Cakes are Trolls, Part II

You can read how this all began here.

I had no idea how to pack gum paste decorations for traveling. Reassuring online research and a not-so-reassuring phone call to TSA had me nervous about flying with so many wires sticking out of objects. Handing the flowers over to be thrown into checked luggage wasn’t an option, so I had to figure out how to carry them on.

Originally, I wanted to layer the decorations in egg crate foam, but apparently everyone who lives nearby is either sleeping very well or not well at all because it was out of stock everywhere.

Instead, I used styrofoam cups and bowls to pack the flowers.

how to pack gum paste for flying

For the roses, I cut the tops off of the cups so they would fit stacked two high in cake boxes and lined each cup with tissue or paper towels. With each flower’s wire, I punctured a hole in the tissue lining and cup bottom, then pulled the wire out through cup until the bloom was cushioned in the tissue. I used another tissue for cushion on the top and hooked the flower’s long wire over the top of the cup. For the peonies I used the same method using bowls. I topped each peony with another bowl to shield the edges of the petals. Leaves and balls I wrapped individually and stacked together then wrapped again with paper towels.

Everything went in three 10″x10″ cake boxes, a size I knew would fit under a seat on a plane.

The flowers were protected from jarring in transport and easy enough to look at if an agent wanted to get a closer look.

And it worked. It all fit and nothing broke. Airport security took no issue with my carry-on. Agents were more interested to know if it was cake in there (no) and could they have some (NO). The boxes fit neatly under airplane seats and the flight went without incident.

When we arrived in Texas I put cake making to the side for a few days to help with wedding preparations. My parents hosted the reception at their house and also made all of the food. It was insane and still makes me tired to think about it.

When I finally extricated myself from savory cooking I started making the actual cake.

Originally, my sister wanted a chocolate cake with berry filling. When we got to Texas her husband-to-be asked for vanilla tiers as well. I wanted to cry a little bit because at that point wedding preparations were verging on a National Lampoon’s Vacation level. If it could go wrong, it did, AND MY HOW IT DID.

I am all about asserting myself and saying ‘no’ when I need to, but this was my sister, so a chocolate and vanilla cake went on the menu.

The cake needed to feed about 170 people. I used a tremendously helpful website to experiment with tier sizes and servings so I could see what the cake would look like with various tier sizes.

Once I knew the sizes of the tiers I wanted to make I started the math for the recipes.

calculating cake size

It took some spreadsheets.

I used Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible (that’s an affiliate link through Amazon, here’s a non-affiliate link if you’d like) when making this cake. I use The Cake Bible whenever I need a cake not to fail. Which is always. I always use it. I love other baking books but this book is the best book for cakes, the end.

The Cake Bible has a section that allows you to scale several recipes by pan size. You can’t just double a recipe and put it in a bigger pan and expect your cake to turn out well because cakes are assholes.

The edition I own has outdated serving sizes for wedding cakes so I adjusted the serving sizes in each tier. Once all of the counts, numbers, and adjustments were in, I checked the weights of my ingredients more times than I can count, fixed them a few times (sweaty armpits again when I almost missed a major baking powder error), then checked everything another time.

While my mom has everything to make anything savory, she doesn’t bake very much. I had to make some emergency trips to the store for teeny cake pans, large cake pans, larger cake pans, and largest cake pans.

Trying to muster up some of the initial battle cry I started out with a few months ago, I started baking. And then promptly sent my husband out on another emergency run for cooling racks.

substitute cooling rack

I made do with a colander for the 4″ top tier but was thankful when I had proper cooling racks shortly thereafter.

Making the sponges was the easiest part of everything.

The challenge of the cake came in two forms: ruffles and weather.

My sister doesn’t care for fondant but wanted stiff, nearly translucent, edible ruffles covering the cake. When researching techniques, I read that the types of ruffles she wanted are usually made of fondant or gum paste then attached to a fondant-covered cake using a little bit of water to ‘glue’ them on.

Determined not to watch guests peel off of their cakes layers of fondant or see gum paste ruffles shatter during cake cutting, I wanted the ruffles to be the only fondant on the cake.

Looking ahead, I knew It was supposed to be in the low 80s (F) and the cake was going to be outside. I needed a stable non-fondant frosting for the tiers of the cake that would hold the ruffles on without sliding off the cake as it sat in the heat for hours.

Mousseline frosting solved everything. An Italian meringue buttercream, egg whites in the frosting provided the stability and strength I needed.

I flavored the frosting with raspberry liqueur and made more than I needed to. I did not want to be caught needing to make more frosting when I was already exhausted, a lesson learned the hard way a few years ago.

Three days before the wedding I had the sponges completed.

That day I torted the five tiers, brushed them with simple syrup, and filled them with a berry puree I made the day before. I put a crumb coat of the mousseline frosting on and stored the cake in refrigerators overnight.

The next day I put the final coat of frosting on the tiers and started the ruffles.

I made a large batch of marshmallow fondant. My sister asked for ivory ruffles so I tinted it with a drop of so of brown dye.

Working in batches, I thinly rolled out pieces of fondant and used a pizza wheel to cut the entire piece into skinny strips.

I frilled each strip with gum paste tools and applied it the cake, one by one, using a small line of frosting to make sure it adhered well.

fondant ruffles buttercream cake

I repeated that until I wanted to throw up

fondant ruffles wedding cake

and then did it four more times.

fondant ruffles cake

I finished at around 10 p.m. the night before the wedding.

I drove straws through tiers so I could stack them on the day of the wedding. The straws allow for less displacement of cake than dowels but still provide enough support to hold the tiers up on each other.

Looking at the finished cakes that night and planning for what the next day would look like (chaos) I quickly realized a few mistakes.

1) I should have stacked the cake that night and used an additional support stake through all of the tiers. The cake would be tall and heavy and I was concerned about it tipping, even with the straws. I would have to transport each tier outside, one by one, instead of being able to do it in one trip with some help. It was too late at that point to do anything about it since I didn’t have the necessary hole drilled in the cake boards (the plate-like cardboard pieces on which each tier sat).

2) It was going to be hot the next day so the cake had to stay inside until the reception. It dawned on me that since the cake was not already stacked and adorned with flowers (I didn’t want the gum paste in contact with the cake to start getting soft on the cake which happens over the course of a few hours) I would have to assemble and add the flowers after we got back from the ceremony while the reception was going on. My mother hired waitstaff to help the next day but I did not trust them to carry and assemble the cake.

They were mistakes that could not be fixed and had to be worked into the plan.

The next morning the cleaning crew didn’t show, the rental company didn’t set up the dance floor, chairs, or tables, and we found they only gave us bowls instead of plates and not enough cups or utensils.

Also, it was the day of the wedding.

I told you it was National Lampooney. And I didn’t even tell you about the septic system problems.

My husband and I took over the cleaning crew’s job. Some of my family went outside to set up tables and chairs while other members scoured Texas for rental companies that would supplement equipment since the original rental company couldn’t.

It was a stressful morning.

Finally, a little later as things were coming together, some of us left for the church to meet my sister there for photographs while others stayed to tame the madness. I was supposed to do the bride’s makeup (you’d be surprised at how much makeup application and cake decorating have in common) so I showed up with my kit and waited for her to get there from her hair appointment.

And waited. And waited some more.

We got word that she was stuck in traffic from an accident on the highway but that she should be there in time for the wedding.

Oh, good.

My to-be-wedded sister walked in five minutes before she was supposed to walk down the aisle and that was the fastest I have ever applied event makeup in my life.

The wedding was a success with everyone forever holding their peace and a newly married couple exiting the church riding unicorns and hearts in their eyes and rainbows out their ears or pretty much just looking like that because they were so happy.

And then it was party time cake time.

My husband and I “drove the speed limit” back to my parents’ house and started working on transporting the cake tiers to the small gazebo and table where they would be on display.

I stopped short when I walked up to it because it was in 100% direct beaming sunlight.

I’m not sure how I missed this the entire week I had been there. There was no changing it now or shielding the cake so I prayed fervently that this stupid pile of butter and sugar would hold and all of the work wouldn’t slide off to crash in a pile of sadness and ruin.

My armpits were sweaty again and I wanted to run away screaming I DON’T DO WEDDING CAKES I DON’T DO WEDDING CAKES forever and ever.

Instead, I stacked the tiers and started poking flowers in.

I have two regrets with this cake. The first is that I didn’t use a dummy cake to practice wiring the flowers together on the cake. I felt like I put them in haphazardly in the end which still bothers me. I wanted them doing that cascade thing, remember

gum paste peony rose

The second is that I didn’t have a cake stand. My mom and I had a miscommunication about it and I ended up having to set the cake board directly on the cake table. It was fine, just not exactly how I wanted it.

But regrets and all, once it was stacked up, flowers all in, I took a step back and exhaled for the first time in a week.

wedding cake with ruffles and gum paste flowers
photo courtesy of Chris Rake Photography.

cake with ruffles
photo courtesy of Chris Rake Photography.

wedding cake with ruffles
photo courtesy of Chris Rake Photography.

I did it!

I managed to keep breathing for the rest of the reception but didn’t relax until the cake cutting. Despite being in the sun the cake held up beautifully. Nothing slid off or even around a little. The stupid pile of butter and sugar stood there very nicely for the whole reception. Thank you, mousseline.

There are a million things I could pick apart about the cake but I am just happy I was able to do it. It could have gone wrong and failed spectacularly at so many points but it didn’t.

I’m still not sold on making wedding cakes. They are in the realm of possibility now but still make me sweat. At least now there is less crying and more triumphant screaming.

Cakes are Trolls, Part I

I don’t do wedding cakes because the first cake I ever made was a wedding cake.

That’s enough to put you off of them for life.

When a coworker asked me to make her wedding cake, my baking experience extended to truffles that I made as office presents. Even with my grand lack of skills, her cake design was simple enough so I said sure, that I would do it as a gift.

What I didn’t know then is that nothing is simple with cakes.

They are the trolls of the baking world. They’re finicky because they’re assholes. They can and do go wrong at every step, sometimes just to watch you cry.

Making my coworker’s cake took months of practice. It was ridiculous and I cried a lot.

I think I’m happy that Pinterest didn’t exist in 2006. Photos of perfect cakes may have caused me to abandon the project. Instead, I raged at pock-marked frosting in my kitchen but carried on, oblivious to others’ perfection.

The final product was fine. When I brought it to the venue I was relieved that I was done and happy it was gone.

While writing this post, I thought to myself that I was happy I had lost the only photo I had of it, but a little digging and NOPE, FOUND IT (and its sweet, sweet photo editing job).

photographer unknown

And look, I even tinted that frosting to match the petals. I guess the result wasn’t as bad as I remembered. STILL, the process was exhausting.

Once I finished her cake, I left the whole dessert course alone for a while. I had developed pretty hostile feelings toward cakes and thought I would never touch another one again.

Yet, after a little while, the hostility I harbored birthed a desire to wrestle cakes to the fucking ground.

I started making cakes just to get better at it and began enjoying the process of showing them who’s boss.

Every time a cake turned out well I essentially did this in the kitchen.


Wedding cakes, however, I turned down. I swore them off because the pressure was too high. If anyone asked about wedding cakes, I told/screamed in horror “I DON’T DO WEDDING CAKES” and stuck to it.

I did that for six years until one of my sisters got engaged and asked me to make her wedding cake.

She sent me a photo of what she wanted. It was simple, not fussy, and used techniques I already knew.

“You won’t cry this time. You know this stuff. Plus, it’s your sister,” I told myself. I told her I would make her simple cake and felt surprisingly ok about it.

Then her wedding date changed and suddenly what she now wanted was very different and my armpits were sweating and I felt that horror scream coming on of I DON’T DO WEDDING CAKES.

Instead, I issued a battle cry and started practicing.

The cake she wanted had a lot of gum paste flowers on it, something I had never done (lolololololol of course).

I was happy Pinterest existed at this point. Now perfect cakes were something to aspire to, not something to feel defeated by. I found inspiration and tutorials on how to make exactly what I wanted.

I started with peonies. I used a tutorial from Cake Journal.

I didn’t think I’d be writing about my sister’s cake since I was more worried about abject failure. These are mostly iPhone/Instagram shots as I went along.

yes i used a baguette pan as a form what

Peonies require a lot of petals and I had a lot of peonies to make.

multipurpose meatfork

I was so proud of the start of my first ones. Then my neighbor (an actual, legitimate, professional cake baker) came over to visit. At my request she showed me what I was doing wrong with my petal edges.

someone is fabulous

You can see the difference most dramatically in the top two flowers. One is pretty uptight and the other is like I AM FLOATING FREE IN THIS WIND CAN’T YOU FEEL IT?

looking pretty tan there foot better put on some sunblock

Still working things out.

georgia okeefe

Close-up early on.

my kitchen was a mess forever

More petals, veining, rolling, ruffling.

She also wanted a lot of roses:

gum paste roses

so, I started to make roses (not sperm, as someone inquired)

gum paste roses

and more roses

gum paste roses




pretty gum paste roses

I made some roses of a different color.

I started feeling a little more confident at this point (but not too confident because that’s when things start to go wrong)

smiling at me

and I guess the confidence helped because my components started smiling at me.

gum paste roses

I think I made thirty-something blush-pink roses and the same number of coral ones.

gum paste filler

I made some balls (to go along with the sperm) for some filler. It was late and this was the photo that happened. I feel like I’m in a tupperware at the back of the refrigerator.

gum paste roses and leaves

Of everything, the leaves were the most difficult part.

gum paste roses and peonies

This was not the color I wanted for the dark pink peonies at all and I was a little panicky about it.

It is the color they got because I am still learning how to get deep, dark colors in frosting/gum paste/fondant.

My Cake Baker Neighbor even came over to try to help me get the color I wanted but it was still a no-go.

To understand the problem, imagine you’re trying to get fondant a deep, bright, red for a fire-engine cake. Think about adding drops of red food dye to a POUND of white dough. You’re going to get pink. In fact, you’re going to get pink for a long, long, long, time. You may use up your entire bottle of red food dye in your handful of white dough. You now have a beautiful shade of deep pink. Look at that Pepto-Bismol fire-engine go!

I made progress with colors when I switched to Americolor dye but I still have a lot to learn about color mixing and doing it for cakes.

gum paste flowers

Even without getting the dark pink I wanted, when I strangled everything together the colors worked nicely. I wanted them arranged similarly on the cake as they were here.

(We’re not going to talk about the coloring on the balls because it was a nightmare.)

I finished the last gum paste object the day before we were supposed to leave for my sister’s wedding.

To fly across the country.

With innumerable, delicate, wired gum paste decorations.

And two children in tow.

And I hadn’t even started the actual cake.

Part II, with the hard part, is here.

We Cook: Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume – Eggplant Stacks with Pomegranate, Mint and Yogurt Sauce

Last year we were overrun by cucumbers and this year we’re drowning in eggplant. There’s an x-rated joke in there somewhere (a garden-variety one, at that. HA HA HA!).

To make a dent in the nine pounds of eggplant I harvested in one day, I chose a recipe for eggplant stacks from Silvena Rowe’s Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume. Made of chopped sweet potatoes with feta cheese between layers of eggplant, mint, pomegranate, and yogurt are also main components in the finished dish.

Served with the eggplant stacks is a yogurt sauce that uses suzme as its base. According to Rowe, suzme is drained yogurt, or labne. I followed a separate recipe in the book for the suzme by draining whole milk yogurt in the refrigerator overnight.

I chopped fresh mint

and then got out my favorite unitasker for the garlic

and measured out the pomegranate molasses.

If you can’t find pomegranate molasses in your grocery store there is a simple recipe in the book on how to make it at home using pomegranate juice. I can almost always find pomegranate juice at the grocery store but have to go out of my way for the molasses so, in ten years, when I run out of the molasses, I’ll have a recipe I can use.
The yogurt sauce also called for the seeds of one pomegranate. I looked in every store close by and found no pomegranates. I shut my eyes and left them out of the sauce completely. I did not substitute anything for them because I felt that would be doing a disservice to the tart, juicy little things.

Obviously, the sauce would taste like it needed something and the texture wouldn’t be the same, but since I didn’t follow the recipe, any fault in the yogurt sauce this time around would be my own.

The finished sauce went into the refrigerator

and I started after the sweet potatoes.

I had a touch more than the recipe called for but by the time I removed the skanky ends of the sweet potatoes (I got the last few in the bin at the store) I had just enough.

Rowe calls for boiling the sweet potatoes until tender but with no central AC in our house I am selective about when I create a sauna in my kitchen. I microwaved the sweet potatoes exactly like baked potatoes and let them cool before removing their skins.

The instructions only call for the sweet potatoes to be ‘coarsely chopped.’ I would’ve liked a more exact measurement (surprised?) but bearing in mind the pieces would be in between slices of eggplant, I kept the pieces on the smaller side for easy cutting and chewing.

Too big.

Just right.

Had I cut the potatoes before boiling I think 3/4″ dice would’ve been a good size for the pieces to allow for a little breakdown while cooking.

I put all the sweet potatoes aside and got out two eggplants.

Rowe calls for two small eggplants in the ingredient list but specifies that you only need sixteen 1/4″ thick rounds for the recipe. Specifying a 4″ eggplant or something in a similar size-range would’ve been a little more helpful (or even two 2″ eggplants. Although, that is an odd size unless she’s calling for something other than the standard globe eggplant. The ingredient list just says ‘two small eggplants’).
I took a tape measure to the eggplant to make sure I was cutting at an proper thickness

starting after the metal tab on the tape measure since that thing is just annoying.

I switched over to a mandoline after my first slice looked like this.

The mandoline sliced most of them a hair under 1/4″, but the difference in size was negligible.
When building the eggplant stacks a few steps later in the recipe, Purple Citrus instructs you to stack the eggplant slices in ascending size.
Since I had extras thanks to my one big eggplant, I cherry-picked the pieces that were most equal in diameter instead of making eggplant pyramids

I salted, peppered, and floured the chosen

then fried them in a bit of olive oil.

I refried two in this batch as they didn’t look like they absorbed enough oil.
After each batch finished frying I drained them on a naked plate.

I generally forego paper towels when draining fried food because I’ve found the towel causes the food to lose crispness. My bacon has been much crisper using this method but my arteries are probably crispier, too.
While batches of eggplant fried and drained, I made the filling for the stacks.

I broke the feta cheese apart into pieces roughly the same size as the sweet potatoes

and added mint to the mix.

The eggplant was done by the time I had crumbled and chopped things for the filling, so I did a quick wipe of the pan, melted a tablespoon of butter

and then dumped in the mixture.

Immediately after stirring it looked like this

but got less crazy after gentle mixing.

The cheese, potatoes, and mint only needed a brief time on the stove and after they were combined I started making the eggplant stacks.

They came together quickly and when I was done I had four very pretty vegetable towers:

As instructed, I placed everything in the oven to warm through before serving and when they came out they were ready to eat.

I served the eggplant as entrees with two per person but they’d work as a substantial side just fine.

I would’ve liked the recipe to be more specific about eggplant size and cut-size for the sweet potatoes. On a positive note, I was happy that I did not end up with a mountain of filling leftovers. When a recipe is for filled or stuffed foods, I often end up with excess filling or not enough. Happily, this recipe left me with only a small amount in the bowl after putting together the specified yield (four stacks). Since I had eggplant rounds left over from my big eggplant I was easily able to make two more stacks. Based on the amount of filling leftovers and typical eggplant size I would change the recipe yield from four to six stacks.

I’m not saying that a bigger yield of these vegetable towers is a bad thing at all. They certainly were as nice to eat as they were to look at.

We Cook: Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume by Silvena Rowe

I’ve had Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume by Silvena Rowe for a year and have yet to cook out of it.

Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, with 256 pages and over 130 recipes, it came in the same package of books as Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams but didn’t get the same attention as the others in the lot.
There was no good reason to ignore the book, I simply had other books that I kept reaching for. After a year of waiting I think it’s time to use this book. The need to use Purple Citrus is directly tied to the fact that I have a glut of eggplants in the garden and the book has a long list recipes for them.

I’ve never been to the Mediterranean, much less the Eastern Mediterranean, but I am continuously drawn to its food. I think much of it has to do with the area’s amount of negative news coverage. Exposing violence is necessary but culture and beauty always seem to get lost in the avalanche of dark news stories. I want to see the good, the beloved, the comforting. I want to know what quiet moments hold for a person when the focus is on creating something lovely.

I wonder how someone could not want to know more when Rowe writes in her introduction that her recipes combine “the sweet and the sour, the fresh and the dried, honey and cinnamon, saffron and sumac, scented rose and orange flower waters with the most magical of spices.”

Hot dang, I’m ready to cook.

Rowe explains in one of her videos that the “purple citrus” part of the book’s title comes from the qualities of sumac. Sumac is indeed a deep purple spice with a citrusy, floral taste. It can be difficult to source in-person if you’re not in a metropolitan area. The fact that Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume calls for some hard-to-find ingredients is a popular ‘con’ in recent reviews.

Complaints or raves over books are a tiny factor in my buying habits. I am disgustingly frustrated when someone reviews a cookbook without cooking from it. Unfortunately, when you start digging through cookbook reviews this is what you find the most.

Could you imagine someone reviewing a novel the same way? “Well, this paragraph sounded good and there are some nice looking illustrations and photographs, too. What I didn’t like was that there were some big words and I had to get out a dictionary or use surrounding context to figure them out.” Read the book, cook a handful of recipes as written, then make your assessment (YA JACKASS).

While there is no good substitute for sumac, there is a helpful section in Purple Citrus called The Eastern Mediterranean Pantry. It offers substitutes or recipes for many ingredients and information on other common pantry items.

Like sumac, there are a few ingredients used in the book that have no substitutes. Many of them are fresh ingredients like passion fruit, pomegranates, nettles, and purslane. However, I’m not going to cook out of the book every day and I can make the recipes when the ingredients are in season or show up in stores. I don’t live in the Eastern Mediterranean and don’t expect to find everything at my grocery store down the street, especially when I’m cooking from a book that deals exclusively with food from completely different countries.

Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume is divided into several main recipe sections: Mezze (a series of small shared plates); Starters; Boreks (filled pastries), Pilafs and Salads; Meat and Poultry; Fish; Vegetables; and Sweets. Paging through the book, the meat section seems to lean heavily on lamb (unsurprisingly) and the sweets section has several of recipes calling for roses, which is charming to me.

There are a few folktales, poems, and anecdotes throughout the book, breaking up the stream of recipes.

When headnotes are included with a recipe Rowe gives substitution advice, where she got the recipe, or a story setting up the dish’s origins. The headnotes are mostly utilitarian although there are some touching insights here and there.

The book’s photography is by Jonathan Lovekin, the same person who photographed Nigel Slater’s Tender and Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, among other titles getting a lot of attention lately. I couldn’t find any information on the food stylist, but the photographs in Purple Citrus have a jewel-like quality.

Perhaps it has to do with all of the pomegranate seeds on plates, jade pistachios, and olive oil.

There is an official Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume flickr stream for a look at more photos.

Like Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, Sweet Citrus lays flat

making cooking from the book easy.

My edition came with a dust jacket and let me tell you, I’m almost off of the fence about dust jackets on cookbooks.

I’d rather ribbons for place markers and a surface that is easy to wipe off should I lay the book down in a puddle of broth.

The actual book cover is QUITE PINK. It has a glossy surface, making broth puddles a little less threatening if the book is naked.

Along with the presence of a dust jacket, the other niggling thing I can’t shake is that the page numbers are close to the spine instead of on the outside edge of the pages.

To consult the index and then go to the listed page you have to open up the book up all the way to see your page number instead of be able to quickly flip through the edge of the pages.

A small thing, like I said.

Page numbers and dust jackets aside, Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume is an impressive book to pursue but let’s allow the recipes do their thing and see what the book is made of.

I’ve not been compensated or asked to write about this book in any way. I couldn’t find a lot of information about it online so I decided to write about it in depth for others who may be interested in what the book holds.

Maple Butter (or Maple Cream, If You’re Fancy)

I’ve had maple butter bouncing around in my head for a while, a new fun something to make after being told that I must try it.

I had no idea what maple butter was, but research explained that by heating maple syrup to 233 °F, cooling to 40 °F, then warming it back up to 60 °F, the syrup morphed into maple butter (or maple cream, if you’re fancy). The promise of a spreadable maple syrup stuck with me since I discovered its existence, but I wanted a yard full of snow before I tried to make something that required rapid cooling.

Cold, wet, or messy on their own are fine, but they make up the Trifecta of Horrible when combined. As such, I do everything I can to avoid making an ice bath.

A heavy snow on Friday night and Saturday morning took care of the ice bath problem so I got out the trusty candy thermometer to make maple butter. I confess that my research on maple butter was minimal and that I stirred when I ought not to (during the cooling phase), but everything still turned out, and how.

I kept eating the maple butter off of the spoon and finally had to pack it up so I would leave it alone. The next morning I had my doubts about why I was swooning over this stuff (OH THIS IS NEW SO IT MUST BE AWESOME AND BETTER THAN ANYTHING ELSE), so I compared a drizzle of maple syrup to a bit of the maple butter in oatmeal to see if I was simply infatuated by something bright and shiny.

No, it was love. Straight maple syrup tasted tinny and one-dimensional but the maple butter was full, toasty, and strikingly buttery. I figured the name ‘maple butter’ referred to the consistency (it is spreadable like peanut butter), but it tasted so buttery that, had I not made it, I would have guessed butter had been added. I went ahead and added butter to the bowl in this photo, just to push it over the top.

What also surprised me was the texture of the maple butter. The maple butter appears to be a dilatant. Like a cornstarch and water mixture, it is solid if you touch it but if you begin to push it around or stir it, it has fluid-like qualities. Dilatants have “a dense mixture of granules and liquids” which makes perfect sense as to why the maple butter acts as it does.

With hopes of finding out more about sugars in maple syrup, I opened McGee’s On Food and Cooking and read how the process of making maple butter is very similar to making maple sugar (his temperatures are a little different from Wikipedia, if you’re fact checking). The difference between making maple sugar and maple butter is the step of cooling and stirring in maple butter. Maple sugar is made by heating maple syrup to above boiling, then allowing it to cool and form sugar crystals. Maple butter is heated, rapidly cooled, then rewarmed and stirred vigorously– instead of ending up with big crystals of maple sugar in syrup, the sugar crystals are very fine and densely distributed in the reduced maple syrup. Maple butter, the great dilatant confection.

Maple Butter (Maple Cream)

Full-flavored, buttery, and spreadable, I have to keep this out of my sight or I eat it straight off of the spoon. I put a pat on a waffle and added it to oatmeal, but maple butter would be great in a milk-based drink, added to BBQ sauce, in a sweet-savory sandwich, between two cookies….
You must use 100% pure maple syrup for this recipe.


  • 1 cup pure maple syrup


  1. Prepare an ice-bath (or wait until you have snow drifts deep enough to put a small pot, your call) for a small pot.
  2. Fit a small, deep pot with a candy thermometer.
  3. Over medium-high heat, bring the syrup up to 233 °F (112 °C), stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, about 3-4 minutes.
  4. Immediately remove the pot from the stove and set in the ice bath. Stir occasionally until the syrup cools to 40 °F (4 °C), about 5-8 minutes.
  5. Back on the stove over medium-low heat, warm the syrup to 60 °F (15 °C), stirring frequently.
  6. Once the maple syrup reaches 60 °F, remove from heat again and stir vigorously for 2-3 minutes.
  7. Set the pot aside and let stand for 10 minutes. The syrup will begin to cloud and turn a light tan color.
  8. Stir until the maple butter is smooth and easily spreadable.
  9. Use at once or store covered in the refrigerator.

Quick notes

This is exactly how I made the maple butter, goof-ups and all. Keep an eye on the syrup since as it reaches 233 °F it boils up considerably. If you’d like to experiment, try leaving the maple syrup undisturbed as it cools, then beat it with a wooden spoon while bringing it back up to 60 °F until it is tan in color and smooth.

A Kitchen Gift Guide – Part Three: Media and Classes

This post contains some affiliate links.

This is the final part of a kitchen gift-guide designed to help with giving something meaningful to the cooks and bakers on your list. Most of these can be purchased at the last minute which is handy as we are down to the wire now.

Like the guides before, this is not a comprehensive list of books or subscriptions that I recommend for people. These are things that I like and think would make fun gifts. I’ve not been paid, compensated, or asked to feature any of the following items.


The best gifts are ones that give a little bit of happy every time the receiver thinks about them. Subscriptions are my favorite things to gift to people because the giftee gets the present anew all year long.

Canal House Cooking – $49.95 for a one-year subscription, published three times a year.

Strongly reminiscent of the River Cottage cookbooks, Canal House Cooking is my favorite subscription-based food publication. I’m hesitant to call it a magazine as the issues are small, hard-bound books with no ads. It is more akin to getting three cookbooks a year in the mail. Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton self-publish Canal House with a focus on what is local and in season. One of the issues last year was titled “Farm Markets and Gardens” and we used every fantastic tomato recipe in the book. Hirsheimer and Hamilton always manage to keep from sounding as if they’re looking down their noses as they write, though; they devoted a following volume to “The Grocery Store.” It is balanced writing with understated photography in a pretty package.

Gastronomica – $50.00 or $28 for student/retirees for a one-year subscription, published quarterly.

Gastronomica is not a cooking magazine. It is a journal (meaning it is a peer-reviewed publication) with book reviews, poetry, articles on food in culture, art, history and writing. There are no recipes in Gastronomica save for ones used to drive home a point in a story, and even those types are few. The stories are varied– from Gastronomica I’ve read articles about an art exhibition using breast milk and the subsequent controversy, another about a town’s devotion to Fluff, a fiction piece on working in a prison kitchen, a non-fiction article detailing a family kitchen aging through generations, a poem connecting food and grief… The journal is about food in every aspect of life, not just confined to a restaurant or home kitchen.

Digital Media

Eat Your Books – $25.00 for a one-year subscription

This could fall under the above category, but it is online instead of the mailbox so I’ve put it here.

The best way to describe Eat Your Books is as a master index of your cookbooks. After adding cookbook titles to a virtual personal library, searching for an ingredient or technique in all of the recipes in your books takes a moment instead of an entire morning. The idea behind EYB is that if you can easily search your cookbooks, you’ll use them. It works: I use the site several times a week and books that I would’ve never thought to look in for a certain recipe get pulled off of the shelf and used.

There are some drawbacks to the site. While they have lots of books and are constantly indexing more, they don’t have every book under the sun in their database. They also don’t provide page numbers for the recipe. I assume this is so they don’t have to index multiple releases of essentially the same book, but it would be nice to eliminate the step of looking up the recipe again in the cookbook after I’ve looked it up on EYB. Minor irritations aside, the gift of a year’s subscription to the website would make a homerun gift for someone with a sizable cookbook collection.

Ratio App by Michael Ruhlman – $4.99

Available for the handheld iThings and Droids, Ruhlman’s Ratio app takes the meat of his book, Ratio, and puts it in its most simple form for the app. Ratio outlines 32 ingredient ratios for cooking and baking (doughs, batters, sauces, sausages, etc.) with the idea that if you know a basic ratio you don’t need a recipe. The application cuts through the chatty writing of the book by featuring an easily read pie chart and ingredient calculator for each ratio, along with pertinent instructions. Put on an iTunes giftcard, this is another great gift for someone with a big cookbook collection. The Ratio app is also a wonderful idea for someone who is just beginning to cook as it gives them freedom to play around with flavors while learning the basics of what has to be in a recipe to make it work.


Like subscriptions, I enjoy giving classes as gifts because they give the receiver something to look forward to after the initial present opening.

Wilton Decorating Classes – Prices Vary, but about $30.00

I took the first course of Wilton Decorating Classes and it was fantastic. I ditched their frosting recipe (shortening and powdered sugar? Eugh.), but I use the piping techniques every time I make a cake. Usually offered at hobby stores like Michael’s and Hobby Lobby over several weeks, the instructors are good and coursework well-explained. In the first course, they teach basic piping (how to frost a cake, shells, Swiss dots, writing, flowers, and roses) and there are subsequent courses with more advanced techniques. Invaluable for anyone interested in cakes, it would also make for fun parent-child outings as I can see a 12-year old having a blast learning how to make a cake look fancy.

Sur La Table classes – $59.00 and up

Sur La Table offers classes ranging from fundamental (knife skills) to focused (Thai restaurant favorites). Each class is a single class that runs for a few hours. I am particularly drawn to the knife skills class as a gift since knowing how to properly hold and use a knife makes the difference between a sloppy dish and an impressive one. Currently they are offering a “4-Hour Fearless Baking Workshop” and I can think of more than a few people who would love to go to that.


I could never have enough books. I see cookbooks as something nearly magical: put this, this, and that in a pot and POOF, something new altogether. I’ve found cookbook collectors have varying reasons as to why they collect books, but if you know a little about what they like to cook and eat then it’s easier to pick out a book for them.

For The Baker:

Heavenly Cakes by Rose Levy Beranbaum – $26.37

If you know a serious baker (and I mean serious), chances are they have Beranbaum’s Cake Bible. It’s probably falling apart, covered in egg whites and chocolate, too. Heavenly Cakes is Beranbaum’s follow-up to the hallowed Cake Bible, 20 years later. It is a big, fat book (just how I like ’em) with a cache of varied recipes and photos that I’ve had to wipe drool off of. The food styling is so lovely. Heavenly Cakes has a few recipe repeats from The Cake Bible, but the fact that she simplified some of the steps from the old recipes earns a big HALLELUJAH from me instead of a squinty glare that recipe-repeaters normally get (I’M SQUINTING AT YOU, COOK’S ILLUSTRATED).

Please listen to me when I recommend this book for bakers with experience under their belt. I wrote about making one of the cakes here and it was a multi-day undertaking. Many of the recipes have several components and are complicated, so this is not a book for someone who just graduated from a boxed mix. If you give Heavenly Cakes to a novice baker, it (and some frosting) probably will come flying back at your head at a later date.

If you’re looking for a book to give to a beginner baker, give them Cook’s Illustrated’s Baking Illustrated.

For the Time-Pressed:

Radically Simple by Rozanne Gold – $23.06

I bought this book on impulse, looking for something to rely on when the baby had frazzled the last whatever it is that gets frazzled. I had never heard of Gold and had not seen any reviews for the book, but I made a few shallow digs and turned up four James Beard awards to her name (I later found that she had a staggering history in the food industry as well) and that was good enough for me. I ordered the book with high expectations but did not think that I would love it so much. There are a few niggling things that bother me about Radically Simple (I would’ve liked to see different photos rather than the same photos repeated multiple times on a page, and swirly text over photos goes against my grain) but it was, by far, my favorite book of 2010.

Gold writes that the recipes in this book are regarded as “a three dimensional creation, with time, technique, and the number of ingredients making up the axes on which they are plotted.” Some of the recipes have a long list of ingredients but are simple to prepare, others require foresight and not much else, and with others you need to focus on technique to make everything come together. The book is incredibly well-organized with an impressive recipe range. I joke that this book is for people who don’t have a lot of time but still have STANDARDS, DAMMIT.

For those with Warm or Ambiguous Feelings on Salads:

Mediterranean Fresh
by Joyce Goldstein – $12.00

You could probably convert a salad-hater into a salad-okeyer with this book (I’ve found most salad-haters are firmly stuck in their position and take great pains to not be moved from it), but the only reason I wouldn’t recommend this for salad-haters is because I don’t want to incite a fight on the holiday of your choice. Mediterranean Fresh is the book I lend out most frequently and border on being rude about having it returned. When I first read the book I shelved it quickly because Goldstein has a lot to say about lettuce and I wasn’t ready for that level of commitment. I was well-rewarded when I got my gumption up. Her fattoush is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten (it’s nice when you can make those “best things I’ve ever eaten” at home) and one time I ate an entire recipe’s worth of another salad in a sitting because it was so good (one time. It had an entire head of cauliflower in it and, while delicious, was not the best decision I’ve ever made.).

The book is more than leafy salads: there are grain salads, vegetable salads, salads with meat and seafood, and a giant section of the book is devoted to salad dressings. It is not a light or ‘healthy’ cookbook, although there are light and healthy dishes within.

So they like Weird Recipes?:

The Essential New York Times Cookbook
by Amanda Hesser – $20.82

‘Weird’ is stretching it, but this book is dear to my heart because the recipes are not standard fare. Unusual techniques and interesting food combinations are packed in and Hesser’s headnotes assure you a magnificent outcome if you give the recipe a chance. I never have all of the ingredients called for and I like that. I’m getting out of my normal cooking routine and that encourages growth and learning.

The Essential New York Times isn’t an overarching “best of” The New York Times, but is a collection of NYT recipes recommended by readers to Hesser. Hesser then made them all and put her favorites in the book, giving some recipes a moderate makeover but leaving others in their original form, instructions and all (the ones from the early 1900s are worth checking out). Her headnotes are entertaining and encouraging; this is certainly sit-down-and-read book.

If part three didn’t help you with your gifts, check out part one and part two for more ideas.

Buttermilk and Date Ice Cream with Orange Blossom Water and a Goode Company Giveaway

The contest is now closed. Scroll down for the winner!

This ice cream has always been about pecans.

I came up with the recipe as an accompaniment for pecans
specifically for a pecan pie.

Usually, pecans make me feel mushy and happy because I associate them with home:
my parents have pecan trees growing on their property in Texas
my grandmothers both say PEE-can, tickling me no to end
and while I don’t care for plain pecans, when holiday baking begins I end up eating a treeload’s worth in pecan pralines.

The gooey and sentimental feelings on pecans persisted until a few days ago
right up until the fifth attempt at making a pecan pie simply to photograph under the ice cream.

Five times on top of a burned Thanksgiving pie is past my threshold of Pie Failures in Ten Days.

Just the ice cream photographs, then.

Pitting dates is easy enough.

If you spray your knife blade with non-stick spray
(or wipe it with neutral-flavored oil)
the dates will spend much less time clinging desperately to your blade.

I pitted the dates
sliced them into quarters
then piled the quarters up neatly and chopped into even pieces.

After all of the dates were chopped
I put everything into a small bowl

and poured over enough Grand Marnier to soak everything.

Soaking the date pieces in alcohol helps prevent them from turning into violent, tooth-cracking bits of shrapnel.

I covered the bowl in plastic wrap and then microwaved everything for a few minutes.

I would’ve done this step in a small pot
but every single pot in my kitchen was waiting to be washed at that moment.

I set the hot fruit and alcohol aside to soak for a while
and began on the custard.

I had not used orange blossom water with heat before
so I didn’t know if heat would diminish the water’s flavor
(the same way heat can dull vanilla’s flavor)
and decided to wait until I cooled the custard to add it.

Putting the orange blossom water aside
I warmed buttermilk, sugar, and cream in a pot.

While that was heating, I separated the eggs

(freezing the whites for later use)
whisked the warm milk mixture into the yolks to temper them

then added the yolks and milk back into the pot

that was clean, despite its appearance.

It had an unfortunate experience of being empty, forgotten, and over heat for a while.

I’m not sure its finish is going to ever recover.

After a few minutes the custard was ready:

I strained it
and poured in some reserved cream to help it cool down.

I added the orange blossom water and mixed everything to a uniform color.

Then I kept licking the spatula
and I knew things were good.

The custard went into the freezer for about an hour to chill.

Once the custard was very-cold-not-frozen
I poured it into the machine and let it churn for about 25 minutes.

I added the dates
which had soaked up all of the liquor

and continued to run the ice cream maker for another five minutes.

I like firm ice cream
so I packed the ice cream into a container and popped it into the freezer overnight.

The next morning I had buttermilk date ice cream with orange blossom water
and one of my failed pie crusts for breakfast
(failure is good for something, at least)
with chopped pecans on top.

It’s pecans that really make this ice cream.

The pecans and buttermilk remind me of buttermilk pralines
the orange blossom water of oranges, flowers, and pecans at Christmas
and dates soaked in Grand Marnier… well, that’s just a good idea at any time.

While good on its own
I made this ice cream with pecans in mind
and pecans it demands.

In light of demanding ice cream and (five) pie disasters
I’m happy to be able to give away a Brazos Bottom Pecan Pie from the fine people at Goode Company.

The fact that it is a pecan pie
and that the box is emblazoned with “You might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars you’re in Texas”
makes me a little homesick all the way in Pennsylvania
but the sweet-sad coverts quickly to excitement when I realize I get to facilitate pie appearing on someone’s doorstep.

Here are the rules to winning a pecan pie that you don’t have to make (or try to make five times and fail):

  • The Prize: A Brazos Bottom Pecan Pie from Goode Company
  • Number of winners: 1
  • Prize Ships: Within the continental U.S..
  • To Enter to Win: Leave a comment on this post. You could tell me if you like to eat your pie à la mode or if you like it stark naked (the pie), how your day was, or if you’re going to make this ice cream I’m proud of.
  • Bonus Entry Opportunities: Pin a photo from this post to Pinterest, Tweet a link to this post, or share through Facebook. Come back here and tell me how you did it (if you share this post multiple ways, make sure to leave a separate comment for each way you shared) and you’ve got yourself another entry.
  • Giveaway Ends: Friday, December 9, 2011 at 11:59 pm Eastern time.
  • The Fine Print: The winner will be selected at random. Up to four entries per person (one comment about anything, one pin on Pinterest, one tweet, one Facebook share). Entrants must have a valid e-mail address.

Notice: I am only a pie facilitator. I was not compensated in any manner by Goode Company or anyone else to host this giveaway. Goode Company will be shipping the pie directly to the winner.

If you don’t win the pecan pie
you can console yourself by making ice cream that needs only some toasted and chopped pecans to make it sing.

Buttermilk and Date Ice Cream with Orange Blossom Water

Use a light hand with the orange blossom water. It is easy to add too much and quickly find yourself in a bouquet of flowers that you now have to eat. Don’t buy pre-chopped dates. Buy whole ones and practice your knife skills. This yields about a quart of ice cream.


  • 5 oz pitted dates, chopped
  • 6 tablespoons (100 ml) Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liquor
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 heaping cup of sugar
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 1-2 teaspoons orange blossom water
  • Pecan pie or toasted and chopped pecans to serve


  1. Combine dates and Grand Marnier in a small bowl. Cover and microwave over high heat for two minutes. Set aside.
  2. Have ready a shallow casserole dish with a fine mesh strainer set over it.
  3. Mix together buttermilk, one cup of cream, and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Heat through until the mixture is steaming (but not boiling) and the sugar has dissolved.
  4. Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl, and while whisking constantly, slowly add one cup of the hot milk mixture to the yolks.
  5. While stirring the milks and sugar, gradually add the yolk and milk mixture back to the saucepan.
  6. With a cook spoon or spatula, stir the custard slowly and constantly over medium heat until it has thickened enough to coat the back of the stirring implement. Do not let the mixture boil.
  7. Strain the custard into the casserole dish and add the remaining cup of cream.
  8. Add 1-2 teaspoons of orange blossom water to the custard and stir until the custard is uniform in color.
  9. Chill the custard in a refrigerator or freezer until very cold (overnight in a refrigerator or about an hour in a freezer).
  10. Once cold, pour into an ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for freezing, adding chopped dates in the last few minutes of churning.
  11. Pack ice cream into freezer safe containers and freeze overnight.
  12. Serve ice cream with chopped pecans or better yet, a pecan pie.

Quick notes

You can warm the dates and Grand Marnier together in a small sauce pan on the stove, if you’d like. Make sure your pot is small enough so that the dates are nearly covered by the alcohol.

Drumroll please…
Using the And The Winner Is… plugin, the lucky pecan pie recipient is:


Keep an eye on your email lizlizliz and thanks to everyone for participating!

If you didn’t win, give the ice cream recipe a shot.
I promise it’s delicious.

in the kitchen letting it all hang out