A Floral Frenzy

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I am rejoicing because my blog is officially back from its 6 month hiatus! I promise to post more frequently, and this time I will uphold that promise! Much has happened since my last post–from overextension to dormancy and isolation to a metaphorical and literal springtime during which I am finally able to create out of sheer desire and joy.

I am warning you now that this is going to be one of my longer blog posts because the process of making this cake was a rather tumultuous one that really tested my patience. There were actual tears and four sticks of wasted butter involved so if you dare, please read along! Otherwise, just look at the pictures (they’re kind of pretty right?) but do know that these pictures were almost lost forever and this blog post almost did not exist!

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There were several factors involved in the desire to create this cake. My sister announced a few weeks ago that she would be getting married on June 28 (in London!) and that she was interested in the possibility of having me create either a cake, cupcakes or some type of dessert for her wedding. She was particularly fond of this cake that I made recently for a friend. I searched through Pinterest for “wedding cakes” and “fresh flower cake” and found a beautiful assortment of cakes decorated with fresh flowers. It just so happened that two of my great friends, Sammy and Sarah whose artistry I respect and admire, are knowledgeable about flowers and are very familiar with flower arranging. Add to that the facts that we are fast approaching peony (my favorite flowers) season and Sammy’s birthday was coming up and thus a collaboration between Sarah and I was birthed. While I love piped buttercream flowers and the fact that they are edible, they don’t emanate the same beauty that living flowers do.

I decided to make the Coconut Layer Cake from the Baking Illustrated cookbook for the first time, trusting that this foolproof cookbook and my above average baking skills wouldn’t let me down. This recipe yields a light and fluffy cake because it utilizes cake flour and egg whites. It also has a very strong coconut flavor from coconut extract and an ingredient I recently (and thankfully) discovered, cream of coconut (which can be found in the liquor aisle because it is apparently used in alcoholic drinks).

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The cake came out of the oven nicely!

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Though it did not come out of the pan as nicely… I need to remember to butter and flour the heck out of my cake pans and actually wait until it cools slightly until I pry if out of the pan.

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But since I didn’t spread the batter evenly throughout the cake pan, I ended up with lopsided cakes that necessitated some shaving off to level them anyways, so I got to shave off the ugly part!

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And then it was time to make the frosting, which was a coconut flavored Swiss meringue buttercream.

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It involved the use of a bain marie/double boiler to heat up egg whites and sugar together. I was so determined to take shots of my hand whisking this mixture up that I splattered egg whites everywhere and ended up not whisking it enough. Oops.

Then I finished beating the egg whites and sugar mixture in my stand mixer, letting it cool before adding the four sticks of butter in slowly and then letting that go for a little bit. I was so excited to be almost finished! But then I came back to my mixer to find a chunky, separated mixture that resembled cottage cheese. It was NOT spreadable. The butter curdled. I think I did not let the meringue cool enough and so it melted the butter when I added it. According to this blog post I found, it could’ve been salvaged. But in my frustration and impatience, I decided to walk to the market down the street and start over instead. I literally had to run back home with my four sticks of butter because in the 3 minutes that I was inside the market, a chubby cloud decided to pour rain madly over the small patch of area that encompassed my house and the market. Soaking wet I was, but at least my butter was dry!

Jaded by the failed attempt at a Swiss meringue buttercream, I decided to make a simple buttercream frosting instead and improvised my way to a recipe.

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It still had four sticks of room temperature butter.

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And an unknown amount of sifted powdered sugar, coconut extract, vanilla extract, and cream of coconut. I creamed it in the mixer for a while until it was soft and spreadable.

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I spread the frosting on the cosmetically challenged layer, then added some toasted shredded coconut on top. The coconut was toasted in the oven for 10 minutes at 325 degrees F, then tossed and left in for another 5 minutes to achieve this ombre color gradient.

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Then I added the second layer on top and proceeded to ice the rest of the cake. It was around this time when I realized that because I was using a new frosting recipe, it would not yield enough to cover the entire cake, sides and all, which is what I had intended to do. But I improvised instead!

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I mean, the bare cake, rustic look is in right?

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And then it was finally time to place these delicate beauties onto our canvas!

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Thank you again, Sarah for so carefully cultivating these lovely peonies and so expertly placing them on this cake.

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The cake was finished and tasted delicious, the flowers looked beautiful and we were able to shoot some photos of this creation just as the sun was starting to disappear.

A few hours later, I decided to upload some of the day’s shots onto my computer in order to start my blogging process. While uploading some pictures onto my computer, I deleted about 1,000 pictures from March 2013 to December 2013 to clear some space on my memory card. It took a while, so I decided to leave my computer and cook dinner in the meantime. When I returned to my computer, I opened Lightroom so that I could edit some photos. I tried to upload the photos from my camera, but somehow could not find them anywhere. The photos I intended to delete were gone, along with all the photos I had taken that day. I was going over what had happened in my head because it didn’t quite register that my entire creation’s documentation could’ve been lost in some digital abyss. I turned to Google for possible troubleshooting options and downloaded a software to search my camera and computer for deleted files. Nothing was found. Throughout the span of 15 minutes that this all happened in, I was surprisingly cool, calm and collected thinking “maybe it’s just not meant to be shared.” And then suddenly I wasn’t. I ran out of ideas and shut myself in my room to let out hysterical tears that wouldn’t come out. Three minutes later I decided to keep searching for ways and trying. Someone on some forum mentioned extracting deleted photos from a memory card using a particular program. This was my last option. As I held my memory card in my hands, a huge rush of peace came over me–a peace that I knew was secure whether or not the photos were recovered. I simply prayed that God’s will be done with my lost photos. I hurriedly borrowed my roommates laptop (because mine didn’t have a memory card slot), downloaded the app…AND RESTORED ALL MY PHOTOS. Every single one was recovered! I screamed for a bit and rejoiced over the fact that throughout the entire day, so many things both little and large went wrong but that in the end, everything came together. And now here I am, able to share all of it with you!

The adventure of creating this cake now seems less significant than it did at the time. But through every mishap, I learned some valuable baking AND life lessons along the way. Sometimes plans don’t always go the way you think they should and things seem like a curdled mess and you don’t always understand how it happened, but these should not be invitations to give up! Improvise and persevere. Throughout this past season, I’ve learned to hold tightly to my peace and joy to refuse to be shaken when both tiny or large obstacles come at me. It has a made a world of difference.

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Here is one last shot of this beauty!

Cheers to the next baking adventure!

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Good Eats from San Francisco (and East Bay)

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I took a recent trip to Northern California where I spent most of my time in San Francisco  eating my favorite food (ice cream, 6 days in a row…not gross at all!), exploring the different neighborhoods, and soaking up the rare sun rays in the otherwise foggy city. San Francisco has such an amazing food scene, one that I greatly admire and respect. Since I was there for 10 days, it meant that I had plenty of meals to spend exploring all the good food SF and the East Bay have to offer!

Here are photos of some notable dishes and meals from my trip:

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The shrimp ceviche from Chubby Noodle, a pop-up inside Amare bar in North Beach. The dishes were mediocre in my opinion, but I thought this ceviche was pretty good and I had a great time eating outside with friends while people-watching :)

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The #5 combo from Cordon Bleu Vietnamese Restaurant, a hole in the wall in Nob Hill. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this cheap plate of food that comes with a delicious and crisp egg roll, flavorful 5-spice marinated chicken, a strip of beef kabob (random), and some tomato based sauce to go on top of the rice. Definitely enough for two meals!

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This is the grilled pork on vermicelli from Pho Ao Sen in East Oakland. While they are known for their pho and bun bo hue, I almost always get the pork with vermicelli and love that this place gives you plenty of meat and provides a flavorful sauce!

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The fried egg and bacon open face sandwich from Outerlands in Outer Sunset. Really long wait for a casual Friday lunch, but they really satisfied my cheese and egg craving! The bread was also really thick and toasted perfectly.

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The fried egg sandwich (do you notice a trend here?) from Plow with crispy potatoes. Oh those crispy potatoes were almost like potato chips in cube form but with better seasoning and more substance. Delicious! The fried egg sandwich was tasty, though a little greasy since I added bacon. I also tried my friend’s lemon ricotta pancakes which I LOVED but I also do love anything lemon flavored.

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The monkey bread from Plow is also a must-try!

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Two scoops of ice cream (balsamic caramel and brown butter) from Humphry Slocombe in the Mission for a post breakfast snack. Balsamic caramel sounds pretty interesting and is definitely an acquired taste for most but I loved it since I’m a fan of tangy, sour and sweet! Brown butter is the ice cream flavor I wish I invented and is probably one of my all time favorite ice cream flavors, though I wish there was some crunch in there for texture.

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If you’re in the Mission district in SF and feel like eating Mexican food that’s slightly healthier, go to Papalote where the lines are shorter and the food is definitely less greasy. The chili verde taco is wonderful and it comes with plenty of fresh goodies!

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The crawfish beignet from Brenda’s French Soul Food is definitely worth waking up at 7 am on a Monday for.

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So is their shrimp and cheese grits! A little heavy for breakfast, but I mean, breakfast should be the biggest meal of the day right? Brenda’s will surely fulfill that!

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Oh Ici, what a love-hate relationship we have. Love because it MAY be my favorite ice cream place in the Bay Area and this malted vanilla chocolate chip totally validates that statement. Their ice cream is just so light and good! It’s also probably the only place where I’ll even consider getting a cone because of the little chocolate surprise on the bottom of each one! Hate because going 5 days a week during undergrad really didn’t do my wallet any good.

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Ah, Salumeria – a fun discovery in the Mission! Their roast beef sandwich is delicious and they have a wonderful seating area with great lighting, perfect for instagramming and food photographing ;)

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Of course, every meal needs dessert! Not just one, but three! (I guess four if you count the scoop of Bi-Rite ice cream that I’m not picturing in this post). No trip to SF is complete without a Tartine visit. I was so tempted to get the Lemon Meringue Cake, but opted for a morning bun and banana cream tart instead! I do wish I got a slice of Tres Leches and I totally would’ve if I didn’t also buy a caramel chocolate mini loaf from Craftsman & Wolves that was sort of forgettable. Cool store concept though!

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What better way to end my SF trip than with some duck on a bed of farro from Olea in Nob Hill? Chef Gabriel Amaya is truly talented and kind as well!

Looking at these pictures reminds me of what an amazing 10 days I had in NorCal. I’m truly blessed to able to enjoy such good food with even better friends! Thank you all for a wonderful trip!

Lemon Meringue Cake

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Two weekends ago, I was in the Bay Area for a very short trip and as usual, I made sure to include some foodie adventures in the short amount of time I was there. I was able to spend a whole day in San Francisco since I was staying there with a good friend of mine. One of the places we went to was Tartine, the famous bakery in the Mission District. I have tried only a handful of items from their menu and I went this time intent on purchasing just one or two morning buns. Unfortunately, they were sold out of morning buns by the time we got there so I had to quickly decide what other sweet treat I wanted to get. I quickly opted for the Lemon Meringue Cake (pictured above) because I love cake and lemon flavored desserts. One bite…and I was MADLY in love with this cake. I sat on a bench outside, slowly chewing, tasting and trying to identify the flavors that were in the cake. I tasted sweetness, tartness from the lemon, a slight bitterness, vanilla and a myriad of other more subtle flavors. I was mind blown at how much I enjoyed that cake that I really could not think of anything but trying to recreate that cake once I got home, especially since I own the cookbook AND have seen the recipe for it before!

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Well I went ahead and recreated that delicious cake! I’ll go ahead and say what you’re probably thinking: this is not a pretty cake. It could’ve been much more eye appealing if I didn’t let my meringue sit in the fridge for a while, deflate, and then frosted it flat onto the cake. The cake is definitely missing the pointy swoops and fluffiness of medium stiff peaks consistency.

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I also had to: ask everyone I know if they had a kitchen torch, end up purchasing one myself, run all over Culver City like a maniac looking for butane and overcome my fear of fire and small flames. I never found butane (until yesterday -___-) and ended up using a gardening torch, which was a bit larger but worked just fine.

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Let me tell you though, even after all the trouble I went through to procure all the necessary ingredients (my first time purchasing a vanilla bean!) and kitchen tools (pastry brush, 10 in. pan, cake box), I’d have to say that it was absolutely worth it. This cake is probably the most delicious cake I have ever made! That’s just personal opinion though since I know not everyone likes lemon.

This cake has several components, all of which are delicious and are some of my favorite flavors! All in all there were 5 recipes within this one recipe including:
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lemon cream (which is not the same as lemon curd! the difference is in how the butter is incorporated)

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A more sophisticated caramel (that includes vanilla bean — look closely and you can see it!)

The other three components were the layers of chiffon cake, lemon syrup and Italian meringue. It would’ve been much better if I had made some of the components beforehand, but nope. I was feeling extra ambitious and decided to tackle the entire cake recipe, my hummingbird cupcakes from the previous post AND mac & cheese cupcakes all in one day. Let’s just say I spent 12 hours in the kitchen and 5 hours running around trying to find all the ingredients and tools for all three items. But even after all the hard work and effort, I can’t say that I regret any of it! I am proud of this cake (and have eaten it for breakfast) and know that next time I’ll just make some of the components beforehand and improve upon my meringue-making!

* If you would like a copy of the recipe, feel free to contact me! It’s way too lengthy for me to post it all here, though I’m sure it’s out there on the web somewhere.

Spring Hummingbird Cupcakes

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This past Sunday was Easter Sunday and my mom asked me to bake for her church because she was in charge of food & hospitality for the month. I gladly obliged since I love any excuse to bake large quantities of baked goods that are specially decorated! It’s easy to bake on any given day, but it’s hard to be motivated to actually decorate something. I really enjoy frosting cakes and cupcakes because it makes me feel like an artist, like I’m actually being creative. If you know me, you know that I lack skill in other forms of art. Stick figures are about the closest I can get to drawing humans and my drawings of animals resemble deformed aliens. So though I’m not an expert at it, I find joy and excitement in decorating cakes and cupcakes. 

I had a cupcake obsession phase during sophomore year of college and I would often go to Love at First Bite in Berkeley because their cupcakes were always moist, not too sweet, and had a good frosting to cake ratio. It was there that I found my favorite cupcake, the hummingbird cupcake. The hummingbird is a banana, pineapple and pecan cupcake, topped with cream cheese frosting. It’s probably the cupcake that I made the most frequently throughout college (aside from red velvet, which I don’t even really like, but everyone else seems to). This is my favorite hummingbird cupcake recipe. It’s simple and foolproof — I don’t change anything in the recipe. Throughout the years, I’ve also developed the perfect cream cheese frosting:

Cream Cheese Frosting
1 stick butter (room temperature/softened)
2 8 oz. blocks of cream cheese (room temperature/softened)
3-4 cups of powdered sugar (depending on the sweetness of your teeth)
1 tsp. vanilla extract

The most important thing when it comes to making cream cheese frosting, is making sure that the butter and cream cheese are soft. Always take it out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature for at LEAST an hour. You can slice them into smaller parts to allow them to soften quicker. DO NOT microwave it! Even if you microwave it quickly, some water will separate from the butter and will change its structure. Beat the butter and cream cheese with a mixer for a few minutes until creamy. Get rid of those lumps! No one likes lumpy frosting! Add the vanilla and incorporate. Add the powdered sugar in 1 cup increments, beating after each addition. Voila! You get creamy cream cheese frosting!

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Design #1: eggs on a bed of grass
For this cupcake, I added some green dye to my cream cheese frosting and just kept mixing until I liked the color (about 6 drops per one cup of frosting). To make the grass, I used my 8 in. piping bag and a Wilton grass tip #233. If you use Ateco brand tips, it’s #133. The Wilton link above has great tips on piping technique. Pipe the grass upward in the middle and then start piping outward as you move away from the center of the cupcake. The key is to first stop applying pressure to the piping bag, then lift the tip off the cupcake. Don’t lift while still applying pressure, or else it gets everywhere and ruins the precise grassy shape. Then top it with chocolate eggs! I wanted to use M&M eggs but Target ran out :(. Luckily, just about every other chocolate company makes eggs around Easter time so I used whoppers!

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Design #2: the rose
There are many different techniques for piping roses, and this is probably the simplest one. To make this color, I added 11 drops red and 3 drops yellow to one cup of the frosting. I used the Wilton 1M open star tip (Ateco #826) and started piping on the CENTER of the cupcake and then piped around it until I covered the entire cupcake. I’ll have to try other techniques and piping tips and definitely practice before I can say that I’m totally satisfied with my rose-piping!

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Design #3: drop flower tip
I only made one of these and because I just wanted to switch the tip and practice with my other ones. I believe I used Wilton #190 and piped it using the same technique I used for the grass. I started in the middle and piped upward. To create drop flowers, I believe you’re supposed to stop applying pressure and then pull the tip away. BUT I kept applying pressure as I pulled the tip away, hence the taller peaks on each flower (I hope that made sense. I’m new to piping talk! :/).

Well enough of the baking talk, here are more pictures!
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I thoroughly enjoyed making these, and it brings me even more joy to know that others appreciated them as well! Hope you all had a joyful Easter!

Bûche de Noël

When I first visited my sister in London during winter break of my sophomore year of high school (which was…more than 5 years ago. I’M GETTING OLDER), she would often take me grocery shopping with her. I LOVE going to grocery stores in foreign countries because you see local products, foods people enjoy, the different prices, the produce they have (or don’t have – Californians are so spoiled!), etc. It’s always an enjoyable experience for me (unless it’s freezing and you have to take two busses and the tube or something). I always make it a point to go to the dessert, pastry & bread sections of any grocery store because well…I love these products. The British love to make pre-packed, individual desserts of their local delicacies like trifles (which I bought out at Marks & Spencer), English pudding, other stuff I forgot, and YULE LOGS! My first encounter with yule logs was at Sainbury’s in England. It was a little log of rolled up cake with frosting covering it and little red decorations all over it. It was so adorable and it looked so good! But it was much too big for me to eat by myself because no one in my family enjoys cake as much as I do. So sadly, I bought my trifles and forgot about it.

Over the years, I have learned that a yule log is the same thing as a bûche de noël and that it’s kind of a European thing. I didn’t really bother reading much about its history. I’d rather browse pictures (which I did) and realized that it was meant to be an actual LOG…like a wood log with mushrooms growing on it and weird funky things. People really go crazy with their yule log decorations. Anyways, it was on my friend Michelle’s and my to-make list so we decided to make it together! With the help of foodgawker.com, I found this recipe, which seemed first and foremost, EASY. Secondly, we had all the ingredients needed. It’s actually fairly easy to make! I think the highlight is the decoration, which we had totally forgotten about. So we made do with the few decorations we had and created our very own bûche de noël. I love saying the French names of baked goods. Bûche de noël. Bûche de noël. Bûche de noël. Okay I’m done.

Quick summary: Bûche de noël is usually made out of a genoise or sponge cake, baked in a large shallow pan so it comes out thin, frosted inside, rolled like a sushi, frosted outside and decorated however you want to.

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My friend Michelle (the first human appearance in this blog!) holding up our medium stiff peaks of egg whites for our spongey cake.
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This is what medium stiff peaks look like, folks!

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Flat, thin chocolate spongey cake, cooled and frosted with whip cream.

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Roll it like a sushi! Okay I understand this doesn’t make sense to people who have never made sushi. You basically roll it and remove the parchment paper as you go!

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Our bare and rolled up bûche!

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Frosted with a chocolate whipped cream. I personally dislike buttercream and prefer whipped cream frosting all the way.

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Our finished product! The recipe had perfect quantities of everything. No leftover frosting at all! The cake is light, moist and is best served cold (keep whipped cream frosting in the fridge as much as possible). I’m so happy to have made (AND FINALLY EATEN) a yule log with a great friend. Note to selves: next time decorate it better!