Friday, February 26, 2010

A Challenge of Royal Proportions: Queen of Hearts Cake

This card required some detective work and an unusual purchase. In order to make any of the cakes on the card, I needed to obtain a copy of the New Party Cakes for All Occasions booklet. Since the card mentioned that the booklet could be obtained by sending 10 cents to Betty Crocker, I figured this was something that had been printed a very long time ago. I scoured the internet and eventually sent a letter to General Mills to enlist their help. They wrote back to let me know that, yes, they did have a copy, but it was in their archives. However, they directed me to a bookstore in New York City and suggested I try there.

One of the things I have loved so much about this project has been the people I have met along the way. And this experience would turn out to be another one of those serendipitous connections. The bookstore General Mills recommended was Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, which specializes in antique and out-of-print cookbooks. Her website states that she prefers calls instead of e-mails so I picked up the phone and crossed my fingers that she’d have what I was looking for. When Bonnie answered the phone, I briefly explained my project, the recipe card and the title of the booklet. I admitted that I had no idea when it was distributed (I learned later that it was printed in 1931). She took down my information and said she’d look around. The next day she called with great news – she had a copy! But it wasn’t just any copy, it was her copy. I was in shock that she was willing to part with it and felt honored that she chose me as the recipient. She asked about my project and while we were talking, she looked up the blog. And that’s when we realized we had a lot more in common than just a love for old cookbooks.

The first page she saw was one of my horse stories. It turns out that she too loves horses and volunteers with the mounted police in Central Park (how cool is that?!). And then she saw Murphy. She is also a dog lover and has a beautiful picture on her website of Floppy with the caption, “In loving memory of the most beautiful dog to ever grace a bookshop.” Floppy looks like a dog who Murphy would have loved to play with. Bonnie laughed and said we were sisters who were separated at birth and I had to agree. I’m sure if we had spent the rest of the afternoon on the phone, we would have discovered a list full of other things we had in common. But she had to return to work and I had challenges to tackle in the kitchen. 

A few days later, the booklet arrived. I was excited to get started on the first month of birthday cakes, but when I saw which cake was listed for February, my excitement level dropped a little. The Queen of Hearts Cake was the exquisite cake pictured on the front of the booklet. To put it mildly, I felt way out of my league on this one. But I knew I had to make it so I started to gather ingredients, one of which was rather peculiar. I needed to find half of a doll (a Barbie-type doll). Um….what? Yes, that’s right, half of a doll. I thought of one place to look and sure enough, I got it on the first try. Joann Fabric and Craft Stores has a great cake decorating section, complete with half of a doll to use as a cake topper. Now that I had all of the ingredients, it was time to hit the kitchen.

The cake itself isn’t difficult. Please note, however, if you are brave enough to take on this challenge, I only baked the cake for 1 hour instead of the 1.5 hours listed on the card. Also, this cake is baked in a bundt pan, but you’ll need something to fill in the hole to support the doll (she has a stick coming out of her waist to insert into the cake). I used a portion of the batter to make a single cupcake and that fit perfectly.

Next came the icing. And of course, it was my nemesis: boiled icing. The first attempt was a complete failure. The icing separated and was a total mess. I turned to the internet for help and found a video. They made it look so easy and didn’t offer any inside tricks to help make the process successful. So I took a deep breath and went back to the kitchen. Attempt #2 stayed together, but was runny. There was no way it was going to stay on the cake. Finally, the third attempt was a success. It wasn’t perfect, but it was fluffy and firm enough to frost a cake. I want to send out a HUGE thank you to everyone who offered support and advice on the Facebook page! I got a lot of great tips that will help me perfect this challenging icing. And it was just another example of all the incredible people I’ve met through this project.

So, after going through 11 cups of sugar and 2.5 dozen eggs, I finally had my cake and frosting. Now I had to decorate it. Most of the icing is light pink, but a small amount is dyed dark pink or red for accents. And my hands will be dark pink for probably the next month. Since the icing wasn’t as thick as it should be, some of the accents ran down the sides a little, but for the most part, they stayed in place. I sprinkled the rest of the cake with tiny sugar hearts. Then it was time for the final touch – the doll.

After my second failed attempt at boiled icing, I decided I needed to take a step away and relax. So I decorated the doll. I made her a beaded necklace, a shiny strapless satiny gown (complete with a beaded bustle in the back) and a pink tulle shawl. My husband came home from work to find the kitchen in complete disarray and me sitting in the middle of beads and fabric decorating a doll. He just shook his head. I told him about the icing and said I needed to take a step away. He looked at the doll. “And this is relaxing?” he asked. For me, yes. I’ve never been able to sit still. Even when I watch TV I have to be flipping through a magazine, working on an art project or surfing the web. I like to have my hands busy; it helps to refocus my mind on something more productive than stress.
When the doll’s ensemble was complete, it was time for her to take her place on top of the cake. I was pleasantly surprised once it was all together. It looked pretty good. Nowhere near as elegant as the one of the cover of the booklet, but it was still a beautiful cake. I wish I had a daughter to give it to, it would be the perfect cake for a little girl’s birthday. I didn’t want to cut into it. I had put so much time and effort into the cake that when it came time to actually eat it, I found I wasn’t even that interested in tasting it. For once, I realized that cooking was about so much more than just eating the product of your hard work. It was the hard work that I was proud of. The Queen of Hearts Cake was a challenge that I had shied away from and never thought I’d complete. And after two failed batches of boiled icing, I really considered giving up. But I didn’t. And I had this pretty pink princess cake as a trophy of my success.
We finally did cut into it and sadly, it wasn’t nearly as good as it looked. The cake was decent; it’s a light, lemony cake. But the frosting is really sugary (what did I expect when the recipe calls for 3 cups of sugar?). My teeth felt like sandpaper after eating my piece. But I didn’t care, I was still riding high on my happiness of completing the challenge. I felt like an Olympic athlete holding my medal high in the air. Mine may have been made of sugar, but it probably weighed about the same and was only slightly less expensive to make. 

I thought back to my first blog post and my reference to Dan Eldon’s journal entry: “the journey is the destination.” When I started this blog, I had no idea I’d be buying half of a doll or separating 30 eggs in one day. I can’t believe how much I’ve grown in the few shorts months I’ve been doing this and I can’t wait to see where I’ll be when it’s over. But Dan was right, the journey is incredible. And it’s all those steps along the way that make us the people we become in the end. Today, I dined with royalty. I may not be able to put it on a resume, but I can honestly say I’m a better person for accepting the invitation.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sweet Birthday Wishes: Fudge Cake


Murphy is friends with pretty much everyone he meets, but there are a few people who are very special to him. One is my dad. He doesn’t get to see my dad very often, but he recognizes him immediately and can hardly stand up because he wags his whole back end so hard when he sees him. He knows that when my dad is around it means wrestling matches in the backyard and lots of treats. What he doesn’t realize is that he gets treats because my dad is trying to train him to do something, such as come when he’s called (a skill Murphy has yet to master). 

Another is my friend Justin. I think Murphy loves him so much because Justin always comes over impeccably dressed and Murphy can’t resist jumping on him (maybe that’s why Justin moved to New Jersey…thanks a lot Murphy). And then there is our neighbor Wayne.

Every time Wayne goes into his backyard, Murphy rushes to the fence barking “hello.” Wayne returns Murphy’s greeting and the two continue to have an entire conversation. Many times during the summer, I’ll walk by a window and hear Wayne’s voice asking Murphy how his day has been, if he’s enjoying the nice weather, and agreeing that yes, he too thinks the squirrels are quite annoying. I love these conversations. I never interrupt; I let the two of them enjoy their time together.

Once, I saw Murphy running in circles in the backyard with something in his mouth. It was obviously a coveted prize and he was desperately searching for a special place to sit down and consume it. I was a little worried about what he might have found, but as I went out to intercept him, Wayne called to over the fence to explain that he got a doggy bag at dinner and brought his leftover steak home for Murphy. Murphy just looked at us with drool hanging from his lips as if he was saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Every year for Wayne’s birthday, we return the favor. Last year we settled for a store-bought cake to give him on his special day, but this year I was excited to choose a recipe from the box. Today is Wayne’s 86th birthday and for this momentous occasion, I knew he needed something extra sweet. Wayne LOVES chocolate and I had just the thing to satisfy his cravings: Fudge Cake.

I made a few slight adjustments to the recipe. Instead of 1 cup of chopped nuts, I used chocolate chips. I know several people with nut allergies, so I usually err on the side of caution and don’t add them. Plus, it gave me the chance to add more of Wayne’s favorite ingredient. And as my friend Mike told me last weekend, if you want to ruin chocolate, just add nuts (I’m not a fan of nuts so I tend to agree with him on this). I also used a bundt pan instead of a layer or loaf pan. (The cooking time was 45 minutes for the bundt pan.) And I chose to make a chocolate glaze for the cake. I wouldn’t use frosting, I think it would be chocolate overload (and not in a good way). The glaze complimented the cake very well. The one I chose was from the Joy of Cooking. Here’s the recipe:

Chocolate Glaze (Reduced Fat)
Joy of Cooking - 1997 edition, page 1004

Combine in a medium saucepan:
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa

Gradually add:
2/3 cup low-fat evaporated milk

Cook, stirring constantly until the mixture comes to a boil. Boil gently, stirring for about 2 ½ minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in:

2 ounces bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate (finely chopped)
½ teaspoon vanilla

Stir until chocolate is completely melted. Let cool until thickened. Keep refrigerated for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 6 months.  Warm gently before using. 

 We boxed up the cake, poured the extra glaze in a jar, put Murphy on his leash and went next door to deliver the birthday surprise. Wayne was very excited about his Fudge Cake and Murphy was happy to see Wayne. They haven’t seen each other in months because of the snow, but as soon as the door opened, Murphy knew one of his best friends was behind it. I’m really not sure which of them was happier at that moment.

As we left, I reminded Wayne that he promised to celebrate birthdays until he was 105 and that every year we promised to provide the cake. “115,” he said. “I’ve decided to live until I’m 115.”

“That’s great!” I replied, “Because I have a LOT of cake recipes in the box that I need to make and I’d love to make them for you.” 

Happy Birthday Wayne!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Creature Comforts: Oatmeal Cookies

I’m not sure who loves horses more: me or Murphy. Whenever I come back from a barn, he can’t stop sniffing me, wagging his tail, or licking my boots. This is a dog that rarely wags his tail. He’ll do it when we have guests over or when he sees another dog, but Ryan and I have to work pretty hard to earn that loving gesture. Sad huh?

I got the opportunity to visit the horses that my friend Muffy and I rode a few weeks ago. The snow was too deep to ride so we just made sure they were healthy, brushed the ice out of their tales, and loved them up. The sun was out, but the wind was blowing so it was colder than it looked. I dared to remove my gloves, however, and bury my hands deep in the woolly coats of the horses. I love winter horses. Their hair fills out to provide extra warmth making them fuzzy and irresistible. I took it one step further and leaned into the chest of Scooter. I was hesitant at first, not sure how he would respond (I didn’t want to upset a 1000+ lb. animal), but he didn’t seem to mind so I rested my cheek against his neck and instantly felt his warmth thaw out my frozen face and fingers. I could smell the sun in his hair and the hay from the large bale in the field where he had lunch. For a few moments, I didn’t notice the cold, the stress I had been feeling earlier in the day, or much of anything other than pure contentment. 

I once saw a picture of a dog resting his head on top of a horse’s nose. The look in their eyes was one of pure bliss, as if they were the best of friends and this was their form of a loving embrace. Murphy has only been around horses once, but it was love at first site. In fact, he began grazing in the backyard afterward. I know this is a common thing for dogs to do, but Murphy didn’t do it until he watched the horses chewing on grass in the field. At one point, we tried to get Murphy to come into the house, but one of the horses called to him as he walked away and Murphy went running back. I was so scared of him getting kicked, but Murphy had no such fear. He wanted nothing more than to be with the giants and act like one of them. When we left, he gave his new best friend a kiss on the nose. It brought tears to my eyes. Partly because it was so sweet, but also because I’ve never gotten one of those from my dog and I was really jealous!

Animals can have an amazing presence in our lives. My neighbor keeps telling me that having a dog can lower your blood pressure. I point to all the holes in my yard and ask, “Really?” Seriously though, I don’t know what I’d do without my dog. When I need a moment of escape, I lie down on the floor next to him and bury my nose in his soft, fuzzy ears. Even on the days when he is in desperate need of a bath, the simple act of cuddling my dog can make the whole world disappear. And I was happy to discover that I got the same result when I hugged a horse.

Lately, I’ve also learned that the act of baking can have the same effect. Reading a recipe and mixing ingredients can provide a similar outlet of escape for your brain. You are focused on measuring, pouring and anticipating the outcome. Especially when it’s a recipe you’ve never made before. There’s no room for outside worries when you’re elbow deep in flour and egg whites. And it’s a truly sweet escape when you’re making one of your favorite foods.

Everyone has their go-to comfort food. Some people prefer meat and potatoes. Mine usually involves chocolate. And I’m not the only one. I have some friends in Chicago who read my blog and have tried some of the recipes. I know we are kindred spirits because they made the Banana Drop Cookies and had the same reaction I did: they need chocolate chips. I asked them what their favorite type of cookie is and they gave me a few options including Oatmeal Chocolate Chip, which was perfect because I just happen to have a few Oatmeal Cookie recipes in the box. They’ve been having a rough time (they too have had to deal with unemployment, only their experience has lasted over two years as opposed to my one) and I thought a little comfort food just might be in order to help raise their spirits. The recipe calls for 1 cup of nuts, but I substituted chocolate chips instead. I was only going to use half the bag, but I dumped the whole 12 ounces in there just for a little extra chocolately goodness. Also, the recipe suggests flattening the balls of dough with a glass, I don’t recommend that. I found that they cooked better and weren’t as thin if I left them alone. This is a great recipe to make if you really want cookies, but don’t have eggs in the house because it doesn’t use any. I thought that was weird, but I’m a baking novice so it might be more common than I think.

I packaged up a bunch of the cookies and sent them off to Chicago. Then I also set aside a bag for Muffy as a “thank-you” for letting me tag along to cuddle horses. And I made a bag to stick in Ryan’s lunch container. He denies having a sweet tooth, but I have to believe that a homemade treat in the afternoon is a nice break in his hectic day. And once the dishes were washed and the kitchen was clean, I curled up on the floor next to my dog. He might not wag his tail for me every time I come home and sometimes he smells like sodden earth from his backyard excavations, but I cherish the moments I have with him. And if I can’t have a dog and a horse, then the next best thing is a dog who thinks he's a horse.  

And if you need a reminder not to over indulge in your favorite foods, here’s a picture of the barn cat at the ranch I’ve been visiting. I don’t worry about him staying warm this winter.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Love Is… : Marzipan Valentine Dessert


When I was a kid, I remember my dad cutting out the “Love Is…” cartoons from the paper and giving them to my mom. They were stuck to the refrigerator, taped inside the cabinets, and tacked to the cork board in the kitchen. To this day, every time I see one, I think of my parents.

Love is a lot of things. Easy is not one of them. No matter what kind – romantic, family, or friendship – love takes work. It requires compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. Love can’t be one-sided, but instead must be a collaboration of hearts and minds. Love can make you feel enchanted and as if you are floating through the clouds or it can leave you in a crumpled heap on the floor drowning in your own tears. Actually, love is a lot like cooking.

I cook alone. Well, except for Murphy who sometimes stays curled up on the floor at my feet waiting for handouts. But this weekend, I had the opportunity to share my Found Recipe Box cooking experience with a good friend. My husband and I traveled to Milwaukee, WI to visit friends from college. While the boys were at a basketball game, my friend Ginger and I took on the challenge of making Marzipan Valentine Dessert. This recipe consists of a homemade sponge cake, marzipan and whipped cream.

The sponge cake recipe instructs you to bake the cake then cut it into the shape of a heart. Since this recipe was printed sometime in the 20's, 30's or 40's, they didn’t have the luxury of fancy cake pans already in the shape of hearts. I cheated and used one of those. However, I chose a pan one-size too big, which caused the cake to be thinner than the recipe suggested. Ginger and I decided we’d make some adjustments later and moved on to the marzipan.

After creating a concoction that we weren’t sure was actually marzipan and several unsuccessful attempts at trying to load the sticky mixture into a pastry bag, we were finally able to pipe an edging around the outside of the cooled cake and place another heart in the middle. It was messy and dripping down the sides but we thought, hey, who cares….we made a sponge cake and marzipan from scratch!

We topped the cake with homemade whipped cream and strawberry jam (our cake didn’t have a second layer and filling due to it being so thin) and when the boys got home from their game, we tasted our creation. It may not have been the most beautiful cake ever baked, but it surely tasted divine. And while I was savoring each bite, I thought of love. Love can be messy sometimes too, but when we tackle it together, the outcome can be as delicious as a marzipan sponge cake made from scratch. 

The next day my parents drove up from Illinois to meet Ryan and me for lunch. I feel lucky that my parents are still together and that I’ve had such great role models for my own marriage. Like every marriage, they’ve celebrated great joys and faced hardships. But they’ve traveled that road together and when they’ve come up against a wall (like a thin cake that can’t be split into two layers as the recipe instructs), they’ve made adjustments and come though to the other side with something as good, if not better, than what they originally aimed for.

I don’t see Valentine’s Day as a day to celebrate only romantic love, but family and friends as well. And don’t forget your pets! While Murphy was at camp (that’s what we call the kennel because he gets to play with his friends and it’s his most favorite place in the whole world) he made us a Valentine card. He’s such a talented dog. 

This weekend, I celebrated love and realized that it is a lot of things: a cuddly Golden Retriever, a wonderful husband, friends who stand by you no matter what, parents who are not only role models, but also your best friends, and scrumptious cake. And together, they are the ingredients for a lifetime filled with love and happiness.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Recipe Not Taken: Maple Syrup Muffins


Memories are tied to our senses. When we hear those opening chords of a song, smell fresh-cut grass, or eat a slice of home-baked pie we’re instantly transported to a moment in our past that we’ve attached to that sound, smell, or taste. Usually these memories are good and we want to remain there indefinitely, but sometimes they’re moments we wish we could use a Magic Eraser to permanently scrub from our mind. Our current economic climate has people across the globe searching for those portals that will send them to a happy place, even if it’s just for a few, brief moments of escape. Last week, I was able to provide that service to several friends.

The members of my Thursday night poetry group have graciously offered to be taste-testers for many of the recipes from the box. Like me, most of them possess a strong sweet tooth and have been excited about the ratio of dessert-type recipes the box contains. Last week, however, we opted to take a break from the sweets and instead take a taste from the bread category: Maple Syrup Muffins. I’m glad we did.

Upon first bite, all of us sat back, inhaled, and began recalling memories. It’s amazing the effect food can have on our minds and the journeys it can take us on. For me, that bite reminded me of my great-grandmother. It seems that whenever we get together with my mom’s family, someone at some point brings up my great-grandmother’s cooking; specifically her biscuits. She put so much love and care into her cooking that it oozed out with every bite. Every time my mom or grandmother mentions those flaky, buttery biscuits my mouth waters.

I’m learning a lot from this little box and one of the biggest lessons has been the difference between “made from scratch” and “store-bought or processed” foods. Most of the muffins I’ve made over the years have been prepared by opening a box, dumping it into a bowl, mixing it with water (sometimes oil and maybe an egg), stirring the batter, and pouring it into a muffin tin. The Maple Syrup Muffins really aren’t that much more difficult to make and the difference in taste is worth the few extra steps. The recipe calls for ½ a cup of maple syrup (real maple syrup, not the “fake” stuff) and I expected an overwhelming syrup taste. Instead, they have just a hint of sweetness and the flavor seems to twirl on your tongue before sliding down your throat. My great-grandmother’s biscuits had a similar effect, giving you a moment of real butter exhilaration before you swallow and dive in for another bite. 

Times have changed and people’s schedules don’t allow them to make all their meals and snacks from scratch. We reach for the quickest thing we can find, throw it in the microwave and eat it in the car on the way to work, our next appointment, or a child’s soccer game. Maybe that’s why when we taste something made from scratch it halts us in our tracks and takes us back to those memories of loved ones or special occasions. I haven’t thought about my great-grandmother in a long time, but that one bite of muffin flooded my mind with visions of her house in Florida, the black glasses she used to wear, and her huge orange cat named Morris that I carried around the every time I visited (he was a very tolerant cat).

So thank you Mike for suggesting a detour from our usual path through the Found Recipe Box. I learned that “made from scratch” isn’t always time consuming and had the pleasure of revisiting memories of someone I love and miss very much. I hope everyone in the group had a similar experience.

Sometimes we need that reminder to try a different path in life. It can come in the form of an unexpected and prolonged unemployment. Or it can be as simple as choosing a different recipe from a box. Either way, the outcome can have a profound effect on our lives. I think Robert Frost said it best in his poem “The Road Not Taken:”

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Snack to Add to Your Lineup: Cheerios Crunch


No matter which team you’re rooting for, or even if you just watch the Super Bowl for the commercials, every fan agrees on what makes a Super Bowl party a true winner: a great lineup of food. And just like with an NFL team roster, your food menu needs a wide range of talent to be successful. While digging through the recipes in the Found Recipe Box, I discovered just the thing to add to every menu. And best of all, it fits the requirements of any good party snack: easy to make, great tasting, and guests can grab a handful every time they pass the bowl. Introducing your next party MVP: Cheerios Crunch.
This recipe only has three ingredients and can be completed in about 15 minutes. The author of the recipe writes, “This is a delicious snack that tastes like caramel crunch.” I couldn’t agree more. I was skeptical at first, but after I popped a few pieces into my mouth, I was a huge fan. And every time I walked through the kitchen I grabbed a handful for me and threw a few pieces on the floor for Murphy (who figured out this game quickly and just sat in the kitchen staring at the bowl waiting for me to walk back through and sprinkle more on the floor for him).
So when you’re planning your gathering for Sunday, be sure to consider Cheerios Crunch for the guest list. It’s sure to be a crowd pleaser and won’t take much time out of your day, or money out of your wallet, to make. And if you need a break from all the pre-game chatter on the TV, flip the channel to Animal Planet and watch Puppy Bowl VI. Every year Murphy spends the afternoon trying to figure out a way to climb into the television and play with all the puppies. I wonder if he’ll give up that quest this year and just focus on trying to telepathically spill the bowl of Cheerios Crunch onto the floor instead.