Lemon cake: baking from a mix

September 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

There’s no shame here.  The last few cakes I’ve made have…gasp…not been from scratch.  Nope.  They’ve been from a mix.  A doctored mix, mind you; but a mix.  I’m here to say, “It’s okay–come out of the shadows–mixes are good!”

Mixes are so good in fact, that the very first cake decorating class I took, the woman (a professional baker and owner of a bakery) explained that most bakeries use mixes.  She did clarify that she, and the cake divas at Wilton, only use Duncan Hines.  After straying once or twice, I can also attest to the consistency of DH mixes.  But, the key to a good cake from a mix is more than just the brand.

A big part of making a successful cake from a mix is adding a few fresh ingredients to it.  For the lemon cake we had for a friend’s shower this weekend, I added in some fresh lemon zest and some fresh squeezed lemon juice.  And, if you don’t have leeway to do that, then you can still apply a few basic tips to make your mix taste like it’s homemade goodness:

1. Eggs at room temperature shouldn’t be optional.  You would be surprised what a difference this makes.  More than that though, this tip starts at the grocery store–you should really be buying extra large or jumbo eggs to use in your mixes.  Small and medium sized eggs will not give you the same results that extra large eggs will.  Once you make the switch, you’ll never go back.

2. While I will condone a mix for the cake any day, canned frosting is only acceptable when you’re making cake balls.  I know–this is a little harsh.  I’m throwing down the tough love on this one.  No. Canned. Frosting.  It’s gross once you’ve had the real thing, and the real thing is not rocket science.  Yes, it calls for a thermometer, but it’s not science.  Or chemistry, or whatever. I looked for a similar recipe online to mine, but I can’t find one, so apparently I need to do a post just for buttercream! (I will.  Swear.) The point is–save time on your cake so you can rock it out on the frosting.

3. Finally, when you have the chance, be creative.  The recipe calls for milk? Try a little sour cream or buttermilk mixed with the milk to add richness.  It’s a vanilla cake, or vanilla buttercream? Scrape out the inside of a vanilla bean to add some fresh vanilla flecks.  Chocolate cake or frosting? Add in a mix of dark and semisweet grated, melted chocolate where you can.  The key is to keep the overall measurement the same, but add in some fresh where you can.  Happy mixing!

Baby shower round up: cowgirl up

September 2, 2011 § 4 Comments

My cousin is welcoming a little gal to the family in just a few short weeks, and we had a great time putting together a shower for her.  Galilee Bell is going to have a cowgirl room, so we followed suit and decided to get her cowgirled-up.

Amazingly, I did manage to get a really sweet quilt wrangled and done for little missy before the big day, but in the rush of things, I didn’t take any photos!  The super talented Aunt Peggy helped me stitch the last of the quilt together, and in my hurry to get just one (okay…three!) last three things stitched, I didn’t mess with the camera.  But, the day of turned out amazing, and here’s all the cuteness:

You can’t possibly have a cowgirl shower without sweet tea and pink lemonade, but this lemonade has a twist, or rather a pump.  We added in some vanilla syrup (like the kind used in coffee) to taste–talk about a quick and easy punch alternative!  These sweet boots (center) are my husband’s from when he was a tyke, but they fit perfectly in the hall tree and helped set the mood when you walked in the door along with the cowboy hats we hung.  The other decor touch was a sweet rocking horse wall hanging that had actually been in my cousin’s room as a baby.  My aunt dusted it off and replaced all the ribbons to bring it up to date and ready to give some other little girl dreams of rainbows and ponies.

The quilt we did get photos of is this darling wall hanging.  Inspired by the Martha Stewart shirt pocket wall hanging, my super talented aunts went the denim and corduroy pocket route with a little animal print thrown in for good measure.  They had the center square embroidered with baby girl’s name, and we filled all the pockets with fun goodies for mom-to-be.  And, of course, no cowgirl is worth her salt if she doesn’t have a trusty stick horse!  The pink bandana fabric tied it all together, and we ran a sweet lasso-inspired decorative stitch around the binding of the entire square.

Speaking of personalized flair, we had a fun time adding her name to a number of touches throughout the shower.  The fabulous designer Kara Leone, who did the number print for Baby Mac’s room, whipped up a special cowgirl-inspired print complete with Galilee’s name on it! Then the aunts-to-be baked up these sweet sugar cookies pressed with “Welcome Galilee” using the really cool Message-in-a-Cookie set from Williams Sonoma.  And, the grandma-to-be picked up this sweet charm from a specialty shop in Louisiana for momma to commemorate her two blessings.

We found cute little metal signs that momma can use in the nursery to decorate the tables throughout the shower.  Soft peppermint sticks and candy-filled mason jars took center stage with a collection of My Little Ponies and pink bandanas.  Did I mention we used pink?

The Welcome Galilee cookies were joined on the dessert table by these amazing Texas Sheet Cake cupcakes.  I’ve regaled you with tales of Texas Sheet Cake before, but the adaptation to a cupcake was genius!  The key I think is the liner that we used.  You can order these tulip style liners from Amazon and they’ll prevent any dripping from occurring.  You can see here that we used them in brown and white and just used a cupcake holder to display them.  The fabric underneath is just a sheer pink and paisley fabric piece overlapped on a white table cloth.

There was tons of great food, and these little smores cakes in a jar were no exception.  A girlfriend of mine pointed me to this recipe over on How Sweet It Is, and I was so glad to finally have a place to try them out.  I modified the recipe slightly to fit these smaller ball jars, and I used miniature marshmallows to give the top more texture.  The dream team of hostesses found this set of rub on scrapbooking decals, and what do you know, they worked perfectly on our metal lids!  They were meant to be a take home, but after everyone popped the metal tops off and put ’em in the microwave for 20 seconds, they were eaten right there on the spot!  And let me just say…they. were. good.

Luckily we had a back up take home favor–these cute bags of trail mix in pink satchels.  My talented cousin cut out squares of pink checked fabric and tied them with twine with little tags that read, “Happy Trails to you.”  It was a nice alternative to all of the super sweets that we had at the shower, and pretty inexpensive as far as favors go.

So much fun getting Miss Galilee ready for her debut.  Now all she has to do is show up.  I’m pretty sure I can think of at least one person who is quite ready for that to happen!

To-go favor: lemon cheesecake in a jar

August 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

For the garden party shower, I wanted to send the guests home with a cute to-go favor, but I was running out of steam to do a cupcake-in-a-jar.  I considered a pie-to-go favor, and actually had planned to do a traditional pie crust on top and bake them.  But, as the day approached, genius struck and I thought, “Why am I fixated on something baked?”  Well that turned the project upside down and right-side out, and I landed on one of my all-time favorite desserts, a lemony cheesecake that sets up in the fridge overnight.

I started with a dozen ball jars.  I ordered the 4 oz size from Amazon.com, and then I found a fun little font and printed out “Pie to go” on a sheet of white paper.  I found a cute yellow scrapbook paper and cut out circles to fit on my jar lids and modge-podged the scrapbook paper and labels onto the tops of the lids.  This is great because if you get the water hot enough when you’re washing the jar, the label will come off and you can reuse them! In the meantime, it gives it a nice finished look.

We started by washing out the jars, and then we made a simple graham cracker crust to fill the bottom of each jar with.  This gets pressed down in there with whatever you may have handy. Thanks to Baby Mac, I used the bottom of a clean baby bottle.  Then we worked on the pie filling, which I’ve detailed below for you.  The term “cheesecake” is used loosely here, but the final product is amazingly yummy!  Then we just filled the jars and let them set up overnight in the fridge uncovered.  The next morning, we pulled them out and screwed the lids on.  Placed them in baskets by the guest book, and our favor was yum-and-done!

Recipe for EZ Lemon Cheesecake filling is below, but first a few disclaimers.  My grandmother’s recipe calls for Milnot, which I can’t find at any store in our area of Texas, so I made some modifications to the original, and below is what I came up with.  I do a lot of, “oh, I’ll just add this instead” while I’m baking, so these instructions are not exactly measured to perfection, but this recipe would be hard to mess up.  Also, I don’t have pics of this process.  Sorry.

3 oz package of lemon jello mix

1 tsp vanilla

8 oz cream cheese

1 small can evaporated milk

1 small can sweetened condensed milk

Following directions on jello package, mix the lemon jello with boiling water in a large measuring cup or glass bowl, and mix until dissolved and syrupy.  Place in the fridge so that it starts to set up, but just gets to the point where it’s a thick syrup consistency.

In a mixer, whip together 1/2 a can of the sweetend condensed milk with 1/2 a can of the evaporated milk.  Whip together until it’s starting to get a little frothy and fully combined.  Add in the vanilla and the softened cream cheese.  Beat these together until fully combined.

If the jello is not to a syrup stage yet, now would be a good time to do your graham cracker crust.  We just used two packages of graham crackers and half a stick of melted butter.

When jello is at the right consistency, pour into the cream cheese mixture and whip together until fully combined.  The batter will be a little thin, but you will pour it into the jars that have the graham cracker crust on the bottom.  I put the jars on a cookie sheet and moved them to the fridge on that.  Let them set up over night.

This recipe will make enough for 12 4 oz jars.

Cake pops: what I learned in 13 tips

August 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Cake balls, cake pops, and all things tiny-cakey-goodness seem to be all the rage for parties these days, so I decided to try my hand at them for the garden party brunch I posted about earlier.  After much searching on the innerwebs, the general consensus seemed to be that you could not go wrong with instructions from Bakerella.  I mean, even Pioneer Woman swears by her!  So, here we go…down the cake pop trail.

You start out with this hot mess.  Or cool mess rather.  You bake a cake (I swear by Duncan Hines, as do most bakeries, believe it or not) and let it cool completely, then you toss in a container of cream cheese frosting.  All that I read led me to the prepackaged kind–not typical for me, but I went with it because I could use all the help I could get this weekend.  The end result was a bit sticky, but seemed like a good, semi wet, consistency.

Then there was rolling.  Lots of rolling.  At this point, I can tell you a few things: 1. Do not wash your hands or worry about getting dirty.  Just go with it.  2. Do not try to “flour” or coat your hands to prevent mess.  Again, lost cause. 3. This is going to make a lot.  I think I got something in the neighborhood of 48 cake pops from the one recipe.  4. Have a plan.  I found myself scrambling and sort of looking around, going, “uhhhh…” a lot.  5. As part of said plan, get out your wax or parchment paper and line some containers before hand.  Have space in the freezer cleared out.  And, for goodness sake, don’t try to touch anything else while you’re doing this!

So, after you’ve rolled them and thrown ’em in a pan, you can break out the lollipop sticks and put them into each one.  I went ahead and did this prior to freezing on this round, but I just put some in the freezer the other day that I did not do this step for.  I’m trying some new things, and want to see which is better.  The reason I’m trying a different way?  Well, when I went to dip these little bite-sized sin balls, I found that the stick was slipping down into the ball more than I would have liked.  Remember when I told you that the mix would be a little wet?  Well, I’m trying two things different on this batch, and this is the first thing: waiting to stick them.

The next step is melting the coating.  I used a vanilla candy coating and a chocolate almond bark for the coating.  I had sprinkles on hand in clear and hot pink, and I got out a couple of little bowls, and lined my counters with parchment and wax paper to prepare for drying.  I spilled the sprinkles onto little plates so that I could dip the coated balls in, and I had plenty of forks nearby for drizzling and turning the pops.  There are some “techniques” that are supposed to make this whole process smoother, but I couldn’t really get anything to magically work. (For the record, I’m not a big “quote” user, but this instance is meant to indicate a sarcastic tone and eye rolling. Now back to the post.)  Tips for this step: 6. Don’t get discouraged.  7. No, this is not easy-peasy. 8. Coating can cover up a lot.  And, if it looks bad, just dip it in sprinkles, or drizzle another coating over it. Ta-da! You’re avant-garde! 9. Have your microwave on standby. You’ll need to reheat your coating every six balls or so to loosen it back up. 10. Don’t worry about keeping the ball shape, and go ahead and embrace the flat side by letting them set on the counter.

So, I told you I changed two things on the batch in the freezer.  The second thing is that I used only 1/2 a container of frosting during the initial mixing process.  I did this because once the cake pops were set in the coating and on the sticks, I still had a slight issue with sliding.  I remedied this for the garden party by breaking out little cellophane bags and some fabric scraps to wrap them each individually.  The fabric scrap tie was placed strategically under the ball so that it held it up on the stick for the presentation.  I’m hoping that this next batch will be a little sturdier with less frosting and hold up better on the stick.  We’ll see.  The last few lessons learned for this project: 11. These are a show stopper, so persevere. 12. They do taste good, so your efforts aren’t in vain. And, 13. Have some sort of squat vases, pots, containers standing by because the bouquet effect turned out super cute!

If the thought of a pop wears you out, you can always just dip the top, and call it a mini cupcake.

A garden party baby shower

August 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

The little lady from this post was celebrated with a shower a few weeks back that we had a great time putting together.  Her bedroom has lots of flowers in the bedding, so we went with a garden party theme, and it snowballed from there!  The celebration brunch featured tons of great food, pretty flowers, paper lanterns, pinwheels, lots of pink, mimosas, and some fun treats for guests to take home.  Keeping it simple was really not in the cards, and we may have gone a little overboard, but it was a great time, and hopefully you’ll find some inspiration in here for your next shindig.

We started with the table, and some fun pink, white, and green fabrics and napkins to create lots of soft, colorful layers.  Two nice, tall vases filled with daisies and mums were joined by some pinwheels that I picked up at Hobby Lobby.  The chocolate cake took center stage, and we put all the brunch goodies around the table and labeled them with fun, pink sparkly labels in floral photo holders.

A great way to use my scraps from the quilt, I cut strips of the fabrics from the quilt and used them to dress up the pinwheels in the floral arrangements by tying the strips around the top of the stem.  I cut them with pinking shears.  I used about four or five 1 inch tall strips, measuring about 6 to 8 inches long on each pinwheel.  You can also see where I used them on the metal sign above to soften up the welcome plaque.  If it was sitting still, I probably tied some of these around them–on the basket handles, on the treat sacks, on the flowers…

My favorite chocolate cake from the amazing Barefoot Contessa made an appearance.  I embellished it a bit with these little ducks that I cut out from candy coating left over from the cake pops.  Oh yes, you read correct, there were cake pops!  And, since I had the vanilla left over, I spread it thin on a sheet of wax paper and let it set in the freezer for a bit and then cut out these little guys to swim around the bottom of the cake.  I used a small rubber duck metal cookie cutter to do the handy work.  This cake is always a hit.  And why wouldn’t it be? It has a pound of butter and an amazing amount of grated chocolate in it.

And here they are–cake pops!  I used the recipe from Bakerella, but I made the balls ahead of time, so they set up really well in my freezer.  I had them on the sticks and on cookie sheets all frozen before I melted the candy coatings.  The coatings were a bit of a mess, so I had to make these pretty with extra sprinkle and drizzle.  Crazy enough, I think they turned out better for it!  Cellophane bags and more fabric scraps used for ties, and these little tasty treats found homes in flower pots throughout the party.  On the food table, by the guest book, you name it!  We made sure everyone went home with a couple as a favor.

And speaking of to-go, little jars of sweet treats are my new favorite ever since my aunts used them for Baby Mac’s shower.  I decided to try something quick and easy, a recipe from my grandmother called EZ Lemon Cheesecake, that set up beautifully in these little jars.  These are the 4 oz size, and I just made a quick label for the tops and set them in a basket at the front.  These little pies-to-go set up in the fridge overnight and were ready for guests to take home the next day.  More on that recipe soon.

The brunch went down as a success, and I topped it off with one last scrap-busting project.  Little “Thanks a Bunch” fabric cards to send home with Momma-To-Be.  A big shout out to the Aunt-To-Be and my mom who helped me get it all put together.  The support system was in full effect and helped me let the creativity flow.  More fun inspirationals to come from this one!

Quilt and pillow for little miss

August 8, 2011 § 3 Comments

I think I may have mentioned that there are a few babies on the way in my circle of friends.  And by a few, I mean six.  Yes, I said six.  That’s a lot of projects, folks.  But nothing inspires a project like a sweet little babe on the way, and this quilt and pillow were made for a little lady who is set to make her debut September 1 (although my money is on August 23rd!).

I think I may have seen a pillow like this one when I was out and about…perhaps Anthropologie?…but I decided I could recreate something along these lines by cutting petals of increasing size and appliqueing them onto a pillow top.  Then I used a trusty bowl to outline petal lines on the pillow, which I stitched in red thread.

The quilt itself is another trusty Moda Bake Shop pattern.  I cheated a little and didn’t use the same fabric for the four inner diagonal squares on the pieced squares.  Instead I alternated two and two so that I could use four different fabrics on the pieced squares.  This was really just because I had such a hard time focusing on so few fabrics!

You see, I recently came into the jackpot of vintage fabrics from Grandma Amy.  They’ve been moving, and she has been stashing away fabrics since the 60’s and they needed a good home.  Add that to the scraps of lovelies that I can’t seem to ever part with, and you have a great combination of vintage and modern fabrics in this yellow, orange, and pink layout.  Also, I’ve sorta, kinda figured out how to use the alphabet key on the Bernina!  Cute, huh?

And, I’m loving all the new fancy stitches that I’m figuring out how to apply from the machine.  I ran this beauty around the binding to give it a little flair since it was prepackaged binding.  I’m becoming a big fan of packaged binding these days since by the time I get to that step, the last thing I want to do is piece it together–I’m almost done!

I love the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing a quilt.  I have another new one to share with you soon, but in the meantime, I’m going to bask in the glory of having number two down…only four more to go!

A little zucchini for a little baby

July 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sweet sister-in-law has been given strict instructions to gain six pounds over the next three weeks to help grow her own little Baby Mac.  I have not been given similar instructions, but I do feel like I can contribute to the cause.  I mean, how many times in our lives will we be told to gain weight?!  Seems like we should chip in and celebrate when someone is given such a task.

Zucchini bread to the rescue!  Her little bun has made her oven a little sensitive, and this was one of the few things she got excited about, so I dug out my mother-in-law’s recipe and went to work!

1 cup crisco oil

3 eggs

2 cups sugar

2 cups grated zucchini (4 small zucchinis–I ran them through the shredder attachment on the food processor and came up with just the perfect amount)

2 teaspoons vanilla

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon cloves

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees and spray a loaf pan down really good.  Combine the oil, eggs, sugar, and vanilla in a mixer until they’re well blended (about 2 minutes).  In a large bowl, mix together your flour, powder, soda, and spices–just use a fork to combine these together.  Slowly add the dry ingredients to your wet ingredients as the mixer is going.  I usually add this about 1/2 a cup at a time to get it well incorporated.  Once you have it all well blended, remove the bowl from the mixer and add the grated zucchini by folding it in with a spatula.

Bake for 1 1/2 hours and use a skewer or toothpick to test it.  You want it to come out clean–then you’re done!  We wrapped this one up in some foil and sent it home for Operation Weight Gain.  Let’s hope it did the trick!