Strawberry Balsamic Chocolates

All right, readers– it’s definitely been a while since my last post. Part of it I can attribute to computer issues– for some reason WordPress refused to allow me to upload photographs, and since I didn’t want to post without pictures I was basically unable to post anything for a while. And then I got out of the habit, which was unfortunate. But I’m back now, WordPress is cooperating, and I’ve got a bunch of new projects to tell you about! Starting with this one: chocolates!

I recently acquired a set of silicone half-sphere molds in various sizes, figuring I would use them to make some neat layered mousse desserts (you know, the kind that look like those models of the earth showing the crust, core, etc.). Well, I still haven’t done that, but in the meantime I figured that I could use them to make chocolates!

I broke out my immersion sous vide machine and tempered some dark chocolate (Trader Joe’s Pound Plus Bars are the best!) using this very useful technique— annoyingly, my chocolate firmed up extremely quickly, making it a bit difficult to work with, but it was definitely tempered!

For the filling, I made a chocolate ganache and stirred in a big dollop of strawberry jam and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar– it tasted good, but to amp up the fruitiness I decided to make a strawberry-balsamic gel to pipe in as well. It was easy– I just brought more jam and vinegar to a boil and let it bubble away for a bit, then let it cool down again. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone I didn’t make it from scratch!

Once the chocolates were unmolded– some in full-size and some mini– I decorated them. For the larger chocolates I mixed gold luster dust with vodka to make a paint that I splattered over the tops, but for the minis I tried a technique I’d seen online to coat them in an even shimmer of luster dust– rather than paint them with brushes (which resulted in streaky coverage), I took a few spoonfuls of nonpariel sprinkles– the kind that look like tiny balls– and mixed them with a small spoonful of luster dust. I swished the chocolates around in the dust-coated sprinkles, which made a gorgeously even coat of shimmery color! It’s like magic!

The finished chocolates are beautiful and delicious, and have whetted my appetite for making more! So much so that I bought a set of polycarbonate molds (so much easier to work with than silicone), and have made a list of potential fillings, so keep an eye out for more chocolates in the future!

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Mini Carrot Cake Cheesecakes

“More carrot cake jam?”– you may ask, wondering just how many more recipes for this delectable condiment I have planned. Well, this is my last variation, and it’s just as delicious as the previous ones. It’s simple, really– standard bite-sized cheesecakes with a swirl of jam baked into them– but irresistible once you’ve tried one. I like them best frozen, and really can’t decide whether I like these or the Carrot Cake Ice Cream better. Obviously, the recipe would work equally well with a jam or preserve of your choice– I’m thinking sour cherry next time?

I will note that this recipe makes 40 bite-sized cheesecakes in a mini muffin pan. I used a silicone pan, which made it a snap to remove the chilled cheesecakes– if you’re using metal, I recommend using paper liners. If you don’t have two mini muffin pans, the unbaked crumbs and filling will keep at room temperature while you bake and freeze your first batch– just don’t let it sit overnight or anything.

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Hogwarts Spellbook Cake

When my daughter decided that she wanted a Harry Potter-themed party, perhaps unwisely, I promised to make her whatever kind of cake she wanted… and she chose a three-tiered cake that looked like stacked spellbooks. Made of three different flavors of cake (lemon, chocolate, and marble). Iced in buttercream, not fondant. Oh, boy…

The toughest part was definitely going to be getting nice, smooth, flat book covers without using fondant. Not that I blame her– frosting is definitely tastier– but it was going to be difficult. I thought back to her Kitty House Cake, though, and decided that I would make the book covers out of graham crackers, which were naturally flat and smooth, and had some structure to them.

In order to keep the frosting as smooth and leather-like as possible, I decided to spread it onto a sheet of parchment paper– once spread, I pressed the graham crackers directly into it (for a 9×9″ square cake I ended up with eight crackers per side, plus two more for the spine), then pushed the frosting up over the edges so they would be colored on all visible sides.

Then I spread a bit more frosting on top to keep things sticky, placed my cake up against one edge of the “bottom” cover, and frosted it with white frosting to resemble pages.

Once that was smoothed out, I used the parchment to wrap the rest of the cover over and around it. Luckily for me, the width of the spine was just about the same as the height of the cake, so it worked out nicely. Since it was pretty chilly outside I then put the whole thing under a cover in my garage to chill down and firm up– necessary to be able to unwrap the parchment later without smearing. I will admit that the cakes, once frosted and crackered, ended up being a LOT larger and heavier than I’d anticipated…

I peeled off the parchment paper from each book and carefully transferred each cake to a sheet of cardboard– the bottom one was on a big cardboard presentation board, while the top two were on 8×8″ squares that wouldn’t show once stacked. I pushed drinking straws into the bottom two layers to support the weight of the cakes on top.

Then I stacked the cakes, slightly askew, on top of each other– and they held! They looked great! It was time to decorate. I used a grass tip to make brown fur on the Monster Book of Monsters, but the other two books were left smooth. To add some extra detail I made a batch of candy clay (more on that later) and rolled it out to make book spines, plus one frontispiece for the top book, which I painted with gold highlighter dust and vodka so the books would have legible titles.

And here’s the cake! I love it. Also, it was huge, so I was giving away cake left and right to the party guests, which I’m sure they didn’t mind one bit!

All in all, I think this experiment went well. True, I went through massive amounts of butter to make all the frosting (and the red was inedible due to the sheer amount of red food coloring I had to stir in to get it bright enough– note to self: use the “no taste” coloring next time), but the structure held, and the frosting-covered graham crackers were actually a nice extra treat to nibble on between bites of cake.

I’ll have to try this technique again, perhaps with a smaller cake next time!

Candy Melt “Wax” Seals

I’ve always loved the old-timey look of envelopes sealed with wax and stamped with a crest– they just look so important and mysterious at the same time. And while I’ve never had a reason to send a letter in such an envelope, an opportunity arose when my daughter decided to have a Harry Potter-themed birthday party.

As you may remember, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry receives a letter (many letters) from Hogwarts regarding his acceptance, and in the movie those letters are sealed with red wax.

Harry Potter, Star Wars and Jurassic Park - rare film and TV memorabilia  going up for auction in the UK next month - Radio Times

While our party invitations weren’t paper invitations, we did have a Hogwarts seal (included in a fancy quill pen set she got for Christmas), and I was determined to use it. The solution: Cookies!

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Garden Focaccia

Okay, I admit it, I got suckered in to the trend of vegetable-decorated focaccia– it’s just so pretty that I had to try it! I dipped my toe into the technique with my parsley-topped cheese biscuits, and they were adorable, so since I was already planning on making focaccia for a barbecue, it was the perfect time to give it a shot.

This particular attempt at the focaccia from Smitten Kitchen (which she got from Alexandra Stafford) is actually my second attempt– the first one failed miserably, refusing to rise at all and forcing me to make a last-minute trip to the grocery store for ciabatta to make the sandwiches I’d planned– so I had my fingers crossed that it would work this time. Happily, it rose beautifully and tasted fantastic– this will definitely be my standard focaccia recipe from now on.

I will note that the vegetables definitely look prettier before baking than after– especially the shallots, which lost pretty much all their color in the oven. Perhaps next time I’ll slice them thicker or use a really small red onion to see if the color shows up better that way. Halved cherry tomatoes still look great, though, as do the bell peppers. Next time I’ll really pile on the herbs– they shrank down a lot in the oven, so I could definitely use more. But overall I’m very pleased with the effect– so pretty and really delicious!

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Aardman’s Orange Jelly Cake

Lately my daughter has been watching the show Shaun the Sheep, by Aardman Animations (of Wallace and Gromit fame). During an episode entitled “The Farmer’s Llamas,” her eye was immediately caught by this cake, which is featured only for a few moments:

She was so interested in it that in a fit of reckless abandon, I promised to make it for her once she’d achieved a specific level of proficiency in one of her school activities. And here we are.

One thing I noticed about the cake was that it’s really not a cake at all– it’s a molded jelly dessert. You can tell that the top tier is pure jelly, the middle one is jelly with orange slices in it, and the bottom one is molded jelly with some kind of cream mixed in to make it more opaque (it can’t be cake, it’s too smooth). However, while we enjoy gelatin desserts we like cake better in our house, so we decided to compromise.

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Mini Baked Alaskas

baked-alaska

Lately it’s been so hot that ice cream has been the order of the day– whether in a cone or on a stick, we can’t get enough of it! But it’s always nice to spice things up a bit, so when I found myself with an extra layer of cake and some egg whites (both left over from an ice-cream cake, by the way), I knew just what I wanted to try– baked Alaska!

I think I first heard of it as a kid when watching the movie “Annie,” as the cook is describing to Annie what’s for dinner at Mr. Warbucks’s house (Texas grapefruit, Virginia ham, Idaho potatoes, Wisconsin cheese, Washington apples, and baked Alaska). Curious, I looked it up and discovered that it was a delectable-sounding confection of cake, ice cream, and meringue that could be baked without melting! I also got a mini-lesson in the insulating properties of foam…

That being said, I never got around to trying or making it, until now! I don’t really have much of a recipe for anything other than the meringue– to be safe I made a Swiss meringue, where you heat the egg whites with the sugar to kill off any bacteria. But aside from that, you can use ice cream, fillings, and cake of your choice.

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Churro Ice Cream Tacos

dessert-tacos

Ice cream! Tacos! Ice cream tacos!

I know, it sounds a little weird, but ice cream tacos are my current favorite summer dessert. The shells are deep-fried and rolled in cinnamon-sugar (like churros), then filled with all your favorite ice cream sundae fixings. The warm, crispy, slightly chewy taco shell gives way to a cold, melty ice cream center, and it all combines with your selected sauces and toppings to make for an unforgettable summer experience. Messy, but unforgettable!

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Cupcake “Sliders”

sliders

This past Father’s Day my daughter decided that she wanted to make something fun for dessert for her dad– and since she’s recently been obsessed with “food impostors,” we thought it would great to make cupcakes that looked like cheeseburgers– mini cheeseburger sliders, of course, since full-sized ones would be a bit too much for even my husband’s sweet tooth to handle!

We decided to keep things simple and use box mixes as our base ingredients– a box of french vanilla cake mix, and a box of fudge brownie mix (though to avoid having a gigantic plateful of cupcakes we only used half of the cake mix).

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Lilac-Lemon Teacakes

lilac-teacakes-pretty

These adorable teacakes are one of the results of my foray into lilac/sugar recipes. They’re tiny vanilla/lemon cupcakes frosted with a glaze made from powdered sugar and lilac syrup, topped with candied lilac blossoms! So springy!

I will note, though, that my first attempt (involving pulverizing lilac blossoms into the sugar before using it in the batter) didn’t turn out all that well– honestly, I think the lilac flavor needs something to play off of to avoid tasting like soap. So I tweaked things a bit, and here’s an improved version:

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