Saturday, November 22, 2008

Happy Birthday To All of You!

The Birthday Cake Book, my newest cookbook, has hit the shelves and I wanted to give you a bigger peak. There are birthdays every day of the year and with my recipes you will be prepared for whatever kind of birthday is at hand. The book is roughly divided into two sections. The Basics section is where you can find cakes and frostings to mix and match to your heart's content, while the bulk of the book features complete cake recipes and ideas for you to bake for your next birthday celebration. You will find kid-friendly cakes, sophisticated cakes, a Teeny Tiny cake for small parties  as well as a super-easy Beginner Baker's Birthday Cake for those of you who think you are baking challenged. I promise that even if you have never baked before, you Can make a birthday cake! It is a moist yellow cake with a dark chocolate frosting and all you need are a few bowls, a wooden spoon and maybe a rubber spatula.

Here is my ice cream cake featuring a very inexpensive vintage toy train that I found on-line. 
There are resources in the book for
the typical cake decorating supplies but I have also included resources for candles and tiny toys and items that will elevate your cake from just a pretty cake on a plate to an unforgettable Birthday Cake. The flavors combine vanilla, coffee and chocolate, but the recipe also shows you how to customize it so you can use your favorite ice cream flavors.

Below is a pictures of my take on the typical rectangular supermarket cake, embellished with roses. Why not make your own? You can use the best ingredients, the cake will taste much better, and you can put as many roses on that cake as you like! (You know how all the kids at the party want a rose!)

To the left is a cake I call Pretty in Pink. It is a delicate White Cake (found in the Basics section) with the addition of fresh raspberries in the batter and frosting.

This Basket of Flowers cake below features a basketweave design that some people find easier than creating a smooth surface. Try it! It is an espresso flavor as I thought the beige/brown color was most reminiscent of a real basket.The photos were taken by Melissa Punch and 
you can see more of her work 

Here you can see my segment from the TODAY SHOW. Check out the caterpillar cake. It is very easy to make and perfect for a school-day party. 

As always, I love seeing pictures of YOUR birthday cakes. Send them along!

And....Happy Birthday to YOU, whenever it is.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Packing Holiday Cookies for Mailing and Gifts

Once you have made your favorite holiday cookies - or perhaps a recipe of mine - you want to make sure they get to their destination safely and fresh. Even if they are just going with you to the workplace or down the street to a neighbor's potluck, there are tried and true ways to package your cookies so that they will be as delicious as when you first baked them. And if you are sending them across the country, I've got the techniques for that too.

First of all, choose your cookies wisely. I would not try to mail delicate meringues or cookies prone to breaking. Large cookies seem to be prone to breakage, unless they are thick and very crisp, such as a shortbread type. Also, cookies with any kind of soft topping are not good candidates. So which are? Shortbreads, as mentioned, chocolate chip cookies and their brethren, certain crisp gingerbread type cookies, butterballs, blondies, some brownies, you get the drift. To make ensure that your drop style cookies are round and equally sized, do what I do - and bakeries do - and use a food disher to measure out your batter. These are like ice cream scoops in small sizes, perfect for dolling out cookie batter. I like the ones made by Zeroll.

Once you have baked your cookies, make sure they are absolutely completely cooled. Then, you will need tins or sturdy plastic containers for each kind of cookie. This is as much to prevent flavor transfer from one cookie to another as it is to protect their textures. Softer cookies will lend moisture to the air in a container and make crisp cookies go limp. Also, a firmer cookie might crush a more fragile one. For all of these reasons, I like to pack my cookies separately.

The one exception to this is if I am making a cookie tray that will be eaten within an hour or two. Then I will arrange an assortment on a platter or in a tin - BUT - never include any minty flavored cookies. Even after a short time frame, Everything on that platter will taste like mint! Holiday cookies with peppermint candies or mint flavoring can ruin an entire tray or container.

When choosing your tins and containers, lower, flatter shapes are best. You want as much surface area as possible to lay your cookies flat. Have parchment paper handy, scissors and plastic wrap.

Here is a photo of what we are about to do:

Note that the cookies, in this case Ginger Cookies with Chocolate Covered Ginger, are in a flat layer on top of parchment. You never want to overlap cookies on one another as that will lead to breakage. In this case, since the cookies are sturdy, I made three, single, flat layers on top of one another, each one separated by parchment. Sometimes, with delicate cookies, I will only make a single layer, or perhaps two. One the very bottom of the container, make a layer of parchment or plastic wrap, to cushion the first layer. 

Here is a picture through a clear container so that you can see how the cookies are layered, separated by parchment, with plastic wrap on bottom. These are Florentine Bars.

An important final step is to crumble a generous amount of plastic wrap and place it on top of the last layer of cookies. There should be enough of it so that when you close the airtight lid on top, that the plastic fills up any air space and head-room. Shake the container gently. The cookies should not move. If they do, add more plastic wrap to make a firmer fit. You do not want them to be able to move around at all. By preventing any movement, you will most likely prevent breakage.

If you are going to mail containers of cookies, follow steps as above. Then, have a large cardboard box and fill about 1/3 of the way with packing peanuts. Place your container in the center. Or, if you have several containers, have them spaced out within the box separated by plenty of peanuts, or, tape the containers together to make one large container. Either way, make sure the container or containers are surrounded and cushioned by plenty of packing peanuts. Top off generously with more peanuts. Close box and shake gently. The containers should not move within the box. If they do, add more peanuts, or even crumbled newspaper. As with our initial technique, we do not want there to be any movement. You might need more peanuts or crumbled paper than you think. Be generous.

When mailing, never mail on a Friday unless you are mailing express overnight as regular mail will most often mean the cookies will get held up over the weekend within the shipping system and this is not the best approach for a fresh cookie delivery. Same thing with holidays. Pick your ship days wisely. If your budget allows, mail priority or express. 

By following these tips and techniques your delectable homemade cookies will keep well and arrive at their destination intact and looking beautiful. Happy Holiday Baking! 

Below is a great cookie recipe that mails well. The recipe is from A Baker's Field Guide to Christmas Cookies:

Classic Rolled Sugar Cookies

Here is a basic recipe for buttery, crisp sugar cookies. While it is simple, it is quite tasty. Feel free to decorate as you wish. Versions of this cookie are often the first rolled cookie taught to American children. Recipes from the early 1800’s are very similar in that none of them use baking powder, which didn’t come into use till decades later. Also, the lack of leavener helps keep the cookies nice and flat, which yields a nice surface for whatever kind of decoration you like.

Special Characteristics: Dough may be frozen, Keep well, Mail well, Fun to Make with Kids

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs
Colored sugars and regular sugar

Whisk flour and salt together in a small bowl to aerate; set aside.

Place butter in bowl of mixer and beat with flat paddle on medium-high speed until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar gradually and continue beating until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl once or twice; beat in vanilla extract. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, again scraping down the bowl once or twice.

Turn machine off, add about one-third of the flour, then turn machine onto low-speed. Gradually add remaining flour, mixing just until blended, scraping down bowl once or twice. Form into two very flat discs, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or until firm enough to roll. Dough may be refrigerated overnight. (You may freeze dough up to 1 month; defrost in refrigerator overnight before proceeding).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two cookie sheet pans with parchment paper.

Remove one disc from refrigerator and roll out to 1/4-inch thickness on floured surface; you may need to flour your rolling pin too. Cut out cookies with shapes of choice. Transfer cookies to prepared pans placing 2-inches apart. Decorate with colored sugars or regular sugar either in decorative patterns or in a free-form manner. (You may also decorate with icing after they are baked and cooled).

Bake for about 10 minutes or until edges have just begun to turn light golden brown. Slide parchment onto racks to cool cookies completely. (Cookies may be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 1 month).

Yield: 36, 3-inch cookies

Good Cookie Tip #1: Last Christmas I made these cookies and they were as delicious as they were easy to roll out; the dough performed wonderfully. Then, for my book, I was re-testing the recipe in July in 98-degree weather with 98 percent humidity and it was a whole different ballgame. They worked, but only after I kneaded in some extra flour before rolling out. So, my caveat is to use your sense of touch. If the dough feels too soft and sticky, just add a bit more flour and you will have success.

Good Cookie Tip #2: You will probably want to make cookies of all sizes and shapes, and I encourage you to do so! Just make sure that similarly sized cookies are on the same pan so that the baking times are even.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

My Menage a Trois have a Whopper of a Problem

I hope the title of this post got your attention. My Menage a Trois cookies are a moist, truffle-esque cookie featuring white, milk and dark chocolate (hence the name) and are based on an old recipe of Maida Heatter's called Whoppers. Here is a photo of my approach with the 3 chocolates below.

Versions abound, and for good reason; they are simply extraordinary chocolate cookies. They are also easy to make, and yet, the recipe can go wrong, very easily. The first thing is the baking time. These are supposed to stay moist and almost creamy in their texture. Thirty-seconds to a minute too long in the oven and you loose these qualities. But what I want to call your attention to is the choice of ingredients. Check out this picture below. For this version I used a selection of all dark chocolates (as opposed to white/milk/dark in the menage a trois), but look at the difference between the two piles of cookies in terms of texture and general appearance.

The differences are pretty obvious, aren't they? The ones on the right have raggedy edges, a brittle appearance and are not that attractive overall. The ones to the left are creamy, have a pleasing round shape and a much more voluptuous, inviting look. The difference? The Choice of Chocolate. This recipe begins with butter, unsweetened chocolate and semisweet chocolate all melted together. At the end of the recipe chunks of more chocolate are folded into the batter, and at that stage you can pick and choose chocolates to your heart's content, but it is the first steps, where the chocolates are melted with the butter, that it is vital to choose properly. This melted chocolate forms the body of that batter and different chocolates give very different results, as you can see. Here is another view of the same batch.

This recipe was first written many years ago and the ingredients simply call for "unsweetened chocolate" and "semisweet chocolate". Back then we had very few choices for chocolate and the ones commonly available worked. Now our chocolate choices have multiplied and even at the supermarket there are chocolates that will not work, due to their higher cacao mass and cocoa butter contents. Indeed, the crumbly cookies were made with Scharffen Berger Unsweetened and some fabulous Valrhona Equitoriale chocolate, but these chocolate formulas were Not the formulas intended for these cookies. The properly prepared cookies combined Ghiradelli unsweetened and semisweet along with the butter. As I said, for the chunks folded in later on, I went back to some of my favorite Valrhona and Scharffen Berger choices, but these did not affect the "body" and texture of the cookie. I love every one of these brands. My point is that there are times when one or the other will be the best choice for a recipe.

These days recipe developers cannot approach recipe writing as simply as decades ago. This is why I now make actual suggestions for chocolates when writing a recipe. If one of my recipes calls for "6-ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped, such as Ghiradelli", and you use a different chocolate, remember these photos. This is an expensive recipe to make; none of us likes a failure in the kitchen! Best suggestion is to follow baking recipes to the letter; there is usually a very good reason why I am suggesting certain ingredients or techniques.

By the way, the "ugly" cookies did suffer in terms of texture, although they tasted fabulous! The problem is that I only have a close circle of friends to whom I will offer "failures". They truly don't care and appreciate any and all food - especially when its free and someone else made it. On the other hand, I feel as though I have eyes upon me 24/7 and I do not like to offer "bad" cookies, cakes or anything else to most people. I have a reputation to uphold, after all:) But don't worry, I have a large circle of local friends. Nothing goes to waste. 

Here is the recipe for Menage a Trois Cookies, adapted from my A Baker's Field Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies (Harvard Common Press). Here is a close-up pic to convince you:)

Menage a Trois Cookies

These creamy, truffle-like, dark chocolate cookies are best eaten within a day or two when their texture is at their best. They are packed with white, milk and dark chocolate chunks, hence their name. These are the ultimate chocolate cookie and give you as much of a buzz as a small cup of coffee.

Makes 28 cookies

1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped, such as Ghiradelli
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped, such as Ghiradelli
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into tablespoons-sized pieces
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chunks (1/2-inch size), such as Valrhona Equitoriale and Caraibe and Scharffen Berger
3/4 cup milk chocolate chunks (1/2-inch size), such as Valrhona Jivara or Callebaut
3/4 cup white chocolate chunks (1/2-inch size), such as Valrhona Ivoire, Ghiradelli or Callebaut

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 jelly-roll pans with parchment paper.

2. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt together in a small bowl to aerate and combine; set aside.

3. Melt semisweet and unsweetened chocolates together with butter in top of double boiler or microwave. Stir occasionally until smooth. Cool slightly to a warm room temperature.

4. Place sugar, eggs and vanilla in mixer's bowl and beat on high-speed using balloon whip attachment. Beat until light and fluffy, approximately 2 to 5 minutes. Gently fold in the chocolate/butter mixture until no chocolate streaks remain. Fold the flour mixture into the batter until just combined.

5. Toss all of the chocolate chunks together in a bowl and remove about one-quarter of them and reserve. Fold the large portion of the chocolate chunks into the batter. Drop by generously rounded tablespoon 2 inches apart on cookie sheets. Take reserved chocolate chunks and press at least one of each type onto each cookie top, so that they will show off the white/milk/dark chocolate trio when baked.

6. Bake for about 10 minutes or until tops look and feel dry but the insides are still soft and creamy. The edges will be slightly firmer than the rest of the cookies. They firm up tremendously upon cooling; do not over bake. Place sheets on racks to cool cookies for 1 minute, then slide parchments directly to racks for cookies to cool completely. Make sure these cookies stay flat while cooling. They are delicate while warm.

Store for 2 days at room temperature in airtight container in single layers separated by waxed (or parchment) paper

Good Cookie Tip: These are delicate. Make sure to store them in single layers and keep the layers flat! They will keep longer than 2 days, but the texture will be less creamy and become more crumbly.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

An Insider's Look at a Cookbook Photo Shoot

I have been lucky enough to have participated in photo shoots for some of my books. I say "lucky" because it is very typical for authors not to be involved. Let me explain. First of all, even if an author would like there to be photos in their book, it is not up to them. It is up to the publisher, for which it comes down to money. Does it make sense for this book? Will it aid sales? Is there a photo budget for this title? If it is decided that photos are to be included, what happens next might not be obvious to those outside the industry. Basically, the publisher needs to hire a photographer. They also need a food stylist. This is a person who specializes in making food attractive for photography (or on-camera, as is the case for my TV shoots...more on that another time). Prop stylists choose plates and platters, tablecloths and backdrops. Where does the author fit in? Well, some authors can style their own food, in which case they fill that slot. However, if they are not stylists or stylist-worthy, their presence on a photo-shoot is not usually welcomed. The publisher hired them for their "words" just as they hire a photographer for their ability to take pictures. What does a writer know about producing pretty pictures? Well, I am primarily a writer and I will try to be's the deal: The stylist knows how to make food look great. They know how to work with lighting and work in conjunction with photographers all the time. The photographer knows what perspective they want to show; they have their own aesthetic and point of view. To these professionals, they can easily read over the shot list created by the editor (perhaps done in concert with the author) and prepare the recipes and shoot them. The author is not "needed". Or are they? You might think you know what I think about all this...and most likely you are half right. All of my Field Guide books and Dummies books were shot without me. I truly was not needed. The formats of the books are very straightforward, as is the content. My wedding cake books and birthday cake book were a whole other matter. Wedding cakes, in particular, are very much a personal, visual aesthetic and my editors for all of these books understood this from the get-go; I was welcomed on the sets with open arms. So, the other half of the answer is that I do think the author's input is not only necessary on some shoots, but it can enhance the finished product.

The shot above is from the set of Wedding Cakes You Can Make, which was comprised of all women: photographer Zeva Olebaum, food stylist Karen Tack, prop stylist Cathy Cook, myself and all the assistants. Here you can see Zeva taking a light reading during our one outdoor shot. We were in a fabulous light filled loft in NYC and there was this lovely outdoor roof that we decided to use on-the-spot.

Here is a pic above of the cake from a better perspective. The tiers are arranged off-set and the fresh flowers are cascading to accentuate the fluid shape. I brought the blackberries on-the-vine straight from my friend's garden in Hadley, MA.

The following pics are of the same cake. First we made a "tablecloth" out of leaves. We took an inexpensive cloth and hot-glued the leaves on, one by one, in an overlapping fashion. This took quite a while. It is not difficult, and it is very effective in the end, but you need some time to get the job done. Zeva set up the shot and let us know that we really only needed to cover the cloth about three-quarters of the way around, as that was all that was going to show in the shot. There is never a moment to waste on a photo shoot, so the tablecloth was only completed to the degree that it needed to be. In the next shot you can see Karen making an adjustment after looking through the lens and seeing something out of whack. Notice the background. It is not the background in the following shot. Often a test will be done and if it is not quite right, the prop stylist will come in with a new idea. 

The next shots are of the cover cake. We didn't know it was the cover at the time, but as we got farther along in the process, it became clear that this cake had what we wanted to evoke: it is pretty, yet the vertical lines of the piped buttercream keep it from being too frilly. The fresh flowers are easy to place and the three tiers, in the 6", 10" 14" configuration, are my favorite silhouette. The first photo shows Karen about to hand-place on little sweet pea blossom to fill out the arrangement.

The following two pics show a subtlety of styling. can you tell the difference in my Nutella Cake?



The difference is a very light dusting of cocoa. I thought it added a textural interest. In the end, the photo editor chose to go with a picture without the cocoa and also without the top crown of curls. That might seem plain, but in the book it is very tightly cropped and it works. Still, I am a More is More kinda gal and if I made this cake again, I would dust with cocoa.

This next pic is of the square tiered Marzipan and Orange Essensia Cake. Essensia is a lovely orange muscat wine that is brushed on the cake layers. Placing the sliced blanched almonds one-by-one on the cake is a very effective border. In the background you can see many of the typical photo-shoot needs: iron and ironing board for smoothing out tablecloths, a pile of tablecloths in various colors, paper towels (we use Lots), a Pantone book for looking at colors for ideas, pieces of glass cut to order for the base of the cakes and in the rear left, a round Styrofoam dummy that was used as a stand-in for size approximations. I don't remember what the spray paint was for. Perhaps a background.

I love this next picture of my chocolate-filled Valentine's Day Cake because it shows its true colors. In the book, the pink on the tablecloth is reflecting onto the cake, making it look pink. In fact, I once went to a book signing in Philadelphia and the pastry chef recreated the cake - and it was pink! I couldn't imagine why; I figured it was his/her interpretation. And then I took a long, hard look at my picture in the book and realized she thought it really Was pink!
Here is an actual picture of a slice taken out of that Pink cake, just as an aside.

At the very end of the shoot, after we had cleaned up most of the rented space, my editor Linda Ingroia paused to tango with a partner. A fitting end to a lovely shoot; it is a memory I will always hold dear.

The Birthday Cake Book - Happy Birthday to You and Yours!

My newest book is The Birthday Cake Book (Harvard Common Press) and I am thrilled to present it you here. My very first book, The Wedding Cake Book, was initially published in 1997, and in many ways, I consider this an extended follow-up. I love a celebratory cake and while there is a market for those of you who are passionate enough to make a wedding cake, certainly we all have birthdays occurring every day of the year and this book is for you. The book features over 75 recipes, with full-color photos. While there are complete cake ideas, such as the Chocolate Extravaganza Cake, the Banana Split Cake, the Tropical Carrot Cake and even a Teeny-Tiny Milk Chocolate Orange Cake for intimate gatherings, I am particularly excited about the basics section where you will find Quick 'n' Easy Chocolate Cake, White Cake, Yellow Cake, all kinds of fillings and frostings from an Italian Meringue Buttercream (complete with variations) to a Confectioners' Sugar Frosting, Fudgy Chocolate Frosting, Seven-Minute Frosting as well as Lemon Curd and Pastry Cream. Use these basics to create your own cake - birthdays, after all, are all about giving the birthday person what they want! I truly hope you will find inspiration within the pages and please email me with comments or questions - and don't forget to send me pictures of the cakes you make. I love seeing how my work helps bakers make edible creations of their own.