Monday, May 26, 2008

Grey Jay, Part 3 (Finishing)

We covered the back of the crown and the beak first with blue grey frosting and then with poppy seed filling. Theoretically one can buy poppy seed filling in stores (where it comes in cans and goes by "mohn"), but we couldn't find any, so we borrowed a friend's poppy seed grinder (dang that Article 6!) and made our own. One cup of whole poppy seeds made roughly 1/2 cup ground.

Poppyseed Grinder

I used a similar process for finding a recipe as with the sour cream frosting. I ended up using this recipe, although this recipe (posting by martmurt a little more than halfway down the page) sounded very tasty, just likely to be too pale for this application. The finished product was fairly dry and crumbly, but moist enough that it could be squished together. Next time I would try making a smoother filling.

Grey Jay Cake - Eye and Poppyseed Topping

If you were going to make a cake with a heavy emphasis on poppy seeds, it would be worth your while to find a source for really fresh poppy seeds - they go rancid quickly. If nothing else, there's mail order. Any ideas on good places to order from?

The eye is a disk of licorice. It didn't contrast much with the poppy seed filling, so Matt added a dab of white frosting.

Panda Stick Licorice

The leg is two pieces of Panda licorice (stick format) that Matt carved into shape. I think the licorice might have been nice for the beak too - less fuzzy than the poppy seed filling. I also think it might be fun to make an open beak holding a chunk of the leftover cake. Although disturbing if you think about it too hard.

Grey Jay Cake - Licorice Leg

After frosting the cake, Matt sprinkled whole poppy seeds on the wings and tail to sketch in the anatomy - he did a beautiful job of it.

Grey Jay Cake - Strewing Poppyseeds

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Monday, May 19, 2008

To Good to Not Eat

The rest of the grey jay will follow shortly, but I thought it was time to engage in a quick little proof.

If one accepts as axiomatic that food exists to be eaten, then it follows from Article 4 that cake exists to be eaten. People often asks us how we can stand to cut up one of our cakes. Because we couldn't stand not to! A cake is one work of art that is not consummated until consumed.

Aside from not wanting to hurt an artwork, many people are understandably squeamish about chopping up charismatic megafauna. I am one of those of people and have had to learn to be brave. Here are several techniques that might help you get over this hurdle. Let me know of other techniques you have developed!
  • Make a conscious choice of which end to start cutting from. (Note that this may not correspond to your chocolate bunny-eating technique.) I, personally, am from the leave-the-head-till-last camp. However, it is equally valid to start with the head, so that the cake looks less like an animal right away and is thus easier to dissect.
  • Squint your eyes a bit so you can just see form and color. Ask your guests if they want white frosting or chocolate, or a little of both, and approach serving as a geometric puzzle.
  • Apply a judicious amount of alcohol--to yourself, that is. I can't recommend this approach because, if you don't judge the quantity perfectly, you are apt to veer from steeled nerves to maudlin sentimentality.
  • Frankly admit defeat and have someone else cut and plate the cake in another room. Invite enough guests so there won't be any carcass remaining.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Grey Jay, Part 2 (Frosting)

Crumb Coat

We like to freeze the cake before cutting and frosting it, to minimize crumbs. If you don't have room in your freezer, it helps to chill the cake in the refrigerator. I then apply a "crumb coat" - a thin layer of frosting to stick the crumbs down, so they won't get mixed up in the top coat of frosting. Until now I had just been using the same frosting I used for the top coat. This time, I tried making a thinner crumb coat (1 1/2 T butter, 1 lb powdered sugar, and 4-6 T water). That worked nicely and allowed me to spread it quite thin. I probably have enough left over to coat another cake (depending on the length of the perimeter).

Grey Jay Cake with Crumb Coat

White Frosting

I chose a sour cream frosting to get the white parts as white as possible. Using butter or vanilla would have added too much color. Theoretically one can use shortening but, as mycakes so aptly pointed out, that would violate Article 4 (use only food). I used my usual method when searching for a new recipe - pull as many recipes from the Internet as possible, write them all down, thoughtfully compare them for similarities and differences, and then pick one randomly.

Most of the recipes called for butter, but after I combined 1/2 cup sour cream and 1 lb of powdered sugar, it was obvious that the butter was completely extraneous. If I'd had a lemon, I probably would have added a little lemon juice to pump up the tang, for more contrast with the sweet cake.

Grey Frosting

Figuring out how to make blue grey frosting for the wings and tail was a challenge. When we made the jam cake, we used the bluest jam we could find without high fructose corn syrup. Still, boysenberry isn't terribly blue.

In earlier experiments trying to make green frosting, we had found that powdered spirulina showed promise as a colorant. (Spirulina is another violation of Article 6 - sorry. Health food stores are your best bet.) Matt found that adding about 2 T of jam and 1/4 t spirulina to 3/4 cup of the sour cream frosting produced a creditable grey. Add the spirulina very gradually until you get the color you want - a tiny bit goes a long way.


The only problem with this recipe was that it was too runny. This actually produced a lovely smooth top, but sagged a lot on the sides - I had to clean it up repeatedly. Another time, I would make a separate batch of frosting starting with just the powdered sugar and jam and then adding sour cream until I got a good consistency.

Grey Jay Cake Frosting Closeup


I was pleased with the buff on the front of the crown. (I tried to find a more technical word for that area. On the dog it would be called a stop, but all I could find in Sibley was crown.) I used cashew butter mixed with a few drops of maple syrup to make it spreadable. There's that pesky Article 6 again. But cashew butter is a lovely food and we recommend you keep some around anyway. It's particularly good for french toast and waffles (do you sense a theme?). In lieu of cashew, you could probably use smooth peanut butter and lighten it up with a bit of the sour cream frosting.

Cashew Butter in Jar Cashew Butter

Next post, the finishing touches.

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Friday, May 9, 2008

Grey Jay, Part 1

Grey Jay Cake

When I started to write about this project, I didn't realize just how involved the explanations would be. As a result, I've divided the write-up into three posts. Today's post is about the design and the cake. The second post will be about the frosting, and the third post will be about the finishing touches.

Matt thought of this cake for the birthday of a good friend who has a terrible habit of luring grey jays when we are out hiking. If you are not familiar with grey jays, they are also known as camp robber birds. Where the jays are prevalent, they will try to steal any exposed food, even if you're only inches away. Melissa Anne, although otherwise a fine outdoorswoman, likes to put food in her palm, hold it up, and chirp to call the jays. We go backpacking with her anyway.

This one was pulled straight from a wee picture in Sibley. Matt was able to freehand the full-size version after only about 3 or 4 iterations. I find this very impressive. I would have headed straight for the pictorial aids, a grid or a pantograph or something. (I hope to do a more in-depth discussion on re-sizing in a future post.)

The design is unusual for Matt in that it is made in only two pieces. Not as efficient a use of the cake as Matt would usually demand, but well within my tolerance.

Grey Jay Cake Assembly

Pairing cake and subject is one of the great mysteries. I honestly don't know why a jam spice cake was so apt for the jay when a lemon cake would have been all wrong. Is it all down to personal aesthetic, or are there some larger truths here?

We have three editions of The Joy of Cooking, one from 1953, one from 1975 and one from 1997. Each serves a different function. This cake is the Rombauer Jam Cake from the 1953 and 1975 editions. We increased it 1.5 times to make enough batter for a 9 x 13 cake. The recipe is from a time when spice cakes had the courage of their convictions. It calls for 1.5 teaspoons of freshly grated nutmeg. That is a lot of nutmeg. It also has 1.5 cups of jam (we used Smucker's Simply Fruit Boysenberry Jam). The jam makes the cake quite sweet and moist (and a kind of funky color). The sweetness isn't cloying because it doesn't all come from cane sugar and because the spice balances it out. We will definitely be making this cake again - it's very tasty and unusual.

Edge View of Rombauer Jam Cake

Using a nutmeg grater was one of several places we deviated from Article 6 of the manifesto (use only basic tools and ingredients). On the other hand, the grater is basic for us. We use it particularly for adding fresh nutmeg as a french toast or waffle topping. If you like nutmeg, we highly recommend this little tool. Plus, it's just a nifty object. Ours is only one of the many kinds available.

Nutmeg Grater from the Side
Nutmeg Grater from the Bottom

Next post - on to the frosting!

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Monday, May 5, 2008

A Cake Manifesto

Over the years, our tastes in cake and cake design have evolved in a more or less consistent fashion, allowing us to deduce the following ex post facto manifesto:

Article 1
The designs should be at least a bit more adventurous and sophisticated than for the average kids' cake. Olivia the pig - yes. Teddy bears - no. Cute - yes. Cutesy - no. Extra credit given if others can identify an animal by species (or at least genus).

Grey Jay Cake

Article 2
The design must never sacrifice taste for appearance. The cake is, first and foremost, a cake. The purpose of a cake, no matter how fancy, is to taste delicious.

Article 3
The cake should look like a cake. Yes, it also looks like something else, but only in addition to looking like a cake. While I admire the verisimilitude that can be achieved in making a cake look like a hamburger, R2D2, or the thoracic organs, I also think it's kind of gross. If the goal is to make a delicious cake, I want people to look at it and think, ah, that is a delicious cake.

Article 4
The cake must be made entirely of food. Nothing inedible, like dowels or toothpicks, to create structure. No plastic figurines. I would argue that this article precludes the use of silver dragees. Matt would disagree.

Article 5
Avoid food coloring. For one thing, food coloring isn't really food (cf Article 4). But mostly, I am fascinated by the challenge of creating colors without food coloring. Neutrals are easy. Small patches of purple, red, yellow and orange - not too tough. I have some ideas to test for green. Totally stumped on blue.

Dogwood Flower Cake
Penguin Cake

Article 6
A home cook with basic skills, equipment and ingredients should be able to make the cake. This is the one article we are most apt to violate. We love learning new things and playing with new toys. Also, adhering to Article 5 often requires going a bit afield to find ingredients.

Article 7
Decoration is achieved with diverse substances, not just frosting. This is often mandated by avoiding food coloring (cf Article 5). Frosting flowers, although seductive, never taste as good as they should (cf Article 2). While you can do incredible things with fondant, it almost always disguises the cake-ness of the cake (cf Article 3). Finally, applying rolled fondant or piped icing is not my idea of basic cookery (cf Article 6).

Article 8
The design should use the cake as efficiently as possible. This is primarily Matt's article. I concur with the sentiment from a thrift point of view, but Matt is the one most engaged by the discipline of figuring out how to turn a 13 x 9 rectangle into a complex organic form with only slivers of cake left over. The resulting tangrams are things of beauty.

Blacktailed Hare Cake Tangram

Article 9
No part of this manifesto should stand in the way of your artistic vision or practical requirements. Need to save time by using a cake mix? You have our blessing. Crave the ability to make any color under the sun? Use food coloring and more power to you. Enchanted by a putto cake mold? Well, okay, but we'd rather not hear about it.

Article 10
If it's not fun, don't do it. Designing and making fabulous cakes is way too much work if you're not having a good time. A little teeth gnashing and performance anxiety is inherent to the creative process, but don't push yourself further than that. In the end, a cake can only be truly fabulous if it nourishes your body, your mind and your soul.

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