Winter bonfire cake

This cake was inspired by the December birthday of a person who loves bonfires, caramel, and dark chocolate.

Cake:

I made two batches of the graham cracker cake found here.

http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2014/07/smores-cake-chocolate-mousse-dulce-de-leche-marshmallow-ideas-in-food-recipe.html

I baked each batch in two 8 inch cake pans, leaving me with 4 ~1.5 inch tall cakes. I didn’t trim them.

 

Filling:

I wanted to use marshmallow fluff, and didn’t want to toast it, so I created a caramel marshmallow fluff. It deserved its own post: 

https://janisgeary.wordpress.com/2016/12/18/caramel-marshmallow-fluff/

I piped rings of fluff between each cake layer

 

Ganache:

I used a 1:1 ratio of dark chocolate to cream (200 grams of each), cooled and piped over the layer of fluff.

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Frosting:

I made a half batch of Yolanda Gampp’s IM Buttercream:

https://howtocakeit.com/blogs/cakes/39081857-yos-italian-meringue-buttercream-recipe

Did a crumb coat, and then spread the rest of the frosting over the cake. I was not particular about how smooth it was.

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Decorations:
I had tiny cake topper-cookies already as part of my Christmas cookie stash, which I flooded with royal icing and drew on with edible markers. I made chocolate curls for the logs on the bonfire (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGdAPD2Zt4A), and used rosemary dusted with icing sugar, with chocolate on the bottom, as trees. I also piped a few dark chocolate trees (e.g.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1xlcMTZd9s)

Caramel Marshmallow Fluff

Marshmallow fluff makes a very sturdy cake filling, and the caramelization gives it a nice toasted marshmallow flavour!

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Ingredients:

1.5 cups sugar

6 tbsp water

1 tbsp corn syrup

2 egg whites (about 80 grams) at room temp

1/4 tsp cream of tartar

Directions: 

Place sugar and 3tbsp of water in a heavy bottom saucepan. Stir until all the sugar is wet, and place over high heat with a lid on (this helps prevent crystalization on the sides, although it’s slower, so if you’re confident with your caramel skills, just brush down the sides with a wet pastry brush like usual. It’s also easier to have a lid on if you have a glass lid).

Mix the remaining 3tbsp of water with the corn syrup, and get your 2 egg whites and cream of tartar ready in a stand mixer bowl.

Let the sugar become a deep caramel colour. Remove it from the heat*, and stir in the water/syrup mix. It will harden unevenly. Get your egg whites whipping as you want very frothy/maybe soft peaks before you start pouring the caramel syrup. Put the caramel back on the heat just long enough to have everything mix evenly. With the stand mixer running, slowly pour your hot caramel into the whipping egg whites (try to get the stream between the side of the bowl and the spinning whisk). Beat until it’s cooled down and a stiff but spreadable consistency. I didn’t add any additional flavours, but if you’re so inclined you could add some sort of extract at this point (I just wanted the authentic caramel flavour, and it really came through)

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* I placed my saucepan in a bowl of cool water, I’m not sure if that was necessary to stop the caramelization because you instantly add in cool water, but that’s what I did

Eggnog and baking

 

Christmas/Holiday LifeProTip:

If you want to flavour things (cakes, cookies, frostings, etc) to be “eggnog”, DO NOT just add eggnog from a carton.

Two reasons.

1) Store-bought eggnog is garbage. Stop drinking it. It’s easy to make and you will not be disappointed, except for in yourself for having never made eggnog before.

2) The flavour of eggnog comes from the base, which is egg yolks cooked with milk and sugar. Eggnog is just base diluted with cream*. Flavour your baking with the base, not the diluted drink.

To make the base, whisk 1 yolk with about 1/4 cup of milk, 1 tbsp of sugar, and whatever spices you like (nutmeg is common, but I like vanilla and cardamom) over medium heat. Whisk constantly until it thickens and bubbles slightly. Make as much base as you need.

This PSA was brought to you by watching a bunch of stupid people on youtube add store-bought eggnog to things that should otherwise taste good.

*when I make my eggnog, I don’t use the recommended half-and-half, and opt for whole milk instead. Still 1000X better than the crap in the carton.

Non-scientific nanaimo bar evaluation

After trying out my new NB recipe, I had to enlist some taste testers to evaluate the new ones against the traditional variety. I had meant to go to the farmer’s market to buy some homemade NBs this past weekend, but didn’t have time. Safeway on the way to work was the best I could do.

I created a short questionnaire to ask people if they already liked NBs. Then, I asked them to rate the appearance of mie next to the traditional ones. Once visually compared, they had to try a bite of each and rate them. I wasn’t able to blind it, nor did that concern me because my bars were spiced and pretty obviously not the same as the traditional ones, making blinding impossible anyway. They also had to describe how they compared the taste of each. After having to buy the bars from Safeway, I added a question on whether the store-bought version was representative of the classic NB.

Eleven people completed my evaluation. Two had never tried NB before. One person said they didn’t like NBs, and was there to see if she’d like the new version. On a scale of 1-10, people liked NBs a score of 7.1 (ranged 3-10).

Appearance

Every one stated mine looked better. When probed, nine specified it was because mine had decorative white chocolate as well. While any old NB can have white on top, three mentioned specifically they liked the pale colour of the new filling better.

Taste

No one liked the store bought NBs better.

Store: 5.0 (ranged 2-7),

New: 8.5 (ranged 7-9)

Six people specifically mentioned liking the spices of the new NBs better (one said “there’s something more Christmasy about sample B). Five also mentioned you could taste more coconut in the new NBs. Eight people mentioned that the new NBs were better because they were less sweet, and five liked the crunch or texture of the new ones better.

The fight against the store bought version wasn’t really a fair fight, but several testers pointed out that store versions are what most people will eat, and five raters thought the were representative of a traditional NB.

My thoughts on the results

I was disappointed that the candied walnuts didn’t come through beyond “crunch”, the browned butter was completely lost, and I thought people would be more excited about the filling. I think the new filling is far, far, better, but not in an obvious way like crunch and spice. Just better.

Overall, my results tell me that people like NBs with fancy topping, crunch, less sugar, and some spices.

If you want to make NBs that just taste freaking awesome but still very traditional, here’s what I recommend:

Improved Nanaimo Bar Recipe

Base: 1/2 cup browned butter, 1/4 cup sugar, 6tbsp cocoa, 1tsp vanilla, 2 cups graham cracker crumbs, 1 cup unsweetend fancy (large pieces) shredded coconut , 1/2 cup candied spiced walnuts (or just roasted for even less sugar), 1 egg

Melt all ingredients except egg in a sauce pan, remove from heat, stir in beaten egg slowly into hot mixture, press into 9X9 pan lined with parchment

FIlling: 3 egg yolks, 1/2 cup sugar, 2 tbsp water, 1/2 cup unsalted butter (room temp), 1 tsp vanilla bean paste, 2 cups icing sugar (note: You could make this richer and still stiff enough when refrigerated by using more butter and less sugar)

Whip the egg yolks until they appear light in colour and a little foamy. Make sugar syrup, and once 238 degrees, whip slowly into egg yolks. Once room temp, whip in butter 1 tbsp at a time, add flavouring and icing sugar.

Topping:

Melt together 200g very good dark chocolate, 1 tsp of butter (I forgot this before) in double boiler. Spread over chilled based, swirl in white chocolate while still melted, cut when just set a little before it gets hard.

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teeny taste-testing pieces

Nanaimo Bars

There is nothing wrong with Nanaimo Bars. They are sweet and chocolatey, and although time consuming, relatively easy for a novice in the kitchen to put together. And I like them. But I always thought that Nanaimo Bars should be something more. Graham cracker crumbs and custard powder ranked pretty low on my list of ingredients I want to see in a recipe, so for awhile I’ve been pondering how to take the simplicity of the Nanaimo Bar and kick it up a notch while still maintaining the essence of the classic.

My current obsession with sponge cakes, cookie frosting and other cake fillings led me to the answer. So I present to you Nanaimo Bars+, the Janis-over-complicated-version of the classic holiday treat.

The base.

A classic nanaimo bar base had graham cracker crumbs, walnuts, and cocount held together by melted butter, cocoa and egg. I decided to use ground ginger snap cookies, candied spiced walnuts, and browned butter. Instructions to brown butter here: http://www.seriouseats.com/2015/01/how-to-make-brown-butter-technique.html.

Here’s a photo of the recipe to candy the nuts (I used walnuts though, and added cardamom)

Ingredients:

1/2 cup browned butter, 1/4 cup sugar, 6 tbsp cocoa, 1 tsp vanilla, 2 cups cookie crumbs (made from ~3 cups small ginger snap cookies from bulk barn), 1 cup coconut, 1/2 candied walnuts coarsely chopped.

I ended up buying sweetened coconut because I couldn’t remember what it called for, and then with the candied walnuts I was worried about all the added sugar making it too sweet, but I don’t think it was too overly sweet in the end.

Instructions: To the browned butter, add sugar, cocoa and vanilla in sauce pan (I don’t remember if I let the sugar melt at all). Take off heat and stir in beaten egg. Add cookies crumbs, coconut and nuts. Press into square 9×9 pan lined with parchment paper. Chill until you need it.

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finished base

 

The filling

The filling is what always REALLY bothered me about Nanaimo bars. It always just tasted sweet, not flavourful. The standard filling is just icing sugar, butter and custard powder. I can’t fault it too much though, as it was the custard powder that provided the inspiration for my improved filling.

Experiments with buttercream, and some studying up on the differences, led to me to a German custard buttercream. However, French buttercream called for yolks not whole eggs, which sounded much more decadent and that’s what I settled on (spoiler alert: no regrets there. I could eat the filling happily with a spoon. Indeed, I did). I adapted this recipe for the filling: http://joepastry.com/2008/french_buttercream/, but here’s the final product.

Ingredients:

3 egg yolks, 1/2 cup of sugar, 2 tbsp water, 1/2 cup unsalted butter (room temp), 1tsp vanilla bean paste (or some other flavour), 2 cups icing sugar

Instructions:

Whip the egg yolks until they appear light in colour and a little foamy (there are nice pictures on the blog above, and the person who wrote it is kinda funny, so give it a read).

To make the sugar syrup, add water to sugar in a sauce pan, do not stir, let melt until it reaches 238F. If you don’t have a thermometer, let it reach the “soft ball stage”, or boil for a few minutes and if it turns brown you waited way too long. Good thing you only wasted 1/2 cup of sugar. If you’ve never made sugar syrups before, take careful heed of the “do not stir” instructions. You don’t want the solution to get on the sides of the pan as it will create sugar crystals, and they ruin everything. Use a wet pastry brush to get rid of syrup on the sides, or just ignore it.

The blog guy suggests that you pour a little of the syrup into the whipped yolks, and then turn the mixer on, and so on and so forth, but I say drizzle slowly just far enough away from the whisk to not hit the whisk but not be running down the sides of the bowl. As I write this, it occurred to me that using a handheld mixer might give you more control, but I’ve never tried that.

Note: the hot syrup cooks the egg yolks if uncooked egg yolks are something you worry about. But if you add the syrup too fast, you’ll get lumpy weird, cooked eggs, instead of smooth creamy whipped eggs.

After all the syrup is added, continue to whip it for awhile, until it’s not warm any more.  If you do not wait until it’s room temperture, you’ll have issues. Once room temp, you can start adding the butter, a tbsp at a time or so, incorporating it fully before adding more. Keep whipping until it’s lighter in colour and airy-er.  Then add your vanilla (I wasn’t paying attention and accidently added mine earlier, and the world didn’t end). Then whip in the sugar, adding slowly at first until it’s incorporated (just so it doesn’t fly everywhere). You can judge things as you go here, you want to maintain the lovely rich flavour of the custard buttercream, but still have it thick enough to hold up in the squares. I think I added just over 2 cups but the butter firms up in the fridge so it’s your call if you want softer while cooled, or stiffer at room temp.

I ended up putting the filling into a piping bag to put it on the base, and then spreading it. I didn’t use about 1-2 tbsp in the bars because it tasted freaking amazing and I ate it.

Chill the filling until it’s stiff enough that you can spread the chocolate over it (a few hours is probably best, I did overnight)

The topping:

Standard Nanaimo bars are usually covered with melted semi-sweet chocolate chips or other baking chocolate. You can really only improve that with better quality chocolate.

I used about 200gs of dark chocolate, and I have no idea how much white chocolate. Maybe 20-30g. Melt the dark chocolate in a double boiler or the microwave, spread on the chilled filling, add a few lines or dots of also-melted-white chocolate with a piping bag or the like, drag a toothpick through the white chocolate to make swirls or other designs.

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chocolate before it set too hard to cut

Chill for just long enough for the chocolate to hold shape but still be soft. You should cut the chocolate topping then so that it doesn’t crack. Or, if  you’re like me and you forget, use a hot knife (I used a kettle to steam the knife, wiping it off before slicing), to melt through the top layer, and then slice the bottome. That works too, although not forgetting is much less of a pain in the butt. I just wanted you to know that if you DO forget, all is not lost.

I would cut this 9×9 pan into 25 squares. Then, I would feel that there aren’t enough bars to go around and I would hoard them. Then I would feel guilty for hoarding them, realizing I can’t possibly eat 25 Nanaimo bars in a reasonable amount of time, and then I’d give a bunch away. And then I’d feel sad that they were almost gone, reverting back to my hoarding. I go through this a lot. It’s a normal process (for me at least, if normal can be defined as something that happens a lot, not something that isn’t weird).

The only things that remain to be answered are: 1) Are these still nanaimo bars, and 2) If yes, are they BETTER??

Taste test to be continued….

 

Halloween food

I was at a friend’s baby shower a few weeks ago, and one of the games was “waterbreak”, where a small plastic baby is frozen in an ice cube, and the person whose “waterbreaks” first to release the baby wins. These plastic babies were going to be discarded, so I collected them for a baking project, inspiring a whole slew of Halloween themed food this year.

I’ll end with the Zombie baby cupcakes, but here are the other things I made as well.

Poopoo Pie

I used pureed chana masala for the, uh, filling.

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Roll into phyllo pastry, loop through a pan to look like intestines, bake until crisp! I did about 25 min at 350ish. I served it with a “blood” sauce made from dyed cranberry chutney, but forgot to take a photo of it.

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Brain Dip

I whipped a package of softened cream cheese with about 2/3 a pack of onion soup mix, plus some milk. Piped it into the shape of a brain, creating marinara blood pockets as I went.

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I served the brain dip with bread sticks.

Witches fingers

These were probably my least favourite of the evening. Just used Pilsbury pizza dough, rolled into fingers, with almond nail, parmasan cheese nail fugus, and caper warts. Almonds and capers fell off mostly, and the layers that I tried to roll together split as well. But they tasted great, so oh well.

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Shrunken head sangria

I didn’t make this, but it was awesome, and it just got better throughout the night.

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Zombie Babies

The first step for the zombie babies was making gravestones. I made my go-to sugar cookie, dyed slightly with black food colouring to make them look marble.

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I would’ve written more on them, but I didn’t have a #2 fine tip to do intricate piping. RIP was all that would work. I also added some grass so they would look cute on their own (I wasn’t about to make over 2 dozen zombie baby cupcakes, so most of these were just going to get eaten). I also make larger cookies to use up the cookie dough (although some dough still got put in the freezer). I decorated them to look like jars of eyballs.

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Next, I made an orange flavoured cake that I marbled with black and orange. I could’ve just made a chocolate cake as it would’ve been a good colour for the ground, but I like orange cake better. Instead of a brown cake, I flavoured the first layer of icing chocolate. I needed a base of frosting to stick the babies into anyway, then I covered them with cookie ‘dirt’ to make it look like they rose from the ground.

Note: I used a swiss meringue buttercream. By far my favourite frosting yet. It was so smooth and creamy and not very sweet, which I prefer.

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The next step was adding the grass and the tombstones. I made the mistake of letting the frosting chill before adding the cookies, and it was difficult to get the cookies into the stiff frosting. Room temp is better to work with, and the frosting holds it shape well so I didn’t really need to chill it anyway. I hadn’t used my grass tip before, and it took a bit to get used to piping with. Finished it off with a candy pumpkin.

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The black really took over, so I think I’ll use less of the darker colour next time I do a marble (I can’t remember the last time I did a marble!) Also, the cake was too airy and I won’t use that recipe again.

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Happy Halloween!