Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Adelie Penguin Cake

My brother recently celebrated a multiple-of-ten birthday, and my sister-in-law organized a surprise party for him. I don't know what made me look at airfares, but when I found they were ridiculously cheap, I decided to fly home to be part of the surprise.

Of course I felt honor-bound to create a cake. (As usual, skip to the end for specs and recipes.) But what design? Sister-in-law suggested: his whippet; a bicycle; his whippet riding a bicycle; a penguin. Given that bicycle and whippet riding a bicycle were way beyond my skills, I tried sketching the whippet (curled up, for ease of sculpture). I came up with a cute sketch, and was looking forward to decorating in all those shades of brown, but realized the whole concept was just gross - eating the family pet and all. So I tossed that, which left penguin.

I know how to do a penguin, but figured Charlie deserved an original. So I combed the web for pictures of other kinds of penguins. Adelie penguins were the obvious choice for sheer cute-power (although you have to admire the rockhoppers' attitude). Found an excellent photo (which I have now misplaced) of a penguin jumping, thought, "Wait, I've seen that before!" and found a penguin in exactly the same attitude in Mr. Popper's Penguins. Robert Lawson's illustrations are impressively true-to-life.*

I knew I was on my own for this design, since Matt was not accompanying me to St Louis. Intimidating, but also exhilarating to be able do everything exactly as I pleased. Plus, I had my mom for a sous chef and dad for a portraitist, so I wasn't completely without resources.

My brother didn't identify the cake as a penguin at first -- thought it might be the Doubtful Guest. An understandable mistake, but the lack of tennis shoes should have been a dead giveaway.

Design Process

I will include a wordy and picture-laden discourse on designing a cut-up cake in a future post. It would make this post excessively long.

Specs and Recipes

I used my usual chocolate sheet cake recipe from Cooks Illustrated (Issue 48, Jan 2001), and the same frosting recipes as for the emperor penguin. The white sour cream frosting recipe didn't make quite enough -- you would want to increase it, say one and a half times.

I poured unsweetened chocolate glaze over the assembled cake before frosting.

The feet are dried papaya spears, as is the beak. The feet are curved spears cut to appropriate thickness. The beak, of which I am particularly proud, I carved a little. Technically speaking, the feet ought to have had long black claws, but I decided that would be too distracting. A wee nubbin of licorice whip defines the chin.

The eye is a sugar eye I bought at Cookies for the cookie-making party. Orient the pupil carefully - it makes a real difference to the facial expression. Before you call me on it, yes, the pupil probably is made with food coloring. A white jordan almond with a dab of chocolate ganache would be truer to the manifesto (unless of course the candy coating is whitened with titanium dioxide, but at a certain point, I just stop asking).

The cake board is foam core covered with tinfoil and then waxed paper. I used a spatula to gently scrape off icing drips, and polished with a damp paper towel. Use the latter sparingly -- I managed to tear a hole in the dampened waxed paper by overly vigorous rubbing.

*I've ready MPP multiple times, but only this time made the connection that it has the same illustrator as The Story of Ferdinand. Once I realized that, I saw that Mr. Popper's grief-stricken posture near the end is exactly that of the frustrated toreador in Ferdinand. Um, yes, I am a children's literature geek.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Highly Imaginative Cupcakes

I recently ran across the blog Cupcake Bakeshop by Chockylit, which has a fabulous collection of recipes. Sadly, the blog is no longer active, but it will still take me a while to work my way through all of the attractive combos.

I've tried the horchata cupcakes and the mooncake cupcakes so far. The cherry chocolate cupcakes with fennel cream cheese frosting may not be far behind. And if you made the green ube cupcakes with bubble buttercream, you could have a truly multicultural St. Patrick's Day experience.

Tres Horchata Cake

I made my own horchata, largely per Chockylit's instructions. While it was an interesting process, it was quite involved. If I make this cake again, I will use store-bought horchata. Being the thrifty cook that I am, I couldn't stand the instruction to discard the almond and rice after squeezing out all the juice. So I saved the glup and used it in bread, where it was quite tasty -- it would be an excellent base for cinnamon raisin bread.

Instead of cupcakes, I made a 9 x 13 cake. After baking, I poked holes all over it and poured about 1/2 cup of horchata over it. When cool, I frosted it with the horchata frosting. In the end, it was a very pleasant cake, but didn't really wow me.

Mooncake Cupcakes

The mooncake cupcakes (a white cake cushioning a dollop of red bean paste), on the other hand, were very fun and tasty. Not being inclined toward a lot of fuss and bother this time, I used store-bought red bean paste, which was quite sweet. I can see that it would be nice to make your own and reduce the sugar.

I essentially followed the cupcake recipe. Chockylit doesn't specify, but the cupcakes take about 20 minutes to bake.

We formed balls of red bean paste that were a bit more than a teaspoon. As directed in the recipe, I carefully spread out the first layer of batter, and the balls sank to the bottom of the cake. Another time I would leave the first dollop of batter in a mound and perch the red bean paste on top of that. Even though the ball of bean paste appears to stay pretty self-contained, its flavor permeates the cake in a pleasing way.

While the fashion in cupcakes these days seems to dictate a 1:1 frosting to cake ratio, I've never been able to stomach that much frosting. It is true that a thin layer of frosting has much less presentation pizzazz, but it's really what's wanted in this recipe. Even with a modest amount of frosting, the combined sweetness of the red bean paste, cupcake and frosting is nearly overpowering.

We made green tea sour cream frosting by adding about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of matcha powder in our typical sour cream frosting recipe. If I'd had more matcha in the house, I probably would have added more. As it was, it gave the frosting an elegant pale green tint. One recipe was plenty for a dozen cupcakes.

Chockylit specifies salted sesame seeds. I don't know if you can purchase them that way, but ours were unsalted. I tried mixing a little salt in, but it didn't really stick and anyway, I don't think it's necessary, as the plain sesame seeds are very savory.

I found that if you want to sprinkle the seeds on the cupcake, you need to do it immediately after frosting, before the frosting has a chance to set. If you are rolling the cupcake in the seeds, time is of less essence.

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