). Put the ribs on the foil, meat side down, and top with the apples. Make a little trough out of the foil and put about a cup of apple juice in the bottom.

Adding juice to the packet.

 Seal the packet up very tightly so the apple juice won't leak out, and slap it back on the grill for 3-4 hours. Make sure the grill does not get above 350 degrees. Between 300 and 325 is best. Walk away and let's work on some other stuff.

These are fun treats that can be made the night before if you don't think you will be up early enough to get these done.

Fourth of Jello Parfaits
  • 1 box of blue jello
  • 1 box of red jello
  • 1 QT Heavy Whipping Cream (or a tub of Cool Whip)
  • Sugar (approx. 1/4 cup)
  • Strawberries or Raspberries (optional)
  • Small, disposable cocktail cups
If you are going to make whipped cream (not using Cool Whip) put a large bowl in the freezer to start chilling. It will make the whip cream set up faster. So much tastier than Cool Whip.

Next, make the red jello per the boxes instructions. Chop the fruit and mix it in with the red jello if you are going to use it. Pour the red jello in each cup until it is about 1/3 of the way fool and set on a tray. Put the tray in the fridge to set up.

Let's make the whipped cream next. If you are going to use Cool Whip, go clean the house for 10-15 minutes while the red jello firms up. For the rest of us, Pour the quart of whipping cream into your chilled bowl. Add the sugar. Using a mixer with a whisk attachment (or by hand you pour soul) and whip the heck out of it until it is nice and fluffy. Taste it as it fluffs. If it isn't sweet enough, add a little more sugar until you get your desired sweetness. Once it is all nice and fluffed, put it in the fridge to chill.

Check and see if your red jello cups have started to firm. They need to be pretty set before adding the next layer of blue jello. If the red ones have set, make the blue jello according to the directions. Add the blue jello on top until the cup is 2/3 full. Back in the fridge to set up.

When both layers are chilled. Add your whipped cream to fill the cup the rest of the way. You can slap a berry on top or serve them like they are. Keep chilled until ready to serve. Below are a couple of variations on the recipe. Do the one that appeals to you the most.

No fruit, jello made in bowls, then transferred to cups. Whip cream between layers

Blue jello only, made in cups, whipped cream then berries and more cream.
Now let's talk about a bright and fresh side that is going to taste great and summery: A Broccoli and Carrot Cole Slaw.

Broccoli and Carrot Cole Slaw-a variation on Chef Anne Burrell's recipe.
**This recipe calls for cutting broccoli stems and carrots into a really fine match stick size. This is referred to as a julienne. You can find a broccoli slaw mix in the bagged salad area in many supermarkets. If you want to practice your knife skills, by all means, julienne yourself.

  • 6 broccoli stems (save the tops for something else)
  • 4 carrots, peeled and julienned
  • 3 celery ribs, julienned
  • 1 small red onion, julienned
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, skin on, julienned
  • 1 1/2 cups mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic, smashed and finely chopped
  • Kosher salt
Simply combine all the ingredients, toss them thoroughly in a large bowl. Season with salt to make sure it is delicious, and let sit for at least 1 hour before serving so the veg can really take on the flavoring of the dressing.

How about closing with a nice cocktail for the grown-ups. This is a drink that comes out a nice pretty blue and is brightened up with a fresh garnish of watermelon. What's not to love? 

Fourth of July Cocktail
  • 1 ounce watermelon schnapps
  • 1 big splash cranberry juice
  • 1 slice lemon
  • 1 slice lime
  • 1 1/2 ounces tequila
  • 1/4 ounce blue curacao
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup (to make a batch, dissolve sugar in equal parts hot water and chill)
  • Watermelon wedge, for garnish.
Mix the schnapps and cranberry juice in a shaker; pour into an ice-filled glass.
Muddle lemon and lime slices, tequila, blue curacao and simple syrup in the shaker. Slowly strain into the glass over the red layer. Garnish with watermelon, if desired.

Have a Happy July 4th! Be safe and enjoy good food, friends, and fireworks!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Two Wedding Cake Challenges: Fearful Confidence, If There is Such a Thing

On Saturday, I have been asked to make my first wedding cake. The request has been put in for a cake that feeds approximately 25 to 30 people. They also want it to be a rainbow cake with purple swirls in the icing. I'm both nervous and excited, but confident I can pull this off. The cake will not be as tall as the previous rainbow cake, but it has the added challenge of having a butter cream coating with a lavender fondant swirl pattern. That is what I am nervous about. I don't have extensive experience with fondant. Thankfully, this bride doesn't have high expectations or a big budget, so I'm somewhat off the hook. After searching around the net, this is a prototype of what I plan to make:

Image courtesy of Two Parts Sugar Bakery
Mine will not have flowers like those pictured above. Mine will either be flat daisies, punched cookie cutter cutter style, or fondant roses similar to the gumdrop roses I showed y'all how to make earlier this month. Around the bottom, I plan to do pearls instead of a tube of fondant. It seems like you might need some kind of fondant extruder to get that level of consistent thickness. I don't have one and if you know anything about me, I don't have the patience for that kind of detail.

My mom wants to help. It was her original idea to make the rainbow cake as this bride's wedding gift. My mother, love her to death, cannot bake. I immediately took over this crazy idea to save her from herself. Jon thinks I'm the one that needs to be saved. Why you ask? Let's talk about the second wedding cake.

The same reader who challenged me to make the panda bread has offered a new challenge: Super Mini Rainbow Wedding Cake. Three tiered with fondant icing and a cascade of roses.

*eyes glazing over*
We all know I have the concept of rainbow cake down. The real issue we are talking about here is scale. I'm just going to say up front that mine will be slightly larger than this, as I am not going to go out and buy any special equipment. As much as I love being challenged, it is getting expensive. Someone suggested I put a donations button on the page to help offset the cost. However, I'm torn because I am really super thankful for the small ad revenue I'm getting, and I feel bad asking for more. I guess I can put a donations button up, and if someone wants to help, they will. If not, they won't. Guess that's how I should look at it.

Yesterday, I spent the better half of the drive home trying to figure it out. Jon has outright said I cannot make this cake. No no no! It's a crazy idea and I am just going to get upset when it doesn't work out. I've proved him wrong before, let's see if I can do it again.

I want to tell you now how I plan to make it, but I think I am going to hold y'all in suspense. That's the trick in writing right? Keep you're readers wanting more. Let's see how that works out for me.