So we’re a little loose with our birthday themes! We like to squeeze in all our favorite things. For Miss H’s first birthday, she wanted dinosaurs. Or ponies. Or dinosaurs eating ponies. That required some interpretation. For her second birthday, she wanted a Kung-Fu Shark Ballerina birthday. I always do my best, even for my most demanding clients, to read between the lines and make seemingly conflicting requirements work. I take these birthday theme challenges seriously. At least, as seriously as I can. The hardest part of parenting is keeping a straight face.
I edited out the graphic part of the dinosaur theme, as well as a lot of the Kung-Fu part, since no one wants to deal with a bunch of two year-olds high as a kite on mass doses of food coloring and sugar running around trying out Kung-Fu. But the bouncy house had a shark on it, and the cake had ballerinas.
When she discovered that her favorite color was rainbow, things got a little easier. I created my first Rainbow birthday cake…
Simple white frosting with puffy marshmallows on the outside…
rainbow layers on the inside!
Red velvet, orange frosting, yellow cake, green frosting, then red velvet dyed blue.
Rainbow carousel bouncy house!
Aren’t these photos beautiful? My husband took them with his Real Camera. Helen liked the rainbow theme and the accidental Carousel bouncy house (they were out of whatever we had originally ordered) so we did it again the next year.
The second, Rainbow Carousel version…
Rainbow frosting between split layers of white cake.
With a frosted rice crispy dome…
Decorated with chocolate horses, red vines, and Jelly Bellies.
This year Miss H has had bit of an obsession with hula and listened to WAY too much Hawaiian music. And a big part of her kindergarten year was spent making giant sea creatures, visiting local aquariums, and learning about whales. She begged for a swim birthday party at La Petite Baleen, which is right up my alley because I’m in the middle of a bunch of big work projects, and planning to go to China at the end of October. More on that later.
So with a little planning and shopping ahead, I spent the morning of the party putting the finishing touches on a Hawaiian Hula Mermaid Fish themed birthday cake.
The candy writer refused to work at the last minute, but fortunately I’d brought a backup sparkle gel frosting writer, which worked, if a bit blurry.
Here’s what the whole birthday set up looked like:
View of the room with balloons.
The room is ready!
Leis for everyone!
Centerpiece of tropical fruit.
Sea animals as a party favor.
Kids frolicking in the pool.
After making the first two cakes, putting this one together was fairly easy, but still time consuming. My sister is visiting for the birthday weekend, so she and my mom have been having a blast with Miss H, the only way I had time to do this.
Don’t ask, don’t tell. The real ingredients of frosting.
Store the folded up butter wrappers in a baggy for future use.
Three pounds of sugar.
Add sugar a cup at a time, so you don’t send sugar flying all over your kitchen.
Keep the frosting covered with a damp paper towel until you’re ready to spread it.
Work backwards, from lightest frosting layer to darkest.
The bottom layer.
An upside-down tower of cake!
Leaning tower of cake.
White chocolate seashells in the swirling frosting foam.
The most important things I’ve learned doing this for three years in a row:
1. Bake and refrigerate the layers the night before. Painting is all about prepping the surface, and frosting is no different. If your cake is tender, everything’s a mess. Wrap them securely in saran wrap and then wrap them to each other so they don’t break.
2. Get extra materials, in case you screw up. Don’t forget the sugar.
3. When you discover at the last minute that you’re completely out of powdered sugar, borrow 5 lbs from your neighbor. Neighbors ROCK.
4. Make sure you have plenty of paper towels handy. Save the environment by not getting lots of plastic crap for favors. A few trees can sacrifice themselves for art, or at least to save your iPhone from death by frosting.
5. Use the Decorator’s Buttercream Frosting recipe from Epicurious and regular white cake mix, no sense reinventing the wheel. Red velvet tastes incredible, but the color is much more “sophisticated.” White is a perfect background for dye.
6. Borrow a frosting gun–it makes all those cool puffy, swirly shapes. I didn’t realize the colors would swirl so nicely inside the gun–next time I would do the blue first, then put more white into the gun without cleaning it to make the foam caps of the waves. Frosting guns require WAY more frosting than you’re going to think is reasonable. When you get to the checkout with all that butter and sugar, you’re going to think your list is wrong. Hopefully, you only do this once or twice a year, so you won’t permanently damage your kid.
7. Use the Sea Creatures Chocolate Mold and some white chocolate chips to make your sea creatures or other theme shapes. Make enough to have one for every kid, they fight over these every year. I usually make a few extra anyway, and then hand them out separately.
8. Check out Etsy for crazy cake toppers. I like to get just a little something and save them year to year. I’ve had fun reusing the ballerinas.
9. A three-layer cake is as tall as you can go without some type of structural support. Unless you’re an architect and that’s what you want to play with, stop at three layers. Slicing them in half and gluing everything together with thin layers of frosting helps, but mine always still lean slightly. Once they’re decorated, no one can tell.
10. Slice the cake very thin!
Alright, now it’s your turn–you get to tell me how crazy I am for my cake art obsession!
For the PTA Bake Sale last week, I was all out of mixes and had zero time to stop by a store. Normally, in the city, I’d just pop out to Trader Joe’s or CVS or something and pick up some squishy brownie or neon pink cake mix. Out here, the closest CVS is 35 minutes, and Trader Joe’s is more like 45.
I opened up the cupboards: nothing. Half a bag of mixed frozen fruit, some flour, and what remained of a tub of vegan shortening from my holiday baking. Epicurious has never failed me before, but do you realize, they have NO SEARCH CATEGORY FOR BAKE SALE?
What could I make in less time than a store trip?
If I actually had a real freezer, instead of the moody little shoebox-sized compartment on top of our 3/4 scale apartment style fridge, I would keep frozen pie crusts handy for something like this. In this case, a few hours shy of the bake sale, I had nada. Fortunately, making crust is a lot easier than you think–it’s trying to make it into a giant perfectly round disc that’s hard. For hand pies, though, anything goes.
To make pastry quickly in your own moment of desperation, blend 3/4 cup plus about 2 tablespoons shortening (or vegan shortening, or butter, or butter-like substance) into 2-1/4 cups flour and a teaspoon of salt. Use a fork, or a pastry blender if you have one, or ideally, a Cuisinart. You can mix shortening and butter, too, depending on what you have left. I had about half a cup of shortening, so added some butter I had leftover from making something else. The butter has better flavor, and more butter will give you a more shortbread-like texture. More shortening in the ratio makes it lighter and flakier. I also added a tablespoon of sugar, to give the crust a little sweetness, but you don’t need it. If you’re using a Cuisinart, use the “pulse” button just until it forms a crumbly texture with little pea-sized bits. If you just whirl the snot out of it, the crust will be tough. This whole process takes about five minutes, unless you use the Cuisinart. Then it will take three minutes, but you will have spent ten minutes looking for all the parts and trying to reassemble it.
Add up to 1/3 cup COLD water, very slowly, using the fork/pastry blender/”pulse” control until the dough wants to form a ball. Stop before it gets sticky. Put plastic wrap over the bowl and turn it upside-down, wrapping the plastic wrap around the ball and pressing in any of the loose bits. Wrap it up nice and tight and stick it in the fridge for an hour or two while you finish your hair/thesis/blog post/email/taxes.
When the crust is a little firmer, pull it out of the fridge and put it on a lightly floured board. Roll it out to about 1/8″ thick, flipping and turning it a couple of times to make sure it’s not sticking. The beauty of hand pies is that you’re not making a large crust, so if it tears or isn’t perfect, so what? Whip out those cookie cutters and find shapes you can work with. The only rule is to cut the shapes in pairs, obviously, so you have a top and a bottom for each pie.
I used flower and heart cutters that have proved incredibly multi-purpose. Cookies, sure, but also cheese, flat bread, all kinds of things. Sure, Miss H will eat a wide variety of things, but she’ll eat almost anything shaped like a flower or heart. Don’t have fancy cookie cutters? Slice the dough like you’re going to play tic-tac-toe, and then diagonally to make matching triangles. Voila, just like you used to buy at the corner store when you were a kid! What were those things called? Homepies?
Anyhow, put your filling into the center of each bottom shape. No more than a teaspoon, or they get too messy! Then put the matching top on and press around the outside to seal. The flower worked particularly well here, because a nice thumbprint on each petal really enhanced the shape. Frozen berries and jams of all types make great fillings. If you are using vegan shortening and your own preserves, you can easily make this a vegan or sugar-free dessert, and no one ever has to know.
If you’d like to really rock the bake sale, and you’re not that strictly vegan, brush the tops with egg white for that bakery-case display look. If you’re in a hurry, just put them in the oven for about 20-25 minutes at 400 and use the time to make yourself a cocktail or return some phone calls.
I also sprinkled a little cinnamon sugar on the top, but you could get your Fancy Nancy on with any sprinkles or colored sugar you have handy. Everyone will think you’ve worked so hard!
I happened to have a couple of store-bought berries still left in the fridge when my box arrived, and couldn’t help comparing them. The one on the right is a normal-sized organic strawberry from Trader Joe’s. Very nice. The one on the left is one of the monster-sized, incredibly sweet and succulent berries from my box.
A quick post to share my excitement over the first CSA box of the season. This year I’m signed up for a weekly box from Echo Valley Farm, and here’s what was in it:
What’s not shown in the picture is the lovely little tub of freshly made arugula pesto, which I immediately stuck in the fridge next to my latest jar of Genius Soup. Nothing perks up a bowl of soup like a dollop of pesto, and I can’t wait to try Chef Amy’s.
I love looking at all the colorful greens, and getting inspired to cook something. The curly garlic scapes in the center smell so good! Since I tried cooking them after a recent Farmer’s Market, I have now eaten every last one in my garden. Erp. Can’t wait for more! It is a lot like the first, thin asparagus of the season, but with a twist.
I’m not sure what I’ll do with the rest of it yet, but last night after the box came I just threw together a quick salad of the mixed baby greens and arugula with the sliced strawberries in a balsamic vinaigrette. Good olive oil, good balsamic, a little forkful of good mustard, with coarse ground salt and pepper. Delish!
I love a good plateful of salad, but it doesn’t quite cut it for Miss Thing. So in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll admit that we are a tater-tot loving household, along with the occasional organic, college-educated chicken patty. Here’s how I like to serve them:
My little Camembert babies have to be flipped every day for the first week in order to develop their first bloom of mold properly. The black dusting is vegetable ash, which gives the surface more tooth for the mold to develop. The sushi mat keeps the bottom surface from sitting in any moisture on the bottom of the container.